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Tuesday 30 May 2023

For Northsider

Note with it: Ticket (£1.10) and promotional beer mat. Barclay James Harvest. Spring Tour 74. I went with Bob S- to see them at Leeds Town Hall on Tuesday 25th June as he had a spare ticket. We were fairly near the front and I was pretty deaf for a day or two. The ticket has the top corner torn off on admission.

The drummer was very exuberant: arms all over the place.

See Northsider's post: 

Thursday 25 May 2023

Unprincipled Spivs

Moving from the public to the private sector was something of an eye-opener. It was a very different culture. I had not expected to be working with such an unprincipled set of spivs.

Previously, I had only worked in the accountancy profession and universities where the main considerations were thoroughness and accuracy. In accountancy, we checked everything to the penny. There was no short-cut sampling and rounding as now. It was similar in universities. We aimed to review and understand all previous work in a field before attempting to extend it. Where I did have dealings with the private sector, it was either with audit clients wanting to demonstrate compliance, or with the research arms of large companies governed by quality procedures. You could say that things were done properly.

Then, along came nineteen-eighties ‘Thatcher’s Britain’, when competition and cost-cutting were king. You could say that standards began to drop.

Universities were driven to seek commercial partners. By then, I could bullshit pretty convincingly about ways to make computers easier to use, so when a systems company with problems came along, I was sent to talk to them. It was not supposed to be part of the plan for them to offer me a job on a lot more money. Feeling near to burnout with university work, I took it.

It was a medium-sized systems company driven by sales and profit, with an eye on what things cost and how long they took. The computer system they sold had been developed for an equipment maintenance business, but as the system expanded to handle more and more business functions, other companies wanted to use it too, and it became valuable in its own right. By the time I joined, there were around seventy computing staff, and the system was used by some of the biggest firms in Europe, from cash machine operators to telecoms companies. It had become immensely complicated and few fully understood it any more.

I identified problems, improved the information provided to customers, and began to take on consultancy roles, as they said I would. I can’t complain about that. But I disliked the prevailing ethos which was aggressive, competitive and sales-led rather than professional.

It oozed down from the owner. He had left school early and chanced upon the opportunity to lease and maintain office equipment, such as internal telephones and fax machines. He was a first-rate wheeler dealer and could spin a good yarn, and the business grew rapidly. He was also arrogant and ruthless. I cannot repeat all the sexist, racist, homophobic and explicit things I heard him say. In one meeting, he complimented a non-white staff member on his wonderful sun tan, and asked where he went on holiday to get it. In another, he likened a map of Scandinavia, “where our biggest customers are, Ladies”, to a “penis and testicles”. I suppose he thought it humorous; the sort of humour I had not heard in years. His attitude was that if customers were not complaining, we were giving them too much too cheaply.

This brand of arrogance pervaded company culture. Many of the staff, especially in sales, went along with it. They were paid ‘loadsamoney’ to drive around in company sports cars. There was pressure to go out drinking and socializing with customers. I did not feel ‘part of the team’. I don’t know if others felt uncomfortable too, but if so, they hid it well. The promise of more money and a company car tends to keep people in line, even when they never materialise.

The owner did not tolerate dissent. If you wanted to keep your job, you kept quiet. Those who crossed him were sacked, sued or both. One employee broke his leg playing football and was dismissed because “the injury was his own fault”. Another left to set up his own company and foolishly solicited business from his ex-employer’s customers. He was brought to the brink of bankruptcy.

The firm took on large numbers of new computing staff to redevelop and modernise the system. When they had served their purpose, 50% of the systems division were made redundant. I was tipped off by my manager that it was coming. He said that even if I survived I should get out as soon as I could. The phrase “unprinciples set of spivs” was his. I survive but he didn’t.

In all, I stuck it out for nearly four years. As I said, it was well-paid. The crunch came one Friday morning when I had to drop everything to go to Stockholm to sort out an urgent problem. I popped home to pack a bag and leave a note that I might not be back until Tuesday. It began to look as if more work like this would come my way. It might sound exciting, but it was all work. There was no free time to see the places you visited.

