Monday, April 30, 2007

The Relentless Rise Of The Algorithm

Today I would like to let you in to one of the secrets behind the composition of this blog. "How on earth do you think of things to write about?" is a question I am frequently asked at First Nights, Exhibition Openings and Balcony Cocktail Parties. Until now I have responded to such searching enquiries with a shrug of the shoulder and a knowing look loosely modelled on one Alec Guinness used in Episode 4 of Tinker,Tailor, Soldier, Spy. However, before being served with a demand under the Freedom of Information Act, I have decided to tell all. So, how do I decide what to write about? It's quite simple, I use an algorithm. And to prove the point, here is a copy of the algorithm I use.

So, having got that off my chest, I would like to tell you about the bloody gas man. For five days now, we have been without heating or hot water. Last Thursday the central heating boiler stopped functioning and any attempt to restart it led to a series of minor explosions. The boiler is comparatively new and covered by a service contract. During the last four years, the gas repair men (oh, all right, the gas and central heating logistic, servicing, and repair operatives) have been to our house so often that its location is now included in the standard induction process for new workers.

When the GCHLSRO arrived - armed with his trusty laptop - he located the boiler and subjected it to what appeared to be (I was looking over his shoulder at the time) a wonderfully complex algorithm. You know the kind of thing : "is the pilot light lit - no - light pilot light; yes - switch pilot light off in case there is a gas leak". After half an hour of this he reported that the bearings on the transmission ventilation fan (or some such thing) were buggered and a new one would have to be ordered. The next day, another GCHLSRO arrived with his laptop, his algorithm, and a new fan. He must, however, have taken a different route through the algorithm, because he reported that it was nothing to do with the transmission ventilation fan bearings but it was the flame converting heat exchanger (or some such thing) which was buggered. A new part would have to be ordered. The weekend intervened. Deprived of baths, showers and heating, my wife visited an old school-friend in Newcastle. My son happily took off to the moors of North Yorkshire in pursuit of a Duke of Edinburgh Gold Medal. Amy (the dog) and I were left behind to get colder and smellier.

It is the algorithm I blame. This belief that what used to be known as skill, experience, judgement and common sense can be replaced by a combination of raw computing power and nursery-level questions is one of the blights of modern life. Behind the nonsense which is NHS Direct sits the algorithm. Behind every inexplicable planning decision, sits the algorithm. No doubt it will eventually be revealed that we went to war in Iraq because of a Pentagon-based military algorithm.

The rise of the algorithm is relentless, and there is little that can be done about it. So here I sit waiting for today's GCHLSRO. Waiting to discover which adventurous route he will take through his merry algorithm.

Now, have I ever told you about my Uncle Wilf?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Man And Instrument In Perfect Harmony

We all have favourites. Favourite people (I met mine 40 years ago and I have been married to her for 34 of those years), favourite places (there is a bar on the beach at Cane Garden Bay on Tortola where you can taste the salt from the sea and drink ice-cold beer), favourite things (the first computer I ever bought, and old BBC microcomputer). We feel at one with favourites, at comfort with them. If there was such a thing as a soul, they would be soul-mates. Until a few days ago, if you had asked me what my favourite musical instrument was, I would have replied without hesitation, the trombone. The choice, I must stress, is that of a listener to music and not a player. I have a well-documented inability to produce any musical note and the thought of producing two in close proximity to one another strikes fear into my very heart. Many decades ago, after singing The Red Flag whilst travelling back on a coach from a Halifax Labour Party Housing Sub-Committee visit to Sheffield, I was told by Doreen Pickles that I was tone deaf and that I must never again subject the world to the sound of my singing, whistling, humming or playing.

The only person who has swum against the tide of this judgement, is my friend Ed. Wise beyond his twelve years, Ed decided to take sole charge of my musical education. He has a belief - the kind of belief that cannot be shaken by inconsequential things such as evidence - that I should be just as capable of playing a musical instrument as anyone else. It is just a matter of finding the right instrument. He will turn up at our house with a variety of instruments, demonstrate them with measured adroitness, and then invite me to give them a try. The rest of his family and the rest of mine will then block their ears as I squeak and squawk into trumpets, bugles and cornets.

