Friday, September 30, 2011

Overheard on the bus

A young man got on as we reached the outskirts of town, spotted a friend whom he had not seen for a while.

So they exchanged news of what they had been up to.

Next thing, I was dancing naked in Wythenshawe …

… But I’m doing all right now.

It is tempting to leave it at that, except I feel dutybound to report that it really was a touching but optimistic exchange of stories about their struggles to get themselves established in the world of work.

Soap wars

I recently wrote about the success of a Sainsbury’s bargain offer on soap powder. I now notice from the papers that there seems to be quite a cost- of-washing war going on between the supermarkets – even Waitrose are in on it, with eye-catching ads for branded laundry products at discounts of between 30% and 50%.

I can take a rather objective line on this since my attitude towards such products varies between bewilderment & impatience bordering on contempt. In my old fashioned opinion best results are obtained from proper sorting, by fabric as well as colour, minimum amount of a standard ‘soap’ & PROPER RINSING. If you can hang things on an outside line to dry, so much the better.

The prices also seem, even when discounted, to be verging on the extortionate, though when you work it out I suppose 25p per wash is not so bad, unless you still have a voice inside which tells you THAT’S FIVE SHILLINGS.

But is it really 25p per wash – how can you check?

In very small print at the bottom of the Waitrose ads can be found information about the (discounted) price per kilogram of each product, which ranges from £1.33 to £6.70 – oh, hang on a minute, some of these are prices per litre; does a litre of gel weigh more or less than a kilogram of powder? Are conversion tables available?

How is the rational economic woman to make a rational decision? Would game theory help?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sometimes I'd like to be young again

A picture of a very pretty dress from the new Prada ready-to-wear collection (#25 on the Vogue website) caught my eye – unusually because I haven’t often found Prada pretty, or even desirable, in the past.

Off-white with pale blue hem with tadpole/teardrop or flame pattern in subtle orange round the lower skirt. Bracelet length sleeves, bodice subtly gathered to the slightly squared-off plain high neck, shirred midriff, made out of what looks like chiffon.

Deceptively demure.

Looks simple – but not at all easy to make – will it be possible to reproduce for the cheaper end of the High Street? Answer, YES of course, in some form.

The fashion writers say there is a 50s influence to this collection – but very definitely 60s too, especially in those teardrops.

Keeping on the right side of the law

The Times was just one of many media outlets which reported the outrageous case of the teenager who sent to jail for two months only two hours after committing the heinous offence of taking a picture of his mate on his mobile.

The judge, who was presiding over the court in which this offence took place & where the mate was on trial, had obviously overreacted.

Worse, the teenager did not even get a chance to go back to his flat & make arrangements for someone to look after his new puppy.

And, as The Times photo which illustrated the article made helpfully clear, the judge was a) a woman and b) black, so it’s not just middle aged middle class white public school men who are fuddy duddy enough not to understand that using your mobile to take a picture is just what teenagers do these days - something to be applauded when they do it to defy & expose oppressive authority in countries with really tyrannical regimes.

Well, thanks to The Magistrate’s Blog giving me a steer to a piece by David Allen Green of the New Statesman, I now know that there was more to it than that. The teenager had been being disruptive throughout the proceedings.

He had even taken a photo of the victim of the crime, something the media, on another day, might have decided was the real story here.

We are used to this kind of thing from the media: the man who was given a massive fine just for disposing of his junk mail in a street litter bin? The junk mail was what allowed the authorities to trace who had been stuffing the litter bin with black plastic binbags full of miscellaneous & smelly household waste.

The Times however rather prides itself on its coverage of the law, with a respected series of Law Reports & a weekly special supplement. In this case not only did they fall for the tabloid interpretation of the case, they even, (according to David Allen Green) got their legal facts wrong.

Perhaps today’s Law supplement will put matters right.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Seasonal shopping

Yesterday brought weather so sunny & warm I thought it a good idea to go & buy a new winter fleece – if I wait till it starts to get cold the shops will have only spring clothes on offer.

One would have thought that the relentless fashion cycle would have gone the way of other old fashioned retail practices, but it seems not.

Quite a long number of years ago I found myself in need of a new swimsuit in January; I was bemoaning the fact that the only ones available were in the expensive Cruisewear sections of the upmarket department stores, when a colleague suggested that I try asking in Marks & Spencer: ‘They’ll probably have some from last summer in the stock room which they are waiting to bring out again.’ And so it proved.

In these days of just in time stockrooms stay on on the move. Instead of occupying chunks of high-priced space on high street or in shopping centre they cruise the high seas or the motorways, the goods coming to rest for the shortest possible time in vast hangar like distribution centres on less expensive real estate. And if they are not sold quickly enough then they are on the move again – turned into rags to go round the circle again or dispatched to the vast Third World or Eastern European jumble sale.

Let us hope that the effect of economic hard times will not be to reduce the velocity of circulation of goods without bringing back the stockroom, or the effect will be that if you choose the wrong day or time to go shopping – well tough, you’ll just have to go without.

Still Ireland & the Queen

We continue to hear comment & reminiscence about the significance of the Queen’s recent visit to Ireland.

Prince William is quoted as having said in an interview with Robert Hardman for his new book Our Queen that ‘She was so excited about it & was really looking forward to it. It was quite sweet … this was like a big door opening up to her that had been locked for so long.’

And on Desert Island Discs veteran Royal photographer for The Sun, Arthur Edwards, settled on Danny Boy as his final selection, partly for intensely personal reasons but also because, he said, he had never seen the Queen so moved as by the joint performance of the song by childrens choirs from north & south of the Border.

Her Majesty’s enduring sense of Royal protocol & propriety was illustrated by another anecdote from that same Prince William interview, which told how his grandmother had made it plain that he had no choice over which uniform he should wear at The Wedding; that was dictated by his Royal role as Colonel of the Irish Guards

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Teenage Palaeontology

“In palaeontology there is a period known as the ‘boring billion’ during which not a lot happened

Now there’s a sentence for you. It comes from Tom Whipple’s review of Richard Fortey’s book Survivors which is about organisms (such as cockroaches) that have mysteriously survived the eons without either evolving or becoming extinct.

Sounds a lot more restful than our age of roller coaster billions & trillions, forms of money & credit & financial instruments that appear & disappear in units of time no human can comprehend & yet have a terrifying ability to turn into monsters which destroy whole areas of life as we knew it only a few short years ago.

Mind you, I expect that there really was an awful lot going on even during those boring billions, if only we could look at them in the right way & from the proper perspective. In that respect palaeontologists are like teenagers, so wrapped up in their own concerns that the wonderful world of their parents is simply oh so b-o-r-i-n-g.

