Thursday, 17 October 2013

Roads to Hell and other good intentions

Summer has turned into autumn - very noticeably and rather suddenly, I thought.  Lots of things I'd intended to do for one reason or another didn't materialize, keeping this blog up-to-date being one of them.  I won't bother making apologies or excuses, after all I'm quite a long way past the days of getting detentions for not handing my homework in on time!  Not that I actually ever did, just in case you were wondering: back then (as now) I got it down to a fine art doing the necessary the night before - and sometimes even that very morning.

I've written from time to time about my classes at the Uni learning Italian.  We'd been fortunate in keeping together as a group for the last three years - keeping the same timeslot and even meeting up almost every week informally during the long holidays.  Our luck was bound to run out eventually of course and this year there were not enough of us wanting to progress further with their studies to make our group viable any longer - the main catalyst being a change of time to an evening.  Not only that, the low numbers of enrolments generally this year has meant my having to skip a year and go up to the Advanced level!

For a while I toyed with the idea of swapping to doing French instead, for which there seemed to be a better variety of courses being offered.  Out of curiosity I did their 'test your level' thing (for intermediate to advanced) and found most of it surprisingly easy.  A few hesitations here and there meant I ran out of time right at the end, but on emailing them to get my result I found I'd got 67%.  Back in the days when I was doing my A levels I'd have been appalled to have got about a third wrong, but considering it had all lain pretty dormant for four decades, I felt not too shocked.

The upshot was that I found myself rather unintentionally being interviewed for a place on the Academic French course.  I'd expected to be able perhaps to manage a 'brush up your A level' type of thing but the tutor was so impressed by my ability to dredge up enough oral French to insist that I'd be suited to the top level (which equates to a 2-years post A-level!).  I was aghast at the prospect of this, and she compromised by suggesting I could drop a level if I found the going too tough.  Looking back on the encounter now, and writing about it, I wonder if it's perhaps just symptomatic of the grade inflation - a grade A (and an S grade 1) from 1966 equips you to go straight onto a modern second-year undergraduate level course?  Maybe if I'd kept up the practice more it would've done.  The clincher, though, was that it involved the study of a set text - something by Camus, I think.  I vaguely recollect dipping into "L'étranger" as background reading when I was doing my A levels, but I certainly didn't and don't feel disposed to embarking on the study of literature once again, given how much I hated it all the first time round.  Perhaps one day I'll find a way of taking up from where I left off 47 years ago, but I'm fairly certain that's not going to be it.

So, with some trepidation, I enrolled on the Advanced Italian course.  It's put me in mind of the time I was eight and was put up a year at Junior School - the logic I suppose being the same, that if you're at a high enough standard to start with and you have the innate ability (and perseverance) to catch up on what you've missed, then you maximise your potential.  It seemed a better idea than either repeating the year, which wasn't an option anyway, or waiting a year and probably losing the impetus.  So far so good: we'd pretty much already covered the bulk of the grammar anyway and widening your vocabulary is as much to do with reading and writing as actually going to classes.  By chance earlier this evening I came across something I'd written about three years ago when I was first starting - and spotted a couple of very obvious mistakes in it.  More to do with carelessness than not knowing what the correct version should've been, I daresay.  But I always find it's a huge step forward in learning a language when you find you're developing an innate 'feel' for when something looks wrong.               

Monday, 15 July 2013

Lazy Sunday afternoon memories

As half-prophesied in my last entry, I made the journey over to Kenilworth on Sunday.  I spent quite a few moments in the peace and tranquillity of the cemetery, but then, realizing I had almost forty minutes' wait for the bus home (it's only an hourly service now on a Sunday) I thought I'd spend some time looking around the town.  Although I'd passed through on my travels from time to time over the years, I hadn't spent any real time there, so in the warmth of a lovely sunny afternoon it was pleasant and quite nostalgic wandering round, casting my mind back to when I used to lived there.

