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Sunday, 8 December 2019

A Silly Christmas Love Story

At a writing group I sometimes attend, it was suggested we submit Christmas-themed pieces to The Writers’ Magazine. This is mine, previously posted here in 2015 (not against the rules) and I was delighted it was accepted. It appears in the December 2019 issue, and below (about 1500 words).


Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what's wrong with that? I'd like to know, 'cause here I go again. 
(Paul McCartney)

From mid-November to the end of term, when the hockey and rugby pitches slid shirt-soakingly wet from the autumn rains, or skin-scrapingly rough from the winter frosts, games lessons were displaced by dancing practice. The boys and the girls, and their teachers Mr. Ellis and Miss Poskitt, came together in the gym to prepare for the school Christmas party. The girls tolerated it. The boys felt embarrassed. Miss Poskitt enjoyed it and joined in. Mr. Ellis did not.

The wall bars, climbing ropes, horizontal beams, benches, spring boards, vaulting horses, medicine balls and rubber mats were all stowed away, and the boys and the girls assembled dolefully on opposite sides of the gym.

Mr. Ellis called them to order. “Gentlemen,” he announced with false gaiety, “please cross the floor and take your partners for the Dashing White Sergeant ... and walk, don’t run,” he added in an exasperated voice on seeing that some boys were already half-way there. “We walk across the floor in a civilised manner and courteously ask the young lady to grant us the honour of the dance.”

Now I know this sounds awful – sexist male chauvinistic objectification you might call it – but it is simply the way things were for thirteen year old boys in the early nineteen-sixties. There were some girls you would happily dance with and others you would not. Nat Lofthouse always wanted to dance with Wendy Godley but because she was pretty so did everyone else. On the rare occasion he managed to be among the first to cross the floor he was usually bundled aside by one of the more civilised and courteous members of the rugby team, and would find himself face to face with Wendy’s friend, Amanda. Even when not among the first to cross the floor, he still usually found himself face to face with Amanda. And when it was a ladies choice, when the claws came out and the fur started to fly, yes, you’ve guessed already, Amanda always chose him. He began to suspect a conspiracy.

Sadly, Amanda was not one of those girls you wanted to be seen dancing with. It was not that she wore glasses and had spots but more to do with the hideous and rather slimy orthodontic brace that glinted inside her mouth. She was taller than him too. Why did he keep ending up with Amanda?

The class knew The Dashing White Sergeant well. The school had only about half a dozen records for its feeble gramophone so they danced the same dances every year. They went straight into it:

Rum-tum rum-tum rum-tum tiddle-liddle,
Rum-tum rum-tum rum-tum tiddle-liddle,
Rum-tum rum-tum rum-tum tee,
Tiddle-liddle liddle-liddle rum tum tum.

The remainder of the afternoon was occupied by a varied choreography of allemande holds, steps forwards, backwards and sideways two-three-four, hops, spins, do-si-dos, grand chains, polkas, waltzes and two-steps. The willow was well and truly stripped. It was odd though that whenever you were supposed to progress on to other partners, Nat always found himself back with Amanda. It definitely was a conspiracy.

The following week he decided on a new tactic. When Mr. Ellis began to instruct them to take their partners, he would set off early, walk not run, be civilised and courteous, and grab hold of Wendy first before anybody else.

“Gentlemen,” said Mr. Ellis, and Nat set off. “Please cross the floor to take your partners for ...” Nat realised he had gone too soon.

“Ah! Lofthouse,” said Mr. Ellis in predatory mock surprise, “How wonderful to see you so keen. Perhaps today you would like to ask Miss Poskitt for her hand so you can demonstrate the Veleta Waltz for the benefit of us all.” Unconstrained laughter echoed around the gym.

Da-ah de da-ah de da-ah de dum,
Da-ah de da-ah de da-ah de dum,
Da-ah de da-ah de da-ah de dum,
Da-ah de da-ah de diddle-lit-dit dum.

On the first run through of each dance it was Miss Poskitt’s custom to select an unfortunate victim to demonstrate it. It was never Mr. Ellis, he never danced, it was always one of the boys. And when she danced, her natural, neat, flowing movements transformed her from an ungainly girls’ sports teacher into a graceful danseuse. On each third beat of the Veleta she rose nimbly on alternate ankles poising briefly to show off her athletic, hockey-player legs. As she moved him around the floor and changed sides to demonstrate the man’s leading role, Nat felt as powerless as John Betjeman’s subaltern partnering Miss Joan Hunter Dunn: weak from the loveliness of her “strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand”. He glowed bright red as Mr. Ellis led the class in a round of applause.

*                   *                  *

The following year, when the playing fields were once more cloaked in fog and blattered up with mud, dancing came back as predictably as an unwanted partner in a well-executed Circassian Circle. The boys and girls assembled reluctantly as usual on opposite sides of the gym. As always, it was the first occasion in the school year when classes of the same age came together and an interesting new face might be noticed. Any new member of Wendy and Amanda’s A-stream girls would be seen for the first time by Nat’s B-stream boys.

Nevertheless, when Nat crossed the floor to take part in the traditional partner-selection ritual and was brutally barged out of the way by one of the school prop-forwards, he was surprised to find himself face to face with a new girl, an attractive new girl who glowed with health and perfection. Actually, he’d spotted her a couple of months earlier and wondered who she was, the sporty girl playing tennis with Wendy. She played so well, so athletically, a true Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. Nat hesitantly mumbled his request to dance. The new girl gave him a lovely smile, thanked him for choosing her and said she would be delighted to accept.

They took to the dance floor for The Military Two Step: Heel toe, heel toe, de diddly diddly dum de diddly, heel toe, heel toe ... Never had Nat seen anyone heel and toe so elegantly. Not even Miss Poskitt.

“Look at you!” his partner whispered wide-eyed at the end of the dance. Nat was taken aback by her intimate, affectionate tone. She turned to face him, looked him up and down, and stepped so close he could feel the warmth of her face on his. She reached up and placed her hand on top of his head, and then moved it backwards over her own. “You’re taller than me now,” she said.

To his astonishment, Nat realised it was Amanda. What a change!

I don’t need glasses now,” she laughed, amused by his bewilderment, “or that hideous brace.” 

