Always nice to get a positive review for one of my books and even better when it comes from another 'ex-pat' Burtonian! Carol post...
Wednesday, 29 December 2010
I have always loved New Year’s Eve. It seems such a time of real joy, optimism and goodwill. Admittedly, the inevitable hangover of New Year’s Day leads to feelings of depression, pessimism and downright belligerence, but it’s nice while it lasts.
My earliest, and fondest, recollections of New Year’s Eve are when we used to live in
Anglesey Road, Burton upon Trent in the 1950s, not too far from the Loco Sheds. At on 31st December, all the whistles and horns of the steam and diesel locomotives would be sounded in a great cacophony of celebration. Lying in bed, tucked up against the cold, I used to love hearing this explosion of industrial exuberance.
As the years wore on, I became less likely to be ‘tucked up in bed’ at New Year and more likely to be clutching a pint in some smoke-filled boozer (probably a reasonable description of me, then). Most of the memories of these celebrations, and the brain cells supporting them, have vanished in a sea of youthful alcoholic excess, but some remain firmly embedded in my consciousness.
One of my most tedious New Year’s Eves ever, happened in 1984. I found myself sitting in the lounge of our local club with three friends, playing dominoes. As the previous New Year’s Eve had been spent with my then girlfriend in a whirl of romance, I’m sure you can appreciate why playing dominoes was not a fitting substitute. As the evening wore on, everyone else went into the Bar to enjoy the, somewhat dubious, entertainment. When midnight arrived and the strains (and it was a strain) of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ filled the air, we four stood up, solemnly joined hands and sang, wished each other Happy New Year, sat down and resumed the game. That was it. I swore then never to spend another New Year like that (and to do something about the entertainment too) and I didn’t (and did), but that’s another story for another day.
I’m quite prepared to be corrected by every amateur meteorologist within a 20 mile radius, but I seem to remember that New Year’s Eve 1979 was a bitterly cold night, with ice and snow still lying on the pavements. Myself and a whole bunch of friends embarked on a pub crawl, starting in
Guild St. and heading up Station St. I remember the Midland Hotel, the Devonshire Arms, the Roebuck and the Station Hotel, but after that it’s a little hazy! What I do remember is walking one of the girls back home, somewhere in the region of the Town Hall. We spent some time saying goodnight (funny how long it used to take then, wish it did now) and I eventually, and reluctantly, set off home.
Filled with enthusiasm and alcohol, I marched up the entry, waved goodbye, strode forward…and immediately fell flat on my back. A look of horror flashed across my companion’s face but I ‘heroically’ brushed aside her concerns and hauled myself up again. I waited for her to go inside before starting off again. There was a good reason for this. I knew from bitter experience that, once I started falling down, it would keep happening. I always have (sober or otherwise). I seem to develop an irresistible attraction for terra firma in icy conditions.
I now had to walk from the Town Hall area to
South Broadway St., a distance of about 2 miles. To pass the time away, I counted the number of times that I hit the deck. In all, I crashed to the ground 26 times. I remember, with great clarity, the last occasion. I had just turned into All Saint’s Road from Uxbridge St., just a stone’s throw from my house. As I turned the corner, a couple across the road shouted “Happy New Year!”, I responded cheerily, waved to them and watched my feet head for the sky and my derriere for the ice and snow. “Are you all right?” the couple asked, full of concern, “It’s ok,” I replied from my horizontal position, “I’m getting used to it now.”
I think I might adopt that as my motto. Happy New Year to you all.
The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format for just £0.99 at Amazon UK and Amazon USA and now read the new bumper collection of stories, Crutches For Ducks also at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com , at the special price of just £1.99 - now extended to end of January, 2012.
Friday, 24 December 2010
This started life as a chapter in my 2005 book, "Steady Past Your Granny's". It has been updated following some very constructive criticism from my friends on Authonomy and The Book Shed. I'm delighted to say that it was published in the 2010 Christmas Eve edition of the Derby Telegraph, so I thought I would share it with a wider audience.
The little enclave was rank with the heavy odour of animals and old straw. Dimly they could see a donkey and a couple of oxen but there was the sense of others in the darkness, pressing closer. In the centre of the picture the tired mother, agitated father and sleeping infant were lit by a glow that could not easily be attributed to the single candle, guttering in the draught.
They approached closer and one of their number (as always happens) found himself thrust forward, the other two peering over his shoulder and breathing heavily with the excitement of it all. There was a stirring in the manger, the infant screwed its face and contorted its body in preparation for a good cry, then thought better of it and resumed a peaceful sleep. The activity dislodged a swaddling band, the three edged closer.
They looked carefully. They looked at each other in wonderment. They shook their heads. Eventually, one spoke.
“It’s a girl!” The lead spectator cried.
“Leave it out,” the father said a little too quickly, “it’s just cold, that’s all.”
“It is nippy.” Another member of the party agreed.
“You are joking, I take it?” The lead spectator snapped. “I’m a wise man. Everyone agreed?” He glowered at the assembly until a muffled assent was obtained. “And I’m telling you, that’s a girl.” He drew himself up to his full height, the crown grated against one of the roof beams and a shower of dust and dead spiders fell gently around his face, utterly destroying the effect he was trying to achieve by glaring at the sweating father.
“Look, it’s brass monkeys out there, innit?” The father hastily rearranged the swaddling bands. “You know how it is. And he’s only little to start with.”
“Just what are you trying to pull, eh?” The lead wise man was face to face now with the father. “We’ve travelled miles for this. On flaming camels! Have you any idea what that’s like?”
“Been a few miles on the donkey,” the father mumbled, “mind you, it’s the missus’s really. I’ve put me name down for a mule but I’m not holding me breath.”
“Well, let me tell you, my good man, imagine having your innards removed with a corkscrew, by a drunk, in the middle of a storm at sea, and you’re getting there. Not to mention what it does for your important little places” he sighed heavily, “‘Except at least I’ve got some important little places to worry about. Which brings me back to the point at issue. It’s a girl!”
The father shot a sideways glance at the mother. She turned away quickly. He placed his arm as best he could around the towering shoulders of the lead king and manoeuvred him to one side.
