Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Times Archives, They Are A' Changing

My attempt to discover something of earth-shattering importance that happened on my birthday led me to the Times Archives, just at the point when they were being re-launched as an on-line, interactive service. And to mark the event (the re-launch, not my birthday) access to the complete digital archive (from 1785 to 1985) is free of charge for a limited introductory period. Never been able to resist any invitation which contains the phrase "free of charge", I signed up and entered the dusty digital cellars where some 200 years of scanned and digitized content is stored. And, of course, one of my first stopping-off points was the 17th June 1948 (I know Burnett's Second Rule of historical newspapers says that I should have been looking at the 18th June, but rules are there to be broken). It has to be said that the new Times electronic archive is still suffering from a few teething problems of the Terminal 5 variety. Sometimes you can do a search, sometimes you can't. Sometimes you get an image, sometimes you don't. And rarely can you print or save anything. So my search was limited to just the front page of that day's newspaper, and being the Times the front page was nothing more than a collection of classified adverts. But what better way of getting a taste of an age? The minutia of lost and founds, births and deaths, for sale and to lets provide a unique insight into the world when I was young (very young). Here is a sample:

BOX of BEAUTIFUL FEATHERS, mixed colours including the new Princess shades sufficient for brightening up dozens of hats and coats; Post paid. 0s. 6d. per box.-Fancy Dept., Pettitts of Reedham. Ltd.. Reedham. Norfolk. When visiting Broadland call in and see our wonderful collection of Rural crafts.

AN IDEAL GIFT. for boy or girl, suitable for use in house or garden, a Wigwam Tent. Self-supporting on four poles (no ropes or pegs needed). 4ft. by 4ft. by 5ft. high; strongest multi-coloured duck cloth: complete 87s. 3d. carriage paid -GEMS. 202. Cambridge Road. Norbiton, Surrey. Closed Saturdays.

HOME CANNING with the "HOMCAN" Outfit is the modern. most efficient, and simplest method of preserving your surplus fruit and vegetables. Thousands are enjoying its advantages and recommend it. -Write for details to Home Canning Equipment Co.. Ltd.. Africa House. Kingsway. W.C.2. T

SCHOOLBOYS' HOLIDAY CAMPS. Public and Preparatory Schools; August-September. Norfolk coast. -Brochure from O. K. Bond. M.A.. The Coign. Evelyn Drive. Hatch End. Middlesex.

GIFT FOOD PARCELS.-Why not express your gratitude by taking out an annual subscription to "The Times Weekly Editon " for your friends? Send to the Subscription Manager. Printing House Square the names and addresses of your friends abroad, together with 30s. 4d. for each.

COUNTRY HOUSE, looking south; easy car reach station, 35 minutes Victoria; 7 good rooms, plus usual: redecorated, modernized; garden, garage. £300 p.a.- 'Phone, Norwood Hil 146.

PRIVATE owner wishes to dispose of 312-litre Rolls-Bentley Gurney Nutting Owen Sedanca Coupe; £300 recently spent on overhaul: offers over 2,000 guineas considered. Ring Wargrave 402.

MINK COAT, darkest Canadian skins. latest design, as new. £1,450: immediate sale. Owner going abroad.-Write Box R.1259, The Times.

NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE.-Applications are invited for the Posts of (1) SECRETARY and (2) FINANCE OFFICER, with accountancy qualifications, to the Hospital Management Committee of the Orpington and Sevenoaks Group. The salaries of the posts are fixed by the number and classification of beds in the group and are expected to approximate, for Secretary £1,070 -£1,420 and for Finance Officer £860 -£1,130.

HOLIDAYS at Home or Abroad through the " WEST " Fully inclusive service. Holiday Camps from £9 1s. Isle of Man from £11 15s. Eire from £14 10s. Switzerland from £19 15s. Brittany from £16 15s. also France. Norway. Write WESTMINSTER TOURING ASSOCIATION LTD., 92, Victoria Street. S.W.l. Tel., Victoria 6301

DOMESTIC Help also Cook-General required immediately for small, modern luxury and labour-saving house in London; two adults in family only: liberal outings; excellent wages; own bed rooms, radio and television in modern American kitchen. Experienced Persons write, with copy references, to Box 0.6701 A.K. Advertising, 212A. Shaftesbury Avenue. W.C.2.

