Friday, 17 October 2014

Number 43

I've been listening to for a couple of years in preparation for this, and this will be the test. I'm pretty confident I can say 'My apple is bigger than your mother' and 'The black dog is from Spain'. Maybe there are a few more words to learn, but I can't see that myself.

Number 42

Good job we're going to China anyway (on a trip we've planned for seven years). I can't think of a better way to start a fight on a long-haul flight than this. Hope I'm as brave as this artist.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Number 40

Apparently for the last ten challenges, Claire is taking suggestions from friends. I'm a little bit uncomfortable about this idea, because I still remember my fortieth birthday party. At the time we were repainting our kitchen, and we thought it would be a laugh to leave a bit as a graffiti wall, where people could write witty stuff. Caught up in the party, I didn't see the wall till the next day. I was a bit disappointed with the wit. The first person to write on it had written 'Jim is a c***'. Thirteen other people had found this funny enough to write the same. One person had written 'Happy Birthday'.
But Claire's filtering the ideas. So on Sunday night I opened ...
Monday was the first really rainy, windy night of the year, and there are no lights in the little back lanes of Freeland. Squinting through the lashing rain, I thought I saw a 'Church' sign. The lane got narrower and narrower, going down and down, in a tunnel of trees which were blowing down to touch the top of the car.
Ten miles from my own house, I was lost in a classic opening to a horror film. After a few miles I turned back and knocked at the door of the only house with lights. After a couple of minutes, a tall, stone-faced, pale old lady, came to the door. 'Do you know where the church is?' I asked. She didn't change expression at all during the two minute pause, just staring glassilly ahead. 'To the end of the lane, and turn right. The church is on the right through the graveyard.' I thanked her, and she closed the door without a word.
I drove the couple of hundred yards round the corner and parked up.
I got out, braced myself against the driving rain, and walked towards a gothic archway. On the other side, it was pitch dark. I realised then that I never experience pitch dark. I'm always within the range of street lights, or in the car. As my eyes got accustomed, I could see I was surrounded by gravestones. In front of me, I could see a path, I started making my way along it, buffeted by the increasing wind and rain. It was so dark, I couldn't even see the church. A distant memory flashed into my head - Patrick Troughton being speared by a lightning conductor as he ran towards a church in a storm. I ran past the graves, which seemed to be edging towards me, and turned left towards the only faint light I could see. I found myself face to face with a man in a flat cap.
'Neil?', I said.
'We've been expecting you'.
Claire had primed him. It turned out I had half an hour with Neil, who would explain how it all worked, before the bell-ringers arrived and the training started. With no messing, Neil took me up the narrow spiral steps to where the bell-ringing took place, then up two more long ladders to the bells.
He'd given up half an hour of his time to do this, which I appreciated, and was so enthusiastic and selfless that he gave me a very good impression of the bell-ringing world.
In the bell tower, he explained to me how church bells work, and made a bell strike while I was perched next to it. It made me jump an inch off the beam and made my ears buzz for several minutes. I'd never thought about this stuff - six is the standard number of church bells, it turns out. OK - so that's why 'The Six Bells' is a standard pub name. Big churches and cathedrals have twelve - that's where the expression 'knock twelve bells out of someone'.

