All posts by Graham Snowdon

Newspapers, social media & politics in Divisive Times — Nancy Fielder — Mon 9th Dec 2019

These are troubled times for prin­ted news­pa­pers, all of whom are haem­or­rhaging cir­cu­la­tion in the face of com­pet­i­tion from the inter­net, and social media in par­tic­u­lar. Many are in their death throes.

For some­body who spent his entire work­ing life in journ­al­ism, the fig­ures make depress­ing read­ing. When I star­ted work on the Yorkshire Evening News in 1961 it was (unbe­liev­ably by today’s stand­ards) selling 119,000 copies a day across its Leeds and Doncaster edi­tions, and yet by the end of 1963 it had gone to the wall, regarded as uneco­nomic and absorbed by the rival Evening Post.

Today, regional even­ing news­pa­per edit­ors can only dream of a cir­cu­la­tion any­where near that figure. In Sheffield, The Star, des­pite having the field to itself as far as South Yorkshire is con­cerned, is strug­gling along on a print cir­cu­la­tion of less than 12,000 copies a day.

Nancy Fielder. © Prolific North Ltd.

Nancy Fielder is editor of JPI Media’s stable of daily and weekly news­pa­pers based in Sheffield, includ­ing The Star and weekly Sheffield Telegraph, and she had already filled us in on the state of play in the news­pa­per industry gen­er­ally when she last vis­ited Stumperlowe Probus Club in July 2018. Since then, things have only got worse.

Nancy’s latest present­a­tion, timed to per­fec­tion just three days before a General Election, was more about the part played by news­pa­pers and the inter­net, includ­ing their own online offer­ings and social media plat­forms such as Facebook and Twitter, in influ­en­cing public opin­ion.

The Star website’s selec­tion of news stor­ies.

Johnston Press plc, the country’s biggest regional news­pa­per pub­lisher and the Sheffield titles’ pre­vi­ous owner with a market cap­it­al­isa­tion of just £3 mil­lion, placed itself in admin­is­tra­tion in November 2018 when it was unable to find a suit­able buyer of the busi­ness to refin­ance its £220 mil­lion of debt. Its assets were brought under the con­trol of JPI Media Ltd, a com­pany formed by a con­sor­tium of Johnston Press’s main cred­it­ors who reduced its debts to £85 mil­lion and injec­ted £35 mil­lion of invest­ment.

The real­ity is that fewer people are buying the print product, and that is where most of the money comes from, but more people are access­ing our web­site,” explained Nancy, fresh from her appear­ance dis­cuss­ing the week­end papers on BBC Breakfast.

Generating enough money from the web­site to make up the loss of income from the prin­ted paper is easier said than done. Advertising rev­enue goes some way towards this, but the busi­ness model is com­plic­ated and the long-term viab­il­ity of the web­site is far from cer­tain des­pite, or per­haps because of, the ease with which people can click on www.thestar.co.uk by fol­low­ing a link from, say, Facebook.

More than half of all the ‘hits’ we get online come via Facebook,” Nancy told us. So that must mean that Facebook is doing The Star a big favour by driv­ing traffic to their web­site. Well, yes and no. Obviously, the more people who visit the web­site the more The Star can charge advert­isers for the priv­ilege, but only to a cer­tain point. Because who are The Star com­pet­ing with for advert­ising rev­enue? You’ve guessed it – Facebook.

Companies such as Google and Facebook can under­cut us for advert­ising because they are so big but, although we are having to com­pete with them [for income from advert­ising] it is our news that people are click­ing on. And we have a shrink­ing number of report­ers with an ever bigger job to do.”

So, while there is no doubt that news­pa­per web­sites such as The Star’s are attract­ing a healthy amount of traffic, just how sus­tain­able they will be in the long term from a com­mer­cial point of view is still largely an unknown.

In September, in the face of squeezed advert­ising rev­en­ues, The Star took a sig­ni­fic­ant step in secur­ing the viab­il­ity of its web­site by intro­du­cing a so-called pay­wall. This allows read­ers to view five free art­icles a week, after which they will have to register and choose from a range of sub­scrip­tion plans such as £1 per month for three months and £2 per week there­after, or £52 for the first full year and £78 per year there­after.

