Out Now!

Sunday, 23 December 2007

How do you eat peanuts?

How do you eat peanuts? I’d never really thought about it before I waited upon Harold Wilson * (British Labour Prime Minister) at his Huyton Constituency. Maybe it’s just me, a careful eater, tedious, and needing to be in control of every, individual peanut; but I scoop out a handful with my right hand, deposit them in my left, then pick at them - sometimes five at a time, more often three. As you can see, I’ve thought about this.

The day I waited upon Harold Wilson, I observed how he ate his, and realised for the first time that even peanuts are political. First, he scooped his hand in the bowl in the Keyton prescribed manner, then he looked round at the working-class party workers of his Constituency and made an instant decision. He would eat as he assumed the working class ate their peanuts. He rammed the whole lot into his mouth in a single sweep of his arm.

Later I learned that the very first Labour Prime Minister, Ramsey Macdonald in the 1920’s and early 30’s had a very similar attitude when it came to cigarettes. Nothing escapes politicisation, and spin predates the wheel. He had two kinds of cigarettes: one a packet of cheap Woodbines in a cardboard packet when he was amongst working men, the other in a silver cigarette case for when he was amongst his favourite constituents - admiring duchesses. As long as he remembered which pocket they were in, he was all right.

This small revelation was followed by a military banquet. I remember silver, red coats, flushed faces, baldheads, and very loud voices. I remember scurrying around in a cheap white waiter’s jacket and realised there had to be more to life than this. It is hard to describe how desperate I was.

My first attempt at escape was a tad pathetic. The strategy was spot on, but courage was wanting. I’d get an education, a real one. Wasn’t too sure what a real education was, but it involved O levels at GCE. Wouldn’t go mad, try for English perhaps; see how it went.

Night School

I walked down a long corridor in Warbreck Moor School. It was 7.20. Pm and enrolment had begun for evening classes, night school as it was called then. I had at last determined to improve myself - beginning with an English GCSE - a fairly basic qualification. The corridor ended in a T junction, and it was approaching fast. Memories of past failures crowded in on me:

…aged eleven, walking down Hall lane and being attacked by Tony Holland, my dad on the other side of the road shouting encouragement, urging me to fight back, failing miserably, my dad’s shame - real or imagined.

At the end of the corridor I had to turn right. I hesitated, watching others walk into the English classroom. They looked earnest, a grim, unfriendly lot. A clatter of feet came up from behind - a bunch of merry, middle-aged women. One of them slapped me on the back. “Make your mind up, lad!”

“Are you doing English?” I asked.

She laughed and turned left. I followed and ended up doing a six-week course in basketwork.

Every so often my mum would ask me how the English was going…and I couldn’t find the words, until one day I brought home my first wicker basket.

Lesson learnt. If you want something, try again. Two years later I was at University.

* (Strictly speaking I wasn't actually waiting on Harold Wilson - just in the same dining room amongst a bunch of waiters)

Sunday, 9 December 2007

A Discontented Cook

Meanwhile I moved on from Mabel Fletcher to the more prestigious Colquitt St. College of Crafts and Catering, still unsure about everything, but determined to give it a go. It didn’t help that I was taught pastry making by a Polish Chef called Mr. Polaki. His voice resounded around the kitchen - ‘Develop the gluten’ - and he had a metal leg with which he would kick me at every opportunity. I vaguely remember a bruise on my calf because my sausage rolls were a centimetre too short. Only later did I discover that the Russians were responsible for the loss of his leg and once he discovered I was a socialist, the kickings increased - despite now perfect sausage rolls.

Money was short and I took every part time job, most often contract waiting where I learnt mischief alleviated boredom.
“Water Madam?”
And I’d pour the water so that it formed a convex sphere above the rim of the glass. It was done too quickly to appear deliberate and accompanied with a smile as one pleased to be of service. The fun, such as it was, lay in watching the woman trying to raise the glass without spilling it, or lowering her head to suck at it first. Petty, but amusing for a time.

There are many reasons behind industrial sabotage, boredom is one of them, a sense of grievance another. My favourite story is that of the disgruntled worker in a sweet factory making Blackpool Rock. (This consisted of a foot long cylinder of candy, pink on the outside, white in the middle, and with a message like ‘Welcome to Blackpool’ in red throughout the length of its interior) He changed the lettering and they’d made about ten miles of the stuff - packaged and distributed before they discovered his alternative message: ‘ Fuck Off.’

Catering was highly exploitive. Profit margins weren’t high, wages were low, hours long. I learnt French service, distributing slices of meat from red-hot salvers. You needed four layers of napkins separating the metal from an already sleeved arm and even then, the heat would seep through within minutes. You had to get rid of that meat fast or either you or the customer suffered.

There was a Masonic banquet in a hall so small that the tables were squeezed in densely packed rows. When everyone was seated only narrow aisles remained. We were forced to weave our way through these long six-inch wide aisles with these burning salvers on our arms, whispering with increasing desperation: “Excuse me Madam, Excuse me Sir.”
Our pleas were in vain. They were there to eat and get drunk. We became more ruthless and terse. The side of a red-hot salver makes for an effective cattle prod if sliced across a fleshy back, or in the case of men, against the neck. Black suits and gowns wilted as we passed, the aisle widening miraculously, like the parting of the Red sea.

Chefs could be equally bloody-minded. Myself and Mike Adams worked for a time in the Grand Hotel in Llandudno. It was a beautiful building ,which loomed out over the sea. Later it was badly burnt, insurance scam or an aggrieved cook is my guess.
We slept in a garret and were up by 5.30 preparing the tables for early breakfast. When breakfast was finished, we had about an hour’s break before relaying the tables for early lunches. After that, another hour break before laying for dinner - which dragged on for most of the night. Then bed, and up again at 5.30.

It didn’t make for happy puppies; the cooks though were surly Rottweilers. Dirty Rottweilers. Bacon and eggs were cooked on the up-turned lids of large stock pots because you could fry a much greater amount in one go. Eggs, bacon, sausages, sometimes black-puddings, drifted in grease - and worse. The cooks also used these pans as ashtrays and eggs sizzled amidst discarded cigarettes and deep-fried tobacco. We developed tough stomachs, but ate elsewhere.

After the Grand Hotel, working in the kitchens of Broad Green Hospital was like working in heaven. Old and middle-aged ladies clucked round us, offering tea at the slightest provocation. For weeks on end I was responsible for turning out the jam-buns - hundreds of them - for the entire hospital. Surgeons and consultants, even patients, all got to eat one of my jam-buns. In between times I drank tea and listened to heated discussions as to whether Kathy Kirby was a better singer than Cilla Black. I brooded as I contemplated years and years of this, and became increasingly desperate.

The only other image I retain from Broad Green Hospital is an incident, which took place in my very first week. The corridors were long and confusing. The Operating Theatre was dangerously close to the kitchens, and I was late. Dressed in blue checked trousers and Chef’s hat, my knives resting on a folded apron and prominent, I burst through the swinging doors and was confronted by a posse of shocked doctors and an even more shocked patient awaiting surgery.

I think he saw the funny side.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Bribing girls to see the Beatles

There were lesser Gods, in Liverpool: The Big Three, Rory Storm, The Searchers, Billy J Kramer, The Swinging Blue Jeans (My daughter invariably squirms with my rendition of Hippy Hippy Shake) and even smaller Gods, some as small as the ‘Hideaways’ who once performed at Mable Fletcher Technical College. They had their own logo, but that was all.

Mabel Fletcher attracted all kinds. Roger McGough, the Liverpool poet taught there for a time. He was a gifted teacher, and his poetry’s ok, too.

It also attracted a strange pregnant woman. She sat in the Common Room, at the far end, and people drifted by her, some touching her stomach. A few candles and a touch of incense it could have been Lourdes. The bell went, and I drifted off to make some sausage rolls.

Later rumors spread like rats in a Take-Away. She was carrying a Beatle baby; it was John Lennon’s, Paul’s, others swore blind Ringo or George was the father. All of us who had not touched the holy stomach felt vaguely cheated, though many years later I comfort myself it was probably the window cleaners.

Some now like to demystify the Beatles, refer to them laughingly as the first Boy Band. They were more than that, but were they ‘manufactured’?

It was my last day at the college and I was wandering around the Common Room - strangely empty without the pregnant woman. There was a waste bin there though, and in it was a large poster advertising the Beatles.
Printed in large red letters on a white background, it was advertising a Beatles Concert at the Locarno Ballroom in Liverpool. It went something like this.




Tickets 3/6d,
Free Gifts for the first 300 girls

Note the free gifts for the first 300 girls (boys always lose out) A clear case of priming the pump - bribing girls to see the Beatles!

I’d missed the holy stomach but what was in the bin made for a nice souvenir. And that was all it was. You need to remember the Beatles were only big in Liverpool then. No one else in Britain had heard of them. Two months later they had taken over the world and over the years I held on to that poster in my various moves from Liverpool to Swansea, Aberystwyth, and then Newport. And over the years it became steadily more battered and creased.

