Sunsets & Air Pollution


Sunset from Oliver's Mount, Scarborough, July 1977

Sunset from Oliver’s Mount, Scarborough, July 1977

I took the sunset photograph above from the summit of Oliver’s Mount, Scarborough, at 8.45pm on Saturday, 16th July 1977. I know those details because they happen to be in a notebook that I still have. The image now forms the header for my professional blog.

The photograph has an unusual “oil painting like” appearance, with muted and brownish tones. This has led some to suggest that perhaps I “photoshopped” the original image to achieve that effect. That’s not the case; this is a scan of the color transparency exactly as it came out of the camera. As I’ll explain below, I believe that some of the extraordinary weather effects that I photographed in those days were actually caused by air pollution.

Wine Country Sunsets

I was prompted to think once again about my old sunset photographs by last night’s sunset here in Santa Rosa. We had had a very hot day, but there was a breeze, and sufficient clouds around to provide some spectacular effects at sunset, as shown below.

Sunset Clouds, Santa Rosa, June 2017

Sunset Clouds, Santa Rosa, June 2017

While nobody would dispute the claim that California’s weather is generally pleasanter than Britain’s, one problem with that is the lack of visual weather effects in California. As someone once put it, “We don’t have weather in California”.

I suspect also that another problem is that the air in California now is much cleaner than it was in Britain in the 1970s, and dirty air makes for spectacular sunsets! The fact that I was able to photograph so many interesting sunsets from Oliver’s Mount was thanks to a combination of Britain’s weather and the mount’s location.

Pilgrimages to Oliver’s Mount

Oliver’s Mount is so called because of a legend that, during the English Civil War in the 1640s, Oliver Cromwell situated cannon on the mount to bombard Scarborough Castle, which was in Royalist hands. This seems highly unlikely, because the cannon of the time did not have sufficient range to fire over such distances, and were far too inaccurate to have hit the castle with any certainty. In any case, there’s no evidence that Cromwell ever visited Scarborough during the Civil War.

When we lived in West Street, Scarborough, during the 1970s, Oliver’s Mount was only about a mile from our house. Although there’s a road to the top of the mount, I discovered that I could reach the summit much more quickly by climbing up directly through the woodland on the hillside. As a result, I visited the war memorial on the summit quite regularly, particularly during the summer. Any air pollution outdoors was definitely healthier than the level indoors, created by my chain-smoking father!

The view to the North-East from the top of the mount looks over Scarborough’s South Bay and Castle headland, and my father and I both photographed that view several times over the years. The image below shows the lights having just come on at sunset, in August 1977.

Scarborough Sunset, August 1977

Scarborough Sunset from Oliver’s Mount, August 1977

The view westwards from the same spot looked inland, towards the Pennines, and the conurbations of West Yorkshire and Manchester. The air in those industrial areas was of poor quality at the time, with much coal burning still occurring, and many chemical works still belching out their waste. I suspect that the low sun shining through all that dirty air was what created some of the spectacular refraction effects that I saw during those sunsets some 40 years ago.

I’ll be exhibiting some of the other “Oliver’s Mount Sunset” photos in future blog posts.

Days of Coal and Flowers


My Mother and Me, June 1960

My Mother with me, June 1960

Today is June 1st, so the photograph above seems like an appropriate flashback selection. This is probably one of the earliest surviving photographs of me, in the arms of my mother, in June 1960.

My mother is sitting on an ancient bench in the back garden of our house in Scalby Road, Scarborough. Behind her is part of our large and verdant garden, on which my father lavished tremendous amounts of time and effort. In the greenhouse that’s visible in the picture, he grew geraniums and tomatoes.

My memories of that garden led me to want something similar of my own when I grew up, and I pushed for that, until I actually got one, and realized just how much work it is! Nowadays, although I still appreciate gardens, I must admit that Mary does much more work in the garden than I do!

All Our Bunkers

Also visible at the far left of the picture above is our coke bunker. In those days, we had both coal fires and coke furnaces in the house, so we had regular deliveries of both. There were large coal bunkers in a yard at the side of the house, but my parents added this extra bunker for coke at the back.

The problem was that it was important not to mix up coal and coke, because one would not burn properly in fires designed for the other. Having the coke bunker in a completely separate location reduced the risk that the delivery person would make a mistake.

During the 1960s, Airfix made a scale model kit of a bungalow that included a coal bunker of this design, among other period features such as a VHF television antenna! The same model is still available now, from Dapol.

