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Always nice to get a positive review for one of my books and even better when it comes from another 'ex-pat' Burtonian!  Carol post...

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Forty Years On: How many cigarettes to Arenal?

Continuing a story that begins in Forty Years On and Counting and continues with Putting a lid on it

Four weeks or so of diligently providing caps for (arguably) the nation’s favourite sandwich spreads, provided me with untold wealth.  Well, untold wealth from my point of view, my only comparison being the meagre rewards from my paper round before Mr. Kidger in Uxbridge Street, Burton, finally dispensed with my services (which is another story altogether).  Inevitably, all of this money burned a hole in my pocket and, one second-hand moped later (yet another story) I was returned to my usual impecunious state.

September arrived and I presented myself at Burton Technical College (as it then was) in Lichfield Street for my first day of lessons under the new regime.  I was to study ‘A’ Level English Literature and Economic & Social History.  As these two subjects together did not fill my week sufficiently to satisfy the Education Authority, I had also opted (rather optimistically) to take ‘O’ Level Mathematics. 

Day 1, and my first lesson of the week was History with the wonderfully laid-back Mr. M as our teacher.  The class was small, perhaps 15 students in total, and comprised of a large number of girls, mostly from my old school, plus two lads, me and Kev.  It soon became apparent that Kev was everything that I was not.  Tall, blond, handsome and supremely at ease with people in general and women in particular, he contrasted sharply with the short, dark-haired youth, with a face that only a mother could love, parked at the other end of the row of seats (me, if you were in any doubt).  Whilst Kev could charm birds from trees, I looked more like a candidate for Dutch Elm disease.  Crippled with shyness, I found it difficult to even hold a conversation with my ex-Anglesey classmates, let alone someone I didn’t know at all.

Tea break came and we trooped off to the Refectory,  Kev in animated conversation with some of the girls, me trailing along behind. This is probably how things would have stayed had my addiction not compelled me to take a leap of faith.  I had absolutely no cigarettes.  I hadn’t even been able to ‘borrow’ one from my dad’s packet (probably because he didn’t have any either).  So, by tea break every fibre of my being was screaming.  This was particularly galling as one of the main attractions of Burton Tech was that students were treated as adults and were allowed to smoke with impunity.  It was, therefore, particularly hard to be cigarette-less on the first occasion when I didn’t have to nip behind the bike sheds to indulge.

“Erm, you don’t happen to have a spare fag I could borrow?”

I surprised myself with this outburst, but needs must when the cravings drive.  Kev looked back up the stairs, said “Yeah, sure” and produced a packet of Players No. 6 Tipped, a rare luxury for someone who had previously existed on a diet of Senior Service Extra, Benson & Hedges Sovereign or Players No. 10, all of which had filter tips that were nearly as long as the tobacco portion, and that wasn’t saying much.

We chatted and, over the rest of the academic year, became firm friends.  It was a good match because he had cigarettes, money and an easy confidence with girls and I wished to acquire all three.  As the next summer holidays approached, we talked about how we could spend these doing something marginally more exciting that putting caps on jars of vegetable and beef extract.  Kev had dreams of hitch-hiking through France and grape-picking.  Exciting as these sounded, they came crashing up against my deeply conservative inner adult (other people have an inner child, I have an inner adult, it’s depressing but it keeps me out of trouble).  I set about modifying Kev’s ambitions.

It was 1971 and package holidays were being made available for the masses by firms like Clarksons (remember them?)  Somehow, I managed to persuade Kev to abandon his dreams of life on the open road and a bohemian existence amongst the peasant farmers, and settle instead for a week at the Hotel Arenal Park, Arenal, Majorca, of which more next time in No, Luton Airport!

You can find more stories from The Slightly Odd World of Phil Whiteland in e-book format - Steady Past Your Granny's - Kindle Edition (UK) or Steady Past Your Granny's - Kindle Edition (USA)

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Forty Years On: Putting a lid on it!

