29 July 2009

Echoes

I guess my last post - "Lard" - surfaced from my memory sump because I have been reading "Round Ireland With A Fridge" by Tony Hawks. Back in 1997, Hawks took on a £100 bet and found himself hitch-hiking round Ireland with a small fridge on a porter's trolley. His circumnavigation of the Emerald Isle saw him in various bizarre situations and he met a host of random Irish people as well as appearing regularly on the Gerry Ryan morning radio show. Entertainingly, the book charts that journey but it also acts as a vehicle for reflections on Irish life and life in general.

In chapter twelve - "Roisin" - I noticed this aphorism - "Sometimes in life you've got to dance like nobody's watching". That sentiment has been hanging about in my mind the last few days. So often we "dance" or live as if controlled by and subservient to the watching society around us but sometimes we need to be true to ourselves and make the moves that come naturally to us without reference to that controlling audience. Perhaps only through such "free" unfettered "dance" steps will we come to truly be ourselves.

After the "lard" incident at the airport, there were other extraordinary happenings that are vivid in my memory thirty five years later. On my second day in Ireland I was out on Lough Ree in a rowing boat, fishing with a flat-capped bachelor farmer of seventy plus. We took the fish back to his humble cottage and fried them over a turf fire while an image of Jesus stared down from above the mantelpiece.

Near Bantry I met Ronald who was in Europe for the first time. A white orphan, he had grown up in a bush village in Tanzania partly watched over by an Irish priest who had brought him back to the old country and lent him his old Datsun car. Ronald spoke like a black East African and drove at approximately fifteen miles an hour. We got drunk together in Bantry after I had pitched my tent. I was naturally perturbed when he repeatedly asked if I liked to "rub the rhino horn" or "play with the banana".

A couple of days later, after a long wait on a remote County Kerry lane, I got a lift from an artificial inseminator. We made several farm stops where large buckets of scalding water were waiting by the rear hooves of bovine mums to be. At one farm, I was invited to slide my arm into a long polythene glove and then push it inside the moaning cow while he - the inseminator - prepared a long glass pipette half filled with best bull's semen. He laughed at the agonised expression on my face - for this was certainly not what I meant about dancing in Kerry with a green-eyed colleen.

This may be my last post for a little while as tomorrow Shirley and I are heading south to England's rich underbelly for a ten day break in Sussex but if I spot an opportunity, I will blog again before returning to the grim reality that is "Up North".

27 July 2009

Lard

Let's travel back in time. Back to June 1974. I'm a university student and not particularly fashion conscious. I have long hair, a full beard and I like to wear an old khaki US Army combat jacket that I bought from a secondhand military store in darkest Glasgow. Earlier that year I developed a yearning to make my first time visit to a large island on the edge of Europe - you might have heard of it - it's called Ireland.

I have hitch-hiked to Leeds-Bradford Airport, staggering under the weight of my old rucksack that is packed with all I will need for a month on The Emerald Isle. I am twenty years old. I check the rucksack in at the check-in desk and then I wander off with my book - "The Magus" by John Fowles. I sit reading it with a cup of coffee, wondering how I might reduce the weight of the rucksack and how on earth I will be able to waddle round Ireland with the damned thing.

Before I can get to the departure gate, I am accosted by a posse of customs men. They frogmarch me into a secret room, dominated by a big oblong table with an inlaid black rubbery plastic surface. Sitting on this table is my designer rucksack in all its khaki boy scout glory.

The customs men stand back. "Open it up!" the leader commands. They edge closer to the walls. I remove my nylon raincoat, my old Blacks canvas two man tent, my carrier bags containing socks and Y-fronts. I toss out my writing pad, my torch, a sweatshirt, a rolled up towel, a pair of blue Adidas trainers, a couple of shirts. a melamine plate and a spare pair of Wranglers. Right down at the bottom is my Gaz camping stove and a clever collection of cooking utensils that click neatly together - a kettle - a saucepan and a frying pan.

Detecting sharp intakes of breath from my observers, I realise that it's this pan collection that most interests them. "Open that up!" orders the mustachioed leader. I separate the pans and reveal a package I have hidden in the saucepan. It's wrapped in aluminium foil. The customs men are quivering. What is it? Hard drugs? Or more likely dynamite or Semtex. I peel back the silver paper to reveal a half pound of best Yorkshire lard. Their relief is palpable.

