Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Shocking Story And A Justification For Extravagance

Many years ago, when I was tottering on the edge of total deafness, I did some work with Sheffield University testing out an experimental device for the deaf they were developing at the time. As one's hearing diminishes, any kind of auditory or pseudo-auditory information is at a premium, and even the distinction between sound and no-sound can provide you with vital clues that can help you build up a sound picture of your environment. The sudden commencement of a sound - even if you are incapable of interpreting what that sound is - in certain circumstances can mean that there is someone at the door or the dog is barking to go out or your pie and chips are cooked in the oven. They had designed a device that could be strapped on your wrist that contained a sound sensor and some circuitry which would convert sound to electric impulses. The idea was that if there was a sudden sound, a small electric impulse would be delivered to the wearers' wrist and alert him accordingly. With practice, I was assured, you should be able to interpret patterns of impulses and thus distinguish between the constant tone of, for example, a doorbell, and the intermittent tone of an alarm. Equally, they were anxious to explore the idea that louder sounds could provoke slightly more powerful electric shocks and thus add another level for sophistication available to the trained interpreter. Well that was the theory.

This was back in the 1980s and things were not quite as electronically sophisticated back then. The device itself was quite bulky, not exactly the wristwatch-sized contraption I had been promised. It probably had to be that large - and that heavy - to accommodate the battery power that was needed and the accumulators necessary to build up sufficient charge for the necessary shocks. The main problem was not, however, the size of the contraption, but the level of shock it was capable of delivering! At high sound volumes it could be sufficient to cause your arm to go into spasm. The worst situations were when you were doing something like walking down a street and a large wagon or bus would apply its' screeching brakes and thus generate a prolonged high decibel burst of sound: this was enough to turn one into a twitching wreck of humanity, clutching one's arm and issuing a string of expletives that, whilst unheard by you, was clearly discernible to anyone within twenty yards of you.

At the time I was working as a lecturer - you don't need ears to lecture, you just stand there and proclaim wisdom and the students copy it down - and I would introduce my new experimental device with a few sentences of introductory explanation. Often this would cause them to laugh - it was, in reality, a quite ridiculous contraption - and the effect of their laughter would start my arm twitching in response. This, of course, caused them to laugh louder and longer which was instantly translated to even more jerky - and painful - quivering and thrashing of my arm. I became convinced that previous trials of such a device had been carried out during the rise of the Third Reich in Germany which was why they used to march around with their arms raised in what looked like a salute all the time. After two or three weeks I packed the device back off to the people who were developing it, telling them that, whilst the idea was good, they had finished off developing something that was probably outlawed by the Geneva Convention on Instruments of Torture.

I was reminded of this episode in my life yesterday when my much anticipated Apple Watch arrived. Here again is something that you can strap to your wrist and which will alert you to a whole manner of things (most of which were undreamt of back in the 1980s) by a gentle pulsating pressure on the wrist. But my oh my, hasn't technology moved on! This isn't Dr Frankenstein sending 2,000 volts up your arm and causing you to dance like a fairground monkey, this is Julie Christie (feel free to insert your own fantasy figure here) teasing the hairs on your arm as part of some kind of high-tech courting ritual. This isn't some heavy, crudely bolted, metallic box of batteries and wires that resembles something that was constructed in the Cammell Laird Shipyard, this is sleek, polished and Apple-beautiful (If I carry on in this vein long enough, what are the chances of Apple sending me a complementary 18 carat gold Apple Watch Edition?).

After discovering that I had ordered the watch, the question most people have asked me is "why on earth do you want one of those?" I have usually gone on about the advantages of the technology to someone who, like myself, is hard of hearing. It can let me know when my phone is ringing and it can wake me up in the morning by a gentle caressing of my wrist: but that is not the reason. I justify the expense by telling myself that, all those years ago, I did the experimental development work, therefore more than most, I deserve the fruition of all that painful research.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Sepia Saturday 279 : Working With Boilers Is Not Money For Old Rope


Our Sepia Saturday theme image this week features a somewhat gloomy looking industrial location with half a safety warning notice (who chooses these things, I mean what on earth are we supposed to do with that?). Whilst generation after generation of my extended family has worked in industry, the family photograph collection is somewhat short of snaps shot deep in the midst of factory, foundry or mill. Photographs were for more cheerful endeavours: trips to the country or the seaside, weddings and babies and - if the participants managed to survive their lives of hard work and industrial pollution - retirement parties. I do have a photograph of my father sat proudly alongside a machine he had just repaired and one of my mother in the mill : but both of these have been featured before. So I am turning to a few images that reflect heavy industry : only one of which is a family photograph.

