Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cholera Outbreak in Brighouse Follows Devastating Earthquake

My apologies to all those people who have been trying to contact me to see whether I survived last night's earthquake. As you can clearly see, I did. I have been a little busy today making right the earthquake damage and attempting to submit my own personal experience of the quake to the interactive news media.

The damage resulting from what one newspaper described as a "super-quake" was significant. In the excitement of the event I sat on my glasses. Thus, this morning I had to take a trip to the opticians for repairs. Expecting a large queue of fellow-citizens who had equally suffered such collateral damage, I was agreeably surprised when the opthaltromologist (or whatever they are called these days) agreed to see me almost immediately and fit me with a new set of frames (wholesale price £4.99p) for just £30. It is heartening they way communities pull together at times of crisis.

Watching the news reports of the disaster - with the help of my good-as-new-glasses - I was disappointed with the low-key and unambitious nature of the viewer-feedback. Such e-mails, text messages and photos are now such a part of the news culture that one expected more. The BBC claimed that they had received a text from a man in Barnsley which said "Earthquake in Barnsley" which makes you glad you paid your license fee on time. The only footage they could manage was taken from a petrol station security camera which - according to them - showed the trees shaking. Oh come on, we can do better than this. So this morning, Amy and I went out and snapped this view of Fixby Road in the aftermath of the quake.

Equally I have texted the following message to both the BBC and ITV :

Quake thru wife + me out of bed + dmolished house. cholera outbreak in Brighouse following mass dstruction. need lp fast from red x

Not sure if they will broadcast it on the evening news. We will have to wait and see.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Rummage To Fight Off The Pangs Of Hunger

Having run out of shirts that fit me, I am trying to keep on a diet at the moment. The trouble is that food is not just an essential fuel, it is also a diversion. It provides many of the punctuation marks in life's daily story. In the past, this function would have been partly fulfilled by a pipe of baccy (oh!, tobacco how I miss you). When tobacco went, the full stops and commas of my day would be represented by fruit pastilles, or chocolate biscuits, or buns. I know I should adopt a new set of representative grammatical symbols made up of healthy fruits, but with such a prospect I am tempted towards the punctuation-free style of some of the more avant-guard writers. But I have retained the paragraph-break of my day : in previous ages this would be the pipe-scrape and refill with fresh pungent tobacco (Tobacco did I tell you how much I missed you?) or a fresh hot toasted tea-cake. Now it is a rummage.

I have always been a keen rummager. Searching old cupboards in the hope that I might discover some forgotten piece of the past. I find time travel relatively easy. I can be transported back 40 years or more by the chance discovery of an old photograph, a discarded letter, or a crumpled press cutting. Today, whilst trying to get through the mid-morning hunger-pangs, I discovered an old book.

"A Century Of Progress" was published by Joshua Tetley, the Leeds brewer, in 1923 and looks back at the first hundred years of the firm's history. It's a lovely book, finely printed, beautifully illustrated, and, it would appear from a quick internet search, quite rare. According to a pencilled note on the front page, I was given it by two good friends of mine 21 years ago. Towards the end of the slim volume there are a collection of black and white photographic plates. The following example is a view of the 17 4-ton wagons owned by the brewery.

The frontispiece of the book has the following dedication :


This Souvenir of a Century is dedicated to all friends whose goodwill has been won and kept through long years of business. The Past comes not back again save in the mirror of memory. The Present spreads its banner over us. The Future saith, like the old Rabbi, "The best is yet to be."

Tetley's remains in name but it is now part of the international Carlsberg group. On reflection, perhaps the old rabbi got it wrong.

