Google Analytics

Sunday, 26 March 2023

Airmyn Clock

This delightful folly is Airmyn Clock. It was erected in 1865 by the tenants of the Airmyn Estates to honour their beneficent landlord, George Percy, the second Earl of Beverley, who had funded  the village school some years earlier.

It greeted me regularly throughout childhood: on the way to Grandma’s on Saturday mornings, visiting friends by bicycle, on cross-country runs from school, learning to drive round its awkward bend, walking to sixth-form parties and under-age drinking in the Percy Arms. I never took much notice of it in those days. What I could not then have imagined is its connection to my wife, despite her being from the South of England.

Airmyn Clock was designed by Henry Francis Lockwood, an architect best-known for his grand buildings around Bradford, such as the City Hall, St. George’s Hall, Salts Mill and the whole of the associated town of Saltaire where a Lockwood Street is named after him. The clock bears a strong resemblance to his larger Italianate designs, Bradford Wool Exchange in particular. He may have been known in the Airmyn area because of his earlier practice in Hull.

Henry had around ten children, which makes for a complicated genealogy. One line, by way of Ireland and Devon, found its way to the Home Counties where my wife was born. She is a direct descendant of Henry Francis Lockwood.

My wife therefore claims strong Yorkshire antecedents. When we moved (back in my case) to Yorkshire, she took to pronouncing the short Northern As like a local. It would not have gone down at all too well to be asking her Bradford service users whether they were managing all right in the “baarthrum”. 

Image from Geograph. Creative Commons Licence. Copyright Neil Theasby.

Thursday, 16 March 2023


Working in a university is a privilege. You get to meet and mix with some of the cleverest people, especially if you do research and give talks at conferences. You can find yourself sitting along the dinner table from an academic celebrity. The most impressive person I encountered under such circumstances was Jerome Bruner. To adapt a saying of my mother's, he had more wisdom in his little finger than I have in my whole body.

But those you actually work with can be just as impressive. Professor Alan (A.D.B.) Clarke of Hull University was one of those people who seemed to look deep inside you and know everything about you in just a few seconds. He had helped uncover the academic fraud of Sir Cyril Burt, upon which the British system of selective secondary educacion was based, with children selected for grammar school by intelligence testing at the age of eleven. I sat in Alan Clarke's 'Life-Span Human Development' tutorials for a year, absorbing every word. "Koluchova," he would say (she conducted one of the first scientific studies of children brought up in extreme isolation), "she stayed with us when she visited the U.K.". He seemed personally to know everyone who was anyone in psychology. We were awestruck. It showed me the power of personal anecdote.

Others I worked with more closely. Frank, with whom I shared an office for two years, was one of the cleverest people I have known. He had a degree and Ph.D. from Oxford University, and had seemed destined for a high-flying academic career until he had some kind of breakdown. He switched to university computer centre management, but another breakdown put him in a mental hospital. There, he met his wife, another patient. He was Jewish and she Catholic, and they had eight or nine children by the time I knew him. Long-term medication had left him with a permanent tremor and a staccato node of delivery that gave an air of affable authority. One day, instead of turning up for work in his usual casual attire, he appeared in a suit with his hair slicked down. I heard the students laughing in his lecture next door. "I must apologise for my appearance today," he had told them, "but I had to take my children to the nit doctors." (laughter). "And the reason why my hair is so neatly flattened is that I had to have the treatment as well." (Louder laughter, prolonged).  

Noel, another I worked with, knew everything. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? "The egg he would say," without hesitation, and explain it scientifically. How long is a piece of string? "Forty-two and a half inches" was his answer, "because that is the amount needed to hold up a navvy's trousers". I once saw one of his lectures: "Today's topic is Ethics," he began. "No, that's not a county in the South-East of England, it's a system of behaviour." The students sat blank-faced. I swear some of them wrote the whole thing down word for word, and will reproduce it in an exam answer.

Trevor was another who amused me. We were discussing the art of marking. "I can mark anything at all," he said, and looked around the room. "I could mark that filing cabinet if I had to," he pointed, "it's a B-minus." I knew exactly what he meant and had to agree. B-minus it was.

Just a few of the characters that come to mind. They are all dead now.

Wednesday, 1 March 2023

'A' Level English 1977

New Month Old Post: first posted 19th May 2016

Park Lane College tried to put me off. They maintained the one-year course was only for re-sit students and that the two-year course was more suitable, especially as I had not studied English Literature at any level. Somehow I talked my way in. 

It was one of the most difficult courses I have ever done. Selecting and organising all the quotations, literary criticism and conflicting viewpoints into examination-usable form was gruelling, but it was interesting and enjoyable as well, and developed useful skills for later. It was certainly an intense experience because I can still picture the classroom and where we all sat: me at the back.

Most on the course were indeed re-sit students, mainly girls in their late teens, and as late as 1977, in Leeds, there was only one non-white student. The token teenage lad worked at the tax office and told gleeful tales about the persecution of wayward taxpayers. But there were other older first timers. There was an aloof social worker who gazed contemptuously out under her Joanna Lumley ‘Purdey’ fringe and exchanged hardly more than a dozen words with the rest of us all year. There was a bearded chap in his early thirties who said little more, yet managed to give the impression he knew everything already. And luckily, there was a kindred spirit also aiming for university. His grasp of the coursework, huge vocabulary and sweeping command of the English language put mine to shame. It was enormously helpful to be able to discuss things with someone of similar aims and interests.

The syllabus in those days offered enormous, some would say excessive choice. You could get away with covering just two out of three Shakespeare plays, one out of three longer poetic works and four out of sixteen set books. So that’s all we did. It would have been silly to try to cover everything. The course leader, Jonathan Brown, pared things down to what could be achieved in a year. Even within these bounds the exam paper offered a choice of questions.

Do they still let you take the question papers home? They did then, so here they are (click to enlarge images, or get them in PDF form here).


Section A: ShakespeareJulius Caesar, Othello and The Winter’s Tale.  

The rubric was complicated but essentially you had to answer three questions covering at least two of the three plays. In other words you could get away with studying only two. We did Julius Caesar and Othello.

English Literature A Level Paper 1977

First, you had to answer either Question 1 or Question 2, above, which quoted passages from the plays and asked you to address specific issues relating to them. It looks like I did the Julius Caesar part of Question 2.

English Literature A Level Paper 1977
Then, questions 3, 4 and 5 were discussion questions on the three Shakespeare plays. You had to do two, but each offered an either/or choice. I did 3(a) on Julius Caesar and 4(b) on Othello.

From the notes made after the exam on the first page, it seems I estimated I had got no more than a C in this paper.
English Literature A Level Paper 1977Section B: Longer Poetic Works.

There were three set texts: Pope’s Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, Wordsworth’s The Prelude and T. S. Elliot’s East Coker and Little Gidding, with one question on each. As you had to answer just one of the three questions, we only studied Pope’s Epistle.

Again, there was an either/or choice within each of question. It looks like I did 6(a).


Novels, Plays and Poetry: four from sixteen set texts.

English Literature A Level Paper 1977

The syllabus offered sixteen different works, but the examination only required you to answer questions on four, so we covered only four: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the selected poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poems of Wilfred Owen, and Arthur Miller’s plays A View from the Bridge and All My Sons. Again, the paper had an either/or choice within each question. I think I answered questions 7(b), 10(a), 12(a) and 14(b).

The other twelve items on the Paper 2 syllabus were parts of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, Metaphysical Poetry, Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Sheridan’s The Rivals and The School for Scandal, Keats Lamia and other poems, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Poetry of the Thirties, Patrick White’s The Tree of Man, and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.


Literary Criticism. Two compulsory questions quoting passages from unnamed works followed by lists of points to be addressed.

English Literature A Level Paper 1977

Paper III was the joker in the pack, impossible to prepare for fully in advance. I really thought I had messed this up.

Question 1: two poems. With the help of the internet I can now identify them as John Stallworthy’s A Poem about Poems About Vietnam, and Seamus Heaney’s The Folk Singers.

Question 2: a passage I recognised in the exam as being from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. I remember timidly deciding not to say I knew what it was. I don’t know whether you got extra marks if you did. 

Looking back over forty years, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry left the strongest impression. I can still quote Pied Beauty by heart. A lot of people find his poetry dense and unintelligible, so it was a real privilege to be able to take time to dissect and understand his ‘conglomerate epithets’ and obsession with the different roots of the English language. His lines still come back both in moments of elation and despair.
Wilfred Owen too, remains familiar from his regular outings in television programmes and newspaper articles about the First World War. Years later, attending a conference at the Craiglockart campus of Edinburgh Napier University, I could not help but be aware that this was where Owen and Siegfried Sassoon had been treated for shell shock almost a century earlier. Sitting on the lawn in front of the main building, eating lunch in the sun, I imagined they might once have done exactly the same, discussing poetry during Owen’s brief respite from his doomed youth. Sadly, the topic of our own lunchtime conversation was computing.

Arthur Miller revealed a great deal about how plays are put together. I later felt there were more than just situational similarities between the film Saturday Night Fever and A View from the Bridge, although to be strictly accurate they were different bridges.

I was astonished by Alexander Pope’s verbal dexterity and can still remember chunks of the Epistle.

On the other hand, despite my enthusiasm at the time, I am ashamed to say I read no more Shakespeare. I know he was myriad-minded, but it takes effort, and I became too tied up with other things to try.

The same is true of Persuasion, despite the once-or-twice stand-in teacher at Leeds Park Lane College, Mr. Trowbridge, declaring that whenever he felt disheartened there was no better remedy than to go to bed with Jane Austen. He even got a laugh from us with that one.

Wednesday, 22 February 2023


My vision issues make reading and participating in comment quite challenging just now, but I continue to enjoy your blog posts which the computer reads for me.

Today, I want illustrate life's vicissitudes through the story of my mother's lifelong friend Doreen. They are the kind of things we like to pretend do not happen.

Shortly after my parents married, they rented the two-bedroomed terraced house where I spent my first years. It needed thorough cleaning, so Mum busied herself scrubbing floors, washing windows, scouring the kitchin, sweeping the yard and hanging curtains. I can imagine the hot, damp smell of soap flakes, coal tar soap, scouring powder and disinfectant. There were few detergents. She had escaped her claustrophobic village and mother for her own little house in town, where she built a new life and blossomed.

In the back-bedroom of the house across the lane at the rear, a woman of similar age lay in bed-rest at her mother-in-laws', heavily pregnant with twins. She watched my mother at work and wondered who was this energetic and pleasant-looking young woman she had never seen before. Her mother-in-law came across to make contact, and Mum went across to meet Doreen. They had lots in commom and talked for hours.

They became lifelong friends. We visited each others' houses all the time. I called her Aunty Doreen. I have a lovely photograph of my pregnant (with me) Mum with Doreen, her husband and the twins walking along the promenade on a sunny day-trip to the seaside. They are all laughing and happy.

A few hears later we moved to a bigger house in the next street, so saw a little less of each other, but still visited often. It did not therefore surprise me on returning from school one afternoon to find the twins at our house. They were a girl and a boy then aged around ten. I was around seven. What I did not know was that they were there because their father had been taken seriously ill at the mill where he worked. He had had a massive heart attack. After a time someone knocked on the door and my mother sat the twins down at the table because she had something to tell them. "Your daddy's died" she simply said. It must have been almost impossible to say. They both burst into floods of tears. I didn't really understand but knew it was awful. People at the mill remembered how disturbing it was to see his overalls and shoes still at his peg. His body lay at rest at hone in the front room until the funeral. Doreen was still in her thirties.

But life goes on. With support from relatives, friends and neighbours Doreen brought up the twins into teenagers. A few doors along the street lived Maurice, a railway engine driver who had lived alone since his parents had died a few years earlier. He was a good-looking, gentle giant of a man, shy and quiet. The twins thought him wonderful and he became like an uncle who played with them. He formed a close friendship with Doreen and eventually proposed. Doreen was forty-two, Maurice about thirty-four.

"But he's so much younger than me," Doreen told by mother.   

"Gerrim married," Mum replied.

So she did, with my mother looking radiant and lovely as Matron-of-Honour. She had never been a bridesmaid before.

The photographs show a happy day, although as I have seen in other families including ly owm, her late husband's mother does not look entirely behind the idea. The marriage worked and lasted over thirty years.

On his days off, Maurice liked to do odd-jobs, and I sometimes found him round at our house quietly washing the windows.

Then at around the age of sixty, Doreen became very ill with bowel cancer.

"They'll be taking me out of here in a box," she told my mother visiting her in hospital. And we all thought that was true.

And yet, against all the odds, she survived. She had an ileostomy operation and it was successful. It was my mother who died two years later of breast cancer and Doreen survived her by twenty years before falling into old-age and dementia. Maurice lived on for another ten years.

To get through life without encountering such dreadful ups and downs is very fortunate. For the rest of us that do, I don't know how do manage to cope. We must be very resiliant. It's not all rosy, is it!

Wednesday, 15 February 2023

Guitar Books

These are the books that taught me to play guitar. They came new with my first guitar in 1965.

Actually, books can't teach you to play a musical instrument. You have to motivate and do it yourself, and if you've got it you'll get there, and if not you won't. It is hard-earned. I remember so many whose desire exceeted their application.

'Tune A Day' was helpful by starting me off with two-chord songs such as 'Some Folks Like To Fret And Scold', played just on three strings, but I had to keep trying over and over again before it sounded anything like it should. Most find that being able to change between chords is the most difficult bit. It can also be hard to know when the guitar is out of tune.

You then struggle to master more chords using more strings, and pehaps after a few months you begin to realise you can do it. But as a guitar teacher in Hull (Tim Keech) told me, "it takes you ten years before you realise how crap you are" (which is true of so many other things too). 

Once I could play a bit, there was another book that did in fact teach be quite a lot, Hal White's 'Leeds Guitar Method' from the nineteen-fifties. It explained things clearly, such as on this page about Augmented Chords, and followed up with contempory songs that used them; in this case Dickie Valentine's 'The Finger Of Suspicion Points At You'. My copy of the book came from a long-forgotten school friend whose  name and address I am disturbed to see written in the front. I wonder what became of him. 

Play regularly for ten years and you become reasonably competent. When I lived in a shared house we often bought a big bottle of cider each and played through the Beatles' Songbook.

Here are a couble of multi-track recordings I made in the severties: a J.S.Bach two-part invention, or if that's not your thing, you might recognise the other piece as an improvisation around the Beatlers' song 'You're Gonna Lose That Girl'. You don't have to tell me now how messy it is, but I was making much of the improvisation up as I went along. I wish I could still do it as well as that now. 

If you can't see the videos they are at:

Wednesday, 8 February 2023

Family Photographs

My vision issues make reading and participating in comment quite challenging just now, but I continue to enjoy your blog posts which the computer reads for me. 

A similar sequence in families throught the Western world, labelled in albums if they are lucky.

Early in mine, among the various family lines, are my great-grandparents around 1908. My great-grandfather is resplendant in is uniform, a newly qualified Master Mariner.

Later there are lots of weddings. Don't they all look well!

Now a very faded picture of his son, my grandfather, with his new wife, on holiday with friends and cousins at Mablethorpe Lincolnshire after the Great War. Along comes a son, my father, then a daughter, my aunty. They begin to look more prosperous and go on days out to the Yorkshire coast. My grandfather sits on the beach in his hat and suit looking uncomfortable.

The children grow older and get married. My father and mother help tend the family allotment. Then I appear as a baby and begin to grow. Dad plays and entertains me for hours, carrying me around town on his bicycle crossbar seat, and then does it all over again six years later with my brother. Wasn't he fantastic! Again we take holidays on the Yorkshire coast, and further afield too.

We even have audio recordings and bits of digitised cine film from the nineteen-sixties.

I look at it all over and over again obsessively, and digitise it, and add pictures of my own family. I leave everything well-organised for the future.

And in that future, my children have little more than passing interest in the earlies pictures of people they never knew. And their children even less.

"So who was he? Is that some kind of seaman's uniform?"  

I suppose I might be the same if there were photographs of relatives I never knew from 1800, who lived such unimaginably different lives through unimaginably different times. It is too difficult to connect with them.

The whole lot might survive another century at best before being deleted, becoming inaccessible or simply thrown out.

Wednesday, 1 February 2023

Too Much Television

New month old post, originally posted as part of a longer post on the 19th September 2014. The other part of which was used at the beginning of last month.

We weren’t the last, but late enough for others to exclaim in disbelief: “What! You really don’t have a television?”

Dad thought them a mindless waste of time. After hours talking at work, he was happy to settle down to a book, or poetry, or his bible readings from church, or the B.B.C. “Book at Bedtime”. Mum, when not finishing housework, would be knitting, reading novels from the library or learning lines for her twice-yearly parts with a local drama group. I got through two or three library books a week too, and still had time for other worthwhile activities, not to mention homework. No one needed a television. There was always plenty to do. We were one of the last to have an X- or H-shaped aerial on the chimney stack.

My first viewing memories are therefore all on other peoples’ sets: school friends, the neighbour who regularly invited Mum, with me in tow, to watch ‘Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium’, another relative who let me watch football cup finals on Saturday afternoons, and one of my Mum’s aunts where I went once a week after school for tea. I remember the now forgotten Don Arrol’s brief stint as Palladium compere when he stood in for the ill Bruce Forsyth in 1960, the 1958 FA cup final when Bolton Wanderers beat a tragically depleted Manchester United after the Munich air disaster, and seemingly no end of escapist adventure series on Granada Television which was then the newly-licenced commercial provider for the whole of the North of England.

How many can you remember? How many theme tunes can you still sing? There was ‘The Lone Ranger’, ‘Bonanza’, ‘Rawhide’, ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’, ‘The Adventures of William Tell’, ‘The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin’, ‘The Adventures of Long John Silver’, and ‘The Buccaneers’, to name but a few. The only theme tune I can’t remember is ‘The Buccaneers’, despite it being one of my favourite series. The tune was simply unmemorable. But I can still sing you the standby music used by Granada Television before programmes started at five o’clock.

Dad eventually surrendered to the inevitable and bought a set around 1962. I watched the first Transatlantic transmissions over the Telstar satellite in July of that year at home.

But all the many “worthwhile activities” soon disappeared. A year later I was watching the indisputably inane quiz show ‘Take Your Pick’ (the one in which Michael Miles tried to trick contestants into using the word “No”) when news of President Kennedy’s assassination came through. Within a few years, some programmes had become part of the bedrock of British society watched by more than half the population, and activities outside the home gradually dwindled away. For me, homework took second place on Thursdays when ‘Top of the Pops’ and ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ were on.

Dad remained a bastion of common sense. As soon as the television was turned on, he retired to his books, radio and other activities. I’m not quite that good, but I do try. Think of all the skills and knowledge lost to all that television. What goes around comes around. While I sit here trying desperately to improve my writing skills and perfect my pirate voice, my family sit the other room watching that embodiment of triviality, ‘The X factor’. 

originally posted as part of a longer post on the 19th September 2014

Monday, 23 January 2023

Mick Copier

Most university lecturers work very hard (at least in my experience). They spend hours planning teaching and helping students, and give up too many of their evenings and weekends dealing with email. I also used to put in further time carrying out research, writing academic papers and applying for external funding. With some success, I might add.

Yet I always had a sneaking regard for those who did basically what was asked of them and little more. One such colleague was called Mick Copier.

I first came across him when I still worked in the software industry. My employer sent me on a course in SSADM (Structured Systems Analysis and Design Method) and Mick was on the same course. Around a year later I got a job at the same university where he worked and found myself sharing an office with him. If truth be told, the course helped me get the job and Mick put in a good word for me.

Part of my role involved visiting students out on their work placement years. Late one morning, arriving back on the train, I was surprised to see Mick at the railway station. “Are you on a placement visit too?” I asked him. “No,” he said, “I’ve done all I need to do today so I thought I would have an afternoon out in York.”

Mick based much of his teaching around the SSADM course we have both been on. I sometimes used it too, but Mick took it to extremes. Every June, our office would fill up with boxes from the reprographics room. Soon they were stacked four or five high and three or four deep. They were his teaching materials for the next academic year. From October to April, all he then had to do was to hand out these pre-prepared notes and worksheets week-by-week and guide the students through them. They nicknamed him Mick Photocopier.

To be fair, he was extremely knowledgeable, and the students liked and respected him.

With his preparation all finished, Mick  then took all his holiday in one block over the summer. While workaholics like me spent our time writing and researching obsessively, he kept a boat on the River Ouse and could comfortably make it to the Mediterranean and back on the French canals. One day I would be like that, I told myself.

Mick came unstuck in the end. Well, sort of. The university decided it needed to reduce the number of lecturers and began a redundancy consultation. I survived, largely because of my research output. Mick didn’t. Instead, he accepted a large voluntary severance payment and walked straight into a new and highly paid position with a nearby passenger transport authority, restructuring their database of bus and train timetables. He even took some of our students on placement. He knew what he was doing, in more ways than one.

I never did get to be like Mick. I think now that I drove myself far too hard.

Sunday, 15 January 2023

Night Cleaner

My mother would have said it was the only proper job I ever had. Being stuck in an accountants’ office didn’t count. Nor did poncing around in universities. But twelve-hour nights in a canning factory, well, that was the kind of work her family had always done, and people from her village too.

I was a night cleaner: not the sort of cleaner that normally comes to mind with mops, buckets and toilets, but sturdier stuff involving wellington boots, waterproofs and hosepipes. Our job was to clean the factory machinery overnight in readiness for the following day’s production. I spent three university summers there. It was very well paid.

Some of the permanent employees resented the students for the easy opportunities they had, especially Ken the electrician. His job seemed mainly to keep everything covered in a thick layer of grease to protect switches and circuits from all the water swilling around, but it was no match for our high pressure hoses. From the ladders we climbed to wash stray peas and other vegetables from the hoppers and seamers, it was impossible not to short-circuit his electrics now and again. It sent him apoplectic.

“Call yourselves bloody students? You don’t even have the intelligence you were born with. What the hell do they teach you at university? You can’t even piss straight.”

I once accidentally filled his toolbox trolley with water, the stream from my hose tracing a perfect arc across the factory ceiling. What he thought of that is unrepeatable. It involved the contents of my underpants and what would happen to them were I to do it again. 

The “regulars” knew how to keep the students in their place. The names they gave us, the sayings they used, the jokes they told, were outrageous. Mick, another night shift “regular”, had one of the most creative and imaginative senses of vulgarity I have encountered. He said if anyone tried to drink his tea while he was in the “bog” (toilet), he would tear open their throat and get it back while it flowed through. He didn’t just spit in his cup to make sure no one drank from it, he rubbed a certain part of his anatomy round the rim.

When Nevil Shute (in ‘Slide Rule’) wrote that people from this part of the world were “brutish and uncouth, … the lowest types … ever seen in England, and incredibly foul mouthed”, he simply didn’t get it. It might have been unsophisticated, but it was clever and hilarious.

Donny, however, was different. He was gentle and softly-spoken. He was the night cleaning foreman, our boss. He did not put you down when you missed something, but patiently showed you what was wrong so that you gradually learnt the job. Being quiet, he came in for a lot of teasing from the other “regulars”.

Much of this took place in the factory canteen. Typically, we would start our shift at six in the evening and help in the factory until production ended. We would then take a meal break before the canteen closed. One of the canteen staff was called Josie, a divorced lady who lived in Donny’s village. With her lovely dark hair, she must have been extremely attractive when young. It was made out that Donny had a soft spot for her. This led to rampant invention about what Donny dreamed about. How often did he walk secretly past her house? When would he pluck up the courage to ask her out? Did he keep her picture on the wall next to his bed? Josie laughed, but was clearly embarrassed. Donny said nothing, but took it in his stride. 

The final year I worked at the canning factory was its last. It was to close permanently at the end of the season. The “regulars” were served with redundancy notices. During the final week only Donny and I were on nights. We often finished early except for in the yard where we had to wait for daylight. Donny asked if I would run him to his girlfriends’ in my Minivan, finish on my own outside when it was light, and clock off his time card at six, which I did. It was the first I had heard of a girlfriend. He revealed it was Josie. 

I didn’t see Donny again, but thirty years later I noticed an obituary notice in the local newspaper which my father always saved for me. It was Josie. The final line read, “With heartfelt condolences to Donny, her long-time loving partner”.

Sunday, 1 January 2023

Talk like a pirate

New month old post (first posted 19th September 2014)

Robert Newton: the man who taught us to talk like a pirate

Although we did not yet have a television set at home, I used to see Newton in ‘The Adventures of Long John Silver’ at great Aunty Gina’s, where I would go once each week after school for tea. The series was made in Australia in 1954, but by the time it appeared on our screens in England some three years later, he had died from heart failure brought about by chronic alcohol consumption. He had previously played the role in the film, ‘Treasure Island’, in 1950.

Newton’s idiosyncratic one-eyed, one-legged and parrot-shouldered portrayal of Silver was much parodied and instantly memorable. The wildly gyrating eyeball and oddly exaggerated throaty West Country accent became the stereotypical pirate for the next half-century. Its influences are still prominent in the 2003 film ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. Two Americans even thought it fitting to declare September 19th each year to be ‘International Talk Like A Pirate Day’ when everyone should greet each other with phrases such as “Ahoy, matey!”, and liberally sprinkle their speech with the pirate growl, “Aaarrrh”.

Exactly how do you talk like a pirate? It strikes me that the opening lines of ‘To The Hesitating Purchaser’ which begins Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel ‘Treasure Island’ provides a great model. Newton recites it at the start of every episode:

         If sailor tales to sailor tunes,
         Storm and adventure, heat and cold,
         If schooners, islands, and maroons,
         And buccaneers and buried gold,
         And all the old romance, retold,
         Exactly in the ancient way,
         Can please, as me they pleased of old,
         The wiser youngsters of today:
         So be it (Aarrrh Aarrrh), and fall on!

Just growl it out, stretching and rhoticising the ‘r’s and omitting the ‘d’ out of ‘adventure’, and you’ll sound pretty authentic.

To tell you the truth, I preferred the cleaner-cut, less eccentric Captain Dan Tempest in ‘The Buccaneers’, which was also set in the sixteenth-century age of pirates. Tempest was an ex-pirate, pardoned by the King and turned privateer to fight other pirates and the despicable Spaniards. He never caught the public imagination in the same way as Long John Silver. Perhaps it was because he didn’t talk like a pirate.