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.”
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!
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.
Back in the 1950′s, when I was still in short trousers, my parents took my sister and I on a magical stroll through an enchanting glen. We wandered, open-mouthed, through a tiny, picturesque gorge. It was clothed in luxuriant vegetation and had a charming stream gurgling through it, crossed by little stone, curving bridges. At its head the gorge was crowned by a narrow, plunging waterfall. It was a lovely spot but what made it so special for us kids was that the whole place was festooned with twinkling, coloured fairy lights. It was like enjoying Christmas on a balmy summer’s evening. We loved it!
The place that generated such heart-warming memories was Shanklin Chine on the Isle of Wight. We visited several chines — mossy, fern covered ravines that tumbled down to the sea. We collected shells with paintings of them from the souvenir stalls. The chines were an extra treat on top of our usual seaside holiday delights of: sand castle building, donkey rides, paddling in the sea and licking ice creams. Our family spent several of our annual holidays on the Isle of Wight, famed for its sandy beaches, chalk cliffs and mild climate. It was an exciting adventure — catching the boat from Portsmouth, crossing the busy Solent, then being picked up by a little steam train that chugged its way down the east side of the island to the resorts of Shanklin and Sandown where we stayed. Even in the 50′s , a visit to the Isle of Wight was like travelling back in time. Everything seemed to be quieter, smaller and more relaxed than on the mainland. The pace of life was slower.
There’s something about islands that stirs the imagination. To some, an island stands for “purity” — a place untainted by “reality”. To others it stands for “escape” — a trip away from the stresses and strains of normal life. No wonder islands are so often associated with holidays. Surrounded and protected by sea, they are somehow detached from the problems and worries of everyday existence. I think that although it is only a 30 to 40 minute ferry ride from the mainland, the Isle of Wight still retains some of this aura. Once the boat slips its moorings one can almost feel one’s troubles being left behind on the receding shore. It’s as if the traveller is escaping to a different world.
I’ve recently returned to the island after a 50 year gap because my mother-in-law has retired there. I would like to say that nothing much has changed but of course it has. The little Thomas the Tank engines have been replaced by old London Underground trains. They look very incongruous in the green, gently rolling countryside. The twisty narrow roads ( basically country lanes) are now often choked with cars and coaches, making travel in some parts of the island, slow and tedious. 30 mph is a good speed on the island and a car journey is often a bumpy, uncomfortable experience as many roads are poorly maintained and frequently dug up. They are unsuitable for large coaches but these still pile off the ferries in their droves bringing fresh loads of mostly older tourists. Some of these visitors decide to stay and spend their later years here. Many hotels have morphed into retirement homes as a result.
I can see why the island is still so popular. It has quite a lot of places that can be described as quaint or twee. I think another phrase is “picture postcard.” They represent an older England that still lingers on in the memory. They are like a reminder of what England used to be like ( at least in our rose-coloured imaginations), before the frantic rush of the modern age. Ironically, tourists, in flocking to these places that represent a bygone era, end up destroying the very thing they have come to experience. For instance, Godshill, a beautiful old village with an ensemble of thatched cottages clustered round an ancient church, is now dominated by a very large car and coach park and has spawned a rash of tourist “attractions” such as souvenir shops, cafes, an old smithy and even a miniature village. Coach companies nearly always include it on their island tour itinerary so that, in summer especially, the locals are totally swamped by the visitors.
When we arrived at Godshill one lunchtime, there was already a nearly full car park which included 5 large coaches. While there, 2 more coaches arrived, decanting 40 to 50 people at a time to wander round what used to be a little quiet village. We had to queue for our tea and scones. It serves us right for deciding to visit one of the island’s mass tourism “honey pots” The village down the road was very quiet. Places such as Godshill have to be careful as they are in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
The Isle of Wight still has pretty countryside, charming villages and interesting sights. Its south coast features spectacular chalk cliff scenery and has a wilder, more remote feel to it as there are less settlements.( and tourists.) I particularly enjoyed visiting Dimbola Lodge at Freshwater Bay in the south west. It’s an interesting museum created from the former home and studio of a pioneer photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. She was part of Victorian high society and was a neighbour and friend of Alfred Lord Tennyson. Other visitors were her great nieces: Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, along with luminaries such as Charles Darwin and Lewis Carroll. Her early black and white portraits make a fascinating exhibition. I also liked Brading Roman Museum on the eastern side of the island. It has excellent mosaics. Carisbrooke Castle in Newport, in the centre, is another impressive and enjoyable destination. It features lots of stuff about King Charles I as he was imprisoned there after losing the Civil War.
I’ve also walked over the wonderfully bracing Tennyson Downs from Freshwater Bay to the Needles and Alum Bay. I did try to drive to the Needles, a famous series of pointed chalk stacks, but got stuck in an endless traffic jam, much to my initial surprise. The tiny country road couldn’t cope with the huge volume of traffic. It was almost like the M1! The reason for this was because what had been a lovely, quiet area has now been turned into The Needles Pleasure Park, complete with: fairground amusements, a glass studio, a cable car ride, boat trips and of course a very large car/coach park. What a travesty! I believe the same sort of crass commercialism has taken over Land’s End on the tip of Cornwall.
