Category Archives: opinion

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

Artificial intelligence is an unnatural version of the real thing.  There has been much talk  lately of artificial intelligence and the threat that this may present for us, but as far as I can see it presents no threat whatsoever. Artificial intelligence is a misnomer anyway; although it is undoubtedly artificial, there is nothing remotely intelligent about any computer software that I have ever come across. Whether it is attached to a robot, or to something like correcting this blog, it is highly unintelligent. Robots are good at doing simple repetitive jobs, like filling boxes, but no one would ever claim that this involves any intelligence at all. Even a simple job like polishing my shoes is a mind bogglingly complex task. It involves finding the polish in the first place, making sure it is the right colour, ensuring any spots are removed from the leather and polishing the shoes to a suitable sheen. A robot might one day manage it, but it would still not be intelligent in any meaningful sense of the word.

There is obviously much further to go along the road before we can apply even the term comprehension to any computer program, let alone intelligence. The auto-correct facility that tries to put right spelling mistakes is pretty good at spotting the sort of typos I might make by misplacing a single letter in a long word, but with short words it always gets it wrong.  Where a human being would immediately see the correct word from the context, it make ridiculous assumptions based merely on the nearest spelling.

What I am extremely dubious about is any originality of thought ever coming from a computer. Even in purely scientific terms, take for example the ‘Higgs boson’;  the existent of this sub-atomic particle was postulated in 1964 by the eponymous researcher, acting on what I can only call intuition. It was only proved in recent years by the use of the CERN particle accelerator. I do not claim have any knowledge of this abstruse branch of physics, but  I do not see artificial intelligence coming up with similar revelations any time soon. Perhaps artificial intuition might. But because science can eventually be demonstrated by number crunching, it may be theoretically possible to accomplish anything scientific without human input. With the arts the prospect of computers coming up with any truly innovative results is impossible. A computer may appear to be creative, but it will always be merely a mechanistic device. The original insights of a writer or an artist, or even of a musician (although music relies on mathematics to large extent) I do not see as being within the grasp of artificial intelligence.

In the arts I see no prospect of computers supplanting human beings. I can contemplate the imagination being imitated by a non-imaginative machine, but I think the results would be bizarre rather than valid. As I said earlier, we are so far from even basic tasks being accomplished by artificial intelligence. I do not foresee even my grandchildren’s grandchildren needing to be unduly concerned by the threat of artificial intelligence. On the other hand,  if advances will eventually take care of all spelling errors so much the better. If artificial intelligence can answer all the questions thrown up by molecular physics I would be amazed but not concerned. But if artificial intelligence could explain the value of a Shakespeare sonnet or a Keats ode I would be flabbergasted. For one thing, in such an ‘intelligent’ discussion there is no such thing as a ‘right’ answer, although there is an almost infinite number of ‘wrong’ ones. Or how about sarcasm or irony, where you say the opposite of what you intend; try getting a computer to understand that!

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE STORY OF MODERN TECHNOLOGY

WHO ARE THE EXPERTS?

Expertise is an essential ingredient of successful industry, and indeed of life itself. Who would want a house built by amateur bricklayers and clueless electricians? It wouldn’t just be uncomfortable, it would be positively dangerous. If everybody accepts these experts in manual employment, what is the problem with  experts in more intellectual positions?

There clearly is a problem, and to see where it lies one only has to look at the dire warnings from almost all experts of the immediate consequences of a vote to leave the European Union last year. Compare these predictions with the actual result, the pretty even tenor of the economy since June 23rd. Incidentally, it is no good saying that the economy was only saved by the prompt action of the Bank of England in taking emergency measures; the experts should surely have included factors like this before making their predictions.

They clearly got it wrong, but this does not mean that those like the Governor of the Bank of England are not experts. I say this not only because Mark Carney is a member of my old college (and therefore highly intelligent?). If I were by some impossible circumstances responsible for managing a minor branch of a provincial bank I would cause mayhem by my complete lack of expertise in financial affairs. Unlike me, Mark Carney (the Governor) is an expert at managing money, but he is certainly not an expert at predicting the future. Who is? We no longer believe in the prophetic ability of seers and soothsayers, so it is rather perverse to believe in economists’ ability to foresee events.