Last time (Forty Years On and Counting) I was on the verge of leaving Anglesey Secondary Modern in Burton and setting off for the heady delights of Burton Technical College.  There remained the small matter of what I was going to do in the interim?  Staying at home sleeping was, apparently, not an option.

At that time, my dad was a Departmental Manager at Bovril/Marmite in Wellington Road and (with a bit of persistent nagging on my part) he managed to wangle a summer job for me in the warehouse.  This was quite an achievement because, having an August birthday, I was still only 15 when I left school.  In addition, I was about 8 stone dripping wet and looked like the “Before” part of a Charles Atlas advert.  So, dressed in a bunch of my dad’s old clothes (I took the view that turning up in my school uniform might not be a good move, and there wasn’t much else) I presented myself to the foreman at 7.30 on Monday morning.  I immediately found that my first difficulty was trying not to call anyone in authority ‘sir’, as had been drilled into me for the last 10 school years.  The foreman took one look at the pathetic spectacle before him, almost buried in a set of white overalls, and clearly decided that I was “too light for heavy work”.  So, while the small army of university students were set to work offloading lorries and stacking boxes, I was detailed to assist on the production lines.

This was actually something of a ‘non-job’ but it still presented me with more than a few challenges.  I was responsible for filling the hoppers on each line (about 6 in all) with the lids that would go on to the jars of Bovril or Marmite.  Usually, the girls on the line covered this task.  Obviously, these hoppers had to be kept full at all times, otherwise lidless jars of beef or vegetable extract would be literally pouring off the line.  Unfortunately, this involved two of my main nightmares, climbing things, and being in full view of a group of very confident women (the production lines being a largely female preserve then).  Given that I would blush scarlet if anyone of the opposite gender even looked in my direction, this did not bode well.

I was shown what to do by my foreman.  The job had a lot in common with those ‘spinning plates’ variety acts that used to appear on such things as The Good Old Days (and a certain bank advert now).  I had to carry a box of lids up to the top of the steps by each hopper and pour the lids in as necessary.  Climbing steps with a box in one arm, whilst gripping the rail like something possessed with the other, was a challenge, but was as nothing compared to teetering over a churning hopper whilst the production line whizzed below and a series of ribald remarks issued from the girls on the line.  For the rest of the day, and the next four weeks, I had to run from one line to the other, keeping all of the hoppers filled and making sure that fresh supplies of the lids were brought from the warehouse as necessary.  It was quite a responsibility!

My first big mistake happened at the end of Day 1.  I had been told that my normal hours of work were 7.30 to 4.30, so when the production lines stopped and the girls lined up at the clocking points to clock off, so did I.  After all, this was how it worked at school, when the bell rang, you headed home.  What I had not allowed for was the additional hour each day of ‘voluntary’ overtime for the warehouse workers.  I was rapidly educated on this matter the following morning by my Supervisor and the rest of the team.  The deal was that everyone stayed for overtime, even if there was nothing to do.  By going home, I had rocked the boat, as Management would wonder why everyone else in the warehouse needed to be there, if I didn’t.  I guess this was my introduction to industrial relations!


For the next thrilling instalment, see How many cigarettes to Arenal?

You can find more stories from The Slightly Odd World of Phil Whiteland in e-book format - Steady Past Your Granny's - Kindle Edition (UK) or Steady Past Your Granny's - Kindle Edition (USA)

Saturday, 22 January 2011

The Slightly Odd World of Phil Whiteland: Forty Years On (and counting)

The Slightly Odd World of Phil Whiteland: Forty Years On (and counting): "With everyone starting to think about their summer holidays, I thought this series of articles that originally appeared in the Derby Telegra..."

Forty Years On (and counting)

With everyone starting to think about their summer holidays, I thought this series of articles that originally appeared in the Derby Telegraph last year might have some relevance.


