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Monday, 30 April 2007

Westward Ho and Hot Protestant Dinners.


The Young Walter Raleigh. I loved this picture as a child. Now it epitomises the robust certainties of an England past.

My Jansenist fears of hell slowly foundered. I remember as a child cheerfully telling my Aunty Lily that all Protestants were damned. She laughed merrily. “Well that’s not very nice. I’m protestant, so is most of your family.”

I was thunderstruck. How could this be? My mother looked embarrassed.

“Are you going to tell him, May?”

Aunt Lily was grinning.

It was true. The Parry’s were protestant and my mother to escape eternal damnation had married my father. I tried to make sense of it, then put it to one side as something inexplicable.

By about twelve the cracks began to show. Protestantism was rich and savoury. It smelt good, like steak and kidney pie and hot roast dinners. I was being tossed upon the sea of Satan’s wiles. I knew it, and yet…in contrast, Catholicism seemed stern and cold; it smelt of camphor and myrrh, tobacco, its mysteries hidden by certainty. Despite all the statues and flowers, it frightened me.

The book that really shook things up was Westward Ho, by Charles Kinglsy. I was Amyas Leigh, the protestant hero who sailed with Drake, fought Spaniards on the Spanish Main. I cringed at the villainous Eustace. Was this what it meant to be Catholic? Eustace. Catholic and slimy. Eustace.

Amyas was the Sun, the one who got the girl, the beautiful Rose Salterne. Eustace was the moon, treacherous and cold, and Catholic to boot.

Such confusion and fears. The irony was that in adolescence I exchanged one set of certainties for another: Marxism , and the process began all over again. I’ve since outgrown certainty. I just know that life is very short.



So, what have I learnt? The church is something to hang on to, but not to embrace. It has the power to smother, burden you with guilt and restrictions that change with time and circumstance. When I was a child I feared hell and religion was cold and smelt of candles, rattled with rules and celebrated deprivation. Now it is about love, but part of me waits for the wheel to turn.

I remember the guilt, not the love













In Monmouth parish the priest inaugurated a Mao tse Tung initiative, reminiscent of ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’. It was part of the ‘listening church’ or something like that. Parishioners were encouraged to write their thoughts and suggestions on small post-it notes and stick them on a cork board at the back of the church. Week to week it made fascinating reading. One suggested woman priests. The following week it had a reply beneath written in block capitals. ‘Impossible. The church represents the body of Christ and Christ was a man.’

It’s a bit like a fire or a pit. Get too close and you’ll burn or fall in. At the same time, take away faith and you'll limit a culture, close a door, cripple an instinct - replace it with a different kind of authority. For me the Church is the grit that nourishes pearls. The alternative smells worse.

Here endeth the lesson for today.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Visions of Hell


Blessed Sacrament Church Walton Vale. It hasn't changed much. It hasn't changed at all.

Front and sides of the Church, seen as you walked down the road into school. Inside is beautiful but as a child I disliked Confession and the hot, packed and interminably long Good Friday celebrations.




There were a Trinity of nuns in Blessed Sacrament - the blessed Sack as it was more commonly known: Sister Kevin, elderly and Irish, Sister Phillip, young and pretty, sometimes gentle and the Grim Shadow, who had held me in her dark embrace.

The church was adjacent to the school and for most of my growing up was controlled by Father Ormsby and Father Taylor. With two priests Saturday Confession posed an awkward choice. Father Ormsby had a leathery face fit for washing windows or scaring old ladies. He smelled of tobacco, barked like a dog and turned Confession into a dark and sinister trial. He’d fought in the war, had seen things no normal man should and had little patience for weepy old women and trembling boys.

Father Taylor was gentle and kind who said little but listened and listened and listened. His voice was a whisper; it made you feel good and his queue was twenty miles long, snaking from bench to bench, out of the church as far as Blackpool and beyond. Or so it seemed. If you went to Father Taylor, you brought sandwiches. Father Ormsby’s bench was invariably empty; an ‘in and out’ job, if you had the courage.