To take another example; which economists predicted the financial crisis of 2008? They may have produced interesting theories to explain it in retrospect, and that is where their expertise lies. The trouble is that they think they can project their theories into the future. However accurate these theories appear to be, the nature of the subject changes over time. Unlike an expert chemist, who can with absolute certainty make a prediction that a given reaction will produce a given result, this is not true of economists, however much they would like this to be so. In the social sciences like economics this kind of certainty is impossible. People are not chemicals, and will always change in all sorts of unexpected directions.

The problem is the experts’ hubris. They like to think they can do what they can never do, and when they fail they bring experts in general into disrepute. We, the public, are almost as much to blame as the experts; if they had been right about Vote Leave (and they could have been) we would look concerned and say that we should have listened to the experts; but what I have said about predicting the future would still have been true.

There is far too much futurology about today. The newspapers, instead of reporting things which happened yesterday, are full of speculation about what is going to happen tomorrow. When (or sometimes if) the event does happen, these predictions are often hugely wide of the mark. The journalists never learn from their mistakes; they have already moved on the next future event. It would be much more sensible to give due consideration to events that have already occurred.

It is important to recognise what experts can and cannot do. I will leave the expert painter and carpenter to one side for now, and concentrate on the academic expert. Experts are not always right, even when considering the past let alone the future. They may claim a superior understanding over that of  non-experts, but they should not assert omniscience. They should above all not claim to be able to predict the course of the future. Some events may be easier to foresee than others, but with anything that is not immutably fixed luck rather than judgement determines the outcome.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

SOCIAL MEDIA


WHY AM I NOT ON TWITTER?

Some people may be so dumb they can express their thoughts in 140 characters or less, but I can only begin to say anything meaningful in a thousand, and even that is pushing it somewhat. For some reason, although I have never signed up to this inane application, I get regular emails on my gmail account which include some of these vapid Twitter messages. I occasionally glance at these before I delete them, but I have never once read anything even remotely interesting. It is a sad reflection of our online culture that so many people are so mindless as to take any notice of them. I see that the President of the United States explains his policies on Twitter; but I have to respect him of course.

I find it hard to say anything in favour of Tweets. It is not just the ridiculous 140 character limit which puts me off; it is the phenomenon of the ‘Twitter Storm’. I am not on the silly program, so if I were ever to be the subject of such an outpouring of internet bile I would never know. Let them say what they like, it only exists in the ether. So many celebrities can massage their egos by getting a big following on Twitter, by saying boring commonplaces; that is until they post something unguarded which is mildly interesting. Then the resulting Social Media firestorm drives them to take cover. Stephen Fry was for a period not on Twitter, having for once inadvertently used his 140 characters to say something controversial. It makes me feel rather pleased when the famous get it in the neck, so perhaps there is something to be said for it after all. But you still won’t find me on Twitter.

Social Media is a relatively recent thing. I can remember when Twitter started up, and most commentators said it would be here today and gone tomorrow; who would want to use it, and even if they did, where was the money in it? There must however be some way of converting these fleeting comments into cash, because their gross income for 2015 was revealed as nearly $1.5 billion. Other Social Media outlets are Facebook, which I use to a certain extent, Streetlife (ditto) and LinkedIn. This last one I do not think I subscribe to, but from the regular communications I get they obviously think I do. It is principally aimed at  improving your career prospects, although if it really does anything of the kind is rather doubtful. As I am a retired resident in God’s waiting room, it is of no relevance to my situation. Why do I get requests to sign up as a friend from people in places like Arizona and Pakistan? What relevance to their business advancement can I possibly be? It is mildly rewarding when someone puts another entry down on my list of accomplishments, but no-one except me will ever read it. I have recently been getting cheery messages to congratulate a friend on seven years in his current job, but unfortunately he died a year ago. One of the websites my historical work appears on is Academia.com, a facility which makes available my academic papers to other researchers. It is always interesting when someone clicks on my paper – I had two clicks only yesterday – and I hope one day to get some more tangible feedback.

