The Bootnapper

Back in the nineties I lived quite the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. I played rhythm guitar in a band, I had long hair and I partied hard most weekends. It was an age of fantastic new music, and it came at a time when we were young and energetic enough to dance the night away. Every weekend we did the mashed potato to Mudhoney, the hustle to Hole, the samba to Soundgarden.

One Friday night I was at the flat of my mate Nige, who had a dozen or so people round after the pubs shut. We swigged to the sound of Mudhoney until the neighbour banged on the wall to signal last orders, and most people went home.

But I hung about. Nige had gone to bed and I was lying at full stretch on the settee with a duvet. The only other person in the room was my mate Graeme, who was curled up on an armchair with a blanket. He told me that he couldn’t get comfortable and asked me if I fancied swapping. I laughed and gave him a two-word reply, accompanied by a two-fingered salute. Then I gave an exaggerated account of how wonderfully comfortable Nige’s settee was.

Soon after this though my bursting bladder began demanding my attention. I couldn’t hold it in any longer so I pulled the duvet aside. Graeme appeared to be asleep so I crept off the settee and made stealthily towards the door that led to the bathroom. No sooner had I reached this door than I heard a yell of triumph, and I saw Graeme leap from the armchair onto the settee. I was crestfallen.

I curled up on the armchair with the blanket but I had to tolerate the combined irritations of being unable to get comfortable, and Graeme’s exaggerated pretend snoring. Eventually though, I did drift off to sleep.

I woke up before it was light and, although it was summertime, the room was cold. I decided to go home, so I folded the blanket and put on my shoes. Graeme was in a deep drunken slumber by this time, and so I decided to have me some revenge on him for stealing the settee from me.

The obvious pranks, like shaving an eyebrow or drawing on his face, crossed my mind, but I wanted something different. After a moment’s thought I hatched a plot worthy of Dick Dastardly himself. I left the flat a few minutes later, and walked through the dark, deserted streets quietly chuckling to myself.

In the morning Graeme and Nige were up and chatting about the party. Graeme had laced up one of his Dr. Marten boots but he couldn’t find the other one. Then Nige found the note I had left on the fireplace, which read:

If you want to see your boot again bring a packet of Hob-nobs to ** Marine Terrace on Saturday morning.

No tricks

No police

Graeme’s options came down to either walking around to my flat, which was about a quarter of a mile away, in stockinged feet, or as he was, wearing one boot laced up. He opted for the latter.

As he hobbled through the streets in one boot on that busy Saturday morning, Graeme had the misfortune to run into a cousin of his, who was going shopping in the town centre with his wife and family. They laughed at Graeme’s comical gait, and asked what on earth he was doing walking around with one boot on. He showed them the note.

Graeme arrived at my flat soon after this but he took the prank in good humour, as I knew he would. We would go on to share flats on two occasions in the years following the bootnapping, and those happy times would be interspersed with pranks and practical jokes. We had quite a laugh about his boot over a cup of tea and some Hob-nobs, which Graeme had gone out to buy after he’d been fully shod. So he kept his side of the bargain.

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Pinball Wizardry? Not Quite

In the town where I live, there is a patch of grass where there once stood a wine bar that mysteriously caught fire one night and burned down. When I was a child, that building had been a furniture showroom, but by the time I entered my teens it had transformed into a brightly-lit amusement arcade called The Leisure Centre – and I became an eager habitué.

The centre comprised a prize bingo at the rear, a snack bar, and at the front a collection of coin-operated amusements, some of which wouldn’t look out of place on Antiques Roadshow. A cassette tape of Elvis Presley’s early hits played almost constantly, and the centre was a great attraction for local skinheads, which made it a great attraction to me. There were one-armed bandits, a huge table football game with a glass lid, and a wall-mounted electronic penalty-kick game. Best of all though, there was a row of pinball machines along one of the walls.

These were Gottlieb machines that were two pence a shot (I remember playing on this baseball one). Over time, my friends and I got to grips with the finer points of these machines; how to trigger the specials and rack up a replay or two. If we couldn’t earn a replay via a high score, there was always a random number match at the end that might throw up what we called a lucky bop (bop being the sound the machine made when a free game was awarded).

None of us had much money, and we had soon put most of what we did have into the pin tables. As our resources dwindled, we took to sharing games, taking a flipper each and then arguing over whose fault it was that the ball was lost. More often than not, our bus fares would follow our spending money into the slots; an act we’d soon regret as we set off on the mile long walk home in the cold.

Then one day everything changed. A new kid on the block had arrived in the form of a Williams Straight Flush machine. This monster was five pence a game, but it was such an advancement on its predecessors there was no shortage of players eager to try it out.

The flippers on this new table were longer than the stubby ones we were used to, which made for a much sweeter strike. There were five lights above slots along the top of the table, at which to aim the ball – Ten, Jack, Queen, King and Ace – and if these lights were all put out, the special would be in play. On the upper left side of the table was a staircase with a spinner at the top. When the red arrow at the base was lit, flipping the ball up those stairs brought an extra ball. There was no sweeter feeling than to hold the ball on the right flipper, release it and then, as the ball rolled down, hit it at just the right time to watch it soar up that staircase to earn a free ball. An even better show of mastery though was to send the ball up the staircase on the back flip, i.e., via the left side flipper. A successful ascent of the staircase was usually hailed with the cry, get up them stairs.

