Wednesday 31 October 2012

Dead of night

So, it’s the 31st October and the temporary signs are up in the local Co-op: ‘No eggs / flour sold to anyone under 16’ while at the same time the shelves are crammed full of tacky over-priced crap which is only valid for use one night a year.  What’s that all about?  Back in my day (oh, here we go…) we just draped old sheets with cut-out eyeholes over ourselves then ate baked potatoes before a game of Murder In The Dark (which I never really understood how to play, to be honest).  We didn’t dare venture outside (for fear of too many real ghosts).  

Today I will venture outside, in fact I am daring to venture down to London, to meet a stranger in a strange place (all in the name of work, you understand) just as dusk falls on the city and its streets no doubt fill with people rushing home from their jobs, perhaps to change into Hallowe’en costumes bought from Tesco.  I just hope I don’t encounter too many of them on the train home.  There’s something special about central London after dark for me, though: ghosts of a different kind.  I still find the city exciting, it's full of nuanced memories and part of me will wish I could extend my visit to have a few drinks and go to see a band maybe, before flopping down on an unfamiliar bed in a high-up hotel room, a parallel world away from my quiet rural existence - but I can't!

Anyway, as a mere nod to the date and hopefully as an antedote to all the crass commercialism surrounding it, here’s a little snippet from one of my favourite old films, Dead Of Night (1945).  If you've never seen it, it's a classy portmanteau style horror comprising five disparate stories, all linked through being experiences or tales told at a gathering by each guest in turn.   And there's a twist ending, of course.  It’s exquisitely English, exquisitely 1940s and exquisitely chilling in the most perfect, understated way. 

Don't be a dummy

Saturday 27 October 2012

Apple for the teacher

My mum liked to regale my sister and me with a tale of how she got into trouble at school once for a piece she wrote for her English class.  Given free rein to come up with something as imaginative as possible, she composed a gory and explicit horror story about a girl who accidentally swallowed an apple pip.  The pip germinated in the girl’s stomach and slowly grew into a tree inside her, eventually killing its host in a particularly agonising and gruesome way (I think it was when the branches started to poke their way out of her ears and eye sockets that it got especially grisly).   My mum told us that she took great relish in describing this as vividly  as possible – as requested in the teacher’s brief - and it sounds like something Roald Dahl could have come up with for ‘Tales Of The Unexpected’.  However, the teacher didn’t see it in such a positive light and gave her 14-year old pupil a severe reprimand, as well as having words with my grandparents expressing concern about the “inappropriately” unpleasant subject matter.  It was as if she had committed some cardinal sin.

We used to laugh at this reminiscence, my mum’s eyes gleaming mischievously as she explained the reaction her teenage story had provoked, which was clearly still very memorable to her.  Luckily it didn’t put her off writing, and as an adult she used her imagination and gift for words whenever she could; perhaps she would have blogged if this medium had been around while she was alive.  But her experience set me thinking about the effects that teachers can have – how some can absolutely bring out the best in you and be an inspiration, but others can really set you back.

My first English teacher at secondary school fell into the latter category.  I’d come out of primary school with a real love of reading and creative writing, getting good marks and being eager to learn more.  So when I started nervously at the big school with its long corridors and scary timetables and even scarier teachers, I hoped I would at least be within my comfort zone when it came to English.

Unfortunately Miss B seemed to have it in for me from the start.  She wasn’t a likeable person, with a cold, hard air about her which accentuated her extremely unfeminine presence.  I can picture her now: steely grey cropped hair, shapeless red trousers and chunky knitted patterned cardigans, sitting on the edge of the desk with her legs apart (thank god for the red trousers), looking out at her class of 12-year-old girls.  She was unable to meet the eyes of any one of us, even less able to turn the corners of her mouth up into something remotely resembling a smile.

She was American, and seemed fixated on cowboy stories.  So when she taught us grammar, the examples she gave were always along the lines of, "The cowboy (subject) rode (verb) his brown (adjective) horse (object)".  Always.  Whenever I hear the word 'posse' (not often, I grant you) I see Miss B in her red trousers chalking stick-drawings of cowboys on the blackboard. She loved that word.

I tackled each English assignment with gusto but my efforts were frequently met with humiliation.  Maybe I deserved the low marks she gave me - or perhaps it was my lack of reference to cowboys - but there was never any guidance or positivity to go with them.    And it’s one thing to encourage a reserved child to speak in front of the class to help them overcome their shyness, quite another to pick on them time and time again and then draw attention to their discomfort.  I started to dread English lessons.  I kept trying to prove myself to Miss B but it felt as if I was battling against the odds; she was never going to like nor nurture me.  Looking back I just feel disdain for her.  I know teaching isn't an easy profession but... I wasn't a troublesome pupil.  She didn't need to make me feel like crap.

