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Friday 24 December 2021


Mrs. D.’s homemade Dominosteine: an unusual thing to bake in an English kitchen.

When my mother-in-law was a teenager after the Second World War, her school organized food parcels to send to families in Dusseldorf. I imagine most of it would have been tins of meat, vegetables and condensed milk, and maybe a few perishables such as sugar, butter and cheese. Dusseldorf, like many European cities, had been bombed to ruins and the people were starving.

This, and similar schemes, were not universally supported. When the Mayor of Reading spoke about families in Dusseldorf living in dreadful conditions in bunkers and cellars, there were angry letters to the press condemning the Boche for not working to feed his children.

My mother-in-law’s family did support and contribute to the scheme. The school also encouraged children to write letters to send with the food parcels, and, as a result, there began a life-long friendship with a German girl called Ingeborg. There were visits between the families, and, during the nineteen-nineties, mother-in-law brought Ingeborg to stay with us for a few days.  

As Europe recovered from the war, the German children began to send Christmas presents to England. Ingeborg usually sent dominosteine, lebkuchen, stollen and spekulatius. You would have been hard pressed to find these delicious continental treats anywhere at all in Britain during the sixties, seventies and eighties. Later, my wife always managed to find them at Christmas, even if they had to be ordered by post from Germany. I had never tasted or heard of them before.  

Dominosteine and stollen are my favourites, but, this year, there were no dominosteine to be found anywhere except at exhorbitant prices. So, Mrs. D. made her own, baking the gingerbread, building up the layers of jelly and marzipan, cutting it into squares and covering them in soft, dark chocolate. They’re enormous. Four times the size of those you buy. And more than two tins full. Yummy!

POSTSCRIPT - coincidentally, Graham Edwards also mentioned German treats in his recent post, with a photograph of a box reminscent of what Ingeborg used to send:

Wednesday 15 December 2021

The Inter-Varsity Club

It can be hard moving on your own to somewhere you don’t know anyone. Perhaps it’s not so bad when you are young, but I did it in my thirties. Things were fine at work, but home alone in the evenings, well, you don’t expect it to be like that.

I moved to the Midlands. I’d had enough of working in universities – that’s another story – and come to accept I was better on my own – also another story, a long and disagreeable one.

In universities, you think you are solving the world’s problems and work too much, but in this new job, when I went home, the time was mine. I looked around for things to do. I went to a couple of po-faced meetings of Friends of the Earth, but it was too much like work: sub-committees and working-group meetings. Then I saw an ad in the paper: IVC: ‘The Inter-Varsity Club’; it said something about “meeting people with similar interests” and “broadening your social life” with “concerts, meals out and other activities”. It met on Monday evenings in a scruffy room above a dingy pub. We carried our drinks up from the bar and mixed and chatted in small groups. It was full of eccentrics and misfits. I fitted in perfectly. 

The IVC had started in London after the Second World War when a group of Cambridge undergraduates wondered how they might “replicate their busy university social lives through the summer vacations”. Whatever could they have meant? They organised dances for students, graduates, teachers, nurses and almost anyone else with nothing better to do, and soon added other activities such as walks and theatre trips. By the nineteen-eighties there were branches all over the country and the focus had shifted to year-round activities for young people who had moved to unfamiliar places. Some remained members for years, even into their forties and fifties. It was definitely a mixed-age group that I joined.

I have never had such an active social life. Some weeks I went out every night. 

Activities were organised by members, with participation by sign-up. We went to films, plays and classical and pop concerts. We had meals out, days out and evening and weekend walks. Some events were in members’ homes, such as craft activities, coffee evenings, colour slide shows and parties. I went on a couple of long weekends away: walking in Exmoor and the Forest of Dean.

The walks were always popular: you tended to chat naturally with everyone else at some point along the route. I ‘hosted’ several myself, but also dragged people along to things like talks and poetry readings. One of ‘my’ events was a lecture about the Luddites by an almost eighty year-old Michael Foot. He shuffled on, steered by an assistant, wearing a shapeless cardigan buttoned out of alignment with a spare button hole at the top and a spare button at the bottom. Things looked distinctly unpromising until he began to speak, when he proceeded to mesmerize everyone in the theatre with a brilliant talk in the richest, most authoritative voice you could imagine.

Two twice-yearly events were especially well-anticipated: ceilidh dances and the ‘Galloping Gourmet’.   

The Galloping Gourmet, a miracle of organisation, was a five-part meal (sherry, starter, main course, pudding and coffee) with courses in different homes. It worked like this:

To take part, you either (a) host sherry or coffee, (b) provide a course for six people, or (c) are a driver.

