Author Archive: joemasonspage


When I was a lad we always had two papers brought to the front door every morning.

The Times, late 19th century

The Times, 1899; it looked very similar in the 1950s

My mother read The Eastern Daily Press for local news and my father took The Times for national events. He also read the EDP, but my mother never did reverse and read The Times. Her religious principles discouraged her from reading the worldly daily papers, but she could not resist a peep into the EDP. My father enjoyed the columnists in the EDP too – especially Jonathan Mardle, Adrian Bell and EAE (Ted Ellis).

When he thought I was old enough to begin reading a paper he took out a subscription to the Manchester Guardian (as the Guardian was then called). I was about eight years old and of course it was far too grown up for me. I was more interested in the Beano and Dandy; these comics didn’t come within my father’s cognisance, and I had to purchase them surreptitiously in collusion with my older sister Tiggie. I could get quite involved in the Eagle however, which comic was more to my father’s taste and which he purchased for me every week.

Newspapers were improving by leaps and bounds on a technical level in the 1950s. In particular the quality of the press photographs was very good. This was partly from an artistic point of view, and partly because cameras were becoming more compact. They were therefore easier introduce into everyday life. The images themselves were no longer the smudgy products of the pre-war years, as printing machinery and paper-making were upgraded. The quality of press photographs nose-dived when colour was first introduced in the late 1980s. The contrast, colour balance and general appearance of coloured newspaper photographs were awful. Things have improved enormously since then, but the whole newspaper industry has been eclipsed by the growth of the internet. The high point of press photography was the 1960s. Now it all too automated for much individuality in the photographer’s work, with digital cameras that can fire off a continuous flow of images; the nuances of focusing, setting the aperture and controlling the exposure have all been lost. These were not merely technical requirements; the intelligent use of these now redundant features influenced the appearance of the photograph. Even the different speeds of  black and white film affected the end result. So it has not always been a story of uninterrupted progress, and perhaps the golden age of illustrated journalism preceded the advent of photojournalism itself. In the mid nineteenth century The Illustrated London News burst on the scene and opened the eyes of the nation to its beauties and interest; all the pictures had to be engraved and it set an extremely high standard from the very first issue.

In contrast the appearance of The Times remained as it had been at its beginning in the eighteenth century. Even in the 1950s, when I first remember the journal, the front page was the agony column, covered with rows  of personal adverts. It had photographs by then naturally, but these appeared on the inside pages. The crossword on the back page had been started by the journalist Adrian Bell (q.v. above) in 1930 and he was still responsible for many of these when we began to struggle with the cryptic clues during the 1960s. It was seldom that we completed the puzzle, and when we (i.e. my father, sister Tig and I) did it was a red-letter day.

Under pressure from me my father had by 1970 transferred our daily reading to the Telegraph. The Telegraph has always been a Tory newspaper, and although I wasn’t politically conservative myself in those days, the standard of journalism in the paper was so good that I just had to read it. Peter Simple was the best columnist, but they were all exceptionally talented. The Telegraph is now a third-rate journal that I have very little time for.

We were fortunate at both school and university in having all the daily papers laid out for us in the common room. While I was at senior school these did not include the brash tabloids, although bizarrely for the eight year olds in the junior school they did (in this respect we had a very liberal housemaster). The tabloids included the Daily Mirror and the Daily Sketch. The Sun had not then risen in the journalistic firmament, and when it did it was as Liberal and rather dull newspaper of a format larger than tabloid. It was introduced in 1964 as a replacement for the failing Daily Herald. The Sunday papers included the Sunday Pictorial and the Sunday Mirror, and the News of the World. In the 1960s this paper was still a broadsheet and not a tabloid in format, although it was always this type of journal in content, and remained so until the end. I remember being enthralled reading the stories they printed about Zoe Progl, the ‘Queen of the Underworld’.

I have mentioned that I was not interested in the intellectual content of the Guardian when I was introduced to it as a boy, and nor was I interested in the intellectual content of newspapers in general (articles about Zoe Progl didn’t count as intellectual), but as far as graphic design went it was quite a different matter. Well before I was ten years old I was producing a paper of my own called the Mouse Times. With pencil and paper I laid out the masthead, adverts and headlines that recorded my imaginary adventures as Master Mouse, and those of my mortal enemy the Rat.  My sister Christine joined in the fun with two other mice called Ferocious and Atrocious who she made up stories about. As far as the paper was concerned I was perhaps even more engaged by designing the adverts, and in making up suitable slogans. One that I remember was ‘Soap makes Big Bubbles’. I think that sometime during my adolescence I may have lost some of my early sparkle. Journalism had obviously made some impression on me, and eventually I was to write a daily column in our local paper, but it was nothing like the fun I had enjoyed as editor of the Mouse Times.