At the back of my mind I thought it would make a nice heirloom for Thomas and Frances. (…yeah, well, like my Dad trying to sell me Bing Crosby) But the paper was creased and yellowing, there were little tears, each growing bigger as every year passed.

Then my guardian angel intervened.

In the paper I saw an advert offering best prices for Beatles memorabilia. There was also a phone number and a man from Chorley answered. I described my poster and he nearly bit my hand off. Send me a photo. And I did.

Two days later, he phoned back and in a soft Chorley accent he traced every little crease and fold, from top to bottom, then said he'd be there the following day, having to purchase some Beatle contracts from a hall in Bristol first.

Sure enough, the following evening there was a knock on the door and in he walked, pockets bulging with money. The poster was laid bare on the table. It looked wrinkled and sad beneath the glare of a light bulb, like a raddled old woman.

He rubbed its corners and nodded. 'The real thing' he said. 'There's lots of fakes about'. Then he pulled out wads of money and gave me £2000.

When it was done and dusted I asked him how much he'd sell it for - 'possibly £3000 maybe a bit less - he stared pointedly at the tears and creases.

Anyway we lost our bit of history, but to be honest it was decaying fast and we didn't have the wherewithall to preserve it. I’d been cheated out of a Bob Dylan ticket at Mabel Fletchers but learnt a lesson. Life is what you make - or salvage from dust bins.

Monday, 26 November 2007

The Cavern Club

It’s hard to describe the Cavern, the original Cavern, without saying what’s already been said. You descended into blackness, the air hot and solid with sound, difficult to breathe.

Halfway down the stairs your body would vibrate, your heart and lungs tremble. You didn’t so much hear the music as disintegrate into it. And then, framed by arches of sweating brick, you saw the stage, how tiny it was. You sweated in the Cavern. You were in heaven. And the Beatles were its Gods.

Liverpool then was the centre of the universe - according to Alan Ginsberg, and who am I to argue? The Liverpool Echo was swamped with requests from all over the world for Liverpool pen friends.

There was a fetching pen and ink drawing of an ecstatic American teenager, concocted, I imagine over a pint or two by the Echo’s resident artist, but she did for me. Her name was Debbie Baird, and she came from Texas, and letters ensued.

She was also rich, her father owned bakeries - and she was coming to Liverpool. I panicked when I got the letter. We’ll have to get some coffee, I said. Americans like coffee. I was fifteen with the sophistication of a newt.

Debbie was big and blonde with a peaches and cream complexion, and a raw Texan twang I’d only previously heard in Westerns.

I took her to the Cavern, warning her that most of the big bands had gone, but there was a ‘name’ group on that night - The Chants. I didn’t think to tell her they were black.

I still have shivers at the memory of that night. We walked down the steps into the cellar. It was hot and sweaty. The music was loud. Then a raw Texan voice cut across the darkness. 'Christ, they're black!"

No arguing with that.

This was my first brush with pre Civil Rights America. The British of course were more civilised. We thought we were superior to everyone. It was a comfortable feeling.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Abattoir Nights

Days actually, well in fact one day. To be precise a morning. It was enough. St. Bonaventure’s had taken me on a visit to Bootle Gasworks. Mable Fletcher Tech College took us to an abattoir.

I read somewhere that Hannibal, before crossing the Alps, had to cross the River Rhone with a bunch of reluctant elephants. His solution was to build rafts, each holding three elephants - one female to every two males - the principle being that the female would have a calming effect. Makes you wonder what we’re paying modern psychiatrists all the money for.

Anyway, this principle proved true on our visit to the slaughtering house. The boys showing a certain raucous callousness which in effect hid our discomfort, and the girls, afraid of retreating into a stereotypical ‘girlishness’, biting their lips, sometimes turning away as blood spattered a little too close.

I don’t know really what was worse, the clanging of metal gates, the smell of blood and fear, men coarsened by habit, their shouts echoing over the dying. On balance I think it was in the eyes of the animals.

We stood alongside a long and narrow metal pen filled with cattle squashed in single file. There was no escape for them and they knew what was happening. At the far end was a man with a stun gun, which in theory was quick and painless. The process was simple: stun, hook on to an overhead conveyor belt, which in turn led to where they were skinned and dismembered. They were still writhing and twitching as they passed overhead, each on a strong metal hook. ‘Just their nervous systems girls and boys. They’re all dead.’ Great.

We stood watching these animals, distancing ourselves with varying degrees of success. It was their eyes - anger, fear, dull acceptance - there was no single expression. Sometimes a cow would go wild and try to shoulder down the walls on either side, but with no space, there was no momentum - only the relentless push from the other cows behind.

Pigs however were killed a little more humanly, not so much from mercy, more pragmatism. We learnt that a frightened pig releases amino acids which give their meat a sour taste. I thought of south sea cannibals eating their ‘long pig’, and whether we released amino acids when scared, whether missionaries had sour meat.

Anyway, I digress. These fortunate pigs were allowed to run between a man’s legs whereupon what looked like ear-phones were placed over its head. Instead of Bruce Springsteen they got an electric shock, and before they knew what had happened they were pushed into a giant vat of boiling water.

Kosher killing we were assured was pretty painless. The chickens didn’t look to happy though.

As ‘day-outs’ went, it wasn’t the best.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Sticking hands up chickens.

It was a mean-spirited time, especially in catering. Profit and loss was geared to 4 oz portions. Industrial strainers lined counters so tea-slops could be saved and recycled, and waiters were pimply faced boys with attitude or else elderly men with roaming hands. I was one of them - a pimply faced boy - and I hated it, the thin white jackets, the obsequious stoop, that first open day at Mabel Fletcher where we glided over wooden floors presenting bemused parents with Vol au vents.

Cooking was better, solid, real and sometimes dangerous. I learnt not to sit on a cast iron cooking range - even at the end of a long afternoon when they should have been cool. They weren’t and I leapt into the air like a cartoon cat. I learnt not to put my hands into newly introduced microwaves - whether in retrieving food, or out of curiosity, sometimes bravado from those who held them in contempt as not amounting to much, certainly not cooking - hands and microwaves here are interchangable.

These early microwaves didn’t amount to much - in terms of safety but they turned hands an interesting shade of pink. I learnt that sticking hands up a newly dead chicken could be fun, but that foretelling the future from its entrails was not so simple. I learnt how to skin fish, cook Sole Veronique and Ouef Florentine. I learnt how to speak French so long as it knew it’s place - a menu card.

I learnt that Cooking was not for me, but still I persevered. I learnt about square pegs in round holes, and round pegs in round ones and made a friend in Michael Adams. Mike was a natural, a gifted chef and one of the funniest people I've ever met. A round peg in a round hole. It's something he denies, making the point that there was little else going for him, and that in those days you just stuck at things. Many cooks do that, but Mike ended up as personal chef to the Duke of Westminster and moved on to other aristocratic households. I ended up as a teacher, and like him stuck with it.

That’s the best thing I learnt at Mabel Fletcher, that you could make a friend and talk to him forty years later as if it was yesterday.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Readers he had his way with me

The day I started Catering College, the bus ran over a dog. It should have told me something. There’d been many false starts in my choice of career. Hartley’s jam factory exuded its daily lure of hot strawberries. Further down the road was the Crisp factory, and once, the only career lesson we ever had, the class was taken to Bootle Gasworks. I still remember the thick gooey brightly coloured paint on metal handrails, the clang of feet on metal steps, and the smell of dust and gas. And yet, I knew what I wanted to do.

I wanted to go to sea, like my dad. I wanted to spend long hours on the deck at night staring at sea and sky, and descend into the boiler room when it got too cold and drink very hot chocolate. I had it all worked out.

Only my Dad was adamant. If I went to sea, I had to have a trade. He must have looked at me and wept - this fresh-faced shortsighted boy - must have thought of crews he had sailed with over the years, time lost in the South China seas, the kind of life I’d have to expect.

I spent a week or two convinced I’d be a radio officer, until Morse code eventually wore me down; and then it came: the answer, combining my two great obsessions, a life at sea, and food.

I’d be a ship’s cook.

Hence my presence on a bus that ran down a dog.

Mabel Fletcher Technical College taught hairdressers and cooks, and gradually it dawned on me I had made a mistake, only it was now too late. My blue checked trousers had been bought, along with two white tunics and a tall chef’s hat, which, however long or hard you starched it, always flopped down.

A lot of my memories of Mabel Fletcher are lost in a blur of kitchen knives and steam, but I remember this. Mr Radcliffe, a liberal studies tutor with black glasses and a blue striped shirt pestered me every day for a month. I had something he wanted. A Bob Dylan ticket, no, more than that, The Bob Dylan ticket. It was the year Dylan went electric and he was playing in Manchester. And I had a ticket. He pursued me for weeks, Radcliffe not Bob. Kept raising his price, until eventually, dear readers I… succumbed and he had his way with me for a £10 note. I’d sold a piece of history for a £10 note and have regretted it ever since.

Not to worry though. I acquired another piece of history in Mabel Fletcher, and many years later sold it for £2000.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Cold bacon and chips

The tree and railway embankment remain. Just me that's moved on. In Summer the foliage was dense.

