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Monday 22 February 2021

Green Dog

This is Green Dog, a plaster model made by my niece over thirty years ago when she was six or seven. Why is it green? Because her father, my brother, helped paint it. Like me, he had protanopia. He would have thought it was brown. He died when my niece was eight.

Protanopics have difficulty distinguishing browns from greens because we do not detect all of the red component of brown. For the same reason, orange is sometimes seen as yellow or light green because the red component of orange is weak. Red poppies fail to shine out from fields of green, and red fuchia flowers look nearly the same as the leaves. Purple and mauve look blue. Our ginger and white cat is delightfully camouflaged against the lawn, especially if there are snow patches. I’d be completely stuffed if there was a tiger in the garden.

Green Dog looks quite normal to me. I only know it is green rather than brown because someone told me, and because I ran samples of the head colour through Name That Colour ( which identifies it as a mixture of browny-gray-greens with fancy names like “Woodland”, “Kelp” and “Verdigris”. 

On the bottom my niece wrote “To Grandpa from C---”, with four hearts and five kisses. My dad kept it for his last fifteen years, after which my daughter had it as a reminder of her grandpa. It has been neglected and ignored since long before she went to university.

Recently, it was my niece’s birthday. She has reached an age at which she has been of this world for longer than her father was. We packaged up Green Dog and posted it off to her with a note explaining that he (?) had been feeling lonely and rejected and thought he would be better looked after back in Sussex where he was born, in a house with three lively children – three grandchildren my brother never knew. 

My niece had no memory of it. She had to decipher her own writing on the bottom to work out what it is. It is now in her display cabinet. There is a three in four chance that one or both of her sons will see is as a normal brown dog too.

Sunday 14 February 2021

Re-reading: Nevil Shute - A Town Like Alice

Nevil Shute: 
A Town Like Alice (4*)

Another paperback I remember getting through the nineteen-sixties Pan books offer, as mentioned previously. It was not a top choice but I was running out of options. I was surprised at the time how much I enjoyed it. And I enjoyed it again now, the first half, anyway. Compared to The Saint and James Bond this was far more satisfying.

I downloaded it to my new Kindle from the Faded Page site I also mentioned a while ago, which was naughty because the book is still under copyright in the U.K., but it makes no difference to Nevil now. How ridiculous these days that a book can be out of copyright in Canada but still within in the U.K. The Kindle, incidentally, is a front-light model which on just 4% brightness can comfortably be read in the dead of night without eyestrain or earstrain.

A Town Like Alice is indeed a book of two halves, the first set in London and Malaya and the second in Northern Queensland. I don’t want to spoil it other than to say is a powerful and engrossing story about the survival of a group of English women led by a strong, modern heroine, who are forced to walk from place to place across Malaya during the Second World War because none of the occupying Japanese officers will take responsibility for them. It was based on a real incident that took place in Sumatra rather than Malaya.

It is worth reading for this first part alone. The Australian second half of the novel is meanderingly “happy ever after”. 

Written in 1950, it has a lot of words and attitudes that would get you instantly kicked out of the Labour Party on multiple counts. Not that Shute would ever have been a member. He left England to live in Australia because he objected to the rise of the welfare state. His belief in the dignity of self-sufficiency and hard work is perhaps the major theme. 

However, I must mention the passing references to Driffield, Goole and Kirkby Moorside, my part of Yorkshire, which Shute would have known from his time as chief engineer on the R100 airship at Howden in the nineteen-thirties. Nice, Nevil, but it can never compensate for what you said in your autobiography about the hard-working local people: …the girls were ... brutish and uncouth, filthy in appearance and in habits ... these girls straight off the farms were the lowest types that I have ever seen in England, and incredibly foul-mouthed .... Did my grandma and her cousins tell you what they thought about you, you stuck-up wuss? 

It seems that books I most sought as a teenager (The Saint, James Bond) are less rewarding than the one I got just to make up the offer numbers. I am not sure, though, whether I will read any of these authors again. I’ve got Salman Rushdie next. That will keep me occupied for a while.

