Gulp

If you’re reading this, it means I finally left the relative safety of wordpress.com, and setup a blog outside the city borders. I’m on my own out here, wondering if I’ll survive, and then of course castigating myself for worrying. Of course I’ll survive – I used to be a web developer. We’ll ignore that I just spent an hour wondering why email notifications were not being sent, before finding them all in my spam folder. There’s an irony in that somewhere – that my own email account regards anything from me as spam.

So. I’ve done it. I pulled the trigger – or plug – or whichever idiom is the correct one for such acts of idiocy. The new blog is being hosted by Digital Ocean (the cheapest host this side of Chickensaw County), the domain is being looked after by Namecheap (who are true to their name), and the SSL certificate – giving you the little padlock in the address bar – is courtesy of a wonderful project called “Lets Encrypt”, that cost me nothing at all.

You might say I’m doing this “on the cheap”.

The one surviving concession to the WordPress universe is their “Akismet” service – that weeds spam out of email. I don’t particularly want the comments to my blog filled with penis or breast enlargement offers – my daughters already inform me that my “Man Boobs” are quite impressive enough – on a regular basis.

I’ll admit that I’m considering wiring up some kind of statistic tracking – to find out exactly how many people are not visiting – then, should I happen to bump into them, I can stare at them in the most disappointed manner I might muster. I suppose some kind of subscription type thing might be an idea too.

Anyway. It’s lovely out here on my private mountain top, honest. Lonely, windy, cold, and dispiriting, but lovely, honest. Everybody should do this (he says, trying to look confident in his own stupidity).

Trapped in the Walled Garden

This evening I have been quietly working out what it would cost to leave the WordPress walled garden, and go it alone – host my own instance on some webspace somewhere else.

The attraction of a hosted blog is of course that everything is done for you – the domain name, the storage, the web server configuration, the certificate signing (https), and so on. You don’t have to look after any of it yourself – hell, I don’t think most people posting to blogs at wordpress.com even realise there’s a webserver, a database, and a (heavily modified) installation of WordPress behind their words.

There’s the whole “community” aspect to consider too. By living within the WordPress garden, my posts are discoverable by everybody else in the garden through the native “Reader” interface. If I leave, I lose that entirely.

Despite the obvious costs of walking away, I have to admit I’m still tempted. Even though the cheapest hosting services are more expensive than the native WordPress options, it’s still tempting – because of one word – ownership.

As we have seen in recent days with Tumblr, a shoe could come down one day, and change the rules that govern the existence of our words on the internet. If I choose to walk away from a hosted blogging service, am I really taking ownership though? I still won’t own or control the hardware – I still won’t own or control the connection between the hardware and the wider internet. I’ll just have moved the goal-posts a little closer to me – I won’t own them, or the ground they are planted in.

Now it sounds like I’m talking myself back out of it – and maybe I am. I suppose in many ways I’m highlighting the problem – although we may rail against “the man” on the internet from time to time, if we want to share our stories with the wider world, we’re always going to have to agree to a certain number of terms and conditions – to take advantage of the many and various platforms that connect us,  we will always have to play by somebody else’s rules, and we will never have that much influence over them.

Maybe I just need to stop thinking so much.

Breaking Down

We were supposed to be visiting a foster carer looking after a young cat for the RSPCA today (the “Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals”, if you live outside the UK). We used this lever to galvanise the children into action – cleaning their rooms, and helping tidy the rest of the house in preparation for the arrival of Christmas (and the cat). After a hectic morning filled with runs to charity shops, and the rubbish dump, we began to glimpse our long lost house.

I made lunch while a final run was made to the local recycling center, then we all piled into the car to make the journey to “meet” a young cat being looked after at a rescue center. Fate had other ideas.

Five minutes into the journey – while driving along in the Christmas Shopping traffic, our car suddenly lost power. We rolled to a halt at the side of the road while three lanes of traffic thundered past, and escaped into the scrub at the side of the road. I’m pretty sure the children thought an 18 wheeler would plough into our car at any moment. For the next half an hour we stood together under the safety of a nearby bridge,  waiting for a rescue vehicle to appear. None of us were particularly dressed for the weather (of COURSE it began raining too), so we huddled like penguins. The children of course thought this was the best day out EVER.

The rescue vehicle rolled up earlier than predicted, and a tall, knowledgeable guy wearing warm clothes and reflective waterproofs set about plugging  a laptop into our car and tinkering with this and that. All we saw of him for ten minutes were his feet dangling from the passenger door. Eventually he wandered back to us, still sheltering under the bridge in the biting wind and rain, and explained that a sensor deep inside the engine had most likely failed – leading to a waterfall of errors that resulted in the engine being starved of fuel. We would need to be towed.

After a short conversation, we decided that my other half would steer the car home, while I would accompany Miss 14 in the service vehicle. You would have thought all her christmases had come at once. I’ve never seen her quite so excited. During the journey back to our local garage – where the car was left for engineers to look at on Monday – she unloaded on the hapless rescue mechanic spectacularly – telling him about her plans to be a police officer one day, about the cat we had been planning to meet, about our existing cat, about his late brothers – pretty much everything of significance in her present life emptied out of her.

I smiled.

The one huge benefit to come from the car deciding not to work has of course been that the house is now tidy. To distract the children from not having visited the new cat this afternoon, we got the Christmas decorations out of the attic. We now have my old fake tree standing in the corner of the living room once again, and several boxes of Christmas themed ornaments waiting to find places around the house.

Don’t worry though – plans are already afoot to collect the cat later in the week. I suspect he may be awarded a Christmas themed name at this rate – although Miss 18 (who has casting vote) seems pretty settled on “Casper”, after a cat in a Michael Morpurgo book that she read years ago.

Sideways

Every time I sit down to write a blog post at the moment, something happens – or rather, something distracts me. You may have noticed the appearances of huge swathes of my memoirs from this year’s NaNoWriMo appearing over the last few weeks – this is where I confess that the only reason they appeared was because I couldn’t think of anything else to share. Better to share something than nothing, right ? Of course eventually I’ll empty that well entirely – then you’ll be stuck with me pontificating about things to write about, which I’m doing right now.

If there was some sort of award scheme for procrastination, I’m pretty sure I would have a special school in Okinawa, with belts, and dans, and all the rest of it. My suit would almost certainly be black, and I would sit on a hilltop, under a tree, contemplating the nature of the procrastinatory universe. Maybe.

I suppose today was SORT of eventful. Early in December, the main road through town is closed off, and all the shops stay open for late night Christmas shopping. It lasts for one night – and tonight was that night. I noticed them closing the road off while cycling home from work, and didn’t give it another thought until walking towards town for coffee with Miss 18 after dropping the younger kids off at their dance class.

“Oh crap – Starbucks is going to be busy”

“Why?”

“Look!”

As we turned the corner, the high street scrolled into view, filled with thousands of people, huge numbers of market stalls, the distant sound of a brass band, the sanctimonious tones of one of the local radio presenters, and a cacophony of children begging their parents to buy them this or that.

After taking perhaps ten minutes to progress a hundred yards through the crowds, we ducked behind the market stalls and hid in Starbucks for the better part of half an hour. While queueing to order our drinks, a barrista shooed a table filled with teenagers out onto the street. There were perhaps ten of them – all the typical entitled children of wealthy parents wearing label clothes you tend to find in this town. Thankfully they didn’t cause a scene, and silently slunk out onto the street – leaving the single drink they had bought between them on the table – pretty much untouched.

After acquiring a cappuccino, and an ice tea, we found a table, and I finally got a chance to catch up with Miss 18. This used to be “our thing” – going out for coffee while the younger children were at dance. I would listen while she recounted whatever drama was unfolding at college, and try to think of non-commital responses. My other half became somewhat jealous of the bond that formed between us – in reality I think it was just the “Dad and Daughter” thing though.

While in the middle of a conversation about a potential search for penpals (for her) on Instagram, my phone rang. We needed to finish our drinks. Miss 14 needed ingredients for cookery at school in the morning. I needed to find caramel sauce at the supermarket. Have you ever looked for caramel sauce at the supermarket before? I haven’t. I still have no idea how we found it. Tucked away above the condensed milk, and hipster inspired supplements, we found “Salted Caramel” in artisan style jam jars. No doubt the millenials spread it on their organic crumpets or something.

