18 January 2017


After leaving university, I started teaching English in South Yorkshire. Thirty two years later I was an assistant headteacher but still head of the  English department. It was at this stage that I opted for early retirement. After all, almost without me noticing, I had become the oldest teacher in the school.

As what they called a "middle manager", there were always so many things to remember. At first, I used a desk diary as an aide memoire. That was okay when I was at my desk but I often found  there were things to jot down when I was away from my classroom. Consequently, for the last nineteen years of my illustrious teaching career I opted for pocket diaries instead. Where ever I was, the diary would be in the inner pocket of my jacket.

Each summer these pocket diaries were filed away in our old bureau desk at home. And there they sat - all in a line and never reopened. I wish that the entries within had been journalistic, recording what had happened each day with associated reflections but they were not that kind of diary.

Instead they contained swiftly written notes and reminders connected with teaching and department management. Dates of meetings - pastoral, department, heads of department, whole school staff meetings and appointments with parents, advisers, book sales people, the police, educational psychologists and social workers. Names of pupils caught fighting behind the tennis courts. Internal exam dates. External exam dates. Phone numbers. Library visits and planned staff absences. Deadline dates for assessments and work experience visits. And there were notes connected with my own teaching groups - homework issues, absences, merit awards etc..
From April 1991
I guess that someone somewhere, perhaps in an ivory tower, might have valued these diaries as historical evidence of a secondary school teacher's lot in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries but when I spotted them earlier this week I just thought it was time they went. Sometimes you need to be ruthless. You can't hang on to everything so  at last  I have consigned them to the recycling bin.

But before ditching them I took the accompanying photographs to remind me of that other life I lived. At the time, it frequently seemed that there was nothing more important in the world than that last school with its 900 pupils and the things that happened in it but really we were like little fish in a small aquarium. There was of course an infinitely bigger and more significant world beyond that glass tank.

17 January 2017


"La La Land"
directed by Damien Chazelle

You know how it is. You go to watch a film with someone and afterwards when you have negotiated your way past the other cinemagoers, one of you says, "What did you think?" Well I went to see the much-acclaimed "La La Land" on Sunday with Mrs Pudding and it turns out she had been surprisingly underwhelmed by  the spectacle while I thought it was delightful with beautiful imagery and a fluidity both in the storyline and the camera work.

"La La Land" sounds like it might be the place where we are all currently living but up there on the screen it was a beautiful, light-hearted place of song and dance, a place where dreams can come true and where there are many subtle nods to the history of Hollywood and its musicals.

At its centre there's Mia played by Emma Stone and Sebastian played by Ryan Gosling. She is a wannabe film actress and screenwriter while he is a frustrated jazz pianist. Their lives collide and they find love. It's a familiar story.

The Los Angeles background to events is a clean and underpopulated place of happiness and hope. No down and outs pushing trolleys, no smog hanging over the city like  a quilt - but you wouldn't want that. It's not that kind of film. This is a joyous fantasy.

A  musical thread runs through the show, "City of stars, are you shining just for me?". It kept echoing, linking the developing plot as Mia and Sebastian find themselves in a dramatic battle between ambition and the heart.

There were so many lovely images. Our two stars dance amidst the stars and upon stars reflected in water. They visit the famous Griffith Observatory which featured in, amongst other films, "Rebel Without A Cause". They see live jazz and the lights of Los Angeles twinkling in the valley below. Yes, it's quite, quite lovely. A beautiful escape from this other "la la land" of Trump and Brexit and drowning refugees. At least that is what I thought.

16 January 2017


I have blogged about the English poet Philip Larkin before. See here.

He was born in Coventry in 1922 and died in Hull in 1985, having been the head librarian at The University of Hull for thirty years.  His poetry was of the modern age, perceptive and often melancholic. There is humour there if you care to peel away the layers but he is often thought of as glum and depressive. He once said that deprivation was to him what daffodils were to Wordsworth. It was perhaps the aching ordinariness of life beneath all the pretence that inspired him. He was always seeking truth, like a knight of old seeking the holy grail but his private life was suburban and rather dull.

On Saturday morning, before watching my beloved Hull City beat Bournemouth 3-1, I took a special detour to the cemetery in Cottingham in order to see Philip Larkin's grave. It is unremarkable -  a little white gravestone in a regimented row. There's a simple inscription - 
Philip Larkin
1922 - 1985
I wondered who chose that single word - "Writer". Perhaps Larkin himself. I speculated why the word wasn't "Librarian" or "Poet" or even "Man".