Aargh! The park is still there, but the swings have gone! Just a grey patch of asphalt left. Curs!

The tree overhanging the swing is still there though. The sky is much the same, too.

There’s a time when you sense childhood ending, a tide is ebbing and you feel suddenly bare, exposed; a bit like when you wake up cold in the morning and snuggle deeper under the duvet, knowing it’s time to get up, but not wanting too. I remember two distinct phases, one unconscious, a desperate rear-guard action, the other quiet acceptance on a swing, in a park about to close.

The desperate rear-guard action period was a realisation that despite reading all the Hardy Boys books, the odd Nancy Drew, the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, Biggles, Fu Manchu, The Saint, James Bond and every Edger Wallace book ever written, I had never caught a crook or been embroiled in an international spy ring.

I went into over-drive, making a small tree house (well a cardboard screen actually) in a tree on the railway embankment. It overlooked the bus stop and, on a higher branch,a scrap merchant’s yard that had to be nefarious. To move Descartes on, just a little bit, ‘I want, therefore it is’.

My dad obliged by sewing me a small canvas bag, which I attached to my belt - a utility pouch - Tarzan meets Batman. Instead of neat gizmo’s I had carefully selected stones; now all I needed were targets. There are some villainous looking pedestrians out there - especially when you’re looking for them. Little did they realise their narrow escape as my Descartes principle battled against a growing caution - perhaps the first signs of adult maturity. Cold winds were blowing.

The moment of acceptance came on late Tuesday afternoon. There would be bacon and chips for tea, and I was drifting listlessly on a swing. The park was empty, the sky was grey and darkening, and I suddenly realised that soon I’d be too old to be doing this. Grown-ups didn’t go on swings; it was against the law, or something. I wanted to stay on it for as long as I could, even if I ended up eating cold bacon and chips.

I realised there were things I would never do again, people I would never see. I thought back on Penny Charters - the nurse when we played doctors and nurses, and for whom there was always a queue to be sick; her sister Carol, lean and rangy, the ultimate tomboy; I thought of Steven Davies, the embryonic stud and his younger brother Alan, who first introduced to me the ultimate ‘foody’ food: salmon paste sandwiches with pickled onions. It had to be white bread, fresh and thinly cut. I thought of Billy Shaw, the chemist’s son, who showed me what really counted in games involving toy soldiers: will and imagination. Across the terracotta plains of his paved backyard, the forests and jungles of a thin strip of garden, the buttes of up-turned flower pots, we played cowboys and Indians, Gi’s and Japs, Tommies and Huns, and I invariably lost because Billy knew how to change the rules, and I didn’t. (The great secret in life)

Only speaking of rules - it was well past my tea - and my bacon was cold. A fact as certain as the moon in the sky. Changing the rules would come later.

This marks an end to my childhood.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Dancing In My Socks

My first record. This is the image, the record I've lost.

Dancing in my socks
Crazy like a fox
Cos baby, I’m a little too tall for you

Dancing Dancing ( hushed male back-up, earnest and sycophantic)

When I put my shoes on,
Then I put the blues on
Cos baby I’m just to tall for you,
You are my dream-boat….mercifully I’ve forgotten the rest. What’s frightening is that I remember so much. The power of first records, eh? The other side was ‘Daddyo.’ The artist Bonny Lou. I loved her voice, the first American I’d ever heard. The first American girl. There was a brash sexuality to it, a lubricious squeak to her ‘Daddyo’ that made me play the record again and again. But what about the lyrics to ‘Dancing In My Socks’? Pure wistful lunacy. My other first records - four in all - were all peculiarly sad.

The theme tune to the film Exodus - horrendous.
Red River Rock by Johnny and the Hurricanes, - less sad but mechanistic and boring.
Tom Dooley No comment.
And Big Bad John ("He stood six foot six and weighed two forty-five") No, I’m not going to frighten myself and see how much of that I can remember.
I was going to buy the Davy Crocket song, but mercifully the money ran out, and I knew the words anyway, sad, sad boy.

It was that time in your life when you knew you were supposed to buy records but you didn’t know what…and there was nothing to buy - not in the outer nebulae of Aintree.

It was the lull before the storm. That period of quiet before the Beatles and all that followed. There was an expectancy, a sense of something just waiting to happen. You could smell it in the air, in the way people talked. Liverpool was in ferment, but in the meantime I had ‘Daddyo’ and ‘Big Bad John’, and I lived in a house with old 78’s and artists like Dennis Lotus, Anne Sheridan, Alma Coogan, Ruby Murrey - music for the war-weary. Liverpool was about to explode. I had another year to wait.

In the meantime, there was the school trip - not the annual daytrip to Southport - but a real ‘holiday’: A week in a renovated air-force barrack close to Romney Marsh. It was my last year in school and my parents found the money. I had never been on holiday before. We never had the money. This was a time when Butlins Holiday Camps were sweeping the nation, beguiling us all with blue sky posters, men in red coats and white smiles, sand the colour of custard and everything shining in a bright plastic gloss. Butlins, next best thing to heaven - and affordable, except for us. It was the way of things.

There’s a word for it now: the sound track of your lives. The coach trip was long and remains a fabulous memory, long winding lanes and trees that hid a hundred highwaymen, and overlaying everything, Frank Ifield’s ‘I remember you’, alternating with Bobby Vee and the Ventures ‘The Night has a Thousand Eyes.’ And then we saw our destination.

The ‘renovated’ barracks were damp, the blankets coarse and thin. The rooms smelt of stew and the breakfast bacon was rancid - old world war II stock - I’m sure of it, but acceptable if covered with enough tomato. It wasn’t Butlins.
But it was enough, the memories remain good, cricket matches where I actually hit the ball, the immensity of Romney marsh, and the mysteries of the Dymchurch steam railway. Why in God’s name did we go there?

Saturday, 13 October 2007


‘I announce the devil and all his works and pomps his Irish godmother said at his christening. I remember him making an Errol Flynn leap from the Power - station (read the Sheriff of Nottingham’s castle) on to an asbestos-roofed shed ten feet below, crashing through that another ten feet, and being caught and cuffed by the haulier whose yard it was.

Did my brother want to look like this?

Or perhaps this?

The picture above is my brother, now a pioneer in stress engineering and carbon fibre technology. Forty odd years ago he was in the front room (we called it the parlour) practising his scales on a black piano. Me and my mum and dad were in the backroom. It was just before lunch and both parents were content, enjoying the music and proud of their son. The next minute the door burst open and Tony rushed through carrying a cardboard box. A second later he’d hurtled through the kitchen and was in the backyard, when there was a knock on the front door. It was the police.

They caught Tony trying to flush twelve jars of brylcreem down the outside toilet. Panic is a wondrous thing.

So were the Liverpool police, at least Detective Ruddock. He knew it for what it was, a piece of schoolboy bravado, one step up from scrunching apples off a neighbour’s tree. But twelve jars of brylcreem? Luckily this was at a time when police, most anybody, had leeway to make commonsense judgements (more about that later) My brother was given a good talking to and told to report to the police-station every Saturday at 1 pm for a month. Nothing was written down, no record made and the incident was done.

Not for our mum and dad however. Apples…brylcreem…where would it end? Tony was in with a bad lot. Something would have to be done. It was a courageous decision I never ever appreciated until I had children of my own. Let me explain.

Tony had passed the 11+ and was at a Grammar School, the less than prestigious Everard Avenue - but Grammar school never the less - gateway to opportunity and who knows - University - those places of duffle-coats and long stripy scarves. To withdraw him from school and so save him from a life of crime…They pondered long and hard, and eventually the letter was sent. A few weeks later Tony started work as an apprentice at Howsons ship-yards….and so began an erratic career that led to the top. Life is strange and full of accidents, decisions leading on to consequences never expected. It was the 1960’s a time of opportunity and blue skies. (Grey in Liverpool)

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Ruth Aldiss

The hall where we had our school dancing lesson

My first experience of girls was at a dancing lesson arranged by the nuns of The Blessed Sacrament and held in a room at Park Lane adjacent to the Church. One dancing lesson would suffice, they thought, to see us through the rest of our lives. Within the hour, we would learn the Fox Trot and perhaps the Waltz.

That evening I was scrubbed and polished. The following day I sat alongside thirty or more other boys, reluctant, afraid but nicely turned out. Facing us were thirty or more girls in long dresses. I was facing the Freeman twins. I didn’t know which one I danced with then, and I don’t know now, but her hands and shoulders were damp with sweat, hers and mine, and we jerked this way and that in a miasma of stale air and soap. Fear and Loathing in Walton Vale would never make it as Film. Flash dancing it wasn’t.

My second experience was Ruth Aldiss, though she didn’t know it, and I never told her. It was lust and love all rolled into one. I put away my Fred Perry Racquet. When I sat next to her I was the Bunsen burner. She had honey blonde hair, the most beautiful lips and I tingled all over whenever she was near. I was only fourteen.