One night, my friend and I went into the arcade to find half a dozen youths gathered around the Straight Flush machine, and we were surprised to see there were seven replays chalked up. We soon learned that these free games had less to do with pinball wizardry than with underhand jiggery-pokery.

There was a crack in the glass on the lower right corner of the machine. Someone had figured out that if the two sides of the crack were pulled apart, it was possible to poke a flattened and folded paper drinking straw through the gap and rack up lots of points by repeatedly pressing the trigger on the exit lane. The prime objective of the game immediately shifted to getting the ball down the Ten slot, as this would light the right side exit lane, and 5,000 points would be awarded every time it was depressed. Whenever the attendant was otherwise engaged, someone would set about poking up more high scores to earn buckshee replays. We would then take turns playing these games off.

I’m not sure if the management was aware of our freebie flipper fests, but after a week or so the glass on the table was replaced. So it was back to paying for our games, and sharing flippers, and walking home.

A sign of a mis-spent youth? Possibly, but it was fun while it lasted.

Here is the Williams Straight Flush machine in action.

Many thanks to Russ at for the use of the photo.

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I Changed My Name

The photo is part of my birth certificate. I was given the same name as my dad, although there is a slight spelling discrepancy; he is (was) A-L-A-N, and I’m A-L-Y-N. I was later told that this way of spelling my name was prompted by my parents seeing the name of the musician/conductor Alyn Ainsworth on the credits of many TV shows back then. This written variation may have averted confusion in the mail department, but audibly there was no difference in the names. If my mother called, two of us would turn up. This situation was remedied by the addition of the prefix big or little before the actual name, so I became Little Alyn.

While ‘playing out’ one day, I came across a girl down the street who had at her feet a tin of Quality Street with the lid off. Even at that tender age I was well familiar with the interior of that tin, and the brightly coloured wrappers that enveloped delicious chocolate creations – apart from the golden flat disc; that was toffee and to be avoided. With my mouth already watering, I sidled up to the girl in the hope of a benevolent act taking place. I even dared to dream of peeling the foil off my favourite, the green triangle. As I watched, the girl took one of the sweets, the purple one, vaguely shaped like a tiny Ayers Rock, and removed the wrapper.

Now, at that young age, I’d not had much cause to apply the word devastated to my emotional state, but this was certainly one of those times. For what lay beneath the purple wrap was not chocolate, but chalk! What my friend had was a tin of dummy sweets that were used as part of a shop display. She obviously knew what they were all along, and she began chalking on a wall, singing happily. I wanted to cry.

But I picked myself up and several of my friends and I walked chalk-handed up to the wooden bus shelter that stood on Cowpen Road at the top of our street. Here we went on a chalking frenzy, drawing rudimentary cartoons and initially writing our own names, but then pairing each other off with girls from the street. Someone wrote David luvs Jakleen (our spelling skills weren’t yet honed), and that opened the gates. Over that half-hour we did more matchmaking than Cilla would years later on TV. As I paired Stuart with Lizzie, I wondered with whom I’d be ‘matched’. One of my friends had a cousin who occasionally visited, and she sometimes wore an orange trouser suit, which was a very grown-up thing to my eyes, and I was quite sweet on her. I secretly hoped that someone would write Alyn luvs Heather, but they never did.

As we subjected the shelter, and then the pavement, to mild, non-permanent vandalism, I was aware that this was the very bus stop my dad would be alighting at on his way home from work that evening. I banished my concerns with the reassurance that there were plenty of other Alyns in the world, and the culprit could have been any one of them.

Sure enough, that night my dad gave me a more thorough grilling than the kippers he’d just eaten for tea. He asked if I knew a David and a Stuart and a Jaqueline. I nodded to all three. He asked if I had been chalking my name up at the bus stop. This was awkward, for as well as the chalk, Cowpen Road, the main road as we called it, was strictly out of bounds to me. I tried to deny authorship of the graffiti, but after my dad explained that the spelling of my name was something of a rarity, I confessed my sins and earned a lecture on telling the truth. Dad didn’t seem too fussed about the chalking, but he did advise me to carry out any future scribbling sessions on the rendered gable end at the bottom of the street, out of general view.

And that was that. I thought I’d see out the rest of my days without any more name-related anecdotes to recount in later life. But I was wrong.

When I first attended the local grammar school, our maths teacher, Mr Thomas, a Welshman, had his own system for remembering the names of his new charges. The teacher would select one pupil at a time with a point of the finger. On being chosen, each pupil would stand up and say his or her first name, which the teacher would then chalk on the board in a list. I was a shy boy, and even this simple act, which would cause me to be the focus of attention, made me anxious. When it came to my turn, I cleared my throat and said Alyn. He chalked up ALAN. “Spelled like this?” he said. I said no. He wiped part of the name off and reapplied the chalk to make ALLAN. I shook my head. “Well,” he said, wiping the name off again, “it must be the same as mine,” at which he wrote ALUN. Again I shook my head. By this time, several pupils had turned in their chairs to gaze upon this idiot with the weird name. I spelled it out and he wrote it on the board, saying that he’d never seen the name spelled that way before, even though it looked Welsh. My face burned as I sat back down.

