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Wednesday, 1 April 2020

New Month Old Post: School Metalwork

(first posted 21st November 2017)

Metalwork Forge
The heat, the acridity, the instruments of torture - it was like entering the bowels of hell

By the time Tinplate Thompson had finished describing the gruesome horrors of the metalwork shop, we were too scared to move. He went over and over all the ways to hurt or injure yourself: cutting your skin on sharp edges, scraping it on rough surfaces, hitting your fingers with a hammer, trapping them in pincers, burning your flesh with a soldering iron, melting it with molten metal, ripping off your scalp by catching your hair in a machine, or an arm by catching a sleeve, … the list went on and on. It was so terrifying that none of us made light of it when he ended with “... and remember, before you pick up any metal, spit on it to make sure it’s not hot.”

The first thing you noticed was the smell: sharp, bitter and pungent, a mixture of metal polish, machine oil, cutting fluid and soldering flux. It clung to your hair and clothes. You knew when Thompson had walked down a corridor before you because it hung in the air behind him in an invisible cloud. You could follow it like a bloodhound. Sometimes, you catch a reminder from plumbers who have been soldering pipes, or brass musicians. It brings it back: the heat, the acridity, the instruments of torture. It was like entering the bowels of hell.

There were lethal looking hand tools, powered lathes, drills, cutters, grinders, a blacksmith’s forge and anvil, and welding equipment with a Darth Vader face mask. We made feeble jokes about bastard files and horizontal borers, but most of us would rather have stayed with the lesser perils of woodwork, or, safer still, been allowed to do cooking or needlework. There would have been no shortage of feisty girls eager to swap. 

“We can make anything in this workshop from a teaspoon to a motorcycle,” Thompson told us. Guess which we got to make.

We each cut the shape of a tea caddy spoon out of a brass plate, hammered out the bowl over a wooden form and smoothed the edges with a file. Mine was such a jagged and misshapen catastrophe I decided to ‘lose’ it in the acid bath where, hopefully, it dissolved away to nothingness. Yet it was magnificent compared to my sugar scoop. That was made out of soldered tinplate and supposed to look like a box with a slanted opening. Oh dear! A three-year old would have done better cutting it out with blunt scissors and sticking it up with paste. I might just as well have scraped on the solder with a builder’s trowel. It was ridged and lumpy, and didn’t hold together very well at all. Thompson wrinkled his nose in disgust as he marked it, as reflected in my school report.

Year 3 School Report for Metalwork

Everyone else’s work looked neat, smooth and functional. But I did have one minor success. It was a hammer. It turned out right because the lathe did most of the work. All you had to do was squirt milky fluid on to the cutting tool while turning a handle. Even I could manage that. I was not even troubled by the springy coils of ‘swarf’ that flew off like shrapnel, threatening to slice your skin to shreds. My next report grade leapt from Very fair to Fair.

Hammer made in metalwork lessons at school

The hammer head consisted of a sawn-off rod cut with a couple of grooves and drilled with a hole to accommodate the handle. The handle was a longer, narrower rod with a non-slip grip pattern milled into one end, and cut thinner at the other end to fit through the head. I can no longer remember exactly how the head was fixed to the handle – it might have involved heat and expansion – but mine didn’t fall apart. I’ve still got it. You can see from the battered ends I still abuse it now and again.

Thinking back to that one year of metalwork, it is surprising that, so far as I know, no one was ever seriously injured. There were a few minor cuts and scrapes, but the nastiest accident was to Tinplate Thompson himself. Ignoring his own advice, he picked up a piece of hot metal without spitting on it first and burnt his hand. You should have heard him swear!

The photograph of the forge is from and is in the public domain

Friday, 27 March 2020

Review - Penelope Lively: Treasures of Time

Penelope Lively: Treasures of Time
Penelope Lively: 
Treasures of Time (4*)

Sometimes, it can be difficult writing these occasional book reviews, but it helps in reflecting upon what I have just read and what I understand of it. This elaborate tale was harder than most.

Treasures of Time is about the truth of our perceptions and memories. Do we live the lives we think we live? Are things as they seem? Penelope Lively deftly handles multiple points of view and multiple time frames to show how different people can experience and remember the same places and events differently – edifying stuff for a memoir writer.

Laura Paxton is approached by a BBC documentary film maker planning to make a programme about her late husband, the acclaimed archaeologist Hugh Paxton. She still lives in their idyllic Wiltshire cottage close to the site of the excavation that made her husband famous, and remains stunningly beautiful. But she is no intellectual. She is one of those classic comic creations, like a Jane Austen character, who seeks social and cultural approval and belittles those beneath her standards. She accepts the BBC’s approach with alacrity, unaware of the misgivings of her historian daughter, Kate, and her invalid sister, Nellie.

I’ve come across too many people like Laura. They want to take over and organise your social life and cannot understand why you might not want to comply. They disapprove of your sense of humour and take offence when your opinions differ from theirs. When the television crew arrives, she engages them in genteel sherry parties with her society friends, although they would much prefer a pint at the local pub and being left to get on with their work. “Ma has always found people’s tendency to work a nuisance,” her daughter Kate explains. “It stops them doing other things she might be wanting them to do.”

I identify with Kate’s boyfriend, Tom, who is just about to complete a Ph.D. thesis on William Stukeley, the eighteenth century investigator of Stonehenge. Tom has climbed to Oxford from an ordinary upbringing and observes things most clearly. He wonders how Laura has “so extraordinary a knack of instantly putting everyone else at a disadvantage … You could go far, with a talent like that.” And, as one does when you find yourself unexpectedly in the company of those of more advantageous background, Tom says and does the wrong things, such as outspokenly criticising one of Laura’s friends for selling off a historically significant family heirloom. I’ve been similarly tactless, it has given me sleepless nights, but what I like about Tom is that he is not troubled by imposter syndrome or self-doubt.

So, we have archaeology, academic research, history, social mobility, the impact of the past upon the present and an almost farcical mesh of contradictory perceptions. Laura, Kate and Nellie look at a scene and see or remember it differently. From these differences we learn that Laura’s marriage was far from perfect. She had no interest in archaeology. It was her sister Nellie who was Hugh Paxton’s soul mate. She worked with him all his life, accompanied him on digs and co-authored academic papers. Kate has vague flashbacks of their intimacy, and of her mother’s indiscretions too. Hugh Paxton had been bedazzled by Laura’s beauty, and married the wrong sister.

