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Sunday, 25 November 2012

Good, Sports! - Part 2


Continuing the 'nostalgedy' tale from Crutches for Ducks begun in Good, Sports! - Part 1

My memories of football at both Junior and Secondary schools are not particularly fond, as you may have gathered.  A bunch of us who “weren’t much good” would be sent off to some distant pitch on the outskirts of either Anglesey Road Rec. (“The Wreck”) or the Anglesey School playing fields.  Once gathered there, the two most able footballers would decree themselves to be the team captains and would choose their team, one player at a time, from the dishevelled and miserable ranks before them.  I used to regard it as a major triumph if, by some quirk of fate, I was not the last one to be picked, which didn’t happen very often.  Having picked their teams, the captains would then assign positions.  They (and their best mates) would obviously be in charge of the attack and mid-field (I’m trying to make it sound as if I know what I’m talking about here), whilst the rest would be given some vague defensive role (“stay back there and keep away from the ball”) and the mandatory “fat kid” would inevitably be consigned to goal-keeping duties.

I’m sure there is scope for some interesting research to be done into the psychology of children at that time, and their penchant for always consigning the dangerously obese to a role between the goalposts.  It always happened.  In fact, the pudgy one would usually start to trudge forlornly toward goal without being told to.  No-one, to my knowledge, ever questioned the logic of this.  I can only think that the idea was that sheer bulk would reduce the amount of available space between the goalposts and that this would counter the inevitable lack of athleticism.  If this was the theory, the evidence of our continuing defeats ought to have inspired a re-think.  I had a great deal of sympathy for our overweight goalkeeper and would frequently hang around the goalmouth, chatting with him while the rest of the team yelled and kicked seven bells out of each other at the opposite end of the pitch.

Defending wasn’t really a problem for me as I was rarely allowed anywhere near the ball.  If the opposition attacked they would be met with our entire team running frantically back to the goalmouth in a desperate attempt to keep me and the “fat kid” out of the action.  From my point of view, a game of football was rather like it must have been for villagers caught up in those 19th Century wars that Sean Bean did so well – surrounded by brief periods of noise and mayhem all around and then long periods of quiet and tedium.  The only down-side was if, by some catastrophe (like the whole team falling down dead), I gained control of the ball.  This was an accident waiting to happen.  I would immediately be besieged by shouts from all sides, telling me to get rid of it (which suited me just fine).  The problem was that I couldn’t kick straight to save my life and had no idea where to kick it anyway.  Such was my ineptitude that I was quite capable of tackling myself.  If I didn’t actually fall over the ball, or have it whipped away by some smart-alec from the opposing team, then I had no choice but to kick it – usually anywhere in the general direction of ‘away’.  Wherever it went, it was always accompanied by a sort of prolonged groan from my team and howls of delight from the opposition.

All of which brings me to my moment of glory, my triumph on the ‘field of dreams’.  I think it was in Junior school.  We had finally developed beyond the ‘flying wedge’ system of football (one person actually kicking the ball and the rest of the team running immediately behind him) and now occupied assigned positions.  For reasons that are lost in the mists of time, I was playing on the left wing in a forward position (perhaps someone with actual talent had been fatally injured or something and I was the only one left?)  We were mounting an attack, of sorts, on the opposition’s goal.  Our Centre-Forward was surrounded by opposition players and was desperate to get rid of the ball.  Unfortunately, the only player, unmarked and within reasonable proximity, was me.  Like a fool, I had been shouting for the ball, not because I wanted it or had any idea what to do with it, but because that was what everyone else did and I wanted to fit in.  Bereft of any real alternatives, he passed the ball forward to me.  Miraculously, I managed to trap it, without falling over or tying my legs in knots.  Not knowing what else to do, I began to dribble it toward their goal.  It was like a moment from “Chariots of Fire” (only with footballs, if you see what I mean).  The opposition seemed to be frozen in time and space.  As I ran toward the goal, no-one moved a muscle.  My heart pounded and all around me seemed suddenly quiet and still.  With only the goalkeeper to beat, I struck the ball as hard as I could and watched, in amazement, as it found the back of the goal.  I had done it!  For the first and only time in my life, I had scored a goal!

My triumph was short-lived.  As the more astute amongst you may have guessed, there was a very good reason for the opposition and goalkeeper appearing to be frozen in time and space.  Deafened by my pounding heart, I had not heard the referee blow for offside when our Centre-Forward had passed the ball to me.  It wouldn’t have meant anything to me anyway as I had no concept of the offside rule and still haven’t (something else that we were never taught but were expected to know).  One or two of the more sympathetic souls muttered something about “bad luck” but most of the rest of the team just thought it was unbelievably hilarious.

