Friday, 28 May 2010

When I were a Lad...2

When I were a Lad...
We used to have non-decimalised money, what older folks here sometimes call real money. It was an ancient currency and at least one denomination had been in use for well over a thousand years and even the most recent changes that came after George the third in the 1790s. Our coinage had remained recognisable over many successive reigns of different kings and queens and you could find coins in your pocket that bore the heads of kings and queens from out of history and several generations before you had once owned these same coins, maybe even your own great grandparents.

The last sterling coins
different coins were taken out of circulation in different years, so these are all different dates

It was often believed by foreign visitors, that these odd denominations were designed, to confuse, but the different numbers of coins that made up each denomination were a relic of the Roman’s method of defining currency and weights. Because of this only the florin, had anything to do with the number ten, since ten of these made a pound. Nonetheless it was two shillings or twenty-four pennies.
It has always struck me as strange that a country that regards many ancient traditions as something worth preserving, should have dispensed with such a long and ancient tradition as the old Pounds Shillings and Pence.
Traditions like the opening of Parliament is carried out by people dressed in ancient clothes who go through the same illogical actions that have been perpetuated for centuries and no one wants to stop that.
Decimalising our ancient currency may have seemed like a good idea at the time but in changing it so many things were lost forever.
Firstly foreigners are no longer confused which has caused a small loss of earning for some elements of our society, but more important than that, as a result of this conversion, our immediate link with history has gone. Although the portrait of our head of state featured on our present currency has been changed as she has aged, it has been the same monarch for enough generations for there to be people alive who have lived their entire lives, raised two generations and never seen a British coin outside a museum with any other monarch on it.
Finally the thing that I believe is the most significant loss is the ability of the general population to do arithmetic. Anyone who went to school after 1971 will have never been taught anything like the amount of arithmetic school kids learned before then.

As a child, I had to learn my tables from two times table up to my twelve times table, and sometimes beyond, now kids are only taught up to their ten times table and no further.
There were twelve pennies in a shilling, so knowing multiples of twelve was quite important if you did not want to be swindled when being given change.
I also had to know how many pennies made up a pound, not one hundred as today, but two hundred and forty. If your arithmetic is good enough, from this you will be able to work out that twenty shillings make up a pound, since there are twelve pennies in a shilling.
I also had to know all the other denominations, how many half drowns in a pound, how many sixpences in a shilling or a florin, or how many farthings make up a thruppenny bit and many many more odd combinations that we were expected to learn by heart.
Another thing you were expected to know instantly was what different numbers of pennies gave you in shillings and pence, for instance, what is eighteen pence or twenty one pence and so on.
Because there were twelve pennies in a shilling, you could use you r knowledge of the various numbers of pennies you were expected to memorise at school to understand the twenty-four hour clock, when you joined the armed forces to do your National Service. For instance fifteen pence is one shilling and thruppence. From this you can see that 15:00 hours is three o’clock in the afternoon. These sort of mental gymnastics are not something a modern child, or many adults can manage because all they ever had to learn was based on tens. Fifteen new pence is fifteen new pence, nothing else. There aren’t even half pennies now, let alone farthings, so knowing how many farthings there were in sixpence is never going to be a problem to people now, so they never get to learn it.
As a result of my early teaching of such a complex currency I can work out in my head what a few different items come to in the supermarket long before I reach the checkout and, if I have the correct money ready at a till the cashier is amazed or even highly suspicious, because no ‘normal’ person can add up numbers without a calculator, so something is not quite right and they seem to feel that I must be working some kind of obscure fiddle somehow.
A friend of mine once when preparing for a trip to America wanted to buy one hundred pounds sterling worth of US dollars in cash as well as some travellers cheques, and when told that the exchange rate was 1.6 dollars to the pound said ‘Good, that will give me $160 in cash’. The woman who’s job it was to dish out different currencies all day was amazed. ‘How did you do that?’ She asked him. My friend was similarly amazed at her inability to work it out. This was a woman of at least forty and she could not just shift the decimal point in a simple conversion without using a calculator.