“Look, keep your voice down can’t you, you’re upsetting the wife.”
“It is a girl, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it’s a girl, just don’t go shouting the odds like that, eh?”
“Well, what the…what are you going to do about it?”
“Look, I’m doing my best, right? The wife’s in a terrible state, she blames herself. I’ve been trying to get hold of an angel all night but can you get one when you want one? Oh dear me, no. All out with the heavenly host singing fit to burst aren’t they? Plus, I’ve tried to get through to upstairs.” He raised his eyes toward the dirt encrusted ceiling, “they’re playing hell up there.” He added confidentially.
“I’m not surprised!” The lead king affirmed, “this isn’t what we were expecting.”
“No, squire, you don’t get my drift, I mean they’re playing Hell up there. Some kind of celebratory cup match. Can’t get a bit of sense out of them.” He sighed. “Cos, this is what comes of leaving it to angels, if you ask me. Do you know who they went and told about all this first, eh? Eh? Bloody shepherds, that’s all.”
“Shepherds? I thought we were the first to know.”
“No, not by a long chalk mate. We’ve only just got the place fit to walk in again. You know what shepherds are like, straight off the fields and in here without a ‘by your leave’, sheep sh*t all over the place, you’ve never seen nothing like it. Been all the same if we’d had a proper hotel room, which we could have had I might mention.” He glared at the mother again.
“Oh, I understood….” The king began.
“Oh, I know what you understood. ‘No room at the inn’ and all that cobblers. You don’t think I’d traipse all the way over here, with me missus expecting any minute, and not have a room booked do you? Got it all sorted hadn’t I. Nice room with views of the star, en suite garderobe, gaps under the doors for air conditioning, just the ticket. Only, when we fetches up here and the gaffer comes out to take our luggage, the wife only pipes up ‘Oh, we’d be as comfortable in the stable.’ And here we are. Fine way to bring a kid into the world, I must say. She’s got some very funny ideas since she was filled with the Holy Spirit – and don’t get me started on that, I haven’t begun to figure that one out.”
“So our long and arduous journey has been wasted.” The king looked despondent, his two companions were busy making ‘goo goo goo’ noises at the infant.
“Oh no, squire.” The father spotted the glittering caskets each was carrying, “I’d stick around for a day or two. They’re bound to sort it, ain’t they? Mind you…” he considered for a moment, “you’re a man of the world ain’t you, an educated sort if you get my drift?”
“I am a wise man, yes. I’ve got a certificate somewhere.” He rummaged through his robes.
“Course you are, that’s what I’m saying, innit? Only, I could use a bit of advice. Come and have a look here, will you?”
The father led the way into the gloom of the rear of the stable.
“Runs in the wife’s family apparently. You’d think they’d check up on these things but, oh no, it’s all sing hallelujah, bash the tambourine and hang the consequences. Now then,” he took a deep breath, reached into another manger and pulled back a crude blanket. “What do you reckon we should do about this?”
“Oh my God!” The king stared at the father, open-mouthed. “Twins?”
“Twins.” The father confirmed.
THE END (probably)
Monday, 13 December 2010
I originally wrote this whilst I was on what is alliteratively known as a ‘
and Tinsel’ break. This was not intentional. We booked this weekend as a base for visiting some friends, only to find that Christmas had broken out all around us. Apparently, this type of break starts at the beginning of November and continues up to and including the real thing. This format can be a bit disconcerting. Friday, for instance, was designated as Christmas Eve, Saturday was Christmas Day and, in a fit of time compression that would delight British Industry, Sunday is New Year’s Eve. This rather conveniently disposes of the seasonal festivities in one fell swoop but I should think the staff will be about at screaming pitch come the festive season proper. Turkey
All of this made me think of Christmas Past, when things were nowhere near as well organised. An example of this was when we kept The New Talbot Hotel in
Anglesey Road in the mid-1960s. We had been invited to Christmas Dinner at my aunt and uncle’s. Dad insisted on providing the turkey for this feast, which was something of a concern because Dad disliked doing anything in a conventional manner. If he bought anything, it was always through ‘someone who knows someone’ who could get it cheaper, bigger or faster (or all three). This sort of arrangement tended to lead to considerable uncertainty, which was not conducive to the peace of mind of my aunt and uncle, who were great ones for doing things properly. Thus the scene was set for potential disaster.
As the days before Christmas gradually diminished, my aunt made repeated requests to know what size of bird to expect, but was always fobbed off by Dad (who probably didn’t know the answer himself). Christmas Eve arrived and, as good as his word, Dad delivered a fresh turkey, albeit rather late in the day. However, in a fit of generosity (probably brought on by the fact that Christmas Eve was Dad’s birthday, which he did like to celebrate) he had bought something that resembled a small ostrich. My aunt had a relatively small kitchen and there really wasn’t enough room in there for her and this bird. The problem was compounded on Christmas Morning, when, having prepared this avian monster for the oven (a not inconsiderable feat) it became apparent that it would not fit into the oven. Only savage butchery reduced the beast to portions that could realistically be prised in. Even then, the sheer size of the fowl led to the generation of so much fat that the kitchen looked like the morning after a riot in a chip shop. The whole thing took much longer to cook than normal and the eventual result, despite my aunt’s acknowledged culinary skills, was not up to her high standards. She was left quivering on the edge of either murdering my Dad or having a nervous breakdown, whichever was the easier. Typically, Dad couldn’t see what all the fuss was about and was somewhat miffed not to be the hero of the hour.
Another occasion when things didn’t go particularly well was Christmas, 1973. This was my first Christmas with a girlfriend in evidence (I was something of a late starter). We were not spending Christmas Day together, so she had given me a present to open on the day. I was a bit wary of opening this at home as Mum didn’t exactly approve of my girlfriend. Come the day and, after diplomatically opening the presents from my parents and my sister, I eagerly set about unwrapping my girlfriend’s gift.
