29 Mar

I’ve always had this fear of dropping out of existence, of going into the void. It’s a fear I share with many other human beings but which we manage to keep secret most of the time. It’s called the fear of death. We don’t like to talk about it or even think of it, but it pops into one’s mind more and more as one gets older. What’s so bad about death? It’s an escape from all the problems and stresses of life. You could see it as everlasting freedom from worry and pain. But it also represents oblivion, a state where you are not conscious of your own existence. It’s when you cease to be. Once your body has perished your only chance of living on is in the minds of others who are still alive. Photos, belongings, writings, songs, and places that represent your shared experiences with them, can all trigger memories. Like a genie from a bottle, a departed person can be conjured back into existence , even if only for a few moments.
It’s strange therefore that some people are so careless with their memories of others. It is often a case of “out of sight, out of mind.” To forget is to put someone out of one’s mind, to cease to think of him or her. What concerns me is that this forgetting does not only take place after someone has died. We move house or move jobs and suddenly whole hosts of people who were our neighbours, colleagues or even “friends”, drop out of our lives because the regular point of contact is not there anymore. We may make an effort to keep in touch for a while but unless a person is an especially close friend, one we have bonded with, the connection will slowly wither away on the vine if not nourished by regular contact. How many times have you swapped addresses and email details with people who you have met and got on with on holiday, only to never see or have anything to do with them again. People get sucked back into their everyday lives, and if you are not part of that daily world, the danger is that you will be eventually forgotten.
I know I cannot be friends with everyone I meet and like. If my life is an island, there is only room for so many on the shore. Constantly trying to add people will end up with others being forced back into the sea. Time and energy constraints ensure that one will usually end up with a practical, manageable number of friends and acquaintances. (I’m talking about real friends in the flesh, not virtual “friends” on Facebook and other social media.) However, this does not stop me from feeling sad when a connection is dropped and abandoned. I know it sounds dramatic, but to me it is a kind of death. Being pushed out of another’s life is a big step towards being forgotten altogether. It’s sort of being consigned to oblivion. I have always been sensitive about rejection. I’ve been too sensitive, in fact, for my own good. Two or three times in my life I have been “dumped” by women I loved and who I thought loved me. It went from “I love you” and “I’ll always be there for you” to ” I don’t love you anymore” and “I never want to see you again!” It was hard to bear at the time. It was a kind of death. In that woman’s mind I would largely cease to exist. On one of those occasions, after being dropped by a lover, I wrote melodramatically in my diary, that “I felt like a discarded toy left in the corner of the playroom.” One can go from loving and caring about someone intensely, to not even knowing whether that same person is dead or alive. I have found this difficult to cope with but have had to accept this as a hard, realistic part of life. It’s what some people glibly describe as “moving on”, as if people are like places passed through on a long journey.
But death and time are the major reasons why most people are forgotten. They say that within two generations of passing away, in most cases, nobody will remember you. It’s as if your whole life has just been swallowed up into a vacuum and lost in time. At the moment (2014) the British nation is making a special effort to remember those who perished in the First World War. The last combatants from the UK have now all passed into history. I remember the very last British “Fighting Tommy”, Harry Patch, finally dying in 2009, aged 111. He was feted because of that war and because he was the final survivor. He had a high profile funeral covered by TV and press. However, what about the millions of other service men and women on all sides who died before him? They lie in well tended but largely forgotten graves or their bodies were never found because they were blown to bits. I recently wandered around a deserted graveyard in mid Northumberland ( Chevington cemetery near Acklington) which contains neat rows of gravestones of airmen who perished in accidents or in combat in the skies over North-East England during the Second World War. All of them were in their twenties. They came from: England, New Zealand, Poland and Australia. In another section were about 6 rows of German graves, again all desperately young men. It was a very poignant experience wandering amongst them, trying to imagine their lives and how they ended. I wonder how many of their present day relatives have their photos displayed on the mantelpiece or their belongings kept safe in a special place? They are now at least 4 generations back. Are they still actively remembered or have they disappeared into the mists of time? My friend Colin, who took me there, has a great interest in military history especially that of the RAF. He read to me from a book which described all the fatal air-crashes in Northumberland during the Battle of Britain. Spitfires accidently clipping each other while on a training flight and plunging into a field. Bombers returning from a mission in thick fog and crashing into a wood, or, in one case, demolishing a church. It was sad to be at the place where these tragedies occurred and to see the grave-stones of those concerned. But I couldn’t help wondering how many times, if any, these graves have been visited by those who knew or knew of them. Colin’s book was entitled “Almost Forgotten”. I think, except for a few history buffs and war researchers, we can safely omit the first word from that title.
Coincidentally, the Sunday Times of the previous weekend featured an article headlined : “Lying Cold and Alone.” The writer talked about a huge graveyard on the edge of Berlin- the Neur Garnisionsfriedhof cemetery ( Hope I got that spelling right.). It contained the graves of 7,200 young German soldiers who died in the First World War. The grave- stones were clean, and the grass around them was neatly mown. However the whole place was deserted and not a single flower was laid on any of the ranks of monuments. When the writer mentioned the name of the war cemetery to his Berliner friends, they had never even heard of it! It seems that the First World War is Germany’s forgotten war. Not much is being done to commemorate its centenary compared to the many events being planned in Britain and France. The main reason, apart from the sheer passage of time, is because the horrors subsequently perpetrated by Hitler and the Nazis in the Second World War have all but obliterated memories of the earlier conflict. Whatever the reason, the result is the same — all these people are now all but forgotten.
Shocking though it may seem, some people deliberately sabotage the memorabilia of their departed relatives. I recently saw a documentary ( “Hidden Histories — photographs” on BBC 4) which featured a dustman in Sussex who had accumulated a large collection of: photos, letters, medals and other personal documents from soldiers in the 1914-18 war that had simply been thrown away into the trash by the younger generations of their families. He had started his collection in the days before black bin bags so that when he emptied a bin he could clearly see its contents. Shocked by what he saw, he took one box of personal effects back to the house, thinking that the people had thrown its contents out in error. But when they opened the door they were irritated and clearly indicated to him that they wanted rid of the stuff. Maybe I am being over sentimental but I am shocked that precious mementoes of someone’s life can be deliberately consigned to the dust-bin. There again, I have heard several stories of recently deceased people’s belongings being sorted into three piles — stuff to be kept, stuff for the charity shop and stuff for the skip! Although I know one cannot keep everything just for the sake of it and it is important not to live in too much clutter, I still shudder at the thought of my relatives possibly binning my belonging after I’m gone, as if they’re wiping me out of existence. I know I’m being impractical. We cannot expect our surviving relatives to live like Miss Havershams in Great Expectations.
When I was in Vietnam I visited historical houses that contained shrines to the departed. This is because of the religion of ancestor worship. The dead are respected, honoured and remembered on a regular basis. I think this is a lovely tradition. It’s much preferable to throwing their belongings ( and memories of them) into the bin. In a previous blog I have mentioned about writing to leave a sort of legacy. I don’t think that famous politicians like Churchill, Thatcher or Blair should have a monopoly over this sort of thing. The recently departed and much loved ( or hated) Tony Benn has his entertaining and insightful diaries to perpetuate his memory. I write a diary too as well as producing this blog. I have also written my memoirs for what they’re worth!. It’s all ultra-egotistical I know. However I feel compelled to do it because I dread the thought of being forgotten and passing into oblivion. It’s a futile fight against the inevitable. I know I’ll lose. In a TV drama I have just watched ( “In Treatment” ) a character, who had just attended a funeral, commented “In the end there is only silence.” That sounds terrifying but it could also be thought of wonderfully peaceful! The point is that neither emotion is relevant because consciousness for the departed person has stopped. It comforts and consoles me to think there could be an alternative to the frightening finality of the above statement. It would run something like: “In the end there is only memory.” It cheers me to think that I might live on in the minds of others, at least for a while. ( Maybe a couple of generations if I’m lucky.)


