19 June 2021

"Blue"

It's fifty years since Joni Mitchell released her most marvellous album - "Blue". I bought it as soon as it came out and listened to it over and over again. It was astonishing because of  its lyrical beauty and its emotional openness. Everything poured out of her. There were no reins to hold it back.

It was more than poetry. The melodies and the simple musical backing lifted it higher. In later years, I discovered that the songs reference Joni's love affairs with Graham Nash and James Taylor and the loss of her daughter Kelly who was fostered soon after her birth when Joni was an impoverished art student.

In 1971, none of that mattered to me because I found the songs awesome in their own right. I didn't  need to know exactly what had sparked them. She sang,:-

On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
Oh, Canada
With your face sketched on it twice

The album  was revelatory and true and it was speaking to me directly as I approached my eighteenth birthday. I always loved lyrics - from Donovan to Dylan and from Leonard Cohen to The Incredible String Band - but somehow "Blue" connected with me lyrically as no album had ever done before. Joni was so vulnerable and yet so strong to tell her tales of love like this.  Incredibly, she found the words to say it all.
 
These were and remain the songs on "Blue":
"All I Want", "My Old Man",  "Carey", "Little Green", "Blue", California", "This Flight Tonight", River", "A Case of You" and "The Last Time I Saw Richard". I would not even venture to say which song I loved the most. They were all so good.

Like all great Art,  the album "Blue" was all about what it means to be human. Fifty years later that statement remains as true as it was in the beginning. Thank you Joni. What more can I say?

18 June 2021

O.N.S.

Several months ago, Shirley and I were randomly invited to participate in regular COVID-19 testing by The Office For National Statistics (O.N.S.) in partnership with Oxford University. The purpose of this on-going programme is to monitor the true progress of the pandemic with all of its ups and downs. I understand that nationwide 45,000 other people are involved in the study. Together we are like a giant litmus test.

Every three or four weeks we are visited in order to take lateral flow tests. There are also questions to answer and we have to give  blood samples too. A few days after each visit we receive our results from the O.N.S.. Occasionally, on the BBC News, there will be reference to O.N.S. testing and those changing figures are derived from the very  tests that I have described.

Being fine, upstanding citizens we were happy to join this study. We know that our participation helps to keep tabs on the coronavirus and will ultimately help to bring  down this  marauding coronavirus beast.

For every study visit, we receive a payment of £25 (US $35)  and so far we have received £500 (US $700). For tax reasons, the payment does not arrive as cash. Instead you have to opt for vouchers from a range of businesses including Britain's top supermarkets. Then you have to print them off from the internet.

A couple of weeks ago I visited Sainsburys supermarket and spent £100 on groceries but with two vouchers in hand, everything I bought was effectively half price. I also bought new printer cartridges with  vouchers we had received from The Office for National Statistics.

It is very easy money and we are not complaining. However, it would probably have been better if poor families were receiving the vouchers instead of us. Lord knows how much the O.N.S. study will have cost by the time of the final reckoning.

17 June 2021

Memory

Hymers College school badge

Arguably, the notion that life is a straight journey from A to B is illusory. As we live, our thoughts wander this way and that. We spend a vast amount of thinking time processing past events and reflecting upon  our journeys. In the nineteen sixties, a documentary film was made about Bob Dylan's 1965 tour of England  It was called, "Don't Look Back" but in reality we all "look back". It happens every day.

The preamble above simply foreshadows the main content of this blogpost - a memory. I picked it from the shelves of my personal library of memories that is of course embedded in my temporal lobe.

It is one morning in September 1965 and I am riding on a double decker bus from my East Yorkshire village to the great metropolis of  Kingston-upon-Hull. I am excited and not a little nervous because this is going to be the first day of my secondary education.

Back in April of that year, I had passed the critical "eleven plus" examination with flying colours. My score had been so high that I had won a free scholarship to Hull's most prestigious secondary school - Hymers College. Most boys' families paid handsomely for their elitist education at Hymers but each year a few boys, like me, received the same service free of charge.

I was wearing a grey suit with shorts rather than long trousers. There was a red and black cap on my head and knee stockings on my feet. I had a brand new leather satchel containing such things as a pencil case and a dictionary, leaving plenty of space for the text and exercise books that would soon fill it.

It was thirteen miles into the city and when I left the bus at Paragon Station, I had to sprint for a corporation bus that would take me the extra mile down Spring Bank to Hymers. I felt very much alone and did not know one other boy in the school.

I was placed in a form group called Lower 3A. Our form teacher was Mr Gale, nicknamed Windy Gale for obvious reasons. He sucked menthol sweets and wore a black academic gown. He taught Latin.

That morning my mind was in a whirl as we followed the timetable. Most of the other boys knew each other well for they had attended the school's junior section together from the age of five. I kind of linked up with a pale lad called Andrew Wallis or simply "Wallis" as he was always known in classrooms. He was also a scholarship boy and he lived close to  Craven Park which was the former home ground of Hull Kingston Rovers rugby league club.

