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Madeline's problem Snorkeling The Cheyenne story Powers of 10 Footsteps in the Night The polio years The sunken garden The condom story My second language Saskatoon Berry Industrial Landscapes Drowsing on the Orient Express Elkhound The Millennium Speech new
A number of years ago, I was at my
cousin Madeline's place visiting and she was distraught. She had all
of a sudden become unable to read. She could still write. She thought
no one would believe her – how could someone write but not read? I
said the usual dumb things: 'I believe you', 'Maybe it will go away',
'Writing is better than reading anyway', 'Maybe if you copied
something you could read it while you were copying', 'Maybe you
should see a doctor'. As far as I know, she told very few people,
didn't see a doctor and thought my idea of writing what she wanted to
read was nuts. The problem stayed for a while – I don't remember
how long, a few months to a year or so. And then it faded away. A
good thing for she was very distressed by it. It seemed obvious to
her and I agreed that it had been caused by one of her little
I recently read a report on a women
with word blindness of the type 'alexia without agraphia'. And it was
as Madeline said. But this women had a trick. “When shown a word,
the patient looks at the first letter. Although she clearly sees it,
she cannot recognize it. So beginning with the letter A, she traces
each letter of the alphabet over the unknown letter until she gets a
match. For example, when shown the word Mother, she will trace the
letters of the alphabet, one at a time, until she comes to M and
finds a match. Three letters later, she guesses correctly that the
word is Mother.” She could still write and because of that, her
finger could still trace out a letter and there was nothing wrong
with her sight, as such, so she could tell the difference between the
shape her finger was making and the letter on the page.
Now, reading about this, I think I was
close to that idea but I didn't pursue it, so I feel a little guilty.
A friend was just talking about how
wonderful in was to snorkel in the tropical ocean. I reminded me of
holidays on the Indian ocean near Mombasa. Twice a year, four times
in all, we drove down to Mombasa for a couple of week's holiday. We
lived in our tent on the edge of a pure white beach of coral sand.
Ate lobster every night in the camp's little restaurant. And
snorkeled all day. The beach was not right on the ocean, there was a
shelf of coral reef between the land and the ocean waves. At high
tide the water was knee to chest high and at low tide it was gone.
When the tide was out we could see and hear the waves a long walk out
at the end of the shelf. A really nice bit was that the reef shelf
had large holes in it, from the size of a room to the size of a small
house. These did not drain in the low tide and the water in them was
warm, salty, sunlit and full of life. It took no effort to stay
afloat in the salty water, so we could just lie on the surface and
watch the beautiful animals through the snorkel mask. During high
tide you could swim about in gentle little waves, sheltered from the
bigger ocean waves. The coral was below you if you wanted to put your
feet down. It was a great way to take a holiday.
There was only one holiday where there
were some problems and luckily we were camped near the tent of
Harry's doctor's family. I was walking in the water when it was about
waist high and I got tangled with a Portugese-man-of-war. The
stinging was terrible and I ran out of the water screaming. The
doctor helped get the mess off my leg and said the alcohol would stop
the pain. So some good whiskey was put on and it did dull the pain. I
stayed out of the water and got a bad sun burn. When I was
snorkeling, I wore a Tshirt to protect my back and my arms and legs
were a little under the surface. When I was out of the water, my legs
were not protected and they burned. Doctor and whiskey came to the
rescue again. He dissolved PABA (which he just happened to have) in
some whiskey and I dabbed it on my skin. You could watch the skin
turn brown, cool down and stop hurting. And that skin did not peel or
swell; it stayed a deep tan. In hindsight I even remember that
difficult two days with fondness.
The Cheyenne Story
From the first of the First Cousin
Letters, this was my contribution. Uncle Ronnie (Houghtaling) had
recently died. The Cheyenne story:
In the last few days, my thoughts have
turned to Uncle Ronnie. He was so kind to me as a child and his sense
of humour was a joy. So my story for this issue is about Uncle
After Dad died, Mildred and Ronnie
invited us down to Denver for a long visit. Ronnie, Mom, George and I
drove down in Ronnie's car. He liked to drive, liked cars (he had the
first new car around after the war), and he was very proud of how
fast he could drive without accidents or tickets.
Mom kept offering to drive for a spell,
by Ronnie always said, “After Cheyenne.” He also pointed out a
couple of times that so far no one had passed us. But mainly he said
he wanted to get through Cheyenne first.
By the time we got to Cheyenne all of
us were waiting for what was going to happen. As we were coming into
Cheyenne, he told us that the sign for the highway out of Cheyenne
was hidden. He knew it was there. He had found it before. It was
visible but only just. And so we followed the signs for the highway
around the streets and ended up going in a large circle. Round and
round we went looking for the just visible sign.
I thought it was great. It was the
first time I'd seen a town like Cheyenne with swinging doors on real
saloons, just like in the movies. As he went round the circle of
streets, Uncle Ronnie remembered things about the hidden sign. “It's
up high.” “There's another sign in front of it.” This was
interspersed with remarks about Cheyenne. “This is the only was
they get people to stay in this part of Wyoming.” “I hate this
place, I really hate it.” I don't remember all the jokes and
cutting remarks about Cheyenne, but I do remember how entertained I
was. We were all looking. Then Ronnie shouted, “Bridge, it's on the
When we got to the bridge, there it
was. The access to the bridge was not as well lit as the streets.
High up on the bridge, behind another sign was the Route number we
wanted. In a flash we were out of Cheyenne.
Mom asked if she could spell Ronnie off
for a while. Ronnie laughed, “May, I'm so mad I couldn't sleep.
