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Sunday 30 April 2017

Review - H. G. Wells: The World of William Clissold

H. G. Wells: The World of William Clissold
H. G. Wells
The World of William Clissold (3*)

If H. G. Wells had written a blog, it might have been something like The World of William Clissold. It takes the form of a six-book novel, purportedly the story of how William Clissold and his brother Dickon became rich men of influence connected to just about every influential figure from the early twentieth century. However, by far the majority of the novel consists of didactic diversions into a world view, a “Wellsian philosophy”, which encompasses everything from politics to sociology, economics to education, sexuality to psychoanalysis, all pointing towards the development of a new world order, a corporate “open conspiracy” which gives rise to a self-organising, free-market “World Republic” independent of inward-looking national interests. It showcases the progressive ideas of its time, some of which would still be regarded as progressive today. It requires real perseverance to follow it all the way through, which I managed with a struggle. 

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 

Friday 28 April 2017

Le Tour de Yorkshire

Alternative Tour de Yorkshire logo
In the early nineteen-sixties, I remember going along to Boothferry Bridge to watch The Milk Race pass by – a national cycling event also known as the Tour of Britain, sponsored by the now defunct Milk Marketing Board. Some blokes on racing bikes flashed past amidst the everyday traffic and it was all over in less than a minute. It wasn’t worth the bother. Cycling must be the sport with the biggest disconnect between doing (riding a bike is fun) and watching (tedious). I’ve never been to a cycling event since.

So it’s irritating to find the Tour de Yorkshire imposed on us this weekend, with roads closed most of the day bringing maximum disruption to our activities, just to see people on bicyles for a couple of minutes. I’m keeping well away.

And they call it the / le “Tour de Yorkshire”. What pretentious twaddle! Et le moins dit à propos de la côte de Silsden et de la côte de Wigtwizzle, mieux c'est.*

Surely, if it’s in Yorkshire, shouldn’t it be called t’baiyk race roun’ t ‘roo-ads?

* The less said about “côte de Silsden” and “côte de Wigtwizzle” the better.

Friday 14 April 2017

Tips, Ships and Executorships

“Never, ever, appoint a bank as executor to a will.” My dad’s advice was born out of sheer frustration.

“You’ll be all right one day son,” his own father had told him in expectation of a life-changing legacy due on the death of an ailing wealthy spinster living permanently in a hotel in Harrogate. As things turned out she lived another thirty years, by which time the legacy was no longer life-changing, much of it having dwindled away in unnecessary professional fees.

Edwin Ernest Atkinson
Edwin Ernest
Atkinson (1872-1939)
It was one of those unanticipated quirks of family history that testators fail to imagine when making their wills, which result in their money going to unrelated beneficiaries they never knew or had even heard of: in this case my father, his sister and the husband of their late cousin. It originated in Edwin Ernest Atkinson, chairman of the Yorkshire Dale Steamship Co., and Atkinson and Prickett Ltd., shipowners and brokers of Hull.

On leaving school, Edwin had first worked as a clerk for the Aire and Calder Navigation Company at Goole docks, and then as a coal exporter with the shipping company J. H. Wetherall & Co. In 1906 he began in business on his own, joined in 1911 by Thomas William Prickett.

Atkinson & Prickett
Within twenty-five years both were rich men with handsome houses on the outskirts of Hull at Hessle. Edwin’s was called ‘Waylands’, at the corner of Woodfield Lane and Ferriby Road. It had eight bedrooms, an oak-panelled dining room, two other large reception rooms, a billiards room, domestic quarters, coal-fired central heating, outbuildings, cultivated gardens, a heated greenhouse and vinery, tennis courts and a croquet lawn. Thomas William Prickett had a similar property, ‘Northcote’, next-door-but-three at 85 Ferriby Road. Among their ships – their dirty British coasters with salt-caked smoke stacks – were the SS Yokefleet, SS Swandale, SS Easingwold and MV Coxwold. There were trains of railway wagons bearing the company name.

