Monthly Archives: August 2013

Unselective deafness

I’m looking back into a distant era. Rationing had finished, (but the ration books were still in the draw in the kitchen) the bright golden dawn of the NHS was upon us, and a young teacher had her two children, first a boy and then a little girl.
Yes, that boy was me. And as young mums are with their first child my Mum was doubtless a bit over watchful. Admittedly she had her mum, and my Dad’s mum, and doubtless a great heap of aunts and suchlike for advice, but this probably didn’t really help.
But eventually she came to the conclusion that there was something up with my hearing. So she took me to see the doctor. I remember him even now, not a big man, a Scot with an abrasive manner. From my perspective older and possibly wiser than God, and he examined my ears.
Then he arranged appointments for all sorts of clinics, where we waited in draughty corridors, (or rather my mum did, I read happily, as one advantage of having a teacher for a mother is that you’re literate before you get to school.)
Anyway I have to report that back then I found the tests quite fun. You had to listen to this but press a button if you heard that, and there were headphones and all sorts of stuff to play with.
But eventually, all good things come to an end, the various tests were completed, various reports were doubtless collated and sent on and we were summoned to meet our doctor once more.
Here, in retrospect, I have to pay tribute to the doctor, faced with an educated and strong minded young mum and her first child. He set the case out clearly. My hearing was perfect. My Mum probably expressed surprise, doubt and perhaps even bewilderment.
The doctor let her say her piece and then very gently (and over fifty years later I can still remember his explanation) said. “What you have to remember Mrs Webster, is that all men have an instinctive ability to screen out the female voice. It’s something of a defence mechanism. It’s just that your son has developed it at an unusually young age.”

Men in tights

Why is it SF films are so unimaginative? Starwars has Hans Solo with a C96 Broomhandle Mauser with stick-on bits as a blaster pistol. Storm troopers used Sterling sub-machineguns, also with bits stuck on. Even in Aliens the Marines wear Vietnam War body armour with extra bits stuck on.
I hate to remind these people that fashions change and military dress is normally just a version of civilian dress. Just because we are wearing a certain style now doesn’t mean that it’s the pinnacle of fashion and isn’t going to change. Good grief, even during the dark ages we can see fashions in brooches change amongst the Germanic tribesmen who settled in Britain during the fourth and subsequent centuries!

One thing people sometimes ask is how did you get into this whole SF/Fantasy thing? Well I suppose it’s my mother’s fault. She was a teacher and wasn’t impressed by comics, but she decided that ‘Look and Learn’ was educational and so she bought me that. But then ‘Look and Learn’ incorporated ‘Ranger’ and suddenly things started looking up. Ranger brought the story of the Trigan Empire. What’s not to like, space ships, atmosphere craft, laser cannon, charging horsemen and flashing sword play? OK the stories were probably a bit stereotyped, but looking back they managed to avoid the semi-naked slave girl look, indeed their women wore more than in Star Trek. They also managed to break down the SF stereotype of the future dressing virtually like we do but with more electronics and different fabrics.

trigan002

Then, in about 1972, I bought Jack Vance’s book. ‘Dragon Masters.’ Set in the far distant future you have a pre-industrial society that has bred lizard-like intelligent aliens to function as mounts for riding and warriors for fighting. Their insular little world is invaded by an alien ship which is crewed by the same aliens, who fight using humans that they’ve bred for much the same purposes.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dragon-Masters-Jack-Vance/dp/0583121004/

This story totally blew me away. The world and the society it described was so utterly different from our own that I realised at once I had to read more by this writer.
To that day, whenever I’ve seen a book by Jack Vance that I didn’t own, I’ve bought it, no matter whether I had to walk home because I’d spent the bus fare or not.
But this is back in 1972. Jack Vance finally passed away this year, at the grand old age of 96. I’m waiting for a modern writer to set his SF story in a distant future where, once more, real men wear doublet and hose.

How did we manage?

Mate of mine was just out of his apprenticeship. (So we’re talking more than thirty years ago.) He’d done something silly, made something using the wrong grade steel, or put the holes in the wrong place, and then it went from their workshop through to the next workshop where it would be fitted.
They didn’t just send it back; the foreman from the other shop came back with it and verbally tore into my mate. Within seconds my mate’s manager was there. He physically stepped between the foreman and his prey and told him that if he had a problem, then there was a proper procedure and if he ever caught him hassling ‘his staff’ again, he’d nail his ears to the bulkhead.
When the foreman beat a retreat and was out of sight and earshot, the manager looked at the problem, told my mate he wasn’t a complete idiot, as he obviously had bits missing. He then had him redoing it then and there, made him bring it in for him to inspect before it was sent on as finished.

