A memorable journey

It was the sixth trip up north in ten months. It’s soon to be seven. All these journeys have been memorable for their own reasons. Whether it’s been old places and old friends, mostly both, it has brought memories and hope flooding through my veins. The recent visit to Lime Street and all points west was part of a secret mission. (I’ll come to that later.)

For the first time in my recent history, I rolled out of the station into a Liverpool basking in the warmth of late spring. There was no cheeky little fresh faced breeze to remind me of countless days of the bleak windswept concrete plains of the old St John’s Precinct.

This was town in the bright optimism of May. Trees were vaunting their new season’s green among the brightness of eager shoppers, chatting and laughing.

IMG_5169There would be an occasional glance skywards just to check that the blue was real and the sun was genuine. It had an air of calm. This was definitely not mid August when the streets would be teased by bored children and emboldened teenagers strutting about like peacocks  in their traditional attempts to attract the opposite gender.funny-picture-779230854

The only dilemma was to choose the best route down to the river. After marvelling at the sheer size of Weatherspoons (Blacklers), I went the traditional way ending up on Church Street.

IMG_5172On Church Street was a piercingly loud street band with one of those brassy Mexican style trumpets. Personally I could have made better music with a pencil and a matchbox. It sort of shattered the calming ethos I’d been enjoying so it was time to steal away into the back alleys of Liverpool One. It was all new to me. Not quite my cup of tea but just nice to roll along looking very much like the tourist with my overnight bags and flashy camera.

Then I saw the Bluecoat Chambers. The scene of many triumphs.

IMG_5176Three grade eights, two grade sevens and an LTCL were all successfully passed within its distinguished walls. Then there were the countless accompaniments for nervous youngsters and their treasured instruments. It is a little oasis of beauty, peeking shyly from behind the brassiness of national chains, invading the grand old shops with their bright sassy lights.

The change from the old Liverpool, before pedestrianisation, when shop fronts matched the grandeur of their setting and you were attended to by polite pushy gentlemen in suits and ladies in twin sets, is remarkable. You can now name the major stores on any high street and expect the same marketing pizazz shoved in your face from all available angles. IMG_5180

A brief diversion down Castle Street to admire the elegance of the banking quarter gave me my first glimpse of the river, radiating in mid afternoon glow.

IMG_5183The Pier Head, now devoid of its plastic bus terminus is a mixture of old and new sitting alongside each other.

IMG_5187
Victorian beauty meets post modern angularity

I had to gaze at my old familiar friends and there was Edward VII, still poised on his dashing steed.

IMG_5193Across the river were the silhouettes of my history.

IMG_5199I boarded the Royal Iris and felt cheated; not because the fare was a whole full five pounds nor because I could hear the dulcet tones of the fat-faced Marsden coming through the speakers but I know where the real Riyal Iris is.

IMG_5195Renaming a ferry does not relieve the anguish of seeing a fine old lady of the river swiftly and secretly sold off to rot in some stinking berth on the Thames.

8948050_origLow tide meant a steep climb up the walkway. I looked at my battery indicator; worryingly low. But I wanted to ride in glory along the prom and show off the angel’s tenacity by charging up Guinea Gap to emerge at the summit like a Greek Titan whilst whooping in triumph, pretending not to notice the looks of passers-by who would assume my status as being a care in the community job.

Wallasey History Pics Tony Franks-Buckley015
Guinea Gap in olden days

Once going along the motorway, my friend’s car started to overheat. “Pull over and I’ll fix it,” I merrily chirruped. I opened the bonnet and disconnected the temperature gauge. We still got home. I applied the same principle here. I ignored the battery light. I still got home.

Now for my secret mission. My old friend George was marrying his long standing partner. I assume it was a marriage as opposed to a civil partnership. It was at the Town Hall. IMG_5215

Young George was not expecting a motely crew of gate crashers. The look was priceless.

IMG_5222As it was, we continued our celebration in the darkened confines of the Eggy Ferry’s lower level. Suitably seedy considering some of the places George and I have frequented in the past. The passing years were banished to the shade as we partied like born-again teenagers. We were raucous and riotous. (Nothing was damaged.)

IMG_5229

IMG_5236

IMG_5238

IMG_5250The place is just about wheelchair accessible but it was no big deal. This was not a moment to miss.

Thank-you for reading

Advertisements

Sick.

