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Friday, 10 July 2020

Cinema Paradiso

The death this week of Ennio Morricone prompted us to watch Cinema Paradiso again for the seventh or eighth time. Some dismiss it as sentimental claptrap but it isn’t, even though it makes me both laugh and cry. It is so good you hardly notice it is in Italian with subtitles.

It has been described as a love letter to the cinema. The plot is deceptively straightforward: Salvatore Di Vita, a wealthy, successful, middle aged film director, hears that Alfredo, a father-figure from his childhood, has died. His thoughts drift back to growing up just after the Second World War in Giancaldo, a small Sicilian town where Alfredo is the projectionist at the local cinema. Alfredo allows eight-year-old Salvatore to watch films from the projection booth and teaches him to operate the projector. Their roles then are partly reversed when Alfredo is blinded in an accident. Later, as a teenager, Salvatore falls in love with the classy Elena but they lose touch when he goes off for military service. Afterwards, Alfredo tells him to get away to follow his dreams, never to come back and not to write. Salvatore leaves to become a filmmaker.

It is far more than a simple coming-of-age story. It is as if Salvatore’s memories become our own. It parallels the lives of the boomer generation. For me, post-war Sicily has echoes in the ‘bomb buildings’, the piles of rubble that lined the streets of nineteen-fifties urban England. Giancaldo is like Catholic Belgium in 1965, glimpsed through faces attending church and cinema where, with language taken away, I had to watch and understand gestures and expressions. In fact, in both looks and passions, the teenage Salvatore is uncannily like my Belgian language-exchange pen-friend. You feel the passage of time, not just from child to young adult but at the end where forgotten faces, older and wiser, reappear at Alfredo’s funeral. In real life we now even call them Cinema Paradiso moments.

One of the characters in the audience at the Paradiso cinema knows the films so well he mouths along with the dialogue. That is me with Cinema Paradiso. I am Alfredo, a true sage, a man without pretension, entirely at home in his own skin. “I choose my friends for their looks, my enemies for their intelligence”. Except I can’t do it in Italian. 
Alfredo: You have to go away for a long time... many years... before you can come back and find your people. … Right now you're blinder than I am.

Salvatore: Who said that? Gary Cooper? James Stewart? Henry Fonda? Eh?

Alfredo: No, Toto. Nobody said it. This time it’s all me. Life isn’t like in the movies. Life... is much harder. … Get out of here! Go back to Rome. You’re young and the world is yours. I don’t want to hear you talk any more. I want to hear others talking about you. Don’t come back. Don’t think about us. Don’t look back. Don’t write. Don’t give in to nostalgia. Forget us all. If you do and you come back, don’t come see me. I won’t let you in my house. Understand? … Whatever you end up doing, love it. The way you loved the projection booth when you were a little squirt.
And underlying it all is Ennio and Andrea Morricone’s haunting, lilting score. Beautiful.

I watched the international version which runs for 124 minutes. There is also a fifty minutes longer “director’s cut” in which the middle-aged Salvatore goes in search of and finds Elena. Reviews say it is not as good but I’d still like to see it. The director is Guiseppe Tornatore. 

There are several other versions of the trailer on YouTube, some with an irritating voiceover giving the false impression that it is indeed sentimental claptrap.

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Bike Gadget

Bicycles waiting at railway gates

In the town where I went to school, the roads belonged to bicycles. Everyone had one and nearly everyone used them. Four times a day, when the women rode to and from the clothing factory, or the children to and from school, or the men to and from the railways, docks and shipyard, they packed the roads three and four abreast. With no room to overtake, motor vehicles had to crawl along at bicycle speed. When the railway gates closed, cars, vans, lorries, buses, and even motor cycles had to wait patiently behind hoards of pedal cyclists who zig-zagged to the front of the queue. Who needed a motor car when you could ride everywhere on level roads for free? Pancake country. 

My brother had a speedometer on his bike. On windy days he could get up to 30. Pretty good with the heavy steel frames and Sturmey Archer three-speeds we had then. One day he rode up and down the street trying to go too fast through a police radar trap. They just laughed at him.

These last few sunny ‘lockdown’ weeks have seen me back on my bike more than in a long time. It is hilly where we live now, which has always put me off, but I’m getting used to it. I’ve worked out routes where the slopes are not too bad, and when they are I am not ashamed to stop for breath or even to get off and push. I keep my brakes on down hills and will need new brake blocks soon. I don’t care about the high-speed prats whizzing past on their carbon-fibre, disc-braked, thousand-pound machines as if only miles matter, or the bolt upright electric pootlers pedalling leisurely uphill with smug faces. Do your own thing! It doesn’t matter what they think. I am enjoying the clean air and quiet country lanes, all straight from the shed door. Glide like a bird with the wind in your feathers and sun on your wings. 

As John Denver said: Country roads take me home to the place I belong, West Yorkshire …  Here are a few pictures (click to enlarge):

White Ley Bank towards Fulstone, Yorkshire Fulstone, Yorkshire

Upper Snowgate Head, Yorkshire From Upper Snowgate Head towards New Mill, Yorkshire

Towards Browns Knoll, Thurstonland, Yorkshire Halstead Lane, Thurstonland, Yorkshire

Stones Wood, Shepley, Yorkshire Towards Row Gate, Shepley, Yorkshire

Now, after all these years, I’ve got a speedometer too, not an analogue one with a ‘speedo cable’ like my brother’s in the sixties, but a “bicycle computer”. It works by timing the rotations of a tiny magnet fixed to one of the spokes. It has to be set up for the correct wheel size, but once that’s done then speed, distance and other details are all there at the touch of a button. The other day I did 7.04 miles in 47.31 minutes (excluding stops) at an average speed of 8.9 mph, reaching a top speed of 19.4 m.p.h. and burning 114 calories. It is not a good idea to fiddle with the display too much while riding.

Cateye "bicycle computer"

My brother would have gone straight out and bought a better one. I wish he was still around to do so.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

New Month Old Post: Uncle Jimmy

(First posted 28th June, 2015. 1,600 words)

The life of an intersex man born in the 1890s

My mother always said it would have been better if Uncle Jimmy had been brought up as a girl. When I was older, she added: “You see, he didn’t develop properly when he was a little boy.” She also said: “His sister was completely the other way round.” 

Uncle Jimmy was not really an uncle or indeed any relative at all. He attached himself to the family just before the First World War when he crossed the Pennines to take a job in the local branch of the clothing and furniture retailer where my grandfather worked. As Jimmy had nowhere to stay, my grandfather took him home and asked whether they could put him up for a time. Jimmy soon found his own accommodation and later, perhaps surprisingly, a wife, but he remained a close friend of the family for the rest of his life. He appears in no end of our family photographs: a surrogate uncle.

