Monday, November 30, 2009

Everybody Loves My Baby (in Aspen)

A number of weeks ago I received an invitation to Mr Toast's First Annual Christmas Tea which is being held tomorrow (1st December) in Aspen, which I believe, is some distance away from my native Huddersfield. Having left things rather late in the day, I am now in a panic as I try to undertake last minute travel arrangements and collect my dinner suit from the dry cleaners. However one thing I have managed to arrange in advance is a little musical celebration which I feel will be in the finest traditions of transatlantic harmony - a thoroughly British ensemble performing a thoroughly American song. "Everybody Loves My Baby" was written by the New Orleans jazz musician and composer, Spencer Williams, in 1924. I have arranged for it to be played by the remarkable Temperance Seven whom I have had the pleasure of seeing at the Marsden Jazz Festival on a number of occasions. I have arranged for the band to make its own way to Aspen, so just in case they are delayed in tansit, here is a little preview of their performance.

You May Also Like ......
HOT TOAST AND JAM : The host blog for Mr Toast's First Annual Christmas Tea.
PROBLEMS WITH CANINE PRONUNCIATION :  The latest adventures of the Fat Dog on her way to the Big Apple

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Sepia Saturday : Gladys and Amy

Like all good things, Sepia Saturday started as a joke. In writing a Theme Thursday post a while ago, I needed something cuddle up - in an alliterative sense - with Wordless Wednesday and Fun Friday, so I invented Sepia Saturday. My Blogging friend Kat (Poetikat) asked me whether there really was a Sepia Saturday and I had to confess to my invention. We both agreed that even if such a celebration didn't exist, it should do and therefore resolved to introduce it without further delay. The rules of Sepia Saturday are quite simple - post some kind of sepia picture on a Saturday! In the best traditions of such things we will make any other rules up as we go along. Anyone can take part and the pictures can be either old sepia pictures or newly-created sepia-toned images. So let sepia reign supreme in all its tonal glory.

My entry for this week is a picture of my mother (Gladys, on the left of the picture) and my Auntie Amy (on the right, standing). It is one of my favourite family photographs and I cannot look at these two lovely young girls without remembering them some 80 years after the picture was taken. Amy was living in a Nursing Home in Scarborough and in her nineties and I had taken my mother - herself in her late eighties - to see her. Seeing these two old sisters together suddenly brought back memories of the picture which had been taken eighty years ago. A picture which is somehow improved by its sepia glow.

POETIKAT'S INVISIBLE KEEPSAKES : Take a look at the other Sepia Saturday post at Kat's wonderful Blog.
THE CLAYTON COUSINS : From the News From Nowhere Archives - the story of Amy and Gladys' cousins.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Greeting, A Challange And A Piece Of Advice

First the greeting - and that is to all my blogging friends in the United States : Happy Thanksgiving Day. One of the most enjoyable elements of blogging is being part of an international community : a United Nations of the keyboard. There is something rather pleasing about discovering the people, places, holidays and cultures of countries outside our immediate knowledge. Ah, if only blogging had have been around in 1914.

The challenge comes from the blog of Gerald Gee (and he lives down in the south of England which more than illustrates my previous point). Last night, in addition to posting one of his cartoons (and they are the type of cartoon which illustrate that the internet slang "LOL" can have a literal meaning) he threw out a challenge - to reveal our current computer desktops. My current background image (I change it about once a week) is a picture I took from the bottom of the drive to my niece's house in Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. It was early one morning when The Lad and I had got up early to beat the heat.

And finally let me leave you with a piece of advice. Yesterday the GLW and I were booked in at the doctors to get our various inoculations in advance of our January holiday. My advice is - never go to get your holiday injections accompanied by a Consultant in Infectious Diseases. The GLW and the Practice Nurse had a detailed discussion based upon our intended itinary and the likelihood of us cutting ourselves on a cactus bush, finishing up in a jungle hospital or kissing a rabid dog and it was decided - with the minimum of input from me - that she just needed a tetanus booster whilst I needed an armful of almost every vaccine currently doing the rounds. "Oh I think there was a case of dengue fever a couple of years ago in St Lucia", "Oh was there, you had better give him that", "and there is always the every-present danger of Chagas disease", "Absolutely, better to be safe than sorry" ... the 20 minute consultation went something like that. This morning I can hardly move my arms they are so painful and swollen.

And thus, to my friends in America, I say that I would like to help you celebrate Thanksgiving Day by raising a glass and toasting your continued health and well-being. I would like to, but unfortunately my arm aches too much.

GERALDGEE : A great painter, a great cartoonist, a great photographer and a great blogger.
MAN AND INSTRUMENT IN PERFECT HARMONY : From the News From Nowhere archives - for no other reason than when I searched for Tortola it came up with this.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Father Christmas, The Guardian And Samak Sundaravej

I have asked Father Christmas for an  Apple iPod Touch for Christmas. My good friend Martin raved about his when I last saw him (and I suspect he is getting chess hints from it somehow, how else does he keep beating me!). We bought a friend one for his 50th birthday and I looked on with envy as he fell in love with it. We bought The Lad one for his birthday and I got to briefly play with it before I handed it over (I was "setting it up for him", or at least that was my excuse). When my friend Harry saw Alexander's, he managed to acquire one for his birthday. Now I am determined that it is my turn.