I'll probably be awake for hours, even after we get to Denver,
telling Millie how I hate Cheyenne.”
Powers of 10
Something tickled my memory the other day about power's of 10 and I
ended up with 3 memories that are sort of symbols to me of a particular
type of thinking.
The first memory was from Kenya where a young technician was doing a
calculation for her supervisor. I noticed that she had ended up with 10
to the 23rd. I thought I would save her the embarrassment and said that
she should check because it was probably 10 to the minus 23rd (and she
could call it zero). And she said, “10 to the 23rd, 10 to the minus
23rd, what's the difference.” I could have said 'the whole universe' in
a sarcastic way (and I was tempted) but I am a kind person and so I
just helped her understand it.
The second was in the lab in Saskatchewan. This time someone was looked
over my shoulder. I did a calculation that ended up with some negative
number (say it was -2) times 10 to the minus 2. I wrote down 0. The
other person corrected me and said that I should write down what I
found, -0.02. I argued that I had to put down 0 because it was within
the error range and you physically could not have a negative amount of
a substance in a sample. He was, I believe, better educated than me but
he could not see that the correct answer was 0. I wrote 0, signed the
report and put it in the mail – but it was two days before he gave up
trying to get me to see my 'error'. Or perhaps he finally saw the light.
The third was an argument with a programmer about a computer system in
the lab. The system came with a setting that could be used to
stipulation the number of decimal places to use for reporting each
test. I asked the programmer to change this and allow the lab to
stipulate either the number of decimal places or the number of
significant figures. The programmer said that no other lab needed that
so why did we... I said that was because all the other labs only did
medical tests but we also did environmental test. Medical results were
in a narrow range, usually not varying by more that 10 times. But
environmental results can vary enormously, like 10,000 times. We can
not report fake accuracy so it has to be significant figures. So the
programmer went and found a textbook on significant figures and
produced the code. But then I said that I also needed a maximum number
of decimal places on the significant figures, so someone could enter
something like 'use 3 sigfic with 1 maxdec'. The programmer then got
annoyed and said I should make up my mind. I answered that the point
was to show all the accuracy you could but not to imply more than you
had. If I had the answer 0.2 and that was as accurate as it was, than
it should not appear as 0.200 because of a 3 significant figures
setting. In the end I had to write a 3 page scread with the logic and
examples of how various situations had to be handled. And just to make
sure, I wrote in handwriting at the bottom that I was the customer and
those were my specifications and I was not changing them.
These were very different people but they all had the idea that the
math was important (fine) but that it was more important and read than
the real world (not fine).
Footsteps in the night
When we traveled from Kenya through the
middle east to England, I was anxious a few times, mostly at border
crossings, but rarely afraid. The most heart stopping happening was
in the middle of the night in Herat Afghanistan when we were camped
on a lawn, in a rose garden, in front of a hotel. (Most of our
camping through the region was in rose gardens associated with hotels
or gas stations.) This was in the days before the various wars and
the country was tranquil. The lawn was short cropped grass that was
coarse and dry. In the middle of the night there was a sound like
someone taking a step on the grass – a quiet crunch sound. Then
there was silence. About the time we relaxed, there was another
crunch and then silence. We thought someone was creeping up on us. We
made a plan.
The only thing we had in the tent that
we could use to defend ourselves was a hammer. So here is our plan.
We would carefully unzipped the flap of the tent. We did not want to
do this ahead of time and alert the intruder. We each had a hand on
one of the zipper tags so when there was a noise we would unzip
together quickly. Harry had the horizontal zipper and I had the
vertical. Harry had the hammer and I had the flashlight. The next
time there was a crunch, we would zip together, Harry would leap out
and up with the hammer and I would scan with the light and try to
shine it in the eyes of whoever was there. It was not much of a plan
but we didn't have much to work with. We waited. There was a crunch;
Harry leapt naked out into the night; I scanned with the light but
there was no one there. Now not nervous, Harry put his trousers on
and took the light to look around. There was no one there -
absolutely no one. So we went back to bed. About the time we were
falling asleep. Crunch.
So we got up again and looked some
more. What we found was a hedgehog. The tent had a fly-sheet and
between the tent and the fly-sheet near the ground was a place the
length of the tent. At night we put things in this place – box of
food, the little camp stove, the water jar and the like. The hedgehog
had started into this space, probably smelling the food. He got
stuck, he could not go forward because there was a box blocking his
way and he could not go backwards because his quills got stuck in the
cloth of the tent and fly-sheet. He would make a move to back out and
the sound of his quills on the cloth would scare him (as well as us)
and he would immediately freeze. Harry undid that corner of the
fly-sheet and the hedgehog fled into the night.
It was funny, especially a buck-naked
Harry with a hammer jumping into the night. It was funny but I have
to admit we were really scared.
The Polio years
When I was around 7 or 8 was the height
of the polio epidemic in Saskatchewan. My brother and two cousins had
it. Not too long after that there was a vaccine for polio.
George and I had the 'flu', sort of. We
were sick but not sick enough to be bed ridden. I think we were just
lolling about being miserable. Mom noticed that George was limping
slightly and she got Dad and they made George walk about and he kind
of favoured one leg. Mom took him to Weyburn that day and he saw
three doctors in a row – they agreed that it was the first signs of
polio. There was no clinic in Weyburn and so Mom and George were
flown to Prince Albert. He was admitted to the clinic and Mom came
I thought for years that Mom and George
had got the flight because TC Douglas was flying up and he offered
them a ride. But Mom set me straight on that – she had the flight
and Douglas hiked a ride with her. Anyway she got to chat with him
all the way to PA.