Moaning about the weather

Friday’s promise was followed by a rather cruel let down on Saturday – dark skies, stiff breeze &, from mid afternoon, constant drizzle. The one & only jumper I was wearing wasn’t enough & shopping became an unlooked for disappointment as I needed to rush past any chilled cabinets ASAP.

On the bright side it is going to be easier than it has been for some years to find attractive new winter clothes: colours are far more to my taste & everybody seems to want to be more covered up – V-neck fronts, bracelet length sleeves, tops that don’t even cover your midriff, let alone kidneys - all gone in favour of longer lengths & higher necks. Bliss.

And there is a very distinct return to acrylic in place of wool. Perhaps it is just price, perhaps fashion gurus have had second thoughts about the green credentials of wool – but we are now spoilt for choice when it comes to lightweight but warm jumpers in colours which can be mixed & matched in as many layers as you need.

The Times carried an, in parts, rather odd article about the health problems which come with autumn (your hair might fall out because it grew thicker in the summer?), but I fell on the contribution from a rheumatologist who talked about all-over joint aches which may be a particular trial for Raynaud sufferers – I had not heard that before, thought it affected just hands & feet (plus ear lobes & nose tips for a few real unfortunates), & that it was just old age that made it such a relief to get home & replace clothes which now seem heavy or stiff with a soft warm dressing gown which places no burden on shoulder & other joints – that is why light weight, anything-but stiff acrylic is such a boon, one which does not need the care demanded by cashmere, mohair or angora.

What a selfish, least pain in my little finger moan about not very much – even our weather would be welcomed by those in Pakistan or Japan right now. Tokyo suffered another big disruption from a typhoon last week, as if they have not had enough this year. But there was very little space for this in the press when the world seems so terribly upside down in so many ways.

I shall however try to get more ginger in my cooking because, according to the Times rheumatologist, that may help relieve the joints.

There is probably no proper 'evidence' for this, but then 'proper' medicine is silent on both the cause & the cure for Raynauds.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Credit where credit is due

Although would-be homeowners, small & medium enterprises, even some governments, are finding it difficult to coax anyone into lending them money at any price right now, any big business deemed sufficiently creditworthy continues to find it easy to persuade investors to buy their bonds, according to Ian King, Business Editor of The Times.

In Britain one of those companies is Imperial Tobacco, whose recent request for £½ billion in the form of a 15-year bond ‘could have raised that sum five times over.’

So thanks to those selfless people who keep the economy going while simultaneously helping to solve the pension problem.

Three cheers for smokers.

Einstein & football

Saturday’s offering by Peter Brookes, political cartoonist to the Times-reading classes, showed David-Cameron-as-Einstein, wild of hair, tieless & wearing a v-neck pullover in Lib Dem yellow adorned by a badge proclaiming E=mc3, finger wagging as he proclaims that Our ‘Plan A’ Theory Is Total Genius!

Behind him is a blackboard covered with mathematical squiggles. Careful inspection reveals some disguised daydreams.
QPR 4 Chelsea 0
QPR 6 Villa 0
Arsenal 1 QPR 5
QPR 3 Man U 1
QPR 2 Mega 0

Is Peter Brookes a secret fan of the club which is newly promoted to the Premier League or this is just another way of telling Cameron to Dream On?

My best friend at school was guaranteed a mark of at least 3% in geometry exams, so long as she spelled her name correctly, put the right date at the top of the paper & wrote her answers neatly.

Her most bitter complaint about the unfairness of it all was that, although she learned the theorems off by heart & could cope with the teacher trying to catch her out by labelling ∆ABC as ∆PQR, they would then fight dirty by rotating the triangle in question, turning it upside down, or changing the ordering of the letters to make it ∆QPR.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Emily Dickinson & Leonard Cohen have a lot in common - poetry to lift you when you are down


Hope is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I've heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of Me.

Emily Dickinson

Family planning, maiden aunts & Hoovers

In an interesting article Mark Easton discusses the mystery of the Golden Cohort - British people born between the years 1925 and 1934 who have experienced unprecedented & unfollowed improvements in health & longevity.

The latest edition of Population Trends from the Office for National Statistics contains an article based on an analysis of the 1% Longitudinal Study which attempts to untangle the reasons for this but is unable to come to any very definite conclusion. The authors conclude that “there is some element of social change and experience that assisted the generations born around 1930 to show slightly greater improvements than preceding or successive generations” & suggests that future researchers may wish to look, for example, at changes in population composition.

The Thirties of course saw the so-called ‘Parents strike’, when family planning began to be respectable & more readily available & when the fall in birth rates became an increasing focus of policy concern, which in turn led to the passing of the 1938 Population Statistics Act & the appointment of the Royal Commission on Population, which finally managed to report in 1948. Eugenecists were concerned about the lack of population growth particularly among the educated classes, but on the plus side were smaller families.

The point is illustrated by my own family history. All four of my grandparents, born as the C19th moved into the C20th, came from very large families (average about 10 children), but produced only 6 of their own in total.

And how many of this golden generation were cherished only children?

Many households were still able to employ some kind of paid household help, though living-in servants were becoming a rarity; the number & type of labour saving devices was multiplying, these of course made possible by the rapid spread of household electricity – the National Grid & the Central Electricity Generating Board were both established by an Act of 1926 – which must have done much to improve the health & hygiene of these golden children.

This generation may also be the first which was born to grandparents & parents who were virtually 100% educated at least to elementary level & literate, able to have access to plenty of information in newspapers & magazines on nutrition & childcare. The then new BBC national radio service probably played its part in this.

It was also the great era of suburban expansion, providing homes with gardens & healthier environments.

Although we tend to remember the 1930s as the time of the Great Depression many people did well out of the increasing opportunities for education & office jobs with the greater availability of Grammar School scholarships. It was also just a kinder era in many ways, with the beginning of unemployment pay & welfare (despite the dreaded means test). After the conscription of WWI everybody knew that all classes/families had suffered. Now that income inequality is rising again, it would be of particular interest to look at what happened to equality as these children were growing up.

One might also wonder about the contribution to child care that was made by the army of spinsters – whether informally, as maiden aunts, or formally by growing numbers of women employed in teaching, nursing & other caring professions.

The only blip in the story of the golden generation is the bump in mortality which is attributed to the smoking epidemic, but it is worth remembering that the 1930s were marked by lower consumption of alcohol per head, which could mean that the parents of these children had more income to spare on feeding & clothing them.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Patchy rain

In a Weather Eye column last week Paul Simons once again referred to the change in the pattern of rainfall which has become increasingly common worldwide – a trend to shorter but much more intense downbursts. This new phenomenon has been partially responsible for the floods & misery caused by this year's monsoons on the Indian sub-continent.

