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Thursday 27 December 2018

The Morecambe and Wise IRA Sketch

Morecambe and Wise: The Lost Tapes

It’s hard to believe what I saw on television last night: two Morecambe and Wise shows from 1968, believed lost, recovered from a forgotten film canister found in a cinema in Sierra Leone, and broadcast now for the first time in over fifty years.

Morecambe and Wise IRA Sketch
Ronnie Carroll hands out the shillelaghs
The second of the two shows (first broadcast BBC2, Monday, 30th September, 1968) had a sketch in which the Northern Irish singer Ronnie Carroll played an IRA commander testing the Irish credentials of Eric, Ernie and writers Sid Green and Dick Hills by asking them to speak in an Irish accent and dance a jig. The running joke was that Eric Morecambe was unable to do these things (his accent was more Long John Silver) and therefore kept getting beaten with shillelaghs.*

The writing, the timing, the general silliness – it’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen for some time, but can you imagine anyone on television today daring to make fun of the Irish Republican Army and speak in a mock Irish accent? Admittedly, the show was originally broadcast before the riots in 1969 and subsequent deployment of British troops, but even so, would it not today be greeted by howling accusations of bad taste, political incorrectness and even xenophobia, and taken off air?

My children have applied for Irish nationality. They can because my wife’s father was born in Bray near Dublin. They are fearful of losing their right to work and travel freely throughout Europe after Brexit. The likely outcome is that all the family except me will be Europeans, and that I will have to pay for a permit to set foot across the Channel.

Their applications required extensive supporting documentation – identity documents, witness statements, ancestral birth, marriage and death certificates, and large cheques – which took quite some time to put together. If all you had to do was to be able say “Top of the morning” in a pantomime Irish accent, dance a jig and set out for Tipperary with me shillelagh under me arm and a twinkle in me eye, I might have had an outside chance of getting in. ‘Tis a shame, to be sure, bejabers!

The Morecambe and Wise Show: The Lost Tapes is available on BBC iPlayer for the next month: is the episode described above with guest Ronnie Carroll. is another episode introduced by Michael Aspel who appears as guest on the show.
[addendum: they were repeated on Christmas Eve 2019 and available again for another month]

* Shillelagh: an Irish word for a stout wooden cudgel, immortalised in a song by Bing Crosby who had an Irish grandmother and released L.P.s full of sentimental songs with Irish themes, e.g. 

Thursday 20 December 2018

Get Tret Better

Doncaster Market

English is a strange thing, especially in its regional forms.

Yesterday, BBC Television News had a report about how insurance companies ramp up premiums so that customers who renew their policies year after year end up paying far more than they should. One poor chap who had kept his home insurance with the same insurer for twenty-one years received a renewal bill of £1,930, but after shopping around he got the same cover for £469. 

They asked people at Doncaster Market what they thought about it, including two ladies behind a food stall:

“Well,” said one in comforting Yorkshire tones, “I think it's a disgrace, actually, because I think loyal customers should get tret better.”

“Tret better?” I wanted to rush straight to Doncaster Market, give her a big hug, and sit beside the stall listening to her all day. It’s what my mother would have said.

I’m no grammaticist, but I suppose it’s like met instead of meeted, sat instead of seated, or het instead of heated, as in I’m all het up

At one time I would have said “tret better” too, but, sadly, I’ve had it educated out of me.

Saturday 15 December 2018

Not The Best Policy

This year’s Christmas story is a tale of deception gone wrong, from the early nineteen-seventies.

Oxford Dictionary of Quotations
“You idiots, you scoundrels, you rogues and vagabonds! Be sure thy sin will find thee out!”

Brendan’s impression was spot-on. It was as if Grimston Stewart was right there in the room with you spouting his pretentious, second-hand drivel. It was all there: the rhythms, the cadences, the clipped intonation, the rolled ‘r’, the arrogance.

“You riff-raff! You ne’er do wells! You scum of the earth!  ...”

Brendan could stretch and twist his face to look as silly and pompous as Grimston too, with all the quirks and mannerisms you didn’t notice until pointed out. You could imagine Grimston in his Noel Coward dressing gown, posturing like some vain intellectual exhibitionist: Oscar Wilde or Aubrey Beardsley, perhaps. The only thing missing was the long cigarette holder.

“I shall not dull my palm with felony. Honesty is the best policy.”

Grimston was a fake. He would have you believe his clever quips and jibes were his own invention, but we knew he got them from a dictionary of quotations hidden in his room. Nick, the other member of our shared house, had a theory he was really called Stuart Grimston but had changed it to Grimston Stewart to sound more impressive. I thought Grimston sounded like a dog’s name. At least it wasn’t hyphenated – not yet.

Whatever his name, we were making the most of his absence. Grimston had left for a winter holiday with wealthy friends, and the shared house was less censorious without him; and noisier. We could stay up late drinking and smoking, playing our guitars, singing vulgar songs, having beer-mat fights and shouting foul language at each other. We could leave the lights on, bottles all over the floor, bins overflowing, the toilet filthy, crumbs on the kitchen table and the sink full of dirty plates, like “the dunghill kind who delight in filth and foul incontinence.” House sharing works best when everyone is compatible, but Grimston, some kind of accountant, did not fit in, the wayward liberals we were. There is always one.

His absence was fortuitous because the scheme Nick had conceived would have sent him into a torrent of protest, with or without acknowledgement to the Bible, Shakespeare and other luminaries from his dictionary of quotations.

“We shall find ourselves dishonourable graves,” mimicked Brendan. 

“Hasn’t anyone thought of this before?” I wondered. “Three hundred quid each just for telling a few stories! It seems so easy.”

“It is,” Nick reassured us, “as long as we think it through properly and don’t say anything stupid ...”

“Les absents ont toujours tort.”

“... like that!”

It certainly seemed a fascinating idea. For Nick, it was a project – an intellectual exercise with a profitable conclusion. Brendan just liked the thought of the money.

Nick went through it again. We were to hide all our valuables in his lock-up garage, disarray the house to give the appearance of a break-in, go back home to our parents for Christmas, and on our return report the burglary to the police and make an ‘authentic’ insurance claim for the loss of our possessions. We congratulated ourselves on the ingenuity. It was so simple – the perfect crime.