Dad took me to the local doctor that
day too. The doctor said that it didn't appear that I was in danger
but it was probably 'polio flu' and I might get immunity.
George was at the clinic for quite a
while. I think a couple of months at least probably more. The clinic
was run by nuns and they spoke French. When he came home he was very
happy to be home but he was a little different from the George that
went away. He had a couple of hours of exercise every day. Mom would
put a blanket on the kitchen table and he would lie on it. She would
move his legs in the exercises the nuns had shown her. That went on
for at least a couple of months. George was not talking although he
was more than old enough to talk. When he came back he would
gesticulate with his arms and it made Mom laugh because it was how
the nuns made gestures when they talked. George also went through the
house and moved everything that had changed during his absence back
to where is had been. I have a clear memory of him taking all the
pots and pans out of the cupboards and moving them to the cupboards
where they had been. George and all the pans were on the floor and him
crawling around getting them in the 'right' cupboard. He was cured
and never had a limp.
Cousin Rick had polio too. He was sick
with the 'flu' and trouble swallowing and he went to Weyburn to the
doctor too and was put in hospital. After a few days he was getting
worse. Uncle Ronnie had a fight with the doctor over what was
happening. Finally Ronnie picked up baby Rick and walked out of the
hospital with him and went to another doctor's office. That doctor
and some others looked at Rick and said he had polio in his throat. I
don't remember Rick's treatment except that he was not given milk
which was all he had under the other doctor. Anyway he got better and
had no permanent damage.
A more distance cousin got polio around
the same time but she was permanently crippled. That did not stop
Doris living a very full life.
I keep hoping that polio can be
eliminated from earth, but there are still corners where it is found.
WHO keeps thinking that they are within a year or two of the end but
then something happens that sets them back.
The sunken garden
I have different garden plans now in
France and they involve raising not lowering the plants . I'm getting
old and do not want to bend over to garden. This was written for
Madeline's first cousin letter in Sep 03 about the garden in White
Madeline says that I should tell you
about my garden – and I always try to give Madeline what she asks
So...my garden is a hole in the ground,
flat as a lower story, four feet below ground surface. It's usually
my pride and joy. It is the source of great tasting food that has
never been touched by pesticides, and it is the way I get out,
exercising, early in the day. Because it is low it catches the snow
and is moist in the spring. Because it is a hole, it is not windy. It
has swallows' nests in the banks and they eat a lot of insects. The
land in this area is not the heavy clay that is found south, north,
east and west of us but is a sandy moraine (what is left when a
glacier melts). There is great drainage. We got a neighbour to bring
us truck leads of manure from his farm to make a good soil. So I had
my perfect little garden. That is until this year!
This year the spring was late. It was
warm in the day and drying but at night it froze. It went on like
that until in was almost June. The garden missed that spring weather
with moisture and gentle warmth, the time when the plants grow and
grow. It got hot and dry before the plants were big and strong. It
stayed dry for so long that my cistern ran out of water and the
garden became very dry. Then the grasshoppers come and started just
eating it up. The poor plants could not grow as fast as the
grasshoppers could eat. I also noticed that the manure had more of
less been used up and we needed more. The soil felt too sandy. The
garden was just not as fertile as it usually was.
The jack rabbits were next. A rabbit
can just about destroy a lettuce row or a row of beans or a row of
peas. It did. Then it decided to try the neighbour's lettuce. Now, my
neighbour has the notion that rabbits do not like Irish Spring Soap.
She cuts a couple of bars up into chunks and puts them around the
garden. I don't know about rabbits but the dogs love it. Our doy,
Badger, would sneak into the next-door garden, even though she knows
she is not to go in gardens, and comes out with a bit of the Irish
Spring. She puts it on the grass and rolls around on it so that she
smells of Irish Spring. Who knows what the attraction is?
Then a gopher took up residence in my
garden and raised a family there. Soon the peas, beans, lettuce,
spinach, turnips, radishes, basil and asparagus were all gone and
there were holes in the carrot and beet rows. Then, either the
gopher, the rabbit or a mole started in on the potatoes. The
grasshoppers were eating from one end of the rows, the potato beetles
from the other and the unknown digger from underneath. So we
harvested the potatoes while there were still some left. Now when you
dig potatoes. You don't actually lost your potato beetles – they
are quite happy on the potato's cousins, the tomatoes and peppers.
We will be eating store bought veggies
this winter. I'm told that there is always a silver lining. For the
first time in my memory, that were no cabbage butterflies and so the
broccoli was not wormy. We did not have to mow grass as it could not
keep up to the grasshoppers any better than the garden. There were
very few mosquitoes too. It is also nice to realize that my life is
so good that the fate of my hobby garden can be that important to me.
So before next year we need a little
more manure, more water storage capacity, a fence and a new spring's
The condom story
I was once the Laboratory Supervisor
for the Biology Department in the University of Essex. This meant
administering all the non-academic aspects of the Department. The
department included many types of Biologists: Molecular Biologists,
Developmental Biologists, Geneticists, Botanists, Physiologists and
Ecologists, along with their teaching and research interests. As well
as labs and offices, the Department had an animal house, aquarium
room, fly breeding rooms, agricultural fields and a salt marsh. One
of my duties was to order the supplies for the group.
One day the Botany lecturer came to my
office with a large box. He needed to be re-supplied with another box
of 'these balloons”. In his research group, they studied gas
exchange in plants. On several trees around the buildings, his
students isolated leaves in clear balloons just larger then the
leaves and moved gases through tubes into the collar that held the balloons. The
difference in the composition of the in and out stream was due to the
leaf's metabolism. Light, moisture, gas composition and so on could
be changed to see how they affected the leaves.
