An Alphabet Of My Life: E


When I was young, the big examination that everyone talked about was called the ’11-Plus’. At primary school, we didn’t have exams beteen the ages of 5-10, but we did have ‘Tests’ as we got older. They took the form of essays, handwriting, or simple times tables and sums. But pass or fail, those tests didn’t really mean that much to us schoolkids.

The 11-Plus however, that was a big deal.

Here is some information from Wikipedia, so you know what I’m writing about.

The eleven-plus (11+) is a standardized examination administered to some students in England and Northern Ireland in their last year of primary education, which governs admission to grammar schools and other secondary schools which use academic selection. The name derives from the age group for secondary entry: 11–12 years. The examination tests a student’s ability to solve problems using a test of verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning, with most tests also offering papers in mathematics and English. The intention was that the eleven-plus should be a general test for intelligence (cognitive ability) similar to an IQ test, but by also testing for taught curriculum skills it is evaluating academic ability developed over previous years, which implicitly indicates how supportive home and school environments have been.

As you can see, if you wanted to get into a ‘better school’ you had to pass it. My parents wanted me to get into a Grammar School. Working-class people always believed that Grammar Schools gave you a better start in life. There was a lot of pressure for me to pass it, and I remember being obsessed with doing so. I was also ‘bribed’ with the promise of a new bicycle if I passed.

When it came, it was nowhere near as hard as I had feared, and I passed it in the top segment of the class, with flying colours. I got the bike, and had such good results I was offered a scholarship to a ‘posh’ school in Dulwich. That made my parents very proud. However, I didn’t want to go to school with posh boys in Dulwich, or with clever-clogs kids to a Grammar School. I wanted to go to a modern mixed-sex school, a progressive school known as a Comprehensive. Despite arguments with my parents, I got my way, and I am so glad I did. Because it was a great school.

A good education

Once I was fifteen years old, we were preparing to take the next round of examinations, known then as ‘O’-Levels. We had been learning the syllabus in those subjects for some time, and depending on ability, we would be entered for up to ten examinations in different subjects. It was well-known at the time that you had to have at least two ‘O’-Levels in English and Maths to hope to get any decent job later. Four were better, six were very good. Having abandoned the science subjects early on, I took eight ‘O’-Levels when I was 16 years old. Maths, Art, French, History, English language, English Literature, Geography, and Religious Education.

When the results were announced that summer, I had achieved pass rates in seven of those, including the desired Grade One in both English subjects and in French and History. Only Geography had escaped me, so I applied for a resit and passed that a few weeks later. My parents were pleased.

I returned to school after the holidays and moved into the Sixth Form. I was set to study four subjects for the higher ‘A’-Level exams that were a requirement for application to a University. I knew I had to have two good-grade passes to get into a university, but four would guaranteee my choice. I picked English Language, English Literature, French, and History. My teachers in those subjects were all very encouraging, but four was a big ask. It was a huge amount of work for a teenage boy that wanted to go out with his mates, had a regular girlfriend, a Saturday job, and had even passed his driving test later, whilst still at school.

Very soon, I started to lose interest in three years more study at University, and despite doing well at school, I resolved to leave not that long after my seventeenth birthday, without sitting those exams. I upset my teachers, and greatly disappointed my parents. At least my eight ‘O’-Levels stood me in good stead, as I was never turned down for any job I applied for.

But exams were not behind me. When I joined the Ambulance Service I had to take regular exams, written and practical, to pass through the Training School. Even once I left aged almost fifty, I had to take some very difficult exams at the Police Training College when I went to work for the Metropolitan Police in London. And they had a sting in the tail. They were pass or fail weekly, so fail the Friday exam any week, and you were potentially out of work, looking for a job. Perhaps the worst pressure I had ever been under.

Thankfully, exams are now definitely behind me for good. Though struggling to learn WordPress blogging in 2012 felt like one, and wrangling with the operating system on my computer continues to feel like one almost daily.

A Good Education

When I was away last weekend, I discussed my time at school with a friend who I met there, 58 years ago. That discussion has prompted me to reblog this post. A tribute to my education, originally posted in 2012.


