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Wednesday 26 February 2020

Review - Simon W. Golding: Life After Kes

Simon W. Golding
Life After Kes (3*)

I bought this about the making of the 1969 film Kes after reading the novel, A Kestrel For A Knave (earlier review). I got the Kindle version: the first Kindle book I have paid for in eight years of ownership, a very reasonable £2.99. It seems to have first appeared in hardback in 2006, but this Kindle version, dated 2014, contains a lot of additional material, as does presumably the 306-page paperback published in 2016. This gives it at times a somewhat repetitive, cobbled-together nature.

The book tells the story of the making of the film and how it changed the lives of all who participated, both during and after. The author, Simon Golding, sought out and interviewed just about everyone involved, including production staff and those who had minor parts such as the girl who delivered the reading in school assembly and the boy who was unjustly caned by the headmaster. In other words, although fascinating, it tells you far more than you could ever want to know.

The only professional actor in the film was Colin Welland who played teacher Mr. Farthing. Duggie Brown, the milkman, was a professional entertainer. Other characters were played by local people. For many of them it opened eyes, broadened horizons and changed lives. David (Dai) Bradley, the local schoolboy who played Billy, went on to television and theatre roles, notably in Equus. Brian Glover, the sports teacher, a games teacher in real life, became an acclaimed actor and writer, and also a wrestler. Freddie Fletcher who played Billy’s brother Jud, and Lynne Perry (real-life sister of Dougie Brown) who played their mother, also went on to successful acting careers. Even for those who had more ordinary jobs and careers, taking part in the film was a valuable educational experience. I guess that nowadays it would be outside the national curriculum.

Their memories of the film and what subsequent became of them are, at times, fascinating, and there are some amusing anecdotes. For example, Bob Naylor who played the bully, McDowell, remembers Glover as his real-life games teacher being just like he is in the film. He recalls him once showing off his “fantastic” new Adidas ice-white trainers to the boys before a football lesson, and them then trying to scuff them in tackles. Naylor later remembers being mocked at the bakery where he worked every time Kes appeared on television, until he told everyone, untruthfully, that he was paid £200 in royalties every time it was shown.

Life After Kes also has a great deal about director Ken Loach’s scriptless working methods, such as how he set up the football and classroom scenes giving different instructions to different characters. The script supervisor describes both Ken Loach and cinematographer Chris Menges as totally ruthless, very much at odds with their gentle personas. The book is also social history, detailing how northern schools and the town of Barnsley – its economy and community – used to be. It was something of a marathon to get to the end but for anyone captivated by the film Kes and the book on which it is based, it is good value. 

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Previous book reviews 

Wednesday 19 February 2020

The Compton Road Library

Compton Road Library, Leeds (from Pinterest)
Leeds Compton Road Library in the 1980s

This ‘memoir’ started as a kind of autobiographical attempt to understand how things changed during my time and how I got to where I am, a record for posterity in the forlorn and vainglorious misbelief that someone might one day be interested. I hope it is not too tedious to return to this idea now and again.

One thing I wonder about is how I fell into such an agreeable career in computing and universities after badly messing up three previous chances: failed ‘A’ levels, abandoned accountancy training and student teacher dropout. Fortunately, for post-war baby boomers, chopping and changing was easier than for any other generation before or since.

At twenty-four I was in a run-down shared house and ordinary office job, a lowly clerk with a Leeds clothing manufacturer. It was pleasant enough: home at five, no exams, no correspondence courses, no expectations. It was the largest clothing factory in Europe: cheap suits, nice canteen, warm sausage rolls on the tea break trolley and three hours in the pub every Friday afternoon. You could idle your whole life away. One lad just four years older had already done fourteen years. Real old-timers still talked fondly of Sir Montague, the firm’s founder, and crossed off their days to retirement on the calendar.

With my record what else could I do? Backtrack? Repeat the same things? They said to take the Cost and Management Accountants exams but I barely went through the motions. Eighteen months drifted by. Yet in that time I made progress – seemingly by doing nothing much at all. 

Compton Road Library, Leeds (from Pinterest)

Along the road was the tranquil lunchtime retreat of the Compton Road Library, an L-shaped building on the corner with Harehills Lane: the adult library in one wing, the children’s in the other, always warm, always silent, a pervading smell of floor polish throughout. Like all libraries then, they still used the 1895 Browne Issue System: the Pinterest photograph shows the catalogue drawers and tray of readers’ tickets holding cards from books out on loan.