5 Mar

We arrived at Antalya airport at midnight ( Turkish time) after a 4.5 hour flight from the UK. By the time we had queued for visas, queued for passport control, waited for our luggage to appear on the carousel, lined up to be ticked off and processed by our travel company rep., waited around in our allocated coach ( in a line of about 20), been driven to an unknown hotel on the far side of the city, queued at reception to sign in and get our keys, and finally got into our room, it was 2am! We were very tired. However, we had already been informed that we would get a wake-up call at 6am and would be on the road by 7-30am. We had no choice about this. We would have less than 4 hours sleep before a full day of sight seeing and travelling! Even these precious few hours were disturbed by a cock crowing at dawn and the early morning call to prayer from an uncomfortably close minaret!
This was not what we imagined when we first spotted an enticing ad for an incredibly cheap cultural tour of South West Turkey ( Lycia.). We had just looked at the price and the list of interesting-looking destinations and not thought too much about the tiring schedule we would have to follow to do all that in a week. Neither did we think too much about our lack of freedom. From now on, until we got back to England, we would have no say about: when we got up in the morning, where we would visit, how long we could stay at each place, how far we would drive, where and when we would eat and where we slept at night. So half the time it felt that we were on holiday but in the other half, it felt like we had been kidnapped! We had allowed ourselves to be taken prisoner by the Turkish Tourist Board, which had subsidised our low price, out of season trip — “In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great.”
I can see why they did it. They wanted to fill some of those hundreds of hotels, built for the summer sunworshippers but laying mostly empty in the winter off-season. They also wanted to try to diversify the type of tourist coming to Turkey. By advertising in middle class publications like “Homes and Antiques”, and the National Trust magazine they were aiming to attract visitors who were interested in visiting Turkey’s rich array of historical, classical sites rather than those just wishing to relax on a sun lounge or sip drinks by a pool. They spread this campaign all over Europe. In our whistle stop tour, we met groups of Danes, Swedes and Germans doing exactly the same thing. The whole operation seemed to be masterminded with military precision to avoid us swamping any one place at any one time. For instance, we had to leave Kusadasi at the early hour of 7-30 one morning.( rising at 6am!), not because we had an incredibly long drive, but because our group had been allocated an 8-30am slot at the local carpet cooperative. If we had had a much needed lie-in and a more leisurely breakfast we would have had to queue behind several other coach parties or missed our turn. Of course, we couldn’t just miss out the carpet making demonstration and the salesmen’s gentle hard-sell because when in Turkey, it’s compulsory to visit one of their most important traditional industries. At least it is when you’re being chaperoned around in a group. This particular establishment had helped to subsidise our trip so in return we were obliged to go and look at their wares. Groups of prospective customers were delivered to them by the coachload, but all in strict, pre-arranged order. Some people even bought carpets and rugs. ( They are delivered to your door in the UK within 6 weeks and all taxes and post and packaging costs are paid for by the Turkish Government.) We were also taken, on another day, to gold- jewellery, and leather workshops/showrooms. It was at these places that I realized that our guide and the tourist board did not regard a holiday as just a time when tourists could relax and enjoy themselves. Rather they regarded it as providing tourists with the opportunity to contribute to the Turkish economy, support Turkish craftsmen and women, and provide employment for local people. Our guide, who was very good by the way, gave the game away by constantly referring to us as being part of the tourist sector. We were contributors to the national coffers and so were encouraged to cough up at every opportunity. It was part of the deal.
Being on a package tour is not all bad though. Far from it. Everything is arranged for you so you don’t have to worry. In that sense it is stress free. So there are no concerns about getting lost, no language problems and no transport issues. Everything is worked out by local experts in advance and all that is left for you is to enjoy the sights and experiences that are being presented to you on a plate. So we didn’t experience that awful feeling of stress and disorientation when one arrives at a foreign airport and has to somehow figure how to get to the hotel somewhere out there in a strange town. That’s why so many people readily agree to being packaged. Whether one enjoys such a “holiday” or not is all a question of attitude. If you know you are going to be shepherded around in a group but realize that this is an easy way to see some fascinating places then the experience will be fine. If you resent and resist such an arrangement and yearn for some freedom, then you’re in for a frustrating time. Our group was a very good one, our guide and driver were excellent and the itinerary had numerous highlights, so in the end there were more pluses than minuses for me.
One of the first pluses was the wonderful scenery of Lycia on Turkey’s so-called “Turquoise Coast.” Pine and cedar clad mountains sweep down to the blue sea. The highest peaks were snow covered when we went in February. The coast is adorned with long white beaches, coves, islands and turquoise bays. Everywhere we went, we saw colourful orange and lemon groves and pomegranate plantations. Freshly squeezed juice was a readily available treat. As we drove west along the coast- hugging road on our first morning out of Antalya, mist still hung in the valleys and the bright sun in the vivid, blue sky made the Mediterranean sparkle.
However, it was the classical, archaeological sites that we had really come to see. Ancient Lycian rock -cut tombs ( 4th century BC) honeycombed a cliff face next to the extensive remains of a Roman Theatre at Myra. This Lycian necropolis has had temple- like tombs carved directly into the cliff face. Stone Roman reliefs of masks and faces lay strewn around after falling off the theatre during an earthquake. It’s an amazing historical site and all set amongst orchards of citrus fruits backed by overlapping hills. Later that day, after visiting the medieval church of St Nicholas in Demre, we found ourselves on a boat tour of beautiful Kekova bay, with more Lycian stone tombs littering the shore like upturned boats, a crusader’s castle dominating a hill, and long-haired goats scampering around. Wooded islands, distant mountains, remnants of a sunken city and the setting sun completed the idyllic scene. We viewed more lovely temple tombs the next day on a river trip from Dalyan past ancient Kaunos. The river was fringed by tall, swaying reeds and punctuated by rocky outcrops. Cormorants, egrets and heron fished in its waters and overhead a mysterious bird of prey soared on the thermals. That trip deposited us on an attractive beach which in the summer is roped off as this is where endangered loggerhead turtles come to lay their eggs. Apparently, there were plans to build a large hotel here to attract more tourists but this plan was stopped by an international environmental campaign on behalf of the turtles led by a brave British woman who still lives there, in her 90′s. When they hatch, the baby turtles are guided to the sea by the light of the moon. If the hotel had been erected, they would have been attracted to its electric lights instead, thus spelling disaster.
The two Roman highlights of our tour were world famous Ephesus and the lesser known Aphrodisias. Ephesus gets many more visiters because it is near the coastal, package- tour resort of Kusadasi and is close to an airport. Aphrodisias is inland, more remote and subsequently quieter. Ephesus used to be the third biggest Roman city in Turkey or Asia Minor as it was then called. It was originally a Greek city on the coast of what was then Ionia. It used to contain the Temple of Artemis, one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. Only a single truncated pillar remains today. In Roman times between 30,000 and 55,000 people lived here. It was sacked by marauding Goths, suffered from earthquakes, fires and floods, and eventually fell into terminal decline after its river silted up. It is still a special place to visit if you’re a history buff as I am. The most spectacular remains are the enormous theatre and the Library of Celsus, a large, 2-storey building reconstructed from the original materials. There are also 2 long, cobbled streets which helps one to imagine what it must have looked like to be here 2,000 years ago. After Pompeii it is the second best preserved ancient Roman city around the Mediterranean. It’s certainly very popular, being the second most visited place in Turkey after the Sultan’s Palace in Istanbul. As soon as we got off the coach we were besieged by guide book hawkers telling us their books were “as cheap as chips.” This made us laugh as did the stalls selling “Genuine Fake Watches.” It must be hell in the summer when the crowds pour in for their day of culture and the hot sun is blazing down on what is quite an open, exposed site. For us though, it was fairly quiet and cool.
It gave me a thrill to think that I was in an ancient city not only visited by Alexander the Great but also lived in at a later time by St Paul, who wrote one of his Epistles here. Also it is thought that the Apostle John wrote his Gospel at Ephesus. He was buried in the nearby town of Seljuk until Italian grave robbers took his body to Bari. All of this helped to make the Bible come alive for me much more than sitting in a church back in England.
Aphrodisias, the other Roman town was also founded in Greek times. It became a centre for the cult of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The remains of her temple were turned into an early Christian church which is also now in ruins. This is another area affected by earthquakes and subsequent floods. The site had a monumental Roman double gateway, a small theatre, an odeon or council chamber and a large stadium. This stadium was the highlight for me. It seated 30,000 spectators in 30 rows of seats that went round in a very large oval. It staged: chariot races, gladiatorial combat, wild animal fights and, after the theatre had flooded, plays and musical events. It’s one of the best preserved Roman stadiums in the Mediterranean area. Aphrodisias was also a renowned centre for sculpture because of the quality of the marble in a nearby quarry. We saw excellent statues, busts and reliefs in the museum. It was strangely moving to be looking into the anguished eyes of a Barbarian woman, kneeling in defeat at the feet of the triumphant Roman Emperor. One thing those Romans didn’t suffer from was modesty! Yes, Aphrodisias was a definite highlight, sitting on a high plateau surrounded by snow capped mountains. It was also very quiet — just us and a bunch of Danes.
The world famous Pamukkale, which I had so much been looking forward to, was a massive disappointment though. It’s a small hill covered in white travertine ( hard chalk) terraces. These are formed by hot thermal water running down the hill in streams, cooling and setting hard to form a sort of solidified waterfall. It’s supposed to be a beautiful, natural phenomenon but for me it looked just like a slightly dirty ski slope. Maybe if I had got to walk to the top of it I would have seen more to impress me but by the time we arrived, late in the afternoon, it was nearly dusk and the upper path had been closed. So we stared at this World Heritage Site ( World Heritage anti-climax) from below and its reality did not meet my high expectations. Below it, they have built a lake where people can go in pedal boats shaped as giant swans. The whole place was a bit tacky with souvenir stalls and ice cream sellers juggling their cones to entertain the crowds. We joined in the tourist “fun” by having our photo taken with a Bactrian camel bedecked in gold and red finery. It’s not every day one gets to meet a 2-humped camel! Apparently, up to 3 million Russians visit Pamukkale every summer. I cannot really understand why. Maybe if I had got up on that top path I would have appreciated it more. The area is strewn with luxury hotels. Many of them have thermal baths including the one we stayed at. We wallowed in warm, bubbling water and looked up at the moon and stars. This area has many geo-thermal plants producing energy for the country. Their pipes snake off across the plateau.
So, once I got used to, and accepted the limitations that package tourism imposed, I enjoyed being kidnapped and whisked around this rugged but beautiful corner of Turkey. We packed in many memorable sights and experiences. Yes. we were led from one tourist attraction to the next without getting much of a chance to see the “real” Turkey, whatever that means. Sometimes it felt as if we existed in an artificial, tourist bubble. Yet, as I glanced out of the coach window I did sometimes glimpse non- tourist sights — a young female goat-herd sheltering with her flock under the shade of a clump of trees, men performing their ablutions before going into a mosque, rows and rows of polythene tunnels growing tomatoes and peppers, the hissing, steaming geo-thermal power plants. I also saw the concrete jungles built for the summer hordes on the coast. It was a fascinating and often exhilarating experience made all the more enjoyable by knowing that I could have a long rest back in the UK, once I had regained my freedom!