One inter­est­ing dif­fer­ence between prin­ted news­pa­pers and a web­site is that con­tent can be better tailored to meet read­ers’ tastes.

As Nancy explained: “With the front page [of the news­pa­per] it was always a bit of a gut reac­tion, what we thought people would like, but now we can actu­ally see what people are look­ing at.

But it is doubt­ful that the elec­tion will be the most read item.”

To illus­trate her point, Nancy brought along a screen shot of the elec­tronic ‘score­board’ which is per­man­ently on dis­play in The Star’s news­room and shows, in real time and updated almost by the second, what vis­it­ors to the web­site are look­ing at.

On the morn­ing of her visit, the most read item up to eight o’clock had been Sheffield United’s comeback against Norwich City. The first polit­ical story on the list, about LibDem leader Jo Swinson’s visit to Sheffield, ranked only sixth.

If they are not look­ing at polit­ics today, when will they be?” she asked. “We know what interests the people out there. If they are not click­ing on polit­ics, why should we write about polit­ics?

It is a very wor­ry­ing trend, and a depress­ing pic­ture that they [the fig­ures] paint.

How our local news used to look. A front page of The Star from 80 years ago. © British Newspaper Archive.

On a recent day, in the middle of the General Election cam­paign, the most viewed stor­ies were about a Sheffield cus­tomer who was turned away from a pub for wear­ing a flat cap, which attrac­ted 51,000 hits, and an item about a Sheffield mother who com­plained that her son’s day — “if not his life” — had been ruined by a Cadbury’s advent cal­en­dar which was miss­ing its chocol­ates, and which attrac­ted 47,000 views.

You get more money, the greater number of people look­ing at your web­site, so you have to give them what they want to read,” Nancy added.

It’s quite a ser­i­ous debate, how to get people to engage with polit­ics. We’ve had stor­ies about national politi­cians coming to the city, which we have put on the front page of the prin­ted paper, but vir­tu­ally nobody was look­ing at them on the web­site.”

Nancy Fielder is not alone in her cam­paign against polit­ical parties imit­at­ing local news­pa­pers. © www.pressgazette.co.uk.

Nancy also believes that local demo­cracy is at risk because papers such as The Star, which will only pub­lish unbiased stor­ies, are often com­pet­ing with polit­ical leaf­lets which are made to look like local news­pa­pers. “Political parties put a tre­mend­ous amount of effort and money into pro­du­cing mater­ial which just isn’t true,” she claimed.

The Star was first pub­lished in 1887. Let’s hope it’s got a few more years’ life left in it.

 

Amazon Fulfilment Centre visit — Wed 30th Oct 2019

In the days when Doncaster Rovers’ home ground was Belle Vue, the town was proud of the fact that it had the largest play­ing area of any club in the Football League, at 110 yards long by 72 yards wide.

But, in a town where size obvi­ously mat­ters, the old Rovers’ pitch would be dwarfed by the nearby Amazon Fulfilment Centre — a ware­house or dis­tri­bu­tion centre to you and me – which covers an area equi­val­ent to no fewer than 14 Premier League foot­ball pitches on the iPort Commercial Park just off the M18.

In round fig­ures that comes out at one mil­lion square feet, and no one among our party of 27 Stumperlowe Probus Club mem­bers who vis­ited the Amazon Fulfilment Centre today would deny that the first thing that hits you as you drive into the vis­it­ors’ car park, and even more so as you enter on foot through the main doors of the build­ing, is the sheer size of the place.

In Amazon par­lance, the iPort ware­house is LBA2. All Amazon ful­fil­ment centres are code named after their nearest inter­na­tional air­port, and when LBA1 was opened in 2010, closer to Doncaster and on the oppos­ite side of the M18, Doncaster Sheffield Airport was hand­ling only a frac­tion of the freight it does today. So Leeds Bradford it was.

