Thursday, May 29, 2008

A E Housman And A Pneumatic Umbrella

It's funny the way my thoughts travel. They don't get a taxi to the airport and jump on an inter-continental jet. Nor do they get an Inter-City 125 Express from London to York. Annoyingly and sometimes wonderfully they favour little old buses: the kind that have been put on this earth to prove that the quickest way between two points is a straight line by showing that the slowest way between two points is a crooked parabola. Take, for example, the case of the poet A E Housman and the pneumatic umbrella.

I was listening to BBC Radio 4's Great Lives this morning whilst out walking Amy. The guest was the detective writer, Colin Dexter, and his subject was the poet A. E. Housman. As part of the general biographical background to he poems of Housman, it was noted that his first job after leaving university was as a clerk in the London Patents Office. This would have been towards the end of the nineteenth century which, I suddenly realised, was about the same time that Albert Einstein was working as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office. Could it be that many of the greatest minds of the twentieth century had all worked in patent offices and was there something about this particular job that improved the mind of otherwise mere mortal men? I searched around the Internet for some time looking for any kind of supporting evidence but, alas, I was unable to find any other even slightly clever people who had worked in patent offices. I have thus filed the theory away in the pending tray of my mind in the hope that further evidence may emerge at some point in the future.

Nevertheless, the Google search had taken me to the website of the British Patent Office (or rather the UK Intellectual Property Agency as it now brands itself) and I was delighted to discover that you can now search through patent applications on-line. What a joy it is to trawl through these flights of fancy and I soon became engrossed in an application for patent protection from a certain Andres Eduardo Chmelik Martinec who recently filed a patent for his invention of a pneumatic umbrella. To quote from the patent application :

"An umbrella with pneumatic activation, specifically a portable, foldable umbrella, for the protection of persons from the rain and sun, and to be employed in fixed installations of one or more umbrellas as well, to protect crops, objects, or surfaces that require controlled protection, outdoor tables, beaches, and patios as principal examples of operation and use with individual or centralized control. When connected together, a group of umbrellas are controlled with a unified command, or through an automated system with temperature and water sensors. An automatic compressor could be provided to activate and deactivate the system, and it also could be activated within a closed circuit with a pressurized air storage chamber. A pneumatic umbrella that, in addition to the handle, or base, has a complete pneumatic circuit with entry and exit of air, equipment for pumping the air, a valve controlling the flow of air to either open or close the umbrella through internal conduits which are connected to extendable stems and are held together by a threaded system".

You must admit, it sounds a wonderful invention and I can see whole banks of Martinec's Patented Pneumatic Umbrellas opening and closing in time with passing rain clouds. It is a vision that could almost inspire you to write poetry. And perhaps it did inspire Housman when he wrote these lines in the volume "Last Poems"

The rain, it streams on stone and hillock,
The boot clings to the clay.
Since all is done that's due and right
Let's home; and now, my lad, good-night,
For I must turn away.

Yes, it seems that Mr Martinec might be on to a winner, But, wait a minute. Didn't Housman write a few verses later:

The skies, they are not always raining
Nor grey the twelvemonth through;
And I shall meet good days and mirth,
And range the lovely lands of earth
With friends no worse than you.

NOTE :
As I am sure you have come to expect by now, you do not just have to passively read these postings you can actively interact by making selective purchases from Alan Burnett's Amazon Store. Why not buy the collected poems of A E Housman or invest in a clear plastic transparent umbrella - as used by the Queen. Just follow the usual links to make me a happy blogger.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

We've started.


Many readers of this blog might be forgiven for forgetting that some 18 months ago I posted that we (EFO and JGC) had bought a house for development.... planning permission (2nd attempt) came through last September.. buildings regs permissions, (with a couple of qualifications) 19th. May...

Structural work still awaits some details from the engineers and architect, but I was let loose to arrange the new services connections (water, electric, gas), water being the lowest and requiring ideally (they say) a 4' deep trench, 1 m. wide (there are to be two pipes, one per flat) at least where they make their connection (by the kerb,) although builder Alan (right, above) and I agreed about a digger-shovel width (about 2' 6") would do for the main run. (The central figure is his son - also Alan - with nick-name Alan senior didn't instantly divulge but five minutes later we overheard it's "Bodge"... perhaps not the kindest name for a would-be builder? But, you must admit, quite funny, kindly said, as it was.)

Last Friday, Alan had dug about 2/3rd of the run, very neat, by 3.30p.m.. At about 3.40p.m. the left hand wall collapsed at the far end (viewing as in the photos) with no provocation whatsoever and clearly the next bit was dying to go.... it had also become clear that at 4' down we were on the local water table... not really desireable since the idea is to lay a pipe for potable water, not collect non-potable...

