Quotes that made me laugh #26

Dance floors always remind me of ‘the first dance’ on my wedding day – and not in a good way.

I’d had lessons and received bespoke tuition to a specific track on Disque de Danse (volume 2). In fact, the dance studio gave us the record so that I could waltz to a familiar tune on the big day.

Nevertheless I froze and was dragged around the dance floor by Management like a fossilised log with all the natural rhythm of something that had been turned to stone over the millenia.

Consequently, a few years ago when Management and I were invited to a friend’s birthday party and the Tall Child asked if I was going to show off any ‘killer’ dance moves. I told him “Yes. People would die laughing”.

So imagine the amusement (at my expense, of course) when, several months after my sister-in-law’s celebratory ceilidh, Management’s oldest friend, with whom I’d danced an approximation to the St Bernard’s Waltz, wrote in a birthday card to her (in all seriousness) that:

He’s a good dancer, that man of yours

Laugh? I nearly signed up for Strictly!

The only thing I ever ‘pulled’ at a dance was a muscle!

Quotes that made me laugh #20

I was too young to party at Manchester’s Twisted Wheel club in the late sixties, one of the original Northern Soul all-nighter venues, but I did get to tread its boards circa 1976 during its disco incarnation as Placemate 7 – perhaps that’s why I never properly took to clubbing. Disco? Me? Really?

A Placemate 7 publicity flier from the same year that I bust a groove on its dance floor
A Placemate 7 publicity flier from the same year that I bust a groove on its dance floor

I did venture to other nightclubs though. Three(ish) to be exact(ish). A Mancunian friend called Bernard, who I had met during my ill-fated time as a student in London, visited me in Kendal a few months after I had dropped out from the prestigious North East London Polytechnic (aka NELP) and suggested we go to an all-nighter at the famous Wigan Casino. 

We were so naïve we didn’t know what it involved (seemingly drugs, an ability to ‘dance your own steps’ and a strong Lancashire or Scottish accent). We left before it really got going – before two actually in what was probably a first for Wigan Casino.

I still like the music, but Northern Soul purists would trash me for keeping the faith via the medium of a couple of ‘Best of’ CDs and not by the possession of rare and exclusive original 7 inch vinyl singles.

Can 2 compilation CDs be cosidered 'keeping the faith'? Probably not!
Can two compilation CDs be considered ‘keeping the faith’? Er, no!

A year or so later, a group I was with was turned away from the Mecca nightclub in Dundee due solely to my less-than-sartorial outfit (jeans and no tie). Fortunately, the city’s Barracuda club had no such sensibilities and thus, in June 1979 I stepped into a nightclub for the third (fourth if you count the Mecca) and last time.

So, you ask, what is the point of all this nostalgia? Well, although not a Northern Soul mainstay and probably a bit too disco for my liking, Stevie Wonder had released his double album Songs in the Key of Life just before my visit to Placemate 7 and while on the dance floor there I recall having to avoid the over-amorous attentions of one of my sister’s flatmates with whom I was dancing to Wonder’s Sir Duke.

Needless to say, any mention of Stevie Wonder (or Sir Duke) since then has immediately transported me back to that dance floor. And “No!”, I didn’t take advantage of the situation. I’ve always been “too much of a gentleman for your own good” (Anne Somervell, pers comm, New Year’s Day 1981) – frankly, as a naïve North Country lad I was also terrified!

So, the astute among you may have guessed that these ramblings were inspired by a recent mention of Stevie Wonder. And you’d be right as finally I get to the quote that made me laugh. Here is Stevie Wonder’s take on the current American Presidential election:

Voting for Trump is like asking me to drive!

All together now, one, two, three; Keep you mind on your drivin'; Keep you hands on the wheel; Keep your snoopy eyes on the road ahead
All together now, one, two, three;
Keep you mind on your drivin’;
Keep you hands on the wheel;
Keep your snoopy eyes on the road ahead …

What Michael said #2

(Or more precisely: “What Sid said Michael said”).

One of the knee-jerk reactions of neo-liberals to anyone that expresses left-of-centre views is to consider them as ‘commies’ and to point out that communism didn’t work.

Of course most sensible people realise that ‘left-of-centre’ encompasses a spectrum of views that is just as wide as the spectrum of right-of-centre views. Not every conservative is a fascist and facism didn’t really work either, did it?

Which is why, once again, I reach for a quote from my favourite fishery scientist of the past, Michael Graham, a former Director of the Lowestoft fisheries research lab, this time on the distortion of political ideals by extremists.

As recalled by Sidney Holt, Graham wanted all his scientists, of whatever grade, to be called naturalists, to spend the same amount of time at sea on research vessels as each other working for the common good and not as an individuals on their own research projects, and … for everyone to be paid the same! (The pay thing wasn’t allowed – this is the hierarchical UK Civil Service of the 1940s and 50s we’re talking about).

Anyway, as also reported by Holt:

Graham came from a farming background, Quaker family in Northwest England, and had socialist tendencies – Fabian style. “Then“, he said to me, after we had been talking about Engels’ The Dialectics of Nature, “Lenin came and f***** it all up”. Until then I didn’t know that respectable middle-class intellectuals used that sort of language, and presumed he must have picked it up from the fishermen, who hardly used any other sort of language“.

(I must have picked up my occasional use of intemperate language from the same source!)

Postscript: Graham, true to his beliefs, spent his sadly short retirement helping restore deprived areas in Salford into urban green spaces. Sidney Holt tells of this and much more in an online essay entitled “Three lumps of coal“; a good read for anyone interested in the political influence of American scientists on the misdirection of generations of fishery scientists into the fruitless pursuit of fisheries’ holy grail, the so-called maximum sustainable yield.

What Michael said #1

The news that Firstborn has elected to take a module on statistics during her Masters’ year brought a smile to my face. Actually, I laughed hysterically until she pointed out that Management or I may have to help her out – it’s a long time since I studied statistics!

In fact, she may do well to ignore to anything that I say – after all, why change the habit of a lifetime! More seriously, that’s because my perspective on statistics and particularly on significance testing in classical statistics is that a lot of it seems rather arbitrary. Why should a particular outcome be considered statistically significant just because the odds of it happening by chance and chance alone are 1 in 20? Why not 1 in 19 or 1 in 21 or 1 in 50,000,000? And I’m not alone in thinking this.

As a post-graduate student at York University in the 1980s (maths, stats and computing for masochists and the innumerate), one of the highlights of the week was a pub quiz in the adjacent village of Heslington. The question master, Peter Lee, was a lecturer in the Maths and Statistics Department who later wrote a book on Bayesian statistics and commented in his Forward that he delved into the Bayesian world because he was dissatisfied with the arbitrary nature of significance testing in classical statistics. Now, I’m nowhere near numerate enough to discuss the finer points of frequentist versus Bayesian statistics, but the same underlying concern of arbitrariness struck me too.

Even within the more classical school, you can still see concerns. Modern papers with titles such as “The insignificance of significance testing“, or variants thereof, abound and exist alongside the older and more literary disclaimer of John Nelder, one of the founders of generalised linear modelling, who, in his overview of a 1971 British Ecological Society Symposium on Mathematical Models in Biology proclaimed:

Fisher’s famous paper of 1922, which quantified information almost half a century ago, may be taken as the fountainhead from which developed a flow of statistical papers, soon to become a flood. This flood, as most floods, contains flotsam much of which, unfortunately, has come to rest in many text books. Everyone will have his own pet assortment of flotsam; mine include most of the theory of significance testing, including multiple comparison tests, and non parametric statistics“.

Interestingly, Nelder was a later successor to Fisher as Director of the Statistics Department at the Rothamsted Research Station. I don’t know whether his quote deprecates Fisher’s work or the fact that followers often follow blindly without the insight into the subject that the originator had – I suspect the latter in Fisher’s case – and you certainly see that in fisheries research, my profession.

I did wonder whether the apparent post-1960s disenchantment with classical significance testing was due in part to the advent of electronic computers as a result of which more numerically intensive approaches to statistical modelling could be developed. Then I remembered a quote I once read in book first published in 1943, The Fish Gate, by Michael Graham (one of the most insightful leaders of fisheries research in the 20th century and the chap after whom the title of this post is framed). There will be more about him in future posts, but for now his concerns with statistical testing and statistical power had nothing to do with developments in computing power:

What Michael said:

In this century we have admitted this ‘Normal’ curve into all our counsels. It is of so wide an application that its professors have come to smell of priestcraft, setting up arbitrary standards by which to judge the significance of everything that we have claimed to achieve. They have real power; but it is of necromancy, as when they solve a problem by a short excursion into n-dimensional space. They ride brooms if ever man did“.