I confess that I know little of the school system today. I am aware that many teachers are unhappy, that exam results are possibly being manipulated, and Department of Education targets seem to be the driving force behind teaching. I also see that standards of spelling, literacy, numeracy, and general knowledge have fallen, and students rely heavily on the Internet for information that they might once have learned. University degrees have lost their status and potential graduates now have to face the prospect of years of debt ahead of them. Things have changed, of that there can be little doubt. There is a distinct lack of Historical knowledge, and little regard for the relevance of the subject. Geography, and geographical awareness, has reached a low, to the extent that many young people could not place themselves on a World map.

I do not have statistics to support these claims, but…

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An Alphabet Of Things I Like: I


When I started school in the 1950s, we were taught to write with an implement that had not changed since Victorian times.

The ‘dipping pen’ was dipped into inkwells built into the school desks.

Someone had to be the ‘Ink monitor’, and I volunteered for the job. I had to go around with a container of ink and a metal funnel, filling up each desk inkwell before the lesson began. I liked the smell of the ink, and enjoyed trying to fill the inkwells without the ink overflowing onto the desk. Writing with those pens was not easy. Blots were an issue, and many shirt cuffs and wrists became badly stained with the ink during lessons.

It wasn’t too long before the inkwells were removed, and we were expected to supply our own pens and ink. My parents bought me a ‘lever action’ fountain pen, which sucked the ink up into a rubber tube concealed inside.

Bottles of ink would be carried in our satchels, always very tightly closed to prevent a disastrous spillage that could ruin everything inside.

Then ballpoint pens came along, and ink-pens became a thing of the past before I finished school. But I retained my love for writing with a pen, and continued to send personal letters written this way until just two years ago, when a wrist injury made it difficult for me to hold a pen again.

Thinking Aloud On a Sunday

Writing For The Sake Of It.

I went to sleep last night thinking about my latest fiction serial. That led me to consider just how long I had been writing. I don’t mean writing stories on a blog, or even in a notebook, and I don’t just mean the writing I embarked on when I retired and thought to keep my brain active.

From a very early age, around seven years old in my case, I felt the need to write. When we had to write a one-page essay at school, I wrote two pages.
I wasn’t showing off, or trying to look better than my school friends, I just couldn’t stop myself.

At secondary school, we got homework in every subject. That came as a shock at first, but I didn’t mind too much, as it gave me even more reason to write. I wasn’t one of those kids who griped that much about homework and deadlines, I just went home and got on with it. Even when the homework was on a science subject, or something like Geography, it involved writing.
I remember having to descibe what a glacier was, and handing in five full sheets of writing that talked about different types of ice, and how it could look blue in a certain light. I didn’t get a good mark, as I missed out the important technical stuff. But it was writing, and I enjoyed doing it.

English and History gave me full rein to write late into the night. In what was supposed to be an appreciation of one chapter in the book ‘Wuthering Heights’, I almost filled an exercise book with an analysis of the destructive relationship between Heatchcliff and Cathy. Given a History homework about the Parliamentary reform in the early 1800s, I wrote a description of the Peterloo Massacre that the History teacher remarked took longer to read than the actual massacre lasted.

At the age of fourteen, I was writing like someone possessed by words.

It wasn’t much different in another language. When studying French, the teacher insisted on taxing our ability to the limit. We were reading a difficult enough book in Englsh translation, ‘L’Etranger’ (The Outsider) by Albert Camus. Of course, our copies were not translated. We had to write some kind of overview of the book, all in French. I worked at it all weekend and handed in a full notebook. Even allowing for my mistakes in the grammar and spellings of a foreign language, it was a complete work, if I say so myself.
The teacher flicked through the numerous pages, shaking her head. Then with a smile, she said. “If Camus was still alive, I would send this to him”.
She said that in French, naturally.

After school came work, and not too much writing. I made do with ideas in a notebook, making lists, and more reading than writing. Marriage followed, and as the years went by, I had little time or reason to write. Every so often, ideas would burst out of my head onto a page in a notebook, simply because they had to. I wrote letters to friends, and even to people I didn’t know that well. Letters became my new form of writing, and were often ten pages long, written on both sides.

In 2012, I retired from work and moved up here. A friend suggested I start a blog, to perhaps note the differences between life in London, and rural Norfolk. Within a few months I was posting daily, and not long after that a lifetime of ideas, experiences, and reminiscences started to translate into fiction on my blog as short stories, then serials. Eight years later, and I just cannot seem to stop writing, even if I wanted to. But one thing has become clear.

It was always going to happen.

Thinking Aloud on A Sunday

Young Love.

I woke up thinking about my first crushes on girls today.

I started young, aged just 11. That was undoubtedly precipitated by going to a mixed secondary school at exactly the same time as I started to realise that girls were not just annoying versions of boys who just happened to be unable to pee against a wall.

And we had to sit next to them in class too, as the teachers mixed up the ratios to reduce the natural cheekiness and disruption caused by some boys sitting together. Close up like that, they looked different, and smelled different too. They smelled good. Even with the allowed amount of ‘school’ make-up, some of them started to look really good too. Most of them, truth be told. And they wore unifrorm skirts back then. And it was the 1960s, so some of those skirts were very short. And they no longer wore droopy long socks that kept falling down, Oh no, they had nylon-clad legs that made a swishing sound when they crossed them.

And some of the girls I was sat next to crossed them a lot.

But I was still too young to actually tell a girl that I thought she was pretty. And much too young to let on that I might also have found her sexually attractive. I had to suffer in silence for a year, as I watched their breasts begin to appear, and their confidence grow until they became bolder than any of the boys.

Meanwhile, I transferred my attention to the female teachers, and not just the young ones.

Did they really have to sit on the desk like that? Were they unaware that I could see right up their skirt when they did? And why did so much of their teaching activity require them to bend so low from the waist? God forbid I put my hand up to mention I was having difficulty with something. That would involve her crouching next to my seat at the desk, with her skirt riding up to the tops of her thighs, and the view down her top leaving my legs trembling uncontrollably.

I seemed to spend my days with my gaze constantly switching from looking at any ‘opportunities’ provided by the teacher, to the legs of the girl sat next to me every time I heard that tell-tale ‘swish’. It was like being in the audience on Centre Court at Wimbledon during finals weekend. And woe betide that crossed leg should find itself coming to rest against my grey trousers. Concentration was impossible after that.

It was a wonder I actually learned anything.

When I was twelve and a half, I was approached by a girl from my class who I had hardly thought about. I won’t write her real name, just in case, so let’s call her Ann. She told me that she had decided I could be her boyfriend, so I should walk her home after school and her parents would not be home from work until six. I almost passed out, as I had never encountered such forward behaviour. More importantly, I had no idea what she was expecting me to do in her house that afternoon.

For the rest of that day, Ann held my hand between classes, and made sure to tell her group of friends that I was her boyfriend. During lunch, she asked if I had told my own mates that I had a girlfriend. When I told her I hadn’t, she shook her head. “Are you ashamed of me then?” I tried to explain that I had only known that fact myself since she had told me it earlier, but she wasn’t impressed. “I am thinking of calling off our date then. Wait for me after school, and I will tell you what I’ve decided”. I learned a valuable lesson at that moment.

Whatever I might have thought to the contrary, the girls were in charge.

Ann was by the gate at going home time, and took my hand. The spat from earlier wasn’t mentioned, and we made the short walk to her house with her talking constantly about everything we could do together now that we were a couple. Like going shopping on Saturdays, trips to the cinema, and summer days in the local park. She had obviously thought a lot about our future.

As she reached for her keys, she asked me a question, her expression serious.. “How many girlfriends have you had?” I replied honestly. “None, I’m only twelve”. Her wide grin indicated that I had given the correct answer. “Me neither. No boyfriends that is”.