In this part of northern Europe the downpours also tend to be geographically very concentrated too – it is now common to pass from rain to dry to heavy rain to dry … on the bus ride home, or to stand under a patch of sunlit sky & watch the black clouds burst less than a mile away. And yet we are often told that the total amount of rain which falls each year has not increased in tandem, but remains pretty much as average.

Some may wish to blame this on climate change or natural fluctuation but I have started to wonder if it might be an unexpected consequence of actions taken by humans which have undoubtedly had hugely beneficial effects.

Initiatives such as the Clean Air Act were aimed at getting rid of dark & dirty smog, but we seem also to have greatly reduced the occurrence of fog (& its companion, motorway madness).

Could the huge amounts of particulates (& sulphur) spread into the atmosphere by the burning of wood & coal somehow have spread the moisture around more evenly - in the same way that a sheet of thin tissue paper will spread a blob of water on the kitchen counter without being able to hold on to it if you pick it up? Now that those particulates have gone, , together with the more recent removal of the nastier elements of the exhaust of motor vehicles, the amount of water held by any given cubic meter of air may be much more variable depending on local factors such as topology, updrafts & downdrafts.

But then if we properly understood when, where & how it rains we would have long ago been awash with successful rainmakers.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Fingers crossed

Today’s equinox has brought glorious weather – warm & gently sunny with no breeze to speak of. This mornings forecast on local radio held out the prospect that it might continue much the same over the weekend.

I wonder if we shall make it through to the shortest day this year without ice & snow.

We can but hope, but one of Sunday’s jobs will have to be checking the supplies of candles, hot water bottles & canned food, just in case. The county is reported to be chopping the snow clearing budget by £2million this year.


I do so hope that the idea that some things really can go faster than the speed of light is true.

It will just make everything so interesting – not least hearing scientists struggling to take it on board & defend their craft against those who say ‘Well, if you were wrong about that why should we believe anything you say?’

Dangerous too, of course. We have enough political & economic problems right now that are caused, in part at least, by lack of, or loss of, confidence in experts.

I remember Melvyn Bragg suddenly asking his physicist guests, right at the end of one of his In Our Time programmes, to suppose that the ‘nothing can go faster’ claim turned out to be untrue. As the programme faded I distinctly heard Jocelyn Burnell say that communication between twins at a distance could be one real possibility.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A rural war

One of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in the world happened one Monday morning in November 1944, killing more than 70 people & 200 cows.

It was the result, not of an enemy attack or stray German bomb dropped on rural England, but the accidental detonation of 4,000 tons of high explosives stored in an abandoned alabaster mine in Staffordshire.

So that is the second war time disaster which took place in the neighbouring county of which I had never heard, until I read about it over half a century later, in this case in Matthew Parris’s column in The Times.

There is a good reason for this – the whole thing was hushed up until 1974 when an inquiry blamed negligent work methods.

At the time they perhaps thought it just bad luck, the kind of thing that sadly happens when the country is at war. Perhaps the officer in charge was judged to have done a fine job, keeping his head & coping with the aftermath.

At least he got his OBE in due course

Betting on the funds

Anyone who heard Michael Robinson’s File on 4 programme on 10 July could not help but feel fearful about what the investment banks might be letting us in for with their complex, synthetic ETF’s (Exchange Traded Funds).

To quote from his article on the BBC website:
So how profitable are synthetic ETFs for the investment banks promoting them?

Unfortunately, because of the complexity and opacity of investment banking, that is not a question an outsider can answer
Now, with the arrest of Kweki Adoboli, one must wonder if the insiders are or were in any better position to give an honest answer to the question.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Frederick Hibbert

Another example of how, once you notice something, suddenly it is everywhere.

Or, in this case, he.

I speak of Frederick Hibbert, of Monkey Man fame. I wrote about him recently, claiming that I had only recently come to hear of him.

Then I noticed a name check for him in a recent Times interview with one of our pensioner rock gods – identified as a great voice, still going strong.

I found lots of his tracks on Last FM, & so finally, he has become for me an instantly recognisable voice.

Then I noticed that he would be appearing as an interviewee on Johnnie Walker’s Sounds of the 70s on Radio 2 last Sunday afternoon. It was an oddly uncertain encounter, sounding as if most had ended on the cutting room floor. Walker struggled to understand his accent & intonation, & I guess most of the audience would too; he was also uncomfortable about Hibbert's implied criticism of Chris Blackwell for not doing much for him, in contrast to all the money & promotion put behind Bob Marley.

I was also surprised to hear that Monkey Man was a world-wide hit in 1970 or ’71; I wasn’t living in England then, but I was travelling to many countries & I never heard it being played on local radio stations - I had spent all these years believing that hardly anybody I knew in England had ever heard the song.

One thing leads to another

I usually enjoy the finding of unexpected causal chains which link between something which was universally recognised as a Good Thing & an outcome which is definitely unwelcome, thus demonstrating once more the existence of The Law of Unintended Consequences.

I think however that Robert Lea was stretching things in his Times Business column on Saturday when he blamed train delays in Britain on the decision to award the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing.

Yes, the Olympics gave an extra boost to the Chinese economy, but not anything like enough to be the sole cause of the inflation in world metal prices which is in turn stimulating gangs of thieves to go round Britain stripping metals from here, there & everywhere.

And it is surely pushing things to say that the Chinese economy has grown only because of that fateful award in 2001.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Shome joke

This may be an old joke to some, but it was new to me when it featured in Times Crossword #24955

A companion for Hinglish, Franglish etc

: The language of drinkers.

Tea drinking, pinkies & bells

Sunday afternoon tidying up, came across a copy of Times 2 for December 2010 which had escaped recycling.

An interesting article by Heston Blumenthal on how ‘our linguistic heritage is testament to how central food is to existence’, how our language is peppered with things which derive from cuisine, & how food terminology has crept into our language as an indicator of class in words such as upper crust.

Of which he found plenty of examples to quote without even needing to mention one linguistic fact that we all learned in primary school history – that we use French words for meat but Anglo Saxon words for animals because the poor serfs & villeins never got to eat the meat from the animals they tended for the cruel Norman overlords.

I was more sceptical of his claim for the origin of the much-mocked Hyacinth Bucket habit of raising your little finger on the hand which holds the china cup from which you drink your tea – supposedly a hangover from the Tudor custom of using your little finger in place of the yet-to-be-invented table fork. Obviously this then had to be kept well clear to avoid spreading gravy all over your hand & clothes.

My own inverted-snob attitude to this habit was transformed instantly one evening about twenty years ago during a visit to the Loughborough bell foundry.