Amazon began life only 25 years ago as an online seller of books but has grown to become the largest inter­net com­pany by rev­enue in the world. As of 2018 it employed almost 650,000 people world­wide, of whom more than 250,000 work full-time in their so-called ful­fil­ment net­work.

In the early Amazon days, the ware­house and its office in Seattle were one and the same. A hand­ful of employ­ees shared the work­space along with shelves and shelves of books. Over time, one ware­house became sev­eral hun­dred and the goods passing through came to include elec­tron­ics, soft­ware, video games, cloth­ing, fur­niture, food, toys and jew­ellery. By 2015, Amazon had sur­passed Walmart as the most valu­able retailer in the United States by market cap­it­al­isa­tion.

During our two-hour visit, there were 170 employ­ees – or ‘asso­ci­ates’ as they are known – on duty within the Doncaster build­ing, and every one of them, if not driv­ing some kind of high-reach fork­lift or other vehicle, was busy pick­ing, pack­ing, wrap­ping and send­ing on their way the hun­dreds of thou­sands of par­cels which make their way through the centre every day.

For although every move is heav­ily reli­ant on com­puters and bar­codes to main­tain some semb­lance of order, making sure that the right pack­age is on the right con­veyor belt at the right time, the human ele­ment was also very much in evid­ence. People who had come expect­ing to see banks of robots being con­trolled by per­haps one or two oper­at­ives in a con­trol centre might have been sur­prised.

They’re keen on acronyms at Amazon. My favour­ite in the whole pro­cess was SLAM, which stands for scan/label/apply mani­fest and is a stretch of con­veyor belt, or rather rollers of the type you see in air­port secur­ity, where the bar­coded pack­ages pass through a series of scan­ners. They then have self-adhesive name and address labels lit­er­ally blown on to the sur­face of the card­board by air pres­sure, rather than phys­ic­ally being stamped on, which could damage the con­tents, as the pack­age is routed to the cor­rect out­bound truck. From there it is trans­por­ted to a ‘sort­a­tion’ centre (another Americanism, but at least they spelt ‘centre’ cor­rectly) from where it would wing its way to a cus­tomer.

Our tour slot was too early to have lunch before­hand and too late to have lunch after­wards. So for 21 of our mem­bers the day star­ted with a late full English break­fast and mugs of tea or coffee at The Stockyard truck stop on the Hellaby Industrial Estate, just off Junction 1 of the M18. This was greatly enjoyed, but a sug­ges­tion that The Stockyard could be a pos­sible venue for our annual lunch­eon might be voted down by our wives.

Thomas Chippendale marquetry — Jack Metcalfe – 30th Sept 2019

I wasn’t cut out to be a mar­queteur. I even failed my GCE ‘O’ level in wood­work. So I could only marvel at the intric­ate skill with wood ven­eers, knives, scalpels and fret­saws dis­played not only by master fur­niture maker Thomas Chippendale but also by our speaker Jack Metcalfe.

Jack Metcalfe in his work­shop. Picture copy­right Yorkshire Post Newspapers, and used by per­mis­sion of the pho­to­grapher, Simon Hulme.

It was not until the last decade of his work­ing life that Chippendale, the great cab­inet maker, turned to pro­du­cing mar­quetry dec­or­ated fur­niture, but his cre­ations set him apart from his rivals and he pro­duced a group of com­mis­sions that stand out as world­wide mas­ter­pieces of their time.

And Jack Metcalfe has devoted the last 25 years to uncov­er­ing and mas­ter­ing the tech­niques of mar­quetry as prac­tised by Chippendale and his skilled artis­ans — he had a labour force of around 50 people — in the 18th cen­tury. Using equip­ment, mater­i­als, dyes and tech­niques as close to the ori­ginal as pos­sible, Jack has built rep­licas of sev­eral of Chippendale’s most strik­ing pieces of fur­niture.

He has researched, taught, lec­tured and writ­ten about marquetry-decorated fur­niture. He wrote his first book in 2003, and The Marquetry Course became an inter­na­tional suc­cess, top­ping the best sellers list in mar­quetry books. It has been trans­lated into Dutch, German and Hungarian.

