Are You Being Served?

Bloomsbury Square, London, in Snow, 1981

Bloomsbury Square, London, in Snow, 1981

The photo above, which I took in 1981, shows Bloomsbury Square, London, following a seasonal snowfall. At the time that I took the photo, I was working part-time at Selfridges, a well-known department store on nearby Oxford Street.

In previous posts, I’ve described how I moved to London in October 1981, to begin my studies for an Electronic Engineering degree at Imperial College.

In Britain, each undergraduate academic year is divided into three terms: Autumn, Spring and Summer. There’s a short Christmas break between the Autumn and Spring terms, and another Easter break between the Spring and Summer terms. Typically, during the short breaks, young students return home to their parents, and take the time off.

My family situation, however, was somewhat different. My father had died in 1979, and my mother was struggling to support herself, so I did not feel that I could just go back and expect her to support me as well. Instead, I decided that I would try to stay in London and obtain temporary work during the short breaks. I found that it was possible to stay in my student accommodations during the breaks if I paid additional rent.

Finding suitable work turned out to be relatively easy, but, in retrospect, I have come to doubt that the job choices I made were for the best.

The Scarborough Pattern

During my schooldays in Scarborough, I had become accustomed to seeking work in menial jobs during the school holidays. In a seaside resort like Scarborough, that usually meant working as a waiter in a hotel or café, or perhaps as a shop assistant. Even if I had had the skills to do more sophisticated work at that age, such work was probably not available in that town anyway.

Thus, when I found myself becoming a student again, this time in London, I fell into the mindset of seeking out types of temporary work that were similar to those that I’d done in Scarborough.

That was a mistake; I should have searched for jobs that would have made better use of my special skills, and would probably have paid better. I was in the very unusual situation of having just worked fulltime in accounting for 2 years prior to starting my studies. Surely, in a world financial center such as London, I could have obtained some temporary work in that field!

The only good aspect of these menial jobs was that the experiences have left me with a cache of anecdotes about the events that occurred.

Mister Selfridge

Prior to the Christmas break for my first academic year in London, I applied to Selfridges Department Store for a sales assistant position, and was accepted.

As a teenager growing up during the 1970s, I was very familiar with the popular (but low-brow) situation comedy series Are You Being Served?, which actually ran on the BBC from 1972 through 1985. The show was set in a fictitious London store called Grace Brothers, but, as I was to discover, the staff uniform of Grace Brothers was strangely similar to that of Selfridges.

More recently, Selfridges has gained worldwide fame as a result of the television series Mister Selfridge, which portrays the early history of the business. Although the TV series used specially-built sets to depict the store, many of these seemed very accurate, and reminded me of the rooms and corridors within the huge building.

The illustration below is an advertisement that Selfridges ran in a 1964 book about London boroughs.

Advertisement for Selfridges, 1964

Advertisement for Selfridges, 1964

There are many stories to tell of surprising and amusing incidents that I experienced while working at Selfridges (and also at Harrods, during one break), or in some cases heard about from other employees, but there isn’t room to tell all of them in this article. Between Christmas 1981 and Spring 1983, I worked in several different Selfridges departments, including luggage, gifts, and finally electronics.

The Electronics Department

In this article, I’ll jump ahead to what turned out to be my final stint as a part-time employee at Selfridges. During the Spring of 1983, I worked Saturdays-only in the Electronics Department in the Oxford Street store.

Now, surely, this department was ideal for me. After all, I was an undergraduate EE student, so now I would be able to bring that knowledge directly to bear in helping Selfridges’ customers. While that turned out to be true, I discovered later that my special skills were not received in a similar light by the department’s regular staff. Although the store hired many students as part-time workers, there was also a substantial staff of full-time employees, whose entire career was wrapped up in their work there.

One Saturday, I was standing at the counter in the Electronics Department when I was approached by an apparently exasperated customer. He explained to me that he wanted to power an item of equipment from a 12V car battery. He knew the maximum current that the battery could supply, but didn’t know whether the battery could supply sufficient power for the equipment.

I explained to him the simple equation relating electrical power to voltage and current (W = VI) that I’d learned during my O-level Physics classes at school. We were able to determine that his battery would be able to supply more than sufficient power for the equipment.

After we’d finished performing the calculation, the customer asked me, “How come I’ve asked this question of every assistant in this department, and you’re the only one who could tell me?”

