Tag Archives: opinion


Cast your mind back to 1969 if you can; most people cannot, as they were not born then. If you can remember so long ago you may remember the hijacking of TWA flight 840 that summer. The plane was on its way from Rome to Tel Aviv when it was seized by a team of Palestinians, of whom the leader was one Leila Khaled. TWA is a long disappeared American airline. It was a different world then (over fifty years ago), and all sorts of things were done differently. Khaled was pictured wearing a headscarf as one would expect of a Middle Eastern woman, but this was a cultural thing, nothing religious about it; Leila Khaled (born 1944) was an atheist. We never hear of her today; her profile simply does not fit the modern picture of the world. Her pioneering role as a fighter for dispossessed Arabs would make her a hero to all Muslim, were it not for her ,atheism, which would even condemns her to death in the eyes of many of them.

It is extraordinary to think that any Arab freedom fighter could openly espouse atheism today, yet this didn’t seem anything other than normal fifty years ago. Religion had no place in politics anymore, or so we thought. As an example of how we used to view religion I considered it might be useful in trying to understand the history of the Middle East to read some of the Koran, but there was no copy in our history faculty library. We had a notebook in which we could write down our suggestions for additions to the library, and there was a column for the librarian to reply. I wrote down my request for a copy of the Koran; not only was it not forthcoming, but my request didn’t even merit a comment. Whatever place could a religious text have in an intellectual setting in 1970? I am sure copies of the Koran are freely available across all universities today.

Things were also carried out with more humanity then. We thought we had left wholesale slaughter behind in the 1940s. The Palestinian hijackers were careful that no one was killed , and passengers and crew were released at Damascus airport. An explosive charge did damage the plane, but that was all. A subsequent attempt to seize another aircraft was foiled by members of Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service. In this case the aircraft was diverted to Heathrow and Leila Khaled (her again) was held in custody. During her detention she met several British officials, who treated her with punctilious courtesy, and even a friendship developed between her and a couple of British policewomen. She was released as part of global power politics, but she apparently retained an affection for the UK. I can fairly say that most Britons were shocked by the very idea of hijacking aircraft. The most common destination for hijacked aircraft was Cuba, and had nothing to do with the Middle East.

The leaders of the Muslim world – Gammal Abdul Nasser, the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein – all had largely secular agendas, and Turkey had been an openly secular state since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. Everyone assumed this process would continue. The harsh and despotic regimes of the Middle East were totalitarian but they ensured a mainly peaceful life for their inhabitants. The area was not a attractive one to Western eyes, but it was not the powder keg of Islamism and competing ideologies it is today.





It is undeniable that we can (and often do) hold two contradictory opinions simultaneously. Most examples of this kind of ‘cognitive dissonance’ are fairly easy to spot; the person who would like to go vegetarian, but still likes burgers is an obvious example. Likewise the driver of a gas-guzzling car who says how bad it is for other people to pollute the environment is similarly using two standards at the same time.  But these all too human fallibilities, where an intellectual position runs up against a basic appetite. These are conflicts of interest, but they are not the conflicts of thought. These are  what I am going to examine. In these instances, where the connection between things is not so blatantly obvious, the opportunities for doublethink grow impressive.

Take the coal mining industry in the UK; this was a continuous source of political and industrial strife since the General Strike, but particularly in the 1970s and 80s. Indeed it was so fractious an issue that Margaret Thatcher decided to close down he entire industry. Already in the 1970s domestic house heating was less reliant on coal fires, as gas heating became more widespread after the introduction of natural gas.  The steam locomotives had vanished from the railways system, replacing coal with diesel. Coal fired power stations were the greatest users of this material, and they were progressively being replaced by gas powered generating systems. So the age of coal was coming to an end, but Mrs T accelerated the demise of coal with a vengeance.

The resulting loss of jobs among coal miners was a terrible blight on communities across the mining area of the land, where coal mining had been a way of life for centuries. Everybody regrets the human cost of the end of mining. Unemployment remain rife for decades and vast swathes of Wales, the Midlands  and the North of England have only just recovered fully from decades of hurt. It is remarkable that these areas of the Red Wall are now increasingly turning to the Tories.