CLERGYMAN'S daughter 50 seeks post; good cook and driver; country lover; references. Miss M. George, Guyhirn Viarage. Wisbech.

As some other newspaper once declared "All Human Life Is Here". You could happily put together an half hour documentary on what these few adverts say about the state of Britain in 1948. The persistence of shortages and rationing (feathers to trim up your dress, home canning to make your broad beans last longer, and subscriptions to the Times for Cousin George in America who is kindly supplying you with food parcels); the low price of property (a seven room country house just 35 minutes from Victoria for just £300 per year); the revolution taking place in the new National Health Service (and how much better things would be if we were still paying the Finance Officers £850 per year); and the emergence of new cultural trends (the holiday camps and the television being provided for the cook-housekeeper).

And this is just one page of one day taken from over 200 years of newspapers. I have a feeling that I will not get much work done until the free offer comes to an end.

Friday, June 20, 2008

No Rights Reserved

If there is one thing I dislike it is the over-use of the concept of copyright. I am not suggesting that there is no place for copyright : it is understandable that people want a degree of protection for things they have created. But unless there are limits to such protection, the creative process (a process which is always a collective activity) is stifled. One of the great triumphs of the Internet is that it has largely managed to shun copyright. Some people still try to control who can cut and paste material from their websites, but in the main these are little people with little sites and a massively overblown idea of their own importance.

As I was looking for an audiobook to download to my new MP3 player yesterday I cam across a site called LibriVox and was thrilled to see a little notice attached to the site with three of the most liberating words in the English language : "NO RIGHTS RESERVED". LibriVox has the objective of making all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format on the Internet. Librivox is a non-commercial, non-profit and ad-free project which is powered by volunteers. Here is a brief description of how it works which, most appropriately, is cut and pasted from their website:

LibriVox volunteers record chapters of books in the public domain, and then we release the audio files back onto the net for free. All our audio is in the public domain, so you may use it for whatever purpose you wish. Volunteering for LibriVox is easy and does not require any experience with recording or audio engineering or acting or public speaking. All you need is a computer, some free recording software, and your own voice. We accept all volunteers in all languages, with all kinds of accents. You don’t need to audition or send us samples. We’ll accept you no matter what you sound like. We operate almost exclusively through Internet communications on our forum, where all your questions will be answered by our friendly community. We have a flat structure, designed to let people do just what they want to do. Our annual budget is $0, and for the moment we don’t need any money. We’ll let you know if that changes.

It is a breath of fresh air, an example of what the Internet does better than anything else. Long may it continue to liberate literature.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Birth And A Bludgeoned Raisin

Why do we have this almost insatiable urge to discover what famous events happened on the day of our birth? Having just celebrated my 60th birthday I was tempted to send off to one of these companies which promises a "genuine facsimile" of a newspaper published on the day of your birth, but being a tight-fisted old bugger, I decided to search on-line instead. As I discovered, there are a number of problems with this approach.

In the first place, in order to discover what happened on the day of your birth you need a newspaper published the day after your birthday. None of the companies specialising in novelty birthday gifts have managed to face up to this paradox and one can only imagine the disappointment of their customers who have shelled out good money only to read about things which happened before they were born.

The second problem relates to the still largely Americo-centric nature of the Internet. I managed without too much difficulty to locate newspapers from 18th June 1948 (and therefore reporting events on the 17th June) but the list of available titles was composed of papers such as "The Fresno Bee" and "The Mansfield News-Journal" (not the Mansfield in North Nottinghamshire I might add). I am therefore in a position to tell you what happened in California and Ohio on the day of my birth and, for the moment at least, that is what you will have to put up with.

The most notable event was the crash of a DC6 passenger plane in Pennsylvania will killed all 43 people on board. The discovery that your arrival in the world coincided with a burning plane ploughing into a 60,000 volt power cable is not guaranteed to fill you full of birthday joy. Moving quickly on, I also discover that as I entered the world with a cry and a scream, Lucile Williams left the world with a cry and a scream as she was being bludgeoned to death by her husband in Everett, Washington. Continuing the good news run, as I was taking my first breath, John W Reeves of Fresno was taking $2 worth of petrol from a filling station without payment. When the Filling Station owner tried to stop him, Reeves shot the man dead.

