All posts by adrian

My introduction to computers

Tuesday 4th October 

When I first started working in that little engineering firm in Putney everything was completed by hand. Stop a minute and try to think about that, not only were there no computers and spreadsheets, but no calculators or adding machines either.  You had to add everything up by hand, and as this was pre-decimalisation, this was pound, shillings and pence, not forgetting ha’pennies and farthings, so it wasn’t simply adding in tens; it was twelves and twenties.  At least we had stopped using guineas by this time, as that was one and one twentieth.  The trick was to add things up in two ways, cross-casting it was called, you always added your rows into a final column, and all your column totals into a total total too. I still do this with spreadsheets, even though I have never known a spreadsheet to add up incorrectly I still like to cross-check.

By 1972 we were using adding machines; you had to punch in each number, which was printed on a ribbon, and then pull a big handle for it to add up and print the total.  Then we had a Burroughs L400, I think it was called, into which you placed ledger cards for each account, the machine would read the balance, by a series of punched holes in the side of the card, then you would post the next entry, by again punching in your numbers, (this time there were about ten rows of numbers one to ten, vertically in rows) and the machine would print the new number and the new balance on the card.  You still had to manually repeat the opposite entry on another card, and reconciling all the cards took ages at each month-end.

The first computer arrived in the early eighties.  A huge box and even bigger bulky screen that took up half your desk, (what am I saying, it had its’ own desk and there was only one in the whole office) the screen was black with green writing on it.  I was introduced to spreadsheets, that I had formerly laboriously written up in large lined books by hand, and shown how to write the formula (at first simply to add a whole row or a column) in each cell, and even how to copy and paste, so you didn’t have to type it in every time.  It was amazing and so fast, or so we thought, and you had to save everything on big four-inch floppy disks, and label up all your spreadsheets and lock them in the safe until the next time you wanted to work on them.

We’ve come such a long way, what with e-mail and networks and now cloud computing too, and we are now so sophisticated that we remember nothing, and if we want to know when Waitrose opens on a Sunday, or how to get rid of a wine stain on a table-cloth, or what that irritating itch might be a symptom of; we automatically log on and look on the internet.  And don’t we just get furious when it takes more than a couple of seconds to open an e-mail or if we get that message “Microsoft Word has encountered a problem and will have to close”

And when I look back I can remember the very first calculator; Eddie, my boss, had one and it cost a fortune, and the display was a series of light bulbs, with separate filaments inside for each number in red, and it weighed a ton, and only he was allowed to use it.  Now calculators too have almost disappeared, as will all the computers we use today, as in the future we communicate instantly with the display projected directly onto the surface of our eyes from the microcomputers located somewhere deep inside our heads.

A bath or a shower

Monday 3rd October 

A bath or a shower, that is the question, and maybe you are wondering, dear reader, whether Catherine has gone completely off her rocker this time.  Growing up it was always a bath; we did not have a shower at the house in Putney.  Actually we did once have a grey rubber hose contraption that you had to fit over the bath taps, and try to hold over your head.  This was meant to be for washing your hair, but it was completely impractical, firstly, as you had to hold it with one hand this only left one hand free, and trying to undo the shampoo bottle, squeeze a little shampoo onto your  hair, replace the cap and the shampoo bottle and then wash your hair with one hand, was a feat I could never master, and secondly it was impossible to control the temperature; the slightest increase in either hot or cold resulted in a blast of icy water or a scalding.  After only a few attempts I returned to washing my hair in the bath, and rinsing it thoroughly with a green plastic jug in the sink.  I noticed soon after that the wretched thing was hanging behind the bathroom door gathering dust, and eventually it disappeared.    The strange thing was that the green jug never did get replaced in all the years I was at Putney, the same green lime-scale stained old jug remained. I know this because I discovered it when I was last at my mothers’, there in her untidy bathroom by the sink was the same wretched, by now more than fifty year-old, green jug.  I am sorely tempted to buy her a replacement for Christmas, though what a tawdry present that would be.

The other thing about the bath at Putney, was that you were only supposed to fill it with about three, or maybe if you were brave four inches of water. “That’s plenty of hot water Catherine; I never have my bath any deeper than that.” As soon as I moved out I took great pleasure and have done ever since in luxuriating in a bath filled almost to the brim, testing out Archimedes theory to its’ limit as the water laps gingerly at the edges of my elegant roll-top bath.  But I also love a shower, now that I at last have one; I love that feeling of being pelted with a hard stream of very hot water, little darts of water hitting your skin, and the top of your head.  There is nothing quite as invigorating, and so speedy if time is short, you can literally shower and towel dry your hair in the time it takes to draw a bath.  So, I have never quite resolved the question, a shower or a bath?  And even now, when I have all the time in the world, I tend to shower daily and take a long leisurely bath on a Sunday evening, as if preparing for the week ahead.

