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Thursday 1 December 2022

Airfix Modelling

New Month Old Post (first posted 14th August, 2014).

In 2009, I came across a magazine called ‘Down Your Way’ which published pieces submitted by readers. I was dismisses of most of the content, which was unjust because the best way to improve one’s writing is to write lots, and getting something into print gives the ultimate encouragement. Teenage Son had the right attitude:
“Well, if you’re so good, let’s see you get something in there.”

The result was ‘Airfix Modelling’, published the following year. It may not be entirely accurate, especially with regard to the present day, and there are other things I would change too, but I have resisted the urge to tinker. It seems to be trying too hard to entertain. I also dislike the captions used in the magazine (“model boyhood”, “glued to a hobby”) which were added by the editor.

It was, in effect, the start of this blog, although it did not appear in this form for some years. 

January 1, 1965.  Friday. Made F4 UID Corsair from Airfix, and also a station booking hall.
January 2, 1965. Saturday. Made Airfix station platform.

Most of us remember Airfix, the make-it-yourself model aeroplane kits. There were also ships, vehicles and even, it seems from my diary, railway buildings. The Airfix company flew off the ground, so to speak, in 1955, in a World War Two Supermarine Spitfire. It sold well and became the first of an enormous product range. For a couple of decades, Airfix was a very profitable business. Its faithfully reproduced, 1/72 scale models, came as injection-moulded plastic ‘trees’ of parts that slid and rattled enticingly inside their sturdy cardboard boxes. You broke off the parts one by one and glued them together with clear, stringy, cellulose adhesive, which the instructions called ‘cement’. You squeezed it out of a metal tube, releasing an exhilarating chemical vapour. 

Some parts, such as wings and the fuselage, were fairly large. Others, like the engines, fuel tanks and ailerons (to be an Airfix modeller you really had to get to grips with aero-terminology), were smaller, but still easy to handle. The tiniest parts, such as the pilot’s joystick, the propeller shaft and the machine gun barrels, which in the finished model were all supposed to move forwards, backwards, up, down and round in a realistic manner, usually ended up glued firmly to your fingers in a horrid sticky mess. You knew you were going to be spending the next couple of hours peeling rubbery ‘cement’ from your fingertips, nails, nose, hair, ears and any other exposed and unexposed bits of the body it had managed to stick to. 

You could always spot inexperienced Airfix modellers by what appeared to be globs of mucous matted into the sleeves of their jumpers. The best way to glue very small parts was to apply minute amounts of ‘cement’ with a pin or matchstick, but you needed to have progressed beyond the novice stage to know that.

Kits were graded according to difficulty, but that was not as helpful as it seemed. The easiest kits, with the largest parts, were also the smallest models. What boy, no matter how young and inexperienced, would truly want to build the smallest and easiest models, when the largest and most difficult had the most impressive pictures on their boxes?

For me, the ultimate was the Short Sunderland III Coastal Command’s Fighting Flying Boat, which came in a massive box with an all-action painting of four powerful engines, roaring away on a high-mounted aerofoil above a magnificent white hull, banking to the right on the lid. Once I had one, my younger brother had to have one too. It took my Dad ages to make it for him, about three months of sticky fingered Sunday afternoons, and the ruined sleeves of several jumpers.

You could literally spend weeks making Airfix aeroplanes, and that was only the first stage. Next came painting. The paints were in tiny containers. One brand was Humbrol, a Hull company that had originally made paint for bicycles. Their paint came in delightful tiny tinlets, with little metal lids you prised off with a coin, just like real full-sized paint tins. Airfix’s own brand was in little glass bottles, like nail varnish bottles with a brush fixed to the underside of the screw top. I liked gold and silver best. They looked dense and sparkly against the glass of their bottles, and glittered as they flowed from the point of your brush. 

Sadly, there was not much call for gold and silver. The largest aircraft surfaces, such as the wings and fuselage, tended to be green or blue. I found it impossible to apply the colour evenly over these large areas. I was so disappointed when, after painting a Dornier Do217E, one of the first models I made, a splendid World War Two German bomber with realistic rotating gun turrets and elevating barrels, it dried as patchily green as a forest canopy from the air. 

My disappointment was replaced by disbelief when my mother, with real enthusiasm, exclaimed, “Oh Tasker, it looks just like a real one!” Whether it really looked like a real one in camouflage, or whether she was just trying to cheer me up, I still do not know. 

You then had to apply the ‘decals’. You and I would call them ‘transfers’, but the instructions always called them ‘decals’. Looking this up now, I find it is short for decalcomania, derived from the French ‘decalquer’, a ceramic decorative craze from the 1870s, but let us stay with ‘transfers’. They came on a card from which, when moistened, you could slide the transfers on to the model. 

You positioned the German crosses, the RAF ‘roundels’ (red, white and blue rings to you and me) and other markings, exactly as they would be on the original, a finishing touch that made for a highly realistic model, although not realistic enough for some. Perfectionists took things a stage further using a repertoire of illusions, such as filing the bottoms of the wheels flat to give the impression of bulging pneumatic tyres.

