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Saturday 23 March 2019

George Gibbard Jackson

George Gibbard Jackson

Amongst my dad’s childhood books are two volumes in matching red bindings: The Splendid Book of Aeroplanes and The Splendid Book of Steamships by G. Gibbard Jackson. My dad’s name and address are inscribed inside both of them in my grandfather’s neat hand, together with the dates they were bought: the 25th and 26th of July, 1932. The steamships volume seems to have been bought the very next day on the strength of the aeroplanes one.

If so, it was a mistake. The Splendid Book of Aeroplanes is indeed a splendid book, packed with splendid tales, from the pioneers of flight right up to the nineteen-thirties. In contrast, the steamships book is unremarkable and prosaic, little more than a descriptive record.

Gibbard Jackson: The Splendid Book of Aeroplanes p96-97

For example, until I read the aeroplanes book, I had never heard of Mrs. Victor Bruce who made the first flight from London to Tokyo in 1930; a riveting story of forced landings, sheltering with desert tribesmen on the shores of the Persian Gulf, and contracting malaria in the Mekong jungle. This was just one of her many exploits in a life of derring-do. Incredibly, she lived until 1990. Why is she not as famous as Amy Johnson or the Campbells?

Then there is the moving story of Saloman Andrée’s balloon expedition to the North Pole in 1897, which failed to make the expected progress. The explorers despatched their last messenger pigeon, then nothing further was known of them until over thirty years later when their remains, diaries and exposed photographic plates were found by chance. They had been forced to land on the ice where they survived for over three months. The discovery of their final camp in 1930 was a global sensation.

George Gibbard Jackson
George Gibbard Jackson (1878-1935)
George Gibbard Jackson turned out books like these on a production line. Fifteen works by the same author are listed in the fronts of the Splendid Books, covering topics such as locomotives, submarines, engineering, exploration, postal services, sports and hobbies. A quick search of the internet doubles the number. Among his last publications were a guide to the Isle of Wight, and From Track to Highway: a story of British Roads.

Who was this prolific writer that few today will have heard of? A little research reveals that when he died, George Gibbard Jackson (1878-1935) was postmaster at Fareham, Hampshire. He had joined the postal service in his native Warwickshire, and worked his way up from the position of sorting clerk. Before Fareham he had spent several years as postmaster at Cobham, Surrey. He married twice, first to telegraphist Kate Emery in Coventry in 1901, and then, after Kate died, to Mabel Elizabeth Millington in Stivichall, Coventry, in 1915. He had four sons, one of whom died in childhood.

So writing was really a sideline. How could someone with a full-time job, bringing up a family between the wars in small-town southern England, find time to research and write so many books? Did his job have slack periods during the daytime? Did he spend all his spare time writing and researching? Did he neglect his family?

What about resources? In a previous post about research before the internet, I was at least referring to research in well-resourced university settings. Gibbard Jackson would have had to rely mainly on local libraries, newspapers, home encyclopaedias and similar works of reference, possibly books borrowed by post from national libraries, and maybe an occasional visit to larger resources in London or Southampton.

For example, he might have used Encyclopedia Britannica or Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia. Arthur Mee says quite a bit about the early days of flight – the Wright Brothers and so on – and while it makes only the briefest reference to the mystery of Andrée’s expedition, the newspapers were full of it in 1930 and 1931 after their final camp was discovered. Similarly, newspapers closely followed Mrs Victor Bruce’s flight during September, October and November, 1930. These secondary sources would have been sufficient for a writer of cracking tales, like Jackson, to be able to put together books for boys. And possibly his Isle of Wight book was planned on holiday. Only when you begin to look at the detail that is now available on the internet do you discover the omissions and deficiencies. For example, Jackson includes none of the photographs that emerged from the plates found in Andrée’s final camp. 

He must have been pleased with his achievements. Perhaps he even made a bit of money from his writing – he was comfortably well-off when he died. But it’s not the kind of writing I would want to do for long. It’s too much like work.

Some of Jackson’s books are now accessible in full-text format, such as The Splendid Books of Engineering, Locomotives and Steamships, but so far there seems to be no online version of the aeroplanes book.  (locomotives)  (steamships) (engineering)

Sunday 17 March 2019

Review - Keith Waterhouse: Billy Liar

Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse (1959)
Keith Waterhouse
Billy Liar (4*)

Another book from the list of those I should have read in my teens and early twenties, but didn’t because of the television we got when I was around twelve, which cut my reading from two or three books a week down to zero for the next ten years. I’ve never read the 1959 book, or seen either the 1963 film or the 1973 television series.

I could easily have become wrapped up in Billy Liar. He might have been me, or at least the rebellious subversive I wished I could be. You have to remember we were under the anarchic influences of The Who, Jethro Tull and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Billy Liar would have been another

Billy lives in a dismal Yorkshire town, cares nothing for his job as a clerk, has only contempt for his parents and keeps three girls on the go at the same time. He tells outrageous fibs to suit his shifting impulses, acts out jokey sketches with a chum from work and escapes into fantasy where, among other things, he dreams of being a comedy writer. Almost me, except for the three girls on the go: wouldn’t chance have been a fine thing, even just one?

