Tag Archives: #nostalgia

Burns, Sweeties & the Broons: A Guid Scots Year

Burns Night (January 25th) celebrates the birth of Scots poet Robert Burns and is generally marked by a traditional Haggis supper. As I look back to last year’s event I realise that in 2016 I began to truly embrace my “Scots heritage” rather than run away from it.

 I was attending a Burns Supper for only the third time ever in my life. With less than 48 hours notice I was asked/told if I could do the Selkirk Grace, a Burn’s poem of my own choice, and recite the William Topaz McGonagall ode “Robert Burns”. I fell back on my old training from Cleland Primary where we all studied Burns for a local competition, although I never had the nerve to audition anything from the stage for the scrutiny of the school. So “To A Mouse” sprang to mind as my obvious poem choice, as I can still remember great swathes of the verse from school. The McGonagall piece was not an easy read and I spent most of my free day trying to get the feel of the words and find its rhythm. I had never heard of this chap before and a Google search told me he was considered one of the worst poets of the English language. Poor guy, and although I could see where that unfavourable label came from, I love an underdog and someone who keeps trying no matter what. So I persevered and came to an understanding with the verse.  On the night I discovered I was on the top table “mistress of ceremonies” I guess, and had a formidable audience of learned folk with Burns anthologies in hand, only too ready to point out mistakes. No pressure then I thought as I stood to attention, knees quaking, to start the ball rolling so to speak. But as the evening wore on and my poetry section approached, I found myself nervously looking forward to doing my turn. Somewhere deep down that wee Scots school lassie was dying to perform the Burns words that came so easily to her, because many of them I spoke at home growing up anyway, and I had a natural affinity for them. I’m pleased to say I carried off the recitals without much trouble, then sat back to listen to the only other Scot in the room do “Tam o’ Shanter”. I smiled knowingly to myself as I recalled teaching Robert how to read this narrative over twenty years ago, and how I’d shook my head in appalled disbelief when he had admitted to never having “done Burns” at his Paisley schools.

My first ever Burns Supper in 2010 was held on my 40th birthday. It was with great reluctance I was persuaded to attend, and I only agreed on condition I had a strictly vegetarian meal and hired a Highland outfit. Much hilarity ensued when I was measured up for the outfit and had the fitting, but I felt terrific wearing all the regalia as I strutted into Keele Hall that night. It definitely felt like I was wearing an outfit ready for battle, I could have taken on the world. Since then I’ve worn a dress at the event, but last year I was asked about half a dozen times “where’s your kilt?” There was a palpable sigh in the air when I replied with my own question “why do you think I should wear one?” It got me thinking, and I toyed with the idea for the rest of the year. Eventually I came up with my own “alternative Highland outfit” idea which will be unveiled this week. This coincided with the discovery a traditional sweetie shop Mrs Mitchell’s and a kilt section in the TJ Hughes store nearby.

In the spring my thoughts strayed away from Easter eggs to sweets I remembered having as a kid, especially the “non PC ones” like sweetie tobacco and proper pipes with sherbet. I distinctly recall getting both of these in Martin Brennan’s Cleland paper shop when my Mammy got her own cigarette/tobacco supplies. Finding I had a decent enough wifi connection, I thought I’d tap a few choice words into a Google search and see what came up. To my utter surprise and delight I discovered many of the sweets I thought had long ceased production were still being made, many came under the handle of “traditional Scottish sweets” and could be found in select shops in big towns and cities. This is when I discovered Mrs Mitchell’s in Glasgow existed and on entering that wonderful sweetie emporium I was a wee girl again. The sights and smells took me right back to the Martin’s and also Bessie Allen’s corner shop, with the big sweet bottles and waxed boxes filled with delights such as odd fellows, floral gums, Berwick cockles and Chelsea whoppers. Willie Wonka could keep his factory this was my kind of place. After my first visit I came out with a canvas bag that was so heavy it felt like a kettle bell weight.

