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Sunday 28 July 2019

Playing With Dictionaries

A recent post on Elizabeth Slaughter’s blog Saved By Words reminded me how in the days before teenagers spent most of their time watching Love Island and YouTube videos we played with dictionaries. We used to thumb through looking for rude and amusing words.

It got off to a good start at Junior School where I swear we had a dictionary containing “trump: a small explosion between the legs”. I’m afraid I have been unable to find any confirmatory evidence of it.

Others we later became fans of include:

         cunette: a trench at the bottom of a ditch
         fustigate: to beat with a stick
         fustilug: a fat and untidy person
         steatopygia: excessive fatness of the buttocks

Oh how witty to call someone a fustilug with steatopygia or to threaten to fustigate them. Never would it have occurred to Oscar Wilde himself to refer to someone as a stupid cunette.

Or were we just being sanguinarily crepuscular?

Saturday 20 July 2019

Where were you?

‘Buzz’ Aldrin, Apollo 11 (Wikimedia commons)
Sunday, 20th July 1969

To add to all the other bloggers today, I had just hitch-hiked back from Hornsea.

I had been at work almost a year but most of my friends were still in education, either at university or waiting for ‘A’ level results hoping to go. I envied them. One was spending summer at his family’s caravan in Hornsea (see Hornsea Pottery), so on Saturday seven of us set off on scooters to look for him.

We found him where we knew we would, in the Marine Hotel. Later we sat around talking with some lads from Liverpool until two in the morning. On Sunday we got up early and built a driftwood fire on the beach. Most of the others then went off to Bridlington but I had to go to work on Monday, so hitch-hiked back on my own. If the ride there on the back of a scooter had been uncomfortable, part of the ride back at high speed on the pillion of a motorbike was terrifying (no compulsory crash helmets in those days). I also remember walking between lifts through the snobby and exclusive village of Walkington shortly before a police car drew up to investigate reports of a vagrant in the village.

I then saw the BBC coverage of the landing which consisted of little more than James Burke and the ever-excitable Patrick Moore talking over the audio feed from mission control. I did not stay up into the small hours to see the moon walk because I had to be up for the early train to Leeds. In the morning there was just time to see a few images of Armstrong and Aldrin “jumping around on the moon” as my mother put it, before I had to leave. On Monday I was not back to my digs from work in time for blast off so only saw it later on the news. None of the images were very clear anyway, except in the imagination. 

As for other “Where were you?” questions my answers are: (i) watching Take Your Pick on Friday, 22nd November 1963, when a news flash caused me to rush to the kitchen to tell Mum; (ii) walking from Manchester Victoria to U.M.I.S.T. on the morning of Tuesday, 9th December 1980, when I saw a newsstand headline; and (iii) checking the Teletext news headlines on the morning of Sunday, 31st August 1997, when I rushed downstairs to tell my wife and son. Not that I cared much about that last one. Should I remember any others? 

Tuesday 16 July 2019


Yesterday, windows open in the warm weather, I heard what I took to be the long plaintive moo of a cow on a nearby farm, but it was only the sound of machinery, perhaps a builder’s circular saw cutting wood. There were farms in the village when we moved here twenty-five years ago but they are long-gone for housing, and I haven’t seen animals in the nearby fields for some time now.

Sunday 14 July 2019

Angry Young Men

Alan Sillitoe: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning John Braine: Roome At The Top

Alan Sillitoe: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (4*)
John Braine: Room at the Top (4*)

Two more nineteen-fifties, angry-young-man novels: tales of northern working-class life set just after the war before the sixties and seventies provided an escape route from lives which would otherwise have been as predetermined as those of our parents. Thank goodness I was not born ten years earlier. I would never have had a chance, let alone a fourth chance after blowing the first three.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning begins with a nauseating scene of drunkenness and extra-marital sex. Arthur Seaton is a lathe operator doing piecework in a Nottingham bicycle factory. He earns good enough money to spend on nice suits and as much as he can drink at weekends. He can certainly drink a lot: eleven pints and seven gins to start, and then fall down a flight of stairs, wake up and drink a lot more and still have enough left to go to bed with a married woman while her husband is away.

In contrast, Joe Lampton in Room at the Top seems more civilised. He moves from the ugly industrial town of Dufton to the pleasant manufacturing town of Warley, both in Yorkshire, to take up a post in the municipal accountant’s department. From his thoughts you know he later becomes a wealthy man and that this is the story of how he got there.

