22 May 2015

Hitchhiking

In my salad days, I travelled many hundreds of miles free of charge. I stuck out my thumb and almost magically, vehicles pulled in to pick me up. Actually, it was rarely as simple as that. Often I would have to wait ages for a "ride" like the desperate chap in the picture above.

Hitchhiking out of London back to the fair land of UpNorth was always a challenge but my late and much missed brother Paul taught me what to do. You had to catch the tube to Finchley North and then jump on a particular London bus that took you very close to Junction 1 of the M1 motorway. Then after waiting on the slip road for a short while you'd be on your way out of The Smoke and back to reality.

I hitchhiked long distances - up to Inverness and to The Isle of Mull, all the way round Ireland and across to Wales. Being at university in Scotland meant I would often hitchhike up and down from Yorkshire - saving train fares and making a little money at the same time for in those days students could claim back from the local council the equivalent of three return rail fares a year.

You never knew who would pick you up. It was all so beautifully random. Lorry drivers were a favourite. Their employers hadn't thought about anti-hitchhiker regulations or insurance restrictions and many men liked to have somebody to chat with  to help the tedious miles pass by.

I could tell you a lot about hitchhiking techniques and share stories of especially kind drivers who bought me meals or went out of their way to drop me off at more convenient places or about "rides" I had in America, Iceland, France and even Easter Island where some drunken Rapa Nui natives took me across the island in a battered old Toyota that had no seats in the back - just a big brown dog called Felix who stared at me as if I were a tasty carcass. And there was that single woman by the roadside in Glencoe, Scotland with a cardboard sign that said "No Fleas!" where you might have expected "Edinburgh" or "John o' Groats".

In contrast, my son Ian has had virtually no experience of hitchhiking. It is a different world these days and you just don't see anything like the number of hitchhikers you used to do. Apart from anything else, drivers have become afraid of strangers. Hitchhikers might rob you, steal your car, engage you in unwanted sexual activity or grab the steering wheel and force the vehicle off the road. Such is the mythology. Stranger danger. As a society, we used to be so much more open and trusting.

Anyway, in the summer of 2004 Ian and I flew over to Ireland to see Paul and his family in County Clare. I had a hire car and one sunny afternoon after a trip to Galway City, just outside the village of Kilcolgan we saw an older man with his thumb out by the side of the road. I quickly assessed him -as you do - and he looked fine - a good candidate for a free lift . I guess I thought it would show Ian some of the beauty of hitchhiking - people helping one another out. Random strangers.

As soon as this grey-haired fellow got in the car I whispered "Oh no!" to myself. He was as drunk as a Tory MP after day of  grouse shooting. Pissed as a newt and angry with it. Coming from deep in the bogland of western Ireland his speech would have been hard enough to decipher at the best of times but now it was all slurred so it sounded like a foreign language. He was speaking Guinnessish.

We were just taking him back to his home on the outskirts of Ballyvaughan - ten mile away. It should have been easy but he wanted to make an argument of it and the fact that we were English seemed to wind him up no end. But this wasn't the worst of it. 

The fellow's non-hitchhiking hand was bleeding. It was wrapped in reams of toilet paper and through his jumble of indecipherable utterances I worked out that he had been in a fight in a pub in Kilcolgan. He kept putting his bloody left mitt on Ian's front seat and the head rest too. Ian was leaning forward, slightly petrified by the beer monster in the back. I think he was called Paddy.

It was an enormous relief when we dropped Paddy off and drove away. There was so much blood on Ian's seat that he got in the back. Fortunately, when we got back to Paul's house we were able to clean the blood off. The upholstery must have been protected with some kind of spray guard. I think the incident will have put Ian off ever picking up a hitchhiker in the future. Not quite what my spur of the moment act of kindness as meant to achieve.

19 May 2015

Babysitting

Growing up in my East Yorkshire village, I was economically disadvantaged in comparison with my teenage peers. At fifteen, nearly all of them were working - on apprenticeships or otherwise employed. They had money in their pockets having truly entered the adult world. On the other hand, I was still at school, stumbling along in the sixth form to my A level exams. I had little money.

So for about three years I became a regular babysitter. It was very easy "work". The wives left me food and drink, the children rarely woke up and I could either watch TV or get on with some homework task.

At one house there were two little girls and in all the dozens of times I undertook babysitting duties there I don't think they ever woke up. At another house, there was a little boy with a brilliant first name - Neil. Once in a while he sneaked downstairs and sat on my knee while I read him a bedtime story. Like all Neils, he was a delightful child.

Years later, that same little boy had become a strapping young man and was working as an aviation technician with the Royal Airforce. He approached me unexpectedly in a pub, so pleased to see me though at first I had no idea who he was. Touchingly, he remembered those babysitting nights with great affection, sitting on my knee sharing stories..

In those now far off days there were no mobile phones so when the parents left the house there was no way I could get in touch with them. Furthermore, in those days of yore most of us knew nothing about paedophilia. It just wasn't on our radar. So the parents who employed me as a babysitter had no worries about leaving their precious offspring in the care of a hormone-fuelled teenage lad.

