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Sunday, 18 April 2021

Sungold

Question: if packets of tomato seeds contain an average of ten seeds, what is the chance that one will contain just four? I will come back to this later. 

Thirty years ago, the most popular television gardener in the U.K. was Geoff Hamilton. Here he is on the cover of the Radio Times wearing the same Marks and Spencer air force blue shirt as I had (Radio Times also lists TV programmes but has kept the same title since 1923).

In 1996, he wrote a column praising the virtues of Thompson and Morgan’s orange ‘Sungold’ cherry tomatoes:

        Ever since I first grew Thompson and Morgan’s cherry tomato “Sungold” I’ve rejected all others. For me, it has just the right balance between sweet and acid that makes it melt in the mouth. Mind you, I can’t afford to be a stick-in-the-mud, so I shall try others…

The column has been folded at the bottom of our seed box ever since. Sadly, Geoff Hamilton died shortly after it was published. He may not even have got to try the Sungolds he grew that year. His gardens at Barnsdale, Rutland, remain a much visited attraction.

They are pretty expensive as seeds go. They only put a small number in each packet, and, being F1 hybrids, they don’t re-seed themselves true to type so you have to buy new ones each year. Nowadays, they work out at between 30 and 50 pence per seed, and would probably be more if the patent had not expired and they were still only available from Thompson and Morgan.

We followed the advice and bought some, and, being able to afford not only the seeds but also to be sticks-in-the-mud, we have since rejected all others too. They are as good as Geoff Hamilton said. 

To return to the question I started with, about the probability of getting only four seeds in packets that have an average of ten. After pondering for some time, I’m afraid I still don’t know the answer, and neither do you unless you work for Johnsons Seeds of Newmarket, Suffolk, and can say how accurately the seeds are counted and whether packets are just as likely to contain more than ten seeds as less than ten seeds (in other words the spread and skew of the seed-count-per-packet distribution). I don’t think the question can be answered without this information. So let’s just guess the answer is: “very unlikely”.

What I do know is that I was pretty annoyed when it happened to me. About a month ago I opened a packet of Johnsons F1 Sungold tomato seeds, average contents ten, and found only four seeds. I am not sure when and where I bought them. I got them early last year, forgetting I had some left over from the year before.

I complained to Johnsons and after a few weeks received a replacement packet, but in the meantime I had bought another new packet to get things started. Tip: have a good feel of the packet before buying. Even if the seeds are too small to count, you can certainly detect the difference between four and ten.

Here are this year’s seedlings on their way from the house to the greenhouse to be moved into bigger pots. I always grow six seeds on the assumption they won’t all come up, but, as you can see, this year they did. Now, what are the odds of that?

 

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Salman Rushdie: Midnight’s Children

Salman Rushdie
Midnight’s Children (5*)

Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize in 1981 and was judged the best of the Bookers both in 1993 and 2008. I anticipated something outstanding. It certainly seemed so in the early pages:

       “One Kashmiri morning in the early spring of 1915, my grandfather Aadam Aziz hit his nose against a frost-hardened tussock of earth while attempting to pray. Three drops of blood plopped out of his left nostril, hardened instantly in the brittle air and lay before his eyes on the prayer-mat, transformed into rubies. Lurching back until he knelt with his head once more upright, he found that the tears which had sprung to his eyes had solidified, too; and at that moment, as he brushed diamonds contemptuously from his lashes, he resolved never to kiss the earth again for any god or man.”

Yet, several times as I read through (and it is long), I began to think of it as a four star book rather than five.   

It tells the story of Saleem Sinai and his family, and the way that story intertwines with the bloody conflicts of the Indian subcontinent. We learn about the horror of the Amritsar Massacre in 1919 when the British Army opened fire upon a crowd of unarmed civilians killing 379 and injuring over 1,200, Indian independence and the partition of Pakistan in 1947, the Bangladeshi wars of 1971-72, and the bulldozing of the Delhi slums and forced sterilization programme of 1976. Country and family are intricately interconnected: Saleem believes he shapes history and that history destroys his family. This, though, is the fictional Saleem’s fictionalised version of history: “... in autobiography... what actually happened is less important than what the author can manage to persuade his audience to believe...” (p270)

It assaults the senses with all the terrible noise, dirt, heat and stench of India, and its awful, heaving inequalities. There are wailing widows, midgets, giants, army officers, magicians, film stars, black burqas, poverty, illness, deformity, addiction and disability. Old men crouch in the dust beside the road chewing betel nuts, expectorating streams of red liquid into a spittoon placed further and further away, while street urchins dodge past, playing chicken. Saleem Sinai has an enormous nose which is congested with mucus and constantly drips snot.

The central conceit is that the thousand and one children born during the hour after midnight on the 15th August, 1947, the moment of Indian independence, have magical powers. One can change sex at will, another can eat metal, one can travel through time and yet another can perform real magic. Those born closest to midnight have the greatest powers: Saleem, born on the stroke of the hour, is telepathic and can read minds. All of the Midnight’s Children are able to communicate through him. He hopes that they will work together towards the good of India, but they disagree, and their powers are seen as a threat. Later, Saleem loses his telepathy but gains a hyper-sensitive sense of smell.

Saleem portrays politicians as ridiculous and corrupt. Prime Minister Morarji Desai drinks his own urine for its health benefits (absolutely true, “the water of life”; and if you think that’s disgusting you might prefer bottled cow urine instead, available from at least one London shop on the shelf underneath the naan bread; Desai, by the way, lived to the age of ninety-nine; one wonders what he would have reached had he not drunk so much of his own pee).

The Nehru-Gandhi clan comes off worst. Indira Gandhi perpetrates electoral fraud, economic corruption, wars, genocide, and the destruction of the Midnight’s Children. With them she destroys all promise and hope for a better India. She is “The Widow”, portrayed as a wicked witch with centre-parted hair “snow-white on one side, blackasnight on the other, so that, depending on which profile she presented, she resembled either a stoat or an ermine”, an analogue of her economy. Her 1975 State of Emergency brought about the suspension of civil rights, the jailing of political opponents, slum clearances and the compulsory sterilization of over six million lower class men. The sterilization programme was overseen by her eldest son, Sanjay Gandhi, who has “lips like a woman’s labia” (you will never look at photographs of him in the same way again). 

