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Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

On Exponential Growth and Fag Ends

Wednesday, January 9th, 2019

I have often been confused when people talking about family history—often people with good genealogical knowledge—talk about their family “coming from” a particular location in the distant past. Don’t they know anything about exponential growth? When you talk about your family living in some small region of north Norfolk 400 years ago, what does that mean? That’s (inbreeding aside) over 32,000 people! Surely they didn’t all live in a few local villages.

Now, I appreciate that this is a bit of an exaggeration. Over a few hundred years there will be some (hopefully fairly distant) inbreeding and so each person won’t have tens of thousands of distinct relatives. I appreciate, too, that people travelled less in the past, and that even if you are genuinely descended from thousands of distinct people, those people will have been more concentrated in the past. But, still, the intuition that “your family” (by which they are imagining, I think, a few dozen people at a time) “comes from somewhere” still seems a little off.

The naïve explanation is that they just don’t realise the scale of this growth. I would imagine that most people, asked for an intuitive stab at how many great-great-···-grandparents they had 400 years ago, would guess at a few dozen, not a number in the tens of thousands. Perhaps they have some cultural bias that a particular part of the family tree is the “main line”, perhaps that matrilineal or patrilineal lines are the important ones, and that other parts of the family are just other families merging in. Or, perhaps they recognise that in practice main lines emerge in families when there are particular fecund sub-families, and other branches fade out.

Overall, these “fag ends” are not very well acknowledged. Most people depicted in fiction, e.g. in the complex family interconnections of soap operas, have a rich, involved family. There isn’t much depiction of the sort of family that I come from, which is at the ragged, grinding to a halt twig of a family tree.

Let’s think about my family as an example. Both of my parents were somewhat isolated within their families. My mother had three siblings, two of whom died in infancy. The other, my uncle, went on to have three children, two of whom in turn have had children and and grandchildren, and the one who didn’t married into a vast family (his wife has something like ten siblings). By contrast, my mother had only me, who hasn’t had any children, and didn’t get on particularly well with her brother, so we were fairly isolated from her side of the family after my grandmother died. So, from the point of view of my grandmother’s position in the family tree, it is clear that my uncle’s line is the “main line” of the family.

Similarly, on my father’s side, he was similarly at a ragged end. He had three sisters. One died fairly young (having had Down’s syndrome). The one he was closest to went to Australia and had a large family—four children, lots of grandchildren, etc; but, they were rather geographically isolated. The one that lived a few miles from us he wasn’t particularly close to, and only had one child, who remained child-free. He had one child from his first marriage (who had children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, which bizarrely meant that by the age of 44 I was a great-great uncle), and had only me from his marriage to my mother. Again, there are big branches and fag ends: the branches of the family tree that dominate hugely are the Australian one, and the one starting from my half-brother, whereas mine (no children), and my aunt (who had only one child) are minor twigs.

So, perhaps there is some truth in the genealogist’s intuition after all. A small number of branches in the tree become the “main lines”, and others become “fag ends”, and there isn’t much in between. It would be interesting to formalise this using network science ideas, and test whether the anecdotal example that I have in my own family is typical when we look at lots of family trees.

The Map that Precedes the Territory

Sunday, September 23rd, 2018

I’ve sometimes joked that I only have hobbies because they are necessary for me to indulge my meta-hobbies of project management, product design, and logistics. Sometimes, I worry that I get more pleasure from the planning that goes around an activity than doing the activity itself. The planning the travel and activities for a trip, the well-organised and well-chosen set of accessories or tools for doing some craft, preferring to be the person who organises the meetings and makes up the groups rather than being a participant in the activity.

I wonder where this comes from? I think part of it is from growing up in a household where there wasn’t much money to spend on leisure stuff. As a result, I spent a lot of my childhood planning what I would do when I had things, making tables and catalogues of things, and endlessly going over the same small number of resources. I remember planning in great detail things like model railway layouts, devising complex electrical circuits, and filling notebook-after-notebook with code in anticipation of the day when I might finally have access to a computer to run it on—a computer which would be chosen not on a whim, but from detailed comparison tables I had drawn up from catalogues and ads so as to get the very best one for the limited money we had.

