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Monday 13 May 2024

The Village

Village Dance Class, 1930s.
My mother (top, 3rd from right) is one of four cousins in the picture.
She would have been 100 years old today.

“It was a lovely place to grow up”, said Aunty Olga the last time we spoke. “The best anyone could want”. She talked of a High Street with no motor vehicles to stop you playing in the road, all the relations living nearby, and how everyone knew each other and were friends. There were shops with all you could want, and clubs and groups and things to do. The buses ran late so you could get back from the pictures in town. “Not like now”. 

“Aunty” Olga. We called them all “Aunty” or “Uncle", or if they were the same age as us “cousins”, no matter whether they were really great aunts, great uncles, second cousins, half-cousins, cousins once removed, or some other combination. It was simpler. There were loads of them. “Your mother was more of a sister than a cousin to me”, Aunty Olga said. 

I caught it right at the end, and don’t doubt her. I fetched milk from the farm dairy and talked to the pig in the butcher’s sty. I bought pop from the sweet shop, chips from the fish shop, rolls of gun caps for my cowboy pistol and foreign stamps for my collection near The Green. I marvelled at the old village water pump near the church and walked on my own the three-quarters of a mile along the river bank to my aunt’s smallholding at the ferry houses. I knew the local names that appeared on few maps: Gander’ill; Cock’orner; Cuckoo Park. 

A walk down the High Street with my grandma meant talking to everyone we passed. 

“Who was that?”  
“My cousin.”  
“And who was that?” 
“He’s my cousin too.” 

“How many cousins have you got?” 

I’d wish I’d not asked. 

“Well, there was Aunty Bina who had Blanche, Tom, Gladys, Lena, Olga, Fred, Ena, Dolly, Albert and Jack. She brought up our Jean as well, although her mother was really Ena. They had fish and chip shops all over.”

“Then there was Aunty Annie who married Uncle George, and had Mary, Fred, and Bessie.” She pointed to ‘M, F, and B’, scratched long ago into the bricks of number 88 (still visible today). 

“Do you mean Aunty Mary?” I asked. Aunty Mary had the prettiest face I’d ever seen. 

If Grandma was in the mood, she would go on to list the millions of children of uncles Fred, Bill and Horner, who had moved away to run a paper mill in Lancashire.  

All were prefixed “our”: our Fred, our Bessie, and our Mary. Aunty Olga’s children were our Linda, our Sandra, and our Gillian. It distinguished them from Aunts and Uncles who were not relatives at all, such as Aunty Annie ’agyard (3 syllables). What funny names some had. 

And that was only one of Grandma’s sides. The other was worse. 

Even more confusing, my mother’s Great Aunty Bina was married to my dad’s grandpa’s cousin, which meant I was doubly related to Blanche, Tom, Gladys, and the rest. 

I heard it so often I could recite it to my wife decades later: “Blanche, Gladys, Ena, Lena, Gina, Dolly, Molly, Mary, Bessie, Ella, Olga, Linda...”

“They sound like a herd of Uncle Bill’s cows,” she said. 

Uncle Bill (don’t ask), was from across the river and had married into the family. He said that if the Blue Line bus had not started running through the village, they would have all been imbeciles because of inbreeding. 

I went less and less as I grew into my teens, not realising it was coming to an end. It would never be the same again.  

Monday 6 May 2024

Marie Tidball

I find it astonishing how some overcome illnesses, difficulties, and barriers that to me would seem overwhelming. 

I think of a student on the university course I took. He had brittle bone disease, and at one time or another had broken just about every bone in his body. Despite the small stature and deformities that often go with the condition, he lived independently in the university halls of residence. He travelled in each day in his three-wheeled Invacar, and moved from class to class in a wheelchair, with books and notes hanging in a plastic carrier bag from the rear handles. We took turns to push. He always had a cheery smile. 

Later, there was Mahir who had muscular dystrophy. He had arrived in England in his early teens as a Bosnian refugee, speaking no English. By then, he had lost the ability to walk, which in Bosnia had excluded him from school. Once here, he did well enough to go to university, and enrolled on the course I ran. He struggled to control his limbs, used an electric wheelchair, and was accompanied everywhere, even to the toilet, by Brian, a full-time paid assistant. What incredible dedication that must have required. 

When you had a bit of a cold or headache, and looked out at the weather in the morning and it seemed tempting to crawl back to bed, the thought that Julian or Mahir would be there shamed you into getting up and going in. 

I came across Brian a few years later, looking after another special needs student. He said he’d heard that Mahir had died, still in his twenties. Julian did not have a long life, either, but lived into his forties. 

Recently, we came across another inspirational figure, Marie Tidball. She was born with multiple physical difficulties, including no hands. It was unclear whether she would live. She did, but missed years of school through medical treatments, such as surgery to enable her to walk. She has just one finger. From school in Penistone, Yorkshire, she won a place at the University of Oxford where she got a degree in Law and a Doctorate in Criminology, and has since worked as a legal researcher, disability rights campaigner, and local councillor. She has now been selected as a Parliamentary candidate for her home constituency of Penistone and Stocksbridge at the next General Election. Our ceilidh band played at the launch of her fundraising campaign.  

Going by last week’s local election results, she is almost certain to be elected, and will quickly make an impression as a Member of Parliament, not because of her difficulties but because she is every bit the fiery, determined woman her story suggests. You heard of her here first. 

“I learned there was no such word as ‘can’t’ and that you have to go out in the world and develop your own skills to use them for others.”   

So, let’s have no more whingeing and procrastinating. Just get on with it.

Wednesday 1 May 2024

Paul McCartney’s RAM

New Month Old Post: first posted 7th November 2018

We can be very dismissive when young, especially about music. 

When Paul McCartney’s long playing record Ram came out in 1971, a lot of people hated it. They were irritated by the embarrassing sight and sound of Linda McCartney and her wooden, astringent vocals. Why was she on the record anyway: as if it were a primary school class where everyone has to join in banging tambourines and triangles, even the talentless? Why was she accredited fully as co-creator, which no one really believed?

