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After a longish period, with not much happening at all, the last week has been a particularly good time for reviews of my 'nostalgedy&#...

Friday, 25 February 2011

There's no call for it!

The British Customer Experience can be summed up in one well known phrase or saying.  No, not that one, that is just obscene and doesn’t become you at all.  What I had in mind was that perennial cry “there’s no call for it”?  Following, as it always does, an enquiry about the goods or service concerned, it neatly contradicts its own assertion and yet stops all further debate in its tracks.  What it really means is “we couldn’t be bothered with it”.  It says, in loud ringing tones, “we are not here to provide a service for you, we are here to make money for us”.

It has a very distinguished history.  It was the answer given by the first inventor of the wheel, when asked if he (or, I suppose, she) was going to make another one.  It was the response from IBM when they were asked if they were likely to make more than three computers.  It would probably be the answer obtained if you asked Bill Gates why it wasn’t possible to build a PC that didn’t require you to know how it works in order to actually make it work. 

Everyone has a story to tell of how this particular phrase has blighted their life.  For example, some friends and I regularly visit an out-of-the-way pub, which necessitates one of us having to drive.  A little while ago, the pub installed a certain low-alcohol draught lager that was actually quite palatable and which enabled the nominated driver to convince himself that he was actually enjoying a drink instead of enduring round after round of overpriced fruit-flavoured carbonated water.  This lager was the subject of an intensive TV, Radio and Billboard advertising campaign and the pub’s well filled car park tended to indicate a ready market.  Nevertheless, a few weeks’ ago, the lager disappeared.  When we asked why, you can guess the answer.  To add insult to injury, the promotional drip mats advertising the lager only appeared on the tables after the lager was no longer available.

Then there’s that wonderful British fast-food institution, the Fish and Chip shop.  Try visiting during the last half-hour before they close and see if you can actually purchase the items advertised for sale.  My guess is that you will be told that they’re very sorry but they have sold out of fish and chips and it isn’t worth frying any more at this time because “there isn’t any call for it”.  Instead, you’re likely to be offered something that they cooked (to use the term loosely) earlier and have not been able to shift onto their more discerning clientele.  This explains why people come staggering out of chip shops late at night with a pineapple fritter, a saveloy, and a pot of lukewarm baked beans.  Any attempt to circumvent the iron rule of “there’s no call for it” by negotiation and/or wheedling (“Surely it wouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes to fry a fish for me?”) will be met with the sentence’s other great accompanying contradiction “If I did it for you, sir, I would have to do it for everyone, wouldn’t I?”

Take Post Offices (an activity currently occupying the Government).  Why are Post Offices up and down the land closing?  Fill in the relevant sentence here.  But then again, why do Post Offices keep odd opening hours that would be more in keeping with 1950s Britain when everywhere else seems to open 24/7?  You’ve guessed it!  Apparently it’s a service that not enough people want, but when they do want it, they conveniently only want it at times that suit the people running the Post Office.

To cite another example, a few years ago my wife and I decided to attempt to escape the worst of the UK festive season (which would actually involve a six month vacation starting in September, if taken literally) and go to Tenerife for Christmas.  To update my holiday apparel, I needed to buy myself some shorts (not an appealing picture, I’ll grant you).  Have you ever tried to buy holiday items, such as shorts, in November?  The clothing shop concerned had the stock (or out-of-stock) answer “there’s no call for them at this time of year, sir” but grudgingly dug around in the stock room for a while and came up with a choice of two that they had not been able to foist on anyone in the Summer (the fashion equivalent of the pineapple fritter).  So what do all of those people booking Winter Sun holidays do?  Buy up their tropical togs in a purchasing frenzy during the few brief weeks designated by the clothing fraternity as Summer, or just hang on to the same old items until such time as they either fall apart or become indecent, or both (my personal policy)?  By the same token, just try buying a jumper in June.

Of course, anything for which there really isn’t any call will be forced on you whether you like it or not.  In evidence, I submit digital television, environmentally-friendly light bulbs and chip and pin cards.  Nothing will convince me that these have come about as a consequence of the clamour from the consuming public.  At least with analogue television, if the signal was interrupted you simply had an annoying buzz across the screen, with digital the whole picture either freezes or vanishes altogether.  Environmentally-friendly light bulbs bring back all the efficiency of illumination by gaslight without any of the period charm and chip and pin cards just overtax your already overburdened memory without even remotely increasing your security.

Some modern variations on the “there’s no call for it” routine are “it’s against Health and Safety”, which roughly translates as “It looks like hard work and I can’t be bothered” or the superb “it’s against Company Policy” which also translates as “It looks like hard work and I can’t be bothered and, best of all, the Company doesn’t care!”

I would go on but…(fill in well known phrase or saying).

