Chasing Leaves In The Wind

Hard to believe now, but there was a time when I was attractive to women. Especially older women, but younger ones on occasion too. Unlike the good-looking boys, the sporty types, the football players, and the accomplished swimmers, all confident in their desirability, that came as a great surprise to me. A greater surprise was that they not only liked me, but lusted after me too, eager to do much more than chatting, or cuddling. Although their affections and desires confused me, I knew enough not to question their reasons. I accepted their favours, and their affections, with a sense of gratitude combined with wonder.

My mirror now confirms that this is no longer the case. I harbour no illusions these days. I am an old man, and perceived to be one. I live a life of relative contentment, and do not concern myself too much about things like passion and desire. But I still have many treasured memories of course. Snapshots of the past; fleeting moments that appear, sometimes when I least expect them to. Mostly, they are good memories of course. The excitement of a new partner, the hurried fumbling followed by mutual satisfaction. Sometimes, whole scenes play out in my head, as if they happened just yesterday, not almost fifty years ago.

As I get older with each passing year, the same memories appear to change, and for the better. Perhaps I am only searching my mind for complete positives, and that’s why. They have also decided to mainly appear when I am in bed, just about to fall asleep. As I lay with my eyes closed, they flood into my mind, and the feeling is a good one. Faces and names from the briefest of encounters, longer relationships, and previous marriages. They are happy faces, and I am happy too. But as sleep takes hold, those memories begin to fragment; they merge, and start to flutter away.

I want them to remain, so I feel as if I am chasing them, trying to hold onto the last second of time with them, as I unwillingly slip away into the arms of Morpheus. But they swirl around, elusive, one over the other, off back to wherever they came from. Until the next time.

It is like chasing leaves in the wind.

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Thinking Aloud On a Sunday

This morning, I woke up thinking about catalogues, specifically those used for shopping, before the age of the Internet. When I was young, there were mail-order catalogue companies that were household names, like ‘Freeman’s’, and ‘Littlewoods’. Those things were huge, much larger that telephone directories, and very heavy for a child to lift. They used to arrive a few times a year, with the seasonal Christmas catalogue being the most anticipated, as it was packed with more toys than usual.

My Mum always had at least one of the two mentioned above, sometimes both. They literally sold anything you might want for the home, from a new bed, to a set of spoons. Clothing and shoes were featured heavily, from a wide range of suits and dresses, to underwear and hosiery. They didn’t sell foodstuffs, but the Christmas special would feature hampers stocked with luxury items, shortbread in tins, and a huge variety of sweets, sold in ‘selection boxes’.

The prices were always shown as small weekly payments, as these companies serviced the market of customers who could rarely afford to pay for something up front. They would employ collection agents, who would call at the house with a payment card, collecting the small amounts for anything from twenty-six weeks to sixty weeks, depending on the total owed. Those collectors became familiar figures around the neighbourhood, as almost everyone in our street used a catalogue for everything except food shopping.

As a child, it never occurred to me that the total cost of these goods from the catalogue companies was exorbitant. They simply operated as credit agencies, charging huge amounts for everyday items far in excess of what they would cost if bought from a shop with immediate payment. But for working class people on tight budgets, before the time of credit cards and other methods of payment, they offered the chance to own something that others took for granted, paid for in relatively tiny amounts, affordable from a weekly pay-packet. They accepted the criminal interest rates as part of life, and didn’t think too much about it.

As I said, I was unaware of this. To me, those wonderful catalogues with their appealing photos were like a Bible of consumerism. In those days, there were no supermarkets, and no dedicated superstores selling toys. To see all the items visible in that huge catalogue would involve visiting dozens of shops, all over London. But here it all was, in a huge book, which I could flick through at leisure. And flick through I did. Whenever a new one arrived, I would quickly check to see if anything new had been added, sometimes comparing it with the previous issue. The toys were generally at the back, so I would open it that way round, working my way through from the last page.

For at least a week, I would revisit my favourite pages. As my birthday approached, or Christmas was on the horizon, I would tear strips of paper, and write the item number or letter of what I liked most, slipping the paper into the relevant page. In this way, I hoped to give my parents a guide to what to buy me, without the awkwardness of actually having to ask them outright. It didn’t always work in my favour of course, but I used to greatly enjoy the process. What was sheer joy for me represented months or even years of debt for my parents, but I was oblivious.

Catalogues still exist of course. These days, many are much smaller, and only give some indication of what might be available on a website. Others arrive unsolicited in the post, and end up in the bin, unread. People still pay excessive interest rates to buy gifts for their children, though usually from shops that exist to offer the same weekly payment system, and they are few and far between. Modern day children can browse online, using laptops, phones, even Tablet computers.

But there is no longer the simple wonder of anticipating the arrival of a massive catalogue, filled with ideas and pictures that could delight you for months on end.

Saturday Memories

For most people, it’s the weekend. Time for shopping, routine chores, perhaps a lie-in, after a busy week at work. For me, it’s just another day of the week now, one when shops will be more crowded, car park spaces harder to find, and staying at home is definitely the best option.

In the past, Saturday was the best day of the week, as far as I was concerned. My parents were usually at home, and my comics were delivered early on Saturdays too. I could read them in bed, delaying having to get ready to accompany my Mum to the shops. Men didn’t go shopping in my youth. That was something wives did, as a rule. The interiors of the cooked meat and cheese shop, the butcher’s shop, or the genial greengrocer’s display, such things were unknown to male shoppers. Their retail experience only extended to visiting the tobacconist, getting a suit measured, or popping into the barber’s for a haircut. And shopping involved walking, not driving. If a certain shop was too far, then we had to catch a bus to it.

Mostly, we walked to local shops, most only a few streets away. The owners of those shops were familiar. We knew their names, and the names of their children too. They might be invited to a family party, and shoppers would enquire about the health of their relatives. If something new was available, they would suggest my Mum might like to try it, and if she didn’t have the right change, or was short by a few pence, she could drop it in later, no questions asked. I walked around with my Mum, listening to the shop-keepers say things like, “He’s getting big”, or “What happened to his curly hair?” I stood patiently, as she gossiped for ages. They talked about local young men, away in foreign countries on National Service. They discussed people who had just had surgery, speculating on how they might, or might not, recover.

The climax of such Saturday shopping expeditions would be a visit to the bustling street market in Southwark Park Road, known as ‘the Blue’. Shouting stall-holders offering supposed bargains, people crowding around their gaudy displays, and the smells of everything from the jellied eel stall, to the overwhelming odour of frying from the fish and chip shop. After my duties as companion and bag-carrier, I would be rewarded with a doughnut from Edwardes bakery shop. This was usually a simple one, but would occasionally be a cream-filled split. I didn’t know the cream wasn’t real cream of course, and I didn’t care.

The string shopping bags would cut into my hands, causing me to keep swapping them from one side to the other, in the hope that would make some difference. I had to keep putting them down too, to pull up my long knee-socks, as they never wanted to stay up on their own, despite the elastic round the tops. When we eventually got home, lunch would be ham rolls, with fresh fragrant bread rolls bought at the same time as the doughnuts. My Dad would be watching TV, always sport, and I would be allowed to go out and play, if the weather was good. Otherwise, I would go to my room, re-read those comics, then take down a book, perhaps my World Atlas.

Saturday night was a big night for my family. The adults would all be getting ready to meet at the local pub, wearing their best clothes, and smelling of after-shave and perfume. I would have to go to my grandmother’s house, where all my cousins would congregate, awaiting the return of their parents from the pub. They came back happy and laughing, smelling of beer and cigarette smoke. Sometimes, I would already be asleep, and would have to be woken up to go home to my own bed.

Saturday was a long day back then.

Thinking about Shakespeare.

When I started secondary school at the age of eleven, I was concerned to discover that we would eventually be learning some Shakespeare plays. They were compulsory as part of the syllabus, if we wanted to go on to take English exams at sixteen. By the time I was handed copies of the books we would be studying, I had never read a word of Shakespeare, nor seen a play of his on the stage. But I had seen the films of Richard III and Henry V, both starring Lawrence Olivier. Other than that, I only knew that he was from Stratford-Upon-Avon, had been married to Ann Hathaway, and his plays had been performed in circular theatres on the South Bank of The Thames, close to where I lived.

For us working-class kids in a run-down area, Shakespeare was considered to be very ‘highbrow’. His plays were something that posh people paid a lot of money to go and see in smart theatres, with famous thespians spouting even more famous lines and quotes. I had read a lot of Dickens, but his world was one I could identify with readily, as it had hardly changed in the hundred or so years since he had described it. I had also studied History, so knew something of the wars with France, and the Wars of The Roses in England. But I couldn’t bring myself to consider how the style of William Shakespeare might improve my appreciation of British History.

The plays in question were ‘Macbeth’, and Henry IV Parts One and Two. At first, I struggled with the prose, and the frequent use of words and sayings unfamiliar to me. But I was soon fascinated by the characters, who were described so well, and spoke in ways that admirably suited their roles. Within a few months, I found myself reading them avidly at home. And not because I had to, but because I wanted to. Prince Hal is the young man who would soon become Henry V, hero of Agincourt, and a popular king. But in the play, he is a reckless young man, spending his time in the company of drunkards like Sir John Falstaff, and boasters like Pistol. I wondered how his apparently dissolute lifestyle could ever prepare him for his future, when I came across this famous passage, a speech by Prince Hal, out of the hearing of his companions.

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work,
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promisèd,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

I read it twice, realising that I had got it completely. The Prince was deliberately carousing with these people, in the hope that others would think badly of him. But he was pretending to enjoy himself, and not allowing himself to get drunk, despite appearing to be so. When the time was right, he would cast off these false friends, and become the brave Prince that England expected him to be. Because of these adolescent bad habits, his change of heart would be revered all the more, and his subjects would love him.

In this way, Shakespeare combines gossip with history, presenting his own version of what might have happened. He was writing about events that occurred over two hundred years before he wrote the play, virtually inventing the concept of ‘Faction’, a mix seen so often in today’s historical novels. In the same play, Falstaff fears he may be left behind, possibly even banished by the Prince. When he is described as ‘That villanous abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan’, he responds by describing himself, in his own defence. (Sack is the old name for Sherry, a fortified wine that Falstaff drinks in copious amounts)

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself,
were to say more than I know. That he is old, the
more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but
that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster,
that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault,
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a
sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if
to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine
are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

Long before I watched any actor say these lines in the stage play or film versions, I got that desperation; the fear of his exclusion, perhaps because of his drinking, his obesity, or his advancing years. In that short speech he summed up so many of the worries of a man past his prime, one who had attached himself to a Prince he thought might honour him, despite his misdeeds. A man who sees his dreams fading before his eyes, and resorts to little more than begging to retain his valued position.

In this play, Shakespeare does what the great writers do best. He shows us the faults of mankind, set in a time and place that seems pertinent, but could actually be in any time, past or present. The lust for power, the need to be admired and recognised, and the lamentations of those left behind when they expected to profit from their associations.

What I feared would be impenetrable prose, spoken by characters who were meaningless, in settings that were otherwise mundane, all turned out to be a treasure trove of perception, character description, and simply marvellous insight into human nature. If you have never read a Shakespeare play, I suggest you should. Any of them will do, as they are equally wonderful. But the ones I studied at school will have a place in my heart forever.

Great Albums: It’s All About The Stragglers

This choice may surprise most of you. Despite being in a musical genre known as ‘2-Step Garage’, (no, I don’t know what that means either) this is one of my most played albums over the last eighteen years, and one of the favourites I return to time and time again. I apologise in advance to readers from outside the UK, who will probably never have heard of the performers, the genre, or anything involved with that very British sound back then.

When I heard a track played on the radio, I went into a branch of a big record shop chain in London, and asked about the CD. I was 48 at the time, in the year 2000. I am sure that the young man serving me must have thought I was buying it for a teenage child, but he was suitably respectful when I told him it was for me. Artful Dodger was not a group or band, in the usual sense. It was a duo made up of two white guys, DJ/Producers who developed a sound, then recruited session singers, backing vocalists, or unknown artists to sing the songs they wrote. This led to some of those singers, like the smooth and handsome Craig David, becoming household names in the UK.

The CD had fifteen tracks, but as is usual with modern albums, quite a few of those were extended remixes of the same songs. I preferred the ‘radio edits’ in most cases, and I was caught up in the CD from track one, playing the whole thing again immediately.
Think About Me.

The second track was the Craig David vocal that I had heard on the radio.
Re-Rewind.

This really captured the mood of the club scene back then. Something I knew nothing about aged 48 of course. 🙂

By track three, my feet were tapping uncontrollably.
Outrageous.

Track four was an irresistible smooth groove. I love this one!
Please Don’t Turn Me On.

By track five, I was introduced to Nicole singing this nice funky pop song.
24/7.

Romina Johnson took the vocals for track seven. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, this came along.
Movin’ Too Fast.

By track ten, I was already looking forward to hearing it all again, and Craig David was joined by Robbie Craig for this one. I was on my feet by now!
This was so infectious, I replayed it straight after.
Woman Trouble.

OK, you get the idea. A timeless album that still gets me in the groove at the age of 66. One of the first things I would take to a desert island, or rescue from a house fire. Eighteen years later, it keeps getting better for me, and though I appreciate that this sound is not for everyone, please give some of the tracks a chance.

And if you feel your feet moving, I told you so.

My London Life

I was reflecting on my life in London this morning, and in particular about where I lived for the sixty years I was a resident. Looking at Google, I was able to find images, in some cases of the actual house or flat. I know some readers enjoy seeing photos of London that are not the familiar tourist sights, so here is a chronological tour of the architecture I lived in.

As a baby in 1952, I was brought home to a two-room flat, upstairs in a house in Storks Road, Bermondsey. My grandmother lived across the road, on the corner with Webster Road. This house in the photo is the one she lived in.

Photo copyright Stephen Craven.

We moved from there to a house in Bush Road, then in Deptford. The houses were later demolished, and a McDonalds now stands on the site.

Photo copyright Stephen Craven.

In 1960, we moved to a brand new maisonette in Balaclava Road, Bermondsey. I was eight years old. This recent photo is of the actual block. We lived on the first floor, halfway along.

We lived there until I was fifteen. Then my parents bought a house in Bexley, which was then in Kent. It is now a London suburb. This is not the actual house, but is an identical style.

After my parents split in 1976, I moved with my Mum to run a shop in south-west London. In 1977, I got married, and my wife and I bought a flat in the area between Putney and Wandsworth. Although it looks like a house, it was divided into two flats, and we lived upstairs.

After a year, we sold that, and bought a three bedroom house in the very nice district of Wimbledon Park, close to the famous tennis courts. It was built in 1901, and had many original features.

When my marriage ended in 1985, I took what money I had, and bought a one-bedroom house on the newly-built London Docklands Development in Rotherhithe, across the road from the River Thames. My house is second from the left, in this photo.

In 1989, I maried for the second time, and we lived in that house for a year. But it was too small for comfort, so we bought a bigger house literally around the corner. It doesn’t look very attractive in the photo, but it was huge inside, and had a separate garage in the street behind. This is the actual house, in Redriff Road, Rotherhithe.

When we split up in 1997, I moved outside London, into a succession of rented accommodation, as I no longer had enough money to buy a property that I wanted to live in. After three years, I used my job as a government employee to apply for a subsidised flat in Cumberland Market, Camden, close to the centre of London. I lived in the block on the right, on the third floor, and as you can see, there are extensive allotments for use by residents who want to rent one. The tall building in the distance is the iconic Post Office Tower. That gives some idea of how close to the centre I lived.

Photo copyright ALondoninheritance

I stayed there for twelve years, before retiring from work, and moving here to Norfolk. With one exception, every property I ever lived in still stands, and is still lived-in, to this day.

School

I have been following the blog of Jennie Fitzkee for some time now. Jennie is a teacher in America, and she teaches the youngest children during their earliest experiences of school. Her posts are truly inspirational, and I would love to have had a teacher like her. https://jenniefitzkee.com/

Reading about her class often makes me reflect on my own time at school in London, so I thought I would write about that today. When I started school in 1957, I was five years old. I remember I didn’t want to go, unlike some children. I didn’t fancy having to do what I was told, or be surrounded by strange kids, and adults who might tell me off. I was an only child of course, and used to a fairly easy life. But I had to go, and my Mum took me along to that first day at Deptford Park School.

(Photo copyright Stephen Craven)

The huge Victorian building was scary enough, and I held on tight to my Mum, shedding lots of tears. But when I was escorted inside by a kindly lady teacher, I soon settled down. Inside the classroom, there were lots of things to do, and I noticed a small wigwam had been set up in the corner. I crawled inside there, and hid for as long as I was allowed to. But school wasn’t so bad, and I didn’t need to be dragged there the next day.

Not long after I started, my parents moved. It was a relatively short distance in the same area of South London, but the school catchment area was different, so I had to change schools. After just getting used to one, I had to start all over again at a new one. Not much past six years old, I was transferred to Alma School.

(Photo copyright Stephen Craven)

It was another old Victorian School, but I was ready this time, and not nearly so frightened. And there was a bonus in that many of my new neighbours went there, as did one of my older cousins. I settled down very quickly in that school. We still had an outside toilet block, (it was 1958) and I was now having school meals at lunchtimes too. We had free milk back then, and had to help to fill the inkwells on the desks, as we still used ancient ‘dipping’ pens, with metal nibs. Most of the teachers were quite old. They didn’t just seem old, but were actually old. Much older than my parents at least. I learned the basics of writing in a joined-up way, and how to write an essay. I was taught numbers, sums, and times tables, learning by rote and repetition.

Discipline was strict. Talking in class was frowned upon, and bad behaviour could be punished with being caned across the hands. We were a little afraid of the teachers, to be honest, and also scared that they would tell our parents if we were naughty. There was still a morning assembly every day, as well as compulsory sports and gymnastics every week. By the time I was almost eleven years old, and ready to go to the school where I would stay until I was seventeen, I had won some prizes for writing, and developed a pretty good relationship with quite a few of the teachers. I also had a group of close friends, and was sad to discover that none of them were moving to the same school as me.

In 1963, I went to Walworth School, an easy walk from where I lived.

Although this had some Victorian buildings too, it also had a modern central block, recently built. As you can see from the photo, it was rather out of place, looking like a 1960s office block, in the middle of the main school.

I have written before about how great that school was. The young teachers with fresh ideas about education, and a wonderful attitude to the children in their charge. The enthusiasm, the urge to inspire the pupils, and to develop young minds. I was lucky that I made that choice.

It is almost fifty years since I was last a schoolboy, but I never forget the time I spent at school, the teachers who taught me, the buildings, and the unfamiliar surroundings that became such a familiar part of my life. If you are at school now, cherish it.

They will be the best days of your life, if you let them.