So the answer is of course both, though I am sure that I could manage with only one quite happily if push came to shove.

We never had a dog

Sunday 2nd October 

In all the years of growing up we never had a dog, Grandma would have never countenanced such a thing I am sure, and growing up, maybe sensing this, I never asked for one.  It therefore came as a surprise when my mother once told me about her dog, a spaniel I believe it was, and the long walks she would take it on as a young teenager, long-long walks for hours on end, and how happy she had been, just walking with this dog. Now, I had great difficulty in imagining my mother being young or happy, she had worn her misery like a cloak for so long that her actually admitting to a period of happiness, even if she was only twelve or thirteen at the time, came as something of a shock to me.  Could it have been the dog, the freedom that the dog gave her, the excuse to escape the house, to walk and walk, as she described it; and the dog was not only an excuse, a reason to walk, but also an integral part of her happiness, the key maybe to temporarily lifting her spirits, because by the time she had me, they had surely descended again.

Well I never had a dog, and even after Grandma, when it was just my mother and I alone in that house we never had a dog either.  My mother had started collecting cats, all sorts of waifs and strays, and they say that you are either a cat or a dog person. I have become a cat person too, my little Puddy-tat would be most put out I imagine if I were ever to get a dog.

Because of our lifestyle, spending long holidays each summer in Italy, it was quite impractical to have had any pets, let alone such a dependent creature as a dog, but I know that Edward really loved dogs. There were always dogs in his home when he was growing up, and he and his first wife had dogs too.  Whenever we visited friends with a dog, Edward would spend hours stroking and petting them; I tended to keep my distance, and was always a bit wary, especially of the larger breeds.  And keeping my distance I have continued, which is a pity as I think that on the whole they are far more faithful friends than cats can ever be.  My Puddy-tat wouldn’t hang around for long if I weren’t there to feed her I am sure.

I have decided that when Puddy-tat takes her leave I may well get a small dog, a shih-tzu maybe or a small terrier, but I am not all sure how we will get along; as I said we never had a dog.

An Imaginary friend

Saturday 1st October   

I cannot remember ever having an imaginary friend as a child. I cannot remember having any friends until I went to school in Putney, and the reason is simple; I neither met nor played with other children at all.

I was three when we left my parents first house in Chelsea (imagine what that might be worth today, with its’ artist-studio loft conversion) and were ensconced in Cyprus.  I am certain that Grandma would have made sure I was not contaminated (as she would have seen it) by contact with any Cypriot children, and I cannot remember ever mixing with anyone my own age, but then I was always older than my years; Grandma had seen to that.  So why did I not invent an imaginary friend; I cannot even remember playing with dolls though I am sure I must have had some.  I think it must be because I had a companion already, one to whom I confided all my thoughts, and that was Grandma herself.

And later when I did have friends I never really confided in them either, it was one thing to chatter in class and gossip about this or that girl, with her greasy hair or her spots, but I would never let them know what I was really thinking.   Especially about my father, and his lack of contact with me; in fact I was quite nonchalant about him, making up the letters he  wrote me, and constantly postponing my imminent holiday with him in Cyprus.  I did this to hide my embarrassment at the fact that I didn’t have a father at all, when all the other girls just took their fathers for granted; they also took their mothers for granted of course, but somehow Grandma managed to substitute for me the obvious lack of a real caring mother.  But all through this time I never had an imaginary friend, someone I could talk to, confide in, unless you count my writing, you know the diaries and the stories I would make up, maybe this was my imaginary friend, the one I was writing to.

And now, I am on my own again, though anyone who has been married for a few years will surely know that inevitably you are often on your own in the midst of company, the conversation either dried up or meaningless.  And now I am writing, first my book, and yes, I am occasionally writing other stuff, though whether it will ever be good enough I really cannot say, and this blog itself.

And maybe dear reader you are my imaginary friend, the one I can talk to without embarrassment or contradiction about whatever is on my mind.  So please carry on reading and be my imaginary friend, for I can honestly say, that acquaintances are many but friends, real friends, I have no other.

