Fat Bloke Halloween Special!

Once upon a time, I knew an awful lot about the spooky history of Great Britain. I had dozens and dozens of books on the subject. No holiday was complete until I had bought at least two books on the local folklore. I love a good ghost story.

I even built and ran a website on the topic, a gazetteer of spooks around the isles. It led to me writing a tiny piece in the Daily Mirror, appeared on local TV in London as an ‘expert’ in the paranormal (One of the other guests, bless her, told us how she’s seen a angle riding a motorbike). It is not a topic I have kept up on, as you realise most of the ghosts stories printed in each new book is just a reworking of an entry of a previous book. I once found that seven pages of one , written in the 1930’s, had been lifted verbatim and placed into a new book, printed in the 70’s by a different author. Naughty naughty.

I don’t believe in ghosts.

Mostly.

I can get the creeps like nobody’s business. I’ve spent many an evening walking home alone in the dark. I’ve camped out in the wilds of Scotland and Sweden without a worry. (Except one night in Sweden, for some reason I got the creeps like anything and spent the whole night peeping out of my tent and not mentioning the time I watched The Blair Witch Project while staying in the quiet and heavily wooded Centre Parcs in Cumbria and spent the rest of the week creeped out.)

As a fundraiser for charity, I once spent the evening as a spooky ghost expert at a Fright Night at a ruined house in Northamptonshire. A group of people got sponsored to spend the evening in my company. Terrifying. It was an interesting bunch who seemed determined to be scared. One woman had a vision of a red haired lady on a balcony, another smelt burnt toast. Now, I have a little confession to make. We took a tiny, 1cm x 1cm square piece of fabric and dabbed some lavender oil on it, and hid it in a crack in the wall. I was interested to see if anyone would smell it. One man did. Not that I am suggesting he was over acting and attention seeking but he claimed it was such a strong fragrance it almost overpowered him and he had to sit down.

My interest in the supernatural began when I was eight years old. We had a school residential trip to Swanage, Dorset. A class of us were crammed into a utilitarian guest-house. My three friends and I were installed in a ground floor room, on the front of the property, overlooking a little tarmac area at the front, which, importantly, sloped down to the road. On the last day, I took a picture of my three buddies outside, lined up in front of the window. When we got the photo developed (remember that folks? Kids, ask your parents)  we spotted a mysterious blurred face in the window behind them. We knew from the layout of the room that the lower bunk bed was level with the windowsill and so nobody could physically occupy that space without moving the beds out the way. And it couldn’t be a reflection of me taking it, because the driveway sloped down and I would be below the window. Arguments raged in the classroom as to whether it was a ghost or not. Further tales of doors opening and closing on their own in the room above were recounted.

Years, many years later, it occurred to me that it probably was me. The angle was wrong unless I was stood on something. Something like a low boundary wall I remembered being there, something I could easily have stepped on. Ooops.

I do have one very scary story though, that did happen to me. Possibly the creepiest experience of my life. It happened when I was fifteen. My school was preparing for a variety concert in the main hall. It was an old school that had expanded over the years with additional blocks and buildings being wedged in any old fashion. It was dark, about nine o’clock probably. A teacher and I were we finishing packing up for the evening. She was leaving through the side door and said she’d lock up after herself if that was okay. I said it was as I would leave through the other door. She left with a turn of the key and a couple of minutes later, I flicked off the lights and went to go out the other door.

Locked.

Bugger.

(Let’s pause for a moment to consider In Loco Parentis and how that teacher may not have been wholly upholding its most fundamental principles.) All alone, in a dark and empty school, I had but one choice. The Link Corridor.

The Link Corridor ran the length of the school, a long wide thoroughfare which was bustling with kids and teachers all day long. At night it was black, apart from the pale moonlight filtering in through the occasional window, providing just enough light, to make the shadows really dark.

*Gulp.*

I set off into the dark, taking the half dozen steps down from the hall entrance into the corridor. One step….two…..three, there suddenly,in front of me, floating in the air, a pale white, hideous, disembodied head, with ghastly huge black eyes starring back at me! A cry of terror rose in my throat as I stood frozen in fear. It took me nearly three seconds to realise that the hideous, ungodly, ghastly apparition before me was, yet again, my own reflection, in the narrow windows that ran across the top of the corridor entrance. I swear I had never seen them before, but when I checked the next day, yup, there they were.

What followed was an extremely nervous progress down the corridor to discover, you guessed it, the door at that end was also looked. I returned to the hall and bravely opened a fire door and wedged it shut as best I could behind me.

I have a little pet theory about why we find some buildings inherently spooky, that stems from that experience. Most public, large, old buildings we experience during the day, when they are full of people and bustle. Hospitals, libraries, theatres, schools, churches, pubs and inns and the like. Our normal experience of them is sound and movement and colour. If we happen to find ourselves in them, alone, in the dark, we are left off balance, our subconscious caveman brain is craving normality and finding threat in the unusual environment. We are much more likely to seize on any odd experience and give it a supernatural twist. Compare that to your own home, which most of us can navigate in the dark like a ninja.

So enjoy Halloween, embrace the darkness of the night and scare yourself with a ghost story or two. And if, when you are lying in bed tonight, safely hidden under the duvet, you happen to hear a movement in the attic above, it’s probably nothing worry about.

Probably.

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Fat Bloke catches a Train!

