Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Christmas Card To Gladys and Albert

It's Christmas and I have just delivered a sack full of cards to the postbox. But the best Christmas cards are the ones you can't send. This is a card to my parents, both now dead. Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Whatever Happened To Robinson Thickpenny?

The picture is of my maternal grandmother, Kate Kellam. All we have ever know about her is that she was a barmaid in Keighley in the early years of the twentieth century when she caught the eye of my grandfather, Albert Beanland. As far as my mother knew she was Welsh and left home in somewhat difficult circumstances and was adopted by a Keighley landlord. Her father died and her mother - my great-gradmother - got married again to someone called Robinson Thickpenny. An unlikely name, I know: like a character out of a Dickens novel. But did he exist, and what was the story behind my grandmothers' flight to asylum in Keighley?
My current project has therefore been to track down the Kellam family and discover how the unlikely sounding Robinson Thickpenny came into the story. So far I have discovered that Kate was born in 1877, the daughter of Albert Kellam and Catherine Moody. Albert was born in Hereford and in 1891 he was living in Penarth, Wales with his wife - who was born in Plymouth, Devon - and his two daughters Mary Ann and Kate (my grandmother). Albert was a grocer and, for our family, must have been quite well off at the time as he is listed as having two servant. Albert and Catherine seem to have moved around the country quite a bit : they were married in Hartlepool (where Mary Ann their eldest daughter was born), whilst Kate was born in Rutland. So my grandmother was not Welsh, but was born in the very smallest of English counties.
The wonderful thing about census records is that they provide a snapshot at a moment in time. Thus the 1891 census provides this snapshot of a classic Victorian lower middle class family : Albert 38, Catherine 36, Mary Ann 16 and Kate 14. But by the end of the year the picture has radically changed. Albert Kellam was dead and the family home seems to have broken up. The next time we catch a glimpse of them is in 1894 when Catherine re-marries in Bramley. West Yorkshire. Her husband was John Robinson Thickpenny. J Robinson Thickpenny was born in Louth, Lincolnshire in 1861. By 1894 he is in West Yorkshire marrying Catherine and in 1901 the pair of them are living in Middlesborough, but without Mary Ann and Kate. He is listed as being a stone mason in the 1901 census (where he is wrongly recorded as being called J. Robinson Thickpeuny). By 1909, he too - like Albert Kellam before him - is dead. His death is recorded in St Marylebone, London.
So what's the story? Why did Catherine move around the country so much and why did she keep losing husbands. Where did J. Robinson Thickpenny come from ... and where did he go to.  I will try and find out the real story. If I can't, I think I just might make one up.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Uncle John

I have written about my Uncle John before (see The Battle of Aisne And Data Security), but finding an old photograph of him I am drawn to return to the subject. This photograph must have been taken sometime in the 1920s (he was born in 1899) and it shows John Arthur Burnett (Uncle John) on the left and an unknown man on the right. I have tried selectively enlarging elements of the photograph to get clues as to the exact date or the location, but with no success
I guess it was taken in Bradford, for that is where John lived for almost all his life. I remember him well, a larger than life, solid Yorkshire man. He once took me to watch Bradford Park Avenue play Halifax Town and fed me with boiled sweets throughout the match. His life and mine - connected by our shared memories - span the centuries in a way that is almost beyond belief. He was born in the nineteenth century, fought in the First World War, drove ancient wagons during the 1920s, fed boiled sweets to his young nephew in the 1950s. And here he is - in the twenty first century - on the web. 

Friday, December 12, 2008

It's 4.3170 In The Morning

As I write this it is 4.3170 according to the new decimal clock I have just installed onto my Google Sidebar. I have always been fond of decimal time and I have never understood why there has never been a more active campaign to get it adopted. The idea of dividing each day up into ten decimal hours each of which is made up of 100 decimal minutes subdivided into 100 decimal seconds is one of the finest ideas to come out of the French Revolution. Why we were so keen to adopt - long after the revolutionary ardour had faded - the ideas for decimal measurements, paper banknotes and all the rest, but leave the idea of decimal time in the coal cellar of history is beyond me. Decimal time is easier to understand, much simpler to calculate and much less confusing (there are no silly AM's and PM's on the decimal clock). It has the advantage that time seems to go at a more leisurely rate and its adoption would almost immediately lead to a slowing in the frenetic pace of modern life. As each decimal minute equates to about 1.5 old style minutes, tea breaks become longer, as does Chopin's Minute Waltz. 
My attempts to construct a decimal clock twenty or thirty years ago got nowhere because of my lack of technical skills (and I am the grandson of a clock-repairer so I should be ashamed of myself). However, now you can download decimal clocks onto your computer display and share the beauties of this most logical system of timekeeping. If you have a Google Sidebar you can attach a decimal clock to it, if you haven't you can view one by visiting the decimal time website
Back in the far distant days of licensing hours, I always used to say that the biggest advantage of decimal time was that it never got passed 10-o-clock and therefore it was never closing time. The Government has removed this advantage by allowing pubs to stay open as long as they want. But decimal time has still got its advantages. It is now 4.4172. It has taken precisely 10.02 decimal minutes to write this posting.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Salle De La Conference