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

A Modest Proposal

The TV adverts, at this time of the year, clearly indicate that the advertisers would really like Easter to be another Christmas. I think this is probably a forlorn hope. Therefore, with tongue firmly in cheek, may I make the following modest proposal?
As a child, it always used to grate against my sense of a proper narrative thread that we had Christmas, at which we celebrate the birth of Christ (dependent on your particular belief system, or lack of it) and then, 3 months later, Easter at which we commemorate his death as a full grown man. This never seemed to make any sense to me and meant that we had to belt through his life story in 3 short months and then dither about from March/April onwards until it got interesting, when you got to Advent again. Clearly this is nonsensical, so my proposal is that we move Easter to say, October. That gives a full 8 months to spin out the story from birth to crucifixion, breathe a sigh of relief and then start the whole process again. Would also mean you wouldn't get Cadbury Creme Eggs in the shops in ruddy January. Any takers?

Find another bright idea, here Another Modest Proposal


The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Cuddly Dudley?

You may remember, in the last post (that could be appropriate!) Sorry young man, you can't turn that fancy round 'ere! I recounted my childish fumblings with a form of witchcraft, involving a laurel leaf stuffed hopefully under my pillow?  This, you may recall, was in an ultimately futile attempt to find out the name of my future soul mate. 

Now, I’m sure there are many of you out there who thought to yourselves, “When I was that age all I was interested in was football, cricket and train numbers, in that order”, to which I would say only two words:

Valerie Singleton.

Does that bring back any fond memories?  Does the old heart pump just that little bit faster?  Yes, I thought so.  I suppose, for some of the slightly younger fraternity, Susan Stranks might have the same effect.  There may even be a few lost souls who still carry a torch for Jean Morton (of Tingha and Tucker fame) but I should think they are few and far between.  Personally, I was rather keen on the female assistant to Eamonn Andrews on Crackerjack but that really is showing my age. 

My point (and there is one, I promise you) is that even apparently sweet, innocent young lads who appear to be totally focused on sport and avoiding washing, may secretly harbour a desperate longing for some older, unattainable female,  probably Natasha Kaplinsky these days! This brings me, rather neatly, to this month’s story of childhood unrequited love.

As my hopes of finding the name of my true love on the back of a leaf had been somewhat dashed, all thoughts of future romance had been well and truly pushed to the back of my mind.  Until Miss R. arrived at our school.  Miss R. was stunning!  She had dark hair, styled in the fashionable ‘beehive’ arrangement much in favour in the early 1960s, she had olive skin, she was very pretty, softly spoken and kind.  From the moment I first saw her, I was besotted.  Whenever she taught us, I could not take my eyes off her.  If she actually spoke to me, I would turn crimson with embarrassment and stammer and stutter my way through my answer.

Now you may remember that I had assumed that my childhood friend, Elaine, would fill the vacancy for the post of the future Mrs. Whiteland, this being the purpose of my leaf-enscribing activities. The idea was that this would simply confirm what I always assumed to be the case.  The arrival of Miss R. rather threw a spanner in the works of this putative life-plan.

In a bizarre twist, Miss R. was not the only new teacher we had at our school that year.  Elaine’s stepmother (Miss E) joined the staff and became our form tutor.  This seemed very odd to me.  Teachers, in my view, were a sort of separate species that only infiltrated my world during school hours.  I was vaguely aware that it was a career that other people might follow but I didn’t expect to ever meet one in real life.  My infant brain struggled to cope with the concept of Miss E as someone I came into contact with both socially and as my teacher.  It was like Valerie Singleton suddenly arriving to serve tub butter at the local Co-op.

Miss E. was rather strict and our class was more than a little in awe of her.  I vividly remember one occasion when she had been calling various children to the front of the class to have a sharp word with them about sundry misdemeanours.  I was the quiet ‘goody goody’ in our class and I don’t think I had ever been told off for anything in all my time at school.  Therefore, I nearly dropped through the floor when Miss E. called me to the front.  An audible “ooohh” rumbled through the ranks as the rest of the class speculated on what awful crime I had committed and what grisly fate awaited me.  Standing at the front of the class, before her desk, I trembled with anticipation and embarrassment.  Miss E. looked up, smiled and whispered “I wondered if you would like to come to tea with Elaine on Friday?”  I suppose I must have muttered something about having to ask my Mum and she told me to go back to my desk.  Of course, my classmates were beside themselves with curiosity, what had she said to me?  Was I going to be punished?  And so on.  I, of course, was stuck between a rock and a hard place.  If I told the truth I would be an object of ridicule for having a girl as my best friend (and, by association, being ‘teacher’s pet’) but any other story would lack credibility, given my squeaky-clean image.  I think I adopted a policy of dignified silence which drove them wild with frustration but did lend me an aura of mystery (albeit short lived).