It is Tuesday, 25th of October. There is a chill in the air and a patchy fog hangs among the treetops. I have a journey to make today. A return trip by public transport from Wisbech, Cambridgeshire to Market Harborough, Leicestershire. As the crow flies, about 70 miles, but thanks to the rail network it will take just over 3 hours each way. Going up and down by rail in this sceptred isle is fast and regular, going cross country is slow and annoying!

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Foggy Fenland fields.

I have caught the X1 bus to Peterborough.

Nice bus, double-decker with leather upholstery and free, if patchy, wifi . The driver seems to be channeling Ayrton Senna as we barrel west along the A47. Foggy flat fertile Fenland fields whiz past my window. It is a route I am so familiar with I can do it with my eyes closed (and frequently do, enjoying a little nap time as I head home each day.) We divert into the lovely village of Thorney. For so long choked with A47 traffic , a new bypass made it much quieter and more charming. Lovely Victorian cottages, a magnificent abbey church and a nice park where Little Bloke and I have played in the past. For a village so close to Peterborough it has so far managed to escape new housing developments. Give it time though.

We reach the traffic of Peterborough and its never ending roadworks on the Parkways. Thanks to our drivers heavy foot though we’ve made good time. I have a few minutes here so I’ll have a little wander before I catch my train.

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Peterborough Bus Station

I quite like Peterborough. It has some lovely buildings including the magnificent cathedral. The bus station though is not necessarily the best way to arrive. Nobody has ever used the sentence ‘arriving at the elegant and beautiful bus station’. Is there a class divide thing there? Train stations are used by upper and middle class travellers, busses by the working class. Is it telling that during the IRA bombing campaigns in England, rubbish bins were removed from Train stations but not from Bus? Make of that what you will.

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Peterborough Cathedral

Anyway, slap bang in the middle of Peterborough is the cathedral, a building I adore. I don’t believe in god. To misquote Groucho Marx I wouldn’t want to belong to any religion
that would have me as a member. And any god I did believe in would not reside in such a grand house. However, what this building shows to me is the soaring aspirations of humankind, of what we can achieve in a common goal; such magnificent, talented workmen creating in stone an elegy to their faith, using technology so basic as to defy belief to us now. All this within a stones throw of a Starbucks.

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I’m a bit of a building geek. I love good architecture. How style and art can be incorporated into a building beyond its mere functionality. Mrs Bloke once rolled her eyes in despair when, one evening, watching the local news, I identified where a man being interviewed was stood, purely because  I recognised the style of airbrick on the wall behind him.

Anyway, time cracks on, from this magnificent edifice to Waitrose to stock up on supplies. I can’t afford a mortgage payment to buy a drink on the train.

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Peterborough Train Station

Peterborough train station is….is….not lovely. It has recently been tarted up with a modern interior that will looked dated in less time than it takes the foam on a double chocco latte to go flat. Busy as always, I find my way to platform 7 where I repeatedly get in the way of a lady putting the drinks trolleys on and off the trains.

On the train. Two whole carriages, crammed full of half-term travellers. I grab a seat which I immediately offer to give up to a young mum and family who are having to split up to find seats She declines my chivalrous offer and plonks her six year old down next to the old man sitting opposite me, to the delight of neither I suspect. They are getting off at the next stop of Stamford. This cross country train runs through Stamford, Oakham, Melton Mowbray and Leicester where I get off. It then runs all the way to Birmingham New Street. It runs hourly I think and is always crammed. Given the popularity of the route, would it really hurt to add an extra carriage?

What I like about this journey is how the flat dreary landscape of the fens morphs back into the gently rolling hills of my childhood. All of a sudden you notice the horizon is getting closer and it sticks up a bit more.

First stop is Stamford, a nice country town, with many buildings built in the lovely honey coloured local stone. I once went for a job in Stamford but on the interview day I had the flu and couldn’t get to it. Who knows what might have happened had I made it? (Sigh. Trains make me wistful.) Oooo, big tunnel into Stamford and a nice old fashioned station. One can imagine Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard having a moment on the platform. (Or a snog behind the bike rack.)

Oakham is the next stop. I know precious little about the town really. Near to Rutland Water I ended up here stranded one Sunday morning after getting lost walking around the reservoir. (You would have thought ‘keep the water on your left’ would have done the trick. I should add I was, on that occasion, hungover.) There is a bit of a castle left here and something about horseshoes? Also famous for its public school unless I’m thinking of Uppingham?

I witness one of those lovely interactions between people you get on public transport, where, as a rule, everyone does their best to pretend all the other passengers don’t exist. The old man sitting opposite me makes a fuss of giving the now empty seat next to him to a lady of pensionable age, about 70 I’d guess. Clearly liking his chance the old devil tries to engage her in conversation to which she responds politely, but clipped, making no attempt to continue the conversation. She pulls out a paperback book. (Fatherland by Robert Harris, good choice.) He starts trying to impress her with the fact he is 90. She nods, smiles, opens the book and pointedly removes her bookmark in the international gesture of ‘This conversation is over’.Still, fair play to him. If I’m still alive at 90 I’d like to think  I’d have the spirit to have a crack at a woman twenty years my junior.

Melton Mowbray is next and is a town very proud of its food heritage. In fact the train station sign announces it as the home of Pork Pies and Stilton cheese. Not a hot spot for vegans I would imagine.I think I went to the theatre once in Melton. I could be wrong.