The management philosophy was simple. The manager was there to support and protect his people. If they got it wrong, yes, he bawled them out, but no other wandering manager or whatever got to do that. If there was a problem, then it was the manager’s fault because it had happened on his or her watch and they carried the can. They then went back to their people and made damned sure it didn’t happen again. That’s largely why they were paid more.

Yet just talking to mates who work in education, or the civil and public services, it seems that this is no longer the way it’s done. Managers now wear Teflon. When trouble descends from above it pours all over the manager and wonder of wonders, none of it sticks. Instead it all lands on those at the bottom.
Now back in the day, managers could actually do the work that their people were doing. OK they were probably a bit rusty on the details but they’d done the job or one very like it. But now all that some of them know is how to ‘manage’.

Call me old fashioned but frankly, having seen some ‘management’ in action over the years, I’m not impressed.

Geriatric delinquents

To quote Clegg on ‘Last of the Summer Wine;’ “The young are a great comfort as you grow older. Makes you realise that at least you’re going in the right direction.”
As I get older I find growing older distinctly liberating. In this liberation there are definite milestones. The first came when I got married. My female acquaintances suddenly divided themselves into three distinct groups. The first group, the largest, relaxed. I was married, I wasn’t trying to chat them up or whatever, and they were just happy to talk to their mate Jim. The second group, the next largest, didn’t change the way the treated me at all. The third group was the smallest and I soon learned to avoid them. They seemed to work on the principle that no one misses a slice from a cut loaf and now I was married I was available without consequences.
The next milestone was one I passed without really noticing. I was down in London attending a couple of meetings and three or four of us were having a drink over a pint at the end of the day. I mentioned, in passing, with no attempt to brag, that several times in the previous couple of days attractive young Polish ladies had come up to me and asked me for directions as how they could get to wherever they were going.
One of my mates punctured that one, he said, “Well they trust you Jim, you remind them of their peasant grandfather.”
Mind you, I’m just a kid when it comes to this sort of thing. I remember my Dad having trouble with some snotty jumped up little twonk of a bureaucrat. A real nasty piece of ‘More than my job’s worth’. (Those outside the UK might be surprised that we have such people, but alas it is true. May the Lord have more mercy on them than they are willing to grant their fellow citizens.) Anyway Dad landed home. He wasn’t driving by then; it was probably not much more than a year before he died. By that time Mum had to ferry him. Anyway he was still fuming when he got home. He told me what had happened so I pointed to the stick he used to walk with and told him, “Next time, prod him with that.”
He looked at his stick and said “I couldn’t do that?”
“What’re they going to do, jail you? Anyroad, if it ends up in court, we’ll be able to cover the cost by selling tickets.”
Cheered him up no end but next time he had to deal with that office he got a human being to deal with and there were no problems.
Still, for the last few days I’ve been watching a real expert. Let’s call him Old Bill. My guess is that he’ll never see seventy five again but I could be a year or two adrift. Anyway Old Bill is currently in a hospital ward. The other day the nurses were talking about him in hushed tones, so when they went I asked one of the other patients what had happened; this is the story that I’ve managed to put together.
Basically I think Bill had got bored so, dressed in bright orange hospital pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers he took his zimmer frame and walked past the nurses’ station on the ward and made his way to the day room. From the day room, when the nurse at the nurses’ station was busy, he did the last twenty feet of the corridor and took a sharp left to the lifts.
This took him down to the ground floor and then he walked the hundred or so yards of corridor and went out of the main door where he was met by the taxi he’d ordered. A passing member of staff helped him get into the taxi, and he told the taxi driver to take him to the Preston Street club. Now the taxi driver was beginning to smell a rat at this but what could he do, especially when half way there Old Bill cheerfully tells him he doesn’t have the money on him, but he’ll pay him in the club. At the club the taxi driver takes him in. The staff and regulars are a bit surprised to see him. (Not many folk drink there wearing bright orange pyjamas, dressing gown, slippers accessorised with a zimmer frame.) Anyway someone bought him a pint to stop him wandering off to somewhere more hospitable and the taxi driver phoned the hospital.
“Hi have you discharged old Bill?”
“No why?”
“Oh well, I’ll bring him back then.”
This afternoon I passed Old Bill as he was leaving the room his bed is in.
“Going far Bill?”
He just winked at me, grinned and said, “Nah, just the Gents.”
He didn’t add ‘this time’ but he managed to leave the words hanging unspoken.

