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Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Bright In The Background

In the early nineteen-sixties, I received a Kodak Brownie Starmite camera for Christmas. I developed and printed its 127-sized (4cm2) black and white negatives at home. Despite being a fairly basic camera, it is striking how good the image quality could be if you managed to avoid camera shake.

The pictures of Sooty the cat in one of my June 2021 posts reminded me that, in old photographs, objects in the background can often be as evocative as the main subject. They bring back endless associations, and a tale of two naughty boys and a new sideboard.

One outdoor picture shows Sooty sitting on the back doorstep with an old-shaped tall milk bottle instead of the more squat ones we have now (if we have them at all). The only colour picture of him I have, on a Kodacolor film I was given in 1964, finds him sitting next to the asbestos garage. It leaked water underneath the sides, so boards were placed to deflect rain falling from the roof.

Indoor pictures tend to have more things in the background. The Starmite camera had a built-in flash for single-use, magnesium flash bulbs. They shine bright through the years.


Here again is Sooty in our nineteen-sixties living room with its flowery wallpaper. The 405-line black and white television reflects the flash bulb. I am surprised to see we already had a fitted carpet rather than stained floorboards around a central carpet square.

The tiled open fireplace has brass tools and a fireguard. That was a job to get going on a cold winter morning, holding sheets of newspaper across the front to create a roaring updraft. The ships-wheel ash tray had belonged to my great grandfather; its wheel was a cigar-trimmer. In the corner is an ancient (even then), stand-alone electric fire with exposed elements mounted on an insulator. People sometimes lit cigarettes with it.

At the other side of the room, a curtain over the door excludes drafts, with a ‘roly-poly’ draft excluder blocking the gap at the bottom. Also in the living room is the fold-down dining table. The other room, less-used, was kept for ‘best’. 

A fruit bowl stands on the sideboard. It is now in my office, a container for things like device chargers and USB leads. I still pile books on top of it. The circular mirror that was above it is now unused, somewhere in my loft.

I remember the wooden-armed armchairs with spotty red upholstery and antimacassars over the chair backs to protect them from grease when people washed their hair no more than once or twice a week at best, and some men wore Brylcreem or Silvikrin hair oil. I can see, smell and feel it now, white in the jar.

My brother and I would sit in those chairs in the house on our own on Saturday afternoons watching the wrestling on the television (along with up to 20 million others in Britain). There was Mick McManus the villain who always beat the good guy, Jackie Pallo, with his underhand antics. Another great was Yorkshireman Les Kellett, a friend of a friend at Hensall. But my favourite was Ricki Starr, the wrestling ballet dancer, who caused great amusement at the height of sixties homophobia by prancing and pirouetting effeminately around the ring in ballet shoes and tight trunks, a prelude to the delivery of an unexpected lethal drop-kick to his opponent’s head. It was so exciting, particularly the cheating that went on behind the referee’s back in two-man tag-team bouts. Pure entertainment! We laughed, cheered and shouted, and when something decisive happened, we celebrated by pushing down with our feet, kicking the chairs over on to their backs.

One Friday, our parents had a brand new sideboard delivered – the one in the above photograph – to replace the scratched and ancient second hand one we’d had. I can smell its beautifully polished wood. The very next day, my brother and I watched the wrestling on television as usual. Perhaps it was Ricki Starr finishing off his opponent with one of his aeroplane spins, or Jackie Pallo administering his trademark sit on back breaker and arm lever. We jumped and cheered as ever, and kicked our chairs over. The side posts of those chairs were hard. My brother’s hit the brand new sideboard and gouged out a semi-circular groove on the front of the bottom drawer. Zoom in and you can see it. Believe me, there was hell to pay.


Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Old Wires

You do odd jobs, you accumulate all sorts of bits and pieces, and you them keep because they might come in useful one day. You buy things and they wear out but you keep the bits and pieces that go with them because they might also come in useful one day. And, fifty years later, you have boxes full of all those bits and pieces, some of which may have come in useful but most of which didn’t. 

Here is part of my lifetime’s collection of wires and plugs. Funny what memories they bring back! 

I found the plug, socket and cable used to make an extension lead for the fluorescent light I fitted under the eaves of my loft room in the shared house in 1972, a short length of ring-main cabling from when I installed several spur wall-sockets after moving into our current house thirty years ago, and some left-over heat resistant cabling used to wire up an electric immersion heater around the same time. Then there were the transformers from old computers, printers and scanners, and their plugs, sockets and adapters. I can still identify them: RS-232, Centronics, VGA, S-Video, Ethernet, HDMI, DIN. There was even an old cordless telephone system. 

And where on earth were the following electronic components from? It might have been one of the kid’s Design Technology projects at school, involving transistors, capacitors, thermistors, a photo-resistor and light-emitting diodes. They remind me of my brother’s nineteen-sixties electronic engineer’s kit, or my nineteen-seventies home-built Heathkit stereo. 

How many of the following does one really need?

  • spare 3, 5 and 13 amp fuses
  • spare mains plugs and multi-socket adapters
  • travel adapters for various kinds of power supply
  • transformers for long-gone printers, scanners and computers
  • cables for printers, monitors and keyboards
  • USB cables
  • ADSL micro-filters for connecting broadband to telephone lines
  • SCART leads for video recorders
  • mono/stereo audio/video jack plugs, DIN plugs, HDMI leads, S-video leads
  • television aerial cables
  • lawn mower cables
  • electric kettle cables
  • time-switches
  • wall sockets, light fittings and light switches
  • wiring of various lengths and thicknesses

If I don’t sort them now, someone else will have to do it. This is some of what will be going to the electrical skip at the recycling centre.  


And the rest? Sorted into smaller boxes, labelled and back in the loft in case they come in useful one day.

Friday, 29 April 2022

Not Much Blogging

I apologise for not posting and commenting much this month, although I have still been reading other blogs.

There is lots I want to write about and hope to do so soon.

TD


Saturday, 23 April 2022

More Memories of 1960s Belgium

When this blog began in 2014, I naively wrote rather long posts – even longer than now. Some exceeded two thousand words. One was “In England They Eat Cat Food” about my visits to Belgium in the nineteen-sixties, part of which I reposted earlier this month. Here is more.   


My overriding impression was that, even after twenty years, the Charleroi region was still recovering from the economic privations of war. Hugo lived in a coal mining region in a house without mains water or sewerage. It was grimy and industrial – how I imagined parts of Yorkshire in the frugal 1930s. 

Hugo’s dad took us on sight-seeing trips. We climbed the Lion’s Mound, a conical hill with a stone lion on top marking the site of the Battle of Waterloo. In Brussels we saw ‘le mannekin pis’, a hideous, two feet high, bronze fountain of a naked boy urinating into a basin. We visited the Atomium, a bizarre, futuristic, three hundred foot, nine-sphered construction in the form of an iron atom, a gleaming statement of post-war confidence erected for the 1958 World’s Fair.  


But post-war confidence seemed in short supply. We went several times by ancient tram to an equally ancient cinema in Charleroi. Neither the trams nor the cinema looked as if they had been painted since the 1930s. I sat through endless French films listlessly monitoring the slow rotation of the only thing I understood, an illuminated clock at the side of the screen labelled ‘Tic-Tac Pontiac’.
 
Charleroi Trams in the 1960s

In Charleroi there was an old-fashioned street fair of a kind unseen in England since before the war. One stall was an ornately decorated fighting booth where all-comers were invited to challenge boxers and wrestlers for a share of the takings if they could survive three rounds. The Master of Ceremonies banged a drum and goaded passing men with accusations of cowardice and feebleness. This, together with the provocative posturing of the fighters, quickly collected a crowd which goaded and postured back. 

Perhaps the crowd contained provocateurs to raise the temperature. Things started to become volatile. A scarred but muscled boxer looked much too intimidating for anyone to take on, but one of the wrestlers, a bald thin chap hardly bigger than me, with an effeminate leotard and ridiculous handlebar moustache, soon attracted a challenger who impudently threatened to pull off his whiskers. The pre-show was probably more entertaining than the fight itself – I don’t know, we didn’t pay to go in. Why oh why didn’t I take photographs?

Another stall had a platform with huge slabs of meat hanging from metal hooks, and a barred window at the back. A snarling black-faced wild man with a bone through his nose peered menacingly through the bars. The showman roused the crowd by cutting off chunks of raw meat and throwing them into the cage for the savage to devour. He then heated a thick iron rod in a brazier until it glowed brilliantly red, and seared it into the hanging meat which spat and sizzled as it burned, giving off clouds of rancid smoke. He reached into the cage with a meat hook, caught the wild man around the neck, violently pulled his arm through the bars, and rubbed the red hot iron hard across the palm of his hand to demonstrate his immunity to pain. Again, we did not pay to go in, but I wonder for how many years afterwards the stall was allowed to continue. In England by then, we were beginning to find the comparatively innocuous Black and White Minstrel Show rather objectionable.

On Easter Sunday we went to watch a noisy carnival at the nearby town of Fontaine-l’Évêque, where a procession of children, uniformed musicians and costumed characters, some wearing enormous papier maché heads, walked through the centre throwing treats to the spectators shivering in the rain and sleet. 

I went out late one night after dark with Hugo and his friends equipped with buckets of paste and wallpaper brushes to put up “Marche Anti-Atomique” posters on noticeboards and any other suitable surfaces around the village, to the consternation of Hugo’s father who declared I would be deported if caught by the police. It goes without saying that we simply ignored any ‘défense d’afficher’ (no bill posting allowed) notices we came across.

Hugo and his friends also ignored the widespread ‘défense d'uriner’ notices, going about their business brazenly in full view of the road, even when caught in the glare of car headlights. But then, a country that has a peeing cherub as one of its main tourist attractions is hardly likely to have any inhibitions about urinating in public.

Hugo’s friends had no inhibitions about smoking and drinking. Neither had minimum age limits in Belgium, and teenagers openly did both without disapproval. A couple of friends flamboyantly smoked the local ‘Belga’, ‘Visa’ and ‘Zemir’ cigarettes, which came in paper packets of twenty-five at a fraction of the price of the cardboard packets of tens and twenties in England,. Like most European cigarettes, they had the distinctive, musty smell of Turkish tobacco, very different from the milder American variety in England. I took a couple of packets home for my dad. I don’t know what happened to them. I never detected their pungent odour in our house. I suspect my mother put them in the dustbin.

The street scenes in this a ten-minute video of Charleroi trams in the nineteen-sixties re-capture my impressions of the place very well. The same YouTube channel also has a clearer video (with sound) of the nineteen-eighties when it still looked much the same.

If you can't see it, the video link is: https://youtu.be/ma6xm-ztt8g

Tuesday, 12 April 2022

Luxury Travel

Leeds Wellington Street Coach Station, 1986

For a short period, I travelled weekly by bus between Manchester and Hull. It took hours but cost next to nothing. I spent the time in quiet contemplation, either looking out of the window or watching people inside or outside the bus. It was not an unpleasant experience.

The route I remember well. From the rubble-strewn patch of derelict ground that seemed to serve as a bus station in Oldham, it climbed Saddleworth Moor to the tops of the wild Yorkshire Pennines, passing impossible bridges, windy reservoirs and the lonely farm between the carriageways of the M62, before descending to Bradford Interchange. Next came the congested National Express coach station in Wellington Street, Leeds, where we stopped long enough to nip out to the shops or the bank. Criss-crossing the M62, the route then took us to Wakefield bus station, Castleford and Pontefract, past the majestic white cloud factories of the Vale of York, a quick detour across Boothferry Bridge between Goole and Howden which brought the bizarre sensation of being able to see my parents’ house without calling in, onwards to the brutalist East Yorkshire garage at Elloughton, and finally Hull Paragon bus station.

The East Yorkshire Bus Garage at Elloughton, 2008. © David Wright (cc-by-sa/2.0)

I came to know the route better than some of the drivers. One asked whether anyone knew how to get to Elloughton (he pronounced it “Ell-how-ton” instead of “Eller-ton”), and I was able to tell him it was only a dropping-off stop, and after asking whether any of the other passengers wanted to go there, which no one did (why would they?), I told the driver he could continue straight along the A63 to Hull. We were a quarter of an hour early. I bet he got lost on the way back.

No doubt coaches these days are more comfortable, like this one which appears in this week’s Radio Times in an advert for “fantastic excursions” to “remarkable destinations” such as the Dutch windmills, North Cape, Seville or Lake Achensee. Why would anyone bother with quiet contemplation of the endlessly fascinating world around us when they could spend the time watching videos on the screen in the back of the seat in front of them? 

Wednesday, 6 April 2022

Interview Woes

A colleague told me in confidence he was desperate to leave the software company we were with. He was tired of having to spend so much time abroad. The week after he’d been to Venezuela they had sent him to Athens – talk about jetlag! Fortunately for me, he was away so much he couldn’t get to interviews. Had he escaped, I would have picked up all his travel. It was bad enough being sent away just occasionally, like being asked (i.e. told) on a Friday morning to go to Stockholm to sort out an urgent problem, and having to pop home to pack a bag and leave a note that I might not be back until Tuesday. Newly married with a family in mind, it was not what I wanted. I understood my colleague’s predicament entirely. I decided to get out before he did.

I started applying for lecturing jobs in Polytechnics. It would be a cut in salary, but not all that much taking pensions into account. I had to make my own provision at the software company, whereas lecturers were members of a government-backed, inflation-proof, final-salary scheme worth at least 20% on top of what they paid you. A salary of £20k was the equivalent of £24k, and £25k was worth £30k.

Things did not go well. I applied for no end of posts, but despite being well qualified – higher degree, authorship of academic papers from previous work as a research assistant, relevant commercial experience – it counted for little. I was interviewed often enough, but, no matter how well I felt I’d done, they appointed someone else. It was usually either an internal candidate or the cheap option. At Leicester Del Monte they appointed a twenty-three year-old straight off their M.Sc. conversion course. At James Heriot they appointed a mystery candidate who wasn’t there when the rest of us were interviewed.

Nearly a year went by and I was spending more and more time away. With one last throw of the dice, I applied above my league to the University of Nottingham. There turned out to be two posts and four candidates. We sat around after the interviews awaiting the outcome. It took ages. Finally, they called in the first successful candidate and then the second, but told me not to go away. I will forever be grateful to Professor Peter Ford who explained that they had appointed the two candidates with the broadest balance of skills, and had they been appointing to only one post it might well have been me. “Do not be discouraged in any way”, were his exact words.

I vaguely knew one of the successful candidates as one of those people who spend their lives messing others around and being unreliable, and it annoyed me a few months later to learn that he had chucked the job and moved on.

Polytechnics then changed. The government decided they were all to become universities, and they started to hunt for staff able to carry out research and bring in external funding. It was like a football transfer market. I applied to a Yorkshire institution and got an interview. In phoning to accept I discovered there were six candidates. Not good odds.

On the day only four turned up. Then, like at Nottingham, they said they were hoping to fill two posts. Two out of four looked promising until I learned that one of the candidates was an internal candidate called Anthea who was just about to submit her PhD thesis, another was a high-flying researcher from British Telecom, and the third an affable Rory Bremner lookalike who was a temporary lecturer at a Russell Group university.

We spent the morning giving presentations. I managed to work in stuff about something called SSADM (Structured Systems Analysis and Design Method), the expert systems research I’d previously done, and how it related to the commercial system I now worked with. The Head of Department though it an excellent presentation.  

We were taken for lunch at which Rory Bremner did most of the talking and Anthea said nothing at all. Then the chap from BT was taken aside and didn’t come back. I heard later that his talk had been terrible, and they doubted his ability to connect with the Higher National students. The remaining three of us waited for our formal interviews in the afternoon.   

It went badly. There were questions that caught me out and set me talking too loud and too fast, and they said not to wait around because decisions had to be approved by the Vice-Chancellor.

I waited ten days. The Head of Department was out so I phoned the personnel office. There was a muted conversation at the other end of the line during which I overheard the words “Bremner and Dunham” and “shussssh”. They said the decision was still awaiting approval. Soon afterwards, the Head of Department then rang me. Yes, I had a job.

The other post did indeed go to Rory Bremner. I felt sorry for Anthea who had to vacate her desk to accommodate him.

We were both still there twenty years later. One thing I learned during that time is that with these kinds of jobs, probably with any job, you can never truly be aware of all the considerations, and why you might or might not be successful.  

Friday, 1 April 2022

No England They Eat Cat Food

New Month Old Post (originally posted 12th September, 2014)

“What do you eat in England?” Hugo’s dad asked me in English.

“Food,” I said, trying to be funny.

He translated for Hugo’s mother and sister. Horrified, I realised I might have implied that what we were eating now was not what I thought of as proper food. 

It was my first meal with Hugo and his family in Belgium. I was there on a foreign language exchange trip. Hugo’s dad seemed concerned that, not only was I having difficulty in understanding their French, but that I might also be unfamiliar with their food. They had asked whether I would like beer, wine or water to drink, and not being sure how to reply I had said wine. That was a new experience for me at fifteen. Had I tried to stand up I would have fallen over. Was I red because of the wine or embarrassment?

The food certainly was different. I can’t remember the details now, but there were a lot of meaty stews with lots of bread and weak fizzy beer or bottled water with every cooked meal. There were no familiar bowls of breakfast cereal, but thick chunks of bread and jam dipped into huge bowls of black coffee which rapidly acquired a disagreeable film of jam, butter and breadcrumbs on the surface. They enjoyed an unpleasant vegetable called “le chicon”, a kind of blanched endive with a bitter taste. In the days before ubiquitous international cuisine and mass foreign travel, food did differ across countries and regions. I was just going to have to cope with it. I was there for two and a half weeks.

Hugo and his parents lived in a square, average-sized detached house on a hill a few miles west of Charleroi. It was one of three or four on a busy road with an open valley at the back. The region was brown-field rather than green, the main economic activity being coal mining. Across the valley at the back was an open-cast mine from which a constantly moving, overhead bucket conveyor, carried coal past Hugo’s house to a railway somewhere across the road. Nearby, industrial buildings and black metal structures mingled with terraced housing in grimy cobbled streets.

View Behind Hugo's House
the spoil heap remains today, wooded over
It did not dishearten me. It resembled parts of Yorkshire around Knottingley and Pontefract not far from where I lived. My own town constantly echoed to the clatter of railway wagons and the roar of ships loading coal. Nor was I bothered that the toilet was in an outhouse. I had used outside toilets too. What did surprise me was that the house had no mains water. In the kitchen, instead of a tap, was a hand pump to draw water out of the ground. The toilet looked normal, but there was no water in the bottom, just a dark hole through to a cesspit. A swarm of black flies buzzed gleefully in and out of the hole, not somewhere you would want to sit any longer than necessary, but it made things interesting when standing for a pee; you could try to beat your personal best for the number of flies swilled down.

There was no bathroom; you washed in a bowl of warmed water at a washstand in the bedroom. Once a week we walked the half-mile to Hugo’s grandfather’s for a bath. He had a normal bathroom, except there was no hot running water, so the bath was filled with water heated on a stove. To save fuel you took turns. Being the guest, I was allowed to go first, so at least the water was clean, but it could be scaldingly hot.

Bearing in mind their water came untreated from the ground, it was unsurprising that Hugo’s family habitually drank weak beer with meals, but I was surprised that teenagers of my age could buy and drink alcohol without restriction in the equivalent of English coffee bars. In England, as I was later to find, it took a certain courage to go into a pub for the first time, even on reaching the age of eighteen, but we spent hours in Belgian cafés drinking the local Maes Pils, Extra Pils and Stella Artois (years before it was available in England) and playing ‘kicker’ (pronounced ‘keekay’, the table football game with wooden footballers fixed to spinning metal rods), which the Belgians played with incredible skill. I could never replicate their unstoppable bullet-like shots, executed with a near-imperceptible flick of the wrist. The only way I could get any kind of power was by vigorously spinning the rods right round, but that was not allowed.

As the days passed, I realised I was having a great time. In fact, I returned the following year, and then for a third year after that. I even improved my French a little.

I supplemented the Belgian cuisine by carefully rationing out precious biscuits brought from home. It gave Hugo’s sister the perfect come-back to my earlier faux pas insulting their food. They had Kit-E-Kat cat food in Belgium, but not Kit Kat chocolate wafers. Watching me undo a red and silver wrapper, she choked in triumphant delight as she struggled to get out her words.

“En Angleterre ils mangent des aliments pour chats”, she said.

Saturday, 26 March 2022

Selective Education

My true tale about being attacked by modern school boys touched upon some of the issues related to the the post-war selective education system we had in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (but not Scotland). Mostly, from age eleven, the academically most able 25% (assessed by intelligence tests) went to grammar schools while the rest went to secondary modern schools. I want to say more about my own experience of this, and what I’ve learned since. Apologies if it makes for something of an essay.   

The Grammar School

It was rarely said out loud, but the grammar schools enjoyed three times the resources of the secondary moderns. They had their pick of the most highly qualified teachers to guide their pupils, both intellectually and culturally, towards membership of an expanding middle class. It was social engineering on a grand scale.

We might not have been fully aware of this, but it must have rubbed off in attitudes. At my grammar school, we received for free the kind of education some parents now pay tens of thousands of pounds for. Modern school pupils and their parents had every reason to resent the grammar schools.

Let me list some of what this gave us at my school:

  • Studies for G.C.E. ‘O’ and ‘A’ level qualifications offered across the full range of sciences, humanities, arts and classics.
  • A purpose-built science block containing well stocked laboratories with work benches for individual experiments.
  • Foreign language exchange trips to Belgium and Germany; geography and biology field trips and excursions.
  • Drama productions which took advantage of the magnificent, fully equipped stage with a proscenium arch and modern lighting rig.
  • After-school science, arts, crafts, hobby and debating societies.
  • Rugby, cricket and hockey teams, summer athletics sports days, and outdoor pursuits such as climbing, rambling and pot holing from the school hut in the Yorkshire Dales.
  • A gymnasium with retractable beams, ropes and wall bars, vaulting horses, spring boards and basketballs in the overflowing equipment cupboards.
  • In the hall, an electric organ with multiple keyboards, stops and bass pedals, the preserve of the ancient but gifted head of music who accompanied our uplifting Christian hymns at morning assembly.
  • Wood- and metalwork shops for boys, and needlework and domestic science for girls.

Everything was respected and looked after, with little theft or vandalism.

I am not suggesting that modern schools had none of this, just less. The only things they seemed to have that we didn’t were vegetable plots, greenhouses and chicken pens for lessons in horticulture and animal husbandry. Oh yes, and the boys played football instead of rugby.

Even the buildings shouted different levels of privilege. The grammar school’s attractive Georgian architecture in yellow-orange Flemish-bond brick, its Queen Anne cupola topped by a Viking ship weather vane, the town coat of arms carved over the door, and the foundation date in prominent Roman numerals, scorned the functional redbrick of the modern school directly across the road (above and below).

The Secondary Modern School

Typically, the two schools led to different jobs, pay levels and ways of life. Many modern school children were thought to have no future in education and encouraged to leave at fifteen. Modern school boys, such as Jibson and his mate in my story, often found themselves in blue-collar or unskilled work, typically in the engineering industries, the building and motor trades, the railways, road transport, shipping, the armed forces, mining and agriculture. Girls might at first go to work in shops or factories, but most saw this as a temporary measure before marriage, children and home making. In comparison, most grammar school pupils were still in education at seventeen and most went on to university, teacher training, the civil service or the professions. Some, like my friend Burling, did exceptionally well.

If the different levels of opportunity were an injustice, it became even more conspicuous when you realise that selection was not based entirely on merit. Children from middle-class homes full of books, culture, intelligent conversation, and the time and space to enjoy them, were far more likely to get into grammar school than those from poorer backgrounds. If there was doubt, ambitious parents would pay for private tuition to ensure they did.

Then there were children who actually did make the grade, but had their grammar school places turned down by parents because of the cost of keeping them out of paid employment. In some places, single parents were considered unable to afford the uniform, so their children didn’t get in. I also remember two boys from council houses, both well on track to pass until discovered reading ‘dirty magazines’. In an act of unbelievably small-minded, puritanical snobbery, they were peremptorily denied any opportunity of a grammar school place. They were eleven for goodness’ sake! Their places must have gone to two others, oblivious of the circumstances behind their arbitrary good fortune.

Still worse, the very principle of selection by intelligence was based upon an outrageous scientific fraud committed by the educational psychologist and government advisor, Sir Cyril Burt. He faked his studies of separately-raised identical twins to declare that intelligence was primarily determined by genetics rather than upbringing, and therefore fixed at conception. Had he been right, then selection for different kinds of education might have been sensible, but evidence points the other way. In Nottingham, two thirds of children from one middle class suburb went to grammar school, against one in fifty from an adjacent poorer area. In some depressed northern towns, less than ten per cent of all children got in. This could never have been down to intelligence alone.

I don’t want to imply that everything about grammar schools was perfect and everything about modern schools poor. Far from it. Grammar schools could be indifferent to under-achievers and modern schools launched many successful careers, but it was a dreadful waste of talent. I know ‘rejects’ who went on to demonstrate this in the most superlative way. One, after a year at the modern school, was thrown the lifeline of a transfer into the first form at the grammar school and went on to Cambridge University to qualify as a veterinary surgeon. Two others who transferred at the same time became a solicitor and an accountant. Yet more, allowed to transfer to the grammar school at sixteen after overcoming the not inconsiderable hurdle of passing ‘O’ levels at the modern school, went into teaching. But how many ‘false negatives’ and ‘late developers’ did the system miss? How many found it impossible to recover from the stigma of failure?

Selective secondary education was (mostly) abolished in the nineteen-seventies, and university provision expanded so that, today, nearly half of young people go to university. This means that around half of recent graduates would once have been ‘failed’ at eleven. Things have undoubtedly changed for the better, but there may be something in the view that we have gone too far the other way. Working in universities, I came across students (a few, but the most arrogant academics would say a lot) who simply lacked the basic levels of literacy, numeracy, ability or diligence to gain much at all from degree level study. They didn’t seem to grasp what they were supposed to be doing, or why they were there. “Pass them anyway,” said the management, off the record, “because that’s what the government wants us to do.” I suppose at least now, few can genuinely claim they have not been given some kind of opportunity.

Thursday, 17 March 2022

Laid Up

We enjoyed decorating son’s bedroom together. It was like thirty years ago when we first moved in. We painted the walls and the woodwork, replaced his football border with a nice flowery one, got the pine-framed bed out of the loft and bought a new mattress. We dismantled and lost his gigantic desk under the bed and now have a guest room. He said we had turned it into an old people’s bedroom.

Most of his stuff has gone to his flat. You would not think so from how much was left. The word ‘pillock’ was mentioned several times. There were A-level, university and postgraduate course notes and books, the empty boxes for every gadget he has bought in fifteen years, a six-feet tall cabinet of DVDs, and books, books and more books shelved double depth. Kids have too much money these days. 

The number of books is astonishing, and he has read every one without a single crease to the spines. No one else was allowed to touch them.  

He did then help sort paper for recycling, documents for shredding and books to go to Ziffit which I heard about through Sue in Suffolk’s blog. They pay next to nothing – you do well to average a pound a book – but it’s better than the charity shop, assuming you can find one to take them at the moment.  

How quickly things can change. One day you are decorating bedrooms, lifting furniture, washing cars and going for country walks, and the next you are crawling on your hands and knees to the bathroom. I don’t know how, but I hurt my back, both upper and lower. Comfortable positions for one were agony for the other. To make matters worse, I then overdid the Ibuprofen and messed up my stomach and could hardly eat anything for a week. Ambrosia will be delighted with their sales this month.

Nights have been spent in the new ‘guest’ room, impatient at the slow pace of recovery. I’ve read the spines of son’s remaining books, and renewed acquaintance with Rusty the Pony who I bought on impulse when Mrs. D. was expecting. Rusty’s friend, bought at the same time, a texture-feely caterpillar we named Snake, was sucked to destruction, but Rusty and some of this other friends survived.  

Who are all these writers: Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, Robin Hobb and George R. R. Martin? I could also mention Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss, David Hair, Tad Williams, Joe Abercrombie, Adrian Tchaikovsky. Only about half of those he has kept are in the picture. Apart from the history books at the bottom, it is nearly all epic fantasy and science fiction. Then there is Stephen King who throws in extra horror. How can anyone write so much waffle – sixty-four doorstep thick novels? I’ve never read any of these authors despite their enormous popularity. George R. R. Martin, for example, wrote Song of Ice and Fire which became Game of Thrones. Much too violent for me.

I suppose it is only like in my day when I enjoyed reading through the science fiction shelves of the public library. Then it was Brian Aldiss, Ray Bradbury, John Wyndham, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. They had a bit more mid-twentieth century reserve and decorum.

At random, I picked up Dreamcatcher and began to read, appropriate as King explains at the end he was in pain recovering from an accident when he wrote it. I know how he felt. Not that I read to the end. I managed about fifty pages before deciding I had little curiosity about four guys with telepathic powers, and not much liking for their characters. From the synopsis on Wikipedia I avoided quite a few nightmares. Most likely, it’s me that’s boring. I never had much time for Tolkien, either.

Monday, 7 March 2022

English

A few weeks ago, Mr. YP mentioned that as an English teacher he looked for innovative and creative ways to engage children and develop their language skills.

It brought to mind my own English teacher who, when we were about fourteen, hit upon the idea of using the school’s brand new reel-to-reel tape recorder to stimulate our creativity. Each of the two classes he taught in our year group would prepare and record a tape for the other to listen to. It would be like a radio programme. Each person or small group was allowed a slot in which to present something: perhaps read a poem or piece of writing, perform a short sketch or sing a song. Almost anything went. The content was not necessarily original.  

Ron and I said we would read the news – Two Ronnies Style (in fact I swear they stole the idea from us).

We began with the latest news about The Great Train Robbery – according to our latest reports the Great Train is still missing. Fighting off a small amount of corpsing we just about managed to keep going.  

We struggled on to the second item, about the winner of the Isle of Wight cattle show which was owned by a Mrs Hird of Cowes.

That did it. I am no longer sure who started it but the rest of our slot was filled entirely by painful, uncontrollable giggling, both from us and the rest of the class.  

Tuesday, 1 March 2022

Lookin’ fe’r a feet

New Month Old Post (from original post of 1st October 2014)    
 
Tasker Dunham gets beaten up
 
“You two lookin’ fe’r a feet?” said a coarse voice behind.* We pretended not to hear and kept walking.

We were making our way home by way of the back lanes so we could take off our school caps. The uniform was compulsory to and from school at all times: the striped tie, the blazer with the Viking badge, and the hideous cap – navy blue with four bright yellow triangles joined on top. Get caught without and it was an automatic Saturday morning detention. This applied just as much to sixth formers as to younger pupils, even those who stayed on an extra year to try for Oxbridge, and they could be nearly twenty! School caps looked even sillier on sixth formers than on us because nobody ever bought a new one, so they walked to and from school with tiny first-form caps perched on huge sixth-form heads.

But once out of sight beneath the high walls of the back lanes and cross streets, it was safe to put your cap in your pocket. The only danger was that the lanes were the haunt of Secondary Modern School boys who flaunted their toughness and maturity by smoking. They detested Grammar School boys in their showy uniforms, thinking them anything but tough and mature.

The voice behind was quiet for a time, so my friend Burling resumed talking about school. He was top of the ‘A’ stream and thought about little else. He was prattling on about surds and nineteenth century history: the square root of fifty and politicians William Pitt the Younger and George Canning. He could convince you it was fascinating, but from the way the disagreeable voice behind had pronounced fight as “feet”, I knew we were being followed by someone who thought surds were absurd, a pit was where you might get a job, and canning was what they did with peas and carrots in the factory down the Pontefract Road.

“You two lookin’ fe’r a feet?”

There were two modern school boys behind, smoking. One was the notorious Pete Jibson, who, despite being only a couple of years older than us, was one of those lads who by the age of fourteen could pass for twenty. He was heavily built, with thick greasy hair, dark stubble, a lined forehead and a perpetually malicious scowl. I had once seen him buying three Woodbines in the sweet shop where they split up packets to sell singly. He was definitely not someone you would want to fight. Better to lose face than teeth. But Burling lacked any sense of self-preservation. He never went out enough.

“I said you two lookin’ fe’r a feet?” repeated Jibson.

“Why?” asked Burling, brightly. “Have you lost one?”

It was not at all a sensible thing say. Jibson pushed forward, picked up Burling by the lapels of his blazer and rammed him backwards, hard against the wall.

“Four-eyed grammar school twat,” he growled, Woodbine still in mouth. He let Burling go and turned to walk away with his accomplice, smirking.

“Charming!” I whispered as they left, but a bit too loudly, and Jibson turned back to give me the treatment.

“What was that, you bastard? What did you say?”

“I didn’t say owt,” I protested in anxious, conciliatory, wide-eyed innocence. “I didn’t say owt.” I didn’t want to sound too posh.

Jibson let me go and turned again to leave. I was just about to give a sigh of relief when Burling, like the idiot he was, piped up, “He said you two were charming.”

“Right!” said Jibson menacingly. There was a sudden flash, a heavy thump under my chin, and I staggered backwards to the ground. As I struggled to get up I could see Burling being smashed against the wall again. When Jibson had made his point he flicked the smouldering stub of his Woodbine at my head, and swaggered off.

We waited until they were well ahead before continuing home. Burling had a few scrapes and scratches, and I suffered no worse than damaged pride and a bruised chin. We took the main roads home for the next few weeks, and kept our caps on.  

Jibson left school soon afterwards and gave us no more bother. I heard he went to work at the local concrete factory making reinforced panels: dangerous, corrosive and life-shortening work. His mate did a bit better. I saw him again about a year later – at our house! He was with the local firm of decorators whistling and joking as they painted our outside woodwork. I don’t think he noticed me. I crept in quietly from school each day and made myself scarce until they had gone home. I imagined him laughing as he told the others about roughing us up. 
 
As for Burling, he went to Oxford University to read politics, philosophy and economics, and became an economist at the Bank of England. 


*In Northern England, you sometimes hear “fight” pronounced “feet” (cf “Y’aw’reet?” meaning “Are you all right?”). Also, “for” is often pronounced “fe” with a short ‘e’ and an added ‘r’ when followed by a vowel, and “aught” (anything) as “owt”.

Wednesday, 23 February 2022

Signalling

I recently mentioned four boxes of discoloured colour slides I came across when scanning in. Several people suggested, and indeed showed, it was not difficult to recover at least something like their original appearance. I said I’d try, but needed to get out an old computer with Photoshop Elements which came bundled free with a scanner. These days they expect you to buy it over and over again with a subscription. I refuse to be treated as an income stream.

I got out the old computer but have not made much progress yet. This is not down to any difficulty with Photoshop, but because of distraction. The old computer also contains a set of PC-Rail signalling simulations.    

They might not sound it, but they’re great, they really are – not because of what you do or see but because of what you imagine. You pretend you are controlling all the trains through York, the noise and the power and the enormity of the things, and imagine being on board, remembering journeys once made.  

It could be the summer of 1983, when they invited me to interview for a research job in the world-famous Department of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Edinburgh. I travelled up from Hull and back in a day, changing at Selby during its last months as a station on the East Coast Main Line before being bypassed by the coalfield diversion They wanted to offer me the job too – they phoned the same evening – but were then overruled by the funding council who insisted on someone either with or close to finishing a Ph.D.

Or it could be any one of the many other times I’ve been through York by train, up to Newcastle, Edinburgh or Glasgow, visiting clients when I was with the software company, or later, to see students on work placement. I once went to Aberdeen on the overnight sleeper, did what I had to do there, returned the next night and was back at work by 9 a.m.

It’s tricky signalling a path through York for the Scarborough Transpennines. They come in from Leeds on the top left of the above screen and need to get to Platform 4 and the Scarborough line on the bottom right. The screen shot shows train 1B23 (Blackpool to Scarborough) nearly there after crossing the East Coast Main Line just outside the station. I have to be careful not to hold up trains from Doncaster and London. I am being distracted by train 2C26 coming in from Harrogate at the other end of the station (below) where it has to get to Platform 8 without  holding up trains from Newcastle and Edinburgh. Fortunately, it’s not very busy – not yet. 

Sheffield is great, too – quite demanding. You control everything from Dore Junction and the Bradway tunnel south of the station (on the left in the screenshot below), to Meadowhall to the north. You have to put goods trains into loop lines to give priority to the London and Cross Country expresses on the Midland Main Line. Oh to be on the Aberdeen to Penzance!

I’ve been through Sheffield a lot too: south to the East Midlands where the software company was based, north to Leeds, York and beyond, and East towards Doncaster and Hull when I lived and worked there. These days you might find me taking the Barnsley branch home. Mother-in-law used to do it when she travelled up from Hertfordshire and changed trains at Sheffield, complaining it was so much easier when we lived near Nottingham, horrified by the Barnsley accents on the local train and dreading her grandchildren might grow up to speak like that. They got called posh at school.  

The full simulations are not free, but there are evaluation versions which run for thirty minutes or so without charge, which is all I have ever done. With well over a hundred different stations or eras, there is plenty to do. Some are “heritage” simulations which recreate mechanical lever-framed signal boxes communicating with adjacent boxes through working block instruments and bells. I’ve played with quite a lot of them, both modern and heritage, always there personally in the mind’s eye.

Now, what about those photographs.

Friday, 18 February 2022

Factorials (or Bonding with Brague)

Dear Bob,

As I am sure you know, the factorial of any positive whole number is that number multiplied by all the numbers between it and 1.

So the factorial of 3 = 1 x 2 x 3 = 6
And the factorial of 5 = 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 = 120

I am also sure that, as a computer programmer, you could quickly write a program to calculate the factorial of any number N. One way to do it would be to set up a counter to cycle through all the numbers between 1 and N, multiplying each by a running total that is initially set to 1. In an imaginary programming language it might look like this:

RunningTotal = 1
FOR Counter = 1 to N
Multiply RunningTotal by Counter; (thereby altering the value of RunningTotal)
The factorial of N = RunningTotal

So, in calculating the factorial of 5, each step of the cycle would produce the following values:

 Counter   Multiplication of
 RunningTotal x Counter 
 New Value of
 RunningTotal 
1 1  x  1 1
2 1  x  2 2
3 2  x  3 6
4 6  x  4 24
5 24  x  5 120

But there is a more elegant way. This involves thinking of the factorial of any number N as being that number multiplied by the factorial of N-1.

So the factorial of 3 = 3 x 2 = 6
And the factorial of 5 = 5 x 24 = 120
And the factorial of 6 = 6 x 120 = 720

In our imaginary programming language, the program to calculate factorials using this method might look like this:

The factorial of 1 = 1
The factorial of N = N x the factorial of (N-1)

This is known as a recursive function because it has to re-use itself at each step of the calculation. For example:

The factorial of 5 = 5 x (the factorial of 4)
    The factorial of 4 = 4 x (the factorial of 3)
        The factorial of 3 = 3 x (the factorial of 2)
            The factorial of 2 = 2 x (the factorial of 1)
                The factorial of 1 = 1 (this causes the calculation to “unwind”)
            So, the factorial of 2 = 2 x 1 = 2
        So, the factorial of 3 = 3 x 2 = 6
    So, the factorial of = 4 x 6 = 24
So, the factorial of 5 = 5 x 24 = 120

Isn’t that just exquisite!

Now, for homework, please would you explain the operation of recursive descent parsing giving examples from the Hebrew and Cherokee languages.

Sincerely yours

Monday, 14 February 2022

Sisters

This started out as one of those Google-powered rabbit burrows, beginning with Norma Waterson, the folk singer, who died at the end of January. She was born in ‘ull (American and non-Yorkshire: Hull). Mr YP mentioned her recently, and also, not so long ago, David Bowie’s collaborator Mick Ronson, who was also born in ‘ull. What other singers were born there, we wondered.

It sent me back to my mother’s Light Programme on the wireless in the nineteen-fifties. You would hear Ronnie Hilton singing about a mouse in a windmill with triplets and twins in, going clip-clippety-clop on the stair. He was born in ‘ull. David Whitfield too, the first British singer to have a number one in both Britain and the U.S. with the magnificently emotional Cara Mia.

Dickie Valentine was another of that era. What about him? Well, no, he was from London. What did he sing, then? Finger of Suspicion and Christmas Alphabet. But I thought Christmas Alphabet was by a female American group.

Yes: The McGuire Sisters. I remember them more for Sugartime. It’s on YouTube. Listen to those counter-melodies. Weren’t they good!


What about the Beverley Sisters: that’s near ‘ull. But they weren’t from Beverley; they were from London. Joy, Babs and Teddie. They were good too, and pretty, with distinctive harmonies. Here they are aged 20 and 23 (with 1947 cultural sensibilities): 

The matching qualities, the timbre, of family group voices can make pleasant listening, especially sisters. Take the Dale Sisters: Betty, Hazel and Julie Dunderdale, one of many sister acts that almost made it but not quite. They weren’t quite from ‘ull, but near enough to count. Their dad was a local butcher and Julie married our Geography teacher. They got off the ground in 1959 by winning a talent contest at Butlins holiday camp in Filey. They were also known as the England sisters:


The YouTube links, if you can’t see them are:
McGuire Sisters: https://youtu.be/bRvEHn6fKWE 

Wednesday, 9 February 2022

Lost Colour - a postscript

After my last post I received an email from Adrian of Adrian's Images explaining how the pictures of the Scarborough let's-play-pirates ship and the Dartmoor ponies could be restored. Yes, even the Dartmoor ponies. Do take a look on his blog at what he did. It's amazing. Following his tips I'll be having another go myself once I get out the old computer that still runs my old version of Photoshop Elements.

Sunday, 6 February 2022

Lost Colour

In 1974, I retired my trusty old Kodak Brownie Starmite camera, bought a Zenith E single lens reflex and switched from black and white prints to colour slides. The photographs from that time are still good, even after nearly fifty years. For example, here in the summer of 1974 is my friend’s Hillman Minx being unloaded by crane from the (turbine steamship) T S Leda at Bergen, Norway. It was the ship’s last year as a North Sea ferry before Roll-on/Roll-off came into operation on that route. You watched anxiously as your car was lowered to the quayside.

We had sailed from the Tyne Commission Quay at Newcastle. Only last May, I walked the half mile out to the end of the pier at Tynemouth, which I remember passing on the Leda, and gazed awestruck into the mouth of the Tyne, and at the even longer structure on the South Shields side. All still very much in colour, both photographically and in memory.  

Now look at this one, taken at Scarborough in 2004, which I discovered when scanning in.  


It isn’t a one off; we have four boxes like this, a hundred and forty four washed out pictures, all on Agfachrome from 2004. We have other boxes from the same year on Fujichrome, and others on Agfachrome from before and after, all fine. So far as I can remember, they have not been stored any differently; all have been in a drawer in the same cardboard box. On Steve Reed’s Shadows & Light blog, he even has good slides from the nineteen-fifties.

Some of our affected slides are like this one of wild ponies on Dartmoor. They suggest a reaction with the air, because these were from the centres of the slide boxes. They seem to have degraded from the outside in.
 

I found a web site, https://www.scantips.com/color.html, which explained how the slide below on the left had been restored to the two on its right, but despite playing around with Photoshop, I was unable to restore mine to anything like its original self. Some of the detail seems to have been lost. And you would need much better Photoshop skills than I have to correct slides that still retain colour in the centre but have lost it at the edges. 

Thankfully, it’s only four boxes: we have over a hundred and fifty in all. Is it our fault, or did Agfa change something in 1974? I’ll probably never know.

The slides were from my wife’s camera. She changed to digital in 2006, as I had done in 2001. Here is her picture from last year of the iconic lighthouse at the end of Tynemouth pier, which I remembered seeing from the Leda. Underneath is how the piers look from the air. They shelter the mouth of the Tyne. Incredible! 

Lots of things can go wrong with digital images, but loss of colour is unlikely to be one of them.




Tuesday, 1 February 2022

Jokers Wild

New Month Old Post: Barry Cryer, who died last week, is remembered in this not-so-old post from 18th November, 2018

Jokers Wild 1970

Leeds 1970. Mondays. Back to work. Accountancy 8.45 to 5.30. I’d better get used to it because it could be for the next forty or fifty years. One of the older guys could find his own handwriting in ledgers from the nineteen-thirties: like in Cat Stevens’ Matthew and Son.

But there was one good thing about Mondays: Jokers Wild. The show had returned for a second series just after we moved into the first of our shared houses in March, 1970. I could be home for 6.15 when it went out on Yorkshire Television.

Jokers Wild (not to be confused with the American series of the same name) was a classic comedy show in which two teams of comedians competed by telling jokes on topics from cards drawn by Barry Cryer. Bonus points could be scored by interrupting a joke part-way through and completing the punchline. It was pretty much the first British example of many similar show formats: the Mock the Week of fifty years ago.

Old copies of that wonderful provincial newspaper The Yorkshire Post, which at parochial odds with almost every other newspaper and magazine in the country listed Yorkshire Television ahead of the B.B.C., name the regular team captains as Ted Ray and Arthur Askey, with team members Les Dawson and Ray Martine. On the 6th April, 1970, the day my wild-joking accountant boss had wished me a happy new fiscal year (I ashamedly still use that joke every year without fail), they were joined by guests Clive Dunn and Stubby Kaye.

Ray Cameron (father of the present day comedian Michael McIntire), who invented the show, appeared in some episodes. Other regulars and guests read like a who’s-who of British comedy from the last days of music hall to the nineteen-seventies. Many of them smoked cigarettes overtly on-screen. Some are now so gone and forgotten they don’t even have Wikipedia pages.

Jokers Wild Trophy
Barry Cryer with the Jokers Wild Trophy (click to play)
A YouTube clip advertising a DVD of some of the shows has guests Joe Baker and Lance Percival, probably from the 13th or 20th April, 1970. In subsequent weeks the Yorkshire Post lists Jack Douglas (in character as the nervous-tic-suffering Alfred Ippititimus), Ray Fell, Ted Rogers, Graham Stark, Kenneth Connor and Arthur Worsley. Other online clips include Michael Aspel, Warren Mitchell, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Sid James. Wikipedia and IMDb also mention that over its five-year, nine-series run, others on the show included Eric Sykes, Jimmy Edwards, Roy Hudd, Alfred Marks, Professor Stanley Unwin, Norman Collier, Bob Monkhouse, Peter Goodwright, Jack Smethurst, Lennie Bennett, David Nixon, Roy Kinnear, John Cleese, Charlie Chester, Freddie Starr, Michael Bentine, Paul Andrews, Lonnie Donegan, Milo O’Shea, Kenneth Earle, Kenny Cantor, Clement Freud, Mike Hope, Albie Keen, Tony Brandon, John Junkin, Mike Burton, Don Maclean, Bobby Pattinson, Tony Stewart, Dick Bentley, Deryck Guyler, Laurence Harvey, Dickie Henderson, Bernard Bresslaw, Rolf Harris, John Pertwee and Fred Emney. As was the spirit of the time, few women appeared on the show, the only ones listed (including hostesses) being Isabella Rye, Diana Dors, Audrey Jeans, ‘the lovely’ Aimi MacDonald and June Whitfield. I can remember most on the list, but by no means all. Some were actually singers, actors or presenters rather than comedians.

They told a lot of sexist, racist, men-in-pub, wife and mother-in-law jokes. I remember Tim-Brooke Taylor being allowed almost to complete a joke about a town in Devon before Barry Cryer interrupted to remind him that the subject was supposed to be painting. “Oh,” he said sounding surprised. “I thought you said Paignton.” The wonderful and much-underrated Ray Martine, a Polari-speaking, camp Jewish comedian with a reputation for witty and effective put-downs, became more and more ill-at-ease and hesitant as the series progressed. He seemed unable to cope with constant teasing and interruptions, especially from Les Dawson. On one programme he looked so fed up he launched into a stream of jokes about Barry Cryer’s wife, which was taking things a bit too far. Barry Cryer took it with good grace and said that after the break they would be back with more jokes and a letter from his solicitor. And it was all done without a single swear word.

One might also reflect on prominent comedians of the time who were not on the show: no Morecambe and Wise; no Ronnies; no Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Williams, Dick Emery, Harry Worth, Charlie Drake, Benny Hill or Jimmy Tarbuck; only a minority of Carry-Ons, Pythons, Goodies and Goons; and so many, many others. Perhaps they were too busy, or under exclusive contract to the B.B.C., or maybe it was just not their format.

It was at least a last chance to see some of the older generation: the wartime generation and earlier. Arthur Askey and Fred Emney were over 70 when they appeared, with Ted Ray not much younger. From all of these lists it is astonishing to realise just how many brilliant comedians there have been over the years.

It looks terribly dated now and was probably more scripted than improvised, but it still raises a laugh. The DVDs for Series 1 and 2 are tempting [I later bought the series 2 DVD]. A much better review than this of the first DVD appears here.

Jokers Wild Series 1 Jokers Wild Series 2

Tuesday, 25 January 2022

Sebhorreic Keratosis

Compared with other bloggers recently, I feel like Brody in Jaws, when the other two guys are showing off their hideous scars and he secretly looks down at his own, perhaps an appendectomy, and wisely decides it’s not impressive or gruesome enough to reveal. Except I’m not that wise.

Sebhorreic Keratosis: otherwise ‘thing-gy’, with a hard ‘g’.

I had this thing-gy on my face. I didn’t think it was too bad until I saw pictures of a concert I was in and realised how prominent it looked, even though I was hiding in my customary place at the back of the stage. Worse, I thought it red until told it was brown. They look the same to me.

I think my family had become used to it and didn’t notice any more. I zoomed into past photographs to see how long it had been there. It appeared as a small mark around 2005, and by 2018 had grown to a centimeter across. It almost doubled in size over a year.

I told the doctor I’d come about this thing-gy. After prodding, wiggling and stretching it, he pronounced it sebhorreic keratosis, not easy to pronounce at all. I knew the first word from shampoo bottles. Head & Shoulders bottles used to mention sebhorreic dermatitis but they mention only nicer things now. The worst it gets is “visible flakes”. Anyway, the doctor said it was harmless but did I want it removed? It was only on the surface and nowhere near any facial nerves. A cosmetic procedure.

Around six months later I attended his surgery at the local G.P. practice. He injected some anaesthetic, commented how surprisingly hard it was, scraped away the tissue with a scalpel, and corterised it. Apart from a tugging sensation, scraping sounds and a burning smell, it was not unpleasant.

He left me to be tidied up by the nurse who had helped. She assured me that actually, if anything, despite a round charcoal mark, it looked much better now than before because it was no longer raised. Aren’t nurses wonderful! She was wearing one of those NHS polythene aprons too, tied tight, shiny and shapely.

Within a few days the beard hairs were growing through and within a few weeks it had disappeared completely. 

Unfortunately, six months ago it started coming back. There were two small brown raised spots at the upper and lower edges of where it had been. There was no chance of treatment during covid overload, but my cousin, who also suffers them and is a nurse, said she just puts wart remover on hers. I said the local pharmacy wouldn’t let me have any. “That’s because you were silly enough to tell them what you wanted it for,” she said. 

She pointed me to Boots where you simply pick it off the shelves. Cousin said get the strongest. I got the weakest: ‘Wartie’. The instructions emphasise it is only for warts and on no account should it be used on the face. I dabbed it on my face, on the thing-gy, daily for three weeks then leave for a week. After three months it has nearly gone.

Now, should I tell you about the epididymal cyst?