Thursday, September 03, 2015

Who On Earth Do You Think You Are?


There is a new series of "Who Do You Think You Are?" running in the UK. When the programme first started it would delve into the general family history of celebrities, but as it has developed over the years it has tended to concentrate on telling the story of individual ancestors who have a particularly interesting tale to tell. And as you watch the programmes you find yourself asking the question - if I ever became a celebrity and if I ever featured on the programme, which particular ancestor of mine would they come up with who had an exciting story to tell? There might be the tale of Annie Moore and the blackout, but you couldn't tell that before the watershed. They might dig around into the curious history of Fowler Beanland but not find enough to even entertain an old-folks tea party on a wet Tuesday afternoon. However, this question finally got an answer the other day when Ancestry came up with a new family tree hint regarding my mothers' cousin.

Before this week all I knew was that my mother, Gladys, had a cousin she was particularly fond of who served in the Merchant Navy. There was a story about him having died during World War II, but no other details than that. I didn't even have a definite name, other than the fact that he was called Wyatt and was the son of my grandma's sister. And then the story of Harold Alfred Wyatt emerged.

Harold Alfred Wyatt was born in either 1902 or 1912 (the records are confusing) in Newport, Monmouthshire, the son of George Wyatt and Mary Ann Kellam (Mary Ann was the sister of my grandmother, Kate Kellam). He joined the Merchant Navy and I am fairly certain that he is the young man on the right of the photograph at the top of this post which was part of my mothers' collection of family photographs. The new hint provided by Ancestry provides me with a later photograph (the bearded seaman with the pipe) and the tragic story of his end.

In 1941 he was serving as Boatswain on the SS Rio Azul, a cargo boat involved in the perilous Atlantic crossings. On the 29th June his ship was attacked and sunk by a German U Boat 200 miles southeast of the Azures and most of the crew were lost. 18 crew members, including Harold, managed to get to a life raft in which they drifted at sea for 15 days with no food and only a small glass jar of water. Using an empty tobacco tin, Harold managed to fashion a mirror which he used to reflect the rays of the sun and eventually attract the attention of a passing ship and the few remaining members of the crew were rescued in a state of near starvation. Most, including Harold, died shortly after being rescued. Harold Alfred Wyatt was posthumously awarded the Lloyds Medal for Bravery at sea - the Merchant Navy's equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

You have to admit that it is quite a story and one worthy of an episode of "Who Do You Think You Are?" I would be proud to be associated with someone as courageous as Cousin Harold. But I rather suspect - if ever I did become famous and appear on  "Who Do You Think ..", they would go with the story of Uncle Harry and the Pierrot Show and that is something I might be better forgetting about.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Enough For A Shelf-Full Of Wordy Books


I have been amusing myself on a damp Bank Holiday Monday by re-arranging the books on my bookshelves. Every so often I move a whole batch of books to the shelves hidden behind the settee in order to make room for books that better match my current interests. Over the years, wave after wave of text books, outdated novels and forgotten biographies have taken this route to comparative obscurity, only to be replaced by whatever happens to be my literary flavour of the month. And looking at the latest migratory pattern, it would appear that in my dotage I am returning to the obsession with picture books that characterised my first few years.

More and more of my "current" batch of books seem to be picture books - collections of old photographs from here, there and all places in-between. Images seem to say so much more than words can describe, offer so many more possibilities, tell so many different stories. The picture featured here is not from one of my books, but from one or other of the collections of old photographs I have accumulated over recent years. One simple photograph, scanned, dissected, and reconstructed providing a framework upon which you can build whatever you like.


Who are these women with such satisfied smiles? Part of that generation that lost the men in their lives to the mud of Flanders? Smiling for what might have been rather than for what was.


Look behind the smiles and what do you find? What secrets, what hopes and what fears? And what was this day at the seaside a break from? 


And the lone man. face half hidden by a wooden cap. What do you read in his face. With just a little imagination there is enough there for a shelf-full of wordy books.

Monday, August 24, 2015

An Open Letter To Amazon


Dear Amazon,
I hope you don't mind me writing to you like this but I would like to raise with you a problem with your Amazon Prime free next day delivery service. I spend most of Saturday washing-up, vacuuming, making cups of tea and trying to persuade my Good Lady Wife why it was necessary for me to buy a new camera. I had to explain the complexities of bridge cameras, zoom range, and pixel formats to a non-photographer. I also had to clarify why none of the dozen or so cameras I already own would be able to fulfil the complex requirements of capturing the likeness of both garden sparrows and dead pubs. After what I must say was a master-class in logical persuasion, towards the end of the day I managed to achieve my goal and the "buy now" button could be pressed. 

It was only a matter of hours later that there was a knock at the door which I dutifully answered. Returning to the marital bed-chamber (it was hardly past day-break) the GLW asked who it had been. I explained that it was nothing but the delivery of my new camera (20.1 megapixels, 63x optical zoom - please note all you camera-heads out there). "What, already" she pronounced in a voice laden with accusation, a voice that implied that the offending article (Super HAD CCD sensor, X Type lithium-ion battery - please note all you digi-freaks out there) had been procured long before budgetary approval had been obtained. "They are very efficient", I pleaded in my defence. "They must be", she replied, sarcasm dripping from every word.

All I ask is for the addition of a little check-box that can be ticked in order to slightly delay delivery in order to make things more believable and restore marital harmony.
With Kind Regards,
Alan Burnett

I remember reading a science fiction story, fifty or so years ago which predicted a future world where drones delivered products at the demand of customers. A man took delivery of a parcel he had not ordered nor knew anything about. He thought and thought about the parcel which he left unopened until he could discover what on earth it was. He thought about a lot that day, but by the next he had forgotten about the delivered box that had been left unopened on his table. He then realised that he urgently needed a new part for his jet-car (this was the 1960s after all), so he phoned the delivery service up and put in his order. "When do you need it by?", came the annoying computer generated voice. "Bloody yesterday", he barked back in anger. And then realisation suddenly descended upon him.


Try as I might I can't remember the name of the story nor its author. No doubt some sic-fi fan out there will e-mail me the details. I must check yesterday's inbox to see if they have.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Hit Me With Your Selfie Stick


We have just returned from Prague: a city full of narrow streets and swarms of tourists. As we struggled to catch a site of the Astronomical Clock or the Powder Gate we had, at times, to dodge swerving Segways, sidestep umbrella-toting tour guides, and duck under swooping selfie-sticks. It is all part of the modern tourist lifestyle, but as you navigate your way through a corridor of raised iPhones all capturing a beaming face in front of an unmistakable icon, you begin to wonder about the nature of modern photography.

It is this obsession with the self (the very name of the selfie-stick betrays its motive) and the moment (images last until a phone is changed or a memory-stick purged) that makes old fools like myself shake our heads as we screw another interchangeable lens into our bulky SLRs and readjust our tripods. As we recompose the towers of St Vitus's Cathedral on our fresnel screens we despair at those who want to do nothing but superimpose their grinning, v-sign wielding, images on any bit of history that may be handy.  And we decide that when we get home to our trusty desks and our dusty darkrooms we will compose a grumpy post decrying the worship of "me" and "now".


And then we get home and whilst we are seeking the right words to convey our righteous indignation we flick through some old photograph albums from the days of our parents, the halcyon days of photography. And what do we find but picture after picture (what people of their generation called "snaps") of faces stuck in front of Blackpool Tower or Buckingham Palace. Pictures of me, pictures of now. And, with the hindsight of seventy years, it is the me and the now that infuses the photograph with interest. Blackpool Tower is still there, even the famous Blackpool trams are still there. But Miriam is gone as is that moment from July 1951. And this image, this selfie, is all that we have left.

So I have abandoned my plan to write an angry old man blog-post and I have decided to order a selfie-stick instead. As soon as it arrives I will share a bit of me and now.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Stress Of All That Bending And Surprising From The Wrong End

I am back from Wales, but I have a busy couple of weeks ahead of me and therefore I have no idea if I will get time to update this blog very often. We have a friend staying with us for the rest of this week and then on Sunday we fly off to Prague in the Czech Republic for most of next week. My reputation as a collector of pointless ephemera must be spreading for yesterday I was presented with a bag full of ancient books. I have a track record for never throwing a book away and therefore the arrival of several dusty volumes in the Odhams Home Library series sent the GLW into a cycle of despair.  Assuring her that my new acquisitions would be a priceless addition to our lives I was immediately able to turn to a volume entitled "The Home Entertainer" which was published in the 1930s. Here was an entire book devoted to the question of how to entertain house guests - what could be more appropriate with our guest arriving by tomorrow's slow train from London.

The book contains a chapter on games that can be played in the home for the entertainment of house guests. The following quote relates to a game entitled "The Mummy"

"There can be a great deal of fun in playing The Mummy, if it is well prepared. Every one is sent out of the room except the leader and one other. This one lies flat on the floor and the leader covers him with a sheet. His hands are stretched beyond his head, and on them he holds his shoes, uprights as though they were on his feet. These shoes must just protrude from the end of the sheet. With a little adjustment, and maybe the help of a cushion, the leader will be able to make the "mummy" look as though he is lying the other way round, and as though the shoes really contain his feet and his head is where his feet actually are. A "mummy" arranged in a suitably convincing manner is shown in Fig. 6


The leader then calls in the first victim, explaining in an awed voice that here is a mummy who is said to be able to answer any question addressed to it with proper respect. So the new-comer kneels down by the mummy, by what he supposes to be the head and proceeds to ask his question, say "Oh mummy can you hear me?"