23 Feb

Last week I went on a journey into my teenage past. I watched the fourth Sean Connery/James Bond film: “You Only Live twice” on TV, made in 1967. I enjoyed the time travel immensely. It was a huge blast of sixties nostalgia. Yes, it was terribly dated, but that’s why I liked it so much. It was a product of its time and for me it summed up much that was exciting about that decade. This is especially so when I recall my first reaction to the early Bond films and subsequently to Ian Fleming’s spy novels that they were based on. They made a massive impact on the adolescent me.
The first 2 Bond films I saw were “Dr No” and “Goldfinger”, on a double bill at my local Odeon cinema. I was 15 at the time. Up to that point James Bond 007 and Ian Fleming had failed to make any significant impact upon me. I only went to the cinema that night to be with my mates. I was still largely an innocent, naïve child, living a quiet, sheltered life in a provincial town. Up to that point the highlight of my family’s life had been the weekly visit to the Methodist Sunday School and evening service at the chapel. But now, as my adolescent hormones started to kick in, I felt hungry for something different. Already, listening to pop music and watching football had caused more than a few ripples on the surface of my safe but mundane existence. Now, in one electrifying evening at the “flics” I was blasted into an adult world of: danger, suspense, thrills and spills, modern technology, politics, crime, foreign travel, exotic locations, glamour, girls and sex.( well strong hints of it anyway.) That’s no mean achievement for just 3 hours entertainment! My imagination was fired and suddenly life seemed to be full of enthralling possibilities.( even though many of them were to remain mere fantasies and I eventually became a teacher, not a spy.)) Life was no longer the boring, insular existence that I had thought it to be. The Bond films and novels were classic pieces of escapism and they exploded into my life at exactly the right moment — when I was just starting to feel trapped and in a rut. OK — one can criticise them now for their: casual violence, crude sexism and racial stereotyping, but, to the 15 year old version of me, never having had a girlfriend, never having travelled abroad, never having taken a risk or made any forays into the unknown, they represented tremendous EXCITEMENT.
So I went to see all the Bond films of the 60′s ( up to “Diamonds Are Forever” in 1971) and devoured all the novels and short stories, published by Pan in their cheap paperback form from the local market. They immersed me in an intriguing alternative world, almost a parallel universe compared to my everyday existence. Of course the violence and sex fascinated me, even though Fleming and the film’s producers were masters of the dot, dot, dot. Today, it all seems tame compared to what can be witnessed in many films or books. The violence, including killing, is sanitised, with little blood or drawn out suffering. “Sex” consists mainly of a bit of kissing but the context leaves plenty of opportunity for the imagination to take off. Tame it may seem, but at the time it opened my eyes to a world previously unseen and largely unimagined. On top of this agent 007 also introduced me to: espionage, international relations, the “Cold War”, the “Space Race”, modern technology, gambling, card games, fast cars, smoking ( though I never indulged), drinking and foreign cultures. Fleming’s books were not flat- out action thrillers, consisting mostly of car chases, fights, murders and explosions, like many of the more recent Bond films. Instead they often took their time to describe a sophisticated meal, an exotic cocktail or a complicated card game. They were also set in colourful locations, far away from the grey, damp cold of the austerity Britain of the 1950′s, the era when the first ones were written. Fleming wrote “Casino Royale” in 1952 when rationing in Britain was still a grim, post-war reality and “make do and mend” was still the motto of many. However he set it mainly on the French Riviera and wrote it in his tropical Jamaican retreat: “Goldeneye.” So from the start James Bond represented exoticism and escapism. Later books were to take his readers on armchair excursions to: Turkey and the Balkans ( “From Russia With Love”), Switzerland and the United States (“Goldfinger”), Haiti ( “Live and Let Die”), and Japan ( “You Only Live Twice”), to name but a few. In the film of “You Only Live Twice”, the one I recently viewed again, we see traditional Japanese costumes, ritualistic tea drinking, oriental massage, martial arts demonstrations and a prolonged village wedding ceremony. It’s not all frantic action. In “Live and let Die”, Fleming provides a long discussion about voodoo. It’s not all: crash, bang, wallop or wham, bam, thank-you maam! So, for me at 15, 16 17 and 18, James Bond was an educational, mind-opening experience as well as an adrenaline- filled adventure. Unfortunately in the books and the early films we get a strong whiff of the author’s rather unpleasant chauvinism towards other races as well as towards women. There are also homophobic passages which are unacceptable to the modern reader but which belonged to their time as homosexuality was still a crime in Britain up to 1967. Good or bad though, acceptable or unacceptable, all these Bond novel themes opened up important issues for me and provided valuable food for thought whether I agreed with Fleming/Bond or not. They instigated many a debate in my mind. For my adolescent self they were a godsend, providing hours of educational diversion as well as pure escapism.
As I saw the early films before I dipped into the books, James Bond has always meant Sean Connery for me.( I don’t count the comic film version of “Casino Royale” played by David Nivien.) As I read the novels, Connery provided the picture in my mind whenever “Bond” was mentioned. He seemed a perfect fit — strong, tall, muscular but also graceful and charming. People commented on his easy, laconic manner, sense of humour and supple movement. I believe my female friends when they tell me that the 1960′s Connery oozed sexual charisma. Despite his rough working class upbringing in Scotland he also skilfully portrayed the sophistication and upper class snobbery of Fleming’s character.( based partly upon Fleming himself.) Apparently, Ian Fleming did not immediately approve of the choice of Connery, as he didn’t match the character imagined in his head. However he was quickly converted and in a later book, ” On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, he even wrote a potted Scottish/ Swiss biography that approximately matched Connery’s own. Fleming admitted that he had Sean Connery in his mind when he wrote his later Bond stories. He even made Bond slightly less cold and cruel in response to Connery’s injection of warmth and humour into the character in those early films. Thus the film company had a big problem when Connery tired of the role even though it had given him tremendous fame and success. After “Dr No”, “From Russia With Love”, “Goldfinger and “Thunderball”, Connery had to be persuaded to reprise the role in “You Only Live Twice” in 1967. He had ambition to be a more serious actor and did not want to end up being type-cast. However the experiment with George Lazenby in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was a disappointment for many because of his lack of any acting ability and the wooden deliverance of his lines. Lazenby’s only previous claim to fame was being a model and appearing as the “Big Fry man” in the TV chocolate adverts. This was hardly much of a recommendation. It was hoped that his looks and muscularity would carry the day, but they didn’t! Lazenby also didn’t get on with Terence Hunt, the director and announced he would step down from the role even before the film was released. To me, it was a good adventure film which suffered because of the disappearance of Connery. This was not poor Lazenby’s fault. He might have even grown into the role if he had stuck around a bit longer. But he didn’t. So it was that Connery was persuaded to return to do “Diamonds are Forever” in 1971. To most of us Bond fans it was as if the real James Bond had returned to vanquish the imposter. Then however, Connery really did relinquish the role apart from an “unofficial”. off-franchise return in the early 1980′s in the non- Fleming story ” Never Say Never Again”. He probably needed the cash boost and the title is obviously a joke based on his broken resolution. By then however, Roger Moore was well established in the official role and to many younger people he was the “real” James Bond.
I have never accepted Roger Moore as James Bond, even though he was considered for the film role before Sean Connery. At the time Moore was too busy with his TV adventurer role “The Saint”. He didn’t land the part until 10 years later. I refused to go and see his Bond films but have watched bits of them on TV in the subsequent years. I find it difficult to take him seriously as an actor. He is very wooden and unconvincing. He copied Connery’s sense of humour in the role but played it as if the whole story was a joke rather than a serious thriller lightened by occasional humour. Anyway, by the 70′s when Moore took over the role, I was no longer a teenage fantasist. I was now married, in a full time job and from 1973, a father. You could say I had grown up and grown out of James Bond.
The whole James Bond thing has now become a money-spinning franchise. Ian Fleming died in 1964 but his most famous creation lived on, creating a life of its own. The main motivation for all this seems to be to make money. I believe it the second most lucrative film franchise of all time ( after Harry Potter.) The Fleming family and estate have commissioned several different authors to write subsequent Bond books and keep the money flowing in. Similarly the film producers didn’t stop once they had run out of original Fleming stories. They commissioned new script writers and kept raking in the profits. This lucrative franchise is still running of course and there seems no end to it. There have now been 25 different Bond films involving 7 actors in the lead role. Bond’s controller at MI6, “M”, has now changed from a man ( Bernard Lee) to a woman ( Judy Dench). That wouldn’t have happened in the sexist, pre-feminist 50′s and 60′s. I have found reasons to dislike and reject most of the “imposter” Bonds. Roger Moore- too wooden; Timothy Dalton — too short; Daniel Craig — also too short, too fair and with more than a hint of cauliflower ears! David Niven, back in the 50′s was too old and too jokey. I quite liked the Irish actor Pierce Brosnan . I went to his Bond movies in the 90′s when I was taking my own teenage son on cinema trips. Brosnan certainly looked the part and was a decent actor. However, I have largely remained a Sean Connery purist and have little or no interest in stories not written by Ian Fleming. James Bond is not like silly Dr Who. He cannot magically reincarnate himself just to suit the needs of the TV or film company. For me, James Bond belongs to the 1950′s and 60′s, the era in which he was created and in which his original stories are set. I feel it has been a mistake to have turned him into a Peter Pan like time- traveller, totally cut off from his roots. ( Except that the people who have done this are a lot richer than I ever will be.)
I feel it’s just plain greedy and silly to just keep continuing with a franchise which artistically, culturally and historically, has far out-lived its sell-by date. The current films have been reduced to formulaic action movies. What were once fresh ideas ( technological gadgetry, exotic locations, dramatic combat, glamorous seduction) are now so routine as to be stale clichés.
I suppose the biggest reason why I have been turned off the post- Connery Bond films is that I am not a hormone-charged, impressionable adolescent anymore. Sadly I have grown up and it takes a lot more than car-chases, spectacular explosions and glamorous women to get me interested in a film nowadays. I now expect a good, deep, interesting plot, authentic dialogue, realistic locations and skilled acting to draw me into a film. James Bond doesn’t do it for me anymore. But I do admit to more than a frisson of excitement when a be-suited 007 suddenly swung round, raised his Walther PPK and fired a single shot out of my TV, the screen quickly filling up with blood. Then came the deep bass guitar strings and strident, screaming brass of John Barry’s theme tune, followed by the dulcet tones of Nancy Sinatra singing : “You only live twice, or so it seems, one life for yourself and one for your dreams.” Suddenly I was back in the 60′s, where James Bond belongs. For 90 minutes it was great to be a teenager again!