It was a jumper. It was a very colourful jumper. In fact, it looked how I imagine a migraine might feel. Better still, it was figure hugging. This would have been fine, had I possessed a figure worth hugging. Unfortunately, my physique over the years has transformed from painfully emaciated to borderline obese without ever passing through any of the more appealing stages in between. At this time, I was in the former category. To complete the effect, the sleeves were too short for my arms, leaving 6 inches or so of thin wrist and forearm fetchingly peeping out. Mum and my sister fell about laughing when I tried it on, leaving me cringing with embarrassment but absolutely adamant that I loved it.
On Boxing Day, sporting my new jumper under my favourite PVC imitation leather jacket (the 1970s were not a good time for fashion) I met my girlfriend. When I took my jacket off, she too fell about laughing. It wasn’t a long-lasting relationship.
Merry Christmas everyone – may your turkey always fit your oven.
The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA. This story features in the new bumper collection now released as a Kindle edition - "Crutches for Ducks"
The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA. This story features in the new bumper collection now released as a Kindle edition - "Crutches for Ducks"
Thursday, 2 December 2010
When did you stop believing in Santa Claus?
If you find this question difficult (largely because you were still hanging on to your belief with grim determination) then please stop reading at this point. For the rest of us, I’m willing to bet that this particular moment is ingrained in your memory.
When you consider the elaborate belief systems with which we indoctrinate our children, only for them to discover with each passing year that these firmly held beliefs are groundless, it must say something about the human spirit that we are prepared to believe in anything, ever again! In evidence, I submit The Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy and, last but most definitely not least, Father Christmas.
My own particular crisis of faith, with regard to Santa anyway, happened when I was 10 years old on a Saturday night, just before Christmas, 1964.
At the time, we kept a pub (the idea had been that the pub would keep us, but it didn’t quite work out that way). The pub was of an old-fashioned design, in which the living room and kitchen were tucked away behind the serving area whilst all the other living accommodation (bedrooms and bathroom) were upstairs. In order to get from the living room to the bedrooms, it was necessary to cross The Passage. The Passage was really a corridor to allow access to the Public Bar and Smoke Room but also contained some tables and seating, and our solitary fruit machine. Access across The Passage to the bedrooms was fairly straightforward in the week, when only a small group of hardy customers would be huddled by the serving hatch or by the fruit machine. At weekends, however, The Passage would be crowded with revellers in assorted degrees of intoxication.
The pub was equipped with a woefully inadequate coal-fired boiler that just about managed to heat the public rooms but left the bedrooms as something of an arctic wasteland. Mum therefore insisted that I change for bed in front of the fire in the living room, to avoid frostbite or hypothermia. Unfortunately, this meant crossing The Passage to get to the stairs, now attired in pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers. During the week, with a little careful timing, I usually managed this largely unnoticed. On a Saturday night however, and particularly at the weekend before Christmas, the only way across was to force my way through the smoke-wreathed throng. This was always acutely embarrassing, and a journey I tried to complete as quickly as possible. On this occasion, however, my rapid transit was thwarted by my youngest uncle suddenly appearing from the crowd at the bottom of the stairs and grabbing my arm.
“I just wanted you to know that I’ve left your present with your Mum for Christmas Day. Thought I ought to tell you because, of course, you don’t believe in Santa Claus any more do you?” He laughed and winked knowingly.
I muttered my thanks and swallowed hard. In that moment, I didn’t believe in Santa Claus, but right up to then I had believed with the sort of dogged fervour that only children can muster. Of course, my compatriots at school had, over the years, come to the conclusion that Santa Claus did not exist but I had hung on to my faith, largely because the alternative didn’t seem too inviting and I was keen to keep the magic of Christmas in one form or another. Now, in one sentence, it was gone.
I still miss Santa. Christmas without him has never been the same. But I suppose if anyone is responsible for that curious bonhomie that arises at some point on Christmas Eve and has disappeared without trace by Boxing Day, maybe we should thank the vestige of Father Christmas, and be grateful. In the words of the late, lamented Santa, “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas!”
You can find this story, along with a host of others, in the new bumper collection of stories Crutches For Ducks at Amazon.co.uk or at Amazon.com, available until Christmas Day at the ridiculously low price of just £1.99!
You can find this story, along with a host of others, in the new bumper collection of stories Crutches For Ducks at Amazon.co.uk or at Amazon.com, available until Christmas Day at the ridiculously low price of just £1.99!
Friday, 26 November 2010
I don't believe that The Terminator got it right. It won't be killer robots from the future that will extinguish the human race, it will be the apoplexy that minor features of technology can engender.
For example, take this morning (please, take it anywhere you like). I found myself stuck in a traffic jam on my way in to work. Despite having left oodles of time to get there, I was in danger of missing the start of my class. So, using the nifty hands-free phone system in the car, I rang ahead to warn them I might be late. All well and good. A few minutes later, my wife rang, presumably to find out why I wasn't at my destination. I made the mistake of pressing the wrong button on this hands-free thing and succeeded in cutting her off. I tried to ring back, it wouldn't do it. My wife rang again but the system wouldn't let me answer. The system then decided to derecognise the phone altogether. As I drove on, with the phone ringing ever more urgently but being totally unable to legally answer it, my frustration grew. It grew even further when, on reaching work, I tried to use the phone conventionally to ring home and found that now that did not work at all. My blood pressure, at this point, could have usefully powered a small town.
Lord preserve me from technological advances!
Saturday, 13 November 2010
I was at a quiz in Loscoe when a muffled voice started to shout “Message, message, MESSAGE” in an ever more frantic tone, until it finally reached a point of absolute hysteria and then lapsed into silence. Everyone looked around accusingly but no-one reached for their phone. Five minutes later, it started again and this time a harassed gent pulled his mobile phone from his coat (phone now screaming fit to burst) and said to the assembled throng “It’s never done this before. I don’t know how to stop it” So he didn’t, and his phone kept screaming every five minutes, which was quite funny at first but soon began to pall. This made me realise that we may have come a long way telephonically, but some of us are still struggling with the basics.
Many years ago I worked at Harold Wesley Ltd in Victoria Crescent, Burton. This was a place that had more than its fair share of characters, such as a very soft voiced manager who insisted on talking on the phone (and they were very old fashioned Bakelite phones) with the handset at a 90 degree angle to his face. This meant that the microphone end was a good 9 inches away from his mouth and thus every telephone conversation involved a considerable degree of guesswork.