By this time I’d become obsessed with Hell, the devil and all his wily ways. My soul was a vase in a mine field; Confession weekly and the time in between a spiritual killing field.It didn’t help that I created handicaps for myself, hopping over cracks in the pavement, swearing to sell my soul should I land on one. A kind of Satanic Hopscotch. It wasn’t a healthy place to be, but the feeling that there is more to this life than meets the eye has never left me. The obsession has, but I still avoid cracks in the pavement.

On Sundays we’d sing ‘Faith of our Fathers’ swearing to risk dungeon, fire and sword and every kind of protestant torture in our defence of the one true faith. We sang it with gusto, our voices growing louder as the tortures became more terrible, bellowing out each final line: ‘We will be true to thee till death.’
Protestants were the enemy. King Henry VIII’s coffin had exploded during his funeral, his sinful stench filling the church. This was told with a strange ferocious glee by the otherwise kindly Sister Kevin, her normal twinkle becoming a bloodthirsty gleam.

After Sunday Mass we’d walk home, our parents leading the way. They walked proudly, arms linked, our mum in her favourite red coat, our dad in grey gabardine. His walk had a slight jaunty swagger to it; that of a sailor on dry land.
The highlight of Sunday, the only highlight for the most part, was Breakfast: Bacon, eggs and sometimes fried bread. From then on it went downhill. For some reason we had our ‘Sunday’ roast dinner on the Saturday with the leftovers warmed up on the Sunday. We ate, listening to ‘Two Way Family Favourites’ on the wireless, which added its own peculiar mournful air to the whole business. There are few things more dispiriting than chewing lumps from the gravy, whilst listening to lovelorn wives dedicating records to husbands stationed in Germany or Hong Kong. A British Sunday in the 1950’s. It’s hard to imagine now. Best not to.

HOWEVER....

For the morbidly curious a passage from James Joyce’s 'Portrait of an Artist As A Young Man', sums it up. (He’s talking about the timelessness of Hell)

Sister Gregory


Me and my brother. I'm the chubby one.

“Who went to church yesterday?” Hands went up around me. Mrs Lewis looked pleased and then she noticed my hand still on the desk. She looked puzzled. I was puzzled. Why should anyone go to church on a Monday? Even as a nine year old, I knew that was verging on the excessive. She told me to stand up and rephrased the question. Why hadn’t I gone to church? Mrs Lewis had small eyes and wore glasses, her face was withered like a current, but strangely pale. Why hadn’t I gone to church?

“I didn’t know I had to?”

“You didn’t know you had to?”

The class laughed, and I was told to kneel outside the classroom door and pray and think about what My Lord had done for me. In the meantime she would phone my mother. A message was passed on to the Sister Gregory, and I knew I was in trouble. Sister Gregory was the school’s head, and more: Death, Torquemada, a Clint Eastwood in black, packing a large ruler that she carried everywhere and used as the mood took her.

It was a different age. My mother obeyed the summons, arriving at the school in under an hour. I wondered whether she’d join me on the floor praying. But redemption is a wonderful thing. Within moments it was all sorted out and I was embraced in darkness and camphor. Sister Gregory had me in her arms, crushing me, folding me deep into her heavily starched robe; not the lost sheep but the stupid, stupid boy who didn’t know what day it was.

“Today is Monday, Michael. What day is it?”
“Monday, Sister.”

“And what day was it yesterday?”

“Sunday,” I said, light at last dawning.” And I was at church.” A thousand angels sang.

Day-dreaming consumes time and I’d just slipped into Tuesday whilst the rest of the world remained in Monday. “You stupid, stupid boy” the judgement was clear though muffled in fabric. The jury is out still out as to whether I am stupid, though my wife and children seem to have some prior knowledge of what the verdict will eventually be. Day dreaming though is not a mortal sin. Inconvenient, but not a sin - only sometimes I forgot that when I too became a teacher. I must have done something bad in a previous life.

Friday, 20 April 2007

The Red Indian



You can see the balcony where I threw the telescope. Warning: This posting will only be interesting to my children, far off grandchildren, nephews, nieces and cousins, or those curious about how a child's mind works.


