Google Analytics

Thursday, 10 December 2015

A Silly Christmas Love Story

And what’s wrong with that? 
This year’s Christmas offering is a story about school dancing.

From mid-November until the end of term, when the rugby pitches slid shirt-soakingly wet from the autumn rains, or scraped skin-scouringly rough from the first hard frosts of winter, games lessons were displaced by dancing practice. The boys and the girls, with their teachers Mr. Ellis and Miss Poskitt, came together in the gym to prepare for the school Christmas party. It was one of just two occasions in the year when games lessons were co-educational (the other being when they all traipsed down to the public swimming baths). The girls tolerated it. The boys felt embarrassed. Miss Poskitt obviously enjoyed it and joined in. Mr. Ellis did not.

The wall bars, climbing ropes, horizontal beams, benches, spring boards, vaulting horses, medicine balls and rubber mats were all stowed away, and the boys and the girls assembled dolefully on opposite sides of the gym.

Mr. Ellis called them all to order. “Gentlemen,” he announced with false gaiety, “please cross the floor and take your partners for the Dashing White Sergeant ... and walk, don’t run,” he added in an exasperated voice on seeing that some boys were already half-way there. “We walk across the floor in a civilised manner and courteously ask the young lady to grant us the honour of the dance.”

Now I know this sounds awful – sexist male chauvinistic objectification you might call it – but it is simply the way things were for thirteen year old boys in the early nineteen-sixties. There were some girls you would happily dance with, and others you would not. ‘Nat’ Lofthouse always wanted to dance with Wendy Godley, but as she was pretty, so did everyone else. On the rare occasion he managed to be one of the first to cross the floor, he was usually bundled aside by one of the more civilised and courteous members of the rugby team, and would find himself face to face with Wendy’s friend, Amanda. Even when not one of the first to cross the floor, he still more often than not found himself face to face with Amanda. And when it was a ladies choice, when the claws came out and the fur started to fly, yes, you’ve guessed already, Amanda was always the one to choose him. He began to suspect some kind of conspiracy.

Sadly, Amanda was not one of those girls you wanted to be seen dancing with. It was not just that she wore glasses, and had spots, but more to do with the hideous and rather slimy orthodontic brace that glinted inside her mouth. She was taller than him too. And a little on the hefty side. Why did he have to keep ending up with Amanda?

The class knew The Dashing White Sergeant well. The school only had about half a dozen records to play on its feeble gramophone, so they danced the same dances every year. They went straight into it:

Rum-tum rum-tum, Rum-tum tiddle-liddle, 
Rum-tum rum-tum, Rum-tum tiddle-liddle, 
Rum-tum rum-tum, Rum-tum tee, 
Tiddle-liddle liddle-liddle, Rum tum tum.

The Dashing White Sergeant
The Dashing White Sergeant

The remainder of the afternoon was occupied by a varied choreography of allemande holds, steps forwards, backwards and sideways, two-three-four, hops, spins, do-si-dos, grand chains, polkas, waltzes and two-steps. The willow was well and truly stripped. It was odd though, that whenever you were supposed to progress on to other partners, Nat always found himself back with Amanda at the end. It definitely was a conspiracy.

The following week, he decided upon a new tactic. When Mr. Ellis began to instruct them to take their partners, he would set off early, walk not run, be civilised and courteous, and grab Wendy first before anybody else could.

“Gentlemen,” said Mr. Ellis, and Nat set off. “Please cross the floor to take your partners for ...” Nat realised he had gone too soon.

“Ah! Lofthouse,” said Mr. Ellis in predatory mock surprise, “How wonderful to see you so keen. Perhaps today you would like to ask Miss Poskitt for her hand so you can demonstrate the Veleta Waltz for the benefit of us all.” Unconstrained laughter echoed around the gym.

Da-ah de, da-ah de, da-ah de, dum,
Da-ah de, da-ah de, da-ah de, dum,
Da-ah de, da-ah de, da-ah de, dum,
Da-ah de, da-ah de, diddle-it-dit dum.

The Veleta
The Veleta

On the first run through of each dance, it was Miss Poskitt’s custom to select an unfortunate victim to demonstrate it with. It was never Mr. Ellis, he never danced, it was always one of the boys. And when she danced, her natural, neat, flowing movements transformed her from a rather uninteresting girls’ sports teacher into a fascinating and graceful danseuse. On each third beat of the Veleta she rose nimbly upwards on alternate ankles, poising briefly to show off her well-developed county hockey-player legs. As she moved him around the floor, and changed sides to demonstrate the man’s leading role, Nat was as powerless as John Betjeman’s subaltern  partnering Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, weak from the loveliness of her “strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand”. He glowed bright red as Mr. Ellis led the class in a round of applause.

*                   *                  *

The following year, when the school playing fields were once more shrouded in fog and choked up with mud, dancing came round again as predictably as an unwanted partner in a well-executed Circassian Circle. The boys and girls assembled reluctantly as usual on opposite sides of the gym. Also as usual, it was the first occasion during the school year when classes of the same age group came together, when an interesting new face might be noticed. Any new member of Wendy’s A stream girls would be seen for the first time by Nat’s B stream boys.

Even so, when Nat crossed the floor to take part in the traditional partner-selection ritual, and was brutally barged out of the way by one of the school prop-forwards, he was surprised to find himself face to face with a new girl – an attractive new girl who glowed with health and perfection. Actually, he’d spotted her a couple of months earlier and wondered who she was, the sporty girl playing tennis with Wendy. She played so well, so athletically, a true Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. Nat hesitantly mumbled his request to dance. The new girl gave him a lovely smile, thanked him for choosing her and said she would be delighted to accept.

They took to the dance floor for The Military Two Step. Heel toe, heel toe, de diddly diddly dum de diddly, heel toe, heel toe ... Nat had never seen anyone heel and toe so elegantly. Not even Miss Poskitt.

“Look at you!” his partner whispered in wide-eyed admiration at the end of the dance. Nat was taken aback by her intimate, affectionate tone. She turned to face him, looked him up and down, and stepped so close he could feel the warmth of her face on his. She reached up and placed her hand on top of his head, and then moved it backwards over her own. “You’re taller than me now,”  she said.

To his astonishment, Nat realised it was Amanda. What a change!

I don’t need glasses any more,” she laughed, amused by his bewilderment, “or that hideous brace.” 

And then, before they could say more, it was The Finnjenka Dance to the school’s newly bought record, ‘March of the Mods’ by Joe Loss and his orchestra. Joe Loss? Dead Loss! Within seconds she had marched on to the next partner and was gone. But as always, as if through some secret feminine wile, she ended back with him just in time for The Gay Gordons.

Da, Dah-de dah-diddy, Dah-de dah-diddy, Dum dum dum diddy, Dum dum dum

The Gay Gordons
The Gay Gordons

“We’re dead good,” Amanda raved at the end. “Really great! Natural partners! Ace, brill and fab! You have to come round on Saturday. I’ve got all the music at home. Come round to practise on our own. Then we’ll go to the party together.” Nat wished she would keep her voice down. Mr. Ellis pretended not to hear. Miss Poskitt rolled her eyes and blew them a kiss. 

Nat loved being bossed and organised by Amanda. They did go to the party together. It was at the Baths Hall where every winter the pool was drained and boarded over with a dance floor, the only hall in town large enough to accommodate the whole of the school year. They danced all the dances, and “held each other glad all over into something good” to The Honeycombs, Dave Clark Five and Herman’s Hermits.  They laughed when the science teacher, Mr. Richardson, as ever, stood up and recited entirely from memory a long poem about young Albert and a lion called Wallace and a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle.

It had begun to snow during the party, and after ‘Auld Lang Syne’ they came out into a winter wonderland and walked home together merrily, singing ‘Jingle Bells’ and pretending to be reindeer. Nat dared to kiss Amanda’s soft warm cheek and she produced a piece of mistletoe to hang on his imaginary antlers. She kissed him back and gave him a tender hug.

He was sad that before school resumed again after the holidays, Amanda had left with her family and moved to Johannesburg.

*                   *                  *

The next year everything changed except the weather. The Christmas party took place in the pristine new school hall, and the traditional dances and Mr. Richardson’s recitation were consigned to the past. Nat made an excuse not to go and hid from the cold at home, dreaming of tennis and Christmas dancing in the summer sun at the other end of the world.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Grandad Dunham’s Flight Simulator

Like something from the future, it was the most amazing colour graphics workstation I had ever seen. I had got a job in a university where it was being used to understand complex proteins by constructing and manipulating computer-generated images of the kind of ball and stick molecular models photographed with Watson and Crick in the nineteen-fifties. These models give insights into life at the sub-microscopic level: such as how molecules of oxygen displace molecules of carbon dioxide in haemoglobin. The details are so magically implausible you could come to believe in creationism. One researcher was moved to tears on seeing for the first time an image of part of the antibody she had been working on for the past three years.