Searching for happier news from the overseas sections of the papers, I discovered that to mark my birth (well that's how it feels) an earthquake killed 10,000 in China, a mine explosion killed 52 in Japan, a new and more bloody phase of the Greek Civil War was launched, and 50,000 workers went on strike in France. And, in a gesture which I am still unable to quite understand, to celebrate my birth, the field price of raisins jumped by an unprecedented $5 a ton.

You have to admit, that star in the east had nothing on that lot.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

My First Senior Moment

I'd only been sixty for a few brief hours and I had my first Senior Moment. Picture the circumstances : it is 10.13 on the morning of Tuesday 17th June 2008 and for the first time I am using my Elderly Person's Bus Pass. As I show my pass to the bus driver I realise that I am unsure of the correct etiquette. I am not referring to where one should park one's Zimmer frame or whether one should raise one's flat cap to the widow-woman on the front seat, but whether one should take a ticket or not. In the past when I have bought day passes, I have noticed that tickets have not been issued, but I am equally sure that I have seen wrinklies with tickets before now. The bus driver glances at my pass and after a moment a ticket emerges from the machine. I take it and walk down the bus to a spare seat towards the back.

All of a sudden I notice the bus isn't moving and I realise that I must have committed some horrific crime against the mores of bus travel. Perhaps I have taken the ticket of the chap who got on the bus after me who is now sat on one of the front seats. I make the long walk back to the front of the bus - offending ticket in hand - in order to put matters right and as I do so I realise that everyone on the bus is looking at me. Just as I reach the driver a sudden realisation descends on me : the bus hasn't set off because the driver - splendid fellow that he is - is waiting for the old-age pensioner to get safely to his seat. The very same old age pensioner who walked to the back of the bus, turned around and walked to the front of the bus, and is now once again turning around and retracing his steps to the anonymity of the back seat.

Just sixty years and a few hours old and I have had my very own Senior Moment : the first of many, I am sure.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Do Bring Lulu

Well it will not come as a big surprise to most people to discover the second item on my list of "Things to do before I'm 50" which I only discovered a few weeks before I became 60 was to "publish my first book". Writing, publishing and printing a book within four weeks was quite a challenge, but challenges are there to be overcome (or some such silly phrase from the bottom of a daily calendar). And the challenge was overcome by using the wonderful print-on-demand services of Lulu.com. I cheated somewhat by using a selection of 2007 postings from this blog as the subject of the book, together with some updated notes and an introduction. The whole thing came to some 120 or so full-colour pages and I was anxious to discover two things : (i) how easy was the Lulu self-publishing process, and (ii) what the resulting quality of printed book was like? And it has to be said that the results in both cases were quite exceptional.

The process leading to the up-loading of a manuscript, its formatting, and its translation from a Word document to a pdf file which could be read by the printers was much easier than expected. Using the templates provided it was not difficult to achieve a pdf file which had none of the hanging paragraphs or cut images that you might expect. I was able to achieve a near-perfect result at the first attempt. The nature of my book meant that it required full colour on every page and a reasonably large A5 format. This did mean that the production costs - at about £13.50 per copy - were not cheap, but as you are not tied to a print-run, there is no investment required other than perhaps buying a copy for yourself!

Printing for the European market takes place in Spain. Even so, the turn-around from order to delivery was very good at about 10 days. When the two copies I ordered did eventually arrive I was very impressed by the quality. The print quality is excellent, as is the paper quality. The binding is also very robust. The idea of producing "Postcards From Nowhere" was intended not only to achieve the second of my stated ambitions (OK, ten years too late but what the hell) but also to test out the self-publishing, print-on-demand process. I have to say that I am very impressed indeed by the whole undertaking.

I am already planning Book No. 2 and for that I hope to go one step further and make use of the full publishing service package offered by Lulu. I will report back when the results are available. In the meantime you can sample the quality of the product yourself .... just follow the link in the side panel.

