Thursday 31 December 2015

Review of 2015

Although 2015 has been an enjoyable and productive year not everything has gone exactly the way I would have expected.
  1. I got quite close to resigning from being a school governor - after 32 years service in assorted schools and colleges. Then, rather unexpectedly, a new series of challenges fell into my lap and I felt sufficiently motivated to carry on.
  2. My postal history research has pretty much ground to a halt. There are several incomplete projects sitting on my study table but at the moment I lack to time, energy and enthusiasm to do anything with them. Much the same has happened with my South African postcard collection - nobody out there seems interested in the social history of South Africa pre-union and I don't seem to get the pleasure I used to get from working on these things on my own.
  3. Claire and I finished our survey of Herefordshire Churches, Churchyards and Cemeteries and we have now turned our attention to Worcestershire.  We have sold 364 books in the last 365 days which is vastly more than I would ever have predicted. It was quite an experience "appearing" on Radio Shropshire and giving a talk to the local Probus group on our favourite topic.
  4. Our former neighbour Betty died in late January.  She was a character in the very nicest sense of the word. Julie Bourchier, a former work colleague from my time in Somerset, died far too young in May. Eli and Flora have joined our extended family in 2015 to take their places.
  5. We had a lovely day with other family members at  Blist Hill Victorian town and we also attended my Auntie Margaret’s 90th birthday party over in Cambridge. 
  6. The Christmas family gathering was great fun even if it was all rather hectic.
  7. The three young people I mentor continue to thrive despite the very casual approach of the project organisers who spent all the available money on staff salaries leaving nothing for the travel expenses of the volunteers such as me!
  8. The electrics for the outside lights remain a problem that seems to be unresolvable at the moment.

Sunday 13 December 2015

Beyond the Messier and Caldwell Catalogues

If you subscribe to one of the magazines that cater for amateur astronomers you will soon realise that the same few objects are mentioned again and again as suitable targets for owners of small telescopes. I am, of course, referring to those listed in the Messier catalogue.
However there is a limit to how many times an object can be viewed or imaged before boredom sets in. So it is hardly surprising that more active observers started looking for advice on possible deep-sky objects “beyond the Messier catalogue”. Many other lists of astronomical targets have been compiled. Perhaps the best known of these is the Herschel 400. All 400 targets can be seen with a 6 inch telescope from a moderately dark site.
These lists seem to have one important feature in common – they are sub-sets extracted from much larger catalogues using a range of selection criteria that are not always well explained.
My lists of targets are not like these others. I have discovered all these objects myself: either by direct observation or via data mining.
This new book is now available from or from

Grave Hunting - Tips and Tales

  • Introduction Why go grave hunting?
  • How to hunt for gravestones safely.
  • When to go grave-hunting.
  • How to find the grave that you want.
  • Photograph the gravestones you have discovered.
  • Should you clean the gravestones?
  • Keeping records during your graveyard visits.
  • Do look inside the church.
  • Be polite and respectful.
  • Churchyard maintenance.
  • How do I find every church?
  • Survival tips!
  • Potential technical disasters.
  • Publicise the results of your grave-hunts.
  • Contact with other grave-hunters.
  • What else have we learned?
  • Research Unexpected pleasures (and disappointments).
  • These are gravestones, but you have to laugh sometimes…..!
  • Review of our year of 2015.
  • More projects.
  • Conclusion.
This new book is now available from both and


Sunday 29 November 2015

Death, Disaster and the South Wales Railways: Volume 1 (Social History Today)

Death, Disaster and the South Wales Railways

This book is available from Amazon
Martin Nicholson - Ticklerton Barn, Ticklerton, Church Stretton, Shropshire

The South African Picture Postcard Catalogue

Both these volumes are available from Amazon

As a former stamp collector the idea of conducting my hobby without the use of a full-colour priced catalogue would have seemed ridiculous. Many such catalogues are produced each year - ranging in scope from those covering the whole world in a highly simplified format to others covering the issues of a single country in great detail. It therefore came as a great surprise to me to discover that no catalogue had been produced covering the activities of the many postcard publishers who had been in business in South Africa in the early part of the twentieth century. Starting in the 1980's the now defunct Southern Africa Postcard Research Group (SAPRG) under the leadership of Aston (Archie) Atkinson published a number of preliminary checklists of publishers and the cards they had produced. It soon became clear that these lists, although admirable starting points, were far from complete and it was for this reason that I proposed the compilation and subsequent publication of the South African Picture Postcard Catalogue.
 Martin Nicholson - Ticklerton Barn, Ticklerton, Church Stretton, Shropshire

Saturday 28 November 2015

Unusual gravestones - a new book for grave hunters

Unusual gravestones
About the authors - Martin and Claire Nicholson own one of the largest archives of grave related photographs in the world. A selection of their work appears in the blog "Grave Mistakes" that has had over a quarter of a million hits since it was launched in 2013. Other examples appear in the Facebook group "Social History" where Martin acts as the group administrator.

The authors have viewed millions of gravestones, and are offering readers a selection of the rare and unusual gravestones that they have seen, with full-colour illustrations. Each category of type of gravestone, age of person, cause of death, rare names, and errors found on gravestones are given a points score to indicate rarity.

Specimen pages from Amazon previewer
 Martin Nicholson - Ticklerton Barn, Ticklerton, Church Stretton, Shropshire

Unusual Commonwealth War Graves - The country catalogues

Unusual Commonwealth War Graves Vol 1 - United Kingdom
Published June 2015 and now available from Amazon.
This book is compiled from the records maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission of servicemen and women killed or missing since the start of the First World War in 1914.
The book is subdivided into separate nationalities – British, Australian, Canadian, South African, Indian, New Zealander, and the Merchant Navy. The first list contains details of the location of the grave or memorial in the U.K. naming servicemen or women of each nationality who were one of five or less of their particular service rank who lost their lives.
The second list contains details of the location of the grave or memorial in the U.K. naming servicemen or women of each nationality who were one of five or less of their particular regiment or service who lost their lives.
Every life lost as a result of military service is a tragedy for the family and friends of the individual, and this book does not seek to imply that those listed here are any more deserving of memory than those not selected.
The book shows the wide range of units from which only a handful, or even a single, life was lost, and also the wide range of ranks where also only a handful, or even a single, holder of that rank is commemorated in the United Kingdom. The CWGC lists 307,131 names of dead and missing service personnel and members of the Merchant Navy who are remembered at locations in the United Kingdom. Of these 61,064 (19.9%) were private soldiers but only 1 was an Artificer Engine Room 5th Class.
In the same series
Unusual Commonwealth War Graves Vol 2 - France
 Unusual Commonwealth War Graves Vol 3 - Belgium
Unusual Commonwealth War Graves Vol 4 - Iraq
Unusual Commonwealth War Graves Vol 5 - Germany
Unusual Commonwealth War Graves Vol 6 - Egypt

Martin Nicholson - Ticklerton Barn, Ticklerton, Church Stretton, Shropshire

Four books on world famous military cemeteries

Vol 1 - The Arras War Graves and Memorials

Published June 2015 and now available from Amazon.
This book is compiled from the records maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission of servicemen and women killed or missing since the start of the First World War in 1914.

The first section contains details of the location on the Arras Memorial of servicemen or women who were one of five or less of their particular service rank or unit who lost their lives. I have also identified where winners of the Victoria Cross can be found.

The second section contains details of the location on the Arras Flying Service Memorial of servicemen or women who were one of five or less of their particular service rank or unit who lost their lives.

The third section contains details of the location of the graves in the Faubourg D’Amiens Cemetery naming servicemen or women who were one of five or less of their particular regiment or service who lost their lives.

Every life lost as a result of military service is a tragedy for the family and friends of the individual, and this book does not seek to imply that those listed here are any more deserving of memory than those not selected. The book shows the wide range of units from which only a handful, or even a single, life was lost, and also the wide range of ranks where also only a handful, or even a single, holder of that rank is commemorated in Arras.

The CWGC lists 584,992 names of dead and missing service personnel who are remembered at locations in France. Of these just over 38,489 (6.6%) are to be found in the three sites in Arras studied in this survey.

In the same series

Vol 2 - The Menin Gate Memorial
Now available from Amazon.


Vol 3 - The Thiepval War Graves and Memorials

 Now available from Amazon.

Vol 4 - The Tyne Cot War Graves and Memorials
Now available from Amazon.

Martin Nicholson - Ticklerton Barn, Ticklerton, Church Stretton, Shropshire

Book piracy and the Cockrill series 29 to 32

If you own any of the 4 books I wrote on Nigerian Postal History there is a fairly good chance that you have a pirated copy!

 The four books were:

1.      Cockrill Series - No. 29, “The Stamps and Postal History of the Niger Territories and the Niger Coast Protectorate”.

2.      Cockrill Series - No. 30, “The Local Bisects & Surcharges of the Oil Rivers and Niger Coast, 1893-1894”.

3.      Cockrill Series - No. 31, “The Stamps and Postal History of Southern Nigeria”.

4.      Cockrill Series - No. 32, “The Stamps and Postal History of Northern Nigeria”.

The only copies that are genuine are those that identify Philip Cockrill as the publisher and that have my former address in Somerset on the back cover. All other copies were produced entirely without my knowledge or consent. There never has been an “authorized reprint” by Mervyn Todd – or indeed by anybody else - of any of these books. 

In the High Court of Justice Chancery Division on 20 September 2013 the long running dispute between Mr Mervyn Todd and Mr Martin Nicholson in respect of the so-called "authorized reprints" of Cockrill booklets #29, 30, 31 and 32 was resolved. 

Mr Todd paid an agreed sum to Mr Nicholson for compensation and costs. Mr Todd also "acknowledges that Mr Nicholson was, is and remains the copyright holder of the four books."

I thought the judge was very patient with Mr Todd and his total lack of knowledge of copyright law! 

Amusingly Mr Todd subsequently tried to save face by claiming, “…  we mutually agreed that neither of us could prove copyright convincingly …” . This is entirely untrue

If you do have a pirated copy I would be grateful if you would email me with details of where and when it was purchased.

Sunday 11 October 2015

Living in the border lands

Living in the border lands
When I tell overseas members of my Facebook group that I live near the border between England and Wales I suspect that it conjures up images of the Mexico/USA or the Canada/USA border. Our border is nothing like that!