During the 1982 Festival of India in London, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had clearly not read the book, invited Salman Rushdie to lunch with Mrs. Gandhi. Rushdie declined. The lunch went ahead without him, during which Mrs. Thatcher said that she thought Midnight’s Children “a fine contribution to the Anglo-Indian cultural bond”. Indira Gandhi sat impassive and stony-faced.

The passage Mrs. Gandhi found most offensive was an accusation that she caused her husband’s death by cruelly neglecting him. She sued for libel at the High Court in London, and won. The passage was removed from all future editions. Libel by a fictional character is still libel.  

Why did I doubt the brilliance of the book? The problem lies in its length and complexity, the frequent digression, the unfamiliar cultural, religious and geographical references, and the enormous cast of characters. It is like a Victorian or Russian novel. I think Rushdie must have done this deliberately to reflect the disorder of crowded, intermingling lives. Despite him giving them distinctive names such as Hairoil, Nussie the Duck and The Brass Monkey (names which sometimes change), I found it hard to remember how they all fitted in, or to care.

I did find myself thinking about the story a lot after reading (always the sign of a good book), and writing this has helped clarify things. Having now found lists of characters and vocabulary, I would get more out of it a second time, perhaps in a year or so. 


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.

Friday, 9 April 2021

Council Tax

It is once more that time of the year when the charges for council services and water go up. I have a note of what we have paid in this same house over nearly 30 years. 

Charges (£)
 1993-1994    2021-2022    increase
 Council Tax     562   1727    x 3.07
 Water and Sewerage    225   758  x 3.36


According to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator, these bills would have multiplied just 2.08 times had they increased in line with consumer price inflation: i.e. the figures for council tax and water would have been £1,170 and £469. In other words, we are now paying half as much again as we did in 1993.

It feels like we are paying half as much again for half as much. There used to be better bus services, the dustbins were emptied more often, roads and footpaths were better maintained, there were more libraries and they were open for longer, there was an enormous choice of adult education classes in arts, crafts, sports, languages and practical subjects at a wide range of locations, there were literary and arts festivals, and concerts with visiting orchestras.

As regards water and sewerage, why should that be so much more expensive (I know, it will cost less with a water meter when the kids have finally left)? Is it because of leaks, or because of privatisation and profits?  

I don’t want to get into the murky, smoke and mirrors world of local government finances (especially the funding of schools and the police) other than to summarise Which? magazine in that the money raised from council tax goes towards funding local services such as maintaining roads, collecting bins, providing bus services, cleaning streets and social care. 

That last category accounts for one heck of a rapidly growing proportion, now approaching 60%, nearly £26 billion per year. The Local Government Association adds: “As a result, councils may have no choice but to spend much less on other important services like fixing roads or maintaining parks and libraries.”

Monday, 5 April 2021

Occupational Therapy Corners

The last post about the stair rail attracted more comments than usual. They ranged from the resigned to the resolute. The gist seems to be ‘hold on tight as you descend the slippery slope.’

As mentioned once before, Mrs. D. is an Occupational Therapist. Not everyone knows what they are or what they do. When I went to register our son’s birth, the clerk asked for the mother’s occupation and then wrote “Occupation Therapist” on the certificate. “No,” I said, “it’s Occupational Therapist – it has ‘al’ at the end.” If I hadn’t checked again, I would have left that office with a certificate showing the mother as an “Occupation Therapistal”.

Occupational Therapists provide equipment and therapies to help people regain their daily lives after serious illness or injury. Mrs. D. therefore very much approves of stair rails and anything else that make homes safer. She also informs me that our stairs, being straight, will be perfect for fitting a stair lift.  

Another previous post, from 2019, included this picture of our kitchen. You may notice that the cooker hood protrudes at just the right height for clumsy tall persons to hit their heads. It has quite sharp corners. Heads tend to bleed rather a lot. I’ve now done it once too often. It’s much better today, thank you. I’ve just spotted that the cooker hood now has these neat enhancements. I call them “occupational therapy corners”. What next?


Thursday, 1 April 2021

New Month Old Post: Stair Rail

(First posted 9th October 2018)

Soon after moving to our current home nearly thirty years ago, I fitted a handrail to help my ageing father and struggling mother-in-law get up and down stairs. They hauled themselves up, breathless, with stiff backs and aching knees, and then eased themselves down, woodwork and bone groaning as one.

I brought it home on top of the car, which was a bit risky because at 14 feet long (4.25 metres) it stuck out both front and back. It’s a pig’s ear handrail – a reference to the cross-sectional shape, not the quality of fitting.

Neither my father or mother-in-law need it now, but even in my darkest moments, I never imagined that I would. 

Monday, 29 March 2021

Niall Deacon: Twenty Worlds

Niall Deacon:
Twenty Worlds: The Extraordinary Story of Planets Around Other Stars (1*, but possibly 5* for some)
 
I have a backlog of books to write up. 
 
Twenty Worlds is a clear account of difficult concepts explained by means of well-chosen analogies to make them accessible to non-specialists. Enthusiasts of the undoubtedly brilliant scientific reasoning behind astronomical discovery might well give it five stars (there is, after all, no shortage in the universe) but I couldn’t finish it. Unjustly, under my system, that scores only one.

It is a personal starring system, as personal as the giving and receiving of books. You express how much you like a particular book – namely Andrew Cohen and Brian Cox’s The Planets, reviewed previously in November – and receive others perceived to be similar. This isn’t. My expression should have been more specific. What it does is to select twenty planets orbiting distant stars and explain the methods by which they were discovered, and what they tell us. They have names like 51 Peg b. There is little about what these worlds might be like.

There are some interesting ideas. For example, how can we know there are planets around distant stars if our telescopes cannot see them? It turns out, in a sense, that when a planet orbits a star, the star also orbits the planet. It is a bit like a seesaw with you or me on one end and an elephant on the other. It would balance, but the balance point would be very close to the elephant. Strictly, Jupiter does not orbit the sun, it orbits a balance point just above the sun’s surface. The sun orbits the same balance point. Viewed from a distance, Jupiter’s orbit makes the sun appear to wobble towards and away, and from side to side. The earth makes it wobble too, but almost undetectably because the earth is much smaller and lighter than Jupiter. The earth-sun balance point is inside the sun close to its centre. This phenomenon reveals only huge, heavy planets.