Whether Miss E. realised the amount of ‘stick’ that I was getting from the rest of the class and decided to reward me for my fortitude or whether it was just coincidence, I don’t know, but shortly after the above incident, at the start of the Summer Holidays, Elaine asked me if I would like to go on an outing to Dudley Castle and Zoo.  This sounded like a reasonable idea, but it got better.  Miss E. would be taking us and we would be going by train (this was when travelling by train could still be seen as an adventure, rather than an ordeal).  However, what really sealed the deal was that she would be bringing a colleague with her – Miss R.!!  I could not believe my luck.  I was to have Miss R., all to myself, for a whole day.  To say I was happy would not even get close – I was beside myself with excitement.

The outing was planned for the following Saturday and I spent the entire week in a state of nervous anticipation.  To have an entire day to spend with the object of your affection was like Christmas, Easter and every birthday all rolled into one.  Valerie Singleton could take a running jump as far as I was concerned, I was to spend a day with the delightful Miss R.

The day dawned.  Mum and Dad were to take me to Burton Station to meet the others on the platform.  This was when Burton Railway Station was still something that Sir John Betjeman could wax lyrical about and not the prototype for a Gent’s convenience that it later became.  Heart thumping and blushing in anticipation, I hurried down onto the platform.  No sign of Elaine and her party but we were early.  Then I saw Miss E. coming down the platform with Elaine, but no Miss R.  Miss E. hurried up to talk to my parents and, after the initial pleasantries, I overheard her tell them that unfortunately Miss R. would not be coming as she had another engagement but Miss A. had agreed to come instead and would be with us shortly.

My heart sank like a stone.  This was not how it was supposed to be.  I imagine we all remember our first huge disappointment? As a nation we’re pretty immune to it, otherwise why would we continue to compete in the Ashes, the World Cup and the Eurovision Song Contest?  But, as with so many other things, we all remember our first time.  The worst of it was, there was no-one that I could pour my heart out to.  On top of all this, my better nature was giving me a hard time because I was acutely aware that I was being really ungrateful.  After all, I was still getting my outing to Dudley, it was a beautiful day and I should have a really nice time.  How could anyone guess that the disconsolate seven-year old before them had just had his crush, crushed?  Worse still, Miss A. had a similar reputation for strictness as Miss E. and, although she was perfectly nice, she was no Miss R.

Miss A. arrived and my parents waved us off on the train.  I have to say that Miss A. was kindness itself and made a real effort to engage me in conversation and cheer me up.  I tried to act the part of the interested and excited child, particularly as Elaine was clearly really looking forward to her day, but my heart wasn’t in it.

I don’t remember a lot about our visit to Dudley Castle and Zoo (some would call this a blessing), other than it was a beautiful summer’s day.  I just remember wandering around with my own personal black cloud hovering above my head.  I didn’t think it could get any worse, but I was wrong.  In those days, one of the ‘unique selling points’ of the Dudley Castle and Zoo ‘experience’ was that they had a chair-lift (similar to those used in ski resorts) that would take the more adventurous up the hill, from the Zoo, to the Castle.  Elaine knew no fear and, for her, this was the highlight of the day.  I could not stand heights at any price, a particularly thick doormat could give me a nasty turn, and this was definitely not my idea of fun.  Of course, if Miss R. had been there and had wanted me to go on the chair lift, I would have probably leapt from chair to chair, without the aid of a safety net, all the while clutching a box of plain chocolates!  With Miss A., I dug my heels in and refused to go.

It says a lot for Miss A.’s patience and understanding that, on a boiling hot day, she forewent the excitement of the chair lift and trudged up the hill with a sulking seven year old.  I wonder if Miss R. would have been as compassionate?

From that day forward, my passion for Miss R. was dimmed but not destroyed.  Our class moved on and other teachers took over her role with us.  It was quite some time before I saw her again but I still remember the occasion clearly. 

It was a rainy winter’s evening.  For one of the final years of our Junior School education, we were moved to classrooms at Bond End in Burton (which involved a scary walk down the pathway through Midland Joinery, with the sawdust extraction vacuum system rattling and banging all around you).  This meant, at the end of the day, we had to walk into town to catch a bus home.  On this particular evening, as I made my way to the bus stop by the Abbey Arcade (once home to the Derby Evening Telegraph Burton office) I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a young couple in a shop doorway, locked in a passionate embrace.  What arrested my progress was not this unseemly display of affection in itself but that the girl in question was Miss R!  It would have been weird to have seen any of my teachers in this scenario, but for it to be Miss R!!  Well, if she could be unfaithful to me after everything we had been through (or not been through, to be honest) then she clearly was not worthy of my devotion.  It was back to Valerie Singleton for me.  At least she would never be caught in a clinch in a Burton shop doorway.

Of course, Miss R., Miss A. and Miss E. are still imprisoned in my memory exactly as they were then, in the early 1960s, never ageing or changing.  It was only as I was writing this that it dawned on me that Miss R et al must now be nearing 70.  Well, that’s what you get for hanging around in damp shop doorways!  Now, if you’ll excuse me, my wife and I are heading off for a romantic weekend in Dudley – I understand the chair lift has long since gone. I wonder if I can persuade her to adopt a beehive hairdo…?

