Tag Archives: opinion


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.






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 joemasonspage@gmail.com, 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.




Tram outside Great Yarmouth Town Hall

Yarmouth was a major naval base in the age of sail, before becoming a thriving fishing port on the Yare estuary; with the growth of tourism it was the principal holiday resort for Londoners on the East Coast. It was not by accident therefore that it was the first place in East Anglia (not just in Norfolk) to get a train service in 1844, and following this Gorleston was the first place in East Anglia to get a tram service. After four years of work this was opened in 1875, and it used horse-drawn vehicles. A grand scheme for a tramway to link the towns of Lowestoft, Southwold and Halesworth with Gorleston did not see the light of day, and only the Gorleston part was realised. Southwold and Halesworth were linked by a narrow gauge railway in 1879 and Lowestoft got a separate tramway in 1903. With frequent stops the horse-drawn double-decker tramcars in Gorleston could take over two hours to complete the journey from Yarmouth South Town railway station to the area near the pier. At first it ran on a standard gauge track of 4’8″, but this was reduced to 3’6″ after a few years, in 1882.

The Haven Bridge which joins the two towns was not suitable for tramlines, so Yarmouth and Gorleston had two separate systems. Yarmouth was slower off the mark to install tram tracks. It had a horse-drawn omnibus service, but the intention to provide tramlines for an electrified service had to be delayed in 1899 because the price of steel, needed in large quantities for the project, was rapidly running out of control. It peaked at £10 a ton, but by 1901 the price had dropped to under £6 and the Yarmouth tramway was hastily completed and opened in 1902. The Gorleston tramway was electrified three years in 1905. The Yarmouth tramway was extended to Caister in 1907; this completed the network.

The tramcars were all double deckers and were painted in a livery of maroon and cream. (You can see one in the hand-coloured postcard illustration which accompanies this article.) Telephone wires were run along the tram poles, and with regular contact points the driver was able ring up the control centre to report any problems he encountered on the line. This use of up-to-date technology shows that Yarmouth was still a place of innovation, as it had been throughout the previous century. The town has since fallen on hard times, with the loss of its Royal Naval presence, the disappearance of the fishing industry, the closure of two of its three railway termini and the growth in popularity of overseas holidays. It is now one of the most deprived areas on the East Coast. The growth of North Sea gas gave the port some business, but even this has declined in recent years; there was hope that the offshore wind turbines might bring prosperity back to the port, but this business is due to go down the coast to Lowestoft.

The period before the First World War marked the high point of the Yarmouth and Gorleston tramways. In these yeas the Corporation purchased a pleasure steamer to run trips that commenced with a tram ride and culminated with a return journey to Norwich,  all for the price of sixpence. In 1920 the Corporation purchased its first motor buses and the trams were progressively withdrawn from 1924. The Great Yarmouth section was closed in 1930 and the Gorleston section three years later. Some of the tramcars ended up as holiday chalets at Caister holiday camp.





The loss of Colman’s mustard to the city of Norwich finally ends a tradition that goes back two hundred years, but it has been inevitable since the company of Reckitt and Colman sold out to a faceless multi-national. One of the first things the new owners did was to sell off the collection of silver mustard pots that the Colman family had built up over many decades, and which should have been left to the Castle Museum. The amount raised by the sale was insignificant in comparison to the company’s annual turnover, but it showed that only money mattered to Unilever. I for one will be glad to see the back of them in Norwich. I wonder what Sir Timothy Colman makes of it? In spite of his directorship, the family had no real control over the company that bore his name by the time the end came in 1995.

COLMAN’S OMNIBUS, JUNE 1977, at the Royal Norfolk Show.

It is sad for the remaining workers at Carrow, but the factory is but a shadow of its former self. In the seventies I knew a manager at Carrow and he showed me round the works. Mustard was but a detail of what they then produced at the site. Besides mint and horseradish sauce they had Robison’s fruit squashes, made from juices imported from South America and brought to their doorstep by freighter up the river Yare. Tonic wine was a major product at the site. That was after the company had acquired the similar sounding Coleman’s, of Barn Road Norwich in 1968, makers of Wincarnis.

