Wednesday 31 December 2008

On Peace and Quiet

Many of the general public recognise the saying 'Them that can do, them that can't teach.' There is also the addition, 'Them that can't teach, teach teachers.' There were, and still are, thankfully, many dedicated teachers, especially the younger element, outnumbering the pompous twerps the profession sometimes attracts. 'Twas always the case.

I was late entering a profession that can at times bring out the child in you. (How many wives, and husbands for that matter have rebuked a spouse or partner with the phrase, 'You're not at school now.') You thus have experience of life outside teaching; a slight disadvantage being that you are then not always on the same wave length as those experienced only in academia, academia, academia. (I have met a number of teachers who indignantly claim, 'I haven't only just done teaching you know,' citing six weeks at the local Co-op in the college holiday as evidence of massive industrial experience.)

In my teaching days, long since gone, I was sometimes timetabled to teach drama. Now I had no training in drama and little help via the department. Par for the course I suppose, some teachers protected their little world from other teachers, afraid you might learn their secrets. Perhaps also in case you found out what insecure fools they often were, self opinionated idiots with tiny intellects and massive egos.

I spent many years in various, unimportant may I add, occupations before I joined the 'elite'. Thus some of my lessons tended to be non text book, but the kids seemed to like it. I used to tell the story of the play, (Agatha Christie?) where an individual is dead on stage, within, is it five minutes. And remains there for the duration of the play.Then we, as a lesson 'auditioned' for the play. (No doubt not original, as someone is sure to point out, but who honestly cares.) The children would cavort around the room until, at the sound of a whistle (remember the days we teachers had whistles) the children would collapse on the floor. (No one else on the floor allowed within touching distance). Whether the children were on their backs, stomachs, sides, no matter. A couple of minutes to get comfortable and the fun started. I walked around the room and intently examined the 'corpses'. A twitching eye, a jerky foot, a spasmodic contraction of any body part and you were out. (Any children with inherent 'ticks' were allowed two goes.) You were out if you felt teachers boot or shoe poking gently in the ribs. (Gently, honest! Many had their eyes closed.) With thirty pupils and the majority happily intent on 'winning' it was one hell of a way to spend a lesson, I can tell you. I don't suppose it would be either PC or acceptable nowadays but I'm not going to justify myself to anyone. The children enjoyed it and it was repeated at intervals.

The pupils I taught in the main were lively, not over privileged, exuberant often ill disciplined individuals. Lying still and silent on a school floor did not come naturally to them. Plus the 'winner' was always thrilled to bits and was often not the one you would have expected to be so. Even the concept of a winner would probably be frowned on today. Which led to a second drama lesson, Stevens style. I realised laying, (for never expect kids to do what you won't do yourself,) amongst silent for once, secondary school pupils meant every sound in and around the four storey building could now be heard.

We were next to the canteen, often last lesson before dinner and every clank of crockery reverberated round the large hall in which the pupils lay. This time it was not considered a contest. The pupils merely made themselves comfortable, closed their eyes and listened. What an eye opener for us all, myself included: the sound of the hall clock, the mower on the field, the PE teacher bellowing instructions, also on the field; the French class, chanting parrot style on the fourth floor and the office typewriter clacking away in the general office. Plus the sound of heavier and heavier breathing from an immobile Form Three N. At the end of a lesson pupils were often reluctant to re-enter the noisy real world. Often some feigned sleep but there were instances when a child did really go to sleep, to the amusement and probably envy of his or her fellow pupils. Happy days and I feel we all learnt something, myself included.

This week some unlucky shoppers experienced a three hour noisy, smelly wait to leave a car park in the middle of Derby. Welcome to the real world. I am reminded of my makeshift drama lessons by something I bought before Christmas. But new to this blogging lark, I was advised by an experienced blogger basically 'Not to go on' in a blog! Good advice, my man, here's to the next blog. Hopefully all will be revealed.