Apart from a sort of overhead crane which had been installed to hoist the bells, the technology & working conditions seemed virtually unchanged from Victorian times. The metal for the bells was melted in a huge vat which then had to be diligently stirred, by hand, using an implement which reminded me of a posser. We were told that a new apprentice would be put to this task without being told of the importance of raising you’re your little finger on the dominant hand; the result, one very tired & aching arm, in fact it was impossible to keep going for the required amount of time.

Try it for yourself – raise & lower your arm rapidly with all your fingers curled round an imaginary pole handle, then just experience the relief of doing it with your little finger stuck out.

I thought of all my female forebears toiling with the washing in the dolly tub – of course they learned to stick their little finger out.

And, when drinking tea on Sunday from the precious best china tea set – of course they raised their little finger – the handles were often pretty small anyway, maybe room for only one finger, making it all too easy to let slip, especially if your arm got overtired while lifting it.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Getting rid of the scum

Soap consists of the sodium salts of fatty acids derived from naturally occurring fats & oils. These react with calcium ions present in hard water to precipitate out. This solid, combined with the emulsified dirt, forms the familiar ‘scum’.

Gels are synthetic detergents made from the sodium salts of sulfates or benzene sulfonates, which in turn are derived from petroleum products. They have the advantage that their calcium salts are soluble, & thus do not lead to scum production.

I am sure it would be possible to synthesise a sulfonate product that has the consistency of soap but without the scum-forming properties …
But would manufacturers want to market such a product, given the attractiveness (to them) of their gels & shampoos that so quickly end up down the shower drain?
That elegantly succinct explanation was delivered in a letter to the editor of The Times from Professor Alan Swanwick of Dronsfield, Derbyshire in response to a moan about shower gels by Matthew Parris in his column of 8 September.

And it brought back so many memories for one who is old enough to remember the days before 1954 when synthetic detergents did not figure in our world.

That was also a world where, if you were lucky enough to live in the right part of the country, soft water came out of the household taps. Soap made suds, calcium salts did not precipitate out & the emulsified dirt & flakes of skin did not combine with them to form repulsive quantities of scum but floated off down the drain with the foamy bubbles.

You did however need to use very hot water & elbow grease to make sure that all the non-metaphorical grease was removed from the washing up. And hair was rarely truly gleaming because soap-based shampoos, combined with water that was a lot cooler than that used for washing saucepans & dishes, failed to remove all the natural oils from the surface of the hair.

The difference was really borne in on us when we left the soft north for a holiday in London in the 1950s, staying in Earls Court, where just washing your hands or cleaning your teeth were upsetting because of the scum. What made matters even worse was that both little sister & I caught nits, & so had to endure all the washing & tooth combing necessary for their eradication.

Hair washing & dish washing were the first jobs for which detergents were welcomed into our house – soap powder, in the guise of Persil, was still firmly superior for clothes washing, judged by the whiteness & softness of the result, in the opinion of decent housewives such as my grandmother.

Varieties of jewel-coloured, perfumed shampoo came from Woolworths in small plastic sachets, less than 2” square, from which you had to snip off the corner. In theory each sachet contained enough for one washing, but if you were economical you could make it last for two, as long as the sachet was stored carefully upright. That is four applications of shampoo, one to wash the scalp, then rinse & reapply shampoo this time concentrating on the hair. At first that meant using some your pocket money for this luxury only once a fortnight, since hair washing night (like bath night) came round only once a week. If you did not want to use your pocket money you could revert to the old fashioned soap based family shampoo provided by the housekeeping, which smelled terrible. No contest for a teenage girl.

You could also, if you wished, emulate a film star & have bubble baths, but most of us preferred, except of course for very special dances & dates, to rely on more economical old fashioned bath salts - a staple for birthday & Christmas presents - which provided merely perfumed water.

Later, life as a London student, & shared bathrooms meant that the pleasure of a relaxing bath was marred by the need to clean the bath properly – with scouring powder – when you were done, to remove the disgusting grey tide mark. And I learned that the melanin in dark skins was present even in the surface layer, which has the effect of making the tide mark the shade of pale cocoa, rather than the grey of 'white' skin.

Black skins are particularly prone to drying out in cold northern climes, which meant that skin was more easily shedded in the bath & even men had to use moisturisers (usually Johnson’s baby products). One of those facts of life which, I was both saddened & touched to hear years later, in a programme on Channel 4, was yet another cause of not always friendly ribbing in the dressing room for pioneering black footballers in the 1970s.

Almost fifty years later & the affluent bathroom is well supplied with sulfonate products which largely do away with these problems.

Which is just as well really, since it is a rare public water supply which, in this country, provides water soft enough to obviate scum.

Soft water, once such a source of pride – & which gave us the cotton industry - is now seen as a problem for human health &, in its extreme form as acid rain, a threat to the very planet.

There was a respectable theory that soft water was implicated in heart disease, particularly among men; natural soft water is most likely to be found in those areas which take their supply from upland rainwater sources – especially the gritstone & granite moorlands & hills of Wales, northern England & Scotland – as opposed to the underground aquifers of the chalkier south.

Despite the fact that drinking even mildly acidic liquids from vessels made of lead could cause poisoning was known from Roman times - & is attributed by some as the cause of the Fall of the Roman Empire – lead was commonly used to provide the pipework for the modern water supplies which, otherwise, did so much to improve the health & longevity of the population. In Glasgow, where there was particular pride in the soft pure water of Loch Katrine & the renowned quality of their engineering, citizens were proud of their real Rolls-Royce of a system which carried water from the Loch along a lead-lined aqueduct, to be stored in lead tanks in the roof from which it could be fed by gravity to the tenement flats below.

It was believed that concentrations of lead dissolved in the water would be extremely unlikely ever to rise to the level which could cause frank poisoning, & that any risk could be avoided by advising consumers in soft water areas always to run some of the water off whenever, for example first thing in the morning, it had been standing in the pipes for any length of time.

Water providers were under a statutory obligation to ensure that they supplied water which was safe for human consumption. From around 1950, as alternatives to lead for piping became more widely & easily available, the use of lead pipes for domestic plumbing was banned, though there was no concerted attempt to enforce the removal of lead pipes from all existing homes.

By the 1970s however concerns about environmental lead poisoning were rising – not least because of the increased emissions of lead from petrol - & European & WHO standards for the maximum permissible concentrations of lead in drinking water were being tightened; worry now focused particularly on the effect that levels of lead previously considered ‘low’ could have on children.

The near universal use of of sulfanate products for all household & personal washing helped to make it acceptable for all domestic water supplies to be treated with enough calcium or other ions to reduce the acidity of water & minimse its ability to dissolve lead from the plumbing system, without provoking widespread protest about scum.