When he arrived on Sunday he carried a case of interesting proportions, inside of which was a euphonium. It looked pleasing, and when Ed demonstrated it, it sounded pleasing. The name is pleasing. I suddenly remembered that my grandfather had played the Euphonium in the Band of Hope band, and the memory was pleasing. With trembling lips, I lifted it into place and blew. Ed said I did very well taking into account I had never played a euphonium before. The rest of the family still hid away. But I knew that I had found my favourite instrument

I have searched the internet and discovered that euphoniums can be bought for as little as £200. I am hoping that all my friends will launch a public appeal to raise the cash to buy me one for my birthday. I have this abiding vision of on a bright summers' morning, stepping onto my balcony with its yellow wooden rail, raising the euphonium to my lips and playing . Man and instrument in perfect harmony.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Uncle Frank's Suitcase - The Final Chapter

At the bottom of the suitcase there is a cardboard box, inside of which are what are obviously the most treasured possessions. There are 42 rusted keys which I think about throwing away but - being me - save just in case I ever find what they are designed to open. This behaviour is indicative of a personality type and I briefly consider writing an article for Psychology Today on it. "Human beings can be divided into two types : those who collect objects hoping one day to find the keys to unlock them, and those who collect keys in the hope ...." I get bored with the idea and dump the keys in a drawer with the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee medal. There is a badly crumpled Spanish 5 pesetas banknote, a somewhat stained set of coins in a plastic wallet entitled "Britain's First Decimal Coins (didn't everyone's Uncle Frank have one of these?), and a couple of ancient torch bulbs. There is also a small canvas bag which is labeled "From Yarmouth, where the silv'ry sands stretch far as eye can reach, accept this little sample of the beach". Of course, if I was a true detective I would cut the bag open and hidden amongst the sand I would find the uncut diamonds. But I'm not, so I don't.

So that is it then. Uncle Frank's legacy. The most interesting item amongst the lot of them is the cardboard box which portrays a wonderful 1930s middle-class group playing lotto. For a moment I think about writing an article for "Collectors World" on why what we choose to put our collections in is potentially more valuable than the collections themselves. But I don't.

And then, as I am putting the box away, I notice that there are two "bottoms" to the box, one inside the other. Separating them I find a letter between the two. It is very short and addressed to "Miriam" which will be Uncle Frank's wife. It is dated June 1971 which would be shortly after Uncle Frank died. It comes from an address in Stockport, and it reads as follows:

"Dear Miriam,
Thank you for nice letter. I am sorry you are so bitter against me. Anyway I enclose P.O. for 50p (10/-) and will send it every week. That is all I can do for the time being. Will send more as soon as I can. Yours truly, Ada F".

So there was a story after all. Could this Ada F be Frank's sister who was a witness at their wedding. Why is she paying what were quite considerable sums to Aunty Miriam? Why was Aunty Miriam bitter? So, the suitcase provides no answers but plenty of questions. I think about writing an article for "Philosophy Now" on how our search for answers merely results in more questions. But I decide to challenge my son to a game of lotto instead.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Cache Of Coins

I eventually get down to the bottom of Uncle Frank's Brown Suitcase and discover the hoped-for cache of coins. But, on examination, they are a pretty pedestrian lot. There is a 1933 Half Crown (I had forgotten what a heavy coin these were, how on earth did our pockets survive), a two shilling piece from the year of my birth, a modern-day 2p piece, and an old silver 3d bit. With them there is a commemorative medal, produced in Bradford in 1897 to mark Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. On one side there is the usual stern portrait of the Queen, on the other a relief portrait of the Mayor of Bradford - Thomas Speight - and what I can only assume is his wife.

Bruised and battered as it is, I think this is an interesting find and I quickly Google it and determine that there are a few others already on display on the internet. I take it in to show my wife and son, knowing that they too will be fascinated by this piece of social history.

"Is it worth anything", asks my wife as she enjoys a Sunday morning lie-in. "Well it has great value as an illustration of the power of late Victorian civic pride and the determination of municipal dignitaries to portray themselves as a kind of local extension of the ruling aristocracy", I reply. "Yes, but is it worth anything", Isobel asks. As far as I can tell, she has still not opened her eyes and is displaying one of her most extraordinary skills - the ability to sleep and hold a conversation at the same time. "Well, I did notice that there were a couple of these already for sale on e-Bay", I reply. Her eyes open and she surveys the coin with interest, no doubt converting in in her mind to anything from a new pair of shoes to the swimming pool she spends much of her life fantasising about. "What's the current bid", asks Alexander, my son, as he reads the sports pages whilst perched on the bottom of the bed. He knows about e-Bay and therefore is not mesmerized simple by the fact that a medal has made it onto the virtual auction floor. "One, twenty five", I reply, somewhat ambiguously. Alexander's attention is captured and even Amy the dog stirs herself from her deep slumber on my side of the bed, scratches her ear and rolls over. Alexander seeks clarification : "A hundred and twenty-five quid?". "No, don't be silly, one pound twenty five pence", I reply. They don't even bother to reply. Within a second Isobel is asleep again and Alexander has returned to the report on the previous day's Wednesday match.