The novel, originally published in 1979, is now in the Penguin Decades series, considered landmarks of their time. At under 200 pages it is relatively short. Written more recently it might be three times as long with extensive period detail and sumptuous descriptions of archaeological artefacts. It keeps to what it is, essentially a miniaturist tale in which nothing much happens, or as the blurb says, “an acutely observed story of marriage and manipulation.”

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

Previous book reviews 

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Ready Steady Go

Click through images to BBC iPlayer

What a super two hours on BBC4 on Friday: Ready Steady Go, the music show that ran at 6 p.m. on Fridays on ITV from August 1963 to December 1966: The Weekend Starts Here.

There was an hour of documentary clips and memories from director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, producer Vicki Wickham, and the likes of Paul Jones of Manfred Mann, Gerry The Pacemakers Marsden, Martha Reeves and Georgie Fame (whose music I always rated for its sophistication). Then a further hour of archive performances.

Many of the original videotapes were wiped, popular music being thought ephemeral, but enough survives along with colour film footage shot for a documentary. As you might expect, there was a bit too much emphasis on The Beatles and The Rolling Stones – it would have been nice to see more of the less well remembered acts – but we did get to see Dusty Springfield singing Dancing In The Street with Martha and the Vandellas (way better than the Supremes any day) and Otis Redding performing with Eric Burdon and Chris Farlowe. Absolute magic. Some bits did look very dated, though, especially the mime competition.

Ready Steady Go was innovative and influential in the acts it booked – one of the first showcases for Tamla Motown on British television – and in the way it blended together with camera, audience, dancers and acts all mingling together. Many in the audience were Mods down from Sheffield’s King Mojo club.

I remember watching some of the programmes at the time: many at school thought it unmissable. For me it spanned those years from stamp collecting and trains to what was happening in the wider world.

I had to look up what happened to main presenters. The lovely and iconic Cathy McGowan is now around 77 but did not appear in the programmes. She was originally recruited to set off the smooth professional Keith Fordyce who died in 2011, aged 82.

The programmes are on BBC iPlayer until around 18th April, but knowing BBC4 they will probably be repeated ad infinitum.

Thursday, 19 March 2020


I like this photograph. It was taken in the late nineteen-twenties at the Yorkshire seaside resort of Bridlington. The location appears to be beside the harbour wall looking up to Garrison Street.

Bridlington Harbour: c1929

There is something about the figures, their clothes and expressions, the composition, the depth of focus and the greyscale tones that reminds me of photographs by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, the celebrated Whitby photographer. They all look very serious, as if about to emigrate to the New World perhaps, whereas, actually, they are on board for a short trip around Flamborough Head.

My dad, aged about 7, is to the right with his Jackie Coogan cap tight on his head, and my grandfather, in front of him, looks very smart in a suit and flat cap. They seem to be the only ones without raincoats or waterproofs, unless those loose ones are for their use. None appear to have life jackets. One wonders who the others in the picture were: are they three couples or is one of the women the daughter of the older man: Somerset Maugham with a pipe? Who could now know? My dad could easily be assumed to be with the couple behind him.

We have lots of other family pictures at Bridlington in the nineteen-twenties and -thirties: in deck chairs, on the beach by the sea wall, digging in the sand, paddling in the sea, walking around town. One, some two decades later, shows my pregnant mum with my dad and others on the sands. Nanna is gazing down at her bump with me inside as if for a caption competition.

On Bridlington beach

Later, when I was little, we continued to go to Bridlington. Here I am in front of the Spa buildings, digging on the beach near the breakwater in my baggy white underpants. They look as if they would still fit me. I bet they made wonderful car polishing cloths. We went on the same trip around Flamborough, and when the sea was calm Dad would hire a rowing boat and row us out beyond the harbour mouth. I also remember visiting the Flamborough headland and being frightened by the fog-horn.

I haven’t been back much since. It seems to have a lot of noisy rides and fast food smells now. But, hoping to repeat history, I went with my young family one day in 2004. The cold wind and rough sea were too daunting for a sea trip, so we drove to Flamborough instead and climbed the 119 internal steps to the top of the lighthouse, terrified of the drop down the middle. Scary place, Flamborough.

Lamp room: Flamborough lighthouse

For the nerds amongst us, Flamborough Head is a promontory to the north of Bridlington, the northern end of a band of cretaceous chalk that stretches through Eastern England down to the South Coast. A  27-metre lighthouse sits on top of 30-metre cliffs, giving a range of 28 miles to the horizon, high enough on a clear day to be able to see the Humber Bridge to the south near Hull. Inside the lamp room, a four-panel catadioptric lens revolves around an enormous light bulb (in the top central  square in the picture) to create a signature code of four flashes every fifteen seconds. It continues to revolve even when the bulb is off so as not to concentrate the sun’s rays and start fires. The light was automated in 1996 but when we visited there were still reserved parking places for the non-existent staff.

Flamborough Head from the air (looking South)

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Fish Finger Sandwiches (with Piccalilli)

In response to a comment about fish fingers I made recently on his post about home-made oven chips, the usually infallible Mr. YP said he thought only small children ate fish fingers. Well, wrong! Those of us who remain eternally young at heart still do, a favourite from my teenage years, staple Friday night fare ready on returning home for the weekend from my digs in Leeds after leaving school.

I have never blogged a recipe (unless you count Dill in Mustard Sauce), but if Debra Who Seeks can do it for the first time in twelve years then so can I for the first time in six, as we would appear to share similar gastronomic preferences. So here is: Fish Finger Sandwiches (with Piccalilli).

Fish Fingers

Put the fish fingers straight from the packet on to a tray and grill for about 15 minutes, turning once or twice. In the meantime, cut and butter the bread.

Sliced Bread

Buttered Bread

When the fish fingers are done, put them on to the bread. As it is important to have a balanced diet with plenty of vegetables, spread with piccalilli. Assemble the sandwiches. Don’t worry if it looks a bit messy, it will get much worse once you begin to eat them, and so will you. It might help to have a couple of tissues handy. Those plastic bib-trays that toddlers and geriatrics hang round their necks are also useful.

Fish Finger Sandwiches with Piccalilli

Fish Finger Sandwiches with Piccalilli

If you are one of those obsessives who consumes excess vegetables with every meal then you could try Mrs. D’s less messy variation in which the fish fingers are placed on a bed of sliced radishes with mayonnaise. Keep one fish finger spare so you can cut a square for the cat (who, preferably, will have its own plate).

Fish Finger Sandwiches with Vegetables and Mayonnaise

For pudding (no, not him again), three satsuma oranges are a perfect complement, although the more discerning might wish to try Newcastle Brown 99, another of my original Leeds-era recipes (bite a chunk of Cadburys Flake, take a swig of Newcastle Brown straight from the bottle and mix in the mouth).