Flight Simulators: Elite, Aviator and SGI Dogfight
Flight simulators: Elite and Aviator for the BBC computer,
and SGI Dogfight for the IRIS workstation

It was the nineteen-eighties. The workstation (a Unix-based Silicon Graphics IRIS 2000 if you must know) came with a set of demonstration programs, among them a flight simulator called ‘SGI Dogfight’. Again, it was well in advance of anything any of us had seen before. The best you could have at home at that time, which replicated the dynamics of flight and motion with any reasonable accuracy, were black-and-white wire-frame simulations such as ‘Aviator’ and the space trading game ‘Elite’ published by Acornsoft for the BBC Computer. The IRIS 2000 simulator had coloured graphics and a choice of aircraft including a tiny Cessna, an enormous Boeing-747 Jumbo Jet and a super fast F16 jet fighter. It came nowhere near the lifelike realism of simulators you can buy today, but for the ordinary home user there would be nothing like it for quite a few years. You may now pause for a moment to speculate about the relative amounts of time we spent flying aeroplanes and modelling proteins.

BBC computer game Elite badge

For the first few weeks, I was the only one who could land the Jumbo Jet without crashing. I had not wasted hundreds of hours flying under the ‘Aviator’ suspension bridge and dodging ‘Elite’ police ships for nothing. I was one of the glorious few to have fought my way through to the secret code for my ‘Elite’ badge. What the others did not seem able to grasp – and some of them are now eminent professors – is that the pilot of a Jumbo-Jet sits the equivalent of three storeys up from the ground, so that when you come in to land, assuming you have managed to line up the aircraft with the runway at the right height, distance and speed, which is no easy feat in itself, you are still thirty feet up in the air as you touch down. If you try to land with your seat at ground-level you will be too low, and smash into the runway with terrific force and die.

It all seemed terrifically futuristic. Yet my brother had a flight simulator twenty years earlier in the early nineteen-sixties. You might call it Grandad Dunham’s flight simulator. How could that be possible? That Grandad Dunham was our dad’s grandfather, our great-grandfather, who had died in 1941. He spent the last two years of his life living with his daughter’s family after he woke up one morning to find his second wife dead in bed beside him. When he moved in, his son-in-law carried his chair through the streets of the town on his back.

Grandad Dunham's Chair - Flight Simulator

Here is that very same chair, at least twice refurbished, and exceptionally comfortable it is too. Turned on its back and covered with an eiderdown it makes a wonderful aeroplane cockpit. My brother played in it happily for hours. Sometimes he would let me be his co-pilot. He chalked some controls and instruments underneath the seat. They are still there after more than fifty years.

What makes it particularly poignant is that my brother died at thirty six. The grandchildren he never saw will very soon be the same age he was when he drew those simple chalk marks. They will be able to have all the latest tablets and smart phones, and flight simulators so immersive and realistic they will not be able to tell whether or not they are in a real aeroplane. Who knows how things will be? But one thing I do know. No matter how advanced the technology, even in a hundred years, it will never be one half as much fun as Grandad Dunham’s eiderdown-covered chair with the chalk marks on its upturned seat.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Gram Motherem

How early are our earliest memories?

“I’ve made up a new game to play,” I told Peter Abson in the school playground. “It’s called Gram Motherem.”

It was a bit like tig. If you were ‘it’ you had to chase others and catch them. When you caught someone you hugged them tight and rubbed the front of your body firmly up and down against them while repeating the words “Gram Motherem, Gram Motherem” over and over again. I showed him but he didn’t seem too keen on the idea. Wendy Godley wouldn’t let me show her at all. In fact, she hardly ever spoke to me again after I tried.

I tell you this at risk of being branded some kind of rampant six year-old pervert because I believe it tells us something about our earliest memories.

Psychologists claim we all suffer from infantile or childhood amnesia. They tell us we remember little from before the age of five and nothing from before the age of two. They say that our memories depend upon developing a sense of ‘self’, which only begins around the age of two when we start to respond to our own image in a mirror and use words such as I, me and you. According to the theory, we are unlikely to be able to remember anything before our ‘self’ emerges.

Yet there are people who do insist they have memories from before the age of two. In one study, one man remembered playing with his twin brother who died before that age. But psychologists, whose job it is to doubt such anecdotal claims, question whether such early memories are genuine. It is possible, they say, to experience imaginary memories based upon photographs or what we have been told. We can even have false memories of events and objects that never happened or existed. All these things have been shown to be possible.

Well, I favour the anecdotal evidence. My own early memories are so detailed I have no doubt we can go back before the age of five, and probably before the age of two as well.

I can tell you the names of our neighbours, and their neighbours, in our street of terraced houses where we lived until I was six. I can tell you about the men’s hairdresser on the corner of the cross street across the road. He had pieces of broken bottle glass cemented to the top of his side wall to discourage people from climbing over into the back yard. Clear and brown, green and blue, they glinted like multicoloured gemstones in the sunlight. The world was exciting so long as you were careful.

I can remember that our street had gas lamps. A man with a long pole used to come to turn them on at lighting-up time. Before we moved house they were replaced by electric lights. Birds lined the high electricity cable we could see from the back room window when my dad was getting ready for work. “What time is it?” he would ask, and my mother would say “five past eight” or “ten past eight”, which I would notice was different from the day before.

Nettles and dandelions grew amongst the untidy heaps of rubble in the ‘bomb buildings’ at the end of the street where a Methodist Church had fallen in the war. At the other end of the street was a patch of waste ground where we had bonfires on bonfire nights. Unruly older boys used to shout excitedly as they threw penny bangers at each other and set off jumping crackers to frighten the smaller chiildren. The night before bonfire night was ‘mischief night’, a more menacing forerunner of ‘trick or treat’, when the same rowdy lads would run along the street knocking on all the doors. Sometimes they roped the doors together so that as one opened another slammed shut.

We had an attic where my dad nailed hardboard over the broken banisters so I didn’t fall down the stairwell. We kept the artificial Christmas tree up there through the year, and played with model ships and our Hornby ‘O’ gauge clockwork train set. My dad glued a ‘jetty’ firmly to the floorboards for the toy ships, and when we set out the toy  trains we always had a ‘Grandad Dunham’s siding’.

Downstairs, my mother kept the ration book in the back room in a built-in cupboard beside the chimney breast. Next to this was the wireless – a valve radio with an illuminated panel of station names on the front. On Sunday afternoons my dad used to run a brown fibre-covered cable through to a loudspeaker in the front room to listen to Hancock’s Half Hour. My mum preferred the Light Programme – the Beverley Sisters, Eve Boswell and Alma Cogan.

I played in the garden in my pedal car. It was red with white ‘V’ shaped stripes on the bonnet. I remember my dad repainting them. It was a struggle to pedal up the slight slope on to the lawn. “I’ve got to keep going in case a policeman comes,” I used to tell myself, fearfully. When I pedalled out into the back lane I was wary of the big family of boys who lived at the far end. They all had the same mean podgy round faces and pug noses.

We had an outside toilet where my dad used to hang a paraffin lamp underneath the high cistern to stop it freezing up in winter. At the end of the garden, next to the back lane, each house had an outhouse which I later learned were originally built as pig sties. The next-door-but-one neighbour extended his into a garage for his motorbike. His son pointed to the stack of grey breeze blocks he was using and proudly boasted “My dad can lift a ton of these.” Our own outhouse was the ‘wash house’. It had a fireplace to heat water to pour into a ‘dolly tub’ to wash the clothes with a ‘peggy stick’. Before we moved we bought a square, cream-yellow Ada washing machine with a wringer on top.

Wash House 1950
On the lawn next to the wash house and back gate

I can hear the sceptical psychologists questioning whether these memories really are genuine, no matter how vivid, and if so whether they are truly from before the age of five. Some I can date precisely. Hancock’s Half Hour started in 1954, but I was five and a half before it was broadcast on Sunday afternoons. I was still four when rationing ended. I don’t know when the gas lights were replaced but it should be possible to find out. My knowledge of the pig sties may betray a reconstructed memory – something I must have discussed more recently. Perhaps some of these memories are from the age of four but there is nothing to date them earlier. The psychologists are not convinced. I need to try harder.