“A jolly little fat man with a high voice,” is how my brother remembered him, “Uncle Jimmy Dustbin,” not his real name but a pretty good homonym. He had been slightly built in his youth. His army attestation papers show he was five feet two inches tall (157 centimetres) with just a 31 inch chest (79 centimetres). He must have suffered terribly at the hands of childhood bullies and may have left his native Cheshire to begin life afresh where nobody knew him.

He tried to join up for war service six times but was rejected because of poor physique. After being accepted at the seventh attempt, he found himself passed rapidly from regiment to regiment like a bad penny. He first joined the York and Lancasters, but on mobilization was transferred back into the army reserve to grow and gain strength. He was mobilized again eight months later but within another six months had been transferred to the Yorkshire Regiment. He managed three months there before being compulsorily transferred to the 5th (Cyclist) Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment. This was part of the Army Cycle Corps used for coastal defence work inside the United Kingdom. His situation seems to have improved for a while because he qualified as a signaller, but within a year his difficulties had returned and he was transferred to the West Yorkshire Regiment. A month later he was judged physically unfit for war service, permanently discharged, issued with an overcoat and sent home. Jimmy’s war was thus based in such far flung locations as Durham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Hartlepool and Aldershot. At no time did he see service in France.

Jimmy married while still in the army. He was almost twenty-five and his wife, let’s call her Beatrice, almost twenty-seven. They remained together for forty-seven years until she died. For some years they looked after one of Beatrice’s nephews but were unable to have children of their own. What Beatrice expected is not entirely clear, although she did once say to my grandmother she had little idea of what was supposed to happen on wedding nights, and remained just as mystified afterwards because nothing did. She seemed content to have settled for a marriage of crafts, hobbies and companionship.

Jimmy and Beatrice became grocers. Beatrice’s widowed mother had a corner shop in one of the town’s dense grid of terraced streets, so Jimmy moved in to help with the shop and eventually became the nominal owner. Beatrice did most of the work as Jimmy always found plenty of other things to occupy him. He became a churchwarden along with my grandfather, and a Sunday School teacher. He collected glassware and was a natty dresser, but his greatest joy was motoring. He advertised his services as an express courier and hence became one of the first in town with a private telephone and private motor car.

1922 Bullnose Morris
Uncle Jimmy with his 1922 Bullnose’ Morris on an outing to Bridlington in 1928.
In the car (right to left) are my father (in cap), his sister (in bonnet) and Jimmys wife’s nephew.

His first car was a 1922 ‘Bullnose’ Morris. My father said that whenever his own family took their annual week’s holiday, in those days always to one of the Yorkshire coastal resorts, Jimmy would arrive in his car to join them for a day. On other occasions he would take my father and his sister on trips to the coast. They had a clear memory of one happy outing when they drove under the arched bridge between Bridlington and Filey where the railway embankment crosses the road, when Jimmy jokingly forbade them to shout as they passed through, which of course they did, their high spirited voices echoing back to them in the open-topped car. On another occasion he took my aunt for a ride in an aeroplane at Speeton airfield.

At Speeton Airfield

In later years, after my grandparents had died, Jimmy and Beatrice became surrogate grandparents, especially to my cousins. In fact they remember Uncle Jimmy and Aunty Beatrice by far the more clearly. They spent hours reading, singing, playing games and looking after them. Beatrice shared her jigsaw puzzles and taught them to crochet. Jimmy was the only one with the patience to feed to my elder cousin her breakfast in the way she wanted, one cornflake at a time, even though he was supposed to be at work in his shop. My uncle described him, in bemused admiration, as the only man he knew who had managed to get through life without working.

Eventually Jimmy and Beatrice retired from the grocers shop and moved for around fifteen years to a large house in a green and leafy part of town overlooking the river, but after Beatrice died Jimmy moved back to the same terraced street they had lived in previously, and was very lonely and unhappy. It was by then the nineteen-sixties. Society was changing and the street had lost its sense of community. Jimmy was a frequent visitor both to our house and my cousins’, arriving in his car, always a Morris. He showed a lifelong loyalty to the Morris marque.

Jimmy lived to eighty-one. During his last illness, unable to eat, he turned to my aunt for help and she told him she thought he should be in hospital. “All right,” he said, “but let’s have a cig first. We’ll have one of yours.” It was his last one. My aunt, a nurse, looked after him during his final days, and in dealing with his most intimate needs was disturbed to observe just how incompletely developed he was, “more female than male” she later confided.

Again, we were spared the details but some years ago, thirty five years after his death, I looked at Jimmy’s army service record in an online genealogy resource. It included Army Form B, 178A, Medical Report on a Soldier Boarded Prior to Discharge or Transfer to Class W, W(T), P or P(T), of the Reserve. Across the various sections of the form I was dismayed to read:

Feminism. Undesirability of retaining with hommes militesque. Congenital. Poor physique from infancy and puberty. Pain with equipment. Tastes and habits male. Married 12 months, no children. Enlarged breasts, female type, none secretial. Poor general physique. R. testicle incompletely descended. Penis abnormally short. Embryonic pocket in scrotal line. Voice female. Was rejected 6 times on grounds of physique and accepted the 7th time. Discharge as permanently unfit.

And what of his sister, a back-slapping sporty woman who my mother said should have been brought up a boy. She also married but after several years her husband was granted an annulment. She then became a champion ladies golfer who represented her county. It was said she astonished other golfers by driving consistently long distances from the men’s tees. She spent her life organising competitions and golfing associations, and was still playing in veterans’ tournaments at the age of seventy. Did she have a similar congenital condition? We can now easily see that there were four other siblings who survived into adulthood. What about them? They seem to have produced few children and grandchildren.

Today, abnormal sexual development is much better understood than when Jimmy and his sister were born in the eighteen-nineties. For example, research into sex hormones did not make any real progress until the nineteen-thirties. The various conditions are now handled sympathetically and have a range of treatments. How very different from when Jimmy and his sister were young. What desperately miserable and lonely episodes they must have endured. Yet to us, Uncle Jimmy always seemed happy and jovial. He was kind and thoughtful, very much loved. I think we must have given him something of the family life he would never otherwise have had.

There was one last thing we could do for him. It was saddening to see his medical record on public display. Although British Army First World War service and pension records, if they survive, are now accessible through online genealogical resources, medical records are usually confidential. We wrote to the National Archives at Kew to ask whether it was possible, on the grounds of respect and decency, to remove the medical report from the online resource, to which they agreed. Genuine researchers can still go to Kew, look up the microfiche copy of his army service record, and find Army Form B178A included, but in the online version it is no longer there.*

In wanting to tell Jimmy’s sad and touching story, albeit with names changed, and in quoting from the form, I hope I am not indulging in the kind of prurience we want to avert.