Thank god, then, that she left after my second year (possibly under a cloud) and the lovely, young, warm-hearted Miss McM took her place.  Under her empathetic and inspiring mentorship I regained some confidence; English became a subject to enjoy again and I looked forward to each opportunity to write.  It didn’t matter what about – ghost stories or politics or what we did at the weekend, but never cowboys - every composition was marked with care and included encouraging comments offering constructive advice.  Thank you, Miss McM. I have a feeling you would have loved my mum’s tale of the apple pip girl. 

Beware of the pips

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Tomorrow's fish and chip paper

A funny thing has just happened to me and all because of this blog.  It’s mad.  Thanks to a post I wrote last year, I’ve received an invitation to go to London and be photographed (aarghh!) for a feature in one of the national papers!   Whaaat???!!!  I told you it was mad – but it’s true!  And not only will they pay all expenses but they'll pay a nice little fee as well.  After checking it all out I know it's genuine; I should also add that it wouldn't just be me.

I won't go into detail here as the paper is yet to run it (I'll be looking out for it online when it does and may update this then – meanwhile, sorry to sound so mysterious!) but the thing is, it presented me with an unexpected moral dilemma.  What would you do?

Would you give up a few hours of your life to do something totally different from anything you’ve ever done before AND get paid for it?  (Especially if you’re skint?!)

Would you be willing to take part in a professional photoshoot for a very well-known publication?  Yep, a  'photoshoot'...! *

Sounds quite exciting so far, perhaps…?

…But would you do it for one of our major tabloid newspapers (I won’t say which one although you can find a clue in the name of this blog…) even though you absolutely hate what they’re about?

As it happens, I had to decline for a practical reason, but I still thought about it... and was wondering what the experience would be like... and I still am...and I have to confess that a little, devilish, secret exhibitionist part of me wishes in a way that I could embrace it, in spite of my shyness and my dislike of being photographed.  Simply because it’s just not the sort of thing that happens every day.  Oh and the money… let’s not forget the money.   So perhaps it was just as well that another factor made the decision for me and I didn’t have to wrestle with my conscience or my paradox any further. 

Whatever contempt I have for the newspaper in question, though, I have to admit, it was nice to be asked!

You just never know who might be reading your blog….
* Fully clothed, I hasten to add.

The update to this post can be found here

Sunday 21 October 2012

Blasts from a taped past

By way of a musical interlude, here are three songs that I've just revisited after looking at the one remaining cassette compilation I still have of some recordings from '77/'78.  Most of the tracks are from John Peel shows, and include two from the first Wire session (January '78).  I was so excited to hear this as they were booked to play at the local technical college that March and I wanted to familiarise myself before seeing them.  They were like nothing I'd ever heard before.  It was a great gig and then I was delighted to get 'Pink Flag' for my fifteenth birthday a few months later.

I think this selection gives a real flavour of Peel's broadcasting at the time - the only way I (and many others) would ever have heard most of these bands - and why it appealed so much to this wide-eyed teenager.

Also on the tape is a classic interview with Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious - added after the original broadcast but which I asked my parents to record for me because I was out that afternoon - and, bless 'em, they did.  In fact John came across so well that my mum wasn't averse to the idea of inviting him over for tea one day.  Unfortunately no sound bites from that here but in the meantime I hope you enjoy these little tasters of the time from Tetrack, Blunt Instrument and Wire.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

H**ny, p**ny ornithologist

Engraving by George Graves, early 1800s

Without wishing to go all Bill Oddie on you, I was really chuffed on Monday morning when I saw a jay in our small garden; it was the first time I’ve witnessed one of these large, beautiful, exotically colourful birds so close.  Its brief but eyecatching appearance here seemed timely as that evening I went to my first meeting at a bird conservation charity. It was just so good to be able to mention the jay’s presence there to a man I’d never met before but whom I knew would understand!  The conversation continued about garden visits from long-tailed tits and goldfinches and our eyes shone as we discussed our feathered friends.  This was not technical, competitive talk about spotting rare raptors or buying binoculars; instead just a keen mutual appreciation of the ordinary, daily company of our garden guests.  (Or, as I see it, it's really their garden and we just borrow it.)  They’re all around - house sparrows, bluetits, blackbirds - and I never tire of seeing them go about their daily business.  Sightings of red kites, buzzards and barn owls might bring special, rare pleasures - like that jay - but they don’t need to be big, bold and bright to make my heart flutter.  Every LBJ (‘little brown job’ in birdy speak) is as welcome a sight as anything more unusual, and I’ve learned so much just from observing them.  So whilst I’m definitely not a ‘twitcher’, I could perhaps consider myself to be an amateur ornithologist.  Although I must admit I can’t hear the word ‘ornithologist’ these days without being reminded of this Not The Nine O’Clock News team’s brilliant Two Ronnies parody...