Jack at work with an inlay knife.

Spurred on with this response,” he explained. “I star­ted research­ing Thomas Chippendale’s mar­quetry fur­niture and closely examin­ing the tech­niques used by the mar­queteurs of the day.”

Jack, who lives in North Leeds and recently cel­eb­rated his 80th birth­day, took up mar­quetry as a retire­ment pro­ject after taking a golden hand­shake at the age of 50 fol­low­ing a career with BT which cul­min­ated in London.

I worked all over the place,” Jack remem­bers. “My dear wife ran the home and family. I would leave on a Monday morn­ing and not be back until Friday.” And, post-retirement, it was his wife’s uncle who sug­ges­ted that Jack now needed a hobby to fill his time.

Uncle Tommy took me under his wing and gave me the greatest lesson of my life,” explains Jack. “The ‘lesson’ lasted eight years! During that time, he passed on a lifetime’s skill and even more per­sonal wisdom.”

Jack went on to teach mar­quetry at Leeds College of Art and Design, for three years, and then at York College for a fur­ther five years.

Jack’s treadle fret saw.

Thomas Chippendale, the only son of a car­penter, was bap­tised in 1718 in the market town of Otley, five miles away from Jack’s own home. He was appren­ticed to Richard Wood, a cab­inet maker and wood carver based in York, and in 1748 he mar­ried Catherine Redshaw in fash­ion­able Mayfair, London.

In 1754, two events were to change Chippendale’s life forever. He moved into premises in St Martin’s Lane, London, where the dwell­ing offered enough space for the many work­shops he would need to run his busi­ness, as well as accom­mod­a­tion for both him­self and his family. He also pro­duced a port­fo­lio of all his fur­niture designs, a manu­script he called The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director. It was an instant suc­cess, since all his com­mis­sions eman­ated from that pub­lic­a­tion and took him into the world of the aris­to­cracy and wealth. It trans­formed his repu­ta­tion overnight.

Most of his com­mis­sions are held in Yorkshire houses, show­ing how loyal he was to his home county. Harewood House, where the great master col­lab­or­ated with renowned archi­tect Robert Adam, has the most prom­in­ent col­lec­tion. In addi­tion Nostell Priory, Newby Hall and Temple Newsam House hold valu­able items of Chippendale fur­niture.

A statue of Thomas Chippendale in his home town of Otley. From Jack’s own web­site, https://marquetrymatters.com.

Jack Metcalfe is in the pro­cess of moving home, for­sak­ing the impress­ive work­shop at the back of his present house and hanging up his col­lec­tion of tools for the last time. “With my books I think I’ve done as much as I can to record Chippendale’s work, and I had eight years teach­ing Chippendale’s mar­quetry, so I’ve been able to pass some­thing on to the next gen­er­a­tion,” he told us.

Sadly, Jack’s beloved wife Gloria died of motor neur­one dis­ease in 2012, and he asked for his speaker’s fee from Stumperlowe Probus Club to be donated instead to the Motor Neurone Disease Association: https://www.mndassociation.org/

When Britain (Sheffield) Ruled the Waves (or at least Afternoon Tea) — Nick Duggan — 1st July 2019

When is cut­lery not cut­lery? When it’s a fork or a spoon. Nick Duggan was impressed that the major­ity of his audi­ence knew that only some­thing that cuts can be defined as cut­lery. But then we are a Sheffield-based club, after all, and our mem­ber­ship includes three former Masters Cutler.

Even my Oxford English Reference Dictionary gets it wrong: “Cutlery / kɅtlərI / n. knives, forks and spoons for use at table,” they say.

Nick is an expert on all things made in Sheffield, and two days later would be lead­ing us on a tour of the Hawley Tool Collection, of which he is cur­ator (see Visits). But for this talk he was con­cen­trat­ing on his own col­lec­tion of Sheffield-made cut­lery, flat­ware and hol­lowware.

Out to impress the neigh­bours!

