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Sunday 26 April 2020

Review - Margaret Drabble: The Millstone

Margaret Drabble:
The Millstone (4*)

Another from the Penguin Decades series – novels that helped shape modern Britain – although my copy is a different edition.

It was first published in 1965 and set in the ‘Swinging Sixties’ when, we are led to believe, sexual liberation was well on the way, at least in London. Rosamund, the protagonist, becomes pregnant after a one-night stand, her one and only sexual experience. Being apparently confident and independent she chooses to have and raise the baby, a girl. She keeps the father’s identity secret from her small circle of friends, and from the father too, and they all admire her determination. 

Well, I don’t know about London, but in my part of Yorkshire, in 1965, it would have been outrageous. Any young woman who got pregnant out of wedlock, no matter how independently minded, would have had a very difficult time indeed. I think of a pretty girl at school whose boyfriend, as rumour had it, was unable to resist her comely body, lovely dark hair and earthy name, or maybe her, his. It was whispered, and then yelled with thoughtless hilarity around town, that they had tried to use a rain mate* as a home-made contraceptive. More home making soon followed. No G.C.E. ‘A’ Levels for her. They were shotgunned together and moved away. Had they stayed around, she would for ever have been known as Mrs. Rain Mate.

In the book, Rosamund is the well-educated daughter of socialist, academic parents, living alone in their large apartment while they are abroad. She is also an academic herself (yes, another one), completing a Ph.D. thesis on Elizabethan sonnets. She narrates her story in intelligent, self-possessed sentences with the word “I” appearing perhaps twenty times on every page. At first I had reservations about this, but it reflects her character. It also betrays her shyness and uncertainties. She is not as confident and independent as she pretends. She is diffident with friends, cannot confide feeling, things are left unsaid and commitments unmade. It is very clever writing.

Yet, Rosamund is capable enough to muddle her way through nineteen-sixties NHS waiting rooms and hospitals, and encounters with other mothers across the class divide. She knows she is treated with more respect because of her address and appearance, but knows how to get what she wants when she isn’t. Although the baby changes her life and her outlook, she still completes her thesis and is offered an academic post.

The millstone of the title is not, as one might first think, the baby. The reference is biblical, to Matthew 18:6: it is less distressing to drown with a millstone round one’s neck than to suffer the consequences of hurting a little one (my interpretation). Rosamund would have found it unbearable not to have the baby and bring it up herself. In essence, the novel celebrates maternity and motherhood, although not in any sentimental way. Rosamund retains her academic detachment throughout – none of the “beauty’s rose might never die” stuff of her Elizabethan sonnets. Even so, it is unlikely I would have been persuaded to read it as a teenager when it first came out.

* rain mate: a foldable, waterproof head covering worn mainly by women, usually made from thin, transparent plastic film.

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 18 April 2020

Norn Iron

Map of Northern Ireland

I had been asked (i.e. told) at short notice to give an outline of our business computing system to some new customers whose primary contact had been sent off to an urgent problem abroad. All I knew was that the four guys in front of me were from an outfit called NIPF and that they spoke with those throaty Northern Irish voices you sometimes hear on television. One, a big, confident man in his fifties with a shiny, shaved head and intense stare, was clearly in charge. Another was half his size and looked a bit shifty. I began, predictably, by introducing myself and asking their names.

“Con Cluskey,” answered the one on the left.

“John Stokes,” said the big, confident man.

“Eric Wrixon,” said the third.

“John Stokes,” said the little, shifty guy.

“Oh! That’s interesting.” I exclaimed. “So, you’re John Stokes as well? You’re both called John Stokes?”

John Stokes 2 looked flustered. “Sorry. It’s Morrison... Van… er, George… George Morrison… George Morris.”

“He’s very tired,” said John Stokes 1.

It was unsettling, but it seemed best to let it go and get on with the presentation. I showed them the system: how it could keep track of their computers and printers and other pieces of equipment, and would tell them when they needed updating or maintaining, and could record what things had gone wrong and repairs that had been carried out, and what parts they used, and so on. All went well.

When I got home that evening, I told the future Mrs. D. about the guy who didn’t know his own name.

“As if they weren’t using their real names,” she suggested.

It turned out that was indeed the case. In fact, they possibly did not even know each others’ real names. And it wasn’t just for maintaining computers they had bought the system. They had mobile communications equipment, surveillance kit and other stuff they’d rather not talk about.

Three or four weeks later, the Customer Support Director called me in. He asked me (i.e. told me) to go to Belfast to run a two-day training course for NIPF’s staff.

“It’s extremely confidential,” he warned. “They asked specifically for you. You have been checked out and granted security clearance. I would fully understand if you didn’t want to go. It would not count against you in any way .” Of course he would. Of course it wouldn’t. I started to feel very apprehensive. Not put too fine a point on it, I felt a bit sick. 