Who else could have got away with the word 'dildo'
on early '80s prime time BBC TV?

Anyway, the meeting was about how volunteers can  promote the work and research of this organisation and I’ve offered to compose some articles, as a means of combining my enthusiasm for birdlife with a love of creative writing.  Nothing scientific or exclusive, just a way to share a personal passion which might hopefully end up doing some good too.  (And I might even mention tits and nuts.)

I’d better get scribing.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Oh, boy!

Ben had dark curly hair, big brown eyes and a cheeky smile which accentuated the dimples in his cheeks.   Even though we were only six he had something about him that made me feel excited.  I looked forward to seeing Ben at school every day -  so much so that it even helped me overcome my fear of Michael, the infamous class bully, who was best known for being good at kicking shins and flushing gloves down toilets.

One Spring morning Mrs Marychurch announced that she was going to take the class for a nature walk.  We had to line up by the door in pairs.  “Right now, children, join up: boy girl, boy girl…”   Some of the boys looked distinctly unsure about this while the girls giggled, but we soon fell, rather chaotically, into couples.  Somehow, magically, I ended up with Ben.  “Now hold hands with your partner, everyone, and don’t let go,” our kind, maternal teacher instructed.  Ohhh!  I clung tightly to Ben’s palm, which felt warm and nice, and I knew I wouldn’t be letting go in a hurry. 

Off we went on our walk, a Crocodile of six-year-olds, out of the school grounds with its flat-roofed 1960s classroom blocks, across the road and up to the top of the wide tree-lined path which led between a cricket field and a meadow of Friesian cattle.  There at the summit Mrs Marychurch pointed out an oak tree and some cow parsley.  Then she let us all run to the bottom with the breeze in our hair, our grey skirts and shorts flapping, and Ben and I raced down that hill, laughing, our hands still tightly clasped.  We kept on going, further and further down the path, exhilarated.  Of course we were on strict instructions to return the second Mrs Marychurch summoned us back.  “Oh I think she’s calling…” Ben said anxiously as we stopped to catch our breath, Mrs Marychurch now just small and slightly blurred some yards behind us.   “No she isn’t!” I insisted.  My companion seemed less certain and urged me to return with him but I was adamant.  So we turned our backs on her distant figure and carried on.  And thus, at the tender age of six, I got my favourite boy into trouble.  When it finally dawned on us that the rest of the class had all joined our teacher and we were the only ones who hadn’t, our sheepish return was met with a very stern telling-off.  “I told you she was calling,” whispered Ben crossly after we’d been shown up horribly in front of our classmates. I was as mortified as a lovestruck six-year-old could be, which is to say: very   In spite of trying to make it up to him with presents of Love Heart sweets (‘Be mine’ and ‘Will you’), that was the end of Ben and me.

A certain six-year-old's view of Mrs Marychurch and her class in 1970

There weren’t many other boys in my class to fall for over the following years.  I became good mates with Ian, Iain, and the two Andrews, but that was because they weren’t much like the other boys and I wasn’t much like the other girls.  We all liked nerdy activities like drawing, reading, collecting little rubber animals and writing stories, so playing together was comfortable and easy.  I just didn’t ‘fancy’ any of them.  Mind you I didn’t fancy Christopher either but that didn’t stop me inadvertently leading him on one time.  As we spilled out of the classroom for lunch that day the not-very-bright boy with the thick-lensed spectacles and rodent teeth started touting for girls to play Kiss Chase with him.  All his favourite girls - Alison, Claire, Nicola and Ruth - were quick to say “No”.  I, stupidly (oh, so stupidly), felt sorry for him.  I don’t know why but I came out with a classic line which I was soon to regret.  “No I don’t want to play, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like you,” I said, as flirtatiously as a nine-year-old could, even though I didn’t like him.  Oh, why did I say that, why?