Musical memories from the late 60′s to the 70′s – negotiating Glam, metal, prog, Punk and much more.

5 Jan

As the “swinging sixties” drew to a close I found myself long-haired, footloose and fancy-free in the big metropolis of Manchester. It was a far cry from my previous insular life in a “dead-end” north midlands town with my parents. Now at college, training to be a teacher, I could indulge my passion for rock, pop and blues music as much as I wanted. The only restriction was the thickness of my wallet. A student grant didn’t exactly turn me into a millionaire but it was still a big step up from paper-round money. It was a short but wonderful window between the constrictions of childhood and the responsibilities of adulthood. As the new decade of the 70′s progressed however, my opportunities for unfettered musical indulgence were gradually choked off by, in turn: marriage, a full time teaching job, children and a mortgage. I wanted all these things of course and they greatly deepened and enriched my life ( even the dreaded mortgage), but much of it was at the expense of my music. I no longer had the time, energy, ready cash or opportunity to go to many gigs, keep up with the latest artists or listen to more than a small fraction of the albums on offer. My life developed immensely and very positively in that decade but as far as the balance between my responsibilities and my interests were concerned, the key word was now: “COMPROMISE.” I couldn’t remain a teenager for ever.
But for a time at least I enjoyed those heady, student days in Manchester as the 60′s gave way to the 70′s. My own record collection was still on vinyl as was everyone’s, but now I purchased an extra speaker and listened to the sounds in wondrous stereo. It was great to hear for instance, the lead guitar coming clearly at me from the left and the bass thumping in from the right. Somewhere in the virtual middle was the vocalist, or so it seemed. It was almost like being at a live performance , a big step up from the squashed together, flatter sounds of mono records in the earlier 60′s. My vivid memory is of listening to Deep Purple blasting out of the speakers whilst painting the ceiling of our flat a deep shade of purple! We also, for some strange reason, painted the walls bright orange. ( Possibly while listening to Tangerine Dream!) I pity the poor people who moved in after us!
However I remember Manchester mostly for the excitement of the live gigs at the Free Trade Hall, the University Union on Oxford Road and the UMIST building. One minute I was being seduced by the beautiful folky sounds of Pentangle, Eclection or the Sandy Denny incarnation of Fairport Convention, whilst the next I was being beguiled by the weird but wonderful meanderings of The Incredible String Band. I crowded into sweaty university halls to hear the powerful rock/blues singing of Joe Cocker, Roger Chapman, Julie Driscoll or Arthur Brown, the driving rock of The Nice, or the dreamy psychedelia of Pink Floyd. For the last mentioned gig the hall was so packed that I was squashed uncomfortably up against a wall, hardly able to move a limb. It also got incredibly stuffy. It was like a rock version of the Black Hole of Calcutta. However the next 90 minutes of Floyd music transported me into another world so completely that I was honestly unaware of my discomfort. It was literally an out of body experience. I survived another incredible crush when I went to see the American group Steppenwolf, of “Born to be Wild” fame. ( featured in the cult film “Easy Rider.”) We were all crammed into the hall like sardines in a tin. God knows what would have happened if there had been a fire. The music was loud and thrilling but my clearest memory of that gig is of people fainting all around me and being carried off horizontally. To my shame I did not show much sympathy. My predominant thought was that now I would have more air to breathe and more room to dance to the driving beat. As at many gigs, it was an “every man for himself” situation.
In 1970 I got married and a year later I started full time teaching in a tough, all boys secondary school in Salford. My energy was sapped by the demands of the job and much of my free time was taken up with marking and preparation. The days of “freedom” had come to an abrupt end. I listened to music as a solace and an escape but had little time for concerts or browsing in the record shops.
Over a weekend in May,1972 however, my wife Annie and I attended our first pop festival. The late 60′s festivals at Monterey and Woodstock had already become iconic events — great gatherings of the “hippie” counter-culture which I desperately wanted to have a taste of. Similar gatherings had taken place on the Isle of Wight and in London’s Hyde Park. I had been to a free concert in Hyde Park but had missed out on the Stones, having to make do with The Move instead.( They were good though). But the ’72 festival sounded like the real McCoy for it was going to be headlined by the legendary West Coast group: The Grateful Dead. Support included: Captain Beefheart and his Magic band ( another one of my favourites), The Kinks, Donovan, The Incredible String Band, Pacific Gas and Electric, The Flamin’ Groovies , New Riders of the Purple Sage and many others. It sounded too good to be true and impossible to resist even though I was bogged down with schoolwork. The most amazing thing of all though was that this whole musical extravaganza was to take place in a field on the edge of a depressing mining village near Wigan! I’m talking about the Bickershaw Festival in early May, 1972. I suppose the pit village setting was appropriate for that time as the miners had just won their great victory against the Heath government after causing widespread power cuts and almost bringing the country to its knees. The festival organisers must have been wetting themselves as the strike wore on and May got closer and closer. Luckily it was all done and dusted by early February and so Gerry Garcia and co did not have to resort to a rare acoustic set.
I borrowed a tiny tent from school and we set off for Wigan on the train. The tickets were relatively expensive for the time and I made things worse by losing them, which meant I had to buy them twice! The weather was wet and Annie and I found ourselves pitching our tent on the edge of a grey, muddy field which merged into a reed- filled bog. It was more reminiscent of the Somme in 1916 than of a pop festival in the early 70′s. We listened to some great music that weekend and also got a valuable insight into life in the First World War trenches. It was very apt for a music fan who was also a history teacher. At first we really enjoyed the music and the festival atmosphere but as the rain began to fall again, it became a bit of an ordeal. Unfortunately, the tent let water in! We got cold and damp and started to feel a bit sorry for ourselves. The toilets were just circular trenches covered with tents and as the weekend progressed the smell became more and more odious and the edge of the trench caved in, thus becoming increasingly treacherous. The queue for the pub toilet in the village was permanently half a mile long, so impossible to contemplate.
The music was very good though and did a lot to raise our spirits. It went on late into the night as the organisers got more and more behind schedule. In fact the last of the Saturday night acts didn’t come on until 6 o’clock Sunday morning! We retreated into the leaky tent for a cold and fitful sleep. In the middle of the night, I woke up to hear very strange sounds coming from the stage. What happened next has lived long in my memory and I wrote about it to UNCUT magazine in 2007, when they were printing readers’ memories of Bickershaw. ” The scene that greeted me as I emerged, bleary-eyed from the tent, was totally surreal. The whole field seemed to be shrouded in mist. Bedraggled people, carrying fire-torches and draped in blankets, were wandering around in a daze. And in the background, came the bizarre electronic dronings of the Magic Band. It was a scene straight from Hell! Then the Devil himself, the Captain, in a flowing dark cloak, swept on to the stage to hollor his way through an amazing, otherworldly set of electronically charged swamp-blues. This was easily one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life.”
That experience was utterly fantastic, but as Sunday – the day of the Dead- dawned, reality hit big time. We were cold, wet, miserable and increasingly desperate for a proper loo. So we never got to see The Dead and my guitar hero, Gerry Garcia. As they flew in we bussed out and ultimately experienced an incredible “Relief of Mafeking” moment at Wigan Railway Station toilets. Could we have reached an equal high listening to five hours of the Dead’s improvisational brilliance? Probably, but our bladders would not have held out and the whole thing eventually finished so late that we would have been very late home and totally wiped out for work the next morning. It was an early example of the realities and responsibilities of our new working lives curtailing the freedoms that we had enjoyed in our student days.
Later that year I got a new job in Stevenage New Town, Hertfordshire which put us within striking distance of the gig Mecca of London. I could now attend top shows at the Rainbow, Finsbury Park, the Royal Festival Hall and later, the Hammersmith Odeon. I remember taking school trips to see Thin Lizzy, Suzi Quatro and Slade ( not my favourites but still a good outing.) I also saw Stevie Winwood’s Traffic at the Rainbow as well as King Crimson. The most memorable show at the Hammersmith was Santana ( brilliant extended guitar solos) supported by Earth, Wind and Fire. However, the biggest treat of all was seeing the incredible Captain Beefheart again, this time at the Mecca ballroom in Stevenage, just 10 minutes walk from our house. I felt a bit of a fraud as the first people I met in the queue had travelled from Amsterdam to see the Captain. The show was mind-blowing. I got so close to the group in the small dance hall that I became completely immersed in the throbbing music, as it swirled all around me.
In 1973 my daughter Joanna was born. I loved being a father but naturally, opportunities to go to gigs now became fewer and far between. Annie however, kindly encouraged me to join friends at the Knebworth Festival in, I think, 1974. Again I felt a bit sheepish as people had travelled from all corners of the country to be there but I only had to go on a very short local train ride from Stevenage. My friends has camped overnight and kindly saved me a prime spot only about 6 rows from the stage. In one incredible, sunny day I was fortunate enough to see performances by : the great Tim Buckley, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Van Morrison, The Maravishnu Orchestra, The Doobie Brothers and the fantastic, boogieing Allman Brothers. What a fabulous line up it was and all introduced by John Peel. It finally finished about 1 o’clock in the morning. Yes, Knebworth was a definite high spot of the 70′s but most of my everyday life was taken up by teaching and enjoying being a husband and father.
At home I preferred listening to the subtle, sensitive offerings of singer songwriters such as Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Dory Previn and Buffy St Marie rather than the increasingly loud, excessive hard rock sounds of Led Zeppelin or so called prog- rock groups like Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I considered such bands too obvious and pretentious but I was in a definite minority as they were incredibly popular. I preferred what I considered to be more subtle and sophisticated offerings from American groups such as: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Steely Dan and the southern blues of Little Feat. I never got on to the Zeppelin band wagon regarding them as unsubtle and over the top — the forerunners of the heavy metal scene which I think of as the musical equivalent of banging one’s head constantly against a brick wall. I think they were very lucky to be able to fill the heavy- rock vacuum left by the break up of Cream.
I visited friends who had whole stacks of Genesis and/or Yes albums which I quite liked to listen to but always suspected they were trying to be too clever and thought a bit too much of themselves. They would try to take the listener on mythical quests full of Arthurian knights and pre-Raphaelite maidens. It all got a bit much. I felt much the same about Pink Floyd after the departure of Syd Barret. They lost a lot of their fun, quirkiness and edge, in my opinion, disappearing more and more up their own backsides. If I had a pound for every time I had to listen to “Dark Side of the Moon” at dinner parties in the 70′s, then I’d be a multi-millionaire now. I think it’s quite a good album but I always hung back from liking it wholeheartedly because of the thought that they were taking themselves a bit too seriously. Some of the prog-rock music was good but as the decade progressed, I felt it all got too ambitious, too extravagant and started to drown in its own excess. The Electric Light Orchestra for example took to arriving and departing from the stage in a huge, mock flying saucer. There seemed to be more emphasis on the spectacle than on the music, as well as making them more remote from their fans. Although I hated the “mindless” thrashings of Punk when it exploded on to the scene in the late 70′s, I admit it was much needed as it swept aside much of the self-indulgent pomposity of later prog-rock.
I still tuned into Top of the Pops for a laugh and to catch up with the latest teenage trends, but I mostly ignored the singles charts and the various crazes that they spawned. I didn’t get into Glam Rock ( or Glitter Rock), mostly bypassing T Rex, Slade, Sweet and the now disgraced Gary Glitter. However, I did take a passing interest in David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust phase and very much liked Roxy Music. To be fair Bowie and Roxy were only allied to glam/glitter rock in a visual sense, being far superior musically. Apart from in the supermarket at Christmas, who ever listens to Slade now? I didn’t buy any singles. The catchy kitsch of Abba was OK on the radio but I couldn’t stand more than 3 minutes of it at a time. later, in the 90′s I went to an Abba theme party. It was pretty grim! I liked Rod Stewart at first, both with and without The Faces but then he went increasingly middle of the road, ending up as a gross parody of himself. Another big act of the 70′s – Queen — I found overblown, obvious and intensely irritating. Their number 1 hit: “Bohemian Rhapsody” is regularly voted as the greatest single of all time but to me it was sheer torture especially as it seemed to be crudely caricaturing the Brian Wilson/Beach Boys’ exquisite operatic classics: “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains”. Once again I was content to swim against the musical tide. I was happy to listen to albums by artists who hardly ever featured in the charts. Bob Dylan made some great albums in the 70′s, especially “Blood on the Tracks”. Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Lou Reed and Neil Young all produced wonderful solo albums as did the aforementioned Joni Mitchell. Post Beatles John Lennon put out a stark, stripped down but emotionally charged album with the Plastic Ono Band which appealed me a lot more than any of the more commercial musical journeys that Paul McCartney took us on with “Wings.” I quite like Elton John but he never grabbed me enough to make me actually want to shell out money for one of his big selling albums.
One rare example of me following the majority was my liking of Fleetwood Mac, both in their earlier Peter Green British blues phase and in their later Nicks and Buckingham inspired AOR. I really liked their eponymous 1975 album and it’s classic 1977 follow up “Rumours” They are smooth, slick and commercial but I love them. Another feature of my 70′s musical journey was venturing more and more into country rock led by the Byrds, Dylan and the Dead. Previously I had loathed the corny, sugary sentimentality of Country and Western music but now, once it was fused with rock I grew to really like it and recognise its place in rock history from Elvis onwards.
Then in the later 70′s there were: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, The Pretenders, Blondie, Gerry Rafferty ( Baker Street being one of my favourite tracks), Joan Armatrading, and the quirky but hugely enjoyable Ian Dury, with his Blockheads. I also loved the guitar based pop/rock of Mark Knoppler’s Dire Straits. I even got to like some of the Punk stuff especially Hugh Cornwall’s Stranglers. I’ve always hated the Sex Pistols though — a triumph of noise over musicianship. I suppose this shows that I was now a member of an older generation who disapproved of much of what the new kids on the block were listening to. It’s an inevitable consequence of growing older. I was one of those who sympathised with Bill Grundy who tried to interview the Pistols but ended up being verbally abused. At least Mick Jagger was always polite and well spoken when asked questions.
Despite job pressures and the arrival of our second child Catherine in 76′s, I still found time to enjoy a whole range of music. I tried to move on and discover new artists. I did not want to stay fossilised in the 1960′s. Our move to Sheffield restricted the number of live gigs I could go to — I only remember one great show by Nils Lofgren at the City Hall. However I spent many a happy hour listening to music at home either with the family, or, late at night when I retreated into my headphones. Both Joanna and Catherine remember growing up in a house full of music as did Ian, born in 1981. What other explanation is there for my daughter, born in 1976, liking Frank Zappa’s “Mothers of Invention” or my son recently taking me to a David Byrne ( Talking Heads) concert? Pop and rock music provided not just the soundtrack of my life but also for the whole family.
When we moved up to Tyneside in 1979 we put ourselves in pole position for many great gigs together at the Newcastle City Hall, St James’s park, Gateshead Stadium, etc. As the children grew up my music going revived and increased — but unlike in the 1960′s, it was now very much a family affair.


