The Microclimate of Staffordshire

Thursday afternoons at Birkenhead School were for playing at soldiers. Everyone was more or less obliged to join the Combined Cadet Force. We were fortunate, or perhaps unfortunate, to have a genuine, high-ranking ex-soldier as our CO: Lt. Col. Arthur N. Green (AKA The Ang).

Dad’s Army was one of the most popular programmes at the time. Walking to and from school dressed like a squaddie, when you clearly weren’t one, was almost as embarrassing as wearing a school cap the rest of the week. There were compensations: we got the opportunity to handle and fire weapons. There was an indoor rifle range across the road at the Chetwynd TA Centre, where we were taught one end of a Lee-Enfield from the other by Sergeant Major McLaughlin, known to all as “Fang” for his distinctive dentition. “Strip a rifle? You lot couldn’t strip a woman!” A little harsh on 16-year-olds… while demonstrating a rather old-fashioned attitude to the fair sex.

Every year there was a CCF summer camp. You had to give up a week of your holidays. I was under no illusions that it would be enjoyable. But if you got certain activities out of the way, you wouldn’t have to do them in term-time; plus, you got privileges in the Cadre – most obviously, a red beret and a uniform that almost fitted. If you had a girlfriend, real or imaginary, who might see you on your way home, such things had a value.

So it was off by coach to Blackshaw Moor (near Leek). It was late June, but you could have fooled me. It seemed like a godforsaken place at any season of the year. There were 30 of us, enough to make up two platoons and occupy two huts. There was no-one in my hut in whose company I would have chosen to spend longer than five minutes. There was blanket-boxing, Blanco and Brasso, square-bashing and PT, rifle-stripping and machine-gun practice, and field-craft and orienteering. 

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

One of the more demanding tasks we were set was a “night op”. This necessitated crawling across a field by moonlight, and labouring uphill through a wood to a hurricane lamp where two “NCOs” would be waiting. They were to give each of us upon our arrival (theoretically in pairs) a scrap of paper. These fragments, when assembled, were supposed to form a map or password… or something like that, I forget the details. We were taken to recce the site in the afternoon; the field was generously carpeted with cowpats, which I looked forward to leopard-crawling through in the dark. 

As night fell we returned to the field of action in two Bedford three-tonners. I began crawling through the cowpats, then ghost-walked successfully to the hurricane lamp in the wood. Not too bad; now for the return leg. Having lost my other half, I worked out a laborious way of returning via the dry-stone walls and fences of the field boundaries. It would take ages, but at least I’d eventually be heading in the right direction. I was cold, despite my long-johns, and it was starting to rain. I gave up trying to move stealthily; it took far too long. The “officers” tossed thunder-flashes at us to simulate artillery bombardment; it was genuinely scary.

Predictable, the exercise soon degenerated into a shambles. Some lads lost their sense of direction and headed away from the target, rather than towards it. When I eventually made it back to the Bedford I was surprised to see that I was only the fifth or sixth from our platoon to complete the task. Come midnight, whistles and flares signalled the end of the farce. Boys emerged from the gloom, limping. One had a broken arm, another a sprained ankle, others cuts to their heads, like extras from The Longest Day. Those of us who didn’t have to make a visit to North Staffs Royal Infirmary got a mug of cocoa and a lie-in. 

* * *

Two years passed… My mate Paul and I had read in the NME about the inaugural Buxton Rock Festival, which had hosted Steppenwolf, Wishbone Ash, Vinegar Joe and Family. Curved Air were also on the bill – but Sonja Kristina didn’t fancy singing in the freezing cold at 3am. Buxton was the North’s premier festival (in fact, it was the only one north of Reading). We decided to go to the second festival, so one Saturday morning in July 1973, together with Ray who worked at NatWest and owned an MG 1300, we set off full of enthusiasm.

What genius had decided to hold an open-air event in the area with the highest rainfall in England? We should have known what to expect from that CCF summer camp (as the two sites were only about 15 miles apart). The moorland site was exposed and cold, and it began to rain as soon as we got there. I remember seeing Canned Heat (we should have brought some), Edgar Broughton, Medicine Head and Alex Harvey, who gave a stirring rendition of “Saint Anthony”. 

Oh the temptations, oh the sensations

One band I was looking forward to seeing was the Groundhogs – but they refused to perform, as did Roy Wood. The entire audience, and some of the acts, were intimidated by a gang of Hell’s Angels who wandered about demanding money with menaces. Chuck Berry was headlining; we caught glimpses of him through the polythene sheet under which we were all huddling.

We spent almost as long trying to free the car from the mud as we did watching the bands. John Peel, MC on the day, wrote later that campaign medals should have been struck. We wouldn’t have missed it for the world.