NIPF was a covert name for the Northern Ireland Police Force, then known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). It was the late nineteen-eighties and they were still dealing with the ethno-nationalist “Troubles” between warring paramilitary groups. Three members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) had recently been shot by British security forces in Gibraltar, and at their funeral in Belfast a member of the opposing Ulster Defence Association (UDA) had thrown grenades at the coffin and shot three people dead. At one of the ensuing funerals, two British Army corporals were surrounded in their car, taken away and killed. It was not a place any English person would go for a holiday.

When I told the future Mrs. D. where I was going, not even giving the full details, she almost had a meltdown. It’s the kind of thing that brings home how much you love each other.

Well, I am still here. NIPF gave me strict rules to follow. I would be met at the airport and taken to a hotel. The hotel was safe, but I was not to leave it under any circumstances. I would be collected each morning and taken to NIPF’s HQ, and returned to the hotel again in the evening. They would take me back to the airport at the end of the second day. I should speak as little as possible so as not to reveal my English accent. Everything would be fine, they assured me. The effect was to make me even more queasy and apprehensive.

John Stokes 1 collected me from Belfast International Airport. The windows of his Ford Granada had inch-thick glass. He warned me to mind my hands as he heaved shut the heavy door. It was reinforced with steel plating. The car averaged about seven miles to the gallon. When I asked was it all really necessary he said the route between the airport and hotel passed through bandit country and it would be dangerous if we broke down. Otherwise, it was just like being at any other customers’ except for the armoured Land Rovers parked outside, and the canteen where uniformed squaddies piled their submachine guns and body armour outside in the corridor. I didn’t eat much.

One thing I did like was the Belfast accent: the way they say “BelFAAST” with a big, wide “aa”; how words like “now” and “flower” become “noy” and “floyyer” (“hoy noy broyn coy”); the way they pronounce Rs at the end of words; how “rain” becomes “reey-in’ ”. They gave me elocution lessons, although I was a poor learner. On leaving, they gave me a present, a book on how to speak “Norn Iron” (you sound both Rs in that).

My queasy apprehension did not lift until safely on the plane home. I gazed over Port St. Mary and the little island known as the Calf of Man glowing in the evening sunlight, and giggled on finding the phrase I might have used to buy medicine for an unsettled stomach without giving away my English accent (remember, emphasis on the big wide “aa”s):

“Do you hav’ a battle fer vamittin’?”

Sunday 12 April 2020


With the current restrictions, how fortunate to live in a village and have a garden: not to be incarcerated in a flat in a city centre without any outside space. Here are some recent springtime photographs and a video of last night’s visitors caught by the night camera (assembled 10-second clips with time and other details at the bottom). The camera is tied to the apple tree above the primroses/polyanthus. We might have a scruffy garden but at least the hedgehogs seem to like it and appreciate the dish of water. Happy Easter.

That’s a very brave mouse you can just spot zooming across beside the first cat.

Thursday 9 April 2020


Piano, 'toy' xylophone and tenor guitar

How many musical instruments are there in your house?

It came up in conversation a few weeks ago at the orchestra where Mrs D plays bassoon. Some answers were truly astonishing.

Our answer is 29. That surprised us but it is nowhere near as many as some. At the folk band I’m in, one chap, let’s call him Clive, could probably outdo them all. He spends every spare moment attending residential workshops of one kind or another, for ever having just come back from a few days playing Dixie banjo or resonator slide guitar, or making Bodhráns, or something similarly esoteric. He keeps bringing along his latest instrument to show us. You get the impression he could single-handedly equip an attempt on the world record for the largest ceilidh band (at present 288). 

To get to our 29, I have counted anything capable of playing a simple melody in tune with other instruments. It is boosted by the kids’ instruments that are still here as they haven’t really left yet. Son takes after mum and did grades in piano and violin. Daughter is more of a dabbler like me but can get a tune out of almost anything.

Electronic Keyboard
Son’s violin
Daughter’s violin
Clarinet (Buffet B12)
Clarinet (Selmer Signet)
Epiphone jumbo acoustic guitar
Teisco Tremo Twenty electric guitar
Ashbury electro-acoustic tenor guitar
Tanglewood electro-acoustic guitar
Nylon stringed acoustic guitar
Soprano ukulele
Baritone ukulele
Single octave ‘toy’ xylophone in D
Chromatic harmonica
Tenor recorder
Alto recorder
6 descant recorders
Penny whistle
Set of ‘toy’ plastic whistles in C

The Cramer upright piano (pictured), from my wife’s childhood, is the oldest, followed by the electric guitar acquired for £10 from a friend of my brother around 1972, but it still plays. The bassoon is next, then my Epiphone acoustic guitar from Kitchen’s music shop in Leeds around 1975. I still have the receipt for the Buffet clarinet for £237.58 dated the 14th March, 1990. Except for some of the recorders, the others are mostly less than twenty years old. The four-string GDAE tenor guitar (also pictured above) is newest, bought this year. I am still too much in denial to admit how much it cost.