As with most places, the IOW has a mix of good and not so good.( in my opinion.) Some places have been spoilt while others are well preserved. Tourism is still a major source of income and the island has done all it can to keep the punters rolling in. It’s only 23 miles long at its widest point but that has not stopped it from packing in a whole raft of attractions for people to visit. What other tiny patch of Britain features a: Pearl centre, military museum, zoo, Garlic Museum, Tiger and Big Cat Centre, Roman villa, castle, Victorian Royal palace, botanical gardens, arts and craft centres, smuggling museum, glass centre, waxwork museum, miniature village, steam railway and the aforementioned chines?
So, returning to the Isle of Wight has been a mixed experience for me. Fond childhood memories have been reignited and new, interesting destinations discovered. I wandered up Shanklin Chine again, this time stripped of my rose-coloured glasses. It is still a nice spot with a very good tea shop, but on a damp autumn day and with no fairy lights, it had last much of its magic. The island is pleasant rather than spectacular despite the hyperbole in the holiday brochures. It still has a staid, old fashioned air and a slower pace of life, which is appealing to many. The Rough Guide describes it as “desperately unadventurous” which sound damning, but a “safe”, familiar destination is very attractive to the large numbers who are not addicted to thrills and spills and have no desire to have their senses assaulted by culture shock. The IOW is particularly attractive if you are a fan of Victoriana. Queen Victoria loved the place. She may have been Empress of India but preferred the Isle of Wight. After the premature death of Prince Albert, she took up permanent residence at Osborne House near Cowes.
It’s still a mini adventure catching the ferry from Portsmouth or Southampton — a trip overseas without needing a passport. I’m pleased I have had the excuse to recently return to a beloved childhood haunt. Being able to mix the past with the present has added an extra dimension to my excursion. It has been a neat and enjoyable way of linking up my childhood with my retirement years.
Next year, 2014, we will be commemorating the centenary of the First World War. Most commentators agree that it was a terrible waste of millions of lives on both sides of the conflict. It was war on an unprecedented industrial scale. Some claim, with justification that the mass slaughter and destruction that ensued was nothing less than a catastrophe.
One would think that after such a horrific event, lessons would have been learnt and the powers that be would have made sure that it was never repeated. After all, wasn’t this supposed to be “the war to end all wars”? Yet the League of Nations failed in it’s efforts to replace fighting with talking, and just 20 years after the treaty that ended the First World War, the Second World War broke out. It was really the First World War, part 2, as the losers of the first conflict sought to get their own back on the winners and alleviate their grievances. If it had been on the big screen ( as it was many times, later), World War 2 would have had all the ingredients of a classic revenge movie. So, another nightmare ensued with millions more lives wasted in the new slaughter and all that capped by the horrors of the Holocaust, the genocide of 6 million Jews in the Nazi Concentration camps.
Surely this double dose of death and suffering would have put the human race off war for ever? Unfortunately, surprisingly and shockingly, the wars have kept coming. The United Nations has proved just as weak and ineffective as its predecessor the League in preventing conflict and preserving peace. What is wrong with people? Why is brutality and murder still seen as the main “solution” to our problems and disputes, rather than negotiation and arbitration? I hate to suggest this, but could it be that instead of abhorring and denouncing violence, many of us are actually fascinated, or even mesmerised by it?
Even a casual look at our entertainment industry reveals that much of it is steeped in violence. I don’t play video games but cannot help noticing that many of them involve simulated killing. This industry generated sales of £42billion in 2012, and many of its games are based on violent scenarios where one is: at war, committing a crime or hunting down criminals. New releases of such games often attract massive, midnight queues. “Grand Theft Auto V” for instance, sold £500 million worth of copies in one day, vindicating one reviewers confident prediction that ” this game will sell by the blood-filled bucket load.” I don’t know about you, but I find this very depressing. The player, poising as a ruthless criminal, has to execute up to 6 large, armed heists employing: “melee attacks” ( whatever they are), firearms, weapons and explosives to fight enemies. The names of other popular games — “Call of Duty”, “Killzone” and “Battlefield” — reveal their violent and warlike content. Not much recollection of the tragedy of war here. I wonder if any of the players pause, in the midst of their simulated killing spree, to reflect on the mass slaughter and suffering of the two World Wars or their successors in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, the Congo and the rest?
The American Psychological Association has concluded that violent video games are significantly associated with “increased aggressive behaviour and thoughts.” Critics claim that they desensitise players to violence, reward players for simulating violence and teach children that violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflict. They seem to have a very strong case. Those who defend the games say they are an important safety valve for natural aggression. However, even this argument seems to admit that violence is an inherent part of human nature and the debate is about how we deal with it.
The video games industry boasts that it is eclipsing the cinema in terms of revenue and participation figures. Cinema in turn seems to be aping the violent nature of its rival. Increasingly we are presented with so-called “Blockbusters.” Plot, proper characterisation, meaningful dialogue and good acting are sacrificed to make way for: fights, battles, murders, car chases and explosions on an increasingly epic scale. Steven Spielberg has recently complained that subtlety and sophistication in film making is giving way to spectacle and action as Hollywood courts the popularity of video games. Modern film makers often present violence as an acceptable and “normal” form of entertainment. The James Bond franchise ( now little to do with Ian Fleming), is a prime example of this trend. I remember one reviewer commenting with apparent approval, that in “Casino Royale”, a film praised for its more gritty realism, Bond ( Daniel Craig) has to change his white tuxedo after the killing spree of the opening scene, because it is drenched in blood. I am repelled by such films especially as they are presented as light, “escapist” entertainment. I don’t mind violence when it is presented in a proper context and in a film trying to get across a serious message such as “Schindler’s List”. However as far as the Bond Films, the “Die-hard” films, the Jack Reacher films and the rest, I am in the minority by a long way, judging by their takings at the box office.
