Dedicated with much love to M.S. who grew up in Venezuela

As a small West Cumbrian child I was famed for my powers of mental arithmetic. Perhaps it gave a future augury of me being ‘mental’, in various interesting directions, and it is indeed a strange idea that the ability to do sums in one head, is a function of the mind, whereas other types of computation are not. Does that mean all other arithmetic is not mental, but somatic or spiritual or computed in the ether? That said when in 1958 aged 7, I had to compute how much change out of £5 I got, after buying 5 lbs of cabbage at 7 and a farthing(quarter) old pence per pound, 10 pounds of brussel sprouts at 9 and half old d (Roman denarii would you believe as the etymological explanation of  the old d pence) plus 5 stones of flour at 4d per pound (there are 14 pounds in a stone for the neophyte ignoramuses among you) I could do the whole thing in my head in about 20 seconds. Yet even as I did so, I thought the whole baroque rigmarole a truly outrageous crock of malodorous excrement, even though at that age I had never heard of ‘outrageous’ or ‘crock’ or ‘malodorous’, or ‘excrement’. It is just that nobody in the memory of man ever went to buy all that absurdly motley culinary paraphernalia, replete with a five pound note which in 1958 was as rare as an Extraterrestrial Alien.

What I dimly sensed at that sentient age of 7, was that a great many perverse and infinitely depressing and pathologically dreary  adults, were how can I put it as decorously as possible, were a bunch of ad hoc and deplorable and wholly detestable cocksuckers, who spent their time dreaming up drivelish and pointless  problems for kids like me, for no sound purpose other than to turn me into another zestless adult and cocksucker clone, exactly like themselves. Needless to say I had never heard the word ‘cocksucker’ until I was 48 and a farthing, I mean a quarter. If that sounds gratuitously shocking, be aware it expresses about a hundredth of the retrospective disgust and abhorrence I feel, for all the time I have wasted in so called scholastic intellectual endeavours  in the only life that I have. While we are at it, and in terms of my computing how far from a fucking lighthouse x was when the tangent or cosine or sine of the angle of inclination of him gawking at the revolving light, when x was meanwhile performing joyous sex with his equally joyous Greek Arvanitika Albanian girlfriend, who had just that day bought 5lbs of parsnips at 500 Albanian lek per Greek oka, the answer to that is look up your own sunny resoundingly British arsehole and see if you can see any hallucinatory daylight, because I alas emphatically cannot. That’s one reason at any rate why in the autumn of 2013, I left the UK for lovely old Greece. Enough said.

Once I entered secondary school, meaning  the Grammar School, meaning that most punctiliously sound place that taught you never to say ‘I have went ’, aka The  Brothel on the Hill, things changed dramatically. Mental arithmetic vanished from the syllabus, and in any case you had logarithm tables and you were subject to vast amounts of geometry and algebra, both of which I grew to hate. It might have been different but our first form teacher was a wholly incredible and imponderable lunatic called Miss Lilian Puckridge. Her first name should have been Lilith, as she had a truly demonic temper, made all the worse by the fact she alternated sweet and sour, saccharine and incendiary, which is far worse than being a fearlessly foul-tempered maniac 24/7. The 5th form and upwards most inventively called her Fuckridge, and the rest of us dubbed her Puckers which come to think of it sounds far more floridly obscene than Fuckridge. Puckers at a guess was early sixties when I started at the Brothel on the Hill  in 1962, so safe to say she was born around 1900. She taught both Maths and Art to the younger kids only, as she only had a teacher training qualification and no degree, hence could not sport an academic gown as all the other teachers were obliged to do. She often wore her floral art blouse in maths which ought to have indicated she was relaxed and flexible, but alas it was the very opposite.

As a sample of her gothic crackedness, behold the fact that if you innocently addressed her as ‘Please Miss’…she went bright red bananas and bawled at you:

“It is please Miss Puckridge, not please Miss! You wouldn’t say to a male teacher, Please Mister, would you?”