I leave the room, bemoaning a world in which value is always a monetary unit. It is a sad reflection of a world where the most popular television programmes are about making enough money for a slap-up meal by selling all your family treasures and where e-Baying has become a national obsession.

There is a little hole in the top of the medal. I find some string and thread it through and hang it around my neck. This is what it was meant for, this is its true destiny. I wear it proudly for the rest of the day. Then I discover that it is turning my skin green so I lay it to rest in the bottom of a drawer. When my child, of my grandchild, or my great-grandchild eventually clears the drawer out perhaps he or she will be more impressed by this wonderful object that the people of today. Or maybe, the e-Bay price will have gone up by then.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Oddfellows Go Where Senators Fear To Tread

My posting on the creation of the National Health Service - see "Rechabites and Reprobates" - is brought into sharp focus by an article in yesterday's New York Times. In the United States, Medicare is is the health insurance programme administered by the government, covering some 43 million people who are either age 65 or over or who meet a number of other, very limited, criteria. Extremely limited though its coverage is, it is the major funding agency in the healthcare market and the nearest thing the States has to a national health insurance service. Since the beginning of last year, Part D of Medicare covers - again is certain limited circumstances - the provision of some prescription drugs. Again, limited though this coverage is, it means that Medicare is the main funder of pharmaceutical spending in the biggest pharmaceutical market in the world. As any budding economist or Tesco executive will tell you, being a big buyer has its advantages. Because of the nature of cost and prices structures, this is even more the case in the pharmaceutical industry. During my time on the Board of an NHS trust I can recall numerous occasions when we effectively found ourselves with considerably more money to spend on frontline services because the NHS had negotiated a lower price for one or more of the drugs being prescribed for patients.
The strange thing about the existing law in the USA is that Medicare is specifically forbidden from negotiating lower drug prices, setting drug prices, or establishing a uniform list of drugs covered by the scheme. To allow it to do so, it seems, would be to allow it to take advantage of its dominant market position! One of the main proposals brought forward by the Democrats when they took control of the Senate was a Bill that would allow Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices with the big pharmaceutical firms. As the article in the New York Times relates, that proposals has now fallen because it failed to attract the 60 votes it would need to go forward. The arguments used against the Bill by leading Republicans include the assertion that private competition works best and that agreement with the proposal would be "a step down the road to a single-payer government-run health care system" (and remember, this is an argument against the proposal). Thus, it appears, where the Rechabites, the Buffaloes, and the Oddfellows went yesterday, the US Senate is unable to go today. Even if a Senate majority had been possible for this very limited, very muted reform, it would have made little difference. President Bush had already declared that he would veto any such proposal.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Rechabites and Reprobates

It is now six months since I left behind my involvement in the local organisation of the National Health Service. On the whole, it has been a welcome break from all the problems and conflicts, challenges and choices which characterise the NHS in the twenty-first century. Being no longer involved in the tricky business of making decisions means that I can indulge in what has almost become a national obsession : finding fault with the system and proclaiming that it is no longer effective. It is easy for us to be critical : most of us have never known anything else other than the NHS. The NHS and I were both born in the same year (1948) and if - as we approach our sixtieth birthdays - I am looking in better shape than it, it is precisely because of the care and protection that service has provided me with over the years.

I am reminded of some of the alternatives to the NHS in a leaflet I find at the bottom of Uncle Frank's suitcase. It is a 1947 circular announcing the start of the new National Health Insurance Administration and noting that the very limited sickness cover provided by a range of Friendly Societies (in the case of Uncle Frank, the Independent Order Of Rechabites) will be replaced by the new system of National Health Insurance in the course of the coming months.

The Rechabites were an interesting organisation. The British Friendly Societies of the early nineteenth century - organisations such as the Oddfellows, Buffaloes, Foresters, and Druids - were self-help clubs for working people. In return for a small weekly payment, limited financial help was provided in times of need. In some cases rudimentary sickness benefits were available and a grant was normally provided on the death of a member, enough to cover very basic funeral expenses. Many of the societies would meet in a local pub or alehouse : the regular local meetings providing an opportunity for collecting the weekly contribution and what nowadays would be called "bonding and networking" over a pint or two of beer. During the mid-nineteenth century a strong temperance movement developed and it was felt that there was a need for an alternative form of Friendly Society - one which still took in contributions and provided assistance at the time of sickness or death but was totally divorced from public houses and all forms of alcohol. The Independent Order of Rechabites came into being in 1835, taking its name from the biblical tribe who were 'commanded to drink no wine' by their leader Jonadab son of Recab, and successfully resisted when tempted to do so.

The Rechabites remained active well into the twentieth century - indeed, as someone will no doubt write in and tell me, they still exist today. But it was the birth of the welfare state - and in particular the provision of free healthcare to all by the new Health Service - which brought about the decline and eventual death of the Friendly Society movement. So as I sit her sipping my glass of wine (I am thus the reprobate of the title) and writing about the Rechabites, I think about the NHS with a new fondness. For all its many faults it is better than what went before.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


As I dig down through Uncle Frank's Brown Case I discover little of monetary value, but a wealth of information about the man himself. Leaving aside for a moment Uncle Franks' rather eccentric collecting habits, the things that people of his generation kept draw the ink outlines of their lives. The colour and rich texture may be missing, but the birth certificates, death certificates, Post Office Savings Books, Wills, and School Reports provide a necessary framework upon which a life story can be constructed.

So what have we discovered? Frank Fieldhouse was born in Lidget Green, Bradford in 1912. His father - Wilson Fieldhouse - was a railway clerk whilst his mother - Clara Ann - was a housewife. It is unclear whether Wilson and Clara had other children, but I do seem to recall mention of a sister, and an Ada Fieldhouse was a witness at his wedding. Frank attended Grange Road Boys' Secondary School between the Autumn of 1922 and the Summer of 1927. It would appear that before the war he worked as a shop assistant. During the War he worked at the Royal Ordinance Munitions Factory at Boston Spa and therefore one suspects that he picked up some engineering skills along the way. He was married to Miriam - my fathers' sister - in 1942 (he was 30 whilst she was 41). However, they must have known each other for some before, for there is evidence that they went away to Blackpool on holiday together in 1935. At various times they lived in Bradford, Lowestoft in Norfolk and Basildon in Essex. At the time of his death in 1971 -aged 59 - he was working as an Inspector at the Marconi Factory in Basildon.

This then is the framework. To begin to get an impression of the man himself one needs to look at the evidence more carefully. The brown case contained his "Report Book! from the Grange Road Boy's Secondary School.

As well as telling us a good deal about the young Frank - he was good at maths but very weak in subjects such as history and geography - the Report Book tells us a lot about the education system in the 1920s. First, it should be noted that Frank was at a Secondary School which was somewhat unusual for a working class boy of the time. I can't think of one member of my own family who went to secondary school - they all left Elementary School at the age of thirteen or fourteen. At Secondary School Frank was exposed to subjects that would have been unknown to many of his contemporaries. Chemistry, Physics, French, German, Trigonometry were all the preserve of the minority who were educated passed elementary level.

Even in this preserve of the better-off working class - where the need to get a child working as soon as possible could be resisted - the shadow of poverty can still be detected. There is a prominent place for the "Physical Record" which notes such factors as height, weight, chest measurement and general health. This was less than ten years after the First World War when it was discovered that a large proportion of the working class recruits were physically incapable of meeting the minimum health standards of the British Army. Malnutrition was still a problem and the Report Book reflects the vigilance of the school system in working class areas.

And now, eighty years later, the schools are once again thinking of introducing a "Physical Record" section to report cards which will record weight and body mass index. The reason for vigilance has, of course, changed. Glancing at the photographs of Uncle Frank in his youth it is clear that he was, once again, ahead of his time.

The Big U

The "Big U" was the name given to the SS United States, the American built ocean liner which held the famous Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing during the 1950s. On her maiden voyage in July 1952, the United States crossed the Atlantic in just 3 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes : a record which stands to this day. In part, her speed was due to the use of modern light-weight materials in her construction. Much of the superstructure was made of aluminium giving her a power-to-weight ratio which has never been equalled. During her heyday, publicists would claim that the only wood on board was to be found in the chopping blocks in the kitchens and in the grand pianos.

During the 17 years that she was in-service the United States played host to some of the most famous celebrities of the age. Her guest-list reads like a page from a very select Who's Who : Marlon Brando, James Cagney, Gary Cooper, Salvador Dali, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Duke Ellington, Bob Hope, Princess Grace and Prince Rainer, President Harry Truman ... The Big U was home to the rich and the famous. So why was a rather splendid copy of the illustrated Deck Plan of the SS United States one of the first things I came across when I lifted the lid on Uncle Frank's suitcase?

The Deck-Plan provides great detail about the arrangement of the cabins - there was accommodation for 1,928 passengers - and the various public rooms. In comparison to the cruise ships of today (which are about the same size but considerably slower) the most noticeable feature is the segregation between the different classes. Thus there is a First Class Dining Room (with "an air of dignity and distinction" complete with gold threaded curtains and bronze statues); a Cabin Class Dining Room ("a perfect setting for luxurious dining at sea"); and a Tourist Class Dining Room (a "charming atmosphere" decorated in warm colours with gun metal mirrors). The decks are segregated with, one assumes, Titanic-like locked gates between the different areas.