What about the 2nd June, 1953, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, when I was three and a half? I can remember that too. At the time my mother used to take me each week by bus to my grandma’s. West Riding buses were green, but in the run up to the coronation they repainted at least one double-decker all over in red, white and blue triangles. It was in service like that for several weeks before and afterwards. I was always excited when we were lucky enough to catch it. “It’s the coronation bus,” I would shout as it approached. On coronation day itself there was a procession around the streets of our town, which I watched with my parents from the front bedroom window as it passed our house. ‘Our’ coronation bus was in the procession.

What about April, 1953, when my uncle left school aged fifteen? Until then he had his ‘dinner’ with us every Tuesday. My mother would give him the money to fetch fish and chips for the three of us from the fish shop in the next street. Or March, 1953, when my mother’s other brother died overseas in a tragic air force accident. I remember him at my grandma’s house, brushing his dark hair back from his distinctive wide forehead. That’s the best I can do – age three.

The psychologists still seem right. They would not dispute the memory of a few things from before the age of five. But what about even earlier impressions, not so clear? Could they disprove their theories?

When I was two I had whooping cough. This is a dangerous illness that lasts up to six weeks and involves severe coughing fits. I don’t remember the coughing at all, but I do remember having a coal fire in my bedroom to keep me warm, and the way the light from the flames flickered around the room. I remember lying drowsily in my cot and being half-woken and attacked by a ‘thing’ which undid my pyjama jacket and rubbed something on my chest. It happened regularly, and it was terrifying. The unmistakeable smell of Vicks Vaporub brings it back. One night, I exaggerated my breathing to seem deep asleep. It worked. When the ‘thing’ visited my room, it waited a short time then left without bothering me.

One afternoon I saw something like a white goose’s neck moving outside the bars of my cot. I screamed and my dad hurried to see what wrong. “There’s a chicken under my cot” I wailed.

“We don’t believe you,” say the psychologists. The bedroom fire images could be from a later time. The ‘chicken under the cot’ incident must have been told, retold and laughed about so many times I am remembering the story not the event.

But surely, private impressions of feelings, fears and subterfuges cannot be dismissed so easily. They are internal. They may have been revised and reconstructed through dreams, but they are still genuine. The Vicks Vaporub memory is a case in point. As is the ‘Gram Motherem’ notion I started with.

‘Gram Motherem’ began as an unpleasant, regularly recurring dream from the earliest times I remember, and continued into my twenties. I am in the back lane outside our gate where long, white flexible tubes hang like tendrils from the wall, like elephants’ trunks but more slender, or like chitterlings but bigger. They writhe like snakes. As I pass, the open ends reach out, twist around me and latch on by suction. They pull me inside diaphanous white layers of material and I can’t escape. They hold me tightly and rub the front of my body while repeating the words “Gram Motherem, Gram Motherem” over and over again.

For decades I had not the slightest inkling of what this strange dream could be, until one day it suddenly dawned on me, after which it went away. I feel sure it is a very early, residual, unclear and indistinct memory of breast feeding.

That would be a very early memory indeed. Perhaps we sometimes retain vague impressions from before the age of two, before we develop our sense of ‘self’. Or perhaps our ‘self’ begins to form sooner than psychologists think.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Posters on the Wall

Guinness, Smirnoff, Accountancy and Monty Python

Athena tennis girl poster
There was a time when no self-respecting, young person’s bedsit would be complete without an iconic Athena poster. Along with the thousands of other young persons who had exactly the same one, it was a statement of your individuality. Full-blooded young males could have a sexy French lingerie model or the knickerless tennis girl absent-mindedly rubbing her naked bottom (gratuitously included here). The more emancipated might have the muscular man cradling a baby. For the rebellious it would be Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix surrounded by psychedelic swirls. The arty could choose a fine reproduction print, perhaps a Salvador Dali to indicate their leanings towards the avante garde. For the revolutionary Marxist it had to be Che Guevara. For those of a philosophical bent it might be seagulls in mid-flight, quoting Virgil: “They can because they think they can.”

Posters on the wallAthena outlets sprang up in most large towns and cities, and for a couple of decades they made good profits. Not out of cheapskates like me though. My walls were adorned with a scruffy and eclectic mix of images acquired entirely free of charge. Here are some of them in my attic bedroom in our dingy shared house in Leeds in 1972, next to some colourful ink blots on blotting paper, the product of an idle, unsupervised afternoon at work.

One was a Guinness poster to show that independence and resilience were important parts of my individuality. You had to be pretty independent and resilient to drink the stuff. No one else I knew liked its burnt and heavy flavour. I’m not even sure that I did.

I had sent Guinness a sycophantic letter admiring one of their newspaper adverts: ‘How to Make Guinness’. Back came a roughly A2-sized poster in a cardboard tube.* It caricatured the process from harvesting the barley through to delivery by road tanker, and gave sound advice on how to avoid common errors such as brewing it upside down with the head underneath the body.  

Smirnoff poster: accountancy was my life
Then there was the Smirnoff poster: “Accountancy was my life until I discovered Smirnoff.” Well, it was true, accountancy was my life, and I dearly wished it wasn’t. Oh that something so simple as learning to handle a bottle of vodka could instantaneously transform it from the humdrum into one of glamour and excitement! But, from the other adverts in the series, I would rather have been the camel train trekker who used to take the caravan to Southend but now traversed the desert, or the mainstay of the Public Library who had escaped to carefree rural reverie, rather than the suited, cigar-smoking, nineteen-thirties City of Westminster gangster in the wide-brimmed Panama hat.

Anyone would have thought that accountancy was boring. Well, thanks to John Cleese and Monty Python, that is exactly what most of my contemporaries did think. Most damaging was the ‘Vocational Guidance Counsellor’ sketch about an insignificant little man whose careers advisor declared without doubt that the ideal job for him was chartered accountancy. “But I am a chartered accountant,” he protested. He wanted a new job, “something exciting that will let me live.” He wanted to be a lion tamer. Chartered accountancy was “dull, dull, dull ...”,  a career in which it was a positive advantage to be “unimaginative, timid, lacking in initiative, spineless, easily dominated, no sense of humour, tedious company and irrepressibly drab.” The sketch ends by asking for donations to The League for Fighting Chartered Accountancy: “this terrible debilitating social disease.” I am certain it influenced my subsequent rejection of the career. So much for independence and resilience.

The senior partner where I worked found the sketch so offensive it became practically a dismissable offence to admit you watched the programme. John Cleese, however, discovered that his own accountant was not offended in any way at all. When asked why, he explained it was because the sketch was about chartered accountancy, whereas he himself was a certified accountant.

But a fervent Monty Python fan I was, one of those who could recite ‘The Piranha Brothers’ and ‘Room for an Argument’ off by heart. We even used to audio-tape and transcribe the television shows so we could act them out ourselves in our shared house. My brother used the school's photographic equipment to make a poster from the Whizzo Quality Assortment page of Monty Python’s Big Red Book. This showed a box of chocolates containing such delights as Crunchy Frog, made using only the finest baby frogs, dew picked and flown from Iraq. “Do you take the bones out?” “No, it wouldn’t be crunchy if we did.” That poster went on my wall too.

In 1973, I went with a group of mates to the Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House in New Briggate to see Monty Python on tour. Many of the sketches, such as ‘The Parrot Sketch’, and the animations projected on to a screen, were straight from the television series, but there was some new material too. In one sketch a group of bowler-hatted city gents were sitting on stools reading newspapers in a cocktail bar. It got its first laugh simply by using language you would not then have expected in a theatre, not even in Monty Python: “I see Nixon’s had an arsehole transplant.” The punchline brought the house down: “It says here the arsehole rejected him.”

The programme for the show was in the form of a huge poster. Many of them ended up gliding gracefully across the vast auditorium in the form of paper aeroplanes, but with my bare walls in mind, I carefully rolled mine up and took it home. Here it is, well just the lower edge of it, at the other end of my attic room above a messy desk of reel-to-reel tapes, guitar music and the camera case. I still have it today in the Guinness cardboard tube, much faded, its corners damaged by drawing-pins and blue-tack. All serious offers considered!

Cluttered desk

Monty Python's Farewell Tour Official Programme

* With it came a smaller poster, ‘How to economise on Guinness’, which suggests mixing it half and half with champagne to make ‘black velvet’. This can be seen to the right of the ‘How to make Guinness’ poster.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Partners and Seniors

Andrew and I spoke in low voices, trying to look as if we were working hard.