I responded, truthfully, that it was probably because I was the only undergraduate electrical engineering student working in the department.

I thought nothing more of the incident, which seemed at the time to be just another of the usual daily problems that arose, and which I had successfully handled. My Saturdays-only employment terminated by mutual consent, and as far as I was aware, there was nothing but goodwill between myself and my employer.

The Assistant Who Knew Too Much

When I subsequently applied for re-employment during Christmas 1983, I received the following surprising and mystifying response:

Rejection!

Rejection!

I can only believe that, unbeknown to me until then, my unusual expertise in electronics had ruffled some feathers somewhere among the store’s fulltime staff. The content of the letter is strangely brusque and unhelpful; it’s obviously a form letter, personalized with my name and address, but not the date!

Unfortunately, there are no photos of me working at Selfridges (or at any of the other London locations where I did temporary work). However, the photo below was taken at about the same time that I was doing those Saturday stints at Selfridges, and just after I had produced a video interview with Sir Cliff Richard at the Imperial College TV Studio.

Me (left) following a video interview with Sir Cliff Richard

Me (left) following a video interview with Sir Cliff Richard, 1983

Don’t Sell Yourself Short

In retrospect, then, I have come to believe that working in those menial jobs was a mistake, and I recommend others in a similar situation to think very seriously before committing to such work.

The issue isn’t simply that you’ll be wasting your time and skills, and perhaps accepting lower compensation than necessary in return. There’s also the problem that your superior skills are likely to cause resentment among others, who in some cases may go to considerable lengths to combat what they see as your “unfair advantage”.

Bloomsbury Square, London, in Snow, 1981

Bloomsbury Square, London, in Snow, 1981

Winter Solstice, the Full Cold Moon, & A Happy New Year

The Moon and Orion over our House

The Moon and Orion over our House

Last week’s Winter Solstice almost exactly coincided with the Full Moon, so I went outside after dark to see whether I could obtain any worthwhile photographs. One of the photos I came back with is shown above, a remarkable view that includes our house (all lit up!), with the moon partially shown at the top, and the constellation Orion clearly visible in between. It’s all the more remarkable because I didn’t use a tripod; this is just a handheld shot. You can even see wisps of high cloud drifting across the night sky.

Moon Mode

I have no pretensions to being a professional photographer (because it’s too competitive; see * below), so I don’t invest in “professional grade” equipment. In the past, my attempts at shots of the moon have been thoroughly disappointing, usually resulting in nothing but a blurry white blob.

My new Nikon B700 camera, however, has a “Moon Mode”. I must admit that I was skeptical about this; many digital cameras have these faddish “modes” that often seem to be useless in real-life situations. However, I had tried the “Fireworks Mode” back in July (as shown in this previous post), with good results, so I thought I’d give “Moon Mode” a try.

* About 30 years ago, I attended a class on “glamour photography” at the Learning Annex in San Francisco. The class tutor, who was himself a professional photographer, explained to us how to succeed in that field. He told us, “I’m often asked my secret of my success, which is very simple; you just need to have a spouse who can support both of you”!

The Full Cold Moon

The results of using Moon Mode, as you can see here, were truly amazing. The photo below is a closeup of the almost-full moon taken at the same time as the shot above, showing spectacular detail. It’s not pin-sharp, but bear in mind that this is not taken through a telescope, nor even with a tripod; it’s just a handheld shot with a standard digital camera!

Almost-Full Moon at the Solstice

Almost-Full Moon at the Solstice

The actual full moon occurred about 24 hours after the Solstice, but I’m glad I didn’t wait, because, the following night, there was high hazy cloud here, so I could not have taken any usable photos.

Apparently, some Native Americans call the December full moon the “Full Cold Moon”, for obvious reasons. The coincidence of the Winter Solstice with a Full Moon is a relatively rare event, which won’t happen again until 2094, by which time I strongly doubt that I’ll be around to notice it! Thus, this was my last chance to record the event.

Moon Mode HDR

I had actually tested Moon Mode earlier on, at Thanksgiving, when we had some interesting views of an almost-full moon through clouds. While experimenting, I took the photo below from our front garden. Amazingly, there is an HDR effect whereby you can still see the moon through the clouds in the distance, and at the same time the lighting on our street.

A Cloud-Covered Moon at Thanksgiving

A Cloud-Covered Moon at Thanksgiving

The view above would certainly never have been possible with a film camera, at least without extensive compositing of multiple exposures.