Do you remember Friends Reunited? That was an early example of Social Media, although when it started the term had not been invented. It shut down years ago, but at one time it was the way many of us first discovered the magic of the internet in connecting people. It is a fast-changing world; when I got my first email account 20 years ago it wasn’t of much relevance because none of my friends even had a computer, let alone an internet connection. The process of connecting relied on dial-up, which besides assaulting your ears with the sound of cats fighting meant you could not use the phone for the duration of your internet use. Cell phones, or mobiles as we call them in this country, which would have provided alternative phone access were rare and expensive. Fast forward to today and everybody has a Smartphone; on my laptop I could not imagine life without checking my emails several times a day, or getting all the latest news on-line. When I need to relax I listen to obscure Baroque trio sonatas on Youtube, and of course keep up to date with my blog.

WordPress is one of these Social Media websites in which I take a daily interest, visiting my site multiple times. This is because it is WordPress that hosts this blog. I certainly have a growing and dedicated following, although I think I will never again achieve the 16,000 visits I got in one day, through a chance mention on Reddit. My blog puts me in touch with lots of interesting people; family members whom I have never met; in some cases never even heard of. They email me out the blue, and so do friends and relations of strangers I have referred to. I get told interesting sidelights on places and events I have mentioned, and requests for further information on all sorts of things. These all come through the magic of the internet, but so too do the spammers and scammers which are part of the down side of the web. Except for these I am always glad to have more emails; it is rather frustrating when a flurry of activity is apparent on a page of mine, whether it is on Academia or WordPress, but I never learn why. Who is viewing this page? I will never know unless they tell me, so please if you are interested in my blog, do let me know. I promise not to pester you forever afterwards.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

SOCIAL MEDIA

EAST ANGLIAN SAINTS

St Julian's Church, Norwich

St Julian’s Church, Norwich

Most EAST ANGLIAN saints can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon times. St Audrey or St Etheldreda (d.679) was Abbess of Ely, and the tombstone of her steward may still be seen there in the South Aisle of the Cathedral. She was a princess, and many of these early saints were members of the royal family. St Ethelbert was another royal, king of East Anglia, who was martyred in Hereford. He was there wooing his bride to be. The cathedral there is dedicated to SS Mary and Ethelbert.

St Guthlac was not of royal blood, but he was of noble birth. He cannot be called East Anglian as he came from Lincolnshire and lived in Mercia, but as there was cell established in his name at Swaffham I will include him. We know rather more of his life than we do of St Botulph; we can say that he too was not of royal blood, although he was a very popular saint in the middle ages. There are St Botulph churches as far apart as London and Boston in Lincolnshire, but his abbey was on the river Alde in Suffolk.

R C LONDONERS AT ST WALSTAN'S WELL, C1910.

PILGRIMS AT ST WALSTAN’S WELL, c 1910.

St Walstan was reputedly a royal scion, but his time was long after the East Anglian royal family had died out, so it is hard to reconcile this claim with the story of his life. He was born either in Blythburgh in Suffolk or Bawburgh in Norfolk. The similarity of the names of the two villages suggests a degree of confusion, but indications of his cult can be traced to both places. His shrine was certainly established in Bawburgh, where he was buried, and where St Walstan’s Well is again a place of pilgrimage.

St Edmund

St Edmund

The most famous East Anglian saint was undoubtedly another king, shot with arrows while tied to a tree by the Danish invaders. There are many churches dedicated to his name, especially in Norfolk.  St Edmund‘s shine at Bury St Edmunds was one of the major pilgrimage destinations of pre-Reformation England, but Walsingham in Norfolk must rate as slightly more important in this respect. However, as Walsingham related to a vision of the Virgin Mary, not to a local saint, it should cannot feature in this lit of local saints.

All these saints were venerated in the Anglo-Saxon period, and the coming of the Norman kings spelled the end of local saints. This had more to do with the introduction of Papal Canonization by Pope Urban II (1089-99), which largely removed the possibility of the creation of saints on a purely local level. An exception is one Norwich based saint from this latter period. Her name is Mother Julian; she lived in the 14th century, but her reputation as a Divine did not become established until at least three hundred years later. Her writings were not widely known during her lifetime, and so far as they were read at all they seemed heretical to the orthodoxy of the time. In Norfolk she was known and respected as a spiritual guide among the populace. Canonization in the official sense has never been bestowed on her by the Roman Catholic church, although she is accepted as a saint with her official saint’s day.

