Google Analytics

Sunday, 8 December 2019

A Silly Christmas Love Story

At a writing group I sometimes attend, it was suggested we submit Christmas-themed pieces to The Writers’ Magazine. This is mine, previously posted here in 2015 (not against the rules) and I was delighted it was accepted. It appears in the December 2019 issue, and below (about 1500 words).


Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what's wrong with that? I'd like to know, 'cause here I go again. 
(Paul McCartney)

From mid-November to the end of term, when the hockey and rugby pitches slid shirt-soakingly wet from the autumn rains, or skin-scrapingly rough from the winter frosts, games lessons were displaced by dancing practice. The boys and the girls, and their teachers Mr. Ellis and Miss Poskitt, came together in the gym to prepare for the school Christmas party. The girls tolerated it. The boys felt embarrassed. Miss Poskitt 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 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 because she was pretty so did everyone else. On the rare occasion he managed to be among 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 among the first to cross the floor, he still usually 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 always chose him. He began to suspect a conspiracy.

Sadly, Amanda was not one of those girls you wanted to be seen dancing with. It was not 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. Why did he keep ending up with Amanda?

The class knew The Dashing White Sergeant well. The school had only about half a dozen records for 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 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. It definitely was a conspiracy.

The following week he decided on 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 hold of Wendy first before anybody else.

“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-lit-dit dum.

On the first run through of each dance it was Miss Poskitt’s custom to select an unfortunate victim to demonstrate it. 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 an ungainly girls’ sports teacher into a graceful danseuse. On each third beat of the Veleta she rose nimbly on alternate ankles poising briefly to show off her athletic, hockey-player legs. As she moved him around the floor and changed sides to demonstrate the man’s leading role, Nat felt 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 playing fields were once more cloaked in fog and blattered up with mud, dancing came back 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. As always, it was the first occasion in the school year when classes of the same age came together and an interesting new face might be noticed. Any new member of Wendy and Amanda’s A-stream girls would be seen for the first time by Nat’s B-stream boys.

Nevertheless, 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 ... Never had Nat seen anyone heel and toe so elegantly. Not even Miss Poskitt.

“Look at you!” his partner whispered wide-eyed 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 now,” 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 acquired record, March of the Mods by Joe Loss and his orchestra. Joe Loss? Dead Loss! Within seconds Amanda 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…

“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 found an excuse not to go. He hid at home from the cold, dreaming of tennis and Christmas dancing in the summer sun at the other end of the world.



Mr Ellis also appears in:
          Jim Laker, Mr. Ellis
and the Eagle Annual


Tackling Rugby
The wonderfully evocative photograph of the school Christmas party captures exactly how things were in those far off innocent schooldays. Multiple copies of the image appear across the internet but if it is still the copyright of H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images I will remove it on request of the copyright holder. 


Monday, 2 December 2019

Review - Sabine Baring-Gould: Yorkshire Oddities (and other works)

Illustration by D. Murray Smith from Baring-Gould's Book of Ghosts   Illustration by D. Murray Smith from Baring-Gould's Book of Ghosts
The Dead Sister and The Used Up Characters (illustrations by D. Murray Smith)

Sabine Baring-Gould:
Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents and Strange Events (3*)
A Book of Ghosts (3*)
Curiosities of Olden Times (2*)

No, Sabine Baring-Gould was not one of the three wise men (with Baring-Frankincense and Baring-Myrrh) but was no less spiritual. And Yorkshire Oddities is not a dig at certain other bloggers despite what some might think; it was one of his books.

The Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924) is often remembered as author of the strident hymn Onward Christian Soldiers, written as young curate at Horbury Bridge, Yorkshire, in the eighteen-sixties, later set to the equally strident tune, St. Gertrude, by Sir Arthur Sullivan. Baring-Gould also collected myths and legends, folk songs and sermons, and wrote enormous amounts of other stuff. In his day he was considered one of England’s best novelists. He found time to father fifteen children as well. I bet he wasn’t much help with the housework.

I was hoping for a free Kindle version of Yorkshire Oddities but the cheapest on the Kindle store was £2.29, so I downloaded his Curiosities of Olden Times and A Book of Ghosts instead. Well, I am from Yorkshire. Later, I did find a free copy of Yorkshire Oddities on that wonderful resource The Open Library. I have therefore spent several weeks with the writings of an out-of-fashion Victorian clergyman.

A Book of Ghosts by Sabine Baring-Gould. Title page. Curiosities of Olden Times by Sabine Baring-Gould. Title page. Yorkshire Oddities by Sabine Baring-Gould. Title page.