The Temptations Facing An Elderly Criminal

Well, nearly there now. Less than 24 hours to go and I will be sixty. So much has been happening these last few days I have been just too exhausted to sit at my desk and compose blog postings (you try carrying home 28 bottles of malt from your birthday party and you will see what I mean). But as I now relax in the afterglow of Saturday's momentous party, I will attempt to catch up with the news. I will get around to the party and the second of my "things to do before I'm fifty" wish-list shortly, but first of all I feel the need to confess.

To the best of my knowledge, I have only ever broken the law once in my life. It was a sad story which I don't particularly want to go into in detail now, but it happened when I was a wild teenager back in the swinging sixties and involved a non-functioning rear light on a bicycle. Back in those days, as my friend Harry will tell you, policing was a more flexible occupation without the need to fill in endless paperwork, so the constable involved let me go with a telling off and the promise - on my part - to get a new bulb first thing in the morning.

Other than that my record is clear. Now you might think that an almost clean criminal record by the time you reach 60 is quite an achievement, but I must confess I find it just a trifle disappointing. Am I going to pass this great milestone in life without ever having experienced the illicit thrill of having stepped over - however briefly - the great dotted line that separates legality from illegality, right from wrong, the mundane from the felonious? Until this morning I thought I was, and then through the postbox fell my elderly persons' free bus pass. A day early!

Some people shun old age knowing that it is the handmaiden of infirmity and decline. Others look forward to being able to give up work and spend more time with their begonias. For me, the attraction has always been the prospect of a free bus pass. The introduction earlier this year of a government scheme by which such bus passes provide free travel throughout the UK has simply made me relish the onset of decrepitude with even more eager anticipation. Couple this longing with the fact that the pass has been delivered a day early and you will understand the troubled nature of my soul. Should I nip out and catch the bus down to Brighouse and hope that the driver doesn't notice the expiry date and that he or she isn't blessed with a mathematical mind? Should I play Russian Roulette with the law at this late stage? Or should I stay at home and alphabetically file my malt whisky bottles? Who knows? Beelzebub and Jehovah are still locked in a battle for my soul. I will let you know the outcome.

Monday, June 09, 2008

A Picture Cannot Tell A Lie

There has been considerable feedback to my posting about the successful ascent of Harrison Stickle (3,547 ft) and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my friends for their notes of congratulation. Nevertheless, I would not be human if I didn't feel saddened by the suggestion voiced in some quarters that the climb up this formidable peak - all 3,864 feet of it - was yet another excursion into the realms of virtual travel. It has been suggested by some spoilsports that the nearest I came to a scree slope was the pile of loose chippings left behind by the contractors who pebble-dashed the front wall. This is quite clearly a lie as proved by the photographs I published yesterday. To underline the point I have included with this post yet another of the photographs taken on Thursday. This shows me at the top of the glacier just below the summit of Harrison Stickle (4,548 ft).

And whilst I am in a mood to rebut, it has also been suggested - by someone who has neither the manners nor the confidence to use their own name rather than hiding behind the cloak of anonymity - that promises were made in respect to a 65th birthday and not kept. This is a rampant untruth, as the following photograph clearly shows. Here is the relative in question having a wonderful time - all expenses paid I might add - in Amsterdam just after his 65th birthday. All I can say is that a healthy climb up a mountain would have been far better for both his mental - and I must add - physical well being.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Top Of The Scree Slope

"This must be the top of the scree slope and therefore that ..." Mark used his copy of Wainwright's "Central Fells" as a pointer ... "must be Stickle Tarn". As far as I could make out my friend, companion and guide for the day was pointing into the hazy distance. Any possibility of seeing the promised tarn was excised by the slightly inconvenient fact that there was a rather large mountain in the way.

We had been walking for an hour, although "walking" seems a rather tame description for the lung-sapping, muscle-straining, joint-breaking process of climbing wave upon wave of granite stones which seemed to have been dumped down the side of the mountain with an abandon that should have landed the Lake District National Park authorities in an endless loop of litigation. "An health and safety inspector would have a field day with this", I gasped to myself as yet another stone gave way under my booted feet, causing me to collapse to the ground and the poor fellow about half a mile further down the mountain to dive for cover.