This was nineteen-fifties, working-class Britain, not quite on the cusp of the youth consumer boom, before the upsurge of opportunity, when people worked long hours and made do: such as with the old raincoat Billy uses as a dressing gown. There isn’t a television set or record player in sight, and an Italian-cut suit is the only mention of fashion. Remnants of this life were still around in the late nineteen-sixties when I left school for office work instead of university, especially in office work, but things were beginning to change. I had more choice and was able to get away. Billy couldn’t. I felt disappointed at the end when he bottles his chance and goes back to his home and job.

Keith Waterhouse is often described as one of Britain’s funniest writers. “I don’t mind dark satanic mills,” says Billy, “but by gum when it comes to dark satanic shops, dark satanic housing estates and dark satanic police stations –”, although Billy has no ending to this pre-prepared sentence (p90). He keeps one girl friend’s postcards from her trips to various places around the country because they are at least literate: “I felt mildly peculiar to be treasuring love-letters for their grammar,” he says (p19).

Some of Waterhouse’s descriptions remind me of his contemporary, Les Dawson:
It was quiet outside the Roxy. The evening was warm, but on the crisp side. The sodium lamps were beginning to flicker on and off, dismally. The old gaffers who manned the Alderman Burrows memorial bench at the abandoned train terminus were beginning to crane themselves stiffly to their feet and adjust their mufflers… (p142)
His mimetic rendering of Yorkshire accents is a joy:
Does ta think ah could climb down yon ashpit?
Nay, tha’d break thi neck, Councillor!
Aye, well ah’sll have to manage it, whether or no. Ah’m bahn down to t’ police station.
What’s ta bahn down theer for, then?
We’re pulling t’ bugger down.
Tha’s not, is ta?
Aye, we are that. All yon cottages anall … It’s all change. All change, nowadays. T’ old buildings is going. T’ old street is going. T’ trams, they’ve gone.
Aye …
It we’re all horse-drawn trams, and afore that we had to walk. It’s all change. T’ old mills is going. T’ old dialect, that’s going, …
I think I know where Monty Python got the idea from.

Many accounts of Billy Liar make more of his grand fantasies about the imaginary country of Ambrosia, but I found this merely a contextual element, one of several running through the book, a device now well-used by writers to milk for laughs.

Billy Liar is fun to read. It is one of the great nineteen-fifties novels which, along with others by Alan Sillitoe, Kingsley Amis, John Braine, Stan Barstow and others, paved the way for a new style of fiction. Waterhouse’s later novel, Billy Liar on the Moon, set in the nineteen-seventies, might be a good follow up.

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 10 March 2019

We Know Where You’re From

Reposted as a New Month Old Post on 1st October, 2023.

Wednesday 6 March 2019


Castleford, Yorkshire: Church Street at the end of Bradley Avenue, early 1970s

Conversations can be disturbing. They come back to trouble you decades later, especially when they involve some element of social awkwardness, which in my case is quite a lot of conversations.

Not long after taking a job at a university in Scotland over thirty years ago, I was invited to a regular end-of-term gathering at a professor’s house where everyone and everything exuded an air of intellectual wealth and entitlement. Most people there were Scottish, with that precise self-assurance an educated Scottish accent gives you. I felt out of place with my English ears and English voice. I tried to look comfortable in such surrounding.

The professor’s wife, like me, was English – in her case posh plummy English. She had left her brick of a Ph.D. thesis, with its absurdly long title, casually out for all to see on an out-of-the-way occasional table we had to pass, or wait beside, on our way to the loo.

It was only a matter of time before someone was going to bring up the issue of my accent: my “dulcet Yorkshire tones” as they put it. The professor’s wife showed unexpected interest.

“Oh! I’m from Yorkshire too,” she revealed. I was taken in by the hint of something in common.

“Where abouts in Yorkshire?” I asked, predictably.

“C-aaastleford”, she replied, the ‘a’ drawn out as long as the title of her Ph.D. thesis.

Well, you probably know that Yorkshire people have a tendency to blurt straight out what they are thinking, and I did.

“Y’don’t sound as if ya coom from Cassalfud,” I said, in my normal voice of the time.

She looked like she wanted to pick up the thesis and hit me with it.

I wish I could say I passed it off with poise and confidence, but I didn’t. I flinched at every flashback for the next few weeks. I still do, sometimes. It’s like that for some of us who score highly on Asperger tests. At least it means you remember things you otherwise wouldn’t.

I was only invited there the once.

The photograph epitomises how I imagine Castleford was in the nineteen-sixties and nineteen-seventies, when, as in my own Yorkshire home town, the National Coal Board were still recruiting mining apprentices (“Look Ahead Lads!”).  If you find the location now on StreetView, the building in the right foreground is the only thing that still remains, barely recognisable. The other buildings have all gone, including what looks like a Tetley’s pub in the row of buildings on the left (they still use the same sign). The cars date the scene to the early nineteen-seventies: from left to right I think they are (all British made) a Triumph Herald, an Austin or Morris 1100, a Ford Escort and possibly an Austin estate on the right. I can hardly begin to make a stab at the cars in the modern picture.