My appetite for Scottish sweeties satisfied I turned my attention to that burning thought of kilts and Burns suppers. Noticing a TJ Hughes store a few doors down from the sweet shop, I strolled inside for a look around, and happily noticed a nicely sized, not too intimidating, decently priced kilt section near the back of the store. I was travelling light for my Glasgow visit and had my sweeties to haul back home, but I promised myself I’d return for a proper look in November. I always have a pilgrimage that month to Glasgow to see Sydney Devine at the Pavilion Theatre. So back I went and spotted THE MOST GORGEOUS jacket, the only one of its kind in the store and in my size with a matching waistcoat. Trying them on, I again experienced that distinct empowered feeling, and the clothes sold themselves. Talking to Alex the concession manager we agreed a kilt purchase wasn’t really necessary, some black trousers would do just as well. With what is in my wardrobe already I can create about three different variations, and with the odd extra purchase that can stretch to six plus outfits. So I’m well sorted for January 25th now, and I just need to opt for the final permutation each year.

As well as seeing Sydney Devine in November, I went to see an 80th anniversary celebration of The Broons on stage. Despite talking like them growing up, my ears took about five minutes to acclimatise to the distinct burr of Scotland’s famous family. I’m just not used to hearing that style of talk from a stage, and my “Anglicised “ ears had to get back up to speed with the rapid fire delivery, the very specific style of humour, and general Scots patter. It was a terrific show and I felt very much at home. By the end of the evening I had reverted back to the Maw Broon dialogue of my childhood, and I didn’t feel in the slightest awkward or embarrassed about it, quite the opposite really. It was as I gazed at the packed bag containing my Broons program, some sweeties and my Sheriffmuir jacket and waistcoat, I realised that those Scots essentials filled me with an enormous pride. You can take the lassie out of Cleland/Scotland……

25 Years at Keele: Then & Now

A quarter of a century is a long time in the life of a university and although much has changed at Keele, some things have remained reassuringly the same.

The basic infrastructure of the campus has been kept in place with the same ring road linking everywhere. However the entrance has been moved to nearer the brow of the hill rather than the gatehouse at Barnes. Visitors will find all the “old buildings” still on site but with the addition of newer facilities, such as a medical school, several innovation centres (for business) and a research centre located between the library and Geology. Several of the older buildings have undergone some form of interior re-design over the years, with Chemistry having gained new laboratory suites for example, and the Home Farm complex is now a Sustainability Hub, whatever that is! The Union downstairs area is almost unrecognisable from when I first saw it 25 years ago. Of course this “renewal process” has meant that at various times, in multiple locations, the campus has been a building site. At present the Life Sciences building is being extended and new accommodation is being added to the Barnes site. Once the new student residences are available at Barnes, I’m sorry to say that the Hawthorns site will be demolished. After years of protracted arguments the “death knell” was given for Hawthorns to be transformed into a huge housing complex. The golf course has been allowed to go to seed as well, and after messy negotiations falling through between potential buyers and the council , it looks like that area could well be turned into housing too!!! So the campus may find itself in the middle of a “house building” sandwich in the very near future (finances permitting), with none of the surrounding roads having been remotely improved to deal with the extra pressure from building, or the addition of new people to the area. To add insult to injury, many of the proposed house designs are NOT going to be in the price bracket of your average lowly paid local Staffordshire resident.

Keele still remains largely a dual honours university, although more courses are available as single honours from the beginning of a student degree. So in addition to the Biomedical Sciences course of yesteryear, there are now courses in Midwifery, Nursing, Pharmacy and Physiotherapy. Subjects like Chemistry in an attempt to survive developed an additional Forensics course, whilst a few staff members formed the core of an independent Pharmacy department. Other courses have disappeared altogether such a Principal Languages, Electronics and my beloved Classical Studies.

The student population has definitely doubled and quite possibly trebled since my arrival in 1991. With more students to deal with, the university has begun attempts to simplify the timetable by making less option combinations available. So very soon it will only be possible to study Chemistry in combination with another science for example. Both Rob and I can see the beginning of the end of dual honours in this decision making, which is a great shame because that is what has made Keele so distinctive over the years. It certainly means that I may well be the ONLY person to ever graduate from Keele University in Chemistry & Classical Studies. A friend in the Alumni office dug around the records a few years ago and couldn’t find anyone else with that combination degree. Knowing the pressures this almost split-personality degree type puts you under, I’m not surprised. But I’ve always had the mantra “why be a sheep if you can be a shepherd”, and my degree fits this perfectly.

Far more students these days travel into the university on a daily basis than when I was an undergraduate. So the campus can look like an oversized out of town shopping car park, whilst the buses feel more akin to the London Tube during peak time travel. And the Chancellors Building is a bit like Piccadilly Circus with the throng of people leaving/arriving for lectures. Particularly noticeable to me is the obvious recruitment drive that Keele has had in the Far East. From what I hear this has made a rod for the university’s back with the difference in cultures and their interpretation of learning causing problems.

