Category Archives: Personal

My Desert Island Disc #2

All Fly Home album cover
All Fly Home album cover

A year ago I wrote about my first Desert Island Disc and with the advent of summer, it’s high time I wrote about my second – Al Jarreau’s Grammy-winning album from 1978 All Fly Home.

I hadn’t heard of Al Jarreau in 1978. I was introduced to his music a few years later by my second roommate at university, George Applegarth, who came from an old established family in San Francisco.

George was incredibly urbane for a freshman in small-town provincial English Canada, and I had never met anyone like him. It was clear from the start that he really wanted to enjoy student life, and in the end he had trouble adapting to the cold, serious, unsophisticated climate he found at Queen’s. Just before Halloween he called it quits and returned to his large family in warm California. During his short stay, however, I fell in love with his two recordings by Al Jarreau. I played them over and over again in our room, until even George started to complain that I was playing them too much.

The two albums were This Time and All Fly Home, and to be honest I don’t know which I would choose as my favourite. Whenever I introduce friends to Jarreau’s music, however, I always play All Fly Home because I know that one particular track is guaranteed to impress them: Jarreau’s version of the Beatles song She’s Leaving Home.

The song tells the story of a girl running away with her boyfriend to escape the oppressive control of her parents. It was inspired by a true story that Lennnon and McCartney spotted in The Daily Mail, and you can tell from the lyrics (“She’s leaving home, after living alone, for so many years“) that they understood the feelings of disaffected youth very well.

It’s hard to describe what Jarreau does to this song, but no one ever recognises it as Lennon and McCartney even if they are familiar with the original. It’s arranged for jazz trio and, freed from the constraints of pop, lasts twice as long as the original. At this point in his career, Jarreau was a true jazz musician, and as fans will know, when not singing words, his voice becomes a fourth instrument in the band.

His interpretation of She’s Leaving Home is about as far removed from the Beetles’ version as I can imagine possible, and yet it remains incredibly true to the spirit of the original song. In fact, more so. I think it is arguably better at expressing the painful regret of past failures than the original Beatles recording.

Even though I haven’t heard them all, Jarreau’s performance is so good that I’m sure it’s the best rendition of this piece (according to The Covers Project there have been eight). It’s a masterpiece of understanding, expressed through a song all about misunderstanding, and for that reason alone it would have to be among my desert island discs. Besides, how many cover versions are better than the original?

A voice from the past

One of the personal projects that distracted me last month was the transcription of my great, great, great grandfather’s diary for the years 1825-1827. The Reverend William Fidler was a Methodist missionary, and started a journal in which to record his experiences during his first mission to the West Indies. It’s a fascinating description of a perilous journey and the following two years on the Island of St Vincent in the Caribbean.

I discovered the existance of this diary only last autumn, and it’s taken me since then to copy, transcribe and publish it on the web. I’m writing about it here mainly so that Google will discover the text and index it accordingly. However should anyone be interested in reading it, you can find it at

I find it very weird to think that had he not taken this journey, I wouldn’t exist; but of that there can be absolutely no doubt. It’s further evidence that we can never foresee all the consequences of our actions.

Some Very Local History

“You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe: when it knocked down our buildings it did not replace them with anything more offensive than rubble. We did that.”
Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, 2 December 1987

A photograph of Campden Hill Gardens, Kensington, London in 1905.
Looking south along Campden Hill Gardens, Kensington, London in 1905.

Earlier this week in the local studies section of my public library I found this photograph taken in 1905 of the street in which I currently live. Note the complete absence of automobiles and the tall chimney at the end of the road, part of an engine house that was destroyed in the 1970s. I live on the right hand side of the street, about half way up towards the chimney.

Some months ago just out of curiosity I searched for the street on Google, and I found a memoir written by Elizabeth Anne Slusser née Burbury (1915-1991), who lived in the house next door to mine from 1915 to 1939. Elizabeth Slusser appears to have had an interesting life. She was born in London to a wealthy and well connected family. In her memoir she describes annual holidays to Brittany and the year she spent learning Italian in a Catholic convent in Florence when she was just seven. She describes her home in London a little, and mentions her subsequently famous neighbours several times (Dame Marie Rambert and her husband, the theatre impresario Ashley Dukes, lived just across the street).

[Elizabeth’s parents met in Tasmania, but moved to England soon after marrying. Once settled in London her mother, Daisy Burbury née Guesdon, “founded a literary salon at 32 Campden Hill, Notting Hill Gate, which was frequently visited by Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Maurice Baring and others. There is a statue of her in the House of Commons as the Virgin Mary, with her daughter Norah as the infant Jesus.”]

Elizabeth’s memoir comes to an abrupt end in August 1939, but not before she mentions that her family’s home was one of the first in London to be destroyed by a German bomb in 1940. I can vouch for this fact because I now live next door to the four new homes that were subsequently built on the bombed site in 1955/56.

