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Wednesday 10 April 2024

The Eccentric Great Aunt: the Painter

Imagine you received an annuity at a young age, never had to work, and had enough to fund your activities within reason. How would you spend your time? 


Soon after the death of her first husband, my wife’s great-grandmother married a wealthy bachelor who, although himself a translator rather than a writer, was very well-connected in London literary circles. Their dinner party guests included, among others, Maxim Gorky, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy, and Joseph Conrad. They holidayed in Rome, Athens and Egypt in the nineteen-twenties and -thirties. 

Great-Grandma had a fifteen-year-old daughter still at home. The new husband looked after her generously, as if she were his own, funding her through Chelsea School of Art and presenting her as a debutante at the Court of King George V. 

The daughter never married, continuing to live at home through the twenties and thirties, accompanying her mother and step-father abroad. She looked after her ageing mother after her step-father died, and was eventually left on her own. She is remembered as my wife’s eccentric great-aunt who lived a rather disorganized life in Oxford, where she was part of the art scene. I met her only once when she was in her eighties. She was tall and ungainly, very upper crust, and absolutely terrifying.

Her life was spent travelling and painting. Her travel list is long and impressive, especially considering the years in which they occurred: Bavaria and Sicily in 1928, Egypt in 1932, Malta in 1939, Mauritius and South Africa in 1950, San Francisco in 1962, India in 1969, Persia and Singapore in 1970, Burma and Malaya in 1973, China in 1978, Mexico in 1982 ... this is just a small sample. It made for a wealth of entertaining stories.

She was not well-known, but exhibited in London, mostly at the Brook Street Art Gallery, and a few times at the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of British Artists. 

Was she any good? You tell me. To me she was rather a messy artist with a distinctive, quirky style. Some of her pictures hang in our house, and we have some of her sketchbooks and colour slides. She had two main kinds of subject: exotic images of birds, animals and nature; and her travels, into which her quirky exoticism spilled. However, she may not have been all that original. Image searches reveal other paintings in a similar style.

Does it matter? Probably not. If we spend our time doing what we want, being creative as best we can, and are satisfied with the result, then what more could we ask? Isn’t that what we do on Blogger?

Pictures 2 and 4 are hard to photograph in their frames. 

Bali Dancers

Saturday 6 April 2024

Carrot Tub

Following Dave Northsider, who has repurposed an old oil tank to make raised vegetable beds, I filled this old half water butt with soil from the compost bin, and sowed a row of carrot seeds. It is 22 inches across, so I plan six rows at three-weekly intervals. As the fresh compost is full of worms, the wooden strips are there to protect the first row from digging birds. The bin spends the winter covering the monster rhubarb plant to give us a few tender pink stems in early spring, so this seems a good way to use it over the summer. 

As I sowed the seeds, carrot fly lined the lawn, bouncing up and down and chirruping gleefully. Dave assures me they cannot fly above 12 inches high. The tub is 18 inches, so the carrots should be safe. 

But then I read in a gardening book that carrot fly barriers should be 30 inches high. No guessing who will get the blame if I have any problems.  

Tuesday 2 April 2024


New Month Old Post: first posted 30th October, 2016.

A song for dads to sing to their children. 
Petula Clark: Downtown

What a super singalong on BBC Four on Friday! 

It Started with a Kiss, or rather for us with a bottle of Chilean Shiraz. It was followed by a fabulous edition of Top Of The Pops 1982, from 15th July. After several weeks of watching the constipated faces of Brian Ferry and Martin Fry (get the look!), it was great to have some good tunes for a change. Following Errol and Hot Chocolate came Dexy’s Come On Eileen, the perennial Cliff Richard, David Essex’s Night Clubbing, and Irene Cara’s Fame (although I have never understood the line in that song about qualifying for a pilots licence).

Later, there was a concert with the then (in 2016) 83-year-old Petula Clark who has brought out a new LP. Goodness, she is even more perennial than Cliff Richard. My great-grandfather used to like her and he died in 1960. Her voice is a bit thin now, but the music and band were superb. She kept us waiting for her ultimate singalong song but it duly arrived near the end. I then blotted my copybook by reprising my own lyrics from when the children were little. They went something like this.

When you’re in bed and Mummy’s snoring beside you
You can always go, downstairs
When you are cold and Mummy’s got all the duvet
There’s a place I know, downstairs
You can lie down on the settee, and have it all to yourself, 
Choose some bedtime reading from the books upon the bookshelf
How can you lose?
It’s warmer and quieter there 
You can forget all the snoring, no need to stay there 
Just go downstairs
Sleeping on the settee, downstairs
Sleeping so peacefully, downstairs
Everything’s waiting for you.

When you’re in bed and Mummy’s been eating garlic
There’s a place to go, downstairs
Onions and curry, chilli, tikka masala
Seems to help I know, downstairs
You can open all the windows and the air is clear and nice
Fill your lungs with freshness thats free of herbs and spice
How can you lose?
The night is much cleaner there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
And go downstairs
Have a weak cup of tea, downstairs
Crackers or toast for me, downstairs
Everything’s waiting for you.

I was lucky not to have to sleep downstairs.  

Saturday 30 March 2024


This story on the BBC caught my attention because of its similarities to my own situation. 

My heart goes out to this young mother who, aged 33, has been diagnosed with cancer. After two weeks of “migraine”, she was persuaded to see a doctor, who immediately sent her to hospital. Two hours later, she was talking to an oncologist. An MRI scan had revealed 7 brain tumours, and a later CT scan found 3 in her lungs, which was the primary site. 