Before 1862 the mustard had been made at Stoke Holy Cross, the village a few miles outside Norwich. Before the arrival of the railway at nearby Swainsthorpe station in 1847, the mustard was taken to London by a fleet of five horse-drawn wagons. Tins were first introduced in 1851, and until then smaller quantities were supplied in bottles; larger amounts were sent in casks. The growth of the company to such importance could never have occurred without the railway. The sidings to Carrow Works from Trowse station, with their bright yellow mustard wagons, started the journey that spread the condiment throughout the British Empire. It was a brilliant business strategy; the milling of corn produced just flour for bread making, but the pounding of mustard corns produced a powder that could be sold for many times more.  How did such a strong flavour become the essential addition to the roast beef of old England? The phrase “keen as mustard” is recorded in the seventeenth century, so the condiment was appearing on our tables long before the Colmans started milling it. Before the Colmans started selling the powder, it was a  difficult sauce to make. Even if the plant was available locally, it was used in such small quantities that I can’t see that it was worth your local windmill producing it it. Perhaps you pounded up mustard seeds as part of the preparations for Sunday dinner. That was of course roast beef by tradition, if not always in fact.

Unilever have made a sort of’ promise to retain a mustard milling facility in Norfolk. This is put forward as a sop to local opinion, but it cuts no ice with me. Without Carrow Works at its heart, there is no mustard in Norwich. In fact when I first remember mustard it was always mustard powder, and this we are told will remain a local product; it was mixed fresh for every meal, and then thrown away. Hence the saying that Mr Colman was made rich by the mustard we left on our plates. I don’t think the way of preserving mustard ready mixed had even been invented in the fifties.

I wonder what my ancestors would make of the news that mustard was to desert the city? My great-grandfather spent most of his working life at Carrow, and his eldest and youngest sons followed him into the mill. It had an important part in my ancestral past, but times move on. Mustard making is but a quirk of history, like shoemaking, silk weaving and woollen cloth making, trades that once defined the city but are now no more. We still have an insurance industry, but even that may pass into history.

At least I will feel no compulsion to buy Colman mustard ever again. In future I can use the French variety which I actually prefer. English mustard is just hot, but Dijon mustard has subtle flavours.





Network Rail places a high safety requirement on all its operations, and as a consequence our railways are the safest in the world. When you consider that last year alone there were 1.7 billion railway journeys undertaken in the UK, the safety record of rail travel is amazing. There have been only FOUR train accidents that resulted in fatalities in the last ten years.  Compare that with the almost daily toll on Britain’s roads, in which around two thousand fatalities occur every year. In the circumstances which method of transport ought you to prefer? There is nothing recent about this aspect of British railways either. As the first railway system in the world, we had to find out all the dangerous pitfalls implicit in the iron road for ourselves, but the safety of railways has always been of the highest priority. Our railways are the only ones in the world that must be fenced off from the surrounding countryside; it is rather worrying to our eyes to see trains speeding past lineside houses in France with nothing between them and the railway. These miles of fencing have been required in the UK from the very start. They not only make trespass on the line by humans more difficult, they also keep farm animals away from the trains.

The first widely reported railway accident occurred at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in September 1830. George Stephenson developed his steam engine The Rocket to operate this, the first real passenger railway. The MP William Huskisson was among the guests who came to witness this major event, but unfortunately he fell onto the track as the Rocket was approaching; his leg was crushed, and with the primitive medical aid available at the time this proved fatal. Railway accidents were common at first; on a journey from East Dereham to Oxford (one that it is no longer possible to make) the Revd Benjamin Armstrong relates how he was delayed for an hour at Winslow station when the locomotive’s boiler blew up. No one was injured on that occasion, but in an entry in his diary in 1855 he mentions that four people were killed in a collision near Attleborough.

Single line working tablet

One of the major railway disasters occurred on the Norwich to Yarmouth line just outside Brundall in 1874. Twenty five people were killed when two trains collided on a single track section of the line. This accident which is known as the Thorpe Railway Disaster led to the introduction of the tablet system, where an interlocking token must be secured before a train may proceed along a single track. This system is still in use, although the disappearance of the semaphore signal, and with that the closure of many signal boxes (where the tokens used to be exchanged) means that an electronic system of token exchange is now widely employed.

The safety record of the railways is based on the fail-safe principle. It was the proud boast of the M&GN Railway (that ran almost entirely in the county of Norfolk) that during the 80 years in which it was in operation it never killed a passenger.