It was an English lesson, presided over by Mr Musker. He was an elegant gentleman who wore green tweed and cavalry twill trousers. His moustache was neatly clipped and so was his voice. He had the appearance of a Hollywood English gentleman, elegant, urbane, and fond of the cane. It was Free Composition, ie write what you like. I was writing a story about a man falling from a plane and discovering his parachute wouldn’t open. I remember the story for only one reason. Ruth Aldiss was bending over me…wanting to know what was going to happen next. Her head was close to mine. From that moment on, I wanted to write. Nothing since has equalled that moment in all my various scribbles, nor will it, whether in terms of financial reward, publishing deal, or general world acclaim. Unless Ruth Aldiss now heads a major publisher…

Nemesis fell like an axe.

“Keyton. You’re talking.”

So was the rest of the class, but examples had to be made. A lesson learnt from World War 11 and every other war, and a fixture now in every school. Mr. Musker took no prisoners. Eight of us were chosen. Two thousand lines to be handed in the following day. I was up until eleven pm and got as far as 1600 when I finally gave up.

“Just hand them in,” my mother said. “He’ll never count them.”

First lesson was Music, which mostly consisted of singing ‘The Ash Tree’ or the occasionally shanty. Mr Brophy was an enthusiastic Yorkshire man with a love of Kathleen Ferrier and English folksongs. He had a red face and a beaky nose, and white hair that rose in the air with his hands as he conducted our singing. Only I couldn’t sing that day. I was thinking of Ruth Aldiss, thinking of the cane. Pleasure and pain.

He’ll never count them. Some words have their own peculiar fragrance of doom. They were counted and found wanting, and I stood in line with the other boys and had six thwacks of the cane on both hands. She was watching and I tried for a swagger. He noticed. His lips tightened. So did mine when the cane came down. My hands were red and tingling so fiercely, I didn’t think of Ruth Aldiss for the rest of the day.

Six weeks later we both left school. I went to a catering college. Someone told me she worked in an office somewhere in Liverpool and got the train from Orrell Station every morning. I took my courage in both hands and carried it as far as Platform 2. I recognised her at once, as beautiful as ever but now sophisticated in a bright pink coat. Girls grow faster than boys, and I knew it was no good. The train came early that day and in a moment she was gone. Life is full of lost chances but you can’t pass that wisdom on.

Sunday, 30 September 2007

Teachers Part 11

That’s the trouble with teachers. They get a bee in their bonnet and feel driven to share it with the one captive audience they have… until a bell rings and returns us to sanity. What was the man doing, talking about sex drives to a bunch of fourteen-year-old boys? There were girls in the class, too, but memory is sexist. I cannot remember what they drew or what they thought of it. I probably assumed they didn’t have sex drives. It was a different world.

But some things don’t change. Teachers and their incessant urge to pass on what astounds them and so must astound everyone else.

Following my MA, I did a one year teaching course in Aberystwyth. We had one lecturer who extolled the virtue of putting small children in cupboards, and get them to imagine they were in a witch’s cave. Interesting case for the defence. There were two other lecturers called Dr. Trot and Dr. Gallop. Gallop and Trot. University College Aberystwyth must have had an agenda. Had a Mr Canter applied for a job he’d have been hired, irrespective of his qualifications.

Dr. Gallop was a dark intense man. Dr Trot was the dreamer, also profoundly deaf. His hearing aids were bigger than his ears. One wet October morning he stood on the podium. His gaze swept the auditorium. “One day,” he said. “We shall be teaching in Space.”

Better than cupboards, I thought. Less risk.

“And what then?”

Again his gaze swept the auditorium, but no answer came. We knew he would tell us.
“How will our educational system cope? Think of it!” His voice rose, slipping into Welsh preacher mode. “The teacher on, say, a passenger ship to one of the moons of Jupiter will come back older than his own children, to a wife in her dotage!”
The lecture was on child development, but you never knew with Dr. Trot.

I did my teaching practise in Milford Haven. Milford Central, I think the school was called. Dr. Trot was my supervisor. He was responsible for observing me in class.
“I’ll be as unobtrusive as possible,” he promised. “Nothing worse than distracting a class.

The class looked forward to his visits.

First the door would open slowly, an inch or two, and a giant hearing aid came into sight, then an ear. The class stared in rapt and silent attention A moment later the door would open a little wider and an arm, then a shoulder materialised, followed by the rest of the body. Thirty pairs of eyes followed his progress as he slid along the wall like a limpet on speed. Finally he sat on a chair at the very back of the class, giving me a conspiratorial wink, as if to say ‘mission accomplished.’ There were moments when I wished he was on a space ship to one of the moons of Jupiter, even if he did come back younger than me.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Teachers. Part 1

Mr Capaldi was our woodwork teacher. He came with the brand new Craft Block. I hated woodwork but liked Mr Capaldi. He was small and slightly chubby. He had a smile that was both merry and gentle. He had curly black hair but the first signs of balding were apparent, and he didn’t throw blocks of wood at pupils when he was cross. I never saw him cross. Even with my sad little efforts with chisel and wood.

We all of us made our mahogany crucifixes, each on a three stepped plinth. This involved a certain degree of mutilation as chisels slipped, gouging out holes in the wood, before leaping into softer targets. My crucifix adorned our bedroom cabinet for a time, before it was broken in a fight with my brother. It had never been very strong and made a pretty poor club.

The only other thing of note I ever made was a rosewood bowl. Memory probably makes it more beautiful than it ever was, but being persuaded to give it away as a present to a teacher still grates, and regret makes the bowl even more beautiful. It stands up there with anything to be found in the British Museum or the Met.

Mr Bird taught us history. He was lean and sardonic, invariably wore a dark blue jacket, sometimes with a red sweater, and he had black hair which hung a little over his forehead, and which he’d sweep back when getting angry. We all took note.

I loved History, bombarding him with project after project: Alcibiades, ancient Sparta, Roman emperors; I stopped at the Boer war.
Once, he drew what looked like the trunk of a tree on the blackboard; two vertical, lines, narrowly spaced. Complete the drawing, he said.

It was better than dictated notes, so we drew. Some drew tulips, Bunsen burners, others drew swords or spears. I drew a Fred Perry tennis racquet.
I spent some time on it, especially the latticed surface but for all my efforts, it looked like a crack spider’s web.

Mr Bird walked round, making encouraging noises, sometimes a comment. He paused over mine for a long time. Then he walked back to his desk.

“What are we doing this for, sir?” John Dickinson, I think.

It was the obvious question, no one had asked until now. We were a docile bunch. Give us a trench, and we’d have gone over the top with undue fuss.

“It’s a psychology exercise.”

“I thought we were doing history, sir.”

"Just something different," he said. "It shows the strength and nature of your sex drive.”

I was crushed. I had drawn a Fred Perry tennis racquet. The right answer was the sword and spear, even a Bunsen burner.

I plucked up courage. “What does mine show, sir?”

He looked at me and smiled. “Yours is complex, Michael.”

And I’ve been pondering on that ever since.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Salad cream and the Sparrow-hall gang.

The Dinner Centre, a half mile walk from the school. It's a post-war prefab that doubled up as a prison camp in my imaginary world. Ironically it's still standing, and being used as a nursery in the C21st, when much finer buildings, including Blessed Sacrament School, have been knocked down.

For the record, the boys holding the bin are John Garland, Donald Rimmer and Neil whose surname escapes me. The boys in St Bonaventures Library holding my project on Ancient Rome are Kevin Molloy, Neil Campbell, Donald Rimmer, John Garland and Neil.
These were my first friends. I haven’t seen them for over thirty years, and probably never will, but they remain as fresh in my mind as though it were yesterday.

I was slow to make friends, or friends were slow to make me. It was painful at the time. I can remember that. Long-term results have been mixed. The biggest casualty was confidence. I’ve learnt to be sociable since. As a career, I consciously chose teaching instead of librarianship afraid that the latter would reinforce a preference for my own company. That’s not an option in a school.

Day after day, hour after hour, a bell would ring and, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I’d assume an entirely different persona on entering a classroom, reverting to a morose misogynist on getting back home. Marriage and children sorted that one out. Previously confidence and the social graces were an act I put on like a suit.

The other thing about having no friends as a child is that it forces you in on yourself and your own resources. I’m not a ‘joiner in’. I watched but didn’t participate. I never became an alter-boy. A later involvement with revolutionary socialism didn’t last very long either. Marriage and children leaves me with a bemused sense of wonder. Where did that come from?

So much happens or doesn’t happen between birth and the age of ten and it influences the rest of your life.

The Sparrow-hall gang left their mark.

At lunchtime, we walked to the Dinner centre, a long prefabricated building on Longmoor Lane, about quarter a mile away. We sat at long tables, each taking it in turn to sit at the head of the table. This wasn’t an honour. It meant that you took the order for food and went to the serving hatch to collect it. The process involved heated discussions, last minute changes of mind and the dangerous reality of weaving your way back to the table with a tray that was heavier than you. It stopped long queues in a building that wasn’t big enough for long queues, but meant the occasional spectacular crash and a tsunami of food on the floor.

