Bibliomania in the family

My grandfather was a bibliomaniac. This is my mother’s father, Charlie – Charles Bradlaugh Warwick. My grandmother threw him out sometime in 1939, just around the start of the war, and although my mother met him once more during the war and there were family sightings of him to the 50s, by the time I was born we’d lost contact and I never met him. However I heard a lot about him, growing up.

He had a number of habits and qualities, some of which were positive, but overall the stories tended to dwell on the negative ones. His philandering, his ego, his bibliomania.

One story has him coming home to the cottage at Wilmslow on the outskirts of Manchester, where my grandmother and he lived in the late 20s and early 30s, opening his coat and taking out the two or three books he had stolen from bookshops on his way home.

Charlie worked as an accountant for various employers, but as a committed socialist and paid-up member of the Communist Party of Great Britain he may not have kept his jobs very long as he was always agitating for workers’ rights. His political convictions may also have helped him justify his book thefts.

According to Mum – and to my grandmother because she told this story as well – Grandma was always nervous about Charlie’s thefts, fearing he would be caught and arrested.

Debbie, Charlie and Elsa in 1925
Debbie, Charlie and Elsa (Mum) in 1925.

My grandmother, Debbie, was born Jewish in Odessa which is now in Ukraine but between the wars was a part of the Soviet Union. Her parents brought her with her elder two brothers to England at the turn-of-the-century, fleeing poverty and the pogroms. Grandma always insisted that she had been taken to see Queen Victoria’s funeral cortege, so I place their immigration sometime around 1900 as the old Queen died in 1901. I suspect though that they were illegals as I’ve been unable to find them in the 1901 Census.

As a Russian immigrant, Debbie was always worried about the police showing up on her doorstep. A marriage certificate with a British citizen was a fair security to have – but how would it be if he was a convicted criminal? I believe she went through a second residency legalisation after 1941 (when Britain and the Soviet Union found themselves on the same side in the war).

I don’t really know whether Charlie ever stole more than two or three books. Perhaps one theft was enough to generate the story, but I suppose it’s more likely that it was a habit. In a way, I hope he was a bibliomaniac and did steal books on regular basis because only stealing two or three would put him on about the same level as me. Oh, don’t worry, I haven’t done it for a long time, but when I was a poverty stricken student and reading matter was not nearly as easily available as it is today, when books I needed to read were all borrowed out from the library and bookshops were more common and far less security conscious than today, I stole my share.

I never told Mum or Grandma of course. That would have only provoked a retelling of the Charlie stories and accusations of incipient bibliomania, which I already had a reputation for with all the library books I had overdue.

Grandma didn’t throw Charlie out because of his bibliomania but because of his philandering. As a 1920s Communist Charlie believed in “Free Love” and would have been perfectly happy not to lock himself into a “bourgeois relationship” (marriage), but he got Debbie pregnant and with the help of his parents she shamed him into marrying her. Not the best start perhaps.

Charlie full lengthIt didn’t stop Charlie continuing to act on his convictions, however, and for fifteen years or so he seems to have taken up annually with one new sweet young thing after another. My grandparents lived in or near Manchester, but when Charlie was having an affair, Debbie used to take my mother and move home to her parents’ in the East End of London. After Charlie’s affair had burned itself out, he would come down to London, plead with her to come back and they would all return to Manchester together.

This went on until Debbie got a job of her own. She became the warden of the Ivinghoe Youth Hostel just north-west of London in about 1937. According to my mother Charlie settled down for a year or so, but then took a shine to a guest at the hostel with whom he left. Later, he came back as in previous years to plead with Debbie, but now she had a degree of independence and she refused to take him back, so he returned to Manchester alone.

As I mentioned earlier, Mum did meet him once more during the war. She was in the WAAC (Women’s Auxiliary Air Corps) and apparently he tracked her down and wrote to her commanding officer asking if she could be given permission to come and visit him. She was then about 22. So she travelled to Manchester by train and went home to the address she’d been given. Her abiding memory of that visit is the books. Charlie was uninterested in spending money on bookshelves and had simply constructed walls of books – a row standing upright on the floor, a row lying down on top, a row standing upright on top of them, and so on right up to the ceiling. They were also good insulation, he said.

“That was an odd meeting,” Mum says, “I never knew what it was he wanted. I have a sort of feeling there was someone else there, one of his women, and that he was meeting me because she wanted him to.”