At this new school, teachers called me Joseph, as that is my first name. I didn’t correct them for fear of a repeat of the awkward maths moment. Fellow pupils started calling me Joe, and so I decided to go with that particular flow. On my bedroom wall there hung a Certificate of Merit: First Prize, Upper Juniors I’d won in a poetry competition at school (my prize was a Platignum cartridge pen). With ALYN staring at me from the this certificate, I decided to act. With a sharpened pencil, I changed the Y to an A with as much vigour as Cornwall himself; ”Out, vile consonant!”

And so I became Joe. My parents never called me by that name, and some people I’ve known since I was a child still call me Alyn.

One of these is my cousin, Phil. When he was about thirteen, Phil wore glasses. With these, and his ginger hair (strawberry blond, as he would have it), he bore quite a resemblance to the Gerry Anderson puppet Joe 90. This earned him the nickname Joe in some quarters, although I never called him by that name. One day I was having a pint in a local bar with Phil and a mutual friend called Kev. As we’d known each other since infancy, I called my cousin Phil and he called me Alyn. Kev sitting opposite, who must have though there was some sort of wind-up going on, called both of us Joe.

And now, official documents like my driving licence have me down as Alan, the same as my dad. When looking through my mail though, I know when I’ve received a letter from the doctor’s or hospital, because they still address me as Alyn, as was recorded when I was born. I find it quaint.            

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Whatever Happened to the Beecher Lads?

The closing credits of the TV series Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads shows children playing in a partly-demolished house. Such activities would generally be frowned upon in today’s more cosseted world, where soft play is about as dangerous as it gets. Back in my childhood though there were no better playgrounds than the local dilapidated cemetery, abandoned allotments and, best of all, a pair of derelict flats.

I spent my formative years at 45 Beecher Street (I was actually born there), which was a ground floor flat on a terrace. When I was five or six years old, the occupants of the flats at the very bottom of the street, numbers 49 and 51, moved out, and no new tenants moved in.

As weeks turned to months it became clear that the bottom flats had seen their last occupants. Some older boys broke windows, and this opened up the lower flat to inquisitive urchins like me and my friends. My first exploration of the lower flat was a solo expedition that happened one afternoon. I entered the back yard intent on having a good look around, but I was immediately halted by an obstacle. The back door of the flat had been removed, so gaining access was easy, but floor of the kitchen, or scullery as we called it, was flooded. It was only an inch or so deep, but that would be enough to permeate my plimsolls. Someone had laid house bricks to serve as stepping stones, but my little legs couldn’t span the gap between the doorstep and the first brick. Luckily, the back yard was full of junk, and I found a lump of wood that I laid to make that first step reachable. I scampered over the bricks, noting on the way a perfectly round hole at the base of the wall. This must have been drilled to accommodate a pipe or cables, but I genuinely believed it to be a mousehole, a notion that was reinforced by the presence of a dead and sodden mouse that lay on a dry part of the floor in the corner. Once inside the flat, I was underwhelmed – it was completely empty and there was a pervading musty smell like damp wallpaper.

Access to the upstairs flat came when someone kicked out one of the panels in the front door. It was a narrow gap that only the slenderest could squeeze through, and after seeing one of my friends get stuck, I didn’t attempt entry. It wasn’t long though until a bigger youth kicked a hole in the wall at the bottom of the back stairs, so now the entire building was open to us.

Playing in those flats became an everyday pastime for us, even though over time everything of value was stripped from the building. Eventually, even the floorboards went, but before that happened we had quite an adventure below them.

One lad had a new battery-operated torch, so three of us decided to play at coal miners. In the living room of the downstairs flat, there was a square hole in the floor, and a second hole below the window on the opposite side of the room. There was a gap of about two-feet between the floorboards and the ground, and the plan was to enter by one hole and crawl along to exit via the one by the window.

We lowered ourselves in and started the crawl, singing Hi-ho (the original Song from Under the Floorboards?), and laughing and larking about as we went. As we approached the daylight of the second hole through which we hoped to emerge, we noticed something on the ground directly below the window. We saw that it was a newspaper parcel. Three pairs of eyes looked on as the torch shone on the package, and one of our number gingerly peeled back the top layer. Inside were two dead rabbits that were crawling with maggots.

A mad panic to get out ensued, but we had to crawl back to the entrance hole to escape. Peeling back the newspaper had unleashed the stench of decay, which, in that warm, airless environment, was almost unbearably pungent. We bumped heads off the ‘ceiling’ and tried to shove each other out of the way – a pointless exercise in that confined space. Finally, we clambered out, now laughing but greatly relieved. We went to the window hole to shine the torch on the ghastly mess from a safe distance, wondering who had dropped this parcel of putrefaction. My suspicion fell on the father of one of my fellow miners, but I said nothing.

One day, three teenage strangers from a nearby estate (big lads, as we would call them) came down the street, and they went into the upstairs flat. My friend David and I watched from the doorstep as they climbed into the loft via the hatch above the landing. We heard one of them mention copper wire, so we assumed that was what they were seeking. The pair of us ran off laughing when one of them defecated through the hatch. Grimly, it turned out that two of these three would later be jailed for separate murders.

