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Tuesday, 20 October 2020

The Song Book

If by chance I loose this book 
If by chance you find it 
Remember Kathleen is my name 
And Clayton comes behind it. 
 
 
Around 1960, my father came home with a copy of The News Chronicle Song Book given to him by an acquaintance who lived in the East Riding village of Asselby. It was in a terrible state, but he stuck it back together and fitted a brown paper jacket on which he wrote: “This book was paper backed and repaired on a wet Thursday afternoon February 25th 1960 by [him, me and my brother]”. A father on his half-day off keeping his two children occupied during school half-term.
 
The introduction suggests:
Singing together is a form of amusement and delight. It is a glorious way in which we can, in large bodies, express something which we could not tell in any other way. But the love for Community Singing should be started and finished in the home. … With this Song Book the “News-Chronicle” hopes to encourage and bring back singing in our home. The Community Singing will take care of itself.
I wholeheartedly agree but have never been much of a community singer. Despite a good sense of pitch, I find it difficult to hear my own voice in groups. At home, though, yes. What fun it gave us. No one played an instrument, we just turned the pages and sang. 
 
The cover gives an idea of what it contains. Looking again now turns up some great favourites: 
  • Dashing Away With a Smoothing Iron 
  • Come Lasses and Lads 
  • Billy Boy 
  • David of the White Rock 
  • Ye Banks and Braes
  • Marching Through Georgia 
  • Camptown Races 
  • Go Down Moses 
  • A Roving 
  • Eternal Father 
  • O Come, All Ye Faithful 

Wow! How long a list can get I away with? All two hundred? I feel a sing-song coming on. 

‘Twas on a Monday morning … me Nancy kittl’d me fancy … doo-dah doo-dah … to trip it up and down … tell old Pharoah to … bring me the harp I adore … I’ll go no more a roving … in peril on the sea. 

                                                *                          *                          *
 
We have a tape recording from 1963 of one of my dad’s unselfconscious performances. His granddad had been a sea captain which, he said, conferred upon him an inherited natural aptitude in the delivery and interpretation of sea shanties. 
 
“And now from my sea shanty series,” he announces, his tongue in a twist, “the old song book page one hundred and twenty four: Bound for the Rio Grande.”
 
Two children mutter and snigger in the background. 
 
“One moment please.” 
 
Struggling to keep a serious demeanour and in tune, he begins to sing: “I’ll sing you a song of the fish of the sea ...” 
 
That must be one of the daftest opening lines of any song, ever, and it defeats him. A hesitant pause is followed by a total breakdown into helpless laughter. All three of us. 
 
 
I suppose the lyrics of some of these songs are questionable these days, but not as questionable as the lyrics we used to sing on guitar nights in Leeds where I lived after leaving school, where familiarity with these songs gave me malign influence. Imagine four twenty-ish-year-old lads in a shared house with guitars and bottles of beer.  
 
Tavern in the Town became a song about the television rent collector who was a creep, and what he did with sheep. So did Camptown Races with the “doo-dah”s changed to “dildo”s. They are stuck in my head forever, and, of course, unrepeatable. Except for the one to the tune of The Ball of Kirrimuir about the owner of the house who knew we would never do any cleaning so did it all himself in return for us doing his washing up: 
Dave does all the cleaning, and that’s a job he hates, 
And so to appease him we have to wash the plates. 
… possibly the only case where our version was less deplorable than the original (although you won’t find any such words in the book). 
 

The book has given sixty years of pleasure and continues to do so (perhaps that’s for a later post), more than twice as long as the original owner assuming she got it new when published in 1931. Who was she, I often wondered, the girl who misspelt “lose”? I never thought to ask. The wonders of internet genealogy reveal she was born in 1924, married someone called Roantree in 1951, moved in later life to Bridlington and died in 2010. By the time her book passed to us, she had three children of her own. I never knew them despite being of similar age and from the same area. She must have written the inscription in the nineteen-thirties. Did she ever think of it again? 
 
I don’t know if anything remains of Sycamore Farm. All I remember of Asselby is a village on a road to nowhere, on a tongue of heavy mudstone between the confluence of the Rivers Ouse and Derwent, where there was once an awkward bend through a disused railway crossing. I went once or twice to the Black Swan pub there but preferred the Kings Head at the end of the road in Barmby-on-the-Marsh. They had a better dartboard.
 

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Moon

The phases of the Moon viewed looking southward from the Northern Hemisphere (Orion8, Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier this month, Sue in Suffolk mentioned on her blog that there are two full moons in October this year. The first was on the first: the Harvest Moon. I like her posts about country ways and the natural world. She even provides a link to a moon calendar in her sidebar.

Two or three days later, we were taking Mrs. D.’s new Fitbit out for an evening walk. She commented how white and bright the moon looked but that it did not seem quite full. I was able to respond that the full moon had been on the first of the month – “the Harvest Moon,” I said knowledgeably – and that there would be two full moons in October this year.