One notable director, famous for his use of violence as entertainment is Quenton Tarantino. His last film ” Django Unchained”, highly praised as presenting a new angle on the subject of slavery in America, is largely about a black, bounty hunter murdering one person after another in graphic detail on the big screen. One reviewer noted that whenever Django had a problem, he solved it by killing someone. What type of message does that give out to impressionable young people? This film was watched and enjoyed by millions and was actually nominated for an Oscar. It seems that acts of violence, so terrible when they occur in real life, are accepted on screen as an entertaining diversion.
I went to see a Tarantino film once. In the 1990′s his “Reservoir Dogs” was regarded as a cult movie, constantly brought back to my local arts cinema in Newcastle by popular request, and playing to packed houses. It’s about an armed bank robbery that goes horribly wrong. I got carried away by all the hype and went along to find out what all the fuss was about. After about half an hour I started to experience an increasingly loud buzzing sound in my ears. I had a dry feeling in the back of my throat and then began to feel nauseous. I could then hear my heart thudding loudly. This was my body’s reaction to the sickening scene of drawn-out sadism that was happening in front of me. Nobody else seemed to be affected — they all carried on eating their crisps or passing around the sweet packets, while at the same time being glued to the screen. I had already endured a robber half bleeding to death but now I was witnessing a tense and nasty torture scene. A policeman had been captured and tied up in a chair. He was now being threatened and taunted by a psychopath wielding a long cut-throat razor, who was apparently preparing to slice off his ear. I never found out what happened, because, unable to stand it any longer, I walked out. I’d decided that such bloodthirsty sadism was not my idea of a Saturday night’s entertainment. However, the rest of the audience remained engrossed and I later got into trouble with my girlfriend for spoiling her evening!
I remember the uproar caused by the shockingly violent climax of Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” in the late 1960′s. The protagonists are strafed with a prolonged burst of machine gun fire. We see bullets ripping into their flesh in horrific slow motion and their bodies contorting into grotesque shapes. Many people walked out, some were sick and many others protested or boycotted it. I watched what was actually a very good film in my opinion, and survived the ending even though it was pretty shocking. Other films of the late 60′s and early 70′s such as “The Wild Bunch”, “Straw Dogs” and “Soldier Blue” all courted controversy because of their scenes of extreme violence. They were generally seen by film critics though, as signs of a welcome relaxation of censorship. This time the reviews were enough to warn me off. It was not my idea of enjoyment. Another famously violent film of that era was Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”, based on the novel by Anthony Burgess. It was actually withdrawn from public release by the director himself because of all the controversy. I watched it at the time and stuck it out as I knew it had a serious message to transmit. However, I recall being disturbed by the scene of a violent gang of youths stylistically beating up an old couple in their own home to the music of Beethovan. I also remember a tramp being savagely beaten. I don’t think the more sensitive, older version of myself would enjoy watching such scenes today.
Well, over 50 years has passed since those controversies, and graphic horror and violence on the big screen is now commonplace. It’s almost regarded as “normal”. Audiences don’t walk out. Nobody is sick in the aisle. Violence has now become a staple of mainstream, cinematic entertainment. Describing what he considered to be a funny scene in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” ( Jewish hit men hunting down and killing Nazis), a friend of mine concluded with the phrase:” and then the usual mayhem broke out.” What he meant was a horrifying scene ensued, in which we see people being maimed and murdered. He was so casual about this that I realised that violence is not only accepted but expected these days. Audiences feel short-changed if it doesn’t occur. They should have been pleased with this one as I believe Tarantino appeared in it himself — as a scalped Nazi!
I am not trying to claim that violence on film or in a video game necessarily leads to violent behaviour in real life, although I believe there is a distinct possibility of such a cross-over. All I’m trying to highlight is the massive irony: that society condemns loss of life in wars, terrorist attacks or mass shootings by “lone gunmen”, yet, simultaneously laps- up similar scenes of carnage and brutality as a form of light relief.
In literature and television we get more, much more of the same. The British public seem to have an insatiable desire for murder mysteries both on the page and on the screen. Crime novels, often including gruesome murders, make up a huge and extremely popular genre of literature. Every bookshop has a large dedicated section to it. Writers of murder mysteries such as: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, P D James, Ruth Rendall, Ellery Queen, Ian Rankin and many others, entertain their readers with their idiosyncratic detectives, convoluted plots, lists of colourful suspects, red herrings and puzzling clues. They vary enormously but the one sure thing in all of these novels is that there will be a murder ( or murders) in their early chapters. Imagine how disappointed their fans would be if no character was killed! The message here is that murders are fun, providing a rich source of pleasure and distraction.
