Saturday, 30 August 2014

The precious jewel of thy home return

Goodbye South Hello Again North

Hired a van – feel very manly. Moving North Again. Looking forward to treading the moors and breathing the Yorkshire air. Back to base. Back to basics. Back to the nest.

He that outlives this day and comes safe home
Will stand a top-toe when the day is named....
(Henry V)
The sullen passage of thy weary steps
Esteem as foil wherein thou art to set 
The precious jewel of thy home return....
(Richard II)
Path to Top Withins near Haworth

Friday, 22 August 2014

Chubbing as a nipper

Childhood freedom

As a child growing up in the 1960s on the Eastmoor Estate in Wakefield, my playground consisted of fields, dens, paths, bushes, trees, woods, a canal, a river, bridges, haunted ruins, marshes, bonfires…. On days out, my eldest brother would take me, my mum and sister to places like Brimham Rocks in North Yorkshire, a weird and atmospheric collection of rocks on the moors near Pateley Bridge. Another day might be spent exploring the ruins of the great northern abbeys – Byland, Fountains, Jervaulx, Kirkstall, Riveaulx and Roche. In winter laking out* might mean involving two gangs playing Kick Out Can in the smog-riddled ginnels** and gardens of the estate.
*laking out = playing out from the Old Norse laik – “to play”
**ginnels = snickets, alleyways

Bonfire night

TV for children was limited, computers were non-existent and so running free seemed to be the only way to live – but back for tea or for bed! Friendships, loyalties, enemies and rivalries were passionate, none more so than around bonfire night when rival gangs went chubbing*** and then jealously guarded their huge bonfires. It was a great honour to be on guard duty, especially if you were a nipper**** and you were paired up with one of the older lads. 
***chubbing = scrounging for stuff to burn on the street bonfire
****nipper = small kid
Chubbing in the 1960s. Photo property of Bill Bullock.
The giant stack – a health and safety nightmare
Modern health and safety regulations wouldn’t tolerate the sorts of bonfire night I remember from childhood.  The centre pole was usually an abandoned telegraph pole with discarded railway sleepers stacked around it.  Linton Road householders would shove in broken cupboards, old sofas and discarded toys so the stack looked like an immense wigwam jumble sale.  Whether the urban myth was true – that one year, one boy was burned to death because he fell asleep when on guard – I never found out.  But the nearest Saturday to November 5th always saw the conflagration go up with a roar.
A local bonfire stack that wouldn't be allowed these days

Tasty treats

Pork pies, mushy peas, baked potatoes, parkin and “bonfire toffee” appeared with paper cups of pop from the Corona van – dandelion and burdock, cola, lemonade, orangeade, cream soda, limeade, cherryade. Some “taties” were cooked on sticks in the fire itself. Did the mums all have a planning meeting to coordinate all the food and drink?   

Are the memories true?

Every year someone was burned with a banger and every year someone had to stay up through the night until the embers were safe to leave. Was it really as wild and pagan as my memory conjures? Or have the phantom dangers of childhood conjured a more feral existence than really happened?

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Bind up the petty differences

Locating the North

Where IS The North? I would draw a line above Birmingham and the Midlands so I think The North would include Cheshire, Staffordshire (certainly North Staffs), Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. I think the Midlands includes Shropshire, Leicestershire, Rutland and Norfolk. I don’t think there would be any dispute about Being Northern above the counties I’ve listed, though there are clearly tribal areas within the land stretching above Macclesfield, Nottingham and Lincoln.
Where would you draw the north-south divide?

Northern Uprising

West Riding folk think North Yorkshire folk are posher than them.  Scousers, Mancunians, Cumbrians, Geordies, and some Borderers have deep-rooted senses of being People Apart.  So if Scottish Independence yields a YES vote, and it works economically, politically and socially, I cannot believe that within 100 years there won’t be a Northern Uprising….

