One hundred today

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My father, John Lisle Foster, was born one hundred years ago today, 22 May 1922, in what was then Blantyre, Nyasaland (now Malawi). He was the older of the two sons of Lionel Hubert Lisle Foster, a District Commissioner in the British colonial service, and his wife Judith Mary (née Sandberg).

Like many children of the colonial service, he spent most of his early schooldays in England, not seeing his parents for a year or more. He and his younger brother Humphrey were shipped from Africa to England, boarding at a prep school during term time and then going to a relative’s home for the holidays. It is hard to believe now, but it what was expected at the time. He was sent to King’s College choir school in Cambridge at the age of eight or so. As a result, although he was not a chorister he always had a good singing voice. In later life this could be heard at church services, his consonants being pronounced distinctly in the way he had been coached in childhood.

He must have expressed an interest in science and engineering because he won this book, the interestingly named Romance of Modern Engineering, as a school prize for Mathematics when he was 13.

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He went to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, in either the autumn of 1935 or early in 1936. I’m not sure which date is correct, but I know that he was in the St Vincent term, as he wore his term’s tie all his civilian life. At this time, Dartmouth acted as a school for boys who were destined to be navy officers. As he was still 17 when the war started in September 1939, he must then still have been at Dartmouth. In due course, he went on to the Royal Naval Engineering College at Keyham in Plymouth, where the war had meant that the course was accelerated in order to get the training done as fast as possible. After being commissioned as a Sub Lieutenant (E) in January 1943, his first posting was to HMS Ceylon.

The process of attrition for Royal Navy officers may not have been as severe as it was for their brethren in the RAF, but it was galling enough, and many of his Dartmouth colleagues fell in the war. One was on HMS Hood, sunk by the Bismarck in 1941, another lost a leg on HMS Penelope in 1944. Dad, however, saw out the war on a series of heavy cruisers and battleships. 

After the war, he served in a series of ships, mainly in the Mediterranean fleet based in Malta, and on shore in Rosyth and Plymouth. Having met in Hastings, he and my mother were married there in 1948. I was born in Malta in 1950 and my four brothers and sisters in Plymouth between 1952 and 1956. 

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By 1958, the war had been over for more than a decade and the services were contracting. Officers in their mid-thirties were offered a “golden bowler”, a lump sum and a pension for life. Dad took the offer, and we moved as a family to Gerrards Cross, within commuting distance of the Guinness brewery in Park Royal, west London, where he got a job. He joined an engineering department which seemed to be full of ex-service personnel – the chief engineer had been a Brigadier in the sappers. Guinness was only the second employer he ever had, and he would stay there for almost thirty more years, retiring in about 1984. 

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Dad behind his desk at Guinness in a photograph taken for a staff magazine. 

He was an old-fashioned engineer, a dab hand at calculating with a slide rule or log tables. He wasn’t really big into DIY but he had a few tools, some of which he passed on to me when I left home in the 1970s. The big screwdriver shown in the picture at the top of this article had, he told me, actually come from his own father so it could itself be 80 or 90 years old. 

I love these old tools. They have a heft and a feel which demands respect. I’ve inherited a few things from both my parents, but these working implements are amongst the most prized. And I will look at them with pride and affection today, as I salute a father who, sadly, never got to his own century.

John Lisle Foster, officer, gentleman and engineer, 22 May 1922– 25 May 2002. 

ADDENDUM: My brother Andrew, who has Dad’s old toolbox, has sent me this photo.


Most of the stuff it contains hasn’t been used for years, although Andrew has a ratchet screwdriver which occasionally comes in handy. I like the block of soap he must have used for easing screws into very hard blocks of wood (you can still see the grooves, apparently) and the old style round pin plug. 



For one proud moment, things did only get better

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Quiet confidence was the watchword to those in the know in the run-up to the 1997 General Election. Nobody at Labour Party HQ, or those close to it, wanted to talk up a Labour victory too much just in case everything went pear-shaped at the very last minute. However, I can reveal that some preparations were undertaken to mark what was likely to be a historic occasion, when polls closed at 10pm on May Day, Thursday 1 May 1997.

