Tuesday, April 14, 2015

We're Pea Hay Sea Kaying

I am currently reading "A Spy Among Friends", Ben Macintyre's fascinating account of the friendship between Kim Philly, Nicholas Elliott and James Jesus Angleton. It is a book which makes me want to return to my bookshelves and re-classify all my John le Carré books from the fiction to the non-fiction shelves. Reading this account of western and soviet spies in the 1940s. 50s and 60s, you discover that all those le Carré staples - tradecraft, Moscow Centre, moles and the rest - were not the product of the inventive mind of a novelist, but part of the real and often bizarre world of postwar espionage.

Not that I should be too surprised: even I have drifted close to this perilous world on a couple of occasions. As a left-leaning youth in the 1960s I was friends with a chap who turned out to be a long-standing  MI5 agent, and when I worked at the Labour Party HQ in the 1970s, both my work and home phones were regularly bugged. I never used to believe this - despite, on occasions, the buggers (in the nicest possible meaning of the word) interrupting conversations I was having on the phone. Many years later the ex MI5 agent, Peter Wright, wrote in his memoirs how one of his jobs was regularly intercepting the telephone calls of Labour Party staff.

I would be of little use as an undercover agent and this is more than adequately demonstrated by the strange performance taking place at our house at the moment. I don't need to photograph the plans of a laser-guided peanut shooter with a miniature camera, nor do i need to hide from the enemy that I am converting spent reactor fuel into porridge oats: I simply have to hide from Amy the Dog that were are packing the suitcases.


Amy is suspicious by default. She can sniff out an upcoming holiday with the precision of a gas chromatography machine. And whilst she has difficulty associating the word "drop" with the action of letting go, she knows as sure as eggs are eggs, that holidays for us mean k-e-n-n-e-l-s for her. And so we have taken to hiding the suitcases and smuggling clothes into a rarely used bedroom in the hope of fooling her. She watches this strange behaviour with a sage expression and a knowing look that speaks of betrayal in a far more forceful way than any activity of Philby, Burgess and McLean. 

But off we are going and if little appears on this blog over the next couple of weeks it is because either we are enjoying life under the Spanish sun or Amy has locked us in the bedroom along with our pea hay sea kaying.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Lurid Confessions Of The Plastic Box Man

My name is Alan Burnett and I am an hoarder. There I have said it and I feel better now. It took a lot of doing, making that confession: indeed I wrote some notes on a large post-it pad in order to find the right words. Now if you will excuse me a moment I just need to go off and file those notes.

That's better. There is always a sense of satisfaction in getting something tidily filed away - especially when you have managed to invent a new sub-folder to file it under (News From Nowhere Blog Notes, DDS, 201504). In this particular case it is a digital file - I scanned the post-it note, uploaded it to my Evernote Account, started a new sub-folder, tagged it until it was top-heavy and finally laid it to rest.

You see I am twice cursed: not only do I suffer from  compulsive hoarding syndrome (or Diogenes Syndrome as it is sometimes called) but I also suffer from the modern offshoot of the classic syndrome - which is defined by a desire to scan everything and digitally file it on some cloud somewhere) which I have christened Digital Diogenes Syndrome of DDS.

The two conditions feed off each other and attempt to compartmentalise my life. During this technological transitional stage there is even a temptation to get Diogenes to wear a belt and braces by not only digitising every aspect of my life, but also physically filing them away just in case the cloud should burst some day. Now if you will excuse me a moment I just need to go off and find a suitable plastic box.

That's better. My room is full to the brim with plastic boxes: if ever the place caught fire I suspect I would eventually be discovered sealed in a melted plastic block like some prehistoric bug in amber. Plastic boxes are both a boon and a curse for us Diogenes sufferers - they provide a cheap filing fix with endless opportunities to label and sub-divide. But even seasoned sub-dividers such as myself occasionally have to find recourse to that cheapest of tricks, the box marked "Bits And Pieces". And it was whilst searching through several of these "Bits and Pieces" boxes this morning that I finally decided to make my public confession.