On this particular day it was salad - so it must have been Summer - though not necessarily. I brought everything back; plates piled high with lettuce and tomatoes, sliced eggs, and a thin pink strip of spam. I even remembered the salad cream, pouring great globs of the stuff on every plate. It was yellow and thick and came out of a stained, stainless steel jug housed at the serving hatch.

The next course was apple pie. The portions were small, so I piled on the custard and thereby met my Waterloo. I can say with authority that apple pie and salad cream is the ultimate abomination. Unfortunately, everyone else on the table thought so too, and knew whom to blame. Worse…the apple pie had all gone. They could only offer us custard. There was plenty of that because some idiot had been using the salad cream.

The table was piled high with plates of un-eaten pudding and by the time I’d cleaned everything up, I was late for woodwork - nothing that a brisk run wouldn’t sort out in normal circumstances. Normal circumstances were rare at St Bonaventures. The wood-work and metal work rooms had yet to be built, so once a week we walked the two miles to St. Philomena’s. The walk involved travelling through hostile territory. The Sparrow-hall gang ruled their area with apache-like ferocity, and we’d walk through their patch in a convoy, reeking of testosterone and fear.

By the time I’d cleared up, the convoy had gone. I was to travel alone. I felt like a Texas Ranger, galloping through Comanche territory, though I don’t think the Comanche were quite as bad as the Sparrow-hall gang.

It was one of those days.

Ten minutes away from the school a group of youths detached themselves from a low garden wall. Within moments I was surrounded, and soon after that was tied to a post in a secluded back alley. They lit a small fire about my feet - obviously they watched the same films as I did. One of them climbed on the wall behind me and started dropping small bricks on my head. And then someone opened a window in a neighbouring house and told us all to clear off. They did. I couldn’t, at least not immediately.

Nearly forty-five minutes late I burst into the Wood-work lesson and immediately had a block of wood thrown at me by a loud and bad tempered teacher - ex armed forces or, perhaps, a former member of the Sparrow-hall gang.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

St Bonaventures, Maths and Jam

Two pictures of Hartleys Jam factory. For a fuller explanation of the cow on the roof go to the end of this post and you'll appreciate how Monty Python really won World War 11.

St Bonaventures was located at the bottom of Cedar Road. Next to it was a field of coarse, yellowing grass. Hartley’s Jam factory stood on the other side of the field. We could smell jam during PE, History, Geography, jam in maths, and English, jam in R.E.

If Monty Python had attended St. Bonaventures, they’d have written the ‘Jam Song’ instead.

The top of Cedar Road opened out into Walton Vale. On one corner was a black Methodist Church. When I was young, very young, I assumed there was a quarry somewhere that provided black stones exclusively for Methodist Churches. The industrial grime pervading most northern cities - and our lungs - didn’t figure in a child’s mind. What did figure was the grimness of the church and its posters, exhorting us to save our souls - follow Jesus or else - and something called love that bore an unfortunate relationship with old women and tea. The words were in red or violent magenta, and, like Northern grime, pervaded my world outlook, added to a general sense of gloom.

Facing the church was the Black Bull Inn, where the damned drank, and where we would too, one day. On the other side of the road, separated by a tiny park consisting of gravel two benches and black-painted railings, was the Midland Bank. Mammon and God, and us in between, with only the smell of Jam to sustain us.

The school was newly built and playground politics resembled Dodge City. Two other schools, Blessed Sacrament and Holy Name fed into it and with it, their established gangs and pecking orders.

Presiding over everything was Mr Coleman, stern, avuncular, and largely dressed in grey. He reminded me of a bear, who fed on honey and boiled egg, and growled when he was hungry, and caned you when you’d done wrong. These are the things that go through a small boy's head when other things around him don’t make much sense.

I’d seen egg crumbs on his grey pullover once - so that was a fact. Maths however was not a fact, important but largely incomprehensible. Mr Roberts taught us. He wore a tweed jacket, was sarcastic and dry, and I liked him because he was funny. He did a good job, teaching very large classes, his voice occasionally reaching me where I sat at the back.

My ‘Road to Damascus’ moment was when he introduced fractions. I was brilliant with addition, subtraction, even multiplication. I was getting the hang of these little buggers. Then, one day he drew breath and announced he was about to teach us how to divide fractions. I knew at that moment we were about to attempt the impossible. It was the way he drew breath.

“Well, boys,” (There were girls in the class but he never addressed them. I didn’t think it peculiar at the time) “Well, boys,” he said. ‘To divide fractions…you turn them upside down…” He paused. “And multiply them!” He glared round the classroom as though daring anyone to argue, or question the sense of it, and I dropped my pencil and lowered my head. This was all nonsense, nothing compared to the smell of jam.

The Blitz began in 1940 and, as was promised by William Joyce (better known as Lord Haw Haw), it started over Liverpool.

Another promise he made was to put "jam on the crackers", a reference to the bombers' aim to blow up Jacob’s Cream Cracker factory, which was situated next door to Hartley’s jam factory.

The threat was taken seriously by the management of Hartley’s who had already installed a fire-watch on the eight storey building. The previous week in the local area of Walton Vale a pub called the ‘Windsor Castle’ had been demolished by the Luftwaffe, also the local Catholic Church of ‘Blessed Sacrament’ had had its roof blown off. The bombers were after the local Royal Ordinance factory and so the area was to be targeted again and again.

Some diversion or camouflage was called for so the management of the two factories met together to discuss ideas. The roof of Hartley’s was chosen to be the area of camouflage as it was the larger of the two factories. They planned to paint the roof of the factory green and place rocking wooden cows on it. From a great height the cows would appear to be moving in a field, and so there appeared black and white Friesian cows on the roof of Hartley’s.

Unfortunately nobody had calculated the effect of high winds on these strange rocking creatures and one flew off and landed on an adjacent railway line causing the line to short circuit. A major enquiry was held and the rocking cows were retired from service.

No one is sure whether this story is true. But apparently ‘rocking cows’ were found in an old store room in Hartley’s factory.

True or false? It’s up to you to decide.

From ‘ Forty Square Miles of Walton’ by the Walton on the Hill History group, 2000

Saturday, 8 September 2007

I am Spartacus

The front entrance to St Bonaventure's Catholic Secondary Modern. It has since been renamed - but without telling me!

It was an act of opportunism. Two boys, finishing a morning paper round, kept their large canvas bags, perhaps in readiness for the evening delivery that followed school, perhaps not. En-route to our brand new school - St Bonaventure - they walked into a sweet shop in Rice Lane and watched as the shopkeeper stepped into the back for a fresh box of gum. A moment later, the shop was without four very large jars of pear-drops and mints. The two boys walked out with their packet of gum, their backs unnaturally stiff beneath the weight of twelve pound of sweets.

They didn’t have far to go. St Bonaventure was only two or three hundred yards away, down Cedar Road. Nor did the shopkeeper need very long to work out what had happened. The school received the phone call within the hour.

A special assembly for the whole school.


No one knew for sure whether the whole school would fit in the hall.

We were lined up in forms, the teachers lined up against the wall with knowing prison-guard smiles on their faces. The Head, Mr Coleman, paced the stage like an aging lion before a roomful of monkeys - curious rather than cowed.
The lion delivered his bombshell. A shopkeeper was accusing two of our boys of theft. Four empty sweet jars had been found in the toilets. We were to stand in silence while staff searched our pockets. Teachers swung away from the walls, some of them grim, others smiling menacingly. From later experience, I imagined they probably had some kind of sweepstake as to who would detect the culprits first. They would certainly have had their suspicions.

None of it mattered.

All of them were winners.

Sweets cascaded out from every boy’s pocket.

“I am Spartacus’ mumbled from eight hundred, sugar encrusted lips. The film came out four years later.

I learnt then the real message of Robin Hood, and guerrilla movements everywhere. I learnt then what Mao Ze Dong meant by guerrillas being the fish, peasants the water. We had all shared in the proceeds of the crime. Even this beast of the jungle, pacing the stage couldn’t cane us all…?

He played his final card - a very weak one. He called in the shopkeeper who’d been standing hidden behind the stage curtains. It was going to be an identity parade - with Mr Magoo. His glasses were so thick they looked more like binoculars.
The staff kept straight faces, most of them, as Mr Magoo did the rounds and the Head wheedled and threatened from the stage.

Finally it was over, and we stood there in silence, the whole school missing their break as a form of collective punishment. But Butch and the Sundance Kid had got away with it. And none of us were crucified.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Killing Frenchmen or catching fish

I think I was a strange little boy, trudging along in a Jansenist muddle, the highlights of the day consisting of the blue ticket dinner and the mid morning milk break: Milk Monitor, the acme of privilege in Blessed Sacrament. I never made it, though I once got to ring the school hand-bell signifying the end of break. Not leadership material then.

What to do with me? I needn’t have worried. The school had it in hand.


It was a large grey-paged scrapbook into which you could paste cutout and coloured pictures you’d researched about a particular career. You could write about them too.
I chose the army, seduced like an C18th peasant boy by red coats and breeches.