Once in the hallway, she kicked off her shoes and began kissing me passionately. I remember thinking of two words, ‘warm’, and ‘wet’. This was juvenile kissing between two complete novices. Lips rubbing against each other as she made a sound like a chimp eating an orange. To my surprise and consternation, she led me straight up to her bedroom, telling me to take off my shoes and blazer, and lay down on her candlewick bedspread. I had no idea what she intended to do with me.

What she actually did is fixed in stone in my memory. Hitching up her uniform skirt, she straddled my hips, and leaned forward, enagaging in more of that very slippery kissing as she held my head between her palms in a vice-like grip. When she stopped to get her breath, sounding like a free-diver emerging from the ocean floor, she held my right hand against her chest, pushing it flat over her apple-sized breast. In case I might actually know what to do next, she issued a warning. “Only through my clothes, and only for as long as I say”.

The combination of continuing to be kissed from above whilst squeezing a real boob was bad enough. Add to that her nylon clad thighs gripping my hips with the skill of a professional wrestler, and it was inevitable that I would become ‘aroused’. I prayed that she wouldn’t notice, but my prayers fell on deaf ears. She sat back and stared at the tiny pup tent in my trousers. Her expression changed, and she took my hand off of her chest.

“None of that stuff, thank you. I’m too young to have a baby. I think you’d better go home now”.

As she let me out of the front door, she gave me the bad news.

“Oh, by the way. You’re not my boyfriend anymore”.

Thinking Aloud On a Sunday


What better to think about on a Sunday, than Sundays?
When I got up this morning, I had forgotten it was a Sunday.

At one time in my life, Sundays were a big deal. Getting up late, reading comics, my parents relaxed after a long week at work. My Dad would get ready to go to the pub for midday, while Mum started preparing everything for the big meal we would eat around 2:30 when he got back. After eating, they usually went for a ‘lie down’ in the bedroom, leaving me to my books or toys.

It was a long time before I worked out what that Sunday ‘lie down’ was all about.

By 5:30, Mum would have prepared a meal called ‘Sunday tea’. In London, this usually consisted of assorted fresh seafood, bread and butter, and slices of a cake she would have baked earlier. Fortified with this, my Dad would leave again, to get to the pub by seven when it opened. This left Mum and me watching television together, until Dad got home around midnight. It never occurred to me that he was drinking and driving. Back then, everyone did that.

By the time I was married, the Sunday tradition had altered for us, but not much. Reading huge Sunday papers in bed, followed by a bacon sandwich and more coffee downstairs. As there were no shops open in those days, we would usually visit my Mum in the late afternoon. She was on her own by then, and still preparing the big traditional dinner, followed by cake. If we stayed home, we ate later, and had anything we fancied, not always the British Sunday Roast. With work the next morning, there was rarely anything done late at night, so we were usually back in bed by eleven.

To be honest, I found Sundays really boring.

Once I started to work shifts as an EMT, I had to work at least two Sundays a month, sometimes three. That completely shattered any notion of a traditional Sunday in my life, and it soon felt like just another day.

When I retired in 2012, I discovered that Sundays here in Beetley were seemingly frozen in time. People mowed their lawns on Sundays, washed their cars, carried out some DIY tasks, and mostly still ate that traditional Sunday lunch around two in the afternoon. By then, shops were open from ten until four, so younger people might go into Norwich or Dereham to look around the shops, or to buy some food from the supermarket. Traffic here on a Sunday can be worse than during the working week.

In less than a year, Sundays lost their rediscovered novelty for me. When you don’t have to go to work on a Monday, or rush to get home from work on a Friday, the weekend starts to feel like any other day. Ollie has to go out for his walk, and I can prepare anything we want for dinner, eating at around the usual time for us of seven in the evening.

Other people do different things of course. Religious people still attend church, though in fewer numbers than in the past. Those with small children might take them to the park, or drive them to a regular activity, like a football club, or dance class. In better weather, many flock to the coast, enjoying the beaches and activities in the sea. It is only thirty minutes away by car, but you have to get there early to find a space in the car park.

