Tuesday 30 September 2008

Northumberland, surely God's own acre.

Probably the best known blog in the UK is 'Wife in the North' by Judith O'Reilly. It tells of life as seen through the eyes of a reluctant housewife ensconced in the wilds of Northumberland. Witty, observant and dry humoured though not without a touch of pathos the printed version has done well and rightly so.
As it happens, Northumberland is one of my wife and I's favourite places so, when the going was getting a mite bit tough last week it was to this county we fled. On Tuesday morning we manoeuvred up the M1, traffic horrendous but 220 miles and five hours later sat in the sunshine by the harbour in Seahouses (They say the sun shines on the righteous; they also say the devil looks after his own!)
Its hard to say what exactly is the lure of Northumberland. No one attraction but the place never lets you down. (Though the weather can be dour and unpredictable.) A county of beauty, history and mystique, I could not possibly do it justice in a few lines. Yet there is so much to lift the spirits.
Bacon, eggs and a steaming cup of tea in a motorhome at the foot of Ross Castle (not really a castle) in the hills above Wooler takes some beating; not one passing motor in over an hour. Wooler itself, full of arty shops but with a charm all of its own.
The magic of Bamburgh, the sight of the castle on the approach from Seahouses one of my favourite views. Budle Bay of an evening, quiet beautiful solitude, a twitchers paradise, the redshanks and the curlews recognisable by even this limited ex-countryman.
I suspect one of the attractions of Northumberland is its resistance to change. At the side of the road near Coldstream sat three delightful old men, traffic watching. They reminded me of the three brass monkeys, 'Hear no evil, see no evil and say nowt.' They were also uncannily akin to 'Last of the Summer Wine.' They told me it was a regular, daily pastime. Good for them, they showed an inner contentment lacking in many city folk. And though they will not be there physically forever, I'm sure they will be there in spirit.
We spent our evenings in an ex-servicemens club in Seahouses, a favourite haunt for twenty and more years. We are always made welcome, despite years between our visits; it is as if we had never been away. There used to be four old men who sat in the club surveying all. (I wonder if its a Northumberland trait or merely habitual behaviour by the old.) One by one they died off but I swear they haunt the place still. If I shut my eyes I can see them still, sagely nodding their welcomes as if we'd been in the night before though it could have been all of five years between our last fleeting acquaintance.
The present incumbents, customers and committee are the pleasantest of people; some have been around many years. And, if you listen very, very carefully, city folk can learn so much concerning what real ife is all about. I mention listening carefully as the Queen's English is not exactly the choice of dialect in these parts. ('Yew canna guw on the buzz' was not easily decipherable to southern ears.) True, they have similar anxieties to anywhere else; health issues, financial problems in an era of recession, they are not immune to life's foilbles. But they seem to lack the stresses, anger and aggression prevalent in city life.
A glorious five days; so much to do, so much to see. Berwick and Amble, both pleasant plus Craster, exquisite. Warkworth plus castle, stunning, Alnmouth, exceptional, Alnwick, almost perfect. The whole place is different, the scenery, extraordinary, the people, unique.
On our last night there was a discussion with a committee member concerning some cheeky devil who was was parking overnight at the end of the club's car park. Obviously very cheap and convenient. What some people will do to save a bob or two in these hard times. (Thanks chaps, but I had asked.)
Back in Derby our problems may remain but seem somehow less daunting. Thanks Northumberland, we will be back if you'll have us.

Monday 22 September 2008

To be PC or not PC, that is the question.