I was visited every day by my mum, dragging my brother in tow. What we talked about I don’t know, but I wasn’t a grateful child. Not all the time. Once they brought me a small blue telescope. I vaguely recollect one of them saying I’d be able to look through it and see them as far as the bus stop. By this time I was able to walk. As soon as they left the ward I made my way to the front balcony of the hospital where they kept a large rocking horse, and looked down through the railings. My mother and Tony looked up and waved, and I threw the plastic telescope at them and watched it smash on the floor. Bad hair day.

Not all days were ‘bad hair’ days. Twice a week we had sausage for breakfast. Why is it that decades later I can still….almost…recapture the smell of those sausages, their taste? I loved them and have never had a finer sausage since. Pork sausage, Toulouse sausage, Cumberland sausage, lamb and mint, Chorizo, beef sausages, beef and tomato sausages, organic, lo salt, hi salt spiced or otherwise I’ve tried them all, but none to compare with the Myrtle St. Breakfast Sausage.

Then there was the day my dad came to visit me. He’d been at sea in the Far East and was on his way home. When at last he walked through the ward he became aware that everyone was looking at him, the nurses in particular. Some of them edged closer and then walked quietly away, nodding their heads. It was the first time I’d ever told a story, and I’d told it with conviction. My Dad was a Red Indian. Not a chief or shaman or even something specific like Choctaw or Pawnee. No, as Goebbels discovered, tell a lie often enough and the world will believe you. Better still, make it a big one. My dad was a Red Indian. They watched him striding down the ward, matching his face to a story even I’d come to believe. A tropical sun had given his face a dark and coppery look and it was easy to see him in buckskin and war-bonnet. Vindication at last.

I can still remember my mum’s joy when I eventually came home. Only now do I fully understand it, but then I didn’t have children of my own. I also remember how I effectively rained on my own parade. I was not happy. The street seemed small and narrow, the house even smaller and dark. I had been ‘institutionalised’, had grown to love the ward. It was light and airy, comforting at night. I loved its daily routine, the nurses, hospital food…sausages. I even liked the toilets. When I passed through the door of 14 Ribblesdale it was like walking into darkness. My mum was hurt; Tony my brother perhaps puzzled. I don’t recall.

At home the hospital routine continued with weekly visits from Doctor Rosenthal. A night spent in bed followed by a day on my back on the living room couch eating salad and raw vegetables - at least until my mother gave up. The penicillin continued though. Through habit, inertia and bureaucratic oversight I took my two tablets daily until I was twenty two! Had I not then volunteered to donate some blood I might still be taking them now. My blood was swimming in it, or should that be the other way round? I was a walking penicillin factory.

Hospital was great, but now I had no friends. Childhood is bright and ferocious; Liverpool was tough. As parents now, I think we verge on the over protective, but I’d hate my own children to experience what I learnt to take for granted. Two years behind in school and way down the pecking order in a ‘gang’ that had materialised during my absence, I withdrew into a world where I was in control. Making friends was another lesson to be learnt.

Getting up from the couch was always a bit of a treat. Some days I would sit on the front door step with a cup of tea in my hands. My mum, like most parents, was worried; in her case about my lack of friends. (They’re all in hospital I’d cry) So the door step it was; me sitting provocatively like an Amsterdam model. Sometimes it worked. Michael Barnard who lived opposite suggested a game of ‘William Tell’. He had the bow and arrow. I was to provide the apple. As games go, it wasn’t brilliant. He had four shots. The first three hit the door. The last one got me in the eye.

Monday, 16 April 2007

Blood red skies

I hurtled to the ground; too late. An arrow-head sliced into my left buttock. The pain paralysed my leg, the desert air blurred. There was sand in my teeth.

“Are you alright, Captain?”

I nodded, unwilling to speak.

The nurse turned me over. “There’s my brave boy.”
I smiled. She said that to me most days. It was my penicillin injection. Some time later penicillin was administered in pill form.

“I wouldn’t like that.” It was Owen who had the bed next to me. He’d waited until the nurse had moved on, as though afraid she might act upon a hint. It was a strange thing to say because Owen couldn’t be turned over. His stomach was half open and sometimes he smelled. We shared books and talked about pirates.

