Sunday 25 May 2008

On Being Sixty

1948 and a world not without problems. The State of Israel was proclaimed and British troops withdrew. The Soviets blockaded Berlin, air lifts saved the population from starving. British troops left India and Mohatmas Gandhi was assassinated. Malaya experienced emergencies and Britain dock strikes.
Also at home the National Health Service arrived, free health care 'from cradle to grave'. British Railways and the Gas Board were nationalised and the GCE replaced the School Certificate. Other new arrivals included the transistor, self service stores, Alcoholics Anonymous and Oxfam shops. Plus Mrs Dales Diary, very British and 45rpm records, very modern.
The radio, or wireless as it was more likely to be referred to regaled us with A Slow Boat to China and Buttons and Bows. Picturegoers were offered Scott of The Antarctic and Oliver Twist. Norman Wisdom amused at the London Casino and Laurence Olivier starred as Hamlet on the London stage.
The London Olympics was the biggest occasion of the year, minus German or Japanese contestants. The USA dominated, the suspicion was they were steak fed whilst Movitone News reported that over two million people in Britain were eating horse meat purporting to be steak.
Hard times still prevailed and the Black Market thrived, eggs one shilling each, milk one shilling a pint; even nylons available at a price. The word spiv was still prevalant though the first rationing restriction, that of flour was lifted. But coupons were still the order of the day, even for shoes and clothes.
Sport lifted the spirits. Twelve year old LesterPiggott won his first race, at Haydock Park on 'The Chase' and Don Bradman beat England seemingly on his own. At least he didn't advertise Brylcreem like his English adversary, Dennis Compton. Plus Wilf Mannion of Middlesborough Football club refusing to play for the maximum players wage of £12 weekly.
Hard times in the main but life went on. And in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, Mr Peter Sherwood and his wife Francoise celebrated the birth of their second child on the 24th May, calling her Paulette Dorothy.
Fast forward sixty years. A family celebration was called for. On a cold, windy night, the 24th of May, 2008 just over thirty people, friends and family including four children celebrated the birthday of Paulette Dorothy Stevens, nee Sherwood at a low key, laid back barbecue in a daughters garden. The children bouncy castled and karaoked, the adults chatted, ate and drank, all ad infinitum. The mix of people, family style, 2008 was interesting if of no scientific value whatsoever.
Two were Maltese, one Latvian, one French, one Irish and last but not least one Welsh born, the rest boringly English. Inevitably at such an occasion few are now in full time employment. Of the eleven still so engaged and paying taxes so that the rest of us can live comfortably (joke) no fewer than seven are self employed. Including those retired the following occupations were represented. Seven had been schoolteachers, not one still working full time. Managers, civil servants, postman, chemist, photography, publican, all were represented. Some roles exciting, some less so. And in their spare time individuals who excel in pastimes unconnected to their employment; two excellent musicians, a 'twitcher' of national renown, even a self taught tree surgeon, talent is often there if we care to enquire.
Thirty plus individuals, the children with years in front of them and some of us with the problems that come with age. Two present are over eighty years of age. Six are diabetic and at least five have had surgery for cancer. Arthritis affects at least six of us and the number taking regular medication for one ailment or another is into double figures.
The common denominator, Paulette and an appreciation well deserved. And a good time was had by all.