The Deck Plan is dated January 1962. This was about the time that Uncle Frank and Aunty Miriam moved away from their native Bradford. To the best of my knowledge they went to live in Bassildon and there was certainly no talk in the family about a visit to the United States (and such a visit would have been so unusual in our family there would have been considerable talk if it had taken place). So where did the Deck Plan come from? And why has it been preserved in the brown suitcase? And what other mysteries are yet to be discovered alongside it?

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Strange Case Of Uncle Frank's Brown Case

As preparations move ahead for 2007 Skip Week a small brown suitcase is discovered in the garage. It is the kind of suitcase World War II refugees carried : made of compressed cardboard and stitched with rough cotton. I have a vague memory of acquiring it. It belonged to my Uncle Frank and I inherited it on the death of his widow, my fathers' sister Miriam. At the time, I did a quick inspection of the contents and discovering that it did not contain a stash of five pound notes consigned it to the garage where it has remained almost undisturbed for a quarter of a century. It is time to undertake a careful excavation of the contents. To understand how interesting this might prove to be, one needs to know a little bit about Uncle Frank.

Uncle Frank was a big man. He was a determined collector of almost anything. I remember coming across a box once which contained all the bus tickets he bought whilst travelling to work in a munitions factory in the 1940s. He was an early enthusiast of tape recorders and the purchase of his first reel-to-reel tape recorder coincided with the launch of commercial television. He therefore decided to make a sound recording of every advert that appeared on TV. I remember as a child seeing this mahogany cabinet within which he stored what must have been hundreds of tapes. If they had survived they could have formed the basis of a national collection and they would have been worth a great deal of money. But on his death in the early 1970s, the tapes were thrown away and the cabinet became a store for tins of dog food.

He was not a rich man. He worked as a shop assistant in Bradford in his youth and later as a factory storekeeper (an ideal occupation for a collector). Thus it is highly unlikely that the case will contain anything of value. But one thing you can guarantee : it will contain the unexpected. So join me over the coming few days whilst I investigate the strange case of Uncle Frank's brown case.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Ceci n'est pas une pipe

This posting describes events that occurred a week ago. The upset and unhappiness the events caused me meant that I have been unable to face up to writing about them until now. I am still not recovered. Perhaps I never will be.

It was the smell which first alerted me. It came drifting across the public bar of the Rock Tavern. Borne on the breeze by a dozen angels. Ripe, scented, luxuriant, special - very special. Some smells are nothing more than olfactory memories : this was one such. Many years ago I wrote to the BBC suggesting a new version of the ever-popular Desert Island Disks entitled Desert Island Smells in which a celebrity would be asked to choose his or her eight favourite smells. The BBC replied with one of their standard put-down letters saying that the idea whilst original, presented "technological difficulties". What the heck, difficulties are nothing but challenges wearing winceyette pyjamas. Anyway, if I was being interviewed by a stinky Sue Lawley, this particular smell would be at the top of my list (as we are talking about the BBC I should perhaps at this point invite listeners to phone in with their eight favourite smells : telephone calls cost £2 per minute and may take five minutes to be connected).

Sorry, I am going on. But I was upset. It was a forbidden smell. A smell I had said goodbye to 2 years and 127 days previously. It was the smell of my pipe tobacco. Bad enough that someone had entered the pub (my pub) smoking a pipe. Worse still they had chosen that delicious flavour that can only be Clan Tobacco. I did not recognise the culprit : a member of a party of four who were observing the Friday Night Quiz like a party of visiting anthropologists. Soon my so-called friends had worked out what was happening (it was shortly after I started crying I believe) and began trying to waft even greater quantities of the delicious smoke in my direction. Dave, introducing himself the the strangers, asked if it would be alright if I moved over and sat with them. They beckoned in my direction and I was drawn to them, moving along a rainbow of Cavendish and Mild Virginia.

It turned out that my new friends were a party of visiting dignitaries from Lüdenscheid in Germany. Attending civic functions each day, it appeared that there was nothing these gentlemen preferred to do each evening than come to the Rock Tavern and sample the delights of a traditional English pub. After a few beers we were the best of friends, sharing thoughts about the future of Europe, international friendship and the brotherhood of mankind. I thought they were splendid people but, to tell the absolute truth, I would have willingly sat with a visiting party of Catholic Nuns if one of them had been smoking a pipeful of Clan.

