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-
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.
The novelist Ford Madox Ford wrote that you could judge the quality of writing in a book by picking a page at random to see how it reads. Page 99 would do for any book, probably somewhere in the middle. I knew nothing of this until contacted by Marshal Zeringue an American blogger who runs a website on which he publishes the response of authors to an invitation to check out page 99 in their own books. He asked if I would have a go with my most recent publication Eureka: how invention happens (Yale). This was the result: My page 99 ......obsolete their creators are liable to be dismissed as misguided or backward. But it is their pioneer work that generates optimism and draws out the backing for the more advanced technologies which replace them. However, when Farnsworth began his labours, the industry view was still that some version of mechanical scanning of images was the most promising way forward for the transmitter. It was not that people were unable to see that a cathode ray tube camera would be superior. That was not in question. Very little work was being done on it because the problem of discovering how to manipulate electrons in a vacuum tube involved experimentation with a much less accessible technology than the Nipkow disk or any of the other mechanical scanners. With the mechanical scanners you could pretty much see what was going on with the naked eye. How electrons were behaving in a sealed glass tube was not apparent and involved a highly sophisticated understanding of physics. The key discovery that electrically charged particles a thousand times smaller than atoms would travel through a vacuum had been made in the nineteenth century. It had been shown, too, that when these particles, or electrons as they became known, hit a photoelectric surface they could produce an image. Farnsworth’s all-electric television system would have to manipulate this laboratory equipment in some way so that the cathode ray tube performed the same function as the Nipkow disk and the selenium cell. He was not the first to attempt this but he had a chance to be the first to make it work. The biggest problem was with the camera. As Everson had anticipated, California provided Farnsworth with some much-needed expertise as well as with financial backing. Bill Cummings, in charge of glass blowing for the University of California in Berkeley, who had made them their first tubes, taught Cliff Gardner the art. In time he became very skilful. Meanwhile, Everson and Pem worked with Farnsworth making magnetic coils and experimenting with the photosensitive materials. At the outset, Farnsworth was wildly optimistic about what he could achieve in a short space of time. In 1927….. My commentary Page 99 of Eureka: How Invention Happens lands the reader somewhere in the middle of a chapter I called "Seeing with electricity". Looking at it a good while after I wrote it I would say it reads well enough, though it is not especially evocative or enticing. No publisher would chose it as an extract for publicity: there are other pages in this account of the invention of television which are much more fun. The page 99 test originally was a way of judging fiction. My book is non-fiction and is bound therefore to contain a good few pages of prose which I hope are readable and interesting but which are not going to dazzle the reader. How much the text on page 99 would give a sense of the central theme of the book I am not sure: it is there alright but, out of context, I suspect it is not really evident. Eureka is an account of what I have called the "ancient history" of five twentieth century inventions: the aeroplane, television, the bar code, the personal computer and the mobile phone. Each of these inventions was made possible by a long accumulation of scientific understanding, technological advance and inventive genius stretching back at least as far as the eighteenth century. One invention would lead to another and technologies would merge. Scientific understanding was always crucial but the breakthrough – what I have called the "eureka moment" when an invention works for the first time, however crudely – has often been achieved by an amateur or outsider. This is not so surprising when you consider that only one of the inventions in my book, the bar code, could be said to have been a "necessity". Established industries had no need for television, the mobile phone, the aeroplane or the personal computer. Some of the flavor of the book is there on Page 99 as a rank outsider, the American Philo Farnsworth, struggles with the near impossible task of creating an electronic television system in the 1920s. He nearly made it but the effort broke him...now read on!
A centerpiece of Mike Leigh’s acclaimed film, Mr Turner, is the artist’s painting of a once proud Royal Navy ship of the line, the HMS Temeraire, being towed up the Thames on its last voyage. It is heading for a breaker’s yard at Rotherhithe where it will be stripped of its oak and other timbers and sold off to make snuff boxes, householder furniture and a variety of domestic items. The end of the Temeraire is especially poignant as it was credited with saving Nelson’s ship HMS Victory when it beat off an attack from Spanish and French ships at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. It has been suggested that for Turner, fascinated by ships and the sea, the demise of the Temeraire reflected in some profound ways his own life. He was a young man at the time of Trafalgar and Nelson’s victory mirrored his own success as a painter: Turner was a prodigy who became wealthy early on his canvasses sought after by rich patrons. At the time of the breaking up of the Temeraire Turner was entering the last and increasingly eccentric phase in his life. He had a sense of the beginnings of his own journey to the breaker’s yard. There was an account in the first biography of Turner of him taking a trip on the Thames with friends at the time the Temeraire was heading for Rotherhithe and this was the inspiration for the painting. This is now generally discounted. But if Turner had clapped eyes on the doomed ship it would have borne absolutely no resemblance to the hulk he subsequently painted. Whereas his Temeraire still has her masts, the real ship had been stripped of them and much else that could be salvaged by the Navy. Whereas Turner sets the scene at sunset, the delivery of the ship to the breaker’s yard was in daylight. Turners ship is towed by a single paddlewheel tug, the real ship was towed by two tugs. Turner’s Fighting Temeraire is not a record of something he had witnessed but a wonderfully romantic creation of the painter’s vivid imagination. Though he spent long hours observing colour and light in his excursions and walks, when he put brush to canvas the scenes he painted were imaginary. In Mike Leigh’s film surely a telling episode would have been to illustrate, with the Fighting Temeraire as an example, how Mr Turner transformed a mundane reality–the actuality of the demise of the once proud ship–into a bathetic vision. Unaccountably, Leigh fails to do this. It is clearly not because he was unaware of the circumstances of the creation of the painting: an article in the Guardian by the lead researcher on the film makes this clear. They knew Turner was not painting something he had witnessed. Yet they went to tremendous trouble and expense in the film to recreate the scene as if it was what Turner had seen. The cameraman, Dick Pope, gave this account of the filming of the episode: "We shot it very late in the evening, just on the cusp on sunset. We were blessed with the most fantastic sunset and the actors and the whole landscape was viewed in this beautiful light. It was almost in the same place as where the painting was depicted, bringing the Temeraire up the Thames to be broken up. Then these magical guys back in London created the moving Temeraire in CGI, which I hope you found completely believable because I did. We provided everything else!" What they had re-created was something Turner had imagined not something he had seen. Leigh wants to emphasise that he was not making a documentary: Mr Turner is fiction, a drama. But why re-create, cinematically, an image from Turner’s imagination? How much more telling to film a recreation of the reality of the towing of the Temeraire and use it to illustrate the way in which Turner transformed the mundane into the magnificent. My guess is this: Leigh has Turner as a working class champion, poor boy made good. The painting is patently nationalistic, nostalgic about a British triumph. If Turner actually saw the Temeraire at sunset, its hull and masts a ghostly vision hauled by a blackened steam tug then he was merely recording what he had witnessed. But by romanticizing the scene Turner was revealing himself as a working class patriot, the kind of “salt of the earth” character embraced by wealthy patrons. What other explanation might there be for the absurd enterprise of recreating a painting that could have been quite faithfully reproduced as an image of the original shot on a rostrum camera?