* Unfortunately, since the original post, other genealogical resource providers have been permitted to scan the documents and it is now visible on several sites.

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Brain Fog

Levothyroxine 100 microgram tablets

Another blogger recently described being in a very familiar place but feeling he had never been there before. He was unsure of the way home. It must have been an alarming sensation.

I’ve had similar experiences: inability to think or concentrate; forgetting things; feeling lost; mental fatigue. Secretly, you think you might have dementia.

A particular incident stands out. I forgot where I had left my car. It was usually in one of three places. If early to work, I would go for one of two car parks nearby. If later, I would use another a ten-minute walk away. I always remembered which.

One evening I walked back to the wrong car park. I set off for the distant one but just before getting there remembered the car was in one of the others. Annoyed with myself, I turned back. But which of the others was it in? Was it in either? I could not remember. No, it was in the more distant one after all. I turned round again. Or was it? I must have walked there and back twice.

Confused, I returned to work and sat quietly for a time, perhaps half an hour. I phoned home to let them know I was late, without saying why. Eventually, I decided the car must be in the distant car park after all. After quickly glancing round the two nearer ones, I set off again and found it, by that time one of just a few still there. What a relief. 

It was not the only incident. There was the time I missed a regular turning off the motorway and drove for some distance without realising. There were two or three mornings I dropped the children at school and was flashed by other motorists for vacantly crawling along at fifteen miles an hour. I tried to make a cardboard model for my son but could not make sense of the instructions. Out on a work visit, I got lost for much too long in South Manchester and later sat in someone’s office unable to take in much of what they were saying (I made appropriate noises and hopefully got away with it). There were times when my walking felt awkward and disjointed. I fell asleep all the time: like, at half past nine in the morning.

I kept it to myself. You do. Although Mrs. D. did observe bluntly: “There must be something wrong with you when you need to go to sleep at half past nine in the morning.”

In due course I mentioned it to the doctor. I was there about something else but mentioned about feeling extremely tired recently. I didn’t tell him everything: I was too afraid of failing the “What year is it? Who is the Prime Minister? Can you read this address? By the way, what was that address I asked you to read five minutes ago?” examination. He thought it best to do a blood test.

And the result: underactive thyroid. He was surprised. I don’t look like an underactive thyroid. I tend to be underweight. It is four times more common in women than in men. Yet, I had high levels of thyroid stimulating hormone (which means the pituitary is trying to compensate for the underproduction of actual thyroid hormone). It should normally be between 0.4 to 4.0 milliunits per litre. Mine was nearly 10.

I have had to take Levothyroxine every day since. It takes several monthly tests and dosage adjustments to get it right, and then needs to be checked annually, but once it right is you become aware of odd things such as how brittle your nails had become, and that the outer ends of your eyebrows had thinned to nothingness.

That was fifteen years ago. It seems to be sorted now. Either that or I’ve still got it and am too far gone to know.

As the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining. Hypothyroidism is one of the things that gets you free NHS prescriptions before the age of 60. It’s a bit of a cheek really. It is disturbing to be diagnosed with a “chronic condition” in your fifties until you realise it is hardly any inconvenience at all. Far more serious things don’t get you free prescriptions. Cynic that I am, I suspect that when the list of exemptions was drawn up in the nineteen-fifties, there must have been some government advisor with an underactive thyroid. 

Lots of other things can cause brain fog too, such as stress, lack of sleep, hormonal changes, dietary deficiencies, food allergies, medications and quite a number of medical conditions. For example, see:

Thursday, 25 June 2020

A Very British Revolution

Thatcher: A Very British Revolution (BBC)

I have been enjoying very much the re-runs of Thatcher: A Very British Revolution each night on BBC2 this week (the last one is tonight). I missed it when shown the first time last year.

Having lived through the period, and perhaps not always taken full notice of what was happening, it has been fascinating to watch this open-minded account of her rise and fall, to see the archive news footage and to hear the reflections of the likes of Michael Heseltine, Norman Tebbit, Nigel Lawson, and especially her press secretary Bernard Ingham, personal assistant Cynthia Crawford and speech writer Michael Dobbs (who later wrote House of Cards). It is very even-handed, and all from the supposedly lefty-ridden BBC!

At the time, a lot of people in the circles I moved hated her apparent impassiveness over the communities her policies destroyed, but the series gives you a sneaking admiration for the woman in giving leadership and having some kind of vision of how the country should be run. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have something more like that now! I think she was undoubtedly right that the coal mines and the unions could not continue as they were, but I still think the privatisations a step too far (despite having profited from them).

Anyway, I’m not going to say more. If you want a review, I like Lucy Mangan’s in The Guardian. My own position is perhaps a little to the right of this, but not much.

Even better, the five-episode series is available for the next 11 months on iPlayer. It’s brilliant.


Saturday, 20 June 2020

More from the IR Night Camera

A further compilation of video clips from the infra-red night camera (6 minutes)

Only one hedgehog this time: they seem to have abandoned us after the dry weather last month. However, the one that did appear put in a sterling performance trying to find biscuits it could smell but not reach.

Instead, we have been thinking up jumping and climbing and tricks for the field mice that live under the shed. I am fairly sure they are field mice and not house mice because they are lighter coloured underneath. We placed hedgehog biscuits on top of bricks and upturned plant pots so they had to climb, jump or run along a wooden ruler to pick up biscuits in their mouths and carry them away to safety.

This compilation is 6 minutes long. Some of the things in it (with timings):
  • 0.00: mice climb and jump up to increasingly high bricks and plant pots; eventually they are too high for some mice to jump up.
  • 1:20 the hedgehog appears and seems to be able to smell the hedgehog biscuits on the stool, but cannot reach them.
  • 2:02: mouse cannot climb the stool.
  • 2.35: “Black Kitty” shows interest but does not eat any biscuits.
  • 3.00: mouse does not try to climb knotted string.
  • 3.34: mouse picks up one biscuit and accidently kicks the other off the bricks.
  • 3.38: robin.
  • 4.51: mouse tries to jump across to bricks and misses.
  • 5.40: mouse climbs bricks, walks along ruler and steals biscuit from snail (this is the clip used in the previous post “Snail Bogeys”).

Friday, 12 June 2020

Snail Bogeys

Children can be very fussy eaters. I was. As was my brother: for years and years, the only vegetable he would eat was peas. It might be genetic. One of our cousins would only eat one cornflake at a time.