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Leicester Train Station

We arrive in Leicester station.We are 12 minutes late but my next train is running slightly behind as well so all is well. If I had a pound for every time I had caught a train here I could afford to advertise my blog, instead of relying on you lovely volunteers to spread the word! I was born in Leicester General, treated in Leicester Royal, ‘studied’ at Charles Keene College and had many, many nights-out here, not to mention all the connecting journeys elsewhere that required a change here.

I quickly manage to rack up my second gentlemanly act of the day. A very attractive young American lady asks in a slightly stressed tone if the train waiting on the platform is the train to London. I tell here that will follow on from that train and, for bonus chivalry, tell here it’s running 6 minutes late.She thanks me, but doesn’t appear to instantly fall head over heels in love so instead I take quick advantage of the facilities. Coming out the loo I walk past a man I am sure is an Auctioneer chap off those tv antique programmes, Bargain Hunt, Antiques Road Trip that kind of thing. Philip Serrell I think. Or possibly just an old bloke in a scarf.

And so the final stretch on the outward journey, to Market Harborough, my home town. Lovely market town groaning now under housing developments, as it is only an hour from London by train. It’s pushed house prices up and filling shops with expensive boutiques. But, it is still where I grew up and even though new houses and streets spring up, these pavements are very familiar to my feet.

My dear ma is picking me up at the station. First time I have seen her since my confessions in ‘The stoopid embargo’.

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Market Harborough Train Station

My favourite quote about the town, and one day I plan to steal it for the title of my autobiography, is from G K Chesterton who absentmindedly got off the train here and sent a telegram to his wife saying. ‘Am in Market Harborough, Where should I be?’

The journey home is retracing my steps exactly, but with the added excitement of only a six minute change from train to bus in Peterborough. Living life on the edge!

My ‘gentlemanly act’ count creaks even higher (I know, right? Who knew I was this nice?) Helping a lady off the train at Harboro with her luggage. Then again in Leicester I help a poor mother with pushchair, big suitcase and a 4 year old boy fight onto the train. We were all packed into the doorway section and it was really quite surreal. The little boy, whose name I learnt was Tyler, told me of the four trains he had been on that day and showed me his giant luminous green spider which I agreed was very scary. Meanwhile his mother was dealing with the toddler in the pushchair who kept pulling off his shoes and then started crying because he hadn’t got his shoes on. They had apparently come from the other side of Birmingham and she had the look of a woman who would do serious damage to a bottle of wine that evening. Also in this tableau, a middle-aged Man stood with his back to us, pressed against the door, with his foot raised up on a metal bar to strike a manly pose, and gave the overwhelming sense that he was exposing himself through the window to the whole of Leicestershire. Completing our set was the Train employee with his drinks trolley that he didn’t try to move, because he couldn’t get down the aisle we were so packed. Instead he was occupying himself apparently whittling a shiv out of a wooden drinks stirrer.

After Melton I got a seat next to a large man who held a sturdy looking briefcase out in front, clutching with both hands as if it were the Nuclear Football! He shifted not at all and I was so uncomfortable, squashed in my seat, I stood up again at Stamford.

All day long I was not listening to my Ipod, I wanted to catch some of those great overheard conversations and I finally got one. As we crept into Peterborough a girl stood to queue to get out, deep in conversation on her mobile. ‘Yeah, guess what she wants for Tea tonight…go on guess……McDonalds. I know right, after that story last night!………….It is a true story!…………..Got horny over the beef!’ I think we all know THAT story, which I suspect is urban myth, but you never know….

In theory I had six minutes to change from train to bus. My train was eight minutes late. Happily though my bus was five minutes late. I settled into my top deck seat to reflect on an interestingly mundane but enjoyable journey. Half way home though that satisfaction turned to weird horror as I realised the man on the seat behind me was clipping his fingernails. Snap..snap..snap. I was waiting for a piece to ping off my cheek. I don’t know why that grossed me out so much, but it bloody did!

Darkness was falling as we pulled into the Horsefair Bus Station in Wisbech and the sainted Mrs and Little Bloke were there to meet me.

It has been a while since I did a journey like that on my own, last few times have been with Little Bloke and luggage in tow and that presents it owns challenges. On my own I usually have my nose in a book and Ipod but, as I was chronicling my journey I thought I would listen to the sounds around me. It was an utterly ordinary journey but filled with those sights and people that make it charmingly memorable.

And I hope it was entertaining enough for you to read this long article, my gentle reader. I hope if you enjoyed it you will take a moment to tell someone. Share it on your Facebook page, or re-tweet the link on Twitter.I would love my words to reach a larger audience, to know if readers are actually enjoying it.

Who knows what exciting locations I may be off to next!

If you have liked this piece why not try some similar posts such as;

Love your Peeler , Remembering one forgotten man: The Somme 1916 or Bill the Cat – A legend and a friend

Find and follow me on Facebook – www.facebook.com/fatbloketalking  and on Twitter – @fatbloketalking or email me at fatbloketalking@outlook.com

 

Thomas Clarkson Academy – Less teaching – better results?

My boy is currently in year 5, he has another year of junior school before he goes to secondary school. Thanks to the customer based, quality driven world of education presented to us these days, we have already started to look at his options for Secondary school.

The local option is The Thomas Clarkson Academy, part of the Brooke Weston Trust. It’s recently had its buildings overhauled and looks splendid when you are driving past. However, its GCSE results have been terrible, well below the national average, and its Ofsted reports equally as bad, rating the school as ‘Inadequate’.

Now every school has its challenges. Like all schools in this region a large percentage of pupils will have English as their second language. (I am not making a political point there, just a statement of fact. However, most of those kids are very keen to learn English and do so very quickly. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a Polish speaking kid talk to you in a Norfolk accent.) Wisbech has also some of the most deprived wards in the country and, as we all know, poverty and low educational achievement go hand in hand. (Once, I was walking home mid-afternoon and remember hearing a mother telling her little boy that she had been at a friends for a coffee and ‘couldn’t be bothered to wait for him to finish school for the day, so she had told the office he had a dentist appointment’ and pulled him out early.)

So, why am I ranting about The Thomas Clarkson Academy? (Part of the Brooke Weston Trust) And yes I am going to keep repeating that because, as an Academy they can pretty much do as they want.

They have announced on Wednesday this week, two days before the start of half term, that as of the 31st October the last session of the day 2:40pm – 3:40pm will be optional. Pupils (at least they don’t call them customers or ‘service users’) are ‘strongly encouraged’ to take part in after school homework clubs or extra curricular activities. (More on that in a little while)

However, we are a small town and many children come by bus from the surrounding villages. These buses have now been re-arranged for 2:50pm, ruling out those kids joining these clubs unless parents can come and collect them later. Bad luck parents. Let’s hope your minimum wage employer is understanding, and that if you have to collect younger children from primary schools closer to home you can magically get into town in time to collect them.Struggling, hard working parents who now have a week and a half to rearrange their working hours to fit this new scheme.

The only year where it will be compulsory to stay until 3:40pm will be year 11, the final GCSE year. A bus just for them will be arranged, that will go through all the villages, presumably making that journey longer for them, so they get home later.

I find it utterly staggering that a 4 year old Reception class pupil has a longer school day now than a Year 10 pupil. And it is all very well to say that pupils are encouraged to join homework clubs. But will those clubs be subject specific? If a child is struggling with his English work will an English teacher be on hand to help, or will it be pot luck what the supervising teacher will specialise in? Will it even be a qualified teacher? Or a member of support staff? Because, and let’s not forget this, The Thomas Clarkson Academy (Part of the Brooke Weston Trust) is under no obligation to only employ qualified teachers.

They published on their website a list of the ‘After’ school activities. These include various activities that do sound very good; Duke of Edinburgh scheme, a games playing group, special P.E courses to encourage girls to get more active. But most disturbing, in that list is GCSE Music and GCSE Art.

Art and Music have apparently become an extra curricular activity. I can hardly express how incredibly angry this has made me. I don’t wholly blame the school on this. They are expensive courses to run and, thanks to our customer focused education experience, schools are only interested in getting the league table subjects grades up. It has been in the news this week that A-Level Archaeology and History of Art have been scrapped as subjects altogether.

We are driving our children into studying just English, Maths and the Sciences. Important subjects of course, but where is the depth? Where do we let our children’s talents and abilities express themselves and grow? Wealthy middle class parents will often pay for music tutoring for their kids, to learn an instrument, but that doesn’t teach you the history of music, the art of music, how music has grown and developed across the human race. Neither does it allow for poorer families, who can’t afford private tutelage, to give their child a chance to discover an ability and talent.

We’re not raising children to adulthood any more. We are raising wage slaves. Qualified only to work in ‘the modern workplace’.Increasingly it seems only the most fortunate pupils will have a chance to study the broader arts, and that mostly at Private schools. A two tier system, the Morloks and the Eloi, one to lead and one to serve!

Okay, take a deep breath. Calm down.

The Thomas Clarkson Academy (part of the Brooke Weston Trust) are not going to be responsible for the dystopian future of the human race. But this feels like a thin edge of a wedge and one that makes no real sense, apart from cost cutting measures. Less teachers needed, less overtime to pay, less facilities needed.

I’m not a professional educator. I know many teachers and support staff personally and I know they work incredibly hard. (And universally get extremely annoyed when you make jokes about how much holiday they get. Doesn’t stop me doing it though.) Perhaps this kind of scheme is the way to proceed? A way to relieve some of the pressures we are putting on our children to get better results. But it doesn’t feel like that. It will let unmotivated children with unmotivated parents get out of school earlier. It will make motivated children whose parents aren’t in a position to pick them up after school miss out on an hour of schooling.

I studied GCSE Music, and I like the fact that I know what a Concerto Grosse is. I like that I can follow a classical score. Is it practical? No. Do I use that knowledge every day in my life and work? No. But I know it and when you are at school how do you ever know what you’ll need in the future?

Our two local papers come out on Wednesdays and Fridays, so, by announcing the measure on a Wednesday this has happily avoided hitting this weeks local press. I am sure this is a complete coincidence and not a way of avoiding negative publicity. (Any irony you are hearing there is entirely, I am sure, in your own head.)

Now, I am not a professional journalist. I am a very amateur blogger. I wouldn’t want to unfairly besmirch any one person or group in my blogs. If I have made any factual errors in this piece I warmly welcome The Thomas Clarkson Academy (part of The Brooke Weston Trust) to let me know what they are and I will happily correct them. If they would like to give me the rationale for cutting an hour of school time from students at a school rated as ‘Inadequate’ by Ofsted, with results far below the national average I will very happily publish it to my page.

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An Actor Unprepares…Part 2 – ‘The Stoopid Embargo’

My adventures in amateur dramatics continue. The rehearsals with our little group are well under way and we are nearing, what I like to call, ‘The Eric Morecombe’ stage. We are saying all the right words, just not necessarily in the right order. I am confident however that we are putting together a really good show. But, at six weeks out, it is time for me to enforce ‘The Stoopid Embargo’.

In 1964 Burt Lancaster was the lead in the film, The Train. It was set during WWII and concerned a train load of stolen French art being transported to Germany, and a French railwayman’s attempts to stop it. During filming Burt Lancaster took a day off filming to play golf. Whilst doing so he stepped into a hole and wrenched his knee, aggravating an old injury. Consequently a scene had to be added where he was shot in the leg to explain why he spent the rest of the film limping.

Burt had failed to enforce ‘ The Stoopid Embargo’.

Back in 1992 I was up at the Edinburgh Fringe with a youth theatre show. One night, a few of us were stepping out to partake of the lively nightlife Edinburgh can offer during August.We were all in our lateish teens (my Fringe Club ID card said I was 18, so I must have been old enough to drink. Wink wink.) and at the height of our immortality. A friend of mine raced up the side of a pedestrian underpass and dashed over the road to the other side. I, being easily led, did the same. I ran down the angled slope the other side. My friend, however, leapt down across the open mouth of the underpass.His landing was…inelegant. It resulted in a cut eyebrow and, when we lifted his sleeve, the discovery of a badly broken wrist. Cancelled performances, surgery and a couple of nights in hospital followed. Did I mention there was a very nice young lady with us, in case you needed a clue to our graceless machismo.

The ‘Stoopid Embargo’, if you haven’t already guessed, is the self imposed rule when I’m approaching a performance, to try and limit the risk of injuring myself in an easily avoidable way. Accidents happen, but in my case, over the years there have been some which are, frankly, my own bloody fault. Since becoming a father these seem to have increased. I’ve stopped trying to impress girls, and now try to impress a little boy instead.

Jumping on my son’s scooter and riding it across the road to faceplant on the other side when I hit the gutter. Jumping with both feet onto a 2ltr plastic bottle full of water to see how far I could squirt the water, failing to remember the fact that water doesn’t compress, meaning I was essentially jumping onto a solid pipe, that rolled and despatched me hilariously on my arse, a dismount that also included a wheelie bin, a conservatory door and a giggling 9 year old.

Your getting the idea? Because I have barely started. Streaking along a frozen river in Sweden. (That turned the soles of my feet black!) Taking part in the Father’s race at my son’s Sports Day. (I am, as the blog name implies, a heavy set gentleman). Wrenched my tendons so badly I couldn’t walk properly for three days.

I first employed the ‘Embargo’ last autumn. We were out shopping and a waist high pillar attracted my attention for a playful leapfrog. I took two steps and paused. It was slightly higher then I thought, and, possibly for the first time in my life, the worst case scenario flashed before my eyes. From a thundering crunch in the groin to broken bones, black eyes and, worse of all, the eye-rolling, ‘told you so’ expression from Mrs Bloke. My son tried egging me on chanting ‘do it, do it’ but I resisted peer pressure with a rueful smile. Since turning 40 every little wrench, pull and strain seem to hurt so much more.

So, along with all the time it takes to learn lines, rehearse, source props and costumes and publicise our play, I am also sacrificing the right to be stoopid! Remember that when buying your tickets for the theatre!

Alright, one last story. Back in my A- Level student days in Leicester we were rehearsing, I think, The Cherry Orchard by Chekhov, as well as working on our exam pieces. We were killing some time in the drama studio playing football with an empty milk carton. I was wearing a pair of chunky brogues with a thick heel and, during the roughhouse tackling, I turned my ankle and wrenched all sorts of muscles and tenders and ligaments. It didn’t hurt too badly at first, so we did our rehearsal and went to the pub. (I was almost certainly 18 at this point!) By  closing time though I found myself almost unable to walk, and not because of the usual reason. My good buddies had to carry me to the bus station to catch my last bus home. Once back in Market Harborough I had to get a taxi! (An act of heresy to this cheapskate!) The house was in dark silence as I hobbled through the door and winced my way up the stairs. My mother, bless her heart, no doubt awakened by maternal instincts, or possibly the sound of me crashing into things, woke and enquired after my welfare. I removed my shoes and trousers and discovered my a kle and foot had swollen to twice its normal size.

Now, don’t ask me why, but for some reason I thought she’d be cross with me if I  admitted I had done it playing football, so instead I told her I had done it pretending to be a sperm. 20 years on and I’m really, really not sure why. Put it down to ‘stoopid’ and cider. As part of our A-Level practical exam piece we were enacting a conception. (I know, drama students right!) and I told her I had stumbled during that.

Hospital the next day; bandages, crutches, agonising physiotherapy. We told people in the outside world that I had done it playing football (I.E, the truth) because it was less embarrassing. (Again, no idea why I wasn’t honest. Sorry mum.) It took weeks before I was fully back in action. Luckily, both my small part in the Cherry Orchard and the A-Level exam piece were unaffected.

So, with opening night of the 21st November I am wrapping myself in cotton wool, and taking that indulgent moment to second guess before I act on impulse.

For the moment, at least, I am stowing the ‘stoopid’

You can read my first blog entry about the am-dram acting experience ‘An Actor Unprepares’ here. The title, incidentally, is an homage to ‘An Actor Prepares’ by Konstantin Stanislavski. The great figure of ‘Method’ acting, a book I own, and very nearly once read.

If you have liked this blog piece, or others I have written, I would be very grateful if you could help spread the word on Facebook or Twitter. 

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Bill the Cat – A legend and a friend

 

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One of the last pictures of Bill the Cat.

There are three empty food bowls on the draining board. One held biscuit, one water and the third, the most abused, wet cat food. It has been four weeks since we last saw our cat, ‘Bill the Cat’ and our hopes of him finding his way home are fading fast.

Over the years he has earned many nicknames and cleverly learnt to ignore them all in exactly the same way unless food was being offered. Names like BTC, William Thekat Esq, The Ginger Avenger and ‘That Bloody Animal!’ to name but a few. His disappearance and presumed death was not wholly unexpected. He was 19 years old, a good venerable age for an outdoor cat. His health was slowly fading, he was losing his teeth, may have had thyroid and kidney issues, arthritis or other joint problems, his hearing was going and he had quickly advancing dementia.

We had already had a difficult conversation with our vet when he got his booster jabs earlier this year. His dementia had caused him to begin defecating around the house in odd places. He wasn’t incontinent, he was deliberately finding spots to go, ignoring the cat flap or litter box. Washing piles, my desk, the back of the sofa. We had gone into the vets with the view he may not leave with us. The vet, a nice young man, examined him and advised us he was not in any great pain or discomfort. He had had the look of a man who’d had a bad week, and his eyes said ‘please don’t make me put your cat to sleep today.’ And we agreed, we could try and limit the opportunity for him to make a mess, as long as he wasn’t living in pain. We’d give Bill one last summer in the garden, nose up bum in a flower pot, his favourite snoozing spot.

Not long after that he disappeared for four days. We found him in a neighbouring garden and brought him home. He looked awful, but with some tender loving care, food, brushes and washes he bounced back again. Put a little weight back on, seemed brighter. We got back into a routine, he’d turn up at dinner time to skulk under the table and try to climb into my lap to pinch food off the table. He’d sometimes still charge into the lounge of an evening and take a flying leap into my lap for a cuddle, headbutting me until I gave him a fuss.

But then one day he didn’t come back, or the next day. A few weeks ago there were two very hot days. I suspect his poor system may not have been able to cope with the heat and he curled up somewhere asleep, got dehydrated and stroked out. Peacefully, in the sun. I really hope that’s what happened. He is micro-chipped but we have had no word and we have had no luck looking around for him. It’s often repeated that a cat will sense his time has come and go off to die. I don’t know if that’s really true or not. I don’t know if I hope that’s true or not.

Bill the Cat was one of a pair we got after one of my sister’s cats had kittens. Bill was ginger and Opus was grey. Bill and Opus were both named after characters from the wonderful comic strip ‘Bloom County’ by the talented Berkeley Breathed. Opus was a darling penguin with issues over his beak size and yearning to find his long lost mother. Bill the Cat was an Anti-Garfield character of limited cuteness who had various adventures as a left wing radical, a born again preacher and even had a brain swap with Donald Trump. (Might explain a lot these days.) Bill the Cat even ran for President under the slogan ‘A desperate choice for desperate times!’ (Back in the 80’s that was funny, now it just seems prescient.)

Our Bill was dumb, friendly, and a good hunter. Opus was quiet, shy and clever. For years we thought Opus was the hunter until we realised Bill would catch a mouse and Opus would mug him when he got home to claim the kill. We once had a little ball toy, hung off a door handle on elastic. Bill attacked it for ten minutes, batting it, pulling, trying to catch it. Opus sat and coolly watched. Finally Bill grew bored and gave up. Opus walked up to the door, stood up on his hind legs, reached out a claw, hooked the toy and pulled it down in one smooth movement. For a moment he looked at it, looked at me, then released it to snap back with almost disgusted disdain and walked off. I once spent a month in hospital undergoing Chemotherapy and lost a lot of weight, muscle and hair. I pulled up in the car and saw Bill asleep in the grass. He woke with a start and ran a few steps in fright, not recognising me. But then he heard my voice, turned and walked back, tail up, miaowing in an admonishing ‘where the bloody hell have you been food guy’ way. I was so weak I almost couldn’t lift him up, but during those weeks at home they were my best cuddles buddies.

They grew up in the town centre of Market Harborough and pigeons would frequently feature in ours lives. Often in the small hours. Oh, and the time they got into a packet of catnip…..

Opus disappeared one day in 2001. I suspect he found another house to dominate where he didn’t have to share food with his dumb brother. At least that’s what I choose to believe. Bill the Cat came with us to Cambridgeshire, after an hilarious journey on the train. We had sedated him but it turns out he was a noisy drunk and spent the journey, in his cage, on his back, fighting invisible birdies on the roof of his cat carrier. A second dose we gave him in a train toilet failed to shut him up. And it turned out, once we got to our new home, that he had managed to hide that one in his cheek where it had slowly been topping him up. He came out the cage, looked around, spat out the pill and walked sideways into a wall.

I never thought I was a cat person. I’d always have said I was a doggie guy. The whole obedience, tall wagging, playing fetch, being excited to see you thing sounded great. But that didn’t last long. Once we had bonded with Bill and Opus, it was a firm bond. Opus would go to almost no one for fusses; he was shy, so when he climbed into your lap it felt a lovely honour. Bill was a bit of a tart and would go to anyone for a fuss. In his last years though he has been content to sleep in the back garden, getting up occasionally for a scratch and to tease next doors dog by sitting on the fence just out of reach. His only demands an occasional cuddle, regular food and a handy towel if he got caught in the rain. (He’d stand by you miaowing until he was dried off. Bill the Cat did not do discomfort.) Occasionally, when I had a bout of insomnia I’d creep down in the middle of the night and lie on the sofa. He loved that, he’d jump up and lie in the crook of my arm, and we’d spend the night cuddled up watching News24. (Those East Asian Market Report guys really know how to kick it!)

There is no great point to this piece. I just wanted to tell you about my cat, who I loved dearly. The house seems so much quieter and emptier now. The vacuum cleaner has moved to the spot where his bowls stood. His litter tray is empty and clean. We’ll take his remaining food to donate to a cat shelter.

But I’ve not closed the cat flap yet. Not yet.

If you have liked this blog piece, or others I have written, I would be very grateful if you could help spread the word on Facebook or Twitter. 

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Remembering one forgotten man: The Somme 1916

I will be uploading this blog post on 5th October at 11:00am. It marks 100 years to the day, that a man fell during the battle of The Somme. 11:00am because we don’t know what time exactly his engagement happened. I do have a rough idea where it happened, and what the objective was. And we know his name; his name was Joseph.

Joseph was a Lance Corporal in the 8th Battalion of The Yorkshire Regiment, The Green Howards. He was a coal miner from Usworth Colliery, County Durham. He had volunteered for the Army in 1915. He chose to go to war; even though when conscription was introduced in 1916, as a coal miner, he would have been exempt.

He chose to go to war.

A photo of him in The Illustrated Chronicle in 1915 records him as Private in the 7th Yorkshire. (Wounded)

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In October 1916 he was recovered and back on the front, now a Lance Corporal, in the 8th Battalion of the Green Howards, part of 69th Brigade, 23rd Division.

On this day, in 1916. Joseph died.

From what research I have done I know that the 23rd Div. made several attempts over the 4th, 5th and 6th of October to take a German support trench at Flers, near Le Sars. The attempts were unsuccessful. At this point I can only assume Joseph was killed out in No Mans Land on one of those raids. His body was never recovered and identified, he has no grave, his name is high on a wall  at the Thiepval Memorial, along with thousands of his brothers in arms, that also fell, with no resting place, during that hideous battle.

He was one man, unmarried, with no children, falling amongst so many others on the hellish front, in that hellish war.

You’ll have already guessed why this one man is special though, to me at least. He was my great, great uncle. My grandfather was born in 1913 (alarmingly quickly after his parents married but that’s a story for another day.) Joseph may have bounced him on his knee when he was home on leave. I doubt there is anyone alive now who met Joseph, let alone remembered him. Apart from a name on a few war memorials he is gone from history.

It had been our hope to visit Thiepval for this anniversary, in the symbolic gesture that after a century there are still those who remember his sacrifice and bravery, the bravery of all his comrades who fought like lions, not for their countries perhaps, but for their mates along side them. Sadly, that visit was not to be, so this little piece will have to act as a new memorial, a new remembrance of a humble man, from a little mining community who stepped out into the world to do his duty and fell, as so many others.

Each year I buy a poppy, from the Royal British Legion. I buy a poppy to honour those who died, in the mud of the Great War, on the beaches of Dunkirk or Normandy, in the myriad of terrible, smaller wars since. I do it to honour those service personal injured in their service, both physically and emotionally. Many of my family have served their country in the military, including my wife. And whilst I may not always admire the motives of the governments sending our troops out to fight, I will always support the troops themselves.

In recent years though, that poppy, that symbol of simple remembrance, has started to become hijacked by political groups to become something else. There are sensationally overblown stories of radical groups burning poppies. I say that’s fine. They are free to do that in this country, however repugnant it may seem.  My uncle and all those others died to maintain that freedom.

What disturbs me more is the far right using the poppy as a symbol of nationalist solidarity. For the first time last year I actually thought twice about wearing it lest people thought I was some kind of nationalist. There has been public shaming and trolling of people not wishing to wear poppies when appearing on television. Again, it is freedom. It is their wish to wear it or not, and not ours to question.

I remember the loathsome Britain First trumping up a story of them ‘guarding’ poppy sellers from abuse, which the sea cadets they ‘guarded’ were quick to deny, saying they were approached for a photo with them and that was all.

Buying a poppy does not make me a warmonger, or glorifying the deaths of innocent civilians in war. Neither does it make me a patriot or a ‘true Englishman’.

Buying a poppy helps raise funds for veterans alive today, providing support to those challenged so many different ways. It is not political; it is human and it is honourable.

The loss of life was so enormous in the First World War, that is is difficult to put a human face to all those names streaming down the walls at Thiepval. So today, look back up at that photo, and just think of one man, a 27 year old man, who worked down a pit, then picked up a rifle and went to France to die.

He was one man among many; to remember one, is to remember them all.

If you would like to donate to the Royal British Legion or buy some of their merchandise, you can so at Royal British Legion, also SSAFA which also do great work supporting veterans. 

If you have liked this blog piece, or others I have written, I would be very grateful if you could help spread the word on Facebook or Twitter. 

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Stick it to the Manflu!

I was feeling a little under the weather yesterday. Nothing major; scratchy throat, slightly hoarse, coughing, very tired and drained. I went to bed early to try and sleep it off. As I have previously mentioned (An Actor Unprepares) I am an amateur actor and we are well into rehearsals, so don’t want to risk missing any through illness. I wasn’t poorly, just not firing on all cylinders. (Though, to swap metaphors, I rarely have my full complement of cannon firing at any given time!)

It was one of those occasions where the word Manflu could be thrown at me. Though Mrs Bloke, through years of having to hear the lecture I will shortly deliver, does refrain from saying it, for the sake of her sanity.

Manflu is a malady that befalls a man when he has a cold, such that it renders him devastatingly ill, weak, incapable of performing the slightest action for himself, poleaxed on the sofa, demanding toast without crusts, drugs and gentle hands on our brows. He is too ill for work, but just well enough to reach the sofa, (with a blanket) to watch TV or play Xbox. It also miraculously improves on a Friday afternoon!

In short, it is the disease that reduces men to blubbering wrecks, whereas women solider on, barging through it, because they have more important things to do it. I know it’s supposed to be funny and wry but I just don’t see it. It annoys me on two levels.

Firstly, on a personal level. I don’t like being ill. And I have been ill in the past; very, very ill.’Life expectancy calculated in hours’ kind of ill. Through miraculously undeserved good fortune I pulled through, but it was hard work. There were times I was profoundly weak, when all I could do was sleep in bed for 20 hours a day and eat only Protein shakes and Rich Tea biscuits. Not that I was a model patient. I got bored in an isolation room during one spell in hospital, and decided to play hopscotch with the tiled pattern of the flooring. Next day I was discharged, with a wrenched ankle and had to be ferried onto the train home in a wheelchair with all my luggage. It was a valuable learning experience. I.e. When you’re bored in a room you can’t leave….don’t, just don’t..what ever idea you just had…don’t! AND people in wheelchairs have it damned rough, don’t ever suggest otherwise!

It throws it all into sharp relief now.  Yes, whilst I have been left with conditions that don’t necessarily make me more vulnerable to colds, when I do get them they are more severe. But also I retained the strange ability to make myself retch at will (very useful after a heavy night out. Involves visualising breaded fish.) and the ability to tell when I’m running a fever.

I’m not saying I’m a saint. When I do have bad cold I am a grumpy old sod, and will lurk on the sofa like a malevolent snot troll. But I never exaggerate and I don’t crave any extra attention or care.So the suggestion that I turn into a snivelling man child is frankly insulting.

For a start, people don’t get the ‘flu anywhere like as much as they think they do. I remember a doctor on the radio saying once, if you go to your GP because you think you have the ‘flu, you don’t. If you have the ‘flu you can’t leave the bed. I’ve only had it once I think and it cost me an interview for a really good job. I managed to pull on my suit and got about half way to the train station before I just physically ground to a halt and knew I could get no further. They couldn’t reschedule. I was sad.

But the second reason Manflu gets on my wick is that it’s sexist. It’s one of those sexist tropes we still seem to cling to in our culture. It’s as bad as a man rolling his eyes and asking if it’s a ‘woman’s time of the month’ or making jokes about parallel parking. Now I know that sexism almost exclusively flow’s the other ways and it’s only fair that women get a little payback. But is that the answer? Surely we should try and find better ways of co-existing then just throwing massively generalised insults at each other.

We need to find new ways of talking about sex and gender. Why, when we read articles about the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s visit to Canada, are we told what she is wearing, as if she is just a mannequin?  The Daily Mail side bar of shame is daily full of body shaming photo’s. Even our female politicians are described in terms of their looks and appearance.(After many years in 10 Downing Street I know nothing about Cameron’s, Brown’s or Blair’s shoe tastes, but after 5 minutes we all know Theresa May likes a Kitten Heel.) Right now, in the U.S a hideously unpleasant man is a serious contender for the White House. It can’t really be true that the only reason he is doing so well is because a large part of the country can’t stomach voting for a WOMAN!?

So, as I climb carefully down from my high horse, let’s agree shall we, to cut out the sexist generalisations. Let us find a better way to behave and communicate. I’m not saying let’s all hold hands and get along. I’m saying let’s use our imaginations to more accurately insult each other. Perhaps if we can do that, we’ll find there is less to fight about in the first place.

Here ends the lecture. Carry on about your business. I’m going to lie down….

PS. Mrs Bloke has just read this and would like to suggest that, whilst I don’t crave extra attention when ill, I do lie on the sofa, complaining, in a plaintive voice, like a 19th century consumptive playwright, that I have a malaise.

If you have liked this blog piece, or others I have written, I would be very grateful if you could help spread the word on Facebook or Twitter. 

Find me on Facebook – www.facebook.com/fatbloketalking  and on Twitter – @fatbloketalking or email me at fatbloketalking@outlook.com