The use of modern technology makes keeping the railways safe much easier than it used to be. The entire network is regularly checked by a special train that examine the track by ultra-sound for cracked rails, which could fail and cause a derailment. With high-definition cameras they can check the line from the air, and thermal imaging equipment reveals hotspots in the cables on electrified lines that suggest problems with the system. Engineers are then dispatched to the exact location to remedy the problem. It all adds to the safety of the railways.





I like to think I am normal, so I know what the word normal means. I believe that most normal people don’t use the word normative; but how does the word ‘normal’ differ from the word ‘normative’? I couldn’t answer that one, and had to turn to the dictionary for help. In case you were wondering, the answer to the question ‘what is the difference’ is ‘not very much’. Normative has a technical meaning, or more specifically several technical uses among social scientists. Most people who use the word normative would however be much better off using the word normal instead; it is the normal word to use.  Nine out of ten people who go for normative just want to sound clever, but end up sounding dumb; the tenth person is a genuine social scientist – but what is one of them? The phrase embraces many of those who practise the humanities, including (rather alarmingly) historians. I regard myself as a historian, and I may be social (or at least sociable), but I certainly don’t regard myself as a scientist. Not in the tradition of Galileo, Newton and Einstein anyway. So who are they?

Science used to mean knowledge plain and simple, but things have moved on since then. Now we divide knowledge into several different categories. One of these divisions is into the Sciences and the Arts; there is plenty to say about out attitude to the arts, but for now I will stick to the sciences. Scientific method – the observation of the physical world, the creation of hypotheses to explain it, and testing these hypotheses by experiment; this defines science to me. You can observe the natural world, and you can construct a theory around it, but if you can’t do an experiment to prove your theory it ain’t science. No one has shown me how to conduct experiments with history, and that makes a non-science, not even a social science. In history I strive for truth – I hope every historian does – but this does not make me a scientist. Some people seem to disagree and think the mere use of quasi-scientific terminology makes one a scientist. This is plain tosh; anyone who uses the word normative in writing history is merely cloaking their work in scientific terms to appear more authoritative than in fact they are.

I have similar doubts about the word norm; it is in a basic sense just the noun from the adjective normal. I do use it sometimes, so it can’t be quite as bad as the word normative, but it is beginning to slide into the world of social science nonetheless. I can see it appearing in things like statistical tables, and statistics show how imperceptibly genuine science can become sheer mumbo-jumbo. Something like a bell curve seems a perfectly acceptable piece of scientific method, even (perhaps) being open to experimentation, but once statisticians get involved in things like predicting the outcome of elections you can see how unscientific statistics can be. Economics is the prime example of a social science, and economists are always making predictions which turn out to be wide of the mark. Look at the Governor of the Bank of England’s statement that a vote to leave the European Community would lead to an immediate recession. If a physicist made a prediction that did not materialise, we would never hear of him again, but economists keep on coming back with more.

Real science can make predictions with almost total accuracy, but the predictions of social scientists are almost always wrong. They may not be completely wrong, but that is hardly the way to define sciences. If it were possible for economists to conduct experiments first, their predictions could be checked, and disastrous mistakes avoided. Are there any true social sciences?  Well cookery is practical, genuinely scientific and undoubtedly social; and unlike the abstract social sciences, it is wide open to experimentation; but I think social scientists would be insulted by this suggestion. Presenting falsehoods as facts is what they do; it may be normative in social sciences, but it isn’t normal in the real world. It isn’t even right.




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“A sad tale’s best for winter. . . ” (William Shakespeare)

A garden under snow

Snow and hail, rain and ice are all part of winter, but winter weather may vary from the bitterly cold to the relatively mild. The clock however is inflexible; darkness is the predominant characteristic of winter as far as I am concerned; the lack of daylight is what makes the season. As the nights close in the lights come on earlier and earlier and the mornings are sunk in gloom. From June,when the sun doesn’t set until around ten o’clock at night, to December, when it is dark soon after four in the afternoon, the hours of daylight slowly decrease as the year enters its phase of darkness. It must be strange to live in the tropics, where the length of day and night hardly vary through the year; the long summer evenings are the most magical part of living in our latitudes. The light slowly fading from the sky ushers in a short and warm night.