The release of a film about the one-time porn star Linda Lovelace brings back a not entirely happy family memory. I think it must have been in 1974 when my father was writing theatre criticism for the magazine Encounter that he got an invitation from a man called Jimmy Vaughan to view a film he had imported illegally with the puzzling title Deep Throat. I think he contacted my father because he had written an amusing tongue in cheek ( as it were) review of Oh Calcutta! ( a pun on the French, meaning " what an arse you have"). My father was invited to a screening of the film in a small studio in Wardour Street and he thought to invite a few family and friends along. It was, I have to say, an eye opener. I read journalists now suggesting it was "tame" and we would not be shocked by it now. But it was not tame at all. There was a general sense of unease as the first film reel went through and then the lights went up while the second reel was put up. I don't recall how many of us were there but certainly a few slipped off into street. I remember my father, trying to sound unflustered, saying: " Now I know what it is like to be a medical student." I can't remember now if he reviewed the film, but I think not. Later he was member of the Williams Committee on Obscenity, a public duty he thoroughly enjoyed. His favourite story was of the man who ran a smutty shop somewhere on the South Coast who was asked what sort of people his customers were. He cast his eyes around the assembled dignitaries, which included a Bishop,and said: " Well, very much like the gentlemen seated here.
It is a custom for people who rent out their apartments to holidaymakers to have a few shelves of books that they and their guests have read. And so it is in the charming apartment we have been staying in in Collioure, a seaside town in the Catalan district of south east France. I had brought with me Jonathan Fanzen's Freedom which I tossed aside about half way through, wondering why someone would spend nine years, as the story goes, creating characters he clearly despised. I gave up when I realised I did not care what happened to any of them. Luckily I had also brought Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns which gripped me from the first sentence:more than once, I put the book down with tears welling in my eyes. But when I put it aside, there were a few days to go so I went to the shelves of the holiday apartment owned by an English couple most of whose guests were English. There was a the anticipated range of light, popular fiction. I was looking for something more substantial to follow the wonderful book about Afghanistan. I was pleased to find A week in December by Sebastian Faulks and was looking forward to reading something of substance about modern London. Faulks set out to describe the lives of seven very different characters living in the capital: a hedge fund manager, a Polish footballer, etc. I got no further than the first page before I closed the book and put it aside. The first chapter was entitled Sunday, December 16. " Five o'clock and freezing. Piledrivers and jackhammers were blasting into the wasteland by the side of the West Cross Route in Shepherd's Bush......'" Piledrivers and jackhammers on a Sunday? Maybe, but I doubt it. Never mind. We find Arsenal at home to Chelsea kicking off under floodlights, someone visiting an East End synagogue to pay respects to a relative who " came from Lithuania some eighty years ago. " Then this: " Up the road in Victoria Park, the last of the dog-walkers dragged their mongrels back to flats in Hackney and Bow, grey high-rises marked with satellite dishes, like ears cupped to the outside world in the hope of gossip or escape...." Firstly, it is a lousy image if your readers know what a satellite dish is for and perhaps have one themselves on their roof, hidden,as mine is ,in a district where planning counts for more. Satellite dishes look to me like devices to receive commercial television, sport and films particularly, relatively cheap entertainment. What does Faulks mean by gossip anyway? And escape from what? And why are all the dog walkers council tenants and the dogs mongrels? Is this not a cheap slight, a casual pen stroke by someone who does not have a clue what he is writing about? Has Faulks ever visited Victoria Park? I have never been to Kabul or anywhere in Afghanistan but I found Hosseni's description of the people compelling. Perhaps those who know the place intimately would be critical of his description of the country. But I sincerely hope that nobody imagines that Sebastian Faulks in A Week in December has got to the heart of the astonishing diversity of modern London. Much of the area of Victoria Park is still owned by the Crown Estates. Much of it which was not destroyd by bombs and rockets during World War2 has survived and is very fashionable. The Park itself has been extensivley renovated. It is a very vibrant area. And, though I know nothing about dogs myself, I bet a lot of those walked in Victoria Park have just as fine a pedegree as the Wellington College educated Faulks himself.