He had one large book I was particularly fond of and when he was sleeping - which was more and more often - I would read it from cover to cover. The artist was particularly fond of the colour red. The Buffalo Bill story was awash with red deserts, blood red buttes and crimson skies. Indians and cacti appeared as stark silhouettes. The pirate stories occupied the same terrain: blood-red seas and mangrove swamps in black. The only exception was the solitary Space Story which was essentially yellow and black: large yellow robots on saffron plains, or else hurtling through black space in yellow ships.

One night I was awakened by a soft shuffling sound and the squeaking of wheels. Two nurses were wheeling a green screen around Owen’s bed. A doctor walked quietly down the ward and joined them. I fell asleep and in the morning the screen was gone and so was Owen.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Flat on my back as the Actress said to the Bishop.


This is the wonderful Myrtle Street Children's Hospital. I think it's a magical building, it was even spookier inside - but in a nice way.

I don’t remember this, only what my mum told me. I was being walked back to school. I was tired; my legs were aching and I was dragging on her arm. My mum thought I was whining over nothing and felt guilty about this for some time after. That same night I was in Myrtle Street hospital diagnosed with rheumatic fever. I was there for over eighteen months, the first year flat on my back. I was told the nuns and children of Blessed Sacrament prayed for me everyday, but I was also blessed with penicillin that was being used for the first time to treat the disease. Up until then rheumatic fever permanently damaged the heart and its sufferers usually ended up in wheel-chairs. I’ve never been particularly good at sport, but other than that I made a complete recovery due to prayer, penicillin, or a mixture of both.


I have vivid memories of my time in bed, most of them good, some of them less so. My first Christmas got off to a poor start. I remember waking up at about six in the morning. The ward was bursting with excitement, children bouncing on beds - or at least sitting up; the sound of paper ripped from boxes. I inclined my neck as far as it would go and scanned the foot of my bed. Nothing. No bulging pillow case, no pillow case. Nothing.

I just lay there…eating a mouthful of breakfast when it came, rehearsing my bitterness for my mother’s morning visit.

And I still can’t get my head around this.

My presents had been there all the time - at the foot of my bed, but on the floor and out of sight. And no one had told me. The taciturn spirit is vastly over-rated. Why had no one told me? I remember my mum’s puzzled face lifting the pillowcase stuffed with presents from the floor; I remember hugging it, as best I could on my back, confused, unable to switch off the bitterness but dazed with relief. (These are later words. I was only seven at the time, but I remember the feeling)

Myrtle Street Hospital was a wonderful place once you got used to it. I loved waking up at night and turning my face on the pillow so that I was facing the entrance to the ward. There was a small desk there bathed in a dim, golden light and the nurse on duty appeared as a blurred silhouette - about the size of a large beetle. It was a long ward, and I was at its furthest end. The door would occasionally open and the matron, sometimes a doctor, would come in and sit with the nurse and talk, and I would strain my ears trying to catch a word or two, but they always spoke in whispers and I would fall asleep wondering what it was they were talking about. I loved the silence of the nights, the early morning smell of breakfast cooking. Only sometimes people died.
I’ll talk about that tomorrow.

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Seize the moment whatever the price

I went to a church school - The Blessed Sacrament. It was about a mile away and my mother walked be there, walked me back home for lunch and then back again for the afternoon session. It was a boring walk but I don’t remember complaining. Sometimes it rained, but the walk always remained the same: grey streets and grey skies, and neat but grubby red-bricked houses.

My earliest memory of school was an art class. Our first. I was about six and itching with excitement. On our desks was a great sheet of white paper and small box of paints. The teacher turned to the blackboard and began drawing a series of neat, pointy things. They looked like triangles, but without a base. I saw what she intended immediately and within moments the brush was in my hand and I was painting fir trees furiously. I intended upon a large blue lake in the foreground, but it was not to be.

