Thursday, 25 January 2007


Sometimes it's nice to be reminded why I live here ... here's Thames Barrier Park seen from the balcony unsullied and undogged at about 7 on Tuesday morning

Saturday, 20 January 2007

Teachers 2

I can't move on from this subject without recording the debt I owe Joan Webber, my kindergarten teacher. I went to school when I was only 3, my mother being driven insane by my early ability to read the Radio Times and incessant questions about "what does this mean". Evidently I came home from school one day and said "Mummy, what's 'phenomenal'? Mrs Webber says I'm phenomenal."

It was later explained to me that Mrs Webber used to impress prospective parents at Whitelake by making me stand up and then saying to them "listen to this little boy read, and he's only five ...". She was mortified when I turned six and her viral marketing scheme collapsed.

But boy, did I love her and would jump through any hoop to win her approval or an extra large red tick in my exercise book. I was so tick-hungry that I even asked for homework which wasn't given out in kindergarten. With the help of therapy I have ultimately forgiven her for, when doling out the instruments from the box which contained the tools of our 'Percussion Band', she never, EVER, gave me the cymbals - something I was itching to play and at the time insufficiently assertive to request.

Her amplitude was always covered in some floral yardage probably sourced on Urmston market, and in looking at old school photographs she seemed only to own one dress pattern as in each successive year she appears in a different version of the same style.

But look at this picture, taken one dappled afternoon in about 1958

It's another planet. The Clarks' sandals, the girls' gingham summer dresses and hair ribbons (although Jean Tate clung defiantly to her barathea gymslip even when the sun was melting the tarmac on Flixton Road) and the ties and socks from Horne Brothers in Manchester all define a simpler and a gentler time, and my innocence.

It's an idyll.

Below, I'd credited Mr Buttery with inspiring me to the drama. But I'd forgotten a production of "The Wind and the Sun" staged in the front garden of Whitelake School and directed by the aforementioned Mrs Webber and her young sidekick Miss Kershaw into whose tender cardigan-shouldered care I graduated aged six. Whether for my latent acting ability, or because I was her favourite, I was The Wind. In a dark blue velvet cloak made from the old dining room curtains and as I remember still with the rufflette tape and some hooks attached.

There's got to be a line about Gone With "The Wind", but I'd struggle to frame it.

I can actually identify more than half of the children, including Susan Stephenson, the tallest one and daughter of my mother's best friend - we were paraded in parallel prams - and my first girl-friend Terry Barlow to whom I was engaged when we were six. I had good taste, though. Michael Billington who is the only member of my class to be in touch through Friends Reunited says she was the prettiest.

Feel free to try and spot me: there's only nine boys, so you've 11/1 odds.

Teachers 1

Chatting to a friend and fellow bloggist about writing styles, I stumbled across the fact that two of my erstwhile University lecturers went on to be major biographers. Norman Sherry who was Professor of English at Lancaster and a fussy little man I really didn’t like had modelled himself personally on Joseph Conrad – a fussy little author I wasn’t very fond of, either – but became Graham Greene’s official biographer taking thirty years to research and produce a three-volume memoir. And John Russell Brown, examiner for the Theatre Studies part of my degree, is the most prolific dissector and biographer of William Shakespeare as well as Editor of the Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre.

Whilst their influence and tutelage was undoubtedly significant, it didn’t have the direct intensity of teachers from primary and secondary school who actually fostered my interest in their subjects, and genuinely inspired my life. Two spring to mind, the first being my English teacher from prep school, my mentor from ages seven to ten.

Mrs Britton, it took me years to find out her first name was Winifred, whom I idolised even though she looked remarkably like Vera Lynn. I can remember as a precocious eight year-old complimenting her on a celadon-green belted two piece she wore to assembly one morning, and being fascinated by the contour effect of the horizontally ribbed fabric which corrugated her bosom as surely as if she’d been upholstered by Maples.

She signed my autograph book when I left school (at 10) with the words “victor qui laborat” – he who works, conquers. And she was bloody right although what she didn’t know was one of the reasons I’d come top in the 11+ exams was that I’d been practising using a teachers’ reference book to the tests (with answers) that I’d bought in W H Smiths, and the examining body was daft enough to repeat a lot of the questions from previous years.

Darrell Buttery, in his first teaching job, was my inspiration in so many ways as my first form master at public school. Naturally at 11 I fell hopelessly in love with him and used to try and force myself to dream about him at bedtime. Even now, some of the guys I fancy have some affinity with “DGB”.

He used to come into class with “good morning girls” which in 1964 was beyond provocative but I don’t think I knew even by rumour that he might actually be gay until twenty years later when my mother met him in town and speculated about why he never married.

But he directed me in my first school play – female lead Rosaura Balanzoni in Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell arte The Liar – and sowed a seed under my powdered wig and crinoline that I shall never ever regret.

Google's a wonderful tool. He's left teaching and is now Chair of York Civic Trust and Deputy Lord Lieutenant of North Yorkshire.

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Never glad confident morning again

Such a dismal day. Here's a brighter dawn seen from my balcony when I was sleepless in September ...

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Long dark teatime

"When the light fails on winter evenings,
and the river behind the house is silent but for its cold flowing ..."

I wish I knew exactly where that came from, because apart from anything else a pretty calculated "verse speaking" of it won me Victor Ludorum for the highest individual score in the Harrogate Music Festival when I was about 14 - but it runs through my head regularly at this fourfivesixoclock time of day between November and March.

It sometimes also brings to mind Herbert Kretzmer's altogether shallower lament as Fantine lays dying in Les Mis and sings to daughter Cosette:

You've played the day away
And soon it will be night.

The poetry and the poorer lyric somehow combine in me at this time of the late winter afternoon to remind me how little I've done with the day apart from to tinker on the computer, speak to friends on the phone and fail to keep two not particularly urgent appointments I could have done today.

Deferral. Procrastination. Inert. It's how I just am, some days. I haven't opened the post for a week, either. Some of it's squatting on a ledge at the edge of my eyeline in a Tesco carrier bag, but I won't let it win. It can stay a mystery.

I don't know if I love or am a little scared by this time of day. When abroad in unfamiliar places I become inexplicably sad at the point at which the light withers from the winter landscape, and almost uneasy when it's not replaced with street lighting or the glow of a town skyline. One of the reasons I bought the flat here in the Docklands was because at night it felt "surrounded by light" with the boats on the river, the hooded and haloed mercury vapour lamps in the park, the amber sodium flood lights, appropriately enough, on the Barrier and of course Manhattan-on-Thames out the kitchen window.

It's funny how light, or its absence, affects my indelible impression of place. India is forever conjured for me by the image of a single unshaded fluorescent tube swaying from a tree above a roadside stall. For me it illuminates an entire sub-continent with its brave and inaccurate belief in its own efficacy. Proust may have had the madeleines, I resonate to a fluorescent-lit dead dog resting beside a crazed highway ...

Saturday, 13 January 2007

53 - 19 ?

It's not the Rugby score!

I can't write this at the moment, but I want to keep the placeholder and date.

Friday, 12 January 2007


The Last Time I saw Paris, my heart was young and gay ... Yes well, that was then, this is now. I should be in Paris right this very minute actually except I never got my arse to Waterloo for the 12.09 Eurostar today.

I had planned a trip with three purposes - to see my friend Sue who does important things for top bananes at L'Oreal, and is presumably handsomely remunerated Because She's Worth It - to see my sometime ex Meki and very possibly have yet another hour long row with him at the top of my voice which does wonders for my French vocabulary but sod all for my temper - and to meet "un type" with whom I had been corresponding on and off.

Despite reminding me for the three years or so that she's lived in Paris that I owe her a visit, Sue trumped my invitation to cocktails and dinner ce soir with the arrival of visitors from Australia. Meki maintains (or is maintained, possibly, I think he's a bit of a courtesan) a home in Italy and had to fly there this morning to take care of some urgent business with his bank, which left me with the prospect of three days with the type and it occurred to me when chatting him on MSN last night that he bore an alarming resemblance to John Profumo as portrayed by Ian McKellen in "Scandal" which made it a bit of a double no-no for me. Not to mention I don't have big enough chairs to pose as Christine Keeler. So I bottled out.

I think my reluctance has something to do with not liking Paris as a city very much, my new-found morality, the pluviose weather forecast, and the influence of a couple of slightly nicer chaps I've met in the UK recently.


I wonder if blogs are like new diaries, or New Year resolutions - to be buffed and polished and pored over for the first days of the year, and then left to gather dust.

The major question I'm expecting from Gentle Reader (oh and I so wonder what you're like) is Why? and Why Now?

Why Now? is comparatively easy because it's answered by time on my hands ... as it's now been about a calendar year since I escaped from full-time employment, I should really be "getting round" to things like sorting out my spare bedroom and, eventually, my life. One thing at a time. The spare bedroom's now comparatively tidy but the content of the twenty or so boxes bags and bin-liners I shoved in its cupboards are probably metaphors for my mental baggage.

Two new year's resolutions already achieved - 1. I have successfully sold stuff on eBay and 2. For the first time in a fairly busy adult life, I've been to the clinic. Yes, that clinic. And everything was fine thank you for asking, although it was a bit like "Bless me Father for I have sinned. It has been 33 years since my last confession."

And ironically enough the nurse did have to continue her notes on the back side of the paper.