I explain that I need the lard for frying eggs and bacon. They are smiling now. And it was only later that I reflected on the Troubles in northern Ireland in 1974 and how I might have looked like a crazed paramilitary sympathiser - off to join the IRA or the UDF or some other such organisation. Little did those customs men know, I was planning to see sunsets, drink Smithwicks in country bars, talk to old men, write poems, read books and dance with a green-eyed colleen upon the moonlit strand at Inch.

Inch Strand, County Kerry

24 July 2009

Pigsick

Don't worry. It is a proven medical fact that computer users cannot contract swine flu by visiting the website of an infected blogger. For someome who has been outrageously healthy for over fifty years, it's hard to believe the last twelve months. Last August, I picked up a rare and deadly strain of e-coli, whilst on holiday in Turkey. Only heavy duty antibiotics could save me. Then there were all those weeks of waiting for my urethrotomy operation in early June and now - would you believe it - since I "retired" from work a week ago, I have been suffering from symptoms which leave me and my nurse (wife) in little doubt that I have been and still am infected with the H1N1 influenza virus - swine flu.Headache, excessive tiredness, sore throat, sneezing, production of nasty phlegm, cough, achey limbs - if it's not swine flu then it's all a huge co-incidence. On the new Pandemic website, my responses to the sequence of questions asked drew that selfsame conclusion and indicated that I should go to an antiviral medication collection point with my unique patient reference number. Trouble is the website seemed to have an irritating glitch because it could only reveal the address of one antiviral centre in Sheffield - miles away at Wincobank. And why would I need the addresses of similar collection points in York and Scarborough?

Each morning this week I have woken hoping that I would notice significant improvement but to be honest it's been a week of false dawns and physical lethargy. Perhaps tomorrow - Saturday - I will feel a bit better. If it goes on much longer I will be developing bristles, a snout, and a corkscrew tail - which - when I think about it - could be handy in an emergency.

21 July 2009

Proud

Recently, I was honoured to receive this blogging award from the nice lady at Hadriana's Treasures. As you can see, the professionally designed and iconic award image is itself one of Hadriana's treasures! The shadow of night-time passes across the planet leaving most of Africa and Europe in darkness. There's a little black line to show the rough position of Hadrian's Wall - the northern boundary of the Roman Empire in Britain. Beyond that there were Picts and Scots and other uncivilised kilt swirling, haggis scoffing hordes. It's surely one of the biggest mistakes of the last two thousand years that they let that wall fall into disrepair. If they had maintained it, we wouldn't have had to suffer The Krankies or that big-headed pseudo-working class comedian, Billy Connolly or that miseryguts tennis player - Andrew Murray and whisky-swiller Sir Alex Ferguson would still be managing Aberdeen... Mind you I suppose there have been some benefits in the union - we get to drink "Irn Bru" and shoot grouse, Reidski has become a "boss" in London and we got to see great Scottish footballers like Denis Law, Kenny Dalglish, Billy Bremner and of course Andy "Jock" Davidson - the Hull City legend (see right).
Thanks to Hadriana for the award. I humbly accept it.

19 July 2009

Azzurri

Sunday evening is normally reserved for a traditional homemade Sunday dinner. When the kids are around, it's a family occasion and although Ian now lives near Sheffield United's ground he's usually back on Sundays for a chinwag and some of mama's home cooking - roast beef, roast potatoes, three vegetables, delicious beef gravy - not to mention the piece de resistance - beautiful, golden Yorkshire Puddings - mini-me's!
But not yesterday. It was different. Linked with my "retirement", I had agreed to meet up with some figures from my professional past with their partners. Moira with her husband Roy, Vicky and Patrick and Mike and Jan. First it was a pre-meal drink in "The Nursery Tavern" and then on to an Italian restaurant on buzzing Ecclesall Road called "Azzurri".
I have never been a big fan of Italian restaurants though I love good Italian cuisine. Oddly, the spaghetti bolognaise I make at home is much superior to any I have ever had in a restaurant. But Sunday night's not the best night for eating out - some places are closed and Roy is one of those people who is resistant to curries - so that's why we ended up in an Italian. Old timers who had survived decades of English teaching in our tough urban comprehensive where the sun don't shine and work was grim up North at the cruel chalkface of our broken dreams.
I guess there's more to life than food but I had Uova Alla Fiorentina as a starter - egg cooked in tomato on a bed of spinach and mozzarella - truly blissful. My main course was Pollo alla Crema - a succulent piece of chicken breast cooked in a creamy white wine and brandy sauce with mushrooms and asparagus. Often in restaurants when they bring round the vegetables, I am bitterly disappointed with the meagre child's portions I receive but this time I had no complaints - plenty of roasted carrots and baby rosemary potatoes. It was all delightful.
Dessert was a homemade strawberry cheesecake - all washed down with a couple of pints of Becks lager. Unusually, I could hear the entire conversation round our table with people I have known for twenty to thirty years. Thankfully, the place was very quiet and there wasn't all that background guffawing and gabbling that often makes me feel deaf in the foreground. It was a great meal - I would recommend the "Azzurri" to anyone but now it's Monday morning before I shower and watch "Homes Under The Hammer" on television. Could this be the pattern of future mornings now that I am "retired"?

17 July 2009

Speech

All week it has been about saving stuff and chucking other stuff out - getting my classroom ready for the next incumbent. I had kept news of my going secret from the pupils but in the last two days, my fifteen year olds got wind of what was happening. There were hugs and photographs, tears and cards. At breaktime I danced like a maniac with my "harem" of English teachers and Moira brought in two lovely homemade cakes. I picked the lemon one with lemon cream and lemon icing - delicious.

The clock was ticking and the end of term buffet was nigh. Does anybody really look forward to giving speeches? Two ICT (Computer) teachers were leaving after just one year. Then there was Adam the Technology teacher transferring elsewhere after five years in the job, Head of Art Derek - seconded to be a trainer with a fast-track graduate teacher programme, Emma the fellow English teacher promoted to another Sheffield school and Sandra the Science technician leaving after fifteen years in the job. Last but not least was yours truly.

Having worked for Sheffield Council for more than twenty five years, I knew I'd be getting an official citation in appreciation of my service though a fat cheque would have been nicer - "...you have worked tirelessly... continuously conveyed your passion for your subject.... totally committed to the education of young people in your care.... devoted service... well-respected."

Then it was my turn. I was determined to leave that workplace with dignity, a sense of achievement and a certain light-heartedness. Not for me the bitter departures I have witnessed from various departees in recent years - people who felt they had been truly shafted, blaming a self-righteous but ineffective senior management team led by the gabbling innovation-addicted harridan we call the headteacher.

I was calm and unhurried. I gave a history lesson about how the school had changed in quarter of a century. I praised the non-teaching staff and raised laughter when I referred to the number of cleaners I had been through. Above all, I praised my immediate colleagues for their energy, commitment and their unwavering support. I finished by referring to a memory I have retained since 1978 when I was a young teacher in the mining village of Dinnington.

It was early September. I looked out of my tumbledown terrapin classroom and saw two eleven year old boys wandering on the adjacent school field. I went out to them and I could see that one was clutching a map. Because a map is not three dimensional, the mapmaker had drawn the first floor Science suite in the nice empty space where the little boys were now walking. "What are you doing here?" I said. "We're looking for Science," they replied. Ending my speech, I said I very much identified with those two boys and their geographical dilemma.

There was warm applause and afterwards many hugs, handshakes, kisses, good wishes. I finally drove away, not quite knowing how I would feel but a voice from deep inside me said "Thank Christ that's over!" It was my time to go. I felt it in my bones.

15 July 2009

Road

Friday creeps closer. The end of thirty two years as a wage slave. The earning will have to continue beyond Friday but it will take different forms and I feel no pressure to get straight back in the work groove come September. Instead I may travel....Tanzania, Antigua, Guyana...who knows? I gave instructions that there were to be no flowers, no present, no card but my immediate work colleagues kindly mustered £85 and asked me what I wanted.
At the weekend, it happened to be "The Great Sheffield Art Show" - an annual exhibition of amateur art held in the university's Octagon Centre. I met up with Sofia - our Higher Level Teaching Assistant - and we moseyed along the aisles and through the catalogue until I found a picture in the price range that I could live with and which would be a simple but lasting memento of twenty four years service in one secondary school.
The view is of a country road in Derbyshire not far from the Nine Ladies stone circle. It's called "The Road From Stanton Lees" and it is either by Philip Towler from Doncaster or Geoff Kersey. The label on the reverse is unclear and the picture isn't signed. I like the idea of the road going off into the distance - a journey travelled. I like the architecture of the winter trees and the confidence of the colouring, the big tree clothed or choked by ivy. I wonder where that road will lead me now that the chalkdust of thirty two years and more is finally settling. Beyond the nine ladies and into tomorrow.

"The Road From Stanton Lees"

12 July 2009

Eighteen

Above see the faces of James, Joseph and William. They all died in Helmand on Friday and they were all eighteen years old. Of warfare, have we learnt nothing?

On the television a casually dressed President Obama honoured the ultimate sacrifice paid by these boys in soldiers' uniforms. He re-emphasised the connection between Afghanistan and potential terrorist atrocities in London or New York. Yet - did it never occur to him or any other western leaders that simply by being in the region waging war or on the Taliban - they are very probably adding fuel to the forces of evil that have struck in Manhattan, London, Bombay and elsewhere. Battling with the Taliban probably makes terrorist atrocities more likely - not less.
This isn't about equipment, helicopter support, tough political language, bullets or how we armour our vehicles because those are certainly not the tools of peace. Peace is about love, it's about seeds and handshakes, education and understanding, giving and friendship, investment and support. What would John Lennon say of this conflict if he were alive today?

When I was eighteen I was off to see the world - not with a rifle but with a bag full of hope, a guitar and a book of English grammar. They sometimes say that in our hearts we have an age where we feel we belong - our real age - not the one that is marked by birthdays. My age has always been eighteen, the same as James, Joseph and William. Surely, the best monument we could build in their memory is an end to the pointlessness that is the mission in Afghanistan. Before more eighteen year olds die there, let's shout out - BRING OUR BROTHERS HOME!

10 July 2009

Increasing

Since I last posted, the British death toll in Afghanistan has risen to 184. That's another eight mothers grieving for their sons. And why? Let the crying begin for pity's sake - "Bring our brothers home!"...Figures for Taleban deaths are shrouded in strategic mystery but we should remember that 733 U.S. military personnel have been killed and 124 Canadians. Please enlighten us all if you know what this "mission" is all about - what it is meant to achieve? It has gone on too bloody long. Bring our brothers home!

Above: Coalition deaths 2001 to July 11th 2009

9 July 2009

Afghanistan

Most people I know really have no idea what Britain is doing sending young men to their deaths in Afghanistan. It has never been properly explained. Are our lads there to stifle the bubbling up of Islamic extremism as represented by the Taleban and Al Qaeidah? If left, would terrorist numbers increase to such an extent that they would take over the world? How do military strategists and politicians know this? After all, so many errors were made in high places in relation to Iraq as the western coalition searched for weapons of mass destruction that never even existed. Could they be wrong about Afghanistan too?

Helmand province produces 42% of the world's opium. Are the so-called "insurgents" partly motivated by a selfish economic desire to protect this vital cash cow? And what has the war in Afghanistan got to do with oil and the west once again protecting its fuel sources for the future? It is all so very confusing. Shouldn't history books have taught present day invaders that victory in Afghanistan is in any case always unreachable?

In the meantime, 176 British fighting men have died there. Many have been blown to pieces by roadside bombs and landmines. Below are photographs of the two Sheffield lads who have met their tragic ends in that hostile land. I wonder if they were clear about what they were fighting for? Here's David Marsh aged 23 years - a marine - he died in Helmand in March 2008:-

And here's twenty year old Christopher Bridge of the RAF - he died in Afghanistan in August 2007:- They were sons with siblings, girlfriends, mates, neighbours and expectations of long lives ahead of them. It would be bad enough to die fighting in a war you believed in - combating the scourge of Nazism or the brutality of Serbian separatists - but to die in Helmand, so far away, in an endless war you don't even understand makes their deaths all the more tragic.

I am reminded of Buffy Sainte-Marie's anti-Vietnam war song, "Moratorium" and the plaintively repeated chorus - "Oh bring our brothers home! Bring our brothers home!" And by the way, the "mission" in Afghanistan is currently costing the British taxpayer an estimated £7 million a day. Over eight years, that's a lot of hospitals, schools, environmental projects, job creation schemes, road surfaces, transportation infrastructure improvements and handouts to the elderly. Bring our brothers home!