Although the Reformation produced a fresh crop of martyrs on both sides, the Puritans did not go in for the creation of new saints. This is not true of the Catholic martyrs, and I will end this list of local saints with St Robert Southwell. He was born at Horsham St Faiths, an adjacent parish to Taverham where St Walstan had worked as a farm labourer. It is only a few miles from where I am writing this – now the site of Norwich International Airport! He was executed under Queen Elizabeth I (to whom he nevertheless professed his allegiance). Sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, he was saved from the full horrors of that dreadful death by a bystander, who tugged at his feet while the noose was around his neck. Only his lifeless body remained to be disembowelled. This was in the year 1595.

THE BLOG FOR THE STORIES OF THE SAINTS

joemasonspage@gmail.com

JOSEPH MASON

VICE

Vice is an old-fashioned word, and it is an old-fashioned idea. Vice is certainly a moral concept (or rather an immoral one), but people don’t talk much of morals any more either. It’s not that they don’t have morals any more, but they are different ones. Racism is considered by all right thinking people to be quite abhorrent, and smoking is universally condemned, even by many smokers, but neither is ever called a vice; a vice is too understandable a failing to have any place in the vocabulary of today’s guardians of moral virtue.

The vices that intrigue me are the moral lapses of drinking and smoking. Alcohol and nicotine are drugs, and as such addictive and mind altering; they are also not good for your health. Regardless of the health angle, it is over indulgence (part of the addiction that accompanies the drug) which turns these activities into vices. There is another aspect of wine and tobacco however, which as far as I am aware do not apply to any other drugs; they have an appeal to your taste buds. Not all drinks have this quality – vodka for instance is a tasteless liquor, and although it can be flavoured, the sole reason for drinking it is to make you drunk. Cigarettes too are just a convenient way of getting your nicotine fix. But fine wines and quality cigars are a different matter; whatever you think of the harmful effects of consuming them, you have got to admit they have  a place in the firmament that is the palette. Caffeine would be another drug one could say this of, but the connection between the flavour of the coffee and the action of the drug on your wakefulness is remote, if it exists at all. Drinking de-caffeinated coffee (in moderation of course) cannot be classed as a vice at all.

There are other vices that pop up all over the place; gluttony is one. There are more obese people than ever, but they are never called gluttons; they are regarded as people suffering from a health condition. To suggest that it is immoral to overeat would cause furrowed brows and pursed lips among our medical professionals; but it is a perfect example of a vice. It is wrong to eat too much, but it is a perfectly understandable thing to do. The lack of exercise is another feature of modern life, but we do not call people who take the lift rather than go up the stairs lazy.  Lazy though is what they are. Laziness is another vice that has been given a bland alternative name; in this case ‘a sedentary lifestyle’.

Nowadays debt isn’t regarded as a moral matter at all, just an arrangement for the prosecution of business. This has not always been true, and debt used to be thought of as a morally bad thing. The older generation when I was a young man certainly thought so, but no longer. A credit card is merely another part of your wallet. Here I am talking of the attitudes in Western Democracies. In this respect, as in so many other ways, the views the Muslim world have totally lost touch with the modern way of thinking. In Islam it is prohibited to charge interest on debt, although I think ingenious financial wizards have ways of getting round the problem, or no Muslim would ever be able to get a mortgage.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR THOUGHTS OF VICE

THE UNDERGROUND

SELF PORTRAIT FROM MY UNDERGROUND

SELF PORTRAITS FROM MY

PERIOD

UNDERGROUND PERIOD

I am not referring to the tube but to the cultural movement that began in the late 1960s. It was (to begin with at least) restricted to the capital of England, Swinging London. However it had none of the jolly inclusiveness of that fashionable time. The Underground was the esoteric underbelly of the Swinging Sixties, dark, intellectual and middle class (although they would never have admitted that). In the early days I was as involved in all this as anyone could be who was living outside London. I read Oz and the International  Times and listened to Radio One. The only DJ who was remotely interested in the Underground was John Peel, and his programme, which came on late at night, was my daily fare. I lapped it all up.

I was an enthusiast of the late David Bowie when he was part of the Underground; this preceded his first album which came out in 1967. It was before most of his fans were even born, and several years before he became a main stream pop star. With a school friend of similar tastes I also followed the avant-garde poets of the day, although that French term was not used either of or by them. William Blake was the historical figure all these poets looked up to, but browsing their names fifty years later there is no one among them who approaches him in stature. The Underground even permeated my painting, as you can see above. Drugs were an essential part of the Underground, and I joined in by smoking banana skins which (I was reliably informed) were a sure way to psychedelia. It was certainly a revolting experience. I know what I am talking about when I refer to the Underground.

I became disillusioned with the Underground well before 1970. The first rift came with John Peel himself. On 20th August 1968  Russian tanks rolled into Prague. It was a city I felt deeply about, having been there myself three years earlier. I listened intently to John Peel, desperately waiting for him to mention the outrage. Nothing other than his vapid sayings on incompetent guitar bands passed his lips.  I gave up listening to John Peel in disgust. Compared to the awful things that were happening in Europe the self-regarding activities of a bunch of mediocre artists and musicians seemed irrelevant.

I was very young and I soon grew out of my infatuation with the Underground. What puzzles me is that so much of today’s culture still looks back to many of the trends that began in the febrile atmosphere of the Chalk Farm Roundhouse. Pop Music acquired an elevated status that it never merited and performers like David Bowie even have arrangements of their banal songs played on Classic FM. The popular music of the 1930s had no such pretentions, but (in my opinion) is much more listenable than Ziggy Stardust. What we now call Post Modern Art can be traced back to the 1960s and the Underground. In much the same way that many elderly men and women have never abandoned their youthful politics, their cultural aspirations have been preserved in aspic.

Not everything that came out of the Underground can be classified as bad, though I cannot point to any great masterpieces either. The real advances in art and entertainment have occurred elsewhere; compare the fuzzy black and white images of television in 1967 with today’s digital flat screens. The technologists have been advancing by great leaps while the art establishment seem stuck in the past. But maybe I am just being an old fogey and there really is art among the winners of the Turner Prize that is comparable with that of J. M. W. Turner. Or perhaps not.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF THE UNDERGROUND

AN INTERESTING FAMILY

A friend of mine has been tracing his family tree. In fact it is his sister who has done most the work; between them they have come up with some interesting facts which I intend to share with you.

The family was established in the area around Manchester in the latter years of the nineteenth century; they had moved there in the middle of the century. Before that the senior branch of the family had come from Nottinghamshire; with their Norse name they had been part of the landscape since Viking raiders settled there over a thousand years before. In the 1800s they were still farm labourers, but by Victorian times the railway was drawing people from all across the country to service the burgeoning Manchester cotton trade. It was not just this country that supplied this growth in population; one of my friend’s great-great grandfathers was a Jew whose ancestors had lived in the Netherlands for generations, but who had originally lived in Spain. This ancestor had moved with the rest of his family from Amsterdam in his early youth. His name was Abraham and he was an engraver by trade. His father Aaron was working as a draper in Salford as young Abraham was growing up. The son must have abandoned the faith of his ancestors, for in 1851 aged 23 he married a girl called Margaret in Manchester Cathedral. She had moved to Lancashire from Ayrshire in Scotland.

On the side of the family that had moved from Nottinghamshire my friend’s great-grandfather was working as a shoemaker in Manchester. By now we have reached the beginning of the 20th century; the family was slowly starting to climb the social ladder. His son was in training as a pupil-teacher in 1900, and went on to be a school master at a Manchester school. The living quarters where he brought up his children were modest; a two-up two-down terraced house with basic amenities. From those humble beginnings my friend’s father was able to secure a place at University to read Metallurgy.

As a graduate of Manchester University he gained employment in the major engineering group GKN, where he spent the years of the Second World War on vital developments for the war effort. His career went from strength to strength, and he ended his career on the Board of Directors of the company. By the time his son (i.e. my friend) was approaching his teenage years he was living in a large house in about an acre of grounds in the most elegant village in Cheshire, Prestbury.

We met at the boarding school in Norfolk where we had both been sent by our fathers to further our education. My friend did rather better than I did in that respect; with a degree from London University, when he was only 28 he was appointed CEO of a hospital in Yorkshire. For the past thirty years he has been living in the charming Cotswold village of Bourton-on-the-Water. He never married, but has nephews an nieces across the world, including in Chile. Still working, he spends his holidays going on cruises, now that he is rather too old to do more energetic things like hang gliding in the Andes.

UNCLE DAVID

UNCLE DAVID

I have by no means covered the most interesting part of the story; his great-uncle David was pursuing an ordinary career in Manchester at the beginning of the twentieth century. He was working as a journeyman carpenter, and raising a family of six children. All this was soon to change however; he abandoned his life in England, his wife and young children, and took off to travel the world as circus entertainer. He changed his name to a vaguely Spanish sounding one and in 1909 he was working in Hong Kong. He eventually fetched up in San Francisco, USA. In Kentucky he began yet another career as an insurance agent. He married a new bride, but without of first divorcing his English wife, who was languishing at home in Manchester. There is now an American family that has belatedly discovered their exotic past. My friend too has only recently discovered the existence the family of his great-uncle David, because his English relatives never talked about him. Whether they knew of his new identity or not, the whole episode would have been deemed too disgraceful to mention.

As I said, it an interesting family.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES

MOUNTAINS

Most of England has no mountains; East Anglia has only gently rolling hills, and consequently the climbing of mountains has not featured greatly in my life. I have seen Ben Nevis from a train on the way to Fort William, and only last year I went through the Canadian Rockies in a car from Calgary. I have even been by coach through the St Gotthard Pass in the Swiss Alps, in the days before it was penetrated by a road tunnel. I am therefore familiar with mountainous terrain; but I have only ascended one mountain by foot, and that was many years ago. At 950 metres it was the third highest peak in England, Helvellyn. (I have also been to the top of the highest mountain in Wales, Mount Snowdon, but that was on the rack railway.) Walking along Striding Edge as the mist swirled around far below was an exciting experience. Striding Edge is quite a dangerous bit of walking, and occasionally people are killed falling off the ridge. Nevertheless the whole mountain path up Helvellyn can be done by hill walkers, and it requires no climbing gear. At least I have gone to the top of a mountain, and I am sure that this is something that most of my fellow East Anglians cannot claim to have done.

Mount St Piran, Alberta, Canada

Mount St Piran, Alberta, Canada

So I was never a great mountaineer; but I was a great enthusiast for mountaineering literature. I still have a bibliography of mountaineering books, although it is now very out of date. The most impressive book must be Edward Whymper’s account of the first ascent of the Matterhorn. This great achievement ended in tragedy; four of his companions were killed on the way down. This pyramid-shaped mountain rises steeply above the alps and looks all but unassailable. It was only conquered in 1865. This was long after Mont Blanc was first ascended, in 1786. Although it is the highest peak in the Alps Mont Blanc is a much easier climb. It was even climbed by a dog in the early nineteenth century. The animal made the ascent with human companions, but unaided. Today over 20,000 tourists make it to the summit every year.

The conquest of Mont Blanc marked the beginning of the modern mountaineering age. Before the eighteenth century mountains were not regarded as objects of beauty and grandeur; they were places of terror and brooding menace. Even the much smaller mountains in England were ignored by travellers when they were not positively dreaded; the most that can be said it that such places were looked on with awe. Scafell, this country’s second highest peak, was not climbed until 1802, when the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the first person known to have reached the summit. (Some anonymous shepherd may have ventured up looking for lost sheep years before that.) Coleridge set out on a nine-day expedition alone, and with no encouragement from his wife – quite the opposite. Among the necessities he took with him in an improvised oilskin knapsack were a cravat, a night-cap and a set of quill pens. To assist him in his climb he took as a stick the handle of a broom from the hall cupboard. His perilous descent from Scafell seemed to be leading him to certain death, but the prospect only made him marvel at the sublimity of his situation. The letter he wrote on his return to civilisation must count as one of the earliest works of mountaineering literature.