The sun has got his hat on

Friday 30th September   

I told you, back in early September, the sixth actually, though that seems so long ago now, that we might still get some sort of a summer at last, a final flaunting of sunshine, and here it is, a real late bloomer.  And London has never looked better; I am sitting in a Starbucks, medium latte (as I ordered, thank you very much) by my hand and the sun is shining.  The great thing is that the grass is so green, that late rich green of early Autumn, not the fresh almost too green of spring, or that dried out, yellowing sun-parched colour of mid-summer, but a deep soft lush green.  And it just has to make you happy, everyone has a smile on their faces, and people are automatically crossing the street, just to feel a little touch of the sun on their pallid city faces.

And what with all these financial worries, the euro-zone, and the world apparently sliding inexorably into yet another depression, actually of course the same one we slipped into in 2008 when the banking system went bonkers, don’t we just need a bit of sunshine.  The trouble is that humans generally do not learn from their errors; they mistake a degree of experience in how to deal with things as wisdom, when sometimes a completely new way of thinking is required.  So, all the remedies that have been applied to the financial crisis are the tried and tested tinkering with and fine tuning of the machine, when the real problem is that the whole thing has toppled over under its’ own weight, and like Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back together again.  Well, not in the same way; the driving force of the world, definitely since the end of the Second World War has been one of continuous and ever increasing growth, built on the twin pillars of cheap raw materials and labour (mostly stolen from the third world) and more and more paper money and credit.  Well the merry-go-round has stopped, the machinery has juddered to a halt, and all the little city-boys have been thrown to the ground.

We have to come up with a new and sustainable way of living together that doesn’t simply result in the same people getting richer and richer each year; while at the same time allowing everyone to have a decent life.  And just in case you think I have swallowed a book by Keynes or that I am at last a convert to Communism, no, the truth is somewhere in between raw capitalism and some socialist nirvana.  Don’t ask me for the details; that is for the politicians to work out, I am simply saying what they all know deep down.

But let us for a moment forget all of this serious stuff, and even if it is a result of global warming, possibly created in part by the stupid activities of mankind in the last century, let us bask in this rare moment of sunshine a day longer, please.

The sun has got his hat on, Hip-Hip-Hooray.

My very favourite painting

Thursday 29th September   

Do you know what my favourite painting is?   I first saw it when I was seventeen, and was overawed both by its’ beauty and by its’ sheer size; there is just something about huge paintings, the very scale being an important element, reducing the viewer in importance, you can almost wander around in the painting.  It is in the National Gallery, have you guessed what it is yet?  Well, you probably know that I have always loved the French Impressionists, and have written of my love for Manet’s ‘Les Nympheas’ in L’Orangerie, but that is in Paris.  No, my very favourite painting is Georges Seurat’s ‘Bathers at Asnieres.’

The calm I always feel standing in front of it is quite amazing, time seems to stand still, and I can easily lose a half-hour of my day completely, just looking at the painting.  It seems to have almost a magnetic pull to it, and familiar as I am with it; I must have viewed this particular painting hundreds of times, I always manage to see something new in it.  Sometimes it is the little factories and chimneys in the distance, or the people on that small boat.  But mostly I am drawn to the characters in the foreground; the bathers themselves; the one sitting peacefully on the edge with his feet over the bank (are they actually in the river) and the boy in the water, shivering with the cold.  Or the two onlookers on the bank itself, who studiously ignore us, or the dog – and have you ever noticed – everyone in the painting is looking directly away to the right hand side of the picture, except for one boy in the water who  has his back turned to us.  I think that it is this feeling that the painting is a moment in time and we have almost crept up on the bathers that makes it so real, I feel as though I too have just sat down on the river bank and am quietly taking in the scene.  And yet there is so much that is wrong with the painting, it really shouldn’t work; the colours are all so subdued and the green of the grass is just not a natural shade at all, the figures are awkward  and in some cases the perspective is all wrong.  Apparently Seurat painted each of the figures from various separate studies and put the whole picture together in his studio later.

The secret to the beauty of the painting though is in the subtle pointillism, those little dots and dashes of colour, giving that hazy but almost luminous feel to the work, apparently much of this was added later, after the painting had been completed, and I think that it works far better than his later pure pointillist style, where some of the pictures almost blur into obscurity.

So, whether you have never seen it before, or are a fan like me, go and see it again.  You can’t miss it, just turn right in the National and through a couple of rooms, and there it is.  It takes up a whole wall, and is easily my favourite painting.