The appearance of the electric tram on the streets of Britain exploded as the twentieth century dawned; the large towns of East Norfolk and Suffolk all had a tram service by 1905, but within 35 years they had all gone. Only a century later are trams making a gradual comeback in the land. Trams in Lowestoft began running in 1903 and were discontinued in May 1931. The last tram was driven by the oldest driver employed by the Corporation, who as a young man had driven on the first day of operation 28 years before. We are fortunate that a double-decked tramcar (number 14) is still in existence.  It is part of the collection at the East Anglian Transport Museum at Carlton Colville near Lowestoft, where it was the first item to be acquired.  It has not strayed far from original working route, having been used as a summer-house at Gunton until 1962. All the tramcars were built far to the west in Birkenhead; the company, originally called Starbuck & Co., had been set up in 1871 as the first business in Britain devoted to the building of trams. At the outset these were horse-drawn, but under the ownership of G. F. Milne over 700 electric trams were built at the peak of business in 1901.

The Lowestoft Corporation Tramways fleet consisting of four single decked vehicles (unique in East Anglia in having bogies) fifteen double deckers and a works car. The service ran for about four miles through Lowestoft to Pakefield.  The tramway was built to a gauge of 3’6″ which suited the narrow streets. Lowestoft Corporation Transport continued to run buses until the 1970s, and used the same maroon and cream livery that had first been used on the trams seventy years before. There was a branch westwards to the tram shed in Rotterdam Road; the building was used as the bus depot until the Corporation Transport was taken over by the Eastern Counties Omnibus Company. It still stands, and is currently used as a warehouse by a firm supplying teachers’ resources.

The Mason family on Lowestoft  beach, August 1928

The trams ran from Lowestoft North station on the line from Great Yarmouth Beach that was opened in  the same year (1903), past Lowestoft Central station, the harbour and South Pier. The trams were fully integrated into the transport system, and were well used by the tourists who poured into the town from Yarmouth, 10 miles to the north. Although not quite so popular as the Norfolk resort – it had no Fun Fair for example – the town developed a brisk holiday trade during the first half of the 20th century.

Such was the demand for tram rails in England it proved impossible to obtain them in this country, and they were brought across the North Sea from Antwerp in a barge. The first batch arrived in the early hours of 10th March and after unloading, on the 11th the first rail was laid to much celebration. The Mayor was anxious to get the tramway operational by the summer season, and as a result work continued day and night. The tramway was formally opened on July 22nd. The universal fare for a journey was a penny and you could expect a tram every seven minutes. There was a clock on each tram and drivers who did not observe strict time keeping were disciplined by being laid off for a week without pay; the frequent opening of the harbour swing bridge must have provided them with a good excuse. After a short time during the early months of operation there was no regular service to the depot, but passengers could ride any tram that was going to  or from Rotterdam Road.

The total cost of construction had been £90,000 and in the first fortnight of operation the revenue was £800.  In 1910 the cost of a through journey was increased to 2d, with the North Parade to Pier Terrace and Pakefield to Central Station being 1d each way. In 1913 the cost of a journey from North Parade to Pakefield rose to 3d, but this remained the price until 1945, long after the tram line had been lifted.




Pancake Day always falls on a Tuesday – Shrove Tuesday – and it is followed by Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday this year will fall on my birthday, the 14th of February. This is Valentines Day, I know; how could I not? All my life it has been for me to go out for a meal on my birthday. Even when I can book a table in the crush of loving couples, all the staff would assume my companions and I were in some way romantically attached to each other; so I much prefer to stay at home and have some wine with my dinner.

The trouble is that year Valentines Day will also be the first day of Lent, when I normally give up alcohol. I afraid it is done more for health reasons than for spiritual ones; I am convinced that over a month of abstinence does wonders for my liver. I know ‘dry January’ is the modern agnostic’s way of fasting, but for me the month is so dreary that I could not possibly make it worse by giving up drinking too. A few years ago, when I first decided to give up drinking for Lent, I knew so little about the traditions that I went for the whole  of Lent without touching a drop of liquor. I now know that I can take a day off once a week, if I want.

During the years when I was growing up no one in my family ever gave up anything for Lent, as far as I can remember; if they did they kept very quiet about it, which is what they should do I suppose. The fashionable thing to say in those days was that, rather than give up something for Lent, you should instead take up some good cause. When I was at school my good cause was to attend the Lenten Addresses every Wednesday evening in the School Chapel. This was entirely voluntary, but they attracted a fair number of listeners. My friends and I would even discuss what we had heard as we walked back to our house. The fact that the Chapel was only about a hundred yards from our boarding house might explain this apparent keenness to attend. We certainly didn’t have long to finish our deliberations before it was time o do our prep.

Although the birds are already starting to sing heartily, there is no doubt that Lent comes at cold time of year. It was so cold in Dereham church in the nineteenth century (before any kind of heating) that few of the old folk used to attend services during Lent, according to the vicar. How the little birds survive with only feathers to keep them warm is a constant source of wonder to me. I suppose many of them must fall victim to the weather. I think the hibernating animals who get nice and fat in the autumn and then find a warm hole to sleep off the winter months have a much more sensible way to get through the season.

The Lent fast was taken seriously in the middle ages. It fell at the time of year when the foodstuffs that had been hoarded up from the previous harvest were beginning to run out, and fasting could easy turn into famine. With improved storage methods famines were largely a thing of the past by the sixteenth century. With the coming of the Reformation the more moderate Protestant churches continued to observe the Lenten fast, but the hard-line Presbyterians took a different view. All the annual Feast Days were anathema to the Puritans as a form of superstition; even Easer was ignored by the most extreme of them, but over fasting they were more conflicted. Fast days were prescribed in many Puritan jurisdictions, although the term Lent had Popish overtones and tended not to be used. It has never regained its former importance, and in today’s secular world it is ignored by most people; but we still enjoy pancakes.




East Anglian Quiz Book

East Anglian Quiz Book

Writing has always been a major part of my life; after finishing my education (with its intensive weekly round of essays) I embarked on a diary which I kept up for fifteen years. Then, for about half a dozen years, I was paid for what I wrote. It wasn’t a great payment and it wasn’t my only source of income, but it was at least a regular salary. It wasn’t great writing either, but it was what the public wanted. The vast majority of my output during this time was quizzes. This meant that there was no thought of starting a story with a plot, nor of planning how you would set out an essay or even of using the journalist’s stock way of writing up a news story. It was simply writing questions and answers.  Almost every sentence I wrote ended with a question mark, and the answers were mostly single words. As a result it is no wonder that I am not a fan of quizzes. I have done enough to last several lifetimes.

The most boring part of writing is not the composition (even of quizzes), it is the proofreading. Going through what you have written word by word and letter by letter, while keeping the grammatical structure and the meaning in mind is a skill in itself. If you are an important person you can perhaps get someone else to do this for you, but this unsatisfactory because only you know what you meant to say. When done by a sub-editor this sort of checking will take care of simple errors like spelling mistakes and duplicated words etc. For the job of improving the style the activities of a diligent sub-editor will throw up things like a lack of brevity, but too much reliance on house style will only dilute your own. The job of proofreading must ultimately be down to one’s own diligence.

img001I would much rather have been writing history books than quiz books, but that brought in hardly any money. I was paid for some history articles that I wrote in local magazines and newspapers, but these were on a one-off basis and the income was pin money. I also wrote for learned journals, both national and local, but having no academic appointment this has always been just a labour of love, rewarded only by seeing my name in print. Such writing requires a lot of work, making sure the result is as accurate as possible. This is true also of writing quizzes of course, but in that case the subjects one is considering are not complex. A quiz question must always have a simple and unambiguous answer, which cannot be said of an historical essay. One should never exhibit ambiguity, but history can certainly be complex, and an essay does not have to reach a firm conclusion; examining the options may be enough.

My first piece of writing to appear in print was in 1964, when I was aged fifteen. I will not say it was published, because I am not sure that an organ with such a limited circulation as my school literary magazine, The Grasshopper, would count as a publication. Nevertheless, such a great poet as W. H. Auden had also written in the same magazine as a schoolboy, so it is not an entirely inconsiderable organ. My piece however was, and I had completely forgotten it until reminded recently by an old schoolfriend. It came about through a bit of nonsense I had been doodling instead of doing my maths prep. The prefect in charge came over and demanded to know what I was doing; at first he was about to reprimand me, but on reading The Illiterate Hyperstot he was very impressed. He got me to submit it to The Grasshopper’s editor. The editor too was pleased with my rubbish, and that summer it appeared in the magazine. It had a certain similarity to the literary work of the Beatle John Lennon that was then being published, though I was not consciously imitating him. As result of my endeavour I became something of a literary celebrity at the school, and within a couple of years I had become the editor of the magazine myself. As such I would not have given any thing like The Illiterate Hyperstot a second glance.

spixworth book054The written word in general (by which I mean the hand written word), like the printed word in particular, is now almost a redundant form of communication. Words are still very important to me, but now they are all typed on a computer keyboard and disseminated into cyberspace (as this is). I have written well over a quarter of a million words on this blog alone, but none of it has any physical existence. Nevertheless it as been read by many more people than my earlier printed efforts. For hardcopy I have a printer that I hardly ever use (it also has a scanning function that  is much more important to me). I have yards of press cuttings, the forgotten remnants of the daily quizzes which I wrote for several years. Those have a physical existence; you can certainly pick them up, but nobody ever will – not even me! They were entirely ephemeral pieces of writing, forgotten even before the next day’s edition got off the press. But such is the fate of journalists, even those that write great things, which  I have never done.

I hope books continue to be published however, because they have a permanence that e-books lack; besides, I have just finished writing another one myself. It is due to be published this April. Make a note of the title – St Edmund and the Vikings. Be sure to get your order in soon, because the edition will not be large, and I would hate you to miss out. Books now have lots of colour illustrations, which adds to the appeal, and mine should be no exception. More of this anon, including the ISBN.




In the past month the main source of interest in my blog was the United Kingdom (as it always has been), with over 2,750 hits. This was followed at some distance (326) by the USA. Next, and rather surprisingly, my third most prolific source of hits was India, with exactly 200 hits; then came Spain at 91. Australia with 54 is normally higher up on the chain; France, Canada and Ireland followed; they all made a predictably good showing. They were followed by Germany, South Africa, Italy and New Zealand. I could make a chart setting the populations of these countries set against their English-speaking backgrounds, but I will merely note how highly some non-Anglophone countries rate. The Netherlands, Guernsey, Denmark, the Philippines, Belgium and Sweden all come in the high single figures.

Still with multiple entries from four to two are Switzerland, Brazil, Romania, Poland, Norway, Russia, the Ukraine, Jersey, Israel, Cyprus, South Korea, Austria, Belarus, Costa Rica, Japan, Pakistan and the Isle of Man. The places with a single entry are a very mixed bag; Bulgaria, Thailand, Oman, Greece, Chile, Croatia, Uruguay, Saudi Arabia and a dozen others. I was not even sure where Brunei is (I had thought it one of the Gulf States), but in fact it is in the north of Borneo. There were 72 countries in all in January and 4,000 hits. This may be tiny compared with the big players, but for a blog that is principally aimed at the residents of a small corner of England, viz. East Anglia, that is not a bad cross-section of the world. I would love to know who these people are, but that sort of information is not entrusted to me.

Those countries that have a substantial tourist industry could have a number of internet users logging on to my webpage who are not natives of that country. I am sure this happens, but I have no way of telling to what extent. The time of day affects the source of the hits; when I wake up in the morning the blog reveals a high proportion of readers from the USA, who have been awake while I am sleeping. This state of affairs rapidly turns around as day breaks here in the UK, and by mid morning this country has overtaken all other places. I say this, but just recently the number of people from India has remained in the majority well into the afternoon, when they must be preparing to go bed. What they seem to be  interested in is my blog on school uniforms of all things. This blog, that I wrote over three years ago, has had well over 100 hits in the last few days of January, and is still getting hits into February; indeed today it looks as if the interest in my views on school uniforms will exceed British interest in every thing else I have written in the last six years. There are over a billion people living in India, but still it is all very strange.

The stats page on WordPress that enables me to tell you all these facts is one of favourite resources. It is so rewarding to have my words disseminated around the world like this. I am so lucky to live in an age when this possible (thank you, Sir Tim Berners Lee), and that I write in a language that is so widely understood. Even my bland and uncontroversial posts are getting a bigger and bigger audience. My total hits are rapidly approaching 200,000. This is quite a change from my first post on joemasonspage, when I was delighted that even one person had found me. I must be doing something right, and saying what people want to hear. And as I always point out, this blog has never cost me a penny in publicity.

My blog is two-way street; you can email me on, and providing it isn’t just spam I always try to reply. In have had all manner of people online in this way. I have been reacquainted with old friends whom I haven’t spoken to for decades, made contact with relations I didn’t even know I had, and met many new and interesting people. And all from the comfort of my own fireside.




In the distant past nearly all our energy was sourced from renewables in the form of wind and water power (sailing ships, windmills and watermills). In the long-term the burning of fossil fuels may be seen as just a blip in the history of power consumption, but for a couple of centuries coal was the principal source of energy in this country; it pumped out the mines, provided the motive power for the transport network, heated people’s homes and cooked their food. Later gas and electricity were added to the energy mix, but these too were ultimately derived from coal. It was mined virtually everywhere in Britain; there were even coalfields in the Garden of England, Kent, but none in East Anglia. Things have changed and, for the first time, during 2016 less electricity was generated from coal than from wind and solar energy; however fossil fuels (mostly natural gas) still account for about half the electricity generated in the UK.

Coastal power; Yarmouth power station was fired by coal in 1978.

The East Coast is now the energy hub of the country. North Sea Gas has been piped ashore at Bacton in north-east Norfolk for over forty years, but is with clean and sustainable energy sources that the future lies. Does the nuclear power generating facility at Sizewell in Suffolk fall into this category? Yes and no is the answer. The nuclear fuel that powers the plant is not renewable like the wind or sunlight, and it is only clean if rigorous precautions are taken. The infrastructure is mind-bogglingly expensive, but it has the ability to produce huge amounts of electricity for many years, while contributing no carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. You know all this, but I find it helpful to write it down. You can then weigh up the pros and cons for yourself. The Sizewell A power station was commissioned in 1966 and shut down in 2006, by which time Sizewell B had been generating electricity for ten years. There are other coasts round Britain that have nuclear power stations, either decommissioned, in operation or (at Hincley Point) with preliminary works being built, but Sizewll B is the UK’s only pressurised water reactor.

It is in wind energy that the East Coast predominates. The southern North Sea is shallow, and this makes it ideal for off shore wind turbines; these have relatively little environmental impact compared to on shore turbines.  The area produces the greatest output of wind generated megawatts off shore in the world. The port of Lowestoft, that was once such a centre of the fishing industry, had fallen into decline for many years, but is now being revived to service the wind energy sector. The construction of the German wind turbines will be centred on Lowestoft, while the routine upkeep of them once built will be undertaken by other local ports as well. The Outer Harbour of Wells-next-the-Sea already sends smaller vessels out to the Sheringham Shoals wind farm, to carry out planned maintenance. Great Yarmouth also has a future in the servicing of wind farms. This multi-billion pound industry has the potential to produce many high-tech jobs for local people, providing the right education is made available.

The are plans to bring two cables ashore on the Norfolk coast, brining power from the North Sea wind farms. One will reach land at Happisburgh and the other at Weyborne; that will be routed via Reepham to the substation south of Norwich. Although this is technically in the village of Swardeston, it is nearer to the hamlet of Dunston, and I used to walk my dog there, along the footpath that goes to the ancient location of the Humbleyard hundred moot (meeting place). This substation is a major hub on the National Grid where several power lines meet. It was constructed in the 1970s. The other cable will be taken to Necton in central Norfolk.

What are the potential drawbacks of wind energy? Well the obvious one is the fact that when there is no wind there is no energy produced. This is less of a problem at sea, but there are still days of flat calm. Wind power alone is not enough; nor is solar energy, as that is not produced in hours of darkness. Battery technology is also coming on by leaps and bounds, but we need a reliable source of power generation. I think tidal energy and wave power need more attention put into them; the tide’s energy is not affected at all by the wind, and even the waves, which are, continue in some way. Sir Christopher Cockerell, the inventor of the Hovercraft, spent his later years researching wave energy. This is not so much something for East Anglian coast however; this form of energy is more effective on the West Coast, where the height of the tides tend to be of a greater range, and the Atlantic swell produces much greater waves.




Many people will immediately identify E. Nesbit’s book The Railway Children as the most famous piece of fiction involving railways. This children’s story was first published over a hundred years ago, and has proved an enduring favourite. The story is one of a false accusation of espionage set in a political situation far removed from the present day; its popularity must rest with Nesbit’s ability to tell a story. I saw the 1970 film version shortly after it came out, and most people these days know the story from its film or television adaptations. But there had already been several film versions before 1970, from 1951 onwards. Although the story is set in Yorkshire, the railway setting is thought to have been inspired by the railway that runs through Chelsfield in South East London, near Nesbit’s home.

Perhaps as famous as The Railway Children is Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express; this uses the backdrop of the broken down train to provide the enclosed environment in which the typically involved Christie plot is played out, but otherwise the railway does not feature largely in the story. Both The Railway Children and Murder on the Orient Express first appeared in book form, although they have long been adapted for the screen.  The Titfield Thunderbolt must be the most famous work of fiction that appeared as a film from the start.  Its plot is about railways, whereas the works so far mentioned only incidentally involve this form of transport. It is one of the Ealing Comedies, released in 1953. The Titfield Thunderbolt celebrated the first Heritage Railway (although the term had not then been invented), the Talyllyn narrow gauge line in Wales, which had been taken over by volunteers three years earlier.

A whole series of books by the Rev W. Awdry has been a runaway success. The first book in the series, The Three Railway Engines, was published in 1945, and Thomas the Tank Engine, the most famous locomotive,  had to wait until the second book was published in 1946 to be introduced to the world. The anthropomorphic locomotive and his railway engine friends exhibit all the human frailties that you meet in life, and the stories all have a strong moral tone, in keeping with the author’s clerical background. It is a pity that the illustrator Reginald Payne has not received more credit for his iconic work.

Wilbert Awdry was  among the first undergraduates to study at the newly created St Peter’s Hall in Oxford. This was founded by the Bishop of Liverpool to provide a Low Church environment to instruct the clergy of the Church of England, in contrast to the High Church Keble College. From the start the Hall was fully integrated into the intellectual life of the University, and a broad range of subjects was studied, though railway engineering was not one of them! The Reverend Awdry first composed the railway stories to amuse and educate his young son Christopher, and was encouraged to publish them by his wife Margaret.

Ivor the Engine should also be mentioned in the context of children’s stories on a railway theme. These are a series of stop motion animated films for television, produced from 1959 by Oliver Postgate. The subject concerned a Welsh railway, though not a narrow gauge one. Ivor has no face, unlike Thomas, but has other human characteristics; he is for example a member of the local Male Voice Choir.

I should mention among other works of fiction with railways at their heart The Signal-Man, an 1866 short story by Charles Dickens. This is a horror story and is centred round a railway tunnel. Tunnels are pretty spooky places at the best of times. Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar is one that author’s best known books, but it does not count in this list as it is not a work of fiction. The non-fiction books written on railways form a subject in themselves.




From a personal point of view this decade exactly encompassed my twenties. For most people today this is perhaps the most momentous time in their lives. This is the period when you finally leave education behind and embark on your career. In the not too distant past this change took place much earlier in life. My grandmother for instance left school at the age of ten. The school leaving-age was only raised to fifteen by the 1944 Education Act. It rose to sixteen in 1972.

When there was still lots of rail freight; Norwich station in the 1970s.

Nowadays one’s twenties are for most people a very stressful time. Nearly half of young people go on to higher education, and only start looking for employment at the age of twenty-one or twenty-two. In 1970 it was still common for youngsters to start their working lives in their mid teens, but things were already beginning to change. For me, although the seventies were certainly a time of change, the eighties were even more eventful. But enough of my personal memories – I want to concentrate on the spirit of the age. What was it like to live through the 1970s?

The decade began with the Premiership of Harold Wilson (the politician we associate with the sixties) and ended with Margaret Thatcher, the guiding light of the eighties. It wasn’t an easy time to enter into the adult world.  With an unemployment rate averaging 4% employment was still easy to get, but it was a time of political strife nonetheless. This was at its most violent in Northern Ireland, but it inevitably spread into England. Until 1970 terrorism was something which happened elsewhere – not in good old Blighty; since then it has never gone away, though the nature of the threat and its perpetrators have changed. The industrial action which affected the whole of the UK began with the Three Day Week and ended with the Winter of Discontent; it rumbled on throughout the decade. It wasn’t just in the UK that things were unravelling; the oil crisis gave a shock to the entire global economy. Here we were going through a particularly difficult time. In the circumstances the joining of the Common Market – as we then called the EU – provided us with a little reassurance that we were not completely on our own in the big bad world. That is why the referendum (another unfortunate development in British politics of the 1970s) produced such a resounding ‘Yes’ in 1975.

Outside politics it is hard to point to any feature that represented the 1970s apart from a general feeling of decline. In East Anglia the long overdue road improvements at last got underway, but in a very half-hearted manner. All the towns and villages on the A11 that were bypassed in the 1970s had to bypassed again within a few years with a proper dual carriageway; if this had been done properly in the first place we would have saved a lot of money. Short-sightedness on the part of the government and a chronic shortage of money were the reasons. The motor industry in Britain, which had been flourishing in the sixties, was merged into the inefficient mammoth BLMC. A few years later it effectively went bust, and had to be nationalised in 1975. We expected things to continue to go downhill, and with good reason. We had no idea of the phenomenal growth in house prices that was to come; the corresponding growth in many people’s wealth is seldom acknowledged. In 1970 the price of a terraced house in Norwich was around £1,000; it is now approaching 200 times as much. If house prices had merely increase with inflation, a house today would cost under £20,000! In contrast rent controls made the ownership of property to let utterly unattractive to investors. No wonder the 1970s saw a high point in home ownership in Britain.

Why it was such a problematical decade I cannot say. No one has ever explained it to me. I do not want to make too much of these troubles; they just formed the backdrop to our lives.  Occasionally they came to the fore, such as the inconvenience of the left luggage offices being closed at London railway stations (for fear of bombs) or the power cuts that were imposed to save energy, but for the most part things continued as normal. The sun rose every morning, and we got on with daily tasks. The computer age was not even a cloud on the horizon; these exotic electronic monsters existed, but they were still enormous and enormously expensive machines in 1970. They could never enter our everyday lives, could they? The personal computer was yet to be invented.

The weather in the 1970s was notable for the long hot summer of 1976. The sun shone down on us relentlessly, and it never rained. The reservoirs dried up and hosepipe bans were imposed everywhere. Recycling bath water was the only possible way of watering the garden, but any hint of beautiful flowerbeds caused the public to look on you askance. The crops died in the fields, but for most people the sunshine was a delight. What could be better than endless sunny days? Suntans were still fine as far as most people were concerned, and risk of skin cancer was not ever mentioned.

People who had grown up under Queen Victoria were still around in 1970, and veterans of the First World War still walked the streets. Shoemaking was still a major industry in Norwich and there were at least two major printing firms in the city. You could still smoke almost anywhere you liked – on the London Underground, in aircraft and even in restaurants. Sitcoms like Porridge and Fawlty Towers represent a high point in British humour; they showed that we could still laugh at ourselves, whatever our political differences. The 1970s were a world away from today’s politically correct environment.




Working with wood is something I have always enjoyed. Despite my father’s fine collection of woodworking tools, many of which he had inherited from his father (who was a carpenter by trade), my first woodworking experience was undertaken at school. We all started with a couple of basic projects – I think a matchbox holder was one – and then it was on to more substantial artefacts; in my case a book trough and a stool. I abandoned formal woodwork education after a few years; my manual training lessons moved onto metalworking, and then I gave up the subject entirely in favour of art.

That was not the end of the story however. My Dad had already bought me a wood lathe, and although woodworking ceased as far as school terms were concerned, I spent the holidays happily turning up wooden articles on the lathe. I made all the usual things while still a child. I had a Myford 8 lathe –  it was one of the first tools my father set up in the workshop he established in the basement of his business premises. I made a table lamp in 1960, and my cousin Tony made a candlestick soon after, while on holiday with us. It is still a prized possession in his house. There were lots of other things to do during the all-too-brief school holidays, so woodturning did not take up all my time. It was however always there in the background.

The various trades that require wood as the raw material require very different skills. Carpentry and joinery need similar attainments, but cabinet making, woodturning and woodcarving are all trades in their own right. Of course my only qualification was the bookish one of historian, and as a worker with my hands I was a rank amateur. Any skills I might have developed in woodturning or woodcarving were entirely self-taught. Perhaps you can tell this from the illustration below.

Saint carved in lime wood

I was a WOODTURNER for much longer in my lifetime than I was a WOODCARVER. I related details of my woodcarving career last year, and anyone who wants to learn more about it should click on the link above. Woodcarving came about as a result of my artistic pursuits rather than through woodworking itself. In woodturning I have made bowls, plates, chair legs, whistles, candlesticks and door knobs – in fact almost anything that can be made of wood and is round, and not too big. When my optical instrument making took a nosedive after Mrs Thatcher imposed a huge increase in VAT in the early 1980s, I turned my hand to woodturning in an attempt to keep the wolf from the door. I went weekly to Oulton Broad and collected a car load of wooden blanks, and returned a week later with them converted into stool legs. These were then made up into the finished article in the factory in Oulton Broad North railway station, and sold to retailers like John Lewis.

The production of endless stool legs was extremely boring, but I also made more interesting things on my lathe. I was well into playing music on the recorder at the time, and as they are round in section and made of wood, I thought ‘why not make my own?’ So I did. The basic woodturning was not too difficult, but the internal turning of the tube required a whole new technique (and additional tooling). The drilling and enlarging of the finger holes needed some practice. The fundamental of the instrument is produced with all the finger holes closed – or in this case, before any have been drilled; with the note above you need two holes for the semitones, but after that all these intervals are produced by changing the fingering. It is not only the position of the finger hole but its aperture that alters the pitch, so it is wise to start with a smaller hole (i.e. lower pitch) and increase it by increments. You can always go higher but not lower. In the end it was possible to produce an instrument that sounded pretty much in tune with itself; that is I could play a scale on my home-made recorder. The problem came in producing instruments that sounded in tune with each other, and this was something that I never resolved. It required very accurate measurement and precise woodturning skills, and this gave me great respect for the instrument makers of the past.

Since the war the recorders played in schools have all been mass-produced in plastic, and even the wooden ones are made on automatic lathes. Centuries ago they had much more primitive equipment, but they produced instruments with beautiful tone as well as an attractive appearance, and they were all tuned to the ‘A’ of the time – or at least to the standard tuning of the district they were operating in. A consort of recorders is no use unless they share the same notes. You can alter the pitch by pulling out the top joint of the instrument a little bit, but this produces no more than a slight change and is only used for fine tuning.

So much for round things, but what is not widely recognised is that you can make things that are not round as well; these are things like Queen Anne legs, which are produced by altering the centre of the object while working on it. I have made these too.





The row of terrace houses along White Horse Lane in Trowse Newton is called Russell Terrace. The terrace was built in about 1880 by the Colman family who developed Trowse as a model village to house their workforce from nearby Carrow Works. It was named after Russell Colman, born 1861, the grandfather of the current head of the family Sir Timothy Colman. The view from the front room looks out over the common; the land had been given to the parish by Jeremiah Colman (Russell’s father) in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Until then this land had been an area of slum dwellings. The Post Office was only a short distance from Russell Terrace, and a baker’s shop used to be on the corner of White Horse Lane. It is now a vegetarian café.

Whitlingham became part of Trowse parish 400 years ago when the church was abandoned.

The house where Charles Mason (my great-grandfather) lived was number 25 Russell Terrace. It could hardly have been more conveniently situated in those pre-motor transport days. A short walk would have brought Charles’s and his family to Trowse railway station, and from the beginning of the 20th century, the tram stop was adjacent to the railway station.  A short bike ride would take Charles to his place of work at Carrow, where he was a carter at the mustard mill. A Sunday afternoon stroll down White Horse Lane would have brought them to the ancient walled Roman town at Caistor St Edmunds, while travelling a similar distance in the opposite direction would have brought Charles to the river Yare at Whitlingham staithe. This was still a place of great industrial activity in 1880; a short tramway ran from the kiln to the riverside to transport lime to the wherries at the staithe, from where it was carried to the Norwich builders. A rowing boat ferry service was on hand to transport workers from Thorpe St Andrew, across the river.

Terraced houses in Trowse

Trowse Newton was a country village in spite of its proximity to the City, and it was quite possible to get lost in the woods around. Charles Mason did just that, and was eventually found by a local who heard his desperate cries of “Lost! Lost!” This gave him his nickname, and forever after he was called “Lorst” Mason by his friends. Charles Mason always spoke in his native Staffordshire accent, and I cannot tell you how they pronounce the word ‘lost’ over there, but in East Anglia it is always said like this: “lorst”.

During the First World War two Scottish soldiers (twins) were billeted on the Masons at Russell Terrace. Sixteen year old Edith, one of Charles’s daughters, took quite a shine to one of the brothers! At the start of the war there were still several children living in the three bedroomed house; it must have been a bit cramped with the soldiers sleeping there too. However it was all part of the war effort, and the extra rent must have come in handy for the family.

Charles Mason’s family of ten children were all brought up at 25 Russell Terrace.  The eldest children had moved out by 1921, but his two youngest daughters remained there with their aged father. After the foundation of the BBC in 1922 (with Norfolk educated Scotsman John Reith at its head) Charles Mason acquired a crystal set. These early wireless sets required no mains or battery current to power them, and were operated merely by the radio waves themselves. It would however have required a long aerial in the back garden, to pick up the signal. As a consequence of the low power there was no loudspeaker and they had to be listened to using headphones, so wireless listening was not at first a group activity. The broadcasts were initially limited to an hour a day, but radio grew with incredible speed, and before Charles Mason’s death in 1938 an experimental television service was being broadcast in London.


Charles Mason belonged to a fortunate generation; unlike his forebears he was literate and well housed. He was able to retire in his mid-sixties. Only a few years before most people had faced the prospect of working until they dropped, or starving in their old age. The great reform had come shortly before the First World War, when people were able to retire at the age of 70 without having acquired any savings first. This happy period of a pension for life from the age of 65 lasted less than a century, and now the age of retirement is creeping up again, and inevitably will again reach seventy at least. Charles was able to enjoy a long retirement at Russell Terrace, and after his death his daughter Florence (and her husband Billy) carried on the tenancy.  During his years of leisure in retirement Charles spent much of his time in his beloved garden and allotment in Trowse. While virtually all of his fellow gardeners used their allotments to simply to grow vegetables, he used his to grow flowers as well. This puzzled and amused his contemporaries.

Summer holidays were family affairs, going to one of the local coastal resorts on the train. Compared to his father or sons (who died in their sixties or earlier), he enjoyed a long retirement of nearly fifteen years. I have no reason to believe it was not a happy one, but there had been tragedy too in his life; his twin sons John and Joseph had died as infants in 1892, and son Alfred had been killed on the Western Front less than a week before the Armistice in November 1918. Charles’s first wife had died aged only 38, and his second wife before she was sixty years old.