Thursday, May 31, 2007

Minshull Street Courts

Im not a great fan of Victorian architecture - especially not the neo-Gothic. Partly because its just too much - the mind boggles at the thought of architects sitting down & actually drawing all those twiddly bits & curlicues. Nor do I like red brick, or - ugh - glazed terra cotta

But Minshull St is different. Solid, but nicely proportioned. Sensitively extended to accommodate the needs of modern security, but still with Victorian courts & public galleries for lesser, sadder cases, where you can be carried right back in your imagination to the late Victorian years

Its a pity that the new building at the bottom of the station approach - however magnificent - will close off the view of the Courts. Manchester is sadly lacking in vistas


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Great grandfather the baker

Just recently I used Ancestry UK to check on this branch of the family

It came as a surprise to find that, in 1901, Great Grandfather was a master wheelwright. Bakery seems like a big change. I guess the bottom dropped out of the market for wooden wheels with the arrival of the new fangled motor cars. But people will always want bread. And cakes.

I cant remember a time when he was not confined to his bed or his chaise longue by the fire in the sitting room behind the shop. The business was in the hands of his wife & 5 of their surviving children. The men did the baking, 3 great aunts served in the shop, under the gimlet eye of great grandma.

I guess grandfather must have had a stroke. Besides the paralysis he dribbled a lot & had difficulty speaking. My father behaved very tenderly towards him. Father figure, I suppose, since his own father had died young. Dad often crouched by his side & they seemed to have little trouble conversing.

Great grandfather died 3 times. The first time the doctor came & pronounced him dead, but he sat up as the undertakers men were carrying him downstairs in his coffin. (Some exaggeration here, surely) . The second time he was discovered when the woman came to lay him out.

He died for the last time when I was 14. My mother & I did not go to the funeral, only my father, wearing an awesomely solemn black tie.

Grandfather was used to being taken out on ceremonial drives by his 2 spinster daughters - the original Sunday drivers. One of these trips was further than usual - they came to our house after I had passed the 11+. I was required to put on my as yet unworn school uniform.

Somewhere there is a photo of the pair of us in the garden, me standing proudly by his side. Him wearing what looks suspiciously like a chortle on his face.

Out of hours GP (3)

What % of GPs are now women?

How much is the reduction in GP 24 hour services a reflection of this? How much due to mothers wanting family friendly hours?

Or, more generally, women not wanting to be out on their own at all hours, heaven knows where?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Out of hours GP (2)

Things have changed an awful lot in 20 years. Then I just wanted the address of a GP surgery in Central Manchester to which I could go should I need antibiotics for a sinus infection. I was working there temporarily, did not need to register permanently

After a while it dawned on me that I had not noticed any surgeries as I walked around. Yellow Pages did not help. So I rang the Family Practitioner Committee. No, we cant give you that information. The place you are staying is outside Manchester proper. What if you needed a doctor in the middle of the night?

It seems unbelievable now that things such as practice leaflets & lists of local doctors were not routinely availabe to the public


I have been a bridesmaid only once. When I was 3

My Nana explained to me about my duties & what to expect of the day

The most exciting prospect was the Wedding Breakfast: And there will be toasts

Well, I loved toast. Especially the way Nana made it for me. Thick slices drenched in Golden Syrup

All I got was measly ham salad with - ugh! - beetroot

Do people call them Wedding Breakfasts anymore?

Monday, May 28, 2007

Out of hours GP

This is not intended to be any kind of criticism of the lady who died despite 8 calls to a GP deputising service. I did not know her, have not read the official report, know only what was in the news headlines

But I am puzzled. Why 8 calls? I think that, after the second, I would either have decided just to wait till I got better, or got myself to A&E - by ambulance if necessary. The alternative seems like banging ones head against a brick wall

At the end of the day the use, or demands, one makes of any medical service depend on a complex interaction. Between your own assessment of your diagnosis. Even more so the prognosis. Your experience & expectations of the services available. And your willingness to make a fuss. The service provider can only, in a sense, react to those

