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Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Great Yarmouth, June 1960

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Yarmouth boating lake

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

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

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

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

Thursday afternoon July 7th 1960

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

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

Saturday, 15 June 2019

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

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

The Smorgasbord repost invitation is here

The reposted post is here

Grandad Dunham's Flight Simulator

Grandad Dunham's Chair - Flight Simulator

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

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

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

Read original post (~750 words)

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Rather a studious kind of boy

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Gram Motherem (reposted by Smorgasbord Blog Magazine)

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

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

The original invitation is here

The Smorgasbord repost is here

Gram Motherem: how early are our earliest memories?

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

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

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

Read original post (~1850 words)

Monday, 3 June 2019

Review - Keith Waterhouse: Mondays, Thursdays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous book reviews 

Monday, 27 May 2019

Half Length and Mrs. Rat Poison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Checked Out

A wet day at the Eden Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Parking Machine Tickets

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

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

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

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

August 2010: Cornwall

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

July 2012: North Devon

August 2012: North Wales again

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

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

2015: Pembrokeshire (South Wales)

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

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

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Every Car We’ve Owned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Review - Gyles Brandreth: Have You Eaten Grandma?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Petrol Cans

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

Petrol Cans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You might also be interested in:

further reflections on old and new cars.

more about Uncle Jimmy, the owner of the Bullnose Morris

Thursday, 25 April 2019

The Wrong Door

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

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

Friday, 19 April 2019

Easter 1971

When The Police Told My Parents I Went In Pubs

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I suppose we must be,” he answered.

“What does that mean?”

“Are we not all related in some way?”

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

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

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

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

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

The Green Bottle, Knottingley

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

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

Attack on Mrs Dorothy Leeman, 1971

Saturday, 13 April 2019

Lonely Brown Hair

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

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

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

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

Does Chris Bonington get them too?

An earlier post about Sir Chris Bonington

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Adsense Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Living Memory

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

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

Deaths of the last Waterloo veterans

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

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

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

Saturday, 23 March 2019

George Gibbard Jackson

George Gibbard Jackson

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

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

Gibbard Jackson: The Splendid Book of Aeroplanes p96-97

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Review - Keith Waterhouse: Billy Liar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 10 March 2019

We Know Where You’re From

The British-Irish Dialect Quiz

British-Irish Dialect Quiz: results

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other posts about accents and language:

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

Wednesday, 6 March 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was only invited there the once.

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

Saturday, 23 February 2019


Bill and Jack

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 17 February 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 14 February 2019


HMP Wakefield prison register, June 1900

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

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

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Limerick Leanings

Limerick - The Young Lady of Niger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is anyone else encumbered with this?

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Brendan and the Shared House

Ghana 1970s aerogram with additional stamp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll never have that drink now.