Week 640

Sunday, 28th March, 2021

Rather overcast this morning with a cool, off-shore breeze. We will go on an hour’s walk mid morning. I’ve been watching the political programmes until I began screaming and looking for another country to live in. Now I’m watching cricket from India and writing. Writing does help.

The next stage of the journey began. I preface this with the view that I don’t believe people really change across their lives. They may add things, develop things, emphasise things, try to hide things but, at core, remain the same.

I started teaching in Oldham in 1972. What more can you say about that? How did I get there? I suddenly felt a failure in every area of my life. I was living alone in a grotty room in a former brothel and working in a tough, mill town school. The only ray of light at all was that I found I was good at teaching. It came naturally to me. It was about the only thing that did. I was desperately isolated, lonely and depressed to think how far I had fallen below my own expectations. Suicide was not out of the question. Teaching was taking all my energies and I turned in upon myself. I looked to music for my solace. Just as The Moody Blues hit me 5 years before so a soul singer, of all people, came into my consciousness from where or why I have absolutely no idea. It was another of those seminal moments that have stayed with me over the years.

The juxtaposition is stark.

Like a primal scream, Lorraine Ellison’s Stay With Me stalked my brain in the dark hours. I knew I had to take control of my life. I was ashamed of the fact that I’d failed. I began a programme of self-improvement which had absolutely nothing to do with teaching and everything to do with learning. I went out and bought books on Art History, on Philosophy and on Politics & Economics. In my grubby, little garret I devoured them avidly. At the same time, I worked hard to get in shape physically. Every day in the early morning I went out running in the local area. If you’d been around at the time, I was the lunatic in a yellow striped, bright purple tracksuit charging down the local roads at 5.30 am. I was trying to expiate my failure.

I was genuinely helped by my friends from College, Kevin & Christine, without whom I’m not sure what I would have done. However, ultimately this can only be done alone. It comes from a sense of self. I realised that I had to rid my head of the primal scream and I thought I could replace it with classical music. Chopin’s Nocturnes started me on my way. It was the time of Ted Heath’s 3 Day Week and miners’ strike. The electricity was going off for hours at a time in the evenings. I had moved to a flat at the top of the brothel. I was really going up in the world although it was still only costing me £5.00/€5.85 per week. I can see myself now up in that garret, absolutely alone and in pitch blackness through the power cuts with Nocturne 20 playing on a battery-powered cassette player. I defy anyone to do that and not to be moved.

I knew I had to get a Degree and I have so much to thank Harold Wilson and Jenny Lee for that as I will explore tomorrow.

Monday, 29th March, 2021

Glorious start to the morning. I’ve even put the mower on to charge to start the season off later today. Pauline’s got more clothes to return this morning so our hour’s walk will be down to the Post Office in the village. So much gets rejected. I can’t remember the last time she kept anything. Still, think of all the money I’m saving! I joke about it but we are some of the lucky ones. Money is piling up with nowhere to spend it while down the road ordinary but genuinely needy people are queuing at Food Banks.

In 1974, I was in need of a lift. I was trying to drown out the primal scream with Chopin and then Rachmaninov which I played incessantly until I knew every note by heart. If you discount work, I largely shut myself off from the world. I found a new life in Art, Philosophy, Politics and History and Music but for my own self esteem I needed to formalise it. In 1969, under the inspiration of Harold Wilson, Jenny Lee set up The Open University. They did it just for me.

I was ashamed of the fact that I hadn’t got a degree and I decided to do something about it. I applied for an Arts course. I could have got funding from the Local Authority but, almost in a sense of self-flagellation, I punished myself by doing everything the hard way. The degree was done in spare time while teaching. The cost was borne totally by me. It was me saying, You deserve all this pain. It’s your fault. Now, get your head down and do it. I worked all day, came home and worked all night. Often, I survived on 2-3 hrs of sleep a night. You can do that when you’re young and desperate. I made no attempt to find companionship. I was too busy beating myself up.

Harold Wilson – Hero of Huddersfield.

Every Monday evening I travelled to Manchester Business School on Oxford Road for a tutorial between 7.00 – 10.00 pm and then home to write up my notes before catching a few hours sleep and then walking to school at 8.00 am. It was gruelling but essential. The only way was up.

I am strong, when I am on your shoulders
You raise me up to more than I can be.

Suddenly I was being thrown a lifeline and being forced to struggle for it. From Vasari’s Lives of the Artists to Cartesian Dualism, my mind was exploding. Every month new Units of Study were arriving by post and I was actually looking forward to them. I am good at researching and writing essays. What an admission. Why couldn’t I be good at the essential things in life?

Through the writings of Marx and Engels to Mendelssohn’s rediscovery of Brahms, I was growing in self confidence. I do realise how sad that sounds but we cling on to small victories and they were mine. For my 3rd year Honours course I took Twentieth Century Poetry and was lucky enough to have a very special tutor. By day, I was teaching the poetry of Philip Larkin to A Level in school and by night I was being tutored by Larkin’s publisher and Biographer, Harry Chambers. I was in my element. Who would have thought that, as my first Degree came to a close, I would be taken off the market again. I wasn’t even in the market! See tomorrow’s exciting developments …

Tuesday, 30th March, 2021

Up early for a Sainsbury’s delivery at 7,00 am and then a fresh fish delivery after breakfast. Wonderful, wonderful day. The back garden has reached 22C/70F which is slightly warmer than Mojacar Beach in Spain. We have done a really enjoyable walk for just over an hour and then spent lots of time resting with iced white wine and olives on the patio.

Professor Emeritus Bill Stafford

So little is happening and moving at the moment in our lives that I have been filling my Blog with retrospectives. It is always helpful to reconsider how we got here. Not living in the past but preparing for the future. At the moment, I am tying it loosely to Music over the years. Music has been so important to me over my life. Very early on, I realised the massive emotional effect it had on me. It seems to speak to a core of my inner life that thoughts and images cannot begin to reach. It may be the sentimentality of an old man but I’ve found this response has increased over time.

Harry Chambers had been Phillip Larkin’s confidant. You don’t get much more impressive than that. He wanted me to write for him but I was already moving on. I had corresponded with a professor at Huddersfield University about my developing political views. Professor Bill Stafford was incredibly encouraging and invited me for interview. He was putting on a research degree course for post-graduates. It was based on a Marxist analysis of the world and covered Socialism and the rise of the Labour Party. It was exactly what I needed. I finished my B.A. in 1979 and started my Masters in 1980.

However, I have omitted two, crucial events. This young lady took me out to Dinner at the end of May 1978. Life changed rapidly and fundamentally and, at the end of June, she arrived at the door of my flat and announced, You’re coming to live with me. I always do as I’m told. Every item of my possessions apart from the bookshelves were crammed into the back of an ancient, white Mini and I moved to Yorkshire. We began a longer journey together of hugely challenging events.

Pauline was a cordon bleu standard chef who trained in London and was teaching Home Economics in my school having previously also owned and run a fashion shop in Oldham Precinct. She was also a nationally accredited Rounders referee. Every day, we would drive across the Pennines to work and back again in the evening. The 15 miles over the bleak moors was so often the most relaxing thing to do. I loved to play at full volume Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Pauline was incredibly tolerant and indulgent of me. Beethoven was the last thing she wanted in that situation. She liked Elton John, Moody Blues and Fleetwood Mac.

She hardly got a look in. I know and I have learnt over the years that I am a dominant personality. I get my own way and people give in to me. I can control a room and a discussion easily. I have had to try very hard to moderate my opinions and give in against my instincts. I still have to try hard to accept that mine aren’t the only views.

I moved in at the end of June and five months later we were married. It was lovely sharing and exploring a new life. We didn’t have a honeymoon. We married on December 30th in deep snow and were back at work a few days later. Our honeymoon period lasted almost exactly 18 months when, in June 1980, we were driving to work in our brand new, pageant-blue mini when some office worker in an old, Ford Cortina lost control on the bend as we entered Oldham crossed the road and drove straight through our car virtually cutting it in half. Pauline managed to get out with a gash to her head and damage to her leg. I was dead … or so Pauline and the ambulance men who arrived on the scene thought.

My leg was cut through to the bone but my head had been smashed against the side window causing brain bruising. The ambulance men initially pronounced me dead but had the foresight to put an oxygen mask on me. Apparently, in my unconscious state, I fought like mad against the mask. Two burly ambulance men sat on me to hold the mask on and sat on my leg cut through to the bone. I’m told I made one, last bid for freedom by biting forcefully on the man’s nipple nearly severing it. He left the ambulance screaming and clutching his chest. Although I was dressed in a suit, he asked my wife if I was a builder’s Navvy.

Live or die? All will be revealed tomorrow.

Wednesday, 31st March, 2021

Another lovely morning. Feeling happier than for a while. Must be the sunshine. Pauline has found me a new-build property in Spain for consideration at a fantastic price. Who knows? We’ve even considered buying two and letting one out. Investments here are making nothing so this would be an interesting alternative.

Going out for a walk in the sunshine. At 10.00 am, we are reading 17C/63F but we hope for better this afternoon.

Back to the story and the aftermath of the road accident in June 1980. I have virtually no memory of the next few months. I was unconscious in hospital for the next week and behaving very strangely. Apparently, I was prone to walking round totally naked, asking the nurses inappropriately intimate questions and I took over total control of the ward television. Just reverting to type I suppose. We went to stay with Pauline’s sister and Mum who looked after us in early recuperation but I was out of it for months. I fought hard to get back to work in September but was really struggling with memory loss, concentration and depression – all classic head injury results – and had to take more time off. We did finally achieve a reasonably sized compensation pay-out but nothing made up for that lost year.

One of the things I should have been compensated for was my addiction to Dallas. This rubbishy, American drama was dominating the airwaves as I drifted in and out of consciousness. Half the time, I didn’t know I was watching it as I sat on a sofa dribbling down my chin but, as recovery came, I found I couldn’t stop watching it – not that I felt comfortable admitting it at the time. After all, I was a respectable intellectual.

At this time, I was looking for promotion and preparing to start a Masters Degree and Pauline was doing her BA at the Open University. To make matters worse, just as we began to feel a little better and went back to our own home in Meltham, we were sitting in the Lounge feeling still quite shocked when an almighty bang announced a speeding vehicle had run out of control on the bend and crashed into the side of our house. The house was 120 years old with stone walls so thick a tank wouldn’t have made an impression and the car was the only thing damaged but it was a real shock.

1985 – Supervising Sports Day – ‘Bearded like the Pard’

Over the next couple of years, we got Pauline through her Social Sciences Degree and it was real testament to her determination because, for quite a while, I was a nightmare to deal with. What am I saying? I’m always a nightmare to deal with.

I had done 3 years of the most exciting, intellectual challenge of my life. I was Head of Lower Counthill which I found enjoyable and I was left with a 50, 000 word dissertation to write for my research degree to be awarded. I had chosen the works of R.H.Tawney, English economic historian, social critic, ethical socialist, to research. It was extremely demanding on time and money just as we had bought Slade House in Helme, a new car and booked lots of travel to Greece.

I was spending hours combing through the university ‘stacks’ of files in the library basement and lots of trips to the Rotunda Library – Manchester Central in St Peters Square. I was sending off to Oxford University and to Manchester’s John Rylands libraries for copies of rare books. I was doing all this just for my own self esteem. If anything, my professional life was fighting against me in this. Under this pressure, the thesis stalled. The deadline was the end of May 1989. By April, I had given up. It was just too much. Until my wife gave me a good kicking. She had given up too much to let me fail and she knew how much it meant to me. Throughout the Easter holidays I just sat and wrote in long hand page after page of analysis while Pauline typed them up on my first ever computer the Amstrad PCW.

Suddenly everything clicked. My thesis revealed itself as if by magic. It was done. I had to have it professionally typed and bound to publication standard. It had to be with my thesis supervisor, Professor Bill Stafford by the last Friday in May, 1989. Actually, we drove up to his home in Leeds and gave it to him two days late which he accepted. It was done. I felt as if the failures of the past had been salved. But why did it take so long? Why do I always have to do everything the hard way?

Thursday, 1st April, 2021

Looking to the Future

“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”

T.S. Eliot – The Waste Land

Like one of my heroes, T.S.Elliot, I went out early into the garden this morning and smelt the Summer coming. Having gone through a rocky, late Winter patch, I can feel the awakening Spring rain stirring memory and desire. I realise that, as I race rapidly in to 70, every moment must be grasped and savoured. At 7.00 am the ‘official’ temperature is 12C/54F but felt so much warmer in the micro climate of the garden.

It would be strange to list 1989 as the climax of one’s life but, in one sense, it was. What started all those years ago in Ripon College 1969 ended twenty years later in Huddersfield University in 1989. What a long haul but I got there. Of course, life doesn’t stop. We have to seek new challenges. I decided to make a new life in Europe. At the same time, I was trying to improve my cultural development at home.

Beata Beatrix – Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I wrote a couple of days ago about my dominant personality. Like an alcoholic, I would periodically feel ashamed and give myself a good talking to, make resolutions and then quickly go back to old ways. I was determined to explore art. My research period had incorporated the 19th century Romantic movement, neo-Gothic, neo-Medieval, Pre-Raphaelite and Arts & Crafts movements. I flooded our house with giant, framed prints of Rosseti, Burne-Jones, Waterhouse and Morris through to Whistler, spending thousands of pounds in the process. My wife said she liked them but I’m sure she had to work quite hard to do so. What a selfish soul I am!

The Soul of the Rose – John William Waterhouse

I became obsessed with Waterhouse for a while and actively searched out paintings for the house/Gallery.

Symphony in White: No. 2 – James Whistler

Whistler marked the end of this movement historically and in our house. Soon after he arrived on the walls, we were selling up and moving to Surrey. Pauline carefully bubble-wrapped and labelled all 53 huge pictures. They were loaded into a lorry and taken in to store. As soon as we got into our duplex apartment near Woking, it was immediately clear that the paintings were totally inappropriate. They were too big for any of the walls. We gave them to the local Hospice to sell for their charity and for a few years we received information as they sold another and raised more money.

I bought two, leather bound computer chairs for the Office in January. The moment I sat in one, I knew it wasn’t good enough. I ordered two different ones and, today, the originals are going to the local Hospice shop. After that we are doing an hour’s walk along the fringe of the woods that bound our development. The temperature is a pleasant 18C/65C and the sun is tanning my face. I quickly revert to Mediterranean which is polite way of admitting I look old.

Friday, 2nd April, 2021

Awake at 5.00 am and up at 6.30 am. It really is a good Friday. The sky is blue. The sun is out and all seems well with the world. Sainsbury’s delivery at 8.00 am and then a walk.

In the 1990s, I was determined to induct myself into the world of opera. I started with a monthly primer magazine as an introduction and progressed through cassette tapes, video tapes and live performances.

Before I went to my first live performance, I had spent hours listening, learning and singing along to numerous performances. Opera makes me cry. Everything makes me cry. Never attend an opera with me. I was banned by my wife when I took her to a performance of La Boehme by Opera North in Huddersfield. Pauline wanted to leave after the first act because I was singing loudly under my breath while simultaneously sobbing. It’s not something you’d pay good money for is it? ? I loved the emotional fragility of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and the heart breaking pathos of Puccini’s La Boehme. Sunday morning opera sessions in our Lounge were near suicidal!

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again …

As a counterpoint to this, I want to introduce two, final pieces of ‘pop’ music. I would drive across Europe from Calais to Ancona – 1000mls/1600kms/circa 18 hrs continuous driving. I did all the driving and it can be tiring particularly because we started on the day we closed school for the summer. It is easy to fall asleep at the wheel and, if you don’t drive at an average of 95-100 mph, you may miss the ferry. Consequently, my navigator and partner had to keep talking, pinching and slapping me to stay awake. We always hit the Swiss Alpine downhill roads at 2.00 am in pitch blackness as the rain had softly fallen and made them like glass.

You and me we can ride on a star
If you stay with me, girl, we can rule the world …

We found one other way to maintain concentration. We would play songs and sing along as we drove. My choice was James Taylor. What an intelligent performer! You’ve got a friend / Don’t let me be lonely tonight / Shower the people you love with love /  I could sing them in my sleep although, at the time, the purpose was to not do that. For Pauline, it was Take That. I actually began to enjoy it myself. Back for Good / Relight my Fire / Never Forget. They will always be in my memory and associated with good times. I loved living in Greece with all the challenges it threw up but one of my favourite times was the drive through Europe – Belgium Luxembourg, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy. I drove that route one way or the other exactly 30 times – more than 30,000 mls – and even got to like the same service stations that we called at for coffee.

I’m continuing to explore Spanish properties while they are so cheap. I think it’s got to be a new-build. This one looks ideal. It is in the area of Murcia. Our friends had a property in Mazzaron. This is in Aguilas which is a bit further south and looks nicely positioned. The development has a number of facilities we like with pools and a gym. The apartment has a large balcony and floor to ceiling glass sea views. I’ve sent for details.

Saturday, 3rd April, 2021

1949 – 2005

Woke feeling a little sad this morning. Outside is grey, cool and distinctly unwelcoming. I’m told it’s Saturday but I really wouldn’t know. It’s strange but, when one feels sad, the world seems to be punctuated with sad things. As I woke at 6.00 am, BBC R4 was broadcasting a programme from Stormont in Northern Ireland. The historic, Good Friday Agreement was negotiated by the wonderful Mo Mowlam 23 years ago and she has been dead now from a brain tumour for 16 years. How transient life is!

On this day 12 years ago we retired from work. We were both 57 although I was going to be 58 in 3 days time. Prior to retiring, I had spent weeks and months calculating our final salary monthly pension, our lump sums and we were negotiating redundancy payoffs as well. I had to balance it all against our outgoings which were dominated by a huge mortgage. It took one entire salary every month. Retiring allowed us to pay it off completely and instantly. As a result, not working meant we were immensely better off. I wouldn’t want you to feel sorry for us. We were never poor but retirement has been wonderful.

One of the things that (some) people worry about in retirement is the gradual erosion of their pension’s purchasing power despite our inflation-proofed income. This happens when wages across the country rise above the inflation rate. The 12 years of our retirement could not have been more useful in this respect. Wages were frozen or went back since the financial crash of 2008 while ours have increased with inflation. We have felt incredibly fortunate and still do.

I quite enjoyed Teaching but I don’t miss it at all. I sometimes miss the sense of purpose that daily work prescribes but there is always that lovely feeling of waking and thinking that we can do exactly as we wish. I like to burn the candle at both ends and always have. Up early and late to bed but now I do it out of choice. Life is short and, in my view, it is important to squeeze as much out of it as possible. Sleeping is not part of that. We had always intended that retirement would be dominated by travel. In fact, we have been travelling since 1981 – 40 long years.

Zakynthos – August 1981

Our first house was on the roadside in a smallish village. Just down the road was the famous David Brown tractor factory. We would regularly see trails of brand new tractors chugging through the woods to their test track. Our first holiday together was to the small, Greek Ionian island of Zakynthos nowadays called Zante. There was no island airport in those days and we flew 4.5 hrs to Athens, 5 hr bus to Killini Port on the Peloponnese followed by a ferry to the island. We were exhausted even as fit 30 yr olds. The very first thing we were confronted with in Zakynthos port was a David Brown tractor.

We had booked 3 weeks in a ‘villa’ in Argassi, Zakynthos. Neither of us spoke Greek, had eaten Greek food or experienced Greek heat in August. Within a couple of days, we were completely hooked. It began a 40 year project which involved more than 15 islands but with the Cycladic island of Sifnos at its heart. I hope to explore that next week but, now, although we can go no where, we are planning for the future which we think will be in Spain. There has to be a future. I will not give up!