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Thursday 25 January 2024

Hartlepool, 1963

There are some surprising treasures in the depths of the BBC iPlayer.

In 1962/63, Jack Ashley, then a television producer but later a well-known Labour M.P. and campaigner for disability rights, made a 45-minute film, ‘Waiting for Work’, about unemployment in Hartlepool in the North of England (made before he became totally deaf).

The film could have been from my own childhood: the people, the homes and their contents, the shops, the pubs, the shipyard. Where I am from did not suffer mass unemployment as early as Hartlepool, but here were the same kind of lives I grew up with. Although my father would have been considered white-collar rather than blue, and later ran his own business, this is definitely the kind if background I came from. A real glimpse of a once familiar past.

The film is here (, but as most will not want to sit through 45 minutes, and the iPlayer is not available outside the U.K., here are some screen-shots, probably far too many.  (Update: links to YouTube copy added at end)
There was still work to be had

but the shipyards are silent
and many are on the dole.
Out-of-work men are embarrassed to have to look after the children
and do the housework while their wives are at work. The children don’t like it.
Jack Ashley interviewed families about how unemployment affected them.
Pubs were still busy,
as was the High Street,
but many families were struggling.
Shopkeepers talked of decreased trade,
even the newsagents and hairdressers.
Luxury goods were hard to sell
and the second-hand shops had more sellers than buyers.

A few of those interviewed had been able to find work in the south of England, but those that owned houses in Hartlepool were unable to sell, and many did not want to leave the community of their parents, relatives and friends.

Like most of northern Britain, this was still a mare-orientated monoculture. Few women appear in the film and there are no persons of colour. It would inform today’s woke young things why some older people have the views and language they do, especially the part where unemployed young men (most then left school at 15) talk about how their lives are limited by lack of money. They cannot afford to go to the pictures (cinema) or buy records:

“You have to cut down on all your things ... you can’t be expected to enjoy yourself when you’re on the dole ... it’s very rare I go out with a girl now ... when you take them out you ... have to pay for everything ... you can’t get far with fifteen shillings ... you can’t expect to take them out ”

“Do the girls ever offer to pay for you?”

“They offer, but it’s more or less accepting charity.”

The whole way of life would now be dismissed as unenlightened, and inferior to cultures that have replaced it. 

Some of us were lucky, the beneficiaries of grammar school education, first-rate universities without fees, and student grants so generous that some even managed to save money. Most were not so lucky. I wonder what became of the people in the film. 


Update: for those who cannot see iPlayer, the film may be visible (with sub-titles) on YouTube in three segments:
Part 1:
Part 2:
Part 3:

Tuesday 23 January 2024


It was well-known to the ancient Egyptians, that a triangle with sides of 3, 4 and 5 units makes a right-angle. The Babylonians also knew this four thousand years ago, as they did in India. They used it to measure out precise squares and verticals. I would not be surprised if the ancient Tom Stephenson used it too.

Rotate such a triangle four times by ninety degrees, and you are back to where you began. Put four of them together as shown below on the left and it makes a perfect square. The one on the right is the same with the middle bit filled in.

This works for any right-angled triangle, not just those of size 3-4-5. 

The sides of the square are equal in length to the long sides of the triangles.

I am now going to move the top two triangles, top right to bottom left, and top left to bottom right. Hopefully, the arrows and numbers help make this clear. It results in an L-shape.

The L-shape uses the same pieces as the large square we started with, so the overall area remains exactly the same.

The L-shape can be split into two squares, a large one and a small one, as below. The sides of the smaller square are of the same length as the shortest side of the original triangle (see right-hand side). The sides of the larger square are of the same length as the third side (see left-hand side). 

The two squares still use the same pieces as the large square we started with, so the total area remains exactly the same as it was before we moved things around. 

In other words, the area of the square formed around the longest side of the triangle is the same as the combined areas of the squares formed around the other two sides. 

Or as Pythagoras put it in 550 B.C.: “The square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.” 

Isn’t that just exquisite. They never showed me that at school.

Pythagoras may have discovered this by moving triangles around in the same way, one of the first to express the structure of nature as numbers, and advance understanding from the world of fact into the world of proof. He offered a hundred oxen to the muses in thanks for the inspiration (Jacob Bronowsti: The Ascent of Man).