No sting

I must have been 2, going on 3, when I saw my first dead (human) body

It was my great grandfather. He was lying in his coffin on the kitchen table. There was a big vase of tulips in the room, so it must have been spring

I was lifted up to look at him. I felt uncomfortable & wriggled to get down, but more because I was too old to be picked up rather than any other kind of distress. He just looked like grandfather to me, in his best black suit

Oddly, in my memory, his skin looks kind of fawny, light tan. Not grey at all

And very peaceful

He had a peaceful death. Chapel in the morning. Sunday dinner over, he took his usual seat in the armchair by the fire. My (step) grandmother went to do the washing up. When she went back in, he was dead

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Great Uncle Jim

Great Uncle Jim went into hospital when I was about 12. He had had a stroke & was paralysed down one side. My grandfather ( his younger brother) went to visit him every Sunday afternoon, to give him his shave.

I loved Uncle Jim. He was a small, wiry man, always cheerful. He had been the village butcher & usually gave me a piece of suet from the kidneys when we went into his shop. A treat.

Come to think of it, he was the only one of my grandfathers seven siblings that I knew - the rest must have been scattered, dead, or not on speaking terms.

One Sunday after dinner, my Grandpa said to me Come on. Youre coming with me. Uncle Jim wants to see you.

I was terrified. Sat hunched in my seat in the train. They had had to amputate one leg below the knee. Only it hadnt worked properly & theyd had to chop another bit off. I imagined scenes straight out of Grimm.

But as we walked down the ward, seeing Uncle Jim sitting up in bed - in that moment I knew exactly what is meant by The will to live.

A happy memory, after all.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Breast feeding (2)

Back in the late 60s I read, in the course of duty, an FAO pamphlet about breast feeding. True to its time, it focussed on Less Developed Countries, where poor water supply, or incomes insufficient for the purchase of formula or evaporated milk, or outright famine, made bottle feeding an impossibility

One of the extraordinary - to me - sections dealt with the role of grandmothers. Apparently, suckling can re-establish the milk supply of any woman who has borne a child, no matter how many years ago

If this is true, it would offer one solution to the problem of how todays women can combine early return to work with the Governments advice on feeding

Friday, May 25, 2007

Media studies

The Times ran an obituary this week with the headline

Professor Philip Collins: Genial English scholar who helped to make the novels of Charles Dickens a respectable field of study

Bet theyre not being nearly as complimentary on their news & comment pages towards whovever it is today who is performing the same service for Coronation Street

Woe is me, man!

When I was about 9 years old I was to accompany my mother to a meeting in the local Town Hall. Cant remember what it was about now. Think it was probably organised by the Townswomens Guild

When she was telling me about it, my mother said And the Chairman will be Mrs _

But shes a lady said I

Chairman is just a name for someone in charge of a meeting, & theres no reason a woman cant do it just as well as a man

Perhaps that is why I have never had the least trouble with the word Chairman. Feel no woe about it

It is my talisman

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Breast feeding

I am extremely glad that the breast feeding fascists are once again clamouring for the 'right' to breast feed in public

Because I cant imagine a better way to send women rushing for the bottle - of formula of course, tho, who knows, maybe the chardonnay too

The idea that one might be expected - even forced - to breast feed in public is guaranteed to turn most people off

Theres no law against it anyway. What they are asking for is a law against my right to object

I have seen many women feeding - with perfect discretion - & probably failed to even notice lots of others. If someone is being very obvious about it theyre just an exhibitionist

And anyway, just where is the evidence that breast is best? Still less that it is a good idea to do it exclusively for 6 months

It cannot possibly exist

It can only, at best, be based on the same sort of small, limited, short term studies which led many to conclude that HRT was good for all post menopausal women

Where are the large samples? The long term longitudinal studies proving that life long benefits are conferred. Suitably controlled for social class etc etc etc

Still less, where are the studies of the benefits conferred by all members of the family being able to join in the joyous experience of feeding a baby - yes, even from a bottle?