The photo below shows the Thanksgiving almost-full moon, again without the use of a tripod.

Harvest Moon

Harvest Moon

I don’t know why the moon looks more orange in this photo than in the more recent example. It’s probably just a color-balance issue in the camera. Nonetheless, the crater shadow detail on the portion of the moon that is experiencing sunrise (top right) is truly astonishing.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year to all of you for 2019!

The Moon and Orion over our House

The Moon and Orion over our House

Do We Need A White Christmas?

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

The photo above was taken by my father during the severe winter of 1962-63, and shows me using our coal shovel to “help” clear snow from our front garden in Scarborough. Today marks the Winter Solstice here, so it seems like a good moment to reflect on something that many people seem to hope for at this time of year.

As the photo above demonstrates, some of my earliest memories of this time of year were associated with snow. This was largely because the winter depicted in the image was the coldest in Britain since 1895, a record which has still not been broken in the part of the country in which I was living.

As a result of that experience, as I grew up, I tended to assume that Christmases should be snowy, and I was most disappointed in later years when there was not only no snow on Christmas Day, but it was actually even sunny!

As I grew more mature, of course, I realized that my expectation was not particularly reasonable, and that it had in fact been instilled by episodes of weather that were anomalous, coupled with myths about what Christmas was supposed to be like.

Last weekend, I attended a “Holiday Soundtracks” concert by Michael Berkowitz at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa where we heard, once again and as we do every year, melodies proclaiming the desirability of a “White Christmas”. The photo below shows a view of the concert.

LutherBurbankCenterXmasSoundtracks1

Holiday Soundtracks, Santa Rosa

In a pre-show discussion, Berkowitz himself pointed out the irony of a “Christmas” show being presented by a Jewish conductor, and indeed several of the writers of those famous songs were also Jewish.

The origin of my own childhood views about snowy holidays are obvious to me, but the concert led me once again to consider why so many other people should also want this end-of-year festival to be “white”, that is, to have snow on the ground.

A Northern European Tradition

Presumably the source of the association of the Yuletide festival with snow was that most of its traditions originated in Northern Europe, where there was usually snow at this time of year.

Later, in North America, many of the regions that were settled earliest by European peoples also experienced snowy winters, so those traditions continued.

In the Southern Hemisphere, of course, it’s Summer at this time of year, so the idea of a “White Christmas” makes little sense in many places. However, even in Australia, there are high-altitude ski resorts where you can experience snow in mid-summer if you really want to, as described in this article.

Maintaining the Myths

Many blame the media for propagating the myth of the desirability of a snowy holiday, as in this Boston Globe article. There is also the ever-popular Santa Claus myth, which includes the idea of his living at the North Pole.

When I discovered the truth about “Father Christmas”, after my mother admitted it to me when I was about 8 years old, I was actually quite angry that she had conspired with my father to deceive me for so long!

Snow in London

After leaving my home town, I attended university in London, and lived there for several years. The climate in London is only slightly milder than that in Northern England, so of course it also snows in London during the winter.

I took the photo below, of the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, during my first winter as a London student.

AlbertMemorialSnow1981Cright

Albert Memorial, London, in Snow, 1981

There’s no question that it’s a pretty scene, but getting around in the city after a snowstorm wasn’t necessarily any fun. The snow quickly turned to dirty slush, which would often then refreeze overnight, creating black ice the following morning. Travel became unusually difficult and dangerous.

As I’ve said so many times since then, it’s great to be able to look at a snowy landscape, as long as you don’t have to go anywhere in it!

Snow in California

If anyone had asked me before I came here whether it snows in California, I may well have replied “No”, but I’d have been very wrong. At the higher elevations in the state, such as the Sierra Nevada, it snows every winter. In the lowland elevations where I live, however, it almost never snows. For example, I lived on the San Francisco Peninsula for about 20 years, and during that time it only snowed once at our house (and only very lightly), although we could sometimes see snow on the surrounding peaks.

The elevation of land in California ranges from sea level to about 14,000 feet above sea level, so the state has a corresponding variety of climates. Contrast that with the highest elevation in Britain, at about 4,400 feet, which is the peak of a mountain (Ben Nevis), while the whole of Lake Tahoe in California lies at 6,225 feet.

Thus, if I were to decide now that I would like a “White Christmas”, all I have to do is to get in my car and drive up to the Sierras. It’s nice to feel that, although I don’t need snow for the holiday, I have the option of it if I choose!