The family photograph is the one above which features on the printed Memo header from Usher Brothers of Liverpool. The Ushers were the family of my wife' mother and I think that the four men proudly resting on that monster of a ships' fender are Isobel's grandfather and three uncles. The entire family was involved in rope-making and fender making, so I may be mistaken with the exact identification, but that doesn't matter. The work itself was hard and dangerous: it certainly was not "money for old rope". This can be clearly seen from this extract from the Manchester Times of 22 March 1890 which describes a boiler explosion at the rope works of Levi Usher (Levi Usher was the uncle of the boys in the Usher Brothers photograph). The casualties of the explosion include two further members of the family : William Usher and Thomas Henry Usher.

My final photograph neatly brings together the themes of ships and boilers as it is a photograph of the oil boilers on the 1930s liner, the Empress of Britain. The liner was owned by Canadian Pacific Steamships and, although there were three "Empress of Britain's" afloat during the 20th century, I suspect this is the 42,000 ton beauty that was launched in 1931. If I have made the correct identification, we can bring the story neatly back to danger, because that particular Empress came to a sad and sorry end in October 1940 whilst acting as a British troop carrier during World War II. She was attacked off the west coast of Ireland by German bombers and later sunk by German submarines.

Whether the danger comes from exploding boilers or from exploding bombs, the lives of our forebears were far from safe. The comparative peace and safety that we enjoy today was won by the hard work and sacrifice of those that went before us.

SEE WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING IN THE WORLD OF OLD IMAGES FROM THE SAFETY OF YOUR ARMCHAIR BY GOING TO THE SEPIA SATURDAY BLOG AND FOLLOWING THE LINKS

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Embracing The Globe From Downtown Brockton



Chastened by the rejection of my socialist dreams by the British electorate, I have decided to embrace capitalism. Anxious to become a proper part of this share-owning, currency-speculating, hedge fund-betting society, I have just bought some shares in King's Department Stores Inc of Brockton, Massachusetts. I managed to acquire 100 shares for a little over £1 and I have high hopes of them earning rich rewards in the months and years to come. Before you write in to break the bad news, let me just say that I know the public record says that the company went bankrupt in 1982. However, we venture capitalists have more than our fair share of belief and vision, and no doubt such a plucky little enterprise can bounce back from such a temporary reverse in trading conditions.


And if not, well at least I have the beauty of the share certificate to console me and the enigmatic smile of that young lady who embraces the globe from the comfort of the Ladies' Shoe Department in downtown Brockton.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Distilled Images In A Box Marked Unknown

They say that inside every fat man there is a thin man trying to get out. Personally, I doubt the truth of this old saying : I have been fat for years and despite every dietary temptation, no thin man has ever made an escape attempt. They would be better off saying that inside every disorganised person there is an organised one, tidying up and filing things away in the hope of finding the escape plan they know they had somewhere.

I spend half my life putting labels on boxes in anticipation for the big Spring Clean that is just around the corner. And I spend the rest of my life buying more and more bits of paper of every shape and form that cry out for filing and archiving. The tragedy of my life is that the disorganised flow in is always greater that the organised flow out and the result is chaos.

A couple of weeks ago I was waiting for the world as we know it to come to an end wasting some time browsing through eBay listings, when I came across a job-lot of old photographs. I put in a silly bid and forgot about it in the sure and certain knowledge that I would be out-bid. A few days ago I discovered to my surprise that I hadn't been outbid and yesterday morning a large parcel full of old photos dropped through the letterbox.

It is a mixed lot of old and oldish photographs and postcards. They tell the story of some family or another, but it is a family I don't know. But if you let the story - the names, the details, the lives - evaporate away,  you are left with raw images that have a fascination all of their own.

Unknown Man and Unknown Woman : From An Unknown Family Photograph Collection

There must be over 100 photographs in the job lot and I paid less than £5 for them : a bargain in anyone's terms. However they have merely added to the disorganised flow entering my life and I long to give them an organised place in the world. So I scan and file and scan and file and place them in that big plastic box marked unknown.

Friday, May 08, 2015

The Morning After


The morning after (well it was afternoon by the time we crawled out of bed having stayed up until 5.30am). Sometimes words are not necessary.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Keir Hardie and Sidney Webb At A Fancy Dress Party


It is election day here and I am staying with a political theme; but don't worry, this is the politics of the past. Back in the 1970s we lived in London and we had a good friend called Lucy Middleton. When we knew her, Lucy was in her eighties, but after the war she had been MP for Plymouth, taking the seat of the famous Nancy Astor. And Lucy had been married to Jim Middleton who had been active in running the Labour Party - first as Assistant Secretary and later as General Secretary - since 1902! When we left London to live back up in the north, Lucy gave me a little present, it was Jim's Programme and badge for the 1914 coming of age conference of the Independent Labour Party.  It was the Independent Labour Party that came together with the trade unions and Co-operative Party to establish the modern Labour Party. 


Just reading the names of the platform party from that 1914 conference - Keir Hardie, Arthur Henderson, Philip Snowden and Sidney Webb - is like a lesson in Labour history. I notice from the programme, that the conference opened with the ILP Mixed Voices singing the "Song Of Liberty" and ended with a Fancy Dress Ball. We will be having a little party at our house this evening to watch the results come in throughout the night. I have no idea whether I will be celebrating or not. But if the outcome is not the one I want, I can always keep myself amused by imagining what Keir Hardie and Sidney Webb went to the Fancy Dress Party dressed as!

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

The Day A Waterfall Crept Up Behind Me

I have to go to Bradford this afternoon to be interviewed for a film they are making about cochlear implants. There is no point scanning the TV and cinema listings to catch a sight of the finished product, it is simply a little film being made by some speech and language therapy students to help intended recipients of cochlear implants know what to expect. But I am delighted to be taking part in order to share my experiences, and, in particular, my memories of that day 17 years ago when hearing was returned to my life. In putting some things together for the filming I came across the diary I kept at the time. Many years ago I shared some of this on News From Nowhere, but I am going to share a little bit of it again now - not to remind you, but to remind me.

At The Switch On : The GLW, the Lad, and the Technical Wizard
Having been completely deaf for many years, in March 1998 I had an operation to insert a cochlear implant, a wonderful digital and electronic device that promised the prospect of sound once more. Six long weeks had to pass between the operation and finally switching all the electrodes on and discovering what the results were. That was known as "Switch-On" and for me it took place on Thursday 30 April 1998. Here is some of what I wrote the next day

THURSDAY 30 APRIL 1998
The problem was I had no idea what to expect. My worst fear - one that has been gradually gathering momentum for the last few days - was that there would be nothing. My best hope was that I would once again be able to "hear" sound, and after a good few months of practice, I would begin to be able to translate it into something more meaningful.
The technical wizard (Salim) explained that the first thing we would do is to switch on each of the 22 channels (each channel stimulates a different electrode) one by one. Keys were depressed and everyone watched the screen expectantly. I sat there with a dazed look on my face. rigid with fear. Nothing seemed to happen. More keys were depressed. I began to accept my worst fears as reality. Then, all of a sudden, I heard it. A tone - quite pleasant - hovering somewhere in my head. Fighting with the constant tinnitus at first. But this was Tyson at his best versus Bruno at his worst. No contest. The tinnitus quickly gave way.

I could hear again. A single tone. But what the hell, it was noise, it was working. The computer stepped up the strength of the signal until we found a good comfortable level and then we moved on to the next channel. Again, I could hear. My God, two frequencies! Channel followed channel. At the medium and high frequencies I have had no hearing for 13 years and the whole process was unbelievable. Such frequencies could not exist surely. Each time I felt that we had reached the limit of perceptual hearing, a higher frequency kicked in, until all 22 channels had been tested. All 22 worked.

At this point I would have been quite happy to have packed up and gone home. Just to hear those odd noises was quite enough. Why go further and spoil things. Salim gave me a card to read saying that he would now get the computer to switch on all the channels at once. This was "Switch On". The most extraordinary sensation passed through my brain. Salim said (to Isobel and Alex who were sat there) "Of course it will take some time to find the right settings". I said, "No these seem to be fine". Suddenly we all sat dumbstruck as we realised what had happened. I had heard him.

"Can you hear me" they were all saying at once. I was too shocked almost to answer. A voice - completely unrecognisable to me - answered "Yes". I had read about what the "sound" would sound like at first. Micky Mouse most people said. Near, but not quite. More Minnie Mouse on speed. I had - in my more optimistic moments - expected other people to sound like this, but what I had never realised was that I too would sound like that. But who cares. I could hear. I could bloody-well hear. Not perfect, not everything. If everyone spoke at once it confused me. If people spoke too fast I lost the thread. It all sounded strange. But I could sodding-well hear.

Everyone was either grinning or crying. I was shaking. We spent a bit of time tuning the various settings and Salim explained all the bits of the various mechanisms (he had an Indian accent, how remarkable. I had forgotten people had accents). I listened to myself again and realised that I had picked up an American accent from somewhere. Good God, after fifteen years of silence I had come back with an American accent!

We took a break and I escaped outside to smoke my pipe (really to just try and come to terms with what had happened). Strange sounds all around me. A waterfall crept up behind me - no it was not a waterfall it was a car. A door squeaked somewhere - no it was a bird singing. I came back into the building and heard my footsteps on the concrete stairs. They echoed. That is not sound - raw sound - that is quality sound. I will never walk down a corridor again without thinking it is one of the most beautiful sounds on earth. To get back into the Cochlear Implant Centre there is one of those dreadful doors with a voice-box (the kind that had driven me mad for the last 15 years). I pressed the button and heard the mechanical buzz of the speaker. I asked to come in and heard the bolt shoot back.

We did more tests. Nobody could quite believe it. I certainly couldn't. Eventually we came home. More sounds - the noise of the car, the clicking of the indicator, the annoying sound the computer makes when a programme is activated. The sound of Alexander's voice. A dog barking.

It will take some time yet. My two objectives for the coming months are the telephone and music. All the books say that "eventually", with practice, you can begin to get a bit of these. Give me a week - or two.

I feel grateful to all sorts of people. To the technical expertise of those at the Yorkshire Cochlear Implant Centre. To all my friends for coping so well with my deafness for so long. To Isobel and Alexander for their encouragement and their belief. But perhaps most of all to the NHS (like me it is 50 this year) for enabling me to experience this. But there are still people waiting. Worse still, there are areas of the country which will not fund adult cochlear implants for financial reasons. No deaf person should ever be denied the pleasure I am experiencing just because we are unwilling to provide the financial resources necessary.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The People, As We Are Born, You Raise

Scan from a copy of Punch in my collection (1 June 1889)

Wherever you may be reading this in the world, you are probably aware that there will be a General Election in Britain on Thursday. I am not about to launch into a party political blogpost on behalf of this cause or that cause - those who know me will be quite aware of where my political sympathies lie - but I didn't want to let the occasion pass without some mention on News From Nowhere.

This election seems to be different to all the others I have known in that division seems to be a stronger theme than unity. Whether it is the division of Britain from Europe, or Scotland from England, or saints from scroungers: we seem to have become more any more obsessed by the narrowness of politics rather than its ability to be inclusive. So, as we prepare ourselves for our immediate political future I thought it was an opportune time to recall the opening lines of that most narrow and nationalist of songs, Land Of Hope and Glory.

Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,
How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?

But let us not forget that we live in a diverse and culturally rich age, not to mention an age which has the benefit of machine translation. So let us subject those familiar lines to the cultural mincing machine and see what comes out the other end. I have translated the English into Welsh, the Welsh into Japanese, the Japanese in Maltese, the Maltese into Chichewa, the Chichewa into Icelandic, the Icelandic into Azerbaijani and finally the Azerbaijani back into English.

What you finish up with is this:-

Hope and glory of the world, women's rights,
The people, as we are born, you raise?

For me, it is a much more pleasing sentiment. Proof, if ever proof was needed, that diversity beats isolationism any day of the week.

For those who have an interest in such things, here are the various stages the translation went through:

English
Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,
How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?

Welsh
Land of Hope and Glory, Mam y Free,
Sut y byddwn Dyrchafaf di, sy'n cael eu geni o ti?

Japanese
希望と栄光の国、自由の母、
どのように我々はあなたから生まれている人、あなたを賞揚?

Maltese
Tama u glorja tal-pajjiż, il-libertà ta 'l-omm,
Kif in-nies aħna li huma mwielda minn int, extol inti?

Chichewa
Chiyembekezo ndi ulemerero wa dziko, ufulu wa amayi,
Monga anthu timabadwa kwa inu, kukweza inu?

Icelandic
Vona og dýrð heimsins, réttindi kvenna,
Eins og menn, við erum fædd til þín, hækka þig?

Azerbaijani
Ümid və dünyanın şöhrət, qadın hüquqları,
Insanlar, biz sizə anadan kimi, sizə qaldırmaq?

English
Hope and glory of the world, women's rights,
The people, as we are born, you raise?

Monday, May 04, 2015

An Anodyne View Of A Stimulating Medicine

POINTERS TO THE PAST 


This is the kind of anodyne depiction of the British seaside that was ever-popular in cheap illustrated editions of the Collected Works of Charles Dickens and early twentieth century picture postcards. There always has to be a timber-framed house next to the sea and a fishing skiff pulled up on the sands. The colours are as limited as the artist's imagination and the entire effect makes you long for the era of the real photograph. But what goes around comes around and you can now probably get a Photoshop Filter that will transform your high resolution digital images back into this format.


One of the great things about old postcards is that if one side fails to challenge the imagination, the other side may step up to the plate. The card dates back to July 1907 and was sent to Mrs Reeves at 4 Woodlands Road in Leytonstone, Essex. I don't seem to be able to find out much about Mrs Reeves, Woodlands Road still exists but Mrs Reeves seems to have passed through life without leaving too many markers. The message is written upside down - a practice not uncommon 100 years ago and no doubt intended to stop the postman reading the contents.

The message is hardly worth hiding from the postman although it manages to avoid being as bland as the picture. The sender might be Marjorie (who had trouble forming her "e's"), but we will let her off as she has not been too well recently. But the good news is that she is feeling much better thanks to whatever medicine she has been taking. It "acts like an intoxicant on me, makes me feel as if I had too much to drink". 

Just in case Marjorie - or Marjerio - is still alive, all I want to say is that I will forgive you for the anodyne postcard if you send me a bottle of that medicine.



Saturday, May 02, 2015

Sepia Saturday 277 : The Puds, The Fat And The Ungodly

Our Sepia Saturday theme image this week, which was taken in the midst of an energetic game of college football in Canada, sent me in search of sporting images within my various collections. It has to be said that there a very few - of the two prolific photographers who cling onto branches of my family tree, Uncle Frank was challenged by corpulence whilst Great Uncle Fowler preferred the quiet calm of the bowling green to the mud-rutted football field. But within my own old negatives I did manage to find a photograph dating back some fifty years which sparked off a few memories of schooldays.


The small town Grammar School I went to played rugby. They had no time for what we in this country call football - and others call soccer - as such a game was the preserve of the working classes.  And the rugby that was played was Rugby Union, the alternative code - Rugby League - was never mentioned despite the fact that the school was firmly set within the Rugby League belt that spanned northern England. Rugby League was played by those who favoured cheap thrills over systematic aggression: and it was also played by the working classes. No such activity could be undertaken by the pupils of the Crossley and Porter Grammar School.

And so you were forced to play rugby, or if you could manage to avoid getting picked for one of the two opposing teams, you were forced to undertake a gruelling cross country run. I was lucky enough to fall into the latter category. No, I do myself an injustice, luck had little to do with it - I had built up my reputation for being a cack-handed pussyfoot with all the care and attention of a resolute enthusiast. And when the 35 pupils were divided into two teams of 15, more often than not I could guarantee to be in that sad residuum that had to tackle the cross-country course.

The leftovers - the Puds, The Fat and the Ungodly - were sent on our way by the sports teacher who would then concentrate his attention on the rugger game. Now the school was situated close to the top edge of the broad but steep Calder Valley and the cross-country course would descend down one precipitous side of the valley, across the river, and then take a long hard climb up the other side, before plunging back down to the river and finishing up with a chest-crushing, leg-tiring, soul-destroying climb back up to the sports fields. The first part of the precipitous descent was through an area of rocky outcrops and dense scrubland known locally as "The Rocks".  Our little band of recalcitrants would enthusiastically run off to the rocks and as soon as we were out of sight, we would head for a cave where a copious cache of cigarettes and fizzy drunks had already been secreted. We would pass an enjoyable, convivial and relaxing fifty minutes before wheezing our way back up the path to the sports field bearing all the physical signs of severe exertion.

It wasn't always plane sailing. Occasionally the rugger match would finish early and the sports master would bring his binoculars to the top of the rocks to scan the valley for his five runners. This was particularly nerve racking as he had the habit of standing on top of the rock that formed the roof to our cave and we would be consumed with trying both to keep well hidden and disperse the aroma of Virginia tobacco. But we survived : that is what schools like mine were all about - turning adversity into triumph.

To see what other memories have been evoked by the Sepia Saturday theme image, go on over to the Sepia Saturday Blog and follow the links.