In hopeful anticipation that the Good Lady Wife (GLW) will read this post (I will print it off and leave it on her side of the bed just in case) and act accordingly I have started browsing the App Store on iTunes and it was there that I discovered that one of my favourite on-line services - - has just released a version of its software for the iPhone and the iTouch. This may mean that when we go on holiday in January I will be able to solve one of the biggest problems associated with leaving these shores - how to acquire a copy of The Guardian. I have lost count of the amount of time I have wasted trawling the shopping streets of distant cities in the hope of being able to source a dated copy of the Guardian. Normally you look in vain. If you are lucky you might find a dog-eared copy of The Times. If you are unlucky you will find a copy of the Daily Mail with all its pages intact. But with Press Display for the iTouch I will be able to find a convenient WiFi hotspot press a couple of buttons and a full PDF version of the Guardian will be in front of my eyes. Harry, who when we are on cruising holidays normally accompanies me on my newspaper seeking activities looking for his fix of the Daily Telegraph, will be able to download that to his iTouch. Speaking to Harry's wife, Elaine, on the phone last night I suggested that whenever we landed in a foreign port, Harry and I could go in search of Wifi hotspots. "Is that something like a lap-dancing club" asked the GLW who was listening in to the conversation.

Press Display is a smashing service and gives you access to over 1,000 newspapers from over 80 countries on a daily basis (for a price, I must add). As I have signed up in anticipation of my seasonal iTouch I can browse the world's press and - it would appear - blog selected stories. I am still experimenting with this and if it works there should appear a link to today's Bangkok Post at the end of this post. It will be interesting to see if it works. But as long as it delivers my daily Guardian in Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama, I don't care too much.

ABE LINCOLN BLOGS : Abe Lincoln must be the elder statement of international blogging. A distant cousin of the more famous Abe Lincoln, our Abe entertains and informs thousands of readers each day.
THE TITANIC, A LOST SUITCASE AND CHAMPION JACK DUPREE : From the News From Nowhere archives - the fun of delving into old newspapers.

Samak’s death drains a little colour from Thai politics
Bangkok Post
25 Nov 2009

Politicians from all parties have mourned the passing of former prime minister Samak Sundaravej who died of liver cancer yesterday. He was 74. "I have to express my sorrow to his family and supporters. This is a loss for (Thai) politics,’’ more...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Postcard Of The Week : Balfour And Protectionism

I always think it is a pity that they don't have political postcards any more. Back in the early days of the twentieth century, if you wanted to make a political point to your Uncle Fred, you could seek out an appropriate postcard, pen a suitable curt message on the back and consign it to the post. One hundred years ago, there were a whole range of postcards representing a whole range of political viewpoints : you just plucked your argument off the display stand, stamped it and sent it. Over the decades, the practice fell out of fashion (although in the 1960s I do recall a particularly eccentric Professor of Philosophy who would send me postcards with his latest counter-arguments to my perfectly rational radical views). I suppose the modern equivalent is to post a YouTube video, but it just doesn't seem the same to me.

The postcard featured above comes from my collection and was postally used in 1904. It relates to the argument which, at the time, was destroying the Conservative Government led by Arthur Balfour. The Conservative Party was being torn apart by the clash between free trade and tariff reform. Balfour tried to be clever by allowing the chief proponent of tariff reform in his Cabinet, Joseph Chamberlain, to tour the country speaking in favour of protectionism whilst he and the rest of the Cabinet sat on the fence and waited to see what the electoral response would be (is there nothing new in politics?). The postcard shows Chamberlain in the water whilst Balfour and the rest look on undecided.

Balfour's attempt to stand back whilst others tested the political water ended in one of the biggest ever landslide victories for the Liberals in the 1906 election. Perhaps the moral of the story is it is better to be decisive and loose than to vacillate and be routed. Now, are you listening Gordon?

THE THOUGHTS OF CHAIRMAN BILL : Vacillation is not part of the vocabulary of my blogging friend Chairman Bill. 100 years ago he would be sending postcards out every day, his twenty first century equivalent is a blog well worth visiting.
RAMSEY MACDONALD AND A BOTTLE OF BEER : From the News From Nowhere Archives - more adventures in the land of the political postcard.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Halifax : Fading Into History

I was sorting through some books and papers today and I came across a collection of photographs of Old Yorkshire. One caught my eye - it was a view looking over Halifax taken in 1958 and there is a copy of it above. It was a familiar view for me, I would see it every day as I sat on the upstairs front seat of the bus taking me from my home in the village of Northowram and into Halifax and my school. As the bus swept out from Godley cuttings, Halifax would be spread out before me. The smoke would belch out of the cooling towers and mill chimneys, the soot-black stone chimneys silhouetted against the smoke-swept sky.

I took the second photograph a few years ago from the same hillside (although a few hundred yards further south). It shows a very different Halifax, 50 years on from the first view. Most of the mills - and the mill chimneys - have long gone and the steam and smoke is a thing of the distant past. The modern building that dominates the centre of the photograph is the headquarters of the Halifax Building Society, or at least it was when the photograph was taken. And then it merged with the Bank of Scotland to become HBOS and then, after the great collapse, it was taken over by Lloyds Bank. With the current uncertainty in the financial sector one is forced to wonder how long it will be before it fades into history, just like those mills and factories of fifty years earlier.