But how do we know a star wobbles when we cannot even see that? Another analogy explains it: the Doppler Effect, i.e. the way the sound of a fire engine changes from a higher to a lower pitch as it passes by. This happens because, when the fire engine is moving towards you, the sound waves are closer together than when it is moving away (the waves still travel at the same speed but are emitted from increasingly closer points and then increasingly distant points). The same happens with light. So, if the orbit of a planet causes a distant star to wobble repeatedly towards and away from us, the frequency of the light keeps changing. The spectrum of light from a star contains dark lines where some frequencies have been filtered out by local conditions, and these dark lines will oscillate towards one end and then the other end of the spectrum. That is what we are able to detect.

It gets cleverer, such as detecting planets by variations in the brightness of stars as planets move in front of them, and analysing the spectrum of light emitted by a planet to determine the constituents of its atmosphere. It is even possible to photograph some of these planets: the book includes a picture of four white spots around star number HR 8799 and discusses the imaging techniques that make this possible. 
 
And so it continues. In essence, this is astrophysics without the mathematics. I gave up. Lazy, I know, but just like in a neutron star, electron degeneracy pressure was unable to stop my brain from collapsing in upon itself and pulsing out radio waves.

If you find this fascinating, this may be the book for you.


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.

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath:
The Bell Jar (5*)

Another classic not read until now, prompted by the recent news story that permission has been granted for a devotee of the author to be buried near her in the same churchyard at Heptonstall, Yorkshire. Despite living two hundred miles away, the 44 year-old woman has long admired Plath’s writing and had felt “profoundly spiritual” during a visit to the church. It illustrates the strength of attachment some still feel for Sylvia Plath and her stories and poetry.

Published in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, and not under her own name until posthumously in 1967, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a Roman à clef novel giving a fictionalised account of events from her life.

Esther Greenwood, a clever young woman who sails through school, wins scholarships and writes brilliantly, secures an internship with a prominent New York women’s magazine. Initially, she muddles through, despite being socially out of her depth and unimpressed by the glamorous lifestyle of the magazine and its editor, Jay Cee. This first half of the story amuses and entertains, rather like The Catcher In The Rye, but better, with a likeable female story teller.

The imagery is rich and abundant. She sees her life spread out before her like the branches of a fig tree, with wonderful futures like fat purple figs beckoning and winking at the tip of every branch, but:

“I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” (Chapter 7)
The signs that all is not well are there from the start in the way she dwells upon things, such as her ex-boyfriend, virginity, the subservience of women, death, medical specimens of dead foetuses in bell jars and the execution of the Rosenbergs – the American couple convicted of spying for the Russians.
“I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick … I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive along your nerves” (Chapter 1)
It is a portent of what is to happen to Esther. She descends into mental illness and is treated by a psychiatrist who administers electroconvulsive shock therapy (ECT) in a brutal way, after which she refuses further treatment. As her mental state worsens, she contemplates various means of suicide. This is a difficult and disturbing part of the book to read.
“I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles, threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three...nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see a single pole beyond the nineteenth.” (Chapter 10)

Eventually, she hides in the cellar and overdoses on sleeping pills, but survives. With the support of the benefactress who had funded her scholarship, she is treated at an upmarket psychiatric hospital where she receives insulin therapy and further ECT, and begins to recover her sanity. The story ends in a degree of hope and optimism, and is by no means as depressing as it might sound.

Plath’s own early life followed a similar course: born Boston, Massachusetts, academic brilliance, a spell at Mademoiselle magazine, mental illness, a suicide attempt, psychiatric treatment and recovery. She began to write poetry and short stories, and won a Fulbright Scholarship to Cambridge University, England. She married fellow poet Ted Hughes, a later Poet Laureate, and had two children, but separated when she discovered he was having an affair. In the following months she wrote many of her most acclaimed poems, but then began to sink back into depression. She took her own life a month after The Bell Jar was first published, aged 30. Many hold Hughes responsible.

Some of us will have experienced bleak periods in our own lives – I once had persistent thoughts of jumping down a seven-storey stair well at work – but hopefully nothing like this. Mine have always been due to situations and circumstances rather than from within: reactive rather than endogenous. What an intense and troubled soul she was:  


The video link to her reading of her poem Ariel (in which she becomes, among other things, the horse she rides) if you cannot see it: https://youtu.be/w_iu-uT67aE  


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.

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Facial Animation

Back in December, I posted a piece about the automatic colourisation of black and white photographs. One of the web sites I mentioned, MyHeritage, has now added a new feature called Deep Nostalgia which animates faces. “Animate the faces in your family photographs”, it says. “Experience your family history like never before”.

It gives me an excuse to re-post this wonderful picture, taken before a boat trip from the Yorkshire seaside resort of Bridlington in 1929.

First, let’s look at what face animation does to our Prime Minister’s official photograph. The result may not be suitable for those of a nervous disposition. 

Where photographs have multiple faces, the tool crops out and animates one at a time.

I animated five of the faces from the automatically colourised version of the 1929 photograph, and put them together in the following video. They are (1) my grandad on the right, (2) my dad standing behind him, (3) the Somerset Maugham lookalike in the hat on the left (there is a crease in the original photograph), (4) the woman behind him, and (5) the wiry-haired man behind her:

I don’t know why some video segments are longer than others. I think the woman comes out best but it doesn’t really endear them to you. I certainly didn’t “spend the evening balled up in tears” as the following news report implies. It also touches upon the dangers of these tools.

The MyHeritage site only allows you to animate five faces before asking for money. However, my experiments were carried out in collaboration with my very good friends Mickey Mouse, Billy Liar and Seán ÓEigeartaigh. Between us, we were able to do it without paying. Their assistance was greatly appreciated. 

 Video links if you can’t see them:

Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Plagiarised

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but having your writing and research stolen most definitely is not. That’s abuse. It recently happened here. This is what I managed to do about it.

Left: screen grabs from parts of my own page. Right: screen grab from part of the offending page. 


At the beginning of January, I planned a different New Month Old Post from the one I used. It was about a guitar teacher called Eric Kershaw who taught an evening class at Leeds College of Music in the early nineteen-seventies. He had been one of Britain’s top ‘swing era’ guitarists of the nineteen-thirties and -forties, playing in leading bands and West End shows, with his own programme on national radio. His 1946 book, Dance Band Chords for the Guitar, sold an amazing seven and a half million copies. He later became a lecturer in jazz guitar at Leeds College of Music. My post recalled what his class was like and how much I enjoyed it. Much of this was down to Eric’s eccentric brilliance.  

I first posted it on the 1st August 2015, and, in considering re-posting, I looked around to see if any more recent information had come to light. I discovered a page on a WordPress site which, astonishingly, apart from minor re-sequencing, contained over 1,300 verbatim words and two original images from my own post. That goes well beyond “fair use”. I was extremely annoyed. My original piece had taken considerable time and research.

