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.

Car crash despair – and the one factor I overlooked

I have broken my arm. Pause for “armless” jokes. Ok. I did it in a car crash that took place conveniently about 700 miles away from my home, on an island. Our car was virtually destroyed and we were stranded with bruised bodies, a useless ferry ticket and battered expectations. And lots and lots of luggage.

This was not easy to handle – especially the luggage. My wife did not have a broken arm, but she was so badly bruised that her lifting capacity was minimal. Seat belts and airbags may save your life, but they also beat you up badly.

I would have been close to despair, but there was one factor that I had overlooked – other people.

Jean-Paul Sartre is famous for his line that “hell is other people”. In certain circumstances that may be true, but in the circumstances we found ourselves, the opposite was the case. It is only through the kindness of other people that we got through the ordeal as well as we did.

From the outset, passers-by rushed over to comfort my wife, who seemed most badly affected. The Orkney police were extremely kind, as were the paramedics and hospital staff. From the hospital, the police drove us back to our B&B – a distance of over 15 miles and up a rough track.

But our B&B host was the star. She not only overwhelmed us with sympathy and TLC, but drove us to the garage where our wreck of a car had been deposited, helped us recover a large number of items and then helped us sort them out for transport back to Norwich. We would take what we could manage (my right arm was fine), and she would arrange for the rest to be packed up and sent off.

Then (as well as looking after six other guests) she drove us all the way to the airport at Kirkwall, made sure the airline, Loganair, looked after us – they did – and saw us off. What a star.

Earlier, I had rung the holiday company that arranged our customised trip. It was out of hours, but the woman on the end of the phone could not have been more sympathetic, or more helpful. She booked flights, contacted our B&B host and kept on checking that everything was OK.

In case you ever want this kind of holiday (without the car crash) I can recommend McKinlay Kidd. I’m sure legally they didn’t have to sort out these problems, but they pulled out all the stops. And the holiday was great too – as it had been, a couple of years ago, in the Outer Hebrides.

Back in Norwich, after a delightful couple of flights, we were met at the airport by friends and taken home. Happy ending? I’ll let you know. We’re both still in quite a bit of a pain, and I spent three days in hospital, but those other people got us through.

We told our B&B host she was a wonderful person. “No,” she said. ‘I’m just a person.”

I didn’t argue. I was too tired.

We have the technology, but it doesn’t work

Five years ago I lodged a book of poems and photographs with a certain online bookseller, and this week I received a substantial shock. Somebody bought one. I am now big in Worcestershire, but only in the sense that I am very, very small everywhere else. 

Still, this would be quite a highlight of most weeks. In fact it is a massive highlight of the last few days, during which I have been hit by technological failures at an unprecedented level and have had to spend most of my time trying to put them right, or work round them.

I am not even including the television in this. It has been misbehaving for weeks, to the extent that we no longer attempt to watch HD or record it. Most of the time we can now record ordinary programmes, and if we can’t, we can usually find them on iPlayer or the equivalent. Sometimes, however, we are warned that our signal is very poor quality – and indeed it sometimes pixelates itself out of existence. Sometimes it tells us we don’t have a WiFi signal, when we clearly do. It’s quite annoying. 

Is it our BT box, our TV, or something else entirely? Who knows? Maybe it’s just me.

In the last few days, other technology has been failing. My printer won’t work because it says the black ink cartridge is empty. It isn’t. It’s a new one. So was the one before it, which didn’t work either. I gave up and tried to use my wife’s printer to print a couple of documents off, but then her printer wouldn’t work because the computer couldn’t find it. Ludicrously, if she wanted something printed, she had to e-mail it to me, and I could then print it remotely using my computer and her printer upstairs – the one that couldn’t be found by her computer sitting next to it. 

Happily I am too mature to throw printers out of the window or jump on them, but I do think that would be a perfectly reasonable response. Since you ask, her printer is now back working, and I am about to buy a new printer.

Then I tried to install a Barclaycard app and despite entering all the correct information several times, I was locked out of my account. The man on the helpline was apologetic, but there was something wrong with his system (it was slow), and he had to ring me back. He eventually unlocked me, but meantime the Santander site had gone down. Temporarily.

I have a feeling one or two other things failed as well, but my brain stopped working about then; so I don’t remember. All this happened, of course, when my two technological experts, my son and grandson, were out of the country. Now my granddaughter is out of the country too; so I can’t even be beaten consistently at Cluedo.

Still, I’ve sold a book. I don’t actually have any money yet, but it’s something, isn’t it? 

All my troubles seemed so far away

We have had Barry in this week to paint the inside of our house. As a result I have been listening to much more music than usual, and I am happy – and relieved – to say that Barry’s musical tastes are very similar to mine, although he is a good dozen years younger than me.

We have run through a fair bit of early Bob Dylan, some Dire Straits, a lot of other 60s material and today I think we accounted for almost the entire catalogue of the Eagles – or the Beagles, as Barry calls them.

He has organised this musical treat for me at the same time as painting the entire kitchen, the stairwell, many doors and much woodwork – and conducting meandering FaceTime conversations with a man in the USA.

Halfway through, my wife and I stepped out of the chaos that is our house and went to the cinema to see Yesterday, which is a whimsical tale about a singer who finds himself in a world where no-one else remembers The Beatles. As a result he is able to pass off a large number of Beatles songs as his own and becomes a huge hit (after some amusing false starts).

The reason we went to see the film is that some of it was filmed in Gorleston, which is a memorably unexotic seaside resort just down the road from Norwich. And yes, there it was, as well as some familiar spots in nearby Suffolk. But that’s not what made the film memorable.

Probably one of the best films I’ve seen for years, it was beautifully paced, and the direction and script were superb – especially one line near the end which made me laugh and cry at the same time. Embarrassing, or what?

The actors were brilliant too – especially, but not exclusively, Himesh Patel as the singer and Lily James as his first manager/girl friend. Do see it if you can, even if your house isn’t being painted.

Of course you can’t go wrong with Beatles songs. You remember The Beatles?

Next week, Barry.