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Wednesday 31 December 2014

Reviews - Alan Johnson: This Boy and Mr. Postman

Alan Johnson
This Boy: A Memoir of Childhood (4*)
Please, Mr. Postman: a Memoir (3*)

Alan Johnson is well-known as a politician but his memoirs are more social than political, and rather good. I wish we could be confident that someone from his ordinary and actually rather deprived background could still achieve similar things today.

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

Previous book reviews 

Reviews - L. P. Hartley: The Go-Between and Graeme Simsion: The Rosie Project

L. P. Hartley
The Go-Between (5*)
Graeme Simsion
The Rosie Project (4*)

Leslie Poles Hartley's The Go-Between is the novel that begins with the well known line "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

One might imagine that I identify with the teller of the story, a man in his mid-sixties who remembers a particular summer in his childhood that had a profoundly damaging effect upon the rest of his life, but thankfully I don't consider myself to be very much like him at all. It's an impressive book though.

Actually I identify far more closely with the protagonist of Graeme Simsion's highly amusing book, The Rosie Project, because I am pretty sure I fall somewhere well along the same psychological spectrum, as you might guess from my obsession with objects and details.

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

Previous book reviews 

Wednesday 24 December 2014

Reel-to-Reel Recordings

Dad turns to the microphone on the mantlepiece, clears his throat and adopts a suitable air of gravitas. 

I will now read some of my favourite poems,” he says in his most dignified voice. The sound of muted giggling emanates from me and my brother sitting on the floor next to the tape recorder.

“Ernest Dowson’s Vitae Summa Brevis,” he announces.

The noises in the background become audible whispers.

“What’s he on about?”

“He says Ernest Dowson had some Ryvita for his breakfast.” More snorting and sniggering. Dad continues.

“They are not long, ...”

“What aren’t? Is our Sooty’s tail not long?”

“... the weeping and the laughter, Love and desire and hate:”

The disruption intensifies as my mother bangs on the window and shouts something muffled from the yard outside. Dad struggles to keep going.

“I think they have no portion in us ...”

My mother enters the room and interrupts loudly.

“When I tell you your dinner’s ready, it’s ready, and you come straight away.”

The recording ends.

Would Dowson’s melancholy poetry and vivid phrases ever have emerged from out of his misty dream had he married and had such an unsupportive, philistine family?

Christmas 1962 – an unbelievable fifty-two years ago – was when my dad came into some money and bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder. It was really for the whole family, but as I was the only one who knew how it worked it was effectively mine, my parents being too old to understand such modern technology and my brother too young to be trusted with it. The next door neighbour was appalled at the idea of such an extravagant present for a twelve year old. Her eyebrows must have shot even further through the ceiling a month or so later when the new car arrived. As I said, my dad had inherited a useful sum of money.

The Philips EL 3541, as the YouTube video shows, was beautifully designed and built, part of the last triumphant surge of valve-based electronics before the transistor revolution. In contrasting greys and white, preceding the stark ubiquity of brushed aluminium, the case and controls had pleasantly curved profiles. The main buttons were smooth and soft, but clunked and clicked with a satisfyingly businesslike sound. The whole thing felt substantial and robust, with a reassuringly heavy-duty carrying strap. It looked a bit like a wide, trustworthy face with large eyes and beautiful white teeth.

People are beginning to re-discover that using and owning physical objects like tape machines and vinyl records can have value, a sensory quality you don’t get with digital downloads. Why did we ever throw these things away?

Philips reel to reel tape recorder EL 3541

This particular model was a four track machine, which means it could make four separate recordings on each reel of tape, two in each direction. The machine is shown with five inch reels (13cm) which typically held nine hundred feet (270m) of tape, but it could accommodate up to seven inch reels (18cm) holding eighteen hundred feet (540m). Tapes ran at a speed of three and three quarter inches per second (9.5 cm/sec)* which means that a five inch tape ran for around forty-five minutes and a seven inch tape around ninety minutes. So using four tracks, you could record for up to three hours on a five inch tape, and six hours on a seven inch tape, although you did have to turn over and re-thread tapes manually at the end of each track. A seven inch tape could therefore hold the equivalent of eight long playing (LP) records or albums, provided they weren’t excessively long, which they weren’t before the late nineteen-sixties.