“G eight”

“Splash”

“B nine”

“Miss”

“G nine”

“You’ve just hit Mr. Hawkwind.”

We were playing ‘Partners and Seniors’. It was based on ‘Battleships’, a pencil and paper game for two players.

In ‘Battleships’, each player rules out two 10 x 10 grids for their own and their opponent’s fleets of warships, and then positions their own fleet secretly in their own grid. Typically, they would have an aircraft carrier occupying five squares, a battleship occupying four, a destroyer and a submarine of three squares each, and a minesweeper occupying two. Neither player should be able to see the other’s grids.

The objective is to sink the opponent’s fleet before they sink yours. There are many variations, ours being as follows. Players take turns to shoot by naming a square in the opponent’s grid. If the square is occupied by one of the opponent’s ships then it is announced as a ‘hit’. If the square is adjacent to an opponent’s ship it is a ‘splash’. If the square is neither occupied nor adjacent it is a ‘miss’. A ship is sunk when all its squares have been hit. Players use their second 10 x 10 grids to record the results of their shots and to decide where to target subsequent shots.

But we weren’t playing ‘Battleships’. Our game had evolved into ‘Partners and Seniors’. In place of warships we had Chartered Accountants. Instead of aircraft carriers, destroyers and minesweepers, we had partners, seniors and articled clerks from the firm where we worked. Mr. Hawkwind was one of the partners.

Partners and Seniors

We were out on audit at a clients’ premises, the most mind-numbing of all the audits we did. You could be there for several months, sitting in a little room off the side of the open-plan sales ledger office putting ticks on ledger cards. As far as Mr. Hawkwind was concerned, you could have disappeared off the face of the earth.

The client was a cloth merchants, an old family firm. They bought rolls of cloth from the manufacturers in every weight, weave, colour, stripe and herringbone imaginable, and re-sold it in suit lengths – the amount needed to make men’s bespoke two-piece or three-piece suits, with or without extra pairs of trousers. The rolls of cloth were stored elsewhere in the building, away from the damaging effects of heat and light. The cool, shadowy stillness of the warehouse had a strange musty smell: presumably a mixture of dyes, preservatives and the scent of the cloth itself.  

The firm supplied just about every tailor and outfitter in the country. In other words, they had a lot of customers: twenty or so trays full of them in fact. For each customer there was a sales ledger card around eight by ten inches in size. The cards were arranged alphabetically in long-legged metal trays on wheels which looked like miniature babies’ prams. They were referred to as buses. “Have you seen the ‘W-X’ bus?” “Please could I have the ‘B’ bus after you?”

Some of the office staff had been there for decades, from the days when most clerical jobs were done by men. They all still wore suits and ties, and kept their jackets on all day. Only the office manager, in the room next to ours, worked in his shirtsleeves. He was not an attractive sight: a fearsome, grossly overweight man who always left his unpleasant outdoor shoes, or in winter his stinking wellington boots, beside the radiator.

One of the clerks, in his mid-forties, all teeth and thick glasses, would have been tall had he stood straight, but he had acquired a stoop from years bent at a desk. As he hunched to push the ledger buses, his jacket draped itself around the cards as if trying to consume them.

One Friday afternoon we listened, able to overhear the office manager tell the clerk, completely out of the blue, that he was no longer needed. “You realise this is absolutely no reflection on you in any way whatsoever,” he tried to reassure him, as if it made things better. The clerk seemed unable to reply. A week or two later his job was taken by a new girl straight from school.

The business was beginning to struggle, and trying to cut costs. Demand for made-to-measure suits was falling because of changing fashions and cheaper, ready-made, ‘off-the-peg’ garments. One floor of the warehouse was now empty. Within not so many years the family owners would decide to give up the ghost and lease the building to the old adversary: the Inland Revenue.

But that was in the future and the firm still had a few years left to run. As auditors, we were required to check that every sale the firm had made during the year had been correctly recorded on the correct ledger card. So for several weeks each year, a couple of articled clerks would spend their days ticking off the cards against the order books and sales invoices. Then, as if to ensure they received an appropriate breadth of professional experience, they would go through all the incoming payments and tick those off against the ledger cards too. One year you would use a red pen, the following year a green, and then back to red again. The exhilaration was tangible. You really looked forward to getting up in a morning.

What made the task seem even more superfluous and unnecessary was that the ledger cards were partly computerised. They were printed by machine, and each yellow card carried three dark-brown, machine-readable, magnetic stripes to record all the transactions. It was an early and primitive system, but really, wouldn’t some kind of statistical sampling been sufficient to ensure the cards were reasonably accurate? Any mistakes that crept in could have been corrected as and when they were discovered. The firm must have wanted everything checked by the auditors. Articled clerks were paid a pittance so it didn’t cost a lot. Perhaps they needed to keep tabs on the inexperienced staff they were now taking on. 

I never did find an error. That is not to say there weren’t any, but the job was so soporific that any I came across would probably have got ticked correct anyway.

Is there any wonder we invented diversions such as ‘Partners and Seniors’ to brighten up the day?

“J nine”

“You’ve just sunk Mr. Hawkwind.”

Mr. Hawkwind would surely have sunk us if he’d known what we were up to.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Weekend in College

You been tellin’ me you're a genius since you were seventeen,
In all the time I've known you, I still don't know what you mean,
The weekend in the college didn't turn out like you planned,
The things that pass for knowledge, I can't understand.

It was as if Steely Dan’s phenomenal ‘Reelin’ in the Years’ was aimed directly at me, cutting through the pretentiousness to expose the stupidity beneath. It was actually four months in college rather than a weekend, but it might just as well have been a couple of days for all the good it seemed to do, the anticipation of arrival smothered in a gloomy blanket of disillusion. I detested myself as much as Becker and Fagen derided the girl of their 1972 song. It was painful.

The Acre, Beckett Park, City of Leeds and Carnegie College
City of Leeds and Carnegie College (through rose-tinted glasses?)

After four mind-numbing years in accountancy, I had decided it was not the career for me and applied to train as a Secondary years (High School) science teacher at City of Leeds and Carnegie College. An easy interview led to the expected offer, in fact the second I’d had, the first having been while still at school. The iron railings along Church Wood Avenue brought a powerful sense of déjà vu, as if the last four years had never happened.

I have no doubt now that neither offer should have been made. At that time you could get in to train as a teacher with five G.C.E. ‘O’ (Ordinary) levels, which I had. As regards ‘A’ (Advanced) levels, the prospectus said “It is assumed that the [specialist] subject has been studied previously to the Advanced level of the G.C.E.”, which meant you did not actually need to have passed. That was me exactly.

‘A’ level pass grades used to run from A down to E. Below that was grade O for an ‘O’ level equivalent and F for an outright fail. I had D, O, O and F. What a doof! The D was in General Studies, a subject you took without formal study and which often didn’t count. The F was in maths. The O grades, also in effect fails, were in my specialist subjects, biology and chemistry. And although I did have the required ‘O’ levels, they were all poor grades. Ordinary level passes then ran from 1 down to 6, with grades 7 and below being fails. In biology and chemistry I had 5s. 

Now I don’t want to sound ungrateful, or miserly, or an academic snob. I am proud of my ‘O’ levels and there must be plenty of outstanding teachers and other successful people whose qualifications were no better than mine on leaving school. Swots do not make the most inspirational leaders. But really, it beggars belief that anyone could become a Secondary science teacher with nothing better than weak ‘O’ level passes in their specialist subjects. They must have been desperate to fill the places.

Of course, I was now regarded as a mature student, supposedly replete with a brimful of valuable life experiences, and had progressed part-way through professional accountancy exams.* The college interviewers even used flattery in saying that in talking with me they were surprised my exam results had not been better. Surely, they should have told me to go away and re-sit my ‘A’ levels and reapply. Anything less would be to risk inflicting my limited knowledge and ineffectual learning techniques upon other poor innocents.

I was awarded a grant of £501.80, today’s inflation-adjusted equivalent of around £5,500, and almost £10,000 in terms of income growth. No fees were payable – course costs were never mentioned then. No wonder they stopped it. A list of set books from Walker’s Bookshop in the Headingley Arndale Centre cost me £15.09½. I kept some of them for years, and still have the outstanding two volume ‘Plant and Animal Biology’ by Vines and Rees, which is too wonderful to let go.

