Saturday, 23 May 2009

World domination...if the carbon paper lasts

Those of you who know me will be aware of my most recent trade or calling. What is less widely known is that I was previously a civil servant (paper-shuffler supremo) and, before that, an ironmongery assistant (pumping pink paraffin for the people). But, even less widely known, was my first career in creative writing. Sadly, enjoyable though it was, I fear that I peaked too early with that particular line of work. I think I was eight years old at the time.

It was 1963. Doctor Who was on the telly. And then along came the Daleks. The Daleks caught our youthful imagination in a way that nothing had done before. We were seized with Dalekmania, which was a bit like Beatlemania, except that Daleks didn't have pudding basin haircuts or nasal Liverpudlian accents. The marketing people caught on very quickly to this developing phenomenon. Within a short space of time, we had Dalek Books, comics, sweets, Dalek toys that sparked when you pushed them along the floor, badges (I recently saw one in a Brighton antique shop for twenty pounds), soft toys and soaps. And I started the Dalek Club at the Kensal Rise Junior Boys' School.

The Dalek Club was a very simple concept. Anyone could join. The only requirement was an all-consuming obsession with Daleks, and an inclination to talk about them to other club members at every available opportunity. Very soon, however, even my partially formed eight year old brain determined that this Skaro-related chit-chat wasn't going anywhere, so I started writing my own Dalek stories for other club members to read at sixpence a time. Sadly, I can't remember any of the stories, and the copies I kept have long since vanished, but what quickly became clear is that there was a great demand for them. The difficulty, in those days before computers, laser printers and photocopies, was producing them in sufficient quantities for my adoring readership. All I had was an old sit-up-and-beg typewriter (I think it was called a Corona), and my one finger at a time typing skills. Using carbon paper, I discovered I could produce a maximum of three copies at a time. So, I'd line up the paper and carbon...tap tap tap...three copies. And then the next three copies. And the next. Eventually (you've probably already guessed it!) I got tired of this, and the task of typing was taken over my dear long-suffering dad, from whom I don't remember a single word of complaint! There was a happy ending to all this, however. Dad became an amazingly quick typist, I made a few bob, and the money went to buy some new books for the school library.

So, dear bloggy friends, why am I telling you all this? Not for the first time, I'm unsure. But perhaps it does indicate the huge changes over the last forty-odd years in the way we handle and disseminate information. What dad and I were doing then was akin to the labours of medieval monks, slavishly copying manuscripts borrowed from some other religious establishment in a freezing scriptorium. Equally, it shows that some things don't change that much. I'm thinking of the keyboard I'm currently tapping, that hasn't altered significantly since Christopher Sholes came up with the QWERTY keyboard in the 1870s, in an attempt to stop 'typebar clashes', when the little metal rods containing the letters got stuck and had to be manually disentangled. The keyboard layout also enabled typewriter salsmen to amuse potential clients by tapping out the word typewriter using only the top row of letters. Incidentally, you can also type trout query. And terrier poo.

Apart from the standard letters and numbers on the keyboard, there is a positive gallimaufry of weird and wonderful characters lurking on the right hand side near the number pad. Take the @ symbol, for example. What on earth is that about? It's called, rather boringly, the at sign, and was originally used by merchants to show the unit price of a number of items, thus: ten whatsnames @ 17/6d. In renaissance Italy, an @ was shorthand for an amphora of wine; and in 15th century Spain, a unit of weight. More recently, however, the @ sign appears as the middle bit of your standard email address, and is employed as part of one's user name by Tweeters. Apparently, in the most recent recording of the Museum of Curiosity, author Philip Pullman attempted to promote the usage of the word 'Astatine' as a name for the @ symbol (astatine being a chemical element). This sounds like a characteristically apt and astute idea from Mr. P. I, on the other hand, see it more as shorthand for a bit of cockney headgear, as in, 'Blimey, guv'nor, where did you get that @?'

