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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.