There was just one overriding, inescapable problem with Airfix models. They did not actually fly. They were not that kind of model. You could only pretend to fly them. Holding them in your outstretched hand you could, climb, dive, yaw, pitch, roll, bank and loop around the living room, making terrifying explosive sounds and screaming engine noises as you machine-gunned the family cat. Mind you, Sooty the cat had his own ideas about that and was pretty adept at leaping acrobatically up from the floor and smashing the model out of your hand with his teeth and claws, gouging out a couple of strips of flesh in the process. What would Churchill have given for air defences like that in the war? Enemy bombers ferociously snatched out of the air and disembowelled by batteries of enormous furry felines. The Battle of Britain would never have happened, and Churchill’s ‘never in the field of human conflict’ speech would have had to be completely different.

Alternatively, you could admire your models standing on the bookcase in your bedroom, until they got squashed beyond recognition by a busy mother with a pile of sheets and blankets. Or, you could hang them from the ceiling with invisible threads of black cotton, except that the Short Sunderland III Flying Boat was so heavy it would have necessitated a length of steel cable, a Bob the Builder safety helmet, and a rolled steel joist up in the roof. You could end up with a couple of dozen models suspended in perpetual dogfights all around your bedroom, until one day, when light had rotted the cotton, and you had imperceptibly grown a few more tenths of an inch taller, you inadvertently nudged one with your head, sending it crashing to the floor in a plume of accumulated dust that hung thick in the air like smoke, as you accidentally tripped on your model and trod it into the carpet.

To be truthful, there was not a great deal you could do with the finished models. The interest was in the making of them. It taught you patience and perseverance, and gave you confidence in the use of terms like fuselage, ailerons and landing gear, admirable qualities and skills even today. 

It seems hardly anyone makes Airfix models these days. The activity fell into decline from the late ‘70s and the company went bankrupt. Ownership of the rights went through several financial crises and takeovers, with at one point Airfix being owned by Humbrol, the paint company. You can still buy the kits, but at prices that in 1965 would probably just about have bought you the real thing. Those who do still make them are as likely to be adults as children. A fifteen-year-old boy who made model aeroplanes today would need to keep pretty quiet about it to avoid being beaten up at school. 

Maybe the increase in the cost of plastics contributed to the decline, or maybe it was more down to social change and the emergence of computer games. One thing that did not occur to many of us in 1965 was that for some fifteen-year old-boys, breathing cellulose vapour would become an entire pastime in itself, rather than just a small part of the pleasure of model making.

I remember the American Corsair fighter mentioned in the diary as the last model I made. The first had been a Fairey Swordfish, an early World War Two torpedo biplane with fiddly wing struts. But other parts of my diary show that by fifteen my interests were poised to move on, from making models at home to more outgoing things in the real world, although I know now I still had some way to go. 

“You still have,” said Teenage Son, unimpressed.

[Originally published as ‘An Essential Piece of Kit in a Model Boyhood’ by Tasker Dunham in Down Your Way: Yorkshire’s Nostalgic Magazine, Issue 145, January 2010, pages 46-48. ISSN 1365  8506. Country Publications Ltd., Skipton, North Yorkshire.]

Thursday 10 November 2022


Thank you for all your good wishes on yesterday's post. 

It has been harder to post than I thought.

I am going to take a few week's break from blogging. 

Wednesday 9 November 2022

Cancer Treatment

I am not all that keen to post this, and not everyone will want to read it, but if it helps anyone then it’s worthwhile. These things need to be talked about. We can find interest and enrichment in the most unlikely situations. 

Until this year I thought I was a healthy and active seventy-something year-old enjoying jobs around the home, gardening, walking, music, and so on. Here I am along one of our local lanes. As you can see, we are not serious cyclists. 

Old git with bike (or git with old bike)

Then J found me unconscious and having a fit. I eventually recovered enough to walk out to the emergency ambulance and two nights in hospital. The only warning was swirling black and white patterns in my upper right visual field. An MRI scan found a small tumour in the occipital lobe at the back of my brain. This was causing swelling which led to the seizure. The occipital handles some aspects of vision and reading, hence the odd errors I’ve been making.

The tumour was successfully treated by ‘gamma knife’ radiotherapy in a single hour-long session. This focuses two-hundred low-intensity X-ray beams upon precise high-intensity spots. It involves the discomfort of having an aluminium frame screwed (literally) to your skull to keep your head still in the treatment chamber, and to plot the 3D coordinates for the treatment sequence. Otherwise it is entirely painless. It can treat objects as small as two millimeters across.

Unfortunately, the brain tumour was a ‘met’ (a secondary) from a small lung tumour. This gave me no symptoms. Without the seizure I would have had no idea that anything was wrong. Last autumn, we were walking up mountains in North Wales.   

Things looked bleak. At one point the word “palliative” was spoken. However, a positron (PET) scan revealed no other unusual activity except in the brain and lung. Some patients light up all over like a Christmas tree. Things began to look more hopeful.

I went through three months of chemotherapy. It was awful. Some days I was so sick as to wonder whether it was worth it. At one point I ended up back in hospital for two nights on a drip.

Then I had a month’s lung radiotherapy (although side-effects last longer). It was considered preferable to surgery in my case.

For me, radiotherapy was far more tolerable than chemo; just tiredness and mild discomfort. This was fortunate as some find it too painful to swallow without anaesthetic suspensions, and can even have to have feeding tubes taped up their noses. They put the fear of God into you in warning what could go wrong.

The worst part was having to travel Monday to Friday to Leeds and back every day for four weeks, where, with twelve linear accelerators, St. James’s Hospital zap around 450 patients a day. Their record is 750. People travel from all over Yorkshire.