The library is now open 24/7 for students during the semester as well as exam time, when I’m told there is provision of fruit and bottled water at regular points to aid study. In an attempt to alleviate exam stress, I believe this year puppy therapy was offered in the Union as well as free relaxation exercise classes in the Sports Centre. Rather a big difference to my time as a student.

Neil Baldwin (the first person I met at Keele) can still be found loitering in the Students’ Union or the Sports Centre. His extraordinary life story was immortalised in the BBC docu-drama “Marvellous” aired in 2014. As a consequence Neil is in demand for personal appearances elsewhere, but I’m sure he still attends Chapel whenever possible. I was very sorry to recently hear of the demise of the Student Led Services, the first of which was held on February 9th 1992. I was at the forefront of this initiative being the Free Church leader that day alongside my friend Angela Oakey-Jones (now a real life Church of England Reverend).

As for me, the shy girl who could hardly say a word in class or at work, who was literally afraid of her own shadow, is somewhat different today. Through shared experiences with fellow students, I made lifelong friends and grew in confidence as I faced, and overcame difficult situations. The young lady, who was overwhelmed by a professorial personality in her interview, can now speak with ease to anyone of any rank or status. In P1 my fear of the Cambridge/Oxford swagger of two Classics lecturers meant I could barely put a sentence together for their essays. Wise council from the Classics head Richard Wallace sorted me out so much, that in my final year, I gave a seminar with such conviction and depth of research I was told I’d managed to teach the lecturer something new. I literally found my voice at Keele through the Chapel and Classical Studies. Today that voice rings out on Hospital Radio Leighton in Crewe, where I present a music show, a patient request program and play my part in the Crewe Alex football commentary team.

In conclusion, I got the degree I so desperately craved but from a country and university I never originally considered, in subjects I never contemplated studying. And I married the kind of man I always hoped existed but never dreamt I would meet. So when all is said and done I think it’s true to say “I was born in Scotland but I was made in Keele University”.

25 Years at Keele: Decisions

When I initially applied to university in the autumn of 1990 I named only Scottish universities on my UCCA form (St Andrews, Dundee, Aberdeen, Stirling and hesitantly Strathclyde). The most natural place/subject choice for me would have been Topographic Science at Glasgow, combining my love of geography, maths and my passion for maps. But I have always railed against being “pigeon-holed” and believed it better to study a wide range of geography options first, before specialising so much. Hence why I named Strathclyde instead, although I knew I had to move away completely to have any chance of gaining a degree. I’d just about got through school with the corrosive atmosphere at home dominating my life; I couldn’t stand the thought of doing a degree from a Cleland base. So when it became clear that my four years out of school was standing against me, (a Stirling interview suggested I did more Highers at evening class to get up to speed again), I looked for foundation courses. I could see only three places that offered them; Newcastle who I could never get on the phone, Manchester who would put me straight into clearing and Keele who offered an interview.

All I had ever wanted was a degree and the graduation photo with scroll for the mantelpiece. I adored Geography principally the physical aspect of the subject, and had not missed a beat in my interview with the Geography lecturer’s questions. I loved science, but had been terrified by the aura of Prof Morgan from Chemistry and had muttered “dunno” to every question he asked, kicking myself when he confirmed the answers that had been screaming in my head all along. I thought I had blown it, but the Professor liked my “spunk”, and much later I discovered it was on his personal recommendation I had been accepted. Clearly my quip about the Scots superiority over the English education system had NOT gone down badly with the Newfoundland born professor. The Geography lecturer on the other hand loathed my attitude from that moment on, and a silent war (on his part) was declared between us. This eventually resulted in me changing to Classical Studies at the start of my first principal year.

My foundation year was brilliant, as I found myself faced with a plethora of subject matter options ranging from a few weeks to an entire academic year in length. My alarm bells clanged violently when I was timetabled for a year course in “human” Geography, something I had vehemently expressed an intense dislike for in my interview. The option I had chosen was apparently unavailable, but had I realised it was taught by my interviewer, I may have twigged to the problems ahead. Gullibly I thought the Geography department knew best and with reluctance studied the subsidiary course. It caused me nothing but grief and I fought Geography the whole year. Consequently I got to know my general tutor Dr Rob Jackson in Chemistry quite well, as he was never off the phone trying to sort things out for me. Sadly I had to face the fact Keele Geography and me were not going to be a marriage made in heaven, so I kept my love of the subject but studied something else. But that Geography ill wind blew something else in my direction as I ended up marrying Rob Jackson.