So, clearly Thomas Hood and I have similar feelings about this time of the year, but for very different reasons:

No mud, no boots, no rain without cease,
No comfortable feel…and probably no member!
No freezing wind, no blue and blotchy knees,
No kicks, no fouls, no dribbling, no howls,
November!

(Whiteland after Hood, 2008)

Both collections of Philip's stories, Steady Past Your Granny's and Crutches for Ducks are available as Kindle e-books at all Amazon sites,  or in paperback at Steady Past Your Granny's (paperback version). There's also his first foray into humorous fiction, Jambalaya



Saturday, 24 November 2012

Good, Sports! - Part 1


Another 'nostlgedy' tale from Crutches for Ducks 

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member--
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,
November!
(Extract from November by Thomas Hood, 1799-1845)

To which might usefully be added “No chance of getting off sports due to rain, fog, sleet or snow”. 

I used to have great hopes of November.  I must have been one of the few children who would get up on a school day and look out of the window in the vain hope of finding particularly inclement weather.  I was usually disappointed.  This wasn’t because I loved sloshing to school in sleet or snow or fumbling around in fog.  It was purely to do with outdoor sports.  In fact, on any other day, my heart was gladdened by the autumn sunshine.  It was just on those days when we were due to be out on the sports field that I irrationally hoped for freak weather.

I have mentioned before that I was not one of life’s keen sportsmen in my schooldays.  This is not to say that I disliked all sports.  I didn’t mind basketball much and I could quite tolerate badminton.  Even five-a-side football was just about acceptable, provided it was in the warm, dry environment of the gymnasium and not the wet, cold, muddy grimness of the playing field.  To enjoy mauling around in mud you really need to really enjoy the game you are playing and I really didn’t enjoy football.  Thinking about it, I didn’t really care for cricket either, but that’s another story.

I learned, fairly early on in my school life, that there are those to whom sporting prowess comes naturally and there are those who are not really safe to be let out on their own.  I fell into the latter category.  If you threw a ball to me, I would instantly be caught in a dilemma – should I catch it, and risk hurting myself in the process, or should I stay still and leave well alone?  Unfortunately, my infant brain usually tried to do both things at once and the end result would be that of someone in an advanced state of rigor mortis trying to shuffle a pack of cards.  I was all fingers and thumbs and attempting to be there, but not be there, if you know what I mean (which explains my antipathy toward cricket).  Therefore, in the pecking order of sporting ability, at the top would be those who were playing in the school team and their acolytes, and these would have the bulk of the P.E. Teacher’s attention.  In the middle would be those who were able but not particularly skilful, who still enjoyed a kick-about and who might reasonably hope to play for the team someday.  And then, at the bottom, there was us.  By ‘us’ I mean those who were too fat, too inept, too bone-idle or too crippled by some chronic condition, to ever play football to a level that would not be regarded as laughable by right-thinking men and women.

Considering this, it occurred to me that the term ‘P.E. Teacher’ was something of a misnomer in my day.  You see, thinking about it, I cannot recall actually being taught anything by the series of people who held this post.  I can remember being humiliated and ridiculed, I can remember being shouted and yelled at, I can remember a figure in the far distance displaying his own prowess against ‘the boys in the team’, but I cannot remember being taught anything in all my years of what was laughingly called Physical Education (not that I’m bitter in any way, of course).  I suppose, if I’m going to be fair, we must have been taught how to carry out neck-springs and so on in the gym or else we would all have been in wheelchairs by now, but when it came to football etc., I can’t remember ever being shown any techniques, strategies or even rules!  The assumption always seemed to be that these were somehow automatically passed on to every male (and it was just males in those far-off days) via mother’s milk.  Indeed, it often seemed that way, as all of my friends seemed to instinctively know the rules of football and cricket and so on without any input from the P.E. Teacher.

You can find Part 2 of this story here - Good Sports! - Part 2

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Jambalaya - another excerpt that I said I wasn't going to do!