However, who would want to return to the use of such a dirty fossil fuel today? The proportion of electricity generated from burning coal has declined from 100% in 1950 to less than 2% in 2018, and for weeks on end can fall to zero. Unfortunately this change over, which most people would see as a good thing, was inseparable from the devastation of the coal mining industry. You cannot have both happy miners and clean energy. Yet almost everyone celebrates the new generating environment with far less reliance on fossil fuels. The necessary corollary of unemployed miners is ignored. You must take your pick of eventualities however.





The wedding of my parents, 4 Junev 1935

The wedding of my parents, 4 June 1935. This shows my mother, her sister Peggy (her bridesmaid) and her father.                

I shall start by saying something uncontroversial – marriage is not the institution it once was. The word has now been transformed; it no longer means the legal relationship between a husband and wife; nor has it anything to do with the raising of children,  as the purpose of marriage was stated in the English Book of Common Prayer. Until a few decades ago this still applied, although the ’till death us do part’ bit had already fallen by the wayside. What exactly it does now mean rather baffles me; my son is getting married next year, so maybe I should ask him. Perhaps it just means that two people think that they love each other, and when they cease to do so (as surely they will) they can easily get divorced. What a diminished concept it has now become. Love is an important part of marriage, but it was by no means the only part. It is now.

Marriage. Formal union of a man and a woman, typically as recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife.  This is not the archaic definition of the word, although it now sounds quaint; it comes from a recent edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. It certainly does not represent the current definition of marriage. This is the current dictionary definition; the legally or formally recognized union of two people as partners in a personal relationship (historically specifically a union between a man and a woman). Luckily a man and a woman are still allowed to marry each other and maintain a traditional relationship, but the whole thing has become demeaned.

It was not a universally rosy picture – there were always problems in marriages, but when children were central to marriage most people did their best to overcome them for the sake of the children. Moreover, until the post war ‘reforms’, a divorce was difficult to obtain, especially for those who were not rich. Separation was legal, and occasionally happened, but even this posed financial problems for the poor. Marriage was very hard to escape from in the past.





It happened a long time ago, but beginning in the nineteen seventies I made optical instruments. The instrument I was producing was called the Versator. I know they were well made, because nearly fifty years later, they still regularly turn up for resale on eBay. The other day I saw one advertised for £45, which is over four times what it cost new!

 I was a binocular magnifier that had been designed by my father, who had died a couple of years before the time of which I write. These went to all sorts of users; Government Department, universities, Nationalised Industries and customers from all over Britain. One I remember frequent dealings with was the Ministry of Defence; all sorts of users from REME (the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Regiment) to Aldermaston  Atomic Energy Authority and Porton Down procured them. With the recent use of nerve agent to attack spies I have again been remind of Porton Down, the Chemical and Biological Weapon Establishment. Although it brought some horrible facts about chemical weapons to the front of your mind, I was secretly rather proud of supplying such official facilities as these. I can remember saying at the time that while I happy to send my instruments off to Porton Down, I didn’t want them to return any, for obvious reasons.

That was in this country, but my reach was worldwide. For example, in January 1979 I got an order from Mexico; also in that month I received a repeat order from Jean-Paul Texier in France; he wanted another six instruments. Also from France I got an order from a M. d’Avila, for another two dozen instruments (I had already sold him a dozen the previous month). In March I got multiple orders from a man called Allegro Francesco in Turin. I always thought Allegro was a musical term, but apparently it is also a first name in Italy. I even got an order from Japan. This all happened in just a couple of months or so. Incredibly I didn’t advertise overseas, so goodness knows where all these orders came from. The worst part of all this exporting was that I was finding the customs declarations (that I was filling in almost daily) very time consuming and utterly unremunerative.

It wasn’t just the magnifiers I made that I dealt with; I also sold all kinds of other instruments that I got from other manufacturers. One of the most successful was an mains powered magnifying lamp that cost the buyer nearly £100. It was mostly optical goods that I dealt with, but as I was  in the local trade directory as ‘dealing in instruments’  so I also got involved with other things like compasses and barometers. 