Just to complicate things a little more, these numbers are for ‘long play’ tapes. You could also get ‘double play’ (2,400 feet on a 7 inch reel) and ‘triple play’ (3,600 feet on a 7 inch reel) but these were thinner and prone to breaking or stretching, so I avoided them. There were also thicker ‘standard play’ tapes, and five and three quarter inch reels as well, but the boxes always showed the tape length so it wasn’t as confusing as it sounds. Most of my tapes were Long Play five or seven inch reels. Believe it or not, I still have them, some from 1962 and 1963.

Some of the earliest recordings picked up a high pitched whistle through the microphone. Later I used to remove the backs from the television and record player to connect wires to the loudspeaker terminals. It got rid of the whistle but it could so easily have got rid of me as well.

The earliest recording I have is still on the five inch tape that came with the machine, from the Light Programme at four o’clock on the 30th December, 1962, ‘Pick of the 1962 Pops’ – “David Jacobs plays some of the hit records from the past twelve months**.” It starts off with Frankie Vaughan’s ‘Tower of Strength’, which had been number one in December, 1961, and then runs through a further twenty-three top three singles of 1962, ending with Elvis Presley’s ‘Return to Sender’. There are plenty of solo singers but not a British pop group among them. It was only a month or two before the end of that year that I’d first heard of the Beatles when ‘Love Me Do’ came on 208 Radio Luxembourg late one night on my transistor radio underneath the bedclothes.

I recorded the corresponding shows for 1963, 1964 and 1965, and for 1966 to 1969 the ‘Top of the Pops’ year end shows from television (audio only)**. This was a period when the old guard of solo singers such as Cliff Richard, Elvis Presley and Frank Ifield appeared less and less in the charts, displaced by emerging new groups like Jerry and the Pacemakers, The Searchers and of course The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. In 1964 the top spot was almost entirely British, Roy Orbison being the only exception.

The Hits of the Animals, Georgie Fame Sweet Things

I owned only two actual LP records myself, ‘The Hits of the Animals’ (an export version bought in Belgium) and Georgie Fame’s ‘Sweet Things’, but built up a considerable collection of recordings by exchange borrowing with friends. It included Donovan, Manfred Mann, Sandie Shaw, Jim Reeves, and the early Beatles and Rolling Stones LPs, although I later erased most of them by over-recording with music borrowed from the magnificent collection at Leeds Public Library.

I began to develop an interest in classical music. A friend’s elder brother had gone off to university leaving his record collection unattended in their front room. Attracted first by the sumptuous excitement of George Gershwin’s ‘An American in Paris’ and ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, I sampled the rest of the collection, such as the Beethoven symphonies and Mozart’s ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’. They all went on my tapes. I don’t think my friend’s brother ever knew. Thanks Mike!

On one tape there are early recordings of broadcast comedy shows: the Christmas ‘I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again’ from 1970; the first four programmes ever of ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ from 1972** which were for many years lost to the B.B.C and possibly still are; and audio recordings of early ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ from television. By then I was living in a shared house in Leeds where one of our favourite diversions was transcribing the Python scripts and acting them out. 

Like snowy pictures on old videotape, the sound quality has not always lasted well. Perhaps with music this doesn’t really matter as you can always replace it, digitally re-mastered with a clarity that far exceeds the original, and usually in stereo rather than the earlier mono.

But you cannot replace the evocative social and family moments that were captured. Despite surviving in only thin and feeble form, they are irreplaceable beyond value.

At a friend’s house a group of us believed ourselves worthy rivals to the likes of comedians John Cleese, Tim Brooke Taylor and Bill Oddie. We wrote and recorded our own biblically themed comedy, ‘The Old Testacles’, most of it unrepeatable because of scurrilous allusions to countless teachers and pupils then at school, and of course the relentless uninhibited adolescent filth.

But the family moments remain the most poignant, like my grandma feeding my baby cousin on her knee, speaking in a village accent fashioned and formed before the First War:  

“Shout o’Sooty. You shout. What does Sooty say? ’Ere y’are. He du’n’t say ’ere y’are. Who’s go’r all t’butter? Yer gre-ased up aren’t yer? Oh heck! Eat it up nice. Yes you eat that up. Yer can’t come up, me shirt buttons‘ll be runnin’ all ove’ we-re n’t the’? Deary me to dae!”

Most precious of all are my dad’s unselfconscious performances. Because his grandad had been a sea captain, he claimed an inherited, natural aptitude in the delivery and interpretation of sea shanties. He announces the well-known windlass and capstan shanty, ‘Bound for the Rio Grande’, and begins to sing:   

“I’ll sing you a song of the fish of the sea...” followed by a hesitant pause, followed by complete breakdown into helpless uncontrollable laughter.