The History of the British army. Joy. I researched like a beaver, scribbling away, colouring, planning my route to the top. Eventually I settled on a favourite period -the late C18th to early C19th. Napoleon revolutionised style, but I remained loyal to British uniforms oscillating between the Hussars but finding romance in the colours of the infantryman. I dreamt of killing Frenchmen, and marching home to a rose coloured cottage in the middle of green fields; a beautiful woman waiting.
Eventually my teacher became concerned, perhaps about an unrealisable obsession, or a recognition that the army had moved on.

My scrapbook was replaced by another. It was empty. Alongside it was a book about fish.

Dutifully, I began all over again, cutting out and colouring, learning about fish. Maybe my career would lie in commercial fishing.
Cod, turbot, halibut, hake, Tuna, Pollock, Bass and Skate. I drew them all - occasionally subverting things by slipping in a regimental motif about the fins or gills, sometimes the tails. It made no difference. Whatever I did, they all looked the same. Flat or thin, long or squat, the same dead parody of a face stared out at me from the page.

Going to sea would be fine, I eventually decided, but not fishing. The uniform was rubbish.

Monday, 13 August 2007

And we all moved closer to Heaven

I saw them as a blur, as meaningful to me as wildebeest on the African Veldt. Suddenly they turned, streaming after their leader, charging down the boys’ play-yard, heading in my direction. It was too late to run. My back was against the railings. To my left a high brick wall, to my right the boys’ toilets. No refuge there. A hand grasped my throat, fanatical eyes glared deep into mine. “Wot team d’yer support, la?”

I didn’t support a team, never really thought about it before. He was still looking at me, pushing closer, heads peering over his shoulder waiting for an answer. “Liverpool,” I squeaked. It was the right answer. The hand relaxed. I was able to breath again. Had it been “Everton,” I’d have been dead meat, or at least badly bruised meat.

They charged off, the Spanish Inquisition, in search of fresh prey.
I stared across the yard towards the black metal fire-escape leading to the classroom, thinking of dinner and wondering whether I had time for a wee before lessons. I was nine years old and had suddenly become a Liverpool supporter. I was also very hungry.

Our dinner tickets came in rolls of thick, slightly fuzzy blue paper. They were comforting to touch when you were hungry and if you were really hungry you could imagine the smell of dinner on them. When lessons were boring I’d take them out of my pocket and sniff them, imagining the smell of meat and gravy, pies and toffee puddings. It was better than eating what was actually served. The ultimate nightmare was Tapioca pudding, which resembled frogspawn in cream - no, not even cream - thin milk.

Blessed Sacrament after the 11+ exam was rough and ready. All the smart kids had gone. We looked forward to ‘Games’ where we rolled hoops and threw coloured bean-bags, sometimes the other way round. I remember Mr. Grue, a small dapper man with short dark hair tightly curled and a face that was brown. It reminded me of a monkey, sometimes of a fierce but benevolent raisin. He controlled - often taught - classes of forty. Like many teachers in the 1950’s he was ex-army and possessed an authority increasingly rare in modern schools. In the adjacent pre-fabricated building was Miss Mooney who allowed me to sort out her stock cupboard when the weather was wet.

It was warm and simple. Classrooms had pictures of steps leading up to the Heavenly Throne. For sixpence a time, you could move your adopted African or Asian child up a step. The money went to the missions and we all moved a little closer to heaven.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Green Teeth

My first bike was grey and heavy and looked like a recycled tank. My parents tested it and were reassured by its strength and solidity. The ground shook when my dad picked it up and let it fall gently to the floor. He tried it again - just to make sure and a passing lorry jumped. The two of them nodded. Michael would be safe, safer than any vehicle he’d probably crash into.

Tony was luckier; younger brothers are. When nothing bad happened to me, he was allowed to buy a light and sexy bike in glossy red metallic paint. But the deal remained the same. We had to save half the cost and our parents would match it with the other half.

It took me just under a year and two paper rounds. I loved delivering papers. The round bound you, but the mind roamed where it wanted to. Sometimes still, I wonder what fantasies lurk in a postman’s head - probably darker, more erotic than any a twelve year old boy would have had in 1959.

Usually I was an Indian, chewing pemmican as I trudged across the endless plain. In lieu of dried buffalo meat, I’d have a store of dried orange peel gathering dust in the pocket of a blue gabardine raincoat. Sometimes - as a true forager - I would sample privet leaves. They had a mean, bitter taste and would stain your teeth green. Not a garden was safe from me. My favourite was nasturtium leaves. They had a dark and peppery taste, and didn’t stain your teeth. On a Sunday I would treat myself to an Uncle Joe’s mint-ball. Sometimes two.

Delivering the papers took me longer than most people because when not whistling or chewing privet leaves I’d be reading what I should have been delivering; occasionally exercising censor-ship. I was a narrow bigoted little boy, a good Catholic, possessed of the truth. There was a journal called ‘The Free Thinker’ - atheist and libertarian - I regularly crumpled up before pushing it through the letter-box. The man was patient, but eventually complained.

Mrs Robertson ran the shop. She had a waxen face and her fingers were yellow. She’d clutch the sweets as though reluctant to let them go. At the far end of Warbreck Moor was another Newsagent - Claytons. Along one wall was a small private lending library. The books smelled musty, the shelves were dark and narrow. The other walls were lined with tall glass jars filled with sweets, but it was something else they sold that drew us like wasps to a beer glass. Broken crisps. They were the brushings from the Crisp Factory (Smiths) half a mile up the road, but we didn’t know that. They were served in small conical paper bags - a penny a bag - and they looked good enough. Grease with a crunch.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

British Comics

The man with the square chin is Dan Dare, Pilot of the future.

Giant green head and stunted body - must be the Mekon - Dare's supreme enemy

The scene: a log cabin in Siberia: a British pilot kneeling beneath a lit window. Inside Von Stalhein is warning his new Russian paymasters, “You must never under-estimate Herr Biggles. He could be anywhere.” The British pilot wears a smug look.

Why do we remember such rubbish?

Biggles began his long duel with the German master-villain in World War 1. The fight continued as Von Stalhein mutated into a Nazi, and he’s still fighting an ever-green Biggles at the height of the Cold War. The author, W.E Johns went on to have Biggles fighting the Communist Chinese in the Himalayas. By this time the author was almost as senile as Biggles should have been. My last remaining image of Biggles was being pursued by the Chung - invisible electrically charged maggots the size of dogs through a network of mountain tunnels.

George Orwell wrote a superb article on British comics. “Here is the stuff that is read somewhere between the ages of twelve and eighteen by a very large proportion, perhaps a majority, of English boys, including many who will never read anything else…and with it they are absorbing a set of beliefs… All the better because it is done indirectly, there is being pumped into them the conviction that the major problems of our times do not exist, that there is nothing wrong with laissez faire capitalism, that foreigners are unimportant comics and that the British Empire is a sort of charity concern which will last for ever.” This was written in 1939.

I think Biggles, single handedly fighting German master spies and the two great Communist blocs, shows that comics and boy’s books don’t so much ignore the problems of our time, but rather simplify them. But then I’ve never met a boy yet who reads a Times Editorial for pleasure.

They would much rather read the ‘Yellow Sword’ published in the Wizard in 1968.

He had seen the grey hordes from the East spread like a flood across Europe, as they had done across America a year before, and now he was coming home. ...it was June, and Britain had been conquered. The last news Maitland had heard was of landings by the Kushantis at Dover, Folkestone and in the Southampton area….He was opposite the general store when the announcer came on the air again. “You will now hear a recording of the last message of the late Prime Minister, the last words spoken before his death,” he said. Maitland stopped at the sound of a familiar voice, now heavy with incredible weariness and broken by emotion. “My friends! It is my duty to tell you that at six o’clock this morning, stripped of our defences and in order to save further useless loss of life, the British Government through me, as Prime Minister, signed an act of surrender to the Imperial Kushanti Oligarchy in the Tower of London. I have to say that the act of surrender was made in the presence of His Excellency, Colonel-General Mushti, Commander-in-Chief of the Army of Occupation in Great Britain.”
The wireless was now silent, but some of the villagers heard another voice, a voice that came from the street. Maitland with his head back and a strange glow in his eyes, was singing as he marched. “Rule Britannia,” he sang, “Britannia rules the waves. Britons never, never never shall be slaves!” His voice weakened and faded away. As, with shouts of “John! John’s come home!” his parents and brother rushed out of the house. Maitland staggered and fell sprawling and inert on the garden path.

1968. This was well after my comic reading days were over but think about it. This was written in 1968 - the year of the Paris riots, world wide student unrest, Vietnam and the march on Grosvenor Square - 'Sympathy for the Devil'. And children are reading about a grey horde from the east - Britain over-run - and the hero singing Rule Britannia. 1968. It could have been written in 1910.

Orwell was speaking of a time and place: 1939. Britain. What about America? In Europe,economic and social turmoil saw the rise of fascism during this period - the cult of the leader - the hero born to rule. German had Hitler, Italy, Mussolini. America had Roosevelt, but it was also the period Superman was born. Britain made do with Stanley Baldwin.