If you think it strange that someone whose whole educational background was in the Arts should be so deeply involved with something that, if it was not quite scientific, was certainly highly technical, then you must blame my father. He had spent his entire career involved in optics (much of it technical), and finding himself required to feeling himself requited to find an occupation for his son, he naturally turned to that trade. It has taken me almost a lifetime to return to my natural inclinations, and to write history books. My most recent history book received a good response, the first edition selling  out in less than two years. I must turn to a second edition, when  I have completed  my current book. 






The front garden at Poringland under snow – 1970s .

I haven’t heard a great about climate change recently, though there have been record breaking amounts of sunshine in the past year. This may be because the Coronavirus epidemic has taken over our minds, or it may be that the recent spell of arctic weather has restored our sense of proportion. The activists can no longer point to the many tonnes of carbon dioxide being emitted on a daily basis by the airline industry, now that we scarcely have an airline industry. I bet they never imagined in their wildest dreams that airliners would almost all be grounded in a matter of days; nor did I – nobody did. Even if this change were permanent (it won’t be, although I can’t see air travel returning to its pre-crisis levels in a hurry) it would take many decades, even centuries, to reverse the effects of all that carbon dioxide.

The fact is that the climate has always changed. It is important to recognize this. Over millions of years we have seen ice ages and periods of tropical heat. Whatever it is doing now,  the earth will eventually cool down; then apparently it will heat up again before finally dying with the disappearance of the sun; but do not worry about this – mankind will have perished long before any of that happens. In the current period, the change to a warmer climate may have increased in the last hundred years due to the increased release of CO2, but it was changing anyway. It was getting warmer before the Industrial Revolution got going with its effect on the environment and the mining of coal. The winters in the 18th century were considerably colder than they are; this you can tell by reading diaries written hundreds of years ago. Christmas has become far less likely to be snowy. But this change to a warmer climate began long before the current increase in greenhouse gas emissions. They have increased global warming, but they did not start it.

In the wider context , the total amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is around 4%, and by far the most of it is down to natural causes. Nor has the climate changed out of all recognition; I well remember the winter of 1963, when the freezing weather lasted for months. There have been other (though shorter) cold spells in the last fifty years; so cold weather has not totally disappeared.`

Carbon dioxide does have the effect of increasing temperature, but the ‘climate emergency’ has been driven more by computer models than by the actual increase in global temperatures, which have been much less than predicted. If you doubt me look up a comparison of mean temperatures in the last half century with the computer generated projections; they are way of target. The Maldive Islands should have disappeared beneath the waves in the 1990s, but as far as I know they are still here. Over the last 2000 the temperature is less easy to know, as measurements were not taken then, but we may make estimates. Throughout the middle ages it got progressively warmer, but the modern era heralded the ‘Mini Ice Age’. If we project the rise in temperature from the medieval warm period to today (ignoring the ‘little ice age’) the temperature is higher than you would expect, but not by much. This long term rise in temperature may be concerning, but it is not all down to the increase in CO2 emissions, which are a recent phenomenon.

My wood burning stove

Do not imagine that I am in favour of the burning of fossil fuels; I regard this depletion of the natural resources of the planet as deeply disturbing. My point in the preceding paragraph is to give some context to the matter of climate change. I long for the day when technology has advanced to the provision of almost all our energy from renewable resources like hydrogen and tidal power. Whether heat pumps truly represent renewable power is debatable, but for all practicable purposes they do. The burning of wood is not producing extra carbon dioxide; if a log is left to rot is releases the same amount of CO2 as if it is burnt, only over a longer period. Therefore I intend to hang on to my log burner.

I intended to have an electric car this year, but I discovered that the space taken up by the batteries left insufficient space for my wheelchair. Apart from this drawback electrically operated cars are something of a problem however. Not only are they quite carbon intensive during manufacture, I understand that we would struggle to provide enough lithium and cobalt to provide enough batteries to convert all the vehicles on earth to battery power. I think this is an unnecessarily dire prediction; with the current state of technology this may well be true, but this ignores future improvements that will undoubted come.