When ordinary people fall victim to terrorist violence we are justifiably outraged and defiant. Outraged that someone is prepared to target the innocent for some spurious valiant cause and defiant because even the worst atrocities can make us more determined to carry on as normal. But to target children and young people is nothing short of the purest evil. Defiance in this respect is a tough road. The toughest.

My thoughts are with the city, the services, the arena staff but most of all with the families, the children and the victims.

What’s the difference?

I can’t do it any more. I simply cannot go anywhere at the drop of a hat. One day in January of 1987, I met my usual friends at the match. I don’t remember the result but Pete said:

“We’re going to see our kid straight after, do you want to come?” It was a great idea; straight over to Bradford after the game for a jolly night in the Robin Hood in Yeadon. Toothbrush? No. Change of clothes? No. But I had money in my pocket. The eighties was full of snap decisions.

I don’t know if I’d want to be like that now but I wish I could. It’s partly old-age but mostly due to the MS beast.

Today is a nothing day. As usual I got up on the same day as I went to bed as opposed to going to bed on the same day I got up. At ten thirty, I emerged from the pit in the curtain shaded half light. The biggest to do is to open the bedroom curtains. After throwing on some clothes, I shuffle across the bed and complete my operation with the assistance of my long grabber. The cat simultaneously uses my arm to scratch his chin.

Then it’s into the living room to face the carnage. I’d left a loaf proving; it was now a pancake. It was rescued into some form of brick shape. I found a bowlful of ingredients in the fridge for a beef rendang. But the highlight of the morning was finding my notebook. Oh my sweet friend of organised reassurance. Linus has his blanket, Garfield has Pookie Bear and I have my notebook.

IMG_5150
Beef, brick loaf (very tasty), curry prep and a notebook.

How can something so seemingly small and inconsequential have me desperately scrabbling around the flat in the middle of the night making the little fretting squeaks of a hamster with a rusty wheel? I have plenty of notebooks. They will all be used and loved but one at a time please. I knew that if I started a new book, the old one would magically appear. But for once, I wanted to dictate my own fortune. The notebook has three uses. I use it to plan the day and as a sort of journal. Most importantly however, in an attempt to show myself that I can find some comfort in the satisfaction of improvement, I have made overtures to improve my handwriting. It’s very important to me.

untitled
The handwriting is work in progress.

 

As I now write, the dishwasher hums its gentle rhythmic serenade affording me even more reassurance.

IMG_5166
A thing of great beauty.

My old philosophy was to leave the washing up until there was no clean glass into which I could pour a drink. I had lots of glasses and great mountains of washing. I was my rebellion. I had entered a middle-class world of tasteful chintz. I was a primary school teacher in Tunbridge Wells where the music of delightful curtains, carpets, lawn mowers and kitchen flooring bubbled from the mouths of my colleagues.

Like the notebook, it is now important to keep the kitchen organised. The two are inseparable.

What does the rest of my nothing day hold? Obviously nothing spontaneous unless it involves adding an extra ingredient to my curry. Lemon grass AND mango powder? Oh you little devil.

I’ll watch football , put the clean dishes away and refill the dishwasher. I might even take a turn around the front car park of the flats to feel the warm sun welcoming me to the promise of a glorious summer.

IMG_5153
Seymour in the disabled parking space. (He’s allowed because he only has three legs.)

Like so much of what I imagine may happen over the next few months, it will be less than glorious.

For soon I will be moving flats. I’m going to live in the beautiful surroundings of Martlets Court. So this is the calm before the storm of upheaval I won’t miss Nellie the elephant upstairs. She is thoroughly charming and as with all people bold enough to go into another country to work in another language, she has my full respect. But she is an elephant.

The day may wind down with some music followed by Match of the Day. The famous tune ends with an arpeggio style flourish in the flattened sub-mediant before winding up with a boyish playful doh re mi in the home key. And on that note, those three notes, I will finish before the voice of Julie Andrews takes hold of my ears.

Thank-you for reading.

Modern families

Aren’t all families modern? Are some old-fashioned? What defines a modern family? It could be both parents working and making full use of modern technology. They may make momentous decisions about when their eldest should get their first phone.

From 1980, that’s thirty seven years ago, I started to visit houses as a piano tutor. I stopped just before I retired so I’ve seen a fair few families and their households. I mean, I’ve seen families that have their children busy for every second of their young lives. I’ve seen families where the children live completely separate lives from each other. I’ve seen immaculate houses, scruffy houses, struggling houses etc. I’ve been welcomed with open arms, treated as a friend or treated like a tradesman; he must be paid. I took this all at face value. I was never there to judge but I did marvel at the lives people were leading. I still see it around me today.

Perhaps from my more isolated stance I can judge. But wouldn’t that put me on a par with the narrow minded short sighted bigots who slavishly follow the editorials and opinion columns of certain newspapers? Well I’m not even going to start judging people by their choice of newspaper because I know folk with polarised views who glue themselves to the same publication. If I buy a paper it will be the Times. I don’t always agree with what they print but I do like the crossword.

Somewhere close to me is a family within earshot. The mother shouts a lot. In particular she shouts at her children. I’ve never seen them on the pavement. I’ve never seen them walking their two dogs. Their cars may be constantly in and out of their block-paved driveway but there are never more than two people in them at any one time, except for the school run.  So they never go out as a family. (It’s a family of four.) Oh I can just see the abundance of screens and devices. I can see the massive television and the tops of their heads as they trawl their phones and tablets. I can even see the ready meals lined up in the freezer. But the fact is, I can’t actually see them so I shouldn’t make assumptions.

Having seen inside so many houses however, I can pick up the signs. Once I lived next door to a family with five children. During the long days of the summer holidays, they would tear up and down their garden. The mother would squawk like a bird as she complained about the mess they made and the chaos they created. Funny enough, there was a large park nearby, but she never took them there. She never took them anywhere. It was a pressure cooker of conflicting personalities. By late afternoon I would begin to detect the crescendo of intolerance. Tempers would rise like the turbulent spring tide bashing relentlessly against the wall of the promenade. They were friendly enough but I did detect an air of resentment. In their eyes I may have had the perfect life. Again, I don’t know because I didn’t know enough.

But I know this. If you got out as a family it can instantly become an adventure. I’m not talking about going to the local shopping centre or retail park here:

“It was also a two sided affair in the shopping centre.

Dad and I would wander around the walkways waiting endlessly for Abi and Mum as they gazed into brightly coloured shop windows. We were subjected to a barrage of noise. There were children shouting, people chattering, and teenagers squealing. Best of all was the faint sound of tinny music, rattling away through hidden speakers; loud enough to hear but not loud enough to listen!

Anything new and shiny was like a magnet to both Mother and sister. Abi would always find something she couldn’t afford. As a result she would devote the next ten minutes giving us her sincere, heartfelt reasons for buying it. It was either a bargain or something she claimed to genuinely need.”

(From The Ghost of Hartington Hall.)

I mean going where you will do things and communicate with each other; something you can talk about around the table at dinner time.

Some families were very particular about my time-keeping. It was so very important for me to be punctual in order for Charlotte or Simon to get to their karate or basketball or ballet or riding or international terrorist classes. I felt sorry for those children I feel sorry for all children living in the shadow of expectation:

“Win or lose, the consequences filled Tom with a sense of dread. As he stared blankly at the swirling clouds overhead, the approaching march of his father’s footsteps shuddered towards him. He could see a tall dark-suited figure tower above him. Tom still didn’t care about the result. Then he heard the sigh.

“What did I say? What did I say?” Tom’s dad had an annoying habit of repeating himself. Tom closed his eyes. “You jumped off the blocks, you just jumped out of them. Then you missed your rhythm; missed your rhythm and ended up flapping your arms. After a strained pause, he looked at his father silhouetted against the fluid sky. “Flapping your arms.” He walked off. Tom sat up to see his coach bounding towards him.”

(From Stop, I want to get off.)

Such pushy parents would be demanding chapter and verse from me after every lesson. I was quite good at billy bull because music is a very esoteric playing field and I’m a veteran.

When I taught in Cheshire, I knew some brilliant families. They were hard working and proud of their success. It was a small town and everyone seemed to know each other. But there was a minority who sent their children to private school. It seemed odd to me because I knew that the primary schools in that town were brilliant. I knew a lot of the teachers. No, these families considered themselves to be on a higher level. One mother expressed her embarrassment about my car being on her driveway. Her daughter was lazy and spoilt. She didn’t last.

Another family were expecting me to change my day to fit in with their faddy daughters’ ever changing clubs and societies. I stopped turning up.

On he whole, most of my teaching in Frodsham is a happy memory of friendly jolly households. So the odd jumped up anally retentive parent will not remain at the forefront of my memory. I remember turning up at one house, only for their neighbour to stare at me in disgust as I walked up the driveway. I had a few day’s growth. Designer stubble as it was called it in the eighties. I also had holes in my jeans; all very trendy but resulting from nothing more than a “life’s too short” mentality.

“Oh, she’s all fur coat and no knickers,” said Vicky’s mum.

Now let me tell you about one of my favourite families. From the dad down to the young daughter, they were intelligent and talented. The parents wanted their children to be happy and fulfilled. We had easy going, sometimes exasperated lessons. During the lessons we would be visited by the cat and the dog. The children were not put off. We’d do the lesson and enjoy the music.

The son was highly intelligent. He’d come in from school and flop in the kitchen. Was this a brief respite before being taxied off to tennis or judo? No, his mum would make him some toast and they would chat before our lesson, which also involved some chat. This boy went to Cambridge. I think he did his doctorate there. His sister went to another university but she was not judged for going elsewhere. It was just a happy family. I’ve had parents trying to force intelligence on their children. A successful career does not automatically promote their children to a higher intellectual level.

Of course I’ve known struggling families. The needy, the workshy and the clueless have all passed through my door. (Well I passed through their door!)

In 1991, Natalie was a talented year six girl. Her dad vented his frustration at the mayhem in his kitchen. It had turned into an artist’s studio. But he had to laugh. It wasn’t what he expected from his beautiful intelligent highly communicative daughter but it was a sign of her engaging with a genuine love of all things creative.  Anyway, she’s now in charge of display at a well known London museum.  There was another family I knew:

 John was an only child. He couldn’t look me in the eye. The house was cold; not in temperature but in atmosphere. I looked at the father. EGOMANIAC.

Now, I hope that my own daughter and her mother will have a life free from parental pressure. In nursery Rose is helpful to others. She has friends and gets on well with the staff. As far as I’m concerned that’s a result.

Finally, a family I actually know properly. Mine.

Our terraced house in Kenilworth Road was one of many. We were part of the community. I don’t think we were judged. Everyone accepted each other as they were. The only reason we were any different was our junior school. It wasn’t local. We were on the bus every morning. I thought nothing of it. Nobody said anything about it. No-one really mentioned my music:

“He’s got ideas above his station.” Did anyone think that? For years, the sound of the piano tumbled out of the front room window. It was just accepted until one day in June of 1980, when a relative newcomer complained about my Mozart.

“Oh that’s so and so,” said my brother. “He never had any friends.” Well, he didn’t talk to anyone else in the street so I treated his foolish admonishment as the rantings of a young upstart. He wasn’t Kenilworth. I was not going to stop playing as by that time, I was busy teaching and accompanying.

And now, I appear to be burdened by the judgemental urge. How can I judge with such little knowledge? All I have to go on is experience. Does that count? I’ve had to bite my lip when some of my fellow professionals have made a scathing assessment of a family’s choices. Like me, they cannot possibly know everything needed to make such assumptions.

It doesn’t stop them though.

Thank you for reading.

Curry weekend.

I never do a curry in a hurry. It’s a smug marketing cliché designed to appeal to those with increasingly busy lives:

“Oh, I have to feed my modern intelligent active family with something tasty and nutritious but still have to get Daffodil to fencing and Horatio to French foot kicking before collecting Calypso from her Burundi drumming class.” category-mom

Looks anxiously round the kitchen before opening her American style fridge, packed with beautiful sparkling clean pristine fruit, veg and a two litre carton of soya milk and says:

“Of course, curry in a hurry!” With great dexterity and celerity she streaks about the kitchen in a controlled frenzy of chopping and slicing before the familiar hiss of singing onions and spices on her shining range cooker.

A quick scan of the massive kitchen shows no trace of detritus or smearings of spilt coconut milk and tamarind paste on the gleaming decks of specially imported Brazilian hard wood on the surface that we usually call a floor.

She leaves no sign of dirty dishes, the used kitchen towels have been dispatched to the mirror-like Brabantia and her make up remains immaculate.

“Daffy and Horry, come running down the stairs in a flurry for your curry in a hurry and whatever you do, don’t stop smiling.”

smiling-brother-sister-strawberry-ice-cream-portrait-store-72243958Naturally the whole scene infers that our busy mum has spent the day browsing the hallowed aisles of Waitrose (other palaces of hell are also available), lunched with her super-intelligent soul mates before spending the afternoon putting the finishing touches to her latest portfolio of interior design ideas ready to be presented to the Bespoke Happy Life Interior Logistics Corporation at their annual conference in Milan.

Oh how the school run can get in the way sometimes. Certainly, Megs or Gloria could easily have done the taxi duties on this one occasion but why spend £89,000 pounds of your husband’s money and keep the Cayenne in the garage?

w640If you want to make the whole scenario even more pulsatingly dynamic and modern, our kitchen wizard could be the father running his architectural company from home whilst his glamorous wife kicks ass as MD of her own interior design company. Of course he would be flying about the kitchen like Jamie Oliver on steroids flashing his blades and tossing his meat and veg in some great macho ritualistic primitive dance.

37358677-handsome-muscular-man-in-an-apron-cooking-in-the-pink-kitchen-love-concept-valentine-s-dayOh my, he can do that aboriginal frenzy like a real native. It’ll leave his brow damp with manly perspiration running down to his sculptured jaw.

And back to reality: “Oi, scrotes, come and get your effing burgers before they go cold. I’m not sticking them in the effing microwave twice. I’m outside having a fag.”

3C0B7ED700000578-0-image-a-2_1484135339217There is no response. Then she hears voices from the garden. Oh, it’s Sega and Scab having a fag of their own. Mum quickly checks her handbag. At least they haven’t nicked hers.

Curry is something to be revered. Sometimes I like a complete over the top flavour explosion where the main players fight for dominance. Sometimes I like a flaming red hot beast, designed specifically for an act of cruel penitence. But this weekend, I was in search of subtlety. I sought out layers of delicate toothsome piquancy. They were not hot. My tongue was addressed as opposed to assaulted.

I looked in the Classic 1000 Indian Recipes book.

kj.pngIt may not have the trendy zazz of Vivek Singh or the outright gay effrontery of Reza Mahammad but it delivers brilliant ideas in a plain simple way.

vv
Vivek. Hero of Saturday Kitchen
gf
Reza, looking gorgeous as usual

It doesn’t stay open very well so to save the constant battle of finding the page only for the book to snap shut in the manner of Arkwright’s till, it’s quicker to copy out the ingredients. In that respect I took the chance to make scruffy little notes and gain some sense of ownership (cheesy teacher’s term) of the actual recipe.

untitled The main flaw to my cunning plan was the lack of yoghurt. It had to be cream. But this was cream out of the freezer. It had defrosted into some form of gelatinous slush. It went in. I’m still here.

If you want to feel like a real basic chef, select your seeds, roast them in a dry pan and grind them in a mortar and pestle. You then have to get out the elbow grease to achieve a high level of smug satisfaction allowing you to proclaim an empathy with the peasant ladies of the Punjab, patiently forming their aromatic powders from two flat stones found by the great dusty road to New Delhi.

 It makes the result far tastier to think that you have almost broken into a sweat grinding away at your seeds, bought at the local health food store which smells reassuringly of ground cumin and rolled oats.

Despite my ostentatious efforts at style over substance, it was a very tasty dish indeed. Then there were the home-made chapattis. Darling, you simply MUST have authentic chapatti flour.

Chapatis are made using a soft dough comprising Atta flour, salt and water. Atta is made from hard Gehun (Indian wheat, or durum). It is more finely ground than most western-style wholewheat flours.”

Anyway, my packet said chapatti flour. The first time I made them was in 1991 in Muswell Hill.

cgI’d gone into the local shop and asked the assistant for the best type of flour. The elderly Indian matriarch, sitting in her usual seat, presiding over the operation of her business, changed her expression. Her eyes lit up. I was then given a detailed lesson on the art of making chapattis. I was deeply touched.

From that day I have vowed to make my own. Now I add a bit of strong brown and white and give it a moderate kneading. The following day I did a slightly lazier version with chicken. There was also some dough in the freezer.

bvWhen I say lazier, I mean using garlic and ginger puree. Well it was Sunday. I must have saved at least five minutes. I added a bit of tamarind paste to my delicate blend. Oo er Mrs. I must do it again sometime.

Thank you for reading.

Making a one handed crumpet.

After a busy week of physiotherapy, teaching, entertaining a lively daughter, badinage with the cleaner and creative culinaria, what did I have an inkling to do last night? Yes, make crumpets. Or just one crumpet to be exact.

I’ve been dieting so it’s been a battle to make interesting sensible food.

shutterstock_96741691But it makes the occasional blow out the sweetest of experiences. I just had to be prepared for the carnage. So for the ingredients; enough to make one king size crumpet:

Serves 4
1/4 tsp sugar
50ml whole milk
25ml boiling water
1tsp dried yeast
400g strong white flour
25g plain flour
1/4tsp salt
1/8tsp bicarbonate of soda
8g butter, for cooking

Obviously it helps to have one of those spoon sets which go down to 1/4 teaspoon etc. I also had a small measuring jug.

Now for the action:

Mix the sugar, milk and boiling water in a jug and stir in the yeast. Leave in a warm place for 15 minutes until frothy.

Combine the flours in a large mixing bowl with the salt. Stir in the liquid and mix vigorously until smooth. Cover and leave in a warm place for between one-and-a-half and two hours until the batter is a mass of tiny bubbles.

Mix the bicarbonate of soda with 50ml warm water and stir it into the batter. Cover and leave in a warm place for 30 minutes.

Melt the butter and use it to brush the inside of a cooking ring. If you don’t have one of those, you can use a scone ring upside-down. The scone ring, that is. You may need to make two smaller ones if your rings are small. Heat a large frying pan on a medium-low heat and grease the pan. (I used butter. In for a penny etc.) Put the ring flat into the pan and ladle a spoonful of batter in so it is about half full. Try not to fill it too high because it may not cook on the inside.

Cook until the top is dry and covered with holes. This takes a good level of patience and vigilance.  Then push the crumpet out of the ring (you may need a knife for this operation). If eating immediately, toast the top under a hot grill until golden, then serve. That’s what the instructions said. I actually turned it over in the pan for a bit.If you’re keeping them, cool on a wire rack, then toast on both sides to reheat.

The result is a fresh, soft tasty crumpet oozing in gorgeous melted butter. Salted butter is even better.

untitled
This is the actual crumpet

Oh golly gosh, just from writing about it I’m drooling. But this is an occasional treat. Don’t tell the diet police. Have you ever noticed the quickest to criticise are the failed dieters; those who make a song and dance about their new road, claim weight loss and give up after a week.

3bMioqiIf you’re one of those fastidious bores who keep a calorie diary (like me) then you’ll have ample proof to shut the mockers up. I mentioned the carnage. It’s great to do this with a friend or two. You’ll need more rings or the formation of an orderly queue and a hot grill. Last night, my crumpet moment was utterly scrumptious.

Thank-you for reading.

1984

Who is Winston Smith?

If you’ve ever read the opening pages of George Orwell’s 1984, you will realise the futility of this man’s resistance. His clever subtle campaign against the regime of “Big Brother” was about to be crushed through brute power and ignorance. The thought police had him. He was a marked man.

David Bowie’s 1984 track has parallels of his wretchedness. I can hear the relentless pulsating motifs and the lyrics, hell bent on self destruction. It is not pretty music.

I entered 1984 screaming with emotional angst. That’s girlfriends for you! And 1984 had other little tricks up its sleeve. I had an escort estate. It was a nice quiet car but the best thing was the stereo. I’d bought it from Broadway Radio in instalments. My car was my haven and the music was my medicine.Family_Favourite-AA-00010_420_280_84_int_s_c1

During one moment of turmoil, I was listening to Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration. I realised how much music mattered to me. Then it stopped working. When something like this happens early in the year, I see it as an omen.

In 1984, I was not wrong. Thankfully it was repaired. (At a price.) Then my beautiful car stopped working on the motorway. There were four of us in it at the time. I was with Julie, Sue and Marian, my current significant other. The weather was grey. For someone with little money and no breakdown cover to grind to a sluggish halt on the motorway, was the living hell I truly dreaded.

I could see the dull tarmac stained by years of filthy exhaust.

m5
It was greyer than this!

The narrowing lanes stretching to the bleak horizon gave me thoughts of a small town bully, crawling around the well off  (newer cars which didn’t break down) whilst grabbing me roughly about the neck to squeeze every bit of luck out of me. The passing traffic roared with laughter. And on the opposite carriageway sat a police patrol car.

For several minutes he scanned my poor broken friend before speeding off behind me.

“He’s coming after me.” We all got out and started to push. That was me and three lady friends. I don’t know what it looked like. They were not rufty-tufty types. Just girls in girly clothes with long hair flapping madly in the breeze. Poor Sue was not the most of diminutive of ladies. She wailed loudly at her lot. Sunday morning was for lazy cups of tea and toast; not for hefting great hunks of steel along bleak hard shoulders.  Fortunately there was a slip road a few hundred metres away. But at the bottom of the slip road was the Vauxhall roundabout. This is a circular titan. ro

It took ages to push my little red king of the road to the oasis of the famous Little Chef. I’m sure the staff could tell all sorts of tales about poor wounded wheels seeking refuge in their much maligned car park. It was my second time.chef

The year before, Squirt, my orange Mini Clubman had limped into the very same spot with a dodgy distributer. Good old Sue; she went to the loo inside the restaurant (Sue always needed the toilet) and rang her dad who towed me to my friend Irvine who was prepared to repair the engine trouble.

We used the whole incident as an excuse for a Sunday lunchtime pint. This set the theme for the year. In times of trouble we found solace in a good old drink. It wasn’t the maudlin threnodies of failed artists wailing over limp gin.

'I can't stand the way alcohol makes some people prone to embarrassing displays of maudlin sentimentality.' 'Oh! That is so sad!' It was the happy celebration of having friends to share our burdens. We were all there for each other. I made my deepest friendships that year.

In complete contrast to my disasters, there were some real highlights. Everton were beginning to emerge from the dark ages into something like a half decent team. They reached the final of the league cup. I had a ticket. I was going to Wembley. This did not go down well with my other half. In fact there was an implied ultimatum. “It’s either the football or me!”

I was actually still in bed when my brother called for me. He’d hired a Ford Sierra for the big day. Off we went. I was a little hung over. The previous night, I’d deliberately gone to a concert at my beloved Philharmonic Hall; that would keep me out of the pub. The trouble was, I had a lift home so I was able to get in the local by ten o’clock. I made up for lost time.

Going to an iconic place or venue is a memorable occasion.

2347DE9D00000578-0-image-25_1416352367758You gaze at images familiar only on the television or in the press. It’s different in the flesh. As the growing crowd marched purposefully and vocally down Wembley way, I was becoming truly excited. Inside, I studied every inch of the old familiar stadium. I’ve had similar experiences with the sights of London, attending a prom concert, Aintree, Epsom, The Oval, Hampden Park (scary) and other places and cities around the world.

As it turned out, the game was goalless and we lost the replay at Maine Road. But we were back in May to win the FA cup and August for the charity shield.

Now, in the true spirit on the grumpy old man however, let’s fast forward to some of the grimmer highlights of the year. I was on course to complete my Open University degree. It had started out well enough. I was happy with my music assignments and received good assessments from my distant tutor. As a final add-on for the six full credits, I was doing a half credit on Italian Renaissance art. I was not feeling so good about this one though.

The tutor was really fussy about the number of words. It seemed to be his priority. Without offering any warning or guidance he just docked my grades. But I was up for it. I was big enough and ugly enough to cope with such meticulous pedantry and set myself on the gritty road to self-improvement.

Then came the disaster. I was behind on the fees and the warnings were coming thick and fast. Then when I returned from a week in France, I was faced with being rejected from the current courses. Not only that, they wanted all fees paid in full if I wanted any chance of being accepted the following year. My saviour was my employer. He knew what it meant to me. He settled the fees and I was to pay him back but my whole cunning plan was put back a year.

“Hang on,” you say. “You had a week in France?” Well yes, my mate Peter was doing a year of his languages degree in situ. I had a week with his brother Martin dossing on the floor of his tiny room in some hall of residence in Lyon. It was very studentish. We took the overnight boat train to Paris and the TGV to Lyon. I can’t even begin to describe the squalid conditions of the journey to Paris. But we had a week of brilliant weather and brilliant food and wine.

DSC_0020
Headquarters, Lyon

Another highlight. Then back to the hard rock of cold reality.

We were entering into the silly season. Every night was a pub night. We begged and borrowed odd bits of cash for our evenings’ parties. It wasn’t a drunken brawl. It was good company and late night dancing in silly clothes to great music. Queen - The Works

As the summer was approaching  I knew that money was dwindling. My teaching hours had decreased and I was having to think. There was going to be five weeks of no work. What could I do? Bar work? Dull! Odd jobs? Get treated like shit! Squeeze my pupils for summer teaching? Give them a break! No, the best thing was to spend four weeks working at Crowborough Coachworks, then Highway Servicing, down south with my good friend Steve. He’d started the business the previous year.

Not everything went smoothly. I really didn’t mind the long hot days crawling under rusting old cars, struggling with nailed on nuts and bolts, scoring my knuckles on a jagged corroded chassis. I coped well with angle grinding a bolt and having a metal splinter in my eye for most of the day. In the end, I had to go to the local minor injuries unit. I felt like a Victorian chimney sweep. I was so filthy I didn’t think they would let me into the sterile rarefied air of a small town hospital. With the splinter removed, it was off to the pub.

But I did appear to be bringing my bad luck with me. There were some troublesome jobs. The worst  was a Renault Five Gordini.

Renault-5-Gordini-001 It was a sporty thing. It had three wheel nuts on each wheel:

“How can anyone take a car with three wheel nuts seriously?” my mate Steve said in exasperation. The car was with us for three weeks. There was a desperate afternoon when we were towing the thing at great speed on the main trunk road trying to get the bloody thing started. All to no avail.

Then we decided to sell my escort so I could buy an Austin Cambridge Estate. It had a quick spray job and we sold it. Great! Oh no, it came screaming back to us. I had to sell it for less.

I still bought my Cambridge though. It was old and grand. It rolled along like a true country gent. At higher speeds it took on a reassuring hum. The leather seats were sumptuous. I sat in it, bidding goodbye on my return to the north. It felt glorious. It was my second A60 and I was so pleased. Austin A55 Mk II Cambridge Countryman

In the days before the M25, I had to drive through London. I called at the Pied Bull in Streatham for drink with my friend Martin. Then it broke down. I’d never changed a clutch before. Once again, I was caught between asphalt and chassis with a side salad of gearbox oil. It got rid of my dandruff!

On the Monday evening I set off for Wallasey. There was a sense of relief. I was smiling all the way up the motorways. I looked at the other traffic alongside me. I felt special. I was in my own rare classic car. In the middle of the night, the familiar sight of St Hilary’s church emerged on the murky horizon.

It had been an amazing four weeks. Steve had been a true friend. Now I couldn’t wait to show off my new car. In some fleeting moment of utter madness, I actually cleaned and polished it. I loved the look on people’s faces when I turned up in my dashing grey steed.

Two weeks later, I proudly picked up my friend Kate to go to the Phil for a Sibelius two. At the end of the concert it wasn’t there.

“Where was it stolen from?” asked the desk sergeant of Hope Street police station.

“See that gap in the parked cars?” I replied, pointing through the glass doors. I never saw it again. It was the sting in the tail. I spent the next few months scrabbling about on an aging bicycle and a borrowed mini. The weather mocked me. “On your bike? Well here’s the rain. Ha ha ha.”

cycling-in-the-rain
There’s a technique to cycling in the rain. It’s called don’t.

Towards the end of the year, my pupil numbers picked up again. There was light at the end of the tunnel. Sometime in October, the phone rang. It was a polite quietly spoken man frim the local tax office. My accounts were in a mess. Even though I had a main employer, I was self-employed. When the inland revenue catch your coat tails, they are not content with just hanging on and waiting for you to produce the goods. They use their initial grip to crawl all over you; they supress and suffocate your freedom. Then they block the way forward until you have given them every possible second of your time. They wanted my accounts sorted and they wanted it yesterday. 9963857046a000eb10427fd0e7d2cc89

I was convinced that someone was following me, checking on the work I was doing. I would change my routes and nip down alley ways and footpaths hoping to lose my imaginary stalker. giphyIt took three weeks to present four years of accounts but it was done. They were off my back for another year. I paid them and that was that.

The whole year had been a hard lesson of life. It had been dark and constricting with occasional bursts of sunlight and freedom; it was that dancing naked in a field type of freedom. But sometimes it felt so bad that escape was impossible. I had a stock phrase to help me get through the bad times:

“It could be worse, it could be February.” We still say it now. The vacuum between Christmas and new year brought some mild weather. On January 30th, I walked up Glyder Fawr and Glyder Fach with a musician friend.

_42592855_mountain416300The cycling helped. I left him standing. I did the whole ascent in shirt sleeves. There was the sense of the lunar landscape as we made the final push in amongst the featureless clouds. It was the fourth peak of the year. Many were to follow, so were happier times. And do you know what? The same friends are still around me.

 Thank-you for reading.

“Beware the savage jaw of 1984.”

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KByxC7B9WH0