As I was not allowed to drive, I was eligible for free Patient Transport. If you asked for early appointments, you usually get a private taxi. The return journey could be taxi, volunteer driver or a small ambulance, sometimes shared. With travel time, the 10-minute treatment including its 25 seconds of irradiation took at least three hours. Most days it was more: nearly six on the worst occasion. With Patient Transport you have to be patient.

Some drivers became regulars. I spent over ten hours sitting with one friendly chap in the Leeds traffic, talking about all kinds of things and learning Urdu phrases. He came from Kashmir in the nineteen-eighties without a word of English and is proud that his children have had the education he never had.    

I have clearly had several tens of thousands of pounds worth of NHS treatment and may well need more. I could say so much more about it: the endless appointments and tests, the CT-guided lung biopsy which gave me a pneumothorax air pocket and another night in hospital, the radioactive dye squirted into my bloodstream from a lead canister by a nurse in an anti-radiation suit, the wholesale consumption of pills, how the challenge is as much psychological as physical, and the effects upon family, but I’ll leave things there.

I’m well again now. I have even been out on my bike. It is now a matter of monitoring scans. How long can any of us say we have: 2023? 2027? 2032? I might be lucky, but no delusions.

These things happen. As my Yorkshire grandparents would have said: “It’s a bugger in’t it!”

Sunday 6 November 2022

The Songwriter

Another item from the old electric guitar case: the November 1977 edition of The Songwriter, the magazine of the International Songwriters Association. Not very inspiring, is it! I have no idea how I acquired it or why I kept it. Perhaps I thought I would be the next Bjorn or Benny.

Can you become a songwriter by reading a magazine? It seems to me like all that stuff about how to be a published writer. If you look up “memoir blogs”, for instance, there are lots of people all too ready to tell you how to do it, but not many who actually do.

Did J. K. Rowling spend her time reading magazines about how to write books, or did she just get on with it?

The chap on the cover of ‘The Songwriter’, by the way, turns out to be one Reg Guest, apparently a successful arranger and session musician, but not much of a songwriter. The president and founder of the Association, Jim Liddane, does not seem to have written many songs either.

I think it’s another item for the recycling bin.  

Tuesday 1 November 2022

Weekend in College

(New month old post: first posted 23rd September, 2015)

You been tellin’ me you're a genius since you were seventeen,
In all the time I've known you, I still don't know what you mean,
The weekend in the college didn't turn out like you planned,
The things that pass for knowledge, I can't understand.
It was as if Steely Dan’s phenomenal ‘Reelin’ in the Years’ was aimed directly at me, cutting through the pretentiousness to the stupidity beneath. It was actually four months but might just as well have been a weekend for all the good it seemed to do. With the anticipation of arrival smothered in a blanket of disillusion, I detested myself as much as the subject of Becker and Fagen’s song.

City of Leeds and Carnegie College

It was the first of two attempts to escape accountancy. After four mind-numbing years, I decided it was not the career for me, and applied to train as a science teacher. You needed five G.C.E. Ordinary level passes, and to have studied your specialist subjects to Advanced level. In other words, you did not actually need to have passed the Advanced level. That was me exactly. I didn’t tell them about the failed accountancy exams.

It beggars belief that you could become a Secondary years science teacher with nothing better than weak Ordinary level passes in your specialist subjects. They should have told me to go away and re-sit Advanced Levels and reapply, assuming I still wanted to. Anything less would be to inflict my limited knowledge and ineffectual learning techniques upon other poor innocents. But you can talk yourself into anything if it’s on offer.  

Around 1960

The City of Leeds and Carnegie College, now part of Leeds Beckett University, was one of the loveliest campuses in Britain. It was built in 1911 in a hundred acres of parkland that once belonged to Kirkstall Abbey. Hares ran free in the woods and each spring brought an inspiring succession of leaf and flower. The magnificent main building dominated a sweeping rectangular lawn called The Acre, lined by solid halls of residence named after ancient Yorkshire worthies: Fairfax, Cavendish, Caedmon, Leighton, Priestley, Macauley and Bronte.

But instead of moving into halls, I remained off-campus in my seedy shared house. It meant not taking full part in the friendly community of cosy study bedrooms around the grassy Acre, and the activities I might have enjoyed. I felt old and awkward. The music drifting from open doorways flaunted the easy friendships within. While the Carpenters sang that they were on top of the world, Steely Dan mocked that “college didn't turn out like you planned”.

The course quickly became tedious. Chemistry classes were interminable, like being back at school. I began to sink into the old malaise and find fault in everything. A biology technician “humanely” despatched rats for dissection by cracking their necks on the edge of a bench. We sampled the vegetation growing on The Acre lawn, my accountant’s brain adding up the data almost before the other students had got out their calculators. In English classes, reading through a play, I realised that some of the others were not fluent readers. It was astonishing. They were training to be teachers for goodness’ sake.

We were sent out on teaching practice. I found myself in a Comprehensive School on a council estate. After two weeks, we were asked to plan and teach a small number of lessons ourselves. I had good ones and bad ones. In the best, observed by the teaching practice tutor, the children used Bunson burners, all happy and engaged in what they were doing. Do they still let them do such dangerous things? Fortunately, no one saw the worst from which I was saved only by the school bell.

The school had none of the liveliness of the grammar school I had attended myself, and staff made no secret of their dissatisfaction. “Here I am with a First in English,” said one, “and I’m supposed to teach kids who have no interest in reading anything at all.” And one of the most inspiring teachers left to open a pottery.

