Archive for the History Category

R.I.P. Roger Griffin (1935-2021)

Posted in Film, History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on February 19, 2021 by telescoper

Roger Griffin (picture credit: St John’s College, Cambridge)

Earlier today I heard the sad news of the death at the age of 85 of astronomer Roger Griffin. He passed away on 12th February 2021.

Roger Griffin worked at Cambridge for over six decades, except for one year when he had a post-doctorate position at the Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. He was the Assistant Director of Research in Astronomy at the University of Cambridge for nine years before he was promoted to a Readership of Observational Astronomy and later a Professorship. He appeared in the film Starmen alongside Donald Lyndon-Bell, Wal Sargent and Neville “Nick” Woolf.

Roger Griffin worked on astronomical spectroscopy and his main scientific claim to fame was that he invented a method of measuring radial velocities of stars in binary systems described in this classic paper published in 1967:

Over the subsequent years he published many radial velocity curves thus obtained in a long series of papers in the Observatory Magazine and the same method was subsequently used for measuring orbits of black holes and detecting extrasolar planets.

Despite the Cambridge connection I never met Roger Griffin personally but people who did talk about him with great affection and he will be greatly missed.

Rest in peace, Roger Griffin (1935-2021)

Memories of the Aldwych Bus Bombing

Posted in Biographical, History, LGBT with tags , , , , on February 18, 2021 by telescoper

Twitter just reminded that today is the 25th anniversary of the Aldwych Bus Bombing, which happened while I was living in London. In fact, as it happens, in the late evening of Sunday 18th February 1996, when the bomb went off I was scarily close to it. The bomb went off in Aldwych, near The Strand, while I was standing in a fairly long queue trying to get into a night club near Covent Garden. The explosion was no more than 200 yards away from me.

The reason I was there was a one-nighter called Queer Nation which was on every Sunday in the 90s. I went there quite regularly and provided very nice music and provided an environment that attracted a very interesting crowd of people. Anyway I preferred it to the very big clubs of the more commercial London gay scene of the time, largely because it wasn’t such a big venue as many of the others and you could actually talk to people there without having to shout.

The queue to get in wasn’t too long and I had only been waiting a few minutes when there was a loud bang followed by a tinkling sound caused by pieces of glass falling to the ground. Everyone in the queue including myself instinctively dropped to the ground. The blast sounded very close but we were in a narrow street surrounded by tall buildings and it was hard to figure out from which direction the sound had come from. Shortly afterwards the air was filled with the sound of sirens from police cars and other emergency vehicles. According to Wikipedia the bomb went off at 22:38.

It turned out that an IRA operative had accidentally detonated a bomb on a bus, apparently while en route to plant it somewhere else (probably King’s Cross). The bomb consisted of 2kg of Semtex, which is rather a large amount, hence the enormous blast. The explosion happened on the upper deck of the bus and the only person killed was the person carrying the bomb.

After the people outside the nighclub had stood up and dusted ourselves down, we talked briefly about what to do next. Everyone was rattled. I didn’t feel like going clubbing after what had clearly been a terrorist attack so I said goodnight and left for home.

Getting home turned out to be rather difficult, however. The police quickly threw a cordon around the site of the blast so that several blocks either side were inaccessible. Aldwych is in the West End, but I lived in the East End, on the wrong side of sealed-off area, so I had to find a way around it before heading home. No buses or taxis were to be found so I had to walk all the way. I ended up having to go as far North as the Angel before walking along the City Road towards the East End. I didn’t arrive him until about three o’clock in the morning (though I did stop off for a Bagel in Spitalfields on the way).

So that was 25 years ago. Fortunately since then we’ve had the Good Friday Agreement and such events have virtually disappeared. But how long will that peace last?

Decimal Day – 50 Years On!

Posted in Biographical, History, mathematics with tags , , , , , on February 15, 2021 by telescoper

The old half-crown coin (2/6)

People of a certain age will remember that fifty years ago today, on 15th February 1971, it was Decimal Day. That was the day that the United Kingdom finally switched completely to the “new money”. Ireland made a similar switch on the same day. Out went old shillings and pennies and in came “new pence”. Old pennies were always abbreviated as `d’ but the new ones were `p’.

In the old system there were 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound. The pound was therefore 240 old pennies while in the new money it became 100 new pence.