Another rather arcane symbol is #. This looks for all the world like the little grid we use for noughts and crosses (or tic tac toe), and is generally referred to as a hash. In the US, the # is used to replace the word 'number', and is also employed as shorthand for the pound weight. The humble # has, unlike the undervalued @, acquired a good many slang names, including crosshatch, gridlet, crunch, and, bizarrely, octothorpe, which sounds like a small village in Suffolk. I don't think Mr. Pullman has ventured to suggest a new name for the #, but if he did, it would probably be something like Neodymium. I quite like Casement, because it looks a bit like the glazing bars on a Georgian window. Or Baden-Powell, seeing it resembles the crossed twigs of a boy scouts' camp fire. We could also use the # in the same way as the @, as a word or part of a word, but it would be somewhat limited; #ish, # brown potatoes, corned beef #. See what I mean?

Your humble keyboard has so much more to offer than mere letters and numbers. Look carefully and you will find a tilde, a caret, a vertical, and a backslash. And, if it were not already past my bedtime, I would venture to suggest some rather more interesting names for these curious little beggars. But, to tell you the truth, I'm *~@#¬%!

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Do you follow me?

At some time in your life you must have encountered it. There you are, walking down the street at dusk; hoofing it along some echoing tunnel on the London Underground (other subways are available); or climbing your stairs at home. And suddenly you get the sensation that you are being followed. Now, this could mean one of three things; (i) you're suffering a paranoid episode and there's no-one there; (ii) there's someone who just happens to be going in the same general direction as your good self and there's nothing to worry about; or (iii) you're being followed.

In meatspace (as some folk have taken to calling the real world) option (iii) is not to be recommended. The follower could be a psychopath, hell-bent on slaughtering you in a revolting, but interesting, fashion, a private detective, who for some reason unknown to you is logging your every move and reporting back to your partner via a short-wave radio (if such things still exist), or (worst of all) a Chugger, who will greet you like a long-lost brother/sister and attempt to get you to sign up to regular charitable donations. I think you're probably safer with the psychopath. At least you can reason with them on some level or other.

Victoria households advertising for maids-of-all-work or other servants would often specify 'no followers' upon the handbill. The last thing they wanted was for hordes of disreputable working class men hanging around outside their villas, waiting for young Ruby to knock off so that they could whilsk her off to the music hall. It lowered the tone of the street, and it reduced Ruby's ability to concentrate on her work. Now, of course, it wouldn't be a problem. Ruby would switch on her laptop, log in to Blogger, Twitter, or some such, and have any number of 'followers' at the tips of her poor chapped fingers. Seedy young gentlemen in houndstooth jackets with pomaded hair and waxed moustaches could make mildly indecent suggestion to Ruby all night long without the mistress being any the wiser.

I have thirty four followers on Blogger; quality followers, all of you, to a man (or woman, of course). On Twitter, I currently rejoice in the friendship of ninety five fellow humans. One thing I've noticed on the latter application (albeit not amongst those with whom I currently correspond) that there seems to be, for want of a better word, a 'competition' to see who can acquire the most 'followers'. Personally, I prefer quality rather than quantity, so I hesitate to have as my 'follower' an American gentleman who does nothing other than witter on about James Dean and Marilyn Monroe (whoever they are), a chap of indeterminate provenance who claims I can make millions just by using Twitter, and a lady of dubious moral character who already seems to have far more gentleman callers than is good for her. But why do we feel able to sidle up to people electronically and ask them if they will be our friend? Would we do this in meatspace? What reaction would we get if we did? Tomorrow, try walking up to a total stranger, tug the sleeve of his/her coat, and enquire, 'Will you be my friend?' And then post a comment on this blog to let me know how you got on. If they let you keep your laptop in the cell, that is. So I shall stick to the company of those who intrigue, fascinate, engage or amuse me, and leave the virtual sleeve-tugging to others.

But I can't help worrying. I've been stuck on thirty four Blogger followers for an awfully long time. Is there something wrong with me? Oh. I now seem to have thirty five...

Thursday, 7 May 2009

You're history! Or rather you will be, eventually

First things first. I'd like to thank Argentum Vulgaris, Madame DeFarge and Derrick for their recent, and very kind, awards. Apologies to you all for not acknowledging same sooner. Having recently moved we have embarked upon a course of building work that is now in full swing. As I write the water main is being replaced and the sound of drilling is close to driving me bonkers. I've got at least another three weeks of this, so I have resolved to seek my solace through this blog. Once again, thank you all. It is my intention to devise my own Middenshire Award in due course, so watch this space.