It’s the way you say it
In some ways all high streets in all main cities throughout the UK look similar. But accents differentiate without doubt: when southerners refer to a northern accent, my blood boils at the vagueness of "northern." Which northern accent do they mean? Northerners don’t think a cockney accent is the same as a Devon accent. (“The accent of his tongue affecteth him.”) The Bradford accent sounds nothing like a Blackburn accent, the Newcastle-upon-Tyne accent could not be mistaken for a Wirral accent. When I worked in a bookshop in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, I instantly knew the moment I was speaking to tourists from Wakefield, my home town. (“Your accent is something finer than you could purchase in so removed a dwelling….”) And when I spoke, they also knew where I was from.
Image from Tom Phillips/BuzzFeed/skvoor/shuttercock
Perhaps it’s a class conspiracy after all
I have experienced politeness and friendliness Down South but in all honesty, my impression is that I have experienced more of it in The North. I expect, though, that I would have more in common with a southerner who attends Shakespeare’s Globe than with members of the northern Hurworth Hunt. There is plenty of culture, education and enterprise in The North, just as I’m sure there is plenty of blunt-talking, honesty and pie-eating in The South. Perhaps the north-south divide is really about that perennial English interest, the class system with stereotypical prejudices conveniently glossing over the depravation in London’s Newham or Tower Hamlets and discounting the privilege in Alderley Edge or Harrogate. Is the north-south divide encouraged by the establishment to keep the people at loggerheads? To keep us at odds with each other to distract us from government policy that seeks to divide and shift the blame onto other people, however that is being defined at the time.
Sunday Times graphic of economic divide
Exploiting the petty differences
I know not, Menas,
How lesser enmities may give way to greater.
Were’t not that we stand up against them all,
‘Twere pregnant they should square between themselves;
For they have entertained cause enough
To draw their swords: but how the fear of us
May cement their divisions and bind up
The petty differences, we yet not know.
Be’t as our gods will have’t!  It only stands
Our lives upon to use our strongest hands.

Monday, 18 August 2014

King of the North

Winter is Coming

Reading (before the HBO series started) George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones and its sequels I am sure I was not the only born Northerner to be thrilled that the stoical, steadfast Starks (“Winter is Coming”) were Wardens of the North and the tragic splitting of the family and their subsequent fates (no spoilers here) form the emotional core of the saga’s appeal. The fancy folk in King’s Landing and elsewhere are clearly modelled on duplicitous, corrupt southerners! I can only speculate about the metaphorical links between the Iron Bank of Braavos and the City of London.
Richard Madden in the HBO series based on the Song of Ice and Fire saga

 Alex the First?

When Robb Stark was declared King of the North, the event as written gave me a disturbingly patriotic thrill.  Is that what the Scots will be feeling if they vote YES to Independence? Will Alex Salmond become Alex the First?
Alex Salmond satirical portrait in English press

The True King of the North?

Has there ever been a true King of the North? Richard III ruling from Middleham/York with his Council of the North? The Percy family? One of the sites that I visit when I need an Arthurian fix suggests that St Edwin, King of Northumbria made a credible contender when he refortified York as his central base. I am sure I will return to King Arthur in future blogs when I express my admiration of TH White’s Once and Future King. 
TH White and his marvellous 5-part saga with
the Middleham statue of Richard III, the Percy coat of arms and Saint Edwin of Northumbria

The forces of the south will not stand their ground....

In the meantime, perhaps the Old Testament Daniel (Chapter 11, verse 13-15) can illuminate the topic:
13 The king of the north will come back, having recruited an even larger army than before, and finally, after some years, he will advance a second time with a great army and plentiful supplies.
14 At that time, many will take up arms against the king of the south, and the more violent of your own people will rebel in the hope of realising the vision; but they will fail.
15 The king of the north will then come and throw up siege-works to capture a strongly fortified city. The forces of the south will not stand their ground; the pick of the people will not be strong enough to resist.

Independence for Yorkshire?

I am fully expecting the Starks to have a scintilla of triumph by the end of Song of Ice and Fire. It was prophesied in the Old Testament, after all. By the time George RR Martin gets round to writing the final chapters, maybe it will be time for a vote on Yorkshire or Northern Independence.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

North Versus South

Chris, Josh, Teresa, Me, Mick

King of the North

Roaming free in the Yorkshire fields behind my childhood home in Wakefield, I could easily have imagined myself King of The North in my egotistic, juvenile imagination – or at least a Prince of The North since I had older brothers and there were plenty of other older lads around. I was definitely several places removed from being heir to the throne. And the arrival of a younger sister meant I was definitely no longer the one to be spoiled....!