In the longer term the possibilities to moderate the changes in climate have exciting features. Nevertheless, we have to recognise that  warmer climate is not all bad. More people die every winter from excessive cold than die during summer from  heat stroke.





The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone.
Let others follow, if they can!

J R R Tolkien

Fields, hedgerows, woods and villages come and go over time, but roads remain. The coming of motor transport has led to ironing out of some of the more tortuous curves, and the creation of motorways, but most roads are still largely unchanged. Watling street may no longer be one of the principal routes in the land, but it still possible to follow its course by car, much of it along the A2 & A5 roads.

We think of these roads as Roman, but many of them go back much further than Roman times. Quite how old these roads are cannot be known, but many must go back to the first inhabitants of Britain. Once a road is established it is very hard to reroute it. Only in the past fifty years have attempts been made to iron out the most dangerous bends, and these have resulted in very minor changes. New roads have built but these only duplicate old roads; very few have other constructions or farmland introduced where once was a highway.

Roads changed in the 20th century, but at first the coming of the motor car did not make travel any more dangerous. In 1861 the Locomotive Act had limited the speed of road conveyances (i.e. steam traction engines) to 10 mph. In 1865 this was reduced to 4mph in the country and 2mph in town. Obviously these very low speeds did not apply to horses, who could still trot or even gallop at up to 30mph. Also a man bearing a red flag had to walk 60 yards ahead of the traction engine. In 1896 the speed limit was raised to 14mph and to 20mph in 1903. By then the need for an escort had also been removed –  a man could not walk that fast. The roads were becoming more dangerous, but worse was to come. In 1931 the speed limit was abolished altogether. In under 40 years it had risen from under 5mph to as fast as you could crank your car up to. This was a huge turn about, and the corresponding road casualties rose into the thousands.

This was still the state of affairs when I learnt to drive, and I was briefly allowed to drive with out limit as to speed. It wasn’t as bad as it sounded, because few cars would do much more than 70 anyway, but by the end of the 1960s Barbara Castle had introduced the 70 limit. The stretch of road outside our house at the time was a mile of dead straight highway and the mechanics from the Jaguar garage in the city used drive out to test their cars. Jaguars were one of the few cars that would easily exceed 70mph!




The Binocular Magnifier my father designed; I was busy making them on my birthday.

(It will not have escaped your notice that I was a Valentines Day baby. Contrary to the immediate reaction of most people along the lines of ‘Oh how nice’ this has been nothing but a trial to me all my life; imagine trying to go out for a quiet birthday meal on Valentines Day!)


It was a pleasant day with some sun. A parcel from Aunt Peggy and Uncle Arthur arrived by post. It contained a pair of gardening gloves, my birthday present from them. For breakfast I had porridge, followed by bacon, egg and mushrooms. I would have taken both dogs out for a walk, but Suki would not come, so I only took Fido. Dad and I took him up to Norwich with us later. There were five orders for magnifiers by first post, so there was a lot of work to do, but first I got some milk and made us each a cup of tea. I made up a batch of headbands and filed some plastic head rests ready for polishing. Versators – the name given to these magnifiers – were selling very well, and as we sold most of them for the full retail price we were doing alright. In fact we were doing very well.  By August we were selling up to 20 a day. We had recently bought a freezer and a dishwasher, both highly uncommon pieces of kit in 1977. 

I phone up two of our suppliers to remind them that we were awaiting their deliveries. Came home via Dunston Common to walk the dog Fido, and then the Red Lion in Stoke for a drink. For lunch we had soup, brie and rhubarb. Suki had woken up by then, so we took both dogs to Whitlingham, where they had a happy time. Suki hunted rabbits in the bushes and both dogs went in  the river for a dip. 

GERRY SAYER on his retirement in 1993.

We called at the works to do some business on the way back to work. I must say a word or two about ‘the works’. This small factory had been built by my father in the lattec1940s, when the health service started. At first all spectacle lenses were free to the customer, and this had produced an almost insatiable demand, which my Dad did his best to try and fill. This obviously could not go on, and when the government imposed a charge the demand dried up overnight. My father had to sell the works to a more established optical manufacturer called Culvers. He continued to do all his lens business through Culvers, and Gerry Sayer was the resident manager at the works. It was in Hall Road, near the Ring Road. The site is now a car park for Aldi and the other retailers on the park.

