Touching history

 

After a lengthy spell teaching in London I moved back to my native Westcountry just before the start of the new millennium. I knew it was going to be a culture shock initially, from a school set in the middle of one of Hackney’s finest housing estates, to a school surrounded by houses with gardens! During my first week in my previous school the Headteacher was chased through the school by an irate parent wielding a knife. My new school, in stark contrast, had a floral settee in the entrance lobby, a flower bed by the front gate and the parents weren’t armed.

For the first month or so it was like being on holiday, lots of walks on the beach, a big (by comparison to our old house) garden to dig in, new lanes, shortcuts and roads to explore. This was followed by a new baby to distract us through the Spring. We celebrated and enjoyed the differences, while at the same time missing the vibrant multi-cultural community we had left behind.
The following winter I was at school late one evening. A meeting had been planned for the governing body. I had held on rather than go home and back and so was there when the governors started to arrive. I made tea and offered a plate of biscuits as we made small talk and waited for the meeting to start.

Most of the Governors at that particular time were elderly ladies, retired teachers, upstanding members of the community, local residents. They turned up with their M&S cardigans and matching skirts with handbags neatly tucked under their chairs – it was what I had always imagined my Grandmothers Women’s Institute meetings to be like.

As I chatted to one of the governors, grey hair and a trace of an accent I politely enquired what the accent was as I could not place it. She told me it was German, but it had faded as her family had moved to the UK straight after the war, when she was a young girl. Naturally this led to me asking about her experiences as a child in such a turbulent and monumental moment in modern history.
I was interested in the response she gave. She talked a little of her impression that everybody wore uniforms, of how she was protected from the reality of what was happening and was largely unaware of events unfolding across Europe. She casually moved on to talk about how she vividly recalled a party her parents had hosted, when Rudolf Hess – Hitler’s Deputy – had attended. She had met him and been sat on his knee when she was introduced.

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It gave a new perspective to a set of events that I had previously only read about in books and been told about in History lessons. In a small infant school in Devon I met someone who lived through this period of history, and met a monster – who it turns out was just a person sometimes.

A good place to play.

When I was younger, way back when we could go out and play until it started to get dark, and if you missed your tea it got cold – or eaten, I lived near an old, disused, railway viaduct. It was a huge feature of the local landscape. Now long gone, it used to tower over all the houses in the neighbourhood, welcoming people to the town as it stood over the streets and houses below.

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Like many viaducts, the spaces beneath the arches had become a selection of lock-ups, garages and workshops. Greasy, dirty earthy places that practically shouted out to small boys to go there and play when we were not daring one another to walk the length of the old railway track in defiance of the Keep Out signs on the rickety fencing.

One of the best bits of this shadowy world was the scrapyard, gaining entrance to that was the Shangri La of good times. Old cars, bits of metal, wheels, tyres, you name it, it was there. The real joy of it was that everything was already broken, so it didn’t matter what you did – you couldn’t make it worse.

The absolute best bit of all was that I had access to the scrapyard. My friend Carl lived in one of the houses that backed directly on to it. A hop and a jump and you were in. A similarly small hop and jump back meant that you wouldn’t get caught if the owner came by unexpectedly.

So many summer evenings were spent making dens, smashing things up, getting dirty and generally having fun. The hours would fly by, interspersed only by trips to Carl’s mum’s kitchen to top up our fluid and sugar levels.

By now I am sure that you are thinking; small boys – Playing around all that jagged metal, broken glass and heavy machinery – wasn’t that dangerous? Yes. Yes it was, but we didn’t care, we were having fun. We were oblivious to the impending danger every time we went in, oblivious to the huge risks we were taking, we were young boys and mortality was not a part of our mindset at all.

Until the day that Carl cut his arm. The sharp edge of a piece of metal caught him as he passed it. It cut a short but deep gouge into his arm that bled profusely as we clambered back through the fence and into his house. We showed it to his mum, fully confident that once we had presented the injury to an adult it could all be sorted out.

What happened next still surprises me now when I think back on it. Carl’s mum got out some cotton and a needle and, before anybody could object, popped in a couple of stitches – job done! I mentioned we were young didn’t I? I didn’t really understand at the time that Carl’s mum was a nurse and that this had saved a great deal of time and trouble visiting the hospital on her precious day off. She knew what she was doing and did it.

My lack of understanding meant that for some time afterwards, every time I cut myself I was half terrified that my own mum was going to whisk out her sewing kit when I showed her and set about my wounds like Dr Frankenstein. The other half of me was always bitterly disappointed when all I got was a measly sticking plaster.

Now you see me

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It is a matter of fact that, along with about 8% of the male population, I am colour blind. This is almost, but not quite, an exclusively male thing, with only 0.5% of the female population being similarly afflicted. The reason for this imbalance has been explained to me, in detailed scientific terms and simple layman’s words many times. However, my brain does not seem to retain the relevant information on any level, so I simply accept it as fact.

I did not become aware of the fact of this deficiency until quite late in life. As a young child I had been shown colour dotty tests (Ishihara Colour Test – I looked it up.) many times by various school nurses. Every time this happened I panicked when asked to identify the number I was looking at. I simply blurted out the first number that came to mind in the hope of not appearing stupid. This backfired, I made myself appear stupid and was sent on my way by impatient school nurses with nits to catch, scabies to spot and BCG jabs to administer.

However, at some point my colour blindness was noted and mention of it was added to my school record. The first I knew of it was on my visit to the school careers teacher when I was 16. Mr Fitz asked what I was thinking of doing with my life, looked down at my file and then, before I had time to answer, added “of course, there are certain things you won’t be able to do won’t there?”

I wasn’t sure what he meant, so he went on to explain that as I was colour blind I would be excluded from certain professions, careers and jobs; (produces several pages long, densely typed list of aforementioned jobs). This was a surprise. Not a nice, cake, sweets and a present sort of surprise – a stubbed toe, lost wallet and celery for tea sort of surprise. Definitely not good. Future dreams of flying aeroplanes, being an electrician or designing interiors flew out of the window, dreams shattered and my life left in ruins.

Alright, the last bit is exaggeration. I settled for staying on at school for another two years to give me time to read the entire list. Naturally one of the subjects I chose to study whilst doing this was Art. Not ceramics or sculpture – painting pictures, in colour. I have been told, and have no reason to disbelieve, that some of my colour choices were ‘daring’, ’bold’ and ’experimental’. Suitably inspired, I also chose to continue to successfully study art through my degree.

Being honest, the fact of my colour blindness does not affect my day-to-day life or the way I live it. The single most annoying/frustrating/irritating aspect of it is people’s reaction when you tell them. Trust me, having a range of familiar household objects paraded in front of you and being asked “What colour’s that then?” for every single item wears thin quickly.

To give this post balance, being colour blind has its upside too. I have been excused ‘choosing outfits for the boys’ duty through their early years, I do not have to make potentially explosive decisions about paint colours when decorating happens and I am tolerated when I turn up in my favourite mismatched outfit, (even though I secretly know that the colours don’t really go.)

Nobody really knows why there is such a high incidence of colour blindness in the population. I will finish with a theory that I once read that it is a sign of evolutionary superiority. The inability to see some colours makes it easier for me to spot certain prey when I am hunting food for my tribe, thus making me truly an Alpha male – probably.

Also, in case you are wondering, I have absolutely no idea whatsoever if there is even a number in the circle of dots at the top of this post. My main hope is that I did not inadvertently select something with an obscene message with this random image.

Secret identity

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Last week I found myself teaching a class of 9 year olds in a local school. Many of the students live in the same area as me, in fact one of them lives in my road. Not only that, but on one occasion he has been to my house.
Several years ago, when they were playing in the road, something had happened to his scooter. My eldest son bought him back to our house to raid my tool kit and helped him fix it.
So – back to last week, at the end of the day, after the other students had gone, he came back with his mum and pointed at me through the doorway.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
“Have you got a big son?” the boy replied.
“Yes.”
“Do you live up the hill?”
“Yes.”
“Aha! – I know who you really are!”