Despite good marks, the doubts grew as I returned to my old employer to earn money over Christmas. The uninspiring course, the mediocrity, the dismal school I’d seen, it was not what I wanted. It was not a substitute for university. More hopes and dreams dashed by another abandoned course. What now?

I was by no means the last to leave. A few went on to successful teaching careers, but many never taught at all. During the year that my course would have finished, the press was rife with accounts of unemployment among new teachers. Despite a chronic shortage just two years earlier, Governments had not planned for the falling birth rate. Around two thirds of newly qualified teachers were unable to find jobs.

One poor girl in London had previously been guaranteed a post, but after staying on at college an extra year to improve her qualifications with a Bachelor of Education degree, she now had to find work outside teaching. Perhaps it was fortunate I did leave.

It was thirty years before I visited Beckett Park again. The passage of time gave rise to quite an unsettling experience. I was haunted by half-remembered faces and snatches of conversation from a particularly intense episode in the past: here is where I usually managed to find a parking space for my Mini; across there is where I resented a tutor telling me I would have greater authority if I stood straighter and walked with shorter steps; that window, in Leighton Hall, is the study bedroom where a girl I seriously fancied took me one afternoon for nothing more than a cup of coffee and a long talk.

Ghosts aside, the place looked much the same. Most of the original Edwardian campus survives, although the internal use has changed, such as residences replaced by staff offices and teaching rooms, with students bused-in from off-campus and financed very differently.

Smoke gets in your eyes. You can convince yourself anything is right when you’re desperate enough.

[The original post was even longer and more over-written than this, but if you are interested, it is still here]

Thursday 27 October 2022


New guitar strings fitted today on the Epiphone dreadnought. The last ones had been on since 2018 and were getting a bit dull and smelly (grease from your hands). It’s a long job taking about an hour and a half, and I always dislike doing it, but it’s worth it in the end.

I don’t usually throw the old ones away in case I break one and need a spare – something that has only ever happened once or twice in my life. I looked in my old electric guitar case: there could be every string I’ve had in fifty years. Have put the metal ones for recycling. 

There are other things in the guitar case too, but I’ll save them for later.

Friday 21 October 2022

Premium Bonds

In August, 1957, my grandfather bought me and my brother one of the first £1 Premium Bonds each. They had been introduced just under a year earlier on the 1st November, 1956, to encourage people to save. He bought us each another £1 bond in 1959.

Rather than paying interest, bonds were entered in a monthly prize draw, drawn by ERNIE (Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment), a Colossus computer. They retained their original value and could be cashed in at any time.

In those days, the maximum you could invest was £500 and the top prize was £1,000, as compared to £50,000 and £1 million today. Also, today, you cannot invest less than £25 at a time.

I didn’t cash mine in. In fact, I later bought more, and once won £500. I still have the original two, along with the others, and my Premium Bond record shows a total investment ending in 02.  The original bonds are now numbered 000AB01---- and 000AB76----.  

The records are all electronic now, but here are my two original paper certificates. 

A dutiful grandfather thinking of his grandchildren’s financial future? These two particular bonds have never won a thing.

Saturday 15 October 2022

More Thoughts On Clients

I was encouraged by the interesting comments on my last post about the businesses I came across while working in accountancy in the nineteen-seventies, and the further thoughts they sparked off. The following captured my ambiguous feelings about it at the time:

Brown paper parcels containing vouchers,
Cash books and day books, bank statements in pouches,
Ledgers and ledgers, both sales and bought,
Ticking up postings requires little thought.

One big difference between then and now was the lack of computerisation. Nearly all records were handwritten. Some were in beautiful leather-bound ledgers, and there was a sense of pride and skill in being able to keep them neat and tidy in fountain pen, without mistakes and corrections.

Others might be in scruffy self-duplicating docket books. It was interesting to follow them around factories, matching them to drums of dye colour, or to trace them from lengths of cloth to the despatch of finished items of clothing. This was done to ensure the accounting systems were working correctly and detect possible fraud (which was rarely found).

But often the books of smaller clients would be brought into our own offices where you might be stuck for several weeks bored to tears, hence my parody of ‘Favourite Things’. 

I made distractions for myself. When we took on a model agency as a new client I was asked to produce a set of example book keeping entries for the owner to follow so that she knew how to fill them in. To the annoyance of my boss I used the names of famous models such as Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, causing him to exclaim: “For goodness’ sake, Tasker, we’re a firm of Chartered Accountants, not Monty Python’s Flying Circus!” Too late. They were already inked into the first page of the cash book.

We also prepared sets of annual accounts for clients, filed them with the Inspector of Taxes on their behalf and dealt with their tax affairs. As a result I have never been afraid of dealing with outfits like HMRC or the DSS.

You could also get stuck of larger clients checking off lists against each other. It wasn’t called “double entry” book-keeping for nothing.  At one cloth warehouse it took several weeks to work through the sales ledgers. Statistical sampling and tests of significance would not have been considered adequate then. We checked nearly everything.

Another big difference was the sheer variety of types of business. We made so many more of our own things before globalisation. Now, Central Leeds seems to be predominantly financial rather than physical, and nearly everything takes place at desks in offices.

Computers sucked the life blood out of everything.

Wednesday 12 October 2022


Accountancy: it certainly taught me how the world works. I dropped out before finishing training, but was in long enough to see clients and businesses of every type and size. Most are long gone. Going to Leeds now, the place is unrecognisable. 

