In Flames…

Photo by Vlad Bagacian on

I didn’t make it as far as GCSE Woodwork.  In fact I barely graduated from unfinished pipe rack to wonky coffee table via a book rack that refused to hold books and, for some reason best known to Mr Kerr (the woodwork teacher) a single asymmetrical skittle, before I was summarily banished from the workshop forever.  I learned the difference between dovetail joints and mortise and tenons, and most particularly that I was capable of neither.  I learned that PVA glue is stronger than the wood it joins, but that it doesn’t stop it falling apart the second the clamps are taken off.  I learned that any fool can saw a straight line – except this one.  I took woodwork lessons for the mandatory three years and I think we were all agreed that we were lucky to get through it.

Of course, my ineptitude with all things ligneous, was not the only shortcoming to be highlighted during my secondary school years.  I also discovered that my propensity for getting confused by all things scientific was almost boundless.  Physics and Chemistry challenged areas of my brain that were theretofore exclusively reserved for being useless at Maths.  By and large, Chemistry tutors were very keen on keeping me away from chemicals and Physics tutors were very much more comfortable if they managed to stop me plugging anything in.  I enjoyed Biology, but as I wasn’t prepared to cut things up, I was banished to a side room where I studied ‘Human Biology’ alone, which at least meant that nobody had to take the risk of letting me loose with a scalpel.

My boredom threshold scrapes along the floor at the best of times, and three years spent ‘studying’ Latin has left me with nothing more than amo, amas, amat and the skill of using a ‘Power Ball’ to replicate the sound of someone knocking on the classroom door.  The only thing that has really stayed with me from those interminable hours of incomprehensible babble was written inside the sleeve of my textbook by whichever unfortunate soul inherited it ahead of me.  It was written, I recall, very neatly, by a hand much more skilled in the art of fountain pen usage than my own:
‘Latin is a language as dead as dead can be.
First it killed the Romans and now it’s killing me.’

I’m uncertain of the veracity of the statement, but I certainly applaud the spirit.  I got very used to being sent from the class during those lessons – on occasions as I innocently wandered into the room – with the words ‘I can’t be bothered with you today, McQueen.  Stand outside.’  I really didn’t mind.  Staring at the wall for three quarters of an hour was very much preferable to forty five minutes of Latin conjugation.

In truth, my interest in all lessons depended almost entirely upon the teacher’s ability to engage me in some way.  My geographical knowledge reached its apogee with the difference between glacial and river valleys.  Topographically, everything – if you will excuse me – was downhill from there.

I loved ‘Creative Writing’ and also reading – as long as I was fully engaged by whatever I was given to read.  I was even ok with ‘challenging’ as long as it was not also boring.  I am completely incapable of finishing anything that has not comprehensively grabbed my attention.  Once that has wandered, I am lost, and whatever it is that it has wandered away from, will never be visited again.

My memory tells me that I somehow scraped together six ‘O’ levels, but for the life of me, I can only name five of them and I am thus uncertain whether I have overestimated my teenage academic achievements by some percentage or another, or whether my memory has completely given up the ghost, along, as it goes, with the wonky coffee table which has just come down from the attic in three pieces, all of them bound for the garden incinerator.

Once again I watch my education going up in flames…

New Folk Songs

Photo by Craig Adderley on

It is well over a year since I published my last ‘poem’ at which time I decided that I had bitten off more than I could ever have chewed and that I would be perfectly happy if nothing in the world ever rhymed again.  The songs that follow are definitely not poetry, but they do rhyme.  What they sound like is up to you – although one of them, at least, has a tune that you might recognise.  Be creative.  Stick your finger in your ear and sing through your nose whilst I go get the cider…

The Gardener’s Lament

Begonias, petunias and purple columbines
Hydrangeas, photinias and orange clemetines
Bulbs and rhizomes, little seeds:
Plant them down and tend their needs.
Water them to make them grow,
Keep the weeds down with a hoe.
Celebrate each little bud,
Protect the stems with splints of wood.

The snails will visit with the slugs
In numbers that will make us mugs –
We gardeners who trust to luck
The treasure we plant in the muck.
However much they’re worth you know
Invertebrates won’t let them grow:
They’ll eat your seedlings overnight.
And all your beds will look like shite.