I was somewhere between 6 and 9 years old, and at my Auntie Liz and Uncle Ron’s house on a Saturday evening, when my own telephone training took place rather unexpectedly. I’ve mentioned before that my Auntie Liz was ‘cool’ in that she was very modern and up-to-date. She had a fridge when most people didn’t, which meant I could have ice cubes in my orange squash (a great treat). She used her front room as a living room, when most still kept theirs as a sort of shrine. But, importantly for this article, she had a telephone. Inevitably, it was in the front room, about two feet from the front door.
On this occasion, mum, dad, aunt and uncle were going to the pub and I was to stay and watch television for the short time they were away. This quite suited me because ATV were showing “The Strange World of Gurney Slade”. I don’t know if you remember this? It was a surreal comedy with a very haunting theme tune, which involved Anthony Newley walking out of a TV programme and wandering the streets. It was an odd programme that I loved but everyone else thought was “too daft to laugh at”. Before the grown-ups departed, I asked what I was to do if the phone rang (I was very aware of it brooding in the corner of the room). Auntie Liz schooled me in what to do and say. If it rang, I was to pick up the receiver and say “Burton 4827, hello” and take a message if necessary. I solemnly noted this and retired to the settee to watch whilst they headed off to the heady delights of The Coopers Arms.
It was great to have the TV to myself and be able to flick between channels (both of them) then troop back to the settee to join Judy, their dog, who was notionally tasked with guarding the house and me. However, my enjoyment of the TV programmes was somewhat blunted by the presence of the phone. I was acutely aware of its potential to ring at any moment.
Inevitably, about half-way through Anthony Newley’s surreal meanderings, the phone rang. Given how tense I was already, it was a wonder that they didn’t find me splattered across the ceiling. Instead, I approached the phone with trembling hand and voice, picked up the receiver and recited my script. Gales of laughter erupted from the other end. Inevitably, the adults had been unable to resist the temptation to ring up from the telephone box at the corner of Anglesey Road and Walker Street, on the spurious grounds of ‘wanting to check you were alright’. To which the answer should have been, until you rang, yes!
As the man in Loscoe discovered, phones can menace you more directly now. Whether this is progress or not, I’ll leave you to decide.
Friday, 12 November 2010
‘Listen with Mother’ was a superb programme that provided a mix of songs, nursery rhymes and stories in which the pictures, provided by your own imagination, were always far superior to those in the later television equivalent. Quite what a modern child would make of those very correct accents and pronunciation, I would hate to guess. A personal favourite was the nursery rhyme about the various horse-riding styles of certain noblemen and countrymen (you either know it or you don’t and if you’re my age, you probably do) which was always great fun but had very little contemporary relevance. I’ve tried singing it to various nephews and nieces in recent years (which is a form of cruel and unusual punishment according to the U.N.) and they still find it hilarious, even though the subject matter must be even more obscure to them than it was to me all those years ago.
I can’t remember when we first had a television but it must have been in the late 1950s and it was definitely second-hand. It was, of course, black and white and boasted as many as two channels to choose from but the only thing I really remember about the television, is it going wrong. It was exceedingly temperamental and took great offence at the buses that stopped at the Bus Stop (unsurprisingly) outside our house. Each ring of the conductor’s bell sent the picture into spasm and sent out a noise that could waken the dead. In its later years it became eccentric and started to demand sacrifices from its subjects in order to work at all. At first this was a hard-backed book strategically placed on a particular spot on top of the set (I don’t know how we discovered this, we just did), then two, then three…before it finally joined the great technological scrap-heap in the sky, it demanded no less than eight hard-backed books before it would even consider warming up (remember when things had to warm up before they functioned? There is no need to be like that, madam.)
I have this theory, for what its worth, that there is a very fine line between sophisticated technology and magic. This is particularly so in the early days of any technology when all of the elements function but (in Eric Morecambe’s immortal phrase) not necessarily in the right order. With an established technology you can reasonably expect an instant response to commands, with the actual work going on unobtrusively in the background. Making anything happen with new technology is essentially an act of faith and the internal crashing; banging and frequent failures are painful evidence of the work in progress. This is true of computers today (well, mine anyway) and was definitely true of televisions then. As a result, we technologically challenged individuals (or ordinary mortals if you prefer) are reduced to superstition to make these ‘magical’ devices do what we want them to do, hence the books on top of the television set.
A classic illustration of this early technology/magic theory is my first experience of stereophonic sound. My youngest uncle had a passion for traditional jazz, particularly during the brief phase when it was, to all intents and purposes, the pop music of the day. This featured in ‘Saturday Club’ presented on the Light Programme each Saturday morning by Brian Matthew (he’s still there, on Radio 2 now of course). At some point, the BBC conducted a series of experiments in broadcasting stereophonic sound which took place on Saturday mornings. Now my memory tells me that this involved ‘Saturday Club’ because I feel sure I remember the wonderful sound of traditional jazz appearing in the middle of my grandmother’s living room as if the artists were actually there. The ‘magic’ element of all this was that this amazing sound was created by playing both the wireless and the television at the same time, with one channel of sound coming out of each. Of course, this only worked if both pieces of equipment were strategically placed in the room and my uncle would spend ages carefully positioning each for maximum effect whilst I sat and waited with eager anticipation.
I started to write this particular memory with some trepidation because, although I was sure that I recalled it accurately, I had never met anyone else who had experienced it. Then, through the medium of the internet, I was delighted to find the following “1958 - First investigations into stereophonic broadcasts (
Crosby system). Experimental broadcasts begin using television sound transmitters for the right hand channel and the Third Programme transmitters for the left hand channel” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/rd/milestones/1950s.shtml. Accessed 27.04.06). So it really did happen, but somehow I doubt that the Third Programme played traditional jazz. I have always been reluctant to tell anyone about this, wary of them calling for the men in white coats with the specially tailored jackets, but now I feel vindicated (they can’t touch you for it) so, if you have any memories of this incredible experiment, I would love to hear from you.