This is the cover of a Leeds Building Society passbook showing the Society’s headquarters at the corner of Albion Street and The Headrow around 1970. The Society was then called The Leeds and Holbeck, but changed name around 1994.

On the upper floors you can just make out the offices of a solicitor, Scott, Turnbull and Kendall, also long gone. I used to sit in one of those windows carrying out their audit, looking across the Headrow to Vallances records and electrical shop, watching people walk past, wondering where they were all going and what they were thinking. It was one of the most pleasant and interesting audits we did. I remember being amused by the ‘deed poll’ name changes: Cedric Snodgrass for one. Why ever did he change his name?

Vallances’ buildings are now a leisure and retail complex with rather too many wine bars, coffee shops and restaurants, like most city centres. 

We audited a city centre pharmacist, Mr. Castelow of 159 Woodhouse Lane. Even then he was a throwback to Victorian times. His shop is now replicated (unfaithfully in my memory) as an exhibition in a Hull streetlife museum.

There were travel agents, hairdressers, bookshops, garages, a coal-merchant, charities, an insurance broker, builders, a plumbers’ merchant, a wet-fish supplier and a firm that owned several smaller cinemas and dance halls in Leeds. There was a man who bought second hand metal-working machines from defunct British factories and renovated them for export to India and China (I still know all about pillar drills and horizontal borers). We even audited a model agency. Every one has a story.

There was a firm that made broadsheet-sized photographic printing plates by coating aluminium with light-sensitive chemicals. The aluminium came in heavy rolls, possibly a metre thick and a metre high, from suppliers such as Alcan. They had to be lifted around the factory on overhead beams. I remember going in with another trainee one Saturday morning to check that the stock taking had been carried out accurately, and the other trainee spent most of the time playing with the lifting gear, moving rolls around to try to confuse me. When the audit senior arrived to see how we were getting on the other trainee took our worksheets and said that “he” had finished and all seemed in order. Bastard.  

Not all our clients were in Leeds. There was a haulage company from Selby. I was delighted recently to spot one of their trucks, a family firm still trading after all these years.

There was a firm that made television adverts in an old cinema in Bradford, mainly the voice-over-stills that appeared at the end of regional ad-breaks or in local cinemas. One was for a car-wash, another for a toupee-maker. I think they almost offered me a job when I suggested they made an ad in which a man wearing a wig drives through a car-wash in an open-topped car and emerges looking spick and span. But they did make more ambitious films too, including one for lager on location in Switzerland. It was an auditors’ (and taxman’s) nightmare that the crew and actors were paid in cash out of a suitcase.

Amongst the larger businesses were the cloth warehouses and clothing manufacturers. One was not especially pleased when I discovered they had moved stock across the financial year-end in order to understate profits.

Then there were the public companies quoted on the stock exchange. One was a collection of dyers, spinners, weavers and rug-makers in factories around Leeds and Bradford. I often came away from the dyers with a free rug that had been returned because of a fault with the colours. They brightened up the shared house I lived in.

You visited these businesses, talked to the bosses and the people who worked there, checked over the books and produced sets of accounts. You knew how wealthy people were, and commercially sensitive things you had to keep quiet about no matter how wrong you thought they were, such as a new wages assistant being paid more than the senior who was training her.

Oh yes! It certainly taught you how the world works.

Saturday 1 October 2022

School Chemistry

New month old post. First posted 14th November 2014

There was once a time when things at school looked promising. I was doing well in most subjects, especially science. My diary remembers I was top in biology, had got 20/20 in a chemistry test, and had enjoyed a ‘fab’ physics experiment: the water equivalent of a copper calorimeter. Yet I only scraped through ‘O’ levels and messed up ‘A’ levels completely. What went wrong? 

I was spellbound by the science labs the moment I went to grammar school. They had a permanent smell of pungent chemicals, coal gas, rubber tubing and wood polish that hinted at mysterious secret knowledge. What went on at those dark ancient benches with sinks, gas taps and glass-stoppered bottles etched with intriguing names: tincture of iodine, nitric acid, sodium hydroxide, lime water? Could they make explosives and powerful poisons? Could they turn base metals into gold? Did they have the philosopher’s stone with the secret of eternal life? Perhaps if you paid attention, you might have these things too.

In a room tiered like the Royal Institution, you looked down from beautiful oak benches upon Dr. Page as he heated potassium chlorate and manganese dioxide to make oxygen. It bubbled up through water into an upturned jar. He became a wizard, an alchemist, showing how it reacts with other substances. “Magnesium burns with a bright white light” he said, conjuring a dazzling ball of light too bright and too white to look at.

In biology, my dysfunctional memory absorbed the names of anatomical structures and physiological processes: xylem, islets of Langerhans, osmosis, mitochondria, mitosis. In physics, I was captivated by the sheer ingenuity of the procedures. In mathematics, the interactions of shapes and numbers seemed as exquisite as any art form.

And what a cheat! We listened to a weekly series of science programmes on the wireless. I might have been the only person in the class with a tape recorder. I showed my mother how to record the programmes at home and, after listening a second time, handed in outstanding essays.

