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Helping Jo With Her Last Chapter.

I am grateful to Stevie Turner for sharing this blog from writer Jo Robinson. If you read it you will see that she has posed a number of questions. My responses are below, and I guess they reveal that I am one very lucky guy. What about you? Why not follow her suggestion and answer her questions on your blog or in the comments on hers.

Image shows3D image of a book entitled The Secret Life of People in print, tablet at smart phone editions

1. Do you believe that you are living a fulfilled life?

Yes – married 55 years, modestly successful career as an Engineer, a decade in politics trying to serve my community through its governance, 4 decades of serving the community as a volunteer. Now officially retired but still active as a volunteer and trying a new career as a writer.


2. Do you think that people have a purpose, and if so, do you know what yours is?

Yes – to do whatever you can to make the lives of others, especially those close to you, to reach their potential.


3. Are you satisfied with the way the world and your country is governed?

No – Who is? It’s mostly because no two people can agree on what is the best way for the country/world to be governed. So at any one time at least half the people will be dissatisfied – and if compromises are reached many more than half will be!


4. Do you think that civilised societies today are on the right track?

Not entirely – in recent decades civilised societies have lost their way, pursuing material well being without giving sufficient thought to its effect on the environment, other people and future generations.


5. If you work, are you happy with your job?

I had many jobs over the years and was happy in all of them.


6. If money was no object, what would you do with your days?

Probably nothing much different to what I do now – after all, I am in the fortunate position of having a pension that provides for my immediate needs with a little over – in other words, money is no real object!


7. Do you believe in life after death or reincarnation?

No.


8. Do you believe that there will be consequences for good or evil acts?

Yes – but in this life, not in any future existence


9. Do you or someone that you know have problems with anxiety or depression?

No.

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Saturday Sound Off – #METO and the difficulty of creating believable characters.

Several things recently got me thinking about the difficulty of creating solid, flesh and blood and sympathetic characters, even when those characters do things that you can never imagine yourself doing.

The first was an interview with John Boyne who has done it time and again in his novels. The next was starting to read Milkman, this year’s Man Booker prize winning book. I have so far only read the first 50 pages, but already it is teaching me things about our recent history and about the craft of writing from deep inside the head of a character. Set in Northern Ireland during the 1970s it appears to be an indictment of the stifling masculinity and the paranoia that drove the violence on both sides of the sectarian divide.

The second thing was this article by a woman film maker about the way men portray women and her admiration for two movies in which women have, in her opinion, successfully portrayed men.

When I think about my own writing I can’t escape the conclusion that too many of my characters are merely poor reflections of aspects of myself. But I also think that the problem of men portraying women, and vice-versa, is just one facet of a much more complex problem: can a heterosexual accurately portray a homosexual? A white middle class person a poor immigrant? Any of us any other person’s deep inner personality and thought processes?

It is important because the narrative arts – theatre, film and literature – are the windows through which the rest of us are enabled to experience the lives of others. If those lives are miss-represented then it creates the cultural attitudes that drive some men to behave inappropriately toward women or certain politicians to spread fear of migrants seeking a better life. And, conversely, it is the way that better life is portrayed in the media that attracts those migrants in the first place.

I’ll say  no more, but hand you over to Joey at:

https://honeythatsok.com/2018/11/08/masculinity-written-and-directed-by-women-the-rider-leave-no-trace/comment-page-1/#comment-7687

Monday Memories – 1968 Part 2

One of the conditions of buying a house from Hereford City Council was that we were not supposed to sell at a profit, at least, not until we’d lived in it for five years. We could, however incorporate the value of ‘improvements’ within the sale price, with the agreement of the council. I’d built a few cupboards and shelves, we were leaving behind a new, Cyril Lord, fitted carpet and there was the garden that I’d created from nothing. We were, therefore, able to put the house on the market for around £600 more than the original price we’d paid, and had no difficulty finding a buyer at that price.

Finding a house in Coventry at the same price was not as easy. For a start you could only get a building society mortgage if you had been saving with the same society for at least 3 months. That was not a problem, nor was the imposed limit of 3 times annual earnings. However the notional 10% deposit required was. Any loan against a house purchase would be a maximum of 90%, not of the asking price, but of the society’s valuation and this was almost always lower.

To give a hypothetical example, a house on the market for £4,000 could, in theory, be acquired with a deposit of £400. The building society might value it at £3850, meaning that, unless the vendor was prepared to accept a reduced offer, the purchaser would have to find £535. And then there were solicitor’s fees and agent’s commission, not forgetting any redecorating that might need doing on a house that had been occupied for a number of years.

We made one or two weekend house hunting forays to Coventry. Freda’s brother drove us there on at least one such occasion. We looked at a number of prewar houses which, once we took account of the above factors, proved to be beyond our means.