Many years later, quite recently in fact, Mum learnt that Charlie remarried (bigamously as he never divorced Debbie) and had a son. Mum’s new interpretation of her strange meeting is that Charlie had got the invisible woman pregnant, was going to get married (history repeating itself) and that the woman had twisted his arm to get him to try to reconcile himself with his first family. That didn’t happen.

Having learnt about the existence of her half-brother, Mum tried to get in touch with him. She wrote and then as he didn’t reply she eventually phoned him. They talked and she learnt a little bit more about him, but he was “not interested” as she says.

I’m not at all surprised. The poor fellow must be in his early 70s and this crazy old woman writes to him out of the blue and then phones him to tell him she’s his sister and that his father – now long dead – was a bigamist and he’s a bastard. It wouldn’t surprise me if Mum also told him about Charlie’s bibliomania. In his position, I doubt very much that I would be interested in pursuing a relationship, but Mum gets a little tearful about it now. She says she would have liked to have had a brother.


Another slice of family history this week, gleaned from my ongoing interviews with my mother (see here). The title of last week’s entry – Bibliophile – set me off thinking about bibliomania and the the only (if putative) bibliomaniac in the family.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Talking aloud

Elin's Outline
Scrivener pinboard outline of the first part of Elin’s Story.
Once upon a time I started studying for a PhD. I never completed it because I couldn’t finance myself. (That’s one reason. Life is complicated; there were other reasons, but let that one suffice.) The PhD was supposed to focus on a form of school education called Content and Language Integrated Learning and drew on my experiences and research I carried out in the classroom. Part of the preparation for the PhD involved studying aspects of qualitative research and trying out techniques. One technique which my tutor was keen for me to experiment with was called “vocalised internal monologuing” or “intra-personal communication” – basically, talking aloud to yourself.

Apparently, in an effort to find out what people are thinking when they are doing things some researchers have wired up their subjects and got them to talk aloud. The assumption is that recording what the subject says gives an insight into the subject’s semiconscious or even subconscious choices. I don’t want to reject this technique out of hand – I can even imagine that it might work successfully with people who are able to express themselves at the same time as they are physically doing something that does not require thought – something repetitive. I could certainly see myself talking aloud about what I’m doing whilst washing the dishes for example. In my case, though, my tutor was asking me to talk aloud about the process of writing and analysing written documents while I was actually writing and analysing. It just didn’t work.

It’s hard enough, I find, to dictate into word recognition software (as I’m doing the moment) simply creating a text. If I have to create a text at the keyboard while at the same time talking about what I’m doing, the two processes conflict to such a degree that nothing gets done. For me at least, the creative act of writing and the act of reflecting on the creative act of writing must happen one after the other and not concurrently.

I started thinking about this now because I wanted to say something about my creative process, but putting on the microphone-headphones and starting up DragonDictate tripped me back 14 years into my memories of working on the PhD.

To get back to what I meant to write about when I started…

After expressing my wish last week for a more settled life that might allow me to focus on my writing, I decided to try and do something about it. On weekdays now I am setting myself the task of writing in 45 minute blocks throughout the morning from about 9.30 until about 1 o’clock. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to keep this up – the everyday does still intrude – but at least I can make the effort. The 45 minute rule is intended to keep me from sitting for hours in front of the computer. I’m using the timer in my telephone and when the alarm rings I get up, stretch, walk around, go and make myself a cup of tea. As I have a desk which I can raise or lower, when I come back I make sure I change from sitting to standing or vice versa.

Under the new regime I have created a document in Scrivener for the whole of Elin’s Story, all of the four (or it may be eight) books I’m currently planning. I have written a description of the whole story as a very abbreviated summary, and I’ve started breaking the summary down into chapters.

I’ve lived with this story for getting on for six years now, so I have a lot of it in outline either in my head or in various electronic documents and physical notebooks. The summary is not by any means complete. I fully intend to add to – and probably subtract from – what I have written now, but it feels good to have created this outline structure and to have at least an idea of where I’m going. The full summary is about 3500 words long and the projected novel (all the books together) is 480,000 words, so I have a way to go yet.

My next task is to build up my cast of characters and assign them to different chapters in the first part of the first book so that I know when I am introducing them and can focus on bringing them in appropriately. To help me I am creating family trees, character sets and timelines using Scapple, software that was recommended by my fellow Blogg 52er Lars Billbäck. (Thanks Lars!)