The only contact channel on the site seems to be through comments on an ‘About’ page, so I left a complaint. That was on the 4th January. Comments are moderated, and my comment was not approved. A later comment by someone else on the 8th January was approved, which makes it likely that my comment was seen. I therefore gave fourteen days notice requesting acknowledgement of my material and a link to my page, with a warning that I would otherwise file a copyright claim with WordPress which could result in the whole of the site being shut down.

When this was also ignored, I demanded my material be removed immediately. This is the comment I made on the 22nd January 2021.
You have not responded to my earlier request. You cannot simply steal other people's original content and post it as if it is your own. My piece was published online in August 2015 at https://www.taskerdunham.com/2015/08/eric-kershaws-guitar-class.html   My email address is taskerdunham@btinternet.com   I now require that you remove all my content from your WordPress web site immediately.

WordPress regards breaches of its terms and conditions as a serious issue. They provide a page explaining how to report content that is spam, unsuitable or abusive (https://wordpress.com/support/report-blogs/), and for breaches of copyright they make it easy to submit a Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) Notice:

If your copyrighted material has been used without your permission and in violation of the law, please submit a formal DMCA notice by following the instructions found here: http://automattic.com/dmca

I completed the form giving details of my site, the offending site, and the material involved:

The copyrighted work is a blog page recalling the copyright holder’s personal memories of a musician called Eric Kershaw. The offending site reproduces this material from Paragraph 6 on the offending page, beginning “In the autumn of 1974  …” Practically the whole of the remainder of the page is a verbatim copy of material which begins at Paragraph 5 of the copyright holder’s page, comprising approximately 1,300 words and 2 original images of music. 

WordPress agreed and it did the trick. This is what the Eric Kershaw page looks like now.

WordPress will have notified the site owner giving the opportunity to challenge the removal. This has not happened to date. I keep checking that my material has not reappeared on the site. If it does, Wordpress would probably remove the site completely. 

Blogger provides a similar way to report offending content at: https://www.blogger.com/report

I have added a copyright notice to my blog using the Attribution gadget in the Layout section. For what good it does, the following now appears at the bottom of every screen:

Original text and images © Tasker Dunham. Copyright will be vigorously defended.

Monday, 1 March 2021

New Month Old Post - Votre Billet Monsieur?

(First posted 27th August, 2014)

“Billet?” “Votre billet, Monsier?” I will never forget the French word “billet” for as long as I live.

I had been staying with a Belgian family on a school exchange visit. They had put me on the right train at Charleroi and I had waved goodbye with feelings of relief and sadness: relief at no longer having to struggle in French and sadness because I had had a great time and would miss them. Having been there on my own for two and a half weeks, I was looking forward to being with English speakers again.

My French had improved enormously, although not enough to be entirely aware of what was going on. Sometimes things just happened without forewarning, such as going out sightseeing, or into town, or to the cinema, or to visit someone. You rarely knew what each moment would bring. At the age of fifteen it seemed simplest to cultivate an attitude of passive acceptance. It served me well that morning.

I was to join the rest of my school party at Bruxelles-Midi. After less than thirty miles, or should I say forty five kilometres because it was a Belgian train, the train reached Brussels and started to slow down. It came to a stop. I peered out anxiously to read the station name. “No, not this one,” I decided. It was Brussel-Zuid. Everyone else got out. I sat watching the bustling foreign platform, quietly waiting for the train to move on. It was a big mistake.

The problem is that Belgium is a two-nation country. There are the Walloons who speak French and live mainly to the south of Brussels where I had been staying, and the Flemish or Belgian-Dutch speakers who live to the north. The two nations are suspicious of each other, and, where they intersect, as in Brussels, signs are written in both languages to help minimise the antipathy. The station name, Brussel-Zuid, appeared to be Flemish for Brussels South. I wanted Bruxelles-Midi, which I decided must mean Brussels Central. I should have known better. Just rudimentary knowledge of French is sufficient to realise how very wrong this is. I must have left my French back in Charleroi in my eagerness to get home.

I knew something was not right as soon as the train started to move. The names on the station totems were alternately in Flemish and French, Flemish and French, Brussel-Zuid and Bruxelles-Midi, Brussel-Zuid and Bruxelles-Midi. With helpless horror, I realised they were the same station. The names switched in time with the clickety-click of the wheels as the train picked up speed. Not only do the two kinds of Belgians disagree about which language they speak, they cannot even decide what this particular station should be called.

‘Midi’ is of course French for ‘mid-day’. It is one of the first words you learn, as in après-midi, meaning afternoon. Because the sun is in the south at noon, the French-speaking Belgians in their wisdom call the southern station Bruxelles-Midi (Brussels Mid-Day). Where else would you find such logic? How come they were allowed to keep such eccentricities when we had to give up our shillings, pence, pounds, ounces, pints, gallons, feet and inches? They used to be perfect for bamboozling the French and Germans.

I was on the express train going north to Antwerp. Not only that, but all the other passengers now seemed to be Flemish speakers who might be unhelpful towards someone attempting to speak in French. I caught the attention of a smartly dressed but kindly-looking young woman sitting opposite me. With an awkward and badly modulated “Excusez-moi, Madamoiselle”, which stopped the conversation throughout the whole carriage, I asked anxiously in French whether the station we had just left was Bruxelles-Midi. Fortunately, she answered in a French accent I was able to follow. As the train shot through another station without stopping she confirmed that it was.

“Ce que je vais faire maintenant?” (What am I going to do now?), I asked with resignation.

“Descend ici” (Get off here) she said. It was a considerable relief to be told there was another stop before Antwerp, at Brussel-Noord (Bruxelles-Nord or Brussels North).

I left the train. This was a much quieter station. I sat with my luggage on the deserted platform. Before too long a train came in the opposite direction. I got on, sat down, and fiddled sweaty-handed with the ticket inside my trouser pocket. It quickly became an illegible, misshapen pulp. For all I knew, the train could have been going anywhere. I just hoped it was going back to Bruxelles-Midi and not straight to somewhere in Germany or France. As I said, if you were fifteen, on your own in Belgium in 1965, unable to understand much of what was going on, the only thing you could do was to adopt a position of passive acceptance. Psychologists call it ‘learned helplessness’. 