27 Dec

Well, it’s now December 27th, the first officially “normal” day after the great Christmas festival. I can feel the first stirrings of freedom coursing through my veins. Today, I can do what I want and nobody will care or even notice. Nobody will ask me what my plans are. For the past few weeks I have had to explain to all and sundry what I am doing for Christmas, what I am having for my dinner on December 25th, how many people I’m going to share that day with etc. I have also had to listen to what others are doing on that day, whether they are going away or how many people are coming to stay. I always suspect that there is more than a slight element of one-upmanship in all this. Am I a bit of a social failure because I have spent the apologetic-sounding “quiet” Christmas with just my wife? People who spend Christmas on their own are pitied, whilst those who enter a hectic social whirl, surrounded by hordes of friends and relatives, are regarded as a success . Today this is emphasised even more by social media. We get instant pictoral reports of what a good time everyone is having.
Since my teenage years, I have had mixed feelings about Christmas. In an earlier blog I referred to the scales dropping from my eyes, one by one. First I found that Santa Claus didn’t exist and it was really my parents filling the stocking. Then I rejected Christianity and came to suspect that the nativity story is made up, which it probably is. The shepherds wouldn’t have been watching their flocks by night in the middle of winter as it would have been too cold. The sheep would have been indoors. Next I rejected the idea of stuffing myself with rich food including the poor traditional dead bird. Finally I came to loathe the excessive consumerism and materialism that reaches a frenzy at Christmas. Why do we keep buying presents for people who don’t really need them? It’s nice to give but is it worth going into debt for? ( as some people do.)
I enjoyed the family aspect of Christmas however and liked the idea of people making an effort to keep in touch or get together. It was great having time off work to spend quality time with loved ones. I especially liked this aspect of the festival when I was a young child, and later, when I had children of my own, the “magic” of Christmas came back into my life through them. I also enjoyed the evergreen tree, the baubles, the candles and the colourful flashing lights. I still do, and love seeing the dark, winter streets lit up by everyone’s home- made version of Blackpool Illuminations. Some people go way over the top of course, ( another attempt at one-upmanship?) but even that raises a laugh and adds entertainment value to the otherwise drab days of December. I like the lights so much that I often refer to Christmas as the Midwinter Festival of Light, which it originally was.
So every December a battle goes on inside me between those aspects of the festival that I like and those that I could do without. Sometimes the pros outweigh the cons. At other times, it’s the opposite way round. It’s like a constant see-saw going up and down in my mind. I do like many aspects of Christmas. It’s just that I hate the immense social and peer pressures that demand that I conform. As Advent begins, I feel the straightjacket of conformity slowly tightening around me. If I want to do something different from the majority, I am called names — “Spoilsport”, ” Scrooge ” or “Bah Humbug”. Charles Dickens and his “A Christmas Carol” have a lot to answer for. Usually I succumb in order to have a quiet life. I try to avoid the excesses and just go with the flow. If I made a stand and opted out of Christmas altogether, many people would feel I’m being rude and anti-social. Some of my loved ones might even get upset and I wouldn’t want that.
So I take a deep breath and send the cards, buy the presents and tell everyone what I’m up to on December 25th. I really enjoy singing carols and wassailing ( I’m in a community choir), receiving cards and letters ( except the boring showy-offy round- robin letters) and seeing the light shows. I love mulled wine and even quite like mince pies. ( well the first dozen anyway.) Yes, Christmas has many lovely aspects but I’m still pleased it’s December 27th!