Once winter arrives, few people venture out. They stay in in front of the fire, or the warmth of central heating. The huge choice of entertainment provided by television, phones, and computers these days means they are not bored, as I used to be in my teens. For them, it is school tomorrow, or work. That ‘Monday Morning’ feeling as the day draws to a close.

But for me, Monday is just another day, as is today.

These days, I have to be reminded it is a Sunday.

Thinking about Shakespeare.

When I started secondary school at the age of eleven, I was concerned to discover that we would eventually be learning some Shakespeare plays. They were compulsory as part of the syllabus, if we wanted to go on to take English exams at sixteen. By the time I was handed copies of the books we would be studying, I had never read a word of Shakespeare, nor seen a play of his on the stage. But I had seen the films of Richard III and Henry V, both starring Lawrence Olivier. Other than that, I only knew that he was from Stratford-Upon-Avon, had been married to Ann Hathaway, and his plays had been performed in circular theatres on the South Bank of The Thames, close to where I lived.

For us working-class kids in a run-down area, Shakespeare was considered to be very ‘highbrow’. His plays were something that posh people paid a lot of money to go and see in smart theatres, with famous thespians spouting even more famous lines and quotes. I had read a lot of Dickens, but his world was one I could identify with readily, as it had hardly changed in the hundred or so years since he had described it. I had also studied History, so knew something of the wars with France, and the Wars of The Roses in England. But I couldn’t bring myself to consider how the style of William Shakespeare might improve my appreciation of British History.

The plays in question were ‘Macbeth’, and Henry IV Parts One and Two. At first, I struggled with the prose, and the frequent use of words and sayings unfamiliar to me. But I was soon fascinated by the characters, who were described so well, and spoke in ways that admirably suited their roles. Within a few months, I found myself reading them avidly at home. And not because I had to, but because I wanted to. Prince Hal is the young man who would soon become Henry V, hero of Agincourt, and a popular king. But in the play, he is a reckless young man, spending his time in the company of drunkards like Sir John Falstaff, and boasters like Pistol. I wondered how his apparently dissolute lifestyle could ever prepare him for his future, when I came across this famous passage, a speech by Prince Hal, out of the hearing of his companions.

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work,
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promisèd,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

I read it twice, realising that I had got it completely. The Prince was deliberately carousing with these people, in the hope that others would think badly of him. But he was pretending to enjoy himself, and not allowing himself to get drunk, despite appearing to be so. When the time was right, he would cast off these false friends, and become the brave Prince that England expected him to be. Because of these adolescent bad habits, his change of heart would be revered all the more, and his subjects would love him.

In this way, Shakespeare combines gossip with history, presenting his own version of what might have happened. He was writing about events that occurred over two hundred years before he wrote the play, virtually inventing the concept of ‘Faction’, a mix seen so often in today’s historical novels. In the same play, Falstaff fears he may be left behind, possibly even banished by the Prince. When he is described as ‘That villanous abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan’, he responds by describing himself, in his own defence. (Sack is the old name for Sherry, a fortified wine that Falstaff drinks in copious amounts)

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself,
were to say more than I know. That he is old, the
more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but
that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster,
that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault,
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a
sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if
to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine
are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

Long before I watched any actor say these lines in the stage play or film versions, I got that desperation; the fear of his exclusion, perhaps because of his drinking, his obesity, or his advancing years. In that short speech he summed up so many of the worries of a man past his prime, one who had attached himself to a Prince he thought might honour him, despite his misdeeds. A man who sees his dreams fading before his eyes, and resorts to little more than begging to retain his valued position.

In this play, Shakespeare does what the great writers do best. He shows us the faults of mankind, set in a time and place that seems pertinent, but could actually be in any time, past or present. The lust for power, the need to be admired and recognised, and the lamentations of those left behind when they expected to profit from their associations.

What I feared would be impenetrable prose, spoken by characters who were meaningless, in settings that were otherwise mundane, all turned out to be a treasure trove of perception, character description, and simply marvellous insight into human nature. If you have never read a Shakespeare play, I suggest you should. Any of them will do, as they are equally wonderful. But the ones I studied at school will have a place in my heart forever.