Anyway. We returned home from town brandishing a small shopping bag, and thought ourselves somewhat victorious after completing our random mission. There has been no medal ceremony of course. There never is.

Memories of West Oxfordshire College

The secondary school I went to didn’t have a sixth form – so after taking your GCSE exams, you had to make a choice between moving to the sixth form at Burford – the pretend grammar school a few miles away, or West Oxforshire Technical College – a few miles in the other direction. During the summer before I went there, it’s name changed to West Oxfordshire College. Everybody still called it “Witney Tech” though.

My first visit to Witney Tech happened during the summer holidays. I went one evening with my Dad, and met Mr Perry – an officious looking bear of a man. He looked like the sort of person you wouldn’t cross – with straight white hair sprouting from his head at odd angles, a shiny grey suit, and horn rimmed glasses.

I don’t recall what we talked about, but a few weeks later a letter arrived through the post, confirming my place on courses for Mathematics, Economics, and Computer Science. For some reason I didn’t pick art, and I’m still not sure why.

Getting to college each day meant catching a bus from the middle of town – which in turn meant congregating at the bus stop with numerous other students. After years of wearing school uniform, suddenly we could wear whatever we chose to – some took full advantage of this. You might have thought the more fashionable boys were heading to a Simple Minds concert, and the girls not so much to see Madonna, but to be her.

The college bus was a dilapidated double-decker. I never went upstairs – that was almost exclusively the domain of the popular kids, and I was by no means popular. I wasn’t without friends though – a few of my old school friends also found themselves on the same courses as me, and over time a circle of sorts formed.

Simon was a staunch socialist – the son of a socialist that had run in local elections for years. During our secondary school years, he would always be out canvassing for his Dad – going door to door, delivering leaflets, and so on. He was tall, and wiry in build – all elbows and knees, and had a mop of straight dark hair. His reading glasses dominated his face, making him appear very serious. We shared the same idiotic sense of humor, and both harbored ideas of writing stories, or plays at some point in our life.

Kevin had only been a distant friend at school, but grew into one of my closest at college. He was tall, thin, and remarkably quiet most of the time. We would often sit in the library at college and pretend to read.

Michael – he of supernatural coding ability fame from secondary school – would arrive at the bus stop clutching a can of diet coke, and invariably try to appear far more cool than he really was. I bumped into him in a video store years later, and he was STILL pretending to be somebody he was not.

I remember standing at the bus stop with Simon, Michael, and Kevin, talking about the most recent episodes of Quantum Leap. That makes me feel incredibly old.

The bus journey to college only took a few minutes most days. I remember a few people buying motorbikes, and we would often see them en-route. One particular boy, that obviously imagined his 50cc scooter was far more powerful than it actually was, tried to overtake the college bus one day – I remember seeing his head slowly pass by the bus windows, as he held the throttle wide open. The bus driver obviously saw this going on (it was a quiet road), and sped up just a little bit – enough to make the boy’s head go slowly back down the bus – this time being laughed at and jeered by everybody on-board. I don’t even want to imagine what he saw in the back window of the bus after pulling back in behind it.

I can also remember a time we left for college, and a boy narrowly missed the bus – running to the bus stop as the doors closed, and we pulled away. I don’t think I have ever seen anybody quite so angry – he ran alongside the doors, thumping on them, and screaming obscenities. We could pretty much guess every word coming from his mouth – and most of them began with F.

The bus would drop us off in a car-park opposite the main college buildings – leading to a lemming-like exodus of students trying to cross the road every few minutes on a morning. In the council’s infinite wisdom, the nearest road crossing was several hundred yards away.

Although the college had a vast student common room, I very rarely set foot in it – I tended to congregate with a small number of other students on the same courses as me in a building called “G-Block”. In the foyer of G-Block there were a number of easy chairs and low tables – and somehow we made it our home. I don’t think we consciously set out to either – it just sort of happened. Across the way from the chairs there was a staff room, and a receptionist for the building sitting at a hatch. You could wander up and ask for paper – plain, narrow, or wide ruled – and would be given about an inch of paper to put in your work binders for free – without question. I thought this was marvelous.

My computer science and mathematics classes were all in G-Block – on different floors of the building. I seem to remember maths was on the second floor, and computer science on the third. The ground floor was dominated by engineering – with the classrooms setup for pneumatics, electrical experiments, and such like.

I think I’ve written about the computer science teacher elsewhere. His name was Jeremy Jackson – a small man – who always dressed in a suit, but had a huge mop of dark hair, and a black beard. His fringe would be pulled across his forehead, often hanging over his glasses. He walked with a limp – perhaps the result of polio as a child – we never asked him, and he never told us. We would wait outside the door of the computer science class for him to arrive, and watch as he limped along the corridor towards us. He stood or sat at the front of the classroom, and wrote notes onto a reel of transparency on an overhead projector. I thought this a genius idea – throughout the year the roll would slowly fill with everything he had written, drawn, or whatever else – and it meant he could roll it backwards to re-cap something from a previous lesson.

We all knew that Mr Jackson could be distracted by talking about Star Trek, or about his own days at university. I remember one particular story about the people he was sharing a house with dying their cornflakes to prevent thieving.

Who were “we” though? Let’s see how many of the computer science class I can remember.

There was me, obviously. Graham, who did archery at weekends, Stephan, who played drums, Andrew, the son of a farmer, Michael, the gifted genius I had been at school with, Sarah, one of the prettiest girls I think I ever knew (and that I stumbled over talking to every time I had to), Tony (that had been in the year ahead of me at school), and Simon – a somewhat aloof but likeable kid that I would learn to keep well away from.

Simon did nothing directly awful, or nasty – you might even say he was charming. He was also the most manipulative person I had ever met – only I had never met anybody like him before, so I didn’t realise at all.

The computer classes were mostly lectures – listening to Mr Jackson talk, and writing lots of notes. Occasionally we had programming assignments, and used the computers on the desks (we each had a computer!) to write and test code. We learned a programming language called Pascal. Coming from a background hacking bits of code together in BASIC, I was horrified when told that there was not “GOTO” command in Pascal.

“and even if there was, you would be banned from using it”

If you have no background in software development, you will have no idea what I’m talking about. Most programming languages have methods of jumping across the code, from one point to another – for example, if something happens in the code, or if a condition is met, go to this part of the code next – that sort of thing. In BASIC you can use GOTO to skip to any part of a program – imagine the mess you can get into with lots of GOTO commands. Needless to say we learned all about properly structured programming methods, where you DON’T get into a gigantic mess.

I found computer science pretty easy. My exam project was kept by the college, and used as an example for future years – not because it was stunningly brilliant it turns out, but because it was pretty good, but could have been better. I remember writing the documentation for the program (an order processing system for the family business) in one week of mayhem on a PC I borrowed from my Aunt. I typed up 70 pages in about three days, and damaged the nerves in my finger tips in the process.

On the middle floor I sat in Richard Goddard’s mathematics class. I think it’s fair to say that Mr Goddard turned me around in terms of mathematics. Not just me. He turned the entire class around. He was a wonderfully gifted teacher, and must have been horrified at the holes in our mathematical knowledge during the first few math lessons – so much so that he went back to basics, and spent the first few weeks teaching us math from scratch again.

The “us” were myself, Tony (again), Kevin (from the bus), Simon, and Andrew from the computer class, Bob – a mysterious guy that seemed to be something of a math prodigy, James, who dressed like a computer game joystick, Kate, who was gorgeous and that Simon had a monumental crush on, Tina, who had a mass of curly hair, and an endless supply of denim jackets, and Neil, who appeared to have just come from a skateboard or BMX park most days.

Somehow – by hook, or by crook – Mr Goddard got me through the math exams in one piece. I’ve often thought about finding him again – to thank him. I’m not sure how I might go about it though.

While most of my memories of college are good, there are some negative ones too.