So out we go with torch at night,
With hatred that we know will harden,
To find the buggers in the light
And throw them onto next door’s garden.

Geraniums, delphiniums and pastel phlox,
Nasturtium, and allium and pink hollyhocks
Bulbs and rhizomes, little seeds:
Plant them down and tend their needs.
Water them to make them grow,
Keep the weeds down with a hoe.
Celebrate each little bud,
Protect the stems with splints of wood.

At night the bloody cat will prowl
And dig your seeds up with a howl
That says ‘I’m going to sit right here,
On all the plants that you hold dear
And when I’m done, I’ll bury it –
This steaming little pile of shit –
Where you will find it with your nails
Upon the morn whilst picking snails.’

So out we go with water guns
To catch the bleeder while he’s napping
To drench him when he tries to run
And hope that that will stop him crapping.

But in the end, you can always tell he
Will laugh in your face when he’s shit in your wellie (Repeat x3)

The Old Rover

I bought the old Rover at the end of last year
After saving my money from whisky and beer.
I pushed in the key and I got it to start
With a sound not unlike an electrical fart.

To the end of the drive was as far as it went
Cos the engine was shot and the axle was bent,
The window fell out when I opened the door.
I put my foot down and it went through the floor.

So I went to the seller and I said ‘It’s a joke.
This car you have sold me is totally broke:
The wipers fell off when it started to rain.
The roof is a sieve and the sump is a drain.’

He laughed in my face when I gave him the key
‘If you’re wanting a refund, then don’t look at me.’
It was then that the bumper fell onto the floor
Oh I never will buy an old Rover no more.

And it’s no nay never,
No nay never no more
Will I buy an old Rover,
No never no more.

I tried to drive off, but I was stopped by the law
So I never will drive the old Rover no more.

So it’s no nay never,
No nay never no more
Will I buy an old Rover
No never no more (Repeat ad nauseum)

Fruit Song*

An apple a day keeps the doctor at bay
A banana might frighten the nurse
A ripe tangerine
Makes the Registrar green
But a kumquat will make him much worse.

A greengage or plum makes a midwife quite glum
A lychee might turn her to drink
A sweet nectarine
Might appear quite obscene
To the average sub-Freudian shrink.

Psychiatrists feel that a lime has appeal
And a pineapple can be quite cute
A lemon can ease
The desire to sneeze
Whilst the prune takes a diff-er-ent route.

There are few who can reach the allure of a peach
Whilst a raspberry’s sex on a cane
A strawberry just
Makes my mind fill with lust
And a gooseberry drives me insane.

Let’s shout hip hooray for the doctors who say
That a mango is good for your sight
There are some say a fig
Makes your manhood grow big
Well you never quite know, it just might.

Let’s shout hip hooray for the doctors who say
That a mango is good for your sight
There are some say a fig
Makes your manhood grow big
Well you never quite know, it just might.

The Scrumlops Fall

When the scrumplops fall
And the Jaspers** call
Tween galls that froth
On tinstance broth
Then I will find the limpon quay
Full snore and we at twenty three
Wherever snile will stand in grome
And litterbuss will guide us home.

Some bastard has let me bike tyres down again (Repeat x3)

*The Fruit Song was written many years ago for an ill-starred project with John Junkin and Crispin Underfelt.  I don’t think it ever had a tune.  I’m happy for you to make up your own – just don’t ask for royalties!

**I have just remembered that when I was a boy, wasps were known as jaspers.  I have no idea why…

In addition to the 52 short rhymes that made up the Zoo, you may well be able to find other bursts of cadenced prose from me by looking for ‘The Haphazardly Poetical’.  This, if you’re interested ‘An Appreciation of Poetry‘ is my favourite.


It all started with a Second World War TV docu-drama in which a gaggle of soldiers (mostly female, I noted, dressed in the kind of uniform that would today almost certainly be sold by Ann Summers) pushed wooden ships and tanks around a map of Europe using what looked like croupiers rakes, when a sudden memory of Michael Bentine’s Potty Time flashed across my mind:add a soundtrack of silly voices and dozens of mini-explosions and you were there in all the sense and purpose of war.

