Dad and Skip

“How are you, Dad?”

“Not well, Skip.”

Spending most of the winter in hospital, Dad wishes to be nowhere other than his own armchair. Conversations with the ward staff only bring a re-emphasis of the need for him to remain a patient. “He has not been sufficiently stabilised,” comments one nurse.

It is years since he last called me “Skip,” perhaps forty-five or fifty years. It was his nickname for me when I was a child. Dad served in the Fleet Air Arm.  “Skipper” was a term of affection: shortened to “Skip,” it became my name, perhaps used more often than “Ian.”

Skip was the name that went with Saturday mornings in the days when he worked five and a half days a week. In times before terrorist threats existed, I was allowed to accompany him onto the naval air station and to move freely in the hangar among the jet aircraft that stood with folded wings and open cockpits. The half-days left me with a profound sense of caution, an awareness that there were places where children did not run around and where they should take careful note of hazards. In memory, there was a tangible sense of fear at catching sight of striped the yellow and black handles above each cockpit seat, to pull one would fire the ejector seat. Of course, the seats would have been disarmed during maintenance periods in the hangar, but no-one would have persuaded a small schoolboy that there was no danger.

Skip was the name that went with the hours we spent fishing. Fishing might be on the banks of the River Yeo, a few minutes from home; it might be on the harbour wall at Lyme Regis; or it might be from the beach st West Bay. My Dad would explain that a different rod was to be used in each location. There was a light split cane rod with a cork float that was used on the river bank. A short, boat rod was used to fish from the harbour wall. At West Bay, a long, beach caster rod with a multiplier reel ensured the heavily weighted trace travelled many yards out into the sea. Skip always delighted in such moments.

Skip was the name during the many, many journeys sat beside Dad in his car. It was a time before seat belts, a time when there was no prohibition on small boys sitting in the front seat. Dad always had tales to tell, stories that lingered long in the memory of the boy.

Perhaps, deep inside, Skip lives on.

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Money in my pocket

Younger people seem to use contactless cards or smartphone apps for even the smallest of purchases, so perhaps having a handful of change in my pocket is a sign of age.

There seemed something reassuring in the coins. Once £9 would have seemed a fortune, as it was the two £2 coins and five £1 coins were quickly spent, yet for a moment there was a childhood sense of being momentarily affluent.

Feeling well off did not require having many coins; a few would have been sufficient to fill the pocket of a boy who was small for his age. Each coin was easily identifiable by touch.

The farthings had disappeared by the time I might have had coins of my own to spend, but the ha’pennies were still in circulation. A ha’penny might buy a couple of black jacks, or four fruit salad chews in the village shop. I remember buying fruit chews at eight for a penny in the post office.

Thruppenny bits were coins of character. Eight-sided and heavy, it was not hard to know when there was thruppence in your hand. Thruppence did not buy what it once bought, but when Macey’s Mobile Shop came down our road at teatime on a Monday, it would buy a sherbet fountain. David Macey would joke with the cluster of children, holding up a sherbet fountains and declaring, “two for seven pence, thruppence for one.” We would laugh and say that we would queue up twice if we wanted two.

Sixpences, which adults called tanners for some reason no-one could ever explain (will children now ever comprehend a world before Google?), were less plentiful. A sixpence was seen as a sufficient treat to be baked in a Christmas pudding, the reason for doing so was as much a mystery as the nickname for the coin. At our primary school Christmas dinner, everyone would find a sixpence in their Christmas pudding, almost certainly provided by our headmistress.

Shillings were unassuming coins. There would be advertisements in newspapers for pre-1947 shillings, the coins before 1947 were made of silver and the value of the silver must have exceeded the face value of the shilling coins. A shilling opened up all sorts of possibilities in a sweet shop, big bars of chocolate invited a shilling being spent in one go

The smaller values were always welcome, but the coins that really weighed heavily in a pocket were the two shilling pieces and the half-crowns. The old two shilling coins carried the word “florin,” though none of us knew why. The half-crowns were a source of real joy, “half a dollar,” my Dad would call one, in those times when there were four American dollars to £1 Sterling. In memory, a half-crown offered far more options than the £9 in my pocket did.

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A bad way to spend £16

In the 1970s, in the days before the three top divisions of the Southern, Northern nad Isthmian Leagues, the top divisions outside of the Football League, combined to form a single conference, Yeovil Town played their matches in the Southern League Premier Division.

The 1970s were a time when there  was no automatic relegation from and promotion to the Football League and although Yeovil were Southern League Champions on a number of occasions, their applications to be elected to the Football League were unsuccessful. The advent of the single top division saw Yeovil’s fortunes decline. While clubs like Wimbledon and Wigan Athletic gained promotion to the Football League, Yeovil slipped, twice being relegated from the fifth tier of English football, to play their games at grounds where crowds might number no more than a couple of hundred.