And once you know this is true for any right-angled triangle, you can work out how much timber and how many tiles you need for your pitched roof, and are on the way to the kind of trigonometry that allows you to manipulate three-dimensional images on your computer screen. 

Wednesday 17 January 2024

Wilson, Keppel and Betty

I call them Wilson, Keppel and Betty. They live inside my brain. I think they are three, but there may be more than one Betty. They are not the Wilson, Keppel and Betty some may remember, if anyone does, although, just the same, they sprinkle sand and scrape it around with their feet.

Betty, however many there are, is not too bad. She is not there all the time. She tries to make you forget things. Like when you know the name of the author of ‘Goodbye to Berlin’, but some cocky little sod from Edinburgh or Oxford shouts out Christopher Isherwood on ‘University Challenge’ while you are still thinking W. H. Auden, which you know is near but not quite right.

I can just about cope with Keppel. He makes your mouth slack and flobby, and blurs your words, but only when you are low on blood sugar. Others say they have not noticed, but that is how it feels to me.

No, Wilson is the worst. He used to put swirling patterns in my eyes. Dr. Hatfield tried to zap him away, but he came back. Mr. Thomson said he would cut him out, but he would not be able to cut all of him out, he would have to leave bits behind.

So Wilson is still there. He now blanks out a space just to the right of my point of focus, and if you can’t see the next             along a line of              then you can only read one word at a             rather than fluently. I should learn mirror-reading, right to left. He also moves words along, and up from the line below, and puts them where you are reading now, slows which letters slows things down even more. And, sometimes, he makes you look at letters for ages before you see what they are, and makes you write an M for a B, or a D for a P, or an S for C. He is a                        total                      mactarp. I have to get the computer to read things out, or Mrs. D.

They have stopped their sand dance for now. So long as I keep taking the Tepmetko Tepotinib they will be quiet. They don’t like it. It makes them ill. It makes me ill too, but not as ill as it makes them. Dr. Brown says that one day they will decide they have had enough and do away with me. It might be this year, but we thought that this time last year, so who knows? Perhaps they realise that if they do away with me, they do away with themselves as well. Mactarps!

Thursday 11 January 2024

Information Systems

Let’s have another boring computing post.  

Writing in November about how careful we once had to be in saving and backing up our computer files, I remembered something else that was difficult: just getting information in or out of a computer. It happens now as if by magic: writing and reading stuff on smart phones, social media, Blogger, ... it is  all so easy. We don’t have to think about what goes on behind the scenes. Most of us have no interest. 

But, until the nineteen-nineties, computers were for nerds. As one of those nerds, I feel fortunate to have seen how things developed. I could still write programs to accept typed-in text, or to send a screen to a printer, but thankfully I no longer have to.

My desk at work in 1990

Back in 1970, computers were near-fantasies. Few had seen one except on television or in futuristic films: ‘Tomorrow’s World’ and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ come to mind. At work in accountancy, we had one client who used ledger cards with magnetic stripes, and there were golf-ball typewriters with primitive memory, but they were thought of as business machines rather than computers.

My friend, Neville, was the first I knew to latch on to the potential. He undertook a project as part of his business studies course, and that led to a job in the computer division of a Hull supermarket. This is the kind of thing he worked on: a system to help supermarket managers replenish stocks. They drew lines on forms that could be read by machine. It used forests of paper. The used forms (blank on the back) kept Neville and friends in rough notepaper for years; me throughout my university studies. They were great for lecture notes.

1970s Supermarket Stock System

Around this time, I took a job with a Leeds clothing manufacturer where account entries were made through yet more football-coupon forms. The forms went to a data centre to be coded on to punched cards and fed into “the computer”, which we were never allowed near. The data was printed on huge concertinaed sheets bound into weighty folders. Later, we all had to go on a course to be taught how to write numbers properly, in readiness for Optical Character Recognition which cut out the card punching part of the process. The weighty folders remained long after I’d left.  

1970s Nominal Ledger System

Later, on a computing course, I learnt programming on teletypewriter terminals connected to a mainframe computer. They printed all your input and output on wide rolls of paper, and reprinted it all repeatedly. 