Student grant award and book list 1973

The campus of Leeds and Carnegie College, now part of Leeds Beckett University, is one of the loveliest in Britain. It was built in 1911 in a hundred acres of parkland that once belonged to Kirkstall Abbey. Hares ran free in the woods and each spring brought an inspiring succession of leaf and flower. The magnificent main building (now known as the James Graham Building) dominated a sweeping rectangular lawn called the Acre, lined by solid halls of residence named after ancient Yorkshire worthies: Fairfax, Cavendish, Caedmon, Leighton, Priestley, Macauley and Bronte. Carnegie Hall, the Physical Education college, was to the rear of the main building, and there were several newer buildings (post-dating the aerial photograph) including another hall of residence (R. W. Rich Hall) and the Science Block where my course was based.

City of Leeds and Carnegie College 1960s
City of Leeds and Carnegie College from the air (around 1960) and in plan (around 1968)

The Principal, L. (Leo) Connell, M. Sc., Ph. D., urbanely greeted the new students below the splendid pipe organ in the Great Hall (sadly destroyed by fire in 1978) and then left us to our tutors. Mine was a Mr. Uncles who joked about being an uncle-like character, and the Head of Biology was a Dr. Calder, both of them near to retirement. The names of the other staff escape me now.

One of my difficulties was that as a day student, an outsider who had elected to remain off-campus in my seedy shared house, I was not a member of the friendly community in their cosy study bedrooms bordering the grassy Acre. Living out meant missing out, such as on the music groups and other societies I might have enjoyed. Being older than the others, I felt awkward entering the student lounge, where loud music drifted out through the door flaunting the easy friendships within. While the Carpenters sang that they were on top of the world, Steely Dan mocked that “college didn't turn out like you planned”, and Carly Simon told me “you’re so vain, I bet you think this song is about you.”

I did make a few friends, but none lasting. There were troupes of stunning but unreachable Amazonian goddesses among the female physical education students, of whom I was not the only worshipper from afar. Remarks about being in need of some physical education ourselves were traded in whispers between the weedy male science students.

The course quickly became tedious. Chemistry classes were interminable. It was little different from school and I began to sink into the old malaise. In biology I remember one technician’s idea of humanely despatching live rats for dissection was to swing them by their tails to crack their necks on the edge of a bench. We spent one afternoon using rectangular measures called quadrats to sample the plant species growing in the Acre lawn. When it came to collating the group data, my accountant’s brain had added up the numbers almost before the others had got out the calculators. Among the other subjects was English. In one tutorial we began to read through a play, and it gradually dawned on me that some of the others were not fluent readers at all. It was astonishing. They were training to become teachers for goodness’ sake.

First year students were sent out on four weeks’ teaching practice during the first term, and I soon found myself in a Comprehensive School in what was then mainly a council estate on the outskirts of Leeds. The first two weeks were entirely observational, but during the second we got to plan and teach a few lessons ourselves.

It was a stroke of luck that my best lesson happened to be one my teaching practice tutor came to see. It was an introduction to the Bunsen burner. I stood silently in front of a chattering first-year class, slowly setting up the equipment as if not yet quite ready to start. I turned on the gas and struck a match, and by the time I had adjusted the air supply a couple of times, changing the flame from flickering yellow to roaring blue and back to yellow again, I had their rapt attention, all without saying a single word. Later they tried the Bunsens themselves, all happy and engaged in what they were doing. There were other successful lessons making oxygen and other gases. Do they still let schoolchildren do these things, or is it thought much too dangerous now?

Fortunately, no one saw my worst lesson, delivered to some kind of third-year rural studies class. For some forgotten reason it was about trees. This was long before anyone talked about aims and objectives and lesson plans, and the national curriculum was decades away. I think I had simply been asked to dream up a topic and teach it. I had no idea why and neither I nor the kids were particularly interested. Things gradually deteriorated into a near riot from which I was reprieved only by the end of lesson bell.

The school had little of the liveliness of the grammar school I had attended myself, and some of the staff made no secret of their dissatisfaction. “Here I am with a First Class Honours degree in English,” said one recently qualified teacher, “and I’m supposed to teach kids who have no interest in reading anything at all”.

One of the games teachers was interested only in his horse. “There’s always something wrong with it,” one of the others told me, “he’s always calling the vet, and yet he says he plans to race it.”

“It sounds like he might beat it,” I quipped.

One of the best teachers was just a little older than me, but had been teaching for several years and was already in charge of the biology department. He was an independent thinker, advertised by a thick beard, dark woolly pony tail, and shaggy ringlets that somehow conveyed the impression of dangling rams horns. Unusually for someone of his age, his thick-rimmed spectacles hung on a cord around his neck like granny glasses. He knew his subject thoroughly and could hold the children spellbound. Yet even he seemed to have reservations about his role. Soon afterwards he started a pottery with his wife, as I discovered many years later when I came across it by chance on holiday.

Another mature student, previously a joiner but now aged twenty-eight with a wife, house and family, said that the course was surpassing his expectations. That was not my experience. Doubts grew as we broke for Christmas and I returned temporarily to my old employer to earn a bit of money. I realised then, the uninspiring course, the mediocrity, the dismal school I’d seen, it was not what I wanted to do. Despite a satisfyingly good first term’s marks and teaching practice report, I told my tutor I wanted to leave and was sent to see Leo Connell in his study. Graciously, he made no attempt to dissuade me. So that was it, hopes and dreams dashed by another abandoned course of study. What was to become of me now?

I heard subsequently from one of the other students I was by no means the last to leave. From Friends Reunited I can see that some of my contemporaries went on to successful teaching careers, but many others never taught at all. During the year that my course would have finished, the press was rife with accounts of unemployment among new teachers. Successive governments had failed to match the number of training places to a decreasing birth rate, and local authority employers were finding themselves short of money. That year, around two thirds of newly qualified teachers were unable to find jobs. One poor girl in London had been guaranteed a teaching post with the Inner London Education Authority the previous year, but had stayed an extra year at college to complete her Bachelor of Education degree. Despite her improved qualifications she was now having to look for work outside teaching.** Perhaps it was fortunate I did leave.

It was thirty years before I visited Beckett Park again, to attend a conference. The passage of time gave rise to quite an unsettling experience. I was haunted by half-remembered faces and snatches of conversation from a particularly intense episode in the past: here is where I usually managed to find a parking space for my Mini; across there is where I resented Dr. Calder telling me I would have greater authority if I stood straighter and walked with shorter steps; that window, in Leighton Hall, is the study bedroom where a girl I seriously fancied took me one afternoon for nothing more than a cup of coffee and a long talk. 

Ghosts apart, everything looked much the same, although buildings that were new when I first went, as with so many other cheap nineteen-sixties structures, had been demolished and replaced. Most of the original Edwardian campus had survived of course, although internally the main building was unrecognisable, not least because the quadrangles had been roofed over. The original halls of residence were now mainly staff offices and teaching rooms, and most of the displaced students were bused in from off-campus. I suppose the more organised and enterprising ones walk or cycle to eke out their inadequate finance. There are no £10,000 p.a. free rides now. I only had to repay part of the second grant instalment. I was not penalised with a huge student debt for my mistake. 

Smoke gets in your eyes. You can convince yourself anything is right when you’re desperate enough. I realise now that college was a substitute for university, for which I lacked the entrance qualifications. I thought teacher training might be similar, but it wasn’t. It was a dreadful knock to the confidence, especially after having to face down a fair amount of criticism to go. “Short hours and no real responsibility,” was what one colleague thought of teachers. “There’ll soon be no need for them; computers will make them all redundant,” predicted another.

Luckily, I soon found work with another firm of accountants. What else was I to do? 


* The difficulty with professional accountancy examinations was that in order to progress at each stage you had to pass all subjects in one sitting. I had the self-destructive capacity to fail subjects I had previously passed, so even passing those previously failed left me stuck at the same hurdle. 

** See for example The Times 31st May, 1976, page 6 “Is the Government going to waste £10,000 on William Burns?” and The Times 15th June, 1976, page 4 “30,000 student teachers still seeking jobs”

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Old Tools

Old tools

Not long after my parents married in 1946, my maternal grandfather took my father to one side and, on account of the fact that his new son-in-law travelled in ladies underwear (so to speak) rather than having some more practical and manly occupation, told him, “Sither, th’d better ’ave these,” and gave him a set of tools. No doubt the items he passed on were surplus to his needs having acquired and inherited a considerable collection over his forty-five years.

