22 May 2017

Sunday

Yesterday, Shirley and I drove up to our local garden centre. It's a small business tucked behind the houses at Bents Green. We have been there many times and even though we could buy plants more cheaply elsewhere, we like to support this independent nursery albeit in a small way.

There was a lot of rain on Friday and a fair amount on Saturday too but the land needed it and now there's a feeling in the air that winter has entirely gone. No more frosts. Warm weather is predicted for the days ahead. You sense that this is  the right time for planting.

I have been growing runner beans from seeds in what we still call Frances's bedroom. Yesterday I planted them around their bamboo wigwam. At the garden centre we bought tomato plants, a tray of lollo rossa lettuces and a number of border plants for our flowerbeds.
Up in the vegetable patch, the potatoes are well through and the the pea and broad bean seeds we planted a couple of weeks ago are also starting to peep through the soil. I should have put some courgette seeds in pots a few days ago but only got round to this yesterday afternoon. Hopefully, in ten days time they will also be ready to go in the ground.

After the garden work I made a traditional Sunday dinner of roast beef, new potatoes, cabbage, roasted carrots, beef gravy and of course the piece-de-resistance - Yorkshire puddings. This was happily washed down with our customary glasses of sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.

Just past 8pm I drove out into the countryside for a little walk and snapped the accompanying photographs near Bamford Edge as the sun sank over the Derbyshire hills.

21 May 2017

Gripping

Actresses: Ria Zmitrowicz, Molly Windsor and Liv Hill

In the middle of last week I was gripped by the BBC's mini-series: "Three Girls". This was very powerful drama built upon awful real life events in Rochdale, Lancashire. All involved in this series from the actors to the writer, director and production team deserve enormous credit for lifting the curtain on something so dark and terrible.. 

What am I talking about? The sexual exploitation of vulnerable white teenage girls by predatory British Asian men who purport to follow Islam. This was happening in the streets of Rochdale in 2008 and 2009 but it wasn't until 2012 that the main perpetrators were brought to justice.

The girls, and there were many of them, were plied with alcohol and cigarettes as the predators sought to cynically entangle them in an exploitative web of abuse that stretched way beyond Rochdale. The "three girls" in the drama were at the centre of the legal cases that were finally brought to court even though initial complaints had been squashed or ignored by the police and other authorities.

What happened in Rochdale was sickening and cruel but it has happened in other British towns including Oldham, Bradford, Rotherham, Oxford, Telford, Birmingham and Cardiff. Invariably, the paedophile criminals are older men with a Pakistani heritage and always the victims are vulnerable white working class girls. There can be little doubt that the grooming and sexual abuse continues to this day and in the future there will no doubt be yet more extremely tricky cases to unravel.

I cannot begin to imagine what sexual abuse in childhood does to people. The horrible  memories and the emotional scars must be terrible burdens to bear affecting all  future relationships, self-esteem and the very quest for happiness. 

I applaud the BBC for grasping this nettle. Hopefully, "Three Girls" will help in improving awareness of the issues. It goes without saying that the majority of British Asian Muslim men are decent, law-abiding citizens who would not dream of preying upon vulnerable teenage girls. Clearly, they have their part to play in bringing the predators in their communities to justice, demonstrating that there are better ways to live in a country that has given them a new home and the prospect of a better future. Kindness and respect for others and the rule of law are vital in any civilised society.

For fuller details about the Rochdale child sex abuse ring go here.