"Surely!" replies the mummy - the voice, to the astonishment of the kneeling person, coming from near what he had assumed to be the feet. If the mummy, at the same time, sits up, from the "wrong end", the surprise is even more complete."

You must admit it sounds like a first class wheeze although I am not convinced that either the physical or psychological systems of a small house party with an average age well over 60 could take the stress of all that bending and surprising. Perhaps we will just play with The Lads X-Box instead.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Old Memories Never Die, They Simply Get Sold On eBay


ENLARGEMENT SCAN FROM UNKNOWN PHOTOGRAPH

Old memories never die, they simply get sold on eBay. Gone on a little holiday. Back soon.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Keeping Out Of Mischief With A Jubile Cigarillo


My summer paper trail has led me into some strange places - indeed I must confess that I have no idea where I am today. Using random images as prompts for blog posts has always been one of my favourite games - and the generator for the random images has usually been odd old family photographs and vintage picture postcards. The other day, however, I bought on eBay a job lot of old photographs with no common theme nor known origin. They were sold by weight rather than quality and the lot seems to be made up of everything from late twentieth century colour photographs to old black and white prints of the 1920s and 30s. It is the fact that I don't know who took the pictures, when they were taken or indeed where they were taken which makes sorting through this box of old images quite fascinating.

The picture above is a scan of a tiny one by one and a half inch bromide print which seems to have been taken in the 1940s. It certainly isn't England, but I do get a feel that it might be continental Europe. The building looks like a railway station and it is just possible to make out signs for what looks like "Restor Martin" and "Jubile Cigarillos". Jubile was, I believe, a French manufacturer of tobacco products so that can be my starting point for my on-line search. Whatever the outcome may be, it will keep me out of mischief for an hour or two.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Come On Apple - Get Up To Date!

I have had my Apple Watch for a couple of months now and I have to say that I am quite satisfied with it. For me - and for my deaf ears - its most important function is to alert me - with a playful nudge - when my phone rings, but it also has a full repertoire of songs, dances, jokes and other associated apps as you would expect from any Apple product. But there is one shortcoming which I hope will be corrected when the new WatchOS2 operating system is released later this year: it can't tell decimal time!


I have been a ardent believer in decimal (or metric) time for many years and I wrote a blogpost about it back in December 2008 ("It's 4.3170 In The Morning"). Since then I have changed my desktop computer to a Mac and had no difficulty in getting a metric clock app for it, fallen in love with the iPhone, and had no difficulty in getting a metric clock app for it, but getting such an app for the most obvious platforms of the all - the Apple Watch - appears impossible (I did find one which half promised it but merely told my the date based on the French Revolutionary calendar. 

Now I can hear you all asking (even though it is only 45.26 centidays), what possible use is a clock that 99.999999% of humanity doesn't recognise (nay, haven't even heard of)? Surely being a follower of a time system that divides a day into 100 equal parts (centidays) each of which is composed of ten decimal minutes, each of which is made up of 100 decimal seconds, will result in you being out of step (indeed, out of time) with everyone else? Indeed it will, I answer, but so what! For years now I have increasingly come to the conclusion that I am a little different (OK, I will accept a little strange) so why not make a virtue of it and inhabit my own little time zone where I go to bed at 05.452 and crawl out of bed at 36.742. But in order to meet that latter target I need to be able to count on my Apple Watch to wake me up at the right time; and to do that it needs to be able to think decimally. Surely for a piece of kit which can tell me the temperature in Vancouver and the fact that I have just lost The Lad's inheritance on the Chinese Stock Exchange, it is not asking for too much. So, come on Apple, get up to date.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

A Slack Sunday Morning Post From Ephemera Burnett


There is a name for people like me: or so it would appear if eBay is to be believed. It is obviously a slack Sunday morning for the on-line auction site so it sent me a focused email pointing out some upcoming bargains in areas I have been active in - and those areas are as a "collector of ephemera". This obviously sent me straight to the Dictionary to double-check the exact meaning of "ephemera" ("a thing that exists or is used for only a short time"), and reassured that it was nothing too embarrassing, I decided to embrace the description and even considered incorporating it into my name - Alan Ephemera Burnett has a superior ring to it. I shall ignore for the moment (although I might later return to this on some slack Sunday morning in the future) the fact that the bits of old paper and pasteboard I hoard and collect are remarkable for their longevity rather than their transcendental nature and focus on a my bit of Sunday morning ephemera - the receipt for the deposit paid by my father for the house he bought in 1939. It has sat in an envelope for 75 years - until I took it out and scanned it this morning - slowly gathering creases, dog-ears and history. It has soaked up a patina of economic and social significance and achieved a kind of strange beauty that Frank Shepherd would never have believed back in 1939.