Monday, 9 March 2020

On Visiting A Daughter At University

How we walked
When legs were strong
And lungs were full
From Jesmond to Gosforth for tea.
Then back in the dark
Across the park
To terraced streets
With pavement flags
And drainage runnels
Where Victorians and Edwardians
With large families
Have been replaced
By students.

Sunday, 1 March 2020

New Month Old Post: Blessed By Snowdrops

(first posted 6th March, 2018)

Snowdrops on grave

When my dad could no longer manage his three-bedroomed house, he moved, as many do, to a modest bungalow. At the back was a postage stamp of a lawn bounded by an ancient high wall that sheltered masses of snowdrops. For thirteen Februaries, he delighted in the sweeping drifts of brilliant white flowers that danced defiantly in the winter winds as they lived into yet another year.

But he was also troubled by them. Come summer, when the leaves had died down, hundreds of tiny bulbs heaved themselves out of the ground and rolled across the lawn, trying to put down roots, as if to migrate away from the darkness of the wall towards the light and warmth of the house. At every visit I was asked to “go push those snowdrops back in”, and had to spend half an hour or so collecting them up and poking holes to replant them. By the next visit there would always be more trying to escape. When we finally sold the bungalow, I gathered a couple of pots full and took them home. We still call them Grandpa’s snowdrops.

In the cemetery where he now lies, planting on the graves is against the rules. It is pointless to try; the grass between the rows of headstones is mown at regular intervals, and any permanent flowers would be brutally hacked down. Even snowdrops, despite flowering well before the first mowing, would never store up future reserves, and weaken, and disappear. So I took a chance and planted a clump close to the headstone, too near for the mower to catch, in deep so they couldn’t get out. 

I went early the next year to check on their luck, but it was seemingly too early. I went again the following year, but it was too late for any leaves to be left. Around every headstone, an ugly margin of dark bare earth hinted at how they dealt with the places the mower could not reach. A later visit confirmed it as I caught the chemical smell of weedkiller drifting in the breeze from an operative with a tank on his back and a long wand. I made irregular visits over the years, but never saw any sign of snowdrops.

This year I happened to make the long drive in mid-February. There, to my surprise, still defiant against the headstone ten years after I planted them, was a triumphant line of delicate milk-white petals heralding hope for the coming spring, …

… along with an inquisitive squirrel who wanted to be in the picture (a transmigrated soul perhaps).

Snowdrops and squirrel on grave

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Review - Simon W. Golding: Life After Kes

Simon W. Golding
Life After Kes (3*)

I bought this about the making of the 1969 film Kes after reading the novel, A Kestrel For A Knave (earlier review). I got the Kindle version: the first Kindle book I have paid for in eight years of ownership, a very reasonable £2.99. It seems to have first appeared in hardback in 2006, but this Kindle version, dated 2014, contains a lot of additional material, as does presumably the 306-page paperback published in 2016. This gives it at times a somewhat repetitive, cobbled-together nature.

The book tells the story of the making of the film and how it changed the lives of all who participated, both during and after. The author, Simon Golding, sought out and interviewed just about everyone involved, including production staff and those who had minor parts such as the girl who delivered the reading in school assembly and the boy who was unjustly caned by the headmaster. In other words, although fascinating, it tells you far more than you could ever want to know.

The only professional actor in the film was Colin Welland who played teacher Mr. Farthing. Duggie Brown, the milkman, was a professional entertainer. Other characters were played by local people. For many of them it opened eyes, broadened horizons and changed lives. David (Dai) Bradley, the local schoolboy who played Billy, went on to television and theatre roles, notably in Equus. Brian Glover, the sports teacher, a games teacher in real life, became an acclaimed actor and writer, and also a wrestler. Freddie Fletcher who played Billy’s brother Jud, and Lynne Perry (real-life sister of Dougie Brown) who played their mother, also went on to successful acting careers. Even for those who had more ordinary jobs and careers, taking part in the film was a valuable educational experience. I guess that nowadays it would be outside the national curriculum.

Their memories of the film and what subsequent became of them are, at times, fascinating, and there are some amusing anecdotes. For example, Bob Naylor who played the bully, McDowell, remembers Glover as his real-life games teacher being just like he is in the film. He recalls him once showing off his “fantastic” new Adidas ice-white trainers to the boys before a football lesson, and them then trying to scuff them in tackles. Naylor later remembers being mocked at the bakery where he worked every time Kes appeared on television, until he told everyone, untruthfully, that he was paid £200 in royalties every time it was shown.

Life After Kes also has a great deal about director Ken Loach’s scriptless working methods, such as how he set up the football and classroom scenes giving different instructions to different characters. The script supervisor describes both Ken Loach and cinematographer Chris Menges as totally ruthless, very much at odds with their gentle personas. The book is also social history, detailing how northern schools and the town of Barnsley – its economy and community – used to be. It was something of a marathon to get to the end but for anyone captivated by the film Kes and the book on which it is based, it is good value. 

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

Previous book reviews 

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

The Compton Road Library

Compton Road Library, Leeds (from Pinterest)
Leeds Compton Road Library in the 1980s

This ‘memoir’ started as a kind of autobiographical attempt to understand how things changed during my time and how I got to where I am, a record for posterity in the forlorn and vainglorious misbelief that someone might one day be interested. I hope it is not too tedious to return to this idea now and again.

One thing I wonder about is how I fell into such an agreeable career in computing and universities after badly messing up three previous chances: failed ‘A’ levels, abandoned accountancy training and student teacher dropout. Fortunately, for post-war baby boomers, chopping and changing was easier than for any other generation before or since.

At twenty-four I was in a run-down shared house and ordinary office job, a lowly clerk with a Leeds clothing manufacturer. It was pleasant enough: home at five, no exams, no correspondence courses, no expectations. It was the largest clothing factory in Europe: cheap suits, nice canteen, warm sausage rolls on the tea break trolley and three hours in the pub every Friday afternoon. You could idle your whole life away. One lad just four years older had already done fourteen years. Real old-timers still talked fondly of Sir Montague, the firm’s founder, and crossed off their days to retirement on the calendar.

With my record what else could I do? Backtrack? Repeat the same things? They said to take the Cost and Management Accountants exams but I barely went through the motions. Eighteen months drifted by. Yet in that time I made progress – seemingly by doing nothing much at all. 

