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Monday 24 April 2023

Slide Projector

I always feel a little sad when a once treasured item becomes obsolete, such as this slide projector. Having digitised our colour slides, we realised how much easier and convenient it is to click through them on a computer. 

I switched on the projector for the first time in fifteen years and was reminded how noisy and temperamental it can be. The slide change motor started up and was difficult to stop. I then got out the screen and remembered how awkward it is to put up, and how smelly it is, a mix of plastic and chemicals. Never again do I want to sit in the dark, breathing it in, looking at not-quite-in-focus pictures covered in dust, having to stop all too often to reload the magazines only to find I've put the slides in upside down or the wrong way round. 

I bought the projector in Leeds in 1973 after passing an accountancy exam and getting a pay rise, the first time I had disposable income. Most people had Hanimex Rondettes, but for some reason I went for the Kindermann.


With it in the drawer was this, which came with a load of other stuff from an uncle: a nineteen-fifties Minolta slide projector. I've not examined it before. It is very solidly made and the lens folds neatly out of the case. Very clever! It is not an automatic projector; you have to insert one slide at a time. It works, but runs worryingly hot. Not worth much. Probably also for disposal.

Monday 17 April 2023

Mature Student

Little remembered in these memoirs is my three years as a mature student at Hull University, and so it will remain. I enjoyed it immensely, but it was clouded by relationship issues, best forgotten.

Otherwise, the course was everything I could have hoped for, full of exciting ideas and ways of thinking about the world. It was both literate and numerate, examining competing theories and their supporting evidence, along with experimental design, statistics and data analysis.

Psychology was a diverse, well-rounded subject in those days. The popular belief that it dwells on people’s oddities is mistaken. It is a rigourous, scientific discipline. To give some idea of this, among my favourite topics were: how we acquire and learn to use language, how intellectual development changes with circumstances, the transmission of learning within groups of primates, Richard Dawkins’ ideas about The Selfish Gene, and the concept of life as an agent of negative entropy.

What I did not anticipate was that, of the 68 on the course, around 15 of us would be over the age of twenty-five, with more over twenty-one. The department took a favourable attitude towards mature students, and accepted a larger than average number each year. Some, like me, were looking for a complete change of career. Others were psychiatric nurses hoping to move into clinical psychology. There were mothers with children at school, taking the opportunity to get a degree. The upshot was, unlike the term I spent in teacher training, I had no sense of being older or out of place.  

We had a good time socially. As mature students, we could join the research students’ association, which had its own bar in a quiet part of the campus. Although these were still the days of strict licensing hours, one of us got elected on to the committee, with keys to the bar, and it was not unknown for drinks to be served after it should have closed for the afternoon. A couple of alcoholic lecturers became regulars, and their insights into how to play the academic game were invaluable. One was so bright, he had more than once got through to the finals of The Times national crossword competition. “Never again in your lives,” he said one day, “will you belong to such a group of intelligent well-informed people”. He may have been right.

I was well-aware how privileged and different it was from my previous existence. People in Leeds would still be slaving away at desks from nine in the morning until half past five at night in dingy offices, wearing uncomfortable suits, shirts and ties, peering at columns of numbers, contributing to the economy. Meanwhile, I was answerable only to myself, responsible for my own workload. There was no one to tell me to get up in the morning. I began to question what I was doing. Was it to be just an interlude from reality, a self-indulgent privilege? I stopped spending so much time in the research students’ bar, reworked the parts of the syllabus I found difficult (such as statistics) and applied myself properly. 

I applied the techniques and strategies that had worked so successfully at ‘A’ level: taking care to know what was expected, and being well-prepared by reworking lecture notes and reading around the topics.

One favourite place to work was beside the windows at the top of the university library, a wonderfully bright and quiet place with panoramic views to distant Lincolnshire. I watched the Humber Bridge suspension cables being spun.

        From the seventh floor, you can see England.
        Hull and East Riding,
        Holderness hiding,
        Humberside siding,
        Seems oh so small then.
        But we can see it.
        We live there.

        From the seventh floor, you can see Hull.
        River suspended,
        Towers up-ended,
        No part of the city
        The University.
        But we can see it.
        We work there.

        From the seventh floor, the campus.
        And there, by the way,
        Beside the pathway,
        In earth-science attic,
        All looks so static.
        But we can see it.
        We are there.

        From the Psychology tea room you can see sod all.
        Try as we’re able
        From coffee-cupped table
        To reach a perspective,
        The viewpoint’s defective.
        But can we see it?
        What do we there?

I graduated with a good degree. Three years reading textbooks and journal papers provides an ‘enriched environment’ that improves your ability to handle abstract ideas. Books I found demanding before university now seemed straightforward. I gained the confidence to set my own aims and ambitions rather than those I imagined others wanted for me. 

What to do next? I explored becoming a probation officer. I could have gone back to accountancy and made a success of it. But influenced by reading, particularly Christopher Evans’ ‘The Mighty Micro’, I went on to a one-year Masters degree in computing at UMIST, Manchester. Many thought computing and psychology unlikely bedfellows, but it led to a career along what is actually quite a fine line between the two subjects. 

Monday 10 April 2023

‘A’ Levels Again

Failing ‘A’ Levels at school was not much of a setback. Such were things in the nineteen-sixties, I soon received offers to train as a Chartered Accountant. That lasted for four years, but I failed the professional exams and left to train as a science teacher. I stuck that for just four months before returning to unqualified accountancy work, an unmitigated disaster.

There was a repeating pattern, scraping through early exams without much effort, and thinking I could do the same again as things got harder. You can’t. Basically, I never did the work.

It was a long way short of where I thought I should be, and damaging to self-respect and mental health.  I felt I should have done much better at school and gone on to university like many of my friends. I wanted to try again to prove I could do it, but getting in would not be easy because, unlike today, places were limited. People told me it was foolish, that the same would happen again and I would fail the exams and become unemployable. I should try again to qualify as an accountant. I was not going to listen to any of that. The best advice came from my friend Brendan, “For goodness’ sake don’t cock it up again”, mock anguish on his face as he imagined the consequences. Somehow, I knew that if I did, this time it would not be through lack of effort. It gave me a new sense of direction.

Older students sometimes got in to university without formal qualifications, but I would have been deluding myself to try. If my exam record told me anything at all, it was to learn to work and study effectively, and gain confidence. I needed to take ‘A’ levels again.

Inspired by reading interests, I switched from the sciences to the humanities, and started working towards ‘A’ Levels in English Literature and Geography. It was deadly serious, a last chance. I could not mess things up again. I took them part-time in less than a year. It was exciting and reckless.

I handed in my notice at work to free up the time needed. The idea was to swap permanent employment for short term contracts. But I found only four months’ paid work. After Christmas I stopped trying and signed on the dole (unemployment benefit) for four months. It paid my rent and kept the mini-van running. Financially, I hardly noticed a difference. It would be impossible now the rules are stricter and the benefits more miserly.

If that seems reprehensible, it was almost a lifestyle choice in those days. Some spent decades on the dole, students signed on during university vacations, and writers have told how the dole enabled them to develop their craft. Some justify it by suggesting that the cost has been recovered many times over through higher taxation, which may be true, but only for a minority. 

I began to study by correspondence course, but then along came two strokes of luck. One was finding a one-year English Literature course at Park Lane College in Leeds. It was intended for re-sit students, and they tried to dissuade me, especially as I had never studies English Literature at any level, but they had space and accepted my course fee. Another student had similar aims and background, and we were a great source of inspiration to each other. That is why attending a class beats a correspondence course nearly every time. You need to be with others of similar purpose.  

The other, in Geography, was that my cousin borrowed a set of notes from one of her friends who had got an A Grade. They were exquisite, and showed me what I needed to know. Is it possible to fall in love with someone through the beauty of their geography notes? With a little extra help from a friend who was a geography teacher, I decided to do that one on my own. 

The English Literature class cut the course down to the essentials. It is not necessary to study every text on the syllabus when you have to choose which ones you answer questions on. I applied the same principle to Geography. One section covered weather, vegetation and soils, but as you could answer questions on only one of these in the exam, I just did soils. Similarly, where the syllabus offers choice of geographical region, I studied only those on which I planned to answer questions.