It seemed far more extensive than the picture shows. I got through three or four books a week. It felt like a displacement activity but some left quite an impression. What did I read all that time ago?

Poucher: the Scottish Peaks

There were walking and mountaineering books. Chris Bonington’s I Chose to Climb and The Next Horizon really caught my imagination. I acted them out on walks, scrambled up mountains, bought a Minivan, grew a beard and tried to write things. I took W. A. Poucher’s The Scottish Peaks, a treasure trove of routes and photographs, to Glen Brittle in Skye in the Minivan door pocket and got it soaked. It looked so awful I daren’t take it back, so said I’d lost it and had to pay £1. I’ve still got its stained and curly pages.

There were biographies and autobiographies. I dreamt of escaping like a hermit to some isolated part of Scotland, like Gavin Maxwell in Ring of Bright Water. I tried to emulate R. F. Delderfield who mentions in For My Own Amusement that as a young writer he had been advised to write character sketches of people he knew: “mental photography” he called it. I wondered what it might be like in a garret in Paris struggling to be a writer like V. S. Pritchett in Midnight Oil, “a free man in Paris, unfettered and alive,” as Joni Mitchell put it.

I was unimpressed by Jonathan Aitken’s The Young Meteors in which he interviewed over two hundred leading lights of pop music, film, television, art, photography, clothing, design, politics and business from nineteen-sixties ‘swinging’ London. Some were truly talented but many had either known the right people or just been lucky. 

There was fiction: A. J. Cronin, O. Henry and more – anything so long as it was not accountancy.

And all the time I was asking “could I do that?”, “could I be like this?”, “could I write like that?”

We reach a point in our lives where we need to construct an identity for ourselves: to decide who we would like to be and who not. Some manage it as teenagers, others later and a few possibly never. Some get there gradually, others in leaps and bounds. It might take no conscience effort or be a tortured, soul-searching experience. It can take several attempts. For me, it was definitely late, bounding and tortured with false starts. 

“It’s a good career, accountancy. Stick at it. You’ll be all right once you’re qualified,” they said, but I was reading about people who had made their own way.

I was never going to chuck everything in for a Parisian garret or Scottish hermitage, but back came the idea of becoming a mature student: at university, not a return to Teacher Training College. The only way would be to take ‘A’ Levels again, a daunting prospect. I approached temp agencies to work flexibly while resitting them, and handed in my notice.

“Don’t cock it up again,” said one of the few supportive friends I had left, mock anguish on his face as he imagined the consequences.

“Course not,” I said with pretend confidence, not too sure.

One thing I am sure of though. A decade or so earlier there would have been no chance. In all likelihood, it would have been national service, back to where I came from, a mundane job and family responsibilities sooner rather than later. Ties. Restrictions. Few opportunities. I doubt I would get as many breaks now, either.

Sunday 9 February 2020

Washing Machines Old and New

Our washing machine has been very temperamental of late. Driving us mad! It would be fine for a few weeks and then decide to go on the blink and refuse to progress more than a couple of minutes into its cycle. It could take half an hour or more to get it going. It would then do the same the next time. Then, after a few days, it would decide to behave itself for a while.

Dolly Tub. Coventry Evening Telegraph 22Feb1968

You never had problems with a dolly tub. They worked every time. Mum would boil water in the copper in the wash house at the end of the garden, ladle it into the dolly tub and swish the washing round with what she called a ‘peggy stick’. Then it was through the ‘wringer’ and on to the washing line to dry. Or if raining, it was hung on the ‘creel’ clothes rack descending by pulley from the scullery ceiling. Tried, tested, reliable technology. Mind you, it wasn’t a good idea to leave your clothes on the rack for long, especially when frying bacon.

Even when we got a top-loading Ada washing machine with a powered ‘wringer’ on top it ran trouble-free for years. You just had to be careful not to catch your thumbs in the mangle. Its newer replacements and stand-alone spin dryers were never much hassle either.

My recent post about donkey stones sparked off quite a few comments about dolly tubs and mangles. I see the association too, even though donkey stones had nothing to do with washdays. There are lots of evocative photographs on the internet. Here are some closest to what I remember.

Washday Memories
Top: brick copper with a fireplace for heating water, dolly tub and stick, brass posser, wringer (mangle).
Bottom: wooden clothes horse, creel (pulley clothes rack), 1950s Ada washing machine
What you can’t recreate, of course, are the sensations: the rattle of a peg round the corrugations of an empty dolly tub, the soft, smooth weight of a dolly stick, the ring of a brass posser, the steamy heat of the brick copper, the smell of soap flakes and wet washing, the brace of a clothes prop against a washing line on a windy day, condensation running down the walls, steamed up windows.