Now in place of scum we can worry about limescale instead. Not to worry, there are manufacturers ready willing & able to provide you with a product to deal with that too. Result all round.

Personally I prefer to rely on lemon or lime juice.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Skipping through life

In a sad sign of the relentless upwards presure on house prices skips are becoming a common sight in the village these days as the middle classes move in to what used to be houses for the workers.

They always employ builders to carry out the necessary repairs, renovations & improvements & have no use for the old stuff themselves, even as scrap.

Until recently hard working young couples would, with the help of friends & family, work hard at evenings & weekends to do the houses up, making a useful capital gain to put towards the eventual move to a larger house with a proper garden for the children. Somebody would always know of somebody who could find a use for the scrap; I have even known of cases where the youngsters benefited from fancy kitchen or bathroom fittings salvaged from the house of a richer person on which one of them was working

I was reminded of James Fenton’s poem, The Skip, by hearing it again on Poetry Please the other week.

Fenton himself said in an interview that it is just a flight of fancy.

from The Skip

I took my life and threw it on the skip,
Reckoning the next-door neighbours wouldn’t mind
If my life hitched a lift to the council tip
With their dry rot and rubble. What you find

With skips is – the whole community joins in.
Old mattresses appear, doors kind of drift
Along with all that won’t fit in the bin
And what the bin-men can’t be fished to shift.

* * *

Well, I got back that night the worse for wear,
But still just capable of single vision;
Looked in the skip; my life – it wasn’t there!
Some bugger’d nicked it – without my permission.

* * *

Some bastard saw my life and thought it nicer
Than what he had. Yet what he’d had seemed fine.
He’d never caught his fingers in the slicer
The way I’d managed in that life of mine.

His life lay glistening in the rain, neglected,
Yet still a decent, an authentic life.
Some people I can think of, I reflected,
Would take that thing as soon as you’d say Knife.

It seemed a shame to miss a chance like that.
I brought the life in, dried it by the stove.
It looked so fetching, stretched out on the mat.
I tried it on. It fitted, like a glove.

And now, when some local bat drops off the twig
And new folk take the house, and pull up floors
And knock down walls and hire some kind of big
Container (say, a skip) for their old doors,

I’ll watch it like a hawk, and every day
I’ll make at least – oh – half a dozen trips.
I’ve furnished an existence in that way.
You’d not believe the things you find on skips.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Supermarket surprise

In a rather surprising development supermarket shopping has become almost a pleasure.

It’s partly because they are definitely less thronged, at the time I go in, usually around 6 or 7 in the evening – no crowds with laden trolleys to negotiate. And is it my imagination, or are people now much less likely to be out shopping with their children at that time?

I have never really got over my dismay at seeing small children out & about at that time.

Perhaps it is part of the move back to old fashioned values: pester power inhibits the exercise of virtues such as thrift, making shopping lists & menu planning. Or maybe the old fashioned values include the reimposition of proper bedtimes, which require a definite signal that now is the time to start winding down – bathtime, story, milky drink - not the excitement of going out in the car & running around the safe space of the supermarket.

But the main cause of pleasure for me is the sudden availability of bargains on products & in quantities suitable for small households – not just BOGOFFS or supersized multibuys of things you wouldn’t even want & could never use if you did.

I learned my lesson on those long ago, before my first born was even born. Boots were offering 3 for 2 on large sizes of their own-brand baby products such as lotion & talc. I thought it worth making the investment on these essentials, even though it meant a squeeze on the cash flow that week.

Well the lotion was very useful, but I left 2 tins of the talc behind when we moved abroad two years later.

Not that such things do not have their place. Sainsbury’s were recently offering super gigantic boxes of washing powder for £10 – a real bargain if you are well disciplined & have lots of washing to do. I even saw one man, who looked like a family man, with three in his trolley. Perhaps he was buying for brothers & sisters, or neighbours, or perhaps he managed a boys football team. Or perhaps he had just spotted an opportunity for a spot of private enterprise in these straitened times.

The bargains that give me that little flash of pleasure & satisfaction include economy or value veg. I felt vaguely mutinous about my first such purchase – they had run out of loose tomatoes, when I really did need just one, but the then newly introduced value packs were priced such that it wouldn’t seem too bad if one or two never got used. What I did not expect was the really top flavour of quality tomatoes normally considered unsaleable because of variations in size.

Not that I was previously unsympathetic to the supermarkets oft repeated claim that customers overwhelmingly prefer symmetry in their fruit & veg. Years ago, when French Golden Delicious were said to be causing the death of the English apple industry, some supermarkets gave in to pressure & experimented with having ill-matched English apples on display; even I found it difficult to persuade myself that a misshapen Cox’s orange pippin tasted better. Somehow they were just not the same as those of my youth.

This summer runner beans have been a great delight – the mismatched sizes making them look just like they had come from the garden. And English too – they even smell like runner beans when you open the packet.

I know some people who, at least until recently, would have thought it beneath them ever to buy anything with a yellow ticket, though I firmly believe that only idiots pay more than they need to for anything. The problem was that the system more often than not offered things which, for the most part, you would not want, even for free, & so it wasn’t always worth making a point of looking out for them.

This week I had the special small pleasure of picking up a bag of 4 fat baby English courgettes for 22p & a truly ripe avocado for 20p. When I went to the delicatessen to find some ham to go with them, I found a very special offer on old-fashioned English baked ham. A salad of avocado, tomato & courgette with lime juice – no oil needed because the avocado was more than buttery enough – with roast potatoes in a nod to the autumnal weather provided a really good supper for less than £1 per head.

It is almost as good as the days when my main weekly food shop was done in Portobello Road in the days when fishmongers, butchers, & greengrocers catered for those eager for a taste of home – whether that be exotic flying fish or chicken feet & pigs tails - & one could go out & shop for what looked best for quality & value or for a little bit of adventure in your home cooking.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Is anything safe?

In yesterday’s Times business editor Ian King commented on the success of overseas pension plans which have been investing in British assets, bemoaning the fact that the Hutton report was not prepared to look at the question of how UK pension funds invest their money & so failed to recommend that, for example, the UK Teachers’ Pension Scheme be equally adventurous, thus avoiding the need for the much-protested forthcoming rise in pension contributions payable by members.

As someone who is old enough to remember when pension funds were exhorted to follow the example of the British Rail Pension Fund & invest in works of art, but nevertheless knows very little about the subject except that it is complicated, I should want to be particularly cautious about joining the UK commercial property bandwagon, though I like the idea of infrastructure – especially power lines etc – being locally owned.

