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Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Rags and Bones

I heard shouting in the next street, the same few words repeated about once a minute. I couldn’t make out what they were. 

It reminded me of when I was little, when the rag and bone man came round with his horse and cart. I could never make out what his sing-song voice was shouting, either. It sounded like “You owe me half a crown” but it was probably more like “Have you any rags and bones?” His fierce, rough look terrified me. I would hide until he had gone.

You could hear him going up and down the back lanes (or ‘ten-foots’) between the rows of terraced houses where we lived. Eventually he would come along ours where I played. Housewives went to their back gates to give him old pots and pans, buckets with holes in, pram wheels with broken spokes, threadbare kitchen curtains, and, yes, he really did collect bones. Once, his horse deposited a stinking pile of manure just outside our gate. It kept me in for weeks until it bleached pale, crumbled, and was gradually washed away by the rain.

Steptoe and Son

The life of Rag and Bone men was portrayed pretty well in the very popular B.B.C. comedy Steptoe and Son, in which the son’s, Harold’s, pretentious attempts to better himself are constantly thwarted by Albert, his wily father. 

As with all successful comedy series, it quickly moved on from stories based on the situation to stories around the relationships between the characters. I particularly remember one 1972 episode, Men of Letters. It opens with them playing Scrabble. Harold wants it to be “… an erudite game calculated to increase one’s word power” but Albert is well in the lead with words like “pox”, “cock” and “bum”. Harold complains they are nothing but filth. “Yes, but they still count, don’t they,” Albert responds.

The shouting from the next street continued into ours. It was indeed some rag and bone men. I haven’t seen any for years. I don’t suppose they collect either rags or bones any more. Good job I hadn’t left my bike out. They drove slowly past in a small truck. No horse! Although, shouting like that all day must make them a little hoarse.

Friday, 23 July 2021

Walking In Iceland 3: to Sveinstindur

links to: introduction - previous day

Another extract from the notebook. Neville and I are on a guided walking tour in the south of Iceland with ten others. After two nights in the youth hostel at Reykjavik, today is the first day of the tour proper.

South West Iceland
South-West Iceland showing yesterday’s drive to Thingvellir, Geysir
and Gullfoss, and the walking route (east to west) in blue

Friday 26th August

The route consists of ten days walking from mountain hut to mountain hut across an isolated and uninhabited part of southern Iceland, a total distance of about 70 miles (112 km). Huts are roughly 12 miles (20 km) apart, although sometimes we stay at the same hut two nights running. We carry our own clothes and sleeping bags, and a share of the equipment and provisions. We are warned we might have to carry loads of up to 44 lbs (20 kg) although it is normally much less. It would be more but for the advance food depots left along the route by the tour organiser. We are also warned we should be able to walk double the distance in case of difficulties with routes or huts. These problems are only likely to arise earlier in the year, before mid-June, when there is more snow on the ground and the rivers are higher. Our walk, in August, is a soft option.

Dick Phillips in Iceland

The tour is organised by Dick Phillips’ specialist Icelandic travel service which has been operating since 1960.

Dick Phillips is something of a legend and sounds a bit scary. He possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of Icelandic landscape, culture and folklore. 

He first visited the country several times in the nineteen-fifties, initially on a month-long cycling tour, and then on expeditions to the interior, including the first unassisted coast-to-coast crossing of Iceland by bicycle. He worked on a farm and lived in an upland community before converting an old farm house into a hostel. 

The tour brochure shows him with a fearsome beard, wearing one of his distinctive Icelandic jumpers, checking out a glacial river crossing. He looks formidable, not to be messed with. He is also very smart. He appears to have sent the photographer across first.

Icelandic Mountain Bus

Despite being a walking tour, this first day does not involve much walking. It begins with a long cross-country ride of around 150 miles (240km) in a chunky, radio-equipped, four-wheel drive, low gear-ratio, Icelandic mountain bus. It needs all this kit. Soon after Selfoss, the bus turns left off the deteriorating road on to cindery, bull-dozed tracks, and then winds off-road across open country. It picks its way through volcanic wastes, swerving to avoid boulders, rising and falling to cross undulations and splashing through rivers. At one point it crawls diagonally down a steep, unstable hillside, hoping not to start a landslide. Few other vehicles would have been able to pass this point.

Hekla from Icelandic Mountain Bus
The view inside the bus, and out towards the Hekla volcano

We stop to pick up Paul, our tour leader, who is waiting in a Land Rover. We are a little wary, unsure what to expect. Is he going to be another tough mountain guy like Dick Phillips, a commando boot camp bully or a snarling Eiger Sanction assassin? Surprisingly he is a pleasant, young, bespectacled, quietly spoken human being with shorts and suntanned legs.

He asks for help to unload provisions from the Land Rover, and Neville, ever the volunteer, rushes forwards. It doesn’t need all of us, only two or three. Neville returns arms filled with loaves of bread, highly appropriate for someone who works for a Hull bread manufacturer. The provisions are piled on to the overhead racks and vacant seats so as not to be squashed by the rucksacks in the luggage compartment. As the bus bounces over the rough terrain, my views to the south of the dormant Hekla volcano [it would next erupt in 1980], snow-capped and shining in the sunlight, are frequently disturbed by loaves of bread raining down on me.

At the front people are asking Paul about the tour, other tours, the elusive Dick Phillips and “what happens if …?” sort of things. Paul speaks slowly, emphasising each word as if painstakingly chosen, with long pauses at full stops and commas. He has a nice line in irony and understatement. He would like to be able to promise us a fortnight’s weather like today but he can’t of course. “Has it ever rained for two whole weeks?” “Yes,” replies Paul, “but I can’t guarantee it.” Someone else asks about crossing glacial rivers. “Sometimes, you can even get the bottom of your shorts wet,” says Paul, as if it is a pleasure. 

Dick Phillips Walking Tour in Iceland

Eventually the bus drops us in the middle of nowhere, at the side of a small lake in a cindery, rock-strewn desert. We could be up a Knottingley slag heap: the Black Hills of West Yorkshire. Despite the evening sun, it is surprising how cold it is. There is a bitter wind. The provisions are divided up for us to carry, although Paul took the most. After about an hour’s walk across a stream (wet foot but not wet shorts) and a gap between gravel hills, we arrive at the Sveinstindur hut where we are to stay for two nights.

I can now put names to half the faces, but conversation remains guarded, formal and polite. It won’t last. We are about to be holed up together for a week and a half like Icelandic sheep herders.

Sveinstindur Hut, Iceland 1977
Arriving at the Sveinstindur hut. Paul the leader, with his massive carrying frame, is on the right.

Next part soon
Some names and personal details have been changed. I would be delighted to hear from anyone who was there.