Waylands Hessle
'Waylands', 93 Ferriby Road, Hessle (now 'Woodlands Lodge')
SS Yokefleet SS Swandale SS Easingwold MV Coxwold
Atkinson and Prickett ships: SS Yokefleet, SS Swandale, SS Easingwold, MV Coxwold

When Edwin died in 1939 at the age of 66, he left a life interest in most of his £27,000 estate to his wife and only surviving daughter. Adjusted for retail price inflation, this would be today’s equivalent of £1.3 million; probably five times that in terms of earnings inflation, and far more in terms of property prices. It was a considerable sum of money. His wife died less than two years later, thus his daughter, Constance Ruby, still in her thirties, assumed a life interest in the whole sum, to live in comfort and luxury for the rest of her life. She was the lady in the hotel at Harrogate.

Note that Edwin only left a life interest to his wife and daughter, rather than the capital sum outright. They therefore received income from investments, and the capital remained intact. It was perhaps a throwback to those earlier chauvinistic times when women were not expected to manage their own financial affairs. It also kept the money out of the hands of any unscrupulous husbands they might later marry.

Beverley North Bar Without
Numbers 8 to 2 North Bar Without, Beverley, with the fifteenth century gate to the right

Constance Ruby never did marry, although she did have a brief engagement at the age of twenty. She later became Clerk to the Archdeacon of York, living in the Precentor’s Court at York Minster. After her father died she moved to Harrogate with her widowed mother. Later in the nineteen-fifties, she moved to Beverley, into a half-timbered eighteenth century house immediately without the North Bar (the fifteenth century gate). She died there in 1983. As she was the last surviving descendant of Edwin Ernest Atkinson, the capital passed in equal shares to the families of his three siblings. One of them was my great-grandfather’s second wife.

Five years after his first wife had died, my great-grandfather had married Edwin’s sister, a forty-eight year old spinster. There were no further children, but a deeply shared interest in Methodism saw them happily through the next twenty-four years. Of course, they and Edwin’s other siblings had all died long before Constance Ruby in 1983, so the money passed to their families. Thus, one third of the capital passed by marriage, through my great-grandfather, through his children who had also died, to my father, his sister and their late cousin’s husband – people Edwin probably never heard of.

It was not so simple. An unfortunate legal charade had gobbled up much of the inheritance. The solicitor who managed the capital trust had sensibly taken steps to establish the names of the beneficiaries in readiness for when the trust was eventually wound up. He had collected the documentation to show that my father, his sister and their cousin were the rightful beneficiaries to a one-third share. But then, at some point during the nineteen-seventies, the National Westminster Bank trustees department persuaded Constance Ruby that her affairs would be better handled by them, and took over the management of the trust. They began the lengthy process of establishing the beneficiaries all over again, but after several years were still not convinced they had identified them all. Everything came to a standstill after Constance Ruby’s death. It was only through our persistent intervention that the case was transferred back to the original solicitors and at last sorted out.

Around this time, bank Executor and Trustee departments were becoming known for their outrageous fees. An article in The Times in 1985 explained how one executor saved nearly £7,000 by handling a simple £100,000 estate himself. Solicitors charged less, but were still expensive. We have no way of knowing what fees were taken out of the Atkinson trust, how well the investments performed, or how much income was paid out over the years, but when my father and his sister at last received their legacies, what would once have been life-changing sums had shrunk away to just over £3,000 each. Their cousin’s husband (i.e. Edwin’s sister’s husband’s granddaughter’s widowed husband) got £6,000. Welcome amounts for sure, but nothing like what my grandfather had predicted. £3,000 might have bought a small car. The total value distributed to all beneficiaries would have been around £37,000. Had the capital kept pace with retail price inflation it would have been at least ten times that amount. 

In later years, when my father made his will, true to his principle he appointed me as executor. After he died I handled everything myself. It was fairly straightforward. In another case I was able to manage sums in trust for children until they reached the age of eighteen. More recently, I handled all the paperwork for the estate of another family member. Despite being complicated by inheritance tax (by then inevitable for owners of houses in the Home Counties) it was still trouble free. Estate administration can be a long-drawn-out and time-consuming process which tests your patience and endurance, but if you have the time to cut out the banks and solicitors and do things yourself you can save an awful lot in professional fees; often several tens of thousands of pounds. You can bring things to completion much more quickly too.  

Maggie Drummond (1985). Finding a will and a way to cut costs. The Times (London, England), Feb 16, 1985; pg 16.
Patrick Collinson (2013). Probate: avoid a final rip-off when sorting out your loved one’s estate. The Guardian, Sep 21, 2013.

