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Flying WHOSE Flag?

3 Feb

I wouldn’t really consider myself a huge fan of national symbols. I can’t stand all of the jingoistic flag waving and ‘Ooh I’m so proud of my country me-I-am’ stuff. I tend to take the attitude of ‘accident of birth – what’s there to feel so chuffed about?’  Yes, if you ask me what I love the most about my own country of origin, I’d say ‘the hills’ and ‘our freedom to be able to think for ourselves.’

I genuinely don’t feel competitive with any other nation, superior to any other country or inferior to any other peoples (unless we start talking more on the parochial level and then I get all sniffy about the folk who live in Hebden Bridge.)

But I’m not averse to anyone feeling that they appreciate where they live and the sort of community that they dwell amongst. And I do have to confess that I enjoy seeing the white rose of Yorkshire paraded about our streets and towns (although I’m often struck with a fear of being found out … as my birth certificate clearly states that I was born just a few miles over the border in red rose land. Don’t tell anyone though.)

British Pride? Or 1981 embarrassment?

British Pride? Or 1981 embarrassment at being born in Lancashire?

And I have also been heard to say (see previous blog where I bemoaned the geography syllabus in schools today) that it truly is a shame that kids today aren’t taught as much about countries, capital cities and national symbols in the same way that we had it rammed down our throat in the past.

But this week I had to swallow my words as it was a person from the older generation who caused me to stop in my tracks and to gape in astonishment.

In search of a tacky tourist giftie for my kids, I wandered into a little shop in North Wales. After grabbing the inevitable Welsh dragon keyrings, a lady steamed ahead of me and beat me to the till. Looking to be in her early 70’s, she was smartly dressed, had a well-spoken (English) accent and had a small pile of flags in her hand. You know the sort – nylon, A4 sized, attached to a wooden stick.

“Right,” she said to the young chappie at the till. “I’ll have these. Let me just check that I’ve got them all.”

She rattled off a couple of countries and plonked each item down and then I really began to pay attention when she laid out a red and white flag and said;

“And England, of course.”

“Er, no,” replied the young man.  “That’s not England.”

“Of course it is! What do you mean?”

“It’s Switzerland – that one. See – the English flag is a big red cross all the way over it.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. That’s definitely Switzerland. And we’ve run out of English ones.”

I mean, come on! It's the total opposite of St. George's!

Come on! It’s the total opposite of St. George’s!

“Oh, well. Never mind. I’ll get one from a petrol station or somewhere near a council estate.”  The woman continued with her final purchase, adding; “And then to finish with, we’ve got France.”

“Er, no. That’s not France.”

“Yes it is. It’s France. See – red white and blue stripes.”

“No. That’s the Netherlands.”


“Netherlands – you know – Holland. France has the same colours, but the stripes are vertical for France.”

“Really? Well. Can you get me a French flag then?”

“Sorry, no. We ran out of them last week.”

“Oh. Oh well. I can’t imagine I’ll be able to find one anywhere else. No one seems to be that keen on the French. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I don’t imagine for a minute that anyone will notice that it isn’t France.”

A confused version of France?

A confused version of France?

And with that, she paid up and left the shop.  I purchased my little dragons and made eye contact with the guy behind the counter. He was shaking his head as he said to me;

“You know, these older people – you always think that they know more than we do – but they do make you wonder sometimes …”

After leaving the shop, I recounted the tale to my husband. He being a keen fan of ‘traditional geographical learning’ and being an all-round smart-arse when it comes to flags and countries, had a good old chuckle. about the flag exchange.

“It’s the Six Nations this week,” Mr Rugby-Fan informed me. “She’ll have been stocking up on them for a party or something.”

I found all of this to be deeply ironic. Because he has always tried to steer our children away from any interest in football. Telling them that  rugby is a far more skilful game than football, that the game retains a much more ethical attitude to money and celebrity and that rugby fans are more intelligent and less rowdy than footie followers.

And yet the lady flag-purchaser was either all too aware that her party guests might not be the most educated individuals – or –  that her guests would be so drunk that they wouldn’t notice that the Six Nations has become the Eight Nations and now includes those well-known rugby fixated countries of Switzerland and Holland.




It’s All In His Head

29 Sep

The other day, I happened to be feeling rather grateful to the wonderful Bill Bryson.

Well, I’ve always felt quite grateful to him actually. As the incredibly talented, witty, top-notch, best-selling author actually WROTE to me when I lived in Africa. In fact – the rather lovely fella has actually sent me TWO letters. It’s great to receive such fan mail, it really is!

Okay, okay – I’m lying about the latter, but neither did the comms from Bill contain a missive from his solicitor, demanding me to abstain from the stalking activities. And I’ve always loved Bill’s style of writing, would have read his stuff anyway – but the fact the chappie took time out to scribble a few lines to me – meant a hell of a lot to a budding writer.  Pure gold, that kind of thing.  So I always do my absolute best to read his books. Brilliant for a laugh and for pithy, social observation.  But this week, I was particularly glad that I’ve just finished reading one of his more recent books. Because I ended up having one of my usual –  rather strange and contorted – conversations with my 8 year old boy. And without Bill’s help, I wouldn’t have been able to interpret it.

I don't imagine that Bill wrote this as a parental self-help manual. But it sure as heck worked for me.

I don’t imagine that Bill wrote this as a parental self-help manual. But it sure as heck worked for me.

The chat with the lad centred on me relating events that took place in 1980.  To cut to the chase, the moral of the story of today’s parental lecture was all about me, trying to persuade the lad not to make ‘unwise’ swaps of toys. Because once you’ve swapsied, most kids don’t want to swap back, yeah? So I told the kid of a similar time in my childhood. That on seeing my flute teacher’s case for her instrument, I had envied it. Because hers had a handle. Mine didn’t. So she offered to swap it – and this was of mutual benefit to both parties.

And even though the handle came in handy (it was MUCH easier to smack my brother over the head with it) I almost instantly regretted the swap. Because just a couple of weeks later after the novelty of this had passed, I noticed that she had a brand new, sleek flute case. And me? I had a scruffy old one. With my brother’s skull-marks imprinted in it. Albeit with a handle, of course.

“Soooooo,” I told my son. “I still look at that flute case today and regret it. I wish I had kept the one I originally had.” He asked me, “So didn’t your teacher ever give it you back?” “No,” I replied.  He snarled and then yelled;”That’s MEAN!” And then? And then he grew suddenly quiet, with a strange and distant look on his face.  “Hang on, though,” I said. “I never asked for it back. I felt silly about asking for it back. I’m sure she would have given it to me, if I had. She didn’t do anything wrong. She was a really nice person!”

He suddenly looked guilty. “Uh-oh,” he said. He wouldn’t respond when I asked him what he meant. I began to wonder what was going on for him. And then – thanks to Mr Bill Bryson and ‘The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid’, I quickly realised why. “I know why you’re looking a bit worried,” I told him. “You’ve just killed my teacher haven’t you? Using your superhuman mind powers. Boys do things like that, don’t they?”

Bless him, he had the decency to look slightly abashed. “Yes,” he replied. “Well!” I answered, “You can just ruddy well bring her back then! If you’ve got the power to kill someone with your mind, you can at least resurrect them. You go to a Church of England school – you believe in that kind of stuff! C’mon! Bring her back!”

“Sorry …” he sang – as he wandered off to find some plastic superhero figure or another with which to entertain himself with; “…when I’ve killed someone with my supreme mind death-ray, they can’t come back. But don’t worry – your teacher would be well-old by now. So she’s probably dead anyway.”

And would you believe me if I told you that this lad has natural charm – in spades?

Nah. Probably not.

