"Be warned....If there was ever a reason for encouraging children to work much harder at school, then this is it"....National e-Book Review "Full marks for knowing where the letters are on the keyboard!"....Website Weekly
"It burnt a treat!"....Chilly pensioner
"Totally under-whelming!"....Under-whelmed of Bromley
"Brilliant! Top of our list!"....50 Worst Books Ever Written Magazine
"Just when you think things can't get any worse!"....Lou Spalls, penniless suicidal manic-depressive alcoholic
"You just don't expect this sort of thing in your own village do you?"....Nosey woman across the road
"We should bring back the birch!"....Old Git in Sketchleys
"I suggest you take two of these every four hours until the rash disappears!"....My GP
"Please be my friend!"....Lonely, of Chippenham
"Well, I suppose it's ok, but you use far too many exclamation marks for my liking!!!!!!!"....My beloved son
SLICES A Sort of Story
I've tried over and over again to write a separate chapter about Ellie, but failed miserably each and every time. Yet, without any mention of her at all, a great deal of what follows (post 1976 chapters at any rate) would make very little sense to the casual reader. The best that I can achieve therefore, is a page or two of emotionally sanitized, outline-type notes.
Faye, my partner at the time, gave birth to Ellie, bonny and strong despite being three weeks premature, on a cold, wet, rain-sodden day in December 1974. I held that wonderful, fragile little spark of life, whose eyes were as blue as a kingfisher's wing, close in my arms and the thin, grey winter light turned to warm, summer sunshine as I breathed in the smell of her new-born baby-ness. I was overcome with feelings that I had never had before. Nothing had ever been more precious to me.
For a year, our baby grew as babies do and, by the magical Christmas of 1975, she had taken her first few steps.
Ellie had her first fit in January 1976 ("petit mals" my mum called them). The GP referred her to a specialist and he gave her tests....lots of tests....all negative....We carried on.
There were lots more fits though (seizures really) in the following months, each preceded by a frightening moment or two when Ellie would suddenly run, mindlessly, uncontrollably, a few steps before collapsing! She would soon come-to and be fine again....No other symptoms presented, but she would be "out" for a little longer each time and a new kind of fear began to gnaw away at our insides. There were no more tests.
I hated the reigns, but they were always necessary. They kept her close to us and prevented her running into the road or maybe falling and hurting herself when she passed out. I hated what seemed to be happening to her....To all of us!
One day, in 1976, during the hottest July on record, Ellie, 19 months and 4 days old, collapsed and failed to wake up! I remember, through the crimson fog of abject fear that had enveloped me, how I held her cold little hand so tightly in the ambulance and how the crewman called to his partner to speed up because he couldn't find a pulse! I remember how, at the hospital, we waited and waited until they came and said that she was dead. The consultant dealing with her case was at a very important meeting and so it was a distraught and very emotional young junior doctor (younger that me I thought) who confirmed what we had already guessed. He, by all accounts, had been heroic in his efforts to save Ellie. He was a good man whose name I don't remember, though I've never forgotten his face. My partner wept....and wept....and I remember nothing else that day.
I plummeted then, into a bottomless pit of despair, assailed on all sides by every nightmare horror my shattered soul could summon up. I had not been able to say goodbye to her one last time....It had all been so sudden and this ripped and tore at me more than anything.
To say our world collapsed doesn't even begin to describe those events that summer....Everything fell apart. Within a week after the funeral, my partner left and I never saw her again. My mind was finally tipped by ferocious grief into the further oblivion of temporary madness and, after completely destroying (in a blind fit of rage and frustration) all the toys, clothes, photographs and anything else belonging to Ellie or that simply reminded me of her that I could find, I returned to my parent's home. I was inconsolable and, without their support during those first few awful weeks, I don't think I'd have made it at all.
On Ellie's second birthday, I stood by her grave and explained to her that I had made a decision....A cowards decision really. I couldn't cope in my home town any more. I needed to leave....To run away. So I paid a visit to the local armed forces recruitment office and enquired about joining the Royal Navy. I found myself in Swindon a few days later to sit a basic Navy Entry Initiative Test. It was simple enough....a "name all the counties that border Gloucestershire" sort of thing....and, afterwards, the very nice man in the smart uniform said that I'd done well and that, because I'd managed to spell my name correctly, stand up straight and finish a sentence he didn't now have to refer me to the army instead! He also asked if I'd ever considered a career in Her Majesty's Royal Marines Commando. As it happened, my best (and only) friend from school, Tony Southham, had joined the marines a couple of years previously and it was probably his presence and support at the funeral that had planted the idea of my joining the forces in my mind in the first place, though I had often toyed with the idea over the years and actually came close to enlisting when I finished my zoo-keeping apprenticeship in 1969. There had always been a certain "calling" I think. I said to the very considerate man that I'd "give it a try" and so I filled out the forms and signed on the dotted line right there and then. It was that easy and it was done!
Later chapters in this "book" (when I get round to putting them on my site) will reveal that I actually have two birth certificates....One from when I was born, but not christened and another from when I was adopted (aged 5) and completely re-named at what was my eventual christening. This was not an uncommon occurrence with adopted children in the fifties apparently. Most significantly, I enlisted in January 1977, using my original, birth name (not a false one as some recruits were known to do) and not the one given to me after my adoption and which I reverted to after being invalided out six years later. Even now, I receive my military pension in that name, paid into an old building society account opened up in Arbroath nearly 30 years ago!
I did all this, I believe, to "hide" myself away from the world as effectively as possible. My mental faculties in those days were far from what they should have been, but I don't regret using my birth name or even the endless confusion resulting from it when I finally left the Regiment. What I do regret however, is not telling my parents that I was enlisting! I told no-one, in fact. It was over a month after joining up that I finally revealed to mum and dad by letter (still the coward) that yes, I was living in Devon, but not in a Paignton bedsit as I'd told them, and that I wasn't actually working as a keeper at the local zoo. I was instead, writing from the sterile and unforgiving surroundings of barrack-quarters, HM RMC Lymstone!
It certainly wasn't fair on them....They missed Ellie too....so very much....and they weren't able to run away like their cowardly son. They must have worried endlessly about my state of mind and not hearing from me for weeks on end must have been very hard to bear. Suddenly, on top of everything else, they now had my physical safety to worry about as they imagined me pounding the riot-torn streets of Belfast, embroiled in the desperate events emerging from their TV screen every evening during the worst years of the "Troubles" in the latter half of the 1970s and early 80s.
Deception and secrecy have persisted with regard to my military "career" right up until just three or four years ago. Over ten years of therapy (from 1992) have finally resulted in my "revealing" some of the less painful details of my past to "anyone who will stand still long enough to listen"....Doctor's orders. Unfortunately however, few, if any, choose to believe my ramblings and I must be branded a liar by some I think. I have been informed of at least two individuals who have been making "enquiries" about my military past, not realizing that I used a different name back then and even the good old British Legion have been approached. Their children too have quizzed my daughter, asking if her dad had ever been in the army....She said no, of course, because I was never, or ever would be, a "brown job"! Some people will never grasp the difference between Marines and Army!
Just a few weeks (by then 1977) after the test in Swindon, during the coldest January for 15 years, I found myself on a train, en route to Devon, heading for 32 weeks of the most physically gruelling and miserable basic training for entry into any armed forces regiment in the world.
At that time, however, nothing that the military could throw at me, had much, if any, effect. I was never more detatched or emotionally unassailable than during that initial period following Ellie's death. Basic training turned out to be a welcome distraction from the constant aching inside and I embraced it. Ellie was never out of my mind and rarely is, even today, but all that physical and mental duress (which gradually increased in ferocity as the NCOs began to suspect that I might actually go the whole nine yards) went some distance, at least, towards anaesthetising the emotional anguish that festered in my soul both day and night!
The NCOs were right....I did make it....along with only three other poor sods out of an original intake of 54! In those days, the idea was to devise any means possible (often within the law) to actively "encourage" recruits ("nods") to catch the next train home and back to the loving arms of their girlfriends and mothers and not, as appears to be the case these days, to devise any means possible to encourage them to stay, including (dare I say it) councilling!
Whichever way you look at it, I believe that Ellie got me through it all. She always carried my thoughts away from the pressures and pain of countless beastings, drills, inspections and the blood and blisters of 30 mile yomps in 70lb full kit order!
I was never running away from her you see....just everything else and, most of all, myself. Ellie was always there, in my mind and my heart and by my side. She gave me the greatest strength when I needed it most and when I was at my lowest ebb.
Nothing could touch me emotionally for a long time after her death. Not until my second tour in Northern Ireland in fact. It was there that I started to care again. The "Troubles" did that for me at least!
In any conflict, politics count for nothing to the average bootneck or squaddie. In the blood-soaked thick-of-it-all, the only thing that really matters is the man marching, running or cowering next to you. Your "oppos" count for everything!
During those military years, punctuated at times with moments of sheer terror and utter disbelief, I really did become convinced that Ellie was with me again....Looking after me. I just wish that she could have done the same for some of my friends.
I'm sure, thinking back, that my mindset had become purely irrational and, although my decision-making ability remained largely unaffected, my perception of the world was seriously distorted in several ways. Chief amongst these was my growing belief that Ellie's "Spirit" would take the form of a bird to be nearer to me! Laughable now, I know....Product of an unbalanced mind....probably, but a whole succession of weird events involving various birds in places thousands of miles apart combined to convince me absolutely that she was there. It can all be explained rationally I'm sure....Mostly coincidence and an over-active imagination I expect. Nevertheless, I still feel, sometimes, that Ellie's right there, watching over me, as I do my ranger stuff in the woods or as I trek across the fields and around the lakes and reservoirs!
My dad died in 1985 and my mum in 2002. In going through their things after my mum had passed away, I came across a single photograph of Ellie and myself. It had been taken by my mum in the park on the day that Ellie died. Mum had taken her scissors however and cut away the half of the picture showing my partner so that only Ellie and I remained. I'm shirtless in the summer heat, holding Ellie on the reigns and we're both happy....Laughing.
Two hours later she was dead!
It's the only picture I have of her. I destroyed all of my mum's as well back in those dark days. She must have hidden this one away where I wouldn't find it. Now I'm never without it!
A Birthday Surprise and a Very Special Smile (June 1954)
“Stay there. I’ll be back soon. Look at all the toys.”
My mother had disappeared round the corner.
“Going to the toilet” she’d said.
I didn’t mind being left on my own. I’d never seen so many toys! My fifth birthday would be in two days time and there I was in Cheltenham’s (possibly the world’s) biggest toy department in the town’s poshest shop, Cavendish House!
An announcement had been made at home the previous evening...”No school tomorrow. You and me are going on the bus to Cheltenham. Rachel, you’ll be going to school as usual”.
My half-sister and I glanced at each other. She looked cross!
My mother’s boyfriend of some years, my father, looked on from his favourite armchair. He was in the US Air Force serving a long-term posting in the UK. He’d done brave things,apparently, in bombers during the War. My mother said it was why he drank a lot of whiskey and hit me sometimes. I didn’t like him at all, but at least he didn’t live with us all the time and I was glad.
Rachel was nine years old and more of a mother to me than my real mother had ever been. It was she who dragged me out of bed in the mornings, got me washed, dressed, breakfasted (sometimes) and ready for school while my mother lay in bed, usually until lunchtime.
I never saw my father touch Rachel, except when he kicked out at her one time. He missed, but I got angry and screamed at him that I’d stab him with a knife the next time he was drunk if he ever hurt her. I got slapped in the face for my trouble, but I would have done it for certain!
Rachel always walked with me the mile and a half to school, her hand pressed reassuringly into mine. She’d already taught me to read a bit and do some basic sums, as well as loads of other stuff, such as identifying edible mushrooms and how to skin, gut and cook a rabbit. Those are the things I remember most about her....and her gentle smile. Sometimes she stuck up for me and she read stories to me at night in the bed we shared. I’ve never felt safer at any time in my life than when I was with her.
“Hello little man, where’s your mummy?” The lady smelt of strong perfume. The same perfume I thought, as the one worn by Mrs Jarrott my teacher at school, but definitely not the same as my mother’s which always smelt like bathrooms! She seemed very old (probably at least thirty) and looked as though she’d applied her make-up with a trowel! I could read the name badge she wore on the lapel of her navy-blue jacket....”Mrs Bond”.
“She’s a long time in the toilet” Mrs Bond was obviously concerned. I’d told her where I thought my mother was, but hadn’t actually noticed how much time had passed. My mother and I had already spent ages shopping all over town for clothes and things for her. She’d had what seemed like lots of money. I didn’t know where from. She only had an afternoon job at a small box-making factory in town and money was something we saw precious little of at the best of times. Eventually, I’d been rescued by the visit to the toy department and her apparent need to go to the toilet. Meanwhile, I’d spent the time productively, choosing something for my birthday. After all, that’s what I assumed I’d been kept out of school for in the first place.
Mrs Bond and I must have talked for a while, but I don’t really remember how long. Other people came,but my mother didn’t.
Other details are sketchy. I sat for what seemed like ages in an office or something. I was given squash and biscuits. Several people came in to speak to me. I didn’t really worry at first, even after the police arrived. I especially remember the nice WPC. I was eventually taken home in a police car (exciting), but there was no-one there. I must have mentioned Rachel and we went to the school. My mother had collected her earlier and they’d gone off with a man, my father, in a car. I never saw any of them again!
Many years later, I learned that they had flown to the US in a military transport from Fairford in Gloucestershire and had begun a new married life together over there. Apparently, at the time, both the US Government immigration authorities and the USAF actively frowned upon any child born out of wedlock to US servicemen posted abroad and were known to be particularly “difficult” with regard to issuing the appropriate and necessary immigration documents for allowing such offspring permanent entry into the United States. Therefore, I can only guess that gaining admission into the US would have been next to impossible for my mother with me in tow (this was the 1950s after all), but it all seems very ironic given the history of American immigration policy and the fact that 99%of all Americans are descended from immigrants from all over the world and that many of them, such as the Irish and the Italians are incredibly proud of both their roots and their former national heritage.
Basically, my mother must have been offered the prospect of a brand-new and relatively exciting married life in an altogether different environment with my father, the man she obviously loved and whose tour in the UK may well have been coming to an end.However, it meant that she was forced to choose between him and me....and I guess she made her choice!
Anyway, that same night, I“slept” a bit (but not much) in a police cell of all places! I don’t know why I was placed in a police cell. It smelt of vomit and disinfectant and the mattress reeked of beer! Maybe that’s a major reason why I’ve never ever drunk alcohol. I remember crying a lot at the time, but mostly I was angry....and worried about Rachel being with him and me not being there to protect her! It’s always bothered me and still does to this day!
A man and a lady came to collect me in the morning, but things are a blur after that and I remember very little else. I know they took me to a large house that smelt like a hospital and that there were other children there. I remember being very unhappy and afraid!
I don’t recall having a birthday present after all that year, but even now, I can still see Rachel’s gentle smile....sometimes....when I shut my eyes and everything is still and very quiet.
Most of all, I wonder what became of her and whether she missed me as much as I missed her. Decades later, I named my second daughter after her who, from her earliest days, has always possessed that same special smile!
“Time flies like an arrow” Kelly’s whisper was just loud enough for us to hear above the constant howl of the wind.
“Does it?” I muttered a reply.
“Yeah, but fruit-flies like a banana!”
I rolled my eyes, but couldn’t suppress the merest flicker of a smile. All four of us were miserably cold, wet and tired beyond reason. Four long weeks in this God-forsaken winter-wonderland.... Non-stop wind, rain and sleet! Hiding up all day in corrugated sheep pens, shallow ditches or boulder-strewn gullies. Sitting up to our necks in mud and sheep sh*t. One or two hours sleep at a time, snatched whenever possible. Yomping God knows how far every night.Never knowing which bits of the terrain might be mined and usually too miserable to care!
Seventy pounds of damp kit in a sodden Bergen on our backs, a nine pound SUIT-sighted L1A1SLR with no sling held in half-frozen hands. We'd been inserted to monitor “enemy” troop and vehicle movements. Trying desperately not to be seen and, most importantly (but without much success), to stay as dry as possible!
Kelly (real name Paul) was a Bootneck’s godsend. His type usually are....50% irritation and 50% inspiration. They never let you forget that there are other things in the universe apart from your own little world of pain and misery....namely theirs! He was convinced he looked like Clint Eastwood (I must admit he did a bit) and his favourite film was always and will forever be “Kelly’s Heroes”!
“Shut it Kelly!” I hissed and heard the edge in my own voice. Kelly and Jammy-Dodger (aka Jamie Rogers) were always capable of descending into fits of girly giggles no matter what the circumstances, but at that precise moment four enemy soldiers were less than 100 yards away!
They’d rolled up out of nowhere in a French Citroen off-roader and chosen to pull over far too close to our meagre position for comfort. The bleak, grey light of the half-dawn had caught us far too out in the open, but fortunately the wind had brought us the sound of their vehicle’s engine well before they appeared around a bend in the so-called road. Yet the best cover we could find at such short notice was minimal to say the least (three boulders, four tufts of psychotic razor-grass and the rotting carcass of a dead sheep)! We were praying that our improvised ghillie suits would be enough to blend us into our surroundings until the soldiers moved on.
Two of them couldn’t have been more than sixteen or seventeen years old and they looked even wetter and more miserable than us. I doubted ifthey had a wise-cracking Kelly of their own and, as I glanced over my shoulder at my own two “Belles of St Trinians”, I considered giving them ours!
I suddenly became aware that my bladder was full. I hadn’t had a p*ss for more than five hours. Jammy nodded towards the distant group.
One of the “boy” troopers appeared to be looking our way. He suddenly took half a dozen steps towards us and, although his weapon was still slung on his shoulder, he continued to stare in our general direction. Could he see us? Had he heard us? What the f*** were they doing anyway? Why stop there, practically in the middle of nowhere, of all places?
“Wye-aye man, don’t do it!” Tex Mick (aka Alan Mann), the token Geordie of our brotherly band, growled the words almost inaudibly, his eyes riveted on the young soldier. The passionate Newcastle United disciple and all-round b*stard always talked to himself when the adrenalin bubbled....usually before nutting some poor sod in a backstreet bar for being an even bigger b*stard than him! I saw his finger move to the trigger of his SLR out of the corner of my eye.
Cold sweat mixed with the rain and sleet on my forehead while all the time half-frozen, armour-piercing water projectiles cunningly disguised as sleety rain continued to pass through both my ghillie and tunic only marginally slower than the ice-wind from Hell sought out and froze my vital parts as we lay motionless in the soaking wet mud and heather. It didn’t improve my already fragile emotional disposition!
“If we engage now, I’ll be sure to p*ss myself” I mumbled, but at least I’ll die with a warm crotch!”
None of us moved, too apprehensive to even shiver, despite the mud, the wet and the now driving sleet!
We daren’t so much as breathe.
Then the wind and the cold suddenly didn’t matter as time stretched out into infinity.
Kelly farted! Nerves probably!
The young soldier turned to his oppos....shouted something that we couldn’t make out above the wind....He un-slung his weapon....Two of his friends stepped forward while the third edged back towards the vehicle....All were looking our way....Weapons in their hands....Anxiety and fear etched into their faces!
My eyes were fixed on the youngster....Three seconds seemed like thirty. He raised his weapon in slow-motion....Then something seemed to give way inside my head, like a dam bursting and time rushed back into the world at light-speed....I saw the barrel of the boy’s weapon “kick”....something zipped just inches over my head....I heard a “crack”!
I p*ssed myself....and shouted something....I can’t remember what....
Then the world became an uglier place and another part of me changed forever!
There was no intel worth sh*t to a pig on any of the bodies or in the vehicle itself to make the whole nasty incident even remotely justifiable. We lifted them into the back of the Citroen and covered them with their own tarpaulin. We drove it out of sight and hid it as best we could, but not before Kelly and Tex noted down their names, ranks and probable unit. I saw the boy’s name on his tags....I should never have looked!
The wind howled its disapproval and the sleet turned to heavy snow as we trudged on in silence.
PGCE (September 1986)
A Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) is exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a means by which ordinary everyday people from varied and diverse walks of life can embark on a career in teaching.
However, what is not always immediately apparent is that it’s a course lasting only nine months (real time), during which period a (usually “mature”) student must tackle a quantity of work that any self-respecting B Ed student needs three or even four years to cover! Yet it’s a course open to just about any Dick and his dog with some kind of graduate degree between them (even if it's in something like Politics,Philosophy or Media Studies) who will then, upon completion of said course, be released upon innocent and unsuspecting children across the length and breadth of the land...Nothing new there then! Crikey, they let me in didn’t they? With an Open University degree no less!
What was it Groucho Marx once said? “I would never join any club that accepted me as a member!”....Or maybe it was his estranged brother,Karl.
0900hrs. First day on the course....Dr Dowell entered the room with a flourish, slammed the door behind him and banged his briefcase down on the desk! He had our attention. He stood there and just stared at us for a full 30 seconds. We waited.
“Right!” he began at last “I’m Dr Dowell. You ordinary mortals may call me....Dr Dowell!”
A few of the other students shifted uneasily in their seats. This man already seemed like a cross between Basil Fawlty and Attila the Hun’s less likeable brother!
“Pay attention because I’m only going to say this once and then you can all bugger off back to your respective cess-pits or whatever else it is that you little parasites choose to call home!”
Venom oozed from every syllable!
“If you remember only one thing from this God-forsaken course this year, then make sure it’s this....”
I risked that precise moment to glance around at the other students. No-one had dared to move. Everyone held their pens at the ready....
“A child” he began, “is like a handful of jelly....The tighter you squeeze, the more it slips between your fingers!”
He paused again for this to sink in....It did.
“....BUT, with sufficient skill, you can mould and shape that jelly into anything you want it to be....or, in the case of a child, you can help IT to mould and shape ITSELF into anything IT wants to be! Now, go away, think about it and be back in this room by no later than 9 o’clock tomorrow morning!”
We did and we were, but not before Mr Dowell had handed each of us an A4 sheet of paper with a single line of what looked like Chinese characters emblazoned across it.
“That’s Mandarin” he kindly informed us before we left. “I want you to translate it BEFORE you return tomorrow!”
I had a slight advantage because of my year in Japan and my limited experience with Kanji. I was still unable to make a complete translation though (there was no "World According to Google" in those days)!
The following morning we waited in anticipation. No one had been able to complete anywhere near a full translation, but Tim and Mark (the only other males apart from me on a course with thirty students to a class) had taken their copies along to the local Chinese takeaway the previous evening where Mrs Foo had translated it for them!
“Well, did anyone manage it?” Dr Dowell had entered the room and begun the lecture even before his briefcase landed with yet another attention-grabbing bang on his long-suffering desk.
Tim and Mark both raised their hands....hesitantly.
“Ah-hah! Messrs Laurel and Hardy I believe” Nervous giggles escaped from several of the girls. I on the other hand, had already learned a great deal in recent years from psychotic, Scottish, English-hating NCOs with regard to the value of keeping one’s mouth well and truly shut in such situations. I chose to continue in full silent mode!
“Well, gentlemen, what did kindly Mrs Foo happen to tell you....Mm?” L& H suddenly glanced at each other with rapidly increasing feelings of guilt, panic and disbelief fighting for control of their emotions....then back at Mr Dowell.
“Sorry lads, but Monday night is Chop-Suey night in our house and I do so enjoy my little chats with Mrs Foo while I’m waiting for my order to be prepared....Come on then, spill the beans”
“Er....She, Mrs Foo, said it....She said it says “Think of the children who can’t”
“Can’t what?” The attractive, auburn-haired girl in the chair next to mine seemed particularly keen to know exactly what it said and I couldn't help but notice that she was leaning as far forward as her ample bosom was allowed by the unyielding surface of the table in front of her.
“That’s it apparently....at least according to her....'Think of the children who can’t'....That’s all it says!"
“And what do you think it means gentlemen....or anyone else for that matter?”
“Tell me, did any of you fail to translate some, if not all of it?” Most people put up their hands. “Ah, that’s what I thought”.
“But why give us homework that you knew we probably wouldn’t be able to do?” The girl next to me looked puzzled all of a sudden.
Dr Dowell walked across to the window and stared out towards the lake at the far end of the campus “Can you read Miss....er....?
“Karen....Yes, I can....Obviously”
“Well, Miss Karen, I wanted you to understand exactly what it must belike for any child in your class who, unlike you, can barely read a word! For many children, reading English is as difficult and as unfathomable a thing as you have experienced while tying to read Mandarin....and don’t you EVER forget that fact!”
Less than eight weeks later, we were preparing for our fist school placements. Mine was to be at a tiny village school deep in the heart of the Cotswold Hills. Only seventeen children on the register apparently, most of them related to each other....The film ”Deliverance” had immediately sprung to mind for some reason!
Six Sowing Seeds...or Not (August 1954)
In all fairness, Mrs Grant couldn’t allow herself to get too close to any of us. Nor had I ever considered “The Orchard” to be any kind of a home in the true sense.
She was a kind enough foster parent, but very strict and always distant in her general demeanour.
“My house is called ‘The Orchard’” she explained to me one day “because I grew up on a fruit farm near Hereford”.
My enquiry had been born out of the fact that only one tree actually grew in her garden and that was a Copper Beech!
The house itself was big though, with lots of rooms. I shared one with Michael, a seven year-old remedial boy prone to unpredictable fits who wore cornflower blue NHS spectacles and lived in fear of virtually everything in general and of “Jack” in particular. Michael was a kind of real life Ralph Wiggum, but not as bright!
Jack was nine years old and a leading contender for “Ar**hole of the Year” (10 and under category). Jack tormented Michael mercilessly. He was fascinated by his fits and was totally convinced that he ought to be able to induce one if only he could make Michael miserable enough. He did his level best to prove his theory at any and every opportunity.
I hated Jack and, although I wasn’t that fond of Michael particularly, he was my room-mate after all and the closest thing to a friend that I had in that place. I constantly felt a sense of growing injustice on his behalf as I knew only too well what it was like to be totally miserable.
One particularly hot and sticky August afternoon, Jack deliberately broke Michael’s glasses....His only pair! Michael was utterly distressed and completely inconsolable. In fact, he appeared to be as much distressed as Jack was elated.
Mrs Grant, attracted by Michael’s howling, stormed out of the house and charged across the lawn directly towards the distraught boy. She saw the broken glasses in his tear-stained hands and, without waiting for an explanation, launched into a tirade of verbal abuse.
A great deal of pent-up anger and frustration flowed from Mrs Grant that day. Michael was, as far as she was concerned, every type of useless, stupid, moronic, cretinous and idiotic child that she could find the words to describe and chose to enlighten everyone of this fact right there and then in the middle of the garden and at a considerable,ear-ringing volume.
Not surprisingly, Michael promptly escaped into a fit!
Upon seeing this, Jack collapsed to the ground convulsed with laughter, his back to the Copper Beech tree and his legs spread-eagled on the sun-baked lawn.
I walked across to Jack and stood over him. The sun shone behind me as I looked down with contempt at a creature I had nothing in common with and could never begin to understand.
Jack looked up at me, shading his eyes with his hands against the glare of the sun. Laughter had stained his face with tears.
“What?” he managed to ask between breaths.
“This is for Michael!” I kicked him as hard as I could in the groin....Really hard. It hurt my toes!
Mrs Grant stopped shouting.
Michael even stopped twitching.
Jack had stopped laughing and started being sick.
I stopped caring....Except about my toes!
Michael was put to bed to calm down after his glasses had been repaired with Sellotape.
Jack was carried to his room with a bag of ice strategically placed to aid his recovery and I was taken from “The Orchard” later that same day by a man in a car (defiant).
I found myself in what I think was a hostel for “difficult” children, but I was only there for a relatively short, miserable time before I was eventually introduced to my new adoptive parents.
They’d never been able to have children of their own. My new Dad had been rendered almost completely sterile and hospitalised after suffering a severe groin injury when he caught the full force of the restricted breach-recoil of a 7-pounder gun mounted in a Valentine-Archer tank during the push to Berlin towards the end of the Second World War.
“Why didn’t you ever have your own children?” I’d asked them and Dad was surprisingly open about it. Over the years and especially towards the end of his life, he recounted many more of his wartime experiences. Some were funny, some quite shocking, but I was always fascinated to hear them. I liked my new Dad.
I remember thinking of Jack and being secretly pleased that, because of me, there would probably never be any little Jacks in years to come to torment all the future little Michaels. I also made up my mind never to join either the Royal Artillery or the Tank Regiment!
Footnote to Chapter Six....
My new Dad is pictured here (3rd from left) with all of his tank crew somewhere in France two or three weeks after the Normandy landings in 1944. All five men were members of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlander Regiment (note the tamishanter-style berets). I do not know who the boy in the uniform is, but the boy with the stick was wearing protective goggles having been blinded by flash-burns during an allied air raid on his village. Note also, the re-building work already taking place on the houses in the background with the Germans still just a few miles down the road! The tank was undergoing minor repairs. The camouflage netting seems minimal, possibly because of the near total domination of the air by allied aircraft. However, this was still a front-line position and the enemy were, potentially, always just around the corner!
The tank, an "M10 Achilles Tank Destroyer" was designed around an American chassis and utilized almost entirely as a tank destroyer. It had the unenviable task of hunting down and destroying German Panzer and Tiger tanks, being just about the only allied tank remotely capable of taking them on successfully with its 17 pounder gun! A second tank can be seen, partially obscured by tarpaulin, about 30 yards further back.
There has always been a degree of American interest in the exploits of my father's tank due to the fact that it was actually re-deployed on D-Day from Sword to Omaha beach with two other British tanks after American mechanized units (M10 Wolverines and skirted Shermans) failed to reach the beach-head. it was used with limited success to bombard the German defences. The first Brit tank to leave the landing craft apparently sank in 15 feet of water without trace and with complete loss of the crew, while the second was blown apart by a direct hit from what was probably a German 88mm. Dad's tank was "dug in" further up the beach by American GIs using entrenching spades, some of them were killed or injured in the attempt and this was one of the enduring nightmare images of the War for my father...He never really forgave himself (rather unfairly) for not being able to lay down adequate suppressive fire to protect them! After all, The entire US invasion contingent on Omaha were unable to suppress German gunfire for most of that day!
Once off the beach, but totally cut-off from other British units, they remained with elements of the US forces for many days in a close infantry support capacity, frequently being called upon to (as the Yanks put it) "neutralize" German armour. Dad always held a special affection for the US infantry, claiming that they were the bravest (and the craziest) troops he ever saw in action. He wrote in his diary some years later, "Thank God they were on our side! I saw those men attempt things and achieve things that any sane man would blanch at the mere thought of. They were quick-tempered, foul-mouthed, abusive and abrasive, but they would stand by you and die for you to a man!".
Oddly, this story has been both confirmed and denied by British and US elements involved in the D-Day landings (depending on who you talk to) as well as by those attempting to research and record the details for posterity shortly afterwards. However, the simple fact is that with so few first-hand witnesses still alive today, the exact details of what really happened at Omaha can never be entirely substantiated and will, therefore, never be fully understood. All I know is that it's the people who were actually there and directly involved in the landings who always seemed to recall my father's tank being on the beach (and some say one other tank as well....possibly the one shown in the background of the photograph above) and that it's the academics of today who argue that it was not!
Dad's best friend Don (who I was renamed after following my adoption), was killed in a "friendly fire" incident only days after the black and white photo above this one was taken (Don is on the extreme left of the group). His death was officially recorded in a single sentence as "KIA by enemy sniper fire"! A British Fatality in a modern war merits a report with an average of 5000 words (quite rightly) and this is issued to a host of military and government departments who each perpetrate their own enquiries into the circumstances surrounding the incident. Two more of Dad's crew were killed later in the campaign when the M10 was disabled by a German infantryman with a Panzerfaust. Dad was hospitalized and, despite the loss of a finger and most of his hearing, he was returned to active service less than two weeks later, this time as the gunner in a "Valentine/Archer" (strangely, on secondment to the Royal Artillery).
Dad died of lung and throat cancer in 1985, but shortly after learning that his illness was terminal, he made the pilgramage, in great pain, to the French military cemetery pictured above, to pay his last respects to Don who was honoured there. He stood in front of the grave for half an hour, alone with his memories and his tears. They were good mates and I know that a big part of my Old Man never really recovered from that awful day back in 1944.
I've added this footnote simply because I want at least some of my father's war-time exploits to be made public. I want the people who read this to know that I care about him and his friends and that I'm eternally grateful for the sacrifices they made to make the world a better place for me and my kids! My Dad was a tall man of slim build and quiet demeanour. He spent the rest of his life as a semi-skilled machinist working long hours in a noisy factory to provide a decent life for his family and rarely complained when times were hard, as they often were.
He was thankful that he had survived a conflict that took the lives of tens of millions worldwide, but he had lost all faith in religion somewhere back there, on the crimson battlefields of Normandy and the corpse be-strewn road to Berlin! Like many others though, he learned to bury his experiences deep inside his stricken soul and fought a constant, sometimes desperate battle to hide his true feelings from the rest of the world for the remainder of his life. There were all too frequent occasions however, while I still lived at home, that I would find myself lying awake in the early hours, listening to the sound of my Dad's gentle sobbing and Mum's whispered words of consolation....For thousands of men and women the War didn't end in 1945, nor would it until they themselves were laid to rest!
Meanwhile, God or no God, if there's a place in the afterlife for a decent, honest family man, then there must surely be one for my Dad!
This photo of my Dad was taken in 1945 after the end of the war and, incredibly, he's just 21 years old....Like so many others desperate to do their bit for King and Country at the start of it all, he lied about his age when he joined up!
Meanwhile, back at the ranch....
No....this definitely isn't Shirley McClaine and Clint Eastwood....After I left home in the late 1960s, Dad and Mum set off to explore some of the more "interesting" places around the world. I guess they were the original "extreme adventure" enthusiasts, but modern outdoor-types please note, just because you're miles from civilization in some God forsaken location, astride a a mean-spirited mule with nothing more than a flea-ridden pillow tied on with string for a saddle and old rope for reigns, it doesn't mean that you can't turn out in a crisply ironed and spotlessly clean white shirt and immaculately pressed beige slacks....After all, who really needs gortex waterproofs, three breathable layers or £200 hiking boots? Armand and Mikala Dennis could always manage a pristine turn-out, so why not everyone else?
Uncle Chris (April 1958)
Uncle Chris was a gamekeeper....The old-fashioned kind....The type whose heart beat to the rhythm of the Land....A sort of Jack Hargreaves with attitude and an over-fondness for the juice of the apple....and I don’t mean apple juice!
Nowadays, so-called gamekeepers with their college diplomas and modern ways are little more than land-owner lackeys bowing to the pressures of modern farming methods and the demands of conglomerate supermarket chains!
Uncle Chris wouldn’t have “fitted in” with today’s rural“scene”!
“Bloody hunt, I hate the bloody hunt!” Those b*stards give me nuthin’ but work! I’ve got better things to be doin’ Donald than to be fixin’ fences and roundin’ up bloody sheep first thing of a Monday mornin’!”
His vitriolic feelings towards hunting with hounds wasn’t based solely upon the amount of extra work it gave him following one of the local Hunt’s rampages across his beloved countryside, but on the “pomp and circumstance” of the entire process and the “festival/carnival” atmosphere encouraged in what was, for him, an unsavoury and regrettable necessity....The culling of Foxes in order to ensure a healthier rural fox population overall.It was also one that he felt should be left to “countrymen” like himself, who would do the job more efficiently, selectively and humanely with a rifle than any bunch of liquored-up Hooray-Henrys on horseback desperately trying to keep up with a bunch of salivating hounds could ever hope to achieve!
I liked Uncle Chris a lot, except that he usually insisted upon calling me “Pimple Legs” for reasons best known to himself! Today though, he was angry and so I was “Donald”.
“Lift that end up more Donald” I did as I was told and raised the hefty fence rail as high as my puny nine year-old frame would permit.
He drove home a wooden securing peg with a sizeable rock and grunted with a grudging satisfaction. “That’s it. Well done!”
It was the Easter holidays and, as usual during any holiday, I’d been up before first light to be out and about with Uncle Chris and his devoted Spaniel dogs “Wet” and “Windy”.
“Mum said could I bring back a couple of rabbits for tea?” We were making our way towards Bennett's Wood. My own dog, “Slipper”, trotted happily by my side. His ears suddenly pricked up at the mention of “rabbits”.
“We’ll see what we can manage, but first there’s another bloody fence down over there!
The day wore on and we talked little, but for me, the pleasure lay in simply being with this gentle man. So knowledgeable in the ways of the countryside and only too happy to pass on splinters of his vast experience to me, like master to apprentice. His skills were, at times, almost mystical....For him, catching a rabbit wasn’t a thing to be done with trap, snare or gun....
“Stay there Pimple Legs” We’d spent several minutes advancing downwind on a grazing buck rabbit in an adjacent field and now I was to remain out of sight with the dogs behind a substantial Hawthorn hedge. My uncle meanwhile, entered the field through a gap in the hedge further along. His left hand securing his hat to his head in the stiff spring-time breeze and his right hidden behind his back clutching his trusty oaken “Nobbler” carved for use as a weapon from a piece of Belgian Oak by my Grandfather, a cavalryman during the First World War and whose exploits are honoured on the “Cross” memorial in Tewkesbury High Street in Gloucestershire.
My uncle edged forward, eyes fixed squarely on the rabbit.
It took him the best part of ten minutes to cover the twenty or so yards between himself and the luckless animal. His movements were slow, uncomplicated and deliberate. His eyes never left those of his prey. The rabbit was mesmerized, watching my uncle every step of the way and seemingly incapable of trying to flee!
Finally, as he stepped within a yard or two of his intended victim, he simply removed his hat and dropped it gently over the rabbit which, even then, failed to react. With a sudden explosive motion, the awesome Nobbler descended with mighty force upon the hat and, beneath it, the head of the hypnotized creature!
This process was repeated two more times that day. Mum was pleased with our efforts and enough stew was made for Uncle Chris to be able to join us later that evening for dinner which he was overly fond of doing because he preferred my Mum’s cooking to my Aunty Daisy’s!
His “outdoor” abilities made him legend in the Severn Valley and surrounding countryside, but only I was ever welcomed as his companion. The archetypal loner, he lived until he was 83....Dying, without fuss, from heart failure while sitting on the banks of the River Severn one sunny autumn day, a dog at his feet and owing nothing to the world.
I walked to Bennett's Wood down by the river the day after hisf uneral with my Aunt Daisy and his two surviving sons, Christopher and David to scatter his ashes. It was his favourite place....and mine too. Now it’s a small, though select, housing estate with tidy lawns and good access to the M5.
Eleven Tony (September, 1960)
For me, the fist day at Tewkesbury Secondary Modern School for Boys was something to dread. Brand new school uniform (three sizes too big), my cousin David’s old shoes (slightly too small) and a new brown leather satchel large enough to fit me inside, but containing just a pen,pencil, rule and one of my own recipe “doorstop” sandwiches.
I stood at the edge of the top playground trying to blend in with a brick wall and not be noticed by any of the older boys....Older boys did things to the new ones....Horrible things....Things like stick your head down the toilet and pull the chain or remove your trousers and underpants and leave you tied up in the middle of the school playing field! It was all true because George Gardner had said it was at primary school last term and he’d already got an older brother at big school who went to great lengths to tell George all the scary details!
I noticed that quite a few of the other new kids were looking fairly anxious as well.
“You’re the weird bird-boy ent yuh?” Startled, I dropped my satchel inadvertently and spun to face the voice. It was a surprise as people weren’t usually able to sneak up on me quite so easily.
In fact, the voice turned out to belong to a fairly tall youth with dark hair and one brown eye....the other was a milky-blue colour. Wall-eyed! I knew that’s what it was called because my Gran’s dog, “Porridge” had the same condition and it didn’t seem to bother him because he was a really good rabbiter!
“I like birds if that’s what you mean!” I replied defensively. I was prepared to defend my hobby against all-comers. I was also aware that my ornithological interests and my propensity to keep myself to myself often set me apart from other children at school who tended to view me as slightly “different” and, therefore, made me a potential target for bullies. Only my well-earned reputation for striking back with savage intent and significant cowardice when they least expected it or when their backs were turned ensured that I was generally left well alone!
