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Monday 27 September 2021

Eating in the Fifties

Someone sent me this. Apparently it made them think of me. 

I could add:

  • Instant coffee was black, liquid, came in a square bottle and was something to do with camping.
  • The only wine you had is what you did when told if you don't eat it up now you'll get it for breakfast, dinner and tea until you do.

Thursday 23 September 2021

Iceland 9: to Hvanngil

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

Thursday 1st September 1977

Our walking holiday in Iceland continues. 

Dick Phillips tour, Strutslaug, Iceland, 1977
Leaving Strutslaug - the hut is in the mid distance on the left

On the road again, or rather, up a frozen river in a snowstorm and a slide down a glacier. Today, we skirt the southern edge of the Torfajökull ice cap and move to Hvanngil.

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977

1977 Iceland, Dick Phillips tour
Paul and the ‘bridge school G.T. boys’ in the distance, leaving us behind yet again

Neville boasts of being an expert ice slider on account of his skiing experience. Bridge School Mike is entirely the opposite. At least that’s one thing he can’t do. As I follow Neville by sliding down on one foot keeping perfect control by punching the ground with mittened fists, Mike shoots past head first on his back at about fifty miles an hour. Still, he seems to be enjoying it. 

1977 Iceland, Dick Phillips tour

We shelter from the weather in a snow cave to eat our sandwiches.

1977 Iceland, Dick Phillips tour

Later, we have to cross a stream. Steve and I are too close to each other with one rock common to both our routes. He gets there first. I fall full length but escape with only a wet leg. By then the snow, which had turned to rain, has stopped and the wind soon dries my trousers, but only after Paul takes full advantage of the opportunity to make sardonic comments. 

Today I am carrying the billy cans. They jingle-jangle constantly behind me against my metal mug. Now I know how cats must feel with bells on their collars. Everyone carries their share of  the equipment and everyone does their share of the housekeeping – washing up, making sandwiches, burying rubbish and fetching water. Paul does all the cooking on a primus stove. Perhaps the main selfishness, which I have only just caught on to, is in arriving at huts as early as possible and bagging the best sleeping spots.

The countryside gradually turns greener as we get nearer the enormous Markarfljót river. My day off yesterday at Strútslaug has paid off. In the afternoon I zoom along with Paul and arrive at Hvanngil first, but as it is the most comfortable hut so far, there is no real advantage.

Ed is once more a long way behind. He really should have rested yesterday, too. He struggles along, but his feet are now worse than mine were. He has bad blisters and swollen ankles, and must be in awful pain. Somehow, he keeps going and will not let anyone else carry his share of the equipment.

Someone jokes that his injuries have been imposed by the killjoy Icelandic government. They run a country in which only low alcohol beer is permitted. Despite being the size of Ireland, there are only eight shops allowed to sell spirits. Paul says they do permit the sale of home-brew beer kits, but insert a leaflet warning it is against the law to put any sugar in. Blisters and swollen ankles are decreed by statute. 

Iceland 1977, Dick Phillips tour, Hvanngil
The Hvanngil hut

Hvanngil (pronounced “Kwanngil”, possibly meaning water ravine) is massive. It has two floors. Upstairs, accessed by ladder, is equipped with tables, chairs and mattresses. It is also very warm: in fact too warm for super-acclimatised Paul who decides to sleep downstairs in the horse food trough. This leads to speculation about what his house in Newcastle-under-Lyme is like: stable downstairs, corrugated iron roof, Karrimats instead of beds, food cooked on paraffin stoves and eaten with spoons out of mess tins, a shovel outside the back door for digging convenience holes in the neighbours’ gardens, leaky and draughty windows, no heating, mugs and toilet rolls hanging by strings from hooks in the walls. 

1977 Iceland, Dick Phillips tour
Notebook Pages
Late at night as we are going to sleep we are awoken by heavy footsteps outside, with shouting and clanging pans. It turns out to be a group from the tour organisers bringing provisions. They are trying to make us think we are under attack by drunken Icelandic revellers. Some manage to sleep through the commotion. The group consists of Paul’s wife Judi, another walk leader called Jenny, and the elusive Dick Phillips himself. As they come up the ladder, Mike wakes up and asks Jenny if she is the legendary Dick Phillips. Gavin then wakes up and asks Dick whether he is something to do with the Dick Phillips organisation.