We ransacked the house according to plan, broke open the cellar window, forced the locks on our room doors and decanted the contents of drawers and cupboards on to the floor. Late at night we discreetly packed our possessions into Nick’s car and transferred them to the seclusion of his garage: our guitars, my hi-fi, Nick’s bicycle and Brendan’s camera. No one saw us at all.

Back at the house, elated, phase one complete, a big bottle of Strongbow each, we rehearsed our interview with the police.

“Now tell me again,” said Brendan in his best Chief Inspector Barlow voice, “where did you say you were at the time of the break-in?”

“Er – staying with my parents,” I replied unconvincingly.

“I see. Do you have insurance?”

“Yes, thank goodness.”

“It’s an insurance fiddle isn’t it?”

“No, I was away visiting ...”

“Don’t lie to me you piece of filth.”

“Honest! It’s true. I really was ...”

Brendan switched into his Grimston Stewart voice.

“Honest implies a lie. Isn’t that right Chief Inspector Barlow?”

I only hoped the investigator assigned to our case lacked the analytical aggression of television’s Detective Chief Inspector Barlow.

Suddenly I realised we had overlooked one important point, the one critical mistake.

“How do we explain why our rooms have been burgled, but not Grimston’s?”

Nick and Brendan were taken aback. How could we have forgotten that? Either we had really to break into Grimston’s room and steal his stuff, or we had to invite him to join in the scheme. The first seemed a whole level of dishonesty higher than insurance fraud. The second was out of the question, Grimston would never participate.

We stood outside Grimston’s door.

“I am no petty villain,” preached his voice. “You must reinstate the status quo and make good the damage, or I shall report you to Her Majesty’s Constabulary.”

“Shut up Brendan,” I said. “It’s not funny.”

I kicked at Grimston’s door in disgust and turned away, only to turn back on Nick’s gasp. It had not been locked. The door had swung open.

“That’s not like him,” said Brendan, for once using his own voice.

Nick disappeared into the room and quickly identified the reason for the lax security. Grimston had taken most of his things with him. Typical! He trusted no one. All we had to do was tip the remaining contents of his drawers and cupboards on to the floor to give the appearance of a search. There was nothing anyone would have wanted to pinch, but Grimston would believe we really had been burgled.

In one drawer we found the notorious dictionary of quotations. Nick picked it up.

“I think this will have to be stolen,” he said triumphantly.

The plan was exceeding expectations. Not only would Grimston be speechless when he found out about the burglary, he would not be able to look up anything to say about it either.

We could now put phase two into action. The three of us went home for Christmas to secure Barlow-proof alibis. Grimston, returning from holiday, was first back, and went to the phone box to report the crime to “Her Majesty’s Constabulary”. When I got back a bored, solitary policeman was wandering around. I passed off my anxiety as distress. We had to answer one or two simple questions, none of them unexpected. Next day a fingerprint man visited and went through the motions of dusting a powdery mess of graphite on doors, windows, mirrors and drawer handles, but left without finding anything sufficiently well-defined for evidence. We submitted our insurance claim. Grimston even claimed for the loss of his silly dictionary. Well, he had been the one to insist we took out insurance in the first place.

The total value was impressive. The insurance company wanted to see receipts for the most expensive things. We each had a stereo and records, and I had a tape-deck as well. Guitars, fan heaters, cameras, slide projectors, electric toasters, books, clothing, the house television set and Nick’s bicycle brought the total claim to nine hundred and thirteen pounds, over three hundred each after Grimston’s miniscule claim.

And there was a bonus. Within a week Grimston had left. The area was “a den of iniquity unfit for habitation by righteous souls”. There would be no one to ask awkward questions as to how we had recovered our possessions when the time came to move them back.

Luckily, we did not retrieve them immediately. A few days later a detective constable visited the crime scene.

“It’s a good job you were insured,” he said. “There have been a lot of break-ins in this area recently. I have to say that unfortunately there is very little chance of recovering your possessions.”

Afterwards, we judged it safe to go for our things.

Nick had not been to the garage since the day of the ‘crime’. There wasn’t room for his car and in any case, he was worried someone might see inside and become suspicious. So we were already a little apprehensive when we drove round under cover of darkness. Nick turned off his lights and opened the door. It was difficult to see but I knew something was wrong. Nick felt it too.

Nick returned to the car and flashed the lights, flashed them again, and then put them on full beam. The garage was empty. A broken panel at the rear told us what had happened.

Brendan spoke first, in his own voice.

“The world’s full of bloody criminals. We can’t even claim on insurance ’cos we already have.”

I could see Nick’s thoughtful face in the headlights, and then it was he, not Brendan, who began to speak in quotations.

“Our worldly goods are gone away,” he declared. “We are wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.”

Things were worse than I thought. In that awful moment I realised what had happened to that ridiculous dictionary of quotations.

Sunday 2 December 2018

Does Anyone Want Some Drinks?

Returning to Yorkshire on the 15:56 First TransPennine Express service yesterday after a family day out in that wonderful city of Liverpool, a man came along the train with the refreshments trolley and asked: “Does anyone want some drinks?”

We wondered how one should answer this oddly-worded question. He seemed to be inviting each passenger to consume several drinks. It seems unlikely that anyone would want, say, a cup of tea, a soft drink and a bottle of water, unless they were very thirsty. And what about snacks? There were a load of those on his trolley too. Weren’t they for sale as well?

“No, but I would like one drink,” might have been an appropriate answer, or perhaps “No, but I would like a packet of crisps.”

There again, he might have been asking whether any one of us wanted to purchase several drinks to be shared amongst our travelling companions, in which case it was extremely perceptive of him to spot that we were travelling as a group.

What should he have asked to take account of all these eventualities?

“Would anyone like any drinks?” is one very minor adjustment that might have worked, although that would exclude snacks. Perhaps TransPennine should therefore radically overhaul their refreshment trolley operative training so that they ask, simply “Refreshments?”

Why does it bother me?