Thursday 22 May 2008

The Joys of Motoring

The fridge has packed up in the motorhome. Not very exciting and certainly nothing new. We've had it quite a few weeks, from new for goodness sake and it only cost just over thirty thousand pounds. What do you expect, a lifetime of trouble free motorhoming. Plus the blind on the roof has fallen to bits and we've replaced the seating cum beds with miracle foam as the originals are pathetic in the extreme. The water leak behind the bench seat has been fixed but now the internet motorhome chat rooms are full of ominous mutterings concerning the new Fiat motorhomes inability to reverse without an almighty juddering. Fiat, Fix It Again Tomorrow.
All this after an eight month battle to get the last one replaced due to a catalogue of problems. Leaking roof from day one (hooray for a wet summer) faulty door seals, water persistently under the bonnet, blown fuses, toilet leaks, four or five recalls, engine management failure, fridge replaced, you name it, we had it. Three or was it four visits to the dealers at Weston Super Mare, though in fairness they tried hard to sort us out. Visits to importers at Grimsby and heating specialists at Mansfield. At least it was an educational year. Why else would one normally go to Mansfield or Grimsby, or to Weston come to think of it three times at least in one year.
All this puts me in mind of motoring years ago; trouble free times, reliable vehicles, exciting trips out. Who's kidding whom! Though the exciting bit stands, every trip was an adventure in that you never knew for certain if you would arrive at your destination.
In my student days, poor with a wife, two children and a scruffy old dog to support I owned in quick succession two Moskvichs, a van and an estate. Now they were real motors! The van used to make strange noises, a zut, zut, zut sound as you rolled along. Traced to the rear end and caused by the rear tyres being too big for the wheel arches, don't ask me why. Easily cured by hitting the inside of the wheel arch with a hammer until it cleared the tyre. Imagine doing that to a new Rolls Royce.
Not to be outdone, the front tyres used to rub against the copper brake pipes when on full lock. Again only a problem if you had no imagination or DIY skills. You simply grasped the coiled pipe firmly and manoeuvered it clear of the offending tyres. Hooray for flexible copper pipes.
The floats in the carburetters were made of brass and the Russians never did get the hang of soldering. Consequently the float periodically filled with petrol and sank, bringing you unceremoniously to a halt, wherever you were. Of course you always carried spare floats so no great problem. (I also carried a spare starter motor, battery, bulbs, cable, fuses and undoubtedly other paraphanalia I have forgotten in the mists of time.) Though my technical skills have never excelled (No shelf stays up in our house for more than two weeks, one if you put something on it) I could replace a Moskvich carburetter float at the side of the road in less than half an hour. And I have spent an entire day under a Moskvich swinging on a chain via a crane in a local scrapyard on my own in order to remove a back axle. What would Health and Safety make of that nowadays I wonder. Mind you, we pulled a small trailer to contain the camping gear and I don't suppose they would have been too keen on our towbar, bolted to two metal plates secured through the back doors. Heath Robinson, eat your heart out.
My wife has never been happy on my improvisations and in retrospect she's right. I once charged the Mosky battery up still on the motor via the cable through the letter box. The lazy way, I know, I know and even lazier to pull the clips off the battery rather than carefully lifting them clear. To do so when still plugged in to the mains literally nearly fatal. The clips jammed in the boxwork supporting the battery, sparks flew and the consequent explosion brought out the entire street; acid shot to a great height in the air and I undeservedly narrowly escaped serious injury. Strangely enough the battery, though now in three pieces remained connected. Even more remarkable, the car fired on ignition first time and I ran it for a day or two until I could afford another battery.
By today's standards my Moskys were crude in the extreme. Rumour has it they were built from melted down Messerschmidts shot down in the war. The steering, rack and pinion failed on me one day. But it only failed on left lock. Fortunately I wasn't too far from home, but you try going home unable to turn left!
Life today motor wise may be more sophisticated but its not necessarily more fun. I had a talking Maestro once whose electric windows never worked properly in its life. In winter they always stuck open, in summer on a boiling hot day, immovably closed. The blasted car never mentioned why! Strangely enough that too suffered carburetter flooding problems. I remember sitting in a line of traffic near Paignton, hot day, kids tired, car refusing to start and the fool behind me hooting impatiently. I walked back to him in his posh car with its air conditioning. "I tell you what, mate" I volunteered, "You go and sit in my car and try and start it and I'll sit in yours and blow the horn." If he'd have got out he may well have been six foot six to my five feet four but he got the message. Happy days!
No vehicle is perfect, at least not the ones I buy. I had an A35 Austin I think it was with cable brakes and you could never be certain to stop it in a set distance, lethal it was. I had a Simca, old and worn out, another 'never be certain' car,. You could never, ever be certain what gear you were going to get when you changed gear.
Hopefully the Tribute will give us happy hours when the niggles are ironed out. I hope so. My nomination for my worst ever. Undoubtedly the Simca. And the best? Almost certainly my perplexing, infuriating, exhilarating 970cc Mini Cooper S, number GDT 703C. But that's another story.

Monday 19 May 2008

And What's in Your Loft.

My wife has been steadily packing boxes though our house move is not immediately imminent. Feeling guilty I stick my head in the loft, seemingly considered my domain and survey the scene. Amid the dust are numerous loose items and probably in the region of forty cardboard boxes. I hurredly close the door (it is a walk in loft) and retreat to the settee downstairs and an all important play off match.
I listen to the dear lady for the rest of the week, packing through gritted teeth, she not me until I can stand it no longer. My wife goes shopping and I enter the loft, reluctantly, not too far in and extract the nearest box. Clouds of dust fill the air as I carry it downstairs. I place it on the table and survey the contents. Ten minutes pass and the contents of the box still resolutely refuse to unpack themselves.
I remove the items on top of the pile. Derby County football programmes. The first one Derby versus Southend United in the Littlewoods Challenge Cup, Wednesday September 28, 1988, kick off 7.30pm, programme price, eighty pence. I notice tickets for next Saturday's game are on sale, eight pounds each. I also read that the illustrious Robert Maxwell is still chairman and Arthur Cox is the manager. All very interesting to a football fanatic.
A scruffy envelope beckons. I open it to see, for the first time in years a faded certificate from the University of Nottingham. Awarded to Kenneth Stevens on the eleventh day of July 1974, Bachelor of Education. I am immediately transported to Kesteven College of Education in Lincolnshire. Four happy years and two children later my wife and I returned from an idyllic rural student existence to a life as a schoolteacher in downtown Derby.
Some extremely tatty stamp albums are next to surface. I remember buying them as a boy at a Moravian Church jumble sale and they were even then somewhat ancient. Fascinated I study the contents. Mention of Abyssinia, Carinthia and Heligoland; Labuan, Loningermanland and St Pierre and Miquelon. Places unknown in my limited experience but interesting all the same. Talk of krones, rupees, paras and rigsbankdalers. I become engrossed in a hobby I had discarded over fifty years ago. Reluctantly I put down the last of the stamp albums,
A World Review 1942, price 1/6d catches the eye. Amazingly I read in an article concerning the Free French that Admiral Muselier has unexpectedly taken over St. Pierre and Miquelon. To think that fifteen minutes ago I had never heard of the place. But perhaps of more interest an advertisement suggesting 'a loose denture makes it impossible to masticate your food properly.' What quaint language! Evidently the answer is to carry Kolynos sprinklet tins in your pocket or handbag, price 1/3d.
The box is a treasure trove to be sure. My days in charge of a school community service programme are recalled as the class register for 1988/89 is uncovered. Mainly involving girls but not exclusively so the names reflect the era. Maxines, Sarahs, Melissas and Donnas; Simons, Garys, Craigs and Stuarts. Where are you now I wonder. And do you look back with fondness at those shared experiences.
Times change, never more epitomised than by the small pamphlet at the bottom of the box. Called simply 'Games for Socials' by Sid Hedges, first published in 1929, this edition reprinted in 1947 recalls a more gentle, innocent era long since gone. One of Sid's games, called simply 'Treasure Hunt' involves one person being given sixpence secretly before the game commences. The tenth person shaking hands with the recipient of the sixpence is the winner. Everyone frantically shakes hands with everyone else. The holder of the sixpence keeps score and eventually whispers to the game leader as to who was the winner. At which point 'You promptly announce this; present the coin and lead off the applause.' Good old Sid, happy days!
I hear the door opening as my wife returns. Three hours have passed. I ought to be aghast but I am surprisingly upbeat. I have as yet discarded no item whatsoever. Never mind, only thirty nine boxes to go.