At some point, if you’re really unlucky, I will tell you about my encounters with coin-operated colour televisions, eccentrically designed cassette recorders and Dansette record players with enough small change piled on the armature to buy a fish supper. But I really must go now, I have to record a programme on the DVD recorder and I think a couple of carefully positioned volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and a brief prayer ought to do the trick. Just try not to say anything to annoy it, whatever you do.
Thursday, 11 November 2010
Continuing the Arthur C. Clarke theme of "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"...
I think I’m turning into my own grandmother.
By that, I don’t mean because of my rapidly greying hair or lined features (or the aprons for that matter, but we’ll draw a veil over that), I’m referring to my grandmother’s view of technology, the television in particular. My grandmother believed that, when they called it a Television Set, set is what they meant. It was something that should not, ideally, be disturbed but if alterations had to be made they should not be “taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly” (as the Book of Common Prayer used to have it, but not about televisions). In my childhood innocence, I was quite happy to fiddle with such technological advances as the Vertical and Horizontal Holds (which sound like something Jackie Pallo might have got involved with), but my grandmother viewed even changing channels with deep suspicion. The reason why I think I might be following in her footsteps is because I now understand her reluctance to mess about with something you don’t really understand.
We have recently had a new digital television and DVD recorder, which cost half as much again to fit and connect to the aerial, and I don’t understand it (I mean the equipment not why it cost half as much again…oh, I don’t know though). Every previous bit of ‘hardware’ that we have bought I have understood (mostly) and felt comfortable with setting it up and making adjustments, but not this. When some road repairs threatened to disconnect the houses in our area for a few hours the other week, my wife asked if I was going to unplug the T.V., I had to shamefacedly admit that I didn’t want to because I didn’t want to upset it! I fear this may be the steep end of a very slippery slope.
My earliest recollection of what might loosely be termed ‘entertainment technology’ at home was that standard item of equipment in any house in the 1950s, the large wooden wireless. This was, as far as I can remember, our sole source of entertainment when I was very young. The wireless was a faithful provider of such daily diversions as ‘Housewives’ Choice’ and ‘Worker’s Playtime’, both of which could be found on the BBC Light Programme and, best of all, ‘Listen with Mother’, which I think lurked on the Home Service. In those days (for those of you for whom the dawn of Radio 1 took place when dinosaurs ruled the Earth), the total output from the BBC, in terms of radio programmes, could be found on three channels, the Light Programme, the Home Service and the Third Programme. For anything else, you had to look to the exotic delights of the foreign stations and, in particular, Radio
. This was a wonderful source of continuous pop music but only in the evening and only then if you could cope with the accompanying violent oscillations of the signal that sounded like a squirrel being slowly but deliberately fed through a mangle. My Dad used to try to convince me that this was caused by the signal rising and falling with the waves over the Channel (actually, he didn’t have to try very hard, I was always very gullible and they were called radio waves after all). Luxembourg
Wednesday, 10 November 2010
The above quote is from the great Arthur C. Clarke in 1961. All I've got to say is, if this is so, why do I feel like Tommy Cooper?
For example, the other dayI was trying to get my mobile phone to connect wirelessly with my new car's hands-free system. I followed all of the steps set out in the handbook for both the car and the phone. Would it connect? Would it bunny rabbits. I was reduced to holding the phone next to the radio, pressing buttons hopelessly and screaming "Connect you bloody thing" at it repeatedly. I could feel a nervous breakdown coming on. And then, for no apparent reason at all, it connected. Despite having followed the instructions to the letter time and time again, it finally decided to connect when it felt like it.
I think part of the problem (and I accept that a major part is me)is that Instruction Books are not written by the people who end up using them. Instead they are written by the people who designed the system in the first place, who know the thing back to front (probably the best way)and think you should too. It's a bit like when someone draws a map of directions for you. You can guarantee that they will miss out a vital roundabout or crossing which they didn't think was important but which had you hurtling toward John O' Groats instead of Henley in Arden.
Saturday, 6 November 2010
I was talking to an old friend the other day about children’s magazines in our quondam days (fascinating conversation it was, I’ll bet you wish you had been there). It turned out that we had both been boring little tykes with a fondness for such improving magazines as ‘Knowledge’. Do you remember ‘Knowledge’? It was one of those magazines that they nowadays call part-works. The idea was that you collected the magazines on a weekly basis and it built into an encyclopaedia. Today, you buy a magazine with a small piece of a Tudor battleship sellotaped to it and, 400 instalments and £1,000 later, you have enough small pieces to build said battleship. On the whole, I think the encyclopaedia idea was a better concept.
I had been an avid reader of ‘Knowledge’ for some years and really enjoyed the informative articles and the exceptionally good illustrations. One that still lives in my memory was an old fable from
Asia that involved a Mandrill. I can still see the drawing of this monkey, with the impossibly vivid coloured nose markings, peering out from the depths of a sultry jungle. I was reminded of this by the recent TV advert for a certain brand of coffee shops, involving a legion of monkeys playing with coffee makers. At the end of this advert, a Mandrill appears and, thanks to ‘Knowledge’, I was able to turn to my wife and say with some authority “That’s a Mandrill, you know”. She gave me the sort of look that only a wife can and went back to her paper. Ah well, they say a prophet is never recognised in his own country. You wait until we’re stuck in some sultry forest, she’ll thank me for my extensive knowledge of primates then.
At about the same time that I started subscribing to ‘Knowledge’, in the early 1960s, I found a copy of a book by Donald Keyhoe about UFO’s (Unidentified Flying Objects) or Flying Saucers as they were popularly known. This was one of those sensational exposé publications that accused the U.S. Government and military of a gigantic cover-up. Naturally, as a young and impressionable boy, I lapped this stuff up and was soon a committed believer in extra-terrestrial visitors. For reasons that I cannot recall, but which were probably connected to my rabid enthusiasm for my new ‘cause’, I wrote to the Letters page of ‘Knowledge’ to express my disgust at this ongoing governmental fraud and to ask if any other readers were interested in the topic (nowadays I would probably be taken into care by concerned social workers). To my amazement, some months later they published the letter and, even more surprisingly, I started to receive letters from similarly obsessed youngsters from around the world.