It is difficult to pick up a newspaper or magazine and not see a reference to Political Correctness or PC for short. Wikipedia suggests Political Correctness is 'behaviour seen as seeking to minimise offence to gender, racial, cultural, disabled, aged, or other identity groups.' Feed Politically Incorrect into Google and it will come up with a mind boggling 2,890,ooo hits.
There's no doubt joining the PC Brigade has proved a good career move for many. In my days in teaching those at the bottom of the pile, so to speak were referred to as 'remedials'. To be succeeded in the seventies by the term Special Educational Needs; Plus the word dyslexic came to the fore and hordes of bright young teachers specialising in such matters appeared. Funds seem to pour in their direction, often to the detriment of less fashionable 'middle of the road' pupils. I wonder if the new stagers 'cared' more that we old stagers, or were more skilled and understanding for that matter.
A 'PC' approach has done some good for much in the world was insensitive at worst, indelicate at best. I once sat on a public platform when a local politician referred to people as 'mongrels'. The ignoramus actually meant 'mongols', a still unfortunate term overtaken by the more acceptable term 'Downs Syndrome' in increasingely enlightened times. In 1950 a local paper published a letter from the 'Chairman of the National Association of Backword Children' whilst a probation officer lectured an International Friendship League meeting on the problem 'ugly children' faced.
We, not me personally would have dogs called 'nigger' and keep our shoes sparkling with 'nigger brown' polish. Mothers would threaten misbehaving childen with the term 'I'll give you to a black man' whilst your disabled playmate would be referred to as lame if lucky but more likely crippled. All absolutely unacceptable and rightly so.
The problem seems to be, where does political correctness end and good old common sense begin. I have been given three 'Santa positions' this coming Christmas; All unvolunteered and unpaid I might add! But they'll be no sitting on Santa's knee, more's the pity. Political Correctness forbids it. (Am I bound by the same rules for those young ladies around seventeen to twenty five?) School sports, no chance, far too competative; the list is endless.
Which brings me to the reason for this particular blog. Some time ago I wrote a book of short stories, something I'd always wanted to do. (There's Nowt so Strange as Folk.) In the cold light of day a year or two on I wonder if too am guilty of of political incorrectness. Am I letting the 'correct' brigade get to me or am I just as bad as those of whom I despair. Three 'stories' for your perusal.
The Queen visits a local asylum long ago. She stops to speak to an inmate who is working in the gardens. “And what are you in here for, my good man?” she inquires.
“There’s nothing the matter with me,” he replies, “They’re holding me here against my will.”
“We’ll see about that,” replies The Queen, “I’ll take up your case when I get back to the palace.”
“Thank you, thank you so much” says the inmate as she walks on up the drive.
The Queen covers ten or so paces when a large house brick hits her on the back of the head. She staggers to her knees and turns round.
“Don’t forget!” shouts the inmate.
I remember this story from childhood. We found it funny and meant no offence to anyone.
The patients at the psychiatric hospital, for these are more enlightened times, are working in the hospital gardens. They are wheel-barrowing loads of soil to create a new vegetable area. One patient is wheeling his barrow empty, upside down. Asked why he is doing this he replies, “I’m not daft, and I’m not killing myself, that soil’s as heavy as hell!”
I am assured this is a true story, though it is second generation and no proof exists regarding its validity. The point being it is an old story still doing the rounds so to speak.
I visit a friend at another local psychiatric hospital. A patient, trouser-less, kicking a football, runs at speed across a lawn until he is out of sight. The atmosphere is rather menacing. I am pleased when a patient, known to me, invites me to a game of table tennis. We walk to a games room nearby. The atmosphere is unusual, not helped by a middle-aged patient who mournfully plays a clarinet as his elderly mother sits attentively nearby. I am handed a table tennis bat. It is at this stage I realise only one half of the table plus net had been erected. Flummoxed, I stand at the end where no table exists. My opponent serves, the ball, the ball bouncing on his half of the table, I try to volley the ball back with no success. The second service has the same result. Three things concern me: does he know one half of the table is missing? what happens when it is my turn to serve? And finally, is he too embarrassed to say anything or, heaven forbid, is he actually ‘taking the mickey’ so to speak? After all, I got the end without a table, when all is said and done!
The point being this story is absolutely true yet it still might be regarded as politically incorrect when I repeat it. George Du Maurier was probably right when he compared life to ‘beer and skittles’.
John Gay the poet summed it up perfectly when he wrote in the eighteenth century.
Life is a jest; and all things show it.
I thought so once; and now I know it.
The only thing is, John Gay knew nothing of being 'PC!