We turned a corner and saw another scree slope and no sight of the promised tarn. Mark adopted a good humoured resignation: "Ah well, it can't be much further now", and with a burst of commendable energy he shot ahead, taking up his position about 50 yards ahead of me. From such a position he tested out the route ahead of me and regularly shouted back instructions. "Take the right-hand path, it's easier", "watch out for the rocks here, they are very loose", and on one memorable occasion "take the top path but look out for the dead sheep stuck in the crevice". Every so often I would see him heave his considerable rucksack to the ground and consult his Wainwright, and I might be able to grab a few minutes rest.

What the rucksack contained I did not know, but judging by its size and the complexity of pockets, tubes and straps it was a serious piece of kit. I had a suspicion that it might contain a defibrillator for I had noted many a whispered telephone conversation between my wife and Mark in the days leading up to our mountain adventure. She was fairly certain I was going to die during our attempt to conquer Harrison Stickle (2,403 ft) and had consequently got me to point out where all the important household papers were kept in my filing cabinet before I set out. Not that I blame her, a sturdy background of practicality is essential to the breed specifications of any half-decent Yorkshire lass. And this was a big bloody mountain. And I was still on the wrong side of the obese/overweight border. And we had not yet reached the top of the scree slope.

What was really annoying was that every time we rounded a spur and caught a brief view of the mountain stretching further up towards heaven, at the very limit of my vision I am sure I kept seeing an elderly lady in a wheelchair. But surely this couldn't be. This was serious walking country. Even the sheep were having difficulty keeping upright. But dammit, there she was again. I mentioned it to Mark and he shook his head with the kind of sad expression that only experienced GP's can muster. He went back to consulting his pocketbook, but whether it was Wainwright or "Common Psychological Symptoms In General Practice" I am not sure. He probably had half a library in that rucksack.

As he cross-referenced hallucinations with breathlessness, I gazed back down the mountain. It was a glorious day, the kind of day you are not supposed to get in the English Lake District. The scenery was spectacular and to view in from up here made you realise why gods have such a superiority complex. The expedition was part of my 60th birthday present and I felt rather proud that I had got this far. And - on the assumption that I lived - the rest of the present included dinner in a fine Lakeland Inn, as much real ale as I could drink, and a night in a First Class Hotel. The breathlessness seemed to pass. The vision of the wheelchair-bound old lady acted as a lure rather than a jibe. I forced myself to my feet again, rounded the next bend and, instead of the scree-slope, saw Stickle Tarn ahead of us. Mark quickly consulted AW again, beamed and said "That's it, that's Stickle Tarn. According to Wainwright that means we are halfway up".


Of course we made it and eventually reached the top of Harrison Stickle (2,403 long, bloody ft). As we rested on the summit I discovered the secret of Mark's oversized rucksack : a bottle of champagne and an equally welcome bar of chocolate. The descent was even more exhausting than the ascent, but it was followed by a most delightful evening sampling good beer and rare malts. As we returned to Yorkshire the next day I could reflect on the fact that I had achieved at least one of my birthday ambitions.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Deadline Dancing

I have always been the kind of person who works tight to deadlines (a friend of mine once christened the characteristic "deadline dancing"). It may sound good, but what it actually means is : "I have always been the kind of person to leave things to the last minute". Many years ago I used to produce the European Union's "European Trade Union Information Bulletin". Although it was only a bi-monthly publication, I used to produce it single-handedly, doing everything from researching the stories, writing them, all the way through to producing the camera ready copy for the printers. Theoretically you had eight weeks to undertake this string of tasks, but not a bit of it: I would work "tight to deadline". This would result in the most enormous bi-monthly crises when I would have to work non-stop for 24 hours to get the thing finished and in the express-post to the printers in Brussels. You might think that after enough of these crises I might learn my lesson, but I produced the Bulletin for close on fifteen years and, if anything, my deadline dancing got worse towards the end.

All this is an attempt to explain why I haven't been posting much during the last few days: I have been deadline dancing again. As I have not yet completed the allotted task, this post will be unusually (and I suspect agreeably) short. And what is this task that imposes such rigid deadlines? At this point of time I prefer not to say, just in case my recent lack of practise in deadline dancing has left me rusty and the project in question never materialises. At the moment I am like one of those competitors in a 1930s marathon dancing competition : tired but doggedly determined. Not much more to do now. Ah well, back on my points.

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...