I brought a mass of material with me on memory sticks (I have used two or three different computers to write Elin’s Story over the last five years) and I find that I’m also going out on the Internet to track down other information so I’m not sure how fast the story will advance, but I’ve got things to keep me busy at least. And that takes me to the end of my second 45 minute session dictating this blog entry so I’ll close now and promise to keep you posted on future developments.


The illustration is a screen-capture image from my desktop.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

A nice cup of tea

I like a nice cup of tea in the morning
Just to start the day, you see…

A nice cup of tea
A nice cup of tea
In January 1946 George Orwell published an essay discussing the craft of making “A Nice Cup of Tea”. I don’t have a copy to hand, but I think he said he was concerned that the years of war rationing would have caused the British to forget how a proper cup of tea was made. Rationing began in 1940 and continued in some degree until 1954, so 1946 was in the middle of things, though Orwell wouldn’t have known that at the time. When he wrote, the war in Europe was over and he might reasonably have expected rationing soon to be phased out.

The essay appeared completely serious, but reading between the lines you can see that Orwell was probably having some fun. He wrote about “my rules for making a perfect cup of tea, every one of which I regard as golden”.

I read the essay when I was a student at Leeds University, and I disagreed with several of his rules — the one about heaps of sugar in particular — but one rule that I liked was the rule about when to add milk. (There is, of course, no question of not adding milk.)

Orwell admits the issue of when to put in the milk is one that has divided the nation – not to mention the families of the nation – but comes down on the side of adding milk to the cup of tea because it’s easier to see how much milk you need. This was an argument that raged in my own childhood home. I think my mother thought putting the milk in the cup first, then adding the tea, was somehow more refined. With Orwell to back me, I switched to tea first and have never looked back.

When I graduated from Leeds I had no idea what to do with myself. At that point I didn’t want to go on studying, but I stayed in the city and hung about the University with my friends. To pay my way I also took work where I could, and one job was with a steel fabricating company. Basically it was a large workshop constructed under one of the arches of a railway bridge in the town. In the workshop the men built things in steel and then drove them out to various building sites to install them. Fire escapes, the frames for factory doors, metal walkways over vats of seething chemicals, support structures for heavy motors at the top of lift shafts. I was the tea boy.

My job was to get to the workshop every morning before 8am and brew up the the first pot of tea. Then I had to make tea at least four more times during the day — at 11, at 1pm, at 3 and at 5. Orwell would have recognised the process, though it broke most of his rules. First I filled a pan with water and put on the stove, then I added a spoonful of tea (Tetley’s Yorkshire Tea), one spoon for each of the men and one for the pot. Then I added the sugar and the milk, brought the whole lot to the boil and when it was the “right” colour — a kind of dark orange-brown — I poured it out through a strainer into mugs for everyone. Though some of the men thought I didn’t put in enough sugar, I think I was quite successful as a tea boy — certainly more so than I was as a lathe operator or a builder’s mate which were my other roles in the firm.

And at half past eleven, well, my idea of heaven
Is a nice cup of tea.

Time passed. I found out what I wanted to do and I moved on — to Birmingham to train as a teacher and then to Bulgaria to take up my first job. In Bulgaria I discovered that the tea I was used to drinking was “black” tea and not terribly popular. The only black tea you could get relatively easily in Sofia in 1982 was from Russia (actually from Georgia) and I liked it as little as most Bulgarians. On the other hand you could make it strong and put milk in it which you couldn’t do with Bulgarian tea. The Bulgarians preferred herbal tea — which I decided must be what Hercule Poirot calls une tisane. (I was right.)

It was possible to buy English tea at the Naafi shop in the basement of the British Embassy. It was teabag tea — PG Tips. PG Tips was the tea we had at home, but never as teabags. My mother wouldn’t be seen dead serving teabag tea. I bought it with shame. Come New Year I took a holiday from behind the Iron Curtain and visited Vienna, capital of Western vice and magnet for all Balkan expats in those Cold War years. I’d heard tell of a tea shop…

I found it, too. It was an emporium of tea, a palace, a place of wonder where the scent of fine tea enveloped you. As with everywhere else in Vienna, I felt very much out of place. I had travelled from five years of student poverty in England to Bulgaria where my worn jeans and Doc Martins and winter anorak were clearly western and gave me a certain cachet. But that didn’t carry over to Vienna. Now I stood in this polished and scented shop waiting to be served by a polished and scented young man who looked me up and down, but consented to speak with me — in English — and try to sell me something.