The intellectual resources I had access to were interesting. We had some books, bought from W.H. Smith, brought home from the school where my father taught, bought from a catalogue of discount improving educational books which was available at School (which introduced me to the excellent Usborne books which I still think are a model for exposition of complex concepts), or bought from the eccentric selection available at remainder shops (I particularly remember three random volumes of encyclopaedia that I had bought from one such shop). The local library was a good resource too, but I rapidly exhausted the books on topics of relevance to me, and just started reading my way through everything; one week I remember bringing home a haul of books on Anglicanism, resulting in my mother’s immortal line “You’re not going to become a bloody vicar, are you?”. Catalogues and the like were an endless source of information too, I remember endless poring over detailed technical catalogues such as the Maplin one, and spec sheets from computer shops, compiling my own lists and tables of electrical components, details of how different computers worked, etc. I remember really working through what limited resource I had; endlessly reading through the couple of advanced university-level science books that a colleague of my mother’s had given to her via a relative who had done some scientific studies at university.

There’s something to be said for trying damn hard to understand something that is just too difficult. I remember working for hours at a complex mathematical book from the local library about electrical motors, just because it was there and on an interesting topic, and learning linear and dynamic programming, university level maths topics, again because there happened to be a good book on it in the local library. These days, with access to a vast university library, books at cheap prices on Amazon, and talks on almost every imaginable topic available on YouTube, I think I waste a lot of time trying to find some resource that is just at my level, rather than really pushing myself to make my own meaning out of something that is on the very fringe of my level of possible understanding. Similarly, I remember the same for courses at University—I got a crazily high mark (88% or something) in a paper on number theory, where I had struggled to understand and the textbooks were pretty ropey, whereas the well-presented topics with nice neatly presented textbooks were the golden road to a 2:1 level of achievement.

Talking of lectures and YouTube etc., another thing that is near impossible to have a feel for was the ephemerality of media. There were decent TV and radio programmes on topics I was interested in, science and technology and the like, but it seems incomprehensibly primitive that these were shown once, at a specific time, and then probably not repeated for months. How bizarre that I couldn’t just revisit it. But, again, in made it special; I had to be there at a specific time. I think this is why lecture courses remain an important part of university education. About 20 years ago I worked with someone called Donald Bligh, who wrote an influential book called What’s the Use of Lectures?, which anticipated lots of the later developments in the flipped classroom etc. He couldn’t understand why, with the technology available to deliver focused, reviewable, breakable-downable, indexable online material, we still obsessed about the live lecture. I have a lot of sympathy for that point of view, but I think lecture courses deliver pace and, at their best, model “thinking out loud”—particularly, for technical and mathematical subjects. When everything is available at hand, we just get stuck in focus paralysis; I do that with things I want to learn, there are too many things and it is too easy when something gets hard to not persevere, and to turn to something else instead; or, I spend endless amounts of time in search of the perfect resource, one that is just at my level. This is what I wasn’t able to do, 30 years ago, in my little room with limited resources, and so I got on with the task at hand.

How can we regain this focus in a world of endless intellectual resource abundance? Some approaches are just to pace stuff out—even MOOCs, where the resources are at hand and could be released, box-set-like, all at once, nonetheless spoon them out bit-by-bit in an attempt to create a cohort and a sense of pace. Another approach is pure self-discipline; I force myself to sit down with a specific task for the day, and use techniques such as the Pomodoro technique to pace out my time appropriately. Others use technologies to limit the amount of time spent online, such as web-blockers that limit the amount of time spent either on the web in general, or specifically on distractors such as social media. But, I still think that we don’t have a really good solution to this.

Memory (3)

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

When I was around 12 years old, we went for one of our regular family trips into the Derbyshire countryside. After lunch, I went off for a bike ride. I thought that I had communicated this to my parents, but they thought I had meant that I was going to ride my bike through the woods for 5-10 minutes, whereas I meant that I was going for an hour or two of riding.

When I got back, my family were worried sick about where I had got to. Later, I found out that my grandmother had at some point during my absence uttered the immortal line: “If he’s gone and cycled off a cliff, I’ll bloody well kill him!”.