People were starting to arrive now, so we went down. As people were coming in, Neil taught me the basics about pulling the rope to swing the bell higher and higher until you can sense it's vertical up there in the tower. That's the point where you have to be careful, or you risk being pulled up into the bell tower as in a thousand comedy films going back to the early days of cinema. Six people trickled in, all middle-aged and all very friendly. They seemed pleased to have a stranger in their tower. They showed me the secret code ...
Eventually there was a full house.
'Right,' said Neil, turning to me. 'We're going to get in a circle, and pull off with a hand stroke.'
'Hang on a sec,' I was about to say. 'That's exactly the kind of business that made me leave the rugby club.' But they were off ...'Treble's going ...' called Neil. '... She's gone!' He tugged on his rope followed at split-second intervals by the other five. From up above was the classic village-church downward peal. 'Two to four!' called Neil. Two of the ringers must have put slightly paused or sped up their pull, because the pattern of the peal changed. 'Five to three' called Neil, and the pattern changed again.
And so it went on. It was hypnotic watching this in action, and after an hour watching and listening to the rhythmic sounds and movements in the claustrophobic little circular room, I had no memories of the world I'd come from.
Anthony the Master Bellringer arrived during the break, and gave me some very detailed and strict tuition on the hand stroke and back stroke. My golf-grip thumbs were fine, it turned out, but I took in too much rope, put my hands up rather than let them be taken up by the rope, didn't bend my elbows enough on the way down, mistimed my catching of the sally on its way up, and, most seriously, forgot to flick my thumbs downwards at the end. Despite this, they decided I was up to joining in with a peal.
I was tense as the circle formed. Anthony was next to me, coaching in a whisper. 'Time your pull slightly after Michael,' were his last words before the treble went. I was sweating, my eyes fixed on Michael. As his hands reached halfway in his pull, mine set off - got it! 'Just after Michael!' hissed Anthony. I thought I had. Next time round I let Michael's hands get to the bottom of the pull before I started. Was that better? 'Noo!' whisper-wailed Anthony. 'JUST... AFTER ... MICHAEL'. For ten minutes I tweaked my timing until there was no part of Michael's pull I hadn't used as a cue. 'Stand!' called Neil finally, and we stopped. 'I told you to go after Michael,' said Anthony, perspiring with frustration. 'I was trying to,' I said, gesturing towards Michael. 'Couldn't seem to time it right.'
'Ahem,' coughed the little bloke on the other side of me. 'Actually, I'm Michael.'
not Michael
It was clearly time to go. We had a group photo ...
... and I set off back down the tight spiral stairs. In an hour and a half, I felt I'd already spent enough time with this little group of people to never forget their faces.
I stepped out of the door into the stormy, pitch-dark graveyard - the exact opposite of the cosy circle filled with living bell-ringers. More confident now, I trusted my sixth sense and ran to the car. I jumped in and put 'Terry the lonely reindeer' on to calm my nerves.
I won't go bell-ringing again, but enjoyed being welcomed into this secret little world with a fine group of people for a couple of hours.

Monday, 13 October 2014


Claire wrote a blog post for the Guardian about my fifty things, and I can safely say it divided opinion. Most comments were from people who got it. Lots were critical but acerbically funny. Some gave good suggestions for challenges - sorry, RedTelecaster, but I can't include your challenges involving the swan and the nun, because I've already done them. What a night that was! My memory of the evening is blurry, but I still get texts from the swan, so it must have been the nun I caught, cooked and ate.
Some people were angry. Very, very angry. The very last commenter, for example. She gets straight in there.
GorgeousRedHead   The trouble with this nonsense is that none of it involves a genuine risk. 
How about standing for election against UKIP? How about becoming a 100% raw food vegan and being an advocate?
Two of these I see as great things to do. I'd be proud to do them myself and tip my hat to any who does. But these are serious things. My present was for fun.
How about joining a spiritualist church and sitting in a mediumship circle to learn to talk to the dead?
Slightly unexpected turn, but wouldn't say no.
How about campaigning for the Kurds? Tie yourself to Downing Street, camp out at Parliament Square against any and all military action against everyone everywhere.
Again, I respect people who put themselves forward and protest - possibly in a more focused way, though.
Actually do something that will make your wife think about divorcing you ...  
Why would I do that? I don't want to.
... and off the top of my head, how about taking a vow of silence for six months? Move to the Himalayas? Walk naked from Lands End to John O'Groats?
Hmm, tricky from a work point of view. And we seem to have lost the helping-other-people thread.
Campaign for an innocent in prison, ...
Yep, great. But then comes the sudden wave of anger from nowhere. Snarled out like Kathy Bates.
... or how about just going away because your life is so complacent you can't even see it?
Followed by the full-apoplexy.
Visit a Crop Circle? [ ... #$@&%*! ... unable to speak now with fury; tomato face; flailing fists punching the air ] ... Create one!!!!!!!!!
Surreal and brilliant. Now some deep breaths to calm down, and let's have the punchline in a sinister whisper:
Oh, and get arrested. Happy Birthday.
Birthday wishes were a nice thou ... hang on - I hope they were genuine. I'll be offended if they weren't.
This is the fury of someone who was browsing the Guardian Lifestyle section. Was she lost? In any case, there were enough clues in the title of the article to show it wasn't the latest report on all military action against everyone everywhere. If I do become a 100% raw food vegan, I'm going to spend all my time in a butcher's shop, screaming at the sausages.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Number 39

This is the bridge that I drive over every morning to get to work, which I chucked the message-in-a-bottle off in challenge no. 17. It's not a job you want your kids to aspire to, but the toll-bridge guys always do it cheerfully. They start at 7, so I normally get over the bridge before then to beat the queue. Sometimes - and this is exciting - I'm the first motorist to have to pay at 7. They say 'thank you' per hour more than anyone else in the world, I reckon, and that's extremely British. I'm sure they wouldn't if Witney was in Peru.
I've got extremely good, over the years, of synching my clutch control and pressing down the 5p into the outstretched hand, so I can pay and perform the subtle social exchange without losing speed.
Originally, Freddie's baby seat was on the left-hand side of the car. All year round, he insisted on listening to his Christmas cassette in the car. So when we used to go over the toll bridge, 'Terry the lonely reindeer' would be playing in the car, but as far as the toll men could see, I was alone in the car. I'll never forget that tiny smirk they'd give me. I moved him to the right. He used to beg me to let me give the toll-bridge man the money. Eventually I said yes, and made sure he had the 5p in his hand, sticking out of the window as we approached the man, which wasn't easy. He released his grip 1/10th of a second early, unfortunately, and the 5p hit the ground and rolled away. He never stopped the badgering, and over his young years dropped around £135 just short of the toll man's hand.
Here's what they're getting. Hope it makes them feel appreciated. 
In this box. If they spot me, they'll probably be expecting a young female admirer. They may be disappointed.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Number 38 update

I did eight ...
1. Mike Conboy 
The weekend started here. A few days before I was going up, my old mate Mike Conboy got in touch to say he was back for a couple of weeks from New Zealand, where he emigrated countless years ago. This was the first time I'd seen him in 28 years. I only had an hour, so we went for a pint in what used to be the Moss, where we'd go for a drink before Altrincham FC home games from the age of 14 without anyone being interested how old we were. Beer has gone up. Great to see Mike, a really nice guy with a surreal and brilliant sense of humour. 

2. Riddings Court
A soulless little estate in a soulless suburb. This isn't the original street sign - that was stolen by a teenage idiot a long time ago as a souvenir when he left home. In fact I ... erm ... whoever did it only took it to the tip a couple of months ago.
Our house - the middle one in the picture - was one of the first finished when we moved in, so we had the excitement of living on a building site for a year. It was a sad day when my sister chased me into a kitchen where a startled family were having lunch, and we realized it wasn't our playground any more. This photo is taken from the spot where my sister's bike skidded from under her when we were doing speedway racing on the unsurfaced road. She took all the skin from up the side of her leg, and the bloodstains on the floorboards of the house are still visible.

3. house and parents
My parents in front of the house they've lived in for 44 years. The garage used to be me and my friends' goals for playing football in the road, but the best game we played with the garage was filling it with cardboard boxes we'd collected, then riding our bikes full tilt into into it. In teenage years the garage was the place where I'd come back with friends and carry on after the pub closed, if we still had nonsense to talk.

Here they are on their wedding day in Leicester, 1957.

4.St Hugh's Roman Catholic Primary School
I walked through this entrance when we moved to Timperley when I was six, and into Miss Murphy's class. Miss Murphy was in her 60s, hated children, and was brutally and randomly violent. I got several full-strength slaps across the face, which would have launched me out of the classroom if I hadn't been sitting in a desk. Charmaine Kirwan made the mistake of going to the classroom sink to wash her hands without asking permission. The rest of us covered our faces as if watching a horror film as we saw Miss Murphy approach her silently from behind. With a single sudden movement, she grabbed her hair and threw her across the room through the air. She landed face down and crashed into the opposite wall.
The next summer we went on holiday to Ireland, staying in a little village called Annestown in Waterford, just past the arse-end of nowhere.
Imagine my delight when we went to the local church and I got a poke in the ribs from behind. Miss Murphy was there. This was where she was from. Not Hell as we had all thought. Don't let it put you off Annestown, though, she wouldn't have had offspring.
That's Miss Murphy's classroom on the far right. They've probably got all the bloodspots off the ceiling by now. In the playground, the boys who didn't want to be part of Leone Poli's hyper-violent game of War played British Bulldog between the netball areas, or football with a tiny plastic cube. Balls were thought to be too dangerous, unlike Miss Murphy. On a rare day when we weren't playing football, I had a fight with Stephen Morphy on the exact spot the photo was taken. I fell on top of him in the clumsy struggle and he broke his arm and was taken off in an ambulance. I stood outside Mr Finnegan's office for an hour waiting to be seen. I was sure I was going to spend the rest of my life in prison, and was seriously considering running away from home. When he finally opened the door and ushered me in, Mr Finnegan just said, 'Did you do it on purpose?' Thinking quickly, I said, 'No'. And I was free.

5. St Ambrose
I passed the eleven plus and went to the nearest Catholic school, just over three miles away so I got the free bus pass, hoping to continue my education with uneducated, alcoholic, brainwashed thugs. My luck was in! The Christian Brothers were shadows of their former fearsome reputation by now, but a couple of them could still inflict pain. First-year French, which I'd really been looking forward to, consisted of Brother Owen reading to us about all the miracles that had taken place at Lourdes. We were motivated to listen because if we didn't, he would hit us on the hand twice with a three-play leather shaving strop.
Third-year History was brother Rynne, who was a hard, ignorant bastard with the ruddiest face and the biggest ears you could possibly imagine. His teaching method, which in retrospect could have been based on research and way ahead of its time, consisted of putting down a heavy box of history books at the front of the class. He would then go and sit on the counter at the back of the class and say, 'Now take a book'. Now came the keystone of his methodology. 'Now read your books. If yer look to der soid, oi'll t(h)ump yer teet(h) to der back of yer t(h)roat!' Actually what he did if someone looked to the side was sneak up and hit them on the back of the head with his knuckles, with a technique it was rumoured he used to slaughter cows in his youth.
One of my main general memories is I was always starving. In Brother Rynne's ... ahem ... 'lessons' ... I always used to pick out Extracts from the diary of Samuel Pepys, and turn to the page where he said what he had for lunch - 'a piece of plain fish'. I was so hungry, I just read the paragraph with that sentence in for forty minutes, dribbling desperately.
 I actually got to really like Brother Rynne a lot by the time I left - there was a sweet man under the brutal exterior, and I felt really sad he'd been pushed to spend his life in that way. A couple of years after I'd left he fell asleep in bed while smoking and accidentally burned down a good part of the Brothers' house, killing the oldest Brother.
Here's the house where the Brothers lived in celibacy and whisky-fumes.
Craggy Island come to life. Facing you when you walked in through the front door was a staircase with a lifesize Virgin Mary staring terrifyingly down at you from the top. The statue in the photo, which wasn't there in my day, appears to show St Ambrose holding a small boy against himself affectionately. Are you sure that's a good idea, Brothers, in the light of former Chemistry teacher Alan Morris's eight-year prison sentence for holding small boys against himself affectionately?
The extracurricular syllabus at the school was surreal. The one trip we went on was to the Imperial War Museum in London. The coach journey took six hours. The museum was closed that day - no one had thought to check. So we came back.
The school's careers service, however, was solid and efficient. 'Would you like to become a priest?' asked Brother Doyle.
OK. Can you send the next boy in, then.'
Sex education came without warning. Classes were suddenly interrupted one morning and the whole school was ushered to the assembly hall. There was an atmosphere of dread among the Brothers - had the Pope died? We noticed there was a projector and screen at the front of the hall, which itself caused a ripple of excitement, as we thought the school only had a cassette player.
Brother Rynne walked to the front and there was silence. 'You need to watch this', he said sheepishly, and pressed the on switch. The screen crackled into silent action, and you could make out a blurred image of two people. It came into focus for a few seconds, and you could see it was a man and a woman on a beach. They were wearing swimming costumes, holding hands and looking at each other. The image crackled off. Was that the end? What was happening? Suddenly an image filled the screen. We just had time to see it was a penis, covered in seeping sores, and the screen went black for good.
Brother Rynne stepped to the front, even redder than usual. 'Right, back to class!' he barked.
No one was quite sure what message to take away, but I for one haven't been on a beach since.

6. sink
My household job from when I was eight was to do the washing-up on Sundays. Not much to ask I suppose, but it included everything from a roast dinner. I looked forward to it because that's when I listened to the Top 40. It was a big thing then.

7. stairs
These are the stairs at home. When I was about seven, I put my head through them for a laugh. Then I couldn't get it out again. I was stuck there for half an hour, thinking that the fire brigade would have to cut off my head to get me out. In the end my dad suggested walking carefully to the top of the stairs, and my head came out easily. I'd forgotten where I'd put it in.

8. back garden
I've included the corner of our postage-stamp back garden in my memories because this was where I had one of my most painful accidents. There used to be a small tree in the corner, which my dad clumsily sawed back, and which was pretty much covered by foliage. When I was about 13, I climbed over the fence to retrieve a football, then back onto the fence to come back over. Instead of clambering down, I stood on top of the fence, about five feet up, and jumped. My feet were about six inches from the ground and I was approaching terminal velocity when the pointed vertical branch of the tree rammed up into the nerves and tendons of my armpit and stopped me dead in midair. With my weight holding me down, I dangled in a fireball of armpit pain for a couple of minutes until I managed to wriggled free and fall in a heap. 
This is an artist's ghostly reconstruction of the incident. I think Edward Munch did the mouth.
A lump soon appeared under my arm of a size not seen since the days of the bubonic plague, shortly followed by bruising down to my waist. My right arm could only dangle uselessly for the next few weeks.