While Arthur is uneducated and lives in the large extended family where he was born, Joe has accountancy qualifications and is making his way alone in a new town. What they have in common is that both are good-looking and clever, and both are trapped. Arthur is set to spend the rest of his life tied to a lathe and Joe will remain a local-government functionary, perhaps a gentler existence but hardly any better-off. White- or blue-collar the same: you slaved for small reward. Both resent it but respond in different ways.

At first, you want Joe to do well. It’s hard living in lodgings where you know no one, I’ve done it. But soon you begin to see into Joe’s vain and selfish mind and don’t much like what you find. He judges people, especially women, on a social scale from 1 to 10 and is determined to shag himself to the top. He starts at the town’s amateur dramatic society where he takes up with a worldly married woman, ten years his elder, for whom he develops some feeling, and also with the innocent high-class daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the town, who he doesn’t really love:
I was the devil of a fellow, I was the lover of a married woman, I was taking out the daughter of one of the richest men in Warley, there wasn’t a damn thing I couldn’t do.
Joe’s story leads to tragedy after he gets the wealthy daughter pregnant so he can marry upwards and join her father’s business, and then ditches his married lover who dies in a suicidal drunken car crash. Joe knows he is responsible, leaving an enduring sense of guilt, but it makes him no more likeable.

With Arthur, it’s the other way round. You think he’s disgusting at first but gradually come to understand and even have time for him. He is a rebel fighting against social norms:
I'm me and nobody else; and whatever people think I am or say I am, that's what I'm not, because they don't know a bloody thing about me.
Eventually, he is badly beaten by one of the husbands he has been cuckolding and confined to bed for a week. Recovering during a lively, crowded family Christmas, he comes to realise that even a rebel can be happy “where there’s life and there’s people”. At the end of the novel he is courting a single girl and planning to marry, but is never going to knuckle down completely:
And trouble for me it’ll be, fighting every day until I die… with mothers and wives, landlords and gaffers, coppers, army, government… dragged up through the dole and into the war with a gas-mask on your clock, and the sirens rattling into you every night while you rot with scabies in an air-raid shelter. Slung into khaki at eighteen, and when they let you out, you sweat again in a factory, grabbing for an extra pint, doing women at the weekend and getting to know whose husbands are on the night shift, working with rotten guts and an aching spine… well, it’s a good life and a good world, all said and done, if you don’t weaken.
Truly an angry young man.

Two and three decades later, I knew the settings of these books. Warley is perhaps Bradford or Bingley where Braine grew up and became a librarian. Life chances had increased for the young by the time I was travelling the mills and factories as an auditor, but I came across hundreds of all ages still stuck in the same old class-bound tram tracks. Things did change. We know now that a real Joe Lampton in a town hall would probably have become moderately successful through local-government expansion. But the one that stepped up through marriage would have had to be pretty smart when his business inevitably went bust.

Later, I lived in Nottingham for five years and remember the local dialect so brilliantly captured in Sillitoe’s novel (shopkeepers used to ask: “D’yer want enythink else duck?”). I went to Goose Fair and drank in The Trip to Jerusalem, and walked the country paths around Wollaton and Strelley where Arthur takes women and goes fishing (the locations are described by The Sillitoe Trail web site).

‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ is the only truly working-class story of the four so-called angry-young-man novels I’ve written about (the other two being university lecturer Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim and draughtsman/shop manager Vic Brown in A Kind of Loving; and should I include Billy Liar as well?). A real Arthur Seaton would have faced the hardship of redundancy and the dole when the factories closed. Had I come across anyone like him or his hard-drinking, hard-knuckled family, I wouldn’t have dared go near them. I guess that’s because I did indeed escape and now my family mock when I claim to be working class.

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 

Saturday 6 July 2019

Mrs Quackworth (reposted by Smorgasbord Blog Magazine)

Sally Cronin’s fourth and final selection from my archives for her Smorgasbord Blog Magazine is a post from a year ago about a next-door neighbour we nicknamed Mrs. Quackworth. I dont know how she ever put up with our muck-chucking fights across her garden.

It has been interesting to see which items Sally would select, it being hard to know for sure which posts others particularly like. Had I been asked to select four myself they might have been completely different. Thanks, Sally, for the many hours you must have spent looking back through our archives - not just mine but all the others too.

The Smorgasbord repost invitation is here

The reposted post is here

Mrs Quackworth 


With the Operatic Society around 1920
Until I was ten or eleven I had to share a bedroom with my younger brother. We were sent to bed at the same time, which meant he got to stay up later than I had at his age and I had to go sooner than I thought I should.

It was not even dark in summer. We could hear Timmy from next door-but-one bumping along the pavement on his trolley, made from a long board and some old pram wheels. We were in bed but he was still playing out at ten o’clock at night. That was really unfair. He was two years younger than me.

