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  • 0 Death of Iona Opie

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 29-10-2017
    0.00 of 0 votes

    The death of Iona Opie who, with her late husband Peter, brought to light the rich and often amusing culture of children's playground games and rhymes, sparked a memory of filming in a primary school for an episode in the ITV series Seven Ages shown back I the late 1970s. I had been fascinated by the Opie's work for a long time with their maps of the different “truce” terms children use to get out of playground games and meticulous recording of regional variations in nonsense songs. My film was set in Colchester in Essex where I hoped to find a decent cross section of the population of all ages from infants to the elderly. I cannot remember now how we alighted on the primary school we chose to film five to eleven year olds but we got a friendly reception despite the belief amongst the staff that the kind of juvenile folk culture the Opie's once recorded no longer existed. The teachers were startled when I and the director took a couple of classes and asked the children what games they played during break time. To give them the idea that we did not mean football I would ask what they said and did when they wanted to get out of a chasing game. Hands shot up and they all called out “ Veinites” ( there is no correct spelling) and crossed their fingers. It was the same truce term that we had a primary school in north London in the 1950s. We learned most in the playground with the camera crew mingling with the children and capturing the skipping rhymes and chasing games. There was “ Here comes Sally Walking down the alley” sung with the girls in two rows facing each other with one always peeling away to walk between them to the chorus of “ All night Long”. The Opie's had recorded more or less the same playground game in the United States. In fact many of the games and rhymes were international. How this could come about was a mystery because the culture was kept alive by a very narrow age group of children between seven and eleven. The songs and games disappeared rapidly in secondary schools. Many of the ditties were very naughty indeed and we chose not to broadcast them. However the clapping song “ When Susie was a baby…..” which goes through the life cycle from infant to grandma was so catchy we put it in the title sequence for the series. Here is a version from the very amusing Online Dictionary of Playground Slang: When Susie was a baby,A baby Susie wasShe went a cry, cry, cry, cry (rubs eyes) When Susie was a toddler,A toddler Susie wasShe went a scribble, scribble, scribble, scribble (scribbling action) When Susie was a child,A child Susie wasShe went a 'whyyyyyy? whyyyyyy? whyyyyy? whyyyy?' (pouting) When Susie was a teenager,A teenager Susie wasShe went a 'ooh, ahh, I lost my bra,I left my knickers in me boyfriend's car' When Susie was a married,A married Susie wasShe went a 'aahh, unnnnggggghh, aaaahhhhh, unnnnnngggggh' When Susie was a mother,A mother Susie wasShe went a bake, bake, bake, bake (rolling pin action) When Susie was a grandma,A grandma Susie wasShe went a knit, knit, knit, knit When Susie was a skeleton,A skeleton Susie was she went a (silence) We did not use the whole of the rhyme in the title sequence. The composer Jim Parker picked up on the girls' singing to create a catchy theme for a collage of images and we faded out of the Susie song with the teenage verse. This did not go down well with some of the popular newspapers. The Daily Express I remember wondered what kind of mentality would teach such a song to young girls clearly finding it incomprehensible that they had taught us the words. Though I have not explored playground lore in recent years I imagine it is still there, still as creative and comically wicked as ever. With the death of Iona Opie I feel sure there will be others to record the oral tradition of the playground which reveals a wealth of creativity that is largely hidden from the teachers of the national curriculum. There is a wealth of material here https://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Opie-collection-of-children-s-games-and-songs-

  • 0 Russian Outrage

    • Issues
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 21-09-2016
    0.00 of 0 votes