It was not only shillings that disappeared in the process of decimalization. The old ten-bob note (10 shillings) made way for what is now the 50p piece. The shilling coin became 5p. The sixpence was no longer minted after 1970 but stayed in circulation until 1980, worth 2½p.

The crown (5 shillings) and half-crown (two shillings and sixpence, written 2s 6d or 2/6) disappeared, as did the threepenny bit. For a personal story about the latter, see here.

The old penny was a very large and heavy coin, whereas the new one was much smaller despite being worth more. If you had an old penny in your pocket you felt you had something substantial where as one new “pee” seemed insignificant. Even the ha’penny was quite a big piece.

At first, to echo the old ha’penny, there was a ½p coin but that was discontinued in 1984. The old farthing (a quarter of an old penny) had long since ceased to be legal tender (in 1960) although we still had some in the house for some reason.

I was just 7 on Decimal Day but I remember some things about it rather well. There were jingles on the radio announcing Decimal Day and at Junior School we played “Decimal Bingo” to get used to the new money. I remember taking our elderly neighbour’s ten-bob notes to the Post Office to change them into the new coins, though this would have been before Decimal Day as the ten-bob note was phased out in 1970. I remember my Grandad being convinced that the Government had stolen 140 pennies out of every pound he owned…

Youngsters probably find the old system incredibly cumbersome and archaic, which in some ways it was, but at least it got us doing arithmetic in different bases (i.e. base 12 and based 20). The advantage of base 12 is that it has prime factors 2, 3, 4, and 6 so is relatively easier to divide into equal shares; base 10 only has 2 and 5.

Imperial weights and measures also included base 3 (feet in a yard), 8 (pints in a gallon), 14 (pounds in a stone) and 16 (ounces in a pound). I have to admit that to this day when I follow a cookery recipe if it says “100 g” of something, I have to convert that to ounces before I can visualize what it is!

Celtic Europe

Posted in History with tags , , , , on February 6, 2021 by telescoper

The Extent of Celtic Europe, from “Dictionary of Languages” by Andrew Dalby

Following on from Thursday’s post I thought I’d show the above map that shows the spread of Celtic languages in Europe. I’m sorry that the picture isn’t great but I scanned the map from a big hardback book and the map spreads across the fold as you can see.

The Celtic languages at the time depicted in the map (1st Century BC) were all oral languages, but when the Roman Empire spread across Europe about two thousand years ago it came into contact with the major dialects. Evidence for these can be found in place names, from Mediolanum (modern-day Milan, originally in cisalpine Gaul) to Singidunum (the Roman name for modern-day Belgrade) and Laccobriga (Lagos in Southern Portugal).
Belgium gets its name from the Belgae, regarded by Julius Caesar as the bravest and most fearsome of the tribes of Gaul. There are also words recorded in early inscriptions and in reconstructions based on later texts from which it is possible to glean clues about these languages. The picture that emerges is of a network of dialects spoken by Celtic peoples that inhabited a swathe of Continental Europe from the Iberian peninsula in the West to Galatia in the East, much of the Danube valley, and from Cisalpine Gaul (now part of Italy) in the South to modern-day Germany in the North.

Galatia (in classical Asia Minor) merits a special mention. St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians was addressed to the young Christian churches in this Celtic-speaking enclave which was then a distant province of the Roman Empire.

Linguists refer to the language that was spoken in Ireland at this time as Goidelic and it sits apart from the others because Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire. Brythonic is the name given to the dialects spoken in Britain. Continental Celtic is the name given to the dialects stretching all the way from Spain to Galatia of which the largest group was Gaulish. The language of the Scottish highlands Pictish may have been a separate subdivision but I don’t think anybody really knows because the language is extinct.

None of these groups was homogeneous. The Celts lived in relatively small communities and there were many regional variations even within each major group. Irish has four main dialects, roughly aligned with the four provinces. In Description of Ireland (1577), Richard Stanyhurst wrote:

As the whole realme of Ireland is sundred into foure principal parts so eche parcell differeth very much in the Irish tongue, euery country hauing his dialect or peculiar manner in speaking the language.


Our Irish teacher speaks the Irish of Connacht in which some pronunciations are very different from Leinster, which is the province I live in. As an absolute beginner this is the least of my worries at the moment.