It is totally undefended and passage in either direction is entirely unregulated. There are no “border controls” and it is only on the major roads that there is even a sign to tell travellers that they have crossed from one country to the other. Any English or Scottish person can move to live and work in Wales without permission.  

To an outsider this casual approach might seem rather strange especially once they realise that Wales now has its own Parliament and some of its laws are different from those that apply in England. The Welsh people even have their own language, and in a few areas it is still the first language of the residents, though everyone also speaks English.  It is thought important to preserve the language, so all road signs have both languages as soon as the border is crossed, and children in Welsh schools are taught the Welsh language. 

There are many castles along the border between Wales and England that date from the time when the English and Welsh felt the need to build defences against each other.  Some are almost total ruins, others are well preserved, and all are now popular tourist attractions, many on hilltops and in isolated positions. In 1282 King Edward I of England won control of Wales, though some hostility continued for another 200 years. 

Our passports declare that we belong to The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  Great Britain is the largest of the British Isles and to the west of it is the island of Ireland. Great Britain is comprised of England, Wales, and Scotland and all three used to be politically separate countries.

Sunday 27 September 2015

He can write cogent and thought-provoking prose and I cannot!

I have known Pete Birks since 1979 and over the years I must have read literally hundreds of thousands of words he has written. He and I are close contemporaries and we share many views on world affairs - perhaps the biggest difference between us is that he can write cogent and thought-provoking prose and I cannot!

"My only takeaways from the first 60 years of my life (there won't be a second 60 years of my life) are that (a) nearly everything that people tell you is wrong and (b) you don't need to get it right first time. If you don't repeat your mistakes, you are ahead of 99% of the population."

My regret is that I did repeat my mistakes. I gave too many people second, third or even twentieth chances to improve before consigning them to the outer darkness. It was only once they were no longer around that I recognised how demotivating, manipulative and toxic some folk can be!

"I can't say that it's great to reach 60; although, as the saying goes, it's better than the alternative. There are consequences of growing old that you can only let the young eventually find out for themselves. The consequences are physical, mental, and external."

It can be easy to slip into a routine where every week feels almost identical. Indeed it would be surprisingly easy to make every day almost indistinguishable from those on either side. In Church Stretton there really is no excuse to be bored or lonely. There are meetings and events going on every day of the week - all it requires is for the pensioner to make the effort.

"I can afford not to, and there are many, many things that I want to do outside of my old work. There are so many books to read, films to see, musical pieces to learn. There's so much knowledge out there and, thanks to the Internet, much of that knowledge is now free."

"For the next decade, paradoxes remain. I have long suffered a lack of imagination and ambition. "Getting out there" requires a phenomenal act of will on my part. It's for this reason that I tend to return to the same places again and again on holiday. I like the familiar; I dislike the unknown. But the risks of the unknown, the "what's the worst that can happen" need to be faced. OK, Rome might be a nice place full of shits, and Paphos might remind me a little bit too much of Manchester in exile, but I only found Nice by accident; I only discovered San Francisco because I was willing to fly 5000 miles to see a movie, and I only saw Arizona because my job took me there."

Like Pete I could afford to retire and once the financial need to be in paid employment had vanished it proved almost impossible to remain motivated. That said I certainly didn't want to put all my previous life behind me. I had built up a lot of experience in the twin fields of teaching and school governance and I am comfortable that I made the correct decision to remain a school governor.

Rather sadly two major parts of my previous life have disappeared in the ten years since I retired. Both stamp and postcard collecting had seen their membership base shrink considerably as the former hard core enthusiasts have died but were not been replaced by fresh blood. There are a few auctioneers and dealers hanging on by their fingertips but much of their stock is priced at such unrealistically expensive levels - particularly in relation to the many on-line auctions - that their sales per month must make for sorry reading.

The whole concept of free knowledge is an interesting one. Specialists groups that generate a magazine as the largest single membership perk must be finding it difficult to create material that isn't already available for free elsewhere.

Friday 4 September 2015

Remembering John Greaves

John Greaves is one of only a tiny number of UK amateur astronomers who had a peer-reviewed article published in one of high profile astronomical journals. (Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 355, 585-590 (2004)).

John hasn't been, as far as I know, ever a member of any astronomical society but at one time he played a significant role in both astronomical data mining and in variable star astronomy.

John has never been afraid to “shoot from the hip” and this example of a John diatribe is typical of his work.  

<Quote starts> 

Given the moribund state of the AAVSO Data Section and little history of data mining work or publication by the current section leader whilst Martin has :-

i) a history of engaging in data mining exercises, both with online data sources and using robotic telescope systems (ie similar to AAVSOnet)
ii) run webpages and websites outlining astronomical projects for years, including projects that deal with variable stars
iii) self confessed mentored beginners in his variable star datamining projects
iv) has had published in peer reviewed journals, such as OEJV and the AAVSO's own JAAVSO, works based on his data analysis of online epoch photometry data sources
v) been the second highest contributing poster to the current AAVSO Data Section mailing list after the current Data Section leader himself, with Martin giving advice comments and suggestions, whilst Michael just mostly gives pep talks with little advice or guidance, as Michael's specialist astronomical interests are more geared towards doing his own observing and analysing his own data.  The lag in time the moderation process takes between Michael receiving an email and posting it to the group does tend to stifle any potential dialogue
vi) and given the lack of direction and guidance to the section, whereas Martin has created and ran several similar groups in the past it seems quite logical, if Martin is an AAVSO member, for his expertese to be utilised by this stalled Section.  Not only stalled, but examination of its online archives shows that requests for assistance and advice made to it have gone unheeded, or worse non-datamining projects suggested (once or twice to the potential benefit of AAVSO but not to furthering an individual's datamining skills or best practice).

