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Wednesday 20 December 2023

A New Job

A year out of university, Brilliant Daughter was struggling in the gig economy, teaching kids and adults who had seen The Great Pottery Throw Down and fancied a go themselves, with an outfit that pays barely more than the minimum wage. Despite having the full skill set, from running workshops to throwing clay on the wheel and glazing and firing, she received no more than the Paint-a-Pot supervisors. It left little time and energy for her own stuff. She began to look for a salaried job.

A vacancy came up for an art, textiles and ceramics technician in a posh, girls’ school behind high walls in leafy green gardens. As well as art, ceramics and textiles departments, the school has music and dance studios, a gym, computing and science labs: everything any girl (or her mum) could dream of. Lots of smart, happy, smiley, high-achieving girls on the web site. They have a sixth form that sends loads to top universities, and I don’t need to add that the OFSTED rating is Outstanding.

A lot of thought and effort went into her application and she got an interview. She had all the skills they needed, particularly in ceramics and textiles.

The interview went well. She can talk the lid off a tea pot and the pattern off the tea towel too. Then there were some practical tasks to do.

One involved threading and using a sewing machine. Some of the other candidates didn’t have a clue. She even ended up helping one. Then they had to wedge some clay (i.e. knead it to uniform consistency without air bubbles), weigh out quantities for hand-building and wheel throwing, and centre some on a wheel. Well, that’s what she does all the time. Finally, they were asked to identify hazards in a room where there were open drawers and a glass of water next to electrical equipment. Walks and parks for any member of our obsessive-compulsive family.

Apparenty, there are now AI web sites that automatically create CVs and cover letters for you. You wonder whether some of the candidates had any idea what they had applied for.

Afterwards, they phoned her. “What? Me? Really?” she said in disbelief.

She has her own desk, control of a materials budget (the kids are provided with all they need), and training in things like driving the school minibus. The teaching and other support staff are friendly and intelligent. The kids are fun. A civilised, professional place to work.

And, with the time and energy to make her own things in the evening, weekends and holidays, she has been busy with clay, wheel and kiln in her studio. Nearly everything she made sold in the Christmas markets.

Tuesday 12 December 2023

Julius Caesar


I seem to be one of the diminishing few who still prefer to watch television in the traditional manner: as and when it is broadcast, usually in weekly episodes. For the past three Mondays we have been watching the Julius Caesar series on the BBC. Even Mrs. D., who is something of a phone addict, has been riveted by it.

It tells the story of how, through ruthless political manipulations and military conquests, and by appealing to the popular vote, Julius Caesar overthrew five hundred years of democracy, seizing power to become dictator of the whole Roman Empire. What a tyrant! Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. After him, democracy ended. Rome was governed by emperors and gradually fell into decline.

Caesar and those around him, such as Cato and Pompey, are played by actors. We see their actions, which are often terrible, and they spend a lot of time looking worried or thoughtful, but they speak no lines. Their contributions are described by around a dozen experts - academics, serious politicians and constitutional lawyers - who each focus on one person. The effect is gripping and powerful. I especially liked Rory Stewart’s explanations of Cato, Caesar’s adversary, who kills himself rather than compromise. I have seen historical dramas, and documentaries narrated by individuals, but nothing like this. Maybe I don’t watch enough television.

Without anything too explicit, it is impossible not to make comparisons with present times. Choose any conflict or political situation in any country you want. It is best said at the end. Democracy has to be defended constantly and vigorously. If democracy is weak, strong people come forward, and a new dictator will emerge.

Friday 8 December 2023

I Haven’t Time To Be A Millionaire

What do young people do when they begin to take more than just a passing interest in each other? One answer it that they walk in the countryside. Our children did so with there special friends, and I have written about how I was smitten one warm evening in peaceful Leicestershire ridge and furrow. 

My parents were no different. This pair of photographs is from 1945. That is Rawcliffe Church in the distance. 

I was selecting images to illustrate the old family audiotapes I have mentioned several times, with a view to putting them on YouTube to minimise risk of loss. Here, yet again, is my dad singing “I Haven’t Time To Be A Millionaire”, this time as a video with images. It may not be particularly sophisticated, but it seems to work well.

I bet he imagined he was Bing Crosby singing with Gloria Jean in “If I Had My Way”. Let’s say he makes a recognisable attempt. I cannot imagine my mum managing Gloria Jean’s coloratura soprano, though. I looked up the original. What a delight! Astonishingly, Gloria Jean was just 14 at the time, playing the part of an orphaned child. She’s nearly as good as Bing. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqzBUaonyZw

Dad sang a lot of Bing Crosby songs to us; there are more on the full audiotape, such as (from the same film): “If I had my way forever there’d be, a garden of roses for you and for me”, and (from “Rhythm on the River”): “Do I want to be with you, as the years come and go? Only forever, if you care to know”. 

“Stop being soppy,” I hear my mum say, which of course encouraged him. 

Isn’t it great to be able to share our parents’ musical obsessions, even years too late. I wish I could watch the films with them now. 

Monday 4 December 2023

Andrew Lloyd Webber

A treat on BBC Television last night: ‘Andrew Lloyd Webber at the BBC’, a collection of performances over the years. It had some commentary, including from Lloyd Webber himself, but nothing shouty or intrusive, no one ‘emoting’ like an open mouthed idiot, just quiet, intelligent and sensible. The BBC at its best. It was first shown in March earlier this year but I missed it then. It is still on iPlayer.

I have long been a Lloyd Webber fan. I first became aware of him in the Joseph days of the nineteen-sixties, but it was Jesus Christ Superstar that won me over, particularly the film - the one with Ted Neely and Yvonne Elliman. I saw it three or four times. My friend Brendan, from the shared house, went to see it about ten times. He knew all the words and harmonies, and could imitate the actors’ bass/baritone/tenor voices:  “We need a more permanent solution to our problem. ...What then to do about Jesus of Nazareth? Miracle wonderman, hero of fools ...” If you know the original you can imagine the hilarious effect.

Then I bought the first recording of Evita and was absolutely entranced by it, especially the scene where Peron meets Eva for the first time:  “...Colonel Peron / Eva Duarte, I’ve heard so much about you. ... but I’m only an actress / a soldier ... But when you act, the things you do affect us all. But when you act, you take us away from the squalor of the real world. ...I’d be good for you, I’d be surprisingly good for you.”

For me, the highlight of the programme was Lesley Garrett and Michael Ball singing The Phantom of the Opera in 2001. I love Lesley Garrett. She is of my era and from Thorne in Yorkshire, my part of the country. She went to Thorne Grammar School. Goole, Thorne and the villages in between and around used to be as one. They even had the same telephone dialling code. Then some government factotum with apparently no understanding of the social geography of the area thought it would be more convenient to split them off into different administrative regions.

When Lesley Garrett speaks, much of her native Thorne accent still bubbles through. When she sings, she is spellbinding.

Lesley Garrett and Michael Ball: The Phantom of the Opera - https://youtu.be/yAYeqyrFWWU
I don’t know why the sub-titles to this video
misleadingly implies that they are married.

Friday 1 December 2023

The Mighty Micro

New Month Old Post: first posted 4th January, 2017. 

Christopher Evans: The Mighty Micro

In 1978, Dr. Christopher Evans, a psychologist, computer scientist and expert on the future of computers, confidently made four predictions for the year 2000: (i) the printed word would become virtually obsolete; (ii) computer-based education would begin to supplant schools and teachers; (iii) money, in terms of physical bits of metal and paper, would almost have vanished; (iv) substantial and dramatic advances would have taken place in the field of artificial intelligence.
 
His only uncertainty was about the pace of change. It might take a decade or so longer, or occur more quickly, but the changes about to take place would be so stupendous as to transform the world beyond recognition. There would be more changes than in the whole of the two previous centuries. We were about to experience rapid, massive, irreversible and remorselessly unstoppable shifts in the way we lived.

Evans expanded his predictions in his book and television series The Mighty Micro. As well as the four main predictions, he thought we would soon see self-driving collision-proof cars, robotic lawn mowers, doors that open only to the voices of their owners, the widespread commercial use of databases and electronic text, a ‘wristwatch’ which monitors your heart and blood pressure, an entire library stored in the space of just one book, a flourishing computer-games industry and eventually ultra-intelligent machines with powers far greater than our own. Every one of these things seemed incredible at the time.

The social and political predictions were even more mind boggling. Evans foresaw a twenty-hour working week for all, retirement at fifty, interactive politics through regular electronic referendums, a decline in the influence of the professions, the emptying of cities and decreased travel as we worked more from home, and the fall of communism as underprivileged societies become astutely aware of their relative deprivation.  

I remember how fantastic and exhilarating this view of the future seemed at the time, but it gave me a serious problem. Having escaped my previous career in accountancy, I was half-way through a psychology degree trying to work out what to do next. If Evans was to be believed, and I believed a lot of it, then most of the then-present ways of earning a living were in jeopardy.

What was I to do? The answer seemed obvious: something that involved computers. So like Evans, I looked for ways to combine psychology with computing, and after gaining further qualifications that is what I did.

Christopher Evans: The Mighty Micro
Dr. Christopher Evans talks about educational software

It is fascinating to revisit Evans’ predictions. How many were correct, what would have surprised him, and why? Many commentators conclude he got more things wrong than right, but I am not so sure. The printed word no longer predominates; computers now pervade education, albeit with teachers in schools as guides rather than in the didactic and solitary way Evans imagined; and nearly all significant financial transactions are carried out electronically. And the less-bizarre predictions are already here.

Undoubtedly, he over-estimated the pace of change, especially the emergence of advanced artificial intelligence. Futurologists are still predicting it. Stephen Hawking warned of the terrifying possibilities of machines whose intelligence exceeds ours by more than ours exceeds that of snails. On the other hand, it may still be as far away as ever. It remains unclear what qualities such super-intelligence might have, or whether intelligence might have an upper limit. Perhaps our inability to imagine these things defines our stupidity. Where Evans was wrong, if it can be regarded as wrong, is that he was no seer. He could not escape the prevailing mindset of the nineteen-seventies, and foresee the innovative new uses of computers.

He did not foresee the internet. Multimedia crops up only in the form of a brief mention of “colour graphics”. Graphical user interfaces were still little more than a research project. He thought that electronic communications would take place through “the family television set” rather than personal hand-held devices.

And if you could not foresee these things, there is no way you could imagine how they would be used. Evans, with a seemingly naive view of human nature, imagined we would all be using computers to improve ourselves and make our lives easier; that our leisure time would be devoted to cultural, artistic, philosophical, scientific and creative endeavour of various kinds. I wonder what he would have made of internet pornography, fake news, selfies and cat videos.

Evans’ over-beneficent view of human nature coloured his vision of the social and political changes he thought would take place. Take the twenty-hour working week and retirement at fifty. The efficiencies brought about by computers could already have reduced our work significantly, but this has never been offered. It would upset too many powerful interests. Governments answer to the establishment more than the ‘man in the street’. As a result, for those who have jobs, the trend today is the opposite. And for those who don’t, wouldn’t it be fairer to share the jobs out?

Imagine if twenty hours per week up to the age of fifty was all we had to do. What would happen? For a start there would be those who decided to take on additional work in order to fund superior accommodation, private education, health care, better holidays, a more luxurious lifestyle and a more comfortable old age. Anyone content with just one job would begin to lose out. To keep up, we would all continue to work more than necessary, and the extra wealth would evaporate through increased spending, inflation and rising house prices, and disappear into the pockets of the elite minority, much of it overseas. Does that sound familiar? The only way to avoid the inevitable self-satisfied winners and miserable losers would be to ration the amount of work one could undertake, or the amount of wealth one was allowed to have. The necessary laws and financial penalties would be unpopular and difficult.

And how would we use our over-abundant spare time? One could easily imagine an intensification of social ills: epidemics of obesity, alcoholism, drug dependence, mental health issues and the breakdown of law and order. 

‘Parkinson’s law’ prevails: work expands to fill the time available. Anyone with experience of large organisations will know how work once considered inessential or unaffordable, now occupies an entire additional workforce who administer quality, accountability and ‘political correctness’. Rather than reducing the overall workload, computers have increased it by making possible what was once impossible.

Stephen Hawking concluded his forewarnings about super-intelligent computers as follows:

“Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far the trend seems to be towards the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.”
Sadly, Christopher Evans died shortly after his book’s publication, three weeks before his television series was broadcast. It is often said that if you make predictions about the future the only certainty is that you will be wrong. Evans would have known this, but I suspect he would have been fairly satisfied by the extent to which he got it right. 


My original post in 2017 was quite a lot longer and included links to the archived television programmes, so I have left it here. The programmes are fascinating to watch if this kind of thing interests you - the future as seen in 1978.

Sunday 26 November 2023

Musical Snobbery

Our folk band played a programme of 16th and 17th Century music in the marble-floored hall of one of our nearby great country houses. Actually, it grieves me I wasn’t in it; the side-effects of the pills I have to take make it too difficult at the moment, but there is no point in moaning. Mrs. D. played. 

We mentioned it to a woman from one of those Old-English music groups that are so up themselves in pious authenticity you wonder what pleasure they get out of actually playing the music, if any. She looked interested.

We explained that it was not all 16th and 17th Century music, that there were some modern novelty items like Barnacle Bill.    

Also, that we would not be wearing authentic costumes, only what we had been able to cobble together and make ourselves to create an impression of the time.

And while we do play composers like Playford and Susato, we do not have original instruments, just our usual ones. We even have banjos, piano accordian and an electric bass.

“Oh!” she said in a long drawn-out “Ohhh!”, wrinkling her nose as if something didn’t smell right.

She didn’t buy a ticket.

Tuesday 21 November 2023

Full Circle?

The way we save our computer files seems to have come full-circle, as if we are back to forty or fifty years ago.

Clearing out more of my life’s debris reminded me of this. I had accumulated a collection of disks and tapes that are now little more than museum pieces. You once had to be so methodical in looking after your documents and images. But, before that, it was all done for you. An so it is now.

At first, with mainframe computers, systems managers made sure everything was safely backed-up. I learnt to program in a room full of teletypewriter terminals - the noise was deafening - that were connected to a computer centre somewhere else on the university campus. Once you had typed in your program and asked for it to be save, you could be reasonably sure it would be there ready the next time you logged in.

However, if you wanted to move programs or documents elsewhere, or if you had one of those new-fangled micro-computers (i.e. a PC), you had to transfer it on to magnetic takes or disks. The first PCs had no internal disks, nothing was saved automatically by an ‘app’, and there was no OneDrive or Google. The internet did not get going until around 1995.

I learnt the hard way using Tandy TRS80 computers. Everything had to be saved on C60 audio-cassettes, which were notoriously slow and unreliable. I lost hours of work more than once. It was a godsend when floppy disks came along.

Here are some of the storage media I used, now destined for the tip.  

8-inch floppy disks containing my Masters project, which was written in Pascal on an LSI-11 machine. UMIST insisted they had to be protected by special folders. 

The 8-inch disks look enormous next to the later 5¼ -inch and 3½-inch ‘hard’ floppy disks you may remember. 

This is a 6-inch cartridge take from a nineteen-eighties PDP11 Unix system, containing some of the work I did as a university research assistant.


Later, I used zip-disks which were a bit like thick floppy disks, but had greater capacity. Only a few home computers had them. 

 

Then, we all moved on to CD ROMS and DVD, and USB memory sticks and SD cards. I used a pair of memory sticks to transfer files from work-to-home and home-to-work. My first memory stick had a magnificent 256MB of space (that’s Megabytes not Gigabytes). 

How things have changed! Nowadays, some home computers have internet access only, and no disk drive or USB ports. Some have minimal internal storage. That is also the case if we work only on phones. It feels as if we are being pushed towards keeping everything on the ‘cloud’, like returning to the mainframe days.

Microsoft is removing the Windows video editor from our PCs (through Windows Updates) because they want us to use the online ‘ClipChamp’ editor. Google circulated an email saying they are deleting accounts inactive for more than two years. That could well include blogs. Andrew in Australia lost years of blog posts because of something unspecified he supposedly said. Next, they’ll be trying to charge us to store our stuff.

I don’t trust the b------s at all. I now have enormous amounts of material: family history research, my parents digitised photograph albums, our own photographs and colour slides, our own digital photographs, digitised videos from cine films, our own digital videos, ... and archived blog posts.

In all, it fills over 100 Gigabytes. I’ve backed it all up in duplicate on a pair of hard drives. I’m glad I learnt the discipline.

Tuesday 14 November 2023

Exon 14

To paraphrase "GPs Behind Closed Doors", this post contains challenging medical issues.

Exon 14 sounds like a science fiction film. As little as ten years ago, it could well have been, but actually it is real.

I have something called the MET Exon 14 skipping mutation. It alters a specific gene, the MET gene (mesenchymal-epithelial transition) so that affected cells produce an abnormal protein which makes them grow uncontrollably.

The mutation causes lung tumours. It affects mainly smokers, but I put mine down to dirty Leeds in the nineteen-seventies when large numbers smoked, and offices, buses, cinemas, pubs and the shared houses I lived in reeked of a blue haze that stuck to your hair and clothes so much that you failed to notice. Leeds was also full of traffic fumes and pollution from coal fires and industries, and my accountancy job involved hours walking round warehouses, mills and factories where there were all kinds of dust and chemical vapours. The cause on my health record is "significant passive smoking". 

I was entirely symptomless until I had a seizure. Perhaps a routine chest X-ray might have detected it sooner and saved me a lot of trouble, but it was as good as impossible to get one during the covid lockdown, even if I had thought to request one.

Diagnosis begins with a CT-directed lung biopsy. You lie face-down in a CT scanner while a surgeon positions a thing metal tube into your back, through which they can then cut out and remove a small piece of tumour tissue for analysis and gene-sequencing. It is not a comfortable procedure. I wondered what was the cold liquid running into the back of my throat, which I had to spit out on to the scanner table. It was blood. We don't normally realise how cold the insides of our lungs get.

Gene sequencing is only the first part of the science fiction. There is a targeted therapy. The Merck drug company have licenced a chemical called Tepotinib (trade mane Tepmetko) in the form of a daily pill that blocks the abnormal protein, and slows down or stops the tumours from growing. It is a high cost treatment; I have heard a figure of £7,000 per month mentioned, but thanks to the NHS I do not have to pay.

Surprisingly, it is a relatively simple chemical - a hydrochloride hydrate of C29H28N6O2. I imagine that in some parts of the world they ignore the patent and make it themselves for a few pence per pill.

I have had other treatments too: chemotherapy which was awful, lung radiotherapy which was little trouble in my case, gamma knife radiotherapy which pinpoints and zaps small brain metastases, a brain op to drain the cyst that gamma knife left behind, which was scary. All over a year ago.

The side effects of Tepotinib are difficult, especially oedema (fluid retention). If you get cold it takes ages to get warm again because it is the equivalent of having 20 pounds (9 kg) of cold water bags strapped around your limbs and body, and, believe me, you would not want to have scrotal oedema (or vulval oedema I imagine, but don't know because I don't have that).

I am OK. It is but a scratch. I've had worse. None shall pass. I am still here.  

So, not only have we mapped the human genome to identify the 25,000 or so genes of our 23 chromosomes, we can gene-sequence malfunctioning cells to pick out a defective gene, understand its mechanisms, and construct a chemical to block its actions. To those of my generation, even the technologically literate, that really does sound like science fiction.

New things like this are coming along all the time. It should give hope to those who might become ill in the future.

Thursday 9 November 2023

Dirty Old Town

Every year, around this time, the asphalt surface of the school playground would be buried under a huge pile of coke. It was like lumps of gray cindery coal, but without much weight. Gradually, it disappeared into the school boiler room.

The coke was a by-product of the corporation gasworks, which manufactured coal gas supplied to our houses through a network of pipes. We had gas cookers, and gas taps beside the fireplace to which you could connect a free-standing gas fire through a rubber tube. I ran the Bunsen burner for my home chemistry set in the same way. Outside, there were gas lamps along the street, and a man with a long pole came to turn them on and off each evening and morning. My dad could remember the pre-electric days when houses had gas mantles for internal lighting.

Gas was produced by heating coal in the absence of air, with coke, tar, and chemicals as by-products. Coke burned hotter and cleaner than coal and could be used as fuel in specialized boilers. It was also used in industrial processes, but was no good for the home fireplace.

Dad’s Arthur Mee Encyclopedia (1927) has a series of pictures and diagrams showing how coal gas was made and the amount of plant and machinery needed. Here are the first three. 


The corporation gasworks were near the docks where they were supplied by canal with coal from the Yorkshire coal fields. In other towns, coal trains ran through the streets to the gasworks. The infrastructure was extensive: heavy engineering, railway lines, underground pipes. You could live in Gas Works Street, work at the gasworks, drink and be entertained at the Gas Club, and go on gasworks outings. Some of the structures are still around. 

That, for me, describes 1950s Britain (and earlier): asphalt playgrounds, school boiler rooms, gas lights, gas works, coal trains pulled by steam engines, and coke before it had any other meanings. I have no idea why it came to me in the middle of the night. 

It became obsolete when we changed over to North Sea Gas in the early 1970s. Millions of household appliances had to be converted to burn natural rather than coal gas. The gas storage tanks at the gas works continued in use for many years, until condemned as unnecessary. Many have since been dismantled. We have hardly any gas storage in Britain now; just a few days’ supply, as compared with a few months’ supply in Germany.

I found my love by the gasworks croft
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
Kissed my girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town, dirty old town

I heard a siren from the docks
Saw a train set the night on fire
Smelled the spring on the smoky wind
Dirty old town, dirty old town

Clouds are floating across the sky
Cats are prowling upon their beat
Spring
s a girl in the streets at night
Dirty old town, dirty old town

I’m going to make a good sharp axe
Shining steel tempered in the fire
We'll chop you down like an old dead tree
Dirty old town, dirty old town

https://musescore.com/user/5060416/scores/4832062

Sunday 5 November 2023

Don't Tell 'Em

All the talk of babies on blogs made me think back to when our daughter was born.

We arranged for our son to stay overnight with friend Barbara if needed. She was needed. When the hospital said to make our way in, I took him to her house and she tucked him up in bed top-to-tail with her two-year-old.

We drove to the hospital, but things seemed to come to a stop and there was some discussion as to whether we should return home. A lavender bath got things moving again, and our daughter was born at half-past-one in the morning.

I returned home to get some sleep. I phoned Barbara in the morning and asked to speak to our son as it seemed only right he should be the first to know. She gave him the phone, and I told him he had a baby sister.

"Oh! Right! I'm going to finish my breakfast now." That was all he said. He hung up.

I returned to the hospital and brought wife and daughter home. In the meantime, Barbara had taken our son to nursery school from where our child minder picked him up later in the day.

I went to collect him. The child minder was still very much in the dark. She was desperate to know what had happened. What did we have?

"He won't tell us," she said. "He hasn't said a word all day. He wouldn't tell Barbara, either. He has refused to say anything at all."

I gave her our good news.

Son would now claim he was practising the levels of discretion and confidentiality required in the professional capacity in which he now works. He was four at the time.

A chip off the old block. When we got married, I didn't tell anyone at the computer company where I worked. They thought I was just going on holiday. They only found out when the company received notification that my tax code had changed to reflect my new marital status. The payroll administrator did not  practice the levels of discretion and confidentiality required.

Wednesday 1 November 2023

A Visit From The Police

... who told my parents I went in pubs

New Month Old Post: first posted 19th April, 2019.

The Green Bottle, Knottingley (c) Betty Longbottom, Creative Commons

My generation was not as open with our parents as our children are with us, at least not in my part of the North of England, or maybe it was just me. I never told my parents I went in pubs. Not even when old enough. The police told them. It was Easter Sunday, 11th April, 1971.

It was the day after I had been with three friends to The Green Bottle in the curiously named Spawd Bone Lane, Knottingley. The pub was packed with noisy, holiday-weekend drinkers, and we took little notice of a short-haired man in a suit sitting alone at a table in the middle of the room until he asked us one by one to go over to have a few words with him. He was a detective investigating a vicious attack on an elderly lady the previous afternoon*, although we did not know that until later. 

I can still remember some of what he asked – name, age, address, where I been between 4.30 and 6.30 the previous afternoon, and where I worked. I told him I was an accountants’ clerk with Goodwill and Ledger in Leeds, to which he said, “Oh! Do you know Mr. Black?” I said no, there was no Mr. Black where I worked, to which he replied that he worked at the Huddersfield office. It so happened that we did have an office in Huddersfield, and being na├»ve and trusting, thinking it a genuine question, I said I wasn’t sure but thought I might have seen that name on the letterheads, and that Mr. Black might be a partner at the Huddersfield office. It seemed to arouse the detective’s interest. I had never been grilled by the police before, and found it unsettling, although I tried hard not to show it.

The detective moved on to my friends, one of whom was in the middle of a Fine Art degree, with a contrary “art student” attitude, full of the deep and mysterious philosophies to which such beings are prone. He was going through a phase of answering questions with enigmatic answers, that’s if he could be bothered to answer at all. When approached on a train in the Midlands by a woman carrying out a travel survey, he told her he was on his way to Johannesburg. No matter who was asking, or how serious the situation, he took the same line. It was also the case, coincidentally, that he had the same surname as me, which drew the obvious follow-up from the detective.

“Oh! Are you related?”

“I suppose we must be.” 

“What does that mean?”

“Are we not all related in some way?”

The detective was suspicious. Did he think I had given him a false name, that of my art student friend? We had a bit of a laugh about it afterwards.

When you consider the gravity of the situation, it was not really funny at all, but we were still at that stage of youthful innocence which takes little seriously. Without really being part of it, we liked to imagine we followed the trendy, counterculture of underground bands and magazines such as Oz which was about to face an obscenity trial. You don’t realise now when you see old clips of bands such as Black Sabbath, just how excitingly anti-establishment they seemed, even in name. The police were joked about: you would see “Screw the Pigs” scrawled in four-foot letters on garage doors. This pushing of the limits, I would now say, was only possible because England, on the whole, was a much safer and law-abiding place than it is today, which makes the attack on the old lady all the more shocking.  And of course, we did not yet know the awful details of the incident. 

The following day, being Easter Sunday, I was at home, going through the pointless motions of revising for my accountancy exams. Dad called me down to the front room where two more short-haired men in suits wanted to see me. 

“These two gentlemen are police officers, and would like to ask you some questions.”

Being the sort of person who feels guilty even if not (you know, when the teacher asks who made that silly noise and you go red, terrified she thinks it was you, even though it was someone else), it really scared me. I had to explain about the pub in Knottingley and about being questioned, and the two detectives went off satisfied, but it felt very awkward.

And that’s how my parents found out I went in pubs, although, they probably knew already.

There is now no sign The Green Bottle ever existed. It closed for good and was boarded up by 2009, burnt out in 2010, demolished, and is now the site of a care home. 


*From newspaper archives, I can see that the elderly lady was 88 year-old Mrs. Dorothy Leeman. She had been beaten around the head, bound, gagged and robbed of £80 on Good Friday in her roadside shop at Hilltop, Knottingley, Yorkshire. She never properly recovered and died less than six months later. It was an appalling attack and I don’t believe anyone was ever caught.

Attack on Mrs Dorothy Leeman, 1971

Tuesday 24 October 2023

A Family History Mystery

The mystery of John Price, and our part in its solution.  

Neil Price: Dickens’s Favourite Blacking Factory
Neil Price: Dickens’s Favourite
Blacking Factory (The Conrad Press, 2023)  

 

I have mentioned before that my wife is descended from Henry Francis Lockwood, the architect of Bradford Town Hall and the mill and town of Saltaire. Much of her family history was pieced together by her father trawling through archives in the 1950s and 1960s, then a painstaking and laborious task demanding patience and perseverance.  

After retirement I filled in more details. It was much more interesting than my own family history, and I spent months on it like a full-time job, placing a lot of information on genealogy web sites.

One of Henry Francis Lockwood’s uncles was Charles Day, the boot blacking manufacturer, who made the kind of fortune that would easily place him alongside today’s richest rock stars. When he died in 1836, one estimate valued him at £450,000, the RPI equivalent of £40-£50 million today. But in terms of property price inflation, the value of his holdings in London and elsewhere would now be astronomical.

It was widely believed that Charles Day had just one daughter, Caroline, with his wife, Rebecca Peake. However, at the very end of his life, he added a codicil to his will:

    “I Charles Day of Edgware and Harley House being of sound mind so desire that the three Post Obit Bonds for £5000 cash which will be presented at my decease may be doubled that is made £10000 cash and that the same may be invested for the benefit of my three natural sons ...”

That was quite a revelation. Wills are public documents and the existence of three, secret, illegitimate sons would have been a real scandal. He left them each the equivalent of around £1 million today, producing incomes of perhaps £45,000 per year.

I tried hard to identify who these three natural sons might be, without success, but left a summary of the will and other details in various places online. This turned out to be crucial.

Around the same time as my father-in-law was busy with his research, a certain Hugh Price was struggling with his own family history. One could fancy them together in Somerset House (then the genealogical archives), two gentlemen, strangers, each unaware of the other’s connection, brief nods of acknowledgement, departing their separate ways, never again their paths to cross.

Hugh had long been troubled by his great-grandfather, John Price. He knew that John had had three boys with Sarah Peake, and that their names had been Henry, Alfred and Edmund Price; Alfred being his grandfather. But otherwise John remained a mystery. Indeed, some records named him as Charles Price rather than John. 

Hugh died in 1986 and the quest was taken up by Hugh’s son, Neil, who had been intrigued by the problem since boyhood. Like me, he soon had the immense power of the internet at his disposal, but this only added further questions. It revealed that the three brothers had lived quietly but very comfortably at the best addresses in London and Edinburgh, without ever having worked or followed any profession other than “fundholder”. Where had these funds come from? And John/Charles Price remained elusive as ever.

Very late one night in 2015, Neil was following up links to his great-great grandmother’s Peake family. You may have noted that the surname of Charles Day’s wife was also Peake. Neil had been tipped off that a family member had been extremely wealthy, and wondered whether this could be the source of the brothers’ funds. He came across my summary of Charles Day’s will:

    “After about 20 further minutes of scratching about and fumbling for more information as to how John Price fitted into all this (if at all), the penny suddenly dropped. It was about 1am and my shriek of recognition certainly woke [my wife] and probably some of the neighbours! The “Three natural sons” – it was too much of a coincidence – they had to be Henry, Alfred and Edmund Price! But how?”

Indeed they were. John/Charles Price and Charles Day were one and the same. The reason for the deception was that Day’s wife knew nothing of the boys’ existence, and even more explosive, their mother was her cousin, Sarah Peake. Furthermore, Day’s assistant and confidente in all of this was none other than his wife’s sister. The boys may later have known their father’s identity, and that they were illegitimate, but they maintained the secrecy and kept it from their own children. Illegitimacy was seen as a shameful stain on the character until very recent times.  

Their identities emerged only because the will was subject to lengthy litigation, in which Henry, Alfred and Edmund Price of Regent’s Park are sometimes named among the many respondents. Along with several other possibilities, I had even wondered whether they might be the three natural sons, but they were almost impossible to trace. Price is a very common name, and where I did seem to find them they appeared to be associated with Peakes rather than Days. You would have to be an unusually obsessive genealogist to delve into an ancestor’s brother’s wife’s cousins.

When Neil contacted me, I said he needed to look at the court papers at the National Archives. I had only seen newspaper reports. The initial case concerned an unscrupulous attorney who had attempted to write himself into the will as co-Executor on highly favourable terms, but this was ruled invalid. He contested the ruling, resulting in the boys being named, but their mother’s identity was never revealed. The ramifications went on for decades and the case became celebrated for its length and complexity. Dickens used it as the model for the case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce in ‘Bleak House’, in which he pokes fun at the Court of Chancery, its lawyers and the enormous costs involved.  

The Court papers provide a window into the lives of Day and his family, and how the three boys were hidden from Day’s wife, the rest of the family, the prying public, and the shame of illegitimacy. This, and how the firm of Day and Martin built up their business and became so successful, is a tale of Regency London, ruthless competition, inspired marketing, shameless counterfeiting, an eligible heiress and a vacuous playboy, and no end of other fascinating and entertaining detail.  

One uncanny coincidence was this. For his last two decades, Charles Day was blind. You can see this in the portrait on the cover of Neil’s book. One of Day’s many acts as a benefactor was to found a charity called The Blind Man’s Friend. Eventually, the charity and the portrait passed to the Clothworkers’ Company. Neil Price, during his working life, sat through many meetings in the Clothworkers’ Hall, never aware that, there, all the time, on the wall above, the portrait of his mysterious great-great grandfather, John Price, i.e. Charles Day, had been watching over him.  


If anyone is interested in Neil's book I can pass on his contact details if you email me via my profile page. 

Tuesday 17 October 2023

Didlum

In answering the question on Yorkshire Pudding's blog: "How much money have you got stashed away in your house and where exactly do you keep it?", I said none because my wife puts it in the didlum. Did anyone know what I was talking about? It's all right. I'm used to it.

When I was little, my mother paid each week into Nanna Fenwick's didlum. Nanna Fenwick (that's Fenwick with a voiced W) was a fearsome but trustworthy woman who lived across the back lane. Her didlum started each year around the beginning of February, and if you paid in, say, ten shillings a week, you would have about £20 when it paid out in time for Christmas. You only got back what you paid in, without interest, but it was safe from the temptation of a tin on the mantlepiece. I don't know how many people paid into her didlum, but I suppose Nanna Fenwick put it all in the Post Office and got a bit of interest herself for running it, not that there was much interest to be had anywhere then.

I guess they are too posh to have any didlums in Sheffield.

Monday 9 October 2023

Hello, Cheeky!

Do you ever wake up in the night giggling uncontrollably about something remembered from long ago?

What set me off last night was a story from someone I worked with soon after leaving school.

At his junior school they had a class budgerigar. Its name was written on a sign on the front of its cage. It was easily detached. 

It was in the days when nearly all children walked to and from school, as did their teachers because they all lived locally. Not all cars then. The teacher used to leave her outdoor coat over the back of her chair in the classroom.

One day, she walked home with a sign saying, “My name is Cheeky”, fixed to the back of her coat.

That middle of the night giggling got me a thump in the ribs.

Wednesday 4 October 2023

Half a Brick

This is a blog post about half a brick: the half-brick on which we have been standing the food for Foxy in the hope that he gets it before the slugs do.

It has been in our garden all the time we have lived here: over thirty years. It has weathered a little during that time.

It is an interesting half-brick, with a rounded end, rounded corners and edges, and a round hole through the centre. Is that natural weathering, or has it been shaped like that deliberately?  

One suggestion is that it might once have served as a loom weight.

What do you think?

Sunday 1 October 2023

We Know Where You’re From

New Month Old Post (revised): first posted 10th March 2019.

The British-Irish Dialect Quiz

Not such an old post, but most followers came after this date. Recent discussion of accents and language on this and other blogs reminded me of it. Yorkshire Pudding wrote about it around the same time. The results show me to be more East Yorkshire than he is.  

I can no longer access the quiz directly without hitting the New York Times paywall, but if I search for “The British-Irish Dialect Quiz” and go in from Google or Bing then it works. There is also an American version, “The U.S. Dialect Quiz”, but that always hits the paywall however I try to enter. 

Growing up in a unicultural Yorkshire town (as they nearly all were in the nineteen-fifties), I’m not sure when I first realised there were variations in the way people spoke. I remember a boy climbing around on Filey Brigg with a hammer who said he was “Luckin’ fer forwssls”, and the pen-friends from Bingley, organized by one of the teachers at junior school, who, when we met them, sounded different and used strange words. To my childhood eyes, they even looked different. Goodness, even people from across the river looked and spoke differently, even though they lived only a few miles away.  

Later, meeting different people and living around the country, accents fascinated me. I love hearing Buchan Scots and Yorkshire Asian, and used to have great fun winding-up my South London mother-in-law.  She could give as good as she got.

So, when I heard about the British-Irish Dialect Quiz, it was irresistible. I was bound to try it out and join the thousands of other bloggers writing about it.

It asks 25 questions about how you pronounce various words, such as “scone” or “last”, and what words you use for certain things, such as for feeling cold or for the playground game in which one child chases the rest and the first person touched becomes the pursuer. It then gives you a map of Great Britain with your area of origin shaded in. If you want, you can continue with a further 71 questions to refine the results further.

It got me pretty much spot-on. Words like “breadcake” and “twagging”, and the way I say ‘a’ and ‘u’, give me away most.

The explanation of the results is interesting too. It mentions that in Britain and Ireland, unlike North America, local dialect sometimes changed wildly within ten or twenty miles. Village-by-village distinctions have now eroded, but the article suggests there is no evidence that regional differences are disappearing, even in the face of technological influences. I find that reassuring.

My wife’s results were interesting. She answered the questions twice, once using her words and speech growing up in Hertfordshire, and then again how she is now. It got her pretty much right on both counts. Living in the north and working as an occupational therapist, she soon realised it did not go down well to go into peoples’ homes and ask how well they could manage in the “baarthrums”.  

Thursday 28 September 2023

I Hate Hedgehog Biscuits!

Hello. Foxy here. Well, that’s not my real name, but everyone calls me Foxy because I am a fox. I am the only one that comes in the gardens. The others all stay in the woods and fields on their own. I live in a cosy tree root and like to meet others. I am very sociable.

There was an open window in Tasker’s garage. I was able to squeeze through and then get into the house and use his computer to write this. There used to be a pretty little cat called Phoebe here but she no longer seems to be around. She always ran away when I tried to be friendly.

Anyway, I am writing to complain. They left out some food for me. Would you believe what it was? Hedgehog biscuits! Biscuits for hedgehogs! Nasty flea-ridden spiny things. Do they really think I am going to eat hedgehog biscuits?  

They were on a plant pot tray on a brick in the middle of the path. I wasn’t sure it wasn’t a trap, so I gave it a very careful check. I was hoping it was going to be that nice vegan dog food that must remain nameless for legal reasons. But it wasn’t. It was hedgehog biscuits. Biscuits for hedgehogs!

I showed them what I thought of that. I picked up the plant pot tray and hurled it across the grass. The biscuits went everywhere. Then I picked up the tray again, put it back on the path, squirted it, and sauntered off in search of better things. I would rather eat worms.

And would you believe it? There, on Tasker’s computer, was a video of the whole episode. It was from that night camera thing they put out. Aren’t I handsome. Do you think I could start my own YouTube channel? 


Saturday 23 September 2023

Hobgoblin, Nor Foul Fiend

One day each week, my wife goes happily off to her dementia group. For clarity, and to avoid the kind of misconceptions our children adopt deliberately in the mistaken belief they are being witty, I should add that she runs it. They have a different theme each week, around which they talk, play games, and have a cooked meal and lots of laughs.

Members engage to varying degrees. Some are very lively and on first acquaintance you would not think anything was wrong. You might mistake them for volunteers, but all have memory problems. Others, you wonder whether they get any benefit from attending at all. One elderly lady, I will call her Dolly, sits head down all day long in her wheelchair, saying very little.

Most grew up in England during the decades before, during and after the Second World War. Like me, they have no difficulty in joining in the hymns at church services or at those weddings and funerals that retain some semblance of religiosity. It was part of our shared culture. We had the words and tunes drilled into us daily at school assemblies, Sunday School and church. How inspiring they can be, especially when the organ chords, descants and harmonies reverberate round. We can reel them off: For Those In Peril, Jerusalem, The Day Thou Gavest, To Be A Grim Pill as we used to sing in assembly, and so many more. Younger people don’t know them. When my cousin’s daughter’s husband was on University Challenge, he was the only one to know that ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd’ is the 23rd psalm, and only after we had been yelling it at the television for 15 seconds. The young deride these things as small-minded and exclusive, although I don’t perceive many other creeds as much better.

Last week at the group, the theme was harvest. They talked about what they remembered of it. Some worked on the land, and one member is old enough to have been in the women’s Land Army. They talked about the old traditions, harvest festival services at church, and harvest festival hymns. They began to sing “We Plough the Fields and Scatter”. Incredibly, Dolly burst into life. She raised her head high and sang out in her trill warbly voice, leading the singing. The transformation was astonishing. After the “All good things around us” middle eight, she started on the next verse, “You only are the maker”, then the one after that, “We thank you then Creator”. No one else knew them.

When my wife later told me the story at home, she said this was the only harverst hymn they could think of. After a while, I said “Isn’t there one about all is safely gathered in?” It stirred a memory. “Yes,” she said, but neither of us could quite remember it. It was not one we sang very often, and not in the school hymnal. Not enough about God in it. A bit too Baptist. We had to look it up. It is ‘Come Ye Thankful People’.

https://youtu.be/t3n7IUCdqAM?si=FHKbdeg-6EwplKzg

What a descant (verse 4)! Even if it is over the top. And is that who I think it is at the front of the congregation (see verse 3)? Well, that’s all right. We are a broad church on this blog. She is well turned out as ever. 

This week, I was interested to hear whether Dolly also knew ‘Come Ye Thankful People’. She did, and sang it. 

Hobgoblin, nor foul fiend, can daunt the spirit.

Then she sang “We Plough the Fields and Scatter”, again. She could not remember having sung it the previous week.

Monday 18 September 2023

Foxy is Back. Foxy is Better.

After a month without seeing him, Foxy reappeared in last night's mist and his leg seems better. He is no longer limping. Evidently, that BOSH! dog food that YP sent him helped enormously. It prolongs active life and is enriched with nourishing marrow jelly. BOSH! makes foxes bounce with health. Eight out of ten owners prefer it. It’s no meat: a real treat. It refreshes the parts. It is so good he is considering becoming vegan. He already has the pointy ears. Oh! Sorry, we might be confusing that with Vulcan.

Monday 11 September 2023

Garden Birds

Lasts month’s post with the video of the sparrowhawk (Red in Beak and Talon) got us thinking about how many different kinds of birds have visited our garden. None are particularly rare, and many bloggers will have had more, but we were still surprised by the number. We counted 19.

It does not include birds simply passing over, such as migrating geese, or on one occasion a heron, nor have we counted birds in the nearby countryside but not seen in the garden, such as yellowhammers, only birds that have landed.

1) Seen just about every day: starling, blackbird, sparrow, wood pigeon, collared dove, magpie, crow. Some of the sparrows may be dunnock but I am only counting them once. Some days this summer there have been forty or fifty starlings on the lawn.

2) Seen often: robin, blue tit, great tit. 

3) Occasionally: wren, thrush, sparrowhawk, greenfinch, goldfinch, chaffinch. 

4) Once or twice only:

  • One winter brought us a beautiful flock of redwings which stayed for two days while they stripped the berries from the holly bush.
  • Another day, a racing pigeon with a ringed leg watched from the rooftops as I sawed wood. It must have liked me because it flew down and allowed me to pick it up. How warm and fluffy they are, and so light. Your fingers disappear into their feathers. I put it in a box with some bird seed and water, and phoned the local pigeon club who sent someone round to collect it. Later, they phoned to say it was from Hull. I should have known from its accent.
  • Swallow. Really? Landed? Not just flying over? Well, yes. On the morning of the 9th September, 2001, we opened the bedroom curtains to the wondrous sight of a family of swallows assembling on our telephone wire not six feet from the window. They were looking in, the cheeky little blighters, probably eyeing up softer options for the winter than an 8,000 mile flight to South Africa. Luckily, I had a film in the camera. We checked their travel documents for them, which were all in order, and wished them a safe trip. They said they would pass our regards to Nelson, and looked forward to seeing us again in the spring.

Monday 4 September 2023

Working Class?

The Frost Report Class sketch. It is heavily copyrighted, but you might get it to play at: https://www.tiktok.com/@freeseedfilms/video/7235691483561544986

I found it interesting that, according to his son, Michael Parkinson, who died recently, suffered from imposter syndrome. He doubted his abilities as a writer and television interviewer, and feared he was not as good as others. It seems he could be very short-tempered when an appearance or deadline was near. It is difficult to believe this of someone so accomplished. His son thought it came from having grown up in a council house at Cudworth near Barnsley, the son of a coal miner.

I said I could understand this because I was from a northern working-class background myself, and had often felt above my station. Could I have done more with a bit more self-belief? I don’t know, but I have known and worked with those who reached senior university management, one a Vice Chancellor, and seen what self-regarding mediocrity some can be.

One thing certain to get my wife and family worked up, is when I claim to be working-class. “You are not working-class,” they say. “Your father owned a business, and a house and car. You had books at home. You went to a grammar school and became a university academic.”   

I argue back that my father did not own a business until I was in my mid-teens, when he took over from his own father. Until then, his father was his employer and he was treated no differently from other employees. He spent three days a week travelling the country villages, often until after seven at night, with paperwork still to do. One day a week, he cycled to work in a boiler suit to maintain and clean the firm’s cars and vans. He worked a five-and-a-half day week, with two weeks annual holiday. We lived in a working-class area and rented a terraced house until I was six. My mother’s father worked in mills. Most of my friends lived in council or terraced housing, and their fathers worked in factories, on the railways, or on the docks. One drove lorries for the council. Another emptied gas meters. I had no sense of being different, except that we rarely mixed with children from professional families. It was a very working-class grammar school I attended, and did not do very well there. I only went to university late. I looked and sounded working-class. How the headmaster sneered in disbelief when I entered my father’s occupation on my leavers’ form as Company Director. Surely, the circumstances and circles in which you grow up, and how they make you behave, determine your class origins.

We are not going to agree. It is a complex subject that has changed over time. To say someone is working-class now might be seen as an insult. It makes than sound like public lavatory attendants or slaughter men. We all like to think of ourselves as middle-class now.

There is also a North-South element. Social and lifestyle changes occured much earlier in the South of England where my wife grew up. There were more professional jobs, and many people travelled into London each day. My own town had few middle class people, and certainly no upper-class. But it depends how you draw the line. I would say my teachers were working-class, as were bank clerks, and shop and office workers.

The English class system: is it possible to cover all angles of such a vast topic? Sociologists would consider unskilled and semi-skilled employment, white-collar and blue-collar jobs, salaried or waged, sources of income, asset ownership, education, lifestyle, interests and so much more. In some recent categorisations, I come out more like the upper classes.

It doesn’t change my view. Me and Parky: two northern working-class grammar school lads made good. Or am I making excuses and playing the victim?

Friday 1 September 2023

VAXen

New Month Old Post: First posted 15th April, 2018


VAXen. It’s the plural of VAX. It used to say so in the DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) computer manuals in the nineteen-eighties. VAX computers could be run as clusters of VAXen. Most universities had them.

A DEC 'dumb terminal'

So I was delighted to see some of these iconic machines again in Jim Austin’s Computer Collection at Fimber near Fridaythorpe in the East Riding. By “again” I really mean for the first time. Hardly anyone got near them in the nineteen-eighties. The privileged might be allowed to look through the glass of their air-conditioned rooms, but ‘users’ were never allowed in. Their only contact with the computers was through remote ‘dumb terminals’. At Fimber you can touch the machines and even open their cabinets and take the boards out. Of course, they are not switched on now.

He even has the first computer I used, the Elliott 903, not just any Elliott 903 but the very same one from the psychology department at Hull University. You really had to keep your fingers out of the way when the punched paper tape was flying through. What a sorry state it is in now. For a moment I imagined myself volunteering and getting it working again. 

The Elliott 903 from Hull University, a punched paper tape computer

I returned home fizzing with enthusiasm, thinking of the blog posts I could write. My wife was not impressed.

“Great! A barn full of old grey metal cabinets. Fascinating!”

“Well, some of them are black. And you can open the doors and look inside.”

I babbled on excitedly about all the machines I had known so well: the Elliott 903, IBMs, ICLs, PDP-8s and PDP-11s, SWTPC minis, LSI-11s, Sun microsystems, Silicon Graphics, VAXen …

"Vaxen!" My wife ran out of patience.

“Did they come in boxen? Ordered by Faxen? Is our fridge Electroluxen? Cooling the milk for your Weetabixen? Vaxen makes them sound like little animals, or the name of one of Santa’s reindeers.”

“Reindeer(s?)”

Now, there’s another plural to conjure with.

Monday 28 August 2023

Garden Addenda

Updates to earlier posts: the Aaron's Rod, the fox, and the thing in the garden.

I'm Not A Foxglove

Two years ago I wrote about an unusual "foxglove" in the garden. It turned out to be Greater Mullein or Aaron's Rod. I have no idea where it came from. Steve Reed had one around the same time. Ours produced clouds of seeds but none grew last year. This year, we have three, two with multiple forks. I spotted two early on in the vegetable patch and moved then to where the foxgloves grow: I recognised them by their furry leaves (Beethoven's well-known piano piece) but the third hid and has grown next to the runner beans. They are now mostly in seed again.

Foxy Is Injured 

The fox that has been visiting the garden since Winter has an injured leg. We put hedgehog biscuits out, but as the fox did not appear for five nights we feared the worst. On the fifth night, magpies found the biscuits early in the morning, so we stopped putting them out. We are not feeding magpies. Of course, the fox reappeared the very next night, still nursing its paw, but not so badly. We put food out again in a 'magpie-proof' pot, but they still got it. If Foxy had come in the night he would have got it first. He has not been for three nights now.

Pumpkin? Gourd? Giant Puffball?

Thank you for the entertaining comments. The Mischief who put it there will be pleased, too. "What is THAT?" was exactly my reaction when I first saw it. Was it a paper bag, a partly deflated balloon, a beach ball, or had it grown there? I really did not want to touch it. Eventually, I plucked up the courage to poke it with the edge of a trowell and it rang out a clear C#. Ceramic.

Thursday 24 August 2023

Pumpkin? Gourd? Giant Puffball?

The potentilla is looking particularly splendid this year. It has never had so many flowers. It must be all the rain we've had.

I went to take a picture, and looked down. What is THAT!? I am not going any nearer. I am certainly not going to touch it. Errgh! 

Thursday 17 August 2023

Red In Beak And Talon

JayCee posted a picture of a sparrowhawk licking its chops at the thought of the small birds in their bird bath. It reminded me of a video I have from about fifteen years ago.

I always think sparrowhawks look as if they are wearing loose stripey pyjama trousers. 

A couple of times that summer, we had been puzzled by feathers scattered in circles on the lawn. One morning I came in from the garden and there was the answer. Looking back through the kitchen window, I saw a sparrowhawk with a starling or young blackbird. It must have caught it just as I came in. Fortunately, I had the video camera home from work, so was able to film it.  

Three magpies look on hoping to get some, threatening and making a lot of noise. They could so easily have become the dessert.

I've just spent a couple of hours editing the video down to 5 minutes, keeping the most gory bits of course. The full incident took around six or seven times that. My mother would have said to get a move on and eat it up while it was still warm.


 https://youtu.be/zlykhCtchms

Monday 7 August 2023

Morbid Statistics and the NHS

I don’t know whether the numbers that follow are of any significance whatsoever, but it occurred to me recently that, in terms of years and months, I am now older than the age at which my longest-lived grandparent died. 

Of my parents and grandparents, only my father lived longer. He made it to 85, but as my mother died at 62, their average was 73.5. 

My father’s parents fared less well. They lived to 66 and 58. My mother’s parents lived to 73 and 56. So, my four grandparents’ average is only 63. Taking my parents and grandparents all together, the average is 67. By these statistics I am doing well. 

Adding my great-grandparents into the mix changes the overall average very little, although within each of the four pairs of great-grandparents, one lived to a good age, the eldest to 84, whilst their spouse died considerably younger, the youngest at 43. So, half of my great-grandparents did very well indeed, and half not. Three were still living when I was born.

I don’t know what weight to give to my aunts, uncles, cousins and brother, but some of them died very young. My brother only made it to 36. 

You think about these things far too much when you have a life-shortening illness. To be frank, when sowing my beans and tomatoes earlier this year, I wondered whether I would be around to eat them. It almost bemuses me I still am considering what I was told eighteen months ago and a crisis this January. As for next year’s crop, well, you never know. 

I am still here only because of the National Health Service. By any reckoning, I have had well over £100,000 worth of free treatment. Some of the pills I take cost £115 each, and I take two every day. That’s £80,000 a year for a start. To each according to their need, from each according to their means, is how the NHS is supposed to work. I would much rather have no need at all. I spit in the face of arguments that the NHS would be better run by private capital. There are too many examples of how badly that can turn out. The NHS does the best it can despite underfunding and underpaid staff. It needs more money. We spend less on health here than in most other comparable economies. The problem is that those with the means are not asked to contribute enough. The better off, like me, must be persuaded to put more into the system rather than fuelling climate change and ramping up asset values.

Tuesday 1 August 2023

Jumped-Down Catholics

New Month Old Post: first posted 2nd January, 2016.
Apologies that this is a little long and contains Scots words and religious references, but
it is one of my favourite pieces. I was reminded of it by Haggertys comments on my last post.


“A canna mind fit tae dee,” (I can’t remember what to do) Iona had said, puzzling over some detail of the voluntary work we were doing. Attracted by her soft Banffshire accent, I dared suggest we might go see a film together, and we became friends.

Iona was studying theology with a view to becoming a Church of Scotland Minister. I tried to impress her by casually mentioning I had been brought up in the Church of England but was instantly written off as “just a jumped-down Catholic”. I had to creep off to the library to find out what she meant (there being no Google in those days). It was a reference to Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII’s secession of the English Church from Rome in 1534. Jumped-down Catholic indeed!

If that seems dismissive, you should have heard what she had to say about the Roman Catholic Church and its attitude towards women’s ordination.

“Fit wye dae they insist ye hiv tae hae a penis tae be a Minister, and then nae allow ye tae use it? Except for peeing that is, and they wadnae een allow ye that if there wasna nae alternative.” She said this with a kind of forceful but gentle determination that told you she was going to be a brilliant Church of Scotland Minister.

One Sunday, Iona came with me on a visit home. She and my dad talked non-stop about Scottish history, Aberdeen, and all kinds of other things. My dad was a regular churchgoer, and as Iona had not been to Church that day she decided to go along with him to the evening service. I went too so as not to miss anything. So did my dad’s sister Dorothy and her husband Fred. They wondered why I was going to Church with the young lady I had brought home. They did not want to miss anything either.

It was a long time since I had been to a regular service at the Parish Church. In those days it was always well-attended. More recently, I had seen decent congregations at weddings, Christenings and funerals. But this evening when we arrived, we were the only five there. The vast building looked gloomy and uncared for.

Dorothy and Fred took one pew, and my dad, Iona and myself sat immediately behind. We waited for things to begin. I won’t say “waited patiently” because Fred never waited patiently for anything. He rarely sat still. He did everything at a frantic pace. Even so, I was still surprised when he jumped up, disappeared through a side door and re-emerged with a stepladder. Ignoring Dorothy’s exasperated protests, he rushed into the most sacred, chancel part of the church, set up the stepladder, moved the golden cross and candlestick holders out of the way, and climbed up and stood on the altar. Dorothy sighed and turned to Iona with her usual resigned apology: “My husband’s hyperactive.”

Fred then lifted his arms and reached up to the heavens. I thought for a moment he must have been overcome by revelations of everlasting splendour until he began to change the light bulbs hanging from above. Only one bulb was out but he explained it was good maintenance practice to replace them all at the same time. Not even God Himself would dare disagree with a qualified electrical engineer and safety consultant.

I have to admit to being somewhat relieved to realise that the only brilliance shining down from upon high that bothered him was the number of lumens illuminating the proceedings. I had wondered for a moment whether he might have been engaged in some newly-instigated aspect of worship, in which we now all went up in turn to stand on the altar to declare ourselves, only metaphorically I hoped, sacrificial lambs. I felt sure that when it was my turn I would be bound to get it all wrong and make a fool of myself in front of everyone. It is not easy to let go of your inhibitions in public.

Fred had just put the stepladder away when two further members of the congregation joined us. The first, a serious, shiny-faced man with a brylcreemed comb-over, checked jacket and non-matching striped tie, bid a curt “Good Evening”, went into the pew behind us, knelt down, closed his eyes tightly and began to pray. Then came an old lady dressed up in black hat, gloves and overcoat, with silver brooch and hat pin. She shuffled slowly up the aisle on a walking stick. Dorothy addressed her as Mrs. Fisher and pointed to the seat beside her. She sat down and observed loudly what a wonderfully large turn out we had this evening. Evidently some weeks it was just my dad and Mrs. Fisher.

The Minister entered through the transept from the front and began to light the candles. Fred put his hand to the side of his mouth and turned to Iona conspiratorially.

“This bloke’s a complete idiot,” he whispered none too quietly, disturbing the shiny-faced man from his communion with God.

The Minister, the Reverend Mundy, was a Church Army Evangelist who helped in the Parish by taking the Sunday evening service once a month. He was short, bald and round, but held himself stiffly upright in his surplice, like a little white budgerigar, in an effort to look more imposing than he actually did. Perhaps he imagined he was leading the grand and moving ceremony of Choral Evensong, but this was not Choral Evensong, it was Evening Prayer. There was no choir. In fact, there was no organist either: only the Minister and the seven members of the Congregation. We had to sing the hymns and psalms unaccompanied.

It was a total shambles. Our feeble voices evaporated self-consciously into the roof beams. As we mumbled our way through ‘The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended’ all in different keys, Mrs. Fisher rustled ineffectually through her hymn book trying to find the right page. She might have managed better if she had taken off her gloves. By the time Dorothy had helped her find the page, the hymn Thou gavest, Lord, had ended, and the rustling began all over again as Mrs. Fisher tried to find the Order of Service in her prayer book. 

The next hymn was even worse. It was one of those excessively cheerful, suspiciously Methodist hymns, known only to the Reverend and the shiny-faced man. They sang to completely different tunes, each trying to drown out the other as if to ensure God heard them first. Shiny-face was easily the loudest, but in any formal competition I would have called for him to be disqualified on the ground that his checked jacket and striped tie gave unfair advantage.

The psalms, prayers, responses, confession, absolution, creed, canticles and other spoken words of Evening Prayer are set out in the Book of Common Prayer. They go on forever, and the longer they go on, the more you could be forgiven for allowing your mind to wander. Fred’s mind clearly started to wander early on, but was snapped back into focus by the short prayer: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord;” prompting him to examine the ceiling for further areas of darkness in need of lightening. He even stood up to survey the rear of the church, but the Reverend Mundy droned on without noticing.

I should have anticipated what happened next and prevented it. I failed to spot that my dad had been dying to tell Mundy that Iona was going to be a Church of Scotland Minister. The opportunity came as Mundy waited to shake our hands after the service. It was never going to work out well.

Mundy brightened up like one of Fred’s new bulbs and began to emit a long, one-sided homily about recognising one’s calling, changes to the liturgy and who should be the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Meanwhile, Fred re-appeared with a heavy wooden extendable ladder and began changing light bulbs high up the walls. Despite being a safety consultant, he did not look very safe to me. He rushed from bulb to bulb swinging the ends of his ladder so lethally he nearly knocked over the still-burning candles and set fire to the altar cloth.

And then, you knew it was coming, the topic Mundy had been wanting to talk about all along. Ingenuousness finally got the better of discretion and he homed in on the incendiary subject of women’s ordination. Iona listened solemnly as he declared it would be a mistake to admit women into the clergy, not, he forcibly emphasised, that he was personally against the idea, but because there would be a schism of two thousand Ministers leaving the Church, and he would not want that to happen. In any case, he continued, he thought a lot of women who wanted to be priests had been born with the wrong anatomy. He thought women should look like women.

Just when it seemed inevitable that Mundy would be obliterated by the “so ye hiv tae hae a penis” put down, the end of Uncle Fred’s ladder whizzed past, missing the side of his head by inches. It was like a portent of Divine Providence. Had he not just told us in one of the readings “... every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire”?

“He’s jist a bletherin’ fool,” Iona said afterwards echoing Uncle Fred. “He disna ken fit he’s spikkin’ aboot.”

*                   *                  *

In an odd sort of way, Iona’s speech reminded me of my grandparents’ Yorkshire dialect. You wondered about their common Anglo-Saxon roots. Even some of the words were the same. They talked about “bairns” and “be-asts” and t’ “watter”, and were amused when my brother had birthday cards “fra lasses”. They were words you wanted to use yourself because they felt like they meant; not clinical, educated English words that “slid so smooth from your throat you knew they could never say anything that was worth the saying at all.” (Lewis Grassic Gibbon: Sunset Song, 1932). For more about Buchan Doric as it is usually called, its origins and how it sounds, and to attempt to spik lik a teuchtar, you can do little better than to look on Google books at (or buy): Doric: The Dialect of North-East Scotland by J. Derrick McClure (2002). I especially like Chapter 4: Examples of Recorded Speech.