The photos were taken at the end of today - by which time we had given up hope of stopping the LHS of the trench collapsing and so removed it anyway. The concrete on the left is the neighbours' path... and there used to be a fence.. but, of course, that went when the earth did. Mind you, it was legally ours in the first place... we met that neighbour, Valerie, who doesn't mind any of it all because she's just so delighted we are sorting it all out... the previous owner died back in the 1980's 2 days after falling off a ladder when painting on the property but left a will that his American lady friend had the right to live there for the rest of her natural... which was right up to September 2006. For some legal reason, the owner's family, not the lady, were left responsible for all upkeep and bills so not surprisingly they did a minumum... she herself spending 6 months of the year in America anyway...

Valerie has lived in the area pretty much all her life and we heard all the major events including that she'd seen most of the people she'd known in the Close go to their last resting places. And that she played darts at some pub or club where the parking was impossible. She was charming and it was a relief she clearly had no objections at all to us creating havoc to make the property attractively arranged... I was going to write "again" but I gather it hasn't been since before the 1980's! I must confess to being a little distracted for wondering how the trench could be brought back into control... at the moment the bottom is pretty much like a quicksand (no doubt why the wall of it collapsed.)

But, not all bad news in the slightest. In the process of digging Alan discovered the routes of both the "foul" drain (the ordinary sewage one) and a "surface water" drain pipe... which we'd had no idea before ... indeed, paper searches for even the existance of the latter had been unclear! Alan discovered them by digging clean into them, of course, but, never mind, easily enough re-connected... and the broken "foul" pipe neatly drained the trench over the weekend conveniently, if illegally.

What to do? Oh, should be done tomorrow... fill the bottom of the trench with small pebbles to about 3" above the water table level, lay the new water pipes complete with indoor valves, (I've already bought or looked-out) phone Thames Water and demand they get their act together or the trench might collapse again.

I do hope "anonymous" (hiya Dave!) is entertained. It IS a very muddy trench.. but so much actually essential discovered... just nothing formal or paper had explained our "foul" pipe went to the manhole visible on the left in the second photo. Stunning manhole... about SIX feet deep... nothing in any of the legal papers "our" sewage runs into that manhole and only then even deeper... and all that below the water table and ends up being treated in Yarnton, I gather... which is miles away! And, I would have thought, higher... I think it must be pumped or something, can't see how else it would get there.

I think the photo of me is quite good - I'm the one on the left looking calm but glancing because I'm wondering just how much gravel it will take to back fill above the water table... seems likely to be a lot to me especially because the bottom of the trench is so soggy... Alan's reckoned 6 "scoops" (which means HUGE bags of the stuff)... I'm thinking likely to be more like 12 because the bottom is so soggy... we'll find out tomorrow! Not being a soil specialist I think it's significant the trench fell in because the subsoil is such loose beach-like sandy fine gravel and so full of water and we therefore need a huge layer of pebbles allowing the water to flow and drain but leaving us with a dry and firm surface to lay the pipes.

We'll see. But we've started, at last. I'm sure there's some Latin phrase about that. Even better if there was a Greek one, I always preferred the Greeks.

Old, Slow, Worn Out and Unable To Multi-Task

Much of my time has been taken up recently with the arrangements for my surprise 60th birthday party. There have been endless lists to make : lists of people to invite, lists of food to buy or prepare, lists of lists to consult and update. I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing like planning a 60th birthday party to make you feel 70 years old. One such list did, however, give rise to one of my finest little jokes for a very long time. We were sat in the Rock Tavern on Friday night and Jenny had just said that she would prepare some potatoes for my surprise party. "Chips" said I more in hope than expectation. "Certainly not" she replied. "OK" said I with an appropriate degree of disgruntlement, "I'll cook some myself". "You can't do that she replied", to which I replied (are you ready for this, concentrate, it's a really good one) : "It's my party and I'll fry if I want to, fry if I want to ...."

Part of the problem is that I seem to be getting slower as I get older. For the last few days I have been doing some heavy practice for the surprise birthday present from Mark and Chrissy which will be an ascent of several mountains in the Lake District. I decided to be sensible and work my way carefully through some staged training and acclimatisation : and I dedicated this week to short strolls up and down the road with walking boots on my feet (the main expedition isn't until next week so I have loads of time to practice things like bivouacking, trekking, rock-climbing and all that sort of thing. I thought I was doing really well, marching up the road with the kind of pace that even the Grand Old Duke Of York would have been proud of. And then a little old lady - in her mid eighties at least - complete with two Scottie dogs said to me "excuse me love, do you mind if we pass you" and I realised that I had been holding her up for ages.

I managed to walk about half a mile this morning and then had to come home because I was worn out. My back was aching, my right foot was beset by a severe pain of unknown aetiology, the rib I cracked a few weeks ago whilst performing a splendid death fall during a game of Murder started to flair up again, my throat was lined with sandpaper, and my nose was running. I came home and collapsed into the chair and said to Xan "I feel worn out". I got his standard reply which was "don't be such an old woman". Thinking of the little old lady with the Scottie dogs I thought "chance would be a fine thing".