There ensued a discussion about how you could tell whether a moon was new or old, whether a J-shaped moon came before the full one and a C-shape after, or whether it was the other way round. It turns out to be JC in the Northern Hemisphere, which seems easy enough to remember.

How on earth have I got this far without knowing that?

Diaries always used to contain little symbols for the phases of the moon: ☽ ☾ and for first quarter, full, last quarter and new (assuming your browser renders these symbols correctly). There are none in my present diary (I still use a paper one), nor on the kitchen calendar. A diary from 2000 does not have them either. I had to look back to one of my father’s from 1986. 

Needless to say, I never paid them much attention. At one time it would have been one of the most important things you needed to be aware of for planning work outside. 

 

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Traffic Cam

I have been watching the post (or the mail if you call it that) in trepidation.

Recently, we took daughter back to university: you can’t do art studio and ceramics stuff at a distance online. So she has to chance it with our hurdy gurdy covid policy – let all the students catch it otherwise we’ll have to bail out the universities, and the private landlords will go bust and we can’t upset them because they vote for us and donate money, and we’ll just have to cross our fingers that not too many students develop serious chronic health conditions.

Anyway, that’s a digression. On the way back, after leaving the motorway, you have to run the gauntlet of speed cameras. I know where they are and have learnt to be careful, but you know how it is: you have been going along at 70 and have to re-adjust to slower roads, and you are tired after five hours driving and are nearly home, and perhaps you relax too much and don’t pay enough attention. I got through most of the cameras unscathed but was left wondering about the really nasty one which is obscured by bushes just after the speed limit changes from 40 to 30. It is one of those high-tech, bi-directional Truvelo D-CAMs with no flash and hardly any road markings. I was watching out but when I thought about it again it was half a mile behind and I had crept back above 30 with no memory of passing the camera or checking the speed.

I hate the things. They caught us on Lendal Bridge in York during the first week it was restricted to buses and taxis only. There were few signs or road markings. By the time we realised where we were going there was no alternative but to proceed across. A similar thing happened in Newcastle. We found ourselves unable to turn round with a choice of either entering a private car park or going through a ‘bus gate’. At least they provide nice photographs of you driving where you shouldn’t. And at least Newcastle let us off with a first-time warning, and York council had to refund the penalty after the Lendal Bridge restrictions were challenged and judged unlawful.

    

Remember how it used to be? There was a time near Selby in the blue mini (see blog header), in the days before servo-assisted anti-lock brakes, when, foot-down, I came round a bend to see a parked car on my side of the road and a bus coming towards me. I scraped past with a deep scratch along the side. There wasn’t a mark on the parked car but the man who had been peeing behind it had a dripping wet trouser leg. It gave new meaning to the phrase “making a run for it”.

In a later car, when I lived in north-east Scotland, I would do the 750-mile round trip home several times a year. In those days you could dash along for miles at ninety without much fear of offending the police. I once managed the one-way trip, with one rest stop and one petrol stop, in less than six hours. The smooth slate-grey colour of my exhaust pipe was the envy of every motor sport fan. On other occasions, when there was no traffic on the three miles of gradual descent on the motorway between Sheffield and Doncaster, that little car could do a hundred.

Still later, in 2001, I had a new Golf funded by travel expenses. Once it was well run-in I wondered how fast it could go but chickened out at a hundred and twenty (193 km/h) on the M1 south of Sheffield. Nowadays, the cameras would have you straight away, followed by a court appearance, a heavy fine and disqualification. Do it too many times and you would go to prison.

I only did that kind of thing a few times and would not do it at all now. These days, there is no alternative but to observe the limits. That’s a good thing. I know of too many tragedies to think otherwise. And I do try to keep to the limits all the time, we both do, particularly since someone close had to go on a special course after getting caught by a camera.

The university trip was nearly three weeks ago. You should be informed of camera transgressions within fourteen days. The post lady has just walked by. Nothing for us. I think I’m safe for now. But, it’s probably only a matter of time.

Monday, 5 October 2020

Clive James: Unreliable Memoirs

Clive James
Unreliable Memoirs (5*)

An extremely funny memoir, immensely enjoyable, but I had to overcome two obstacles.

The first was that Clive James was very learned. From the off he is throwing in references to far-flung writers like Rilke and Santanyana. At times I had no idea what he was on about. Take page 73, where he describes his first crush: 

my obsession was as transforming and exalting as whatever passed through the heart of Augustine Meaulnes in the brief time he spent with Yvonne de Galais

He says the object of his "visione amorosa" remained so vivid that her image outlasted that of the pain of falling into stinging nettles while suffering from ear ache, when “Pelion was piled on Odessa Ossa”.

Does he expect his readers to be well-versed in these things or is he just showing off? I am afraid my knowledge of European poetry, Alain-Fournier and Greek mythology are not up to it. My own cultural references are more humble, such as Tony Hancock’s ‘The Bedsit’ in which he tries to read Bertrand Russell’s ‘Human Knowledge’ but never gets past the first page because he has to keep looking up words in the dictionary. That was so very nearly my own experience here, but with lack of background knowledge rather than vocabulary. Well, you live, you learn, you google. What would I have done in 1980 when it was first published?

The second obstacle was my memory of Clive James’s television persona. Throughout the nineteen-eighties and -nineties he sat behind a desk like a greased potato in a tight blue suit, smirking his unctuous antipodean baritone, leering at the model Elle MacPherson, ridiculing weird Japanese game shows and mocking the heavily-accented Cuban singer Margarita Pracatan. Later, I cringed as he made embarrassingly improper remarks to the host Christine Bleakley on the early evening magazine programme ‘The One Show’. It took quite a few pages to expel these images from mind.  

It has been said that there were three Clive James: the accomplished poet and scholar, the television buffoon and the hilarious critic and memoir writer. Gradually, the wit and brilliance of this third Clive James won me over. It is in abundance here, such as at school when he became convinced he had an embarrassingly small penis:

Emerging from the shower with a towel draped casually around me, I had to put on my underpants before I took off the towel, but make it look as if I was taking off the towel before I put on my underpants. The result was a Gypsy Rose Lee routine of extraordinary subtlety. (p94)
Or in making model aeroplanes, not out of Airfix plastic but from parts cut out of sheets of balsa wood with a razor blade that sliced your thumb as readily as it carved the balsa:
If the result was recognizable as an aeroplane, you were an expert. If your thumb was recognisable as a thumb, you were a genius. (p69)

It goes on for page after page covering the misdemeanours of his unruly childhood, his sexual awakenings, his time at Sydney university and his move to England. Perhaps it just caught me in the right mood, but I would rate his account of military service amongst the funniest things I have ever seen in print.

This first of three volumes of memoir was published before he became widely-known. In self-justification he writes:

To wait until reminiscence is justified by achievement might mean to wait for ever.
It is tempting to pinch that as a blog by-line. I hope to read the other two volumes. On that basis it scores 5*, just. 
 

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 

Thursday, 1 October 2020

New Month Old Post: Peyton Place and Top Deck Shandy

(First posted 7th April, 2015)

Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay.

“What rubbish?” was my fifteen year-old self’s first thought, but something in that luxuriant opening sentence and the sensuous description of New England’s “lovely womanly Indian summer” enticed me to read just a little further. By the end of the first few pages, with their sprinkling of references to whores, peckers and venereal disease, I decided it might be prudent to study it more discreetly. I looked up the meaning of Indian summer and read on by torchlight under the bedclothes.

In those days, a child reading ‘Peyton Place’, even a fifteen year-old, would have been as shocking as the furore that followed its publication in 1956. The book was banned in Canada until 1958, and even later for the more delicate Australians.

It is tame stuff compared to what children are exposed to now, but, unlike today, our innocence was well-protected. In contrast, our physical safety received little thought. We could wander wild for hours near roads, rivers and railway lines, and climb trees and light fires. Nowadays, things are the other way round. While depravity and consumerism roam free, health and safety are controlled to the point of paranoia. Carefree freedom ran off with childhood innocence.

One affair that illustrates these changes for me is the Top Deck Shandy Pan Books promotion of the 1960s.

It was when I had my first party. Hugo, my foreign-language exchange partner from Belgium, was with us, and around fifty other Belgians and Germans were staying nearby. The party was subject to three parental conditions: (i) numbers were limited and by invitation only; (ii) the bedrooms were out of bounds, enforced by my mother’s washing line wound tightly round the door knobs; and (iii) there would be no alcohol. We were, however, allowed Top Deck Shandy, so we bought in several dozen cans.

What is incredible about Top Deck Shandy is that despite being supposedly a low-alcohol drink marketed to children, it then had an alcohol content of 2% proof (about 1% by volume), equivalent to almost one quarter the strength of beer. Nowadays, it would be illegal to sell it to anyone under the age of eighteen, yet, in the 1960s and 1970s, it could be seen on school trips without any concerns raised by teachers. Things are now so different that children have been excluded from school for innocently taking in cans of perfectly-legal ‘Ben Shaw’s Bitter Shandy’ (0.5%) and shops have refused to sell zero-alcohol wines to pensioners unable to provide proof of age. No one is prepared to risk being accused of promoting under-age drinking.

You would have to drink fifteen cans (5 litres) of today’s ‘Ben Shaw’s Bitter Shandy’ to consume an equivalent amount of alcohol to one bottle of beer. You would probably be sick before you got there.

The party with the Belgians and Germans was brilliant. No one turned up uninvited, no one got drunk, and thanks to Hugo’s popularity with the girls, boys were hugely outnumbered. Nothing got out of control, unlike at a couple of other legendary parties around this time. There were just two consequences. One was that my young brother had to take the next morning off school because he was kept awake very late. The other was that I had several dozen Top Deck Shandy labels. At the time, Top Deck Shandy was running a Pan books promotion. For every six labels you sent off, you could select a free paperback book from a list. I had enough labels for nearly all of them.

I know what I got because they were, until not so long ago, in a box in the loft. My first choices were predictable: ‘The Dam Busters’ by Paul Brickhill, ‘Dr. No’ by Ian Fleming, ‘The Saint Goes On’ by Leslie Charteris and ‘The Satan Bug’ by Ian Stuart (a pseudonym of Alistair MacLean), books I would probably have bought or borrowed from the library anyway. Frank Edward’s bestseller ‘Stranger Than Science’ was another memorable selection, a set of supposedly true accounts of strange events beyond scientific explanation. I’m not ashamed to say I devoured it uncritically. Then, beginning to run out of options, I decided that Nevil Shute’s ‘A Town Like Alice’ was likely to be all right because, after all, he had been the chief engineer building the R100 airship at nearby Howden. It turned out to be a soppy romance but enough of an adventure story to be enjoyable. Lastly, with hardly anything left to choose, I sent for ‘Peyton Place’ by Grace Metalious.

Peyton Place sold 60,000 copies in its first ten days. It has been described as a depiction of life in a small New England town, stark and crude in its search for realism. I thought the small New England town in which it was set might be interestingly like the small Yorkshire town where I lived. It wasn’t.

It goes on quite a lot about straining, such as when, observed from a distance by her husband, the unfaithful Ginny Stearns walks off with a stranger, “... her breasts and thighs straining through her dress to rest against the stranger’s side” (page 81). Then on page 108, when the thirteen year old Allison MacKenzie parades in front of a mirror wearing padded foundation garments “... the top of her new dress swelled magnificently, the fabric straining against her rubber breasts...”

The book is obsessed with breasts. One biographer of Grace Metalious suggests that defining women according to their breasts was only to be expected in an age when Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell and Jayne Mansfield filled the screens, but feminist ideologies escaped me then. I was simply fascinated that Betty Anderson’s nipples were “always rigid and exciting and the full, firm flesh around them always hot and throbbing” (page 203), and I paid careful attention to the dangers explicit in the scene, when Rodney Harrington, driving a speeding car, takes his hand off the wheel to reach for the hard exposed breasts of his female companion and drives straight under a brightly lit trailer truck (page 314).

I know the page numbers because I noted them down faintly, in pencil, just inside the back cover, so I could find them again. I especially liked page 150 when Michael Kyros rips off Constance MacKenzie’s still wet bathing suit and “... she felt the first red gush of shamed pleasure that lifted her, lifted her, lifted her and then dropped her down into unconsciousness.” It produced strange stirrings in the trouser department.

Clive Anderson said that radio is like television but with better pictures. If this, by extension, applies to novels, it was surely true of Peyton Place. I have never seen either the film or television series it spawned, but I cannot image that five hundred episodes of the 1960s soap could sustain the same intensity, despite having Ryan O’Neal, Dorothy Malone and a very young Mia Farrow. On the 14th August, 1965, around a year after the author, Grace Metalious, drank herself to death at the age of thirty-nine, I noted in my diary it was one of the best books I’d ever read.

Today similarly scandalous tales of drunkenness, incest, rape, abortion, illegitimacy, high-school sex and patricide are everywhere, not least on pre-watershed mainstream television drama set in schools. They leave nothing to the imagination and you are in no doubt that these things could easily occur even in small towns in Yorkshire. Still uglier things, obnoxious and amoral, are widespread on the internet. Peyton Place would hardly count as soft porn now.

Am I mistaken in thinking the world a much kinder place, free and innocent, when you could feel grown-up drinking 2% shandy, and reading Peyton Place under the bedclothes was the height of wickedness? 
 
 
Notes
- You can download a PDF, Epub or Mobi (Kindle) copy of Peyton Place (and a large number of other public domain books as mentioned in my preceding post) from https://www.fadedpage.com/showbook.php?pid=20160613. Some of the television programmes are on YouTube. The names of the characters differ slightly in the English, American and television versions.
- Top Deck Shandy may have had paper labels in the 1960s, as opposed to the printed cans of the 1970s pictured.
- This interesting article touches upon how insidiously our health and safety culture and gender stereotyping were already beginning to change by the 1970s. 
- The sale of alcohol in the U.K. is regulated by the 2003 Licensing Act which prohibits the sale of alcoholic drinks stronger than 0.5% by volume to anyone under 18 (see section 191 ‘meaning of alcohol’).