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.

Tuesday 9 February 2021

Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?

Brother Can You Spare a Dime sheet music cover

I know I keep going on about the folk band we are in, but here’s a confession: I don’t really like folk music. Well, that does depend on what is meant by folk music. I am certainly no big fan of those relentless jigs and reels played at breakneck speed on fiddles and flutes without any light or shade.

One thing I am a sucker for, though, is the music of what is often called The Great American Songbook: the melodies of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and others, written roughly between 1930 and 1950. They really knew how to get your heart. 

Next time I get chance at our Zoom folk meetings, I’m going to sneak in Brother Can You Spare a Dime on the pretext that the tune is based on a Russian-Jewish lullaby the composer’s mother had sung to him as a child. His family had fled when he was nine to escape the pogroms in what is now northern Poland.

Here is my MuseScore arrangement for guitar and bassoon. The bassoon sounds great. It sounds even better when Mrs. D. plays it for real. 

OK, I’ll shut up about MuseScore now for a couple of months.

Brother Can You Spare a Dime was composed in 1931 by Jay Gorney with lyrics by E. Y. ‘Yip’ Harburg (his middle name was Yipsel). It has been called the anthem of the Great Depression. It asks why honest Americans who served their country building railroads and skyscrapers, ploughing fields and fighting wars, “always there right on the job”, have been abandoned to the bread lines. Some saw it as anti-capitalist propaganda and tried to have it banned. Recordings by Rudy Vallée, Bing Crosby and Al Jolson were massive hits at the time and may have influenced the 1932 election of President F. D. Roosevelt and his ‘New Deal’. 

It is said that when Harburg and Gorney were writing the song they had struggled to find consistent meaning. They went for a walk in New York’s Central Park, where a destitute young man with collar up and hat down approached them and begged: “Buddy, can you spare a dime?” They looked at each other and knew they had their hook and their title. 

Bing Crosby’s version was the most successful. I prefer Rudy Vallée’s – he sticks to the tune whereas Crosby bends it slightly to his own interpretation. But then, I like lots of things by Rudy Vallée. Al Jolson, to my mind, goes too far in that it starts to become more about how dramatically he sings it. The song is supposed to be about fear, grief and anger rather than sadness and loss. We have gone from relentless jigs and reels towards weeping sentimentality, which I don’t like either. However, Jolson does not go as far as George Michael’s more recent makeover. The YouTube video of one of his live performances, in which the audience whistle and cheer every time he sings a long note, just looks and sounds wrong. It might be less unbearable in audio-only. There are well over fifty other recordings, too. 

For those who like lyrics as well as melodies, perhaps to sing as a lullaby to imbue their grandchildren with a sense of social justice, Harburg’s words are powerful and moving. I especially like the line about “Half a million boots...” This is the guy who went on to write the lyrics for The Wizard of Oz including Somewhere Over The Rainbow, who only became a lyricist after the Wall Street Crash put his electrical business into bankruptcy.  

They used to tell me I was building a dream
And so I followed the mob
When there was earth to plough or guns to bear
I was always there right on the job

They used to tell me I was building a dream
With peace and glory ahead
Why should I be standing in line
Just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it's done
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once I built a tower up to the sun
Brick and rivet and lime
Once I built a tower, now it's done
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell
Full of that yankee doodly dum
Half a million boots went sloggin' through hell
And I was the kid with the drum

Oh, say, don't you remember, they called me Al
It was Al all the time
Say, don't you remember, I'm your pal
Buddy, can you spare a dime?

In the nineteen-seventies, the New York Times invited Harburg to write more contemporary lyrics. He came up with:

Once we had a Roosevelt
Praise the Lord!
Life had meaning and hope.
Now we're stuck with Nixon, Agnew, Ford,
Brother, can you spare a rope?

Perhaps we need an update for today.