The photo below shows a typical local California view, taken near Cotati, on the occasion of the Winter Solstice in 2014. There’s mist over the hills, but no snow anywhere nearby.

Winter Solstice, Cotati, California

Winter Solstice, Cotati, California

Let It Go

If you happen to live somewhere that does not have snow at this time of year, then perhaps it will help to realize that its desirability is actually just a myth, and that there are actually definite benefits to a holiday without such weather!

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

2018 Yuletide Cards are On the Way

Winter Woodpecker: Ink & Watercolor

Winter Woodpecker: Ink & Watercolor

As of today, all our Yuletide cards are on the way to their recipients (or at least they will be when the USPS picks them up tomorrow!). My artwork for the card design is shown above. Naturally, the copyright notice does not appear on the card itself; it is included here only so that my artwork does not mysteriously become someone else’s design without my permission!

Mary and I discussed whether a Woodpecker was a “seasonal” bird, then we discovered that the USPS had already issued a set of stamps called “Winter Birds”, which included a woodpecker (albeit not a Downy Woodpecker)!

 

Yuletide Label Artwork for 2018

Seasonal Woodpeckers

Seasonal Woodpeckers

The image above is artwork that I just completed for the return labels on our 2018 Yuletide cards. As you can see, this year we’re going to have a “Downy Woodpecker” theme!

As with last year’s artwork (seen here), I used Corel Draw to create it. I should perhaps explain that, when it appears on the actual labels, the drawing is much reduced in size (less than one inch wide), so there’s no point in adding too much detail to it.

I had already created the main card artwork before I started working on this label graphic, to ensure that the card design would be sent to the printer as early as possible! I’ll post that artwork on my blog as soon as we send out the cards, which hopefully will be during this week.

I must admit that my own photographs of Downy Woodpeckers are not very good at all, because the birds have a frustrating habit of hiding around the back of the tree just when I’m ready to take the picture, as shown below.

A Shy Downy Woodpecker

A Shy Downy Woodpecker

Fortunately, I have several books describing California birds, and the internet is a rich source of reference photos, so it wasn’t too difficult to find images that are more helpful than mine!

[Update 12/9/18: After reducing the size of the artwork to fit the return labels, I noticed that the stylized tree in the center was unrecognizable. Therefore, I adapted the design to show a stylized cracker. I realize that many outside the UK may not be familiar with crackers, but it is more seasonal! Naturally, the artwork on the labels does not include the copyright notices.]

Seasonal Woodpeckers

Seasonal Woodpeckers

Thanksgiving in Sonoma (Again)

Sonoma Plaza & City Hall, Thanksgiving 2018

Sonoma Plaza & City Hall, Thanksgiving 2018

Yesterday, we traveled again to Sonoma for Thanksgiving dinner, which is how we’ve celebrated the occasion for the past few years. My photo above shows Sonoma Plaza lit up for the holidays. The large red letters spelling “LOVE” are a new addition this year.

One other difference that you may notice, relative to my Thanksgiving post last year, is that the roads in the photo above are wet. The rainy season started late this year, but we’re very glad that it has finally arrived, to wash away the lingering smoke from the Camp Fire, and also hopefully to extinguish the remains of that terrible fire.

The photo below, taken from our bedroom window earlier in the day, shows a mixture of sun and rain as showers passed overhead. The view was brightened by the fact that the leaves on our ginkgo tree have just turned yellow. Unfortunately, the view was also marred by the work going on around the park (on the left) to remove and replace trees.

Rain, Sun & Autumn Leaves

Rain, Sun & Autumn Leaves

Sonoma’s Historic Plaza

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, Sonoma is today a rather small and quite sleepy city, but was once the military center of Mexican Alta California. It was probably for that reason that it became the hub of the Bear Flag Revolt, which led to California’s becoming independent of Mexico, and then soon after joining the United States.

I took the 2 photos below yesterday evening, with the wet roads reflecting the street lights. The first photo shows the northwest corner of the Plaza. On the right is the Swiss Hotel, which dates back to Mexican colonial days, having been built circa 1836 as a home for the brother of General Vallejo, who was one of the last Comandantes of Mexican Alta California, and went on to become a prominent citizen of the new US state of California.

Immediately to the left of the Swiss Hotel, where now stands the apartment building shown below, stood the main military barracks.