I wanted some tea, I said. For the morning or the afternoon, sir? To drink with lemon or honey? First flush or second flush? Darjeeling, Oolong, Dimbula? Scented or unscented? I was confounded. Indian? I suggested.

I’m not sure what it was he sold me in the end, but I know it made a nice cup of tea. I decided then that I would learn about tea and next time I went back I would be able to order with confidence. I never did go back to that shop, but at least I’m now able to put a name to the teas I like to drink.

I like a nice cup of tea with my dinner…

For years, in Sweden, it was pointless to buy tea in canteens or cafés. You’d collect a cold cup , then stand in line for a teabag (Liptons Yellow Lable), then get some ice cold milk, pay and finally reach the hot water which would always have a temperature below boiling. What you got in your cup after all that was brown and tepid — if you were lucky. No, better to go with the flow and drink coffee when out, save the tea making for home.

Which is what I did and still do, though changes have taken place over the years. Swedes have learnt to make tea with boiling water, they have embraced the concept of different sorts of tea, they have dared to step away from the teabag. On the other hand there was quite a narrow window when you could be guaranteed a cup of decent tea in a Swedish café. Pretty soon things went overboard as Sweden became obsessed with green tea, white tea, red tea, herbal tea and scented tea. There is some really foul stuff that makes your tea taste of cream. Cream! For goodness sake. You should only drink skimmed milk in tea (that’s one of my golden rules, by the way) so why would anyone want to make their tea taste of cream?

And a nice cup of tea with my tea…

Back to just post Bulgaria — I had gone on and on (and on and on) to my Swedish girlfriend about how to make a proper cup of tea. The warming of the pot, the spoons of tea, the water boiling when it hits the leaves, the three, four or five minutes brewing (depending on the tea), the pouring and straining, the skimmed milk. When I took her home to meet my family and friends I was horrified — horrified — to discover that, while I’d been gone, teabags had conquered the country. Even – and this was the greatest betrayal — even my mother was using them! Well, not in my home, damn it. (Unless dire circumstance requires.)

When we moved from Sweden at the New Year, we took only two foodstuffs with us. We took a big round tin of Swedish crispbread and we took tins of tea: Earl Grey, Lady Grey, Darjeeling FOP, Lapsang and Södermalm. I thought I’d quickly find a decent tea shop here, but had the tea with me to avoid stress. That worked for a time, but as the level of tea in the tins sank and as I kept on not finding a tea shop, panic set in. No Darjeeling left, no Lady Grey, no Earl Grey. Nearly no Södermalm. I don’t like Lapsang on its own. With no tea to fuel me, how would I be able to write anything? On Monday I was forced to buy a box of teabags (at least they were Twinings Earl Grey).

At the last minute — actually yesterday evening — my good wife followed a tip from one of her new colleagues, and tracked down a real tea shop. She came home with three bags – two sorts of Darjeeling (first and second flush) and a bag of Earl Grey blue flower. Saved! I shall be making an expedition to the same shop in the near future to stock up.

And when it’s time for bed, there’s a lot to be said,
For a nice cup of tea.

(Mind you, the above was produced exclusively with the help of coffee…)


The illustration is from Wikimedia Commons. See the original version here: A nice cup of tea

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

My radio days

On Monday I had the pleasure of going out to Gothenburg University’s recording studios at Medicinaregatan to record a few texts for the Swedish National Tests in English 5 and 6 – the upper secondary level exams. I can’t tell you about those text of course, they’re secret, but as always the experience reminded me of the first time I sat in a soundproofed room to record material for a schoolbook.

Microphone @ News 1130 Photo by  Rebecca Bollwitt - see article foot.
Microphone @ News 1130 Photo CC by Rebecca Bollwitt – see article foot.
It was at the national radio station in Sofia, in Bulgaria and I was 24. In 1982 Leonid Brezhnev still ruled the USSR and Todor Zhivkov ran communist Bulgaria behind the Iron Curtain. I was teaching at the 114th Bilingual Gymnasium School, which was one of seven in the country where teaching took place in both English and Bulgarian. Bulgaria and Britain had a cultural exchange agreement which allowed a number of Bulgarian postgraduate students to study at British universities for a year. In exchange, the British Council recruited a few English teachers to work in these bilingual schools.