I hadn’t managed to study anything in Geology during my foundation year, mainly because of the way my timetable worked out. Therefore I had no knowledge of the department that would have been the natural alternative to Geography, particularly as many of the options sounded similar to the ones I salivated over. But I couldn’t face the possibility of another battle with a department and chose Classics instead. Having studied a term under the Classics head of department Mr Richard Wallace, whom I adored, it was an easy choice to make. I had really quite enjoyed my Chemistry course in foundation year, so kept my science going in this area.

I had no idea at the time of finalising my principal subjects that I would end up marrying a lecturer from one of them. This would later cause such tension in my Chemistry studies, the joy I had for the subject was sucked out of me. I’m afraid Chemistry was so paranoid about covering their backside ensuring it was seen I got no special treatment, that things happened which would be neither tolerated or condoned in today’s politically correct student climate. It was my Classical Studies course which kept me going in the latter part of my degree, and I proudly took my place in the department graduation class photo. I refused to be in the Chemistry photo at all.

Throughout my degree there was always a nagging issue with my health, which began going “funny” in the late summer of 1990. Investigations found nothing, so I was just left to deal with the flare ups that came out of nowhere. With hindsight I now realise that the concerns I had regarding my health, played a part in influencing my decision to study subjects NOT requiring compulsory field trips, and discarding the concurrent Education course too.

I felt great in FY, had niggles in the middle and end of my P1 year which continued to the beginning of my P2 year. It became obvious I needed to take some time off to try and deal with my health and there was the small matter of organising a wedding too. When I resumed my studies I was in a different year group and new options had become available in Classical Studies. From the few weeks in P2 I had experienced the year before, I reluctantly had to concede that keeping my Latin would be very hard, as it really was like having three principal degree subjects. It just about killed me inside giving up the Latin area of my studies, but the new options made the pain easier to bear. The wonders of Latin poetry, Greek drama, Roman & Greek art and architecture, Roman Egypt and New Testament Studies opened up instead. If I’d continued with Latin I’d have experienced only a few of these delights, as the language aspect of the course would have been 50% of my timetable. In my new P2 year I thrived in Classical Studies but began to realise that Chemistry wasn’t going to be so easy to deal with. The department attitude toward me had changed dramatically, and educationally I’d hit a brick wall in the organic area of Chemistry. With horror it dawned on me just how heavily orientated many of the options were toward this field. Although the physical, theoretical and mathematical side of Chemistry held no terror for me, I really began to struggle. Every week I had a major lab report and problem sheet to do and the effort of producing the goods wore me down. I felt I was on a conveyor belt with just no time to really think, “smell the roses” and enjoy the science. Always feeling I had to watch my back and be on guard didn’t help matters either.

In the final year my undiagnosed health issues spectacularly hit new heights, I was never out of the doctor’s surgery. Looking back, for that entire year I was probably either under a perpetual mental fog, or legally as high as a kite through multiple prescription drug use. Despite being in poor physical shape I managed to finish my studies to graduate with a 2:2 Honours in Chemistry and Classical Studies with Subsidiary Mathematics and Geography.

Six months after graduating I had lost 4.5 stones in weight, flat-lined and underwent emergency surgery for Crohn’s Disease. My surgeon said the only thing that had kept me alive was my “obvious bloody-minded pig stubborn attitude”. I agreed because that frame of mind got me my degree as well.

25 Years at Keele: University Arrival

Twenty-five years ago this week (5th October) I arrived at Keele University as a 21 year-old fresher registered for a four year foundation course. I knew nothing about my new home having never experienced an open or visits day, in fact I’d spent about an hour in the area before I arrived. As a mature student I had won my place through an interview in May of 91, which turned out well with having to work three months notice from my job in the Clydesdale Bank.