    News that a Russian aircraft carrier and accompanying warships are in the English Channel on their way to the eastern Mediterranean should put fear into the hearts of North Sea fishermen. Here, from my book The Industrial Revolutionaries is an account of what happened in 1904 when a Russian fleet, en route to Vladivostok to confront the Japanese Navy, mistook Hull fishing boats for the enemy. The illustration above is from a postcard captioned the "Russian Outrage!". On the afternoon of Sunday 23 October 1904 two fishing trawlers limped back to Hull on the north east coast of England, their flags flying at half mast. Those who came to greet them were at first puzzled, then horrified. The boats, the Mino and the Moulmein, were riddled with shell-holes. On board they carried the bodies of Henry Smith who had been skipper of another of the Hull Gamecock fleet, the S.T Crane, and his boatswain William Arthur Leggett. There were six wounded. It was a wonder that there were no more casualties, although in time the explanation for that became clear: the Hull trawlermen had been attacked at night by a huge armada of Russian ships whose nervous crews had rained shells on the fishing grounds of the Dogger Bank in the North Sea in a blind panic. Astonishingly, they thought they were being attacked by Japanese torpedo boats. As the Russian fleet of forty eight destroyers, cruisers, supply ships, torpedo boats and a motely collection of superannuated craft steamed on to the English Channel, not stopping to inspect in daylight the damage they had caused or to offer assistance to the stricken trawlermen, British Naval Officers arrived in Hull by train. What they heard was soon to be published in the Times and other newspapers under the headline of the "Dogger Bank Outrage. " Alongside the fleet of trawlers was a "Mission Ship" the Joseph and Sarah Miles which picked up one of the survivors of the Crane who gave the first and most vivid account of that terrible night. "We had just hauled and shot away again," he said, "and were in the fish-pound cleaning the fish and passing jokes about the war vessels, which we could see quite plain, and heard their firing, when suddenly something hit us. The third hand said,'Skipper, our fish-boxes are on fire; I'm going below out of this,' and walked forward, the skipper, who was on the bridge, laughing at him for being frightened. We were hit again forward, and someone called out and said, 'The bosun is shot.' I went forward to look, and found the boatswain bleeding and a hole through our bulwarks, and the fore companionway knocked away. I went to tell the skipper. Before I got aft a shot went through the engine-casing, and I began to feel frightened. I could see that the skipper was not on the bridge. I went aft, passed the chief, who was bleeding, gave him my neckcloth to stop the blood, went right aft and saw the skipper lying on the grating. I said, 'Oh, my God, he is shot!' I picked him up and saw that his head was battered to pieces. I dropped him, rushed down the forecastle, and saw the boatswain lying on the floor, with his head battered in. "Another shot came and hit us, I didn't know where. All hands were shouting out they were shot. I jumped on the bridge to blow the whistle, but that and the steampipe were knocked away. I tried to alter the wheel, but the wheel-gear was smashed. I then found we were sinking. I went to the boat, cut the grips,plugged her up, and put the painter on the winch to heave her aft, but found some of the winch smashed. Then something hit me on the back. I saw the GULL launch her boat. I dragged the skipper forward and got the third hand up on the deck and went for the chief. He was unconscious. By this time the GULL's boat came alongside and we put in the skipper and bosun, and got in ourselves - how, I don't know. "When the boy came to me and said, 'Where is my father?' that was a pill I could not swallow. For the life of me I could not tell the boy what had happened to his father. "The searchlights made everything like day. The fireman, while he was in the engine-room, saw the warship that was firing on us - saw her through the hole they made in the ship's side. They made a target of us. They meant doing for us. They needed no lights to see what we were. The searchlights told them plain enough." While British naval vessels followed the Russian armada as it headed down through the English Channel urgent diplomatic negotiations were begun. Admiral Rozhdestvenski in command of the Russian fleet insisted that torpedo boats had been sighted, and that one had been sunk. However he had realised that his crews, most of whom he despised, were firing on fishermen who were desperately holding up their catch to indicate that they were neither Japanese nor combatants. The London Times thundered: " For twenty minutes, we are told, the Russians poured shrapnel on the helpless fishing boats. They then steamed off without waiting to ascertain what was the character or nationality of the craft on which they had directed, without warning, this deadly fire, and without making the slightest effort to rescue the crews of the boats they had sunk.....It is almost inconceivable that any men calling themselves seaman, however frightened they might be, could spend twenty minutes bombarding a fleet of fishing boats without discovering the nature of their target.....The only surmise we can make with our present knowledge of the facts is that the Russians were themselves the victims of a disgraceful panic. The telegram from our Copenhagen Correspondent shows that they were in a state of extraordinary nervousness as they passed through the Danish waters. All sorts of cock-and-bull stories about the preparations made by Japanese spies for blowing the Baltic fleet sky-high ...." For a few tense days the possibility of war between Britain and Russia was discussed in London Clubs and amongst the highest authorities. The Russian Baltic Fleet had been directed to the Far East by the Tsar, Nicholas ll to confront and defeat the Japanese who had come to challenge territorial control of Manchuria and Korea. The Japanese wiped them out at the battle of Tsushima.

  • 0 Claude Shannon

    • History
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 30-04-2016
    0.00 of 0 votes

    I was pleased to see that Google chose on Saturday 30 April to celebrate the birth of Claude Shannon, one of the forgotten geniuses of the age of the computer. His name was unknown to me until I studied the history of the personal computer for my book Eureka: how invention happens (Yale 2015). I had been writing about another genius from an earlier era, George Boole, inventor of "Boolean logic" when I discovered that it was Shannon who had made practical use of this to create the digital age. This is what I had to say about him:  "It was a young American who realised that Boolean algebra could be used to process information electronically. Claude Shannon's thesis, written in 1937, had the unexciting title A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits but came to be regarded as the most influential paper of twentieth-century electronics. As with so much innovation at the time, it was a proposal for solving some serious problems with the telephone networks, which were becoming overloaded. Working for Bell Labs, Shannon used Boolean logic to devise a way of sending information in the form of pulses rather than waves. His revelation had come about because he had, most unusually, taken courses in both logic and electronics. In his history of the microprocessor, The Chip : How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution, T.R. Reid says of Shannon: 'If society allocated fame and fortune on the basis of intellectual merit, Claude Shannon would have been as rich and famous as any rock idol or football star.' Shannon was born in the small town of Gaylord , Michigan in 1916; his father was a judge and businessman and his mother the principal of the high school. He studied electrical engineering and mathematics at the University of Michigan, graduating in 1936. From there he went to MIT, where he had the opportunity to work with Vannevar Bush on a computer rather like a semi-electronic version of Babbage's Differential Engine. Shannon became intrigued by the work of the relays and wrote his thesis on A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits; in it he drew on the logic of George Boole. This work alone, which he completed when he was twenty-two, would have been sufficient to gain him a prominent place in the history of electronics for it showed how Boolean symbolic logic could be used to analyse complex systems such as the switching systems of a telephone exchange.  Later, working at Bell Labs, he went on to propose a theory of communication in which all electronic information could be reduced to a common unit represented as a 1 or 0, what he called a "binary digit" soon shorted to "bit". This became the measure of a computer's memory: more bits, more memory. Though he did little to popularise his work, which is perhaps why he is not well known to the public (like a number of other prominent engineers he has no entry in the American Dictionary of Biography), Shannon is regarded as 'the father of the digital age'. He died aged eighty-four in 2001 after suffering from Alzheimer's for a number of years. His obituary in the London Times captured something of his eccentric character under the heading 'Playful genius who invented the bit, separated the medium from the message and laid the foundations for all digital communications'. [ex] To colleagues in the corridors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who used to warn each other about the unsteady advance of Shannon on his unicycle, it may have seemed improbable that he could remain serious for long enough to do any important work. Yet the unicycle was characteristic of his quirky thought processes, and became a topsy-turvy symbol of unorthodox progress towards unexpected theoretical insights ….  Like Charles Babbage, Shannon was known by his contemporaries as 'the Irascible Genius'. When he returned to MIT in 1958, he continued to threaten corridor-walkers on his unicycle, sometimes augmenting the hazard by juggling. No one was ever sure whether these activities were part of some new breakthrough or whether he just found them amusing. He worked, for example, on a motorised pogo-stick, which he claimed would mean he could abandon the unicycle so feared by his colleagues …." It was Shannon's revolutionary information theory that provided the logic for the digital age.

  • 0 A surgeon thrown out of Trafalgar Square

    • History
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 13-03-2016
    0.00 of 0 votes

    While the imperialist Cecil Rhodes survived a recent campaign to have his statue removed from an Oxford University college, a little known bid to have the statue of an internationally renowned doctor returned to its rightful pedestal in London has been continuous for more than 150 years. Edward Jenner was the country surgeon who proposed in 1798 that a safer way of protecting against smallpox was to inoculate with a disease which affected cattle rather than the smallpox virus itself. Though the Royal Society refused to publish his proposal when it appeared as private paper it became an international sensation. Jenner called his miracle medicine variola vaccinae meaning literally "smallpox of the cow". Its use soon became known as vaccination. In Jenner's day it meant only inoculation against smallpox but was later applied to immunization against a great variety of infections in honour of his pioneering work. There were problems with vaccination as there was no scientific understanding of how it worked. Many doctors were opposed to it and Jenner's reputation rose and fell during his lifetime. When he died in 1823 friends and supporters asked for him to be interred in Westminster Abbey but the request was turned down. He was buried in the parish in Gloucestershire where his father had been a pastor and he had his medical practice. Nobody from London attended. From the earliest days of Jenner's promotion of vaccination his fame was far greater abroad, in Europe and America in particular, than in Britain. When in the 1850s the sculptor William Calder Marshall proposed to a group of doctors that he create a memorial to Jenner they were enthusiastic but had difficulty in raising the necessary funds. The money was not found until an appeal was made to the medical profession abroad. The United States, which had introduced vaccination for smallpox soon after Jenner's 1798 paper was published, made the largest donation, followed by Russia and in third place, Great Britain. When in 1858 it was learned in Parliament that permission had been given by Queen Victoria to provide a plinth for Jenner in Trafalgar Square there were immediate protests. In the Commons Thomas Slingsby Duncombe MP was reported as saying: "Cowpox was a very good thing in its proper place, but it had no business among the naval and military heroes of the country. Everybody who heard of the statue spoke of it with ridicule and disgust……he trusted that the House would pass a resolution calling upon them not to pollute or desecrate the ground by erecting a statue there to the promulgator or cowpox throughout the country." Clearly Duncombe was anti-vaccination, but the chief objection expounded in the newspapers was that Trafalgar Square was reserved for military heroes and Jenner had no right to be there. Jenner's statue, covered before its unveiling, had been placed next to that of Sir Charles James Napier an army officer, and a number of newspapers remarked on the incongruity of a mere benefactor of mankind being afforded the same status as a brave leader who risked his life for his country. " Why should Dr Jenner be found in such formidable society? " asked the Times. Nevertheless, the unveiling of Calder Marshall's statue went ahead in May 1858 with Prince Albert performing the inauguration ceremony. It remained there, despite many objections, until early in February 1862. The fact that Prince Albert had approved of the statue being in Trafalgar almost certainly extended Jenner's residence there: his removal would have been seen as a snub to Royalty. Albert died on 14 December 1861 and Queen Victoria went into mourning. Just a few weeks later there were reports of a mysterious appearance of a statue of Jenner on a new site to the west of Trafalgar Square. "During the last few days vistors to Kensington-gardens have been surprised by the appearance of the statue of Dr Jenner, of small-pox vaccination celebrity standing – or rather sitting– with its natural air of placidity on a new pedestal……This statue,it will be remembered, was some time ago, promoted to a distinguished position near the Nelson Column… but it has been furtively removed to Kensingon-gardens without any cause for its 'translation' being assigned". No fuss was made about this quiet act of demotion: most newspapers just remarked on the fact that Jenner gone from Trafalgar Square. The satirical magazine Punch could not resist publishing a few puns on "spots" including a little verse: England's ingratitude still blotsThe escutcheon of the brave and freeI saved you many million spots,And now you grudge one spot for me. For many years Jenner's statue was ignored. But his reputation has risen in recent years to perhaps its most illustrious level. The statue is smartened up and has a proper dedication on the plinth: Edward Jenner MD FRS1749-1823Country Doctor who benefited Mankind In Jenner's time smallpox was a dreaded disease worldwide and caused many deaths particularly of children. Survivors were left badly scarred and often blinded or deformed. In 1769 Jenner vaccinated James Phipps with cowpox and showed that the boy was immune to smallpox. He predicted the worldwide eradication of smallpox. This was finally achieved in 1980. So far efforts to have him re-installed in Trafalgar Square have failed despite the backing of the British Medical Journal and a culture in which a medical man with a world-wide reputation might be regarded by the public and in Parliament as a good deal more worthy of adulation than a military leader.

  • 0 They're playing my tune...

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 04-03-2016
    0.00 of 0 votes

