Take me back to Luskentyre

This would be a good time to be walking on the breathtaking beach at Luskentyre in the Outer Hebrides – assuming the weather is as sunny and (fairly) warm as it is at the moment in Norwich. Last time I was there – at the height of summer – it would have been a real challenge not to distance yourself socially from other beach-users, because there were so few of them.

Of course there might be good reasons not to isolate yourself in Luskentyre. I’m unsure about the toilet roll situation there, not to mention the food supply, and supermarket deliveries might be a problem.

But it’s definitely a good place to get away from it all in these stultifying times. I am fortunate in being forced to stay in a reasonably sized house with a beautiful woman, which is not something I’m desperate to get away from. Others are stranded on their own, or with someone who does not appreciate their finer qualities, or someone who abuses them, physically or verbally.

We do have a garden, and it’s in fine condition, because my wife has been working in it almost all this week. What have I been doing? Well, being a writer means my workload has increased, if anything, and I still can’t catch up. She likes gardening. Honestly.

I do try to get some exercise, and our neighbours, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, who are naturally closed, kindly left their gate open a for a couple of days so that I could take my daily exercise in their empty car park. However, they have now radically closed it, and my garden is not really big enough to get going in. A great deal of intricate manoeuvres are necessary to get from one end to the other, and even if you wiggle your hips, it still isn’t very far in terms of steps, which is what we all measure our fitness in nowadays.

We do have thoughtful neighbours and friends, which means that we are not hungry. Amazon have just delivered some olive oil, so that’s all right. I am expecting some peppercorns later. 

I am also doing what the Government tells me to. I am like that.

But I am paying little attention to the statistics on television or in the paper, because I still believe what my father told me over 60 years ago: “There are lies, damned lies and then statistics.” It wasn’t original to him, but he liked it.

I don’t actually think most statisticians make it all up; it’s just that there are so many unknowns, especially where viruses are concerned. It’s like economic forecasts – they are always wrong, and there’s always a good reason. Really.

Getting out of Bethlehem

Shortly after we left Bethlehem, they closed it down. If our journey had been a week later, we would probably still be there, stranded by the coronavirus. We would not even be able to wander round the rather beautiful Church of the Nativity – the oldest church in the country – because it is now locked. Manger Square, I would imagine, is open, because you can’t really close it.

I didn’t catch the coronavirus in Bethlehem, but I did get a rather nasty bout of diarrhoea and had to miss our group’s visit to Old Jerusalem. Annoying, but it could have been worse. I recovered sufficiently to get home in relative comfort.

Funny place, the Holy Land. Who would have guessed that Bethlehem actually adjoins Jerusalem? There is no countryside between – just a checkpoint and a wall. Bethlehem is in Palestine, whereas Jerusalem is mostly in Israel.

We spent quite a bit of time in Palestine (or the Palestinian Territories, or the West Bank), and mostly you wouldn’t know the difference, but of course differences are not always visible. Freedom of movement is not visible. Human rights are not visible.

I’m note sure what I expected in terms of the biblical sites, which were the main reason for our pilgrimage. Basically, if you could build a church on something, there was a church there – or two, or three. This did not really help. The only place they didn’t seem to have built a church was on Lake Galilee, which was as lovely as I expected.

But the most beautiful site was Caesarea Philippi, on the edge of the Golan Heights, almost within arm’s length of both Lebanon and Syria. A low ridge, a huge cave, sparkling water, acres of Roman remains – what more could you want? It is said to be the site where Jesus asked Peter who he thought Jesus was, and Peter’s reply – “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” – gains extra power when you realise that they were surrounded by temples to Roman deities and a cave that was supposed to be the entrance to hell.

I suppose what stuck in my mind was not so much the sites – though many were striking – but the distance between them. We are sort of used to the idea of Jesus wandering around, preaching and healing, but he had to make some pretty serious treks. Nazareth may be only three or four miles from Cana, but it’s about 70 miles from Jerusalem and 25 miles from Capernaum, which itself is about 90 miles from Jerusalem. Caesarea Philippi is about 125 miles.

And it’s not just distance. Practically everywhere we went was accessed by steps: it’s a very up-and-down country. The 15-mile road from Jerusalem to Jericho – setting for the parable of the Good Samaritan – drops about 3300 feet – higher than the highest mountain in England. Jericho is the lowest city in the world, at nearly 850 feet below sea level. Not an easy commute, on foot.