Sometimes it seems as if you spend the first two thirds of your life acquiring things and the last third sorting through them and disposing of them. If this is the case, I suspect I have just crossed over the threshold of the Third Stage. I remember my parents, towards the end of their lives, seemed to be driven by a need to rid themselves of practically all material possessions, driven not by a desire to prepare their spirits for life ever-after but by a good, old-fashioned Yorkshire desire not to leave a mess for their children to clear up. I am pleased to say that I have not, as yet, progressed that far. I am still at the stage where I wish to leave a collection of neatly labelled filing cabinets to the Young Lad when my time comes.
Anyway, yesterday I was continuing the "Big Tidy" when I came across a group of three old postcards I must have bought thirty or forty years ago. One of them in particular caught my attention and it is reproduced above. It is headed "Conference of Locarno, 5-16th October 1925" and the main photograph shows the conference delegates seated around the table. Down the left-hand side is a list of the most important participants including the Foreign Secretaries of Britain, France and Germany: Austin Chamberlain, Aristide Briande, and Gustav Stresemann. There is no message on the back of the postcard, it is simply stamped "Salle De La Conference". What is perhaps most interesting about the postcard is that it contains what appears to be the autographs of all the participants.
Now I am sure that these are not the actual original autographs - such a document would be worth a small fortune - merely a print of an autographed photograph - but still it would appear to be quite rare. I have done a search of a number of vintage postcard sites and found no other copy of the card. The Locarno Conference itself is comprehensively covered (see, for example the UN's 75th Anniversary Exhibition) as it represented an important stage in inter-war European political developments. In 1925 Europe was at a crossroads, the Treaty of Versailles had failed to deliver a peaceful continent but men like Briande and Stresemann were a powerful symbol of hope for the future. The various treaties signed in October 1925 in Locarno just might lead towards a peaceful path for the continent, that must have been the feeling of a majority of those men sat around the conference table as they smiled into the camera. The majority, but, I suspect, no all. Look carefully and you will spot Benito Mussolini representing a growing band of people who had a very different future for Europe in mind.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Great Expectations

As someone who once was a Senior Lecturer in Management Studies I have to confess that I have always had grave doubts about the intellectual foundations of the subject. This is even more the case when an adjective is added to the term "management". More recently, I was - for a time - a member of a Risk Management Committee and this experience merely underlined my belief that when you see the term "management" you should reach for your AK47. 
I was therefore intrigued to discover, in a recent American Radio News broadcast, the latest field of management studies: Expectation Management. Expectation Management is a field which - according to last night's MSNBC News - the Obama Transition Team are studying very carefully. They are anxious to ensure that people don't have too many expectations of the in-coming Obama Presidential team (this is quite a turn-around from their recent job of ensuring that people had too many expectations of the team). I am still trying to understand what the "science" of Expectation Management involves (the above diagram comes from one of the on-line guides) but I have hopes of a great future for it. 
FOOTNOTE : The Festive Season is just around the corner and thus there will be many calls on my precious time and it may not be possible to post as many entries to this Blog as people have become used to. Also it may be that the postings are not as entertaining or informative as readers have come to expect. Obviously we will try our best but we are faced with very severe conditions, the like of which have not been witnessed for almost eighty years. 

A Postcard From Alexandria

I always thought that Alexandria was in Egypt and therefore it came as a bit of a surprise when I discovered an old postcard from the collection of my Great Uncle Fowler. The subject of the photograph is quite clearly, the Fountain in Alexandria. Equally, the clear evidence is that the postcard was sent in 1907 and is postmarked "Alexandria". However the message is far more in tune with 21st century travel arrangements. "Enjoying myself immensely here for a weekend", JW writes. "Only fault is it is of too short duration". Could people really jet off to Alexandria for the weekend in 1907? 
The trusty Web provides the answer : Alexandria isn't in Egypt, it is in Dunbartonshire. Not only does the excellent Vale Of Leven website provide me with a very readable history of the settlement, it heads this up with a copy of the very photograph which appears on Uncle F's postcard. Situated a few miles south of Loch Lomand, Alexandria is a far more suitable weekend destination for the Edwardian traveller. And what a wonderful destination it must be. According to another internet source, it is the location of a great library (one of the finest in the ancient world) and also a spectacular lighthouse (which, I assume, is rooted in Loch Lomand itself). All this excellent knowledge comes from the internet. What a magnificent thing it is.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Case For Self-Restraint