Some of these viewings provided our first experience of families whose origins were in the Indian sub-continent. It was not unusual to find that only the children spoke English. The cooking smells, too, were a revelation to us. I can honestly say that we did not find any of this objectionable. Hereford, at the time, had only a handful of families of foreign origin so we had little experience of alien cultures*. Nevertheless, the presence of such diversity was one of the attractions of the move to Coventry. Hereford, by comparison, seemed backward.

Not withstanding the cooking smells, there was no doubt the homes of Asian families in Coventry were clean, something that I could not say about some homes I’d visited on a regular basis during the preceding couple of years in my role as collector for a football based charity lottery. In the mid-fifties a producer of nickel alloys established its manufacturing base in Hereford. Over the following years the company’s old units in Birmingham and Glasgow were closed and a number of employees moved to Hereford where many were housed in the same estate on which we had purchased our house.

I recall being horrified by the condition of a few homes I visited; just a few years old yet the front doors were filthy. On at least one occasion I saw a front door with a large hole caused, like the muck, I suppose, either by a football or a boot. When the door was opened the person doing so would be followed by a blast of warm, fetid air ripe with the smell of dog.

After looking at several preowned homes it became obvious that our best bet would be to find a newly built house on a modern estate. One such was almost complete on a site previously occupied by Coventry’s greyhound stadium. The Stadium Estate was a relatively small development consisting of semi-detached and terraced houses and a couple of two story apartment blocks, between Holbrooks Lane and Lockhurst Lane on the North West outskirts of the city. There was a bus stop within comfortable walking distance, on Holbrooks Lane, making access to the city and my place of work easy.

The house we purchased was at the end of a block of 3 next to a junction between two culs-de-sac. There was very little garden at the front, most of which was occupied by a car port. There was, however, a modest area at the back which I could turn into a garden.

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You will recall that I had given up on motoring upon getting married some five years previously. Working for Denco Miller I occasionally drove a car from the company pool. To get to Cambridge and Coventry for my interviews I hired a Mini. With its low centre of gravity, front wheel drive and innovative suspension, the Mini was especially good at going around corners fast. I remember boasting at how quickly I’d covered those two journeys, neither of which included sections of motorway. That network, in the UK, was still in its infancy.

For the first five months of working in Coventry I used the bus; departing Hereford on Sunday afternoon and returning Friday evening. But for the weekend of our move I needed a car to convey wife, child and those domestic essentials that we would need whilst unpacking the big stuff from the furniture van. The car rental company in Coventry didn’t have a Mini available but could rent me a brand new Morris Minor. Although new, this vehicle was based on outdated technology and was far less manoeverable than the Mini, as I was to discover to my cost.

One of the recent additions to the embryonic motorway network, the M5, crossed the road I had to travel. A new bridge had been constructed with a wide approach for maybe 50 metres either side, after which it reverted to its narrow, winding norm. It was November, dark, damp and, possibly, icy. I accelerated on the wide section of road and entered the first half of an ‘S’ bend traveling much too fast. This meant I was on the wrong side of the road approaching the second half of the ‘S’. I mounted the grass verge and was brought to a stop by the hedge.

I mentally sighed with relief and began to wonder where I could find someone to tow me out of the hedge. I felt the car start to tilt and at once I was upside down then the right way up, with the sound of water trickling somewhere.

The driver’s side door was jammed against a grass bank and would not open. I clambered across to the passenger door and exited the car. I had left the road on the right hand side so the road should now be on my left. The spin made me think the car had turned around to face the wrong way. So I climbed over the bonnet of the car to ascend the bank on the driver’s side and found to my surprise I was in a field.

When I eventually made my way onto the road I could see the lights of a building about 100 metres ahead. Somewhere, I hoped, where I might get help and access to a telephone. I realised that my back was wet. I could not sense any injury – later I discovered a graze on my left hip left by the seat belt. The building whose lights had attracted me revealed itself as a pub. I explained my situation and was pointed to a telephone from which I called the police to report the accident (necessary for the rental company’s insurance) and a neighbour to let Freda know I was unhurt but would be home late. Could she contact her brother to come and get me?

I was quite shaken by the experience and asked the pub landlady for a large whisky. She sensibly advised against alcohol until after the police had talked to me.

The following morning I had to hire another car in Hereford for our journey to Coventry. On the way we stopped to look at the Morris Minor and rescue some of my belongings from it. The back window had shattered as the car rolled into a deep ditch beyond the hedge. Everything was soaked in stagnant, evil smelling water.

There was no doubt that I was very fortunate: firstly that there was nothing coming from the other direction when I crossed the road and secondly that I was uninjured in the subsequent roll-over. The car was invisible from the road and, had I been immobilised, I could have lain there all night.