Monday 1 February 2021

New Month Old Post: Kinder Scout

A favourite Derbyshire walk through the years, possibly a metaphor for life 

(first posted 13th January, 2018, 1550 words)

A walk on Kinder Scout (route from an early John Merrill book)

The bleak Kinder moorland can be incongruously beautiful on a fine day, but it was not like that on my first visit in 1974. It was dark and grim, covered in cloud, difficult to know where you were heading. As we ascended Fair Brook, veils of thick, grey mist closed around us, washing away the last of the autumn colours. Drizzle drifted down from the plateau, permeating our cagoules and soaking my canvas rucksack. It had been drenched so often it was beginning to smell like a bag of old socks. It could have been a metaphor for my life at the time: three jobs inside a year and a pointless, wasted term at teacher training college.

Fair Brook crags: 1974
Seeking shelter: Fair Brook crags, 1974
Kinder is a silly place to be out in bad weather, but Neville and I likened ourselves to hardened Himayalan mountaineers. I had even started to grow a beard like Chris Bonington’s, a new self-image to get life and work back on track. The comparison was ridiculous, but role models and self-images can be helpful. There is nothing wrong in trying to find a bit of mental strength and inspiration, despite the obvious differences between the Himalayas and the Derbyshire Peak District, or for that matter, between a fearless expedition leader and an assistant accountant in an office.

We sheltered under overhanging rocks at the top of Fair Brook to eat our sandwiches. From there we took a rough bearing across the moor to Kinder Downfall: about 255 degrees. In more forgiving terrain, you would pick out a distant landmark and head towards it, re-checking your compass just now and again, but distant landmarks are few on Kinder Scout: there is only moor and sky if you’re lucky, and mist if you’re not. You can believe it the roof of the world where abominable bipeds dwell.

Kinder Scout: spring 1975
An abominable biped on Kinder Scout: spring 1975

The surface is broken into a maze of peat ridges, or ‘hags’, by deep, slippery trenches known as ‘groughs’, which twist and turn like waves in a sea of mud. Groughs can be fifteen feet deep (five metres), and there are a lot of them to cross.

Hags and groughs on Kinder plateau: David Appleyard, Wikimedia commons
Hags and groughs on Kinder plateau, 2005

Just as in life, you glide effortlessly along the tops of the hags until they veer off in the wrong direction or lead to a patch of impassable bog. You backtrack, looking for a place to cross, and descend into a grough, half-walking, half-sliding, only half in control, struggling to keep your balance and stay clean and dry. Inevitably you end up smeared in black peaty mud. You follow the grough until it narrows to a steep watery ‘V’ where, legs apart, one at each side, you struggle to continue. Or again, the grough turns in the wrong direction or leads into a pond. You look for a place to climb out and follow the tops of the hags again. Before long, you are laughing like a toddler stamping through muddy puddles in Wellington boots.

You check your direction constantly but cannot tell how far to the left or right you have drifted. Soon you can be a hundred yards or more off course. You might be enticed into following footprints, but they can easily be from someone else who was helplessly lost, perhaps one of those abominable bipeds. You might see other walkers and decide to follow them, only to find they are wandering round in circles. You really have to trust your compass, no matter how fallible. Providing you do, then sooner or later you will come upon the River Kinder: not a river in the ordinary sense, but a wider, flatter trench than the groughs, with a stony and sometimes sandy floor. For most of the year you can walk westwards along its bed until you arrive high above the sheer gritstone gorge of Kinder Downfall.

River Kinder: 1974
The Kinder River: 1974

Kinder Downfall is the highest waterfall in the Peak District, where the Kinder River tumbles a hundred feet (30 metres) from the plateau. It is magnificent in spate, especially when the wind blows it back upon itself in a shimmering rainbow cloud. At such times it would not be unreasonable to call it Kinder Upfall.

Kinder Downfall in spate: Dave Dunford, Wikimedia Commons
Kinder Downfall (or should it be called Kinder Upfall?), 2005

We pressed on along the edge of the plateau – part of the Pennine Way – in our murky globe of gloom. We could just about make out the distinctive starfish shape of Kinder Reservoir below, but there were none of the distant views beyond Manchester to the mountains of Snowdonia you see in clear weather. We began to doubt our route. A couple of walkers came towards us, the only others we had seen all day. We asked whether we were on the right path for the Snake Inn. They looked doubtful.

“Probably, but it must be at least ten miles,” they thought.

That worried us. But that’s the thing about walking. It is a metaphor for life. Whether you are slogging up a mountain, plodding endless distance or trailing others in wretched misery, you have to keep going through the grit and grimness. You have to get back on the hags and leave the groughs behind. Usually you do. In my case, it was the accountancy that got left behind. The Chris Bonington thing really did help, even though Bonington would never have been an accountant in the first place, or had his sandwiches made by his mum.

It turned out we were right and the other walkers wrong. Within half an hour we reached the corner of the plateau above Ashop Head, where a steep slope descends to a signpost at the junction of the Snake Path and Pennine Way. Within another half hour we were at the derelict Ashop Clough shooting cabin where we stopped for the last of our coffee, and for Neville to smoke his pipe and reflect upon the meaning of things.

Ashop Clough shooting cabin: 1975 and 2011
The derelict shooting cabin in Ashop Clough: 1975 and 2011

Such as what did the shooting cabin mean? In 1974, it still sheltered you from the worst of the elements. You could just about visualise the cosy refuge it must have been for the privileged few before the “right to roam” trespass of 1932. The likes of us would not have been welcome then on the Kinder moors, I would have not been exploring different careers, and most of Bonington’s mountaineering pals would have been at work instead of climbing. The derelict structure was like a monument to social progress and freedom of opportunity. 

Tellingly, it provides no shelter at all now. During the last forty years or so, the east gable end, the fireplace and roof have disappeared without trace. The only slight improvement is to the bridge across the stream to Black Ashop Moor, which is now marginally sturdier than the precarious plank you once dared cross at your peril. Fortunately, you never had to. The route continues on the northern side of the stream and soon passes through woods to steps back up to the road.

Seal Edge looking towards Fair Brook
Looking along Seal Edge towards Fairbrook Naze on the far right

Since then, I have wandered this northern part of Kinder Scout at least a dozen more times, in every kind of weather. One summer day, when the sun was shining and the ferns and heather at their loveliest, I took my son and daughter, she was then only seven, across the bottom of Fair Brook and up to Seal Edge, forgetting just how far it is to return down the Fair Brook valley, but she did it without complaint. Another day, alone on the same route, I surprised two wild wallabies at the western end of Seal Edge, although not as much as they surprised me. They jumped out and disappeared across the moor before I could get my camera, leaving me wondering whether I had simply imagined them.

Icicles on the Snake Path: winter 1976
Icicles on the Snake Path through Ashop Clough: winter 1976

I have been on the Snake Path when the Ashop was frozen hard and long icicles lined the banks like crystal chandeliers. I have walked east along The Edge aiming for the top of Fair Brook and completely failed to recognise it (not alone I should add), and had to hitch a lift back to the car after finally descending to the road. That’s what happens on Kinder Scout when you arrogantly think you know it well enough not to look at your map and compass. I once tried to cross the top of Kinder from the Downfall to Fair Brook, which requires more accurate compass use than east to west, and after what seemed like an eternity, emerged way off course near Fairbook Naze looking over The Edge. Not accurate enough! When I eventually reached Fair Brook that day, the descent just about finished my knees. Lessons, lessons, lessons, but things turn out right in the end.

I suppose now, with satnav, you know exactly where you are all the time, but I’m not having one of those. It’s cheating. I don’t want to make things too easy for myself. It doesn’t fit my self-image, even though, unlike Sir Chris Bonington, I won’t be shimmying up The Old Man of Hoy at the age of eighty.

Ascent to Kinder Scout via Fair Brook, 1974 and 2007
Fair Brook with Kinder Scout in mist in 1974, and clear in 2007