It must be stated though that I am not an AAVSO member.  I have some small experience in data analysis and the publishing of the results therefrom in refereed journals, and I was somewhat instrumental in explaining and advising which of the first datasets imported into AAVSO VSX after the GCVS and NSV were likely to be useful, and explaining their format and how to convert and/or what their fields meant to Chris Watson so he could import them, as well as one or two other little niceties re AAVSO VSX.  So I am not disconnected from the topic nor unfamiliar with the matter.

Possession of the above demonstrable credentials: maintaining astronomical mailing lists; running webpages with astronomical projects based on datamining; experience and use of _AAVSO_ VSX data and data submission; publishing of peer reviewed papers on datamining including within the AAVSO's own journal; and mentoring on data mining, is unparallelled by any other AAVSO member currently.

If the running and maintaing of astronomical mailing lists is removed from that list, then one other AAVSO member would fulfil the criteria.  If further removing the running of webpages on datamining from the list, then that adds one other extra AAVSO member.  Even with only the remaining credentials, especially the core two of having peer reviewed publications upon datamining (extra especially within JAAVSO itself) and of advising and directing datamining projects, then _only_ these three people within AAVSO membership have the recorded credentials, and in fact the majority of _AAVSO VSX moderators_ cannot fulfil more than one of the criteria, least of all the peer reviewed publishing of papers using datamining, and that includes the ones that are AAVSO salaried staff.

Thus given the above credentials there is but one logical consequence.

Meanwhile, the current AAVSO Data Section head moderates the group at an absentee level, with postings lagging up to a week before being passed on, thus stymieing any potential dialogue.  That's the maintaining a mailing list criterion.  There is nothing wrong with moderating a list, as long as the list is maintained in a timely manner, and that responsibility maintained.  Although Michael Koppelman maintains astronomical webpages, Slacker Astronomy is primarily an act of journalism.  Although Michael has published it is primarily a case of publishing his own observations, not datamining work, and more recently as a professional collarborator with other professionals, not so much as a pro-am, least of all in an amateur datamining based collaboration.

His leads on the archived Data Section list have been few, mostly asking others for help and advice and suggestions of what to do, which is strange for a leading and directing role.  His comments are mostly to support comments made by Arne.  The science advisor Doug Welch tends to just utter "well done" supporting homilies, his only major suggestion being to recommend the MACHO database to people, yet without highlighting to beginners how to handle this problematic resource (throwing out a couple of general references is not the same as giving a walkthrough when dealing with beginners, this is supposed to be a support group.  I've some familiarity in this area, as I've mentored data mining for variable stars in MACHO data that has led to refereed publications by others).

AAVSO officials have even presented and strongly recommended exercises that are not datamining exercises, thus potentially misleading the novice as to what datamining actually is.  Arne has suggested people wade through the GCVS looking for objects noted as "different" and informing him of them.  This he could readily do himself with the most basic filtering of B/GCVS at VizieR.  Neither was any mentoring provided to assist beginners in knowing what is "different", no list of preferred pathologies or phenomena itemised, not even a note of preferred category of variability.  The Section leader merely backed up Arne's call with no further input.  Neither is such a task a datamining task, nor does it further the capabilities of the novice.

Michael Simonsen, another AAVSO staffer, merely suggested that Data Section members import CRTS epoch photometry into the AAVSO International Database.  This too is not datamining, teaches no skills, highlights no analyses, and benefits no one wishing to learn dataminig.  It merely bloats AAVSO International Database with yet another publicly available dataset, letting it appear that AAVSO is the repository of all known observational data by mirrorring said.  Except for it doesn't, because Michael S. seemed completely unaware when he made the suggestion that the CRTS epoch photometry is in fact _not_ publicly available, albeit there being long term plans to make it so, at which time it will likely be downloadable en masse as a dataset (given the other database server that group has produced as precedent) and best imported into AID via scripts in one go, now the AID is itself an SQL database.  And of course, he was only referring to the transients, the cataclysmic variables, a notoriously problematic subgroup of variable stars in terms of datamining, their being aperiodic erratics with no true outburst patterns most of the time, not even at quasicyclic levels.  So, no datamining there, just a plumping up of AID's contents.  The Z Cam campaign has some merit (and sounds somewhat familiar), but has at best been a 'datamining-lite' exercise, despite the fact that many erroneous UGZ classifications can be traced back to an early 1960s paper which made suggestions of that subclass for some stars (eg AB Dra) based on a then paucity of data, and it can thus be shown that there was no reason for future publications to take these classifications up as demonstrated fact (nor did the original publication particularly affirm that.  Basic literature work via online resources, an inherent and essential aspect of variable star datamining, readily reveals this.  The paper is not in English, this might be part of the problem.