Nowadays, I am very conscious of sensitivities surrounding child abuse. I have seen it in people's eyes. They don't have to say a word. Yesterday I was near a primary school in north east Derbyshire just as the children were leaving and there were several parents waiting around. As I walked by, I studiously avoided eye contact with any of the children. It's too risky to do otherwise even though the prevalence of child abuse in our society has been massively exaggerated. Ninety nine per cent of men are disgusted by the idea of paedophilia and mean absolutely no harm to any children they encounter.

Tomorrow evening I will be babysitting again for a thirty something mother who lives across the road from us. She has two delightful little girls and a not so delightful absent husband who is in the final stages of divorcing her in favour of a German dominatrix he met on a business trip to the state of Baden-Württemberg in Deutschland. No doubt Cath will give me her mobile number and though she knows me quite well, I am pretty sure that the spectre of child abuse will have fluttered briefly on her mind's screen. That's how it is these days.

18 May 2015

Invention

It was probably intended to save water and perhaps to prevent flooding in non-domestic lavatories or "washrooms". I am thinking about the push tap. You must have encountered this incredible invention yourself. Only, it is not so incredible is it?

My experience of push taps has been like this. Firstly, I have soap on my hands and I press the tap only to find that there is no delay in the system. It's okay when the tap is pressed - the water flows - but immediately upon release the water stops and you are left with soap on your hands.

Secondly, the temperature of the water may be unbearably hot so you can't wash your hands under the push tap. Thirdly, after pressing, the push tap won't stop working as the continuously flowing water gushing from it threatens to empty the local reservoir.

I can only imagine that the push tap was invented by Margaret Thatcher, Joseph Goebbels or some equally horrible individual intent on bringing misery to the western world. Another despicable invention you find in "washrooms"is the electric hand drier but please don't get me started on those damned things.

17 May 2015

Audience

Occasionally, I look at the statistics that clever Professor Blogger gathers about this blog. Here you can see this month's "pageviews"  top ten - showing countries inhabited by discerning visitors  to "Yorkshire Pudding":-
Unsurprisingly the so-called "United Kingdom" is in top place, closely followed by The United States where my nemesis dwells in the heart of Georgia. No doubt two thousand of those visits are down to him alone. I am also not surprised to see Germany, Australia and Canada in my top ten as visitors from those fine nations have, in drunken stupors, often left comments.

However, what I do find surprising is the number of hits I get from Russia and Ukraine. Nobody from either of these wonderful countries has ever left a comment or indicated that they were following this blog. 1113 Russian visitors and 758 from Ukraine this past month and that volume is not unusual.

Perhaps they are shy people or perhaps they arrived here by mistake when looking for perfect Yorkshire pudding recipes. I have heard it said that Yorkshire puddings are revered in both Russia and Ukraine where there are Yorkshire pudding palaces and restaurants that sell nothing but Yorkshire puddings. They are very cultured people.

Through this post I wish to extend a hand of friendship to all my hitherto silent Russian and Ukrainian visitors in the hope that they will reveal themselves to the blogosphere. So to all Russians out there I say:-
And to all Ukrainian visitors I say:-
For those who are not fluent in Russian and Ukrainian, the message was "Hello Russians/Ukrainians! Do not be afraid. Please leave a comment."

Who knows, if Russian and Ukrainian comments start to flood in. The United Nations might one day employ me as a mediator to sort out the Ukrainian conflict that appears to be boring Western media channels to death. It's still there but I would need a posse of bodyguards and a villa with swimming pool in the suburbs of Kiev. I could arm-wrestle with Mr Putin or pin him down and mercilessly tickle his armpits saying "I'll not stop till you've pulled your men out of Ukrainian territory!" He'd be laughing so much he'd surely wee his pants.

15 May 2015

Higgy

I have known Higgy for twenty five years. For most of that time he lived with his mother in a four bedroom detached house that was in an increasing state of dilapidation. His mother Lily gradually became crippled by arthritis - surely one of God's most cruel inventions. Her hands were like frozen claws and so she could do little for herself. Higgy was her principal carer.

Lily died in 2010 and soon afterwards, Higgy moved into a two bedroom flat. A new beginning  He's fifty six now and a well -known character in our local pub. He hasn't worked for thirty years but he is excellent at pub quizzes and crosswords. He knows so much about a wide range of subjects and is far better than I am at retaining knowledge and quickly recalling it.

For some unknown reason, he took to wearing sunglasses where ever he goes. One pair is framed bright red and other pairs are white and yellow. Quite eccentric but then again he is not like other blokes. He suffers from an eating disorder and has always been painfully thin. He is also cursed with eczema. A picture of health he is not. Poor Higgy.He walks like a stick insect on spindly legs and if a stiff breeze blew he would probably fall over.

A couple of months ago he complained that his back was hurting so with some encouragement he went to his local doctor's surgery. They referred him to hospital and in the past few weeks he has had scans and  X-rays, blood tests and painkillers. I have driven him to four of his hospital appointments. Before we leave our neighbourhood we always have to call in at a local shop so that he can buy a copy of "The Guardian"and a packet of cigarettes.