The ghost stories are readable and entertaining. They bring the occasional shiver from anthropological relics that go bump in the night and a very scary railway compartment. There is a dead finger that inhabits the narrator’s body bit by bit in the hope of taking it over, a dead sister who lives the life of a living one, and a caution for writers not to base characters on real people because it uses up their souls leaving lifeless shells that follow you around. Not too scary, in fact it might better be described as playful, but not bad if you want something free for Kindle and can put up with the odd moralistic rant. David Murray Smith’s illustrations in some editions capture the gentle mood quite well.

Curiosities of Olden Times and Yorkshire Oddities are collections of the weird, strange and eccentric, in both fact and fiction. Among the olden curiosities we find descriptions of gruesome medieval punishments and are warned not to sit in church porches between the hours of 11.00 p.m. and 01.00 a.m. on St. Mark’s Eve (24th April) unless we wish to see the ghosts of those due to die in the coming year passing into the church. However, much of Curiosities... is concerned with religious myths and legends discussed in a lengthy academic way, which can be rather tedious.

But it was Yorkshire Oddities that started this quest. In effect, it is a kind of social history of the county. It offers brief biographies of oddities such as Blind Jack of Knaresborough (1717-1810) who learnt to navigate the entire county alone on a horse and built around 180 miles of turnpike road, and Peter Barker, the blind joiner (1808-1873), who taught himself to make or mend just about anything. There are accounts of heinous murders including the drowning of an unwanted husband by his wife, her lover and an accomplice at Dawney Bridge near Easingwold in 1623 where the bodies of the executed murderers were hung in chains on what later became known as Gibbet Hill.

I was greatly amused by Baring-Gould’s rendition of the Yorkshire accent. He had plenty of practice because his wife, Grace Taylor, was an ordinary girl from Ripponden, but I doubt he would have spoken of her as he reports an unnamed butcher speaking of his wife:
Shoo’s made a rare good wife. But shoo’s her mawgrums a’ times. But what women ain’t got ‘em ? They’ve all on ‘em maggots i’ their heads or tempers. Tha sees, sir, when a bone were took out o’ t’ side o’ Adam, to mak a wife for ‘m, ‘t were hot weather, an’ a blue-bottle settled on t’ rib. When shoo’s i’ her tantrums ses I to her, ‘Ma dear,’ ses I, ‘I wish thy great-great-grand ancestress hed chanced ta be made i’ winter.’ [p224, fifth edition]
“mawgrums” is one of several words that appear in the book and hardly anywhere else. Another is the name of a hill near Heptonstall called “Tomtitiman”.

But to return to Yorkshire accents, Baring-Gould writes:
[The locals] speak two languages – English and Yorkshire … every village has its own peculiarity of intonation, its own specialities in words. A Horbury man could be distinguished from a man of Dewsbury, and a Thornhill man from one of Batley. The railways have blended these peculiar dialects into one, and taken off the old peculiar edge of provincialism, so that now it is only to be found in its most pronounced and perfect development among the aged. [p110-111, fifth edition]
This was written in 1874 but I always felt you could still detect local differences amongst my grandparents’ generation in my neck of the woods up to a century later. Depending which way you walked, you could hear West Riding tykes, Linkisheere yellowbellies and East Riding woldies all within a ten-mile radius.

I was therefore especially interested in the stories of three ‘Yorkshire Oddities’ from this area:
Nancy Nicholson “the termagant” lived at Drax, Newland and Asselby between 1785 and 1854. She nagged and complained so much as to ruin the lives of her husband, relatives and almost everyone she came into contact with.

Snowden Dunhill (c1766-1838) from Spaldington near Howden, was a notorious thief: the Rob Roy of the East Riding. He was eventually transported to Van Dieman’s Land where he dictated his life story which found its way back to Howden and was printed and published.

Jemmy Hirst of Rawcliffe (1738-1829) became so famous for his eccentricities that King George III invited him to visit his Court in London. He rode a bull and wore eccentric clothing including an outrageously broad hat, although anyone tempted to joke or play a trick at his expense invariably came off worst. He became wealthy dealing in agricultural produce and built himself an enormous wickerwork carriage drawn by Andalusian horses, causing a sensation at Pontefract and Doncaster races. A true Yorkshire oddity but somehow he sounds like Jimmy Savile.
I knew these villages as a child but had never heard of any of these characters until more recently when we all began to take more interest in local history: e.g. there is now a pub at Rawcliffe named after Jemmy Hirst. Among their stories are glimpses of lost landscapes and ways of life: the woods around Rawcliffe, otter hunting in the marshlands, the steam packet that sailed from Langrick (Long Drax) to York, and the emergence of the railways.

There is a lot to fascinate but much to skip over. As in Curiosities..., some chapters are overly long with too much verbatim source material. A good editor would not have been amiss.