After lunch, Wallis and I were queuing up with the others outside our form room waiting for Windy to arrive. The fee-paying boys tended not to speak like proper Yorkshire lads. That was one discovery I had made that morning. Previously, I had imagined that I spoke English properly having never before been exposed to received pronunciation or Queen's English accents in real life. To my posh classmates, I probably sounded like a farm yokel.

Ahead of me in  the queue, a tall blonde lad was imitating my accent as his willing audience laughed uproariously. He turned to me with mockery in his eyes, still putting on a broad East Yorkshire accent. I was silent but boiling up inside with a rage I  did not recognise. Then he started to push my shoulder with  his audience still guffawing.

It was at that moment that I exploded. I punched him as hard as I could in the face and he staggered back somehow falling over in the process. And then I was upon him, my fists flailing. He had been the toughest nut in the junior school but he was at my mercy. 

Then someone said, "Mr Gale's coming!" so we jumped up, our uniforms dishevelled and the tall boy now blubbering with tears. As he took the register, Windy never twigged that there had just been a fight. After it, none of my classmates ever mimicked my accent again . I think they were slightly in awe of me. Later,  the big blonde lad and I became the best of friends. He was called Foster though he did have a first name too. It was Andrew - just like my very first secondary school chum - Wallis.

Lots of things get forgotten and never reach the library of memories but after fifty six years I remember the events I have just related very vividly indeed. For various reasons, it was a seminal moment in my life, a turning point and somehow the end of innocence. Nothing was ever quite the same after that.

16 June 2021

Tuxford

Cottage in East Markham

Tuxford is a small market town in Nottinghamshire. It is between two larger towns  - Worksop and Newark. Tuxford still sits astride "The Great North Road" but nowadays the settlement is bisected by the A1 motorway. 

In days gone by, The Great North Road provided the main travel link between London and the north of England. In the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries if you wished to go north or south you travelled by stagecoach. Along the way there were several places like Tuxford that provided accommodation, refreshment and more importantly fresh teams of horses and stabling. All of this was of course before railways arrived on the scene.

Ornate signpost in Tuxford

If you look carefully you can still see signs of that old stagecoaching legacy - in the wide main street and in the buildings that hug it. You may choose to close your eyes and listen to the distant thunder of horses' hooves and the cracking of whips. On a good run, it took over three days to travel from London to York.

On yet another hot June day, I parked near Tuxford Primary School where some council workmen were adding flowers to the front borders. With boots on I set off to visit the town's  Grade  I listed church. The door to St Nicholas's was open so I ventured inside. During this bloody pandemic nearly every church has been locked so it was a surprise to find this one open.

Countryside north of Marnham Road

Mr Knowall, the church warden, was inside and he engaged me in a conversation. He asked me where I was heading and I said I was going north to East Markham. "You'll have trouble doing that because it's east of here!" he chortled so I got out my map to wipe the smile from his face. He also boasted about the town's senior "academy" saying it catered for over six thousand pupils when in fact it serves just over one thousand five hundred. There were other blatant gaffes and I was glad to say goodbye to Mr Knowall.

I walked steadily across the undulating Notts landscape for four hours, pausing only once to sit for ten minutes upon a stile near Gibraltar Farm to drink water and consume my meagre lunch of a packet of plain crisps and a couple of small apples.  You may or may not  be pleased to learn that I had no encounters with beds of nettles nor inquisitive cattle.  It felt good to be alive and out there again - simply walking, one foot in front of the other...

Two Grade I listed churches - within a mile of each other

St John the Baptist Church, East Markham

St Nicholas's Church, Tuxford

13 June 2021

Meat

Like most people of my generation, I was raised on meat. It was there at nearly every meal and when it wasn't there, there was fish instead. We had bacon, liver, sausages, mince, lamb, chicken, beef, roasted pork and on Christmas Day we had a big fat turkey with all the trimmings.

As a child I never even heard of vegetarianism. It wasn't a possibility and as for veganism, well I might have thought it was some obscure eastern religion. 

Once upon a raft in the middle of an Austrian lake, I pulled in a sea line with several hooks upon it. I must have been ten or eleven years old. On every hook there was a beautiful fish, writhing in the air, their silvery scales catching the sunlight of that August morning.

I called to my brother Paul who was on the shore, "I've caught some fish! What do I do?"

"Bash 'em with the paddle! Kill 'em!" he called back.

"What? I can't do that!" I said and paddled back to the shore with the writhing fish gradually dying in the air. Back on land Paul dispatched them without hesitation. They were duly gutted and my family later ate them but I could not eat a morsel. I was thinking of the fishes' bright eyes, the metallic appearance of their scales and the desperate gulping movement of their mouths.

Killing other creatures does not sit well with me. I do not like setting traps for rodents  and I even have qualms about ending the lives of garden slugs and mosquitoes. Quite literally, I would not hurt a fly.

And yet I eat meat. It's quite a contradiction isn't it? Probably hypocritical. I guess that if I had to kill a pig  and butcher it then I would not bother with pork products or if I had to kill a young sheep to get some lamb chops, I would surely turn around. 

In supermarkets, meat is presented in such a way that you kind of forget about the slaughter of animals or their death throes. It is weighed then wrapped in plastic on polystyrene trays, not far from the yoghurts, the fresh pasta and the garlic bread. There are no protesters in the aisles waving placards or chanting, "Meat is Murder!"

Our son Ian is of course fully vegan - he practises what he preaches. Our daughter and son-in-law have vowed never to eat fish again after watching the "Seaspiracy" documentary and they only eat meat at the weekend. They are currently agonising over whether to put meat in Baby Phoebe's diet when she is older.

Shirley is more enthusiastic about following their lead than I am. My meat habit is well ingrained but at least we have been consciously reducing our meat intake and plenty of midweek meals do not involve cooking the flesh of dead animals.

The way that the meat industry works has a massive impact upon global warming and this is especially true in relation to cattle farming. I am sure that you already knew that. At a personal level I guess that we should all be doing  a bit more to address climate change and reducing our meat intake is one of the ways we can all help, even if we are not ready to be fully vegetarian or vegan.

What do you think about meat consumption?

12 June 2021

Babies

Baby weighing scales

Last evening we went over to Frances and Stew's house to weigh Phoebe. Shirley had borrowed the baby weighing scales from the health centre where she works. 

Phoebe was stripped naked and placed on the scales like a plucked turkey. She didn't seem to mind a bit as grandpa continued to sing to her like a lunatic. Her skin was flawless. Towards the end of the weighing process, she made a little waterfall, showing no embarrassment whatsoever about this. I would have been mortified myself.

She is a big, healthy baby that is for sure. She weighed in at nineteen pounds exactly. Not quite five months old, her current weight places her in the ninety eighth percentile of all babies. Her only source of nutrition so far has been her mother's milk. It is really quite miraculous.

Further north in Yorkshire we have two nephews - Edward and Philip. They are Shirley's sister's sons. Their "partners" have both had babies in the last six weeks. Edward is now the father of a little girl called Winnie and Philip is the dad of another baby girl called Reeve. She was only born on Monday of this week. Everybody's doing well.

It's all girl babies round here. What are they putting in the water?  One of Frances's best friends bore a girl very recently and her very best friend Charlotte is due to burst forth in the next two or three weeks. Surely that child will be a boy. If so, he will be called Casper. If the babe is a girl, she will be called Imelda.

In these modern times, new parents come up with many surprising name choices. Who would have ever thought that a British prince would call his children Archie and Lilibet?  These names do not seem at all regal and appear to deliberately cock a snook at tradition. Not so with Prince William and The Duchess of Cambridge's three children: George, Charlotte and Louis.

We are very happy that our bonny granddaughter is called Phoebe. It means "bright" or "shining". The name originated in Ancient Greece. We hope that she will always feel comfortable with her name. It's nice to have a first name that sits well with you and is never a source of unease or even resentment.

11 June 2021

Ruthlessness

When it comes to decluttering and reducing the volume of accumulated stuff we have gathered, I wish I could be more ruthless. On the hoarding spectrum, I guess I have a little bit of a problem because I find it pretty hard to throw things away.

In the last two days, we have had a new gas boiler fitted along with some new pipe work. Mostly this has happened in what I call "the underhouse" where I once imprisoned several parking enforcement officers. 

The underhouse is a place for tools, wood, cans of paint, garden tools, jars, old books and papers and rolls of carpet. It's a bit like the anti-Aladdin's Cave.  No treasure down there, just a mass of jumbly junk including things that our two grown up children dumped on us. I had to move it all aside so that the central heating fellows - Andy and Brett could do their work.

I came across an old folder containing the programme shown at the top. I brought it back from the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 - over fifty years ago. How could I possibly throw that away?

Below you can see who played on the last night of the festival. What a line up! The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Jimi Hendrix and then greeting the dawn it was Leonard Cohen. Bloody brilliant!
Below,  inner pages from  the programme - recognising two of the festival's top acts.
The festival took place at East Afton Farm near Freshwater and I also have a copy of "The Evening Standard" from that weekend. There's Joan Baez on the front page:-

And inside the tabloid newspaper there was an aerial photo of the festival site. An estimated 600,000 people were in attendance. Many more than attended the famous Woodstock Festival of the previous year. Can you see me? I am quite near the stage - about seventy people to the right.

Okay. I guess I will keep saving this particular memorabilia but next time I descend to the underhouse I really must find stuff to throw out. As I said before,  I need  to be more ruthless. Like Attila the Hun. I bet he didn't surround himself with junk.

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