I simply dismissed it. It was not The Beatles. I was fed up with it emanating from Brendan’s room in the shared house. After all, didn’t I have more sophisticated tastes? Didn’t I think of myself as a knowledgeable connoisseur of serious music like progressive rock, particularly Jethro Tull who had just released Aqualung? How could the McCartneys’ frivolous, inconsequential warbling possibly compare?

The only legacy, for me, was that to this day, whenever we drive past a certain cut-price supermarket I sing the following mondegreen:
Lidl Lidl be a gypsy get around
Get your feet up off the ground
Lidl Lidl get around.
I recently looked up the lyrics to discover that the actual words are “Live a little” from the track Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey who “had to have a bath or he couldn’t get to sea” – another misheard lyric, it’s “berth”.

One thing led to another and I ended up getting the CD as a birthday present (I don’t do streaming). What a revelation! Judging it inferior to Jethro Tull was being Thick as a Brick.

I now think Ram is amongst Paul McCartney’s best and most innovative output: so rich in ideas – melodies, harmonies, arrangements, decorations, quirky bits – almost every part of every track is different. It‘s an amusing, joyful record, a bit late-Beatles, like the brightest parts of Abbey Road and The White Album.

It has been described as a “domestic-bliss album”. Despite personal and contractual pains in disentangling himself from the Beatles, Paul was now living a contented and enviable life, very happy with Linda and children in their rural retreat. You hear it throughout. And Linda’s voice is just about OK too, or at least you get used to it. 

Maybe I liked Ram all along but did not want to admit it.

Sunday 28 April 2024

Sunday Silliness

Silly Songs With Simple Chords
C and G7 

         Cows in the kitchen, moo moo moo,
         Pigs in the pantry, grunt oink ooh,
         Lambs on the landing, baa baa boo,
         Skip to my Lou my darling.

         There’s a horse in the hallway, neigh neigh neigh,
         A donkey in the doorway, bray bray bray, 
         Ducks and chicks in the chairs all day, 
         Skip to my Lou my darling. 

         Get all these animals out of this place,
         They make a lot of noise, they take a lot of space,
         There’s no room left for me or you,
         Can’t skip to the loo, you can’t get through.  

Friday 26 April 2024

The Cats With A Bank Account

Anyone seeking evidence that the BBC is not what it once was, look no further than this report from Nationwide in 1973.

As someone who was working in accountancy at the time, several things in this report trouble me greatly.  

Aside from tax and inheritance questions such as whether the correct tax was paid on interest received (cats do not have a tax allowance), and what happened to the money after the cats died: how did the beneficiaries or next-of-kin proved their right of inheritance, I have questions about the operation of the bank account. 

Presumably, Quicksilver and Quince had someone write the cheques for them, possibly the lady in the film, but how did they sign them? If it was with a paw print, then how did the bank verify the signatures as genuine, rather than the paw prints of criminal cats who steal cheque books? One paw print looks much like another as far as I can tell. 

And if the account required joint signatures, rather than either one, then how did the bank verify that both have actually signed, rather than just one that has put its paw mark on the cheque twice? That Quince looks a bit shifty to me.  

We need assurances that the bank account was operated legally and not in false names. 

Thursday 25 April 2024

Blog Address

I have removed the custom address for A Yorkshire Memoir and reverted to the original (instead of If reading this, you are in the right place. 

This is to prevent the blog from becoming inaccessible when the subscription to the custom domain expires. It still has over a year to run, but I have made the change early because custom domains are often bought by others for illicit use. 


Technical and Other Considerations (for anyone considering doing it themselves) 

Removing the custom address turned out to be easier than anticipated. I thought I would be wrestling with the technicalities of canonical names (cnames) and the like, but that was not the case. 

All I had to do was:

1) Delete the custom domain name in the blog settings. The version of the address worked straight away. The address began to be shown as unknown. 

2) I created a completely new blog called "A Yorkshire Memoir - holding page" saying what I was doing, and also a note in the title that the address had changed. 

3) Then, on the new Holding Page blog, I simply added as the custom domain. Surprisingly, that URL immediately began to redirect to the Holding Page. It did not require any change to the cnames on the domain provider's site. It did, however, take a few minutes before the https version of the address became active after I switched it on.

The outcome is that access to now links straight to the blog, and access to links to the holding site. I will leave it like that for now as a reminder to those who use that route to change their links.

Please let me know of any problems. 

Internal links within the blog - The blog archive, list of popular posts, etc. changed automatically. Links in blog posts that reference other posts still work correctly so long as they point to a address, but if they point to a message appears saying either that the post does not exist or that the site cannot be accessed at all. It depends on how http/https and www are specified in the link. Fortunately, I have always used the blogspot version within the blog, so don't have to change them. 

External links -  Where others' blog posts or websites have included a link to one of my blog posts, these links now point to the holding site, i.e., with a page not found message. The same happens with sidebar links on other Blogger blogs until they are updated. 

Google, Bing, and other search indexes - Initially, the results from searches remained unchanged, i.e. they referenced the custom address. Clicking these links led to the holding site, i.e., with a page not found message. I assume the search indexes will automatically update in due course. (there may be more to add)

Monday 22 April 2024

Warp Land

The flatland where the River Humber branches into tributaries was once an expanse of permanent marsh. It dried out gradually over the centuries with the construction of river banks and drainage ditches, making agriculture possible. Some areas were improved by a process known as warping.

In warping, river waters are diverted into the fields to deposit layers of fine, fertile silt. It is carried out by building low embankments around the fields and filling them through a breach or sluice in the river bank. The water flows into the fields at high tide, and after being allowed to settle, is drained back as the tide goes out, leaving silt behind. When carried out regularly over two or three years, three feet of silt might be laid down. 

I remember my uncle, the farmer (see Aunty Bina’s Farm), explaining why he preferred certain fields for crops, and others for his “be-asts”. Potatoes, sugar beet, and wheat grew best on warp land, whereas the cattle grazed on pasture. 

I may be mistaken, but looking now on Streetview, I fancy that the line of the low bank around the field followed the line of the lane. The fields were for crops, while the cows grazed behind the house. 