Each starter, main course and pudding is served to groups of six in five different homes at a time. Everyone starts in one of two locations for sherry. They move on in threes to somewhere else for starters, joining with three from the other sherry location to make six. The threes are then re-shuffled and move on to somewhere else for main courses, and again for puddings. Everyone ends up at the same place for coffee.
Thus, with 30 participants, there are 3 sherry/coffee hosts, 10 drivers, 15 course providers and 2 organisers who get a free ride. Instructions to drivers are prepared ready to be handed out by the hosts, e.g. “Please take Margaret and Jim to Margaret’s at 1 Sandy Street, Wibbleton, to arrive by 7.30 for your starter”, where the next instruction might be:  “Please take Jim and Sue to Bill’s at 2 Rocky Road, Wobbleton, to arrive by 8.15 for your main course”.

Apart from one or two legendary mess-ups (such as the clueless chap who asked “what do we do now?” when he and five others arrived at his bedsit expecting a starter) it worked brilliantly. 

But you know what happens in clubs like IVC, don’t you? You find that those with similar interests attend the same things, and you make friends, and they ease into your thoughts and you begin to wonder what if you had a special friend. One, with laughing blue eyes and a liking for Bushmills whiskey, looked delighted when the clockwork of the ceilidh brought us together. I began to go to all her events and she to mine. The Galloping Gourmet organiser sent us to the same places most of the way round. One warm evening in peaceful Leicestershire ridge and furrow, where heron rise and kingfisher flash along the Kingston Brook, I offered a hand over a difficult stile. “What are men for,” she wondered, “if not to help you over difficult stiles?” Her hand lingered a little longer than necessary and I went kind of shivery and weak all over.

Herons and kingfishers bring luck, peace and love. After that, Dear Reader, we had a few private events of our own. We’ve been married now for thirty years.

It wasn’t all that long before I had another university job, too.

Sunday 5 December 2021

A Fiddle Too Far

This is my parents’ brass carriage clock. It was a touch of luxury, new around nineteen seventy. I seem to remember it ticking in their bedroom, but there it is later on my dad’s mantelpiece around fifteen years ago, just before we sold his bungalow. That picture could be a whole blog post in itself.

On the back it gives the maker’s name as St. James of London. A few clean and shiny ones otherwise the same are for sale for £300 or £400 on ebay, although around £100 seems more the going rate. That is when they are working. This isn’t.

It worked until recently. I assiduously wound it up every Sunday morning, and it kept good time until a few months ago when it began to stop mid-week. A little nudge would start it going again, but gradually became more and more ineffective until it stopped completely.

Could the cause be a simple lack of lubrication? I bought this clockmakers precision oiling tool. 

Four screws under the base of the clock secure the case. I undid them, lifted it off and applied tiny drops of oil to the centres of the large and small cog wheels visible here above and below the hairspring. It worked. The clock started up and ran well for a few minutes.

Just before putting it back in its case, I thought it might better disperse the oil around the mechanism if I wiggled the slow-fast lever. Idiot! The hairspring broke. One bit of wiggling and fiddling too far. It doesn’t go at all now.

It would cost at least its value to have it repaired, not really worth it. It has little sentimental value because I was no longer at home when my parents bought it (I wouldn’t have fiddled in the first place if it had). Should I label it “not working” and put it in a charity sack, or just send it to scrap metal recycling?

Wednesday 1 December 2021

New Month Old Post: Dill in Mustard Sauce?

(first posted 12th January 2017)


“But dill is a herb!” Mrs. D. gave me that withering look she normally reserves for her ageing mother. 

 I still thought I was right.

“They’re little fish - dill in mustard sauce.”

“It’s a herb! You wouldn’t get dill in mustard sauce. That would be like having basil in Worcester sauce or parsley in pineapple marinade.”

I sighed. “There was a tin last year in the Christmas hamper your mother gets from the pension company: a tin of dill in mustard sauce. They were little fish. Your mother gave it to us and they were really nice.”

“Sure it wasn’t sild?”

“It was definitely dill. As in a shoal of dill.”

There was nothing in the dictionary about dill as fish, only as Anethum graveolens, a European, pungent, aromatic, umbelliferous, annual, yellow-flowered herb of the celery family Apiaceae, used in flavouring pickles or to relieve excess wind, although in Australia and New Zealand it colloquially means a fool. Mrs. D. said that’s what I was being - or doing. I said we needed a better dictionary.

At Christmas, I can usually guess what’s in presents before I open them, but this one had me puzzled. It was too thin for a dictionary and the wrong shape for DVDs. I unwrapped it still wondering. 

It was a tin of John West herring fillets in mustard and dill sauce.

Dill in Mustard Sauce

Wednesday 24 November 2021

Iceland 15: Postscript

links to: introduction and index - previous part

In transcribing this saga, I began to wonder what had happened to the people and places I encountered.

Iceland now seems increasingly geared up to the kind of tourist activities that extract money from punters at every twist and turn, such as sitting in warm pools sipping cocktails. And did I mention the penis museum? Staving off boredom! How I detest myself when I do these things. Wild walkers just don’t generate the same revenue.

