E is for Education


The cliché was that school days were the best of life. This is clearly nonsensical propaganda. Personally, my best days are scattered through my life and I entirely hope and expect that I still have a few to enjoy (let us draw a veil over the ones that I’m not going to like so much and just get through those). That said, I consider myself quite blessed, as generally speaking my school days were on the positive side, and sometimes, whisper it, rather enjoyable.

Mainly this was because I seem to have been lucky enough to blunder through my education without any real plan or direction and managed to pitch the amount of effort in that ‘just enough to get by’ zone (being inherently lazy at work, especially work I was not that interested in, e.g., mathematics, which I always saw as a means to an end rather that something worth studying for its own benefit). It all started off rather simply at my local state primary school where I enjoyed being and (intellectual) bigger fish in a very small pond; afterwards and ever since I have had to cope with being surrounded by people much brighter (and worse, more motivated) than I was. Luckily for me, while I may be loud, I’m not hugely competitive. So, I very easily resigned myself to mid table mediocrity and it has served me rather well over the years, and put me in a good place to support friends who have placed themselves under much more pressure to achieve.

My teachers at primary were the first main blessing, not so much by their teaching as much as insisting to my parents that they get me into somewhere, anywhere, other than the big comprehensive school across the road, onto whose grounds our house backed. Funnily enough the school is question has now been flattened to make way for a new housing estate, which is just a more permanent fate then it used to meet fairly regularly at the hands and matches of the local bored arsonists. My parents did not take much persuading, although the solution at the time meant a private school somewhere and that meant fees. At the time (see, this is all working out here in ways I have nothing to do with) you could get government help if you passed the entry requirements of the school concerned and your parents were on a low income, as were mine. I passed and had a choice in the end, but the most important choice here was that my parents chose to forgo anything for themselves for the next seven years as my fees (plus the other inevitable expenses such as uniform) took up every penny, not that I realised at the time.

I am very fond of Newcastle Royal Grammar, which is where I chose. I worked reasonably hard and it was the kind of school where if that was the approach you took the teachers would respond positively back. The only exceptions were music and games, both of which I was useless at. Perhaps surprisingly considering my lack of fitness at the time, it was the former I truly hated. At least the teachers had no real expectations of me as a great athlete, so largely they treated me with mild indifference providing I didn’t grumble and turned up. Music though… I just couldn’t get my head around it (I still cannot read music) and the staff couldn’t be bothered to take the time to teach me the basics. It is a shame as I love music and singing. But in the end the only time in my life I have been thrown out of a class at age thirteen and it was a music lesson. I was thrown out for coughing, I presume I was not expectorating to the right rhythm or something. Git.

So, that was not one of the best days.

Thankfully, other days were better. But maybe I’ll save some of those for another time.


D is for Doctor Who (Obviously)

People sometimes talk about what their first memory is. For some it may be an experience or event, maybe the first day at school or something that sticks in the mind due to something positive or negative. I know my first memory quite clearly and can date it precisely to Saturday afternoon, January 25th 1975; I was a few weeks away from my 4th birthday.

I was watching Doctor Who.

Specifically, I remember the cliff hanger at the end of episode 1 of ‘The Ark in Space’ where one of the Doctors companions, the hapless Harry Sullivan, opens a cupboard door, to have this huge insect like alien fall upon him. Cue screaming sting into theme music, credits and the painfully long wait until next Saturday (spoiler alert – the Wirrn queen is already dead, and Harry is in no danger – yet –  but you don’t find that out until episode 2. Just in case you were worried).

Some people may find it rather sad that my first memory is of a science fiction show and not something ‘real’, but I do not at all. In fact, I’m rather proud of it and it says a lot about me that I’m perfectly happy to be said. I’ve obviously been a diehard fan ever since then and I have never been ashamed of it (this may seem strange to younger readers, as the rebooted show has a much broader appeal than the ‘classic’ series ever did – although not in ratings – but for a lot of my younger life to be a Doctor Who fan was to invite ridicule). We did not care. We had our show, and even after it was cancelled in 1989 I was one of those that persevered through the Dark Time, until the Second (well, third, if you count the 1996 TV movie, which you should, if only so you claim Paul McGann) Coming. Many happy years were spent as a child on Saturday nights getting terribly excited and waiting impatiently for Basil Brush to end so I could take my position behind the folding chair in front of the TV in the middle of the living room (the sofa was up against the wall so not available for cover). It was especially fun when my Nana was staying, as she hated the programme and her tuts of disapproval at how silly it was added to the enjoyment, and as I got older it became a mutual running joke. The show influenced me in many ways, mostly positive (as, at its best, it always is). It fuelled my reading (although my English teacher did despair that my reading record contained mostly Target book novelizations of past episodes. At least, he did concede, I was reading a lot. On a slightly more negative side the show made me somewhat ambivalent to firework displays, which I link directly to November 1978 where, for some reason I could never understand, my parents decided that going to a firework display with my cousins was a better idea than watching episode 2 of ‘The Stones of Blood’. This, at a time when there were no repeats, no DVDs no iPlayer – no chance of ever seeing it. The episode was starting as we left the house. I do not think I was very good company (they never made the same mistake again). My time in the scouts was curtailed when the BBC, in an act of stupidity, moved the programme to the same night. There was never any choice of who was going to lose out, and the woggle was never worn again.

It is some satisfaction that when the show came back, the driving forces behind it were fans like me, of much the same age (although obviously hugely more talented). I still look forward to it, although watching now is not usually the visceral experience it was a child. But it is part of me.