A very minor artefact from these preparations has rested in my kitchen cupboard for the last 25 years. Some time before polling day, David Wilkinson, Deputy Secretary of the London Labour Party, rang me with a fund-raising wheeze. “Let’s get some celebration mugs made, to go on sale straight after the election. People are bound to want some souvenirs and I’m sure we will sell out.” There’s quite a long production lead-time needed in the souvenir mugs trade, so we had to get the design ready right away, which I duly did. I culled a few words from the manifesto – thereby removing the need to send the text to be approved by the Leader’s Office, always a complicated process – and produced the artwork. I waived my fee, asking for half-a-dozen mugs instead, and everything went ahead. I picked up the mugs a few days after 1 May, and gave them all away except for one, which has been in my house ever since.

I have seen virtually no publicity marking the silver anniversary of Labour’s greatest ever election victory. There are local elections in the UK this coming Thursday in which, whisper it softly, the party could do well. But superstitious lot that us political groupies are, we don’t want to jinx the results. So fingers crossed for a good result that night.

The 1997-2010 Labour governments did achieve a huge amount, something that has been conveniently forgotten by those who took command in the bleak years between 2015 and 2019. One of those who held the faith throughout that period is Alan Johnson, postman, union official, politician and writer, who was first elected as an MP in 1997 and became a cabinet minister seven years later. Back in 2015, he wrote this piece in the Guardian, and it acts as a useful summary of some of the many achievements of the 1997-2010 years:

Before new party members become enmeshed in the “culture of betrayal”, it’s worth taking a second to examine the charge that Labour in government did nothing for working people.
Leave aside the transformation in health and education (plus additional jobs and extra pay for nurses and teachers), the 3,000 Sure Start centres, the Disability Discrimination Act, the Human Rights Act, civil partnerships, rescuing 1.2 million children from absolute poverty and 1.8 million from relative poverty, pension credit (which made the single biggest contribution to the fact that for the first time in recorded history being old is no longer associated with being poor), the Pension Protection Fund, the resuscitation of apprenticeships and the world’s first legally enforceable carbon reduction targets. Is it accurate to suggest that trade unionists fared badly in the Blair years?
Hardie’s vision of a national minimum wage wasn’t enacted by MacDonald or Attlee, Wilson or Callaghan; it was introduced by the Blair government along with the right to paid holidays (later extended by law to be in addition to bank holidays). Every single worker was given the right to be accompanied at a disciplinary or grievance hearing by a trade union official, regardless of whether the union was recognised and irrespective of whether the individual was a member. During the “virus” years, a woman’s right to paid maternity leave rose from 16 weeks to nine months. Paternity leave was introduced for the first time.
The ban on trade union representation at GCHQ was lifted along with the pernicious “check-off” legislation, which forced unions to re-recruit their members every three years. The Public Disclosures Act gave protection to whistleblowers, new rights were enacted to protect part-time and temporary workers, agency workers and those subjected to control by gangmasters. Legislation on union recognition insisted that if 50% plus one of the workforce was recruited, the union was automatically recognised. Prior to 1997 it had always been the case that an employer could sack striking workers en masse on day one of a dispute. The Blair government changed the law to prevent that happening. Far from being a period when trade unions were betrayed, it was the most benign period in their history.

Amen to all that. So charge your glasses on Sunday evening and drink a toast to the night when things really did get better. For a while.

Light at last on rugby dark arts


A scrum in the England-Ireland match. [Pic: YouTube]

Like many regular TV viewers of international Rugby matches I’ve often sat through games which have long sequences of scrummaging. From a distance it’s hard to see what is going on, but they frequently seem to end with the referee blowing his whistle for a penalty against one side, whereupon the other bunch of forwards look delighted with themselves and indulge in a minor orgy of back slapping and manly hugs.