The Goidelic group comprises Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic; and the Brythonic group that comprises Welsh, Cornish and Breton. These are sometimes referred to as q-Celtic and p-Celtic, respectively, although not everyone agrees that is a useful categorization. It stems from the fact that the “q” in Indo-European languages morphed into a “p” in the Brythonic languages. The number five in Irish is a cúig which has a q sound (though there is no letter q in the Irish alphabet); five in Welsh is pump. Contrast with the number two: a dó in Irish and dau in Welsh.

Incidentally, Scottish Gaelic is not the language spoken by the Celtic people who lived in Scotland at the time of the Romans, the Picts, which is lost. Scottish Gaelic is actually descended from Middle Irish due to migration and trading contacts. The Ulster dialect of Irish is in turn much influenced by reverse migration from Scotland. Languages do not evolve in isolation or in any simple linear trajectory.

Contrary to popular myth, Breton is not a Continental Celtic language but was taken to Brittany by a mass migration of people, which peaked in the 6th Century AD, from South-West Britain, fleeing the Anglo-Saxons. The Saxons won a great victory in battle at Dyrham (near Bath) in 577 after which they advanced through Somerset and Devon, splitting the Celts of Cornwall and Wales and leading to the formation of two distinct Brythonic language groups, Welsh and Cornish. Breton is much closer to Cornish than Welsh.

The Continental Celtic languages are all extinct, except for fascinating remnants that linger here and there in local dialect words in French and Spanish.

Language Lessons

Posted in History, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2021 by telescoper

Thursday is Computational Physics Day this term so this morning I delivered the first Panopto lecture of that module and in the afternoon we had our first laboratory session. The students are all at home of course so we had to run the lab with them using their own laptops rather than the dedicated Linux cluster we have in the Department and interacting via Microsoft Teams.  The first lab is very introductory so it was really just me presenting and them following on their machines without too much interaction. The ability to share a screen is actually very useful though and I imagine using it quite a lot to share Spyder. It went fairly well, I think, with all the students getting started out on the business of learning Python.

In between lecturing the morning and running the laboratory session this afternoon I had the chance to study another kind of language. Soon after I first arrived in Maynooth I got an email from Maynooth University about Irish language classes. Feeling a bit ashamed about not having learned Welsh in all my time in Cardiff, I thought I’d sign up for the Beginners class and fill in a Doodle Poll to help the organizers schedule it. Unfortunately, when the result was announced  it was at a time that I couldn’t make owing to teaching, so I couldn’t do it. That  happened a couple of times, in fact. This year however I’ve managed to register at a time I can make, though obviously the sessions are online.

I’m not sure how wise it is for me to try learning a new language during a term as busy as this, but I have to say I enjoyed the first session enormously. It was all very introductory, but I’ve learnt a few things about pronunciation – unsurprisingly the Irish word for pronunciation fuaimniú is unsurprisingly quite difficult to pronounce – and the difference between slender and broad vowels. I also learnt that to construct a verbal noun, instead of putting -ing on the end as you would in English, in Irish you use the word ag in front of the verb.

That’s not to say I had no problems. I’m still not sure I can say  Dia duit (hello) properly. The second “d” is hardly pronounced. 

Irish isn’t much like Welsh, which I failed to learn previously.  Although Irish and Welsh are both Celtic languages they are from two distinct groups: the Goidelic group that comprises Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic; and the Brythonic group that comprises Welsh, Cornish and Breton. These are sometimes referred to as q-Celtic and p-Celtic, respectively, although not everyone agrees that is a useful categorization. Incidentally, Scottish Gaelic is not the language spoken by the Celtic people who lived in Scotland at the time of the Romans, the Picts, which is lost. Scottish Gaelic is actually descended from Middle Irish. Also incidentally, Breton was taken to Brittany by a mass migration of people from South-West Britain fleeing the Anglo-Saxons which peaked somewhere around 500 AD. I guess that was the first Brexodus.

Welsh and Irish don’t sound at all similar to me, which is not surprising really. It is thought that the Brythonic languages evolved from a language  brought to Britain by people from somewhere in Gaul (probably Northern France), whereas the people whose language led to the Goidelic tongues were probably from somewhere in the Iberia (modern-day Spain or Portugal). The modern versions of Irish and Welsh do contain words borrowed from Latin, French and English so there are similarities there too.