My 5ft 2 inch eight stone frame hauled a thirty inch wheeled collapsible suitcase and a twenty inch rigid case, with duvet strapped to the side, off the 85 bus from Crewe. As I staggered into the students’ union building I heard a deep monotone voice boom out “boys”, and immediately I had assistance with my bags. I had come upon a Keele institution in the form of Neil Baldwin, the first person I met on my first day. His “boys” were his football team members, who he had marshalled to help ease the arrival of new students. Neil helpfully pointed me in the direction of where I collected my keys, assured me my bags would be safe, and that he would be waiting for my return. Discovering I was to be housed in the Hawthorns residence in the village, Neil said I’d just missed the mini bus and had half an hour wait for its return. I’d noticed Neil wearing around his neck a wooden cross pendant on a leather braid. As my eyes glanced at that simple but distinct sign of faith Neil asked “so are you a Christian then?” I replied “I’d like to think so” and mentioned I hoped to join the Chapel Choir. At that Neil promptly whisked me toward the Chapel, introduced me to the chaplains, gave me a quick tour of the building and made sure I knew where and when to go for the first choir practice. This was all before the mini bus arrived and I departed for the Hawthorns to see my room!!!

After I had unpacked, I remember sitting on my bed and giving myself a good talking too. I knew I carried two massive Grand Canyon chips on my shoulders called “Mam and Dad hang-ups”. I asked myself if I was going to be the person that had left Cleland OR the person I thought I could be, given a chance. I decided on the latter choice, realising no one knew me here, it was a clean slate. So psychologically I began filling in those shoulder chips as I strode out into my new surroundings. Oddly for two days I never saw another woman, only guys wandering the beautiful vast campus area. It wasn’t until the Friday night as I left my room to attend a residence reception party; I came upon a gang of women gathering in the hallway of Hawthorns H block, with the same party in mind. It transpired that in the all female blocks everyone congregated in the kitchen to get to know each other, whilst the all male blocks did not have such a ritual, hence why they tramped around campus instead like me. My wanderings did give me a head start when it came to registration and finding buildings when term officially began, but I also heard the odd misguided mutter about “starting early with the fellas” as I waved/said hello to various chaps heading to class.

My lifetime ambition was to attend university, but I had no chance of applying directly from school with the spectre of “parental contributions” being a factor in the financial process. So I discovered if I could prove my independence from my parents for a minimum of four years, then I could apply without fear of them being a consideration. My Dad had never let my Mum know how much he earned, so there wasn’t the remotest chance he would tell me anything. Both parents were dead set against me leaving a pensionable job on a “bloody whim”, and the fact that over 800 people were made redundant from the bank within a month of my departure, made little difference to their disdain. Without a doubt I would have been one of the redundant, but my defence for my actions fell on deaf ears and my Mammy barely spoke a word to me for a whole year, she just cut me dead most of the time when I attempted a conversation. Later “small talk” was restored, but anything to do with Keele was NEVER mentioned by her at all.

Throughout my school years where I had shown reasonable ability, neither parent had shown much of an interest. So all the decision making on subjects, worry of making the grade, terror of exams, dealing with the onslaught of bullying, as well as the growing pains of trying to fit into a confusing world, fell onto my solitary shoulders. I had absolutely no emotional support whatsoever from “family” in school, and it was abundantly clear that this state of affairs would continue at university. My sole support team consisted of three old school teachers I had stayed in touch with, and my Cleland Baptist pastor Archie Ferguson and his wife Agnes. In fact it was Archie and Agnes who gave me the confidence to get the ball rolling, by encouraging me to fill in the UCCA form. But my relationship with the support team was from a distance, not the sort where I could “chew the fat” over numerous cups of tea and late night pizza, with a reassuring hug at the end.

Being used to dealing with most things on my own meant I was a solitary kind of person with few friends at school or work. When I left the only home I’d known in Parkside Cleland, no one considered waving me off at the local railway station. As I went by train to Glasgow and onto Crewe before catching the bus to Keele, I was literally in every sense completely alone as I made my leap of faith into tertiary education. Arriving at the university I met Neil Baldwin, who in his amiable way put a proverbial arm around me and welcomed me to my new home. His simple helpful gestures paved the way for me to start my new life in Keele, as the university student I had always wanted to be.

Seven Books From Childhood That Have Stayed With Me

World Book Day in the UK is an event that tries to encourage schoolchildren to read, and it got me thinking about the books that have stayed with me since I was a child.

Two stories from my pre-school years that have remained etched into my memory.

THE SNOW QUEEN by HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN-I had a large format picture book given to me as a Christmas gift by an aunt. The illustrations were beautiful and the tale rather enchanting and it is one of my three favoured festive stories, the others being Hansel & Gretel and A Christmas Carol. But it was a pantomime that switched me onto Hansel & Gretel and I never read the Dickens classic until the winter of 2014. As an adult I got a replacement large format copy of The Snow Queen from my husband who realised how much this story meant to me.

SO NOW TO SLEEP: author unknown-This was a small pink covered book with delightful pictures, given to me by my Uncle Harry visiting from Australia around 1973. The prose was actually a long poem which I found an absolute joy and committed to memory thankfully, as the physical book (and The Snow Queen original copy) is long gone. Despite several Google searches I’ve been unable to discover the author of So Now To Sleep (I’m reasonably sure that was the title), but presume it could be an Australian children’s’ writer. Here are the words:

So Now To Sleep
The sun has set and day is done,
It’s time for sleep my little one,
The animals have said goodnight,
And Mr Moon is shining bright,
Your little friends are all tucked in,
Their sweetest dreams will soon begin,
But wait before you jump in bed,
Your goodnight prayers must first be said,
Talk to Jesus he’s your friend,
And say goodnight at each day’s end,
Ask him to bless the people who,
Live in this lovely world with you,
God bless Father God bless Mother,
And don’t forget your baby Brother,
God bless Granny, Grandpa and,
Boys and Girls from every land,
God bless your Aunts and Uncles too,
And don’t forget God bless you,
So now to sleep drift away,
Tomorrow dawns another day.

I devoured Enid Blyton books and for that very reason I am NOT including her in my list. In Primary Four my class were encouraged to find, read and review books from the small school library stock. Teachers knew I was a Blyton buff so banned me from choosing her so I had to find something else, and I discovered the delights of:

BOBBY BREWSTER by H.E. TODD-Bobby was a young boy who had extraordinary experiences with everyday items. Inanimate objects would come to life, speak to him and dish out a gentle moral code of good behaviour and high standards. Every short story was just a joy to read, so innocent and well meaning in their context. I think these books are out of print now but thanks to the internet I’ve recently purchased a few, and enjoyed a nostalgic trip down my reading memory lane.

In my first year of high school the novel I studied was simply unforgettable and made a huge impression on me.

I AM DAVID by ANN HOLM-David a boy who has only known the harshness of an Eastern Block concentration camp (possibly Bulgaria) is given a brief chance to escape. With few possessions he makes an epic journey on foot across Europe to Denmark, where unbelievably he seems to find his mother. The loneliness, determination, humbleness, innocence of the real world and sense of mission are extraordinary.

For English interpretation exercises we read excerpts from books and I was so enamoured by two pieces that I found them in the local library and read the whole book.

TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN by PHILIPPA PEARCE-Tom stays with a relative and hears a clock chime 13. On investigation he is transported back in time where he meets a lonely girl called Hatty. He befriends her and enjoys many fun times, but each time he meets Hatty she has got a little older. Just before the end of his visit he goes sleep walking and calls out for his friend. Tom is summoned by the elderly woman resident in the building Mrs Bartholomew who was disturbed by his tormented sleep, and he discovers it is his friend from the past. I found it an absolutely enthralling and magical tale.

THE SWISH OF THE CURTAIN by PAMELA BROWN– I read this over the May Bank holiday weekend of 1983. It was about a group of kids (around the same age I think) who put together a play by themselves, doing staging, lighting, advertising etc. How they learned the plot and acted it out, and the strains of ego and terror affecting their friendships. I was so absorbed by the book the TV went largely unnoticed, as did the weather outside (probably wet anyway). I still distinctly remember the feelings I had reading this book, BUT as an adult I couldn’t recall the book title or the author or any central characters name. Internet searches proved fruitless until I came across a Guardian article from February 2014, which listed books that could introduce cultural pursuits such as ballet and theatre to kids. The Swish of the Curtain was about the first one mentioned and I swiftly found a copy to buy online. Within a few pages I’d found my elusive book and felt the same pangs of emotion as a forty-something I’d had as a teenager. There are four other books in the series and I’ve bought these as well because I always wondered what became of the characters as they reached adulthood.