When it comes to APASS data release 0, Arne mentioned that AAVSO Data Section analysed the data for him.  In fact, Patrick Wils analysed the data, and replied on the AAVSO Data Section list where the request was made, ie where the mailing thread lived.  No one else from AAVSO did any analysis of the data at all, and Patrick Wils did his analysis within the context of being Patrick Wils.  However, this is irrelevant, for that exercise was not the datamining analysis of epoch photometry.  Granted datamining is not restricted to the analysis of epoch photometry, but publication in this field shows that for variable stars it is the predominant result generating activity in terms of datamining.  The analysis of variable stars is most frequently that of the data available upon them, which in available archive terms consists predominantly of epoch photometry.  No doubt some excuse will be used that APASS intends to form a calibrating reservoir for variable star epoch photometry.  This is still not datamining.  This is still not teaching people how to datamine.

Contrast that to the credentials listed above and there is a logical consequence of whom in AAVSO is currently most suited to steer a datamining section via the actual record of publishing achievement and relevant practices.


PS Incidentally, who is actually giving and running the actual core datamining workshops advertised in the programme for the Argentine meeting, as it does not say?  Is it the AAVSO Data Mining Section, or is it an individual?  Possibly the individual is a member of the AAVSO Data Mining Section so it will be claimed to be being given by the Data Mining section, in the same way Patrick Wils' personal assessment of APASS data release 0 was claimed to be an analysis conducted by the AAVSO Data Mining Section, thus incidentally not attributing proper credit for effort expended and work done.  And no doubt Michael Koppelman and/or Doug Welch will stand up and include this in any statement of AAVSO Data Section's achievements since the last meeting.  These are the current leadership's credentials, compared to the abovemost enumerated credentials.

< Quote ends>


Tuesday 1 September 2015

Book review - Observing and Measuring Visual Double Stars (Argyle)

While it would be unfair not to acknowledge the excellence of some of the material presented in this book there is much that is rather disappointing.

The chapters on “Double Star Sketching” (Perez), “Internet Astrometry” (Caballero) and “Lunar Occultations” (Appleby) are well written and all three fit neatly into the range of material that purchasers of the book would expect to find included.
I am not entirely convinced that the sections on “The Diffraction Grating Micrometer” (Maurer) or “Astrometric Speckle Interferometry” (Turner) will result in widespread adoption by amateur astronomers of the techniques described but the inclusion of these topics is a perfectly legitimate use of editorial discretion.

What is far more problematic is the impression that the page count - and hence the cost – have been inflated by the inclusion of chapters that are either irrelevant or almost devoid of scientific content. For example eclipsing binaries are not visual double stars and their inclusion in the book will confuse many readers.

I would have liked to see more information on astronomical data mining. This is one of the big growth areas in double star astronomy and three of the most active data miners in the world live within easy travelling distance of the editor.

Elsewhere Bob Argyle’s book has had mixed reviews. The effusive praise from his pals is in marked contrast to the concerns expressed by double star astronomers outside his sphere of influence and patronage. Those with short memories need to realise that Bob set himself up as the “Obergruppenf├╝hrer for Double Stars” in the UK over 40 years ago and the Webb Society has become his personal fiefdom – he has been Chairman for 25 years. For most of that time Bob was on the cutting edge of Pro-Am double star work.  

This is no longer the case. Bob is not the man he once was – like the rest of us oldies he is slowing down. The scope of his book was thus pretty much determined by the people who were prepared to work with him. Some of the best known and most active people in the field were either not invited or were invited but declined to get involved. 
Bob, like the late John Greaves, is sometimes his own worst enemy. It is a standing joke that emails to him seldom receive a reply and that his support for the use of convoluted, inaccurate and imprecise measurement techniques when far better techniques exist is increasingly anachronistic.

To summarise. This is a 200 to 250 page book struggling to escape from a 400 page “prison”. An experienced observer will learn little of value from the book and the "net savvy" newcomer will probably find most of the content available for free elsewhere.


Saturday 1 August 2015

My working life - part 2

Daventry Tertiary College - Northamptonshire (1990-2000)

It was less than 3 walk from our home to the college - 5/5

If you have a Principal with no interest in education, his staff or the students attending the college then a low score is almost inevitable. Once you realise that most of the Senior Leadership Team were "cut from the same timber" the score awarded is hardly going to be a surprise - 0/5

I made some quite good friends during my 10 years although I am only still in touch with one of them. The divide and rule tactics of the Bosses suckered some nice people into behaving like total fruitcakes. Endemic bad practice seemed to go unchecked - 2/5

I enjoyed teaching and in Further Education in the 1990s there was still far less government interference in teaching than was routine in schools - 5/5

I arranged it and carefully selected those who were invited - and those who were not! - 3/5


The steady decline in the Conditions of Service.

Gaining the experience and the qualifications that allowed me to escape into the school sector where my salary and my holiday entitlement both went up rather fast.

Guilsborough School - Northamptonshire (2000-2004)

It was about a 20 minute drive to the school and hence the longest commute of my working life - 4/5

The Head Teacher was superb and the other senior staff nearly as good. They cared about the kids and about the welfare of all their staff - 5/5

It was harder to make friends as a Head of Department than I  realised when I took on the role. I had some first rate staff, some who were just about OK and one (HV) who was hopeless - 3/5

I enjoyed teaching Key Stage 5 but I loathed all the marking in Key Stage 4 - 4/5

As previously I arranged it and carefully selected those who were invited - and those who were not! - 4/5


The marking involved in the GCSE in ICT.