The real reason Paul went downstairs to sleep in the horse trough only occurs to us later. From her broad accent, I spot straight away that Judi is from Leeds. 

Dick Phillips is every bit as formidable as his photographs suggest, frighteningly serious and knowledgeable, confidently in command of all around through thick dark beard and equally thick dark spectacles. In the morning, I catch the flash of his piercing gaze observing me critically as I dawdle languidly over a late breakfast. I quickly finish and start tidying and washing up. Bang goes any chance I had of being invited back as a walk leader.

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

Wednesday 15 September 2021

Iceland 8: Still at Strútslaug

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

Wednesday 31st August 1977

A week since we flew to Iceland. 

The Strutslaug hut, Dick Phillips tour, Iceland, 1977
The Strútslaug Hut

Strútslaug-14, as someone has renamed it, was built by Dick Phillips for his own tours. It is cold, cramped, and the floor is volcanic gravel. Most of us sleep on the gravel but there is room for three ‘athletes’ on a seven-foot high sleeping platform. Getting on to it involves a stomach-wrenching reverse-somersault technique. Of course, only the Bridge School G.T. boys have strong enough stomach muscles to do it.

Yet, they are the ones most likely to have to go outside in the night. There must be some correlation between the strength of one’s stomach muscles and the need to pee. Perhaps strong stomach muscles exert greater pressure on the bladder. As we continue to drink big mugs of cocoa each night, those on the sleeping platform have to jump down in the dark. It is not a good idea to sleep directly beneath the edge.

In the mornings there is a well established order of getting up. I am told that Ed and Neville are always first. I really don’t know because I am always one of the last. I compete with three others for the Rip van Winkle award.

We are staying at Strútslaug for two nights to allow a day’s walking on the Torfajökull ice cap. It lies on an extensive volcanic cone known the ‘high rhyolite’. However, because of the red-raw state of my heels, it seems fairer to the others if I take the day off, so I stay at the hut. The complaints about the frequent stops to wait for me the previous day have got to me. Ed should really have done the same because his feet are as bad as mine, but he goes off with the others.
Geothermal pool, Strutslaug, Dick Phillips tour, Iceland, 1977
Geothermal pool at Strútslaug

After they have gone, I go down to the geothermal pools for a long soak. The strong mineral content works wonders on my scabby blisters. Not only does it heal heels, it is also mentally therapeutic. To tell you the truth, I am not very good at spending all day and night, seven days a week, with people I don’t know. It is hard enough with people I do know. I would have been hopeless in the army. Back at the hut I read a book of D. H. Lawrence short stories. I enjoy the day on my own.

Obsidian, a heavy, black, glassy igneous rock, lies all around. I pick up a piece to take home. Gavin has collected about five pounds (2.25 kg) of the stuff. Rather him than me carrying the extra weight. I’m glad I’m not on his Christmas present list.

I still have mine:

Obsidian from Iceland
Obsidian from Iceland

The others return having had a superb day. Below is Neville’s picture of Paul, the leader, overlooking one of the views I missed. However, I am informed we will be walking part of the same route again tomorrow.  

The High Rhyolite, Torfajokull, Dick Phillips tour, Iceland, 1977

Even for just a day’s walk, Paul still takes his carrying frame, albeit not as heavily laden as usual. He has a rope and two ice axes for emergencies. I think these must be stored at the Strútslaug hut because I haven’t noticed them before, even though he always carries far more weight than anyone else, including fuel for cooking. The sturdy frame appears to be constructed out of angle irons. I suspect it incorporates scaffolding poles and a couple of rolled steel joists as well. 

This Icelandic saga is turning out to be even longer than anticipated. We are now half way along the route, east to west, north-east of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, with four more days walking to go:

Dick Phillips Torfajokull Tour, Iceland, 1977

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

Friday 10 September 2021

George Orwell: The Road to Wigan Pier

George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair):
The Road to Wigan Pier (4*)

This is very much a book of two halves.

It begins with Orwell’s account of the terrible living conditions in the industrial north of England during the nineteen-thirties. He writes first-hand after staying in lodging-houses, and living with miners and the unemployed in Wigan, Barnsley and Sheffield. I enjoyed this half of the book enormously, mainly because I can relate to it. Parts remind me how things still were in the fifties. Even in the seventies, echoes of the thirties were still around, despite much having improved by then. 