    Ever since the astonishing adulation heaped on David Bowie after his death on 10 January I have been mulling over the musical influences on my own life. Bowie meant absolutely nothing to me: his music did not appeal. When the Guardian made his portrait a full front page I, and most of my friends, were astonished. Yet Robert Peston, the former BBC reporter recently moved to ITV, said Bowie would "have his vote as the most important Briton of our age." Recognising that what he was writing might be dismissed as "sentimental pap", Peston felt he could fairly say that Bowie "probably had as big an influence on me as anyone, not just in respect of music and fashion, but also gender politics and identity." This set me thinking: while Bowie meant nothing to me, perhaps some other musician had a big influence on me. Bob Dylan maybe. I came to love some of his songs and I regard him as the greatest popular musician of my generation. But I am not sure he had any influence on me. Maybe he accentuated my natural cynicism. He wrote very little that was sentimental. Who else might have influenced me? I liked James Taylor, Kris Kristofferson, and a host of blues musicians such as Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy. But, try as I might to identify a musician who I could say was " probably as a big an influence on me as anyone", there is just a blank. Peston says he was hooked on Bowie when he was just twelve years old. That was in 1972. I had a look at the charts when I was twelve back in 1957. All the songs are very evocative: Tommy Steele Singing the Blues, Lonnie Donegan Cumberland Gap, Elvis Presley All shook up, Paul Anka Diana and Buddy Holly That'll be the day. My father sometimes listened to Pete Murray's Radio Luxembourg show with me when I was in bed and would mumble "they're all masochistic songs." I did not buy a record until 1960 when I got a Saturday job selling paraffin in a local store. When I got in I had to soak in a bath to wash the paraffin off and the record I bought still evokes a whiff of it. I cannot remember now why I chose Fats Domino's Walking to New Orleans but that is the 45 I asked my mother to buy with my paraffin money and it was there for me when I got out of the Saturday bath. I was then fifteen and about to become hooked on folk music and the blues: at sixteen I was learning the guitar and hanging out in coffee bars. By that time I think my taste in music, such is it became, was influenced earlier by the records played on BBC children's radio. I have asked a number of friends who are of a similar age to me–say mid-sixties to early seventies­–and they instantly start humming and recalling the songs of our childhood: The runaway train, How much is that doggie in the window, The teddy bears picnic, I'm a blue toothbrush etc. Of these I would say The runaway train was the one that got me interested in blues and folk music. It was sung by a Texan called Vernon Dalhart, born in 1883 who had performed in opera before he pioneered recordings which became known as "country music". Others were clearly taken with other songs from that era. On his interview on the BBC's Desert Island Discs, the cookery writer Nigel Slater chose the Teddy Bears' Picnic as the favourite of the eight records he was allowed to take with him to imaginary isolation. Perhaps more surprising was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher'schoice in 1987 in an interview with the pop magazine Smash Hits: her all-time favourie was the 1953 hit How much is that doggie in the window. The American version sung by Patti Page was number one in the US charts when Thatcher was in her twenties. It was also a hit in the UK with a cover version by Lita Roza which made her the first female vocalist to top the singles chart. According to legend Roza hated the song so much that she refused to sing it again. There is no doubt that music evokes memories of childhood as well as adolescence and emotional times in our adult lives. But do they influence us in the way Robert Peston wants us to believe Bowie influenced him. I still find it difficult to accept that Peston would have lived a different life had it not been for the excitement of seeing Bowie on Top of the Pops dressed like a clown and calling himself Ziggy Stardust.

  • 0 Harold Wilson's Cigar

    • History
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 12-11-2015
    0.00 of 0 votes

    All the fuss about Jeremy Corbyn's image has brought to a mind an incident from long ago when smoking was quite acceptable in public and a puff on a pipe could be regarded as avuncular and reassuring. In the run-up to the general election in February 1974 I was given an assignment by the group of newspapers I worked for to follow Harold Wilson and his entourage in the hope of getting an interview. I sat with fellow reporters below a platform somewhere in south London ( Putney I think ) while Wilson complained bitterly about the political bias of the Press, stabbing the air with his pipe stem. He puffed away the whole evening so that by the time the meeting was closed the place was wreathed in smoke. I tried to get my interview backstage but a BBC Panorama crew got him into a car to drive back to his home in Lord North Street, Westminster. I managed to get a lift in the car behind with Mary, his wife. I recall her worrying about whether their son Giles would have a hot water bottle when they all went to Huddersfield, Wilson's constituency. It was February after all. When we got to Lord North Street Wilson had gone upstairs. I think it was his sister who came downstairs in a dressing gown. It was around midnight by then. There was excitement because the following days newspapers which had just been delivered headlined the fact that Enoch Powell was urging everyone to vote Labour. After a few minutes Wilson appeared and stood at the bottom of the stairs. He called across the room: "You can interview me if you don't mention this". It was a large Havana cigar, not yet lit, held between two fingers. Meekly, I nodded my consent to self-imposed censorship. I followed Wilson upstairs where he quizzed me about my politics and I rolled out my Labour credentials: chiefly the fact that, during elections, my grandmother in Northumberland provided the Party committee room in her little terraced house. We chatted briefly and inconsequentially and I have no memory of what I wrote but I am sure if I could find it again it would be banal. Wilson asked if I smoked and when I said I did he got his "bag carrier", a chap called Alf Richman, to cut a cigar for me. All his public life Wilson was a pipe smoker: the image of the cigar was too potent for a staunch Labour man. It has been said, too, that the pipe came in handy for interviews as he would relight it whenever he was asked a difficult questions giving himself time to consider his answer. Now, of course, the pipe would be banished. I wonder when was the last time a senior politician has been seen smoking in public.