The Ada drawing reminded me of the door on the front and low switch and lever on the side, things I’d forgotten completely. I suppose I must have spent quite a lot of time at floor level in those days. We got the Ada around 1953. Later that decade, we bought a stand-alone spin dryer. They were replaced by nineteen-sixties models. I am not sure whether my parents ever had a twin-tub, but, like most households in Britain, they moved up to a front-loading automatic washing machine during the nineteen-seventies.

The old dolly tubs were not entirely trouble free. Archive newspapers contain many sad stories of children drowning in them, and eventually they sprang leaks. One elderly woman in Coventry, among the last to use one, found that by 1968 it was almost impossible to replace. A local brewery came to her aid with a sawn-in-half beer barrel. It was also best to use good soap flakes – it seems nothing could be worse than undissolved soap in your undies. But you could claim any brown or yellowish stains were from the wooden creel or clothes horse.

Dolly Tub. Coventry Evening Telegraph 22Feb1968 Advert for Lux Soap Flakes, 1938

Samsung ecobubble automatic washing machine
Back to our present-day troubles. Sometimes you could get the washing machine to work by starting again on a different programme. At other times you had to put it on spin to pump out the water (even though it wouldn’t actually spin), take out the wet washing and begin again with just half a load. You sat there twiddling thumbs waiting for the timer to unlock the door. We never knew whether it was going to indulge us or not. We were ready to call out a repairer (knowing, of course, that it would work perfectly when the repairer came) or simply just buy a new one, even though it’s a good model and only a few years old.

In the end we didn’t need to. It dawned on us that the problem might be something to do with the weight of the load: a faulty sensor perhaps. It appears the Samsung ecobubble weighs the washing to decide how much water it needs: a great idea in principle with the potential to save both water and electricity, but not such a great idea when it goes wrong.

The problem had also become much worse since we moved the machine from one end of the kitchen to the other. Did you know that with some modern washing machines, when first installed, or when moved, you are supposed to calibrate the load sensor? The deliverers/installers did not do this, nor the plumbers when they moved it. Once you know, the instructions in the user manual are straightforward.

Samsung ecobubble calibration instructions

Too clever by half! It has been trouble free since we did that. But my mother never had to calibrate her dolly tub or wringer, and the only load sensor she needed was the judgement not to hang so much weight on the clothes rack as to bring down the kitchen ceiling. 

Now don’t get me started on outside toilets. Here is another picture of that lady in her underwear.

Advert for Lux Soap Flakes, 1938

To be able to see the newspaper articles large enough to read (on Windows PCs) you may need to (1) left-click the image to get a slightly larger version (2) right-click the new image which brings up a menu (3) depending on which browser you are using you can then select one of the following: view image, view image in new tab, save image (4) if you have saved the image you should be able to find it on your desktop or in "my pictures", and should then be able to open and enlarge it in your default image viewer.

Wednesday 5 February 2020


Images link to Which? and Guardian articles

I’d never get scammed. Not me: M.Sc. in computing, software writer, programming teacher, systems consultant, researcher, lecturer, forty years computer experience. I even wrote articles for so-called learned journals. Scammed? Me? Never! 

A month ago I bought something from Amazon. I know. I shouldn’t. They’re a scheming, two-faced outfit who don’t pay their fair share of tax and use too much non-recyclable packaging, but it was convenient. And before I knew, I’d signed up to a month’s free trial of Amazon Prime.

You have to credit the devious way they trick you into clicking that button while making you think you’re just selecting free delivery. There seemed to be no other way forward. It’s a masterpiece of interaction design. They hope you’ll forget you’ve signed up and that later you won’t notice the £7.99 disappearing from your bank account every month. 

I wasn’t worried. I knew all I had to do was go to my Amazon Settings –> Accounts and Lists –> Your Prime Membership and unsubscribe. I knew that because it’s the second time I’ve been caught out. It shows how ingenious they are that I should fall for it again, even when trying not to. I am not alone (see another Which? article).

You have to confirm you really do want to unsubscribe; that you don’t want the free next-day delivery, the video and music streaming, the books, the games and other supposed benefits. Well I don’t. I’m not interested. So I unsubscribed. Nevertheless, want it or not, you still get the free trial for the full duration. You can’t opt out. It’s like a stop smoking programme that supplies you with free cigarettes just in case you don’t really want to stop.