I am on these tapes too, embarrassing in my unbroken voice and long gone local accent, as my dad begins another poem:

“Miss J. Hunter Dunn. Miss J. Hunter Dunn. Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun...”

As before, my brother and I whisper to each other in the background.

“It’s about Miss J. Hunter’s bum.”

Again we all collapse into irrepressible laughter and my dad is unable to continue further.


* In comparison, cassette tapes, which became successful from the late nineteen-sixties, ran at one and seven eighth inches per second. They had to go slower because they were so short. However, the slower the recording speed the poorer the recording quality, which meant that cassettes were prone to distortion and background noise which had to be corrected by electronic sticking plaster such as the Dolby noise reduction system.  But cassettes were so compact and convenient to handle that they soon supplanted reel-to-reel and the rival but troublesome tape cartridge system which emerged around the same time as cassettes. 

** It would be a shame if these recordings were lost for ever so I have digitised them, put them on YouTube with private access (you can only hear them if you have the URLs) and linked them below. 
There are problems with the Pick/Top of the Pops programmes because nearly all the music has copyright restrictions. In any case, many items were cut short at the time of recording, generally not very well, and one or two were even omitted in order to fit one hour programmes on to 45 minute tapes. The sound quality has also not lasted well. But here is a list of what there is.
  • Pick of the 1962 Pops presented by David Jacobs on The Light Programme, 30th December 1962 at 4.00 p.m.
  • Pick of the Pops 1963 (presenter unknown but it might be Don Moss)
    Pick of the Pops 1964 presented by Alan Freeman on The Light Programme, 20th December 1964 at 5.00 p.m.
  • Pick of the Pops 1965 presented by Alan Freeman on The Light Programme, 26th December 1964 at 4.00 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1966 Part 1 BBC1 26th December 1966 at 6.15 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1966 Part 2 BBC1 27th December 1966 at 6.17 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1967 Part 1 BBC1 25th December 1967 at 2.05 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1967 Part 2 BBC1 26th December 1967 at 5.25 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1968 Part 1 BBC1 25th December 1968 at 1.25 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1968 Part 2 BBC1 26th December 1968 at 6.35 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1969 Part 1 BBC1 25th December 1969 at 2.15 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1969 Part 2 BBC1 26th December 1969 at 6.20 p.m.  

Tuesday 9 December 2014

Monday 1 December 2014

Reviews - Robert Louis Stevenson: Treasure Island and Andrew Motion: Silver

Robert Louis Stevenson
Treasure Island (4*)
Andrew Motion
Silver: Return to Treasure Island (3*)

I read these while putting together the 'Talk Like A Pirate' post.

Despite being published in the 1880s, Treasure Island remains an exciting read.

Andrew Motion has written a worthy sequel - the first half is impressive with the kind of suspense, imagery and mastery of language you would expect from a Poet Laureate, but the story gets a bit tangled up in itself during the second half.

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

Friday 21 November 2014

Adsense, Blogger and YouTube



April 2022 - I have now removed ads from this blog
April 2024 - I removed the custom domain and reverted to to prevent the blog becoming inaccessible when the domain expires


(An off-topic post) The trials and tribulations of enabling Adsense ads on both YouTube and Blogger.

Summary: This describes how I enabled my blog for AdSense when already showing ads on YouTube - something others seem to have had difficulty with. It required registering my own top level domain because you can't use an AdSense account created with YouTube for hosted Blogger blogs. The post is off-topic as far as the blog goes, but the tale may be helpful to other bloggers. Apologies to regular Yorkshire Memories readers, but at least the ads might earn me a bit of pocket money.

*                   *                  *

I enabled AdSense on my two YouTube channels in August 2014. I wish I’d enabled it sooner considering I’ve had nearly 400,000 views over several years.

I also started this Blogger blog in August 2014 with the aim of linking it to AdSense. However, for the first three months the “Sign up for AdSense” button in the Earnings section was greyed out. Reading various forums, it seemed I might need to wait until the blog was 6 months old with perhaps as many as 40 posts before my blog would be eligible (I found Get Google Adsense Approval! 7 Things to Do That Really Work very helpful, despite it being more oriented to WordPress than Blogger).