I have recently posted about the study of both History and Geography, so though I would continue that theme with something I was not at all good at, Maths. Short for Mathematics, and simply called ‘Math’ in the USA, most of us in Britain know this school subject as ‘Maths’.

When I started school at the age of five, I was taught simple counting. Using blocks, toys, or any other accessory, I soon learned how to count up to ten and more, along with my classmates. Then easy addition, nothing too complex for my developing mind. By the time I went to Junior School, aged seven, rote learning was still popular, and we were soon getting to grips with our ‘times tables’, to form the foundations of simple multiplication. This was 1959 of course, so no calculators, and not a thought of the computers to come. Just a teacher writing numbers on a board, and conducting our recital like a band leader.
“Once five is five.
Two fives are ten.
Three fives are fifteen,
Four fives are twenty”.
And so on.

We went as far as the number thirteen, stopping there for reasons best known to the teacher. Division was also introduced, often helped along by the use of counters or visual aids, as I learned that four into twenty makes five. Then around the age of nine, that ‘Eureka’ moment, when I suddenly got the connection between multiplication and division. We also tackled currency, as at that time we still used pounds, shillings and pence, with twelve pence to a shilling, and twenty shillings in a pound. Not that I ever had much cash, but it was good to know what change to expect when I bought something. We were also using rulers, and learning how to measure short distances.

When I was eleven, it was time to go to secondary school, and begin the exam syllabus. I had a list of things I would need just for Maths lessons; this included a set of compasses, a protractor, a triangle and a ‘proper’ ruler, with measurements down to 1/16th of an inch. The first real lesson was a double period, (why was Maths always a double?) and it hit me like a whirlwind. Algebra? Geometry? Even something called Trigonometry. I thought the teacher must be talking a foreign language, but she assured us that was all to come. Meanwhile, we were hit with some serious long division. That alone was enough to make my brain ache, and I watched my ‘working out’ get further and further down the page as I struggled with something like 295 divided by 16. By the time the first month of the new school was over, I had decided that I really didn’t like Maths, and was sure I would never be good at it.

And I was right.

Then came ‘Problems’. Things like, “If a two hundred gallon water tank has a leak of a quarter of a pint a day for ten days, then half a pint a day for twelve days, how much water will be left after twenty-two days?” I didn’t even know where to start, and my hand was soon up, informing the teacher that I didn’t have a clue. Even when she showed me how to work out the solution, I still got the answer wrong. It all got worse once we started with Algebra. “If X = ? and Y = ?, what is XY squared? ” I just laughed. There was no chance I got any of that at all. The teacher later explained that X and Y had a value and it could be anything I wanted on that occasion. X could be 2 and Y 6, for example. My reply was not well-received. “Please Miss, then why don’t you just write a 2 and 6?” I was told in no uncertain terms that I was being deliberately ‘stupid’.

But I wasn’t.

Later, we were given a complex book of numbers, called ‘Logarithms’. This baffling table introduced us to decimal points and such, but might just as well have been Sanskrit, for all my brain could take it in. I wasn’t getting any better, and had to face the next year, when it was all going to get harder. Double Maths changed to a Monday morning when I was twelve, and I began to dread the walk to school,, shuffling with the reluctance of a condemned man about to be hanged. I still had the same teacher, the formidable Mrs Widdowson, who could freeze me with one of her signature glares, and had given me a terrible entry on my end of term report the previous year. Inside, I considered I was doing alright. All the other subjects were going great. I was in the top set for English, Geography, French, History, and even Religious Education, something I had little interest in. So what if I didn’t really ‘get’ Maths? It wasn’t the end of the world, as far as I was concerned.

So, I muddled along. Bad reports, bottom section of the class, and never truly understanding anything new. I did well at everything except Maths, and that was enough for me. When it came to the final exams, I just scraped though the Maths one with a Grade Four, a ‘just passed’ result. But it wasn’t all bad. That early learning left me able to recall the times table instantly, work out money without hesitation, and even able to calculate foreign currency exchanges, on my trips abroad. These days, i see young peope reach for a mobile phone, when faced with the most basic sum to work out.