In the light of all the recent attention paid to the impending demise of high street shopping as we know it, Kenilworth seems to be surviving remarkably well.  I only noticed two empty shops, and neither of those were actually boarded up or derelict.  One I remembered as the former Co-op food hall - which had at some point been converted into an Co-op electrical store before closing altogether.  Conspicuous by their absence were pound-shops and mobile phone shops, but it did seem to me that there were more coffee shops/cafes than I remembered there being back in the 1960s.  As was to be expected, many of the shops in the main street (Warwick Road & The Square) had changed hands - Woollies is now a Robert Dyas - but I was impressed to see that Moores the "gentleman's outfitters" is still going strong and looking outwardly the same as it did in my youth.  I don't mean that unkindly, for despite its staid label, I remember at the height of the flower-power era buying a gorgeous psychedelic pink shirt and matching kipper tie complete with hipster flares there!

Not all the shops I remembered from my youth have survived, of course: further down the street, a branch of Sainsburys occupies I think the spot where A H Spicer, the builder/decorator, stood.  My parents used to get all our paint, wallpaper and decorating stuff there.  Duggins the quaint little record shop is no more, and the other record shop I used to patronize - Shears (on the corner of Queens Road), who sold TVs and radios as well on their ground floor  - is now a pizza takeaway.  In fact I think there may not be any record shops left in Kenilworth now, for Discotrak which had opened in the then 'new' Abbey End shopping development seems to be one of the ubiquitous coffee shops.

Talisman Square, the main 'precinct', was built during the time we lived there: it's now fortunately in the throes of being given a face-lift as although quite a modern style of architecture in its day, its distinctive 60s-style "concrete jungle" look has fallen out of favour in recent years.  Rather surprisingly, the little bookshop which I remember opened in the late 1960s is still thriving there, having evidently at least for the moment succeeded in fending off the mighty power of Amazon.  Making my way through and out towards the famous 'Clock', I passed what used to be Bishops (the first supermarket I think to open up in Kenilworth, subsequently Budgens, and now a branch of Wilkinson).  Back in the main street, almost opposite Lloyds TSB, another of the old shops has survived - the picture shop where my parents had an oil painting which they'd bought framed.  Forty years later, it now hangs on my living-room wall.

And of course the library - where I worked back in 1968 when it was new, in my first job before going off to college!  It was closed, so I didn't go in, but now reincarnated as a computerized Council one-stop shop it's I imagine a far cry from my days of checking books in and out manually across the counter!

And so, with more than maybe just a slight tinge of wistfulness, I boarded the bus for the half-hour journey home.               

Thursday, 11 July 2013

In memoriam

Today marks the 25th anniversary of my mother's death.  It may seem a little morbid to want to write about it, but I guess that's as good a way as any of marking the occasion.  It was a Monday morning: I'd gone off to work as usual, totally unaware of what was to come.  For although I'd known she'd been ill over the weekend, I hadn't realized she was virtually on her deathbed.  My boss was very understanding and sympathetic and in a bit of a daze I was soon on my way over to the house - the same house in Kenilworth where I'd grown up as a teenager.  My father ushered me into the front room, which they'd converted into a bedroom to say my goodbyes.

It was the first time I'd ever seen a dead person.  She seemed very peaceful and I half expected her to wake up suddenly and ask "You got here, then...What took you so long?" or something similar.  I touched her gently almost as if try and to rouse her but realizing I couldn't (or shouldn't try), I whispered a few prayers and kissed her for the last time.  I remember not really wanting to leave her, but my father was waiting just outside the door and the undertakers would soon be arriving.

The funeral, I soon found out, was booked for noon on the Friday. She'd had the foresight to write her will sometime previously, appointing my father and sister as executors, so they handled all the funeral arrangements as well as all the paperwork connected with the probate: each day the two of them went off to take care of everything, while it fell to my lot to make sure the house was clean and tidy in preparation.  Not that it was dirty: my mother had always been extremely houseproud but in her final years her failing health had taken its toll as far as the chores were concerned.  I shall never forget how I struggled constantly to hold back the tears: although I'd left home fifteen years previously, everything was still pretty much as I'd remembered it and I only had to touch an ornament or a piece of furniture, or look at the surroundings, for childhood memories of things we'd done together to come flooding back.  At night, I slept in the same bedroom I'd had when I was seventeen, just after my sister had left home.  It was quite surreal, and almost as if the whole of my adult life hadn't happened.

