29 November 2008


There are lots of pubs in England called "The Red Lion", "The Royal Oak", "The White Lion" and "The Prince of Wales" but there are only two called "The Banner Cross" and one of them is a short stroll from our house. It is my local and I have visited it regularly for twenty years.
The pub has a mock Tudor frontage. No car park because it faces busy Ecclesall Road - the main southerly route out of Sheffield. It has three rooms. Upstairs there's the games room which attracts a younger crowd and downstairs there's the old "tap room" and the lounge. Presiding over this drinking empire are the redoubtable Janet and Roger. Rough as they come, Roger is regularly stricken with painful attacks of gout these days while Janet sees red mists when ever anyone crosses her and she can swear like a trooper. I think she might be described as a "harridan" - a worn out horse or a large gaunt woman. She has put the fear of God into many an unsuspecting drinker.
I was down there this evening. There was Irish Joe who came to England in 1961 to begin his building "career". His Irish brogue remains as broad as it must have been when he stepped off the boat forty seven years ago. There was Bert from Northampton who worked manually in the concrete industry till he was sixty five. He was singing songs tonight - "Burlington Bertie from Bow" and "The White Cliffs of Dover". In spite of his extremely hard life, he is a very nice man who never thinks ill of anyone. Then there was Mick the Plumber (not John McCain's daft Joe the Plumber) - he was very tired after a week working away on a building contract in Blackpool.
Other people I often see at "The Banner" include the perpetually unemployed and unemployable Gibby whose aged mother is racked with rheumatoid arthritis. He keeps saying that he hopes she hasn't fallen over again as he sups his fifth pint of lager beer. Then there''s Derek with his various dogs, tattoos and roll-ups. He can't read or write but he always shakes my hand and asks me about my family. To use a term from Philip Larkin, I think of him as a "loblolly man" - he makes money by painting people's houses when and if he feels like it. He's a very good worker who takes pride in his painting and I have always been rather jealous of his free and easy approach to work. Unlike me, he is very much his own boss.

Big Dave has just got back from a week's holiday in Brazil where he met one of the Great Train Robber - Ronnie Biggs's best mates. They drank beer in a Rio bar and went for steaks that you paid for on the basis of weight. Lonesome Dave is obsessed with money and things financial and has an uncanny knack of turning conversations that way - territory that frankly makes me yawn. He's always advising me about pensions and savings but I don't care about things like that. I like poems and songs and brilliant goals, stunning photographs and beautiful objects - not how much interest I might make on a thousand pounds or how much I will need for a solvent retirement.

There are plenty of others - Irish Pat, Roman the barman and James the son of Irish Pat, the obnoxious Leeds Mick, Jim the Sheffield Wednesday fan who never sits down and the gardener Dave Glossop who is Sheffield United crazy. There's Barnsley Paul and Mr McCraig, Dimitri the Greek jeweller with his English wife Jo, the quiz kings Richard and Jonathan, brothers-in-law Roy and Mike, Welsh Geraint and the Spanish lass Maria who lives on Glenalmond Road. Jamaican Murray whose wife died in July and Tony the Kurd with his kebab shop.
It's an English pub - my local - and a great leveller. Who cares if you are a builder or a lawyer? Who cares if you have travelled the world or made a million, fought in Iraq or fought in a night club? Who cares if you are a secondary school teacher working up to sixty hours a week and stressing out about targets and the stupid National Challenge? Who cares if you are fat or thin, male or female, young or old? The English pub is a national treasure. Nowhere in the world have I found a facility like it, so roll out the barrel and let's all drink to the future of the great English pub!

26 November 2008


Did you ever find something... something that sticks in your memory?

Long ago in 1970, as the Isle of Wight Music Festival was ending, I found a Pentax Spotmatic camera hanging from a beam above a primitive row of toilets - precarious planks with bum holes suspended above a stinking trench. I snapped the abandoned festival site, including sleepy festival goers in polythene sheets as a thin rain descended. It had been quite amazing - Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Donovan and Free... Later I sold the camera for twenty five pounds in a camera shop in Hull.

Around 1991, I was returning from Scotland after attending a university friend's fortieth birthday celebrations. I pulled in to the motorway services on the M6 just east of the Lake District. It was around nine at night and there on the big entrance mat by the double doors I spotted a bundle of banknotes. I scooped them up and headed for the cafeteria area. £65! It was more than enough to pay for my weekend away. If you are the one who dropped it, I thank you ever so much.