In turned out that the little balloons
were actually condoms. So it was that I phoned the largest
manufacturer of condoms in Britain to get another box. I asked for
Customer Relations and talked to what sounded like a young man. 'My
name is Mrs. Kwasniak and I'm calling from the University of Essex,
Department of Biology. We would like to purchase some condoms for one
of our research programs, but it would need to be a specially
prepared order. I have the box that the previous supply came in. It
doesn't say how many there were but the box is about 2 by 2 by 1 feet
and the lecturer thinks there were between 5000 and 10,000. On it
there is writing that says it contains extra large, clear,
un-lubricated, unrolled, unwrapped condoms. Can you supply another
box?' The young man hummed and haw-ed, and thought out loud about how
to estimate the number, how much it would cost to stop the line,
could lubricant be removed, whether we could afford unwrapping, etc.
Finally he said that it would be easiest if he just found out when
they were making extra large and clear. Then he could take a box
about the right size and stand in a place he had though of, hold out
the box where the condoms were falling from one line to another. This
would be before they were sprayed with 'stuff', rolled and packaged.
He would have to figure out how much to
charge, but if they were actually all being used for research, he
could put it though free and that would probably save them money as
well as us. So I explained in detail the gas exchange experimental
setup. He was satisfied and I gave him the address details. I then
thanked him at some length for being so helpful and reasonable. He
laughed and thanked me. 'No, no, thank you! On Friday we are all
going to the local pub – we do every Friday. Everyone will talk
about things that happened during the week. I'm going to be able to
say that I supplied the U of E with 10,000 condoms for research. And
I'm going to be able to say that they were all extra large, clear,
un-lubricated, unrolled and unwrapped. Someone's going to ask,
someone is bound to ask, whatever are they doing with all those
condoms in Essex? I'll have the best line of the week. I'm going to
be able to say that they hang them on trees!'
(First written for Madeline's first
cousin letter Feb 04)
My second language
When I worked in Essex University I had
a little office with two desks for me and my secretary. It really was
a small room. The wall opposite our desks had a huge book shelf on
which there were all the various catalogs and piles of bumff for
ordering things and records etc. there was just room for a door and
one chair for people to use when they came to talk about something.
After a couple of years, one of the
lecturers got a post-doctorate student in his lab from the United
Emirates. He would come for longish periods several times a day
(probably when he was waiting for some timed part of an experiment).
He would sit in the chair and say practically nothing, just listen to
us and to people who came in with a problem. I was on the phone most
of the time that I was not talking to a visitor or the secretary. It
was a very busy atmosphere but happy. The secretary and I laughed a
lot and so did many of our visitors. The young Arab man just watched.
Then after a while he was starting to
write a paper or something and he would rush in to ask how to spell a
word or which of two words to use. This was finally too much for me.
So I asked him why did he walk down to ask me how to spell something
when I was not the best speller in the department, I might even be the
worst? And why did he spend any free time he had in this crowded
little busy room?
He had two answers. Why he like the
room was because he was home-sick. At home he spend time every day in
the haram with his mother and the other women. They were always happy
and laughing and there was always things happening. Our room reminded
him of home. Why he asked me about spelling and so on was because he
had never known anyone anywhere that had English as a second language
who know it as well as I did.
I said that no, it was not a second
language; in fact, it was the only language I know. He was taken
aback by that. Apparently there had been some jokes about my Canadian
accent that implied that I had not learned English at school. I
explained that the English always make jokes about the language of
Americans, Canadians, Australians even Scots and even people from
Liverpool. It was a friendly joke and meant no harm.
After that conversation he still came
and sat regularly but not as often as before and there were no more
questions about spelling.
We went berry picking when I was young,
in the Qu'appelle Valley and some farm lands near it. We tied a pail
around our waist and pick the berries into it. We would each pick a pail
and the efficient ones would get more. It was of course always great
weather – who would go berries picking on a bad day. We would have
a nice picnic lunch. I especially remember the home made root beer.
So it would be a longish drive, a berry picking time in the bush, a
picnic and then the ride home. That was the easy part. Then was the
sorting and washing. We would sit around a big table and berries from
one of the pails would be dumped in the middle. You would reach
forward and scoop a bunch of berries so they were one berry thick in
front of you. All the good ones were rolled into the bowl on your
lap. The leaves, stems and unripe berries were moved over in a little
pile before another bunch of berries was spread out. The good berries
were washed a couple of times in fresh water. The next day it would
be canning (later freezing, but not in my childhood) and making jam.
But that night, for sure, there would be fresh berries in milk with a
sprinkle of sugar. We would have been eating berries one now and one
then all day but a bowl full was still a treat. Pies would come in
later days and all winter we could have Saskatoons for a treat on
Sundays, special days and when company came.
In the north they had other berries as
well and some people grow gooseberries. But when I was young in
southern Saskatchewan, berries were saskatoons.
Now someone wants to call them june
berries. What a dull name!
Michigan's Cornell Cooperative
Extension got some plants from Canada, from near Saskatoon
Saskatchewan, and started cultivation of saskatoons in the US. They are now
thinking of marketing them as a super-berry that is very healthy and
expect to have a 10 billion dollar business. The hype is from
publicly funded Canadian studies done in the 80's showing that the
berries are loaded with antioxidants and phenolics like blueberries.
They are reputed to be a fighter against bacteria and viruses. They
grow well and are resistant to cold and drought.
"The saskatoon, Amelanchier
alnifolia, is closely related to the apple, mountain ash and hawthorn
and thus also a member of the Rose family. The saskatoon has long
been a treasured wild fruit on the prairies; historically, it was
important to the aboriginal peoples, and subsequently to the
voyageurs and European settlers."