Growth Mindset

Monday, August 27th, 2018

In B&Q yesterday there were two parents and a child (around 5-6 years old) pushing a trolley out to their car. The child was insistently declaring an interest in helping to move the large boxes of tiles from the trolley to the car; the father insisting each time that it was pointless, that it would take two adults to move it, and that there wasn’t any point in helping.

One thing that helped me to develop a “growth mindset”—the view that skills and intelligence are largely not fixed or innate but the result of the right kind of study and development—was that my parents found lots of ways to involve me, at a level appropriate to my knowledge, skills, and development, in so many areas of life. I have no idea whether this was a deliberate strategy or that they just fell into it, but it was very helpful in instilling a positive view of the value of productive work.

A side note: I have often wondered if being a (to a first approximation) only child helped with my learning a wide range of skills, in particular not having a gender-sterotyped pattern of skills. Because I was the only child around, I would be co-opted into helping with a lot of things, whether cooking or washing, car-repair or plumbing. Perhaps in a larger family with a mixture of genders in the children, the girls might go off to help with “women’s stuff” from female relatives, whilst the boys do “men’s stuff” with males.

Memory (1)

Tuesday, July 24th, 2018

An extremely vivid memory from childhood—probably about seven or eight years old. Waking up and coming downstairs with an absolute, unshakable conviction that what I wanted to do with all of my spare time for the next few months was to build near-full sized fairground rides in our back garden. I don’t know where this came from; prior to that point I had no especial interest in fairground rides, beyond the annual visit to the Goose Fair. I wanted to go into the garage immediately and start measuring pieces of wood, making designs, etc. It took my parents a couple of hours to dissuade me that doing this was utterly impractical, against my deep, passionate protestations. Truly, I cannot think of anything before or since that I wanted to do with such utter conviction.

Family Stories (3)

Monday, September 26th, 2016

When I was around 10-11 years old, my parents made a shed at the back of the garden, by putting a door and roof on a small space at the back of the garage. This was used to store gardening supplies—compost, plant pots and the like—and bottles of the dubious home-made wine and beer that was popular at the time.

One summer day I decided, on a whim, that this needed a label putting on it. So, using a chisel and hammer from the garage, I gouged the words “TOOL SHED” into the paint and wood, fairly deeply. Then, realising that the shed wasn’t used to store tools, I panicked; but a simple solution came to mind. As a result I carved the word “NOT” above the word “TOOL SHED”, with an asterisk added to retain the symmetry of four letters on each line. As a result, the shed had (and retained for several years) the label:


and was thus referred to in my family for many years subsequently.

I believe that I am the only person alive who remembers this.

Family Stories (2)

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

There was a little shop in the town where I grew up which sold local souvenirs etc., and often had pictures of the locality in the window. One day I was looking in the window of this shop with my mother, and there was a painting of the street where we lived.

Mum: “It’s Mr. Zoff.”
Me: “Who’s Mr. Zoff?”
Mum: “No—they’ve missed us off. Our house isn’t in the picture.”

From that day, any unknown artist was referred to in our family as “the famous Polish artist, Mr . Zoff”.

I am the only person alive who remembers this.

Family Stories (1)

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

Scarborough, mid-1980’s. Sitting on the beach, which if you don’t know it has tall slopes at the side, and there are some fields at the top.

My grandmother: “Those blobs up there look just like sheep.”

My mother: “They are sheep.”

For many years afterwards, we carried on referring to sheep as “blobs”, finding that endlessly amusing in a way that is quite distinctive to family language that can be tracked down to one specific incident.

I am now the only person alive who remembers this.


Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

My mother used to knit faster when she was getting to the end of the ball of wool, in the belief that if she went quick enough she would reach the end of the current row before the ball ran out. I have an isomorphic delusion when it comes to typing—if I want to get a certain sentence on the current line without wrapping, I will type quicker, hoping to reach the end of the line before the computer decides to put a line break in.

Miles Away (1)

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

My mother used to work for the purchasing department at Boots, a major pharmaceutical retailer. One day, she had the following phone conversation with a rather posh sales rep:

Rep: “Good morning, I’m Miles from Nicholas Products Ltd.”
Mum: “Well, I’m miles from there too, but how can I help you?”