Sunday 18 May 2008

Hooray for the NHS

The health thing being the main reason for moving I suppose I'd better get it out of the way.On my 50th birthday in 1989 a strange thing happened. I literally could not remember who I was for an hour or two, a strange experience both puzzling and disturbing to say the least. Birthday presents on the table but I could not see the connection with myself in any way whatsoever. I felt like an alien from another planet, a strange sensation to say the least. I recovered after a while and celebrated my birthday with my wife and friends though I felt less than one hundred per cent. I had another attack weeks later and visited a doctor as a matter of course. His request for me to 'Talk him through it' would be funny in other circumstances. I was completely, utterly blank during the attacks and am reliant on others to tell me what happened. I received no examination or treatment, had no further attacks and got on with my life.

Fast forward eighteen years and I had a similar though short lived experience earlier this year.I refused an ambulance at the time, as is my wont but a GP examination followed, hospital appointment were made and then the fun started.

Initially a stroke was suggested, except that I had no paralysis or obvious damage; a TIA was suspected. I remember the TIA bit because I'd liked the drink Tia Maria in my youth. ( A coffee liqueur type drink over 20% proof.) In this case TIA standing for Temporary Ischmetic Attack. Hospital appointments followed and the inevitable hospital visits. I'm not sure who was the most spaced out, me or the appointments.

I had an Electroencephalogram, EEG for short which is a brain scan involving twenty three electrodes. No jokes please as to whether they found one, I've heard them all a hundred times. I assume there are twenty three bits to your brain and not that our hospital has lost at least one electrode. Plus a Computerised tomography (CT) scan. Then followed, an anxious wait and eventually a diagnosis by a rather serious poker faced but presumably knowledgeable consultant.

The consultants informed me it was probably not TIA but TGA, which evidently stands for Transient Global Amnesia. 'Very rare, and by the way, both brain scans showed abnormalities and you have frontal lobe damage. But there are no signs of epilepsy.' Nice to have something rare and no epilepsy but the rest is a bit scary. And that basically was that. No treatment except that more pills were suggested. (Prescribed by the GP later but with such disgusting side effects that I took them for three days only. very naughty I know but I will go back to my GP eventually, honest)
I looked up TGA on the internet as you do, doesn't everyone with a medical problem do this. Evidently the exact causes of TGA attacks are unknown, but can include sudden immersion in cold water, strenuous physical activity, sexual intercourse, over excitement and acute emotional distress. Not all together of course.
By my reckoning anyone falling in the river in my condition is going to suffer a heart attack at least. I have no mistress and, having been married for all of thirty eight years so strenuous physical activity and over excitement during sexual intercourse can be ruled out. Which leaves acute emotional distress and there you have it. It's obviously all down to house prices. I knew it, I knew it, it's all the governments fault, result, yet another disgruntled voter.
Long term prognosis is decidedly unsure. But if the gap between attacks is another eighteen years that will probably do me. Nevertheless one more reason to put your house in order, so to speak, the house in our case being a more manageable bungalow.
In a way it may seem a strange thing to say but I personally am glad than for the past eighteen years I've been oblivious to the the problem. I feel okay and am getting on with my life. But I can't help thinking what a genius I would be with a complete brain.