TV programmes, such as “Murder She Wrote” and “Midsomer Murders” have capitalised on the popularity of these whodunnits and reproduced them on screen. I have watched some myself such as Peter Falk’s shambling detective “Columbo” and the Danish crime thriller “The Killing”. I’m not trying to claim the moral high ground here. I often get sucked in. But I’m unable to stomach one after the other. There is even a best-selling board game “Cluedo” ( which I have played many times), which is structured around an Agatha Christie-style country house murder. I wonder how many children playing “Cluedo” actually imagine crushing Miss Scarlett’s skull with the lead piping or stabbing Colonel Mustard in the back? It’s all good “fun” but it’s underpinned by the premise of violence.
I’ve lost count of the number of murder mysteries that have appeared on the British TV screens just this year. Some such as “New Tricks” ( currently BBC 1′s most popular programme), are fairly superficial with the actual violence sanitised or edited out. Others make a point of revelling in the horror, the terror and the shocking details of the murder. In recent months, audiences have been treated to: a serial killer in Northern Ireland sadistically taunting his victims as well as the police ( “The Fall”), an investigation into a dead, desiccated woman who had been left mouldering in an attic for 2 years ( “What Remains”), a man stabbed to death in a dark alley outside a Newcastle night club ( “Vera”), another deranged serial killer terrorising a seaside town ( “Whitecliffe”), a town torn apart by the murder of a teenager ( “Broadchurch”) and so on and so forth. The list is endless. There is even a dedicated TV channel to murder mysteries — “Alibi.” It presents around 19 murders a day, 7 days a week. Where has this voracious appetite for death come from? I have no answer, except to say that human beings are clearly a very violent species, much as they pretend not to be. History shows this very clearly.
Our past is dominated by wars, executions, murders and torture. You don’t need me to list them all. Just recently we have all been rightly appalled by : The Boston Marathon Bombing, the American School shootings and the Kenyan shopping- mall massacre. Yet similar violence is endemic in mainstream entertainment. This entertainment factor is not a new phenomenon. Until about 1870, crowds gathered on London’s Tyburn Hill to watch and revel in public executions. It was possibly when state killings stopped taking place in public, that lurid crime stories in pamphlets and novels began to become very popular. People didn’t want to be denied their regular dose of blood and death. In an earlier age King Charles I was beheaded before a vast crowd in front of Whitehall Palace. ( in January, 1649.) As the gory, severed head of the former king was held up, many surged forward to dip their handkerchiefs in royal blood in order to have a souvenir.
Yes, history saturated in blood but so, sadly is our world of entertainment. Watching the occasional good quality crime drama is fine of course, but I think this constant, relentless obsession with violence and death is pretty disturbing. I certainly don’t regard it as normal. Why do so many people regard murder as fun?
The southern approach to Dundee is dramatic. Scotland’s fourth city straddles the north bank of the mighty Firth of Tay. My train from Edinburgh, after pottering through the gentle hills of Fife, was suddenly confronted with a huge expanse of water. To get to the city on the far bank we had to cross a long, slightly precarious looking metal bridge over 130 years old.
As I gazed out over the grey, choppy waters, I couldn’t help thinking of the terrifying event that overtook nearly a hundred luckless people at this very spot in the winter of 1879. The first Tay Rail bridge, the predecessor of the one I was now on, had collapsed in a fierce storm taking a whole train with it. It plunged into the deep, cold waters claiming the lives of its crew and 75 passengers. It was the night of December 28th, 1879. The bridge, initially hailed as a great engineering triumph, had only been standing for 18 months. It was a terrible accident that sent shock waves through the nation. Although I crossed the Tay on a calm late summer’s day, I couldn’t help thinking of that tragic event 134 years earlier and all the people who perished. What would it have been like to have been plunged into the depths of those freezing waters? However, as I looked around at my fellow passengers, playing with their I-phones, listening to their music or reaching for their luggage, I don’t suppose any of them gave this historical tragedy even a moment’s thought. I suppose it’s a History teacher’s thing — to be constantly tangling with ghosts from the past. It adds an extra dimension to travel, even though it leads to the occasional chill down the spine.
The long bridge started to curve to the right as we neared the far shore and the city came into close view. The estuary I had just traversed may have brought tragedy but its waters have also been the basis of Dundee’s success as a city and a port. In the 19th century the quayside was a hive of activity. Ships constantly came and went, bringing raw materials from the Empire and exporting the finished products around the world from the city’s thriving factories. Shipyards were constantly busy and Dundee’s whaling fleet was the largest and most successful in Britain.
Now all these traditional industries have declined and died, and the buzz-word in the city is “regeneration.” Like Glasgow before it, Dundee is trying to rise, phoenix-like from the ashes of its past and re-invent itself as a cultural, tourist and technological centre. So, in this, my first visit, I was too late to see much of the old Dundee. It has been demolished! Stepping out of the railway station, I was greeted with the groaning of bull-dozers and earth-movers and the sight of mountains of rubble. Bright, optimistic hoardings advertised the glittering Dundee water-front of the future, but I couldn’t help thinking of those ghosts again. Who had worked or lived in the buildings that were now reduced to piles of bricks? What would it have been like to stand on this spot a century ago — to see a ship being launched into the river, or bales of Bengal jute being carted off to the waiting mills or to witness the sad sight of a slaughtered whale being towed in like a huge, inert island of blubber? All this has now gone, disappeared into dust.