Saturday 27 December 2008

Here Endeth the Lesson

I personally thought the Royle Family were the stars of TV Christmas but then I must admit I'm somewhat biased.
My youngest daughter teaches in a reasonably sedate infant and junior school with no male staff. The other teachers maintained there are no families remotely like the Royle Family, my daughter Alison put them right. "You haven't met my dad" she announced in a staffroom discussion and I must admit, reluctantly I can see what she means. For, like Jim Royale, I too am bearded, not over involved with domesticity and 'carried' to a large extent by my long suffering, though usually willing wife. But it was Jim's wife Barbara who particularly caught my eye, and ear this Christmas. Definitely aspiring to better things, her appreciation of Denise's 'fire retarded settee' was a brilliant observation of the limitations of so many of the working class in Britain today. (No accusations of snobbery etc, please, I too consider myself working class and speak with a northern accent, but try not to speak in grunts or lace every other sentence with f*** this or f*** that.)
I spent many years trying to teach secondary school pupils many skills, including a grasp of basic English. Make no mistake, for some education and a reasonable vocabulary were the means of escape from a hum-drum, low paid, monotonous existence. Surely an admirable goal and we had many successes I am pleased to say. But boy, was it hard work.
For mastering the English language figured low on the list priorities of many Noel Baker Comprehensive pupils.
Try teaching the delights of English Literature on a Monday morning when fifteen year olds Marge and Belinda are more interested in their sexual adventures in step-mum's caravan at Mablethorpe or step-dad's blue movies over the weekend. So much of life in school was not designed to widen a pupils grasp and appreciation of the English language in all its glory.
I suppose letters from home telling us that Adam was off school because 'Mum has been under the doctor again' was at least understandable. (It was difficult to talk to mum on Parents Evening when you have this image in mind.) At least she attended the meeting. Likewise the mother who wrote 'I think Mary's had the flu, even her dad was hot last night.' Though I never did meet the lady who wrote me an indignant letter after I suggested Brenda was apathetic. "How dare you suggest there is madness in our family" she lamented. This from a generation that could sometimes be excused as many missed out on a decent education.
Many of the children I taught were not particulary privileged. Monosyllables at home were often the order of the day plus a fair bit of cussing. I managed to raise the tone a little by banning swearing in the classroom, myself included. Which I suspect increased the swearing in the yard at break fourfold.
We looked at Shakespeare, John Donne and Roger McGough. We cried at Of Mice and Men and laughed at the Reverend Spooner. 'Let us glase our asses and toast the queer dean.'
I tried not to patronise the pupils and we had weekly sessions where words we had come across had to be deciphered as homeworks. Not all had access to dictionaries at home therefore the results varied. Alice suggested a pessimist was something her mother bought from the chemist whilst Thomas decided that an enigma was something you put up your bottom. (Were they both told answers by adults.)
If it was difficult then, I feel for modern teachers. There was no texting in my day, surely a large part of the problem. Who needs a vocabulary; why bother with spelling 'wen U don't nede 2.' Alas, I fear the problem will get worse. A general fall in standards is at best a shame, at worst a crime. Barbara, sail on in blissful ignorance. I'm off to practice 'Yer what' and 'Yer know' in case I ever meet any of my footballing heroes. Hundred thousand a week and not a GCSE in sight. Who's the mug, lads. Spare a quid or two for your old teacher.
( Some of you might like blog dated 25th April, Happy Days but not for Everyone. The material for Early Retirement was based on seventeen years teaching at Noel Baker.)

Wednesday 24 December 2008

Will the Real Santa Please Stand Up

When you're at your next cocktail party and the conversation flags I'll tell you exactly what to work into the conversation. "I say, Montmorency, do you know how fast facial hair grows." (Facial hair, please, lets keep it clean.) Then you can hold your finger and thumb around half an inch apart (metric equivalent I've no idea) and say "This much in three months." As Michael Caine would say, "Not a lot of people know that."
Now how do I know such things. I know many useless things but nothing remotely useful. For instance, how many bones are there in a giraffes neck. Seven, the same as humans. Cows get up on their front legs first; horses their back legs. Or is it the other way round! Knowledge gleaned from years of laborious book studying. Fine, but not as pleasing as knowledge gained from first hand, personal experience, hard toil suffered over months in the pursuit of excellence. (I've got the feeling my school motto talked of 'the pursuit of excellence', but I digress.)
Two years ago I dressed up as Father Christmas, right down to artificial full-length beard. Elaborate preparations included changing in my motorhome round the corner from my grandchildren and my daughter scattering ‘Reindeer Dust’ on her house front. I walked up the street complete with sack. “Who’s this coming up the road?” Angelina aged five is asked by mother.
“Father Christmas” she replies on cue, eyes wide with amazement. “Who is it?” is enquired of brother Tommy, not yet three. “Santa Granddad” is the instant dismissive reply. Out of the mouth of babes and all that! (In the house later when asked where Santa went he again pointed to me, out of uniform, so to speak. "He's there" he again uttered with unchildlike authority.)
This Christmas, as a favour I am to dress up again as Santa, a favour for some small children I know. And yes, the parents do approve, a consideration that cannot be ignored in this PC inclined, often sinister world. Mind you, for some even Santa himself is considered non PC but what the hell. Plus this year there is to be no artificial beard but the real thing, thus the no trimming agenda since September. And though I am normally a hirsuted individual, its a number four clippered cut rather than Santa's more flowing locks. So the trick is to time the 'no beard trim' period long enough to be a reasonably authentic Father Christmas; but not long enough to give the appearance of Rip Van Winkle or be arrested in the town centre and charged with vagrancy.
I must confess I have had some funny looks from small children recently. And I must also confess I have glared at one or two misbehaving reprobates in the supermarket. Plus the rebuke, "Now stop being naughty, I'm Santa's brother and you'll get 'b' all if you don't be good" has had some amazing effects. (Don't worry or underestimate children, they soon bounce back, honest!)
So the Day of Judgement has arrived. It is twelve weeks since the last trim. Will I convince today's doubting, often streetwise at four infants. Or will I be exposed as just another fraud in a cynical, commercial world. What do you think.