Super-heroes change but one thing remains. Whether apolitical or reflecting some degree of cultural liberalism - even bloody-mindedness - super-heroes never question the economic basis of society, or its social structure. Individuals may be bad and the hero will sort it out. At this point my son moseys by. "What about Ultimate Thor," he mutters. "He challenges the American military-industrial complex."

"Adults revisiting their childhood," I mutter back. "Revisionism," I hiss.

The New York Times (05/07/07) in an article on a Comic Book Convention, argued that it’s a cliché about fans of comic /fantasy being losers with no social skills and no friends. Hmm. It can be also be argued that cliché is also another term for an obvious truth, though as a fantasist myself I’d rather believe that truth is sometimes more complex. What interested me most however was its later suggestion that:

“In some respects America is now a country of freaks and geeks, self-professed outsiders who imagine themselves somehow different from the herd, perhaps because they are Americans - radical individualists who are united if only by their increasingly narrow interests and obsessions.” The danger is that fantasy too often compensates for economic and social inequality, imaginary worlds reduce the need to change the one we have. George Orwell would have had a field day with today’s comic culture.

Comics need heroes. Orwell argued that the boy imagines himself to be that hero but as an adult subconsciously assumes a hero is needed in times of trouble. I’m with ‘The Lord of the Flies’ on this one. Children are inherently fascist. They identify with something greater than themselves whether it is Harry Potter, Spider Man, Sherlock Holmes or Biggles. Young souls or tired souls cling to heroes. In quiet times, Fantasy remains the great escape, adding colour to drab lives. But when it comes to social breakdown adults become children again, with their black and white views, their need for heroes - the stronger the better. If George Orwell is right, the seeds are sown in childhood from the earliest fairy tale to the all pervasive cartoon and now CGI.

I'm talking as if there might be an alternative. I don't think there is. It is something built in: aspiration - as basic to us as sunlight to a runner-bean. Social realism for Children? Middle Earth ruled by a Collective. The entire world of fantasy is built upon hierarchy. Heroes of either sex defeat villains, and the peasants get on with their lives with the occasional walk-on part. And what child wants to identify with a peasant?

I didn’t. I lived in a red-bricked terraced house and attended a working class school. I didn’t want to read about it as well! Like a whole generation, I bought into the myth of privilege. In my imagination I attended Grey Friars School, laughed with Bob Cherry and Tom Merry at Billy Bunter. (You were allowed to laugh at fat boys in those days).

The Beano, the Dandy, Topper and Beezer saw me through my early childhood. Characters like Biffo the Bear, or Dennis the Menace, Beryl the Peril, Desperate Dan, Minnie the Minx, Lord Snooty and the Bash street Kids were all well and good, but none surpassed Big Fat Boko and his crow called Koko, and not even that approached - Rupert the Bear.

Big Fat Boko was a fat magician in a red robe and conjured up a mystic world - a world away from Aintree. Rupert the Bear was stronger drink - the summation of imperial mysticism. Set in Nutwood, an idealized English village with the sea conveniently close, stories were awash in mermaids and sea-elves, gnomes, Manchu princesses and worlds within worlds.

Later I became more sophisticated.

I adventured with Breakneck Bradshaw, Thruster John (what a name!) Captain Condor and Magnus the Muscleman; thrilled to the adventures of Captain Zoom, Cool Cassidy, Captain Scarlett, Catamount Jack, Red MacGregor - and best of all Dan Dare - space pilot of the future.

Imagine a square chinned fighter pilot dressed in a neat UN/American uniform; imagine a cultural fusion of the Battle of Britain and the 1950’s. Now put them up against intergalactic villains. There was only one, as I remember - The grand Mekon. He was green with a large globular head, and he floated on a motorized lily pad. He led the Treens who were also green and to a boy of that age carried connotations of Nazis, Japanese, communists or any totalitarian system we saw then as a threat.

Dan Dare also saw my first sexual awakening. It involved an alien race with blue skins and flaming red hair. The women were spectacular. I’ve had a thing about blue skinned women with dark red hair ever since, but so far have been disappointed.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

I can escape Sharks

The Leeds and Liverpool canal where I learnt to swim

Undressing for the Pacific

Claiming the Pacific for the Republic of Liverpool

My wife’s Uncle Dennis still goes into the sea, sometimes with sticks, at other times held. He’s in his late eighties and refuses to accept either his age or the stroke he suffered shortly after his wife died.

I admire him immensely and recognise a similar fear: I never want to be so old that I can no longer walk into the sea. Summer or winter, if I’m at the sea, I’ll go in the water. One day I might not be able to.

Proust had his Madeleine cakes I have water, and four particular memories that evoke its magic and potential.

There’s a very small bay on the Gower peninsula, close to Oxwich and hidden beneath steep sandstone cliffs. I left the friends we were with and swam far out, then lay on my back for what seemed like hours. I was in a trance-like state, floating in a green sea beneath red Jurassic cliffs. The sky was blue and empty and except for surf, the silence was complete. There was no reference to any particular century or millennia. I was in an empty world, a non-determinate time.
I toyed with fancies that something long and supple with teeth, something cretaceous might lunge at me from behind; romantic picture book thoughts, devoid of fear or possibility.

In 1982 I was somewhere in Florida. It was sometime after midnight and we were on the beach. The air was hot and sticky, the sea a milky blue, invitingly cool. I floated beneath the stars, aware of distant shouts from the beach, a glimpse of barbeque flames. Then the music started, mind music, fear music. DUM-DUM, DUM-DUM, DUM-DUM, getting faster and faster. And I was kicking, clawing at water, convinced that a great white was immediately behind me. I was out of that sea as though it were boiling, staggering across the surf-line in a self-induced panic. I flopped on to the sand and looked back. The sea was calm and milky blue, but I wasn’t fooled. Something was in there.

At least I was able to swim. When I was eleven, I couldn’t. We went to the Baths on Queens Drive and shouted and splashed a lot, but never swam.

And then suddenly I could.

It was a hot day and I was walking along the side of the Leeds and Liverpool canal. It passed close to Aintree Race-course and fascinated me with the thought that if I walked long enough it would take me across the Yorkshire moors to a place called Leeds. I never got very far - not this day at least.

Four or more kids were hiding in bushes, waiting for someone, waiting for me. They never spoke. They just rushed out and pushed me in, then ran away. I sank and spluttered, did all the usual stuff a drowning person does. Possibly shouted ‘Help’ though there was no one else around. I must have been kicking my arms and legs with some purpose because the next moment I was hanging on to the bank, catching breath for that final scramble onto dry land.

I could swim.

Next weekend I was at Queens Drive Baths, determined to put my new skill to the test. Pushed into necessity by four psychos I had taught myself to swim. Unfortunately it shows. With a style reminiscent of a walrus in labor, I am not a pretty sight, but at least I can escape sharks.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

It didn't belong to this world

Walking to music lessons. Wyresdale Road

Turning left at the cemetery.

Wishing I lived in a house next to a cemetery.

Under the railway bridge.

And down Roosevelt Avenue where Mrs Richardson taught us to play Little Brown Jug on mandolin. There was a great bank of Michaelmas daisies at the bottom of the road.

“Dad, I heard this guy whistle today.”

It was my daughter, and the shock came slowly. She’d said it as if she’d seen an alien, or Vladimir Putin skateboarding in the park. When was the last time I’d whistled? I raised the paper up to hide my face and tentatively puckered up my lips. They were dry and little or no sound came out - though enough to arouse suspicion.

“Dad, what’re you doing?”

“Whistling,” I said feebly.

As a boy I always whistled. It got me through the paper-round, that and a large mint-ball - though never at the same time. I tried once and almost choked. My range was vast and eclectic, the more popular overtures - (Ride of the Valkyries always posed a bit of a problem after the opening bars) - Gilbert and Sullivan, courtesy of my parents, Elvis, Jerry Lee, old English folk songs, and at Christmas, carols. If it had a tune, I’d whistle it.

There was no competition. There were no birds in Liverpool other than sparrows and pigeons, and they could only twitter or coo. Old ladies gave me generous tips; swore I was better than any alarm clock - so that was something else I was better than.

In the pre I-Pod age there was only the whistle and apart from waking up old ladies, it gave me the greatest gift of all: an ear for music. I read music like a Zulu reading Greek, but give me a mandolin and let me hear a tune once and I’ll have it almost at once.

The mandolin was another cul-de-sac when you consider it. In a Liverpool waking up to the Beatles before the rest of the world what was I doing with a mandolin? Blame it on Miles Hartley.

He’d bought one from a second hand shop in Rice lane. My brother Tony immediately copied him and bought a beautiful flat-topped mandolin for about ten shillings (a dollar). I wanted one and ran to the same junk shop as though there might be a never-ending supply. There wasn’t. I came home with a metal and skin monstrosity - something called a Banjolin. Not a Banjo-mandolin, but a Banjolin. It’s so weird it’s not even in the Oxford English dictionary; it didn’t belong to this world, but that’s what it was called, a Banjolin. And I hated it. We went to music lessons, me, Tony and Miles and played endless scales, and tunes that always sounded like ‘Little Brown Jug.’