It was a sunny day but tall trees and hedging to the south of the cemetery stubbornly prevented sunbeams from illuminating the face of the gravestone as I pointed my camera at it. Later, I found myself inspired to write a poem for Larkin. 

He died at the very age that I have now reached. I have known his poetry since I was fifteen and in the 1980's teaching A level English Literature, I had to cover his collection "Whitsun Weddings". My students found it quite intriguing. He really spoke to them. But then he went away where the rest of us must follow.

15 January 2017


Extracts from the diary of Randall V Grotsky Jr - Camp Counsellor at Hilltop Summer Camp near Binghamptopn NY Summer of 1956.

May 20th  - Training is now over and we are ready for our charges. It's lovely up here in the woods. The air is so pure and clean. There's a guy from my old high school in Albany. I used to date his sister. Oh wait a minute... I just heard something outside. There it goes again. Could be a racoon... maybe a bear. Gee! Anyways I need to turn in now. Can't wait for tomorrow.

May 21st - My boys are called The Wyandottes. We've got a great group day base overlooking the lake. There's fourteen boys altogether but one of them was AWOL today. He'll join us tomorrow. We had lots of fun canoeing in the lake and then we had a cook out with sloppy joes and root beer. It was so cool.Some great little guys. They're mostly from The Big Apple. One kid - Marvin lives right near my folks' place in Yonkers.

May 22nd - The new boy arrived in a black Cadillac from Queens. He's kind of mean looking and quite athletic. Most of the other boys already knew him from last year. They call him Donny. When I tried to introduce myself he said "Who the hell are you punk?" The other boys ,laughed and I wasn't sure what to do. On the softball field Donny refused to walk when he was caught. He said the ball had bounced and refused to budge. He called me "Punk" again and some of the other boys followed his example.

May 25th - The first week is through. Cars came to pick up the campers. Nearly all are heading home to NY City but there's a couple of kids from Syracuse. Donny taunts them, calling them "Saras" or "The Gals from Saracuse".  I spoke to Roman - The Head Counsellor - about this "Punk" label but Roman says I've just got to live with it and win the boys' respect. Yesterday (Thursday) Donny tried to drown Marvin (the kid from Yonkers). He had a panic attack. Donny and his little gang were laughing. "What's your problem Punk?" he asked me when I tried to confront him about what had happened. Anyway, a whole weekend without kids! Whoo-hoo! Tomorrow night with some of the other counsellors I'm heading into Binghmapton to watch a movie - "Invasion of the Bodysnatchers"

May 28th - Canoeing. Archery. Art and Free Camp Time. Donny said he couldn't see the point of art and flicked paint at Mary-Beth, the art counsellor from Kentucky. It spattered all over her spectacles. Donny said it wasn't him. In Archery he disobeyed Bob's safety instruction, firing an arrow at a target when Bob was still checking the scoring. Bob was real mad and grabbed Donny by the arm but Donny yelled "Get off you friggin' queer!" and threatened to tell his father who is a big property developer in Queens.

June 1st - So pleased that the weekend has come round again. Maybe I'm not cut out to be a counsellor. I thought I was good with kids but since Donny appeared in The Wyandottes, I'm not so sure any more. On Wednesday during Camp Free Time, Donny got all the other boys to pile on top of me. He got my wallet out of my pocket and started laughing at the photo of my mom and dad, saying they looked like dumb Polacks. At lunch yesterday (Thursday) he announced that his dad paid a lot of dough to Hilltop and he wanted proper food not sloppy joes or root beer. "Give us steak!" he chanted and of course other boys joined in. I'm starting to hate the brat.

June 7th - I just can't take it any more. I'm gonna quit. Maybe I'll get fired anyway. Donny provoked me so much at the campcraft class that I grabbed his shoulders and pushed him up against a wall. It was like he wanted it. A big beaming grin broke across his face, like he knew I'd lost it. "Yeah! You're such a big guy Punk! I'm ten years old. How old are you Punk?"

June 8th - I just got fired. Donny was in the camp office with his father. He was sobbing fake tears and he layered his accusations on nice and thick, saying I had punched him in the campcraft session and tried to throttle him, that I had repeatedly called him "Flat Top" and that I had "touched" him in the rest room. It was all fake, fake, fake! Ted Lewis, the camp manager begged Donny's father not to involve the police and suggested that firing me would be enough.I don't know what I am gonna do for the rest of the summer. Maybe I'll go and stay with my grandparents on Long Island. Try to get a job at the ice cream parlour like last summer. I don't know how I'll explain all this to my folks.

June 12th - I just discovered the word "PUNK" scratched in the paintwork of my Beetle - probably with a penknife. Now I wonder who could have done that?

14 January 2017


Please don't snigger. On Thursday evening I attended my first art class for many's the long year. I sat in a room with fifteen other adult Sheffielders and produced what I think is a passable watercolour picture.

The teacher, John, was encouraging - not dictatorial. He insisted that we would find our own tricks, our own methods of painting. He wasn't about to say. "This is how I do it and you must do exactly the same!"

He began by talking about different qualities of paper and the great usefulness of stretching paper before applying water or paint. He said we would understand what he meant when working upon unstretched paper during our first two hour session.
And if you look at my first attempt you will see that the paper appears somewhat dappled as it has reacted to water and the painting process. I hope that next week I can go along with my own stretched paper as this will make the process easier and more fulfilling.

We were working from photographs that John had distributed. As you can see there is a man at the water's edge. Perhaps he has something on his mind or maybe he just needs an influx of healing solitude.

Anyway, I enjoyed the first class. There are five more to attend. I chose to do it as a spark - to ignite more artwork. I know I can do it if I only try. Long ago when I was eighteen I gained an A grade at A level in Art and also won the school's art prize. I have neglected this talent for far too long. There must be an end to procrastination.

13 January 2017


On Wednesday, I set off early from home en route to Oxfam, making a detour through Endcliffe Park. Queen Victoria looked down on me imperiously. This statue once stood in the very heart of Sheffield but in 1930 it was exiled here - possibly because of traffic issues in the centre of the city or maybe because the socialist-leaning city council no longer wished to view The Empress of India when scurrying to attend town hall meetings about poverty, water supplies, education, housing etcetera.

The cafe looked rather quiet. It's very popular on summer afternoons - especially at the weekend. A young father was taking his toddler daughter for  a stroll in the park - she with her first bicycle dressed in a warm pink jumpsuit.
A young woman was sitting cross-legged under a tree, scribbling in her diary. I wondered what she was writing. Half an hour later I saw the same young woman entering "The Lescar" public house on Sharrow Vale Road. Her attire was what you might describe as bohemian and there was something slightly melancholic about her. Not many young women scribble in diaries these days. They're  usually checking out Facebook or exchanging Instagram messages with friends. This girl seemed deeper than that.
Of course Sheffield was built upon steel industries and that fact was in my mind when I snapped a picture of Number 1, Steel Road. Steel Road? Seems a very appropriate street name in a City of Steel. It links Neill  Road with Sharrow Vale Road. From there I walked on to Frog Walk, down by The River Porter where the old snuff mill still stands and along to the General Cemetery. But there was no time for further investigations of its sprawling jumble of  Victorian graves. It was time to get to work.

12 January 2017


Down at the Oxfam shop where I work every Wednesday, you never know what sort of items will be donated. Anything and everything seems to come through our door. Citizens of south west Sheffield can be so generous. It is something that I find very heart-warming.

There's always stuff to sort through from designer clothes to chinaware, from maps to original paintings and from postage stamps to paperback books. Of course, shop volunteers are the first to see new donations. We are allowed to purchase items at exactly the same prices our customers would have to pay. All volunteer purchases have to be carefully logged with counter-signatures in a logbook.

In the two years I have worked in the shop, I have hardly bought anything for myself - just a few paperback books and a DVD of one of my favourite films - "Once Upon a Time in America". Other volunteers seem to buy things quite frequently but I have deliberately striven to curtail that temptation. I am there to work not to buy.

However, yesterday I gave in and bought not one but two items I noticed in the shop last week. One is a large hardback book from The Royal Geographical Society, called simply "Illustrated". It contains many fascinating pictures from the early years of travel photography, including the following picture which shows a tea bearer in Sichuan, China. He is carrying numerous "bricks" of tea from a hilly plantation. The photograph was taken in 1908.
The second item I bought is a plate that commemorates one of South Yorkshire's many coal mines. It existed for well over a hundred years, in a village three miles east of Sheffield. It closed soon after The Great Miners' Strike of 1984-85. Coal mining has a special place in my heart as my maternal grandfather and great-grandfathers were all coal miners. Now there are no mines left in South Yorkshire. No more shall our pit wheels turn or our claxons sound. The plate is a souvenir - to remember all those brave men who went down into the bowels of the earth and to honour the mining communities that were broken. Thank you Oxfam and thank you anonymous donors.