And then, before they could say more, it was The Finnjenka Dance to the school’s newly acquired record, March of the Mods by Joe Loss and his orchestra. Joe Loss? Dead Loss! Within seconds Amanda had marched on to the next partner and was gone. But as always, as if through some secret feminine wile, she ended back with him just in time for The Gay Gordons.

Da, Dah-de dah-diddy, Dah-de dah-diddy, Dum dum dum diddy, Dum dum dum…

“We’re dead good,” Amanda raved at the end. “Really great! Natural partners! Ace, brill and fab! You have to come round on Saturday. I’ve got all the music at home. Come round to practise on our own. Then we’ll go to the party together.” Nat wished she would keep her voice down. Mr. Ellis pretended not to hear. Miss Poskitt rolled her eyes and blew them a kiss. 

Nat loved being bossed and organised by Amanda. They did go to the party together. It was at the Baths Hall where every winter the pool was drained and boarded over with a dance floor, the only hall in town large enough to accommodate the whole of the school year. They danced all the dances, and held each other glad all over into something good to The Honeycombs, Dave Clark Five and Herman’s Hermits. They laughed when the science teacher, Mr. Richardson, as ever, stood up and recited entirely from memory a long poem about young Albert and a lion called Wallace and a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle.

It had begun to snow during the party, and after Auld Lang Syne they came out into a winter wonderland and walked home together merrily singing Jingle Bells and pretending to be reindeer. Nat dared to kiss Amanda’s soft warm cheek and she produced a piece of mistletoe to hang on his imaginary antlers. She kissed him back and gave him a tender hug.

He was sad that before school resumed again after the holidays, Amanda had left with her family and moved to Johannesburg.

*                   *                  *

The next year everything changed except the weather. The Christmas party took place in the pristine new school hall and the traditional dances and Mr. Richardson’s recitation were consigned to the past. Nat found an excuse not to go. He hid at home from the cold, dreaming of tennis and Christmas dancing in the summer sun at the other end of the world.



Mr Ellis also appears in:
          Jim Laker, Mr. Ellis
and the Eagle Annual


Tackling Rugby
The wonderfully evocative photograph of the school Christmas party captures exactly how things were in those far off innocent schooldays. Multiple copies of the image appear across the internet but if it is still the copyright of H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images I will remove it on request of the copyright holder. 


Monday, 2 December 2019

Review - Sabine Baring-Gould: Yorkshire Oddities (and other works)

Illustration by D. Murray Smith from Baring-Gould's Book of Ghosts   Illustration by D. Murray Smith from Baring-Gould's Book of Ghosts
The Dead Sister and The Used Up Characters (illustrations by D. Murray Smith)

Sabine Baring-Gould:
Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents and Strange Events (3*)
A Book of Ghosts (3*)
Curiosities of Olden Times (2*)

No, Sabine Baring-Gould was not one of the three wise men (with Baring-Frankincense and Baring-Myrrh) but was no less spiritual. And Yorkshire Oddities is not a dig at certain other bloggers despite what some might think; it was one of his books.

The Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924) is often remembered as author of the strident hymn Onward Christian Soldiers, written as young curate at Horbury Bridge, Yorkshire, in the eighteen-sixties, later set to the equally strident tune, St. Gertrude, by Sir Arthur Sullivan. Baring-Gould also collected myths and legends, folk songs and sermons, and wrote enormous amounts of other stuff. In his day he was considered one of England’s best novelists. He found time to father fifteen children as well. I bet he wasn’t much help with the housework.

I was hoping for a free Kindle version of Yorkshire Oddities but the cheapest on the Kindle store was £2.29, so I downloaded his Curiosities of Olden Times and A Book of Ghosts instead. Well, I am from Yorkshire. Later, I did find a free copy of Yorkshire Oddities on that wonderful resource The Open Library. I have therefore spent several weeks with the writings of an out-of-fashion Victorian clergyman.

A Book of Ghosts by Sabine Baring-Gould. Title page. Curiosities of Olden Times by Sabine Baring-Gould. Title page. Yorkshire Oddities by Sabine Baring-Gould. Title page.

The ghost stories are readable and entertaining. They bring the occasional shiver from anthropological relics that go bump in the night and a very scary railway compartment. There is a dead finger that inhabits the narrator’s body bit by bit in the hope of taking it over, a dead sister who lives the life of a living one, and a caution for writers not to base characters on real people because it uses up their souls leaving lifeless shells that follow you around. Not too scary, in fact it might better be described as playful, but not bad if you want something free for Kindle and can put up with the odd moralistic rant. David Murray Smith’s illustrations in some editions capture the gentle mood quite well.

Curiosities of Olden Times and Yorkshire Oddities are collections of the weird, strange and eccentric, in both fact and fiction. Among the olden curiosities we find descriptions of gruesome medieval punishments and are warned not to sit in church porches between the hours of 11.00 p.m. and 01.00 a.m. on St. Mark’s Eve (24th April) unless we wish to see the ghosts of those due to die in the coming year passing into the church. However, much of Curiosities... is concerned with religious myths and legends discussed in a lengthy academic way, which can be rather tedious.

But it was Yorkshire Oddities that started this quest. In effect, it is a kind of social history of the county. It offers brief biographies of oddities such as Blind Jack of Knaresborough (1717-1810) who learnt to navigate the entire county alone on a horse and built around 180 miles of turnpike road, and Peter Barker, the blind joiner (1808-1873), who taught himself to make or mend just about anything. There are accounts of heinous murders including the drowning of an unwanted husband by his wife, her lover and an accomplice at Dawney Bridge near Easingwold in 1623 where the bodies of the executed murderers were hung in chains on what later became known as Gibbet Hill.

I was greatly amused by Baring-Gould’s rendition of the Yorkshire accent. He had plenty of practice because his wife, Grace Taylor, was an ordinary girl from Ripponden, but I doubt he would have spoken of her as he reports an unnamed butcher speaking of his wife:
Shoo’s made a rare good wife. But shoo’s her mawgrums a’ times. But what women ain’t got ‘em ? They’ve all on ‘em maggots i’ their heads or tempers. Tha sees, sir, when a bone were took out o’ t’ side o’ Adam, to mak a wife for ‘m, ‘t were hot weather, an’ a blue-bottle settled on t’ rib. When shoo’s i’ her tantrums ses I to her, ‘Ma dear,’ ses I, ‘I wish thy great-great-grand ancestress hed chanced ta be made i’ winter.’ [p224, fifth edition]
“mawgrums” is one of several words that appear in the book and hardly anywhere else. Another is the name of a hill near Heptonstall called “Tomtitiman”.