Thoughts of Bentine, of course, brought me onto the great Milligan.  The two of them (together with Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe) co-created the seminal radio comedy The Goon Show, but sadly quarrelled in the 1950’s reportedly after Michael Bentine attempted to have Spike removed from the show due to his ‘erratic behaviour’.  Neither, it would appear, was able to forgive and according to Spike, they did not speak again until the day before Bentine’s death by which time, I fear, it was too late for either of them to rebuild burned bridges.  The genius Milligan continued to write and star in The Goon Show until some years later when, as it was concertedly trying to kill him, he moved into TV and books, where he did ok, all things considered.

My own connection to Mr Milligan is via a gossamer thread which, not unusually for me, also suspends the indomitable Crispin Underfelt.  We were writing a radio series together at the time and, young, green and fearless as we were, we wrote to Spike to ask if he would read what we had written.  Amazingly, he replied immediately saying that he would be happy to read a script and he would comment and advise where he could.  Overjoyed we parcelled up the single episode that he requested and, with a prayer to the Gods, sent it on its way.  Alas, when the MS arrived back a few days later, clearly unread, it was accompanied by a letter from Norma Farnes (Spike’s minder, agent, manager and later, biographer) stating that Spike did not read or comment on the work of other writers, end of.  We were upset at the time by the terseness of the response, but later came to realise that Spike was having one of his difficult times mentally and Ms Farnes was doing what she always did: keeping the lid on.

It was during one such ‘difficult time’ that Spike famously threw a heavy paperweight at his then co-writer, Eric Sykes, which missed its target, smashed through the office window and crashed down onto the thankfully empty pavement five stories below.  Sykes had been drafted in to help a then ailing Milligan with Goon Show scripts for series 5 and 6 and was, in fact, the sole writer on many episodes.  (Sykes commented that he always felt that with Spike, madness was only ever an arm’s length away.)  The paperweight incident was precipitated by a disagreement over a single word – neither of them could remember which – but anybody who has ever co-written anything with anyone will understand the tension only too well*.  

Unlike the poor, benighted Messrs Bentine and Milligan, Mr Sykes (as he sometimes allowed me to call him) did occasionally have the pleasure of my company.  Our first meeting was at the back door of my father-in-law’s pub, which was directly across the road from the theatre and a regular haunt of those performing there – largely long after what was then a legally enforced ‘closing time’.  When the pub was closed at night, the back yard was tar-black, unlit, and all-in-all not the place to be, so I opened the door with some trepidation in response to the insistent knocking, to be faced by a tall man in a black homburg hat and full-length black, astrakhan-collared coat.  All I could see was the glowing tip of a cigar, the size and intensity of a fallen sun.  ‘Is Bri’sy in?’ said the voice which I immediately recognised as not being that of Hattie Jacques, in a tone not unlike a five year-old asking a friend’s mum if he could come out to play.  I ushered him in.  Brian (my father-in-law) and Eric were golf pals, playing along with Jimmy Edwards who, my father-in-law swore, had a small trolley attached to his golf bag in which he carried around a fully-stocked array of his peri-round liquid ‘fortifications’.  Eric Sykes was the antithesis of erratic: always Sykes, always amusing and always at the very epicentre of any group of which he was part, despite being almost completely deaf.  I suppose that genius always has its price…

…And then I awoke mid-reminiscence, to find myself mid-Newsnight instead, with Kirsty Wark presenting stories from Ukraine and allowing me to witness for myself the kind of monstrous harm and destruction that can be released by one unhinged man, and I couldn’t help but wonder when the croupiers rakes might come out again…

*I don’t think, incidentally, that Mr Underfelt and I actually ever ‘fell out’ over a script.  We often had different ideas, which we were prepared to argue in favour of, but ultimately we always reached a settlement with which we were both happy, nary an angry word passed between us.  Mad ideas man and embittered old hack in perfect accord…

A couple of weeks ago I lamented that, other than John Junkin, I had no names to ‘drop’, when I suddenly remembered Eric.  It doesn’t matter that nobody who remains within their first half century of life will remember either of them.  I do…