Monday 22 December 2008

We're Not Daft, Honest.

There's a saying in Derbyshire, 'Strong in the arm, weak in the head' but I'm having none of it. We may give the impression of straw chewing yokels at times but that's a deliberate, cunning ploy to put you cleverer brain boxes off guard. Make no mistake, we Derbonians are far from stupid.
I know I've erred in the past but I've admitted it. There must be hundreds of people who have gone to town on their bike and come home on the bus. Go on then, dozens; several; half a dozen; anybody else?
Left your library books on the roof of your car whilst you unlocked it and then drove off? Nobody? I don't believe you. Anyway ,that was all a long time ago.
So I put my hands up the contraceptive machine opening in an hotel toilet in mistake for the hand dryer. I can't help being short sighted and it gave the young lad standing at the urinal a laugh. If our short stay on earth gives someone a smile surely we've done some good; anyway, that was months ago.
We've all grown up now and are well into this modern technological age. And we Derbonians can compete with the rest of you, senior citizens though we may well be. On line auctions did I hear you say. Alright, so we bought a digital camera in an on line auction, pressed the wrong buttons and finished up with three. I'm sure anyone could make the same mistake. And that's partly what life is about, learning from your mistakes.
So I consider we, my wife and I are now experienced, sophisticated twenty first century citizens more than capable of dealing with all that modern living can thrust at us.
Christmas is nearly here. We are spending it quietly at home, just the two of us, by choice, in our dotage. The minimum of food necessitating the minimum of fuss. My wife has carefully listed the necessary vegetables, easily obtained at the last minute. And left to me the turkey would have been bought the same way. Only my wife still remembers the Christmas we forgot to defrost the turkey until Christmas Eve. Trying to find a fresh version at eight o'clock on Christmas Eve is not easy, I can tell you. Which was slightly better than the time we left the Christmas chicken on the kitchen table to defrost and the cat thought it was Christmas and its birthday rolled into one. Mind you, the bits that it left were ok. Come on, I was a poor student at the time. It was either that or roasting the cat.
So on Sunday we visited Donington Market, on of the largest Sunday markets in the Midlands. The lorry selling meat was, as always doing a roaring trade. Very competitive prices; in fact very, very competitive prices. It's not true the beef has saddle marks on it if you look closely but I do wonder why the large difference between market and shop price; ours is not to reason why.
As it happens we were later in the afternoon than normal and all the fresh turkeys were gone. In fact all the turkeys were gone except for one lone, forlorn individual. But no matter, we only wanted one and weighing 8-6 seemed ok to us. (Our daughter suggested we take some of our left over turkey when we visit her on Boxing Day. Good move, who says today's young are remotely daft.) Pleased with our purchase we made our way back through the mud to our motorhome. To be honest I was glad when we got there. It was further than I thought and I was becoming well aware that I was not the spring chicken, carrying a Christmas turkey, (ha!) I used to be. Years ago I would have carried double the weight with half the problem.
I ought to have cottoned on, so to speak when we couldn't find a plate big enough on which to put our turkey. Plus, horror of horrors, an oven practice suggested our turkey was going to necessitate at best, removing all shelves, at worst, decapitation. It was slowly dawning there was a problem. And if the problem was obvious to twenty first century man it was not to twentieth century dinosaurs. How were we to know 8-6 was not 8lbs 6ounces but 8-6 kilos; by my reckoning, nearer twenty pounds than nineteen. Why the hell did we ever go metric. Its now defrosting in the outhouse; anyone for Christmas dinner. Oh. and evidently we can forget the after Christmas sales; our daughter says we're banned.

Saturday 20 December 2008

Bring on the Clowns

I were doing my favourite past time, ear wigging in a pub recently. What an enlightening experience. Cut glass accents and nauseating bilge.
'Must get the BM' serviced; isn't steak getting expensive, eating out more than twice a week's quite exorbitant; I say, it's so cold, can't wait for Christmas in the Bahamas; and aren't gym fees getting expensive.'
Now it's nowt to do wi me but what daft apuths. Who sang 'Times They are A'changing'; a truism indeed.
Owd yer sweat and stop yer grizzlin', yov no idea 'What's it all about, Alfie.'
Ow were dragged up in Ockbrook, a very desirable place to live in Derbyshire. Now full of some very posh people; or at least they think they're posh.
We 'ad nowt thenadays but we didn't do the chunterin' this lot do.
Right mardy boggers. They don't know what it is to scrat for the rent. Steak, there were no steak when I were young. If yow got bread and dripping for snap you et it an' gor on wi' it.
And nesh buggers, they don't know what code is. I've bin all of a shek wi code many a time. It's starvin, so what. A birra snow never urt no-one. Pura another ganzi on and stop mitherin. And if their doolally div kids did more instead of slormin about at 'om they wouldn't feel the code 'alf so much. Plus they wudna be so fat. Gym fees, gym fees, that's a belter. We just put our pumps on and ran roun' village until we were taitered. Us kids might 'ave been lairy but there were no fat kids in our day. I cud clonk em, I really cud. If they want to talk rammel, it's their, whats that posh word, preg, prog, progative. But as my mother would have said, 'Ah canna abide snobs, mi duck, but ni mind eh.'

Thursday 18 December 2008

Health and Safety Rules OK

I bought an awesome object yesterday. So awesome that you use it at your own risk. The instructions are detailed and must be read prior to use. 'Failure to follow all instructions may result in electric shock, fire and/or serious personal injury. WARNING: To reduce the risk of injury, the user must read and understand the operator's manual before using this product.'
I unpack gingerly and check for damage, for the object must not be used if damage has occurred during shipping and handling. (One never knows, it could have been subject to storms at best, hurricane or typhoon at worst.)
Everything seems ok. I proceed to remove my jewellery, rings, bracelets etc as instructed. I seek out my best non-skid footwear as advised and put on my electrically conductive gloves bought specially for the task in hand.
I take off my glasses for 'Everyday glasses have only impact resistant lenses. Plus ordinary glasses have no side shields.' (The manual actually says lense, not lenses but I know what it means, for 'ordinary glasses are NOT safety glasses.')
I check that there are no adults near to the working area as I have unfortunately only one pair of safety glasses and 'adults near the work area must wear safety glasses.'
I put my hair covering in place as suggested and strategically place my ear muffs close by in case the procedure takes too long. Taking care of course to remember that I MUST NOT overreach should I find I need the ear muffs, because 'proper footing and balance is a must at all times.' I mentally check whether I now meet the criteria required to use such an obviously dangerous weapon. I have had no medication today as required though I have been on it for several years; I have refrained from alcohol and leisure drugs for twenty four hours; I feel ready for the task ahead, if a little lightheaded. Remembering of course to avoid distractions while operating, for 'distractions can cause you to lose control '.
I wonder whether I am up to the difficult, technical, dangerous task in hand but I have arrived at the point of no return. I take a deep breath, press the button and my new, AA 4.8v Cordless Rechargeable Screwdriver whirrs into life. For Singing Santa needs new batteries inserting if Christmas is to be saved.

Answers to a Christmas Quiz

Answers as promised. Love to know who scored what without looking up answers. To be honest I now reckon anything over ten would be quite good. It's my quiz and I'd be hard pushed!

Answer sheet A Christmas Quiz by Ken Stevens

1 Norway Spruce (Pice abres)
2 Hellebore
3 Ash
4 A holly tree
5 Mistletoe
6 Nine drummers drummimg
7 Prince Albert
8 a ‘Joey’
9 December 25th
10 Tom Smith (Victorian pastry cook)
11 Isiah 9 verse 6 and 7
12 Luke 2 verses 1 and 2
13 The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir
14 And fit us for Heaven, to live with thee there.
15 Indian Ocean
16 Discovered Christmas Day
17 Workhouse
18 Christmas pudding
19 Christmas pudding again!
20 Mrs Beeton
21 4 shillings (twenty new pence)
22 Probably after alms boxes(the day after Christmas)
23 Good King Wenceslas
24 January 6th
25 Holiday Inn
26 Jimmy Boyd
27 Dora Bryan
28 Greg Lake
29 Bruce Springsteen
30 Irving Berlin
31 John Lennon
32 The Little Match Girl
33 Hans Christian Anderson
34 Louisa May Alcott
35 Little Women
36 The Wind in the Willows
37 Kenneth Grahame
38 Adrian Mole
39 Sue Towsend
40 Saint Nicholas’ faithful servant (Dutch)
41 Peter Paul Rubens (also painted Giorgione)
42 Saint Boniface (Germany)
43 Turkey farm (Bernard Mathews)
44 Samuel Pepys
45 York Minster
46 to 50 Any five from: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid,
Donner, Blitzen.

Monday 15 December 2008

Christmas is a' Coming

I know it's not really a blog but who cares. A quiz I set whilst teaching to keep the blighters quiet. (The children were allowed to look up answers.) How I miss those end of term days in teaching. Answers in a day or two. Atheists, agnostics and down right miseries, look away now.

A Seasonal Quiz by Ken Stevens

Nature and Christmas

1 ‘A Christmas tree’ is traditionally what species?
2 What is another name for a ‘Christmas Rose’?
3 A traditional Yule log should be what sort of wood?
4 What traditionally sprang from the ground where Christ first stood?
5 What ‘plant is also known as ‘Heal-all’?