As I understand it, all tumours are gene mutations. She has a mutation of the ALK gene that produces a rogue protein that causes affected cells to grow uncontrollably. It can be controlled by a new wonder drug called Brigatinib which blocks the action of the protein. I have a similar but different mutation

An enormous amount of research is going into the genes involved in different kinds of cancer, and the precise mutations involved. In some cases, drugs can disrupt the growth of affected cells. More and more of these treatments will emerge in the coming years, but development is expensive. Drug companies charge thousands a month to recover their costs. Brigatinib is £5,000 a month; the Tepotinib I take is £7,000 (less confidential NHS discounts). It amounts to many tens of thousands per patient per year. The financial implications for the NHS and health insurers are astronomical.

Is it worth, say, £100,000 to prolong someone’s life for two years? For 10,000 new NHS lung cancer patients each year that amounts to £1 billion per year. What about other forms of cancer? What about other health conditions? What about other issues in the broader arena of health and social care? At some point, the answer will be no.  

Tuesday 26 March 2024

Computers, Education and the Conservatives

Conservative governments are non-interventionist. They do not like the state to run anything. They spent the 1980s and 1990s selling off the country’s assets and giving away the proceeds. It continues today in their unwillingness to pay for public services or regulate things properly. Some of them would privatise health and education if they could get away with it. That is why, if my health holds out, I will not be voting Conservative at the next election. I will see the bastards* go to hell before I do. 

And yet, in the 1980s, they did intervene. A 1978 television documentary, ‘Now the Chips are Down’, made clear how woefully unprepared Britain was for the silvery white heat of the computer revolution. It scared the Thatcher government so much that they funded a number of costly initiatives. Two in particular stood out for me.  

A few of the many programmes in the BBC Computer Literacy Archive

In one, the BBC was recruited to raise awareness of the skills needed. It led to the ‘Computer Literacy Project’, which ran from 1982 to 1989. It was linked to the specially commissioned ‘BBC Micro’, which was taken up by many homes and most schools, with over a million sold.

In the other, the ‘Microelectronics Education Programme’, massive amounts of money were spent putting computers in schools, setting up and funding resource centres, and training teachers. Politicians boasted that Britain led the world in “equipping the children of today with the skills of tomorrow.”    

Did it actually achieve anything, or was it bluster and spin?

At least it got my new career off the ground. After escaping from accountancy into a dream job as a university researcher, I knew as much about these new concepts and technologies as anyone. It would be hard to overstate how immersed, obsessed even, I was in this bright new world of colour and light.

I recently discovered that the television programmes, and more, are freely online in the ‘BBC Computer Literacy Archive’. It has the 1978 documentary which set things off (still informative 45 years later), and Dominic Sandbrook’s wonderfully evocative reflection on the social changes of the nineteen-eighties (not only computers). Incredibly, one programme even shows my own small part in this.  

Watching again now, I am struck by how aware we were of the social questions posed by what was about to come. How would people spend their time in a world with less work? How should wealth be shared across society? It is not turning out as well as it might.

Most fascinating for me is the series ‘The Learning Machine’ (1985), about computers in education, the area in which I worked. Here, once again, are the names and faces I knew and discussed things with at workshops and conferences, such as the main writer and presenter, Tim O’Shea.

He was scathing of the Microelectronics Education Programme, which, he said, had foisted cheap, underpowered computers and poor software upon parents and schools. The attractive message about improving the quality of education, disguised what was really on politicians’ minds: the job market, supporting British industry, and making education cheaper. Eventually, we might even do away with schools and teachers completely.

The then ubiquitous programming language, Basic, comes in for particular criticism. It encouraged tangled, undecipherable code, leading self-taught home and school users to think they knew how to write software, when, really, their knowledge was badly lacking.

I think Tim was broadly correct, but we were all still trying to understand how to use computers in education, and few teachers had the skills to teach programming. I was taught structured methods and had no difficulty creating reliable, intelligible Basic programs several hundred lines long.

It can also be argued that the initiatives did have benefits, but they were two decades in the making. A generation of youngsters became fascinated by computers, seeding Britain’s successful computer games industry. So, perhaps it did work out well in the end. Tim did well too. He became Principal of the University of Edinburgh.

One other series caught my eye: ‘With a Little Help from the Chip’ (1985), about helping those with special needs. I was astonished, in programme 3, to see a one-minute clip of software I designed and coded, being used in a school for deaf children. I have written about the programs before, but never seen the TV programme. It brought back all the satisfactions of going into schools to observe and collect data. 

Do you ever wonder, were it possible, whether you would happily go back to an earlier point in your life? I would, to this time for certain. And I would jump at the chance of another forty years. Most of all, it was an innocent, optimistic time, focused on what we were doing rather than the unrest and disruption taking place. We were trying to make the world a better place. We could do with more of that now. 

* A name used by Margaret Thatcher for Eurosceptic right-wing Conservatives. 

Thursday 21 March 2024

Blue Star

Northsider Dave will immediately recognise this from the rear label of a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale. It acts as a temperature indicator, beginning to turn from white to blue below 12°C. I brought this in from the garage at around 6°C.  

“Drink Cold” it tells us. Why cold beer? Some pubs serve it so cold it could give you brain damage. You cannot taste it properly. Is that because their beer is so awful they don’t want you to? 

Not so Newcastle Brown. I don’t see why I should be told how to drink it by some Dutch outfit that bought out the company and don’t even make it in Newcastle any more. They can keep the cold for their disgusting pilsner.

I will concede it is now made in Yorkshire, and that they tried to keep pint bottles rather than the more usual 500ml. You cannot expect the Dutch to understand that an Imperial pint is 568.261 ml, not 550. Or do they diddle us a sip to refresh the profits other beers can’t reach? At least they are not American pints.