And I should really, really, like to understand enough about mark-to-market to form a view on how that affects the question of pension funds

Inspector calls

This week Robert Crampton was the latest journalist to write a piece about the alarming Inspector Sands – at least as long ago as November 2003 Tom Utley wrote in the Telegraph that
‘there can hardly be a single regular traveller on public transport in London who doesn't realise that when the man on the Tannoy demands the urgent presence of Inspector Sands, what he means is that the nearest officer from Special Branch or the Bomb Squad should go immediately to the place specified.’
It is not, I think, just London which uses this code – there are regular calls for an inspector at Manchester Piccadilly, & I was there one afternoon when he apparently failed to respond for over half an hour, judging by the number of repeated calls, though I cannot swear that his name was Sands.

I suspect that larger stores & shops use a similar tactic for alerting store detectives – those calls asking someone to ring a particular extension would be a perfect code for ‘suspected shoplifter in Aisle 9’.

A few years ago I became convinced that Asda’s alert code was ‘Corrie Caufield’ – she or he was always being summoned over the tannoy. Then I heard the same person being summoned in a different store with a clearer PA system & I realised it was a Colleague Call.

For a time I put the mishearing down to advancing age, until I realised that Radio 4 has an announcer called Corrie Corfield, which presumably expalains why by brain interpreted it that way.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Access all areas

I note that The Times is trying to woo more paying customers on-line by offering a choice of packages – none of which tempts me.

Also interesting to note that the gossip is that Lisa Armstrong (whose writing I admire, & usually make a point of reading, even though I’m not all that interested in fashion) & Luke Leitch have, together, moved to the Telegraph in order to have a larger & wider free-to-access on line presence.

If there is no immediate prospect of a workable way for users to pay tiny amounts for access as & when, perhaps the answer to the problem of getting some recompense for the expense of running a well-edited & reliable on-line media presence will be something lie a Performing Rights Society, with whom I as a user could have a credit account.

Not has been

A casual aside in The Times the other day – ‘No politician could admit to liking Katie Melua’ left me bemused. Why ever not? Not all voters are imopressed by his fondness for The Killers.

The answer came in a ruefully witty third leader yesterday, which commented on the startling fact that Doris Day has, at 87, become the oldest artist to have an album of new work in the Top Ten:
‘Maybe music, just as much as youth, is wasted on the young.’
And I’ll bet that, had she been invited, she would have appeared on Phil Williams music segment on Radio 5 at 11.30 on Monday morning, unlike London rapper/vocalist Example whose album was No 1 on the list, but who failed to show. Probably been celebrating hard, they said.

Charles Aznavour, also 87, has a new album out too

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Feeling sour

How can you find out exactly what people eat?

You can ask them questions – either about current or past eating habits – with obvious problems of recall, wishful thinking & being economical with the truth.

You can ask them to keep detailed food diaries for a period of time.

Someone could keep them under observation & keep detailed records.

You can feed them controlled amounts of foods (& watch to see that they are eaten).

You can use a technique called duplicate diet – where duplicate meals are prepared & taken away for laboratory analysis (after adjustment for amounts not actually eaten). Expensive, even wasteful.

Then there is the problem of how to determine the scientific composition of the food as eaten & of how it was grown, prepared & cooked. Which foods were combined with which. How, when & where they were eaten.

These are just the problems you face before you even get down to analysis of the results & worry, for example, about the finer mathematical details of statistical significance. A problem which was once described as like trying to clear a badly overgrown garden with nothing but a scalpel.

Which is why I always approach claims about what is, or is not, good for you, with a degree of polite scepticism & a ‘tell me more.’

I grew up in a time when there was always salt on the table – some people seemed to add an awful lot to the food on their plate– I never wanted to, the food I was given was salty enough for me.

In fact a lot of things I don’t eat at all, given any choice in the matter: anchovies (you never know); smoked bacon; any flavoured crisps; blue cheese; marmite sandwiches (drinks & stews are different – salt even needs to be added, sometimes too a little hot pepper sauce); smoked meats.

I generally don’t use salt when cooking vegetables – not even potatoes – unless they are old or tired.

I always buy unsalted butter.

Salt is however essential for making palatable anything with wheat flour – pasta, pastry, gravy & sauces, bread. It was great a few years ago when many manufactures started to use soya flour as an alternative thickening agent for sauces & salads – the taste was so much nicer – but that disappeared because no-one could guarantee that no imported soya flour was free of (whisper) genetic modification.

The recent argument about whether a recent Cochrane Collaboration review really did call into question the long standing medical advice that we should, all of us, for the sake of our health & hearts, cut down on the amount of salt that we eat, & the unedifying spat that it caused, reminded me of that other great way in which salt is invaluable: to reduce sourness. I was stirred into seeing if Dr Google could help me find the answer to a long-standing puzzle - Why does adding salt to pineapple make it sweet?

I found the information I seek on the Ask an Expert section of the ABC Science website. It comes in two parts – one psychological, one chemical.

Although I accept that perception is important, I am sure that there is more ‘real’ stuff going on in this magic process, which I was introduced to in the West Indies.

The local pineapples were not all that sweet even under the best ripening conditions– they came taller, thinner, paler & a lot less orange than Malayan or South African pineapple with which we were then more familiar in England - & could often be just unacceptably sour. But peel them, slice them, spread them on a large plate, sprinkle with salt, cover & leave in the fridge overnight & hey presto! Sweet juicy pineapple to eat next day.

A food scientist explains that when the sodium chloride dissolves into the pineapple it will break apart into sodium and chloride ions, the sodium ion will then react with the malic and citric acids present in the pineapple to form neutral sodium salts, thus removing the sour taste from the mouth.

Up until the 1980s it was generally advisable to salt aubergine slices & leave then to stand for at least an hour to remove some of the bitter juices - & I remember being taught how to make a delicious Spanish dish by the cook who worked for the French family I used to stay with. This involved leaving the salted aubergine slices spread on a covered plate in the fridge for 2-3 days, draining the juices regularly (can’t remember if you applied more salt as well). The result was almost like dried aubergine slices which were turned into a beautiful accompaniment to lamb, cooked liberally with onion, herbs & oil.

Back in England I always meant to try the salt trick with sour fruits such as rhubarb & gooseberries – childhood experience taught me that sugar was never enough to make them palatable, though oodles of custard might be enough to make them go down – but never quite got around to it. There is little need for such tricks these days – aubergines, rhubarb, gooseberries along with so many other fruits & vegetables now seem to be bred for blandness.

I do wonder though if the pressure that is on food processors & manufacturers to reduce salt content could, in some cases, have the unintended consequence of making someone like me actually add salt to the food on their plate.

