Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Order

The Order was the 1950s version of internet shopping. It was of course only very local. Every Tuesday or Wednesday you delivered a list of your requirements to the local grocer & on Friday a delivery boy toiled up the hill on his bike - one of those heavy ones with a frame on the front to hold the carton of groceries. Yes, it really was as Hovis as that

The goods had to be carefully checked against the order. The prices had to be checked, as well as the arithmetic of the total sum owing. It was important to register any complaints with the grocer - goods out of stock, quality not up to scratch, prices outrageous - before settling up, to demonstrate that you were a careful housewife who knew what was what. But it was also important to give praise where praise was due; that too ensured good service.

My Nana used small black notebooks for her order - my mother just used to use pieces of paper. How I wish I had thought to ask for those books when Nana died; but of course that was the last thing on my mind

Monday, December 25, 2006

An Anglo Saxon Christmas

My name is Leonilla but my friends call me Lilla. My father was a thegn and I had three brothers; the eldest was killed fighting for our king. When I was still a child my mother gave me to the abbess here because I wanted to learn to read and to study the word of God. The abbess is a great and noble lady, the daughter of a king, and very learned

The monastery has grown - we even had builders and glaziers over from France to build a stone church & to make coloured glass for the windows and to teach some of our brethren how to make glass. They have made lamps for the church and now everyone can see the pictures

The brothers sleep in their own quarters separated from our dormitories by a thick hedge, but we share the refectory and the church and sisters work alongside the monks in the guest house & the infirmary & the herb garden; the whole of our monastery is surrounded by a high wall but we have lived peacefully and never been attacked since I came here

I have my own cell which is a special privilege for those whose main work is study and prayer and reading. My bed is a simple pallet and pillow without hangings and I have only a bed cover to keep me warm. In winter when it is very cold I keep my woollen gown on at night and sometimes my cloak as well, though usually I just sleep in my linen undergarment; I am too delicate to wear rough wool next to my skin as some do. I keep my clothes in a sturdy wooden chest which I keep smelling sweet with cloves which I beg from the kitchen. I also keep my leather shoes in the chest; these are soft and kind to my feet and they are kept soft by regular greasing with pigs lard. My spare pins and my best amethyst beads are in there too; I just wear glass beads most days, together with my gold cross

My mother had a theory that regular washing is necessary to keep away the diseases of the skin and they say that the bishop Wilfrid used to wash himself every night, winter and summer, in holy water. I have no means of washing in my cell, but as often as I can I go with my sisters to the lavatorium where our attendants help us to bathe in warm water

These days the bishops are always telling us that we should wear sober dress without colour or embroidery, as well as telling us to stop using the curling tongs on our hair. I enjoy using my needle to help make beautiful cloths for the altar and vestments for the priests; to my mind it is just as much to the glory of God if we use these same skills to make beautiful edgings for our tunics and cloaks or ribbons for our veils; it is certainly not at all unchaste to take pleasure in such finery, and it is not our aim to attract strange men. Our work is much admired everywhere and we have sent altar cloths and vestments as gifts to foreign churches, even to Rome itself

As I said earlier, life has been peaceful here since I came and we live well; our 10 hides of land and the outlying estates provide abundantly for us and together with what the men bring us from the river, the forest and the hill we have all the food that we need. We eat twice a day, good cooked meals in the refectory, except that we fast every Wednesday and Friday until Nonce, as well as on the special fast days. Our Mother does not believe that excessive fasting, nor excessive penance, are required; she says that lack of food and sleep dull our minds, especially for study

The bishop comes to stay regularly in the guest house with his retinue and then there is great to-do in the kitchen preparing the feast; once some earls came and then it was terrible - 3 days and nights they were drinking, wine as well as ale. The bishop drinks wine which comes in special jars from France, but only in moderation. Sometimes we drink ale but mostly milk or water or the drinks which Brother Bertred makes from infusions of herbs from the garden; he is very clever and makes all the herb medicines which are needed in the infirmary as well. After Terce we always drink a special concoction of bruised herbs to cleanse away the evil humours

We have a special feast at Christmas; we have roast beef, boiled goose, dolphin and venison, pressed curds and honey and special white bread, with mead to drink. We all tell stories, about the old times when there were warriors and sailors, about miracles and about journeys to Rome, and we sing songs to the harp and the lyre

I spend most of my days studying; I dont work in the Scriptorium though sometimes when I was a little girl we were allowed in to watch and help the monks grind up the pigments. One winter it was so cold that nobody could write properly; even Brother Bertreds herb and honey mixture could not cure their chilblains. It was so bad that they said we would have to start eating the horses when the meat ran out, but fortunately it never came to that. It was terribly cold last winter too, that is why we often sat in the cells in the daytime, to keep warm; we were not being immoral

Because of my studies I spend a lot of time in my cell; sometimes one of the cats comes in to keep me company, and of course that helps to keep the mice out of my bed as well. There was a big argument last week because a mouse fell in to the crock of skim milk; Brother Bosa said the milk had to be thrown away because the mouse was dead, but Brother Felix said it was still alive so the milk would be all right to drink after it was sprinkled with holy water

I study the Holy Scriptures of course, as well as the expositions by the Fathers; I practise grammar and have learned Latin and I like to try to put the Scriptures in to verse but I am not very good at it. We also have to study chronology, which is very important for working out the dates of the festivals, but it is very hard; I always get in to a muddle when I am counting on my fingers. Our Mother likes us to read to her in the evenings; she is often sleepy but always notices if we make a mistake. Another thing that often happens in the evening is that one of the brothers sings to us because he has the gift of turning the lessons into wonderful verses. Then we take it in turns to sing to the harp

We have about 20 children living in the monastery; some are orphans and some have been given by their parents to the abbess to learn the Word of God. I sometimes help to teach them to make their letters on their writing tablets. I still use writing tablets myself for practising my grammar and composing my poetry, or copying out passages from Scripture which I am to learn by heart; I have one very special stylus of copper and silver which was given to me by my mother and is decorated but I usually use the plain bone kind

In the afternoons, if the weather is good, the children play outside. Some of the monks are like children themselves and like to join them in their games of tag, running and jumping about; they dont even always let the children win. There are even brothers who will go out with the servants hunting foxes or hare coursing or go out with the falcons, though they are not supposed to

We nuns all sit together to work on embroidery with the servants who help us. Our main work at the moment is an altar cloth which is to be sent as a gift to Frankia. It is on linen as we do not have any silk cloth to work on, and we are copying some of the biblical figures from the pictures in the Church, which came from Rome. I like to work on the coloured sections which we sew with silk thread using split stitch and stem stitch; we have all sorts of colours of thread, red, cream, green, blue, and yellow. The gold threads are hard to couch and they hurt my fingers; and wrapping the core threads with the gold is boring so we usually leave that to the servants. Sometimes it is hard to see what we are doing, and only the very young ones have eyes that are keen enough to work. I have heard that some noble ladies have made pieces that are all in white, which must be really difficult to do because you would not be able to see it

As you can see I live a very happy life here and hardly miss my family at all. I hope to keep on with my studies, if we are spared, and one day make the pilgrimage to Rome. Then one day, when I am truly learned and have become truly pious, maybe I can become abbess

Works by the Venerable Bede
A History of the English Church & People
Life of Cuthbert

Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth & Jarrow
Life of Wilfrid by Eddius

The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England edited by DM Wilson

The animal resources by J Clutton-Brock
Monastic Sites by RJ Cramp

The Medical Background of Anglo-Saxon England by W Bonser

Dress in Anglo-Saxon England by GR Owen-Crocker

Needlework Through the Ages by M Symonds & L Preece

Women in Anglo-Saxon England by C Fell

Feminae gloriosae: women in the age of Bede by J Nicholson published in Medieval Women edited by D Baker

Works by Thomas Allison
Pioneers of English Learning
English Religious Life in the 8th Century

Anglo-Saxon Art & Culture AD 600-900 edited by L Webster & J Backhouse

The Age of Bede DH Farmer
Anglo-Saxon England by Stenton

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Exercise v Exertion

Any discussion about obesity soon descends into a discussion about why people do not participate in sport

But sport is not the only way of exerting oneself, of burning off the calories; it is a rather strange, competitive activity

When I was little, Mondays involved my mother, with my 'help', filling & emptying a dolly tub, possing the clothes, then putting them through the mangle before hanging them on the line. These days the most a mother would have to do to exert herself would be to pick the clothes up from the floor, sort them, put them in the machine & press a button; she might still have to hang them on the line

Even hoovering the house on Friday might have involved a fair degree of exertion - household machines were heavy & made of metal. Modern plastics & engines make machines much easier to push

Cooking no longer involves the need to whip cream, pound potatoes, beat eggs or even peel potatoes. Just put into the microwave & press a button or pick up the phone & take a takeaway delivery

Shopping involves much less carrying of weights - just put it in the trolley & push (though watch your back as you pick up & put down all those bags)

Going in to & out of shops is also much easier as doors open automatically & steps or stairs become things of the past - making life easier for the disabled also means asking less of the able bodied

So is eating or exercise the real problem? Surveys show that people are actually eating less - eating fewer calories. If we are putting on weight then it is because the reduction in calories does not match the reduction in exertion

If I were trying to make a Just So evolutionary story out of this, what would it be?


The clouds came down in earnest today at Simla & when I woke up this morning I found them in bed with me

William Russell : My Diary in India in the Year 1858-9

Friday, December 22, 2006

Hearing Voices

Am I the only person who can 'hear' voices? Obviously not

I am not talking about schizophrenia, hearing extraneous voices in my head, but about hearing tone, intention, attitude, when the voice is all I can hear, when I cant see the face of the person who is talking, for example on the phone or on the radio

The first time I can remember being conscious of this was during the Westland debate between Thatcher & Kinnock in the House of Commons in [1986?]; I had a small, tinny transistor in my office which was used mainly for keeping up to date with cricket scores; the Westland scandal caused great excitement among my fellow civil servants & we were all anxious to hear the (only recently introduced) broadcast of the Commons debate. For some reason there was a panic at work & we were only able to foregather in my room to listen to the broadcast as Thatcher began her reply to Kinnock. After a few seconds I said 'Oh, shes won'; my colleagues all turned towards me in astonishment & said 'How do you know that?'

I was confused - how could they not know? It was obvious from her voice that she was confident of, she knew that, she had won. We had not heard Kinnocks speech, but many later analyses have pointed to the fact that he was too verbose & threw away the opportunity to get the better of her; without having heard him I knew from her tone that this was what had happened

The next time I can remember such a significant 'hearing' concerns John Diamond, who used to present a late night programme on 5 Live. To be honest I never found his voice or style all that attractive, but one night I found his gabbling too much to bear, switched to another station & composed one of those 'letters in my head' to his producer, asking him/her to tell John to slow down & talk more clearly. He never did another show & I learned soon afterwards that he had throat cancer. Was it the cancer that made his voice so hard to understand?

Not many months later a similar thing happened with Vincent Hanna, who also presented an interesting late night programme on 5 Live. One week, when he had as well been sitting in for Jimmy Young on R2, he sounded so exhausted that I wrote another of those 'letters in my head' to his producer, telling him not to work so hard. Within a week or two he was dead of either a heart attack or stroke. I began to feel very spooky

What is it about voices that gives away ones age? Why are 3 year olds so distinctive? Why is it so obvious that a voice belongs to an old person? Is it just collagen, or some other feature of the vocal chords?

How do some people learn to speak 'beautifully'? For example Fi Glover speaks with almost a Mozartian or Bachian melodic line (though not necessarily with the same rhythm). Is this something to do with her physical make up, or does it reflect elocution lessons or her psychological attitudes? How can some people like her speak challengingly without aggression?

I have been thinking about hearing without seeing or watching - using just one sense at a time. Why is it that looking, eg at a parliamentary debate on tv, removes this ability to 'hear' what the politicians are really thinking or feeling? And why do I sometimes have to take my glasses off to hear?

Why is it so instructive to watch, eg on tv, the reactions of the actor(s) who are not speaking, to deliberately remove ones focus from the actor who is? One thing you do learn is that English actors have the terrible habit of reacting before they have heard what the other person has to say. American actors do not do this - or is it all in the editing?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The verb TO BE

The verb to be

When a language has a verb 'to be' it is usually, though irregular, considered one of the simplest verb/words, so simple that other languages manage to take it as simply 'understood', much in the same way that zero was simply understood as a number before the place holder was invented. Why do you need a word or symbol to stand for nothing? Why do you need a word to stand for the basic obvious fact of existence? Well zero holds a place, enables the wonders of place value in mathematics, makes all the difference between 1, 10 and 100. A difference that can, tragically, mean the difference between life & death when applied to drug doses for example

During the Clinton impeachment almost nothing, not the stain on the dress, not the mind-boggling implications of what was going on under the desk during those phone calls, invited more universal derision than the response It all depends on what is is

Is is actually very complicated. To try & unpack this a little, let us move on to the plural version, are

Men are taller than women is a statement that would not attract much flak even from the most ardently feminist or politically correct. Not even from me, despite the fact that, at 5'10" I am taller than most men - or at least I used to be. I am now over 60, so the addition of all those giant 20-somethings & the death of all those tiny 80-somethings may mean that I am now below the average height of the British adult male

But we all understand what the statement means; we know that women rarely pair with a man shorter than they are, we know that on average women are shorter than men & that the very tallest humans are always male

For centuries, logic has taught us the essential point of the syllogism - all men are liars does not imply that all liars are men. Elementary logic does not however teach us how to cope with the less definite assertion that most men are liars. From this alone we can conclude nothing about the truth of the statement most liars are men.

This may not seem to matter much in every day life, except when it comes to statements such as Women enjoy shopping more than men or Men are better at maths than women. If you are rash enough to make one of these statements on, say, national radio, be prepared for the flak. But, just as one tall woman does not disprove the ordinary sense of the statement that men are taller than women, the existence of women who do not enjoy shopping, or of one brilliant female mathematician, does not disprove the truth of the other two statements

By the same process of reasoning, the simple statement that in some parts of London most muggers are black does not mean that most blacks are muggers, even if sometimes both police & the black community seem to think that it does, or that that is what is being implied.

In saying this last I do not wish to imply that either the black community or the police are being particularly dense; I still remember with wonder a Newsnight discussion of several years ago during which a participant seemed to argue that the existence of one young woman, the only female ever to study for a PhD under Stephen Hawkins, was enough to disprove the assertion that men are better at maths

Our problem here is language, or rather grammar; we need a different case, voice, tense of the verb to be to cope with ratio numbers. As far as the verb to be is concerned we are stuck in the time when numbers were simple counting numbers - 1,2,3,4 … The Ancient Greeks realised that these were not enough & got at least as far as understanding that ratio numbers needed to be added to the mathematical armoury. Mathematicians have since moved on to the realisation that we also need real numbers, imaginary numbers, complex numbers & heaven knows what else. But our everyday language has still not caught up

In considering the history of numbers & language we need at least to consider three aspects; the word - two; the symbol 2 or for example; and the abstract concept - the twoness of two

This might seem a bit twee or airy fairy but think about it this way. Many standard histories of mathematics make the claim that primitive man could not count beyond 3 because languages seem, almost universally, to have contained only words for one, two, three, many

But as Menninger pointed out you dont need words to count, & the fact that no words seem to exist for numbers beyond 3 does not imply that people did not understand, or comprehend the differences between, larger numbers (even just the difference between 4 & 5). In the same way, in future millennia, historians may believe that we cannot perceive subtle differences in skin colour, simply because our language seems to contain only the words black or white to describe these

There is plenty of evidence that ancient man could count; one of my favourite stories is about the use of simple clay models of sheep to keep tally of the flocks. And tally sticks were in use in the British Treasury right up to the time that they were destroyed by the fire which burned down the old Parliament building in 1834. Were the civil servants of those days any less in control of public expenditure than their modern counterparts with their digital or analogue computers?

The really odd thought is that ancient man seemed to think of twoness as a property of the particular object: two apples were different from two pears. A strange thought, unless you remember being taught in your schooldays that You cant add apples and pears. Of course you can - the answer is a number of fruit. The existence - the continuing existence - of different words for the same concept of twoness - pair, couple, double, twin … is evidence that ancient populations struggled with this notion. Do primary school children still have to learn the 'correct' words for many - a flock of sheep, a herd of cows, a clutch of eggs … ?

So it was a struggle, between the need to comprehend the abstract notion of number & the need to come up with zero as a place holder. Together these ideas mean that we can go from 0 to ∞, in the symbolism of number, with no more than the code 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. Did number words only follow (emerge after) this code? Probably

We have not really advanced beyond these centuries old inventions. We have words for some ratio numbers - half, quarter, third - but few that really convey the sense & complexity. Just as it took an advanced mathematician to do division or multiplication with the Roman number system, it takes a fairly advanced mathematician to work out whether 2/7 is greater than 3/8

There is some evidence of development, perhaps thanks to the metric system. The use of % - a key on the keyboard which I am using to type this - is now quite widely accepted even outside of statistical tables. When I started my career in the civil service in the 1960s the use of the symbol (rather than the words per cent) was infra dig. But we still dont understand percentages very well

Not too long ago a kind of high tech version of the rhythm method of contraception was being marketed under the promise that it was 94% effective. There were soon widespread reports that it did not work reliably; a tv programme gave a platform to young women who felt that they had been misled because they had not realised that this meant a 1 in 16 chance of becoming pregnant (6 out of 100 sounds so much less). It was however never entirely clear whether the claim meant 1 in 16 times of making love or something more complicated such as once in 16 menstrual cycles you will be making love during your fertile period. I do not think that this is just a female problem, but I am tired of pointing out that the idea that breast cancer affects 1 in 12 women means that I am 92% certain not to get it

Per cent, as a word or phrase, does at least imply the ratio, but we still have no simple means of describing what is a percentage of which. Most of the time we seem to think that this can be taken as read - there is no need to specify the period when we talk about house prices rising by 5%; we can talk about the % of women managers and somehow take it as read whether we are talking about the % of women who are managers or the % of managers who are women

Which brings us back to the beginning of these musings. Women are taller than men: we have no simple language to say whether this means simply that the average woman is shorter than the average man. But at least here we are, or think we are, talking about overall majorities

Our first past the post political system requires only that one candidate achieve the largest number of votes; in a 3-member constituency with 100 voters the one who gets 34 votes can win, even if each of the others receives 33

Children of lone parents can be said to do worse at school because only 17% of them get 3 As at A level compared with 20% of children from 2-parent families. And so on

All the above has been about the problems of is or are as a matter of proportion or majority. These problems are difficult enough if we are talking about a comparison at a fixed point in time. Consideration about 'to be' in time - I am a Mancunian, a statistician - the problems of this kind of statement, the problem of 'before' must be left for another essay

Taj Mahal

It is wrong to call it a dream in marble; it is a thought - an idea - a conception of tenderness - a sigh as it were of eternal devotion & heroic love, caught & embued with such immortality as the earth can give

William Russell: My Diary in India in the Year 1858-59

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

William Morris Agriculture

I think that organic farming is the Arts & Crafts movement of our day. And will fail for the same reasons: it is ugly, old fashioned & expensive, its products out of the reach of, & sensibly unwanted by, those without money to burn on expensive fol-de-rols. It will never Feeeed the Wurrrld

Nevertheless I share the nostalgia for this kind of agriculture. My maternal great grandparents had a farm, & I spent a lot of time there until they gave it up when I was 5; none of their surviving 9 children wanted to take it on

Though it seemed large to me I guess it was really small as farms go. There were at least 2 fields - one for hay, the other for cereal. There were also sheep (high up the hill), cows & hens &, at least one year, geese. It seems odd to me now that I cannot remember any pigs, given that they are such useful animals: you can use everything but the whistle & they provide an economical form of garbage disposal. At least while I was in primary school the leavings from our school dinners were scraped into enamel pails & taken away as pig swill

My grandfather was adamant about one thing: no tractors. He maintained that they could not cope with hills as well as could the horses, & I guess he was right. How many farm workers have been killed by toppling tractors? So he had horses. They seemed huge to me too. I can still remember being lifted up as a tiny child to perch on a broad solid back, high in the air above feet as big as soup plates, taking in the lovely warm friendly smell of horse

One of my favourite 'jobs' was to help with the butter-making once a week. After churning, the butter was put into small round wooden bowls & tapped down with a wooden lid. My task was to press the lid down hard enough to imprint the butter with the image carved onto the underside of the lid. My favourite picture was of a butterfly

At the age of three I almost became an instant vegetarian during the course of the family Sunday dinner. That year I had been 'given' an orphan lamb. Naturally I christened him Larry. He lived for a while in a shoe box beside the kitchen range & I helped to feed him from a babys bottle. It is surprising how fiercely such a tiny thing can pull. During the famous dinner my horrible uncle - only 11 himself - asked me if I realised that I was eating Larry

Another favourite job was to take my grandfathers dinner to him when he was working the harvest. He impressed everybody with his appetite for apple pie, a whole one just for him in a rectangular enamel pie dish. An essential part of the ritual was his careful lifting of the pastry crust so that he could spread the contents liberally with English mustard. Such a sweet/sour/hot combination seems commonplace now, but was a thing of wonder to us then

Monday, December 18, 2006

Whats wrong with ginger beer?

I saw a press report that ginger beer will be barred from a new tv series based on Enid Blytons Famous Five. How can this be? Well, I dont suppose that a world-wide audience will necessarily understand that this is not an alcoholic drink.

There was once a real fad for making your own ginger beer at home. For this you needed a ginger beer plant. This was some kind of yeast or fungus which you put in a jam jar half full of water & left on a window sill. It had to be fed regularly with, I think, ground ginger and sugar. After a week or so you strained off the liquid, mixed it with water & sealed it in glass bottles. One half of the plant could then be discarded or given to friends, & the whole process gone through again with the other half.

We used to store our bottles of ginger beer in a small stone outhouse. One winter panic set in at the sound of repeated explosions coming from the garden. When it seemed safe to investigate it transpired that the ginger beer had frozen & the subsequent expansion had caused the bottles to explode. Come to think of it there must have been some kind of fermentation going on, so at least some alcohol was being produced.

As an even smaller child I used to wonder how my Methodist & strictly teetotal grandma could be responsible for making something called herb beer, which I used to love. Even at that tender age I wondered if the adults were being strictly truthful when they said it was non alcoholic, though I reasoned that they certainly wouldnt give it to me if it were. Regretfully, it was only made in summer. Even more regretfully, I never thought to ask for the recipe. It tasted very like Dandelion & Burdock, though not nearly as sweet as the commercial versions available today.

In some ways however, my absolutely most very favourite drink as a small child was soda water. This used to come from the grocers in a very heavy glass syphon with a silver coloured top. It cost the huge sum of 1 shilling & threepence, though most of that was returnable deposit. My Nan always had a syphon in the larder for medicinal purposes, namely her indigestion. I was, very occasionally, allowed a small quantity as a treat. I regret to say that I was not entirely above sneaking in to the larder for a stolen splash when I thought I could get away with it.

As I grew older & rationing came to an end, fizzy drinks became more widely available. There were even lorries which used to drive around, much as ice cream vans do today, delivering bottles to your door - though you still had to pay a deposit on each. There was definitely however a sense that only the more common sort of family would stoop to giving their children such large quantities of fizzy pop.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

I love radio transmitters

While idly Googling one day I came across a marvellous site which documents, with photos, every radio & tv transmitter in the country. It even has a section recommending sites of particular interest to visit when on vacation. This may seem like a very nerdy thing for anyone to want to do, but of course many sites are found in areas of spectacular beauty. And they will be high up so you can enjoy an invigorating hill walk on your tour of inspection.

In fact I had similar holiday treats myself as a child. I very vividly remember Goonhilly Down in Cornwall. And more mundanely, as far as the visuals go, St Margarets Bay near Dover. This was my last family holiday before going off into the big wide world & I had my first bikini - pink with polka dots! - which I was far too self conscious to feel comfortable wearing. My other main memory of the holiday was being taken to see the laying of a new cable across the English Channel - a rather boring spectacle I thought. But my father explained to me that this was revolutionary, because the cable would be able to carry more than one conversation simultaneously; it achieved this by chopping up any one conversation into little pieces- just cutting out all the silences basically - & fitting them all together again at the other end. I remain mystified as to how a mere wire can know which bit is which

I was recently reminded of all this when I came across a book, The Atlantic Telegraph by William Russell (the man who reported the Crimean War), about the very first attempt to lay a cable across the Atlantic in the 1850s.

This was both beautifully illustrated & much the most exciting page turner I have read since I don't know when. I do recommend a read if you can lay hands on a copy - there is one in Manchester Central Library. It was heartbreaking when they finally had to admit defeat & leave a broken cable to lie on the ocean floor

Fortunately there is a much more recent & easily obtainable book - Thread Across the Ocean by John Steele Gordon - which includes the successful attempt in 1866

By 1867 The Manchester Guardian was complaining about the high cost of using the Atlantic cable - £10 for 20 words


Friday, December 15, 2006

Freedom of the road

We have only had free bus passes in our part of the world since April this year - before it was half fare. Of course its very nice for me as a regular bus user & non-driver, though there is the vaguest feeling of guilt about not having to pay now. A guilt rapidly extinguished by thinking of all those well-to-do Londoners who've had them for years, & remembering all those years of resentment when I seemed to be the only person not entitled to some kind of reduced rate pass

The effects have been quite marked. Since we live on the A6 south of Manchester many car owners are actually quite relieved that not every journey has to involve the hassle of negotiating the congestion & having to pay to park in town. If, that is, you can find a place

But its not just giving out for free something which used to be paid for. Bus passes generate increased travel & (therefore) increased economic activity. Many women over 60 have found a degree of freedom which they have not had for years, either because they are non-drivers or because others have priority use of the family car. It is a pleasure to meet them at the bus stop, imbued with a new sense of adventure, able to choose to go out at purely their own convenience

The bus drivers tell me that they have been much more busy on Sundays, & that a large part of the increased business seems to come from grandparents taking their small grandchildren out for the day. What a wonderfully simple, cheap & non-bureaucratic way to improve family values & social cohesion

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


I love the quarries of Derbyshire. The current romantic idea is that the countryside should be preserved as it is & further quarrying should be avoided at all costs. But our landscape, far from being unspoiled, untouched by human hand or dynamite is, as anyone with half an eye can see, made of & by the old quarries. Admittedly most of them have left quite small scars on the landscape compared with the larger scale ones of today, but I love the idea of our stone being removed & used in great buildings; that to me is the true romance. Even if Derbyshire stone is used for more mundane projects, what could be more wonderful than the movement of stone to construct Stone Henge, Notre Dame, St Pauls, Taj Mahal? Even aggregate for motorways. What could be more romantic than the construction of great highways to allow man to wander far?

In the summer light the quarry at Peak Dale always reminds me of a Cezanne, with its large slab planes of ochre, yellow & cream & grey against the surrounding green. The industrial accretions are Futurist cum Socialist Realist; in my most fanciful moments I can see those two young peasants levitating in a giant leap across the top of the quarry with a cheery wave to us bus passengers. The only sour note is given by the trains; their subdued burnt orange is the perfect colour, but could someone please invent a dust resistant paint?

If I were a photographer I should like to try & take a photo with practically no depth of field almost like a water colour wash but with high definition of the edges of each block of colour. And blow it up to about 20x20 feet

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Lessons from the masters

I am sorry for writing you such a long letter, I didnt have time to write a short one -Pascal
All progress depends on the unreasonable man, for the reasonable man accepts things as they are and adapts himself to them - George Bernard Shaw
When your teachers or your parents tell you 'Concentrate, concentrate. Whatever you are doing you MUST CONCENTRATE' they have got it almost precisely the wrong way round. Your aim in life should be to be to maximise the number of things you can do without thinking about them at all; then you can concentrate your mind on learning new things - Alfred North Whitehead
It is the mark of an educated mind to rest satisfied with the degree of precision that the nature of the subject admits & not to seek exactness when only an approximation is possible - Aristotle

Friday, December 08, 2006

Chicken & giblets

More agricultural memories; this time about chickens

I used to help to collect the eggs on the farm. One day I was, to my ginormous pride, sent to collect them ALL BY MYSELF

It was a long time before I was allowed to forget that my oh-so-carefully carried harvest included the china egg whose sole purpose was to encourage the hens to lay

Another chicken memory concerns the Young Farmers Wives competitions at the Bakewell Show - how deliciously, nostalgically anachronistic that sounds now. One class involved plucking & drawing a chicken. Results were judged on speed & thoroughness. The speeds achieved were truly astonishing

I could if presented with a whole chicken, still remember how to draw it, though I doubt I have the requisite strength in my hands. But I would not want to pluck one. I get the shudders just thinking about it. The reason stems from an act of downright disobedience by my three-year-old self in the days just before Christmas

My father arrived home & dumped a sack just inside the kitchen door. I went to investigate while he was saying hello to Mum. Despite cries of DONT I put my hand in the sack ... the shock of feeling feathers - almost alive but somehow not quite right - made me squeal

Christmas isnt Christmas without the smell of proper giblet gravy simmering on the stove. Its sad that it is now virtually impossible to find anyone who sells chicken with giblets, though turkey with giblets is still available in some supermarkets

I try to avoid all ready meals & sandwiches which include chicken. Not just because I hate battery farms; I also worry about those products which make claims to using only prime breast fillet from free range animals. What happens to the rest of the chicken? Im with the River Cottage man: if you are going to eat an animal, you should at least show it the respect of eating as much it of as possible

Monday, December 04, 2006

I love £ stores

I love Pound Stores. Partly because of meanness or thriftiness. 18 packest of pocket tissues! 200 polythene gloves! Bath towels! Incense! Reading glasses?!

I also love - though do not buy - the tat - so called. Hair ornaments, house ornaments, jewellery, toys - what exactly, is the difference between a Poundstore & Selfridges?

The main difference is chaos. Everything is, relatively, jumbled up, confined in a much smaller space. There is no continuity of supply - no point going back next month for another box of those pocket hankies from Slovenia

Are they exploitative?

Exploitative of labour in poorer countries such as China, India & Slovenia?

Exploitative of more pretentious gift shop businesses in the West who go bust & need to sell their bankrupt stock at any price to a wily Pound Store trader?

Exploitative of the youngsters who work the tills?

Exploitative of the UK tax & VAT system? - not many of my pounds get registered on the till

Exploitative of the cash cow possibilities & of money laundering connections with criminal or terrorist organisations?

Exploitative of their cash-strapped customers?

Well no more so, I guess, than the original 6d Woolworth or the M&S market stall in Leeds

'Ordered' middle class society preens itself on its taste in shopping only at Selfridges or Harvey Nicks. They think of themselves as prosperous & of well-developed good taste. But they accept that those clever enough to provide their palaces of temptation will be rich, fashionable leaders of taste, while they are rich only in the level of their personal indebtedness

Lancelot Hogben

"You may provide creches, school feeding, family allowances, holidays with pay for expectant mothers, & 1001 other inducements. If you do not give people space you will not make parenthood endurable"
Lancelot Hogben wrote that in his 1939 book Dangerous Thoughts. He was particularly railing against the prospect of European style 'workers flats' being built in Britain. Well, we learnt that lesson the hard way. But now we, collectively, not just the government, continue to build ever pokier houses, ever more closely jammed together, because we have convinced ourselves that we have no space for better

Nobody who has ever travelled by train from Manchester to London could possibly believe that; once out of south Manchester only a tiny portion of the country is built over until you get to Watford

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Children & Social Control

These days I spend a lot of my time reading in the Manchester Central Library which has a wonderful collection of Victorian books, pamphlets, newspapers & archives. Manchester was a pioneer of C19th public libraries & the current building, which was erected in the 1930s, is a magnificent 6 storey circular structure based on the Round Reading room of the old British Library. Unlike the British Library, which was hidden away in the midst of the British Museum, this one is free standing, near to the Victorian Gothic Town Hall, but in another nod to the BM has an impressive south-facing colonnaded entrance

The Library is also home to, on its basement floor, a theatre. In common with many other theatres the Christmas season is occupied with shows suitable for children & attracts many school parties to its daytime performances. Readers & theatregoers share the entrance to the building

