December 2005


shapeimage_1-10I was in Waitrose the other day – if the truth be told, I cannot recall which day and it doesn’t matter, but almost certainly to buy just a couple of items I had forgotten on the previous day’s shopping – and the total came to something like £3.06. I said to the cashier “Three and sixpence, then?” It took her a couple of seconds to translate, but she did and then she laughed and said “Those were the days!” We fell to chatting about how prices had changed and I astonished both of us by recalling that, in the mid 1950s while on leave from Nigeria, I had opened an account with the local grocers for food for my wife, baby and myself. My monthly bill came to something like £4 10s. for the lot. Right, I was passing rich on £ 1400 p.a. then, which wouldn’t get us far down the line these days, but it makes you think.

This subject was brought to mind by a news item this morning which said there is a movement to do away with the Ip and 2p coins, so the minimum change in prices would be 5p. Why not? Other European countries – I recall Finland as the exemplar given – who had never even issued the lc and 2c Euro coins a couple of years ago. Certainly, we would walk with less of a limp if the copper-coated steel coins (huh? try a magnet on them if you don’t believe me) were removed from our trouser pockets, but what would it do to the overall price of things?

Today, the need for a Ip coin is paramount. Everything seems to be priced at something like £n.99 in a vain attempt to show it costs a whole lot less than £n+ 1. Second-hand cars have shown the way, where only the really cynical trader prices one at £999, most preferring £995 (“Under a thousand, mate!”). Try giving him a cheque for £ 1 000 and asking for the change; then count your chances of acceptance.

What of the headline I’ve used above? Do you recall the 10/- note? Could anyone be expected to pay such a huge sum? Folding money, for heaven’s sakes! 9/11 these days means something else, especially to our American cousins, but there was even an extension to that comfy amount: 9/1] %, correct in modem currency to almost exactly 0.0 Ip. Finally, do you know who it was that demanded the ~-‘2p coin? Newspapers, that’s who, so they could raise their prices by that much.


shapeimage_2-9Brian Blakeney is going to be a hard act to follow as Speaker Secretary. He never ceases to amaze us with his ability to find folk with astonishing stories to tell. November’s speaker was no exception and we wondered where on earth lay our interest in miniature enamelled teapots. One glance at the display of delightful models set up by Lynn Box had us not concentrating on the splendid food, but waiting for enlightenment on an esoteric subject. We were not disappointed.

It all started in Northern Ghana in the early nineties, when Charlotte di Vita saw at first hand famine amongst the Bawku farmers. Some 6000 families were starving and she determined to help by donating her £800 savings for them to buy seed for the coming season. In return they gave her wooden Ashanti statuettes which she sold in the UK to raise more money for them.

The Bawku tribe had another ability: metalwork Charlotte added to this by teaching them enamelling in the 18th century English way, who had learned it from the French who in turn learned it from an ancient Chinese traditional art.

Ghanaian art has its beauty, but if the teapots – each with nineteen individually cut pieces of copper soldered together – were to sell in the West, the Bawku had to learn our desires, so Charlotte introduced them to the world of Beatrix Potter and now you can buy Peter Rabbit teapots at one end of the scale and Old Master paintings at the other end. Scottish scenes on some, Alpine scenes on others.

Each teapot needs 129 different operations to complete, employing up to 350 operatives, so they are not cheap to buy. Despite this they have become a fashionable item in the UK, Europe and the USA. Many thousands have been made and over a million pounds raised for her Trade Plus Aid charity as well as money granted to other start-up charities. Charlotte’s work in this field resulted in her being made a MBE in 1998, a well-earned recognition of her splendid work.

Lyrm started by saying it was her very first talk to a group our size and she was nervous. No need, I told her afterwards, even I heard her clearly and she gave an excellent talk on a fascinating subject. Ha-ha! Ha-ppy Christmas spending to you all.


A Christmas Special. Jonathan Fryer, an actor with many funny tales to tell, comes highly recommended by all.

Good Yuletide cheer for a merry festival.

January 6th:

Liz Copeland talks of Mistletoe Magic, covering this and other yuletide plants and how to use them for our seasonal illnesses.

February 3rd:

Arundel to Amberley – an illustrated riverside walk by Peter Fernee of the Surrey Wildlife Trust.

March 3rd:

Annual General Meeting. Brian is threatening to quit as Speaker Secretary. We must resolve to stop such nonsense talk.

Club News

That’s better: We had three visitors at our November meeting, all of whom enjoyed lunch and the speaker afterwards, both well up to our usual standards, so let us hope they all follow through with membership and become more good Fellows. Don’t relax, though, we can do with more, so encourage your retired neighbours to join and in a few months we shall be up to our desired numbers again.

Brian Blakeney says he wants to stop being our Speakers’ Secretary after more than four years doing that onerous job. Brian, I hope you are not determined to stop doing what you have done with such elan; it is obviously what you were intended for in this life, so why spoil it? Of course, we won’t let you go unless you have found a suitable successor. So there.

Leo Hermes has been promoted to Matron, he tells me, organising the nurses and other paramedics who attend his wife Barbara. She is at home under the care of Leo and the NHS, as well as frequent visits from their numerous family.

Bryan Chilton is still stuck inside his house under medical orders, with the prospect of another month or two of avoiding the worst of the winter weather. He loves a chat on the telephone, so do give him a bell on 020 8660 0865.

Harry Witham had a medical MoT last month and they could find precious little to report. Indeed, he should be reading this with the rest of us, despite a skin complaint that is annoying rather than life-threatening. Welcome back, Harry.

Another who should be with us today is Tony Marks, who is managing to keep out and about ­mostly – despite the care and attentions of the Royal Marsden. He was out (and about, presumably) when i called him, anyway.

Tom Chapple tells me he is slightly improved, but for the best reasons will not be able to join us today, it being his birthday and his daughter having arranged a family luncheon to mark the occasion. Many happy returns, Tom.

Harry Stockbridge celebrated his 98th birthday a couple of weeks ago, surrounded by family down from Nottingham and more locally. His show of birthday cards must have done a lot for the trade, as well as the Post Office. He’s well enough in himself, but fmds too many people at one time a bit too much to handle. He sends his best regards to you all.

We hope Ken Carter is present today, when he intends to update us with his running battle with holiday insurance. Ken has a rotten cold but should be safe to greet with a handshake; I have always been told that a cold can be caught only when it is in its first – almost unnoticeable – stage.

Have you given Jim Mulvey your most beautiful, or lucky, photograph yet? I must admit that I keep intending to but never remember; maybe this paragraph will remind me to lay aside my paintbrush and look amongst the thousands I have taken over the years. I am trying to right several years of neglect to the interior of my house, which is taking ages, with the result that this edition of the Newsletter will probably still feel wet, it having been delayed almost past publication date.

Essaying to be an an Assayer
By Roger Brunton

It was the early eighties and for those of us in manufacturing industry the threat of redundancy loomed large. In my case it became a reality just before my forty-ninth birthday and the scramble to find a job, any job, to feed us, pay off the mortgage, maintain my younger daughter at university, etc., began. My first thought was that, having spent more than twenty-five years working in the chemical industry, I ought to try for something with at least a modicum of scientific content. So it was that I put in an application for the post of Assay Master of the Birmingham.

All I knew at this stage was that there was a legal requirement for articles made of precious metals to be assayed and hallmarked before they could be sold and a tour of the laboratories confirmed my suspicion that this was a fairly routine and not very exciting operation. The big surprise came when I ushered into a meeting room where there were fourteen people sitting round a long table, leaving space for me at the bottom; I had previously met with interview panels of three, but this seemed a trifle excessive!

It was explained to me that, when the Office was set up in the 1770s, largely at the instigation of Matthew Boulton, owner of the famous Soho works and soon to be partner of J ames Watt, it had been given a governing body of no less than thirty five Guardians of Wrought Plate, but perhaps fortunately not all the Guardians had been able to attend for the interview. Most of those present had nothing to ask me and the questions that were posed were not too taxing, but it was still an intimidating experience. Somewhat to my surprise, two weeks later I received a letter telling me I was on a short list of three.

The second interview – if such it could be called – was even stranger than the first. The three of us were first taken to the Assay Office’s private museum, a truly magnificent collection of Birmingham silver mainly dating from the nineteenth century . We were then led into a buffet lunch with the Guardians. I can only assume this was to allow us to demonstrate our social skills, since one of the main roles of the Assay Master was to persuade local manufacturers to send their wares to Birmingham for analysis and on no account to the rival office in London. Unfortunately my opportunities to display my manners were limited, since for much of the time I was pinned in a comer by a Life Peeress who wanted to expound her views on every major topic of the day. I did, however, manage to get through lunch without spilling anything on either myself or others.

When lunch ended, I think all three candidates expected that the real business of the day would start and that interviews would now take place. However, one of our number was whisked away and within a couple of minutes it was announced that he had got the job. Perhaps it was for the best; I never did fancy living in Birmingham.

Produced and edited monthly by Ian Scales (01737 553704)
for The Coulsdon Probus Club.
Edition No 96.

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