Monday, 14 February 2011

Sorry young man, you can't turn that fancy round 'ere

This is a tale of unrequited love.

Now unrequited love can be painful at the best of times (and even more so at the worst of times).  It can devastate the teen-aged, frustrate the middle-aged and put quite a damper on old-age.  Yet, all of this is as nothing to the sheer agony of being hopelessly in love when you’re seven years old.  I know because, reader…I was that seven-year old.

Our story begins in the Cherry Orchard, just over the Andressey Bridge, on one side of the River Trent in Burton upon Trent, for no other reason than it is as nice a place to start as anywhere.  At least, it was in the early 1960s.  Myself and my grandmother (the same redoubtable lady who took me to visit Santa in Derby on the trolley-bus) were on one of our regular walks from Uxbridge St., via Ellis the Butcher’s in Branstone Rd., to the Ferry Bridge and back through the Cherry Orchard and the Gardens of Remembrance.  I think it must have been around this time of year, as Nanna was telling me an ‘old wives tale’ that related to finding out the name of your true love.

As I remember it, the legend went as follows.  If a young man or woman wanted to know the identity of their putative beloved, they needed to pick a leaf from a certain bush (a laurel I think, but I’m sure the readers will be able to correct me) and write their name on one side.  The inquisitive romantic in question then had to place the leaf under their pillow overnight and the next morning they would find the name of their intended on the other side of the leaf.  Now this rather intrigued me.  I found the idea of words magically appearing on a leaf during the night quite exciting and I never doubted, for a moment, that it would happen.  Nanna had a fund of ‘old wives tales’ (not that I knew them as such) and I always felt that she had an unequal relationship with the supernatural (the supernatural had no chance against my Nanna!)  Whether Nanna noticed that I doubled back and plucked a leaf from the bush, I don’t know. 

In my defence, I have to say that I wasn’t expecting some form of mystical revelation.  In fact, I rather hoped to have my deeply held belief confirmed.  You see, my best friend since I was pretty well able to walk, had been a little girl (I know we were both little, obviously – I just always thought of her as even more little) who stayed with her grandparents, next-door-but-one from where we used to live in Anglesey Road.  My expectation was that this was certain to be an enduring relationship, which would neatly avoid all that messing about, meeting other people and so on, later in life (I was pretty antisocial in those days, or crippled with shyness, depending on your point of view).  I very much doubt that she had the same view of our friendship but I had every faith in our predestined fate and simply expected the magical leaf to confirm this situation.

That night, I smuggled my leaf up to my bedroom, along with a pen.  Before mum came up to tuck me in and switch off the light, I settled down to inscribe my name on the greenery.  I realised then that I had not ensured that I had the full story from my Nanna.  Should it be your full name, forenames and surname, or just your first name?  If it was just your first name, would whatever was writing on the other side know who you were?  Could you, for instance, be confused with some other Philip from who knows where else in the world?  Should it be in capital letters for the aid of the more myopic supernatural being or just normal lettering?  What should you write with?  Pen, pencil, quill dipped in blood?  Being as short on specific instructions as anyone with a flat pack manufactured in a Far Eastern country, I decided to do what people have done down the centuries – I winged it.

Digressing slightly, I don’t know if it is just me but I think there were few more comforting moments in my childhood than the sensation of ‘being tucked into bed’.  I suppose children today would have no idea what this means, now that duvets and central heating are more or less ubiquitous, but in my day bedclothes consisted of many layers of sheets (flannelette or otherwise), blankets (cellular or standard), eiderdowns and counterpanes, the number of layers being in direct proportion to the external temperature.  On particularly frosty nights, overcoats would be brought into play.  ‘Being tucked in’ was a necessary means of avoiding certain frostbite in the ice-laden air of the typical 1950’s bedroom.  However, for me, ‘being tucked in’ conveyed a sense of warmth, security and, most of all, love.

Anyway, back to my leaf.  With my tongue firmly pressed against my upper lip and my eyes screwed up in intense concentration (I really didn’t want to get this wrong), I carefully inscribed my name.  It soon became obvious that the problem of how many names to write down was not going to be an issue, as my infant scrawl filled up the available writing space on the leaf.  With great care, I wrote:

Philip

Holding the leaf at arm’s length, I checked my spelling and legibility.  Overall, I was fairly pleased with the result.  The green and speckled background was something of a problem and the veins of the leaf had led to some wobbly moments but I could make out what it said and if I could, surely the supernatural entity would have no problem?  Satisfied with my efforts, I hurriedly placed the leaf under my pillow and scrambled into bed.