But thinking about it now, it puzzled me. The buildings in the far distance are on the other side of a railway line, and there is a canal beyond that, with the river at the other side of the canal. How could the river water have been diverted into the fields? 

Perhaps the water came from a different river. The River Aire is around two miles to the North behind the camera, and the River Ouse about three miles to the East, but I think these would have been too far, and several main roads, the villages of Rawcliffe and Airmyn, and the town of Goole were in the way. My guess is that the warp water must have come from the river beyond the railway, canal, and buildings - the Dutch River (or River Don). 

Wikipedia provides an answer: “The first reliable report of warping seems to come in the 1730s from Rawcliffe, which is near the confluences of the Ouse with the Aire and the Don, where a small farmer called Barker used the technique.” Neither the railway nor the canal would have been there then. The Knottingley and Goole Canal was opened in 1826, and the Wakefield, Pontefract and Goole section of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway in 1846. The warping must have been done before these dates. Some of the brick outhouses at the farm could easily have dated from that time, and knowledge of the warping would have been passed down by word of mouth. 

The railway, canal, and Dutch River can be seen running parallel in the lower left quarter of this 1962 map (pre-motorway). The oddly straight Dutch River is clearly another man-made feature. It was constructed in the 1630s by Dutch engineers, who diverted the River Don to drain the moors of Hatfield Chase, hence the name “The Dutch River”. The River Don originally flowed further East into the River Trent. Warping of my uncle’s land must have used water from the diverted river Don. 

More extensive warping schemes were carried out in the Nineteenth Century along the original course of the Don, as far East as Adlingfleet on the Trent, and as far South as Crowle. One large area is served by the enormous Swinefleet Warping Drain (centre bottom of map) which runs for 5.6 miles (9 km) and has a permanent sluice into the River Ouse. The drain and much of the network of drainage ditches are deep and wide. Some are stocked with fish for anglers, and all provide habitats for frogs, sticklebacks, water voles, and other wildlife. It is astonishing to think it was all dug out by hand. But, we do not only alter our landscape. Families with Dutch names still live in the area, and the local name for drainage ditches is dykes. 

Swinefleet Warping Drain

Swinefleet Sluice where the warping drain enters the Ouse

Two areas of unreclaimed land remain just to the South: Thorne and Hatfield Moors, which together form the largest expanse of lowland peat bog in the country. Even the intrepid Yorkshire Pudding’s Geograph project has not much ventured there.  

One last piece of trivia. In the film “The Dam Busters” (1955), the aeroplanes are shown flying along a Dutch canal. It was actually filmed flying East along the Dutch River. The Goole shipyard cranes can be seen as the planes approach the River Ouse and then bank left over the town. Please don’t tell the East Riding Council. It will give them ideas about what to do with the place. 

Dave Northsider is now trying to work out how he can divert river water into his polytunnel. 

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Wainwright’s Mardale Green

Rosemary (Share My Garden) wrote about her visit to Tyneham, a village in Dorset abandoned in the Second World War because it was in an area needed for military training. The residents never returned.

She also remembered, as a child, picking gooseberries in the garden of a house in a village abandoned to the rising waters of a new reservoir.

Mardale Green

It reminded me of a passage in ‘Fellwalking With Wainwright’, which has haunted me since I bought the book in 1985. I think of it often. Oh to be able to write like Wainwright. 

I will never go to Mardale Head now without thinking of a summer’s day more than forty years ago when I walked over Gatescarth Pass and saw the valley of Mardale for the first time. It was a lovely vista. The floor of the dale was a fresh green strath shadowed by fine trees and deeply inurned between shaggy heights; beyond, receding in the distance, was Haweswater, then a natural lake. It was a peaceful scene, the seclusion of the valley being emphasised by its surround of rough mountains. Mardale was a bright jewel in the dark crown .... I remember that day so well. Many early memories have faded, but not that one. Down in the valley, I went along the lane to the Dun Bull between walls splashed with lichens and draped with ivy. There was no welcome for me at the inn, which for centuries had been a meeting place for farmers and shepherds and the scene of many festive gatherings. It was empty, unoccupied. Around the corner was the small church amongst fine yews: it was a ghostly shell, the interior having been dismantled and the bodies in the graveyard exhumed and reburied elsewhere. The nearby vicarage and a few cottages were deserted and abandoned. This was the hamlet of Mardale Green, delightfully situated in the lee of a wooded hill, but now under sentence of death. Birds trittered in the trees and my footsteps echoed as I walked along the lane but there was no other sound, no sign of life. Even the sheep had gone. There were wild roses in fragrant hedgerows, foxgloves and harebells and wood anemones and primroses in the fields and under the trees, all cheerfully enjoying the warmth and sunshine; but there would be no other summers for them: they were doomed ... Manchester Corporation had taken over the valley and built a great dam. The lake would be submerged beneath a new water level a hundred feet higher. Already the impounded waters were creeping up the valley. Soon the hamlet of Mardale Green would be drowned: the church, the inn, the cottages, and the flowers, would all disappear, sunk without trace, and its history and traditions be forgotten. The flood was coming and it would fill the valley. Nature’s plan for Mardale would be over-rules. Manchester had other plans, to transform Mardale into a great Haweswater Reservoir. And no doubt be very proud of their achievement ... I climbed out of the valley to Kidsty Pike. Looking back at Mardale Green from a distance, its buildings no longer seeming forlorn but cosily encompassed by trees and its silent pastures dappled by sunlight, I thought I had never seen a more beautiful picture. Nor a sadder one.

Wednesday 10 April 2024

The Eccentric Great Aunt: the Painter

Imagine you received an annuity at a young age, never had to work, and had enough to fund your activities within reason. How would you spend your time? 


Soon after the death of her first husband, my wife’s great-grandmother married a wealthy bachelor who, although himself a translator rather than a writer, was very well-connected in London literary circles. His friends and house guests included Maxim Gorky, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy, and Joseph Conrad. The couple holidayed in Rome, Athens and Egypt in the nineteen-twenties and -thirties. 