Five miscellaneous questions

6 What did my true love send to me on the 9th day of Christmas?
7 Who is credited with introducing the Christmas tree to England?
8 What was the nickname of the little silver three-penny bit often put inside Christmas puddings?
9 On which day was Charlemagne crowned Emperor?
10 Who is credited with introducing ‘Christmas crackers’ to England?

Christmas is after all a religious festival

11 Where from: ‘ For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given’?
12 Again: ‘And it came to pass, in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus’?
13 ‘The rising of the sun and the running of the deer’? Next line, please.
(last line of The Holly and the Ivy)
14 Similarly ‘Bless all the children in thy tender care’?
(Away in a manger)

Ten mixed questions

15 Which ocean is Christmas Isle in?
16 Why was it so called?
17 George R Sims used to recite a monologue about ‘Christmas Day in the ………?
18 Similarly Stanley Holloway used to sing about ‘Old Sam’s Christmas …….’?
19 1½lb raisins 1½lb currants. ¾lb breadcrumbs. ½lb mixed peel ¾lb suet. 8 eggs 1 wine glassful of brandy
Numbers 19, 20 and 21 . A ‘recipe for what? Whose recipe? What was its cost
22 What is Boxing Day probably named after?
23 Bohemian nobleman, 10th century, murdered , aged 26, by his mother and brother?
24 When does the Greek/Russian Orthodox Church celebrate the birth of Christ?
(the old date for Christmas)

For those musically inclined

25 ‘White Christmas’ was first sang in which 1942 movie?
26 Who, in 1953, ‘saw mommy kissing Santa Claus’?
27 Who, in 1963, sang ‘All I want for Christmas is a Beatle’?
28 Who sang, ‘ I believe in Father Christmas’ in the 1970’s? (his only solo UK hit)
29 Who sang ‘Father Christmas is coming to town’ in 1985?
30 Who wrote ‘White Christmas’?
31 Who scored with ‘Happy Christmas, war is over’?

Christmas/seasonal literature

‘It was so dreadfully cold! It was snowing, and the evening was beginning to darken.’
32 Which famous story? 33 The author?
‘ Jo was the first to wake in the grey dawn of Christmas’
34 The authoress? 35 Which famous story?
‘I think it must be the field-mice’ replied the ….. with a touch of pride in his manner. ’They go
round carol singing regularly at this time of the year.’
36 The novel? 37 The author?
‘Sat 25th Dec. Got up at 7.30. Had a wash and shave, cleaned teeth, squeezed spots then went upstairs.’
38 The book? 39 The writer?

A Mixed Selection

40 Who is Black Peter? ( a clue-Holland)
41 Who painted ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ in 1624?
42 Who is the saint associated with the Christmas tree?
43 The worlds largest 'what’ is at great Witchington, Norfolk?
44 Who tells us he was late for Communion. 25th December, 1662?
45 Only one Christian Church (building in England) uses mistletoe in decorations. Which?
Finally, name five of Santa’s reindeer. There are eight possibilities.
Nos 46, 47, 48,49,50.

Over twenty, excellent. Ten to twenty, not too bad. Nought to ten, not very good, but Happy Christmas all the same!

