SCHOOL’S OUT

The last time I was in England, I went to a school reunion. No old school friends were there, in fact there wasn’t even a school. Only the school yard, the ‘playground’ as we called it, remained. The three story Victorian building was gone, the annex, the old chapel, the gym, all demolished and the land redeveloped. For some reason, they left the old school yard.

I walked between two prefabricated offices when suddenly, spread out before me, was a memorial to four years of my life—a crumbling tarmac square bordered on one side by an old factory wall made of brick. The wall held a faded painted circle from a game I once played but no longer remember.

I walked to the center of the playground, opened my arms, and turned a slow circle. Over there stood the open-fronted playground shed, its dark, dank corner wispy with woodbine smoke. It’s where we explored, our adolescent hands fumbling inside woolly jumpers and white cotton blouses, learning the intricacies of bra straps, clumsily locking lips, our trousers bulging; faces crimson as the whistle called us back to the class room that, for me, was a hated prison.

Having turned a circle, I closed my eyes and listened. Sounds echoed, the shouts, the shrieks, the laughter; the sobs. Loud and real, my eyes flew open and there in the yard were Howard, Mary, Barbara, Ann, Christina, Avril, George, Frank, Leslie, Arthur … And the bullies and the fighters, the fat and the thin, the brainy and the unwashed whose life we made a misery. Here and there a teacher … Pop Walker who in class liked to throw a bunch of keys at his pupils, until he almost blinded one; Mr Field, who threatened to beat me with a rugby boot and hauled me off to the Head when I refused to bend over. Billy Clayton, our RE man, an enigma and one of my favorites; ‘Neb’ Harrison with his awesome nose; Taffy Lund from the science lab who loved to thrash us with a bent cane he called Whiz Bang; and gentle Miss Screven whose pointy breasts drove us mad with lust as they did the whisky-sozzled history teacher at a Christmas party, getting him into all kinds of trouble.

The girls carried their satchels … John, George, Paul and Ringo inked on the leather, all milling around in girly groups keeping away from the football, the game of British bulldogs and human pyramids, while casting sly looks at the lads and ready to cheer and form a ring around a hard-case playground fight.

The mixed crowd wore their house badges—Red for Norman, Green for Dane, Yellow for Saxon, and Blue for Rome—all except the rebels who had thrown theirs away. I was a Dane who desperately wanted to be a Saxon.

A blow on the teacher’s whistle and it all faded away. I took a final look around, watched my school blazer twist into denim, my grey pants become jeans. Brickwork yellowed, grass pushed through the tarmac where so many feet once ran, and the smell of my youth thinned and washed away in a cold shower of rain.

The best school day of my life …

 

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DEATH OF A CROC

Last week I went into mourning for two old Crocs. It’s hard to say goodbye to faithful friends, traveling companions that have stuck with you mile after mile, walk after walk, country after country. Mates that guided me as I staggered home at the end of the night and uncomplaining dragged me faithfully through the pouring rain, the bitter cold of a European winter, and countless days of relentless tropical sun. As crew, they sailed like buccaneers through the Caribbean, and rode the highways and byways applying brakes, changing gears and flooring accelerators on motorbikes and cars. By their seventh year, their skin had wrinkle and their color faded from a deep ocean blue to splodged muck. They never complained when splashed with antifouling, kicked a pile of dog shit or suffered the humiliation of being searched, X-rayed, pointed at and mocked by unbelievers. No, they walked on.

Often threatened with death by my wife, they sat quietly, worn and humble outside the door, banished from the room, alone with their memories of how once they socialized, bar-hopped, partied, and gazed up at the world from beneath restaurant tables.

The end, when it came was quite swift. The bottom dropped out of the one on my left foot. Heartbroken, teary and virtually barefoot, I dragged its remains around for several days, but it was no use. It was beyond even epoxy and fiberglass. Seeing its faithful friend hanging holed and limp from my foot as we hobbled along, its twin gave up. They walk no more.

Celebrating a life well spent, solemnly, together, my Crocs went to the garbage bin, their heel straps forever entwined.

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Somewhere, on a shelf in an unknown store are my next pair of Crocs … I’m toying with the idea of yellow or red.

PARIS IN ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY MINUTES

I was in Paris recently and what a wonderful city it is. Every time I visit Paris, I swear I will never leave.

The first time my wife and I visited Paris together we spent our nights in a very cheap garret with rooftop windows that opened to reveal magnificent views of the city. A dusty room with an ancient iron bed, warm May nights, passion and romance. Paris is made for such memories.

Back to my recent visit. I was alone and loving the freedom to roam the city like an alley cat. My hotel, booked on line, was located in a labyrinth of backstreets that (at least on Google maps) looked as if they might be in a very dodgy area.

Much against the wishes of my wife, who was in England, I decided to walk to my hotel from the Gare du Nord and within minutes was hopelessly lost. After almost an hour, my legs and wheelie bag screamed in protest at every, lump, bump and curbstone they staggered over.

My hotel room, when I found it, was on the top floor. Not quite a garret, and although it looked out over the rooftops of Paris, which I loved, it could only offer the romance of a cold and empty bed.

For the blog, I wanted to write about the streets of Paris, but not in my usual way. I gave myself an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening and wrote down some of what I saw and experienced in the literary style known as Stream of Consciousness. Or, to be more precise, vomit from my pen sans punctuation.

I wrote quickly and soon realized that what I recorded happened every day in the streets, shops, restaurants and bars of this wonderful city that some call the City of Light and others the City of Love, a place where they out weird and out eccentric their reluctant cousins, the British.

Here are some of the things I saw and experienced in those 120 minutes, and I make no excuses for my thoughts along the way:

Alleyways passageways ginnels here’s a beggar with a beautiful white cat and one with a tired old dog feel that way sometimes breathless in Paris Muslim beggar shoving her kid at me is it for sale there but for the grace of god but whose god that’s the longest outdoor bookshop shelf I’ve ever seen lovely useless books in French lucky I would have been there all day and old toys to collect not to love or push or throw her bra strap is twisted and the color’s all wrong, someone should tell her more swishing skirts short swishing skirts nice legs haute couture under guard he thinks I’m a bad smell tosser handbags for the price of a first class ticket around the world cellphones let you shout and talk to yourself all day could be mad who would know the law says no smoking in the bar so I sit outside and smoke a dozen secondhand Gauloises in two minutes pronounced golwaz wazzock golwazzock life turned on its head liberty fraternity soggy ends the world’s most uncomfortable bar seat another glass of wine from an endless list speak French you numpty laughter shaking heads Les Anglais more laughter monsieur’s vin rouge cheap wonderful party party party what a great Friday night only it’s Tuesday 7.20pm not a table to be had oh no she’s really drunk don’t sit next to me shit eye contact mistake Paris rocks singing glass waving walls rotting under years of nicotine he’s a handsome bastard bet he’s gay madam’s from the French Resistance smiles an ancient smile shrugs a sexy French shrug still pretty someone’s poking a bloody selfie stick through the window  Powerful Pierre’s fallen over Jacques picks him up been there stunning woman on bicycle wearing business suite and Christian Louboutin shoes just peddled by an eyeful of the Eiffel trifle sirens calvados sorbet hustle bustle carved angels and fallen angels smiling hookers where’s all the dog shit gone traffic noise violins vio-fucking-lins lost again seen that before mystery mayhem endless worn streets love ‘em lines of tables chairs lights laughter poverty one for the road barman sighs smears spilt beer too late for food he says never too late to drink shadows doorways pssst pssssst no merci at least her bra’s the right size … time to leave time to live Paris

 

Brontë Country by train, by foot … but without Jenny Agutter

We all know that traveling broadens your horizons, but did you know that it can also narrow them right down, make you focus on past memories and lead you to relive them. Or at least try.

Like many English teenagers, I was in love with actress Jenny Agutter and would have given my right whatsit just to touch the hem of her Edwardian dress as she saved the day in the movie The Railway Children.

Touching Jenny’s frock and what was hidden beneath was never going to happen, only in my dreams, but I could explore The Keighley and Worth Valley Railway where the movie was filmed. The branch line was part of the endless summers of my childhood, and for a kid growing up in the ’50s steam trains were part of everyday life.

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British Railways operated the last scheduled passenger train on the Worth Valley line on Saturday 30 December 1961 and I remember my mum taking us on Sunday picnics to Haworth and Oxenhope – and stations in between – when the line was still a fully functioning part of the main railway network.

Fast-forward to our recent visit to Keighley, our train ride, and our hike along the Railway Children Walk. Secretly, I hoped Jenny had chosen the same day to dabble in a bit of nostalgia, but my search of the train left me flat. In her honor, I had asked my wife to wear her Edwardian frock but she refused, and it looked awful on me (only kidding).

The train chugged out of Keighley on the slow climb towards Oxenhope. Smoked belched, steam hissed, carriages swayed (rather alarmingly, I thought) and the wheels made that lovely clickety-clack sound.

The narrow banks of the River Worth, which the railway follows, are lined with old mills, a testament to Yorkshire’s thriving industrial past. Many of the mills are derelict, which is rather surprising given the housing crisis facing England. But to hell with politics and deep thinking we were pulling in to Oxenhope station, as pretty as a picture on this warm, late summer day, and there was Jenny waiting with a wet kiss and up for a bit of bodice ripping as I stepped off the train.

A poke in the back burst my bubble and we were on our way, following the rustic signposts along the Railway Children Walk.

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From Oxenhope station, the walk briefly follows the road, crosses the fledgling river and leads up through farm fields replete with doe-eyed cows. A short hike on a country lane, followed by a cowpat-dodging skip across a farm yard and we are in open meadows where the beautiful Yorkshire countryside unfolds to infinity. In Yorkshires industrial heyday, the hills and valleys were wreathed in smog from hundreds of mill and factory chimneys burning hundreds of tons of coal a day. These emissions spread a deadly pall across the countryside, poisoning the lungs of the workers, many of whom were children already suffering from TB.

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Today the air was crystal clear and the high meadows like those featured in the Sound of Music.

“Go on,” I encouraged my wife, “do your Julie Andrews impression and I’ll take your picture for Facebook.” That received a more forceful response than my request for the Edwardian dress and, to add to the injury, my yodeling of ‘The Hills are Alive’ followed by an arm-flapping run through the grass got us chased out of the field by a herd of angry cows. They obviously didn’t like the musical, either.

About half a mile further on, the path meandered down the side of the famous Haworth churchyard and we were up to our frockcoats in Brontë country. Time to invoke Heathcliff  with a quick burst of Kate Bush, but again no such luck only a terse refusal before I’d spit out the whole request.  That’s one of the problems of being married for such a long time … your wife knows what you are thinking before you do!

Music and Heathcliffless we tumbled down the church steps onto Haworth’s cobbled Main Street and the tourist circus it has become.

For all its crassness, Haworth, with its out of place shop signs and tourist trinkets, the village that played home to the literary geniuses the Brontë sisters and their wayward brother Branwell, is still not to be missed.

From the church, it’s downhill all the way to the railway station and the train back to Keighley.

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For more information about the Worth Valley Heritage Railway, visit: http://kwvr.co.uk/

Find out about the Brontës here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bront%C3%AB_family

And here: https://www.bronte.org.uk/the-brontes-and-haworth/family-history

And The Railway Children here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Railway_Children_(1970_film)

 

 

 

The Somme – A Personal Journey

The attack along the Somme was preceded by an eight-day preliminary bombardment of the German lines, beginning on Saturday 24 June 1916.

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1,738,000 shells were fired at the Germans.

I had been drawn to the battlefields of the Somme by an unseen hand, a longing to return to a place I have never been before.

The sky was eggshell blue and the emerald grass ebbed and flowed in the sunlight. The earth did not tremble, could not, yet deep inside I felt it move. One hundred years of rain has washed the blood deep into the ground where for now it remains.

Why the Somme and what happened there stirs such emotion in me is unclear but even as I write tears wet my cheeks.

July 1 1916, at precisely 0730, on a blue sky day such as mine, the barrage ceased and the men went over the top.

Three million soldiers would fight over a front of 45 kilometers, Sir Douglas Haig decreed it so.

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By the end of the day, the butcher’s bill listed 58000 casualties, including 19240 killed. Thirty-two battalions had lost more than 500 men (out of an average strength of 800).

At Beaumont-Hamel, I stood where the soldiers of the 1st battalion of the Newfoundland Regiment rose from their trenches and advanced into No-Man’s-Land and the waiting German machine guns.

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Down the gently sloping field and to my right, a petrified tree, known as the Danger Tree, stands in solitude. The Newfoundlanders, unable to cut through the wire, sought cover around this tree, where they were scythed down like wheat and stacked in a shuddering mound of dead and dying flesh by German reapers.

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Memorial to the 29th Division of the Newfoundland Regiment  at Beaumont Hamel. The memorial looks towards the German lines.

The Canadians lost 700 men in thirty minutes.

Only one other battalion suffered heavier casualties – the 10th West Yorkshire Regiment, at Fricourt.

It was the first time I wept that day. It would not be the last.

Such was the accuracy of the German machine guns that the trench where I stood became clogged with the dead and dying. When the men could no longer walk on the torn remains of their comrades, when the trench was overflowing with corpses, they were forced to seek cover elsewhere, exposing themselves to withering fire.

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I walked the cambered field but my eyes kept returning to the Danger Tree.

At the bottom of the field, I came to the German front line trench. It had taken me twenty minutes to walk there from the British front line. The battle for this sacred, bloody piece of ground, lasted five months, and it was never taken by the allies.

There are 410 military cemeteries on the Somme. Many, like at Beaumont-Hamel, are on the battlefields themselves. The men having been buried where they fell.

Later that day, I visited The Thiepval Memorial. The memorial commemorates 72205 allied soldiers who were declared missing on the Somme between July 1916 and March 1918. Either their bodies were never found or the body was found but could not be identified.

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Their names are carved into the stone.

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While I was at Thiepval, a small memorial service took place. They have been happening regularly since July 1, this being the centenary of the battle.

I wept.

Why I am drawn to Picardy and The Somme seems to go beyond my interest in military history. A friend thinks I fell on the battlefield during a past life. That perhaps my name is chiseled in stone. It’s beyond me to even question that. What I do know is that since my visit a weight has been lifted from my shoulders and, like that July morning in 1916, I am free to go forward in sunlight.

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Monument to 38th Welsh Division, at Mametz Wood

If you are interested in visiting the Battlefields of WW1 then here are a couple of links:

https://www.getyourguide.com/paris-l16/from-paris-wwi-somme-battlefields-full-day-tour-t7573/

Our tour guide ‘Reggie’ was amazing. He has prodigious knowledge of the battles and those who fought in them and I can’t recommend this company enough.

For information about the Somme Battlefields:

http://www.somme-battlefields.com  http://www.firstworldwar.com/battles/somme.htm

 

 

 

What a lot of Berk(a)s

I love France, in fact I live in France although not the Mainland part. France is a republic, which I like, French people will not put up with bullshit (vive la Revolution) and are usually very fair, so the burkini ban came as a shock.

I don’t want to get into the whole Muslim migrant/terrorism thing. Like most people, I think migrants, especially those fleeing repressive regimes, should do their utmost to assimilate into the fabric of the country in which they have sought refuge and have been welcomed (that’s why I wear a beret).

What stirred me up this week was the awful photos of French police forcibly removing articles of clothing from a Muslim woman in front of her children, while a crowd clapped and cheered on a beach in Nice after the Mayor of the town decreed such dress as she was wearing illegal.

Riviera Nice, the quintessential liberal resort that just about invented topless sunbathing (and more). Nice used women and their bare breasts to promote their resort world-wide and made a fortune while doing it. When I was hitchhiking around Europe back in the 70s, myself and all the other red-blooded backpacking scruffs couldn’t get to Nice fast enough to feast our eyes on all those gorgeous breasts, and we weren’t disappointed!

It was marvelous. Here were liberated women exercising their freedom, something that all women should have, freedom and freedom of choice.

Then a councilor noticed that not all the women were bearing their breasts, and the Nice Town Hall passed a law that all female sunbathers must be naked from the waist up. To administer the new rules they sent batten-wielding male police officers to the beach to forcibly remove all bikini tops from the women who refused to do it voluntarily.

Which, of course didn’t really happen, but brings us back to the humiliation of the Muslim woman who was forced to remove articles of clothing by armed men in uniforms.

It’s possible that the woman’s husband insists she dress the way she does. It’s also possible that she dresses that way by choice.  What armed police did in partially undressing this woman is tantamount to criminal assault, even sexual assault, and it puts the whole of what France stands for to shame.

The Mayor of Nice should resign.

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Perhaps in France, everyone should be forced to wear a beret!

Perhaps the anus mouth isn’t for me!

I’m trying to get my head around the phenomenon of ‘selfies’, and sick at missing out, I thought to give it a go. A friend was given a ‘selfie stick’ as a gift and borrowing it was a good place to start. I got the smart phone attached to the stick and held it out in front, as you do, only I couldn’t hold the damn thing steady and instead of making me look cool, I looked like a demented fencer waving his epée around.

Plan B. Use my digital SLR with the timer set. First attempts ended with the timer going off before I got into position. Next, I adjusted the timer but then sat for so long with a rictus grin on my face that someone threatened to call the cops. Of course, the minute I moved towards the camera the shutter fired and I got a photo of my belt buckle.

As I was in an area where lots of people were taking selfies, I decided to watch and learn. The guys usually posed with a bunch of mates, drinks in hand, and seemed to be able to hold the selfie stick rock steady! Perhaps I needed some strong drink inside me.

The girls, on the other hand, stuck their lips out so far you could have licked ‘em and stuck them to a window. This, I’m told, is the famous ‘trout pout’ much loved by reality show celebrities.

As nothing seemed to be working, I went back to how we did it in the old days and stopped a passerby and asked if they would mind taking my picture. At first the woman was a little nervous but accepted my expensive digital SLR and assured me she had one of her own and so knew how to use it.

“I want a close up, and you want me to do the anus mouth?” I said, and did the lip thing.

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I wish she’d have simply put the camera on the ground instead of dropping it before she fled.

Oh well, back to practicing with the selfie stick.