Despite several distinctive names, there seems to be very little online about the others on the walk. I came across technical publications that may have been written by the landscape architect, one of the chemists and the medical researcher, although they could have been by others of the same name. The index of marriages on Ancestry suggests that the couple on the walk did not stay together, and that they may have married other spouses. That’s about it.

There is, however, quite a bit about the route and the tour organisers.

The Route

In 1977, the walks offered something of the wilderness experience Dick Phillips must have enjoyed in surveying the routes in the nineteen-sixties. Today, there are many more organised trips with motor support. One would have to go to the isolated interior, or to Greenland, to find places where other walkers are rare, where you might be the first to venture as the snow melts. Even so, satnavs and satellite phones remove much of the isolation. 

Julia Bradbury’s hour-long television programme about her 2010 Icelandic adventure ( illustrates the difference. Caught in bad visibility in the mountains, she calls in a support vehicle to take her to the next hut, almost a stately home, and there takes a shower. Neither would not have been possible in 1977.

Most of the huts we used have now been replaced by buildings we would then have considered outrageously luxurious. They have wardens, bunks, showers, chemical toilets, cooking facilities, cutlery and crockery, and are reachable by ordinary car. There are also more of them, although not at Strutslaug where Dick Phillips’ remote hut was swept away by an avalanche around 1999. 

Pictures of the Skaelingar hut (the one with the rock pillars) belonging to the Útivist Icelandic travel association also show the difference ( Below, their new hut is in the background, with one of the two we used in the foreground. The other we used has gone, with the new hut, car park and toilet shed in its place. Things can’t possibly be the same without a shovel outside the door.   

Skaelingar, Dick Phillips Tour, Iceland 1977
Skaelingar now and then. The hut in the foreground on the left is one of the original two. The hut, car park and toilet shed behind it are new. The picture on the right shows how it was.

The Tour Organisers

Dick Phillips’ tours ran until around 2012, for fifty-two years in total. I would guess that more than ten thousand people went on one kind of tour or another over these years. In the winter Dick lived at Nenthead near Alston in Cumbria, where, known to all as ‘Icelandic Dick’, he was active in the local community. Among his many roles he was a Councillor, newsletter editor and helped with the Nenthead mines group. He was invariably to be seen riding a bicycle in one of his distinctive Icelandic jumpers, and was buried in one in 2019. He was in his mid-eighties. There are several tributes on the internet (e.g. here and here).

Paul Stevens, the walk leader, was invited into partnership soon after our trip, and remained with the business, leading walks until it ended. A search reveals that, around 2005, he talked about his experiences for the BBC Radio Stoke ‘Inside Lives’ project. A brief synopsis is archived but the link to the recording no longer seems to work ( 

Paul Stevens, Fljotsdalur, Iceland

Paul and wife Judi are still involved with the Fljótsdalur hostel, which he talks about in a four-minute facebook video ( - you may need to switch on the sound using the icon in the bottom right of the picture; the spelling in the subtitles is atrocious). It is good to see him looking well. Is that what a lifetime of walking with a heavy rucksack does for you? What a book he could write! The hostel facebook page is

I bet they still have our real names in the visitors’ books. I am half-expecting a letter from their solicitor.

Finally, an elderly Dick Phillips appears at the beginning and end of this fifteen-minute video, not in any way the scary perfectionist I perceived in 1977. The scariness was my own inadequacy. 

The main part of the video is about extreme mountain biking in Iceland, and worth watching if you have fifteen minutes. That really is scary. 

Dick Phillips, Alston, Cumbria
Horace and the Rough Stuff Fellowship: click image to play video

(The video URL if the link doesn't work is:

The end.
Some names and personal details have been changed. I would be delighted to hear from anyone who was there.

Wednesday 17 November 2021

Iceland 14: Reykjavik and Home

links to: introduction and index - previous day - postscript

Tuesday 6th and Wednesday 7th September 1977 

Dick Phillips, Fljotsdalur, Iceland, 1977
Dick Phillips (in Icelandic jumper) oversees loading the Land Rover at Fljotsdalur

We return the eighty miles from Fljótsdalur to Reykjavik by road. Some travel in the Land Rover but most of us go by service bus. I really should have recorded observations of everyday Icelandic life.

We sit about Reykjavik for the rest of the day, and, to avoid the expensive restaurants, go to the Salvation Army for an evening meal. I must have since paid for it several times because I always put money in their collection tins.

We exchange names and addresses. The little community of walkers and hut dwellers, the cliques, the jokes, the nascent friendships, comes to an end. Other than for Neville, I never see any of them again. I wonder what became of them. 

The next day we are up early to get to Keflavik for the 08.10 flight. Everyone disposes of their króna (devalued since we arrived) in the duty-free shop.  

On the plane I have a window seat and spend all the time looking out at the Icelandic coast, the ice caps, the clouds and later the Scottish mountains. Magnificent! This not being my first flight, I allow myself a few photographs. 