SALTAIRE DAILY PHOTO : A daily photograph from the West Yorkshire mill village of Saltaire. Try it and discover some wonderful photographs.
AMY CLIMBS HUMBUG MOUNTAIN : The latest postcard from the Fat Dog walking to the Big Apple tells of the discovery of Humbug Mountain in Oregon.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Triumphal Celebration of Nostalgia

I was in the process of commenting on a post the other day when I went in search of a YouTube clip to illustrate the point I was making (a somewhat spurious contention about the direction of growth of various types of plants and vines). Having found the clip I wanted, I rewarded myself with a rummage in the "Related Items" collection and found an excellent interpretation of one of my very favourite Flanders and Swann songs, "Slow Train". Michael Flanders and Donald Swann wrote and performed the song back in the 1960s and although the events it recorded (the closure of almost 50% of the small railway stations in Britain following the Beeching Report on the future of the railway network) are now long gone, the song remains as a triumphal celebration of nostalgia. To illustrate the cultural loss resulting from the Beeching Axe, Flanders and Swann merely strung together a list of the names of just a few of the 3,000 small stations and halts that were closed during the 1960s. The result is musical poetry at its best.

The Beeching cuts hit all parts of the country. Both rural and urban lines were decimated and by the end of the decade a quarter of the railway millage and a half of all stations had been cleaved from the system. Here in West Yorkshire, many of the small stations and desultory branch lines of my youth vanished almost overnight. One of the more bizarre cases was the fate of the station at Cleckheaton, just down the valley from where I live. It was stolen. Following the closures, British Rail issued contracts for the demolition of the buildings, the clearance of the sites, and the sale of the recovered material. When the appointed contractor turned up at Cleckheaton Station he found the entire station - every stone, wooden fence, metal frame, and tin signpost - had already been dismantled and removed. Eventually the person who had dismantled the station was apprehended and taken to trial (the only case in British legal history concerning the theft of a railway station). They were later acquitted as the court accepted their defense that they had been following the orders of what they thought was the legally appointed contractor. The company that masterminded the plan was never identified, and the station was never recovered.

You might want to bear this story in mind as you watch the video, or you may want to just look at the lovely old photographs of steam trains and sooty cuttings. In either case, I hope you enjoy it.

THE MACHINIST'S WIFE : Take a look at the entertaining and original blog that prompted the comment that resulted in the post.
LIVERPOOL OVERHEAD RAILWAY : From the News From Nowhere Archives, a brief trip to the Liverpool Overhead Railway.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Boring Link Within

A few months ago I added "Link Within" to my blog. It was a nice idea : it would search through my blog back catalogue and pull up three related posts which it would spotlight at the end of the current post under the heading "You Might Also Like". I assume it chooses the related posts by searching for key words in the titles or the labels. However it did it, it seemed to work quite well .... for a time. Then for some reason it became fixated on one particular post and added it to the "You Might Also Like" at the end of every post. What is worse, the post in question was one titled "So Boring"! After a week or two of my readers being asked whether they might also be interested in "So Boring", I began to get a bit of a complex and decided that I was being unfairly targeted by a Google gadget which was far too perceptive for its own good. Deciding to fight back, I deleted the original "So Boring" post in the hope that if the post didn't exist, the gadget would no longer direct readers to it. Did it work? Did it heck. It continued to offer a link to "So Boring" and, when you clicked on it, it suggested that it could no longer locate the particular post in question (hinting, I suspect, that there were too many that fitted the description to choose from). My only recourse was radical surgery and therefore I removed the "Link Within" gadget altogether.

Which was a pity as the ability to point readers in the direction of older posts was quite useful. And it would also be useful to point readers in the direction of some of the posts on my other blogs, or some of the posts of my blogging friends. The only solution was to manually add a Link feature at the end of posts and this I have been experimenting with for the last few days. So, from now onwards, at the end of each post, you will find a ""You Might Also Like...." link list. At some time or another I will try to include links to all the other blogs I follow, but the order will be totally random so if your blog doesn't appear in the near future, just be patient.

As we seem to have got on to the "boring" theme I thought I would share with you another postcard from my collection. I remember buying this postcard forty or so years ago. I was attracted to it at the time because I thought it was probably the most boring picture postcard I had ever seen. It features three buildings in Hipperholme - a village about six miles from where I live - and shows the church, the pub and the newsagents shop. Whilst such a triptych would normally have the power to be visually attractive, poor Hipperholme seems to be devoid of beauty in each case.

A CANADIAN FAMILY : A blog all about postcards that is never boring is the one published by Canadian blogger Evelyn Yvonne Theriault. Whether your interest lie in postcards or genealogy it is always well worth a visit.
POSTCARDS FROM AMY : Talking of postcards, you can catch up on the latest postcard from my and my dog Amy describing our coast-to-coast walk across America.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Theme Thursday : Relatively Late

I am sending this post from Samoa. Well that is not exactly true but as I was recently accused of never letting the truth get in the way of a good story, I thought I might as well live up to my reputation. Anyway back to Samoa : the reason I am posting from Samoa is that the island state is just to the right of the International Date Line. And that means it is still Thursday. Which is useful because I am running a little late this week.