Harper, Kerry, Dolly
I am sure all areas of the UK command tribal loyalties. “The North” does, though, seem to possess a conceptual life of its own:
  • Northern Ireland and its relationship with the rest of Ireland
  • North America compared to South America
  • Northern Europe and Southern Europe
  • The northern yankee states as opposed to the southern confederate states
  • North Korea versus South Korea
  • New Zealand's North Island and its contrasting South Island
It can’t be argued, however much I would like, that The North = Entirely Good and The South = Not-so-good…. Three of my favourite Americans are from southern states: authors Harper Lee, Kerry Madden and singer Dolly Parton. Those three clearly flout The South = Not-so-Good paradigm. How could I label the enitire Southern Hemisphere any less worthy than the Northern Hemisphere? I love visiting Southern Europe for the sun, the history, the culture, the food, the wine and the laid-back approach to life.
Harper Lee, Kerry Madden, Dolly Parton
Europe and Tales of the Norse Gods
Although Southern Europe is intrinsically romantic: linguistically, artistically, geographically, historically and architecturally, I still find myself feeling more akin with Scandinavia and northern Europe despite the short days in winter, the possessive attitude to alcohol and the grim humour that seems positively macabre. Maybe it’s because my surname is Johnson so I imagine an ancestral link to Vikings…. And maybe it’s because one of my go-to reading books as a child was a battered Tales of the Norse Gods from Ginnungagap to Ragnarök. Even in France you find the equivalent of southerners being suspicious of anyone living north of Watford Gap with Lyons standing in for Watford Gap. (Paris is an anomaly in The French North.) If in doubt, check out the entertaining film Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis.
Ginnungagap, Ragnarök, Welcome to the Sticks

Am I part-Southerner now?

Having lived in The South for two months as a student (working in a bookshop on Shaftesbury Avenue and witnessing a drug addict dying on my delightful Royal Princesses display), and having lived in The South on and off since May 2014 (and full-time from July 2014 to today, Sunday August 17th 2014), am I now part Southerner? Am I on the North-South turn? Can a man not control his own sense of who he is?

Be advised:
I say again, there is no English soul
More stronger to direct you than yourself,
If with the sap of reason you would quench,
Or but allay, the fire of passion.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Living in the South

Arundel, Hampton Court, Bodiam, scented summer

Yorkshire Independence?

My last blog began ruminations about Northern and Southern stereotypes. Could you ever begin to feel like a Southerner if you were born in Yorkshire? Could Yorkshire ever become an independent region of The British Isles? Luckily, I didn’t receive death threats by writing about Scottish Independence as JK Rowling did a few weeks ago, but that’s probably because I am ambivalent. I think my position is the same as the recent celebrity letter published in the newspapers stating that, apropos an Independent Scotland, my brain says YES but my heart says NO. I am too fond of visiting the Scottish Hebrides, Highlands and other tourist destinations north of Hadrian’s Wall.
Yorkshire Dales and Skye in Scotland


My current feeling is that, although a Yorkshireman by birth, I do recognise that home is where the heart is and that your heart is usually wherever your loved ones are. For example, Badby, a small village in Northamptonshire is very close to my heart and that’s because some truly excellent friends live there. A family joke (when the girls were very young, you understand) was to call out as we approached the village on the winding road from the M1 – “I hope there are no bad bees in Badbeeee.” (A family joke that only works if you’ve been in the car on a hot summer’s day, got the giggling fits the first time because you finally understood puns, infected everyone else with your giggling, and repeated the joke a hundred times on subsequent visits…. Even when everyone in the car is too old to know better…..)
England, blue sky, Viva's Restaurant in Dorking, Hampton Court, Mayfield Lavender, Polesden Lacey, Denbie's Wine Estate