That night was like Christmas Eve all over again.  I was desperate to find out if anything had emanated on the reverse of my leaf but, just like Santa Claus, I felt sure that if I sneaked a peek I would irrevocably wreck whatever spell I was trying to conjure up.

The following morning, I woke bright and early.  This, it has to be said, was unusual for me.  I was not, and am not, a morning person.  It would usually take the equivalent of several tons of TNT to prise me from my pit.  This day, however, I was eager to get supernatural confirmation of my romantic fate.  I ferreted under the pillow and found my leaf.  With pounding heart, I turned it over, fully expecting to find the legend ‘Elaine’ in gothic script inscribed on the reverse (that being the name of my childhood friend, so it would be fairly perverse to expect anything else).  Instead, I found the word,

Philip

inscribed backwards.  I studied it closely.  I tried screwing my eyes up and squinting at it.  It still looked like,

Philip

backwards.  I turned it this way and that.  I even looked on the first side to see if the supernatural had made a mistake and added the name of my betrothed against my name.  Nothing!  No matter how long I stared at it or how active my imagination, there was no way that this leaf contained anything other than my name. 

If memory serves me correctly, I tried the leaf under my pillow for a few more nights, on the off chance that my particular supernatural entity was on holiday, but all I finished up with was an increasingly withered leaf and a difficult to explain green patch on the underside of my pillow.  Finally, I gave up in disgust and my nocturnal greenery was consigned to the dustbin.  Clearly the supernatural didn’t know its arm from its elbow and had singularly failed to deliver the goods.  I did have this nagging doubt that I might have missed some vital part of the ‘spell’ but I could hardly ask my Nanna without giving the game away.  From my point of view, if this was romance, then they knew what they could do with it!

Perhaps the power of the leaf was more subtle than my infant imaginings would allow, because a few weeks later a new teacher joined our school and, whereas my friendship with Elaine had seemed a handy means of getting all this romance business over and done with in a straightforward and logical fashion, when I first saw Miss R. I knew what it meant to be hopelessly and completely in love.  I didn’t need a leaf, withered or otherwise, to tell me that this was the ‘real thing’.  You can probably guess how it turned out but all will be revealed in the next exciting (?) episode - Cuddly Dudley?

The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA and now read the new bumper collection of stories, including this story, Crutches For Ducks at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Riotous Assembly

Continuing the review of school assemblies that began in Assembly Lines

Thinking about it, School Assemblies must have been a bit of a trial for our teachers.  Children, in small groups, are just about manageable (with the aid of a whip and a chair, in some cases) but an entire school crammed together in a School Hall could be quite an explosive mixture.

I don’t know how children view their schooldays now, but in my childhood it was often seen as a minimum 10 year stretch with no chance of remission.  Getting through your ‘sentence’ required keeping your head down, not letting the system grind you into the dust and keeping your spirits up by tiny acts of rebellion.  My friend Archie (the name has been changed to protect the guilty) had rebellion down to a fine art but was blessed with the innocent expression of a choir boy.  We’ll come back to Archie a bit later.

Unlike Archie, I was one of life’s rule-followers, often to a ridiculous extent.  To me, the School Rules, and the edicts of our teachers, carried as much weight as if Moses had brought them down from Mount Sinai as part of a job lot.  This caused me some problems at Uxbridge Junior School.  When the Headmaster announced prayers by saying “hands together and eyes closed”, I would never have dared to deviate from this in any way.  I had this awful certainty that, if my eyes opened for just a millisecond, God or the Headmaster (and, to me, there wasn’t a lot to choose between them) would strike me down with thunderbolts.    Unfortunately, at some point, my infant brain decided to have some fun by suggesting to me that, with my eyes tightly closed, how could I possibly know where the floor was anymore?  Once this insidious idea had planted itself in my subconscious, nothing would budge it.  The end result was that each prayer session became a nightmare as I struggled to stand, with my eyes tightly closed, whilst my brain explored a number of possibilities for the concepts of ‘up’ and ‘down’, all of which left me swaying like a willow in a Force 9 gale.  On a number of occasions, a teacher had to leap into the mass of pupils and drag me out (eyes still firmly shut) before I fell head first into the parquet flooring.

Archie would never have had this problem.  He was a born rebel, but not in the way that some were.  Not for him the rudeness, knee-jerk insults or mindless vandalism of some.  Archie preferred subtlety.  He had many fine moments in his rebellious career, but the one that I thought was particularly inspired, and horribly disruptive, occurred in Morning Assembly at Anglesey Secondary Modern. 