Monday, February 25, 2008

High Hats and Flat Caps

In Oxford, at the weekend, we decided that what was required was a good, old-fashioned board game. Searching Jane's game cupboard we found a beauty - "Society or High Hat". According to the instruction leaflet it was manufactured in 1937 by Parker Brothers who also published Monopoly. In some ways it is like Monopoly : you move symbols around a track and collect things. But instead of collecting money you collect social points and the various challenges and rewards are all concerned with enhancing your social standing. If you land on the right square you win yachts, polo ponies and Riviera mansions. If you land on the wrong squares, various social disasters occur which rob you of your social status. Your daughter may marry a chauffeur or you may be missed off the guest list to a social gathering. The equivalent of going to jail is having to visit a sanitarium. Occasionally you are instructed to give money to a milk fund for poor children but - if you are lucky - you can win it back again before they get their hands on it.

It's the kind of game which could form the basis for a PhD thesis on the social situation in the 1930s. It should be preserved and put on the core curriculum in secondary schools. Attempting to find out a bit of background about the game I looked it up on the web but there are only a couple of references to it. One is a non-functioning link to an auction site, the other is a passing reference which suggests that copies have been auctioned in the past and reached considerable prices. Strangely enough, our game was won by Isobel - the daughter of a mill labourer from Halifax. Just goes to show - the distance between the high hat and the flat cap may not be as great as we imagined.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Risky Assessment

I was going to write about the story in today's Guardian about the London Fire Brigade Internal Memo which warns fire crews involved in fire prevention home visits of the dangers of entering a house where tobacco smoking may have taken or be taking place. People requesting such a visit must, according to the Memo, be able to guarantee a smoke-free environment. If smoking has taken place in the past the premises must be ventilated before the visit takes place. If the environment is not entirely smoke-free, "the crew will complete a risk assessment and consider whether the visit should take place".

As I said, I was going to write about it. But as you can see, after carrying out a risk assessment I have decided the action should not be undertaken. Shame.

Yxoxy Ot Bac Ha Pblbanky

In search of a different perspective on the resignation of Fidel Castro I turn to my copy of Pravda, but then realise I can neither speak nor read Russian. It would be, I suppose, a perfect test case for machine translation but I can't be bothered manually feeding the text into on-line dialogue boxes so I decide to look at the pictures instead and use my imagination. There is a large cartoon at the top right of the page - Fidel with fishing rod saying something suitably cutting. But what? I like to think it is something like "They all think I'm retiring to go fishing, but I'm working on a plan to invade Miami",

Then there is a bar chart which features 25% very prominently. Could it be "Chances of being fried to death during the height of the cold war". And a picture of a thoughtful-looking JFK. Is he pondering the 1963 missile crisis or whether to support Clinton or Obama at the Democratic Convention?

And then I have a "good idea". Surely in this day and age Pravda has a website with a set of English pages. And there it is in all its' glory - boasting that it has been on-line since 1999. It is very flashy and very colourful. You can click on a direct link from the page to order a new Rolls Royce Phantom Coupe. Click another link and you can read a story about a nude woman buying petrol at a filling station. And there are, of course, several links to the latest stock exchange trends.

On mature reflection perhaps Castro - in the Pravda cartoon - is not stepping off the leadership stage in order to prepare his invasion of Cuba. Perhaps he is just setting some time aside to practice turning in his grave.

Monday, February 18, 2008

From Center Parc to Northern Rock Via China

I return from a weekend away at Center Parcs to discover that Northern Rock is to be nationalised. The Conservatives declare that it is "a return to the bad old days of the sixties and seventies". A solution, they believe, must be found within the private sector. A private sector which is, of course, more open, vibrant, and successful than any nationalised industry could ever be.

We have been going to the Center Parc at Sherwood Forest ever since it first opened in 1987. Over those 21 years there have been a number of changes : it has got bigger, more organised and less eccentric. Center Parcs started in the Netherlands in the 1960s, the brainchild of sports enthusiast Piet Derksen who had a vision of "a villa in the forest" at the centre of a new type of activity-based, environmentally-friendly resort. Those early resorts were wonderfully eccentric : there were stories of naked saunas and the complex instructions for operating the ovens were in Dutch. If you went to use one of the public telephone boxes the only information available was on how to make an international phone call to Iceland.