It comes as quite a shock to discover that it is forty years since a particular point in your personal history, like it being forty four years since we last won the World Cup, for example, and yet I can still remember watching the game on our black and white TV.  In 2010 we celebrated our Twentieth Wedding Anniversary, and yet it only seems a year or two since we were cutting the wedding cake as the February rain lashed against the windows of our village hall.  However, it came as quite a surprise to realise that, in September 2010, I had known my mate Kev for forty years.  Thoughts come tumbling through your mind, like; How did that happen?  Where did the time go?  And, thank heavens he’s given up smoking so I’ll never have to give him back the cigarette I cadged on the stairs of Burton Technical College.

This is the start of a story that culminates in a very silly holiday in Majorca but also celebrates a friendship that endures despite geography and advancing age.  However, before we get ahead of ourselves, I need to explain how I came to be on the stairs of Burton Technical College in the first place.

Anglesey Secondary Modern in Clarence Street, Burton had a great reputation for achieving what it was founded for - to provide sufficient vocational and academic training to fit its pupils for work in the brewing, printing or engineering industries.  The brightest boys achieved apprenticeships with Rolls Royce, whilst others gained employment with Bass or Ind Coope.  Some went to Darleys or Tresises, others to BTR or Briggs.  One particularly over-achieving student had gained a post, at the personal invitation of Sir Clifford Gothard, to his accountancy business and was spoken of in hushed tones by staff and students alike.  He floated around the school on a cloud of success, viewing the rest of us scruffy scholars with disdain.  I often wonder what happened to him.  Is he now a force to be reckoned with in The City, or does he wrangle supermarket trolleys, muttering about what might have been?  Anyway, as a school, it was not really designed for academic prowess and had pretty much done everything it could with you by the time you reached 14 or 15.  The few of us who had gone on to sit GCE ‘O’ Levels, had nowhere to go if we wanted to continue our studies.  We had to find some institution that would accept us into its Sixth Form.

The options open to us were, for the boys, the Grammar School, for the girls, the Girls’ High School, and for both genders, Burton Technical College.  As the Grammar School was where I was supposed to be heading before I made an unexpected mess of my 11+, it was assumed that I would gravitate there.  I was less sure, particularly after a visit there made it apparent that I would be expected to wear a uniform again (the rules for this were relaxed at Anglesey for us in the Upper 5th) and to take an active part in the playing of rugby and other sports, as well as P.E.  Given that it had taken me five years to finally extricate myself from all of this at Anglesey (and I had never grappled with rugby), I wasn’t entirely sure that this pursuit of academic excellence was worth the candle.  Fortunately, the Grammar School apparently viewed me with the same distaste, as they decided to forego my kind offer to study with them.  This was not quite the blow it might have been as I had now visited Burton Tech. and had seen that there I could smoke, drink tea and coffee (instead of school milk) from Perspex cups in the Refectory and generally be treated like an adult (which I was not, but aspired to be) as opposed to an overgrown schoolboy (which I was, but didn’t like to admit it).

All I had to do now was to fill in the yawning gap between leaving Anglesey and joining Burton Tech., of which more next time (Putting the lid on it)


You can find more stories from The Slightly Odd World of Phil Whiteland in e-book format - Steady Past Your Granny's - Kindle Edition (UK) or Steady Past Your Granny's - Kindle Edition (USA)

Sunday, 9 January 2011

And now, a word from our sponsor

The idea occurred to me as I was reading a Christmas Card from a distant friend of the family.  In it he mentioned that he had just completed a 600 mile walk in a month in Italy and raised £1.500 for a very worthwhile charity.  My initial reaction was, “Strewth, I would have paid that not to walk 600 miles in a month”, and then it struck me!

You see, my contention is that, whilst the world is full of earnest types, like our distant friend, who are never happier than when they’re tramping up hill and down dale, or risking life and limb in the name of charity, there are also a great number of those, like me, who would rather do nothing.

Now, don’t get me wrong.   I have, in my time, shaken a tin on some windswept, God-forsaken, corner with the best of them.  I have also endured a 10 mile sponsored dog walk, which the dog managed a damn sight better than I did.  However, on each and every occasion, the amount of money raised was so pitiful in comparison to the pain, suffering and general embarrassment endured that I would gladly have contributed twice that amount to have avoided it altogether.