But to return to Yorkshire accents, Baring-Gould writes:
[The locals] speak two languages – English and Yorkshire … every village has its own peculiarity of intonation, its own specialities in words. A Horbury man could be distinguished from a man of Dewsbury, and a Thornhill man from one of Batley. The railways have blended these peculiar dialects into one, and taken off the old peculiar edge of provincialism, so that now it is only to be found in its most pronounced and perfect development among the aged. [p110-111, fifth edition]
This was written in 1874 but I always felt you could still detect local differences amongst my grandparents’ generation in my neck of the woods up to a century later. Depending which way you walked, you could hear West Riding tykes, Linkisheere yellowbellies and East Riding woldies all within a ten-mile radius.

I was therefore especially interested in the stories of three ‘Yorkshire Oddities’ from this area:
Nancy Nicholson “the termagant” lived at Drax, Newland and Asselby between 1785 and 1854. She nagged and complained so much as to ruin the lives of her husband, relatives and almost everyone she came into contact with.

Snowden Dunhill (c1766-1838) from Spaldington near Howden, was a notorious thief: the Rob Roy of the East Riding. He was eventually transported to Van Dieman’s Land where he dictated his life story which found its way back to Howden and was printed and published.

Jemmy Hirst of Rawcliffe (1738-1829) became so famous for his eccentricities that King George III invited him to visit his Court in London. He rode a bull and wore eccentric clothing including an outrageously broad hat, although anyone tempted to joke or play a trick at his expense invariably came off worst. He became wealthy dealing in agricultural produce and built himself an enormous wickerwork carriage drawn by Andalusian horses, causing a sensation at Pontefract and Doncaster races. A true Yorkshire oddity but somehow he sounds like Jimmy Savile.
I knew these villages as a child but had never heard of any of these characters until more recently when we all began to take more interest in local history: e.g. there is now a pub at Rawcliffe named after Jemmy Hirst. Among their stories are glimpses of lost landscapes and ways of life: the woods around Rawcliffe, otter hunting in the marshlands, the steam packet that sailed from Langrick (Long Drax) to York, and the emergence of the railways.

There is a lot to fascinate but much to skip over. As in Curiosities..., some chapters are overly long with too much verbatim source material. A good editor would not have been amiss.

Friday, 22 November 2019

How not to forget PINs

A tip from my accountancy years in the early 1970s.

Price tickets in shops sometimes used to bear codes showing cost prices. Next to the price, say £9.99, you would see something like I.WR, which secretly told senior salespeople that the price the shop had paid for the item was £6.50. It allowed them, if appropriate, to decide what discounts they could give. It could also be used to value the items in stock.

It was based on words or phrases made up of ten different letters, for example:

COLDWINTER

The ten-letter word stands for the numbers 1234567890, so, using COLDWINTER, I.WR represents £6.50. 

There were various tweaks to make things more difficult to decipher. An additional letter such as X could be used for repeated numbers such as .00 or .99 so that £10.00 could be coded as CR.RX. Or an interchangeable substitute such as Q could be used for zero, £10.00 becoming CQ.RX. Foreign code word were more secure still, especially in less common languages such as Welsh or Gaellic, because even if someone had collected all the letters they would be hard pressed to put them together and guess the code word.

Some more possibilities:

TAMBOURINE
VOLKSWAGEN
READMYBLOG
UMSCHALTEN
CYFIAWNDER

I use it to keep a note of secret numbers such as credit card PINs. It is not difficult to have two or three credit cards, a couple of debit cards, log-in PINs for phones and computers, not to mentions longer sequences such as customer numbers for online banking, building societies and National Savings. We are told not to use the same PIN more than once and not to write them down. How are we supposed to remember them all?

I do in fact know the PIN for my main card but keep a code book for other numbers. I have sometimes even written PINs on cards in code. I could go so far as to tell you that the PIN for my HSBC card is TPEF. No one can decipher it without the ten-letter code word.

You learn to translate between the letters and numbers quite quickly. It’s good brain exercise and insures against embarrassing senior moments at the shop till. It will keep me going until we are all forced to change to fingerprints or other biometric IDs.

Mind you, you’re stuffed if you forget the secret word. 

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Lost Entitlements

16 seater minibus and 7.5 tonne van and truck
They don’t want you driving these once you’re 70

In 2009, the BBC programme Watchdog reported that DVLA* were removing entitlements from driving licences reissued after a change of name or address. Drivers found they had lost the right to drive motorcycles or other categories of vehicle.

It may be conspiracy theory but the rumour is that many people who are qualified to ride motorcycles have not done so for years, and DVLA do not want them to start again because of the dangers. Some who do still ride motorcycles had to re-take their motorcycle driving test because they were unable to prove they had passed it years ago.

2-stroke Velocette motorcycle (Wikimedia Commons)
2-stroke Velocette
You can understand the outrage. My dad felt the same. He passed his motorcycle test in the nineteen-thirties and rode through the war on his 2-stroke Velocette as an Air Raid Patrol Messenger (childhood polio ruled out active service). Yet, around nineteen-seventy, he was dismayed to notice he no longer had the motorcycle entitlement on his licence. Not that he wanted to ride again – he wouldn’t have dared – it was the principle.

This is a page in his old licence. Until 1973, driving licences took the form of little red books issued by County Councils. They had to be renewed every three years or annually before 1959. West Riding residents sent their licences to 14 St. John’s North, Wakefield, where a new three-year (or one-year) sticker was pasted in.

1950s driving licence

They really knew how to stick things in those days but, as best he could, my dad peeled back through the thick wodge of renewals in his old licence book and discovered that what used to be Category III (later G) “Motor Bicycle (with or without side-car) …” was there in 1939 but not in 1940. I still have his licence with all its stickers and what appears to have happened is that his motorcycle entitlement was not carried forward when he passed his motor car driving test. Oversight or clerical error, he seems to have ridden his Velocette through the war illegally.

What annoyed him even more was that he worked with someone who started to drive before tests were introduced in 1935 and was licensed to drive just about everything you could imagine. Despite never having taken a test of any kind his colleague could drive both cars and motorbikes. My dad had passed to drive both but could now only drive cars. It was no consolation that somehow around 1950 he had bizarrely acquired the right to drive a road roller. 