Great-Grandma had a fifteen-year-old daughter still at home. The new husband looked after her generously, as if she were his own, funding her through Chelsea School of Art and presenting her as a debutante at the Court of King George V. 

The daughter never married, continuing to live at home through the twenties and thirties, accompanying her mother and step-father abroad. She looked after her ageing mother after her step-father died, and was eventually left on her own. She is remembered as my wife’s eccentric great-aunt who lived a rather disorganized life in Oxford, where she was part of the art scene. I met her only once when she was in her eighties. She was tall and ungainly, very upper crust, and absolutely terrifying.

Her life was spent travelling and painting. Her travel list is long and impressive, especially considering the years in which they occurred: Bavaria and Sicily in 1928, Egypt in 1932, Malta in 1939, Mauritius and South Africa in 1950, San Francisco in 1962, India in 1969, Persia and Singapore in 1970, Burma and Malaya in 1973, China in 1978, Mexico in 1982 ... this is just a small sample. It made for a wealth of entertaining stories.

She was not well-known, but exhibited in London, mostly at the Brook Street Art Gallery, and a few times at the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of British Artists. 

Was she any good? You tell me. To me she was rather a messy artist with a distinctive, quirky style. Some of her pictures hang in our house, and we have some of her sketchbooks and colour slides. She had two main kinds of subject: exotic images of birds, animals and nature; and her travels, into which her quirky exoticism spilled. However, she may not have been all that original. Image searches reveal other paintings in a similar style.

Does it matter? Probably not. If we spend our time doing what we want, being creative as best we can, and are satisfied with the result, then what more could we ask? Isn’t that what we do on Blogger?

Pictures 2 and 4 are hard to photograph in their frames. 

Bali Dancers

Saturday 6 April 2024

Carrot Tub

Following Dave Northsider, who has repurposed an old oil tank to make raised vegetable beds, I filled this old half water butt with soil from the compost bin, and sowed a row of carrot seeds. It is 22 inches across, so I plan six rows at three-weekly intervals. As the fresh compost is full of worms, the wooden strips are there to protect the first row from digging birds. The bin spends the winter covering the monster rhubarb plant to give us a few tender pink stems in early spring, so this seems a good way to use it over the summer. 

As I sowed the seeds, carrot fly lined the lawn, bouncing up and down and chirruping gleefully. Dave assures me they cannot fly above 12 inches high. The tub is 18 inches, so the carrots should be safe. 

But then I read in a gardening book that carrot fly barriers should be 30 inches high. No guessing who will get the blame if I have any problems.  

Tuesday 2 April 2024


New Month Old Post: first posted 30th October, 2016.

A song for dads to sing to their children. 
Petula Clark: Downtown

What a super singalong on BBC Four on Friday! 

It Started with a Kiss, or rather for us with a bottle of Chilean Shiraz. It was followed by a fabulous edition of Top Of The Pops 1982, from 15th July. After several weeks of watching the constipated faces of Brian Ferry and Martin Fry (get the look!), it was great to have some good tunes for a change. Following Errol and Hot Chocolate came Dexy’s Come On Eileen, the perennial Cliff Richard, David Essex’s Night Clubbing, and Irene Cara’s Fame (although I have never understood the line in that song about qualifying for a pilots licence).

Later, there was a concert with the then (in 2016) 83-year-old Petula Clark who has brought out a new LP. Goodness, she is even more perennial than Cliff Richard. My great-grandfather used to like her and he died in 1960. Her voice is a bit thin now, but the music and band were superb. She kept us waiting for her ultimate singalong song but it duly arrived near the end. I then blotted my copybook by reprising my own lyrics from when the children were little. They went something like this.

When you’re in bed and Mummy’s snoring beside you
You can always go, downstairs
When you are cold and Mummy’s got all the duvet
There’s a place I know, downstairs
You can lie down on the settee, and have it all to yourself, 
Choose some bedtime reading from the books upon the bookshelf
How can you lose?
It’s warmer and quieter there 
You can forget all the snoring, no need to stay there 
Just go downstairs
Sleeping on the settee, downstairs
Sleeping so peacefully, downstairs
Everything’s waiting for you.

When you’re in bed and Mummy’s been eating garlic
There’s a place to go, downstairs
Onions and curry, chilli, tikka masala
Seems to help I know, downstairs
You can open all the windows and the air is clear and nice
Fill your lungs with freshness thats free of herbs and spice
How can you lose?
The night is much cleaner there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
And go downstairs
Have a weak cup of tea, downstairs
Crackers or toast for me, downstairs
Everything’s waiting for you.

I was lucky not to have to sleep downstairs.  

Saturday 30 March 2024


This story on the BBC caught my attention because of its similarities to my own situation. 

My heart goes out to this young mother who, aged 33, has been diagnosed with cancer. After two weeks of “migraine”, she was persuaded to see a doctor, who immediately sent her to hospital. Two hours later, she was talking to an oncologist. An MRI scan had revealed 7 brain tumours, and a later CT scan found 3 in her lungs, which was the primary site. 

As I understand it, all tumours are gene mutations. She has a mutation of the ALK gene that produces a rogue protein that causes affected cells to grow uncontrollably. It can be controlled by a new wonder drug called Brigatinib which blocks the action of the protein. I have a similar but different mutation

An enormous amount of research is going into the genes involved in different kinds of cancer, and the precise mutations involved. In some cases, drugs can disrupt the growth of affected cells. More and more of these treatments will emerge in the coming years, but development is expensive. Drug companies charge thousands a month to recover their costs. Brigatinib is £5,000 a month; the Tepotinib I take is £7,000 (less confidential NHS discounts). It amounts to many tens of thousands per patient per year. The financial implications for the NHS and health insurers are astronomical.

Is it worth, say, £100,000 to prolong someone’s life for two years? For 10,000 new NHS lung cancer patients each year that amounts to £1 billion per year. What about other forms of cancer? What about other health conditions? What about other issues in the broader arena of health and social care? At some point, the answer will be no.  

