GETTING HELP WHEN YOU NEED IT

I will shortly be having some excellent visitors here from the UK, and there will be no new post until on or before Sunday 23rd September

GETTING HELP WHEN YOU NEED IT

A few Christmases ago here on Kythnos, I received a massive festive parcel from my generous Norfolk girlfriend of the time, Vivian, a brilliant fabric designer. It contained a couple of classy designer shirts, 2 cosmopolitan novels, 2 DVDs one of which had subtitles, a boxed CD set of the Alan Parsons Project, a quarter bottle of gourmet malt whisky (most acceptable), some posh dark chocolate in a fancy gilded box, and as a joke, a double CD of The Complete Christmas Hits of Barry Manilow (very funny, darling, and I even sang along to Rudolph when half way through the malt, when conceivably my own nose might have been not a little rubescent itself). As stocking filler there was again something comical in the form of a Kinder Egg, which you probably know are little chocolate eggs intended for small children, and they invariably have a miniature toy inside of them. When I opened up my Kinder, wrapped in cellophane was a tiny plastic racing car in four parts, each with holes and protrusions for constructing the vehicle. As I say, these kits are intended for the capacities of 4-year-old infants, and a full hour later I was still trying hot faced and sweating to construct the little racing car…and getting nowhere fast.

I have always been hopeless when it comes to what adults call DIY, and the only practical skill I have is my cooking which if you think about it isn’t really a manual skill, but rather, if you are good at it, more like advanced virtuoso botching and improvising to get wherever you want to be. As the youngest of 4 brothers I always found it easy to get others to make or mend things for me, and whenever anyone joked with me that I was the baby of the family, I felt nil embarrassment whatever, but rather was bloody glad that it was so. I was 6 years younger than my next brother, a bank clerk, who was out every night looking for women from 1960 onwards, and my 2 oldest brothers had left home by the time I was in my last year at junior school. Thus it was by the age of 11 I was effectively an only child, and looking round for someone handy to help build a construction kit that I had got for my birthday, my eyes fell upon my legendary mother…

My mother was born in 1915 and so was about 45 when I solicited her good offices to build for me a Woolworth’s plastic model of that far sighted yet no nonsense monarch, Henry VIII. Earlier I had been beguiled by Airfix WW2 aeroplane models but sadly they all had at least 100 parts to glue together and the instructions were a nightmare (holding carefully the top lip of the lower flange B17, attach it by the nipple of the upper lug D94 to the rear of the near-front undercarriage…). However, I have always been good at crafty lateral moves to avoid depressing dead ends, and eventually I discovered an imported American analogue of British Airfix where the parts of the khaki coloured submarine only numbered six and the instructions comprised only 2 sentences. But even then, to my amazed chagrin, I buggered it up by irreversibly gluing one part on upside down so that it was not so much a nifty submarine as a humiliatingly beached narwhal whale…

To my surprise my mother who ran a busy guesthouse and had little free time, graciously accepted the task, and one Saturday afternoon I stood impatiently watching while she glued together Henry VIII. All I wanted was the handsome finished object as depicted on the box, and the quicker she could do that the better, for I wasn’t really interested in the route by which she achieved it, no more than you are in how your car works when you sit down and drive it off. As the smileless monarch was only in about 8 pieces, and the instructions a model of lucidity (glue A to B and then B to C) it was hearteningly child’s play for her, and before long Henry was magically there materialised before our eyes, stern and upright and uncompromising, and aside from his subsequently being painted the right colours (all sanguinary ones right enough) all he needed was his regal staff or distaff or mace or whatever they called it to complete the handsome little model. And it was at this point that my mother made the kind of tragic mistake I would have done, for there was a little hole in the sovereign’s right hand through which one poked the thin staff, and of course one was supposed to make the lower and upper halves of the clasped sign of sovereignty approximately equal. Instead of that, having applied the glue, my mother stuck fast the staff at the very top of Henry’s regal mitt, so that effectively he was balancing a javelin on his closed fist and he did not look so much like a fearless monarch as a Saturday night juggler on a glittering BBC variety show. The 2 of us looked at the juggler and simultaneously realised the implications, and she gulped and swore at herself but I assured her it was fine and we’d soon get used to Henry as a versatile jester, just like Roy ‘Mr TV’ Castle on the BBC. And then I took my beautiful mongrel dog, also called Roy, out on the recreation ground, and threw a stick for him, and was aware that I gave my best friend immense and unfettered joy simply by my act of throwing, which of course dogs cannot do, and which thank God involved no byzantine rigmarole of baffling instructions, you just drew back your arm and let fly…

Soon after I was at the local Grammar School, and in the first few years the teachers there loved nothing more than landing you with a Project, meaning a sustained piece of work on a given theme, nicely illustrated and tidily written, as preparation for independent study no doubt, and who knows, the weighty and world-shaking PhD you might embark on in a decade’s time (Henry VIII – Model Sovereign or Clownish Mountebank?). My first project was in English and we were supposed to write about an author of our choice. I went one better and wrote about two authors, who as it turned out had little in common other than they evidenced variations on my own first name: namely Jonathan Swift and John Buchan. I have no idea now why I chose Swift as aside from watching a cartoon version of Gulliver’s Travels I had studied none of his works. However, in the school library I unearthed a scholarly pamphlet on the great man and copied large chunks of it, the abiding memory being that I there first learned the word ‘eleemosynary’ (it means ‘charitable’ and he was, you remember, a clergyman) and that somewhere in his writings he talks about someone pissing on a fire to put it out. I’d have loved to have quoted the gleeful urinary vandalism but didn’t dare, though I did slap down the eleemosynary and got an A off the friendly English teacher who happened to know someone who knew my bank clerk brother who as I said was always chasing after West Cumbrian women. Far more comprehensible was my infatuation with John Buchan (1875-1940) author of The Thirty Nine Steps, Mr Standfast and Prester John. Buchan was a typical staid conservative administrator of his day, as well as Governor General for Canada at one stage, but he knew how to tell a good story and have a 12-year-old gripped by his ingenious narratives, albeit his prose was sometimes wonderfully dreadful. For example, in one of his novels, when he writes about the business of schoolboy banter, he talks about ‘the occult chaff of fresh-faced boys’…

That same year I was assigned a project by the science teacher on Astronomy and we could tackle it any way we liked. From my parents’ bookshelves I duly ferreted out a dated encyclopaedia series called Practical Knowledge For All, which I can thoroughly recommend if you see its familiar black spines in the junk baskets in any second hand bookshop, as it has excellent sections on teaching yourself German, French, Spanish and Portuguese. I turned to the astronomy section and copied out vast learned chunks about Galileo, Copernicus, Newton and the memorably named Tycho Brahe. It was all wise and admirable stuff, but I blew it as usual by illustrating a full eclipse not with harmless crayons, but with a leaking fountain pen so it looked as if someone had shit a mass of demented black blue on my otherwise pristine pages. The teacher gave me a B and said other than the terrifying eclipse it was flawless.

By now you are wondering what has happened to the scheming little schoolboy weaselling any necessary help motif, but be patient for at last we have arrived. That same year some other teacher assigned a project for which I chose my own rather virtuous theme of ‘The History of The Police’. Over half a century later, I am currently tormented by the fact I cannot decide which teacher accepted that as a suitable topic. The Police? We did no General Studies until the 6th form, nor can police have come under the aegis of Geography or History, so I am left with the only option of English, on the remote though feasible grounds that writing about anything will demonstrate linguistic expertise and the essay skills of organisation, development of an argument etc. Bear in mind that I was a favourite of the same young English teacher who had a lisp and blushed a lot and that he knew someone who knew my brother who was still chasing West Cumbrian women, especially walkers and climbers, as much as he could. What I mean is I could have chosen Akkadian Cuneiform or The History of Theosophy or Bare Arse Naturism as my project and the teacher would have enthusiastically given it the go ahead and given me an A without even reading it.

I set to with my project once I found a little illustrated book in the school library about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, The Mounties. Much of it was about a notorious recent detection case involving an RCMP team pursuing a violent robber through the snow laden Yukon in the late 1950s. The story was gripping but went on over about 5000 words and I had no editing skills aged 12, so just doggedly transcribed the whole bloody lot. I was sat there till 10pm many a night and my mother started to worry and thought perhaps I might sprain or strain something in the shape of my pre-adolescent brain. Worse still, once the Mounties were out of the way, I still had to tackle the history of the British police and the project might have ended up mythologically immense and unachievable, had it not been for the fact that we had our boarding house guest Claude, who came in such a timely fashion to my aid. Claude was a striking man in his early 50s, meaning born around 1910, and he was from Burnley, Lancashire and like many Lancastrians who have had hard and sometimes impoverished lives, was surpassingly kind, friendly and viscerally warm to all and sundry. He was tall, had a rugged forceful face with a very red complexion, hair slicked back and he always wore a tidy dark blue suit. He had some managerial job at a new factory being built near Workington, and he loved his lodgings with us as my mother’s cooking delighted him beyond words, both the flavour and the copiousness of it, for she provided homemade soups and sweets as well as the generous entrees. He carried his plates back after both dinner and breakfast, and made a speech every time about how excellent the cuisine was, and by way of testimonial he gave her a sizeable box of Cadbury’s Milk chocolates every Friday evening before he drove back home to Burnley for the weekend.

One evening Claude saw me doing my arduous homework and asked what it was about. I explained rather shyly that it was all about the police and law enforcement, and that I had finished with the Mounties and now had to tackle the history of the British constabulary. Claude then looked at me with a poignant wonderment and said:

“I used to be a policeman you know. I was a copper myself…”

I stared at our Lancastrian lodger and tried to control my excitement. “A policeman?”

“For ten years down in Preston. Meaning I pounded the beat from ‘47 to ‘57. The things I’ve seen, son. The good and the bad. And of course the truly bloody monstrous.”

Before long he was explaining his daily routine and I was scribbling it zealously down. Traffic control, lost property, drunken fights, cat burglary, one or two ugly murders (Preston is a biggish town, you see) standard crime like theft and GBH and committing a public nuisance, street pissing, but also caring pastoral duties that the police and no one else are obliged to deal with as no one else would voluntarily take them on.

I paused from my scribbling. “What d’you mean?”

“I mean clattering on a door like a messenger from hell, and telling a woman that her husband has just been killed in a car crash. Or even worse a small child. Or the nightmare of the husband and the child, no once it was two children, all killed together in the same drink driving crash.  I’ve done those bloody awful jobs more times than I can remember.”

I gaped at his fog screen memory of informing someone of the truly unbearable. As a kid of twelve, none of it would have occurred to me of course, but I suspect there are adults in 2018 to whom none of it has occurred either. Then I pulled a face and said that I had to provide some illustrations for my project, strictly hand drawings that is, as photos and newspaper clippings were not permitted.

I scowled and added, “The trouble is I can’t bloody draw to save myself.”

Claude’s purple visage smiled so expansively it actually filled the room. “But I can. I mean I can have a bloody go.”

He asked me what I wanted him to sketch and immediately I said a policeman in a uniform exactly like himself when he was in Preston five years ago. I handed him my pencil case and a packet of crayons and in about twenty minutes he had what looked like a Michelangelo to me. Claude had taken great care over the uniform, the number and size of the buttons, the braiding, the elaborate stitching on the cap. The policeman was very burly and looked touchingly like a caricature or twin of Claude himself with his body tapering strangely outwards as you looked from the waist up to the head and the hat.

“That’s brilliant,” I said with absolute sincerity. “That’s really great.”

And then I asked him to dictate the labelling, meaning the explanation of his drawing, and I realised I was getting it from the horse’s mouth, and that his expertise was impregnable as his memories were only five years old. I told him with absolute confidence that I would get an A and I would also add a note giving him as one of the sources, so that he would have his share in my success.

“Shake on it. That’s very big of you to share your hard-won marks with a duffer like me…”

I snorted. “Hardly. It’s your drawing will get me the A, Claude. Otherwise it might well be a B plus, cos my Mountie sketch looks like a cartoon, like Top Cat’s Policeman Dibble, not a man.” I paused then realised something important. “I need to know your surname to put you down as my source. I’ve no idea. What is it, Claude?”

He lit up a Capstan Full Strength and I noted that he almost proffered me one, then realised that twelve was a bit young for a proper man’s fag and I might well cough my youthful guts out.

“Leadbitter,” he said as he exhaled. “First the Lead and then the Bitter. It’s as common as muck in my bit of Burnley.”

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