These four homes are all contained in what must be the single most ugly building on the street. In typical post-war fashion, the developers allowed function to completely overwhelm form, but then they compromised the functionality by squeezing far too many features into the limited available space. Each of the four houses was provided with a small covered car port, which cannibalised a significant portion of the ground floor and yet can only be used for the smallest of contemporary automobiles. In an effort to save costs, cheap and ugly materials were used to construct the building. Even the window boxes, which can probably withstand an earthquake, are made of cement and permanently affixed to the exterior walls with steel rods. What was the architect thinking?

Imagine my surprise then when during my visit to the library, I also discovered a 1962 article from Homes and Gardens magazine featuring the house next door. Apparently, it was the home of two television celebrities, Peter Dimmock and his wife Polly Elwes. He was a presenter on the BBC’s flagship sports programme Sportsview, while his wife presented a current affairs programme called Tonight.

A scan of two pages from Homes and Gardens magazine published in 1962.
32 Campden Hill Gardens in Homes and Gardens, 1962.

As you can see from the accompanying image (caution, it’s a long download at 644Kb), the article was illustrated with several images which give you a good idea of how it was furnished and a sense of what it must have been like to live there in the early 1960s. Ironically, Mrs. Dimmock is quoted as saying:

“A home should be warm and comfortable and reflect the personalities of its owners; above all it should look lived in – no museum effects for me. I don’t care for ultra-modern styles, they’re too apt to feel unfriendly.”

Well that might all be true, but did you look at the place from across the street before you moved in? Warm and comfortable? I don’t think so. More like sterile and frightening.

I don’t know when Mr. and Mrs. Dimmock moved out, but the house was sold late last year and in February workmen began to knock down all the internal walls and rebuild the insides from scratch. I wonder if the finished home will be “warm and comfortable” or more in keeping with its “ultra-modern” exterior?

I can’t wait for the new owner to move in next month, so I can recommend the local library.

My Desert Island Discs

“Music is the effort we make to explain to ourselves how our brains work. We listen to Bach transfixed because this is listening to a human mind.”

Lewis Thomas, The Medusa and the Snail (1979)

Desert Island Discs is the title of long-running radio programme on BBC Radio 4 (see Desert Island Discs). The format is simple: each week a guest is invited to choose the eight records they would take with them to a desert island. The discussion of their choice is a device for them to review their life. They also choose a favourite book (excluding the Bible or other religious work and Shakespeare – these already await the “castaway”) and a luxury which must be inanimate and have no practical use.

Here is my first choice:

An image of the cover of Glenn Gould's recording of the The Complete Partitas/Preludes, Fuges and Fughettas by J. S. Bach
Glenn Gould’s recording of the The Complete Partitas/Preludes, Fuges and Fughettas by J. S. Bach

Glenn Gould: Partita No. 2 in C Minor BWV 826 by J. S. Bach

I first discovered the pianist Glenn Gould when I began to explore my father’s record collection. I had already been taking piano lessons for several years, but without much genuine interest on my part. My parents wanted me to study the piano, and I simply did as I was told. Eventually however, adolescent boredom, combined with natural curiosity, forced me to investigate my father’s small collection of LPs, and at about the age of 16 I heard Glenn Gould play Bach for the first time.

I remember listening through headphones in a state of stunned surprise as Gould played the Italian Concerto, followed by two of Bach’s Partitas. I couldn’t believe that this wonderfully captivating music, so familiar to me in its Baroque style, had been sitting in my father’s stereo cabinet for a decade or more without me knowing. Although my father had studied voice as a young man at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, by the time I was a teenager he had little spare time and rarely played his records.

From Gould’s performances of Bach, I moved onto his interpretations of some of Beethoven’s best known piano sonatas. Although I knew that his interpretations of Beethoven were not always well received, his rendition of the Pathetique sonata is still my favourite.

If I had to choose just one piece to represent how much I have enjoyed listening to Gould’s playing, it would be Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C Minor, BWV 826. Bach wrote his six Partitas for students to use in learning to play the harpsichord. They are all comprised of six or seven dances, and as the liner notes accompanying the recording state “each [is] prededed by an extensive and elaborate introductory movement”.

Gould plays the introductory movement to Partita No. 2 with such magnificent grandeur and suspense that by the end of its 48 seconds you know that this is the beginning of a great story. It’s as if he was playing the overture to a big Baroque opera arranged and abridged for solo piano, and you cannot help wondering what’s in store and how it will turn out.

Given such a well-defined beginning it’s no surprise to discover that Gould gives the piece the necessary middle and end that feature in all effective story-telling. There is no way to know the details of the plot of course, but the end is so positively resolved that we know the participants in this sensitive tragedy (it’s in C Minor after all) have learnt from their mistakes.

Some of the credit for this stunning recording must also go to Bach of course, but if Bach was the author of the story, I have never heard anyone tell it better than the great Glenn Gould.