The story so far:  Max Vobiscus, a local ne'erdowell and Riverboat gambler, has decided to sate his passion at a nearby house of ill repute.  He meets up with Jay 'Zoot' Alors, a pimp, asks about the new girls he has heard were arriving, and the following conversation ensues:


“There’s been kind of a hitch there,” Zoot admitted, “seems they were travelling down, saw a welcoming light, stopped to rest for the night and then there was dancing and so on...”
“Yes, and….”
“Well, I hear they decided they liked each other more than they liked the paying guests, if you get my drift, so they’ve set up some sort of a commune.  I’ve got a girl from Kalamazoo.”
“Is she good?”
"Well, I don't mean to boast but I know she's the toast of Kalamazoo"
"Alright, she'll do."
"You'll have to wait, there's three other guys before you."
"Forget it, I've gone off the idea.”  Max snapped.  “Do I take it you are a little, how shall I put it, light on stock at the moment?"
"Damn right,” Zoot sighed, “if things don't pick up soon I'm going to have to start wearing lipstick and calling myself Priscilla......again.  I recall another friend of mine, Titus..."
"Titus?"
"Yeah, as in tight as a duck's…."
"Oh, I see,” Max groaned, “go on."
"Thanks, I was going to anyway.  Well, Titus, he started a brothel with no girls at all, just him, in the pitch dark, doing wonders with a sink plunger.  Man, he was something.  He would have done fine if this plumber hadn't visited him one night.  Last I heard there was a team of doctors working on him and they said even if they got the plunger back there ain’t no way they could ever use it again."
"You have some strange friends."
"You think so?”  Zoot said with surprise, “you should see my enemies.  So friend, what brings your parts to these parts?"
"Frustration, Zoot.  Can I call you Zoot?"
"Sure, here's my number, give me a call" Zoot handed Max a card.
"It's all dots and dashes!"
"What else, it's Morse Code, there ain't no telephones yet, wire me!"
"That's what I keep asking, why me?”  Max muttered despondently.  “Why should I fall in love with a girl who is promised to another?"
"Beats me!”  Zoot shook his head, “Now a girl who promises you another, that's somethin' else.  Tell you what, boy, if you buy me a drink I'll tell you all about my fascinating life.  Make it two and there might even be some truth in it."
Zoot steered Max over to a beer soaked table in the corner of the bar.  A waiter shuffled over to them.
“I’ll have a shot of bourbon, what are you having, son?”
“I’ll have two fingers of red-eye.”  Max said, with a view to impressing the cowboys.
“I really don’t think you should have...” Zoot started to say.
The waiter giggled manically and poked both of Max’s eyes.
“....ordered that.” Zoot continued, “guess I should have warned you, he’s the house maniac.  You know how every bar has this mad, violent, guy that everyone avoids?”
“Yeah.”  Max choked.
“Well, Nancy figured if you’ve got to have a fruitcake you might as well get some use out of him, so she employed hers.”
Zoot looked with concern at his drinking companion who was still wiping his eyes and trying to focus.
"Are you okay, boy?"
"I'll live."
"Now don't go making promises you can't keep.  Not round here anyway.”  He turned to the waiter, “bring a bottle of Rye and two glasses and cut the smart stuff, o.k.?”
The waiter flounced away.
“You're not from these parts are you?"  Zoot attempted to restart the conversation.
"Just down the valley a piece, I'm over Wilbur's Rise."
"I wish my Dora was,” Zoot said sadly, “that's what ruined our marriage and started me on this life of sin and debauchery.....”  he brightened, “guess I should thank him really."
"You were married?"
"Sure, I ain't been a pimp, sorry 'leisure negotiator', all my life.  Hell, I used to raise chickens."
"Down on the farm?"
"Nah, up to the second storey of MacDonald's Provisions store.  I used to work the hoist.  It was an up and coming job.  ‘Cept what I didn’t know was that while I was doing the upping, Dora was......doing something else entirely with Wilbur Macdonald.”  Zoot lit a cheap cigar and puffed on it reflectively.  “He was the eldest son of the family and stood to make a packet from his Pa’s seed corn fortune one day.”
“That’s too bad.  About Dora, I mean.”  Max commented as he wiped away the tears caused by the combined effects of violence and cheap cigar smoke, from his eyes.
“Damn right, but you couldn’t blame her really, the money turned her head.”  Zoot explained, “Wilbur stood there with his wallet bulging in his pants and she damned near ricked her neck.  When they said they'd made provision for him in their will, they weren't kidding.  Old Macdonald had a firm that was worth a pretty penny.”
“Did you know what was going on?”
“No sir!  When the Macdonald’s died, tragically, ‘cos of an unfortunate accident with the hoist, I thought me and Dora could buy the store up cheap and clean up.”
“Neat plan.”  Max agreed, without conviction.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.  Shame of it was, Wilbur wasn’t with his Ma & Pa when the hoist fell.  Seems he was with Dora.  Suddenly I find myself there in charge of a Provisions store with no wife, no hoist and a Sheriff holding a frayed piece of rope and a suspicious expression."
"Did they try you?"
"Nah, they seemed pretty certain so they went straight ahead and hung me.  Like they said, even if it wasn't me this time, it would be sooner or later, so it would save effort in the long run."
"Maybe I'm missing something but, you're still alive aren't you?"
"Sure takes a good 'un to get past you don't it.”  Zoot chuckled, “well, you see, the fact of the matter was that the local hangman also happened to be the guy who fixed the hoist at Macdonalds.”
Max took a wild guess “So, the rope broke?”
“You got it!  I sets off running and don't stop till I gets to Beanstown."
"The Windy City."
"Yeah, it seemed kinda appropriate.”  