EXPLORING THE MIDNIGHT WORLD (Piccolo Explorer Books)-an early purchase from The Chip Club magazine bought from saved tuck shop money. The pictures look like hand painted masterpieces and unveiled the world of animal life active during my bedtime sleep in the countryside and garden. But wildlife from around the world was discussed through desert, jungle and cave environments, and topics such as night sight, a sixth sense and living light were reviewed. It tapped into my sense of wonder about the natural world, and I still remember my utter delight when David Attenborough discussed tarsiers from SE Asia a few years ago. They were depicted in this book and it was love at first sight. To this day I need to be able to locate this little treasure on our book shelves. If my childhood books were threatened by fire this is the title I would save from the flames.

In closing a special mention must go to Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang the first books to ever make me cry.

Childhood Special Books. Image credit abmj70
              Childhood Special Books. Image credit abmj70

My First “Big Screen” Idol

American actor Robert Wagner turned 86 on February 10th 2016 and he played a minor role in the 1974 film The Towering Inferno, my first ever experience of a cinema movie. Despite a plethora of big names on the cast Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Robert Vaughn, Fred Astaire and Richard Chamberlain to name a few, it was Robert Wagner who captivated my heart. A Google search suggests the film was released in the UK on January 30th 1975, so I would have just turned five when I set my adoring eyes on Wagner for the first time.

I barely visited the cinema as a child notching up five maybe six films until the age of about twenty. This particular memory is especially vivid because my Dad took me to see The Towering Inferno. Being a merchant seaman this was highly unusual, because he was frequently away for months at a time, home a matter of weeks then gone again. And I would NEVER have been minded by him, that duty normally falling to my beloved Granny. So I can only assume she had taken ill (her heath was quite poor) and my Dad had been told, “Do something with Angela to take her mind off things”. So he took me to the movies, and seeing how that all-action disaster unfolded is imprinted onto my mind to this day. Although I did fall asleep about half way through; (it is long); much to my Dad’s annoyance. But I was comfortable and fed, having enjoyed a plate of chips at the Italian run chip shop opposite the cinema, and it was dark. A guaranteed recipe for me to snuggle down to snooze but I’d spotted my man Robert Wagner long before that.

Wagner’s character was Dan Bigelow in the film and he appears in a very early scene, only to succumb to the flames later. I remember thinking how brave Dan Bigelow was at the time, but with maturity and hind-sight he behaved very irresponsibly. I’d woken before the end of the film to find Bigelow had died and I was distraught. My Mammy had to explain later that it was all make believe and that the actor would be on the TV again very soon hale and hearty, so I had nothing to worry about. But although I did see Robert Wagner on TV quite a lot after my first encounter with him, I was acutely aware he was a younger version in all of them. So my young mind remained unsure of my screen idol’s survival from The Towering Inferno, until Hart to Hart came to British TV screens at the end of the 70s. Then I was reassured beyond doubt, and happily enjoyed the unmistakeable on-screen chemistry between Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers. I could easily envisage these two actors portraying Jonathan & Jennifer Hart, a couple deeply in love. My Mammy cynically commented “no married couple is ever as happy as that, and as I’ve always said TV and film is mainly make believe”. But Hart to Hart gave me a hope that maybe people could be happily married and content together, and I hung onto that notion for dear life. Because looking around me at the relatives I knew about, not one of them was a shining example for anything much, let alone a paragon of marital bliss.

During the filming of Hart to Hart, the real wife of Robert Wagner tragically died at a very young age. As I viewed pictures of the Natalie Wood funeral in the papers, my heart went out to Wagner and his daughters, particularly Courtney who wasn’t much younger than me. The look of utter desolation on her face reminded me of how I felt at losing my Granny. I wanted to write to her and say how sorry I was but where do you send such a thing?

I was a devoted reader of the “Showbiz Sam” section of the Saturday Daily Record, reading the answers to queries made about TV and film. Included each week was a write to the stars sub-section that had about five addresses for celebrities. I used these with great success to accumulate a few treasured photos of TV personalities. About three years ago I unearthed a very old address book and to my surprise found a contact for Robert Wagner. Regretfully I had never used it, words strangely failing me when contemplating writing to my screen idol. My only excuse for this over sight is that I must have acquired the information as a teenager, a period where I became so unsure of myself I retreated into my shell for several years.

When I bought Wagner’s autobiography “Pieces of my Heart” the book shop assistant positively swooned over his picture on the front cover, which made me chuckle as it wasn’t just me who found him adorable. On reading it I discovered that in 1990 Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers had appeared on the London stage in “Love Letters”. Had I known, I’d have been first in the queue for a ticket. But I had no idea the production was happening at all, so my one chance to see Robert Wagner perform live eluded me. The closest I came to my two Hart’s was in Washington DC in April 2003 when I spotted their stars and signatures outside a theatre.