While we are on the subject, why is the temperature in °C rather than Fahrenheit? Imperial measures were invented to flummox the French, not the Dutch.

So, I drink it warm. If there is the slightest hint of blue on that label I put the bottle in the washing up water until it turns white. If I want to drink it warm, then I will, and if I want to swig it round my mouth while crunching up a chunk of chocolate then I’ll do that too.

Here is the star after it has turned white, now on the empty bottle. I apologise for it not being as good an image as the first. Dave and I will not be the only ones to appreciate that empty bottles are much more difficult to photograph than full ones.

Thursday 14 March 2024

Follow The Moon

A few weeks ago, Jabblog wrote a post about Lyle’s Golden Syrup, which, by the ways and wanders of the mind in the night, took me to a party game. 

I was about six or seven, and it was my birthday. Mum invited a few friends round. I fancy there was Dennis and Johnny from the next street, maybe Jack the neat writer, and Geoffrey Bullard, not yet the monster he became. Girls? I don’t know. Maybe my second-cousin, Linda, and her funny friend, Margaret. I liked them. We were all in the same class at school. I can’t really remember. The more you try, the more you make up. 

I imagine we ran around in the garden for a while, and had tea. It would have been treacle on bread or treacle sandwiches (our name for Lyle’s Golden Syrup), or possibly honey. We often had that for our tea. Some people used to have condensed milk sandwiches, but I never liked the way it soaked into the bread and seeped out at the edges. For pudding, it would have been Rowntree’s Jelly and tinned fruit, with Carnation cream (which is what we called evaporated milk).  And fizzy Tizer or Vimto to drink. Such was the nineteen-fifties diet. The school dentist was always busy.  

Even now, I have honey on toast for tea when lazy, and Carnation “Cream” on tinned pears or apricots is luxury. Everyone here complains it is too sweet, so I have to have the whole tin myself. I don’t have treacle now, but the empty metal tins are great for all those bits and pieces you don’t know where to put: bath plugs, light pulls, door stops, picture hooks. Shame they risk disappearing in a squeezy plastic rebranding after 150 years unchanged. “... consumers need to see brands moving with the times and meeting their current needs. Our fresh, contemporary design brings Lyle’s into the modern day, appealing to the everyday British household while still feeling nostalgic and authentically Lyle’s,” said the brand director. “Drivel, bollocks, and bullshit,” said I. 

As regards the party, I have only one clear memory. Dad said we would play a game called “Follow The Moon”, but would say no more about it. The time came, and we waited outside the front room, with Mum and Dad inside, the door closed, and the curtains drawn. We were called in one by one.

The first went in, and after a short time cried “Aarrgh!” Then the next went in to join them, and made the same sound while the first person laughed. The third went in and reacted in the same way, causing the first two to laugh, and so it continued. 

I was last because it was my birthday. There was a sheet hanging vertically in the darkened room, with a circle of torchlight shining through. That was the moon. I had to keep my nose as close to the moon for as long as I could, while it moved around. It went up and down, and side to side, then faster in a circle, and, as both the moon and my nose reached the top of the sheet, a soggy warm wet sponge full of water came over from the other side and dunked me on the head. The others all roared with laughter.

Tuesday 12 March 2024

Last Apple

The last of last year’s apples from the garden. Variety: Fiesta.

Unlike many other people, we had a big crop. 

Thursday 7 March 2024

The Nineteen-Eighties

I missed most of the nineteen-eighties. I was working as a university researcher, writing a thesis in my spare time, and volunteering with the Samaritans. As well as all that, my mother was in and out of hospital with breast cancer, and then died. It left little over for anything else, and I gave no great thought to events taking place around me. Even the re-runs of old Top Of The Pops programmes from that time have seemed refreshingly new to me in recent years. 

Yet, in Britain, it was a decade of great change: to commerce and industry, to individual and national identity, in lifestyle, and in politics. Almost every week there was some new controversy about the morals of the young and the state of the nation. Most of it went over my head. 

So, forty years late, I have been back in the nineteen-eighties. I started with a 2016 television documentary, “The 80s With Dominic Sandbrook”. If nothing else, it is wonderful nostalgia. 

It takes us through the years of Margaret Thatcher and the IRA Brighton bombing, her “special relationship” with Ronald Reagan, and her nation of young computer programmers. Our hearts and minds are invaded by Japanese video games and VCR video nasties such as Cannibal Holocaust, much to the outrage of Mrs. Mary Whitehouse, a puritanical Christian campaigner. We fall under the influence of the American consumerist dream, and the lifestyles of television shows such as Dallas. There is the civil unrest of racism, and we are terrified by the “gay plague” of AIDS, fought with surprisingly frank publicity and the example of Princess Diana. There is a gradual increase in sexual tolerance and acceptance of diversity. We go to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, and with the striking miners. 

Is it rhetoric to say “we went to war” with the miners? It was certainly planned like a military campaign. The miners and other trade unions had been causing trouble for years, and the Thatcher government was determined to see them off once and for all. A sweeping programme of pit closures was announced, bringing miners out on strike throughout Yorkshire and elsewhere. The government had prepared by stockpiling mountains of coal at power stations, and were fortunate that the Nottinghamshire miners stayed at work, thinking their jobs were secure. An information assault was mounted, branding the miners as “the enemy within”, portraying then as uncouth animals making outrageous demands, prepared to be violent if not met. The image and persona of their leader, Arthur Scargill, seemed to fit perfectly. The mainstream media reinforced it, with reporting doctored to portray the miners in an unfavourable light. It had elements of regional and class snobbery designed to appeal to voters sympathetic to a right-wing government. 