The Joy of Boys – Feminist Mamma now thinks twice about nurture vs nature


Golcar Lily; Have Yer Potato An’ Eat it

20 May

To be honest with you, I didn’t fancy attending the Golcar Lily Day. Mainly because of the look that flickered across my other half’s face when he heard that there might be an appearance of Morris Dancers. I’ve no idea why, but as he’s gotten older he’s developed an aversion to anyone who wears straw boaters and jangles their bells and sticks at you.

Two of the nicest Morris Dancers in the world. Honest!

Two of the nicest Morris Dancers in the world. Honest! Even if the fella in the flat cap looks a bit dubious…

But hey, we’ve all recently developed a bit of a soft spot for Golcar (pronounced ‘Gow-kuh’ by the locals) which nestles in the Colne Valley of west Yorkshire. And what with the promise of ‘the best chips in the world’, he was prepared to put up and shut up.

So what’s the story behind Golcar Lily Day? Various theories propound as to why the area is associated with this particular flower. My personal favourite is the one that relates to that old firebrand Methodist missionary, John Wesley. Wesley was said to have been somewhat smitten by the ladies of Golcar when he visited the area in the 18th century. Indeed, he compared them with certain other villagers of Huddersfield – remarking that they were “as gentle as Lilies when compared with the uncouth & ignorant peoples of Bolster Moor & Scapegoat Hill.” And for sure, the lasses of Golcar certainly seem to have a way about them, because on Saturday I noticed an awful lot of heavily pregnant women.

If you’re into your history and your traditions and all of that, then there is information a-plenty thanks to Google. But you’d be mistaken to think that Golcar Lily Day is some sort of ancient tradition in the area. Dear me no. The festival was actually the inspiration of a local woman, only some ten years ago. One of those all-round good eggs who not only had a great idea, but who rolled up her sleeves and dragged the rest of the community along with it.

Tuggin' Me Tractor

Tuggin’ Me Tractor

It’s a decade later now and a certain west Yorkshire hillside village with the most gob-smacking panoramic views going, is now so popular on Golcar Lily Day that they have to provide a Park and Ride facility from Scapegoat Hill (which if you ask me, is somewhat foolish because if you believe what John Wesley said about those residents, they’d probably nick your car. Or be unable to drive the buses down the hill because they’re like, sooo ignorant.)

Once we’d braved the Morris Dancers (who were actually superb, even though my bloke had to hide behind the parish church wall for twenty minutes) we were on a roll for the rest of the day. Never had the phrase ‘Good Old Fashioned Family Fun’ been more appropriately used. We were treated to tractor pulling, flat cap throwing, cup of tea races, belly dancing, a coconut shie and Punch n’ Judy. We had a sneaky preview of the Colne Valley Museum before it re-opens after refurbishment and we ate the Golcar Lily Loaf that the ladies in their 19th century frocks were baking on the range for us. We necked a drinky at the dinky but delectable Golcar Brewery. We bought second-hand books, we scoffed the best-chips-in-the-world from The Duck and Spoon, we sampled pies, cheeses, hot dogs. We engaged in healthy activities such as archery and bouncy castles and we categorically LIED to the children about the fact that there was a massive fun fair just around the corner (“Mum – where’s all that loud music coming from?” “Ah, it’s from those uncouth neighbours up the road in Bolster Moor. They’ll be having an ASBO on them by tea time, no doubt.”)

My oldest n’ dearest bus-obsessed chum, the extraordinary and rather-famous Stuart Vallantine caught a total of 6 buses to and from East Manchester in order to attend the day-out. Between us, we all agreed that in fact, there was far too much going on in order to be able to experience all of the funsome activities in one day; a dearth of pop-up cafes, concerts, stalls and curiosities such as the Golcar Lily Ginnel Trail. Indeed, we were left feeling rather light-headed due to the fact that the entire event is free. Yup. Totally free. Brings tears to a Yorkshire-person’s eyes dunnit?

All this. And you paid nowt.

All this. And you paid nowt.

My favourite moment occurred during one of the many concerts on offer to the public. Colne Valley Boys Choir are the most wonderful troop of local lads. Aged from 6 to 18, the boys are trained by top-class musicians, fellas who – unusually – are not remotely interested in the airs and graces of your usual choirs. And the boys just love to sing; they love the fact that they get to choose their own songs and that no one teks the mick at school (because they’re allowed to sing cool songs, y’see?) Anyway, ten minutes into the performance the choir master explained to the audience that the next song was supposed to be led by a soloist. But the lad hadn’t turned up yet. The choir master wondered aloud whether anyone had seen him. A helpful member of the crowd shouted out; “I noor! Ee’s ‘avin’ a putaytuh outseed!” (translation for non-northerners: “I know! He’s eating a baked potato outside.”)

Anyway, a kind member of the public managed to locate the recalcitrant youth, who was soon ushered into the building sans nosh and yet who still managed to regale us with a beautiful solo.

Colne Valley Boys. And not a potato in sight.

Colne Valley Boys. And not a potato in sight.

No one batted an eyelid at this. Nor when another lad turned up late, having forgotten his uniform. He just took his place alongside the rest of the boys. And the performance was only enhanced by this down to earth, ‘we do it – just because we love it’ attitude. Perhaps this phrase marks the true spirit of the Golcar Lily Day – and of the place itself.

And whilst I think on, perhaps it could also apply as to why there seem to be so many pregnant ladies in the village….

West Yorkshire’s *real* Happy Valley?

Even Golcar ginnels have views...

Even Golcar ginnels have views...

Lilies in Wellies. Pure Golcar.

Lilies in Wellies. Pure Golcar.

Sod The Soil? Frame the Mountains.

7 Oct

I’m rather cock-a-hoop to be an offical reviewer for the Ilkley Literature Festival (don’t worry though – the fair folk of Ilkley don’t *really* use such phrases…despite the rumours that our rougher side of West Yorkshire like to peddle about…)

So, here goes – the first review so far:


Tim Marshall has a beard. He also has a long pointy stick and likes to prod it at enormous maps of the world and urge you to get all giddy about mountain ranges and polar ice caps and the like.

dont like maps sml

Despite a house filled with maps; ‘We don’t like geograpy.  All’s we do is study how different local authorties in the UK use different colours for recycling bins,’

But don’t let the above lead you to any stereotypical images of your average tweedy jacketed geography teacher. Because Tim happens NOT to be a big fan of the way that geography is being taught in British schools these days (“sure, learn about your soil samples … but unless you have a basic grasp of the world’s geography, you don’t have the framework on which to hang this knowledge”).

So, Tim Marshall’s approach – “putting the GEO back into geo-politics” is deemed to be highly unfashionable, to be too deterministic. In fact, George Galloway very publicly bawled out the author’s take on how the world works. Yet Tim felt quite content in gleefully sharing Galloway’s vitriol with the Ilkley Playhouse audience (aforementioned newspaper clipping now proudly on display in the smallest room in Mr Marshall’s house.)

But Tim Marshall did a cracking job of convincing his audience of his own approach. For the next 45 minutes, his listeners were treated to a whistle-stop tour of each of the major continents and current conflict zones, with an outline of how and why these areas of the globe will always remain sizzling hot spots of combat. We were invited to venture in to the mind of Putin (“admittedly, not a pleasant place to be,”) and were challenged to think beyond the ‘nation state’- to consider issues such as tribal, racial, religious affiliations – as well as the desperation of the bigger, more powerful countries in their quest for water, energy, trade and in their jockeying for position within NATO and other alliances.

He told his listeners; “I’m not about morality”, but that he prefers to focus on each nation’s point of view. His responses to questions from the audience were excellent; tackling such diverse issues as the role of the digital age, space, devolutionary politics and whether British people (lurking as we do, in a “prime piece of real estate”) should be more concerned about China’s obsession with trade, the growth of South American’s power or with the differing responses of each EU country to the current refugee crisis.pris of geog

In fact, my only criticism of the event was that he covered so many countries and conflict zones and got so wild with his big stick and the maps that, at times, I felt like a pussycat watching a ping-pong match (and unlike George Galloway, my pussycat impression ain’t much cop.) But then, hey; the earth is a damned big place after all. And perhaps the festival should have furnished the author with a 2 to 3 hour slot instead. Judging by the packed Playhouse, this might not be a bad approach for the future for someone with as much to say as Tim has.

So, overall? At the risk of upsetting other authors out there, I have to be honest and state that it’s very rare that I feel tempted to ‘buy the book’ after seeing a talk by a writer. But for sure, here is one piece of non-fiction that I hope to be receiving in my Christmas stocking.

(Postscript – And given Tim Marshall’s distaste for how geography is currently taught in British schools, I cannot help but urge him towards producing a child’s version of ‘Prisoners of Geography.’ I happen to know a small army of irate parents who actually WANT our future generations to be more clued up about the big world picture, as opposed to the details of soil samples, the colour of recycling bins and whether LEGOLAND Windsor is only a couple of miles from the LEGO Discovery Centre. Or not.)

like maps sml

But chuck a bit of politics in, some wars and the odd trip to LEGOLAND Windsor. Or the Kalahari. And we manage to convince the kids…

Everything Is Lovely

12 Apr

I’ve been asked by the marvellous Anne L Harvey to carry on the torch of ‘My Lovely Blog.’ This is simply a relay-blog between fellow writers who share similar interests and take in life.  I’m going to have a stab at answering these questions and then will pass you onto two further buddies…

My First Memory

Plenty of little ‘flashes’ – lying on a pink and black checked blanket outside my parent’s house in East Manchester.  Feeling as though I was going to melt like one of those sticky lemonade lollies that we always clamoured for from the ‘Faircloughs’ ice-cream van that used to do the rounds. Yes, this was *that* summer of 1976 and my parents clearly hadn’t heard of sunscreen, sun hats and the fact that pale, white-blonde baby girls shouldn’t be dumped outside a house in order to sizzle.

Another memory from outside of our house – me doing a Houdini – escaping from the reins that bound me into the big red pram. Me bouncing up and down on the edge of it. Yet still more parental neglect? I bet Mum was havin’ a crafty fag out the back door. Or had gone to the Costa del Sol with the milkman or something.

What *was* it about parents in the 70's and their insistence on dumping kids on blankets in the sun?

What *was* it about parents in the 70’s and their insistence on dumping kids on blankets whenever there was a sniff of  the sun?

But my strongest memory is of 1977. I had just learned to dress myself and proudly trundled downstairs. Our kid was sitting at the kitchen dinette table that our Dad had lovingly built. The bro’ was eating in his usual disgusting fashion (‘I’ll mash up my Weetabix, add loads of sugar and then scoop it up with my fingers.’ And he was nearly 3 years older than me, for goodness sake!) Sadly however, my mother paid me no notice whatsoever. She was hanging around ‘the wireless’ and crying. The newsreader had just announced the death of Elvis Presley.

(Did I tell you that Elvis Presley was my dad? No? Well. He should have been. I bet he wouldn’t have tried to fry me, or allow me to abseil off the end of my pram or ignore my early efforts at wardrobe-assemblage.)


Of course – I jest about my horribly neglected childhood.  One of the things that I am most grateful to my mum for, is the fact that whenever she had a spare minute she would try and shove  her nose into the nearest book.  I can’t think of a better role model for a child. Interestingly however, I was never that impressed with the books that she urged me to read; Milly Molly Mandy, the Famous Five, Black Beauty, Janet and John.  No I reckoned that these sorts of choices were too ‘posh, too ‘up-itself.’ The stuff that my mother had been urged to ‘develop’ her reading muscle with as a kid, just left me cold. I guess this was the beginning of a lifetime enslavement to my own form of inverted snobbery.  Poor Mum. She did her best to introduce me to a lot of the decent, more literary stuff for kids. But I just wasn’t buying it.

It wasn’t until a thirty years ago that I came up with the idea of ‘Chrissy’s Book-It List.’ All of the classics – the most critically acclaimed high-fallutin’ stuff – that you’re supposed to read according to University Literature departments across the world. The Top 100 or whatever – that the critics who reckon themselves to be ‘in the know’ – say that you just gotta rifle your way through. I produced my own list and yup! Am steadily working my way through them all. Plus scribblings produced by writer friends and books by friends of friends (such as those published by the northern company Bluemoose – their productions are always worth hurling a Tolstoy across the room for, when you’re in need of a modern, well-written read that isn’t accompanied by the usual silly, London-centric literary PR-fanfares.)

Thinking about my grown-up Book-It list a bit more though, it does very much reflect the themes that titillated me the most as a child. So I’m doing plenty of political and historical sagas, satirical stuff, tragedies and wisdom with a twist of spirituality.  Chick lit, bodice-rippers and aristocratic oppression of the masses ain’t on the cards, pal.

Libraries/ Bookshops

Bookshops? BOOKSHOPS? In your dreams. In my childhood’s neck of the woods, there was never any point in entering a bookshop unless you had recently had a birthday and a very thoughtful Auntie (who happened to you know you very well) had treated you to a book token. Even at University there was very little point in locating a bookshop. I couldn’t afford them. Neither could kids from similar backgrounds to me who managed to get to university on that hallowed grant system (there was one lad at Uni however, who was also working class and who always had the recommended texts on our course – but he used to nick them from Dillons, so he doesn’t count.)

So it was libraries for me. The library was just a few hundred yards from our house and I visited it several times a week. Walked on my own. Crossed a main road. From the age of 7. Swigged a can of Special Brew on the way (okay, okay – I made up the last bit but you know what? Those were FUN days to be a child…)

It felt like that I lived in the library during the summer holidays. My earliest ‘library memory’ involved me and my best friend getting told off by one of those really scary librarians whose face looked like a cat’s bum. Our crime? We had both taken out 4 books just after 9am and returned them during the afternoon. Wanting 4 more out each. We got a bollocking; “You’re not supposed to visit twice in one day! Our system doesn’t allow for things to be checked out more than once!”

Fortunately even at the age of 9, I realised that even our marvellous municipal libraries end up having to employ the odd miserable old trout or so and who hates kids.

And even though that particular ratty old bag has been pensioned off into the great beyond – it does seem  these days, rather too many of her relatives  have been employed by local authorities. You know the sorts. The guys n’ gals taking the decisions to shut down over half of our public libraries.The sorts who don’t have an imaginative bone in their body and for whom it wouldn’t even occur that a library isn’t just a place to borrow books, but that it’s the very heart and soul of a locality. That it’s a blueprint to mental survival. A lifeline for many a curious and contemplative child and for many a lonely adult. Or simply  a sanctuary for those who live, learn and lust for a bit of bookish adventure

Damn. See what you started?

Some people think that these kids are the lowest of the low. San children of Namibia. Go google.

Some people think that these kids are the lowest of the low. San children of Namibia. Go google.

What’s Your Passion

Apart from libraries, you mean? Okay… People who ‘lack the contacts’ in order to get a fair deal in life. Whether they be unemployed ex-offenders in Manchester, working class Pakistani-British in west yorkshire or impoverished and starving rural communities in Africa.  Looking back, I guess that this has always been the thread that has wound its way through my work and my life. Not consciously….

But somehow I always end up getting involved with the outcasts, the unlucky in life and the folk whom people in the positions of power all too often perceive to be ‘unfortunate scum’ (NB at this point I am tempted to add ‘And yes dear reader, I married him!’ Heh heh.)


My brother and I were the first in our family to go to University. It was all a bit of a culture shock for me. I spent 3 years crying into a public pay phone and naffing off the other kids in the queue. My conversations seemed to consist of ‘I hate it here! Please can I come home? Everyone is so much… posher than I am. They’ve all read these books that I haven’t. And I’ve eaten Mum’s frozen Quiche every day for four weeks now, so can she make me some more to freeze? Oh. And someone fed all of my Cup a Soups to the fish in the pond.’

Other kids on those pay phones seemed to have chats with their parents along the lines of; “And Oh My God – Jemima was like – so drunk, Mum – that she like, totally like, projectile vomited all over the President of our Hall – but he was like – totally cool with it and even, like – shagged her afterwards.” Or “I don’t care, Mummy. You just have to send me the extra £100 because I wore that ball gown last term and there is like, no way-over-my-dead-body that I’m wearing the same gown twice.”

Sadly I am not exaggerating about the conversations between these girls and their mothers. I remembered rushing back to my room at University in order to jot down these exact conversational shap-shots.

I was so poor at University that I couldn't afford a haircut. Or a longer skirt.

I was so poor at University that I couldn’t afford a haircut. Or a longer skirt.

So yes, I was the last of a dying breed. Kid who got to go to university on a government grant. Kid who felt like a fish out of water and worked her backside off in order to do her parents proud.

Theoretically, I think that I would have done well at university, whatever (that hard-work ethic) but the real learning that I accumulated there came from the adults  – a couple of pretty special tutors and the Brummies that I worked alongside in the local shop – rather than the actual courses that I took.   Which is why – when it comes to the big question of ‘University or Not’ for my kids – I feel pretty ambivalent. I reckon that true learning in life is not at all about academic – or career – achievements.

But I’ll save that for another blog and another day.


I struggle with writing about writing. Because for me, it’s just the same as breathing. If I can’t do it, I’ll explode. But then … to admit the NEED to write for me, took a long, long time.

There still exists a massive class barrier for those from the poorest sectors of society who want to write. The Writing World is still 99% controlled by well-off, well-educated, white folk who lack the societal, economic and often physical barriers faced by the masses who might be pen-savvy. Did I also mention that they’re almost exclusively London-based too? I did?   😉

Thankfully the internet and the indie route to publication and artistic expression is rocking the traditional world of publishing to its very core.  It certainly was more than time wasn’t it?

And maybe I’m just bobbins at promoting myself, my own writing (or maybe I’ m just lazy and simply just enjoy rather more rather more alternative avoidance tactics than watching The X Factor on telly) but I’d rather spend lots of my own time championing the writing of others. And especially on upping the writing chances of the underdog. Which reminds me. I must tell you more about why I’m involved with the fabulous writing charity ‘First Story.’ One for another blog methinks….)


Anyroadup. That’s this ‘My Lovely Blog’ shenanigans over for me. I’ll now pass you onto two writer-chums of mine.  Tim E Taylor and KB Walker. Both have been fantastic help to me in terms of advice on my own writing and both are hugely talented in other areas of life (I shall drop in some key words here – such as ‘musician’, ‘educator’, ‘farming’ and ‘community’) and also need to add that the two of them also happen to be incredibly nice, witty and charming people. (People like that. Make you feel sick, don’t they? Not that I’d ever say that about them in public, of course.)

Over to Tim and Kim!

KB Walker

Tim E Taylor


Bookish But NEVER Boring…

5 Mar

Reporting back from the promise in my previous blog – to expose the kiddywinks to those Public Information films that so many of us were nurtured with in post-war Britain, I have to say that I am rather disappointed.  We watched many – and the general consensus was “Freaky! Creepy!” or “well you never took no notice of them did you? ‘Cause you’re always talking to strangers in the supermarket. You shouldn’t be so friendly, Mum.”

In fact, my youngest (6) pointed out that “you make us read much more scarier books than those weirdy films what you had to watch.” And I have to confess that this is true. Not a day goes by without me exposing them to one of the classics. Last week it was ‘David Copperfield’ (the 19th century Dicken’s hero – not the overly-tanned n’ toothy American illusionist) and this week we are onto ‘The Man In The Iron Mask.’ (But please note – that clever little devils though they are, my two are not super-brats. I am talking about the graphic novel versions. With me there to read and to explain. No – I don’t shove them in the cellar with a dusty pile of The Classics first editions. Although believe me, the temptation is there on some days…)

In 'The Beano.' Again. But this time for an even more wonderful reason...

In ‘The Beano.’ Again. But this time for an even more wonderful reason…

Today has seen much cheer in the household – as we celebrate World Book Day. My daughter (10) commented to me that; “it was Dennis the Menace who got me reading wasn’t it? And who got me my first radio performance and magazine appearances,” (like she shares the same agent with Big Dennis or summat…) And this is all true. The dyslexic tendencies had led her to hide her school reading books and when I stumbled across an ancient pile of The Beano annuals, it transpired that I had suddenly found something that got her hooked into the world of books.  Which, some longer-term readers on here will know led us to a marvellous project that involved us trying to get reading materials to street children in southern Africa….(read the month of May 2014 for more info – and my girl’s own blog on it all here…  )

And the journey to the written word took the same ‘Beano’ pattern with the second child (who doesn’t have dyslexia) and who is now one of the biggest Dennis fan in the world. (Indeed, last night he informed me that he wanted all Horrid Henry books removing from his room (“I don’t like Henry. He’s not like Dennis. He’s a bit…. what’s the word…you always say? Sinister. That’s it.”)

Read... or you can watch the film. Or just summarise the story for someone else. The oldest methods are the best...

Read… or you can watch the film. Or just summarise the story for someone else. The oldest methods are the best…

My own thirst for new stories and fresh books (in between trying to write my own – which I am right now, patently avoiding doing…) is also never quenched. In fact, my daughter loves to read the books that I happen to be stuck into at any given moment. Albeit vicariously. Last night it was “I see that you’ve finished The Book Thief. Please PLEASE tell me what happens before I go to bed! Does she kick Hitler’s butt? Or what? Please don’t tell me she dies… I couldn’t bear it! I’ll never get to sleep if she dies..!”

But if you don’t happen to have access to small children yourselves in order to brainwash them with superb reading material – I would still recommend that you immerse yourself in the ancient art of reading aloud. Or of storytelling. Me and my other half  – before reproducing reared its head – covered thousands of miles in southern Africa as I read aloud to him on those deserted, long, straight and dusty roads (because they don’t have Radio 4 there and there are only so many times that you can listen to ‘Wicked Hits of The 80s’.) And even today I always keep a book in the car.  Of course, in the UK we have the opposite traffic problem. Standstill. So if we are having to suffer some (cough) ‘comedy play’ on Radio 4, then I just whip out a tome or two from the dashboard (“But just get to the point of the story,” he always says “You know that I can’t be doing with poetic and flowery so-called literary tosh.”)

Still. There are days when I don’t feel like reading to the kids. Or when they bring a book to me that happens to be a bit more drivelly; you know, something that I really don’t fancy wasting any of my precious minutes on. For example they learned a long time ago NEVER to try and get me to read the Disney book-version of anything out loud to them. And that I also really struggle with reading anything about superheros. (Unless The Life of Jesus counts, because that’s always a great one with which to go off on contemporary and political tangents with; “So sweetie. Jesus saved that lady from a horrid death. Do you think that it’s okay to chuck stones at a woman until she’s dead just because she might have been caught snogging a man who wasn’t her husband? Well that’s what happens in many countries all over the world today!”)c hamster 1

Yes, the world of my own offspring’s books tends to be funny, thrills n’ spills filled and … sometimes dark. Which reminds me of perhaps our ultimate favourite cheeky lad. That 6 year old Calvin and his precious ‘imaginary but real’ tiger, Hobbes.

I first found out about C&H when I was 14 years old and quickly amassed all of these incredible books by the insanely talented and hilarious writer/illustrator, Bill Watterson.  Watterson’s work is far cleverer and far more ‘LOL’ than Peanuts and the like. Calvin and Hobbes should be on the Must Read list of anyone who has ever been a child. In fact, it should be on prescription on the NHS for anyone who every suffers from ‘the blues.’ c hamster 2

As a young teenager I could identify horribly with the plights of Calvin and the nefarious schemes that his evil parents and schoolteachers always employed in order to stop him from simply enjoying life, not having not a care in the world and generally being a lazy little swine with no social conscience.  And now..? But of course. I can completely relate to the downtrodden parents who practically have to re-mortgage the home in order to find anyone crazy enough to babysit Calvin.

So, back to the Joy of Reading and a chance to share with you – in a celebration of all things bookish; what happens to be one of my all time favourite C&H strips.

And yes, gentle reader. I have utilised Calvin’s dad’s tactics on several occasions in order to bring one of the ‘less quality’ stories to a close….c hamster 3 final




Never Go… Say NO (A Social Experiment)

16 Feb

“It’s easy enough to know who’s good and who’s bad on the telly…but people are not always what they seem to be, in real life…”

No, this isn’t me posting a satirical blog about Nigel Farage et al. Rather, in celebration of half-term and The Kiddies being palmed off to various holiday clubs, outdoorsy-play schemes, neighbours and grandparent’s stomping-grounds, I thought that it might be timely to remind us all of the bread n’ butter of our childhood horrors; the British Public Information Films.

The quote provided above, is taken from the 1981 film (slightly less scary than the 1971 version) and the subject material of today’s blog all began when my 10 yr old, her dad and I were chatting about the fact that her little brother was spending the day away from us all. She says; “Well, I bet he’s having a right nice time of it. Going swimming and that.” “Yes,” I reply, “I hope he behaves for Grandma. And is sensible. Especially important to be sensible during half term and when you’re away from parents and your usual routine. Do they tell you that at school these days? Before the holidays?”  “What d’yer mean?” she asks. “Well,” husband begins, “The things that you must never ever do…You know…”

HIM: ….Stuff like – don’t venture onto iced over ponds and lakes. And in – fact – beware of all open water swimming and whatever you do, never eat a heavy meal beforehand and….

10 YR OLD: Eeeek! He’s going swimming! He is! I just said!

ME: Yes but Grandma’s with him. And she’ll only let him have a Waggon Wheel beforehand or something.

10 YR OLD: He is so spoiled.

HIM: And….don’t climb electricity pylons … Oh God. That awful film – where the kid climbs one and gets electrocuted and falls off. Remember?

ME: No – but you’re older than I am. (To daughter) So don’t they show you films at schools about dangers… in the holidays? And, well. Dangers in general? Dangers-for-all-of-the-time.

10 YR OLD: No.

ME: Don’t you get a policeman coming in and describing that if you got run over by a bus – you’d look like a piece of cotton wool soaked in red ink?

10 YR OLD: No…

HIM: Is that what you got, then? In Manchester?

ME: Yeah. They pensioned him off soon after that, so I heard.

HIM: Bet you remembered to stay away from buses though.

ME: Absolutely. So…hang on sweetie. Who warns you about the accidents and the hazards and the mad strangers who might steal you?

10 YR OLD: Dunno. Well, just the teacher. Goes ‘BlahBlahBlah be careful of ponds. And did-you-know-that-you-can-actually-drown-in-a-millimetre-of-water’. And all of that.

ME: So no videos? Or stern policemen?

10 YR OLD: Nope.

HIM: That’s rubbish! Every child deserves to be scared witless! Chip pan fires! Wandering off on your own! Fastening your seatbelt!

ME: And what about the Stranger Danger stuff?(To him) Hey! Remember the car that flashed red to show you that the man in the car was really evil? And the bad stranger fella… whose face suddenly went all nasty and twisted to show the kids that you can’t judge whether someone is a sicko by the way that they look?

HIM: Yeah. Why don’t they show that kind of thing anymore?  And the puppies – they always had puppies. Or said that they had. And tried to give you sweets.

Beware of men who lure you away to foreign countries and offer you small, fluffy animals...

Lured away by strange man… with promise of small, fluffy animal.

ME: (To daughter) So tell me… what would you do? Do you know your stranger-danger code? Because you’re very friendly with most people aren’t you?

10 YR OLD: Yeah. But I can usually tell who’s a weirdo and who isn’t.

ME: Ah but no. That’s the whole point. Horrible stranger sorts can often appear to be very nice. And charming. So… what would you do if someone had like, a really nice bag of something yummy and offered it to you?

10 YR OLD: I wouldn’t eat them because they’d be poisoned.

ME: No – that’s just in America where they do that. Try and poison little kids at Halloween. That doesn’t tend to happen here. So what would you do…?

10 YR OLD: I wouldn’t touch them if it were fruit! You know me! I don’t eat any fruit at all!

HIM: (Sighs.) Yes, we know. So, okay. It’s sweets then! Your favourite sweets.

10 YR OLD: So long as they aren’t Haribo. I hate Haribo. Most kids don’t. But I do.

ME: Fine, fine! So it’s not Haribo, okay? It’s … a bar of Cadbury’s Caramel. And…. some nice puppies to go and play with.

10 YR OLD: Do you really think that I’m stupid? I’d tell him that I’m allergic to chocolate!  I’d just LIE!! And say that I preferred kittens, anyway. Honestly! You two!

ME: Well. That’s good enough for me. But anyway, when we’re back home – I’m tracking down those videos on youtube and you can watch them. The ones that me and your dad were exposed to as kids.


ME: Don’t be silly. They’re fine. Look at me and your dad! We never got drowned or kidnapped or electrocuted. They never did us no harm!

10 YR OLD: Ahem – you stand corrected, Mother. You did electrocute yourself once. You fell off a chair trying to change a lightbulb in my bedroom.

This little fella wasn't too far away from the monkeys who electrocuted me. I remember my wits about this furry-one, I can tell you!

This little fella wasn’t too far away from the monkeys who electrocuted me. I remember my wits about me however, when faced this furry-one – I can tell you.

ME: That wasn’t my fault. That’s ’cause your dad was away and he should have been doing it.

10 YR OLD: AND…. Dad also said that when you lived in Africa you got electrocuted when you tried to feed a monkey some sausage and you forgot that the fence was electrified.

ME: Yes, okay. That IS true.

10 YR OLD: …And that it went ‘BANG’ and you flew backwards…and you were more embarrassed – than dead. And Dad said that all of the monkeys couldn’t believe how stupid the mad white lady was.

ME: …But all the same….

10 YR OLD: AND you ran off with a man to Africa. Who gave you a kitten. So this is all a bit hypno-critical, isn’t it?

ME: Let’s not get into that. And your Daddy isn’t an evil-stranger sort. But, as I was saying…You’re watching those videos. And I’m going to judge your reaction. I believe in using my children as a social experiment.

10 YR OLD: Noooooooo! I REFUSE TO WATCH IT!!

ME: Well if you do, that’ll be no telly for the rest of the holidays for you.

HIM: I mean –  you’d think we were trying to force her to watch ‘Saw’ or something!

ME: …Rather than Jimmy Saville glaring at us until we fasten our seatbelts. Because I have a strong feeling that some of those videos now contain some dreadful ironies….


So that’s that. And for those of you who want to ‘remind’ yourselves, or hey – for those of you who have never been blessed with watching these informative wee videos issued by the British Government – here is….

1971 – ‘Never Go With Strangers’ – the one that I most vividly remember watching (at the age of 7)

1981 – ‘Say No To Strangers’- 10 years later and the government released a different version. I remember this one too. And not just because of the host of ‘later to be famous’ 80’s actors. Timothy Spalding fiddling with a Rubik’s Cube etc.)

Now, give me a few days to expose my own children to such traumatising material from the 70’s and 80’s and I will soon report back…

Zip It!

10 Jan

‘Zip It!’ A popular expression in our house. Normally employed for smaller human beings who are gobbing off beyond a reasonable level. But the recent horror of Charlie Hebdo has left me and many other parents that I know, wondering if we now need to be uttering this phrase a bit more at the kids.

Interestingly, it seems to be the more switched on, politically aware, well-read and generous folk who are fretting the most about their children saying or doing something that might offend someone else – in this stoked-up atmosphere of religion, politics and race.

Regular readers of this blog will know that me and mine represent everything that your anti-multiculturalist sorts love to hate. So you might think that I have all of the perfect answers when it comes to discussing such sensitive issues with my kids. In fact, no. No. And I certainly didn’t have all of this off to pat before Charlie Hebdo.  Here are some recent examples of the level of dialogue that has always been ongoing within My Fam:

Scene 1 Namibia (southern Africa). Me, Him and 2 kids.  Driving through a police check-point on the road outside of the Capital. Unlike the rest of us – my 6 yr old lad is a chap of very few words….

10 yr old: It’s not fair! They never stop us. They never search us!

Him: You don’t want to be searched. Look at the people in the cars over there. They’re really naffed off.

10yr old: But it’s not fair! I really wanna get searched! We’ve been through these road-blocks about twenty times now and they never stop us. Why?

6yr old: It’s because we’re white.

Me: Whaaaat?

"I'll swap you a Stop n' Search exemption for the Right to Wee"

“I’ll swap you a Stop n’ Search exemption for the Right to have a Wee”

Scene 2- Namibia (southern Africa) a few days later. Visiting a national monument which is only usually visited by people from the different black ethnic groups. We are desperate for the loo.

10 yr old: This is awful! They keep telling us the wrong way to the toilets and we’ve been back three times now and ask and they still just flap their hand at us and tell us to go the wrong way.

Me: The seem to think that we’re just being a nuisance. We should have gone to the loo before we got here, though. Oooh – I’m bursting!

10 yr old: Well, they’re hardly busy… we’re the only ones here in the car park! Why are they being so rude and unhelpful? I feel like they don’t like us! People! Why aren’t you helping us? Before our Mum wets her pants!

6 yr old: It’s because we’re white.

Me: Pardon?!

Of course, in both of these instances the normally oh-so quiet 6 yr old was making a mere observation. One which very much shocked us. Because of his lack of verbosity, we simply haven’t  sat with him and explained to him issues of race, apartheid, politics etc in the way that his older sibling might have had our attention…

Scene 3Leaving our semi-rural immediate neighbourhood we are now driving through an inner-city suburb, somewhere Up North.

6 yr old: Hey, Mum! I think you’ve got us lost, Mum. Hey!

Confused of Africa? Or of UK?

Confused of Africa? Or of UK?

Me: Why?

6 yr old: Because I think…we’re in Africa

10 yr old: What are you on about? You little weirdo.

6 yr old: Look – outside – everyone’s looking like…we’re in Africa! It’s well cool!

10 yr old: Yeah, right – Stupid! Do I see any giraffes? Or those termite mound things? It’s raining! Are you totally thick, or what?

6 yr old: Well – that one over there in the doorway-thingy is a street child. I think.

10 yr old: It’s a drunken man asleep in a pile of sick! You idiot!

Me: Stop being horrible to your brother. I think he only means that there a lot of black people in this area.

6 yr old: Yes – that’s what I meant. I just never knew there were so many black people in England.

Him: (to Me) Keep him away from the English Defence League and their lot, eh?

6 yr old: (sulking) And anyway. I want to go back to Africa now. It’s better than living with you lot.

Me: (to Him) I don’t think his sentiments lie with the EDF, dear. It’s just his use of language and terminology that we perhaps need to work on…

Scene 4 After a troublesome time in the playground

6 yr old: I don’t like them brown boys. I won’t ever play with them.

Me: (shocked) What do you mean? What’s wrong with them?

6 yr old: I just don’t like them.

Me: But … well. You can’t say that you don’t like ‘brown boys.’ You shouldn’t…

6 yr old: Well I just don’t like any of them.

Me: But you can’t say that! You can’t go round saying things like that. Your cousins are… well – ‘brown.’ Aren’t they?

6 yr old: Yeah. But they’re different. I know them.

(NB – It turned out that what he meant was the Pakistani-British boys all knew each other and he found it hard to break into their games. One week later it was “Mum – I always play with the brown boys now and they’re all my best friends!” “Great,” I replied. “But shouldn’t we maybe not use the word ‘brown?'” Only to be corrected by daughter who goes “Well, my auntie always says she would rather be called ‘brown’ because that’s the shade she is as she isn’t the colour of black or of Pakistani. And calling someone a ‘Paki’ is just nasty and upsets people and like… has gone out with Martin Luther King’s time. Or whatever. Although…I heard someone say ‘that Paki shop’ the other day. But there were old and a bit stupid so you can forgive ’em”)

Scene 5 – Our kitchen. Children sharing out coloured sweets.

10 yr old: I’ve made little piles of the different ones, see? But I’m not having any of the blacks as I hate them…..(thinks)  Oh no!! Did I say something racist, Mum?

6 yr old: It’s okay. I hate the whites. So it all works out fair dunnit?

Got sick of discussing matters of race. So promptly lobbed the bitter lemons back at the grown ups.

Got sick of discussing matters of race. So promptly lobbed the bitter lemons back at the grown ups.

These kind of conversations go on all of the time in most households across the land. And each of these little scenarios were remembered by me – not because the kids said something cute and funny – but because my own reaction felt confused. Blustered. I wanted them to know ‘how we try and say things’ in the adult world. But without doing the whole politically-correct overkill thing on them and without squashing their right to expression and to just be… an innocent little kid.

But sure – there was a bit of me that was thinking ‘Gawd, PLEASE don’t say that in school – will you?’ Even though the school knows us, our background and work etc and probably realise that I don’t stomp around in jackboots of a weekend.

So if I feel like this – with my own family, experiences and interests… how the hell must most other caring and concerned parents feel about what their kids hear, see and say – at this particular moment in time?

I can only remind others (and myself) that all of us – whatever our ethnic or religious background – we are only human if we trot out some ‘corkers’ from time to time. At my Nan’s funeral for example, the Minister said “Edith was the kindest soul ever. Who still clung to what some perceive to be old-fashioned language. But this ‘Blackie Preacher’ knew the love in her heart and the kind of woman that she was, so he never minded the out-moded words.”  And a Pakistani friend told me that on preparing to marry a white woman he was told by his elderly relative “first thing you must do is to teach her to wash her hands properly. If they’re not a muslim, these goras are very dirty.”

So maybe we shouldn’t be panicking and maybe we should be more gentle with the kids and with ourselves. Less of the gut reaction of telling the kids to Zip It (unless they’re calling me a ‘clumsy old tart’ again.) If we are the kind of people who are worried about causing offence then our hearts are already in the right place.

And maybe those of us who genuinley care about this kind of thing are exactly the sort of people who can stop the status quo from worsening. I believe that the attach on Charlie Hebdo was a deliberate act to kick off yet another secular versus religious and racial war.  It didn’t even have as sophisticated an intention as trying to flag up discussions about the freedom of speech. It was an act of contempt and hatred –  spread by psychotic nutters who claim to be religious but who haven’t got a breath of compassion or love left in their bodies. People who are rubbing their hands with glee at the confusion and division that they have created between folk this week and because of whom – hundreds of thousands of more innocent civiliants in the Middle East may well end up losing their lives.*

So let the kids speak. They often make far more sense than the adults do.

*Note the cunning refusal to write ‘muslims’ and ‘non muslims’ there. Because we are all just human beings at the end of the day…

Laugh and Be Liberated

8 Jan

You don’t need me to quote a whole load of stats and studies at you in relation to how laughter can be an exceptionally healing medium. For years I’ve been saying that the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon books should be made free on the NHS to all and sundry. Far cheaper for the state for those amongst us who might be suffering with a case of the old ‘black dogs.’

In the past I might have found this cartoon to be offensive. I was great fun at parties, I can tell you!

In the past I might have found this cartoon to be offensive. I was great fun at parties, I can tell you!

What shocked me the most about the recent brutal killing of the French journalists was not so much the utterly abhorrent and evil act itself – but the polarity of discourse in relation to what led to the attacks. I’m sure that there are some better examples than the ones that I’ve been exposed to but so far it seems to be either ‘an attack on democracy’ or ‘this is the fault of multiculturalism and pandering too much to the muslims.’ Where’s the context? Where’s the invitation for some proper plans and projects to unravel some of this horrible lack of understanding which has been allowed to develop between those members of the human species who seem to have been segregated into two camps – ‘muslims’ and ‘non muslims.’ Are we facing a new apartheid? Whatever religious (or non-religious) thought we happen to follow, do we really want to buy into this kind of rhetoric?

So here’s my own, personal context and a couple of examples.  Regular readers of this blog may be aware that half of my family of origin are ‘muslims.’ But that my own background has also involved exposure to extremist religious thought. No – not those pesky muslims again whaddartheylike – but extremist christianity.  I won’t bore you with what all of this entailed (and to be honest – it’s actually that juicy that I’m saving it for my autobiography) but suffice to say that there was a time when I had a lot more sympathy with those particular minority followers of Islam who get all sniffy (or murderous) about whether Mohammed was being dissed or not. You see, affluent christians in the west also got/get naffed off about New Age crystal-twirling, scientists who tell us that we are descendents of monkeys, Harry Potter and films that portray Jesus as being a bit racy. Some of these people nearly pee their pants over the line ‘He’s not the Messiah! He’s a very naughty boy!’

It's not big and it's not only not funny - it is downright offensive. Apparently.

The Life of Brian: It’s not big and it’s not only NOT funny – it is downright offensive. Apparently.

Yesterday I had a bit of a flashback to 1989. I remembered that when it came to Salman Rushdie and the fatwa, I had been thinking along these lines “Well of course the man should be able to write whatever he wants. This is a democracy! But come on… he was a bit daft…surely he should have realised what would happen…”  I ran this dusty old memory past my other half too and his recollection of 1989 had been similar, but with a twist of; “and what will the cost to the taxpayer’s purse of his posh literary wibblings be now that he have to pay for his protection day and night…?” (sheesh – and people say Yorkshiremen are tight – you wanna meet a Brummie-born boy!)

The interesting point of all of this though – is that both of us have come to the same conclusion. Perhaps it’s been a result of the jobs that we’ve both done. Perhaps it’s having travelled the world and met zillions of different people with different religious persuasions and political opinions. Perhaps it’s maturity. Or perhaps it’s because I now believe much more in tackling the roots of where extremism comes from rather than heading off on a knee-jerk reaction – a witch hunt. For me there is a very real, close to home fear of a backlash against muslims whenever any kind of atrocity carried out by some sicko in the name of so-called Islam takes place. I remember just a couple of days after 9/11 when a friend of my sister in law – who also wears a hijab – was wandering down the  frozen food aisle of Asda when she was suddenly approached by a skinhead who grabbed her, punched her in the face and spat “that’s for The Towers – paki bitch!”)

But perhaps it’s simply a matter of maturity. Either way – my sentiment these days towards Salman Rushdie and the french cartoonists and their equivalents  is this – if someone else creates something – whether it be words, art, music or a cartoon – that makes you feel defensive, scared, angry or insulted about a set of beliefs that you happen to have about the way the world works, then the first port of call for judge n’ jury should be with yourself. Those extreme emotions are about you. Not the person who gave birth to an opinion or an act of creation.

Salman. These days I reckon that if he bothers you... You either need to get out more. Or think less.

Salman. These days I reckon that if his writing bothers you… You either need to get out more or think less. And I can’t afford to pay for it – but I’d happily do a security shift for him if he’s ever short staffed.

There was an incident recently in a Derbyshire school where a headteacher was vilified for having copied the Roger McGough poem ‘The Lesson’ into her ‘welcome back to school’ newsletter. You can read a local news report about it here.

At the far end of the spectrum, many parents were horrified, were disgusted, cue newspaper headlines etc. At the other end of the scale, lots of us were thinking “well – that was a bit of an error of judgement on her part – I mean it IS an amusing poem but doesn’t the headteacher realise that lots of parents lack a sense of humour when it comes to their children and jokes about violence? Big miscalculation!”  But there we have it, don’t we? Is this an act of creation (by Roger McGough, by the teacher wanting to share a funny poem with jaded parents) – that has fallen victim to another set of beliefs that folk are not allowed to offend or to produce anything a little bit quirky or non run-of-the-mill? Or what?

What do we think about that one? We live in a democracy, the headteacher didn’t joke about Islam… and the life of this excellent teacher hasn’t been threatened. But her job and standing in the community has been challenged because she said or did (or reproduced something) in a manner that offended some people. People get so upset… even about these comparatively small things…

But returning to challenging extremism of any kind. One of my favourite writers is a chap named Adrian Plass (he’s probably the most well known modern Christian writer in the world these days – sort of a more humourous version of CS Lewis.) Anyway, the folk that I used to hang out with during my hate-mail to Monty Python days felt that our Adrian was far too rude about christianity (even though his books unashamedly set out to teach your about it – I mean the guy’s hardly Aleister Crowley). They felt that he was too ‘irreverent’ and ‘disrespectful.’ But there was something in the fella’s writing that always touched me. Honesty and humour in relation to the human condition, I guess.  But what offended the anti-Adrian folk the most was that he was poking fun at them (as well as himself, cause if you can’t do that… then you really need to get out a bit more eh?)

And back to the cartoons. As well as being the perfect antidote to a really crappy day, or a really bleak mood – I still swear by Bill Watterson’s stuff. But more than that. I began to read Calvin and Hobbes at the same time when I was plotting to block the entrances to shops that sold Halloween outfits. And thank the Good Lord that I did… because such dry wit and humour took the edge of my more fundy tendencies. I was introduced to new words, concepts, debates – as well as the wonders of having an imaginary tiger as a pet, of course. I learned that ‘Calvinism’ was actually something to be mocked – a group of people to feel sorry for – rather than something to aspire to (and yeah – I’m actually serious again with regards to that little comment…)


Don’t give your kids – or anyone – the answers. Ask the buggers questions!

And this is what a clever artist – whether it be a painter, a film-maker, a cartoonist or a writer does. And it isn’t just about poking fun at the establishment, at an economic system or a religion. It’s about harnessing an element of the human condition and communicating it to others. Learning by stealth, perhaps.  For me- it isn’t just about protecting the rights of those journalists to produce their work without fear of being attacked. It’s about sticking up for the teacher who might have dared to have said or done something slightly different than the norm and who has used an outlandish sense of humour. It’s about having some tolerance for those who have different beliefs from you and it’s about never – ever – thinking about using violence against someone for an act of creation.

(Unless of course it’s Russell Howard – because I find some of his jokes to be really offensive. And my other half going ‘JUST LEAVE THE ROOM THEN, YOU DAFT BINT’ simply doesn’t scratch my itch sufficiently…)

Russell Howard. He really upsets me sometimes. He wants to watch out... I discovered this thing called the 'Remote Control' and it makes him disappear...

Russell Howard. He really upsets me sometimes. He wants to watch out, he does… I discovered this thing called the ‘Remote Control’ and it makes him disappear…



“The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”-Luther

RIP Charlie B Guys.



All Shook Up In’th Shops (part 1)

13 Nov

Some readers of this blog will know that I don’t really do shopping. Well, high street shopping I mean. I hate the same blandness that 95% of the stores here in the UK  represent these days. I despise the way that the big chains and the corporates assume that we’re a bunch of brainless, zombified sheep – sleep-walking our way to unecessary consumer tosh accruement and purchasing-oblivion.

I am a big fan of Quakerism. Of keeping the material things in our life plain and simple. Of spurning the constant need that many of us feel – To Have, To Be, To Own.  But a great number of Quakers themselves – were actually the leading capitalist-philanthropists of their day (I am talking pre-1950s here – I am talking the Rowntrees, Cadburys, Frys and hundreds more who were committed to Quakerist life and practice in business.)  So I can’t really blame the Quakers for my horror of anything that involves numerical transaction. They were quite happily pootling along – selling widgets to punters. In as ethically and perhaps as paternalistically a way as possible of course…

So, no. Instead, I nominate Bill Bryson to blame for all of this anti-shopping malarky. Bill’s ‘Notes from a Small Island‘ had a huge effect on me when it was first published. This book is one of our 20th Century travel and civic classics.  A must-read where Bill charms us with take on Brit-life but also comments on the monotony – the bleak and barren landscape which now forms the shop frontages of most UK towns. His hilarious anecdotes and sarky-arse commentary precisely depicted what I was feeling as I hung out in various abodes during my late teens and early twenties; “Bloody hell! Am I in Manchester or Oxford or Oldham or Birmingham? It all looks the sodding same, these days!”

Still one of the funniest books that I've ever read...

Still one of the funniest books that I’ve ever read…

And don’t even get me onto some of the crimes of the built environment that have been carried out here in the UK. The wanton destruction of stunningly beautiful architecture – some of them hundreds of years old – in order to slap a franchised ‘Coronary 2 Go! Geddit it Gulped!’ cladding for your latest fast food outlet. Yes, Bryson’s gripes got into my head. So much so, that I’ve been pathologically avoiding Britain’s High Streets for many, many years now. (Mind you, thinking about it – the man has clearly saved me a bob or two. Cheers Bill!)

But this aversion to all things-high street extends to my other half. And the kids too. A suggestion of “let’s hit the shops” in my family is tantamount to saying “anyone fancy a bout of gastroenteritis this weekend?” So yesterday’s little excursion messed with my head somewhat. I visited a department store…. I know! A business named ‘Harvey’s of Halifax’.

Now, not being a born n’ bredder of Halifax (me being an East Mancunian defector now living on t’other side of the Pennines)  I was informed beforehand by ‘real locals’ that this trip to the shops might be a slightly less traumatic experience for me than giving birth without pain-relief in the Kalahari (which happened to be a barrel of laughs, believe you me.)  “Oooh – Harvey’s is lovely!” one friend said.  Another neighbour told me that she was “reet jealous!” that I was popping out to this particular shop. My mother also said that she had heard of them. And my mother is a lady for whom Lidl simply doesn’t cut the mustard…

So, I was all set to visit the shop. And okay, the plan was to just have a quick brew in their cafe. But I was initially impressed by the presentation of the building. And oh…dear, dear reader – if you are at all interested in urban design and heritage – you HAVE to check out Halifax for some stunning examples, the Piece Hall to begin with of course, as a ground-breaking bit of architecture. But Harvey’s building is also rather impressive.  The business began back in the 1920’s. But today it stands proud – with three historical buildings merged – to form the modern-day Harveys.  Although, I have to use the term ‘modern’ loosely – because the minute I stepped into the place I was catapulted back into the past. A reminder of that wonderful store named Lewis’ in Manchester. Many childhood memories of accompanying my Granny there via her Datsun Cherry (one of Granny’s first jobs back in the 30s was as a shop assistant in Lewis’).

The original Harvey's store

The original Harvey’s store

Immediately, I breathed in….what was it? Old World gentility. But not old-fashioned. No – it was far more upmarket than the Grace Bros (anyone remember ‘Are You Being Served?‘) Meaning that Harvey’s clearly rings those top class bells.  But … without that sense of snootiness. Without making you feel that you can only shop there if you enjoy the feeling of Being Better Than Thou. So the place doesn’t possess the up-itself attitude of your Harvey Nicks.  Sure, it’s enormous in size, but had been designed so that you didn’t feel too lost (although you probably were – if you were me – it happens to me a lot. I have a tendency to walk round ten square feet at least fifteen times without realising it.) The place was utterly bustling with what clearly were very loyal customers.

And I can tell you why the customers were loyal. This is because it’s a 100% family owned and operated firm. I witnessed many sales staffs assisting customers. Dealing with them in such a way that was a zillion miles from the  USA-induced corporate Stepford Wives customer-service faux friendliness. And I also saw the owner and Chairman himself stopping and chatting to at least a dozen customers – filling in for his daughter who is MD of the business. I noticed the Company Secretary dashing over to assist a disabled customer, I clocked her getting read to help with clearing up tables in the restaurant…

These customers don't need free booze to stay loyal (although wesh frobably likesh it!)

These customers don’t need free booze to stay loyal (although wesh frobably likesh it!)

This was down to earth, genuinely-give-a-toss-about-people northern customer service. To date, the closest I have seen to this attitude has been – not from a high street shop – but from a social housing landlord (the award-winning North West’s Irwell Valley Housing Assoc.)  Irwell Valley’s Tom Manion will tell you that employee happiness levels are utterly transparent to the general public and convey immediately either very good or very poor management. Roger Harvey would probably agree with him. Of course, there is the off-chance that the staff at Harveys are not *truly* a happy crew and that they’re  just damned good actors (and are being bribed to put on a good show for the consumers as their families are actually being held at gunpoint in the lingerie section.)

But the bees-knees of this particular visit was when I learned about the charity work that Harveys are involved with.  Again – none of your off the shelf corporate big charidee names stuff. The store is heavily involved with a range of local charities and arts groups. Many of them being the smaller names that you may not be familiar with, but which (in my opinion) are more worthy of praise than the Big Guys in terms of bang for bucks. And real heart. Indeed, I happened to meet one of their latest recruits – a member of staff who had been part of a programme run by Halifax based charity ‘Project Challenge’ and who had been unemployed but was now working at Harveys and still dedicated to raising money for them.

And best of all the store is an INDIE!   Not part of a big chain. Independent…going it alone…sailing the seas of creativity and entrepreneurship. Like me in many ways. But with better underwear. Yes indeedy, inspiring people in an inspiring place. I came over all giddy. So much so that I actually ended up buying things from the place. Flexing the old plastic. Now, this is a dangerous practice for me. The flabby muscle of rampant consumerism was beginning to twitch. I was only saved from purchasing a new coat by the fact that I was about to wet my pants (excessive caffeine) and that my parking ticket was about to run out. And we all know how evil, twisted and jobsworth those West Yorkshire Parking Attendents are…

Modern day Harvey's.  Perhaps the only store in the UK that could make me blog about it. Without any brown envelope exchanges or cash for question deals...

Modern day Harvey’s. Perhaps the only store in the UK that could make me blog about it. Without any brown envelope exchanges or cash for question deals…

Driving back towards homeland, I realised that I needed to break this new buzz of mine. All recovering addicts know that if you feel a new, heady vibe – you had better get back on the waggon – quick.  Try a spot of ‘what used to work.’

So tune in for Part Two (“Breaking the Addiction – with thanks to a local charity shop. And the consumer demands of my budgie.”)