Oh don't you just dread the phrase "We don't want to tell people how to live their lives, but ...". You know, as sure as bean sprouts are bean sprouts, that somebody is going to tell you how to live your life before the end of the sentence. Today, it is Waltham Forest Council, who have received massive public backing for their plan to stop the opening of fast food shops within 400 metres of educational establishments (See BBC Website : Ban on takeaways 'backed by 93%). Whilst one may welcome the Council's foray into the realms of direct democracy, one has to question the logic behind such a call. According to the Council Leader - the relatively chunky gent who came out with the "we don't want to tell people how to live their lives, but" statement - the reason for the ban is that "residents simply don't have enough choice because of the amount of fast food takeaways." This is an intriguing argument which suggests that the way to provide increased choice is not to provide more options, but to limit the available ones. The reason behind the ban is, of course, to encourage people to live more healthy lifestyles and, whilst one would not want to argue against people being healthy, the logic of the argument is once again, somewhat limited in its application. Excessive consumption of alcohol causes severe health risks, therefore should we ban the sale of alcohol within 400 metres of a domestic house. Winter skiing holidays involve considerable health risks therefore should we perhaps ban travel agents selling them. Of course there is a powerful argument for limiting the availability of some things within our society - weapons, dangerous drugs, off-road SUV's - but elsewhere what is required is a teeny bit of self-restraint. We need a population of citizens who are capable of occasionally walking past a kebab shop without feeling the need to fill their faces. And that will never be achieved by hiding the kebab shop around a corner.

Friday, December 05, 2008

'A Proper Family Christmas' hits Germany

I was amazed when a publisher called Der Club Bertelsmann bought the German rights to A Proper Family Christmas last year. Fancy paying someone to get the whole book translated! Yesterday my author copies of Schone Bescherung arrived. My knowledge of the language is restricted to a couple of 'German for Academics' classes at University because we had a crush on the teacher, so not being sure exactly what the title meant, I asked Google to 'translate this page', and it came up with the rather surprising 'War on Business'. However other friends have suggested something more like 'Pleasant time for Christmas Gift-Giving' , or even 'Here's a how to do' or 'Another fine mess'. The German language is obviously very adaptable.
Meanwhile I've had two lovely reviews for the English version, which AB has given me permission to boast about. Michelle of The Book Club Forum said: "Jane has created a great mix of personalities...There’s a wonderful, warm humour running through, with plenty of lines that brought a smile to my face. It’s a story that can be enjoyed at any time of the year, but is just perfect in the approach to Christmas." While Karen of the Cornflower Blog said: "I haven't met Jane, but from her writing I would judge that she is a very warm and funny person, and someone who is jolly good to know. That's what her book is like - it's cosy and comfy (in the nicest sense), it exudes good humour, it makes you laugh, and I can see it dramatised as a Brian Rix farce type of thing because it's great light entertainment. " As you can imagine, I was absolutely thrilled by both of these, though being a 'glass half full' person, my first thought was "Help, I can never do it again!"

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Let's All Bookmark

Bookmarking is such fun! Isn't it? For months now I have been a keen user of Delicious to bookmark my press cuttings (you can check out my bookmarks on my Delicious page) and now I have found a similar service for bookmarking photographs. Called, it works in a similar way to Delicious and allows you to bookmark both your own photographs and third-party photographs you happen to like (again, you can check out my bookmarks on my Visualize page). Of course, the critical problem with all this bookmarking is that it is unlikely that anyone else would be remotely interested in what you are reading or what photographs you are looking at. But if you follow this argument through to its logical conclusion, why should anyone else be interested in your thoughts. And therefore why blog? Why, indeed.

Warning Of Severe Weather Warning

We are becoming obsessed with the weather (or rather, even more obsessed with the weather). For the last 24 hours the television has contained little else than Severe Weather Warning after Severe Weather Warning. It appears that we were due for some wintry weather, which is not all that surprising seeing that it is winter. Dozens of local schools have closed their doors in anticipation of the snowdrifts and people have taken the day of work ... just in case. One forecast went as far as to say that the snow could be "up to 2 cms thick"! In fact, this forecast was quite accurate. In the hour or so that it snowed overnight, it must have built up to just about 2 cms, before the rain came and washed it all away.
It is not that the forecasts are wrong, it is the interpretation of them and the over-use of "Severe Weather Warnings". I suspect that the BBC and the Met Office came in for such criticism during some recent climate crisis (they failed to accurately predict the floods or some such thing) that they have called in the risk managers to supervise their issuing of warnings. This brings into play the inherent risks of the so-called science of risk-management : basically it is simply nonsense. Normally two factors are taken - likelihood and potential impact - and a simple numerical score given to each. These two numbers are multiplied together to give a final score and if this is above a certain level a warning is issued.  In the current case, heavy snow falls could cause massive problems (scores high) and it might just happen if a whole series of factors fall into place and the obligatory butterfly flaps its wings in China (score it medium). Hay Presto, let's issue a warning.
So schools close, shops shut their doors, my wife fills her car with spades and pickaxes, and Amy the dog goes in search of some Wellington boots. And what do we get? We get something akin to a dusting of icing sugar on a cheap supermarket cake. Call that snow!  Now when I was young ....

Thursday, November 27, 2008

There Is Nothing Like A Slide Show

It used to be an important part of my youth. You would go on holiday, take loads of photographs, send them off for processing, get them back through the post in their little plastic boxes, get the slide projector out, darken the front room, and then invite all your long-suffering neighbours and relatives around. It was a distinctly 1950s form of revenge. You had suffered a week camping in Western-Super-Mare, with the rain teaming down and the wind testing the strength of your guy ropes. You'd brewed tea over a camping gas stove and eaten food in which sand was a basic ingredient. You had sacrificed your comforting television and your even more comforting electric blanket. And all the while your friends and relatives had been at home in comparative comfort. It was payback time. Get out the Aldis projector and make them suffer.
In these days of digital PowerPoint presentations I had forgotten about the fun of the old slide show. My father used to make big productions of them with a practiced commentary (honed over many a performance) and a tea-break half way through the programme. My brother and I used to be relatively willing participants in this annual photographic crusade - Roger would move the slide transporter whilst I was allowed to hand him the next slide - except when a particularly embarrassing photograph of us would appear as part of a sequence. Whilst we operated the equipment, my father was free to point out particularly interesting aspects of each slide which he did with a pointer he had fashioned out of a garden cane.
I was reminded of slide shows by coming across one on the BBC website. With the current dominance of the moving image it was pleasurable to find an old-fashioned slide show presentation which allowed you time to soak up the atmosphere of the individual images. The subject of the slide show - at least the current subject as I have a feeling that it might be a regular feature - was the heritage of the Yiddish language in New York. I will not waste space trying to describe it, merely point you in the direction of where you can sample it yourself. It is only three minutes long and well worth a look. 
The subject is, in fact, quite timely as Isobel and I have just returned from a few days break in Prague. Whilst we were there we did a tour of the various historic Synagogues, including the mind-numbing Pinkas Synagogue with its moving Holocaust Memorial and the adjacent Old Jewish Cemetery. As you don't have to send the film away for processing anymore and wait for the plastic box to come back, here is one of the photographs I took of the Cemetery.
Indeed I will download all the photographs I took whilst on holiday and turn them into a slide show and incorporate them into the blog. There is no reason why you shouldn't suffer the boredom our friends and family of old had to put up with. Now where is that garden cane I had...?