The other thing that seems to have evaporated from my list of personal skills is my ability to do more than one thing at once. I am not talking about fairly complex things such as simultaneously translating from French to English whilst reading a newspaper whilst drinking a cup of coffee (I used to watch the translators at the European Commission do this and was always impressed with their ability) : I mean relatively basic things. I have been meaning to do a blog posting since Sunday but my inability to multi-task has got in the way. On Sunday we were all treated to a most sumptuous Sunday lunch by Elaine - every element of which was a true delight (except the Yorkshire Puddings Elaine, except to Yorkshire Puddings). But when I got home I discovered that I could not let this wonderful meal digest and type at the same time. I got up early on Monday to write, but discovered that I could not think and shave at the same time. I started to worry that soon I would not be able to breath and do anything at the same time. And then I realised that I could not worry and write at the same time.

However, none of this has anything to do with what I want to write about which is the perilous state of my computer. It has been playing up for some time now but I have never said anything in public about it because I still intended to try and sell it to Cousin Dave when I eventually got another one. Alas it has now got to such a state that I am going to have to do something about it. After all, it's about four years old which is on the dark side of middle age in computer terms. And it is dreadfully slow at doing anything these days. You could boil a kettle while it finds a web page and eat a four course lunch whilst it launches an application. In its youth it was as swift as an Olympic runner, now it wouldn't qualify for a Veterans Zimmer Frame Race. The truth is that it is getting worn out. The fan next to the CPU makes a dreadful noise, occasionally the screen transposes the colours so everything looks as though you have been on an LSD trip, and the mouse regularly dies and can only be brought back to life by slamming it down onto the desk from a considerable height. And when it was new it could run several programmes at once whilst it calculated pi to 10,000 places and made a reasonable slice of toast, but now it struggles to do two things at the same time. If you try to get it to archive my old e-mail while it checks out the latest football news it transmits its annoyance with a flicker and a frozen screen.

I complain about this endlessly to my wife and she keeps telling me to get a new computer. Until now I have resisted, after all it has been a good friend to me over the years. We've had some good times together and I've told it things I have never told anyone else. But today I realised that you can't afford to be sentimental . Difficult decisions have to be made sometimes. I will pop down to PC World tomorrow and see what is available. The truth is that when such things get old, slow, worn out and unable to multi-task they have to be disposed of. Don't they?

Want an new computer? Then make your first port of call the Computer and Laptop Department of Alan Burnett's Amazon Store. Friendly service and some great bargains. Just press that link and come on in.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Cartier-Bresson In Some Crocs

It was Isobel's birthday last Sunday and, as a treat, I took her to the National Media Museum in Bradford to see their exhibition of photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson (I always think that a good working hypothesis for choosing an appropriate birthday present is to get someone a present you would like yourself*). The exhibition was very good although the prints - which came from C-B's own original albums - were a little on the small side. Every so often, they would blow up one of the prints and you would see the full glory of the composition and the brilliant way he fixed moments in time.

There was also an exhibition of photographs from the museum's own Daily Herald Collection, but it didn't quite work as there was no clear theme. In part it was concentrating on photographs of film and television locations, in part it was trying to illustrate the pre-digital approach to cropping and editing. We came away slightly confused but nevertheless entertained. The visit was rounded off by a visit to the IMAX cinema where there was a 3D film about lions showing. It was all very jolly and very colourful.

A MESSAGE FROM OUR SPONSORS:

Would you like to follow in our footsteps and see the wonderful images of Henri Cartier-Bresson? Well you can do so without setting foot in Bradford. Henri Cartier-Bresson's 1955 book "Europeans" is available from Alan Burnett's Amazon store at the ridiculously low price of just £14.42 (reduced from the normal price of £24.95). But if you insist on going to the Museum in Bradford, why not make your trip as painless as possible by wearing a pair of elegant Professional Black Crocs : just £28.95. Isobel swears by them and we have them available in a range of sizes. Full details of both products are available in the "Highly Recommended" section of the store. And don't forget .... every time you buy, I get a little richer.

(*) There are, of course, exceptions to the general rule that you should get someone the kind of birthday present you want yourself. With the rapid approach of my birthday I feel compelled to point out that the main exception is me. Forget what you would like, concentrate of what I would like. As a pointer in the right direction I have included details of the new Samsung 42" HD ready plasma screen television in the "Highly Recommended" section of my store.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Following In The Footsteps of W H Smith, F W Woolworth, and Maureen Brown's Mother

Thinking what to do with myself as I sit back and watch my potato tubs flourish, I have decided to open a shop. I have always quite fancied running a shop. I remember Maureen Brown - who was in the same junior school class as me. Her mother used to have a little corner shop and I used to think it was the most exciting and romantic occupation anyone could aspire to. I even considered proposing to Maureen in the hope that I might inherit the shop when I grew up. But I didn't pursue my troth and therefore I didn't enter the wonderful world of retail trade. Until yesterday, that is.

The wonderful thing about the new digital age is that there is nothing to stop any man from realising his most basic desires - in a virtual if not a real sense. So yesterday I decided to fulfil those fulminating inner feelings that have been crowding out my id like bugs in a bedpan. I opened a shop.