Only a diacritic mark appears in Irish, the síneadh fada (`long accent’), sometimes called the fada for short, which looks the same as the acute accent in, e.g., French. There’s actually one in síneadh if you look hard enough. It just means the vowel is pronounced long (i.e. the first syllable of síneadh is pronounced SHEEN). The word sean (meaning old) is pronounced like “shan” whereas Seán the name is pronounced “Shawn”.

One does find quite a few texts (especially online) where the fada is carelessly omitted, but it really is quite important. For example Cáca is the Irish word for `cake’, while the unaccented Caca means `excrement’…

I took the above text in Irish and English from the front cover of an old examination paper. You can see the accents as well as another feature of Irish which is slightly similar to Welsh, the mysterious lower-case h in front of Éireann. This is a consequence of an initial mutation, in which the initial character of word changes in various situations according to syntax or morphology (i.e. following certain words changing the case of a noun or following certain sounds). This specific case is an an example of h-prothesis (of an initial vowel).

In Welsh, mutations involve the substitution of one character for another. For example, `Wales’ is Cymru but if you cross the border into Wales you may see a sign saying Croeso i Gymru, the `C’ having mutated. The Irish language is a bit friendlier to the learner than Welsh, however, as the mutated character (h in the example above) is inserted in front of the unmutated character. Seeing both the mutated and unmutated character helps a person with limited vocabulary (such as myself) figure out what’s going on.

Mutations of consonants also occur in Irish. These can involve lenition (literally `weakening’, also known as aspiration) or eclipsis (nasalisation). In the case of eclipsis the unmutated consonant is preceded by another denoting the actual sound, e.g. b becomes m in terms of pronunciation, but what is written is mb. On the other hand, lenition is denoted by an following the unmutated consonant. In older forms of Irish the overdot (ponc séimhithe) -another diacritic – was used to denote lenition.

Anyway, I’ve seen Dia duit written Dia dhuit which might explain why the d sounds so weak. We live and learn. If I keep at it long enough I might eventually be able to understand the TG4 commentary on the hurling..

Maynooth and the Boyle Family

Posted in History, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on January 30, 2021 by telescoper

It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon in Maynooth and I don’t feel like taking my usual walk so I thought I’d post another bit of local history like I did last week. This is another thing I’ve just found out and thought I’d share. This is a view I took last spring of Maynooth Castle (or the ruins thereof):

The Castle, together with a Manor House that was next to it, belonged to the Fitzgerald family, local aristocracy since the 13th Century. As I mentioned in a previous post, Thomas Fitzgerald, the 10th Earl of Kildare, led a rebellion against the English authorities during the time of Henry VIII. He acquired the nickname “Silken Thomas” because of the ribbons of silk worn by his supporters. The rebellion failed and his family castle was badly damaged. Thomas surrendered and was subsequently executed, along with several members of his family, in 1537. The family fortunes declined pretty drastically at that point but the family line did survive.

Now fast forward to 1630 when George Fitzgerald, the 16th Earl of Kildare married a Lady Joan Boyle. She was the daughter of a tremendously powerful figure by the name of Richard Boyle, the 1st Earl of Cork. Richard Boyle had been part of the Tudor plantation of Ireland and had acquired enormous amounts of land and personal wealth in the process. He spent some of his riches at the time of his daughter’s wedding doing up the ancestral home of his son-in-law, refurbishing the castle and building a new manor house next to it.

Unfortunately this didn’t last long. During the Irish Confederate Wars the Castle was attacked several times and badly damaged. It remained in occupation but by the end of the 17th Century it was derelict. The Fitzgerald family eventually moved to a new home at the other end of Maynooth, Carton House (now an upmarket golf resort). All Richard Boyle’s refurbishment work went to nothing and all that survives to the present day – the Gatehouse and Solar Tower – dates to the 13th Century, no doubt because it was more solidly built.

I’ve known about this for quite a while, but only this morning I discovered something else. Richard Boyle had a very large family – fifteen children altogether – and his seventh son (14th child altogether) was none other than the famous natural philosopher Robert Boyle, after whom Boyle’s Law is named. He was a particularly important figure in the development of chemistry, paid for the publication of a translation of the Bible into Irish, was a founder member of the Royal Society of London and, more importantly than any of those things, wrote the book whose cover I use when I post rambling from In The Dark on Twitter:

It’s a very descriptive title for this blog, but perhaps not so catchy.