But things began to go downhill. I have excuses, such as forgetting to revise for the summer science exam. “Position in class 2nd, position in exam 25th, a disappointing exam result” said my report. It put me in the second stream for science, where people messed about and I made the mistake of wanting to be liked. Things got harder too. Chemistry progressed from observation to experiments, quantitative measurement and atomic models. And we moved to new labs with benches in rows rather than islands, where teachers couldn’t see what was going on at the back.

The once admired Dr. Page, little and thin with an odd toothy mouth, small bony face and permanent worried frown, was not well equipped to deal with continuous low level disruption. An orchestra of clicks and pings from cupboard door catches and drawer label holders would start up every time he turned to write on the blackboard, only to be met by silent, innocent faces when he angrily spun back.

Occasionally he would catch someone still smirking, attributing blame by shouting their name: “Bullard!”, “Gelder!”, “Dunham!”. Geoffrey Bullard perfected the ability to click a cupboard door with his foot while the rest of him remained motionless, his face expressionless. He could continue this covert clicking after Dr. Page had spun, causing someone else to laugh and get the blame.  

Harvey Gelder started a league table of called out names. Geoffrey Bullard went straight to the top when he caused uproar by catching a wasp and dropping it into a bottle of sodium hydroxide. It didn’t half fly around fast inside the bottle.

It wasn’t long before everyone at the back had points except for Maurice Jupp. He remained bottom of the league until almost the end of term. The day arrived when, under conditions of intolerable harassment, Jupp was spotted not sitting quietly and had his name called out. We all stood up cheering and applauding. We had to stay late that day.

Jupp’s downfall was brought about by water. The bench water taps could not have been better designed for mischief. They were of the typical laboratory downspout design, and could be turned on just enough to drip so that a well-timed finger could flick drops of water at the head of the person sitting in front. Or, the top of a fountain pen, the kind with a small hole in the side for equalising air pressure, could be pushed on to a tap to squirt a powerful jet of water at someone sitting yards away. The rubber teat from a teat-pipette could do the same job if you made a tiny hole in it, except the spray was so fine that the recipient might not notice until the back of his jacket was soaked through. And a teat without a pin hole pushed on to a dripping tap would slowly expand like a balloon until it became a water bomb primed to explode. There was not a lot you could do about it. Pulling off the teat was suicidal. The best thing was simply to turn off the tap, hoping you had correctly remembered which way was off, and trust that the thing remained stable.

Hardly anyone from the back of that class passed their ‘O’ level chemistry.

Wednesday 21 September 2022

Loch Muick

After the unrelenting succession of public duties and merciless scrutiny, no one should begrudge the King and Queen Consort a few days’ peace and quiet at Balmoral. That is where I would be in their place, with perhaps a couple of nights at Glas-allt-Shiel.

For me, events vividly brought back the time I lived near there. Place names from thirty-five years ago became familiar again, as did the way they rolled off the tongue. Best was “Pitterrr Cootterrr” (Peterculter)

One of my favourite walks then was the eight-mile circuit of Loch Muick (pronounced “Mick”) on the Balmoral estate. It was a comparatively undemanding way to experience the rugged Highland countryside, ideal for the short winter days or long summer evenings they have up there. I often took visiting friends there and must have done the walk more than half a dozen times. In those days you could park for free at Spittal, eight miles south of Ballater, and see no one else all day.

The walk is on public paths, so there are no access problems. One nutcase I worked with liked to plan his own off-path routes across the Balmoral estate and was more than once stopped by security.

Here is Loch Muick from the southern end (I didn’t take many photographs at that time, so all the images here are others’).

About half way around the walk in trees on the western shore of the loch (on the left in the photograph) is the lonely lodge of Glas-allt-Shiel, built by Queen Victoria in 1868 as an escape from the world after the death of her husband. The Royal Family still use it occasionally despite the lack of mains electricity.

Usually it was closed up, but on one occasion, although deserted, the blinds were open and you could see into a dining room exquisitely set with spectacular china and silverware. We stood at the window and stared in wonder for a time before continuing around the loch. Suddenly, three Royal green Range Rovers came speeding
along the track towards us. We couldn’t see who was in them.

My only other brush with Royalty was when the Queen visited the university where I worked. She gave us her famous warm and uplifting smile through the window of her Bentley and then disappeared into the Vice Chancellor’s building.

Not as close as others’ encounters, but they are mine.

Sunday 11 September 2022


In scanning my parents’ photograph albums to share with the family I came across the following picture: 

Did we really slick this scented white grease through our hair?

The adverts said it aided the natural flow of sebum (yuk!); that it gave a clean, smart look safe from dandruff - presumably by sticking the dandruff to your head. How long did it take to wash out? Probably ages, bearing in mind that we only washed our hair about once a week. Jars had finger grooves to minimize risk of drops. Upholstery had to be protected by antimacassars. What did it do to pillows? Did Richie Benaud oil his bat with it?

Thank goodness for The Beatles.

Thursday 1 September 2022

Lytton Strachey

New month old post (originally posted 20th June, 2016)

As a young, unreconstructed, heterosexual male from a northern working-class monoculture, it was a most unlikely book to be reading: Michael Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey (1880-1932), an effete, gangling homosexual with a big nose, unkempt beard and light, reedy voice. I got it by forgetting to cancel the default selection from the book club I was in.

I cautiously dipped into its 1144 pages, wondering what on earth it was, and was quickly drawn in by the preface, an account of Holroyd’s researching and writing of the book.