My Dad is 90! ( Story of an Ordinary man in the 20th/21st centuries.)

25 Nov

Last weekend, my father, Maurice Reuben B—-, hit the milestone of his 90th birthday. Family members from far and near gathered at a hotel on the edge of Chatsworth Park, in the Derbyshire Peak District to celebrate this achievement over a grand “afternoon tea.” With all his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren arranged around the table before him, plus their respective partners, his youngest son, my brother Gr—-, delivered a short tribute to Maurice , recounting all he had done in his 9 decades. Unfortunately I don’t think dad registered much of it as he was totally engrossed in munching his egg and cress sandwich!
It is amazing to think that my dad was born only 5 years after the end of the First World War. He was the youngest of 6 children born to George Arthur and Ada B—- in Barrow Hill near Chesterfield, Derbyshire. He had 2 brothers and 3 sisters. I think Maurice was very close to his father and still speaks of him fondly. George Arthur worked down the pit and then later in the great iron and steel works that dominated the town. He also had a big garden, an allotment and like many people in those days, a small holding on which he kept pigs and chickens. When he was not at school, Maurice helped his dad with the animals. In fact, at school he was given the unflattering nickname of “Piggy B—-.” One day my granddad went off to the livestock auction. Grandma gave him strict instructions not to spend any more of their limited income on yet another “porker.”. He did as he was told, but instead came back with a pony which he said he had saved from the “gypsies”.
Maurice helped to care for all these animals and birds and was particularly attached to the pony. He and his father used to harness it up to a little cart and go out selling firewood around the streets. But pigs were their speciality. Farmers came from all over the area if they had sick pigs because George Arthur, helped by Maurice, had the knack of diagnosing them, treating them and making them better. A whole selection of mysterious potions was stored in the outhouse alongside the sacks of pig and chicken feed. I recently talked to someone whose grandma was a neighbour of theirs. She remembers George Arthur and Maurice walking round with a wooden yoke on their shoulders. It was specially shaped to go round their necks. Dangling on the end of chains were 2 pails. I asked my dad what was in the buckets, and he replied “pig swill.” The lady I spoke to also remembers the father and son next door slaughtering pigs out in the street and the sticky blood trickling down the public drain. It’s almost unbelievable to me that my own father was involved in such medieval scenes! No wonder he always opts for gammon, bacon, sausages, ham or pork when he is perusing the menu at a restaurant or café. He is still “Piggy B—-” at heart. His upbringing has determined his diet. That same upbringing has also determined my life-long diet. I was so shocked and repelled by the whole thing that I became a vegetarian, something my dad has never understood.
I think of Maurice walking around with that wooden yoke across his shoulders and then think of my own children engrossed in their laptops and smartphones. What a gulf has appeared in just 2 generations! When I mention computers to my parents, their eyes immediately glaze over and I can tell that my words are not registering. Computers are alien contraptions to them like something out of Doctor Who. They will never own them and never understand them. The internet is something beyond their imagination. Similarly I know that Maurice’s children, grandchildren and great grandchildren will probably never be faced with the task of skinning a pig or disembowelling a chicken. Even for me it’s an impossibility to imagine living that sort of life. My dad can just about remember it, his distant childhood in another world, but for the rest of us, that lifestyle is lost forever in the mists of time.
Dad lived his childhood in the “Roaring Twenties” but I don’t think he met any flappers or danced the Charleston. He lived through the 1926 General Strike and the 1929 Wall Street Crash without being aware of them as he was a child. However the failure, in 1926, of the miner’s campaign to get better conditions and a living wage did impinge on the family as it was this that persuaded George Arthur to leave the mines as he was unwilling to accept the insultingly lower pay deal that was on offer. That was when he entered the steelworks. My dad does have vague recollections of the poverty of those days and tells the story of his father taking a wheel barrow and a pick axe to the spoil heaps near the mine in order to scavenge for pieces of coal for the fire. ( this was well before the days of central heating.) Apparently, one day he found a very big man on his patch who told him to get lost. Granddad pretended to retreat but then rushed at the intruder with his pick-axe handle and gave him such a hefty whack that he ran away and never returned!
My father left school when he was only 13. He received only a very basic education. He has never been a very good writer or speller but has always been keen on reading, voraciously devouring anything in print that comes within his range. He has always been very curious about the world around him, and never misses the news. Thrown on to the depleted job market at the height of the Great Depression, dad managed to get employment by delivering shoe repairs for the local Coop on his bike. One day he delivered some shoes to an uncle who he had never seen before because of a quarrel over a will between George Arthur and his brother. It was a bit of a shock for Maurice to see his long estranged relative. After the delivery job, dad got work in a light bulb factory. It was either too cold or, if he was near to the glass furnace, too hot. He told me that he worked there for 13 months and caught 13 colds! Then, on the eve of the Second World War, dad landed his dream job on the railways. It was prized employment because it was a job for life with a proper career structure. Maurice started by cleaning the dirty, oily locomotives in the shed at Barrow Hill. He then became a fireman or stoker for many years. This was the tough, back-breaking job of feeding the furnace of the steam locomotive. He came home exhausted and looking as black as a coalman. Dad worked as a railway fireman for many years, at least 12. Then he got promoted to driver status. Later on he retrained so he could drive the diesel locomotives that took over from the steamers.
Maurice drove coal trains linking the pits with the power stations in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. He worked unsociable hours in a constant rotation of shifts. The worst shifts were nights and early mornings. They played havoc with his sleep patterns and may explain his quick temper with my sister, G—–, and I when our playing and squabbling disturbed the peace of the house. In the war, Maurice fancied going into the navy but his work on the railways was deemed an essential service for the war effort. So he fought Hitler on the Home Front. He and his mate had to cover the hatch into the fire with a tarpaulin so its glow did not give their position away to the German bombers droning in the sky above. One night, he told me, his coal train was diverted on to a siding as a fast passenger train was due on the mainline. As they waited in the pitch black the mainline ahead of them was suddenly lit up by a line of vividly exploding German incendiary bombs. It was a close call!
Well dad ( and the rest of the country) saw off Hitler and he celebrated by meeting my mum, Jessie, on a blind date and getting engaged. They married a couple of days after Jessie’s 21st birthday in July, 1947. In those days, one wasn’t deemed to be an adult until one hit 21. It was a traditional white wedding in a Methodist Church in Chesterfield. That was very appropriate, for dad was immediately sucked into the life of staunch Methodism that dominated my mum’s family. Maurice stopped swearing and drinking ( as I’m sure he did as a lad) and took the “pledge”. He joined the church choir led by his father-in-law ( my maternal Granddad), attended the service every Sunday, became a Sunday School teacher and later, he even became a lay-preacher.
By now the Welfare State and the National Health Service had been introduced by Atlee’s Labour government, just in time to benefit dad and his family. I arrived in 1949 and Gl—-, a couple of years later. Times were tough though as strict rationing was still in force and it was the age of austerity. In the 1950s Maurice worked hard to keep the family afloat. In that decade it was a matter of honour that a man should be able to support his family. As soon as she married, my mother gave up her job in a grocery shop. It was dad’s duty to bring in the wage. He got a weekly pay-packet, a small wad of cash in a see-through envelope, and he handed it straight over to his wife, every Friday. She was in charge of the family budget. She would give a bit back to her husband to serve as his spending money. This was the age of “make do and mend” and of “looking after the pennies so the pounds will look after themselves.” The age of austerity lasted well into the 1950s. I think my dad did really well in supporting his family in such difficult times. As well as working, he also, like his father, developed a large produce garden. I remember it being full of vegetables and avenues of fruit trees. He was very handy around the house, making and mending things himself rather than calling in tradesmen. When I was young, he made me a toy garage and bought an old bike for me and did it up.
At first my mum and dad lived with mum’s parents in their 2 bedroomed terrace house. It must have been a squash and thus quite stressful. It was not the best of circumstances to begin married life in especially after I arrived. By the time my sister joined the family we were living in our own place which must have been a matter of great pride to my father. It was a rented railway house with just cold water, no bathroom and an outside toilet, just like most ordinary houses in the 50′s. It was in an “idyllic” location next to a disused canal, a railway and the large iron, steel and chemical works. Sometimes a bad egg smell swept over our estate. Then in 1959 came a big improvement in our quality of life. Maurice and Jessie were finally allocated a council house after being on the waiting list for 12 years. My dad must have been so proud when we moved into a property that had hot and cold running water, an indoor toilet and, wait for it …. a bathroom! The tin bath which Maurice and Jessie had to fill up every Sunday night ( me at one end and my sister at the other) was now consigned to history. We were still renting but it was a big step up in the world. By the end of the 50′s Britain was experiencing a significant increase in the standard of living for many people. Even Maurice with his moderate income, could afford to buy a washing machine, an early vacuum cleaner, and most importantly a telly! It was only a 12 inch black and white but it was an exciting development for us. Before, we had spent our evenings doing jigsaws and making “proggy” mats with the wireless ( radio) on in the background. By the end of the 50′s we even had the new commercial channel: ITV. So Maurice in his 40′s was at the head of a mostly happy and prospering little family. Every year we had a seaside holiday using his free rail passes and we always had a magical Christmas with presents, lights and tree, as well as the carol service at chapel.