With the arrival of North Sea Gas later in the 1960s, my parents took the opportunity to replace all our coal fires with gas, which made life much simpler and cleaner for us. Nonetheless, we still had a coke-burning furnace in the kitchen, which also supplied all our hot water. I can remember my father cleaning out the ashes onto a newspaper every night, then bringing in a scuttle of coke, ready to relight the furnace the following morning.

The Calm before the Storm

The photo above depicts an idyllic moment, perhaps giving the false impression that all was perfect in our lives. In reality, storm clouds were already gathering for our family.

My father had his first stroke within two years of my birth, which meant that he was never again able to maintain the garden to his own high standards.

Concerns about the family’s future income led us to move out of that house in 1970, when my parents bought a guest house on the other side of town (the exterior of which is shown in this article).

The photo below, taken thirteen years later in June 1973, in the much more modest back garden of the guest house, shows (from left to right) my mother, our West Highland terrier Meg, my brother, and me.

Tea in the Garden, West Street, Scarborough, June 1973

Tea in the Garden, West Street, Scarborough, June 1973

My First Cat

Dusky with My Mother, 1969

Dusky with My Mother, 1969

Here’s a photo that my father took in 1969, showing my mother sitting near the pond in our back garden, with my first cat.

Strictly speaking, the cat wasn’t mine, and wasn’t really anybody’s, because she was what would now be called a “feral” who simply showed up in our garden one day, along with several other ferals who were even wilder than she was. This particular cat liked being fed and petted to some extent, and didn’t mind coming into our house occasionally. She always went out at night, but I’m not sure whether that was because she wanted to do so, or because my parents simply had the attitude that “at night you put the cat out”.

I wanted our cat to have a name, of course, but nobody seemed willing to agree on anything. I had an old book that I’d inherited from a neighbor called Calling All Kittens, which featured large paintings of various cute kittens. The kitten in the book who most resembled our feral was named “Dusky”, so that was the name I gave her. However, nobody else in the family seemed willing to use that name, always referring to her by the unimaginative title of “Puss”!

How Not to Transport a Feral

We moved in 1970 to a house on the other side of Scarborough, and my mother attempted to move Dusky along with us. It didn’t go well.

Firstly, Dusky had never before ridden in a car, and didn’t like it at all. She jumped around in a panic for the entire journey.

When we arrived at the new house, my mother decided to keep her indoors for the day. However, when night came, she just did the same as always and “put the cat out”.

We never saw Dusky again.

Of course, now I know that that’s absolutely not the way to move your cat from one house to another! At that time, I was only ten years old, so, even if I’d known what to do, I doubt that my parents would have listened to my advice.

I’ve also learned since then that “putting the cat out at night” is neither necessary nor desirable. In California, it’s almost a death sentence, since cats can encounter common animals such as raccoons that can inflict major injury or death.

The Ambivalence of Easter


Scarborough from Cumboots Brow, Easter 1977

Scarborough from Cumboots Brow, Easter 1977

Easter occurs this weekend, although the event has almost zero importance for me now that I live in California. On reflection, the decline in its significance seems remarkable, given that Easter was, and still is, a national holiday in Britain, and holds many ambivalent memories for me from the days when I lived there.

The photograph above shows my birth town, Scarborough, on a beautiful day during Easter, 1977. My color slide was taken from the curiously-named Cumboots Brow, and displays a vista over lush farmland to the suburban village of Scalby, then Scarborough Castle headland beyond that, and finally the North Sea on the horizon.

In terms of positive memories of Easter, as a kid, I naturally looked forward to the break from school offered by the Easter vacation, and also to the abundance of Easter eggs, hot cross buns, and similar treats.

On the negative side, the Christian Easter festival, which was supposedly what was being commemorated, brings back memories of its absurd and macabre claims, which teachers at our schools drilled into us. In my case, I had the misfortune to have to attend a Church of England School for a couple of years, where such superstitious nonsense was particularly rife, but in Britain even state schools promoted the religious agenda to a lesser extent.

Is Easter Christian or Pagan?

Is Easter a religious festival, or merely a celebration of Spring? Should it or shouldn’t it be an official holiday for everyone?

Most people in Britain seem to take it for granted (as I did before emigrating) that Easter should be a recognized holiday.

Conversely, when I talk to people in California about it, they often seem puzzled that it should be recognized as a secular holiday at all.

People sometimes seem surprised when I remind them that, unlike the USA, Britain has no “separation of church and state”. Indeed, England has an official state religion (Church of England Christianity), the bishops of which still sit unelected in the House of Lords. Few people in Britain seem to see any problem in having a Christian festival as a national holiday, even though the vast majority now practice no religion at all and are de facto atheists, whatever they choose to call themselves.