Six hours to kill, no car and not much rain

 As I sit here in the middle of Storm Ciara, well protected (I hope) by several walls and a roof, my thoughts turn to Westray, in the Orkney islands, where there are no trees.

Admittedly, that does avoid the possibility of one falling on you, but it also means that the wind sweeps across with virtually nothing in its way, which can be annoying. Apparently you get used to it – or so I was told when I was there last summer.

We went by air – in a very small plane which held eight moderately sized people – and we were deposited fairly early in the morning on a very small airstrip at the north of the island, from where we were transported to our B&B some miles away, the other side of the main village, Pierowall. 

Unfortunately the B&B was not ready to accept us until 4pm, which meant that we had about six hours to kill. We had no car and no provisions. There were no buses. The weather was not exactly warm, and there were very few people, but at least it didn’t rain much.

Nothing much happened, but it was one of the most memorable days of my life.

We took in a castle, a white beach, some links, a number of tracks and the only café on the island, which served me some absolutely stunning raspberry and rhubarb cake. We then found an ancient church and a hotel that served the only evening meal on Westray. 

We booked, and then found that we had to walk over a mile to the B&B, back for the meal, then back to the B&B again. If there had been a choice I would not have contemplated this. There was no choice. We did it. It was amazing.

It is often said that Westray is beautiful, and it is. But I’m not sure why. A lot of it is quite ordinary, with abandoned farm vehicles, wire fences, uncared for tracks and no hills to speak of. The coast is something else, but it was not so much the view that entranced us as being thrown on our own resources, with nothing to do but walk.

Sometimes not having a choice can turn out to be the best choice possible.

Woman’s shocking message brought my tree tumbling down

Family trees are awkward customers: they can lead you badly astray. For many moons, thanks to sloppy detective work and a series of guesses, I was under the impression that my mother’s family – the Browns – came from Cambridge, probably en route from Brighton.

This was based mainly on the fact that my grandfather was a gardener, and maybe he came from a long line of gardeners. I found a gardening Brown in Cambridge, and another in Brighton. Other things seemed to fit.

Brown of course is not a helpful name. It’s right up there with Smith on the unhelpfulness level where family trees are concerned, with the additional complication that you can spell it with an additional e if the fancy takes you.

To say I was confused would be an understatement. I was completely deceived. And I might have gone on with my self-deception for ever, if I had not had a shocking message from a woman called Nicola.

She had been dabbling in DNA and had discovered that she was my second cousin. Her grandmother was my mother’s cousin. Great! New relatives: what’s not to like?

In this case, nothing at all. Both Nicola and her mum, Jill, were delightful, and Jill turned out to be something of a Miss Marple (her daughter’s phrase). She had done some proper detective work, found that her grandfather was my grandfather’s brother, but almost 20 years younger. It was a big family.

What’s more, it was about as solidly Norfolk as you could get. Not a trace of Cambridge or Brighton. More Cringleford, Hethersett, Thurton and Bawburgh – among others. And many of them living in Norwich, just down the road, as it were, from my grandparents’ house on Hall Road, next to the butcher’s and now demolished.

I don’t know why my mother never mentioned them. Maybe she did, and I wasn’t listening. I am now returning to look at the maternal tree with more diligence and intelligence, and hope I can add to Miss Marple’s already impressive investigations. Relatively speaking, that is.

(Incidentally Nicola and Jill are not their real names. We don’t want to make this too easy, do we?)

Get rid of this monster from the planet Stockley Park

Little did I think at the beginning of 2019 that I would end it being angry at the abuse of football by technology. I mean, really. Football is only a game, and there are one or two more important things going on.

But I am a bit concerned now that someone is going to get killed – probably a referee.

Referees are used to being disliked, and I’m sure they enjoy the amusing little ditties sung to them by peeved spectators – ditties of which “You don’t know what you’re doing” is the most common, and probably the only one quotable on a family website like this.

So what’s the problem? Decisions are being made about games in the Premiership by a monster called VAR, probably from the planet ZOG. Or as some would have it, “the morons inside Stockley Park”, which, in case you were wondering, is in Middlesex, not far from ZOG.

Good goals are being disallowed by machines that have no concept of the spirit of the game. And if you’re going to argue that the decisions are actually made by referees, those are the machines I’m talking about.