Incomprehension (3)

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

From my late grandmother, in the corner shop:

“I’d like an uncut sliced loaf, please.”

Incomprehension (2)

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

A conversation from many years ago between my late mother and the dentist’s receptionist:

Mum: “I’m here for the 2pm appointment.”

Receptionist: “And your husband? He is here for his appointment at 2:30.”

Mum: “No, I’m afraid I’ve lost him.”

Receptionist (with a look of deep sympathy): “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.”

Mum: “No, I haven’t lost him; I mean he’s wandered off to the shops round the corner and I can’t find him.”

Notes on Organising a Funeral

Friday, December 27th, 2013

In the last few years I’ve organised the funerals for my mother and my father. As I was organising these, it struck me that this is one of those things in life that you don’t get involved with in a casual way. On the whole, only a small number of people organise a particular funeral, and so it isn’t something that you have the experience of being involved in from the sidelines. When you have to do it, you have to do it, without much to draw on.

So, I thought that I would make a few notes on my experience for the benefit of others. Obviously, my experience is limited. I organised a couple of secular cremation-based funerals in England, and I appreciate that there are lots of variants, in particular that some religious traditions support the idea of funerals happening within a day or two of the death; what I have to say may be less relevant to such situations.

I will focus on the funeral organisation itself, here. There is a process before that of registering the death, which needs to happen within a few days of the death occurring. In both of the cases I’ve been involved with, the deaths have happened in hospital, so I received a lot of guidance from the hospital about this; I can’t really say anything useful about what happens to deaths outside hospitals. The important part of this for our purposes is that the registrar will give you some paperwork that you will need for organising the funeral: importantly, for cremation, a form from a doctor certifying that there are no battery-powered implants etc. remaining in the deceased.

The starting point for arranging a funeral is to contact a funeral director. I used Baguley Brothers, and I can highly recommend them within the Nottingham area. You can make this initial contact before registering the death, but the funeral can’t go ahead before the registration. I just waited until I had sorted out the registration process. I phoned them and made an appointment to go into their offices; I suggest that you allow a good couple of hours for this appointment, it will probably only take about 45 minutes but it isn’t something that you want to rush.

At the meeting with the funeral director, you will need to make a lot of decisions. There was no particular rush, and things could be deferred or changed at a later date; but, this is what I most wished I’d known before the meeting. In particular, you will need to decide:

  • Whether there will be a viewing of the deceased before the funeral itself. At my grandmother’s funeral a couple of decades ago, we did have this. It was held at the funeral directors building the morning before the funeral; her body was in its open coffin in a small chapel, and small family groups took it in turns to make a short visit. I found this creepy and didn’t have this at either of my parents’ funerals. I got the impression from talking to the funeral director that this practice is less common than it used to be.
  • What kind of coffin you want. You will be given a brochure with a wide range of coffins and caskets (there is some distinction between these two terms that I can’t remember), ranging from the simple to elaborate creations bedecked with carvings of Christ on the cross; the price range was similarly varied. I chose something fairly simple and traditional, it is a dizzying and complicated choice to make and my advice would be to decide in advance whether you want anything beyond a simple, traditional coffin, and if not to just stick with that.
  • Whilst we’re on the subject, all of these things like coffins come with a price list; usually, there are a range of glossy brochures and then a separate, printed price list. I found the conversation about the cost flowed fairly well, but you need to be prepared to think about budgets whilst also making these complicated decisions.
  • Another choice is that of flowers. You will be asked to choose some flowers, again from a substantial brochure. A useful question to ask is how the size of the floral arrangements is compared to the coffin itself; some of the brochures will usefully display pictures that show this. My impression is that you want to have one large arrangement of flowers from the core family, which will be placed on top of the coffin during the travel to the funeral; others will be placed around the coffin.
  • You need to decide about the journey to the funeral. Firstly, the practicalities of where you want the funeral procession to leave from and where to return to afterwards. Secondly, the vehicles involved. In my experience there was a default hearse and matching cars, but there was again a huge range of other choices from horse-drawn carriages to motorbike-drawn hearses and converted London buses for the mourners. The thing that is useful to decide in advance is how many people will travel in the “official” cars following the hearse; usually this is just the close family. If you have this number in mind then you can sort out how many cars are needed; in my case, where it was basically a handful of close family, only one car was needed.
  • You will be asked to provide a listing for the local paper, and any national papers. You can, of course, arrange this yourself, but it was easier to do it during the meeting. They just arranged it and passed the newspaper fee onto me as part of their bill, which was one less thing to be bothered about. What you need to think about in advance is the wording of this. I was fairly clear, having thought about this on the way to the meeting, that I wanted the phrase “…died on the 31st January” rather than some euphemism; but, the important thing is to think about it in advance. You will need to choose a date for this to go into the paper; it is important to note this as other people will want to put their own notices in on the same day. In terms of choosing a date, I found it useful for this to be sufficiently long after the meeting with the funeral director so that other people have time to put their own notices in; whilst, not being so close to the funeral that people who see then notice will not be able to arrange to attend. I think we are past my grandmother’s era, where people diligently read the personal notices in the local paper each evening; but, not so far past that time that a few people won’t be drawn out by this process. My impression is that the best thing to do is to have one main, unsigned notice with details of when any where the funeral will be, and then follow this with the family tributes. I don’t know anything about how this process works for national papers.
  • Whilst we’re on the subject, you also need to decide whether to say “family flowers only, donations to [charity]”, or “flowers, or donations to [charity]” or whatever. My impression is that people will give flowers if you give them the option. At my mother’s funeral, where I had said “family flowers only”, we got a handful of charity donations; I accidentally used a different wording “flowers or donations…” for my father’s funeral and all the contributions were flowers. Again, it is useful to have this in mind before going to the meeting.
  • Also, you need to think about a funeral date. The funeral director will ideally want to make this decision at the meeting. In both of the funerals I arranged, the funeral happened a couple of weeks after the death. The funeral director will be able to confirm right away in the meeting which dates are available.
  • You need to decide on a location. My only experience is with holding funerals in municipal crematoria. In Nottingham there is a choice of two; our funeral director was fairly direct about the advantages and disadvantages of each in terms of access, atmosphere, etc. You might want to think about this in advance if you have such a choice. In particular, it is difficult to know whether to return to the same place as previous family funerals, or whether to go to a different place. For my mother’s funeral, my uncle was fairly firm about wanting to go somewhere different to the previous few family funerals, as they had become too heavy with memories; but, on the other hand, some continuity is good in a different way.
  • You will be asked whether you will provide programmes/orders of service/service sheets/whatever you call them for the funeral itself, or whether you want them to arrange for these to be printed. My impression is that it is most common now for people to print them themselves; I did this and used a single foldable A5 sheet with a photo and dates on the cover, the programme and readings inside, and some photographs and thanks on the back. For a title I used “A Celebration of the Life of…”; there are a number of variants of this, including just having the name and years. Something that I missed off when I did my mother’s funeral, which I should have included, was details of the reception after the funeral; I assumed that I would have lots of time after the funeral itself to pop around to everyone and say “you’d be welcome to come to the Bestwood Park Hotel for tea at 4 o’clock” but actually people dashed off fairly quickly.
  • You will need to decide about who you want to run the funeral on the day. I wanted a non-religious funeral, and I asked if one of the funeral directors was happy to say a few words to introduce and end the ceremony. They were happy to do this (it was an unusual, but not unheard of, request) and in practice he ran the whole thing, introducing the readings and music etc. I got the impression that most people, other than those actively involved in religious congregations (I don’t have any experience of organising this kind of funeral), go for the “rent-a-vicar”, of whom the funeral director will have contact details. There are also “humanist celebrants” if you want someone to lead the service in a more active way but without religion; I don’t know much about this. I chose to have a non-religious ceremony for my mother as she was a clear and consistent atheist, and subsequently did the same for my more questioning, agnostic father—I’ve written elsewhere about why why I think even most religious people should have non-religious funerals, but that is a topic for elsewhere. On the whole, I found that the funeral director was relaxed an accommodating about my wanting a non-religious funeral; but, I did get the impression that it was rather unusual.
  • You will need to pay a deposit at the meeting. This was around 20% of the total cost. I understand that some banks will be sympathetic to advancing some money to the executor of the will before the probate process is complete in order to pay funeral costs.
  • You need to decide whether the cremation ashes should be scattered in the crematorium grounds, or whether you want to keep them or scatter them yourself later. This is a complex decision and I’ll write more about it one day. But, this is another thing you should think about before the meeting.
  • You should make sure that you get a copy of the details that you have agreed; it is a complex process and you may need to revisit things, so having a copy of the arrangements that you have come to is useful.

After this meeting, there are a number of things to sort out. You will need to come up with a structure for the funeral. If you are having a standard religious service, this might be fairly clearly prescribed; otherwise you will need to decide upon a sequence of readings, music, etc., and give this to the funeral director so that they know what is happening. The funeral director will let you know how long you will have for the funeral; at the crematorium I used it was about 35 minutes, which sounds short but is about right. My experience was that it was harder to find people to do readings and tributes than I had imagined; a lot of people are either fearful of public speaking in general, or find it hard to imagine speaking coherently at such an emotionally charged event.

You need to take a set of clothes for the deceased to be dressed in to the funeral director. You need to print the programmes and take them to the funeral director. Remember that you, for the most part, have time to change your mind about details of the funeral up until a day or two before it happens. Most of the decisions that you make at the meeting can be readily changed.

I have focused here on the advance work of arranging the funeral. But, I would like to mention a couple of things that surprised me about the day of the funeral itself.

  • If you are part of the funeral procession, the funeral starts, basically, once you arrive. My experience as a guest at funerals is that you arrive at the crematorium, church or cemetery a little before the appointed hour, and then have 20 minutes to chat and wait around before the funeral starts. I assumed that the same would be true at my mother’s funeral; that the procession would arrive, park and then I would have time to speak to people before it started. But, of course, that is not what happens. You arrive, get out the car, and within 30 seconds someone is telling you where to stand in order to follow the coffin into the building. This is obvious in retrospect but it was a shock on the day.
  • There might be a little bit of paperwork to sort out before the funeral procession leaves. For example, with my mother’s funeral, I had to collect a little box of jewellery that she had been wearing and sign to say that I had safely received it.
  • Another, minor thing to bear in mind is what happens to the flowers after the funeral. You will be asked whether you want to take them with you or whether you want them donating (I think they give them to local retirement homes etc.). I was happy for them to be donated (they give you the cards with the messages on), but it was a snap decision that you have to make there-and-then, and so it is probably another good thing to think about in advance.

So, that’s that. I’ve been wanting to write this for a while. Organising funerals is difficult, and one way to make them a tiny bit easier is to have some idea of the decisions that you will have to make around a funeral. I hope that this is useful to some people at a difficult time in their lives.

“Who Bought you That?”

Monday, December 16th, 2013

I’ve noticed a communication difference between people like me, who grew up in small families without much of a tradition of present-giving, to people who grew up in big, richly-connected families where dozens of people exchange presents for Christmas and birthdays.

People in the latter group often ask the question “Who bought you that?” when enquiring about some day-to-day object—a scarf, a watch, a pen that I have. I always thought that this was a weird question—why on earth would you imagine that someone bought it for me? But, of course, to people from such a background, the idea that you would ever need to buy such day-to-day tchotchkes is weird. For their whole lives they’ve never had any need to buy all these little bits and pieces, every since childhood they’ve had an endless supply of little day-to-day objects in the form of presents from cousins and great-aunts. Of course, they are in an economically neutral position, as they have had to keep up their part of the exchange.

Wilfred Dennis Johnson, 1924-2013

Saturday, August 10th, 2013

Here is the talk that I gave at my father’s funeral a couple of weeks ago.

I am sure that you will all be as shocked as I was by my father’s death. He led an active life for eighty-nine years, and it was a shock to all of us to hear so suddenly that his life had come to an end.

This life began eighty-nine years ago in the mining village of Langwith, which provided an ideal environment for growing up. It was a place that valued hard work—a value that remained with my father throughout his life. But, it was also a place where families engaged in sport, music, church and community. This balance of work and leisure was important to him throughout his life.