My reading made me quite an expert on the delights and perils of mountaineering, all from the safety of my armchair. You might think I had a corresponding longing to climb another mountain, but this thought never entered my head. It was the great writing that inspired me.

JOSEPH MASON

THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF MOUNTAINEERING

joemasonspage@gmail.com

MATLOCK

MINING, SPINNING, PAPERMAKING & PRINTING; Industrial History.

We spent our summer holiday in Matlock, Derbyshire, in 2003. This was my wife Molly, son aged 15, daughter aged 13 and me. We went by car, which was quite an experience for us, accustomed as we were to the flat lands of East Anglia. As we were approaching the town we went down a hill so steep that our brakes overheated – we should have selected first gear! Once settled into our hotel we could appreciate the hills without anxiety; the view from our bedroom window included the prospect of Riber Castle – but more of that later.

Matlock is but a town, as opposed to Derby which is a city, yet Matlock is the county town of Derbyshire. The Derbyshire Record Office is in Matlock, and this too will be referred to later in this post. County Hall is also in Matlock; it was previously the Hydro, constructed by the industrialist John Smedley who also built Riber Castle as his home. As you can tell, Riber Castle is not Medieval gothic but Victorian ‘Gothick’.

Masson mill is on the river Derwent a few miles downstream from Matlock. In 1771 a paper mill had been built in the village Matlock Baths, but Sir Richard Arkwright added a much larger mill in 1783. It was Arkwright’s revolutionary idea to harness the power of the river Derwent for cotton spinning. Previously spinning had been done as a cottage industry by individuals, largely by women using a simple distaff in their own homes. Arkwright introduced spinning machines and employed a large workforce, which increased the output of cotton yarn by a factor of 50. This laid the foundations for the great cotton industry which grew up in Lancashire and particularly around Manchester. If the origins of the Industrial Revolution can be traced to a single time and place it is to 1783 and to Matlock in Derbyshire. Lombe’s silk throwing mill in Derby was built a few years earlier, but silk did not have universal appeal that cotton goods had. Masson mill did not cease producing cotton yarn until 1991.

We had a great time ascending the Heights of Abraham (it is named after the Plains of Abraham in Quebec where General Wolfe was killed). This cliff is not far outside Matlock, and is accessed by a cable car from Matlock Baths. This village we reached by train from Matlock; since Beeching wielded his axe Matlock has been the terminus of the Derwent line from Derby. This line formerly continued to Buxton and thence to Manchester. I will not get on my hobby-horse about the foolish short-sightedness of this and other closures. The railways lost money before Beeching and they continued to lose just as much money after him; today the privatised railway still need enormous government subsidy. At least the trains still run to Matlock; the number of passengers using the station has more than doubled since we used it a dozen years ago. At the Heights of Abraham, once we had gone over the gorge in a Gondola car, we were able to explore the lead mines which were first excavated in Roman times; this continued until the eighteenth century. The last lead mine in the Peak District did not close until 1940. The caverns have regular guided tours, one of which we took.

Matlock Baths got its name from the spa which was developed there after the  discovery of hot springs in the eighteen century. Lord Byron compared the scenery at Matlock Baths to Switzerland. Although the fashion for spa bathing has passed into history, Matlock Baths is still a popular resort with ice cream sellers, fish and chip shops and fruit machines all along the bank of the river Derwent, very much like a seaside town.

RIBER CASTLE

RIBER CASTLE

A day or two later we walked up to Riber Castle, which was then in a completely derelict state. The property had not been occupied since 1930, when the boys’ boarding school which had acquired the site on the death of John Smedley’s widow closed. By the 21st century the ruin was roofless, and even the Wildlife Park that had occupied the grounds until the year 2000 was no more. Since then the whole building has been restored, re-roofed and fitted with new windows. Although not quite ready for occupation, it has been turned into a large number of flats. They will certainly have commanding views across the valley to Matlock. In the past it used to be problematical supplying the property with water, as it is at the top of a hill.