As a child, I had always been a fan of forming clubs and was forever cajoling my long-suffering friends into joining some hare-brained society of my conception. The sudden realisation that there were quite a number of like-minded Flying Saucer fans in the world naturally led to me forming the ‘Flying Saucer Letter Club’ (snappy title huh? It was known as the FSLC to its adherents). Letters flew back and forth, from my Burton HQ to places as disparate as Surrey and Singapore, and I soon gathered quite a file of correspondence (just think what I could have done with the internet and emails) from teenage boys and girls who were either keen believers, or had actually seen something strange in the sky. Given my predilection for writing, I naturally introduced a newsletter (actually two sides of typewritten foolscap) which I foisted onto my membership (for a modest subscription) and also sold to my mates at school. Unbelievably, this was pretty popular and I started to amass a nice little income.
Despite our move from the New Talbot pub to my grandmother’s house (due to a temporary financial embarrassment) and whilst all around me was going to Hell in a handcart, I still pressed on with the FSLC and the newsletter. People seemed to find the idea of a twelve year old running a small business, based on such an exotic concept, quite fascinating and I was encouraged to get the whole thing some publicity. So I wrote to the Today programme on Radio 4 (or the Home Service as it probably still was then) telling them all about the club. To my amazement they wrote back, expressing an interest. A few phone calls later and arrangements were made for a reporter to come and talk to me.
I have mentioned before how sacrosanct my Nana’s front room was, only for use on high days and holidays. Naturally, it had to be pressed into service for a visit from the BBC, and so I found myself perched on the pristine sofa, talking to Keith Ackrill from BBC Midlands. My Mum and Nana fluttered about providing cups of tea and trying not to look as if they found the whole thing anything other than a perfectly ordinary event. I must say that Keith was a consummate professional and did a fantastic job of putting me at my ease and showing a real interest in something that was clearly never going to be anything other than an “and finally...” piece.
It was the Summer of 1967 and my bit was due to be broadcast on the
Midlands’ section of the Today programme after 8.00 a.m. Tramping around Oak Street on my paper round, the tension was building. I had my trusty transistor in my paper bag and was passing the time listening to the Top 40 countdown, which was due to finish at 8.00. I knew that, when the No. 1 finished, it would be time to switch over to the Today programme. The No. 1 at that time was The Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’, which must have one of the longest fade outs in recording history. Standing at the end of Oak Street with the radio pressed to my ear, I began to develop a deep and abiding loathing of the Fab Four as their record dragged mercilessly on and 8.00 seemed to be postponed forever. But the time came, I switched over, and listened with awe at my own squeaky voice pontificating on extraterrestrials to a waiting world. Walking back from the paper shop, I think I was in a state of utter shock and disbelief. Had I really just been talking on the BBC? At that moment, a rather stern woman from across the road shouted over to me “Was that you I just heard on the radio?” blushing furiously, I replied that it was, “Thought as much. You were very good” she said, and stomped off.
I floated home on a little cloud all of my own.
Friday, 5 November 2010
So, did you have a good Un-Bonfire Night?
It was last night, in case you missed it. Or, alternatively, it could be tomorrow. The only night it couldn’t possibly be is November 5th. You see, if Lewis Carroll could have 364 Un-Birthdays in each year, then I don’t see why I can’t have the same amount of Un-Bonfire Nights.
Actually, I’m a bit behind the times with this concept because, of late, the British have taken to the idea of igniting fireworks at every possible juncture, as if we had all been drafted into The Royal Artillery when we weren’t looking. Nowadays any spurious reason for celebration is seen as a good excuse to chuck a couple of tons of ordnance into the air.
It never used to be like this. In my childhood, fireworks were reserved for 5th November (remember?) and were usually not very impressive. Do you recall those little ‘family selection’ boxes that usually contained one Catherine Wheel, two or three Roman Candles, a couple of Jumping Jacks, a Banger or two and a Rocket (with some improbable and wildly optimistic name like GIANT STARCHASER). The whole thing would cost about half a week’s pay and would be over and done with inside five minutes. If I sound cynical, I do apologise but I was never a fan of fireworks as a child. I couldn’t stand loud bangs and I tended to think that standing around in the cold, damp, November night waiting for something that cost a fortune to NOT go off (more often than not), was something of a pointless exercise.
Can you imagine the reaction of the Health and Safety gurus if you suggested selling something as monumentally dangerous as a Jumping Jack today? “Well, we thought we would have this firework that, when you ignite it, jumps unpredictably around the feet of the children, making loud bangs at each bounce. The kiddies will love it!” And what about rockets tilting precariously in yesterday’s milk bottle? Or the Catherine Wheel nailed hopefully to next door’s wooden fence, with predictable results (irate neighbour, badly-burnt fence and the attention of the Fire Brigade)?
The most memorable firework display that I can recall, takes me back to 1967. My Aunt and Uncle owned a successful corner shop in
Walker Street, Burton, and had just decided to expand by buying the shop that Mr. and Mrs. Rawlings had run for years in Uxbridge Street. My Mum had been given a part-time job serving at this shop and she had to sort out the stock remaining after years of the Rawlings’ tenure. In the midst of all this, she found a box of very ancient fireworks that she gave to me (I can hear the Health and Safety mob’s sharp intake of breath from here!) It was mid-summer and, as we were living at my Grandparents’ house at the time, I guessed that they would not be too happy about an impromptu firework display. Quite what made me take them up to my Auntie Vera and Uncle Jim’s house in Burton Road, I don’t know, but I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.
I turned up at Auntie Vera’s clutching a paper bag full of odd and unusual fireworks, probably dating from the Dawn of Time. I didn’t have much hope that we would do anything with them because Auntie Vera was a great one for doing things by the rules and, it clearly was not Bonfire Night. Therefore, I was amazed when, as dusk fell, she said “Are we going to try those fireworks then?” Neither of us knew whether any of them would work, or whether they would explode in a shower of dust and debris. Surprisingly, most (they were of the Roman Candle/Golden Rain type) worked really well and we had quite a show.