Saturday 17 May 2008

Definitely for the Last Time

We are moving house, hopefully and even more hopefully for the last time. We are moving from a house we love for several reasons, one being concerned with heath issues, more at a later date.
I have never lived more than sixty miles from the place where I was born yet I seem to have lived in eighteen different establishments to date. From the village of Ockbrook in Derbyshire, taking in Leicester, Chesterfield, Grantham and Derby along the way. They have all been interesting in their own way. The best probably our present home, half of a nineteenth century farmhouse, the worst the changing rooms of a Church Youth Centre of which I was warden. The latter occupation somewhat secret and probably illegal but certainly cheap. No rent or rates to pay; saving on running costs, maximum; comfort minimal.
The Crewe Harpers are eccentric Derbyshire aristocracy who bequeathed their house, Calke Abbey to the nation in lieu of death duties in the 1980's. On taking up the reins so to speak The National Trust were astounded at the contents of the place,uncatalogued and uncared for.
The various occupants had collected nay hoarded much over centuries. As the place filled they seemed to have merely moved rooms and the place was large enough to do so. A bed in a large box, a present from royalty arrived in 1734. It was only opened on the Trusts acquisition of Calke in 1984. Much of the place had become a 19th century museum of fossils,taxidermy and Egyptian curiosities. The kitchens were abandoned in 1928. The School Rooms were never used after the Second World War yet books and toys were still everywhere
Truly the kings of all hoarders and collectors I salute you. And where is this leading you may well ask. My parentage is, to say the least, obscure. I've always suspected my father was at least aristocracy. The Crewe and Harper's eccentric behaviour plus talk of the family having an eccentric 'gene' leads me to one inescapable conclusion. I too have never knowingly thrown anything away in my entire life. I always check the dustbins before removal lest my wife has deposited in them something of value, more importantly, something of mine, deliberately or otherwise. 'Daddy' was definitely aristocracy, I knew it!
Our house is moderately large, the bungalow we are moving to is relatively small. The house is a three storey building, we have lived here for ten years and every room is full of treasures and furniture lovingly collected. The loft, exceedingly large is also full to capacity and, like the Crewe Harpers I also have a 'museum'. I walk round my house and garden, blank paper in hand and begin the stock take, so to speak. Watch this space.

Tuesday 13 May 2008

Where Are They Now

Out of the blue the phone rang and a delightful elderly gentleman inquired as to whether I had left school in 1958. Fifty years ago, perish the thought. (Why is it I always think of other people of my age as sounding elderly but consider myself as being eternally middle aged rather than ancient in the extreme.). The gist of the gentleman's call was to inform of a reunion to be arranged for Long Eaton Grammar School leavers in the year of 1958. Now for someone who can't recall what he had for breakfast remembering the year I left school was something of a tall order. Plus the fact that I recall drifting away from an educational establishment I had little love for rather than formally leaving at a term end. I have also never attended a reunion of anything in my entire life, suspecting that for many it tends to be an excuse for the 'Haven't I done well in life syndrome' rather than a desire to meet up with school 'chums' you genuinely liked and admired, or, heaven forbid, feared and despised.
I taught in a large comprehensive school for close on twenty years. At its peak there were over two thousand pupils and over one hundred staff. On occasion individuals come to mind who have lingered long in my subconscious. I taught one young man who went on to commit murder in a local public house. One former pupil whom I met on the street informed me she had been at one stage a madame in a brothel. The newspapers often feature ex pupils; shop lifting, arson, GBH, car crimes, the offences by ex pupils are endless.
Yet the majority are respectable citizens in ordinary sometimes mundane occupations. But some excel in life, and I am proud of them and for them. One former pupil was awarded an Oscar though not for acting. Another young lady was editor of Marie Claire until being head hunted by a rival American magazine. We have educated lawyers, solicitors professional footballers and headteachers by the score. One hell of a mix; perhaps reunions are more fun than I had imagined. I wrote the following short story when thinking how pupils do in fact 'turn out'. It is based on real pupils but one incident in particular stands out. I leave you to guess as to what I am referring.
“Tempora mutantur, nos et mutantur in illis.”

(Times change and we change with them)