In my first year I took Economics – taught on the far side of the campus by a woman called Sue Grant. She was kind of a throwback to the 1970s in the style of clothes she wore, and was probably a perfectly good teacher – but I had no real interest in economics, and probably put as little effort in as humanly possible. After a year of struggling, I dropped the subject, and remember a very uncomfortable meeting with her, where she sat at her desk and said nothing for quite some time. “Failing” at economics meant I would be at college for an extra year, but I didn’t really see a problem with that.

My one abiding memory of Sue was a story she told about teaching in a prison at some point during her career, and the lights failing in the classroom, followed by a huge amount of commotion around her. It turned out several of the prisoners were sex offenders – one of them had tried to reach her in the darkness, and several others had essentially kicked the crap out of them before the lights came back up.

The bonus to dropping Economics was I finally got to do art. I had tried the previous year, after realising my mistake, but the class was already full. I remember walking in and seeing all the students I had been at school with, who pointed with wide eyes, and told their new friends that I was good. So yes – FINALLY I was going to do art.

The art teacher was called Jane Pollard. She had long dark hair, was curvy (I was going to write voluptuous, but it seems wrong to write that about a teacher), and wore jeans with boots most of the time. She was a wonderful artist, and leaned on me pretty hard. She remembered me from the year before, and knew I might have some potential. She was shocked when I left college to get a job working with computers – I think she already had my future mapped out doing a degree in fine art somewhere.

Jane worked hand in hand with a pottery teacher called Dave Sutcliffe. He was barking mad, but also a mine of information about making and glazing pots, and one of the few teachers I knew that had a background in industry – he had worked at a pottery for years before becoming a teacher. He also taught photography, which I took as a filler subject during my final year.

The art class was kind of like a refuge from the rest of the college. I was a year older than many of the other students, and consequently a little bit more mature. It made a huge difference. I had little or no patience for the younger students that often messed around, and shut off when they began talking about drunken nights out. Art was the one subject I didn’t really have to try at though – I could just do it. In the same way I had been singled out at school though, the same thing happened at college to an extent. A lot of my work ended up on the walls of the art room – particularly my drawings of people.

I think I became fascinated with drawing people because they were so much more difficult than anything else. I’ve always held the opinion that people only paint landscapes because they can’t paint people. A tree is still a tree if you get it wrong – if you get a face or body wrong, it either looks hideously deformed, or nothing like the subject.

During my final year of college – my third year – I took filler subjects to help fill the days – Photography, Travel & Tourism, and Accounting. I have no idea why on earth I took the final two – probably because I thought they might be easy. Can you ever imagine me working as a travel guide? I thought not.

Photography was taught by the pottery teacher, and is interesting now perhaps because only a few years later digital cameras replaced everything I had been taught. I’m one of the last generations that learned how to operate a film SLR camera properly, and to process film. We learned about silver halides that recorded light, and various other noxious chemicals that printed and fixed photographic paper. I still have a box-file somewhere in the attic filled with photos from that course.

Travel and Tourism was taught by a wonderful teacher called Ramona Riley. It became obvious pretty quickly that we were all there to fill out timetable – the unlikely group comprised of me, a Chinese boy from the family that owned the local takeaway, a massive fan of Billy Idol that bleached his hair, and wore studded jackets, and a couple of younger girls. The course was hardly taxing – I vaguely remember a few written assignments along the way – one about Victoria Falls as a tourist destination. Of course in the real world nobody has been to Victoria Falls for the last decade because of the troubles that have ravaged Zimbabwe.

Accounting was another filler subject. I joined the course late (I don’t recall why), and learned how to do book-keeping on paper. It always struck me as slightly strange given that computers were now used exclusively to keep accounts, we were taught how to write it all by hand, as somebody might have a hundred years previously. I passed the course, but only just. I still don’t really know how I passed, because I almost go in trouble for missing 50% of Friday lessons for an entire term.

So there you go – my time at West Oxfordshire College, distilled into a few paragraphs. Can you even imagine my horror when I discovered a few years ago that the college no longer existed. Learning that somewhere you spent a considerable part of your formative years no longer even exists is a very strange feeling indeed.

Going Postal

Those that have followed my recent adventures on the internet will have seen both my retro-mac inspired run at NaNoWriMo, and the experiment with “Tiny Letter” – both ideas running against the tide somewhat in an eccentric attempt to get back to where we all started.

I’m thinking about going further. I have been turning the idea of writing letters and cards over in my head for a little while. There’s something about a real piece of paper arriving through the letterbox with distant postmarks stamped on it. There’s something about handwritten words – about them having been formed directly by the author – they are somehow more intimate, more truthful than their typewritten descendants.

If you are wondering where this all came from, there has been a tipping point of sorts this morning – the news from Tumblr that censorship is being imposed in a somewhat nuclear fashion – a reminder that the social platforms that connect us are owned and run by others – and that the freedoms they afford us can be pulled away as quickly as they are given.

If you’re interested in sharing letters or cards, go visit the contact page and let me know how to get in touch to swap addresses.

Keeping My Mouth Shut

I almost wrote a furious post at lunchtime about something that happened at the weekend – a series of things that happened at the weekend really – a direct response to the behaviour of a number of people I had the ill fortune to cross paths with.

Rather than write anything I might later regret, let’s just conclude that my rather dim view of cliques is not without merit. Perhaps the most depressing part is that behaviours modelled by parents often transfer to children.

Like I said – I’ll keep my mouth shut. A part of me wants to believe that it’s a minority – that most people are inherently good – but when you continually face the same situations again and again, you begin to suspect the motivations of everybody you meet – and that seems tremendously unfair.

Anyway. Enough.

I’m trying to think of something positive to write – to turn this post around – to find something hopeful, or optimistic to end on. At least this post isn’t another few thousand words from NaNoWriMo, hey? That’s a good thing, right?

Secondary School

Another excerpt from this year’s NaNoWriMo – Enjoy!

I’m sitting here, trying to remember the most significant memories from my time at secondary school – and struggling somewhat. It’s all become so fragmented – it feels like a collection of snapshots, stored away inside my head. The strange thing about memories is that they unlock each other – one recollection leads to another, and another.

Perhaps I can use the trail of breadcrumbs to my advantage – if I start with the first day at secondary school, hopefully the rest unfold somewhat naturally.

My first teacher at secondary school was called “Mr Way” – Martin Way. He was the prototypical history teacher – with a comb-over, a bushy beard, and a huge array of thick knitted tops that made him look like he might have just stepped from a north sea trawler. He was a wonderful artist, local historian, and perhaps the most knowledgeable teacher I’ve ever known. He didn’t so much teach history, as bring it to life – I remember a scratch-built Roman helmet and shield in the corner of his tutor room throughout the years he taught me.

Perhaps the biggest change with moving to secondary school was walking between different classrooms for different subjects. While we started each week with Mr Way, our typical school-day took us from class-room to class-room throughout the day. A single lesson was about 35 minutes, and a double obviously double that. There was a morning break after the first two classes, a further two before lunch, and a another three afterwards.

I remember the first morning, sitting in Mr Way’s classroom – and him handing out exercise books for every subject. We were to write our own name, and class at the top right corner of every book cover – on lines measured 1 centimeter from the top of the book, and from each other. Guess who wrote his name on the left side of every book before realising his mistake?

I remember using a fountain pen for the first time at secondary school. You were allowed to use either roller-balls, or fountain pens – no ballpoint pens. Of course the novelty factor meant that everybody had fountain pens for the first few weeks, and made a huge mess with them too. I dare not guess how many children ended up with ink stains in the lining of their blazers.

Oh yes – school uniforms! All secondary schools that I have ever known in the UK require a school uniform. I think uniforms were instituted to remove the entire question of means, or background – if everybody wears the same clothes, nobody can use their clothes to differentiate, or divide. Of course the uniform also meant that children could be identified and associated with the school while outside of school. We were reminded of this on a regular basis. In the first three years of secondary school everybody wore a dark blue tie with white stripes. Beyond that, a red stripe was added to the white stripe. The only time I can ever remember the ties being checked was in the queue for the school canteen.

The school hall doubled as the canteen, with vast kitchens being hidden behind huge rolling blinds. At lunchtime, children buying lunch from the canteen queued along the corridor towards the hall, in year order – unless you were third year or above, in which case you could could go to the front of the queue. I seem to remember fifth years could jump the queue entirely.

At morning break-time the canteen sold crisps, drinks, fruit, chocolate bars, and an endless supply of chocolate cornflake balls. At lunchtime things were much more healthy – with curries, vegetables, chips, lasagne, or anything else that could be baked in a huge tray, to be honest. I think I probably lived on baked potatoes with beans for quite some time.

The tables in the hall were arranged into rows, with bench seats on either side – the same bench seats used in the morning for assemblies in the hall. Each class took it in turns to both set out, and put away the chairs and tables. Each table sat about ten people at a push – eight if you wanted any elbow room.

I remember the first time I visited the canteen – and meeting up with my older brother. I put all manner of things on my tray, with no regard for how much money it might cost – at primary school the food had been free. Luckily I had enough money, and have no clue what I would have done if I had not.

I remember a girl sitting next to my brother smiling, raising an eyebrow, and winking at me – obviously put up to it by him. I pulled an apparently hilarious face, judging by the immediate laughter, and disappeared inside myself for the rest of lunchtime, my face burning.

As the years passed by, I rarely bothered with lunch from the canteen – instead either taking my own sandwiches in, or walking to the local petrol station with friends to buy chocolate bars instead. Not exactly a wonderful diet – but I’m sure children still do it now if given the opportunity.

I remember following a few older boys – friends of my brother – into town one lunchtime, and being amazed that they went to the local chip shop. One of them went to the supermarket and bought a pint of milk – and drank it straight from the carton. In my little world this was rock-star behaviour.

Some of the secondary school teachers are burned into my memory far more clearly than others.

My first French teacher was called Mrs Wilson. She lived in a flat above the chemist in town, and was perhaps in her mid to late 20s with shoulder-length dark blonde hair, and a wardrobe of clothes that screamed sensible. In our first French lesson we had to pick French names for ourselves from a hat – I picked “Michel”, which caused the entire class to burst into laughter. This was years before I discovered Jean Michel Jarre. I retreated inside myself for that entire first lesson. I was terrible at languages – I still am. I think the only phrases I still recall involve pencil cases, ice creams, monkeys, gineau pigs, and trees. Not exactly conversational.

The English teacher was called Mrs Crossland – the mother of a girl I had gone all the way through infant and junior school with. Looking back, she was a wonderful teacher who fought valliantly to make us interested in both reading and writing – unfortunately at 11 years old I was just a bit too disinterested in anything that didn’t involve either computers or lego to care very much. She was slim, always smart, and had a piercing gaze that was impossible to avoid if you were messing around.

I remember once attempting to perform a huge chunk of a Shakespeare play with a group in class, and taking note that the previous group had been too static. During our turn, I tried to walk around a bit while reciting my lines (very badly, it should be added – I had the memory of a goldfish) – and was asked after we finished if I needed to go to the bathroom.

My first math teacher was called Mr Fitchew. A tall retired Royal Air Force pilot with grey hair, and a seemingly endless supply of shirt and cardigan sets. I bet they were Christmas presents from his family. He was always immaculately presented, with a booming voice, and a wicked sense of humor. I’ll never forget the afternoon – towards the end of my time at school – when one of the girls asked him (during an aside about his career in the RAF) if he had ever crashed.

“Yes – I actually survived several crashes”

“Did you have to ejaculate out of the window?”

We all knew what she meant to say, but the explosion of laughter around the room, and the grin on his face will be etched into my memory until I die. Of course – knowing what I now know about sixteen year old girls, the entire conversation could have been expertly steered towards the joke.

The music teacher was a large lady called Mrs Hawker who wore huge flowing dresses, had a mass of curly hair, wore huge glasses, and somehow controlled an uncontrollable rabble armed with noise making devices (read: musical instruments). I remember in the first few music lessons being asked to sing “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, to see if each of us could hold a tune – and being pants-wettingly terrified. Thankfully, after a childhood messing around on the upright piano at my grandparents house, and on my parents musical keyboards, I could “play a bit” – certainly enough to impress a few people in the music class.

A lasting memory of music were the once-monthly “record lessons” – where we were allowed to bring a pop record in, a track played to the class from each record of the teacher’s choosing, followed by questions about it. I can still remember David Langstaff bringing the gatefold “Thriller” album in, and the teacher dropping it – scratching it in the process. We all cringed as she picked it up – we could all see the scratch.

I grew to like Mrs Hawker. I carried on with music as an exam subject, even though I was a bit hopeless at it. I never did learn to sight read music, and never played with any of the school bands that formed among friends. I got continual requests to be a keyboard player, but I think that had more to do with them wanting to borrow stuff off my parents, than wanting me in the band.

The science teachers were an odd bunch. Mr White was perhaps the most strict – a tall, imposing man who always wore a suit and a lab-coat. He taught chemistry, and most people thought he was insane. He wove the most ridiculous stories (that we all believed) in order to teach the most boring parts of the subject – and had a particular talent for calling people by their names backwards.

You always had the sense that you shouldn’t cross Mr White – and this was proven when a boy from another class was brought to him to be disciplined one day – he quietly excused himself, and walked to an adjacent classroom, across the corridor. We could see him through two sets of windows, and the corridor – inches from the boy’s face, screaming at the top of his voice. I remember the boy’s face becoming slowly more purple, and tears trickling down his cheeks.

Mr Lloyd also taught chemistry, and had a somewhat spectacular record at setting up experiments that failed. I remember an entire lesson being wasted while he attempted to make hydrogen pop from a test-tube – finally explaining what should have happened. That happened a lot.

My first biology lessons were taught by a Welsh teacher called Mr Davies, who never bothered learning anybody’s names. Everybody was Jack, Jill, Flossy, or some other ridiculous 1950s Enid Blyton name. The strange thing was that we all knew when he was referring to us, even though he didn’t use our name. I remember being chosen to demonstrate the method of preparing a sample in agar jelly, in a petri-dish, and shaking so violently with nerves that one of the girls whispered “why is he shaking so much?” – Mr Davies immediately asked if she would like to also demonstrate, which caused her to almost climb inside her own shoes.

I don’t remember Mr Davies teaching us sex education, but I suppose he must have. It usually fell on the biology teacher. I remember it all being very serious, and the books being full of diagrams, and cut-away drawings of internal organs – not exactly the naughty pictures we had imagined it might involve.

We had two male PE teachers. I’m not entirely sure why. The first was a slight guy with a speech impediment – and I can’t remember his name at all. The other was a boisterous, loud, thick set guy that played rugby each weekend called Mr Clarke. Of course we learned to play rugby. Rugby was one of the few field sports I was any good at – mostly because I did as I was told. Unlike the more talented kids that ran sideways across the pitch (like the wind I might add), I would charge forward with the ball, crashing straight into the people ahead, setting up for a hand-off behind me – with echos of “Well done that man!” behind me.

The female PE teachers were gazed at from a distance. By all the boys. I remember one in particular – Miss Foot (later Mrs Clarke) taking part in sports day one year – running in a 100 metre relay against the fifth years (the seniors). It’s the first time I had seen anybody that could really run like she could – the entire field fell silent, with whispers of “Jesus” as she ran 100 metres in about 11 seconds – pulling back a 30 metre lead given away by teachers on previous legs.

Ever since I was little, I had been obsessed with drawing things – so it was no surprise at all that I was good at art. The art teacher from the second year on was called Miss Ritson, and was probably more artist, and less teacher. I thought the world of her. She was perhaps in her mid 30s by the time she taught me, and dressed in that way that art teachers so often do – with flowing shirts, jeans, and scarves.

Art was one of the few subjects I was naturally good at – it probably still is. Even all these years later, if ever cornered into drawing anything for anybody, they wonder why I didn’t take up a career in art or design. I guess I just lost interest in it at some point. Although I went on to do art at college, I wonder if the first seeds of destruction were sewn by the popular girls in the art-class muttering behind my back when my work turned out better than theirs.

I remember one day we had to draw an old boot – a still life. At the end of the lesson the various drawings were pinned up to talk about – I think we had only been allowed to use line – no shading. One of the girls pointed at mine:

“Oh my god – look at that one – who drew that!”

“Oh. It was him.”

There was a tone. A tone I’ve still not forgotten, thirty-something years later.

I took history as an exam subject, and remember the first lesson with the “proper” history teacher – a bald man with white hair around his collar called “Mr McCollugh”. The children called him “Dungeon Master” behind his back. He talked at length about sporting events that had happened over the summer, about movies that had come out, about the various news stories in the paper recently. We thought we were getting away with doing nothing for the entire lesson – then as the bell rang, he stood up, and asked us all.

“What have we been talking about today?”

There was a murmuring around the room.

“History. We have been talking about history.”

He smiled, and we all stared at him. Some of us got it, some didn’t care, and some still had no clue. You can’t win them all, I suppose.

I remember a wonderful female teacher called Mrs Porter, that taught history, sociology, and various other subjects that commonly got wrapped up as “social studies”. One day – while starting a new topic about prejudice, and persecution – she asked us what we thought about Jews. Bit by bit, the children in the class volunteered more and more things they had been told, or learned from others – that they had big noses – black hair – wore waistcoats – just about every stereotypical prejudicial trait you might ever think of. After filling the board with everything volunteered, she looked at us all, without a hint of hurt, or reaction.

“I’m a Jew”.

That moment has stayed with me. I can remember the silence that followed, and the ring-leaders that had volunteered so many things wanting the ground to open up beneath them.

When I started at the school, the headmaster was a tall, gangly old man called Kenneth Mumford. He had an impressive moustache, and perhaps the most creased face I have ever seen. He told endless stories about visiting India to meet Mother Teresa, and banged on about bible stories whenever he lead assemblies. My only real experience of him was while queueing for PE one day – one of the boys in my class sprayed another boy in the face with deodorant – and Mr Mumford saw it happen. He immediately threatened the perpetrator with the cain (which we all thought had been banned several years previously).

Mr Mumford eventually retired, and was replaced by a very young headmaster called Jeremy Cunningham. He was very obviously a product of either Oxford or Cambridge, and it showed in everything he said, or did. He wore quite possibly the thickest glasses I’ve ever seen, and was also the most clumsy, awkward person too. To introduce himself to the school, he played an acoustic guitar in assembly and sang. It must have taken some guts, because he wasn’t very good. When he finished, he looked out at us all, sitting in rows, and said “Good morning everyone”. We obviously didn’t respond very volubly, so he repeated his greeting.

“Good MORNING everyone!”

Suddenly a single boy’s voice returned his greeting, shouting as loud and comically as possible:

“GOOD MORNING!”

There was a stunned silence, after which the gathering proceeded as-per-normal – with notices of things going on around the school, and so on. Finally the headmaster bade us farewell, and we all stood and prepared to leave.

Mr Bradley shouted at everybody to sit down again, then strode directly towards the boy that had shouted.

“STAND UP. NOW!”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more furious teacher, a more purple face, or a louder voice. We all sat with goggle eyes, unable to take our eyes off the dismantling happening right in front of us. The boy that had shouted was one of the popular kids – one of the kids that always seemed to get away with everything. Only this time he didn’t, and his stock sank like a stone. All of the formerly adoring girls watched as he burst into tears while the teacher ranted in his face – explaining to everybody that if you did anything in your life, don’t be like this guy.

Infant and Junior School

While sitting at the departure gate in Frankfurt Airport, waiting for my flight home, is occurred to me that I might release another chunk of this year’s NaNoWriMo – an autobiography of sorts. Today’s excerpt takes you through infant and junior school with me. Enjoy!

Apparently my start a infant school didn’t go well. I was pretty determined at 5 years old that I wasn’t going to be going to school, thank you very much, and my Mum would be coming to get me – which she did for the first few days – to take me home for lunch, and then back in again.

Thinking back, it must have been a bit of a nightmare – we lived well over a mile from the school, so no sooner had my Mum got home after dropping me off on a morning, she would have had to turn around, and walk back again. Obviously at some point I realised there was far too much walking back and forth involved, and decided that staying at school would be far easier – mostly for me.

The school I attended was one of four in the town – and perhaps the biggest. After entering through the main gates, you would walk through the junior school playground, and on towards the infant buildings on the far side. Most of the early years classrooms were built in the 1960s along the edge of a tarmac playground lined – which doubled as a netball court – with telegraph pole benches around it’s perimeter. Rather mysteriously, there were climbing frames on the school field alongside that we were never allowed to touch. It was very frustrating.

My first teacher was a bubbly lady by the name of Mrs Hollenberg. I don’t remember her face – just her mass of curly red-brown hair, and the huge flowery dresses she wore. I also remember her cutting letters of the alphabet from pages of broad-sheet newspapers, and pinning them to the walls of the classroom.

A little way through my first year of infant school, it became obvious why Mrs Hollenberg wore the giant flowery dresses – she was rather heavily pregnant. We arrived in class one day to discover she had been replaced by a tall, young, elegant, and looking back, beautiful lady with jet black hair called Mrs Ellis.

Until Mrs Ellis had a car crash.

I remember our teacher changing again – to a Mrs Komenick, who all the parents at the school gate adored, and I can remember Mrs Ellis returning to work some weeks later. We were to be careful of brushing against her legs on account of her injuries. She and another teacher – Mrs Woodcock – had been in the car, and both of them seriously injured. Of course none of this was communicated on to us at the time – we found out years later.

My only real memory of Mrs Ellis is that she was quite strict. This may have had quit a lot to do with my propensity to daydream. I was good at daydreaming – I still am. Where most people have distracting thoughts, I seem to have an entire theatre of the mind going on – playing out scenes that haven’t happened and probably never will happen in their entirety.

I suppose there is one other memory – but I’m not sure if it’s to do with my teacher’s injuries, or a very early sense of “I shouldn’t be doing this”. During story time one day, while a group of us sat on a rug to listen to Mrs Ellis read from a story book in that upside down fashion that teachers are so good at, she needed to get up and fetch something – so strode over the top of us all, picking her way through the gaps between us, her skirt billowing as she did so. Myself and a friend looked up as she passed overhead – on purpose. Here’s the funny thing – I have absolutely no memory of what we saw, but I do remember looking at my friend wide-eyed as we sat cross-legged, and giggling at our own bravery and/or stupidity.

You’ll be glad to know that was my only such brush with such goings on – I didn’t progress to dropping things underneath girls skirts, or playing kiss chase on the field at lunchtimes in the summer.

Each day – after arriving at school, we would gather in the school hall, sitting cross-legged on the herring bone patterned wooden flooring, and listen to the headmaster as he made announcements, and probably picked something witty or interesting to say from a book of witty and interesting things to say for headmasters. He was a frightening man if you were five years old – perhaps sixty-something years old, always in an immaculate suit, slicked back hair, and a tiny moustache. Kind of a more friendly version of Hitler, I suppose. He drove a lumbering Jaguar to school – the kind you sometimes see criminals drive in 1950s movies starring Lesley Phillips and Terry Thomas.

What we didn’t know about W.R.Tull (that was his name) was that he had been a Lancaster bomber navigator during the second world war. We found this out when my brother took a model aircraft he had been building into school, and was accosted by Mr Tull while showing it to his friends. A sea of children gathered around him as he told stories about ditching in the sea, and floating on the waves in inflatable boats until help arrived. He pointed out the panel on the side of the plane where the boat was stored, and we all listened in stunned (and frightened) silence.

Getting back to the school hall, if you had achieved anything of note during the school day, you would be invited to stand at the front and receive the congratulations of the rest of the school – every day names were read out, and certificates handed out by the headmaster, one at a time, to thunderous applause. He read out the names from a lectern at the side of the stage area.

I got to stand on the stage perhaps four or five times during my time at junior school – for various smimming certificates, and to act out a parable from the bible with the rest of my class.

Our school had a swimming pool! How could I forget that! For such a small school (there were perhaps three hundred pupils across years one to six) to have a swimming pool was unusual to say the least – it had been paid for by fundraising by parents over several years, and the school was very, very proud of it.

The pool was in an unheated out-building, on the edge of the school field. It was ten metres long, by five metres wide, and about as deep as an adult’s hips (not very deep at all). The walls were painted white, with a mural running all the way around with under-sea scenes – octopi, fish, coral reefs, and even Poseidon, if memory serves. The boys and girls changing rooms were communal (we were only five, remember) – although there was a half-height dividing wall between the benches where the girls and boys would get changed. If we stood on the benches to look over at the girls getting changed, the instant screams would alert teachers, and we would find ourselves in all sorts of trouble.

It’s funny how punishments form such a big part of your memory of your early school years – even if you rarely found yourself in trouble. At my school if you did anything ridiculous at break-time or lunchtime, you would find yourself “in the middle”. This referred to a small circle painted in the centre of the playground, that was kind of the real-world equivalent of the phantom zone that General Zod got confined to in Superman. You had to stand in the circle for the rest of playtime, and a teacher would deal with you afterwards. Nobody was allowed to talk to anybody standing “in the middle”, and if you were “in the middle”, you were not allowed to talk to anybody else. To be honest, it was incredibly rare that anybody ended up standing in the imaginary purgatory – I only did once, as far as I can remember – for squirting a dinner-lady with a fake flower ring filled with water. I thought I was tremendously funny until I saw her reaction. I can’t imagine how the teacher kept a straight face while telling me how disappointed she was in my behaviour.

Perhaps the most humorous “in the middle” episode happened a couple of years later – when I was in the juniors. At the end of playtime, all of the children would form into class lines at the edges of the playground, ready to be walked back into class by our teachers. This of course left anybody standing in the middle doing exactly that – standing in the middle – waiting for a member of staff to approach, question, and express their disappointment. There was this one time though, when the boy standing in the middle decided he had had enough of it all – and rather than listen to the aerated teacher rant at him (he was a well known lunatic of a child), he turned and ran. I can still see the teacher racing off after him across the playground, and catching him after a few strides – lifting him with huge hands around his upper arms, and his legs still running in midair as he was marched – still running – towards the head-master’s office. Shocked and stunned whispers murmured all around the playground for quite some time before we all began filing in for afternoon lessons.

That same little boy died in a car crash years later. He passed his driving test, and days later killed himself, and very nearly killed his friends while driving like a lunatic. I’ve often wondered if he might have been an example of nature versus nurture. His parents were lovely, and his brother was lovely – he became one of my best friends – but his little brother was an absolute lunatic, and everybody knew it.

Another memory of infant school was the school tuck-shop. At the beginning of break-time each day, you were allowed to venture to the adjoining junior-school playground, and visit their tuck-shop, that sold packets of crisps (invariably the cheapest crisps available from whichever retailer), and foil-wrapped cookies called “Mojo”s. Each item only cost a few pence, and the shop was run by students, who took turns to be shop-keeper for the day – I’ll get back to this later. I can still remember the day – at about six years old – when Sarah Bates arrived back in our classroom during a wet playtime, in floods of tears. The crisps had gone up in price by 1 pence, meaning she didn’t have enough money to buy any. It took her quite some time to calm down enough to tell the teacher what had happened.

The junior school that you walked through to reach the infant school was built in the post war years, and very much resembled a collection of military buildings – long, thin sheds subdivided into classrooms, with high windows – preventing children from seeing out to the playground. The buildings bordered the playground on adjacent sides, and were later partnered by a hall, and further classrooms in the 1960s.

The classrooms were warm in the summer, and cold in winter – heated by post war plumbing that rarely worked – huge cast-iron radiators lined the walls, and would break your kneecaps if you caught them while walking past.

Between the classrooms, long tiled corridors led out to the playground, and to the boys and girls bathrooms. The corridors were lined with benches, and coat hooks – usually festooned with hundreds of coats, scarves, gloves, and hats. We were supposed to have an assigned peg in the hallway, but one or two children would entirely disregard that plan.

My first teacher in junior school was called Mr Hannant. He was charming, funny, and a favourite with all the mums at the school gates. He was fairly short, stocky, sported an impressive moustache, and neat mop of black hair. He decorated his classroom with various shapes made from cut and folded paper – octohedrons, decahedrons, dodecahedrons, and so on. Looking back, it must have taken him hours to make them all.

Mr Hannant would sit on his desk to tell stories for the last half-hour of each day – swinging his legs as he read. I remember him reading 101 Dalmations one term, and use all becoming swept up in the story – breathlessly telling our parents about each day’s adventure after the bell rang.

At the end of each day, the teachers would walk their class out to the school gates, where parents waited for their arrival. For many of the parents, those few minutes were their only chance of social interaction during the week – and boy did they take advantage of it. Every afternoon you would find endless children hanging from their Mum or Dad’s sleeve, asking if they were going home yet.

“Soon”.

Mr Hannant inspired all sorts of wonder in us at 7 years old. In the school hall there were a number of pieces of gymnastics apparatus that could be wheeled along tracks in the ceiling for PE lessons – I can still remember watching him climb a rope hand-over-hand – that single act lifted him up alongside Superman.

‘Outside of school, Mr Hannant also presented the early morning show on the local radio station. One of our school trips took us to visit the station, and meet the various presenters. A new presenter that had just started at the station gave us all a photo of him jumping off the roof – his name was Timmy Mallet, and he would go on to become a stalwart of children’s television years later. He now lives about ten miles from me – it’s funny how life works out.

The only time we spent apart from our teacher at Junior school was to go and sing in the school choir. You had two choices with regard to the school choir – you either went to choir, or you went to choir. Not really much of a choice then. Looking back, your time with the music teacher was a chance for the other teachers to go and get a coffee, and a break from their class for a few minutes – except Mr Hannant invariably joined us in the hall to sing along with us all.

The Music Teacher was a stalwart of music hall theatre called Mrs Coates. It seemed she had starred on the stage at some point earlier in her career, and was somehow bitter about now teaching music to children who either could not, or would not sing to a level she was happy with. She had long dark hair, and enormous breasts. Even at 7 years old I knew she had enormous breasts, and it’s not something I typically notice. She would bark at us all to “Sit up straight, smile, and sound your esses!”, while playing the upright piano in the corner of the hall like a demented machine gunner.

Along with Mrs Coates, and Mr Hannant, we learned to sing all manner of songs that generations of school children before us had also learned – standards, ballads, and unfortunately a number of church prescribed songs trumpeting God’s might, and how our soldiers would go to war and defeat everybody who questioned him – all in the name of God. Those songs were eventually banned.

I followed my brother through the junior school – he was three years ahead of me, meaning that we crossed paths for one year. I still remember the day I had forgotten my PE kit, so had to visit his classroom and ask if I might borrow his. I arrived at his teacher’s desk – an imposing tyrant called Mr Lock – and only then noticed that not only my trousers on inside out, they were also on backwards. Thankfully Mr Lock said nothing.

As far as I recall, we did PE in our underwear if indoors – which would probably get schools shut down these days. The hall would be transformed into a gymnasium, with ropes, rings, a trapese, a vaulting horse, and all manner of crash mats. I remember being envious of the children that could climb the ropes up to the ceiling – I was hopeless at it.

The hall was also used for “Country Dancing” – a regular activity where guided dances were dictated from a tape player on a trolley – calling out rote moves over and over again. Although we all said we hated it, we secretly enjoyed it, and always put in as much effort as possible. I can still remember a sequence of steps called a “do-se-do” to this day.

What else do I remember about my time at Junior school? Oh yes – the desks! The desks were wooden, and half of the surface folded, to expose a storage drawer underneath. The drawer under my desk typically contained a few books, my handwriting pen (which had to be earned), and a star wars figure. Most children had a toy car, or some other small thing. The desks all had an ink-well in the far corner too – a throwback from an earlier time. Thankfully by the time I went to school, pencils and rollerball pens had become the norm. It’s worth noting that we were not allowed to use biros – only school issued “handwriting pens”.

My Mum kept many of my school exercise books, and gave them to me when I moved away from home. They are pretty entertaining. One book is titled “Weekend News”, with room on each page for a picture, and a sentence of writing. Almost every weekend is filled with a total and utter work of fiction – telling stories of things that almost certainly never happened. One page in particular is telling though – a very detailed account of watching a Godzilla movie on TV, with a spectacular scene drawn above. The school project work books didn’t always translate facts accurately either – according to me, the Lancaster Bomber had a range of about five miles. That’s going to be quite limiting, isn’t it – only being able to bomb the enemy when they get within eye poking distance…

My memories of Junior school are almost all positive. I moved from Mr Hannant to Miss Hughes, Mr Lock, and then Miss Edge before leaving for secondary school. I remember some days with particular affection – like the day Miss Hughes wheeled the school television into the classroom for us all to watch the first launch of the Space Shuttle – or the day Mrs Ellis returned to teach us for one day – or the times Miss Edge read us fantastical stories while perched on the benches at the end of her classroom.

Miss Edge was a newly qualified student teacher, who taught me during my final year of junior school. She drove a Citroen 2CV, which she parked at the end of the school playground. She had a shock of red frizzy hair, was slender in build, and typically wore flowing dresses covered in Laura Ashley flower patterns. She may as well have been called “Mrs Lovely”. A favourite memory is of her inventing math questions involving numbers of kangaroo burgers, or other such made-up foods.

Only recently I discovered that Mr Lock and Miss Edge eventually got married. This kind of stunned me, because you couldn’t imagine two people more different than each other. Mr Lock was a tall, imposing, frightening teacher. He terrified my brother, and caused a visit by my parents to visit the headmaster about his teaching methods (fear, intimidation, and cruelty, if my brother was to be believed). Here’s the thing though – my brother is the only person I’ve ever heard tell such stories about him.

I met Mr Lock years later, driving the bus to college. He smiled, but didn’t say anything. I often wonder why he left teaching, and became a bus driver – was my brother right? Or had he finally had enough of pulling crayons from children’s noses ?

Throughout junior school my best friends were Jamie Blackwell, and Claire Goodman. Both Jamie and Claire were the children of local police officers – it may surprise you to learn that this only just occurred to me. Claire lived across the road from me, and had a little sister called Anna. She insisted her real name was “Fred”, but her own family all called her “Sid”. I’ve never actually questioned why, or even thought to question why – I guess when you’re young you just take information on-board without really questioning it.

At the end of junior school, Claire went to a different secondary school than me, so we almost became strangers overnight – it’s funny how that happens. Where we had spent countless evenings and summers in each other’s company, suddenly we were reduced to occasional waves if we left the house at the same time as each other. Our favourite dinner lady on the school playground called us “you lovebirds” on more than one occasion – causing burning red faces, and more than a few awkward moments.

Dinner ladies. Who remembers the ladies that watched over the playground at lunchtime? In the world I grew up in, dinner ladies came out of some kind of “dinner lady mold” – complete with a large wool coat, sheep skin lined boots, and a small upset child attached to at least one hand as they wandered through the sea of children like a first world war battleship. They always seemed to be sturdy, yet softly spoken women of a certain age – sometimes sporting the type of battleship hairdo I had only previously seen at the bingo hall. My favourite dinner lady was called “Mrs Daily” (or Daley – I’m not sure of the spelling). She always had a kind word, and would seemingly spot trouble entire minutes before it actually occurred. Her hair was always pulled up into a bun, with a long fringe swept neatly to one side with hair-grips. She always wore a quilted three-quarter length coat, and huge mittens – at least in my memory.

I don’t really remember my last day at junior school – or infant school for that matter. I’m not really sure why. All I do remember is the tremendous excitement felt throughout the class when the summer holidays approached. I also remember my year six teacher crying on the last day as she said goodbye to us all.

9 Davis Close

I took part in NaNoWriMo this year, and set about recording a slew of memories from my early life. This is a small excerpt. Enjoy!

When I was five years old we moved to a much bigger house on the other side of town. Suddenly I had my own bedroom, a new garden to explore, and new friends to make that lived nearby. To begin with we couldn’t afford much – I remember sleeping for some time on a mattress on bare floorboards. When carpet did finally arrive, it was the late 1970s carpet so many people had – a synthetic off-yellow foam packed carpet that could generate real lightning bolts if you slid your socks on it fast enough.

The kitchen was lined with “G-Plan” units, surrounding a pine dinner table – my Mum’s first major purchase in the new house, and her pride and joy. I still can’t imagine her horror when one of my brother’s friends pulled a model knife across the table while building an Airfix model kit, a few days after it’s delivery. Years later we discovered she had shut herself in the toilet and cried.

Here’s the thing about my parents – about twenty years ago now they retired early – and moved to the coast (I’ll tell the story elsewhere), and people started making snap judgements I guess – that they were wealthy enough to do that – that they had always been that wealthy – and they could not be further from the truth.

If I get anything from my parents, it’s my work ethic, and the value of everything – even the smallest things. As mentioned – I had no carpet on my bedroom floor for quite some time – neither did the rest of the house. The house got furnished bit-by-bit as things could be afforded, and by golly those things were looked after. My Mum stopped working when we were young, so she cooked, cleaned (our house, and our grandparents house), did the grocery shopping, and walked us to and from school every day. I can still remember the excitement of the first new television we had – of it having a remote control, and teletext.

I had only ever known teletext at my Grandparents house. My Dad’s Dad was a life-long gadget freak – from the hilarious frankenstein three-phase switch he had installed on the cooker in the kitchen one day (Nan never let him forget it), to the calculator watch he proudly showed everybody in later years – that he had no idea how to use. Teletext was magic though – you could key a number into the television, and after a few minutes wait, a page of text would appear. Most people used it for TV listings, or the weather forecast – I used it to read jokes. Looking back, it was hilariously slow and convoluted, but in was the closest we would get to an internet-like experience for at least another ten years.

The house at Burswin Road had been a bungalow – sold to my parents by my Uncle when his marriage failed, and he ran away to sea in the merchant navy to find himself. The new house had an upstairs. This was huge – because – stairs! I can’t begin to count the number of times myself and my brother were told off for running up and down the stairs, skidding down the stairs, jumping down the stairs, and so on. If it involved any amount of daring, or stupidity, we probably put each other up to it. Stairs aren’t without their dangers though – many years later my Dad was stumbling around in the dark early one morning, when he fell down the stairs – putting a foot through the banister half-way down, and trapping himself, upside down, battered and bruised, and furious. We thought the house was falling down – or that there was an earthquake. Then we heard a quiet call from my Mum as she rushed from their bedroom;

“Dave? Are you alright?”

She turned the landing light on, and saw him, upside down, holding his trapped leg, with his eyes tightly shut;

“WHAT THE FUCKING HELL DO YOU THINK!”, he shouted at the top of his voice.

I’m still not sure how we didn’t laugh.

At five years old the garden at the new house seemed to go on for miles – I remember digging around in what had once been a rockery at the far end, and finding the remains of a dog from many years before – I proudly took the skull into the kitchen to show Mum, and was shouted at pretty spectacularly.

Our golden retriever, “Ben”, thought the garden was fantastic, and wasted no time in dumping spectacularly all over it. I think one of my first chores at the new house was walking around the garden with a refuse sack, and a shovel. Not fun – particularly in the summer, when you had to fight the flies to retrieve what the dog had proudly left for you.

After a few days we began to discover the next door neighbours. The house was in the bottom of a cul-de-sac, so was surrounded by other family homes. To our immediate right lived a dinner lady I had known from infant school – Mrs Ruddock. She had a son and daughter who were older than us – I inherited her son’s collection of “Look-In” magazines – an early weekly teen magazine filled with stories about the pop-stars of the day. I seem to remember a recurring photo comic-strip about somebody becoming best friends with Limahl from Kajagoogoo, and having all sorts of innocent adventures with him. I also inherited an accoustic guitar, which I never did learn to play properly.

To the left side of the house, an old scottish woman lived on her own. She was feared by all of the children in the neighbourhood – mostly because the footpath outside her house had a slight incline up to a grassy area that swept behind the row of houses. We always referred to the area at the top of that footpath as “on the hill”, even though the grass was only a few feet higher than the road.

The inclined section of footpath was of course a natural ramp – and we are talking about 1979. BMX bikes hadn’t arrived yet, but all the bike designs were headed that way. As children came hurtling along the footpath towards “The Hill”, with hopes of a spectacular Evil-Kinevil style stunt, the old scottish woman would either bash on her window, or come dashing from the house, shouting at you all to go away.

One day years later, the council put railings on the footpath ramp, stopping all the fun. I was old enough by then not to care very much, but the younger children in the street thought their world had come to an end (well – those not small enough to carry on hurtling under the railings without taking any notice of them).

My brother and I got BMX bikes in about 1983. Apparently I came down from my bedroom on Christmas morning and walked straight past my new bike in the hallway. My grandparents were staying with us over Christmas, and asked me to go look in the hallway – I walked back through, straight past it for a second time, and my Granddad laughed in that long “hahaaaaa” way he had of laughing.

We treated those bikes like they were made of gold. For my brother, the BMW was a tremendous upgrade – he had previously had a Raleigh Grifter – a bike that seemed to be made from leftover parts from a construction site. You know when you see a motorbike rider struggling to pick a bike up after falling off it? The grifter was like that – made from lead pipe and angle-iron probably. If you had run into a brick wall with it, there was every chance you would have been fine, and the wall would have disintegrated on impact. That didn’t stop my brother from trying to jump the grifter on “the hill” though.

I can still remember his final attempt. The Grifter was equipped with Sturmey Archer drum gears – operated from a lever on the handlebars. This meant it could reach pretty death defying speeds. Unfortunately drum gears tended to also incorporate an accidental “slip gear”, where all resistance was removed from the pedals without warning – removing the rider’s ability to have children at a moment’s notice. And that’s almost what happened to my brother. Just as he reached perhaps thirty miles an hour (not bad going for a 9 year old) on his two ton bike, immediately outside our house – with yards left until the base of “the hill”, the bike went into slip gear. I can still see him sliding along the footpath in his nylon running shorts, everybody stopping in a stunned silence, and then him getting up, dancing about a bit while beginning to cry, and then running indoors.

He didn’t come out, but we heard him. Other kids in the neighbourhood knocked on our door to see if he was ok – when in reality all they really wanted to see was how gruesome it really was. He had to wear shorts for WEEKS.

Davis Close provided a wonderful childhood. Apart from the odd strange neighbour (I’m sure every street has them), we lucked into moving in during a time when lots of children of similar ages also lived in the street – and as children do, we made friends immediately. Their was Claire, and Anna, the daughters of the local policeman that lived opposide. There was the very friendly (later discovered very homosexual) man that lived next door to them, the scottish couple (everybody called her Aggie, but I don’t think it was her real name) and her quiet husband, then “The Pinks”. I think they moved to England in the 1950s along with lots of other immigrants from Africa, Asia, India, and the Carribean – they had a beautiful daughter that turned heads when she walked home from work called “Monique”. Further along the road lived “The Seaths” – a family from Wales – the Dad became the manager of the local newspaper shop, and his daughters firm friends of my brother and I. At the far end of the street a little Irish man called Sean always seemed to be working on his garden. I think this was a ruse – to trap people in conversation as they wandered past. If you got caught by Sean, you were there for quite some time. His wife Cynthia would either excuse herself from conversations before they got started, or interrupt him to allow your escape – a co-conspirator of sorts, that he had no idea about.

Like I said – we were lucky. Lucky to have such wonderful friends and neighbours. We were probably shaped far more than we ever realised by the friendships, games, and idiotic scrapes we got into. It’s interesting – looking on Google Street View – to see the old house, and wonder how many more children have grown up in the houses on that street – and if they still all play in the road together on an evening after school. Somehow, with the advent of computers, and the internet, I doubt it.

I think we saw the beginning of that happening with the family that lived on the end. The Dad was a salesman for some sort of engineering company, and the Mum was a nurse. They had a pretty daughter called Julie that was really a bit too proud of her body for her Mum’s liking, and a son called Andrew that we rarely saw. Actually – scratch that – from the point Andrew was perhaps seven or eight, we didn’t see him for perhaps five or six years. Eight bit computers arrived just in time to capture his imagination. For all I know, he’s a dot com millionaire now.

I lived at Davis Close with my parents until my mid-twenties. During those latter years I really lost touch with everybody in the street, because the only times I saw anybody was while going to work, coming home from work, or heading out for a night out. Sean would still stop me in the street to say hello, but beyond that, the only people I really knew were the next door neighbours.

Mrs Ruddock moved away when I was perhaps eleven years old – I seem to remember conversations between my parents about the company her husband worked for going broke, I really have no idea though. Mr and Mrs Griffiths replaced them – she was a supply teacher at the secondary school, and he was a high ranking officer in the Royal Air Force. They had two children – a boy called Paul, and a girl called Hannah, who we became friends with immediately. Paul was a few years younger, but age doesn’t make much difference before you become a teenager – not in my experience anyway.

I don’t want this trip down memory lane to become an essay filled with foaming invective about elitism and snobbishness – but I will say that as soon as Paul was about nine years old he was packed off to boarding school. When he returned the next summer, he was a very different person – no longer mixing with any of us. I suppose it was my first experience of any sort of class system, and I didn’t like it one bit.

One day – while home from school at lunchtime – there was a knock on the door, and Mrs Griffiths stood in our doorway, asking for me. I rushed to the door – wondering what on earth I might have done wrong (a natural reaction to anybody asking for me – even now) – and discovered that she had locked herself out of her house, and could I break in through the open upstairs bedroom window above the flat roof for her ?

A few minutes later, after pretending I was some sort of cat-burglar, I let her back into her own house, and was given a hug for my troubles. I can’t tell you how many shades of crimson I probably turned. I also realised that day that any ideas of a career as a cat burglar were gone – although I pretended I was brave while stood on her roof, my knees were shaking so badly I thought I might collapse.

Can you even imagine the insurance claim – “I broke my arm after the eleven year old boy that was breaking into my bedroom fell off the roof and kicked me”.

The Griffiths family eventually moved – I think Mr Griffiths was posted to a different area of the country with the Air Force – it had happened to a lot of my friends over the years.

They were eventually replaced by the Knight family – she was something to do with every social group imaginable at the air base, and he was an ex-fighter pilot, now teaching pilots to fly VC-10s. They had children too – younger than my brother and I, but pleasant enough. For several years I thought the son incredibly funny because he picked up his father’s RAF radio voice, and spoke incredibly correctly. All of this reverse-snobbishness flew out of the window when he took my flying one day (part of an effort to get his flying hours up), and I found out just how useful a perfect, clipped RAF English accent was when communicating on the radio. My entire view of him changed – seeing the usually distracted, daydreaming boy from next door become a thoroughly professional pilot.

Occasionally, while cutting the grass in the back garden, stories would be told about past adventures. Mr Knight had been scrambled on Christmas morning one year during the tail-end of the cold war. He had flown Phantoms – racing out over the north sea to turn Russian bombers around.

I can’t imagine what that must be like for forces families at the sharp end – knowing that each day an exercise might be the real thing – and that somebody might not come home.

The Knights were our next-door neighbours right up until our house was sold in 2000. And therein lies a story – but I’ll tell you about Mr Mays first.

When we moved into the street when I was young – as mentioned earlier – there was an old scottish woman that lived next door. I don’t remember if she moved away, died, or moved into a home – but eventually she was replaced by an engineer that had retired from London. His name was Mr Mays, and he lived alone with his dog “Bob”, a black labrador, and a sister that regularly visited in a muddy estate car.

Years later we discovered that Mr Mays moved away from the city because he saw so many of his co-workers retire, and sink into a life of pubs, beer, and not much else. He was determined that wasn’t going to happen to him, so bought a house in a small town in the Cotswolds, and left everything he had known behind.

We heard banging and crashing in his garage for years. Literally years – and always wondered what he was doing. And then one day a locomotive train appeared on his driveway. It had taken something in the region of five years, and he had scratch-built it in his garage. For the remaining years we lived there, he toured the nearby counties – towing children on railway tracks for fun.

I looked him up last year on the internet, and discovered he was still alive and well, and the president of an esteemed fellowship of master engineers in Oxford – he had only stood down a year or two previously. I read the article, and wished I had known him better – wished I had taken the time to get to know him. I bet he had amazing stories to tell.