It all started with that short holiday in Wales and then all the Christmas shopping. It destroyed my carefully cultivated routine. Thus on Tuesday I was still trying to complete the things I usually do on Monday, and on Wednesday I was just approaching my Tuesday list. When I would normally be penning my Theme Thursday post I was still pondering my Wordless Wednesday submission. If things carry on the way they are doing I will not have completed my Fun Friday post until well into Sepia Saturday. And then I had a thought. Go west, go about as far west as you can possibly go. Go to Samoa. As my Uncle Albert always used to say, "time is relative". You may be late in West Yorkshire but you are early in Samoa.

So there you go. You need never be late again. Simply change the location on your Google profile. In the words of the old adage, go west young man.

THEME THURSDAY : See the other Theme Thursday posts before it's too late.
GREENWICH MERIDIAN : Read all about the Prime Meridian and the International Date Line.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Paradise Found, Paradise Lost.

And so we went to Wales. We headed along the North Wales coast road to the City of Bangor which is about a two and a half hour drive away from where we live in Yorkshire. Bangor stands proud keeping watch over the Menai Straights and the island of Anglesey in the north-west corner of Wales. It is an ancient city and home to a thriving university. It is also home to a thriving branch our family. It was wonderful to meet up once again with so many members of our extended family and they welcomed us with a warmth and a generosity which the Principality is famous for. The scenery was beautiful and, it itself, could justify the "Paradise Found" part of the title of this post, Amy and I explored many a byway and footpath around the city and Amy discovered the delights of chasing seagulls.

But the true "Paradise Found" was the Mostyn Arms, the gorgeous pub owned and run by two generations of the family. I have always been one to claim some kind of genealogical connection to a half-decent pub (I once spent a delightful drunken afternoon in the Albert Hotel in Keighley for no other reason than my grandmother might just have been a barmaid there some one hundred years earlier), However, anyone who loves a traditional British pub and fine ale would be proud to claim a connection to the Mostyn Arms. On Monday evening I sat in the comfortable bar whilst relatives brought me pint after pint of real ale to sample. I may be biased but I do declare that if any of you ever travel within one hundred miles of Bangor in North Wales and fail to beat a path to the Mostyn Arms, you are - in the words of the great Dr Johnson - a fool and a rogue. I have a vague memory that after the Mostyn Arms I was taken to the Skerries (a second pub run by the family) but I was too drunk to appreciate it and therefore I need to plan a return trip to Wales as a matter of urgency.

And paradise was lost today when, on the last day of the Good Lady Wife's short holiday, I was condemned to the seventh level of inferno, otherwise known as the White Rose Shopping Centre in Leeds. Whilst the GLW trudged around yet another store I excused myself and said I wanted to take a few photographs. Having just taken the above shot I was approached by a very official security guard who informed me that it was illegal to take photographs of the shopping centre. "Why?", asked I, reasonably enough. "To prevent terrorism", said he, "we wouldn't want potential terrorists to gain information about the lay-out of the centre". I tried to point out that the Centre itself publishes and gives away a handy little guide complete with maps and photographs, but it was not his day for logic and he walked away. There was an old Yorkshire chap who had been stood near to me and who had overheard the conversation. He came up to me afterwards. "T'worlds gone daft", he said. I nodded. "Paradise has been lost again", I replied.

THE MOSTYN ARMS, BANGOR : Take a look at the Mostyn Arms website and see what you are missing.
ALAN BURNETT'S DAILY PHOTO BLOG : I will publish a selection of the photographs I took whilst in North Wales over the next few days on my Daily Photo Blog.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

What His Bones And Blood Are Made Of

For reasons best known to myself I was doing some research into the American poet and writer Carl Sandburg which involved reading his FBI records. In itself, his FBI file is nothing out of the ordinary : any decent person slightly to the left of Attila the Hun seems to have gathered such a collection of spiteful accusations and innuendo in America in the 40s, 50s and 60s. But as I looked at a typical page from the file, with its blacked-out paragraphs, numerous rubber stamps, and endless annotations, I began to see the page as an image rather than as a document. It didn't need to be read : you could almost feel the bureaucratic enmity leach from the page. It was a piece of art, black art maybe, but a visual monument to all those of have seen lives and loves and beliefs as things to to be recorded and used as weapons of oppression. 

The thing which started me in my quest for knowledge of Sandburg (and my apologies to my American friends for being ignorant about him until now) was the advice he gave to his friend, Martha Dodd, before she left for Germany in 1933 where her father, William E Dodd, was about to take up the position of the American Ambassador in Germany. In his excellent book 1933, Philip Metcalfe quotes Sandburg saying the following to Martha Dodd.

"Find out what this man Hitler is made of, what makes his brain go round, what his bones and blood are made of. Before your eyes will pass the greatest pageant of crooks and gangsters, idealists, statesmen, criminals, diplomats and geniuses. You will see every nationality in the world. Watch them, study them, dissect them. Don't be frightened or diffident, don't let them or your experiences spoil you or your eagerness for life. Be brave and truthful, keep your poetry and integrity"

The GLW and myself set out for Wales tomorrow for a short shopping trip. We will be staying with a cousin in North Wales whose daughter and son-in-law, I am happy to relate, run several pubs. Compared to Martha Dodds' journey, a trip to Wales is nothing much I suppose, but I too will attempt to be brave and truthfull and hold on tight to my poetry and integrity.

THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES : And speaking of poetry, my good blogging friend, John Hayes, has just launched a new blog - The Days of Wine and Roses - devoted to his own poetry. Take a trip over there, it is well worth the visit.
THE FBI : Want to browse through the records of the FBI? Head over to the FBI's website and start searching. But be warned, its compulsive.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Birth, A Birthday And A Coachload Of Buffaloes

Rather a full day yesterday, full of births and buffaloes. Perhaps I need to explain. The first of the birthdays, chronologically speaking, was The Lad and yesterday was his 20th birthday so Good Lady Wife and myself went over to Sheffield to take presents, cards and greetings. Twenty years seems an awful long time but it was thrown into perspective the other day when I rediscovered a series of postcards I had sent to him during the first month of his life. In the main these cards contained a mixture of day-to-day gossip and philosophical speculation. The first of the series was, however, quite prosaic and I reproduce it here as evidence that the Lad's well-known lack of organisation has been a problem since birth.

After we met Alexander and his friend Ayelet in Sheffield we all went for lunch with our good friends (and fellow cruisers) Harry and Elaine. The lunch was a double celebration as H&E had received news of the birth of their first grandchild the day before. Their grand-daughter had been born at eleven minutes passed eleven on the eleventh day of the eleventh month and most appropriately will be named Poppy. The picture shows Ayelet, The Lad, Harry, the GLW and Elaine.

Those who have nothing better to do than read this blog may remember that I wrote some months ago about my long-standing desire to become a Buff. I wrote somewhat whimsically about the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes and feared that my levity might mean I was banned from the organisation altogether (indeed I feared they might come in search of me to seek revenge). So you can imagine my trepidation last night when I was enjoying a harmless pint in the pub and a whole coach-load of Buffs - smartly dressed in Lodge blazers -came through the door. I went and hid in the toilets until they had left but my absence during a critical quarter of an hour meant that my team could only come second in the pub quiz. Failing to find me in my usual seat at the Rock probably means that the posse of Buffaloes is still on the prowl and therefore I will need to keep my head down for a few days.

WANTING SOME FUN IN THE BUFFS : Read the post which gave rise to the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes' vendetta against Alan Burnett.
AMY TAKES HER REVENGE : Alan Burnett is still sending daft postcards. But now it is virtual postcards from the virtual coast to coast walk by him and his dog Amy.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Theme Thursday : Telephone

The Time : January 1975
The Place : Transport House (the Headquarters of the British Labour Party), Westminster, London.

The young man dissected Smith Square, oblivious of the hoots of cruising taxis or the idling engines of delivery vans. As he rounded the corner of St John's Church he paused momentarily in order to take in the sight which still, after all these months, sent a minor thrill down his provincial spine. He could take in the scene like one of those panoramic cameras they used on school photographs : starting with the imposing grandeur of the ICI building, swinging past the proud stone entrance of Transport House, crossing the road to the Marquess of Granby pub and finally tracking around to the ever-confident portals of the Conservative Party headquarters. This was the centre of the British political universe. This was not where the news was read, nor was it where the news was reported. This was where the news was made. This was where the movers moved and the shakers shook. And he still could not believe that he was part of it.

It was true that he was only a small part of this strange world of political intrigue. He was a gatekeeper. His job was to receive the long line of human flotsam and jetsam that were washed up to the reception desk of the Labour Party, the governing party of Great Britain. Sometimes it would be sad ex-colonels with bulging briefcases which chronicled their attempts to sue some Government Ministry or foreign power. Or mad inventors who had hit upon the secrets of perpetual motion and were in need of nothing more than a small grant from the Government in order to reveal their knowledge and change the future of humanity. Whoever they were, however strange and unhinged they might look, if they turned up at Transport House without an appointment the receptionist would reach for the telephone and he would be summoned to meet them, greet them and send them on their way.

And on this particular morning the telephone call came early. He had hardly found time to make his pot of tea and scan the headlines in the morning paper before he was called to the reception room to deal with a "caller". Cecelia was on the reception desk that morning and she nodded in the direction of a smartly suited man who was somewhat nervously shifting his weight from foot to foot whilst clutching a brief case with all the protective determination of a mother swan. The young man introduced himself and asked how he could help the visitor. And the visitor started to tell his strange tale.

He was a technological security consultant who had been undertaking a regular electronic "sweep" of the neighbouring headquarters of ICI. The company were on constant alert against the dangers of industrial espionage and he was paid to conduct regular electronic sweeps of the building to ensure that no bugs were in place and no telephones were being tapped. Whilst conducting such a sweep that morning they had detected clear evidence of a number of telephones being tapped but when they had investigated further they had determined that these phones were not within ICI Headquarters. They were next door in Transport House. They were within the headquarters of the Labour Party.

The young man listened to the story but made little of it. Watergate had been in America, that kind of thing just did not happen in Britain. And what was more, the Labour Party was in Government, it would hardly agree to bugging itself would it? He made a note of the conversation and sent the man on his way. Later he mentioned the visit to his boss, but he too just laughed and consigned the episode to the consequences of an over-active imagination.

About a week later the same young man was sat at his office desk. It must have been a Tuesday afternoon because it was quiet : for reasons he had never been able to understand eccentrics and loonies tended to stay at home on a Tuesday afternoon. He was speaking on the telephone to his wife, listening patiently as she poured her heart out about her lack of fulfillment in her chosen occupation. She too was far away from her Yorkshire home, trying hard to maintain enough enthusiasm to complete her PhD thesis on the Latin writer Seneca The Elder. She was disillusioned with classical studies and desperately homesick for her native Yorkshire. She wanted to abandon her thesis and do something which was more socially useful and personally fulfilling than textual analysis. She also wanted to go home. The conversation went on and on. He mainly listened whilst she went over the same choices again and again. To continue the thesis or to end it. To stay or to go. He knew he had to let her make the decision herself and therefore he just listened as she tried to work through the problem herself. And then, out of nowhere, there was a click on the line and a new voice suddenly interrupted their conversation. "Oh, for heaven's sake just make your mind up and do it" it said. And then once again there was silence.

They never discovered who that voice belonged to. They never heard it again. Sometimes when it was late at night and there was nobody about they wondered who was listening and why. It had been almost as though someone had been bugging the line, but they couldn't have been. Could they?

Just over a year later the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson suddenly resigned under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Later he claimed, in private conversations, that he had been the victim of a prolonged campagn of destabilisation by elements of the British Secret Service.
The Young Man continued to work for the Labour Party for a further three years before returning to his native Yorkshire. After a career as a lecturer and a writer on European affairs he took up blogging as a retirement hobby.
His wife eventually decided that she could never achieve fulfillment as a textual critic and abandoned her PhD. Later she applied to Medical School back in her native Yorkshire where she moved along with her husband.
Some ten years after the events described above the retired British Spy, Peter Wright, wrote a book (Spycatcher) describing how a secret group within the British intelligence service actively worked to bring about the fall of the Wilson Government in the 1970s. Amongst the illegal activities he had been involved in was organising telephone taps on phones at the Labour Party headquarters.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Hale And Hearty (And Off To The Shops)

The Good Lady Wife (GLW) has a few days off work. Whilst my fondness for the old girl is unabated, I have to say that experience of such R&R breaks from the medical front-line has taught me that they have little to do with "rest" and they are not designed with my "recuperation" in mind. They signal just one thing. Shopping. So I must apologise in advance if my posts and comments are rather circumscribed over the next week. If I am not with you, you can be assured that I will be in Debenhams, the House of Fraser, Laura Ashley, Marks and Spencer or some other such pre-Christmas hellhole.

My Blog received a birthday present yesterday from the delightful Skip Simpson. If you have not read Skip's blog I can strongly recommend it on the basis of the theory that you should always cultivate friends even more eccentric than yourself because they make you appear normal by comparison. The present was a delightful poster which seems to sum up the basic doctrine of my blogs even better than my new header. It will therefore become a permanent feature of my side-bar. Skip, I will try to take time out from the shops today to raise a pint glass of ale in your honour.

Finally, some people have asked just how I managed to get rid of the weight. Let me leave you with a clue which is taken from the New York Times in the 1890s.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Never Go In A Straight Line When A Circuitous Route Is Available

At the very start of my fourth year of blogging I thought it would be useful to reiterate the basic principles of my blogs. My Mission Statement, my Guiding Philosophy, my House Style. It is this : never say in a sentence what can be said in a paragraph. Never be concise when you can be loquacious. Never go in a straight line when a circuitous route is available. To illustrate the point let me explain that when I started putting this post together ten minutes ago I had two important pieces of information to convey. The first is that I can announce that I have achieved my two stone weight loss target a good few weeks in advance of our January holiday. The second is that I am once again launching the "Holiday Book Bag Awards" (sponsored by the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company) which will help to choose the six books I take with me on holiday in January. So, those are the two vital bits of information. If you are particularly busy at the moment or if you have trees to prune, you can go away now. All the rest of this post is gild paint applied to a lonely lilly. All the rest is just fluff.

So how should I illustrate this little post? I turned to my collection of modern postcards and found a suitable illustration which is, in fact, a reproduction of a Pacific Line poster advertising an "ideal sunshine tour round South America, Robinson Crusoe's Island and the West Indies". The ship you can see in the distance is the RMMV Reina Del Pacifico which had a gross registered tonnage of 17,702 tons. So I thought I could make some suitable little joke about it being a couple of tons lighter by the time that our little company of six embark on its modern cousin in nine weeks time. But first I needed to know a bit about the Reina Del Pacifico, so I did a little digging.

She was, in fact, built in 1931 in the same Belfast shipyard which built the Titanic some thirty years earlier (Rookie, please note how this totally unnecessary sentence works in my weekly reference to the Titanic). She was built specifically for the Pacific Steam Navigation Company which, somewhat confusingly, concentrated on transporting people across the Atlantic and between various ports in South and Central America. As traffic began to contract in the 1930s and 40s, the line turned more and more to cruising and holiday work ; its usual range of destinations suiting the market well. Indeed it was on the 9th November 1937 that the former British Prime Minister, Ramsey MacDonald, dropped dead of a heart attack just after dinner whilst crossing the Atlantic on the Reina (and there goes my weekly reference to some long-dead dusty British politician).

But going back to the original postcard I was slightly intrigued by the inclusion of a visit to "Robinson Crusoe's Island". Of course, I knew all about Robinson Crusoe and how he was a castaway on a desert island, but how could a fictional character give rise to a real island. A paltry bit of research revealed that the story, by the early eighteenth century writer Daniel Defoe, was based on the real story of the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, or was, for four years, marooned on the uninhabited island of Más a Tierra. Más a Tierr - which somewhat paradoxically means "closer to land" - was one of the three islands in the Juan Fernández archipelago, situated 674 kilometres west of South America in the South Pacific Ocean. In 1966 its Chilean owners rather sweetly renamed it Robinson Crusoe Island.

But before I leave Defoe and his famous book I need to mention a little-known fact. It appears Defoe started writing the story in 1712 whilst he was living in a pub - The Rose and Crown - in Halifax (a double-whammy this, mention of Halifax and pubs in the same sentence). At the time he was hiding out from the law - a little matter of an accusation of treason - and although he didn't complete the book until a good few years later, it could just possibly have been started over a pint of Websters Best Bitter in Back Lane (brewing historians will understand that there is an element of dramatic licence in this sentence as Samuel Webster was still a gleam in his great-grandfathers eye at the time). 

Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever read Robinson Crusoe. That can be the first candidate for my Holiday Book Bag short-list, all I need now is a few more nominations from you. So, you see, I got where I wanted to go. Eventually.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

A Weekend Of Celebrations : Part 2

Day Two of my Weekend Of Celebrations and I can reveal some news about one of my Blogs you may not be familiar with. About the same time I was launching the News From Nowhere Blog I came up with one of my daft ideas : one which might just amuse me, keep me fit and answer a question about the growing power of the Internet. With all the powerful sources of information that were now available on the Internet, was it possible to virtually travel anywhere in the world - to see things, hear things and experience things from the other side of the world, without ever stepping outside your domestic comfort zone? That was the question and I decided to test it out by taking my dog Amy on a virtual walk from Los Angeles on the west coast of the USA to New York City on the east coast. To make things as realistic as possible we would cover the mileage. So I invested in a pedometer and measured how far we walked on our daily perambulations and each day I would plot it on Google Earth, transposing West Yorkshire for the California coast. As we passed through first of all Southern California and later Northern California I would check out the website of each small town we passed through, read the local newspaper and listen to the local radio station. It became an eccentric odyssey and my Blog "Fat Dog To The Big Apple" recorded the journey in some detail.

For two years I reported on our virtual journey on a weekly basis with photographs, maps and impressions of the places we virtually visited. Earlier this year we eventually crossed the State Line from California to Oregon and both Amy and I decided to take a few weeks off as a reward. And weeks dragged into months and we remained where we were, precariously balanced on the State Line. So my Bloggy birthday present to myself is to restart the journey and to explore the highways and byways of Oregon. Well, virtually explore them that is. If you would like to follow our progress you can do so on the re-awakened Fat Dog To The Big Apple Blog.

I also said that I would brush the dust off one or two of the posts to the News From Nowhere Blog from that first month of activity. Here is one I posted on the 15th November 2006, entitled Californian Sob. Hopefully it is still fresh after three years.


Cousin Dave called in for a cup of tea this morning. Whilst we were drinking tea and avoiding work he received a text message from his son. Like everyone of a certain age, Dave struggled with his attempts to send a message back - and we got to thinking of the perils of predictive text. What if they had predictive text back in the days of semaphore - a useful way of saving on arm-power. Or what if the early Morse-code operators had predictive Morse. Imagine the conversation between the sinking Titanic and the Steamship California :
TITANIC : S.O. ...
CALIFORNIA : Sorry!, Sorry For what?
TITANIC : S.O. ...
CALIFORNIA : Sob? What are you sobbing about?
TITANIC : S.O. ....
CALIFORNIA : Oh For Heavens' Sake, SOD OFF then.

Friday, November 06, 2009

A Weekend Of Celebrations : Part 1

Today I am launching a weekend of celebrations here on the News From Nowhere Blog because it is our third birthday! The first post appeared on the 7th November 2006 and was a mercifully short piece which ran as follows:

Welcome to the News From Nowhere Blog.
Why a Blog? Why News From Nowhere? Perhaps the answers to these and other questions will become clear over the coming weeks and months. Perhaps not. Primarily, this is a therapeutic exercise. A chance for me to think some things out and decide where I am going. Perhaps it will become an established part of my life. Perhaps not. Let's just see what happens.

The words were strangely prophetic as over the past three years blogging has become very much a part of my life. The events that required the "therapeutic exercise" are now long gone . I have decided where I am going and what started as an analytical tool as become a most pleasurable way of life. So to celebrate this remarkable anniversary I have a few things planned for the blog this weekend. We will meet up again with a rather stout dog and relaunch her on her odyssey. We will revisit some of those early posts written during those first tentative weeks of blogging. We will give all the Burnett Blogs a bit of a spring clean and make-over.  And we will relaunch a new challenge that everyone can participate in. 

According to Blogger, this is my 645th post to News From Nowhere. For the first two and three quarter years the posts were read by nobody but two or three close friends. In the last three months the number of followers and commenters has grown exponentially. I won't pretend that I am one of those stoics who is happy to write irrespective of whether anyone reads it or not. That is writing as therapy and, as I have said, I have advanced beyond that stage. I love discovering that there are people out there reading this and I take great pleasure from your comments. Keep them coming. In the meantime enjoy a piece of birthday cake.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Theme Thursday : When Is A Castle Not A Castle?

When is a castle not a castle? I know it sounds like a daft question, but I happen to be rather fond of daft questions (I am a great believer in the adage "never ask a sensible question when a daft question will do"). Now according to Webster's Dictionary (which, I seem to recall, like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby is Morocco bound) a castle is "a fortified residence" and the editors even included a diagram to show the kind of things any self-respecting castle should have: things like turrets and battlements, keeps and dungeons. 

The question was prompted by my desire to include a local castle in my post for this week's Theme Thursday.  But there are not many castles around here. There is a Castle Hill a few miles away in Huddersfield, but the castle in question was demolished about 700 years ago. There is a castle in Pontefract, but there isn't much left of it and, anyway, I always come out in a rash whenever I go near Pontefract. And then there is Cliffe Castle in Keighley. That would do. Surely.

Cliffe Castle started life as Cliffe Hall in the 1820s but in 1848 it was bought by a local mill owner Henry Butterfield. The Butterfield family were local weavers made good and Henry had pretensions of greatness and therefore set about constructing himself a genealogy. He added a few turrets and a battlement or two to Cliffe Hall and renamed it Cliffe Castle. And old Henry Butterfield became part of the landed gentry. So it would seem that a Hall becomes a Castle when you add a few important bits to it. But my problem in including Cliffe Castle in this Theme Thursday post on castles is that those bits have dropped off again. It may be that Henry cut a few corners and - in the best traditions of my native County - decided to "save a bob or two" : but his building work wasn't all that successful and most of his turrets, towers and battlements fell down in the next eighty or so years. So what is left now is the original Hall with a bit stuck on the top. And that takes me back to my original question "when is a castle not a castle"?

When I got fed up of trying to find an answer I transferred my attention to Skipton, a few miles further up the road. Skipton has a castle. A real castle with big gates and wonderfully solid walls. Like any half decent castle it is nearly a thousand years old and it has experienced at least one bloody three-year siege. And I happen to have a postcard with a picture of the main gateway to the castle.

The motto on top of the gateway is DES OR MAIS which, I am reliably informed is Medieval French for "Henceforth". One has to admire self-belief of the real aristocracy : as far as they were concerned they had the right to lord it over everyone else not just for the moment but henceforth. But at least they built their castles with better materials than old Henry Butterfield and they are still standing. Their castles are, without a doubt, still castles.

You can read the other Theme Thursday posts by following this LINK.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Good Friends, Good Beer And Good Books

You will no doubt recall my weekend challenge which was to somehow de-construct this picture and work out what I was doing over the weekend. Whilst many people got individual elements of the answer, nobody was able to put them together to tell the full story. So here it is. Let's start with the picture. The background image is of a bridge over a canal (the more observant of you will have spotted it was a canal by the presence of lock gates). The location of the canal can be deduced by the book cover at the bottom right of the picture which is from a collection of Morse stories by Colin Dexter - such stories are famously set in Oxford. Staying with that book image (it is a triple clue and we will return to it later), just above we can see an image of the launch of the space shuttle. The important word here is "launch" and if you add this to "book" then you will know what type of event I was attending. Move your eyes to the "beautiful woman" (the quote was from AngelMay in her comments on the post, but I have to agree) at the top left who most of you will now recognise as my good friend and occasional News From Nowhere contributor, Jane Gordon-Cumming. If you read the blog description you will know that Jane lives in Oxford and is a writer. So far, so good. The rather ghostly figure at the bottom left of the picture should give you the title of her new book of short stories which is "The Haunted Bridge and Other Strange Tales Of The Oxford Canal". The launch of this collection took place, appropriately enough, on Halloween Night, and the two guests of honour at the launch party were Jane's sister, the novelist Katie Fforde, and - going back to that book for the third time - the creator of Inspector Morse, the famous crime novelist Colin Dexter. There, easy wasn't it?

The party was great fun, even more so because it took place in a pub (my beer-loving friends might like to note that several Wadworth real ales were available). Colin gave a splendid speech and - quite rightly - praised Jane's writing skills, and there were loads of friends, old and new, in attendance. The book will eventually be available via Amazon but, as yet, it has not been added to the site. I will provide a link to the Amazon page when it is available but, in the meantime, if people would like to order copies they can always contact Jane direct and order a copy. Details of the book will also soon be available on her website.

Another book which was available at the launch was a new collection of sea stories edited by Jane's brother-in-law, Desmond Fforde. "A Seaman's Book Of Sea Stories" contains stories that range from the Napoleonic wars, via ships that traded under sail round Cape Horn, to what it was like to take charge of a ship in convoy, serve in the fore-ends of a submarine or fly a Corsair against the Japanese. I have already bought a copy and started reading what is a wonderful collection of tales. The book is available from Amazon and all profits benefit the Prostate Cancer Charity. You can order a copy from Amazon at the following Link.

So a most enjoyable weekend, meeting up with old friends, drinking good beer, and reading good books. I leave you with a picture I took at the launch party which shows (from left to right), Katie Fforde, Colin Dexter, and, of course, Jane Gordon-Cumming.

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...