Welcome to Alan Burnett's Amazon Store where you can find all those books, records, dvd's, and plastic shoes you have always been looking for. Drop in, have a chat with the avuncular owner and buy with confidence. Be sure of a reliable service, be sure of a wide selection, be sure of quality products at competitive prices ... and be sure in the knowledge that every time you spend a pound 4p goes to a very good cause. Me.

After launching the shop yesterday I haven't actually sold anything yet, but such enterprises are often plagued by a slow start, especially in hard economic times such as these. But I have no doubt that trade will pick up soon (and if it doesn't I will buy something from my own shop so that I can earn my 4%). I am still getting used to my new role as a shopkeeper but in the weeks and months to come there will be all sorts of things happening. There will be special offers, summer sales, exclusive discounts and a further expansion in our product range.

So follow this link (or the link in the side panel) and visit my shop. You have nothing to lose. I have 4% to gain.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

YouGov, That's Right You Gov.

Talking about More or Less. There was an interesting discussion on the programme the other week about Opinion Polls. The debate focused on whether the new generation of on-line opinion polls are more accurate than traditional telephone polls (it seems that they were more accurate in predicting the outcome of the recent London election). Not being familiar with the on-line polls I investigated further. The main one in the UK is an organisation called YouGov which carries out regular opinion polling on political and related issues. Having always enjoyed expressing my opinions about anything under the sun, I immediately joined the YouGov panel and I anxiously await the first poll which comes rattling into my in-tray. In the spirit of democracy I would encourage everyone to become involved in the YouGov panel : it is a way for the little man, Joe Public, and the man on the 49 bus to ensure that their views are taken into account. As a public service I have therefore included a link to the YouGov site in the Links List to the left of this posting. Please use it to sign on.

(It has been suggested in some quarters that I have only included the link because I get a fee for every one of my friends I persuade to join the YouGov panel. This is a scandalous accusation which I reject out of hand. My support of the excellent YouGov service is based on a profound belief that it will foster democratic representation, human happiness, brotherly love, and apple pie, rather than by the prospect of financial gain)

More Or Less A Wonderful Programme

* Britain has more surveillance cameras per head of population than anywhere else in the world.
* The death rate falls when doctors go on strike.
* Half a million chickens are thrown away each day in the UK.
* Over 400,000 ballot papers were spoilt in the recent London election.

You might well have seen any of the above headlines in newspapers recently. They all represent stories currently doing the rounds in the media based on statistics. But how accurate are the statistics and how robust is the analysis? That's an interesting question.

It is the nteresting question which is the subject of one of the best BBC Radio 4 programmes on air at the moment : More or Less. Like so many of the best BBC programmes, it is a co-production with the Open University. The idea of More or Less is delightfully simple : focus on some of the statistics which are endlessly used by the media and investigate the statistical significance of them. It sounds a bit dry and anorakki but it isn't, it's a wonderfully entertaining half hour. And the good news is that it is available as a podcast, and for that reason I am delighted to present the BBC More or Less Podcast with the News From Nowhere Podcast of the Month award for May 2008.

And because I know that I have whet your appetite, here are the programmes' take on the above statistical stories.
Surveillance Britain : I have often heard the claim that we have more surveillance cameras than anywhere else in the world repeated. On investigation, it turns out that this claim is based on one minute survey carried out a good few years ago. The survey was undertaken by counting the number of cameras on just two streets in Putney, counting the number of people living on the streets and multiplying the ratio up to represent the entire United Kingdom.
Deadly Doctors : The main statistical evidence for this oft-repeated story is a strike of doctors in one part of Israel a few years ago. During the three month strike the death rate did fall, but this can largely be explained by potentially dangerous medical procedures being postponed.
Chucking Chickens : Several leading newspapers recently reported the claim that we throw half a million chickens away each day in this country. Unfortunately, the first newspaper to read the research mis-read the numbers, by a factor of 100! All the other newspapers went on to copy the figures from the first inaccurate report.
Spoilt Ballot : It turns out that 400,000 ballot papers were listed as "spoilt" in the recent London Mayoral elections. But this did not represent large-scale electoral fraud - as at least one website claimed. In the ballot, electors had a second choice (the transferable vote systems being used). 400,000 voters chose not to make use of their second preference and their ballot papers were, quite rightly within the definitions, listed as being spoilt. This did not mean that their first choice was not counted, it was.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Stout And Bitter

This posting isn't about my current state of mind and body (although it could be as my pre-holiday diet seems to have ground to a halt). Nor is another of my quite boring pieces about the state of the British brewing industry (if it was, it would be seriously mis-timed as May is National Mild Month according to CAMRA). It is paean in praise of the information society. Whilst everyone else sits around bemoaning the fact that their name is on some government database, I rejoice in the fact that almost unimaginable amounts of information can now be stored on a chip the size of a French Fry. Whilst others obsessively worry that someone is going to tap into their on-line medical records, I happily tap into one government sponsored collection of records or another. There is so much information available on-line these days that it is almost a full-time job just keeping up with it, listing it, reviewing it, recording it. This is my dream job, my St Gothard passion. I will become the keeper of the database of databases, the B&Q catalogue of information collections.