         Iceland from the air     Scotland north of Glasgow (possibly Loch Eil)

Glasgow Airport

At Glasgow, Neville’s car is damp and won’t start. We eventually get it going and then it really is back to reality. After two weeks without any news from the outside world, the radio tells us of threatened strikes and power cuts, industrial disputes, economic problems, etc., etc., etc. They should send the lot of them on compulsory Icelandic walking holidays to get things in perspective. They should send all present day politicians too, minus technology of course.  

On the trek, I hardly saw Neville at all. When I was fast, he was slow, and when I was slow, he was fast. I did, however, spend a lot of time with Gavin, so much so that some of the others thought I had come with him. I was constantly amused by his endless stream of inoffensive humour. On returning to England, I found that one of my colour slides had inadvertently caught him having a pee. I labelled it “Icelandic Relief” and posted it to him without any indication of who it was from. In due course a couple of pictures of me came back through the letterbox. 

I dearly would have liked to have gone to Iceland again, but people, jobs and circumstances never came together right. Neville did return twenty months later, in the May, on the North-West Fjords tour led by both Dick Phillips and Paul. He sent me a postcard saying that the temperature was minus fifteen degrees (Fahrenheit, I assume, which would be -26oC, but does it matter?). 

There ends the Iceland journal, but in putting it here I started wondering about things and googling, which means a postscript...

(link to postscript)
Some names and personal details have been changed. I would be delighted to hear from anyone who was there.

Thursday 11 November 2021


A few days ago, Tom Stephenson posted an early morning view from his window. Here is ours.

We are close to the border between West and South Yorkshire, beneath transatlantic flights to and from Europe and further afield. For many months our skies have been reasonably clear but this week the U.S.A. removed covid travel restrictions.

Here is our view this morning. Each flight emits several hundred tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. 

Tuesday 9 November 2021

Bouncing Balls

I have unhealthy obsession: Bouncing Balls.

Sorry, it is not what you might imagine, it’s a computer game. You fire coloured balls from a gun. When you place three or more of the same together, they explode and disappear. 

Bouncing Balls Level 6

In the screenshot shot the yellow ball from the gun will bounce off the right hand wall to hit and destroy the group of yellow balls at the top. Actually, a better move would be to take out the four yellow balls near the top on the left. This would leave a large group hanging without support, so they would fall and be destroyed too.

As you play, the balls move slowly downwards. To win, you have to destroy them all before they reach the bottom. You then progress to the next level which has more colours and less time.

Here is another screenshot: the leaderboard on the Novel Games site. I’m fourth. Fourth in the world! Impressed? If it were lawn tennis, I could be Emma Raducanu. 

Thankfully, I’ve never been bothered by the all-consuming games that get talked about: Grand Theft Auto and Fortnite, etc. It’s the mindless ones that get me. Hours have gone on Pacman, Freecell and Minesweeper.

I first fell in 1983 while writing educational software in a university. I went in one Sunday to sort out a problem, which, like a lot of programming problems, turned out to have sorted itself out in my head without thinking, so it only took ten minutes. As there was no one else around, I switched on the Apple IIe and began playing Arcadians, a space invaders game. The ‘just-one-more-go’ syndrome had me still there at ten at night. I’d got pretty good by then.

Bouncing Balls is an unusual game for someone with my colour vision to play. At first, the red balls looked nearly the same as the green, but I gradually learned to distinguish them well enough to get to Level 9 when an orange ball is introduced. This, to me, truly is indistinguishable from the green one.

At Level 8 I cannot distinguish a difference between the green and orange balls indicated on the left. The protanopia filter makes the green darker and alters some of the other colours too.

The way round it was to use the Windows 10 colour filter for red-green protanopia (Settings – Ease of access – Color filters), which makes the green look darker and allows me to get to Level 12 before it becomes too fast. 

But, my score on the leaderboard is way beyond this at Level 22. How?

I got a new computer. It is more powerful than the old one and runs Bouncing Balls so fast I can’t get past Level 8. Can it really be that the power of the computer affects the speed of the game? Yes, it seems. On an even older tablet the game runs even more slowly. Most unfair.

I remembered there is a Windows 10 system option that restricts the power of the processor*. The new computer does not have it but it is there on the old one. Does Bouncing Balls run more slowly under reduced processor power on the old computer? Yes it does.

There you have it. As you go up through the game level by level, you reduce the power to 50%, then 40%, then 30%, and so on, down to 0%. That’s how you get a score of 414,270 at Level 22.

Just a word of warning. Remember to reset it back to 100% before you turn the computer off, otherwise you might have to wait an hour for it to start up again.

I doubt I’ll be fourth for long when other players read this, assuming Novel Games don’t remove me first. 

As for Emma Raducanu, my wife’s nephew grew up in Bromley where, at the tennis club, he was asked to play against a young girl three years his junior. You can guess the outcome. I only hope she doesn’t become addicted to Bouncing Balls. She would be top of the leaderboard in next to no time  – without cheating. 