But what actually is being celebrated? After all, the term “Easter” has a pagan origin, in that it is derived from the name of a goddess named Ēostre. Is it not really just a celebration of the Springtime renewal of life? As I recall, that inconvenient reality seemed to reemerge frequently. For example, at the state school, we were instructed to create Easter cards, but thankfully it was specified that these should feature eggs and chicks, instead of a man nailed to a wooden cross.

At the church school, the priests insisted that, despite its morbid associations, their Easter festival was supposed to be a “victory” over death rather than a wallowing in the gory details. Even as a child, it struck me that their resurrection story made no sense. Those adults insisted that their leader had physically risen from the dead. When we questioned the current whereabouts of this Jesus who had supposedly “conquered death” and thus must obviously still be living somewhere, we were told that we couldn’t meet this immortal individual in the flesh because he had somehow “gone up to heaven”. But we already knew that “going up to heaven” was just a euphemism for dying, so is he supposed to be dead or alive?

Easter in Scarborough: the “Season” Begins

Easter had a more practical significance for me during my schooldays because, in Scarborough, in the 1970s (and perhaps even now), the weekend marked the start of “the Season”, when tourists began arriving for vacations in the town following the winter shutdown. Typically, the major influx of tourists occurred from Easter to September each year.

For a few years during the 1970s, my parents owned the “West Lodge Guest House”, which they opened to guests each Easter. That building is still open as a hotel today. I took the photo below during a visit to Scarborough in 2006.

West Lodge Guest House in 2006

West Lodge Guest House in 2006

Easter: Goodbye to All That

Until I wrote this article, it hadn’t occurred to me that emigrating to California freed me to enjoy the positive aspects of Easter, revolving around the Springtime rebirth of life, without all the baggage of the macabre and primitive religious connotations.

It’s just one more good thing to celebrate…

Location of the Heading Photograph

Due to tree growth since 1977, it seems that it may be difficult to reproduce the view at the head of this article now. Here is the latest Google Streetview image.


The Daily Mash has just weighed in with a report about Easter!

Back to the Bungalow: Swifts of Scarborough

In April 2007, I found myself revisiting my home town, Scarborough, and took the opportunity to return to the location of my first ever full-time “permanent” job, which was at a light engineering company called Swifts of Scarborough.

I didn’t actually work at Swifts for very long — only from September 1979 to June 1981 — but so much happened to me during that approximately eighteen-month period that, in retrospect, it seems as though I was there for much longer.

After having had to drop out of Warwick University in 1979, without a degree, I found myself back in Scarborough, where job prospects are not good at the best of times (unless perhaps you want to work in a hotel). My father had just died, and my mother was trying to support a family of three on her teacher’s widow’s pension, so there was much urgency for me to start earning a living as soon as possible.

After several dispiriting months of job-hunting, I obtained an interview at Swifts, for an Accounts Clerk position, and was hired. I had no professional accounting qualifications, but I’d always been good at math (and had 2 A-levels in it), which was presumably what impressed them.

As I was to learn, Swifts was already a long-established Scarborough business. The factory had originally been in a downtown location near William Street, but had moved out to a larger site on Cayton Low Road during the 1960s. Traditionally, the company’s main product had been aluminium milk churns, but, when demand for churns evaporated, the company switched to the manufacture of cable support systems (cable tray and cable ladder). Cable support systems are a simple and unglamorous product, but there is a steady industrial demand for those components, which the company’s successors still manufacture today.

[I haven’t been able to find any photographs of Swift’s original premises. However, the out-of-print book Scarborough in the 50s and 60s does include a couple of photographs of the William Street area. On page 69 the old Swift’s refreshment block is shown, and on page 26 you can see Swift’s sign on a wall near Hope Street.]

In 1979, the company’s accounting department was housed in a building separate from the main factory, called “The Bungalow”, which was literally that, being a former private home that sat on what was now Swift’s land. This building is shown derelict in my 2007 photo at the head of this article.

I Keep Getting the Same Advice

It soon became obvious that, although Swifts was a “solid” company, its products were “not rocket science”, and I felt that continuing there would not make good use of my abilities.

Realizing that there were few suitable jobs for me in Scarborough, I began applying for more challenging jobs in other parts of the country. I attended several promising interviews, in London, Aylesbury, and elsewhere, and a pattern soon became apparent. Every time I applied for a job, I was rejected on the grounds that I didn’t have some specialized knowledge, or was in some way overqualified, and I was told to go back to university and get a degree.