Downstairs we could hear the next-door neighbour talking with our parents. She sounded like a duck, as did her name ...
Read original post (~1200 words)

Wednesday 3 July 2019

250 Words A Minute

Funny what you find to read in holiday cottages.

This year among the usual Readers’ Digests and paperback novels in a well-stocked bookcase we found a history of hymns which gave us an uplifting Sunday morning sing-song, and Teach Yourself Pitmans Shorthand.

No doubt, many will remember using shorthand, but it has long been a mystery to me. In my early working days, bosses dictated letters and reports to secretaries for typing. Secretaries kept up with what was said, no matter how quickly, by writing in shorthand. Journalists also used it to record verbatim court proceedings and interviews. To me, it looked like impenetrable lines of squiggles. It might as well have been in Persian or Arabic.

Not being sufficiently important to dictate to a secretary, I usually had to draft things for typing in ordinary longhand. By the time I’d climbed up the hierarchy we had computers so I had to type content myself. Shorthand remained a dark art. 

In the holiday cottage, I left the book out on the breakfast table with a notepad to practice. Obviously, no one is going to learn shorthand in a week but at least I might gain some understanding of how it works.

Pitmans shorthand (there are other forms) uses a system of heavy and light, straight and curved strokes, together with dots, dashes, hooks, loops and circles to represent the sounds of the English language.

Here are some exceedingly basic examples:

  • The ‘p’ sound is represented by a lightly written \ and the similar sounding but voiced ‘b’ by a heavier \
  • Similarly, ‘t’ and ‘d’ are represented by a light and heavy | and |
  • ‘ch’ and ‘j’ are represented by a light and heavy / and /
  • Consonants at the start of words are written above the line and those at the end below.
  • Vowels are represented by strokes placed before or after a consonant, such as light and heavy – and to represent short ‘o’ or long ‘oa’ sounds (i.e. the sounds not the spelling so 'note' and 'boat' are the same).
  • ‘s’ is represented by a small loop on either the top or bottom of the consonant depending on whether it occurs before or after.

It gets much more complicated with marks for other vowels and consonants, for common prefixes and suffixes, and various simplifications, but just with the above you can write:

Even from these simple examples, it is easy to see how shorthand can be written more quickly than longhand. The preface to the book says:
The compilers wish to place on record their acknowledgement of the help rendered in the preparation of this volume by Miss Emily D. Smith, only Holder of the National Union of Teachers’ Certificate for shorthand speed writing at 250 words a minute.
She achieved this on the 22nd March 1934 during a five-minute test using a passage of 1,250 words. Two hundred and fifty words a minute for five minutes! That’s more than four a second. How can anyone speak that fast to dictate them? She must have spent all her time practising. Perhaps that’s why she was only ‘Miss’ Emily D. Smith.

But no, that completely unacceptable feline and sexist remark is wrong. She married Thomas Law in Croydon in 1935 and moved to Glasgow and later to Birmingham. I found these:

What an amazing skill! Especially when combined with high-speed typing. It was clearly equal to skills needed in many higher paid men’s jobs, say, in manufacturing and transport. Yet they were “only” shorthand-typists and paid as such.

Actually, I did once dictate a letter. I remember one phrase exactly. I said, “For the sake of clarity, we set out the details in the table below.” It came out as “For the sake of charity, …” and would have gone off like that to the Inspector of Taxes had a partner not spotted it. I got rollocked for not checking it more carefully.

Since returning from holiday I have been playing with this shorthand transcription resource and can therefore sign my name as:

I can just about see how it works, e.g. the initial ‘T’ and ‘D’, although these are more complex two-syllable words. And no, I didn’t pinch the book from the cottage. I put it back in the bookcase. I got to the end of Lesson 1.

What did you do on your holiday?

Tuesday 2 July 2019

Research Before The Internet (reposted by Smorgasbord Blog Magazine)

Sally Cronin’s third selection from my archives for her Smorgasbord Blog Magazine is my review of Antonia Byatt's novel Possession along with an account of how it brings back to life what it used to feel like carrying out university research before the days of abundant electronic resources and the internet. 

The Smorgasbord repost invitation is here

The reposted post is here

Research Before The Internet (as evoked by A. S. Byatt - Possession: a Romance)

The plot concerns two modern day scholars researching the lives of two fictional Victorian poets, and it’s a lot more exciting than that makes it sound - a cracking mystery story in fact.

For anyone whose university days predated the turn of the century, when we had to go to libraries to look things up in books and journals, or even use primary sources, perhaps researching a thesis, dissertation or final-year project, Possession brings it all back. You feel as if you are researching the Victorian poets yourself.

Read original post (~800 words)