*See: Settings – System – Power & Sleep – Additional power settings – Change plan settings – Change advanced power settings – Processor power management – reduce % as needed. Leave the window open so you can get back easily to change it, and don't forget to put it back to 100%. It looks like this:

Monday 8 November 2021

Iceland 13: A Last Walk

links to: introduction and index - previous day - next day

Monday 5th September 1977

Our last day at the Fljotsdalur hostel is a free one. I suppose the tour needs spare days in case of problems or delays. It wouldn’t do to miss the flight home. 

Debbie, Dennis and Ed decide to stay nearby while the rest of us head north up the mountain towards the small Tindfjallajökull glacier. It is a long way, possibly ten miles there and ten back, but at least today we can walk without rucksacks.

Dick Phillips tour, Fljotsdalur, Iceland, 1977

Walking uphill usually makes you too warm, but today the icy wind blows straight though the sleeves of my woolly jumper almost putting my arms out of action. Wool is very effective at keeping you warm under a cagoule, but my cagoule is in Mike’s daysack and he has shot off ahead. I get colder and colder, and it begins to feel quite serious. Just in time, we reach a mountain chalet, which, like all the huts, is unlocked. It provides shelter to eat our sandwiches. I resolve never again to allow anyone else to carry my food or equipment unless I trust them absolutely to stay nearby, and never to get too far away from anyone else whose things I am carrying, a resolution I have kept ever since. It is basic mountaincraft.

Dick Phillips tour, Fljotsdalur, Iceland, 1977

Dick Phillips tour, Fljotsdalur, Iceland, 1977

Despite being reunited with cagoule, I am not keen to go much further. After a while I turn back along with Neville, James and Tony. The others, the four bridge school G.T. boys and Gavin, who they make an honorary member, do reach the glacier and are late back for tea. Some of them are very fit indeed. They take part in International Mountain Marathons sponsored by the Karrimor outdoor equipment manufacturer. One might have expected such mountain supermen to have the sense not to go off ahead with someone else’s warm clothing.

On the way down, the view over the Markarfljótsaurar and out to sea, with the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) in the distance, is simply breathtaking.

Markarfljot, Dick Phillips tour, Iceland, 1977

There are around fifteen Vestmannaeyjar, all formed from undersea volcanic eruptions during the past 10,000 to 12,000 years: not at all long in geological terms. The most recent, Surtsey, is only ten years old, having formed during a four-year eruption that began in 1963. The largest, Heimaey, grew by 10% during 1973.

In the evening, Dick Phillips chairs a debriefing session (likes / dislikes / suggestions) and then insists on showing us a slide show of other parts of Iceland followed by a recorder recital played by him and Jenny. Exhausted, we struggle to keep awake.

Some names and personal details have been changed. I would be delighted to hear from anyone who was there.

Monday 1 November 2021

New Month Old Post: The Day We Saw The Queen Mary Sail

and C. P. Snow’s surprising digital footprint

(first posted 11th November, 2017) 

R.M.S. Queen Mary

My dad was captivated by ships from childhood, when ocean-going liners were the most exhilarating machines ever built. He knew the names and colours of the British shipping lines and some of the foreign ones too: Cunard: red and black funnel, yellow lion on a red flag; Union Castle: also red and black funnel, red cross on a white and blue flag; Peninsula and Oriental: buff yellow funnel, blue, white, red and yellow flag. It was partly why we found ourselves on holiday near Southampton, the first time we had ever been so far from Yorkshire. Once there, it was inevitable we would visit the docks.

As we approached Ocean Terminal, three towering Cunard funnels told us the Queen Mary was in port. Small boat owners vied for passengers to take to see her sail: an opportunity not to be missed.

Video - RMS Queen Mary arriving at Southampton 1967 Video - RMS Queen Mary departing Southampton 1967
RMS Queen Mary arriving at and departing from Southampton for the last time in 1967
(two videos, approximately two minutes each - click to play)

We boarded a launch and sped off down Southampton Water leaving the Queen Mary at the quayside. Any doubts as to why we had sailed so far ahead were soon answered. “The Mary’s moving,” our own captain announced, and within a short time she had overtaken us as smoothly and effortlessly as a huge white cloud in a strong breeze, a vast floating palace towering above. Her powerful engines were easily capable of 28 knots (about 30 miles or 50 kilometres per hour) compared to our 6 or 7. We were left bobbing like corks in her wake as she turned into the Solent. Dad remembered the day for the rest of his life.

Southampton pleasure boat

From photographs and postcards I can work out it was towards the end of August, 1960, during the last dying years of the transatlantic passenger trade. From genealogical web sites, I can pinpoint the precise date as Thursday 25th. The Queen Mary called briefly at Cherbourg before crossing the Atlantic to arrive in New York on Tuesday 30th, a five-day voyage. Not only that, but, incredibly, you can see the ship’s manifest listing the individual names and details of every one of the 1,024 passengers and 1,203 crew under the command of Commodore John W. Caunce. It is an incredible digital footprint.

