Bleak North - The Website of Author, BARRY LITHERLAND


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By litherlandb, Feb 29 2016 03:40PM

Growing older has strange consequences, not all of them pleasant. One of these is that one’s earliest memories begin to take on the character of scenes from historical fiction. Consider my earliest memories. I can remember when my grandparents bought their first television set. I must have been about three or four. There were no programmes before 5pm except for ‘Watch with Mother’ – a half hour children’s slot at about 1.30. I used to watch it at their house until my father, driven no doubt by envy, got one for us. It was all in black and white, of course. (I was beginning university before I first encountered a colour television in a friend’s flat. We were in Crediton, Devon, in a flat above a garage. The set was magnificent but it was almost impossible to watch because the signal was so poor. We sat in front of it and imagined, through the blur of lines and vibrating shapes, what it might look like if it really worked).

I remember too, my first weeks at school – no induction, no half days, no peer mentoring. One went from home to school and that was that. Those early school memories have been distilled down to a handful of images and smells. Physical education, for example, involved lying on oval rush mats, - rather like something you might use as a modern doormat - the texture of which left permanent scars on your back. I also remember my one week of school dinners, particularly the smell of heavily boiled potatoes and cabbage. If you were unfortunate to get a piece of meat in your mouth you could chew the damned thing forever without making the slightest impression on it. Eventually you were driven to swallow it whole, an effort which often resulted in a period of retching before the offending item returned to your mouth and the process began again. I have a strong memory of one particularly offensive mouthful which refused point blank to be digested. In the end I gave up and secreted it in my pocket until I could dispose of it later – probably to my dog.

At the time, of course, having a bath once a week on a Sunday night was the epitome of middle class decency. It’s only now, looking back, that one realises the consequences for those poor children who lacked the blessing of a secure bladder. There must have been a few in my class who invariably soaked themselves on Sunday night and then repeated the performance each night of the week until they got a brief respite prior to bed the following Sunday. I can still remember the stink of those poor kids. It was a double curse that levels of poverty were such that these same children had no alternative school-day clothing. Once the smell permeated their one set of clothes it stayed there until it was briefly alleviated at the beginning of the following week.

You don’t think of poverty when you’re young. I was lucky. I got to eat a whole apple. Other kids would hang around begging for the core. Imagine.

It’s only as time passes that one recognises the political context of childhood. In my early years the health service was in its infancy, the Welfare State was new. There was still rationing. The Second World War had only been over for ten years. The first motorways were being planned. There were many people living in prefabricated houses, many people still had allotments from wartime and gardens like ours still housed chickens and areas of vegetables. I still remember our first car, mid fifties, I guess. The smell of leather and the constant, hideous sensation of car sickness made the journey from Blackpool to Brock or Jeffrey Hill a nightmare. We counted milk churns, loaded on stone plinths at the end of farm tracks ready for collection, as a way of keeping my mind off it. It seldom worked. For my Longridge friends, Jeffrey hill was a gated road. I earned a few pence by opening the gate as cars approached, maybe one car every fifteen minutes or so.

As a child, however, despite the drawbacks, it wasn’t a bad time, at least not uniformly so. We played OUT – yes OUT – all day. Unless we were ill the door opened shortly after breakfast and we were not required to reappear, unless for water or medical treatment, until the next meal. Nowadays, that sort of behaviour from parents might require the intervention of social services.

But more of that in a future instalment; I must return to the modern day and post this on Facebook.

What a strange world.

By litherlandb, Dec 19 2015 04:35PM

I do love the utterly bizarre and in teaching you come across it with great regularity. It isn’t always children or parents. Sometimes it isn’t even those rather odd individuals any community throws up. Occasionally (yes, I must admit it) it’s the teachers.

Let me tell you about Zoe – not her name, of course. She had a child in my class who was about eight at the time. Zoe was described by her friends as ‘very religious’ and by those of a more critical nature as ‘a bit over the top’. The word ‘fundamentalist’ wasn’t really used in those days but I dare say she would have fit the bill quite nicely.

She refused to teach about dinosaurs on the grounds that they couldn’t have existed, not within the sort of time scales science proposed. Even dinosaur toys were surreptitiously removed from the classroom. She was also a creationist which, when you boil it down to the fundamentals, meant she didn’t believe in anything beyond a week last Sunday.

She abhorred Halloween, a view which I shared but for very different reasons. Her child was strictly prohibited from drawing any of the elvish, demonic creatures other children drew. He had to draw an angel which, in a strangely ironic way, seemed to her more credible. This was fine until one day a supply teacher, unaware of the restriction she had placed on her child, allowed him to create a monstrous looking hook-nosed creature (which, coincidentally, bore a remarkable resemblance to the cook we had at that time). She had mounted and displayed it before I had time to warn her. She left that day, happy that she had provided the children with an enjoyable activity.

Since the offending picture was proudly displayed in the board in the entrance hall where his mother was certain to see it when she brought him to school there was only one thing to do. With the aid of her son we created a beautiful pair of wings. I have to say it was the most evil looking angel that has every graced a school wall.

Poor Zoe, whom I like immensely during her more rational spells, also spent a lot of time (rather more than it warranted) attempting to persuade me that a nearby village had a coven of Satanists who danced naked in a local wood. Lots of people had seen them, she explained. I was tempted to suggest that the thought of a number of middle aged, naked people dancing in a wood was more likely to drive me to the pub than to any secret viewing area. However, she remained convinced. Only on one occasion did I venture to suggest that perhaps the writhing twirling, twisting dances she described might have rather more to do with the midges prevalent at that season than to any Satanic ritual.

We did not speak of it again.

Poor Zoe, I often wonder what she’s doing now.

By litherlandb, Nov 2 2015 06:04PM

Just the other day Susan told me about a sign she saw by a children’s playground. It said,

‘No children without an adult.

No adults without children.’

The playground was fenced round and had a single gate. She found the whole place quite intimidating.

The implications were obvious and, in my view, horribly misguided:

All adults beyond the perimeter fence are dangerous.

Anyone outside the fence and looking in should be suspected. They may be danger to you.

Stay inside the fence and you’ll be safe, provided you’re not alone.

The world is a dangerous place. You shouldn’t venture there without an adult.

I wonder if we actually believe this. I sense paranoia and emotional hysteria at work.

It reminded me of an incident at a school some years ago. I was head teacher there at the time. We were visited by a group of African drummers. I forget where they were from, somewhere sub Saharan. They were living cheaply and staying in hostels as they toured and were driven from place to place in a cramped minibus by a British co-ordinator. They were amazing - I mean truly remarkable. I don’t think I have ever seen a group of people smile, laugh and radiate such good humour anywhere else. The children, from the five year olds to the twelve year olds, were enthralled and enthused.

At the end of the day two of the older girls gave some of the drummers a small gift. It was nothing much, a laminated bookmark they had made. The girls told me about it; they came across the hall, laughing. One of the drummers was so pleased he had given each of them a hug. We laughed. I thought nothing of it.

Five minutes later I was in recovery mode in the staffroom. It had been a busy day. The door opened and a rather downcast drummer stood there. The British co-ordinator had taken him on one side and told him he shouldn’t have hugged those children. He was sent back in to apologise.

I told him he had nothing to apologise for. When I look back now I know that I was right. This was our problem not his. We created it.

There was something more. When he came back and apologised like that I felt ashamed, really ashamed.

The sign at the playground gate made me feel the same.

By litherlandb, Oct 24 2015 04:31PM

We had a large, catering size, tin of beans. Unfortunately the paper label had disappeared so we had no idea which way up the can was. I paced up and down, looking worried.

‘If we open the wrong end,’ I told the small group in the kitchen, ‘all the beans will be upside down.’

One or two of the more knowing children smiled. Simon looked serious. He nodded.

‘You’ll never see your mums and dads open beans from the wrong end,’ I said. ‘They know what happens.’

Simon agreed. She was no fool, his mum.

‘Well, there’s nothing we can do. We’ll have to open the tin and hope for the best. Does everyone agree?’

There was a combination of knowing nods and several anxious ones.

‘What happens if you get it wrong?’ The words came from a worried nine year old.

‘All the beans will have their bottom at the top,’ I explained. ‘When you heat up beans you have to warm them from the bottom to the top. Otherwise they taste awful.’

I opened the tin. The children peered as the lid gradually bent back.

‘Oh no.’ I held my head.

There was a sharp in-drawing of breath. Simon looked shocked.

Someone laughed. It was probably Vicky.

‘It’s not funny,’ I said. ‘We’re going to have to turn them all the right way round as we put them in the pan.’

‘How do you know which end is the top?’ Simon asked.

‘It’s obvious,’ I said. ‘Look!’

I removed a bean on a spoon and held it out for his close inspection.

‘See what I mean?’

He nodded.

‘We’ll take it in turns,’ I suggested. ‘Do you want to go first, Simon? One at a time, remember. Just turn each one over as you put it in the pan.’

By now, it has to be said, the majority had realised the absurdity of the premise - but not Simon. He took the spoon and started his important duty. I stood back and admired my handiwork. Yes, it was cruel – but it was funny. To be fair, no-one laughed louder than Simon when the joke was explained about ten minutes later.

Ah, the naivety of the young.

I wonder if he remembers?

By litherlandb, Oct 18 2015 05:16PM

I always enjoyed school residential visits. From the first with Longridge County Primary to Waddecar to the very last with Canisbay Primary School to Orkney I always found them a delightful (and utterly exhausting experience). I tended to do it the hard way – self catering was essential. I organised the itinerary myself. It was never just a school trip. At my best I could organise much of the year’s curriculum around a residential visit. I took parties to Seahouses and the Farne Islands several times, to Silverdale and Arnside at least three times and to York once.

Silverdale always posed particular problems. To begin with there were no shops within five miles. Catering required the advance ordering of daily requirements at outlets en route, bread from here, milk there. The logistics were a nightmare and the food, as a consequence, rather limited in range. It also required us to take as much as possible on the back seat of the coach. Planning for that visit often began at Christmas. We stayed in a Quaker Hostel. It was very basic. Two large rooms offered the boys and girls a floor and mattresses. There was one small, private room which I always longed to take. Unfortunately it inevitably ended up the domain of the bus driver who had to stay with us. I ended up sharing a floor with a dozen snoring, sleep walking, sleep talking, sleep farting boys who seemed to take it in turns to walk maliciously across me on their way to the bathroom. Sleep only came with exhaustion.

It had great advantages though. However, the shared preparation of food, the washing up, the drying and the clearing away offered children a whole range of experiences and an opportunity to display aspects of character that could be revealed nowhere else. It was most enlightening. The opportunities for outings were also extensive. The RSPB reserve at Leighton Moss was only a few miles away, the coast and hill at Arnside a little further. The Southern Lake District, White Scar Caves and Ingleton were within easy reach. There were country houses and castle too. There was never a shortage of places to visit.

We went to Silverdale there from my lovely Devon school at South Tawton. I still don’t know what possessed me to go so far. There were just two teachers, a bus driver and the children. It was exhausting. I do remember the coach journey back down the M6 and the M5. Just past Bristol I noticed one of those now ubiquitous signs: TIREDNESS CAN KILL. I remember laughing out loud. They got that right.

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