I could go on, but thats enough

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


If HIPS are to be compulsory only for houses with 4+ bedrooms, are we going to see a sudden increase in the number of 3-bedroomed houses with study, sewing room, dressing room, play room, rumpus room, home office, box room ...............?

Well, if I plus 1 zillion others (including Iain Duncan-Smith) can spot that snag, how on earth can Government ministers put themselves in such an embarrassing position?

What really concerns me about all this is that, at least in this final stage, it is women ministers involved. And women who have been touted as New Labours brightest intellectual stars, mothers several times over, supreme examples of having it all. R4 could only find Polly Toynbee to come to their aid

Even if you think they have somehow been stitched up, hung out to dry, why were they apparently powerless to stop it?

I think I know where Im going with this, & I dont like it

It is ironic that at the same time the press & airwaves are full of HOUSING CRISIS. Why dont we have enough social housing? Why were Right to Buy receipts not used to build more?
The answer - Housing Investment Programmes

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Non-standard deviation

I am not a person who admits to mistakes. The word mistake is not in my vocabulary

No? Then what do you call it?

Deviation. Truth is constant, Chuck. It is only the observation of the truth which is variable. The magnitude of error depends on the difference between the underlying truth & the faithfulness of observation. And so error can only be defined as deviation, not mistake

B***s***, Chuck said, & the other men around the table laughed

Precisely, the deaf man said, laughing along with them. B***s***. Error is simply the amount of b***s*** attached to any true observation

Ed McBain: The Heckler

Monday, May 21, 2007

I love McDonalds

Well 'love' may be a bit strong for this - my heart does not lift when I see the golden arch. Though isnt it interesting that small children get excited by it?

This country is remarkably short of places where anyone can go & feel comfortable on their own. Not an object of curiosity or interest to other customers. Able to get something to eat & drink in clean, safe surroundings. A place to sit down for a bit, especially when its wet, cold or windy outside. From early morning to late at night

And no, its not just sad Billy No Mates. Its busy people, travelling away from home or office

Predictable. (Important when youre in a strange town)

And a very good cup of tea

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Dylan at Budokan

Im not a Dylan devotee

But as a child of the Sixties, how could I not hold Like a Rolling Stone in a special place in my heart & memory?

I have been to only 2 pop concerts, or whatever term it is the young people use nowadays. The second was Picnic at Blackbush. A sad disappointment

And just to prove that Im not a purist, my favourite Dylan album is Budokan. I love those rock-y tracks

Favourite track of all - Is your love in vain

Saturday, May 19, 2007

I'm going to have a baby?

A wise man once said to me that abortion & the Pill would change womens lives in a way which would be very difficult to cope with

Not because we could avoid unwanted pregnancy. Because we would have to decide when, or whether, to have a baby. Quite separately from deciding whether to have sex or get married

But then of course came a bigger shock for many. A generation brought up to believe that penetration comes with a very high risk of pregnancy, that such myths as not the first time or not if youre standing up were demonstrably untrue, had to grapple with the opposite. And when you started reading up on the causes of infertility, you started to wonder how any of us ever got here at all

You cant decide when to have a baby either - you can only decide when to make the attempt ( or take the risk)

We live in a quantum world. The reproductive process owes more to Einstein than to Newton

Friday, May 18, 2007

Farewell, Tony

I have been trying hard not to give in to the temptation to add another of my twopennorths to the Tony Blair legacy debate. I couldnt resist this little collage

He wanted to be the Prime Minister who reached for the stars - Ann Treneman Times 11 may 2007

He disassociates the unchecked conviction of his actions from their unintended consequences & blames others or circumstances for them
Keith Farman, splendid Letter to The Times 10 May 2007
No explanation of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its general excellence - [unknown] biographer of Philip II of Spain
Such men are dangerous

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Feminism trumps equality

Oxbridge & other universities are coming under stick for supposed selection bias towards children from independent schools. Such schools educate only about 7% of children but account for a much larger proportion of university students

This argument would be particularly boring were it not for the allegation that things used to be better, in that a greater per centage of students in, say, the 1930s, 40s & 50s came from the lower social classes via grammar schools

The interesting point is that, judged in this way, Oxbridge has gone backwards. Does this mean that the elite middle classes have reasserted themselves, or that those who managed to heave themselves up through the class system are particularly unlikely to offer a helping hand to those behind them?

Well maybe. But I offer two thoughts which suggest that it is not so much the selection process as the route to Oxbridge that has changed

The first concerns sex discrimination. For example in the early 1970s concern was regularly expressed that the higher civil service was overwhelmingly male, white, public school & Oxbridge. But it seemed to be changing.

In the early/middle 80s however there were regular headlines which announced '1st woman this' that or the other, particularly in the public services. This was obviously a Good Thing, but I was surprised when I realised that almost all the women promoted were public school/Oxbridge girls - as a grammar school girl myself I believed in the meritocracy & also supported the drive to rid the higher civil service of its earlier elite image. But the drive towards sexual equality hid this backwards slide, & whatever its merits, sexual equality hid the reduction in social class equality

The second important change was the removal of the special status of direct grant grammar schools. Was this a Labour or Conservative initiative? Whoever initiated it, it closed off an important meritocratic route. Manchester Grammar boys are now classified as 'public school' in political or media headlines or Oxbridge entrance statistics, & few, if any, go there without the support of parents who can pay the fees. People like my god-brother or Kenneth Clark (a scholarship boy at Nottingham High School) were deprived of this meritocratic route to advancement, or, if their families made sacrifices to pay the fees, moved from the 'state' to 'independent' category in the statistics of university admissions

Has anyone done an analysis of Oxbridge admissions over time which takes account of these 2 factors as well as the simplistic public school v comprehensive dichotomy?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Birth at night

My daughters birth was exceptional in that she was born at 12.30pm, bang in the middle of lunch. I too was born during daylight hours, at 5.40pm one July Sunday afternoon

Yet most mammalian births happen during the night. Why should this be so?

  1. Birth is rather a nasty thing to watch, so potential spectators have to be shielded from it

  2. The womb is a dark place. The baby cannot cope with the added trauma of being ejected into a world of bright light

  3. Something to do with circadian rhythms which are known to affect hormones

  4. Most babies are 'made' at night (the explanation offered by one of my attending midwives)

Could there be an evolutionary explanation for this? Is there a modern conflict between birth in brightly lit hospital rooms, so necessary to enable the medical attendants to see what is going on & to deal with any problems, & the welfare of the child?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A first or a fail?

Its a fail & it must be a fail if theres nothing on the paper or utter gibberish

If theres something on the paper paraphrasing & embroidering the words of the question, that is a clear pass

If they try to unpick the question to see what its after, thats a Lower Second

If they make a stab at answering it with a lot in it you can understand, thats an Upper Second

And if they make a stab at answering it at considerable length with a lot in it you cant understand, thats almost certainly a First

Professor Smellies briefing to new examiners, quoted by Bernard Crick in My LSE

Nowadays 52% of LSE graduates get a 1 or 2.1, or so I read in The Times. In the 1960s there were some years when no Firsts at all were awarded in some subjects

Monday, May 14, 2007

Exams 2: Ask a simple question

One strand of the arguments about standards & exams involves allegations that the questions are getting easier

You see much less discussion of the kind of answers that are required

One of the few jokes which I can remember is the one about the Oxford philosophy exam

The only question was - Why?

The only person to get a First was the one who answered - Because

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Are exams getting easier?

Its that time of year again

A levels have been with us since the early 1950s

Suppose it had been decided at the beginning to forego the complicated system of exams for a much simpler test

All children would have their height measured on their 18th birthday. Those over 5'8" would 'pass'. This is a guess, but perhaps the 1950 pass rate would have been 5%

If we still used the same test in 2007 there would not be much room for carping about whether standards had slipped or not. Though there would be interesting scope for, & acres of newsprint on, the relative advantage of being measured early or late in the day, the elasticity of tape measures, how precisely to convert from metric .... And accusations of unfair use of growth hormones, hair thickening agents, or ways of increasing the thickness of skin under your childs heels

The children who passed would be those over 5'8" tall, just as in their parents or grandparents generation. Standards would indubitably have risen, because more children would be passing

But we would not be selecting only the tallest 5% of children. If we wanted to do that, we would have to raise the bar, perhaps to 6 feet

Would height be a more or a less arbitrary test than ability to pass exams?