We returned to 29 Surrey Street (our business  premises) by way of the works. Gerry let us have a piece of 6mm acetate.  We had arranged for a sheet of 4mm acetate to be sent from London by post, but this piece of 6mm would do for now. We normally made our magnifiers from 4mm black acetate, but obviously having run out of 4mm. we were experimenting with 6mm. it shows you how busy we had been, running out of supplies. I made up seven fronts from the thicker acetate sheet; they look rather strange to our eyes, but they will do. At ten past four I left Dad assembling magnifiers and went to Bayliss Wright to buy an air brush – made by Sprite. It is my birthday present from my father, but it was something I never used. At twenty to five I went home to collect Mum and take her to Mr Warr in Earlham Road. He was her chiropodist and it was time to have her feet done. While she was there I took the dogs to Earlham park. Then I took Mum home before returning to the city.

Collected Dad at six o’clock and we left the post at the sorting office; home for dinner that Mum had left in the oven while she had her feet done. We had chicken and orange cake, made with a home grown orange! Mum was rather cold and tired in the evening. 





Artificial Intelligence may one day be able to run our lives for us, but it is a long way from doing so as things are today. It apparently is used widely in business, but allow me to question just how intelligent it is. I have just had an advert pop up on my computer screen, telling me that anyone born in Ipswich between 1953 and 1979, with no life insurance, needs to read more. This is obviously AI at work, but unfortunately it has got it nearly all wrong; it is obviously trying, but in almost every respect it has gone slightly awry. I wasn’t born in Ipswich but in Norwich, and I wasn’t born between those years either, although they are not completely outside the ball park; apart from that they have got it spot on! That just leaves my financial history, and it is true that I haven’t got any life insurance, but I cannot see that at my age and with ho dependents I cannot see that it would benefit anyone but the insurance company. It might well be a good little earner for the insurance company that placed the ad, but it is just a pity that they could not have come a little closer to reality.

I have been getting quite cross with all these attempts to guess what I am thinking.  I only have to make a passing reference to a combine harvester (let us say) and I am immediately bombarded with adverts for agricultural machinery. I have no involvement with farming, beyond a passing interest; that is obviously too sophisticated a fact for AI to understand, although all you mere mortals seem to have no problem with the idea. It really ought to amuse me, because these attempts resemble nothing more than the first fumbling words of a rather dumb two-year old, but I am exasperated by AI nonetheless. Bing, the Microsoft search engine, is no longer content merely to search for what I want; it makes unasked for and unwarranted suggestions instead. Am I interested in computer games or comic book heroes? No. Do I want to learn more about the Milky Way? Not particularly. Am I thinking of going to Patagonia? Not at present; and so it goes on. It is also impossible to avoid these intrusions, unless I completely remove Bing from my computer, and I am told this would be an unwise thing to do because it handles much of the basic software on my computer. This is with Windows, but Apple is as bad, in its own way.

These observations about computer gaming etc. are far from intelligent ones, and they don’t even begin to scratch the surface of AI. I can see that as it makes its slow progress towards some kind of awareness, AI will become slightly less annoying. However, I cannot ever see a time when an algorithm will be able to detect irony for example; yet anyone who is not a complete moron can tell when I am using sarcasm and when I am voicing straight forward opinions. It could be the tone of voice that I am using,  but even when I am writing the meaning is clear enough for most people. You might need a knowledge of my previous opinions, sometimes going back decades, to pick up this kind of sophisticated speech, but that is part of life. Good luck with that one, you AI geeks.