Just learn the language

Wednesday 28th September   

Re-reading my blog of yesterday, I really don’t want anyone to think I am racist, or in any way biased towards people who weren’t born here.  Quite the contrary, I really quite like the fact that London is so cosmopolitan, and as you know, I have always loved travelling in Europe, where the openness of most Europeans is in stark contrast to the “Little Englanders” you so often find back home, who seem to hanker for some imagined time past when the “foreigners” hadn’t invaded.  The reality of course, is that, especially in Britain, we have been invaded by “foreigners” for millennia; that’s one of the things that makes us British, our inclusiveness.  I must admit that I had led a pretty sheltered life, and had never met a black person until I started working, but especially in Hotels there are so many people from so many countries that you just get used to it.  By and large I take people as I find them, and try to disregard the colour of the skin, and I have realised that it is accent far more than skin colour that excites prejudice.  Who could be more British than Lenny Henry for example, but when you are in a shop or speaking to someone on a helpdesk it is more than frustrating when one encounters an impenetrable accent, whether it be from Bangor or Bangladesh I might add. And in restaurants when the waitress can neither explain the dishes, nor even understand what you are ordering then we have reached a sorry pass.

There was a time when we nearly decided to live in Tuscany, we looked at house prices, and were weighing up the pros and cons, but decided not to in the end.  It would have been quite easy for me, as I was becoming quite proficient in Italian, enough to shop anyway, and I had already decided that were we to move, I would start Italian classes and learn the language properly.  You cannot expect people to accept you if you cannot even be bothered to speak their language, which makes it all the more annoying when people either cannot or will not learn to speak English.  I understand that councils spend a fortune in translating everything they send to people into several languages, which just perpetuates the problem if you ask me.

I am perfectly happy for anyone to come and live and work here; after all if they are working they are paying taxes, and spending money in the shops, so helping to employ more people.  What I cannot understand is why anyone would go to a different country to work and think it was okay not be able to make themselves understood.  So, come all you Poles, Ukranians, Chinese, Indians and Africans, you are most welcome as long as you can find yourself a job.  But for goodness sake just learn the language.

The thing about accents

Tuesday 27th September   

The thing about accents is that besides being an instant identifier of your origin, they can also be an albatross around your neck.  When I was growing up I was totally unaware of accents, either regional or national.  All the girls at my school spoke with the same slightly stilted upper middle class accent that was heard on the radio.  It was totally unconscious; we all spoke like that because that was how our parents spoke.  It was only with the advent of television that I even realised that in England, let alone Britain, there was a wide variety of accents; although precious few were acceptable on the BBC of the time.  It was on Coronation Street, which Grandma simply loved, with its’ racy story lines and distinctive characters like Elsie Tanner and Ena Sharples, that I first really woke up to the fact that the way people spoke reflected the part of the country they came from.  And on the news they would sometimes interview people from Liverpool or Norwich, and they sounded distinctly different.  By inference, did that mean that my accent must mark me down as a Londoner.  Well, no, because I actually spoke a sort of standard English that reflected a class rather than a distinct area; I later discovered that Londoners spoke ‘cockney’.

When I left the safety of school, where we all talked more or less the same, and started working I became aware of my own accent straightaway, and almost unconsciously started to soften it, to speak with a little less plum in my voice, less high pitched, softer, and more like the other women there.  I say that this was unconscious, because I think that it was almost a natural thing to do; when you are in a certain group of people, you want to be a part of them, to be accepted, and so almost automatically you start to speak a bit more like them, or at least I always have.  I don’t change my accent completely but I do modify it a bit, which makes it all the more surprising when one comes across people who are living and working in London, and yet have never even begun to lose their accents.  Surely they must encounter difficulties in being understood all over the place, especially the heavy Glasgwegian, or the almost sarky-sounding Brummie ones.

I was in my bank a few years back, before the introduction of cash points, queuing up to cash a cheque, which was the only way you could get money in those days (heaven knows how we all coped, but somehow the system worked).  There was a young woman in her early twenties behind the counter who, from her accent was from New Zealand, definitely Antipodean at any rate.  I passed my cheque through the slot in the glass, “How’d yer like yer kish, Mrs Litamah?” she asked.  I was miles away, not really concentrating, and not understanding her at all said “Pardon?”  “I said ‘How’d yer like yer kish, Mrs Litamah?”  “Actually the word is cash, and my name is Mrs Latimer.”  I attempted to correct her. “That’s what I said ‘How’d yer like yer kish, Mrs Litamah.”  This was the third time and I was getting peeved by now. “Look, if I can say cash and kish, and Latimer as well as Litamah, then surely you can pronounce them correctly too.” “I cant hilp my accint, can I?” she half pleaded. “Oh, I’m sure you could, if you really tried.”  I replied.