Saturday 8 April 2017

Baby Jane

Initially posted after 'Brexit' notice served. Postscript added after result of the UK 2017 general election. 

When I give my heart again I know it’s gonna last forever
I won’t be that dumb again I know it’s gotta last forever

Theresa May, Donald Tusk, Rod Stewart

Theresa May, Donald Tusk, Rod Stewart.

Did Rod Stewart anticipate the Brexit mess as long ago as 1983, both lyrically and visually?

Postscript (9th June 2017)

Theresa and Philip May

Theresa and Philip May

No Philip. That’s not quite right. You need to look as if you are enjoying it - a bit more passionate. Like that it doesn’t look as if it’s gonna last forever in any way at all.

Sunday 2 April 2017

The Old Apple Tree

Old Apple Tree

Was his name Dennis? Something like that. He was the next-door-neighbour’s great nephew who visited a couple of times from Grimsby or wherever it was they lived. He might have been ten or eleven, a year or two older than me.

I showed him the big old apple tree at the end of our garden. I said it would be full of apples if he came in the autumn. I climbed up, placing my feet safely in the joins and firmly grasping the limbs.

“Dead easy,” he said, and scrambled up to join me. “Can you swing along there?” he dared me, indicating an outward-growing horizontal branch about ten feet from the ground.

Below the end of the branch, about twelve feet (four metres) from the trunk, stood a metal clothes post. I had helped my dad dig the hole and fill an old oil drum with cement to anchor it there. Dennis’s idea was to swing hand-over-hand along the branch, wrap your legs round the post, transfer your hands to the top, and slide down like a fireman. He showed me how effortless it was, then climbed back up and did it again: one – two – three – wrap legs – grab post – slide down. It looked brilliant – like a monkey.

It was some weeks before I plucked up courage to try. It was one of those tricks that is much easier than it looks provided you don’t waver.  I could do it half a dozen times in a row. My mother said it was dangerous and told me to stop.

One day it went wrong. I’m not sure what happened. I must have missed the third hand hold as I swung my legs forwards towards the clothes post, and fell straight down and landed flat on my back. My mother had seen it all from the kitchen window and rushed out terrified.

“I thought I told you to stop that,” she yelled at me as I got up, a bit dazed, “You could have broken your bloody back.”

It was more in fury than sympathy. Sympathy wasn’t her line. Any stupidity or misbehaviour tended to get an angry slap across the cheek. Whenever my brother or I drove her to her wits end, she would glare with pursed lips in the most terrifying way, growing red in the face until veins stood out in her temples.

As children we had little awareness of adults going through difficult times. Grown-ups were strong and invincible. What I now know is that my mother was not coping well. My grandfather had died suddenly before his time, and my grandmother needed a lot of support, especially in her shop. Much of this had fallen to my mother because her sister had seriously injured her hip in an accident. She was having to spend two days a week at Grandma’s, a five-mile bus ride away. We had also become close friends with the widow and her elderly mother who lived next door to us, but the old lady had died too, stretching my mother even further. And like many northern women then, she was entirely responsible for the house and children, and must have been persistently exhausted. We did not see any of that. We only saw that she could look angry and slap hard, and we knew when to back down.

One day I didn’t back down. I lost my temper and answered back. I had dared to think I was old enough to deserve more respect. 

I had been teasing my younger brother in the garden, calling him by some new rude words from school. My mother rushed out, angry at the foul language the neighbours might hear.

“Get inside and wash your mouth out with soap,” she bellowed, pointing at the door.

“Don’t you tell me what to do.” For that I received a furious slap across the face. 

“Arse, shit and bugger!” I snapped, and slapped her face back in retaliation.

Steam squirting out of ears barely begins to describe her expression. I didn’t wait to see what was next. I turned and fled to the end of the garden and shot up the apple tree. I had to stay there a couple of hours.

Funnily, there were no repercussions. I crept back into the house to overhear my mother chuckling as she described the incident to my dad. Perhaps we both learned something that day.

Soon afterwards the horizontal branch was pruned to make way for a garage, and the clothes post moved to a different place in the garden. That ended the monkey behaviour. There was no more face slapping either.