Ships manifest: RMS Queen Mary, 25th August 1960

Many of the first class passengers are googleable, among them two writers, Charles and Pamela Snow. They were the distinguished novelist and scientist C. P. Snow and his equally-accomplished wife, the novelist and playwright Pamela Hansford Johnson, travelling with their son Philip and her teenage daughter Lindsay Stewart. Philip was just one of eighty children on board. Some of them stood on deck and followed that incomprehensible human instinct to wave to strangers in the accompanying flotilla of pleasure boats. I wonder if any of them noticed a ten-year old boy waving back.

At the time, C. P. Snow was enjoying the controversy caused by his Two Cultures lecture the previous year, in which he had lamented the gulf between science and the Arts which he, justifiably, believed he bridged. He had implied that many scientists would struggle to read a classic novel, and that many humanities professors would be unable to explain simple scientific concepts such as mass and acceleration, making them the scientific equivalent of illiterate. Most resented the insinuation that a poor knowledge of science rendered them uneducated and ignorant, including the acclaimed literary critic F. R. Leavis who let loose an astonishingly abusive and vitriolic response. Part of it went:
Snow is, of course, a – no, I can't say that; he isn't. Snow thinks of himself as a novelist [but] his incapacity as a novelist is … total: ... as a novelist he doesn't exist; he doesn't begin to exist. He can't be said to know what a novel is. The nonentity is apparent on every page of his fictions … Snow is utterly without a glimmer of what creative literature is … he is intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be.
Leavis continued the attack at length, giving examples of what he said was Snow’s characterless, unspeakable dialogue, his limited imaginative range, and his tendency to tell rather than show. Others jumped to Snow’s defence, suggesting it was in fact Leavis who could not write. It was brilliant, sensational stuff, still talked about decades later. Both academia and the general public, including my dad, soaked up the spectacle in pitiless delight, entertained by intellectual heavyweights slugging it out with metaphorical bare knuckles.

None of this meant anything to me at the time, of course. It would be another twenty years before I discovered and found it greatly entertaining, but my dad would have been fascinated to learn that Snow and his wife were on board. A little more googling reveals they were on their way to spend the autumn at the University of California at Berkeley. Before their return, both, along with the prominent English writer Aldous Huxley and the American Nobel chemist Harold C. Urey, took part in seminars on Human Values and the Scientific Revolution at the University of California Los Angeles on the 18th and 19th of December. The Staff Bulletin described it as “one of the most distinguished intellectual occasions in the history of the University of California”.

If it is possible discover this much about the activities of (albeit well-known) individuals in 1960, one fears to imagine what digital footprints we might leave behind ourselves. Much of what we buy, our social interactions, our medical and educational records, our motoring activities, and so much more, are now all stored on a computer somewhere, possibly in perpetuity. I wonder who is going to be looking at mine in sixty years time.

Wednesday 27 October 2021

Tuning Gadget

This is my old guitar tuner from the nineteen-seventies. It works by resonance: when an in-tune guitar string is played, the matching part of the tuner will vibrate in sympathy. In the photograph the E indicator on the left is vibrating, showing that the lower E-string is tuned to the correct pitch.

I never used it much. I usually found it easier to tune by ear, by tuning one string against a piano or tuning fork and then resonating the other strings against each other at the fifth fret, or by oscillating the harmonics at the fifth and seventh frets (either you’ll know what I’m talking about or you won’t).  

However, I do now use an electronic tuner which works in much the same way as the older one, by sensing the frequency of vibrations in the wood of the guitar, working out what note it makes and displaying it digitally. Here it shows the lower E-string is slightly sharp, vibrating a little more rapidly than it should. The string needs to be slightly less tight. 

The electronic tuner is better in noisy concert settings when everyone else is trying to tune their instruments at the same time and you can’t hear your own. It is more accurate: with the old tuner you had to judge the indicators by eye. It is also chromatic: it detects and indicates any note in the 12-note chromatic scale (including semitones) whereas the old tuner only picks up the six notes of standard guitar tuning. So you can use it to tune a ukulele which has a C-string, or change your guitar to DADGAD tuning. 

It will measure the pitch of almost anything. Our central heater boiler is an A-sharp. My electronically adjustable standing desk motor is between an E and an F. My beard trimmer seems to be a two-note mixture of C and G. And my nose and ear hair trimmer (ugh!) starts off at E and rises to G-sharp as it picks up speed. I haven’t yet measured Phoebe’s purr, though.