The Reunion

‘Calling class 5G, Marvill Secondary School, 1974’ the message on ‘Friend’s United’ had read. ‘Informal meeting in the common room, Alverton Public Library Friday March 12th, 8pm onwards, all welcome.’
The tall, confident man seated by the fire surveyed his companions.
“Malcolm, Malcolm Russell,” he announced in case anyone failed to recognise him. “Welcome, although I didn’t organise this get together.”
No one present gave any indication that they were in fact the organisers of the soiree.
The beaming man standing by the window took his cue from Malcolm.
“Wayne, Wayne Scott, long time, no see! Yet it all seems like yesterday.”
“And you’re Marjory, Marjory Bailey that was.”
Wayne looked enquiringly at the demure, attractive blond half hiding by the screen notice board. Marjory nodded and blushed furiously Even at forty-six years of age she hadn’t forgotten the crush she’d had on Wayne, aged fifteen, even if he had.
“Happy days.” The quiet, diffident man swivelled his chair so as to get a better view of the others.
“Adam, Adam Tate, in case I’ve changed a little.” He laughed almost nervously.
“Of course it’s you, Adam.”
Malcolm, Mr Confidence Personified continued to assert himself.
“Who could forget your contribution to 5G, Adam?”
The reaction was one of titters rather than belly laughs.
“Remember your hosepipe exhibition on the last day of term?”
Remember it, who could forget it!
The headmaster had been in full oratory flight, on stage, in front of the entire school on the last day of the school year. Adam, out of view at the side of the stage, had directed the fire hose onto the pontificating headmaster, knocking him to the ground with the sheer force of the water. Adam was up and away across the fields before horrified staff had helped the unfortunate, very wet, very undignified headmaster to his feet.
That Adam was the culprit might well have been common knowledge, proving such a preposterous act was never likely.
Adam smiled at the memory.
“I never excelled at school, certainly in the academic sense,” he conceded.
Somewhat of an understatement! A tendency to truant Maths, Science, PE and assemblies limited progress. Plus there was the much remembered armband incident.
Between lessons Adam had unwound a metal armband and strung it across the classroom. Poor, elderly, short-sighted Mr Duval, the French teacher had almost decapitated himself in his perambulations around the classroom.
This event was related by Malcolm with relish, to Adam’s obvious discomfort.
“None of us were angels, were we? Tracey, Tracey Mellows that was.” The rather large presence entering the room rescued Adam from Malcolm’s inquisition.
“True, Tracey love.”
Malcolm switched his attention to the newcomer.
“Remember the bike sheds, Tracey dear?”
Remember, how could Tracey forget!
Large, unattractive, insecure, Tracey had gained notoriety by the granting of sexual favours to many a male in year five. What ten pence would buy didn’t bear thinking about.
‘The best bike in the bike shed’ she was unflatteringly referred to.
“I loved those bike sheds.” Adam smiled to himself “Who was it had that butterfly tattoo on her bottom?” The question was seemingly rhetorical. The three males smiled at their memories.
“We all had tattoos, though not butterflies.” Marjory rescued Tracey from further humiliation. “Only we did most of them ourselves, remember. With a pen and ink, it didn’t half hurt!” She looked down at her arm, deciphering the faint blue lines of a crooked cross, still visible after all these years.
“And we pierced our own ears. Mine went good and proper septic, plus I got a swipe from my mother for my trouble!” Marjory grimaced at the memory.
“Remember PE and those embarrassing navy blue knickers we had to wear?” Tracy and Marjory rekindled female memories long stored but obviously not forgotten.
“I remember them too!” Adam laughed at distant lustful, adolescent, recollections.
Tracey and Marjory ignored such insensitive masculine intervention.
“Do you remember our form teacher, Mr Green? I had a right crush on him. I sometimes babysat for him and his wife, Sandra. I used to explore the house, as babysitters do. I wondered, at fifteen, why they had a whip on the wall over the bed. Come to think of it, I still do!” Marjory laughed at the memory.
“I didn’t like Mr Butler though, he used to look down my dress. Mind you, I was a big girl, even then!” Marjory laughed again.
“I went to Mr Mason’s house shortly after we all left.” Tracey was encouraged by Marjory’s contribution.
“Do you remember Mr Mason? How you boys used to make fun of him. He had a deaf aid that he hardly ever turned on. The class would be almost rioting and the only person who was oblivious was Mr Mason!
He also walked with a stick because he’d been involved in some sort of accident. You boys used to walk behind him and imitate his strange limp. Add his poor eyesight and thick classes and I guess he hadn’t much going for him.
Funnily enough I remember only one thing from Mr Mason’s house. On the wall in his hall there was a plaque. And do you know what it said? ‘I had no shoes and I complained. Then I met a man with no feet.’
It made me feel awful after all the things people did to poor Mr Mason at school.”