By 1989, the UK arm of the Center Parc operation had become part of the brewing giant, Scottish and Newcastle. The delightful eccentricities slowly faded away and you were limited to drinks from the Scottish and Newcastle family. Unsure as to whether it was still part of S&N, I tried to track down the company's corporate ownership when I eventually got home. As it turns out it is like a lesson in twenty-first century capitalism. In 2001 it was sold to a French/German partnership and the following year it became the subject of a management buy-out. Later it was floated on the stock exchange and then in 2006 it was bought by the American private investment fund, the Blackstone Group. If you think you might have heard of the Blackstone Group, you are probably right. It has its fingers in a very large number of pies. It owns the Hilton Hotels, a chain of American hospitals, Legoland, Madame Tussauds and McVites Biscuits. It also runs a number of Hedge Funds (they are kind of the capitalist equivalent of betting syndicates) and they were recently involved in making a bid for the Sainsbury Supermarket business. Appropriately enough for such a capitalist enterprise, they are part owned by the People's Republic of China!

Blackstone was one of the groups who expressed interest in making a bid for Northern Rock. They didn't and it went into old-fashioned, backward-looking, one-dimensional public ownership instead. I am enough of a child of those dreadful sixties and seventies to say, "thank goodness".

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Edwin, Jane and Deer

Few things are new. Here is a picture I took several years ago of Edwin, Jane and their pet deer.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Surprise Visitor

I was sitting at my computer by the window this afternoon, when I saw a largeish brown animal bounding up the garden towards the house. For a moment, I thought it was a fox. Then I realised it had horns. There was a deer in our garden! In nearly 30 years of living here, I've seen the squirrels gradually increase from being a rare sighting, we've had mating hedgehogs grunting in the bushes, baby foxes playing on the shed roof, and any number of interesting birds, but I'd never seen a deer here before.
It was hard to know what to do. The deer didn't look at all frightened or as if it needed rescuing, but stood pensively by the birdbath, gave its bum a little wash, and glanced towards the window, watching me trying to hold the camera steady. I knew the least move would send it off, so I had to resist the temptation to go out and make friends, or invite it in for a cup of tea. I did grow a little concerned when I saw one of our neighbours' leopards eyeing it from behind the trellis.
Eventually the deer bounded off, stalked rather cautiously by Austin, clearly wondering if he had met his match at last, and then reappeared, going in the other direction. Maybe he found his way out, or maybe he (or she) is going to make its home in the suburbs of Oxford and start a herd.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Dagwood Remembered

Anxious to use up my monthly Press Display credits before they go out of date I purchase a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle only to be reminded of how dull the American press can be. It is partly the way almost all American papers use front-page leads and inside follow-ups. This results in over-crowded front pages and then a mad scramble to try to find the rest of the story. Inside it results in a mass of headless stories sloshing around in a kind of wordy broth.

Looking for some justification of the 25p (or whatever) I had spent on gaining access to the paper, I eventually turned to the comic page and came face to face with the adventures of Blondie and Dagwood, Instantly I was taken back fifty years. My father would come in from work in the local factory with his copy of the Daily Sketch. I would turn to the cartoon page and there would catch up with the latest adventures of Blondie and Dagwood. Even then - in the late fifties - the characters were seriously out of date, stuck in a time-warp of what must have been America in the 1930s. But I lapped the stories up : Blondie and Dagwood were American suburban life : a kind of two-dimensional Desi and Lucy Show.

The Daily Sketch vanished in the 1960s and my father - unable to cope with change at the best of times - never brought a paper home again. Somehow, I assumed that Dagwood and Blondie had also sunk beneath the tide of the swinging sixties. It was therefore quite a shock to discover them still alive and looking not a day older than they were 50 years ago. Their adventures are just as vacuous as they ever were. According to their website (oh yes, they have a website) they still appear in over 2,300 newspapers in 55 countries throughout the world and have an estimated daily audience of 280 million people. I can't decide whether to be heartened or saddened by these facts : it is something I need to think very carefully about. Then I decide not to think at all but to read another comic strip instead.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Cambridge In The Spring

Yesterday we visited Cambridge on what was a most delightful Spring day. Set against the sad background of the sudden death of Chrissy's father, Mark and the boys, Issy, Xan and myself set out to visit Tim who, since last October, has been a student at Queens. The sky was the kind of brilliant blue you only get on winter mornings, but the temperature was more in keeping with Spring. Despite the sadness it was a memorable day and one which gave rise to more photographs that I have taken in a long time. There are one or two here - and some of the others I will add to my Daily Photo Blog which - in response to public demand - is open for business again.

The Boys : Looking for all the world like an album cover.

Queen's College : One of the many courtyards we wandered through.

River Cam : After lunch we took a punt down the river - perfect weather.

One of my favourite images of the day - The river has fun with the perfect proportions of King's College.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Originality, Rose Madder and Motorway Slush

My original thought of the day came to me as I was walking Amy the dog through the Crematorium. It was "are there any original thoughts left in the world?". The origin of this profound thought can be traced back to the artist Titian and his relationship with his model. For some reason I was trying to remember the ending of the limerick which starts : "While Titian was mixing rose madder". Either my wife, Isobel, or JGC (or both) taught me the limerick many years ago and they in their turn were taught it, I believe, by one Professor Goodyear. Why I should suddenly think about all of this one February morning in 2008 I have no idea, but once having thought about it I couldn't get it out of my mind. I searched the recesses of my mind for the rest of the verse but couldn't find it. So, would I be able to find it on the web?. Had the smutty rhymes of Prof G managed to escape from the greatest reference source of all time. As soon as I got home I would Google Titian and Rose Madder and see what came up. What came up, of course, was the rest of the limerick proving, once and for all, there is little original left in the world.

To test out the thesis I decided to try a selection of thoughts in order to see if anyone had had them before. "Can caterpillars cycle backwards?" I wondered. The answer - according to Google - is seemingly that they can. Research published in 1993 in the Journal of Insect Physiology revealed that caterpillars can summersault backwards in a cycle that can last several days. And so it continued : whatever mad thought I had, somebody had travelled the road before and had the same thought. The nearest I came to an original thought after several hours of research was "motorway slush makes you thin in the purple glow of evening". No doubt someone else had the same thought between my Googling it and my getting round to copyrighting it on paper.

Oh and the limerick, you ask? It goes like this :

While Titian was mixing rose madder;
His model reclined on a ladder.
Her position, to Titian, Suggested coition;
So he nipped up the ladder and had 'er.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Calder and Hebble Navigation

I have some old black and white prints taken by the canal in Brighouse some forty years ago. This isn't one of them. This was, in fact, taken yesterday. But turn the colour into black and white and the years roll away.

The Great Hole Of Fixby : Turn Up, Call By, Drop In

As many a great guru will tell you, spiritual well-being is all about balance and harmony. For every bit of ching there needs to be some chang, for every astral peak there needs to be an astral trough. For every Great Wall of China there has to be a Great Hole of Fixby.

Yorkshire Electricity has decided to lengthen the moat which surrounds our house. It appears that the aim of the exercise has now changed from trying to re-connect us to the mains to searching for a new seam of coal which could single-handedly resurrect the Yorkshire coal mining industry. The piece of cable which is our umbilical cord and which alone separates us from a new dark age still snakes across our lawn and, in the way of such things, is now being incorporated into the natural environment. Birds are nesting in its warming presence and squirrels are gnawing it for its rubber coating. As I write a team of chaps are extending the hole still further and what looks suspiciously like an oil pumping rig has just arrived down the road.

The telephone is still off. British Telecom must have been impressed with the experiment and have now extended it to another 140 homes in the vicinity. As there is a large hole outside our house people are assuming that this mass failure of the telephone system is our fault and rotten fruit and old Bakelite telephone handsets have been thrown at our house.

I have started - in full view of all the street - filling a large number of buckets with water and storing them outside the house. Everyone thinks I know something they don't and have started doing the same. When we called at the local ASDA yesterday they had sold out of buckets. I always remember with fondness my late mother-in-law who once single-handedly started a shortage of salt in the north of England by going to the local shop and buying two dozen packets of salt. When people asked her why she was doing it she just gave them a knowing look and went on her way. Within days the Great Salt Shortage was being reported on Look North. As I fill my buckets from the outside tap I know she would have been proud of me.

Salt And Pepper

A beautiful sunny day today so Amy and I decided to take a walk along the canal towpath in Brighouse. The photograph is of one of the hoppers of what used to be Sugden's Flour Mill. The building is now empty and awaiting re-development. The two giant towers used to be known by the locals as salt and pepper.

The Fat Dog Is Back

It's back. After a couple of months scratching their flees and sniffing things you would rather not know about, Amy and her intrepid owner are once again tramping the streets, the woods and the beaches of California as they make their virtual way from Los Angleles to New York. We rejoin them - after an extended Christmas break - as they make their way from Fort Bragg to the village of Westport.

You can read all about their adventures on the Fat Dog Blog.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Karnt Spel, Wont Spel

As aniwon else notised - or, yet agin is it just mee? Spelcheek on Bloger isn't worcing. Pleas Mr Goggle, mend hit.

Is There Anyone Out There ... If So Don't Bother Phoning Me

One of the unending nightmare fears of all bloggers is that there is nobody out there reading any of this. I used to take comfort from the frequent comments left by a variety of people called "anonymous" as proof positive that there was a thriving audience. But then I discovered that all such comments were being sent by a bored cousin who - just having his leg removed or some such thing - was stuck at home with nothing better to do. However I now have strong evidence that this blog is being widely read - if nothing else amongst people working for the major utility companies.

You may recall that a few days ago I wrote about the reality experiment being carried out by the Yorkshire Electricity Board to discover how people can survive without electric power. Following a mixed bag of angry and tearful telephone conversations they eventually rigged up a piece of wire which connected our house to a live cable they had found down the street. To do this meant digging several large holes in the street - one of which cuts our drive and house off from the outside world. The power is now working, but the wire and the holes remain.

Someone from British Telecom obviously read the blog and decided that it would be equally good fun to try the experiment with telephone connections. Thus, just three days after all the power went off, on Sunday afternoon all the telephones went off. When contacted - by a life saving mobile phone - British Telecom ascribed the problem to a "network failure" but were unable to say which network had failed. They promised to send someone around on Tuesday.

Let me immediately say that it is a damned sight easier living without telephones that in is living without electricity. I would be quite happy if the British Telecom engineer never showed his face - which, in the case of most utility companies , is a very strong possibility - but the rest of the household disagrees. Until, the lines are spliced and mended (or whatever they do) my communication with the rest of the world is via this blog. Like the wartime BBC - which used to have a whole series of messages that made sense only to the recipient at the end of each news broadcast - until the crisis is over blog entries will include a series of messages meant for individual recipients.

* * * * * * * * * * *

To DPH : Meet you on the steps of Firth Hall tomorrow.
To Bleeding Dave : Did you get home last night OK after the session in the Barge?
To Yorkshire Water : Don't get any silly ideas after reading this blog.
To Terrawarm Double Glazing : Yes, please send a representative to call on me.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

A Rare Event Captured On Camera

At the end of last year I decided to print my own Christmas cards. This would have the dual advantage of making it appear that I was arty and also saving a considerable amount of money. I could also bulk print the greeting which would save me having to write "with best wishes ... " about 100 times. Deciding that it would be appropriate to have a snowy scene I searched through my image files looking for something suitable. And with the possible exception of a picture of Helsinki Airport and one of a park bench in the crematorium - neither of which are idea Christmas card material - there was nothing. This discovery brought home the reality of climate change more starkly than twenty UN reports. It also resulted in a resolution to change my ways : as soon as even the smallest flake of snow fell in the future I would be there to capture it forever. So yesterday provided an opportunity to record an event which will probably be unknown to my grandchildren as they toast their toes on some tropical beach in Bridlington. Here, for posterity, is what snow looks like.

Friday, February 01, 2008


The woods are beginning to dry out and the blue winter sky picks out the detail on every bare branch. These are the woods at the top of the road. If they have a proper name I don't know what it is. To me they are just "the woods".

Coming Out Of The Dark With The People Of Eigg

It was like one of those historical reality shows. You know the kind of thing : you send some poor family to live their lives in a eighteenth century hovel with nothing but the things a typical eighteenth century hovel-dweller would have access to. In our case the experiment had been designed for us by the Yorkshire Electricity Board. Someone from their Research and Promotions Department must have had the thought - following a half-decent lunch - what would happen to a typical family if you deprived them of electricity in the middle of a blizzard. The result of this unique experiment I can now announce - you go stir crazy.

At 1.20pm yesterday all the power to our house failed. At first I thought it was a generalised power cut due to the stormy weather outside. But with a falling heart I noticed that John and Chris opposite had their lights on as did Terry next door. As suggested in my copy of "The Readers' Digest Introductory Guide To Being A Real Man" I checked the trip switches on the fuse box. As far as I could see none of them had tripped. And so I phoned the Electricity Board.

I was, of course, greeted by one of those multiple choice tests especially designed for the hard of hearing. A voice specifically chosen for its lack of clarity gave me a variety of choices in relation to the pressing of keys : "If your house is burning down press one, if you have had a heart attack press two ...", that kind of thing. Unfortunately I could not make out what the choices were and therefore I entered a completely random sequence of numbers and eventually got through to what sounded like a human voice. As far as I knew this could have been some OAP in Slaithwaite, but I explained my problem to them anyway and they said they would send someone around in three to five hours (at least, that's what I thought they said although it might have been that they would send a round tree and five flowers).

I sat in the increasing gloom looking out of the window and at about 3.30pm a chap arrived who looked as though he knew what he was doing. He had a hard hat, a box full of tools and a metre thingy. I must confess I did not ask for ID and he might have been the local con artist, but by now I was getting desperate and didn't all good con artists have torches, in which case I could possibly mug him.

Con artist or not he tapped wires and measured flows (or something like that). He also shook his head frequently and sucked his breath in through his teeth in that worrying way real workmen do. A kind of "wrrrrrrrr" which, of course, means "Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear you have got problems haven't you?". He got in his little van and drove up and down the street. He seemed to stop at a house further up the street for a cup of tea. He walked up and down the drive. He squinted. He scratched his head. By 4.30pm he came back and announced that he would "have to send for the diggers" and, assuring me that these Australian gentlemen would be with me before the night was out, he went on his jolly way. By now the candles had come out and the overcoats had been put on (although the central heating is gas it seemingly relies on electricity to tell it what to do).

By early evening, Isobel and I were sat in candlelight and rapidly exhausting our stock of conversation. Fairly quickly we had determined that practically everything that makes life worth living uses electricity to function. Just think of it .. no lighting, no heating, no television, no computers ... and - worst of all - no dishwasher. At some stage the diggers arrived - they were not Australian but they had shovels - and they began to dig up the pavement outside. Throughout the evening as we tried to improvise - using torches to try and read, putting candles in glasses to multiply the reflection - we would get updates from the diggers. The main cable was ancient. It was not possible to attach a line to it. They had found some live cable lower down the road. They would set up a temporary cable. By 10.30pm we had two large holes in the road outside, a cable snaking across the garden and through a gap into the garage and, most wonderfully, the lights back on.

The repair is only temporary. A team would come to dig up the road. They were 99% certain that would be the next day. So here I sit waiting for them to arrive. Knowing the statistical system utility companies operate, I assume that the "99%" means a one in three chance. So I might be sitting here for some time.

But I amused myself by reading an item on the BBC News website. Residents of the Isle of Eigg in Scotland will today celebrate the opening of their new power supply system which, for the first time, will supply them with 24 hour electric power. As the daylight dims I will raise a glass of Laphroaig in silent salute to my friends on Eigg. I know what you have been through. Together we can come out of the dark.

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...