A silence enveloped the room and, looking up, I saw the teacher staring down at me. I didn’t like the look on her face and she didn’t like mine, or my fir trees. She grabbed me by the ear and walked me to the back of the class where I was forced to sit and watch everyone else copy her drawing on the board: a grey street of red bricked houses.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Seize the moment or end up with a sock in your hand.

The day was baking hot and we were somewhere we’d never been before: Parbold. Our parents were slow, admiring the view, and allowed us to scramble out of the car. Directly in front of us was a small mountain waiting to be climbed. At the top we stopped, confused in magic. We stood on the rim of a flooded quarry.

Tony was stripped to his loin cloth within seconds, a moment later lost in the water, kicking, writhing and splashing along with everyone else there. I hesitated. Rocks, a deep Utah red, towered over us; the lake shimmered turquoise, a Mexican blue. Across the water, on a ledge facing me and half lost in shadow a Navaho Chieftain stared sombrely at the sacred lake, now defiled. The sky, a jagged blue circle was empty except for a condor, slowly wheeling. Somewhere, amidst the rocks, a mountain lion coughed.

I tore off my clothes, was down to my last sock, eager to dive into the magic. “Michael!” It was my mother, her voice sharp in worry. “Come here, son.” My father. I stared at nothing, transformed in that moment to a boy in underpants holding a sock. The quarry was dangerous. I wasn’t to go in. What about Tony? My father scanned the cold blue water full of shrieking children. “He’s in there somewhere,” he said quite reasonably. “We’ll give him a moment or two.”
Years afterwards I scoured Parbold. We cycled there, exploring lanes that looked familiar but led to nowhere. Later still I explored maps in search of the sacred lake, a moment lost in hesitation. It’s there somewhere, and so is the magic.

Monday, 2 April 2007

A Walk on the Dark Side




The Curiosity Shop: scene of a murder.


Am I looking at a 50’s childhood through rose coloured glasses? I suppose I could ramble on indefinitely about riding down country lanes, provisioned with a bottle of water and a loaf of bread, its inside hollowed out and filled with crisps and ketchup. The glory days of British cuisine. There were expeditions to the ‘Gingerbread shop’ - somewhere we never found twice. There were those who travelled as far as the ‘Dizzy steps’ though I never discovered where these were and subsequently relegated them to the province of the Elephant’s Graveyard.

There was a darker side. Many of us would gravitate to a small garage situated off Wyresdale Road, between Ribblesdale and Warbreck Moor. It dominated a small entry behind Shaws the Chemist and the owner would allow us to sit in the corner and talk about anything and watch all there was to watch. It made for a gloomy and intimate hideout and I can still remember the smell of engine oil, and grease. We never questioned why he was so tolerant of our company. Some time later he was found hanged in his garage; suicide it was said. Later still it came out that he was a child molester. I haven’t mentioned his name out of respect for what is essentially a tragedy, but his face is still clear in my mind.

Just a little further down Warbreck Moor was a sixteen room Victorian house occupied by one very old man. It cornered Hall Lane and Albany Road and in my parent’s time was known as the Curiosity Shop. Its ground floor was stuffed with the weird and exotic, memorabilia of every kind. In 1953, the man who owned it, George Walker, was 86 years old. I was 5. In January 1953 George Walker was murdered. His killer was John Todd, a 20 year old labourer from Roxburgh Street, Walton. A massive inquiry involving 14, 000 statements eventually identified him and he was arrested, charged and hung in Walton Gaol in May 1953. What strikes me now is the sheer speed of the process. One assumes, perhaps wrongly, they got the right man.
For more information click here.

When we were a little older, the house was still there stripped and abandoned. You could get into it from the back, but despite all our bravado we never stayed in it for long. Real or imagined, it exuded a horribly creepy atmosphere. Some boasted of spending a whole night there…but some how I doubt it.

Now it’s a Shell garage…but I wouldn’t spend too long on its forecourt at night.

Of interest only to Train spotters and those who like lists - my brother perhaps who’ll fault my memory and those who once lived there.