Gadding About The South

Like family jokes, places take on significances unique to each individual. So now, in the south, I’ve come to appreciate a number of places that have found deeply-lodged crevices in my conscience. Highlights in my Southern Exile include: eating fish n chips overlooking the boats at Bexhill-on-Sea, meandering round the house, gardens and woods of Polesden Lacey, visiting Arundel, Banqueting Hall, Battle, Bodiam, Brockham Festival, Chawton, Clandon Park, Claremont Gardens, Denbies Wine Estate, Hampton Court, Hatchlands Park, Hever, Hughenden Manor, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace, Leith Hill, Mayfield Lavender Fields, Monks House, Nonsuch, Nyman’s, Painshill Park, Pevensey, Ranmore Common, Runnymede, Scotney, Sissinghurst, Wandsworth Common….
Bexhill-on-sea, that blue sky again, Bodiam Castle, Polesden Lacey, Tony and Sally, Arundel Castle, Seven Sisters, outdoor stage at Polesden Lacey for a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

National Trust and English Heritage

The miles and miles of greenery that I’m discovering in and around London is not as rugged and (sometimes) bleak as the northern hills and dales, but it envelops you in scented summer and can put you at peace. Of course being a member of National Trust and English Heritage gives plenty of scope for visiting places that contain landscapes, buildings and stories that are worthy of attention.

Salute the South

So for now, I salute the South but still dream about the North.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I / I took the one less travelled by....

Saturday, 2 August 2014

England, Scotland, Yorkshire, Surrey

Geographical Identity….
Living in England has always been a source of pride to me. Shakespeare was born here and worked here. I've loved visiting Scotland, Wales and Ireland (I've yet to visit Northern Ireland) and have no problems identifying with the UK, Great Britain, Europe or the Globe. But I speak English. I think in English. I dream in English. Watching a film like Wadjda at the National Media Museum in Bradford reconfirmed for me that humans in every country share the same hopes and troubles. But, if I dig deep and deeper, and tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, my true geographical identity, first and foremost, now and forever, is not English in my heart and soul. I am a Yorkshireman.


After the bloody fray at Wakefield fought
Where your brave father breathed his latest gasp
and where your brothers and sister live and your cousins and some childhood friends and where your brave mother also breathed her last and where your schools were and your first ventures into earning money and playing sport and acting on the stage and canoodling with other humans.... What does it mean to be from Yorkshire?
  • A sense that the outdoors is better than indoors?
  • That dry stone walls mean that boundaries are not rigid but the boundaries are there and can be helpful?
  • That you say what you mean and you don't say much if you don't have much to say?
  • That a Yorkshireman is a Scotsman with all the generosity squeezed out of him?
  • That you are stubborn?
  • Dour?
  • Strong?
  • Loyal to the point of death?
  • That you would defend the land – the north first, of course, then the north-east, then Scotland and then across the Pennines and the Midlands and everywhere beneath Birmingham after that?
If I joined the army I would want to be in a Yorkshire Regiment.
Images of Yorkshire


Since retiring I've been living in Surrey spending time with close family. Yorkshire tugs me back but I know it will wait patiently for my return.... could I ever learn to love Surrey as much as I love Yorkshire? It is interesting that the more you spend time in a place the more you see its strengths. At first I could see only impolite Southerners with invasive driving habits, insanely chintzy shops with inflated prices and towns whose souls were being slowly sucked out by the monolithic monster juggernaut named London. But gradually I've begun to appreciate Surrey’s ancient woodlands, the hills and downs, the people who are people being people wherever they live, the resistant strain of old-world market fairs doggedly refusing to dance attendance on London. There is regional identity here too.
Surrey countryside and Dorking High Street

Scottish Independence

In a few weeks Scotland will be voting whether or not to remain part of the UK. Either result (Yes or No) will be fascinating. I know enough history to know that nothing needs to be forever and for most of our island history the UK was not a recognisable concept. Family-based tribes were the norm for centuries before the Normans invaded. Globalisation makes many places in the world seem indistinguishable. Costa Coffee in Dorking feels the same as Costa Coffee in Bradford.