The Joy of Essex, 1978

One night, at about half past 10, Hilary rang. Mrs H had already gone to bed. I kept my voice down but the damage had been done. The following day my landlady announced that she hadn’t had a wink of sleep all night and she was going to put a lock on the phone. I pointed out that this wasn’t really going to help, as I’d been answering a call, not making one. Anyway, I was sorry and I’d make sure it didn’t happen again. The old bag went ahead anyway and fitted the stupid lock. Over the next couple of weeks I was told, more than once, that I was the most selfish, inconsiderate person she knew. On one occasion I put tap water, rather than de-ionised water, in her iron, thus risking a major environmental incident. I’m surprised Panorama didn’t run a special on it. Not that she’d ever mentioned it before; I was just expected to know.

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The penny dropped: I’d overstayed my welcome. I ventured into Romford the first chance I got to look for a flat to rent, and found one I could just afford. For good measure I treated myself to a leather jacket at the market. I duly moved into a maisonette in Gidea Park, which I shared with another young man called Doug. He was a chemistry graduate who worked for Berger Paints and drove a Ford Capri. We had a bedroom each, and a spare, a kitchenette, bathroom and a decent-sized living room with a swirly carpet. My work colleague and new best mate Barry – a cheeky chappie with a moustache, a perm and (yes) a Ford Capri – drove me back to Elmhurst Drive so I could collect my post. There wasn’t any, apparently. I knew Hil had written at least once and I was sure the old bag was lying. I could forgive her almost anything but that. I gave her a hard stare and walked back to the car.

* * *

In February my boss sent me on a short educational trip to the Algarve. It was a treat to get a free winter holiday, even if I would be going on my own. The company had a resident rep who bore the aristocratic name of Manuel de Castro. Previously, he had been a milkman in Leeds. He referred to every Algarvian businessman as “a bloody peasant” – and not in a nice way. His demure and pretty wife worked at the Hotel Alvor, a magnificent establishment. Manuel was what used to be called “a ladies’ man”. He boasted of having squired every stewardess on TAP’s books… except for one whose photo appeared in our winter brochure. She had a small mole on her left cheek. Yorkshire’s Don Juan had sworn a solemn oath to track her down and add her to his conquests. After two years of meeting 707s flying in and out of Faro and taking at least one speculative flight to Funchal, the mystery woman continued to elude him, and it was becoming an obsession. 

Manuel took his educational duties seriously, trying – and failing – to set me up with a busty middle-aged housewife from a Mancunian hen party. However he failed to warn me about the manager of the Sol e Mar, a confirmed bachelor, who had worked for some years at the Adelphi in Liverpool. We chatted for an hour or two about the old country. After treating me to an excellent dinner he invited me to stay the night, as he had a few empty rooms. I’d put away far too much Dão and bagaceira – suddenly I thought I could see his game and panicked. I said até logo and staggered off into the night to look for my Mini. Somehow I found my way from Albufeira back to my apartment at Praia d’Oura. I needed a mind-clearing dip in the freezing Atlantic.

Back at Travel Club HQ in Upminster, my birthday had come round yet again. Barry sent me a witty card, which he had personalised with some verses of his own. They began thus:

Bloody Nora! He’s 23
Fresh from university
His mind is full of birds and ale
It’s enough to make a xxxxxx black man pale

Mere doggerel, dashed off at his busy desk? Not so! A close textual analysis reveals multiple layers of rich semanticity.

With his opening words the poet calls upon his muse for inspiration, thus “setting out his stall”, as he might put it, in the epic mode. But here the Classical convention is given fresh life. Who is the dread Nora he apostrophises? No gentle nymph, she. A Celtic warrior queen? A Hindu demiurge, decorated by the skulls of her victims, like Kali? (I scoured The Golden Bough, but without success.) 

After the caesura, we come to the subject of the work. Arma virumque cano: but of whom does he sing? Was not Alexander but 23 when he conquered the world? The hero is in the prime of life. He is not just aged 23; he is 23. Here the poet evokes the Pythagoreans. We have arrived at the crucial moment in this young man’s life. In the third line his profile is filled out, as it were. He is “fresh”, original, vibrant, vigorous: a man of action. But a man of learning notwithstanding. “University” is a typically brilliant play on words. He is universal: an Everyman.

We now proceed to the essence of the hero. “Birds and ale”: what bathos! And yet… “birds” – the fair sex, obviously, in the vernacular of our age, but also his winged thoughts, like eagles, soaring high above us. As for “ale”: a clue that this Sindbad, this Vasco, this Aeneas, this Ulysses de nos jours, is a no  Mediterranean hero but, rather, an Anglo-Saxon, the heir to Beowulf. Then again, will “birds and ale” find him out: his hamartia? Is the seer warning of premature decline and extinction?

Finally we come to the fourth line: a mere cliché, casual racism? Something far more subtle! This awkward phrase with its ludic pentimento challenges our taboos but also invites us to consider the transformational powers of our scholar-warrior-king-magus. As the lame shall walk, so shall men change the colour of their skin. A firm nod to the Messianic tradition.

Not since T.S. Eliot has such talent lit up the literary world. With admirable economy, this new Earl of Essex – or shall we call him the Duke of Capri? – claims his throne in the most exalted company: Dante, Spenser, Ariosto, Góngora, Camões and (dare I utter his name?) the divine Virgil himself. Ars est celare artem. Neither Carol Ann Duffy nor Andrew Motion has equalled the Parnassian ambition of this opening stanza. Moreover, it both scans and rhymes. If only he’d had a crack at Poet Laureate! What could Barry have done with such material as the Royal Menopause?

In Tudor Ave, the purpose of our unallocated third bedroom became apparent when the landlord (never before seen) rolled up in the small hours with a floozy. It transpired that it was his midweek love nest. The flat reeked of Aramis. I doubt that his missus was aware of how their investment property was being employed. During the working week Barry, who was in his thirties, used to take me to see our fellow office-worker Sue, a teenage blonde with pointy tits, perform in local pubs. Nothing like that! She was a talented singer who was trying to break into show business.

Love ageless and evergreen… 

Barry used to complain about Sue’s unreasonable sexual demands — ironically or not, I wasn’t sure.

Doug was often working late or staying at his equally shy girlfriend’s flat, so I had the place to myself most evenings. We didn’t have a telly. I wasn’t much of a cook, although I thought I was fairly enterprising. I got by on a diet of grilled sausages with tinned tomatoes, cheese on toast with tinned tomatoes, and chicken casserole (inc. tinned tomatoes) with overcooked rice. Dessert might be digestive biscuits with chopped stem ginger, or ice cream with tinned pineapple. It was still a lot better than I’d got at school. There was the occasional “Ruby Murray” in Upminster or Romford. Delia Smith was waiting in the wings.

The Scholar and the Black Spider

Until this year, I’d never written anything longer than a few thousand words (apart from my MLitt thesis, and that was more than three decades ago). But I suddenly got the urge to write a story. Its origin was an entirely uneventful trip to an art gallery in Mayfair.

spiders_au_mouse

I am a terrible typist. However, when it comes to writing fiction that doesn’t matter too much because I find it very difficult to decide exactly what I want to say and how to express it. (Typing is the least of my problems.) Even then, I will carry on cutting, pasting and tinkering. Everything is provisional. Almost every word gets changed. Often, after a faux pas, it gets changed back.

I made up this short novel or long story as I went along – surely not the way a proper novelist goes about his job? As usual, I am doing it all wrong.

I can’t draw or paint to save my life but I know people who are really good. I have friends who are brilliant songwriters, and I’ve had a go myself – but I don’t have what it takes. A former housemate of mine has won two BAFTAs and an Oscar, so I know talent when I see it. It is a little bit annoying when someone you know seems to be able to do with ease something you find impossible (I said “seems to”), but that is just how it is.

I certainly don’t subscribe to the view that you can achieve anything if you keep plugging away. It’s a stirring call-to-arms if you are a schoolteacher but patently absurd, and often peddled by people who are basking in their own fame and fortune. When should you face up to the fact that you can’t do it, pack it in and move on? Or admit that what you were once quite proud of is – at best – mediocre. Can you happily shrug your shoulders and say, “I know it’s not brilliant, but at least I had a go? It’s not all about winning”.

Or is it? I do think you can be proud of your efforts even if you don’t win a prize… but it is also important what other people think. Because it’s possible that you do possess talent, but not for what you’ve been plugging away at. I believe I can become a better writer, even at 63, and I am prepared to try a little bit harder. But I can’t claim to be motivated by a burning desire to be the best in the world or prove everyone else wrong.

Writing a longish piece was an immersive experience. It took almost a year, off and on. Where do our ideas come from and how do they develop and join up? I haven’t a clue. A lot seemed to be happening while I was asleep or half-asleep. I am not sure if or when I’ll have the energy to write another one. There are a lot of other things in the world worth trying. Maybe I should get out the watercolours after all.

I eventually managed to put together 40,000 words of tongue-in-cheek “humour”.  This is an excerpt.

NB For the avoidance of doubt: Maxwell isn’t anything like me (he went to Cambridge and lives in Stockwell, for goodness’ sake, and he’s by no means a model citizen).

Thor’s Stone

Thor’s Stone is known to everyone who lives, or has lived, on the Wirral.

thors stone

It is a big lump of sandstone on Thurstaston Common, from where there are superb views of the Dee and across the Mersey. You are very aware that you are standing on a peninsula: in one direction is Point of Ayr and Holywell (an ancient pilgrimage site) in North Wales; when you turn to the north you can easily make out Blackpool Tower (also a pilgrimage site but never holy), 40-odd miles away.

Probably the association with Thor is a myth and of ingenious Victorian etymology. Probably it has nothing do so with “Torstein’s homestead”, or whatever the real derivation of Thurstaston may be. But it is still a special place within the very special frontier zone of the Wirral. As a child I climbed it, as you simply had to do. At primary school we tried to measure its height by trigonometry and came up with a ludicrous result. In my childhood memory it was high and intimidating.

I had not been there for over 50 years, though my parents still live just a few miles away. Returning this summer I was surprised to find that it still looked high and intimidating. There is no easy route up. You could easily slip and hurt yourself. Parents and older children showed little children where to put their feet. But you could still slip and hurt yourself. In the end I couldn’t quite bring myself to climb up to the top. I excused myself – wrong shoes, I wasn’t dressed for it – but it still felt a bit pathetic. It is hardly the North Face of the Eiger.

* * *

In southern Mexico there is a well-known and well-visited ruined Mayan city called Palenque. It has one of the few tall pyramids which you are still allowed to climb, despite the pile of bleeding and broken tourists at its base. You may already know, or deduce, that the sensible way to climb the high steps is sideways, zigzagging your way to the summit. It’s easier on the knees, and it is very hot out there.

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You eventually get to the platform at the top, catch your breath, and look out over the site. You are in a jungle clearing. You self-congratulate, swig from your water bottle and take your photos, which are, of course, just the same as everyone else’s. From the platform you can’t see your sweaty co-tourists making your way to the summit – until you walk right to the edge and peer straight down.

The views are wonderful – much better than you would think. It would be easy to say, “You go up on your own. I’ll just stay here. I can’t be bothered”.

Armistice Centenary

There will never be another Armistice Centenary. On Sunday 11 November 2018 at 11am – exactly 100 years after the guns fell silent and the slaughter stopped – local people and visitors gathered for a brief commemoration at our Sunday market.

For more than 12 months I’ve been leading a Heritage Lottery-funded project to identify all of Herne Hill’s First World War fatalities. It has been hard work and pretty depressing. How could it fail to be?

Remembering Herne Hill 1914-18 – station exhibition

I’d taken it upon myself to organise a two-minute silence – as far as anyone knew, it had never been done here before – and I had been worrying about it for days. Despite Pat Roberts and I pestering local shopkeepers to take and display our flyers, would anyone come? Would it pour with rain? Would the market traders and station staff stop serving customers and respect the silence? Would our teenage musician even show up? And what about the crucial timing? If we were holding a two-minute silence at precisely 11am, and if it were to be preceded by The Last Post, how long was it going to take Walter the Trumpeter to play it…  and so, counting back, when should I start to address the growing crowd? Our Town Crier, James Castle, rang his bell. I began to say a few words at 10:56 into my borrowed megaphone… with one eye on the clock display on my iPhone. I am no orator, nor have any desire to be one, so I would not be tempted to overrun…

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It must have been beginner’s luck because it went according to plan. In fact it was much better than that. It was genuinely emotional – perhaps because Walter (who played so well) is no older than so many of Herne Hill’s hundreds of First World War casualties.

“That was lovely…”

This community event was politically and religiously secular and relatively spontaneous. No speeches from mayors or MPs or generals or priests, “exhortations” or all-too-familiar – and almost compulsory, it seems – lines of poetry. It was a simple coming-together to show respect for the sacrifice of others, and it was essentially a democratic and unstaged occasion. I overheard a well-known local figure say to his wife, “that was lovely”. I could feel the emotion in the crowd. It was an authentic and moving experience. Some people, myself included, were close to tears.

Read Antonia Senior’s blog about the Herne Hill commemoration

* * *

I was honoured to receive an invitation to the Armistice Centenary service in Westminster Abbey that same evening. We Brits really know how to put on a show: The Queen, The Prince of Wales, the PM, the Archbishop of Canterbury, with the glamorous young Royals also in attendance.

wa-invite

Maybe I was just a little tired and overwrought but, if truth be told, I was not greatly uplifted. The music and the staging were superb, but I’m not too sure about the readings: Beatrice Webb, and Winston Churchill of all people? It was, of course, designed by a distinguished committee and immaculately executed. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that earlier on the same day I’d had a deeper personal connection with the Centenary event.