Sonoma Plaza, Northwest Corner

Sonoma Plaza, Northwest Corner

The second photo shows the north end of the Plaza itself, which until 1890 was the site of the city’s railroad depot. The main line ran along the road on the left, and the locomotive turntable was in the square, approximately where the tree lights are in the photo. Local property owners sued the railroad, and eventually forced the removal of the tracks and the depot several blocks northwards. The depot building was physically dragged all the way from this location to its present site.

Sonoma Plaza. Site of Railroad Depot

Sonoma Plaza. Site of Railroad Depot

If you celebrate Thanksgiving, then I hope you had an enjoyable one this year! If you’re not celebrating Thanksgiving, then I hope you enjoy your Black Friday, which now seems to have been embraced in many countries outside the US!

Sonoma Plaza & City Hall, Thanksgiving 2018

Sonoma Plaza & City Hall, Thanksgiving 2018

Centenary of the Great War Armistice

St Clement Danes Church, London

St Clement Danes Church, London

The photo above, which I took during an early visit to London, shows the RAF memorial church of St Clement Danes. The building was completely destroyed during the Second World War, and fully restored in 1958, to act as a war memorial for the Air Force.

As most people are probably aware, today (11th November 2018) marks the centenary of the end of the First World War (known earlier as the Great War). There has been and continues to be much debate about the causes of that devastating war, and the issue will probably never be completely settled. What does seem clear is that, in those days, many European nations saw warfare as a satisfactory way to resolve disputes or gain territory, and had created detailed plans defining exactly whom they were going to attack and how. Their autocratic leaders were really just “spoiling for a fight”, and were supremely (but mistakenly) confident that they could win a swift, decisive victory.

It seems clear now that, if the conflict hadn’t been sparked by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a Yugoslav nationalist, then some other equally parochial incident would have served as the trigger.

The situation was made more volatile by the nationalistic attitudes of the general populations, who tended to see war as a spectator sport. Many were quite prepared to sit happily on the sidelines and cheer as their “team” slogged it out with the opposition. Warfare had usually been conducted that way for centuries, but all that was to change as the Great War turned into “total war”, involving substantial portions of the civilian populations.

The Invasion of Leeds?

Of course, I’m not nearly old enough to have lived through the First World War, let alone remember anything about it. However, my father was 5 years old when the war began in 1914, and he did have some memories of the time.

His family lived in Leeds, Yorkshire, which is some 60 miles from the coast of the North Sea, and thus was not likely to be in any direct danger from enemy action. Nonetheless, my father’s mother was apparently certain of an immediate German invasion, and insisted upon placing sandbags around the house on the outbreak of war! Apparently, even then, not everyone believed that the war would take place on faraway fields.

Raid on Scarborough

My home town of Scarborough became a flashpoint during the First World War, after being subjected to a German naval raid during December 1914. That attack was characterized as a brazen assault on civilians (and it’s difficult to see how it could have served much other purpose), and had the presumably-unintended consequence of offering a major propaganda opportunity for the Allied nations.

During the bombardment, Scarborough’s lighthouse was one of many buildings that were hit and damaged, but it was subsequently repaired, as shown in my photo below.

Scarborough Lighthouse, 2007

Scarborough Lighthouse, 2007

British illustrator Frank Patterson, whom I’ve mentioned in a previous post on my professional web site, normally avoided propaganda-style artwork. Apparently, however, he was so incensed by the attack on Scarborough that he produced the illustration below, showing a thunderous Kaiser glowering at the town from over the horizon.

Scarborough from the Moors, 1914. Copyright Frank Patterson

Scarborough from the Moors, 1914. Copyright Frank Patterson

A Changed World

Whatever its actual causes and motivations, there can be no doubt that the First World War changed the course of history very significantly, and not only in terms of international relations and territorial dominance.

The war essentially spelled the end of the colonial empires created by European powers during the preceding few centuries. Admittedly, some empires (such as the British and French) clung on for a few more decades, but the new order of affairs was already being set up at the end of the First War.

On the social level, agreements made during the War led to women eventually obtaining the right to vote in several countries, such as Britain. From the modern perspective, it seems astonishing that such a development took so long, and no sane, educated person would now suggest that women should not have such a right.

The First World War was undoubtedly a disaster of immense proportions, but some social good did eventually come of it.

St Clement Danes Church, London

St Clement Danes Church, London