These step-by-step exchanges continued after screens came in. Everything was typed in as text and printed on to a scrolling screen. It even happened with games. I remember playing a version of ‘Star Trek’ in which you moved the ship by typing a location you wanted to fly to, such as G27, and it dislayed and re-displayed your new position and those of all the objects around after every move. The ease of Windows, icons, mice, pointers, and colour graphics were still a long time away, and touch-sensitive screens even further. Voice and gesture input were not even dreamed of.

Not until around 1985 did we see the kind of systems we might recognise today, with on-screen forms and menus. The first I worked with was written in DIBOL and looked like this:


You could get quite excited about it. But, although it looked a bit like a modern windows system, it wasn’t. Every part of that screen is made up of text-like characters. It had to be planned out very carefully. Fortunately, not by me.

This system can be seen on the right-hand screen in the photograph of my desk at the top of this post. It was on a ‘dumb’ terminal connected to the DEC computer system. The screen on the left is an IBM business PC of that time, similarly unsophisticated. It was really something to be allowed two screens! 

Just a few more of the things I kept. Like the old disks and tapes on the earlier post, they were used as teaching examples. They won’t be needed again.

Monday 8 January 2024


"I thought of all the times some government department or corporation has blithely informed me (as the sub-postmasters were told) that 'nobody else has complained'.

I thought of the growing powerlessness of the individual in Britain in the modern age, as government, police and business have hidden themselves behind electronic walls which keep out all the cries of pain and misery, but still let the money through. We have gone so wrong, and we can only get back to civilisation if we restore the presumption of innocence as the keystone of all our law.

For that principle forces us to refuse to run with any crowd, to question any certainty, to doubt all official statements, to side instinctively with the weak against the strong and to recognise that we are most unlikely to know the full story."

Peter Hitchens, The Mail on Sunday.

Friday 5 January 2024


The Times Newspaper used to print the names of every student in the country awarded a First Class honours degree. They couldn’t do it now. There would be too many. A quick estimate tells me at least fifty times the number. As well as there being four or five times as many students, the number of Firsts has exploded. Around one in three now get them. In my day it was more like one in fifty. The percentage of Upper Seconds has increased too. Students are clearly becoming more intelligent, and universities are doing a much better job.

Or is it that universities now have to compete with each other? They have to run costly marketing operations to bring in students. “Come to Cleckheaton University. We give higher grades.”

The marketing departments concoct increasingly strange schemes. The most unlikely I came across was a tie-up between the university where I worked and the local Rugby League club. For those unfamiliar with Rugby League, it is a professional team sport played in Yorkshire and Lancashire, and other parts of the world. I suppose the idea was that the club received sponsorship from the university and extra support through discounted student tickets, while the university benefited from match-day advertising and publicity. 

One day I was told I would be taking two new students in my personal tutorial group. I was not pleased because I already had around fifteen. Having a personal tutor is a good idea. It provides a named person to whom students can turn for individual guidance and support. It works best through individual meetings several times a term. Students get to know and trust their tutors and air their concerns, both academic and personal. But it is labour-intensive, and when there are large numbers of students and fewer tutors then short cuts are taken. Our managers decided we would do it through weekly, hour-long, group meeting. They came up with a framework covering study skills and similar issues. The students saw it as just another lecture, and a pointless one at that, because they knew it all already. They sat there reluctant to discuss anything. Well, would you? “I have mental health issues because I’ve fallen out with my parents and I can’t start that essay.” The ones that say nothing at all are the ones you really need to reach. I struggled to make it work.

The two new students were from the rugby club; professional rugby players. They were giants. One was particularly striking in appearance. He had long blond hair, was 6 feet 5 inches tall (1.98m) and weighed over 18 stones (116kg). I felt intimidated just standing next to him (not knowing then that he is actually a gentle soul). He would later play for England and remains on television today as a commentator and pundit. One of his uncles had been a famous professional wrestler. Please don’t name them, or the club or the university in comments. Use initials if you have to.

They were to take the Sports Psychology degree part-time with a view to gaining qualifications useful after their playing days were over. Perhaps it was good in principle, but it was awful in practice. I think they were led to believe it would be easy.

For a start, the club retained first-call on their time. They had to go to training sessions and all the other activities with sponsors, schools and other community groups. Their attendance at university was low, and they came to only two tutoring group meeting. They were late both time, and the room fell into star struck silence as they walked in. Girls swooned, as did some of the boys.