20 May 2017

Chapel

"The Bull's Head" but the pub does not exist any more
If you head westwards from The Hope Valley you will travel along the long straight road that clings to Rushup Edge and then after four miles you will arrive in a small Derbyshire town called Chapel-en-le-Frith - population circa 8,800.
The old stocks in Chapel marketplace
Chapel-en-le-Frith is a very odd name. It dates back to Norman times when that area of Derbyshire was a vast hunting ground owned by the Norman nobility. In the twelfth century, permission was given for a small chapel to be built within the forest in the very place where the little town now stands. In fact "en-le-Frith" means "in the Forest".
Thomas Becket church, Chapel-en-le-Frith. On this site
the original chapel once stood.
On Thursday, I mooched around the place and ate a small portion of fish and chips in the Chapel Chippy. As my right knee was feeling quite comfortable I walked out of the town along a lane for a mile and a half to Eccles Pike which overlooks both Chapel-en-le-Frith and nearby Chinley. Then I walked back. Sadly, on Friday my knee complained about the previous day's exercise and the limping returned.
I met a grizzled farmer on the road to Eccles Pike and we chatted for a while. He described his anger about local dogwalkers who have allowed their animals to defecate on his land. Their faeces have infected several of his cows with neosporosis triggering several spontaneous abortions and the associated loss of income. That's why he had bedecked one of his gateways with a warning banner - close to the point where a public footpath crosses his land.

19 May 2017

Theatre

It's Friday but I mustn't let Monday go. Gotta nail it before the memory dissolves and other things take over like the impeachment of Donald Trump and Theresa May's vicarage sex scandal..

Shirley and I went to the theatre. In fact we went to "The Lyceum" in the centre of our adopted city. It is a beautiful and typical old Victorian theatre that has been restored to its former glory - complete with dress circle, upper circle, boxes and plenty of gilded plaster adornment.

But surprisingly, we weren't there to study the architecture. We were there to see a performance of  "The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-Time" based on the novel by Mark Haddon.

The stage had been turned into a kind of giant black and white electronic cube and it was in this that we examined the tortured life of young Christopher Boone played brilliantly and empathetically by Scott Reid. Christopher suffers from Asperger's syndrome and attends a special school even though he is mathematically gifted.

When he discovers that it was his father who had killed next door's dog - Wellington - with a garden fork, he decides to travel from his home in Swindon to London to seek out his estranged mother. You can imagine how challenging that might be for an autistic teenager.

The electronic box set comes into its own and effectively conveys the confusion of this journey - the motion of the train, the thronging crowds, the underground stations flashing by. It is a kind of madness from which a breathless Christopher is ejected on to his mother's doorstep.

Christopher struggles to understand things because the people around him don't see the world his way but he does understand mathematics and when he discovers he has passed A level Maths with flying colours the possibility of a path through the jungle of the future appears clearly in his mind.

The performance was greatly entertaining and in spite of the subject matter often very funny. "The Derbyshire Times" said it was "an intelligent, dazzling, humorous, moving show" and Shirley and I would certainly endorse that summary.

17 May 2017

Flotsam

Me outside Bob Dylan's old house in Hibbing MN
Thanks to readers who have read and been entertained by my recent lengthy posts about working on an American summer camp. That made the writing effort worthwhile.

I tried to slot in and connect my most significant memories from the summers of 1976 and 1977 but there were other "moments" I omitted and as I put this interconnected sequence of posts to bed, I just want to pause for a while and detail five  of them. Then I will feel a certain contentment, knowing that  they have been captured like butterflies and pinned to this blog forever...

1)  The Amish Red Raider Camp was situated just west of Burton which lies in the heart of Amish country. At first it was an unexpected shock to see families or single farmers travelling along the road in horses and traps dressed in their very old-fashioned apparel. When my group of campers were timetabled for canoeing we drove them out to an Amish farm near Burton and used a lake there. Rather slightly, I got to know the Amish matriarch who at first just watched us from a verandah and from two hundred years back. She didn't even speak like an American. One day she made a jug of lemonade and poured me  a glass. It was like talking to someone from the eighteenth century - as if I'd travelled back in time.

2) The Fat Man. In Minneapolis, I went early to the Minnesota State Fair, so early in the day in fact that when I went into the tent to observe The Fattest Man in the World he was still having his lunch - several hamburgers and a massive bowl of  french fries. He was huge and blubbery. There was just me and him. He kept on eating and we didn't exchange a word. It was a very strange meeting. He didn't seem to be relishing his food, just masticating like a grazing bull.