Dangerous Driving

“Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends.”
Lewis Mumford

Originally, I had plans to spend the Easter weekend in Cumbria seeing Hadrian’s Wall for the first time. I was thinking of driving from London to Carlisle, but now I am very glad I decided against it. Yesterday morning there was an accident on one of Britain’s motorways involving 100 cars, which resulted in a traffic jam containing 20,000 cars that didn’t move for five hours! Later in the day there was another bad accident on a motorway further west that also delayed traffic badly, and again today there appears to have been more problems heading north (see BBC News | Pile-up causes fresh delays) So this most recent crash was the third major accident of the Easter bank holiday, and it’s still only the first day.

I heard recently that Britain’s Secretary of State for Transport, Steven Byers, doesn’t posses a driver’s licence. Perhaps he’s trying to tell us something?

It Is A Small World After All

“All I know is I am not a Marxist.”
Karl Marx 1818-1883
41 Maitland Park Road, London

Karl Marx’s Last Home
41 Maitland Park Road

Yesterday I discovered that some of my ancestors lived two doors away from Karl Marx’s last London home only a few years after he died in 1883 (they may even have been living there at the same time as Marx, but that has yet to be proved). Earlier this year I confirmed that another branch of the family living at the same time in Canada was related to Ulysses S. Grant, 18th President of the United States.

These coincidences started me thinking about the phenomenon called “six degrees of separation” which is the theory that we are all only six people away from any other individual in the world (for more on the theory, aka the small world effect, and its increasing popularity see WLO: January/February 2000: Six degrees of separation).

This theory originated in 1967 but in 1997 some bright sparks thought of using the Internet Movie Database to demonstrate the theory on a small scale. I don’t know why they picked on poor Kevin Bacon, but you can try it out for yourself by viewing UVA Computer Science: The Oracle of Bacon at Virginia.

So in terms of connections between people, is the world getting bigger or smaller? There are more people in the world than ever before, so that should increase the degree of separation. On the other hand communication is easier than ever before, so that should decrease the degree of separation. Perhaps the two trends are just cancelling one another out and the degree of separation remains largely the same.

I wonder if anything else links Karl Marx and Ulysses S. Grant? Yes indeed. A quick search via Google suggests that:

  • both were born under the astrological sign of Taurus;
  • both suffered migraine headaches;
  • and both knew Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New York Tribune.

Greeley employed Marx as European correspondent for the Tribune in the 1850s and lost resoundingly to Grant in the US Presidential election of 1872.

Well I Never!

“A plagiarist should be made to copy the author a hundred times.”

Karl Kraus 1874-1936

Never in a million years would I have guessed that I could influence the mighty Microsoft, but I’m pretty sure I have. Here’s how…

Thanks to the Internet I have become a world authority on the history of carbon paper. In 1994 I wrote an essay on that subject as part of my MBA. Later that year, when I was teaching myself HTML in order to develop my own web page I uploaded my essay as a simple test of my new web skills. I didn’t want to write anything new so I simply used my old essay. I never bothered to remove it, and so it’s been on my website in one form or another ever since.

I didn’t register my site with any search engines or promote my essay in any way, so I was surprised when a couple of months later I received an e-mail from someone asking for more information about carbon paper (although I didn’t promote it, the essay had a link back to my homepage). Since then (1995) I have received many similar requests. The essay has been referred to twice by articles published in the New York Times. It has appeared in an Australian anthology of stories (intended for school children) about the history of technology. I have had requests for more information from several manufacturers of carbon paper and even one German documentary film maker. I have even been interviewed via telephone about carbon paper!

Well of course, you can probably guess what had happened. The search engines had found my essay while crawling the net, and because it’s a fairly esoteric subject, my page was listed whenever anyone searched for information about carbon paper using Yahoo or Altavista or Infoseek, etc.

I must admit that I am amazed at the situation today, seven years later. Google cites my page first (at its old location) and second (at its current location) in its list of 670,000 hits when you search for carbon paper (try it now Google Search: Carbon Paper). Given the way Google ranks hits, this means in effect that my page is the most popular page about carbon paper on the Internet!

Interestingly, the third link in Google’s results takes you to an essay on Microsoft’s site about the importance of computer accessibility for people with disabilities: Curb Cuts and Carbon Paper. It includes the following introduction…

When a chime sounds to signal that an elevator car has arrived, few of us realize that we?re taking advantage of a technology originally developed to give people with disabilities extra time to reach the door before it closes. In fact, many technologies that were first designed to assist people with disabilities were later widely adopted because of their value to everyone. Carbon paper was first developed for blind and partially sighted clerks who could not tell when their quill pens ran out of ink. The typewriter was invented for a countess who was blind. Curb cuts, first created for people using wheelchairs, are now used by everyone from cyclists to parents with strollers.

Well, where did they get that information about carbon paper and the Countess? No sources are given, but I’ve never come across it anywhere other than my essay and my original source which was Michael Adler’s book on the typewriter. So, I’m pretty certain that Microsoft’s author took it as written by the world’s foremost networked carbon paper historian: me!