Thursday, 15 July 2021

Walking In Iceland 2: Road Trip

back to: introduction - previous day

Thursday 25th August

Neville and I arrived in Iceland yesterday for a walking tour which does not begin properly until tomorrow. We have therefore hired a car for a trip to Thingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss.

Two others from the party have joined us: Gavin from Aberdeen who is a factory inspector, and Steve, a nuclear chemist from London. Steve is the one we spotted with his rucksack at the airport, who looks remarkably like our friend Gavin. But this other chap is also called Gavin. This is very confusing. I keep calling Steve, Gavin, and Gavin, Steve.

Thingvellir 1977

At Thingvellir, you see a cliff face. As you begin to ascend you suddenly come to a gorge running parallel with the face. A river runs along the bottom of the gorge from a waterfall on the upper cliff. It runs for some way before breaking through the lower cliff into the lowland. The strange topography marks the boundary between the North American and Eurasion tectonic plates. It was also the site of the Althing, the ancient Icelandic parliament, which met there for nearly nine hundred years until 1798.

Even in the sun it is cold, and there are intermittent showers.

Geysir, Iceland 1977 Geysir, Iceland 1977

Geysir, of course, has the geothermal hot water geysers. Out of holes in the ground that resemble the craquelure an avant-garde oil painting, they eject pillars of hot water and steam high into the air with a terrifying roar, subsiding into witches’ cauldrons of angry boiling water which gurgle ominously. It demands nerves of steel to stand close as they threaten to erupt and dissolve you.

Geysir, Iceland 1977

Photographing them requires split-second reflexes which Steve, apparently, does not have. He uses half a film and still misses it. If the famous but almost inactive, eighty-foot Great Geysir erupted, he would probably click the shutter just too late have to wait with his camera for the next thirty-five years until it went off again. He would then, almost certainly, still miss it.  

The sulphurous fumes, the noise, the hell on earth – I decided there and then it was best to be good and go to heaven. Film does not really do it justice. 

The same is true of Gullfoss. All that rushing water takes me back to the canning factory where I have been working, cleaning the machinery with a hose pipe. Channel that lot through and it would be spotlessly clean in an instant, assuming there was any machinery left, or indeed any building. I wonder what it would be like to jump in.

Gullfoss, Iceland 1977
Gullfoss, Iceland 1977

We end the trip with a short ride north towards the Langjökull ice cap, the second largest in Iceland and source of the Gullfoss waters, but we turn back at the first river crossing. We are in a Volkswagen, not a Land Rover.

Formal, polite conversation most of the day. It will be more spontaneous when everyone gets to know each other. Tomorrow is the first day of the walking tour, proper. 


(next part)
Some names and personal details have been changed. I would be delighted to hear from anyone who was there.

Sunday, 11 July 2021

Pounds, Shillings and Pence

The new ‘Turing’ £50 note brings yet another change to our U.K. currency. There seem to have been so many in recent years.

They used to be rare. When my grandpa gave me this set of Queen Elizabeth II coins in 1953, their denominations and basic appearance had remained more or less unchanged for decades. In theory, some coins in circulation were over two-hundred years old. Their nicknames – tanner, bob, florin – were part of popular culture.

My dad put the Queen Elizabeth coins safe in his black metal box and took them out now and again to let me look. I liked the lady in armour with her fork and shield (“Britannia,” he told me), the elaborate sailing ship (“The Golden Hind”), the different lions of the English and Scottish shillings, and the young Queen on the ‘heads’ sides. The penny and half-crown were biggest, but my favourite was one of the smallest, the tiny farthing with a “robin” on the back [as pointed out in the comments, it is a wren, and a sixty-eight year old misconception].

They were shiny bronze and silver then, but, like me, they have tarnished. Those whose packaging has also failed to preserve them will tell you there were twelve pennies to the shilling and twenty shillings, 240 pennies, to the pound. We can still, in our heads (Weaver?), do things like add 14s 10d to 11s 8d to get £1  6s 6d (i.e. fourteen shillings and ten pence to eleven shillings and eight pence, often written 14/10 and 11/8). It was a great way to bamboozle foreigners.

The only recent change to the coinage had been the introduction of the twelve-sided yellow threepenny bit in 1937 in place of a smaller, round, silver coin that was discontinued in 1945. The last significant change before that had been almost a century earlier with the introduction of the two-shilling piece in 1849. As one-tenth of a pound, it had been created with decimalisation in mind – a rare example of a government planning well ahead.

Since 1953, the only thing not to have changed is the Queen. Changes were slow at first but since then most coins have changed twice. First to go was the farthing which became so insignificant that none were minted after 1956. They were removed from circulation in 1961. The halfpenny (‘aipny as we called it) followed in 1969, and the half-crown in 1970, although that was to prepare for decimalisation in 1971, fifty years ago.

Decimalisation put paid to most of the rest. Pennies (‘d’) were superseded by New Pence (‘p’). One New Pence was worth roughly two and a half old pennies. Five new coins came in (½p, 1p, 5p, 10p and 50p) and the old ones were gradually withdrawn.  For six and a half months we used the old and the new side-by-side and became adept at switching between. That’s why we’re mentally nimble. One pound six shillings and sixpence? Easy! £1.32½. Some of the old coins had exact decimal equivalents, the lowest common factor being 6d which was worth 2½p, so provided you used the old coins in sixpenny clusters you were fine.

What came next? It’s nigh impossible to remember but I’m one of those sad people who look things up and make lists. 

  • The old sixpence, shilling and two shilling coins remained in use after decimalisation as 2½p, 5p and 10p coins. In fact, the new 5p and 10p coins were identical in size and weight to their older counterparts and had been introduced in 1968 to get us used to the idea. The sixpence lasted until 1980, and the shilling and two shillings until the early 1990s.
  • Also in 1968, a seven-sided 50p coin had replaced the paper ‘ten-bob note’.
  • In 1982, the inscription ‘NEW PENCE’ was changed on all coins to show the denomination, e.g. ‘TEN PENCE’. 
  • A seven-sided 20p coin was introduced 1982 and a round £1 coin in 1983.  
  • The ½p coin was withdrawn in 1984 and the paper £1 note in 1988. 
  • Three of the original decimal coins were replaced by smaller versions: the 5p in 1990, the 10p in 1992, and the 50p in 1997. 
  • A £2 coin was introduced in 1998, the first bi-metallic coin in Britain since the 1692 tin farthing. 
  • The original round £1 coin was replaced by a twelve-sided bi-metallic coin in 2017. It looks like the old threepenny bit and doesn’t seem to buy very much more.
  • There have also been several changes in the physical size and design of banknotes over these years, most recently between 2016 and 2021 when paper banknotes were replaced by polymer ones which slither and slide restlessly in your pocket and refuse to stay folded.