I suppose this is part of growing old enough to be able to see the changes that occur in society. I can imagine thousands of years ago, all the old hunters would gather round the fire in the evenings and moan about these young farmers nowadays with their new fangled ideas of living in one spot and keeping animals penned up instead of running after them with a spear.
‘Just look at them, none of them know anything about tracking or spear making, how can they live with such ignorance'- head shaking all round as they despair of the modern youth of their day.
Maybe it is not important to be able to add up without a silicon chip to help you, since calculators are universal and probably never going away, maybe it is important to keep the mind working, I don’t know.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010


Some time ago The Better Half (TBH) and I were startled by a loud thump from the kitchen it took us several days to link the sound to a pigeon limping badly in the garden and a dirty patch on our kitchen window. When the sun was in a particular position, the dirty patch suddenly became the shape of a pigeon. You could see its wings spread out, its feet in landing position and one eye quite clearly and very nearly count the feathers.

A similar imprint on a friend's window

We have a number of birds visit our garden and in the ten years since the house was built, more and more varieties have been spotted on our bird feeder. Originally there were just crows and magpies but soon pigeons, blackbirds, and starlings arrived. A pair of goldfinches stayed around for a short time but until we put up a new feeder that came with three kinds of seed included, we did not see any sparrows. These little birds have reduced in population a lot over the last twenty or thirty years and people who know about such things are quite worried about it. The sparrows loved one of the three kinds of seed and we have tried to use that one ever since. On one occasion I counted forty sparrows in the garden, which the most I have seen together for a long time. We also regularly get blue-tits, great-tits, coal-tits, chaffinches and a robin.

Two less frequent visitors have been seen recently. In early spring, a heron was around, and on one occasion it was stood on our neighbour’s roof whilst two crows mobbed it with repeated swoops and feints. It majestically ignored them other than ducking its head slightly as they swooped down. After a while, and in its own time it flew off. I was able to get a movie of this action since it lasted about fifteen minutes. The second was a greater woodpecker that has visited more than once and I have him on film too.

A short truce while they ignore each other

A couple of days ago I was alone in the house since TBH is away on a mercy mission looking after The Granddaughter whilst her dad is in hospital and her mum is at work. Since I need to finish the mess I had started in laying a path, before the next round of family visits I did not go with her but have been alone in the house for several days. One afternoon after I had had enough and was resting, when another pigeon made me jump by hitting the kitchen window hard enough to make me think something had broken. No sign of a stunned pigeon but also no limping bird either this time.

Work in progress

Yesterday morning I was back out working in the garden when I heard some crows making quite a din and looking up I saw four or five of them mobbing a larger bird, quite high up in the sky. At first I thought it must be the heron again but as I peered at them I realised it was a bird of prey, maybe a sparrowhawk. They were moving rapidly and so quickly flew off into the distance before I had a chance to get my camera and I was unable to identify it properly.
After a morning’s session in the garden laying the path, I came in and ate my lunch. Sitting down reading whilst my lunch went down, I was startled by a sparrow trying to fly through the closed window near me. Stupid birds! I thought, I will have to do something to stop them and I got up and looked out of the window. Suddenly three crows swooped down into the garden and the sparrowhawk or whatever it was suddenly took off from behind some plants and skimmed over the fence into our neighbour’s garden, chased off by the crows. It happened so fast, I still did not get a good look at it, but I now understood why the sparrow had tried to fly through the glass. I went out to see if I could see anything but there was no sign but there were sparrows in all the surrounding bushes chirping angrily and very loudly for some time afterwards.
I now wonder if the hawk was the cause of the two pigeons trying to fly through a closed window, not stupidity, panic. Another clue I had ignored was a great patch of pigeon feathers on our front lawn where something had had dinner. I had assumed it was a fox, which abound near us but now I wonder if it may have been the bird of prey I saw. I will have to listen out for the crows making a row and grab my camera.

One of our vigilante crows on patrol

All this took me back to a time when I was on a business trip to Fort Worth and around the side of one of the buildings we were visiting, were a number of dead birds on the ground. Near the building there were some ornamental trees with a lot of fruit lying on the ground beneath them. I asked if the fruit was poisonous and accounted for the dead birds, but I was told that, no the fruit was highly edible but if left too long on the ground they rapidly fermented and when the birds ate it they became drunk and more often than not got so confused that they tried to fly through the windows and broke their necks as a result.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Election fever

Recently, it seems that there has been some sort of election campaign here in the UK and TV has been wall-to-wall politics for weeks. I think it is very decent of the rest of the world to stop creating newsworthy items during these times so that the British TV and the radio are able to talk about nothing but the election each news broadcast. Unfortunately because of the narrowness of the result, despite more people voting for the Conservatives, it seems we have a Hung Parliament and this endless political bunny has not ended with the event, so the pundits are still able go on and on and on.

My favourite quote from the whole boring thing is ' If it is a hung parliament, the question is; how do we decide who to hang first?'

I did my civic duty and voted but not with ay conviction that things will get better or that I have voted for a particularly good party, since they are all pretty poor candidates and it was Hobson's choice.
What I find hard to understand is why they have all fought so hard to become the government. Surely they must realise that whoever gets in must become really really unpopular in a few short months and will be blamed for everything from teenage pregnancies to the price of bread.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Bank Holiday

One of the nice things about being retired is that we can have a pre bank Holiday holiday and then go on to visit our relations and have a Bank Holiday too.
On our way up to Cumbria where The Granddaughter lives, we took a slight diversion and spent a few days in Harrogate. I once spent a couple of weeks staying in the Majestic Hotel there which is a grand old Victorian purpose built hotel. We did not stay there but in a small self catering terraced house of which there are many around the centre of Harrogate.

The Pump Room at Harrogate

The hotel was one of the more expensive venues where I provided training and several of my students tasted caviar for the first time in their lives there. I was running a computer servicing course for Thorn staff, creating a new cadre of personnel from people who had been selected for their potential ability to switch from TV repairs to computer repairs. The course was very intensive and ran from eight in the morning to eight at night, so I did not have much opportunity to see much of Harrogate at that time.
We were able to rectify that lack over the few days we were there. Harrogate is a Regency spa town and became the place to be in Victorian times and still is very posh. The shops reflect this with the kind of places not found in your more ordinary places like our home town. It seemed rather like a mixture of the old 50s pre-supermarket shops with Gentlemen’s outfitters and Lady’s dress shops all mixed in with supermarkets and burger bars.
There is a very refined Teashop called Betty’s, which does afternoon teas that are brought to your table on a silver cake stand and cost an arm and a leg. There are shops (not stores), where you can buy Yorkshire tea that is not in tea bags and get your groceries from a man or lady behind a counter with no self service.

Betty's Tea Rooms

The old Pump Room is now a museum and the Regency Meeting Rooms are now a Chinese restaurant but the place tries to be an island of old elegance in a world that increasingly rejects elegant for fast food and convenience stores.
One day we went to Ripley Castle that is a little way north of Harrogate and listened in fascination to the tour guide who explained in the most wonderful way about the history of the place with particular reference to the English Civil War and the strange events that occurred there. They have some fabulous relics and you are able to touch some of them, directly connecting with history from four hundred years ago.
One of the fascinating features of the house is that during a refurbishment in the sixties they found a priest hole that had been forgotten for over three hundred and fifty years.
We explored Harrogate for the rest of the week until we could walk no more and then drove over to the west coast to visit TG and family for the Bank Holiday. The route took us along the southern edge of the Yorkshire Dales which gave us some wonderful views.

But now we come to the tragic bit. Only a few days after we left Harrogate, the Majestic Hotel caught fire and at least one person died in the fire. The blaze was brought under control only after several hours and although there was considerable damage to the upper floor, on the whole, the building was not badly damaged but it is a listed building and will need careful repairs to restore it.

The Majestic Hotel Harrogate

In Cumbria, the weather, realising it was a national Bank Holiday, took a turn for the worse and it became very cold and rained on and off. We stayed indoors for a lot of the time and only went out for brief forays. During our stay in Cumbria it was The Better Half’s birthday and the following day it was TG’s birthday, so a number of presents were exchanged and we had two meals out in quick succession.
We then had to return home in time for a pre arranged visit from a man who was coming to fix the hinges on one of our doors where we had an attempted, but failed, break in.