Anyway, largely because he found it difficult to acquire materials and equipment in Ireland, Robert Boyle spent most his scientific career in England. He did however return to Ireland a number of times. He was born in Lismore, in County Waterford, so probably would have stayed near there on these visit. It is entirely possible – and indeed likely – that he may have visited his sister in Maynooth while in Ireland.

It’s a Sin – Review

Posted in Biographical, History, LGBT, Television with tags , , , , , , , on January 28, 2021 by telescoper

Left to Right: Omari Douglas (Roscoe), Nathaniel Curtis (Ash), Olly Alexander (Ritchie), Callum Scott Howells (Colin) and Lydia West (Jill)

Since I posted a kind of prelude a few days ago I decided that I would bite the bullet and watch the entire Channel 4 drama series It’s a Sin. Although only the first episode (of five) has been broadcast all the episodes were released on the Channel 4 app so I decided to binge on it. Part of the reason for doing that was that I wanted to finish it before term starts next week. I’ve waited for a couple of days before writing a sort of review of it, or more a reaction, really to get over the impact enough to write something even vaguely sensible.

Because a lot of people won’t have seen the whole series yet I won’t give away any of the plot, but it won’t come as any surprise to discover that it is steeped in tragedy and at times a very difficult watch. Before you ask if I cried, the answer is yes, I did a lot, in every single episode, partly because of the actual drama but also partly because of the memories it brought back. The catharsis wasn’t unwelcome, however. You don’t deal with the past by hiding from it.

The word tragedy is frequently misused but I think it is very apt for It’s A Sin. People often refer to unpredictable or accidental events as tragic but the power of a theatrical tragedy comes from the sense of remorseless inevitability. From Episode 1 you feel the threat approaching and you know what is going to happen because you know the historical context. It still hits very hard though. If you can get through Episode 3 without crumbling you’re a stronger person than me. It reminded me of a paraphrased quote from Herodotus I first heard in 1986:

Call no man happy until he knows the manner of his death.

So what can I say about it as a piece of television drama? Well, first of all, it’s beautifully written and produced. Writer Russel T. Davies is just a month or so older than me so would also have been 18 in 1981 when the first episode is set and it clearly is a very personal piece. That gives it great authenticity, and the production goes to a lot of trouble to get the atmosphere and detail right. I moved to London in 1990 and the last episode, set in 1991, depicts that time very accurately indeed. While I was living in Brighton (for the five years before moving to London) I did travel up quite a few times to sample the gay scene either alone or with friends. The music, the design and the clothing is all very much on the mark. The one thing you can’t do on television is recreate the smell. Gay clubs in my memory were awash with poppers and sweat. I had also almost forgotten the ubiquitous clones (gay men in tight jeans, checked shirts, cropped hair and moustaches), a look that was de rigueur in the late Seventies to mid Eighties. The lingo was generally quite different, actually. There weren’t any twinks in those days, for example, and far fewer gym bunnies. I also remember that for me in those days the London scene revolved more around Earls Court than Soho. I particularly remember a place called Bromptons.

But I digress.

The acting in the series is also very good. I have to pick out Olly Alexander‘s stellar performance as Ritchie Tozer. Being an old fogey I didn’t know about his musical career and I’ve only seen him a little as an actor, including in an old episode of the detective series Lewis but to be honest he didn’t really register. I was much more aware of him as an activist and advocate for LGBT+ rights, work for which I admire him enormously. The role of Ritchie is clearly one that means a lot to him and which is no doubt why he gives so much of himself. The result is one of the most generous and commited performances I have ever seen on television, as funny and charming as it is, in the end, heartbreaking. He has a presence in this series that is utterly compelling.

Among other qualities, Olly Alexander has remarkably expressive eyes. That’s always a great asset for a screen actor, because so much is done in closeup and, in this series, he does quite a lot of work directly to camera which are intensely moving. Although the whole cast is very strong – and it is really an ensemble piece – Olly Alexander steals the show more than once. He deserves every bit of the praise that is being heaped on him right now.