But another documentary, made to correspond with this year’s fortieth anniversary of the strike, gives a different perspective. “The Miners’ Strike: A Frontline Story”, recalls the personal experiences of fifteen men and women involved in different ways: striking and strike-breaking miners from working and striking areas, their families, and members of the police force. It is powerful stuff, with harrowing recollections of hardship and brutality. 

One of the worst incidents occurred at Orgreave near Rotherham on the 18th June, 1984, where the miners planned to carry out peaceful secondary picketing. The police allowed them to approach and assemble without hindrance, and then brutally attacked them. The police were armed with batons, shields and riot gear, and hacked down the miners from horseback. It was like a medieval rout. At the time, it was widely presented as an act of self-defence by the police, but, later, miners were compensated for assault, wrongful arrest, unlawful detention and malicious prosecution. 

The strike ended after a year when the defeated miners went back to work. Essentially, they had been trying to defend their communities. They accepted that mines had to close, but not that it had to be done so abruptly, leaving whole villages near-destitute. You cannot “get on your bike and look for work”, as one cabinet minister told them, when you have a mortgage on an unsaleable house, and there is no work to be had anyway. And you can’t go to university late like I did when you have a family. The changes could have been introduced gradually, with support, as with later pit closures. Many of the affected areas never recovered, and remain amongst the poorest in Europe. 

Even now, there are many who choose to believe the media propaganda of the day, rather than recognising Margaret Thatcher and her Conservatives as uncaring, self-serving leeches who sold off the country’s assets and gave away the money. 

At the end of his programme, Dominic Sandbrook wonders how Britain might have looked had the miners and IRA succeeded. Would it have remained a trade union fortress holding out against globalisation and the advance of technology? No, it would not. Change was unstoppable, and trying to hold it back would have been futile. But it did not need to be handled with such incompetence.    


The second of three parts of the series “The 80s With Dominic Sandbrook” (59 minutes) is online and apparently accessible without restriction at:  

Currently there appear to be no legitimate copies of parts 1 and 3 online. 

“The Miners’ Strike: A Frontline Story” (89 minutes) is on the BBC iPlayer (UK only): 

However, much more is generally available on the BBC website (search for “The Miners’ Strike”), such as: 

Monday 4 March 2024

I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue

John Going Gently recently mentioned the long-running BBC radio show “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue” (ISIHAC). For those who don't know, it is a spoof panel game in which teams are asked by the chair to do silly things, very silly, very funny. It started in 1972, and has been running almost continually since: an incredible 52 years. 

John included links to a couple of examples, and as he said in a comment, they should be prescribed on the NHS as treatment for depression. The one titled “The Complete Lionel Blair”, a compilation of a double-entendre gag running across a large number of shows, is almost too painful to take. You cannot believe such delightful dirty-mindedness could be broadcast on the radio. 

In 1972, I was still in the shared house in Leeds, where we often audio-taped television and radio shows to hear again. We fancied ourselves as comedy script writers, but apart from a couple of snippets in the magazine Private Eye, all else was rejected. 

ISIHAC was one of the series we recorded. Most of it is now gone, but I still have a tape with the very first four programmes from 1972. They were lost to the BBC for many years, and some may still be.

Humphrey Littleton was the chairman from the start, continuing until his death in 2008. Much of the success of the show was down to his deadpan delivery, as if genuinely baffled by the audience reaction to what he had to read out. Barry Cryer took over in the second and third programmes, but Humph returned for the fourth. The first panelists were Graeme Garden, Jo Kendall, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie, with John Cleese instead of Jo Kendall for the fourth programme. All had been in the show’s precursor, “I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again” (ISIRTA), which we also recorded; also mostly lost. 

I digitise the shows to refer to in another post. For what it’s worth, here are the four half-hour programmes again. The BBC seemed uninterested when I tried to give them back some years ago. 

The production took time to settle into its established format, but many of the elements are there: one song to the tune of another; swanee whistles; late arrivals; limericks; the non-associated words game. These episodes are probably more of historical interests than classics, but they still raise a laugh: “Announcing late arrivals at the Plumbers’ Ball: Mr. and Mrs. Closet, and their son, Walter Closet.”

Series 1 Programme 1, 11th and 13th April 1972:
Series 1 Programme 2, 18th and 20th April 1972:
Series 1 Programme 3, 25th and 27th April 1972:
Series 1 Programme 4, 2nd and 4th May 1972: 

Friday 1 March 2024

School Woodwork

New Month Old Post: first posted 1st April 2018.
The practically skilled will mock the mess I made. If I could do it again now, I think I would have the patience to make a decent job of it. At school, I didn’t care enough.

The room smelt of sandpaper, sawdust and lacquer. It housed eight workbenches: the solid wooden kind with shoulders at the sides, tool cupboards underneath and a vice at each corner. And in our tough new carpenters’ aprons: loops around necks, strings tied at the back, deep pockets at the front, we really looked the business.
With that pencil-behind-ear can-do competence that only real woodworkers possess, Tacky Illingworth showed us how to shape a piece of wood into a ship’s hull by pointing the bow and rounding the stern, how to chisel out a couple of recesses in the top to leave a bridge, fo’c’s’le and fore and aft decks, and how to attach dowel masts and a funnel, simpler than but not dissimilar to the model in the picture. Mine was awful: irregular, lob-sided, gouge marks and splinters where it should have been flush-flat smooth. At the end of the year I didn’t bother to take it home. I think we made them only because it involved a variety of tools and techniques, rather than for any functional purpose.