Well this is only a thought experiment, so we dont need to discuss that

But its interesting to note that the biases in the 2 systems would be remarkably similar. The pass group would include relatively more of the following categories:

higher income/social class
educated parents
southern England
All factors which are in turn correlated with private education

Saturday, May 12, 2007

What do you want to be when you grow up?

For much of my early teens I harboured an ambition to be either a famous QC or a forensic pathologist. Ambitions inspired first by disccovering crime fiction & then by numerous biographies of people like Bernard Spilsbury or Marshall Hall

I quickly, though reluctantly, gave up the idea of the law. The prospects of finding anyone who would offer me a pupillage seemed slim, to put it mildly. But even if they did, there was no one who could pay my fees or support me until I actually started to earn money. It is one of the things that intrigues me about Cherie Blair, that only about a decade later she could seriously embark on a career in law. The world had changed a bit

Pathology seemed a real possibility however. Plenty of girls went to medical school. If I worked hard there was a chance I could pass the relevant exams & earn a place myself

There was still the problem that this would mean asking my parents to support me even beyond the 3 years needed for a single bachelor degree. I was lucky that they had instantly said yes when told by my teachers that I showed promise of being able to make it to university. Not all my class mates were so lucky. Boys as well as girls, though boys were not told that there was no point because theyd only get married anyway. I felt pretty confident that they would say yes, if that was what I really wanted, but not at all sure that I could feel comfortable about that kind of sacrifice

There was however one problem which proved insuperable when I really thought it through. I could contemplate, with equanimity the prospect of dissecting - in the interests of science & justice - a corpse. But medical training would rquire - for at least a brief period - having to apply a scalpel to living, albeit anaesthetised, flesh. And that I could not do

When Eleanor Platt QC was called to the Bar 47 years ago there were some chambers that would not even contemplate taking on a woman. The members wives would not like it. She secured a place after a word in someones ear by her uncle, a non-practising barrister & a member of Grays Inn. He was in the golfing society & the Masons - The Times: Law 15 May 2007

Friday, May 11, 2007

Another million

This one just tickled my fancy

1 million seconds = 11 1/2 days

1 billion seconds = 32 years

1 trillion seconds = 32,000 years

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Whats the point?

At grammar school I took to algebra like a duck to water. But I struggled with geometry for a couple of years

Not that I couldnt understand what we were supposed to be doing. But I wasted a lot of time waiting to find out what these, literally mundane, constructions with pencil, ruler, protractor & compass had to do with the magic-sounding world of true points

These, our teacher had mysteriously warned us at the beginning of lesson 1, had no dimension, they literally did not exist

Things got worse when we got to circles. A locus of points we learned. I thought locus meant place.

Now I had always thought of points as circular things, like the dot you make with your pencil. So it had seemed logical to think of a true, dimensionless point as a circular dot shrunk to the point of invisibility. A circle, therefore must be but a single point magnified up, a kind of uber point, a representation of infinity in the opposite direction, the direction of large

But a place of points?

Does that mean like the home of points? Or a collection of points? Say like one of those diagrams they use to test for colour blindness?

Why one should want to mess around with lines which touched only one of them was beyond me

Light dawned eventually round about theorem 63 when I realised that the circles we were dealing with were just the same sort of thing as the triangles & lines we drew. The proofs were just the same ploughing through if this equals this & that equals that, then one thing leads to another

Just another swizz, really

The magic had died

To see the world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour
William Blake

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Practice makes perfect

In truth I often find that the best method of learning, for me, is repeated practice or study of a large number of examples. If I attempt to start from first principles, all too often I start to argue with, not from, the assumptions, spluttering But, but, but

When I was about 7 I somehow acquired a treasure. I think it may have come from my maternal G'ma & may have belonged to my grandfather