Tracey sighed at the memory. Wayne and Adam noticeably shuffled with embarrassment.
“You all did daft things in those days.” Malcolm’s use of ‘you’, rather than ‘we’ was not lost on the others!
“Remember, Wayne, you farting in science and blaming it on the experiment going wrong! Old Mr Bell had to look it up in a science manual what was supposed to happen when you heated sulphur and iron filings.”
Wayne shuffled uncomfortably but Malcolm was not finished yet.
“I hear you also got yourself in the news when you were an apprentice at Rolls Royce. ‘The Amorous Apprentice’ was the headline if I remember rightly.”
Wayne laughed, but out of embarrassment, not amusement. How could he ever forget?
A hot summer’s day, and a young man’s thoughts had turned to love. Wayne had arranged to pick up Jane, his girlfriend after work. Hopelessly in love, it had seemed a good idea at the time. He had stripped off before he started the short journey to the building society where she worked. She would get such a shock, no doubt be amused, and, hopefully, impressed. Only the policeman in the car alongside at the traffic lights was neither amused nor impressed! Wayne left Rolls Royce shortly afterwards, though his notoriety lived on.
Wayne shook his head at the memory of a youthful indiscretion he would rather forget.
Malcolm was beginning to irritate both Wayne and Adam.
“I must admit, we didn’t kill ourselves with work, did we?”
Wayne remembered hours spent gazing out of the windows. Hopeless guesses at diarrhoea and benefited in spelling tests. Trying, unsuccessfully, to solve the mysteries of Pythagoras, square roots and algebra.
“And how did Mr Brainbox himself do in the end?”
Adam’s vexed question barely disguised his growing animosity.
“I must admit, I didn’t do too bad.” If Malcolm was affecting modesty, he failed miserably.
He well knew his academic prowess had been the envy of many.
No joining in dubious boyish pastimes for Malcolm. No smoking behind the bike sheds or stealing beer from around the back of the Co-op. No joining the other boys in the toilets to see who could pee highest or spit furthest!
Malcolm wasn’t nicknamed Brains after the character in Thunderbirds for nothing! He needed no second invitation to champion his academic successes.
“Ten ‘O’ levels, grade ‘A’; five ‘A’ levels, grade ‘A’ at Wilmington College. Went to Oxford, Got a First Class Honours Degree.
‘Oh this learning, what a thing it is,’ Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew.”
Malcolm, predicable to the end, demonstrated his literary knowledge.
Adam noticeably stiffened with annoyance at Malcolm’s unapologetic demonstration of his academic superiority.
“I wonder where some of the others are now?” Marjory tried to deflect attention away from Malcolm.
“Do you remember Wee Davey, frightened even of even his own shadow? He joined the Army and won a medal for bravery. Alan Sowter drives buses, Simon Hodson went to Australia and Sandra Mee, who always loved children, now has eight of her own.”
Tracey’s concern for others was evident in her knowledge of the whereabouts of her classmates in 5G.
“Plus David Gregory, Sally Gunn, Tommy Roe and Ruth Thomas, where are they now, I wonder?”
“And George Platt, Gorgeous George we used to call him. He used to hang out more with you girls than us boys.” Who could forget George? Adam shook his head at the memory.
The room fell silent. All remembered a year that shaped the next thirty.
“I must be going.” Wayne broke the silence. “I’ve things to do but I will remember you all. Good night and God be with you.”
The Reverend Wayne Scott shook hands with everyone, adjusted his dog collar and stepped into the night.
The room again lapsed into silence.
“I must be going too, I’m on duty at ten o’clock.” Police Inspector Adam Tate smiled apologetically and moved towards the door.
“And me also, may I walk part of the way with you?” Tracey joined Adam by the door.
“Thank you all for a delightful evening.” Sister Tracey of the Dominican Order Of Nuns smoothed down her habit, adjusted her wimple and opened the door. Almost as an after thought, she stopped in the doorway.
“By the way, I still have the butterfly tattoo. Goodbye and may the Lord keep you safe.”
The room lapsed into silence for a third time.
Marjory, Staff Nurse Marjory of Kingsmead Hospital looked uneasily at her watch.
A knock at the door broke the silence. Two men in white coats entered, smiled, and beckoned to Malcolm.
Patient 1057, Kingsmead Hospital, formally known as The Derbyshire Asylum for the Criminally Insane meekly followed the two orderlies down the stairs to the subtle, anonymous looking white vehicle parked by the library entrance. Nurse Marjory followed at a discreet distance, pausing only to hold the door for the tall, attractive, willowy brunette who entered as the Kingsmead contingent left.
The newcomer hurried up the stairs, the sound of her high heels echoing in the almost deserted building. She glanced in the empty common room and continued down the corridor to the dimly lit reception area.
“I’m sorry I’m so late, please forgive me. I’d like to pay for the use of the common room, as agreed. My names Georgina, Georgina Platt.”