Not in Kansas

My instinct is that differences should be preserved and celebrated, as long as they are not threatening any other group. So does that mean I am in favour of Scottish independence? If Scotland votes to become independent, shouldn’t Yorkshire do the same? When holidaying in Scotland (Skye, Mull) I felt more kinship in Scotland as a Yorkshireman than I felt when I first arrived in Surrey.... though, now, after a few months, Surrey is also starting to feel a bit like “home” too. I’m not in Kansas, Toto, but Kansas is in me…. Are we all ultimately adaptable? Chameleons in fact?
Polesden Lacey in Surrey

Looking for a new retirement identity

As I begin retirement I suppose I’m having all those thoughts about who I am, where I belong, where I’m going and what it’s all about….. regional and national identity have emerged as a part of that. But I think I’ve concluded that home is where the heart is – but the heart migrates to wherever your loved ones are, so home migrates too.
I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself….
England? Scotland? Yorkshire? Surrey? The readiness is all. Let be.
Ribblehead Viaduct and a drop of water....

Friday, 1 August 2014

I Will Survive

Relief, Fear, Uncertainty

A grim start to a new blog? But Relief, Fear and Uncertainty are my initial feelings now that I’m retired.
At first I was afraid
I was petrified

How can I survive without a full-time job? Particularly such a busy, all-consuming job? Teaching for the best part of 32 years…. In Manchester, in London, in Winchester, in Helsinki, in Stratford-upon-Avon, in Retford, in Sheffield, in Leek, in Keighley, in Wakefield, in Leeds, in Bingley and for the last 14 years at Bradford Grammar School, a large coeducational independent school, where I was Head of English and Drama.
The Likes Of Us, my final "big" school production

    ….tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburdened crawl towards lie-ins, reading and going to the cinema in the afternoon, writing for fun, puzzling over jigsaws, walking on canal towpaths, the Yorkshire moors and dales on weekdays, focusing on health, booking holidays in school term times…. Working at living instead of living at work.

Ripeness Is All

Was it the right time to leave?
There is a tide in the affairs of men, which,
Taken at the flood, leads on to fortune….
Was this the right time? This blog may partially answer that question. Life is in an unusual place at the moment. I’ve been commuting most weekends from Bradford to Dorking where my family is temporarily renting a flat.
The Temple on the Nower in Dorking
Life In A School

I will miss the working life in school: the buzz, the buildings, the banter – but most of all the people. Working in a collegiate atmosphere with people who, by and large, have the same values and aims - colleagues who have compassion, enjoy a sense of absurdity and teach their specialist subjects with depth and detail. Colleagues whose goal is to inspire teenagers, those infuriating, bizarre semi-adult beasts, creatures full of the future, full of unpredictable fun, full of hormonal bullshit.
Rat Trap an original musical I directed at Leek Westwood High School in my first teaching job

Life As A Teacher

Every day contained dozens - probably hundreds - of interactions; some interactions were like performances, some quick and intense, some combative and unsettling, some giddyingly silly; but all were involving and immediate. Will I Survive without timetables, schemes of work, planning, delivering, evaluating, monitoring, assessing, reviewing, planning, delivering, evaluating, monitoring, assessing, reviewing, planning…. And so it goes on, deadline after deadline, day after day, week after week, term after term…. But never the same in my subjects (English and Drama) and never the same because of the endless parade of humans…. Teachers, Support Staff, Students…. A cavalcade of teeming humanity.
Mikey Lord leading These are the days of our lives at Bradford Grammar School We Will Rock You

What Next?

So the aims of this blog are for me to reflect on retirement, practise writing skills and comment on whatever crops up in the moment of writing.  The only binding constant will be the words of William Shakespeare, which I expect to crop up frequently; the Complete Works of Shakespeare (and everything that surrounds those Works) are my hobby and have been for a very long time. Anyone who enjoys spotting quotations (the clues are in the labels below each blog), feel free to reveal which words belong to which play. I expect there will be no obvious “narrative arc” – just a diary of whatever crops up in my retired life. My dream is to live in retirement as a “writer” and my first step is to begin this blog and aim for five posts a month by August 2016 (I’m giving myself two years to get into the swing of it….) As the Marvel-lous Stan Lee often says…. Excelsior!