It was a fat book with a crumply green rexine-type of cover. Proudly stamped on the spine, in gold letters SCHOOL ARITHMETIC. It was published in 1903. So romantic

It contained page after page of sums or problems to be solved. Mostly these were all too recognisable from my 1950s schoolbooks. The method of multiplying by casting out 9s was new to me though. As was the method of finding square roots - we had tables for that. There was even a method for finding cube roots, though if I remember rightly, it was, at best, approximate

I loved that book

A lad of the brainier kind
Had erogenous zones in the mind
He loved the sensations
Of solving equations
(Of course in the end he went blind)
Hymie Sneak

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Empty space

This is probably just a very silly question, but it is one that keeps bugging me

If I could put something solid - block of wood, lump of stone - inside a sealed vacuum, would it decay?

And if it did crumble eventually to a little pile of dust on the floor what would have happened to the space in which the particles which constitute its mass used to execute their dizzy dance while still being able to maintain the form of the wood or stone?

House prices again

Friends of mine are currently pondering what at first seems a surprising problem

Should they sell one of their properties, or hang on to it so they might be in a position to help their grandchildren on to the property ladder? Their eldest grandchild has only recently begun secondary school, so that problem is unlikely to arise for at least 10 years

A more unlikely pair of property developers you could not expect to meet. But by simply following a very ordinary path they now have assets of well into 7 figures

They had a suburban family home. While they were still very young marrieds they bought, very cheaply, a house in Wales, where they often went to walk in the mountains. It was a run down flint & stone farm house which the owners had left to move into a convenient modern house which had the advantage of mains electricity & no drafts. My friends spent all their family holidays there & gradually improved it

When their children were off their hands they decided that they would like the Welsh house to be their family home, the repository for their furniture & books & accumulated memorabilia. Big enough for the grandchildren to visit

However, dad was still working in the city & such a long commute was not feasible. But it was the very beginning of the fashion for converted flats in the inner city. Rather daringly, they decided to sell their suburban house & sink some money into what was then seen as a risky move

Well, you know the rest. Now dad is formally retired, but still very active in his field, they have reached the stage where they want to simplify their lives & would prefer to divest themselves of the responsibilities of dual home ownership, using hotels for their less frequent visits to the city

But there is really no alternative investment for the proceeds which could keep pace with the kind of house price rises we have come to expect as normal. So what seems like a fortune now might seem pathetically inadequate as a fund for helping grandchildren with house prices in 2020

So, hang on to flat, & (shudder) possibly consider the extra responsibility of becoming landlords as well?

On the other hand, if an almighty housing crash is on the cards for any time soon .....

It might seem like a nice problem to have. But when you get to our age you really do want to simplify things. Another friend recently gave up her car because she woke up one morning & thought I just dont want to be responsible for the damn thing anymore, making sure its taxed, insured, etc etc What was once seen as something which conveyed great freedom had just become a burden


Ben Macintyre wrote a good piece about Guernica last week

It reminded of the real shock I felt when I first looked at a full colour reproduction. Just black & white? Thats not right

The point is that I first saw a black & white photo of it while I was still at school - I think in a BBC schools programme pamphlet. Of course full colour reproduction was rare in those days. We were used to interpreting a purely black & white world. Difficult to transport yourself back to that now, with so much colour all about us

But I was convinced, in my own mind, that there were at least 2 smallish blocks of bright red & yellow in Guernica. They had a powerful effect. Bit like the little girls raincoat in Spielbergs picture I suppose

Monday, May 07, 2007


The other Saturday I was just sitting in the hallway of the library, making sure I had got everything packed in my bag before leaving, when a young lad came out to take a call on his mobile. He cant have been a day over 14. Really. This is not a policemen are getting younger moment

So I am minding my own business when I realise what he has just said. Yes, a friend of mine wants some weed, if I can get hold of some. Ive got a fiver. Then Great, Ill see you this evening then