The second half advocates socialism as a means of improving these conditions. “Why aren’t we all socialists?” Orwell asks. It is interesting and clearly-argued, but I struggled to get to the end. It is not what I wanted to read (which has nothing to do with any political leanings I might have). I’ll say little more about this part other than to suggest that gains in living standards after the war were due to socialist policies.

Here are some of the things that struck me (page numbers may be inaccurate as I was using a Kindle).

Orwell writes of the thousands of ‘back to back’ terraces (they had no back doors because other houses adjoined the rear) “… which are all of a condemned type but will remain standing for decades.” (p48). They did. I lived in them in the Brudenell and Royal Park area of Leeds in the nineteen-seventies. Most had by then been modernised with damp courses and bathrooms, but not all. Across the road, we used to see inhabitants walking out in their pyjamas to the communal lavatories in the middle of the row. Those same houses are still there today, although the lavatories have been demolished to leave enclosures for dustbins. 

Older black and white photographs give a better idea of how dreary some of these streets were, such as this one, the communal lavatory with wooden seat in the middle:

My grandma had an earth closet as late as the nineteen-fifties, not a communal one, but it had to be shovelled out and burned.

Obviously, Orwell says a lot about class:

“… the real secret of class distinctions in the West … why [even a bourgeois Communist] cannot think of a working man as his equal. ... The lower classes smell. That was what we were taught… It is queer how seldom this is admitted.” (p119)

Remember the days before it was common to shower and wear clean clothes every day, and rub deodorant on all over? My mother used to say “clean shirt and socks every two days, clean underwear twice a week, and a bath once a week”. Many people were identifiable by their individual smell. Not all were pleasant. There was the man I tried not to sit near on the train who kept his suit in a fusty wardrobe. There was another who dried himself with a dirty towel. You could detect these things. Smokers were unmistakable. Sometimes you knew when women were having their periods. There were lots of smelly feet and armpits, or maybe poorly washed clothing. Goodness knows what their underpants must have been like. This was life in the cities as late as the nineteen-seventies.

Differences between north and south are central to the book. Staying in a dreadful lodging house above a tripe shop, several beds to the room, Orwell shares with a commercial traveller who is more used to hotels.

“He caught my eye and suddenly divined that I was a fellow-Southerner. ‘The filthy bloody bastards!’ he said feelingly. After that he packed his suitcase and… [left]”. (p13)
The unrelenting nature of working-class labour is detailed, and the enormous debt owed by those living cosseted lives to those toiling in the mines and factories:
“In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. … all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to the poor drudges underground…” (p30)

So it still is in principle. We can’t all work at home on computers.

I found the first half of the book fascinating, and could go on about unemployment, the state of working-class teeth, poverty, and so on, but will end with a few more quotations (it’s easy to cut and paste from a Kindle, and the book is out of copyright):

An example of Orwell’s forthright views (it is almost worth reading the book just for these):

“One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England.” (p161) 

He’s nearly as entertaining as Adrian. On Yorkshiremen:

“There exists in England a curious cult of Northern snobbishness. A Yorkshireman in the South will always take care to let you know that he regards you as an inferior.” That the South is inhabited “merely by rentiers and their parasites. The Northerner has ‘grit’ … the Southerner is snobbish, effeminate and lazy…” (p101)
Too true. And one for any Sheffield bloggers that may be out there:
“Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World … it contains fewer decent buildings than the average East Anglian village … And the stench! …” (p98)
Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Tuesday 7 September 2021

Walking In Iceland 7: to Strútslaug

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

Tuesday 30th August 1977

Yesterday, on our walking tour in southern Iceland, we reached the Álftavötn (Alftavatn) hut. It is another step up in the world, the biggest hut so far, with an upper storey where we can sleep on the wooden floor.

Álftavötn (Alftavatn) hut, Dick Phillips tour, Iceland, 1977
The Álftavötn hut

It must be a strange life for Paul, the leader. He spends his summers in Iceland, and, since finishing his degree at Keele, his winters working in the Staffordshire potteries. This is his fifth season with Dick Phillips and he hopes to be offered a partnership. His deadpan manner continues.
“Would someone please dig a rubbish hole?” he asks.
“Where shall I dig it?” responds Neville.
 “Preferably in the ground.”
“Where in the ground?”
“Preferably outside.”
“Where abouts?” asks Neville. “In front of the door?”

With that, Neville gets a serious answer. In 1977, most packaging would have been bio-degradable paper, so burying it would have been acceptable.

Paul then describes the next hut in the itinerary, Strútslaug, delivered as always in his inimitable, sentence-pause-sentence style.

“There are hot springs there – And pools in which you can bathe – Unfortunately, one has to cross a glacial river to get to the hot pools – There is, however, a bridge over this river – Unfortunately, it has been swept away – We are going to replace the bridge – Unfortunately, someone has to wade across the river to anchor the bridge at the far side…” 

And so on. He still “can’t guarantee” anything. 

Surprisingly, he does not have mountain leader qualifications. He got the job after visiting Iceland before university when he helped Dick Phillips build the Strútslaug hut. Dick then invited him back the following year as a walk leader.

Natural Bridge near the Alftavatn hut, Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977

We set off from Álftavötn to Strútslaug : from Swan Lake to Ostrich Pool as they implausibly translate. We begin by crossing the natural bridge again – the one that those who shot off in front yesterday did not know about, so had to wade the river. I’m glad I doubled back and didn’t need to. They were lucky to get away with it.

I am at the back from the start, abject and pathetic because of rubbed raw heels. The maddening thing is that it’s my own fault. If I hadn’t gone out in new boots before coming here I would have been all right. The others have to wait for me several times. It must be a change for Dennis, Debbie and Ed not to be back markers for once. I am told later that some of the bridge school “G.T. boys” are complaining about the frequent stops and implying that some of us are not fit to be there. 

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977

There is persistent drizzle and it is boiling inside waterproofs, but I do feel better when I take off my overtrousers. Fortunately, the Strútslaug hut appears unexpectedly quickly, the walk today not being particularly arduous.  Even the river Sydri-Ófæra – the southern impassable – fails to live up to its name. In spring and early summer, the only way to cross would be all together, sideways, with linked arms, bare feet in boots to keep socks dry, and preferably wearing gaiters for protection against the sharp, painful, leg-abrading debris carried by the fast-flowing water.  

As soon as we arrive, everyone rushes off down the mountain to the hot pools, undresses and gets in. The friction between the fast and slow walkers is beginning to find expression in banter which has a rather nasty sounding edge to it. Debbie and Dennis are reluctant to get in. Dennis says he has not brought a towel. Tony says he can borrow his. Later, when Dennis gets out, he begins to dry his lower parts. A couple of the “G.T. boys” start up: 

“Hey, Tony, he’s drying his cock on your towel. When you said he could borrow your towel, you didn’t say he could dry his cock on it. And he’s got skid marks in his underpants. Does Debbie know he’s got skid marks in his underpants? I bet she wouldn’t let him unzip their sleeping bags at night if she knew he had skid marks in his underpants.”

Whether or not they do, I wouldn’t care to know, but Debbie did take off her clothes and get in the pools with everyone else.  

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

Saturday 4 September 2021

Doubters, Doomsters, Gloomsters

In 2019, in his first speech as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson said:

“The doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters, they are going to get it wrong again. The people who bet against Britain are going to lose their shirts.”

What a masterful statement! The first six words are rather good, but I am especially impressed by the subtle insertion of the word “again”. 

In the late nineteen-eighties, I moved from the public to the private sector. The salary seemed generous but the pension provision not so good. As I could no longer add to my so-called “gold plated” public sector scheme, I needed to make my own provision. I joined a private pension scheme and started to take an interest in stock markets.

In those days the global share indices were not dissimilar. In Britain the FTSE100 was at 2144, in America the Dow Jones Industrial was at 2679, and in Germany the DAX30 was 1366.

As I write this, the FTSE is 7138, the Dow 35,369 and the DAX 15,781.

In other words, since 1990, the value of the FTSE is now 3.3 times what it was in 1990, while the Dow has multiplied 13.2 times and the DAX 11.5 times.

So £5,000 invested in 1990 would now be worth about £16,500 in the FTSE, £65,000 in the Dow and £55,000 in the DAX.

In fact, the Dow Jones and DAX have done as well over the last ten years as the FTSE100 over the last thirty.