Now, I feel hard done by too. Did you know they remove some of your entitlements when you get to seventy?

Most people currently in their fifties and sixties can drive 16-seater minibuses and medium-sized vans and trucks (up to 7.5 metric tons or tonnes: categories C1 and D1). They are there on my paper driving licence (many people now have plastic photocards but green paper licences issued before July 1998 remain valid up to your seventieth birthday unless updated due to a change of name or address, but at seventy you have to change to a photocard).

pre-1998 UK driving licence

The rule is that you can drive 16-seater minibuses and 7.5 tonne vehicles if you passed your car driving test before 1997 (partly subject to Restriction 1: not for hire or reward). Those who passed after 1997 are restricted to 8-seater minibuses and smaller vans up to 3.5 metric tons. However, at 70, they take away the higher entitlements and restrict everyone to the lower limits. You can keep the higher ones by taking a test and asking a doctor and an optician to certify your fitness to drive, for which no doubt they charge, but that’s too much faff.

Even to continue driving ordinary cars and smaller vehicles, I have to send back my paper licence, self-certify I’m fit and can see, and get a photocard. It will have to be renewed every three years. I will no longer be able to hire 7.5-tonne trucks or drive minibuses. Not that I ever have. It’s the principle.

What I don’t get is this. If it’s all right to self-certify I’m fit to drive a car or a 3.5-tonne Transit, why can’t I self-certify for slightly bigger vehicles? Maybe we should all go out and hire flatbed trucks and big box vans while we still can, just for the fun of it.

I suppose it’s like with some people who own guns: restrictions should apply to everyone else but themselves.

16 seater minibus and 7.5 tonne van and truck
Hire one while you still can - just for the fun of it.

*DVLA – the Driver and Vehicle Licencing Agency which until 1990 was called the DVLC for -Centre.

Friday, 1 November 2019

The Peter Rabbit Plate

Wedgewood Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit Plate

Decided to stay in bed after not sleeping because of a painful throat and a constant stream of mucus running down inside threatening to choke me. What with shivering and various aches, I felt terrible. But Mrs D. cares for me well. She asked if I wanted anything. A cup of tea and a couple of plain oat cakes duly arrived. It was all I could face. The only thing is that when you are not well you are supposed to get the Peter Rabbit Plate. The oat cakes were not on the Peter Rabbit plate.

The Peter Rabbit plate spends most of the time in its original cardboard box and comes out only when someone is ill. You might know the story it shows: the one in which Peter has been naughty by sneaking into Mr. McGregor’s garden and eating so many vegetables he feels sick, and Mr. McGregor spots him and chases him with a rake, and Peter gets wet hiding in a watering can but eventually makes it home tired and frightened. Then, Peter is unwell during the evening so his mother puts him to bed and makes him some camomile tea; ‘One table-spoonful to be taken at bed-time.’ It is a suitable plate for someone who is ill.

Wedgewood Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit Plate
So, there I was, really poorly, hands gripping the bed clothes to pull them up over my head just like Peter in the picture (except that my ears weren’t sticking out), and yet no Peter Rabbit plate. Anyone would think I was only pretending.

You won’t believe that I’ve never been thought ill enough for the Peter Rabbit plate. Even when I had proper flu and lost two stones in weight, or when I came home in pain after a nasty operation for an epididymal cyst, there was no Peter Rabbit plate. Mrs D. once got it. So did the children. But me, never!

The day I get the Peter Rabbit plate I shall have very grave cause for concern.

Wedgewood Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit Plate Box Wedgewood Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit Plate

Monday, 28 October 2019

Review - Stan Barstow: The Watchers On The Shore and The Right True End


Stan Barstow
The Watchers On The Shore (3*)
The Right True End (3*)

Two sequels that continue Vic Browns story from where we left him in A Kind of Loving: trapped in an unfulfilling nineteen-fifties marriage in the Yorkshire mining town where he grew up, and managing a record and electrical shop which the owner had implied would eventually pass to Vic.

The Watchers On The Shore and The Right True End take us into the nineteen-sixties, but whereas A Kind of Loving was rich in the details of time and place which vividly capture what it must have been like coming of age in the young northern working-class ten or fifteen years before my time, these elements are not major parts of the sequels. They do, however, capture something of the changing social context that allowed those like Vic to escape the restricted lives of their parents. 

Vic does not inherit the record shop and must choose between continuing there as an employee of a large company or returning to his previous work as a draughtsman. He chooses the latter, but instead of going back to his earlier employer he moves to a firm in the south of England. The distance strains his marriage to breaking point, especially as Vics cultural and intellectual horizons expand through an affair with an actress at the local theatre, although she eventually dumps him.

What was it about local theatre groups as a place for clever nineteen-fifties northern lads to meet classy birds? Were they epitomes of culture? It crops up in John Braine’s Room At The Top, and in real-life I am reminded of the much-liked teacher from school who joined the local amateurs and married one of the lovely Dale Sisters.

In the third book, Vic is a globe-trotting, London-based design and development engineer, having picked up a degree and lots of women. Yet something is missing, which is of course his actress friend with whom he designs and develops a ‘chance’ re-encounter. There is a twist at the end, not difficult to see coming, and all seems certain to be happy ever after.

The stories are brilliantly written and enjoyable page turners so long as you don’t expect the first-person present-historic narrative to be from any viewpoint other than Vics, with nineteen-sixties concerns and attitudes: man striving to win ideal woman who is at first out of his league but otherwise rather docile and incompletely drawn as a character. The book covers say it all.

And as Vic Brown finds, the problem with all this expansion of horizons stuff is that it fills your head with ideas and pretensions so that your family and those where you came from no longer understand you and you no longer understand them. Like once when I phoned my aunty on her farm and overheard my uncle say “th’s some posh bugger f’yer on t’phoo-an”, and her saying to him, “Why, it’s nor anybody posh, it’s owwer Tasker”, and then to me “Ah suppoo-as y‘ave to talk proper like that when yer at wok.” Ah suppoo-as they would have thought the same about Vic Brown.