So we have technology that can draw lines on a screen fed by a multitude of camera angles, which enables referees miles away from the action and atmosphere of the actual game to pronounce that a scorer’s elbow or eyebrow is offside, and therefore a memorable goal cannot stand.

This is not the only example of technology enabling people to make incompetent judgements. Speed cameras: I say no more. But if you give someone technology that enables spooky action at a distance (to quote Einstein) the odds are that those in charge are going to want to demonstrate its wonderful accuracy, even if it isn’t accurate or wonderful.

Give a linesman (or assistant referee) a flag, and he will be inclined to wave it, even if he isn’t sure. Give the same official a complicated bit of technology and he will want to wave that too.

It’s not the technology that’s so bad: it’s the people using it. Why is there an offside rule in the first place? To stop players lingering upfield waiting for a long ball and forcing the opposing team to cover them – to the detriment of the game as a spectacle. It is not there to mention distances in inches, or millimetres, or toes.

If someone is not obviously offside, he should be judged onside. It’s as simple as that. More goals, more satisfaction, happier spectators.

A moderate and kindly friend who attended a recent game at which VAR reared its ugly head – and messed up yet again – told me they were so frustrated that they were on the verge of rushing on to the pitch, and so were many others. One day soon, it’s going to happen.

Don’t wait till the end of the season. Get rid of this monster now, before it’s too late.

Project Incarnation: the risks

In this coming Christmas season St Augustine’s Church, Norwich, will be holding an Alternative Carol Service, as it has for the last 20 years or so. Part of this event will be a series of dramatic interludes, taking place this year mainly in Bohemia. (Don’t ask.) Obviously I would like to give you a detailed preview, but this is prevented by the Official Secrets Act. So here instead is another secret document, which has featured in previous years:

Enter angel:

Report of the Angelic Health and Safety Committee.

Star date – oh, I’ll skip that bit. Actually, I’ll just read the summary. Then you can tell me what you think.

OK. It is the unanimous decision of the committee that Project Incarnation should be abandoned as unsafe. We have done a thorough risk assessment and survey of the area that was targeted, and a number of extreme hazards presented themselves. 

First, the planet itself is unstable. It is subject to unpredictable events like floods, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, and warms up and cools down all the time.

Second, the country chosen is in turmoil. It is occupied and full of people who may turn violent at the slightest provocation. Armed soldiers are everywhere, and relations between different parts of society are strained.

Third, the time chosen adds significantly to the risks. They’re organising some kind of census, or election, which means people will be travelling around, which means more crime, more chaos, more risk of illness, injury or even death.

Fourth, the people targeted for inclusion in the project are unreliable. They could fail completely to carry out the roles allotted to them. They could do almost anything.

In conclusion, we feel that Project Incarnation is doomed to failure. We feel it will not be welcomed; it may even be rejected out of hand. And there is a real risk that someone could get killed.

What do you think? I just hope he sees sense and abandons the whole thing.

Enter Second Angel: I think you may find it’s too late.

Clive James: writing without the dull bits

Common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing. Those who lack humour are without judgment and should be trusted with nothing.

I did not say that. I wish I had, but I didn’t. It’s rather like Christianity, in that you wish everyone would “get it”, because if they did, the world would be a better place.

It’s probably something to bear in mind when approaching the General Election. Does your candidate have a sense of humour? It’s probably a more important question than most we’ve heard so far.

The person who did say it was Clive James, who has just died. One day in the late 20th century I met him as I walked across the Barbican in London. I wanted to stop him and tell him what a huge inspiration he had been to me, in the way I wrote and what I wrote about.

But of course I didn’t. I thought, Why should he care? He looked worried enough already.

Some of you may be puzzled about my being inspired by a TV personality, but of course to me he was always a writer – more specifically, a television reviewer. His witty, beautifully written columns in the Observer in the 1970s led me to try my hand at the same thing. I got hold of one of the earliest video recorders, taped programmes while I was at work (in the evening) and spent a few priceless daylight hours writing a TV column for the Church of England Newspaper.

This later became a more general column, and I was eventually able to write a weekly page for the Eastern Daily Press, which lasted for eleven years, as well as many other pieces, including fiction and poetry. But that’s another story. Several other stories, in fact.

There are many things Clive James and I did not have in common. I could not be Australian – I have never even been there, because it’s too far, as Corey Ford almost said. And I could not share his lack of belief in an afterlife, because I think it’s an absurd position to take up in face of all the evidence. But you can admire someone without agreeing with them.