Wednesday 17 September 2008

Home Sweet Home Seven

Much as I enjoyed full time youth work it was obvious the unsocial hours made life difficult. Another career was sought and after much deliberation I applied to become a teacher and was accepted as a student at Kesteven Teacher Training College at Stoke Rochford in Lincolnshire. We had little money so buying a house was way beyond our means. (Houses were available around three thousand pounds, we did not even have three hundred in the bank!)
We drove around the area south of Grantham looking for empty houses. We eventually espied a virtually derelict farm cottage, found its owner and persuaded him to rent it out for the princely sum of eight shillings a week. (The owner was a gentleman farmer, county councillor and governor of the college. I later offered references and was informed they were not necessary, he had looked at my file in college.) Welcome to Lincolnshire, 'Big Brother' was alive and well!
So began one of the happiest periods of our lives. Our new address was Ponton Heath. The Heath consisted of a farmhouse and four other houses including ours. (Before the war the farm employed sixteen men. mechanisation meant only three men were now required hence the proliferation of empty farm cottages.)
The house had roof tiles missing frequently. It was almost impossible to heat, even with the aid of paraffin heaters, the paraffin delivered fortnightly plus we improvised with home made briquettes on coal or wood fires, the briquettes made from coal dust and cement. (A young Swedish lady stayed one weekend and never took her coat off. I hadn't realised how 'nesh' even the Scandinavians could be!)
There were no street lights, the only bus ran once on Saturdays and the nearest shop was a mile or so away in Great Ponton. We were visited weekly by vans, the butcher, the baker and, no, not the candlestick maker but the greengrocer. We shared our house with many, including mice from the neighbouring fields until the acquisition of a large ginger cat solved that problem. He was so grateful for his sparse but welcome new home that he brought us frequent presents; rabbits, even larger hares and at least one full grown pheasant. Though a weasel he brought home proved his match, it's ferocity for its size amazing.
My wife constantly sewed and made bread in large quantities. I made copious amounts of home made beer. ( Left outside in winter it froze up and cracked the bottles. No problem, carefully remove the glass and there you have it, alcoholic ice lollies!)
Someone presented us with a television. (Often relations gave us all manner of goods. It gave them a warm feeling no doubt; we were grateful and did consider registering as a charity.) The picture on the television was obtained by connecting it to the metal window frames of the house. (You could actually see the television mast sited at Waltham near Melton Mowbray from our garden.) Our improvisations knew no bounds.
I became a reasonably proficient gardener, growing all manner of vegetables, though my knowledge of such matters left much to be desired. A crop of perpetual spinach was amazingly proliferate and, yes, perpetual. Every visitor left with a bundle. Evidently it is best served with olive oil and garlic. How on earth were we supposed to know that! I have neither grown or eaten it since, it is sadly way down our list of favourite food.
It was indeed a simple life. One day gardening I hit what was seemingly a large stone orifice in the garden. Having spent the best part of two hours uncovering it, I proudly showed my only neighbour the results of my labours. "Oh," he said dismissively, "that's the old cess pit, best to leave well alone." We we not in fact on a watermain. The toilet emptied into a huge tank in a nearby field, emptied twice a year if you were lucky. Our drinking water came via a borehole in the ground and failed regularly when the nearby golf course was being watered; someone had their priorities right!
Yet it was an innocent yet exciting existence for two newly weds. My wife worked for Aveling Barford, a local engineering company in the town, I had a grant, the huge sum of £750 pounds a year plus I worked on the farm for all of 38 pence per hour in the holidays. My wife used to turn down overtime in the factory. Her fellow workers were amazed, but their priorities in life were not our priorities. We were self contained, totally oblivious to the world outside Ponton Heath and Kesteven College. Life was indeed good and I looked forward to four years of the same. But, surprise, surprise, life is never that simple.

Tuesday 16 September 2008

A week in the life of....