Could it be in any way related to the fact that we were travelling on Diesel Multiple Unit set 185113 and that I’ve always made a mental note of such things?

See also: Andy Burnham, Chris Grayling and the Goole to Leeds Train

Thursday 29 November 2018

The Commercialisation of Universities

First-class degrees and unconditional offers

Two items in the recent press about Higher Education:

1. Universities are awarding too many first class degrees. The think-tank Reform argues that universities risk losing their credibility due to “rocketing grade inflation”. Apparently, 26% of U.K. students now get first-class degrees and one university awards them to over 40% of students. Similarly the proportion of 2:1 degrees, nationally, is now nearly 50%. The think-tank suggests the number of first-class degrees should be capped at 10%, 2:1 and 2:2 degrees at 40% each, with the lowest 10% getting a third. (Guardian; BBC).

2. Universities are making too many unconditional offers. Ucas reports that a third of 18-year-old university applicants received some form of unconditional offer last year, made up of true unconditional offers, and conditional offers which became unconditional when an applicant makes that university a firm choice. Some institutions are also offering students four-figure bursaries. (Guardian).

The reports highlight massive increases in the numbers: a doubling of high grades over ten years, and an almost thirty-fold increase in unconditional offers over five years. 

Well, when I graduated in 1980, out of the 70 people who started the course, just 2 got firsts, less than 3%, and that was an exceptional year. Some years there weren’t any. And it was completely unknown for universities to make unconditional offers to 18-year-olds yet to take their ‘A’ levels; it might not even have been allowed.

Isn’t it simply a case of commercial organisations providing the service their customers want? In almost any other sector it would be singled out for praise. Perhaps if universities had not been turned into competing businesses in the first place, these things would not be happening.

Friday 23 November 2018

Significant Plagiarism Detected

Vainly looking at my blog statistics (both in vanity and in futility), I noticed quite a lot of hits from web site called PlagScan, a plagiarism detection tool. Had someone been scanning me for plagiarism I wondered. Well, scan away. I don’t pinch other people’s stuff.

Or do I? I went on to PlagScan (what an ugly name), uploaded the text of my post about Paul McCartney’s Ram L.P. and clicked ‘>Check’. The result: 96.2% plagiarism! What? How can that be?

Of course! It had checked the uploaded text against my blog so it was bound to find close matches. Checking the actual blog page rather than the text upload, and disregarding all the matches against recurring items on my own and other Blogger blogs (e.g. lists of blog archive dates), brought the score down almost to zero. I say “almost” because apparently my use of the phrase “One thing led to another” is plagiarised from the text of Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi novel Galaxy. Thanks, Isaac.

There are many other checkers on the web too, some free, some usage limited, some pay only. Some of the free ones are so useless they detected hardly any problems at all with my text, not even against my own blog. The expensive ones say “Significant Plagiarism Detected” and then wait to detect your significant payment before they give you the details.

Plagiarism has clearly become big business since colleges and universities started to worry about students passing off others’ work as their own. Unscrupulous students had been getting away with it for years, but it was becoming an epidemic.

At one time they preferred to pretend it didn’t happen. When I spotted it in my first lecturing job in 1985, they ignored it. A student had submitted an entire 5,000-word magazine article as his final-year Higher National Diploma dissertation. Unluckily for him, I had read just about everything there was on the topic because I was doing a Ph.D. in the area. Never underestimate how much university lecturers know about their specialist interests. With almost any other marker he would have got clean away with it.

However, the course leader, a senior member of staff, regarded it as more of a nuisance for him than for the student. Placing expediency before inconvenience he said: “Give it a merit rather than a distinction on the ground that it relies too heavily on a limited number of sources,” and added, “and perhaps it would be best if you were absent from the examiners’ meeting.” Which is what I did, complicit in academic dishonesty, glad of the extra day to spend on the Ph.D., an unforgivable failure of integrity.

Shouldn’t the student have failed his project, if not the whole course? I think back to a girl at school in the nineteen-sixties caught with an aide-mémoire during a G.C.E. exam. Not only was she penalised in that exam, the Examination Board barred her in all subjects and she left in disgrace. That’s how severely cheating used to be dealt with.

As more and more instances emerged, universities began to develop plagiarism policies and procedures. Some managers built good careers out of it. When I came across another plagiarised project fifteen years after the first there was plenty of guidance about what to do.

A student had submitted a project in which more than half the content had been copied verbatim from an American web site. This time, as course leader myself, I was not too pleased to have to spend the best part of an afternoon writing a report about the extent of the plagiarism and other background issues. The Examination Board awarded an ordinary degree rather than honours. Again I wondered whether the student should have failed his degree completely rather than being penalised only in the project module. It seemed an institutionalised failure of academic integrity.*

Within a year or two, such shameless, extensive plagiarism became impossible. Universities turned from handwritten to electronic submission and bought in powerful systems such as Turnitin to identify chunks of text taken from elsewhere. Students knew for certain it would be spotted. They could even use the systems themselves to check they had not inadvertently broken the rules (or to find ways to get round them).

It did not prevent one strange case I know when an external examiner accused a student of plagiarism during a handwritten, invigilated examination. The student’s answers contained paragraphs from a textbook written by the examiner herself. Strictly this was plagiarism, but the very nature of an examination is that answers may contain unattributed content, such as when a student cannot remember where it came from. And it is not unknown for some students to consign whole passages of text to memory. That is what the student had done here. She was still able to recite the passages later. She got a good mark.

To one who came to computing when we had to code our own database search and compression functions, plagiarism checkers are impressive. The speed with which they trawl through petabytes of documents to find a single phrase is nothing short of miraculous. The latest versions can even check individual writing styles to identify third-party and contract cheating where students submit work written to order by others, such as essay mills. I suppose you could still get away with paying someone else to write an essay for you and then rewriting it in your own style. Or even using artificial intelligence in article spinners such as WordAI to do it for you.