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 

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Ivy

Ivy aged about 18

An early memory. One warm autumn day (someone later said it was a Monday afternoon in October), Mum took me into town in the push chair. We would have gone past a cinema (since demolished), a post office (now a beauty clinic), a garage (shops), some bombed buildings (more shops), a school (a community centre), a flour mill (a supermarket) and a church (derelict), and turned into a leafy avenue of fifty-year-old trees (long felled). It is all very different now.

We went down a cindery back lane behind some houses. We stopped and Mum called towards the upstairs of a large building over a high wall, waving to attract attention. I was told I shouted too and stood on the push chair so I could see. Someone opened a window and spoke to us. Mum explained why we were there. Nanna appeared and waved. She was in hospital after an operation. My aunt took my infant cousin for a similar walk a few days later.

Heartbreakingly, the operation was what was then known as “an open and shut case” and Nanna died soon afterwards. How sad that one of my first memories would be one of her last. It was sixty-five years ago this autumn: longer ago than the entire span of her life.

I was told she had heard me shouting “Nanna, Nanna” outside the window, and how pleased she was to see me. That day aside, I have only vague impressions of her and wonder what might have been different had she lived.

Pancreatic cancer is an awful disease. It creeps up undetected and is hardly any more survivable now than in 1954.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Rewriting Rewritten Writing

One of my first university jobs was as a research assistant to a very eminent professor. He was well known in his subject to students and academics both at home and abroad, and to the interested public through magazines such as New Scientist. He was the author of a large number of academic papers and editor of a best-selling textbook that had been translated into other languages including Japanese. I was elated to be offered the job and jumped at it, but that feeling did not last long. 

“Goodness! It must be fantastic working with him,” an envious researcher from another university told me. “He’s published lots of papers.”

“Well not really,” cynics in his own university would have said, “but he has published the same paper lots of times.”

You could say there was an element of truth in that: he did a lot of repetition, but the project on which I had been working produced an entirely new paper. It was to be submitted for possible publication to a leading American academic journal. As I had carried out the work he asked me to write a first draft. I doubted I could do it. It took me weeks: weeks of agony. When, at last, I had something not too awful to let someone else see, I left it with him.

He didn’t like it. He called me in to help rewrite it. I watched as he re-drafted one of the paragraphs.

It was laboured, tortuous, painful. He changed the main subject, he changed the emphasis. He tried it active, he tried it passive. He joined two sentences together with “and”, altered it to “but”, then split them back into two sentences in reverse order. He modified some of the terminology, thought of different wording and modified it again. Some of us by then were using the Unix vi text editor but he still used scraps of paper, pencil, rubber and more scraps of paper, with an excruciating running commentary to which I occasionally nodded. More than an hour went by and he still wasn’t satisfied. And that was just one paragraph. 

“Well,” I thought after going home and leaving him to it, “if it takes all that time and trouble for him to write something, someone of his reputation, then I’ve got absolutely nothing at all to worry about.”

*                   *                  *

That flippant ending is what I had in mind in starting this piece, but then more came out: buried resentment resurfacing. The thing was that the finished paper was not much different from the draft I had initially given him. It seemed that the main change was that, when the paper was published, his name was down as sole author and I was at the end of a list of people thanked for their assistance, some with hardly any involvement at all.

All too many power career academics are like that: very quick to claim all the credit for themselves. Some are workaholic, self-centred, self-justifying obsessives. They think they are infallible. They can be outright psychopaths. Universities seem to reward that sort of behaviour. There can be a pernicious culture of bullying. It happens in other places too, of course.

On first acquaintance, this guy seemed caring, thoughtful and softly-spoken, but soon revealed himself as the control-freak he was. Hints that sounded like promises never came to pass. Women, in particular, had the greatest difficulties, although I don’t know of any research staff that stayed longer than two or three years. One person took him to an employment tribunal claiming to have been misled about the nature of her role. My successors and predecessors had many similar stories (it was inevitable we would come across each other in the academic Small World). It put me off universities and I got a job elsewhere.

Resentment, yes, and ungrateful too, because the spell there didn’t half look good on the cv.

“We’re all difficult to work with here,” he said after I had infuriated him by handing in my notice. “We couldn’t survive anywhere else because we’re all eccentric.” He included me in that. He turned out to be right, probably on all three counts.

Thankfully, there are a lot of nice people in universities too.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

A Tale of Two Tea Pots

As mentioned before, I once lived in Scotland. I still carry around this now very crumpled Scottish one pound note as a reminder of that time.

Royal Bank of Scotland One Pound Note 1989

I had a close friend there. She was attractive and intelligent, and gave short shrift to nonsense. We went to the cinema, classical concerts, the ballet and on country walks. She taught me Scottish words and phrases, and introduced me to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair. She stayed with me a few days when she moved house, and I stayed with her for my last couple of days in Scotland after getting my own house ready to rent out. Perhaps, in other circumstances, at a different time, it might have been more than a friendship.

I left Scotland at the end of the nineteen-eighties for a job in Nottingham. Soon after, walking along Pelham Street, or was it Goose Gate, I spotted a cheery Chinese tea pot in a shop window. I bought one, packed it up very carefully and posted it to my Scottish friend for her birthday. She was absolutely delighted.

Chinese Style Tea Pot

I then fell in love with the future Mrs D. who was also attractive and intelligent but did put up with nonsense. Wondering what to buy for her birthday, I thought of my Scottish friend’s tea pot, so returned to the shop and bought another, exactly the same. She was absolutely delighted. It seemed neither necessary nor appropriate to mention the earlier one and I forgot it. We were married around a year later. My Scottish friend came to the wedding and was pleased to say grace because she was by then a Church of Scotland Minister.

My house in Scotland had been rented out not through choice but because at the time it was impossible to sell. Eventually, market conditions changed and someone bought it. I drove up with Mrs D. to sort things out for the last time. Before coming home we called to see my Scottish friend at her Manse near Stirling. 
 
She offered us tea and biscuits. On the tray was her Chinese tea pot. My wife spotted it immediately. She was not delighted.


There's more about my Scottish friend in this earlier post: Jumped Down Catholics (it's quite long)

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Review - Alan Sillitoe: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Sillitoe: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Alan Sillitoe
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (4*)

What made me pick this volume of nine Alan Sillitoe short stories so soon after reading Saturday Night and Sunday Morning? I must be a glutton for punishment. Most of the characters are distinctly unpleasant.