We drive through a small village in South Derbyshire. An openreach van is parked opposite a parked car. With great difficulty, and only by pulling in both mirrors I squeeze through. My concern that an ambulance or fire engine would not have got through at all is met with abuse from the householder standing nearby, (elderly and female, she ought to have known better) and no concern is shown by the workman. Seemingly mending household telephones is of more importance than the safe passage of emergency vehicles.
We contact three estate agents and are astounded and dismayed as to how little our house we have to sell is worth. Meanwhile banks around the world continue to collapse and the media talks only of recession.
We call at the local fish and chip shop. My vehicle (a motorhome) is larger than average so I park away from other vehicles whilst my wife attends to our order. Two young men prowl, (strut might be a better word) the area and glare menacingly in my direction; one spits consistently. They buy tins of beer in the off licence and are gone. By now I am surrounded by cars. A large car parks almost in the doorway of the newsagents, its occupant unwilling to walk more than a few feet. It is now difficult for him to drive off easily. He scowls and gesticulates in my direction and drives off.
We attend the Derby County versus Sheffield United football match. It is a fraught affair and tempers become heated at the referees decisions. Again abuse takes over, furious, personal abuse a lack of self control in adults who are old enough to know better.
We wait until most vehicles have left; it is busy on the roads normally, never mind numbers drastically increased by football traffic. It is by now dusk (A late afternoon kick off , television tends to rule British league football kick off times). I am astounded to have to negotiate round an elderly man on a cycle, no lights, no sense, no regard for other road users or his own safety. The end of an uneasy, incident filled week, we all feel somewhat drained. But I do not feel deflated and I'll tell you why.
My youngest daughter is expecting her third child and never has an easy time during pregnancies. In the week she was rushed into hospital and things looked ominous. We waited with baited breath. And, hey presto, a scan revealed no problems. I don't consider myself a religious person (in many ways I wish I was) but this traumatic event, not for the first time reminded me of our frailty, our vulnerability. So to hell with abusive people, incompetent banks, selfish fools and downright stupid twerps. There is so much more to life. And by the way, It didn't rain all day and Derby County won a league match for the first time in 361 or was it 362 days!

Thursday 11 September 2008

Waste not, Want not.

We have been moving since Saturday 26th July; day after day after day after day. Friends have helped on occasion for which I am eternally grateful. But in the main it has been Paulette and myself. I can remember only two days that we have not made the trip between the two houses. My motorhome of six months is now filthy, scratched and sadly dented. The bill apparently estimated at £440.
Today meant another trip to the local tip. I find myself going through black bin bags just to check exactly what my wife has bagged up whilst I was out of sight. I retrieve several items. I am one of many who throws little away. Is it a remnant of a poor childhood? Is it reminiscent of my age group? You tell me.
I find myself taking the wheels off a bed prior to its disposal: don't ask why. I take a portable clothesline to our new home. I check in at the local B and Q and, horror of horrors, a new insert into the ground to support it is nearly £8. I hastily return to the old house complete with chisels and with some difficulty prise the old one, concreted in out of the ground. Who wouldn't have done the same!
My grandmother never threw away sour milk. Instead it was forced through a gauze cloth (or a stocking) to make cottage cheese. The first milk from a cow after it had calved (called beastings), normally thrown away was a favourite of hers. (She died six months short of her hundredth birthday.) Peg rugs covered the floor and mould on food was carefully scraped off and the rest retained. It was only penicillin after all, was it not. My butcher friend never ever threw away meat that had gone black; the public would not accept it but he maintained it never did him any harm. Who has never collected bits of string or rubber bands until you had the largest of balls? More important I suppose, who ever found a use for such treasures. My aunt never threw away the last of the soap, instead placing it in a jam jar in the kitchen. Where it stood right through my formative years, an horrific, gooey mess, enough to give one nightmares. Mind you, my aunt was especially eccentric. She even turned the refrigerator off when she went out. She refused to have carpets on the floor, maintaining that 'people only walked on them' whatever that meant!
Her husband Roland, a favourite of mine had the largest contact lens I ever saw, not many years after the war. He cleaned it with Brasso an astounding choice but not medically proven!
I covered my kitchen floor with carpet tiles of varying colours, no choice available but enterprisingly matched in an ingenious pattern unique to my abode. And making briquettes from concrete and coal dust was both satisfying and cheap.
I hope the word 'tight' refers to others. We all know the type who is always last in the pub so he doesn't have to buy the first (and most expensive) round. I knew a couple who could make a small chicken last all week. (Dinner, sandwiches, stock, soup.) Which begs the question, when does thrift become meanness. Or are they one and the same?