Tuesday 26 March 2024

Computers, Education and the Conservatives

Conservative governments are non-interventionist. They do not like the state to run anything. They spent the 1980s and 1990s selling off the country’s assets and giving away the proceeds. It continues today in their unwillingness to pay for public services or regulate things properly. Some of them would privatise health and education if they could get away with it. That is why, if my health holds out, I will not be voting Conservative at the next election. I will see the bastards* go to hell before I do. 

And yet, in the 1980s, they did intervene. A 1978 television documentary, ‘Now the Chips are Down’, made clear how woefully unprepared Britain was for the silvery white heat of the computer revolution. It scared the Thatcher government so much that they funded a number of costly initiatives. Two in particular stood out for me.  

A few of the many programmes in the BBC Computer Literacy Archive

In one, the BBC was recruited to raise awareness of the skills needed. It led to the ‘Computer Literacy Project’, which ran from 1982 to 1989. It was linked to the specially commissioned ‘BBC Micro’, which was taken up by many homes and most schools, with over a million sold.

In the other, the ‘Microelectronics Education Programme’, massive amounts of money were spent putting computers in schools, setting up and funding resource centres, and training teachers. Politicians boasted that Britain led the world in “equipping the children of today with the skills of tomorrow.”    

Did it actually achieve anything, or was it bluster and spin?

At least it got my new career off the ground. After escaping from accountancy into a dream job as a university researcher, I knew as much about these new concepts and technologies as anyone. It would be hard to overstate how immersed, obsessed even, I was in this bright new world of colour and light.

I recently discovered that the television programmes, and more, are freely online in the ‘BBC Computer Literacy Archive’. It has the 1978 documentary which set things off (still informative 45 years later), and Dominic Sandbrook’s wonderfully evocative reflection on the social changes of the nineteen-eighties (not only computers). Incredibly, one programme even shows my own small part in this.  

Watching again now, I am struck by how aware we were of the social questions posed by what was about to come. How would people spend their time in a world with less work? How should wealth be shared across society? It is not turning out as well as it might.

Most fascinating for me is the series ‘The Learning Machine’ (1985), about computers in education, the area in which I worked. Here, once again, are the names and faces I knew and discussed things with at workshops and conferences, such as the main writer and presenter, Tim O’Shea.

He was scathing of the Microelectronics Education Programme, which, he said, had foisted cheap, underpowered computers and poor software upon parents and schools. The attractive message about improving the quality of education, disguised what was really on politicians’ minds: the job market, supporting British industry, and making education cheaper. Eventually, we might even do away with schools and teachers completely.

The then ubiquitous programming language, Basic, comes in for particular criticism. It encouraged tangled, undecipherable code, leading self-taught home and school users to think they knew how to write software, when, really, their knowledge was badly lacking.

I think Tim was broadly correct, but we were all still trying to understand how to use computers in education, and few teachers had the skills to teach programming. I was taught structured methods and had no difficulty creating reliable, intelligible Basic programs several hundred lines long.

It can also be argued that the initiatives did have benefits, but they were two decades in the making. A generation of youngsters became fascinated by computers, seeding Britain’s successful computer games industry. So, perhaps it did work out well in the end. Tim did well too. He became Principal of the University of Edinburgh.

One other series caught my eye: ‘With a Little Help from the Chip’ (1985), about helping those with special needs. I was astonished, in programme 3, to see a one-minute clip of software I designed and coded, being used in a school for deaf children. I have written about the programs before, but never seen the TV programme. It brought back all the satisfactions of going into schools to observe and collect data. 

Do you ever wonder, were it possible, whether you would happily go back to an earlier point in your life? I would, to this time for certain. And I would jump at the chance of another forty years. Most of all, it was an innocent, optimistic time, focused on what we were doing rather than the unrest and disruption taking place. We were trying to make the world a better place. We could do with more of that now. 

* A name used by Margaret Thatcher for Eurosceptic right-wing Conservatives. 

Thursday 21 March 2024

Blue Star

Northsider Dave will immediately recognise this from the rear label of a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale. It acts as a temperature indicator, beginning to turn from white to blue below 12°C. I brought this in from the garage at around 6°C.  

“Drink Cold” it tells us. Why cold beer? Some pubs serve it so cold it could give you brain damage. You cannot taste it properly. Is that because their beer is so awful they don’t want you to? 

Not so Newcastle Brown. I don’t see why I should be told how to drink it by some Dutch outfit that bought out the company and don’t even make it in Newcastle any more. They can keep the cold for their disgusting pilsner.

I will concede it is now made in Yorkshire, and that they tried to keep pint bottles rather than the more usual 500ml. You cannot expect the Dutch to understand that an Imperial pint is 568.261 ml, not 550. Or do they diddle us a sip to refresh the profits other beers can’t reach? At least they are not American pints.

While we are on the subject, why is the temperature in °C rather than Fahrenheit? Imperial measures were invented to flummox the French, not the Dutch.

So, I drink it warm. If there is the slightest hint of blue on that label I put the bottle in the washing up water until it turns white. If I want to drink it warm, then I will, and if I want to swig it round my mouth while crunching up a chunk of chocolate then I’ll do that too.

Here is the star after it has turned white, now on the empty bottle. I apologise for it not being as good an image as the first. Dave and I will not be the only ones to appreciate that empty bottles are much more difficult to photograph than full ones.

Thursday 14 March 2024

Follow The Moon

A few weeks ago, Jabblog wrote a post about Lyle’s Golden Syrup, which, by the ways and wanders of the mind in the night, took me to a party game. 

I was about six or seven, and it was my birthday. Mum invited a few friends round. I fancy there was Dennis and Johnny from the next street, maybe Jack the neat writer, and Geoffrey Bullard, not yet the monster he became. Girls? I don’t know. Maybe my second-cousin, Linda, and her funny friend, Margaret. I liked them. We were all in the same class at school. I can’t really remember. The more you try, the more you make up. 