I negotiated the ring road and dragged my case up towards what survives of the old city centre, leaving the dust and din behind. Quite a lot remains of the Victorian city thank goodness. Some streets have been demolished to make way for bland shopping malls ( I counted about 3 large ones) but numerous proud, stone built churches, shops, tenements and offices remain. In a way it was like a smaller version of Glasgow, with it’s fine Victorian heritage. In these streets I would find the answers to a list of intriguing questions. Why had this place been called “She-Town”? What were the “Three J’s”? Why were many older female Dundonians deaf or hard of hearing? Why were many citizens of Dundee born in Calcutta? Why was there a statue of Desperate Dan on the edge of the city’s main square? Why are there statues of penguins in at least two prominent locations? Finally, why has this initially dour place been breathlessly dubbed “City of Discovery”?
The last two questions are the easiest to answer. As soon as you exit the railway station you see signs for “The Discovery” Just one minute away, in its own dry dock, is Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Polar research ship “SS Discovery” It’s a handsome, 3-masted, steam-assisted vessel built in Dundee in 1901 to take Scott and his men to the Antarctic. The research trip was sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society. Dundee was chosen to build the ship because of its experience in building whalers that had sailed to the far reaches of the freezing southern Atlantic Ocean. Scott and his men were later to perish in a later expedition ( in 1908 I think) in the Dundee whaler “Terra Nova”. They tragically died on the walk back from the South Pole after losing the race to the Norwegian explorer Amundson. However the earlier 2 year trip on Discovery in 1901-02 was a big success despite the ship being trapped in the crushing ice during the Antarctic winter when temperatures plummeted to -28 degrees C on board. After several later incarnations “Discovery” became a training ship on the Thames before being restored to how it was in the 1920′s and returning to the city where it was built. It is now the standard bearer of Dundee’s attempted renaissance. Alongside it, on Discovery Point is an excellent and absorbing interpretation centre, its entrance flanked by penguins and a large photo of Captain Scott. A visit, although chilling in more ways than one, is a fascinating and worthwhile experience. Models, paintings and haunting black and white photos from the expedition transport one to that far away time and far away place. It was back to the spirits of the past.
The other main reason for my visit to Dundee was to visit the Verdant Works, a museum created out of an original 19th century Jute mill. Jute is one of the aforementioned “Three J’s” that put Dundee on the map in the hey-day of the British Empire. It is a natural textile, cheap to produce, stronger and more versatile than cotton. The manufacture of Jute products such as: sacking, rope, sail-cloth, boot linings, carpets, tents, sand bags, roofing felts etc., were to bring great prosperity to Dundee in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As the main centre of Jute manufacture in the world, Dundee gained one of its nicknames : “Juteopolis”.
The city was already heavily involved in linen weaving. It had the ship yards to build the big, fast ships that brought the jute fibre from India. The final ingredient was provided by the whaling fleet. Whale oil was vital for softening the hard, dry fibres and making them workable. This combination was the basis of Jute’s success in this Scottish city. On top of this were the world markets for jute products that were opening up all the time and made reachable by Dundee’s large fleet of merchant ships. The city became the jute capital of the world. The first bales arrived at Dundee’s quay in 1820. By 1883, over 1 million bales were being unloaded. At the end of Victoria’s reign there were over 100 Jute mills employing 50,000 people. Fortunes were made by the mill owners or “Jute Barons”, whose luxury mansions now line Perth Road to the west and Broughty Ferry, the seaside resort to the east.
However, as in many industrial revolution towns, the contrast between the lives of the factory owners and their workers was stark and vast. Work in the jute mills was: noisy, dangerous and tedious. Hours were long and wages very low. Most of the mill workers were women and children because they cost less to employ. Many men stayed at home while their wives went out to work. This gave rise to Dundee’s other nickname — ” She Town.” It also explains why many older women in the city are partially deaf. It’s due to the incredible din from the machines which they had to endure day after day, year after year. Lily, a guide at the museum, who had worked in the mill for 20 years, told me that she and her fellow workers had to communicate through sign language because the clattering machine noise made it impossible to hear anyone speak. She put a machine on to demonstrate. It was deafening. Her eyes glazed over with nostalgia as she talked about her former colleagues and her diseased husband who had also worked at the mill. She seemed more comfortable talking about the past, even though it had been difficult, and admitted to feeling nervous about the modern world with its constantly changing gadgetry. As we talked about times gone by, we were back amongst the ghosts.
Dundee’s jute industry finally fell victim to competition from India itself and later Bangladesh. Costs on the Indian sub-Continent were much lower, so Dundee had the proverbial rug pulled from underneath its feet. Ironically the Indian jute industry was set up by Dundonian engineers and mill managers, lured out there by the higher standard of living that being part of the Raj offered. I listened to recordings of Dundee people who had grown up in Calcutta. It was a privileged life with servants, polo matches and Bridge clubs. Life was hierarchical with women being judged by how high up their husbands were on the management ladder. It was strange standing there in the early 21st century, listening to these distant echoes of the Empire. This is why so many Dundonians have such close connections to Calcutta. By 1900, Calcutta had overtaken Dundee as the World’s largest jute manufacturer.
I stayed room-only in a hotel converted from a wealthy Jute-Baron’s mansion. Every morning I would stroll down Perth Road and have a relaxing breakfast at the “Express-Oh!” café. I ordered porridge of course because I was in Scotland. This was followed by toasted soda bread with Dundee jam or marmalade, washed down with coffee and a free, fresh orange juice. Jam is another of the city’s famous “3 J’s”, but it’s actually marmalade that is the city’s main claim to fame. Marmalade is supposed to have been invented there in the 18th century, although some claim that earlier recipes existed in the 1500′s.
The story goes roughly like this. It all started by chance in the year 1700. A grocer and cake shop owner called James Keiller came across a Spanish ship that had taken refuge from a storm in Dundee harbour. On board was a large cargo of Seville oranges, which Keiller bought large quantities of at a knock-down price. However their bitter taste meant he was unable to sell them, so his wife Janet, came to the rescue by boiling them up with sugar in copper pots to make jars of preserve. She had previously used quinces. The result, the first marmalade, was so popular that the Keillers started putting in regular orders for Seville oranges. Several generations later, in 1797,another Janet Keiller and her son, another James, felt confident enough to build the world’s first marmalade factory. Keiller’s jam and marmalade is no longer manufactured but another local firm, Mackays, still makes the marmalade with more or less the original recipe. This is what found its way to my breakfast table.
The final J is Journalism. The publishing firm D C Thomson still produces hundreds of comics, magazines and independent Scottish newspapers from their HQ in Dundee. This is why Desperate Dan, probably the Dandy’s most famous cartoon character, still strides forth along the top of City Square, hotly pursued by a catapult- wielding Minnie the Minx. It’s a magnet for camera touting tourists and took me back to my childhood in the 1950′s and 60′s when I was an avid reader of the Dandy and the Beano. So this was yet another nostalgic trip — this time into my own personal history.
The “3 J’s” and Scott of the Antarctic make Dundee an interesting place for a city break, especially if you’re a history buff like me. Its grand Victorian architecture and picturesque waterside location add to its attractions. I also enjoyed the foreign films at the arts centre ( the DCA), the football screened in the pubs ( I didn’t have time to visit either of Dundee’s 2 major football grounds) and the haunting, atmospheric old graveyard, The Howff. It made a memorable visit, discovering the heritage of “She Town” now rebranded as the “City of Discovery.”
I have just been on holiday on my own — to Dundee. How bizarre is that? Most holiday images consist of happy couples walking along sunny beaches or families enjoying themselves in a sparkling blue sea. I’ve never seen a holiday brochure depicting a solitary older man wandering round a declining industrial city on the banks of the grey Tay estuary. I’m pleased that I’ve done this however, because I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of a mould breaker.
How did this unusual vacation come about? My wife, Chris, was away in Italy for a month, supporting her daughter who has recently had a baby out there. The friend whom I originally planned to go on this trip with was unfortunately not well enough to travel. I could have cancelled it and forfeited the money but that would have been a waste and I would only have been home alone anyway, twiddling my thumbs. So I decided to go for it, taking myself as my only travel companion. At least there weren’t any disagreements about what to do or where to eat. Also, I didn’t have to spend sizeable chunks of “boring” time waiting outside shops while Chris trawled through their contents. In fact, despite the initial strangeness, I found the whole experience enjoyable and relaxing. I made my own plans, set my own pace and changed my mind whenever I felt like it. It was very liberating.
I remember a school assembly talk delivered by a former teaching colleague, in which she set out to distinguish between being ” alone” and being “lonely.” It’s all a matter of attitude and choice. Loneliness occurs when one is alone but has not chosen to be. Having the solitary state forced upon you can be dispiriting and depressing. Human beings are generally sociable animals enjoying the company of others. It’s nice to share an experience, to exchange views, to be stimulated by the presence of another person. Then there is the social stigma of being on one’s own. If I was alone in a social setting like a restaurant or a pub, would the other people be talking about me behind my back or even pitying me? Would they assume that I was a sad, “Billy no mates.” Being alone in a crowd can be a very lonely experience when everyone else seems to have a friend or acquaintance to chat to and you have no-one. It could lead to one becoming an object of pity.
However, if one CHOOSES to be alone, then the idea of “loneliness” is banished and all the advantages of that situation come to the fore. It’s good to have personal space. It’s liberating to have complete freedom of choice. It’s nice to have the time to be able to reflect rather than being constantly interrupted by someone else’s chatter.( enjoyable as that may be.) So the very act of choosing to be alone flips everything into reverse and can be an extremely positive experience.
A former partner of mine chose to holiday alone in The Orkneys. All her previous holidays had been with her former-husband who she had just split up from. It was as if she now wanted to prove herself to be a whole individual instead of merely being half of a couple. This was just before she met me. She drove all the way through Scotland on her own, caught the boat from Caithness and camped alone in Stromness. People commented on how brave she was. I think that by choosing to holiday alone my friend wanted to demonstrate her independence and at the same time, strike a blow for feminism. Until this recent trip I have never had the guts to copy her.
Travelling alone means that one is more likely to strike up a conversation with a stranger. A single person is more approachable than a couple or a family group, who just tend to talk to each other and form a barrier to outsiders. Wandering around Dundee, I didn’t exactly set the city alight with my electrifying conversational skills but I did have a little chat with the young man who sold me my ticket at Discovery Point ( where Captain Scott’s Antarctic research ship, “The Discovery”, is moored). We talked about the forthcoming Glasgow Commonwealth Games ( in 2014.) and the scheduled Referendum about Independence for Scotland. On the same day I had a short discussion with the waitress at Henry’s Coffee House about why you cannot seem to buy a toasted teacake in a Scottish café. It’s something I’d never realised before.( if it’s true.) The girl turned out to be as mystified as I was because she is just a student at Dundee University and actually hails from Peterborough! She did tell me however, that Dundee is a very good base for students as it has got a compact centre and all the main attractions are within easy walking distance.
On later days I chatted with Jim, a Celtic supporter who I met while watching a Champions League match in a pub. Football even more than the weather is a very good way of “breaking the ice” and getting men together. Jim and I swapped brief life histories while watching Fenerbache lose to Arsenal and downing a couple of pints of McEwans. I also met Lily at the Jute Mill Museum: the Verdant Works. Manufacture of jute products used to be such a massive industry in Dundee that the city was once nicknamed “Jutopolis.” Lily had worked in a Jute Mill for 20 years and had been a guide and demonstrator at the museum for a further 17 years. She told me that workers used to talk to each other in sign language because the noise from the machines was so deafening. That is why, Lily explained, many older women in Dundee are deaf or have hearing problems. It wasn’t because they were listening to rock music! The mill owners employed mostly women and children because they could get away with paying them lower wages. In fact, so many women worked in the mills and factories, leaving their menfolk at home, that Dundee gained its other nickname — “She Town.”
So, during my trip north of the border, I was “alone” but never felt “lonely.” I’m pleased I left my comfort- zone and ventured out on that Scottish break. I must admit that when I was walking to catch the bus that would take me to the train station, I had a slight feeling of trepidation and had half a mind to just slip back home again. I could have locked the door, closed the curtains and just pretended to be in Dundee for the next 5 days. I could easily have found out about Tayside from the Internet and put up knowledgeable Facebook postings, as if I was actually there instead of sneaking round my own living- room. But ultimately, that would have been the coward’s way out. How could I have looked myself in the mirror if I had done that? Captain Robert Falcon Scott had sailed all the way to the Antarctic and yet I would have been too scared to travel to Dundee to see his ship “The Discovery.” ( built in Dundee in 1901.) No, I couldn’t have lived with myself if I had timidly turned back. So I gathered up my courage and travelled on by foot, bus and train, across the border and into the unknown.
I am an avid reader of travel books. Two of the best travel writers in my opinion: Colin Thubron and Jonathan Raban, also seem to travel largely on their own. Come to think of it, so does Bill Bryson for much of the time. Great features of all their books are the entertaining and illuminating conversations they have with the locals in the area they are visiting. It is these inter-changes rather than mere observation and description, that really reveal the essence and character of a place. I now realize that my chat about the non-existent Scottish toasted tea-cake belongs in illustrious company.
I chose Dundee, St Andrews and Aberdeen rather than a Mediterranean sea, sun and sand holiday because I am interested in finding out about the history, culture and architecture of places that I have never visited before. In this respect I suppose I have a Victorian approach to tourism. According to Michael Portillo, a lone TV traveller ( except for the camera crew that is) the Victorians used the newly developed railways to explore and educate themselves about their own country. In this spirit, many of them ( mainly from the middle classes I have to admit) set out on mini Grand Tours determined to combine escapism with education.
Maybe by undertaking this little journey of exploration on my own, I found out more about that area of north-east Scotland ( Angus and Fife) than if I had been constantly conversing with a travel companion.( or continually waiting outside shops.) Being alone enabled me to interact a bit more with the local inhabitants and have a more direct connection with the sights and sounds of the places I visited. Being a solitary tourist in Dundee may not have been such a strange or sad event after-all. Dundee is a fascinating, stone built Victorian city, a bit like a smaller Glasgow. It is now in the middle of a big redevelopment, trying to re-invent itself as a tourist destination. It turned out to be an enjoyable, relaxing and interesting visit even though I travelled there alone. Having said all that, I couldn’t wait to get home to tell everyone about it!
The strange events began when a poor cow wandered on to the mainline south of York. The inevitable messy and fatal collision was not only traumatic for the train driver and others directly involved, but it caused a long delay on the London to Edinburgh route for the rest of the day. I was en-route to meet up with my son, Ian, in the capital. We were then to fly out to Eindhoven in The Netherlands, where his wife, Nanayaa, works.
The southbound East Coast train slid to a halt somewhere north of York. We just sat there for 20 minutes looking out over anonymous fields. The train-manager explained that we had got caught up in the log-jam caused by the earlier cow incident. From then on, it was constant stop-start and crawl all the way to Doncaster and beyond. Only after Peterborough did we pick up speed but by then we were a full hour behind schedule.
Previously settled and content passengers now became restless and even anxious. All their carefully laid plans were starting to unravel. It’s no fun to be stuck in a situation over which one has no control. They hit their mobiles en-masse, explaining to waiting friends, family and colleagues why they were going to be late. The sad story of the cow and the train was repeated over and over again, sometimes with humour, sometimes with irritation, occasionally with anger. Nobody alas seemed to care about the unfortunate animal, just that their travel plans had been disrupted by its untimely death. I just sent a quiet text to Ian.