*I ought to add that one of my colleagues at Denco Miller, a highly intelligent and educated young Engineer, was Indian, having graduated from one of India’s universities before completing his Masters degree in London. As a Proposals Engineer he had set up one of the contracts that was handed to me to execute and I remember traveling with him to London for a meeting with the client and being introduced to some of his University friends at an Indian restaurant.

A Date With. . . Max Power

My ‘date’ this time is Dublin born author Max Power. In his response to my first question he agrees that his Dublin childhood is an important influence, but goes on to say that it is only part of the story.

“The Jesuit maxim of ‘give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man’ is not something I buy into. It’s never too late to change direction. Perhaps the greatest influence in my writing has been the deaths of my mother, my father and my elder brother who died all too young aged 53. I struggled with grief when my mother passed in particular and I know in hindsight that I was damaged by not dealing fully with the loss at the time.

Love, loss and death are central themes in all of my books, I suspect largely because of how my life has developed. I have been asked for example, why I write across genre. For me there is no line that divides the twisting paranormal tale of Darkly Wood from the book I wrote about a little boy whose name I never reveal. Both are written in my voice and it is a voice that comes directly from my head to tell the reader a story.

I am a simple story teller, no more, no less.

Other writers will understand the huge effort that goes into writing a book, but I like to think that whoever reads my stories is sitting comfortably and hearing the lilt of my voice with each written word. It is certainly what I like to feel when I read a book and I spend a lot of time when editing, focusing on words that hopefully achieve this. I guess therein lies the craft.”

81nobyqnfnl-_sy300_Like so many indie authors, Max’s writing journey began quite late in life although he had always had stories in his head waiting to be unleashed.

“I have always been a writer I guess and I devoured books as a reader for as long as I can remember. I have a vivid recollection of being beaten by a De La Salle Brother for writing the title of my essay at the top of every page, just like I had seen in books. He ignored the fact that while every other boy in the class barely managed to fill one page for their essay, mine was 12 pages long. The shock of being punished for working so hard was unbearable at the time.

I have worked hard all through my life and part of that involved extensive travel, including a full year living and working in Australia. Along the way my children had to be reared and as you say, life gets in the way. I tend to work on multiple projects at once and one such current rewrite dates back to a book I first wrote in 1990. In short I have always tipped away, but I have finally reached a place in life where I have a little more time to dedicate to my writing and therein lies the answer.”

His first three novels were published in 2014. Subsequent books have appeared at longer intervals in what turns out to have been a deliberate marketing strategy.

“One of my primary degrees is in marketing, so I knew I had to get a batch of books to market to have any chance of developing a profile as a writer.

The first book I published was Darkly Wood, a true labour of love for me. I had already written first drafts of the next two books so in the first year I was working to a very specific plan – 3 books. I always work on multiple projects. Right now for example I am finishing Darkly Wood III, rewriting a book I mentioned earlier, a thriller called Apollo Bay set in Australia, there is a story set during the Irish Famine, and one that has a loose connection to Little Big Boy as well as a couple of other projects in development. I like to move from project to project at different stages as I feel it keeps me interested. I never have writers block and I think my methodology has a lot to do with this.”

81wqpmhuxil-_sy300_A recent reduction in published output is undoubtedly the result of what I chose to refer to as “a brush with ill health”. Turns out that was something of an understatement.

“My ‘brush with ill health’ saw me go to hospital for a relatively routine procedure. Unfortunately on the table things went wrong and to put it simply, my heart stopped and I had to be revived.

I had suffered a heart attack and ended up in a critical care unit for two weeks. It was a wrecking ball through my life. I am still relatively young and I went from being a healthy, fit man, to someone who couldn’t walk up the stairs without stopping for a break.

People asked me what was it like and I do have decent recall of what happened, though not a full memory of course. I was conscious up to the point a nurse climbed onto the table and started to squeeze a bag of fluids to which I was attached. I distinctly remember that the mood in the room changed and another nurse took my hand. She calmly told me that everything would be fine – that I would be fine.

I understood in that moment, I’m not sure why, that I was dying.

My life didn’t flash before my eyes but I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. I’m melancholic by nature although I cover it up for the greater world. I suspect in those moments, as I briefly crossed over, my natural self took over. I just felt sad for those I was leaving behind, my darling Joanna and my wonderful children. When I came around I was changed.

Bizarrely for a man who is a total sceptic and has no time for ghosts, spirits etc, I discovered that I now have a new dark companion who I have blogged about so I won’t go into detail here. I strongly suspect it is a delusional apparition, but there is a very dark and frightening, portentous element to his visits that make me uncomfortable.

In the last year I have had a run of bad luck health wise, mostly relatively minor things, but they have hugely impacted my writing time. As I type, I am struggling with a shoulder injury and to be honest, I have a serious pain in my backside with the recent list of creaky, old man ailments that have hunted me down one after the other. But on the bright side, my trips through the world of medicine are always good food for my blog.”