3) White Water. One evening another counsellor called Jeff suggested it would be great fun to take a bunch of canoes to the Chagrin River near Chagrin Falls. I felt some trepidation but went along with the idea anyway. Jeff assured me it would be perfectly safe and besides we would be wearing lifebelts and helmets. Anyway, six canoes were duly launched even though the river was higher than expected. I swear that within two minutes all six canoes had been overturned by the white water and I found myself clinging to a rock, desperate to survive. Fortunately we all got out alive and hauled the battered canoes back to the trailer from a weir lower down the river.

4) A Special Visitor. In Minneapolis I met one of Richard's old school friends - a beautiful  divorced woman called Barbara. She said she was taking a few months off work and would be travelling around Europe that very autumn. I gave her my contact details, never expecting she would turn up at my university in Scotland but that October she appeared unannounced and quickly we fell into each other's arms - both of us with burdens of  pain that needed healing. She stayed for two sublime weeks.

5) The Jumper. To make a bit of extra money, I volunteered to be a "jumper" on one of the big yellow camp busses. This meant that every morning and evening I would accompany Steve the bus driver on a set route round Shaker Heights, picking the campers up or putting them down safely when camp was over for the day. One morning Holly, one of our little girls, wasn't outside her picket fence so I went up the path to her family's great mansion and rang the doorbell.

A black maid or housekeeper came to the door in her uniform and apologised that Holly wasn't yet ready. She asked me to wait inside for a while. Holly's father was reading "The Wall Street Journal in a wingbacked chair. I was standing behind him but he didn't acknowledge my presence - just kept on reading the financial  news. When Holly came skipping downstairs he didn't look up at her either, just muttered "Have a nice day baby" before turning another page.
_____________________________________________________

And so that's that. My Red Raider summers. When I search the internet, I find very little indeed to prove that Red Raider Camp once existed, east of Cleveland in Geauga County, north of the long, straight road that heads east to Newbury and Burton. But I swear that I didn't make all of this up. It was not a dream though it sometimes seemed that way even as those magical days unfolded. Besides, in my heart I have always been and will surely remain a red raider...
Me playing guitar on the deck at the Mehus family cabin, Rainy Lake MN

16 May 2017

Leisure

The Grand Union Flag of America (1775)
As I mentioned before, Red Raider was a day camp. That meant that counsellors were free to do their own thing every evening and at weekends too. There were many visits to Skip and Ray's bar where Skip affectionately  labelled me "that limey bastard". We also went to Chuck and Janine's bar by the road to Burton.

I went to see the Cleveland Indians play a couple of times. In case you didn't know they are one of America's top professional baseball teams. I also went to see big concerts including Neil Diamond, Linda Ronstadt and (please don't laugh) Barry Manilow.

Chris invited me back to his family home near Youngstown. Behind the house there was a kidney-shaped swimming pool complete with a diving board. I have an image in mind of his lovely mother Flo just floating round that pool on her back propelled by the current of the filtration system but the first weekend I went there Chris's sisters were sunbathing by that pool in their bikinis.

We got talking. They had never seen an ocean and they had never met an Englishman before. Becky said, "Say The Beadles Neil! Say Elton Jahn!" and both she and Mary-Beth laughed with delight to hear my cute English pronunciation. They were lovely optimistic girls, filled with mischief. They asked me if I could sing and brought out a guitar.

Then they phoned their friends and half an hour later in one of the most bizarre moments of my life, I found myself sitting on the diving board with a guitar, strumming along to "All I Have To Do Is Dream" by The Everly Brothers as twenty gorgeous American teenage girls in bikinis looked up at me with dreamy eyes:-
I can make you mine, 
Taste your lips of wine
Anytime, night or day
Only trouble is, gee whiz
I'm dreamin' my life away

I visited Poland, Ohio several times. One night Becky challenged me to a dancing competition in their den with its shagpile carpet. We had all consumed several cans of American beer and our spirits were high. Every time she sank down on the sofa I would laughingly declare that England had won and she'd get back up. Then when I flopped down she'd yell the opposite. We danced and danced till we could dance no more and both of us ended up collapsing on the carpet at 4am. It was a draw!