One positive outcome of all this, a silver lining to the cloud, was that people came out of their private zones and started to talk to their neighbours. Barriers broke down and a hint of the Dunkirk spirit set in. I got to know that the lady reading the Daphne du Maurier mystery next to me, was from Falkirk and was meeting up with her sister from Ham to go on holiday to Majorca. Like me she was facing an early morning alarm call and flight the next day. She constantly updated her sibling on our stuttering progress so that she didn’t have to pay a hefty parking fee at Kings Cross.
Unbeknown to me, this delayed journey south was to set the tone for an incident- strewn weekend. This was only the beginning.
Travel can be both exciting and stressful in equal measure. By making a journey, travellers voluntarily leave their everyday comfort-zones and embark on an unpredictable series of events largely controlled by others. The feeling of not being responsible can be liberating and even exhilarating, but can also lead to frustration and worry. Even if you travel in your own car, there is always the chance of a break-down, of getting lost or of getting stuck in an endless traffic jam which you have no control over. Travelling by public transport puts one even more in other people’s hands and more subject to the whim of chance. The first thing you have to do is to conform to a timetable dictated by someone else. So if the airline decides to fly at 6-30am, that means you have to be at the airport by 5-30 at the latest, and you end up struggling out of bed in the middle of the night.
Thus it was that Ian and I were dragging our clothes on and cleaning our teeth at 3-45am to allow time for our trek from Canary Wharf to London Stansted in Essex. We were flying with Ryanair to Eindhoven. It was not long before we started to depart from the script!
The taxi arrived early but when we didn’t come out straight away, the driver, for reasons known only to himself, decided to go away again and fit in another local call. Thus by the time he condescended to return, we were already late.
Stratford interchange, near the Olympic park in east London, is a surreal place at night. It was here where we were to catch our airport transfer coach. A weird forest of large, flood-lit golden leaves rears up at the side of the road — an attempt at modern art. Trains, buses, taxis and private cars constantly come and go even though it is the middle of the night when most people are still tucked up in bed. Huddled together on the dark pavement are the travellers, dragging cases and carrying ruck-sacks, like a bedraggled army of refugees. Some shuffle from foot to foot to keep themselves warm and stay awake. Others cling to lovers in one last forlorn embrace. Ticket sellers from two competing coach companies mingle with the crowd touting for custom, but most people are waiting to see which coach comes first. It was difficult to realize that all this was happening at 4-45am.
Ian and I missed our preferred coach because of the late running taxi. We waited slightly anxiously for the next one. Inevitably it was late and set off for Stansted even later as everyone had to load their luggage and belatedly purchase their tickets.
We had already checked in online and didn’t have any hold luggage to deposit, but, as is the norm at any big airport, we still had to queue! The line of people waiting to pass through security looked absolutely enormous. When I saw the masses of people my heart sank. We could well miss our flight. Ryanair is an airline famous for not waiting for stragglers. Luckily what had seemed like one huge queue turned out to be 4 queues for separate conveyor belts and x-ray scanners. So we thankfully progressed more quickly than I had at first expected.
Being a reasonably experienced flyer, I had made sure that no liquids were packed into my cabin bag. However, as I walked through the x-ray barrier without bother, I saw to my dismay ( and Ian’s) that my bag had come under suspicion and had been pulled. Was this just a random check that they sometimes do? I had to stand there, wasting precious minutes while a uniformed officer combed through my belongings. He was as bemused as I was. Then he went back to my small deodorant stick. Had this triggered the scanner? This was probably the culprit he concluded. Although not a liquid, it was classified as a “gel” even though it was pretty solid. Apparently, the airport authorities thought I might be clever enough to make a bomb with my roll-on deodorant in the aeroplane toilet during the 45 minute flight to Eindhoven. This Dutch city is famous for the brain-power of the boffins in its university and research establishments. Maybe Stansted Security thought I was one of them!
Actually, I don’t think they thought about it at all. They were merely following the rules. These rules have been applied to long-suffering air travellers for years now, ever since a would-be terrorist attempted to make an explosive device from the aforementioned liquids and/or gels. Anyway my deodorant was popped in a see- through bag and passed its security scan at the second attempt. I was relieved to be taken off the list of suspected terrorists.
Ian and I hurried to the gate which must have been at least a quarter of a mile away. All the screens said — “Eindhoven: Final call.” We made it with just over 5 minutes to spare. The queue was already moving through. After all that, the actual flight, which took off on time, was fairly tranquil, except for an alarmingly bumpy landing. So, at last, we were released from the tunnel of uncertainty to enjoy a late breakfast in another country. If it had been a normal day, I, as a retired person of leisure, would have been just getting up and starting my stretching and yawning routine.
The weekend in The Netherlands was great. We explored Eindhoven, visited picturesque and historical Maastricht and spent quality time with Ian’s wife, Nanayaa. The summer sun shone, we sat in atmospheric pavement cafes, we saw lots of interesting sights and we relaxed.
Then it was time for the return journey, another train of events over which we had little control. This involved arriving at the airport 10 hours too early for our flight ( our mistake), having to hurriedly evacuate a café that had a very loud hissing gas leak, having a truck catch fire immediately in front of our plane( causing a 50 minute delay), and waiting another long 50 minutes for a late running National Express Coach from Stansted back to central London.( no explanation given.)
When I eventually got home to north-east England, the next day, I had enjoyed a fascinating and very enjoyable long weekend, but it was really nice to just stay still and to be back in control!