Sunday, 27 September 2015


I knew the lad only vaguely. Whereas I had been tip-toeing through my National Service in the RAF for nearly a year and a half and had a mere six months to do, he was a newcomer, a bemused replacement straight out of Hednesford training camp who didn't know the ropes as we 'veterans' did. Wet behind the ears, a sprog, with gleaming buttons and shiny shoes and a new, carefully ironed uniform. That sort of thing. He was also still living in the camp's transit hut, patiently waiting for a bed to become available in the Signals Section hut, where the other nine of us slept.
It was our job to man the three-seat PBX telephone switchboard at our Flying Training Command station, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sometimes, if the Meteors were flying there would be three or us on duty, kept busy by calls and queries. If there was no flying, then only one operator was needed. So it was my job, on this particular evening, to show him some of the ropes, dodges and procedures.
He had to learn how to make military calls, how to cope with sudden flurries of telephone activity, what to do in an emergency (when there was a crash, for example), which officers were rude and dangerous - and how to (accidently) back-ring into their ear - and which were OK. And most important of all, which calls to listen to, to find out what leave we were going to get at the weekend. And where we hid the rolled-up mattress bed on which the night-shift operator slept (against regulations) during the quiet hours. Standard National Service stuff, really. 
On this particular weekend there was no flying. It was bitterly cold, and two days' earlier it had begun to snow, flurries at first and then some serious storms. Then it had snowed solidly and thickly for at least 24 hours so that nearby roads were clogged, paths and lawns were a flat sheet of white, and there were drifts three feet deep around the doorways.
Thus Air Traffic Control was closed, the jets were silent and still, and the camp in shut-down. Which explains how he and I were on duty this particular evening, by ourselves, sitting beside a silent switchboard. Me yawning with boredom, reading a book. He pale and quiet, looking oddly and uncomfortably out of place.
Suddenly he said, 'I got a Dear John letter today.' His girlfriend had dumped him. Now he looked grey and hunched, and when he rose to leave at the end of his shift, leaving me there for the rest of the night, he dragged on his greatcoat, turned up the collar, thrust his hands in his pockets and shuffled out.
For some reason I watched him out of the window. It had stopped snowing, but the night was pitch black, with the lawned square and line of three trees in front of Station HQ dimly illuminated by pale lamps. Only you could not actually see the lawns or the paths, because of the snow.
Anyway, I saw him shuffle away in search of his hut, his movements slow and tentative. Then, suddenly, he veered from the line of the path and stumbled through the snow towards the centre tree, and walked in a tight circle around it. Then he retuirned to the line of the path and very soon disappeared into the darkness. The line of footprints he left behind looked decidedly odd.
I wondered: Why did he do that? Why did he walk in a circle round the tree? I always meant to ask him about it, but never did. Somehow it didn't seem the right thing to do.

Friday, 25 September 2015


I love roads. Not the M25 or the A47. Not that sort of road. But green lanes and pilgrim tracks, grassy footpaths through woods and across fields, and Roman highways, forest rides and bits of old turnpikes. In recent years I have also developed a partiality for farm tracks which lead from the corners of country lanes and shamble off across the landscape.
Hello, I think. This used to be a three-track junction; then the main lane was consolidated (gravelled, or whatever) and the third prong, the track, was left hanging in the air, as it were. Would love to explore.
Except that nowadays, and for a variety of reasons, most of my exploring is done not rucksack heavy and brown-booted, but by reading. Consequently, I seem to have accumulated a library of books about roads and the history and romance of roads - travellers, gypsies, inns, ancient journals recording ancient wanderings, and archaelogical reports. When I can no longer get out of my chair I shall read them all again, starting at the end of the shelves, and work my way through to the beginning.
Scott-Giles' book - unearthed several decades ago in a second hand bookshop - is one of my favourites despite the dullnes of its dedication: 'To the President and members of the Institution of Municipal and County Engineers.' Because, in fact, it is an anthology, beginning with verses written by Rudyard Kipling and ending with John Milton, and between the two dozens of extracts and verses and descriptions of or about roads and road literature.
Just two examples for you. One is by Celia Fiennes, from her Diary of 1697, who describes travelling from Newmarket to Ely, when she found that 'by reason of the great raines the roads were full of water,' while Ely itself was 'the dirtiest place I ever saw,' its streets a 'perfect quagmire.'
The other is an extract from Journal of a Tour, produced in 1662 and written by Thomas Browne, son of Sir Thomas Browne of Norwich. Young Tom and his companions reached Lynn, intending to travel to Boston, in Lincolnshire. Then they made their way to Walpole Cross Keys, in those days the jumping off place for crossing the Wash estuary. They immediately hired a guide who said there were basically two ways to cross, either over two short cuts, or the long way over the Wash. They chose the latter, one reason being the novelty of travelling 'at the bottome of the sea.'
In general, it seems they enjoyed their low-tide experience. The guide helped them to avoid 'quicksands,' and they made rapid progress. Then the guide and 'his fliing horse' saw them safely on to the Lincolnshire coast some three miles from Boston. They had successfully crossed this dangerous area, evidently covering the 14 miles in just under two hours.
This was the norm in those days if you wanted to go from Norfolk into Lincolnshire, for although it was possible to route via Wisbech this detour added many miles to the journey. It was to be another 170 years or so before the river Nene was embanked and a causeway constructed across the estuary, allowing four-wheel travel in reasonable comfort for the very first time.
(The Road Goes On, by CW Scott-Giles. The Epworth Press, 1948)