By the early 1960′s my dad had stopped walking to work and had acquired a motor scooter. Then in the mid 60′s his family was completed by the late arrival of my younger brother Gr—-. It was a bit of a surprise but a very pleasant one. Unfortunately this happy event was quickly followed by a very unfortunate one. Maurice and Jessie were travelling on the Lambretta to the local shops when a car sped out of a side street and smashed right into them. They broke 3 legs between them. Maurice was worse off as he broke 2 and one was a bad break. He was in hospital for many weeks. It was a traumatic event for the family but we all closed ranks and got through it. It was stressful as my little brother was only a few months old at the time. Social services had to step in to help. The only good thing to come out of all this was the compensation which my dad used to buy his first car. It was a blue 1965 Ford Cortina. It felt as if the family had really come up in the world and I think my dad must have felt very proud as he parked it outside the house.
Maurice’s next big challenge was dealing with my teenage rebellion. As the 60′s progressed and I got deep into adolescence, I began to question and then reject much of my parent’s lifestyle, opinions and values. This was now the “swinging 60′s” but my mum and dad stayed stuck in a world of popular classics, light opera and brass bands. I now confronted and affronted them with loud pop and rock music. Used to taking their children to Sunday worship every week, they were now disappointed to find that their offspring no longer wanted to go.( my sister was with me on this one.) Used to carving the Sunday roast, meat he had proudly put on the table to feed his family, my father was now faced with a son who had become a vegetarian. Hair, clothes, choice of friends and girls were other areas of conflict. My dad at first tried to deal with my rebellion by being the stern Victorian patriarch.( as his father had probably been before him.) He ordered mum to keep giving me the same piece of meat that I had refused to eat and not give me any more food in the meantime. His strong stance was doomed to failure as it made me even more determined and my mum fed me as soon as he went to work, somewhat undermining his position. There were many altercations. Dad still had a bad temper at times and was not against slapping us to press home his point. In this he was nothing unusual as corporal punishment was still regarded as acceptable in homes and schools in the 1960′s. One day when I was about 15, dad lost his temper with my sister and advanced towards her with his hand raised. I quickly stood between them and told him to back off. He backed away defeated. I think it was a turning point in our relationship. Maurice was now losing total control over his children.
To be fair, the 1960′s must have been very tough for my dad. Both his parents died in their early 70s within a few months of each other. His parents in law, my maternal grandparents, who he was very close to, also passed away in that decade. He was working full time on a job with anti-social hours and did as much overtime as he could. He also worked as a voluntary caretaker at the Methodist chapel. Maurice now had a young child to care for and simultaneously had to deal with a simmering teenage rebellion from his eldest son. Of course he also broke his legs and, in the same decade he suffered from a slipped disc and had a lot of back pain!
The 1970′s brought about an improvement in his lot to a certain extent. My sister and I had both disappeared to college in Manchester so home life must have been a lot quieter with just my young brother Gr—- left in the nest. At the start of that decade, Maurice and Jessie also reached a very significant landmark. They bought their own house, a 3 bedroomed bungalow on a new estate. It had been a long-term dream. Again I imagine how proud my dad must have been as he took possession of the keys to his own place. Now he could see the fruits of his labour in bricks and mortar. At almost exactly the same time as Neil Armstrong was becoming the first man to step on to the moon, my dad was stepping into his very own house
Maurice was now in his later forties and early fifties. Things calmed down between us such that he came to my wedding in 1970 and was an affectionate and enthusiastic grandfather when the next generation arrived. He was very supportive and we managed to develop a more civilised and less volatile relationship. Problems still arrived in Maurice’s life though. My sister’s marriage broke up in unpleasant and upsetting circumstances. Then my parents’ dream home developed alarming cracks because of mining subsidence. They had to move out into temporary accommodation and eventually, at the start of the 80′s, they bought a new bungalow down the road using the compensation money from the National Coal Board. They took a chance though as the new place was still in a subsidence area. Luckily it has now passed the test of time as mum and dad are still living in it.
In the 1980′s Maurice was nearing the end of his long career on the railways. He went all the way through to 65 and finally retired in November, 1988. He could have gone earlier as his bosses were willing to give him an early retirement package as they were looking to prune the workforce at the shed. However these plans were constantly blocked by the rail drivers’ union ASLEF. Dad had become bitterly anti-union and had had numerous clashes with ASLEF’s local officials. He had to be in the union as it was a closed shop, something my dad vehemently disagreed with as it denied him his freedom of choice. I tend to agree with him on this. He had become a regular reader of the Daily Mail, since the demise of the News Chronicle, and had swallowed many of its more right wing views. I remember having an argument with him about comprehensive schools which he was against despite me having failed the 11 plus. In 1984 during the big Miner’s Strike my dad made himself very unpopular by driving coal trains from Nottinghamshire where the miners were working on and betraying their fellow workers in the rest of the country. While dad has never voted Tory ( it was not in his working class DNA), in this case he was assisting Mrs Thatcher’s smashing of the miners by being a strike breaker. He did this for personal reasons I think because he hated the unions. They got their revenge on him by blocking his early retirement and making him slog on to the bitter end. The ASLEF officials also used their influence with the managers to make sure he was messed around as much as possible.( according to my dad’s account that is.) His shifts were constantly changed at short notice so that he didn’t know whether he was coming or coming. Retirement finally came as a huge blessing. Maurice was worn out. His 65th birthday was on a Monday and his manager kindly told him to empty his locker on the previous Friday, so he was given one day’s pay for free.
I think retirement was a big relief to Maurice. He calmed down a lot and had a more relaxed attitude to life. His temper disappeared. Although my relationship with him had improved a bit he was still much closer to my sister. Everytime I spoke to him ( and mum) they were full of stories about what Gl—- and her new husband Andy, had been doing. They owned a hotel in Skegness and my dad helped Andy modernise the place, converting the bedrooms to en-suite accommodation. Andy,unlike my brother and I, was a very handy person. He had lots of practical skills. I think dad saw Andy as the son he never had. He could relate to him a lot better than his two “namby pamby”, middle-class, vegetarian sons. ( Graham too had given up on eating animals.) Dad was still quietly supportive of me though and helped move a van load of furniture into my post- divorce flat, coming up from Derbyshire to Tyneside to do so.
And so life went on. Maurice’s new routines were nearly all centred around the chapel. He was caretaker, chief steward, a Sunday School teacher and member of the choir. When my mum hit health and mobility problems in her 70′s Dad became her official carer, even though he was 3 years her senior. He had been as fit as a fiddle for most of his life. I made more regular visits but he never really talked to me about anything personal. He was more comfortable with chit chat and kept his emotions to himself. When he did talk, he often talked at you, relating endless stories about how he, personally, solved all the problems of the railways. He has never been a very good listener or conversationalist. My parents survived another difficult period when my brother had to come back and live at home with them after his job fell through. Neither party liked this arrangement I feel and they constantly rubbed each other up the wrong way. In the 90′s mum became very ill and dad thought she was possibly going to die. He went to pieces when she was in hospital. They had had a very long, loving marriage and had grown dependent on each other. Luckily mum pulled through and they plodded on with their quiet life in Chesterfield. Mum and dad have never moved out of the town. They now live just a couple of miles from where they were born. They have also never travelled overseas except to the Isle of Wight. They have been content to have their annual holiday at a traditional English seaside resort. To me it is if they were still living in the 1950′s. Foreign package holidays and budget airlines have never figured on their restricted radar.
In his 80′s Maurice gradually got frailer. He has become more and more forgetful. ( haven’t we all?) In the second half of his 80′s his mobility started to decline. He now shuffles slowly with the aid of a stick. He has experienced various health problems mostly controlled by his daily tablets. He has warned me about getting old and told me that he doesn’t recommend it! He has developed a tremor such that his hands shake uncontrollably when he is trying to eat or drink. Drinking a hot cup of tea has become a perilous occupation! Despite all this he still manages to give his beloved wife, breakfast in bed every morning. When he got to 83 he told me that he had now lived longer than every other member of his large family. Now he has made it to 90!
As he ate his sandwiches and cakes and the whole family sang happy birthday to him he looked very pleased with himself but seemed to be only vaguely aware of what was happening. I don’t think he looks back over his long life very much, if at all. He mainly lives in the present, going from day to day. He tells me he wants to get to 102 because one of the ladies at chapel made it that grand old age. I know he gets very tired and is fed up with health and mobility problems. He still lives mostly in his own world and never reveals his private thoughts or emotions. I know if I phoned him up today and told him that I loved him his answer would almost certainly be : ” Here’s your mum.”