Best known is the title-story filmed in 1962 by Tony Richardson with Tom Courtenay in the leading role as shown on the cover. As with Saturday Night…, it is a bleak, post-war, working-class Nottingham story in which a difficult-to-like hero is in other ways admirable. Borstal boy Colin Smith explains his personal philosophy around events leading to his incarceration and the emergence of his natural athetic talent. Selected to compete in a race he is sure to win and thereby enhance the reputation of the borstal, he throws it in the home straight to spite the Governor because he believes it the right thing to do. What was there for him to go back to? Nothing: not even running.

The same sense of hopelessness runs through the whole collection. All the stories are set in similar sad and underprivileged backgrounds. Some might better be described as vignettes. This is the suffocating world of working-class people before post-war consumerism and expansion of opportunity. You wonder, like Ian Dury or Kate Atkinson perhaps, how close you came to any one of these lives being your own.

Like the penniless schoolboys in Noah’s Ark who swindle and steal to afford the rides at Nottingham’s Goose Fair. Did one of them later become Colin Smith? Or the boy who watches impassively as a man attempts to hang himself On Saturday Afternoon. Or Frankie Buller, a young man with what we would now call a learning disability, who leads an “army” of younger boys in military games.

Or, later in life, what about Uncle Ernest, a damaged and solitary middle-aged man who befriends two undernourished schoolgirls in a café simply because he is lonely and wants to help in exchange for friendship? Of course, no one trusts his motives, especially the police. Or Mr. Raynor the School-teacher, who ogles girls in the draper’s shop across the road from his classroom window? Or the postman in The Fishing-boat Picture who lives alone after his wife leaves him for a housepainter but years later returns to visit every Friday evening, leaving so much unsaid that she never reveals her true circumstances? Or Lennox, whose wife walks out with the kids when he comes home in a mood and picks a fight after watching Notts County lose? Or Jim Scarfedale, a working bloke, who, after the breakdown of his marriage across the class-divide, returns “to his mother’s apron strings” and turns to molesting little girls?

There but for the grace of God! But I was born as the world began to open up, and passed to go to Grammar School, which created chance after chance despite poor exam results and false starts. The trouble is, contest it as you might, it can turn you into something of a snob. Is that why I don’t like the characters?

Not a comforting read, but a strangely satisfying one.


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 

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Kitchens Old and New

New Kitchen 2019

New Kitchen 2019 New Kitchen 2019

The new kitchen; not quite finished. Still awaiting new blinds and flooring. I also have bits of painting left to do such as the skirting board, ceiling and around the windows. At least the two weeks of takeaways, eating out, ready meals and washing up in the bathroom are over. Zoomers can get to work on the pictures and scrutinize our minutiae: Who is Katharine? Who takes max strength congestion relief? Who’s the Big Mug? (it’s me) Good job we haven’t hung up the calendar and notice board yet. It all feels much lighter and roomier than the worn-out, twenty-five-year-old configuration it replaced, although even that was luxury compared to kitchens of old.

Grandma's kitchen 1964

Here is my grandma in her kitchen in 1964; in fact, it was not just the kitchen, it was the bathroom and the laundry room as well. The (what is now known as a) Belfast sink was the only place in the house with running water. It was not so many years since they had to fetch water from the village pump. The tall screen on the left was unfolded and placed across the alcove for privacy when washing. It would be mostly in cold water: the electric geyser was a relatively recent addition. Previously, water had to be heated on a large, black and silver, cast-iron, coal-fired range to the left of the camera and carried across the room. Look at the damp on the wall behind her.

For many years there was no flushing toilet. She had one outside by this time, but originally there was only an earth closet, the contents of which would be shovelled through an opening in the wall into the adjacent open-roofed ‘ash midden’ and burnt with the household rubbish.

She brought up a family of four there.

Mum's kitchen 1963

My mum’s kitchen around the same time is better equipped but not dissimilar. There is a top-loading washing machine on the right, a gas cooker on the left, and gosh, is that a mixer tap? By this time water was heated by an electric immersion heater in the bathroom water cylinder. There was also a Baxi back boiler behind the front room fireplace.

The sink and draining board are enamelled and mounted on formica/melamine cupboards. Above is a high wooden shelf for pans, and behind were floor-to-ceiling drawers and cupboards which were built-in new with the house in the nineteen-twenties; the other houses in the row had the same. The plastic bag hanging on the wall contains ‘silver paper’ (aluminium foil) and milk bottle tops for charity. Like her mother, she has a mirror hanging above the sink. The walls are tiled and free of damp and we have a separate bathroom, but by today’s expectations, it’s still quite basic.

Mum's kitchen 1972

Later in the sixties, we moved to a house with a serving hatch and an Aga cooker: real ‘Abigail’s Party’ stuff. But it still had the same kind of laminate drawers, cupboards and worktops. My mum now has a food mixer and there is a stand-alone spin dryer beneath the work surface in the corner. We also now had a fridge. I have no recollection of what the dispenser-like gadget screwed to the wall of the serving hatch could have been. It was a nuisance keeping the Aga going all summer, but in winter the house was always warm despite a vague but persistent sulphurous smell from the smokeless fuel. Mum didn’t like it. It was too like cooking on her mother’s coal-fired range. She eventually replaced it with a gas cooker.

Leeds kitchen 1973-74

On to the pigsty of the shared house in Leeds where I lived in the nineteen-seventies: if anything a step back. Along with 40% of other households, we had no fridge or washing machine, and domestic freezers were almost unknown in the U.K. I think the black and white picture was taken to prove Brendan did sometimes do the washing up.

The room is populated by a chip pan, dirty cups and beer glasses. The black and white picture contains a ubiquitous Russell Hobbs K2 electric kettle, although I think we lost that when someone moved out because the later colour picture has one that heats on the gas cooker.

Look in the other direction and you see what I mean by ‘pigsty’. No one ever did any cleaning. The formica/melamine unit with its gathering of nineteen-seventies tins and packets is simply disgusting. No wonder we had mice. The medieval toy soldiers above the cellar door, shields glinting in the flashbulb, came free inside breakfast cereal packets.