Lytton’s archive was so extensive it took Holroyd five years to work through it, a period he describes as “… a way of life and an education.” As he ploughed through the plethora correspondence with its detailed accounts of faulty digestion, illness, apathy and self-loathing, he began to experience the same ailments himself, wondering whether they could be posthumously contagious. He resolved that his next subject must be someone of extraordinary vitality.

Even so, Holroyd’s life as a writer and researcher seemed hugely preferable to mine as a trainee accountant. There had to be more edifying things than an accountancy correspondence course. Constructing control accounts and trial balances was anything but an education.

If Holroyd’s account of writing the biography drew me in, his descriptions of the Strachey family had me hooked. There were numerous uncles, cousins and other visitors, many either distinguished, completely potty, or both. Holroyd describes them as “the flower of originality gone to seed.” One uncle who had lived in India continued to organise his life by Calcutta time, breakfasting and sleeping at odd times of day.

Other oddballs walk on and off stage throughout the book. One of my favourites could have been invented by the comedian Ronnie Barker. He was “dr. cecil reddie” Lytton’s one-time headmaster and a leading member of “the league for the abolition of capital-letters.” In retirement he corresponded with “lytton” from his address at “welwyn-garden-city, hertfordshire.”

Having chuckled my way through the early chapters, I became immersed in Lytton’s school and university days, identifying with his shyness and awkwardness in company, the feeling of somehow not fitting in, and his difficulty in making friends. But when he got to Cambridge University he began to thrive. He was elected to the Conversazione Society, otherwise known as the Apostles, a highly secretive group which met in members’ rooms on Saturday evenings to eat sardines on toast and discuss intellectual topics.*

Through the Apostles, Lytton became friends with leading writers and intellectuals of the day, such as Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, Rupert Brooke, John Maynard Keynes and leading members of the now-famous Bloomsbury Group of writers, artists and intellectuals which included writers Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, and the post-impressionist painters Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

Many rated Lytton as one of the cleverest people they had encountered, but immediate success eluded him. His history degree was Second Class, his application to the Civil Service unsuccessful, and he was twice rejected for a University Fellowship. He found himself back home writing reviews for periodicals and generally drifting. Churning out articles left little of his scant energy for the great work he hoped to write. Eventually, at the age of thirty-one, he did produce a book, a history of French literature, but it brought neither the wealth nor the success he sought.

I still envied him. I would have been happy to get into any university, let alone Cambridge, and it would have been the sauce on the sardines to be invited to join a secret club. My not-so-exclusive group of mates who met in the Royal Park Hotel to drink five pints and tell sexist and racist jokes did not have quite the same intellectual mystique.

Lytton’s life at this time seemed no more purposeful than mine, with a similar pattern of futility and wasted energies. But it must have been nice, when feeling a bit fed up as Lytton often did, to be able to take oneself off to relatives in the Cairngorms, or to friends in Sussex or Paris. He was no slave to the thirty-seven hour week and three weeks’ annual holiday.

One of the most startling revelations in Holroyd’s book was its frank treatment of bi- and homosexuality. There was irony in Lytton’s alleged response to the First World War military tribunal that assessed his claim to be a conscientious objector. When asked: “What would you do if you saw a German soldier attempting to rape your sister?” he is said to have answered: “I should try to come between them.”

Nevertheless, some women were attracted to Lytton, and Lytton to some women. At one point he proposed to Virginia Stephen (later Woolf), who accepted him, although both rapidly decided it not to be a good idea.

Then, in 1915, he was captivated by an androgynous young painter, (Dora) Carrington (known by her surname only). Their story begins when she crept stealthily upon Lytton’s sleeping form intending to cut off his beard in revenge for an attempted kiss. Lytton suddenly opened his eyes and gazed at her. Holroyd takes up the tale: “... it was a moment of curious intimacy, and she, who hypnotized so many others, was suddenly hypnotized herself.” From that moment they became virtually inseparable. They set up home together and were often simultaneously besotted with the same person, usually male.

Look how much she loved him:

Lytton Strachey by Dora Carrington (1916)

In 1918, Lytton’s fortunes changed. His book, ‘Eminent Victorians’, caught the mood of a war-shocked nation, cynical and distrustful of the rigid Victorian morality that had led to the conflict. The title is of course ironic. It dismantles the reputations of four legendary Victorians. To summarise Holroyd: Cardinal Manning’s nineteenth-century evangelicism is exposed as the vanity of fortunate ambition; Florence Nightingale is removed from her pedestal as the legendary ‘Lady of the Lamp’ and revealed as an uncaring neurotic; Dr. Thomas Arnold is no longer an influential teacher but an adherent to a debased public school system; and General Gordon, the ‘hero’ of Khartoum, is shown to have been driven by the kind of misplaced messianic religiosity all too familiar to those returning from the trenches.

The book reflected the attitudes of Lytton’s Bloomsbury circle, in many ways foreshadowing how we live now, especially the displacement of public duty and conformity by private hedonism and individuality. It also revolutionised the art of biography, showing off Lytton’s virtuosity as a writer: his repertoire of irony, overstatement, bathos and indiscretion, his fascination with the personal and private.

Holroyd’s reputation, too, was shaped by his Strachey biography, establishing him as part of England’s literary elite.

For me, both Strachey and Holroyd were a revelation. Despite being worlds away from my own time, place and social class, they helped strip away the veils of convention and conformity that school, church, state and society had thrown over us. The parade of larger-than-life eccentrics showed it was not unacceptable to be different; that you did not have to follow convention or do what others expected; that not everyone had launched themselves into an upward trajectory by their twenties; that we can all have doubts and be demoralised, yet still come good. 