Then yesterday, walking home about 7pm on a still gloriously sunny day, I pass a couple of twenty somethings sitting on a wall. The young man, who had one of those very carrying voices, was also talking on his mobile. Well I tried [2 local pubs] but neither of them will let me have a tab. Thing is I dont get paid till Monday

What is the world coming to, I ask myself

But then I realised he must have been talking debt, not drugs. To pay for his weekend booze binge, presumably

The thing is, when people know you were a student in the sixties, they know you must have been on drugs. But we werent. Sure, teenage drug taking was becoming a 'problem' - purple hearts, cannabis, LSD on the wilder fringes. But it was those who were in work, had a weekly wage packet, who could afford them. As far as I know, I was never even in the same room with drugs. Certainly nobody ever offered me any

I was once discussing this with someone with the same experience. She had just recently said as much at home

Whereupon daughters boyfriends hand went to his pocket. Oh - do you want some? he said

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Borrow one

I dont have any particular memories of starting to learn arithmetic at school. Except for the rather grownup thing of having to put H T U & then Th H T U at the top of your sums to keep the columns straight

Except for the incomprehensible business of borrowing one in subtraction. It seems extraordinary now. But hey, it worked. Teacher ticked my answers.

I suppose it was the most efficient, if mysterious, method to use in a world mostly without calculators. Extraordinary too, now, to think of all those counting houses full of Bob Cratchits, or all those delicious tomes of mathematical tables produced by armies of human computers

And when were undergraduates first allowed to use calculators in finals? In my day we had to make do with log tables or slide rule

Title credit 1

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Countable infinity

Do you remember the proud childhood boasts: I can count to 10 - Well I can count to 20? How you ached to be able to reach 100? And how proud parents would boast of your feat?

I actually enjoyed lying in my bed at night, silently rehearsing how far I could get. Doing it out loud would have earned a reprimand - You ought to be asleep by now - so Ive never had any faith in counting sheep as a cure for insomnia

Then came the breathtaking moment when I realised I could count as far as I liked. Even if you got to a MILLION all you had to do was start again, one million and ONE, one million and TWO ...

And if I got even further, & didnt know the name for the next number, I COULD JUST MAKE ONE UP


Then the anticlimax. Was that what all the fuss was about?

What a swizz

Friday, May 04, 2007

Cant count

When I was pre-school age the official educational line was that parents should not attempt to teach their children the three Rs before they started school at 5 - the poor little things might be confused if the teacher used different methods

I did have a notebook & a pencil however in which I liked to do my 'writing' - imitating the weekly letter-writing rituals of the grown ups

One day my mother saw that there were recognisable numerals among the random scrawls. When she asked me who had taught me to do that, I replied that I had copied them from the clock

Or so she used to like to tell me

Thursday, May 03, 2007

One of lifes mysteries

Does anybody know when & why we started to build railway stations with platforms? The first railway station, at Liverpool Rd, Manchester, did not have one

During one of the more recent bouts of Why are our railways so awful? debates I heard an expert explain that one problem was the lack of train stations in the right places to suit modern patterns of settlement & commuting

So - build some? Problem is, the inordinate expense of providing them with platforms

So, why do we have them? They never appear in those old westerns, do they? And I dont think they have them in Belgium - its certainly a long way to jump down

It remained just one of lifes minor mysteries until I unwisely mentioned it in class & was given it as that weeks assignment

No luck - though I did find a picture of the original Liverpool Rd station. No platform

And later came across a complaint about them in one of Edward Herfords diatribes. He thought they were unsafe, especially for the ladies, but did not explain why

There must be several thousands of books published about railways. And a fair number devoted specifically to railway stations. I have checked the index or riffled through a few, but have never been able to find the answer. I did find out which was purported to be the worlds longest platform, but Im afraid Ive forgotten its name

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Bread & circuses Part 1

Strikes used to distress me because of the poverty of their aspirations. I am talking about 60s & 70s Britain when it seemed that a great deal of inconvenience, aggravation & even suffering could be caused for the sake of 6d. I always preferred the Italian idea, that bus drivers should strike by simply refusing to collect fares. And I never understood what a strike could do to 'save' jobs

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

We study health

We study health and we deliberate upon our meats and drink and air and exercises, and we hew and we polish every stone that goes to that building, and so our health is a long and regular work.