Russel T. Davies was very clear that he wanted the gay roles in this series to be played by gay actors. I think he was absolutely right in that, for two reasons. One is personal. I don’t think I would have responded in anything like the same way as I did to, e.g., Ritchie Tozer if I hadn’t known that the actor playing him was gay. It made the character immediately real to me. More importantly I think playing a gay role must be liberating for a gay actor too. The actor does not have to pretend to be gay so they can concentrate their energy on other aspects of their performance, which can only grow as a consequence.

I was amused to see some comments on social media after Episode 1 complaining about the “graphic” sex scenes. I think they were done very honestly, showing things as they are. HIV is sexually transmitted so why tiptoe around the reality of gay sex. I thought some of the scenes were rather nice, actually. Anyway I wonder what the people complaining think gay men do in bed, play tiddlywinks perhaps? I’ve never understood why it is acceptable to portray shocking levels of violence on television, but showing two cute guys getting it on is considered anathema. Straight people can be weird.

I suppose one of things I was a bit worried about before I watched It’s A Sin was that it might have been mawkish or preachy, a trap some AIDS dramas have fallen into. Davies avoids that by ensuring that all his characters are very human. Richie, for example, may be cute and sexy but he is also at times a bit dim and rather annoying.

The other characters are similarly human. They all have their faults, but who doesn’t? You don’t have to be an angel to deserve respect. All are very real, presumably because they are partly based on people Russell T. Davies knew back then.

I’ve described some of my own experiences during the Eighties elsewhere on this blog. I don’t propose to repeat them at length here, but will say that I grew up in the 1970s at a time when the only portrayals of gay characters on screen were camp stereotypes to be mocked. That mockery extended into everyday life for gay people, with the added possibility of real physical violence. My reaction to that was to assume that straight people would never be really accepting of us and would never be our friends, so it was a waste of time trying. When I wasn’t at work I avoided straight society, shopping in gay shops, eating in gay restaurants, and generally being a scene Queen. That may seem a bit extreme – and it probably was – but one positive I felt at the time was a sense of belonging that I had never felt before and haven’t felt much since. That sense pervades It’s A Sin: the characters suffer family rejection and discrimination as society turns its back on them but they have each other, at least for a time.

Curiously it was because I got involved a little bit in the battle against AIDS that I changed my view about gay separatism. After doing some training I got involved as a volunteer in doing sexual health workshops, phone counselling, giving out information leaflets and fundraising. As a matter of fact it was the AIDS crisis that led me to take up long-distance running. I did my first half-marathon in 1988 to raise money for the Terence Higgins Trust.

To my surprise a number of straight people were involved in these activities too, and I began to realize that there was such a thing as a a straight ally. If someone had told me in 1991 that in less than 30 years same-sex marriage would have been legal I would have laughed my head off. But there you are. We wouldn’t have got that without building alliances. I was wrong, and am happy to admit it.

One of the people I worked with at that time was a nurse called Gill. The character Jill Baxter (wonderfully played by Lydia West) made my jaw drop not just because of the similarity in name but also because some of the things she says (warning the risks from AIDS) which were almost word for word some like expressions Gill used. I’m sure* that must be a coincidence!

*I’ve now read an interview that explains that Jill is indeed based on a real character called Jill (not Gill) who was a nurse who cared for people with AIDS, as Gill did but was not her. I hope this clarifies the situation.

The hostility and misrepresentation I mentioned above got even worse during the AIDS crisis, with the occasional added flourish that AIDS was sent by God to punish sinful behaviour. The best that most dramas achieved was to create a sense that gay men were victims to be pitied, rather than perverts to be despised. That seemed to me to be hardly an improvement. At least now we’re on a path towards equality and acceptance, although there is still a long way to go: there are some who don’t seem to have learned very much at all from this terrible period, judging by their attitudes towards transgender people.

I think that’s enough rambling. I’ll just make one last admission. This series made me feel very old! The first episode is set in 1981, which is “only” forty years ago, but it struck me in Episode 2 that it was a bit like watching one of those historical costume dramas that appear so often on the telly and then realising that you were alive at the time being depicted! But I can cope with being old. At least I made it this far. This series is a testament to those who didn’t.