This was my first job as a teacher, my first experience of working abroad and my first trip to Eastern Europe. It was all very exciting and new.

Although there were seven similar schools around the country, mine was the only one in the capital. Being a teacher in the capital had its perquisites, and one of them was getting invited along to record for a new school textbook.

What I remember most vividly was the team of us who were going to record showing up at the radio station and being kept waiting in the vestibule at gunpoint while our identities were checked.

It wasn’t like we were lined up against a wall. This was Bulgaria after all. There were five or six of us – the three English teachers from the school, a young man from the Ministry of Education, the school’s headmistress and the textbook author may have been there too – and we just milled around between the swing doors and the reception desk with one or two other evening visitors. But the young soldier who slouched behind the reception desk had a Kalashnikov laid on the table and it was pointed at us in a careless sort of way that was almost more frightening. What if the safety catch was off? What if his finger was twitching on the trigger?

Before any disaster, though, the word came down that our papers were in order and we were allowed in.

My next memory is of the recording studio – quite a large space with a round baize-topped table, spot lit, and with microphones protected by puff guards. I think there were only the three of us English teachers in the room and everyone else on the other side of the glass. What I particularly remember about this – and it’s the memory that comes back every time I go into a recording studio – is the dead quality of the sound in the room. Because all the surfaces that in a normal room reflect sound to some degree – the floor, the ceiling, the walls, the furniture – are covered in sound-absorbing material, all the sounds that you make are swallowed. I still think it’s a very strange experience.

I remember two things from what I recorded that night in Sofia. One of the texts was a conversation between a group of English workers who had rented a VW bus in order to travel on holiday to Bulgaria. My character was a young man who was not yet fully convinced of the value of communism, but was being persuaded by the experience of seeing the achievements of the Bulgarian Communist Party while driving around the country. I read the text and did my best to make it sound convincing, but I kept thinking of the Kalashnikov at the reception desk.

I was a little more comfortable with the other text I remember. It was more of an historical account – the trial of Bulgarian hero Georgi Dimitrov. Dimitrov led Stalin’s Third Communist International in the 30s and was arrested in Berlin for complicity in the Reichstag fire. His trial in Leipzig was world news in 1933. But even though it was retelling an historical event, the text I had to read was strident with indignation at the treatment that poor Georgi Dimitrov suffered at the hands of the Nazis: they took away his reading glasses so he had difficulty reading all his trial documents! Having at the time recently read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago – not to mention Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man – I thought Dimitrov got off quite lightly.

I’ve seen the inside of a number of different recording studios over the years, but that night in Sofia was the first, and imprinted itself so that every time I go back into a recording studio the memory returns. I don’t remember what I did after the recording that October night. I probably walked home with the other teachers through the warm dark. (The Bulgarians housed us all in the same building, the better to keep tabs on us.) And I never heard the recordings I made or even know whether the book was published.


The illustration of a radio studio microphone is by Rebecca Bollwitt on Flickr, shared through Creative Commons with “some rights reserved”.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Computers

A former student of mine contacted me out of the blue to ask if she could interview me about the use of computers in education.

She asked: Have computers made a big difference in schools in your experience?

Amstrad PC1512-DD
Amstrad PC1512-DD. Not my computer – but something like.
You bet they have!

I bought my first computer early in 1991. I can still remember the excitement. The packaging and the thick brick of the manual. The look and the touch of the matt-cream plastic box. The black glass screen that lit up with white letters that burned across when I switched it on: BOOTING UP…

It had no internal memory. When you switched it on it had to start – boot – by first reading the operating system from two 3 inch floppy discs which each held 512 kilobytes of information. (For anyone who remembers, 3½ inch discs were the industry standard, my computer’s discs were incompatible with any other computers I ever came across.)

At the time, we lived in Sundsvall. The snows of winter lay piled around outside and the reflected light from the snow lit the ceiling of the room where the computer stood. That light still has the capacity to raise my heart and is forever linked in my mind with the smell of warm plastic and that first Amstrad.