I was astonished when I first read those words. I had naievely thought that lifestyle was only a modern medical preoccupation

They come from Donnes Devotions. I had been looking for a copy since discovering in the late 60s that the 2 Donne quotes which everybody knows - the ones about tolling bells & islands, do not come from any of his poems. Not all that easy to find, without access to an academic library, until finally Penguin Classics came to the rescue

But in a minute a cannon batters all, overthrows all, demolishes all; a sickness unprevented for all our diligence, unsuspected for all our curiosity, nay undeserved if we consider only disorder, summons us, seizes us, possesses us, destroys us in an instant

I think it would be a very good idea if the wisdom he goes on to express, in such beautiful language, formed a compulsory part of the curriculum of every medical school. He has such insight into the fears of both doctors and patients

The end of the world as I knew it

When I was in my O level year I thought I had worked out how the end of the world would arrive

My attitude towards religion had, until then, been a thoroughly emotional one, based on a strong attachment to the language & rituals of Christianity, the music of the organ & the singing of hymns

This was beginning to change into something more questioning. Helped by a BBC schools programme which tackled the thornier issues, such as the problem of pain

It was also the time which Harold Wilson later characterised as the white hot heat of the technological revolution. The men in white coats were really on the verge of solving all the problems of the world

But that, I thought, would mean omniscience, & only God could be omniscient

I also knew that science proceeded step by tiny step, each experiment adding one more fragment to the sum total of human knowledge

So omniscience would arrive when a scientist somewhere in his lonely lab completed the experiment which added the final piece, & 'we' would finally know it all

And in that instant, before the scientist could even say eureka, we would just be subsumed into God. 'We' would no longer exist

The beauty of this idea is that we would be completely unaware of the end. I found that an oddly comforting conclusion

Now, I read in the tv listings, the Large Hadron Collider may be about to achieve just that end

Fortunately its a 50 million to 1 chance. I wonder if these scientists can also calculate the probability that the sun will rise tomorrow?

Same but different

Many white people find it startling, & difficult to accept, that in countries where people do not see many whites in their day to day lives, 'we' all look the same

But we do, we do

Though I admit to being surprised the first time it happened to me

Because she was short, dumpy & wore her fair hair up in a bun. I was a long haired brunette beanpole

I also felt seriously offended

Because she was 30 if she was a day, & I was only 21

Word search

When I was writing about mid-C20th women recently (Dont be a bluestocking) I wanted a word for love of marriage - the equivalent of philoprogenitive

There doesnt seem to be one

So I thought Id invent one. Toyed with the idea of philohymenal but it sounds a bit disgusting, certainly not euphonious. Philothalamic (homage to Donne) would be impossible

I like philogamous. It sounds quite cosy

Somebody beat me to it, though its not in the OED:

A PHILOGAMOUS FELLOW [Pseudonym] The pros and cons of the celibate system in the universities. Cambridge, Henry W. Wallis, 1871.

Sounds like a good read


Making eyes

You know how young(ish) mens eyes will always swivel towards a pretty girl walking along the street? How, if hes with a mate who might not have noticed, theres a surreptitious nudge with the elbow & a silent Cor! Look at that!

Provided its not accompanied by catcalls, wolf whistles or crude comments, I see no earthly point in objecting to such behaviour, still less berating them for it. Its rather sweet, really. And anyway, they grow out of it. Eventually

I have even more sympathy now. Since I reached a certain age I find that my eyes swivel too. Only in this case its towards babies & small children

With all the paranoia about paedophiles, I felt nervous in case people might notice. Tried to pass by with my eyes fixed firmly ahead

But its actually much nicer if you catch the parents eye, exchange a silent What a lovely child!

And its even nicer still if you smile

I expect the evolutionary psychologists have a plausible explanation of the survival advantages conveyed by these behaviours on our ancestral hunter gatherers as they roamed the plains

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