Well, you reap what you sow, as they say, and in due course I experienced the joy of being a parent of fussy eaters myself. “I’m not eating that,” they would complain, “I don’t like it. It’s revolting.” Or “Yuk! It’s covered in nasty stuff”, or “Errrgghh! What are all these black bits in it?” and in the end you run out of patience and snap back at them: “They’re snail bogeys”.

It does not help.

But I had coined a phrase and in due course it became a family saying:

“What’s this?” “What’s for tea?”

“Snail bogeys!”

The kids tell me, should the blood line survive, that in two hundred years time there will be some exasperated descendant yelling at their infant offspring to eat up their food and “stop being so faddy because there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s only snail bogeys,” without either of them having any idea that one of their ancestors was the brilliant wordsmith who coined the expression.

Talking of snails, here is a still from the infra-red night camera mentioned in last month’s posts (it will take a day or two to compile another video of selected clips). You can see a hedgehog biscuit placed in the middle of a suspended wooden ruler, and a snail that has crawled along to consume it. This is one of the jumping and climbing tricks we have been dreaming up for the field mice that live under the shed, except the snail got there first.

Being cold blooded, it is not the snail that has activated the camera; it has been set off by Mummy Mouse on the ground. She bravely scales the bricks, nimbly tiptoes along the ruler and snatches the hedgehog biscuit right out of the jaws of the snail, from under its very nose. She dashes back down the bricks with it and darts under the shed to feed her mouse babies who are waiting for their tea. Because they are ours – i.e. they live in our garden – they too are fussy eaters.

“I’m not eating that,” they say, “It’s disgusting.”

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” she yells at them, “Get it eaten.”

“But what are these slimy bits?” they say.

“Snail bogeys!” she snaps at them.

Monday, 8 June 2020

Review - Penelope Lively: A House Unlocked

Penelope Lively: 
A House Unlocked (4*)

As a child, Penelope Lively often stayed at her grandparents’ country house, Golsoncott, between Dunster and Watchet in Somerset. Years later, when the house was sold, the contents brought back memories of the people who had lived there, and caused her to reflect upon how life had changed. It is twentieth century social history.

Bill Bryson used a similar idea in At Home (reviewed here) in which the layout of his nineteenth century Norfolk house triggered a collection of topics about the history of private life. It is interesting to contrast the two. Bryson is readable and entertaining; Lively is weightier and more demanding. Bryson writes about anything that takes his fancy, especially the eccentric or sensational; Lively is focussed and thorough. Bryson leaves me amused but wondering why I bothered; Lively leaves me with much to think about; Bryson is the livelier writer, Lively the deeper and more sentient.

At Golsoncott, plants in the garden lead to tales of Victorian shrub collectors who roamed Asia in search of new specimens. A picnic rug and a painting generate discussions of the differences between town and country, how they regard each other, and how these things have altered over time. A prayer book sparks off an account of churchgoing and its decline, contrasting Lively’s own ambivalence with her grandmother’s certainty.

In other chapters, Lively writes of wartime evacuees, a Russian friend who had fallen upon hard times, and an orphaned teenage boy who had escaped from Vienna just before the war, all of whom lived for a time at Golsoncott. She tells how they came to be there: “It is fascinating to contemplate with the wisdom of hindsight the trajectories of utterly disparate lives that will one day intersect” (p87).

The book becomes more personal as Lively compares her grandparents’ marriage with her own and contemplates how the roles of husbands and wives have changed. She, herself, grew independent of traditional expectations by taking a post as a research assistant at Oxford University. There, she heard talk of a bright new research fellow called Jack Lively whose name “sounded like a character in an eighteenth-century novel.” They were married within a year. As she says, they met “in the clear blue air of higher education, both … freed from the assumptions and expectations of [their] backgrounds.” It would have been nigh impossible for a girl from the southern gentry to meet and marry a young man from the northern working class in a previous age.

There was, however, an earlier independent-minded woman in the family, her aunt, the artist Rachel Reckitt, who had little time for convention. She was the last inhabitant of Golsoncott before its sale in 1995.  Lively’s grandfather was a grandson of the Hull industrialist Isaac Reckitt who made his money from the manufacture of starch: the firm later became known as Reckitt and Colman. Her grandfather, an architect, did not go into the firm, but one his sons became chairman.

The book visits Lively’s recurring themes and concerns throughout: memory, past and present, and personal history. Moments that once were the present are overlaid by re-interpretations. Sometimes, “it seems that the sunlight through the wisteria spattered the veranda tiles in exactly the same way in 1995 as … in 1945” (p83). She finds a rusting iron bedstead in a pigeon loft and sees the room where the fifteen-year-old Viennese boy slept, “thinking in another language, his head full of images far removed from west Somerset, hearing the same peaceable pigeon rumblings … heard still”.
“Now I am the commentator … I have double vision: fifty years ago is both now, and then. It is all still going on, quite clear and normal, the world as I know it, but those other eyes see a frozen moment … ahead lies everything that will happen … life and death, and beneath that the shifting sands of public events.” (p202).
She is right. For example, I could go back to Leeds and walk the route I used to take to work fifty years ago. I would see both what is there now and what used to be there, all still going on, clear and normal, but that would be another blog post. 

I picked up A House Unlocked from the books that came from my late mother-in-law, after reading Treasures of Time (reviewed here), and have now sent off for Moon Tiger.

STOP PRESS - 10th June 2020
Golsoncott is currently on the market. The estate agent's pdf has external and internal pictures. Oh to win the lottery! See 

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 

Monday, 1 June 2020

New Month Old Post: M Dunham Are Crap

Never use a word if you don’t know what it means

(First posted 1st September 2014)

“That’s wrong” said Geoffrey Bullard, with his thick ape-neck and menacing stare. “It should be M Dunham is crap”. His fat finger stabbed at the offending word.

He thought he knew everything, and everyone else was stupid. It was too risky to explain. Football teams are plural: Rawcliffe United are great this year; Howden Town are terrible; M Dunham are crap. You can chant it:
M Dunham are crap,
M Dunham are crap,
Ee aye addio,
M Dunham are crap.

A league match between M Dunham and T Dunham c1960

It was my dad who first pretended we were football teams in a league. He was B Dunham, I was T Dunham, my brother Martin was M Dunham, and M Dunham were crap. It said so in red wax crayon on the back of the asbestos garage where Geoffrey Bullard had spotted it.

I didn’t realise that wax crayon on asbestos panelling is like permanent marker: waterproof, indelible, not-fade-away. There it was, and there it must have stayed for decades. Imagine the disapproving faces that pitied the ignorant child responsible, and wondered who was M Dunham, and why was he crap.