But … Cornell decided that Americans would have trouble
pronouncing saskatoon and wanted to change the name to june berries.
Saskatoon is not hard to pronounce for heaven's sake. Cornell asked
the president of the Saskatoon Berry Council of Canada to rename the
berry. “It won't happen”, Sandra Purdy, the president, said.
“Especially given that they got those plants from Saskatchewan and
our Canadian-grown berries.” Let's leave them with their First
My letter to First Cousin Letter Sept 2002:
I was born on the prairies – lots of wheat and not much smoke.
Between going to the big city of Vancouver and getting to Northern
Ontario and the Atlantic, somehow I missed ever coming face to face
with the industrial landscape.
In Europe I saw industry. Over and over again, I was surprised by
vistas. The most memorable of these moments happened one evening when
Harry and I were driving from the Belgium coast towards Germany.
There was a glow in the eastern sky and, since this was the time
of the cold war, Harry and I helplessly joke about driving towards
World War III. The joke got a little thin as the glow got larger,
more angry and bright. When we reached it, it turned out to be
Luxembourg. That night, I would have bet my life that there were more
Bessemer furnaces spewing flames into the sky than there were houses
in Luxembourg. And the next day, we drove into the Saar and Rhineland
and the industrial heart of Germany.
A couple of times during my first visit to England, we would top a
hill and look down on a northern city with endless streets of row
houses as far as the eye could see. Involuntarily, I would gasp. But
it was different to live in such a place. It was also interesting to
work in such a place.
My first job in England was in the Courtaulds research labs in
Coventry. Where should I start with Coventry? A potted history goes
Coventry was a market town and a wool spinning center. It became
extremely Protestant in Tutor times and therefore it was the location
of the prison where Cornwall's prisoners were kept. That's where the
phrase, “sent to Coventry”, comes from. The citizens fed and
looked after the Royalist (and Catholic) prisoners but would not talk
to them at all, not ever.
When the Hugenots were expelled from France a few years later,
many of them were welcomed to Coventry. The French Protestants
brought two trades with them – silk ribbon making and clock making.
Later, fine weaving led to the synthetic cloth industry.
When the bicycle was being improved, engineers looked for a
suitable drive. The Coventry chain, used in the clocks made in
Coventry, was ideal for the bicycle chain. From the bicycle, Coventry
progressed to cars and then to planes.
All the industrial and port cities were targets during World War
II. With Enigma, radar, etc. the RAF was almost able to protect the
cities that were not on the southeast coast, But Enigma was late with
its information the night the raids headed for Coventry.
When we lived there, the center of the town was all newly rebuilt
but the factories in the ring around that core had survived with less
damage. The Courtaults original rayon factory was now too outdated to
be a productive factory so it became a large batch facility for
research into the rayon process.
Across the Foleshill Road, The Engineering Division designed and
sold whole textile factories. Later, I worked down the road in the
Acetate Division labs. All these labs and drafting offices were in
brand new multi-story buildings. The new Rayon (Viscose) Division lab
was built inside a large 1900 factory, a bombed one at that, with a 9
to 12 foot wall around it.
A canal ran just outside the wall. A spur entered the factory past
a small dock. A spur railway line also entered passed it. Under a
corner cooling tower was a large pond of warm water with a steady
rain from the tower about.
At another corner, the shell of what had been the head office
building stood. A garden had been planted in the bombed outside
facade. The staff ate their lunches there. From the vantage point, they
could see over the outer wall, across the canal, and into
a much older age, where a ribbon factory with mills and little
cottages in a square were surrounded by another wall.
Also within our wall were a new lab building, the power plant and
the old rayon works. Big sheds housed vats, where sheets of wood pulp
were soaked in lye and pressed to take the moisture out, there were
mills to break up the pulp into fluffy damp wool, and pressure tanks
filling with pulp reacting with carbon sulphide and water. Sheds were
full of tanks and vats with high catwalks on top of them.
A large how building contained bank after bank of spinning
machines, in which acid bath jets squirted the viscose into acid at
one end and, at the other end, the strands were lifted out to be
washed to removed the acid.
The interesting thing is what happened to the viscose fluid
between leaving the reactor tanks and entering the spinning machines.
Under the factory was an underground world of tunnels in which the
viscose was aged by being pumped around for miles in spirals and back
and forth. If you knew the tunnels, you could get from anywhere to
anywhere underground on a rainy day.
There were three distinct work forces sharing this space. The
first was made up of the scientists and technicians who worked in the
labs. They pronounced “viscose” as it is spelled, with a V sound.
The second group was made up of the skilled workers who made the
viscose. As the first foreman in the tunnels had been German, they
pronounced “viscose” with a W sound. The third group consisted of
new arrivals from India and Pakistan. At that time, Courtaults found
it easiest to man the spinning machines with those new immigrants,
who often didn't have enough English ever to use the word “viscose”
There was a saying, you could tell the people who worked at
Courtaults, by the black and yellow ties they wore. The ties, the
first rayon product ever made at Courtaults, matched the workers'
yellow shin and black eyes. After years of exposure to the poison,
carbon sulphide, they had suffered liver damage. The spinning halls,
filled with acid and hydrogen sulphide fumes, were the most dangerous
place for anyone to work.
I have heard a chemist say that going to the spinning hall for a
sample was like going to the jungle. You could hear movement behind
you but when you turned around there was no one there. There was only
the roar of the machines. You were being followed by a hundred eyes
but you could see no one.
