Saturday, 31 January 2015

"HEAVEN IS A VERY SMALL PLACE..."


The Town Centre in the 1960s

Ah, where do the years go?  Y'know, it sometimes galls me that there are places I can no longer visit because they simply don't exist anymore.  Once upon a time, I would drag myself from bed, get dressed, washed, brushed, have breakfast, and set off for school in the mornings, subliminally absorbing the details of my surroundings as I did so.  When I wake up nowadays, I do so in the same room as I did when I was 13, but my school no longer exists and the route along to where it once stood has changed in quite a number of ways as well.

Even the shopping centre I once explored in wide-eyed wonder has changed beyond all recognition, having quadrupled (at least) in size and been roofed over to protect shoppers from inclement weather.  Ironically, although it's now larger, many of the best and biggest shops have moved to an out-of-town retail park where the rents are apparently cheaper, leaving the original centre with numerous empty premises.  Indeed, many of the newer units built in the last few years have never been occupied since completion.

Outside W. & R. Holmes.  (Out of shot to the
right - you can just see part of the shop sign)

I miss certain shops, havens of my youth, where I'd idle away the minutes looking at books, toys, comics or annuals.  I still have quite a few items (or replacements) from my childhood, with which I associate the places I first purchased them.  SUPERMAN From The '30s To The '70sThe MIGHTY WORLD Of MARVEL Annual 1973EL TEMPO marker pensPRITT glue sticks, and a whole host of other items instantly transport me back to W. & R. HOLMES, a bookshop, stationers, toyshop, tobacconist, art department, etc., which has never been equalled by any subsequent would-be replacements since it closed its doors in the late '70s.

And what about that old standby that everyone of a certain age must surely miss as much as I do?  WOOLWORTH'S, where every child of the '60s and '70s obtained some of the best toys ever released at that time, to say nothing of two ounces of PIC'N'MIX whenever one wanted some jelly babies, dolly mixtures or jap desserts.  'Woolies' was usually the place my elasticated black plimsolls were purchased for gym classes in primary school.  No such thing as designer trainers for kids back then - Woolworth's was a great 'equalizer' when it came to blurring the distinctions between better-off families and the not so prosperous ones.

W. & R. Holmes - now that's what I call a shop!

R. S. McCOLL's was another haunt of mine in bygone days.  'Twas in McColl's I obtained my first MARX friction-drive DALEK (1967), my CORGI TOYS diecast orange bubble-car (1969 or '70), The INCREDIBLE HULK Annual #2 (1973), a TITCH stapler that sits to the side of me as I type (1978 or '79), and a COCA-COLA sign which still adorns my wall to this very day (again, '78 or '79, I think).  In the early or mid-'80s, it moved from the premises it had inhabited since I was a lad to another unit further up the street, and though I still frequented it for years afterwards, it was never quite the same.  (Though I did buy my very first brand-new ACTION MAN there in 1984.)

Well, I could go on and on, and perhaps some of you think I'm going to, but I'll call it quits with this last little thought.  If someone were to ask me what my idea of Heaven is, I'd have to say that my home town exactly as it was in 1969 or '70 would come pretty close.  To be able to walk the streets and run through the green fields I knew as a child, to visit the shops I liked from my earliest days and which could always be relied upon to supply the simplest and the best of pleasures - well, that sounds pretty heavenly to me.

R. S. McColl's is under the awning to the left of the
pillars.  Further up the street is Woolworth's

Sometimes, in dreams, I once again wander the familiar haunts of my youth, where long-vanished people and places welcome me warmly and invite me to spend some time with them.  However, such moments are fleeting, and the harsh reality of the here-and-now lies in wait to disappoint me when I awaken to a new day.

******

We thought there was no more behind
But such a day tomorrow as today
And to be a boy eternal.

William Shakespeare

******

So, any places from your childhood or teenage years that you wish still existed, or do you prefer things the way they are now?   Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

Friday, 30 January 2015

REMEMBERING RUSHING RUSSELL - PART SIX OF SCHOOLTIME SCANDALS...


The blue door on the far right of the picture was one of a double-door
entrance leading to a staircase with direct access to the upper floors.
The doors referred to in the following tale were located a few feet with-
in the alcove beyond the railing.  None of these buildings exist today

WILLIE RUSSELL was how we referred to him at school.  A head teacher, if I recall correctly, who had an emaciated, hawk-like appearance.  He was also a Justice of the Peace, and I suspect that the experience of having people 'at his mercy' in court rather appealed to him.  He was possessed of a severe, dour demeanour, and though I don't remember ever being in his class, he struck me as rather an unpleasant person.

He confirmed it for me one day in the following manner, which is, I think, the only time I ever had any direct experience of him in my entire time at secondary school.  I was approaching the doors of 'New Block' and caught sight of him coming up swiftly behind me in the refelection in one of the door's glass panels.  I opened the door and stepped aside, showing due deference to my elders as I had been taught by my parents.

However, because the doors were set in an alcove, I could only stand back as far as the side wall allowed, which meant he would have to detour around me by a couple of inches.  Instead, he grabbed me by the shoulders and contemptuously flung me aside.  I stood, literally stunned by the man's rudeness and aggression, as I watched him stride down the short corridor beyond the doors and, as he turned the corner, glare back at me through the thick-rimmed spectacles perched on his beak-like nose as if I were a bad smell.

It was probably my experience of similar bad attitudes during the impressionable years of my life, both in and out of school, that eventually made me determined to stand up and confront behaviour of this kind whenever and wherever I encountered it.  Once upon a time, I was bewildered by such misanthropic manifestations and didn't quite know how to deal with them.  Nowadays, at the first sign of them, I tackle them head-on.  I sometimes ponder whether that's a good or bad thing though.