Wednesday, 23 September 2015


In days of fore, when journalists used telephones rather than digital platforms, any newspaper worth its salt had a style book. Indeed, some managements considered them essential, for they were seen as a means of bringing editorial uniformity and consistency to their titles. One of the problems was keeping them up to date. The first style book I was given instructed me to spell Jugoslavia with a J, an entry which was not changed - and then only grudgingly - until an international table tennis team arrived in Norwich with Yugoslavia with a Y on their tracksuits.
In the 30 years or so I was with this newspaper, staff were issued with updated style books on three occasions. I have copies of them all, dated 1959, 1976 and 1991. That is, roughly, one every decade and a half. So it was a slow business. Which brings to light another problem. Fashion and meanings, even in words, change.
The 1959 booklet is very detailed and particular and much concerned with the correctness of peoples' titles. Get those wrong, it seems to be saying, and you're in trouble. It is also much concerned with 'the pressure of imported words from across the Atlantic.'
Mainly, though, it is the nitty-gritty which is important, such as alternative spellings (aeroplane, not airplane), hyphens (to be held to a minimum), quotation marks, foreign words (the German umlaut caused problems for Linotype type setters), and place-names (Bintry, not Bintree). Forbidden words include: breathtaking, getaway, Jap, poetess, speed cop and venue.
By 1976, the style book was scarcely any more relaxed about things. 'This is for use - not for the back of office drawers,' it says, ominously; and this time it includes a greatly enlarged list of forbidden words and phrases including: amongst, at this moment in time, Chinaman, bombshell, farm labourer, lady, and whilst. It also has a section on misused words, such as: gutted, like, and unique.
The 1991 version, however, is more bulkily important and much more fidgety, running to 34 pages and being encased in a folder. And this time there are sections or comments on race and colour, tenses, introductions and split infinitives.
Cliches, it says: 'Do not use them.' And use spokesman, not spokeswoman or spokesperson; and chairman, not chairwoman or chairperson. Trade names also come into the mix for the first time, together with a demand for capital letters for Fibreglass, Jacuzzi, Plasticine, Catseye, and Biro.
However, there was still particular concern in getting Honours, Ranks and Titles right; sport ('different in that collective nouns take the pliural,' such as 'Norwich City are,' and 'England are' (not is. And more importantly, perhaps, and 30 years or more after the sin was first committed, a final correction for a Norfolk village. Henceforth, and finally, it is to be Bintree, not Bintry.
How times change. Mind you, some things can also get a little out of hand. In 2010 The Guardian newspaper published guardianstyle, in book form and on general sale. It runs to over 370 pages, and is a handy desktop work of reference.
(guardianstyle, David Marsh & Amelia Hodsdon. guardian books, 2010)