8197jivbbal-_sy300_Max’s often satirical, and always very funny, blog has a large following. He offers this advice to bloggers wishing to emulate his success:

“I approach my blog very differently than most bloggers – or at least I think I do. It is not a commercial enterprise, nor an exercise in narcissism. I love telling stories. Even in the flesh I never shut up. My blog is an extension of that side of me. I sit at my laptop and have a little wander through my thought process. I will tell a story, usually multi-compartmented, and my goal is either to bring a smile or just to share some often very honest truths about myself.

It’s not a confessional but I know from interactions with readers of my blog, that I often connect with others going through similar experiences. It is a sampler if you will, of my writing. It is my penny dreadful in a way, a teaser of me and a good place to practice being concise, which is important for me as a writer.

The advice I would give for whatever value that might be, is to know what you want to write about.

If you have to struggle each time you sit down to write a blog, then you haven’t discovered what it is you are trying to achieve.

My blog is what it is, it does exactly what it says on the tin. I do use imagery and spend more time choosing my images than I do actually writing the blogs as I understand the importance of the visual impact – again my history in the world of marketing coming out.

Like all my writing advice, I go back to the heart of what writing should be.

Be interesting, be relevant and always think of your audience first.

Some writers think too much of themselves and forget that ultimately they need to engage and entertain their readers.”

He does not (yet) have a special place for his writing:

“I write anywhere. Kitchen table, sofa, office at lunch break, hotel rooms when I travel, there is no special place. We moved to our current house three years ago and there is a space I’ve got my eye on, but with one grown lad, Joanna’s 93year old mother and three dogs, I have yet to find the time to confiscate and decorate. I write every day, if only a small amount it doesn’t matter. I alternate from a first draft, to editing different drafts or rewrites, and it is a slow process but I keep at it.”

81rjxrvczjl-_sy300_Although his books are strongly character driven they are mostly worked out in his head before he begins committing them to paper.

“I write every book in my head, start to finish. It can take months for me to develop a story, my mind is a whirlwind of noise, it never stops and that can be a bad thing. But among the clutter there is always my latest planned project. When I am happy with it, I sit down and write it through start to finish without any edits until I get the story down. My books are entirely character driven and perhaps the best example of this is Wormhold in Darkly Wood II. He changed how the book developed and was entirely responsible for me writing book III.

Originally he was supposed to have a far smaller part in the book, but as I inked him to life, I fell madly in love with his twisted horror and I couldn’t help myself and he became central to the story. I couldn’t end the book without curtailing his wild twisted beauty, so I replotted and realized I would need a huge book to get to where I wanted to go. The upshot is a third book in the series that wasn’t originally planned.

In general I allow my characters to take their natural course, but they ultimately stick to the end goal. I’m a far more technical writer than most people would notice. Writing a book in the first person without ever using the character’s name was an enormous challenge and within Little Big Boy for example, there was a need to write about terrible things that the reader had to understand but the narrator, my Little Big Boy didn’t understand and on occasion had to be oblivious to the events in the story.

It may sound simple, but I literally slaved over words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs, to achieve something that reads like it is falling off the little boy’s tongue, all the while revealing the sometimes unrevealable as my main character was too young to see or understand context and circumstance. I loved writing the book because I think I got into the space I needed to get to write it, the head of a seven year old boy. I also hated writing it, because I was very ill during the process so I struggled a lot getting this one finished.

Larry Flynn drove me to distraction. He is such a simple character in theory, but I understood his secret backstory so he diverted me quite a bit. I think both Larry and James Delaney in Bad Blood, had their own meanders but thrillers are easier to keep in line as they have a much more fixed structure if everything is to work out.”

91szeupvynl-_sy300_As I imagine we all know, the standard disclaimer “any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental” is only half true and Max is not afraid to admit it.

Little Big Boy has my face on the cover. I wanted a little boy on the cover and there were no copyright issues with my own photo. I stole many bits and pieces from people I knew in my childhood, but it was very much a case of taking all the fragments and creating something new.

In Darkly Wood some of the characters despite the strangeness of the tales, have origins in people I have met, but again they are only shadows of real people falling on my invention.

I did use one real name that might surprise people when they hear it. My daughter’s boyfriend has a friend called Zachary Westhelle Hartfiel. He is as Irish as they come despite his name and when I met him I told him that I simply had to steal his wonderful name for my book. I turned him into a swashbuckling chap in the vain of Black Adder’s version of Sir Walter Raleigh. He came to a dark end though. I would say that in general my main characters are pure inventions of my own, created in my mind as I plan my story.”

As you might imagine, Max includes a number of classics among his favourite writers.

“I love Charles Dickens, Henry James, George, Elliot, for example but I have a broad taste beyond the classics. Stephen King’s The girl who loved Tom Gordon is one of my favourite books but most people miss this short little gem in his catalogue of more famous books. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a cracker and I enjoy Flan O Brien.