Those tools, both my father’s and my grandfather’s, became very familiar to me. My grandfather’s tools remained in his garden shed-cum-workshop, and after he had died at what was even then an abysmally young age, I would sneak in to ‘play’ with his wood brace and drill bits, his awls and gimlets, his planes, chisels, hammers and mallets, and other tools I couldn’t identify, all logically arranged on purpose made hooks, racks and shelves. Some may have been handed down from his own grandfather, who had worked with steam engines on barges in the 1870s. Both would have been as appalled by my lack of respect for them as by my father’s mistreatment of the items he had been given.

My grandfather’s immaculate collection of tools eventually went to one of my uncles to be misused by his children, but my father’s neglected assortment are among the jumble of tools I now have to sort out, having over the years, just like my grandfather, bought, acquired and inherited my own surplus.

Old spanners

Now rusty and unloved, so many of them bring back lost associations. There are the bicycle spanners and tyre levers I watched my father use to adjust saddles, remove wheels and mend punctures (see Dad's Thursday Helper). There are thicker spanners and tyre levers from the toolkits of long-ago scrapped motor vehicles – his firm’s delivery vans – some marked ‘Bedford’, another labelled ‘Austin’, all in defunct British Standard Whitworth sizes.

There are broken files and sets of hard-handled pliers now so stiff it takes stronger hands than mine to pull them open. They carry the trademark of Elliott Lucas of Cannock which once made around half of all the pliers and pincers sold in the United Kingdom.

A group of wooden-handled, triangular scrapers reminds me of the time my father acquired a blowlamp and painstakingly scraped layers of old paint off the skirting board in the back room. Those old scissors are the ones my mother used for dead-heading the flowers in the garden.

There is a thick metal punch, its top battered down from when I used it to chip out a groove in the concrete under the door of the yellow shed I had taken over, to form a base for a ridge of cement to act as a barrier to the rainwater that pooled in, although it never worked. That was in 1965 – I know because I remember scoring the date in the top of the cement, it being my birthday.

Among the screwdrivers with bent or rounded blades is one with its wooden handle splintered down to half its original size through being bashed with a hammer when it served as a substitute cold chisel. Other screwdrivers were misused as makeshift levers and scrapers. One of them, the most damaged and least usable of them all, was left by a mechanic under the bonnet of one of my first cars after it had been in for repair. My father and I weren’t the only serial tool-abusers in town.

For the last thirty years or so, my father’s tools lived in an blue metal tool box. The bottom is now rusted through despite the amount of oil and grease covering everything inside, soaking into the wooden handles and attracting a filthy film of old paint, grease, grit and bits of insects. I had to wipe them clean before I could begin to sort them.

In addition there are my own tools, once new but now seemingly as old as my father’s. There are tools for painting and wallpapering, woodworking, home plumbing and electrical work, the legacy of years as a home owner. There are sets of AF and Metric spanners, feeler gauges, a spark-plug spanner, a brake spanner and other specialist implements from the days I serviced my own old bangers. There is a set of miniature silver tools that once came in a pouch designed to be carried in a car glove-box, which were always useless, consisting of an adjustable spanner that did not grip, a hinged set of spanners that were all the same size, and a handle with interchangeable screwdriver blades which somehow failed to fit any screw I ever wanted to turn.

And now – the event that forces me to sort them all out after all this time – I have acquired yet more tools, this time from my mother-in-law, some old and worn, others as good as new, little used and much better than mine.

I am afraid that most of the tools photographed, together with the rusty blue toolbox, are destined for the metal recycling skip, having checked ebay and found them to be effectively valueless.

Two particularly satisfying things I will keep.

Rabone boxwood 1375 folding ruler

“That’s my daddy’s ruler,” my wife said when we unearthed this thirty-six inch Rabone boxwood 1375 folding ruler in my mother-in-law’s garage. These beautiful devices were used widely before the invention of the ubiquitous retractable tape measure. Its four sections can be folded down to a single nine-inch length, or opened out to an arrow-straight yard long rule. There seem to be plenty still left around, probably because they are much too satisfying to throw away.

Antique oil can

“That’s my daddy’s oil can,” is what I could have said when we found it in the cardboard box that came from my father’s garage nearly ten years ago. He used to fill it with used engine oil and like the spanners mentioned above, it may originally have been from an ancient motor vehicle tool kit. This type of oil can predated the present day tins with built-in plastic spouts. Unfortunately, because of damage, it would now only serve its original function with a sawn-off shortened spout, so I’ve cleaned it out with a hot solution of washing powder to keep as an object of interest. I recently saw a similar one in a Cotswolds antique shop for £100.

Good. That’s the tools sorted. Now for my accumulation of nails, screws, washers, brackets, hinges, piping, wiring, fuses, electric plugs, wall plugs, bath plugs, coat hooks, cup hooks, curtain hooks, door handles, fork ’andles and other bits and pieces. On second thoughts, it can wait a few more years. If I leave it long enough it will be someone else’s problem. Either that or open my own branch of Screwfix.

Monday, 17 August 2015

The Exorcist

When my son was about eight, he asked what was the scariest film I had ever seen.

“Well,” I said, “there are quite a few, but one of them is so scary that even its name is too terrifying to say.”

No eight year-old would ever let me off that easily, and when it became obvious he was not going to give up, I said that I would only tell him when he was eighteen. For now, all I was prepared to say was that it began with an ‘e’. “The rest is too frightening to think about,” I repeated.

“Excalibur” he said without hesitation, trying to guess.

“I don’t think there is such a ....”

“Yes there is,” he said, “what about The Executioner?”

“Even if it was I wouldn’t tell you,” I said after again having been corrected about the existence of such a film.

“Excrement,” he guessed. I really doubted that one, but not wanting to risk being found ignorant a third time I simply repeated what I’d said already.

This continued on and off for the next few weeks, with him trying out the names of various films, or anything he imagined might be the name of a film, beginning with ‘e’, and me continuing to repeat I was not going to tell him until he was eighteen.

“Ectoplasm?”

“I’m not saying.”

“The Epidermis?”

“I’m not saying.”

“Endoscopy?”

Wherever did he learn these words?

“The Exorcist,” he said one day, eyes bright in triumph.

“Look, I’ve already said, I’m not going to ...”

“Oh! For goodness’ sake,” my wife said, “just tell him and then we can put an end to this stupid game. Otherwise we’ll all have gone mad long before he’s eighteen, assuming we’ve not strangled you first.”

“It’s too frightening to think about,” I persisted lamely, “even the title.”

Poster: The Exorcist

It must have been around April, 1974, that I first saw ‘The Exorcist’ at the ABC Cinema in Leeds, soon after its U.K. release. Masses wanted to see the most talked about film of the year, and Leeds audiences were swelled by swarms of Bradfordians whose local council had banned it.* Three of us from the rented house we shared, myself, Nick and Brendan, joined the queue that stretched along Vicar Lane, creeping slowly forwards. A clergyman and a couple of helpers walked up and down handing out leaflets, trying to persuade us that the film was the work of the devil. I saw no one leave the queue. Upon reaching the door we were told “Sorry there’s only one seat left, and it’s the last one”. Nick and Brendan pushed me forward and went off to the pub trying to conceal their relief at the reprieve. I nervously went inside to see the film on my own.

I have never been so petrified in all my life. I sat in the dark clutching the arm rests, flesh creeping, my face twisted into a rictus grimace, involuntary tears streaming from my eyes. It is the quality of the sound as much as the images that makes cinema so powerful, and they had the volume right up, especially as the nauseating voice of the ancient demon Pazuzu rasped from the throat of Regan, the twelve year old girl possessed by his spirit.

Nick and Brendan saw it fairly soon afterwards, and a few weeks later we decided to see it again. The second time the cinema was three quarters empty. A few rows in front of us, on her own, was an old witch of a woman rustling a big bag of popcorn, cackling loudly at just about everything she saw and heard.

“Whoa! What a shot!” she shrieked as Regan’s vomit blasted Father Damien Karras, the exorcist, in the face, lodging behind his spectacles like a clump of porridgy green pus. “Bet you can’t go round again,” she squealed after Regan’s head had spun full circle, cracking and crunching the neck. And she just snorted hysterically when the demon told Karras how his mother spent her time in hell.

It put the film in an entirely different light. For the next few weeks our house grated to the sound of Exorcist impersonations. Loud rasping shouts of “Karras, Karras,” scraped like sandpaper from room to room as Brendan raucously yelled “your mother cooks socks in hell” all the way down the stairs from his attic bedroom. It is a good job the walls of our terraced house were thick enough to avoid disturbing the neighbours. It was very rare to hear any sound from them at all.