Inevitably, a ticket inspector came. He was dressed in a smart dark uniform which gave him an intimidating authority that made me think of the Gestapo. I handed him the lump of papier-mâché that had once been my ticket. He screwed up his eyes as he examined it, then looked back at me, then back at the ticket, and then at me again, and with an air of complete disbelief said “Votre billet, Monsieur?” “Votre billet?”

“Billet” – it’s the French word for ticket.

I was lucky. He concluded he was dealing with an anxious young English idiot and let me get off at Bruxelles-Midi.


Monday, 22 February 2021

Green Dog

This is Green Dog, a plaster model made my niece over thirty years ago when she was six or seven. Why is it green? Because her father, my brother, helped paint it. Like me, he had protanopia. He would have thought it was brown. He died when my niece was eight.

Protanopics have difficulty distinguishing browns from greens because we do not detect all of the red component of brown. For the same reason, orange is sometimes seen as yellow or light green because the red component of orange is weak. Red poppies fail to shine out from fields of green, and red fuchia flowers look nearly the same as the leaves. Purple and mauve look blue. Our ginger and white cat is delightfully camouflaged against the lawn, especially if there are snow patches. I’d be completely stuffed if there was a tiger in the garden.

Green Dog looks quite normal to me. I only know it is green rather than brown because someone told me, and because I ran samples of the head colour through Name That Colour (https://chir.ag/projects/name-that-color/#55642B) which identifies it as a mixture of browny-gray-greens with fancy names like “Woodland”, “Kelp” and “Verdigris”. 

On the bottom my niece wrote “To Grandpa from C---”, with four hearts and five kisses. My dad kept it for his last fifteen years, after which my daughter had it as a reminder of her grandpa. It has been neglected and ignored since long before she went to university.

Recently, it was my niece’s birthday. She has reached an age at which she has been of this world for longer than her father was. We packaged up Green Dog and posted it off to her with a note explaining that he (?) had been feeling lonely and rejected and thought he would be better looked after back in Sussex where he was born, in a house with three lively children – three grandchildren my brother never knew. 

My niece had no memory of it. She had to decipher her own writing on the bottom to work out what it is. It is now in her display cabinet. There is a three in four chance that one or both of her sons will see is as a normal brown dog too.


Sunday, 14 February 2021

Re-reading: Nevil Shute - A Town Like Alice

Nevil Shute: 
A Town Like Alice (4*)

Another paperback I remember getting through the nineteen-sixties Pan books offer, as mentioned previously. It was not a top choice but I was running out of options. I was surprised at the time how much I enjoyed it. And I enjoyed it again now, the first half, anyway. Compared to The Saint and James Bond this was far more satisfying.

I downloaded it to my new Kindle from the Faded Page site I also mentioned a while ago, which was naughty because the book is still under copyright in the U.K., but it makes no difference to Nevil now. How ridiculous these days that a book can be out of copyright in Canada but still within in the U.K. The Kindle, incidentally, is a front-light model which on just 4% brightness can comfortably be read in the dead of night without eyestrain or earstrain.

A Town Like Alice is indeed a book of two halves, the first set in London and Malaya and the second in Northern Queensland. I don’t want to spoil it other than to say is a powerful and engrossing story about the survival of a group of English women led by a strong, modern heroine, who are forced to walk from place to place across Malaya during the Second World War because none of the occupying Japanese officers will take responsibility for them. It was based on a real incident that took place in Sumatra rather than Malaya.

It is worth reading for this first part alone. The Australian second half of the novel is meanderingly “happy ever after”. 

Written in 1950, it has a lot of words and attitudes that would get you instantly kicked out of the Labour Party on multiple counts. Not that Shute would ever have been a member. He left England to live in Australia because he objected to the rise of the welfare state. His belief in the dignity of self-sufficiency and hard work is perhaps the major theme. 

However, I must mention the passing references to Driffield, Goole and Kirkby Moorside, my part of Yorkshire, which Shute would have known from his time as chief engineer on the R100 airship at Howden in the nineteen-thirties. Nice, Nevil, but it can never compensate for what you said in your autobiography about the hard-working local people: …the girls were ... brutish and uncouth, filthy in appearance and in habits ... these girls straight off the farms were the lowest types that I have ever seen in England, and incredibly foul-mouthed .... Did my grandma and her cousins tell you what they thought about you, you stuck-up wuss? 

It seems that books I most sought as a teenager (The Saint, James Bond) are less rewarding than the one I got just to make up the offer numbers. I am not sure, though, whether I will read any of these authors again. I’ve got Salman Rushdie next. That will keep me occupied for a while.


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.

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?

Brother Can You Spare a Dime sheet music cover

I know I keep going on about the folk band we are in, but here’s a confession: I don’t really like folk music. Well, that does depend on what is meant by folk music. I am certainly no big fan of those relentless jigs and reels played at breakneck speed on fiddles and flutes without any light or shade.

One thing I am a sucker for, though, is the music of what is often called The Great American Songbook: the melodies of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and others, written roughly between 1930 and 1950. They really knew how to get your heart. 

Next time I get chance at our Zoom folk meetings, I’m going to sneak in Brother Can You Spare a Dime on the pretext that the tune is based on a Russian-Jewish lullaby the composer’s mother had sung to him as a child. His family had fled when he was nine to escape the pogroms in what is now northern Poland.

Here is my MuseScore arrangement for guitar and bassoon. The bassoon sounds great. It sounds even better when Mrs. D. plays it for real. 

OK, I’ll shut up about MuseScore now for a couple of months.

Brother Can You Spare a Dime was composed in 1931 by Jay Gorney with lyrics by E. Y. ‘Yip’ Harburg (his middle name was Yipsel). It has been called the anthem of the Great Depression. It asks why honest Americans who served their country building railroads and skyscrapers, ploughing fields and fighting wars, “always there right on the job”, have been abandoned to the bread lines. Some saw it as anti-capitalist propaganda and tried to have it banned. Recordings by Rudy Vallée, Bing Crosby and Al Jolson were massive hits at the time and may have influenced the 1932 election of President F. D. Roosevelt and his ‘New Deal’. 

It is said that when Harburg and Gorney were writing the song they had struggled to find consistent meaning. They went for a walk in New York’s Central Park, where a destitute young man with collar up and hat down approached them and begged: “Buddy, can you spare a dime?” They looked at each other and knew they had their hook and their title. 