I managed to maintain focus and not mess about. I got up at a sensible hour and planned my time. I went for brisk walks after breakfast and sat down to work: three hours every morning, three hours every afternoon, plus three hours twice a week at college. I planned what I needed to cover and by when, and largely managed to stick to it. 

Other ideas came from Dennis Jackson’s ‘The Exam Secret’ and Harry Maddox’s ‘How To Study’: get a copy of the syllabus to ensure you know what you are doing; narrow down your notes to things you can use in the exams; get copies of previous papers and practised answering questions under exam conditions; use memory aids such as mnemonics and mind maps; pretend to give talks on topics; attempt to emulate role models, i.e. people who are good at what you want to do. Above all, make sure you know exactly what is required of you in the exam. I never had before. 

Meanwhile, I had been applying for university places. It had not gone well. Of the six universities you were allowed to choose, three had rejected me outright, and the others had set a high bar. I put Hull as first choice, which wanted two grade Bs, and Lancaster second, which had asked for grades B and C.

I got two grade As. 


In the nineteen-sixties and -seventies, ‘A’ (Advanced) Level grades were awarded competitively. The top 10% got grade A, the next 15% grade B, and so on down to grade E which was the lowest pass grade. Overall, 70% passed. The next 20% received an O (Ordinary) Level equivalent and the lowest 10% a straight Fail. 

Saturday 1 April 2023


New Month Old Post: 1st posted 19th February 2019 

Bill and Jack

This is Bill and Jack. They had this postcard of themselves made from two separate photographs during the nineteen-thirties. They look like a well-turned-out American songwriting duo: Rogers and Hart or Gershwin and Gershwin, perhaps. Why they had it  made, or how they used it, I have no idea. 

Bill, on the left, was my grandma’s brother. He remained at home with his parents into his thirties. Jack lived with them. Jack was undoubtedly the livelier of the pair, and Bill, rather his sidekick. In the makeshift pre-war census known as the 1939 Register, Jack is constantly on the go as a window cleaner, transport driver and police despatch rider. Bill is simply a general labourer in a paper mill. People remembered a sign on the gate: “Let Jack Do It”. When Jack played in the village football team, Bill had only a supporting role as treasurer. When Jack played drums in a nineteen-thirties dance band, Bill would sit on stage next to him, even though, as someone remembered, “he did not have a musical bone in his body”.

Bill died aged 33. It may have been linked to smoking. My grandma gave me a box of around 40 complete nineteen-thirties cigarette card sets, which I believe had been collected by Bill.  

Jack had Bill buried in one half of a double grave with a single stone surround. He reserved the other half for himself, and had his name inscribed on the vacant plot with the dates to be added later. The stone surround was divided by a small marker bearing the word “Pals”.

I know what many may be thinking, something that would never have been thought in an out-of-the-way, self-contained, nineteen-thirties Yorkshire village. Again, I don’t know, but two years after Bill’s death, Jack got married. It was during the war, somewhere in the Midlands. Jack was thirty-nine and his wife, twenty-two. They returned to Yorkshire and had several children. The names and dates of both Jack and his wife are now inscribed on the once vacant half of the double grave.

Although I never met Bill, I have two memories of Jack. The first was at my grandma’s house when I was no more than four or five. Jack was smoking heavily, talking in a loud voice, agitated about something. Every other word was “bloody”: “bloody” this, “bloody” that, with the occasional “bugger” thrown in. He spat out the words with the cigarette smoke, jerking and shaking his head, making his whole face wobble in emphasis of all he said. I don’t know what it was about but he seemed entirely unconcerned that a young child was watching and listening.

The second time was at a football match seven or eight years later. He was Secretary of the local amateur league for teams such as Thorne Colliery and the railwaymen, pub teams like the Victoria and the Buchanan, village teams including Pollington, Eastrington and Swinefleet, and even a team of Methodists. It was Jack’s duty to present the cup to the winning finalists. All gathered around for the ceremony. I wondered what I was about to hear. Jack made a short speech. His face still wobbled in emphasis of all he said, but he did it without saying “bloody” or “bugger” even once.