I imagine we ran around in the garden for a while, and had tea. It would have been treacle on bread or treacle sandwiches (our name for Lyle’s Golden Syrup), or possibly honey. We often had that for our tea. Some people used to have condensed milk sandwiches, but I never liked the way it soaked into the bread and seeped out at the edges. For pudding, it would have been Rowntree’s Jelly and tinned fruit, with Carnation cream (which is what we called evaporated milk).  And fizzy Tizer or Vimto to drink. Such was the nineteen-fifties diet. The school dentist was always busy.  

Even now, I have honey on toast for tea when lazy, and Carnation “Cream” on tinned pears or apricots is luxury. Everyone here complains it is too sweet, so I have to have the whole tin myself. I don’t have treacle now, but the empty metal tins are great for all those bits and pieces you don’t know where to put: bath plugs, light pulls, door stops, picture hooks. Shame they risk disappearing in a squeezy plastic rebranding after 150 years unchanged. “... consumers need to see brands moving with the times and meeting their current needs. Our fresh, contemporary design brings Lyle’s into the modern day, appealing to the everyday British household while still feeling nostalgic and authentically Lyle’s,” said the brand director. “Drivel, bollocks, and bullshit,” said I. 

As regards the party, I have only one clear memory. Dad said we would play a game called “Follow The Moon”, but would say no more about it. The time came, and we waited outside the front room, with Mum and Dad inside, the door closed, and the curtains drawn. We were called in one by one.

The first went in, and after a short time cried “Aarrgh!” Then the next went in to join them, and made the same sound while the first person laughed. The third went in and reacted in the same way, causing the first two to laugh, and so it continued. 

I was last because it was my birthday. There was a sheet hanging vertically in the darkened room, with a circle of torchlight shining through. That was the moon. I had to keep my nose as close to the moon for as long as I could, while it moved around. It went up and down, and side to side, then faster in a circle, and, as both the moon and my nose reached the top of the sheet, a soggy warm wet sponge full of water came over from the other side and dunked me on the head. The others all roared with laughter.

Tuesday 12 March 2024

Last Apple

The last of last year’s apples from the garden. Variety: Fiesta.

Unlike many other people, we had a big crop. 

Thursday 7 March 2024

The Nineteen-Eighties

I missed most of the nineteen-eighties. I was working as a university researcher, writing a thesis in my spare time, and volunteering with the Samaritans. As well as all that, my mother was in and out of hospital with breast cancer, and then died. It left little over for anything else, and I gave no great thought to events taking place around me. Even the re-runs of old Top Of The Pops programmes from that time have seemed refreshingly new to me in recent years. 

Yet, in Britain, it was a decade of great change: to commerce and industry, to individual and national identity, in lifestyle, and in politics. Almost every week there was some new controversy about the morals of the young and the state of the nation. Most of it went over my head. 

So, forty years late, I have been back in the nineteen-eighties. I started with a 2016 television documentary, “The 80s With Dominic Sandbrook”. If nothing else, it is wonderful nostalgia. 

It takes us through the years of Margaret Thatcher and the IRA Brighton bombing, her “special relationship” with Ronald Reagan, and her nation of young computer programmers. Our hearts and minds are invaded by Japanese video games and VCR video nasties such as Cannibal Holocaust, much to the outrage of Mrs. Mary Whitehouse, a puritanical Christian campaigner. We fall under the influence of the American consumerist dream, and the lifestyles of television shows such as Dallas. There is the civil unrest of racism, and we are terrified by the “gay plague” of AIDS, fought with surprisingly frank publicity and the example of Princess Diana. There is a gradual increase in sexual tolerance and acceptance of diversity. We go to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, and with the striking miners. 

Is it rhetoric to say “we went to war” with the miners? It was certainly planned like a military campaign. The miners and other trade unions had been causing trouble for years, and the Thatcher government was determined to see them off once and for all. A sweeping programme of pit closures was announced, bringing miners out on strike throughout Yorkshire and elsewhere. The government had prepared by stockpiling mountains of coal at power stations, and were fortunate that the Nottinghamshire miners stayed at work, thinking their jobs were secure. An information assault was mounted, branding the miners as “the enemy within”, portraying then as uncouth animals making outrageous demands, prepared to be violent if not met. The image and persona of their leader, Arthur Scargill, seemed to fit perfectly. The mainstream media reinforced it, with reporting doctored to portray the miners in an unfavourable light. It had elements of regional and class snobbery designed to appeal to voters sympathetic to a right-wing government. 

But another documentary, made to correspond with this year’s fortieth anniversary of the strike, gives a different perspective. “The Miners’ Strike: A Frontline Story”, recalls the personal experiences of fifteen men and women involved in different ways: striking and strike-breaking miners from working and striking areas, their families, and members of the police force. It is powerful stuff, with harrowing recollections of hardship and brutality. 

One of the worst incidents occurred at Orgreave near Rotherham on the 18th June, 1984, where the miners planned to carry out peaceful secondary picketing. The police allowed them to approach and assemble without hindrance, and then brutally attacked them. The police were armed with batons, shields and riot gear, and hacked down the miners from horseback. It was like a medieval rout. At the time, it was widely presented as an act of self-defence by the police, but, later, miners were compensated for assault, wrongful arrest, unlawful detention and malicious prosecution. 

The strike ended after a year when the defeated miners went back to work. Essentially, they had been trying to defend their communities. They accepted that mines had to close, but not that it had to be done so abruptly, leaving whole villages near-destitute. You cannot “get on your bike and look for work”, as one cabinet minister told them, when you have a mortgage on an unsaleable house, and there is no work to be had anyway. And you can’t go to university late like I did when you have a family. The changes could have been introduced gradually, with support, as with later pit closures. Many of the affected areas never recovered, and remain amongst the poorest in Europe. 

Even now, there are many who choose to believe the media propaganda of the day, rather than recognising Margaret Thatcher and her Conservatives as uncaring, self-serving leeches who sold off the country’s assets and gave away the money. 

At the end of his programme, Dominic Sandbrook wonders how Britain might have looked had the miners and IRA succeeded. Would it have remained a trade union fortress holding out against globalisation and the advance of technology? No, it would not. Change was unstoppable, and trying to hold it back would have been futile. But it did not need to be handled with such incompetence.    


The second of three parts of the series “The 80s With Dominic Sandbrook” (59 minutes) is online and apparently accessible without restriction at:  

Currently there appear to be no legitimate copies of parts 1 and 3 online. 

“The Miners’ Strike: A Frontline Story” (89 minutes) is on the BBC iPlayer (UK only): 

However, much more is generally available on the BBC website (search for “The Miners’ Strike”), such as: 

Monday 4 March 2024

I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue

John Going Gently recently mentioned the long-running BBC radio show “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue” (ISIHAC). For those who don't know, it is a spoof panel game in which teams are asked by the chair to do silly things, very silly, very funny. It started in 1972, and has been running almost continually since: an incredible 52 years. 

John included links to a couple of examples, and as he said in a comment, they should be prescribed on the NHS as treatment for depression. The one titled “The Complete Lionel Blair”, a compilation of a double-entendre gag running across a large number of shows, is almost too painful to take. You cannot believe such delightful dirty-mindedness could be broadcast on the radio. 

In 1972, I was still in the shared house in Leeds, where we often audio-taped television and radio shows to hear again. We fancied ourselves as comedy script writers, but apart from a couple of snippets in the magazine Private Eye, all else was rejected. 

ISIHAC was one of the series we recorded. Most of it is now gone, but I still have a tape with the very first four programmes from 1972. They were lost to the BBC for many years, and some may still be.

Humphrey Littleton was the chairman from the start, continuing until his death in 2008. Much of the success of the show was down to his deadpan delivery, as if genuinely baffled by the audience reaction to what he had to read out. Barry Cryer took over in the second and third programmes, but Humph returned for the fourth. The first panelists were Graeme Garden, Jo Kendall, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie, with John Cleese instead of Jo Kendall for the fourth programme. All had been in the show’s precursor, “I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again” (ISIRTA), which we also recorded; also mostly lost. 

I digitise the shows to refer to in another post. For what it’s worth, here are the four half-hour programmes again. The BBC seemed uninterested when I tried to give them back some years ago. 

The production took time to settle into its established format, but many of the elements are there: one song to the tune of another; swanee whistles; late arrivals; limericks; the non-associated words game. These episodes are probably more of historical interests than classics, but they still raise a laugh: “Announcing late arrivals at the Plumbers’ Ball: Mr. and Mrs. Closet, and their son, Walter Closet.”

Series 1 Programme 1, 11th and 13th April 1972:
Series 1 Programme 2, 18th and 20th April 1972:
Series 1 Programme 3, 25th and 27th April 1972:
Series 1 Programme 4, 2nd and 4th May 1972: 

Friday 1 March 2024

School Woodwork

New Month Old Post: first posted 1st April 2018.
The practically skilled will mock the mess I made. If I could do it again now, I think I would have the patience to make a decent job of it. At school, I didn’t care enough.

The room smelt of sandpaper, sawdust and lacquer. It housed eight workbenches: the solid wooden kind with shoulders at the sides, tool cupboards underneath and a vice at each corner. And in our tough new carpenters’ aprons: loops around necks, strings tied at the back, deep pockets at the front, we really looked the business.
With that pencil-behind-ear can-do competence that only real woodworkers possess, Tacky Illingworth showed us how to shape a piece of wood into a ship’s hull by pointing the bow and rounding the stern, how to chisel out a couple of recesses in the top to leave a bridge, fo’c’s’le and fore and aft decks, and how to attach dowel masts and a funnel, simpler than but not dissimilar to the model in the picture. Mine was awful: irregular, lob-sided, gouge marks and splinters where it should have been flush-flat smooth. At the end of the year I didn’t bother to take it home. I think we made them only because it involved a variety of tools and techniques, rather than for any functional purpose.

I did learn to love the beautiful, age-old tools though: the tenon saw with its stiffened back, the smoothing plane, the spokeshave, the carpentry square, the brace and bit, the mallet and woodworkers’ chisels, and best of all, the marking gauge.

How could you guess what a marking gauge is for unless you know? Why does it have a sliding block with a locking screw? What are the spikes for? Why two on one side and one on the other, and why are they moveable? A mystery! I’ve got my own now. I last used it to mark how much to plane off the bottom of a door when we got a new carpet.

After spending the following year in Metalwork, we were allowed to choose which to continue. I returned to the relative peace and safety of woodwork, the lesser of the two evils. We had to decide upon a project, so I went for the ubiquitous book rack in its simplest form: a flat base with two vertical ends and a couple of pieces of dowel for feet. I selected a beautiful plank of mahogany which my parents had to buy, and began to cut out what were supposed to be stopped (half-blind) dovetail joints – visible underneath but not at the ends. It was far too ambitious. At the end of the year the book rack laid unfinished on a shelf in Tacky Illingworth’s stock room, wrapped in a soft cloth. His school report flattered me: “Progress is slow but does work of good quality”. Perhaps I had not yet made the mess it eventually became.

That could have been the end of the story because there were no crafts in subsequent years when ‘O’ levels took priority, but an unexpected change of policy allowed games-averse weaklings to escape to art or crafts instead. Metalwork was no longer on offer. It had been replaced by pottery, which was tempting, but for some bizarre masochistic reason I went for woodwork again. Maybe I refused to be defeated. Tacky Illingworth proudly retrieved my unfinished book rack from his stock room, still in its protective cloth from eighteen months earlier. 

I even finished the thing. I wrote the date on the bottom: April 1966. It’s a real mess of course. At one end I broke through the wall of the ‘pin’ part of the dovetail and had to stick it back in, and the joints were so loose that even glue could not hold them together. Tacky reluctantly allowed me to fix it with screws. It has been on my desk for over fifty years.
I wondered could I find it hiding in old photographs, and yes, here it is in various Leeds and Hull corners of the nineteen-seventies. It still holds one of the same books.

As I said, if I were to make it again today, in the same way with hand tools not machines, it might not be perfect but I like to think it would be better. That would match my other subjects. At the very least I would hope not to break the ends. It probably comes down to patience, and perhaps a bit of care and confidence as well. As someone once said, education is wasted on the young.