Frosts may begin to nip the air in the morning in November; the trees are bare of leaves and the grass is gaunt. Meteorological winter begins on the first day of December according to the scientists, who like to impose order on the world, but the world simply is not like that. The winter solstice occurs on the 21st or 22nd of December and that is often called midwinter’s day – but winter is only three weeks old by then, according to meteorologists. In fact winter is a moveable concept: a general term that has different meanings in different contexts. The autumn leaves may have only just fallen, but in my opinion winter has already begun. The beginning of December is too late for the first day of winter. Conversely the meteorologists insist that 28th of February is still winter, which is too late: the birds are already singing their mating songs with gusto well before then, and the earliest spring flowers are out in January.

We have already had our first snowfall in early December this year, but often it doesn’t fall before Christmas. On the other hand it can still snow into April (notably on the 5th of that month, 1986 – my wedding day!). As I maintain, the season is a moveable feast, and different aspects of the seasons occur at different times.

However attractive it might be to an old man like me, it is not possible to spend the entire winter indoors; when it is icy or snowing it takes quite an important engagement get me outside, but I have to make the effort. I must wrap myself up in a warm coat and scarf, and cover my bald head with a woolly hat. My breath comes out in clouds of frosty vapour; the winter air used not to bother me at all, but now I am glad to dive into the car and turn the heater on. At home I can relax by the trusty wood burner, a great boon. All the exertion of sawing logs through the summer and autumn then seems worthwhile. I look askance at those lazy people who buy their logs cut ready to burn – for me a wood stove should entail a certain amount of preparation. Sawing up logs is a fine way to keep the cold at bay  –  as they say, logs warm you up twice.

Winter in the UK is quite a mild season compared to some parts of the world; Siberia for instance, or even Canada. As my father used to say (and in this I think he was quoting C. S. Lewis) you may venture out on any day of the year in Britain. Nevertheless, now that I am of a certain age, I feel the cold. That is when I am grateful for central hearing. I never lived in a centrally heated house until I was nearly forty; and even now I like the friendliness of a real fire.

There: was that a sad tale?  Not really; I am too jolly a person to write tragedies.




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Aunty Olive, Tiggie and Nanny

Why is nobody looking at the camera?  None of these women was shy. Who was behind the camera? These are questions we will never know the answers to.  This photograph shows three generations of my family. From left to right the people are: Aunty Olive Anderson (née Mason, the daughter of the elderly lady), Margaret Mason (my sister Tiggy, niece of Olive) and Nanny, Emily Lound (formerly Emily Mason, née Peachey). They were all examples of what the family call the ‘Peachey women’; forceful characters, and completely dominant over their menfolk, whether Peachey or otherwise. Aunt Ruth was a Peachey woman, and she rose to be Lord Mayor of Norwich, the first working class woman to do so. There are other examples, including some in the current generation, although it would be invidious to name them.

Ruth Hardy (née Peachey). Born Lakenheath 1892. Lord Mayor of Norwich 1950.

Peachey women could be extremely sweet and charming, but beneath the surface was a will of steel. They could say ‘yes’ to you, or they could say ‘no’, but what you could not do was simply not ask them.  They had an opinion on everything, and it had to be known. In many ways the best course of action was to avoid anything that might get their backs up. I can see my Aunty Olive now in my mind’s eye: she was a lovely person, but her jaw would set like a rat trap when she opposed something she was asked to do. Tiggy’s approach to a similar situation was rather different but equally effective (or even more so); her lower lip would quiver and her eyes would well up with tears.

I have puzzled myself for a long time over where the Peachey gene originated. Despite the name, I am sure it did not come from the Peachey side of the family. These hardy sons of the soil had been unobtrusively catching rabbits around Lakenheath in Suffolk for generations. It must have come from an ancestor who had married into the Peachey line: maybe the Phipps. They had enough adventurous spirit to get on the train from Bishops Stortford and move to Mildenhall; there Ebenezer Phipp progressed from a rural smallholding to running the local carriers business and gaining an entry in the Suffolk trade directory in the 1890s. Alternatively it may have come through the Jones family; they had been as placid as the Peacheys, spending centuries living in a small corner of Buckinghamshire, until one of their number took off as a railway navvy and married a red-head from Cornwall. That may have produced the fiery nature of the Peachey women, but on mature consideration it remains a mystery where they came from.