Postscript: I intentionally used the phrase ‘electronic computers’ in the penultimate paragraph above, even though it has a sort of antiquated feel to it; isn’t ‘computer’ enough? Well, no actually! At least not in the context of commenting on work from an era predating the modern age of computing. Delving into the fisheries research literature it is possible to find reference to ‘an experienced computer’ in the bible of fisheries research, Beverton and Holt’s 1957 magnum opus: ‘On the dynamics of exploited fish populations’. In this instance, the ‘computer’ is actually a living, breathing person, not a machine. So there!

Quotes that made me laugh #11

When I first told ‘Management’ that I had joined my work’s Yammer group on Women in Science and Engineering, her pithy comment was: “Does that mean you’ll now do your share of the ironing?” (thus putting the ‘ouch’ into touché!). Unfazed by such comments, I then Yammered to my colleagues about the way that bicycling had contributed to the emancipation of women. Susan B Anthony’s well-known quote from 1896 was my starting point …

Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood“.

… and this was followed by reference to a couple of articles on the MentalFloss and Grauniad websites (and there is a host of other web references that could be equally well cited).

Subsequently, and entirely by coincidence, the week after I Yammered about it an episode was screened of the TV series ‘In the Factory’ that was devoted to the manufacture of Brompton foldable bikes. In one of the show’s segments the historian Ruth Goodman presented how the bicycle had supported the emancipation of women. It was not as complete a treatment as the references above, but it did explain why specifically bicycling and not tricycling promoted the cause (apparently it was largely to do with the apparel required to ride the corresponding cycles)

Anyway“, I hear you ask, “where is the quote that made you laugh?“. Well, I was quite tickled by the penultimate paragraph of the MentalFloss article that mentions Jacquie Phelan, a feminist mountain biker who founded WOMBATS, the Women’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society. And it is one of her quotes on the WOMBATS website that made me laugh. It chimes greatly with me and, I suspect, with Firstborn too:

I never grew up, because grown-up has “groan” in it“.

Wimborne and I

Sandi Thom’s internet meltdown last year was, I guess, resonant of the frustration that many talented performers have with their industry, particularly where they may have served their time doing the circuit in the old-fashioned way only to see some lesser-talented, or even talentless, entertainer succeed after being showcased on one of TV’s rapid-rise-to-fame X-crable talent competitions. But not all who fail to hit the Radio 2 playlist react in the way that Thom did. Some just keep on going; doing what keeps them going in fact.

Thea Gilmore, a favourite of mine, seems to do just that. Last November I undertook a 600-mile round trip to see her in my childhood hometown, Kendal, thinking that no-one would have journeyed further for the concert. In fact a group had travelled down from as far away as Orkney, so after at least 15 albums and 13 never-quite-made-it-to-the-top singles, she clearly retains a committed fan base and keeps on writing songs and touring even when, as on this occasion, she doesn’t have an album to promote.

Her set was exceptionally well received by the local audience. That surprised me as in my youth Kendal audiences would usually sit tight-lipped with arms folded, assuming a posture that spoke volumes: “Ah’ve bluddy well paid to see yer, so bluddy well entertain me!”. At that time Kendal still seemed to adhere to the TV historian David Starkey’s description that it was a right tight little northern town where, if you couldn’t trace your forebears locally for several generations, you were viewed as a dangerous outsider! So I’m pleased to say that it seems to have changed since then, even though in a certain Steven Hall (a Britain’s Got Talent finalist) it has generated the sort of X-crable ‘celebrity’ that would make most unsung talents weep, never mind Sandi Thom.

Anyway, back to Thea Gilmore …

Seemingly, as audiences go we were better in Kendal than at Wimborne! Mostly, I think, because the room erupted with cheers when asked whether we were interested in a song about s-e-x (clearly Kendalians don’t get out much). This obviously pleased Thea as she recounted the fact that such a comment was met with relative silence in Dorset. Apparently she could do no right at her gig in Wimborne, whose audience would ostensibly have preferred a humourless and tuneless recital and to not have to cope with her breaking occasionally to re-tune her guitar or add a risqué comment. And that got me thinking – we must all have, or surely will have, a Wimborne moment; a time when your skills and humour are simply not appreciated to the full.

As an ex-pat Kendalian it is perhaps no surprise that one of my own Wimborne moments relates to Kendal itself. I once sent a short, well-crafted, self-deprecating and, I thought, humorous letter to its local weekly rag, the Westmorland Gazette. Unfortunately, it was edited before publication to the extent that any semblance of humour was removed and the sense of self-deprecation was transformed into one of apparent pomposity. This was all because the opening line contained the s-e-x word, so it had to be got rid of. That, in turn, meant the last line was meaningless, so they got rid of it as well thus completing a malign transformation that made its author look a bit of a plonker. Given Wimborne’s response to Thea’s humorous mention of s-e-x, it strikes me that the feckless illiterati of the Wezzy Gezzy’s editorial team would be well at home in Dorset:

I wrote you a letter and yet
It was odds-on, or so I would bet,
That its sense would be changed
By the oh-so-deranged
Illiterates that edit the Gazette!