Having the highest added-value score in the history of the school for my year 13 ICT students - top in the country for their average grade!

Monday 27 July 2015

My working life - part 1

United Biscuits - Ashby de la Zouch, Leicestershire (1976-1979)

It was less than 5 minutes on my Honda C70 from our home to the factory - 5/5

The senior staff were either distant (as in totally disinterested in the "workers") or were fanatical empire builders, or both - 1/5

My colleagues were a strange bunch. Most were totally dominated by the larger-than-life Linda R who was the most committed man-hater I have ever met - 1/5

The projects that were under the control of the department were based in Grimsby (Lincolnshire), Fakenham (Norfolk) and Carlisle (Cumbria) so a logistical nightmare. It is fair to say that I didn't learn a single new skill in my three years working for United Biscuits - 2/5

Nothing was arranged probably because I was glad to be going and they were glad to be getting rid of me - 0/5


The frequent trips to Grimsby

The final week when some bizarre plan to send me miles away to work (essentially for ever) was cancelled when the senior staff suddenly realised I was leaving - nobody had told them.

Cannington College - Somerset (1979-1990)

It was less than 5 minutes on my Honda C70 from our home to the college - 5/5

In the early days the Principal was rather like an old fashioned Head Master - a true gentleman in word and deed. It was only towards the end of my time in Somerset that more business orientated senior staff were appointed. - 4/5

I made some quite good friends during my 10 years although I am only still in touch with one of them. With hindsight it was disappointing that there was a certain friction between the two halves of the department and I think this impacted on all of us in a rather negative way - 3/5

I enjoyed teaching and in Further Education in the 1980s there was a lots less government interference in the daily life of a lecturer than was to become the case later on in my career - 5/5

Very badly mishandled by my line manager who basically spoiled what should have been an important rite of passage. 1/5


Management by favouritism as practiced by NAD

Gaining the experience and the qualifications that set me up for the rest of my working life.

Friday 17 July 2015

My Mother's diaries 1998-2000

I have just spend a happy hour reading Mum's diaries for 1998, 1999 and 2000.

The deterioration in her memory and in her general health as evidenced in these three collections is really quite marked. In 1998 and early 1999 what she wrote about and the way she wrote about it was almost indistinguishable from her regular output from the 1960s onwards. In May 1999 she started missing a few entries and by 2000 her writing is far more "spidery", many days have no entry and her assorted health problems were her main topic of concern.

But what is far more interesting is that to all intents and purposes her grandchildren have vanished from her thoughts after May 1999. If you were a stranger reading what Mum had written you would find few clues that she had two married children and four grandchildren! As an example my daughter Sally doesn't get a single mention in the last eight months of 1999 and Hazel is mentioned exactly once.

Yet every week without fail I spoke to Mum on the phone at 11:00AM on Sunday. Nothing whatsoever that was said about what the 4 of us had been doing in these, fairly lengthy, calls is reported in her diaries.

Saturday 4 July 2015

A possible scam avoided?

This week we were due to have our oil tank filled up. Unfortunately the tanker driver "found" a crack in the tank exactly where he had rested his ladder when he climbed up. He told us that he could give us the name of a firm that would replace the tank for us, and we received a telephone call from that firm within the hour.  We arranged for them to call round in order to give us a quote for a new tank. 

We took the precaution of also getting a quote from from another firm and that proved to be a wise move because the firm we found quoted £1670 for the work and the referred firm quoted over £2300 - which was 38% more!

We do wonder what relationship there was between the oil delivery firm and the referred tank firm - are they owned by the same group, or did one pay a referral fee to the other? We suspect that any such relationship is not in the best interests of customers like ourselves.

Monday 22 June 2015

Leger Holidays - All Quiet on the Western Front

Claire and I enjoyed this 5 day holiday in Belgium and France - but we suspect that quite a few of our party didn't! If you enjoyed looking at individual graves or massive memorials like Tyne Cot and Thiepval the holiday was excellent but if you didn't then there wasn't much variety.

The Menin Gate was underwhelming - basically we couldn't see anything of the ceremony but the Wellington Tunnels and the museum at Peronne were first class.

The hotel (Best Western near Ath) was rather strange. Some aspects were 4 or 5 star while other aspects were only 1 star. Although some members of our party were very disappointed by the food I thought the breakfast and dinner buffets were quite good and I have no complaints to make. The Head Waiter was excellent and the barman – when he was there – were friendly and helpful.

One aspect of the coach was amusing. We had paid for an upgrade and one aspect of this was that their was a small lounge area at the back of the coach "for socialising". The same few people monopolised it all the time and those of us with allocated seating towards the front of the coach never had any chance of using a facility we had paid for.

BUT – the bedroom was the noisiest I have ever stayed in. The hotel is in the middle of an industrial estate and close to a motorway exit so there is a lot of traffic noise. If hotel chains like Premier Inn can almost eliminate external noise I cannot understand why this hotel was so very poor in this aspect of their business! The bedroom was badly designed. The sink was so shallow that washing was almost impossible without spilling water over the edge and the shower only has a partial screen so that water went all over the floor and also leaked out into the bedroom.