Maybe we need to go back to chanting the times tables, and using a ruler?

Recollections of youth (1)

My first real memory is a hazy one. I am lying on my back, and a dark-haired girl is waving tight plaits in front of my face. She is laughing, and I definitely like her. From there, it jumps to my first day at school. I am five years old, and my Mum is trying to get me to leave her side, to go off with a kindly lady teacher. I am afraid, though not crying, and I want Mum to stay with me. Low chairs, strange kids, and coat-hooks almost at ground level. There is a play-tent in the corner of the room, small desks fill the middle of the space, and it is all very quiet. For a while.

Not long after, we moved a short distance across the borough, and I had to go to a different school. I can recall most of what went on there, as by that time, I was almost seven years old. In between that first memory, and being able to remember almost everything since, there was a significant gap. Of course, I have never forgotten when I almost drowned; something I have written about previously. There are fleeting moments where I can clearly see my grandparents. My stern maternal grandfather, stroking an old black dog, sitting in front of a fire in the kitchen area. My grandmother, hands covered in flour, her body concealed under a huge apron. Childhood illnesses; feeling hot, covered in itchy spots, unable to sleep. Mum covering me in cold Calamine Lotion, supposed to soothe me, but making me cry out in shock from its freezing touch. I was bitten by a dog, as I tried to stroke it. It was lying asleep outside the shop of its owner, on a baking hot summer afternoon. I do not remember the pain of the bite, just the surprise that the animal was unfriendly, and the blood all over my hand.

The times that I was injured or hurt are still very fresh in my memory. Helping my Dad to wash the car one afternoon, he failed to see that my hand was in the door frame as he slammed it shut. If I think hard enough, I can bring back that moment of terror, looking at my trapped fingers, screaming with shock and pain. Out driving in the car with Mum and Dad, on the way back from a nice afternoon out somewhere. On a main road in Kent, we are involved in an accident with a large motorcycle. I can still hear the noise as he hit us, and my Mum’s scream. I could hardly see above the window, so the other details are unclear. My Dad was shouting though, and telling me to stay in the car. It is becoming obvious that pain and problems seem to take precedence where memory is concerned.

However, I have countless memories that do not involve either of these, so the last statement does not hold true. More to the point, why do I have these snapshots of memory? Why don’t I just remember it all, in great detail? That is the crux of the matter, and the whole point of this post. Where do the ‘other’ memories go? I wish that I knew. I want them all back, to retrieve them, as if on an accessible hard drive. This will have to become a series of posts, exploring the strange nature of memory: how it sometimes lets you down, and how it provides joy in recollection. I need to think about it. A lot.

A la recherche du temps perdu

With apologies to Marcel Proust for stealing his title, I confess to a lot of time spent in remembrance of things past. Not just lately, but for much of my life. Even as a man in my twenties, I constantly reflected on my childhood, and my early school years, developing a habit of looking back that I never lost. I was caught up in a chain of nostalgia, from which I found it difficult to escape. When I got to secondary school, I pined for my primary school, and less pressure. Once I left school and started work, I really regretted leaving education, and thought about those last few years at school with great fondness. Every job seemed better than the one that followed it, and I managed to conveniently forget my reasons for wanting to move on in the first place.

During a convivial dinner party that we were hosting during the late 1970s, I was asked by a guest, “If you could choose to live anywhere, where would that be?” I replied without hesitation, “In my past, I was happy there.” This was a thoughtless remark, most unflattering to my wife at the time of course, and left an uncomfortable atmosphere at the table. After many moves, broken marriages, and failed relationships, I still carried this obsession with me, like an unwanted blemish. I convinced myself repeatedly that things were better ‘then’, whenever that was. I had taken the natural tendency for fond reminiscence, and turned it into a philosophy.