What I was actually looking for was one of the little plastic bricks from my childhood Bayko Construction set. Bayko was a wonderfully sophisticated construction system - a fine claret of a building system compared to the beaujolais nouveau of Lego - which probably hasn't been manufactured for fifty years. The bricks were coloured a somewhat lurid red, green and cream and slotted into steel scaffolding poles that would be enough to turn the stomach of a modern day safety advisor. Some time ago I found an old brick and, true to my calling, I filed it away in a box marked "Bits And Pieces": hence my search.  And what started the whole thing off was passing a house the other day which suddenly reminded me of the 1930 suburban villas I used to design and build with my Bayko kit.

My confessions over, I can return to my search for the toy building brick. Just as soon as I have filed this blog post away on a suitable digital cloud.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

The Vintage Postcard Path 12 : On The Ephemeral Nature Of Fame

I am taking a walk along the path where history interacts with geography and words rub shoulders with images - the vintage postcard path. The destination doesn't matter and the route is determined by the random selection of old postcards I have bought at antique fairs and auctions. Number 12 in the series sees us return to a familiar recipient and an unfamiliar park.



Given the length and complexity of the journey of a typical vintage postcard I am always surprised by their ability to stay in close proximity to their deltiologocal cousins. I am not particularly thinking about those original journeys undertaken 100 or more years ago, but their subsequent ramblings from shop to shop, fair to fair, sellers' tray to sellers' tray. You may recognise the recipient of this card which was posted almost 100 years ago from an earlier post in this series ("To The American Colonies, If Fine"). One can only assume that Mrs Watson's collection of old postcards was sold as a job lot and, despite the chance pickings of illogical collectors such as myself, some at least have managed to stick together.

Whilst the recipient is familiar, the location of the illustration is not, which is something of a surprise as it is not all that far away from where I live. Womersley Hall is a seventeenth century house near Pontefract in West Yorkshire which, according to the snippets of news I can find about it on-line, has drifted slowly into dilapidation over the last couple of hundred years. Some hand - I like to think it might have been Mrs Watson as an elderly lady - has appended the postcard "Home of Lord Snowdon", and indeed the hall was the childhood home of Anthony Armstrong Jones who went on to marry Princess Margaret and became Lord Snowdon. He became quite a celebrity in the early sixties - he had a job which was so rare for a member of the Royal Family that it attracted considerable comment - and I suspect the information about Womersley being his family home was added to the card then.

And now, 50 years later, Lord Snowdon has become a footnote in history and Womersley Park is as famous for being the subject matter of one of Mrs Watson's cards as for being his home. Well almost.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Sepia Saturday 273 : A Lagavulin Smile


The theme image for Sepia Saturday 273 features a couple of Edwardian ladies riding their bicycles through Battersea Park in London. My best efforts at a match involves half the ladies, half the bikes and a park of unknown origins. The photograph itself comes from the ubiquitous suitcase of old family photographs and measures just three inches by two. But so much life, so many memories, so much history is distilled into that small space, it has a rare and fine distinction - a vintage single malt whisky of a photograph.

The photograph features my mother, Gladys Burnett, and must have been taken in the early to mid 1930s. At the time my father and mother had a tandem and their holidays would involve tours around Britain. Later my father graduated to a motorbike and sidecar, a graduation my mother welcomed because - given that the predominant climatic conditions were wet and the predominant topography was hilly - she was happier under the protection of a canvas awning and the motive power of an internal combustion engine.

Looking at the photograph now - eleven years after my mother died - I can still recognise the smile; a lovely warm rich smile, a Lagavulin smile (lovers of malt whisky will know what I mean).

See what the others are doing for Sepia Saturday 273 by going to the SEPIA SATURDAY BLOG and following the links

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Here's Where It's Made


I must have taken this photograph of Bank Bottom, Halifax almost fifty years ago. On the right of the picture is part of the old Halifax Gas Works and on the left is the mill of Riding Hall Carpets. The railway viaduct in the mid-distance carries the line that ran from Halifax via Queensbury to Bradford. The church spire is that of Square Church - the church itself was later destroyed by fire although the spire was saved.

Around 1969 I worked for a time at the carpet mill on the left of the photograph as a warehouse labourer. The mill was built up against Beacon Hill and the road climbed around the building like a slide on a shelter-skelter ride. I may have taken this photograph whilst I was working at the mill, but I suspect it is a year or two earlier.

Other than the spire of Square Church, most of the buildings that can be seen in my original photograph have now long gone. Trees have recolonised some of the site and a Matalan hypermarket stands where my carpet mill used to be. In addition to the change in the actual buildings themselves, the whole scale of the scene seems to have changed. Then such space at the industrial heart of a busy manufacturing town was precious - space to be used, space to be built upon. Today it is almost an afterthought - too hilly for a car-park, too bleak for a call centre.

I must not fall into the trap of blinkered nostalgia: life even fifty years ago was dirty, boring and often short. But the towns looked better, looked more purposeful: there was a sooty pride about them which seemed to say - "here's where it's made".

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

What The Papers Said : Memories Of A Poor Wife And A Bacon Sandwich


Halifax Courier : Saturday 4th April 1868


One cannot help wondering whether Professor Stokes was able to deliver his lecture without notes. He would claim that he could teach his system of memory enhancement in less than three hours and it was all based on his golden rule for memory which was "observe, reflect, link thought with thought and think of the impressions" He would give his students sentences to memorise - here is the one from Exercise 38 : "My memory men may memorise my matchless mouth martyrdomising memory medley". Which reminds me of something I once read in a book .... but unfortunately I have forgotten what it was.


I do know how Mr J G Lee feels. The Good Lady Wife has just set out for the shops in Huddersfield - so I am tempted to issue my own public announcement in a similar vein. However, before we attach too much blame to the poor Mrs Lee we should remember that 1868 was 14 years before the Married Woman's Property Act came into force and at this time married women were not able to own property in their own right. She would have to use Mr Lee's credit card as she was not allowed one herself.


A legal case with a convoluted plot of Morsian complexity. I still can't quite work out who gave who what - but it appears that a watch changed hands in exchange for a pig. The complaint seems to be that the pig died immediately after it was handed over but given the fact that the chap it was given to was a butcher in Sowerby, this is hardly surprising. The judge awarded the plaintiff £1-7-6d in compensation and in return took delivery of some belly pork, a pair of pork chops and a pound of streaky bacon. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Vintage Postcard Path 11 : A Tale Of George Eliot And The Architect

I am taking a walk along the path where history interacts with geography and words rub shoulders with images - the vintage postcard path. The destination doesn't matter and the route is determined by the random selection of old postcards I have bought at an antique fair. Number 11 in the series sees us in the schoolroom of a famous 19th century author.


George Eliot was full of contradictions: a woman using the name of a man, a pillar of the Victorian establishment who lived a life of a bohemian, a girl from the provinces who lived life in the big city. It was a contradiction of my own that first came to mind when I picked this particular postcard from the pile I have accumulated over recent months - for here is an name I know so well but I don't think I have actually read any of her books. That is a contradiction I need to put right in the near future, but for the moment I want to concentrate on the connectivity of time.



George Eliot was born in 1819 and her relatively short life came to an end in December 1880. So when this postcard was sent in 1905, Eliot had only been dead some 25 years and would be more in the realms of a recent celebrity rather than a historical icon. The card was sent to William Edward Crabtree of Elliott Street (different spelling, different Elliott) in Rochdale who, at the time, was a 25 year old architectural assistant. The glorious connectivity of time means that Crabtree was born whilst George Eliot was still alive. The card was sent by Gertrude Hodgson of Denton near Manchester who at the time was a 13 year old girl. It would be nice - in a George Eliot kind of way - to be able to tell you that Gertrude grew up and fell in love with the handsome architect, but alas, that is not the case (she went on to marry a builder called Harrison). William Crabtree married a girl called Fanny and lived in the Rochdale area until his death in 1963. In 1963 I was myself a 15 year old, living just the other side of the Pennines in Halifax - less than 25 miles away from Elliott Street as the Ted Hughesian crow flies. 

So there you have it: a crumpled old postcard linking me to George Eliot. It is amazing where you end up once you take a walk along the Vintage Postcard Path.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Contiguous Images Of A Busy Little Week


Life has been up to its old tricks again - getting in the way of blogging. Monday was shopping in Leeds (although I was allowed to abandon the GLW in the new Trinity Centre and wander off on my own taking photographs). I spent a large chunk of Tuesday at the bank moving relatively small amounts of money from one bank account to another. I am still unclear as to why I did this other than the bank manager said he thought it was a good idea. I was so mentally exhausted by this mindless activity that I could do little for the rest of the day other than scan a few old negatives. One was a picture of Halifax back in the 1960s : a time when shops were not encased in glass and concrete and when bank managers worried that your overdraft was too large rather than too small.

Wednesday was a pleasant Spring day and a fine day to kick off a new project that my mate Steve and I are undertaking. I won't go into detail about the nature of the project now other than to say we made our way to the Wapentake of Agbrigg and Morley to undertake some photographic explorations. Thursday has already faded into a beery blur brought about by a lunchtime meeting of the Old Gits Luncheon Club. One of our members is about to move permanently to France so it was an occasion of fond farewells and endless pints of beer, nonsensical speeches and ...... even more pints of beer.  Which takes us to Friday - more shopping and just enough time to squeeze out this blog post.

As I scan my old 35mm negatives, I see my life in terms of contiguous images which serve to remind me - thirty years down the timeline - that I went to Halifax the day after Auntie Amy got married (or some such thing). The problem with digital images is that they come in individual lumps - each file is sacred and alone like some Paul Simon Rock or Island. So this week I am sewing a few images together within a 35mm framework so that, if I make it to 2040, I will remember this busy little week.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Sepia Saturday 271 : The Bitter Draught Of Progress

This week our Sepia Saturday theme image features a group of horses gathered around a stream and enjoying a refreshing drink after the toil of a working day. So many possibilities here for the creative Sepian - horses, streams, work - to mention just a few, but for some reason or another I decided to go for a drink!



So here I am enjoying a pint and what looks like a cigar with the Excellent Lady Wife and her parents, Raymond and Edith Berry. I have no idea where the photograph was taken (it is indeed rare for me to forget a pub) and I can only guess as to when it was taken - and that would be sometime in the mid 1970s. At that time we were living in London so it might have been taken in the beer garden of a southern pub (the beer gardens of northern pubs tend to be full of pigeon lofts and forced rhubarb). 


A second image from my scanned negative archives features a northern pub, the Royal Oak in Skipton. It will have been taken in 1966 or early 1967 when I was still at school. We were on a geography field trip to Skipton and whilst the rest of the class surveyed artesian basins and sketched U shaped valleys, a few of my school mates and I went off to the pub.  As far as I can discover, the pub has now been converted to a guest house - with neither pigeons nor rhubarb in sight.  Such is the bitter draught of progress.

She what other Sepia Saturday contributors are up to this week by calling in at the Sepia Saturday Blog and following the links.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Man Of Almost Perfect Synchronicity


Once I start reading a book I like to read it. So if I am in the middle of Chapter 4 and Amy Dog suddenly demands to go for a walk, Amy will just have to wait. Cross her legs. Wait until the next murder has been committed. Or solved. Amy finds such an arrangement unacceptable; she has even gone as far as accusing me of cruelty. It is not cruelty, I reply (is it normal to have conversations with your dog? - come to think of it, don't bother answering, I suspect I know the answer already), it is just the magnetic attraction of a good read. So I was pleasantly surprised the other day when Amy came up with a potential solution to our little problem (our wee problem as they would say in Scotland) - synchronisation. 

When you buy a Kindle book these days you have the choice, in many cases, to buy an Audio version of the same book. And if you have an Audiobook App on your smartphone you can get your phone to  whisper via the cloud to your Kindle and tell it where you have got to - and vice versa. So I can read my Kindle until Amy gives one of pleading wuffs; walk her through the woods whilst I call upon some professional reader to carry on reading to me, and then return home and my Kindle will automatically know where I have got to.

There is only one problem - the bath. I am rather fond of soaking in a hot bath and reading at the same time. But it is a dangerous environment for Kindles and their electronic ilk - especially if you are in the habit of falling asleep - and therefore you need a good old-fashioned paperback to read in the bath. No problem, just buy one of them as well (I am constantly surprised to discover you can still buy books made of paper), and that I have done. But I can't get the book to whisper to the cloud and tell it which page I have got to. I have asked Amy for help, but she couldn't care less: she hates baths and wants nothing to do with them. Is there anyone out there who has invented a thingy to synchronise my paperback book with my Kindle and my Audiobook Player? I need to know so that I can become a man of perfect synchronicity.