N.B. I cannot recommend highly enough, for people of a certain age, Eric Sykes’ Autobiography ‘If I Don’t Write it, Somebody Else Will’ – even though he doesn’t mention Brian – and Norma Farnes’ (who, incidentally, was also Sykes’ manager) record of her thirty year relationship with Spike, ‘An Intimate Memoir’.  Although neither of them mention me…


Photo by Pixabay on

I don’t want my grandchildren to grow up in my world, I want them to grow up in their own, but I would like them to remember that my world did exist: that it is (on my timescale) a bare few seconds since if your car broke down in the middle of nowhere (which still existed back then) you might well have to wait hours, if not days, before being found; that if you were running very late for an appointment you would have no opportunity to explain until you arrived in time to find that everybody else had gone home.  That if you wanted to talk to anybody at all that was not within touching distance, you would have to stand in the freezing cold hallway where the one phone in the house was tethered to the wall, counting the pennies off in your head as the conversation meandered on.

The mobile phone – now the ‘smart phone’, unless you have to rely on it – has made the biggest difference to my life, but it is, of course, nothing new to my grandchildren.  It is just as it has always been.  They do not remember once-upon-a-yesterday that if you wanted to speak to a person in the next room you actually had to get up and walk there, or at least raise your voice a bit.  They do not remember that if you took a photograph you had to wait days before you discovered that it was of your thumb.  They do not understand that if you wanted to win a quiz, you had to know the answers.

There is nothing new to this: we are all afforded a present that would have been unimaginable to our forbears; it has always been the same.  I recall buying a pair of roller skates for my eldest daughter and suddenly being struck by the fact that at her age I had only ever been in possession of a single skate which I scooted around on to the detriment of whichever foot my other shoe was on at the time.  My parents had food that they did not have to grow themselves, clothes that they did not have to make, lives that they did not have to lay down.  We move on.

But it is at our own peril that we forget what came before.  We live in an age where it is acceptable not to know something because it ‘was before my time’, as if history only extends as far backwards as our birth.  It could not be more wrong: we forget slavery, war, apartheid, The Beatles, famine, starvation, Van Gogh, disease at our peril.  If we forget Hitler, we leave the door open for his successor.  If we forget Mandela, we close the door on his.  Everything that came before us is part of us, everything that we take for granted is because of yesterday.

Somebody once said that ‘Those who forget the past are doomed to relive it.’  Who?  I’m not sure.  I’ll just have to look it up on my phone…

I’m sorry this is late. I will let you decide whether the glitch is mine or WordPress (Hint: it’s mine!)

Nothing to Report

I have spent so long writing about what happens to me that I have quite forgotten the nub of my problem: nothing ever happens to me.  I am not an adventurer or a socialite, I cannot report from the centre of the Amazonian Rainforest nor the shadow-lit back booth of a reality star lined nightclub.  I do not move in the kind of circles that would allow me to report on the foibles of the great and the good.  I walk about a bit, occasionally I trip.  I don’t have much to say.  If I start a post with ‘It rained this morning’ it is not the prelude to some fantastical recollection of a financially overloaded neighbour building himself an ark on his back lawn, it is merely a statement of fact.  End of.  I don’t know anybody who has been into space: most of my friends can just about manage the Co-op.  If I made attempts to ‘drop names’ they would not hit the ground with much force.

I have a steady readership that just about troubles double figures and the nearest I have ever been to going viral is when my wife had a cold sore.  I have never attempted to make money out of this thing – I fear, if I did, I might end up in negative equity.  For all those bloggers who decide to ‘follow’ me in order to sell me the means to make my fortune out of blogging, I can only say that I really wouldn’t bother if I were you; this is exactly all this blog will ever be: an exploration of nothing in particular, the odd trip into wishful thinking and an occasional wander through the land of make-believe.  All I can do is meander around anything that I think might amuse you and allow you to do the same for me.  I won’t change what I do in order to make money because a) I have nothing to change it to and, b) nobody in their right mind would pay for it if I did.  Anyone that actually reads this over an extended period will already know quite enough about me, thank you very much.  In the case of yours truly, less is definitely more.