The following night was Karaoke Night and once again we took up our places in the Public Bar of the Rock. I was slightly disappointed to note that my new friends were not there. But half way through the evening, the familiar smell drifted through the door, closely followed by my German friends. We sat together and listened to the singing. My pipe-smoking friend got out his wonderful leather pipe case and carefully selecting a fine squat bulldog in a dark Brier (pipe smokers will know what I mean) offered it to me. For a moment I was Jesus on his lonely wooden tower, I was Neil Hamilton faced with a brown envelope full of fivers. My resolve was tested. And it crumbled just like a skirting board with dry rot (Have you any experience of dry rot if so why not phone in and let us know - telephone calls cost £2 per minute and may take five minutes to be connected). Before taking the pipe I glanced across the room to where my wife was sitting. She was staring straight at me with an intensity that could have felled a charging rhinoceros. My new friends would be going back to Germany soon and I had to live with this woman for the rest of my life. I shook my head and handed the pipe back. A tear fell, splashing into my half-drunk pint of Tetley's Bitter. I nodded farewell and returned to my side of the room. My wife put a comforting arm around me, acknowledging the temptation I had defeated.

They have gone back to Lüdenscheid now. Occasionally I look at the town's website. It looks like a beautiful place. My one hope is that eventually this blog will be Googled and listed somewhere under "Lüdenscheid". One of my friends might see it and read this posting. Moved by my plight they might invite me over for a stay. Me. Just me. Alone. Without my wife. And then we can give temptation another try.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Mr and Mrs Burnett and Stanley

There was a very good supplement in the Independent the other day - a collection of poems about Spring. Janie and I spent some time searching through it over the weekend : she in search of a solution to a crossword clue, me in search of enlightenment. Every poet, author and songwriter has rolled out his or her own Springtime simile and there is a whole array of images on offer from bluebells to gambolling lambs, from rising sap to bursting leaves. But for me Spring will always mean a skip. Not the skip of a baby rabbit or a new-born lamb. No : a rubbish skip. Each Spring I treat myself to a rubbish skip and prepare to rid myself of the mountain of old doors, cardboard boxes, broken lamps, and twisted deck-chairs which have accumulated during the previous twelve months.
Yesterday I decided that the 2007 Skip Week will be the week beginning the 23rd April. Over the next ten days there will be a rising sense of excitement and anticipation. This morning I ventured into the garage to undertake a preliminary recce. This means poking around old boxes attempting to separate rubbish from memories. Be warned, the process will throw up a wealth of memories and I am sure to want to blog-bore you with some of them (please note patents have been applied for for the phrase "blog-bore", if you want to repeat it please credit it as follows : copyright 2007 The Alan Burnett Corporation).
Today's memory is in the form of a photograph which was in a group of photographs I rescued from my parents' house after they had died. Photographs taken by other people are always a surprise as they do not have that familiarity which your own photographs have (this is even more true in the digital age when screen-savers turn our own photographs into a kind of wallpaper to life). The date must have been around 1981 or 1982. Stanley (the cat) adopted us. He turned up at our door one day and moved in. He stayed for about 18 months and then moved in with the woman four doors down the street. She bought him a diamante collar and took him on day trips to Chatsworth House. Such is loyalty. Such is life. Despite his desertion, Stanley will be saved from the Skip.

A Salty Tale

I suspect that I don't really like food. Those who know of my somewhat narrow dietary comfort zone will voice little surprise at this statement. But I am not referring to the range of tastes I find pleasant or acceptable, but to the very process of eating itself. For me eating is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. I know people who genuinely like food - I am married to one - who can devote themselves entirely to the experience, savouring each mouthful, each new carrot being a fresh journey of discovery. I, however, need to do something else whilst eating : watch television, read a book, pick my nose, listen to the Archers - or preferably all four at once. I accept that this makes me a difficult and irritating dining companion but I have reached the "it does exactly what it says on the tin" stage of life : so those not liking it simply have to lump it.

Anyway, I was settling down to my plate of chips last night and desperately searching for something to read. The only thing within reach was a copy of "Hospital Doctor", the Plumber's Gazette of the hospital medicine trade. As I flicked through the pages - avoiding the drug adverts which always seem to feature some smiling middle-aged twit who has just overcome diarrhoea and is living life to the full for the first time in years - I found a feature entitled "Bad Medicine" which seemed to have been modelled on Ben Goldacre's excellent Bad Science column in The Guardian. The Bad Medicine column in the copy of Hospital Doctor I was reading was entitled "Studies Are Not Worth Their Salt". The content of the article - written by a Cheshire GP, Dr Malcolm Kendrick - is neatly summed up in the opening paragraph :

"It appears to be almost universally accepted as a scientific fact that if you eat more than 6g of salt a day, this will significantly increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death. But this "fact" is not supported by one single scrap of direct evidence"

The article goes on to review a number of studies, the majority of which show no correlation between reduced salt intake and improved cardiovascular outcomes. I have neither the expertise nor the time and space to review the arguments. But the very fact that a considerable degree of doubt exists about something which has become one of the shibboleths of the modern dietary movement is cause for concern. It throws the veracity of all those traffic lights which increasingly appear on every food package into even greater doubt.

Reaching for the salt pot I sprinkled an extra layer of salt on my chips. And yes, I quite enjoyed them.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

All Blogged Up

I wish to introduce a new phrase to the blogging vocabulary : "to be blogged up". To be blogged up means to have updated all your blogs and is used in particular following a period of non-posting due to high holidays or low dyspepsia (or both). Thus it is with pride that I announce that I am all blogged up.

News From The Balcony

The paint may have still been wet on the balcony rail and the cocktails might have had a passing resemblance to a mug of tea and a glass of beer but the first ever News From Nowhere Annual Cocktail Party took place in Fixby, Huddersfield on Saturday 7th April 2007. All four authors - together with nearest and/or dearest - attended the event which was described in a press release as the greatest coming together of literary talent since the disbanding of the Algonquin Round Table in 1929. The moment was captured in the above digital image which shows (from left to right) the suitably shadowy figure of dph (the Alexander Woollcott of our little circle); Alan Burnett (who has a passing resemblance to a portly Harpo Marx), Jane Gordon-Cumming (Dorothy Parker, who else) and Edwin Osborn (may I suggest Robert Benchley).
The world is not yet ready for the witty repartee which flowed like syrup-of-figs around the dinner table. But such a good time was had by all, nobody has found the energy to post to the blog for the four days following the event. So it is perhaps a good thing that the Round Table will not gather together again until 2008.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

A Cautionary Tale Of Olympia and A Balcony Rail

It was quite skillfully done. A bit like being mugged whilst you were out shopping and not realising it until you had got home and were having a cup of coffee. With hindsight, the signs were there from the very beginning.
"So what do you think of it?" I asked my wife who was almost having to squint in the face of the bright sunlight being reflected off the perfectly painted white walls of my balcony.
"It is very good, did you really do all this?" The question was as superfluous as it was insulting. Of course I had done it all and the fact that various parts of my skin, hair, clothes and shoes were flecked with spots of B&Q Best White Masonry Paint was ample proof of the pudding.
"And what about the rail?" I reversed out of her line of sight so that she could now see the three balcony rail spindles painted a curious blue-purple colour. Did I detect a slight nervous swallowing back of bile juices from her throat, reminiscent of the look on Tracy Barlows' face when she was sent down for 15 years for murdering Charlie Stubbs? Was there a moment of hesitation whilst she searched for suitable words?
"Well, it's certainly different" With those four words I knew just how Edouard Manet had felt when his painting of Olympia was submitted to the jury at the Paris Salon. I, like Manet, had dared to be different. I could have taken the easy way out and painted the balcony rail with "Dulux Spring White With A Hint Of Bird Droppings". As my friend Manet would have said, "I could have painted the dear lady wearing her Sunday Best and having a cup of tea"

No more was said. The seed of doubt had been planted and over the next 48 hours it germinated and began to push its thrusting shoots through the top-soil of my consciousness. This morning I woke up at 6.30, nudged my wife awake and said : "I think I will repaint it white". Strangely enough she didn't grunt and say "what on earth are you talking about?". She knew. She had been waiting. As always, she had worked me like a marionette. Oh, she was very gracious about it. "No, I think you were right to go for a bit of colour. Perhaps we could get white with a hint of daffodil yellow" Manet was being told that it was quite a good idea to show Olympia reclining. Maybe on a chez-lounge wearing a blue velvet dress with an Astrakhan collar.

And so, as I spent most of the day repainting over the blue, conforming to the mores of twenty-first century decoration, my mind walked the streets of Paris with Edouard Manet. Of course, he held out and eventually found recognition at the Salon des Refuses. But there again, he wasn't married to my wife.

Silvester Rabbit R.I.P.

Silvester Rabbit 1998 - 2007
Died of a heart attack 4th April 2007
Laid to rest in close proximity to his two friends Pinky and Perky the Guinea Pigs
Together For Eternity

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The engineer behind it all

On the left, Alan, boat engineer.....

Our boat conversion is complete. AND had its BSS (boat safety scheme) inspection today and passed. (OK, subject to me organising a few bits and bobs, as our builder would say.) Whilst Des (who else?) did this I had a chance to fiddle with working the electric drive and the generator... this boat is going to be SUCH FUN! As Des says, also.

Quieter than a whisper when run "pure electric", only slightly louder than a whisper with the generator on. And, boy, no lack of potential power!!!

The jury's out over how long it can run without the generator on - or, more acccurately, we've not actually run it anywhere significant to see what happens in practice. I guess we won't get to try that until after a visit to see a half-painted cocktail balcony this week-end....

The man on the right (for strangers, that's me) provided rather a lot of money and the basic science (that's not me, it's all received knowledge) to insist the conversion could and would work. Alan did the incredibly neat and painstaking work to fit the actual units brilliantly. (And the manufacturers of the units provided things that do do what they said they would (surprise!) - after a bit(?) of tinkering by Alan.)

In case you aren't aware, this is the ONLY narrowboat I know-of (and I've asked around a lot) that works in precisely this way. And this is the first public announcement that it WORKS, apparently extremely well. (I've heard of quite a few conversions that didn't!)

Rare As Hen's Teeth

We don't carry advertising on this blog nor do we promote commercial products (this, I should point out, is not due to ethical principles but because nobody has yet made us an offer). Nevertheless, a blog does allow you to highlight above average service when you are lucky enough to come accross it. Thus we have introduced the Hen's Teeth Award For Outstanding Consumer Service. I am pleased to announce the first recipient is Pipex Hosting Services.
I have several websites hosted by Pipex under its Webfusion persona. Following my decision to roll-back my European work I decided not to renew the hosting account for The story gets a little complicated, but it became necessary to phone the company to sort out the non-renewal of the account. Being deaf, I normally dread such encounters. I get worked up if I can't understand what someone is saying on the phone which makes it even more difficult to follow what is going on. This morning I took the plunge and called the number. I was put through to a human operator very quickly, the person concerned was helpful and charming in equal quantities, and the problem was sorted in no time at all. If Pipex manage to access this posting please note that I am not sure of the name of the operator. However, I am sure you can identify her. If you do, look after her. She's good. And in this day and age that's as rare as hen's teeth.

The Agony and the Ecstacy

When I lay awake in the amber-light of early morning trying to think of what to do with my life, my thoughts rarely fix on a practical occupation. I see myself as a manuscript illuminator rather than a office clerk, a lighthouse keeper rather than a warehouseman. The frustration of my nearest and dearest revolves around twin foci : there are few openings for illuminators of either the textual or the navigational type in the Brighouse district, and even if I could develop such skills they would be of little use around the house. As those close to me know - I am not what you would call "handy". I come from a long line of engineers, toolmakers, carpenters and blacksmiths, But I have inherited none of the accumulated manual dexterity of my forefathers. Timber warps in my presence : nails bend, paint drips, joints fail, cables collapse and tiles rebel against the very grout that binds them together. So for me to pick up a hammer or wield a paintbrush is indicative of either a domestic crisis or a significant bout of boredom.
The backstory of my balcony is reminiscent of a Steven King novel. It's a bit spooky. Adjacent to my office there is a balcony which overlooks the garden and - having a southern aspect - catches the sun. In the winter, it is used by the rabbit as an exercise yard. In the summer I always fancy myself laying out there on one of those steamer chairs : glass of cold beer close to hand and a fall-asleep paperback open on snoozing chest. But the paint is peeling from the walls and the floor is toe deep in rabbit poo. So far I have commissioned two people to re-decorate the balcony. The first chap turned up with ladders and paint, sanded the woodwork down and then vanished off the face of the earth. He left his ladders and paint with us and his wife and children at home and was last heard of on an oil rig somewhere a long way away. Next I turned to the family. I won't mention names, it's not fair and anyway Dave knows who I mean. Contractor No 2 asked me to apply an undercoat myself - it would make the job quicker - and then failed to deliver a top coat. That was eighteen months ago. Today I decided enough was enough. It was time to take matters into my own hands. It was time to pick up a paint brush.
Two things caused me to change the habits of a lifetime. First, the sun came out. I could see myself in the steamer chair. I could feel the sun warming my blood. Second, arrangements were finally concluded for the first ever real-time gathering of the various News From Nowhere contributors. This will take place on Saturday and I suddenly fancied the idea of a cocktail party. I have only ever been to one cocktail party in my life and that was a thoroughly enjoyable affair. My ambition in life is now to host a cocktail party, in four days time, on the balcony next to my office. Thus I needed to start shovelling rabbit guano and painting walls.
I have to stress that this is merely an interim report. The job is but part-finished. The floor has been swept and the walls have been painted. However I have embarked on a major project of painting the very substantial rail that runs along the outside edge of the balcony. This, I have discovered, is not an easy task. Whilst the inner surfaces are comparatively easy to paint, the outer surfaces require me to hang precariously over the edge of the balcony. The gaps between the spindles can only be tacked by forcing my hand (and paintbrush) through the gaps rather like a monkey decorating the outside of his cage. There are 32 spindles to paint. So far I have managed 3. I will report back on progress.

Black Friar

For a time, during the late 1970s, I had a job leading parties of foreign visitors on tours of historic London pubs. One of my favourite sto...