Reductions that have already taken place mean that I am in the novel position of needing to sometimes add salt to processed ready meals or soups. The pasta can be unbearable & tomato based dishes (including soups such as minestrone or bean & tomato) just too sour.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Staying true

I was listening to John Gray’s Point of View on Friday evening with perhaps rather more close attention than usual – he began in an ear-catching way by telling us that
Many years ago an eminent philosopher told me he'd persuaded his cat to become a vegan … "You must have provided the cat with some pretty powerful arguments," I said jokingly.
My ear being well & truly caught I became distracted by his accent – what was that which I could hear, a bit faintly, underneath. Could it really be the North East? I can’t say Geordie because I know that term has a very specific local meaning to those in the know – but yes, Professor Gray comes from South Shields & has kept some of the distinct intonation despite his years at Oxford, Harvard & the LSE.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The career of Max Mallowan

Whenever I read a biography these days, I tend to take particular notice of how the subject ‘made’ their career – a habit developed when I ploughed through so many Victorian biographies, memoirs, lives & letters. In that age when the number of salaried jobs was increasing rapidly in the new fields of management in both the public & private sectors there were growing opportunities for those who put in the necessary application.

I was thinking how some seem to have it much easier than others as I recently read a biography of the archaeologist Sir Max Mallown.

The son of a successful Austrian businessman & a French mother, Mallowan went to Lancing (where he did well at School Certificate) & then to New College Oxford, but got only a 3rd class degree. However, in the words of his biographer, Henrietta McCall, ‘It would be wrong to think that in the 1920s any particular stigma attached itself to a young man with such a modest degree’

After finals the Dean of Divinity asked him about his future plans; Max replied ‘archaeology in the east’ – inspired by reading of finds by Percy Gardner at Olympia, but without any experience at all of the kind of work involved.

The Dean sent him to the Warden, who gave him a letter of introduction to the keeper of the Ashmolean museum. He had just received a letter from Leonard Woolley who was excavating at Ur, so sent Max to see Woolley at the British Museum.

He was interviewed by Woolley & Katherine Keeling (later to be Lady Woolley) who seems to have taken quite a shine to Max.

He was taken on to start work on the excavation of Ur in October 1925.

Agatha Christie (as part of the process of getting over a painful divorce) visited Ur in winter 1928, while Max was back in England recovering from appendicitis. She met Max on her return visit to Ur the next year & they married in September 1930.

It would be a mistake however to think that Mallowan just had things fall into his lap without any effort on his part. For example he prepared for his first interview with Woolley by reading:
  • a BM pamphlet about Woolley’s excavation of the temple of the Moon God
  • Koldewey History of Babylon
  • Budge Babylonian Life & History
  • L King History of Sumer & Akkud
among others (though not, apparently, any of the popular articles which Woolley wrote for the Illustrated London News).

Having been given his chance, Mallowan had a very successful career in the Middle East, with the devoted support of his wife & helped by oodles of self-confidence.

In 1962 Max was appointed fellow of All Souls after answering an ad in The Times & coming top of the 70 applicants.

I felt that I had through the efforts of my life-work, recovered from the lack of academic distinction in my youth.’

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The O-Filler

Alastair Reid's poem featured in the new series of Radio 4's Poetry Please.

On the face of it a tale of 'nowt so queer as folk', it will certainly resonate with any library user & reminds us that there is, or at least can be, humanity & purpose in the most unlikely places.

The O-Filler

One noon in the library, I watched a man--
imagine!-filling in O's, a little, rumpled
nobody of a man, who licked his stub of pencil
and leaned over every O with a loving care,
shading it neatly, exactly to its edges,
until the open pages
were pocked and dotted with solid O's, like villages
and capitals on a map. And yet, so peppered,
somehow the book looked lived in and complete.

That whole afternoon, as the light outside softened,
and the library groaned woodly,
he worked and worked, his o-so-patient shading
descending like an eyelid over each open O
for page after page. Not once did he miss one,
or hover even a moment over an a,
or an e or a p or a g. Only the O's--
oodles of O's, O's multitudinous, O's manifold,
O's italic and roman.
and what light on his crumpled face when he discovered--
as I supposed--odd woords, like zoo and ooze,
polo, oolong and odontology!

Think now, in that limitless library,
all round the steep-shelved walls, bulging in their bindings,
books stood, waiting. Heaven knows how many
he had so far filled, but no matter, there still were
uncountable volumes of O-laden prose, and odes
with inflated capital O's (in the manner of Shelley),
O-bearing Bibles and biographies,
even whole sections devoted to O alone,
all his for the filling. Glory, glory, glory!
How lovely and open and endless the world must have seemed to him,
how utterly clear-cut! Think of it. A pencil
was all he needed. Life was one wide O.

Anyway, why in the end should O's not be closed
as eyes are? I envied him. After all,
sitting across from him, had I accomplished
anything as firm as he had, or as fruitful?
What could I show? a handful of scrawled lines,
and afternoon yawned and wondered away,
and a growing realization that in time
even my scribbled words would come
under his grubby thumb, and the blinds be drawn
on all my O's. And only this thought for comfort--
that when he comes to this poem, a proper joy
may amaze his wizened face, and, O, a pure pleasure
make his meticulous pencil quiver.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sustainable Marmite

According to a report in yesterday’s Times waste from the production of Marmite (itself the product of waste from the brewing industry) is now to be used to produce electricity by being fed to bugs who will turn it into methane.

The same article also tells us Pepsico sells 28,000 tonnes of oak husks left over from the making of Quaker porridge as fuel for power stations.

Other 'fancy thats' I came across while googling this topic:

People in Britain eat over half of the world's yeast extract

In 2010 there was a special Marmite chocolate on sale for Christmas - that one passed me by completely. I wonder what sales were like.

The video which promises to show Marmite production does nothing of the sort - perhaps the sight of all that brown sludgy stuff was considered too off-putting. It just shows bottles being labelled & put into boxes by a production line worker. Reminds me of my summer spent in the Boots factory - another one of those lessons in why it really is worth buckling down to pass exams, even though you might risk being labelled an unmarriageable bluestocking.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Information extraction

Whenever the subject of how best to get information out of ‘the enemy’ - combatant or spy - comes up, I try to remember the name of a BBC tv series from my teenage years which made a very deep impression, & left me convinced that ‘our’ methods of polite but psychologically acute interrogation were not just more ‘moral’ but infinitely more likely to be successful than the sadistic methods of the Gestapo which also figured in a retrospectively alarmingly large proportion of my reading & film watching.

Today my Googling finally delivered the goods. The programme I was trying to remember was Spycatcher & the interrogator/hero was played by Bernard Archard.

It came as a surprise to me to learn that the real-life spycatcher, Lieutenant Oreste Cornel Pinto, was in fact Dutch.