I took a trip up to London on Monday, my first since moving down to Sussex. My destination was the Henry VIII - Man and Monarch exhibition at the British Library. Now, this library (for which I am fortunate enough to have a reader's ticket) is normally a haven of peace. Elderly ladies doing historical research for novels rub shoulders silently with students writing up their theses; staff bustle about unobtrusively with trolleys loader with leather bound tomes; and the loudest sound is usually the clickety-click of laptop keys. But not on Monday; oh no. The Library had succumbed to Living History.

There were hundreds of kids there. Some wore normal clothes; others had been dressed in the style of King Hal, with doublets, paper crowns and beards that had been drawn on with eyebrow pencil. The Library had laid on a feast of Bank Holiday Entertainments for them. There was a King Henry lookalike contest, a few Tudor queens knocking about (including Anne Boleyn with a head), a begowned scrivener, an apothecary with a bottle of widdle to disgust the kids, some musicians, and a crossbow-firing contest, which I stayed well out of the way of. And the kids were doing what kids do best - running riot, climbing on walls, crying, moaning for food...

But I did find the whole thing interesting. The heritage industry has this knack of engaging kids' attention (and mine, clearly!) by staging swordfights, jousts and the like in a way that never happened when I was a child. In those days, museums and ancient monuments seemed to go out of their way to be as dull as possible. No heritage centres then; if you were lucky you might find the odd postcard (black and white) or a guidebook that seemed to have been produced in someone's front room. Now you can't move for glossy guidebooks, pencils, chocolate and cuddly toys appropriately themed for the venue (though I've yet to see a headless Tudor bear). Of course, the whole Living History thing is sanitised; you don't get the stinking bodies, the rotting teeth, the musty clothes...these are things best kept in the background. But most such history directed at children usually manages to mention either 'poo', 'wee' or both during its course. One particularly good heritage event takes place at Hampton Court Palace every December, where a Tudor Christmas is re-enacted. The old kitchens are re-opened, and a group of cooks, expert in Tudor food, spends hours making cakes, roasting joints of mutton, preparing sallets, which they then refuse to let anyone taste because of health and safety regulations!

We are fortunate as a nation to have such a long history. The Saxons, the Norman conquest, the Tudors; all of these lend themselves to re-enactment groups. You only have to look at organisations like The Sealed Knot (civil war) and The Ermine Street Guard (Romans!) to see how popular the whole thing is. But I have a question. How will we be viewed in the future, and how will our 'heritage' be portrayed? Will it reflect the view that 'abroad' has of us? Will they have bowler-hatted city gents chatting to Beefeaters (yes, I know they're Yeoman Warders) whilst children in Benetton-style clothes play hopscotch or whizz around on skateboards? Or will it be something more sinister? Will visitors to NoughtieLand (a celebration of the 21st century heritage) be able to walk round a perfect re-creation of an inner city 'sink' estate, complete with burnt-out cars and sofas dumped at bus stops? Will they be accosted by Chuggers or Muggers - all in fun, of course? Will they witness fake drug deals between theme park employees, or watch a recreation of a drive-by shooting? And what food will be on offer? Will the menu reflect the multi-ethnic communities we have in our inner cities, with curry goat, tabbouleh and the like? Or will it be pizzas, savoury pancakes and Walls Vienetta? Will the restaurants be sponsored by the equivalent of Raymond Blanc, or by Iceland? Perhaps (if NoughtieLand isn't too far off) there will be jobs for our present generation of recidivists. Then, at the age of eighty, they'll be able to sit on an old car seat and regale children with tales of how they hotwired their first motor, or what it felt like to shoplift and not get caught.

This post seems to have become needlessly cynical, coming as it does from someone who now lives in the country and is more likely to encounter a moo-cow than a mugger. But I do wonder, when the history books of our own era are written, what will be seen as important. It is quite possible that those things that currently exercise our minds (climate change, recession) will sink into obscurity, and all we will be remembered for is our addiction to cheap high street clothes, our amazingly unfailing ability to moan about anything and everything, and our obsession with the weather. Don't you think it's been chilly for the time of year? Still, mustn't grumble, I suppose...