You can even measure your own voice. When you sing or speak it causes your whole skull to resonate, so by clipping the tuner to the end of a ruler held at the other end in your teeth, you can see the frequency. For example, you can test how accurately you can sing a musical scale or arpeggio, such as the C-E-G-C of a C-major chord: 

Not very in my case. Sorry about the horrible noise. Well, you try singing with a ruler clamped between your teeth. That’s my excuse, anyway.

Sunday 24 October 2021

Iceland 12: to Fljótsdalur

links to: introduction and index - previous day - next day

Sunday 4th September 1977

Einhryningur, Dick Phillips tour, Iceland, 1977
Leaving Einhryningur

Our last day of walking, on the move again from Einhryningur to the Fljótsdalur youth hostel. The route drops from the mountains into the Markarfljót valley. Ahead of us, to the south, the ice cap over the Eyjafjallajökull volcano shimmers in the sunlight. The volcano, you may recall, would later erupt in 2010 causing enormous disruption to air travel across western and northern Europe.

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977: south towards the Markarfljot valley

As we descend from the mountains, the Markarfljót valley looks like a dry estuary with a stranded island. You expect the tide to come in, but Paul says it has not done so for hundreds of years. The estuary is filled with an outwash ‘sandur‘ plain, the Markarfljótsaurar, consisting of sand, clay and other glaciofluvial deposits from the Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull glaciers.
Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977: the Markarfljot sandur plain

Along the plain is a long flat road to the hostel. I talk to Tony for a while. He is a mature student who used to work in stockbroking. He had to overcome a lot of prejudice on switching to the lower status of trainee design technology teacher. He seems very happy and content. I take encouragement from this, being about to switch from accountant to psychology student. Nearly everyone on the walk has been to university, and all say they would have got more out if it as mature students.

Ed falls further and further behind as the day goes on. He deserves a medal for finishing. As he sits with eyes closed, someone says he looks as if he is trying to escape from reality. “What do you mean?” he replies, opening his eyes. “This is reality.”
Fljotsdalur, Dick Phillips tour, Iceland, 1977

The youth hostel at Fljótsdalur (meaning: River Valley) is an old farm house converted by Dick Phillips, the tour organiser. It feels as if we have returned to civilisation out of the wilderness. There are tables, chairs, cutlery, crockery, bookshelves with an extensive collection of books about Iceland, hydro-electric power and comfort. Yet it is still isolated. Many years later, interviewed by BBC Radio Stoke, Paul said of Fljótsdalur: “The silence is broken only by the booming call of a Whooper Swan, or the whirring wingbeats of a Red-Necked Phalarope...” 

The hostel lies on the northern side of the Markarfljót plain between the Tindfjallalajökull and Eyjafjallajökull ice caps. Dick said he imagined Icelandic farmers of times past sitting out the dark days of winter, waiting for the first sight of the spring sun above the lowest point of Eyjafjallajökull.   

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977: Eyjafjallajokull from Fljotsdalur
Eyjafjallajökull from Fljótsdalur 

Here is the map of the second half of the route on which the last five huts are indicated by blue arrows (click here for a greatly enlarged version):

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland, 1977

(next part)
Some names and personal details have been changed. I would be delighted to hear from anyone who was there.

Tuesday 19 October 2021

Caer Rhun Hall

One small aspect of our holiday near Conwy twisted an old thorn in the side: Caer Rhun Hall, a private accountancy college. I seem to remember its name emblazoned in large bold letters along the dry stone wall at the front, but may have imagined that. There are no letters now.

As mentioned in other posts, after leaving school I started to train as a Chartered Accountant but didn’t pass the exams. Well, technically, I did, but you had to pass all the exams of each stage in a single attempt. I managed to fail different ones each time, including ones I’d previously passed.

Only a few years earlier, accountancy had been a profession for the privileged. Trainees, known as articled clerks, did not receive a salary; in fact they paid their employer a ‘premium’ to take them on. A sum of around £500 (£10,000 in today’s money) would have been typical in the late nineteen-fifties. A recently-qualified chap at the firm where I worked told me he had been the first there not to have to pay, and I was one of the first to receive a salary, starting on £360 p.a. (£5,000 today). It covered my board and lodgings. Everything else depended on parental generosity, so in that sense it was still a profession for those with advantages.

You studied for the exams in your own time by correspondence course, for which an outfit called H Foulks Lynch effectively had a monopoly. You were supposed to complete and post off one unit each week, and, for most people, that went on for five years. By heck, it was tedious. No wonder accountants had such a reputation for being dull and boring when five years of their youth had been spent evenings and weekends on their own in their bedrooms studying such riveting subjects as commercial law, company accounts, auditing, income tax, and estate duty, instead of getting out and enjoying themselves like they should have been at that age.

Take a look at this, if you can face it:  


And that was one of the most interesting topics because it had a large practical element. For a really good night’s sleep, consider the other titles listed on the back. 