Teacher Bashing.

30 Oct

A couple of weeks ago I was so incensed by an article and an editorial in the Sunday Times that I decided to boycott that newspaper from now on. I’m sure this has given Rupert Murdoch a few sleepless nights – losing such a valued customer. I had been attracted in by the Times’ excellent Culture section with its first class book, film, TV and music reviews. However politics and especially education trump all that lot. The Sunday Times’ big mistake, in my eyes, was to attack the teacher unions’ fight against the dismantling of national pay bargaining and support the Tory government policy of “Payment by Results.” That particular week saw teachers’ strikes in defence of their: pay-bargaining rights, pensions and working conditions, coincide with the publication of World Literacy league tables which revealed Britain languishing in a lowly 18th position. It was a godsend for the newspapers and the politicians. Forgetting the important adage that a correlation is not necessarily a cause, they linked the two events together. Surely it was the irresponsible teachers who were to blame for Britain’s comparatively poor performance? It was a golden opportunity for another round of teacher bashing. Thus, a lazy editorial in the Sunday Times commented that the National Union of Teachers should be getting its members to improve literacy levels instead of encouraging them to go out on strike. The journalist, who has probably never entered a classroom since he or she was a pupil, failed to grasp that the strikes of the NUT and the NAS/UWT were actually an attempt to defend and protect the education system rather than harm it.
Our children’s education is often recklessly used as a political football. I think that schools, like the judiciary, should be independent of political interference but unfortunately this is not so. Both the main political parties have constantly meddled with the education system in the name of raising standards. Some new policies have been good but the constant chopping and changing has been bad for school pupils as the biggest thing they need in consistency. This we have not had because of the frequent changes of policy brought in by a series of constantly reshuffled Education Secretaries. Students also need good quality teaching of course but this is under severe threat at the moment because teacher morale has hit rock bottom. I was a teacher for 34 years and understand the terrible stresses and strains of the job. It wears you down; burns you out. The job of educating and socialising children and young people of all ages and abilities, plus a whole range of backgrounds, is difficult enough as it is. However to have the government criticising your efforts and attacking your pay and conditions, plus your long established pension arrangements, can make the situation extremely stressful, if not intolerable, for many.
Teachers used to be respected and valued for the crucial job they did for the whole of society. Now, with successive governments undermining them supported by the largely right wing press, the status of teachers has plummeted. A lot of this started in the 1980′s when I was still in the classroom. The Thatcher governments imposed a series of very low pay agreements or pay freezes, and did not allow the teaching unions to take part in any negotiations. Teachers were effectively de-unionised and largely left at the mercy of the employer. This was all accompanied by a prolonged bout of “teacher bashing” in the media. This period also saw the introduction of increased working hours at the whim of the headteacher. Parents’ Evenings, for example, which had previously been voluntary, tagged on to the end of an already busy working day, now became compulsory. The same happened with training. The Secretary of State, Kenneth Baker, forced teachers to work 5 extra days a year for no extra pay. These in-service training days or “Baker Days” as they were dubbed were deeply resented. In effect they forced teachers to work a whole extra school week for free. What other profession would have put up with that?
On top of all this, the Thatcher government decreased the power of the Local Education Authorities and increased their own hold over individual schools by giving each school control of its own finances. It centralised power and made it easier for the Government to directly control what was happening in schools without a locally elected LEA interfering. It was a classic case of divide and rule. Before, all schools had worked cooperatively under the leadership and guidance of the elected local authority; now schools were encouraged to compete with each other for pupils, each of whom represented a significant sum of money towards their budgets. The introduction of competitive league tables cemented this new arrangement of competition rather than cooperation. It was as if our education system had been reduced to the arrangements suitable for football. The press loved all this of course, gleefully publishing the tables and shining the light on the schools who were at the bottom. Little allowance was made for the fact that some schools were in deprived areas with lots of social problems.
The situation improved considerably under the Labour Governments of Tony Blair. Afterall his stated priority was “Education. Education. Education.” Teachers who passed a series of competence tests were awarded a significant pay rise. This made up a little for all the years when they had been falling behind the other professions. The National Curriculum ( introduced by the Conservatives) was revised and big efforts made to improve literacy and numeracy levels. The inspection regime run by OFSTED, although hated by many teachers, also drove up standards and stamped out complacency.
Now however it’s back to teacher bashing. They have been told that they will have to work longer for their pensions, make larger contributions and get less in the end. It’s a triple whammy for teachers. It’s moving the goalposts near the end of the game for all those teaching staff in their 50′s. It must feel like a kick in the teeth. I was lucky as I was able to retire and get my pension just before the new rules came into force. However that does not stop me from sympathising with my slightly younger colleagues. Then came the much trumpeted Academy system, introduced by Labour and accelerated by the Tory/ Lib Dem Coalition. This is simply a way of privatising education. Private businesses are invited to form consortiums to run schools which are then taken out of Local Authority control. The government saves money by attracting private capital into education. But why would private businesses want to run a school? The answer somewhere along the line is in order to make a profit. The same sad thing is happening to our beloved National Health Service. It’s privatisation by stealth of an organisation which is vital for the nation’s welfare. Do we really want individuals and organisations trying to make a profit out of our children’s education? How can that education remain fair and balanced?
The first thing many Academies have done is sack or reduce the pay of many of the teaching and support staff. Why would they want to do this? The answer is to save money of course. I was shocked to find out that Academies can set their own pay rates and establish their own terms and conditions. In other words they are outside any nationally agreed system and beyond the control of the democratically elected local authority. I still work at a local secondary school as a part-time, examination invigilator. Two years ago it was turned into an academy, partly persuaded by large government financial inducements. At the end of the summer term prior to the reorganisation into an academy, 38 staff were sacked! Usually the end of the academic year is a cause for relaxation and celebration but on this occasion many long- term staff were in tears. Later in the year some of these same people were re-employed, doing the same job but on reduced pay and on a temporary contract! Academies are a law unto themselves.
So many teachers are demoralised and at a very low ebb. Their main support, the teaching unions are being side-tracked by the new system. National pay bargaining to negotiate a fair pay structure for all teachers has now been virtually scrapped. There has been talk of paying teachers in one area more money that teachers doing exactly the same job in other area. This is in order to tackle the problem of teacher shortages in areas such as London. It sounds a reasonable way to solve a serious problem but it is also very divisive and demoralising for many of the teaching profession. It’s the same old tactic — divide and conquer.
Finally, we now have the introduction of Payment by Results. We had this system in the 19th centuries and it was generally discredited and abandoned. Now it is back and seems to have been mostly welcomed by the public. That is why, the new shadow Education spokesperson, Tristram Hunt, has come out in support of the idea. His party does not want to do anything to jeopardize its chances of getting re-elected. It sounds, at first to be a perfectly reasonable and good idea. What is wrong with rewarding good teachers and punishing the bad ones? Surely this would quickly lead to the weeding out of incompetent teachers from our schools. However, I don’t think it is as simple and straightforward as it first seems. It’s easy to play the blame game and pin the responsibility for our under-achieving pupils on individual teachers rather than on government interference. Isn’t this just another crude example of divide and rule? Instead of everyone in education working together for the benefit of the pupils and of the country as a whole, we now have the terrible situation of school fighting school and teacher fighting teacher. It’s ruthless competition rather than constructive cooperation.
I think underperforming teachers should be supported, retrained, encouraged and helped instead of being castigated and punished. What happened to the idea of being in a team? How can results be a determination of pay when there are so many variables in the situation. The performance of a teacher depends on what area he/she operates in, what school he/she is in, how effective the Head and senior management are and most importently- the abilities, aptitudes and attitudes of the pupils. A teacher can be a great motivator and skilled communicator but there are still many factors outside his/her control that can determine his/her results.
Then there is the question of Headteacher subjectivity. The whole system seems to depend on the Head being able to identify the good and bad teachers. Heads are only human and, in my experience, are not always fair. Some Heads have their favourites. Staff who challenge or criticise them will go down the pecking order when it comes to dishing out the financial rewards. I have seen this happen in my career. Staff who toe the line, support the Head uncritically and even worship the ground that he/she stands on, tend to get promoted. We used to call them “boot-lickers.” I’m sure you’ve heard the term before. Alternatively staff who disagree with the head’s policies and pose a threat to his/her authority , have tended to have their career side-lined or have even been forced out of the school. The system of payment by results will obviously increase the powers of the Heads over the careers and lives of their staff. To me it sounds like a possible recipe for dictatorship.
So I’m not going to read the Sunday Times any more. I don’t intend to vote for Conservative or Labour or any party that supports payment by results, Academies and privatisation of education. ( and I’ve not even mentioned the latest gimmick — the so called “Free Schools.”) I seem to have painted myself into a corner. As with many subjects, I seem to be in a minority. But I wanted to speak up for my much maligned ex-colleagues, the teachers and their support staff. At the moment the politicians supported by much of the press, are bashing them into a pulp. Demoralising, dividing and financially punishing our hard working teaching profession is not the way to improve educational standards.


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