Family was important to him. He enjoyed greatly growing up in a large, extended family in the village, playing with his sisters and learning from his parents and grandparents. He had two long marriages, and cared deeply about his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all of whom are here today.

His working life was also important to him. Having decided after a few months that working in the mine was not for him, he joined the navy towards the end of the Second World War, and was active in the Arctic convoys, visiting places in Russia and Iceland along the way. Sadly, illness forced him to leave the Navy after only a few years. Once he recovered he studied hard at evening classes in Mansfield, whilst working at an electrical firm by day. This study gained him a place to train as a teacher, which was to provide the mainstay of his career. After initial training at Freckleton in Lancashire, he worked at the school in Sandiacre, where the enthusiasm of the staff provided an inspiring start for his career. He trained further at Loughborough, specialising in woodwork and other crafts, an interest that he retained throughout his life—he was always making and repairing things. This laid the foundation for a career that saw him teaching in schools throughout Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. He also had many other jobs, most notably as a driving instructor, and I am sure that he taught many people in this room to drive—a difficult task that showed his care and patience.

Whilst teaching he also took an active role in sports, in particular coaching school football teams. Physical fitness was important to him, and he was very proud of the fact that he could still run and swim well into his eighties. He also enjoyed watching sport. He would travel around the country to race meetings, and particularly enjoyed the cricket matches in Nottingham—I understand that not all that many years ago, following a particularly successful England victory, he was wheeled across Trent Bridge in a shopping trolley by his son Keith!

Whilst he was at Loughborough, he wrote a study on the design and construction of public clocks in the region as his final project. To finish, I would like to read a little from this:

“I have had the pleasure, on many occasions, of visiting a Nottingham clock factory which, apart from providing domestic clocks and other instruments, has a workshop devoted to the manufacture and repair of turret clocks. […] The craftsmen constructing this type of clock appear to get plenty of satisfaction from their work. I suppose that this is because they are able to see the job through all its stages and have the delight of seeing it work when finished. In these days when mass production and specialisation abound, most craftsmen are not so fortunate as the turret clock maker who can still enjoy the same ‘pride of achievement’ which the old hand-craftsman derived from his work.”

Picture of Wilfred Dennis Johnson at the seaside

The Rule of Law (1)

Sunday, February 3rd, 2013

There was an interesting discussion on AskMetafilter a week or so ago about whether a parent had the right to fine a minor for swearing in the family home, especially when the money being taken away had been independently earned by the child.

One of the interesting arguments used by people in favour of the fine was “my house, my rules”; that the child lives in a house provided by the parents, and should therefore defer to that provider. An interesting hypothetical is to consider how this could be enforced in law.

Presumably, the basis for this in the “general position”, where there is no parental responsibility between the parties involved, is that the provider of the service can set arbitrary conditions on the providee, within the bounds of the law. If I want to let out a room in my house, it is reasonable for me to set a condition like no smoking, compulsory communal singing every morning, or the saluting of the house flag. If the lessor doesn’t like it, they are free to rent elsewhere.

But, this doesn’t apply in the family case. The child doesn’t have the ready right to move to an arbitrary other home; they are constrained to live within the family home. It would seem that the “my house, my rules” defence can’t apply here, as the necessary freedom of action doesn’t obtain.

This raises interesting questions about the rule of law within families. Do we, in general, believe that it does obtain? I think if asked the question, we might say that it does, but the reality is different. Clearly, the vast majority of us would believe that serious crimes within the family should be treated normally. But lesser issues less so—many jurisdictions, for example, allow a certain class of physical attacks on the child by the parent to be exempt from criminal status, which would exist if those attacks were carried out on a arbitrary individual. So far, we are still within the rule of law sensu strictu—there is an exception, agreed via a democratic and legally sound process, to the general argument that it is illegal to hit someone. But the ground is getting boggier. It get boggier still when we move onto crimes like theft. Is it theft for a parent to take away a child’s property? If I, through menace or surreptition, take some money from my neighbour, I am a thief; if a parent does the same to a child, is it still theft?