A level results, pretty girls and American Pie

It’s a long long time ago, but I can still remember. One of the quirks of fate, I never went into school to get my exam results. So I missed out on the whole tears and hugging thing and haven’t a clue what anyone else got.
My O level results I got when I phoned home from the island of Rhum. My mother had phoned the school to get them and I wrote them with biro on a notice in the phone box because I’d forgotten to take any paper with me.
In my mid to late teens I had several holidays up in the Hebrides, Inner and Outer. Used to go up there with a youth group from across in Yorkshire, from memory, at one point they were called ‘Yorkshire Field Studies.’ I remember sitting in a minibus with bench seats down both sides singing ‘American Pie.’ I suppose it had been a hit either earlier that year or the year before, and the girls knew the words. (Because girls always knew the words of pop songs back then, don’t know whether it’s still true.) But in the course of numerous minibus trips even I learned them, and given time and a decent run at it, I can still remember the words even now.
My A level results were something of an anti-climax. I was busy, had calves to take to Ulverston auction and so my mother phoned in for them.
I confess that I don’t know the words to many other pop songs; a shortage of pretty girls to teach me the words perhaps? But American Pie sort of followed me through life.
A lot of years later, I was invited out on a mate’s stag do around Barrow. Now going out around Barrow is always interesting. In the course of a long evening (during which I was sober because I’d got to drive home) I met up with lasses I’d known at school, friends of my sister, friends of the older two daughters, and all those lasses I’d met working as dental assistants, veterinary nurses, or behind the counter in the bank and what-have-you. My daughter once asked me if I could manage to go into a shop and buy something without flirting with the shop assistants. The simple answer is probably no. The longer and more complicated answer is that I’m not flirting with them. It’s simple old fashioned courtesy and that’s how I was brought up. Anyway, I get on OK with the fairer sex, but then I’m half woman myself, my mother was one. But it’s somewhat amusing to watch the faces of younger, single male friends when a constant stream of ladies of various ages totter across on their heels to say hi. I remain as always courteous and charming as I frantically try to remember names and how I know them, because wherever it was, they weren’t dressed like that!
Still on this stag do, I was leaning against the bar in one of Barrow’s many pubs. As I said, I was driving, so was slowly working my way down my second half pint. The rest of the bunch I was out with were out there dancing or whatever. It was at that point they started playing Madonna’s cover version of American Pie.
OK the crust is a bit hard and the filling blown but in a quiet and probably somewhat maudlin way I started singing along until I was interrupted by a young lady who came across to talk to me. Now I’ve mentioned, in all modesty, that this isn’t all that uncommon. But I just couldn’t place her at all, yet there was a nagging familiarity about her face. So I said “Hi’ and then she started to chat me up. Everyone has to learn at some time I suppose, but I felt a bit like you do when you see the documentary showing a young lioness out on her own for the first time, stalking a particularly evil looking water buffalo. Especially as from your angle you can see the rest of the herd, (sitting round sharpening their horns and swapping tales of lions they’d hunted) and the young lioness obviously cannot.
Anyway I finally worked out why I recognised her, so I just smiled and said to her, “You know lass, not only did I know your mother, I was me who introduced her to your father.”
With that our young lioness smiled vaguely and went off to hunt elsewhere.

Corruption

Corruption is like slurry. It trickles down from the top, staining everyone on the way and pooling around those at the bottom who’re forced to wade through it to the contempt of those at the top.

Frankly it stinks. It’s not just the world of kickbacks and favours, the charity bosses who feel that they should be paid over 100K ‘because they’re worth it.’ It’s the world of the BBC where apparently a quarter of executives got payoffs that there probably illegal. Why that particular quarter? Are they the ones whose faces fitted, who did the right courses at the right universities, sat on the right think-tanks and floated on the edge of the correct political parties?

But we see if everywhere, the degradation of society. People who cannot be bothered to do the job they’re paid to do; people who seem to get their kicks, not through their own achievements but by stopping other people doing things. (Have you noticed, the ‘precautionary principle’ is only ever used to stop ‘them’ doing what they want to do; it is never used to stop ‘us’ doing what we want to do.)

And of course when you stir hypocrisy into the mix, then it really does stink. The BBC had great fun tearing into senior clergy about child abuse, and now, slowly and painfully, their own squalid idols are being dragged out of retirement and thrust blinking into the spotlight.
And it’s the spotlight that we need. A bright light shining into the murk; the stone turned over so the bloated things wiggle and squirm to get out of the sun. Let the light in, let the truth be seen then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.
Let’s see how much these people earn, let’s see how much of our money is being poured into their gaping maws. Let’s watch them wallow in the world of Christian Louboutin footwear bought on Civil Service credit cards.
Let’s turn the light on them.

And where does the light come from? Well I’ll give you an example. I know a lady who is a teacher. The school she’s teaching at got involved, peripherally in an ‘incident’ that made the national newspapers.
The local education authority piled in, blamed everything on the headmaster and harried and hounded him into retiring. The lady was one of the few, along with the school secretary, who stood by him. Who drove him home the day he broke down in tears in his office; who told various ‘worthies’, various members of the ‘great and the good,’ both authority staff and union reps, exactly what she thought of them. Of course she hasn’t got a career, but sometimes it’s good to remember the words;-
“Don’t be intimidated. Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are. So don’t hesitate to go public now. Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies. There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being.”