But I digress. Earlier today I visited the British Library "Collect Britain" portal ("portal" is such a wonderful word, isn't it?). This is an on-line, searchable showcase of just some of the material in the various British Library collections and exhibitions. Access is largely free and you can roam around all day looking at a diverse and entertaining collection of drawings, paintings, prints and photographs (and, if you are so inclined, audio clips). As you can see, I soon found myself amongst a collection of printed music from the days of the Victorian Music Hall. The record for Harry Rickard's song "Stout and Bitter" contains not only the full words and music, but also the splendid pictorial cover. The lyrics, poignant enough to bring tears to the eyes of a maiden, are as follows:

"I tasted have all liquors known, but none could I ever find,
Which could so well, dull thoughts dispel, and suit the languid mind,
I've paid high price, but things you know, are not all gold that glitter,
But good and cheap, I've found a deep, good draught of Stout and Bitter"

Eat your heart out Leonard Cohen! Not being of a musical nature myself, I am determined to act as impresario. I will pass on the words to my son who by some genetic fluke possesses a fine baritone voice. The music must go to my friend Janie. When there is a get-together at the time of my birthday, the rafters will roar to the sound of Stout and Bitter. All together now, "Ive found a deep, good draught of Stout and Bitter"

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Saints Alive, It's A Miracle

I'm normally a fairly sceptical type of a chap, not given to seeing signs or visions. Miraculous Revelations don't normally play much part in my daily life : I would rate them on a reliability index only just above Daily Mail editorials. It might therefore come as a bit of a surprise to followers of this blog, when I reveal that I have received a message from on high. And what's more, the message was hand-delivered by a saint.

Over the last few days Cousin Dave - assisted by his apprentice, the Divine Jennifer - have been repairing and repainting our front wall. Whilst painting a fiddly bit, the Divine J accidentally knocked the wooden nameplate off the front gate. The nameplate proclaims that the house is called Inglewood, a name which I have always considered so ridiculous I have never used it. But when the wooden nameplate fell to the ground it revealed the original name of the house carved into the stone of the gatepost : St. Gothard.

Now even though I'm a bit of a sceptic, I am as keen as the next man to follow up on a passing augury (only last week I was occupied in mapping the pigeon droppings on the bonnet of my car in case they provided a clue to the meaning of life). So off I went to try and discover who on earth St Gothard was and what he did, other than possibly building a tunnel through the Alps. As it turns out the only connection between Gothard (or Godehard as he preferred to be called) and the tunnel was that someone built a church dedicated to him on the top of the pass. Gothard was a German and his main claim to fame was as Bishop of Hildesheim, in Germany. He was nominated Bishop in 1022 by the Emperor Henry, but tried to turn the post down on the basis of his age - he was just 60 at the time. The Emperor would have none of it and insisted that Gothard should undertake the task irrespective of his age. Butler's Lives of the Saints takes the story up : "He threw himself into the work of his diocese with the zest and energy of a young man. He built and restored churches he did much to foster education, especially in the cathedral school ; he established such strict order in his chapter that it resembled a monastery , and, on a swampy piece of land which he reclaimed on the outskirts of Hildesheim, he built a hospice where the sick and poor were tenderly cared for".

I have been thinking a lot over recent weeks about my approaching sixtieth birthday, wondering what life has in store for me as I slowly limp downhill towards old age. I have been a bit rudderless. Searching for a sign. And there it is : carved in Times Roman on the stone of our gatepost. Starting tomorrow I will restore churches, establish schools and build a hospice or two. I will be the St Gothard of the twenty-first century.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Take The Prisoner Down (Under)

Surfing around, as one does, I came by chance upon a fascinating repository of historical information : namely Old Bailey Online. The site contains the transcripts of the proceedings of the Central Criminal Courts for the period 1674 to 1913. Access is free and the massive database of information can be searched by keyword. So - as one does in such cases - I went in search of any Burnett's and found, amongst the hundreds of records highlighted, the story of one John Burnett of Stepney in London. In re-telling the story here I am not suggesting that John B was any relation of mine, nor that his story was in any way special. The story provides nothing more than an insight into the workings of the criminal justice system in the eighteenth century.

The first reference to John Burnett occurs in the Court records of December 1768 when he is up before the judges on a charge of petty larceny. He is charged with the theft of a linen handkerchief, valued at ten pence, the property of a certain John Phipps of Cheapside. According to the gentleman's statement :

"On the 24th of November, between eight and nine in the evening, I was coming from Cheapside. At the corner of St. Paul's Church-Yard , I felt something at my pocket, I put my hand down, and found the prisoner's hand in my pocket; I catched hold of his arm; he had not got the handkerchief quite out; he finding I had hold of him, let the handkerchief go".