Compton Road Library, Leeds (from Pinterest)

Along the road was the tranquil lunchtime retreat of the Compton Road Library, an L-shaped building on the corner with Harehills Lane: the adult library in one wing, the children’s in the other, always warm, always silent, a pervading smell of floor polish throughout. Like all libraries then, they still used the 1895 Browne Issue System: the Pinterest photograph shows the catalogue drawers and tray of readers’ tickets holding cards from books out on loan.

It seemed far more extensive than the picture shows. I got through three or four books a week. It felt like a displacement activity but some left quite an impression. What did I read all that time ago?

Poucher: the Scottish Peaks

There were walking and mountaineering books. Chris Bonington’s I Chose to Climb and The Next Horizon really caught my imagination. I acted them out on walks, scrambled up mountains, bought a Minivan, grew a beard and tried to write things. I took W. A. Poucher’s The Scottish Peaks, a treasure trove of routes and photographs, to Glen Brittle in Skye in the Minivan door pocket and got it soaked. It looked so awful I daren’t take it back, so said I’d lost it and had to pay £1. I’ve still got its stained and curly pages.

There were biographies and autobiographies. I dreamt of escaping like a hermit to some isolated part of Scotland, like Gavin Maxwell in Ring of Bright Water. I tried to emulate R. F. Delderfield who mentions in For My Own Amusement that as a young writer he had been advised to write character sketches of people he knew: “mental photography” he called it. I wondered what it might be like in a garret in Paris struggling to be a writer like V. S. Pritchett in Midnight Oil, “a free man in Paris, unfettered and alive,” as Joni Mitchell put it.

I was unimpressed by Jonathan Aitken’s The Young Meteors in which he interviewed over two hundred leading lights of pop music, film, television, art, photography, clothing, design, politics and business from nineteen-sixties ‘swinging’ London. Some were truly talented but many had either known the right people or just been lucky. 

There was fiction: A. J. Cronin, O. Henry and more – anything so long as it was not accountancy.

And all the time I was asking “could I do that?”, “could I be like this?”, “could I write like that?”

We reach a point in our lives where we need to construct an identity for ourselves: to decide who we would like to be and who not. Some manage it as teenagers, others later and a few possibly never. Some get there gradually, others in leaps and bounds. It might take no conscience effort or be a tortured, soul-searching experience. It can take several attempts. For me, it was definitely late, bounding and tortured with false starts. 

“It’s a good career, accountancy. Stick at it. You’ll be all right once you’re qualified,” they said, but I was reading about people who had made their own way.

I was never going to chuck everything in for a Parisian garret or Scottish hermitage, but back came the idea of becoming a mature student: at university, not a return to Teacher Training College. The only way would be to take ‘A’ Levels again, a daunting prospect. I approached temp agencies to work flexibly while resitting them, and handed in my notice.

“Don’t cock it up again,” said one of the few supportive friends I had left, mock anguish on his face as he imagined the consequences.

“Course not,” I said with pretend confidence, not too sure.

One thing I am sure of though. A decade or so earlier there would have been no chance. In all likelihood, it would have been national service, back to where I came from, a mundane job and family responsibilities sooner rather than later. Ties. Restrictions. Few opportunities. I doubt I would get as many breaks now, either.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Washing Machines Old and New

Our washing machine has been very temperamental of late. Driving us mad! It would be fine for a few weeks and then decide to go on the blink and refuse to progress more than a couple of minutes into its cycle. It could take half an hour or more to get it going. It would then do the same the next time. Then, after a few days, it would decide to behave itself for a while.

Dolly Tub. Coventry Evening Telegraph 22Feb1968

You never had problems with a dolly tub. They worked every time. Mum would boil water in the copper in the wash house at the end of the garden, ladle it into the dolly tub and swish the washing round with what she called a ‘peggy stick’. Then it was through the ‘wringer’ and on to the washing line to dry. Or if raining, it was hung on the ‘creel’ clothes rack descending by pulley from the scullery ceiling. Tried, tested, reliable technology. Mind you, it wasn’t a good idea to leave your clothes on the rack for long, especially when frying bacon.

Even when we got a top-loading Ada washing machine with a powered ‘wringer’ on top it ran trouble-free for years. You just had to be careful not to catch your thumbs in the mangle. Its newer replacements and stand-alone spin dryers were never much hassle either.

My recent post about donkey stones sparked off quite a few comments about dolly tubs and mangles. I see the association too, even though donkey stones had nothing to do with washdays. There are lots of evocative photographs on the internet. Here are some closest to what I remember.

Washday Memories
Top: brick copper with a fireplace for heating water, dolly tub and stick, brass posser, wringer (mangle).
Bottom: wooden clothes horse, creel (pulley clothes rack), 1950s Ada washing machine
What you can’t recreate, of course, are the sensations: the rattle of a peg round the corrugations of an empty dolly tub, the soft, smooth weight of a dolly stick, the ring of a brass posser, the steamy heat of the brick copper, the smell of soap flakes and wet washing, the brace of a clothes prop against a washing line on a windy day, condensation running down the walls, steamed up windows.

The Ada drawing reminded me of the door on the front and low switch and lever on the side, things I’d forgotten completely. I suppose I must have spent quite a lot of time at floor level in those days. We got the Ada around 1953. Later that decade, we bought a stand-alone spin dryer. They were replaced by nineteen-sixties models. I am not sure whether my parents ever had a twin-tub, but, like most households in Britain, they moved up to a front-loading automatic washing machine during the nineteen-seventies.

The old dolly tubs were not entirely trouble free. Archive newspapers contain many sad stories of children drowning in them, and eventually they sprang leaks. One elderly woman in Coventry, among the last to use one, found that by 1968 it was almost impossible to replace. A local brewery came to her aid with a sawn-in-half beer barrel. It was also best to use good soap flakes – it seems nothing could be worse than undissolved soap in your undies. But you could claim any brown or yellowish stains were from the wooden creel or clothes horse.

Dolly Tub. Coventry Evening Telegraph 22Feb1968 Advert for Lux Soap Flakes, 1938

Samsung ecobubble automatic washing machine
Back to our present-day troubles. Sometimes you could get the washing machine to work by starting again on a different programme. At other times you had to put it on spin to pump out the water (even though it wouldn’t actually spin), take out the wet washing and begin again with just half a load. You sat there twiddling thumbs waiting for the timer to unlock the door. We never knew whether it was going to indulge us or not. We were ready to call out a repairer (knowing, of course, that it would work perfectly when the repairer came) or simply just buy a new one, even though it’s a good model and only a few years old.