That was much easier said than done, but I did eventually reapply and was accepted by several universities. Thanks to the award of a Royal Scholarship, I ended up graduating in electronics from Imperial College, London. At that point, I recalled the advice I’d received from one potential employer who had declined to hire me pre-university—the BBC—so I reapplied and, this time, I got the job!

To Richmond At Last

Back when I worked at Swifts, the company had a satellite location at Richmond in Surrey. This had originally been the premises of a company called Walker Mainstay, which Swifts had taken over. The Richmond premises were not used for manufacturing, but only for warehousing the products that were made in Scarborough. Trucks loaded with Swift’s products left Scarborough for Richmond on an almost daily basis.

During my eighteen-month period of employment, I was never allowed to visit the Richmond premises. In 1981, finding myself now a student in London, curiosity compelled me to go to Richmond and seek out the location. The photograph below shows the Richmond premises one dull weekend afternoon. I realized that I hadn’t been missing much!

Swifts of Scarborough warehouse in Richmond, Surrey, 1981

Swifts of Scarborough warehouse in Richmond, Surrey, 1981

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I returned to “The Bungalow” during a visit to Scarborough in 2007, to find it still standing but derelict.

The remainder of Swifts premises on Cayton Low Road still exist. The company was taken over first by Wiremold, and then by Legrand, and continues in essentially the same business in the same location.

Scarborough Railway Station: A Historical Mystery Tour

Scarborough Central Railway Station in 1977

Scarborough Central Railway Station in 1977

During my teenage years, for my A-level Art study of architecture, I did some original research on the history of Scarborough [Central] Railway Station (shown above), which led to a surprising conclusion about the building’s original appearance.

My conclusions were questioned at the time, but were verified decades later by someone else’s chance discovery.

It was always a well-known fact that Scarborough’s main railway station was built in 1845 (quite early in the history of railways), at a location that was then outside the town limits. It’s also well-known that, in 1882, a central tower was added to the frontage. Surprisingly, and despite the efforts of various developers over the decades, the station building has survived to this day in essentially its 1882 form, as shown in my 1977 photograph at the top of this article.

During my researches at Scarborough Reference Library, I discovered a copy of a catalog for an exhibition called “Marble Halls”, which had apparently taken place at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in 1973.

Marble Halls

An 1844-dated illustration in the Marble Halls catalog showed a plan of “Scarborough Station” that, at first glance, looked nothing like the existing structure. The image below is the copy of the catalog illustration that I created for my study.

Copy of Plan of Scarborough Station, 1844

Copy of Plan of Scarborough Station, 1844

I hadn’t expected to see the central tower, of course, but where are the three small pavilions in the building’s frontage? The plan also shows a colonnaded central entrance, of which there’s no trace in the existing building.

My initial impression was that this plan did not represent the station as built, but I was puzzled that the accompanying commentary did not mention any discrepancy between the plan and the structure as-built.

I wrote to some local experts on the subject, who provided me with the limited historical references that were available. None of this provided any clear details regarding alterations to the building, except for the addition of the tower. The general opinion seemed to be that the entire frontage of Scarborough Station had probably been rebuilt in 1882 (rather than just the tower), but there was no evidence to prove that claim. One expert pointed out that the architect’s illustration in “Marble Halls” may have been nothing more than an “architect’s impression”, and that there was no guarantee that the station as-constructed had ever resembled that plan.

Some Detective Work

If in fact the building’s frontage had been substantially altered in 1882, it struck me that perhaps I could find some evidence of that (although it seemed odd that nobody would have previously noticed anything).

I walked around the outside of the building, examining its architectural details. I looked particularly at the locations that would be the junctions between the 1845 structure and what were potentially later alterations. Eventually, at the East end of the joint between the easternmost pavilion and the main trainshed (on the far left in the heading photo), I found a mismatch in the details of the pediment, as shown in my sketch below.

Scarborough Station. Detail of Trainshed Pediment stonecarving

Scarborough Station. Detail of Trainshed Pediment stonework

The mismatched joint shown above would have occurred where the new pavilion was added to the main wall of the original building, if my suspicions about the station’s original appearance were correct.

Given the immense precision of the building’s stone carving, it seemed impossible that such a noticeable mismatch would have occurred (or be allowed to remain) during the original construction. It seemed much more likely that this mismatch occurred because of some miscalculation when new stone was carved later, the intention having been to match the details of the original building.