I run, but I am not a runner.  I am not going to buy protein drinks, mega-vitamins or super-shoes.  Try me on Mars Bars.  I don’t need professional counselling or well-being advice.  I need chocolate and wine and diversion.  I do this thing simply because I want to.  It’s what I do.  I’d like to think that I occasionally raise a smile, but I seriously doubt that it is anything that anyone would ever pay for.  (How would I charge: a pound a grin?  Would I have to offer refunds to the straight of face?)  If I could become rich through people laughing at me, then I think I might already be loaded.  I would be very happy to ‘make $millions’ from this twaddle, but unless thousands of people suddenly decide that they want to learn about everything that never happens to me, it’s just not going to happen.

I will carry on telling you about the meagre salmagundi of my life, about the dustbin men, the gas fitters, my maladies and my hobbies; I will continue to bore you with my rose-tinted recollections and half-baked theories.  I will implore you to educate me whenever bafflement with daily existence proves to be too much for me to process.  In short, I will continue to report at some length on my vacuous self and you can choose whether you wish to read it or not – and all without charge.

One day, I’ll write a post about it…

A Very British Affair

I have always considered this little potpourri (lit. ‘bowl of dried-up, odourless husks’) of mine to be a particularly British affair in subject matter, points of reference and use of language, particularly colloquialisms (try saying that with a face full of Mars Bar – or spelling it with a head full of cotton wool) and idioms.  It has therefore always come as something of a surprise to me to find that my resident English readers are far from dominant.  Australia, New Zealand and Canada I kind of understand – old colonial ties and extended families could mean that my turns of phrase might be slightly more familiar to the ear; that my use of extended metaphor might not sound quite so much like a message from Alpha Centauri – and to some extent I get (and am certainly very grateful for) the welcoming hands across the ocean from USA: we are separated by a common language, but I think we get one another most of the time.  (With the exception of almost every word ever uttered by Donald Trump or Mickey Rourke, I can personally understand almost 90% of the American version of my language – most of which appears to involve dropping perfectly good letters from words and turning trollies into jockeys – providing it is not spoken by Joey out of Friends.)  In India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Kenya, Madagascar and South Africa a very satisfactory number of people manage to make a little space in the day to spend a moment of time with me.  I am thrilled to find that I have readers all over the world, although I cannot help but wonder what some of you make of it all – please let me know – and am particularly bemused by my popularity in Romania, where, I think I might be becoming a bit of a cult (although I am not quite certain that I have translated that correctly).  To my one reader in the Philippines, I would just like you to know that I have my suitcase packed – please send the address.  I appear to have lost my Russian and Chinese readers recently and I am really sorry about that – we all need to talk to understand – and I presume that my single French reader peruses my weekly output with an ironic Gallic glint in the eye and the kind of shrug of the shoulders that assures me, however low my opinion of myself, I am completely right to hold it.

Now, I am sure that you are wondering what has brought this to the fleeting attention of my restless and febrile brain.  Well, for as long as I can remember – depending on whether I have just entered, or left the room –  I have toyed with the idea of writing a detective yarn with, should anybody have the slightest recollection of it, just the faintest hint of Adam Adamant* about it, (No!  Not Adam Ant.  That would just be silly.) although I’m not 100% certain I don’t mean Hadleigh*.  The concept is not a difficult one – if you haven’t done so before, I can only recommend that you read Conan Doyle’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ books** to enjoy the sly, and very clever humour that runs through them – my problem is that for as long as I have been mulling over this particular enterprise, I have had but a single name in mind for my hero: Armitage Shanks.  It makes me smile every time I think of it, and then I wonder, would you get the joke wherever you may live?  Would I have to employ a translator simply to work on a nation-by-nation version of the hero’s name?  It worried me for a long time.  It stopped me properly setting my mind to the task, but now I realise, that if my very good friends from Poland, Ecuador and Taiwan can get their heads around this little junket, then a man named after a toilet should be a doddle for them.

*Come on, you’re educated people, I’m sure you can always Google it.