The return trip was not good! Nothing that went wrong was in any way Leger's fault but we ended up 90 minutes late arriving back at Shrewsbury. Congestion on the M25, an accident on the M40 and the closure of the M54 between junctions 3 to 5 combined to make for a long day.

Monday 11 May 2015

Election 2015

Several times over the last few months I have found myself apologising for my personal lack of faith in the Labour Party despite their respectable standing in the opinion polls. So I was mildly amused to find that my scepticism was shared by millions of others and that these polls were seriously in error.

I can understand why the rich and the powerful vote for "their" party - where I struggle is when I meet educated colleagues who work in the public sector who publically and privately endorse the Conservative Party. "Red Ed" had so much ammunition at his disposal - for example the rich have been given tax cuts while the poorest in society are fined for having too many bedrooms in their homes - but nothing he said seemed to make a difference to these people where it really matters, in the ballot box.

What I can see is that these people who have voted Tory have happily taken from the state, in various combinations of health care, emergency services, education, child benefit and maternity pay but they now plan to pull the ladder up behind them.

But I can live with that if they had researched the issues before making their decision on which way to vote - but some clearly didn't - being content to act in the way the Daily Telegraph tells them.

Wednesday 8 April 2015

Report on my writing projects

My assorted writing projects fall neatly into a number of sub-groups.

There are the books where marketing material can be posted to one or more Facebook groups. Despite the fact that the percentage of active participants in these groups seems to be well under 5% the sheer size and number of the groups means that book sales of between 5 and 30 copies a month is a perfectly reasonable goal. My astronomy and our grave-hunting books fit into this group.

Then there are the extreme niche books where there isn't a Facebook group when enthusiasts gather to share their hobby. The Biggles Companion (now renamed "The World of Biggles") is my best example of this genre. The only place where the book is marketed is the Amazon site but this seems to have been enough to generate 2 - 5 sales per month for the last few years.

The ghost writer books have been hard for me to promote as ghost writers, almost by definition, don't shout out about the books they have co-authored. The notional authors have been promoting the books to friends, family and specialists in the field and they have fairly consistently achieved 10  to 20 sales per month.

All three of these groups can be regarded as successes but there are a few books I have written where the sales have been minimal. These failures have been books where the target audience has been mainly UK based and the subject matter has been specialised and where there isn't a relevant Facebook group. This "triple whammy" needs to be remembered when planning future publications!


UPDATE - April 14th 2015
This was a well-constructed argument but one with which I tend to disagree.

Monday 2 March 2015

Martin and Claire's new book - "Unusual gravestones"

Unusual gravestones
Martin and Claire Nicholson
About the authors - Martin and Claire Nicholson own one of the largest archives of grave related photographs in the world. A selection of their work appears in the blog "Grave Mistakes" that has had over a quarter of a million hits since it was launched in 2013. Other examples appear in the Facebook group "Social History" where Martin acts as the group administrator.

The authors have viewed millions of gravestones, and are offering readers a selection of the rare and unusual gravestones that they have seen, with full-colour illustrations. Each category of type of gravestone, age of person, cause of death, rare names, and errors found on gravestones are given a points score to indicate rarity.
It is available from Amazon in both the USA and in the UK 

Specimen pages from Amazon previewer

Saturday 21 February 2015

Music for my funeral - lessons from Betty

I have been pondering what music would be appropriate for my funeral - when it comes!

It seems to me that there are two possible slots in the secular ceremony where I would like to have some music:
  • In the middle of the funeral, an idea borrowed from our family friend Betty, when those present can think about the deceased.
  • When the curtains close and the coffin is whisked away to the furnace.


Saturday 31 January 2015

Rest in peace Betty

Betty, who lived next door to us for the whole of our 20 years living in Daventry, died very recently. We kept in touch with her when we moved to Shropshire so when we didn't get her usual Christmas message we guessed that something was wrong.
She was always the perfect neighbour - which was fortunate because some of our other neighbours were rather "strange"! In no particular order there was the man who was clearly running a business from his home - despite previously signing a binding legal document agreeing not to do so. Then there was the man who deliberately set his own house on fire and the elderly couple who "demanded" for reasons that were never made clear that we "must" chop down a tree that was some considerable distance from the boundary between the two properties.
Betty was an oasis of normality in a desert of strangeness.
Claire and I have always believed in the idea of people dying to make space for newcomers. In 1984, when our daughter Sally was born, my Grandma and Grandpa (who were then aged 89 and 90) wrote to us telling us how pleased they were to hear that a new family baby had arrived to take one of the places that they themselves "expected soon to vacate". Now we will always remember that Betty died just before our niece had her baby boy. He was born to take Betty's place in the world.
Rest in peace Betty - we are happy that you have been reunited with your husband George after so long apart.

Sunday 11 January 2015

Different pathways - to the same end?

On Wednesdays Claire and I usually go walking in the hills around Church Stretton with other members of the "Walking for Health" group.

We always start and end at the same place but there are many routes, of varying length and complexity, that are available for the Walk Leader to choose from. Life is rather like that isn't it? Sometimes a person comes to a fork in the "road of life" and they need to pause for a moment to decide what route to take.

In the past I have sometimes stared at the signpost conveniently standing by the fork for too long. Somerset in the late 1980s and Northamptonshire in the late 1990s are two prime examples. As the years go by the time I have left on this small planet rotating around a rather run-of-the-mill star decreases and so the luxury of "signpost staring" becomes less and less affordable.