So, Geoffrey Bullard remained oblivious of the imaginary football teams, and, when he wasn’t round at our house bullying me, I could play imaginary football games in the garden. I had a full league of teams and fixtures, and played out each match on my own on the pitch of dried mud we optimistically called “the back grass”. This differed from “the front grass” only by being slightly bigger and by not actually having any grass, except that is for a few odd blades that struggled out of the earth before being unceremoniously stamped back in again by the boots of make-believe footballers.

I ran up and down with the ball, puffing and panting between one goal defined by chalk marks on the wall of the house and the other by the clothes posts near the back hedge, while providing the roars and boos of the crowd, and an excitable commentary. In my head they were all there: two complete teams of players, spectators, a commentator, the referee, the linesmen and the trainer with his ‘magic sponge’.

I drew up team sheets, match day programmes, fixture lists and league tables. I was everyone and did everything. These days, kids do the same with electronic games like ‘Top European Football Manager III’, but my fantasy was played in the back garden, much healthier for all the running around in the fresh air, with better transferrable skills from the manual record keeping, and no less unsociable than games consoles.

T Dunham were of course the best team by far. They always won and hardly ever conceded a goal. They usually beat M Dunham (who really were crap) by several goals to nil, and “The” B Dunham by a similar margin (my dad had once been to watch “The” Arsenal while on holiday in London).

It was not long before T Dunham were promoted out of the league containing the other Dunham teams into the local district league, where they played against proper teams such as the colliery, the dockers and the railwaymen, and teams from pubs and local villages. I picked my players for each match and posted their names on the wall inside our team hut, in other words the yellow shed.

The team was always set out in traditional 1-2-3-5 formation, with a goalkeeper, two full backs, three half-backs and five forwards. In those days we always had a centre forward, inside forwards and wingers; no one had yet heard of modern formations involving sweepers, overlapping midfielders and offensive 4-3-3 game plans.

One day, Geoffrey Bullard noticed a team sheet on the wall of the shed. “What’s that?” he asked, looking carefully. My team was laid out for all to see, ready for the West Riding Cup Final between T Dunham and Norton Woodseats. The captain, ‘Dunham’, in other words me, was on the left wing, my position the only time I had ever been selected for the school team. Some of the other imaginary players were also names from school. ‘Gelder’ was inside-left, ‘Longthwaite’ was centre-forward, and, as I realised to my consternation the same moment he spotted it, ‘Bullard’ was centre-half.

“Why am I only centre-half?” he demanded to know.

I cringed inwardly while he thought about it. He considered himself one of the best footballers in the school and naturally assumed his rightful role was top scorer in the forward line.

“Actually,” he then said weighing it up, “I would make quite a good centre-half,” and let me off the hook by showing no further interest.

But the wax crayon was still on the garage, and in due course my mother saw it.

“It won’t come off,” she sounded annoyed. “And anyway, what does it mean?”

It dawned on me that I didn’t really know what ‘crap’ meant either. I’d heard people say it, and thought it a satisfyingly grown up word to use. It just seemed to mean someone or something wasn’t very good. You could snarl it in real disgust, curling your upper lip, emphasising the ‘r’ and spitting out the final ‘p’. “C-RAP!” I had been saying it as much as I could.

“What’s this word, ‘crap’?” my dad asked. My mother had obviously been talking to him.

It was my dad’s sister, Aunty Dorothy, a hospital nurse, who gently enlightened us as to what it meant. She took me aside and asked in her quiet way: “Was it you who wrote in wax crayon on the back of the garage? You wrote, ‘M Dunham are crap’, didn’t you?”

I nodded.

“Well, you do know what it means, don’t you?”

I shook my head.

“It’s very very rude,” she said looking serious. “It means babba.” *

I wanted to giggle, but tried hard to look horrified and apologetic.

“It’s not a word we should be using at all,” she warned sternly. “And in any case, it’s very wrong to say that. It should be M Dunham is crap.”

* It seems that using the word ‘babba’ to mean poo is not as universal as I once thought. An internet search reveals very few examples. Similarly, ‘trump’ meaning an emission of wind, also seems to be mainly a northern expression. Both were common in the part of Yorkshire where I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. The word ‘crap’, on the other hand, was beyond vulgarity and never heard. It goes to show how much things have changed. 

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Review - William Golding: Rites of Passage

William Golding: 
Rites of Passage (3*)

Rites of Passage won the 1980 Booker Prize. Three years later the author was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Call me a Philistine, yet I deign to give it only three stars. Why?

A long time ago, possibly in my early teens, I read Lord of the Flies by the same author, about a group of boys who descend into savagery while stranded on a desert island. I thought it unpleasant and am surprised that it often appears in lists of favourite books from school. I find Rites of Passage unpleasant too. Golding seems to specialise in human degradation (albeit not in graphic detail).

The story begins well enough. We are reading the journal of Edmund Talbot on a voyage to Australia in the early nineteenth century. Talbot is an aristocrat bound for a post with the Governor of New South Wales, and is a pompous prig. For example, he would have you believe that just because of his position in life, his understanding of sailing and navigation is equal to that of ship’s officers. He cannot see that others might not regard him so highly. It is clever, entertaining stuff.

So clever that some of the time I was not really sure what was going on. We Northerners tend to say things as we see them, and often have difficulties with those who talk in hints and insinuations. It was too much bother to try to decipher all the nineteenth century subtleties exchanged by passengers and officers.

Then the novel takes a darker turn. Another passenger, the Reverend Colley, whose presence on board is generally resented or at best unwelcome, suffers humiliation during and following an equator-crossing ritual, and subsequently dies. Talbot then gets to read Colley’s journal and realises he might have prevented his downfall. To say more would be to give away too much of the story, but the phrase “rites of passage” would seem to refer to the crossing of the equator, Talbot’s growing self-awareness, and (possibly unanticipated by Golding) ‘passage’ in the smutty sense the camp comedian Julian Clary might use it.

Rites of Passage was originally intended to be a stand-alone novel but was succeeded by two others in what became known as the sea trilogy To The Ends Of The Earth. I won’t be reading them.

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.

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Thursday, 21 May 2020


Student life 1974 and now

UMIST Mathematics and Social Sciences Building
UMIST Mathematics and Social Sciences Building (when new)

I have been meaning to post about this for some time. I thought of it again this week because we are going to have to take daughter to retrieve the rest of her possessions from her shared house at university (not UMIST). It will be the second chock-a-block car load. The first was in March when the university campus closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Two full loads of a family estate car! Indeed, some students hire Transit or Luton vans to move their stuff. The materialistic society! Not how things were.

Arriving at university, 1974
Arriving at university, 1974
This lad is supposedly just arriving at UMIST (the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology) as a new student in 1974. A suitcase, rucksack, soft bag and guitar case accommodate all his worldly goods (although one could question the feasibility of this). You can imagine he lugged it to Manchester on the train. 