Nick’s quest for the best examples moved up a notch when he retired and had a busi­ness idea of put­ting Sheffield cut­lery into frames, with a his­tory of the maker. “This proved quite pop­u­lar, and I star­ted to search for cut­lery in antique mar­kets and on eBay,” he explained.

The latter is pretty stag­ger­ing — search ‘Sheffield cut­lery’ and you get over 1,000 items at any time, search ‘vin­tage cut­lery’ and it’s over 3,000.

I star­ted to real­ise the vast range of items made by a huge number of Sheffield cut­lers. Over 1,000 com­pan­ies are doc­u­mented in Geoffrey Tweedale’s dir­ect­ory [Sheffield Tool Manufacturers 1740–2018] and some indi­vidual man­u­fac­tur­ers had product ranges of over 5,000 items. The Walker & Hall trade cata­logue alone has over 300 dif­fer­ent cruet sets.”

Sardine tongs, Henry Wilkinson.

So, no short­age of objects to look out for. Nick’s per­sonal favour­ite item was the sardine tongs made by Henry Wilkinson, like sugar tongs but with ‘blades’ in the shape of the fish. Nick showed us lots of other items for eating fish — he wondered how they kept it fresh in the days before fridges — such as large serv­ers for whole trout or salmon, and highly dec­or­ated fish knives and forks per­haps used only on Friday.

A lot of these pieces would have been for the higher end of the market. “It’s amaz­ing that some of the spe­cial­ist items were only used when the fruit or veget­able was in season, such as asparagus tongs or straw­berry forks.”

Serving up.

Nick showed us three-pronged forks to serve bread and five-pronged forks for fish and sardines. Oyster forks, with the maker’s mark Allen & Darwin, would have been used in a well-to-do house­hold, as would the cham­pagne syphon and a gigot for hold­ing a leg of lamb.

Buttering up!

Among the more unusual items was a knife that was over 300 years old.

The Victorians loved sugar, and sugar sifters, and we saw a sugar scuttle that would have had a prom­in­ent place on the table.

The mys­tery object. Nobody guessed it was a spoon warmer.

But nobody guessed Nick’s last mys­tery object, which was a shell shaped spoon warmer.

 

 

 

 

The earli­est men­tion of cut­lery man­u­fac­ture in Sheffield was 1297, and in its heyday there were more than 1,650 firms. Silver plate (EPNS) was inven­ted in 1841 and the scale of the industry was such that by 1851 there were 12,000 people employed, making it the largest group of cut­lers in the world. Peak pro­duc­tion and export was reached between 1890 and 1914.

 

The Hawley Tool Collection — Wed 3rd July 2019

After Nick Duggan’s talk on his own cut­lery col­lec­tion two days earlier, the ‘made in Sheffield’ theme con­tin­ued when 22 Stumperlowe Probus Club mem­bers gathered as arranged at the iconic Bessemer Converter out­side Kelham Island Museum ready to start our guided tour of the Hawley Tool Collection.

The man who star­ted it all, the late Ken Hawley MBE (1927–2014).

As Nick, the cur­ator, poin­ted out, the Hawley Collection might be one of Sheffield’s best kept secrets but it is an inter­na­tion­ally import­ant record of tool making, cut­lery man­u­fac­ture and sil­ver­smith­ing during the city’s indus­trial heyday, com­ple­men­ted by mater­ial from other parts of Britain and the world.

Keith Crawshaw, chair­man of the trust­ees, brings us up to speed on the work of the char­ity.

The col­lec­tion houses a stag­ger­ing 100,000 items, of which 40,000 are on dis­play at any one time. The col­lec­tion is housed in what was ori­gin­ally the Wheatman and Smith saw works, so it is appro­pri­ate that the Saw Shop, situ­ated slightly away from the main tool col­lec­tion, con­tains no fewer than 2,000 examples of what, 250 years ago, was lit­er­ally cut­ting edge tech­no­logy.

We learnt the origin of the words top dog and under­dog. When planks were sawn by hand, with two men using a two-handed saw, the senior man took the top handle while the junior was con­signed to the sawdust-strewn pit below. The irons that were used to hold the wood securely were called dogs.