Friday 12 December 2008

Reflections of a Not so Hard Sexagenarian

It's the time of year for parties, present wrapping and school nativities. Thus there are numerous blogs with a 'feel good factor'. Nearly all written by ladies, often mothers who are most in tune with the season of good will. Which made me think, particularly this week, if too many of us males have lost, or never had a gentle streak, necessary in a hard, combative, aggressive, worried world.
Many of my generation were brought up acutely aware that to be male was to be manly. Men were allowed to swear and drink pints, not halves; to fight, fly aeroplanes and work down the pit. Too often crude, rude and unappreciative of partners or wives who deserved better. As children we had toys, if only a few; boys had guns, girls had dolls. Men went to work, women shopped, went home and prepared the men's food; men were strong, women were weak. In a country wearied after years of war and deprivation all too often attitudes seemed to reflect a British stoicism that is almost frightening.
I had no father at home, not unusual in those long gone days. On the 8th September, 1953, the 8th being a Tuesday, I arrived home from school. For reasons I cannot remember, I went to the house of my grandmother, around a mile from my own home. Aunt Mary was at the house as well as Grannie Hudston. I cannot remember exactly what was said, but I remember Mary crying as she informed me that my mother had been very ill, from pneumonia and had died. As simple as that! I remember no tears from myself, and I cannot recall that I knew my mother was in fact ill. Then I did what was in retrospect an amazing thing. I left the house, alone, and did my paper round. An action that sounds almost coldly clinical especially where thirteen year old boys are concerned. But I am sure now that I was probably in shock; plus the fact that years of existing in an emotional vacuum had to a certain extent desensitized me where everyday emotions were concerned.
This was the way my family, the Hudstons, that is, dealt with the situation. Perhaps this is the way many families dealt with life, and ultimately death in the immediate post war years. And this is the way I personally dealt with the problem. It was the only way I knew. No doubt in part allied to the fact that, being boys, we were encouraged ‘to be brave’ as undoubtedly men should be. And though the ‘manly’ bit was implied rather than being actively instilled, what I do remember is this. I was smaller than other boys of my age. On occasion bullied, deliberately or otherwise; to show weakness made the transgressions even more likely to be repeated.
Herein lies the phrase than has probably shaped my life more than any other. For the term ‘cry baby’ was commonly used among us children, a title that was cuttingly cruel and devastatingly effective. To be ‘a cry baby’ implied weakness, and a cry baby I was usually not. At the expense of showing feeling or emotions that often should have been the normal emotional response to life’s problems.
There was no greater love in my life than my mother. But it was a love not based on kisses and cuddles. Mary, my mother was usually far too busy, and often far too exhausted to show maternal affection in an everyday family sense. That she loved my sister and myself was never in doubt. But a constant round of cleaning for various well to do families in the village, plus hours in between as a school cook was all consuming. Add ironing, home cooking, clothes mending and shopping and it was obvious that the burden was awesome in the extreme. On my mother’s death certificate, at the age of forty-six it read, ‘cause of death, pneumonia’. It would have been more honest had it read ‘ death due to overwork’.
Fast forward to December 10th, 2008. My wife and I attended the nativity of Silverhill Infants School. My highly talented daughter, Alison organised this event for the umpteenth time, seemingly contracted for ever. My equally talented son in law, Simon, not a teacher, arranged the music. Their children, Angelina and Tommy, pupils at the school participated with enthusiasm, as did each and every other pupil at the school. The children are of mixed sex, age and religious persuasion; the performance of each and everyone was nothing short of brilliant. There was pathos, occasional unintentional humour and talent by the bucket load. The audience, mothers, fathers, grandparents and family friends almost glowed with pride. I glanced surreptitiously around and there were few dry eyes in the audience; I confess I was no exception. (As a matter of interest, when did you last shed a tear?) What was it Johny Ray used to sing, 'It's no secret, you feel better if you cry.' (It is purely an observation, there is not one single male teacher at this school.)
An event no doubt repeated in virtually every area of Britain. In these troubled times there is hope for us all. On the surface many still proffer a hard, unyielding front. But underneath there is often a softer, more loving, less inhibited affection that is nurtured by many parents everywhere, but particularly by today's liberated mothers. And even the modern male is allowed to show his feminine side on occasion. I drink to that, though a pint, please and not a half!

Monday 8 December 2008

Every House Should Have One

In the main I blog to keep what's left of my brain active. At the same time I struggle to find something on which to write. I don't have the urge to write everyday, be topical or 'up to date' and of any case others do it better. ( Which doesn't mean I don't care what's happening in the world.) But I do enjoy it plus I may be grumpy but I try not to be boring. Which in a way is strange because I suddenly find myself writing a semi technological blog when I consider myself to be the least technological person in the world. Now talk about money and I'm yours, but for once the two are linked hence my interest. Let me explain.
Southern Electric recently sent us a thingy me bob that measures instantly how much electricity you are using at any one time. And boy is that a life changing experience. My wife fixed it up, plugged in (I told you I don't do technology) and away we went.
We recently moved house, having bought my daughter and son in law's bungalow, a state of the art little palace in which to end our days; but not yet I hope. So the running costs are unknown to us. Running costs, now they're boring for a start, but only a fool or a very rich man could ignore such things in this day and age.
The gadget has a screen that gives out continuous information. Now I know that electricity is measured in kilowatts (kW), without having the faintest idea what a kilowatt really is. No matter, as long as you know how much each one costs you're away. (Plus very cleverly the price is adjustable, you merely change the setting every time the price of electricity goes up, which is very frequently nowadays.) It also tells you what you used yesterday, what your monthly bill will be, etc, etc. Lecture over, now what.
My daughter, Sarah and husband Jeff Ascough ran a very successful photographic business from our present address that necessitated good lighting. Plus the younger generation are into modern 21st century living. So far removed from my early days. I remember sitting at home as a child doing homework, the hissing gaslight casting shadows, hindering my feeble efforts in the gloomy little room, the silverfish glinting in the embers of the fire. (Who was it who sang 'Those were the days my friend.') Sarah and family have gone to live in Lytham St Annes near Blackpool. Our bungalow would give Blackpool illuminations a run for their money.
We switched on our new toy, television was ignored and we watched the alternative screen with baited breathe. Basically a kilowatt of electricity is costing us around 13p. With virtually nothing switched on our costs are apparently around £27 a month. We try the four kitchen lights. (halogen). Evidently halogen lights use five times more electricity than ordinary lights. The cost immediately rockets to £47 a month. (Remember, four halogen lights only.) I turn on the electric kettle and it rockets the bill to £200 a month. I know you don't use an electric kettle for long but you get the picture.
I fetch a notebook and biro and walk round the house. I count at least fifty six light bulbs, of which forty three are halogen. I also count three televisions, two hi-fi systems, two Sky boxes and a radio. A washing machine, a tumble dryer, another dryer, a fridge, freezer, and two bread machines. A microwave, juicer, toaster, food mixer, computer, printer and a shredder. Plus the central heating is constantly on so the boiler naturally takes a hammering. Come to think of it, I don't know how the National Grid copes. Something has to go, something has to give, that's for sure.
Christmas decorations, bah, humbug. I sort out my seventy eight rpm records; my wind up gramophone needs a run out, it's so long since I last used it. Though I have a job reading the labels, especially in the dark. I hesitate, undecided, the choice, orchestral, Woody Herman or Tommy Dorsey. At least I'm not missing the central heating, three jumpers are better than two. Of any case, I'm going to bed in a minute. And I've not missed the television, honest. And if staying becomes too much of a bore, we can always go visiting. What nights are you in?

