Circles and ripples

Every week day morning, I hear the voices of children scooting along to the junior school around the corner. Firstly it’s the breakfast clubbers, looking forward to the daily ritual of eating with friends. The massses follow with their yummy mummies and hipster dads.

Finally, usually after school has started, the late comers forge a path of anger and frustration with demented screams and screeching mothers. I wonder about their futures. Who’ll be the givers and the takers?

Perhaps some of the school staff will feel indignant about some of those children who take up most of their time. We can all slap on the labels; ADHD, aspergers, autism, dyslexia etc. But please remember, these are children in the early stages of their circle. They give teachers and parents a full time job.

That’s life.

Each one will create ripples. In their own existential way, they will affect so many others. No-one really wants to be totally alone, so if you are with others, you will affect others.

I’ve had a career of teaching young people. From piano teaching in the eighties to school teaching from 1990, I’ve interacted with the early part of the circle. Along with my pupils, ripples have been created. It’s hard to say whch ripples have been stronger. But ripples are ripples.

Now my main thoughts go to the completion of the circle.

The end of life itself.

I was at the bedside. He was struggling to breathe. His small audience watched. We were contemplating a multitude of emotions.

Our dad was dying.

The music of the ward ticked slowly in the background. The bleeps, the buzzes and the gentle voices. He was awash with wires and tubes. Still we watched; every panting breath.

Outside, the glory of the winter sun dressed the icons of our lives. The lighthouse, the glittering sea and the flat green trees of a January afternoon. In the sea stood the angels; patiently waiting to embrace another soul into the arms of the other side. Their wings rotated calmly in a welcoming gesture of warmth and generosity.

Two nights before, they had raged violently in the winds of anger. But now they were at peace. Slowly, as the enormity of Dad’s final hours became reality, we began to reminisce. Tom, Phil, Rose, Denis, and Uncle John began to talk of times past. Dad had created ripples. They too were circular.

In the last hours, whilst I languished two hundred and eighty miles away in a state of sadness and hopelessness, they played songs from their parties. There was a flicker of recognition before the shadows of the big sleep fell down onto him.

Now I think of the ripples. At the moment they are fleeting. The creative carpentry, keeping the house together and forging the future of the family. Along with mum, he’d created such a special family. We can take poverty and hardship, fortune and wealth with a practical humility. And that’s the real ripple.

We may allude to cocky arrogance but we’re all imbued with humble confidence.

I remember when I was working at the Gandy. I was stamping serial numbers on clutch rings. At the other end of a large room, Dad was grafting away at the pre-form. Some bloke called across to him. He responded with the famous Churchillian gesture but quickly hid his hand behind his back when he noticed I was watching. That pre-form was a hard relentless procedure. I’ve seen him come back from a ten hour shift suffering from sciatica. He still went back the next day. That’s the biggest ripple; keep fighting, keep working for the family and when you get the cance, party like an animal.

Goodbye Dad.

Thank you for reading.      

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Let’s get political

Esther McVey is the new work and pensions secretary. What next? Atilla the Hun as minister for defence? Let’s have Farage in to deal with the homeless. You can just imagine it; he’ll fly around the country visiting doorways and underpasses:

“Get yourselves a bloody job you lazy bastards. This country has barriers to build. We’re busy enough keeping out the foreign scroungers to be bothered with  stinking unwashed scumbags like you. If you don’t find work I’ll set fire to your piss stained cardboard boxes.”

Here are sme facts about our new ministerial glamour puss: 

  • Consistently voted against raising welfare benefits at least in line with prices
  • Consistently voted against paying higher benefits over longer periods for those unable to work due to illness or disability
  • Consistently voted for a reduction in spending on welfare benefits

She said it was good that people were going to food banks. As for benefit sanctions:

Comparing claimants to badly behaved school pupils, Ms McVey, in her role as employment minister, defended the sanctions system for people who fail to attend a meeting with an adviser in a 2013 meeting with the Work and Pensions Committee.

“What does a teacher do in a school? A teacher would tell you off or give you lines or whatever it is, detentions, but at the same times they are wanting your best interests at heart,” she said.

“They are teaching you, they are educating you but at the same time they will also have the ability to sanction you.”

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She claims to be looking to the future. How can you look to the future with such archaic assumptions? Disability is obviously a weakness which should be punished. And if you are mentally ill?

“Snap out of it you weak minded little turd. You deserve a jolly good beating. Why should the wonderful Daily Mail, Express and sun (et al) readers be expected to be taxed to support neurotic work-shy non-entities like you?”

Sounds a bit too much like our lovely Nigel but I know this is an attitude festering under the surface of millions of short-sighted bigots. I’m not saying all readers of these papers hide this dark silent desire in their thinly disguised elitist closets but I am aware of a general body of thought in and around these publications.

My assumtions may be a trifle exaggerated but I know a trend when I see one. Look how so many people on social media go off on one without knowing the full facts. Why do you think comprehension is taught in schools? Like many who question the use of maths in later life, I feel like some of my time has been wasted. Heaven help us.

Thank you for reading.

Spring rolls

Not my usual sort of blog but I know people, including myself who crave this food. Here is Ching-He Huang’s recipe from the BBC food website. If they want to do me for copyright infringement I will plead insanity.

Ingredients

 

To the tum with love

Today I took out a pork leg out of the freezer. It was half of a huge joint I’d bought from some on line butchers. They’re called Heartier. (Look them up; good value.) After trimming off the rind and the bigger bits of fat, I diced it up and took a third for my dinner. It was so easy and so tasty. It was marinated for an hour in gochujang (Korean fermented chilli paste; good old Amazon), tomato puree, soy, red wine vinegar, pepper and sliced apple. It was cooked with chopped onions, garlic and ginger. It rocked. Sorry, no photo; reader, I ate it.

It left me thinking about my lifetime love of home-made food. My earliest memory is of a pan of scouse. You could call it hot pot but to me it was scouse. Neck end of lamb, onions, carrots with thinly sliced potatoes and water had been left in the oven all day. Even the bones were soft enough to eat.

From that time, I began to know food as an occasion of great comfort and social interaction. We’d be at the table, talking about the day and of the things we looked forward to. It was Fazakerley, my nan’s council house and a time of great adventure. The estate was surrounded by fields and woods. After running a pub, Mum and Dad were starting day jobs. They were saving to buy a house. We were going to be a family.

Fifty four years on I’m proud of our family. We’ve been through so much shit. But here we are, still together and laughing. (Miss you Mum) Mum was so good in the kitchen. How did she do it? She was working, giving us breakfast and tea, doing the washing, the ironing and keeping the house clean.

Monday was shepherds’ pie. Tuesday could be fish fingers. Wednesday was heart csserole; I stll make it now. That was an all day in the oven job. It was no good being sqeamish about the cheaper cuts. It was eat or starve. There could be liver and onions, steak and kidney pudding or sausage and mash. Mum would do sausage and mash with tinned tomatoes. (Inspirational).

The sunday roasts were epic. This was basic food cooked with love. Of course there were treats. In addition to the delicious conveniences of Angel Delight, Chiver’s Jelly and blancmange there were the Saturday afternoon steamed puddings. Oh yes! But Mum’s apple pie was just sensational. I can make apple pie and stuff which may be equally delicious but Mum did it with her special touch.

One of my real favourites would appear sometime just after Christmas. Turkey curry. It was soft, sweet and delicious. When I was a grown up, (yes, it happened) I used to ask Mum how she managed to make such wonderful food. She was very matter of fact:

“Oh I do this then just stick it in the oven.” I have tried for years to match her roast potatoes. My roasties are good but they will never reach the heights of the crispy outsides and soft creamy insides. Many TV chefs will crow about their “perfect roasties”. I’ve tried them all but they still fall short. But I think I’ve managed it on the pastry front. Those apple pies were packed with delicious sweet chunky fruit in the thinnest, crumbliest pastry.

I can do pastry now but it’s taken years of subtle questioning to discover the secrets. I’m sure she’d love it if she could taste it now. 

In 1969 Mum threw the chip pan out. The health police had entered 28 Kenilworth. We switched to boiled potatoes. I lke potatoes. Our teas had more gravy. It was that lovely sensation when the meat and veg had gone:

I’d mash the soft white spuds into the gravy and luxuriate over the residual meaty flavour in an ocean of toothsome carbohydrate.

The Monday night shepherds’ pie was the most enduring tea. We were still gobbling it down in the eighties. But the eighties were lean years. Thatcher’s Britain was pulverising our community with the stark grey hammer of poverty.

Meat was scarce. But every saturday morning, Mum produced he best ever riposte to the sneering hobnail jackboots of Thatcher’s tyrants. From almost nothing, she produced the best ever soup. It was fashioned in the pressure cooker with spare bacon ribs and barley. it was filling and nutritious. Every spoonful put two fingers up to the government intent on breaking the spirit of the terraced dwellers.

“They could take away our jobs and livlihoods but they never took away my mum’s soup!”

(That was shouted from the roof of the flats in a William Wallace accent. The drunken couple down below looked momentarily confused before continuing on with their staggering gait in the company of two rancid kebabs.) I thank Mum and Dad for my food enthusiasm. Mum was a miracle worker whilst Dad showed me that the male of the species was capable as well. But they never told me about the washing up!

Oh well, I’ve got a machine to do that now.

 

Thank you for reading 

The host of Christmas past

Today has been quiet. I emerged from the pit at 1.30 PM and had a real treat; Marmite on toast with a huge mug of builder’s. It was to be a thoughtful solitary day. It didn’t disappoint. There were two Guardian crosswords to tackle, a chick pea and sweet potato curry and a tiny bit of TV. The news was to be avoided.

I thought about previous Christmas Days. The childhood Christmas always ended at 10 Berwyn Road. This was Auntie Agnes, the first Christmas host. We’d get from Fazakerley to Wallasey by public transport; yes, the busses and boats ran on the day itself. 10 Berwyn was a place of raucus celebration. From start to finish, we had a great time.

There was Christmas dinner for loads of us. How did she do it? My nan was there as well so it might not have been a solo effort. My Uncle John was a bit handy in the kitchen too. In truth I have no idea. We’d play with cousin Joan and her dolls and generally run about the house laughing.

There were always the traditional inevitabilities. I’d stand on my Auntie’s feet. I’d demolish a whole selection box and we’d try to stay up as late as possible before being banished upstairs. Then from the isolation of  the bedroom, we’d listen to the party. Uncle John played the guitar. There would be little sleep for us until the riotous rabble downstairs sang “The Laughing Policeman”.

Our day was complete. With a stomach full of seasonal fare and a factory’s worth of chocolate, I’d eventually drop off. When we moved to Wallasey, the tradition continued a while longer.

As I entered the teenage years, the dynamics changed. Mum and Dad had discovered the Labour Club. I did so later in life but it wasn’t my thing. In the eighties my parents became the hosts. Brothers were growing their own families. At 28 Kenilworth, we had an annual feast. It was always between the two big days.

Unlike my wonderful Auntie, Mum and Dad operated with cool, ruthless expediency. Dear Agnes liked to be heard (and why not, she was quite an extrovert) but Mum was always modest and understated. The fact was, she was a damned good cook and Dad wasn’t far behind.

I used to cut it fine. If it was on a New Year’s Day, I was usually elsewhere and had to frantically cycle back to Kenilworth. The food was always fantastic. And the wine flowed. I never helped in the kitchen. I should hang my head in shame really. To think that now I run  well regimented  kitchen routines and get cross when someone dares to leave a used paper kitchen towel on one of the surfaces. How very dare they?

The third and final hosts are my elder brother Tom and his wife Christine. It was the merging of the two great clans; the McChrystals and the McKees. Tom had a little room with a bar in it. It was male dominated. All the optics were set up and my father and I would eye up the whisky.

“That won’t see tomorrow,” I’d say. It was like the starter gun going off. After a drop of beer it was a race to drain the bottle. All right, my mum helped and a few others were partial to a drop but we would just sit by that bar and drink and joke. There was always a second bottle. I have a t shirt.

mockup-61e80b57Sums it up really. The next day it was home to a late lunch; turkey and stuffing sandwich with a can of John Smith’s bitter. Such a lovely combination. I can still taste it now after a very quiet Christmas day.

Now I can only exist on one floor. And the drinking has to be watched. But I can still raise a glass before worrying about the waistline and falling asleep in the chair. I suppose I could have included the aftermaths and the hangovers but let’s focus on the fun, the friendship and the inevitable badinage.

Thank you for reading.  

George

Things take a while. In a wheelchair, I can’t just turn round to throw a pinch of salt into the cooking pot. I have to do a number of three point turns to firstly find the salt pig, take a pinch and then try to negotiate my way back to the hob without scattering my beautiful artisan sea-salt crystals all over the oak wood kitchen floor.

Carrying things about the flat needs careful planning. Far too often I reach the wardrobe leaving a wake of freshly dried clothes after the washing basket tipped up when it nudged the door frame. Then there’s answering the door. I can be sitting in my comfortable recliner, deeply involved with a crossword and the doorbell will sound. I finally reach the door after the slow process of adjusting the chair, leaping into the wheelchair and fighting with the inward opening hall door. And there is no-one there. I call out: “I’m here!” No response. Then I find a delivery man knocking on another door or hiding my parcel in some inaccessible place. His English is poor. I have to smile. I have nothing but admiration for anyone who moves to a new country to earn a living. The language is learnt on the hoof; you can bet the workload is massive and the wages are poor.