At one time there were 200 firms in Sheffield man­u­fac­tur­ing saws. The city’s cut­lery her­it­age is rep­res­en­ted just as impress­ively by a col­lec­tion which con­tains 800 dif­fer­ent man­u­fac­tur­ers’ stamps on knife blades, from table­ware to pen­knives.

Tim Marsh admires a fine dis­play of Footprint tools, a Sheffield brand known around the world.

The col­lec­tion does not just con­tain tools, it con­tains the tools which were used to make the tools; it is unique in com­bin­ing fin­ished arte­facts and ‘work in pro­gress’ to illus­trate how things were made, as well as pub­lished cata­logues, archive mater­ial, pic­tures, pho­to­graphs, tapes and films.

For over 50 years the late Ken Hawley – he died in 2014 at the age of 87 – had col­lec­ted what became the basis of the col­lec­tion, and during his work­ing life, which included 30 years selling tools in his own shop, he acquired an unri­valled know­ledge of Sheffield’s indus­trial her­it­age.

John Hopkins and Richard Walker get the low­down on the massive saw col­lec­tion from volun­teer guide Paul Kipling.

The build­ing at Kelham Island hous­ing the Hawley Gallery and stor­age areas was cre­ated in the last unused build­ing on the Kelham Island Museum site fol­low­ing a suc­cess­ful bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund. The £595,000 HLF grant, awar­ded in 2008, was used to refur­bish the build­ing to create dis­plays, stor­age and research facil­it­ies, and the Gallery opened its doors two years later.

Dave Powlson, Barrie O’Brien and Ian Darley admire the Sheffield Year Knife, made in 1822 from 1,822 blades by Sheffield cut­lers Joseph Rodgers & Sons Ltd. As well as knife blades, it ncludes scis­sors, cork­screws, nail files, hack­saw blades and button hooks. Further blades were added to bring the number up to 2,000 by the time of the Millennium, and some of the more recent blades were engraved to mark spe­cial events such as the 1966 World Cup and the Queen’s Silber Jubilee in 1977.

Ken saw the col­lec­tion as a trib­ute to the crafts­man­ship, skills and excel­lence dis­played over the cen­tur­ies by Sheffield firms and work­people, and it was his wish that the col­lec­tion should stay in the city to provide the people of Sheffield as well as vis­it­ors with a per­man­ent, last­ing record.

After being wel­comed by Nick Duggan, we were given an over­view of the Kelham Island site by volun­teer guide Paul Kipling before being taken into the research area where Keith Crawshaw, chair­man of the trust­ees, spoke to us about Ken Hawley the man, and his vision which led to the cre­ation of the museum.

This back saw, made by Thomas Harrison of Sheffield in 1760, is the oldest in the col­lec­tion.
Saws of every shape and type were on dis­play.
Most of our mem­bers had already seen this mag­ni­fi­cent saw, which fea­tured in Simon Barley’s talk to us entitled “The Princess and the Saw” in March 2019.
If you’re squeam­ish, look away now.
If it was made in Sheffield, it’ll be in here some­where.
A fine dis­play of Marples tools for the 1949 British Industries Fair.
Not everything can be on dis­play at the same time, and the stor­e­rooms behind the scenes are an Aladdin’s cave.

 

Living in Space — Dennis Ashton — 20th May 2019

When Dennis Ashton last came to speak to us, just over five years ago, his sub­ject was dog sled racing in Alaska, where he also wit­nessed a superb auroral dis­play which prob­ably gave him the inspir­a­tion for his latest talk.

Dennis, a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, kept us enthralled for an hour with his slideshow present­a­tion on the story of the space race so far, the day-to-day prob­lems facing the 236 astro­nauts who have spent time on the International Space Station, and what the future holds in terms of space travel.

The first moon land­ing on 21st July 1969.

Dennis pre­dicts that China will be the next nation to reach the moon, and that in 200 years’ time there could be a city on Mars. Before then, an inter­na­tional mis­sion to land humans on Mars is sched­uled for 2040.