The Amstrad was the first home computer in Britain. Produced and sold by Alan M. Sugar Trading. Alan Sugar is nowadays “famous from TV” as the entrepreneur in the British version of The Apprentice. I was probably one of the few people to import an Amstrad to Sweden – not the only one I know for a fact, but one of just a few. (For the nerds my computer was an Amstrad PC1512-SD with a mono screen.)

I bought it principally as a word processor to replace my typewriter, which I kept “in case”. At first the typewriter stood handy on a shelf in the same room as the computer. Later it was stored at the back of a cupboard. Later still it stood in the basement. It followed me for two moves and from Sundsvall to Gothenburg – and actually outlasted the Amstrad – but I never used it again.

Hoarder that I am, I still have stories, business letters and teaching material – worksheets and reading tasks – that I prepared on the Amstrad. They were printed in NLQ (“near letter quality” – it was Amstrad’s own proud and, now I look at it, quite meaningless term). I printed them on the accompanying dot-matrix printer that sounded like a mad snare drummer on speed. The relief when I could move to a much quieter ink-jet.

We didn’t get computers at school until about three years later, and though we teachers were sharing PCs in our offices there was initially only one computer room for the students. The computer room was the domain of the maths department. Oh, the turf wars over whether students should be allowed computer time to write their reports for other subjects. Grudgingly, grudgingly they were allowed to print out from floppy discs brought from home – those who had home computers – until the first virus was brought in and corrupted the system.

Fast forward to 2007 and the set of laptops computers we had available for one language class at the school where I was then working. Or 2014 and the distance teaching I am currently involved with, holding classes in virtual conference rooms, my students sitting in their homes or offices and joining in from all across Sweden and, potentially, the world.

Yes, in my experience computers have made a big difference in schools.

But, there’s more.

I trained to be a teacher back in England, in Birmingham, in 1981. My focus area and long essay was on “the use of audio, visual and tactile aids in the teaching of history”. Never mind the other weird and wonderful things I got to play with for that (think tactile and let your imagination run wild), it also gave me entry to the computer room at Handsworth Grammar School. There, the maths teacher (who would probably not otherwise have given me – a non-scientist – the time of day) was delighted to show off his pride.

The school’s computer was a second-hand gift from a local engineering firm. The pupils spent their maths lessons punching holes into cards that they fed into the computer in order to get it to solve mathematical equations. I still have no concept of the value of this exercise, but everyone in the class seemed very dedicated and busy.

My interviewer coughed politely at this point and said: What do you mean by “they punched holes into cards”?


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Black boxes

I have been thinking about black boxes. Thinking in particular about the black box that they’re searching for from the Malaysian aircraft that disappeared.

I imagine this black box, it’s a metal box, slightly longer than wide, slightly wider than deep. A black metal box, like one I once owned, with a clasp at the front for a padlock.

Black boxI imagine it in the water, sinking. The light fades and the box sinks, fathom after fathom deep, deeper than light reaches, deep into darkness. Finally it grounds, and as it strikes the bottom, a great cloud of mud and debris billows up around, obscuring it for a time, then sinking back and leaving it there in the sand and the silt at the bottom of the ocean, half exposed – black in the dark – invisible but for the regular, persistent pulse that it sends out to the world saying: Here! I’m here, here with my memories. Come and find me!

And there, ignored by the benthic beasts and the other inhabitants of the abyss, the giant squids and the angler fish, self-illuminated monsters of the deep, it calls. And nobody hears. Even though we are listening for it. Listening with all the technology that we possess. Maybe it’s here and maybe it’s there. The search goes on up above, but nobody knows where it is and though it tries and tries, for days and weeks, eventually its batteries weaken, the sound dies and finally the black box lies in silence at the bottom of the ocean and its memories are lost.

Oh yes, I know it’s a misnomer. Black boxes are anything but black, manufactured in bright colours, in fluorescent colours for all I know, to be easy to find. Far tougher than my old tin box too, built to withstand the pressures deep under the sea. And this black box is unlikely to have become detached from the aircraft of which it was a part. It’s probably locked still inside the wreckage. And maybe, maybe it will yet be localised. Maybe the search will find it, maybe it will be retrieved, it and its memories, and we’ll find out what really happened aboard flight MH 370.

Maybe. But in my mind’s eye it is still this black metal box, sinking, calling, sinking, calling – and unheard.