As I stood there with Auntie Vera watching these ancient fireworks on a warm summer’s evening, both of us studiously not looking to see what the neighbours thought of our antics, I relished our mini-rebellion and celebrated my first Un-Bonfire Night.
The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA
The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA
Saturday, 30 October 2010
For as long as I can remember, I have had this ominous feeling that one day, a hand will fall on my shoulder and a voice will say “Alright Sunny Jim, we’ve got you bang to rights, you come along with us now”. Quite why my nemesis should talk like a regugee from Dixon of Dock Green, I don’t know, but there it is.
The reason why I have this sense of impending doom hit me in a blinding flash of inspiration last night, the sort that would have had St. Paul crying “Oh no, not again” and giving up the commute to Damascus for good. It was simple, I have an hour that does not belong to me.
You are all no doubt aware of the farce that we go through twice yearly, turning our clocks backward in October and forward in March, to the general confusion of all and the benefit of very few. Apparently we have a gent named William Willet (1857 – 1915) to thank for this. He pestered MPs, town councils and businesses from 1907 onwards with a view to improving health, happiness and saving £2.5 million pounds. I think that probably tells us all we need to know about Mr. Willet.
What suddenly occurred to me the last time we 'changed the clocks', as I was prowling from room to room trying to track down any errant timepieces in need of adjustment, was that, dependent on when you are born in the year, you must spend your life either an hour up or an hour down.
Let me explain the principle. If you were born between October and March, your first encounter with our bi-annual time shift left you with an hour less than you started with. Agreed? However, if, like me, you were born between March and October, then you gained an hour in October that you had not previously lost, hence my permanent expectation of a visitation from the Time Police. The only way to arrange for this to balance itself out over your lifetime, is to ensure that your death follows the opposite clock adjustment from the one that followed your birth. So, to dispose of the extra hour, my demise would need to take place between March and October, so that the next, and, in my case, very final, bout of “changing the clocks” would remove my additional hour without any danger of this being reinstated in October, at which point I would be pushing up the daisies (or probably not, in October).
The more I think about this (and I’m beginning to wish that I had never started), the more I am sure that this explains a great deal about the human condition, and the British in particular. We all know, do we not, people who spend their lives in the sure and certain knowledge that they have been cheated in some way? Who never have a minute to spare? Who begrudge the expenditure of time in all its forms? How likely then, that these same people are those who are an hour down on the deal? Whereas those who procrastinate and always seem to have time to waste (and I count myself in that number) may well be those who have an hour to spare, and always will have.
I ask for nothing for this major advance in our knowledge. Erect no statues, confer no honours. It is enough to know that my time has come…or possibly gone.
Thursday, 21 October 2010
It occurred to me that I haven't exactly covered myself in sporting glory in my previous posts, so this is an attempt to set the record straight(ish).
I have mentioned before, here and elsewhere, my antipathy toward school sports. I particularly disliked winter sports, such as football and anything that involved scrabbling about in mud and bad weather. Spring and summer, therefore, ensured that if sports had to take place, they did so in reasonably clement surroundings. Moreover, if you ignored cricket (and I usually tried to), most summer sports were individual rather than team based and therefore the only person I was letting down was myself.
I was reasonably happy to have a go at most athletic disciplines. I was quite happy to put the shot (although where I ‘put’ it wasn’t very far), long jump and triple jump (or hop, skip and jump as it was known then). I went along with the high jump until it started to get to a level that I regarded as plain daft. Even the javelin posed no problems, until I started to think about it (I have a penchant for over-complicating things). Once I had lost the unconscious ability to just chuck something as hard as I could, and started to fret about when to let go and how, I naturally became a danger to myself and everyone around me. However, I was happiest (using a very loose definition of that word) when I was running. In this discipline there was nobody to let down and no equipment with which to become enmeshed. It was just me and the distance, and if the distance won, well so be it.
I seem to remember that the running distances then were 100, 220, 440 and 880 yards and, of course, the mile. I lacked the stamina for the longer distances (probably because of an early addiction to the evil weed), so the mile and 880 yard races usually involved me crossing the line when everyone who was remotely interested had long since cleared off to pastures new. Neither did I have the concentrated power that was necessary to succeed at 100 or 220 yards. However, I could make a reasonable fist of the 440 yards. By “reasonable fist”, I mean that I did not always finish last, which in my terms was success indeed.
On this particular day in around 1967 you find me lining up for the 440 yard heat on a less than sunny school day. These were the heats that would decide the contestants at the annual Sports Day. My record as one who “did not always finish last” meant that the contestants in my heat consisted of others like myself, and those who most definitely did finish last. This was the heat for those who were usually consigned to the goal in football, or who had been languishing behind a permanent sick note from their mother. This motley crew lined up at the staggered starting points, with me on the outside and leading position. I was never really happy with this position because it was impossible to judge how well you were doing until the point when the ‘stagger’ unwound and the rest of the pack steamed past you, by which time it was too late.
On this occasion, I made my mind up to try and give a good account of myself and, from the word “Go” (literally in this case) I pounded ahead as fast as I possibly could. With heart pounding and laboured breathing I waited for the moment when the rest of the contestants would thunder past me and was then completely perplexed when it did not happen. I just was not used to running without having someone else ahead of me. I didn’t dare to look behind me as I knew I would either fall over or, at the very least, stumble and watch the others storm past. All I could do was to run and keep running at full pelt and wait to see what would happen. All the while, I kept waiting for that familiar moment when one or more runners would pass me. As I drew ever closer to the Finish Line, I began to panic. I had never won anything sporting in my life and it seemed to go against all the laws of nature that I should do so now. And yet, I did. I crossed the Finish Line with no-one in front of me and with people still there to cheer me home. Even the P.E. Teacher, who normally would not spit on me if I was on fire, was forced to remark “Well done, Whiteland”. I collapsed in a heap, astounded with myself.
It was only later that a creeping cynicism began to tarnish my victory. It dawned on me that my fellow racers might have realised that winning this heat would inevitably involve them in racing, yet again, at the Sports Day. This annual event was, for me and my less sporting compatriots, usually a pleasant day in the sunshine watching the exertions of others and cheering enthusiastically for our House. Winning the heat would rather put a dampener on an otherwise pleasant day. I therefore began to wonder if I had not so much won the heat, as that the others had made absolutely sure that they would lose it. I would never know, but these thoughts did rather take the shine off my victory.