Conclusion & Confirmation

In my study, I presented my conclusion that the 1844 architectural plan did indeed show the original appearance of Scarborough station, but that the building had been subject to greater subsequent alteration in the 1880s than most people had suspected. Not only was the central tower added, but most of the original frontage had been removed, and replaced with the three small pavilions that still exist.

At the time, I had no evidence to support my assertion, except for the architectural plan and my own illustrations of the architectural details of the actual building. Thus, my conclusion remained unproven, and nothing more than an “interesting speculation”.

In 1995, long after the completion of my Art A-level, and by which time I’d moved away from Scarborough, first to London and then to California, one of my expert correspondents from 1977, J R Lidster, published his own book on Scarborough Railway Station. In that book, he included a drawing of the station frontage from a letterhead that had recently been discovered in the attic of a property in Scarborough.

Sure enough, the letterhead showed a building that closely matched that depicted in the 1844 plan in the book “Marble Halls”, thus finally verifying the conclusion of my investigation.

A Sense of History

At the age of thirteen, I was forced to select a restricted range of subjects at school for continued study, as preparation for taking “O-level” examinations. One of the subjects that I dropped was history, because my naïve belief at that time was that history was “already written down”, and thus there was nothing new to add. Even at that age, I knew that, whatever I was going to devote my life to, I wanted it to be something innovative.

The experience that I described above, where I was able to provide original insight into a historical problem, showed me that my earlier view of history had been wrong. The events under consideration were, after all, relatively recent history, dating back only about one century, and yet many details were unrecorded, and there were new contributions to be made. I was able to offer new information without even “getting my hands dirty”!

Postscript: More Marble Halls

This incident was my first encounter with the contents of the “Marble Halls” catalog. The book also contains illustrations of other Victorian buildings that featured in my later life. For example, there’s an illustration of the Imperial Institute in London, the buildings of which were subsequently incorporated into Imperial College, from where I would graduate.

The book also includes an image of Highclere Castle, in Hampshire, which was close to my home in Andover in later years. Highclere Castle is now world-famous as the fictitious Downton Abbey.

Michael Palin & the Life of Brian: Insights from my Interview

A Defiant Stance!

A Defiant Stance!

In 1983, while a student at Imperial College, I taped a video interview with Michael Palin, of “Monty Python” fame. At that time, the Monty Python team’s most famous—if not notorious—movie to date had been “The Life of Brian”, which had been released in 1979. Controversial at the time, the movie is perhaps even more famous now, having regularly been cited as the “greatest comedy film of all time”. If you can remember back to that time, you may recall that “The Life of Brian” was vociferously denounced in some quarters as being “blasphemous”.

As our interview progressed, I broached the topic by mentioning to Michael* that there had been controversy about the movie “where I was living”. His immediate response was, “You’re not from Harrogate, are you?” I laughed, but had to admit that I was in fact from nearby Scarborough (both towns being in North Yorkshire, England). He replied along the lines of, “Well, Harrogate seemed to be the worst when it came to the intellectual level of debate”.

Michael acknowledged that the team had anticipated some controversy when planning the movie: “We realized that some people would claim that Brian was supposed to be Jesus, so we deliberately included Jesus alongside Brian, to make it clear that he wasn’t.”

As it turned out, the reality was that all too many were willing to denounce the movie without even having seen it. In fact, as is surely obvious to anyone who takes the trouble to watch it through, the plot pokes satirical fun at religions, organizations, and many other topics that you’d expect the Monty Python team to address. The petulant reaction simply provided extra publicity for the movie, and discredited those who complained about non-existent offences.

Perhaps among the most insightful aspects of the movie is the lampooning of the way in which, having committed themselves to a particular belief, some people will go to extremes to avoid having to accept any evidence that the belief is wrong. Instead of reaching the logical conclusion, believers go out of their way to create and justify the most implausible rationalizations, redefining words and concepts as necessary to avoid admitting error.

I found Michael Palin’s comments during our interview interesting and personally thought-provoking, since he was correct that there had been much sanctimonious hand-wringing about the movie in my home town (and in many other places too). The end result of all that, in my case, was to make me realize that even some supposedly-intelligent people whom I knew couldn’t necessarily be trusted to behave rationally when it came to the “big issues”. That was a lesson that I’ve carried with me ever since.

(* Just in case it seems presumptuous of me to refer to my guest simply as “Michael”, I should mention that he gave me explicit permission to do that! He told me, “Only my parents call me Mr. Palin”…)