It is from a 15-minute film (linked below) made by the UMIST film and television society to give an idea of student life. It’s a real time-capsule for those of that university or college era.

I went to UMIST myself a few years after this for a one-year postgraduate course as mentioned in the last post, and much is familiar, especially the Brutalist Maths and Social Sciences building with the letters UMIST at the top (12:46 in the film), where my course was based. I used to avoid the lift and huff and puff my way up to floor L feeling fit and superior until one day I was overtaken by a Ph.D. student running up the stairs with a rucksack full of bricks on his back.

For me, the film feels more like the three abortive months I spent at teacher training college in Leeds in 1973, or visiting friends at university around 1970 before I went as a mature student. The titles at the beginning say it was made in 1972, but the list of courses, cinema programmes, the name of the person running for election and the dates of rag week clearly date it as 1974.

Among the evocative things are: the dingy, sparsely-furnished accommodation; those electrical appliances; the A/V equipment; the Greenslade gig; the student societies; rag week (would health and safety let them use those floats now?); the cars – I recognise them all; the long gone shops such as Ratners which made the biggest PR mistake ever; “chalk and talk” lectures. And is that George Best who back-passes the ball at the start of the Manchester United match?

I love the background music tracks written especially for the film, accredited to Nick Rhodes, although not ‘that’ Nick Rhodes who would have been only eleven at the time.

It makes three years at university look the wonderful experience it can be, but, interestingly, less than a minute of the film (11.49-12.46) is concerned with academic work.

I have few problems with that. University is supposed to be a shared learning experience. You learn as much socially, by talking things over with other students, as you do from lectures and course materials. If you take away the social, there seems little point in being there.

And they are taking it away. Daughter has not had a good experience at her university this year. Firstly, there was no teaching because the lecturers were on strike, and then the university campus closed half way through the second term because of the coronavirus outbreak. She has been home since then. And for next year, some universities are now announcing that teaching will be online and there will be limited access to tutorials, laboratories, workshops and studios, and few student union activities.

She is doing art. Her particular interest is decorative ceramics. How can you do a degree in art if you can’t use studios and workshops, or show your work to other students? Similar questions arise with laboratory sciences, computing subjects, music and others. Is there any wonder students are beginning to say they are thinking of having a year out? They are not going to be saddled with student debt for lectures and tutorials through Zoom.

That would affect university finances, especially if overseas students don’t come. That’s a big chunk of Britain’s university income. I predict insolvencies in the sector. Will the government bail them out? Probably not. They are hotbeds of liberals and socialists.


UMIST started out as Manchester Mechanics Institution, then Manchester Technical School and later Manchester Municipal College of Technology. It became a university college in 1956, able to award degrees on behalf of the University of Manchester, and changed its name to UMIST in 1966. It became a completely autonomous university in 1994 but merged back with the University of Manchester in 2004 and is now no more. The Maths and Social Sciences Building is due for demolition. Courses were mainly in the applied sciences, hence the male student majority. Look at that list (at 11.49 in the film): chemical engineering, electrical engineering, chemistry, polymer and fibre science, textile technology, management sciences, ophthalmic optics, mathematics, computation, civil and mechanical engineering, metallurgy, physics, biochemistry, mechanical engineering, building …

Funnily enough, I visited the Maths and Social Sciences building again around 2003 (although I did take the lift this time). As soon as I was inside it came back what a depressing building it was to be in.

Sunday, 17 May 2020


Another bit of the memoir

BBC Microcomputers

For every multi-megabucks idea, there must be thousands that come to nothing at all. I thought I’d got one once, but it didn’t happen. Within a few months, I was down at the Labour Exchange signing on for unemployment benefit. 

It was educational software. The government had decided every school should have a computer. Generous funding was provided, advice centres were set up, projects started and teachers trained. Most schools bought “The BBC Microcomputer”, a machine commissioned to accompany a television series and computer literacy project. The manufacturer, Acorn, did very well, eventually selling over half a million machines into schools and homes. A subsidiary company, Acornsoft, was also raking it in by supplying games and educational software to go with the BBC machine.

Acornsoft Word Sequencing written by Ann and Russel Wills
Acornsoft Word Sequencing
written by Ann and Russel Wills
Much of this early educational software was unexciting, and some was terrible, but there was so little available it was all in terrific demand. For instance, there was a literacy program called Word Sequencing which simply asked children to rearrange jumbled sentences into the correct order. The example on the cover was “Cobras deadly are snakes”. Another (in correct order) was “Brush your teeth twice a day”. The full set consisted of just eighty-eight fairly random sentences. I suppose it had its benefits, but I would not have been too happy with a maths or language textbook that offered only eighty-eight test questions. I would also expect them to be in some kind of logical progression. Yet, because teachers and parents were naïve and feared missing out on the microcomputer revolution, it sold a lot of copies. They were priced at £9.95 each.

To be fair, educationalists had yet to understand what kinds of computer-based activities were best. Word Sequencing would have been referred to as “drill and practice” because it repetitively “drilled” learners through a sequence of practice questions. It follows the ideas of behavioural psychologists such as B. F. Skinner and their theories of conditioning. Developmental and educational psychologists, however, were sceptical of this approach, and argued that computer-based learning could be more effective by promoting playful exploration or collaboration with others.

More by luck than judgment, I found myself well-placed to work in this area having recently completed a degree in psychology and an M.Sc. in computing. My M.Sc. project had been with programs that handled language, similar to early chatbots. I got a job with a university team researching how computers might help children whose understanding of language had been held back by conditions such as deafness or learning difficulties. These children needed a lot of one-to-one support, and it was thought that computers might be able to help with the workload of psychologists, speech therapists and teachers. The team had collected thousands of carefully structured sentences from established remedial schemes, and I was taken on to write the computer programs that used these materials.

We were not using BBC computers which would not have been up to the task (they had a thousandth the speed and a quarter of a millionth the memory of a modern laptop), but in my own time  I started to think about what might be done with a BBC. One idea came from an early artificial intelligence program called SHRDLU from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which was capable of holding written conversations about objects of various shape, size and colour. You could ask it questions and instruct it to move things around.

I came up with around twenty much-simplified versions of the idea, each of which just squeezed into a BBC and made use of its (rather limited) colour graphics. Some posed problems that had to be solved by asking questions and giving instructions.

A sequence of screen shots
A sequence from one of the programs

My supervisor started talking about the programs at academic conferences, which caught the attention of Acornsoft. The managing director came to see us: a tall, young-faced man, precisely how you might imagine a successful computing entrepreneur to be, who uncurled himself languidly from the driving seat of his sporty Jaguar, took one look at the software and said: “I’ll buy it”.