Friday 9 May 2008

Black Puddings and Pork Pies

One of the highlights of the Yorkshire year is The Dales Festival of Food and Drink held annually in Leyburn. An attractive town in Richmondshire it is an event not to be missed by ignorant 'townies' like ourselves. A three day event, we visited on a glorious spring day; those who came the following day were not so lucky. I am inclined to think of the maxim, 'The sun shines on the righteous.' Alas, it is more lightly the adage 'The devil looks after his own' that is more apt.
The event pays homage to all things rural and a good time is had by all. There are demonstrations galore: sheep shearing and dry stone walling; bee keeping, soup making and cheese making evidently 'before your very eyes'. Doesn't that bring back memories of the late, great Arthur Askey. There are bands, brass, silver and jazz and when the music stops, talks by experts on every conceivable country pursuit. And boy, can these people talk. Yorkshire writer Gervase Phinn, the programme tells us, 'Is even funnier in person' whilst the head of Bettys Cookery School talks about her latest book 'A Year of Family Recipes'. The most intreguing for me was a rather serious looking gentleman who is evidently 'a passionate angler'. I just couldn't get this obviously amorous gentleman's exploits out of my mind. It presented fishing to me in a new light. I should have attended his book signing, there are so many things I would have liked to have asked him.
The festival offers something for all but as its name implies, food and drink are the very reasons for its existence. Thus the 'Farming for Food' marquee is not to be missed. The 'drool factor' is off the Richler scale. I walked round with my wife and viewed an unending array of savouries and soups; meat from boars and ostriches; puddings and pastries and every conceivable type of egg.
We were at Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire last week. A cookery demonstration was under way involving schoolchildren. The cook held up an egg and enquired, "Does anyone know where eggs come from?" Hands shot up from children eager to impress. Cook pointed to one who was particularly keen to share his juvenile knowledge. "From the shop, miss" came the confident reply. I wish he had been with me on this gastronomic gallivant.
I turned in the packed tent and she was no longer there. My wife of thirty eight years gone. Momentarily I pictured lonely years ahead, washing and ironing, ironing and washing to eternity. A sea of backsides stretched before me, my five feet four was totally inadequate in such circumstances. Admitting defeat, some would say far too easily I made for the exit and possibly a life of lonely solitary celibacy. As you can imagine I am sometimes accused of having an overworked imagination but it was a hot day and life was beginning to get to me.
I sat on the grass outside the marquee and pondered my next move. Families scurried by, eager for bargains and even more food. Is it my imagination or are the people 'up north' bigger than average? My, there were some whoppers. And tattoos, in every conceivable uncovered region; and undoubtedly some covered to be viewed by only a chosen few. Come to think of it, there were tattooed men about as well!
Quite fascinating really, time passed quickly and I had all but forgotten why I sat there, thirty eight years gone in the blink of an eye. Suddenly there she was beside me and literally speaking, beside herself. I can reluctantly think of no occasion when I have seen my wife so excited, in a complete state of ecstasy. So much for my efforts over the years!
Laden down with purchases my wife's joy was wondrous to behold. "Look what I've got" she shouted for all to hear, "Bakewell Tart, coffee and walnut cake, steak pies and minced beef pies,
and", she added triumphantly, "black puddings and pork pies!"
Now you may think, good though the food at the show was, my wife's reaction was over the top, so to speak. Not so, for a very good reason. My wife is a coeliac, a fact that has been mentioned before. It is a condition that causes its sufferers many problems, not least in finding pallatable food that can be eaten by people with the condition. Their diet always must be gluten free. A fact that rules out so many foods you and I take for granted. Chips, yes, fish in batter, no French bread sticks and normal cakes and pastries, off the menu. Most breakfast cereals a no no and normally no sausages or burgers. Do you really fancy a Big Mac minus the bun? The list is endless, the choices left depressing in the extreme. Enter firms like The Gluten-Free Kitchen of Hawes in Wensleydale discovered in the food tent and the reason for my wifes sheer delight.
A great day out and for my wife in particular one that she will never forget. If you think I'm exaggerating let me leave you with one thought. My wife can eat for England and sadly so much of the food she loves is out of her reach. She loved black pudding and pork pies but it is twenty one years since she has had either. What is it in life you love most? Anything at all, you've no need to tell me what it is! Now imagine the next time you are allowed to have it, so to speak is in the year 2029. Quite a while, I hope you enjoy the wait !

Morecambe by Accident.

Driving home in our motorhome from the Yorkshire Dales the sun shone, I became more and more depressed, after all, they don't call me Grumpy Old Ken for nothing. So we turned right off the A59 and hey presto, before you knew it we were sitting on Morecambe front. That's one of the joys of motorhoming, plans are seldom made and of any case never adhered to.
We hadn't intended to visit Morecambe. This may well be a normal reaction to the place. The mobile phone rang, family as usual. "Where are you?" is an oft repeated cry. "Morecambe" my wife replied. (Am I the only person in the country without a mobile phone? Mind you, my wife's right, I'd only lose it.) "Why?" came the plaintive retort. No discussion, comment, nothing, just the puzzled enquiry, "Why?" Good question! That's the effect poor old Morecambe has. Much maligned, it is a vision in many eyes of a run down Victorian seaside past its heyday, if it ever in fact had a 'heyday'. An unfortunate picture of an English seaside resort that is trying hard to come to terms with the twenty first century and has in fact much going for it.
Morecambe did in fact have a heyday in the distant past. It was the premier northern English seaside resort at one time surpassing Blackpool as the holiday mecca for northern factory towns.
At its peak it boasted two railway stations, two piers, eight cinemas, eight music halls, a revolving tower, a Summer Pavilion and a Winter Gardens. Plus the largest swimming pool in Britain. But as Blackpool's popularity grew coupled with the British holiday makers discovery of the Costa Brava Morecambe's popularity declined. The Central Pier was destroyed by fire; the swimming pool has long since gone, as has the Grand Hotel, plus the Winter Gardens fell into disrepair. The decline seemed ominous but was fortunately not terminal. (I trust the message on the derelict building on the seafront that states 'The End is Nigh' is meant to be humorous rather than prophetic.)
The availability of government money in 1990 made much of the improvements seen today possible. Coastal defences were improved alongside dramatic improvements to the promenade in general. The bird life of the region is important, celebrated by the birth of The Tern Project. The result is an artwork extravaganza mainly in the promenade area that is both unique and pleasing to the eye. But that is only part of Morecambe in the 21st century. The Stone Jetty has been sympathetically restored and is as good a place as any to view Morecambe's amazing sunsets; whilst a walk along the five mile long seafront never ceases to delight. Across the bay (195 square miles) are views unsurpassed in the world, never mind Britain. Surprising a Cross Bay walk is possible on occasion, strictly supervised, and described by some as 'One of the worlds most wonderful journeys.'
It is a fun sort of place epitomised by its most famous son, John Eric Bartholomew, better known as Eric Morecambe, one half of the much loved Eric and Ernie duo. Eric's statue on the promenade lightens up even the dullest of days.
The saga of the Midland Hotel symbolises the new Morecambe. An Art Deco hotel on the sea front, it has stood quietly crumbling, drab and sadly neglected for many a year. But now, decline halted, it has been renovated at great cost symbolising the hope invested in 21st century Morecambe. Plus its not just hope that's invested. A contracter informed me the gleaming white finish of the new look Midland comes courtesy of bags of a special substance from Germany, each one costing £50 and covering one metre only.
The parking seems adequate (We were there midweek) but black mark Morecambe for the height barriers on a car park at the Carnforth end of the town. And the shops were unexceptional, some shopfronts needing a lick of paint but I suppose even Rome wasn't built in a day. The signs are that at least the place is trying to please and in the main succeeding.
There are two medium sized home made sandy beaches that will surely delight the bucket and spade brigades, particularly the children. I get the impression that Morecambe sees itself as a family resort. During our visit we saw only once the raucous alcohol fuelled behaviour so prevalent in some other resorts. But neither did I see any police presence whatsoever. Perhaps, like some of the birdlife prevalent in the area, they too only come out at night.
Morecambe has certainly improved since our last visit and seems keen to continue the trend.
Undoubtedly we could have occupied ourselves longer had we so desired. The West End Gardens are worth a visit whilst the Poulton Village Mural Trail sounds both interesting and educational. (Poulton -le Sands is the original fishing village around which the town of Morecambe grew.)
You need do as much or as little as you choose. The beauty of the Lake District is but a short ride away. My wife preferred to sit in the sun, eat in local cafes and search for bargains in the indoor market and who can blame her.
Unpretenteous Morecambe is no Blackpool and probably has no desire or need to be so. Bill Bryson had many nice things to say about Morecambe in his 'Notes From a Small Island'. He was often less flattering about many more fashionable resorts. So if its good enough for Mr Bryson, it's good enough for us; we will certainly return.

