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Monday 30 November 2015

Review - Colin Thubron: In Siberia

Colin Thubron: In Siberia
Colin Thubron
In Siberia (4*)

The landscape descriptions, second to none, immerse you in this vast frozen, mysterious region (the statistics are beyond belief) and catch the imagination like an alien world. Some parts must be like Britain before civilisation, just after the ice age. Others sound like life after civilisation ends. This account of the author's encounters and places he visits is moving and fascinating, the ways of life often very different, but rather him than me. Perhaps I'm just not a traveller at heart.

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 18 November 2015

Grandad Dunham’s Flight Simulator

Like something from the future, it was the most amazing colour graphics workstation I had ever seen. I had got a job in a university where it was being used to understand complex proteins by constructing and manipulating computer-generated images of the kind of ball and stick molecular models photographed with Watson and Crick in the nineteen-fifties. These models give insights into life at the sub-microscopic level: such as how molecules of oxygen displace molecules of carbon dioxide in haemoglobin. The details are so magically implausible you could come to believe in creationism. One researcher was moved to tears on seeing for the first time an image of part of the antibody she had been working on for the past three years.

Flight Simulators: Elite, Aviator and SGI Dogfight
Flight simulators: Elite and Aviator for the BBC computer,
and SGI Dogfight for the IRIS workstation

It was the nineteen-eighties. The workstation (a Unix-based Silicon Graphics IRIS 2000 if you must know) came with a set of demonstration programs, among them a flight simulator called ‘SGI Dogfight’. Again, it was well in advance of anything any of us had seen before. The best you could have at home at that time, which replicated the dynamics of flight and motion with any reasonable accuracy, were black-and-white wire-frame simulations such as ‘Aviator’ and the space trading game ‘Elite’ published by Acornsoft for the BBC Computer. The IRIS 2000 simulator had coloured graphics and a choice of aircraft including a tiny Cessna, an enormous Boeing-747 Jumbo Jet and a super fast F16 jet fighter. It came nowhere near the lifelike realism of simulators you can buy today, but for the ordinary home user there would be nothing like it for quite a few years. You may now pause for a moment to speculate about the relative amounts of time we spent flying aeroplanes and modelling proteins.

BBC computer game Elite badge

For the first few weeks, I was the only one who could land the Jumbo Jet without crashing. I had not wasted hundreds of hours flying under the ‘Aviator’ suspension bridge and dodging ‘Elite’ police ships for nothing. I was one of the glorious few to have fought my way through to the secret code for my ‘Elite’ badge. What the others did not seem able to grasp – and some of them are now eminent professors – is that the pilot of a Jumbo-Jet sits the equivalent of three storeys up from the ground, so that when you come in to land, assuming you have managed to line up the aircraft with the runway at the right height, distance and speed, which is no easy feat in itself, you are still thirty feet up in the air as you touch down. If you try to land with your seat at ground-level you will be too low, and smash into the runway with terrific force and die.

It all seemed terrifically futuristic. Yet my brother had a flight simulator twenty years earlier in the early nineteen-sixties. You might call it Grandad Dunham’s flight simulator. How could that be possible? That Grandad Dunham was our dad’s grandfather, our great-grandfather, who had died in 1941. He spent the last two years of his life living with his daughter’s family after he woke up one morning to find his second wife dead in bed beside him. When he moved in, his son-in-law carried his chair through the streets of the town on his back.

Grandad Dunham's Chair - Flight Simulator

Here is that very same chair, at least twice refurbished, and exceptionally comfortable it is too. Turned on its back and covered with an eiderdown it makes a wonderful aeroplane cockpit. My brother played in it happily for hours. Sometimes he would let me be his co-pilot. He chalked some controls and instruments underneath the seat. They are still there after more than fifty years.

What makes it particularly poignant is that my brother died at thirty six. The grandchildren he never saw will very soon be the same age he was when he drew those simple chalk marks. They will be able to have all the latest tablets and smart phones, and flight simulators so immersive and realistic they will not be able to tell whether or not they are in a real aeroplane. Who knows how things will be? But one thing I do know. No matter how advanced the technology, even in a hundred years, it will never be one half as much fun as Grandad Dunham’s eiderdown-covered chair with the chalk marks on its upturned seat.

Sunday 1 November 2015

Gram Motherem

How early are our earliest memories?

“I’ve made up a new game to play,” I told Peter Abson in the school playground. “It’s called Gram Motherem.”

It was a bit like tig. If you were ‘it’ you had to chase others and catch them. When you caught someone you hugged them tight and rubbed the front of your body firmly up and down against them while repeating the words “Gram Motherem, Gram Motherem” over and over again. I showed him but he didn’t seem too keen on the idea. Wendy Godley wouldn’t let me show her at all. In fact, she hardly ever spoke to me again after I tried.

I tell you this at risk of being branded some kind of rampant six year-old pervert because I believe it tells us something about our earliest memories.

Psychologists claim we all suffer from infantile or childhood amnesia. They tell us we remember little from before the age of five and nothing from before the age of two. They say that our memories depend upon developing a sense of ‘self’, which only begins around the age of two when we start to respond to our own image in a mirror and use words such as I, me and you. According to the theory, we are unlikely to be able to remember anything before our ‘self’ emerges.

Yet there are people who do insist they have memories from before the age of two. In one study, one man remembered playing with his twin brother who died before that age. But psychologists, whose job it is to doubt such anecdotal claims, question whether such early memories are genuine. It is possible, they say, to experience imaginary memories based upon photographs or what we have been told. We can even have false memories of events and objects that never happened or existed. All these things have been shown to be possible.

Well, I favour the anecdotal evidence. My own early memories are so detailed I have no doubt we can go back before the age of five, and probably before the age of two as well.

I can tell you the names of our neighbours, and their neighbours, in our street of terraced houses where we lived until I was six. I can tell you about the men’s hairdresser on the corner of the cross street across the road. He had pieces of broken bottle glass cemented to the top of his side wall to discourage people from climbing over into the back yard. Clear and brown, green and blue, they glinted like multicoloured gemstones in the sunlight. The world was exciting so long as you were careful.

I can remember that our street had gas lamps. A man with a long pole used to come to turn them on at lighting-up time. Before we moved house they were replaced by electric lights. Birds lined the high electricity cable we could see from the back room window when my dad was getting ready for work. “What time is it?” he would ask, and my mother would say “five past eight” or “ten past eight”, which I would notice was different from the day before.

Nettles and dandelions grew amongst the untidy heaps of rubble in the ‘bomb buildings’ at the end of the street where a Methodist Church had fallen in the war. At the other end of the street was a patch of waste ground where we had bonfires on bonfire nights. Unruly older boys used to shout excitedly as they threw penny bangers at each other and set off jumping crackers to frighten the smaller children. The night before bonfire night was ‘mischief night’, a more menacing forerunner of ‘trick or treat’, when the same rowdy lads would run along the street knocking on all the doors. Sometimes they roped the doors together so that as one opened another slammed shut.

We had an attic where my dad nailed hardboard over the broken banisters so I didn’t fall down the stairwell. We kept the artificial Christmas tree up there through the year, and played with model ships and our Hornby ‘O’ gauge clockwork train set. My dad glued a ‘jetty’ firmly to the floorboards for the toy ships, and when we set out the toy  trains we always had a ‘Grandad Dunham’s siding’.

Downstairs, my mother kept the ration book in the back room in a built-in cupboard beside the chimney breast. Next to this was the wireless – a valve radio with an illuminated panel of station names on the front. On Sunday afternoons my dad used to run a brown fibre-covered cable through to a loudspeaker in the front room to listen to Hancock’s Half Hour. My mum preferred the Light Programme – the Beverley Sisters, Eve Boswell and Alma Cogan.

I played in the garden in my pedal car. It was red with white ‘V’ shaped stripes on the bonnet. I remember my dad repainting them. It was a struggle to pedal up the slight slope on to the lawn. “I’ve got to keep going in case a policeman comes,” I used to tell myself, fearfully. When I pedalled out into the back lane I was wary of the big family of boys who lived at the far end. They all had the same mean podgy round faces and pug noses.

We had an outside toilet where my dad used to hang a paraffin lamp underneath the high cistern to stop it freezing up in winter. At the end of the garden, next to the back lane, each house had an outhouse which I later learned were originally built as pig sties. The next-door-but-one neighbour extended his into a garage for his motorbike. His son pointed to the stack of grey breeze blocks he was using and proudly boasted “My dad can lift a ton of these.” Our own outhouse was the ‘wash house’. It had a fireplace to heat water to pour into a ‘dolly tub’ to wash the clothes with a ‘peggy stick’. Before we moved we bought a square, cream-yellow Ada washing machine with a wringer on top.

Wash House 1950
On the lawn next to the wash house and back gate

I can hear the sceptical psychologists questioning whether these memories really are genuine, no matter how vivid, and if so whether they are truly from before the age of five. Some I can date precisely. Hancock’s Half Hour started in 1954, but I was five and a half before it was broadcast on Sunday afternoons. I was still four when rationing ended. I don’t know when the gas lights were replaced but it should be possible to find out. My knowledge of the pig sties may betray a reconstructed memory – something I must have discussed more recently. Perhaps some of these memories are from the age of four but there is nothing to date them earlier. The psychologists are not convinced. I need to try harder.

What about the 2nd June, 1953, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, when I was three and a half? I can remember that too. At the time my mother used to take me each week by bus to my grandma’s. West Riding buses were green, but in the run up to the coronation they repainted at least one double-decker all over in red, white and blue triangles. It was in service like that for several weeks before and afterwards. I was always excited when we were lucky enough to catch it. “It’s the coronation bus,” I would shout as it approached. On coronation day itself there was a procession around the streets of our town, which I watched with my parents from the front bedroom window as it passed our house. ‘Our’ coronation bus was in the procession.

What about April, 1953, when my uncle left school aged fifteen? Until then he had his ‘dinner’ with us every Tuesday. My mother would give him the money to fetch fish and chips for the three of us from the fish shop in the next street. Or March, 1953, when my mother’s other brother died overseas in a tragic air force accident. I remember him at my grandma’s house, brushing his dark hair back from his distinctive wide forehead. That’s the best I can do – age three.

The psychologists still seem right. They would not dispute the memory of a few things from before the age of five. But what about even earlier impressions, not so clear? Could they disprove their theories?

When I was two I had whooping cough. This is a dangerous illness that lasts up to six weeks and involves severe coughing fits. I don’t remember the coughing at all, but I do remember having a coal fire in my bedroom to keep me warm, and the way the light from the flames flickered around the room. I remember lying drowsily in my cot and being half-woken and attacked by a ‘thing’ which undid my pyjama jacket and rubbed something on my chest. It happened regularly, and it was terrifying. The unmistakeable smell of Vicks Vaporub brings it back. One night, I exaggerated my breathing to seem deep asleep. It worked. When the ‘thing’ visited my room, it waited a short time then left without bothering me.

One afternoon I saw something like a white goose’s neck moving outside the bars of my cot. I screamed and my dad hurried to see what wrong. “There’s a chicken under my cot” I wailed.

“We don’t believe you,” say the psychologists. The bedroom fire images could be from a later time. The ‘chicken under the cot’ incident must have been told, retold and laughed about so many times I am remembering the story not the event.

But surely, private impressions of feelings, fears and subterfuges cannot be dismissed so easily. They are internal. They may have been revised and reconstructed through dreams, but they are still genuine. The Vicks Vaporub memory is a case in point. As is the ‘Gram Motherem’ notion I started with.

‘Gram Motherem’ began as an unpleasant, regularly recurring dream from the earliest times I remember, and continued into my twenties. I am in the back lane outside our gate where long, white flexible tubes hang like tendrils from the wall, like elephants’ trunks but more slender, or like chitterlings but bigger. They writhe like snakes. As I pass, the open ends reach out, twist around me and latch on by suction. They pull me inside diaphanous white layers of material and I can’t escape. They hold me tightly and rub the front of my body while repeating the words “Gram Motherem, Gram Motherem” over and over again.

For decades I had not the slightest inkling of what this strange dream could be, until one day it suddenly dawned on me, after which it went away. I feel sure it is a very early, residual, unclear and indistinct memory of breast feeding.

That would be a very early memory indeed. Perhaps we sometimes retain vague impressions from before the age of two, before we develop our sense of ‘self’. Or perhaps our ‘self’ begins to form sooner than psychologists think.