Leeds kitchen 1974

My kitchen standards have clearly come a long way in fifty years. No doubt, commenters such as arty Rosemary from her ex-gamekeeper’s cottage in the South-West of England with it's beautiful grounds and one hundred elegant objects will say of the new one (going by what she so woundingly said of our garden because she’s Northern and has to say it straight): “It’s not much of a kitchen is it?” She will explain it simply follows the humdrum nineteen-fifties American form originating in Benita Otte’s nineteen-twenties Bauhaus design: the seamless look of built-in worktops and cabinets with integrated appliances. She might even go so far as to say the flat panels in the cabinet doors clash with the raised panels of the room door.

Well, bollocks! I apologize for not living in a listed Country Life residence. We like the rounded corners and sage green doors. Mrs D. has been saving up for four years to pay for it. The only thing is, it cost more than a whole house would have cost in the nineteen-seventies.

Friday, 13 September 2019

The Exorcist (reposted by beetleypete)

Pete Johnson (the prolific WordPress blogger beetleypete) generously offered space for guests on his blog. I jumped at the chance because he has almost 5,000 followers. I wondered whether there might be interest in my piece about the film The Exorcist originally posted over four years ago during my early blogging days. In all that time it had less than 200 views. Pleasingly, it turned out to be one of Pete’s most viewed posts this week with a cacophany of comments. [my spelling is corrected in the comments below]

beetleypete's guest post invitation is here

the reposted post on Pete's blog is here

The Exorcist


When my son was about eight, he wanted to know what was the scariest film I had ever seen.

“Well,” I said, “there are quite a few, but one of them is so scary that even its name is too frightening to say.”

No eight year-old would let me off that easily, and when it became obvious he was not going to give up I said that I would only tell him when he was eighteen. For now, all I was prepared to say was that it began with an ‘e’. “The rest is too terrifying to think about,” I repeated.

“Excalibur” he said without hesitation, trying to guess.

“I don’t think there is such a ....”

“Yes there is,” he said, “what about The Executioner?”

“Even if it was I wouldn’t tell you,” I said after again having been corrected about the existence of such a film.

“Excrement,” he guessed. I really doubted that one, but not wanting to risk being found ignorant a third time I simply repeated what I’d said already.

This continued on and off for the next few weeks ....
 
Read original post (~1200 words)

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Köhler’s Apes

rotary clothes drier or whirly

Blogger Tom Stephenson described recently how he retrieved a small, ancient metal blade that had mysteriously appeared on an out-of-reach flat roof by using a long pole and a magnet. I could sense his immense satisfaction in the flash of insight into how to retrieve it and it gave me vicarious joy to read how the blade popped on to the magnet for him to haul it in. Köhler’s apes would be impressed. This is how culture, in its widest sense, is passed on. 

Wolfgang Köhler, if you’ve not heard of him, was one of those psychologists whose ideas made the study of that subject a pure delight before it became all numbers and logic. He described how insight and problem-solving are not confined to humans; how chimpanzees, after puzzling a while to gain insight, would stack boxes or join two sticks to retrieve bananas that were out of reach. They do it for the thrill of it. I could go so far as to say that dogs enjoy doing clever things such as learning the name of a toy, and Phoebe our cat certainly looked pleased with herself when she realised she could open the sliding doors between the back and front rooms (that’s the dining room and the sitting room for those of you who don’t speak Northern) in order to sleep on the settee and be sick on it, but scientific psychologists would call that anthropomorphic nonsense.

Moments of insight seem to stick in our memories. The photograph above shows our rotary clothes line, a well-made and robust one (now over thirty years old) brought from a previous house in Scotland where they call them whirlies. Blow the ‘h’ and roll the ‘r’ to say it properly. When we moved to our current house there was a rusty old clothes post concreted into the middle of the lawn. We wanted rid of the ugly thing to make a hole for the whirly. Help, insight. Were we a match for Tom Stephenson and Köhler’s apes? (NB not “the Coca Cola apes” as a student once wrote in an exam.)

base of rotary clothes drier or whirly

Half an hour with a hacksaw cut off the clothes post at ground level leaving a suitable hole. It was too wide, but more patient hacksaw work cut down a length of old road-railing pipe to make a sleeve which fitted perfectly into the hole to accommodate the whirly. Very satisfying! 

But there was a further problem. Things used to fall down the hole when the whirly wasn’t in. On one occasion a nauseating smell was found to be coming from the decomposing body of a bird that had fallen to the bottom. We got the poor thing out with a stick, disinfected the hole with Jeyes Fluid and used a threadbare tennis ball to cover the open top.

Then Phoebe the cat started to play with the ball. She liked nothing better (more anthropomorphic nonsense) than knocking it off the hole and chasing it around the garden. If we didn’t put it back things still fell in.

I don’t know what made me look down one day when about to drop in the pipe to put up the whirly, but something caught my eye at the bottom of the hole. It seemed to be moving. I crouched down to peer in. I had to get a torch. There was a large frog at the bottom.

Problem: how do you rescue a frog from fifteen inches (37 centimetres) down at the bottom of a narrow pipe without harming it?

Phoebe the cat, from the comfort of her nest of garden sacks in the garage, suggests hooking it out with your claws and ignoring the screams. The idea that frogs feel pain is felineomorphic nonsense. She also thinks Köhler’s apes must have been stupid. Why stack up all those boxes when you can just spring up on your hind legs, and who would want a banana anyway? As for Tom Stephenson, well, why didn’t he leap across from his balcony and bring back the blade in his mouth? It was one of her friends who left it there in the first place after using it to poke frogs with.

Are there any other suggested solutions to the problem?


Thursday, 5 September 2019

Blocked!

Isn’t it irritating when a blogger blocks you simply for questioning his rather biased and inflammatory political posts through polite and reasoned comment? Suppress all dissent! I didn’t even disagree entirely. Shame because otherwise he writes quite interesting posts. I suppose I will have to unfollow him.

Postscript

Sunday, 8th September. He has now moved on to another post and I have unfollowed him, but emboldened by the nothing but supportive comments below here are links to some of the posts I take issue with [LINKS NOW REMOVED - SEE BELOW]. He refuses to engage in any discussion of his one-sided arguments based on twisted evidence taken out of context. I find some of these views offensive but here are the links and you can decide for yourself [LINKS NOW REMOVED - SEE BELOW]:

Post Postscript

Friday, 27th September. Links removed because the whole blog has now been made private by the owner. He must have had a lot of grief from a lot of people.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Review - V. S. Pritchett: A Cab At The Door and Midnight Oil

V. S. Pritchett
A Cab At The Door and Midnight Oil (3*)

I first picked up Midnight Oil by chance during a formative period around 1974 and was taken by Victor Pritchett’s determination to become a full-time writer. What would it be like to chuck your job to live in a garret in Paris? Would I dare do that? (Spoiler Alert – No).

V. S. Pritchett (1900-1997) was a British writer and literary critic known particularly for his short stories. He worked in a London leather firm until around 1920 when he took a job as a shop assistant in Paris. He later lived as a writer in Ireland, Spain and America, and was literary editor for The New Statesman.

These two volumes of autobiography tell of his nomadic early life around Edwardian London and Yorkshire (the family moved 18 times before he was 12), his work in the leather trade, struggling to write in Paris, his travels in Spain and his experiences in Ireland and America. He paints vivid, perceptive, meticulously observed character portraits of his larger than life relatives and others he knew over these years, although (possibly my fault) I was not all that interested in some of them.

The old-school prose demands a lot of concentration. Revisiting it again was something of a marathon but anyone interested in what it was like to grow up in the early twentieth century, or life abroad in the twenties and thirties, might find it fascinating.

see also: V. S. Pritchett's obituary in the New York Times


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 


Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Beer Mats

Another blogger (the multi-talented Yorkshire Pudding) posted about a beer mat he had designed for his daughter’s recent wedding. One commentator said her grandfather collected beer mats but she thought that “In England they don’t seem much of a feature.”

Well, Ursula, my group of friends collected them in our youth. I stuck mine on the wall of a room above the garage at my parents’ house. This is part of a black and white photograph taken in 1970:

Beer mats 1960s and 1970s
Most are English but a few came from exchange trips to Belgium (where you could drink alcohol in cafés at sixteen). I can make out the following:

Belgian mats: Maes Pils, Cristal Alken, Pela, Siréne, Barze, juni vakantie maand, Orval, Gereons Kölsch, Kess Kölsch, Diekirk, Falken, Sester. I can’t make out the mat with the bell which appears across the top and several times lower down, nor the one with the black horse – it isn’t “Black Horse”.  

English mats: HB (Hull Brewery), Brewmaster Export Pale Ale, Whitbread Tankard, Whitbread Forest Brown, Tetley, Flowers Keg Bitter, Bass Export Ale, Have a mild Van Dyck cigar with your Bass Blue Triangle, Brown Peter for Strength, Strongbow Cider, Woodpecker Cider, Barnsley Bitter, Alpine Lager, Whitbread Trophy Bitter, Whitbread Pale Ale, Calypso, Youngers Tartan, Duttons Pale.

And among my box of colour slides and black and white negatives were these slightly later beer mats. Commodore Pudding will surely be delighted to see the one from The Travellers Rest at Long Riston, just three miles from his childhood village. Can’t remember my visit to the establishment though.
  Beer Mat - the Travellers Rest, Long Riston, Hull Brewery 1970s

Hull brewery beer mat 1970s

Beer mat - Tetley Bitter 1970s

Beer mat - John Courage 1970s

Beer mat - Whitbread Trophy 1970s
Beer mat - Hull Brewery 1970s

Monday, 26 August 2019

Teenage Mums

Fairy Liquid ads 1960s (3 in sequence)

My mum’s cousin who was born in 1928 said that for her thirteenth birthday she received a toy pram with a life-sized dolly. She paraded it proudly up and down the village high street.

Thirteen! I kid you not. In later life she couldn’t believe it herself. Nowadays, it’s more likely she would have a real one.

It reminds me of a joke about the much-parodied detergent ad:

         now hands that do dishes can feel as soft as your face 
         with mild green Fairy Liquid

         Mummy, why are your hands so soft?
         Because I’m only fifteen.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Plums

Plums - August 2019

The biggest, tastiest, juiciest plums we’ve had in over twenty-five years here. They seem to have thinned themselves out naturally during the earlier hot, dry weather and then swelled to perfection in the recent rain. At last, something to match the produce from all those gardener-bloggers who don’t live at 750 feet in the north of England.

Gardening for me now has become a case of simply keeping things under control, hoping to benefit from the fresh air and exercise. I enjoy it but we don’t have anything that would pull in the crowds at the village open day.

It started when I was little and wanted to “plant some seeds”. Dad dug up a thin line of lawn along the front of the shed and sowed some Virginian Stock – his mother used to like them he said. Soon I was studying flower catalogues, taking geranium and hydrangea cuttings, transplanting clumps of oriental poppies begged from relatives and spending my pocket money on anemone bulbs and sweet william seedlings at the local gardening shop. I kept quiet about it at school, though.

I surrounded my little patch of garden with a miniature picket fence made from the wooden lollipop sticks that littered the streets (three sticks as uprights and four or five alternately woven in-out and out-in). I grew lettuces from seeds and tried to sell them door-to-door from my bicycle saddle bag – almost too embarrassing to remember. I helped myself to some rhubarb rhizomes from an unkept allotment down by the railway but Mum made me take it back: the first time I heard the word “pilfering”.

Nowadays, I try to put on a decent display in the front garden, still sometimes with a few Virginian Stocks and those daisy things my dad always misnamed “mesantheambriums”. At the back we have various beans, Sungold orange cherry tomatoes, courgette, strawberries, raspberries, apples, pears and plums. Potatoes do well when I make the effort, but other things like cucumbers, beetroot, carrot, cabbage and cauliflower have suffered so often from mildew, grubs or caterpillars I rarely bother. And we must have some of the most health-conscious sparrows in the country; they peck peas and lettuce to shreds.

We also keep a sizeable wild patch under the trees for the hedgehogs who visit our feeding station. We captured this on an infra-red video camera last year:


Things are always a month behind everyone else here. This year has been particularly disappointing: we are still waiting for our first tomatoes. At least we can enjoy the plums.

You might also like: Help ... my courgette looks like a duck!

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.

Update 13th October, 2019

Four more towers demolished today:

https://www.itv.com/news/2019-10-13/power-station-towers-demolished-in-milestone-for-energy-industry/

https://twitter.com/AmyMurphyPA/status/1183342570769997826

Apparently the three remaining towers are to be retained for the time being in case they are needed for a new gas fired generator.