To quote from Time magazine’s 1952 review of Pinto’s own book:
British spycatchers are not permitted, as Gestapo agents were, to pull out fingernails and toenails, or to crack open stubborn skulls with screw-hoops of steel. In some cases they are not even permitted to call a suspect a liar; they must say politely: "I suggest that your answer to my last question contained certain inaccuracies." Moreover, since no confession obtained under duress is valid in British law, the catcher must take care not to hector or bully his man beyond a certain point. The professional British spycatcher must 1) detect the spy, 2) confront the courts with solid proof or with confessions which appear to have been made with willing enthusiasm. The spy can then be hanged.

Since Spycatcher, the title of both the tv programme & of Pinto’s book, was later hijacked by Peter Wright, it is perhaps not surprising that I failed to associated it with the tv programme of me memory.

I have of course learned not to be so readily accepting of the idea that the British don't do torture, but i am still largely persuadede by the argument that it just does not produce reliable information.

Thursday, September 08, 2011


Today, as many as half (50%) of all Brits are satisfied with their life, according to Mintel’s latest survey of British Lifestyles.

The Times gave themselves a pat on the back yesterday, proclaiming that ‘happiness is more likely to come with a copy of the Times,’ quoting the same survey as its source; 60% of the paper’s readers say they are satisfied with their life, more than can be said for any other national daily. Only at the end of the ‘behind the story’ explanation do they allow that the researchers ‘admitted’ that rather than causing such happiness it may just be that smug, self-satisfied I’m All right Jacks choose the paper which best reflects themselves.

Only joking.

Looking at the other figures quoted from the report makes me realise that it is not just being a Times reader that makes me one of the happiest people in the country (allegedly).
  • Retired? – check.
  • Shops in M&S & Waitrose?– check, though not exclusively, or even mainly.
  • Living in a village? – check.
  • Living in Yorkshire & Humberside? – oh dear, not quite; nearly, though.

Interestingly, neither height nor gender is mentioned.

Bargain food

Tesco had a full page advertisement in the Times yesterday, offering 19 food items – 12 of them national brands – for the now magic price of £1 each. Average saving 35p per item, or about 25% of the total bill if you buy all 19. 100s more are promised instore or online.

Since small social details are of interest to those who come after us I shall list these delights for their edification & education into what tempts the consumer during the great downturn of 2011.

plastic bag containing 5 bananas
8 vine ripened tomatoes
4 bake at home baguettes
sunflower spread
5 packs mini chocolate biscuits
6 angel slices
8 tortilla wraps
50 green tea bags
1 litre orange juice
4 chocolate mousse desserts
carrot & coriander soup
plastic tray of microwavable pilau rice
bottle of limited edition salad cream with cucumber & dill
250 ml olive oil
4 mini pork pies topped with pickle
1 Cornish pasty
1 packet of “fluffy mashed potato, shaped into happy faces and lightly prepared with sunflower oil for a tasty crunch”
plastic tray containing 2 chicken kievs
plastic tray containing 3 chicken drumsticks (uncooked)

Quite healthy (by the standards of the food police) for the busy mum with little time to cook for the family I suppose.

I cannot find the similar offers on their website but then I am not registered as a Tesco shopper

Related post
Price points

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Horse power

I have just begun to read Arthur Jacob’s 1986 biography of Sir Arthur Sullivan, & was rather taken aback to learn, from the description of the Lambeth into which Sullivan was born in 1842, that before Lambeth Bridge was built the two sides of the Thames were connected by a horse ferry. Although I spent years in the vicinity of Horseferry Road I had been completely unaware of this.

Then I began to wonder - was it literally a horse-powered boat, or was the term used, as we use ‘car ferry’, to describe a boat equipped to carry horses or horse-drawn carriages?

Well the term was used in both senses in the past: for example, at Dartmouth in Devon, the Lower Ferry, originally known as the Horse Ferry, was originally powered by two men with long oars, & converted to steam with a tug pushing the float in 1870.

I have not been able to find references to any ferry which was powered by a horse which remained on dry land – perhaps turning a capstan or winch to draw the boat across a river on a rope or hawser - but there are examples of horses actually in motion on the boat, going round a circle or using a treadmill. The most notable of these perhaps being the wreck found in Lake Champlain.

Although the account of the history of the Lambeth horseferry given in the Survey of London is not totally clear, it seems to have been a barge capable of carrying horses.

The Survey of London also records that in 1688, on a night so stormy and dark that the passengers could not see each other in the boat, Lambeth Ferry was used in one of the most dramatic events connected with the expulsion of the Stuarts when Mary of Modena, James II's queen, and the baby prince (afterwards the Old Pretender) in their escape from Whitehall on their way to Gravesend.

Horseferry Road is today home, among others, to MI5, Channel 4 & the Horseferry Road magistrates court, where many high profile cases get their first hearing.

Photo thanks to Sawley (Derbyshire) Photograph & Image Gallery

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Green is the colour

I was trying to think of an example of a belief, widely held by even otherwise sensible people, that probably has no good reason behind it; I found myself thinking about the old prejudice about driving a green car – which was considered by some to be a very unlucky thing to do, just asking for trouble, even death. My father, not a fanciful man, believed this

Does this superstition still hold British drivers in its grip? I came across some very useful figures from the SSTM, Motor Industry Facts 2011

Green does not figure in the top five colours for the UK in 2011 – our roads are virtually dominated by silver or blue cars which account for almost half of all 31 million of the darned things.

Oddly, ten years ago green did figure in the top 5, with 11% of the total. Back then however red & blue were the dominant colours, virtually half the mere 27.8 million on the road.

It was quite pleasing to see that this year red cars make up 12% of the total – gratifyingly close to the estimate of 10% from my very unscientific survey of last month.

High wind

Local radio was letting us know this morning that the high roads – those that are always first to succumb to ice & snow – were this morning closed because of high winds. I don’t remember hearing of that before, but I see from the web that it does happen sometimes. This website also has a video showing just why the Woodhead Pass is considered one of the most dangerous roads in the country.

It had been pretty blustery down here, but nothing to cause even me any alarm – I really am scared by high winds - & I was both relieved & surprised to see, when I went out, that there were no signs of anything nearly that strong overnight.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Come back to the future

I thought at first they were policemen – two men in yellow dayglo standing outside the shopping centre with their serious looking loaded bikes. But as I got close it was clear that they were in fact St John Ambulance.

They’ve come a long way since the days of my youth when the ladies wore grey dresses & black hats & carried white canvas knapsacks.

And, although much of what I was taught is well out of date now (triangular bandages!), I learned a lot about how to cope in a crisis from my teenage training with them.

But how strange to see cycles make such a comeback in so many areas.