Here it is as a graph showing how they multiplied over the years: 

This doesn’t tell the whole story. In 1990 the pound was worth 1.7 dollars. Today it is around 1.4, so the £65,000 would be worth more like £79,000 taking into account the exchange rate. Similar factors apply to the German stock market. When the Euro was introduced in 1999 it was worth £1.40 compared with £1.17 today.

You can argue about this until the cows come home – for example that it doesn’t take into account rip-off fund management fees, that the constituent companies in the indices have changed, that FTSE companies pay higher dividends and that the Dow Jones contains more technology stocks and fewer traditional industries – but the numbers must surely be indicative of the economic wealth, health and confidence of the three countries.

So much for “get it wrong again.” Does it look as if those who waged bets against Britain lost their shirts?

Should we now be switching funds to Britain in readiness for the great catch up? I don’t think so.  

Fortunately, I put a good chunk of pension into international funds. And as I later re-joined the public sector, I’ve had the best, and worst, of both worlds.

Wednesday 1 September 2021

New Month Old Post: Strange Brew

Back In Time For The Weekend Episode 3
(first posted 18th February 2016)

Giles Coren drinks home brew

Watching Giles Coren savour a pint of home brew in Episode Three of Back In Time For The Weekend brought it all back. I think it was down to the slightly cloudy, pale, urine-like appearance (the home brew, that is, not Giles), which looked so authentic I could actually taste the stuff. Boots Home Brew Bitter: it had a kind of thin, floral, and, well, bitter flavour.

We used to brew plastic dusbins full in our shared house in Leeds. One housemate, Nick, would urge us to make it as strong as possible in his own inimitable way:

“Get some f---ing sugar in. It doesn’t matter what it tastes like as long as it gets you pissed.”

Front room 1974

Here are two views of our front room in 1974 with the red plastic dustbin fermenting away in the left hand corner, filling the house with a farm-yardy, malty, yeasty smell. There are empty bottles underneath the television and fag packets on the mantelpiece. That dimple pub-glass on the chair arm is mine, just like Giles Coren’s. I’ve still got it. It’s indestructible.

Most of the time we bought the Brown Ale kit. The darker the brew the more drinkable it was. Bitter was fairly nasty. Lager was beyond disgusting. Brown Ale was passable. Stout had a roasted dandelion and burdock flavour. 

Going by the numbers of empty bottles, it looks like we were fast running out and desperate for the dustbin to get a move on. Just a small number, the ones with red plastic push-on tops to the left of the hearth, remain to be consumed.

Brewing in plastic dustbin

We used to sterilise and rinse the bin, dissolve the malt extract and add sugar and yeast to make the ‘wort’, check the specific gravity with a hydrometer and then leave it to brew. It was ready when the specific gravity fell to below 1008. It then went into sterilised bottles (we had a large collection waiting to be sterilised) which were sealed with the red push-on plastic tops, taken down to the cellar to finish off, and stood in three groups: mine, Nick’s and Brendan’s.

There were usually around thirteen bottles each. As fermentation came to an end, the pressure in the bottles slowly increased so that sometimes the tops would blow off to discharge the contents all over the cellar wall and floor. If this happened to one of your own bottles you could try to swap it for someone else’s, but the sticky mess left behind tended to give you away. In any case, Brendan put a stop to this practice by marking his bottles with secret symbols.

You were supposed to leave them in the cellar for at least a couple of weeks to clear and mature, preferable longer, but Nick and Brendan had invariably drunk all theirs well before the couple of weeks had passed. They would then, of course, start on mine. Rarely, if ever, did I get my full share. They thought it hilarious that I believed holding out for two or three weeks would make it taste better.

There was always a layer of sediment at the bottom of the bottles. It was almost impossible to pour undisturbed: hence the cloudiness.

Brendan didn’t care. He just used to drink the sediment as well. He didn’t want to waste it. His party piece was to open a bottle, put his thumb over the top to seal it, and shake it up. He would then put both the neck of the bottle and his thumb in his mouth and release the pressure. I swear you could see the back of his head balloon out like in a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

Although the brown ale kit was best, it never came close to the real thing. If you like cocktails, I can thoroughly recommend a bite of Cadburys chocolate flake mixed in the mouth with a swig of Newcastle Brown.