Archie had perceived that saying prayers in unison could be fairly tedious, but this offered a real opportunity for the inspired rebel.  He realised that, by the simple action of reciting the Lord’s Prayer just one word behind everybody else, he could throw a verbal spanner into the works that would be difficult to trace and peculiarly effective.  After all, how could the teachers determine whether this was intentional, or just some slightly challenged child who found it difficult to keep up with the others?  I used to stand next to Archie in Assembly and was mortified by his actions but also secretly envious of his sheer impudence.  For some weeks, Archie’s was a lone voice, trailing the rest of the school in their devotions.  Then, as was bound to happen, others latched on to the phenomenon.  Dennis, a friend and erstwhile disciple of Archie’s, decided to go one better by saying the prayer one word behind Archie.  Inevitably, others picked up on the trend.  Before long, Prayers had descended into chaos as boys (and it would be boys, wouldn’t it) competed to be the last to finish.

I can’t remember how it was brought to a halt.  Harsh words from the Head perhaps?  Or maybe they just got bored with it all.  Was it sacrilegious?  Well, possibly.  Childish?  Of course, but then, we were children and if you can’t be childish then…


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, 12 February 2011

Assembly Lines

I was reading about a trend, in some workplaces, for staff to have to gather together each morning for the latest team briefing, and it occurred to me how similar this was to the Assemblies we had to attend, each morning, when I was a child.

Assemblies were a rigid element of each day at school, only avoided by those excused on religious grounds (the assembly, in those days, being fiercely C of E in tone and content) or those who were so late as to have missed the start (often me, for whom a direr penalty than the School Assembly waited). 

Everyone would troop into the School Hall and line up in their forms, youngest at the front and oldest at the back, with the teachers lined along the walls to spot any misbehaviour, whilst the most senior staff were grouped on the stage waiting for the star of the show, the Headmaster/Headmistress, to make their entrance.  They would sweep in, usually with their Deputy in tow, and we would all stand to something approaching attention whilst they made their way to the stage and took charge of the proceedings.
The format of the Assembly was usually pretty much the same.  An introduction from the Head, a hymn, a reading of some sort, another hymn, some notices (“Miss S. requires deposits for the coach trip by Friday lunchtime” usually, or once, more memorably, “Would the child who lost a wallet in the playground, please form a queue outside the Head’s office after Assembly”), and then the reverse flow of staff and students out of the hall.
I used to quite like the music and hymns part of the Assembly.  Not because I am any great shakes in terms of singing but just for the sheer uplifting quality of most childhood hymns (with the exception of “All Things Bright and Beautiful” which I found unbearably twee even then).  If you were lucky, music for the Assembly would be provided by the Music Teacher and his trusty piano.  If you were unlucky, the Music Teacher would be off (or sulking, Music Teachers being quite emotional beasts) and the piano would be in the less than capable hands of one of the teachers “who can play a bit, if required”.  If you were really unlucky, the School Orchestra would have been pressed into service, which would mean a motley crew of children gathered together at the front of the hall to mete out cruel and unusual punishment to some unsuspecting musical instruments.  Hell on Earth would be an appearance by the School’s Recorder Group, which would be a fate worse than death for anyone within earshot.
At Uxbridge Junior School we had a teacher (Mr. Jackson, I think) who played the piano for the morning assembly with a real passion.  My personal favourite of his was “Jerusalem”, a stirring tune at any time but Mr. J put everything he had into his rendition.  He would attack the piano as if it had done him some unspeakable wrong in the past, and this was pay-back time.   Even now, when I hear the tune, I can picture him sitting at the piano, silver-grey hair flying in all directions and his features becoming ever more florid, as he thumped out the final triumphant chords.  It’s entirely down to Mr. J that “Jerusalem” remains one of my all-time favourite hymns. 
Another one that lived in my memory was “He Who Would Valiant Be”, not just because it has a good tune but also for the entirely bizarre reason that it has the lines “Then fancies flee away, I’ll fear not what men say” which my infant brain interpreted as having something to do with my cousin Frances from Holbrook (don’t ask, I have no idea why!)
The worst possible Assembly was the House Assembly, where the hymn singing had to be lead, unaccompanied, by the poor, benighted House Master, not all of whom were gifted with any form of musical talent.  It’s at times like that you begin to see the positive side of the treble recorder.
Right, all together now, “And did those feet in ancient times…”


See Riotous Assembly for the next irreverent instalment


The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Forty Years On: Night Boat to Palma

The final instalment in the 'Forty Years On' saga, continuing the story from A Spanish Bee in your Bonnet:

The bee sting brought an end to sunbathing and we set off back to the hotel, with Kev in an increasing state of panic.  Fortunately, we spotted our tour reps coming in the opposite direction.  Less fortunately, they were determined to sell us tickets for a forthcoming night out in Palma.  As Kev swayed fitfully, they plunged into their hard sell until I finally got through to them that, interested as we were in their proposition; there was a good chance that my friend would be crashing to the floor at any minute.  Mortified (but not so mortified that they didn’t make the sale anyway) they escorted us to the nearest pharmacy and, armed with a cream of some sort, we returned to the hotel.