There was a worse fate for Tony, worse even than playing ‘Little Brown Jug’ on the Banjolin. His beautiful flat-backed mandolin broke. He dropped it in Greenwich Road. He couldn’t afford another but still wanted to be part of the gang who were now famous throughout Aintree for their version of Little Brown Jug.

“There’s the piano,” my mother said hopefully, and he jumped at it like a doomed piranha fish.

Miles gave up the lessons and sometime later so did I. Tony was never allowed to. Mandolins were a cheap, slightly exotic fad but the piano was serious. Our Dad had decided. Tony would stick with the piano whether he wanted to or not.

In years to come I played badly in a Ceilidh Band, Tony played jazz piano for comfort, and two days ago I was staring over a paper at my daughter who’d heard someone whistle.

Friday, 13 July 2007

My Head in the Oven

I have always had a problem with ‘style’, and in my entire life, I doubt there’s been more than a four-year window of ‘coolness’. When all around me were flaunting their grey terylene trousers, I remained in grey flannel shorts. It was more economical and my parents conservatively believed that boys should wear short trousers. Jeans were unknown. Rumour had it that Americans wore them, though there remained still some doubt.

Hair was equally problematical for a boy who aspired to ’77 Sunset Strip’ cool but couldn’t afford the Brill-cream. My only recourse was to mould my hair into a long and fragile quiff with a wet comb, and then stick my head in the oven. The heat dried my hair like a potters kiln, and I would then walk to school very carefully, aware that an awkward step would undo everything. I can’t remember if anyone actually told me this ‘trick’ or whether I’d discovered it all by myself. If the latter, I wonder why…and more to the point - how?

The Beatles spared me from more years in the oven, but clothes remained a problem. It was no fun being under-aged, trying to slip into a cinema unnoticed - not in your dad’s pre-war mud-coloured sports jacket that looked as though it had come from Fred Astaire’s wardrobe. Retro-chic now. Not then. Not on a fourteen year old boy.

At fifteen, I took my first faltering steps into coolness in a cheap blue suit, black polo-neck sweater and black framed glasses. I was on my way to Blessed Sacrament Boys’ club where they had a table tennis table, orangeade, a small Dansette Record Player and two Beatle LPs. I was chewing my thumb - I don’t know which cowboy did that - walking slowly to be noticed. Unfortunately, a priest noticed me as I entered the club. He slapped me hard on the back, and in a loud booming voice that drew all eyes our way, told me there was no need to be nervous or shy. I took my orangeade, credibility blown. A blue suit wasted.

There was only one lesson left to be learnt. Shops are out to make money - especially in Liverpool. I saw the bold advert; the shopkeeper saw me coming. ‘Freddy and the Dreamers’ Cuban Heeled Boots’ - HALF PRICE!
Cuban Heeled Boots - so cheap. I had the money - just - and a moment or two later I was wearing them, walking down London Road at an acute angle, like someone battling against a force ten wind. ‘Freddy’ was a small Mancunian, who on Television always looked bigger than he was. Now I knew how. With heels as high as these he could have looked down on Big Ben - though at an angle.
Luckily my years in the wilderness were about to come to an end - or so I liked to think.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

The Dog and the Mangle

For my children who will never enjoy the simple pleasure of mangling wet washing, or teachers and other enemies of the people. Ours was squeezed into the kitchen.

Our kitchen was a 4ft by 6 ft box large enough for a sink, stove, and mangle. It also held a small fridge and an over-large cabinet that held everything else. The best parties are held in the kitchen, they say, but not in ours, though it once held a dog.

A mystery dog, referred to, but only in one iconic story. It was a bull terrier that held pride of place in 14 Ribblesdale, until our mother came along. Our dad spoke of it with pride but it was always the same story. It began with a knock on the front door and my mother, not wishing the dog to run out, tied it to the mangle table before answering it.. The caller kept her talking for some time and then left. When she turned round she found the dog half-way down the hall and half choking and dragging the mangle table behind him. The story ended with nods of approval from senior members of the family, well, the men at least. ‘Bull terriers never bark warning,’ ‘when they bite, they’ll never let go’ and ‘they’re loyal to a fault.’

We never got to find that out because our mother fought to make the house a pet-free zone. We did however get to use the mangle, which was the C19th answer to the spin dryer. Clothes were squeezed between two large rollers, and in the days before television, it represented one of the smaller highlights of the week, because ‘only strong boys could turn the handle to a mangle.’ And simple ones.

Eventually we wore our mum down. It began, like most things with deceit. She had gone off for a long weekend with our dad and we were staying with our grandparents at 24 Helsby. Now that was a treat, even better than the mangle. She took us to ‘The Wizard’s Den’ in Dale St. where we stocked up on itching powder and other essential sundries, and we persuaded her to take us to a pet shop in the same street.
“Are you sure, boys?”
“Yes, mum gave us the money to buy a small pet.”

It was a case of wish becoming reality and we brought back an albino guinea pig and two hamsters, maybe a mouse or two. She allowed us to keep them in a dressing table drawer until we got home, and only now do I fully realise how tolerant she was, and how gullible - or possibly mischievous.

As I remember our dad was amused and we were allowed to keep them in a hastily constructed cage in the back yard. It was the thin end of the wedge. We acquired a small Dutch Rabbit that was never to be allowed into the house. Only one day our mother accidentally stood on its leg, causing it to limp. From then on she was called Susie and was allowed into the kitchen where she followed our mum like a small, well trained cat. From there we moved on to hedgehogs and we ended up with a pets’ graveyard, big enough for a Stephen King novel.

Eventually the flood-gates opened wider than was good for us, though we didn’t think so at the time. Our uncle John, now a lorry driver, brought home two wild English rabbits - they may have been hares - they were bloody big. How, or why he caught them God only knows, but he brought them to 14 Ribblesdale.

These were big beasts, and fierce. They drove away cats and took umbrage at not being allowed into the house. Several times they tried jumping over the wall, but never quite made it, and they intimidated us as we ate. There’s a risible horror movie about giant killer rabbits. They came from Aintree.

Our table was directly next to the window and as we ate, first one and then the other would leap onto the window-sill and bang their heads against the glass, or else just stare at us. Daring us to eat. I think Hitchcock blew it with ‘The Birds.’ He should have made ‘The Rabbits.’

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Life in the Fast Lane

I'm on the left. Tony is pulling a gargoyle face. It was a hobby we had.

Our car was a small black Austin with leather seats, foot-boards below the passenger doors and small yellow indicators that flicked out like dead canaries when the car was about to turn left or right. Whilst our dad was at sea, it was kept in a garage - one of four converted stables - opposite Melling Avenue, and was only brought out when he came home.

Our dad, a seaman with an innate distrust of anything faster than a ship, drove a sedate 30 mph. and we ignored with some disdain those who overtook us at a reckless 40, turned away from the curious stares.

All that was after we got the car started.

Starting ‘Biggleswoop’ - (the name of the car. Don’t ask me why) - involved cranking the engine. A thick metal rod with an angular handle was inserted into the front of the car and then turned. For most of my childhood, I just assumed he was winding the car up like some great mechanical clock and that in itself was the reason for our cautious speed. Go any faster and the car might run down, leaving us stranded somewhere in the country. My mechanical knowledge remains much the same. We sat in the back praying the sun wouldn’t go in before the car started. Finally, after a bit of a cough, would come the first apologetic murmur and the car would shudder and then grumble into life.

Sometimes I wonder where I got the 30mph stuff. Ainsdale beach - a common destination - was only ten miles away, but it seemed like it took an hour to get there. Whatever the speed the landmarks remained the same: to our left a Crisps factory, (Smiths) Vernon’s Pools, the Race Course Garage; to our right Aintree Racecourse and in the far distance the great towers of our local chemical works. At the Old Roan, we turned left along the A569 and for the first time smelt country, in reality a small garden cemetery, then a few houses and finally Ince woods.
Sometimes we stopped there and walked around a small pond, wondering what our mum and dad found so much to talk about. We ate small cheese sandwiches and then we went home.

Sometimes we parked next to a mound of gravel that we’d climb up and hide behind, until the novelty wore off. We ate small cheese sandwiches and then we went home.
And on good days we’d go to Woodvale. This was a small airport. It’s only claim to fame was the fact that Charles De Gaulle once landed there, and it had a windsock which was only important to us. When we saw that we knew were only ten minutes away from the beach. Opposite the airport was a large stretch of common, and beyond that woodland. That was heaven. Our mum in her red coat, our dad in his grey gabardine would walk slowly, hand in hand and allow us to tear off like dogs unleashed. They always caught up with us because at the far end of the common was a thin strand of trees, bushes and a ditch. Beyond, a garden forbidden to us, though sometimes we strayed.

The woods began across the road and it was easy to get lost in them. Memory is a strange and wonderful thing. Powerful too, though not always useful. Where is the use in regretting something past? What is so magical about a great mound of bramble? A narrow tunnel wove through to its centre. It was dark and green and thorns tore through elbows and knees, but at its very centre was a secret glade humming with bees and full of butterflies. I’d lie on my back for hours (5 minutes is an hour or two for a small boy) knowing that until I felt the need for a small cheese sandwich, no one need ever see me again.