Looking down the different paths as I arrived at a junction sometimes gave me a clue about the advisability of going down a particular route. The path labelled Belgian Philatelic Study Circle had an ogre standing in plain sight a few steps from where I was standing so I didn't waste my time or energy investigating what was on offer behind the librarian!

I have also seen long and tortuous paths that clearly ended in a dead end. The opening section was smooth and level but the further I looked the rougher and narrower the path became. Of course I haven't always avoided the steepest paths. I went down the routes labelled "adult mentor" and "school governor" with some caution but the journey was made easier thanks to the stairway constructed by Appreciation and Making a Difference PLC.

As I write this I am standing on a path labelled Ragleth Writers. The path has suddenly become much rougher and steeper and it feels like Appreciation and Making a Difference PLC have gone walk-about. Some of my fellow travellers have shown themselves to have feet of clay and that has left me wondering if the journey is worth the risk.

Sunday 4 January 2015

How Dad died - an unsolved mystery.

Claire and I kept quite detailed records of this difficult time. I think Dad had worked hard to keep the full extent of Mum's dementia from the rest of the family so neither my brother or I realised that he had in effect become her full time carer.  Claire thinks that Mother's decline crept up on him, and that it never occurred to him that the family might be able to help or advise or want to know the extent of his trouble with Mother.

Regardless of the background the whole house of cards came crashing down when Dad was taken into hospital

The timeline

For Claire and I the drama started on Friday 8th October 2004. Our daughter got a phone call to say that Dad had been rushed to hospital. I had to come home from work and Claire and I then drove down to Harpenden to collect Mum and then off we went to Luton and Dunstable Hospital. We were told that he had a blood clot on his brain as a result of a fall he had had three weeks before. He was under sedation and on a ventilator in ITU. At the end of what was a fairly traumatic visit we took Mum back home with us for the night.

The next day we returned to ITU. He was taken off sedation at noon and by 3PM he had regained some movement on his right hand side.

On October 10th his ventilator was removed but later replaced. Dad then started fitting - including one while we were visiting him.

October 11th to October 15th 2004 - I had to return to work so my brother and his wife travelled up from Cornwall to help Claire to look after Mum in her home in Harpenden and also to visit Dad. He steadily improved and by the 14th he was able to follow instructions and he also started trying to talk.

October 16th 2004 - My brother and his wife returned to Cornwall so we took Grandma back to Daventry with us. Dad was talking well, "It is very boring in hospital" and "I'm very cold".

October 17th 2004 - We visited Dad again who was quite chatty and seemingly on the mend.

October 18th 2004 - A traumatic day as Mum had to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act because of her dementia. She was taken to an assessment centre for what ended up being six weeks.

October 19th 2004 - Dad wanted some fresh air and a short walk. Neither of which was allowed. He was drowsy but this was the start of the three day spell during which I thought he might come out of hospital alive. Of course I was to be proved wrong.

October 20th 2004 - Dad was out of bed and much the best we had seen him. We were able to tell him more about Mother and his accident.

October 21st 2004 - Dad had been moved to an ordinary ward. He was very tired but was able to tell us that he was on solid food. With hindsight his transfer to ward 17 was premature because his condition steadily deteriorated during his time there. We also visited Mum in the assessment centre who was obviously upset at not being allowed to go to see Dad.

October 22nd 2004 - We got the dreaded phone call and Claire and I travelled down from Daventry expecting that Dad might be dead when we arrived. His breathing was very noisy and he clearly had a chest infection but by the next day he was somewhat better.

October 24th 2004 - Dad had a raised temperature and he wasn't very alert.

October 25th 2004 - Dad's medical data looked encouraging but to the naked eye he seemed unchanged.

October 27th 2004 - My 50th birthday. Dad seemed to be showing some signs of improvement.

October 29th 2004 - A former work colleague of Dad's was already there when we arrived. None of us were able to get any response from Dad who appeared to be unconscious.

October 30th 2004 - This was to be the last time we were to see Dad alive. True to form the visit was rather mysterious because we could clearly hear him talking to the nurses who were washing him but by the time we were allowed to see him he appeared to be unconscious.

November 1st 2004 - Claire went down to Dunstable on her own. She got no response from Dad who sounded very congested.

November 2nd 2004 - In the early evening we received a phone call telling us that Dad was dying. This was at 6:30PM and by 7:30PM we had arrived at the hospital only to be told that Dad had died shortly after they had phoned us. We were never entirely convinced by this and we have always thought that it is more probable they found him dead and then phoned us. Due to some miscommunication we were shown into the side ward where Dad was laid out before being told that he had died so we had to work out for ourselves that he was dead!

Claire and I went to Harpenden for the night rather than trail back up the motorway.

November 3rd 2004 - My brother Stephen travelled up from Cornwall and together we told Mum that Dad had died. She took it very well.

The mystery. We never found out how Dad came to fall on the stairs sufficiently badly to cause a slow bleed in his brain. Nor why he didn't go straight to the doctor.

We know that after the fall he confided his worries to a former medical colleague who then did nothing on the grounds of "patient confidentiality". Had she told us the whole story we would have taken Dad to hospital ourselves and it is likely that he would have lived. She never showed any regret or remorse about her (in)action.