An experience of two years ago still resonates with me; I came down the stairs from the 1st floor reading room to meet a party of excited & noisy 6/7 year olds making their way out from a performance of that years Christmas show; chaotic in their excitement, it took time for them to pass through the security gate. After standing watching them with a fond grandmotherly eye for several minutes, then thinking that it could take a long time for a whole theatre-full to pass, I joined the melee & made my way out of the building

A couple of days later I again came down the stairs as the theatre was emptying. Another crowd leaving the show, slightly older this time, 8 year olds perhaps. But these children, though clearly happy & excited, were quiet & organised; they passed quickly, two by two, often holding hands

Reflecting on the differences several things became clear; age, obviously, plus the fact that the first was a mixed group & the second was just girls - no noisy boys. But the chaotic group also obviously came from one of the poorer areas of the city, the organised ones were from a much more prosperous background. Uniform in more than one sense, the second group were all dressed in navy & red & I particularly remember the coat worn by one little girl - fully tailored, made of an expensive woollen cloth - how much do you have to pay for such a coat which she will grow out of within the year?

The noisy group had many more adult supervisors who themselves looked harassed & pale, even ill. The second group seemed to be accompanied by no more than a couple of teachers, well-dressed, even soignée, women

C20th historians pondered the question of 'social control' in the Victorian era - meaning middle class attempts to control the noisy, dirty, chaotic & immoral working class, or slum, populations of the cities. Some of these historical essays suggest that social control was an imposition which demeaned the liveliness of working class culture & was distasteful in its sense of superiority (they also beg the question of how many of the middle class cared & how many preferred to ignore these social problems). My C21st example raises the question of how the middle classes achieve such control over their own children; of whether it is a good thing; & if so, what are the benefits?

Organisation & control have clear benefits - in this example, access for me & for all other library users was subject to minimum disruption. Cleanliness & order have clear medical & health benefits too. But total order is the same thing as entropy; growth & evolution depend on difference; does organisation bring atrophy, can change emerge only from chaos? Or can important differences only emerge more clearly when the noise of chaos is removed from the system?

And how is such order achieved? Could the mechanism be genetic? This seems unlikely in itself - if two babies are swapped at birth would the one assigned to the middle class upbringing necessarily revert to lower class behaviour & vice versa? It seems much more plausible that the advantages of a comfortable environment would encourage conformity of external behaviour while allowing maximum scope for thinking about ways of developing & expanding human experience. For example it would allow or encourage thinking about new types of technology whether this be railways, telephone or internet

But this in turn begs the question of how some people (regardless of which class they are born to) are able to act, throughout their lives, in a way that gives them access to & control over, the resources needed to provide such comfort; which in themselves need a certain skill in relating to others - to organising - the plumbers, builders, cleaners, architects, solicitors etc etc - necessary for such a comfortable life. Such talent for organisation is not limited to the middle classes, which brings us back round the circle to the question: does order come from chaos, or do new forms of order come only from order?

Memory & Malcolm X

I just came across a cutting of The Guardians report of the death of Malcolm X; the word 'negro' is used 3 times in the first few lines

But its the date - February 1965 - which has discombobulated me. The article says that he had just returned from a visit to Britain, so unless he had made another visit in 1964, the assassination must have happened very soon after my own (nearly) meeting with him

He had given a public address to a packed lecture theatre at college; word went round that there would be a more private meeting in one of the common rooms. I went along, with my friends, only to be turned away at the door (just me) on the grounds that I was not the right colour. A valuable lesson in Life

But why are these two events not more closely associated in my memory? True, it was a momentous year in my personal life, & there was still the aftershock of the death of Kennedy, but if you had asked me yesterday I would have put the Malcolm X murder at more like 1968

Unreliable memory indeed

Playing with words

Alimony Acrimony
fr Latin alere: to nourish fr Latin acer: sharp
Alimentary, my dear Watson

Friday, December 01, 2006

Telephone exchanges

In the middle of the twentieth century many villages in rural Derbyshire were in possession of an automatic telephone exchange.

As a child, a holiday treat for me was to accompany my father on his visits of inspection to these exchanges. They looked like small bungalows, built out of local stone, almost indistinguishable from the surrounding cottages except for their lack of windows or gardens.

I can still remember the mysterious click, clack clack of the connections being made by the banks of levers, knobs & switches - is it my imagination, or were they made of wood?. The romance of imagining all those human connections being made without the need for human intervention ... But how clunky it all seems now, when at the touch of a button on a lap top I can be connected with the other side of the world.

What happened to those exchanges? Have they been demolished? Converted into des res? Do they now house vital bits of the World Wide Web? Or do they just stand as empty echoes of the ghostly clacks of those postwar rural conversations?