And just in case anyone is wondering what I think of a female Doctor – bring it on. I’m interested to see what they do with it, and the show has a flexible enough format to adapt to the world as it is now. My only problem? It’s fiction. I think the world could do with the Doctor now. But we need to sort out our own mess.

C is for Camping

It came as some surprise to me that the Lovely Wife was under the impression that I did not like sleeping under canvas, that I objected to the concept and practice of camping. This is not true; it is just we have not done very much of it in the time we have been together. In fact, other than camping in a friend’s back garden – there not being enough crash space in the house at the time – at parties is pretty much the only time I recall that we have spent under canvas together. That will change next year when we go to my first proper festival – Wilderness – and I am quite looking forward to the challenges of that and hoping the weather behaves for a festival that includes plenty of outdoor activities. But camping is something that occupies a small but memorable part of my history, mainly regarding when I was young.

The problem with camping for me is that it is a case of opposites; it is either a massive amount of fun or an utterly awful experience. More than perhaps anything else it is weather dependant. I can enjoy a week trudging around the countryside in waterproofs or running in driving rain, providing there is somewhere warm and dry to change into new warm and dry clothes. If you are in a tent this becomes much harder as the even if your tent is up already when the heavens open – and I shudder at the memory of one holiday when a bunch of us lads were trying to get our tents up as the rain torrents fell, which resulted only in everything being soaked and an entire change of plan where the tents were spurned in favour of hastily arranged B&B and hostels for the rest of the holiday – even when they are up in time the water just seems to get in somehow leaving things just a little on the damp side. Then again, as I say, if the sun is shining and glorious, it can be quite idyllic. Until the tent gets too hot.

But I have very fond memories of camping, especially with the scouts as a child. Yes, we were shoved in a tent like sardines (and the tents were very, very old as I remember, the type with separate groundsheets so inevitably everything that could find its way into the tent would. Yes, there was the inevitable dodgy food, and you cannot throw several pre-teen boys together without them trying to humiliate each other by playing strip pontoon (or some other equally pathetic game when everyone was supposed to be asleep). But there was a good atmosphere and you were away from home just long enough for it be exciting and not too long that you got homesick. Our scout leader even had a repertoire of stories around the inevitable bonfire as we waited for the half cooked ‘baked’ potatoes to be vaguely edible. He told with relish, for example, of the Mad Shepherd, who bit the ankles of unwary boys causing them to bleed to death, a story on the so utterly ludicrous to not be frightening at all, but told in such a deadpan and convincing manner that – I kid you not – everyone was very careful to keep their ankles inside the tent for the remainder of the camp.

Ah. Happy days. Enjoy your camping, but watch out for the Mad Shepherd. He is still out there somewhere… And he is still hungry…

B is for Baton

I suspect that many of us have possessions that have some attachment for us, often an emotional or nostalgic one that has much greater strength then any kind of monetary value that something might have, or even what might be considered intrinsic value relating to the age or artistic merit of whatever it is.

I’m a hoarder and a collector (as is the Lovely Wife, which explains the clutter in any place we have lived, live or will live, no matter how much space we acquire). Because of this, my list of objects that fulfil this special status is probably longer than many people’s. One I will focus on today recently re-entered my consciousness when we had the bedroom carpet replaced and various clutter around the antique fireplace had to be cleared away to allow for this. For a short while I was distracted by the discovery, followed by careful removal, of a mummified (best description I could come up with) wood pigeon that had clearly breathed its last in our chimney but dried rather than rotted (thankfully). Anyway, once this slightly tragic and unsavoury item had been removed that left me holding a baton.

The baton is a regulation competition size as used in international relays. It is a good, chunky, metal object, probably adequate for fending off mad axe murders at a pinch. The legend’ London 2012’ on it rather gives away why I have it. Mayor of London Ambassadors, as well as Games Makers all received one as a memento of the volunteering work they had done during the games five years ago (time flies so much!) and it is a very nice thing. Of course, it is not pretty, and while I run a lot I do not see myself taking up the 4x400M anytime soon, but it is a precious object for two reasons.

First, in the specific sense it is of course a reminder of the Olympics and Paralympics in 2012, which many people have fond memories of. From a personal point of view the time I was volunteering were some of the happiest days of work in my life, not so much in what I was doing – standing around telling Swiss synchronised swimmers where they might find a tattoo parlour, for example (in the end, she didn’t go through with it) – but rather being at the heart of something so big and something which, at least to me at the time, seemed bathed in such a positive atmosphere. I was lucky enough to be in the Olympic village itself, and so there was always the thrill of turning a corner and falling over (almost literally, they were all laid out on the pavement stretching) the Australian women’s hockey team. But in London everyone (including the sun!) seemed to be smiling most of the time, which, bless it, is not the usual London experience.

Secondly it reminds me of just how much fun volunteering can be, doing something not because you should, but because you want to. Compared to the pressures of normal work, even hard labour in the context of volunteering seems ‘fun’ because in theory you can walk away at any time. Because of the Olympics I began volunteering with English Heritage at Wrest Park House and Gardens and the De Grey Mausoleum, both in Bedfordshire. Five years on, I still enjoy helping people understand the history of both sites and telling the stories of the people connected to the sites, and the only time it gets boring is soggy Saturday mornings in January where understandably few people want to visit was is predominantly an outdoor site. But it’s worth pulling on the (disgustingly beige) uniform polo shirt for the one family that does turn up.