They would pay 25% royalties and, going by Word Sequencing, would expect to ship at least twenty-five thousand during the first year. F-ing hell! Do the maths. Twenty-five per cent of twenty-five thousand at £9.95 a time. How long before I too would be languidly uncurling myself from the driving seat of a sporty Jaguar?

Then the university management heard about it. I was hauled before one of the deputy vice chancellors and firmly told that anything I invented was the intellectual property of the university: it had been developed on university equipment and despite doing it in my own time my contract specified I had no own time.

Acornsoft already had the programs anyway, and we had also proposed a new project under which they would fund my university salary to dream up educational software to create collaborative learning activities over computer networks. We had only vague notions of what these activities might be, but four brand new BBC Microcomputers with as yet unreleased Econet nodes rapidly arrived free from Acornsoft – over two thousand pounds-worth of kit.

Then we waited for the programs to be published. And we waited for the new project agreement to arrive. And we waited longer. And my fixed-term employment expired but Acorn assured us the new agreement would soon be with us, so I worked for almost a month unpaid. And then Acorn ran into financial difficulties due to problems with the new Acorn Electron and Acorn Business Computer and heavy research and development costs, and was broken up and sold off. My programs were never published and the new project never started, and I had to sign on the dole. That was my brave new world of 1984.

For a short time, I really believed I’d made it. It would never have turned me into a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but when the average U.K. house price was still under £30,000, it could have set me up very comfortably.

Acornsoft Elite Space Trading Game
There was just one minor benefit. I still had one of the new BBC computers and used it for games and word processing for six or seven years. I even won my Elite badge. Then my nephew borrowed it for three or four years more. Acorn did ask for all four machines back during the winding-up process (I have no idea what happened to the other three), but I ignored it and never heard anything more. It finally conked out around 2005.

Friday, 8 May 2020

Hedgehog Update

Last month’s video of hedgehogs in the night was popular (view again here), so here is an update with a bit of hedgehog history.

Boris the hedgehog

Some years ago we spotted a tiny hedgehog at the side of the lawn. It was lethargic and not very healthy looking. It remained there for several hours. We put it on straw in a cardboard box with some cat food and water, and kept it in the greenhouse for a few days. At first it slept most of the time. We called it Boris (which at that time raised no association with any other person of that name). It did not need a ventilator.

A few days later, daughter noticed another little hedgehog running along the road on the way home from school (we have very well-educated hedgehogs in our village). It was a good way from the open fields, so it seemed best to rescue that one too. We called it Bear.

Boris is shown above in his cardboard box, and below curled in a glove, with Bear on the ground. Tiny, little, weightless things.

Bear and Boris the young hedgehogs

Bear soon went off on his own, and after a few days Boris was running around in the greenhouse. He was quite smelly, so we gave him a bath and put him in the sun to dry. He climbed out of his box and ran off: a good sign.

Spike's dry hedgehog food Neighbour's cat eating hedgehog food
We made a hedgehog feeding station out of a plastic storage box, and it was visited regularly into the autumn and each year since. One day, noisy crunching revealed quite a large hedgehog inside.

Last year, food continued to be eaten into the winter months, long after hedgehogs should be hibernating, so we bought a low-cost infra-red wildlife camera (a 20MP, 1080p, Apeman HSS for around £70, plus batteries and an SD card) to see if they were still active. It filmed only very fat mice, so we stopped feeding.

This year in early April, wondering whether hedgehogs were active again, or whether it had been only mice all along, we put out the camera again and filmed the hedgehogs in last month’s video. As the old hedgehog feeding station was holed and brittle, we left food in a dish beside the shed. Within thirty minutes it had gone, the culprit, Blacky Whitepaws, caught on camera. It was time to make a new feeding station.

Hedgehog feeding station and infra-red wildlife camera

Here is the new one beside the shed, with the wildlife camera tied to the tree. The feeding station is basically a wood-lined plastic box with a hedgehog-sized hole in the end (cut with a Dremel electric craft tool so as not to split the box), covered with a sheet of roofing felt. The newspaper on the floor is for the hedgehogs to read while eating (as mentioned above, they are very well-educated).

The camera is set to capture ten-second video sequences (there are now nearly a thousand of them), so there are jumps when the clips are stitched together (I could get the old laptop and use Windows Video Editor to make nice fades between the clips but that’s too much bother. I cannot understand why there is only a cut-down version in Windows 10). The assembled video is at the end after the following summary of its content.

The feeding station was visited by a large hedgehog on night one, and from the way it unhesitatingly went into the box, it had probably fed from it last year and knew what it was. It ate half the biscuits and then had a drink. 

The following two weeks were colder nights and there were only cats, mice and birds.

The mice seem to have had a litter of little ones which gradually became more adventurous. After a few days, they inevitably found the food in the feeding station and if you watch carefully you can see them jumping away with biscuits in their mouths and scurrying under the shed.

Stripey Cat Watching Mouse
The cats clearly know about the mice. Stripey Cat lays in wait for ages but, so far as we know, has not caught any yet. Isn’t he handsome! Does that little mouse think he’s handsome too, as if hypnotised by fearful symmetry before being grasped in a deadly throat-hold?
Long Legs watching hedgehog
We are not buying food for mice, so we moved the box to a different position. Two nights later, in slightly warmer weather, a hedgehog appeared in the presence of Long Legs. The camera shows what I’ve read elsewhere: cats and hedgehogs rarely bother each other. After Long Legs had gone, hedgehog returns and gives its ear a scratch, and then returns again after dawn.

Finally, we moved the camera to another position and caught a hedgehog rooting through the vegetation. Nights then became colder again and they have not used the feeding station for a while. Hopefully, by moving the camera around, it might be possible to track down where the hedgehogs are nesting.

It’s not exactly David Attenborough. Blogger Rachel sees hedgehogs all the time in rural Norfolk, and Elizabeth in Oregon (Saved By Words on Wordpress) has skunks, woodchucks, opossums, raccoons and coyotes in her yard. Even in ordinary English town and village gardens, there are things in the night we don’t see. Our cats know but never tell us. Here is the assembled video. The date, time and temperature for each section appear in the black band at the bottom.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Night Cats

I am going through the infra-red camera to post a hedgehog update video, which will take a while, but here for now are some stills of cat visitors caught in the night.

I would have loved one of these cameras when I was ten. I could have fixed it to a lamp post or telegraph pole to check up on Geoffrey Bullard. Even better, a drone. I used to dream of having a remote-controlled model aeroplane with a camera so I could make sure he wasn’t hanging around looking for bullying opportunities before I went out.

Anyway, back to the cats. Who, after all, does not delight in pictures of cats (apart from Geoffrey Bullard)?