In the end we didn’t need to. It dawned on us that the problem might be something to do with the weight of the load: a faulty sensor perhaps. It appears the Samsung ecobubble weighs the washing to decide how much water it needs: a great idea in principle with the potential to save both water and electricity, but not such a great idea when it goes wrong.

The problem had also become much worse since we moved the machine from one end of the kitchen to the other. Did you know that with some modern washing machines, when first installed, or when moved, you are supposed to calibrate the load sensor? The deliverers/installers did not do this, nor the plumbers when they moved it. Once you know, the instructions in the user manual are straightforward.

Samsung ecobubble calibration instructions

Too clever by half! It has been trouble free since we did that. But my mother never had to calibrate her dolly tub or wringer, and the only load sensor she needed was the judgement not to hang so much weight on the clothes rack as to bring down the kitchen ceiling. 

Now don’t get me started on outside toilets. Here is another picture of that lady in her underwear.

Advert for Lux Soap Flakes, 1938

To be able to see the newspaper articles large enough to read (on Windows PCs) you may need to (1) left-click the image to get a slightly larger version (2) right-click the new image which brings up a menu (3) depending on which browser you are using you can then select one of the following: view image, view image in new tab, save image (4) if you have saved the image you should be able to find it on your desktop or in "my pictures", and should then be able to open and enlarge it in your default image viewer.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020


Images link to Which? and Guardian articles

I’d never get scammed. Not me: M.Sc. in computing, software writer, programming teacher, systems consultant, researcher, lecturer, forty years computer experience. I even wrote articles for so-called learned journals. Scammed? Me? Never! 

A month ago I bought something from Amazon. I know. I shouldn’t. They’re a scheming, two-faced outfit who don’t pay their fair share of tax and use too much non-recyclable packaging, but it was convenient. And before I knew, I’d signed up to a month’s free trial of Amazon Prime.

You have to credit the devious way they trick you into clicking that button while making you think you’re just selecting free delivery. There seemed to be no other way forward. It’s a masterpiece of interaction design. They hope you’ll forget you’ve signed up and that later you won’t notice the £7.99 disappearing from your bank account every month. 

I wasn’t worried. I knew all I had to do was go to my Amazon Settings –> Accounts and Lists –> Your Prime Membership and unsubscribe. I knew that because it’s the second time I’ve been caught out. It shows how ingenious they are that I should fall for it again, even when trying not to. I am not alone (see another Which? article).

You have to confirm you really do want to unsubscribe; that you don’t want the free next-day delivery, the video and music streaming, the books, the games and other supposed benefits. Well I don’t. I’m not interested. So I unsubscribed. Nevertheless, want it or not, you still get the free trial for the full duration. You can’t opt out. It’s like a stop smoking programme that supplies you with free cigarettes just in case you don’t really want to stop.

You harbour a lingering unease they are still out to get you somehow. For the rest of the month you are checking your Amazon account every few days to make sure it still says “Your free trial will expire on …” and afterwards that “You are no longer a member of Amazon Prime”. It did. All looked absolutely fine.

But then, two days after the trial ended, I received a phone call on the landline, an automated voice reminding me that my Amazon Prime subscription was about to be renewed at a cost of £39.99 to be charged to my bank account and that if I did not want to renew I should press 1 to speak to an account manager.

Did I believe it? Well yes. Given the circumstances you can see why. I was furious. Did I press 1? No, but only because the phone had not been resting properly on its stand so the battery went flat and cut me off. Would I have pressed 1 if not cut off? Probably not, but I can’t be sure. Amazon does have my landline number on the account but no mobile. I thought it might be a text-to-speech message.*

I was agitated for the rest of the day. I logged on to Amazon to check it still said: “You are no longer a member of Amazon Prime”. I checked my bank account. Only on finding the Guardian and Which? articles did I begin to relax. But in the sense that I believed it a genuine call, yes, I’ve been scammed.

Scams depend on timing and circumstance. If you email enough people to say their Wordpress account has been compromised and they should log in immediately using the link you provide, some will fall for it, especially if they do indeed have a Wordpress account and have recently experienced problems (Blogger users, of course, would instantly see straight through such a simple trick). Pressing 1 would have connected me on a premium rate line to some irresistibly persuasive person in Africa wanting me to allow them remote access to my computer, give them my bank card details or log on to a fake website. I could have been thousands of pounds out of pocket. 

Scammed? Me? Er, no way?


*If it had been sent as a text, then pressing ‘1’ would have had no effect because there is no direct connection to the sender while reading a text. 


Saturday, 1 February 2020

New Month Old Post: The Vauxhall Griffin

(first posted 13th August, 2017)

Julian Orchard as the Vauxhall Griffin - TV ad 1973
Summer 1973 Vauxhall Griffin advert (click to play)

We were out of the office, auditing the books of a small Vauxhall dealership in Selby. The owner thought Vauxhalls nothing short of wonderful: the Viva, the Victor, the Ventora, the greatest value, the most reliable, the most beautiful cars you could buy. Why would anyone consider anything else? He told us to watch out for the new Vauxhall television advert to be shown for the first time that evening. It was going to be incredible.

The following morning he was seething.

“Did you see it last night? Bloody awful! I don’t know how they expect that to sell any cars. A great puffy bloke leaping around in tights! Who the hell’s going to buy a Vauxhall after that?” I wanted to ask whether he and his staff would be wearing the costume too.

Watching again now I can see what he meant. This dubious Jack-in-the-Green-type character, loitering behind bushes in what looks like the gardens of a crematorium, seems the kind of guy who might have difficulty passing a DBS check. What on earth was Vauxhall thinking?

Along with lots of other dealers, the owner was straight on the phone to Vauxhall and the ad was pulled within the week. I never thought I’d see it again. The company must surely have tried to erase it permanently from the history books. Yet like all things embarrassing, it has resurfaced on the internet.

Most commentators on YouTube dislike it too. They describe the character as creepy: “scares the kids...”, “... and the adults”, “if that thing appeared on my Vauxhall it would get shot”, “talk about a marketing mistake”.

Yet having now seen it a few times, I wonder whether Vauxhall should have persisted. Is the griffin any less disagreeable than the meerkats, dogs or opera singers of today’s ads? We might have warmed to him. We might have begun to find him likeable and amusing. The supercilious catchphrase “Like me!” might have caught on.

The actor was Julian Orchard in one of his typical roles: what Wikipedia describes as a gangling, effete and effeminate dandy. With his long horse-face he was one of the best and funniest comedy support actors in the country. He reminds me a little of the comedian Larry Grayson who before the nineteen-seventies was considered too outrageous for television. Perhaps we weren’t quite ready for this kind of campness in 1973.