Most of the Courtaults factories in places across the country were
modern and healthy places. The Coventry batch plant was an early
factory run as it had been up to the time of the war. The fumes and
noise were unforgettable.
It was in Coventry that I became accustomed to being surrounded by
the old. It was also here that I became comfortable in the industrial
Drowsing on the Orient Express
I was reminded recently of an incident
from years ago by a little discussion of Grimm's law. Grimm's law is
one of the first attempts to follow the evolution of language in a
systematic way. The discussion made me recalled an instance of
understanding a German conversation with a little unconscious trick
of hearing some of the shifts in consonants between German and
English. Enough of that and on with the story.
While we lived in Austria I visited
Canada. I had a flight out of London and I got to London by train –
ditto on the way back. So very tired from the transatlantic flight, I
got on a train in London for Vienna. It was what remained of the
Orient Express and still carried the name although, if I remember
correctly, it didn't actually make it all the way to Turkey. But it
did have very old fashioned, comfortable, roomy, 6 person
compartments. So 6 of us settled in. I propped myself in a corner and
closed my eyes. The others opened a conversation starting in French
because three of them were from Belgium. They offered to converse in
English for my sake but I said I would probably sleep so they could
carry on in French. Two of them were German but they spoke better
French then the Belgium group's German. When I awoke the Belgians
were leaving but I closed my eyes again and drifted in and out of
sleep. I found I could more or less make out what the two German's
were saying. They slipped into German went the French speakers left.
It turned out they had a lot in common.
Both had been to England to visit their daughters and see their
grandchildren. Both had nice things to say about their son-in-laws.
Both were business men and exported things. Both had been soldiers in
the war. Back to England, they liked the family their daughters had
married into, but … very slowly, not want to shock the other they
started to discuss what they thought of England – not very modern,
not very clean, didn't work very hard and so on. After a while one of
them said something like, “How did we lose the war to them?” They
pondered that question for a while and decided that it was
impossible. Then came, “Did we lose to the Russians?” Well, they
discovered that they had something else in common. They had both
taken a few business trips to Russian and so they discussed what they
thought of the Russians – insane, unorganized, terrible
bureaucrats, terrible roads (and on through a list of infrastructure
faults). No, it was not possible that they lost to the Russians. It
must have been the Americans. Neither had been to America but
Americans in Germany seemed to do things OK. They got off at Munich
and a little while before they did, one of them said and the other
agreed that it was a good thing that we (Germany) were do going to
try that (a war) again. New people came on and I actually slept to
This was a very weird experience
because I could barely speak any German. I often understood Harry
when he was talking to someone else, but I knew what he was likely to
say anyway. I also understood some for what was said to me by friends
in simple German phrases. But this was new. I had not before
understood the gist of a conversation between to strangers speaking
normally. I put it down to being nearly asleep and finding the trick of
undoing the shifts between German and English more effective in that
state. Maybe German was easier to understand unconsciously than when
I put a lot of effort into it.
Badger the dog (printed in First Cousin Letter Sept '01, she was
alive then but is now dead):
Our dog, Badger, was said to be a Border Collie – Husky cross.
This is approximately what you would guess by looking at her. She is
marked like a tri-coloured Border Collie and is built like a Husky.
The vet didn't even ask when we took her for her first visit and just
wrote down Husky X. So everything made sense, Badger tried to herd us
around with great figure-eight runs, did a sort of crouched
you-move-first game and tried to get her way by staring at us. We
thought 'oh look, she's acting just like a Border Collie and even
thinks she has the 'eye', which she hasn't. And she had three layers
of fur that covered her belly and even grew between her toes like a
Husky. She loves cold weather and if it is too cold or windy for her,
she rolls around in a ball with her tail covering her face, just like
a sleeping Husky.
Everything made sense until Harry started the Norwegian Elkwolf
joke. Harry got this from somewhere, long forgotten, and as a joke
claimed that Badger was a Norwegian Elkwolf. He attributed her weird
behavior to this breed. I assumed that he had made the whole thing up
– a good joke but only a joke. He can keep such jokes going for
One day he found that there were sites dedicated to the Norwegian
Elkhound on the Web. Not letting the little difference in name bother
him, he printed out some of these and casually left them by the
computer. I saw them and thought, “Boy! Harry did a good job at the
fake.' It was so subtle how he had pinned on very obscure aspects of
our dog. Then I thought, “hold on, Harry doesn't know enough about
computers and applications to do a fake that good.” I then did a
search myself and found lots more material on the Norwegian Elkhound.
The facts about the Elkhound fall into three categories – not
true of Badger, true of Badger but also of other northern spitz-type
breeds, true of Badger and a surprise. In the first category is a
single fact, Elkhound are gray and Badger is black, white and tan
(coloured like a 'tri' Border Collie). In the second category is the
fur, size and build. Simply, all sled dogs are about the same size
(about 50 pounds) and build (square, stocky, short legged with huge
rib cages) and they have phenomenally thick fine self-cleaning hair.
All spitz breeds have upright ears, tails curled over the back or at
least very high. They have no, or very little 'doggy' smell. Most of
these northern dogs hate water. All of these were true of Badger.
Then we come to the things that are somewhat uncanny. Unlike most
dogs, the Elkhound puts its ears back flat against the head as a sign
of relaxed affection. For other dogs, this is a sign of fear or
anger. It trots with an upright head and straight back that remains
level. The Elkhound is standoffish with strangers and very
enthusiastic in greeting family and friends. The dog has a tendency
to gain weight. Anyone who knows Badger can see how apt these
The Norwegian Elkhound has an unusual job description. It is a
very old breed, illustrated in viking and older artifacts. It was
bred to be a big game hunter. The main game was moose or elk but it
was also used to hunt badger, lynx, mountain lion, bear, wolf and
reindeer. They range long distances and can smell quarry for several
kilometers. The Elkhound then holds the prey at bay and barks
continuously until the hunter arrives.