Imagining an Eighties Coronavirus Pandemic

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, History, Television on January 25, 2021 by telescoper

Thinking about the TV series It’s A Sin I blogged about on Saturday a couple of things struck me in relation to our current situation trying to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the early 1980s we had no access to the internet – it only really get going until 1983 and most households didn’t get connected until much later. There wasn’t even email either. And nobody had mobile phones – smart or otherwise, so there were no text messages.

Had the Covid-19 pandemic occurred forty years ago we would have had to face it in very different ways. Working from home for most people would have been impossible so any kind of lockdown would have had dire economic consequences.

In the education sector, in which I work, the existence of the internet has allowed us to switch to remote teaching and learning (and assessment). Although it has been very far from ideal, at least we have been able to do something. What would we have done in the 1980s? I really don’t know.

One possibility is to have used the TV to broadcast some form of educational service. But until 1982 (when Channel 4 arrived) there were only three channels in the UK so it would not have been easy to devote a lot of time for live broadcasts. On the other hand people did have video recorders, so programmes could have been transmitted during the night for later consumption. I guess also that some materials, assignments, etc could have been delivered using the regular mail rather like old-fashioned correspondence courses. The Open University was already doing that, of course, but expanding it to include every student at every level in the country at very short notice would have been very difficult indeed.

The number of people in other sectors who would be able to work from home would also have been very small, so the economic cost of a lockdown would have been even higher than at present. I suspect that Governments wouldn’t even have tried, with the resulting increase in mortality.

And there is also the social dimension. During this pandemic people have been able to use software such as Zoom to stay in touch, including with elderly relatives who might otherwise be completely isolated. That would have been impossible in the Eighties.

In any case socializing for young people during the 1980s – which is what I was then – was very different. We didn’t (because we couldn’t) use texts or mobile phone calls to arrange nights out or other things. I didn’t get my
first (very basic) mobile phone until the 1990s – and I think I was an early adopter. I kept in touch with my friends in normal times by frequenting the same bars and clubs as my friends. We’d often meet up without arranging anything specifically.

There were no dating apps then either, so people used to hook up in bars and clubs (and frequently elsewhere). I suppose that has changed a lot over the past couple of decades (although I don’t go to such places any more, being an oldie).

Suffice to say that compared to today the impact on social lives and wellbeing would have been even more drastic had we had lockdowns in the 1980s.

A Little Local History

Posted in Biographical, History, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2021 by telescoper

I’ve lived in Maynooth for over three years now and for a large part of that time my home was a flat on Straffan Road near Court House Square. Across the road from where I lived is Lyreen House (sometimes called Larine House). The Lyreen, incidentally, is the name of the small river that runs through Maynooth, on which the old mill was built.

The house was built in the 1780s and is now used as a day care centre. Towards the rear it has a very pleasant walled garden; from the side looking across Straffan Road it looks like this:

The car is not always there. Note the rather unattractive grey pebbledash rendering which is I’m afraid rather ubiquitous on old buildings in this area. I think this is because many of these buildings are made from limestone which needs to be protected from weathering. There is a lot of this rendering on the South Campus at Maynooth University too.

Anyway, I walked past Lyreen/Larine House every time I went to work without ever really thinking about its history. Then, yesterday, I saw this:

The picture at the bottom shows Lyreen House as seen looking South from Court House Square, with Straffan Road to the right. The article in the local paper explains that during the War of Independence a hundred years ago, it was for a time used as a barracks for the Black and Tans! I had absolutely no idea about that until yesterday!

Nowadays the view looking North through Court House Square towards Main Street is this:

The white building to the right is Brady’s pub. The structure you see is a monument to the victims of the Great Hunger in a pleasant seating area that is often used for craft fairs, musical performances and other gatherings. Or at least it was in the pre-Covid era.

What you don’t see is any sign of a Court House. That is because it was destroyed by the IRA in 1920. This is what it looked like after the attack.

The War of Independence in County Kildare didn’t see anything like as much violence as other parts of Ireland, abut that didn’t mean there wasn’t a strong Republican presence here. When rumours circulated that the British were going to use the Court House as a garrison the local IRA decided to deny them that opportunity by setting it on fire (though they first ensured that everyone inside was taken to safety).

The Old Court House lay derelict for many years and was eventually demolished. Then a public convenience was built on the site. This was not only an eyesore but also a smelly and unpleasant place that people generally avoided. It  was then demolished and the monument was constructed in 1993.