It’s at this point that commentators habitually refer to the “dark arts” of the scrum. And we viewers nod knowingly, and take another sip from our tea cups or beer cans, depending on the time of the day.

But exactly what activity constitutes the dark arts is not usually explained. An exception came in last Saturday’s Irish Times, in an article by Matt Williams. He is now a TV pundit and journalist but was previously the Scotland and Leinster coach, so he knows therefore of what he writes. His piece was a preview of the match Ireland were due to play against Scotland on Saturday afternoon, but in it he also described what happened in the previous week’s game versus England, which to me looked as though the England scrum were somehow pushing their Irish counterparts off the park. He wrote:

“England’s scrum tactics were another example of the desperate need to overhaul the scrum laws. England were brilliantly clever and highly illegal in almost every scrum that resulted in a penalty to them. I admire their cohesiveness and the superb execution of their well-coached plan. It was a virtuoso performance of the dark arts of scrummaging.
The co-ordination from the English pack was astonishing. England’s tighthead [Kyle Sinckler] would angle in on [hooker] Sheehan while twisting [loosehead prop] Cian Healy’s outside shoulder in towards the tunnel. Simultaneously, the English tighthead flanker, Tom Curry, would break his bind on his prop and drive directly on to Healy’s ribs, illegally pushing him across the scrum. At the same time, the other six players in the English scrum would step in unison to the left, away from Healy. Like a well-drilled set of the Queens guards, twisting the entire scrum giving the illusion that Ireland were the culprits. Now that takes a lot of planning and coaching.
It was technically brilliant stuff and despite it all being highly illegal, I truly admired it.”

So now I know. And, of course, as soon as I Googled this, I found other explanations online. Here is an article on the interestingly named site with analysis from Mike Ross, the Irish tighthead who anchored the front row so effectively from 2009 that he won 60 caps and was forgiven his lack of mobility in the rest of the match. And there’s even a Youtube video featuring Matt Williams which you can see here.

Great Aunt Kyria’s marmalade

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I must have met my Great Aunt Kyria in the dim and distant past – she died in 1966, when I was 16 – but I have no memory of her. However, I do remember my mother telling me that the home-made marmalade she made every year was based on a recipe given to her by Kyria. And she made industrial quantities of it – whenever I went home a jar or two would be presented to me as I was leaving.

When my father retired and the pair moved to St Leonards-on-Sea (a terrible idea but they couldn’t be dissuaded) my father took his part in the production process. A huge preserving pan was deployed and several batches were made every year, with each batch taking two days. So perhaps it was not surprising that when my mother died in 1987, he carried on. It was good therapy for him, we children reasoned. And on every visit, another couple of jars would be pressed into our hands as we left the house.

This carried on, even though a few years later he remarried. My new stepmother was also a home-made marmalade sort of woman, and helped him with its manufacture. Round about the year 2000 and approaching his eighties, however, he announced that he might retire from the annual production cycle. He gave the big pan and the recipe to my brother Andrew, and helped him the first year Andrew tried it. I took the hint that I might need to begin making any own, and Andrew dictated the recipe to me over the phone.

I remember the first year. I used my biggest saucepan but it was nothing like large enough and I had to scale the recipe back. The whole process seemed to take an age, and I stayed up half the night boiling the final mix and never seeming to get it to pass the required crinkly-skin-on-cold-saucer test. Eventually I gave up, and put the small amount I had left into jars, and – lo and behold – it did set and seemed to have worked. It was very dark, but it certainly smelt and tasted like the chunky marmalade that I was used to.

My father died in 2002, and when we cleared out the house in September of that year, there were dozens of jars lined up on shelves in the garage. So much so, that I didn’t need to make any for the next couple of years. But now, every January when the marmalade oranges arrive in my local supermarket, I buy a couple of bags and search out the largest lemons, ready to start work.