I have now moved away from London, retired from work, and married for the third time. It has taken over sixty years for me to shake off this unhealthy desire to spend my life looking back, and to take off the rose-tinted glasses that I habitually wore when doing so. I cannot deny that a part of me still looks back. The difference is that I now do so with a much more considered and realistic eye. Standing back from the personal recollections, I can see things as an observer might, and realise that it was all far from rosy. It is so simple to remember good things, and put away the less attractive aspects of a past life into a sealed compartment in your mind. Time to open it up; it is long overdue.

Primary school was not great. Inkwells, strict teachers, rote learning, and hard discipline, including being caned. Being made to stand in a corner, cleaning blackboards, or awaiting the pleasure of the head teacher, nervously perched on a chair outside their office. Gangs in the playground; choose the wrong side, and suffer for it. Do well in lessons, and though you may receive the praise of teacher, you are derided by your less academic class-mates. Secondary school was a great improvement, I was very lucky there. But it wasn’t for everyone. Be a little educationally backward, have unfortunate physical features, or fail to be accepted in a group, and you had a lonely and depressing life. Run the gauntlet of the kids from the ‘tough’ schools on the way home; get your uniform torn, or your cap and bag thrown over the railway line. The bad parts often overshadowed the good. Less pleasurable memories, easy to discard.

And it was always cold in winter. Homes heated by one coal fire, sometimes supplemented by smelly paraffin heaters. Pipes frozen, hot water scarce, and legs and fingers freezing in clothing inadequate for protection. The air quality was so poor, that we often had to wear smog masks for the short trips to and from school. One outside toilet provided for two families sharing a house. Using this in all weathers, perched on a high seat, terrified of the huge spiders, trying to go as fast as possible. Baths once a week, in water shared by your parents; and later, shivering in bed, yearning for sleep to make you forget the cold. Life for the working classes was predestined. Years of hard labour, followed by an early death for most of the men. They sought refuge from hardship in cigarettes and alcohol, and unbridled pleasure at the weekends. There were lots of widows then; not so many now, at least at a young age. Home ownership was unknown, and there was little chance to escape the financial chains of your class, outside of crime. There was a general acceptance of your lot in life, and a degree of resolution that stifled hope.

Despite living in London in the so-called ‘swinging sixties’, things had not really changed a great deal since the end of the war. Except for the cinema, entertainment was mostly left to you to make it yourself. There were only two channels on the television, if you could afford one, and the only games were on flat boards, using cards and counters. There were some sports clubs and youth clubs, the Cubs and Scouts, Brownies and Guides; but they were regimented, and felt like being at school. Unlike many families, we had a car, so got to go on trips out, and an annual holiday, but it wasn’t for everyone. Work was available, and it paid just enough to keep you where you should be, without too many grand aspirations. Politicians paid little regard to the needs of the ordinary people, and the Police could do anything they wanted to you, and frequently did. Even Doctors talked to you as if you were a servant, and made you feel grateful that they had taken their valuable time to inspect your ailment. If you made it to hospital, it was one step above being in a prison. No sitting on the bed. ‘In or out but never on.’ Lights out at an early hour, no talking, and patrolling night nurses making sure that you were not disruptive.

Then came the 1970s. Workers found their voice at last, and things slowly started to change. We had moved to a house with central heating, and unlimited hot water. Colour TV arrived, and with it, a new channel. Foreign holidays became the norm, for ordinary people, on better salaries. Home ownership increased, and the middle class merged with the working class, into something that has never had a satisfactory name. This wasn’t all ideal of course. It bred conservatism, and greed for profit. There was confrontation, and the inevitable strikes. It left a legacy of fewer council homes, diminishing employment prospects, and disaffected youth. But it was still a lot better than what preceded it, take it from me. Without the romance of revolution and dissent, and that ubiquitous rose-tinted eye-wear, the reality is that the past was hard. By comparison. life is a lot easier now.

I will still reflect of course. I will often think that this or that, was better ‘then’. That is my nature. The reality is that my life was never better than it is now. I have a devoted and loving wife, a nice home in the countryside, and no work responsibilities. I live in peace and quiet for the first time in my life, and I can anticipate that my last years will be more peaceful and happier than I could ever have expected. I doubt that I will ever look back to a better time than this.