It’s nothing. I’m still living independently. And Amazon rocks.

There are things far more worthy of time. It’s taking me time to come to terms with being 62. No, I don’t care about the grey hair and the blood pressure. I don’t even care about the increase in grumpiness or the growing intolerance of everything non-alcoholic. In the eighties, I taught the cello to Peggy Thompson. She lived on the top floor of a small block of flats in Upton. She was an ARCM on the piano but wanted to learn the cello. As you can imagine, she was quite a character:

“I’m sorry Peggy, I can’t come next week because I’m away for a christening.”

“It’s all right for you,” she barked. “At your age it’s all weddings and christenings. When you get to my age, it’s bloody funerals.”

It struck home. But what I didn’t realiise was the time factor. When someone dies, it takes time. I have fond memories of aunties and uncles, nans and grandads and old people who lived down the street. They passed on. I cried about their passing. They had taught me tolerance, kindness and humanity.

When my mum died, the impact was huge. I was nearly fifty and she was only twenty six years ahead of me. In the church, looking at the coffin, I realised the significance of life and death. I had come into the world through Mum. Yet there she was in a fancy box. That morning she was laid to rest. Something had gone. Something had emptied out. I still haven’t got over that.

The latest thing to take a while, is getting my head round the death of George. George Harrison was always around. From the age of about twelve, he could be seen wandering the streets of Seacombe in a blue beanie hat and a big bundle of furry delight called Nelson, the old English sheep dog. We talked, we walked together, we played football and we played tennis together.

George had become part of my world. He was genuine, kind and passionate. By the time we’d become regular drinking partners in The stanley Arms with Andy, we had become true friends. We liked to be a bit vague; always seeking the shady character reputation. But we were always honest with our sentiments.

It was already clear that George’s wicked humour was a thing to be treasured. He could find something funny in everybody. In the early days of The Stanley, our group expanded. We were often joined by Woody, Kev and Spud. Together we’d scream and shout with uproarious stories about the dull humdrum lives we led.

George and I developed from drinking partners into companions. That big old house in Clarendon Road was beginning to open its doors to us. One Christmas Eve, Andy and I had to carry our friend along the prom to this fine old mansion. We’d been drinking all day. With an arm over each shoulder we were treated to the first line of every David Bowie hit in the shadows of the great Liverpool coastline.

At the end of 1980, George and I decided to go on holiday to Los Angeles. It was a three week holiday of sun and shade. Afer a couple of days, it was clear that we’d go off each day on our own adventure and report back in the evening over a bottle of chablis.

On one of the very few evenings we were out together on the strip, my dear friend came out. This was no great dramatic revelation announced with profund Shakespearean drama. No. I was eyeing the queue full of totty outside the Whisky a Go go, suggesting that we  could venture inside and cruise some chicks. Then George expressed a preference for buying some cans of beer and hanging out with the street boys.

It was so George. Let’s just add a bit of the shady character to the great “I’m gay” admission. Well that was it. Since September 1981, I was George’s constant companion in and out of the gay bars of Liverpool. We had a riot. George was released. He could be himself; and he was.

We did a bit more travelling. We even went to Australia. By this time he knew I was having problems with the onset of MS. But bloody hell, how we partied.

We spent a week at his nephew’s cottage in Cruden Bay, north of Aberdeen. We became like brothers. We knew how how we could irritate each other and we knew how to get on. I got to know a lot of George’s family. I was treated like one of their own. It was such an honour.

Then George met some of my musician friends and other friends in Wallasey. We became an institution at Stanley’s Cask. Everyone loved George. Our close friendship ended in 1991 when I started to teach in other parts of the country. Times change and things move on.

George was there with me in my formative and subsequently decadent years. I could easily blame him for my love of a pint. We were grown ups who acted like big kids.

Can you imagine my delight when we met up again? The gang were back together. Whenever I went back to Wallasey we’d have a reunion. There would be me, George, Andy, Christine, Gail, Trevor, Dave and George’s lovely partner Kevin.

But at the end of 2017 the old bugger died.

I could write pages more. All those hilarious moments. All of those nicknames he gave to people. His pertinent adjectives and acerbic comments. The observations, the outspoken moments and the annecdotes. Always with a pint in his hand.Scan_20171224 (2)

Goodbye George.

You will be remembered and loved.

Thank you for reading.