Starstruck in Washington DC. Image credit abmj70
              Starstruck in Washington DC. Image credit abmj70

Over the years I’ve reduced the amount of TV I watch, but I was delighted to see Wagner portray the father of DiNozzo in NCIS. With a shock of white hair he was undoubtedly older (as I was) but none the less the same guy I had adored from such a young age. All those years ago I had described the man on screen that had captivated my heart as “having a twinkle in his eyes, a great smile and a lovely voice (sigh) that just washed over you”. None of that has changed, and funnily enough one of those aspects was picked up on when Robert Wagner won his first studio contract. In his biography, drama coach Helena Sorrell viewed a screen test and said “Look at his smile. I think I can do something with that smile”.

The actor Robert Wagner has held a piece of my heart for most of my life and I’ve no regrets in adopting him as my first big screen idol. Thanks for the memories RJ.

Treasured Library Book. Image credit abmj70
Treasured Library Book. Image    credit abmj70

Remembering TAYLOR v DAVIS the Black Ball Final

Thirty years ago at The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, Dennis Taylor faced Steve Davis in the World Snooker Championship Final. My custom at the time was to enjoy dipping into the action occasionally during the tournament, whilst eagerly awaiting the final which I would watch and savour. The 1985 finale proved to be an amazing spectacle and provided one of THE sporting moments of the century. But there were two other reasons why this final was so special to me.

I remember the weekend so vividly because the snooker final straddled the start of my O’levels at high school. My first ever national exam had been on the Friday, when I sat Arithmetic and my next one was English, which was scheduled for all day Monday. So although the weekend TV family viewing was sorted (and the telly took precedence in our house) I tried to keep an eye on the sport AND review my study notes and literature texts to be examined. I recall Steve Davis taking an 8-0 lead before Dennis Taylor clawed his way back to 7-9 going into the next day. On the Sunday, Taylor repeatedly came from behind to level the scores at 11-11, 15-15 and then 17-17. This was the backdrop as I made my final study preparations surrounded by tomes of good English literature. I recall that the style of the exam paper meant that you couldn’t discard any of the literature genres studied. My novel was Animal Farm by George Orwell, the play was Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the two poems I had decided to analyse were Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen and Robert Burn’s To A Mouse. There were short stories in the mix as well, but I don’t recall which ones they were. Added to that was ensuring my grasp of the grammatical rules and regulations of English was in order, and wondering what essay topics might turn up on the paper. Obviously in my own little world, the sporting greatness that unfolded that weekend was shrouded in the realms of great literature quotes. Certainly Dennis Taylor on potting the final black at his third attempt to become world champion was no “cow’rin tim’rous beastie”!

The game went into the small hours of the Monday morning and lasted 14 hours 50 minutes, the longest ever recorded for a 35 frame match. An estimated 18.5 million TV audience (including me bleary eyed but enthralled) watched the incredible final frame go down to the wire. Steve Davis had an 18 point advantage with 22 points still remaining on the table and Dennis Taylor then potted the brown, blue and pink balls. That final black became the decider and each man missed the pot twice before Dennis Taylor sealed victory to win his first World Championship. Who can forget the wee stocky Northern Irishman with the upside-down looking specs holding aloft his cue, dancing a wee jig and wagging his finger?

Taylor won against the odds in the most extraordinary fashion and yet I was the only one who wasn’t surprised. You see once in a while I get a gut-feeling about something and it won’t go away. In the February I had spotted a list of snooker players and the name Dennis Taylor leapt out at me. I said to my Dad he would win the World Championship and he laughed at me on seeing the odds of 150-1. By March my feeling had not diminished, in fact it had crystallised into something more and I predicted the “last ball in the last frame” scenario. My Dad laughed even more at this and said “that just proves that YOU (a mere lassie) know nothing about betting, sport or snooker”. When Taylor won I punched the air in delight and squealed “I TOLD YOU THAT WOULD HAPPEN”. I looked over at my Mammy who sat open mouthed in shock and my Dad had gone a funny puce colour and looked absolutely sickened. As I scooped my books up and said I was off to bed, my Dad put his head in his hands and mumbled something as he shook in disbelief. I think he might have been crying!