So I am not really worried that computers are going to take over the world anytime soon. We may have to use more elliptical kinds of speech in order to outwit the computer, but wit is the operative word. I am not even sure myself what makes the difference between a witty saying and a dull one, and any attempt to explain this robs the epithet of all wit anyway. I can imagine a computer program ploughing through reams of stuff to come up with a witty saying, only to end up with a completely wooden one. And even if it appeared witty to me, it could well not do so to you. The listener as well as the speaker is important in this respect; although people can easily get their heads round this, I cannot even begin to conceive of how a computer would get over that one. AI stands for Artificial Intelligence? Artificial Incomprehension might be a better term to use!





william shakespeare

Although I have acted in several of his plays (as a schoolboy) and have read or watched many others, I do not go out of my way to experience his dramas. This is not because I find his plays particularly difficult or demanding; though some have a reputation for being complex and ambiguous. I must concede that his plays are rather good, but I tend not watch plays in general. It must be that I am a child of my time, and find that sitting through a whole performance of two or three hours is rather too much for me. (Musicals and even operettas I can take, it must be the jolly tunes that keep me occupied,) At least when reading a book I can put it down at any time.

His poetry however is available in much more digestible portions, and these I find more to my taste. This is perhaps one of the best known of Shakespeare’s sonnets. At just fourteen lines long this cannot be too long for anybody.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
    So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

There is no hint that Shakespeare ever travelled to Norwich, though it is likely he performed in Kings Lynn. One of his actors however is famed for his of Morris dancing from London to Norwich in the year 1600. This was Will Kempe, a well loved clown in various troupes, including Shakespeare’s. He created the roles of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, Peter in Romeo and Juliet, and possibly Falstaff too. He was apparently unable to act a part without improvising along the way, and this may have irritated the great playwright. It was after leaving Shakespeare’s men that he undertook his epic dance. He later published a book of his feat, entitled the ‘Nine Days Wonder’, although in fact it took him over three weeks to accomplish. He was joined on the road through Essex by all comers, including numerous pretty girls. There is some confusion about whether he first entered the city by St Giles’ Gate or St Stephen’s Gate, but there seems agreement that he ended his dancing by jumping the churchyard wall to St John Maddermarket.






The first of January was an ordinary working day until 1974, when the Bank Holiday was created. In the same way that Christmas Eve is the day of note in places like the Netherlands, so New Year’s Eve is the major celebration, and this has steadily grown in importance since the creation of the Bank Holiday. Already Post Offices closed early at four o’ clock on New Year’s Eve in 1980. No doubt people were getting ready for an evening’s celebration, but that was more likely to a glass of something cheering at midnight at home than a rowdy meeting with others outside. In those days there were no bangs to herald in the New Year; those were still restricted to November 5th and Guy Fawkes. In the capital there was no gathering of people on the Strand to welcome in the New Year- there was no London Eye as a back drop for a start, and no fireworks to see either.


This was what happened on the 1st of January 1977. It thawed overnight which left the soil rather wet. The day was bright with some clouds. It wasn’t a Bank Holiday (it was a Saturday, so the holiday was delayed until Monday), but even so there were no newspapers or post. Just as we were getting up the phone went – it was John van Montagu who was on his way to ours for coffee! This was completely unexpected. He told us that he would arrive at 11 o’clock. So once we had eaten the porridge which Mum cooked us for breakfast my sister and I quickly took the dogs out. (My sister was due to return to her job on Guernsey on the Monday.) Fido saw Ricky and pulled so hard that he was out of puff for the rest of the walk.

Robbie Burns’s poem Auld Lang Syne has been sung at this time of year, although for me personally it was traditionally associated with Boxing Day, when we met our cousins in Kings Lynn, rather than New Year’s Eve. This song has spread from Scotland to the rest of the UK, and is part of the New Year in the USA too. Quite why Burns has ben so popular when parts of his verse are written in a dialect that is totally obscure to many is anybody’s guess. What exactly does this stanza mean for example?

We twa hae run about the braes
And pu’d the gowans fine
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit
Sin days of auld lang syne.

Hogmonay and First Footing are Scottish customs of long standing, when in the rest of Britain the event passed with hardly a nod. What will happened this year? With the pandemic gathering pace I cannot see any official gathering being encouraged or even allowed, although people may still try to gather, against the intention of the restrictions, if not in plain disregard of the law. I think we should return to the position before 1974 in England, where a simple toast was sufficient. Scotland can just eat haggis, perhaps washed down with glass of Scotch.