I was therefore pleased to find the “Sign up for AdSense” button became active after just 3 months (exactly to the day) and only 12 posts. This may surprise some people who have been waiting for longer. It may be significant that (1) I am in the UK and (2) all my posts are very nearly text-only with between 1000 and 2000 words per post. 

Blogger and Adsense

Another problem was that when the “Sign up for AdSense” button first seemed to be active, it actually wasn’t. All that happened on clicking it was that a “Loading” message appeared briefly and then nothing else. Forums indicated this was a fault that was being corrected. After a few days it worked properly, and took me to the next screen.

Blogger and Adsense 

As I already had an AdSense account created from YouTube, I used my Google account sign in. After this my Blogger Earnings page provided a link to my AdSense dashboard.

Blogger and Adsense 

When “Show ads on blog” was set to “Yes”, then the “About Me” panel on my blog moved down to leave a blank space where the sidebar ad would go, and there was another space between the first two posts for another ad.

I thought I’d succeeded but the ads remained blank. I thought I just had to wait for them to activate but after a week they were still blank.

Again referring to the forums, it seems you can no longer place ads on Blogger using an Adsense account that was initially set up with YouTube. This was confirmed by a banner on my AdSense dashboard: 

“Your AdSense account is enabled only to show ads on YouTube. If you want to show ads on a different site, you’ll need to provide us with the URL of the site you want to monetise. You can do this via a one-time application form.”

Blogger and Adsense 

In other words, if the AdSense account was accepted through YouTube you can only use it with YouTube. To use it anywhere else you have to apply for an upgrade but this can only be done with a top level domain name.

Again, looking around the forums, there seemed to be two possible things I could do.

(1) set up a second AdSense account just for Blogger. I have not tried this. It would involve creating a second Google ID, and would mean that any ad earnings from Blogger would go into a different AdSense account from the earnings from YouTube. A second ID would also violate the AdSense terms and conditions. As my earnings will be little enough as it is I want them all to go to the same AdSense account. In fact it’s hardly worth my while at all except for a sense of satisfaction. To be precise, my YouTube channels have earned just £1.41 over three months!

(2) register my own top level domain and assign this to the blog so that instead of a address my blog would have its own address, and then I could apply to upgrade AdSense using the one-time application form.  This is what I decided to do.

I wanted a private domain registration to protect my name and address details. After looking at various options I decided to register through with their free WhoisGuard subscription. It cost me $10.87 (£6.90) for one year’s private registration. It was very easy and became active immediately. If I had not wanted anonymity I could have done it elsewhere for much less than that. I know others have done it for free using a .tk domain.

The next step was to alter my custom domain to redirect to my Blogger blog. This means in effect that my blog has two addresses, (i) and (ii) – it will still be found at both URLs so I don’t have to worry about telling any existing readers of the change.

So in Blogger I went to Settings Basic and select  “Set Up A Third Party URL” and entered under Blog Address.

Blogger and Adsense

I clicked “Set up a third party URL” which produced a field to enter my new domain name and then clicked the Save button.

DONT PANIC! -this immediately produces the following Error 12 message which lists two CNAMES (canonical names used in domain registration): [DO NOT CLICK SAVE AGAIN JUST YET]

Blogger and Adsense 

All this means is that you have to redirect your custom domain name so that it points at your Blogger blog. You have to go to your domain registrar's website and alter the settings by entering the two CNAMES

                                        cfo5........                   gv-ii

Different domain registrars will have different procedures and you may have to search around for instructions and examples. Blogger has a help page for the common ones. In my case I signed in to my Namecheap account and found their useful help page “How do I use my domain with my Blogger account?” showing exactly how to do this and where to enter the two CNAMES (there is a video as well, but not specific to setting up Blogger blogs). In case anyone else opts for Namecheap, here is my completed screen accessed by the “All Host Records” link:

Modify domain CNAMES for Adsense

I only entered the CNAMES - I did not touch the '1800' field or the other fields underneath this section.

Having done this at Namecheap, I returned to Blogger and clicked Save on the screen shown above, which produced the following screen listing the two URLs for my blog. Here I also clicked Edit next to and checked a box which seems to cover the possibility of someone missing the www from the front and typing just I don’t know whether that’s essential because most browsers seem to handle that anyway.

Blogger and Adsense

Success! All seems to work. My blog can be seen at and and and it still works if the www. is omitted as well.  I can also still edit my blog and make new posts by signing in to Blogger with my Google ID in the usual way.