“All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light,” he said. He always caught the light for me. I may be the only person in the world who would say his three strongest influences as a writer were Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Clive James.

I hope this doesn’t come as too much of a surprise, but I suspect it might. You have to laugh, don’t you?

Last Lenton of his generation dies

Last week saw a rather sad landmark for the Lenton family: my uncle Paul, the youngest of my father’s brothers, died at the age of 96. He was the last of his generation, and the longest-lived.

This of course means that I am now part of the oldest generation, and some time in the not-too-distant future someone may well be writing similar words about me, or one of my brothers or cousins. That, I have to admit, is a little unsettling.

Paul was a good man. He founded a church near Eaton Park and was decorated for his first aid work during the war. He played football till he was well over 50 – mainly in goal –- and I played against him on occasion. His team in those matches was Park Church. I played for Surrey Chapel. Games took place twice a year, on Boxing Day and Easter Monday, and were the forerunner of today’s thriving Norwich Christian Football League.

Paul was born in Norwich, but his parents came from further afield. His father was born in Norman’s Cross, near Peterborough, and his mother in Sheffield. I’m not sure where they met, but I suspect it was in London, where my grandmother was a hospital nurse. Her maiden name was Booth, and she always claimed that she was related to the founder of the Salvation Army, but no-one ever worked out how.

The family moved to Norwich from Mansfield in about 1908. Their two eldest sons, Leonard and Reg, had already been born, but the rest were born in Norwich. Leonard moved to Africa not long after he married, and I don’t think I ever met him, though I now know his daughter, who lives in Liverpool.

Reg was a good friend to us, particularly after my father died of a stroke at the age of 43. But eventually he too moved away, though not so far. His three children – all older than me – now live in South-West England.

The Lenton family continued to grow in Norwich and became stalwarts at Surrey Chapel free church. The next boy, Frank, became a manager at Colman’s, and my father David went into local government, eventually becoming assistant education officer in Coventry.

Ken followed in 1915. He was a company secretary, I believe, and probably because he lived fairly close to us in Norwich, I became friendly with his two children, one of whom is now dead.

Having produced five boys, my grandparents now came up with two girls – Dorothea, who was matron of Norwich School when it took boarders, and who was one of the nicest people I’ve met. Her sister Kathleen was rather more severe, but I got to know her better after she returned from Zimbabwe after many years as a nurse/missionary and lived in Norwich until her death in 2011. She had outlived two husbands. Neither girl produced children.

Paul’s birth in 1923 completed that generation of the Lenton family. His three children survive him – two of them living in Norwich and one in Lincolnshire.

I still have an aunt living just outside Norwich. She is in her 90s, but she is not a Lenton – she is my mother’s youngest sister; so her maiden name was Brown. But that’s another story.

After-effects of plaster cast caught me unawares

It is now a week since I had the plaster cast removed from my left arm. It seems longer. The cast had been on for five weeks and was getting extremely annoying. It was mainly the itching, but also the weight of it, which was not doing much for the muscles in my chest and shoulders, such as they are.

It was a tremendous relief when they sawed and levered it off: I felt as if I had been set free, and I trotted off to the x-ray queue with a song in my heart, which is always the best place for it. When the doctor said the bone was healing satisfactorily, the future looked bright.

What no-one mentioned was how the disappearing cast would affect my arm. The skin started flaking off and itched like mad. That has reduced in intensity, but it hasn’t gone away. The arm and hand were extremely swollen (I couldn’t find my knuckles at first). They were also stiff, and annoyingly there was quite a lot of pain.

The pain was not so much in the area of the break, which was to my ulna – the smaller of the two lower arm bones. The pain was in the wrist, and still is. My dentist told my wife that this was because the wrist had been held stiff for a long period, and I’m sure he’s right, though I’m not clear on the mechanics of it.

Encouragingly, I was able to observe improved movement in my arm day by day. I found myself typing with my left hand as well as my right. I could put my trousers on without any trouble (think about it). I could hold things with my left hand, though I still can’t support much. I could open doors. If they weren’t too heavy.

Yesterday I had a bath – the first for nearly two months. Up to then my wife wouldn’t let me get in it, in case I couldn’t get out. Well you don’t want to be stuck with a husband in a permanent bath, do you? I should explain that I had been having showers. You can’t get stuck in a shower. Well, not easily.