THOMAS MORELL once said that "The first great gift we can bestow on others is a good example."  I sometimes wonder what kind of impression it would have left on my young psyche had some of my teachers (and other adults) practised such a philosophy in their day-to-day dealings with me.

I'm probably not the only one, eh?

Mr. Willie Russell, I believe

Thursday, 29 January 2015

WHEN BATMAN WORE WELLINGTON BOOTS...


BATMAN & ROBIN copyright DC COMICS

What a difference four or five years can make.  I'd just turned 8 when JOHN FIDLER, who lived a couple of doors along from me, got one of the top toys of 1966 for Christmas - a 1st edition, diecast, CORGI TOYS TV BATMOBILE, the lucky little blighter.

I coveted it greatly, but for some curious reason (probably related to cash-flow), never got around to actually buying one until my 12th or 13th birthday in 1970 or '71.  (Though now that I remember, I had the chance of getting one whilie on holiday in Largs in 1968, but passed in favour of a bendy CAPTAIN SCARLET figure.)




Nowadays, 12 or 13 would doubtless be considered far too old to be buying diecast toy cars, but back then, boys of that age were a totally different bag of spiders to what they are now.  More innocent, not quite so eager to grow up, etc.  Well, at least, that's the way it seems to me through the mist-enshrouded maze of memory whenever I revisit my past.  And yes, Summers were longer and it snowed every Christmas.  (You can dispute it as much as you like - I prefer my version.)


John Fidler was around a couple of years younger than me and, consequently, smaller.  When we played at BATMAN & ROBIN, I naturally took the lead while John was relegated to the role of 'teenage' sidekick (even though he was only about 5 or 6).

In my homemade Batman costume (a pair of purple swimming trunks over corduroy trousers, brown gloves, black raincoat with sleeves pulled out-side in, a Batman badge on my jumper, a Batman mask bought from a shop - oh, and a pair of wellies) I cut an impressive figure.  (In my mind anyway.)  For my utility belt, I tied some dangly, strappy portion of my father's war-time morse-code apparatus around my waist  I was nothing if not resourceful.  (Trust me - it looked the part.)


John sported a black domino mask with his mother's lemony silk headscarf tied around his shoulders.  He cut a less impressive dash in my opinion, but he was only the sidekick, remember.  Sidekicks aren't permitted to upstage the main hero, and that was me - by dint of being older and bigger and more oblivious to making a t*t of myself running around in a homemade Batsuit.


My "official" mask was like a black plastic bag with half of one side cut away to reveal the lower face, and eyeholes to allow anyone daft enough to wear it to see all those who were laughing at them.  The idea was that, when you pulled it over your head, the corners would stick up like the bat-ears on ADAM WEST's cowl, enabling you to strike fear and dread into the hearts of criminals, who, as we all know, are "a superstitious, cowardly lot".

Unfortunately, the corners stuck out rather than up, somewhat negating the desired effect and managing merely to strike mirth and merriment into the hearts of amused observers as they fell about in hysterics.  Undeterred, however, me and John both soldiered on, and we must've milked being the caped-crusaders of our neighbourhood for almost as long as the show was on telly to inspire us in our dashing deeds of derring-do.


Then, alas, as is the way of things, we eventually grew up.  I moved to another area in 1972 and saw John only in passing and from afar over the next few years.  Imagine my surprise (and annoyance) when I ran into John in adulthood, only to find that he'd grown at least half-a-head taller than me.  I realized, sadly, that if we ever decided to reprise our Batman & Robin roles (unlikely as it was), he'd be the "main man" and I'd have to wear his mother's poofy silk lemon headscarf.  Life can  be so cruel.

Anyway, John and I reminisced and laughed about our childhood exploits for a while and then went our separate ways.  It must be close to 30 years since I last saw him, although, in truth, it seems like only yesterday, cliched as that may sound.  Where does the time go?  In fact, where did John go, for me not to have seen him since?  I hope he's well, wherever he is.


Sometime back in 1991, in a fit of nostalgia, I re-acquired (at immense expense) a boxed, pristine condition, 1966 Corgi Toys Batmobile from a shop in Edinburgh.  Whenever I look at it, I'm once again running around my old neighbourhood with my boyhood chum by my side, with no thought for the morrow and unmindful of what the passing years may bring. 

"To the Batpoles, Robin!"

THE FINAL FRONTIER - NEIL ARMSTRONG: 1930 - 2012...



It's a curious paradox of time that past events can seem, at the point of recollection, both recent and long ago at almost the same moment.  I'm not quite sure how the process works, I only know that it does.  Perhaps when remembering something, one's memory leaps right back to the event, making it seem as fresh and immediate as when it first happened.  Then the intervening years instantly resurface in the mind's eye, shifting the focus and thereby placing events in their proper perspective, time-wise.  All this transpires in a split-second of course, creating the illusion of experiencing two diametrically-opposing sensations simultaneously.  Does that make any sense?

Regardless, New Year's Eve (Hogmany), 1970, seems like only a relatively short time back (despite being a lifetime away) when I look at my AIRFIX APOLLO LUNAR EXCURSION MODULE, which I first acquired shortly before (or maybe even on) that December 31st of  42 years ago.  Of course, I no longer own my original one, but rather a re-issue from the early '90s.  Fortunately, unlike more recent re-releases, this one features the original box art from the '70s. 

I recall, while my parents prepared for the unlikely arrival of any 'First Footers' on the stroke of midnight, putting the finishing touches to my LEM and sitting it atop the sideboard behind the settee.  Let me tell you something about that sideboard.  Not that I imagine you'll be interested, but the past weighs heavily on my mind and I suddenly feel compelled to unburden my soul.  (As Poe would put it.)

I had grown up with that sideboard;  it had been in every house I remembered (I was then in my fourth house and had only just turned 12), and it was a main feature of our living-room.  Several years and yet another house later, either when I was out at work one day or living down in Southsea for a few months, my parents acquired new display units for either side of the fireplace and gave the sideboard to a relative.  When I returned it was gone - without me ever getting to bid it farewell.


A few years on, we moved to yet another house, the first I'd ever been in without the sideboard.  Four years later, we returned to the house from which we'd flitted, and - six years after that - I bought the sideboard back from the relative and installed it in my back room, where it now sits just to the side of me as I type.  (That's why it's called a sideboard.)  At around the same time, I also acquired a replace-ment Airfix Lunar Module, and you can be sure that, when I finally get around to building and painting it, I'll display it on top of the afore-mentioned item of furniture - just as I did those many years ago.

However, believe it or not, I didn't start this post with the intention of discussing sideboards, regardless of how enthralled by the topic you may be.  (No?  What's wrong with you?)  It was astronaut NEIL ARMSTRONG's passing that prompted me to put digit to keyboard.  In 1969, the year that Neil first set foot on the surface of the moon, he was only a relatively young man of around 38 or so.  (That's quite a bit younger than I am now.)  40-odd years later, the man is gone and I find myself amazed at just how recent the events of 1969 suddenly, for the moment, appear to me.

One day, when I finally build that LEM, I'll no doubt recall three things.  Firstly, Neil's historic achievement back in 1969. Secondly, that particular New Year's Eve of 1970 and my original Lunar Module sitting atop the sideboard.  And, thirdly, just how fleeting time is and how, nowadays, there never seems to be enough of it.  I've still got quite a few unbuilt model kits to assemble before I'm ready to take that "giant leap" into "the final frontier".

I suppose I'd better get started on them pretty darn soon.

******

In memory of NEIL ARMSTRONG.
August 5th, 1930 - August 25th, 2012.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

WHAT'S IN A BOOK?


Illustrated by ERNEST H. SHEPARD

You're looking at a book I bought back around 1977 or so.  "Big deal!" a few of you may be thinking, but I've posted it here because it reminds me of so many different moments in my life.  Of course, I've wittered on before about the associations that items can conjure up, but if I didn't return to a topic from time to time, I'd have little to write about - and then some of you might be placed in the unfortunate position of  having to find something a lot more worthwhile to do with your time than read this humble blog of mine.

I first saw this version of one of the all-time classics of literature in a magazine ad while awaiting my turn in a barber's shop one afternoon, circa 1976 or '77.  (Actually, it was a ladies hairdressing salon by the name of MARINA, which accommodated a traditional gents barber in a partitioned section at the back of the shop.)  Several weeks later, I ordered a copy from a great place called MODATOYS in the local shopping precinct of one of my old neighbourhoods, and patiently waited to be informed of its arrival.


About a month or so later, myself and a friend decided to visit our old primary schools.  He had gone to one just around the corner from where I lived, and I had gone to another one not too far away from it when I had resided in a different part of the area quite a number of years previously.  After visiting those two schools and being given guided tours around them by their respective secretaries, we then called in upon the school we had both attended while living in another neighbourhood, the same one in which was located the toy (and book) shop referred to in the previous paragraph.

I should perhaps mention that we were only around 17 or 18, and schools were much more welcoming to former pupils - and far less security-conscious - than they are nowadays.  To once again walk the corridors and view the classrooms of our childhood was a magical thing, even though it had only been about six or seven years since we'd left.  Of course, at that time, those years were almost a third of our lives away, so, proportionately, it seemed like a much longer period than it would seem to me today.  (These days, six or seven years appear to be roughly equivalent to a fortnight back then.)


Anyway, being in the neighbourhood, we dropped in to the shop to enquire about my book.  Imagine my surprise to discover that they had 'phoned my house a couple of weeks earlier to let me know that the book was now in stock.  I had been out, but they had left a message with my father to pass on to me, which he hadn't.  Thanks, dad!  I didn't have enough on me, but I returned to the shop a few days later and paid for my new acquisition.

(Funnily enough, a few years later, another friend of mine relocated to England, and would 'phone me from work from time to time.  If I wasn't in, he would ask my father to let me know he had called, which he never did.  A case of parents regarding the affairs of their offspring as being too insignificant to worry about, much less remember, I guess, but it was annoying.  I only found out about them when my friend mentioned it in a 'cassette-a-letter' some time later.)


Anyway, back to the book.  Sometime back around 1985 or '86, having moved to yet another house, I bought a second copy of the same edition from a book club, and placed it alongside its predecessor on my shelf.  The later edition was slightly thinner, and had an orange cloth cover as opposed to red, but I got it in an introductory offer for about 50 pence (or less) so it was a welcome addition/spare to my collection.

So, whenever, I look at this particular edition of The WIND In The WILLOWS, there are many different things I associate with it:  The barber shop (which only recently relocated, but the separate section for gents was phased out long ago), the toy and book shop (now long-gone, alas, but it was there a good number of years and is sadly missed), the three primary schools of me and my friend (the one we both attended demolished last year, the previous two having fallen to the same fate not long before), the two houses in which I lived when I obtained each copy of  that particular edition - and last, but  not least, my long-vanished youth, when I was young, strong and fit, with more years ahead of me than behind me - no longer the case, alas.