You can find Jambalaya in its full silliness at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com amongst other places.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Fireworks in Store

Another 'nostalgedy' story, taken from Crutches for Ducks





So, did you have a good Un-Bonfire Night?

It was last night, in case you missed it. Or, alternatively, it could be tomorrow night. The only night it couldn’t possibly be is the 5th November. You see, if Lewis Carroll could have 364 Un-Birthdays in each year, then I don’t see why I can’t have the same amount of Un-Bonfire Nights.

Actually, I’m a bit behind the times with this concept because, of late, the British have taken to the idea of igniting fireworks at every possible juncture, as if we had all been drafted into The Royal Artillery when we weren’t looking. Nowadays any spurious reason for celebration is seen as a good excuse to chuck a couple of tons of ordnance into the air.

It never used to be like this. In my childhood, fireworks were reserved for 5th November (remember?) and were usually not very impressive. Do you recall those little ‘family selection’ boxes that usually contained one Catherine Wheel, two or three Roman Candles, a couple of Jumping Jacks, a Banger or two and a Rocket with some improbable and wildly optimistic name like GIANT STARCHASER. The whole thing would cost about half a week’s pay and would be over and done with inside five minutes. If I sound cynical, I do apologise but I was never a fan of fireworks as a child. I couldn’t stand loud bangs and I tended to think that standing around in the cold, damp, November night waiting for something that cost a fortune to NOT go off (more often than not), was something of a pointless exercise.

Can you imagine the reaction of the Health and Safety gurus if you suggested selling something as monumentally dangerous as a Jumping Jack today? “Well, we thought we would have this firework that, when you ignite it, jumps unpredictably around the feet of the children, making loud bangs at each bounce. The kiddies will love it!” And what about rockets tilting precariously in yesterday’s milk bottle? Or the Catherine Wheel nailed hopefully to next door’s wooden fence, with predictable results (irate neighbour, badly-burnt fence and the attention of the Fire Brigade)?

The most memorable firework display that I can recall, takes me back to 1967. My Aunt and Uncle owned a successful corner shop in Walker Street, Burton, and had just decided to expand by buying the shop that Mr. and Mrs. Rawlings had run for years in Uxbridge Street. My Mum had been given a part-time job serving at this shop and she had to sort out the stock remaining after years of the Rawlings’ tenure. In the midst of all this, she found a box of very ancient fireworks that she gave to me (I can hear the Health and Safety mob’s sharp intake of breath from here!) It was mid-summer and, as we were living at my Grandparents’ house at the time, I guessed that they would not be too happy about an impromptu firework display. Quite what made me take them up to my Auntie Vera and Uncle Jim’s house in Burton Road, I don’t know, but I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.

I turned up at Auntie Vera’s clutching a paper bag full of odd and unusual fireworks, probably dating from the Dawn of Time. I didn’t have much hope that we would do anything with them because Auntie Vera was a great one for doing things by the rules and, it clearly was not Bonfire Night. Therefore, I was amazed when, as dusk fell, she said “Are we going to try those fireworks then?” Neither of us knew whether any of them would work, or whether they would explode in a shower of dust and debris. Surprisingly, most (they were of the Roman Candle/Golden Rain type) worked really well and we had quite a show.

As I stood there with Auntie Vera watching these ancient fireworks on a warm summer’s evening, both of us studiously not looking to see what the neighbours thought of our antics, I relished our mini-rebellion and celebrated my first Un-Bonfire Night.

There are three collections of Philip's stories, 'Steady Past Your Granny's' and 'Crutches for Ducks'  and 'A Kick at the Pantry Doorare available as Kindle e-books at all Amazon sites, along with his first foray into humorous fiction, 'Jambalaya'.