Newly married, with a family in mind, this was not the kind of life we wanted. It was a relief a few months later to find another university job. Although on a lower salary, I reasoned that the public service pension benefits compensated for that.

Monday 22 May 2023

Windmills Of Our Minds

I always have a tune playing in my head. This week there have been two not thought about in over sixty years. Where do we keep these things and the associations that suddenly bring them back?

I had been enjoying, on Yorkshire Pudding's recommendation a few weeks ago, the three series of 'The Detectorists' on BBC iPlayer. It is indeed good, although it contains more and more soap opera elements as it progresses, which I found annoying. 'Dad's Army' never needed extended plot lines about wives, daughers and girl friends.

I thought the best bit was the last five minutes of Series 3 Episode 1, when one of the main characters detects a falconer's whistle. He cleans if and blows to see if it still works, and to the eerie harmonies of The Unthanks 'Magpie' we are transported back to the scene of an Anglo Saxon burial on exactly the same piece of earth several centuries ago.

"Devil, devil, I defy thee", they sing. And then: "Oh, the magpie brings us tidings, Of news both fair and foul, She's more cunning than the raven, More wise than any owl, For she brings us news of the harvest, Of the barley, wheat, and corn, And she knows when we'll go to our graves, And how we shall be born." I had tingles down my spine.

After hearing 'Magpie' for a day or so, trying to make sense of the harmonies, I was struck by its slight similarity to the theme tune of the nineteen-fifties television series 'Cannonball'. It came back out of nowhere and I had to 'listen' to it for a time. This was then replaced, by association, with the singer Freddy Cannon's awful nineteen-fifties hit, 'Way Down Yonder in New Orleans', one of the first commercial songs I knew all the words to because they were printed in a magazine. I can still 'see' it from more than sixty years ago.

At least I can play The Unthanks to get rid of these two tunes, but sometime, it would be nice just to be able to switch it off.

Tuesday 9 May 2023

Do Elephants Get Seasick?

Although not a mariner, I imagine that if you want to sail a ship across the North Sea from the Humber to the Elbe, from Hull to Hamburg, you set the satnav, and the autopilot and diesel engines do much of the rest.

It was not always so. Until maybe 50 years ago, you left the Humber on a compass bearing, made adjustments for the wind and tides, and hoped you ended up in the right place fifteen to twenty hours later. In winter, at night, in bad weather, it was not for the faint hearted. Lives were lost. What a risky venture it seemed.  

A while ago, in a post about family photograph albums, I showed a picture of my great grandfather as a newly qualified master mariner. He first went to sea on a ketch at the age of 13, carrying bathroom ware from Leeds to London and returning with broken glass. Later, he spent two years on a brigantine trading to South America, once sailing 900 miles up the Amazon to Manaus. But he always said that if a man can sail the North Sea, he can sail anywhere in the world. And sailing the North Sea is what he did for many years, as captain of ships from Goole in Yorkshire, Britain’s most inland port. Frequent destinations were Jersey, Ghent, Antwerp, Rotterdam and Hamburg.

We still have some of his log books. Here is an account of a voyage from Goole to Hamburg on the 1,116 tonnne steamship Aire during the nineteen-thirties. The ship had a total crew of around 25.  

They left Goole Victoria Lock at 8 p.m. on a Saturday evening, and sailed out into the River Ouse. It may seem a strange time to leave, but it depended on the tides. “We would be off to sea  while the ship owners were dressed up singing psalms at chapel.” The ship’s crew, even the officers, were expected to touch their caps to the local landowner, Colonel Saltmarshe, if he was out in his grounds near the river as they sailed past. If not, he would complain that the ship had been travelling too fast and washing away the river banks, and the captain would have to appear before the shipping company Directors like a naughty schoolboy.