The X files

On the way to Lime Street station last Thursday, the taxi driver and I were discussing driving standards. The discussion gathered pace and my the time we had emerged into the dull light of Liverpool I commented: “We’re ranting aren’t we?” yes we were. It was a cause for boyish giggling. I try not to rant these days; it’s bad for my blood pressure.

But this morning, I was reminded of some of the little things about teaching which made me boil. It had taken me just about fifteen minutes to insert three sheets of A4 into one of those pocket things you can put in a file.

thumbnail (9)Teaching involved so many identical insertions. It was the sort of thing necessitated by the meticulous file keeping of pupil tracking and special needs records. These damned pockets were also the home of teaching resources.

There would be a file for each subject. It was a big file; they were all big files. Imagine me in my cold dark December classroom at the end of the day? Two hours previously, I was waving good bye to wild wide-eyed children. Christmas was upon us.

All class time was taken up by glorified baby sitting as hopelessly tired young people tried to make use of their time creating cards and decorations. Understandably, they wanted to get things right and my time was taken up between repairing great pieces of art whilst trying to prevent a war breaking out because Calyso had decided to hide the last two working Pritt Sticks up her Chrstmas jumper.

In the corner stood the lone pot of glue with its stick by its side.

CIsnInEWIAAy6X_Nobody wanted to use it. It was there purely as a historic artefact, harking back to the pre Pritt Stick days when all creative work was sullied by glue stains and minutely creased corners.

By three fifteen, the classroom was a disaster zone. Teaching assistants bravely cleared up. But they too were exhausted; run ragged by the season’s demands.

Then I’d remember the filing. I may have been craving alcohol but the demands of APP (assessing pupils’ progress) in preparation for the kangaroo court that went under the guise of “Pupil Reviews” to be squeezed in during the last two days of term. Now who’s idea was it to have a pantomime or a nativity instead of working?

Then after more than two hours of scouring the finer details of assessment criteria and copying samples as evidence, I had the caretaker wanting to lock up. But I had to put paper into pockets. It was an endless thankless task. I wasn’t going to take it home! Not a bloody chance.

The next day I would receive my summons. I had to make my way to the head’s office laden with files.

Businessman Carrying Pile of FilesI have one strong hand; my right but in order to walk, it’s taken up by supporting the rest of me. So I have to balance the files in some way on my left arm. Inevitably they would cascade onto the floor just outside the office.

There would be some tutting as a mini cavalry arrived to help. They were not tutting at me however. They were tutting at the need for carrying these cumbersome archaic ledgers when a tablet would have easily sufficed. It was just before the tablet age.

Now that would have been good. I’d have had one in staff meetings to take vital notes that were instantly preserved by modus digitalis. And when Mrs Jenkins had decided to grab some attention to discuss the merits of colour coded marking, I could have just browsed you tube to watch some paint dry.

This detail of over-hyped totally unnecessary aspect of administration is just one example of my rant fuel. There was ruling a line. I couldn’t actually apply enough pressure on the ruler itself. Then there were class sets of books; too heavy to carry so I had to load them into a trolley to move them anywhere. Naturally, I’d try to pick up as many with my good hand and sort of drop them over half the trolley thus catching the edge and sending said handful scattering all over the floor.

Walking with the trolley also had its challenges. It had to be towed by my left hand. My left hand grip is non-existent. If I was lucky, the force of this facility from hades would not further launch its contents all over the polished hall floor. But I simply had to take them home. My allocated marking time had been used up by trying to put sodding pieces of paper into sodding pockets.

buspull
How it felt

This was a daily occurrence. And this is why I had to stop working. From paper clips to lever arch files, the fine practical logistics of administration were no longer a minor irritation. I was forgetting a few things as well.

These were naturally administration things which would incur the wrath of the admin gods. The pressure was rising. My last class was a right old bunch of pre-pubuescent hormonal misfits. My classroom was the supply teacher’s graveyard.

modern classroomBut I had them. One rather indignant colleague thought it was quite unfair that I controlled my class with respect and humour. She reckoned I had some sort of spell or curse on them.

Children with demonic reputations who’d spent hours outside the head’s office were being inspired by each other. Differences were dealt with calmly and pragmatically with the help of a brilliant teaching assistant. By heck she could defuse the time bombs that only eleven-year-old girls can produce. I’m not saying I had them all the time but within the classroom, I had them. Is it too arrogant to claim that I’d actually shown the rest of the staff a clean pair of heels? The playground was a different matter. So it was the detail that got me. It’s like losing a boxing match by a technical knockout.

My first ever job was in a bank. I think that’s where I developed my scorn for adminisration. Red tape is evil. Some say it is a necessary evil. But evil it is.

Thank you for reading.