Nasty?  Probably, but how else was the poor girl going to learn to make herself understood.

What is facebook all about

Monday 26th September   

I have been persuaded to, well, asked, but insistently so, to open a facebook account in order to further promote the book.  At first I wasn’t sure, I didn’t see the point; all my friends know about the book, and they have either decided to buy it or not – I haven’t asked.  I mean, it is up to them, so why should I continue to pester them, via facebook, or in any other way, and probably alienate the few remaining friends I actually do have completely.

It has however been explained to me that ‘friends’ on facebook are not real friends; you know the people  you can really rely on in an emergency, those who will stand by you whatever.  No, facebook ‘friends’ are more likely to be acquaintances, or in the increasingly trivial world we live in, acquaintances of acquaintances, or people one has never actually met or even heard of.  In this bizarre way, everyone will be ‘interconnected’.  How ghastly, you might as well just link into the phone book, if such things are even used by anyone anymore.

Somehow, again by internet magic, or some sort of osmosis, my ‘friends’ will share my messages with their ‘friends’ and then these total strangers will hear about and buy the book. If only it were that simple.  Oh well, I suppose I will give it a go, but I can assure you I will not actually involve as a ‘friend’ anyone I would actually consider as one.  How is that for convoluted logic.

So, I have, for the first time in my life, been on a social networking site, and thank goodness I was warned by a friend to restrict the information I divulge, so you will find out precious little about me. Apparently the creators of facebook would like us to share everything with everybody; photos, videos, what music we are listening to, what we are watching on television; (what knickers we are wearing) as a sort of running commentary on our lives.  For what purpose, do they really think that anyone is interested, and besides if I really wanted to tell anyone there is always the telephone, or why not write a book, as I did.  I am sure that my account, with it’s evasions and half-truths will be a far better guide to who I am, than anything you will find on facebook.

If anyone feels inclined to be my friend on facebook, I will happily accept you, even though I undoubtedly do not know you. I am known as Catherine Sstory.  So go ahead, be my friend, and we will see what all the fuss about facebook is all about.

Solar by Ian McEwan

Sunday 25th September   

Brilliant, hilarious and heart-warming – a tour de force.  How does he do it?  How does he pull together his story from such disparate ideas; a dead-beat but brilliant physicist whose personal life is a mess, a murder that never was, global warming, and the world of business and science intertwined?  The man is a genius; unfortunately the genius is also a man.  I just cannot believe the women in this book, they are ridiculous.  And yet I seem to recall he understood women so well in his earlier books, I haven’t read them all but in ‘The innocent’ and ‘Atonement’ his women are all too real.

Believe me, I am no feminist, although you may be thinking I am becoming one after yesterday’s and today’s blogs, but no, I leave all of that to my mother. Women are absolutely the equal to men, especially in the realms of stupidity, and, by and large, have an easy time of it, except maybe for childbirth, something incidentally that most men are secretly jealous of.  Well, look at my family, for example – we have all existed on the largesse of men’s labours and not our own; I did work for several years but I never had to support a wife (husband) and children, my money was my own to spend, not to support others.

Anyway, the point I was making was that the women in McEwan’s book are just so compliant, so willing to have sex at every opportunity with, and I know it is meant to be funny, an increasingly fat and balding short man with bad personal habits.  Unrealistic, no, unbelievable I would say.  And they are all so happy for him to have other lovers, and he acquires women who are just as complacent all over the place.  Does it really happen like this, out there in the real world, the one I have never seemed to be able to break into?  I think not, not really.  This is, at bottom, a middle-aged male erotic fantasy I am afraid.

But I loved so much else about the book.  I always watch Horizon, so I am already a physics junkie, and just love all the stuff about photons and electrons and photovoltaics.  I don’t pretend to understand anything more than a vague idea of it all, but McEwan writes with such confidence that whether his science is real and works or is just made up matters not a whit.

So overall a success, provided you suspend common-sense long enough, which actually may well be the formula for writing a best-seller anyway.