Therefore, my modest proposal is as follows.  Charities should still run these sponsored events and those who are sufficiently motivated should continue to complete them.  However, there should be a separate category for those, like me, who ‘can’t be a*sed’.  This group should be given the opportunity to indulge in a little reverse sponsorship.  The charity should estimate what they could have raised, had they been sufficiently a*sed, and they should then pay this amount to avoid having to do it.  Ah yes, I hear you cry, but what happens if the individual concerned does not keep their end of the bargain.  After all , the ‘can’t be a*sed’ are, by definition, not very well motivated.  Well, I’ll admit this does involve the charities in a little expenditure, but you have to speculate to accumulate, as I think Bernard Madoff might have said.  Charities would need to employ a few teams of thugs (there can’t be any shortage if Crimewatch is anything to go by).  These thugs would then be charged with visiting any reverse sponsor who had not coughed up the readies and ‘persuade’ him/her to either part with the money or do the activity anyway (getting themselves sponsored in the process).  It’s a win/win scenario.

I commend the idea to the House.

The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA and now read the new bumper collection of stories, Crutches For Ducks at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Friday, 7 January 2011

Behind a Plaintive Smile?

As the Isley Brothers didn’t quite sing.
Anyone who doubts the veracity of the title of this story should steel themselves and take a look at the school picture at the end of this post. Now you have that image firmly fixed in your mind (and don’t blame me if you find yourself waking in the night, screaming), you may ask yourself “how could such a thing happen?” Well...
My first two years at Anglesey Secondary Modern were spent at what I believe was the old Burton Technical High School in Bond End. I don’t know why, they just were. Each year the collection of spotty adolescents were paraded before a camera to obtain pictures that could be sold at an exorbitant price to the adoring family of the child concerned. In this particular year (Year 2, if memory serves) an all-female team of photographers drew the short straw. The gender is not particularly important except for the fact that, in what was a rather chauvinistic age, it was most unusual to find women carrying out this particular task.
On this occasion, the photographers were not just breaking new ground in gender terms. We were also told that they were employing a brand new form of technology which should result in high quality colour photographs. I have no idea what form this technology was supposed to take, but it was obviously ‘cutting edge’ as the equipment kept breaking down, which seems to be a fairly reliable definition.
We pupils were lined up in the Hall (boys down one side and girls down the other, presumably to deter any potential unpleasantness). Clearly processing hundreds of schoolchildren in one session was always going to be something of an uphill struggle, even without temperamental technology, and we seemed to be lined up for hours. As each boy was photographed, a series of cat calls and ‘smart alec’ remarks issued from the line of waiting youths. Those who had the misfortune to be in the chair when the camera failed, came in for particular attention.
Always a nervous child, my apprehension was increasing at a rate of knots as the line shuffled slowly forward. This excessive waiting time meant that I had considerable time to think about exactly how I would go about posing for the photograph. You see, whilst most ‘normal’ lads would spend the time in line nattering about football, giving each other ‘dead legs’ or surreptitiously chewing gum vacantly, I was wondering how to smile. This, as the photograph indicates, was not a constructive line of thought.
Finally, my turn came and I was positioned in front of the camera, lights and flash equipment. There was a fairly constant stream of insults and ribaldry heading in my direction from the assembled students. My confidence, already at rock bottom, was further knocked when the photographer asked if that was what I called a smile? However, my embarrassment peaked when the equipment failed spectacularly just as my photograph was being taken. This was clearly over and above the previous problems, as it engendered a great deal of bustling about, head scratching and rushing hither and thither. Of course, the entertainment value of all this to my compatriots was beyond price. As I sat there, cringing with embarrassment, my fellow students had the time of their lives. Eventually, the equipment was coaxed back into action and the photograph was taken.
You can see the result. I’m sure you can imagine how pleased I was.

The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA