The Great South Tyneside Turnip Robbery (and other stories)

When you talk to your older relatives it is sometimes hard to picture them as children or teenagers. Like all of us they have misadventures they might have gotten up to in those early years – and in wilder times sometimes wilder adventures were possible.

As I watched my Nana get older and her memory of what happened just yesterday become increasingly transient, still a certain glitter in the eye started to appear.

As our memory of today sometimes begins to fade, the longer term memories of our formative years seems to come back into clarity, and many a giggle was induced by asking my Nana to talk about her earlier days.

That glitter look is one that says,’ as I’m telling you this, and I’m not an old woman sitting in a chair I can hardly get out of, but I’m my 16 year old self again, and I’m enjoying it.’

I tried to get that look from my Nana as much as possible over the last few years of her life, and she was always ready to oblige. Some aspects of her childhood were unlike mine or most other people I know – I had the advantage of a proper schooling and was not forced into work in my early teens, for example.

Other things were perhaps more consistent with perpetual experiences of that age; how, for example, do you bunk off work to spend the afternoon in the back row of the cinema with that handsome young sailor (who would in due course become my grandfather) without (1) losing your job at the hotel and (2) without your father finding out?

My Nana was up to it though. Cue giggles.

Her hard start to life helped create some interesting attitudes during wartime too. One of her favourite tales was as a teenager working as a maid at the Grand hotel near Newcastle Central Station during the war. One day she was cleaning at room at the hotel when a bomb went off nearby. Taking cover as glass from the windows saturated the room, she rose, unharmed but furious; she had just finished cleaning the room, and now there was all this cursed glass to clean up!

But her favourite story was about turnips, or rather a particular turnip.

Growing up in a large and poor family near Marsden in South Tyneside, you had to take what you could get. That included what came free to eat, including the blackberries that a lot of people ignore nowadays. But they were seriously worth grabbing, and one year when she was eight or nine my Nana was sent out on the mission to get as many as she could. Unfortunately for her, the kids from Sunderland a few miles down the coast had been let out of school earlier than her and had stripped the brambles bare by the time she was able to get to them.

Downhearted, my Nana started out for home, desperate that she had nothing to bring her family.

On the way home she passed a field of turnips. They were beautiful turnips, big and ready to harvest.

Surely this was the one and only opportunity she would have. Not as sweet and special as blackberries, but still…

So my Nana used her hands and dug up the biggest turnip she could carry and scarpered. She raced towards home with her prize, but it then started to rain heavily, and in a mix of both hiding her theft and, as she indicated to us, protecting her prize from the ensuing downpour, she took off her one and only coat and wrapped the root vegetable in it.

So she arrived home, soaked to the skin and with all her clothes covered in mud, proudly bearing a stolen turnip.

Of course she received a beating for the act; that’s just what happened at that time.

But my Nana always brushed that off (as she dabbed the tears of laughter away) because, as she explained, afterwards the family went onto eat the turnip anyway.

And then she would look at me with a twinkle in her eyes and grab my wrist with a tiny hand that still had a grip like iron. She would pull me towards her so she could whisper:

‘And do you know what?’ She would say,’ I still love turnip today!’


Iris Margaret Graham 1922-2014: Tea, Cake and Cards

It is now a few weeks since my dear Nana passed away and it seemed a safe time for me to reflect on my relationship with her and share some of the things she taught me.

My Nana managed to make it to her early nineties and while she had faded in recent years, she always knew who we were and could be enticed to enjoy life a little even as the quality of it faded.

She had taken to hardly eating anything but could usually be enticed through treats she never could have had as a child – dates, strawberries and good fruit cake predominant among them. The last few years present requests has been for my Lovely wife to work the baking magic on cake, with extra glace cherries, because my Nana always liked those. My Nana had never been one for possessions, but a box of chocolate liqueur chocolates always seemed to meet the need at Christmas. That was interesting for me, as she hardly touched a drop of alcohol and always warned me off it, but providing it was wrapped in dodgy chocolate and sugar, all seemed to be fine.

All this sweet stuff would be would be washed down with a constant supply of tea. Nothing written about my Nana is complete without the mention of tea. I felt misty eyed this week when in clearing out our loft I came across several albums of PG Tips cards – in the days when opening a packet of the Chimpanzee sold tea (wince at the terribly inappropriate adverts, younger friends ) that gave you one or two cards each box to go in your collectors album. I do not know how long they ran for – but I have a few starting with ‘Inventors and Inventions’, moving on through ‘Olympic Greats’ and of course ‘Wonders of Wildlife’.

The fact that most of these albums are almost full (and like most collecting schemes you often wondered if it was deliberately impossible to complete them so that is no mean feat) speaks to my Nana’s ability to consume tea (possibly egged on by an excited card collecting grandson).

Incidentally, I even had cause to use one of them to look up the inventor of Cats Eyes as part of a discussion with the lovely wife on the subject of incredibly simple but amazingly clever inventions.*

Going back to sweets and chocolates; they were a part of who my Nana was to me. As a child when we would go round I always knew that there would be a bowl with some Quality Street or Roses in it, or possibly some chocolate éclairs. If I did not take advantage of the delights these posed they would be pushed at me before I left. There was to be no escape. At Christmas, alongside the more expensive presents from my parents there would always be a plastic bag from my Nana, filled with the things that really make children happy – a collection of chocolate bars and sweets (OK, there would be some fruit and nuts in there too, but we can brush over those).

It was a small but reliable treat, and I miss it.

I think that apart from being just naturally generous, my Nana also had it hard and that crafted this delight in treats. From a poor South Tyneside family, she was the second eldest girl and their mum died while my Nana was about 11. So with her elder sister they effectively had to take over the maternal role while her father struggled to make ends meet. They really had nothing at all, rent money included, so I think in later life she always appreciated what she did have – and in the gentlest of ways remind me of just how lucky I was. But never in a preaching way and she never, ever complained about her own life.

In fact, laughter was the usual thing that came out that she talked about the hard times. She might have been a tiny woman with a backbone of iron but my Nana had a wicked sense of humour. There were some stories that, even in the difficult last few years, that if brought mentioned caused her face to light up and she would begin to laugh.

Until she had to wiped the tears of laughter away and fortify herself with more tea.

I’m saving a few of those stories for next week, when I will reveal (and I do not think she would mind one jot) that maybe desperation in her younger days had once caused her to slip over into (very) petty crime…

So next week, the tale of the Great South Tyneside Turnip Robbery will be told.


*Cats Eyes were invented by a certain Mr. Percy Shaw in Yorkshire in 1934.  Well done him.

Homo Superior

Long nights in Belgium hotel rooms on business are giving me the opportunity, should you want to call it that, to catch up with some of the DVD box sets I have had lying around for a while. I know, that based on what seems to be the hot ticket seems to be at the moment that I should be watching Breaking Bad or maybe The Walking Dead. But no, in the face of all the arguments I’ve been ploughing my way through The Tomorrow People. Notably the original and best (although the last descriptor has to be qualified as we will see) version from the 1970s, all 68 episodes of it (yes really, they made that many).

For those that are blissfully unaware, this is a kids series for Thames television that revolves around, at least in theory, a bunch of teenagers who are the next stage of human evolution (God help us) Homo Superior. They have telepathy, telekinesis (where the plot requires it) and can jaunt (i.e. teleport) all by force of mind alone (and some technological help, again, when the plot requires it).

They cannot kill (they keep having to remind you of it) but that’s alright because, with a rather shocking exception or two, most of the adversaries are rubbish. Plus our heroes have TIM on their side – who I remember loving as a kid – the friendly bio-computer who is probably the best written character in the show.

It’s rubbish of course. The acting is appalling (it really stands out when someone with talent – a very young Nicholas Lyndhurst for instance – turns up. But I shouldn’t criticise too much – the scripts are worse. The special effects makes contemporary Doctor Who look like Gravity and the tone is dreadfully uneven with the serious stuff mixed up with entirely unfunny slapstick humour. Main characters come and go with no warning and often no explanation, while through it all John, the eldest tomorrow person, looks on and the actor Nicholas Young, puts in a stoic performance as everyone’s serious big brother and the least convincing teenager ever portrayed – even at the beginning of the long run.

So why do I have a huge soft spot for tosh like this?

Well, first off it is hilarious.

Real laugh out loud ‘what? Really? You’re kidding’ sort of stuff. The fashions in particular are worth the price of entry alone, and it is hard to believe that some of the stuff they have to wear was ever trendy even back then (another series worth watching again for the fashion victim factor is Buck Rodgers in the Twenty-Fifth Century with the truly awful 80s idea of future fashion – hint, ladies assume its skin tight and/or very short and made of foil). No one in it seems to take it seriously – really, most people seem to be having a laugh (which jars terribly in the one episode where a sympathetic character actually dies). And buried in this are some actually good story ideas, and as the series goes on they do get better. And the title sequence and music, by Doctor Who veteran Dudley Simpson, is still brilliant and chilling. Look it up.