First Impressions of Ripon

Who was it who sang 'I love to go a'wandering' all those years ago? Pointed the motorhome north last Friday and off we went. One of the attractions is that you don't always know for certain where you'll land or what you'll find. Sat in Ripon, that delightful Yorkshire town two hours later. Parking proved ridiculously easy, the sun shone down, the signs were good. A promising start to a well earned break. Out of the city to small town idyllic charm. Hunger pangs at the ready, we espied a fish and chip shop with welcoming open doors. Only in the time it took us to cross the street the proprieter appeared in the doorway and with a curt, "We're shutting" hastily closed the doors.
Bemused I looked over my shoulder to make sure our spaceship was still parked, for surely we were aliens from afar to warrant such treatment. Had we landed in Ripon, never; the place was undoubtedly Royston Vasey. Never mind, a short distance away was another chip shop, this time with customers. We entered and patiently waited our turn. The unsmiling man behind the counter looked in our direction. "Fish and chips once please, and could you please do a second fish without the batter." My wife is what is called a coeliac, and thereby has to have a gluten free diet. Had my wife requested caviar, oysters or even elephants testicles on toast, the effect could not have been more dramatic. His eyes glazed over at the absurdity of such a request. "Can't be done," he emphatically stated with authority, "tried it once and all the blacking on the bottom of the pan came off." And that was that. Which is strange in that the Polish person serving in the chipshop in Seahouses can do it, and do it to perfection; as can, amongst others, the Turkish chipshop in Ashbourne and a Greek establishment in Weston Super Mare. A shame really, as you tend to judge a place on such minor absurdities. And yes its true that I'm not called Grumpy Old Ken for nothing. It's not true I later called in a cafe in Ripon for elephants testicles on toast and they'd run out of bread.

Thursday 1 May 2008

Count your Blessings

The weather is unsettled and somewhat uninviting. Mother in law is on a visit so we drive to the town in spite of the unsettled weather. A pedestrian crosses the road outside the Cooperative Funeral Parlour oblivious to our approach, my wife calls out in alarm but I was aware of his apparent death wish. Too many Derby residents seem to be either deaf, daft or drunk.
We visit the new Westfield shopping centre, pleasant enough but perhaps today lacking that little extra edge that would make our visit out of the ordinary. We re-enter the main street and a Big Issue seller looks invitingly towards us, quietly uttering, "Sir, madam" in our direction. I avert my eyes and we move on down the street. The two ladies are attracted by a charity shop and the possible bargains within. They enter the shop whilst I stand on the pavement outside. I look up the street. The Big Issue seller continues to offer his wares with quiet dignity.
I have parked a short distance away a motorhome costing over thirty thousand pounds. I have an unmortgaged house, money in the bank and no debts. My clothes are not old and I have more than one of most things I choose to wear. Feelings of guilt and shame envelop me. I walk back to The Big Issue man and purchase a copy of the magazine. He thanks me and smiles; eye contact made I smile back. The sun comes out for the first time in a while and suddenly the world for me at least seems a better place.