You will be pleased to know that the natural sporting order of things was restored at the Sports Day, with me coming in a creditable last against the more skilled and speedy opposition. I did, however, have a tinge of jealousy as I noted that the combatants from my heat were lazily disporting themselves around the field. Oh well, some you win and...
Saturday, 16 October 2010
To succeed at our Doctors’ it really helped if you had a photographic memory. Your first task on entering was to register everyone in the room so that you knew who was before you and to make sure that no-one who came in after you usurped your place. The whole room sat in that absolute silence common to waiting rooms everywhere, each person desperately trying to maintain their mental picture of the pecking order. Occasional fine tuning would occur when someone with a degree of confidence would make an opening bid, such as:
Large, imposing woman in armchair by fireplace: “I think you were before me, weren’t you dear?”
Young woman wrestling with toddler on her lap: “Oh yes, I came in after the lady in the red hat, didn’t I?”
Lady with red hat: “That’s right, because I came in at the same time as the gentleman with the umbrella over there. I distinctly remember remarking on the rain shower we had just had so that must have been about (tentatively) half past four?”
All: “Yes, half past four. That’s right.”
Conversations like this helped everyone to get the pattern right in their heads and to introduce newcomers to the rules of the game. Unfortunately, the physical layout of the premises enabled the more unscrupulous to buck the system. It was impossible to see the corridor from the waiting room. Therefore, it was entirely possible for the more impatient or thick-skinned to lurk in the corridor, listen out for the bell or buzzer and race down the corridor to the consulting room whilst the debate in the waiting room concluded:
“I think that’s me. You’re waiting for Doctor X aren’t you?”
“I don’t mind who I see but I think it’s your turn anyway. I’m after this gentleman.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me, I’m here to see Doctor Y”
The receptionist’s purpose was to dig out your medical notes and leave these tightly stuffed brown envelopes on a table in the corridor for you to collect and take in to the Doctor. It seems remarkable, in this age of Data Protection that everyone’s medical records were left there for anyone to access. So, by the time that you had confirmed your turn in the waiting room, proceeded up the corridor and found your medical notes it was by no means unusual to knock on the consulting room door only to find a low drone of conversation coming from the other side that indicated that someone had pinched your spot. Clearly, if you weren’t agitated by attending the doctor before, you certainly would be after a few iterations of this scenario.
Strangely enough, the only time I have seen queuing discipline break down into violence was at the most unlikely venue imaginable. Over the years I have been to rock concerts up and down the country, from the Hammersmith Odeon to the back room of the local pub. At these I have rubbed shoulders (and very little else – you never know where it might lead) with every sector of society and have never seen any trouble. However, at a Ken Dodd concert in Derby Assembly Rooms a few years ago, one gentleman (who wouldn’t see 70 again if he used a telescope), accused another of a similar age of pushing in front of him at the bar and all hell broke loose. It took three bouncers to pull them apart.
So beware the awesome power of the queue, you never know when and where it might strike next. I’m sorry, were you before me?
Taken from "Steady Past Your Granny's" - see widget on this page
Monday, 11 October 2010
You could probably replicate this scene in any chip shop in the country, even today. Standing in these queues was never a wonderful pastime but was marginally more interesting in Comley’s (which was the family name, if memory serves me correctly, which is rare) in Uxbridge Street. This was the last chip shop that I can remember that still had coal-fired ranges. Mr. Comley was responsible for stoking the fires and cooking the produce, Mrs. Comley served and maintained a constant flow of conversation with each customer based on her encyclopaedic knowledge of everyone and everything in the vicinity. I remember that the conversation was always scrupulously polite. I would usually go to Comley’s with my Nanna Whiteland, who had been a regular customer of theirs for years but the conversation would still be on the lines of:
“Oh hello Mrs. Whiteland, how’s your (insert name of offspring here)”
“Very well, Mrs. Comley, I’ll have a cod and sixpennorth please”
I don’t think I ever heard Mr. Comley speak. He would stride in and either hurl coal into one of the ranges or drop a battered fish into the seething fat (never, thankfully, confusing these operations, deep-fried anthracite not being to everyone’s taste), nod to the waiting populace and then disappear into the bowels of the shop.
A similar queuing system could be found in the local butcher’s on Tuesday evenings. Savoury Duck night! The trick here was to be in place at exactly the time when the Savoury Ducks came out of the oven. Then quickly back home with the hot products safely contained in the white earthenware bowl brought specially for this purpose. I didn’t know what goes into Savoury Ducks and I still don’t know what goes into them. More to the point, I don’t want to know what goes into them. I just know that they tasted great then and still do today (although they are much harder to find these days).
For really complex queuing though, it was difficult to beat our local Doctor’s surgery. For many years our Doctor steadfastly refused to entertain the idea of an appointment system, presumably because he found the spectacle of most of his patients having been ground down to frustrated, gibbering wrecks, more entertaining. Our Doctor’s surgery was contained in what must have been a rather grand house in its day. The two front rooms were now consulting rooms which were approached by a long corridor. Patients entered the building through the rear door, reported to the Receptionist who occupied a cubby hole to the left of the door at the end of the corridor and were then instructed to wait in the waiting room directly across the corridor from her cubby hole. The waiting room must have been the kitchen and servants quarters of the house and was now filled with a series of dilapidated armchairs and benches arranged in a circle around the walls. Above the fireplace were two small lights, one connected to a bell and one connected to a buzzer. As one or other of the Doctors concluded their consultation they would press a button which would illuminate their light and sound a bell or buzzer in the waiting room, instructing the next patient to come down.
On entering the waiting room, a sense of deep depression would fill your soul. It didn’t matter what time you attended the surgery, the waiting room was always full. I think the surgery hours were officially 5 – 6 pm but, in reality, the waiting room would be full by 4 pm and the last patient might not be seen until 7pm. As you entered the room, all eyes would fall upon you, not because of your wonderful dramatic presence but simply so that everyone else in the room could register your face and place you in their mental holding pattern.