It also reminds me of my father's annoying inability to ever pass on a message.  All that history - and so much more besides - contained within the pages of one book.  Amazing when you think about it, eh?  If there are any particular books which conjure up distinct recollections of your own past, please feel free to share them with the rest of us in the comments section.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

COME - TAKE A WALK WITH ME...



One of the things about my home town (as I'm sure it is with yours) is that certain aspects have changed so much over the last twenty-five years or thereabouts, that some areas are almost unrecognizable to what they once were.  To anyone who moved away in the early '80s and has never been back since, the town remains preserved as it was in the amber of their memories.  If ever they were to return on a visit, I'm sure they'd be in equal parts amazed and horrified at some of the changes which have taken place.

Truth to tell, I'm almost envious of them.  To gad about on the other side of the world somewhere, thinking, in a blissful state of ignorance, that one's home town remains as it once was seems a reassuring notion to me.  In that way, the playing fields of your childhood remain forever inviolate.  Same goes for people;  if you don't know someone has expired since you last saw them, they're still alive to you and will be for as long as you are.  What does it profit you to learn that their life's race ended halfway through your own?

I remember being in a camera shop a number of years ago and running into a schoolpal who once sat beside me in technical drawing class (and probably other classes also).  ALAN PARKER was (and is) his name, a fact which won't make this tale one whit more interesting, but which I feel compelled to mention for no other reason than that it happens to be the case.  The conversation ran something like this.  Me:  "Hi, Alan - what're you up to these days?  Him:  "I'm on holiday at the moment."  Me:  "Not going anywhere?"  Him:  "Yes - here!"  Me:  "Eh?"  Him:  "I emigrated to Australia a couple of years back, and I'm over visiting my folks."

To be honest, I can't actually recall whether it was Australia, New Zealand or Canada he had gone to, but Australia will suffice for the purpose of our tale.  I was actually quite surprised by the news, mainly because it didn't seem like anywhere near two years since I'd last seen him - five or six months at the most, I would've thought.  The realization that he'd been living in another country and pursuing a new and different life for that period, while I subconsciously imagined him to be still tripping merrily around the streets of my town, ready to run into at any moment, was a sobering reminder that things aren't always as we perceive them to be.  In my life, nothing much had changed;  in Alan's, a whole new horizon lay before him - and he was already several steps on in the journey which had taken him beyond the narrow (if comforting) confines of my own world.

A few weeks back, myself and a friend I've known since I was seven years old, took a wander around the new housing scheme which now sits upon the sizeable area of land where once resided my old secondary school.  It was a strange experience because, inside its boundaries, there were no visible 'landmarks' to indicate our location.  We could've been in any new-built housing scheme in Britain;  it was as if we'd walked through a dimensional portal and found ourselves somewhere else entirely.  Beyond and out of sight, lay the familiar environs we'd known since childhood, but within these strange new streets we were in an unknown place in an unknown land.  It was with a sense of relief that we returned to our own world some minutes later, back through whence we had come.

In my more fanciful moments, I sometimes wonder if the 'dear departed' (assuming they survive death in some form) are aware of what goes on in the place they left behind;  or do they imagine (like the distant wanderer) that everything remains the same as when they left it?  If granted a day's visit to their home town from whatever celestial realm or dark netherworld they may inhabit, would they be surprised and dismayed to learn of the changes which have taken place in their absence?  "What?  My old house has been demolished?  The old cinema has been gone for twenty years?  My favourite toyshop is now a newsagents?  The Cairneys don't live at number thirty-three any more?"  Or would such trivial concerns be beyond them in their joy at feeling the wind blow through their hair once more, and again experience a sun-kissed walk through green fields for however brief a period?

Try and let me know if you go before I do, will you?

Saturday, 24 January 2015

HECTOR'S HOUSE: SCHOOLTIME SCANDALS - PART FIVE...



'HECTOR' HILL we called him - mainly due to his uncanny resemblance (in our eyes) to the dog in Hector's House.  Not just in appearance, but also in voice, unlikely as that may seem.  He was a decent bloke, a teacher at my secondary school, and a man with a conscience - as this latest illuminating episode in our 'Schooltime Scandals' series now illustrates.

Before each pupil sat a form, waiting to be filled in.  It asked us about our home life, details about our parents, etc., no doubt designed to determine whether we came from happy envornments or were victims of poverty or abuse, or some such misfortune.  "These forms are 100% confidential," we were advised, "and will be treated with the utmost respect and secrecy."

And so we applied ourselves to our task.  However, before too long, the sound of adult laughter made me turn around to find out the cause of such open merriment.  Mr. Hill and a female teacher (whose name is lost to the mists of time) were standing behind a girl named SHEILA CRAWFORD, reading what she was writing and laughing and commenting on it.

I stopped writing and put down my pen.  Noticing this, Mr. Hill asked if I was finished.  "No sir, but I'm not filling out any more.  You told us that these forms would be in the strictest confidence, but here you are, openly laughing at what someone is writing, and remarking aloud for all to hear.  I'm not prepared to supply any personal information, the confidential nature of which could be abused in a similar manner."  (Of course, it's unlikely that I expressed myself in quite such an assured and articulate a fashion, but that was the gist of my statement.)

Oh, but they needed the information - it was important.  It would help them build a personal profile of each pupil, assist them in their quest to aid any student who might have a difficult home life, etc., etc.  "I refuse to participate!" was my steadfast response.  "You openly laughed at what Sheila was writing, and remarked upon it in front of the rest of it.  That's a betrayal of confidence for a start."

(I should perhaps mention that this wasn't a case of me trying to be difficult on some perverse whim, simply for the sake of it.  It genuinely did bother me that I might inadvertently write something about my parents which could be a source of amusement among the teachers in their staff room, and I therefore wasn't about to 'play ball', no siree.  Familial loyalty held sway.)

No more was said, doubtless because the two teachers, in their embarrassment, wished to minimise their injudicious display, and I lost myself in idle thought until the bell rang and we shuffled off to our next lesson in the New Block.  About 15 minutes later, there came a knock at the classroom door.  A pupil entered, and politely informed the teacher that Mr. Hill requested my presence back over in the Old Block.

I duly trotted over to the class I had not long left, to find a contrite Mr. Hill waiting at the door, anxious to explain himself and, essentially, seek my forgiveness.  Yes, he had been wrong, it was a lapse in judgement, it wasn't a common occurrence, it would never happen again, would I please fill out my form.  However, my heart was like flint.  No, I wouldn't be filling out the form, nor any other form of a similar nature in the future.

Nothing was ever said again on the subject, but I must confess that I was inwardly impressed that Mr. Hill was prepared to reason with me, explain himself, treat me almost like an equal, rather than attempt to browbeat or bully me into submission.  (He was also smart enough to know that such an approach wouldn't have worked.)  Here was a man of honour, compassion, integrity - who realised he had made a mistake (trivial as it probably was) and was eager to redeem himself in the eyes of one lone pupil (no ocular pun intended).

So here's to Mr. Hill - to 'Hector' - a genuinely good man, and a teacher who cared - perhaps even too much.  Of him it can be truly said:  "He's a great, big, decent ol' Hector."

Friday, 23 January 2015

LIVE & LET PLAY - OVER HERE, ELSIE...



Blackpool, 1973.  I'm sat on a deckchair next to my parents in the Sun Lounge of the famous North Pier, half-listening to the organist, RAYMOND WALLBANK, and reading the above PAN paperback, when all of a sudden a high-pitched screech pierces the air:  "Elsie... ELSIE!  Over here... OVER HERE!  Cooooo-eeeee... ELSIE!"  The voice belonged to an elderly lady sat next to a companion, who was frantically flapping her handkerchief in an attempt to attract the attention of the aforementioned Elsie, who had just arrived.  Thankfully, Elsie heard her friend (as did residents on the far side of Blackpool, I would imagine) and soon took up the designated place beside her.

"I'm so glad you found Elsie!" quipped Raymond, good-naturedly, at the end of his tune.  Even I, as an uncouth 14 year-old, recognized the woman's bad manners in interrupting the performance to hail her pal, but I soon re-immersed myself in my book.  True, technically, I was perhaps likewise disrespectful in not paying full attention to Raymond, but at least I was unlikely to disturb anyone else's enjoyment while indulging in the object of my literary preoccupation.

Anyway, today I took possession of a replacement of the very book I read 40 years ago, as a 14 year old youth on Blackpool Pier. I obtained it from AMAZON for a mere penny - 39 pence short of what the book cost brand-new four decades back.  True, I paid £2.80 for post and packing, but I'd probably still have had to pay that if the book had cost me a tenner, so let's not get bogged down in mere details.  (Even if I started it.)


If I recall rightly, I'd been to see LIVE LET DIE not too long before our visit to the famous seaside resort, so the film was still fresh in my mind.  Also, the day before our departure, I'd acquired the 2nd edition CORGI TOYS ASTON MARTIN DB5 diecast spy-car, which I took with me on holiday.  I'd purchased it in one of my local R.S. McCOLL's, and although it was 1973, it was the original, '68 model in a blister pack instead of a box.  (Must've been old stock, I guess. And, yes - I managed to replace it some time back.)

The difference between the newer version of the car and the original 1965 gold-coloured model was that, unlike its predecessor, it was an actual DB5.  The previous incarnation had been rushed into production at the last minute, so existing moulds of a DB4 were swiftly modified and pressed into production.  In 1967/'68, Corgi Toys created completely new tooling, and, as well as being a slightly larger scale, the new car was the correct silver birch colour and sported revolving number-plates and rear tyre-slashers, as well as all three of the original features on the earlier release.

But I digress.  Returning to the book, there are still bits I recall even after all these years:  Roger chipping a tooth and requiring root-canal work;  having to shoot the wedding/motorboat scene again due to a steering mishap;  the sign 'TRESPASS-ERS WILL BE EATEN' being the actual sign of the crocodile farm, and not an invention of the filmmakers.  I'm not sure if the book was ever republished, but the copy I received today is a first-printing and in extremely good condition.  Not bad for one 'new' penny, eh?

So, here's to that long-ago holiday in Blackpool, and all the comicbooks purchased back then;  the Aston Martin, Roger's book, Elsie and her pals - and last but not least - the cool-as-a-cucumber Mr. Raymond Wallbank, who sadly died in 2010.  He played on the North Pier from 1965 to 1995, a period of 30 years in all.  When I eventually get around to re-reading the book, you can bet your boots I'll have another hearty chuckle at the memory of Raymond's humorous and gentle 'remonstrance' on that sunny July afternoon back in 1973.

******

Incidentally, prior to that day on the North Pier, I'd thought that the cry of "Cooooo-eeeee!" was a word only ever used in films or comics, not in real life.  After all, it wasn't actually a 'real' word used by 'real' people, was it?  Or so I'd thought until that June or July day in Blackpool back in 1973.  As far as I can recall, that was the first, last and only time I've ever heard it being used  - outside, that is, of someone perhaps using it in an affected manner for humorous effect.

******

We returned to Blackpool on holiday the next year, 1974, and that was the last holiday I ever had - never been away since.  My parents returned several times over the decades, and may well have sat on the North Pier listening to Raymond again on quite a few occasions, but I did so only once.  Odd to think that the initial shared family experience was likely repeated, but without my presence.  Strange what passes through one's mind while reminiscing, eh?
  

In memory of Raymond Wallbank - born August 8th, 1932, died February 16th, 2010.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

SUBTLETIES, SHADOWS & SHADES...



I've lived in a lot of houses in my time.  By the age of 24 I was in our sixth house, which works out, on average, as four years per house.  But forget averages - I've only actually lived in a house for four years on two occasions, the other periods of tenancy ranging from as far apart as one and a half years to eleven years.

Anyone who's ever read Scots-born author KENNETH GRAHAME's classic book The WIND In The WILLOWS will no doubt be familiar with the fifth chapter, DULCE DOMUM, which (roughly) means 'home sweet home'.  In this episode, MOLE, while out on a ramble with RATTY one Winter's day, picks up the scent of his old home, long forgotten and neglected since he unwittingly abandoned it in pursuit of adventure one fine Spring morning many months before.



The chapter relates how Mole re-aquaints himself with many dear and familiar possessions and memories, and reminds him (and us) of the value of having an anchorage - a place to return to - in life, no matter how far and wide one may roam in the meantime.  As the author writes (and as Mole thinks):  "...it was good to think he had this (Mole End) to come back to, this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome."

Funny thing is, I feel that way about every house I've ever lived in.  If ever I'm walking along a street in which once resided, I almost find myself walking up the path to the front door and unconsciously putting my key in the lock.  If were lost enough in thought, it's no stretch of the imagination to envisage such a thing actually happening.  (Once, while out walking our dog Tara, I was passing a previous home when she turned in at the stairs as though we still lived there.  I almost followed.  It's that kind of 'instinct' - or 'force of habit' that seems to dwell within me also.)

Or should I espy a former home lit up at night, I can 'see' (as though with x-ray eyesmy father, pipe in mouth, sat beside the fire, watching the TV or reading his paper;  I can also see my mother, darning socks or busy in the kitchen with domestic chores, or my brother in our bedroom listening to records or reading comics.  Furniture, ornaments, wallpaper - everything as it was.


Each house beckons to me, summons me to obey its call to 'come on home', regardless of however many years have elapsed since I actually lived there, almost as if I'd only just popped out to the shops or to visit a pal mere moments before - with such clarity that the intervening years since we vacated whichever house seem like only a dream that never really happened.

Even more bizarre is when I seem to see a younger version of myself beyond the gleam which radiates from behind the curtained windows, engrossed in some book, or sat at the dining-room table, doodling or building an AIRFIX kit.  On occasions such as this, it can be disconcerting to suddenly have the moment disrupted by the intrusion of a stranger looking out of the window, or entering or exiting through the front door.


Then, just like Mole and his chum Ratty as they stand mesmerised by a lit-up window, the bitter winds of reality catch the back of my neck and return me to the present - though usually unwillingly, and not without a strange, sad sense of loss and longing.

The past continually calls to me, but never more so than when I revisit the scenes of my youth, where shades of my younger self and family, and friends long departed to either the other side of the veil or the globe, yet inhabit these enchanted places from so many years ago.

If ghosts do exist, I wouldn't be surprised to find that they aren't only ghosts of the dead, but also of the living from an earlier time.  That would perhaps explain why the shadows of yesterday dance forever before me.

A WOLFE IN PAST'S CLOTHING...?



"You can't go home again" said THOMAS WOLFE - and in one sense he was correct, but in another sense, he wasn't.  I've done it, you see.  Allow me to explain.

The house in which I now reside, I've lived in before.  My family moved here in 1972 and we were here for 11 years until we relocated to another house in a different area in 1983.  Four years later, we moved back - I'll spare you all the boring details as to why.  At first, it was as if we'd never moved, but - ah, "but" - I'll get to the "but" shortly.

Being able to "go home again" depends on several diverse sets of circumstances;  what age you are at the time, how long you've been away, to what extent (if any) things have changed since you left and (if not) whether they'll stay the same for the forseeable future, etc.


The memories and associations of all my previous abodes are anchored in specific periods of time, fixed and immutable, from which they can never be sundered.  For instance, when I remember one particular house, it's resolutely set within the years 1965 to '72, or when I call to mind another, it's locked between the period of 1983 and '87.

Sometimes, when strolling through one former neighbourhood, I think to myself how nice it would be to stay in my old house again.  On one side are the same neighbours as when we moved into the area in the mid-1960s - still there after all these years.  That sense of continuity is an important aspect in considering whether it's possible (or even desirable) to recapture the feeling and flavour of bygone days by such means.

When we're young, our life seems to unfold before us like an unravelling ball of string;  however, when looking back in later years, we don't see the string as the continuous, uninterrupted strand it seemed to be at the time, but as separate, severed segments, each in its own little compartment of the mind.  Or perhaps a chain would be a far more accurate comparison, with links missing at various intervals which would otherwise connect every individual recollection (or set of them) with the ones before and after, rather than leaving them in apparent isolation to one another. (I'm overstating the case, perhaps, but I'm sure you get the idea.)


Consider the following hypothetical scenario:  You're 8 or 9 years old and move to another house in another area.  Six months later, your parents realise it was a mistake.  The house is a dump, the area is a slum, the school is a disgrace and the neighbours are cold and unfriendly.  By a fortuitous stroke of good fortune, you're able to return to your previous house in your old neighbourhood - and do.  All of your former friends and neighbours are still there, living their lives as before.  Under those happy conditions, you would merely be resuming your old life after a brief hiccup in continuity.  Truly, you would have gone home again.

If, on the other hand, you didn't return until many years later, most of the factors which made living there so memorable for you would no longer exist, chief amongst them being your youth and all its attendant properties.  (A sense of wonder, optimism, enthusiasm, and a whole host of other qualities.)

The surrounding neighbourhood would no longer be your very own adventure playground, merely the street where you live.  The friends with whom you played in bygone days would by now have grown up and moved on, once-familiar local faces flitted or expired.  True, you'd have your memories of happy times past, but these would still be yours wherever you happened to live.  No doubt you'd derive some satisfaction from once again inhabiting your childhood home, but unfortunately that might not be enough of a comfort when the realisation finally dawns of all the inevitable, irreversible changes that have occurred in your absence.


(I dare say it's the same even if you've lived in only one place all your life.  Changing circumstances over the years can conspire to make the experience of living in a long-term home entirely different to what you once knew.  If new people move in next door and are an absolute nightmare to live beside, then you may suddenly find yourself consumed with a desire to quit the place of your unforeseen and seemingly never-ending torment - despite it being the only house you've ever known and in which you were previously blissfully content.)

Moving house when young is a bit like breaking up with a wife or girlfriend when older.  You may eventually meet someone else and just get on with things, but should that lost love resurface in your life and want you back, you recall only the good times you had and may be tempted to pick up where you left off.  It's happened - I've read of people leaving their partners for former lovers or people they once knew (with whom they've become re-acquainted through Friends Reunited), only to discover that, once the first flush of reconnecting with a cherished part of their past has passed, they really have nothing else in common.

It can be the same with houses - or anything, in fact.  Human nature being what it is, we always miss what we don't have.  When we get it, we then start to miss whatever we gave up to acquire it.  (Or something else in which we imagine our happiness resides.)


Case in point:  In 1987, when the opportunity arose of returning to the house we had left over four years before, I did so without a backward glance as I'd never wanted to move to begin with.  25 years later however, I increasingly find myself, unbidden, recalling happy times associated with the place we so heartlessly abandoned in favour of our once previous and now current abode.  Don't misunderstand me - I'm still glad to be back here, but, as I say, I also now think fondly of the house we left behind.  (As I do the other former homes my family have inhabited down through the decades.)

The fact may be, however, that it's not actually childhood houses (and other places) which we miss per se, but childhood itself - that time of awe and enchantment and epic sense of eternity that seemed to rest within our grasp.  The houses are merely symbols of those times and experiences - the places with which we associate our feelings of wonder and joy, plus long sunny summers and frosty snow-bound winters in a magical kingdom where time held no sway and we thought we had forever.

When we visit the grave of someone deceased, we do so with the full realisation that the person we knew is not actually there - only their shell, not their spirit, or essence, or whatever you may care to call it - but we still feel the need to go to that specific spot to 'reconnect' with them.  Recently, I've begun to ponder whether revisiting an old house or neighbourhood is like visiting the grave of my childhood - there it lies, dead and buried, and I'm merely looking at a monument to its former existence.


Hopefully I'm wrong.  Hopefully, the spirit of childhood yet resides in me as a living, breathing reality and will never forsake me.  Perhaps the simple truth is not so much that childhood forsakes us, but that we forsake childhood.

So, can one go home again?  They say that home is where the heart is - but the heart is sometimes a fickle and indecisive organ, and not always to be trusted.

What would your answer be?

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

GETTING THE 'BRUSH-OFF' - PART FOUR OF SCHOOLTIME SCANDALS...



It had been raining, and I could see through the classroom windows that it was beginning to get dark outside.  The rain-lashed footpaths reflected the yellow lights of the school building in their shimmering, mirrored surface, and as the art lesson neared its end, I started gathering my stuff together in preparation for the bell which would signal our release.

One thing was wrong however;  my schoolbag was absent from its accustomed place under my desk.  "Right, who's got my schoolbag?" I challenged, standing up and addressing the line of classmates to my side.  "Is this it?" came a murmur from the far end.  "Yeah, pass it along to me!" I said, and the bag was handed from one pupil to another until it reached me.

No fool was I!  First thing I did was check the contents to ensure that nothing was missing.  In actual fact, the reverse was true - at the bottom of my bag was a class paintbrush which didn't belong there.  "Please Miss," I said to the teacher, "someone's put a paintbrush in my schoolbag."  As it turned out, I'd have been better placing the brush in its pot with the others and saying nothing, but perhaps I was fueled by a subconscious desire to solicit an acknowledgement of my 'virtuous' nature.

Mrs. BARCLAY (dubbed 'Screamer Barclay' by we pupils) seemed unperturbed.  "Put it in its pot!" was all she said - so I did.  However, at lesson's end, she took a count of the brushes and discovered that some were missing.  She decided that a search of the boys was in order, but not the girls.  (Obviously, in much the same way that ol' QUEEN VICTORIA reputedly couldn't imagine women ever indulging in 'unnatural desires', Mrs. Barclay clearly considered females incapable of taking something that didn't belong to them.  The settlements often arrived at in today's divorce courts suggest otherwise.)

Mr. McLEAN, the head art teacher, was sent for, and when he arrived, 'Screamer' explained the situation about the missing brushes.  She concluded her summary of events by saying - and these are her actual words - "A brush has already been found in Gordon Robson's schoolbag."  I regarded this as a gross misrepresentation of the facts, so I interjected and said "Yeah, and it was me who found it!"

I wasn't the subject of any undue attention as a result of Mrs. Barclay's less than stringent recounting of the facts, and it may be that it hadn't been her intention to cast me in the role of transgressor, but nevertheless it riled me at the time and still does whenever I think of it today, more than 40 years after the fact.  Reputations often rest on such gossamer threads that I'm always prepared to stand up and defend mine at the drop of the proverbial hat.

Now, I'm sure there's a moral in there somewhere, but I'll leave you to figure it out for yourselves.

******

Why not take advantage of our free therapy session and exorcise your demons of yesteryear by unloading them in the comments section?  Go on - you'll feel much better for it.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

SO - CARDS ON THE TABLE...



When I was a lad we had a card table, which usually sat at the front of our living-room.  In our 4th house (in the town we'd moved to in 1960), my parents summarily dispensed with its services without so much as a 'thank you' for its 20-odd years of loyal fealty.  It was sold to a dealer in 1981 or '82 and bravely went off to meet its fate.

A couple of years later we moved to yet another new house, and my folks acquired another table of the exact same type as its predecessor, in every respect save one;  namely, it was lighter toned than the dark-hued original and therefore more suitably complemented the assortment of other furniture amongst whose company it sat.

As I said, the table was of a variety known as a card table;  the hinged top unfolded and swung round to present a green-baized surface upon which, in a different era, various card games could be played after dinner by way of rounding off a pleasant evening.  (Neither one of our tables had ever been employed for that purpose as far as I recall, rendering them somewhat redundant in that area.)

Anyway, to try and cut to the chase - as regular readers know, we returned to our former house just over four years after first vacating its premises, and the 'new' table came with us.  What's more, it took up residence in the very spot on which its precursor had once stood at the front of the room.  And why not?  It was the most obvious place.

Which brings us to the photograph which graces this post.  The photo was taken around July of 1972, a few weeks after we had first moved to this house.  In the background can be seen the original table of which I've just been so interestingly (cough) telling you about.  The framed photograph now sits atop the replacement table, creating (in my mind) all sorts of strange and curious ponderings.

We've now owned the 2nd table for quite a number of years longer than we had the first, though I still tend to think of it as a recent acquisition.  An interloper, in fact, who brazenly occupies the space more rightly belonging to its ousted antecessor.  It'd surely be more fitting to have that picture sitting on the very table seen in the actual photo itself, rather than atop a base pretender, a stand-in for the one so cruelly cast out more than 30 years ago.

H'mm, 30 years, eh?

On the other hand, maybe it's time I accepted it as one of the family.  After all, it's been around for over half my life.  And at least the original can be seen through that framed window into the past, ensuring that it yet resides, in a sense, in its accustomed spot.

So - anyone for a game of cards?

******

(Interestingly, most of the ornaments on the table in the photo  now sit on the replacement today.  How's that for continuity?!)
    

FIELD OF DREAMS...



The spot these children are standing on no longer exists - at least not in the form you see in the photographs.  Approximately 21 years after the pictures were taken, the foundations for an old folks' home were laid directly into the area of field where these kids once played.  I'm actually in the photos and remember with startling clarity the Sunday afternoon or early summer evening they were taken back around 1967 or so.

As you can see, we were playing cricket.  Only a short while before, I had narrowly managed to dodge a heavy cricket ball and thus avoid a nasty knock on the noggin which could well have rendered me senseless.  (Go on - I'll allow you the predictable retort.)


From left to right in the 'cropped' photo above are myselfRobert Fortune, Tony Tierney, Allan Robson and Kenny Tierney.  The photos were taken by Mr. Tom Tierney, who later became a regular contributor to the letter columns of the local newspaper, under the nom de plume of 'Goofy'. If he were alive today, he'd no doubt have a blog in which to record his whimsical (and sometimes serious) observations on sundry subjects, but sadly he's been deceased for quite a few years now.

When we first moved to the area in 1965, it was Tony Tierney who introduced me and my brother to the rest of the kids in the neighbourhood. I haven't seen Tony in quite a few years, but I still run into Kenny today from time to time, and it was his good self who supplied me with the photos you see on this page.  As I said, the field no longer exists - except in photos, memories and dreams - dreams which increasingly seem far more enticing than the rather drab reality of the here and now.


Photographs are marvelous things, aren't they?  Looking at a photo is like gazing through a window into yesteryear, at a moment frozen in time which grows all the more precious to us the further we become removed from it.

******

UPDATE:  (January 2015.) The field remained undisturbed until 1988, a period of 23 years from when we first moved  there in '65 (we flitted in '72).  I therefore find it rather startling to think that the old folks' home has now occupied the spot for 26-odd years - three years longer than the time which preceded it.  And yet it seems to me as if the three-storey building was erected only a few years ago.  The mysteries of Time, eh?  I don't think I'll ever be able to fully comprehend them.


 Long has paled that sunny sky;
Echoes fade and memories die;
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Ever drifting down the stream--
Lingering in the golden gleam--
Life, what is it but a dream?

From "Life is but a Dream" - by Lewis Carroll.

******

After posting this, I was going through some old papers and found this letter from my local rag, dated Wednesday 24th April - Thursday 30th April, 1996.

Goofy will be missed

I was saddened to read and hear of the death of Mr Tom Tierney, great story teller in your column and other publications in his life.

He brought many a smile, with his wit and local stories bringing back many a cheery laugh.

My thoughts to his family.

Ann Robertson
Address supplied 

This post is therefore dedicated to the memory of Mr. Tom Tierney, aka 'Goofy'.  Thanks to him, the above snapshots of a moment from my childhood are preserved forever.

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