Saturday 6 September 2008

Respect All Creatures Great and Small

This week internationally has been dominated by the gun toting would be American Vice President Sarah Palin, evidently 'a pitbull with lipstick.' I personally cannot grasp as to whether she is typical of American women. If she is so God help America.
Much more interesting was a story concerning a bunch of bananas in a Co-op store in Chatham, Kent. A large spider was discovered, eventually identified as a dangerous arachnid from South America, Phoneutria nigriventer. Aggressive, not unlike our friend Sarah, it was coaxed into a separate box to await the RSPCA.
The incident reminded me of my years as a young trainee with F W Woolworth 's. Insect life was also of interest to Woolworth’s on the fruit and vegetable scene. We trainees were shown examples of exotic and often dangerous creatures likely to hitch a ride in bananas and other fruit from their tropical abodes. My education enhanced on learning they were in fact called arthropods. I was therefore delighted, early in my Woolworths education when I espied a large, ginger, numerous legged, lively arthropod in a box of newly arrived bananas. I coaxed him, for I had decided he was male into a matchbox with the aid of a stick, not an easy task due to his size and aggression. I transported my prize to the store manager’s office. Surely to be awarded praise indeed for initiative and dedication to duty. I burst into the office without ceremony, retrieved the box from my pocket and with a triumphant “Have you seen this!” placed the box on the boss’s desk and opened it carefully, a little at a time, until, fully opened, it revealed, absolutely nothing! Just an empty box a and a panic stricken trainee who spent the next fifteen minutes stripped off, completely and utterly engaged in a frantic search for an unhappy myriapod that was never to be seen again!
Strangely enough the Chatham incident made me think of the, to me, scary Sarah. The spider reminded me of her, aggressive to the core. But the attitude of some customers was interesting too. No "What a fabulous creature." No "Isn't nature wonderful." No, the customers retort was "We'll kill it for you." How brave of them, but not very British, lads.
The connection to Sarah Palin? I saw in the paper a picture of Sarah's parents in their cosy little abode. Present were more animals than in the local forest. On the sofa cum settee the largest bear skin imaginable; on the walls at least two more; plus animal skulls, horns and what looked suspiciously like a sheep. The latter not exactly the most dangerous species in the world. Definitely not, for the most dangerous species ever born would be at the other end of the gun.
If I see one more picture of the woman posing, proudly grinning over any animal corpse whatsoever I promise you my screams will be heard the other side of the Atlantic. With the right, no wrong luck this woman could be the most powerful person on planet earth. Hand me my gun, only I've never owned one since I grew up; some of us do.

Wednesday 3 September 2008

Home Sweet Home Six

1970 marked the end of life as a single man. No longer a totally selfish existence considering no one but myself. What a shock to the system after thirty years! Paulette and I married in April and after a brief honeymoon in the Lake District settled into domesticity with an elderly friend of the family, a Mrs Wilson. Some found our choice of honeymoon night at Knutsford amusing; Knutsford is far from amusing I can assure you. Neither was it funny when Paulette crashed my beloved Mini Cooper two or three days into our honeymoon. I took it remarkably well, I thought, it could have easily been one of the shortest marriages on record.
I remember nothing of living under Mrs Wilsons roof. (Evidently it was always dark and Mrs Wilson was into pot plants.) It was an inauspicious start to marriage, hard though the lady tried to make us comfortable. It was some relief when the council provided us with premises on our own. I would like to say their generosity knew no bounds, alas this would not be true.
The council gave us the tenancy of an upstairs council flat in Newbold, close to the Eagle Youth Club which I ran as warden come dogsbody. But I was naive, we were both young and we enjoyed life in our own innocent way. The flat was tiny, actually only the upper floor of what was originally a semi detatched council house. Again the details are remembered by my wife and not myself, consisting of a through lounge come kitchen, a bedroom and a tiny boxroom.
The estate was noisy, lively with no pretentions whatsoever. It is not true that even dogs roamed in pairs but it was not exactly the best address in town. But we were young, it was our first home together and we were perfectly happy in our own little world. The only problem was, as Paulette came in of an evening from her job as a comptometer operator at the nearby Glass Tubes factory, I would be going out to run the youth club. It was obvious that another more compatible existence was needed. Nevertheless they were happy days and our tiny flat was certainly 'home' in its own way.