Bing Crosby’s version was the most successful. I prefer Rudy Vallée’s – he sticks to the tune whereas Crosby bends it slightly to his own interpretation. But then, I like lots of things by Rudy Vallée. Al Jolson, to my mind, goes too far in that it starts to become more about how dramatically he sings it. The song is supposed to be about fear, grief and anger rather than sadness and loss. We have gone from relentless jigs and reels towards weeping sentimentality, which I don’t like either. However, Jolson does not go as far as George Michael’s more recent makeover. The YouTube video of one of his live performances, in which the audience whistle and cheer every time he sings a long note, just looks and sounds wrong. It might be less unbearable in audio-only. There are well over fifty other recordings, too. 

For those who like lyrics as well as melodies, perhaps to sing as a lullaby to imbue their grandchildren with a sense of social justice, Harburg’s words are powerful and moving. I especially like the line about “Half a million boots...” This is the guy who went on to write the lyrics for The Wizard of Oz including Somewhere Over The Rainbow, who only became a lyricist after the Wall Street Crash put his electrical business into bankruptcy.  


They used to tell me I was building a dream
And so I followed the mob
When there was earth to plough or guns to bear
I was always there right on the job

They used to tell me I was building a dream
With peace and glory ahead
Why should I be standing in line
Just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it's done
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once I built a tower up to the sun
Brick and rivet and lime
Once I built a tower, now it's done
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell
Full of that yankee doodly dum
Half a million boots went sloggin' through hell
And I was the kid with the drum

Oh, say, don't you remember, they called me Al
It was Al all the time
Say, don't you remember, I'm your pal
Buddy, can you spare a dime?
 

In the nineteen-seventies, the New York Times invited Harburg to write more contemporary lyrics. He came up with:

Once we had a Roosevelt
Praise the Lord!
Life had meaning and hope.
Now we're stuck with Nixon, Agnew, Ford,
Brother, can you spare a rope?

Perhaps we need an update for today.

Monday, 1 February 2021

New Month Old Post: Kinder Scout

A favourite Derbyshire walk through the years, possibly a metaphor for life 

(first posted 13th January, 2018, 1550 words)

A walk on Kinder Scout (route from an early John Merrill book)

The bleak Kinder moorland can be incongruously beautiful on a fine day, but it was not like that on my first visit in 1974. It was dark and grim, covered in cloud, difficult to know where you were heading. As we ascended Fair Brook, veils of thick, grey mist closed around us, washing away the last of the autumn colours. Drizzle drifted down from the plateau, permeating our cagoules and soaking my canvas rucksack. It had been drenched so often it was beginning to smell like a bag of old socks. It could have been a metaphor for my life at the time: three jobs inside a year and a pointless, wasted term at teacher training college.

Fair Brook crags: 1974
Seeking shelter: Fair Brook crags, 1974
Kinder is a silly place to be out in bad weather, but Neville and I likened ourselves to hardened Himayalan mountaineers. I had even started to grow a beard like Chris Bonington’s, a new self-image to get life and work back on track. The comparison was ridiculous, but role models and self-images can be helpful. There is nothing wrong in trying to find a bit of mental strength and inspiration, despite the obvious differences between the Himalayas and the Derbyshire Peak District, or for that matter, between a fearless expedition leader and an assistant accountant in an office.

We sheltered under overhanging rocks at the top of Fair Brook to eat our sandwiches. From there we took a rough bearing across the moor to Kinder Downfall: about 255 degrees. In more forgiving terrain, you would pick out a distant landmark and head towards it, re-checking your compass just now and again, but distant landmarks are few on Kinder Scout: there is only moor and sky if you’re lucky, and mist if you’re not. You can believe it the roof of the world where abominable bipeds dwell.

Kinder Scout: spring 1975
An abominable biped on Kinder Scout: spring 1975

The surface is broken into a maze of peat ridges, or ‘hags’, by deep, slippery trenches known as ‘groughs’, which twist and turn like waves in a sea of mud. Groughs can be fifteen feet deep (five metres), and there are a lot of them to cross.

Hags and groughs on Kinder plateau: David Appleyard, Wikimedia commons
Hags and groughs on Kinder plateau, 2005

Just as in life, you glide effortlessly along the tops of the hags until they veer off in the wrong direction or lead to a patch of impassable bog. You backtrack, looking for a place to cross, and descend into a grough, half-walking, half-sliding, only half in control, struggling to keep your balance and stay clean and dry. Inevitably you end up smeared in black peaty mud. You follow the grough until it narrows to a steep watery ‘V’ where, legs apart, one at each side, you struggle to continue. Or again, the grough turns in the wrong direction or leads into a pond. You look for a place to climb out and follow the tops of the hags again. Before long, you are laughing like a toddler stamping through muddy puddles in Wellington boots.

You check your direction constantly but cannot tell how far to the left or right you have drifted. Soon you can be a hundred yards or more off course. You might be enticed into following footprints, but they can easily be from someone else who was helplessly lost, perhaps one of those abominable bipeds. You might see other walkers and decide to follow them, only to find they are wandering round in circles. You really have to trust your compass, no matter how fallible. Providing you do, then sooner or later you will come upon the River Kinder: not a river in the ordinary sense, but a wider, flatter trench than the groughs, with a stony and sometimes sandy floor. For most of the year you can walk westwards along its bed until you arrive high above the sheer gritstone gorge of Kinder Downfall.

River Kinder: 1974
The Kinder River: 1974

Kinder Downfall is the highest waterfall in the Peak District, where the Kinder River tumbles a hundred feet (30 metres) from the plateau. It is magnificent in spate, especially when the wind blows it back upon itself in a shimmering rainbow cloud. At such times it would not be unreasonable to call it Kinder Upfall.

Kinder Downfall in spate: Dave Dunford, Wikimedia Commons
Kinder Downfall (or should it be called Kinder Upfall?), 2005

We pressed on along the edge of the plateau – part of the Pennine Way – in our murky globe of gloom. We could just about make out the distinctive starfish shape of Kinder Reservoir below, but there were none of the distant views beyond Manchester to the mountains of Snowdonia you see in clear weather. We began to doubt our route. A couple of walkers came towards us, the only others we had seen all day. We asked whether we were on the right path for the Snake Inn. They looked doubtful.

“Probably, but it must be at least ten miles,” they thought.

That worried us. But that’s the thing about walking. It is a metaphor for life. Whether you are slogging up a mountain, plodding endless distance or trailing others in wretched misery, you have to keep going through the grit and grimness. You have to get back on the hags and leave the groughs behind. Usually you do. In my case, it was the accountancy that got left behind. The Chris Bonington thing really did help, even though Bonington would never have been an accountant in the first place, or had his sandwiches made by his mum.