My sister had asked me to stay over and keep father company for the week, and I was wondering what the two of us were going to do in the evenings.  But he seemed content to just sit and talk - or rather he talked and I listened, adding 'yes' and 'no' in what I hoped were the right places.  He'd always been something of a story-teller: some of the stories I'd heard before, others were not so familiar, but a common thread was how vivid his memories were of things which had happened long before I was born.  Occasionally he'd pause, or his voice would falter and his eyes seemed to mist over, as something would perhaps suddenly remind him of the present and of what had happened - but then he'd look up as if to say "Now where was I?" - and carry on from where he'd left off.  Looking back on it now, I daresay he was just trying to get things straight in his mind, much I was doing too, although with considerably less success.  It was on the Wednesday evening I think that he told me the story of how he and my mother had first met.  It was the way he told it as much as anything that gave me an inkling of how much he was already starting to miss her.  

Eventually Friday arrived - the day of the funeral.  I remember my father going out to mow the back lawn while we were waiting for the hearse to arrive, which struck me as bizarre, but I guess it was just his way of taking his mind off things.  Other than that, it all passed in something of a blur.  A Church service followed by a cremation was apparently what my mother had said she wanted: even though I'd never known her ever go to Church, they'd got married in Church so maybe she thought it was 'never too late'?  Back at the house, my father "entertained" those of our friends and relatives who'd come to the funeral whilst, not being one to socialize a lot at the best of times (and this was hardly one of them), I mostly busied myself in the kitchen looking after the supply of food, drink and clean plates.

I'm not sure whether it had been something my mother had asked for or not, but my father arranged for her ashes to be interred in Kenilworth Cemetery - in a double plot which would also accommodate his when his time came.  This couldn't be completed until the following Monday, so I spent an unspeakably awful weekend with an eerie sense of 'unfinished business' hanging over me.  The interment ceremony was for just the close family: the vicar did the customary prayers and as I threw a handful of soil down onto the small wooden box containing the ashes, I was struck by an inconsolable sense of loss.

My mother was gone: the thing I'd feared most in my childhood - the stuff of which periodic nightmares had been made - had finally happened, and nothing was ever going to be the same again.  It was the first time I'd lost a close relative, and my mother had always been the one in the family I was closest to.  I still find it difficult to put into words how guilty I felt, all the "if only"s - and how I'd never in my wildest imagination anticipated the emotional turmoil I would go through in the weeks and months that would follow.  I knelt by her grave each week and prayed for forgiveness.  Eventually of course over the passage of time it's gradually healed just as everyone says it does.  I don't visit the grave regularly any more, and haven't done for many years, basically because I suppose haven't felt the need to.

But I still miss her and the same mixed emotions which have prompted me to write this long and probably rather rambling entry will, I sense, result in my re-visiting her final resting place once again.                       

Thursday, 27 June 2013

What a difference a day makes!

The "day" in this case being the day of one's sixteenth birthday, when - amongst other things - sex becomes legal.  And that's the interesting facet of this story, which in other respects bears striking similarities to the Jeremy Forrest saga which I wrote about in my last entry.  The whole tone of the reporting is different: schoolteacher Emma Ager is not described as a 'paedophile' nor even a 'pervert' (she did, after all, turn down the request for a threesome).  The teenage boy pupil is not a 'victim', nor was he 'abused' - he simply became a "legend" when the inevitable happened and all his mates found out.  And neither was he 'groomed': after all, "I bet you won't be able to keep up with me during sex" is hardly the subtlest chat-up line to use.  Admittedly they didn't run away to France together when his mother got suspicious about the phone calls and told the school - the whole thing in fact seems to have not been a "relationship" in any meaningful sense of the word.