Perhaps my favourite book, is still The Little Prince for its simplicity and for Alexander du Saint Expurés interesting life, I think I’d have to have him to dinner or a pint. As always with people I meet, I want to learn about them primarily. New people fascinate me and I think we have most to learn by simply listening.”

I always like to end my ‘dates’ by asking the subject to reveal something surprising abut themselves.

“There are things that if I put on paper people literally wouldn’t believe and tempted as I am, I’ll keep the strangest ones to myself. I can tell you that I have an empathic ability to feel the physical pain of others by touch. I can touch someone and from that touch I can literally pinpoint a point of pain on their body. I keep that to my self – until now – only Joanna can back that assertion up. There’s that and the fact that I have no tickles, never had. I used to tell my kids that they all fell out as I snapped back up from the bottom of a bungee jump – a little embellishment I know, but I simply can’t help myself I’m afraid.”

I thanked Max for some fascinating insights into his life and his writing. Do please check out his books, if you have not already done so. Probably the best place is on his website where every blog is ended with a set of links to your local Amazon store. He is also on Facebook.

Monday Memories – September 1965

An occasional series in which I share some significant events from my past.

Our first flat was on the first floor of a large Victorian house. It consisted of two adjacent rooms with high ceilings and no interconnecting door. We had to go out on to a landing shared with a couple of other tenants in order to get from living room to bedroom. We shared the bathroom with the other tenants on that landing and had a kitchenette not much bigger than a wardrobe at the far end of the landing.

Both rooms had gas fires. There was no central heating; that was uncommon even in new houses in the 1960s. It was not unusual, as autumn gave way to winter, for us to go to bed early in order to keep warm. We would take our transistor radio with us and listen to Radio Luxemburg. I will never forget the night when programmes were interrupted to announce that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

By Christmas we had found a much better apartment at the same weekly rent. The whole ground floor of an Edwardian semi-detached house, it was almost self-contained, consisting of living room, bedroom, good sized kitchen and bathroom. We shared an entrance and hallway with the tenants who lived on the two upper floors. As the foot of the stairs was close to the front door this was never a problem. By a remarkable coincidence, both houses had the same number – 17 – although on different roads.

We got on famously with the landlady of number 17 St. James’ Road. She allowed us to bring in our own furniture as we acquired bits and pieces in readiness for the house we knew we would have one day. She was putting together a portfolio of similar houses which she converted into flats and bedsits. Freda, on her day off from work, would sometimes accompany her on trips to auction houses in search of the crockery and small appliances with which she equipped each flat. We acquired several items in this way. Freda would also assist with painting and decorating, for which she was paid.

We got to know the other tenants fairly well, especially David and Marie who lived on the first floor. David was a semi-professional singer who also claimed to be an expert at paper hanging. The landlady agreed that our kitchen needed re-decorating and allowed us to choose wall paper which David hung for us. When he had finished, quite late one evening, we were more than a little concerned to see the many wrinkles and bubbles adorning his handiwork.

“Don’t worry,” was David’s parting comment. “The paper will stretch as it dries and it will look fine in the morning.”

Needless to say, it was not “fine in the morning”. I tried slitting the bubbles with a razor blade in order to get the paper to lie flat but that didn’t help; if anything it made things worse. The land lady agreed with us that it was not a satisfactory job. I didn’t think that, after that experience, she’d be willing to let me have a go but she did. So I set about stripping and re-papering the walls myself, which I managed without a single bubble or wrinkle.

With my apprenticeship completed I was faced with a choice: continue with evening classes to enhance my engineering qualification or settle for the adequate qualification already obtained by part-time and evening study. I still had ambitions to become a writer so embarked instead on a correspondence course. A colleague loaned me a portable typewriter. I remember a short story and a radio play that I produced during this period but I never completed the course. Life, as they say, got in the way.

About this time our local authority was building houses for sale and several colleagues had bought semi-detached houses under this scheme. It was our ambition to do the same, although we knew it would be a while before we would be able to afford to do so. Then a block of terraced houses became available to purchase. The story was that, because the back gardens of these houses adjoined the gardens of some large detached houses whose occupants had objected to the prospect of council tenants in such close proximity, the council had compromised by agreeing to sell them.

Being priced lower than the standard semi-detached houses they were within our budget and so, in August of 1964 we signed up to purchase one. It was completed, and we moved in, in March of 1965. We had a 100% mortgage at a little above the standard rate of interest charged by banks and building societies at the time, financed through the government’s Public Works Loan Board, and repayable over 30 years. At £5/5s a week, including rates*, it cost around 1/3 of my weekly income.

Meanwhile a small flat on the top floor of 17 St. James’ Road became vacant and the landlady allowed us to take advantage of the lower rent and move upstairs for the 5 months whilst we waited for our house to be completed. It was there, sometime in December, that our son was conceived.

The six months between moving in to our new house and the arrival of our child were occupied with all the little jobs that need doing even in a new house – erecting shelves, constructing additional cupboards, preparing the smallest bedroom for its role as nursery. And there were the gardens at front and back to cultivate and plant.

Men – even husbands – were not permitted in the delivery room in those days. And there was no way of determining the gender of a child before its birth. Freda went into hospital several days before the birth, believing the child to be over-due. She went into labour in the early hours of Saturday morning, 11th September. When she was moved to the delivery room, at around noon, the midwife told me to go for a walk and not come back for an hour or two.

By the time I did get back it was to find my mother-in-law also waiting in the corridor for news. I think I probably offered her a cigarette and we both stood there nervously smoking until someone came out to tell me “You have a son, Mr Parker.”

Freda remained in hospital for a further 4 or 5 days at the end of which my colleagues decided we must go out to ‘wet the baby’s head’. We had formed the habit of weekly nights out at the local football supporters’ club where we would consume a couple of drinks and enjoy a friendly game of darts. This particular evening, because a celebration seemed in order, the number of drinks consumed was rather more than usual.

I’m fairly certain that someone had the clever idea to lace my beer with spirits. Whatever the reason, I remember waking around 6am the following morning to feel my sheets and pillow sticky with what I quickly realised was vomit. The colleague who had brought me home had agreed to come and collect me in time for work the following morning. Before that happened I had to get busy washing sheets and pillow cases so that they were clean by the time wife and son arrived home later that day. I learned my lesson from that event and have never since got quite that drunk.

Freda was 20, I not yet 24, and we were parents and home-owners. I can’t help thinking how very fortunate we were. Very few people of that age today can afford either to own a home or to rent privately.

*Rates were a UK local government tax based on the notional value of the property, payable by all householders, now superceded by the Council Tax.

Monday Memories – September 1963

An occasional series in which I share some significant events from my past.

Younger people may be surprised to learn that as recently as the 1960s one did not become an adult under English law until one reached the age of 21. I passed that milestone in November 1962. It meant a second pay rise in 3 months. Prior to that my wage had increased each year on the anniversary of my starting my apprenticeship – 8th August. I treated myself to a block of driving lessons and took my test in January. The main advantage of having a car, and a license to drive it, was that my girl friend and I would no longer have to rely on public transport, our bikes, or lifts with friends, to get to town for work and entertainment or to the dances in village halls which we enjoyed.

The first 3 months of 1963 turned out to be one of the coldest for a very long time with snow that hung around until well into March. And local authorities did not salt the roads back then, either. They applied grit which was meant to provide a degree of adhesion on compacted snow. It’s not surprising that I failed a driving test in such conditions. I booked a second test for some time in March. Meanwhile I was looking for a car. For the equivalent of two weeks earnings I purchased a prewar Morris 8. I came to an arrangement with the farmer who owned a shed near our house and stored the car there. I took additional lessons with a friend in his van. Nevertheless, I failed again at my second attempt.

Whilst waiting for my third test, scheduled for early June, I took the engine apart and ‘decoked’ it. This involved removing the accumulation of carbon on the cylinders and cylinder head, cleaning and adjusting the spark plugs and the carburetor and then putting it all back together again. With my test passed we were able to take full advantage of our new mobility through the summer. Except that one part of the car I’d not expected to let me down, did.

The lever that operates the clutch when one depresses the clutch pedal on these old cars pushes the clutch disks apart via a carbon pad which, over time, wears out. If not attended to promptly the matching surface quickly becomes rough. This roughness then causes the new carbon pad to wear out very quickly. Without a clutch it’s not possible to change gear. As a result we had several embarrassing incidents wherein we had to push the car into the kerb in order to carry out running repairs.

By the last weekend in August the engine was starting to make worrying noises, over-heating, and generally becoming a cause for concern. I knew the agricultural engineer who maintained the tractors and other machinery at a big farm where I had often worked at weekends and during holidays from my main employment.

I asked his advice

“Your big-ends have gone,” was the verdict.

“Can it be repaired?”

“Needs to be stripped down, the cam shaft ground and new shell bearings fitted.”

“Can you do that – and how much will it cost?”

“I can, but a less costly alternative would be to purchase a re-conditioned engine. Cost you around forty quid.”

At double what I’d paid for the car that seemed to be beyond affordability. How were we supposed to save up to get married with expenses like that?

By then I’d had another raise in pay – a surprisingly big one. At the end of my apprenticeship my employer was not obliged to offer me a job, but he had, and on terms that exceeded the rate agreed between the Employers’ Federation and the Trade Unions. Even so, £40 was a big expense. I conceived a plan which I put to my girl friend later that Saturday.

But before I explain that I need to backtrack to 1962. I had ‘popped the question’ (“How do you fancy being Mrs Parker?”) around 1:30 on the morning of December 27th 1961, as I wished her goodnight outside her home after the boxing night dance. I’d explained that she should have an engagement ring for her 17th birthday present the following June and that for now it would be our secret. We would not be able to get married until a year or two after I’d finished my apprenticeship as it would take a while to save up enough money to set up home together.

Courting during that long cold spell at the beginning of 1963 was not something either of us wanted to repeat. Being alone together inside somewhere warm cost money. Outside, we froze. And negotiating the road between my home and hers on my bike on frozen snow was extremely hazardous. Now the failure of the car to offer a solution made it seem imperative that we tie the knot as soon as possible. We had agreed to each take one of our statutory weeks’ holiday in mid-September. The plan I put to my fiancee that Saturday at the end of August was that we get married the weekend before that ‘holiday’ (we were not planning to go away) and use the week as our honeymoon.

I’d looked at advertisements in the local paper for flats and apartments in town and it seemed that we should be able to get somewhere to live quite cheaply. The notion was financially viable when one took account of the cost of daily travel to work and the amounts we each contributed to our family budgets. And we would not need to spend money on ‘going out’ in order to spend time together.

She accepted the idea and we swung into action, making appointments to view various flats after work on Monday and to talk to the vicar about booking the church. That’s where we came up against the only snag – the banns (formal announcement of the marriage) had to be published on 3 consecutive Sundays. There were only two before the date (Saturday 14th) we had chosen. So we decided to hold the ceremony in the middle of our holiday week.

It was a frugal affair, arranged, as it was, in such a hurry. The young man who had allowed me to get driving practice in his van and who frequently accompanied us to dances agreed to be my ‘best man’. We each have two sisters who took on the roles of bride’s maid although there was neither time nor money to dress them in anything other than their usual ‘Sunday Best’. The bride wore a navy blue suit and a pill box hat. I wore the same suit I wore to dances. The reception was held in the bride’s home – booze in the garage, sandwiches in the kitchen.

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My painting of Turnastone church in Herefordshire where we were married on 18 Sept. 1963

Before that, of course, there was the ‘stag night’. Equally unusual, this requires me to backtrack briefly to the summer of 1958 and my attempts to re-integrate into the village community after 6 years at boarding school. Among other things, I joined the bell ringers at the village church. We practiced once a week and rang on Sundays for evensong which was held fortnightly at 6pm.

On weeks when evensong was not held there was matins, a 10 o’clock service for which it proved impossible to muster a team of ringers. Fortunately the tower was equipped with something called an Ellacombe apparatus. This enabled each bell to be rung from a single array of ropes by a single operator – usually me. It was possible to ring some hymn tunes on this apparatus and I did, as well as a few ‘changes’.

We would ring for any weddings that took place in our church, usually on a Saturday morning or afternoon. When it came to my wedding, however, that was held in a different church, the one in my fiancee’s parish which did not have a ring of bells. So it was agreed we would celebrate our wedding, and my leaving the team after 5 years service, by ringing a quarter peel. This was, of course, followed by an adjournment to the village pub for a small libation.

More than a few of our friends and relatives assumed a very different reason for our haste to get married – after all some of them had been forced into marriage in order to avoid giving birth outside of wedlock. How times have changed!

Footnote: the subject of ‘change ringing’ and the definition of a ‘quarter peel’ are dealt with here.

Monday Memories – The Summer of 1961

An occasional series in which I share some significant events from my past.

We tend to think of the 1960s as a time of almost revolutionary change. The decade did not start that way – not for me anyway. There may have been all manner of exciting developments in the arts in the great metropolises of the world; there may have been radical changes happening in technology with the development of jet powered passenger aircraft and men circling the planet above the atmosphere. But in the rural backwater where I lived it seemed as though little had changed since before the war that ended 16 years earlier.

Most of those who could afford to own a car owned one that was, if not actually constructed before the war, based on prewar technology; few of the advanced systems developed during the war had not yet had time to filter through to automobile design and construction.

Very few homes had a telephone or washing machine. Television was black and white and offered just two channels, both of which operated only from mid-afternoon until around 11 pm. Receivers were usually rented.

Despite all of this my generation believed we were living in modern times. We looked forward to the possibility of space travel, saw recently introduced innovative automobiles like the Mini as evidence that the ingenuity of scientists and engineers would make the world a much better place as we entered adulthood. Medical science, too, was making advances. Vaccination programmes had virtually eliminated polio, dyptheria, smallpox and tuberculosis.

The social revolution that the 1960s is often associated with, even blamed for, had yet to materialise.

There was, for me, another factor that limited my own social life. Apart, that is, from my shyness, my tendency to introversion. I did not attend secondary school with the other children of the district. Sent away to boarding school before my 11th birthday, I returned to live in the district six years later and had to get to know young people I’d not seen since. People who almost certainly viewed me as some kind of snob. Working as an apprentice 12 miles away, any friends I made were those I met at work or on the bus.

The standard working week for factory workers back then was 44 hours. Overtime, when available, was in addition. We did get a day off for college. That consisted of three three hour sessions with 90 minute breaks between. As the first did not commence until 9:30 we had to clock on at 8am as usual which made that a very long day. Add the time spent traveling, home study and helping my mother’s second husband with numerous home improvement projects and there was little time left for socialising.

At the beginning of 1961, shortly after my 19th birthday, I was assigned to the drawing office which meant a reduction to 39 hours and a later start time. That summer I started going to Saturday night dances in village halls within comparatively easy reach of my home. Such events had, by law, to end at midnight. They did not have a drinks licence. Pubs closed at 10:30. So we’d meet in the pub, then pile into somebody’s prewar car and ride out to wherever that week’s dance was happening. It was the best opportunity to meet members of the opposite sex.

On one such occasion, probably late in June, I found myself dancing with a tall dark haired girl who allowed me to walk her home. Actually not home, because she was spending the weekend with a friend who lived in the next village to me, which was where the dance was held. So I walked her to the end of the lane leading to her friend’s house. She kissed me. I floated home about a foot above the road surface. A five kilometer walk in moonlight. Not only had she kissed me, she accepted my invitation to meet up ‘in town’ the following Saturday afternoon.

This is where we come up against another fact inhibiting my social life – and that of most of my peers, of course. The town was, as I’ve indicated, 12 miles away. The last bus ran at 9:20pm. So even a trip to the cinema meant attending an afternoon showing. Or we could – and did – walk in the town’s park. Either way we had to part company at what would today be regarded as a ridiculously early hour. We spent, I think, three Saturday afternoons like that.

I can see how that, coupled with the shyness I’ve already mentioned, would have made me seem very boring.

Never mind, August bank holiday was looming (back then August bank holiday in the UK was, as it still is Ireland, the first Monday in the month). That meant the village ‘show and sports’ with a dance afterwards that, because the next day was not Sunday, would continue until 1am! And, yes! In answer to my query, this dark haired beauty said that she would be coming to stay with her friend for the long weekend and would attend the show and the dance.

In my recollection, our village show was not the kind of agricultural show that includes the display of animals. Rather it was various horse riding competitions that occupied the arena. There were races for children over various distances as well as things like sack race, three-legged race, egg and spoon. An important feature was a one mile race for all ages. There was clay pigeon shooting, bowling for a pig, coconut shies, target shooting, hoop-la, a beer tent and, in the big marquee, a produce show where local gardeners and cooks showed off their wares.

I met my dark haired beauty with her friend and another. A mousey blond who seemed to be as shy as me. I recall mixed feelings as we walked together around the field, making several circuits. I was accompanied by three young women. Surely an ego boost for any young lad! But I wanted to be with just one. Nothing I tried would encourage the black haired beauty to separate from the protection of the other two. I suppose these days my behaviour that afternoon would be seen as stalking!

Eventually we parted company, heading for our separate homes to change into appropriate wear for the dance which was scheduled to begin at 8pm. Nobody wanted to be there at the start so I think we probably agreed to meet at 9pm. I wanted to meet ‘my girl’ at the entrance and pay for her ticket. I arrived to find the mousey one also just arriving, on her bicycle. Had she seen ‘my girl’? She had – down by the church gate talking to a couple of boys.

I wandered in that direction but there was no chance for me to muscle in to the conversation. Back at the hall I danced with the mousey one. Eventually the tall girl appeared with one of the two she’d been talking with earlier. I persuaded her to have one dance with me but it was an embarrassing affair and it was not long before she left. According to her friend she was ‘unwell’. I continued dancing with the mousey one.

After the dance there was a thunder storm. I was soaked, despite running the half kilometer home. The mousey girl must have been soaked, too, cycling three miles to her home.

Tuesday lunch time I phoned the tall girl from a call box in the town centre. I wanted to be sure that what I suspected was true – our brief courtship was over.

A couple of weeks later I attended a Saturday night dance where the mousey girl was also present. We danced every dance. I said I might cycle in the general direction of her home on Sunday evening. She said she might go for a bike ride, too. Perhaps we’d bump into each other.

The world has seen dramatic changes since 1961, some for good, some not. The mousey girl and I have lived through all of them. We moved to the town in 1963. Of course we had to get married to do that, the idea of people living together before marriage was still anathema then. Later we moved further away from home. We even spent a year and a half in South Africa. Since 2006 we have been settled in rural Ireland. I suppose that shows that rural life is still very much to our liking, despite the disadvantages – which are, of course, nothing like they were back then.