My grandfather probably thought the 1953 set of Elizabeth II coins would be a good investment. Not so. Even if the packaging had preserved them in mint uncirculated condition, which it hasn’t, despite not being opened in sixty-eight years, you would do well to get back the inflation adjusted equivalent of their face value: £9.50 for 7s 4¾d (seven shillings, four and three farthings).

Anyone would think it just a cynical ploy by the Royal Mint to make money from making money. I hang on to them only because they are things of beauty. They still live in my dad’s black metal box. These too:

1965 set issued on the death of Sir Winston Churchill, including a rarely-used five-shilling coin, the ‘Churchill Crown’. This was the first time an image of anyone other than a monarch had appeared on a British coin, showing the extreme high regard in which Churchill was held.

Another pre-decimalisation Queen Elizabeth II set dated 1966.

Crowns (five-shilling coins) commemorating the 1951 Festival of Britain, the 1953 Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and the 1981 Royal Wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer.
(Obverse ‘heads’ sides above, reverse ‘tails’ sides below). 

Wednesday, 7 July 2021

Walking In Iceland 1: to Reykjavik

(back to introduction)

Dick Phillips Walking Tour, Iceland 1977

I have a lot of pictures like this, of people carrying rucksacks, although mostly in more spectacular surroundings. Actually, this is not as unspectacular as it first seems. The distinctive spire of Hallgrímskirkja, built in the image of the rocks, mountains and glaciers of Iceland’s landscape, reveals it to be Reykjavik. We are trudging from the airport bus to the youth hostel. Neville and I do not know the others yet.  

1977 Iceland notebook

Wednesday 24th August

We underestimate the driving time to Glasgow. It leaves little time to spy on other rucksack wearers in the airport building. There are hardly any to be seen. Like us, they are probably creeping around in plain clothes trying to spot the others and weigh them up. The only one we see bears an uncanny resemblance to our friend Gavin, who was going to come, but couldn’t.

As we assemble at the Air Iceland desk, a trekking company rep. arrives with a letter to Neville giving him responsibility for organising the rendezvous. They choose him because he has been to Iceland before. Good choice. He likes organising things and is good at it. All he has to do is make sure we all get on the plane and don’t get lost when we get off.

Our party is twelve. From the rendezvous responsibility list I see that six are on their own. There is just one girl. I am keeping quiet about the list. It is addressed to me as well.  

As we wait at the departure gate, a choir of American teenagers begins to sing. Their harmonies ring around the large acoustic space, a magnificent sound, but thank goodness they’re not going on the walking tour too.

My first ever air flight. I can’t see out because I am in a gangway seat. Be careful not to let on it is the first time you have been in an aeroplane. Avoid displays of excitement. Do not lean across to take hundred of photographs. Do not gasp as the acceleration thrusts you back into your seat. Seasoned air travellers assume an air of detachment even when the ground appears over their shoulders at an alarming angle. Seasoned air travellers show no fear even when the plane is landing. So why do those American choir kids sound so scared?

Stamped Youth Hostel card, Iceland, 1977
We have to spend two nights in the school annex of the Reykjavik youth hostel before the walk proper begins. We had to join the YHA in preparation.

After an evening wandering around Reykjavik, I can see why Neville has no intention of spending all day tomorrow here as well. You can’t even get a decent beer because of prohibition. He has therefore hired a car for a trip into the interior. It sounds preferable to visiting Hallgrímskirkja. 

Nowadays you might also seek out elves, walk to the stainless steel sculpture of a Viking long boat, and visit the penis museum. No, you wouldn’t. You would still hire a car for a trip to the interior. Tomorrow: Thingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss.

(next part)

Monday, 5 July 2021

Walking In Iceland

Map of Iceland

It is 1977. We are strong, fit, active and in our twenties. We are about to go walking in the land of ice and fire. We will be flying to Keflavik (near Reykjavik) on Wednesday. 

Iceland Notebook 1977

There follows a saga based on this notebook. It was an organised group walk, backpacking through a wild and uninhabited part of Iceland. I will post at intervals over the next few months to allow time to transcribe and edit, and select photographs.

I nearly didn’t go. When friends Neville and Gavin first booked, I thought I couldn’t afford it. I was about to start university as a mature student and had been told it was likely I would have to self-fund the first term because of a previous term on a course abandoned a few years earlier. I worked twelve-hour nights in a canning factory to save up. The local authority then told me I had been awarded a full grant, which in those days was far more generous than student finance now. When Gavin had to drop out at the last minute because of work problems, I was in as his substitute. The canning factory money went on the Iceland trip and a high spec. stereo.

(next part)

Thursday, 1 July 2021

New Month Old Post: Philip Larkin’s Foot

 (First posted 2nd June 2015. Contains strong language.) 

“There I was driving through Holmfirth,” someone said, “and who did I see but Dora Bryan getting out of her car! She must have been filming Last of the Summer Wine. She’s ever so agile for eighty. It must be the dance training.”

“That’s nothing,” someone else said. “I queued next to John Simpson in Lakeland Plastics in York. He was on crutches through being injured in Bosnia.”

“Well, we spotted Ed Miliband in the buffet at Sheffield station,” said a third, “and then Nick Clegg came in. They were taking the piss out each other.”

Why do we have such a need to tell everyone about our encounters with fame? We all do it. The warm glow of vicarious celebrity?

I can’t even resist talking about others who come across someone famous, such as the bloke at work whose cousin was actor Bernard Hepton, or my landlady who lived in the next street to Diana Rigg’s parents. You could write a computer program to generate it: someone you know sees someone you’ve vaguely heard of in some situation at a particular location.

Another landlord told me how, when he worked nights in the ticket office at Leeds Central Station, “that great pansy” Jimmy Savile would turn up after the dance halls had closed, and walk noisily through the station concourse in his long bleached hair and flamboyant clothes drawing attention to himself. “Here he is again,” they used to say, “that big puff, looking for somebody to talk to and hoping to cadge a cup of tea.” We now know he was looking for something else too, but at the time my landlord’s views seemed a little outdated.

The Savile story was always followed by another about his daughter having been at school with Philip Stone, an actor with a head like a light bulb who was in every other television drama you saw.  

They gossip just as much in the fame business itself. In my first job we audited a studio where they made television adverts, where they thought it important to let you know that B.B.C. Look North presenters came in to record voiceovers, and that they once filmed with Benny Hill. “He went off on his own. No one knew where he’d gone. We thought we’d lost him. Turned out he’d gone to the pictures.”