But I doubt they will ever pick up the highest level of plagiarism: the plagiarism of ideas. Take the bit in my Ram post, above, where I ungenerously and unfairly liken Linda McCartney’s performance to:
“… a primary school music class where everyone has to join in enthusiastically banging tambourines and triangles, even the talentless”
It matches my own memories of primary school, but the genesis of the idea is in Jayson Greene’s brilliant review, linked near the end of my piece, where he compares it to:
“… little schoolhouse plays that required every hand on deck to get off the ground. Paul had the most talent, so naturally he was up front, but he wanted everyone behind him, banging pots, hollering, whistling-- whatever it is you did, make sure you're back there doing it with gusto.”
Is that plagiarism?

It’s not as bad as Dan Brown who got away with using others’ ideas in The Da Vinci Code because, as the judges put it, he had used only “generalised or other unprotectable ideas” that were “of too low a level of abstraction to be capable of protection by copyright law”. And certainly nothing like Roots whose author Alex Haley had to fork out $650,000 for plagiarising ideas from a novel called The African

Do we stand on the shoulders of giants, or is it, as T. S. Eliot said: “good writers borrow, great writers steal”?

Now, where did I read all that?

* I do not believe many students want to have to cheat in this way, and its occurrence might indicate inadequate supervision or care. There were a lot of background issues in the second case, so possibly the final outcome was fair, but the student in the first case was extremely fortunate to get away with it.

Wednesday 7 November 2018

Thursday 1 November 2018

Review - Erich von Daniken: Chariots of the Gods?

Erich von Daniken: Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past (2*)

In 1965, through the Top Deck Shandy promotion mentioned in a previous post, I acquired a book by Frank Edwards called Stranger than Science, originally published in 1959. It was based upon the author’s American radio series which described things beyond our scientific understanding, such as Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs), the Loch Ness Monster and a man who suddenly disappeared in full view of several witnesses. I’m not ashamed to admit it was a favourite which I enjoyed enormously and devoured uncritically.

I don’t know what became of my copy, but in 1974, Book Club Associates sent me another of the same genre: Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Daniken, which was a best seller on first publication in 1968. Although not as satisfying as Edwards’ book, it covers much of the same material and has remained on my bookshelf ever since.

The central proposition is that at one or more points in our pre-history, the earth was visited by aliens with unimaginable powers who influenced early human culture. We may even be descended from them.

I would dearly, dearly like to be able to believe this but, well, let’s not kid ourselves, most of it is complete bollocks. Much of our most popular fiction, such as 2001: a Space Odyssey and Raiders of the Lost Ark, draws upon similar ideas. It might excite your imagination but no one else claims it to be true.

To support his proposition, von Daniken argues that ancient structures such as the Egyptian pyramids demonstrate higher technical skills than were available at the time they were built, and that prehistoric texts such as the bible contain descriptions of aircraft and advanced technology. They could therefore only have been created by extra terrestrials or by lessons learned from them.  

To give just a few examples:

He claims that the Sarcophagus of Palenque in the ancient Mayan Temple of the Inscriptions in Mexico, as drawn above on the dust jacket, shows a spaceman sitting in a rocket;

He contends that the Nazca Lines in the Peruvian desert are the remains of spaceship landing sites built to alien instructions;

He suggests that the biblical account of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back at Sodom is actually a description of a nuclear explosion.

He believes that the Tungusta event in Siberia in 1908 was another nuclear explosion.

The book is packed with this sort of stuff. The trouble is that a little googling reveals that most of these things can be accounted for by more plausible, more mundane explanations. For example, evidence strongly suggests that the Tungusta event was actually caused by an asteroid bursting around five miles above the earth’s surface, and there are now more plausible scientific theories of how the pyramids were built.

There are however some things in the book which seem to defy explanation. It seems unbelievable that during the first or second century B.C. the Greeks were able to construct a complex clock-like machine, now known as the Antikythera mechanism, which followed and predicted the movements of the moon and sun through the zodiac over decades. It incorporated 37 bronze gear wheels of a complexity not seen again until the fourteenth century.

Similarly, some of the supposed UFO sightings are a mystery: such as the incident at Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1965 when a considerable number of witnesses – von Daniken states 58 – saw a large, glowing red flying object. Although it has since been suggested that it may have been an in-flight refuelling aircraft and boom, a quick online search reveals later incidents that remain harder to explain.

What I really disliked about the book, though, is that it is appallingly written and organised. Perhaps something has been lost in translation from the original German, but online cross-checking of events and phenomena reveals numerous discrepancies and inconsistencies in details, names and dates, suggesting sloppy scholarship. Chapters supposedly on one topic jump across other topics, times and locations. Descriptions and interpretations are blatantly embellished, one-sided and tendentious with little attempt at balance. Some part of the book are entertaining, but much is tedious. I have marked and supervised several Ph.D. theses in my time, and believe me, von Daniken’s stuff would fail outright.

Why did I keep it so long? I suppose I must have enjoyed it in 1974. Not any longer. It’s going to the charioty shop of the gods. I wish I had re-read Stranger Than Science instead.

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 

Sunday 28 October 2018

Mists: a tale for Halloween

Vintage Coca Cola drawing Ending a family walk through the sun-dappled woods of the Sussex countryside, we headed to the village shop for an ice cream, a reward for our exertions on the hottest day of the year. My son chose a bottle of Coke, the real thing, cold and misty from the fridge, thirst-quenchingly irresistible. I decided to have one too. 

“Do you know what it is?” He sounded worried. “Are you sure you can handle it? It won’t send you hyper will it?”

I had never seen him look so concerned. You would have thought it was still the original recipe with coca leaves. I felt like a child asking for a glass of absinthe or some other inappropriate, drug-infused concoction.

“How old do you think I am?” was all I could say.

It must have been forty years since I’d last had Coca-Cola. We got through crates of the stuff in the local coffee-bar when “Happy Days” culture ruled the world, even in Yorkshire. We sat there through the autumn and winter months when we should have been working for our ‘O’ levels, making each bottle last an hour in the hope of being allowed to stay without buying another. The owner’s patience extended only so far as the table space.

“We used to drink loads of it,” I remembered.

My son frowned as I finished most of the bottle in one go. The distinctive spicy taste brought back memories of another walk, all those years ago, on Halloween, at the dead of night through the eerie gloom of the cemetery.

Cemetery in mist

Halloween was not for tricks and treats in those days. If noted at all, it was as a rarely-observed remnant of pagan, pre-Christian myths and legends: a night you might just dare mention ghosts and ghouls in jest.

“All Hallows Eve!” someone said in the coffee bar. “You wouldn’t want to walk through the graveyard tonight.” Was it my idea, or Ron’s, or Neville’s? I am no longer sure, but none of us noticed Bill and Frank sniggering at the next table.

The cemetery lay beside the river on a quiet stretch of road out of town. Neville, Ron and I made our way through the deserted winter streets, shoulders hunched, misty breath thickened by cigarette smoke, eyes firmly ahead, not seeing Bill and Frank surreptitiously following behind and then turning off.

The iron gate opened with a heavy groan. We hesitated, then stepped into the blackness. Icy moisture dripped from trees. Footsteps echoed through the chapel arch. There were vague silhouettes, high gravestones, angels whispering omens of destiny, bent and broken wings, limbs writhing and twisting, stiff from decades of decay, grasping for us, reaching for our ankles, dragging us to their cold graves.

The fog thickened as we neared the end of the cemetery. River mist. On top of the bank was a muddy track back to town. As we climbed, two floating spectral figures emerged above us and a chill voice spoke out in incantation.

“Be ye ready. For in such hour as ye think not the reaper cometh.”

Neville froze like a gravestone effigy. I screamed in terror. Ron turned and fell down the bank. Bill and Frank, unable to keep up the pretence, broke down laughing, almost falling after Ron, their prize for shivering in the bushes. 

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” my son said. I did warn you. It’s got caffeine and sugar. You could have a heart attack at your age.”

I looked at the empty bottle in my hands. It was plastic, thin, insubstantial, not thick and heavy like they used to be. The surface cleared as it warmed, and the mist evaporated like the mists of time.

The vintage drawing of a Coca Cola bottle and the cemetery photograph are understood to be in the public domain.

Sunday 14 October 2018

Review - Andrew Davies: A Very Peculiar Practice

Andrew Davies: A Very Peculiar Practice (3*)

Continuing my interest in campus novels, A Very Peculiar Practice was originally a 1986 BBC television comedy series set in the health centre of a fictitious low-ranking university somewhere in central England. It was written by the prominent television writer Andrew Davies, and starred Peter Davison in the leading role as newly appointed young doctor Stephen Daker. I didn’t watch it at the time, but this book is the ‘novelisation’ of the seven-part series, with each chapter corresponding to an episode.

Everything takes place to the background of short-sighted opportunism I recognise from my own university experiences: funding cuts; redundancies; bullying, the introduction of managerialism and business practices; the push for external funding while short changing the students. In other words, changing the nature of universities from being trusted guardians, creators and communicators of knowledge who provide a public service into dubious commercial outfits who rip-off customers and employees alike in order to maximise profits. If it was not for the values and ethos of the staff these things would have gone much further than they already have. 

The book is very much of its time, with nineteen-eighties sexist humour, predictable sitcom plots and stereotypical characters. The head of the practice is a going-to-seed drunken Scot. Another colleague is a self-seeking ruthless advantage seeker. A third is a bisexual feminist sexpot who sees everything from the women’s point of view. We also come across the high-achieving workaholic professor, the scheming vice chancellor and the impossibly perfect girlfriend. The central character feels completely out of his depth, but turns out of course to be far more up to the challenge than his lack of self-belief leads him to expect. Also, in a surrealist twist, there is a creative writer in residence who in discussing and thinking about his writing is actually discussing and thinking about the plot and characters of A Very Peculiar Practice.

But if you can put up with all of this, then it’s an extremely funny book.

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.

Monday 1 October 2018

Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny
Haeckel’s 1874 drawing of stages of development in the embryos of
fish, salamander, turtle, chick, pig, calf, rabbit and human.

Professor Clarke stood at the blackboard with assured elegance. It was not just the beauty of his layout and lettering, it was the poise of his whole demeanor. Arm outstretched, extending exactly the right proportions of wrist and cuff beyond suit sleeve, he grasped the chalk delicately between thumb and forefinger, and with an economy of effort, calmly progressed through his lecture. What a privilege to be in the presence of such a highly esteemed international reputation.

He was talking about pre-natal and neo-natal human development: physical and mental growth before and around birth. He concluded with a short quotation. None of us quite caught it. He said something like: “Antigen capital file genre.”

In those days students weren’t given all the slides and notes on the internet to learn and parrot back in examinations. We used to read around lectures. We went to the library and made notes from text books and academic journals. We even owned quite a lot of expensive text books ourselves. So before long I worked out that what he had actually said was: “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” Furthermore, I understood what it meant: a chunk of lecture succinctly summarised in three words.

The point is, as became clear when we later learned about how we acquire the power of speech and language, if we don’t understand something, if we cannot make sense of how the words fit together, we find it difficult to say. Think of the novelty song Mairzy dotes and dozy dotes and liddle lamzy divey.

Twenty years later the children were laughing.

“I bet you can’t say “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppercorns,” said my wife, and recited the full verse, faultlessly. She followed it with “She sells sea shells …” as an encore.

“The British soldiers’ shoulders,” I added, not to be outdone. “The Leith police dismisseth us,” and then out of nowhere, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”

Within a few days my eight year old son had got it. “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” he would tell anyone who would listen. At school, he was in Mr. Price’s class.

“Hello Mr. Price,” he said. “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”

“Aunty Jenny was late for what?” queried Mr. Price.

“It means when a baby grows in its mummy’s tummy, it starts off like a little tadpole, and then looks like a little frog, and then like a little bird, and then a little horse, and then a little monkey, and then a little baby.”

That guy recently passed all his law exams.

What a pity that Meckel and Serres’ theory of embryological parallelism, perfectly encapsulated in Ernst Haeckel’s catchy phrase, illustrated by his somewhat dishonest drawing and so urbanely recapitulated by Professor Clarke, has been discredited as biological mythology.

Haeckel's 1874 illustration of embryos is out of copyright.