But it is a multi-functional breed. It is also a prized sled dog.
It can herd and guard farmsteads. We have always made fun of Badger
for her barking. What she appears to do is to go out and sit,
scanning the prairie horizon patiently until something dares to move.
She then stands and barks until she is sure that they have learned
their lesson and will not move again while she is watching. It might
take an hour of barking but she is going to keep 'order' in the
neighborhood. This watch-and-bark is so characteristic of Badger that
it formed the basis of some cartoons that Ciara drew.
Predictably, the elkhound is reputed to be very good, well
behaved, docile, affectionate, loyal. What dog breed is described
differently? Badger is all of these things and very anxious to
please. But- there is always a but – Elkhounds are very sensitive
and independent, with a sense of fairness. They can resist obedience
training and they can be upset for a long time if they are punished
unfairly. I had always thought that Badger's sensitivity was not a
question of personality but of intelligence. She is quite happy with
what makes sense and very hurt be anything that doesn't.
There is very little mention of intelligence in the descriptions
of the Elkhound. Also missing is any mention of a sense of direction
and a moment to moment accounting of whose nose is a fraction of an
inch ahead. But they are certainly characteristics of Badger. Perhaps
this is from the border Collie.
I am always amazed at what Badger appears to understand and what
she doesn't get. We can entertain passengers in the car with Badger's
antics if we take an unusual road or direction. If Harry seems to
take a 'wrong' turn, she will whine softly, then reach forward to tap
Harry's arm or even the steering wheel if she can reach it. The
antics get more persistent until we're going the 'right' way. If
badger thinks we should be going north and we turn south, she will
not stop her whining and attempts to steer until we turn north again.
How is it that a typical Canadian Husky-X mutt, may be largely
Norwegian Elkhound? The interesting thing about Border Collies and
Alaskan Huskies is that they are breeds that are defined by their
function rather than just their genetics. To be a proper Border
Collie, the dog has to have come from a border sheep farm and from
stock that can herd sheep a la Sheep Dog Trials. They must be able to
be trained to follow whistled commands over long distances. Alaskan
Huskies similarly are judged by their sledding skill. Other sled dogs
are recognized by Kennel Clubs, but not the Alaskan Husky, because it
is not a pure breed. During the gold rushes and settlement of Alaska
and the Yukon, dogs were in very short supply. Boat loads of dogs, if
possible, and not always sled dogs, were imported into the region.
Those that could pull sleds in the Arctic became part of the stock.
Any dog strain that might help a breeder to win big sled races would
be introduced as an experiment into the mix. Norwegian Elkhounds are
very good sled dogs. In fact, the Norwegians have a law that, in time
of war, the government can take any Elkhounds for army sleds.
I like the thought of having a mongrel (a healthy mutt) especially
a mixture of such lovely dogs as Border Collie, Husky/Elkhound.
Especially one smart enough to know what D-O-G or C-A-R spells.
Badger was so sick by the time we left for France that we had her
put down. She hardly moved and needed a lot of care. All above was
written when she was a young dog. She had a few other traits and
When Badger was young she spent most of the time with Harry. And
she was very attached to Harry. One year Harry and Ciara took a
holiday in Europe and were gone for about a month. Badger did not
mope but spent her time with me. When Harry came back she would have
nothing to do with him. It was as if he was not there. It took her a
couple of weeks to forgive him but from then on she spent more time
with me than Harry.
She liked to pretend that she was driving. If Harry was out of the
car, she would nip into the driver's seat put a paw on the steering
wheel and stare straight ahead until he came back. Once in a car
park, a little girl pulled her mother over to look at the dog. She
wanted to know if the dog could drive and if he had the keys. I told
her that the dog was a she and she was not allowed to drive in town.
The mother and I had a good laugh at that. As they walked away the
little girl kept asking, over and over, “But does she have the
keys?” I think the youngster was allow to sit in the drivers seat
and pretend to drive but was never allowed to touch the keys. She may
have half seen that the keys were in the ignition.
Badger had a fairly large vocabulary that included the names of
rooms in the house and other places around the yard. This was
probably the border collie. So was her ability to go where you
The Millennium Speech
It has been a almost a decade since I
gave a speech but I still thinking of myself is someone who has
mastered public speaking. I was in Toastmasters for many years and it
was one of the highlights of my life – my weekly adrenaline fix. I
joined when I decided to come out of the closet about my dyslexia. I
had always kept it a closely guarded secret from all except Harry and
later my mother and a couple of very close friends. I never ever
allowed anyone I worked for or with to know. Finally in my fifties, I
realized that in any group I was no longer the worst speller or the
slowest reader. I realized there was now a general knowledge and
acceptance of the condition. I could relax. At first I only did it as
a joke – if I made a mistake in spelling, I would say, “Well now
you know I'm dyslexic.” And if I stumbled reading something, I
would say, “Oh, oh, bad dyslexia day.” Then I thought, now that I
am relaxed about the written word, I can enjoy what has been my
blessing all my life – the oral language.
Most people I knew in Toastmasters had
the problem that they wrote their speeches and memorized them, then
tried to give them in a natural way. My message was stay oral. Plan
your speech without put it down on paper. Practice it and hone it in
your head or talking to yourself. When it was a good speech, I would
write it down so that I could estimate the length and have a record
of it. The process is like learning to swim – if you hang on to the
edge of the pool you cannot learn how to swim.