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Walk Up Bowling Old Lane

It's always a delight to discover a website that quietly and efficiently provides a mass of information that someone - like me - with more time than direction would find absolutely fascinating. Thus I rejoiced the other day when I discovered a project run by Leicester University and funded by the Lottery Fund which seeks to make local historical trade directories available on the web. Historical Directories is a digital library of local and trade directories for England and Wales, from 1750 to 1919 which contains high quality reproductions of comparatively rare books: the essential tools for research into local and genealogical history. 
Looking for something to test the service out with I tried early twentieth century Bradford and found the 1912 Post Office Directory for Bradford and district. The full text of the Directory is available on the Historical Directories website, and access is free of charge. The detail is wonderful and provides a splendid insight into a northern city in the period just before the First War. All you need to look at is the occupations of the residents of the City. Take this extract which covers Bowling Old Lane between its junctions with St Stephen's Road and Newton Street.
212  Goodhall, W.  warp sizer
214  Woodhead, Mrs Delilah
216  Wood, Joseph,  milliner
218  Hunt, Mrs B. herbalist
220  Hardy, Herbert,  tailor
224  Carter, James,  broker
226  Wainwright, Mrs S. E.  confectioner
228 Old Lane House, G. F. Wraith
244 - 248 Prince of Wales, A Cowling
250  Burnett, Israel,  butcher
258  Broadbent, George H.  chemist
260  Chippendale, William,  grocer
262  Wroe, Joe,  newsagent
264  Kitson, O.  hairdresser
274  Hainsworth, J.  joiner
276  Sunderland, S.  chimney sweep
282  Thornton, Peter, bootmaker
290  Bolton, Joe,  commercial traveller
292  Thornton, Abraham.
294  Thornton, Daniel
There are so many things to notice : the number of shops, the range of trades, the names. The thing that drew my attention to Bowling Old Lane was, of course, the presence of a Burnett (being a digital resource, you can search the database by keyword), and sure enough the shop at 250 was the butchers' shop of my fathers' Uncle Israel. Being somewhat fond of pubs, my attention quickly drifted to the premises next door which was the Prince of Wales Pub. The landlord is listed as being A Cowling, and this must be Albert Cowling who was well known in the Bradford area as both a landlord of several pubs and as a keen supporter of the temperance movement. On his death in 1952, Albert left the sum of £100 from the profits he had made from selling beer and whisky to fund two annual sermons at the local church on the evils of alcohol. With this level of hypocrisy, it came as no great surprise to discover that Albert represented the Bowling Ward on the local authority as a Conservative Councillor.
The Historical Directories website is a fantastic resource. However, if you check out the "News" pages on the website you discover that the project ran out of funding in October 2004. The announcement says that the site will remain available for a further three years, but that takes us up to earlier this year. The danger that such a resource is removed is indeed sad. It needs more funding. Perhaps Albert Cowling's £100 could be put to better use.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Fenders And Hot Spots

A lot can happen in 100 years. The above illustrated Memorandum sheet was issued by Usher Brothers, a firm of ship's fender makers who were based in Liverpool at the beginning of the twentieth century. One of the brothers - and, I assume, one of the figures seated on the massive rope fender in the picture - is Isobel's grandfather, Charles Frederick Usher. Ropeworking was an established trade within the Usher family and there were several ropeworks belonging to Charles Frederick's father and his uncles listed in nineteenth century trade directories.
Trying to date the Memo is tricky, although the inclusion of a telephone number (383 Old Swan) should be a clue. Thus I need to look into the history of the telephone exchanges of Merseyside which should fill out many a cold and gloomy winters' day. Attempting to try and visit the yard shown in the photograph would be a bit of a dead end as Google Earth suggests that the site has been extensively redeveloped and now forms part of Wavertree Technology Park. However, it might be fun to see what has happened to the yard during the last 100 years, so an expedition to Liverpool is called for. One thing I did discover is that Dryden Lane is now listed as being a Wifi hotspot. So when I get to the area where the giant fenders were once made, perhaps I can post an update to the blog. I suspect Charles Frederick and his brothers would have been impressed by that.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Welcome To Stanley

All this looking into the past could be depressing if it wasn't for the fact families exist in the future as well as the past. On Sunday we had a visit from the very latest member of our family - Stanley Joe Horrocks. I will add him to the Family Tree and I take this opportunity to welcome him.

Don't Get Around Much Anymore

For a change today, Amy and I took our morning walk in Elland. By chance we passed the Elland War Memorial - still clad in poppy tributes - and stopped to have a look. I didn't count the names of those who fell in the Great War, but there were many. What I did notice were a number of familiar names.
Over recent days I have been re-entering much of the information  on our family history having changed software programmes (am I alone in finding Family Tree Maker annoying?) Having decided to try Family Historian, I could - I assume - have simply reloaded the information files from my old copy of FTM, but I decided it would be useful to take the opportunity of tidying the material up. The bit of the family I was involved with last night was Isobel's father (Raymond Holroyd Berry) his father (Kaye Holroyd Berry) and his mother, Sarah Ann Shaw. All three lived all their lives in Elland.
As anyone who has searched through census records for their ancestors will know, you often get a false feeling of success when you identify someone with the name you are looking for listed as living in the village you are looking at. What you tend to forget is that until comparatively recently, people really did not move around at all. When I first saw the list of names on the War Memorial and spotted two Berrys, three Shaws, and four Holroyds, I had visions of endless lines of Isobel's relatives lying dead in the muddy trenches of Northern France. And no doubt these are relatives, but not necessarily close ones.
I will need to do some more digging to try and tie these war dead into the immediate family, but with more and more resources becoming available on-line, that will be an interesting task.
A little later on our walk, we passed Workhouse Lane in West Vale. Street names rarely lie and sure enough we came across a building that could only have been a Workhouse. Again, I need to do a lot more digging to identify the history of this sad building and its inmates. When I eventually find those lists will I again be met with Berrys, Shaws and Holroyds?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Adsense, Nonsense and Harris Tweed