We have, between us, also had other harmonicas, bassoons, violins and guitars, including an electric bass lost many years ago during a house move. It seems only yesterday I was pretending to be able to do an A-chord on my first guitar (a metal stringed Sheltone) around 1965. It wasn’t an easy guitar to play, but it strengthened my hands and toughened the ends of my fingers.

Monday 6 April 2020

The Signalman’s Dilemma

A railway signalman spots a runaway truck hurtling down the line, about to crash into an elderly couple who are not paying much attention to anything other than taking photographs of flowers between the tracks (growing there because of lack of maintenance?).

The signalman could divert the runaway truck on to a different track by changing the points. However, there are people on the other track too, a group of five railway workers who (owing to privatisation policies?) have been badly trained and are eating their sandwiches and not keeping proper watch.

Should the signalman switch the points so that the truck will run over the railway workers, or do nothing and watch the elderly couple die?

Now, a different dilemma.

You are the dictator of a country in the grip of a lethal virus. You can minimise the number of deaths by making most people stay at home for months so that they don’t come into contact with each other. This, however, will cause long-term levels of unemployment, poverty, hunger, untreated illness and inequality not seen since the early nineteen thirties, as a result of which an unknown number of people will die.

Alternatively, you can impose fewer restrictions and avoid damaging the economy, but this will result in certain deaths from the virus, possibly including your family, friends and even yourself.

Which would you choose? A difficult decision would have to be made.

Wednesday 1 April 2020

New Month Old Post: School Metalwork

(first posted 21st November 2017)

Metalwork Forge
The heat, the acridity, the instruments of torture - it was like entering the bowels of hell

By the time Tinplate Thompson had finished describing the gruesome horrors of the metalwork shop, we were too scared to move. He went over and over all the ways to hurt or injure yourself: cutting your skin on sharp edges, scraping it on rough surfaces, hitting your fingers with a hammer, trapping them in pincers, burning your flesh with a soldering iron, melting it with molten metal, ripping off your scalp by catching your hair in a machine, or an arm by catching a sleeve, … the list went on and on. It was so terrifying that none of us made light of it when he ended with “... and remember, before you pick up any metal, spit on it to make sure it’s not hot.”

The first thing you noticed was the smell: sharp, bitter and pungent, a mixture of metal polish, machine oil, cutting fluid and soldering flux. It clung to your hair and clothes. You knew when Thompson had walked down a corridor before you because it hung in the air behind him in an invisible cloud. You could follow it like a bloodhound. Sometimes, you catch a reminder from plumbers who have been soldering pipes, or brass musicians. It brings it back: the heat, the acridity, the instruments of torture. It was like entering the bowels of hell.

There were lethal looking hand tools, powered lathes, drills, cutters, grinders, a blacksmith’s forge and anvil, and welding equipment with a Darth Vader face mask. We made feeble jokes about bastard files and horizontal borers, but most of us would rather have stayed with the lesser perils of woodwork, or, safer still, been allowed to do cooking or needlework. There would have been no shortage of feisty girls eager to swap. 

“We can make anything in this workshop from a teaspoon to a motorcycle,” Thompson told us. Guess which we got to make.

We each cut the shape of a tea caddy spoon out of a brass plate, hammered out the bowl over a wooden form and smoothed the edges with a file. Mine was such a jagged and misshapen catastrophe I decided to ‘lose’ it in the acid bath where, hopefully, it dissolved away to nothingness. Yet it was magnificent compared to my sugar scoop. That was made out of soldered tinplate and supposed to look like a box with a slanted opening. Oh dear! A three-year old would have done better cutting it out with blunt scissors and sticking it up with paste. I might just as well have scraped on the solder with a builder’s trowel. It was ridged and lumpy, and didn’t hold together very well at all. Thompson wrinkled his nose in disgust as he marked it, as reflected in my school report.

Year 3 School Report for Metalwork

Everyone else’s work looked neat, smooth and functional. But I did have one minor success. It was a hammer. It turned out right because the lathe did most of the work. All you had to do was squirt milky fluid on to the cutting tool while turning a handle. Even I could manage that. I was not even troubled by the springy coils of ‘swarf’ that flew off like shrapnel, threatening to slice your skin to shreds. My next report grade leapt from Very fair to Fair.

Hammer made in metalwork lessons at school

The hammer head consisted of a sawn-off rod cut with a couple of grooves and drilled with a hole to accommodate the handle. The handle was a longer, narrower rod with a non-slip grip pattern milled into one end, and cut thinner at the other end to fit through the head. I can no longer remember exactly how the head was fixed to the handle – it might have involved heat and expansion – but mine didn’t fall apart. I’ve still got it. You can see from the battered ends I still abuse it now and again.

Thinking back to that one year of metalwork, it is surprising that, so far as I know, no one was ever seriously injured. There were a few minor cuts and scrapes, but the nastiest accident was to Tinplate Thompson himself. Ignoring his own advice, he picked up a piece of hot metal without spitting on it first and burnt his hand. You should have heard him swear!

The photograph of the forge is from and is in the public domain