But I'm not finished yet. Now I have to apply to AdSense for approval for my top level domain using the one-time application form. Actually it's just a field you fill in.

Domain and Adsense 

You then get a Thanks for applying screen and have to wait. It also says that “In order for your application to be approved, you must place your ad code on one or more webpages at the URL you entered in your upgrade application. Note that blank ads will be shown until your application is approved.”

Domain and Adsense

Well, ad codes and blank ads were already on my blog because the “Show ads on blog” box on the third screen above was still ticked and there were still blank spaces on the page. I could see these had been set up in the My Ads section of my AdSense account as below. I don’t think you need to do anything else at this point other than wait. However, just to make sure, I did click the +New Ad Unit button and created some new code, which I placed at the end of my blog using Layout – Add a Gadget – HTML/JavaScript on the Blogger menu and copying and pasting the new code into the box that appears. But I doubt you have to do this.

Domain and Adsense 

Some forums say it can take a few days or even a month for the AdSense upgrade to be approved. In fact mine happened within two or three hours. I got the following email, and WOW! as you can see, the ads are on the blog!

Domain and Adsense

I suspect that if I do not want to maintain my custom domain, then after a year I can revert my blog back to being a hosted account, and ads will continue to appear. I have yet to find out.


1. I find that on the AdSense website, the ads for the blog sidebar and between-posts are now listed as status Idle. I think this is because no on has clicked them for a week - well they couldn’t could they because they haven’t been displaying. This is nothing to worry about. They become active again if and when someone clicks them .... later still - they are now showing as active again.

2. I also now find I can generate AdSense code and put it on my free Weebly site. That is now displaying ads too. I just have to wait a few days now to check whether they are showing as impressions on AdSense.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Talk like a pirate

This was re-posted in two parts as New Month Olds Post on 1st January and 1st February 2023.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Home Chemistry and Explosives Precursors

Tasker Dunham’s chemistry set boosted his school science marks, but how easy is home chemistry today?

Without anyone really noticing, new regulations relating to the “supply of explosives precursors” have recently been introduced in Britain. From September, 2014, you need a Home Office licence to buy chemicals that could be used in the illicit manufacture of explosives. From March, 2016, you need a licence simply to possess them. The list includes potassium chlorate, sodium chlorate, hydrogen peroxide and nitric acid. The licence also covers a number of poisons, including mercury, and there is a further secondary list of reportable substances for which any suspicious transactions or thefts must be reported. This includes sulphuric acid, acetone, and ammonium, sodium, calcium and potassium nitrates.

What strikes me most of all about these regulations, is that these are chemicals of interest to the home scientist. I used to have several in my childhood chemistry set. It seems we now need a licence to pursue an innocent educational interest. The licence costs £39.50 and must be renewed every three years. Children under eighteen will only be granted a licence in exceptional circumstances subject to additional conditions requiring adult supervision. See the web site for the official guidance.

Do these regulations really prevent terrorists from making explosives, or do they just make things unnecessarily difficult for innocent members of the public? I would have thought any chemist worthy of the name would easily be able to make or extract any chemical they need from sources such as weed killer, fertiliser, bleach and drain cleaner. It used to be common knowledge that if you wanted to make a bang, you just mixed sugar with weed killer, taking care not to blind yourself or blow your hands off. You can't have your hands sewn back on if you can't pick them up to take them to the hospital.

I have some concentrated acetone in my garage, a half-full nineteen-eighties bottle of nail varnish remover. It was my mother’s, but I kept it because acetone is useful as a solvent for removing sticky marks and so on, and as well as that, it's nice to have a quick sniff now and again. Am I in danger of being arrested for terrorism if I fail to take proper care of it?

Kay Chemistry Set 1960s

My Kay chemistry set was one of the best Christmas presents I ever had. I had drooled over it in the toy shop window for months. It had an array of exciting chemicals in stoppered glass test tubes: blue and green sulphates (sometimes irritatingly now spelt with an ‘f’, which just looks wrong) , purple needles of potassium permanganate, white powders, silver-grey chunks of zinc and glittering grey-brown iron filings. Its apparatus included further test tubes, a teat pipette and a round bottomed flask, together with litmus paper, a plastic funnel and filter papers. There was a stand to keep the test tubes upright, and a device to hold them as they were heated in the flame of a methylated spirit burner standing on a heat-resistant asbestos mat. There was a booklet of experiments, ‘The Wonders of Chemistry, prepared for the young experimenter by an experienced science master.”

The experiments in the booklet were interesting enough to begin with: growing differently shaped crystals from hot saturated solutions as they cooled – most memorably the bright blue diamond gemstones of copper sulphate; turning litmus paper from red to blue in alkalis, and blue to red in acids; mixing brown ‘logwood chips’ with alum to extract a vivid blue-purple natural dye. It was even possible to make small quantities of oxygen, carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas, but not enough to match the fabulous wizardry of some of the things we did in chemistry at school. Let’s face it, you don’t just want a chemistry set to grow crystals and change colours, you want to make invisible ink, smoke bombs, poisons, evil smells and explosions.

F Sherwood Taylor: The Young Chemist

I got hold of a better book, ‘The Young Chemist’ by F. Sherwood Taylor, which is not easy to find these days but my ragged copy remains in my bookcase. It was great. There were new experiments which, the dust jacket claimed, “… can be carried out at home cheaply, easily and without danger.” Looking at the contents now one has to question the absence of danger. There are sections on gases: carbon dioxide, oxygen, ammonia, hydrogen sulphide, chlorine; sections on acids: sulphuric, hydrochloric, nitric; and sections on various other substances: sulphur, caustic soda, iodine. But any nagging concerns were clearly unfounded because, as the dust jacket reassured, “… it [the book] has been ‘vetted’ by the Home Office.”

Most experiments in ‘The Young Chemist’ needed additional equipment - a Bunsen burner and a crucible - and additional chemicals. “Real iodine,” it says to distinguish it from tincture of iodine, “is a black shiny solid. Ordinary chemists stock it, and it costs 2s 4d an ounce. A quarter of an ounce will do for quite a number of experiments.” It seems unlikely that if you walked into your local branch of Boots today and asked for thirty grams of elemental iodine you would be very successful. In America you have to have Drug Enforcement Agency authorisation to buy iodine or its compounds because of its use in the clandestine manufacture of methamphetamines such as ‘crystal meth’.

But in those days, buying chemicals really was as straightforward as the book made out. My dad called at the chemists and came home with bottle of hydrochloric acid, in a hexagonal emerald-green poison bottle. That same bottle, empty, was still on a ledge at the back of his shed when I cleared it out forty years later. We mixed the acid with zinc to produce hydrogen gas which went pop to a match flame held at the mouth of the test tube. ‘The Young Chemist’ goes on to show how to make enough hydrogen to fill a balloon, but I could never get a seal tight enough not to leak.

Safely guided by the book, I made free chlorine gas from hydrochloric acid and bleaching powder. “It is not wise to make any considerable quantity of chlorine,” it warns, “but it is quite safe to make small quantities and use them at once, if care is taken not to let the gas escape.” So I carefully made just a small quantity of the greenish-yellow gas in a test tube, and was curious to know what it really smelled like. Having previously sniffed a tube of ammonia I’d made by heating ammonium carbonate, and lived to tell the tale, I felt sure the warning could be ignored. Maybe if I had reflected on the fact that my fascination with chlorine stemmed from its use as a chemical weapon during the First World War, I might have been a bit more sensible. Even a cautious sniff had me coughing and reeling with a burning pain inside my nose.

The book explains how to ferment glucose and distil alcohol, which it acknowledges as illegal, but “… as long as the alcohol is not drunk or sold it is unlikely that the excise authorities would object.”

Even the humble Bunsen burner had its potential dangers. Nineteen sixties houses had brass gas taps emerging through the floorboards beside the hearth for the purpose of supplying gas through a rubber tube to a free standing gas fire. As mains gas appliances now have to be permanently plumbed in by ‘Gas Safe’ engineers with all the right up-to-date certificates, gas taps and free standing gas fires that burn mains gas must now be illegal. I haven’t seen a domestic gas tap for years, yet all seemed perfectly safe at the time. You simply needed to be aware of the dangers. Everyone knew the fires gave off noxious fumes, caused terrible condensation and were easily knocked over, and that gas taps could be turned on by curious children wanting to know what happens when you fill a room with gas, which in those days was poisonous coal gas rather than the less toxic North Sea gas. So we were very careful. It seemed entirely natural to run a gas supply to my Bunsen burner through a long rubber tube, around ten yards in length, from the gas tap, across the room, out through a partly open window and then a short distance across the yard to my ‘laboratory’ in the shed. What could possibly go wrong?

Bunsen burners mixed gas with air so, unlike methylated spirit burners, they were hot enough to melt glass. ‘The Young Chemist’ shows how to bend tubes and blow glass bulbs. I only burnt myself once.

Today, the book’s claim to be without danger might not stand up litigious scrutiny, and the Home Office would be unlikely to ‘vet’ it so leniently. Perhaps this is why some of the cheaper chemistry sets now, especially for children under twelve, seem particularly feeble compared to sets from the nineteen sixties. Some are so safe they have only plastic test tubes and no glass, substances ‘warmed’ by immersion in hot water because there are no flames, and the biggest deficiency of all, no actual chemicals, or at least nothing you can’t eat. The bleaches and disinfectants under the kitchen sink are more dangerous and more poisonous than the contents of these so-called chemistry sets. Some sets contain only materials such as balloons, clay and starch, with serious warnings to handle them carefully. The largest and most prominent item is often a pair of safety goggles. Woe betide anyone who blows up a balloon without wearing safety goggles!

In America, things are even worse. In some schools, science teachers have to sign out ‘dangerous’ substances like vinegar and baking powder from locked cupboards. This, in a country where guns and ammunition are freely available! You even need a criminal background check to buy laboratory glassware. Coffee machines contain three items that would violate the drugs agency regulations if found in a home laboratory: a filter funnel, a Pyrex beaker and a heating element. There are reports of innocent home chemicals suppliers being raided by police under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, accused of supplying banned substances such as sulphur and potassium nitrate which might be used to make illegal fireworks.

The most expensive chemistry sets now available, costing over £150 (such as Brightminds Chemlab 3000), do still seem to measure up to the old sets in terms of apparatus, but you have to obtain many of the chemicals yourself, especially anything liquid, such as meths for the burner, sodium hydroxide, ammonia solution, hydrochloric acid and silver nitrate solution. The internet now makes these easier to find, but safety and regulation still take precedence over interest. And £150 might be more than most families would be willing to pay, especially if a £39.50 licence is required as well.

It is all a far cry from my school science days, when bottles of sulphuric acid were always on the benches, we rounded up droplets of mercury spilled on the floor by the previous class, and wafted large asbestos mats at each other. One wonders how children are supposed to gain confidence in the handling of hazardous substances and with other risks, when chemistry sets are so bland, ineffectual and uninteresting. I was dismayed to see my own children’s uneasy clumsiness in trying to strike matches to light a candle.

One also has to wonder whether the hands-off passivity of demonstrations, videos and simulations, enthuses as much interest in science as running experiments first hand. My own chemistry set, at least for a time, boosted my school marks, and although in my case these interests later waned, there are many professional scientists who fondly remember how their careers developed out of a passion for carrying out experiments at home. It isn’t right to impose too many restrictions on these things.

Monday 1 September 2014

M Dunham Are Crap

This piece was revised and reposted on 23rd March, 2018, and reposted again as a New Month Old Post on 1st June, 2020.

Saturday 16 August 2014

Colours I See With

Yet another look at Tasker Dunham’s childhood diary

March 15, 1965. Monday. Medical examination at school. Found I was colour blind. Have to go for a test. Also have to have my lugs syringed out.
May 28, 1965. Had my right lug washed out and found I have red/green colour blindness.

I was only three or four, drawing with my crayons at my grandma's house, when I first knew I definitely had a problem. I had drawn a house and some trees, and had just about finished colouring in the grass when Uncle Terence pointed at it.

“What’s that bit?”

“That’s the grass.”

“Why have you made it brown?” I took it to mean I was stupid and started to cry.

“Hold on,” he tried to reassure me. “It’s not too bad. We can make it right.

He shaded over the brown with a green crayon, pressing heavily. “There, it looks all right now.” But it didn’t.

It was not the first time I had got green and brown mixed up. I’d confused them before. To me they looked nearly the same. I had tried not to let on but people kept catching me out. When it came to colours I felt useless.

Later, at school, about seven years old, we were all making a fairground collage to put on the classroom wall. Some other children were busy painting a background of green grass and blue sky on a long piece of paper, while the rest of us were drawing and painting small characters and other objects to paste on to it. I had drawn a little man and, so as not to slice off his arms and legs, had cut around him in smooth curves, giving him his own coloured background to match the collage. Except it didn’t match. Not only that, when I stuck him into place, he looked about half the size he should have been.

“Which idiot put that silly little man there?” snorted Geoffrey Bullard, pointing at it. Everyone looked and sniggered.

“It was Tasker Dunham,” Peter Longthwaite said dismissively.

“Why is 'e stuck in a pile of 'oss muck?” That came from Harvey Gelder whose dad worked on a farm.

“It spoils it,” muttered Wendy Godley, and expertly detached my contribution from the collage, screwed it up, and threw it into the waste paper basket. Everyone seemed in agreement with her. That really wounded me because Wendy Godley was the one person I most wanted to sit next to. She had blonde hair, lots of freckles, an intelligent gaze and could do everything perfectly.

There was little wonder I publicly avoided all situations involving paint, crayons and colours. But there was no escaping the attention of the school nurse, a terrifying woman aptly named Nurse Pratt. After asking me spot the numbers hidden in circles of multicoloured blobs, which I learnt some years later were called Ishihara colour circles, she unfeelingly announced her diagnosis. “You are colour blind,” and put me on a list for further tests at the Bartholomew clinic.

The clinic, in Bartholomew Avenue, was a dreadful place, a square, flat-roofed, single story, unimaginatively designed building in functional Victorian redbrick. It had echoing bare floor and walls, tubular steel and canvas chairs, and a pervasive smell of medical disinfectant undiminished by the relentless flow of freezing fresh air from the always-open doors and windows. Through the years, we had been sent there with fluttering stomachs to queue for injections: polio and diphtheria at junior school, and later the awful BCG tuberculosis jab. It was where the school optician had put stinging atropine drops into my eyes and told my mother I was long sighted and had astigmatism, at which Nurse Pratt had loudly broadcast “You will have to start wearing glasses, and you will have to wear them all the time,” and the other mothers had laughed when I timidly said, “What, even in bed?” It was where Nurse Pratt tested your hearing by going to the other side of the room and whispering “Five five nine”, “Nine five five”, “Five nine five”, what a finely-tuned test that must have been, and then held your testicles and asked you to cough (apparently a hernia test). And it was where, one morning, after a week of squirting slimy oil into my ears, I had them whooshed out with a large syringe of warm water, and then found myself trying to sort pieces of coloured wool into matching pairs, and failing miserably. The shame of it!

Colour blindness is an inherited condition that bears a passing resemblance to a family version of the football pools. If you, your parents, and their parents, all have Xs in the right rows and columns, you get a first dividend. The main difference is that you don’t choose your Xs yourself.

The Xs are X-chromosomes. Women have two of them, one from each parent, and men only one, from their mother. Colour blindness is described as X-linked recessive, meaning that it only manifests itself in the absence of a more dominant unaffected X-chromosome. Because men have only one X-chromosome, then if they get a colour blind one from their mother, they will spend the rest of their lives mistaking grey cars for green, and colouring grass brown. That, at least, is the most common version. There are rarer types in which you can’t tell blue from yellow, or can’t even see colour at all. Actually, this traditional understanding has recently had to be revised in light of findings from the human genome project, which suggests that many different chromosomes, not just the X ones, are capable of causing deficient colour vision to some degree.

I got the colour blind X, as did my brother. We could talk car colours to the bafflement of everyone else. “I really like your green Polo,” except the log book said it was grey. “We'll be in a silver Metro,” except it was metallic green. But we both knew what we meant. Uncle Terence was colour blind too, but had learned ways to cope: how else could he have known I had coloured the grass brown, and try to be so helpful about it? Eventually, I developed coping strategies too. Although I would never have been allowed to become an electrician, I built my own stereophonic record player from a kit, which involved identifying the values of a hundred or so colour-coded resistors. It worked fine. I am all right with traffic lights too, but just in case of problems, red is at the top.

There are some advantages as well. It’s a good excuse for being slow at the pick-your-own fruit farm. Your wife thinks you can’t see the raspberries properly, but in reality your slowness results from a combination of ineptitude and gluttony. Also, some colour blind people can easily spot differences between colour shades indistinguishable to those unaffected - it is said they could easily see through camouflage during the war. Others find you interesting. And you can always play at political correctness.

“What colour does that look to you?”

“I don’t know, what does it look like to you?”

“It must be awful being colour blind.”

“That’s not very nice. I’m not blind.”

“Oh! Sorry … to have a ‘colour deficiency’. ”

“It’s just that my colour vision is not the same as yours.”

Once someone asked me “Tasker, what colours is it that you see with?”

That’s the best way of putting it I’ve come across. I just see with different colours to you.