Anyway, back to the street. Facing our house from right to left lived Winnie Barnard and her son Michael Barnard. I can’t remember the father. She was both religious and Irish and always friendly. On a few occasions me and Michael experimented with string and tin cans. The cans acted as telephones, the string as the wire connecting our facing bedroom windows. We usually ended up shouting across at each other and I lost interest in science soon after that.

Next door to them lived an old lady, Mrs Crocker - great name for an old lady. She wore a long orange cardigan and a black skirt. When she died the Tates moved in. They were nice too, but less tolerant of our games because Mr. Tate did night shift and slept, or tried to, during the day. The next house draws a blank. Then came the Lawsons: Rose, and her two sons, Peter and Tony Lawson. Again, interestingly enough I can’t remember the father. Maybe it’s an example of young children focusing more on ‘mothers’ than ‘fathers’.

The Alty’s had two sons. One of them I think was called Charlie. They were smooth and slick, suave with Elvis Presley hair and smart suits. They belonged to a different world - a world I thought that one day I might enter - but never did.

Next house - another blank, - then a small lane, and finally the corner house facing Wyresdale Road. This belonged to the Cooksons and their son John Cookson. They were blessed with a large coal shed in their backyard.

Mr Cookson was a thin wizened man with glasses and a wrinkly face. Mrs Cookson was large and plump with a yellow face. She wore a beret and a floral apron. I remember, and appreciate now, they were always concerned that their son might not fit in - but he did, because they had that shed which doubled up as a stage for countless plays and puppet shows by the street’s thespians.

Are you still with me? Is the list getting too long? Tough. My fingers are racing, my memory juiced up. I’m bringing a world back to life here - bear with me, please!
On our side of the street lived Mrs Hadfield and Bessie. They were our neighbours to our right at no. 16. She was late middle-aged with the air of a grand-dame. Bessie didn’t have a last name because she was a paid companion and even as children we observed how she always deferred to the grand lady. Our parents also looked up to her. They’d deny it, but we always had to be on our best behaviour if we ever visited (our next door neighbour for heavens sake) and would be dressed a little more smartly. She was nice but both she and Bessie reminded me of poodles in dresses because of their coiffured hair and white, heavily scented face-powder. Mrs Hadfield perhaps more of a pekinese than a poodle. I always thought she could give a nasty bite if crossed.

To our left at No. 12 lived the Hindleys and their daughter Norah Hindley who later became a nun. I remember they had broad Lancashire accents and were gentle and kind - even when I broke their window with a broom pole in pursuit of Huron.

A wonderfully eccentric lady lived at No. 10. May McCarthy. She had red hair and was my brother’s Godmother at his baptism. As part of the ceremony she was meant to stand over the font as Tony was being baptised and renounce the devil and all his works on behalf of the child. Instead, in a loud, ringing Irish accent that apparently filled the church, she ‘Announced the Devil and all his works and pomp.’ My brother has never looked back since.

At No 8 lived the Hartleys, Jack, Edie, Miles and Kevin. They had the first TV in the street. A small 12” black and white one and we’d look at Robin Hood or Rin Tin Tin through the window - though most times they let half the kids in the street in to watch.

At No. 6 lived our ‘Aunty Dolly’ - really our great aunt because she was our grandfather’s sister.

No 4 is a blank though they gave us some money once when we did some carol singing with mandolins. Their great claim to fame - and ours.

Finally No 2. Once occupied by a family whose father looked like a spiv (this is from the mind of a child he was probably a very good man) and who had this wonderful dark blue Vauxhall car with chrome tail fins. It was alien, polished, American and we’d stroke it surreptitiously as we passed. They were replaced by the Carltons who treated us with tolerance and had a son called Robert Carleton who later joined the police.

There was a boy called Ian who I always thought had an eggy face, who lived at No. I Eggy face? Some people suffer from/enjoy synaesthesia. I tend to see faces in terms of animals or food. Is there a name for that I wonder? Should there be?

A doggy face, a fishy face....In quieter, New Agey moments I wonder if its all in someway related to reincarnation. But, to my knowledge, eggs don't enjoy reincarnation, whatever the Karma. What could an egg do to come back as Ian? I'm babbling; time for a drink.