A few years after my first visit to Matlock I made another journey there, this time to research the machine-made paper manufacturing business which was set up in Taverham, Norfolk, in 1809. Why this necessitated a visit to Derbyshire requires a little explanation; the designer of the Fourdrinier machine in question was one Brian Donkin, who worked from Bermondsey in London. Years after his time the firm he founded relocated to Chesterfield in Derbyshire and its archives were eventually deposited in the Matlock Record Office. These included Brian Donkin’s diary of his time in Taverham. While staying at Taverham, besides installing the paper machine in Norfolk, he was informed of the concept of the world’s first rotary printing press by its inventor Richard Bacon. “THE BACON-DONKIN PRINTING MACHINE; Norfolk and the origin of the rotary press” is an article I wrote for the Norfolk Industrial Archaeological Annual as a result of this research.

On this occasion I stayed at a bed and breakfast run by a lady who originated in Bulgaria. She was a member of that country’s Baptist community which I had not imagined existed until then. She had a well-stocked bookcase in my bedroom and I found a biography of C. S. Lewis which provided me with interesting reading after my days’ work in the Record Office.

My other visits to Derbyshire, particularly to Chatsworth House, Bakewell (where we had to sample the authentic Bakewell tart) and Monsal Head must wait for another time.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

MATLOCK, CRADLE of the INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

THE RED PHONE BOX

redphoneboxI am not a great fan of the phone box. They did not feature much in my life, even in the days when they were an essential part of most people’s lives. This was because I was in the very fortunate position of belonging to a family that already had a phone. This black Bakelite instrument stood silently in the hall of our bungalow, but when it sprang into life the bell made a dominating noise that you could not ignore. This was not a phone dedicated to our own use, but a so-called party line. This meant that the connection was shared with another subscriber, and sometimes you could not use the it because the other user was on the phone.

The other reason the phone box did not feature in my childhood experience is that there was not one anywhere near our house. Quite how far I cannot now tell you, but the nearest box must have been about a mile away. There was undoubtedly a phone box in our village somewhere, but it is an extended settlement and we lived right on the edge of it. As a consequence of there being no local phone box, those of our neighbours who needed to use the phone in an emergency tended to borrow ours.

The iconic phone box was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and was introduced in 1926. It differed in several respects from Scott’s original intention. The K2 telephone kiosk is cast in iron, rather than being fabricated from mild steel as he had proposed; also his plan was to have them painted silver. The door closes automatically and protects you from the elements. A rudimentary ash tray was provided to allow you somewhere to place your cigarette while speaking into the receiver. The original telephone kiosk had been made in 1920 out of concrete, and there have been several other designs since.

The one we all regard as the archetypal ‘red box’ is  the K2. The same design appears elsewhere in the world; Irish phone boxes are the same pattern but are painted green of course, and have a harp instead of the Royal Crown at the top. The phone boxes in Malta and Gibraltar are painted red, as are the ones in Bermuda, but in the latter country it is so hot that being shut in would be claustrophobic and they do not have doors. The phone boxes on the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands used to be red until the 1960s; then the local postal services was run by the GPO, but since these have been transferred to these various island authorities they have been painted green, yellow or blue. In Jersey they have since assuming control of their Post Office kiosk been painted yellow are are of a different design..

There have been many attempts to  find new uses for phone booths since the almost universal availability of mobile phones made them all but redundant. Unfortunately their perfect suitability for the purpose of housing a phone makes them unsuitable for anything else. They have been converted to defibrillator centres, solar powered mobile phone chargers and mini-libraries, but none of these uses seem to fit the space. What sort of library can you fit in phone box ? To use a defibrillator you need to be a trained first aider at the very least, and what are the chances of one of them, a patient and a phone box all meeting up when required? The mobile phone charger seems the best option, but the experiment has now ceased. As I said, I have never been a great fan of the phone box, and if they were all removed I would not be greatly distressed. At least they would not appear as Grade 2 listed buildings all across the country, in a sorry state of repair, derelict, rusty, growing moss and phone-less.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE HISTORY OF ENGLAND