On this occasion, John Burnett was lucky : as the handkerchief was not in his full possession at the time of his capture, he was acquitted.

Did he learn from this narrow escape? : did he heck. Six months later, on the 10th May 1769, he was back in court again, this time charged with burglary. No ten-penny hankie either : he was indicted for stealing a quantity of silver plate (namely, a silver tankard, value £9, a silver waiter, value £3, six silver table-spoons, value £3, a pair of silver tea-tongs, value 8/-, a silver milk-pot, a pair of silver salts, two silver salt-shovels, and five silver tops of cruet-stands). This time he wasn't caught red-handed, he was grassed up by his fence, a certain Moses Lyon. Having been approached by John B. to sell a quantity of silver of dubious provenance, Mr Lyon went to the police and a trap was set. Lyon agreed to meet Burnett at a nearby alehouse and bring the silver with him. When he came the police were waiting and took him into custody (alehouses have always been an important element in the downfall of members of the extended Burnett family). John came up with a somewhat convoluted defence : he was innocent and just accompanying a old schoolfriend :

"I met John Bagnall , a schoolfellow of mine, who asked where I was going; I said to my father in Leadenhall-street. He asked me to go with him to Mr. Lyon's. I did. He then took out some plate. Mr. Lyon desired him to come again. At night he went down to Mr. Lyon's with some plate in his pocket, and some in a silk handkerchief. The two officers came up and took hold of me. They wanted to take the plate away; but I said the plate shall not go without me. I said, Where that goes, I will go to clear my character".

You will note that when the police officers approached Bagnall and Burnett, the former ran for his life (and managed to escape) while the latter, in true Burnett fashion, attempted to clear his name. The Judge didn't believe a word of this, found John Burnett guilty and sentenced him to be transported to Australia for seven years.

In many ways John B was lucky. At the end of each court session there is a summary of the sentences delivered during the relevant session. The list for the 10th May 1769 is as follows:

Received Sentence of Death, Seven.
Mary Harris ,
Louisa Smith , James Best , William Sykes, John Abram otherwise Abraham, Judith Baldwin , and John Creamer .
Transportation for fourteen years, Two.
Winnifred Carryl , and John Baker .
Transportation for seven years, Thirty-One.
John Smith ,
Sarah Manton otherwise Stretton otherwise Smith, George Pool , Joseph Bluckfield , John Steward , James Catling, William Nicholl, Mary Harding , Michael Mills , Eleanor Smith , Philip Erovselle , Francis Bush , Moses Waters , Robert Mallows , Thomas Gray , James Warden , Peter Medley , Samuel Levi , John Butler , Eleanor Morgan , Matthew Dalloway , Stephen Hope , John Burnett , William Perry , Thomas Jones , John House , John Morris otherwise Hambleton, Andrew Burk , Robert Williams , Elizabeth Odell , and Sarah Rowden .
Branded, Two.
Daniel Collins , and Sarah Scurry .

I've never been over-fond of silver. Perhaps it's a genetic thing. Perhaps I now know the reason why.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Lost : One Border Collie and 83 Years Of British History

If you are in the habit of walking the highways and byways of West Yorkshire you will have no doubt come across a series of posters stapled to almost every available telegraph pole and tree. The posters call for information about a lost dog, a tri-colour border collie called Freddie which went missing in the Wakefield area back in March. Since then there have been sightings of it in various parts of West Yorkshire and an army of volunteers are searching the fields and the woods and pinning up the Freddie Missing posters with commendable energy. Perhaps it is some kind of antidote to the complex feelings of betrayal Yorkshire people felt given the outcome of the Shannon Matthews case. Dogs don't let you down : when they go missing they are really missing.

As I have walked Amy, I have come across dozens of these posters. The astonishing thing is not only are the posters distributed over an extraordinary geographical area but they seem to be regularly updated with new sightings and information. Besides the posters there is a website where people can report the latest sightings of Freddie and pass on their sympathy to the dog's owner. At the last count there were over 750 postings to the website from Freddie Searchers everywhere. Call me an old softy, but I now log on to the site every day for the latest news. And Amy and I keep are eyes wide open when we walk the paths and lanes of the area.

Perhaps I can attach a second "Lost" notice to this posting, for I have recently discovered that I have lost 83 years of British history. The years in question are 1087 to 1170. I am reliably informed that all sorts of jolly interesting things happened between these two dates - there were revolts and rebellions, weddings and wars, and even a King called Stephen (although I can't believe the latter any more than I can believe that there was a King Wayne in the 14th century). But my knowledge of such developments is zero for the simple reason that I do not have the relevant episodes of This Sceptred Isle. During the last run of the mammoth series on BBC Radio 7 I managed to catch almost all the episodes after King Charles had his head cut off. Some kind person then bought me the CD which covered 55BC through to 1086. I have today discovered that BBC 7 are running the series yet again but, damn, damn damn, I have missed the first few weeks. Thus, I will only be able to listen to it from 1171 onwards and hence my 83 year gap. Is there anyone out there who can help me? I have designed a series of small posters and I will be stapling these to local trees and telegraph poles. If you know anything about these 83 years perhaps you could get in touch . There is a small reward.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Loved Those Ratings

Where did all these ratings suddenly appear from? Without warning a new element appeared on the News From Nowhere blog page on Wednesday evening which gave readers an opportunity to rate each posting on a scale which went from one star (didn't like it) to five stars (loved it). I quickly trawled through my last few postings and - quite understandably - said I loved each one of them. And then, quickly as it appeared, it vanished again. I have no idea whether the option to rate postings will appear again, but just in case it does, I would like to point out that there will be a free "News From Nowhere" T-Shirt to the first person to list every posting in the "loved it" category.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Alan Burnett And His Fleet Of Rowing Boats

I have to admit, I wasted some valuable time over the Bank Holiday weekend watching a piece of arrant nonsense on the television entitled "Flood". In my defence, I must say that I only watched the first part of what was a two-part film, and I watched that with the kind of fascination one feels when watching something really bad (it's the same pleasure one gets from watching the candidates on the current series of "The Apprentice"). "Flood" was wooden, formulaic, trite and totally unbelievable. "How do I know?", you ask, dear reader. "Because, in a previous existence I used to sit on the London Tidal Flooding Defence Committee."

Way back in the early seventies - long before the Thames Barrier was constructed - I found myself acting as the Inner London Education Authority representative on Emergency Planning Committee of Riparian London Boroughs (I think that was its name but my memory is beginning to fade). Back in those days, the tidal flooding of the Thames was a real threat and I spent many happy hours attending large committee meetings along with the Army, the Emergency Services and representatives of the various London Local Authorities. At these meetings we would endlessly discuss important questions such as whether evacuees would be allowed to take their pet dogs and cats with them. I carried the day-to-day responsibility of evacuating children from schools within the flood zone and for this purpose I was allocated a number of rowing boats from, I think, Stratford Park Lake. I know this sounds slightly bizarre, but I assure you it was true : much truer than the ridiculous plot of last weekend's film.

What the film didn't take into account is that there are very few single-storey buildings in London. Thus, the standing instructions in the event of tidal flooding were simply to go upstairs. Go upstairs and wait for Alan Burnett to arrive with his fleet of rowing boats.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Thank You Mr Levin, I Understand Now

Having decided to initiate a "News From Nowhere Podcast of the Month Award", I spend some time each month trawling through the more unusual and exotic podcasts that are available throughout the world. One of the ever-present dangers facing the reasonably sane podcast reviewer is fruitcakes - deranged people who have decided to inflict their somewhat unbalanced views on the rest of humanity. The best tactic for filtering such people out is to stick to reasonably well-known platforms : one is unlikely to find a complete nutcase distributed by one of the major networks.

And then one day I happened to flick through the podcasts available from the mighty American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Network and downloaded an edition of the Mark Levin Show. I am still trying to decided whether I can get over the experience without therapy. I have to confess that I downloaded and listened to the podcast without checking out any information about Mark Levin and therefore I had no idea what to expect. Consequently - and this is no exaggeration - for the first ten minutes I was convinced it was a somewhat crude and repetitive comedy sketch. Slowly the realisation dawned that it was for real and I listened with shocked fascination for the rest of the eighty minute show. I wouldn't discourage anyone from giving it a try - as Sir Thomas Beecham said, "try everything once except incest and country dancing" - but be warned, you will need a strong mental constitution and a decent malt to try and consign the experience to oblivion.

Mark Levin is described by the ABC blurb as "one of America's preeminent conservative commentators and constitutional lawyers". His show consists of an extended rant against liberals, fellow-travellers, fifth columnists, democrats and almost everyone to the left of Genghis Khan. He seems to believe that anyone favouring taxing companies or reducing greenhouse gas emissions is giving comfort and support to the enemies of the USA. During the episode I listened to, he became fixated with the dangers posed by "Red China" who, he reported, were constructing James Bond-like concrete bunkers for massive fleets of nuclear submarines. He went into a lengthy and mostly incomprehensible attack on Hilary Clinton and her "genitalia" and even managed a passing comment on the local election results in the UK ("a massive blow for the socialists from the Labour Party"). Socialists in the Labour Party!!! Bless him, you have to chuckle don't you.

Towards the end of each programme he takes a few carefully screened phone-calls from people who share his world view. Having mentioned the "S" word in relation to his comments on the UK election results, one eleven year old phoned in and asked: "Mr Levin, sir, could you please tell me what socialism is". "I am glad you asked that question", he replied. "Imagine that you were playing softball with some friends and a big bully came along and took away your bat and ball. He then said that you could only play in future if you asked his permission and then you would get to play when and where he said. And he would make up the rules and then, irrespective of those rules, decide who had won. That's socialism my boy". The boy listened in awed silence and then said "Thank you sir, that is much clearer. I understand now, Mr Levin".

I know how the boy felt. I recognise the awed silence. Thank you Mr Levin. I understand now.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Here's Looking At You, Ray

Yesterday I attended the inaugural meeting of the Rock Tavern Cinema Club. I was moved to establish this new beacon of the arts in Upper Edge by the runaway success of the Rock Tavern Reading Group (books read : one, meetings held : nil). As with the Reading Group, I felt confident that my choice of programme would be sufficient to energise a substantial following so I waited outside the Rex Cinema in Elland a few minutes before the start of the matinee performance of Casablanca with a high level of expectation.

It is, of course, the fate of cultural prophets to be ignored. I know this, I am used to it. So I took my lonely place on the tenth row, sat back, and listened to the introductory recital on the mighty-ish Conn Cinema organ with equanimity.

The Rex is a truly wonderful venue. One of the oldest cinema's in the country, it is the kind of place you would marvel at if it was reconstructed in the heart of a theme park. For just £3 I gained entry and as much tea or coffee as I could drink. The average age of the audience was well into its' seventies, and many of the ladies (it is the kind of place where the audience is mainly female and they can only be described as "ladies") had dressed up for their weekly trip to the cinema. Before the programme started a highly competent lady played the organ whilst the lady who served the tea sang along and occasionally incorporated a discreet dance step as she nursed the tea urn. The audience was respectful : nobody talked during the performance and the ladies with the more flamboyant hats, took them off. There was only muted hissing at the entry of Colonel Strasser of the Gestapo, and when the patrons of Rick's Cafe Americain sang La Marseillaise, most of the audience managed to stay in tune.

If the truth be told, I knew that nobody else would want to join the Rock Tavern Cinema Club. I went for two reasons : first, I have never seen Casablanca on the big (big-ish) screen. And second, it was a nice way to remember my good friend Ray Atkin who died last year. Both Ray and I felt that Casablanca was by far the best film ever made. We spoke about it often, including the last time I saw him, when he was in hospital shortly before he died. He was a kind man, a good man and a brave man. Had he still been alive, I know Ray would have made the trip up from Sheffield to go and see Casablanca with me. He was with me in my thoughts yesterday. Here's looking at you, Ray.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Big Jake And The Grim Reaper


In a comment on my last posting, JGC asks "Am I dreaming, or didn't one of the aunties boast of travelling round in a bike and side-car in her youth? Perhaps it was Annie". Well the answer is no you are not dreaming, but it wasn't one of the aunties, it was my mother. Albert and Gladys were very keen motorcyclists in their younger days. The above picture shows Albert and Gladys (left), Uncle Charlie (who was not an uncle at all but was a family friend and another keen motorcyclist) and an unknown third rider (right). I can't actually find any photographs of Gladys in a sidecar, but I remember her talking about it. However, she far preferred to be on the pillion behind my father, as this made it far easier for her to nudge him in the ribs and order him to slow down, turn left, turn right, or whatever.

I have some sympathy with her. I have only ever ridden in a sidecar twice in my life and both occasions left deep psychological scars. When I was about 14 or 15 I used to be a member of Halifax Chess Club which held its weekly meetings in Spring Hall. Occasionally I would get lifts home with a friend of my fathers' who was also a member of the club, a certain Mr Tchewcheski. This usually meant sitting on the back of Mr T's motorbike - a frightening enough mode of transport in itself - but on those occasions we gave a lift part of the way home to a certain Mr Holmes, I was relegated into a sidecar. Mr T must have been some kind of plumber because I remember the sidecar was always full of pipes, blow-torches and ball-cocks, and I would have to somehow squeeze into a small space amongst this peculiar collection of objects.

My second sidecar moment came when I was at university. Keele was about two or three miles out of Newcastle Under Lyme. Despite the distance, many students - myself included - would walk into town as the bus service was irregular and we were all poor back in those days. The scourge of such walkers was a post-graduate student called Big Jake. He was a frightening chap : well over six foot tall with scars, tattoos and chains in all manner of places and he road a motorbike and sidecar. Well, to be honest, that is a misnomer as it was one of those racing rigs which is made up of a couple of metal beams attached to a third wheel. It seems that such things are difficult to manage without a passenger and therefore Big Jake was always on the look-out for a suitable volunteer. If you were chosen - you had little choice in the selection procedure - you would not only have to cling on for dear life but also lean at suicidal angles at every corner to act as a counterweight. Normally, only freshers got chosen for these duties as older students learned to hide whenever they heard the unmistakable sound of Big Jake's bike approaching. I got caught by Jake just once, after which I would take evasive action. One of my abiding memories of Keele was watching students dive into the roadside bushes at the first sound of a motorbike anywhere on the roads of North Staffordshire.

So maybe I will live for a bit longer yet. When the Grim Reaper comes for me, complete with his Triumph motorcycle and sidecar hearse, he will never find me. Instinct will have taken over and I will have dived into the bushes.