Although Aunt Ruth achieved a great deal in her political career, her elder sister Emily was if anything even more of a Peachey woman. She was so keen to begin her schooling that she started a year early (aged three), so that by the time she was ten years old she had reached the top class and had to leave. Ruth, who was not so impetuous, was able to stay on and become a pupil teacher, thus laying the foundations of her future progress. Another sister was Thirza, also a teacher. When one of her pupils was refused a scholarship on the grounds that he was only a farm labourer’s son, she went furiously to the Guild Hall to address the education councillor. Remember that she was a Peachey woman: the councillor rapidly changed his mind, and the boy went on to a long and successful career in medical research in the USA.

Emily as a young woman

My father used to say Emily should have had twenty children – or been Prime Minister! Her lifestyle could not absorb her intelligence and efficiency with anything less. She was very ambitious and very generous, but never had the chance to use her great abilities. She made life very hard for her family as a result. Her daughter Olive was the only nurse in the history of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital who lived out during training; Nanny insisted on her going home each evening to help with the housework. How she won against the awe-inspiring Matron is a mystery, but it just shows the power of the Peachey women.  And although Olive was good at games, she was not allowed to play on the school hockey team: she had to spend Saturdays doing the cleaning for Nanny. Emily went to work as a children’s nurse, and by all accounts would hold their eyelids shut if the would not go to sleep! After all, she was only ten herself.  With her first week’s wages she bought hats for all her sisters at the village shop. Her mother made her take them all back – she needed the money to feed the family. Emily and her husband William continued their education as adults by reading and going to lectures.  She died quoting an obscure 18th century poet.  Today’s youngsters don’t seem to have the same appetite for learning, but I don’t suppose any of her contemporaries did either. Peachey women were something else.





The term damsel in distress represents a classic theme of literature and folk tales, that of a beautiful young woman placed in a perilous situation. The idea is ancient, as old as story telling itself, but the first use of these exact words “damsel in distress” was in the English version of Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes, which was published in 1755. The translation of this work from the original Spanish was by the Scottish writer Tobias Smollett. The phrase was used by P. G. Wodehouse for the comic novel he wrote in 1919. He later went on to adapt it as play with A.A. Milne and a musical in co-operation with George and Ira Gershwin. In 1937 and was turned into a successful movie featuring Fred Astaire; it had already appeared as a silent film before audio tracking became available. This is an impressive range of vehicles for a work that is relatively little known today. At one time he had five different musicals in production in the US.

It was one of dozens of books written by the comedy master, and not one of his better known. He had not reached the zenith of his writing style in 1920, and such classics as Right Ho, Jeeves and Heavy Weather, featuring the prize pig the Empress of Blandings, were to come later. Even so, his books were very successful, both in this country and America. After going to New York in 1904 he spent an increasingly large part of his time writing on Broadway and in Hollywood, which was just coming to the fore.

The story of The Damsel in Distress is set among the young adults of the aristocracy, as most of his works are. If not the sons and daughter of lords and ladies, the people in his novels are at least members of the gentry. Few of them seem to have or need a job; instead they rise late before wandering round to the Drones Club for a ‘snifter’. Wodehouse had attended Dulwich College as a schoolboy, so he had some acquaintance with the better off youth of Victorian England, but his readership had no connection with people of this class. The life he portrayed in his books, one of harmless eccentrics thrown into ingeniously worked out plot lines, was far from the harsh realities of life. In 1919 the world had just emerged from the worst war that could be imagined in the application of modern science to mass killing. The Great War was as hard for the gentry as it had been for the ordinary people of Britain, and as a form of escapism what could be better than the gentle humour to be found in a P. G. Wodehouse best seller?

He was in no doubt that in his approach to the world he ignored real life altogether; this was not only in his work but in  his life in general. In spite of his assertion that the world inhabited by his characters really had existed between the wars, it had more in common with the Edwardian period. He laboured hard to achieve his apparently effortless prose. He worked for three or four hours in the late afternoon, but never after dinner. I was in my mid twenties when his long writing career came to an end. His best work was over by then, but he was still capable of writing a book every six months, which he continued to do almost up to the end.