I went hungry that lunchtime.  Instead of eating I spent the entire hour being pursued by Christopher.  He chased me up and down the long playing field, in out and out of the line of willow trees, round and round the Pudding Stone and across the hopskotch squares on the tarmac.  I tried to hide under the coats hanging up in the cloakroom and behind the floor-length orange curtains in the Assembly Hall.  We played cat and mouse until I got that sandpapery feeling across my chest and a throbbing in my forehead, but my determined hunter wouldn’t give up.  I longed for lunchtime to be over. Eventually the boy cornered me by the rabbit hutch, pressed me up against it and pushed his mouth hard against mine.  I struggled, but to no avail - it was only the ringing of the school bell at the end of the lunch break that finally freed me from his clumsy grasp and his horrible wet lips.  If only it had rung sooner.  Flopsy the rabbit was not the only one to feel traumatised that day.

But I recovered from that and in the last year of Juniors my dream boy was Nicky.  All the girls loved Nicky and he was way out of my league.  He had lovely blue eyes and was supremely self-assured.  I didn’t expect my admiration to be reciprocated because I was neither pretty nor confident, and I'd never really spoken to him before, but when I was seated next to him in the final term I realised that I could sometimes make him laugh.  I started to learn that a bit of wordplay or a corny gag could go a long way.  Nicky actually appeared to like it when I tried out the “Do you know Theresa Green?”  joke on him ("what? - you don't know trees are green?") and it seemed I went up a few points in his estimation.  Enough points in fact to warrant me a place in his ‘Top 5 Girls’ list which he updated weekly.  I made it to Number 3 and, seeing as Number 1 was Big Karen who was already wearing - and noticeably filling - a bra, that was quite an accolade. (Like several of the other girls in my year I just had two small bumps under my blouse which embarrassed me greatly.) I don’t remember who Number 2 was.

I left primary school rejected by Ben and unwillingly kissed by Christopher but with a small, sweet confidence boost from appearing on heart-throb Nicky’s special list. It’s a shame really that I was then sent to an all girls’ school and boys became something of an alien species.  Or maybe it was just as well.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Jeepers creepers

There’s been a bit of a rock’n’roll theme in some of my fellow bloggers’ posts lately and it chimed in neatly with a strange and sudden yearning to get myself a pair of… you may think I’m mad, but… a pair of creepers. 

Well, I was looking through one of my sketchbooks from the early 1980s and found these small drawings…

…and, I dunno why, but I got hooked on the idea of slipping my feet into a pair of crepe-soled shoes, at least before I get too much older.  Can a woman of my age get away with wearing such things, with narrow jeans and a leopard print coat?  Do I care?  Hmm...I don’t want to end up like one of those old ladies who should have given up the lipstick and leather decades beforehand  - there are always one or two in every town, aren’t there? -  and who turn heads for completely the wrong reasons.  But I think  - ok: hope - there’s still time for me to make a few last stands against middle-aged convention.

At least I can buy them off the internet now too.  Back at the time of my little drawings, purchasing such exotic items meant taking the train down to London and heading for the rather cramped and gloomy branch of Shelly’s at Foubert’s Place in Carnaby Street.  Inside, boxes of weird and wonderful footwear for all of us who wanted to make fashion statements with our tootsies were stacked precariously and in no obviously logical arrangement from floor to ceiling.   In Shelly’s I indulged my love of some black patent lace-up boots with impossibly pointy toes, not the sort of thing you could buy in a small town Stead & Simpsons at the time.  It was my boyfriend who bought the creepers then – purple ones, red ones, some with pointy toes too - to be accessorised with dayglo green or pink socks, which we could also only find in the city shops (far too outrageous for the provinces).

You didn’t have to be into traditional rock’n’roll to wear creepers.  Early ‘80s fashion seemed, to me anyway, to be mostly about hybrids.  It was natural to mix and match various influences: a bit of punk here, a bit of glam there, a mélange of several different decades' styles, combining kitsch with chic and old with new.  I had no qualms about wearing a yellow polka dot 1950s dress under a leather motorbike jacket, along with black woolly tights and monkey boots, for instance. And, when I think about it, there were a lot of hybrid inspirations in the musical backdrop of the time too.   Rockabilly earned new credibility with bands like the Polecats and the Stray Cats...

(Who couldn't fall in love with Brian Setzer's hair too?)
Anyway, the creepers are on order and I just hope I’ll like them when they get here.  At least if I find I'm not brave enough to wear them out I can Stray Cat Strut round the living room in them and pretend I'm seventeen again...

Thursday 4 October 2012

Natural beauties

I'm all outta words for the moment so in the meantime here are a couple more pictures which seemed quite striking, taken in the back garden...

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