I was half ready to point out that all the married women teachers were quite happy to be addressed as ‘Please Miss’, and of course we never hailed them as ‘Please Mrs’, nor would we have shouted from the far end of the room ‘Please Mrs Warbelow’, a fair haired and gentle geography teacher of considerable grace and handsomeness and about 30, who set my standard of female beauty for about the next 500 years.

The Please Miss foible, was as nothing compared with her other splendidly anal retentive habit of urging us to save money for the school in a highly practical, if rather too minimalist way. Recall that any standard lined exercise book has about an inch of unruled space at the top. Puckers had a truly revelatory vision in her blameless spinster bungalow one night, where someone from Another And More Economical World, came to her and said, Please Miss, oops I mean Please Miss Puckridge! Look here, if you get the kids to take a ruler and a pencil, they can divide that wasteful space in half and add an extra line to write on, thus saving ooh 17s 11d by the time they have graduated with their A levels  at 18 in 1969, and then multiply that by 700 kids, and you have…and Puckers got out her log tables once the ingenious aerial being had left her chambers, and saw that it was a very great sum indeed.

I dropped down the class badly under her instruction  and it was partly because as well as being filthy tempered she was borderline inaudible. When showing us how to solve simple equations she would invariably say, Gather Like with Like, and then Change The Sign and Add. So with 3x + 3  =  2x +10, you would get the xs on one side and the numbers on the other and 3x-2x = 10-3 and x = 7. It is at the age of 64 a veritable piece of piss to solve this beauty, but back in 1962 I wasn’t even sure exactly what Puckers had said. She might have said Change The Sight and Add, or Change the Shite and Add, or Change The Batteries and Listen to good old Radio Luxembourg, for all I knew. As for geometry, even at 64, and acknowledging objectively that they are inanimate and not magical symbols, I still detest the in-circle, the e-circle and the circumfuckingcircle. They are no use to anybody and never will be, but they expertly plagued the endless and fruitless summer examination evenings of that beautiful June of 1963.

One day Puckers’ temper really got the better of her, and catastrophe ensued. Some sadist had assigned her to supervise a massive number of kids of all ages, all of whom had finished their summer exams, some of them getting as much as a fearlessly carefree 1% in Maths, whether taught by Fuckridge or not. We were all foregathered in the assembly hall, and it was only thus because  a great many teachers were off school, laid low with a bug, and to have us all under one roof was the sole practical solution. No impudent bug would have dared assault much less conquer dear old Puckers of course, or she would have put the bastard in detention. In among the hundred or more kids were some real bad ass 5th formers, 5R or 5 aptly named Remove, who being irremediable blockheads who called Shakespeare ‘Shitespeare’, and were pushed towards leaving school to learn a trade, spent so much time doing woodwork and metalwork, some of them had recognisably turned into walking jackplanes and animate fish slices. They weren’t of course remotely frightened of Puckers, and were soon making as much racket as possible, while she stormed the length of the assembly hall, huffing and puffing and ranting and shouting. Having spotted specific trouble makers, she furiously told them to visit the Head at 4pm, so that these wily deviants of an expert Masonic order, decided to make their defiance known in the form of an ingenious display of home-grown ventriloquism. They started to chorus a hideously loud hum in short, their lips motionless and only their throats working brilliantly like Australian aborigines, like the legendary 70s recordings of Gordon Gulumbara for example, or like those Mongolian herdsmen who do virtuoso laryngeal yodelling.

Only for so long did Puckers stand this hideous racket of a thousand buzzing hornets, hornets on an ascending piercing scale, and not unlike the charmless din of one of those avant garde composers they used to have very late on the old and non-prostituted BBC Radio 3. The programme was called Music In Our Time and whenever it came on the loyalest of listeners all switched it off with trembling hands, and I believe its regular audience was four, and that was just the Mums of the Starkly Enigmatic String Quartet making that majestic caterwauling in the name of innovatory art, and even those loyalest of Mums wore earplugs. Yes, to be sure. Yes. So what did Puckers do when the noise was  driving her mad but she had no way of pinpointing the culprits? Simple as the construction of an e-circle when one is good and drunk. Puckers took hysterics, as having exhausted all her bawling and yelling possibilities, she had no other safety valve left. Puckers danced her incandescent rage on the spot, and it was genuinely the only time I had ever seen this happen outside of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Unfortunately for her, she happened to be dancing in front of a free-standing  blackboard, meaning it was an easel with pegs plus board. Puckers’ Dance of the Seven Circumcircles, was so violent and so enraged, that it agitated the varnished floor below the blackboard, and shook it so competently that the pegs shot loose,  the blackboard fell forward and resoundingly clattered old Puckers on the back and head, propelling her into hysterical insensibility. At once, the whole of the assembly room went into belly clutching  hilarity, and she had to be carried away by two female members of staff and made to lie down in the rest room.

These days I still practice mental arithmetic, but not for any useful or pragmatic purpose. I am addicted to computing years and age differences, both of family and friends and of musical and literary heroes. For example HG Wells, Arnold Bennett and DH Lawrence were born in 1866, 1867 and 1885 respectively. As I was born in 1950, that means had they lived that long (Wells died 1941, Lawrence in 1930, and Bennett I shall google methavrio) they would have been 84, 83 and 65 respectively when I came into the world. As I am 64 now, that means Lawrence who died of TB aged 45, would have been my current age, had he been around in the year that I was born. You might think this an absurd and fruitless diversion on my part, but I find it gives me a chronological relationship with those writers which does mean something poetic and beguiling to me, though I know not precisely what. Or maybe I am just full of torrentially eloquent shit, who knows? When I turn to music, I know John McLaughlin ace world jazz guitarist, who hails from bloody old Doncaster, UK, was born in 1942, so is now incredibly 72 or 73. It really matters to me to know what age my guitarist hero is at any point in time. For long he has been an adherent of some Hindu-derived sect as witnessed by two of his bands called the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti.  That means in the light of Hindu cosmic yugas or incalculable aeons, he probably has very little interest in chronological time, much less how old he is himself, yet I his non-Hindu adherent do have that obsessive and unintelligible bias.

Let’s move to the present. Just down the road here in the Kythnos port I have two elderly neighbours. The wife Sotiria at a guess is maybe 72, where her husband Kostas, she informed me yesterday is 87. Kostas looks ill and worn and is a markedly sad sight. He often sits all day outside his house, still  in his pyjamas with his flat cap and a weak wave for all friendly passers-by. His eyes are very red and inflamed. She tells me he has heart problems, and I feel more than sad if only because of the struggling generosity of his effortful wave. On autopilot while talking to Sotiria, I began doing my truly mental mental arithmetic, and calculated that when I started at the Brothel on the Hill in 1962, Kostas was only 34 years old, a young and wild and agile man, who ran a taverna here in the port as it happened.  So when 62 year-old Puckers was dancing her dance of rage and knocking herself out with a massive aeronautic blackboard, over in forgotten and hopeless West Cumberland, UK, Kostas aged 34 was partying till dawn with his taverna pals, here in the equally forgotten Kythnos in the Greek Cyclades.

I stopped doing my sums and suddenly told Sotiria that I was 64, and she shot back at me immediately:

Na pass ekato!

Live To Be A Hundred!

I told her that I would do my very best, and indeed I definitely intend one day relocating to the fabled Isle of Ikaria of the sexually active, boozing and all night partying Centenarians.

One final and very instructive footnote. It was as late as 2005 when someone who knew the history of the town where the Grammar School was sited, informed me of Please Miss Puckridge’s early biography. Back in 1924, when she worked in her Dad’s haberdashery shop i.e. well before she embarked on any teacher training, she was engaged to the love of her life, a farmer called Roger Bliss. Her doting love for him was legendary, and in those days believe it or not old Puckers was a stunner and a pin-up and a 24 year-old woman to watch. Then Roger the farmer innocently walking the road on his way to his cows, was hit by an out of control grocery van, one of the very few motor vehicles in the village where he lived. Roger Bliss survived three days, and then died and took Puckers’ mortified and ultimately calcified heart with him. My informant told me that Puckers almost died of grief, and in the end it was only the teacher training that her Dad encouraged her to go for, that allowed her to live and breathe again after a very circumscribed fashion.

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