Lecturers began to tell me about their absence from teaching, especially in the experimental design module based on the SPSS statistics software. As their personal tutor, I asked them to see me, but they never came. They abandoned their studies.

I met the tall guy again more recently. I was walking along a field path near home and he passed in the opposite direction. He lives around two miles away in what some call the millionaires’ village. I said his name as we passed.

“Hi! How you doing?” he said in a friendly voice, used to being recognised.

I mentioned where we had met before. He couldn’t remember me, but did remember the university episode, and that it had not turned out well.

I said that was because it was never given a proper chance. Presentation without substance. He agreed. Pawns in a bigger game. It was all about how it looked. We both seemed pleased with that. What a pity it could not have been said twenty years ago. The powers that be would not have liked it. University staff have lost their jobs for making accusations of grade inflation and declining standards. 

Monday 1 January 2024

The Ghost of Airmyn Crossings

New Month Old Post: first posted 9th December, 2014. A fictional story set in a real time and place. I had recently been reading Thomas Hardy
s short stories. 

We grow up, we move away, we make our lives in distant places, yet, something draws us back. We tell nostalgic tales of times past, wonder at any mention of our town on television and look for the home team football result. Even after all formal and familial ties are gone, we make special detours to pass our old homes and schools.

But not Matt Wetherell. He keeps well away. When work takes him to Hull from his home across the Pennines, he turns off and enters the city over the Humber Bridge. Anything to avoid Goole.

Fifty years ago when still in the sixth form, Matt and his friends became regulars at the Percy Arms. In those days, sixth formers in a public house would have been in serious trouble, even when legally old enough to drink. It was an abuse of privilege, squandering their opportunities while those less fortunate were cleaning railway engines or keeping the peace in Cyprus. Matt and his friends kept discreetly out of sight in the taproom and the handful of teachers who frequented the same establishment carefully stayed in the lounge so as not to notice them.

The comforts of the taproom were basic: plain walls, wooden floorboards, bench seats and bare tables, but there was always a warm fire burning. It was perfectly adequate for the main activities there: drinking, smoking, playing cards and dominoes, and telling yarns. Matt and company tested each others’ memories of the Latin fish names on the faded chart on the wall. They became familiar with the other regulars: the farmer, the garage owner and the cinema manager who always arrived late with his wife after the last show, never removed his trilby and always had a rude story to tell.

To reach the Percy Arms, Matt and his friends walked the mile or so across the fields using the track known as Airmyn Crossings. It was lonely and remote in those days before the roaring motorway was built, and a housing estate sprawled across it. It was a pleasant stroll on a warm evening, more of a challenge in wind and rain, and undeniably menacing after dark, especially where the trees and bushes joined overhead. The darkness added adventure to the walk home which was always late. Pubs were not supposed to serve drinks after half-past ten, but the landlord bent this rule a little, especially if the cinema manager was delayed. The local police knew when to be diplomatic. Sometimes, it could be nearly midnight before Matt and his friends started home along the pitch black track with several pints of John Smith’s inside them, their apprehension kept at bay by vulgar songs and loud bravado. Sometimes a couple of the group would steal ahead to hide in the bushes ready to jump out and frighten the others with piercing cries. It was rowdy, but innocuous enough compared to what some teenagers get up to nowadays.

Matt never finished his sixth form studies. Before his friends went off to university he had left school for a job in a local office, his ambition diverted by a girl friend, the accomplished and beautiful daughter of an affluent local solicitor. They made plans and imagined their future together, but much to her father’s relief, she left for university too. Despite ardent promises to remain true, she gradually drifted away. When Matt last heard of her, she was organising famine relief in Africa.

Thus, one Christmas Eve, Matt found himself alone. He decided for old times’ sake to walk the path to Airmyn. Nothing had changed. The taproom was just as it had been. The floorboards still knocked to his footsteps, the seats remained hard, the tables, bare, the fading fish were still on the wall. There were few signs it was Christmas, but the coal fire had a more cheerful glow than usual and everyone was in a happy frame of mind. Matt played dominoes with the farmer. The garage owner enquired as to his well-being. The cinema manager arrived late with his hat, wife and rude story.

