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Curling stones and scout huts

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Sometimes, something you watch on television triggers a latent memory; curling stones, a gang hut and Tommy Green’s Scout Hut. It all came back to me as I watched the brilliant and informative television programme “Great British Train Journeys” in which Michael Portillo follows the train routes described in a Victorian travel book called Bradshaw’s Guide. During one episode Portillo travels through Ayrshire and, during the journey, visits a company called Kay’s of Scotland in the village of Mauchline. They craft curling stones from Ailsa Craig granite. It is the curling stones that trigger the memory.

As I watch a lump of granite being transformed into a highly polished stone my mind drifts to the late 1950s. A particular summer holiday, when our gang had chosen Melville Woods as the location for our sphere of activities. Activities that usually meant that we could not return to the previous years haunt.

Most mornings that summer, we would walk past Bonnyrigg Golf Club clubhouse, located at the end of the appropriately named Golf Course Road. Then we would furtively cross the fairways to reach the road that bisected the course. If there were golfers around we would amuse ourselves by hiding behind the walls that separated this road from the course, loudly shout “Fore!” and watch the golfers duck or scuff their drives. Followed by the angry shouts of the annoyed golfers we would run to the end of the road, cross Melville Dykes Road and climb over the wall into the fields that lay sprawled above the woods. Just over the wall there was a strange tip of spoils; soil and rocks from some unknown excavation. Strangely, amongst this heap there were fossils, rocks with the imprint of bark or plant fronds. Some were small and could be taken home to show our parents, others were too large to move.

The fields sloped down to the edge of the woods which was where we located our gang hut, a shelter of sorts, among the trees and undergrowth, hidden from prying eyes and hopefully the estate gamekeeper. As we explored our new domain we discovered, at the bottom of the wooded slope, a rectangular pond, the estate curling pond. Each winter, before the decline of the great country houses, the residents of Melville Castle would have skimmed curling stones across the ice, with servants, in clouds of breath, frantically brushing the ice in front of the stones. But we didn’t skim the curling stones, we rolled them.

Near the curling pond, there was the ruin of a shed. This was where the curling stones and other equipment had been, and still were, stored. Abandoned. To amuse ourselves we would carry the heavy curling stones up through the woods, then set them rolling down the steep incline, crashing noisily through the undergrowth, bouncing from tree to tree with dull thuds, to finally to enter the pond with an almighty splash.

A few years later, as a Boy Scout, and marginally a more responsible person, I would stand at the edge of the curling pond and wonder at the piles of curling stones that must have littered the bottom of the pool. It was now the early 60s and the flat area at the side of the pond was to be the site of Tommy Green’s dream. Tommy was our Scout Master, and his dream was to build an adventure centre in the woods. An ambitious project, the hut was to be constructed with brick walls and traditional pitched roof.

My only recall of this time was how some of us were sent to Rosewell, where Tommy had sourced, scrounged to be exact, bricks. A farmer, probably the same farmer who would transport us to scout camps in a cattle truck, provided a tractor and trailer to collect the bricks. We travelled to Rosewell sat, bouncing about in the trailer, then loaded the bricks, and sat, uncomfortably, on top of the pile, all the way back. Every jolt and bump driving the sharp edges of the bricks into our arses, the pain imprinted on our minds.

Sadly, the building didn’t go beyond the foundations and a few courses of bricks. Tommy Green’s ambitious dream had faded away. But the foundations will still be there, which along with the fossils in the nearby tip will baffle future archaeologists and historians.

Africa is where the heart is.

image A picture of one drowned child had brought home the human tragedy of the migration of Syrians and other people escaping from war and political persecution. For whatever reason of the human psyche, the working of our minds, it has somehow distressed us more than the news of 70 migrants suffocated in a sealed truck or 300 victims of people traffickers drowned in the Mediterranean. One child. But the solutions are not simple.