It truly was a shocking film, but it also has hilarious aspects some will always refuse to acknowledge. In Miami, Father Mark Karras, an Orthodox priest who had conducted exorcisms for real, sued the creators of the book and film, alleging they had based the story on him, having fictionalised his name, personality and professional life. He claimed that some characteristics of the film were so offensive he had been exposed to public humiliation, embarrassment, scorn and obloquy. William Peter Blatty, the book’s author, was forced to testify that he had never previously met nor heard of him.**

And then there were the town councillors and eccentric individuals who wanted the film banned, such as the outspoken Dr. Rhodes Boyson, a Conservative Member of Parliament with unruly mutton-chops and a pantomime Lancashire accent (all Lancashire accents are pantomime to Yorkshire ears), who had previously been a headmaster. Indeed, in a large number of towns, including Bradford, the film was banned, resulting in ‘Exorcist Bus Trips’ taking groups of people to neighbouring towns where it was showing. Later, the video version was not officially cleared for sale in the U.K. until 1999.

But my favourite proscriber has to be the Tunisian government who banned the film on the ground that it presented “unjustified” propaganda in favour of Christianity.***

*                   *                  *

In the end I did hold out without revealing the film’s name until my son was eighteen, in spite of his repeated assertion “It’s The Exorcist, isn’t it?” and my refusal either to confirm or deny it.

“Only someone with an autistic spectrum disorder could be so obstinate,” my wife kept complaining. I know they secretly think I’ve got Asperger’s Syndrome, and I also know they must be wrong, because if I did have Asperger’s Syndrome, I would find it difficult to empathise with people, and I wouldn’t know what they were thinking, would I?

Shortly after conceding that my son had been right all along, the film was shown very late one night on television, and I videotaped it.

“Don’t you dare watch that while I’m in the house,” my wife said. I wondered whether I dared watch it while she wasn’t. Eventually, one morning when alone, I found the courage to put it on. I could only bear it for ten minutes before I had to turn it off due to boredom.


* It was rather inconsistent of the two city councils because two years earlier we had to go to the Bradford Odeon to see ‘A Clockwork Orange’ which had been banned in Leeds. 

** The Times 30th May 1974 page 9. Father Mark Athanasios Constantine Karras later became the Archbishop of Byzantium.

*** The Times 11th March 1974 page 2 and 25th February 1975 page 6.

Reproduction of The Exorcist poster is believed to constitute fair use.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Eric Kershaw's Guitar Class

Memories of a guitar class run by one of Britain's top swing-era guitarists.

Once upon a time, there were so many local authority evening classes it was hard to know which to take. There was an enormous choice of crafts, arts, sports, languages and examination subjects, but you had to make up your mind and enrol promptly or you would find your preferences full to capacity. From the nineteen-seventies to the nineteen-nineties, I brushed up my French, learned to recognise wild plants, studied the history of the cinema, explored my family history, played clarinet badly in an orchestra, tried to improve my writing skills (I know, it doesn’t show), and grazed my knees on a climbing wall in preparation for a scary weekend up rock faces in Borrowdale. I even retook my ‘A’ levels.

But if you look now, the informal classes once enjoyed by so many have closed. There are hardly any on offer at all. They began to disappear around ten years ago after a government “consultation” concluded (ignoring their popularity) that publicly subsidised evening classes were no longer needed because of alternatives such as television, libraries, the National Trust, English Heritage, museums, art galleries, the internet and the University of the Third Age. Funding was diverted into basic skills training for the unemployed: numeracy, literacy, information technology and work-based courses. The only publicly funded classes were to be those that led to approved qualifications. By 2008 over a million places had been axed.

Sue Blackmore summed it up in the Guardian in 2009 after a disappointing experience at a sculpture class. All that she and the other participants wanted was, unsurprisingly, “to do some sculpture.” The friendly young teacher would have been delighted to oblige, but no, to be funded the course had to lead towards a BTEC (Business and Technology Education Council) ONC (Ordinary National Certificate) qualification. It was bogged down in the blinkered bureaucracy of today’s educational ideology: aims, objectives and personal learning goals. The whole of the first term was taken up in putting together a portfolio of design investigations to achieve twelve learning outcomes, such as being able to “discuss and develop ideas with the advice of your tutor”,  and “identify potential hazards in the craft room”.  And all they had wanted was to do some sculpture!

Leeds College of Music, Woodhouse Lane 1990s
Leeds College of Music, Woodhouse Lane, around 1990

Thank goodness none of this claptrap was around in the autumn of 1974 when all I wanted to do was to learn to play guitar a bit better. I went along to Leeds College of Music on Woodhouse Lane and, unsure of which course to do, was steered by the enrolment clerk towards “the one with Eric Kershaw, the guitar book author.” I’d never heard of him, but she said his name with such reverence I signed up there and then.

Eric Kershaw (1916-1983), I soon discovered, was one of the top guitarists in Britain during the nineteen-thirties and nineteen-forties ‘swing’ era. Before the war, “Eric Kershaw and his Rhythmic Guitars” appeared regularly on the B.B.C. National and Northern radio stations, and later he played in the leading bands of Jack Parnell and Cyril Stapleton, and in countless West End shows. However, he was best known for his internationally best selling book ‘Dance Band Chords for the Guitar’ first published in 1946, which had sold an amazing seven and a half million copies. He had been appointed lecturer in plectrum and jazz guitar at Leeds College of Music in 1970, a post he held until his retirement in 1981.

Eric Kershaw: Dance Band Chords

The evening class was superb. For much of the time we played through his arrangement of around a hundred popular songs from the thirties, forties and fifties which he had put together as a medley. It began with ‘Just You, Just Me’ and ended aptly with ‘The Song Is Ended’. There were separate bass, rhythm and “stave solo” parts for which he had written out the music by hand. He had then made cyclostyled (‘Gestetnered’) copies collated into books concertinaed together with sellotape.

“Look after these and don’t walk off with ‘em,” he warned as he handed them out, “you’ve got no idea how long it takes to stick ‘em all together.” We were allowed to take them home, but he wanted them back at the end of the course.

Most of us played from the solo part because Eric persuaded us we needed to learn to read music. He played the rhythm accompaniment himself, and also the ‘turnaround’ chord sequences which linked the songs together. Strangely, his own guitar was fairly ordinary. “The kids* have pinched all the best ones,” he explained. He didn’t seem to have a proper plectrum either. It looked to me like he used an old tiddlywink.

Top Hat, White Tie and Tails
Extract from Eric Kershaw's teaching book: stave solo and rhythm parts for 'Top Hat, White Tie and Tails'

“O.K. guys,” he would announce (we all being guys), “number thirteen, ‘Buddy Can You Spare A Dime’,” and off we would go, some coping better than others. I was not a proficient sight reader at all, but my main problem was Eric’s accompaniment which he played from memory. He didn’t just play the rhythm part and turnarounds as written, he slipped in all kinds of modified chords, riffs and decorations with absolute mastery. I just wanted to listen to what he was doing. Some of his phrases might easily have sounded corny, but from him they were perfect.

I demoted myself to playing accompaniment. That introduced me to dance band rhythms of which I had been only vaguely aware, such as quickstep, waltz, fiesta, rumba, tango, bossa nova and beguine.

There were also the solo pieces he showed us. One of them, ‘It’s the Talk of the Town’ (the 1933 pop standard), I practised for hours and became pretty good at it, although I would struggle to play it now.

Talk of the Town for guitar by Eric Kershaw
Eric Kershaw's arrangement of 'Talk of the Town' for guitar

Some of us met several times outside the class to play guitar, although for me this lasted no longer than a few months. I remember one chap whose distinctive double-barrelled surname I saw again on an office door a quarter of a century later when I attended a conference in the Education Department at Exeter University, but it was the summer vacation and he wasn’t around. Another student gave the impression of being seriously dim-witted, until he began to play his guitar, at which he was outstanding.

Three weeks before Christmas, Eric revealed he would not be taking the class any more. “It’s knocking me out,” he complained. The following week another lecturer appeared. Despite a display of unshakeable self-assuredness he did not know much about guitars. No doubt he was knowledgeable in his own field, but his attempt to teach us song structures was not well received. We wanted to play our guitars.

“Name any song,” he said, standing at the piano confidently. “Just name any song and I’ll show you how easy it is to work out the chord structure.”

After an awkward silence which seemed to go on for ever, the dim-witted student had a rare flash of inspiration.

“Er, Albatross,” he mumbled in a dopey voice, referring to the slow guitar instrumental by Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac.

The lecturer’s eyes drifted slowly to the far top corner of the room and then back again, his expression as vacant as the student’s.