“Do you like rabbits?” I enquired in all innocence.
The boy stared at me for a moment or two and blinked “I’m Tony Southam” he finally announced.
“Yeah, I know. Bricker Smith sez you’re a nutter....He said you whacked Phil Danter on the knee with a rounders bat really ‘ard and ‘e ‘ad to go ‘ome from school”
“Danter is an idiot!” To me, this was a simple statement of fact. “Only an idiot throws stones at birds!”
“Why d’you like birds so much?”
“Why d'you like rabbits?”
“Eh? I don’t. What makes you think I like rabbits?”
“Oh, no reason”
“You are a bit weird aren’t you?”
“I’m not the one with wall-eyes” I thought to myself.
The simple fact was, I quite liked this Tony Southam. He exuded a certain easy confidence and, despite all his questioning, I didn’t feel that I was being judged.
The whistle suddenly blew for the start of the new school day and we both went to join our respective lines.
“See ya Bird-Boy” Southam strode off to join the rest of his class.
“See ya Rabbit-Boy”. I hoped he would never find out why I called him that as I scurried away to try and locate my own class and find out exactly where I was meant to be.
Tony was in the third form, two years above me. He was a very popular,soft-spoken lad who was never brash or big-headed....Didn’t need to be. He had an inner quality and indefinable mental strength that others, including me, always seemed to pick up on and he gave of his time freely to the most unlikely of people. That he had true leadership abilities was without doubt, but they seemed to manifest mostly through the fact that people simply liked to please him. Almost everyone wanted to be his friend, including the teachers.
Somehow, I’m not sure how, we became friends....Good friends and though to him I was always “Bird-Boy”, I just called him “Tony”.
The head down the toilet and ceremonial de-baggings never came to pass for any of us of course, but there were plenty of uncomfortable moments during that first year as far as I was concerned. One notable occasion was when a scavenging pack of fourth-formers led by the impunious“Fatty” Fletcher stole my copy of John Holland’s “Bird-Spotting” (first edition 1960, subsequently withdrawn, second edition 1963) that I had recently won in a competition organised by the Junior Bird Recorders Club (junior branch of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds....annual membership 2/6d) and tried to flush it down one of the loos in the outside toilet block! I retrieved the book by completely and utterly losing my temper (perhaps even my sanity temporarily) and then, apparently (I don’t really remember) grabbing hold of Fletcher’s head in both my hands and attempting to literally bite off his nose,making it bleed profusely!
A ridiculously bandaged “Fatty” Fletcher and his mates waited for me after school that day, but, like everyone else, Tony had heard all about it and hung around for me as well. He told me to stay at the gate while he walked over to Fletcher and his cronies and spoke to them all very quietly. He would never tell me what he’d said, but none of those morons ever really bothered me again.
Unfortunately, the matter also came to the attention of the headmaster, Mr “Bert” Weedon. I was summoned to his office the following day and a full explanation was demanded of me. I refused to speak to him and received three of the best from “Mr Whippy”, his favourite cane, across each hand and a month’s detention spent cutting the main school lawn with nail scissors! Fletcher meanwhile, got off with just a warning because he apologised.
Tony took me to the science lab after I’d had the cane on that occasion and poured white spirit on my smarting palms. It stung like a nettle sandwich for a few seconds, but then suddenly felt a whole lot better! It was a difficult month that followed however, what with the ever-worsening blisters that I acquired from using the nail scissors....Mind you, I adamantly refused to speak to Weedon ever again, or at least for all the years I remained at that school!
Fourteen That Most Heinous of Games (Winter, 1964)
I'm sure that those people who know me will be the first to vouchsafe forsooth that I would never use a big word when a diminutive will suffice. My work-a-day vocabulary, such as it is, lacks any real breadth and depth and, even when fully stretched, could never pass as being particularly impressive. Most frustratingly of all, I know that it will never develop the kind of versatility required to enter into the realms of the truly creative.
Why should this be? Well, obviously, I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer (more of a spoon really), yet I'm pretty certain that I wasn't always this way....In fact, my profound deficit in the brain-box department stems, I believe, not so much from the many times I was dropped on my head as a baby by my all too frequently alcohol-besotted birth mother, but more from being forced at school, as an acutely naive and worryingly (to me) lanky and ultra-skinny fifteen year-old, to play that most pointless and heinous of pituitary gland-driven and testosterone-fuelled "games" for the typically inadequacy-compensating, insecurity-riddled male human ape....rugby football!
One freezing, January afternoon, circa 1964, as a savagely malicious polar wind directed lances of rain, sleet and snow straight up the legs of my wet, ridiculously baggy, mud-be-splattered, Dixie Dean cotton shorts and into my progressively deep-frozen nether-regions, I looked up and yelped in alarm! Terrified prop-forward, Andy "Stinker" Stone had suddenly turned in my direction and, screaming unintelligibly, had thrown an ice-covered lump of granite, cunningly disguised as a rugby ball, into my midriff just moments before disappearing beneath the 15 stone avalanche of fists, boot studs and gnashing teeth that was Mr. "Good God!" Green (Geography teacher and detention uber-fuhrer)!
Every year, Tewkesbury Secondary Modern School for Boy's ludicrously hapless, terminally hopeless, and currently terrified fifth form rugby first XV (into which I had been forcibly 'conscripted' that very day by virtue of the fact that two thirds of the class were mysteriously absent from school) were pitted against members of the school staff's "Masters of Pain best XV").
At its altruistic best, this was (in the immortal words of school headmaster, Mr. "Bert" Weedon's letter to parents) "a wonderful chance for staff and pupils alike, to embrace a simple game of rugby as an opportunity for everyone to compete courageously and as equals on the level playing field of teamwork and commitment....To set aside all differences in the true spirit of competition and forge iron links of mutual admiration and respect".
In reality of course, it was simply an opportunity for a herd of the biggest, ugliest and grudge-bearingest members of the school's teaching staff to kick, beat and stomp the proverbial crap out of fifteen luckless and shivering wretches as repayment for all the insidious, so-called classroom misery we'd inflicted upon them over the previous five years!
Horrified, I held the solid, egg-shaped lump of ice in my trembling and very blue fingers....The still active part of my brain screamed "run you moron!", but my skinny, ill-shaped little legs and my permafrost-bitten feet failed, as a unit, to fully comprehend the awesome significance of the irresistible cascade of high-octane, adrenalin-fuelled panic suddenly overwhelming me!
My eyes widened to saucer-size as the vaguely hippopotamus shape of Jimmy "The Slipper" Edwards (French and Modern Sadism) rampaged into my field of view! I learned later, from the double-image of school nurse, Mrs. "Birdy" Finch, that it was, in fact, the gargantuan girth of Mr. "Pick-it-and-Eat-it" Peters (English and Foul Habits) who scythed me down from behind and that it was the behemoth Mr. "Scabs" Scrivens (Woodwork and Creative Pain) who actually sat on my head!
I do vaguely remember being dragged by my arms, half conscious, through the mud from the field of "play", but it was the halitosis-enriched breath and meandering hands of the disturbingly over-attentive "Dirty" Davies, the school caretaker who managed to 'revive' me just long enough to hear the re-assuring diagnosis of "Bert" Weedon as he examined me briefly...."Well, yes Mrs Finch, obviously I can see the blood, but it's only a head injury....He'll be alright in a minute!".
Change, of course, is inevitable (except from vending machines). The very thought of a "staff v pupils" rugby match is a modern anathema....It simply couldn't happen in today's climate of over-enthusiastic child-protection and run-away health and safety legislation....and the bubble-wrapped, nanny-state children of the 21st Century should be made fully aware that we (and myself in particular) suffered greatly so that, eventually, they wouldn't have to! The modern school child can rest easy, secure in the knowledge that he or she will hardly ever have their head sat upon and their IQ drastically reduced by corpulent woodwork teachers lusting for blood and retribution!
The modern teacher, as I'm sure, any of today's children will rush headlong to confirm, is a thoroughly likeable, fun-loving, amenable and dedicated individual, a veritable BBF and totally undeserving of the abusive (though often witty) nicknames afforded to the so-called teachers of yester-year! That's why we have the entirely splendid and lovingly crafted tome that is the "National Curriculum". It keeps all our teachers on their "teachy toes", It guides them with great wisdom through the veritable minefield that is primary and secondary education and equips them with the indispensable tools of their trade.
The days of "Pick-it-and-Eat-it" Peters and "Good God!" Green are long gone, thank goodness and the future is coming up roses for our children and our children's children....and theirs....and theirs....and wouldn't it be nice if, somewhere along the line, a child, any child (but especially my own) could spare a moment or two to appreciate the sacrifice that I and countless others like me made all those years ago (albeit unavoidably) as we strove to live up to Weedon's idealistic tosh.
I eventually recovered, physically at least, from my drastic two minute contribution to the "match" and even the headaches disappeared over the years!. The combined best efforts of my three blubberous "academic " aggressors, totalling something in the region of 45 stones, had failed miserably to forge any of those elusive "iron links of mutual admiration and respect" and, despite the final score of only 57-0 to the "Masters of Pain", I just couldn't bring myself to believe that we had competed in any way as "equals on the level playing field of teamwork and commitment"!
Here, my children, aged 16 and 12 at the time this photo was taken, are probably deep in discussion about better ways they might find to "appreciate" their old Dad who, I'm sure they would be the first to admit, made all kinds of sacrifices on their behalf!
Fifteen Off My Trolley (March, 2006)
I don't like shopping....of any kind! Too many people milling about and not enough space. I can just about tolerate a trip to an all-night Tescos at 0300hrs, provided I know exactly what I'm getting and where it is to within half a metre. I inevitably experience an overwhelming need to be in and out of the shop in less time than it takes to embarrass my teenage children in front of their friends (simply by being there apparently) and please, oh please don't let me be caught in a checkout queue between those totally socially uninhibited ladies (mysteriously found in pairs in every supermarket across the land) who are never without at least two massively over-laden shopping trolleys apiece, dangling never fewer than four grizzly, tear-stained and thoroughly grubby under-fives from every part of their anatomy while, all the time, dispersing a particularly thick and noisome mix of "search-and-destroy" BO and "Channel" Odour Toilet Water that has all the sexual allure of an eyeful of pepper spray!
Just a couple of weeks ago and due to unforeseen circumstances beyond my control (ie: my wife told me to do it), I was forced, against all that's natural, to go shopping during daylight hours! Arghh! Not only that, I was instructed to track down a whole bunch of stuff I'd never heard of, concealed on shelves I didn't know existed....What a nightmare!
Reluctantly, I decided to go to our nearest supermarket (only 11 miles away), but I wont say that it was Morrisons in case they find out who I am and take out proceedings against me! Basically, I hadn't been there since they took over from Safeways and I didn't know that they'd set up a "system" with their trolleys requiring that you now insert a pound coin into a slot device thingy on your chosen trolley in order to release it from a whole line of other, similar trolleys. Fair enough....If I'd known about it, I'd have had a pound at the ready, but I didn't know about it, so I didn't have one! You see, I don't usually carry cash when I'm out and about doing rangering bits and pieces and use a credit card for emergencies only....and shopping.
The shopping list continued to weigh heavy in my pocket and my orders from above still rang in my ears...."Get it done yesterday, if not sooner!".
I couldn't really go back home just for a pound and then all the way back to the supermarket....I didn't have time and there was no-one around who I knew well enough to scram a pound from. I did consider asking one lady if she could let me have her "used" trolley after she'd unloaded her shopping into the boot of her car, but then she wouldn't have got her pound back would she.
Only one thing for it then....
I'm sure that the nice people at Morrisons really are very nice people for the most part, but I do believe I've discovered their Achilles heel in terms of how far their patience can be stretched....Imagine if you worked there and some idiot came round the corner of an aisle pushing five supermarket trolleys all linked together and with assorted items of shopping piled on top of them! What would you think? What would you do? I'd probably find some very important shelves to fill in another aisle at the other end of the shop all of a sudden!
Yet isn't it strange how all "supervisors" and/or underling managers are the same the world over....How they all appear to be cast from the same die. What sets them apart from the rest of humanity however, is their total inability to cope with the unexpected. This, combined with their uncanny talent to turn their faces a bright purpley colour almost instantly (like a baboon's bottom) and their strangely puzzling desire to blow even the most insignificant of happen-stances out of all proportion to the real world, makes them truly unique!
Oh well....I did my shopping five miles further on at Tescos instead....They at least had "normal" trolleys" with good, old-fashioned wonky wheels and no slot thingys!
A bewildering and perplexing hour later, I had completed my shopping, even managing to find some of the things on the list and, despite a particularly wonky wheel (plus squeak) on a trolley that insisted I go anti-clockwise around the aisles against the main flow of most of the other, increasingly irritated shoppers, I felt a sense of achievement. It was then that I discovered that "thrift" is still alive and kicking in the backwaters of rural Gloucestershire....
In today's throw-away, credit-driven society, thrift has, for most people, become a thing of the past, but as I stood at the little lottery booth near the newsagents counter at the entrance to the shop, filling-in a month's worth of assorted National Lottery "Thunderball" and "Lotto" tickets, I felt a sharp prod in my left kidney....
"Is that your pen or the shop's?" The man was 90 if he was a day and was perched precariously on one of those Formula One "shop-mobility" stealth run-arounds. He was leaning forward to weild a particularly long walking-stick with a rubber bung on the business end and it was this that he'd used to poke me with!
"Yes it is" I replied, "there doesn't appear to be any shop ones".
"Bastards!" His response was honest, if not succinct. "Could I borrow yours?"
"Yeah, sure" I continued filling-in my tickets with renewed vigour.
"Are you doin' next Wednesday's as well?" He edged the machine forwards to within a centimetre of my suddenly vulnerable ankles and peered ferociously through half-moon spectacles at my ticket.
"Yes, I wont be long".
"I wouldn't do Wednesday's if I were you" He re-directed his acidic gaze towards me.
"Well, wot if you wins the jackpot on Saturday....You'll 'ave wasted a pound!"
His reasoning was undeniably sound and unassailable logically!
I let him keep my pen....a cheap biro. He had renewed my flagging faith in humanity and it was the least I could do.
Not since a summer back in the 1980s had I been so heartened by such flawless logic....It had been while taking a hasty short-cut through Cheltenham's Imperial Gardens during a rainstorm of absolutely torrential proportions that I spied a Parks and Gardens employee, out in the open, "watering" the flower beds with a hose-pipe. I couldn't resist pausing to ask him why he was doing it in such a downpour and he replied...."Because I bin told to mate!".
Fantastic! For me, such encounters are the salt and vinegar on the fish and chips of life!
I saw the old man again a few minutes later, as I was loading my groceries into my vehicle....He was scattering terrified shoppers like chaff in the wind as he drove one-handed straight across the busy car park at 40 miles an hour, shaking his stick dementedly and shouting expletives at all and sundry!
Now there's someone who really does deserve to win the lottery....Imagine that kind of attitude having financial clout as well!
Sixteen Remedial Remedy (Spring Term, 1955)
It was strange returning to my old primary school after my adoption. Getting on for six years old and still missing my half-sister, Rachel, an awful lot. Going back to the school we'd been at together was very hard. My new Mum held my hand now, but that long walk down the school drive on that first day back was one of the toughest things I've ever had to endure and I remember the peculiar, empty feeling I felt inside as if it was yesterday. I was scared and felt very, very alone!
I guess I was the only child in the school who didn't just "watch the birdy", but could tell the photographer what sort it was!
Queen Margaret's had all the trappings of a very new school back then, being just over a year old. The smell of fresh paint and polish permeated everything as every surface gleamed and window panes sparkled in the Spring sunshine....a sense of newness prevailed, but failed to lift my spirits as I sat at my desk next to child-harpy, Marjorie Bolton.
Marjorie, almost twice my size and wearing a hand-knitted, insipid-blue cardigan with a cigarette burn hole in the left sleeve, took an instant dislike to me. Middle of the school year and she'd been saddled with the tiresome task of molly-coddling "Creepy" (as she so endearingly liked to call me)! She'd had a double-desk all to herself for a whole term and now she was being forced to share with an "ugly, dim-witted boy"....Poor Marjorie
By the end of that first morning lesson, Marjorie had defined the boundaries of our work-a-day relationship and spent some time composing a complete and "helpful" set of rules that, as she explained in the form of a note that I still have to this day secreted in my old "Worry Box"...."Evn an idyut lik yoo can undrstant thees rools Creepy!"....
1 Do not tuch me! 2 Do not spek to me (unles it is to offer me a sweet)! 3 Do not look at me! 4 Do not got in my way....Evr! 5 Do not tri to shar a book with me! 6 Do not moov unles I say you can! 7 Do not tel the teechur wot this is! 8 I wil thump yoo if yoo do! 9 My bruthr Bill wil thump yoo if yoo do! 10 And so wil my dad!
Those were the "rools" then and we mustn't forget the "special" rule concerning demarcation zones for the allocation of desk space, which stated quite simply that all of Marjorie's desk belonged to Marjorie and that half of my desk also belonged to Marjorie....including the inside bit where she was "allowed" to store her spare stuff and which I was NEVER to touch....ever....EVER or I would be thumped!
The prospect of two full terms sat next to Frankenstein's Monster with only half a desk to myself and in complete silence only added to my misery during those first few weeks back at proper school, but still....things could only get worse....
I loved to read and still do....with a vengeance. It just so happens to be one of the few things in life that I picked up really quickly for some reason and without too much effort. The school meanwhile, employed its own reading scheme based on that wonderful old series of character-based books, the "Janet and John" stories. I liked them enough, in fact, to secrete them in my satchel and smuggle them home to read in bed at night. I'd tried asking if I could take a copy home one time, but children just didn't take books home in those days and my request was met with one of those long, disdainful stares that my teacher, Mrs. Carmichael, usually reserved for workmen and children with unfortunate toilet habits!
The "Janet and Johns" were colour-coded on a scale of so-called progressive difficulty and the school's "system" required that you started out with, say, a yellow, easy book which you then read all the way through. When you had finished, you took the book to your teacher and they asked you to read a page at random to them (no questions about the content or anything like that to assess your understanding of what you had just read). If you struggled through in a reasonably proficient way, then you were directed, with said book held tightly in your clammy little hand, to stand in the main hall, outside the office of school headmaster, Mr. Bright....or "Bright and Breezy" as he was more familiarly known, but who was, naturally, anything but!
Occasionally (sometimes within the hour), Mr Bright would appear from his office and, depending on how busy he happened to be, would either send you back to your classroom or invite you in to read yet another page of text. If he felt you had read well enough, he would allow you to take the next book in the series (green maybe, I can't remember) from the "Cupboard of Doom" where he also kept (quite cleverly) "Justice", his size 10 slipper....punishment and edification for the use of! The slipper "rested" beside the piles of books and served as a constant and useful reminder of both its existence and its awesome power!
Basically then, each individual decision to promote any and every child in the school to subsequent levels of "Janet and John" lay entirely with Mr. Bright and never with the class teachers who, I'm fairly certain, would have been actively "discouraged" from sending too many children to his office in any single day!
In the highly likely event that you failed to satisfy Mr. Bright with your reading prowess, you were sent back to class with a flea in your ear and a stern warning to "buck your ideas up child" and not to waste his extremely valuable time. This was usually accompanied by a passing nod to "Justice"!
Understandably, most children hated Mr. Bright and lived in mortal dread of "Justice" who would often be administered for the most minor of infractions. I didn't hate him myself, I just didn't like him....and, most of all, I didn't like the fact that when you were finally summoned into his office and told to place your book on his desk, open at page so-and-so, he then proceeded to lean back in his padded chair, take out his tobacco pipe, filled with best-grade dried chicken crap and light it!
As a thick, putrescent smog of bluey-black fug gradually filled the tiny office, you were expected to read flawlessly through reddening, tear-filled eyes and fits of coughing only normally associated with victims of pulmonary black lung disease! Worse still, the poorer your performance, the more you were required to read as he attempted to give you extra time to "calm your nerves!".
I endured this wonderful example of 1950s best educational practise twice and then decided that enough was enough!
It was simple really....All I had to do was continue to read voraciously at home (lots of bird and nature books lent to me by my uncle Chris and science fiction from the public library) and pretend that I was struggling with my reading at school so that I never got sent to see "Breezy"....Brilliant! It worked really well (I must have a natural penchant for appearing thick), but it ended up working a little too well because my plan back-fired slightly and I was eventually referred to remedial teacher, Mrs. Baker and I was seconded to her "special" reading class on all subsequent Tuesday and Thursday afternoons! Still, I had a charade to maintain and it was well worth it not to have to read to "Breezy" and to be able to get away from Marjorie twice a week! It was also quite interesting and different to be in Mrs. Baker's class because she must have been employing some sort of radical, experimental learning system for those days....we had no desks (Marjorie would have died!) and we all sat in a circle around the walls, facing inwards like some sort of Alcoholics Anonymous therapy group. We rarely wrote anything down and were actually encouraged to express our views....of which I had many and various!
Mrs. Baker (the classic spinster) would have been able to give a lump of granite lessons on how to be stone-faced, but she was quite considerate really....The special needs "patients" in her class were not subject to the vagaries of Breezy's "Justice"....We were her "Chosen Ones" and, if any retribution was to be administered at all (and it often was, particularly to "Flea-Bag" Kenny Taylor), then it would be done, "sympathetically", by her and her alone using "Mr. Softy", her size 12 red leather slipper, complete with patent, hardened plastic sole and a jaunty, though slightly affectatious and demeaning (to my mind) pink fluffy bobble at the toe end!
Many, many years later and as a primary school teacher myself in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I attended an in-service day (called a "Baker day" back then) held at Queen Margaret's. It was very strange going back there after such a long time....I couldn't get over how small everything seemed, particularly the main hall. I remembered it being much larger....A place where we raced round and round during "Physical Painful" lessons and where we pranced up and down doing "Country Dancing" on Friday afternoons to the "tuneful" delights of manic Scottish bagpipe music played on Mr. "Sweep's" (the school caretaker's) red and white portable "Dansette" record player...all the while desperate to partner and hold hands with the unrequited first love of my life, Jennifer Bishop, whose parents considered themselves to be quite posh because they had a home-made TV aerial on the roof of their prefab....No TV of course....Just the aerial!
The greatest change lay in the general condition of the school itself....Everything was so shabby and run-down. Nothing seemed the same. It all appeared uncared for and abused! Even the playing field, once echoing to the delighted shouts and screams of children playing British-Bulldog, Germans and English, Chain-Tag, Clora and Kiss-Chase, had been violated by the erection of several grotty, terrapin-type, permanently temporary classrooms cunningly designed to bring down the appearance of the average building site, let alone a school!
During the course of the in-service day, I pointed out to other, slightly sceptical, teachers, a small hole in one of the hall's side walls where a large picture of the Queen had hung for many years. "It was to this that we turned to face, standing arrow-straight, at the start of each morning assembly to sing the full version of the National Anthem!" I told them.
Later on, I pointed out to the same group of now totally disbelieving and yawning teachers, two small screw-holes above the double-doors of what is now a large sports equipment cupboard in one corner of the hall. Back in the 1950s, it had been Mrs. Baker's classroom and the screw-holes had been drilled to accommodate a simple blue sign complete with the legend (in letters of gold)...."Mrs. Baker's Backward Class"!
I guess that not everything changed for the worse!
Seventeen Hmm? A Ranger Anecdote (January, 1997)
Whimbrel x 5 Pink-Footed Goose x 7 Brent Goose x 1 Whooper Swan x 4 Little Stint x 1 Purple Sandpier x 1...
The list went on....and on....
Mark and I looked at the list....then at each other....then at the list again....then out across at what was still visible of the rain-swept estuary. We were miles from anywhere. Four Herring Gulls and a miserable-looking Mute Swan hid from the torrents of rain as best they could beside a rotting old log left stranded by the tide and a cheeky Robin ("inside" the hide with us!) encouraged Mark to continue feeding him little pieces of chocolate buttons by voicing his approval of all things Cadbury!
The view was spectacularly devoid of hundreds of species of birds!
The list was written within the slightly damp and musty-smelling pages of the hide's hefty log-book, which was about two thirds full of amazing and apparently frequent weekly sightings of a huge variety of birds.
"I wouldn't mind seeing just one of these birds right now!" said Mark, hot Thermos coffee steamed up his glasses as he sipped tentatively from his plastic mug.
"Me too! So who do you think sees all these birds then?"
Lifting his glasses slightly to focus on the mostly scrawled handwriting (he didn't need them to see things up close), Mark skimmed back through the pages of the log...."Someone with the name Ricky S., apparently....Oh, and some guy called Simon Parker....or Packer....or Pecker maybe....er....and a fella called Frank." Mark began counting (mostly on his fingers), turning back the pages once again...."and it looks as though, between them, they've seen 63 different species....not including all the common ones, such as Blue Tit, Blackbird, Herring Gull, Woodpigeon, Robin, etc. They only write down the interesting ones"
"Your Robin's pretty interesting....He's trying to nick one of your buttons!....Anyway, I wouldn't mind betting that most of those sightings are at the weekend as well!"
"Why?" Mark replaced his fogged-up specs and glanced in my direction, not at all able to make out my face.....or anything else for that matter!
"Have a look and see."
"What's the date today, 15th ennit?" Removing his specs again, Mark began juggling days and dates recorded in the log-book in his head.
I looked out of the hide's slit-port window....The Herring Gulls departed as a solitary Mallard appeared from around a bend, waddled up onto the muddy shore and sat down, partially out of the wind, beside the largest tuft of marsh grass it could find. The rain fell harder than ever, reducing visibility by even more! "Crikey", I thought, "it's too wet even for the ducks!" Mr. Robin, meanwhile, perched on Mark's binoculars expectantly and promptly did a whoopsy in one of the eyepieces....Mark didn't notice and I didn't say anything....I needed something to brighten my day!
"Twelve out of the last sixteen entries were on weekends....Mostly Sundays....and all but two of those were by Ricky S., Simon or Frank....but never together. Oh....and apparently, someone called "Trisha" hates a guy called "Nick" because he's a "t*ss*r!"
"Strange isn't it?"
"Maybe he is a t*ss*r"
"No, not that!"
"What then?" Mark wiped his specs, threw another piece of chocolate for the Robin to fetch (which it did!) and lifted his bins to his eyes...."Argh! What's that?....Ergh! It's on my glasses....and my bins!....Ergh!
"That's lucky that is!" I almost managed to stifle a grin...."Maybe we'll get to see something now!"
"I can't see a bloody thing!....Where's that bloody Robin....?"
"Gone I think"....and so it had....Bright birds, Robins, but you shouldn't give them chocolate, it's mildly toxic to birds!
"What's strange?" Mark repeated his question while searching for something to wipe his specs and bins on. He leaned across and tried to use the hood of my jacket!
"Gerroff! It's not my fault....That'll teach you to feed the birds! Is that laxative chocolate by any chance?" I moved slightly further along the bench and stared out once again, into the downpour. "I just think it's strange that people only seem to see anything really interesting at the weekends and that it's just three people who are doing most of the seeing is all!"
"Are you trying to say that these guys are....cooking the books? Maybe no-one comes here during the week." Mark had had no choice but to resort to using his handkerchief to clean his bins and specs!
"Maybe they don't. It's remote enough....Not your average reserve hide with all mod-cons. Though this is a good spot....There's bound to be the odd scarcity or two and plenty of interesting stuff to attract birders all week....Like I say, it's just that only our three "friends seem to see any of it!"
"Well, yes....There are a few mid-week entries....but not nearly so many sightings according to this."
We sat on....and on in silence, scanning the shoreline for signs of life....Any life!
"It's a kind of code!" Mark's sudden declaration made me jump!
"The bird-watcher's code....It's sacrosanct!....or should be!"
"If there is or ever was such a thing, then it's certainly not written down anywhere to my knowledge"
"It would be a kind of verbal agreement....between bird-watchers....An agreement never to lie or make false claims. That sort of thing only harms birding....People would be misled....There'd be no trust!" Mark looked quite annoyed.
"A verbal agreement isn't worth the paper it's written on!" I'd read that somewhere and it sounded clever.
Mark took a few moments to mentally digest what I'd said. "That's quite clever" he said, eventually.
"Over there, by the three little trees....Some sort of wader I think!"
"Wader? Where? What trees?" Mark placed his third mug of coffee on the bench beside him and struggled to wipe yet more condensation from his glasses with his handkerchief and only succeeded in smearing Robin's poo all over them again! He put them on anyway and raised his binoculars to his eyes, scanning the shoreline frantically!
"Uh-oh....It's gone! Can't see it now!"
"What was it? What did you see?"
"Dunno, it was too quick!"
"You're lying aren't you? There wasn't anything there was there?" He directed his best withering look straight at me, but it was somewhat undermined by the distracting effect of the smeared bird poo!
"We might as well go. This is a dead loss!" I began to gather my stuff together.
The rain had begun to ease off a bit and we could make a quick dash back to the Land-rover without getting too wet hopefully. I went to close the window....
"Oh yeah....What is it this time?" He glanced out of the window anyway, despite his scepticism...."Ah yes, a fox....Great!"
The animal was trotting, large as life and in broad daylight, along the shoreline and just a few metres from the front of the hide.
"What's that....dangling from its mouth? Is that what I think it is?"
Mark took a closer look...."What?....Urgggh! How could it pick that up in its mouth?"
"It hasn't got any hands I suppose. Got any more of those chocolate buttons?"
The ex-para blanched, "I think I wanna puke!"
"Fine ranger you are! I expect something like that smells really interesting to a fox....You wont be wanting those buttons then?" I repeated.
The fox disappeared with its trophy and we ran back to the vehicle, but not before adding our own impressive list to the log book's distinguished pedigree....
Mute Swan x 1 Herring Gull x 4 Mallard x 1 Fox x 1 (with used condom!)
Eighteen Foundation....A New Ending! (1971)
"Look...Your choice is a simple one....put in a full day, every day, or leave the course!" Principal McKinley stared across his desk at me. This was his trump card and he'd played it almost straight away!
His words, however, didn't have quite the effect he'd anticipated. Art college didn't suit me at all. The entire place lacked discipline....the course itself....the students....the staff....especially the staff! Everyone and everything seemed to drift along without direction or purpose....without anything really. I'd only completed my zoo-keeping apprenticeship in 1968 and worked for a year or so longer at one of the country's largest menagerial (is there such a word?) institutions. That place had been run with the marketable efficiency and all the colour of a high-class Amsterdam whore-house! Cheltenham Art College certainly had many of the characteristics of the average menagerie....the students and staff in particular, reminded me constantly of many of the zoo's more flamboyant residents....but without their social graces of course. It could never be singled out as anything remotely productive however!
As for continuing to work at the zoo, once my apprenticeship was completed, I'd simply wanted a respite from the 0400hr starts to the day....preparing huge amounts of vomitous food for hundreds of species, mucking-out dozens of cages, cleaning, sweeping, scraping and more cleaning until gone 1900hrs most days....and for less than a tenner a week! Things would obviously improve once my apprenticeship was completed, but I'd decided on a change of direction anyway....if only for a break from the smell of bird crap and disinfectant! So I'd turned my attention to art college (via two years of "A-Levels" at Tech), and the even more noisome smell of slightly damp and sticky-looking students....minus the disinfectant!
However, I planned to return to the world of all things zoological in maybe three or four years time....it wouldn't turn out that way of course, but it's what I'd planned!
It was only a "Foundation" course after all. A year to try your hand at basic fine arts, photography, ceramics, creative design, film-making and a bunch of other stuff to help you choose a specialization for the three-year art degree to follow. It had all looked really interesting and very tempting in the course prospectus. Competition had been keen for available places apparently, but they'd liked my work enough, initially at least, to offer me a place, even though I'd only been able to produce a mixed-bag "portfolio" comprising almost entirely of animal studies in assorted media!
This wasn't my first appearance in front of beer-bellied, ageing hippie, Norman McKinley and his Hawaiian wardrobe. I'd been summoned into his "inner sanctum" four or five times over the last fourteen days and, as he sat back in his padded chair and proceeded to light his beloved (but smoked entirely for effect) black and silver, Maigret-style pipe, it seemed, for all the world, I was suddenly back at primary school, enduring one of those "Bright and Breezy" moments all over again!
"Well....?" He continued to stare at me, struggling to stifle a nicotine-tar induced chesty cough as he did so. "You really do need to get your act together on this young man. Your er....training....can't be all that important surely....?" The final words dissolved into a cocophny of coughs and caustic snorts and wheezes that fed the copious tears as they suddenly began streaming from his porcine little eyes. Gradually, he regained his composure and his reddened face returned to its more familiar, insipid, cadaver-esque complexion as he sought brief psychological refuge by shuffling the papers on his desk until his breathing also returned to normal....I waited patiently and watched....fascinated.
By "training" he was referring to the so-called "root" of the problem....the fact that at 1500hrs every weekday afternoon, I would set off from the Pittville Art College campus, with my kit-bag on my back, to run the five miles, barefoot (even in snow!), right across town to the sports hall at the Technical College on the Park Campus. Once there, I would train relentlessly, usually by myself, practising Shotokan Karate Kata (forms/patterns) for a couple of hours before instructing my club class from 1800hrs to 1930hrs. After the class, I would continue training either by myself or with one or two others until the hall was finally locked up at 2100hrs. I then ran back to Pittville, loaded my pushbike with all my kit, books, art materials, etc and cycled the eleven miles home to Tewkesbury. I did this every day, no matter what! The problem was, college didn't finish, officially, until 1800hrs!
Even so, nobody on my course stayed until 6 o'clock....not ever. This was art college in the early 1970s for goodness sake! I was virtually the only one in the entire place or on any course, who wasn't doped-up with "Puff the Magic Dragon" all day long....and therein lay the REAL problem! I didn't drink alcohol or smoke (I still don't) and I tended to make my opinions very public with regard to the popularity of the sacred weed amongst students and staff alike! I didn't "fit in" and, early on in the course, a particularly insecure senior lecturer called Fox (sculpture and creative w**king), had taken an instant and almost palpable dislike to my self-righteous and sanctimonious pontifications almost from day one!
Fox knew that I'd been a zoo-keeper and, for reasons known only to himself, took enormous pleasure in taking the proverbial pee-pee out of me at every possible opportunity and I put up with it, stoically, for months, if only because I believed that the enlightened Karate practitioner should always turn the other cheek, no matter what the provocation!
However, one morning, after a difficult night sitting up with my Mum who was very poorly at that time (Dad worked nights) and then a tough cycle ride to college against a particularly strong wind and in pouring rain, I found myself at the sharp end of yet another of Fox's clumsy attempts to embarrass me in front of the rest of the class. He just couldn't resist starting in on me! It was a familiar theme....revolving around what he considered to be the probable habits of zoo-keepers with regard to the sexual proclivities of assorted primates in their charge. This time, however, he went on to make comparisons with unfortunate incidents reported in the press at that time concerning Catholic clergymen and certain children!
I believe that there are three things that no man or woman should ever be ridiculed or insulted for....the colour of their skin, their choice of partner or their religious beliefs. Their politics are fair game....How else am I going to lay in to all those extreme right-wing fascist b*****ds! I'm not a Catholic and goodness knows, I've got reason to hate some of them, but I don't (I've tried!) and I certainly had no reason to hate them in those days!
In my defence, I can only say that it must have been the the last straw in what had been a very long succession of irritating straws on a not so good day . John Wayne once said....
"I'll not be wronged or insulted or laid a hand on....I don't do these things to others and I expect to be treated the same way!"....Good on ya John!
Strangely, my memory of the "incident" is vague and I depend heavily on my 1971 diary (I've always kept diaries) to recall the details....I remember standing up and finding myself walking across the room to stand in front of Fox. I remember him sitting, as he always sat, the wrong way round astride a wooden chair, his arms resting on the chair-back, facing the class like some sort of mounted Horse-guards cavalry officer addressing his troops....He was also (very irritatingly to me at the time) one of those lecturers who believed absolutely that they were doing you an enormous favour by insisting that lowly students always call them by their first name....in his case, Paul!
"Fox", I said, "you're a prat!" and, according to my diary, "I smacked him one on the lip....not enough to hurt much or fetch blood, but more than enough to shock"....and it did, apparently....big time!
The rest of the class gasped, two or three cheered (I remember that!). Fox went white and jerked his hand to his mouth. He looked at me incredulously, he looked at the class, he went red, started to say something, thought better of it and rushed out of the room....straight up to McKinley's inner sanctum (take that any way you want, you wont be far wrong!). I went for a coffee in the refectory.
One thing led to another....Fox's ill-concealed dislike of me turned to open and bitter hatred and my fate at Cheltenham Art College was sealed! He didn't make fun of me again, but the poisoned whispers in the Principal's ear began in earnest and so too did my visits to his office!
I had taken up Karate in the mid 1960s, shortly after beginning my zoo-keeping apprenticeship and despite having very little spare time (or money). I discovered a whole new way of life....a whole new philosophy in fact....a new way of thinking! I loved everything about it....the extreme demands, both physical and mental, of an art-form that knew no bounds.....relentless, pure and unforgiving!
I loved the power that emanates from the sheer speed and dynamism of the techniques themselves and I bathed in the overwhelming sense of health and vitality that is the inevitable reward for the true Karate disciple. I embraced the fitness side of it and immersed myself in the enormously demanding martial and combative aspects. I enjoyed the free-style combat (kumite) competitions (even winning some and eventually achieving a call-up to the National Shotokan Karate Kata squad back in the early days). Most of all, I thrilled to the artistic and fluid nature of the movements themselves. I attended every available weekend course after leaving the zoo, along with a small number of other "serious" practitioners, as I sought to train with the very best instructors (some of them Japanese) across the length and breadth country and of whom there were very few in those days.
I eventually started up my own, strictly "traditionalist" Shotokan Karate club in Cheltenham in the early 1970s and even taught myself to speak and write basic Japanese! Only my continuing passion for bird-watching and treks to the coast on surfing expeditions ever interfered with the six to eight hours of training I put myself through every day!
All this occurred shortly before the cataclysmic and devastating (to the martial arts purist) advent of Bruce Lee and the heavily Hollywood western-influenced cinematic avalanche of ridiculous and totally misleading Karate and Kung-Fu "films". They served only to brainwash a gullible and impressionable Americanised public into demanding quick-fix fighting styles that would turn them into night-stalking, death-dealing Ninja assassins virtually overnight....and all in just one or two 60 minute training sessions per week....but that's another story!
"Well....?", McKinley was growing impatient, "What's so special about Judo anyway?".
"Character, Sincerity, Effort, Etiquette and Self-Control!" Quoting the five maxims of Karate (if not those of Judo as well), was an honest answer, even if I had lapsed somewhat with regard to the latter. McKinley stared at me blankly. My explanation had about as much credibility as a zoo in a jungle to a man like McKinley, but I'd tried....sort of.
"What are you talking....?" A knock sounded at the door...."Ah....That will be Mr. Fox....er....Paul....No, Mr. Fox to you....Come in!"
Fox poked his head round the door and looked at me...."You're still here then?" A note of disappointment coated with a sprinkling of uncertainty was etched into his tone. I chose not to reply. Fox had refused to have me in any of his classes over the three weeks since the "incident" and did his level best to avoid me at all other times!
"Don't worry Fux", I said finally and stood to leave. "I've had enough of this place and you especially! How's your lip by the way?" Having come into the room, he scurried round to McKinley's side of the desk while my acute problems with authority continued to screw up my life as I flung myself headlong upon yet another self-destruct button!
I walked out of the office and went to find Faye. She, at least, had been the one decent thing to happen to me during those otherwise dour months at art college and I wasn't about to walk out on her as well. I told her all about it and she was upset that I was leaving.
We went on to spend a very special afternoon together at her digs and, for a while at least, she made all those bad feelings just melt away!
As disparate a group of 1970s instructors as you would care to meet from various styles of Karate based in and around the County and gathered together to rehearse for a public demonstration somewhere or other. At times like that, I guess we were the Karate-world equivalent of that fabulous police motor-cycle display team, the "Purple Helmets"....minus the motor-bikes of course (although we did occasionally jump over them....and cars....and each other....and other stuff at demos!). I'm in the middle of the back row by the way and, yes, my hair really was that dark colour!
As volunteers queue patiently for their turn in the "Oriental vasectomy" demonstration, I stand well back, hands on hips, glad that I'm only doing the "how to kick heads off shoulders from a standing jump" routine! (England international, Andy Sanders was fine by the way, after Manny's shoddy, though amusing workmanship and, 30 years on, his limp is barely noticeable these days!).
A very grainy picture taken for a combat magazine (I think) during the 1975 National Championships at Crystal Palace. This was a quarter-final bout in which I up-ended the previous year's champion, scoring a full Ippon, only to be beaten in no uncertain terms in the semi-finals by the eventual new champion! This was also a very painful day of competitive fighting for me...I managed to break two meta-tarsals in the very first round kicking my opponent's elbow at full speed, then dislocated my left shoulder in the third and had to have it put back in. Finally, I snapped my right-hand thumb back to the wrist in the fourth, as I caught it in my opponent's sleeve delivering a punch to his body! You can just make out the strapping on my right hand in the photograph as I use it to inflict the follow-up blow. In those days we were only allowed to wear groin protection (most didn't). Fist, arm, shin or body pads weren't permitted, let alone head protection....the Japanese insisted that it made full-contact pointless! ....Don't talk to me about footballers and meta-tarsals!
As a footnote to this chapter, I would just like to pay homage to the late and great Manfred "Manny" Polster who died tragically young a decade or so back. Manfred (on the left in the back row of the group portrait) was the total Karate fighter and, with fists like bunches of concrete bananas, was the ferocious scourge of of all those unfortunate enough to be drawn against him in competition. He was enormously well-liked and highly respected throughout the Karate community and the news of his eventual demise, after a protracted illness, was a tremendously sad blow for us all. I add this paragraph for both Manny and his family.
Nineteen What for Your 4 X 4? (February, 2006)
I don't suppose I'd have ever mentioned the following incident on these pages, but after receiving a certain letter in the post recently, I felt moved to compose a little ditty. Please forgive the general cringe-worthiness of it, but then again, rollocks if you don't!
What for your 4 x 4? When all you do is drop the children off at school Then drive to Tescos trying to look so cool!
Fifteen bags of shopping piled up in the back... Food for weeks I shouldn't think you'll lack But back to shop so soon for pretty much the same Then back again.... Again.... Again... And then again!
NO WONDER YOU'RE SO FAT!
When was the last time that you walked instead of sat Inside your giant SUV To drive a mile or less To MacRonald's for your tea?
You've always liked to rat-run down that country lane At speeds too fast for anybody sane!
Collisions with a horse four years ago....(killed!) And then a Fallow Doe....(put down by me!) Have given you no fear of driving like a tit And making out you're proud of it!
Of that, one day, you gave me proof When I found you lying on your roof! You seemed ok But upside-down within a ditch! Too fast on ice this time....daft bitch!
I called it in And tried to help....to pull you out But all you did was curse and swear a lot and shout!
"For God's sake, shut your din! I'll have to kick the windscreen in! The doors are blocked and you're too big So now you're stuck there like a pig....in sh*tstreet!"
I started smelling leaking fuel So focused hard to keep my cool!
The bonnet resting in a tree I worked to get the battery free And with the disconnection done I cut your belt.... It wasn't fun.... To have you drop on top of me!
YOU WEIGHED A BLOODY TON!
"Help yourself why don't yuh?....Just a bit! What?....Yeah, that's smoke....oil on the block....No f***in' joke! The pros will have to deal with it!"
Inch by inch, I dragged you clear The sound of sirens getting near But it was done! I left you cursing in the sun And slipped away into the woods....
Today a letter came for me.... She's going to sue....for damaging her SUV!
I rang the Boss.... He thought a bit Then promptly said "Don't give a sh*t! I'll get my London brief on it!"
The Boss walks tall In hallowed corridors of power And a brief like his costs hundreds every hour!
It must be said, we go way back, the Boss and me....to darker days And, now as then, means what he says. He takes good care of all of us With just the minimum of fuss
I guess he's paying off a debt to some back then He can't forget!
Update....The woman concerned was much aggrieved that I had caused, as she saw it, a great deal of unnecessary damage to her beloved SUV. As it turned out and with the benefit of hindsight, she was probably right, though I think that perhaps the Fire Brigade may well have been fairly "enthusiastic" in their own efforts to free her had I not already done so! Nevertheless, her immediate course of action was to go to one of those splendid "no-win no-fee" law firms to seek appropriate compensation.The lawyers there actually felt that she had a reasonable case and were keen to pursue it vigorously in the twin interests of justice and fiscal reward!
I subsequently received a convoluted letter from her newly appointed Righteous Seekers of the Just Reward, informing me, basically, that proceedings were to be taken against me and that I should seek my own legal advice. I passed the letter on to the Boss and he faxed it to his Legal Eagle. Apparently, A simple phone-call was made to the woman's lawyers and words were said (I don't know what). The case was dropped like a hot affidavit and I've heard nothing more from them since!
Interestingly and perhaps worthy of note, the woman's SUV, despite being fairly new, was only covered by third-party fire and theft insurance. She was particularly annoyed that I had prevented it from catching fire by disconnecting the battery! As far as she was concerned, I should have released her from the vehicle first and then left it to burn! All I can say is that, if it happened all over again, I can think of a third and far more appealing option....!
Twenty The Delta Files (1973 - 1977 and 1983 - 1986) I have made many abortive attempts to complete this chapter and have ended up with a final draft of about four thousand words....each one poked, prodded, weighed, dissected, censored, sanitized and agonized over time and again. As a result, I've ended up with something increasingly wide of the mark, but at least somewhere in the neighbourhood, albeit a few blocks down the street! In reading it, you'll wonder why the heck I'm making so much fuss, but this was a very difficult time for me and all I've really done is navigate around the reef and not across it, so to speak! In the final cut, I've also decided to change the name of the company to "Delta Hydraulics Equipment Ltd"
Initial investigations into the suitability of cats as guides for the blind were fraught with many unexpected problems!
I had two periods of employment at Delta Hydraulics Equipment Ltd and they were both pretty miserable, but it was during the 1973 to 1977 spell that I was particularly unhappy....mostly for reasons in my personal life mentioned above, but also because I was in limbo. I'd completed a zoo-keeping apprenticeship plus another year or so, but then chose to improve my qualification situation by first acquiring "A" levels at Technical College and then by attending Art College (the latter being a disaster!) instead of continuing at the zoo.
1972 saw me at yet another crossroads. Thrown out of Art College for fattening the lip of an obnoxious and verbally abusive lecturer, I needed some sort of job and the best I could manage at short notice was a spell at "International Stores", a supermarket situated near the Cross in Tewkesbury. It's no longer there of course and the premises are now divided between a newsagents and a burger-bar, but I worked really hard for the eight months I was there, nine hours a day, five and a half days a week as a store-man. I unloaded countless, sometimes huge, delivery lorries all by myself, mopped floors, stacked shelves and managed the logistics of a busy warehouse....and all for just over £8 a week....I missed the zoo!
I didn't stop looking for something a little more suitable though and I eventually applied for a vacancy in the Time-Office at Delta Hydraulics and, surprisingly, got the job. This involved sitting in a room, something like a cross between a cage and a vivarium, in the middle of a very hot, very noisy and very smelly factory floor keeping painstakingly accurate records of all the machine-tooling "jobs" undertaken by the scores of machinists, moulders, welders and trimmers....logging them on a job, logging them off, detailing quantities produced, itemizing stock acquisition and, at the end of each day, balancing all the numbers. I did this for nearly a year before a vacancy arose in the Delta Technical Publications Department for a graphic and paste-up artist/proof-reader. I applied and amazed bosses at the interview on three counts...I could read, I could spell....and I could draw any damn thing they asked....from memory if need be….I got the job!
The job itself had an extremely steep learning curve. I had no formal training in engineering or knowledge of any of the working processes and basic mechanics of such sterling Delta Hydraulics products as hydraulic pit-props, mine roof supports and oleo retarders. They were in fact, a complete mystery to me. Still....I only had to draw bits and pieces of them, put together technical magazines and instructional brochures and render engineer-speak into understandable English. It was, after all, a positive move up from the Time-Office.
There are many aspects of working at Delta that I could explore here, but it's really just a small handful of the two and a half thousand or so people who worked there that I especially remember all these years on….a number that was devastated by redundancies and aggressive rationalization practices and which totalled barely a thousand by the time I left (on the first occasion) in early 1977, but had fallen to less than four hundred by the time I departed for the second and final time in 1986, to train as a primary school teacher!
There were, of course, the usual mix of characters….the good, the bad and the ugly (especially the ugly) when I first started working there in late 1973, but of all the people I could mention, I choose to recall the beautiful Sue. Sue was an audio/touch-typist who could type as fast as most people talked. Sue was also totally blind. Despite her disability however, she managed to be extremely "observant" and was well tuned-in to all the goings-on in the office, if not the entire factory and very little escaped her radar! She was extremely witty, in an Eddie Izzard kind of way and sat at her type-writer, ear-piece in-situ and "Mr Magoo", her guide-dog, at her feet, tippy-tapping away all day long (Sue that is, not Mr Magoo). Amazingly, she rarely made mistakes with her typing….something that earned her a great deal of respect amongst company bosses who often vied with each other to pass work in her direction if it needed to be done quickly and with the minimum of fuss....and all a good twenty-five years before intel pentium processors were invented!
Sue's desk was about two metres from my drawing-board and she liked to talk all day long about anything and everything. She was one of those rare individuals whose sense of humour was on the same wavelength as mine and she had a way of "looking" at the world that buried its way beneath the veneer and the gloss. Some people found her very un-nerving to talk to, but I could never tell if it was because she was blind and was therefore unable to make any kind of eye-contact with you or simply because people seemed to sense that she could somehow "see" inside their heads!I think it was very unsettling for them at times!
Sue enjoyed a "stealth" game we played....she said that it kept her wits honed and razor-sharp. Leaving the office involved passing her desk and, whenever I needed to go out or come back in, I would always try to sneak past her without her noticing, but never with any success! "Don't be long!" or "Get me a coffee will you?" or "Could you take this to Mr. So-and-so's office?" or "Where have you been to, China?" always rang in my ears just as my hand touched the door handle! It was nearly two years before I realized that it was Mr bleepin' Magoo wagging his bleepin' tail under her bleepin' desk every time I walked past (but only when it was me) that gave the game away....She told me that he enjoyed the game as well and she always slipped him a treat when he wagged at me! It remains a great disappointment in my life that I was never able to get past those two without being detected, no matter what I tried....give me a highly-trained Special Forces sentry in broad daylight with all his senses intact any day of the week!
Everyone has an idiosyncrasy or obsession or two, but Mr. S here had three....skittles, porn magazines and catching a mysterious, covert mouse....the one that no-one but he would see scuttling about in his office! He also seemed to spend his entire day being totally stressed out by anything, everything and everyone. When you do a card for someone, they tend to keep it (though what they do with it is anyone's guess), so I don't have many of the huge number I've produced for all sorts of people over the years. The vast majority have been well received, but, unfortunately, on this occassion, after being presented with this particular cartoon by his well-meaning colleagues, Mr. S rushed around to Publications, slammed the cartoon on the desk in front of me and stormed out of the room....nor did he ever speak to me again!
It wasn't long before my ability to draw cartoons and caricatures had become common knowledge and I was soon inundated with so many on-going requests for leaving cards, birthday cards, congratulations on your promotion or retirement cards or well-done for getting pregnant cards that I was finding it very difficult to keep up with my work-load! Even the company bosses and directors were getting in on the act.
Few people, if any, escaped my pen-propelled so-called wit in those days, least of all assorted members of my family! This cartoon, which went on to grace the ward Sister's office wall for several years, depicts my Dad during one of his shorter stays in hospital around 1984. He'd not long been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer....though it was the throat cancer secondaries that did for him in the end....that and the large orange-sized putrid- smelling tumour that erupted from his neck during his final weeks! Mum and I took it in turns to sit with him both day and night during those last days and, because he was desperate to be conscious to the world until the end, he refused the large doses fo morphine required to take the awful pain away! I remember wishing that I could drag thick-headed teenagers new to the smoking habit along to see him for just five minutes. If the glazed, pain-drenched look in his eyes didn't put them off smoking for life, then the foul stench of rotting flesh emanating from the oozing tumour should have done it....but then some people really are very, very thick! Sorry Dad, I guess I was really angry with you!
I saw a street-artist drawing caricatures of tourists in London not so long ago and I asked him how much he charged...."£20 a time mate!" he replied. That was for about ten minutes work and people were queuing up to be drawn! His drawings were ok and good luck to him, but he wasn't talking to his subjects. How can you do a good caricature of someone without finding out a bit about the person you're sketching and trying to "fix” at least a spark of who that person is into the picture as well? The best caricaturists can always do that.
Meanwhile, back at Delta, it was my cartoons that occasionally got me into considerable trouble! I worked there during turbulent times in British industry and the unions were more often at loggerheads with the management than not. Frequent industrial action in the form of go-slows, over-time bans and restricted work procedures took place constantly and various groups of workers were downing tools every other day. All-out strikes were commonplace!
There were many injustices in both camps and I felt unable and unwilling to ignore them all. Cartoons are one of the very best vehicles for any kind of social commentary and my "comments" and observations concerning both unions and management were not always appreciated by either side....to the extent that I even felt obliged to stop driving my newly acquired car to work at one point and caught the bus instead for a while....until someone objected to my being on it when they were! So I cycled, leaving my bike hidden about half a mile from the factory!
It wasn't so much that I ridiculed some of the, at times, incredibly asinine behaviour on both sides of the industrial divide, it was really the fact that I dared to have an opinion at all outside of official union mandate! It's hard to realize now just how unpleasant and dictatorial the unions could be in those days and how petty, divisive and mean-spirited the management could also be. I could see the rank stupidity prevailing on both sides and chose to highlight it all too frequently with my cartoons! To this day, there are those who still hold a grudge against me (workers and management). They are unable to either forgive or forget some of my more acerbic observations! I guess the truth can sting for a long time!
Despite the fact that I gradually built up what amounted to a substantial "profile" within the records of the much beleaguered personnel department, it wasn't actually any of my so-called “politically-orientated” cartoons that got me into the most trouble. it was, in fact, the cartoon featured at the start of this chapter that resounded around, not only Delta work-places, but at union meetings in companies up and down the country!
I drew the above cartoon after chatting to Sue one day about the value of cats as pets as opposed to dogs. Sue had her much-beloved Mr Magoo and also a Manx cat she nicknamed "Manky", real name "Maxwell the Manx"....for short! (W.C. Fields and “Six of a Kind” springs to mind, but you'd have to know the film)!
She maintained that cats were good companions and I argued that you never saw a mountain-rescue cat, a sheep-cat, a guard-cat, a sniffer-cat or a guide-cat for the blind and that dogs were even better companions because they were keen to go for walkies and play ball games and stick games, etc and weren't nearly so mercenary as cats! I added that dogs were more intelligent, loyal and capable of great heroism....She replied that although a dog might be intelligent enough and brave enough to leap through a sheet of glass to enter a blazing building, climb three flights of burning stairs through thick and acrid smoke to drag a baby from its cot and then leap with it in its jaws from thirty feet up into the arms of a fire-fighter, a cat was intelligent enough to just let the stupid dog do it!
So it went on....all that day....and the next....both of us thinking up new ways to advance our theories.
Now, don't get me wrong, I love cats....little ones or big ones. I worked with the latter on and off for long enough and the heftiest chapter I've ever written for this so-called "book" is one about a Cotswold "Big Cat" that I eventually came to call "Shadow", a black Leopard, which I finally tracked (with the help of another ranger) to its lair. I took hundreds of photos over several months of the cat, its lair and even the remains of its kills. I also made several paw-print plaster-casts. Sadly I was forced to bury him in a deep grave after discovering the animal dead one summer's day. Death was almost certainly caused by what I subsequently discovered to be a very large and aggressive-looking abdominal tumour....about the size of a grapefruit!
However, following advice from certain quarters, I have decided NOT to add that particular chapter to this site just yet, simply because I've been convinced that the wrong kind of people might start taking an interest in Cotswold Big Cats all of a sudden and I prefer it that anyone reading this "Slices" thingy remains blissfully unbelieving....and that's the beauty of it....most people will just take me to be a liar or a fool....or both and will think pretty much the same as many around here who are all too familiar with my exploits and who find the thought of Big cats just a little bit too much to take on board. Fair enough, but there are a number of people who I took to see the cat at its lair or who have seen the photos, paw-print plaster-casts, etc, who happen to know better and will be more than prepared to back me up if asked!
The CBCs mind their own business and are totally shy and reclusive and if you're at all concerned about potentially dangerous animals on the loose in your neighbourhood, then talk to the ding-bats who insist on walking their guard-type dogs off the lead in your local park near the kiddies play-area!
Still, I digress (I do find this chapter emotionally difficult to write for reasons I just wont go into and I dare say I'll delete the last couple of paragraphs yet again when I read it through later!)….
Moving on....I drew one version of the "Guide-Cat" cartoon by pressing firmly on a sheet of card on a graphics soft-board and dotted the caption out in braille characters copied from a book that Sue had lent to me so that she could "appreciate" the joke as well, which she did....in fact, she thought it was very funny and she also thought another one that I did of a cat leading its blind owner along the top of a larch-lap fence and one of a guide-cat stalking birds in a garden with suitably confused owner in tow were also very funny! I always produced "raised" (embossed) versions of my cartoons for Sue....I guess they were the only cartoons she ever got to sort of "see" and she even thought that we should go into business to market the idea! I expect someone's done it by now though!
Lots of people thought the cartoon was quite funny and it circulated around the company as most of them tended to do and instigated all the usual comments about what a waster I was drawing silly pictures all day long! Unfortunately however, this was the 1970s and Delta was a company like many others….infected with a large population of insidiously prejudiced, right-wing, self-righteous, eagerly-offended, banner-carrying Dorks who were totally incapable of understanding that people with disabilities were endowed with just as much of a sense of humour as everyone else and that not only do they hate being treated as though they're somehow "fragile" and "special", but that they're quite capable of laughing at themselves or each other! I knew that because Sue told me so....frequently! She hated being treated as though she was some sort of alien life-form (I even did a cartoon about it which she put on the wall behind her desk!)
Before long, an official complaint was levelled against me and I was required to attend a special meeting in the personnel department with a smirking union official tagging along behind! I received a stern official warning and was told that the cartoon was deemed highly offensive! I asked who had been offended by it and was told that an unspecified number of complainants (the Dorks) had acted to prevent the cartoon causing offence "to any blind people who might happen to see it" (his exact words....I wrote it all down in my diary that very evening)! Ignoring the obvious faux pas, I asked how many blind people there were at Delta Mining and had they been consulted on the matter. He looked uncomfortable for a moment and finally said only one (Sue), but that it was far too delicate a matter to involve her! I asked him why and he just stared at me as though I'd gone completely mad!
I left personnel pretending to be suitably chastised and related everything word for word to Sue who was keen to hear all the details....She was absolutely furious and went straight across to personnel and threatened to hand in her notice if I wasn't totally and immediately absolved of all accusations!
Sue had another quite un-nerving ability during such confrontational moments....to be able to follow any person she was mad at around the room just as though she could see right into their dark, shrivelled hearts (at least that's how she made people feel she saw them) and most preferred not to argue with a blind person anyway....which generally served to make her even madder!
I never received the apology that she demanded, but the official warning was eventually rescinded and the cartoon took pride of place alongside the "alien life-form one!
I already had something of a history with this particular band of Dorks however (they were Dorks with a capital "D"), concerning a swathe of cartoons I'd drawn concerning an unpleasant little incident initiated by them a few weeks previously! There happened to be two lovely middle-aged ladies of German origin who worked in the company print-room. They'd moved to Britain shortly after the war as DPs and married English men. Their spoken English was extremely good and they were always up for a laugh and a joke with me while I waited for AO blueprints to be made-up or some-such. However, they would occasionally revert to speaking their native tongue when confronted by some particularly perplexing technical problem or possibly just to do a bit of gossiping!
That the ladies were German was bad enough for Das Dork Brigade, but the fact that they dared to speak German in the work-place was, for said Dorks, tantamount to treason This ultimately resulted in a petition being taken round the factory by der Uber-Dork himself and several of his "heavies" to "encourage" people to read and sign post-haste. I “accidentally” spilt my coffee on it when it was passed to me and one of the “heavies” leaned across my drawing board and broke my pencil….the swine! It made a good cartoon though, enjoyed by all, but ultimately resulted in my chocolate sponge pudding with double lashings of warm chocolate sauce served up by Wendy, a canteen lady, who frequently made her amorous intentions towards me crystal clear by serving me with her extra-large portions, being tipped in my lap by the afore-mentioned “heavy“! However, when Sue, sitting opposite me at the time, realized what was happening, she instantly defused my impending reaction by starting to howl and shout in front of the entire canteen that the “heavy“ had ruined her dessert, he was horrified and felt obliged to buy her another one which she promptly tipped down his front to a resounding cheer from everyone there….and that’s an absolutely true story that I'm certain could only have happened at Delta!
The petition meanwhile, demanded that the ladies were not to speak German under any circumstances during working hours "upon pain of subsequent disciplinary action" (those were the actual words....imagine today, Arsen Wenger being told that he's not allowed to communicate with any of his French players in their native tongue)! The petition however, was eventually signed by more than seventy people (some, I believe, under implied duress) and presented to the head of the personnel department with appropriate union representatives in attendance. A few days later, those two delightful and totally harmless ladies were issued with an "official" warning endorsed and signed by a number of company heads of department demanding that they refrain from any form of communication in their native language!
I assume that you are all able to smell the stench of foetid irony emanating from this particularly nasty, maggot-infested little episode dredged from the annals of British industrial history....endorsed as it was by both unions and management at the time? Such people didn't trust foreigners, particularly Germans, at all back then (many still don't). Most German ex-patriots were believed, at the very least, to be gradually under-mining the delicate fabric of British society and were most definitely NOT to be trusted, even after several decades of living, working and raising families in this country! I also happen to believe that Basil Fawlty's infamous, but ill-fated instruction to those about him "not to mention the War!" was a funny, but equally oblique and profound social indictment of that less than innocent period....Clever Basil!
The saddest thing is that the people who instigated such all too commonplace work practices back in the 1970s weren't the swastika-bestrewn, Doc Martin boot-wearing, denim-clad skinhead-types you might normally associate with such prejudiced and paranoid behaviour, they were all perfectly respectable, well-educated, lower and middle-management employees with wives and families and forty-year mortgages....which is why they always opted to be clever I suppose and use devices such as petitions....and that, to my mind, is far more disturbing than a boot-full of hob-nails in the wotsits any day! In fact, I think I prefer the skinheads....at least with them, what you see is what you get and there's a kind of up-front and in-your-face misplaced honesty about them!
Funny though, it was just about then that I started to learn a bit of German and to use it about the place....and so did Sue! My cartoons suddenly began to depict groups of visiting Polish, Czech, or Belgian mining representatives or customers confronted with large signs forbidding them to speak in their native tongues or, sometimes, a company manager or two gesturing frantically, trying to make themselves understood without interpreters while some bewildered Mexican or Balkan Mining Consortium delegate grew more and more perplexed. Few people saw the "funny" side however and I was given two verbal warnings and my very own "official" written warning which I framed and placed above my desk! No-one offered to replace my pencil though!
I would have been sacked eventually I suppose, but for the fact that events in my life took a very sudden and devastating turn and my time at Delta drew to a close without any further encouragement from either slope-browed “heavies” or the company itself! They did actually take me back though, in 1983, but in an altogether different capacity.
Computers had become "the future" during my absence and the newly stream-lined and thoroughly rationalized Delta Hydraulic Equipment Ltd was, I believe, the very first significantly large company to fully computerize itself. It even led the way, for a while, in terms of computer applications and I was re-employed in the computer operations section of "Management Services"....a brand-new department given the role of maintaining and sustaining company computer viability, but it was really just a place where most of the department's workforce, consisting of systems analysts, code de-fragmenters, operations analysts, computer programmers and….me, sat for eight hours a day, staring at ICL monitors (remember ICL?) totally bewildered by endless strings of programming code issuing from giant spools of tape or hard-discs that resembled half-size UFOs levered into disc-drives the size of fridge-freezers!
Basically, we would just sit and wait for the whole system to crash (which it managed to do about once every hour, taking at least another hour or sometimes all day to "fix") while irate heads of department jumped up and down, demanding to know why the sodding system was unavailable yet again! It’s funny to think though, that all the hardware and software needed to run a system capable of supporting a company the size of Delta back then could, today, be handled by something hardly bigger than the home computer I'm working on right now!
I hated it though, with a passion, but I just got on with it….after all, it was the first time in more than six years that I was permanently dry and in the warm all day….and that nobody, but nobody was trying to either shoot me or blow me up!
I remained at Delta until, as I mentioned earlier, I left to train as a primary school teacher in 1986, having completed an Arts degree with the Open University during the previous three years….not easy with a full-time job or when you‘re as thick as me! Meanwhile, the company had become a mere shadow of its former self and the workforce much depleted.
Sue had been made redundant while I was away, but must have been far more upset by the loss of Mr Magoo who died in his sleep at her feet one day! I haven’t seen her for years, but the last I heard, she was still living alone and working as a free-lance typist from home with a new guide-dog called Joop and faithful Manky, the cat (cats can be very loyal and long-lived too). I know she would have missed the hustle and bustle of a busy office, that‘s for sure and there would certainly have been no-one trying to sneak past her every five minutes or anyone there for her to be a mother-hen to….and definitely nobody to draw stupid cartoons for her to laugh at!
Delta Hydraulics Equipment Ltd ceased to function altogether and closed its doors for the last time a few years ago. A demise probably hastened by the sell-out instigated by senior management….but at least they came out of it ok I guess!
Twenty-One One Door Opens.... or, alternatively "Lest We Forget Them Too!" (An Anecdote for Remembrance Day) (Winter 1980/81)
Doc's death when it came, was utterly sad and pointless (see chapter 13). Officially, he was a victim of severe manic depression and he eventually took his own life in horrific circumstances about a year after leaving the Regiment! I particularly want to remember Doc and others like him (of whom there are, sadly, far too many). Their names are soon forgotten by the Military Machine simply because they move on from their regiments and back into civilian life. However, they take with them malevolent, vengeful demons....and, for some, those demons are far too unpleasant to bare! Bereft of the anaesthetising structure and impetus of their military life-styles, such demons begin, sometimes years later, to exact a terrible and savage retribution.
I want to recall those particular men and women on this Remembrance Day because they too served their time and did their duty. They die, but not a glorious or remotely meaningful death....not in battle or on patrol. Instead they die at home, frightened and often alone or in some urine-drenched shop doorway on a freezing winter's night. They're not showered with posthumous accolades and the public rarely learn of their exploits or of the parts they played in any conflict. They appear on no roll of honour. No-one buys a poppy for them! Yet to me they're heroes nonetheless....desperate souls who go on to fight much tougher battles against far greater odds every moment of every day remaining to them!
This anecdote may not amount to much, but it's dedicated to them all the same....
Most gunmen were usually able to escape capture by the security forces by virtue of the fact that the local populace were “encouraged” by the IRA to leave all external doors and ground-floor windows of their homes unlocked twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Few resisted, many were happy to oblige. This made the pursuit of “suspects” in Catholic areas of the city virtually impossible, if only because if a door was left open for the pursued, you could almost guarantee it would be locked and bolted immediately afterwards for the pursuers!
With a practically guaranteed avenue of escape, snipers had grown more daring in recent months and not “more desperate” as the Government tried to insist. Foot patrols had become particularly hazardous and many security units had taken to patrolling from the comparative safety of armoured vehicles 90% of the time.
Jammy-Dodger had stopped the Land Rover about half way along the rain-soaked street. Terraced housing stretched out on both sides of us, but only the nearest buildings were readily visible through the persistently steamed-up windows. The windscreen-wipers barely coped with the volume of water as the downpour beat out its hypnotic rhythm on the vehicle’s grill-covered split-windscreen and metal roof.
“No-one’s bloody stupid enough to have a riot in this!” Jammy wound down his side-window a fraction of an inch….any more than that wasn’t a good idea.
We were there because of unspecific reports concerning a so-called mob apparently gathering in an adjoining street. As usual, it was our job to take up a "tactical" position some distance away and observe any and all on-going proceedings, reporting back to Command if and when necessary. We’d been there for ten minutes and had seen nothing untoward. Jammy had kept the engine running and Kelly monitored the comms. No-one had shown the least bit interest in us, except for a rain be-sodden mongrel dog that had wandered by, pissed against one of the wheels and then sat down on the soaking pavement, staring up through one of the side windows at Tex Mick as though he was the long-lost love of his life….which he probably was!
“See, someone likes you Tex!” Doc grinned at the big Geordie “It must be a flea thing!”
Billy Bunter wiped condensation from the rear window with the sleeve of his tunic….
“Hey, there’s two women ‘avin’ a set-to over the road.”
We all turned to look and, sure enough, two women were standing just about toe-to-toe shouting abuse at each other not more than fifty yards away. They started pushing and shoving each other. A few people were braving the rain to turn out for a look-see. The dog ran across the road to join in. Tex breathed a sigh of relief!
A teenage girl tried to intervene as one of the women, her fists raised, turned her attention on a tall fair-haired youth. A screeching tirade of foul abuse spewing from her mouth! Heads were appearing from windows and doorways all along the street.
“As you were….It’s nothing to do with us” I said.
“Could get out of hand. Might get nasty” suggested Billy.
“Nothing to do with us!” I repeated as I noticed that some of the people encircling the protagonists were putting up umbrellas. I imagined that sooner or later someone would try to sell tickets!
“Weapon!” shouted Tex suddenly….“In the crowd….Man with a rifle I think….Yea....Yea, I‘m sure it was!”
“Where?” We all strained to see, wiping more condensation from the windows!
“Call it in Kelly! Where’d he go Tex?”
“Into the house with the dark-blue door I think….Could be goin’ anywhere!”
“Watch it! Get ready to hammer-it Jam!”
Kelly called it in and I really wanted for us to just get out of there, but the comms-set suddenly sparked to life and told us to hold our position and that support units were on their way!
“Watch the houses!” warned Kelly as he shifted in his seat for a better view along the street.
The debacle just across the way was getting a good deal more lively with two or three of the spectators suddenly joining in with the finger-pointing and general vocalising. It looked for all the world like a couple of families arguing over two teenage amores. Maybe it was, but I doubted it. More likely they wanted us to deploy from the vehicle to go and sort it out, then a sniper would slot one of us, everyone would be friends again and they’d all go back indoors for tea and biscuits!
The row across the road continued, but gradually seemed to lose momentum. People continued to stand about looking slightly uncertain. Occasionally someone would glance in our direction....
The “THWACK!”, when it came, was ear-ringingly loud against the side of the armour-plated vehicle and made us all jump out of our skins! I remember it made me bite my tongue quite hard!
“Up there! Corner of the street by the low wall!” I followed Jammy’s pointing finger.
“Move it....Fast as you can!" Jammy accelerated at about warp-factor eleven and with absolutely no regard for the Land-Rover’s primitive diathlon crystal! We reached the corner sooner than even he expected and he hit the brakes….Hard….VERY HARD! We skidded….and skidded….right into the wall! We deployed in a fashion originally developed by top instructors at the Keystone Cops School of Deployment and Tex and Doc finally took up defensive positions while Kelly stayed on comms. Jammy followed me over the wall and into someone’s back garden. It was empty. No sign of the gunman. Half a dozen back doors belonging to half a dozen terraced houses were closing as we gathered our wits and gazed around. We were more than wary of a secondary gunman or shinnie-type booby traps!
We returned to the vehicle.
“Anything? Asked Kelly. He already knew the answer. He reported in.
“Trouble up the street” said Doc. “Somebody’s hurt I think! Should we check it out?”
I looked back up the street towards the crowd that had gathered there beforehand. A small group of people were crouched over what looked like a body. A woman, not one of the original pair, seemed to be pulling frantically at her own hair and was wailing hysterically!
Another diversion? I didn’t think so. You could see it, even from where we were…a dark-red stain spreading across the wet pavement between the feet of the silent onlookers.
“Call for an ambulance Kelly! Let’s get up there….Now….Careful does it! Get your bag Doc!” I began to wonder where the "support" units were!
No-one offered any resistance. No-one said anything. The silent, gathering crowd just stood around and watched us pass. Bitter hatred infected every stare. The casualty was a fifteen year-old boy….hit in the chest by what later turned out to be an old-type Lee Enfield 303 round….the one that had careened off the side-door of our Land-Rover! Kelly did his best….applied a field-dressing, kept the pressure on. Tex got blankets from the nearest house. We tried to keep him dry and warm. Neighbours calmed the woman down a bit and Doc insisted that she talked to the boy….“Keep him conscious” he kept saying to her, over and over again. He said not to move him. He thought that the round might be lodged in the boy’s spine….Fortunately, it wasn’t as it turned out.
The support units arrived and a particularly belligerent army captain took charge. He dispersed the crowd in typically heavy-handed military fashion and he tried to insist that the woman and the boy were moved indoors. He said he was an incitement to the locals, a kid lying in the street, bleeding all over the fu**ing place! “Who cared if he croaked” he said, “One less Mick to worry about!“. Doc told him to "piss-off!" and there was an awkward moment as Tex, Jammy, Billy and Kelly all gathered round Doc, still kneeling beside the boy's prostrate form! The Captain’s mood was ugly, but theirs was practically Quasimodo and he must have thought better of it and he moved off to shout abuse at some poor sod of a squaddie for not looking busy enough!
A civilian ambulance showed up….eventually….more than thirty minutes later, but the boy lived despite it all….thanks to Doc!
Nearly a week later, while the boy was still recovering in hospital, a child passed a folded note to Doc on another rain-soaked day as he knelt in a doorway a few streets away from where the youth had been shot.
He showed it to us later that day. It was unsigned and in hastily scrawled handwriting, said quite simply....
It doesn't seem like much, but to us, back in those hate-driven days, and to Doc especially, it was pure platinum! The note didn't need any signature, we could all guess who it was from. Most significantly, It was a rare splinter of human decency that touched us profoundly at a time when decency of any kind had been all but erased from everyday life!
Doc's wife, Vicky, told me after his death that the note was very special to him and that he had always kept it in his wallet, but she hated the military and what it had done to him. She despised what he had gone through and how much she and her children had also suffered.
This story then, is for all the Docs....and for all the Vickys as well....and their families. Lest we forget them too!
Twenty-Two Christmas Break (December 1963)
“You can’t shteer a boat that ent movin’!” Mr. Warbuttle was sitting up in bed doing his best to gum an apple into submission while his teeth looked on from a glass of water on his bedside cabinet.
“What boat would that be then?” I asked. The bottom of the step-ladder that I was holding on to suddenly wobbled a bit.
“Oi! Hold it properly will yuh?” Paul Medway’s concern for his own safety arrowed down to me from somewhere near the hospital ward ceiling.
“And you can’t shteer a train neither!” Little pieces of apple sprayed across Mr. Warbuttle’s bedclothes as he continued to lecture us on the importance of making the right decisions in life and the dire consequences that would surely follow if we failed to do so. Right now 85 year-old Mr. Warbuttle was advocating the importance of how we needed to get off our lazy schoolboy backsides and get out into the world to do something “useful” with our sorry lives! “A train goezsh where it goezsh…but itsh up to you to choosh whisch train you catsch and whisch shtashun to getch outch atch!”
“What’s he sayin’?” Paul looked down momentarily from on high. “Pass us some more drawin’-pins will yuh?”
I took a box from my blazer pocket and passed it up to him. “Mr. Warbuttle wants us to catch a train because we can’t get there in a boat….I think.”
“When I wuzsh a lad your age….” Mr. Warbuttle sprayed on as we continued to strive majestically to hang seemingly endless yards of brightly coloured paper-chains from the rafters of the eight-bed men’s ward of Tewkesbury Cottage Hospital.
This was a traditional service provided for the hospital by Tewkesbury Secondary Modern School for Boys and harked back to a time before the War when, during the last week of term, the school would provide a couple of so-called “arty boys” to decorate the men’s ward and Elmbury Girl’s Secondary School (now Tewkesbury Comprehensive) would deploy two of its own pupils to do the same for the women’s ward. For the past couple of Christmases, it had fallen to Paul and myself to do the boys bit.
It was a much-coveted job. It got us out of school for as much as two whole days (if we worked at it) and the hospital staff and patients were always really grateful. We were inevitably showered in chocolate biscuits and mince pies and enough Tizer to float Mr. Warbuttle’s boat (so to speak). The decorations themselves were all hand-made by inmates at the afore-mentioned schools and some of them were actually quite presentable (the decorations too). Each ward had its own enormous tree donated by a local farmer and we spent ages fiddling with the bulbs on the Christmas tree lights trying to get at least three to work simultaneously!
All that paper switch-backing across the ceiling in sagging chains and yards of pre-historic wiring convoluting its way between patients beds was enough to make Matron blanche, but she always just smiled….Thank goodness Health and Safety hadn’t been invented in those days or people might have got hurt!
The fact that Paul and I were quite “arty” meant that it was always us who were chosen by “Skelly”, the school’s one-man art department, to tackle anything the least bit creative and which may possibly come to the attention of the school’s inspector! This included assorted scenery for school plays, all backdrops for the annual dual-school productions of Gilbert and Sullivan (Iolanthe, HMS Pinafore and the Mikado spring to mind) and various bits and pieces for solo and joint-school choir productions (both Paul and I had been told we never could or would be allowed to sing in the choir ourselves....there were, according to "Windy" Galesthorpe, the music master, "certain standards to uphold"!). Bits and pieces for parent open evenings kept us fairly busy as well….that was back in the days when parent evenings were actually a trial for the parents….back when teachers were seen as virtual pillars of the community and back when they had real power in the classroom and were always extremely keen to chastise the parents for their failings rather than the other way round!
Things were going quite well on the ward and the “decorating” was moving on a pace. I continued to hold the ladder firmly while Paul stretched out somewhat perilously above Mr. Warbuttle’s bed to secure the last paper-chain to a small section of coving. At that precise moment, Matron walked up to the ladder and, ten years before the advent of pocket calculators, held up a list of accounts figures for Paul to read.
“How much does that come to Paul?” asked Matron.
Paul glanced down at the page of numbers….a lot of numbers….“£92 17s 6d replied Paul. He returned his attention to the coving.
“Thank-you dear” Matron turned on her heels and squeaked noisily all the way back to her office across the ward's highly varnished parquet wooden floor in her crepe-soled sensible work shoes.
I had known Paul since primary school….we’d served time together in Mrs. Baker’s “Backward Class”, though Paul had been a full-timer whilst I barely visited two days a week. Paul was “Special” in another way however….long before the term “Special Needs” had even been invented. Paul was able do something that appeared magical to the rest of us….he could glance at a list of numbers and know exactly how much they added up to without even working it out….and he was never wrong! He could be given a complicated equation, such as “if 3xy = x+5yx what is xy?” Paul could tell you almost instantly that the answer was “3 potatoes“….and he would be right….he was always right! It was amazing and no-one knew how he did it, least of all Paul!
He was a total mystery and a cause of great distress to Mr. “You will sit there until you learn It boy” Thomas, who just may have been possibly the greatest maths teacher in the history of maths….ever! You see, apparently where maths is concerned, it’s no good just knowing the answer, no good at all. It’s the “how” you work it out bit that’s really important….even if it means you get the answer wrong….you have to know “how” you got it wrong!
Consequently, Paul was never allowed to sit a maths exam in his entire life! There was no point. You were only awarded one mark out of every ten for getting the answer right, so Paul could get every answer correct, but still only get a maximum of 10% in a maths test simply because he didn’t have a clue as to how he’d worked it out! Unfortunately, apart from his not inconsiderable artistic talents, he had no other “recognizable” abilities and continued into secondary education as a “Junior Remedial” pupil and, ultimately, “Senior Remedial”!
Ever the self-proclaimed champion of the unjustly treated, I felt a great sympathy for Paul….He was treated badly by the system. He had a wonderful gift, but was seemingly condemned for it. Crikey, he could have discovered the meaning of life or found a cure for cancer or something, but he was never given the chance to utilize what was, to all intents and purposes, an awesome talent!
“Life is like a ladder….” Mr. Warbuttle had finally finished his apple, but not his lecture….”You’ve godda climb it one step at a time!”
“Any Mince pies left?” Paul, having pressed home the final drawing-pin, turned awkwardly to stare down at me.
I looked across to the table in the corner of the ward where several platefuls of biscuits, home-made mince pies and lashings of fizzy drink had been arranged with regimental precision (obviously this was a time when, like Health and Safety and Political Correctness, MRSA super-bugs had yet to be invented and such things as Christmas decorations and mince pies were not seen as life-threatening harbingers of pandemic disaster....Besides, Matron would never have allowed such a thing as a so-called "super-bug" anywhere near her precious patients....she had them far too busy worrying about not making the place look untidy by lying around "pretending" to be ill all day long! "It's no good just lying there Mr. Butler" Matron would scold...."You need to get that awful jaundice into a wheelchair and out onto the veranda! December air isn't cold Mr. Butler, it's fresh and crisp! So come along, bring your drip. Chop, chop!" It was rumoured that Hattie Jacques sent her fan mail!).
“Plenty” I answered.
Paul took a step downwards….and slipped….and fell! He was lucky. The ceilings in that old hospital are quite high and he fell all the way from the top to the bottom, but he was fortunate....He managed to land on something quite soft and yielding and he wasn’t injured in the least! Unfortunately however, it was ME that he landed on and I WAS hurt....he broke my bloomin' arm!
Matron rushed out of her office and several nurses and a doctor also ran to help….To help Paul that is! (Bear in mind, that this was a time when hospitals could afford such basic luxuries as doctors and nurses....Now of course, they're forced to soldier-on, albeit heroically, with little more than hoards of notebook-wielding administration staff instead!).
Paul was fine and everyone was very relieved. I continued to roll about on the floor in agony, un-noticed, clutching my fractured arm while a host of highly-trained medical staff rushed to find Paul a comfy chair and a glass of Tizer!
I was tended to, eventually and I spent Christmas with my arm in plaster, but only after a sound telling-off from Matron for allowing Paul to fall off the ladder and a lecture from Mr. Warbuttle about how life is, in fact, a lot like like holding on to a ladder….“if you do it properly, then the job gets done. If you don’t, then Life will dump a whole mess of troubles right in your lap!” I didn’t argue!
Sadly, the following footnote to this Christmas tale goes some way at least to prove that in life generally, there are very few Disney-type happy outcomes....no matter how carefully you hold on to the ladder….
Paul Medway was never able to use his artistic talents (he had no paper qualifications to get into college or the intellectual where-withall to get himself into any kind of art or design-orientated work.). His father had been crushed and killed by a lorry at Fletcher's Flour Mill in Tewkesbury years before and Paul barely remembered him. By all accounts, his mum was a schizophrenic and was always threatening to kill herself. According to Paul, it was just to make him feel guilty about his Dad and he used to joke that next time she did it the police would have to treat it as a hostage situation! (He had a twisted kind of sense of humour that few people, apart from me, ever really appreciated). Saddest of all perhaps, he was never encouraged to use his “special gift”….so we still don’t know the meaning of life. He may well have the answer himself by now however….he died, aged just twenty, from some sort of congenital heart condition while unloading a delivery lorry working as a storeman for the old “Fine Fare” supermarket chain!
Mr. Warbuttle went on to defy medical science by living until he was 97 years old and he always liked to ask me (with a twinkle in his eye) if I was still “holding on to the ladder”. It wouldn’t be very long though, before (as Mr. Warbuttle would see it), I’d let go of the ladder altogether and “Life” would prove just how wise a seemingly insignificant, eccentric little old man without a tooth to his name could actually be!
Twenty-Three F.A.D. (July, 1969)
“Let me guess…” JM had walked into the food preparation/sick room un-noticed and had seen me struggling to open the much-beleaguered first-aid cabinet one-handed. “Was it Betty or Ena?"
“Ena" I whimpered as I turned to face the voice at the door and pints of my life’s blood poured from my deeply lacerated finger onto my newly cleaned and pressed (we did our own) overalls! Still more of the precious liquid fell onto the bright blue and lovingly disinfected (by me) linoleum floor.
“It looks quite bad. You might not make it this time! Sit down, I’ll get you something for it” He was relishing the opportunity to tease me as he opened the cabinet and removed an armful of assorted bandages, sticky plasters and the largest syringe he could find! He directed me to the one and only chair in the room….a comfy armchair that he’d donated himself to what he called the “Ferocious Animals Department” (or “FAD“ as it came to be known). This was in fact his own term for the zoo’s brand-new and head-curator-inspired Children’s Pets and Pet-Petting Corner, created as a means by which very young and unsuspecting children could be “introduced”, up close and personal, to harmless, fluffy cuddly bunnies and stuff….Brilliant! It was a new idea in those days.
Meanwhile, tending to all sorts of young, abandoned or sickly animals was a time-consuming and sometimes arduous task and the comfy chair had proven a real blessing during the long, hot summer nights when you had virtually nothing to occupy your mind but a tatty paperback novel and an industrial-strength alarm clock set to go off very, very loudly every couple of hours!
FAD was actually home to, amongst others, a bewildering and volatile mixture of psychotic rabbits, deranged Guinea pigs and sadistic tortoises, the last of whom, although short on speed, were long on malicious memory! All the harmless fluffy cuddly bunnies and stuff had, within a few weeks, been eaten by those less inclined to be fluffy and cuddly, but no-one really had the heart to tell the head-curator of this fact!! The most feared “pets” of them all were the afore-mentioned Betty and Ena, a couple of geriatric, but entirely diabolical Gerbils commonly believed to be in league with the Devil!
Ena (endearingly named after Mrs Sharples) had not been at all well for a couple of days, but despite all hope, was stubbornly refusing to succumb to her illness. In fact, it was while trying to feed her half an eye-dropper-full of best Navy Rum (to cheer her up a bit and possibly help her on her way) that she recovered sufficiently to remember who and where she was and had promptly bitten me on my blatantly unprotected finger!
“It looks deep. We’ll have to get it cleaned up properly….You know, we might have to amputate the rest of you to save the finger! You’ve had your shots recently have you?” I gave him one of my looks!
“Yea about a month ago” I squeaked ….“It’s all right, I can manage by myself!” I tried to be brave, but JM gave me one of HIS looks in return and reached for the triple-extra-strong antiseptic….the kind they use to sterilize toilets on trains!
I remember the pain….vaguely, as though through a veil of red mist! I also remember the Beano-style bandage so inexpertly applied by JM to my now hugely swollen and throbbing digit (if you pardon the expression)!
We hardly ever had this kind of trouble with the lions….Lions couldn’t be bothered to bite you….they were far too lazy….unless you did something exceedingly stupid, like forget to feed them! It was always the little creatures….or the ones who needed your help the most. They always seemed to have a head-load of bad attitude and, more often than not, a belly-full of spite!
Best of it was….I was supposed to be birds, but with Karen, the usual FAD keeper, off sick with an infected ear from a tortoise bite (don’t ask….it could have been worse!), I’d drawn the short straw and FAD was all mine for the duration! JM delighted in this and frequently dropped in to check that I was still “alive” and to offer me the benefit of his infinite wisdom. I enjoyed his visits.
Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon while I was covering for Karen, and I watched their “one small step for Man” in the early hours of the morning on a tiny portable black and white TV in the now infamous food preparation/sick room while nursing Andrew, a very poorly Chinchilla.
Karen's ear got better and she eventually returned, albeit reluctantly, to FAD. Innocent children continued to be introduced to the nice, fluffy animals and some of them were hardly bitten at all. (This remember, was long before litigation had been invented and people knew what self-responsibility was and so it didn‘t really matter!). JM continued to brighten my days with his visits and I managed to ignore most of his ridiculous, though highly entertaining pearls of anecdotal wisdom. Most importantly perhaps, Ena pulled through to live on, I believe, for another year or so, but she got meaner than ever (probably due to the rum) and spent the last of her days in isolation, well away from innocent children and fearful keepers! Sadly, Andrew died in my arms before the moon-walkers had returned to their miraculous “Eagle”.
I left zoo-keeping about a month later to go to Tech college in Cheltenham in the hopes of getting a couple of A-levels. I'd completed my apprenticeship at the zoo plus another year or so extra....I'd more than served my time. I'd scrubbed and cleaned hundreds of cages and enclosures, prepared countless exotic meals for a huge variety of species and got to know many of the most engaging characters I would ever meet in my life....most of the people were quite interesting too! I guess I was ready to hang up my wellies and move on.
Moving on however, turned out to be a much tougher thing to do, emotionally at least, than I could ever have imagined....but that's another story!
Miko (Late September, 1980)
“Sumimasen!” I finally caught the waitress’s eye. She walked across to our table “Nani ni nasaimasu ka” she asked….very formal, very polite. I figured that she was about twenty-three years old. “Kohii o hitotsu to chiisu sando o kudasai ” Not brilliant, but I was learning....gradually. “Hai“ She turned to face my twenty-eight year-old Japanese coastguard escort, Kenji. “Remon tii….er….“ She waited while Kenji deliberated….“Hamu sando o kudasai” he announced finally. The waitress turned back to me “miruku wa ikaga desu ka” She asked, pen poised above her note-book. “Hai, onegai shimasu” I replied with what I hoped was more of a smile than a gormless leer and prayed that I’d learned enough formal Japanese not to cause offence!
Was it my imagination though, or had I detected a moment when the waitress had seemed to drop her guard….just ever so slightly? She'd bowed in the painfully polite and respectful way common to all public workplace employees, but she'd also looked me directly in the face as she did so….not so respectful, but not disrespectful either….not to me anyway. Our eyes had met….just for a second….
I watched her walk away to place our order and felt my companion’s eyes watching me watching her….
“She is pretty , yes?”
“She certainly is Kenji” I replied, going slightly pink. The girl had reached the counter where a second waitress said something to her that I couldn’t quite hear, but they both glanced back in our direction and giggled. Definitely not respectful and I reddened! Was that a hint of a smile as she turned away?
Kenji continued to stare at me for several seconds as I shifted uncomfortably on the warm plastic seat . “Ten months is a long time here for you I think” he said.
Kenji was certainly right. Ten months was a very long time for most things, but far longer when it came to certain others.
“Would you like me to introduce you?” “You know her?” “I come here very often. Shall I call her over?” “What? No! I mean….what would I say? She doesn’t speak any English for God’s sake!” “Your Japanese is fairly good and you are respectful. I think she likes that” “Not that good Kenji….Not good enough to chat-up girls!” “One girl, only one” He looked up and smiled….then in Japanese and loud enough for everyone in the pristine-clean, sun-lit Suma-ku Ward café to hear, “but a very pretty one I think!” “Shhh!“ Panic knotted a very large fist inside my chest, “Look Kenji, chatting-up girls is not something I‘m very good at, even back home!” “Then not being able to say anything will give you something to talk about….yes?”
At that moment a coffee with milk and a lemon tea appeared on the table in front of us and I felt my face turn scarlet!
The girl looked as though she wanted to flee as she continued to provide us with napkins and finger bowls (for sandwiches?).
“You are Miko….yes?” Kenji began to stir his remon tii….”This is my friend. He is called Goose by his heroic comrades….He thinks you are very pretty!” My facial colour suddenly went off the scale, though I was relieved to notice that hers did too!
I gave Kenji one of my best annoyed looks and felt a strong urge to explain why they called me “Goose” and how I would have preferred something more macho, like “Hawk” or maybe “Falcon”, but all I could manage was a very formal and virtually unintelligible “Hajimemashite, dozo yoroshiku!”
She stood there, quite tall for a Japanese woman, her head slightly bowed, staring at the floor. She raised her eyes without moving her head and stared at me through her long, straight raven-black hair. “Herro….Goose” she said almost inaudibly and (to me) incredibly sexily while simultaneously managing to exhaust her entire English vocabulary with just those two words.
At that moment, her own sense of panic probably compelled her to deliver a sudden staccato of machine-gun Japanese of which I managed to identify probably no more than three or four words at most….until a delighted Kenji eventually came to our rescue as interpreter….
“Goose is a British Royal Marine and he’s been here in Kobe with his unit for the last ten months to help our humble Coastguard train in the use of special new equipment used in ship-to-ship boarding strategies and ship-to-shore deployments". Miko stared at him blankly. "Goose will understand some of what you say if you speak very slowly” She absorbed Kenji’s words, then looked at me more openly as I sat there, sweating uncomfortably, a red-faced, social incompetent dressed in green combat fatigues, topped off with a jauntily-angled green beret.
“I finish work in one hour, if you like, we could walk in the park”. Kenji repeated her words in English, although I’d more than got the gist of it. I wondered where the excruciatingly shy and ultra-polite waitress had gone all of a sudden, though I did question the integrity of at least part of Kenji’s translation, not to mention my own very limited ability to understand conversational Japanese!
Kenji made an excuse to return to base early while I sat on a low wall and waited for Miko to finish work. I felt like some sort of spotty, nervous, teenage boy agonizing over his very first date!
We’d finally agreed, with Kenji’s help, to rendezvous in a small, nearby park and I half expected her not to turn up, but she did, exactly on time and we walked and talked for more than two hours….all through Suma-ku Ward, along the beach made famous by the Beach Boys with their 1970s song "Sumahama", along the water-fronts and back around the shops.
Miko did most of the actual talking (very un-typical for a Japanese woman….at least back then) and asked lots of questions about me, the RM and the UK. Apparently, many of her friends had travelled to Britain on educational trips with school or college, but she’d never been able to go herself and wanted to know all about it. We attracted lots of attention….the quite tall, very pretty Japanese waitress and the 6’ 3” butt-ugly British soldier.
Like Kenji, Miko seemed to know at least half the population of Kobe and a number of Japanese citizens went out of their way to talk to us, speaking to her informally, like a long-lost friend and to me with the utmost deference and respect. It was a very enjoyable and educational couple of hours.
She was delighted to hear of my passion for birds and thought my nickname was very funny….and appropriate!
“Tori ga suki desu ka” she asked.
“Hai, tori ga suki desu!” and I went on to tell her as much as I could about my encounters with birds since being in Japan. With that, she grabbed my hand and led me a short way to a busy main road where long lines of traffic took turns to queue at staggered sets of traffic lights. The road was mostly four lanes wide and lined along both sides with Walnut trees for as far as the eye could see. We sat on a bench in the warm, late September sunshine and she told me to wait and watch….
What followed is something I’ll never forget and served to raise my respect for the intelligence of certain species of bird by about twenty notches!
We sat in silent anticipation for a minute or two, until we became aware of some fairly agitated movement amongst the leaves and branches of several of the closer Walnut trees. A distinctive and familiar cackling drifted down to us. I guessed immediately who it might be making all the din and soon spotted the culprits….about a dozen or so Daurian Jackdaws. Daurians are an extremely intelligent species similar to our European Jackdaw, except that they usually come in a distinctive two-tone black and buff version and have dark instead of steely-grey eyes. They only spend the winter in Japan, flying down from China and Siberia, but these reprobates must have arrived quite early and were currently engrossed in prizing walnuts from the branches of the trees. Miko said that they had been around for about a week, but that they came every year.
It’s what happened next however, that amazed me….Once a bird had wrestled a walnut from a branch, it would wait patiently for the lights at the nearest junction to turn red and for the traffic to stop. Then, quick as a flash, the bird would fly down and place the hard-shelled nut on the road in front of a waiting vehicle. Whereupon it would return to a place of safety and wait. A minute or two later, the lights would change to green, the traffic would move forward and the nut would be crushed beneath the wheels of the vehicles. Brilliant! The lateral-thinking birds even waited for the next red light before diving in to retrieve their spoils! I'd heard of similar behaviour involving Spotted Nutcrackers (another type of Crow), but had never witnessed it first-hand.
As a boy, I’d enjoyed setting up little 3D puzzles in the garden for Blue Tits to solve, involving matchsticks, Hornby railway wagons, chicken wire and peanuts. You know the kind of thing….pull out a matchstick to release the wagon to roll out of the wire tunnel to get the peanut kind of thing. They were very good at it, but not as smart as those clever Jackdaws!
Miko was delighted at my reaction and suddenly kissed me on my cheek….We both went red!
We spent ten more minutes watching the birds without saying another word. I reached out and held her hand! Miko eventually announced that she must catch the last bus home and I walked her to her bus stop not far from the café. We said goodbye in an appropriately formal way, but I promised to return to the café as soon as I could. I stood and watched her waving through the back window of the bus until it turned a corner and was lost from sight.
Two days later, my unit received orders to join a second RM outfit stationed in Nagasaki and from there we were unexpectedly returned to the UK within the week! I never saw Miko again!
I spent hours composing a letter in hand-written Japanese and sent it to her via Kenji. I "hope" it said how much I’d enjoyed our small amount of time together and that I was really sorry to be leaving. I thanked her for showing me the Jackdaws and told her that I would miss her very much.
Over a month later and on a cold, grey, wintry day in Arbroath, an airmail letter arrived for me in the post. It contained just a single sheet of paper upon which was a beautiful and exquisitely drawn ink-sketch of two Daurian Jackdaws in a Walnut tree, with the names “Miko and Goose” written in Japanese characters underneath.
Two weeks after that, my troop and I were back doing border reconnaissance patrols in Northern Ireland!
A very long, narrow and beautiful city, Kobe is the principal port on the Japanese island of Honshu and the capital of Hyogo Prefecture. It was the first to open its gates to trade with the West as recently as 1868. We were actually stationed there for nearly eleven months, but were mostly either confined to base or required to work alongside the Nihon Coastguard in a predominantly advisory capacity. We had relatively little contact with the local population, particularly at first and excursions into town were always under the watchful eyes of "chaperones". Mine was nearly always a junior Coastguard officer called Kenji, who spoke excellent English and who eventually grew to become a very good friend.
There were relatively few western tourists visiting the city back then, most preferring Tokyo. Kyoto or Hiroshima as their primary destinations. However, this was still a busy port-of-call for a great deal of foreign shipping and merchant seamen of many nationalities could be found at almost any time enjoying shore-leave in some of the more commercial parts of the city. Meanwhile, the majority of US and British naval vessels headed for the much more industrialized port of Nagasaki and a British marine, remained therefore, a fairly unusual sight amidst the hustle and bustle of Kobe's dockland areas.
I enjoyed spending time in the older harbour districts of the city and most of all I loved Suma-ku Ward where I would spend many hours pottering about along the beach or on the quay-sides, watching the seabirds and the people go about their daily business. It was a busy place, vibrant and full of colour. Everyone I spoke to was invariably friendly, painfully respectful and always happy to oblige such a tall westerner with answers to his never-ending questions and nosey ways! The fact that I was so amicably "indulged" was due mostly, I think, to the enormous popularity of local boy Kenji, but also to the fact that I tried very hard, from the outset, to speak the "lingo"....sometimes with hilarious or even disastrous consequences! It earned me a kind of respect and I would advise anyone planning to visit Japan, for whatever reason, to do the same....it is much appreciated.
I would certainly like to return to Japan one day, but not to Kobe. On 17th January, 1995 the city was struck by a truly awful natural disaster, the worst since 1923! The Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake devastated huge areas of the city and all but wiped out its wonderful harbour district! More than 6,400 people were killed that day and 300.000 were made homeless!
An incredibly important city economically, Kobe was completely re-built within two years and now boasts a fascinating mix of both the traditional and the thoroughly modern. It is still a beautiful place however, resting as it does, beneath the magnificent and richly forested Mount Rokko, a veritable paradise for birds. The view across the bay to Osaka is breath-taking and the city enjoys some of the best weather to be experienced anywhere in Japan!
Sadly, all of the city's busy, hard-working little Suma-ku Ward is gone now and many of the people who lived and worked there are gone as well. So I want to remember Kobe the way it was....a place full of fascinating sights and interesting, friendly people....A warm, sunny corner of the universe where I once met a beautiful Japanese girl who was happy to walk and talk with me, who sat on a bench with me and showed me some very clever birds because she knew it would please me. She was someone who quickly became special to me, someone who kissed me on the cheek and held my hand....for just a little while.
The Seven and the Two of Doom! (October, 1965)
"How much is it?" I asked and felt myself shiver slightly as the icy-cold wind whipped through the town streets on that chilly mid-October night. The dancing, multi-coloured lights of Tewkesbury's annual Mop Fair reflected off the windows and walls of the buildings around us while our silvered breath hung in the air for barely a moment before being snatched upwards and away into the inky blackness above our heads.
"'Half-a-crown." replied Tony, pointing towards a brightly painted sign half-hidden behind a group of teen-age fair-goers.
I allowed myself to be swept along the pavement for a few yards in an effort to read the sign properly….braving the irresistible momentum of the crowd to do so, as it squeezed itself through the narrow gap (like dung from a horse's rear-end) between the eight-foot high brick wall enclosing "Turner’s" scrap-yard and one side of the enormous "Waltzer" which, each year, was erected by steely-eyed Fair-folk in a valiant attempt to block at least three-quarters of the width of Nelson Street....
Come and See
Cross Her Palm With Silver (Not Less Than 2/6-) and
Your Future Will Be Revealed Right Before Your Very Eyes!
I gradually elbowed my way back towards Tony and the willowy Wendy, his clingy, self-obsessed girlfriend of four days, as they huddled ever closer together against the bitingly cold wind alongside the fortune-teller's tent quite cunningly positioned out of harm’s way in the scrap-yard’s recessed entrance.
Wendy had made it abundantly clear from the outset that she thoroughly resented me being there, but Tony had insisted that I should go to the fair with them that evening as I was his friend. He knew only too well that there wasn't really anyone else for me to go with and besides, he was quite aware of the fact that Wendy had probably only offered to go out with him in the first place because she knew he had a part-time job at Mitton garage and would have plenty of money to spend (as she hoped) entirely on her!
"How much money you got Don?" he asked.
"Nearly twelve bob." It had taken me weeks to save even that much for the fair.
"Is that all?" sneered Wendy "Oh well DONALD, I suppose you'll have spent it all SOON and then you might as well go HOME!"
Tony moved away from her and slipped half-a-crown into my hand...."Go on Bird-Boy, go and get your fortune told....It's on me."
I looked him in the eyes....one brown, the other milky-blue. I could tell he worried about me sometimes, though I never really understood why...."Ok, but only if you'll come in as well."
"How old are you....five or somethin'?" Wendy mumbled her sarcasm towards the night sky. She much preferred that Tony spend ALL of his hard-earned cash on her and not some pea-brained, geeky tag-along! Beautiful inside she wasn't, yet she was, in all fairness, a tall, slim and very pretty brunette....except I'd noticed long before, that her eyes seemed strangely vacuous, almost soul-less. Eyes have always been important to me. They can speak volumes if you think you know how to read them!
"Come on then!" Tony grabbed me by the arm and marched me into the little tent. Wendy followed, obviously annoyed.
"Donald isn't it? I've been expecting you!" Gypsy Rose-Lee welded me to the spot with eyes I would never be able to read. "Sit down boy and cross my palm with silver".
Tony and I glanced at each other and I did as I was told.
"You heard us say his name outside the tent....You Must've!" Wendy's eyes, despite her well-reasoned explanation, had widened considerably!
"Be quiet child!" the Gypsy woman arrowed a glance at Wendy and then looked kindly back at me. She held out her hand and I pressed the half-crown into it. She closed her fingers around the money then opened them once again. The coin had disappeared! A trick, but a damn clever one!
Wendy gasped, I was enthralled and Tony grunted. He shifted his stance slightly and I could tell that he was almost as impressed as me.
Gypsy Rose-Lee took my hand in hers and I opened my palm for her to read. Her hands were cold as ice! "Do you want to know what things was, what they is or what they will surely be?" I guessed to myself absently that she'd be about sixty or so years old...."None of your business!" she barked suddenly. She had gained my undivided attention!
"Ask 'er if you'll ever 'ave a girlfriend" offered Wendy. I actually think she was trying to be genuinely helpful for once.
The fortune-teller studied my hand then looked into my face. Her eyes were unfathomable pools of....of....pain....inner pain....she had suffered greatly during her three score or more years. I couldn't see it, but I could....sense it....
"All kinds of creatures trust you don't they Donald? Yet....there is very little trust inside of you...not for most people at any rate! You trust him I think!" She nodded towards Tony.
"Ask her when you'll die" blurted Wendy suddenly. "What year? Ask her....Go on!"
"Shut it Wend'!" snapped Tony "Come on, we'll wait outside."
Gypsy Rose-Lee continued to stare at me until they'd gone...."I never tells of the death of things Donald. It ain't right, but Death will stand at your shoulder many times before you are called yourself!"
Now, this was supposed to be a bit of fun....a lark if you like. I'd never truly believed in such er....stuff, but unfortunately, I'd always been cursed with an open mind and, at that moment, my mind seemed to be a lot more "open" than usual!
I continued to sit there....mesmerized by those unreadable eyes....like one of the luckless Rabbits so easily "drawn in" by my uncle Chris's hypnotic hunting techniques.
"Er....I've got ages then....before I....er, you know?" I couldn't help asking and kicked myself mentally for being so stupid!
"Can't say!" came the cryptically terse reply....but was that "can't" as in not able to or "can't" as in not allowed?
"I SHALL say this though boy....a Seven and a Two will mark the end of it....Now go and join your friend!"
I left the tent and filled the others in on what little they'd missed, but I kept the mention of the "Seven" and the "Two" completely to myself.
Wendy was right, it didn't take long to spend my measly twelve bob and I eventually bid my good-nights and walked home alone.
The Gypsy's words continued to play on my mind however and I spent quite some time recording the strange episode virtually word for word in my diary before finally going to bed. "A Seven and a Two will mark the end of it!". What the heck was that all about?
Two weeks later, I'd left home and begun work as an apprentice zoo-keeper fifty miles away and, as the years passed, I managed to more or less forget about the entire incident....except that somehow, I gradually came to believe that the Seven and the Two most probably referred to the year-date (though it could just as easily have meant a number "27" bus) and I managed to make myself particularly anxious throughout the whole of 1972! New Year's Day, 1973 finally came as a profound relief after a year of gnawing anxiety! In fact, my very first entry in my 1973 diary began with the words, "Well, I made it after all!"
That would be that of course....for ages....Humongous relief....No more Sevens and Twos appearing together in the year-date for decades to come....that is....not until....
Unto Us (17th August, 1988)
We’d been trying for years to have a baby….years, but without success. We’d read everything ever written on the subject….taken endless advice from medical professionals….from family and friends….and even Old Mother Tippett, the ancient woman who lived with her cat in the woods on the outskirts of the village. She’d given us the benefit of her antique wisdom….and a special concoction made from a secret recipe to help “sort things out”!
Meanwhile, my wife had totally exhausted all the usual methods of making something happen….popping fertility pills like Smarties, eating loads more spinach, walking home backwards behind the oxen on successive Tuesdays with the wind out of the West….Crikey, we even tried having sex….but nothing seemed to work!
….Yet there he was, at 7.17pm on that hot, humid August evening way back in 1988….my beautiful son….or at least the bit of the top of his head that was just visible as he slowly, oh so slowly, made his way out into the world!
I guess that at this point, as her sweat soaks into the sheets, her breathing accelerates ten-fold and her cries reach a kind of terrifying crescendo, most men stare down joyously into their partner’s tear-stained faces while struggling desperately, if not heroically, to hold back a whole flood of crazy emotions….totally oblivious to the thirty-six hour nightmare of pain and fatigue that the woman in their life has just endured….is still enduring!
I couldn’t help thinking at that exact same moment however, that if men were the ones who, for millions of years, had had to go through months of all that pregnancy and pre-natal stuff, followed by hours of pain-drenched labour, then we’d have found some way by now to make the whole process totally painless and completely trouble-free….After all, men don‘t do pain particularly well! Mmm, I tried instead to concentrate on NOT thinking about my poor fingers as my wife inadvertently crushed them to a pulp in her newly acquired, vice-like grip….I thought about asking for a gasp or two of gas and air, but changed my mind….People don’t realize just how tough this “giving birth” business actually is for us males!
Suddenly, the head was clear….and it looked for all the world like a giant, wrinkly, purply-coloured er….prune! Then the rest of the body followed almost straight after with a strange kind of schloppy, ploppy, popping sound that I've tried to forget, but can't!
So there he was…. Nothing to it really. Just over two weeks late, but all done and dusted….Except of course, it wasn’t….
Two weeks late being born meant that his umbilical cord had deteriorated considerably and, despite the midwife managing to clamp it off and cut it in the usual way, the main part of the cord suddenly tore away from his navel below the clamp closest to him and blood began to pump from his belly at a terrifying rate. I watched in shock as she tried desperately to re-attach the clamp to the tiny piece of raggedy cord still connected to the now open, gushing wound, but the clamp was too big! Another nurse attempted to swab the area around the tear as the midwife then tried desperately to pinch-off the blood-flow with the tips of her fingers! A doctor suddenly appeared and told her to “hold on” because her fingers were smaller than his! Blood was everywhere and the floor had become dangerously slick. Then, after what seemed like hours, a second nurse burst into the room with a smaller, more suitable clamp and the doctor eventually managed to attach it. The bleeding stopped, but my son had lost an awful lot of blood and appeared to be unconscious. He was rushed to intensive care where he remained for the next forty-eight hours! It was a very worrying two days!
I’ve lived through a lot of scary stuff in my time, but nothing compares with what your kids can put you through. They say that a man never truly matures until he becomes a father and there’s finally something in his life more important than himself….Well, there have been two occasions over the years when my maturity has grown by the nth degree and watching those terrifying events unfold during the birth of my son was certainly one of them….As for the other….Well, I’ve told that story elsewhere already!
Thankfully, my son went on to make a full recovery, turning out to be a bright, strong, happy, healthy little boy who loved nothing more than to read books and play football. He’s nineteen now, as I type this, enjoying city life in his second year at a big posh university and sharing a house with his beautiful girlfriend….I guess he’s doing ok, but it could all have been so different if a very worried nurse hadn’t found that bl**dy clamp in time!
Lies, Lies and More Damn Lies (March 1982)
This chapter is actually one of a dozen that I have written as an integral part of this so-called auto-biography, but until now, have been reluctant to place in the public domain….No, not because of any deeply ingrained psychological or emotionally distressing issues, at least not in this particular case, but simply because the content will appear much too fanciful to the average reader and far too unlikely to have ever occurred at all to the military enthusiasts amongst you! I have however, spent many hours writing and re-writing it in a determined effort to make it sound at least a little bit plausible so, before you all rush to your e-mail thingys to dispute its factual integrity, I’ll save you the trouble….
This is a totally fictitious account of events that never took place. After all, they couldn’t have….HM Government had absolutely no idea of what the Argentines were up to at any stage during the months leading up to the Falklands War and furthermore, we must believe them without question when they say that they were taken completely by surprise when South Georgia was occupied and then again when the Falkland Islands themselves were invaded!
I would also like to make it very clear that the Americans were at no time involved in British preparations (secret or otherwise) to eventually regain the Falkland Islands….not at any point or in any way, shape or form….and particularly with regard to providing British Forces with the use of strategically significant air bases and port facilities (such as those at the joint-operational Wideawake on Ascension Island for example). They certainly did not provide any kind of pre-war intelligence, useful or otherwise and, most importantly of all perhaps, at no point were British reconnaissance units (Royal Marines, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides or, as a last resort, the Army) involved in any covert monitoring activities actually based on the Argentine mainland itself….either before, during or after the invasion. That would have been diplomatically antagonistic to say the least and the politicians would never have allowed it….even if most of them knew what was actually going on….which, of course, they always do!
Besides, there would be absolutely no logistical, strategic or tactical advantage to be gained by knowing exactly (or even approximately) where, when and how the enemy is distributing or positioning its forces or of what those forces are comprised….and there would be no point whatsoever therefore, in deploying specialist reconnaissance units in key areas in an effort to observe such things and, by relaying such information back to say, a submarine innocently lurking somewhere off the mainland coast, possibly save hundreds of British lives….that’s always assuming everything did eventually go pear-shaped….something no-one could have possibly anticipated anyway!
It is for these reasons, together with the fact that I do not wish to be arrested for contravening the Official Secrets Act, that I have given this chapter the title of “Lies, Lies and More Damn Lies” and believe me, you have no idea how appropriate a title like that might happen to be!
0530hrs….A thick blanket of stars and a sliver of silvery moon cast their eerie metallic light across a silent frosted landscape. They also managed to provide just enough light to enable me to track the old farm-worker through my rifle’s SUIT sights as he peddled his squeaky sit-up-and-beg bicycle along the country lane that marked the Irish border some two hundred yards beneath my cover position. Apart from the silhouette of a solitary skein of wild Geese making its way slowly northwards across the cloudless sky, he was the only living thing we’d seen for more than an hour and now, cold, tired and very hungry, the four of us who made up the macho-sounding “Goose” squad were very much looking forward to….
“You know what….I think that War is just God’s way of teaching us geography!” Kelly’s whisper came from about a yard behind my left ear….It made me jump!
“Jesus frick Kelly, don’t do that! I might’ve shot that poor b**tard!” It was a little bit weird the way that this particular six feet two inches of Royal Marine was nearly always able to sneak up on me totally unawares! Irritated, I half turned to stare into the bemused bootneck’s camo-smeared face, but in the shadows, his eyes and breath were the only parts of him that were clearly visible! “We’re not AT war, remember? They’re terrorists and what they do is er….illegal and not officially an act of War!”
Kelly stared back at me….”Yea, yea….officially-smishally….So we‘re just glorified frickin’ policemen then really?”
”Look, it‘s all just Bo**ocks!” I was rapidly losing the will to live….“Just call it in and tell them to send us a taxi back to Base ASAP*. I‘ll get the others!”
*….Now, I know that when I write dialogue like this it irritates the heck out of the military purists out there and they love nothing more than to e-mail my sorry a**e to put me right on the details, but then, they do tend to have been raised on a diet of macho bulls**t dialogue written according to some anonymous Hollywood scriptwriter’s perception of how the military talks amongst itself. Well, I guess they’re probably right up to a point, so perhaps my countless critics would be happier if I said I’d called it in myself….saying something along the lines of “This is Gamma-Zero-One to Base-Alpha over….We request immediate evac, Do you copy?….That’s EZ extraction co-ordinates zero-three-five-zero-one-zero….that’s right, just past the house with the green door on your right….Say again Base-Alpha….No, the green door! Mrs McEllery lives in the house with the BLUE door….Yes Base-Alpha, they certainly are….very big indeed! Er….That’s a Roger and out….No, I mean over….er….Copy!” Sadly, we actually tended not to talk like that at all, or at least we didn’t for 90% of the time, but hey, what the heck….”Roger you and out….Do you copy that….Over”
Less than two hours later I was standing at ease-ish in front of the Boss’s desk as he scanned through my hastily completed two-page written report….the one I’d managed to scribble-off twenty minutes earlier as I scoffed my egg, beans and tomato sauce on toast in the mess hall.
“So, the usual waste of time and resources then?” He looked up from the page he’d just been reading.
“Yes sir. There was no suspicious activity at all sir”
“Mmm….Would you mind explaining what this is then….and this….and this here? It looks quite suspicious to me!” He pointed at several small to medium-sized stains on one of the pages
“Er….Egg-yolk sir….I think….and possibly baked-bean juice….er…or maybe coffee sir !“ He stared at me for several very long moments.
“Right….Well, I’ve just received orders from above….It appears that you Goose1 and your happy little band of reprobates, plus “Fox” and “Dog” units, are required elsewhere. Get your gear together and assemble all three squads in the briefing room at 0930hrs. Some Army Major chappy will be telling you all you need to know ….then you’re off back to the mainland….Condor I believe, at 1030hrs. Good luck and dismissed!”
I turned to go. Stopping at the door, I looked back at the CO….“Can you give me a hint sir?”
“No I can’t. You’ll find out soon enough. Meanwhile (he called me by my first name at this point), I suggest you try to get ten minutes shut-eye somewhere along the line”.
Oh dear, I didn’t like the sound of that….He hardly ever used first names….It was a bit like hearing the start of your own obituary before you actually die*….I felt a vague shiver run down my spine!
*….As opposed to hearing it AFTER you die I suppose!
We sat around the edges of the briefing room….twelve of us….“Goose“, “Fox” and “Dog” Reconnaissance Squads….Recce’s finest! A few of the men were chuntering their disapproval at not being allowed to rest-up after eighteen hours of freezing their tits off while sitting motionless in various hedgerows and ditches dotted along the Irish border….watching….and waiting….always waiting and er….watching! Meanwhile, we’d sub-consciously arranged our bergens like some kind of olive-green barrier on the floor in front of us and I was sure I could hear the stitching moaning and creaking under the strain of so much kit!
“ATTENHUT!” Having dozed off without realizing, I jerked awake, nearly falling off my chair, as the Royal Marine’s answer to “Porridge’s” brilliant Senior Prison Officer McKay attempted to gain our undivided attention….”Hallright yeez ‘orrible w**khers, this his Major Wishni….Wezneshni….Wizenynesh….ah bo**ocks….This hofficer here his the harmy Major from harmy hintelligence….” Someone to the right of me sniggered!
“Heez here for the purposes hoff enlightenin’ yeez has to wot yeez har here for!”
I elbowed Kelly awake as the major walked across the room and stood behind a desk positioned in front of us. Shuffling a few papers, he cleared his throat….
“Good morning….Thank-you Sergeant….Don’t stand up men (we didn’t)….I am in fact, Major Weisnetzki and I’ll get straight to the point….You’re all heading back to Condor post-haste. From there you’ll be flown to another destination, probably in the same transport, where you will be joined by some other chaps and immediately thereafter you will board a different transport and be taken to yet another base….No, I’m not able to name the base at this moment in time….Any questions?”
“What about our families sir?” Billy Bunter looked concerned. Everyone else was confused. I felt another, but slightly stronger, shiver run down my spine!
“Well naturally, they’ll be staying at home”
“No, I mean when can we talk to them?”
“I’m afraid you can’t….Any more questions?”
Seven or eight people put their hands up. “No? Good, that’s all fine and dandy then isn’t it. You depart in….” he glanced at his watch….“forty-five minutes!” The Major gathered his papers together and walked swiftly out of the room.
Kelly leaned forward to catch my eye “Was that the briefing or the briefing for the briefing?”
I stood up, hefted my bergen onto my shoulders and picked up my rifle. I raised my voice above the growing groundswell of tired, disgruntled and cursing bootnecks….“I suggest that everyone gets some sleep if you can….I dare say someone will wake us when we’re needed”.
I eventually found a quiet corner in which to settle and managed to write-up some of the more interesting of events to befall me recently in my diary before finally drifting off to sleep.
I should think that just about all of us managed to get at least some shut-eye during the journey….in the Chinook en-route to Arbroath and then again as we continued roughly South-West towards the Welsh border and “another destination”. It was there that we found ourselves sharing a long-distance USAF passenger transport with the “other chaps“ and then it wasn’t long before we were settled in our plush seats (very different to the narrow and very hard metal-alloy benches of the Chinook) and the plane was manoeuvring for take-off. We eventually headed due South.
We took the opportunity to eat a meal of sorts served up from the little galley by a couple of American stewards and then most of us slept for the remainder of the flight. When we eventually touched down however, we had no idea of where we actually were….except that it was some kind of an air base….a very large one….and that it was possibly on an island. It also appeared to be populated entirely by US Air-Force Personnel. It was, by this time, very early in the morning of the following day (if you see what I mean)….it was very dark and very windy!
As we stepped off the plane, I was sure that I could just make out the faint sound of what must have been the Atlantic ocean way off in the distance. It was more obvious however, that we were not MEANT to know exactly where we were for the time being or that the majority of the base’s indigent American population weren’t supposed to know, “officially” that we were even there….probably both! Ah, the games that politicians play!
A narrow walkway, built using chipboard with walls eight feet high, ran from the plane to a miserable-looking wooden hut situated at the very edge of the airstrip. Its windows had been completely whitewashed….EVERYONE appeared to be going to an awful lot of trouble to ensure that NO-ONE knew we were there! It was in the hut however, that we were briefed for a second time, though on this occasion, far more comprehensively!
Eventually, as a thin wedge of dawn light gradually began to crack open the distant horizon like the lid on some huge Pandora’s Box, we found ourselves standing on an otherwise deserted dockside….about fifty of us, with our weapons in our hands (if you pardon the expression) and our bergens at our feet….each filled to bursting with eighty or more pounds of brand-new and specially issued kit (issued in Condor) and extra ammunition! Finally, the order came for us to board the boat….
I hated submarines (I still do)….whether it was the huge Polaris nuclear-powered jobbies based up North….the controversial ones that Comacchio were responsible for protecting (mostly from the fiendishly clever ladies of the CND….thank God they didn‘t organize the IRA)….or the smaller, conventional types. It didn’t matter….I hated them all equally….but suddenly, there we were, more than fifty bad-tempered, foul-mouthed British troopers sharing crew quarters designed for less than twenty….and preferably a very short twenty at that!
Still, at least we now had some idea as to where we were going and why. We also knew that we’d be spending the next ten to fourteen days in a glorified sardine tin* speeding unseen (hopefully) all the way down to the South Atlantic….running on the surface by night (weather permitting) or below the surface during the day. Unfortunately however, we twelve Marines were the ONLY Marines on board….the rest were Army chuckle-heads who were soon spending more time up-chucking in the head than the rest of us thought was humanly possible!
Meanwhile, there was very little else for us to do except to stay out of the way of the boat’s regular crew, trade insults with each other, clean our weapons for the umpteenth time (yes, and those….personal hygiene on a submarine is very important) or check and re-check our kit. Most of us soon lost what little cash we’d taken with us (if you were anything like me that is) by playing cards with Tex Mick and, as we waited and waited and waited for the present nightmare to end and a new one to begin, the hardest thing of all to endure was the enormous difficulty involved in snatching just a few hours kip (on a rota basis) in any of the seventeen pitifully inadequate bunks that we were forced to share between the fifty of us!
The “air” inside that boat was foul to say the least and reeked of a not-so-subtle mix of grease, diesel oil, glow-in-the-dark arm-pit stench, crotch-sweat, bad breath and brown-job vomit (not to mention chef’s beef stroganoff) and while most of the Army lads mysteriously “chose” not to consume food of any description for the duration, I was unable to eat most of the main courses served up by Monsieur Dick, the Boat’s terminally belligerent and eternally contemptuous “it’s frickin’ meatballs or frickin’ nothing’!” chief cook and bottle-washer because of my vegetarian tendencies and so I lived almost entirely on biscuits-brown, tinned sliced-peaches (in syrup), chocolate or treacle-pudding (with or without custard) and endless cups of cinnamon tea for nearly a fortnight….oh, and dried egg!
Now there’s an old saying in the Navy that there are two kinds of Marines….Royal Marines and submarines and that they both carry sailors, but it wasn’t long before I began to appreciate what a truly difficult existence the average sub-mariner has to endure in order to earn his Queen’s shilling! Believe me, life is grim, or at least it used to be back then….stuck inside a cigar-shaped tin can for months at a time, inhaling each others caustic farts….no women, no daylight, no breeze in your face, no women, no grass under your feet, no football and no women! For us, it lasted just a couple of weeks, but I’m sure that those two weeks scarred me deep down inside, sub-consciously, in ways that no man (or woman) should ever have to experience! Yes indeedy, sub-mariners really are a very special breed and I can’t help but find myself saluting them….even Monsieur Dick!
*....Mind you, this was no "brownwater" boat, it was very much a "bluewater" fish with an extremely experienced crew who just happened to be very, very good at what they did....including Monsieur Dick!
The time came at last and men were put ashore in desperately flimsy rubber boats in the utter blackness of a sub-Antarctic Winter night. The Army lads went first….squad by squad, unit by unit, mostly in teams of four. Brave souls set adrift to paddle for all they were worth towards where they thought the land ought to be as savage gravel-hard spindrift whipped into a frenzy by howling winds lashed across their unprotected hands and faces. The inky blackness of the freezing ocean was indistinguishable from the pitch-black humourless sky….no lights….no stars….no turning back!
The twelve of us looked on as the last of the Army teams shuffled its kit-laden way towards the exit hatch ladder….
“Why-aye, does your Mum know you’ll be oot this leet Scuzzer?”* Tex had taken a shine to the likeable twenty-three year-old squaddie and sought to wind him up at every opportunity.
Scuzzer glanced back and tried to force a smile. He and Tex had become firm friends over the past ten days (though not before Tex had relieved him of all his hard-earned cash while playing cards) and we all knew that the big ugly Geordie worried about the boy.
Kelly glanced at the big man “He’ll be fine Tex, that’s a very experienced team he’s with….probably the best there is”.
Tex shifted uncomfortably “Eh? Wye-aye man, I’m not worried aboot him….it’s just that he still owes me twenty quid!”
*….I’m afraid that my attempts to write “Geordie” are pretty much the same as my attempts to speak it….basically hopeless!
We semi-precious few still had a couple more days to endure aboard the boat however and now everywhere suddenly seemed so empty and eerily quiet (that’s if you ignored the constant drone of the engines, the shuddering and juddering of the worryingly dodgy ventilation system, the distant sounds of the crew going about their daily routines….and Jammy-Dodger’s snoring). We never thought we’d say it, but we actually missed the brown-jobs….the constant rivalry….the inter-service sniping….the non-stop banter. We’d all given as good as we got and it had forged a special kind of bond. Most civilians will never understand how such fierce rivalry and blatantly antagonistic behaviour directed towards another human-being (or even towards squaddies) can somehow create a friendship with that person that’s stronger than almost anything else known to Mankind and how that person’s life quickly becomes far more important than your own….Mind you, that doesn’t stop them being total W**kers!
For a day and two nights we swept around the Southern reaches of East Falkland and probably right up through the Sound, dropping off passengers like some kind of macabre and sinister late-night bus service. We must have headed across the top of West Falkland and then set a course due West across to Santa Cruz. From there we “sailed” down the coast to Trelew (where my squad was put ashore) and finally, to Rio Grande. Soon we would be playing our own little part in the run-up to the invasion as we did our level best to avoid the attentions of the highly trained and very capable Buzos Tacticos….
In war, there are basically two things that will get you killed faster than anything else....
The first depends entirely upon the level of your own arrogance....and believe me, it doesn't matter one iota how great or how wealthy the nation of your birth might happen to be or how vast its military might, it will absotively posilutely fail to save you from the single white-hot round currently hurtling towards your forehead from the rusted barrel of the ancient AK-47 wielded by some fifteen year-old peasant farmer's boy!
The second is the incompetence of those above you in the chain of command, an incompetence that tends to increase exponentially the higher up the ladder you go simply because those making the decisions are further and further removed from the reality of the situation until finally, you reach the politicians....with two possible exceptions, Winston Churchill, who so brilliantly held an entire Nation together throughout the worst days of the Second World War with little more than the resonance of his words and the iron contained within them and John F Kennedy who, in his determination to seek a peaceful resolution to a seemingly intractable political dilemma and in the face of utter stupidity and farcical political arrogance, almost certainly saved the world from a war of unimaginable consequences....and possibly paid the ultimate price for his efforts! For me, it's no coincidence that both of those great men experienced war very much at the pointy-end themselves during their younger days, either on horseback as a war correspondent/cavalryman or at sea in an MTB and that both had a profound understanding of what it really means to be a soldier or sailor at the mercy of the generals, the Admirals and the politicians!
As for the Buzos Tacticos....they were well-trained, very disciplined and highly experienced covert operation troops who worked well together in a team format and worse still, tended to trust to their instincts. Unfortunately for us, they could never be depended on to do something stupid simply because they were never arrogant....probably due to the fact that most of them were hand-picked from ghetto families who were forced to exist in the most squalid of conditions in the poorest areas of the country and possibly because they therefore had absolutely no incapacitating delusions of self-importance!
They were fearless, tireless and intelligent soldiers, but too few in number to make a real difference over such vast areas from a reconnaissance point of view, which, for us, involved moving at night and digging-in during the day on some God-forsaken hillside overlooking Trelew and waiting for something to happen! Their greatest strength as far as we were concerned, lay in the fact that they always assumed that someone like us would be out there....somewhere....at any time of the day or night and they tried to proceed accordingly. This highly commendable tactic however, was only based on operational decisions probably made at team-commander level and, fortunately for us, the "Exponential Leadership Incompetence Theory" was currently working overtime and the more common-sense grass-roots decisions were inevitably over-turned at some point en-route to the higher levels. In fact, during the days leading up to the war, the Juntas' top-brass much preferred to employ such troops as show-piece cahones in jingoistic, sabre-rattling ticker-tape parades....thankfully!
Femme Fatale….A Ranger Anecdote (December 2007)
Just suppose that you’d been born and raised in the old Czechoslovakia, that you’d witnessed the worst of the troubles there first-hand and had seen your country literally torn apart. Suppose that you were eventually forced to begin a completely new life as a young teenager in the UK when your British-born mother eventually returned there following the murder of your Czech father.
Suppose you had later joined the British Army, going on to give eleven years of exemplary service, including successive tours in the volatile Baltic States as a UN peace-keeper/negotiator/interpreter, two tours as a Forces Liaison Rep in Northern Ireland, a US/UK Liaison non-com in Northern Iraq and then finishing off with a couple of years as a Company Drill Sergeant back in good old Blighty….Well, if nothing else, I reckon it would be fair to assume that you’d have (pretty much) seen it and done it all and that life would now hold precious few surprises for you, if any!
Not only that, what if, during your thirty or so years on planet Earth, you’d been shot at by snipers from deserted tower blocks, spat on by children in the street, arrested by the Soviet Secret Police, abused, cursed, pushed around, shoved, intimidated, knocked to the ground, kicked repeatedly and blown up….twice? What if you‘d once been fire-bombed in a street riot and suffered second-degree burns across most of your back resulting in enforced hospitalisation for two months when all you wanted to do was get back out there to be with your oppos and do your job! (No, I’m not talking about the January sales where, as we all know, successive generations of little old ladies have honed their fighting skills to the nth degree and where terrified SAS recruits have traditionally been given their final and most challenging of survival tests)!
Suppose you’d been through all that, only to one day be confronted by three very large, foul-mouthed, abusive and terminally moronic thugs on a public-access woodland trail and who had perceived you as being some kind of “victim” ripe for intimidation! Suppose they had insisted that you had absolutely no right to be where you were or doing what you were doing (collecting bark samples from trees) and that, one way or the other, you were going to have to move on….whether you liked it or not!
What would you do in that situation….also bearing in mind that you would have to be an attractive woman about five feet eight inches tall, weighing somewhere in the region of nine stones and that there is only one other person with you….a very ugly man in his mid-forties, about five feet six inches tall and with a perpetually surprised look on his face….Oh….and an expert on all things creepy-crawly?
“Ok….I’ll get it!” I picked up the receiver….”Hello, Battersea Dogs Home!”
“Eh? Is that Mike?” The voice on the other end of the line sounded confused.
I must admit, this came as something of a shock. Now that Sean and Beth are, for want of a better word, an ‘item’, Nobby is the only one of us without a partner….apart from Jenny that is. Though thinking about it, the Boss does seem to team her up with Nobby more and more often these days….supposedly because she’s plants and trees and he’s bugs and stuff!
“You? You’re in love? Who with?”
“She was brilliant Don….I’ve never seen anything like it! I spent nearly sixteen years trying to teach gormless Bootnecks how to handle themselves up close and personal in any ‘situation’ and she could do the lot of them! I never seen anything’ like it!”
“Calm down Nob and tell me what happened”
“These three w*nkers came out of nowhere and started getting all stroppy….tryin’ to push their weight around!”
“W*nkers? What w*nkers?”
“Dunno….pro-hunt pr*cks I think….or anti-hunt maybe….what’s the difference?” *
I took his point “What did you do Nobby?” I began to feel concerned.
“Nuthin’….Jen told me to stay put and walked straight up to the one doin’ all the mouthin’ off. She tried to explain what we were doin’, but he wouldn’t have it and said we had to p* off or we’d regret it!”
“Then what? You didn’t do anything stupid did you Nobby?” I didn’t really want to hear the answer….this sort of thing happens all too often to us in one way or another and people like Sean, Joe and Nobby tend to have very short fuses!
“I didn’t do nothing Don….It was Jenny….she told him that she had too much work to do to stand around talking to him all day and that he should come back in about five years when he‘d reach puberty!“
“Ah….She said that did she? I though she was highly trained in liaison and negotiation and stuff?"
“Yeah, well she negotiated his fat a*se by puttin’ her boot in his nuts when he called her a bitch and tried to push her ! I never seen anything so fast Don! I swear I heard them pop!”
I tried to cast the invasive image from my mind “Then what happened….What did his fiends do?”
“They just stood there totally gob-smacked and she told them that if they picked him up and took him home, she’d forget all about it!”
“Er….and did they?”
“Yeah, too right they did and then after they’d gone she sat down on a log….then she started shaking and she was nearly sick!”
“Really? But what did YOU do?” I still couldn’t believe that Nobby had stood by during all this and done absolutely nothing.
“I just sat down next to her and put my arm round her….I didn’t know what else to do!”
“But why didn’t you get stuck in….it’s not like you to miss out on a ruck?”
“I know, but Jen had told me to do nothing’ and she’s got that kind of tone in her voice sometimes that you feel you just have to obey“ There was a long pause as Nobby was obviously struggling to make sense of what had occurred….”She also told me she’d done it to save the guy’s life….She said that if she hadn’t sorted it then she’d been afraid I would’ve and she didn’t want me getting into serious trouble all over again and that I’d probably go down for it this time, whereas it didn’t matter what she did to him because she’s a woman and there’s no way he’d go to the police because he’d never live it down!” He finally stopped gabbling.
Mmm….We’ve all known from the outset that Jenny was considered to be one of the absolute best in the Army at what she did….and I guess that confronting three moronic (pro or anti-hunt, there really is no difference) heavies in a woodland somewhere in the Home-Counties doesn’t really compare with negotiating with trigger-happy, genocidal Serbian Troop Commanders for the release of abused and tortured Muslim men, women and children in the remote forests and mountains of war-torn Croatia where they were often forced to flee to seek refuge! On the other hand, what people don’t seem to understand (least of all the British judicial system) is exactly how unpleasant little situations like the one that Nobby and Jenny were unexpectedly subjected to can affect them (or any of us for that matter), given what they’ve been through over the years and all that they’ve endured!
“So what happened after that Nob?” My main concern was for Jenny….apart from anything else, we wouldn’t want to lose someone as likeable and capable as her just because of some little incident with three frickin’ jerk-offs! “Is she ok and have you told the Boss?”
“Yeah, he knows....and yeah, she's fine now….and….er….Don....she….er….kissed me!”
“Kissed you? Are you sure she didn’t get hit on the head or anything?”
“No….but she’ll kill me for telling you this….er….she said it was for looking out for her….Don’t tell anyone I told you!”
“Er….It sounds to me Nobby as though she was the one doing all the ‘looking out’….and don’t worry, I promise I’ll never say a word!" **
*....There is of course, no difference....irrespective of either your political or your altruistic motivations, a thug is a thug is a thug! If you're the type of social inadequate who chooses to use intimidation through verbal abuse and/or physical violence, then it really doesn't matter which party you vote for at your next local elections, you are intrinsically and fundamentally little more than a right-wing fascist extremist incapable of expressing your views in any other way and that makes you, more than anything else, a coward!
We're perfectly aware that both sides of the hunt debate are prepared to try and wriggle out of accusations made against them by claiming to have been merely defending themselves against "unprovoked" attack by elements of the opposite side....no-one ever seems to start anything! We are also aware however, that both sides are as bad as each other when it comes to the use of bullying and intimidation tactics because we've either seen it for ourselves or have been on the receiving end of it! We have occasionally and through no fault of our own (as with Nobby and Jenny above), been caught smack-bang in the middle of some very unpleasant goings-on before now and, although we all have personal opinions on a whole range of issues....including the hunting of foxes, we take no sides....a little trick that most of us learned to master on the riot-torn streets of Belfast or as UN Peace-keepers in places like the Baltic States!
**....For those concerned that I'm being an absolute cad and a bounder here by betraying a confidence, don't worry, Nobby and Jenny actually went out on a "date" over Christmas and then on another the day after....and then another....and another....and now I think it's fair to say that everyone knows that they too are an item....and I couldn't be more pleased for them. Oh....and before putting it on the website, I did actually pass this anecdote on to Jenny for her approval....Mmm, as an afterthought, I also included the telephone number of my old shrink!
Lillian (Summer 1956)
Oh well, here goes….
Left....Lillian aged about eleven....I took this photo myself using my Uncle Sid's old box camera....I was about six years old at the time. I'm always saying that I don't like many of my own photographs very much....just a handful or so and that's very true, but this effort is the very first one that I actually liked simply because I believe it captures the essence of who Lillian was! Right....A very poor picture of Lillian at Tewkesbury Mop Fair taken in October 1955 with her Mum (and the only one I have of my aunt Emma). The photographer was one of those professional types that you used to get at places such as fairs or at the seaside. They usually got you to pose with a live monkey or somesuch dressed in human clothes, but I should imagine that Lillian declined holding anything even remotely resembling a monkey!
This month’s visit to the cemetery to pay my respects to and tidy up the graves of various family members and friends (there are so many of them to do now) resulted in two things….
First and foremost, I found myself to be the focus of the attentions of what should have been a very shy Green Woodpecker, but who insisted on clinging to the side of a large tree no more than two or three metres from me as I sat very still for a while between Ellie’s and Lillian’s graves. It was a colourful, bright-eyed bird and I was spellbound as it remained there with the bright afternoon sunshine highlighting every detail of its gorgeous red, black and greeny-yellow plumage! I tried speaking to it softly as it continued to watch me without any sign of flying off!
Mmm, I guess anyone passing by would have assumed that I was just another one of those crazy-looking guys you see sometimes sitting amongst cemetery gravestones (minus the can of lager in my case)….forever talking to themselves….and maybe they wouldn’t be far wrong!
Second, I made a final decision to add this story to “Slices” and I actually made it as I sat there on the grass, as close to Ellie and Lillian as I was to the bird.…Well, let’s just say that it was a slightly odd few minutes….nothing ghostly, nothing supernatural….just a little bit strange!
Surprisingly perhaps, I wrote the first version of this story almost twenty-five years ago during a very long ocean voyage inside the belly of a conventional submarine. It was almost two weeks of having far too much time on my hands, just playing cards with the others….and thinking! There weren’t even any half-decent books to read!
Since then, there have been other versions, written in all kinds of odd places as I sought, without any real success, to put to bed once and for all, some very persistent ghosts! It’s also another one of “those” chapters which, until now, I have been unable to bring myself to place in the public domain….So maybe the time has finally come.
Obviously, the story wont mean very much to anyone else (particularly a story so badly written), but for me it covers a very difficult time in my life….one that I’ve tried over and over again to come to terms with, but with no success!
Basically, the tragic events that occurred one very warm and sunny day way back in 1956 have haunted me for nearly fifty-two years and continue to do so relentlessly….
Beautiful cousin Lillian….only daughter of my aunt Emma and her, by then, estranged husband Jack. She was thirteen years old, always smiling, full of the joys of life and with so much to offer the world. She never failed to lift the spirits of all those fortunate enough to meet her.
I was barely seven years old and had lived with my new family for almost two years….New name, new Mum and Dad, new home, a new Gran who adored me, uncles and aunts who treated me as one of their own….and a dog called “Slipper”! It was wonderful! The only person I missed from my previous life was my half-sister Rachel….In fact, I continued to pine for her for many years and it still torments me that I’ve never known what actually happened to her after she disappeared, along with my natural parents, to begin a new life without me in the United States!
Knowing how much I missed Rachel, Lillian did her absolute best to replace her as the older sister-figure in my life and did it brilliantly. As a result, she grew to be very special to me and we spent huge amounts of time at each other’s homes or playing over the fields or doing odd jobs and running errands to earn pocket-money.
On one fateful Saturday lunchtime during the school Summer holidays and while my Mum and I were visiting Aunt Emma’s, my Mum gave Lillian and me two shillings to run down to the fish and chip shop in town from my aunt’s house in Priors Park. We had been instructed to get four three-penneth portions of chips plus a pickled onion each and a scoopful of "scraps".
Left....We used to call this pathway "Link Lane" (I don't know if it's called anything now), but it was a few feet wider than this and served as the main artery allowing access for all municipal-type vehicles from the town (at the Crescent) via the lane at the back of Swillgate to the main entrance of the town's principal "open" rubbish dump (about seventy-five metres further on). The population of Tewkesbury back in the 1950s was less than 10,000 while today, it's at least seven or eight times as many, so there wouldn't have been anywhere near as much rubbish! The cricket field that I wanted to cut across is on the left of the picture. Right....Through the fence and across the cricket pitch to the far right-hand corner of the ground was my much-used short-cut from my aunt Emma's into town.
It was less than a mile and we ran all the way, despite the heat, to the back of Swillgate situated behind the Abbey. I wanted to cut across the cricket pitch to save time, but Lillian said no, it wasn‘t allowed. I ignored her and ran across the lane to a hole in the fence….She ran after me….
For the majority of you who do not know Tewkesbury, the River Swillgate (once alive with Water Voles and Kingfishers) runs down through Old Man Steel’s farm as was, past Oldfield estate then along the back of the Hospital, Barton Street, Church Street then behind the Abbey (but North of the cemetery) and eventually into the man-made section of the River Avon (hand-dug by monks centuries ago) that, less than a mile later, joins with the River Severn at Lower Lode.
The slope is hardly noticeable today, but I'm standing at the western end of what was once Tewkesbury Council's "open" style rubbish tip. It was eventually completely filled-in and the ground levelled for the building of much of the housing shown in the distance (part of Priors Park). Then the foreground area became a camping site for many years (now long gone) and every Winter we kids would go sledging in the snow on what used to be a steep incline just out of the picture to the right. Finally the area was taken over by the local rugby club. Meanwhile, the prestigious Caravan Club site situated way over to the left is actually built smack-bang on top of thousands of tons of rubbish! Interestingly, many of the ever-dwindling number of people of my generation who were born and raised in Tewkesbury still refer to the area as "The Dump"!
Where the Caravan Club site is now was once the town’s main rubbish dump, that is until it was filled-in during the mid-sixties for development purposes….mostly housing! Before then, municipal vehicles of many kinds used the Swillgate lanes for access to the tips constantly during weekdays, but rarely (if ever) at the weekend.
Lillian ran after me, but straight in front of one of the larger varieties of lorry that never used the lanes on Saturdays!
I was half-way through the chain-link fence, shouting something back at Lillian whose attention must have been entirely focussed on me. I heard a “thunking” kind of noise, a man shouted “Fuck!” and then, as I began to turn my head back towards the lane, I heard a strange kind of scraping, liquid “crunch”. I was just in time to see the lorry skid to a halt about ten yards beyond what looked like a pile of rags lying in the road!
Now a tarmac road, this was once just a gravel-covered lane. The car-park used to be a place of trees and shrubbery (where I saw the Green Woodpecker)....All hail our wondrous god, the mighty motor car, for we shall worship it utterly and it will destroy all things! The Abbey is situated at about ten o'clock to the lamp-post and the Swillgate runs between the two. The accident occurred just about in front of the Silver Birch tree on the right when Lillian ran from the other side of the lane towards me as I was busy climbing through the cricket pitch fence in Link Lane about fifty metres to the right!
I ran back towards where I had last seen Lillian as the driver leapt from his cab….”Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” he kept saying over and over again!
I remember a woman screaming from somewhere!
It seemed to take an hour to reach Lillian….as though I was running through treacle! I dropped beside her broken body, skinning both my knees….I reached for her hand….
She wasn’t dead….The frickin’ lorry had run right over her….first the front wheel and then the back! She lay there, motionless, unable to move and I saw a Green Woodpecker land in a tree not far away. She tried to speak…She was worried because she’d dropped the two shillings when the lorry hit her….She said that my Mum couldn’t afford to lose it! She passed out.
I didn’t cry. I just knelt there holding her hand. I was angry….shaking….it was my fault….Mine!
A doctor came with a nurse in a car….someone had run to the hospital less than a mile away. An ambulance was called, but it didn’t get there straight away. They asked me who she was and where she lived….they took her away. Mum came.
I never saw Lillian alive again….she died with her Mum, Gran and my Mum by her bedside. Someone had notified her father and he rushed down from up North to see her, but she begged not to see him and I hated him because of it….even more than the day he punched my aunt Emma to the ground and I stabbed him in the leg with a knife for doing it!
The doctors insisted that Lillian never felt any pain….her spine and pelvis had been broken in several places and her liver and kidneys crushed. She lived through the night and half of the following day. She regained consciousness many times and apologized to my Mother for losing the money! She wanted to know if I was ok and asked if she could see me….She died before I got there!
I fell out of love with God that day….and that’s the way it’s stayed!
Almost a thousand years old and one of the most famous buildings in Britain, Tewkesbury Abbey stands as it has always stood, immovable and inviolate. In truth however, it's the only thing that has remained virtually unchanged since the day it bore silent, stone-faced witness to Lillian's terrible accident, an accident which occurred almost exactly where I stood to take this photograph! If God was looking down on us that day, then he utterly forsook Lillian and me, so don't talk to me about "Great Plans" or "working in mysterious ways"....Don't try to tell me she was "taken for a reason" or that she was "chosen for a higher purpose"....or that "God isn't there to make life easy for us, but just to give us faith"....I've heard it all before! All I see when I close my eyes at night is Lillian looking up at me with her blood spreading out in a thick black pool around her....I see Ellie collapsing in a heap on the floor and me powerless to help her....I see Tony fall to the ground with half his head blown away....I see a sixteen year-old "enemy" soldier with his life bubbling away through the wound in his throat that I put there....I see the look on a friend's face as he holds open a plastic bag for me to literally shovel the mushed remains of another friend into....I see a woman telling me that my birth Mum and Dad had taken my step-sister away and that I would be going to live in a special place with other children just like me....I see the desperately worried faces of my very young son and daughter as they beg me not to keep stabbing myself....I see other things as well, but I don't see God's Mercy or God's Justice in any of it and I gave up trying to make sense of it all a very long time ago! At the age of just seven years I truly came to believe that God must surely hate me and today I feel no different!
Please note…I must first apologize unreservedly to any Scot out there who might take offence at my awful attempts to translate the Scottish accent onto the written page. I readily admit that it is completely and utterly dire! However, I also believe that to give any Scottish NCO an English-sounding delivery would be tantamount to an even greater crime against all that is both scared and tartan! Imagine then, if you will, a three-way cross between Sergeant McKay from "Porridge, Frazer from "Dad's Army" and Scotty from "Star Trek" and you might get somewhere near to what I'm trying to achieve!
Apart from being a brief outline of my initial introduction to the almost human phenomenon erroneously nicknamed ‘Kelly’ who, along with a handful of others, went on to become such an important and integral part of my life, this is also my salute to that most indefatigable of creatures, the Scottish NCO! For, without his utter contempt for all things English, his steadfast determination to reduce even the most resilient of English ‘gobsh*tes’ to little more than a pile of vomiting jelly and his insidiously wilful determination to persistently produce the best Marines and Paras the world has ever seen, the British military would, in those days at least, have been infinitely less than the sum of its parts!
I guess that things have changed considerably in recent years however and that political correctness will have doubtless reached those parts that even the most devoted mother of any battle-hardened trooper would ever care to touch, but a Scottish NCO, given free reign to train and develop an intake of completely raw, pathetically vulnerable and predominantly English recruits (whether Marines or Army) as recently as the 1970s was both an awesome and, at times, terrible thing to behold! Yet the few disparate souls who somehow managed to survive such “creative” training methodology will forever owe a debt of gratitude to those psychotic Scottish b*stards for basically teaching them how to survive in a world back then designed to do little more than inflict absolute pain and total misery upon any trooper less suitably prepared!
….and so it began….
“I am Captain Rupert Gatensby-Skinner” The officer paused momentarily....“You will address me quite simply as ‘Captain’ or possibly ‘Captain Gatensby-Skinner or, for those times during your training when your mind will have ceased to function, a simple ‘Sir’ will suffice!”
Another pause as the Captain took the time to run his eyes along the three raggedy lines of fifty-four occasionally slouching, sometimes dishevelled,but always nervous and bewildered-looking wannabe Royal Marines. In fact, we must have excelled in our involuntary role as a particularly sorry-looking bunch of increasingly rain-soaked no-hopers struggling pitifully to so much as stand to attention as we shivered uncontrollably in the sleet-streaked January rain with the wind howling off the estuary and our assorted suitcases, holdalls and rucksacks lying sodden and forsaken in the ever-deepening puddles at our feet.
“For the next thirty-two weeks I shall be your Troop Leader….My sole function in life is to offer you 'Nods' the benefit of my experience….to give you worthwhile advice and a helping-hand when necessary. I am here to provide all kinds of positive encouragement and I am here to lend a sympathetic ear….perhaps even a shoulder to cry on….especially during some of the more, shall we say, difficult times ahead!” The Captain spoke with one of those received, plum-in-the-mouth, frightfully English accents reminiscent of a 1930s BBC radio announcer.
He was also tall....well over six feet, broad-shouldered, dark-haired and swarthy-skinned. No more than twenty-three, his general demeanour somehow gave the impression that he was not only significantly older, but possibly made of flexible oak! He stood directly in front of us, feet shoulder-width apart, hands clasped firmly behind his back.
“This is Sergeant McCabe ….” Turning slightly to his left, the Captain gestured toward a much shorter man standing beside him. The Sergeant sported a vicious-looking two-inch scar that ran more or less horizontally below his left eye. He was also the owner of an impressive sand-coloured moustache that almost completely obscured both his top and bottom lips! Someone at the back coughed and the man next to me fidgeted….
”As I say, Sergeant McCabe is also here to help you….In fact, Sergeant McCabe is SO keen to help you….and particularly YOU young man” The Captain gestured again, this time at the ‘Nod’ standing next to me, but using just his eyes and a barely perceptible movement of his head …."that he ASSURES me he will do everything and anything in his power to make your stay, however brief, a very meaningful and….er, eventful one. Over to you then Sergeant!”
With that, the Captain turned on his heel and strode purposefully away towards one of the buildings situated some distance off at the far end of the parade ground.
“Tosser!” I was actually standing in front of the guy who muttered the insult and I swear no-one else could possibly have heard him above the battering wind, but suddenly the Captain, who was by this time at least twenty yards away, stopped in his tracks, turned to face us once again and said “Sergeant McCabe, after you have spoken your piece, take that man’s name and ask Corporals Campbell and McCrombie to escort him to my office. Thank-you Sergeant….Carry on if you will”
“Aye Sir!” The Sergeant turned his attention back to us and waited patiently for the Captain to reach his destination and disappear out of sight….”Reet Yeez pampered sacks o’ festerin’ dog puke, let me make one thing very clear….the Captain may be a stuck-up-sounding English frickin’ officer, but he is TEN times the man o’ all a yeez put together! Yeez are nuthin’ compared to him….an’ any one o’ us happy band of NCOs would gladly lay down his life to protect ‘im! D’ye ken ma meanin’ sonny? The Sergeant had used the moment to walk up to me and stare directly into my face. Sudden realization dawned followed by an almost overwhelming sense of panic….
“Eh…but….but….It wasn’t me Sergeant!”
“SHUT IT you lanky streak of polluted p*sswater! Are you tryin’ to tell me I’m wrong? I’m NEVER wrong!”
“I said I'm NEVER WRONG! The Sergeant peered into my eyes with an ice-cold stare that I felt certain could freeze molten lava….”Corporal Campbell!”
You heard the Captain….Hescort this….What’s your name gobsh*te?" I told him “Hescort this piece of cretinous puke along to the Captain’s office immediately hafter I ‘ave finished!”
“Now, as for the rest o’ yeez….The Sergeant dragged his sub-zero gaze away from my face to address the rest of the intake. He gestured toward me with his right hand….”This is what is born into the worruld when the best part of it runs down its mother’s chin! Someone stifled a snigger….I was certain it was the guy behind me….Thankfully this time, so was the Sergeant! He elbowed past me to confront the smirking perpetrator of what, to his way of thinking, had been the most heinous of crimes….
“What’s YOUR name Dipsh*t?”
“Kelly sir….They call me Kelly sir on account of me looking a lot like Clint Eastwood sir!”
“Well now, is that a fact? Kelly, the man with no name eh? Well first of all, I happen to be a Sergeant, not a frickin’ ‘Sir’ and, second, I’ve given yeez a new name an’ from here on in it’s ‘Dipsh*t’! D’ye understand what I’m sayin’ laddy? NOT FRICKIN’ KELLY THE FRICKIN’ HERO, BUT DIPSH*T THE FRICKIN’ DIPSH*T! Is that clear enough fer ye?”
“Yes Sir….er Sergeant, Dipsh*t Sir!”
“Yes Sergeant ?”
When yooz hescort Gobshite there to see the Captain, perhaps yooz would also be so kind as to ask Dipsh*t here if he wouldn’t mind tagging along!
A profound sense of justice began to permeate my entire being. The Sergeant meanwhile had re-emerged from within the ranks
“It’s a funny thing, but it’s usually more like half an hour before I’ve winkled oot both the idiot AND the comedian from the rest o’ yeez w*nkers….I must be improvin’!"
Noo then, perhaps I might be allood to get on….if the rest o’ yeez dunnay mind that is….and first off, I’d like to commend the Captain for his kindness and his concern fer ye welfare…I’d like to, but I will nay! Let me make it perfectly clear to yeez….The Captain is a very busy man and he nay needs tha likes o’ yeez morons spoilin’ his day. So, if yeez has any complaints, then please be so kind as to keep them to yerselves because MY sole function in life is to make foreskins like yeez so miserable that yeez will all be beggin’ to leave the Corps to return home to the arms o’ the ones who do actually give a sh*te abootyeez!
Dipsh*t and I stood to attention as best we knew how in front of the Captain’s desk, flanked by smirking Corporals Campbell and McCrombie. We waited nervously for the Captain to re-arrange some papers. Finally, he picked up one of the sheets….
“For every new intake” he began “we have a list. A list of all those individuals who are, for better or for worse, recorded as being part of that intake.”He sat back in his chair and stared, first at me and then at Dipsh*t His eyes were unflinching….
“You see, it’s a game we like to play….Almost a tradition really. We start with approximately fifty names….er, fifty-four in this case and then we cross them off, one at a time, as the poor unfortunate wretches to whom the names belong fall by the wayside….er, so to speak” The Captain spoke very quietly and, because we were still soaking wet and, therefore, frozen to the bone, we struggled to hear his words above the sound of our own chattering teeth!
“Sergeant McCabe and I also enjoy a small wager or two as we try to predict which names will be crossed off next” He paused to let his words sink in…”You may or may not be interested to know that we especially enjoy trying to calculate which name or names will be amongst the FIRST to go….Just a bit of fun you understand!" The Captain winked conspiratorially at the two Corporals.
“It definitely WILL interest you to know however, that both the good Sergeant and myself are of the opinion that it will in fact, be one or other or, indeed, BOTH of you who will be amongst the very first of YOUR particular intake to succumb to the dreaded pencil….and I think I should point out at this juncture, that neither Sergeant McCabe or myself like to be disappointed!” He smiled “After all, someone has to be the first to go and it might as well be the wasters….Dismissed!”
We were frog-marched, together with our sodden suitcases, from the Captain’s office back to our new Troop, who, by this time, were fully ensconced in a sparsely furnished, completely unheated, battleship grey-painted concrete hut that was obviously designed to double as both our sleeping quarters and a military spec wind-tunnel….at least judging by the myriad of industrial strength draughts howling through the ill-fitting, single-glazed windows! We searched around for a bed beside which to dump our cases, but every bed had already been taken and all that remained for the two of us to use were a pair of rickety old cots, probably first issued during the Boer War. They were also positioned right next to the door!
“Hi, my name’s Kelly” the tall, rangy Clint Eastwood sort of look-alike held out his hand.
I shook it and introduced myself. Then I tested a cot with my foot “Do you plan to be one of the first to go?” I asked.
“What do you think?” He looked at me and laughed “It’s not even frickin’ 9 o’clock and we’ve already been to see the Captain and had our bleepin' cards marked!”
“Yeah….Thanks for that by the way….Let me know when I can return the Frickin’ favour why don’t you!”
“No hard feelings then?
I looked at the guy for several seconds....He seemed impossible to dislike “I guess not" I replied.
He walked across to the remaining cot and slid his suitcase underneath it. What about you? You've got to admit, 'Gobsh*te' has got a certain ring to it!”
I tried not to smile "I'll stay as long as I can, but I can't go home....not just yet anyway!"
"Personal reasons" A sudden wave of grief threatened to overwhelm me....…."What’s next?”
“Er….Some kind of fitness test I think. Apparently a few of the lardies, most of the drinkers and all the heavy smokers will chuck it in during the course of the first day....At least, so I've been told!"
“Yeah? Well, I guess I’ve got nothing to worry about then!”
“Ah-hah! My old friends Gobsh*te and Dipsh*t....All settled in are we? Sergeant McCabe had appeared at the entrance to the hut and was holding the door open as wide as it would go so as to enable the gale-force-driven rain to tear past him and head directly for our cots! He looked at us as though someone had just told him that tomorrow would be Christmas and his favourite birthday all rolled into one....I think perhaps they were right!
“Happy days ahead gentlemen" announced the Sergeant to all and sundry…."Happy days ahead indeed!….”
Seaside Donkey (Summer 1959)
The seaside man who owned the Donkeys told me that she was only a “young un” and needed to have a lie down. At first, I thought she was dead, but when I knelt down beside her she opened her eyes, half-raised her head and looked up at me. I glanced across at my Mum and smiled just as she took this picture with my old Kodak Brownie camera.
It then became obvious to me that the Donkey wasn’t just “resting” at all, but that she was very poorly and I again asked the man what was wrong with her. A little more gruffly this time, he told me that she was only tired and was just resting!
At this point, I walked over to my Mum and asked her if we could find a policeman and have the man arrested because the Donkey was obviously ill and needed a vet! I remember my Mum saying that it was none of our business and that we ought to be looking for Dad who’d wandered off to buy ice-creams or something.
“Why don’t you get her a vet?” I shouted to the man, but he ignored me and carried on taking money from the people queuing up for rides on the other Donkeys.
“She needs a vet!” I persisted.
“Look son, there’s nothing wrong with her. She’s just tired all right?”
“Then I’ll get a vet!” I looked up at my Mum “Mum, she needs a vet!”
The man had walked away and begun allocating Donkeys to people or possibly people to Donkeys, it was difficult to tell.
It was then that I noticed a couple of bobbies about fifty yards away standing by the entrance to the pier. I ran after them!
* * *
“But you must help her!” I pleaded “I think she’s dying!”
“Is this your boy madam?” My Mum had finally caught up with me.
“Yes officer. I’m afraid he gets like this about cruelty to animals”
“Cruelty? If the boy’s referring to Old Man Beresford down on the Beach there and his Donkeys, then I reckon he must have got it all wrong because it’s well known that Jim Beresford takes good care of his animals” The officer turned his attention back to me “Don’t worry son, Jim there’ll look after any that’s not well, believe me”
“But he said she was resting and she isn’t!” I wasn’t about to let it go.
“Have you been on the pier?” The second officer gestured behind him“ Lots of things to do on the pier there is. I used to spend all my time on the pier myself when I was a lad”
“Aren’t you going to do ANYTHING at all then?” Frustration began fermenting in a vat of anger inside of me, adding volume and body to my indignation. I stared at the two police officers with utter contempt.
“He’s a bit rude if you don’t mind my saying so madam. I think it’s a good idea if you perhaps buy him an ice-cream or something before he gets himself into trouble!”
With that, the two officers turned on their boot-blacked heels and walked across the road towards the town centre.
“Come on, we need to find your father Donald. Ah, there he is! Let’s go, come on, try to forget about it”
I couldn’t forget about it and it completely ruined for me what should have been a really nice day at the seaside!
Brumas (December, 1953)
Ironically, in my efforts to protect it, I removed the book's dust cover years ago....and promptly lost it!
Many things have influenced me throughout my life, some more profoundly than others...
When I was four and a half years old, my natural parents took my nine year-old step-sister and me to see the animals at a city zoo. It was the only place they ever took us (or at least the only place they ever took me) that was in any way special. It was close to Christmas, it was cold and it was the first time I’d been to a zoo.....or even a city for that matter.
There was a famous Polar Bear at the zoo. Her name was Brumas. Born in captivity in November 1949, she was just five months younger than me.
I remember standing on my tip-toes in the rain to see over the concrete wall surrounding the desperately austere pit in which she was kept. I remember too how she just sat there on the wet concrete floor....doing nothing except stare into space.
Joan Greenwood....she of "Whisky Galore" and "The Man in the White Suit" fame and famous also for playing the part of Gwedolen in "The Importance of Being Earnest". I guess that her visit would have been a headline story in all the newspapers of the day, but can you imagine what the headlines would be these days if a celeb turned up for a publicity shoot at a zoo wearing a fur coat!?!
Brumas had been an instant media sensation from the day she was born and had soon acquired an adoring public. She had even been visited by Royalty and film stars alike during the months she was a cub. However, by the time I went to see her, she was pretty much full-grown and had all but lost her cuddly, Teddy-Bear appeal.
People still came from all over to see the famous Brumas, but somehow a big part of the collective public sub-consciousness must have still expected her to be exactly the same cute bundle of furry playfulness that they’d originally seen on their black and white TVs or in their newspapers and magazines.
My father, standing next to me, began complaining about her being too old-looking....and boring. He seemed completely amazed that she wasn’t a mischievous little cub any more. I half-turned to watch him walk away from the wall, shaking his head in disappointment.
Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were obviously pictured during a visit to the zoo several years before Brumas was born, but a young Prince Michael of Kent went there in 1949 specifically to see her.
It was precisely then that I felt a deep and profound sympathy for Brumas and an overwhelming urge to defend her against what I must have construed at the time (and in my own childish way) to be outrageous public ignorance concerning all and any animals kept in captivity. It wasn’t Brumas’ fault after all, that she’d grown up.....or that she wasn’t as “entertaining” or as “pleasing” as she once had been!
A seed of determination was sown inside of me on that wet December day in 1953....A germ of an idea to do something myself about the crass stupidity of people like my father, but most of all, I wanted to make Brumas look and feel happy again....to protect her from the humiliation of self-serving public scrutiny and, for the next twelve years, that seed germinated and grew into something that became as much a part of me as the need to eat, sleep and breathe until, in late 1967, I became an apprentice zoo-keeper at a different zoo and could begin to affect things myself, albeit subtly, from the inside-out.
I never forgot a single detail of my visit to see Brumas and I especially remember how sad she looked. I remember too how my step-sister, Rachel, must have spent 3/6d (probably all the money she had in the world) in the zoo’s gift-shop on a book about Brumas originally printed in 1949 and how she must have also hidden it away somewhere at home until she could give it to me a couple of weeks later as a Christmas present.
As you can tell from the pictures, I still have that book....one of only three of my possessions eventually passed on to me after my mother abandoned me in Cheltenham’s Cavendish House department store just a couple of days before my fifth birthday. Everything else that was mine (not much admittedly) disappeared, together with all the house furniture and other bits and pieces left behind by my parents when they flew to America with Rachel in tow to begin their new life.
Note the peaked hats and clip-on collars and ties. Dress code was everything in those days.
I think it’s fair to say that the book became one of my most prized possessions and has travelled with me all over the world.
As for what became of Rachel and my parents....it’s only in the last two years that I have attempted (or even wanted) to make any enquiries, but I have at least managed to discover a few things about them....
I now know that my parents actually married in what must have been a small registry office ceremony just days before they departed for the States and that Seattle was where they made their home. I also discovered that my father, having retired from the USAF with distinction, sired another boy child with my mother that same year (yes, I apparently have a younger brother). My parents then remained together for a further nine years until my mother died in 1964 of pneumonia. By all accounts,my father died in the same month and year as my adoptive father, but even if I’d known about it at the time, I would only have attended my adoptive father’s funeral.
My brother is alive as far as I know and still residing in Seattle, but I don’t care about him....All I care about is Rachel, but, as I found out just a couple of days prior to writing this chapter in August, 2009, she died in 2007....in the exact same week that I finally decided to begin finding out what had become of her!
This then, is for Rachel....and perhaps a little bit for Brumas as well.
"We Sit, We Observe, We Report and Then We Wait"
It was a very warm, but quite windy summer’s day in mid July. The interior of our poorly ventilated armoured Landrover however, the one we’d been sitting in for the past forty-five minutes, had become stiflingly hot.
“So what’s the matter with his grandfather then?” Kelly seemed to be feeling the effects of the heat more than the rest of us for some reason and had grown more and more impatient as the minutes dragged by. He was also rather put out that our Geordie oppo, Tex Mick, had managed to secure yet another couple of days leave of absence on so-called compassionate grounds.
“He’s very ill apparently” I answered, “Could go at any moment”
Kelly was silent for a few seconds. “Of course, I remember when my granddad was ill”
Glancing at Billy Bunter, I tried to ignore Kelly. I could almost guess what was coming, but I knew for a fact that Bill wouldn’t be able to resist taking the bait. He always did. “What was wrong with him then?” he eventually asked.
“Never really knew” replied Kelly, “but he wasn’t too bad until the doctor rubbed half a pound of lard onto his back”
“Lard?” enquired the ever-gullible Bunter, “What did he do that for?”
“Dunno, but he went downhill really fast after that!”
We all laughed, except for Bill that is, who thought Kelly was being typically unsympathetic to other people’s problems.
“What was it last time? Continued Kelly. “Three days leave because his sister was giving birth if I recall….Something about him needing to be there because she was having some sort of medical problems.
“So why couldn’t her husband be there then ?” asked Bill.
“He was working abroad at the time by all accounts” chipped in Doc, “and the birth was all a bit sudden on account of her being three weeks premature according to Tex”
“What about the rest of the family then?” asked Kelly, “Why couldn’t one of them be there instead of Tex?”
“Because Tex and his sister have had to cope virtually by themselves since Tex was barely fifteen and his sister was about eleven” I decided to enlighten my erstwhile Brothers in Arms as to the facts of the situation, if only to put an end to their inane chatter. “The thing is, they were forced to move in with their chronically alcoholic grandfather, the one Tex has got leave to see at the moment, after both their parents died in quick succession. The grandfather it seems, was the only family they had left, but he never did much for them really other than provide a roof over their heads and the occasional evening meal a la the local kebab shop. Still, I know that Tex was always grateful to him for what little he did do for them and that he doesn’t like the thought of him dying all alone in some hospital ward somewhere, presumably Newcastle, with no-one there to give a damn. Now, I suggest we drop the subject and try focussing on what we’re supposed to be doing”
“So what happened to his parents then?” Kelly had failed or, more likely, refused to take the hint.
“I don’t actually know. I suggest you ask Tex” I replied somewhat irritated. Perhaps the heat was getting to me as well.
“Look….There!” Doc, who was sitting in the driving seat as usual, suddenly pointed down the hill towards a small group of dwellings set between two brick warehouses about two hundred and fifty yards away at the far end of the very long street. “There….See! Two masked men. No, three men….and what looks like a youth coming out of that house with the green door!”
I raised my binoculars. Doc was right, but two of the men were now half pushing, half dragging the youth along the pavement by his arms. He seemed to be alternately shouting at them then pleading with them, but whatever he was saying was instantly carried away from us on the wind. The third man, also masked, seemed to be carrying what looked like an automatic pistol or perhaps some sort of revolver in his left hand and, as the youth was rough-handled along the pavement, the third man appeared to strike him across the back of the head several times with the butt of the firearm.
“Better call it in Doc….and start the engine too just in case we need to get out of here in a hurry. If it’s genuine, then it’s either a kidnapping, a knee-capping or an execution….Possibly all three!”
“Shouldn’t we get down there and do something? Kelly had half risen from his seat in the rear of the vehicle to peer over my shoulder and out through the metal grill-covered windscreen.
You know full-well what we do Kelly. We sit, we observe, we report and then we wait until we’re told what to do next!”
“We wait Kelly! You know that and if you’re not happy about it and you’d rather be getting ‘stuck in’, then perhaps you should consider getting a transfer out of Recce and into Four-Two or some other outfit!”
Meanwhile, as Doc set about providing full details of the rapidly developing situation to our beloved Chain of Command, I passed the binoculars to Billy, picked up my camera (complete with 500mm telephoto lens), wound down the passenger side window and, half leaning out, proceeded to photograph as much as I possibly could of the events as fast as they unfolded.
The youth, now clearly very distressed and certainly no more than sixteen years of age, was continuing to struggle desperately in a vain attempt to escape from the clutches of his captors.
“Police are on their way!” Doc suddenly shouted “and military back-up for us too!”
“We need to stop it now!” argued Kelly. The police will never arrive here in time. Besides, this is an all Catholic situation, so we know for a fact they ain’t never going to get here in time to prevent whatever’s going to happen!”
At that precise moment, the man with the firearm suddenly stopped in his tracks and, from his position half hidden behind the youth, looked up the road towards our vehicle….and waved!
“Cheeky b*stard!” muttered Kelly.
In fact, I got an excellent shot of him waving at us, but failed to wind on the film fast enough to catch him as he then proceeded, as casually as you like, to point the weapon downwards just prior to slotting a 9mm round into the back of the young lads' left knee at point-blank range.
It was through the lens of the camera that I saw his knee simply explode into a dark red spray of blood, flesh, sinew and bone fragments. A moment later we heard the shot, which sounded, at that distance, like little more than a penny fire-cracker. Then came the agonised screams which carried all the way to us despite the force of the wind and which seemed to go on and on and on.
It’s those screams which I remember more than anything that happened that day and which I continue to hear in my nightmares even now.
It was a callous, vicious and totally brutal so-called revenge attack perpetrated against a young lad barely out of short trousers and, although I went on to see much worse during subsequent tours, I have often wondered over the years if perhaps Kelly had been right and that we should have made at least some effort to intervene….orders or no orders….procedures or no procedures.
Kelly was wrong about one thing though, the RUC did actually arrive at the scene very quickly, even before Doc had managed to drive at speed down to where the victim lay writhing in agony in an ever-widening pool of his own blood. In fact, they even managed to catch up with one of the men who they claimed took part in the shooting and a brief exchange of gunfire ensued resulting in the rumour of an arrest having been made.
Knee-cappings weren’t exactly uncommon back then by any stretch of the imagination and were frequently used by the IRA as a notoriously effective means of keeping certain elements within their own communities in order.
As for the youth, I’ve no idea what his alleged ‘crime’ had been….perhaps he’d passed information on to the Security Forces or had bad-mouthed someone important or maybe he’d simply been the brother of some poor girl who’d dated a squaddie and who therefore needed to be taught a lesson. Who knows? Probably it was something closer to the latter simply because they only did the one knee and not both.
"Slices" continues with Chapter Thirty-Four, "The ABC Minor's Club (and the Birth of a Collector)" on the "Assorted and Then and Now" page of www.rangerstuff.co.uk
General Stuff A kind of diary I suppose with the latest entries at the top
Subsequent entries to "General Diary Stuff" are continued on the sister website to this one, which can be accessed via this link....
Paying regular visits to all the pet shops in my area to monitor the condition and welfare of the animals sold in them is something I do entirely off my own back, but have full official backing to do so, even though it has occasionally led to threats of violence to my person and/or actual damage to any vehicle I happened to be driving at the time (including my own). It's also a fact that a day or two before Bank Holidays is always a good time to "drop in" just to ensure that assorted cages, vivariums, pens and aquariums are adequately clean and well maintained and that the animals kept in them have suitable (and sufficient) food and liquids prior to staff disappearing for two or three days (or five, believe it or not, on one occasion!) to enjoy some time off.
The vast majority of pet shops and garden centres do actually cater fairly well for the animals in their care, but, sadly, that's not always the case! Looking after any animal properly is a specialist job and not one you can cut corners on....if only because an out of condition or sickly-looking animal is not likely to sell! It costs money to feed, takes time and resources to maintain in a healthy condition and takes up valuable selling space!
More than anything, I hate pet shop owners/managers who view their "stock" as exactly that....commodities....to be bought at low cost and sold on for a profit with minimal interim cost! Unfortunately, animals are not commodities, let alone consumables! They are not tins of Heinz beans or Ralph Lauren sweaters. If they are not looked after properly, they will suffer....and I don't like that!
Ideally, an animal, such as a Budgerigar, a Gloucester Canary or a Japanese Quail will only be in the shop for a very limited period of time before being sold on to a new, hopefully caring, owner who, if not already well-versed in the needs and welfare requirements of their vulnerable acquisition, are at least very keen to learn.
The reality is very different however. Many animals remain unsold for months at a time and continue to be housed in over-crowded, totally unsuitable and cramped quarters really designed for only short-term habitation at best. This is an area that requires the most careful monitoring....Protracted over-crowding in limited space results in a veritable minefield of potential problems and it's often the bird species who suffer the most!
The simple fact is that birds of any species just do not belong in cages unless perhaps as part of carefully controlled breeding recovery or study programmes in zoos and wildlife parks where public awareness of their plight can be maximised and they are at least looked after by truly expert and caring individuals whose motives extend well beyond that of profit. I do actually know of bird breeders who make a valuable contribution to species recovery initiatives and who work with the full co-operation of of bird welfare organizations all over the world and I commend them for it, but they are few and far between and the human demands of self-serving commercialisation continue to ride rough-shod over the more pressing needs of the birds themselves! If nothing else, bird flu has at least curtailed the importation of wild bird species into the UK and will hopefully, become a permanent measure.
Today I wandered into a garden centre that I visit quite frequently for a cup of coffee and a quick look-see at the condition of the animals in their pets department. They have always been unaware of what I'm doing simply because the animals in their care are actually quite well looked after as a rule. However, I soon noticed that not only were all the bird cages in need of a good clean-out (and unlikely to get one with just a couple of hours to go before the place closed for Christmas), but a number of birds were displaying quite severe anxiety symptoms, including repetitive pacing, compulsive preening disorders, self-harming behaviour, and aggressive behaviour towards others! Such things are not uncommon amongst birds forced to live in cramped or overcrowded conditions (a bit like people!), but they are not necessarily obvious to the untrained eye.
A little Zebra Finch was a particular cause for concern....the bird could do little more than cower on a perch in the corner of its cage while others took turns to peck at its head and eyes in a grim, but useless attempt to drive it from the "flock" (imagine having a bad eye infection and people taking turns to poke at it with a sharp stick without any respite!). Zebra Finches are flocking birds and treat perceived weakness of any kind with extreme prejudice, driving the unfortunate individual away and optimizing species survival. A similar thing, probably born out of the vestiges of our more primordial heritage, occurs in humans and is called bullying!
The Zebra Finch's left eye was badly infected and the right eye wasn't far behind. The bird was obviously in pain and was considerably distressed! I demanded that it be isolated and that the infections should be swabbed at least twice daily with a mild anti-bacterial agent. A broad-spectrum anti-biotic solution should also be added to its food! I recommended a visit from a vet who would also be able to treat a pair of Diamond Doves who both appeared to be suffering from the effects a foot-tissue degenerative bacteria probably picked up from the faeces on the floor of the cage dropped by the Gloucester Canaries housed with them. Doves tend to spend a great deal of time foraging on the floor of a cage (or on the ground in the wild) and are better caged separately!
In all fairness, the staff in the pet department had caught the Zebra Finch within a few minutes and promised to isolate it in a back room. Whether or not they will do anything that I suggested, especially with regard to getting a vet to examine the other birds as well, is anybody's guess. I hope they do. There are places where the cost of calling in a vet and the time and effort required to nurse the bird back to health would be measured against its meagre retail value and be found wanting. A pet shop isn't a zoo concerned with conservation initiative and both the relative experience of the staff concerned and their ability (or lack of it ) to identify the problems they've probably created in the first place have always been of major concern to me.
The tendency with a very small number of pet shops (not all by any means) is for the individual demands of separate animal species to be blurred around the edges and for the consequent problems, both physical and behavioural, to go unrecognized or, at worst, ignored! That's why I do what I do. The uniform helps (and being 6' 3")....and showing a flash ID usually gets attention when needed! Pet shop owners don't really want trouble, especially with the good-guy organizations like the RSPCA or RSPB just a phone call away....it's bad for business. Nor do they like the idea of some scoop-hungry hack or other from the local rag sniffing around their nether regions! I've only ever had to resort to such threats on two occasions in all the years I've been doing this. In fact, I'd say that 90% of pet shop retailers remain blissfully ignorant of what I do and that's exactly the way I like it to be!
Buzz....arre! (19th December)
I saw a wasp today (how bizarre is that!), out near Evesham! I don't think I've ever seen one in the middle of December before! My daughter claimed that she saw a wasp in her bedroom the other day, but I said that she was probably just dreaming! Surely, it can only mean one thing....today the Winterwasp, tomorrow the end of Civilization as we know it! Damn, I wouldn't have spent as much as a tenner on Christmas if I'd known that!
Looks Like a Result! (18th December)
Hey, what do you know....A big "well done" to the boys and girls in blue....It looks like they might have caught the Ipswich SOB. Let's hope so! Meanwhile, Joe and Sam have departed with Sam's caravan for the Suffolk country-side for the next few days anyway....just in case it turns out to be the wrong guy!
If We Can Be of Help (17th December)
Well done to Suffolk Constabulary (or whoever it was in the Big City's Corridors of Power) for being brave enough to risk trying something a little bit different in their efforts to capture the sick, insecure, socially inadequate, Ipswich killer(s).
Just as Joe Jing and Happy Sam thought they were home for a couple of weeks after sleeping rough for the last two months up in the Scottish Highlands chasing Golden Eagle poisoners (the others are still up there by the way), they're off again to maybe help catch a very nasty rat in the Suffolk countryside! They'll be up patrolling all night and every night with our smart new military issue, state-of-the-art NVE until all the nasty goings-on are resolved! This person (or persons) chooses to dispose of bodies in rural areas and, while the truly brilliant police forensic teams continue to examine all the minutae of the crime scenes, Joe and Sam (particularly Sam) can take-in the "bigger" picture based on their slightly more extensive understanding of the country-side....at least that's the theory.
This is not a job for the average bobby, if only because the average bobby hasn't spent that much time in years gone by sitting around in roadside ditches or open-country woodland tracking IRA cross-border gun-running operations or observing Serb troop movements in the Balkans!
Whoever's responsible for the killings tends to be just a little bit too cocky for their own good and has also tended to be quite lucky so far. However, whoever it is doesn't have the highly motivated and infinitely experienced networking infra-structure so dearly beloved of the 1970s/1980s IRA or the logistical muscle of the 1990s Serbian military machine when it comes to moving or disposing of things (including bodies) around the country-side. Nor do they have the frustratingly impenetrable support of the wider community.
I believe that the Boss has pointed this out to whoever makes the decisions and Joe and Sam have been selected because, not only are they are less affected by the immediate demands of Christmas, but they're also particularly good at what they do! Apparently, they will be party to "appropriate" police intelligence and will organize themselves accordingly. However, they will still have to be in the right place at the right time and, as always, luck will be a major factor. Irish Border reconnaissance for example, tended to depend on often contradictory and confusing intelligence that only occasionally bore fruit....and then, only after months of patient, painstaking and very uncomfortable field-work in usually the most miserable and dangerous of conditions.
Whether Joe and Sam can be effective or not, I hope that this entire unhappy episode will be brought to the earliest possible satisfactory conclusion! In the unlikelihood that this situation is still unresolved after Christmas, then two more of us (not me) will probably be joining Joe and Sam sometime in the New Year. However, from what I've heard, this particularly evil B*****d isn't the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree and the police will probably have the sicko in custody any day now!
Travel Light (14th December)
To Richard Watson of 42 Cdo. who died this week in Afghanistan, aged 23.
That's a young soldier mortally wounded on foreign soil, six teenagers killed in two separate car crashes and five young working girls murdered in Suffolk....and all in the last week or so! Saddest of all is that all those deaths were avoidable and need never have happened. I despair of this world sometimes!
Dangerous? Well Duh! (4th December)
So, seemingly cheap-shot Plaid Cymru politicians are trying to score political points off the military by suggesting that too much recruitment takes place in Welsh schools compared to English middle class and public schools! Perhaps they've never heard of the CCF!
I can understand their concerns, even though I do seem to recall that only 7% of British casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan so far have actually been Welsh. How can that be if so many Welsh youngsters are succumbing to military seduction compared to English ones?
Nevertheless, why are Plaid Cymru focusing on the military as being particularly dangerous? Of course it is! It always has been, but according to Government figures quoted in the December, 2006 issue (page 54) of the Caravan Club members magazine, an average of 742 people are injured (many seriously) and 8 people die on British roads EVERY DAY in the UK! So come on Plaid Cymru, let's see you campaigning against the recruitment of Welsh teenagers as bus drivers, cab drivers and lorry drivers if you really want to protect them (and every other road user for that matter!).
Let's hear you banging-on instead about how too many teenagers (Welsh or otherwise) are learning to drive at such a young age in the first place....after all, the 17 to 23 year old age group apparently form 25% of drivers in total, but cause 75% of fatal accidents! As I understand it, the human brain doesn't finish developing in terms of mastering depth perception and spatial awareness let alone its ability to anticipate or predict until a person is about 21 years of age on average (see also "England football team"!), so how about campaigning to raise the driving test minimum age requirement to 21? Oops...that wont get you any votes will it?
On the other hand, we could all just lock our sons and daughters in their bedrooms and never let them out to keep them safe! Is that what you do?
As for us needing the military in the first place....I'd prefer to hear your thoughts when foreign tanks and troops are coming down your street in the middle of some miserable winter's night to frog-march you, your family and neighbours off to some filthy internment camp God knows where! Oh, of course....that sort of thing only happens in other, less civilized countries doesn't it....I wonder why!
We have the best trained, best motivated and best led armed forces in the world (and yes, I'd even include the Paras). The British military is made up of very ordinary and occasionally decent men and women from all over the British Isles....and yes, lots of them ARE Welsh....I was fortunate enough to serve alongside a few of them....and was proud of it too!
Run along and find something else to score your political points off. Find something instead that you can even begin to understand. Leave the military alone....Its Welsh contingent is as good as any you'll find anywhere in the world and better than most. When you've bled for your country as much as some of those men and women then I'll be willing to listen to you....but of course, you'd probably have something very different to say by then!
Come on Plaid Cymru....you're better than that! For what it's worth, yours is one of the few political parties I've had cause to admire from time to time! I'm pretty damn sure that you're right and that Welsh schools in deprived areas ARE "fair game" as far as the Military is concerned....it's a supply and demand market, but don't call young Welsh soldiers on active service "cannon-fodder" just to make an irresponsible government look bad! Think about what you're saying. Think about all those kids over there up to their necks in sand and s**t, playing dodge-the-bullet with nothing to keep them alive but their training and some steely-eyed, bad-ass (probably English) NCO who cares more about them than you ever will! Think about their families back here reading your comments and believing every word at face value without ever reading between the lines! You have to be more responsible!
Many years ago, a quite young lieutenant-colonel who I greatly admired, once faced a bunch of us "nods" just a few weeks into our basic training and quoted Le Patner....He said "Good judgement comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgement!". I've always remembered it because, needless to say, I became very experienced very quickly....we all did and, basically, I think that one or two of your party-politicians need to do the same!
One Year Old! (30th November)
I'm back from Cornwall just in time to sit back and watch this website become a massive ONE YEAR OLD this week....Hurrah! (I think)!
Well, who'd have thought it....a whole year's gone by and people in white coats still haven't knocked at my door! Even more amazingly, the occasional "visitor" is still blundering on to the site from time to time....people perhaps, who really ought to get a life....find something much more rewarding to do, such as counting paving slabs on the way to the clinic or gluing biscuit crumbs back together....I know it works for me! (Is there an "e" in gluing?).
As for the site itself....I can't help it....it just keeps growing! I'm forced now to delete some of the old stuff before I can nail any new drivel onto the back-end of whatever might still be holding together....Oh dear, I probably shouldn't get too technical....just in case people of terminally confused or derailed dispositions (eg: politicians) happen to read any of this....especially if they haven't taken their "special" tablets as yet....you know....the big pink ones....to help them "relax" after a hard day of avoiding public disapproval....and their local Care in the Community officer!
Please note....I'm not sniping at individual politicians of any particular political persuasion. They are after all, equally guilty of, if nothing else, being politicians....and that's good enough for me!
As for the future of this site....You'll be hugely under-whelmed to know that I still have plenty more stuff to upload, but I must think about Christmas first....My wife has asked for something black and really sexy as a present....I reckon that I should be able to get her a non-stick frying pan from Argos for about fifteen quid with any luck....I'm sure she'll like that! As for the kids...I reckon that if they pool all their money and borrow heavily from their mother, then they should be able to get me something at least half decent!
On another Christmassy note....Well done Mr Blair for promising that bonus money to 3 cdo RM and then telling them it was all a really silly mistake and that they can't possibly have it after all! Which chapter of the "How To Get Your Friends in the Military To Die For You and Shaft Them At the Same Time" handbook did you get that one from?
Off Again (21st November)
Having spent the last week or so trundling backwards and forwards to the beautiful county of Somerset, alternating between Chew Valley and Brean Sands, I've just been given notice that I'm off to Cornwall's south coast again next Friday for at least a week! Thankfully, I'll be mostly in my motor-home and not just bivouacking! This time the focus will be on river estuaries. There will be other odds and ends to do, but this is mostly part of a government-sanctioned independent national monitoring project concerning bird flu. This is something we've been involved with for quite a while now and it tends to take up a lot of our time, particularly through the winter months as wildfowl migrants return to our shores and settle on our water ways.
There's nothing to be alarmed about from a local perspective as we target most of the country's lakes, reservoirs, rivers and estuaries during the course of the year. Basically, the Government is keen to be seen to be doing something positive about being the first to find bird flu (if it's out there) before some little old lady, suffering from a bit of a sniffle herself and out walking her Yorkshire Terrier on a Sunday afternoon, stumbles across a couple of sick geese on the shores of a lake somewhere and decides to take them home to help them get better!
There has to be a pro-active element to all of this because the sooner a case of bird flu is spotted, then the easier and more efficiently it can be dealt with. It would be foolish to depend entirely upon members of the public to report sightings of poorly-looking birds (although many people are quite capable of doing so) if only because the vast majority of ramblers, dog-walkers and casual countryside enthusiasts don't actually know what to look for and simply wouldn't recognise a sick bird if it walked up and asked them for a Lem-sip!
On the other hand, I'm not so sure that I'd ever find it, given that I can never find my car keys until I give up turning the house upside-down and start looking for the TV remote instead! Maybe therefore, I should just pretend I'm doing something entirely different and then sick birds will just fall out of the sky at my feet....It would save an awful lot of walking!
Turdus Return To Us (15th November)
Saw my first Autumn Fieldfares on Tuesday (14th November), most of them were still flying generally west or south-west towards their final destinations. In fact, I counted over 400 Turdus pilaris during the course of the day! On the other hand, I saw my first Redwing (Turdus iliacus) the Friday before (10th November), twelve of them, heading south-west. I bet they can't believe the berry-fest that greeted them when they got here....or did they know about it somehow, possibly meaning we'll see record numbers of both species come to our shores this time around?
Predictable or Just Plain Stupid? (7th November)
We were depending on the perpetrator of the of the Deer poaching featured below being a creature of habit....well either that or completely stupid and it turned out to be a bit of both! Can't say anything, except that the next time you're thinking about ordering venison from the menu at your local suburban eatery, you might care to ask exactly where it came from!
Getting a good shot of the incredibly timid and elusive Muntjac Deer isn't the easiest thing in the world, but it was worth the effort just to show how beautiful these little characters really are and to make up in part for the awfulDeer carnage I've shown below!
Another shot from my archive of Deer photographs. I've always found that the brain-dead scum-bags who get their kicks from shooting these gorgeous animals have never ever been under fire themselves! They've never been standing next to someone who suddenly disintegrates in front of their eyes as they're blown apart by 50 calibre machine-gun fire....It tends to give you a whole new perspective on killing stuff, especially when it's something that can shoot back! The people (it tends to be inadequate and insecure men!) who hunt these animals just don't have a clue! All eight of us in the UKNR feel that way and we've all been threatened at one time or another by dorks with shotguns or hunting rifles who take exception to our opinions (one of our happy band, I wont say who, actually served a two year suspended sentence because he took exception to being threatened by a "hunter" with a rifle! It went against him in court because there were two of them and only the hunter had a badly dislocated elbow! He says that it was only his service record that kept him from going to prison!)
Meanwhile, this Fallow Doe was very suspicious that something or someone was close by, but she couldn't quite make it out. In fact I was no more than about three metres from her, slightly down wind and sitting in the portable bag-hide I bought a while back from "Wildlife Watching Supplies", suppliers to both the BBC Natural History Unit and the Military. It's a really useful piece of kit and I always keep it in the vehicle.
Legacy (6th November)
The Boss has asked me to say a special thank-you to 81 year-old Mrs Kearns of SE 16, London who has offered to leave her entire life savings as a legacy to our little organization to help with the various bits and pieces we do around the UK. However, he has reluctantly declined her extremely kind donation for the simple reason that we are not a charitable organization and are entirely self-financed. He has had a long chat with Mrs. Kearns, taking her out for a day in the City in order to do so (which included a ride on the London Eye, lunch on a Thames riverboat restaurant and a trip to the WWT's wonderful new London wetland reserve....and, although she was ready for more, he was knackered apparently! ). I think she's the kind of person who impresses him!
She was very insistent by all accounts about making the donation, but he has managed to persuade her to bequeath her quite substantial savings to one or more of the several wildlife organizations that I promote on this website instead.
This is not the first time that we have been offered financial assistance in one form or another and I can assure you, we fully appreciate the concern and immense generosity constantly displayed by certain sections of the British public. The Boss always turns such offers down though and re-directs all donations to a variety of charities and trusts who he feels are far more deserving than us.
In case you're wondering how we can afford to turn down any kind of financial assistance....well, we actually do just fine for money....the Boss has a couple of shillings in the bank which he occasionally gets out to show to us and he's even been known give us a few pennies from time to time....to buy a loaf of bread!
Return of the Boy (4th November)
My eighteen year-old son comes home from university today for a week of "extended study leave"....yes, of course that's what it will be....a week to get his head down and read around particular areas of his course work....and to have a little "break" as well. Personally, I think it's just that his only pair of reversible underpants have finally escaped and he's returning home in the hopes that we'll buy him some new ones!
Speaking of "breaks", one of the first things he did when he got to college was to break his wrist! Others of a less trusting nature amongst us tend to think that he probably fell over when slightly the worse for a lager or three, but I'm absolutely certain that he would have damaged it by doing far too much writing during the first couple of weeks he was there. I hope he'll be ok on the coach coming home....he'll be struggling with a very large and heavy bag, but I'm sure that if he can only manage to look lost and pathetic enough, then I expect he'll be able to find some kind little old lady to carry it for him!
From what I hear though, (seriously) he's actually doing quite well on his course and he's settled into life in the Big City amazingly well. On a more unsavoury note however, I dare say the question of borrowing more money will raise its ugly head yet again when he gets home....Oh well, maybe he'll let me have a little bit more this time!
Ironically, he'll be all alone for his first night back home....His Mum will be working nights, his sister will be at a sleepover with a group of her friends and I'll be sat sitting in a bl**dy hedge all night again....and it's forecast to be even colder tonight than it was the night before last! Oh my goodness....I've just realized....there'll be no-one at home to guard the food cupboard!
Must Be Getting Far Too Old! (2nd November)
Despite thermal socks and long-johns, "Snugpack" mid-layer, "Arktis" extreme-climate survival top-layer, my old watch-hat on top of a "Thinsulate" balaclava and, of course, my beloved "Blanky", I felt cold to my bones sitting out all last night....I must be getting way too old for all this action-man malarkey....and it was only minus 2 Celsius! The sky was crystal clear though (hence the drop in temperature) and the stars were as bright as I've seen them for years....if only because I was sitting in a hedge miles away from the lights of any significant human habitation!
It's amazing as well, just how many so-called "wild" animals want to walk right up to you in the middle of the night, usually managing to practically breathe down your neck before you even realize they're there, but probably just investigating the strange chattering and knocking noises emanating uncontrollably from your teeth and knees!
My flask of piping-hot tomato soup (Heinz of course....the only tomato soup worth having in such situations!) also proved to be a wildlife magnet, but any passing hopeful fur or fluff-covered characters had little or no chance of getting any and I'd slurped it all by 0100hrs. The coffee went not long after and I soon started on my cheese sandwiches....bits of which I threw out towards some curious, but continuous rustling in the nearby undergrowth (I'd managed to eat both my Mars Bars before I even got there)! It's often a good idea to inveigle yourself with the local wildlife (depending on what wildlife it happens to be!) during such night-time vigils, if only because it will usually provide you with the best early-warning system you can possibly have should any "intruders" wander into the vicinity!
Fairly predictably, nothing remotely untoward occurred....outside of the slightly disturbing snuffles and grunts persistently invading the quiet of the night....but this was eventually remedied by shoving a very large and smelly cloth into the mouth of my fast-asleep ranger partner!
Home after a long and chilly night, but what this photograph doesn't really show is the unusually multi-coloured tinge to the light seeping out of the east.
I eventually creaked my way back home just in time to get my teen-age daughter out of bed, breakfasted and off to school, but not before witnessing a quite interesting sunrise. There have been some very unusual light effects at almost any time of day over the last few weeks and I've taken several almost interesting photographs of them.
Due to its emphasis on birds in all art media and the impressive quality of the images selected for publication, "Birds Illustrated" magazine ranks at the very top of my favourite bird-orientated periodicals. (The photograph on the cover of this issue is of a Great-Spotted Woodpecker and is by Rene de Heer).
The post arrived about 0800hrs and with it was the "Winter" edition of the excellent "Birds Illustrated" magazine. This is only its fourteenth issue and I've subscribed since its very first publication. As usual, this issue is packed with truly wonderful images of birds in places all over the world and includes examples of work by such notable artists and photographers as Britain's Jonathan Latimer, Hungary's Szabolcs Kokay, Sven Zacek, David Tipling and the remarkable Mike Lane. A feature on the feather-painting (that's paintings on feathers) of Ian Davie shows this man's totally original methods at their best (he's also currently exhibiting at Slimbridge WWT). Photographer Jaanus Jarva has made a fascinating contribution concerning the winter feeding habits of many birds while Bo Beolens is his usual entertaining self.
No, I don't have any connections with the magazine....I just think it deserves to be supported. I don't want to see this particular literary gem fall by the wayside and I would encourage bird-lovers, wildlife enthusiasts, photographers and artists of all kinds to subscribe to it....there's something in it for all of them!
As many as two or three thousand people (inexplicably) visit this site daily, from people in my village to others as far a-field as the USA, Australia and Bromsgrove! Military personnel (particularly Marines) both at home and abroad log-on regularly....and some of them can even read, though I think that most of them just like the pretty pictures!
I would encourage everyone to contact the magazine right now (www.birdsillustrated.com) and order a copy....it's brilliant!
Always end with a rant....
Oops....I probably shouldn't have said that last bit about the Royal Marines, given Senator John Kerry's comments about US forces in Iraq yesterday! It's funny though....I think that every single soldier the world over thought that what he said was really funny, but the politicians and lobbyists (none of whom have been anywhere near a military barracks, let alone a battlefield) are all outraged of course! I've just listened to two very politically agenda-conscious "spokes-persons" on the radio defending the honour and integrity of the good old "Grunt". They got very worked up over Kerry's comments! I just wish that they'd get as worked up about bringing all those soldiers home!
What annoys me about things like this is the way that politicians persistently prove that they "believe" the average soldier to be slightly thick by not attributing them with anything like a sense of humour. If they actually spent "hard time" with any military unit, US or UK, then they'd soon change their tune! The average soldier survives in any situation (fair or foul) by relying on his or her (or someone else's) sense of humour....whether it's dry, cutting, acerbic, damning, foul-mouthed or simply desperate! IT GETS THEM THROUGH THE DAY! I feel I can get away with suggesting that Marines can't read for the simple reason that they obviously can....and that they'll probably smile about it (when it's explained to them very, very slowly)....it's a military thing! POLITICIANS PLEASE KEEP OUT and stick to things that you understand....er....well....I'm sure that you can probably find something to do....but please remember, no matches or sharp objects without appropriate supervision!
I Don't Really Have the Words.... (31st October)
First of all, I apologise if these images are considered offensive to those of a slightly more sensitive nature....they certainly are to me! I dare say that the Boss will ask me to remove them from the public domain anyway. However, I personally think that it's sometimes important for the general public to be made aware of the kind of thing that goes on right under their noses....speaking of which, at least you aren't being subjected to the smell pervading this particular scene and you should be very grateful that you can't experience the fear that these animals must have felt leading up to their final moments. Personally....I wish you all could!
This is the sort of thing that always brings back far more painful memories for me. However, the two heads and two skulls (minus the lower jaws of the latter) plus assorted limbs and body parts made up the smaller and far less grizzly of the two separate piles of carcasses dumped in the shallow ditch where the perpetrator(s) of this butchery probably thought they'd never be found or couldn't care less if they were! From the bits that were actually missing, there's little doubt that these wrteched animals were "harvested" (as some folk say around here) for their meat!
I would never have stumbled across this little scene if I just drove around in a vehicle all day long. It's the kind of thing that usually only comes to light when you put in the miles on the ground. There were actually two main groups of deer carcasses dumped in a shallow ditch and comprising of 11 individual heads or skulls plus five more skulls scattered around (by scavengers probably). One more "fresh" body had been dragged by something very large and strong about thirty metres into denser undergrowth (its tracks were far too big for a fox or dog and lacked claw marks). That's a total of seventeen separate animals that I was able to locate within a fifty metre radius.
The carcasses themselves were in varying degrees of de-composition and some had probably been at the scene for anywhere between five or six months (maybe more) and were picked absolutely clean of all flesh, sinew and skin by a host of assorted scavengers. Others were more recent and therefore more complete, while the single carcass dragged off into the undergrowth was no more than two or three days old and only partially eaten!
There we go then Bill and Kate....how about including stuff like this on "Autumnwatch"? It ought to fit in well with the bits and pieces you've been doing on rutting Deer up in the Highlands. Unfortunately though....as you can see....the antlers of these particular specimens appear to have been removed, possibly snapped off while they were still alive! Incidentally, both of these animals appear to have been shot, possibly with a 9mm semi-automatic pistol....a commonly owned handgun in the thoroughly quaint Cotswolds!
All kinds of scavenger "sign" was in evidence and included Mink scat, Stoat track (don't try to tell me that the Weasel family don't scavenge), fox sign and a multitude of bird tracks and a few feathers in the soft, rain-soaked soil (including those of assorted Corvids, Buzzard and Gull). It's also amazing just how many flies are still around at the moment!
Before anyone starts to get excited about "Big Cat" larders or feeding stations, the Cotswold BCs don't behave that way and "if" the dragged carcass had indeed been fed upon by such an animal, then it was purely opportunistic behaviour on the scavenger's part....and, before all the "experts" start jumping up and down dribbling on about how big cats don't scavenge, I was occasionally called upon to feed such animals during the three years or so that I was a zoo keeper and I can promise you that I never once provided them with "live" meat! Besides, Leopards, Black Leopards and Pumas aren't in the least bit fussy....Cheetahs maybe, but not the others!
The heads in particular had been dragged about the place by various scavengers who were probably quite pleased that the scumbags who had dumped them there had been too stupid and bone-idle to even bother burying the evidence!
These particular deer however, all shared one thing in common....they had died at the hand of man....in fact, most had apparently suffered a severe and almost certainly fatal blow to the head with a heavy, probably pointed, implement, while two of the unfortunate animals had been despatched with a shotgun at close range (some of the shot was still embedded in the bone....messy, but efficient). Two others had been shot with a smallish bore pistol, possibly a 9mm!
The scavenging very definitely came after the fact....as it always does. No animal is going to hunt and bring down something the size of a Deer and then drag such a heavy dead-weight to a "special" feeding place. No, this was human handiwork and now it falls upon us to get to the bottom of it. Unfortunately, neither the police nor even the RSPCA have either the manpower, time, resources or experience to bivvi out at night for weeks at a time (if necessary) in order to catch the perpetrators, but we have and so I guess I know what I'll be doing for the next however long it takes. On the plus side, the Boss has promised me some very efficient back-up. There are far too many unknown factors here. We don't know who or what we're dealing with or how determined they might be to remain undetected. Still, you never know, I might just get to see another Big Cat or two up close in the meantime! It's a long time now since I buried Shadow.
Banbury Bird Quest (25th October)
Three apparently separate e-mails this morning had me driving all the way over to Banbury to investigate alleged sightings of a so-called hawk or falcon-like bird flying loose amongst the internal roof stanchions of the town's shopping arcade!
I had a good wander around the place and a cup of coffee in BHS, but didn't see so much as a dicky bird....apart from the plastic pretend Owl placed on an inside ledge up near the roof, presumably to deter pigeons. Consequently, I began asking various shop traders, security staff (who had been keeping a furtively watchful eye on me as I wandered about staring at the roof spaces) and even the ladies in tourist information if any of them had seen any hawks or falcons flying about and I think they all just thought I was some sort of crazy guy on day-release from the funny farm!
Oh well, I did get three "So you're a ranger are you? Where's Tonto then?". That makes four for October so far, but the record still stands at seven for a single month back in July 2005!
We do get the occasional e-mail from members of the public concerned about something or other being sick or injured or maybe being somewhere where it really ought not to be....and that's fine as long as it doesn't turn out to be a hoax. We can usually deal with many different kinds of animal-related problems....or we know of a very nice man (or woman) who can deal with it for us. I must admit though, this sort of thing usually tends to involve Swans so a wayward raptor could have turned out to be very interesting....the sort of thing that ends up involving dozens of enthusiastic, albeit, bewildered helpers, a vet armed with assorted mist-nets, and a tranquilliser rifle, seven or eight local and very vociferous "experts" (all with totally divergent solutions to the problem), a bemused newshound from the local rag determined to spell everyone's name incorrectly, a BBC TV film crew (with or without Bill Oddie) and at least thirty-five mounted riot-police plus water cannon struggling to keep back the three hundred or so spectators rapidly degenerating into a mob and who would mostly just rather shoot the bl**dy thing at the start so that we can all get on with our lives!
Strange though....a hoax would usually only come from one source, yet this was three separate e-mails. Meanwhile, I've e-mailed back to thank the the people who sent them for their concern and tell them that I found no trace of hawks, falcons, riot police, Bill Oddie or anything else. I guess that whatever it was, it probably found its own way back outside before I got there.
I did get to see Banbury close-up however (normally I drive straight through it). It seems like a nice place (reminds me of Hereford a bit) and the people I spoke to were very friendly.
50,0000? (8th October)
I'm not quite sure how they've arrived at the final official figure of 50,000, but we've only counted just over 1700 Horse Chestnut trees afflicted with "Bleeding Canker" between us....and I've personally only noted 91 in my neck of the woods. Still, it's an alarming statistic for the old Conker Tree nonetheless!
Just Rewards....Who the Heck Am I to Judge? (7th October)
All it seems to take these days for a young woman to gain national celebrity, make hundreds of thousands of pounds and even get to host her own TV show is to appear on "Big Brother" as a self-serving, self-obsessed, self-indulgent champion of the hissy-fit-paddy-tantrum brigade....and, apparently people will love her for it and tune-in daily for lots more of the same!
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in a special place where TV has never existed and never will, there's a tiny one-room school-house where just a few days ago a remarkable thirteen year old little girl called Marion, armed with nothing more than an absolute faith in her God and a splinter of courage she probably never knew she had, looked Evil in the eyes and begged a cold-blooded killer to shoot her first in the vain hope that somehow her sacrifice would placate his lust for blood and save her friends. She paid the ultimate price and I'm sure that her reward will be infinitely greater than anything the rest of us will ever achieve down here....at least it better be!
As for the killer, they say he had a grudge and a beef with God....Well, so have I, but you don't go out and dump your pain and misery on the innocent! Most of us are hurting inside to one degree or another....that's life....we have to deal with it as best we can and move on.
I'm pretty sure that, as much as anything, the hurt we suffer makes us who we are and there are those who say it's all some kind of test....Well, maybe it is, I don't know. I prefer to think that life is about Faith and whether that happens to be Faith in a God, Faith in an Ideal, Faith in Others, or Faith in Yourself is up to the individual concerned.
One observer wrote this week that a tiny corner of Pennsylvania was a place where Evil ambushed Good and brought it to its knees, but I don't think so....I'm not a religious man particularly, but I believe that it was Evil that was sorely tested and found wanting....by nothing more than a little girl with an unshakeable Faith and, if it's remotely possible for anything positive to come out of all that unspeakable horror, then it must be that we can all be reminded of just how un-self-serving, un-self-obsessed and un-self-indulgent the Human Spirit can actually be!
Dog Owners (5th October)
I've just counted up how many times I've been on the receiving end of abuse while out and about this year....nine times verbal and twice physical. It was slightly less in 2005....seven times verbal and only once physical (although the latter involved a lot of being pushed about and threatened with a shotgun pointed to my chest by three Hooray Henrys at the Stow Fair....I didn't react and fortunately, neither Happy Sam nor Joe Jing were with me at the time!).
Ok, the others are often on the receiving end too (except Macca maybe), so you could say it goes with the territory. I don't expect sympathy....besides, the boss thinks we should all be able to cope with what he considers "trivialities"!
Out of those nineteen situations however, twelve involved dog owners.
Ninety-nine per cent of dog owners are eminently responsible and generally amicable people....They walk their dogs on leads, clear up after their pets and observe local dog-walking restrictions and/or bye-laws. Above all, they use common sense. There are however, a very small number of individuals who fail dismally on every count and particularly with regard to the common sense element (incidentally, why is it called "common" sense when it seems to be anything but?).
I like dogs a lot and I've almost always owned one....or even two (I have two rescue dogs at present....see the "Garden" page on this site). They are always walked on leads in these more environmentally sensitive days and their messes are disposed of properly. They're absolutely no problem to anyone else....ever! In fact, I'm so up-standing and self-righteous about them, it's enough to make you sick!
On the other hand, I appreciate that dog owners like to let their dogs off the lead for a good run around and I don't have too much of a problem with that provided it's in appropriate places such as open farmland or on common land devoid of livestock or perhaps deserted beaches in winter, etc. What I do take issue with is the blatant disregard for the safety of other people trying to act responsibly with their own dogs or for domestic animals and wildlife....particularly birds!
The people I have approached and asked "politely" to put their dogs on leads have been those who are quite happy to allow (or even encourage) their canines to run amok amongst, for example, children in park play areas, nesting birds at lakes and reservoirs, flocks of roosting birds or grazing sheep or cattle or even a herd of deer on one occasion!
More often than not, people are relatively happy (though sometimes reluctant) to comply and the uniform (sort-of) that we wear possibly provides us with a whiff of authority (except perhaps for Lofty who just whiffs!). There are however, a few who take serious exception to being requested to do anything at all and consequently respond in the only way they know how....with general and unreserved ignorance!
It usually begins with a simple, polite request from us that an owner restrains his or her dog from perhaps chasing a Swan and its Cygnets across the local park (Swans wont desert their young, no matter the odds and sometimes pay the price!). Signs are often clearly in-situ, demanding that all dogs be on a lead or something similar. Such a request will usually be ignored or responded to with, more often than not, demands such as "leave me alone you t*sser, I don't want to f***in' talk to you!"
Undeterred, we usually resort to a slightly firmer line and try to explain that the dog should be brought under better control for whatever reason. Unfortunately, in a few cases, the response is nothing short of staggering as the owner in question resorts to an unbelievable tirade of verbal abuse and threatening gestures embellished with every expletive known to man (and woman)! My first reaction is to wonder how this person could ever cope with a real crisis in their life, considering the degree to which they've fallen apart over nothing at all!
Sometimes though, things escalate dramatically entirely within the mind of the dog owner and they can become physically aggressive quite suddenly! This is not good....though we do tend to half expect it these days! Sadly, it happened to me yesterday (two counties away from home) and I was forced to react. My assailant was a man in his early thirties, but as is usually the case, thankfully, not someone trained in the subtler martial arts.
It's strange really, that when it comes to physical violence, most men believe that they have natural ability and will automatically prevail....it's probably a testosterone-based inadequacy thing! The same men however, would not expect to better a professional footballer in a one-on-one kick-about if they'd hardly ever played football themselves nor would they expect to best someone professionally trained over many years at any number of other things for that matter....from playing the violin to driving F1 racing cars if they'd not practised long and hard for many years themselves. Why then, do they assume that they will automatically prevail and that you will behave like a victim?
Nor does it do the remotest good to advise them that you yourself DO have some experience in certain things of a martial nature and that you really DO NOT wish to indulge them further! Instead, this merely seems, for some mysterious reason, to enrage them even more! Stranger still, your subsequent attempt to walk away from the situation only serves to act as some kind of final straw to snap the back of their deranged perspective....and murderous violence is immediately launched upon your hastily retreating person!
This is only to be expected really when all placatory gestures have thus far fallen on progressively stoney ground. The type of dog they have so little apparent control over is, of course, another factor to take into account (a German Shepherd in this case) and repeated threats from the owner along the lines of "my doggle 'ave you if you don't p**s off!" should not be entirely disregarded, even if the animal is now fifty metres away and barking at a Dalmatian held on a leash by a young mum wheeling a push-chair!
Ideally, as a situation deteriorates (quite rapidly usually), it's always best to walk away and nurse a bruised ego rather than a black eye (or worse), but once in a blue moon, there's little or no chance to do even that as things go from bad to worse almost instantly!
Fortunately, the man was sub-duable without unnecessary recourse to harming him physically, the police were called and the man was arrested. Two witnesses gave statements in my favour and I thank them for it. I personally, took the dog to the town's animal welfare centre where I believe he was collected later by the man's wife. The local rag wanted an interview and a picture, but I declined.
We have a special list of guidelines to consider where certain dog owners are concerned....
1 We are not police officers. We do not have powers beyond those of the average citizen. We do not, for example, have the power in law to question, detain or arrest perceived wrong-doers.
2 Avoid all dogs and their owners if at all possible unless the behaviour of the owner or the behaviour of the dog presents a risk to vulnerable people (eg. children) and/or livestock/wildlife. Even then, a possible "situation" arising from approaching such an owner must be carefully risk-assessed.
3 Contact the police prior to an approach if that approach is deemed unavoidable, but perceived to be potentially volatile.
4 Always be polite, but firm. Use reason and persuasion. Inform the owner as to why their dog should be under greater control and preferably on a leash. Do not be confrontational. Do no make demands. Do not appear over-assertive.
5 The behaviour of a dog will always reflect the ability (or lack of it) of the owner to train and control the animal properly. The dog's behaviour will often provide insight into an owner's reaction to challenge. Observe first. Do not rush in!
6 The Dog is rarely to blame for its behaviour....Only the owner.
7 Most will insist that their dog is not a threat to anyone or anything in any way and is a lovable, cuddly ball of joyous good will....and they are probably right. However, explain how difficult it is for you to expect the owner of a disobedient Bull Terrier or a run-away Rotweiller to put his or her dog on a lead near the kids playground down the local town park if they constantly see the owners of Labradors and Spaniels flaunting the rules themselves. It must be one rule for all and all for one if we're going to stand any chance of protecting the public from the ignorant failings of the persistent minority!
On a more pleasant note....
I saw what could be my last Swifts of the year today....three of them heading south as though their tails were on fire and a solitary House Martin doing like-wise!
I've also learned in the past couple of days that I'm off soon, to Cornwall, in my motor-home for a week or so to do a heap-load of ranger stuff. Oh well, someone's got to do it I suppose!
Meanwhile, our chappies up in Scotland (och the noo!) are getting very wet (shame!) and have been told not only that they'll probably be bivvying out until Christmas, but to switch their focus to the West Coast to help count migrating Brent Geese as well as do the Golden Eagle thingy. That should be interesting....I don't think they can count above twenty between them!
All Gone! (2nd September)
Since they began nesting in the Close over twelve years ago, The House Martins have grown and grown in numbers. The founding pair (probably an over-spill from the long-established colony at the village school), built the first nest way back in 1994 and now fourteen of the twenty homes in this little estate boasts at least one nest (my house has two), while one house hosts a magnificent nine structures....and all of them used this year!
I have studied the birds since that first year, logging yearly arrival and departure dates, number and frequency of occupied nests and increases in overall colony population numbers (see a more detailed account on the "Surveys" page). The success of the colony is quite staggering with an increase from the initial pair and a solitary nest in 1994 to over a hundred birds and twenty nine nests in 2006!
Perhaps most significantly, arrival dates have grown steadily earlier with each passing year and departure dates progressively later!
This year however, has seen a startling glitch in the trend....The first birds to arrive in 2006 continued a long-established habit of appearing earlier and earlier, showing up earlier than ever before on 23rd April! However, despite a similar trend showing the birds departing on their autumn migration later and later (they left on 23rd October in 2005), this year they left en masse yesterday, 1st October, some three weeks earlier than last year! This is the earliest departure yet with the previous earliest departure date being 3rd October, back in 1997!
Saturday morning I awoke early to the din of scores of chattering House Martins zipping about the sky above the Close. They had been feeding in larger than usual numbers for the two days previous and I'd guessed that something was going on. I spent ages trying to count them as best I could as virtually all the birds must have been airborne, including the two late fledgling youngsters from the nest outside my daughter's bedroom window. I finally settled on approximately 110 birds which is quite an improvement on the 7 that departed from the Close on 5th October, 1993! I jogged round to the school to check on the colony there just in case they had joined up with mine, but not only were they still there, they were behaving identically to the Close birds with just about all birds airborne (around 60).
As with previous years, this behaviour heralded a mass departure and, by the middle of the afternoon of the same day, all the birds were gone from both colonies!
I'll miss them. I always do, but I look forward to the arrival of still more birds next spring and the building of even more nests....there's still room for a couple more under my eaves!
As a footnote to this....I mentioned that the birds had gone much earlier than usual to "Old Tom" (a local countryman and persistent centenarian at 102 years of age....and probably Gloucestershire's oldest birder).He said that the school birds left earlier than usual prior to both the really bad winters of 1947 and 1962/63. He also said that 1946 and 1962 were really good years for blossom and berries! I then asked him how he could remember such things from so long ago when he couldn't remember to pay his bills without the help of his doting neighbour, Mrs. Dowitt....He said that if he spent the money for bills on whiskey and roll-ups then he could forget to pay them without any trouble at all!
I also mentioned that due to new legislation, no-one would be able to call him "Old" Tom anymore....He said it's all a load of "b*****ks!", that he'd been called things a lot worse than "Old" and that he's going to live for another ten years just to irritate his only son, "Young Tom" who's just a slip of a thing at 78!
Incidentally....I saw my first Swallow on 31st March this year, but haven't seen one since 27th September....so maybe they've all left as well!
Senior Moments (27th September)
Standing on the landing at the top of the stairs for the fourth time in a morning, my mind a blank each time, except for wondering what the heck I'd actually gone up there for and just why exactly was I clutching an empty milk bottle or the TV remote or my car keys or possibly all three?....Walking over to the village shop for something, but forgetting what it was by the time I got there and not having taken the money to pay for whatever it was anyway and so pretending I'd just gone over for a chat to cover my blushes!.....Driving all the way from Cirencester back home with my binoculars on the roof of the car (without them falling off, miraculously) and smiling happily at all the drivers and pedestrians waving so energetically at me as I drove by wondering if they thought I was someone else!
Such is the stuff that advancing years are made of and the harshest amongst us might call it the onset of senility....I prefer to call it " my senior moments"!
However, my wife is a nurse who works nightshifts on a medical ward boasting a great many long-stay chronically ill individuals of advancing years and occasionally diminishing mental faculties (and that‘s just the doctors!). She and other members of staff have just been given a memo by the infinitely wise and terminally PC Hospital Trust explaining that....
"In future, no reference should be made whatsoever or comment passed (of humorous intent or otherwise) concerning any patient, staff member or hospital visitor that includes the expression "senior moment(s)".
According to the Trust, the use of the phrase "senior moment(s)" when used to describe an individual's apparent mental demeanour is totally ageist, wholly unacceptable and a violation of that person's basic human rights and will, therefore, no longer be tolerated!
Phew....Is it possible then, that I don't suffer from "senior moments" after all and that instead, I'm just getting more and more stupid as I get older?....What a relief!
The Same Old Same Old! (26th September)
Food rations and equipment being stolen from un-guarded bases in Afghanistan....the Government hiding casualty figures so as not to undermine its own credibility or provoke public reaction....politicians telling the military how to do their business....the Press kindly revealing that the SA80, the crappiest rifle in the history of modern warfare, is melting in the mid-day sun (just in case the indigene rebel fighters didn't know already)....and that it would in fact, be better to attack British positions during daylight hours instead of at night (as they have been up to now), if only because British troops wont be able to shoot back!
Where have I heard all this before? Oh yes, every time there's a bl**dy war! Of course, every generation has its wars and every war has its government to steer the entire scenario into the realms of the desperately insane! Politicians seem to love nothing more than to rattle their sabres and pound out the rhythm of their own self-serving political agendas on the war-drum of crass stupidity! Meanwhile, the poor old long-suffering British bootneck and/or squadie carries on regardless....ever the victim and ever the fool....A fool to hope that this time things might be different and that the incumbent government of the day might actually do right by him and treat him with some degree of the respect he actually deserves!
All this talk in the media about declining troop morale, equipment failure, theft of supplies, etc occurs of course, by way of an equal and opposite reaction to the ever-increasing stupidity surrounding perpetual political entrenchment and reminds me of a small MOD booklet we were issued with once upon a time ago....It provided lots of really "helpful" information about how to survive in combat scenarios and was particularly useful because it was supposedly composed by none other than a politician with a casual interest in war-games.
It contained such invaluable survival advice as "always wear your helmet correctly in a fire-fight" and "keep your head down sensibly when fired upon" Of particularly use I thought was "always throw your primed grenade towards the enemy" while advice such as "make yourself heard in combat by shouting if necessary" was worth its weight in hens teeth!
However, not long afterwards, we were provided with another, somewhat slimmer volume, litigatingly entitled "Your Loving NCO's Guide to Combat Survival" ....a sort of filler-in of the bits that the MOD booklet failed to cover in full. Incidentally, I've seen a similar thing doing the rounds more recently, but now described as "George Bush's The War Against Terror....A Survival Guide" (or "TWAT's Survival Guide" as it's more affectionately known)!
Your Loving NCO's Guide to Combat Survival (Not to be taken internally!)
INTRODUCTION.... You are now a Royal Marine and proud owner of a the much-coveted Green Beret (and a Ford Cortina....probably). You have been trained by THE BEST to be THE BEST and you are as prepared as it is humanly possible to be for whatever madness lies ahead. However, your much beloved and caring RSM, concerned that you are in fact greener than said beret, worries about you greatly and has composed the following list of helpful "rules of combat"....Study them wisely and learn them all. They will most assuredly provide you with the much needed "edge" to see you home and in the arms of your loved ones once again (except of course, for pvt. Malone who sadly, has no loved ones to call his own and who therefore "borrows" everyone else's)....
1 Never share a trench with anyone braver than you!
2 Always try to look unimportant in case the enemy is low on ammunition!
3 When you think you have secured an area, don't forget to tell the enemy!
4 In-coming fire has right of way!
5 The enemy "diversion" you are steadfastly ignoring on your right flank is, in fact, the main attack!
6 If the enemy is in range, SO ARE YOU!
7 Radio coms will fail only when you are desparate for fire support!
8 The only thing more accurate than in-coming enemy fire is in-coming friendly fire!
9 Things that MUST be together to work properly can never be transported together! (Logistics 11th commandment)
10 Friendly fire isn't!
11 Suppressive fire wont!
12 Tracer fire works both ways!
13 Anything you do can get you shot....including doing nothing!
14 Make it too tough for the enemy to get in and YOU WONT BE ABLE TO GET OUT!
15 All five second grenade fuses burn down in three seconds!
16 There is no need to remember that your weapon was made by the lowest bidder....It will remind you all by Itself!
17 If you are forward of your position, artillary fire will always fall short!
18 The important things are always simple....the simple things are always easy....the easy way is always mined!
19 When in doubt....empty the magazine!
20 If you're short of everything except enemy, you're in combat (added courtesy of DB)
and finally....never forget....
21 No combat-ready unit ever passed inspection and no inspection-ready unit ever passed combat!
God be with you my children, in whatever nameless Sh**hole you find yourselves. Above all, look after your oppos because you can be rest assured, they'll be all you've got to depend on....no-one else will give a ****!
RSM Stan Deazy RM.
Flying the Nest (16th September)
A new era has begun today for my 18 year-old son....He has just left home to go to university! Two weeks before their studies begin in earnest, he and hundreds of fellow "fresher" under-graduates will have the chance to establish themselves in a vast and potentially intimidating city and get the novelty of their new-found freedom well and truly "out of their systems".
He will have no trouble making friends and "fitting in" to university life in general. He's a sociable boy with many, many friends from all walks of life and I've no doubt that his profound ability to endear himself to all those he meets will be his most valuable asset throughout his life, let alone during his time in such a cosmopolitan environment as a major university.
My son has always loved playing soccer and has played league footy since he was seven years old. Playing mostly either right wing, right midfield or up front, he was actually "spotted" by Bristol City, Coventry City and Leicester City (above left) as a boy and spent more than three years traipsing about the country for development and academy training only to be eventually dropped by each club in succession for being, as they put it, too slight in the tackle....Now he's 6 feet three inches tall and one of the most venomous players on the pitch, especially since turning sixteen and playing in the men's league (above right)!
He loves football, playing guitar and reading anything and everything! I know that he plans to get involved with the college soccer team and get a little band together to play the odd gig or two....and, oh yes, he'll be studying English Literature for the next three years....probably from the student union bar at a guess! His school always called him the "God of English" and, at the moment, he's considering a future in journalism. I just hope he's happy with whatever career he finally ends up having and that this particular "rite of passage" will be something that he goes on to remember as one of the best times of his life.
It's a funny thing, but he's always had a thing about hats....hats of all shapes, sizes and denominations. Basically, anything that fitted over his head counted as a hat. I recently put together a photo montage as a computer screen background made up of pictures of Joe in more than fifty different head-ware items....and those are just the ones I caught him wearing!
I'm very proud of him and, even though he's only been gone a few hours, I miss him already....though I dare say he's forgotten what I look like by now....he's so excited about it all. On the plus side however, I do resume control of the TV remote, the food bill will be cut by about 75% and I'll be using about 50% less fuel as "Don Cabs" is left running just my daughter around from A to B to C and all points west! Of course, I expect she'll be putting me through all this again herself in about four years time!
Some days are big-hair days and some days are just meant for sitting in the sun with a good book, nursing the thumb ligament injury you sustained playing football in the very last minute of the final game of the season!
The Cobbly-Onker Spider and Me (9th September)
Beautifully marked when looked at close-up, the Common Garden or White-Cross Spider as it's called around here, becomes a very familiar sight in the garden towards the end of summer and into the autumn.
It was the early 1950s and I was about four years old and still living with my natural mother and eight year-old half-sister, Rachel. It must have been late summer and Rachel and I had been collecting conkers all afternoon. We'd got loads and spent ages shelling them and piling them up in my old wooden push-along truck.
It was late evening and still light. I was in bed already and sat up with the truck-full of conkers across my lap. I was trying to count them....I had at least twenty, but twenty was all I could count up to and Rachel had taught me how to do that (I wouldn't be starting school until the following Easter).
I remember feeling pleased with my magnificent haul of Horse-Chestnut treasures and I examined each conker separately, staring at it, marvelling at the shiny texture, at the perfect-ness of each one and at how each was so very different from all the others. We would be holing and stringing some of them tomorrow and I'd already selected the very biggest for myself. Rachel was good at "conkers" though and I don't remember ever beating her.
This little male "Cobbly-Onker Spider" is much smaller than the almost conker-sized female of his species. This one had taken up residence above the cab door of my motor-home and was doing extremely well on the fly-catching front! Meanwhile, he'd spent some time, gathering those very flies together (as you do), cocooning them in ultra-fine silk and injecting them with venom to produce a wonderful glucky gloop-soup! Then he sat there and sucked it all up like it was some sort of milk-shake! Cute and cuddly or what!
Lost, as usual, in my own little world of make-believe, I waited patiently for Rachel to come and read me a story....At that moment, a small movement caught my eye as one of the conkers suddenly unfolded a complete set of legs and, as if by some miracle, began to walk across the top of the conker pile....straight towards me!
I froze....and a yell for help froze with me! I stared in horror-stricken silence as the giant, hairy-legged conker from Hell paused for a moment to stare up at me! Our eyes met....the conker had the definite advantage in that department and I suddenly wished I hadn't learn to count as high as eight, let alone twenty! Just then, the door opened and Rachel walked in, in her nightgown, carrying a book and ready to go to bed herself. This must have snapped me out of my state of shock, whereupon I allegedly shouted something along the lines of "Argggh!....Cobbly-Onker Spider....Get it Rach....It's gonna get me....Argggh!"
It may not be obvious from these pictures, but the female (above left) is quite a bit larger, darker and a whole lot leggier than her male counterpart (above right).
Naturally, I disputed this uncharacteristic show of humongous cowardice for some time afterwards and, for most of the following year that Rachel would be around, she would never quite let me forget how much I'd panicked or how I'd dived from the bed showering her with conkers! The "Conker from Hell" had been a Common Garden Spider of course....a dark and very large female that had somehow found its way into the truck, but from that time on, I've always called such Spiders "Cobbly-Onker Spiders"....and probably always will!
Our mother wasn't there of course, she hardly ever was in the evening, preferring to be out having a "good time" with her boyfriend....my so-called father, but we generally managed to feed ourselves and put ourselves to bed....sometimes even washing ourselves and brushing our teeth beforehand. We slept in the same bed together and that's when Rachel read stories to me....sometimes ones that she'd written herself and I wouldn't be at all surprised if that's what she grew up to be....a story-writer of some sort....and a bl**dy good one I should think!
Angry and Sad! (4th September)
To sit and listen to our most venerable Minister of Defence "defending" the Government's so-called support of our military personnel in Afghanistan after the spy-plane crash yesterday made me feel so angry I felt physically sick! When it was suggested that such aircraft are perhaps just a little too long in the tooth and well overdue for retirement, his response was to argue that the RAF have an excellent safety record....True, but then I could blind-fold myself and walk across the M5 in the middle of the day and not get run over. In fact, it's possible that I could repeat such stupidity ten times and still survive! I could then sit in a TV studio and argue in my defence that I'm fine and that I have an excellent safety record and that, based on the statistics! , it was more than ok to carry on doing it! It's a funny thing, but I know for a fact that if a senior member of government is required to use any form of military aircraft, then it's always the newest one in the fleet, serviced by the best ground crew and flown by the most experienced pilots available....Why is that do you suppose?
On a sad note, I was as shocked as the rest of the world to hear about Steve Irwin. I feel for his young family. There were perhaps times when his methods were questionable and the risks he took were totally un-necessary, but, more importantly, he was one of the good guys and did a huge amount to raise awareness about certain aspects of wildlife conservation amongst people who would never have given a damn otherwise! People are saying that he died doing what he loved the most, but I have a sneaky feeling that maybe what he loved doing the most was spending time with his kids, reading them stories and playing football with them in the local park! It's a stupidly tragic waste!
D I Y! (31st August)
A neighbour has a house of similar design to mine and he stopped to ask me earlier this week how many rolls of wallpaper I'd bought to decorate my living room last year. ...I told him "eleven",
I saw him again today and he wasn't very happy....He said he'd done the papering, but had four rolls left over!
That's strange....So did I.
The Trouble with e-mails! (30th August)
I get the occasional e-mail via the link at the bottom of the home page on this site, but not surprisingly perhaps, I think I've only ever had one from someone with any really positive comments to pass on to me concerning its content (I guess my daughter was feeling sorry for me that day).
Instead, I tend to get e-mails almost exclusively from people I've upset in some way or other, albeit un-intentionally....and it's nearly always down to my so-called sense of humour....fragments of which I try to inject so dismally into these very pages! It would appear that this time though, it was not my sense of humour (dismal or otherwise) that upset someone....I received a quite "individual" e-mail, just last night, from a gentleman who identified himself as "Union Jack"....a name acquired by deed-pole apparently....and he'd been upset by something entirely different!
Mr. Jack made it very clear that he doesn't like gays for some reason, but hadn't quite grasped the fact that I'm not one! He went on to extol the virtues of his hypothesis concerning the nature of my particular sexuality in no small detail....drawing on a wide and varied selection of evidence connecting the Natural World in general and flowers in particular to being, as he put it, an "axle-greaser"! He went on to demand that either I refute his claims publicly and convincingly....on this very website....or "face the consequences"! (The words he used were perhaps rather more succinct and to the point....with a few even spelt correctly....but well done anyway Mr. Jack....on actually being able to finish a sentence and type at the same time!).
Mr. Jack must have been stalking the virtual highways between medications, in search of something vaguely malicious to do, when he stumbled across my hapless little web-offering....After probably getting his care-worker to read bits of it out-loud to him, he was very keen to point out, in his e-mail, how my interest in flowers and birds and stuff must surely mean that I'm a "gay-boy"!
Well....What is there for me to say....except that I am most definitely not "gay"....but then, nor am I in any way homophobic! I believe totally and without reservation, that a man's (or woman's) sexuality is entirely their own business. What people get up to in the privacy of their own homes is their concern and even if same-sex couples wish to express their feelings towards each other in public (within the bounds of common decency), I have absolutely no objection. It doesn't bother me to see two men holding hands in the street....I just prefer them not to be holding mine!
Dear Union (may I call you "Union"?)....Please understand that homophobic I most definitely am not! On the other hand, dick-headophobic I most certainly am....and that's a whole new phobia that's invented itself just to accommodate you!
Meanwhile, your claim to embody all that is "British" by adopting the name of, as you call it, "our National Flag" as your own, is sadly misplaced....Our National Flag is actually called the "Union Flag" and I have personally only ever passed close to a flag called the "Union Jack" when, many years ago and possibly before you were born, my "watch-duty" took me up near the modern-type bowsprit (pointy end) of the Frigate or Destroyer that I happened to be serving on at the time...The Union Flag flying from the bowsprit of an Admiralty ship represents the one and only time that it can be legitimately called the "Union Jack"....It's an Admiralty thing! How could someone as "British" as you, not have known the difference? Oh well...."the best laid plans" as they say....Perhaps you could change your name yet again!
Good luck with the spelling practise by the way....After all, attempting to master your native tongue might actually be a far better way to demonstrate your loyalty to the National Flag than to go around be-smirching the sexual proclivities of whole sections of the Nation's communities or by threatening someone who has not only competed for Queen and Country in sport (see "Slices"), but served them to the best of his ability as a soldier as well....and who risked his bl**dy neck on any number of occasions to protect, not only said Q&C, but undeserving dinks like you!
The strange thing is though....that given my time over, I would still probably do it all over again....How sad is that when e-mails like yours fall so readily on my virtual doormat?
Bank-Holiday Blues! (27th August)
I hate confrontation and all I really want, especially over a Bank Holiday, is a quiet life. Unfortunately, as thousands of townies suddenly remember that there's such a thing as the "country-side" and set off in their Japanese 4 X 4s filled to the brim with picnic hampers and i-pod-bristling, snot-filled time-bombs misguidedly described as "children", I prepare mentally for three days of one of the most unpleasant aspects of my job...."policing" our green places!
By far the greater majority of visitors to the country-side are, at all times, totally respectful of its obscure and fragile little ways. They enjoy their time there, marvel at it's complexities, take their photographs, pick up their litter and leave virtually no trace of their passing.
There are those however, who treat the country-side as nothing more than a combined rubbish-tip and latrine....Those who seek to despoil and vandalise the things cherished by others....Those who wear ignorance like a "badge of honour" and respect no thing and no person beyond the constraints of their own trivial and inadequate little existences.... and I'm not talking about politicians!
Today, I stopped two youngsters in their tracks as they scythed down swathes of Great Reed-Mace and Broad-Leaved Willowherb with sticks and knives! When I asked them why they were doing it, they replied that they were bored! I sent them packing. Less than an hour later, I confronted another teenager breaking branches off a Crack Willow....He apparently didn't have a clue why he was doing it , but his parents, who were picnicking not far off, insisted that he was doing no harm, that there were "loadza other trees" and that "it's not ezattly a crime izzit?"!
Finally and as the day wound down, I came across another picnic site beside a lake. This one was now deserted, but I counted 18 beer cans, 5 empty two-litre plastic fizzy-drink bottles, two disposable BBQs (still smouldering!), assorted used paper plates, plastic cutlery, paper cups and plastic tumblers and a discarded broken umbrella strewn about the place! I dealt with most of it using the bin-bag I always carry with me for such things and carried it back to my car for disposal later. I left the food remains in a pile for various appreciative wildlife to dispose of and I soaked the BBQs with water from the lake and burried them deep in the ground using my folding mini-entreching spade....I couldn't manage to carry them back to the car as well....It was, after all, just another Bank Holi-day at the office!
I'm probably the only person in the country who hopes above hope for inclement weather on Bank Holidays....because then, all but the hardiest and most determined will surely stay at home to watch the footy on TV! I find that the "hardy" ones are rarely the type to disrespect the environment! This particular weekend hasn't been the best so far weather-wise, hence the umbrella I suppose and hopefully, tomorrow (Monday), it will absolutely hiss down!
This unfortunate Moorhen showed all the signs of being the victim of a predatory Mink. Mink-sign in the form of tracks in the lake-side mud and a nearby "scat" deposit were clearly present. The way the bird had been only partially eaten (a Fox for example, would leave very little behind apart from bones and a mass of dispersed feathers) also tended to signify the work of the unpopular American alien, Mustela vison.
On the plus side....I counted four lots of Otter "spraints", but only one of Mink "scat" (it's usually the other way round if I see any "spraints" at all) as I wandered about and saw plenty of "nibbly" Water Vole sign and spotted two indignant Arvicola terrestris squabbling on a river bank over what looked like a strip of Ash tree bark! I also managed to photograph a few more additions to the wildflower photo-catalogue that I seem to be inadvertently compiling on this site....
The shade-loving, common or garden (literally) Ground Elder (above left) is another plant whose leaves (which look a bit like those of the Elder tree) can be cooked and eaten like Spinach. The second picture (above right) shows one of the dozen or so very similar Mint varieties in the UK, but the slightly more delicate appearance of this particular version is, perhaps, more reminiscent of Corn Mint, a slightly more acrid version of the Water Mint (see "More Power to the Flower" item below).
Red Bartsia (above left) is a fairly small plant, barely taller that a paper-back novel. It's fairly common in fields and meadows and alongside footpaths especially. Common Comfrey (above right) on the other hand, can grow to be almost a metre tall and is well known in many rural areas as a garden fertilizer when left to rot in water!
Fleabane (above left) may not have the most attractive of names, but I like this slightly untidy yellow Daisy with its wrinkled, stem-clasping leaves. Meanwhile, renowned as a medicinal herb down the ages, the Hemp Agrimony (above right) comes into its own in late summer and is a familiar sight along the water margins.
No matter where you might find yourself during the summer, there will usually be a wildflower or two to brighten the place up....I passed through an old run-down bit of wasteland at one point today….About half an acre of what used to be an Esso petrol station (remember Esso?). Places like that are full to bursting with all kinds of wildlife and, just out of interest, I counted nearly 30 types of wildflower plus some other stuff that I wasn't so sure about! The wildflowers included the Purple Toadflax (above left) and what I’m pretty sure is Greater Celandine (above right)
Urban Oasis (18th August)
What was that film called...."The River Runs Through It"? Anyhoo....the water here proved to be surprisingly clean when tested....given its location.
Smack bang in the middle of one of those concrete conurbation things...."towns" I think they're called, I stumbled upon a lovely, but unexpected little oasis of green stuff....You know the sort of thing I mean....trees, bushes, plants and flowers....and all topped off with a quite surprising array of wildlife!
Dazzling Goldenrod....A sight for sore eyes in the midst of any urban sprawl!
Since the advent of the dreaded bird flu and last autumn's government directives increasing our "patrol" areas to include the lakes, ponds, streams and rivers found in our city and town centres, suburbs, parks and industrial estates, I have tended to grow more and more depressed by the apparent lack of public concern regarding the fast-disappearing number of green places still surviving in such places and, more often than not, the shameful and shabby state that many of them have been allowed to get into!
Lots of bright pink Himalayan Balsam (above left) graced the banks of the little river. Meanwhile, The rounded-toothed leaves, square stem and double-lipped flowers of the plant shown in the middle picture are diagnostic of the Betony, It was the only one there. Betony is a relative of the Mint and the ancient "charm" flower of the Anglo-Saxons who thought it to be a plant of mystical powers. On the other hand, it might just be one of the Worts....Marsh Woundwort probably. The rusty browns of this very tall Broad-Leaved Dock (above right) provided a strong colour contrast to all the greenery surrounding it in the bright summer sunshine.
Unfortunately, such urban and suburban green spaces are frequently used as little more than dumping grounds for all manner of waste materials and general rubbish, while many are used as locations for all kinds of anti-social activities by a wide selection of individuals living within our so-called communities. In fact, some people seem prepared to go entirely out of their way to abuse these little refuges which are so often home to an amazing variety of wildlife....One of our other rangers, while working in Leicestershire a few months ago, followed a man in a vehicle more than nine miles back to his home after witnessing him dumping a three-seater settee in a small wood. Not unusual you might think, except that the man's local (and free to use) tip was open at the time, less than three miles from his home and situated en route to the wood....(answers on a postcard please!). He was later fined £500 pounds for his efforts!
The tiny Common Mouse-Ear (above left) was an interesting find because it tends to favour damp places close to clean, running water....and "clean" water isn't always at a premium in towns and cities. In fact, it's not a plant that I've seen in towns very often at all!
Imagine my delight then, when I chanced upon this green and pleasant oasis lying hidden and little-used between a manic dual-carriageway system and a very busy feeder-road for one of those brick and glass super-supermarket and car-park monstrosities....You know the type....the ones built to cover at least ten acres of what has to be pristine countryside and serving as a Mecca for pilgrim-consumers of all things consumable who target the store like "not-so-smart-bombs" from distances of up to twenty miles or more!
Berries, berries everywhere, but not a one to eat!
The very thought of it makes me shiver! I don't mind the smaller stores so much....I use them myself from time to time (when it's totally unavoidable)....It's the massive concrete and tarmac eye-sores that I object to....the ones that have become such increasingly un-necessary features of so many of our formerly green places. Places where the acquisitive God of Urban Avarice has devoured its rural prey and most people couldn't care less about it just so as long as they can drive whatever distance in their 4 X 4s to buy their bleached-white bread for ten pence less than the shop on the corner of their street!
During the last few years of his life, my Dad would frequently suffer from excruciatingly painful cramp in his calf muscles during the night. The simple and effective remedy for this was for me to go out and find a few Cramp Balls or King Alfred's Cakes (above left), mash them up in a small amount of water to make a rather lumpy paste (today you could use a blender provided it was cleaned thoroughly afterwards as Cramp Balls are totally inedible!). I would then rub the paste into his calf muscles and this would usually give him significant relief and allow him to get to sleep. The ones shown above were hidden away on an old log in a secluded corner of the site. The fence-post encrusting Lichen Parmelia caperata (above right) was an interesting find if only because it is most commonly found in areas relatively free from air pollution! To find it in an area so close to busy roads and human conurbation is unusual and perhaps raises questions about the general lie of the land in relation to local climate, especially with regard to prevailing winds.
As for this little oasis, it's kind of ironic really, because the very roads and buildings that threatened it initially, now serve to isolate and protect it! A few people find their way to it....the occasional dog walker, bird-watchers and a few kids, but, for the most part, it remains altogether secluded and fairly unspoilt. Oh sure, there was a bit of rubbish....a few bottles, a couple of discarded plastic bags and the inevitable flip-flop (left foot of course!), but I gathered all that up in a bin-bag (that I always carry for such things) and dumped them in a supermarket wheelie-bin later on.
Water Cress is another sign of cleaner flowing water and there was plenty of this aquatic member of the cabbage family to be found. Meanwhile, I reckon that the beautiful Crack/Weeping Willow hybrids dotted along the river bank were at least fifty years old!
There was a single down-side however....three of the beautiful Weeping-Willow trees, of which there were about a dozen or so in the 75 x 150 metre area, had been terminally damaged quite recently....by yobs presumably! They had removed a two metre high section of bark from all around the base of each tree and, in so doing, had probably sentenced them to a slow and lingering death! The last time I saw a tree deliberately killed (using copper nails that time) was for a probably similar reason....the perpetrator obviously has insecurity and inadequacy issues arising from growing up to have a dink even smaller than his 2 ounce brain and consequently feels threatened by anything thicker or longer than a "Twiglet"! Is that Freudian theory in action or what?
Although some ends of the Willow bark looked as though they had been chewed by an Ungulate (above left), it had also clearly been cut as if with a knife or axe (above right) and dozens of gouges in the tree trunks themselves were commensurate with this! (I have passed this site recently and have noticed that all three damaged and dying trees have now been marked for felling!).
I'd normally think that such damage had actually been caused by a bunch of itinerant Fallow Deer or even the odd Roe Deer just passing through (despite the general inaccessibility of the site). However, while there were no significant signs in the form of either tracks or droppings and only a few chew or bite marks on either the bark that remained or the trunks themselves, there were very definite gashes and gouges in many places in the wood commensurate with a knife blade and/or hand axe. I could only assume therefore, that human hands were to blame and that the bark (far too much for even thirty or more Deer to consume), once stripped, had probably been dumped in the little river! Perhaps a Deer or two had then happened along later and helped themselves to a nibble of scrummy Willow bark! Whatever really happened, it’s a real shame nonetheless!
It was nice to come across a whorl of Lady's Bedstraw (above left). This Fragrant, delicate-flowered plant looks a little bit like yellow candy-floss from a distance. There were also quite a few plants growing here that were benefitting from the absence of domestic animals, such as sheep or cows and Red Clover (above middle) was one of them. I'm not at all sure what the Foxglovey/Toadflaxy plant (above right) is, but it was growing in a single clump near a hedge.
I counted nineteen species of birds....Blackcap, Blackbird, Mistle Thrush, Robin, Dunnock, three species of Tit....Blue, Great and Long-Tailed, Mallard, Moorhen, Swallow, Yellowhammer, Woodpigeon, Carrion Crow Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Wren and the inevitable Robin! There was also plenty of Rabbit, Deer and Fox sign and a Stoat flashed past my feet at one point, growling her displeasure at my presence, though probably also attempting to distract me from her mewing young secreted out of sight and deep within a nearby Bramble bush! I tested the water quality while there and it was very good, considering its location, and ideal for many species of fish. There would also probably be an abundance of reptilian and amphibious wildlife as well!
I've always thought of it as a wild Rhubarb (above left) and I'm told that that's exactly what it's not....I still don't know what it really is even now! On the other hand, I can't remember ever seeing so much Purple Loosestrife (above right) as this year has produced....It seems to border every stream and river that I've walked beside this summer! The same also goes for the similar-looking, but un-related Rosebay Willowherb that's so plentiful along the roadsides this year
I was there for just over an hour and I reckon that you could probably triple the bird species total at least during the course of a year in just this one tiny area and when you add other things that are bound to show up from time to time, such as Hedgehog, Badger, several species of Bat at least, Pygmy and Common Shrews, Wood Mouse, House Mouse, Brown Rat, Grey Squirrel, Mink, Muntjac, Bank Vole and possibly even Water Vole (present in the same river just outside of town), then the place can only be described as a veritable wildlife reserve....and not so much because of the tireless efforts of our outstanding local Wildlife Trusts, teams of brilliant volunteer wardens or even DEFRA, but simply because it has stood virtually isolated and untouched for the last ten to fifteen years!
I thought that Woolly Hair Mosses (above left) were generally green in colour, but then, either this is something else entirely or it's an escapee from "Area 57"! Whatever....this specimen was all alone and had been growing on a small section of stone wall….I say “had been” because it was probably dead! Then, as lowering storm-clouds advertised their intent, rumbling out of the South-West and the first rain-drops made the Mallards fidget amongst the Great Reed Mace, I took the photograph above through he branches of a solitary dead tree and, as I did so, it seemed to act as a timely reminder that Man would be, forever, only a stone's throw away from this tiny urban paradise and that it could all be extinguished in the single shrug of a developers whim!
I sat by the river at one point, for a few minutes and I wouldn't have been the least bit surprised to have seen an Otter or two swim around the bend....Like the Water Voles, they do inhabit this river just a few miles out of town! I also couldn't help thinking, with the hustle and bustle of the nearby mega-store just metres away, that if you went back perhaps a couple of thousand years in time, then a spot like this would probably double as your equivalent of the local supermarket. The rich variety of plant life alone would serve to supply you and your family or tribe with so many of the plant species required as food, food flavouring, food preservation, lotions, potions, medicines and all manner of useful things that all but a handful of modern folk have forgotten ever existed!
I was perhaps most surprised to find this stunning Canadian Goldenrod! It's a close relative of our native Goldenrod in the picture at the top of this item and was growing not too far away from it. The plant only really began colonising parts of the UK countryside in recent years as a garden escape. In fact, it's still only very sporadic and I don't see it all that often....This is my first sighting this year!
The Squirrels would be red ones of course and there'd be no Vietnamese Muntjac Deer or even Weeping Willow trees (which originate from China), but other things would be there, things that have long since disappeared in the UK and, despite the relentless noise of passing traffic and hundreds of people going about their daily business just across the busy road, I couldn't help but marvel at just how tough and resilient Nature can be when given a little bit of leeway and a handful of seasons to just get on with it!
Finally, over the past few weeks, a number of people have e-mailed me to complain about this website and my "obscene school- boy fascination" with and overly persistent use of "Carry-On-style" double entendres, I have therefore, included the above picture for their benefit....I took it very near the Cramp Balls (of all things) and it depicts a small tangle of pairs of fused nutlets of the Hedge Bedstraw variety...."Cramp Balls" and "pairs of fused nutlets"....It's almost more than I can bare, but I'll spare your blushes!
I Wish I Was, but I'm Not, So I Don't (12th August)
I have tried to get a few of my bird photos published a couple of times, but without any luck and someone once suggested that I should enter one or two of my better efforts in a bird photography competition (it might have been a dream though). Well, I received my August copy of the excellent "British Birds" magazine (volume 99) in the post today and within its hallowed pages were the top ten placings in the "2006 Bird Photograph of the Year" competition.
Now, if anyone else wants to know why I never enter any bird photography competitions, just have a look at the top ten winning entries in this year's BPotY as depicted in this month's issue and you'll soon see why! One word immediately springs to mind, but "clean" ones would be more along the lines of "outstanding" or "brilliant" or "How the heck do they do that....?"
The outright winner is by the hugely gifted Chris Knights (now a third-time winner of this competition!) and is of a very aggressive-looking Great-Crested Grebe reacting to an out-of-shot rival and caught in the act of throwing up an enormous spray of water much like a water-skier cutting across the wake of a speeding power-boat! I like this picture myself, not only because it captures a fascinating moment of this particular bird's behaviour, but also because the Grebe is a commoner species and potentially easily accessible as a subject even for rank-amateurs like me!
All ten photographs shown are truly outstanding and another of my favourites is by Wayne Richardson....It was placed 7th overall and shows a Red Grouse perched in the windowless door-frame of an abandoned and burnt-out automobile. The colours are mostly greys, but the incongruous nature of both bird and car combined makes the picture totally absorbing and unique!
As for my own personal favourite (and given my particular feelings about birds having individual personalities), I was totally hooked by the instant "connection" created between subject and viewer in the Hugh Harrop entry. This was placed 3rd and depicted a close-up shot of a Firecrest in full vocal flow! In this picture, Harrop has caught the little mite as it stares directly into camera and is an absolutely sublime portrait! This tiny, feathery ball of total attitude stares you down and just oozes personality!
Meanwhile, I guess I'll keep plugging away with my own efforts and maybe one day, I'll get lucky with something and actually have the courage to enter a small and preferably insignificant photographic competition somewhere many light-years from here!
Finally, if you want to be certain of seeing all ten BPotY winning entries for yourself, then tough, you'll just have to subscribe to the magazine....It's well worth it and always makes excellent reading.
Young Gun (10th August)
Please, Can I Play?
My daughter shares the same birthday as a friend of hers at swimming club. In fact, they were born within minutes of each other at the same hospital 14 years ago this week! Part of their birthday celebrations this year, was to invite about fifteen of their swimming club teen-age friends to a BBQ and outdoor camping sleepover at a place out near Toddington. This involved a fair bit of work and a good deal of responsibility for myself, my wife and the other girl's parents in terms of setting up the venue, shopping for supplies, pitching tents, keeping the kids amused, organizing the BBQ and standing "vigil" through the night....or at least until they'd settled down to sleep....that's through the night then!
It was during the BBQ and as the sun was beginning to set behind the trees, that I spotted this very young and inquisitive male Kestrel sitting in a Horse-Chestnut tree and obviously completely absorbed by all the activity going on below him! Ever the birder and luckily not without my camera and scope, I set everything up to take a few photos of "Mr. Nosey" and actually managed to get a couple of half-decent results.
Curiosity conkers all!
I'd noticed this bird flying around the site during the day, as well as getting the occasional glimpse of his parents. They'd actually nested and raised what was probably this solitary chick in the wood at the bottom end of the huge garden. He showed very little fear of us during the day and often swooped low across the grounds just a few metres above our heads. This was not threatening behaviour in any way, he simply wanted to get a "closer look" at all the funny humans running about!
It was quite a good day for wildlife all round as it happened....I also spotted a couple of Noctule Bats flying above the trees just before sunset, about 80 Sand Martins at about the same time....attracted by the countless airborne insects emanating from the amazing variety of tree species there, a Redstart suddenly darted across the lawn earlier in the day and, best of all, a Wryneck made several appearances in and out of the trees and once on the lawn (sitting with its beak twisted round to point up at the sky for about 30 seconds), but it was generally far too fleeting for me to stand a chance of photographing it! That the bird was there at all wasn't an enormous surprise however, because someone had already asked me what the grey-brown Woodpeckery-type bird was that people had been seeing on and off for several weeks and I figured that it was possibly a Wryneck. The fact that it had chosen to stay for all that time was, perhaps, more unusual as they tend to be little more than passage migrants around here these days!
The setting was altogether peaceful and idyllic, even with all those teenagers running about, but who, at this particular moment, were probably off playing cricket or something. Mind you, all of this lot are "serious" swimmers notching up about 80 to 90 miles swimming per month on average and I don't think they have a huge amount of energy left over to cause too much chaos! Swimming also tends to make them very self-disciplined....after all, they need to be to do all that swimming (chickens and eggs I suppose).
Being up and about anyway during the night, I spent some time in the dark, dark woods with my NVE and caught sight of a pair of Tawny Owls as well as a Little Owl, more Noctule Bats and several of the much smaller and fluttery Pipistrelle Bats. I also heard at least one Barn Owl further off and counted seven hedgehogs on the lawn!
The entire place is desperate for some sort of on-going wildlife survey to be carried out, if only because it has remained fairly unchanged for years and seems remarkably undisturbed.
A Demon Confronted and A Little Bit of What Makes Us So Very British Does You Good! (3rd August)
Another gorgeous day and a directive from on high to walk the river from Tewkesbury to Upton-on-Severn provided me with two notable, but entirely different experiences....
I began with a circuit of Tewkesbury Ham (177 acres of it!), all the while keeping an eye open for a Swan supposedly behaving "abnormally" (according to an e-mail we'd received), but I found nothing. Why is it always Swans? I know the average Cygnus Olar wont be the sharpest knife in the drawer and that most of them are a few feathers short of a pillow, but there always seems to be something going on with them! It must be that they're highly visible and people notice them more and get all concerned. The question to ask however, is when are Swans NOT behaving abnormally, especially at this time of year?
Left)....The view across the SevernHam towards Tewkesbury and the Abbey over 1000 yards away and (right) the Weir itself which is almost 100 yards wide from bank to bank and raises the water level of the river above it about 10 feet!
I do the Ham thing a few times every year, but have always shied away from the big Weir situated all the way over on the West side. I don't like the place....It unsettles me big-time and I've barely been near it for nearly 50 years"....
A Demon Confronted
My "problem" with the Weir was forged in the fiery furnace of childhood emotional vulnerability one very warm and sunny day (just like today) way back in the mid-1950s when my adoptive parents and I were picnicking alongside the River Severn just a few yards from the Weir itself. We had no car back then and so picnics with my parents at local beauty spots (of which there were far more in those days....most of them being housing estates now!) were a regular and happy feature of my childhood summers.
Following its sudden and fairly turbulent rite of passage across the Weir, the River Severn soon settles back down for a far less fretful and more meandering journey towards Gloucester, past Slimbridge, on to become the Bristol Channel.
I'd taken my fishing net with me (9d from Mrs. Sweet's sweetshop and paid for with the deposit money acquired by returning three "Corona" cherryade bottles) and a jam jar and, while Mum unwrapped the cucumber sandwiches (strawberry jam for me) and Dad wandered off into the bushes for a pee, I went down to the riverside to catch a minnow or two.
I had no luck with the dippy-fishing, but I did catch a huge Hornet inside the jam jar by replacing the lid before it could escape and got told off for it....and a clip round the ear probably! The picnic would have been delicious....they always were, even though it was just sandwiches and a flask of tea or cherryade. Mum made outstanding currant buns as well that I would eat a dozen at a time if left unsupervised, sharing them with Slipper, my dog!
We lay in the sunshine after our repast, listening to the buzz of insects, the manic laughter of the Mallards and the distant "whirrr" of fishing reels being used by the two or three ever-present anglers. It was peaceful, it was idyllic, it was, naturally, the perfect recipe for disaster....
Two minutes of lying still in the sunshine is, of course, about a week too long for any 8 or 9 year-old boy and his flea-bag of a dog so it was off back down to the riverside for another go with the net. Still no luck though, even after half-an-hour and despite wading out as far as the ragged leg-ends of my khaki-coloured shorts would allow! I returned all disconsolate and grumpy to my dozing parents. My Mum, by this time tired of her never-ending battle with the ants, the wasps and the flies, offered to help me catch something....anything....in return for a quiet life!
We were very close to the Weir itself, as this was a good place to catch a variety of fish that, according to my uncle Chris, swim in the extremely fast and better oxygenated current in the hopes of dislodging various parasites and fungal infestations clinging to their gills, eyes and scales, while some occasionally attempt to "shoot" the weir itself, throwing themselves at it, much like the spawning Salmon do from November through to February.
The Weir and its surroundings have changed little in 50 years and the side-chute still concentrates a torrent of water down from the upper river just above the little beach from which I did my dippy-fishing. Mum stepped on slippery growth there that covered parts of the riverbed. She lost her footing and slid down into the main flow area and into the strong undertow currents! Once in the chute, she had no chance of scrabbling back to dry land unaided!
Mum had the net and edged, barefoot, closer to the fast-flowing water. I stood back with Slipper while Dad snored on, out of site, in the warm Summer sunshine.
She saw a fish and moved forward another step. Then she was gone! Her foot had slipped on the green slime beneath the water! I gasped! She didn't make a sound as she slid down the side-chute and was dragged into the deeper channels towards the weir's ferocious under-tow!
His bark snapped me out of my shock and I ran headlong into the turbulent water....Mum couldn't swim at all and I couldn't swim very well either and didn't even begin to learn properly until two years later when I was ten years old and a "helpful" Redcoat threw me in the deep-end of the indoor swimming pool at Butlins Bognor Regis!
The Weir may Sparkle invitingly in the Summer sunshine, but it is is however, a lethal cocktail of fast-moving water and turbulent under-currents that has claimed a number of lives over the years!
I couldn't see Mum! She'd disappeared. I thrashed about desperately, caught in the current and already out of my depth! I think I shouted "Mum!" just once then I was dragged under!
The sound of the white-water was pounding in my ears. It was up my nose....I couldn't breathe. It tasted of clay! All I could think of was Mum! "Mum!" I tried to call out, but I swallowed more water!....I'd lost one mother....I was desperate not to lose another!
A hand reached down and grabbed me by the arm....It pulled and I was lifted clear of the torrent and found myself in dad's arms...."Have you lost that net already Donald?" His words were meant to give comfort and pour oil on my storm-racked emotions, but I could hear the edge of anxiety in his voice!
"Mum! Where's Mum?" I spluttered.
"She's alright. Frank's got her!"
I stretched around in Dad's arms to look for Mum and she was sat on the little beach, soaking wet and exhausted, next to an equally wet and exhausted Frank! She got up and ran to me! Her tears mixed with the river water on her face!
Frank was a fisherman and an old friend of Dad's who he'd known since his army days. He'd seen Mum and me go in the river and had run to help. He'd shouted to Dad and they'd dived in to rescue us! Frank had totally risked his neck, swimming, fully clothed, twenty yards out into the river right up to the weir. He'd dragged Mum to the surface and struggled back to the bank just as Dad lifted me clear!
That experience had a very profound effect on me and, although I've never had an outright fear of water, I developed a healthy respect for it in all its guises. I don't sleep much, but when I do I dream just like anyone else, but every dream I've had since that nearly catastrophic day involves water in some form or other!
I stood on the river bank today, overlooking the Weir and took these photographs. It all came back to me and a shiver ran down my spine. I couldn't wait to leave, but I stood there for several minutes nonetheless and felt quite pleased with myself.
Frank died in the early 1990s. He had no family. Mum always tended his grave until she died as well in 2003. I've done it since.
A Little Bit of What Makes Us So Very British Does You Good!
My day continued with the walk to Upton and, apart from a glimpse of a Peregrine Falcon flying South-West and then my running out of water (forcing me to purify some of my own en route), the journey was an uneventful one.
I've always quite liked Upton-on-Severn and tend to associate it with my youth and riverboat discos back in the 1960s. I was hot and pretty pooped by the time I got there and sought a little riverside cafe that I've patronized before, with my daughter and where I bought a mug of hot tea to cool myself down plus a very tasty cheese and tomato roll that hit the spot exactly!
I rang-in that I was ready to be picked up and returned to my vehicle still parked back in Tewkesbury. In the meantime I wandered around the town and that's when I happened across Mrs. Hartley (no relation to either the fly fisherman or the jam people she assured me). I've mentioned before that my job brings me into contact with all kinds of people and how much I enjoy many of the, albeit brief, conversations I have with them and Mrs. Hartley, recently widowed, was no exception....
Lizzie, Sammy (just visible in the middle) and Mr Bill enjoy being the centre of public attention
One of our more senior citizens, Mrs. H. was pottering about in a small corner of a beautifully tended garden. It was then that I noticed Mr. Bill, Lizzie and Sammy the dog sitting on a bench and sheltered from the direct rays of the sun by a very large parasol.
I stopped for a chat and she explained that the "characters" were of her own creation and that she'd made them herself and placed them on the bench for the amusement of local children and spent a great deal of time working in the garden to make it look nice for tourists and passers-by.
Brilliant! It made my day!
I've been around a bit over the years and this is exactly the kind of thing that sets us apart from the rest of the world and makes us so wonderfully "British"! You rarely see this sort of thing anywhere else and I love it! I salute all the Mrs. Hartleys everywhere because they make life so much more interesting and it would be a much, much duller (and sadder) world without them!
The threesome sit back to relax and enjoy their immaculate little garden.
Good luck to you Mrs. Hartley (and to Mister Bill, Lizzie and Sammy) and long may you continue to tend your garden and bring smiles to the faces of passing children and grumpy old curmudgeonly rangers like me ....
The Dean Birders website is packed with loads of bird-watching information, a gallery, lots of photo-orientated reports centred on the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire and loads of links to bird and wildlife websites all over the place. The site is updated almost daily and makes this site look like a thing that isn't anywhere near as big as a thing that's a lot, lot bigger! So take a look because the web-masters concerned do an excellent and very worthwhile job!
In fact, Bob and Pete Bushell are those very web-masters. They're the guys who not only run and maintain the site, doing all the very tedious, time-consuming and tiring typing-in and uploading of bits and pieces, but also designed and built it in the first place and deserve some sort of recognition for all their effort. They provide an invaluable service to many disabled or house-bound birders who simply can't get out and about as much as they'd like to or, as in many cases, can't get out and about at all!
Logistics Rant! (8th August)
British soldiers (even the Paras) are the best trained, the best led and the best motivated troops in the world. They are calm and collected under fire, ferocious in their determination to get the job done and unflinching in their belief in each other! They treat the good, the bad and the unbelievably awful with the same irreverent and resigned sense of humour, while nothing and no-one, from pvt. Parts to the RSM to the CO is spared the cut and thrust of their acerbic wit! They ARE the very best at what they do and, while the soldiers of other nations run around yelling and screaming for their mommas with their proverbial thumbs up their proverbial a***s, the lowly British Bootneck or Squadie remains the epitome of consummate professionalism....by just quietly getting on with the job at hand!
The problem in Afghanistan right now for the average British trooper, is not whether he and his rat-ugly oppos should be there or not, but that they ARE there and that they're NOT getting the logistical support on the ground via the Government and the MOD that they so desperately need! In some ways (a bit like our nurses) their strength is their undoing....For the very reason that they are so professional, conscientious and resolute, the Government (any Government, not just this one) can and does take advantage! Soldiers in a war-zone need adequate air and ground support, they need weapons that aren't going to let them down at crucial moments, they need boots that wont fall apart in the mountains, rot in the tropics or melt in the desert, they need regular patrol relief, they need enough translators to help pave the way, they need sufficient reconnaissance units utilizing partisan indigenous support with dependable local knowledge, they need many things, but the Government must be prepared to break its back to ensure that the field commanders receive all such....and more....and that they're not always having to "make-do" with what they've got, even if what they've got is the best you can get!
British troops will complain of course, no matter what....they're very good at complaining....it's good for morale, but they deserve to be treated as though someone at the top cares about their plight and at least appears to value them as people! The Americans, of course, get everything they need in terms of equipment and logistical support, they never want for anything, but there's an old saying....
"The Americans man the equipment while the British equip the man!"
Truer words were never spoken, but right now, in Afghanistan at least, we are NOT equipping the man adequate unto his needs. So sort it Mr. Blair....You insist on sending them over there to combat a particularly resolute and motivated enemy (for God's sake don't under-estimate the Afghan indigenes, they know a thing or two), so you must do the job PROPERLY from your end. Don't sell them short just because they'll find some way to do the job no matter what! On the other hand, if you really want to know what I'm talking about, then why don't you get yourself over there, incognito. Disguise yourself as a regular squadie and do back-to-back foot patrols in full kit order for a couple of months up in the mountains with nothing to eat except 24-hour RPs and just one pair of reversible underpants between your love-spuds and a bad case of yomper's crotch-rot....and see how you feel about it then?
One final point....to enable my reader to relegate me fully to the airy-fairy land of the clinically paranoid....
I sometimes talk to people who criticize the military for simply being....the military. They view it as being far too costly, totally un-necessary, out-of-date, and internationally provocative! well, my argument is a simple one really....Such people are able to speak their mind because they live in a Democracy. I can write a piece like this, criticizing the Government, because I too live in a Democracy and I don't fear a midnight knock at the door or that my family will be dragged off kicking and screaming to a forced-labour camp (or worse, to a very dark room with no TV, no Playstation, no i-pod and definitely no mobile phones)! Don't just ask yourself why so many political refugees end up on our doorstep, but rather what it is they're running away from! It's far too easy to take what we have for granted and to completely ignore just exactly how we manage to sustain it.
A Democracy like ours comes at a price and it's a price paid, predominately, by our armed forces. It's the average marine, para, gurkha, unable-seaman or even RAF divinity that keeps the big bad wolf from the door! There are plenty of very unpleasant people out there with a lot of inadequacy and insecurity issues to compensate for and who would jump at the chance to take away everything we hold dear....that is, if there was absolutely nothing to stop them....and I'm not just being paranoid. We all sleep safe in our beds at night simply because nobody with any sense would really want to mess with us on our own turf in any major way....and that's entirely due to the professionalism and effectiveness of our much be-leaguered armed forces!
YOU may choose not to believe a word of it and that's fine, just so long as the bad guys believe it....and trust me, they do!
Basically then, although there are many in the UK today who discount the military as a wasteful, hugely expensive and anachronistic dinosaur, there are many abroad (and perhaps in the UK itself these days) of a far more sinister persuasion, who realize only too well, exactly what they'd be waking up if they poked hard enough with their irritating little sticks!
Take a good, long look at the world of today and ask yourself exactly how many countries you really wouldn't want to live in....probably dozens of them at a guess....and then ask yourself if you'd rather have the kind of armed forces that they have and the "leadership" that goes with them or stick with what you've got and work to improve the system democratically, from the inside out, rather than snipe at it from afar! I know which set-up I'd prefer....and yes, I'd even include the paras!
Thank-You So Much Dr. S.... (28th June)
I would like to say a big thank-you to Dr. S. (PhD) of Leamington Spa for his highly detailed though somewhat abrasive e-mail brimming with endless "observations" and very helpful "advice" concerning my website....
Yes Doc. I fully realize that bird-watching is a "very serious business" and that it should not be taken too lightly and you are absolutely right of course, birds should never be degraded through, as you put it, "puerile personification". I put this down to possibly spending too many lunch-breaks with Johnny Morris and Billy the Chimp back in the 1960s (like me, J M wasn't a PhD I'm afraid, but I'm not too sure about Billy because he could un-zip and eat a banana as well as pour scalding tea from a tea-pot into my lap all at the same time....Does that qualify?).
Although it was very observant of you to notice the many technical failings with regard to my photographic efforts, I do actually realize that my photographs are definitely not of publication standard, if only because I have been continually re-assured of that fact by the less desperate, but technically more astute wildlife magazine publication editors whose primary function, after all, is to sell copy, but who must also consider the emotional welfare of their general readership!
I would perhaps, take issue with your assertion that "birds are only birds and do not display any proven evidence of individual personality" and you'll be pleased to hear that I recently took the opportunity to discuss this last remark with my Aunty Liz's nine year-old Budgie, "Sylvester". He was difficult to pin down at first because he'd managed to shut himself in the bird-food cupboard yet again (he has the run of the house in the evenings, once the cat, "Tweety-Pie" has been ushered out of the house....for his own good!). Unfortunately, Sylvester refused to be drawn on the subject, but I was able to establish without a shadow of a doubt, that he's a "pretty boy" and that my Uncle Pete is a "drunk old fart"! I can assure you however, that I shall continue my research with the utmost doggedness!
With regard to my artistic "bent" as you so cleverly choose to call it, your description of my various sketches as "pointless, inaccurate doodlings" is doubtless true and certainly ok for you to mention, if only because I think the word "doodlings" is a funny word and rather ironic to boot, as it was also the word that we used to describe the rather un-pleasant-smelling and vari-coloured excretences that my children would deposit in their nappies when they were oh so very small!
At this point, I would like to congratulate you on gaining your degree in ornithology way back in 1985 and the recent award of your PhD. The comprehensive and truly enlightening list of exhaustive and all-encompassing "scientific papers" successfully featured in a whole plethora of ornithological and zoological journals is nothing short of breath-taking. I myself, subscribe to that most excellent scientific publication, "British Birds" and I think I do vaguely recall your fascinating and doubtless, enormously insightful 5000 word dissertation featured in a recent edition of BB entitled "The Scientific Analysis of Beak Evolution in Birds and Associated Avian Ethnological Impact Theory". Brilliant! I could barely understand it, let alone write something like that and, even if I could and did, I'd probably go and call it something stupid like "Birds and Their Peckers....Are They Up for the Job?" and have it sent back from the editor by return of post! It does however, help me to understand just why two of my own thoroughly researched, yet apparently totally scientifically inadequate papers entitled "Squirrels on My Nuts" and "Fat Balls and Tits" failed so dismally to make it into print!
This leads seamlessly into your criticism of my occasional and apparently "rabid" use within the pages of this website of "double entendres" and, in particular, my persistent hormonal fourth-former obsession with "Tits" and "fat balls"! This is a blatant slur....absolutely no way am I a fourth-former!
I really do appreciate your concern though and wish you every future success in your very important research. Be assured Doc that I shall, as you so vehemently suggest, endeavour to buck my "silly ideas" up....and buck them, by jingo, as high as it's possible to buck anything that's the least bit buckable! I shall also do my best to follow your advise and "get a life"...whatever that actually means!
Finally, I would like you to understand that, no matter how busy I am bucking myself or getting a life from places I haven't looked for one as yet, I shall still find plenty of time to continue worshipping the very water that you walk on!
Special Reconnaissance Fatality (27th June)
Sadly, Sgt. Paul Bartlett (35) of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment has been killed while on patrol in the Northern Helmand Province, Afghanistan. SRR units are often required to get into some very dangerous and difficult areas in order to do their job properly and I'm told that his death came during a very intense and protracted small-arms fire-fight with insurgents.
More Than Just a Moorhen! (27th June)
"You Lookin' at me punk?....You are? Oh....Well, in that case, you can help me find my car keys....They could be under here maybe!"
The thing about my job very often is that, because I'm usually wearing a coat or T-shirt with "Ranger Dude" or some-such emblazoned across the back, people like to stop and chat. They usually ask me what I'm doing and, if I know, I generally tell them. It's another part of the job that I enjoy. In fact, when I'm dressed in ordinary civvies, people rarely speak to me at all, with many of the more wary crossing the street to avoid me altogether!
Busy, busy, busy....Always on the go....zipping about, chasing insects on the wing, nest-building, feeding themselves and their young, chittering, chattering, preening....From dawn til dusk, House Martins hardly ever stand still! Even when they're safely tucked up in their little mud homes, they twitter on until well after dark....as my kids will testify about the Martins at home whose nests are outside their bedroom windows and just a couple of metres from where they sleep! They say that you can hear the birds chatting away until nearly midnight sometimes! What on earth do you suppose they talk about?
I spent about four hours this morning pounding the beat from Twynning Fleet to Tewkesbury Wainloads via the Avon/Severn confluence. Then it was around the Ham, over the "Bow and Arrow", up the back of Swillgate and on for three or four miles following the course of the ancient brook beside which I spent so many of my childhood days. The brook is, for me, a place of innocent memories....memories of sunny, Summer days spent with my dog, "Slipper"....all pretty much in the style of Compton's "William".
(Left)....Tewkesbury Abbey and Abbey Mill, perhaps one of the best known and iconic of touristy views anywhere in England. (Right)....The old "32" (supposedly 32 feet deep) which many of us local teenage kids used as a swimming hole back in the 1950s and 1960s.
Today, the weather was just about perfect....not too warm, a bit of a breeze, a few scudding clouds and every bird up and about, full of the joys of Summer! I decided to spend the entire afternoon on the Ham-side of the river, not far from the Abbey Mill and close to the old "32" where we used to swim in the river as teenagers. The much deeper water there was always created by the old Mill sluice....now replaced with a new and more efficient fish-belly sluice....Happy days!
Is it just my imagination, or does the Swallow in the left-hand picture look a bit like a Yorkshire Terrier?
I took the camera and photographed anything and everything from dust-bathing House-Sparrows to mud-collecting House Martins. Hundreds of Swallows and Martins were chasing insects over the river and above the cut-grass area of the Ham, some of the birds flying to within inches of my head, their slip-stream brushing my face, as I stood perfectly still for them to do it! I absorbed the idyllic scene for ages while dozens of screeching Swifts chased bugs and airborne spiders high above the feeding Hirundines and a pair of Curlew called to one another repeatedly across the Ham. Meanwhile, a Sedge Warbler chattered away like a Reed Warbler on "speed" as Moorhen, Mallard and Mute Swan meandered among the moorings. The entire scene could have been down-loaded from any Summer's day in the last fifty years. I closed my eyes and, for a moment or two, I was a boy again! (My wife has just read this over my shoulder and says that I never actually grew up! The trouble is though, I have to put up with it because divorces are too expensive....and she wont take the kids!).
Last year's nest infested with Red Mite and other creepy-crawlies? Well, there's nothing like a good old-fashioned countryman's grit-wash to get rid of the troublesome little blighters once and for all....A sort of "Head & Shoulders" for Spuggies!
Tewkesbury is a hot-spot for both House-Sparrows and Starlings and, while the Sparrows chirruped their way amongst the swathes of dead Cow Parsley heads, teasing out the seeds, scores of Starlings (most of them juveniles) foraged in the cut grass for anything in the least bit edible in their usual, highly organized, over-lapping and very systematic ground-quartering way.
A large flock of Starling team-foraged systematically for all things edible in the cut-grass area on Tewkesbury's Ham. Most were juveniles, but, like all youngsters everywhere, concentration span was not at a premium and many sought refuge in nearby bushes or, as with the two reprobates above, simply preferred to sun-bathe!
As I busied myself taking a few shots of the Sparrows, a cyclist gent pulled up alongside me and announced that he was a member of a large bird club up in Yorkshire.... "What are you photographing? he asked. "Sparrows" I replied. "What for? They're too common them....I take bird pictures me, but only the rare stuff....I got a Dartford Warbler while on the south coast the other week! "I haven't seen one of those for years" I admitted. "Ah well....You needs to get out more and try photographin' the better stuff!" and, with that, he rode off, only to discover that he couldn't get his bike through the gate onto the bridge by the Mill, so I wandered back to help him lift it over. "Thanks!" he waved as he wobbled uncertainly away!
It will be a while before this young Moorhen develops the red and yellow face shield so characteristic of his species. Meanwhile however, he's learning quickly the art of scrambling about on the lower branches and exposed roots of water-side bushes and trees.
"The better stuff"? You see, my apparent problem where birding is concerned is, that I get just as much satisfaction photographing a House-Sparrow having a dust-bath, a juvenile Moorhen picking its way precariously amongst the lower, over-hanging branches of a river-side tree or Swallows and House-Martins preening and chattering away up on some telegraph wire as I do squeezing off a few shots at something a lot less common. I can't help it. I feel absolutely no urge to tear about the country taking pictures of rarities to the exclusion of all else. Birding isn't any kind of a competition to me, even against myself. I'll admit though, that I do enjoy pitting my wits against a difficult to spot bird, but that could just as easily be a Song Thrush as a Blue Rock Thrush and despite the bird being a whole lot smarter than me nine times out of ten! Meanwhile, trying to photograph the little feather-bags has upped the ante enormously....almost always in favour of the bird!
Is the bright red and yellow face-shield on this adult Moorhen the key to mating success, an individual ID feature (they're all slightly different) or somehow useful in the feeding of very young chicks (like the red bill-spot on Gulls)? Who knows? Maybe Moorhens have just had some very poor accessory advice....a bit like Ruddy Ducks with their bright blue beaks or Little Egrets and those ridiculous banana-yellow feet of theirs! On the other hand, is it possible that "Trinny and Suzannah" are behind it all? I wouldn't be surprised!
I know what the Yorkshire gentleman means however....there is a special feeling to be had from seeing something far more scarce or very rare, but I prefer, somehow, to just stumble across them during the normal course of my day. I relished, for example, the element of complete surprise I felt when I spotted a Hoopoe in Huntsman's Quarry just up the road from me in 2001or the Cattle Egret in 1987, the Cinnamon Teal last year, the Spoonbill and Semi-Palmated Sandpiper also last year, the Glossy Ibis in 1967, the Pallas Warbler and Purple Heron at Slimbridge in 2004, the American Coot swimming beside a Trident nuclear submarine at Fastlane in 1979. There was the first time I saw a Sooty Shearwater while on an oil-rig assault exercise in a 15 foot swell in the North Sea in 1981 or when someone else identified an odd-looking Buzzard at Chew Valley as a Booted Eagle back in 1988....The list goes on and each one is special for different reasons, but mostly because I didn't expect it at the time! I wouldn't get half the pleasure from seeing any one of those if I was travelling half way across the country knowing exactly what I was going to see when I got there. I don't give a hoot if some guy (it's usually a guy) claims to have seen 450 bird species on British soil good luck to him! It's the never-knowing-what-might-turn-up-next aspect of my birding "style" that makes each day just a little bit more exciting....for me at least!
Don't get me wrong though....I don't object to other people getting their birding jollies any way they like, including twitching, provided they behave themselves when they get to the bird's location....It's just not MY thing that's all! I would suggest however, that anyone interested in birds in any way whatsoever, never loses sight of just how beautiful the more ordinary or "commoner" species actually are when you take time out to watch them just that little bit more closely!
Brown Bear Buys the Big Ticket! (26th June)
Well, it took the Finn a week, but it was on the cards for "Bruno the Bear" once a true professional was on his case....and he definitely wouldn't have seen it coming either! I know for a fact that the Finn wouldn't have enjoyed it. He gets totally hacked-off having to clean up other people's messes all the time!
What sticks in my craw though, is how the "experts" get it so badly wrong so bl***y often and it always seems to be someone else who pays the price! For all their impressive qualifications, these people seem incapable of thinking things through properly. They're so busy playing the conservation equivalent of "Give Us a Clue" from a vantage point somewhere in the region of their own sphincter muscles that they simply fail to see the blatantly obvious until they're up to their necks in it!
That means that bears must LEARN FOR THEMSELVES that following an interesting trail or scent out of the mountains into the valleys is not exactly the best of ideas or that killing the odd lamb will be deemed a capital offence....because you can be damn sure that it wont occur to the "experts! After all, wasn't "Bruno" accused of stealing honey from farmer's bee-hives? Bears and honey....Who could possibly have seen that one coming?
Brown Bears in Europe's mountain country? Wolves in the Scottish Highlands? Velociraptors in National game parks (they would if they could)? I hear that they're even thinking about re-introducing the good old Mountain Lynx back into the wilds of Europe....It's all bound to end in tears and, sooner or later, the Finn will be called upon again....and again....and again....
Birthday Boy! (25th June)
Happy Birthday to Me!
It's exactly 41 years ago today that I worked up the courage to ask out a girl who I'd fancied for ages....She said I had two chances...."Fat and slim!".
Funny, of all the myriad times I was turned down by the women I was attracted to, I never forgot that particular one! In fact, it was ages and ages before I finally worked up the courage needed to ask someone out again! This time it was another keeper (a girl keeper that is!) at the zoo where I was doing my apprenticeship.
I was hosing and brushing down Wendy, one of the elephants, (as you do) with a yard-broom (extra-strong bristle) and it seemed so romantic....me in my manure be-splattered overalls and wellies, soaked to the skin, looking so irresistible amongst the piles of sun-baked elephant doo-doos....Then SHE walked by with the sun in her hair, carrying a bucket of fish-chunks for the penguins!
I must have been momentarily blinded by her ravishing beauty (or maybe the pungent aroma of slightly-off Mackerel) and I blurted out something about having supper together....just then, "Scruffs", an Amazon Blue and Gold Macaw, flew down from a nearby tree to my shoulder, did a whoopsy and announced to the assembled public (who were there to enjoy watching Wendy being scrubbed) that "Don's a Twat!"....Wendy farted her approval and the girl (Trish) said that yes, she'd love to....I was gob-smacked, but then, thinking back, how could she have resisted my infinite charms?
I'll tell you now, a zoo is the setting for the greatest situation comedy that never was....The only problem being that all the story-lines and half the characters would have to be completely made-up because no-one would ever believe the truth!