In a strong Westerly wind, but with good visibility between showers, it took four hours to reach the Bull Sands lightship off Spurn Point at the mouth of the Humber. Two and a half hours later, they passed the Outer Dowsing light vessel, moored in the shallow waters off the Lincolnshire coast (today the site of a proposed offshore wind farm). It was now 2.30 in the morning, with a strong westerly gale and heavy following sea, and there would be no further navigation aids until the Frisian islands some fifteen hours away. They set a course almost due East, and sailed on.

At 7.30 on Sunday morning, they sighted sister-ship the S.S. Blyth returning from Hamburg in the opposite direction. There had originally been three sister-ships, the third being the Calder which had foundered in bad weather on the same route in 1931, with the loss of all 26 men.  

Nothing more is logged until Borkum island light house off the Frisian coast near the Dutch-German border, which they sighted at 5.30 in the afternoon. Sometimes they would miss it, and have to look for the next sightings at Norderney or even Cuxhaven, eight hours further on. At Cuxhaven, they took on a pilot to take them into the Elbe estuary. It was now 1.30 on Monday morning. At Brunsbittel the estuary pilot made way for a river pilot, and they proceeded up the Elbe to Hamburg, mooring at No. 9 berth just before 6 a.m.  

The main cargo is not recorded, other than that it was sent by Rafferty and Watson of Sheffield. It was probably coal from the Yorkshire coal fields, the export of coal being the reason the port of Goole and its adjoining canal were built.

Also on board were three saloon passengers, three deck passenders, a horse, a dog and four elephants. Do elephants get seasick?

Presumably, the passengers and animals disembarked on arrival, but it was not until 48 hours later, at 6 a.m. on Wednesday morning, that the ship moved to the Altona wharf to discharge the final 675 tons, after which it moved back to berth No. 8. 

The return voyage began at 6.25 p.m. on Friday evening, carrying 275 tons of cargo and one alien passenger. They had a clear run down the river in good visibility, passing Borkum at 9.40 on Saturday morning and reaching the Bull lightship at 6.15 a.m. on Sunday. 

As usual, they moored briefly at Hull to discharge some of the cargo. Sometimes, my great grandmother or other family members would take the train to Hull and sail back up river on the ship. My dad did this a few times when young. My grandfather, as a boy, even went on trips overseas, on one occasion being gently pushed back into the cabin on becoming excited at the sight of foreign troops on the quayside at Rotterdam. “Look, Dad, Boers,” was not a sensible thing to shout in 1903.

On the current trip, vessels for Goole were held up at Hull by fog, and missed the tide, but they eventually arrived at 4.30 on the Monday morning, and docked three quarters of an hour later. They had been away for 9 days.

Click on maps to enlarge

Monday 1 May 2023

Days of Wine and Roses

(New month old post: from “Reel-to-Reel Recordings” posted 24th December 2014)


Dad turns to the microphone on the mantlepiece, clears his throat, and adopts a suitable air of gravitas.

“I will now read some of my favourite poetry”.

The sound of muted giggling emanates from me and my brother sitting on the floor next to the tape recorder.

“Ernest Dowson’s Vitae Summa Brevis,” he announces.

The whispering in the background becomes audible.

“What’s he on about?”

“He says Ernest Dowson had some Ryvita for his breakfast.” More snorting and sniggering. Dad continues.

“They are not long, ...”

“What aren’t? Is our Sooty’s tail not long?”

“... the weeping and the laughter, love and desire and hate...”

The disruption intensifies as Mum bangs on the window and shouts something muffled from the yard outside. Dad struggles to keep going.

“I think they have no portion in us...”

The door curtain is swished back, and Mum enters the room and interrupts loudly.

“When I tell you your dinner’s ready, it’s ready, and you come straight away.”

The recording ends.

Would Ernest Dowson’s melancholy poetry and vivid phrases ever have emerged from out of his misty dream in such an unsupportive, philistine family?