And when, in 200 years from now, people look back on key moments in the space race, he believes the two great iconic images will be the Apollo moon land­ing and the devel­op­ment and con­struc­tion of the International Space Station, where man learnt to live in space.

The International Space Station is the size of a foot­ball pitch.

Man first stepped foot on the moon on 21st July 1969, and vari­ous events are planned to com­mem­or­ate the 50th anniversary in two months’ time. A new block­buster doc­u­ment­ary film, entitled Apollo 11, is due to be screened at Sheffield’s Showroom Cinema on 7th June.

Dennis’s talk was chiefly about the International Space Station, a mul­tina­tional con­struc­tion pro­ject that is the largest single struc­ture humans have ever put into space. It is roughly the size of a foot­ball pitch. Its main con­struc­tion was com­pleted between 1998 and 2011, although the sta­tion con­tinu­ally evolves to include new mis­sions and exper­i­ments. It has been con­tinu­ously occu­pied since November 2000.

Construction work being car­ried out on the ISS in 2008.

The ISS travels at a speed of almost five miles per second, or 17,500 miles per hour, orbit­ing the earth every 92 minutes while the six astro­nauts on board either carry out sci­entific exper­i­ments, under­take main­ten­ance work on the giant struc­ture, eat, exer­cise, relax or sleep, depend­ing on the time of day (which, as a matter of interest, is aligned to Greenwich Mean Time). The con­struc­tion of the ISS involved no fewer than 40 space shuttle flights between 1998 and 2010.

Whether you are a would-be space trav­el­ler or an account­ant, the stat­ist­ics are equally stag­ger­ing. Between 1985 and 2015, the bill for devel­op­ing the ISS amoun­ted to $150 bil­lion, and the annual run­ning costs come to $5 bil­lion. The United States have paid by far the largest amount, around $126 bil­lion, with Russia adding $12 bil­lion, Europe and Japan each chip­ping in $5 bil­lion and Canada $2 bil­lion.

The crew on the ISS work a 15-hour day, from 6am to 9pm, but that includes three meal breaks and two and a half hours’ exer­cise, which is essen­tial if muscles and bones are not to waste away. There is an hour’s relax­a­tion before the astro­nauts get eight hours sleep. They do not go to bed as such; in the weight­less con­di­tions of the space sta­tion, each astro­naut has a per­sonal space where their sleep­ing bag is sus­pen­ded on a wall, and they simply zip them­selves into it.

Major Tim Peake demon­strates the suc­tion oper­ated urinal.

We saw Britain’s own Major Tim Peake, who spent 185 days in orbit, doing everything from car­ry­ing out highly skilled sci­entific exper­i­ments to doing his ablu­tions, the latter also need­ing a fair amount of skill. Washing is more like a quick rub down with an oily rag as there is no run­ning water, no shower and no bath. Clothes are worn for a set number of days and then dis­carded, fin­ish­ing up in a sealed con­tainer along with human waste and then jet­tisoned in a supply vessel which burns up on re-entry to the earth’s atmo­sphere. However, 90 per cent of water used, includ­ing that which has passed through the six astro­nauts the pre­vi­ous day, is recycled and re-used, to the tune of around 6,000 litres a year, although there is also a back-up supply of 2,000 litres on board.

All meals are dehyd­rated and water pumped into the con­tainer of dried food as and when needed. Drinks are vacuum packed and sucked through a plastic straw. The only fresh food such as fruit come on board when a shuttle arrives with new crew mem­bers. Bread is not allowed because of the danger of crumbs find­ing their way into del­ic­ate equip­ment, so wraps are the favoured option.

The view from space. A NASA image of the south­ern half of Britain. The red dot is Bognor Regis.

It all seems a pretty miser­able exist­ence to me, and prob­ably to any­body else who likes their creature com­forts, and yet wealthy indi­vidu­als are reportedly pre­pared to pay $20 mil­lion each for the priv­ilege of a 10-day hol­i­day on board the space sta­tion.  Give me Bognor Regis any day.