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Sunday, 20 October 2019


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


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.


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 - 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:

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

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Petrol Rationing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* I think these coupon quantities are correct.

Sunday, 28 July 2019

Playing With Dictionaries

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

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

Others we later became fans of include:

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

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

Or were we just being sanguinarily crepuscular?

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Where were you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 16 July 2019


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

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Angry Young Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous book reviews 

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Mrs Quackworth (reposted by Smorgasbord Blog Magazine)

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

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

The Smorgasbord repost invitation is here

The reposted post is here

Mrs Quackworth 


With the Operatic Society around 1920
Until I was ten or eleven I had to share a bedroom with my younger brother. We were sent to bed at the same time, which meant he got to stay up later than I had at his age and I had to go sooner than I thought I should.

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

Downstairs we could hear the next-door neighbour talking with our parents. She sounded like a duck, as did her name ...
Read original post (~1200 words)

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

250 Words A Minute

Funny what you find to read in holiday cottages.

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some exceedingly basic examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did you do on your holiday?

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Research Before The Internet (reposted by Smorgasbord Blog Magazine)

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

The Smorgasbord repost invitation is here

The reposted post is here

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

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

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

Read original post (~800 words)

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Review - Stan Barstow: A Kind of Loving

Stan Barstow
A Kind of Loving (4*)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous book reviews 

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Great Yarmouth, June 1960

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Yarmouth boating lake

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

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

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

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

Thursday afternoon July 7th 1960

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

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