Wednesday 26 September 2018

Review - Two Early Campus Novels

Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim Malcolm Bradbury: Eating People Is Wrong

Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim (1954) (4*)
Malcolm Bradbury: Eating People is Wrong (1959) (2*)

I used to enjoy campus novels – stories about university life – immensely.

As a mature student, I soaked up the BBC’s 1981 adaptation of Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man with Anthony Sher as Howard Kirk, gripped by the unconstrained, free-thinking lifestyle it portrays, and wanted it for myself. Not until I read the actual novel many years later did I realise what an objectionably selfish snake the anti-hero is.

Later, having somehow pulled-off the unlikely trick of getting a job in a university, I was greatly entertained by David Lodge’s campus trilogy, Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work, written in the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties. There was a lot in the wranglings between staff, pointless activities and scrabbling for advancement that rang true, as did the chaos lower down the academic hierarchy depicted in Tom Sharpe’s Wilt which I experienced first-hand on moving to a Polytechnic.

In recent weeks I have been catching up on two early campus novels from the nineteen-fifties: Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Malcolm Bradbury’s Eating People is Wrong. Both books are very much of the nineteen-fifties in the social attitudes they portray. I guess they helped frame the way we thought of provincial universities during the nineteen-sixties when I was at school, unsuccessfully applying through UCCA.

Lucky Jim (1954) was for me the most enjoyable of the two. It ages well and is often hilarious. As David Lodge points out in the introduction, the humour comes not only from Amis’s wonderful comic timing in the handling of situations, but also from his original, educated but classless writing style, which often makes use of original twists to everyday turns of phrase:
To look at, but not only to look at, they resembled some kind of variety act…
He’d found his professor standing, surprisingly enough, in front of the Recent Additions shelf in the College Library…
Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way.
I found myself sympathising with the predicament of misfit young lecturer Jim Dixon, and felt very satisfied at the end when he walks off with the girl and everything else. However, many of the comic situations, for example when Dixon accidentally burns holes in his Head of Department’s bedsheets whilst staying at his house, and his subsequent attempts to conceal the damage, could be in any comic novel rather than one specifically set in a university. It could be from a Brian Rix Whitehall farce. I might well look out for more by Kingsley Amis.

Eating People is Wrong (1959) I found less than satisfactory. It concerns the prematurely old-fashioned Professor Treece and his difficulties in making sense of the changing post-war world of the nineteen-fifties. There are too many characters, none very likeable, most under-developed, too many switches of viewpoint from the thoughts, opinions and dilemmas of one to those of another and then to those of the author, and a tendency to tell rather than show – all the things that writing experts say you should avoid, but who are they to find fault with the acclaimed founder of the famous MA in Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia? It is no real defence that these things appear to be conscious and deliberate.

I suppose the novel resembles university life where people fall into and out of each others’ lives without reaching any kind of resolution, to an incessant background buzz of brilliant yet pointless wordplay. Much of the dialogue would not be out of place in an Alan Ayckbourne play. Perhaps it tries too ostentatiously to be clever by trying to generate too many epigrammatic quotations, and twists and turns to accepted clichés:
With sociology one can do anything and call it work.
... it had always seemed to Louis that a fundamental desire to take postal courses was being sublimated by other people into sexual activity;
… if you are interested in [old] houses, you know what the world is like and it is not like you.
… soon it won’t be necessary to go to America. It will all be here.
After nearly two hundred pages of nothing much happening, a subversive writer called Carey Willoughby arrives to give a talk and declares: “With my sort of book theres no resolution, because theres no solution. The problems aren’t answered in the end because there is no answer. They’re problems that are handed on to the reader …

Was Bradbury referring to himself?

Having grasped all of this, scoring it two stars is mean. I’m sure I would get more out of it on slow second reading, but life’s too short.

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.

Sunday 9 September 2018

Articled Clerk

Chartered Accountant's articled clerk recruitment ads

“You’ll make a lot of money as a Chartered Accountant” was the only thing of substance the headmaster said at the end of grammar school. I could guess what he was really thinking. “Not university calibre.” “Not even college.” Stuck-up southern git!    

It was strange that someone so southern had chosen to become a headmaster in such a working-class northern town. He spoke with such judgemental self-assurance you were convinced his pronunciation must be correct and yours miserably deficient: “raarzbriz” instead of “rasp-berries”, “swimming baarthes” rather than “swimmin’ baths”, “campany derrectorre” not “kumpany dye-recter”. It was not universally welcomed.

“You’ve written here that your faarther is a campany derrectorre. What sort of campany derrectorre?”

“He’s got a shop – Millwoods”

“Really? I thought Millwoods was owned by Susan Mellordew’s faarther.”

He appeared not to believe me. Oh to have that conversation again knowing what I know now. 

“Perhaps the Mellordews would like others to think that,” I should have said.

Grammar schools were set up to get people into university, or at least teacher training college. Everyone else was a failure to be eased into the grubby world of banking, accountancy or other forms of servility, unless you were a girl, in which case they didn’t really care either way because you would be married with kids in a few years’ time. I didn’t care either. I was quite taken by the idea of making a lot of money, especially as all six of my university choices had given me straight rejections. 

At least the local accountants wanted me. They phoned my dad to change my mind about going off to a job in Leeds. “He’ll get just as good experience here,” they told him, but he decided not to pass the message on, as if they wanted me but he didn’t.

I had tried York first. The area training coordinator at The Red House sent me round to Peat, Marwick and Mitchell, one of the biggest and most powerful firms in the country (as KPMG they still are), to be interviewed by another stuck-up posh git whose laconic disinterest oozed the impression that he had indeed made a great deal of money. He would have got on just fine with my headmaster. Not for the last time did I feel I might have done better had I been to Bootham’s or Queen Ethelburga’s.* Real chip-on-the-shoulder stuff!

The Leeds firm were more down to earth. Their offices were in what had once been a cloth warehouse with large airy windows; less depressing than the pokey accommodation of the other firms. A simple half-hour chat with one of the partners, during which I managed to avoid showing too much stupidity, and the job was mine: five years as an articled clerk. I started on the 9th September, 1968; exactly fifty years ago today. 

The thing is though, in those days, firms of accountants were desperate for articled clerks. At face value it was attractive: a form of indentured apprenticeship under which a qualified accountant undertakes to inculcate an articled clerk into the principles and practices of the profession. In reality it was cheap labour. They sold it to school leavers through discreet ads in the situations vacant columns, next to those for hair restorers and varicose veins. “Leaving school? Why not become a Chartered Accountant?” It would not have looked out of place if they had added: “No one need know; confidentiality guaranteed.”

Ads were discreet because accountants were not allowed to tout for business, although as things began to change, the bigger firms pushed the boundaries with larger, more flamboyant offerings designed by expensive agencies. One of the most memorable went: “Some think Wart Prouserhice is just as good as Horst Whiterpart, but we know it’s best at Price Waterhouse.”

Today, accountancy training places are so sought after they won’t even look at you unless you have at least a 2:1 and an impressive portfolio of extra-curricular leadership activities – an internship in the House of Commons; volunteering with Ebola victims in Africa; representing Great Britain in the Winter Olympics; that kind of thing. You might then get invited to a day of written tests and observed activities, and if successful to a nerve-racking interview panel. Those who went to Bootham’s or Queen Ethelburga’s might then be offered a place. Back in the nineteen-sixties, five ‘O’ levels and you were in.

Not so many years beforehand, articled clerks had been expected to pay a premium for the privilege of the job. At least by 1968 you got a salary, if that’s what you could call it. Mine was £360 per annum.

1968 payslips

Really? Well yes. Here are my first two pay slips. The first covers from the 9th to the 30th September, 1968, i.e. twenty-two thirtieths of a month. So 22/30 x 360/12 equals a straight £22, with a deduction of £3 6s 8d for National Insurance, leaving £18 13s 4d for my first three weeks’ pay. My first full month’s take-home pay was £26 13s 4d. I didn’t have to pay tax because I only started work in September, but I did after April when I got a £2 per month rise. It doesn’t look any better even when adjusted for inflation – £26 13s 4d in 1968 is the equivalent of around £400 today, less than half the minimum wage for an eighteen year-old.

I never did become a Chartered Accountant. I stuck it for a few years, failed a few exams, and then escaped to university. Would I have fared better in my parochial home town of canners, carriers, barbers, farmers, shippers and shopkeepers? I might have fitted in – like a pile of coke outside the gas works – but maybe not. Thirty years later, one lad from my class at school who did go to work with the local firm ended up as one of the senior partners in charge of the whole outfit. He did make a lot of money.

* Fee paying boarding schools near York.

Saturday 1 September 2018

Old and New Cars

Compare the Honda Civic SR to a Lightning F-35

Wondering whether to change my ten year old Golf Estate, I went for a test drive in a fairly new Honda Civic Tourer - the SR version. What a sensation! I could have been in the cockpit of an R.A.F. stealth fighter.

If you have recently driven a new car then you might not be overawed, but I haven’t and I was. There were coloured lights all over the dashboard and more switches than I could imagine what they were for. The digital speedometer rolled up and down, a glowing blue bar grew and shrank with the engine speed and a bright satnav map pinpointed the current location. A camera recognised speed limit signs and displayed a corresponding symbol, and another camera showed what was behind when the car was in reverse. Illuminated gauges indicated fuel and temperature levels and lights flashed in the exterior mirrors to warn of vehicles in the blind spots. The engine cut out to save fuel in stationary traffic and started again as soon as you pressed the clutch. I didn’t get round to asking about the cruise control, heated seats and entertainment system, and that’s not even the half of it. The technology was incredible. I don’t know if you could talk to the car, or whether it answered back, but it would not have surprised me if you could and it did.

1960s Mini dashboard and instrument cluster
1960s Mini dashboard and instrument cluster

What a difference from the first three cars I had, all Minis – a car and two vans. They had a speedometer, a fuel gauge and a few warning lights, and that was it – oh yes, and an ashtray. The steering wheel would not have looked out of place on a tractor and the gear lever stuck out of the floor like something in a railway signal box. They had sliding windows fastened by a thief-friendly catch, and the doors opened by means of a dangly pull-cord. In the vans the battery was under the driver’s seat and you fired up the engine by pulling out the choke and pressing a huge button on the floor. Primitive but functional.

The first, a ten-year old dark blue Austin Mini Van with a white roof, cost me £50 in 1971. I bought it from a lad called John Leason who lived off Holderness Road in Hull. I saw his ad in the Hull Daily Mail, a friend took me to look, I paid by cheque and drove it home – no doubt untaxed and uninsured.

John Leason must have been punching his fist in the air like he’d won the football pools. As I braked at the end of the street, the driver’s door burst open and I had to be quick to reach out and catch it. I had to hold it all the way home. It was by no means the only thing wrong. It rattled like a rusty moped, smoked like a dirty dredger and smelt like a Swinefleet dung heap. A local mechanic took it off my hands a few weeks later, rebuilt the engine and used it as a run-around for the next two years.

1966 Morris Mini-Minor
My 1966 Morris Mini-Minor (also see blog banner)

Then I had a six-year old Morris Mini-Minor, a blue one, funded by concerned parents. It would have been fine except for the hydrolastic suspension – a system in which the front and back wheels are connected by pressurised pipes. They must have leaked because they needed to be re-pressurised every nine months or so to stop the tyres scraping against the wheel arches. I stuck it out for a couple of years until I could afford to swap it for a three-year old Mini Van.

1972 Mini Van in BMC Flame Red
My 1972 Mini Van

It was the love of my life. BMC flame red. I blazed up and down the M62 and flashed around Leeds burning up other drivers and flickering round buses stranded in the snow. It was an eight-seater – one passenger in the front and three along each side in the back (no seat belt requirements in those days). I put down a carpet and lined the roof and sides with matt black hardboard. It took me walking in the Peak and Lake Districts, the Pennines and North York Moors, and up to Scotland with a tent and walking boots no end of times. I drove it to university interviews on my way to becoming a mature student and it saw me through three years in Hull.

Camping Glen Brittle Isle of Skye Easter 1976
Camping at Glen Brittle, Isle of Skye, Easter 1976.
The meagre Mini dashboard is visible beyond all the clutter.

Would I want one now? You bet! You can get beautifully reconditioned nineteen-seventies Mini Vans for seven or eight thousand pounds (and renovation projects for a fraction of that). But it would need to be garaged out of the weather and I would want to pay someone to maintain it and keep the rust in check. It would be just an expensive toy: costly and non-functional. A lot of fun though.

The Honda Civic seems a nice idea too but one wonders whether all the technology is just something waiting to go wrong. It’s fine in a newish car but you know what software is like – would it still work after ten years? One hears of issues such as losing all the radio settings when put into reverse, which can be expensive to diagnose and fix. And if the car tells you the speed limit all the time, then would you stop bothering to look for the road signs, like losing all sense of geography and direction when you blindly follow the satnav. Most new cars now have electronic handbrakes and hill-hold assistance. Does that mean you forget how to do hill starts? I like to do these things for myself. The Honda felt a bit detached from the world, like managing ice cream in a darkened cinema, glancing occasionally at the screen.

So I’ll probably keep the Golf Estate for a while. Its M.O.T. test is due but I’m confident it will pass. There is a lot of life left in a low-mileage ten year old car these days – certainly not the case in the nineteen-seventies, and perhaps not in the twenty-twenties. 

Wednesday 22 August 2018

The Yellow Shed

Yellow Shed
Three views of the yellow shed – I don't have a complete photograph.

“Every man should have a shed” the saying goes. Well, I got a shed at the age of twelve when I took over the yellow one in the garden. Did that make me a man?

There I drank my first bottle of John Smith’s Magnet Pale Ale, brazenly bought from the corner shop with my own pocket money in the confidence they would assume I was on a parent’s errand. And there I tried one of my mother’s menthol flavoured Consulate cigarettes and well and truly wished I hadn’t.

John Smiths Magnet Pale Ale - a magnet for me Consulate - cool as a mountain stream

Whether these experiments in manliness were as masculine as they seemed at the time I’m not sure. Magnet Pale Ale might have been copiously consumed by Tristan Farnon in the James Herriot books, but it was promoted by the image of a comely young woman with smooth bare legs and shoulders, long ear rings dangling evocatively below blonde Marilyn Monroe curls as she alluringly raises her stemmed glass to declare it “a magnet for me!” Consulate cigarettes, “cool as a mountain stream”, also employed a preponderance of girly social situations, not at all like the manly virility of the Player’s Navy Cut sailor or the Marlboro cowboy, or the self-assured independence of the raincoated, Sinatra-like, “never-alone” Strand character.*

The yellow shed became my own private space. It was my dark-room, games room, chemistry laboratory and music studio. I imagined myself carrying out investigations into original problems, creating new knowledge, an academic in the making. Apart from a few gardening tools, yard brushes and a stepladder, most of the clutter had moved to our new asbestos garage.

Among my old, self-developed 127-sized negatives were two photographs of the inside. Oh what memories!

Inside the yellow shed 
We made a folding bench to go on the end wall. I painted the inside with clean white paint and hung curtains over the window and door. I constructed a cement ridge to stop water pooling under the door. It was icy cold in winter and swelteringly hot in summer. I arranged my great-uncle’s cigarette card collection in their packets along the ledge near the roof. The damp gummed them all together and my mother threw them out.

Pinned to the wall is a map of the East Riding from Flamborough to Spurn, Bridlington to Barnsley, and photographs of singers and pop groups. The large one is The Animals, and although the others are too small to make out, I think The Hollies and The Searchers are among them.  Beneath them, on the ledge above the white ‘meat safe’ cupboard, my half-sized cricket bat lies next to a wooden block drilled with holes to hold pens and pencils.

You can see my ‘new’ bicycle with its straight handlebars, white mudguards and three speed Sturmey Archer gears, and the Philips EL 3541 reel-to-reel tape recorder used to record pop-music from the radio, and to boost my homework grades by recording the series of science programmes we listened to at school.

Chalked around the half-sized dartboard are the words “TRY TO HIT THE BOARD NOT THE WALL”. Impressively, there seem to be no tell-tale dart holes in the woodwork, even on my high resolution image. However, I hope I moved the tape recorder and bare-bulbed table lamp out of harm’s way before throwing any darts. I especially hope I remembered to protect the bottle in the corner just behind the watering can, because this is the hexagonal emerald-green bottle of hydrochloric acid, still three quarters full, mentioned in a previous post.

One can only be appalled by the electrical wiring. It’s a wonder I didn’t electrocute myself or burn the place down. The power supply enters the shed through a hole in the wall above the stepladder – you can just make it out running along the wall outside from the house, above the coal house door in the first picture. At the same end of the shed, a very old fashioned electric fire stands on a couple of wooden blocks nailed to the ledge, its mains cable hanging by a hook. The supply to the tape recorder and table lamp at the other end runs along the roof. There seem to be rather a lot of joins wound round with insulating tape, or perhaps, horrifyingly, sellotape. However, the twisted pair cable along the rear wall, running through a home-made switch box, is merely the lead to the extension loudspeaker fixed above the electric fire – the very same speaker on which my dad listened to Hancock’s Half Hour in the front room in the nineteen fifties.

One warm summer afternoon, the shed door wide open and the extension speaker full on, I switched on the tape recorder, plugged in the microphone, and began to broadcast my own music programme complete with jokes and witty repartee. The Animals, Searchers and Hollies could clearly be heard a dozen or so houses in all directions, up and down the street, across the road, and at the back. Between records came the jokes. “Did you hear about the constipated mathematician?” I was heard to ask, and before my mother could come running out of the house to put a stop to it I provided the answer. “He worked it out with a pencil.” Outrageous in the polite company of the early nineteen-sixties.

* One could write a whole piece about cigarette advertising. One amusing fact is that Marlboro cigarettes were originally marketed for women with slogans such as “Red beauty tips to match your lips and fingertips”, but Philip Morris gave the brand a sex change in 1954 when they began to advertise it as a filter cigarette for men, and introduced the ‘Marlboro Man’ who exuded masculine virility.