**Gerald Harper himself, by the way, would have made a particularly fine Holmes.

The Flu Jab

Photo by cottonbro on

It could have been Tesco, but I was waiting in Sainsbury’s for the pharmacist to administer my annual flu’ vaccine when it suddenly occurred to me that in my youth, when the National Health Service was an aspiration for the rest of the world, the very idea that a vital element of its armoury would one day be dispensed by a very pleasant lady in a startling polyester uniform within a major Supermarket chain by would probably have had Aneurin Bevan corkscrewing his way towards an early grave.  The absence of starched linen was striking.  I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, but not the merest hint of carbolic assaulted my epithelium.  I presume – although I am by no means certain – that such outsourcing of services, to all of our supermarket giants, is not undertaken on a non-profit basis, but is a symptom, rather, of a health service unable to cope with the volume of need and the sad realisation that you do not need to boil the towels before you stick a needle in somebody’s arm.  It bothered me…

Back in my youth, in the halcyon days of easy access to NHS G.P., Dentist and Accident & Emergency Services (I presume that this is not just my rose-tinted memory playing tricks again) I would have been surprised to ever find myself in the very middle-class environment of a Sainsbury’s store at all.  To the best of my knowledge (e.g. very little) the whole of this rural county of ours was a Sainsbury’s-Free Zone.  It was one of those shops, like Harrods, Biba and The Soho Sin-a-Rama, that you had to take a train journey ‘down south’ to visit. 

When I was a child, I remember the excitement when our estate had two former local shops knocked together in what we could charitably call an extremely rudimentary manner – the dividing wall was knocked through where the fireplaces used to be, lending a singular, if slightly alarming, tilt to the roof – and rebranded as Greenway’s Mace.  Mr Greenway – the only man to my memory on the estate that wore his brown overall over a shirt and tie – was the owner of the shop (not to mention a moustache stolen directly from the face of Jimmy Edwards) and Mace was a franchised brand of local supermarket, usually squeezed into the premises of former corner grocers by knocking through the downstairs bathroom and putting a corrugated asbestos roof over the back yard to store the perishables.  It did not have everything that Sainsbury’s had, but it did have a deli-counter that sold Luncheon Meat and Gala Pie by the slice, cream cheese and potted meat by the spoonful and a freezer filled with own-brand fish fingers and a lard-like ice cream that you stuck between two wafers and dropped on your shoe.  It had three different brands of baked beans!  It had a ‘bargain box’ full of tins that the labels had fallen off, a thousand different kinds of cigarette and if it sold alcohol at all, it was definitely under the counter with the prophylactics.

By the time I was married the day-to-day trip to Mace for the day’s shopping was a thing of the past.  Now was the time of the big shop: weekly or monthly depending on how you got paid, and it heralded the dawn of the domination of the massive supermarket chains of the day Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s, except if you lived around our neck of the woods, where it heralded the weekly trip to Hillards (no apostrophe), which was situated in an old sack factory on the very edge of the estate.  It was very much a supermarket of its time with shelves packed willy nilly, stacked with tins and boxes and bottles and nothing that went off too quickly.   If it could be dehydrated, Hillards stocked it.  It seemed huge and it was a place of fascination and delight.  Treats were few back then, but I did generally manage to lay my hands on four cans of Norseman lager once a month – which had the both the strength and the taste of what it forced you to do the morning after – to accompany the weekly ‘Chinese’ takeaway treat of a shared spring roll with chips and sweet & sour sauce.  It had more brands of baked beans than you could shake a stick at…

If you Google ‘Hillards’ now, all you can really find out is that it was a small supermarket chain from the North of England bought out in a hostile takeover by Tesco in May 1987 and that, if I’m honest, is why I had my vaccination at Sainsbury’s – they, to the best of my knowledge, have never been hostile to my memories…

A Different World – The Same Old Darkness

Photo by Matej Novosad on

As I write this piece – in preparation for fallow days ahead – as usual some way ahead of publishing, we are living in a world punctuated by Postal Strikes, Rail Strikes and, slightly less problematically – particularly if you are wanting to post a letter – Barrister Strikes (Don’t panic!  I am talking of those who ply their trade in legal proceedings and not those who dyslexically concoct your daily fix of overpriced caffeine.  The world has not gone that mad.) and the threat of winter power cuts, precipitated not by industrial action, but by that nice Russian megalomaniac with a totally rational fear of personal freedom.  I find myself unusually sanguine about the prospect: I am 63 years of age, a veteran of The Three Day Week and I remember how we coped back then…

We lived, of course, in different times: we did not expect to be warm in the winter: we all wore our woollies, we all wore our string vests, we all had candles (some of us from the nose) and, perhaps more importantly matches, in a drawer, somewhere…  We ate a lot of toast back then, browned to a ‘T’ on a long fork in front of the gas fire which was lit by the coloured wooden spills kept in a little brass cylinder (a war time memento – the one that nearly got grandad) on the fireplace.  We cooked on a gas hob lit by those same spills.  Baked beans on toast in front of a roaring candle was a rota’d treat.  As a teenager, unable to do homework by the feeble flickering light, I could not wait for the blackness to fall.