The wrist pain is very annoying, though. I keep telling myself lots of people are much worse off, but this – although undoubtedly very, very true – doesn’t help all that much.

The other problem, of course, is that I’m terrified of falling over.

What happened at the EDP – and why it changed

I discovered this week that Archant – formerly Eastern Counties Newspapers, where I worked for 30 years – is closing its print works at Thorpe St Andrew, on the fringe of Norwich. This was a bit of a shock, because I remember it being built. It opened in 1995, which is not that long ago.

When I joined the Eastern Daily Press in 1972, as a sub-editor working initially between 5pm and 1am, the printing press was still part of Prospect House – the proud city-centre fortress at the top of Rouen Road, itself still only 50 years old and due for demolition soon.

In 1972 the EDP sold close to 100,000 copies a day, covering Norfolk and bits of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. We had three editions: 1st, which covered King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, 2nd, which covered South Norfolk and North Suffolk, and 3rd, which covered Norwich and North Norfolk. This was a practical thing, governed by how long it took van drivers to deliver the papers. Obviously we could sometimes get later stories into the 3rdedition, and subs on the late shift, ending at 4am, changed several pages.

The EDP will soon be printed by contractors at Broxbourne, 100 miles from Norwich; so all that will no longer apply.

Circulation, by the way, is not the same as readership. A circulation of 100,000 could mean a readership of well over a quarter of a million. EDP circulation nowadays is about 25,000, but the paper is also available online.

This is obviously a massive change – but it’s just the latest in a series of changes at the company, the three most significant of which took place at intervals of exactly ten years from 1975 and were the result of technological innovation that affected all newspapers and prompted many premature predictions of doom.

The first was the switch from hot metal to computer-set printing. Before 1975 copy (that is, stories and advertising material) was created and subbed (edited) on paper and sent out to the works to be set by printers on Linotype machines. This came to be known as double keyboarding, in that the story was typed first by the reporter and then (after subbing) by the printer. 

A Linotype machine produced (not surprisingly) lines of metal type that made up the page. The page was put together inside a metal frame by a compositor – a highly skilled job that was completely and sadly lost in 1975. The type on the metal page (made mainly of lead) was back to front, because it printed direct on to paper (called newsprint). 

The lines of type were spaced out with thin strips of lead to make them fit tightly. Computers still use the term “leading” for space between the lines. They also still measure type in the traditional points (72 points = roughly 2.5cm).

In 1975 the company changed to computer-setting of type. There was still double-keyboarding, but now the mainframe computer produced type on photographic paper (called bromides). This was then stuck on to a base sheet (using melted wax) and photographed, making first a page negative, then a plate (made of aluminium), which was fixed on to the new press.  It printed on to a rubber roller (back to front) and then on to newsprint. This was (and is) called web-offset printing.

In 1985, just after I became chief sub-editor, journalists began using computers (dumb terminals connected to a mainframe) to input copy, thus introducing single keyboarding and eliminating the role of the printers who used to do the stetting. This was a big advantage for us sub-editors: we could call the stories up on screen, edit them and write headings. The big advantage consisted in knowing exactly how long the story was going to be, and whether the heading would fit or not. But the page paste-up and printing remained the same.

In 1995, when I was no longer a full-time sub, but standing in occasionally and doing some training of others, electronic page make-up was introduced, and the mainframe was replaced by linked PCs. Now sub-editors designed pages on screen using QuarkXPress, and the completed pages were sent by wire to the new press centre at Thorpe, where they made plates for us on the new web-offset press. 

This meant jobs lost again in the printing section, since paste-up of pages was no longer necessary. Pictures were scanned into the system and could be brought on to the page by the sub-editors. 

At the same time, we went from broadsheet to tabloid, which was much debated because it was usually associated with going downmarket. So it was decided to go a bit upmarket at the same time, to counter this feeling. And we didn’t call it tabloid: we called it compact. So that was all right.

Why did tabloid mean downmarket? Because there were more pages, and so you had to find more stories that would make a page lead. So you ended up making a lot out of stories that didn’t really deserve it and prompted one senior journalist to define the perfect EDP story as one that “had no substance but could be made to look good”.

This, of course, was quite unfair but undeniably amusing. It applies to all tabloids, of course. You might like to check.