Postscript: Much to my displeasure, my letter (as edited) was included in a publication of the Kendal Civic Society on a look back at the town over the preceding fifty years. Even more to my displeasure, my mum bought me a copy for Christmas. Aaaaaghhh!

Hot on the heels …

It’s a wee while since I was dishonestly ‘outed’ by Firstborn to all her Facebook friends as:

“… a cross-dressing rent boy with a penchant for high heels, who turns a shapely calf and holds Audrey Hepburn in high regard; the man who introduced me to Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Audrey Hepburn and Bette Midler, who styled my hair throughout my childhood, and who has very strong opinions on interior design …”.

All true, of course, bar the bit about being a cross-dressing rent boy with a penchant for high heels but, seemingly, word appears to have spread about the latter. You may recall that a few weeks ago the Graun reported that a PwC agency receptionist was sent home without pay for refusing to wear shoes with 2-4 inch heels whilst at work. I was actually stunned by that and did something that I very rarely do; I signed an online parliamentary petition seeking the discriminatory nature of the agency’s apparent dress code to be debated in Parliament.

I’m delighted to say that the petition worked and I heard yesterday that the matter will be debated. And I’m even more delighted to have been asked to give written evidence of the occasions upon which I have been compelled to wear high heels at work. Sadly, the only time that I can recall was during a work’s pantomime when, as one of the ugly sisters, Prince Charming attempted to force my size nine-and-a-half feet into a size four pair of hooker heels. So, maybe not!

Austerity bites
Austerity bites …

Whilst on this theme, I should also mention that my ‘on order’ micro-campervan has already been christened ‘Priscilla’ by Firstborn in advance of its delivery. That’s as a sort of homage to the series of cross-dressing comedy films that we have enjoyed watching together: Connie and Carla, Some Like It Hot, Kinky Boots and, of course, Priscilla Queen of the Desert; however, I have drawn the line at having a Ken doll dressed in Barbie’s clothes as a mascot on the van’s dashboard!

Postscript: Not all movies with a cross-dressing theme are, to my mind, as good as those mentioned above, Tootsie and Victor Victoria for example, but there’s not half a lot of them.

Aye, Phil, I’ll do just that!

I came across an old professor of mine in the Graun’s Birthday announcements today. Professor William Stewart by name, and I well remember one of the few face-to-face meetings that I had with him.

It was at the start of the summer term in the third year of my four-year degree course in Dundee. I had been called in to explain why I had walked out of a pre-Easter ‘class’ exam without answering any of the questions. The short answer was that I couldn’t, so I told him that, but added (truthfully) that it was because I had spent the entire term training for and playing rugby.

Such is the arrogance of youth that I also told him he shouldn’t berate me for it, but that he should celebrate the fact that someone from his Department was the University’s only first choice player in that year’s Scottish Universities Rugby XV. With an eloquent flourish I then demanded that he judge me on my junior honours exams in the summer and not on a meaningless class exam!

Quietly, he lowered his glasses down the bridge of his nose, tilted his head forward to look over them, smiled malevolently and whispered threateningly in his soft Islay lilt: “Aye, Phil, I’ll do just that!”

That had more effect than any ‘hairdrier’ kind of bollocking could have ever had and my goodness did I work hard to make up for what was effectively a missed term. He has since been dubbed a knight, so “thank you” Sir William Duncan Patterson Stewart DSc, FRS, FRSE (and former Government Chief Scientific Advisor), your understated menace had the desired effect.

Aye, Phil, I'll do just that!
Aye, Phil, I’ll do just that!

Postscript: a former colleague and I once disagreed over a detail on a poster that he had created for our library to highlight the fisheries research work of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, a leading scientist of the Victorian school and, like Sir William, a knighted professor. I argued that he should be entitled ‘Professor Sir D’Arcy …” whereas my colleague had labelled him “Sir Professor D’Arcy …”. We asked our Librarian to arbitrate, each confident of inviolability, at which point she quietly put us both in our place by referring to Debrett’s and announcing that he should be referenced by his senior honour only, so, Sir D’Arcy it should be. That’s my kind of pedantry, but clearly not the Graun’s; it announced the birthday of ‘Prof Sir William Stewart’ – see pic, above.