Perhaps I could have fallen in love with several young American women in the summer of 1976 but I was drawn to Donna Smith who was a pretty twenty one year old camp counsellor from Indianapolis. Though I had had girlfriends before, this was very different. We were walking on air. Suddenly life was coloured in. I met her parents in a country club and we visited her sisters. When camp finished that summer I went to stay with her in Bloomington where she was a physiotherapy student at Indiana University. It was a terrible wrench to leave her at the end of August but I had to get back to my own university studies  in Scotland. We both wept like babies at the Greyhound bus station.

She was the main reason I returned to Red Raider Camp in the summer of 1977. This time I was the lead counsellor for the Arapahos and having pined for Donna for nine months I expected that we would pick up where we had left off but something was amiss. In the intervening months she had found a new beau in Bloomington but had neglected to tell me. I was heartbroken and angry. At first I didn't know what to think.

I went for an audition in a bar in Chagrin Falls. They needed a singer every Thursday night. The bar owner liked me and I got the job. My pay was twenty bucks a night and as much beer as I could drink though drinking a bellyful of beer isn't really advisable when you are playing guitar and performing.

Business became busy in the bar on Thursday nights. Locals were curious to listen to the crazy English guy singing "All Along the Watchtower", "As I Went Out One Morning", "The Wild Rover", "Barbara Allen", "Summertime Blues" and "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" etcetera. One night Donna came along with some other female counsellors and her heart went out to me again like an electric current. She tried to get back with me and I wanted that too but it was difficult. We tried but just couldn't work it out.  The summer of 1977 was tinged with pain. Hell - that was forty years ago. I have no idea what happened to her.

Chris also returned to Red Raider in the summer of '77 and we shared the same red cabin together. He was and he is a great guy with a big heart. Very kindly, he frequently lent me his Ford Mustang - for example just to get to the bar in Chagrin Falls on Thursday nights. Looking back through this blog, I noticed that last year I told the tale of one particular Sunday morning when I was travelling eastwards in Chris's car but for your entertainment and interest I repeat it here:-

"It was when I was a camp counsellor in Ohio. My friend Chris who was the art counsellor had kindly lent me his Ford Mustang. It was a Sunday morning and I was heading east on Highway 87 though I can't remember where I was going. Anyway, just outside Russell I saw a young man at the side of the road. He was hitch-hiking so I pulled over to give him a lift.. He was obviously a biker with a worn black leather jacket, grimy jeans and lank hair. In fact he was on his way to a moto-cross meet the other side of the oddly named township of Mesopotamia.

There was little traffic around and as we followed the road through Burton we chatted away about this and that. A couple of miles before I was to drop him off, he said:-
"Hey man, you've got a funny accent."
"Yeah, that's because I'm from England," I said, smiling across at him.
He paused and thought for a minute.
"England? Ain't that somewhere over near Maine?"

Well, you could have hit me with a wet haddock. He was confusing England with New England! And before I dropped him off I had the humbling experience of explaining to him that there is a country called England on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. I said, "You know. The place where The Beatles come from".

But as he closed the passenger door and thanked me for the lift, the expression on his face proved that he was none the wiser. In fact, he probably thought he had just had a ride with a deranged lunatic."

After camp closed in mid-August 1977, I travelled to Minneapolis to meet up with my old and now sadly departed friend Richard. We drove up north to stay in his parents' cabin by a remote lake on the Canadian border. A few days later, on the way back, we took a special detour into  the iron town of Hibbing and with some difficulty managed to locate Bob Dylan's childhood home.

Soon after this, I took a Greyhound bus to Chicago then a flight to New York City in good time for my journey home. And as I looked out of the porthole by my window seat observing Atlantic waves far below, I thought of my two wonderful Red Raider summers and all that had happened. I had really lived them and I had really been alive, soaking it all up, happy to wake up each morning and just get going. I had become an unashamed Americophile but because of what happened with Donna, it took me a long time to get back there.