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I bought a large stainless steel pan in our local Dunnes Stores – on sale as a ham pot – some 15 years ago, and have scaled up Dad’s recipe accordingly, so I now make just one batch of about 17 or 18 jars. And I’ve stretched the production cycle out over three days, which allows the mixture of fruit, pith and water to cool down completely. This makes getting the sticky gunk out of the muslin much easier.

This is my recipe:

15 large Seville oranges
5 large lemons
10.6 pts (6 l) water
10 lb (4.5 kg) sugar (I use 2 kg of jam sugar + 2.5 kg granulated sugar)

Day 1: Half and squeeze oranges and lemons, putting juice into the boiling pan, and the pips and bits of pith into a muslin cloth stretched out over a bowl. Cut the halved fruit into suitable size pieces, separating out any more pips and pith, and put the fruit in the pan. I use kitchen scissors for this, which I reckon is quicker than deploying a knife. Tie up the pips and pith inside the muslin cloth with cotton string and bung that into the pan as well. Add the water, and leave the mixture to soak overnight.

Day 2: Bring the mixture to the boil, and then maintain it at a rolling boil for about two hours, covered partially by the lid to reduce evaporation. Watch carefully as it may boil over and leave a sticky mess on your hob. Let it cool down overnight.

Day 3: Remove muslin bag, and squeeze out all the gunk into the mixture. (You can also then open the bag, put the remaining pips and pith into a small saucepan, add a little water and boil for ten minutes or so. Drain the liquid through a sieve back into the mixture.)
Bring the mixture up to the boil and add sugar in batches, stirring the pot after each batch in order to make sure it is properly dissolved. When all the sugar is dissolved, bring back to a rolling boil and watch carefully for about 1 ½ hours. Then take a small amount of liquid from the mixture and place it on a pre-cooled saucer taken from your freezer drawer. If the skin crinkles when you draw a finger through it, it’s ready. If not, keep boiling away and test again about 15 minutes later.
Let it cool for 30 minutes or so, and then decant into jars. Leave them to cool right down before you put the lids on.

Here’s the result:

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A note on the jars and lids: these should all be washed thoroughly before use. I put them in the dishwasher the day before and sterilise the glass jars in a hot oven while the final boil is going on.

A final family history note. My second cousin Sarah, who is Kyria’s granddaughter, now lives in the States, and I hadn’t seen her since we were all children. But she came to stay a few years back, and brought with her some sample jars of the marmalade she makes for her local craft fairs. Lo and behold, she still uses Kyria’s recipe, and the jar she produced did taste much the same. Bon appetit!

‘The’ shortest word ever hyphenated (possibly)

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The Economist, 18 December 2021.

Richard Hollick started working for Cambridge University Press in 1965 and remained there in various capacities for 29 years in London, Cambridge, and finally New York. He then switched sides, and worked for Oxford University Press in New York, retiring in 2013. His daily blog Making Books is full of great stuff, especially for people from his generation, like me.

He recently spotted possibly the most egregious example of automatic hyphenation, in a copy of The Economist, no less, and shown above. As he says in the accompanying post, with a sigh, all the established editorial authorities don’t actually forbid you to take over a single letter — because nobody would dream of doing such a thing. But automatic H&J programs which don’t have minimum character numbers specified may well resort to this.

Once again, old crusties like me mutter into our metaphorical beards and say it wasn’t like that in our day. This is principally because the human element has been taken out of the make-up of typeset text. A long time ago, I came across a description of how a traditionally trained Linotype compositor worked:

[He] knew, remembered and observed a set of rules for splitting words. He had to be ready to decide who to ‘turn the line over’, how to deal with word breaks, how much white space was tolerable between words. This decision-making influenced his setting from the first character of the line till the last. (Cynthia Cockburn, Brothers: Male Dominance and Technological Change, 2nd edition, Pluto Press, 1991.)

A fine explanation of exactly what is now missing.

From early sunsets to the long stretch

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Photograph taken at 15.59 on Friday 10 December 2021, two days before the earliest sunset time.