Those readers who are still awake may have noticed that I have now introduced adverts onto the main blog following a successful trial on the Daily Photo Blog. You may think that this is a response to the difficult economic conditions, but no, it is all part of a long-term research project. Earlier this year I decided to investigate whether it is possible to make money on the Internet with a minimum of effort (this is all part of a life-long research project to discover whether it is possible to make money from anything with a minimum of effort). For the current stage of research I decided on three strategies for making my fortune : (i) Establishing my own Internet book shop; (ii) Selling advertising space on my various blogs; and (iii) filling in YouGov public opinion surveys. The introduction of advertising on the News From Nowhere blog - via Google Adsense service - is part of the roll-out of the second strategy. At this early stage, I don't want to give any indication of the likely results of the research : I will issue a press release when properly audited results are available. However, I do feel I should comment on the workings of the Adsense service.
It is quite clever really. The computer programme Google uses searches through the blog posting for some key words and then selects adverts which fit in with the identified words. Thus, currently there is an advert for a landscape gardening service following my last posting which commented upon my brothers' garden which has been opened to the public. The relationship is, however, not always that obvious : the advert currently featuring on my Daily Photo Blog is for Pole Dancing lessons. I have spent some considerable time over recent days, searching through past postings to this blog trying to find the link, but I can't. Perhaps if there is no link it is left to my old friend serendipity.
I have to confess that I have becoming addicted to seeing which advert will emerge following each post. It has become a game between me and the Google computer. Today I set it a challenge by incorporating a nice red herring. Whether it is a smoked herring or a herring-bone Harris Tweed jacket I do not know. Let's see what nonsense, Adsense can come up with.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Website and Family Resemblances

Jane left a comment on yesterday's posting remarking on how much my father in his youth looks like my brother Roger. As soon as I read it, the mystery was solved : I know why I have been thinking of my parents recently. Earlier this week I got an e-mail from my brother - the first in many, many months - and we were able to catch up with each others' news. Thoughts of my brother, who lives on the Caribbean Island of Dominica, led to thoughts of my father and hence, my parents. Janie was quite like - the two of them are remarkably similar.
I e-mailed Roger after I found his new website almost by accident. It neatly outlines all the projects he is involved with at the moment including the usual sculpture and painting and the ever-present house renovation. One thing I did discover when I found the website was that the house on Dominica now has a substantial garden which has become a tourist attraction in its own right (you can book a tour for just $15). Initially, the idea of Roger designing and maintaining a garden surprised me - the Burnett boys were never very accomplished when it came to green fingers - but I soon discovered that the garden project was under the direction of his wife, Denise. Whilst I am a less than enthusiastic gardener, I am always willing to sip a cool beer whilst strolling around a garden so I will start looking for cheap flights to Dominica. 
The second image shows Roger creating a sculpture of my son Alexander, who by co-incidence was 19 yesterday. The sculpture was, in part, a thank-you for the work I did on setting up Roger's original website : a website which still forms an integral part of the new site. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Gladys And Albert

I don't know why but I have been thinking about my parents today. They have both been dead for a few years now, long enough for the memories of their final months to fade and be overtaken by happier memories of the previous ninety years or so. This photograph must have been taken in the early 1930s. They both look young and full of vital energy : ready for the long life ahead of them. I miss them both.

Our new friend Bill

Not a terribly good picture... but on the left is our new friend, Bill. Eunson (think, as he explained, Johnstone.) New Zealander, MD and chairman of a small basically electrical engineering firm, Motech, in Crawley, W. Sussex. Very pleasant, gentle, thinking, man. Even if he was flying to Edinburgh on Saturday to watch "the Rugby" (I'm told NZ won.)

By pure chance and Google search he'd come across my boat-conversion blog and so decided I might be able to help with his plan to make "off the shelf" diesel-electric hybrid units for boats... and so came to visit last Friday to see how our boat goes.

It did, even through the Sheepwash channel that runs to the river from the canal, against just about the fastest river flow we've ever driven through.

Upshot is that his firm is going to pay me (not fabulously, but, I think, fairly) to act as consultant for their diesel-electric project. I have to write a report of what I think are essential features to include... tricky because there's all sorts of possibly trivial-sounding things are really quite important - especially if the new unit is to be used easily by a normal boater and not a freak like me fascinated to observe all sorts of readings and neurotically check what's happening.

I've never been head-hunted for a hobby before. Well, except that my first D.Phil. offer from the Oxford nuclear physics lab (I chose teaching instead) I reckon all turned on me luckily and rapidly spotting a soldering fault in a bank of electronics equipment during a vacation job... which was not really anything to do with my vast(?) knowledge (long gone) of theoretical physics and had far more to do with my part-time hobby of fiddling with electronic circuits.

So I have an official title again, sort-of. "Consultant to Motech Control Ltd." Perhaps I should run up some headed paper. Or just remember a pleasant half-day meeting Bill... and get on with writing the damn report he wants.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Hell Where Youth And Laughter Go

It is ninety years since the end of World War I. The television on my desk is showing scenes of the Armistice Day Parade in London. The newspapers are full of special supplements marking the event. Siegfried Sassoon wrote the following poem in 1918. Reproducing it here is probably in contravention of half a dozen copyright laws. But it is my contribution to Armistice Day.
Suicide in the Trenches
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Spitfire Takes Off

It was like re-living your first day at "big school". We gathered nervously and stayed close to the door, chatting amongst ourselves and casting evaluative glances at the existing customers. Mostly we remained standing, not wanting to impinge on protocol : after all, the chairs we coveted might be the established territory of One-armed Doug, Leggy Lisa, or - even worse - Big Bert. We whispered amongst ourselves, shared our fears. It wouldn't work, it was far too noisy, there was nowhere to sit, they didn't have any malt .... that kind of thing. As the noise from the established clientele (the average age of which mist have been at least 23) grew we each individually plotted the quickest route to an exit. We cursed Cousin Dave.
It was Dave who had planned this Exodus (I am sure he will claim it was me but as the writer of this post I have the right to interpret history as I want). Once the news of the Rock's closure had been announced, he had been allocated the task of finding an alternative location for our Friday night quiz. Considerable research was undertaken and the choice was eventually made. The New Spitfire achieved an Obama-like victory because it had recently re-opened and had no existing quiz and nobody else would have us. Having identified a potential new home for the lost tribe, Dave and Jen jumped on a plane for three weeks in the sun in Spain. Thus the leaderless tribe congregated near the pub door and prayed for snow on the Costa Brava.
But then things began to change. Many of the existing customers left to join a raiding party on nearby Brighouse. Some seats in the far corner became available. A couple of Spitfire customers decided that they would give the quiz a try. A scout discovered that the draught Theakstones was cheap and surprisingly good. So we started our quiz. And when we finished the Landlady brought out a big plate of sandwiches to make the new first-formers feel at home. Smiles all around. We will be back next week. 

Bonfire Night

Saturday evening saw us at David and Anne's bonfire party. All the right ingredients : the fire burnt well, the fireworks were spectacular, the food was good, the treacle toffee was sticky, and the malt whisky was superb.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

An Open Letter To The President Elect

Dear Barack Obama,
I hope you don't mind me writing to you about an issue which you have already acknowledged is one of the most important ones facing you in the lead-up to your inauguration in January. I refer, of course, to the selection of the promised new puppy for Sasha and Malia. I don't know which of your speechwriters came up with the line in your election night speech about making good your promise to the girls to get a puppy for the move into the White House, but they deserve a bonus (if you thought of it yourself you are in danger of being too good to be President). The promise having been made, the world is now watching to ensure that you deliver and, more importantly, just what kind of puppy you deliver. What makes the choice rather difficult is that the politically correct choice - some delightful mutt from a Rescue Centre - is ruled out because of Malia's allergy. What you need is a hypoallergenic breed, and with this choice I think I might be able to help.
You will no doubt already be familiar with the result of the poll conducted by the American Kennel Club to find the perfect breed for the new puppy, and the fact that the winner - by a narrow margin - was a poodle. But you Democrats should always be suspicious about narrow victories: just remember the last two Presidential elections and what your country and the world was landed with as an outcome of a similar margin. Therefore I am writing to ask you to give very careful consideration to the runner-up in the AKC poll - a Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier.
I believe that I can speak on this matter with a degree of expertise as I am owned by a Wheaten (the Supreme Court will probably say that legally, I own her, but what does a room full of dusty old cat lovers know about it). From my experience cohabiting with Amy, I can assure you that a Wheaten will disrupt the White House, knock over great piles of CIA briefing Reports, play tug-of-war with the ancient bell-pulls, piddle on the antique rugs, knock the Russian Ambassador to the ground in its eagerness to lick his face, and chase around the Oval Office like a loon. I am sure that you will agree this is just what is required. As a bonus, a wheaten will uplift your spirits during the darkest of crises, and love you when all the well-deserved adoration of your recent triumph has died away. With a Wheaten, what you see is what you get : a scruffy, energetic, half-crazy bundle of fur with a tongue that sees licking as a vocation. A poodle may be statesmanlike, a Schnauzer may be intelligent, but a Wheaten will be a friend. And in these troubled times I suspect you are going to need all the friends you can get.
With best wishes,
Alan Burnett
P.S. Pass this photo of Amy on to the girls, it should swing the issue.