I walked through Court House Square last night on a rare trip out of my house to collect a takeaway for my dinner. I noticed that the Christmas lights and nativity scene were still there, almost a month after Christmas. I wonder when they’ll take them down?



It’s a Sin

Posted in Biographical, History, LGBT, Television with tags , , , , , on January 23, 2021 by telescoper

My Twitter feed was on fire last night with reactions to the first episode of the new Channel 4 drama series It’s a Sin. The title is taken from the 1987 hit of the same name by the Pet Shop Boys.

I didn’t watch it. I told a friend that I would find it impossible to watch. He asked “Why, would the memories be uncomfortable?”. I said “No. I can’t get Channel 4 on my television”.

I only have the minimum Saorview you see.

Now I’ve been informed that it is possible to stream Channel 4 for free in Ireland I will definitely watch it, so consider this a prelude to the inevitable commentary when I’ve actually seen it.

The reason why my friend thought I’d find it uncomfortable is that the story of the first episode is set in 1981 and revolves around five characters who were eighteen years old at that time. As it happens I was also 18 in 1981. On the other hand the story involves the protagonists all moving to London in 1981, which I didn’t. I was living in Newcastle in 1981, doing my A-levels and then taking the entrance exam for Cambridge where I went the following year (1982).

Before going on I’ll just mention that 1981 was – yikes – 40 years ago and – double yikes – is closer in time to the end of World War 2 than to today.

Anyway, a major theme running through the 5-part series is the AIDS epidemic that was only just starting to appear on the horizon in 1981. I recall reading an article in a magazine about GRIDS (Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome), which it was what AIDS was called in the very early days. I remember it only vaguely though and didn’t think much about AIDS during the time I was an undergraduate student, although became terrifyingly relevant when I moved to Sussex in 1985 to start my graduate studies.

Although I had been (secretly) sexually active at school and definitely knew I was gay when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, I wasn’t very open about it except to my closest friends. I also didn’t do much about it either, apart from developing a number of crushes that were doomed to be unrequited.

In my final year at Cambridge I decided that I would try to get a place to do a PhD (or, as it turned out, a DPhil). I applied to a few places around the country, and was very happy to get an offer from Sussex and started my postgraduate studies there in 1985. The reputation of Brighton as being a very `gay’ place to live was definitely part of the decision to go there.

Having been very repressed at Cambridge and mostly unhappy as a consequence I decided that I couldn’t continue to live that way. One of the first things I did during `Freshers Week’ at Sussex was join the GaySoc (as it was called) and I gradually became more involved in it as time went on. To begin with I found it helped to pluck up the nerve to go into gay bars and clubs, which I was a bit scared to do on my own having never really experienced anything like them in Newcastle or Cambridge.

It didn’t take me long to acquire an exciting sex life, picking up guys here and there and having (mostly unprotected) sex with strangers several times a week (or more). I then met an undergraduate student through the GaySoc. Although younger than me he was more experienced and more confident about sex. The relationship I had with him was a real awakening for me. We had a lot of sex. I would often sneak off form my office to his room on campus during the day for a quickie. We never even talked about wearing condoms or avoiding ‘risky’ behaviour. This was in 1986. The infamous government advertising campaign began in 1987.

Then one evening we went together to a GaySoc meeting about AIDS during which a health expert explained what was dangerous and what wasn’t, and exactly how serious AIDS really was. Most of us students were disinclined to follow instructions from the Thatcher government but gradually came round to the idea that it wasn’t the attempt at social control that we suspected but a genuine health crisis. That day my partner and I exchanged sheepish glances all the way through the talk. Afterwards we discussed it and decided that it was probably a good idea for us both to get tested for HIV, though obviously if one of us had it then both of us would.

Having been told what the riskiest sexual practices were, and knowing that I had been engaging very frequently precisely in those behaviours, I just assumed that I would be found HIV+. When I did eventually have a test I was quite shocked to find I was negative, so much so that I had another test to make sure. It was negative again. We were both negative, in fact, so we carried on as before.

It was in the next few years that people I knew started to get HIV, and then AIDS, from which many died. I imagine, therefore, that It’s a Sin will have a considerable personal resonance for me. Even without watching it (yet) a question that often troubles me returned once again to my mind: why am I still alive, when so many people I knew back then are not?