Monday 26 February 2024

Proof of the Pi

The proof of the pudding, they say, is in the eating, but what about the proof of the pi?

The ancient Egyptians, the Babylonians, Archimedes and blogger Bob Brague will tell you that we need pi (π) for circle geometry, and that it is roughly 3.14159. Blogger Yorkshire Pudding will also tell you that we need pie, lots of it, but he would be referring to the kind he makes from minced meat topped with mashed potato and baked. Yorkshire Pudding is right. There is no need for mathematical constants and strange symbols. We only need to know that the distance around the circle of a shepherds pie, as near as dammit, is three and one-seventh (22/7) times the distance across. You can use this to ensure you are baking enough for everyone. 

I took for granted what they said about pi at school, without any real understanding. If understanding is the ability to think of the same thing in different ways, and to be able to switch between them, this is my attempt to do that. 

So, this is another mathematical post, like the one in January about the Pythagoras theorem. I wondered whether the same technique could be used to illustrate similar concepts; such as pi.  

Here is a circle of 14 units across, zoomed in on the top right-hand quarter to make it easier to see and count. The quarter-circle is 7 units high, and it takes 11 units to go around its edge. So to go all the way round the full circle would take 44 units, which is three and one-seventh times the distance across the whole circle (14 x 22/7 = 44). 

Does it also work for area? Can it show that the area of a circle is three and one seventh times the area of a square fitted from the centre to the edge (American: Area = πr2)

Here is the circle again, with a square drawn from the centre to the edge, zoomed in on one quarter. 

If the square is divided into a 7 by 7 grid of 49 smaller squares, then most of the smaller squares are inside the circle, but some are outside. Of those outside, some are complete squares while others are part-squares. Counting them, I reckon that a total equivalent of around 10½ smaller squared are outside the circle, leaving 38½ inside. I have tried to show how I counted 10½ by putting numbers on the quarter-circle. Those with the same numbers make up one square. 

Multiplying this by 4, it would need 154 (38½ x 4) of the smaller squares to completely fill the full circle. This is equal to three and one-seventh times the 49 in the square on the radius (49 x 22/7 = 154). 

To prove this visually, I used three larger squares to cover three-quarters of the circle. Then I moved the parts that were outside the circle (shown in grey) into the fourth quarter. So far, in all, this has used 3 larger squares, a total of 147 smaller squares. 

But it does not quite cover all the fourth quarter of the circle. We need an extra 7 smaller squares (shown in yellow), in other words, one-seventh of a larger square.  

So, the area of a circle is equal to three and one-seventh times that of a square drawn from the centre to the edge. (Area = πr2)

Arithmetically, it takes 38½ smaller squares to fill the fourth quarter, but there are only 3 x 10½, or 31½, available to move. We are 7 short. 

I get it. At least I think I do. 

Thursday 22 February 2024

Hand Signals and Semaphor Indicators

Amongst the audiotapes I mentioned towards the end of last year, is one recorded by my aunt and cousins in the early nineteen-sixties. My uncle had taken a job in Germany, but they had yet to join him. They mention near the beginning that I had brought my recording machine so they could wish him a happy birthday. My own thirteen-year-old voice is heard briefly at the end of the tape, but the less said about that, the better.

What forgotten memories it brings back!  

After the usual birthday song, they talk about what they have been doing. My youngest cousin says: “Here is a song we learnt at school”, and begins to sing:

Sides together right,
Sides together left,
Sides together right left,
Sides together both.

We did that one in my year too. It was a dance in which you moved your arms about like a boy scout semaphore signaller. It then moves on to your toes: “Sides together point, sides together point ...”. Dear Miss Cowling: how you loved to join in. Remind me how to point both toes at the same time.

Then my aunt mentions she is about to take her driving test. Our town was a great place for it. It is completely flat with no hills. To test your hill start, you either did your three-point turn on a street with a particularly high camber, or went through a T-junction where the road rises a few inches due to the spoil dug out from the docks. There were also no traffic lights, no roundabouts, and only one zebra crossing. It limited what you could fail on. A few years later, I passed first time, four months after my seventeenth birthday. The test centre there closed years ago.

Even so, my aunt was anxious about the test. She took it in a Fiat 600 shipped back from a previous overseas stint in Aden. The Fiat was fine there, but a bit tinny and unsuited to the Yorkshire weather. There was always something wrong with it.

Things did not begin well. She told the story many times. To say she was a nervous driver, lacking in confidence, would be understatement. The examiner made no attempt to put her at ease, staring blank-faced ahead throughout, giving strict instructions in a stern voice. 

In those days, you had to be able to use hand signals. Remember those? Sides together right for a right turn, a kind of circling movement for left, and a wave like a sea gull to slow down. There were also special signals for white-gloved policemen on point duty. It was not easy through the tiny windows of the Fiat, especially if it was throwing it down with rain. The longer it went on, the surer my aunt became that she had failed.

It was a relief to finish the hand signals and be allowed to use the electronic indicators. However, the Fiat did not have the modern self-cancelling flashing lights we have now. They were the old semaphore type. A little orange-tipped arm, about six inches long, flipped out from the side of the wing. You had to remember to put it back in again after you had turned.

So when one of the semaphore indicators flipped out but refused to flip back in again, my aunt lost all remaining hope of success. She pulled up, got out, and tried to push it back in by hand, but it was firmly stuck.  

“Well, that’s it now,” she sighed hopelessly. “I’ve failed. Drive me back to the test centre and I can go home.”

The examiner was stolidly unsympathetic.  

“Get back in woman,” he barked.

She meekly did as told and completed the rest of the test using hand signals.

When they got back, my aunt answered the obligatory questions about road signs, braking distances, and the Highway Code, certain it was futile. The examiner completed his paperwork in stony silence.

“I am pleased to inform you that you have passed,” he announced. He had to repeat it.

“Thank you. Oh thank you,” she stuttered in disbelief. “I promise I won’t let you down.” 

1957 Fiat 600