Have you noticed how, when filmmakers want to contrast the experience of air and water, they contrast sound and silence? Sound in air, silence under water. When a swimmer breaks the surface of the water or plunges beneath. Clarity and sharpness above; a muffled, dull, distortion below. And that’s our experience too: the children’s laughter on the beach, by the pool, dulled or obliterated when we dive into the silent world.

And yet, when they were looking for the black box one of the comments I remember was: “It’s difficult to hear the beeps black boxes emit against all the other sounds – because the ocean is a noisy place.”

And now, like me, you think of whales, calling, singing to one another across the distances underwater, and, sure, there’s that sound, but there’s more. So much our air-adjusted ears can’t hear. There are the geological noises of earthquake and eruption, the mechanical sounds of tankers, cargo vessels, factory ships and liners, the grinding of drilling rigs and the explosions of prospectors, the sounds of naval war-and-peace – the carriers, the cruisers, the battleships, the sonar.

Water carries sound far, far further than the air carries it. To our ears it appears muted, but to the sea’s creatures the sound of the sea is rich, and since man increasingly has polluted the ocean also with noise, it is cacophony.

And into all this noise the black box sends out its cry. It’s little, bleak: I’m here! And we too send out our cries, our little cries: I’m here! Come find me! Drowned in the cacophony all around.

How difficult to reach out to others, how difficult to be heard. And as we sink into the depths our black boxes cry: Remember us! These are our memories! Remember us before we fade, before we die.

And some of us try to find ways of preserving our memories, and maybe it’s photographs, and maybe it’s stories, and maybe it’s things we have made, and maybe it’s our children. But always, always, the memories are corrupted, the memories are lost. Sinking into the abyss, sifting down, to join the sand and silt on the ocean floor. Lost finally and forever in the dark. In the cold dark.



To hear some of the sounds of the sea visit this BBC website.

The anglerfish in the illustration started life on the pages of Wikimedia commons.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

What is your earliest memory?

Most people have childhood memories from when they were about five or six years old. For some, though, their first seven, eight, even nine years can be a blank, while others remember things from much earlier. Supposedly, no memories at all means you had a placid and contented childhood since we only remember things that are exciting or frightening. (This doesn’t really account for suppressed memories of childhood trauma though, so how reliable is it as a theory? OK, let’s not go down that path!)

Dad at 36
My father in 1958, the year I was born. Taken from a negative my mother found in her papers after he died. Note the shape of the packet of cigarettes – his death – in the pocket over his heart.
Then comes the difficulty of dating. Mostly we don’t remember years and dates, so dating a memory comes down to family chronology: “It must have happened before we moved… after we got the dog… when mum was working…” And so on.

My earliest memory is of standing with my father to watch oil tankers – long lorries with cylindrical loads – driving onto a ship. The tankers are green and yellow and the side of the ship has opened and the tankers are driving aboard. There is a wide band of sand between me and the action. The sand is yellow but dull somehow, not yellow in the same way as the tankers are yellow. And there is a thin, dark blue line, which is the sea, and above it is a blue sky that goes up to the edge of sight.

Just to my left is my father. Though I do not see him, cannot picture him, I am sure who it is and he is holding my hand.

This memory must come from when we lived in Qatar, before my sister was born, so I can be no older than about two and a half. Say the latter months of 1960. My father was a transport engineer working for British Petroleum (company livery: yellow and green) and my mother and I lived with him in Qatar for about a year until mum, heavily pregnant with my sister, took me and flew home to give birth in the same hospital where I’d been born. We never returned.

When I came to search for a memory, an image to put into my fifty word poem about my father, this is the memory that came, and I married it with another I have, the last I have of him.

Dad (1960 & 1995)

Holding hands: a beginning, an end.

My two-year-small hand in his.
Sunned sand, a primary sea,

green and
yellow tankers driving aboard a
white ship.

My beginning.

Then his end, thirty-five years later.

Dying in a hospital bed.
Not a man for holding hands, he reached for mine.
For comfort.

This is the first poem from a remembered moment in my work in progress, Fifty-Fiftyish (working title). Fifty poems each of fifty words based on memories of incidents, people, feelings, dreams, stories and nightmares from fifty years of my life. I started it when I was fifty, now I’m pushing fifty-six, but I’m more than half way through. You never know, I might have it done in time for my sixtieth!

What is your earliest memory?

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.