7 July 2009

Memorial

On the evening they remembered Michael Jackson in a cavernous basketball arena in L.A., it's time for another memorial service. A few years have passed since I discovered blogging. During that journey from there to here, I have made many fascinating contacts and linked with many interesting people. It has been a quite delightful adjunct to my life and long may the singing continue.

However, nothing stays the same. Bloggers come and bloggers go. Some blogs suddenly grind to a halt and you are left wondering what the hell happened. Did they pass away? Were they imprisoned? Were they tied up in straitjackets and bundled off to asylums?

In my sidebar you will find my "Planet Blog" where I have pasted in links to blogs that I have enjoyed but three of them seem well and truly defunct with no activity for many months. It's time to take their coffins out to the ocean and drop them with floating wreaths. Time to scatter their ashes over the cyberworld. Time to let their charred remains float down the Ganges.

Stevie Wonder plays at Jacko's memorial service.

Who are they? There's "Friday's Web" composed by Amy in the North Carolina backwoods. That was always one of the first blogs I went to after logging on and I almost felt as if I knew the life she was leading - the trials and tribulations of being a parent, growing older and the never -ending quest for money to oil life's wheels. The tattoos, the animals, the bills, the yard, the husband the NASCAR races. Farewell Amy! May you rest in peace.

Secondly, there's "Shooting Parrots" in the suburbs of Manchester - a mere forty miles from here. There were jokes, interesting facts, political sideswipes, a simple passion for life and of course family responsibilities and work. It was a good blog while it lasted and I enjoyed the banter with Mr Rhodes but now that particular Norwegian Blue is a dead parrot! Deceased! Kapput! No more!

Finally, there's the bizarre "Brad the Gorilla" from Seattle. This guy was brilliant at maintaining his gorilla alter ego. There was sharpness, wit and a rather anarchic way of looking at the world that often made me chortle as I sat at this computer with my can of "Red Stripe" Jamaican lager or my mug of Yorkshire tea. I guess that Brad just got bored and moved back to the jungles of central Africa where mating with females of the species is far more straightforward than it would have been in the Pacific Northwest where you're expected to wine and dine and make interesting smalltalk first. Silverback gorillas aren't really into all of that.

To paraphrase lines from The Staples Center - "Brad, Amy, Mr Rhodes I was glad that I was alive in your era and though we wanted to feel your love go on for longer, God needed you in another place. You were so giving. You were very special people. Love y'all! Boo hoo!"

3 July 2009

Isabella

Did you ever have the feeling that there was nothing you wanted to say? Silence and solitude are greatly under-rated phenomena. In this world there is so much chattering, so much endless babbling. It's where ever you go. Telephones and mobile phones invisibly fill the air with tangled webs linking A with B and X with Y. It's as if the planet is like one of those enormous rubber band balls that bored office workers make. In pub gardens the chattering goes on, in schools, in hospitals, old people's homes, factories, shops - an endless chain of words.

But in Isabella Purves's top floor flat on Rodney Street in Edinburgh, Scotland there was complete silence for five long years. Nobody came to chatter the day away. No one telephoned. Occasionally, the whistling postman pushed mail through her letter box. It piled up on the mat. Five years worth of mail - reminders from the optician, pizza menus, voting registration cards, bank statements. And this pile would have grown bigger if it hadn't been for a plumbing fault which caused water to drip into the flat below. That's when the neighbours, the authorities, the health service, long lost acquaintances, the postman and the rest of us learnt that Isabella probably died in 2004.

On the ground floor of her tenement there is a flower shop - "Fioritalia". Its owner remembered Isabella: "She would sometimes weed the communal garden at the front of the tenements and I used to see her with a huge rucksack and big walking boots... but I never knew where she was going." ...Well do any of us know where we are going? Yet we know where Isabella finished: alone and stone dead for five long summers and five cold winters. In my estimation, we are all partly responsible and this unnoticed death is just as blameworthy as the heart-rending "Baby P" case in Haringey.
...Later, I notice that the only picture we have seen of Isabella is a passport photograph. You can tell by the squiggles to the right. Where was she going I wonder? And what sort of a life did she lead in her younger days? There must have been work, family, friends, happy occasions. How sad that it should all end in a lonesome flat where nobody, not one single soul in the entire world, thought to check on her welfare. Nonetheless, there is a steeliness in those eyes - a firmness of purpose and a certain self-belief that suggests that Isabella was perfectly self-sufficient. I hope she died peacefully in her sleep.