But it was illegal: she was a teacher at his school, he was a pupil under 18 - the whole "abuse of trust" scenario is plain to see, and she quite rightly has now been struck off for it.  She has not, however, as the commentators on the article have been quick to point out, ended up in jail.  Admittedly prosecutions for sexual offences are largely contingent on the alleged victim(s) filing a complaint, and the boy seems to me to have had no obvious reason to make one, since he both started and finished the affair.  Furthermore it's only just now surfaced, six years after the event.

Despite all that I may perhaps be forgiven for wondering if it doesn't stink ever so slightly of double standards - especially with the top-rated comments being along the lines of "lucky lad"?           

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Pour encourager les autres?

Back in the autumn of last year, I wrote about the news story which had hit the headlines - the maths teacher by the name of Jeremy Forrest who'd fled to France with his 15-year old girl pupil.  I'd better not link to it, because I'm no longer legally allowed to name her, despite the fact that like everyone else I could and did back then.

Nine months on, the wheels of justice have turned inexorably on, and after a two-week trial the sentence handed down on Friday was five-and-a-half years imprisonment.  What?  You get less than that for killing someone.  Having said that, it was rather telling, I thought, that the initial charge of child abduction for which the jury found him guilty only accounted for a year of the sentence.  Perhaps even the learned judge thought it rather quaint to "abduct" a willing participant who testified in Court that she pretty much called the shots in the whole episode.  But alas, their undoing appears to have been the fact that not only had they had illicit sex on multiple occasions before the fateful ferry trip, they hadn't been altogether overly discreet about it.  I mean, come on now.... if you go bragging to your mates that you were 'at it' eight times in one night, and store photos on your phone, don't be surprised if someone drops you in it.  The icing on the prosecution's cake.

And of course, the coup de grâce was that it was her teacher who'd crossed the line, broken all the rules and "betrayed the trust".  Had it been another pupil, there'd have been a bit of aggravation but on nothing like the same scale, and it probably wouldn't even have ended up in Court - any more than the thousands of other older boys who have underage sex.  The prosecutor predictably enough then went for the jugular by labelling the defendant a paedophile, and it's a pity the judge didn't see fit to correct him, if only for the jury's benefit, by pointing out that the term when used correctly describes sexual interest in pre-pubescent children.

Not like Romeo and Juliet, then?  I failed O level English Literature so I wouldn't know.  But Juliet appears in this case to have been supporting her Romeo almost to the extent of being what I think the Americans would term a 'hostile witness'.  And in a Sun exclusive *where else* she declares she's still in love, was capable all along of making her own decisions and will wait for her Romeo's release.

Knock off the nine months he spent on remand, and with automatic release on licence halfway through the sentence, by which time she'll have turned 18 and be free to do as she pleases.  Is the love story then going to have a happy ending?  I wonder.....

Monday, 18 March 2013

Finita, la commedia

I was greatly saddened to learn of the death, over the weekend, of someone I greatly admired and respected - Shannon Larratt, founder of BME.  Coincidentally, it's almost exactly three years ago that I started off this blog with a short entry outlining some of the background to my involvement with BME and although I haven't been a contributor there since that time, I look back on those eleven years with nostalgic affection.

I was fortunate enough to have met Shannon in person one time when he visited the UK, and although I can't say we were close friends or anything, I flatter myself to think that he used to value my contributions to the site.  His encyclopaedic knowledge of Body Modification was equalled only by his ability to express it in a way which was always informative, interesting and captivating.  It's typical of him, I think, that he managed to write his own obituary so very eloquently: goodness alone knows how long it must've taken him to do it, wracked with the constant pain of such an increasingly degenerative condition.

I don't have any hesitation in saying that had it not been for his inspiration I'd never have become involved in the world of Body Modification to the extent that I did, and for that I owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Requiescat in pace.