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Photograph taken at 16.02 on Tuesday 14 December 2021, one day after the earliest sunset time.

This is the time of the year when the earth’s orbit round the sun as seen in the northern hemisphere moves past the point where we have the least amount of daylight. In Dublin this year the earliest sunset was at 16.06.20 on both 12 and 13 December and the latest sunrise was at 08.40.17 on 29 December. The dates and times straddle the actual solstice which was on 21 December and is the day on which the shortest total daytime occurs. This year the daytime clocked in at 7h 30m 6s. (The reason why these dates vary was explained in this post of mine in 2016.) I have previously relied on the website but this only provides the data in hours and minutes. The site grills down to seconds in its listings, although the exact times differ slightly from the figures. Here is a screenshot from its site:

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Because we have had a few lovely bright afternoons this month I have managed to take some good photographs in the Phoenix Park near the time when the sun dips below the horizon, as seen while walking my dog Evie. The pics taken on 10 and 14 December are shown at the top of this post.

These pictures were all taken on bright afternoons, but when returning to my car on a different dull and misty day I was approached by a man with two large professional-type cameras slung round his neck. He turned out to be none other than Alan Betson, the celebrated Irish Times photographer. He had taken some pictures of Evie and me, and was about to send them in to the picture desk as possible shots for the next day’s gallery feature. Duly flattered, I of course agreed, and gave him our names.

Charles Foster and his dog Evie enjoy a walk in Dublins Phoenix Park

A dull day in the Phoenix Park. Pic: Alan Betson/Irish Times.

Sadly for me, the picture lost out to a much more joyful shot of a grandfather and grandchildren walking nearby. Our mundane trudge may not have been recorded in the national press, but with Alan’s permission, you can enjoy it as seen above.

No Comfort for planet as Unilever adds unnecessary plastic

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On the right is a bottle of Comfort fabric softener I bought recently. On the left is the empty one which it replaced. The old bottle, when finished, could be rinsed out and tossed straight into the green recycling bin. Top marks. However, the new one, although made of recyclable PET plastic, has a plastic film cover, which can’t be recycled. 

Many people don’t know this so they toss them in the recycling anyway. But some recyclers haven’t got a mechanism to process these bottles, and so they get thrown into landfill or incinerated. The most notorious of these items is Lucozade, although this is soon to be rectified according to this report. About time too.

So what am I supposed to do about my Comfort bottle? The answer is on the bottle, in a script typeface supposed to encourage user interaction.

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“Unzip here to undress the bottle for recycling.” I’ll ignore the twee language for the moment (part of the trend towards infantilism too common amongst today’s copywriters). Many punters won’t read the instruction, and many more will just not bother. Net result, fewer bottles recycled. In my view, anything that makes the act of recycling harder is going to reduce the numbers sent forward. This should mean companies should work to remove aluminium foil linings on cardboard pizza boxes, plastic film on PET bottles and plastic lamination on magazine covers (to name just three). And don’t get me started on those Pringle’s Crisps tubes. A plastic lid, an aluminium and cardboard tube with a steel collar and a foil sealer. The whole thing is a “recycling nightmare”, according to this 2020 BBC report on trials of new packaging. Some 90% is paper, but “around 10% is a polyal (plastic) barrier that seals the interior to protect the food against oxygen and moisture which would damage the taste.” And it may well still have a plastic lid. More plastic rubbish for easy dumping on our beaches or parks.

So what possessed a big company like Unilever to take the backward step on its Comfort bottles? Especially one which promotes its work for sustainability with a special page on its website. 

I should be interested to find out more. 

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The runaway comma

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For several years after moving to Dublin I would often drive through the district of Phibsborough, past a pet shop which proudly displayed its name as “Bob,s Pets”. The sign was also duly noted by Lynne Truss, and became known worldwide due to its appearance in her best selling Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Sadly, there don’t seem to be any photographs of the sign online, though I guess there must be some somewhere out there. 