Sunday, 20 September 2015


One of the facts which came to light while rummaging through family history material was the discovery that my mother had been a singer. I knew she sang, because I can recall after the Second World War going with my father to a concert version of The Messiah in which she was in the ladies' chorus. But among the papers left by my sister were two flimsy programmes which proved that, before the War, she had been more than a member of the chorus. Indeed, she had been a member of a local amateur concert party, and a soloist. The programmes even listed the songs she sang.
This was something of a revelation, and it helped to explain how I acquired my own interest in music - classical and swing - which was forged, first, by listening to bands on the wireless, then to gramophone records. It also helped to explain why, at work in Spalding and at a loose end in the evenings, I applied to join the town's operatic society.
Unable to read music scores (I learned the tunes and words by rote), this was once again a 'back row of the chorus' job, but it suited me fine, and we went into rehearsal for Sigmund Romberg's The Desert Song in which, switching rapidly from Riffs to French Legionnaires, we wore rough 'arabic' robes, dark facial make-up, dustings of Fuller's Earth, and stiff army uniforms. It was great fun, and we did a week of shows at the Corn Exchange.
Twelve months' later I changed jobs and was now in Norwich, working days and again at a loose end in the evenings. So, I somehow squeezed through auditions for the Norwich & Norfolk Operatic Society which, for a final time, had alternated its annual productions between the dilapidated old Hippodrome Theatre (where because there were not enough dressing-rooms they had to park caravans in the street) and the Theatre Royal, which also showed films.
The Norwich Society was also just beginning to emerge from a traumatic period in which it had finally turned its back on Gilbert & Sullivan - and lost some G&S enthusiasts in the process - and instead had begun to embrace the modern world. Except that it hadn't. Young members of the chorus wanted to do Oklahoma and South Pacific, but instead they got light opera, of the Romberg and Franz Kalman ilk.
More-over, they went directly into rehearsals for, you've guessed it, The Desert Song. So for me, and for a second successive year, it was rough costumes, dark face paint, and Fuller's Earth powder. This was followed, very successfully as far as I remember, by The Student Prince and then The Gypsy Princess. Then I had to drop out, having changed my work shifts. 
But I did enjoy it all, even the Fuller's Earth, because although it was tiring it was great fun in the back row of the men's chorus. And we did pick up new skills. In the desert, we learned how to do fast costume changes; in Kalman's cafe scenes we had to besport ourselves and behave badly in evening dress; while in Heidelberg it was marching up and down steps, singing, and keeping everything in time to the music and the movement of your feet. And that is difficult, if you've never tried it.
We also went to watch neighbouring societies do their stuff, and laughed at the story, probably apocryphal, of the music director who, dismayed by the on-stage grim and anxious faces of his nervous chorus, tried to lighten the atmosphere at one particular performance by rolling pickled onions across the stage.


Wednesday, 16 September 2015


It used to be a time-honoured quiz question in some areas, and one that often baffled quizzers. What links Ghana, Algeria, Spain and Mali? Or even Ware, East Grinstead and Lewes? The answer is the same. It is the Greenwich zero Meridian Line, of course.
I first came across the zero Meridian when I was a junior reporter on a weekly newspaper in Lincolnshire desperately searching for column inches, and actually became fascinated with the thought that this invisible and yet so important line, the basis of global navigation and a link with some very obscure places, managed to clip a corner of our circulation area. Not every newspaper can claim that, of course, so I wrote a little story about it.
In due course it was picked up by someone in Holbeach (Lincolnshire), who evidently also thought the passage of the line ought to be marked in some way. Which is how (the last time I was there, anyway) a certain spot on a certain grass verge at Wignall's Gate, Holbeach, beside the A151, came to have a commemorative stone. Which also puts Holbeach in a very exclusive club.
Me too, I think, because when I was in London several decades ago I stood astride the Greenwich Line with a foot in both camps, as many tourists in London have also done. But I've also stood with a foot on either side of the line in Wignall's Gate. And not many people have done that.


Last winter - in terms of where we live, anyway - was a wimpish thing of no snow to speak of, an occasional frost, dull skies, and bitingly cold winds. A very different story elsewhere, of course, and different again in other countries. In Canada, where heavy snow comes each winter as regular as clockwork, most things still manage to work. Drivers simply switch their summer wheels and tyres for the winter variety, and ploughs and blowers keep the main roads open.
It is much the same in Norway, where motorists have a set of winter wheels hanging in their garages, ready for use. But here? Well, if we get a powdering and a little ice, our roads come to a standstill and the gritters get the blame.
But no, it isn't the fault of the gritters. It's the fault of the motorists, hardly any of whom (myself included) have winter tyres or wheels, or snow chains. And why not? Because we don't usually get enough snow nowadays to make it economically worthwhile buying any, and perhaps because no-one has come up with any reliable sort of emergency winter wheel kit.
And there's the rub. Not enough snow, and not regularly enough. Therefore, and because of our modest half-and-half winters, the gritters will have to continue to shoulder the blame. For the foreseeable future, anyway.      

Sunday, 13 September 2015


I know of only two events which relate to the life of the Rev Henry R Nevill, one-time incumbent of St Mark's church, Lakenham, in the city of Norwich. The first occurred on the evening of March 17, 1857, when Henry rose to his feet at the School Room in Lakenham, in front of an audience of parishioners, to deliver a lecture titled, 'Kett's Castle.' The second, which may have happened the following day, was when members of his grateful flock pleaded with him to allow them to have printed copies of his talk made available for sale, at their expense.  
Whatever the precise detail of the affair, the fact remains that within a very short time someone took his manuscript to Thomas Priest, printer, in Rampant Horse Street in the city, and that sometime later copies of a slim 32-page booklet were duly delivered. The price was sixpence each, and profits from the sale were to be given to Lakenham's Parochial Library and Reading Room.
I know these things simply because, several decades ago, I found a surviving copy in a Norwich second-hand bookshop, and bought it because I thought the title, 'Kett's Castle,' was of interest. In effect, however, the main subject of the Rev Nevill's lecture was not the old Thorpe Hamlet ruin, but the Kett Revellion of 1549 in its robust generality.
This, quite naturally, I also found fascinating because for several years we lived not far from Wymondham, which was home territory to the Kett family and the centre of the early events in the Rebellion; and earlier still, lived in Thorpe Hamlet next door to what was then called either the Gas Board Land or Jubilee Heights - the actual place where Kett parked his artillery to bombard Bishopgate - and only a stone's throw from the ruins of 'Kett's Castle'itself, which was used as a rebel observation post.
The Rev Henry described the ruins of St Michael's Chapel, as it is properly called - and accessible in 1857, apparently, through a gap in a hedge near a windmill - with the north and west walls still standing. But by page 12 he is on to the Rebellion itself.
Henry's enthusiasm for and interest in the events of 1549 are clearly evident, but so, too, is the dilemma which faced him. Kett may have had some good social and political reasons for causing trouble, he seems to be saying, but not that sort of trouble, and not in that way.
'The end,' he says, 'does not justify the means. That a cause, however just in itself, can never prosper if it be not lawfully and quietly run . . .  a French Revolution, a Kett's Rebellion, a Chartist riot, a workmen's combination to destroy machinery, it is all the same. They may destroy, indeed, but they cannot build again.'
He believed Robert Kett had lived in a house, still standing at the time of the lecture, at Dykebeck, which is on the Hingham Road about a mile outside Wymondham; and that Dussin's Dale, the location of the decisive battle, was between Magdalen Hill and Denmark's Lane, whereas today it is thought to have been closer to Thorpe. And he also said there is supposed to be an annual service of thanksgiving for the restoration of law and order celebrated in the city each August 27. I have no knowledge of when it fizzled out.
Incidentally, one of the very early histories of the Rebellion was written by a certain Alexander Nevill. Whether he was a forebear of the Rev Henry, I do not know.
(Kett's Castle: A Lecture by the Rev Henry R Nevill. Thomas Priest, Norwich, 1857)

Wednesday, 9 September 2015


It occurred to me only recently that we look at football matches from a very different perspective nowadays. According to my memory, and therefore from the 1940s possibly until the 1960s - when a slow change began to take hold - the Saturday afternoon match was all about anticipation and tension, spectacle and drama. Each game was a theatrical performance enjoyed (or otherwise, depending on the final result) in its own right.
Today, the fluttering police Keep Out tapes, familiar to all watchers of TV cop shows, are being put in place well before each game is over. This is a crime scene, the fans and pundits seem to be saying. It requires forensic examination. Then a nano-second (or more likely, lots of nano-seconds) of action is placed under a microscope for repeated slo-mo scrutiny while team managements and pundits (and fans, too, if they can see the repeated video replays) sit in judgement. The ref got it right. The ref got it wrong. It should never have happened. And on and on.
One or two pundits, who usually make me want to grind my teeth, invariably say something like, 'Why did Boggins switch play to the left when he should have kept it on his right?' The answer is because he wanted to switch it, I suppose. And anyway, it doesn't matter. It's done. It's over.
Or they argue the toss as to whether Jones was actually off-side. 'He didn't look it. It was very tight. Could have gone either way.' Well, the linesman (or whatever they call them now) has given his decision. The ref has given his decision. So the matter is actually done and dusted.
The problem is that this increasingly forensic-style examination of the nuts and bolts of each game is also linked to strident calls for even more video intrusion, no doubt with managers having the right to stop play and call for a screen adjudication of a disputed incident. The difficult is that this would apply to some games and not others. For example, I don't suppose the Anglian Combination, or the Vanarama Conference North, or the Evo Stick Southern Premier would be able to do it; whereas soccer always used to pride itself that the same rules applied everywhere. Again, do fans really want such interruptions, some of them tactical, to the flow of the game?
There is another solution, of course, because the 'crime scene' approach, which is not duplicated in boxing or hockey, or even the theatre, but is to a degree in rugby, cricket and tennis, would be to stop the endless slo-mo replays. During the match, anyway. That at least would choke off much of the argy-bargy and waffle.
Ten differently angled views of the same 'controversial' incident serve only to stoke the fires of argument. Without immediately accessible screen replays all the 'controversy' nonsense would be over in seconds.
Some of the answers, therefore, appear simple. For example, ban all screen replays until at least an hour after each match has finished. Switch off the pundits, or at least turn down the sound. And stop the endless criticism of match officials. After all, they have a much better 'win' average (well over 90 per cent of their decisions are correct, so I believe) than the pundits, players and managers.
Then all you have to do is relax and enjoy the match.