Today we have an electric fire to accompany the electric hob, the electric oven, microwave and air-fryer.  We have a gas boiler, but it refuses to spark into life without electricity.  We dare not open the fridge for fear of letting the cold out.  We cannot open the freezer for a comforting ice cream as – one needs to keep perspective – it might melt the ice cubes.  We, in short, have little to make these hours of darkness bearable save a tartan Slanket and a mobile phone with a five minute battery life.  I will have to go into the attic to rescue the Pop-O-Matic.  I will have to bring down the chess set.  I will have to read the rules…  And of course we could try to read books, but I fear that the kind of megawattage required to make the printed word legible to our fading night-vision would mean a candle of such size it might well precipitate a nationwide wax shortage.

We do, of course, like everyone else have a number of ‘lanterns’ in our possession, each one of them with the batteries welded to the little spring thingies by a thick layer of immovable green goo, and a torch with a doody little button for sending morse code messages, providing you can send them in the five seconds before the bulb dies.  We are just as prepared as everybody else and equally aware that, nationwide, there are no matches, batteries or tea-lights to be had on supermarket shelves.  Camping stoves are in critically short supply.

I’m sure that, if it happens, I will attempt to embrace the excitement of it all – I love resetting clocks – I will regale the grandkids with stories of my own blacked out youth and, if I’m any judge, I will spend the hours of darkness confirming that drinking wine does not require any energy at all…

Wasted Opportunities (part two)

Photo by Mwesigwa Joel on Unsplash

One of the few things I actually do remember doing during this officially sanctioned twenty-four month work avoidance scheme was to write ‘articles’ which I posted on the Sixth Form Notice Board for the entertainment of my peers and educators.  The internet (along with mobile phones, laptop computers, pocket calculators and Salted Caramel Mars Bars) did not exist, but this cork wall became my blog.  I was regularly encouraged by tutors to stop ‘posting’ on it, but I was never prevented from doing so.  I live with the hope that somebody gleaned something from what I was doing, other than the conviction that they were in the wrong job. 

On the first day of my Sixth Form studies, the impossibly old history tutor told me that he considered that ‘as I was now an adult’ he would be setting no home work, but he would rely on me to hand in essays on subjects of my own choosing for his appraisal at will.  Consequently, adult that I was, I didn’t hand in a single one and failed the subject abjectly*.  I did scrape a pass in Art despite handing in ‘coursework’ all of which was started the night before in an orgy of Coca Cola, Chipitos and poster paint.   Believe me, I take no pride in this, I am ashamed of my behaviour, but I can’t go back and change it.  I am stuck with that past and it has dictated my present.  The ‘missed opportunity’ has provided the framework for my entire adult life.  I have had only three full-time jobs in my life, giving me a total of forty four years continuous employment without even the slightest hint of ambition.  I have only ever attended one job interview and I vowed that, despite getting the job, I would never attend another.  I have been head-hunted twice, which probably says far more about the paucity of heads around here than it does about me.

Having seen both my children through University I decided to find out if I was capable of doing it myself and, having discovered that I really can apply myself when there is no conceivable benefit in doing so, I now have a Degree of my very own, of which I am very proud even though it merely makes me ever more aware of what I could have achieved forty years ago with just a little application.  (No, I am not talking about Clearasil.)  Who knows what I could have become (a pompous prig I fear).  Would I have been happier?  No, I’ve been married for more than forty years and my wife still talks to me from time to time.  We have two brilliant daughters and four life-enhancing (though energy-sapping) grandchildren – I’ll definitely settle for that.  Would I be richer?  Possibly.  I may have retired much earlier, but then again, I may have died.  Would I be more fulfilled?  It’s very unlikely unless my university education involved developing strategies for not losing interest in what I have written at the very second I have stopped writing it.  I don’t really bother with even the pretence of ‘sending stuff off’ these days.  Old Git Lit has never proved to be the Book Club  draw I thought it might be and TV and Radio are currently only interested in what you have to offer if you are already famous for doing something else – tying knots in cherry stalks with your tongue on Tik-Tok or being third-last voted off Love Island.  I fear the proof that it is not merely my lethargy that forms a barrier to success, but a complete lack of talent, might just kill me.