H Foulks Lynch then acquired a competitor. Caer Rhun Hall began to offer residential cramming courses. You could forget about the dreary correspondence course and just spend four weeks at Caer Rhun instead. It was a hard six-day week, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and it was costly, but they were so sure of themselves that if you didn’t pass you could go again for free.

Needless to say, only the rich kids could afford it, i.e. the sons (there were few girls) of wealthy clients who got sports cars for their birthdays. Then, because they had transport and were self-assured around company directors and top businessmen, they got sent out on the best jobs, the public companies and large manufacturers, while we the proletariat were stuck in the office doing shopkeepers and small traders. And they were the ones who pissed about with their correspondence courses, went to Caer Rhun Hall and passed their exams first time. Chartered Accountancy still favoured the privileged.

Chip-on-shoulder, yes, but I suppose in truth my heart wasn’t in it. Things worked out well enough in the end. And it did give me the confidence to deal with relatives’ estates and take on HMIT when they tried to tax me on expenses. 

Nevertheless, I still felt perverse satisfaction last week to see Caer Rhun Hall now out of business and abandoned.  

Urban Explorer visits the abandoned building:
(you can use the YouTube tools to watch on 2x speed) 

Saturday 16 October 2021

Iceland 11: to Einhrningur

links to: introduction and index - previous day - next day

Saturday 3rd September 1977

At Krókur, it is the first time I have had to get up in the middle of the night for a pee, awoken by the cold. I should have bought a long ‘mummy’ sleeping bag instead of the one I have. The down-filled ones were only £35. Now, three years later, they are nearly £100.

Outside, the night is still and silent, the sky full of stars. No street lighting here. In the morning, those of us in the stable part of the hut are up ages before those in the posh, wood-panelled part. Our breath has condensed and frozen on the underside of the iron roof. When the sun comes up it warms the roof, melts the ice, and it begins to rain inside. There are a couple of warning drips and then all hell is let loose. I have never seen us get out of our sleeping bags so quickly, especially me and the other ‘Rip van Winkles’ who are all in that part of the hut. Neville, however, gets a soaking because he is wearing his down jacket inside his sleeping bag, jammed in so tight he cannot get out. He wriggles helplessly like a butterfly struggling to get out of its chrysalis, only to find it is still a caterpillar. It must have been really cold to be a ‘duck-suit’ night.

Pat, the youngest of us, wears all his clothes all the time, even his two-pointed, tea-cosy hat. He did not bring anything like enough to wear. He never complains about the cold, he just looks it. “Gloves on in the hut?” queries Paul.

Dick Phillips walking tour, Iceland, 1977

Dick Phillips walking tour, Iceland, 1977

Today’s walk is comparatively easy. The countryside above the Markarfljót gorge is astonishing, but the weather deteriorates as the day progresses and after a wintry downpour we are glad to reach the next hut, Einhrningur. Paul coaches our pronunciation. The trick is to stress the ‘h’ and shorten the second syllable, flicking the ‘r’ off your tongue – Ein-Hr-ningur. It means unicorn. Say it right and you sound like one, or at least like a horse.
Einhrningur, Dick Phillips tour, Iceland, 1977
Einhrningur mountain in a wintry downpour

Einhrningur, Dick Phillips tour, Iceland, 1977
Einhrningur hut

Those who have been walking in shorts have chapped legs. James, the landscape architect, is worst. He borrows Debbie’s Nivea skin cream. “How do you use it?” someone asks. “You have to snort it,” James responds sarcastically as he takes off his shorts and begins to rub the ointment up his thighs and high into his crotch. “I thought snorting went up your nose,” someone else says. “He thinks it’s a suppository,” suggests one of the bridge school G.T. boys. “Suppositories are useless,” James responds, “of no benefit whatsoever. They’re too big to swallow, they taste disgusting, and for all the good they do, you might just as well shove ‘em up your arse.”

With only one more day’s walking to go, the evening has a party atmosphere. The hut is the most enormous and luxurious yet, with proper bunks. James produces a bottle of whisky, no wonder his rucksack was so heavy, and we share out our remaining Mars bars and other treats. Someone sets the challenge of swinging the length of the hut hand-over-hand on the overhead beams, and then swinging back underneath the long table. Only four can do it – the bridge school of course – but Gavin tries and fails about two hundred times. I make a decent attempt but cannot do it either.

The food, already here for us, is plentiful. There is dehydrated chicken supreme, sliced spam, peas, Smash potato, Angel Delight, and apple custard. A kind of yoghurt called Skyr is received with great enthusiasm. In the morning there is Sol Gryn porridge and real eggs, and not only sandwiches to take along during the day but also chocolate bars – Old Jamaica, Three Musketeers (American Milky Way) or just chocolate. I could eat it until I’m sick. It is a big improvement on the Marathon bars we had earlier in the walk, which Paul had carried next to the cooking fuel and tainted with the taste of paraffin. Those, we renamed ‘Parathon’.

(next part
Some names and personal details have been changed. I would be delighted to hear from anyone who was there.