“Er, I don’t know it,” he said. “What about ‘On the Street Where You Live’?”

This lecturer’s other bright idea was to enter us for a general musicianship exam. Without any preparation or idea of what to expect, I found myself in a practice room with an examiner who asked me to clap rhythms back to him, sing sequences of notes he played on a piano, and answer questions about musical notation and harmony. He said I had a good ear but should try to sing an octave lower. I think I managed as good a mark as anyone else, but it was far short of the pass standard.


Leeds College of Music Letter 1975

The one benefit of being abandoned by Eric was that he never asked for his cyclostyled books back. I still have both the rhythm and solo parts, and many hours of pleasure they have given me too. It might be of interest to scan and post them whole, but they are probably copyright (the original music publishers’ rather than Eric’s), and I may already have pushed my luck too far with the extracts above. I can, however, safely show you the contents list I wrote out on the front.

Eric Kershaw's teaching medley

Surprisingly and encouragingly, Leeds College of Music, which now describes itself as “a specialist music conservatoire based in the Quarry Hill cultural quarter of Leeds,” still offers short courses in acoustic guitar. The second level course, which costs £200 for fifteen evening sessions of ninety minutes, aims to enhance your key guitar skills with open chords, barre chords, basic improvisation, song styles, broken chords, riffs, strumming patterns and theory. I’d go for it if I lived near enough.

The words “key” and “skills” only hint at what must lie underneath in the course specification. I’m not sure whether Eric would have bought into all the paperwork involved, I suspect not. The lecturer who took over for the last couple of weeks had to spend his first twenty minutes sorting out Eric’s muddle of a register. You certainly would not get away these days with making it up as you went along, nor with “on completion of this course you will have played guitar with a tiddlywink.” The old College of Music building in Woodhouse Lane is now a Wetherspoons pub. I think Eric might have liked that.

Another public provision that has suffered massive cutbacks is the library service. Shortly after the guitar class ended, I came across Eric’s LP ‘Time To Swing’ in the wonderful Leeds Record Library. Of course I taped it for my own use, as we all did then, and I still have it. With Johnny van Derrick on violin, it falls into the same genre as Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli, but shines with its own distinctive style. There are those who say Eric and Johnny were just as good, if not better than their older and more famous counterparts.

Time to Swing: Eric Kershaw

Of course, I can’t upload it here – you get copyright strikes for that kind of thing – but the recording has now re-emerged in MP3 format as part of ‘The Eric Kershaw Quintet – Hot Club’ which you can sample by following the link.

Track 7, ‘Until the Real Thing Comes Along’, begins with Eric playing in the same legato chordal melodic style as employed in the ‘Talk of the Town’ music above. In track 9, ‘Maybe You’ll Be There’, the violin takes the melody at first, but Eric’s exquisite accompanying chords and phrases are exactly the kind of thing he did in the evening class. My favourite, though, and it’s a difficult choice, is probably track 5, ‘Broken Date’, which begins with Johnny van Derrick’s haunting gypsy violin before Eric just as movingly comes in. That would definitely be one of my eight records for ‘Desert Island Discs’.

The MP3 recording is so much clearer than my (now digitised) old tape from a crackly library record. After all these years I’m going to pay for the download. 


* Eric’s son, Martin Kershaw, also became a top session guitarist. He has played with just about everyone you can think of.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Vulgar Money Bags

When you start your first job there are all kinds of bewildering things you don’t understand and daren’t ask about. On my first day, two people proof-checking newly-typed accounts by reading them out loud to one another were pronouncing the numbers in a strange and mystifying way – “eight-tie pounds” instead of “eighty pounds”, “four-tie pounds one and three” instead of “forty pounds one and three”. It was just one of a number of strange rituals I hoped would make sense before too long.*

So when I was sent to work with Les and it was time for our lunchtime sandwiches, I didn’t question why he was sorting through bags of coins. It seemed odd and eccentric, but I tried to take all the jingling and clinking in my stride as if it were as normal as reading the newspaper.

“Wow!” he said jubilantly, breaking the verbal silence, “Nineteen-eighteen Kings Norton.”

I had no idea what he meant.

“That’s two this week. I got a nineteen-o-two low tide yesterday.”

I owned up to not having a clue what he was talking about.

It turned out Les was a coin collector, actually quite a knowledgeable and civilised one, but at lunchtimes he became an uncivilised, vulgar profiteer. A couple of times a week he would go to the bank, change £5 into copper or £20 into silver, and sort through it for rare coins.

He explained what he was looking for. In some years, especially 1912, 1918 and 1919, the Royal Mint had been short of capacity and outsourced some of its production to two Birmingham companies, the Kings Norton Metal Company and Ralph Heaton and Sons. The pennies they produced are identifiable by mint marks in the form of the tiny letters ‘KN’ and ‘H’ to the left of the date, and these coins are sought by collectors.

1918 Kings Norton Penny and 1919 Heaton Penny
1918 Kings Norton and 1919 Heaton pennies - the mint marks can be seen to the left of the dates

There were other rarities too, esoteric variations in design. 1902 ‘low tide’ pennies and halfpennies were known as such because the sea level on the reverse side of the coin was lower than the point at which Britannia's legs join, rather than level as in the examples above. Still more obscure was the 1926 ‘modified effigy’ penny in which the head of King George V was struck slightly more faintly than usual, identifiable by the absence of full stops in the engraver’s initials ‘BM’ on the King’s neck, and by the ‘I’ of the word ‘DEI’ pointing directly to a rim tooth rather than a space between. The first person to spot these minute differences must have had extraordinary powers of observation. Other rarities included the very valuable 1933 penny, and even some relatively recently minted coins, such as the 1959 Scottish shilling (Scottish shillings had one standing lion on the back, whereas English shillings had three walking lions). The list went on and on, but all these varieties were sought by collectors who would pay good money for them.

It sounded good – vulgar profiteer that’s me – so I decided to have a try. I brazenly walked into the National Provincial Bank in Park Square and requested £5 in pennies.

“Are you a customer, Sir?”

“Well, no, but ...”

“Sorry Sir, we only provide change for customers.”

The “Sir” was particularly irksome, an apparent display of respect that wasn’t.

Things went better after that. It seems I simply picked the wrong branch on the wrong day. None of the other banks were obstructive; they changed notes into coins without question, and then back again when I returned with rarities removed and replaced, not that I found many.

Whitman Folder - halfpennies
Halfpennies in a Whitman Folder

I never did make anything out of it. I still have the few rare(ish) coins I found – an 1876 Heaton penny and a handful of 1912, 1918 and 1919 Heaton and Kings Norton pennies. Within my limited means, I also collected some complete sets of halfpennies 1902-1936 and 1937-1967, mounted them in Whitman Folders and advertised them for sale in Exchange and Mart, and got a couple of orders which at least covered the cost of the advert. But none of the half-dozen 1926 pennies I kept have the modified effigy and I never did find a 1902 low tide. What I did find and keep had been in circulation so long that their condition is generally lower than collectors are looking for. Perhaps they’re worth a total of around fifty pounds at best, and that’s at today’s values.

Things are slightly better with silver coins – i.e. ‘silver’ threepenny bits (which preceded the twelve-sided nickel-brass ones), sixpences, shillings, florins (two shillings) and half-crowns (two shillings and six pence). Before 1920 these coins were 92.5% silver, and from 1920 to 1946 they were 50% silver, thus irrespective of their rarity to collectors, they are worth well above face value simply because of the silver bullion content. At today’s prices, pre-1920 half-crowns are worth around £4.50 each, and ones dated between 1920 and 1946 around £2.50. When you consider that is only around twenty times face value for the 50% silver, then any put away around 1970 have hardly kept pace with inflation.

By the time I was looking in 1969 and 1970, very few pre-1947 silver coins remained in circulation and practically none from before 1920. I have a little bag of around a dozen pre-1947 half-crowns. Goodness knows how I could afford not to spend them.

Shilling 1890, Half Crown 1891

My dad revealed he had played the same game many years earlier when there was still a fair amount of pre-1920 silver around. Most of his squirrelled-away silver is very worn and worth only bullion value, but among it are two nice Victorian examples, an 1890 shilling and an 1891 half-crown, although even to collectors they’re worth no more than around £25 together.

At least searching hopefully through bags of coins seemed a relaxing and constructive lunchtime diversion. No pointy fingers for taking full and proper lunchbreaks in those days.


* They pronounced the numbers in this way to avoid potential errors, so for example "four-tie" meaning "forty" would not be misheard as "fourteen".