Sunday 7 December 2008

F W Woolworth, Going Going, Gone but Not Forgotten.

Evidently Woolworths this week had a giant sale, selling everything and everything at half price, so I am led to believe. I missed out as usual, but there again crowded shops are hardly my scene. But my memories remain (see Nov 27th) and I am a little taken aback as to how many have indicated to me fond memories of F W W.
Not Exactly the Calm Before the Storm.

Many Woolworth employee’s were unusual and some even unstable. Some of us would pass the dinner hour in the snooker hall round the corner above Burton the Tailor’s. A non-too salubrious establishment and a game frowned on by some.
On one occasion being beaten proved too much for one trainee, John, bigger and older than we seventeen year olds. We returned to Woolworths at the end of our allotted dinner hour and our defeated colleague proceeded to exhibit his displeasure by hurling large tins of paint around the stockroom. Inevitably some tins and lids parted company, paint in large quantities by now coating the stockroom floor in every conceivable colour. At which point our demented friend demanded that we lesser mortals clear up the mess. No volunteers forth coming, John proceeded to grab the individual standing nearest to his awesome display and, with considerable strength forced the luckless individual’s face along the paint stricken floor. It was what could only be called a ‘wobbly’ of significant proportions, in fact the first time I ever saw a nervous breakdown occurring at first hand. Senior staff were called and with some difficulty John was ejected from Woolworths premises, presumably for ever more. Where he promptly compounded his misdemeanour by announcing he was going to wait for one of the female staff whom he claimed was his fiancĂ©e by virtue of a ring he had given her in the none too distant past. Even more alarming he insisted he would cut off the ring if it was not forthcoming when she left for home. Police assistance was needed, the whole incident bizarre even by F W Woolworths standards. That John had a history of unstable behaviour and had in fact failed medical school examinations would indicate a cross section of Woolworth employees contained some unusual characters indeed.
We, two youths in ill-fitting khaki overalls and a be-suited, slightly more senior trainee daily carried, unarmed, large sums of money in full view through the town to a local bank, our trips regular, time and route no secret; definitely an unwise thing to do, yet indicative of a more naive, less aware era.
On one occasion a customer found a maggot in a quarter pound of peanuts. I thus spent an entire afternoon sifting through numerous seven pound boxes of peanuts for other examples of the grubby intruders. For no way would Woolworth’s destroy the whole consignment, profit first and foremost the reason for their very existence.
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!
Though we were paid to work and did so, thus enhancing F W Woolworth’s considerable profits, much of our time was spent creating diversions that amused. Not surprising considering many of us were undisciplined individuals under twenty-five years of age.
Hurling empty tea chests from the stockroom flat roof three storeys up into the yard below we thought funny in the extreme, yet fraught with danger for individuals blissfully unaware of our intentions.
Boring overtime was on occasions lightened by the riding of my motorcycle round the shop floor, the echoing noise deafening, the shop filled with choking fumes. Alternately we would don skates and participate in races round the counters, reminders of childhood so reluctantly left behind.
We made Woolworth’s money, but not without cost. The stockroom assistant who fell through the ceiling of the staff canteen, amidst the rhubarb and custard certainly reduced the profits that week. A lift sent up and down the lift shaft with the aid of a matchstick inserted alongside a button worked well. That is, until the lift was overloaded, the lift minus human control hurtling to the basement, the sound of arrival horrendous, the repair cost expensive in the extreme. No one to my knowledge ever admitted as to being the culprit but the practice ceased forthwith.
At times appearing an ill disciplined rabble, we had a certain camaraderie that made the place bearable. There was little to encourage loyalty to Woolworth’s, the feeling was always that we were expendable. Indeed, if there was any doubt about this fact, a single instance proved the fragility of our working existence. Woolworth’s were a non-union employee, though we tried to support each other. But the only time that we tried the tactic of ‘one for all and all for one’ we were emphatically defeated, and quickly. Fed up of overtime at short notice, minimum wages and a general feeling that our efforts were not appreciated we went on strike. Result a telephone call from the manager to the Labour Exchange with the request, ‘Send me ten men.’ Result, probably the shortest strike the world has ever known as ten disgruntled employees returned to their labours, even more disgruntled.
So life at FWW continued, and diversions continued to spice up our rather mundane existences. One morning an earth tremor in February 1957 which ran for many miles through the East Midlands shook the building, causing tins and bottles to cascade down from the stockroom shelves. We, staff and customers were alarmed to say the least. But not half as frightened as the workmen in the culvert under Victoria Street outside who, fearing for their lives, not surprisingly, like startled rabbits, surfaced at great speed
A shoplifter, upended within the shop by overzealous floor-walkers however illegal was a talking point for many a week. Life was seldom boring for very long, hard yes, but boring, never.
At times I wished to escape and attended interviews for other jobs, for instance selling vacuum cleaners, no wages but £6 commission paid for each vacuum cleaner sold. Even the daily grind at Woolworths was preferable to such dubious employment and I would have probably remained there for several if not many years had not the fates conspired against me.