On Monday, I went into his appointment with a specialist at The Northern General Hospital. Previously he had been promised that this would be the day when he found out what the problem is - osteoporosis or a "disease" (i.e. - cancer) but instead of the answer he was expecting he was told he would have to have a biopsy on the particular vertebra that is crumbling away and causing Higgy so much pain.

I could see it all on the computer screen. Amazing imagery from the CT scan. The consultant surgeon said that they couldn't insert a strengthening rod as Higgy's bones have a very low density - "like polystyrene". Probably caused by years of thinness and not looking after himself properly. By the way, he had all his teeth removed last autumn as they were starting to fall out and become infected anyway. This can't have helped his difficult relationship with food.

Like all eccentrics, Higgy has been on the receiving end of unpleasant remarks that might be construed as bullying but I have always had a lot of time for the fellow. He is kind to others, interesting to talk to and in spite of his cigarettes and "wacky-baccy" and pints of "Carling" lager, he lives a decent, unobtrusive life.

He is pretty much estranged from his elderly father who divorced his mother when Higgy was in his teenage years and he never sees his sister. He has never had a significant romantic relationship with anybody - man or woman - yet there's a lasting sense that he could have really been somebody if the path of his life had been different. Maybe his biggest achievement was gaining a degree in History from Sheffield Hallam University at the tender age of forty nine. It was a struggle but he got there in the end.

At  fifty six and with his pain, his crumbling bones and his eating disorder I doubt somehow that he will live to be an old man. He was desperate to find a job for he could see his savings draining away and numerous times I helped him with computer-related matters and job applications but it was never going to work out. He had come too far and now we wait for the big needle that will surely lead to a correct diagnosis. Osteoporosis or cancer - neither of them very nice to live with. Poor Higgy.

14 May 2015

Book

Since I took early retirement from the wonderful world of secondary school teaching, I haven't read half as much as I imagined I would. There have been oodles of spare time and in that sense no real excuse for not reading. But often I just haven't been in the mood for it.

It has taken a good while to do but I have just finished reading "The Narrow Road to The Deep North" by Richard Flanagan. It was the winner of last year's prestigious Man Booker Prize.

The book tells the story of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor haunted partly by a wartime love affair with his uncle's wife but mostly by his awful experiences in the jungles of western Thailand where he was involved with hundreds of other prisoners of war in the construction of the infamous Thai-Burma railway. Post war, he finds his growing celebrity as a war hero at odds with his sense of his own failings and guilt.
Little wooden crosses on a ledge in Hellfire Pass
Taking its title from  a seventeenth century haiku by Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō, the novel is epic in form and chronicles an Australian century,  encompassing the post war lives of Japanese and Korean prison guards as well as Australian prisoners of war. Flanagan explores the effects of war, considers various forms of love and  ultimately investigates what it means to be a human being caught up in the worst terrors of warfare and self-doubt.

It is a very well-written novel and perhaps it's my own fault that I found Dorrigo Evans a hard character to like or even to believe in. There are really gripping passages about prison camp experience but sometimes I found the text unnecessarily verbose. arguably self-indulgent and occasionally frustrating as it switched from past to future and back again.

Nevertheless, I am glad that I chose to read it. When I was in Thailand I visited the remains of the Burma railway, walked upon the new Bridge on the River Kwai, paid homage to the dead at the military cemetery in Kanchanaburi and visited the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum near a cutting that was hewn from bare rock by malnourished prisoners of war - many of them unfortunate Australians. It was an extremely dark chapter in the history of the twentieth century and another terrible reminder of the wickedness that war will so often bring to the surface.
Hellfire Pass, Thailand. A tree has grown in the railway cutting where once
prisoners of war chipped away at the base rock with their bare hands.

11 May 2015

Departed

St Peter's Church, Tankersley. It sits in splendid isolation, away from the village it serves. I wandered around the neatly-trimmed graveyard and came across this Victorian gravestone. Between the lines it reveals the life of sorrows that must have been led by Thomas Chambers and his wife Joanna. Though he died at the age of seventy one  and she died at the age of ,fifty eight  their offspring were generally not so lucky.

The sons and daughters are all listed.
Thomas 1825-29 (Dead at 4)
Unnamed infant - born and died the same day in 1826
Mary - born in July 1827 and died in September of the same year
Catherine 1828-1830 (Dead at 1)
Henry Thomas 1830-1858 (Dead at 28)
Margaret Maria 1832-1835 (Dead at 2)
Emma - born and died in January 1834 (Dead at 11 days)
Walter - 1841-49 (Dead at 8)
Matthew -  1825-76 (Dead at 51)

Nine children and only two of them reached adulthood. Such private tragedies were not unusual in those days. Looking back from 2015 we can hardly imagine how it must have been for Thomas and Joanna. We expect our children to live. In general, death is something for old people, not for the young.

In another corner of St Peter's churchyard, there was another grave containing yet more babies. The inscription ended with a verse that says much about the stoicism of our Victorian forebears:-

I never more shall see the sun
I go where troubles cease
Father in Heaven, thy will be done
Farewell, I die in peace.