Rubbing cream into your mate’s scalp is not the best way of spending a holiday, but it did seem to do the trick and the following evening we reported to the harbour to catch a boat to Palma.  The outing, as sold to us by the Tour Reps, involved a trip across the bay (with free drinks), an evening in a nightclub (with another free drink) and then the boat home again.  As each of the guests boarded, they were handed a plastic cup filled with Cava.  Presumably because the Reps were feeling guilty about selling tickets to a mortally wounded Kev (a look that he had perfected), we were handed a bottle each.  This continued throughout the trip, which meant that we were not feeling a great deal of pain when we disembarked.  We were told to keep a careful note of where the boat was moored for our return, but by this time I really didn’t know if I was on this Earth or Fuller’s (as mum used to say).

I have vague memories of the nightclub itself (the free drink on arrival was probably a poor move).  For some unknown reason, we spent most of the night with a young French couple who (if my schoolboy French was correct) were on honeymoon, but who were accompanied by the wife’s mother.  Quite how I finished up dancing with the husband, whilst Kev boogied with the wife and mother, goodness knows.  I do remember attempting a fancy set of steps that involved me shuffling backward but which resulted in a fall over a small ornamental wall, thus ruining the effect. 

At the end of the night, we said our goodbyes to our companions and headed off in the general direction of the boat.  This was, however, foolish for two reasons (1) We had no idea where the boat was, and (2) It would have left an hour earlier anyway.  Realising that we were on a wild goose chase, and had no money with us at all for a taxi, Kev determined that we would walk back to the hotel.  Stumbling into a Spanish Military Post for directions was probably not a good idea, as the rifles pointing at us indicated (this was the time of Franco).  They did, however, give us the general direction to go in (‘away’ seemed to form the crux of what they were saying).

We trudged for hours along the Majorcan equivalent of the M1, with dawn breaking on the horizon.  A ‘back of a fag packet’ calculation revealed that we had a 10 mile walk on our hands. Drunk and despondent, we attempted to kip down on some benches outside a petrol station, until the owner arrived ten minutes later and kicked us back out onto the road.  Finally, we reached the next village to Arenal, Ca’an Pastilla, and figured that we just about had enough money between us to flag down a taxi.

We crawled back to the floor of our hotel.  Literally, because the hotel’s lift had an idiosyncratic approach to its job and regarded floor numbers as a broad objective rather than a specific target, leaving passengers to haul themselves up onto their chosen floor. 

The sun was shining and people were heading off to the beach.  We slumped into our beds with the well worn cry of ‘never again’.


You can find more stories from The Slightly Odd World of Phil Whiteland in e-book format - Steady Past Your Granny's - Kindle Edition (UK) or Steady Past Your Granny's - Kindle Edition (USA)

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Forty Years On: A Spanish Bee in your Bonnet

The penultimate chapter in the Forty Years On saga and following on from "No, Luton Airport"

Our residence for our week in Spain in August, 1971 was Arenal, Majorca and the Hotel Arenal Gardens (the name has been changed to protect the guilty).  I was immediately impressed to find that the room had a balcony with commanding views over a large concrete area containing neatly stacked tables and chairs.  I couldn’t begin to think what this might be, for but soon found out at midnight when it converted into an open-air nightclub, keeping a boisterous crowd amused until dawn.

Checking out the balcony was my first job.  My second was to ring a family friend of ours back in the UK (who was working a night shift) to ask him to pass a message to my Mum and Dad that I had arrived safely.  It’s difficult to remember these days just how completely out of touch you could be just by popping over to mainland Europe.  I’m sure it was easier for the astronauts to report back from the Moon than it was to make a call to the UK from Spain.  Firstly, you could not dial direct, you had to battle the mutual incomprehensibility resulting from the Hotel Receptionist’s tentative grasp of English and my non-existent command of Spanish, mixed with my Burtonian mangling of my mother tongue.  Having made it to the International Operator and a series of bewildering tones, beeps and ominous silences, I finally contacted our friend.  By this time, I was so worried that I might be racking up a bill that would cancel out my holiday spending money at a stroke, all I managed to burble was that I had arrived safely and it was hot. 

I have limited memories of that holiday (you’ll be no doubt pleased to hear), just a few particular points stand out.  I remember going out on the first night to hit the bars on the main street.  The resort was crowded and the main street was a throng of people shuffling from bar to bar.  I was sporting my ‘bought for the holiday’ cream crimplene trousers and this was their first venture out in public.  I don’t know if you remember an old pub game that used to involve spreading the tissue paper backing from the silver foil of a cigarette packet over a wine glass?  Having done this, a sixpence was placed in the centre of the paper and people took it in turns to burn a hole in the tissue paper with the end of their cigarette (it seems like another world now, doesn’t it?).  The object of the game was to avoid your burnt hole joining with any of the others, thus dumping the sixpence into the glass.  Well, the action of a cigarette on tissue paper was as nothing compared to the action of a burning cigarette on crimplene.  After an evening squeezing through a crowd of holidaymakers, all smokers to a man (and woman) my brand new trousers had been ‘branded’ many times over and made the tissue paper look positively intact.