Phoebe is not actually a visitor because she lives here and does not go out at night. Little Black Kitty lives in the house at the back where she climbs up and sits on the upstairs window sill looking superior. Long Legs lives next-door-but-one. We have never seen any of the others in daytime and have no idea where they live. I do like Stripey Cat. He is wonderful and will have a major role in the hedgehog update video. As will Long Legs.

Phoebe and Stripey Cat
Stripey Cat

Blacky Whitepaws and Black Kitty
Black Kitty

Stripey Whitepaws and Long Legs
Long Legs

Patchy Face

Patchy Face
George (left) and Phoebe a few years ago

Ginger George and Phoebe

One other regular visitor, Ginger George, has not apparently been in the night recently. He is easily mistaken for Phoebe, even by us sometimes, but bigger. He’s the sort that sneaks into other cats’ houses to steal their food. He once squeezed in through our kitchen window. Completely fearless. The neighbours come round here to complain and blame Phoebe. 

You have no idea how much I had to struggle with the html to set this out like this.

Friday, 1 May 2020

New Month Old Post - Carolus II Dei Gratia Mag Br Fra et Hib Rex

(first posted 5th May, 2015)

Charles II shilling 1668

It is by a long chalk the oldest thing I own apart from the worse-than-senseless blocks and stones in the garden - a 1668 Charles II silver shilling. It is quite worn and the King’s face is damaged but the images are clear. A cautious numismatist would probably describe it as being in F or ‘Fine’ condition, just short of VF or ‘Very Fine’.

The ‘head’ side or obverse is inscribed “CAROLUS II DEI GRATIA” – Charles II by the grace of God – which continues on the ‘tail’ side or reverse, “MAG BR FRA ET HIB REX” – King of Great Britain, France and Ireland. The claim to France was historical but one of the shields on the reverse still displays the fleur de lys, the emblem of the King of France. The other shields portray the three English lions passant (i.e. walking, some heraldrists hold them to be leopards), the Scottish lion rampant (i.e. standing) and the Hibernian (Irish) harp. I think the shilling is the variation known as ‘second bust’ but I have insufficient experience to be sure.

The coin was struck – literally because it is a hammered coin – almost three hundred and fifty years ago, which is so long ago it is hard to imagine. It is dated ten years after the death of Oliver Cromwell and a couple of years after the Great Fire of London. Pepys was writing his diary, John Dryden was Poet Laureate, and Isaac Newton was discovering the calculus or ‘fluxions’ and about to be appointed a Cambridge professor of mathematics. England would soon be at war with the Dutch.

I can tell you how I came by it. My dad swapped it for a pair of boots with a farming acquaintance who found it by chance at the side of a newly ploughed field, the exact location now unknown. It was rare chance because this was well before the days of metal detecting. By now the boots will have dulled and decayed, but the shilling still shines.

A collector wanting a similar example for his or her collection today would have to pay around a hundred and fifty pounds – it could be two or three times that without the damage to the face. I don’t really care. Why sell it?

But what was it worth in the seventeenth century? It depends how you estimate it. In terms of purchasing power it would be the equivalent of around just seven pounds fifty today, but in terms of what someone might earn it would be worth between one and two hundred pounds. It depends whether you use retail price inflation or earnings inflation.

I turn it in my fingers and wonder what other hands held it, and how many. Placing it in history is easy but we can never know who owned it, who it was passed on to, what it bought, who lost it, what its loss meant, how it was lost or for how long it lay in the Howdenshire field where it was re-discovered.

Could it have been lost in drunken reverie? Perhaps it was some unfortunate farm labourer’s wage for the day, or a ‘King’s shilling’ taken by someone newly enlisted in the army or navy. Or did it belong to someone for whom the loss might have been a little more bearable, accidently dropped perhaps by a rich landowner and his farm foreman while paying a group of workers?

Some things we can never know but one day there may be an answer my final question, “Where will it be in another three hundred and fifty years, in 2370?” That is a date that seems like science fiction.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Review - Margaret Drabble: The Millstone

Margaret Drabble:
The Millstone (4*)

Another from the Penguin Decades series – novels that helped shape modern Britain – although my copy is a different edition.

It was first published in 1965 and set in the ‘Swinging Sixties’ when, we are led to believe, sexual liberation was well on the way, at least in London. Rosamund, the protagonist, becomes pregnant after a one-night stand, her one and only sexual experience. Being apparently confident and independent she chooses to have and raise the baby, a girl. She keeps the father’s identity secret from her small circle of friends, and from the father too, and they all admire her determination. 

Well, I don’t know about London, but in my part of Yorkshire, in 1965, it would have been outrageous. Any young woman who got pregnant out of wedlock, no matter how independently minded, would have had a very difficult time indeed. I think of a pretty girl at school whose boyfriend, as rumour had it, was unable to resist her comely body, lovely dark hair and earthy name, or maybe her, his. It was whispered, and then yelled with thoughtless hilarity around town, that they had tried to use a rain mate* as a home-made contraceptive. More home making soon followed. No G.C.E. ‘A’ Levels for her. They were shotgunned together and moved away. Had they stayed around, she would for ever have been known as Mrs. Rain Mate.

In the book, Rosamund is the well-educated daughter of socialist, academic parents, living alone in their large apartment while they are abroad. She is also an academic herself (yes, another one), completing a Ph.D. thesis on Elizabethan sonnets. She narrates her story in intelligent, self-possessed sentences with the word “I” appearing perhaps twenty times on every page. At first I had reservations about this, but it reflects her character. It also betrays her shyness and uncertainties. She is not as confident and independent as she pretends. She is diffident with friends, cannot confide feeling, things are left unsaid and commitments unmade. It is very clever writing.

Yet, Rosamund is capable enough to muddle her way through nineteen-sixties NHS waiting rooms and hospitals, and encounters with other mothers across the class divide. She knows she is treated with more respect because of her address and appearance, but knows how to get what she wants when she isn’t. Although the baby changes her life and her outlook, she still completes her thesis and is offered an academic post.

The millstone of the title is not, as one might first think, the baby. The reference is biblical, to Matthew 18:6: it is less distressing to drown with a millstone round one’s neck than to suffer the consequences of hurting a little one (my interpretation). Rosamund would have found it unbearable not to have the baby and bring it up herself. In essence, the novel celebrates maternity and motherhood, although not in any sentimental way. Rosamund retains her academic detachment throughout – none of the “beauty’s rose might never die” stuff of her Elizabethan sonnets. Even so, it is unlikely I would have been persuaded to read it as a teenager when it first came out.

* rain mate: a foldable, waterproof head covering worn mainly by women, usually made from thin, transparent plastic film.

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.

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