It turned out we were right and the other walkers wrong. Within half an hour we reached the corner of the plateau above Ashop Head, where a steep slope descends to a signpost at the junction of the Snake Path and Pennine Way. Within another half hour we were at the derelict Ashop Clough shooting cabin where we stopped for the last of our coffee, and for Neville to smoke his pipe and reflect upon the meaning of things.

Ashop Clough shooting cabin: 1975 and 2011
The derelict shooting cabin in Ashop Clough: 1975 and 2011

Such as what did the shooting cabin mean? In 1974, it still sheltered you from the worst of the elements. You could just about visualise the cosy refuge it must have been for the privileged few before the “right to roam” trespass of 1932. The likes of us would not have been welcome then on the Kinder moors, I would have not been exploring different careers, and most of Bonington’s mountaineering pals would have been at work instead of climbing. The derelict structure was like a monument to social progress and freedom of opportunity. 

Tellingly, it provides no shelter at all now. During the last forty years or so, the east gable end, the fireplace and roof have disappeared without trace. The only slight improvement is to the bridge across the stream to Black Ashop Moor, which is now marginally sturdier than the precarious plank you once dared cross at your peril. Fortunately, you never had to. The route continues on the northern side of the stream and soon passes through woods to steps back up to the road.

Seal Edge looking towards Fair Brook
Looking along Seal Edge towards Fairbrook Naze on the far right

Since then, I have wandered this northern part of Kinder Scout at least a dozen more times, in every kind of weather. One summer day, when the sun was shining and the ferns and heather at their loveliest, I took my son and daughter, she was then only seven, across the bottom of Fair Brook and up to Seal Edge, forgetting just how far it is to return down the Fair Brook valley, but she did it without complaint. Another day, alone on the same route, I surprised two wild wallabies at the western end of Seal Edge, although not as much as they surprised me. They jumped out and disappeared across the moor before I could get my camera, leaving me wondering whether I had simply imagined them.

Icicles on the Snake Path: winter 1976
Icicles on the Snake Path through Ashop Clough: winter 1976

I have been on the Snake Path when the Ashop was frozen hard and long icicles lined the banks like crystal chandeliers. I have walked east along The Edge aiming for the top of Fair Brook and completely failed to recognise it (not alone I should add), and had to hitch a lift back to the car after finally descending to the road. That’s what happens on Kinder Scout when you arrogantly think you know it well enough not to look at your map and compass. I once tried to cross the top of Kinder from the Downfall to Fair Brook, which requires more accurate compass use than east to west, and after what seemed like an eternity, emerged way off course near Fairbook Naze looking over The Edge. Not accurate enough! When I eventually reached Fair Brook that day, the descent just about finished my knees. Lessons, lessons, lessons, but things turn out right in the end.

I suppose now, with satnav, you know exactly where you are all the time, but I’m not having one of those. It’s cheating. I don’t want to make things too easy for myself. It doesn’t fit my self-image, even though, unlike Sir Chris Bonington, I won’t be shimmying up The Old Man of Hoy at the age of eighty.

Ascent to Kinder Scout via Fair Brook, 1974 and 2007
Fair Brook with Kinder Scout in mist in 1974, and clear in 2007


Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Mickey’s Son and Daughter

Gorilla by The Bonzo Dog Band


In January 1971 (fifty years ago!), I went to Westfield College in London for the weekend to a friend’s twenty-first birthday party. Among his records, I noticed Gorilla by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, a humorous and quirky group of musicians in which Vivian Stanshall and Neil Innes were the best-known names. It was so entertaining I went out and bought it myself as soon as I got home. Even my dad liked it. One of its most memorable tunes is Mickey’s Son and Daughter.

Records usually get played for time and then put away and forgotten, which is what happened to Gorilla, but years later I heard Mickey’s Son and Daughter again, surprisingly at a ceilidh. The band had started off with Gallopede or some other dance in cut time, but then, as is the practice, they swapped to a second tune which I recognised as Mickey’s Son and Daughter. It fitted unexpectedly well. “The stork has brought a son and daughter to Mister and Missus Mickey Mouse”, I sang along to the future Mrs. D. while simultaneously attempting to impress her with my reeling skills. “It’s by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band,” I tried to explain.

As mentioned recently, our present-day folk band in which we play guitar and bassoon are currently meeting only through Zoom, and one of the regular agenda items is ‘Tune of the Week’. Anticipating my turn coming up again soon, I started to put Mickey’s Son and Daughter into MuseScore, and searched around for more information.  

Sheet Music - Mickey's Son and Daughter (Lisbona-Connor)

I had always assumed it to be written by Neil Innes or Vivian Stanshall like most of the other tracks on Gorilla, but, no, it wasn’t. It was written in 1935 by songwriters Eddie Lisbona and Tommie Connor, and first recorded by Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra. Other orchestras, including the Scottish Symphony Orchestra, included it in their Christmas concert programmes that year, drawing complaints in the press that it was not the sort of music leading classical orchestras ought to be playing. Nevertheless, it proved very popular.

Of the composers, Eddie Lisbona wrote dozens of songs for top performers, such as Gently (French Jolie) for Elvis Presley and Petula Clark (1961). Tommie Connor is best known for I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (1952) and the English lyrics to Lili Marlene (1944). 

The Henry Hall and Bonzo Dog versions are very different. I used ideas from both in putting together this MuseScore version. Here it is arranged for guitar and bassoon with default piano chords. It plays just once without the repeat. 

And to encroach on the territory of Immortal Jukebox, here are the Bonzo Dog and Henry Hall versions, and another recorded for the Woolworth's Crown label by The Rhythm Rascals. 

 

The Rhythm Rascals: Mickey's Son and Daughter

If the above videos do not appear for some reason, then the links are: 


For the record, the full lyrics on the sheet music are:

A million million people are happy, bright and gay,
The bells are ringing the steeple, it’s a public holiday.

All the world is so delighted, and the kids are all excited,
‘Cos the stork has brought a son and daughter to Mister and Missus Mickey Mouse.
All the mayors and corporations, have declared such jubilations,
‘Cos the stork has brought a son and daughter to Mister and Missus Mickey Mouse.

Pluto’s giving a party and before the fun begins,
He’ll present a Gorgonzola to the father of the twins.
Mister Preacher’s eyes are glist’ning, and he’s fixing up a Christ
ning,
‘Cos the stork has brought a son and daughter to Mister and Missus Mickey Mouse.