My uncle was one of the few unaffected, despite meeting hundreds of politicians and celebrities through his work in Health and Safety in London. He was there when lasers were beginning to be used in visual effects at concerts, and was annoyed about having to work late one evening to evaluate the risks. “What an awful week,” he complained to his trendy secretary, “just about everything that can go wrong has gone wrong. On top of that I’ve got to attend some awful pop concert tonight  ... Tom Bowie? ... John Bowie? ... something like that.” His secretary was not very sympathetic. My uncle was subsequently quoted in the press as saying that some young girl will have her eye burned out before people realise how dangerous lasers are.

Well, let me tell you, I’ve had my own encounters too. There was the time with my mum on the promenade at Great Yarmouth when she suddenly said “That was Des O’Connor”, referring to a slim young man in sunglasses carrying a light jacket over his shoulder, who had just sauntered past in the opposite direction. “Who?” I asked, and remained little the wiser because his show was the one we didn’t bother to see. And I once saw Jack Charlton in his Range Rover in the Yorkshire Dales.

But my greatest claim to fame is that I stood on Philip Larkin’s foot. I was killing time in the university library so as not to have to bike home without a coat in the rain, when I came across an exhibition of original poetry manuscripts. There were some by Stevie Smith, and one in Andrew Motion’s tiny hand about an aeroplane appearing over the brow of a hill. No one had heard of Andrew Motion then. I knew him through being in one of his tutorial groups.

Other manuscripts were by the great man Philip Larkin himself, the Hull University librarian. That’s what I’d been peering at when, in the limbo-esque silence, I stepped back to move from one display case to the next and trod heavily on something lumpy, which turned out to be Philip Larkin’s foot. His gloomy, bespectacled hulk had been attempting to creep past unheard. I got the full-on, forehead-focused, withering laser-glare, directed through industrial strength frames and lenses. Bits of my brain were crisped and frizzled.  Any hopes I had of becoming a proper writer were clinically extirpated. Lucky I didn’t get my eyes burned out. He skulked off without a word.

Even this story is pretty feeble. The poet Roger McGough tells a much better one about his friend Neville waiting for a bus in the soaking rain when up looms Larkin protected by “the black dome of a capacious umbrella”. Neville eventually plucks up the courage to speak, “I did enjoy The North Ship [a collection of Larkin’s early poems],” at which Larkin glares back and says, “If you think you can begin a conversation with me in order to share my umbrella you’ve got another think coming.”

My day will come! Imagine them all together, burning in some blazing afterlife inferno, condemned to eternal damnation for their vanity:

O’Connor: Tasker Dunham? I remember him. His mother smiled at me at Great Yarmouth. Wonderful people! They loved my show there.
Rigg: I adored him. I knew him so well. He lodged near my parents.
Stone: How coincidental! He lodged with one of my schoolfriend’s parents too. Marvellous sense of humour.
Savile: Now then now then! That was my great friend, Mr. Night Time Ticket Office Man. How’s about that then?
Hepton: Wasn’t he the clever chap who worked with my cousin?
Hill: Yes, of course, where I filmed an ad. I wanted him to write a script for me.
Motion: Well I had the deep privilege of actually teaching him. Very bright. Profound postmodern-romantic sensibility.
Charlton: Handy with his feet too. Could’ve used him at Boro.
Larkin: Handy with his feet? That bastard Dunham! There he was, hatless in his cycle clips, perusing my verse in awkward reverence, when he stamped on my foot. Deliberate! Said he did not mean to but he did. As if he’d leapt off a coastal shelf. They fucked him up his mum and dad. Filled him with all the faults they had. And some extra. Glad I had no kids myself. I was only going to suggest he write one of those blog things to develop his style.


Philip Larkin’s image is from the cover of his book ‘All What Jazz’. 

Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was a leading English poet, novelist and jazz critic, who from 1955 was also the University Librarian at Hull. He was a tall, large, heavily bespectacled man who carried a perpetual air of gloomy misanthropy about him. He could also be hilariously funny. The last paragraph plagiarises two of his best known poems, ‘This Be The Verse’ and ‘Church Going’. 

Dora Bryan (1923-2014) was an English actress and comedienne. One of her last television roles was in the comedy series ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ filmed in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire. 

John Simpson (born 1944) is a veteran B.B.C. foreign correspondent. 

Ed Miliband (born 1969) and Nick Clegg (born 1967) were prominent British politicians who led the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. Both resigned their leaderships immediately after the 2015 General Election. Nick Clegg then left politics and is now a Vice-President at Facebook. 

Bernard Hepton (1925-2018) and Philip Stone (1924-2003) were actors from Bradford and Leeds who appeared in numerous British films and television productions during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. 

Diana Rigg (1938-2020) was an acclaimed English actress known for her major television, film and theatre roles, but perhaps most famous for her roles in the television series ‘The Avengers’ (1965-68) and more recently ‘Game of Thrones’ (2013-). 

Jimmy Savile (1926-2011) was a well known television personality and charity fundraiser who originated from Leeds. After his death it emerged he had been a highly prolific predatory paedophile and sex offender of gargantuan proportions. 

Benny Hill (1924-1992) was an English comedian and actor. He was widely popular in his day but subsequently fell out of favour because many considered his humour to be sexist. 

David Bowie (1947-2016) was an English singer and songwriter who many considered innovative. 

Des O’Connor (1932-2020) was a popular English comedian, singer and television presenter. 

Jack Charlton (1935-2020) was a Leeds United footballer and member of the England 1966 World Cup winning team. He later managed Ireland. When I saw him he was manager of Middlesbrough (“Boro”).

Andrew Motion (born 1952) is an English poet, novelist and biographer who lectured at Hull University from 1976 to 1980 and served the country as Poet Laureate from 1999 to 2009. 

Roger McGough (born 1937) is an English poet and author who was a student at Hull University from 1955, arriving there the same year as Philip Larkin.

Sunday, 27 June 2021

I’m Not A Foxglove

Every year, self-seeded foxgloves spring up all over the garden descended from a packet of seeds bought over twenty years ago. They were multiple colours then, but have now reverted mainly to natural pinks and purples.  

Those that come up in the vegetable patch get pulled out except for a few I transplant to the border next to the neighbour’s overgrown holly bush. It is rather dry there, but foxgloves cope with it well.


This year, one of the transplanted seedlings seemed a bit more hairy than the others. We thought little more about it until it grew taller and we began to wonder whether it is actually a foxglove. It turns out not to be a foxglove at all. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one before, certainly not in the locality. Where it came from is a mystery.

Anyway, now it is in flower we have worked out what it is. It should keep us safe from being turned into pigs. Here is a closer view and a picture clue. I doubt it will give us blossoms and almonds like that, though.