Friday, 15 March 2013

A policeman's lot is not a happy one

I guess it's part of the intrinsic nature of blogging that so many of them achieve a sort of 'here today - gone tomorrow' status.  One of the more stable (or so I thought) had been that of Inspector Gadget, the pseudonymous Police Inspector whose accounts of what it's really like out there the front line in the British Police force have kept me entertained, informed and on occasion saddened by some of the goings-on behind the scenes.  It's never been my intention in this blog to lift the lid on what similarly went on (and doubtless still does) behind the scenes in Local Government, nor to bad-mouth my erstwhile employers: suffice to say that the pernicious creeping influences of political correctness and emphasis on diversity had to be experienced to be believed, and the resultant barking madness was nothing short of a massive impediment to actually getting the job done. 

I'm not sure why the Inspector has decided to call it a day.  Maybe he's decided enough is enough and is about to hand in his badge.  I feel I detected a growing desperation on his part at the direction in which successive governments have sought to take both the police force and the way it operates.  I hope he hasn't got 'busted': I can't imagine his outspoken views on the antics of senior officers will have earned him many friends in high places and the opportunity to shut down such a thorn in the side would be one many a Chief Constable would find hard to resist.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Marking occasions

Predictably, but at the same time unexpectedly, the entry I wrote earlier in the week has left me feeling more than somewhat restless and unhappy.  The apparent paradox of that is explained by the fact that although on the surface there's no obvious reason why it should've done (I was, after all, reminiscing over what I thought were happy events) it suddenly dawned on me on re-reading it that this year is the 25th anniversary of my mother's death and that, certainly, has disturbed some fairly deep-seated unhappy memories which I fully thought the passage of time would've virtually erased.

I'm not even sure I want to write about it much, save to say that it made me acutely conscious at the time of having been something of the proverbial prodigal son.  I wished more than anything in the world that I could've gone back in time and undone that, but of course I couldn't then and I can't now.  They say it's not a good idea to dwell overmuch on the past - there's after all nothing you can do to alter it.  But that doesn't stop it coming back to haunt you from time to time.  On a slightly more rational level, I suppose I can say that in a lot of respects I've probably succeeded in behaving the way I was brought up to do: certainly both my parents were keen that I should make the best of my abilities and I'm glad they were both eventually able to share the proud moment of their son's graduation ceremony.

As I ponder what to put next to try and explain my rather muddled feelings, I wonder if I'm just being too hard on myself.  The world I've grown up in is a very different one from the one they grew up in, and as I tried to adapt to it some of the decisions I took - wrong though they were with the benefit of hindsight - were ones I thought were right at the time.  I'm sure my mother must've made her share of wrong decisions too over the years and the degree of omniscience and infallibilty which I always assumed (or was taught from my earliest childhood) was innate in a mother was in reality not quite all it seemed!  Maybe in the end she was more forgiving of her errant son than I've perhaps ever realized.

Coincidentally the shops at the moment are full of Mother's Day gifts.  We never used to "celebrate" the occasion: back in those days 'Mothering Sunday' as it was properly called wasn't anywhere near as commercialized as it's now become.  But as I browsed earlier today, I spotted some pots of tulips and suddenly remembered the ones I'd planted in the long flowerbed alongside the garage in our back garden at Kenilworth - and how they always used to flower there despite being in almost permanent shade.  I've never yet succeeded in growing them properly here, so it seemed only fitting that I should buy some and plant them in the rockery.  In the unexpected warmth of an early spring afternoon I found a suitable spot for them, and as I said a short prayer I hoped I'd finally laid a bit of a ghost to rest.          

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

La maison où j'ai grandi

Lately, I've been coming across a lot of clips on YouTube of songs I remember well from my youth in the 1960s, one such being Françoise Hardy's La maison où j'ai grandi (The house where I grew up).  It's a favourite of mine: I've always loved its haunting melody and poignant lyrics. I bought it when it first came out: I was learning French as a schoolboy, and I think I've still got a 7" vinyl single of it somewhere.

For me, the "House where I gew up" is always the detached house in Kenilworth my father bought when I was about 14.  I've never been entirely sure what lay behind his decision but I suspect that having been back 'home' four years or so after Hong Kong with no further posting or promotion materializing, he began to sense that his days in the Army were numbered and it was perhaps time to start making preparations for what we were going to do and where we were going to live when he came out.

