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Thursday 23 June 2022

A Body Like Mine

I was always a thin and awkward child, and not very strong. It might have been genetic, but I also put it down to having had whooping cough at six months, a serious illness at that age. Whichever, it left what would now be called self-esteem and body-image issues, although, of course, such things did not exist in those days.

You could count each rib individually, and my sternum ended in what looked like a hole in the centre of my chest. My collar bones were lumpy protrusions jutting from the tops of my shoulders like razor shells, as if I’d been pegged out on washing line. School swimming lessons, scrutinised by the masses of girls watching from the balcony each week (how did so many manage to get out of it?), were humiliating. I grew to 6 feet (183cm) tall but weighed only nine and a half stones (60.3kg or 133 pounds), a body mass index (BMI) of 17.5, very much underweight in other words.

Who would want a body like mine? Not me. I wore jumpers all year round, kept my jacket on, and avoided beaches and swimming pools. I couldn’t gain weight whatever I ate. That might sound enviable, but not when you’re too thin.

I revived the sadistic games teacher’s gym exercises, puffing and panting through press-ups, sit-ups, heel-lifts and squat-jumps. Press-ups were particularly difficult, but starting with just one or two several times a day in secret, I gradually built up to five, then ten, then more. But I looked just as thin.  

I sought salvation in the small ads discreetly scattered throughout the press, and sent off for details of the Charles Atlas body building course. The ads omitted to mention the price, which was £8, too much, even after starting work. They sent reminders, and after a while reduced the price to £6. They sent more reminders and the price fell to £4, so I went for it. Someone told me if I’d waited longer it would have dropped to £2.

Charles Atlas, Angelo Siciliano (1893-1972), claimed to have transformed himself from a scrawny, seven-stone weakling into ‘The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man’ after having sand kicked in his face by a bully. Thus began one of the longest and most memorable advertising campaigns of all time.

In one unforgettable ad, a frail young man is taunted in front of his girl friend with “Hey, Skinny! Yer ribs are showing!”. When he protests he is pushed in the face and told “Shut up you bag of bones!” It could have been me, except that I didn’t even have a girl friend.

The course consisted of exercises to help gain strength by setting muscles in opposition against each other, trademarked the ‘Dynamic Tension’ method. One exercise was to form a fist with one hand, and press downward against the other hand in front of you for several seconds. This was then repeated with the other hand on top. Another exercise involved pulling hooked hands against each other.

It is not difficult to see how regular repetition might build muscle. However, to gain weight the course included diet sheets touting overpriced food supplements. It was also padded out with tips on jujitsu, wrestling, boxing and feats of strength to amaze your friends, such as tearing a telephone directory in half and lifting a pony into the air. A triumph of advertising over substance. Perhaps I did gain a bit of muscle, but nothing like Charles Atlas.
I wouldn’t have wanted to be like him anyway. I decided against a trip to the beach to check whether my physique was now more of an attraction than a curiosity.

In the end, I just got used to it. My BMI gradually crept up to the lower end of normal and more or less stayed there. I still do a few exercises each morning, not Atlas ones but bending and stretching, and lifting a pair of 2 x 5 Kg dumb bells, not to get fitter or stronger, but not to get worse. They nearly killed me carrying them from Argos.

Take note of Gillian Lynne, the ballerina, who was still carrying out a daily exercise routine (more demanding than mine) and teaching and demonstrating dance moves at 90. She said that just one day off because you feel a bit tired is one step down the slippery slope to oblivion.

Thursday 16 June 2022

Slide Copier

If you want to copy of an old photographic colour slide or negative, say, to post online or to make a copy of someone else’s slide, what do you do? You take a photo scanner if you have one (I have a Canon flatbed scanner with a film and slide copier in the lid), scan in the image (I use 3200 or 4800 dots per inch), and, of you are a perfectionist, tidy up to dust marks and scratches with Photoshop or similar. It makes for a better quality image than you ever used to get projecting the slide on to a glass bead screen.

But what did you do in the pre-computer nineteen-sixties and seventies? Think: Tandy TRS-80 introduced 1977, Sinclair ZX80 and ZX81 in 1980 and 1980, the 8-colour BBC Microcomputer in late with 1981 and the Sinclair SX Spectrum in 1982. None of these would have been capable of running photo-scanning devices even if they had been available. For example, to Hewlett-Packard Scanjet was introduced in 1987. It operated in black and white at 300 dots per inch, could handle only reflected documents and not film or slides, and cost a fortune.

So what did you do? Another trip to the loft has found my slide copier.

I have the cheapo SLR Mk II version, basically which is a metal frame that just screws to the front of a camera lens. It appears to have cost me £5.34 in around 1974. Here it attached to the front my Zenith E single-lens reflex camera. I have also used extension tubes between the camera body and the lens.

It was terrible. I could never get it to produce a decent image no matter what kind of lighting I used.

For example, here, in a copy from a friend’s slide, I am nearing the top of Ben Nevis in April, 1974, straight up from the Glen Nevis car park. It has not been Photoshopped. I did not even manage to get the light consistent on this one. You didn’t get to see it until the film was processed, and the cost meant you couldn’t have as many goes keep trying until it was right.

Looks like another item for metal recycling. Thank goodness for modern photo scanners.

For the sake of completeness, here are the instructions that were in the box (or download as pdf)  

Thursday 9 June 2022

The Mirror

I recently mentioned this 1966 photograph in a post about objects in the background of old photographs, and how evocative they can be. On the wall is a round mirror.

That mirror forms part of my earliest memories. It must be at least eighty years old, possibly a lot more. I never thought to ask about its origins. It was in the main room where we lived until I was six, then in the house after that as pictured. I looked in it to see what the school dentist had done to my teeth, for marks on my face after being attacked by Modern School bullies, at teenage spots and scratches, and at the awful short back and sides inflicted by the barber. Why couldn’t I have a Beatles cut? It followed my parents through each house move until, in emptying my dad’s bungalow fifteen years ago, it came to rest in out loft.

One side-effect of steroids I was recently prescribed (thankfully a reducing dose, now ended) was to generate intense bursts of physical energy lasting several hours. It does not make you popular at four in the morning. You also become very focussed, decisive and ruthless - even nasty at times. I don’t really recommend it, but it does mean your get lots of things done: such as sorting out the clutter in the loft.  

Here is the mirror now, and very nice it is too. I remember being fascinated by the magnifying mirrors-within-a-mirror effect created by the decorative pattern.

The mirror hangs by a sturdy metal chain affixed to a solid wooden backing which makes it rather heavy. I would be concerned it might damage or fall off the wall. We have no use for it now. We took it to a local charity which has a shop in Denby Dale. They were delighted. I hope they get a really good price for it.

Wednesday 1 June 2022

Belgian Youth Abroad

(New month old post: first posted 13th January 2015)

Hugo, my foreign language exchange partner, thought himself the Belgian equivalent of Dick Rivers “the French Elvis Presley”. He dressed like Dick Rivers, sang like Dick Rivers and combed his hair like Dick Rivers. And like his role model, he was fascinated by popular American culture.

I think that was the main reason he wanted to visit England – he thought it was like America. English fashion and music were taking over the world. ‘Swinging’ London was also the fictional home of Hugo’s other hero, ‘The Saint’, alias “the famous Simon Templar”, played by the young and debonair Roger Moore, recently syndicated with subtitles on Belgian television. He looked so good I could almost have fancied him myself.

The foreign language exchange scheme, ‘La Jeunesse Belge à l'Étranger’ (Belgian Youth Abroad), made England easily accessible. It paired Belgian and English teenagers to stay with each other and their families.

And so, one sunny July afternoon in the mid nineteen-sixties, Hugo, and around thirty other excited Belgian teenagers, travelled north on a train to Yorkshire. As they rattled over the river and canal bridges, those that had been in previous years knew they had reached their destination.

Meanwhile, waiting expectantly on the station platform, their exchange partners squinted into the glare to catch a first glimpse of the approaching train. The clatter and thump of railway gates locking against their stops, and the clunk of railway signals bouncing into the clear position, announced its imminent arrival. I was oddly distracted by the image of Wendy Godley standing quietly at the end of the platform with the sun shining straight through her thin summer dress.

How on earth would we match Hugo’s expectations? It wasn’t Elvis Presley or Roger Moore that had recently performed in our town, it was Wilfred Pickles and his quiz and interview show ‘Have A Go!’, broadcast on the Light Programme, the most old-fashioned and parochially working-class show on the wireless. Its mainly elderly audience always joined in to sing the opening theme song: 

Have a go, Joe, come on and have a go, You can’t lose owt, it costs you nowt, To make yourself some dough. So hurry up and join us, don’t be shy and don't be slow. Come on Joe, have a go!
Hugo would surely be bored out of his mind.

The train drew up in a hiss of hot steam, a whiff of coal smoke and the turmoil of slamming doors, waving, cheek-kissing and excited foreign accents. I found Hugo and helped carry his luggage to our house.

I need not have worried. A big difference between our own trip abroad and Hugo’s to England was that whereas we had stayed mainly with families dispersed across French-speaking Belgium, the Belgians stayed close together in our small Yorkshire town. At the same time we were hosts to a similar number of German exchange students. So we had thirty Belgian teenagers and thirty German teenagers, many for the first time away from their parents, all in effect on holiday together with their sixty English hosts. There would be no difficulty in finding things for them to do; they would create their own entertainment. Indeed, Hugo had already been hard at work creating distractions of his own.

“Zehre was zees gehrl on zee trhrain,” he said, “Marie-Christine. Vehry byutifurl. She stay ‘ere en England too. She stay weedz an Engleesh gehrl called Wendee. You know whehre she leev?”

That disclosed Hugo’s main preoccupation for the next two and a half weeks. Whereas my activities in Belgium had depended almost entirely on Hugo and his family, Hugo quickly started to organize things for himself. As a handsome, energetic combination of Dick Rivers and the famous Simon Templar, he was irresistible to Belgian, German and English girls alike, and all their friends and sisters too. He worked through them one by one, sometimes in twos and threes, greatly assisted by my dad’s ancient bicycle which he had commandeered to give himself a level of independence that often left me to my own devices. Hugo was entirely different to how he had been at home in Belgium: “un garçon sérieux,” his parents had said.

Most afternoons, groups of Belgian, German and English teenagers congregated in the park, played tennis or football, and wandered around visiting each others’ houses or drinking Coca Cola in coffee bars. Most evenings there were lively parties, some still remembered for entirely the wrong reasons. I got to participate too. Such an intensity of social activity was completely new to me. I had to learn quickly.

One afternoon, Hugo having gone off somewhere with Wendy Godley and Marie-Christine, I found myself on my own at the park with Wendy’s sister, Sandra, who was also ‘vehry byutifurl’. Whereas Wendy had always completely ignore me, Sandra was the opposite. She kept asking me things that seemed to mean more than just the words she used. With reference to the pictures (cinema): did I think it cosy at the Carlton? Would I like a ‘Wonderful Life’? Had I thought about ‘A Hard Day’s Night’? Would I enjoy ‘Sex and the Single Girl’? She was forever touching me, walking near enough to brush hands, and sitting so our knees came into contact.

That day in the park, I was sitting on my bicycle with hands on the brakes, and Sandra stood so closely that, oh so casually and accidentally, her tummy pressed firmly against my fingers. She felt warm through the softness of her strikingly red top. Then, with mischievous blue eyes looking straight into mine in a way that was impossible to refuse, she asked whether she could have a ride, pausing excessively before adding “on your bike, I mean.” I got off, she got on, wobbled a bit because it was too big for her, and then rode off towards the park exit, her ample bottom astride my saddle. I followed on foot, but she had disappeared. To be truthful, I was rather annoyed. If I wanted my bike back, I had to go get it.

I walked the half-mile to the Godleys’ house wondering what to say. The front door opened and Sandra waved me inside. She was alone in the house and had changed out of her red top into what looked like a flimsy nightdress. I wasn’t sure where I should look. Then, in one of those instants when different choices could have taken my life along a very different course, “I made my excuses and left” as newspaper reporters used to say. “Fled” would be a better word.

I often wondered how things might have turned out otherwise. It would have been good for me at that stage of my life to have had a very special friend, especially someone so funny, lovely and ‘byutifurl’. My coldness must have been hurtful. But we weren’t in ‘swinging’ London. The ‘swinging sixties’ did not reach our part of Yorkshire until the nineteen seventies or eighties. We would have become the subjects of the kind of nudges, winks and whispers that circulated round town for weeks.

There was one other thing too. It sounds terrible now, but Sandra went to the Secondary Modern School. Grammar school boys did not go out with modern school girls. We were turned into arrogant snobs.

I didn’t tell Hugo. Goodness knows what he would have made of it.