At least as it is, I always have something to write about.  Let’s face it, disappointment is always good for a few hundred words.

*I offer, as some kind of mitigation, the fact that the set text was the God-awful ‘Origins of the Second World War’ by A J P Taylor, an exciting subject for a post-war eighteen year old, rendered into blancmange by an English academic – the foremost historian of his time – of, I estimated, at least a thousand years old, with all the writing verve of a Grattan’s Catalogue compositor. 

Wasted Opportunities (part one)

Photo by Mwesigwa Joel on Unsplash

When I look back on my schooldays, my overwhelming sense is one of wasted opportunity coupled with the intense sensation of crushing disappointment and the faintest scent of Mycil Foot Powder…

I was a bright kid in my early school days and I cruised through my eleven plus* without any real idea that I had ever even taken it.  This is the pattern of my life: I am successful at things only when I don’t realise I am doing them.  In retrospect, that is the point at which everything started to go wrong.  Those of us who ‘went up’ to the grammar school from the council estate became class traitors, the enemy of some of those we had grown up with and, although I’m pretty certain that it never even occurred to any of my new school friends, I felt keenly a class structure that I had never encountered before and, most particularly, my own place at the bottom of it.  Worse, I had always been one of the brainboxes at my junior school, but here I was in the midst of an intake of about a hundred kids, all of whom I felt  were considerably brighter than me.  (They were.)  I knew that I was going to find school a challenge, but I was not prepared for the misery that a walk home through the streets of my formative years was to bring me, bedecked in the reviled Billy Bunter cap and blazer** I was forced to wear, facing the hatred of those whom I had formally thought of as friends.  A daily trip from school gate to Dante’s abandoned tenth level of Hell.  It was alarming how quickly I cracked. 

I buckled down for a while, tried to work my way through it – in class I had my hand up more often than a trainee vet – and at the end of my second year I was awarded the prize (a book about Tutenkhamen that I still have to this day) for ‘Progress and Industry’ which, even then I understood was a euphemism for ‘stupid, but tries hard’.  Armed with this knowledge, I immediately stopped trying hard and became a full-time pain in the arse instead.

I scraped a handful of GCSE passes by whatever means, I am not sure, having reached a point where I did not even attempt to offer an excuse for not doing my homework.  My low point being an assault on an English Literature exam having made no attempt whatsoever to read any of the three set texts: Twelfth Night a play that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing live, but could make neither head nor tail of on paper; Far from the Madding Crowd the coma-inducing text of which I hoped to bypass by reading about a quarter of a revision guide, and The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales which I saw no point whatsoever in even pretending to have read since I was so out of my depth by the foot of the first page that I would have required rescue by the RNLI***.  Never-the-less, for reasons I can only begin to imagine, I was offered a place in Sixth Form – a future-life enhancing gift that I gratefully accepted by making no effort at all to study during the two years I was granted.  For whomever it was who saw something in me back then, and for all of those who had to put up with me during those two years – most especially those who had to try and ‘teach’ me – I can only offer my sincere apologies.  I do, at least, now have the maturity to know how badly I behaved towards you, and the self-awareness to understand that I completely blew a chance that I didn’t really deserve in the first place. 

An opportunity wasted on an almost Oliver Reed scale…

*A basic IQ test, taken at age eleven, and the means of determining whether one went to Grammar School and took ‘O’ levels or went to Comprehensive School and learned to smoke.  That the most successful people I know failed the eleven plus, and most of those with emotional difficulties passed it, probably tells you all you need to know.

**God knows how my parents afforded it.  It cannot have been easy for them and, as my gratitude levels were below zero, not terribly fulfilling.  They never complained.  I wish they had.

***The Royal National Lifeboat Institute