You harbour a lingering unease they are still out to get you somehow. For the rest of the month you are checking your Amazon account every few days to make sure it still says “Your free trial will expire on …” and afterwards that “You are no longer a member of Amazon Prime”. It did. All looked absolutely fine.

But then, two days after the trial ended, I received a phone call on the landline, an automated voice reminding me that my Amazon Prime subscription was about to be renewed at a cost of £39.99 to be charged to my bank account and that if I did not want to renew I should press 1 to speak to an account manager.

Did I believe it? Well yes. Given the circumstances you can see why. I was furious. Did I press 1? No, but only because the phone had not been resting properly on its stand so the battery went flat and cut me off. Would I have pressed 1 if not cut off? Probably not, but I can’t be sure. Amazon does have my landline number on the account but no mobile. I thought it might be a text-to-speech message.*

I was agitated for the rest of the day. I logged on to Amazon to check it still said: “You are no longer a member of Amazon Prime”. I checked my bank account. Only on finding the Guardian and Which? articles did I begin to relax. But in the sense that I believed it a genuine call, yes, I’ve been scammed.

Scams depend on timing and circumstance. If you email enough people to say their Wordpress account has been compromised and they should log in immediately using the link you provide, some will fall for it, especially if they do indeed have a Wordpress account and have recently experienced problems (Blogger users, of course, would instantly see straight through such a simple trick). Pressing 1 would have connected me on a premium rate line to some irresistibly persuasive person in Africa wanting me to allow them remote access to my computer, give them my bank card details or log on to a fake website. I could have been thousands of pounds out of pocket. 

Scammed? Me? Er, no way?


*If it had been sent as a text, then pressing ‘1’ would have had no effect because there is no direct connection to the sender while reading a text. 


Saturday 1 February 2020

New Month Old Post: The Vauxhall Griffin

(first posted 13th August, 2017)

Julian Orchard as the Vauxhall Griffin - TV ad 1973
Summer 1973 Vauxhall Griffin advert (click to play)

We were out of the office, auditing the books of a small Vauxhall dealership in Selby. The owner thought Vauxhalls nothing short of wonderful: the Viva, the Victor, the Ventora, the greatest value, the most reliable, the most beautiful cars you could buy. Why would anyone consider anything else? He told us to watch out for the new Vauxhall television advert to be shown for the first time that evening. It was going to be incredible.

The following morning he was seething.

“Did you see it last night? Bloody awful! I don’t know how they expect that to sell any cars. A great puffy bloke leaping around in tights! Who the hell’s going to buy a Vauxhall after that?” I wanted to ask whether he and his staff would be wearing the costume too.

Watching again now I can see what he meant. This dubious Jack-in-the-Green-type character, loitering behind bushes in what looks like the gardens of a crematorium, seems the kind of guy who might have difficulty passing a DBS check. What on earth was Vauxhall thinking?

Along with lots of other dealers, the owner was straight on the phone to Vauxhall and the ad was pulled within the week. I never thought I’d see it again. The company must surely have tried to erase it permanently from the history books. Yet like all things embarrassing, it has resurfaced on the internet.

Most commentators on YouTube dislike it too. They describe the character as creepy: “scares the kids...”, “... and the adults”, “if that thing appeared on my Vauxhall it would get shot”, “talk about a marketing mistake”.

Yet having now seen it a few times, I wonder whether Vauxhall should have persisted. Is the griffin any less disagreeable than the meerkats, dogs or opera singers of today’s ads? We might have warmed to him. We might have begun to find him likeable and amusing. The supercilious catchphrase “Like me!” might have caught on.

The actor was Julian Orchard in one of his typical roles: what Wikipedia describes as a gangling, effete and effeminate dandy. With his long horse-face he was one of the best and funniest comedy support actors in the country. He reminds me a little of the comedian Larry Grayson who before the nineteen-seventies was considered too outrageous for television. Perhaps we weren’t quite ready for this kind of campness in 1973.

Imagine a different outcome, the country taking the griffin to heart, a series of griffin ads: “You’re never alone with a griffin”, “Put a griffin in your tank”. Imagine a family of cuddly griffin toys, plastic griffin figurines free with every gallon of petrol, a griffin hit song on Top of the Pops, children in griffin outfits and Julian Orchard making his fortune. Sadly, he died in 1979 aged only 49.

The more I watch the ad the more I like it. It’s brilliant. Ahead of its time: “Like me!”