I did learn to love the beautiful, age-old tools though: the tenon saw with its stiffened back, the smoothing plane, the spokeshave, the carpentry square, the brace and bit, the mallet and woodworkers’ chisels, and best of all, the marking gauge.

How could you guess what a marking gauge is for unless you know? Why does it have a sliding block with a locking screw? What are the spikes for? Why two on one side and one on the other, and why are they moveable? A mystery! I’ve got my own now. I last used it to mark how much to plane off the bottom of a door when we got a new carpet.

After spending the following year in Metalwork, we were allowed to choose which to continue. I returned to the relative peace and safety of woodwork, the lesser of the two evils. We had to decide upon a project, so I went for the ubiquitous book rack in its simplest form: a flat base with two vertical ends and a couple of pieces of dowel for feet. I selected a beautiful plank of mahogany which my parents had to buy, and began to cut out what were supposed to be stopped (half-blind) dovetail joints – visible underneath but not at the ends. It was far too ambitious. At the end of the year the book rack laid unfinished on a shelf in Tacky Illingworth’s stock room, wrapped in a soft cloth. His school report flattered me: “Progress is slow but does work of good quality”. Perhaps I had not yet made the mess it eventually became.

That could have been the end of the story because there were no crafts in subsequent years when ‘O’ levels took priority, but an unexpected change of policy allowed games-averse weaklings to escape to art or crafts instead. Metalwork was no longer on offer. It had been replaced by pottery, which was tempting, but for some bizarre masochistic reason I went for woodwork again. Maybe I refused to be defeated. Tacky Illingworth proudly retrieved my unfinished book rack from his stock room, still in its protective cloth from eighteen months earlier. 

I even finished the thing. I wrote the date on the bottom: April 1966. It’s a real mess of course. At one end I broke through the wall of the ‘pin’ part of the dovetail and had to stick it back in, and the joints were so loose that even glue could not hold them together. Tacky reluctantly allowed me to fix it with screws. It has been on my desk for over fifty years.
I wondered could I find it hiding in old photographs, and yes, here it is in various Leeds and Hull corners of the nineteen-seventies. It still holds one of the same books.

As I said, if I were to make it again today, in the same way with hand tools not machines, it might not be perfect but I like to think it would be better. That would match my other subjects. At the very least I would hope not to break the ends. It probably comes down to patience, and perhaps a bit of care and confidence as well. As someone once said, education is wasted on the young.

Monday 26 February 2024

Proof of the Pi

The proof of the pudding, they say, is in the eating, but what about the proof of the pi?

The ancient Egyptians, the Babylonians, Archimedes and blogger Bob Brague will tell you that we need pi (π) for circle geometry, and that it is roughly 3.14159. Blogger Yorkshire Pudding will also tell you that we need pie, lots of it, but he would be referring to the kind he makes from minced meat topped with mashed potato and baked. Yorkshire Pudding is right. There is no need for mathematical constants and strange symbols. We only need to know that the distance around the circle of a shepherds pie, as near as dammit, is three and one-seventh (22/7) times the distance across. You can use this to ensure you are baking enough for everyone. 

I took for granted what they said about pi at school, without any real understanding. If understanding is the ability to think of the same thing in different ways, and to be able to switch between them, this is my attempt to do that. 

So, this is another mathematical post, like the one in January about the Pythagoras theorem. I wondered whether the same technique could be used to illustrate similar concepts; such as pi.  

Here is a circle of 14 units across, zoomed in on the top right-hand quarter to make it easier to see and count. The quarter-circle is 7 units high, and it takes 11 units to go around its edge. So to go all the way round the full circle would take 44 units, which is three and one-seventh times the distance across the whole circle (14 x 22/7 = 44). 

Does it also work for area? Can it show that the area of a circle is three and one seventh times the area of a square fitted from the centre to the edge (American: Area = πr2)

Here is the circle again, with a square drawn from the centre to the edge, zoomed in on one quarter. 

If the square is divided into a 7 by 7 grid of 49 smaller squares, then most of the smaller squares are inside the circle, but some are outside. Of those outside, some are complete squares while others are part-squares. Counting them, I reckon that a total equivalent of around 10½ smaller squared are outside the circle, leaving 38½ inside. I have tried to show how I counted 10½ by putting numbers on the quarter-circle. Those with the same numbers make up one square. 

Multiplying this by 4, it would need 154 (38½ x 4) of the smaller squares to completely fill the full circle. This is equal to three and one-seventh times the 49 in the square on the radius (49 x 22/7 = 154). 

To prove this visually, I used three larger squares to cover three-quarters of the circle. Then I moved the parts that were outside the circle (shown in grey) into the fourth quarter. So far, in all, this has used 3 larger squares, a total of 147 smaller squares. 

But it does not quite cover all the fourth quarter of the circle. We need an extra 7 smaller squares (shown in yellow), in other words, one-seventh of a larger square.  

So, the area of a circle is equal to three and one-seventh times that of a square drawn from the centre to the edge. (Area = πr2)

Arithmetically, it takes 38½ smaller squares to fill the fourth quarter, but there are only 3 x 10½, or 31½, available to move. We are 7 short. 

I get it. At least I think I do. 

Thursday 22 February 2024

Hand Signals and Semaphor Indicators

Amongst the audiotapes I mentioned towards the end of last year, is one recorded by my aunt and cousins in the early nineteen-sixties. My uncle had taken a job in Germany, but they had yet to join him. They mention near the beginning that I had brought my recording machine so they could wish him a happy birthday. My own thirteen-year-old voice is heard briefly at the end of the tape, but the less said about that, the better.

What forgotten memories it brings back!  

After the usual birthday song, they talk about what they have been doing. My youngest cousin says: “Here is a song we learnt at school”, and begins to sing:

Sides together right,
Sides together left,
Sides together right left,
Sides together both.

We did that one in my year too. It was a dance in which you moved your arms about like a boy scout semaphore signaller. It then moves on to your toes: “Sides together point, sides together point ...”. Dear Miss Cowling: how you loved to join in. Remind me how to point both toes at the same time.

Then my aunt mentions she is about to take her driving test. Our town was a great place for it. It is completely flat with no hills. To test your hill start, you either did your three-point turn on a street with a particularly high camber, or went through a T-junction where the road rises a few inches due to the spoil dug out from the docks. There were also no traffic lights, no roundabouts, and only one zebra crossing. It limited what you could fail on. A few years later, I passed first time, four months after my seventeenth birthday. The test centre there closed years ago.

Even so, my aunt was anxious about the test. She took it in a Fiat 600 shipped back from a previous overseas stint in Aden. The Fiat was fine there, but a bit tinny and unsuited to the Yorkshire weather. There was always something wrong with it.

Things did not begin well. She told the story many times. To say she was a nervous driver, lacking in confidence, would be understatement. The examiner made no attempt to put her at ease, staring blank-faced ahead throughout, giving strict instructions in a stern voice. 

In those days, you had to be able to use hand signals. Remember those? Sides together right for a right turn, a kind of circling movement for left, and a wave like a sea gull to slow down. There were also special signals for white-gloved policemen on point duty. It was not easy through the tiny windows of the Fiat, especially if it was throwing it down with rain. The longer it went on, the surer my aunt became that she had failed.

It was a relief to finish the hand signals and be allowed to use the electronic indicators. However, the Fiat did not have the modern self-cancelling flashing lights we have now. They were the old semaphore type. A little orange-tipped arm, about six inches long, flipped out from the side of the wing. You had to remember to put it back in again after you had turned.

So when one of the semaphore indicators flipped out but refused to flip back in again, my aunt lost all remaining hope of success. She pulled up, got out, and tried to push it back in by hand, but it was firmly stuck.  

“Well, that’s it now,” she sighed hopelessly. “I’ve failed. Drive me back to the test centre and I can go home.”

The examiner was stolidly unsympathetic.  

“Get back in woman,” he barked.

She meekly did as told and completed the rest of the test using hand signals.

When they got back, my aunt answered the obligatory questions about road signs, braking distances, and the Highway Code, certain it was futile. The examiner completed his paperwork in stony silence.

“I am pleased to inform you that you have passed,” he announced. He had to repeat it.

“Thank you. Oh thank you,” she stuttered in disbelief. “I promise I won’t let you down.” 

1957 Fiat 600

Thursday 15 February 2024


What a title to grab attention! I wonder what the hit rate will be. However, those here for salacious reasons (you know who you are) may be disappointed. This is not what you are looking for. It is about embarrassing side-effects of the Tepotinib medicine I take. 

And they truly can be embarrassing. It messes with your proteins and hormones to strange effect. In an earlier post I mentioned scrotal oedema (14th November). It has you rolling round like a bow-legged sailor. Fortunately, this has now subsided and I can go back to sea; well, walk around the village and do the gardening, at least.

But there is a still more embarrassing side-effect, which I would not be mentioning at all had it not been sorted: gynaecomastia. It translates from the Greek as “female breast”: man boobs.

I am not talking about a bit too much flab and fat in the chest department (you also know who you are; we think we do too), but something more uncomfortable. It took a month or two to pluck up the courage to tell the consultant I was a little sore around the nipples. A month later it was becoming painful. A hug from my wife had me crying out, and bumping against a door frame made me writhe in agony. I don’t know how you women manage. Breast feeding must be a nightmare. There were hard circular lumps under the skin and they were growing bigger. I began to worry it might show.

The consultant said it was not something he had come across with Tepotinib, but he did an additional blood test. My testosterone levels were right down. Both men and women produce testosterone and oestrogen in different proportions. My testosterone was around the female level.

Four months and four jabs in the bum later, I am relieved to report that it has gone completely. The jabs could have been at shorter intervals, but I went for a more careful approach.  I didn’t want to start acting like Rambo.

No further jabs needed. I now have a gel you rub on - no, not there - you rub it on your shoulders. 

“Testogel”, would you believe? Two pumps per day. Phwoar! 

You have to wash your hands thoroughly afterwards, and on first use prime the pump and dispose of what comes out. Quite a bit goes down the sink. I suppose somewhere there is a fish with a beard and a deep voice.

Thursday 8 February 2024

Snowing Like Buggery

Heavy snow was forecast today, with a weather warning for our part of the Pennines, but it was nothing compared to how things used to be.

The guinea pigs snowbound in their hutch at the end of the garden, 2013

Wednesday, 25th January, 1995. It started to snow at half past four in the afternoon, much earlier than forecast, and much more heavily. I was at work at the university, feet on desk, on the phone to someone in Newcastle. Big heavy flakes, like dinner plates some would say, reflected the office light back in through the window. I should have got out straight away. When I did, it was chaos in the car park. Any later and I would have had to spend the night in the sports hall. 

All over Yorkshire, people were trapped overnight at work, on trains, in churches and town halls, and in cars on the M62. Six people died trying to walk home. The audience at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds were forced to stay the night. They had been to see ‘The Winter Guest’, a play about a community cut-off during a blizzard. Realism at its utmost.

My wife, J, was six months pregnant, her last week at work before maternity leave. She worked seventeen miles away. How was she coping? No mobile phones in those days.

It took me two hours to do three miles. The traffic inched forward with longer and longer standstills. The road then steepened and the next few hundred yards took another hour. I turned round and went back to a pub car park, had a whisky and some crisps, and started to walk home.  

I crunched my way through the countryside under crystal-clear stars, along the middle of a now silent road. There were a few other walkers, all cheery and excitable, and a lot of abandoned cars. Where was J? Was she back already? There had been no answer when I phoned from the pub.

The house was in darkness. No messages. I waited up for a time. It seemed best to get some sleep, so I went to bed.

I was awoken by her scathing voice. Her car was outside in the middle of the street, deep tracks through pristine snow. It’s an interesting experience, shovelling two feet of snow off your drive at three in the morning.

It had taken her nine hours to get home. Apart from stopping for petrol and a bar of chocolate, she had simply kept going. She knew she couldn’t get out and walk. On getting stuck, she just went backwards and forwards wiggling the wheels until free. She was rather pleased with herself, the only car still on the road.

The snow melted quickly and we were able to rescue my car the following afternoon. 

Early the following week, it happened again. In no way was the university management going to be caught napping again.

This time I was helping to invigilate an exam for a hundred and fifty students. We were in a windowless, sports hall half a mile from the main campus. I had accompanied a student to the toilet (fortunately, they were still capable of removing and replacing their own pants in those days) when someone came to tell us we had an urgent phone call. Gary, one of the other invigilators, went to take it.

“Evidently it’s snowing like buggery* outside,” he whispered to us. “The examinations office say the university is about to be closed and we should all piss off home quick” (don’t ever think that university professors are urbane and well-spoken all the time).

I wasn’t too happy. It meant we would need to set another exam, and the students would have to prepare for it and retake at a later date. We whispered between ourselves and decided to tell the students how things stood. Gary made an eloquent announcement offering them the opportunity to leave early. None did.

Afterwards, we were supposed to be collected along with the examination scripts by university transport, but none came. We had to struggle back on foot. The university was locked up and abandoned. Even the security staff had gone home. We could not get into our offices. We walked to the car park and put the scripts in my car. I began the drive home.  

If anything, it was worse than the first time. The traffic was even slower and more halting, and I could see I was going to get stuck again. I had the bright idea of diverting by one of the back roads. Wrong decision!

Half way home there is a steep, down and up dip. I slid to the bottom and that was it. Car stuck in the middle of nowhere, boot full of students’ examination scripts. It was going to be hard enough to walk the rest of the way without having to carry the scripts as well. So, I abandoned them. I wasn’t going to spend all night in the car.

There it stayed for two days. What would have become of me had the car been broken into and scripts full of data flow diagrams and entity life histories scattered across the countryside? I suppose it would not have been the first time that examination papers have been lost. It must have happened at some time, somewhere. Or has it? 

Road near our house, 2013

 * a colourful expression I had not heard since childhood, meaning "a lot".

Monday 5 February 2024

Hand Warmer

This solid-fuel pocket hand warmer has been at the back of a drawer, unused for forty years. I thought it was something from the past, but surprisingly you can still buy them. I bought mine around 1973. 

It consists of a small insulated metal case that fits in the palm of your hand and burns solid carbon fuel rods. They were mainly for climbers but I used it on wild camping trips in the Scottish Highlands when it was cold enough to freeze water inside the tent. It warns not to use it in bed, but I did. It was great for warming up your toes at the end of your sleeping bag. I could have died of carbon monoxide poisoning. 

I fired it up for one last time.

These days you can buy chemical hand warmers small enough to fit in a glove or sock. They look like tea bags. Apparently, they are not that warm and don't last very long. Mine gets quite warm and lasts all night. The only trouble is it makes you smell like you have been standing on a railway bridge above the funnel of a steam engine.

It's too nice to throw away. I'll put it back in the drawer for someone else to deal with. The kids won't use it. They are scared of matches. 

Upper Glen Nevis, 1975

Thursday 1 February 2024

Brendan and the Shared House

New Month Old Post: first posted 3rd February, 2019. (Not that old, but few current followers will have seen it).

Ghana 1970s aerogram with additional stamp

I always assumed we would see each other again one day. We would go to the pub and get pissed and laugh about the people and the good times in the shared houses in Leeds. But it was not to be.

We would remember Ron, the guy who never stopped talking, notorious for ‘ronopolising’ the conversation with his mind-numbing ‘ronologues’ which always began “Did I tell you about the time I …”, and if you had ever been somewhere, done something or seen something, he had always been somewhere, done something or seen something better. He used to leave his towel draped over the hot water cylinder in the bathroom and it stank. He never washed it. You would think a hospital bacteriology technician would have been worried about bugs.

And Pete, who gassed the place out with the peculiar aromatic smell of Holland House pipe tobacco. He smoked even when it was his turn to cook, speckling the plates with ash. He once accidentally tipped the thing over my food and instead of being sorry just laughed and got on with his own unconcerned. Anyone would think he owned the place. Actually, he did. He was always asking “Can I trouble you gentlemen for some rent please?”

Then there was Nick, who could swear like only someone from the back streets of Manchester could, and Larry who made himself dainty little jellies and custards every Monday and lined them up uncovered on the kitchen table for several days (we had no fridge). And Roger, the Ph.D. student with his clever cryptic comebacks, and Paul with the outrageous ginger beard and silly Lancashire accent. And Gavin who was so well organised you had to make an appointment three weeks in advance just to ask him something. And Dave, the Geordie, who did an animated rendition of The Lampton Worm, and was on holiday when the electoral register form came, so we put his middle name down as Aloysius.

And who could forget ‘Pervy Pete’, the television rent collector, who came each month to empty the coin box, greeted us “hello mensies”, and lingered uninvited to take an unseemly interest in which bedrooms we slept? That television always ran out of money right in the middle of Monty Python or just before a punchline in Jokers Wild.

The others came and went, but Brendan and I stayed longest. We were from ordinary Yorkshire backgrounds, shared the same sense of humour and had under-achieved our ‘A’ Levels. Brendan was the liveliest among us, and the best looking. In his long Afghan coat, with his smooth young face and long centrally-parted hair, the kids in the street called him “that lad who looks like David Cassidy.” He made us laugh with his silly puns and deliberate misunderstandings. He could play guitar better than me and instantly put chords to almost any song at all. He could throw a lighted cigarette in the air and catch it the right way round in his mouth. He had an impossibly beautiful girl friend who was training to be a doctor.

We were both desperate to escape our mundane jobs, me from an accountants’ office and Brendan from a veterinary laboratory, and did so around the same time in 1977, me to university and Brendan on Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). He dreamed of some idyllic tropical paradise where nubile young girls danced to the drum-beat naked in the twilight, and was dismayed to be sent to sub-Saharan Africa, to an isolated rural village in Northern Ghana called Pong-Tamale, around 400 miles from the coast. It was not even much of a change of job: he went to run a laboratory in a veterinary college.

Pong-Tamale in 2010 (click to play)
In those days, people still wrote letters, and I looked forward to his aerograms dropping through the letterbox with their exotic stamps and tales of distant Africa. Things were not easy. It was oppressively hot. He suffered tropical ailments and diseases. They were short of supplies and equipment. He asked to be sent books as there was little to read and no television, not that they always had electricity to run one.

Yet, after an initial term of eighteen months, he decided to stay. He found a salaried post for three years with the Overseas Development Ministry in the city of Kumasi, about two hundred and fifty miles to the south. Then, after a year back in England, he found a post at Mtwara in Tanzania, and then another at Morogoro. It sounded like a television wildlife documentary: horses, Land Rovers, lions, zebras, and trekking in the Ngorongoro highlands.

I saw him a couple of times over these years during his brief visits home. He was now married with children, and I was busy with my life too. Letters became less frequent. He suggested I visit them in East Africa but it was never the right time.

Then we lost touch. We both moved within a short space of time and I no longer had his address. Due to a downturn in the property market, we rented out my wife’s house where we had been living, and it was ten years before we finally sold it. In emptying it we came across various papers stuffed at the back of a cupboard by tenants, including a ten year old unopened letter from Brendan.

Replying after ten years seemed pointless. Perhaps I should have tried to find him, but didn’t. Did I fear the collision of past and present? We had surely both moved on.

But, it was already too late, as I distressingly discovered yet another decade later. Out of pure curiosity, I typed his distinctive name into a genealogy web site and was shaken to find a record of his death in 2001. It took more time to find what had happened. They had returned permanently to England in the nineteen-nineties, and Brendan had died suddenly of a massive heart attack at the age of 49. He had been living less than ten miles away. All that time ago, and I had no idea.

We’ll never have that drink now.

Thursday 25 January 2024

Hartlepool, 1963

There are some surprising treasures in the depths of the BBC iPlayer.

In 1962/63, Jack Ashley, then a television producer but later a well-known Labour M.P. and campaigner for disability rights, made a 45-minute film, ‘Waiting for Work’, about unemployment in Hartlepool in the North of England (made before he became totally deaf).

The film could have been from my own childhood: the people, the homes and their contents, the shops, the pubs, the shipyard. Where I am from did not suffer mass unemployment as early as Hartlepool, but here were the same kind of lives I grew up with. Although my father would have been considered white-collar rather than blue, and later ran his own business, this is definitely the kind if background I came from. A real glimpse of a once familiar past.

The film is here (, but as most will not want to sit through 45 minutes, and the iPlayer is not available outside the U.K., here are some screen-shots, probably far too many.  (Update: links to YouTube copy added at end)
There was still work to be had

but the shipyards are silent
and many are on the dole.
Out-of-work men are embarrassed to have to look after the children
and do the housework while their wives are at work. The children don’t like it.
Jack Ashley interviewed families about how unemployment affected them.
Pubs were still busy,
as was the High Street,
but many families were struggling.
Shopkeepers talked of decreased trade,
even the newsagents and hairdressers.
Luxury goods were hard to sell
and the second-hand shops had more sellers than buyers.

A few of those interviewed had been able to find work in the south of England, but those that owned houses in Hartlepool were unable to sell, and many did not want to leave the community of their parents, relatives and friends.

Like most of northern Britain, this was still a mare-orientated monoculture. Few women appear in the film and there are no persons of colour. It would inform today’s woke young things why some older people have the views and language they do, especially the part where unemployed young men (most then left school at 15) talk about how their lives are limited by lack of money. They cannot afford to go to the pictures (cinema) or buy records:

“You have to cut down on all your things ... you can’t be expected to enjoy yourself when you’re on the dole ... it’s very rare I go out with a girl now ... when you take them out you ... have to pay for everything ... you can’t get far with fifteen shillings ... you can’t expect to take them out ”

“Do the girls ever offer to pay for you?”

“They offer, but it’s more or less accepting charity.”

The whole way of life would now be dismissed as unenlightened, and inferior to cultures that have replaced it. 

Some of us were lucky, the beneficiaries of grammar school education, first-rate universities without fees, and student grants so generous that some even managed to save money. Most were not so lucky. I wonder what became of the people in the film. 


Update: for those who cannot see iPlayer, the film may be visible (with sub-titles) on YouTube in three segments:
Part 1:
Part 2:
Part 3: