Sunday, July 17, 2011


I had a haircut the other day at a place in town where you don't need an appointment. I don't remember how we got around to talking about dirty people, but the young man who cut my hair told me that sometimes he'll ask a customer if they'd like a shampoo first and they'll say no, so he has to cut hair that hasn't been washed for days. I said that I feel sorry for dentists, when they have to work on smelly mouths with rotten teeth. I don't suppose that dentists can refuse, but I don't think I'd be willing to cut someone's smelly hair.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Grumpy old Goddess

If there was a god, and if she was any use at all, she'd get her act in gear and consider the following:
Smite all the despots, tyrants, bullies, and anyone who's really annoying, like Piers Morgan.

Control humankind's fertility, as the super-breeders clearly can't do it themselves. Place similar restrictions on the fertility of dogs, cats, domestic livestock, and those annoying little thrips that drive you mad before harvest-time.

Introduce a few predators and acts of goddess to cut down the numbers substantially, only with minimum pain and suffering.

Make all the homophobes homosexual - it's possible that many already are, but in denial.

Punish any misogynist, patriarchal women-botherers by instantly tying their penises in a very painful knot whenever they have any misogynist, patriarchal women-botherering thoughts, until they stop.

Instantly correct the malfunctioning thought processes of any women who utter the words, "I'm not a feminist, but..." to preface some half-baked whinge or other. There is no "but"!

Make money vanish, so that humanity adopts the Star Trek system ("Money doesn't exist in the 24th century." - Picard), which is like the old socialist system of "from each according to his/her means to each according to his/her needs", but with everyone playing a useful role in society that won't involve things like producing moronic Saturday night television.

Make it impossible for news outlets to tell an untruth.
Humanity really isn't as bright as it thinks it is.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Google maps memories No.2

I've found a few more of the places where I've lived on Google Maps - see yesterday's post.

As far as I can tell, as Google only drove past the end of the drive, this might be the farm on the English-Welsh border near Chirbury, where I worked when I first left home. It was called Moat Farm, but I like to think of it as Cold Comfort Farm, only worse. I got the job through an advert in Farmers' Weekly. It was no rural idyll. For the first few weeks, my friend Ann kept me company, before she left to go to university. After that, I was on my own with a weird family - Mum, Dad, chain-smoking Auntie, several unpleasant kids, and an old man whose origin I never knew, who wore creaky gaiters and lived in the attic. They bred Friesian dairy cattle, now commonly bred with Holstein imported from the US. If you've seen black and white cows in fields, that's them. They also produced fertile hens' eggs to be sold to the hatcheries, so we always had the double-yolkers, which were rejects, for breakfast. I milked cows and cleaned up after them, as well as a variety of other jobs, from 6.30am to anything up to 10pm, and all for a few £ a week. In those days, the milk was collected every day in large churns that had to be loaded onto a lorry from a milk stand about a metre high. Some churns were aluminium, some were steel. They were all heavy, but the steel ones were heaviest. I soon grew muscles on my muscles from lifting the damn things. The best thing that you could say about the place was that I was well fed. I had to be, all the calories I burned every day. Apart from that, it wasn't great. They sacked a couple of men the week before I started, and I was expected to do a lot of the work they'd done for less money. It didn't take me long to realise that I was being exploited, so I left. I spent the winter of 1962-63 on another farm, near Flint, where my boss was a kind man who'd survived the war as a prisoner of the Japanese in Changi Prisoner of War camp and working on the Burma railway. Bill said that the film The Bridge on the River Kwai was nothing like his experience; it wasn't horrible enough. One of the other prisoners was the illustrator Ronald Searle, most well known for the Belles of St Trinians, who drew everything that went on around them. When I left the farm to go back to Liverpool and art college, Bill said that he'd always think of me when he saw a box of Kleenex; we'd spent a lot of time that winter delivering milk around Flint with a box in the van, suffering from never-ending colds.

After a year at Liverpool College of Art, Ann and I spent the summer working in a market garden in Poeldijk, Holland, run by the Van Wingerden family. Ann lived in the house on the left with Papa and Mama and their unmarried son and daughter, while I lived next door in the bungalow, with the married son, his wife and baby. There were acres of greenhouses at the back, where they grew tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, peaches and other crops. We were very healthy, with so much fresh food. We mostly worked with the tomatoes, either pricking out seedlings or picking ripe fruit. We went on a barge to take them to market once or twice. The family was very kind. Papa spoke no English but that didn't stop him telling long-winded stories about the war, when they'd been occupied. One of his favourite stories was about fooling the Germans when they came to inspect the house with a view to billeting soldiers there. Papa borrowed some babies and small children from friends and deliberately made them cry, so that the Germans decided the house was far too noisy and crossed him off the list. He used sign language when Theo (his youngest son) couldn't translate fast enough to keep up. Papa smoked fat cigars and whenever he laughed it set him off on a wheezing session. Ann and I learned enough Dutch to get by; enough to fool the tourists when they saw us walking down the street in our wooden clogs and assumed we were local. We'd wave and smile and say a few words of Dutch, and the Americans (it was usually Americans) took photos and went away happy. One weekend, Papa decided to take us to the museum in The Hague, where we joined a party with a tour guide. She was giving a commentary in English, Dutch and French. For some reason, she thought Papa was English, so she directed some of her English commentary at him, while Ann and I were assumed to be Dutch. Papa played along, nodding furiously and saying "O yes!" now and then, while we said "Ja!" whenever she looked at us. As we left, Papa was laughing so much that he couldn't stop choking on his cigar.Theo was a student at the university in Amsterdam, where he shared a house, so we were able to stay there some weekends, drink a lot of lager, and explore the clubs and galleries. It was a good summer.

After a year at Liverpool College of Art and a summer in Holland, I went to Exeter College of Art for a three year course in Fine Art. To begin with, I had digs with a family in Topsham, on the River Exe, a short train ride from town, then I rented a flat here, in Monmouth Street, with another eccentric family. The house with the arch over the door on the right is where I lived. The couple who owned it dealt in junk of one sort or another, so the hallway was always full of the overflow. The wife's standard of hygiene left a lot to be desired, so it wasn't surprising that her husband, a small, weedy looking man, was frequently ill with stomach claimants. Apparently he'd been a prisoner of war too, which hadn't done his health any good. His wife's cooking didn't seem to be doing him much good either.

Wile I was in Topsham I worked here, at The Lighter Inn, for a man called Harold, who had a heart attack late one night after a lock-in. Small cargo boats used to moor at the quay next to the pub. I was going out with (or staying in with) one of the regulars, a former professional footballer called Patrick, when a small Dutch crew invited us aboard after closing time for a few drinks. I was so busy enjoying myself that I didn't notice that my glass was being surreptitiously topped up with Dutch gin as fast as I was drinking it. When we went up on deck I was so drunk I couldn't stand up. Patrick gave me a fireman's over the gangplank. The next day, with the worst hangover I've ever had, I realised that (a) he was almost as drunk as I was and (b) the tide was out, so there was just thick mud under the plank, and (c) I can't swim anyway. If he'd dropped me, that would  have been it. Patrick and some of the other guys took me fishing with nets in the Exe, so I often got to keep the smaller fish they'd otherwise have thrown back. I used to collect buckets of mussels along the shore as well, which were good with brown bread and butter, and if I hadn't been fishing, there'd be fresh mackerel for sale off the back of a van in the pub car park at weekends.

After a year or so in Topsham, I moved into Exeter, where I shared a flat in Wonford Road, on the left of this photo. I bought some old furniture for my room, including an enormous desk where I worked, kept my pet rat, Oscar, and a collection of skulls and pickled creatures in formaldehyde (I got there before Damian Hurst). While I was in Exeter my friend Lyn (who shared the flat for a while) got married one summer. We trooped off to the register office and then went paddling in the park with another friend's baby. Lyn and Nick are grandparents now.

Google maps memories No. 1

I started looking for places where I've lived or worked on Google Maps the other day, to see how they'd changed. I couldn't find some. I'd either lost the addresses or they'd changed so much I didn't recognise them. Some buildings have had a change of use. Some have deteriorated, others have been done up. Hardly any were as I remembered them.

This is where I was born, in Waterloo, Liverpool. In 1944, before the establishment of the NHS, it was a Catholic maternity home. My family wasn't Catholic, but it was local and my mum didn't want a home birth. In fact, she'd have preferred not to be at the birth at all, just like she'd rather not have been at the conception, so my dad had to find the money (over £100, which was a lot in those days) to pay for private care. It's called Park House, and it's still run by nuns, though now it's a bed and breakfast. Nathan and I stayed there when we went up for a family funeral a few years ago. It was very clean and the breakfast was good, but Jesus and Mary were everywhere, and there were crucifixes over our beds. I told the nun who brought our breakfast that I'd been born there and she said we were in what had been the nursery.

This is Fernhill Avenue, Bootle, where my paternal grandmother lived in the first house on the left with her youngest son, my Uncle Colin, who didn't marry until I was in my teens. My mum and I stayed here when I was a toddler, while Dad was still away at the end of the war - he served in Norway. Mum and her mother-in-law didn't get on especially well, from what I can gather. Nana wasn't a generous woman. She continued to use war rations in her cookery long after rationing ended. We always celebrated Christmas here on Boxing Day with my dad's family, when I'd have to share a bed with Nana. It was hot and uncomfortable, as she had a feather mattress with a big dip in the middle, so you slid together however hard you tried not to. Her hair was long enough to sit on (it wasn't cut until she got old, to make it easier to care for her), and seldom washed, so there was an overpowering smell of unwashed hair in bed. It was always a relief to go home, and back to my own bed.

We moved a couple of times after my birth in 1944 and my sister's in 1949, until my maternal grandmother died in 1953, the same year as the king, as Mum pointed out. This nana wasn't especially old - she couldn't have been more than her early sixties - and my mum was devastated. Nana had raised five kids virtually single-handed, as my granddad was a merchant seaman, so away a lot. When he was home, he wasn't much use about the house. When Nana died we moved into their rented home so that Mum could care for her dad, who was a miserable old man. I didn't like taking friends home while he was still alive, because of his antisocial habits. Mum had a lot to cope with; caring for her dad, fostering a baby nephew when her sister had a breakdown, and two stroppy daughters. The house has changed a lot. New rendering on the walls, new windows, and the shared access to the rear of the houses, where a crazy neighbour once tried to set fire to Dad's car, divided up and fenced off. I left here as soon as I could, when I was about seventeen or eighteen, to work on a farm in North Wales, but had to come back for about a year when I went to Art College in Liverpool. That was on condition that I worked at weekends and paid all my own expenses. Mum used to complain that I embarrassed her because I came home on the bus covered in paint or plaster dust.

This is where I had my first job when I left school at sixteen, as a clerk with the Midland Bank. It's not a bank any more. It was near the docks but not so far from home that I couldn't cycle to work. It was before equal pay, and I got about £21 a month and gave half to Mum for my keep. On the weekends that I didn't have to work (we did alternate Saturdays), I sometimes took my rucksack to work on Fridays so that I could meet my best friend, Ann, who worked in another branch of the bank nearby, and we'd go and catch the ferry to Birkenhead, then a bus to North Wales, where we went youth hostelling.
This is a view across to Liverpool from Birkenhead. The ferry was always packed with commuters on Friday evenings, and we delighted in walking around the deck with our rucksacks on, in the opposite direction to everyone else.

After a couple of years working on dairy farms in North Wales for £4 a week plus my keep, I got a place at art college and Ann went to university. I worked here at Lewis's department store on Saturdays, moved from one department to another to cover for absentees. When I was working in the cafeteria on the top floor, the manager asked to see some of my drawings, took the nudes from my life drawing class into his office for half an hour and appeared rather flushed when he emerged, saying "Very nice", before rushing off to do something he'd forgotten to do. Some of our regular customers were prostitutes who worked on Lime Street, including one whose face was covered in pock marks. She was always very friendly. I worked with a woman called Joan, who wouldn't wear the regulation nylon overall but brought her own semi-transparent one with a pleated skirt. You always knew when she was coming because she had so much cheap jewellery on that she jingled like Santa's sleigh, and she used to whoop with laughter at the slightest thing. She was great fun to be with and had a fund of funny stories to tell, including the one about how her friend had sat on a man's knee in a pub loo during the war, because it was the blackout and she'd been in so much of a hurry to pull her knickers down that she hadn't checked that she was in the ladies. The man got the surprise of his life.

After my Pre-Diploma course at Liverpool College of art, which I did in a year instead of the usual two because I was classed as a "mature student", I spent a summer working with Ann on a market garden in Poledijk, Holland, before leaving home for the last time to study in Devon. Every time I went home, things had changed, so that eventually I hardly recognised lots of the places I'd known. I haven't been back for years.