In the meantime, here’s another Dublin example of a misplaced comma replacing an apostrophe, taken recently through my car windscreen while stopped at a traffic light. 

Pics of the real Bob,s Pets sign would be very welcome. Please get in touch. 

Type on the streets: Cooper Black

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There must be something about the Cooper Black typeface that encourages typographic nominative determinism. A mere three short years after my first post on this subject, I have recently spotted another commercial concern by the name of Cooper which uses its namesake typeface.

Step forward, as John Junor used to say, Cooper Insulation of Kells, Co Meath. Above is one of their vans, photographed in Sundrive Road, Dublin, a few hundred yards from my house. And here is the company website, featuring a number of lorries and vans decked out in the corporate colours.

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Choosing a typeface because of its “accidental association” is disapproved of by most eminent typographic writers, notably Robert Bringhurst in The Elements of Typographic Style (Hartley & Marks, second edition 1997). Here the great man writes:

Choose faces whose individual spirit and character is in keeping with the text.
Accidental associations are rarely a good basis for choosing a typeface. Books of poems by the twentieth-century Jewish American poet Marvin Bell, for example, have sometimes been set in Bell type – which is eighteenth-century, English and Presbyterian – solely because of its name. Puns of this kind are a private amusement for typographers. But a typographic page so well designed that it attains a life of its own must be based on something more than an inside joke. (p.99)

However, it must be said that Cooper Black and its associated italic are fine typefaces, and often used in display advertising and logo design. So who’s to say that it doesn’t fit the bill in this case? (See its original promotional ad from 1922 below, found in an article on Medium.) But you can’t help feeling that the designer who chose it for this client didn’t have have a little chuckle to themselves as they did so.

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Guardian Double Campbell raises journalism official secrecy danger

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Those of us of a certain vintage have waited more than 40 years to see the double photographic byline shown above, which appeared on 20 July in the print edition of The Guardian. (The byline can also be seen in the online edition here, although disappointingly the pictures are missing.)

The two Campbells are both Scots, the older (born 1944) from Edinburgh, the younger (born 1952) from Dundee. Their paths crossed in the 1970s when the older was news editor of Time Out, which in those days employed several of its own reporters as well as giving work to a number of freelances. One of these freelances was Campbell the younger, already a specialist in writing about communications and the secret state. It was he who, along with Time Out staffer Crispin Aubrey, went to interview an ex-army corporal John Berry about his service in the Royal Signals. All three were arrested after the interview had finished, and charged with offences under the Official Secrets Act.

The ad hoc group of friends, families and other supporters which came together to defend them became known by their initials, the ABC campaign. It won a significant victory in getting the most serious charges under Section 1 of the act dropped. At their trial, all three were eventually found guilty of Section 2 charges, after the judge indicated he was not considering custodial sentences.

Now Campbell and Campbell are writing together to alert readers to the latest danger posed by this most illiberal of UK governments, whose sights are now set on journalists merely doing their jobs. As the pair point out:

The Home Office now wants harder and more extensive secrecy laws that would have the effect of deterring sources, editors and reporters, making them potentially subject to uncontrolled official bans not approved by a court, and punished much more severely if they do not comply. In noisy political times, a government consultation issued two months ago has had worryingly little attention. Although portrayed as countering hostile activity by state actors, the new laws would, if passed, ensnare journalists and sources whose job is reporting “unauthorised disclosures” that are in the public interest.

These proposals are markedly different from those proposed by the independent Law Commission published last autumn. The commission recommended that “a statutory public interest defence should be created for anyone … including civilians and journalists, that they can rely upon in court”. Journalists and sources should not be convicted if it was in the public interest for the information disclosed to be known by recipients. An independent, statutory whistleblower commissioner “should be established to receive and investigate allegations of wrongdoing or criminality”.

The current “gung-ho, authoritarian approach of the government could allow press freedom to be clamped into silence” warn our Dynamic Duo, unless editors and others worried about press freedom and an open society do not highlight the dangers and call a halt. Well said, chaps.