Imagine a different outcome, the country taking the griffin to heart, a series of griffin ads: “You’re never alone with a griffin”, “Put a griffin in your tank”. Imagine a family of cuddly griffin toys, plastic griffin figurines free with every gallon of petrol, a griffin hit song on Top of the Pops, children in griffin outfits and Julian Orchard making his fortune. Sadly, he died in 1979 aged only 49.

The more I watch the ad the more I like it. It’s brilliant. Ahead of its time: “Like me!”

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

What Is Wrong In These Pictures? (13-15)

Not sure how good an idea it was to post five of these in a week but with some relief we’re on to the last set of three pictures from my dad’s 1927 edition of the wonderful Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia. Each contains an error to identify. My answers and the answers are below.

I’ve not posted so frequently before and wonder at the energy of bloggers who post every day. There are more picture puzzles in the ten-volume encyclopedia but I need at least six months rest before looking at any more, and maybe then only one set of three pictures a month. What do people think?

My overall score so far is 6/12. Got them all wrong last time. Hoping for better this time.

Back to pictures 10-12
Back to beginning


13. Easy. Everybody knows spiders have eight legs. 7/13.

14. The flower looks like a concoction of all kinds of things, but I don’t know exactly. Evidently it is a passion flower and should therefore have five petals and sepals rather than six. Did the gardeners get that one? I didn’t. 7/14.

15. Once a train spotter always a train spotter. Got it right. The flanges should be inside the tracks on the inside edges of the wheels, not the outside edges. As drawn it would only work after a complete redesign of the track and points. 8/15. (And incidentally, there may be a second error which is that by 1927 British Railways had no such three-headlamp code. Apart from the Royal Train they used a maximum of two headlamps to identify the type of train. They were placed in different arrangements on the funnel and across the buffer bar, but only two were used. Furthermore, what is called a railway carriage in the answers is actually a locomotive. Do I get a bonus point?) 

So, overall, with a little generosity, eight out of fifteen = 53%  Much better than with the room and the steamer puzzles linked to the first set of three. That would have been a 2:2 in my university days. Not acceptable. I’ll have to find another set and try harder.

Back to normal posts next time. 

Here is the whole page followed by the answers .

Monday, 27 January 2020

What Is Wrong In These Pictures? (10-12)

This is turning into a marathon but I’ll see it through to all fifteen. Almost there.

Here is the penultimate set of three pictures from the puzzles in my dad’s 1927 edition of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia. Each contains an error to identify. Most people found the last three the easiest so far. My overall average went up to 67% - six out of nine. Can I maintain it? My answers and the answers are below.

Back to pictures 7-9
Forward to pictures 13-15


10. This stumps me. The shadows all seem correct except, on consulting the answers, it says they are drawn in perspective rather than parallel. That’s not very obvious in the drawing. Unfair. 6/10.

11. What shield is this? I’ve no idea. It says it’s the arms of the City of London and that the dagger should be the other way up. 6/11.

12. I’m going to say that ostriches don’t live where there are palm trees. Wrong again. They should have only two toes visible on each foot. 6/12.

None at all right for me today. A disaster. Back to 50%. The final set of three next time.

Saturday, 25 January 2020

What Is Wrong In These Pictures? (7-9)

Yet another three pictures from my dad’s 1927 edition of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia. Each contains an error to identify. I’ve managed to get three out of six right so far, which could be worse, but could be better. One follower has got them all! My answers and the answers are underneath.

Back to pictures 4-6
Forward to pictures 10-12 


7. We’re on a winner. Surely the Pole Star should be over the North Pole. Hooray! 4/7.

8. The smoke is blowing one way but the yacht’s sails and flag are blowing the other. 5/8. We’re on a roll.

9. What’s wrong with the penny? This is really esoteric. I’m certain that Britannia is facing the right way so I suspect it is may be to do with the ship and lighthouse. I bet that they don’t accord with the date. It’s a guess but I’m right. Evidently the ship and lighthouse were omitted after 1896. Well, shiver my timbers! Should I get that? I think so. 6/9.

So with a bit of leniency I’m up to 67% right, a good 2:1 in university scoring. But these are probably easier than the first six so best not get carried away. More next time.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

What Is Wrong In These Pictures? (4-6)

Another three pictures from my dad’s 1927 edition of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia. Each contains an error to identify. I’m not doing very well so far having got only one right out of three. Hope it goes better today. My answers and the answers are underneath.

Back to Pictures 1-3
Forward to Pictures 7-9 


4. Are they cherries? But cherry leaves are single. These look more like horse chestnut leaves although they’re not because the sections are insufficiently separate. Let’s just go with a mismatch between fruit and leaves. Answer: it’s cherries on a vine. I’m giving myself a generous 2/4.

5. What could be wrong with the sun dial? I thought at first the Roman Numerals were wrongly put together, but they should of course be read looking from the outside towards the centre, e.g. the 12 correctly reads XII not IIX. Could they be in the wrong positions, particularly in the lower half where some numbers are repeated. But no, that’s not the answer either because six in the morning would cast a different shadow from six at night, so they should be repeated. The answer: how many people know that gnomons should point north not south? I suppose that casts the best shadow. I’ve never had to think about gnomon design before. 2/5. This is depressing.

6. It must be the reflection. At first I thought it was that there are not enough windows in the spire reflection, but I’m being more careful now. Maybe you can’t see it all – you can only see the top half of the other part of the church. I’ve got it. The spire in the reflection looks twisted: you should not be able to see the right hand side. Yes! Fanfare please! 3/6.

More to follow.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

What Is Wrong In These Pictures? (1-3)

Towards the end of 2017 I posted two picture puzzles from my dad’s 1927 copy of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia: What Is Wrong In This Room? and What Is Wrong With This Steamer?

Both showed scenes containing errors to identify. I failed miserably: 2 out of 17 in the room and 4 out of 11 in the steamer. Nineteen-twenties children were either much cleverer than us or our world has changed more than we imagine. 

I refuse to accept defeat so here are some more, this time a set of fifteen pictures with something wrong in each one. Here are the first three. My answers and the answers are underneath.

It “will help you cultivate your power of observation” it says, “– the power of seeing with your mind and of understanding what you see.” I could definitely do with some of that, so here goes.

Forward to Pictures 4-6


The first one looks dead easy: just a case of adding up the weights on each side. Everyone over sixty remembers there were sixteen ounces in a pound. So the left adds up to 8 + 4 + 3 + 1 = 16 ounces which makes one pound, and the right adds up to, oh shit, one pound. So it should balance. There seems to be nothing wrong with the instrument either. It means an immediate sneak a look at the answers. Arthur Mee catches me out straight away.  How could anyone be expected to know that troy weight has only twelve ounces to the pound? Half a pound of gold and half a pound of silver add up to 12 ounces.  0/1.

OK. We’re going to have to think things through more carefully. Number 2 must be the iceberg. Shouldn’t four-fifths be underwater? The answer says seven parts below to one part above but I’m having that one. I got the correct principle. 1/2.

Number 3. The Royal Flag. What could it be? I bet the sections are in the wrong places. No. Wrong again. Evidently the Scottish Lion does not turn his back on the others. I’m not doing very well am I? 1/3.

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Biology Made Simple

(This is not a review. I wouldn’t want to say whether the book is any good or not. I simply picked it off the shelf where it has lodged unopened for half a century.)

A book to take you back to the third form (if only), year 9 as now known, two years before ‘O’ Level, the year you were 14. There you are again, head down, sketching and labelling diagrams of amoeba and the human heart, drawing flow charts of the carbon cycle and learning the names of digestive enzymes.

I loved it. I had the kind of dysfunctional, over-active memory that absorbed the names of anatomical structures and physiological processes like protozoan pseudopodia engulfing scraps of food. Two of us were way better than everyone else. There was, let’s called her Hermione, always first in class tests, and me, always one or two marks behind.

But I had a secret weapon. I must have been the only pupil with a tape recorder at home, or at least the only one devious enough to ask my mother to record a radio programme we were to hear in class in preparation for an essay. Mine was bloody brilliant – better than Hermione’s.

Then it became ‘Biology Made Difficult’. That year, Biology in the first term was not examined until the end of the third (terms 2 and 3 were Physics and Chemistry). That’s a long time to have to remember it. You know what happens. Too much messing about, thinking about the wrong things, lack of planning, lack of attention and in my case, well, let’s say poor mental health, meant I didn’t revise for the exam. My end of year report completes the tale. Biology: position in class 2nd; position in exam 25th; teacher’s comment “a disappointing exam result”. For the next two years, the ‘O’ Level years, I found myself in second-stream Biology where messing about and thinking about the wrong things were a way of life, especially if you wanted people to like you. Low grades for all of us. Idiot!

Still, I took Biology at ‘A’ Level and failed, and when I later chucked accountancy to train as a teacher, Biology was my main subject. That’s when I bought the book: a note inside records it was the 3rd July, 1973, about three months before starting at what was then called City of Leeds and Carnegie College, and six months before dropping out. It’s hard to believe you could once be accepted to train as a specialist Biology teacher without having passed it at ‘A’ Level; it was enough merely to have studied it.

No one has looked at the book since. It has been an absolute joy paying it the attention I should have paid then. Goodness, the things it tells you. It’s a bit like a Bill Bryson book without the exaggeration and contrived jokes. It doesn’t need them. It has its own miracles and wonder. Such as that we create and destroy an incredible 10 million* red blood cells every second. Ten million! Every second! That’s 864,000 million per day. Even at that rate it takes over 100 days to replace them all. And then there’s the horror. Such as hookworm. You really wouldn’t want to pick that up, the way it gets into the blood and burrows from the lungs to the windpipe to be coughed up and swallowed to grow in your gut.

And in Chapter 5: ‘Cycles of Life’, pp57-58, there is this. I am guilty of barefaced breach of copyright here, but Extinction Rebellion says it’s all right to break the law to draw attention to environmental issues.

That is what we knew then. In fact, there is a whole chapter expanding upon the preventative and curative measures listed. It was originally published in 1956 and revised in 1967. Despite not mentioning plastic or climate change or unlimited population growth, it lists so many other ways we upset the balance of nature through our “ignorance, carelessness or ruthlessness … in a given area”. Was it too much of a mental leap to understand that “given area” could mean the whole planet? We should all have been paying more attention.

So, an interesting trip down memory lane. It may be “biology made simple”, there were some things I wanted to read more about, it isn’t modern biology with all that nasty cell chemistry, but I enjoyed it. Best of all, I don’t have to learn it now.

*A bit of Googling suggests this may be an overestimate, the correct figure being a still very impressive 2.4 million red blood cells per second, about a quarter of the number given in the book.

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Review - Barry Hines: A Kestrel For A Knave

Barry Hines: A Kestrel For A Knave. Penguin Decades edition.
Barry Hines
A Kestrel For A Knave (5***)

I have seen so many clips from Ken Loach’s film Kes, I felt I knew this book well. I didn’t.

I knew the outline well enough: “grubby little lad in Yorkshire … finds and trains a kestrel … bringing hope and meaning to a drab life crushed by bullying schoolmasters and a downbeat home life,” to quote the Daily Mirror (20th March, 1970). I even once co-wrote a parody called ‘Budge’, poking fun at a friend who kept animals, about a boy who found an escaped budgerigar in his coalhouse and trained it to sing rude songs in a Yorkshire accent. 

This entirely misses the poetry of the book: the vivid and lyrical descriptions of the streets and countryside around the coal mining community where it is set. It is an astonishing piece of writing. The story absorbs you completely. Every page shines with brilliance. The language mirrors the shifting emotions: the joy of escape from the dirt and poverty of the town into the natural beauty of the hills, woods and fields; the elation on seeing the kestrel wild and free in flight; the constricting terror in hiding from an inescapable beating; the dread when the bird is missing.

I can only give examples. The first has often been quoted before: 
A cushion of mist lay over the fields. Dew drenched the grass, and the occasional sparkling of individual drops made Billy glance down as he passed. One tuft was silver fire … and when it caught the sun it exploded, throwing out silver needles and crystal splinters. (p19)

There is despair at the end as Billy wanders the streets bereft through a scene familiar to anyone who has walked alone through an empty northern town at night:
A shadow rippling across a drawn curtain. A light going on. A light going off. A laugh. A shout. A name. A television on too loud, throwing the dialogue out into the garden. A record, a radio playing; occasional sounds on quiet streets.  (p157)

There is the language, the Barnsley dialect, such as in Billy’s words as he comes alive in describing the bird’s first free flight to his class during an English lesson: 
‘Come on, Kes! Come on then! Nowt happened at first, then, just when I wa’ going’ to walk back to her, she came. You ought to have seen her. Straight as a die, about a yard off t’floor. An’ t’speed!  … like lightnin’, head dead still, an’ her wings never made a sound, then wham! Straight up on t’glove, claws out grabbin’ for t’meat,’  (p66)
(clip of this scene from the film)

The accent would in truth be much stronger than rendered in the book (as in the film clip linked above). After the film was premiered at the Doncaster Odeon in March, 1970, some thought it would need sub-titles for audiences south of Sheffield. Like my mother-in-law, whose recurring nightmare, each time she heard the local accents when she travelled up on the train to see us and passed through Barnsley, was that her grandchildren might grow up to speak like that. (They did and they didn’t. Other kids at school said they talked posh but when they went out into the wider world their Yorkshire accents were obvious.)

The book took me back to my own Yorkshire town: the streets of terraced housing, the industrial grime, the local accent, but none of it quite as grim and hopeless as here.

The Barry Hines Memorial Statue
Barry Hines grew up near Barnsley at Hoyland Common. He wrote other novels and also scripts for radio, film and television. Before becoming a full-time writer he was an inspirational teacher. He was enormously influential. He died in 2016 and funds are being raised for a bronze statue to be erected in Barnsley in his honour, showing young Billy Casper with his kestrel. The bronze has now been cast but funds are still needed for the plinth.

The film Kes remains legendary in the area and many of those who were extras as children are still around. A fundraising screening at the Penistone Paramount a couple of years ago was a sell out. The folk ensemble I play in put on a fundraising ceilidh (barn dance) in Barnsley last year.

As Ian McMillan says in the introduction to the Penguin Decades edition I have, “Going back to the book with the film in my head is a revelation.” Indeed it is. I should have read it a long time ago. I’ll definitely read it again.

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

Previous book reviews 

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Review - Margaret Forster: Georgy Girl

Margaret Forster
Georgy Girl (3*)

Another nineteen-sixties novel I didn’t read when I should have done, supposedly set in ‘swinging’ London, although the sense of time and place arises mainly out of the social context rather than anything tangible. Such as there being nothing remarkable about cohabiting, the choices available to women and the reactionary views of Georgy’s parents. The story is also framed in sixties popular culture by the Seekers’ hit song (like it or loathe it) and the 1966 ‘X’ certificate film with Lynn Redgrave in the title roll. Other than that, the plot might be from almost any time or place.

Georgy is exuberant and outgoing but thinks of herself as ungainly and unattractive. She shares her London flat with the promiscuous, callous and selfish Meredith who, it is revealed in a masterclass of writing from multiple points of view to show not tell, treats Georgy like a skivvy. Meredith becomes pregnant and exercises her choice by seeing it through, so that her boyfriend, Jos, feels he should move in. He then falls for Georgy and while Meredith is in hospital having the baby (no quick in-and-out stays in those days) they become a couple. Not that Meredith is bothered. She has already exercised her choice again by abandoning the baby for adoption. But Georgy has other ideas and sees herself caring for the child with Jos. However, the baby quickly becomes the main focus of Georgy’s affections, and Jos leaves.

Meanwhile, there is a backstory. Georgy’s parents are employed as live-in servants to the wealthy James who, childless, has funded Georgy’s privileged upbringing and education. She doesn’t seem to need to work much. James has also been trying to persuade Georgy to become his mistress and after his wife dies he proposes marriage. Georgy accepts in order to be able to adopt and bring up the baby. 

A readable fast-paced novel, not as soap-opera-ish as it sounds, which fired up Margaret Forster’s reputation as a respected writer. Great characters, not particularly likeable. It may have seemed progressive and even scandalous at the time, but gives little sense that this is what life was really like in the sixties, if it ever did or was.

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

Previous book reviews 

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

New Month Old Post: Donkey Stone

I seem to have gained quite a few new readers during the past year since starting to comment more on other blogs and discovering a lovely, friendly and supportive blogging community out there. I have therefore been thinking of instigating a regular feature “New Month Old Post” to revisit and perhaps improve earlier posts they won’t have seen, posted during the previous five years I spent blogging sometimes only to myself. Here, almost at random, is the first selection.

This has nothing at all to do with a recent accusation that I don’t post enough (YP Blog Awards Committee 2019). If anything, it’s a duplicitous way of being able to post less.

Donkey Stone

(first posted 27th May, 2016)

Advertisement for Donkey Stone

We were discussing door steps last week – I can’t remember why – and a very early memory came back.

“Did your mother ever colour your front door step with a block like a piece of house soap?”

My wife’s expression indicated she thought I was talking gibberish. It is a look I get quite a lot these days – the same expression she used for her mother before she went into a care home.

“I’m sure my mum used to rub our front door step with something called a dolly stone or something like that, which coloured it red,” I persisted. 

“What a stupid idea. It would get paddled all over the carpets on people’s shoes.”

“I think she did the window sills and round the boot scraper as well.”

My wife, who is from the South of England, still thinks some of our Northern ways are peculiar, even after twenty-five years in Yorkshire. She is particularly contemptuous of memories of the small West Riding town I grew up in. I tried to explain that the boot scraper was where you left the empty milk bottles, but it seemed inadvisable to go further and argue that, no, the colour would not have got paddled all over the carpets because we didn’t have any – we had lino and clip rugs – and the topic moved on.  

Dan Cruickshank using Donkey Stone

But there, last night on television, as clear as anything, was Dan Cruickshank in At Home with the British, scouring the door step of a Liverpool terraced house with a DONKEY stone. They were made from pulverised stone, cement and bleach, and originally used in textile mills to make greasy steps non-slip. Subsequently, house-proud housewives in terraced houses used them to clean their stone door steps and window sills. Like clean net curtains, it was a way of fooling the neighbours into thinking the rest of your house was just as spotless, even though it might have been a filthy pigsty inside. The practice died out in the nineteen-fifties and -sixties, especially after in some houses the worn soft Yorkshire stone steps were replaced by coarse concrete.

First home with boot scraper beside front door
So I wasn’t talking gibberish. We left that house when I was six, but I have a clear memory of my mum, down on her hands and knees on the pavement one sunny summer’s day, dipping a rectangular block into a bucket of water, rubbing it into a paste all over the front door step and telling me to “keep off it while it dries” (as we would have said then). One of the most common colours was yellow-brown sandstone which I would see as red (explained in Colours I See With).

The only surprise is that I had forgotten about the donkey.

The Donkey Stone advertisement is from an out-of-print 1930s directory. Inclusion of the single frame from “At Home with the British” is believed to be fair use. The last picture is of the house where I first lived. Its doors and windows have changed (excluding the attic) but it still has the boot scraper recess beside the front door.