Over time, the lower flat served as a garage to service our bicycles and home-built bogeys, a military hospital, a fort, a haunted house and, of course, a gang hut. It was also a strong room to store bonfire wood prior to Guy Fawkes’ night. As we grew out of the pretend garage phase, my friends and I lit fires inside the downstairs flat, and took great delight in kicking plaster off the interior walls and then smashing the laths that lay beneath.

With the building now an almost empty shell, there was still one last caper to be had under its leaky roof. In the small back bedroom of the lower flat, there remained intact a section of floorboards about two feet above the ground. This partial floor, which protruded about four feet from the wall, was at the end of the room opposite a hole where there once was a window. My friends and I saw the floor as a stage, and we took turns larking about like we were on Top of the Pops, while the others watched via the window-hole. I remember ‘performing’ Bend Me, Shape Me by Amen Corner with a length of cable for a microphone – to a chorus of boos and catcalls.

The deterioration continued. For some time our flat had a problem with mice, quite possibly refugees from those foodless unoccupied dwellings, and eventually we were rehoused to a brand new house on a nearby estate. Several other families from the bottom end of the street were also moved out, so we remained friends and neighbours. Back on Beecher Street there were now a dozen or so empty properties awaiting demolition, but which needed a thorough exploration first. There are tales to come from those, but another time.

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My Ascent into Punk Rock

“Billy Idle”

As far as I remember, my first encounter with the phenomenon of punk rock came via a sensationalist story in one of the Sunday tabloids. THIS IS WHAT YOUNG PEOPLE ARE DOING TO THEMSELVES TODAY the headline said, above a photo of a young girl who sported one sleeper through her nostril, a second through an ear lobe, and a connecting chain that hung loose on her cheek. Now, I had only recently been to see Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel at Newcastle City Hall, so this new, rather bizarre fad was never going to be for me. Or so I thought.

My younger brother had a compilation album that was released by Sounds music paper (Sounds Like a Good Album to Us), and among the likes of Santana and Aerosmith, there was a track by the Vibrators called He’s a Psycho. Curiosity pushed me into giving it a spin – and my head was turned. It wasn’t just the power, energy and snarling vocals that got me, this was 1977, the year of such blandness as Save All Your Kisses for Me, The Floral Dance, and Under the Moon of Love. Yet here was this guy repeatedly barking He’s a Psycho! Count me in.

Not long after this I was at a party at a friend’s house, where I came across the recently released Vertigo Records compilation, New Wave. While others were getting down to Rock Your Baby (great song) in the front room, I was out the back, listening enthralled to these fresh new sounds on an old Dansette record player. I slept on an armchair, and the following morning the guy who’d thrown the party told me I could have the album, as he wasn’t keen on it. Oh joy!

I came into contact with a couple of local punk aficionados, one of who loaned me a clutch of singles, and my good friend Rob joined me in exploring this exciting new world of music. I recall that his mother was somewhat dismayed to see that, beneath the stereo in the living room, Linda Ronstadt no longer stood at the front of the queue in his LP collection; she had been usurped by an unwelcome intruder called Live at the Vortex. With the addition of Live at the Roxy and later the Streets compilation, Rob and I were spoilt for choice when it came to punk songs to play.

But talking the talk was one thing. The time came when we had to walk the walk.

One Saturday afternoon we decided to get some proper punk clobber together to wear down at the pub that night. We didn’t have bondage pants or even a Clash T-shirt in those embryonic days, but we were determined to look the business. I salvaged a pair of my dad’s old suit jackets from the loft which, with the addition of a few safety pins, lengths of chain, and punk badges procured from the Kard Bar, made as good a punk uniform as could be bought on the King’s Road. Accessories included cheap plastic sunglasses, a loosened tie for Rob, and I finished off my look with a stylish studded dog collar around the throat.  

This was all well and good when larking about in the bedroom with a can of beer and the Maniacs playing, but we had no idea what kind of reception we’d get from the rather staid regulars in the lounge of the Red House, the pub we’d be visiting to await our bus into the town centre. Our plan was simply to brazen it out, with the fancy-dress party get-out clause if things got tricky. We needn’t have worried. Apart from the odd glance, no-one paid any attention to us other than kids who were interested in following suit. I got quite a buzz from dressing in a way that was so different from everyone else (apart from the sprinkling of other punks in town). The following Saturday afternoon, Rob and I ventured confidently into the town centre in the same punk get up, and someone took Polaroid shots of us standing at the doors of the Market pub. What I’d give to have one of those photos now.

On another Saturday afternoon a while later, I was back in the loft, where I found two identical khaki long-sleeved shirts. Never Mind the Bollocks had just come out, and Rob had fetched his copy over with the intention of somehow transferring the (already iconic) lettering onto these shirts. In the proper do it yourself spirit of punk, I used tracing paper, an old Corn Flakes box and a razor blade to create a stencil (cont’d Blue Peter). I stippled the design onto the front of the shirts using a black marker, remembering to put a sheet of card under the front of the shirt so the ink didn’t go through to the back. The finished result was far better than we’d expected, and we were delighted. A few rips here and there, held together with safety pins, and we were off to swig beer at the Thoroton Hotel, where the juke box had Peaches and Sound of the Suburbs on. A good night was had by all, and several people asked where we’d got our shirts from, even though we’d knocked them up ourselves. On the walk home, somewhat under the influence, we began trying to make the rips bigger in each other’s shirt. It started with Rob’s curled index finger pulling one of the rips in my sleeve, and pretty soon we were at it like fighting cats, shredding these things we’d put so much effort into creating – while laughing hysterically. I got home with only a cuff left.

As time marched on, ready made punk clothes became more accessible through outlets like Phaze and T.I.T.S in Newcastle. Everything was off-the-peg, so there wasn’t so much need for the DIY aspect any more.

And while I continued on the great punk adventure for many years (I’m still on it) during which time I attended some great gigs, did a punk fanzine and briefly sang in a thrash band, those heady days of 1977 had a wonderful freshness and raw excitement that will never be replicated.

In the title of this post, I chose the word ascent, rather than descent. For despite the negativity of the genre, epitomised in the phrase No Future, amid the snarling and the swearing, there was actual substance, and my punk experience was an edifying and uplifting one. Punk cameraderie was very strong in those early days (it had to be), and the whole DIY philsosophy, regarding clothes, gigs and fanzines (but not haircuts) was one I took to immediately, and which I still adhere to today in some regards. I heard some amazing music and made some terrific friends. And I never spat at a band in my life

So, all these years later, the whole thing is still dear to my heart. The Internet allows access to even some of the most obscure punk tunes of yore. I have a Husker Du badge on the lapel of one of my jackets, and I recently bought a Crass T-shirt, a Flux of Pink Indians one, and another from the Sunderland Bunker, which bears the legend from posters of the day, No Glue, No Glass Bottles. Now all I need is an opportunity to wear them.

You see, old punks never die – their safety pins just rust.       



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The Young Truant


the life I longed for

As a child, I was a keen reader of comics. I had the Beano delivered every week, but I was well up to speed with what was going on in the Dandy, Beezer and Topper. Oor Wullie and The Broons also made occasional forages across the border too, bringing much merriment with them. I loved delving into summer specials and sitting down with a brand new Christmas annual after the pamdemonium of pressie-opening was a great way to relax while dinner cooked. I loved the smell of the ink.

I related to the characters within the colourful pages of my comics with ease. I wanted a tin friend like Charley Brand’s Brassneck. I longed for my own miniature remote-controlled army like General Jumbo. I dreamed of being Billy Whizz running to the shops for neighbours, and receiving an extra reward for being so quick. Sadly, those characters and their special powers, gadgets and pets were only available in dreams.

There was though one theme that was common in several strips, and that was easily within the reach of a schoolboy in Northumberland: playing truant, or, as it was often called in this neck of the woods, playing hookey or hopping the wag.

In the world of the comic, Oor Wullie, Charley Brand (Brassneck’s human friend) Spunky Bruce (pictured above with his giant spider, Scamper), and a host of others were often to be found skipping school and getting into all kinds of scrapes – after they had hidden the school bag. My first venture onto the wrong side of the tracks was not influenced by any comic book character though, as I could barely read at the time.


hiding the bag

I was still in the infants on the day that I succumbed to the temptress freedom. At the time I lived close to the school and so I went home for lunch. One afternoon, instead of going back to school, curiosity lured me into a nearby back lane where a row of garages stood. I squeezed through a gap between two of the garages and this brought me into a farmer’s field, from where I could see my school and hear the children playing. The loud clanging of the bell that signalled the end of the lunch break also served as a reminder that I was now officially AWOL.

When silence fell as my school friends went back inside, I felt the proper outlaw, rummaging among the old crates and empty oil cans that were strewn behind the garages. Then I came across a pile of rubbish, on top of which was an object that made my little eyes light up: a real gun.

It was only a rusty old air pistol, but to me it was straight out of a Cagney film. I picked the gun up and went to take aim, but my feeble arms could hardly bear the weight, being used to brandishing only plastic cap guns. As I inspected the weapon, my adventure came to an abrupt end.

My mother, wearing her angry-as-hell face, emerged from between the garages (a neighbour had spotted me and snitched). I was ordered to leave the gun and to get my (now trembling) legs moving homeward, sharpish. I complied, devastated at having to leave the gun for someone else to find. Back home I was given a stern dressing-down and sent to the bedroom I shared with my older brother.

At that young age I didn’t realise the potential danger into which I could have been placing myself. My mother’s anger must have been coupled with a great fright that her son could wander off on his own to such a secluded area. I needed to be taught a lesson, and I certainly got one.

My mother came into the bedroom and she took my small suitcase from under the bed. She told me that she would be packing this, as I would be going to the Wellesley School for a while.

The Wellesley Nautical School was an approved school at the time and, for those of us living in close proximity to it, being sent there was the default threat with which parents steered wayward charges back onto a steady course. Even at that tender age, however, I had already been threatened with a trip to the Wellesley several times, and nothing had happened. I assumed that this would be another empty threat, but, such was the gravity of the situation, this time a more robust approach was required to make sure I got the message. As I sat in my room, confident that the worst was over and that by tea time all would be well again, my mother sneaked to the front door and rang the doorbell.

Suddenly I was alert. I wondered who had rang the bell and I listened intently. I heard my mother’s voice, but no other. Then I heard her say, “He’s in his room,” and the bedroom door opened.The realisation that she hadn’t been bluffing and this was really happening hit me like a train.

I shall bring James Cagney in again to illustrate what happened next. If you’ve seen the film Angels With Dirty Faces, then you’ll know that at the end Cagney’s tough guy character is dragged screaming for mercy to the electric chair* (spoiler alert). This was me. I turned yellow, clinging onto the bunk-bed headboard rails, wailing and pleading with my mother not to let them take me away.

Satisfied that I had learned my lesson, my mother left the room and I sobbed and stewed and slept. All was well by tea time, although one diner at the table was a little sheepish.

The punishment had the desired effect, and I went through the infants and juniors without once playing truant again. When I started the grammar school, however, the lure of freedom tempted me again – but that’s a story for another day.
*In the film, we never learn if Cagney’s character really was a coward, or if he did his friend a final favour by pretending to be yellow in order to discourage young tearaways from idolising gangsters.



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Melon Farming for Beginners: A Brief History of Swearing in the Movies

up the down escalator

one of her five-a-day

Back in the days of silent films, packed picture houses enjoyed the latest offerings of Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle and Harold Lloyd to the accompaniment of suitable piano music. At one screening, a stereotypical villain, dressed in top hat and cape, strokes his moustache and then points a finger skyward as though a thought has struck him. The audience are told what this thought is in the form of a caption which reads: “I’m gonna nail that motherf—“. Cut.

Of course, this never really happened, because, for one thing I’m not sure how popular the ‘melon farmer’ word was back in those days (although it is said that the word can be lip-read, drowned out by a honking horn in the 1936 Fred Astaire film, Swing Time), and for another there was to be no mainstream on-screen swearing for many years to come.

The spoken…

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Games Among the Graves


the cemetery today

The residential area of Cowpen Newtown, where I lived as a child, consisted of three rows of terraced houses. The back lane of the westernmost of these, John Street, looked onto a cemetery that was in a state of some decay. The partly-demolished perimeter wall of this broken-down bone garden acted as a gateway to a huge playground for my friends and me. While we respected the actual graves, we couldn’t resist the other temptations that lay within. There were trees to climb, walls to scale and fires to set among the leaning headstones..

Our little gang would gather beneath the huge stone cross that stood (and still stands) in the centre of the cemetery. From here we would decide what we were going to play, be it hide and seek, a go on the rope swing, or perhaps a shootout between the gravestones with our Sekiden guns. There was always some adventure or other to be had.

My friend, David, and I once tried to make a mini-treehouse by securing an old zinc bath to a bough with a length of rope. The entire structure slid off the supporting branch with both of us sitting in it, but the rope held and we managed to hang on without either of us falling to the ground.

One Saturday afternoon, four of us were playing among the gravestones, when we were accosted by one of the ‘big lads’ from the street, who would have been about thirteen. He carried an air pistol and he corralled us at gunpoint with the intention of taking us to the priest, who lived on the other side of a busy road. Our captor marched us toward the main road, waving the gun about and telling us that we would be punished for playing in the cemetery. He lined us up on the kerb and, as he watched for a gap in the traffic, my fellow prisoners and I simultaneously made a bolt for it. Our escape was entirely successful, although I did spend the rest of that weekend in dread of a visit from the priest.

When I was about five-years-old, someone dumped an old mattress in a corner of the cemetery a few feet from the wall, and a new game of paratroopers was devised. I enviously watched, as a queue of older children leaped from the wall onto the mattress, doing various dramatic rolls on landing. I declined their invitation to join in, but later on, when I was alone, I drummed up the courage to have a go myself.

I climbed the wall, and took up my position by the battered mattress. A thick bed of nettles stood between me and my target but, undeterred, I stood on the edge of the wall and prepared to jump. I kept getting a powerful urge to leap, but this was quickly stifled as caution regained control of my mind. Finally, after a lot of dithering, I went for it.

I didn’t make it. I fell short and the nettles stung my bare legs but my momentum carried me forward, and I stumbled onto the damp mattress. It hurt like the devil, but I was satisfied that I had made the jump.

I also learned something very important that day, and on many other occasions when I attempted similar feats; I learned my own limitations. Through my mishap on the mattress I had given myself a better indication of how far I could jump. Via a similar process of trial and error, I identified other boundaries, such as whether a tree branch was too high to drop from safely, or the stick that acted as a seat on a rope swing would bear my weight.

For this is how it goes throughout the animal kingdom. A small kitten may fail in its attempt to leap between settee and armchair, but it will know better next time. Polar bear cubs will frolic as they explore snow for the first time, but they are familiarising themselves with the environment in which they will have to survive. And, in a dilapidated graveyard, a young boy leaping onto an old mattress learned that next time he must go an extra foot. Discovering our limitations is not something that can be taught indoors on a games console.

There was an article on the radio recently about so-called cotton-wool kids, these being children who are kept indoors because their parents fear they might get hurt while playing outside. In a recent survey, over 40% of adults suggested fourteen as the minimum age for children to be allowed out on their own, while only 17% said this freedom should be given to children under ten..

I learned several hard lessons as a child, and my mother would have had kittens if she’d known everything I got up to. But I came through it all relatively unscathed, and those scrapes and bumps and nettle stings I picked up taught me at an early age that life does not always run as smoothly I’d like it to.

I’m no child psychologist, but perhaps a lot of the entitlement we see in young adults these days stems from them not learning that lesson as children



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Learning to Ride a Bike: From Grazes to Glee



As a child, my inauguration into the world of two-wheeled cycling was a painful one. My friend David was younger than me, but already he was tearing around the streets on a small bike with large pneumatic tyres. I’d had several attempts at riding on two wheels, but I just didn’t get it.

Then one day I got a machine of my own, and so learning to ride became a priority. Directly opposite our street there stood a huge tailoring factory, in whose employ was a mysterious character known as the Boiler Man. He was a friend of my uncle Charlie, who used to repair and assemble bicycles as a sideline, and it was via this source that my uncle procured my very first two-wheeled bicycle.

My new, and by ‘new’ I mean ‘second-hand’, machine was a Hercules Jeep, which had been built in Birmingham. It was a bright blue mechanical monster that came with a sprung leather seat, moustache handlebars and roller-lever brakes (rigid steel rods rather than flexible cables). It was also, I felt, a bit too big for me, but undeterred, I set about trying to ride the blue beast.

With my uncle holding the saddle, I gripped the handlebars firmly and gave the thumbs-up to his instructions to keep pedalling and not to stare at the front wheel. Several children from the street had lined the pavement to watch the big event, and I imagined them cheering me as I pedalled past unaided.

After a little wobble at the start, we were off. My uncle’s stride got longer as my speed increased, and I nodded vigorously when he told me he was about to let go. A few yards after my uncle’s support was withdrawn, I came a cropper.

There was blood. There were tears. An entanglement of boy and machine lay in a heap on the road under the gaze of a generally sympathetic audience. After the Jeep and I had been unravelled, we saw that my injuries weren’t too severe, and a grazed elbow, a snotty nose and twisted handlebars were all that needed seeing to. I was sent home to be patched up and my uncle straightened the handlebars of my bike by gripping the front wheel between his knees and turning the bars back into position.

After this latest failed attempt to get mobile, it would have surprised no-one if I’d given up on ever becoming a cyclist, and taken the pedestrian pledge. Several bruising encounters with the road surface had served as a hefty dose of aversion therapy to my young bones. Maybe cycling and I were never meant to be, and I should look elsewhere for thrills on wheels. After all, my brother had a pair of roller skates.

But no.

Something had happened during my latest failed test run; for a brief moment before my fall, I actually had got it. I had ridden the thing.

Rather than wallowing in my failure, I took the view that hope springs eternal; the darkest hour is just before dawn, and a winner is just a loser who tried one more time. Instead of moping, I was about to enter the third act of a feel-good movie in which grim determination would prevail. I’d watched the family pets find their way to their new home in The Incredible Journey, and I witnessed the wooden puppet become a real boy in Pinocchio. In this spirit of overcoming challenging situations, a young lad on Beecher Street was about to ride a bike.

Working alone, I took my Jeep down to the gable end of the street, and took the handlebars. Gingerly, I pushed off and cocked my leg over the crossbar. I overcame the familiar steering wobble on starting, and I pushed the pedals firmly enough to maintain the momentum required to stay upright. And stay upright I did. Many years later, I still recall that sense of elation as I rode unaided for the first time. As I approached a row of garages in the back lane, I braked, leaned the bike over and hopped to a halt. In a state bordering on euphoria, I remounted and rode back to my starting point. I had definitely cracked it.

A boy called Norman from the next street had, of all things, a Hercules Jeep. His was a much newer model than my old boneshaker – it had straight handlebars and brake cables. In my blog post The Daredevil, I mentioned that I formed a bond with my friend Jimmy because he owned an identical scooter to the one I had. Similarly, Norman and I did lap after lap round the block on our Jeeps like we were best friends. I went home that evening saddle-sore and smiling.

Over the next few years, my friends and I cobbled together several bikes from reclaimed frames and handlebars. I got to know basic cycle repair, and I could mend a puncture with my eyes closed.

Then, one Christmas when I was in my early teens, I got my first new bike. It was a bright red Dawes Zipper I had picked out myself from Sep Mole’s shop in the town centre. As soon as I saw it suspended from the ceiling I knew it was the one for me.

The Zipper was similar to the Raleigh Chopper, and at £34 it cost the same, but with several better features. Whereas the Chopper had handlebars that were welded into position, my Zipper had cool adjustable ape-hangers that I liked to pull right back for that Easy Rider look. My bike also had a curved banana seat and an adjustable chrome backrest that was so long, I could press the back of my head against it. Despite several thorough Internet searches over the years, I have been unable to find a photo of the Dawes Zipper.

Memories of those early painful attempts at learning to ride a bike faded and I became a proficient cyclist. Of course, being able to ride a bike is no guarantee against coming off one, and over the years I’ve had my fair share of cycling spills. In 1988, I had an accident that knocked me clean unconscious and very nearly saw me parking up in that great big bike shed in the sky. I suffered a fractured skull and a shattered scapula, and I spent six days in hospital. It certainly put my grazed elbow in the shade.



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London, Here I Come!


London belongs to me

I made my first trip to London when I was ten-years-old. My grandparents took me to see an aunt, who had the curious name of Dorrie, and who lived in Burnt Oak, a suburb in the Edgware district of North London. My older brother had made the trip the previous year, and he had returned with tales of tube trains, waxworks and two apple trees in the garden.

We went by overnight coach from Newcastle, but even at that young age I was never the best of sleepers. As my grandparents dozed, I leaned into the aisle so that I could stare through the windscreen at the giant passing road signs, waiting for the magic name to appear (it came around the Sheffield area if I remember rightly). I was enthralled by this nocturnal world of cats-eyes, blazing headlights and motorway services that stayed open all night.

By the time we reached London, just as the local populace headed for work, I was shattered. A short taxi ride later and we were knocking at the door of our destination, and I met Dorrie for the first time. After tea and toast, I was dispatched to a small bedroom on the ground floor. It was clean and comfortable and I was soon fast asleep.

We did nothing that day, but in the evening my auntie and grandparents went out to a pub at the bottom of the road, leaving me alone in the strange house after I’d assured them I’d be all right. I had a plentiful supply of sweets and pop, and I tried reading my Beano Summer Special, but I couldn’t settle in the unusual surroundings, especially when dusk fell. A wooden standard lamp with fringed shade cast a gloomy light upon a huge old sideboard on which stood a mantel clock with a loud tick and a framed photograph of a soldier in uniform.

Somewhat spooked, I went outside, where I felt safer because people were on the street. I took a stroll down to the pub where my grandparents sat, and I returned to the house, where I spent the rest of the night leaning on the gate. I darted indoors when I saw my grandparents approaching.

The following day, we set about exploring the capital and I took my first trip on the tube. I was fascinated by the long wooden escalators which gave off a smell that I assumed to be warm lubricating oil. The walls of the stations and escalators were awash with posters advertising new films, and I was somewhat disturbed by the defiant two-fingered salute given by Billy Casper on posters advertising Kes. Another film that was advertised at that time was The Watermelon Man. I saw both of these when I got older and one remains a much-loved favourite, while the other was as forgettable as an advert for grass seed. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you which is which.

We were on the Northern Line, and the stations we passed through had names that were new to me: Brent Cross, Belsize Park and Chalk Farm. I loved the rocking of the train as it sped through dark tunnels; the screeches and the flashes. We visited Buckingham Palace (I wasn’t impressed) and Trafalgar Square, where I got my photo taken with some feathered friends (that’s my gran behind me on the right, getting ready to hand her money over to Del Boy for the snaps). I went to bed that night in that state of tiredness that only comes after a day spent traipsing around a busy town or city.

I woke up the next morning to the sound of someone rapping on the window of my bedroom. Puzzled, I got up and, rather gingerly, pulled back the curtain. I don’t think the word gobsmacked was in use at that time, but it would have been the perfect way to describe what I saw. There, in the garden, were my two brothers and, further back, my parents. My solo jaunt had turned into a family holiday.

When my grandparents got over the shock of the new arrivals, we went for the only time the other way on the tube, to Edgware. All I remember of that trip is being in a pub drinking lemonade while a band played on the stage. My older brother drew my attention to the rather stout saxophonist, and the comical way he sucked in breath as he played. His lips were tight around the mouthpiece, until he gulped in air, when the side of his mouth would open up, and then snap shut as sharply as a mousetrap. I found this hilarious.

London had shown me many things I’d never seen before, but one place we visited left me green with envy – and it wasn’t on the usual tourist trail. We were in Battersea (minus grandparents and Dorrie), and my dad took us into an adventure playground. To a street urchin like me, this rickety-looking rat-run was a merger of Shangri La, Utopia and El Dorado, all held together with nails and rope.

I ran and climbed and swung without parental yells to come down before I hurt myself. I loved the whole idea of a home-made assault course, cobbled together with old doors, car tyres and telegraph poles. The Battersea Adventure Playground was probably my favourite part of the entire London trip.

During my research for this post, I checked out the adventure playground to see if it was still going. I was pleased to see that it is, but saddened to see that it is no longer free and that the original structure was demolished in 2014. Fourteen staff were employed in the playground, supervising activities and running workshops for children. Of course, during these austere times, there is no room for paid staff, so the new park is safe and unsupervised – and it costs money to enter.

I wrote in a previous post of the way my local swimming pool closed a warm and inviting cafe, which was part of the appeal of a trip to the baths, to be replaced by soulless vending machines situated in empty seating areas. It would appear that the cuts that did for my cafe have also done for the Battersea Adventure Playground.

This is not a political blog, but I am sick to the teeth of seeing services that were used and loved being either closed down or run on the cheap in the name of cutting our way to growth. Swimmers of the vending machine generation know only the bare, unstaffed seating area. They missed out on the post-swim banter with staff over a frothy Horlicks while waiting for a hot dog. And what price would you put on the childrens’ workshops at the Battersea Adventure Playground which have been discontinued because saving money is, to some, more important than broadening the mind of a child (read that link above for the whole sorry tale). It all makes for a colder, less communicative world. And it stinks.






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