Friday, November 07, 2008

A Bit Of A Pot

I took this in the British Museum last week. I know I should be able to write a paragraph or two of description setting out the importance of the piece in relation to the development of Asian handicrafts. But I can't. It's just a bit of a pot and it's quite attractive.

Coffee, Cakes And Stoicism

This morning I amused myself by compiling a list of the most frightening phrases in the English language. You know the kind of thing. "This will need some work" when uttered by a dentist examining the furthest corners of your mouth or a car mechanic having just lifted the bonnet of your car. "It's a big job" - a phrase which is usually accompanied by an extended inhalation through moderately clenched teeth, thus producing a unnerving whistle - when voiced by a plumber or an electrician or my good friend Cousin Dave. I have a list of such utterances scribbled in the back of an old exercise book and this morning I added two more.
It is now six weeks since Alexander left home in order to make his way in the world of learning (and parties and sleeping and drinking and parties) and Isobel and I have been learning to live without the little chap. "It's a chance to do things together again" - a phrase that came very close to being incorporated into my list - said Isobel the other day. So off we went, shopping. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against shopping per se. I can spend many a happy hour trawling through the shelves of a bookshop of checking out the delights a half-decent stationery shop. I am not attracted to dress shops, china shops, food shops, furniture shops, or handbag emporiums : but what man worth his grapeshot is? Compromise is always possible, the kind of compromise that sees the memsahib head for M&S whilst I skedaddle towards Waterstones. It is when you eventually meet up again that dreaded phrase No. 1 comes into play : "It's time for a coffee". 
What is it about women and the desire to sit in some upper floor of a faded department store sipping coffee? It wouldn't be so bad if you could browse through your latest bookshop purchases, but you are not allowed. You have to "talk". I have always been a bit of a follower of the stoic school of thought which holds that as one has two ears but only one mouth, one should listen twice as much as one talks. Isobel isn't a stoic. What is worse, she won't allow me to be one. Thus we have to talk. And drink coffee.
As the Festive Season approaches a second new phrase has been entered into the black archive at the end of my exercise book : "We'll make a Christmas Cake together". I can't imagine why she wants to undertake such an enterprise, let alone approach it as some kind of joint bonding exercise. But for weeks the threat of the Christmas Cake has been hanging over me like a rich and sticky sword of Damocles. The other night we had a jolly shopping expedition to buy the ingredients - she wanted to stop for a coffee whilst we were out but I said that it was both cruel and unnecessary to shoot a man after you had hung him - and they now wait on the kitchen work surface ready for, what she tells me, will have to be a fairly extensive window of opportunity. I sit here listening for her car on the drive with a degree of trepidation. Tonight might be the night.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Greyscale World

The Autumn weather creates a greyscale world where everything is wet. When the sun does occasionally shine it simply warms the grey tones rather than tempt out the colours.

Celebrating the Millennium

Our hotel in London was just around the corner from the British Museum and therefore we were able to call in to what is one of the finest museum's in the world. And there are few finer feelings than walking through those grand doors - without charge, without let, and without hindrance. The former inner courtyard has been covered with a fine roof creating a wonderful space. Surely this must be one of the best Millennium projects in the country.

Winter Or Spring?

On the day of the US elections I decided to drop in on an old friend. I have written before about the poisonous, reactionary, right-wing, nutcase, Mark Levin. His daily ranting podcast leaves you not knowing whether to laugh or cry, and like toothache, is a thing that can only be endured for a very short period.  I decided, however, that I needed to listen to "our leader" (as the buffoon is referred to by his publicity department) for a final time in the Bush era. And he does not disappoint. America, he declares, is on the verge of voting in a Marxist Communist. He calls on all Americans to stand up to the "drones" who will vote Obama into power and defeat Governor Palin (he never cared for McCain who he sees as a political traitor). It is the usual drivel, Obama is a drug-crazed socialist who makes friends with America's enemies, every American liberty is at risk, the Constitution will be under attack, as will that great stand-by of "conservatives", "choice". The above cartoon, which is taken from the idiot's website, gives an impression of the world view of Mr Levin and his followers. Winter Cometh, he tells us.
And then the American people voted. Bush will soon be a thing of the past. Obama is the President-Elect. I would like to believe on Mark Levin's view that a socialist is now in power in America, but that is perhaps a little too optimistic. However, there is a new feeling of hope. A feeling that, at last, a new political Spring is approaching. I have consigned Mark Levin's podcast feed to my recycle bin. I feel Spring in the air.

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...