The house itself, in Windy Arbour - then (and probably still now) regarded as the 'posh' part of Kenilworth - had been allowed to run to seed more than somewhat. My parents got busy wallpapering and painting, and I helped clear what was an absolutely enormous garden but one which was waist-high in nettles at the bottom: it took us a couple of seasons to get it into the state of actually being able to grow things in it.  Being the youngest in the family I got the short straw in the form of the smallest bedroom, which was right above the front door and hall, and consequently only big enough to accommodate a single bed and a chair on which I could keep a few clothes.  There wasn't room for any heating in there: the metal "crittall" window frame dated back to when the house was built in pre-war days, and on a cold night the ice would form on the inside of the window-pane.  By the time it reached its turn for decorating, I asked for a sky-blue ceiling in preference to the off-white or 'magnolia' that my mother insisted on putting practically everywhere else in the house.  She was distinctly reluctant but I suppose having concluded that she wasn't going to be the one who had to sit in there and look at it, she eventually agreed!

I couldn't use my bedroom for anything except sleeping in, so I did my homework and studying in the dining room.  After the first couple of years we got it fitted with a solid fuel back boiler which took care of all the hot water we needed, but which also resulted in it being the warmest room in the house.  This was in contrast to the lounge which had a open coal fire - one which was only lit for the evening and thus left you initially huddled round it if you wanted to try and watch TV: it only warmed up comfortably by bedtime.  The dining table had a green baize cloth on, so after we'd had our evening meal and washed up, I could spread out and fit in a couple of hours or more studying whilst listening to Radio Luxembourg without having my parents' choice of TV programmes inflicted on me.

What estate agents coyly refer to as "local amenities" were basically non-existent, the notable exception being a convenience store just round the corner in Birches Lane which also housed the local Post Office and which went by the name of Terry's.  Consequently, the shout of "Anyone want anything from Terry's??" was usually enough to generate a veritable shipping order.  An infrequent Midland Red 536 bus route ran along the street outside and enabled passengers to make a morning shopping trip into nearby Leamington, which my mother occasionally used to do.  But Kenilworth town centre itself was a 15-20 minute walk away, and until the arrival of a supermarket called Bishop's in (I think) the late 1960s had no large shops there anyway.

Although I loved the house - it was a nice place to live and I called it "home" - it was underneath it all my parents' house, so eventually and perhaps inevitably it became time for me to leave the nest with its sky-blue ceiling and fly off to make a home of my own.  After some nine years altogether it was the longest time I'd ever lived anywhere in my life.  My parents carried on living there and even had a small extension built on. But then after my mother died in 1988, my father soon found that living alone in a big detached house with a massive garden was far too much for him to manage, and decided he wanted to sell up and move to a sheltered housing complex.  I'd have liked nothing better than to have bought the house off him, but even had it been a knock-down price there's no way I could've afforded it.  Unlike the one in the song, as far as I know it's still standing, but I've never had the occasion to go past and look, and I somehow doubt now that I ever will.  Come what may, though, it's always going to live on in my memory as "la maison où j'ai grandi".

Saturday, 19 January 2013

The big freeze

After a comparatively mild Christmas and New Year period, the thermometer took a sudden nose-dive.  We had snow on Monday, although only about an inch or so, but a lot more fell yesterday and I spent most of the morning looking out of the window at the white-out developing.  Predictably it caused the usual travel chaos, and I learned at lunch-time that my Italian class this week had been cancelled.  I don't really have any clear recollections of the famous last great freeze of 1963 except that I was at school: we at the time only lived just round the corner so I didn't have any great difficulty getting there and I don't remember that we had classes cancelled or impromptu days off - although I do have a dim recollection of makeshift timetables for a while.  I'm sure we were all hardier and made of sterner stuff in those days!  This morning I swept the path clear despite a forecast of more snow later in the day, which in the event didn't materialize, although I see there is likely to be some tomorrow.  Well, I know someone who's going to be pleased.... Woof!