The following is the timing notes for a
speech that won me prizes at many levels of competition and always
had the audience laughing loudly. I gave the speech standing still,
not ever smiling but being extremely enthusiastic and earnest. It is
a very dated speech, given in the autumn of 1999 just before the
millennium when all the worry was about what computers would fail
when they encountered 2000.
MADAM CHAIRMAN, FELLOW TOASTMASTER AND
HONOURED JUDGES -
WE WASTE OUR RESOURCES AS A SOCIETY. WE
SPEND BILLIONS SOLVING PROBLEMS THAT COULD BE SOLVED FOR A FEW
THOUSAND. TAKE FOR EXAMPLE HOW WE TRY TO REDUCE ACCIDENTS. WE ARE
JUST NOT USING OUR HEADS. STATISTICALLY YOU ARE MUCH, MUCH LESS
LIKELY TO HAVE A CAR ACCIDENT IN A STRANGER'S CAR THAN YOUR OWN OR A
FRIEND'S. SO WHEN YOU NEED TO BUY A CAR AND SOMEONE IN SAY
SPRINGFIELD ILLINOIS WANTS TO BUY A CAR. YOU COULD BUY A CAR IN
SPRINGFIELD AND LET HIM DRIVE IT, HE COULD BUY A CAR IN REGINA AND
LEND IT TO YOU. THERE'S TWO PEOPLE WHO HAVE JUST SLASHED THEIR
PROBABILITY OF HAVING CAR ACCIDENTS TO PRACTICALLY ZERO.
YOU ARE MORE LIKELY TO HAVE ACCIDENTS
IN YOUR HOME WHEN CLEANING OR REPAIRING, SO MAKE A DEAL WITH A
NEIGHBOUR – YOU CLEAN AND REPAIR THEIR HOUSE AND THEY DO YOURS.
MUCH SAFER. I'M SURE YOU CAN FIGURE OUT ALL SORTS OF WAYS TO MAKE
YOUR LIFE SAFER. FOR INSTANCE, YOU ARE MORE LIKELY TO BE MURDERED BY
YOUR SPOUSE THEN ANYONE ELSE.
LET'S LEAVE STATISTICS AND GO ON TO
ANOTHER INNOVATIVE WAY TO SOLVE OUR PROBLEMS. WE HAVE THIS MILLENNIUM
COMING UP. PEOPLE ARE AFRAID OF THEIR COMPUTERS, THE SERVICES THEY
NEED AND EVEN THE END OF THE WORLD. WHO SAID WE HAD TO HAVE A
MILLENNIUM. LET'S JUST SAY “HEY, WE MADE A BIT OF A MESS OF THE
LAST CENTURY. WE'LL JUST DO IT AGAIN AND GET IT RIGHT”. NO
MILLENNIUM – NO PROBLEM. WHO SAYS WE HAVE TO DIVIDE THE YEAR INTO
QUARTERS EITHER. WE COULD DIVIDE IT INTO THIRDS, HAVE THE THREE
SEASONS WE LIKE AND DISPENSE WITH WINTER ENTIRELY. COME TO THINK OF
IT, WHERE'S IT WRITTEN THAT WE HAVE TO HAVE MONDAYS.
OR TAKE SOME OF OUR POLITICAL PROBLEMS.
WHY DON'T WE JUST GET BC AND QUEBEC TO TRADE PLACES. NOW QUEBEC WILL
BE SURROUNDED BY OCEAN AND MOUNTAINS – AND THEY CAN STOP
COMPLAINING ABOUT BEING SURROUNDED BY ENGLISH. BC CAN STOP
COMPLAINING ABOUT EASTERN CANADA GETTING EVERYTHING. AND
NEWFOUNDLANDERS WILL NOT HAVE TO TRAVEL SO FAR TO GET JOBS IN BC. A
LITTLE JUDICIOUS MUCISAL CHAIRS COULD SOLVE ALMOST ALL THE WORLD'S
PROBLEMS. IF ISRAEL WAS NOT PART OF THE MIDDLE EAST, IF THE FALKLINS
WERE CLOSER TO BRITIAN THAN TO ARGENTINA, IF CUBA WAS NOT 80 MILES –
YOU GET THE PICTURE.
IT IS NOT JUST BIG PROBLEMS THAT CAN BE
SOLVED EASILY IF YOU PUT YOUR MIND TO IT. YOUR PERSONNAL EXISTANCE
CAN BE MUCH MORE PLEASANT. YOU DON'T LIKE ANSWERING THE ALARM IN THE
MORNING – SET IT EARLIER SO YOU DON'T HAVE TO GET UP WHEN IT RINGS.
YOU WORRY TOO MUCH. HEY, WHY ARE YOU WORRYING ABOUT PUTTING WINTER
TIRES ON THE CAR, IT ISN'T EVENYOUR CAR. WINTER?
I URGE YOU TO ADOPT A CREATIVE WAY OF
SOLVING OUR PROBLEMS, QUICKLY AND AT LITTLE COST. FOR MYSELF, I'M NOT
ENJOYING GROWING OLD. IT'S ALL THOSE DISEASES YOU MORE LIKELY TO GET
WHEN YOUR OLD. SO I'VE DECIDED TO LIE TO HEALTH PROFESSIONALS ABOUT
MY AGE. THIS WILL BE MUCH EASIER NEXT YEAR. IT WILL BE 1900 AND I
WILL NOT BE 60 BUT -40 AND I'LL HAVE AT LEAST 85-90 YEARS BEFORE I
WILL HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT MY AGE AT ALL.