POSTSCRIPT: And here it is three weeks later. The metal post you can see in the first picture, above, is the bird feeder:

Thursday, 24 June 2021

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale (4*)

Having come to realise that the horrifically violent television serialisation of The Handmaid’s Tale exceeds by far anything in the original, I got the book. I certainly would not watch it. From what I’ve read, the televised version falls little short of militant Islamic beheading videos.

So, what did I make of the book? In essence, it’s a bit silly. Am I going to get into in trouble for saying that? It is feminist fiction about the subjugation of women in a totalitarian patriarchy. 

In the Republic of Gilead, women are the property of men. Some even take the names of the men to whom they belong. The narrator, Offred, ‘Of-Fred’ (sounds like ‘offered’), belongs to Fred, a ‘Commander’. She is one of the handmaids whose role is to bear children to leading men when their wives no longer can. Other women have other specified roles.

Handmaids wear colour-coded religious habits with winged hoods to prevent seeing anywhere other than on the ground ahead. They are pious and submissive, and walk with bowed heads. They are not allowed to read or write, or look at others, with compliance enforced by a system of severe physical punishments. Once each month, they are ceremonially raped by their commanders and their wives until they either conceive or are discarded.

Offred may go out, but only in the company of another handmaid, Ofglen. They are only allowed to whisper in permitted phrases.

… we peer at each other’s faces, looking down the white tunnels of cloth that enclose us…
“Blessed be the fruit,” she says to me, the accepted greeting among us.
“May the Lord open,” I answer, the accepted response.
… “The war is going well, I hear,” she says,
“Praise be,” I reply.
“We’ve been sent good weather.”
“Which I receive with joy.” (p29)

They pass through checkpoints and look at executed corpses hanging on a wall. Offred secretly needs to know that her husband from her previous life is not among them.

And here lies my problem. Offred, and everyone else in the republic, previously lived in a free Western society. She had her own name, friends, summer dresses, a house, a car, a cat, a husband, a child and a career. Then, suddenly, one day she finds her bank account has been frozen, and on arriving at work that she and all women have been “let go” from their jobs. She and her husband try unsuccessfully to escape. She is sent to a training school to learn her new duties.

It remains vague how long it took to establish the republic, how big it is or how its economy works. The changes seem to have taken place within just a few years because Offred previously had a child and is still of child-bearing age. Gilead also seems quite small but there are references to slaves, colonies and wars. Tourists and trade delegations visit from ‘normal’ countries. It is difficult to imagine how such a place could function.

In other words, albeit an entertaining read, I find the concept ridiculous. Whereas the post apocalyptic society in, say, The Chrysalids, is entirely believable, this is not. Could we really within the space of a few years move from a present day western society to one in which women are slaves to cardboard-character men and forced to take specific roles? Would we have stood for it?

But I’ve been had. I’ve taken it too literally. It’s a satire. It does not matter whether it could be possible. What matters is that this is what a brutal patriarchy, or any other repressive regime, might feel like. And yet, for me, it gave no strong sense of terror or foreboding. Perhaps the televised version does. I’m still not going to watch it. I have no desire to read the recent sequel, The Testaments, either.

The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985. Today, this kind of tyranny would be more of a possibility through big data, compulsory device tracking, surveillance cameras and denial of rights to specific groups or individuals, which could be any of us, men or women. Indeed, in some parts of the world, we can see it happening now. How far could it go?

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

Friday, 18 June 2021


This is Sooty, the first of five cats I’ve shared a home with. He wasn’t black all over but we called him Sooty anyway because it was a good name for a cat.

He came as a six-week old kitten from a friend’s cat’s litter when I was nine or ten. Oblivious of the omnipotent choice I was making, I picked the one I wanted when they were just a few days old and never thought to ask what became of the others. On the day he came to us, he lay on the carpet in a patch of sun as I built around him with my toy wooden bricks, buzzing in a peculiar way.

He would lie on the hearth rug stretched out by the fire, or sit in the garden with his fur puffed out looking cute. He would go to sleep in the best chair, paws trembling as he dreamed, furry radar ears tracking every sound. When it suited him, he would jump up to your knee, turn round a few times paws kneading, and settle down, soft and warm, fur moving to the rhythm of his breathing.

But in a house with two boys he was teased a lot. Worse, I saw the lad who sometimes stayed next door swing him by his tail. He quickly learned to stand up for himself and could be vicious. He was fearless. He would run up behind, encircle your ankle with his front legs, sink in claws and teeth, and scuff vigorously with his hind claws as if trying to disembowel you. It could be nasty if he got your arm and brutal if you tried to pull away. His tail would be going like a windscreen wiper. My arms and legs were usually scarred in weals and scratches. 

Later, we moved. He ran back and forth between the front and back windows of the new house, disorientated, looking out and miaowing pathetically. When he eventually settled he spent hours stalking in the long grass in a field at the back.

We built a house of cards and rolled chocolate Maltesers underneath so he would chase them and put his head through the cards. It took rather a lot of sweets to get the right shot. “Cat crunching up chocolate covered malted milk ball” might have made a good picture too. “Cat being sick”, maybe not.

I know now that chocolate is toxic to cats but, according to the next-door neighbour, he sneaked upstairs in her house, ate some of her chocolates, and hid the paper wrappers under her bed. Another day, he came home covered in tar which had to be cleaned off with petrol. On another occasion, he swallowed around eighteen inches (45cm) of string which came back out of his throat like one of those animal-shaped retractable tape measures with tape that pulls out of its mouth.

How many lives do cats have? I still wonder whether that ‘string’ led to his final undoing. Rather than string, it was actually quarter-inch wide (0.5 cm) paper ribbon, used to tie up brown paper parcels, with the name of the shop repeated along its length. I haven’t seen any like it for years. He might have mistaken it for grass. It also had a slightly fishy smell. The edges were sharp enough to give you a paper cut. Did it damage his mouth? 

Two or three years later, after I left home, my mother, who, of course, always looked after his food and litter tray, thought he was finding it difficult to eat because of something stuck in his throat. He had lost weight. One bank-holiday Tuesday, I drove them to the vet. Sooty was kept in for further investigations and I returned to work in Leeds. Not being in constant communication as we are now, I did not hear what happened until Friday. He had a large tumour at the back of his tongue and the vet advised putting him to sleep. He was ten and a half years old.

Tuesday, 8 June 2021

Brugada Syndrome

Some fifteen years ago, my youngest cousin had a cardiac arrest. His heart simply stopped. He got up during the night and was found downstairs on the floor in the morning. He had been absolutely fine the previous evening. He was thirty-one. The funeral was a wretched affair in pouring rain. 

His father, my uncle, died in a similar way aged thirty-nine. He was eleven years my elder, fourteen years younger than my mother. It was one of the few times I saw my mother cry.

Going back even further, my grandfather also died suddenly of heart failure at the age of fifty-six. None had any obvious warnings, although my uncle and cousin both experienced dizzy spells. Concerns that it might be some kind of inherited condition were not taken seriously until more recently.

In part, this was because of the very public incident involving the Bolton Wanderers footballer, Fabrice Muamba, who collapsed during a televised match in 2012. He could not have been in a better place. He received immediate attention, and, in another stroke of good luck, a consultant cardiologist attending the match as a fan ensured he was taken to a specialist coronary unit where he recovered. His heart stopped for 78 minutes and he received fifteen debrillator shocks.

This led to greater awareness of Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome (SADS, not to be confused with Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD). There are several kinds – Muamba has hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – but taken together, SADS kills at least 500 people a year in the U.K. at the average age of 32. It is under-diagnosed, with some deaths probably put down to drowning, falling or road accidents. 

Two further cousins, half-sisters of the one who died, insisted on investigations. They were referred to the Inherited Cardiovascular Conditions Service at Leeds General Infirmary where they were diagnosed with Brugada Syndrome, an inherited condition which disrupts the flow of sodium ions into the heart muscle, causing abnormal heart rhythms. These rhythms are so infrequent as to be difficult to spot. Often, there are no symptoms at all. In other cases there may be dizziness or fainting. Sometimes, the first time it shows itself is through fatal cardiac arrest, often during sleep.

Because Brugada is an inherited condition, and there being no surviving intervening relatives, it was recommended that all the cousins be tested.

Now, having reached such an age that I would probably have dropped dead decades ago if I had Brugada, I am not particularly concerned for myself. However, I am occasionally aware of brief palpitations. Weeks can pass without anything and then I’ll get three or four the same day. It seemed sensible to be tested for the sake of my children.

Last June, nearly two years after seeing my G.P., a letter came from Leeds asking me to attend on two successive days – surprising as it was during the pandemic.

The first appointment was to get a Holter monitor: a phone-sized device to record heart activity over time. For the next 24 hours I carried it around and went to bed with its electrodes stuck to my chest. It had a button to press if I experienced any symptoms, which I did twice on feeling a few ‘flutters’. 

The second appointment was for further tests: most significantly a 12-lead electrocardiogram (ECG) and a transthoracic echocardiogram which uses ultrasound to look at the structure of the heart in motion. It was a relief to be told everything was fine (well, the blood pressure wasn’t on that particular day, but I wrote about that last year). Although these tests rule out a number of SADS conditions, they do not rule out Brugada. This requires a further diagnostic test: the Ajmaline provocation test.

The Ajmaline test aims deliberately to trigger the specific ECG pattern that occurs in Brugada. It does not produce the pattern in those who do not have Brugada. My cousins’ abnormal rhythms were observed only during the the Ajmaline test. After another ten-month wait, my name reached the top of the Ajmaline list in March. Again, it surprised me they were still testing during Covid, but as with any potentially fatal condition, it seems right to be doing so.

I thought it would be carried out in a clinic like the first set of tests. I didn’t expect to be in a hospital ward, in a cardiac bed, surrounded by seriously ill patients. The man beside me was just coming round after an angioplasty and stent operation. An older man opposite had been in since a heart attack some weeks earlier, and was waiting for the same operation the next day. A younger chap had a congenital hole in the heart, which had been causing his oxygenated and de-oxygenated blood to mix, not detected until his thirties when he had suffered a stroke. And there was I, apparently nothing wrong, occupying a bed for three hours, most of which was waiting for the effects of the test to wear off. It felt tactless afterwards wishing them good luck and walking out.

Basically, what they do is connect you up to an ECG machine and gradually inject you with Ajmaline to see whether it causes the abnormal Brugada rhythm. I had to sign a consent form. The specialist nurse practitioners who carried it out described the odd sensations you might experience, none of which I had, and the terrifying things that can go wrong, none of which they had never known despite carrying out the procedure up to a dozen times a week.

You get the result straight away. I do not have Brugada. They sent me a letter listing some of my ECG readings: the PR interval, the QRS interval, the QTc, the J point elevation, the V1 and V2 rSR patterns in the second and third intercostal spaces…   

Me neither! But it does mean that my kids should be all right and do not need to be tested. They also picked up my occasional brief tachycardia on the Holter monitor but said it was absolutely no cause for concern unless it becomes frequent or sustained.

None of my diagnosed cousins’ children have Brugada either. Apparently there is no gene mutation in the family, so where it came from, and where it has gone, remains a mystery. Some of my other cousins, even my late cousin’s brother and son, head-in-sand, have decided not to have the tests: “I’ve got too many genes already,” one said.

I’m glad I did get tested. In effect, I’ve had a thorough heart checkup and passed, all free on the wonderful NHS. Privately, it would have been done sooner, but the costs (three appointments, various tests, half a day in hospital, a follow up phone call) could have been prohibitive , leaving us worrying and wondering.  

Friday, 4 June 2021

Catch Me If You Can

A short video from the infra-red camera last night.

It reminds me of a series of sketches from the British TV comedy show Little Britain. They showed a wheelchair user who would get up and do the pole vault in an athletics stadium, or dive into a swimming pool and do a couple of quick lengths whilst his carer wasn’t watching. I believe wheelchair users loved it.

I think this mouse must have been watching that. Black Kitty hasn’t a clue. 

The hedgehogs are back, too (emerges from behind the plant pot half way through).


Tuesday, 1 June 2021

New Month Old Post: ‘A’ Level Geography

(First posted 28th August, 2016) 

A nostalgic look back at the 1977 JMB ‘A’ Level Geography Paper

Geography A Level Paper 1977

“Le Creusot,” I enunciated excitedly in my best ‘O’ Level French accent as we sped past the road sign. “That’s one of the most important steel producing towns in the country.” The others in the car yawned.

Some hours later there was a sign to Montélimar. Neville and Gilbert started to sing George Harrison’s ‘Savoy Truffle’ but instead of joining in I said “Great! We’re getting near the André-Blondel hydro-electric scheme at Donzère-Mondragon. And we’ll soon be near the Marcoule nuclear power station.”

Tussler and Alden Mapbook of France Benelux Countries

I had been like that all day. Neville and Gilbert must have been pretty fed up with the running commentary. We were driving down through France on our way to Provence and I was prattling like a poor Geography text book about the country’s electric power and industry. Having memorised most of the sketch maps in A Map Book of France by Tussler and Alden for ‘A’ level, I thought everyone ought to be fascinated by French economic activity. 

Such is the power of knowledge. It gives you the means to bore everyone else to death in the mistaken belief you are being interesting.

Geography was the second subject I took at ‘A’ Level in my mid-twenties (the other was English Literature). It was going to be History but just as with English, the Woolsey Hall correspondence course started badly. The first half dozen pieces of work on Tudor and Stuart England came back from the tutor in Clacton-on-Sea graded from Very Good down to Weak without any clear indication why. Correspondence courses are not always a good idea, especially in subjects that benefit from face-to-face discussion.

But then, a couple of strokes of good luck. An old school friend, now a Geography teacher, suggested his subject would be more straightforward. He gave me a one-evening crash course and overview of the syllabus, and I decided to switch. Then, a friend of a friend lent me her impressively thorough notes from a few years earlier. They were full of splendid sketch maps and diagrams of river valleys and other landforms. She had got a grade A. You could almost fall in love with someone through the beauty of their ‘A’ Level Geography notes.

So I did Geography on my own, without a formal course, and got away with it. I bought copies of the syllabus and previous papers, analysed them carefully, pared everything down to what could be achieved in a year and planned my time meticulously. Just as in English Literature, the Geography syllabus offered an excessive amount of choice, which meant you could omit complete sections. Again, you were allowed to take away the question papers after the examinations, so here they are (click to enlarge). My son, who took ‘A’ Level Geography in more recent years, was surprised by the high quality of the supporting maps and photographic materials.

If you have trouble seeing full sized images of the papers, you can download them in PDF form here.


Geography A Level Paper 1977
Section A: Geomorphology. On first sight it seems you had to answer one question from three, but as the second question was an either/or on different topics, it was effectively one from four.

There were questions on lakes, erosion in different climates, landforms and coasts. It looks like I went for Question 2(b) on landforms.

I enjoyed this part of the syllabus and covered more than necessary. I still pretend to be knowledgeable about such things when out in the countryside, and have kept my copy of the wonderful Physical Geography by P. Lake.

Of the accompanying images, Photograph A was obviously the magnificent Flamborough Head which I know well. Please could someone enlighten me as to the location of Photograph B?

Geography A Level Paper 1977
Section B: Meteorology, Soils and Vegetation. You had to answer just one question from these topics. In other words, you could omit two thirds of the syllabus here. I prepared the question on soils. Consequently I am still unable to distinguish stratus, cumulonimbus and other cloud formations.

Geography A Level Paper 1977
Section C: Economic Geography. You were required to answer two questions from six.

Candidates still attending school would have carried out field studies covered by Questions 9 and 11(a), but not me. 1977 may have been the last year you could get away without doing a practical element.

I am no longer sure how many topics I did prepare, but it looks like my answers were on hydro-electric power, cotton and maritime fishing.

The street plan for Question 11(b), which I avoided, I can now identify as part of Bristol. 


Section A: map reading. One compulsory question.

Geography A Level map reading 1977

The map covers an area to the south of Chatham in Kent.

Many faced map reading with trepidation but for me it was the part of the examination about which I felt most confident. Just like a driver with a few years’ experience, several years of country walking had made me certain I was an expert. It serves as a warning not to rely on confidence alone. Afterwards, I thought I had messed up this part so badly as to fall short of the grades I needed for university (BB or BC). I put in late Polytechnic applications and received offers of DE and EE. They turned out to be unnecessary.

Sections B and C: Europe (3 topics) and other parts of the world (7 topics).

Geography A Level Paper 1977

Sections B and C cover ten topics in all, with a choice of six questions on each topic. You had to answer a total of three questions including at least one from each section. As there was nothing to stop you choosing two questions on the same topic, you could get away with preparing only two topics out of ten.

I thoroughly prepared B2 France and the Benelux countries (on which I answered two questions) and C6 the U.S.S.R.

Despite approaching it in a very strategic way, I liked this part of the syllabus too. It was great to find out more about the Charleroi area – the location of my foreign exchange trips while still at school (I had A Map Book of the Benelux Countries too). And in part C, I was captivated by the romantic and mysterious places of Asian Russia, such as Novosibirsk, Petropavlovsk and the Silk Road towns of Samarkand and Tashkent, then still little known behind the iron curtain.

Neville and Gilbert should have been thankful we were only spending a day driving South through France rather than a fortnight across the Soviet Union.

The full list of topics in Sections B and C was:

B1 West Germany, Norway and Sweden
B2 France, Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands
B3 Italy Switzerland and Austria

C1 The U.S.A. and Canada
C2 Latin America (including the West Indies)
C3 Africa
C4 India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka
C5 Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Indonesia and New Guinea
C6 The U.S.S.R.
C7 China and Japan

Dare I also mention that I got a grade A? 

Thursday, 27 May 2021

C. S. Lewis: Out of the Silent Planet

C. S. Lewis
Out of the Silent Planet (3*)

Between the ages of eleven and fifteen, I read through most of the science fiction section in the local public library. It therefore puzzled me on reading The Chrysalids last month that I couldn’t remember it. Had I completely forgotten or is it one I missed? If I were to re-read something I know I did read at that age, then would I be reassured that my memory still works?

I know I read C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy. I have always been prepared for the still awaited quiz question – What are the titles? Answer: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and Return to the Silent Planet. WRONG! The third one was That Hideous Strength. Well, that is not how I remember it.

I went to Faded Page and downloaded Out of the Silent Planet for Kindle. I also managed to find an image of the cover I think our library had.  

As I remembered, it is about a man called Ransom (my mother had a friend with the same surname) who is kidnapped and taken by two crooks to Mars (known as Malacandra) where he escapes and has various adventures. In particular, I was remember being struck by how he first misinterprets the appearance of an alien, and, later, how unusual human beings look when he first encounters them again.
…  it held the shell to its own middle and seemed to be pouring something… . Ransom thought with disgust that it was urinating into the shell. Then he realised that the protuberances on the creature’s belly were not genital organs at all; it was wearing … pouch-like objects, and it was adding a few drops of liquid from one of these to the water in the shell.
Almost exactly as I recall. Strange what you remember. Much later Ransom sees:
…  two creatures which he did not recognize. … They were much shorter than any animal he had yet seen on Malacandra, … bipeds, though the lower limbs were so thick and sausage-like that he hesitated to call them legs. The bodies were a little narrower at the top than at the bottom so as to be very slightly pear-shaped, and the heads were … almost square. They stumped along on heavy-looking feet which they seemed to press into the ground with unnecessary violence. And now their faces were becoming visible as masses of variegated colour fringed in some bristly, dark substance. Suddenly, with an indescribable change of feeling, he realized he was looking at men.
You cannot say C. S. Lewis lacked imagination.

Other aspects came back as I read: the spherical space ship they travel in, that Malacandrans, like the plants and the mountains, tend to be tall and thin because of the lower gravity, that there is breathable air deep down in the canals but not on the higher plains, and that Ransom learns to speak Malacandran because he is a professor of language. Even after more than fifty years, I knew I had read it before. It reassures me that I cannot previously have read ‘The Chrysalids’.

What I did not recall is the moralistic and religious allegory. As a young teenager, I probably didn’t get it. Every planet is ruled an Oyarsa, a kind of space angel, which is ruled by an even higher being called Maledil. They all communicate with each other. However, the Oyarsa ruler of Thulcandra (the Earth) became silent aeons ago (the Silent Planet) and the planet has become a mystery to the others. The Malacandran Oyarsa is astonished to hear what Ransom  “... has to tell them about human history – of war, of slavery and prostitution.”
‘It is because they have no Oyarsa,’ said one of the pupils.
‘It is because every one of them wants to be a little Oyarsa himself’ said Augray.
‘They cannot help it … there must be rule, but how can creatures rule themselves?

The villains who kidnap Ransom are of low moral fibre: one is after the gold that lies in abundance all over Malacandra and the other is a rogue scientist seeking to ensure the long term survival and dominance of the human race without any regard for others. They regard the three species of Malacadrans as primitives, whereas Ransom values their civilisation and appreciates their different but equal talents and qualities. The author being C. S. Lewis, theologian, Fellow at Oxford and Professor at Cambridge, these ideas all have academic and theological precedents which are a mystery to me. Out of the Silent University. 

It sounds like Thought for the Day on the BBC, but it’s an entertaining story. It does not entice me to re-read the other two, though.  

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.

Thursday, 20 May 2021

Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca

Daphne du Maurier 
Rebecca (5*)

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

One of the best remembered and most envied openings of any English novel. Its effect seems to lie in the exotic ‘Manderley’, the question of why only in a dream, and the word ‘again’.

It was the Guardian writer, John Crace, who prompted me to read it. He regularly returns to it as if in need of emotional sustenance. He first read it during a wet week in a holiday cottage when little else of promise was available, and was hooked. Ever since, he has considered it the most underrated classic of the twentieth century.

Having read Jamaica Inn some years ago in similar circumstances and thought it all right, and being in need of emotional sustenance myself after some of the things I’ve been reading lately, I thought I would give Rebecca a try. There it was, waiting in one of our bookcases with my wife’s maiden name inside the front cover.

Until the author twists the screw in Chapter 13 it is faintly irritating. The opening leads to a dream about a beautiful house, Manderley, decayed and deserted, “with no whisper of the past about its staring walls.” (p7).  It drags on through the whole of the first chapter, all in the mind of the narrator who then flashbacks into an extremely wet and timid twenty-one year old girl with an over-active imagination. She is employed as a ladies companion by Mrs. Van Hopper, a rich, snobbish and socially predatory American woman. They are in a hotel in Monte Carlo where her employer latches on to an emotionally dead, upper class English widower, the owner of Manderley. The employer then falls ill and the widower writes the girl a note to apologise for his rudeness.

…my name was on the envelope, and spelt correctly, an unusual thing.
‘You have a very lovely and unusual name’ he tells her. (p23 and 27)
We never know what it is. Maybe it was something like Persephone or Despoina whose name could not be revealed. Could it be that Daphne du Maurier didn’t know how to spell it, either? The only thing we can say with certainty is that it is not Rebecca.

They begin to take their meals together, and, despite being twice her age, he spends most of his time driving her around in his car, sightseeing, until Mrs Van Hopper recovers and decides to dash off to New York. The girl contrives a quick meeting with the widower to say goodbye. He starts filing his nails.
‘So, Mrs Van Hopper has had enough of Monte Carlo … and now she wants to go home. So do I. She to New York and me to Manderley. Which would you prefer? You can take your choice.’

‘Don’t make a joke about it … I had better … say good-bye now.’

‘If you think I’m one of those people who try to be funny at breakfast you’re wrong … Either you go to America with Mrs. Van Hopper or you come back to Manderley with me.’

‘Do you mean you want a secretary or something?’

‘No, I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.’ (p56)

One wonders to how many impressionable teenagers it gave the idea that this is how grown up men and women behave, the man making all the choices and the woman waiting in trepidation. It couldn’t be any more unlike that in our house.

Perhaps I am not giving due credence to the mechanisms of snobbery, prejudice, wealth and class in the nineteen-thirties when it was written. To today’s sensibilities, it reads like psychological abuse, and it continues when they return to Manderley. He goes about his business leaving her rattling around at a loose end in an enormous house. All the time she senses the spirit of the dead Rebecca, the beautiful and accomplished first wife. She feels an imposter, taking Rebecca’s place, using the things she chose, acting out her routines, and can never measure up. She is afraid of the servants, especially the sinister housekeeper, Mrs Danvers. She imagines them denigrating her frugal underwear, and dreams up whole scenes of dialogue in which the neighbours laugh and talk about her:

… they wanted to compare me to Rebecca … they thought me rude and ungracious … more to criticize, more to discuss . They could say I was ill-bred. ‘I’m not surprised,’ they would say; ‘after all, who was she?’ And then a laugh and a shrug of the shoulder. ‘My dear, don’t you know? He picked her up in Monte Carlo or somewhere; she hadn’t a penny. She was a companion to some old woman.’ More laughter, more lifting of eyebrows. (p133)

But this is not a Mills and Boon romance. Once we get to Chapters 13 and 14 where she goes noseying around Rebecca’s boat house and closed up bedroom, and Mrs. Danvers begins to reveal her true nature, nothing is quite what it seems. I will say no more.

I don’t know about emotional sustenance, but if you get that far, I wouldn’t plan on doing anything else until you’ve finished. You could get a money-back guarantee that you won’t be able to put it down. There is nothing particularly nasty or unpleasant, but it might be sensible to have a heart defibrillator handy.   

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.

Saturday, 8 May 2021

Short Shorts

In 1958, The Royal Teens had a hit in America with Short Shorts (in the U.K. we might be more familiar with the Freddie and the Dreamers version). The words repeat three times [YouTube link]:

Who wears short shorts?
We wear short shorts
They’re such short shorts
We like short shorts
Who wears short shorts?
We wear short shorts

Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Yip Harburg must have wondered why they needed to try so hard. But some people are not as daft as they would have you believe. The Royal Teens’ pianist later founded The Four Seasons and wrote many of their songs, and another member of the band founded Blood Sweat & Tears.

It seems there were times when lots of us wore short shorts, such as AC/DC guitarist Angus Young and Everton footballer Gary Lineker.

So why do I feel the need to curl up and hide under the bedclothes at the sight my shorts in the French High Cantal in 1978? 

I get a cringe attack just from the rest of the outfit alone.  

And if that’s embarrassing, take a look at this, not a pair of shorts in sight.

 Dare I scan in any more old colour slides?