Monday 1 December 2008

Not Always the Sweet Smell of Success

There's a funny smell in our motorhome; worse than usual. We don't have a car, my wife and I. So the not so old Fiat Ducati, 0008 PAU doubles as both car and carrier; and I mean carrier. Shopping, plants, bags for the tip; building materials, allotment produce; old friends and young relations, incontinency, probable and possible. They all go in. Which in itself is the problem. The smell could be anything. Not counting of course stale washing up water in the underfloor tank; or maybe the toilet tank or the fridge needs emptying.
The smell is strangely fish like; a mysterious, disgusting, decaying, putrid smell yet frustratingly unidentifiable. And its not going away. Immediately I am reminded of digs in Leicester all of forty three years ago. One young man I will ever remember. You always knew when he entered the house, an all pervading foot odour wafted through the building the like of which I have never smelt before or since. I assume there is a name for the problem. Developed in wartime I am sure it could be developed with devastating effect. Harry(not his real name) where are you now!
Strangely enough on of the large shoe manufacturers is having problems with trainers whose stink is a commercial disaster. Worry not, Nike, Harry's odour was world class, you are not in the same league!
Funny things, smells we take them for granted and only miss them when they're gone. And how magical is the ability to smell, both to smell and be smelled. So many questions, so many memories.
Why for instance do men and women smell different. Why do we love some smells and detest others. Who decides which is a 'good' smell and which is 'bad'? God or no God its all clever stuff. Ever been to Burton on Trent? The whole place stinks of hops, at least it used to. I remember visiting Bournville as a child and still remember the occasion. The sweet smell of cocoa powder hit you way before you set eyes on the place.
We had night riders visiting our row of cottages when I was a child. Men who emptied the outside toilets down the garden. Carrying huge pans of sewerage on their shoulders, the slops often cascading down their backs from overfilled containers. You didn't need to remember the days they came, dark or not dark you could tell when they arrived in the next street. They carried out their duties with cheerful abandon, enjoying their sandwiches in between jobs, sat on the lorry steps, oblivious of our nauseous retching.
We, as village children, rushed out to claim the steaming piles of horse dung frequently deposited in the road. And for what? To sell for pennies to gardeners who lovingly placed the stinking piles around their beloved rosebushes. The result, roses that offered the most heavenly scents known to man; how incredible is nature. (Could we be conditioned, I wonder, to love the smell of dung and hate the smell of roses?)
As I write this the faint smell of rubber is present. Emanating from gas masks on the wall of my 'museum'. No problem yet there are people who have a fetish for rubber. I wonder when mere liking something becomes a fetish or addiction. Glue sniffing was prevalent in my early days of teaching, a sticky, revolting past time not to be recommended. Plus a young chap of my acquaintance died after inhaling from a fire extinguisher. Similarly I was indirectly involved with someone who was addicted to cough mixture and died as a result. We are all different, presumably the sense of smell (and taste) is not equally distributed. I personally don't dislike the smell of garlic but it is not recommended where' l'Amour' is concerned. Please tell me why.
I could go on for ever. For instance, whatever happened to the idea of 'smelly films', the cinema reeking in harmony with the films subject matter. The possibilities were enormous, were any ever made? But enough is enough, I have work to do. Hand me a gas mask before I continue my search for the source of the elusive stench. By the way, any memorable smells in your life, or have you no sense of smell.