Parents in general treat the idea that their child has legal rights with a mixture of contempt and dismissive amusement. Perhaps we need to see a shift in this? Certainly, just a couple of generations ago, the idea that wives had recourse to law in matters such as assault and rape was treated with similar derision. I also worry about the greater implications here for the child’s learning about the rule of law; if the idea that they have no legal recourse is established in their mind through minor issues about property, will they apply the same reasoning when the issue is a serious one?

Non-religious Funerals&#8212not just for Bloody Heathens

Monday, February 20th, 2012

I’ve been thinking back to by mother’s funeral on the occasional of the one-year anniversary, and particularly thinking about non-religious funerals. In fitting with my mother’s atheism (or “being a bloody heathen” as she put it), I of course organised an entirely non-religious funeral, which acted as a joyous celebration of her life and included lots of her favourite music and readings, as well as giving family and friends a chance to talk about her life.

I was talking to someone about religious funerals last week, and they were saying that at the last religious funeral they attended, the service consisted of one-and-a-half minutes of talk about the deceased, and 28-and-a-half minutes of talking about Jesus.

Occasionally, usually on the kind of “and finally…” type slot that Trevor McDonald used to do at the end of the news, we here about someone who had a themed funeral relating to an interest that they were passionate about&#8212Elvis, or windsurfing, or whatever. Lots of people find this kind of funeral rather undignified and naff.

Yet, when we have a religious funeral, even for someone for whom religion was only a small part of their life, the religious aspect dominates completely. Perhaps we should find this just as naff. Why do we allow this one aspect of a life to dominate so strongly at the celebration of a complex and rich life? By all means, have the religious-themed funeral, much as we allow the Elvis funeral, for the deeply committed. But for the average punter, who has a religion as just one part of a complex life, why not represent this by one small token in the ceremony, and celebrate the remaining aspects of a life well lived in the remainder?

Indian Club Swinging

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

When my dad was in the Boys Brigade back in the 1930s, he learned Indian Club Swinging, a style of exercise that has become popular again in recent years. I recently took some video of him demonstrating this; here it is:

Also, I’ve discovered that it isn’t very easy to Google “club swinging” without lots of ads for “swingers clubs” popping up—something very different indeed!

Mave Johnson, 1939-2011

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

Here is the talk that I gave at my mother’s funeral this week.

I am sure that you are all as shocked as I was by my mother’s death. It was only a few weeks ago that she was up and about, enjoying her life and going about her normal activities. Whilst she had been ill for a while, it was only in the last couple of months that this got in the way of her living a full life.

This life began when she was born at home in 1939, and the experience of living through the war and growing up in the post-war period shaped her life enormously. She was baptised at the local church – St. Paul’s, Daybrook – and went to the local schools – Burford, Seely and Haywood, as well as being active in the Sunday School at Arnold Road church. She had an active life as a young woman, being involved in ice skating, tennis and badminton, and enjoyed music, ranging from Dickie Valentine and Cliff Richard through to light classical music.

Her working life was mostly spent at Boots, where she started out working in the typing pool, and had an enjoyable working life, ending up working as a secretary to senior managers in the company. She made a number of friends at work who stayed with her throughout her life – whilst many of her close friends pre-deceased her, I am pleased to see that there are some here today. She had an equally rich family life, and will be much missed by me and by my father. For many years her own mother lived with her, and she was always very kind and considerate in looking after her.

She took early retirement in the early 1990s and was active in that retirement. She enjoyed her home life, and enjoyed keeping a comfortable house and the pleasures therein, in particular enjoying cooking and gardening, at which she was very green-fingered, being able to grow everything from little flowers to huge trees from a little seed or shoot, as well as making things for her house through her interests in sewing and knitting, She enjoyed the country life, and was very happy to move a few years before retirement to her house in Arnold, which she particularly liked because the local countryside was only a few minutes walk away. Throughout her life, and particularly in her retirement, she would often go for walks in the local area.

When I was sorting through her papers a few days ago I found a little note (she liked to write down little quotes that she had heard on the radio and television) saying “growing old is compulsory; growing up is optional”. I think that that is a positive note on which to end this tribute.