The news is quickly spreading, the Christening day is near,
The town in happiness is heading to the party of the year.

All the cats and dogs are dancing, and the ‘ole grey mare is prancing,
‘Cos the stork has brought a son and daughter to Mister and Missus Mickey Mouse.
All the cocks are cock-a-doodling, all the lovebirds are canoodling,
‘Cos the stork has brought a son and daughter to Mister and Missus Mickey Mouse.

Pluto’s singing a chorus with the tortoise and the hare,
Clarabelle is in the barn dance with a great big grizzly bear,
All the world is so delighted, come along, you’re all invited,
‘Cos the stork has brought a son and daughter to Mister and Missus Mickey Mouse.

 

The Henry Hall recording has an additional section sung in animal voices. As best as I can make it out (please do let me know if you can get the bits I can’t), it goes:

There
s a crowd around the house of Mister Mickey Mouse
Let’s hear it split the air now lets see who is there
I
m Percy Pig the postman and I bring the telegram
I
m Charlotte Sheep and I have come to see the little lamb
I
m Donald Duck just waiting till my verse I can recite
I
m Henry Horse and I have brought my band to play all night
I
m Gertie Dog the … [cannot make out this line]
I
m Bertie Bleat the donkey, I am a silly ass

But who is this approaching just when all the fun begins
It’s Willy Wolf the wicked man, he’s come to take the twins
(in evil voice) Hello twins. Nice little twins.
(Mickey) Oh save my son and daughter
We
ll spray the sky with water [?]
(wolf) I
ve got more than I ought to
[sounds of a fight]
[cannot make out this line]
The bad old wolf has gone now
And we had to save the son and daughter of Mister and Missus Mickey Mouse.
 

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Bloggers and Urinals

A postcard-sized notice appeared in the university toilets:

PLEASE DO NOT PUT CHEWING GUM IN THE URINALS
Next time I went, I took a pen, and, there being no one else around, added:
It makes it go hard and taste pissy.
I was a fifty-five year-old lecturer at the time.

I know! It was shameful. Cleaning the men’s urinals must rank amongst the most unpleasant jobs in the world. But what I am most ashamed about is that it was not entirely original. It echoes an item in Nigel Rees’s book Graffiti about cigarette ends becoming soggy and difficult to light. 

Yesterday’s post ended by recalling a similar incident from my student days when someone added a humorous comment to a humorous news sheet I had pinned to notice board. Who was the humourist in that case, me, or the person who made the undeniably funnier enhancement?

Which brings us to an issue that lies somewhere in between a simple dispute about terminology and a matter of deep philosophical importance of infinite significance to the future of humanity. What is a blogger?

Is a blogger only someone who posts blog posts, or can someone who comments but does not have a blog of their own also be considered a blogger?

It might not be as simple as it looks. It differs from writer and reader. What about blog writers whose posts consist of only a brief sentence or image but attract huge amounts of debate or comment? What about blog writers who do not allow comments? What if they allow only some comments? What if they never respond to comments or never comment on other blogs?

As for those who do comment, what if they make only brief or trivial remarks, or produce long erudite rejoinders that dwarf the original post and even take the subject off in a different direction?

This is something else I touched on yesterday. Rachel said that blog commentators without blogs were most definitely not bloggers. They are more like concert audiences or football spectators who could not in themselves (in that role) be considered to be musicians or footballers, even when their presence or participation alters the performances of the musicians and footballers on the stage and pitch, and even though the crowd is part of the football match experience.

I think there is more to it. When you go to a concert you don’t take your own instrument and play along, or at a football match you can’t run on to the pitch and help your team out (even though you know you could do better). But there are events at which large numbers of musicians play or sing together. Admittedly, it is not like singalong showing of ‘The Sound of Music’ where you dress up as Maria von Trapp (even the men), stand up, throw out your arms and join in with “The hills are alive …” as loud as you can. Cinemagoers are not film makers.

However, it seems to me that blog commentators are also a bit like members of facebook groups where the initial stimulus can be secondary to the responses. What, then, is a ‘facebooker’? Can you be a blogger on facebook?

If only life were simple. I feel truly in the urinals for arguing about it.

Monday, 18 January 2021

Writers At Heart

John Bull Printing Outfit 21

Bloggers are writers at heart. We paint patterns in words, feel their force and hear their harmonies.

A few have written for a living. At least one I follow, Brian Sibley, is an accomplished author and radio dramatist. He blogs but does not engage in comments. Another, Hameldaemepal, is, I believe, a retired journalist. He comments but does not engage in blogging. Others have enjoyed writing at work, say, as teachers or report writers. I even wrote computer manuals for a time.

Many of us have been writing all our lives. As a child, I tried to write stories and poetry, and intermittently kept an diary (“went trainspotting at monkey bridge”). I wrote a family newspaper to send to cousins (“Loch Ness Monster seen in River Humber”), forms for others to fill in at school (“Enter your name and address to join the Black Hand Gang” – so named because my John Bull Printing Outfit fortuitously contained a pointing hand symbol), and, as we did then, I liked writing letters. 

It continued after school. I attended a writers’ workshop in Leeds where one session was led by a tall chap called Harry. I’m not certain but suspect he was Jack Higgins. I should have paid more attention. At work, it was more fun writing spoof newsletters than studying for accountancy exams (“Mr. Hawkwind mugged on way back from bank with firms’ wages for the month of June. Over twenty pounds stolen.”). It got me into some trouble. Then, when I went late to university, there were spoof information sheets on notice boards.

I still have some of the university ones. The first arose out of the way we received assignment marks: through lists pinned up in the Department. Instead of by name, we were identified by anonymous numbers: 1501 62%, 0007 68%, 2486 55%. Number 0007 always did well, and, being a memorable number, everyone noticed. This irritated me somewhat because it was me. Very soon, my marks were public knowledge.

I could not resist retaliating with an imaginary set of results for an assessment of lecturers’ competence (never imagining that some years later such an exercise might take place for real). It went something like: 9507 74%, 8872 65%, 8077 58% … 9037 24%. Underneath it added: “Please would lecturer 9037 report immediately to Head of Department, Professor Brener.”

Never underestimate your readers. Next to the note at the bottom someone had written: “It is Professor Brener”.

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Snowy Pictures - compared to 2013

A short walk near the village this afternoon









And here for comparison is the same road on the 24th March 2013