Northern working-class England in the fifties and sixties was as rigidly Victorian as the mores rejected by Bloomsbury. People worked long hours, had few holidays and were poor. Authority went unquestioned and unchallenged. But the times they were a-changin’. There were opportunities in abundance. For me, it was not so much Bob Dylan or John Lennon that brought this message home, but a rare biography of Lytton Strachey.


This was the 1973 edition of the Holroyds biography published by Book Club Associates. The biography was revised in 1995 to incorporate material that had become available since the earlier editions, but I still prefer the detail of the 1973 version. There is now an enormous amount of other material about Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington and the Bloomsbury Group.

* The Cambridge Apostles are rumoured still to be active. Members consider themselves the elite of the elite. Membership is by invitation only and potential recruits are unaware they are being considered. Despite the secrecy, one has to wonder whether they might easily be identified by their supermarket trolleys overstocked with excessive quantities of tinned fish and toasting bread on Saturdays. They need to address this security weakness urgently.

Thursday 25 August 2022


Last months post about photographic lenses and extension tubes set me thinking about the cameras I’ve used over the years. Some were also in the loft.


The first would have been our nineteen-fifties family camera, an Ensign Ful-Vue II. No, that wasn’t in the loft, but my dad had kept the instruction booklet:

It is surprising how vividly it brings things back: the large silver winding knob; loading the size 120 roll film (frames of 2¼ inches or 57mm square) with its thick black backing paper; the “ruby window” for viewing the frame numbers printed on the back – twelve per roll. Lovely colour, Ruby! 


The Ensign took most of our family photographs until 1962 when I received a Kodak Brownie Starmite camera for Christmas and became the family photographer. This used smaller 127-sized frames (40mm square), also 12 per roll. Pictures from both the Ensign and the Starmite have appeared many times on this blog, especially indoor flash. 


After starting work I wanted a 35mm single-lens reflex colour slide camera. One of the most economical to buy was the Russian Zenith E. It cost £33 from York Camera Centre in January, 1973. 

Comparing the quality of the Zenith images with the Ensign and Starmite negatives, you can see why it was cheap. I would have been better with something slightly more expensive, perhaps Pentax or Praktica, but the Zenith was fairly robust and I used it into the nineteen-nineties. It survived hours in rucksacks including two weeks backpacking in Iceland, and once rolled several hundred feet down a mountainside in Switzerland. Unfortunately, the fabric shutter is now torn beyond repair. As the lenses have gone to the charity shop, the camera body might as well go for metal recycling. 

One nice touch was that the Zenith came with a free book, “Discover Rewarding Photography: the Manual of Russian Equipment”, which, despite its name, contained helpful hints and useful information.


The Zenith and its lenses were heavy and bulky to carry around, especially out walking, so around 1994 someone took pity and bought me a 35mm Pentax Espio 738G compact camera. It was a nice, easy-to-use, lightweight camera, but I never really liked it. It had the irritating feature (at least with the films I used) that, on loading, it automatically wound the film  all the way to the far end, and then back again frame-by-frame as each shot was taken. This meant that numbers printed on colour slides were in reverse sequence: e.g. slide 36 was really slide 1.

It still works: Daughter used it for an art project a few years ago. It might be fun to get a black and white film to develop myself just one more time: extracting the film from its cartridge under blankets in the dark, sliding it into the developing tank, salivating at smell of sodium thiosulphate fixer. I’ll keep the camera and tank for now. No need to print the negatives these days; better just to scan them in.


And so to digital: a 2.1 megapixels Olympus D-490. It cost £399.99 in January 2001. The lens glided satisfyingly forward when you slid front the cover open. It had pop-up electronic flash on top. It had 3x zoom (35-105mm) and a macro function, but you could buy longer lenses and extension tubes. Its 72 dots-per-inch, 1600 x 1200 pixels jpg images used around 400MB of storage, so you could get around twenty on an 8MB memory card. It also took 20-second silent videos. 

The software for transferring images from the memory cards was awkward. You couldn’t just stick it into a computer slot like now because the ‘Camedia’ cards were enormous – seen here beside a standard SD card for comparison. I bought additional 16MB cards to take more photographs. A hundred was luxury after 35mm film. The camera was also a little heavy because it used four AA batteries. It still works but is worth at most £20 on ebay. Should it go to the electrical equipment recycling skip?

With two young children the Olympus was used a lot, but after a few years I noticed that the images had a small number of blank pixels. It seemed time to upgrade.


Technology was advancing rapidly and getting cheaper too. My 7.1 megapixels Canon Digital Ixus 70 cost £169.99 in April 2006, and I still use it today. It has a similar spec. to the Olympus: a 3x optical zoom (35-105mm), a macro function and built in flash, but also an extensive range of image settings and unlimited movie time with sound. Mine is set to 3072 x 2304 pixels at 180 dots per inch which creates jpg images of 3.5MB. Even a ‘small’ 4GB SD card stores loads. 

You can get much higher spec. cameras now, even on phones, but this is fine for most purposes. However, one might say that it isn’t as much fun, and doesn’t have the same mystique as the Zenith.

Not wanting to disappoint the technical amongst us, here are links to the Ensign Ful-Vue, Zenith E and Pentax Espio instruction booklets and manual.