Driving test examiners have stock questions that they ask the pupil that they are testing to give the impression that they, the examiners, are human beings. During his test the examiner asked my pupil Yohannes “Well, Yohannes, what would you be doing if you weren’t on this test?” “I would be working” replies Yohannes. “So, Yohannes, what do you do for a living?” Continues the examiner. “I am a cleaner.” Yohannes replies. “That’s interesting,” as if it is, says the examiner flinching as Yohannes, distracted by this pointless conversation gambit narrowly misses a parked car.

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Yohannes. Mathematician, teacher and ………cleaner.

I’m in the back of the car, a comfort blanket for Yohannes, listening to this exchange between the examiner and my pupil. I smile to myself; Yohannes may be a humble cleaner, here in the UK, but I know that in another life, in his own country of Eritrea, he was a teacher of maths and science. I discovered this during a discussion about tyre pressures and how you should check the pressures when the tyres are cold. I had no idea why, just that you should. But Yohannes knew why and proceeded to explain about molecules and stuff that flew over my head. I asked him why he didn’t take up teaching in Britain. He told me that he felt his command of English wasn’t good enough and that he couldn’t afford to stop work to improve his English or train to teach here. His sole priority is ensuring his children have a future, and to that end he will sacrifice his.

Unlike many commentators, through my work as a driving instructor, I meet many immigrants, get to know them personally. I have enjoyed their hospitality, shared meals with them in their homes, listened to sad, heartbreaking stories. Yonas a farmer, Yohannes a maths teacher, Yohan an aero engineer, Roben university lecturer and author, Bisrat a mechanical engineer. This is a small cross section of the Africans; Ethiopians, Eritreans, Zimbabweans and Nigerians that I teach to drive. They are all intelligent, educated people, but here in the UK they are all employed in warehouses, factories and kitchens. A shocking waste of talent here and a tragic loss for Africa.

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Luwam.

Another of my pupils, Luwam, a lovely Ethiopian mother of two children, said to me, “this is not my country, it is painful, too painful. I miss my country, my home.” But, like Yohannes she is resigned to accepting her lot to ensure a future for her children. This longing for their homeland is a common emotion amongst the immigrants I know.

I have listened to well off politicians, celebrities and actors, living isolated in the leafy suburbs of London, their children at nice schools, suggesting we accept thousands of immigrants, distribute them around the country. Ten families to each town has been suggested. A news reporter then interviewed a local resident of Wolverhampton who pointed out that ten families in her neighbourhood will mean less housing opportunities for her son or daughter, additional pressure for school places for her grandchildren and longer queues in her doctors surgery. I totally agree with the noble sentiments expressed by the politicians, luvvies and celebrities as they compete to wave their compassion credentials. But, but, I also share the constituent’s fears. An ordinary person, her life style was closer to mine; my life, my problems. After all, it is not so long ago, during the election campaign, that we were told that the NHS was in the grip of catastrophic crisis, there was a massive housing shortage and millions were queuing at food banks. An exaggeration, I suspect but nevertheless, there are problems here and now. So, while we must do something to help the migrants it must be planned, considered and pragmatic.

One of my father’s pithy pearls of wisdom was that ‘problems only require solutions’. The only real solution is to fix Africa: almost an insurmountable problem. After the Iraq debacle it is obvious that the migration crisis will not be sorted if we persist in trying to foist our political, cultural and social systems on the Africans. The long term solutions, lie in Africa, as for many Africans, like Luwam, home is where the heart is.

Breaking bad news

imageI have just finished watching the box set of Breaking Bad. If you haven’t seen it, watch it, it’s brilliant.
Over the weeks of watching two, sometimes three episodes a night, I have noticed a change in my attitude when answering nuisance phone calls. I metamorphose into Walt White, the main character. “What part of “I am not interested in your solar heating panels” do you not comprehend?” I say in a voice laden with menace or “I would rather stick pins in my eyes than use your product.” before cutting off the follow up attempt to keep me talking.
This behaviour reminded me of an incident, many years ago. Overdosed on business technique seminars and sales training I tackled an electrician who had failed to provide my company with a quotation. As recommended, trained to be assertive, I stood at my desk as I waited for the phone to be answered, looking across the car park.
“Hello.” a faint female voice.
“Whom am I speaking to.” Find out the person’s name, use it when you talk to them.
“Margaret.”
“May I call you Margaret?”
“Yes.”
“Now listen, Margaret ………..”
I complained about that George promised to meet the deadline, my disappointment that he hadn’t, the problem he had caused us, how we may lose the contact because of his incompetence…. blah, blah, blah…
I paused my tirade, to take a breath, reload with more verbal ammunition. Boy, was I assertive.
“Mr Wilson.” A sob.
“Yes, Margaret,”
“George, he’s …sob.”
“He’s what, Margaret?” Impatient, assertive voice.
“He’s….dead.”

Fuck……

“He died, on Thursday.”

Fuck……….
Slumped over my desk, heavy with guilt I offered my condolence,  waiting for the floor to open up and swallow me up.

“¡I not know you speak Swedish!”

My learner, Jovi, a Filipino, arrived back from his driving test scuffing the kerb, then managed to pull up so far from the pavement that a drawbridge would have been useful. I waited, watching through the windscreen as Jovi sat impassively while the examiner reeled off his faults and told him he had failed.
“Ee cooodn’t ooonderstand a werd ‘e sed!” said the examiner in his Yorkshire accent as he eased himself out of the car. “Wors ‘e frum?”
“The Philippines.” I informed him.
” Bloooody ‘ell!” He rolled his eyes.
I opened the car door and sat in the passenger seat recently warmed by the examiner. “Well Jovi what went wrong?” I asked.
“I no oonerstan’ wot he say me!”
“But you understand me, Jovi?”
“You talk different, I oonerstan’ you!”
I resisted the urge to head butt the dashboard. I might have activated the passenger airbag.

Over the last five years as a Driving Instructor I have taught people from all over the globe. Many have an excellent command of English but most have, to varying degrees, a very loose grasp. Having never learned a foreign language, I admire these migrants who sometimes can speak two or three tongues, besides their own. Apart from struggling to master English, they have to contend, as Jovi did, with the various regional accents; he was accustomed to my mild Scottish lilt, not the examiner’s flat Yorkshire accent.

Famously, the English referee Mark Clattenburg fell foul, so to speak, of this accent problem. During a match between Chelsea and Manchester United in 2012, Ramires one of the Chelsea players claimed that Clattenburg had called a fellow player, Mikel, a monkey. The Society of Black Lawyers made an official complaint and set in train an eleven month investigation. It turned out that Ramires and Mikel had a minimal command of English at best and in the cacophony of the stadium he misheard Clattenberg who is from County Durham. A Newcastle or Geordie accent, to the untrained ear, is almost a foreign language in itself; English fed through a mincer. Laughably, the Society of Black Lawyers, despite their professional calling, totally ignored the fundamental evidence and pursued the the racial discrimination investigation with an excited vengeance until common sense prevailed and the investigation by the FA and the Metropolitan Police was dropped.

All this brought to mind an experience of language and accent difficulties I experienced during my time in Spain. For a while, I worked with a Spanish builder called Jaime or, as he was known in the British community, Jimmy; his main line of work, villa renovation and swimming pool installation. He introduced me to his unsuspecting clients as his Architecto. In Spain, like the far edge of the Wild West, you could claim to be anything or anybody, so Jimmy simply elevated me from Interior Designer to Architect. I didn’t disabuse any of his clients of this minor deception.

imagePopular and colourful in equal measures, Jimmy, as a result of living for many years in the UK, spoke faultless English. His son, Giuseppe, however, not having the advantage of having lived in Britain, had a just passable grasp of English. Physically, Jimmy was Rizzo the Rat and Giuseppe, Fozzie Bear. Genetically, there was no trace of Jimmy in Giuseppe. His mother, reputed to be Italian must have been some Mamma.

We had a loose arrangement, I produced the designs and drawings that helped sell the ideas to Jimmy’s mainly English Expat clientele; Jimmy and Giuseppe carried out the building work so that the villa loosely resembled my artistic impressions. Usually, Jimmy was there with me at the sales pitch, but on this occasion Giuseppe attended the meeting to discuss a pub refurbishment. We arrived outside of the premises, a retail shop unit. In Spain, it was quite common for shop units to be used as bars or restaurants. As we approached we noticed two men loitering in the doorway dressed in Newcastle United shirts, their exposed, sun burned arms, displayed a vivid array of tattoos. For a brief moment I considered asking them to move on, then, following the self preservation rule: never tell football supporters to ‘move on”, or anything else for that matter I decided to say nothing. This decision proved to be a good one. The Alan Shearer and Peter Beardsley tribute act introduced themselves. They were were the clients.

Keys were produced and we stepped through the unlocked doors into the gloomy shop interior the battleground of a fight between the smell of stale lager and the aroma from the toilets. A battle that the lavatories were winning. The shop had already had been converted into a bar, one that had gone bust, another victim of the lapping waves of the looming financial crash. The project was to alter what was already there.

imageGiuseppe stood with his note book at the ready, pencil poised.
“Wid leek t’ booar to be coot back t’ aboot ‘eer, leek, man.” Said Alan Shearer pointing to where the bar was to be ‘coot’ back to.
“Coot back aboot foor fit, leek.” Beardsley, his striking partner providing the measurement.
Fozzie Bear looked sideways at me confused, his eyebrows more tightly knitted than an Arran Jumper. “¿Que?”
Realising that the Newcastle accent had totally thrown Giuseppe, I quickly stepped in to translate.
“They would like the bar to be cut back by 120 centimetres, to about here,” I said, unravelling the sentences. “Like.”
“¿Comprende?” I asked.
Giuseppe, back in the loop, started to scribble furiously. “¡Vale! Claro.”
Shearer and Beardsley exchanged looks, obviously wondering why on earth I was repeating, in English, everything they had just said, in English.
And so the meeting progressed. I was Igor Korchilov translating for Gorbachev.
Eventually the meeting ended and the Torrevieja battalion of the Toon Army wandered off in search of a bar that was still actually trading. As we watched them disappear round a corner Giuseppe turned to me, a puzzled look on his face.
“Sandy, mi amigo. What do you English say, you have kept that under your hat!”
“What do you mean?”
“I had no idea you speak Swedish!”

 

 

 

Life is a sair fecht

Poppies picture

In my daughter Laura’s recent entry I could be making an almighty arse of the whole thing in her blog http://arewenearlythereyetmummy.com/   she writes of the loss of her mother when she was 9 years old and how the grief has dogged her; in her childhood, her teenage years and her life as a motherless mother. Above all, she misses a mothers confirmation that she is managing her family well.  I have always been aware that, as a father, I could not give my daughter the essential maternal support; that I would inevitably fall short. In the years that followed the death of my wife there was a loss of equilibrium, balance and direction it was as though we as a family, had lost our navigator. We were metaphorically lost at sea.

I thought of my own family trauma as I looked at the sea of poppies in the moat of the Tower of London. I thought of the damage to the family unit that is a consequence of the premature death of a loved one. For although each poppy represents a dead soldier it should be remembered that it also represents a family which over the years following the World War, if not forever, must have been haunted with grief.

My grandfather Clem was killed at the battle of Arris in 1917. A stretcher bearer, he literally disappeared in the mud. I often think of my grandmother, the moment she was handed the telegram, the traumatic moment when all her dreams crashed. You see, Clem had a dream. Before the war he had invested in a publishing business that he planned to set up, with his brother Richard, in Los Angeles. A dream that, along with Clem, was buried forever. My childhood memories are of the remnants of this sad, lost family; my grandmother, draped in sadness and dressed in ‘widow weeds’ living with her spinster sister and a slightly odd unmarried brother in a house where time had stopped. One of my grandmother’s stock pieces of wisdom was that ‘life is a sair fecht’. And indeed her life had been a hard fight.

For a great part of the last century the whole country must have been awash with similar dysfunctional families struggling to come to terms with with the aftermath of war; the unimaginable loss. the anger at vainglorious generals and politicians.

So, to my daughter Laura, who has battled with her own grief, I would say that life is full of such random twists of fate. If my grandfather Clem had lived to follow his dream, my mother, would have grown up in America, would never have met my father and I would not have been born. If my wife had lived, she and I would have followed our own dreams. Our daughter’s life would have followed a different path. Her family, her children would not exist today.

Life is a sair fecht, a hard fight and my daughter is fighting a good fight. Her mother would be very, very proud of her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Willie von Braun

It is a clear cold November 5th sometime in the late 1950’s. I stood with my father and mother watching with, frosty clouds of bated breath, my elder brother Willie von Braun proudly preparing his rocket for take-off.

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Influenced by the famous schematic centre page drawings in the Eagle comic and recent news of Russian dogs and monkeys being sent into orbit, Willie had decided that he would design and build his very own rocket, a large one. Amongst other components propellant was required; a lot of it and he had persuaded our gang to donate the gunpowder from our fireworks as fuel for his projectile.
This was a big ask. We reveled in our seasonal activities which involved harassing the town’s population by lobbing penny bangers, our weapon of choice, at innocent bystanders, creating shock and awe; mostly shock. We roamed around like small Hamas suicide bombers with our pockets crammed with explosives, probably enough, in the event of an accident, to blow a leg off at the thigh.
Willie constructed the rocket with our proud father looking on in admiration. It was large tubular object with a pointy nose cone, fins and supported on four spindly legs. Based on my avid reading of comics featuring daring stories of the Second World War I saw a bomb; our father impressed by his eldest sons scientific endeavours, a Starship.
imageOver the weeks leading up to Guy Fawkes Night the body of Willie’s rocket was gradually filled up with gunpowder from our dismantled bangers and other fireworks. I suspect that other chemical substances had been added. The previous Christmas, to my brother’s manic glee a chemistry set had been his main present; a reckless gift in my opinion. Soon after strange smells and noises seeped from the utility room and odd events occurred. A hole of about two inches in diameter appeared in our garden bench, a church pew salvaged the demolished surplus village church. The hole with scorched edges had been blown clean through the two inch thick seat panel. My mother and father looked at the hole, scratched their heads and talked in hushed voices of Acts of God and meteor particles from outer space. But I knew; not how but who.
The launch day arrived and on a clear moonlight night Willie’s rocket stood proudly but precariously on a plywood board, placed there at my father’s insistence to protect the lawn. The rocket pointed menacingly at the stars; the centerpiece of the that year’s display.

 

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After a paltry show of the fireworks bought by my dad, Willie advanced confidently across lawn and lit the slow burning fuse, a product of his chemistry experiments, and retreated. Precisely two minutes later the rocket burst into life; more fizz than roar. It jigged about like a demented Riverdance performer then, failing to defy gravity, slowly toppled over to lie facing our small family group, hissing threateningly. My father was now brought to his senses and, drawing on his wartime experience as a Master Gunner in the Royal Artillery he now, at last, saw a bomb not a rocket. and swiftly shepherded us down the garden away from the potential blast zone. Thankfully there was no explosion; the rocket, in it’s death throes finally roared into life and sped around the lawn in ever increasing circles before finally expiring in the rose bed.

 

My father commiserated with the young von Braun unaware of the intricate Celtic pattern scorched in the lawn which would only be revealed  at sunrise.

How much is that doggie……

After the grief of losing Millie, the trauma of holding her as the vet put her to sleep, we had the discussion through the tears. The sensible, realistic discussion. Getting another dog would be stupid.

Monday afternoon:

“We won’t get another dog,” said Val, “we’re too old for all that hassle, house training a puppy, walking a dog in the rain.”

“I agree,” I said, agreeing. “And there’s the cost, don’t forget the cost! The vet bills, the food.” My Scottish accent becoming more pronounced and parsimonious.

“Also, a dog would tie us down,” added Val, “we’d have to put a dog in kennels when we go to visit Graham in Majorca.”

“No, you’re right wouldn’t be sensible.”

We sit quietly contemplating our dog less lives.

Tuesday morning:

“I want you to look at this.” Val sitting at the laptop.

“What is it?”

“A dog, a puppy.”

“But we agreed, we decided it wouldn’t be sensible….God, what a beautiful dog!”

“It’s a Cockalier”

“A what?”

“It’s half Cocker Spaniel and half Cavalier,” said Val, “It’s cute”

“Hmm, if someone says a dog is cute to me I’ve got the wrong dog on the other end of the leash”

“Grow up!”

“Okay.”

“Let’s go and see it.”

“When?”

“Now!”

Tuesday evening:

We’re waiting in a drab KFC restaurant on the outskirts of a drab West Yorkshire town, the agreed rendezvous with the breeder. The plan is to follow him home and see the puppy and it’s home and parents, just to make sure it’s not a cross between a Pit Bull Terrier and a Cocker Spaniel. A Cockpit not a Cockalier.

Poppy cartoon“Says here, you should see the puppy’s parents,” me, on my iPad looking at an internet page with a list of must do’s and dire don’ts. “It says you must see the mother to get an idea of the size and temperament of the dog you’re buying. We mustn’t accept the first dog shown to you……….” I read on through the list and grim consequences of ignoring the list. As we sip our drab coffees and digest the dog buying guidelines a mud spattered Land Rover lurches into the car park trailing a billowing cloud of exhaust fumes. The breeder had arrived.

He was late, held up on the motorway he said. He had been travelling from Leeds.

“Y’reet, lad.” Lad? I must have thirty years on him.

“I’m fine, thank you. And you?” I feel like Prince Charles on a visit to a drab West Yorkshire town.

“A’m reet grand,m’sen!”

“Shall we follow you home?”

“No need lad, t’dog’s in t’car wi t’kids.”

The children in the back seat dutifully but reluctantly pass the puppy through the window to Val. The deal is done. Irrevocably done. Not only has the puppy gone through the window; so too has the long list of do’s and don’ts. There is no more chance of separating Val from this cute puppy than me swimming the Channel.

I pass the money over and receive in exchange a scrap of paper. I hopefully think it is a receipt but it is only the name of the food the new member of our family has been eating.

The Land Rover coughs into life in a cloud of blue smoke and we weakly wave goodbye to the Breeder and possibly, I thought, our money. As the cloud dispersed our puppy, snug in Val’s arms, gave a very small sneeze, confirming at least, that she was alive.

Wednesday morning

We are at the walk in surgery at the local vet hoping that we have bought a dog and not a turkey. To our immense relief the vet doesn’t ask any embarrassing questions about how we acquired our puppy. He just gives her a thorough check, declares her fit and gives her first injection, which, as it is straight from the fridge makes her squeal. Not as much as she will squeal a week later when she receives a double whammy; the second injection and the identity chip.

This morning (five weeks later)

Poppy windowPoppy who has the teeth of an alligator, wakes me at five o’clock (we go to bed at nine o’clock to compensate) by gently chewing my ear. I have trained her not to bite lumps out of me by gently nipping her ears with my teeth. Before she gets too frisky I take her downstairs and into the garden. Today the sun is shining and this chore doesn’t require a coat and an umbrella. While I stand listening to the birdsong, competing with the holiday jets taking off at the nearby airport, Poppy does her ‘business’, then I give her breakfast. If we are lucky she will go back to sleep but today she is hyper, so I give up on trying to sleep, get myself dressed and after a brawl on the kitchen floor trying to dress her in her new harness we set out for the park.

I am a dog tired but happy dog owner.