When Matt eventually started back along the deserted track, a little unsteadily due to the beer inside him, it was late and an ominous fog had descended. It was thick, the kind you get when moisture from the rivers and low-lying fields conceives a dense, cold vapour that penetrates your lungs and shrouds the sight and sound of your footsteps. Matt’s shadow hung eerily in the mist around him; shapes and silhouettes moved in and out of the bushes; dark forms ahead and behind gave the impression of something approaching and then dissolving away. The only thing Matt heard was the sound of his own breathing. It intensified his unease.

Suddenly, just where the path bends beneath overhanging trees, Matt sensed something tumbling from above, as if someone was falling on him. Inches from his own face was another face, a terrifying face with hollowed-out eyes and grimacing, uneven teeth. Matt raised his arm to push it away. His hand slipped into the mouth; it felt wet and cold; his fingers scraped across rough teeth. He shuddered and screamed, and staggered sideways into the adjacent field, the surface of which lay some two or three feet below the level of the path.

Looking up from the ground, Matt realised he was alone. No one else was on the path. Yet, he was certain it had been real. His fingers were wet where they had entered the mouth, and sore where they had rubbed across the teeth. Beside him, on the ground, was something round. It took a few moments to realise it was a human skull. It had the same uneven teeth as the face that had materialised in front of him. Matt cursed. Stone cold sober, he scrambled back up to the path and ran fast to the safety of the street lights on the main road.

Rationalising afterwards, Matt decided the skull had indeed been real. He had a graze on his hand to prove it. In his drunken state, he must have fallen from the path, dislodging the skull from the loose earth at the side of the field. The rest was illusion. It had only seemed to drop from above as the ground came up towards him. He had probably covered it up again as he scrambled back up to the track. He never related the incident to anyone, and there was never any report of human remains found on Airmyn Crossings.

The following week, Matt’s employer offered him a promotion in Lancashire. It was several years before he visited the Percy Arms again. When he did, reluctantly, but necessarily because of a family function, much had changed. Outwardly, it looked the same, but inside it had become a single large, refurbished lounge. There was no sign that the taproom had ever existed. He drove there by car, but passing along Airmyn Road, he just had time to register that the route of the old Airmyn Crossings had been diverted to accommodate the new motorway.

All of this was over fifty years ago. The farmer, the garage owner, the cinema manager and his wife must be long gone.

Recently, Matt heard a tale that seemed to have some bearing on the events of that Christmas Eve of long ago. A distant cousin, Louisa, whom he knew only vaguely, visited him in the course of tracing her family history. Matt was unable to add much to her findings, but she told him a tale that had been passed down to her grandmother from her grandmother’s grandmother.

The name, Matt, or Matthew, had run through the Wetherell family for generations. An earlier Matthew had been born in a village many miles away to the North. That Matthew had worked on the lands of the Northumberland estates belonging to the Percy family. One summer he had transgressed unwritten social expectations by becoming too familiar with the daughter of the incumbent of the local Parish. To prevent the friendship developing into anything more serious, it had been arranged that Matthew would be moved away to other lands owned by the same family in distant Airmyn. Matthew’s brother Mark had to move with him for no reason other than that he was Matthew’s brother. In due course, the news arrived that the vicar’s daughter of whom Matthew had been so fond, had married a tea trader and moved to the colonies. Matthew, distressed, took to wandering like a tramp in the woods and fields. He disappeared one Christmas and nothing was heard of him again.

More happily, Matthew’s brother, Mark, remained in Airmyn. He married and had a large family. He was the ancestor of both the present day Matt and his distant cousin, Louisa. If you care to look in the Airmyn Parish registers for the early years of the nineteenth century, you will find mention of a Mark Wetherell, servant in husbandry, son of John and Mary Wetherell of Melsonby, which is in North Yorkshire, near Richmond.

The exact location of Matt’s disturbing experience that dark Christmas Eve, must now be buried beneath the Eastbound carriageway of the M62 motorway. Strange things happen there. Engines misfire, sudden gusts of wind cause vehicles to swerve, drivers slow down for no apparent reason. You should concentrate and take extra care there, especially on Christmas Eve. Matt Wetherell avoids it like it was haunted.