And this is where the light comes from. It shines out of the Sikh train manager I saw comforting a lost old lady, it shines out of the policeman who sizes up the situation and defuses it, giving two lads a chance to patch things up and avoid a criminal record; it shines out of the teacher who works endlessly to try and get her charges to just behave decently.
It shines out of the paramedic at the side of the road who’s done too many hours already but isn’t quitting until this person is safe. It shines out of the taxi driver who stops the meter before he carries the old dear’s shopping in for her, and puts it on the shelves; because that he does in HIS time, not the company’s time.
It shines out of the accountant who at the end of a long day sits down with a young couple and shows them how to get their books in order so that their little business can grow, and all for no more that a clumsily muttered thank you.

You see, these people and the light that shines out of them set a standard, a benchmark. They draw the line in the sand that we can look at and wonder. We can ask ourselves whether we’ve got the guts to cross the line and get out of the slurry. They are the ones who shine like stars amidst a twisted and perverted society.
And it’s by their light that we can grow. It’s their light that helps us set our direction. But have we the courage they have, have we what it takes?
Or are we happy to wallow in the stench provided we get our share?

Hang on, wasn’t that a horse?

A chap I know has always been keen on trail hounds. But a young dog can be as likely to piddle on the leg of the starter as he might be to run the course. Like everyone else they have to learn their trade.
Ideally this is done somewhere relatively out-of-the-way, where sharp tongued competitors don’t get the chance to mock your latest exploits. So he and a couple of mates used to set up a trail across our land for their young dogs, just so they could make their embarrassing mistakes out of the glare of publicity.
It was always impressive watching these young dogs run, hell for leather, following the scent. To get a decent length of run the trail had to cross a lane, so one of the dogs’ owners would stand in the lane to stop traffic in case a car came just as the dogs were crossing. I watched with him, we’d opened gates on both sides of the lane so the hounds could just run.
The young hounds came hammering across the field. They passed a group of suckler cows with their calves so fast the cows never noticed them. The calves did and ran a short way after them before falling behind and loosing interest. Then the hounds ran between two Shetland ponies. As the hounds crossed the lane the owner was counting them to make sure no one had got lost. “One, two, three, four, five…Hang on, wasn’t that a horse, seven, eight…”

trail hounds

We’ve all got to learn our trade somewhere. We come into this world with a very limited repertoire of social skills and suchlike and we have to learn them on the hoof.
Now I’m lucky. I wasn’t merely born before the web happened; I was married with kids before the web happened. So my unconvincing chat-up lines and awkward faux-pas have sunk without trace.
But one thing I do know. There is no privacy on the web. Forget what any company says about the settings, once you’ve posted it electronically, you’ve handed it to the world to do with as they want.
Wisdom says that when you send an email, a tweet, a text message, or post something to facebook or whatever; act as if everything you send will be blind-copied to the Sun newspaper. You might not send it to them, but the recipient might, or the person the recipient forwards it to might.

I don’t think people realise just how long the written word lasts or the impact it can have. I’ve been writing for money since the late 1970s, and even now stuff written back then resurfaces in my life. I’ll give you two examples.
The first was a column I did in our local paper, probably about ’79. About a month ago I was having a cataract operation. There were six of us being prepared as a group for surgery and one lady said, “You’re Jim Webster aren’t you.”
I confessed, (but there are two Jim Websters round here and folk do get us confused.) and she told me that in one column I’d said something about Milk Tanker Drivers. Her husband was a tanker driver (I knew him, he collected our milk for years) and when she read the article she was so incensed she wrote a letter to the paper.
However writing the letter meant she actually properly read what I’d written and she discovered that she was agreeing with me. And thirty something years later she got the chance to tell me that she agreed.
Another example is the first article I ever got paid money for. It was about the war between Chile and the alliance of Peru and Bolivia. There was an interesting warship action where the Peruvian Navy’s ship the Huáscar was finally captured. (Look I’m from Barrow in Furness, Warships are important!)

Huáscar

Anyway, unbeknown to me a guy called Paul had been taken with the article. He ended up as a contractor, working in BAE Systems here and joined our wargames club. Earlier this year, thirty-four years after I wrote the article, he and I refought the action, something both of us had been intending to do for the previous thirty-four years.

Occasional google searches have brought up articles I wrote on a type writer and delivered as hard copy which are now on websites as electronic documents.
So next time you’re about to post something, anything, just ask yourself; “I wonder how that’ll look on my CV in thirty years time?”
But then again, the way things are going, those of us who haven’t posted pictures of our genitalia on the web might be regarded with deep suspicion as the unusual ones who are too dangerous to employ.