It must have been a couple of years earlier, Shirley was working at the hospital and I was looking after the kids. I recall that Frances was in her aluminium framed baby hod, surveying Derbyshire from her vantage point on my shoulders. Holding Ian's little pink hand, we marched across a ragged sheep pasture and there in a hollow we spotted an ancient sheep's skull. It had been abandoned so long that the bone was bleached white and all signals of flesh had disappeared with the passing of several seasons. We still have that skull, a souvenir of a time long gone.

I found many other things: a rare Pacific seashell, stamps commemorating the discovery of Rotuma, an old grindstone and a stoneware Barnsley Vinegar Company bottle, the diary of a woman student at university detailing her life - including several sexual encounters, wartime grocery products in a derelict house in Devon and a strange wooden object the size of a mango that came rolling down the hill as I walked up to Edinburgh castle with a former girlfriend. Carved upon it was the primitive image of a man holding hands with a woman.

What did you find?

23 November 2008


What is life all about? When all the words have been spoken and the dust has settled, what is there left? I am sorry but after we have measured our dreams and ticked the inventory of our experiences and achievements, what it all boils down to is reproduction. Like other creatures and the entire plant world, that is ultimately why we are here - to ensure the continuity of our species. Dear Reader - you had a mother and a father. Through their parenting you became part of the human chain - a link connected with the past. By having children ourselves we continue that linkage and send part of ourselves into a future where we may not travel.The photo above was taken in September 1988 by Shirley's mum at the Nether Edge Maternity Hospital in Sheffield. It's a much younger me and Shirley with our little son Ian and our newly born daughter, Frances. My face is full of joy - not because a hairy caterpillar is crawling across my upper lip - but because I recognise the wondrous nature of this moment that the camera is about to capture. It's why I came into the world. It's the very meaning of life - nothing to do with God or splitting the atom, emulating Shakespeare or painting a masterpiece - but this - a man, a woman, a son and a daughter - a family. Our passport to the future, our living acknowledgement of the past. To be so blessed is something beyond the scope of words. And the woman who pressed the button is herself now gone beyond this earthly life but part of her remains.

20 November 2008


Like John Sergeant, the dancing Yorkshire Pudding finds his career is cut short. Especially for ye swooning devotees of "Strictly Come Dancing" - enjoy!

17 November 2008


Humps or bumps or sleeping policemen? I don't care what label you give them but I hate them. From time to time, it's healthy to have a good rant and speed humps are very rantworthy - if there is such a word.

It's amazing when you start scouring the internet just how much strong feeling there is out there about the humps. Far from being a traffic calming measure they are a source of much annoyance amongst drivers up and down this country. Until writing this post, I hadn't realised that speed bumps often cause actual physical pain to people with back complaints or those who have recently had surgery in hospitals. I had also failed to recognise that the braking and acceleration associated with speed bumps creates extra noxious gas pollution. That's just two powerful arguments against the damned things.

Let's go back in time - about ten years ago. In my home city - Sheffield - there wasn't a single speed bump - apart from those on hospital property. Then somebody at the council thought it would be a good idea to randomly introduce them on nearby Rustlings Road just by Endcliffe Park. Why there and nowhere else is an unanswerable question. Rustlings Road is an ordinary city street and in the twenty years I have lived nearby I can't recall one single occasion when a pedestrian was reportedly knocked down upon it by a speeding vehicle.

Those speed bumps led to a humping industry where teams of road workers would seemingly randomly dig up roads and with no consultation with local residents create the dreaded humps. Sometimes the humps would be in red tarmac, sometimes in black/grey. Sometimes they'd be continuous humps and sometimes intermittent, individual humps. Between these devilish mounds they would sometimes leave a foot, sometimes a metre. The distance between them like the height is variable - with apparently no regulatory dimensions.

When we had a Ford Focus, I could whizz over these individual mounds without much of a bump at all. Like many drivers, I found myself concentrating more on how to drive over the speed bumps than upon more important traffic issues such as who was behind me and who was in front or whether or not there were children playing at the roadside. However, in Shirley's environmentally-sound little Nissan Micra with its narrow wheelbase, there is no way you can whizz over the speed bumps. In a thirty mile an hour zone, you have to literally get down to 15mph in order to avoid damage caused by the jolting that each speed bump creates. This can be frustrating for following drivers in bigger cars who probably don't understand that each speed bump is like a hazard to be negotiated when you are driving in a small car.

Why do some roads have them while others don't? How much does the speed bump tarmac have to crumble before it is repaired? Why do councils make driving even more difficult by creating costly one way "chicaines" at random points on humped roads? How do they decide to have continuous or broken humps? How many lives have been saved by speed humps and more significantly how many lives have been lost because of them? How much damage do speed bumps cause to cars each week and in the longer term?

Send £50 (or $80US) to Mr Y.Pudding if you wish to join the "BASH" organisation - Bloggers Against Speed Humps. Direct action will be important in our campaign so please ensure you have a pick axe, a pneumatic drill or a stick of semtex handy and wait for further instructions from BASH command.

Ugly monstrosity!

14 November 2008


When I was a school student, I absolutely loathed Chemistry. Now The Royal Society of Chemistry have decided with presumptive self-importance that it is their place to make scientific pronouncements about Yorkshire Puddings that are frankly libellous! Take this headline - "Yorkshire puddings must rise four inches or higher, rule the chemists"! What? Four inches! No way! The Yorkshire Pudding must rise seven inches at least! No housewife would be satisfied with a four inch rise. In the picture below - issued by the RSC - you can see a housewife (well I'm praying it's a housewife!) tugging at a Yorkshire Pudding, lasciviously trying to make the poor fellow rise higher. Click on said picture to link to the BBC article on this topic of international importance:-

Personally I think the RSC should stick to bunsen burners, test tubes and copper sulphate and leave the humble Yorkshire Pudding alone or maybe one day the BBC will be hosting an article that reads "Members of The Royal Society of Chemistry will never rise again, rules Yorkshire Pudding".

11 November 2008


These days, being a secondary school teacher on the wrong side of the tracks is no picnic. Unwelcome pressure seems to press down on you in various ways. Firstly, there are the children. Although the majority of them remain lovely, there's a sizable minority who just don't give a damn. It's in their genes as one downtrodden generation of under-achievers produces another, more mouthy and more pig-headed than the last. They arrive at school without pens to write with, spouting foul language, without bags to carry their work in and worst of all without inquisitiveness or hunger for knowledge and self-improvement. Sadly, such losers will invariably have a massive influence upon the general ethos of a school.

Next there's the internal politics. You get innovative headteachers who care more about the latest bandwagons and their personal reputations and next career steps than they do about the children in their charge. Their underlings vie for position like hungry ducks in a pond - spouting the latest jargon, upholding the old managerial philosophy - "Do as I say, not as I do!"

Then there are the various tentacles of government. Local authorities find themselves squeezed to do better - get up the league tables. Their officers visit schools with laptops and serious expressions - confirming targets, demanding action plans and post mortems. In addition there's the dreaded OFSTED with its army of former teachers eager to submit their claims for expenses and feather their retirement nests as they move from school to school making snap judgements in the name of "standards". The National Strategy people churn out documents and ring binders, changing their strategy as they go along, somehow expecting magical things like the cascading of their multitudinous bullet points and Powerpoint slides.

The latest weapon is "The National Challenge" in which schools in areas of deprivation find themselves pilloried for failing to meet the baseline expectation of 30% of youngsters achieving five grade C's including English and Maths. There are no leafy suburban schools in the "National Challenge" hit list - just schools like mine, struggling on the edges of huge council estates to bring out the best from their pupils - poring over spreadsheets, chances graphs and league tables.

So much of it stinks. I have been teaching for over thirty years - the last fourteen as head of department. I cannot tell you the number of extra hours I have put in to the job - in my holidays, late at night, at weekends, during non-existent lunch hours. Today, very typically, I left work at 6.45pm, having started at 8.15am - that's ten and a half hours! And the same tomorrow no doubt. It's pride and my reasonable income that have kept me going this far. Inside, I have often been tortured by the job, waking up in the middle of the night to replay incidents. Most recently I have felt physically affected by it all - as if my essential life force is being sapped away.

There's that saying isn't there - if you can't stand the heat - get out of the kitchen... Well that's what I have decided to do - make it through to next summer and then out. I have told the Ice Maiden headteacher herself. I don't know what next September will hold but I'll get by. I fancy being the paint man at B&Q or driving a white van around the country but I guess I will end up still stuck in the nightmare world of education - a bit of supply teaching here, some college work there - just to garner more funds to keep life comfortable and continue to support our two kids. But those other pressures will be gone. Surely, I have done my time. I've got to go.

5 November 2008


The answer has been "spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled" - the new President of The United States is to be Barack Obama. It felt right to mark his victory in this blog on the day it happened. I wish him personal safety and strength through the difficult years ahead. Outside the fireworks of England's Bonfire Night burst golden in our night sky but let us say that their illumination is also in praise of Obama's election and the hope he has genuinely inspired. Great news.

4 November 2008


...After Fountains Abbey, we drove west to Brimham Rocks and then down into scenic Pateley Bridge before heading back to Ripon. By now the Manchester United v Hull City commentary was underway on Radio Five... and Ronaldo scored after three minutes. Oh no!

We strolled around sturdy Ripon Cathedral, descending into the Saxon Crypt which drew thousands of pilgrims to the city in the middle ages. Shirley bought some sheepskin slippers from The Edinburgh Wool Shop and we had coffees in Cafe Nero overlooking the ancient marketplace. Grrroaaan! She wanted to do some more shopping but I just wanted to get back to the car to listen to the last fifteen minutes of the radio commentary. I was expecting The Tigers to be losing badly but we were only 4-2 down against the European Champions!

As I listened, they described Ferdinand's foul on Mendy. Penalty! And up stepped Geovanni to drive it home. The last few minutes saw the great Man United in a panic as we pushed for an unlikely equaliser. Un-bloody-believable!

That night we paid handsomely for modern English cuisine in Lockwoods' Family Restaurant. For the starter, I had pink pigeon breasts on a bed of caramelised chicory with warm rocket salad, followed by braised local rabbit on a mound of parsley mash with two neatly laid layers of bobby beans. For dessert it was butterscotch parfait with hazelnut praline. Really posh nosh! To tell you the truth, I enjoyed Friday night's cheapo curry rather more.

After Lockwoods we saw the Ripon hornblower emerge from the town hall just before nine. He went to the four corners of the marketplace obelisk where he blew his ram's horn - one long deep and continuous note at each corner. This is an ancient ritual - performed every night for nigh on a thousand years. It is to do with setting the watch - warning townsfolk that it's time to retire for the night as the wakeman does his rounds.

On Sunday morning, we ended up at a stately home near Leeds called Harewood House. It is very grand and was lavishly furnished as the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth - mostly on profits the Lascelles family made from the slave trade. We decided to visit the kitchen garden first of all - about half a mile from the main house. There was an old couple with leather bush hats walking ahead of us - nobody else was around at that early hour. We caught up with them in the huge kitchen garden itself. Shirley chatted briefly to them while I retrieved a last lonesome apple from the otherwise bare fruit trees. It was only afterwards that we realised we had been chatting to none other than the seventh Earl of Harewood himself - with his wife The Countess of Harewood. That apple belonged to them! Off with my head!

Harewood House

2 November 2008


And so to Ripon in North Yorkshire on a Friday evening - the night of Halloween. There's heavy traffic on the M1/A1 link road near Leeds so it takes us two hours to get there. The Crescent Lodge Guest House is easy to find. Room Number 1 on the first landing is clean and cared for with an en suite shower room. We drop off our suitcase and wander two hundred yards into the ancient market place.

Beyond this is Kirkgate. I have done my research and there it is - The Bangladeshi Balti House. You can bring your own drinks so I have to go back outside in search of an off-licence ("liquor store" to transatlantic readers). Sainsburys is closed. After a bit of a wander, I'm back with four cans of Kronenborg.

The curry is quite delightful and clearly the place is popular with Riponians. Our table is rather small though - a marble-topped Victorian pub table and there's not enough room for our nan bread, rice, beer and hot plate for keeping the balti dishes warm - but we manage. Later, we're in "The Black Swan" on Skellgate supping John Smiths Cask bitter as fancy-dressed Halloween partygoers parade past us - witches, amber pumpkins, whiter shade of pale zombies.

Next morning, after a wholesome "full English" in the breakfast room, we're out in the November sunshine and on our way to the ruins of Fountains Abbey - Yorkshire's only "World Heritage" site. I was eight or nine when I last came here on a school trip. Begun by a small band of Cistercian monks from York in 1132, this abbey became both powerful and wealthy on the back of the wool trade. It had a hospital and a mill, several chapels and bridges and was home to hundreds of monks in its heyday. As you walk around it, you appreciate the peaceful beauty of the abbey's location by the little River Skell and you wonder about past times - the skill and ambition of the stone masons, the certainty of that lost society's religious belief, how the monks spent their days, the four hundred years in which Fountains Abbey exerted such influence over its immediate region... I took some photographs:-

Famous view of the west tower.

The cellarium beneath the refectory.

Stone soaring to the heavens.

Detail of tiles on the high altar.

Bear with me - I will continue this weekend account in my next post...

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