The other event that was seared into my memory began, quite unexpectedly, as we were sitting sunbathing on the beach in Arenal.  Kev was determined to get a suntan, which was a laudable aim but doomed to failure given that he was blond with a very fair complexion and simply tended to turn bright red and blister.  Nevertheless, he was sure that things would be different this time.  I wasn’t too bothered about sunbathing and regarded it as a profligate waste of good drinking time, but I’d agreed to keep him company on this occasion.   Suddenly, he turned to me and said “Is there something crawling in my hair?”  I looked down on his sunburnt scalp and spotted a bee plodding methodically through his hair.  “It’s a bee.”  I informed him.  “What?  Get it out!”  I understood his anxiety but felt that a calmer approach might be advisable and was proved correct when, after some flapping and flailing about, there was an anguished cry of “Oh, my God, it’s stung me!”  Given that Kev was a hypochondriac’s hypochondriac and had once had a Doctor’s Certificate for catarrh, this was not good news, as I’ll explain in the final instalment Night Boat to Palma

You can find more stories from The Slightly Odd World of Phil Whiteland in e-book format - Steady Past Your Granny's - Kindle Edition (UK) or Steady Past Your Granny's - Kindle Edition (USA)

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Forty Years On: No. Luton Airport!

Even though our week in Majorca via Clarkson’s (see How many cigarettes to Arenal?) was only going to cost some trifling amount like £35, this and the spending money were going to take some raising.  Which is why June, 1971 found me reporting back to Bovril/Marmite for duties, whilst Kev headed off to the delights of regular night shifts at the Ashby Biscuit Factory, affectionately known as ‘Muck and Dust’ after its former owners, Meredith and Drew.  Sun, sea, sand and anything else beginning with ‘s’ (like sangria, of course) seemed a long way away as we trooped off to work.

Now that I had reached the grand old age of 16, I was no longer considered to need sinecures like the cap filling job at Bovril/Marmite and was instead made part of the small army of students employed each summer to cart heavy things about.  As I was still only 9 stone soaking wet and looked like the ‘Before’ part of the Charles Atlas adverts, this was not exactly my dream employment.  The only way all of this was made bearable was the promise of a week in the Majorcan sun at the end of it and the various milestones along the way, such as paying the balance to the travel agent, collecting the foreign currency and getting the British Visitors Passport (BVP).  Do you remember those?  They cost a few pounds, lasted for 12 months and were really useful documents that anyone could get from a main Post Office.  Having said that, my first BVP was issued by the Burton Employment Exchange in Cross Street.  I nipped out of work one lunchtime and walked into town to Woolworths on Burton High St to the only photo-booth I knew, to get my passport photo.  You can see the result below.  I have a collection of these which I sometimes inflict on people during my ‘guest speaker’ talks for local societies.  This is probably my favourite.  I think it looks like someone wanted for questioning for Indecent Exposure.  The expression on my face should give you a good indication of how much I was enjoying my vacation job.



I’m glad that I kept my first BVP because it tells me that I withdrew the princely amount of £30 in pesetas from Barclays Bank on 31st August 1971 (you were still limited by The Exchange Control Act 1947 as to how much cash you could take out of the country, but I don’t think that my stash worried the authorities). 

Finally, the great day arrived and, with our bags packed, we headed off to Luton Airport.  As we had little money left for anything other than the holiday, we scrounged a lift from my Uncle Ron who happened to be travelling in that direction as part of his job.  The only downside to this arrangement was that we had to be dropped off at the airport before 10.00 am as Uncle Ron had to get into London to start his day, and our flight was not until the evening.  I was terrified of the concept of flying (still am to a certain extent) and, given a full day of hanging around an airport with nothing better to do than wind myself up and drink, I was not feeling a lot of pain by the time we boarded the aircraft.  A good illustration of this is that I put my lemon scented hand towel in my tea instead of the milk, and drank it.  I also could not cope with the stuffy sensation of the pressurised cabin and went to the toilet for a breath of fresh air!  Whether I thought, in my befuddled brain, that I could open a window in there, I really don’t know.

Eventually, we landed at Palma Airport and I had my first experience of walking out of the aircraft door, into the oven-like heat of the Spanish night.  Immediately my nostrils were assailed by the singular smell that always reminds me of a combination of dodgy drains and cheap cigars (but not necessarily in that order).  We had finally arrived on foreign soil (well, tarmac) and the holiday started here.  


Find out how it all developed at Forty Years On: A Spanish Bee in Your Bonnet

You can find more stories from The Slightly Odd World of Phil Whiteland in e-book format - Steady Past Your Granny's - Kindle Edition (UK) or Steady Past Your Granny's - Kindle Edition (USA)