In the end it is mostly pretty positive stuff, and two things I still love. One is the late Philip Gilbert, who is the voice of TIM and later turns up in breathing form as Ambassador Timus of the Galactic Federation in numerous stories. Both characters – clearly connected, are effectively the Doctor in some ways; a bit like the friendly uncle in an Enid Blyton book who you know can fix everything but has to leave it to the kids because he has to be elsewhere. The actor clearly loves the part and milks it for all that it is work, and the series is better for it. He even gets the very last line, and it is a positive one too.

The other thing is the one story that gave me nightmares back in the day, and on seeing it again, it still stands up. The Living Skins is from the last series and details the efforts of balloon aliens to take over the world by turning themselves into one piece jump suits that you never want to take off – because they have taken over your mind. There is one sequence when a couple of the jumpsuits attack the youngest – who was my age at the time, always helps with impact – Tomorrow person and TIM, and while it sounds ludicrous, it is incredibly creepy.

So I suggest you take a long, hard look at your oh so comfortable onesie.

Did it just twitch there in a sinister way?

Fishing Distractions

Some people will have been seeing this January as a month of rain and flooding. There has certainly been plenty of that and we have had some hairy moments with surface water, floods and crossing fords. Then there are those who just saw it as the month for detoxification and trying to recover from the Christmas season. It has been an odd January and an odd winter. This year for me, January has been the month of the Kingfisher. For those that know St. Albans will also know Verulamium park, the 1920s park that is the best place for a long walk on Sunday afternoons before adjourning to one of the many fine pubs the town also has as a result of being one day’s coaching ride from London. At times the park can be like a motorway of romantic couples and terrifying small children on scooters determined to take my legs off at the ankles. The ducks and swans have become used to the excessive human presence or possibly are just addicted to bread. But some of our animals are just a little more nervous, and the flash or iridescent blue and orange that is a kingfisher is something we have normally only seen a couple of times, and outside the busiest zones. But not this January as this seems to have changed albeit probably for a temporary period. If you want to see a kingfisher at close quarters come to Hertfordshire. I have been quite amazed that every time I have gone walking or running down the park, I’m seeing this kingfisher. Well a pair in fact although usually only one at a time. To add to the pleasure it is at close quarters and they are ignoring the people watching them fish. That said most people seem oblivious to one of our most beautiful birds. So why are they there suddenly, after two or three sightings in the last 10 years? The zoologist in me says enjoy it while it lasts. The river is extremely high and up and downstream it is unusually deep, fast flowing and cloudy. Next to the artificial lake however, the river Ver is slowed artificially and is still clear enough that the birds can see their prey. So for now, until the river has gone down, I predict that our azure dressed guests will hang around because this is the only place on the river they can actually fish. Which is great for me, as it provides a great excuse to (1) stop for a rest on a run to watch in fascination as the bird skips along a branch, plunges into the water and comes up with a fish, and then carefully manoeuvres the prize head first into its beak (2) I can bore anyone who also has stopped to watch because they are observant enough to notice armed with half remembered zoology twenty year old degree knowledge topped up by Chris Packham on BBC2 ‘Watch’ programmes. (Disturbingly I have noticed that while I have always felt I had modelled myself on a mixture of my childhood heroes – Tom Baker’s Doctor Who and David Attenborough, in that order. However I seem to be taking on Packhamesque mannerisms at far too rapid a rate. Just as well I do not like poodles; otherwise I would be very worried.) The demographic of my fellow kingfisher watchers also interests me. They seem to fall entirely into two groups – photographers, and older couples who actually are bothering to look around them on their romantic constitutionals. These are the kind of people the lovely wife and see and think ‘I hope we are like that when we are their age’ not realising that this milestone may be closer than we think (or might like). So I think when the weather changes (let’s assume it does, if only for those who live on flood plains) then my pretty birds (look see, I’m already getting possessive) will be back off down their country homes and again we will only see them once in a (brilliant) blue moon. Maybe our Mandarin ducks will come back to make up for it. But that’s for another week, closer to our anniversary.