Going to watch Yeovil Town in the 1970s was always a special moment, Yeovil was a small club with a large and noisy following, home crowds averaged over 2,000, a number that often dwarfed the attendances enjoyed by some of their rivals.

Opportunities to watch Yeovil in the years that followed were limited, if there was a match being played when I was visiting Somerset, it was a delight to go along. The new ground, in an industrial estate on the edge of the town, represented huge progress from the old ground with its pitch that sloped from one side to the other.

There was a huge sense of pleasure in seeing Yeovil win a place in the Football League in 2003, and to watch them to rise two further divisions to reach the Championship, albeit for only one season.

After sixteen seasons in the Football League, Yeovil were relegated, to play their football in what is now called the National League (but what the BBC Sports app still calls the “conference”).

Yesterday was the first time this season that I managed to attend a match. As might be expected, the quality of football is not as good, but on a reduced budget, the supply of good players is less plentiful. Yeovil have done well to retain their level of attendance, there were 2,700 at the match.

The disappointment came not in the high balls to nowhere, or in their only being able to manage to draw against a team at the bottom of the table, but in the foul and abusive language coming from the supporters on the Yeovil terraces. Notices at the ground asking supporters not to use bad language are of no avail.

After seventy minutes of the match, I left the ground. Paying £16 to hear young men standing and shouting obscenities had represented poor value.

“Are you leaving?” asked a steward.

“Yes,” I said, “going home to watch rugby.”

Odd as it may seem, despite the 1970s being days of football hooliganism and violence, I remember Yeovil as a civil place. It’s a pity that some fans have lost their manners.



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Past rhyming

Perhaps oral traditions were already dying during my childhood years. My mother, who was born in 1937, has a wealth of stories about people, places and traditions, no-one from my own generation can recall a fraction of what she still remembers.

Perhaps television was the problem. We did not spend evenings in conversation. We spent evenings watching whatever was shown on the two, and then three, channels we could receive on the wooden-cased black and white television set which commanded our living room. Television was too serious a thing to be interrupted by chatter. There being only one television in the house, and one living room in which to sit, there would always be someone who would say, “hush!” if someone talked over the programme.

A lack of conversation has meant there are often stories of which I can only remember fragments. There are tales of people doing certain things where I have no recall of the cause or the consequence of the events. There are memories of being in certain places without any recall if why I was there. And there are lots of rhymes, sometimes whole ones, sometimes just odd lines.

Bedtime ones seem to remain in the memory, perhaps because they were often repeated.

“To bed, to bed,” said Sleepy Head
“Tarry a while,” said Slow.
“Put on the pan,” said greedy Nan,
“We’ll sup before we go.”

I was never sure whose argument prevailed. Did Sleepy Head have to sit in the kitchen while supper was prepared? Did Nan have to go to bed hungry? Was the rhyme about going to bed or staying up?

Another rhyme about going upstairs seemed altogether more threatening to a child.

“I met a man upon the stair
And when I looked, he wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today.
I wish that man would go away.”

Growing up in a community which seemed to take ghost stories at face value, the idea of a figure that appeared and disappeared was quite credible. The idea of there being a haunting presence on the stairs was quite worrying.

In retrospect, it is odd how many of the playground rhymes were morbid in their content. “Oranges and lemons” would be sung while two children faced each other with their hands joined. They would raise their hands to make a bridge under which the other children would pass, until the hands would be raised and lowered, “Chip, chop. Chip, chop. The last man’s head.” The wallflower song included, “we’re all children, and we shall surely die.” Even the sailing of the big ship through the “Alley, alley, O” ended with its passengers at the bottom of the sea.

Perhaps the advent of television was not such a bad thing.


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Quiet business

Somerton is among many places in England in having streets too narrow to cope with Twenty-First Century traffic. The ancient royal capital of Wessex has picture postcard qualities, but poses challenges to drivers. Perhaps it would be simpler if we were all to return to vehicles of the size we drove in the 1970s, failing that it seems that the ever growing size of vehicles  is likely to mean that the town will sooner or later be obliged to adopt a one-way system, with all the problems that will bring for the people who live and work in the town.

One of the effects of the congestion is that traffic moves very slowly. A twenty miles per hour speed limit is unnecessary when parked and oncoming vehicles mean that progress faster than walking pace can sometimes be difficult.

The pedestrian speed of the traffic does mean that there is time to take note of things that could easily be missed if you were racing along at, say, eighteen miles per hour. The van ahead had one of those slogans, or mission statements, or whatever it is they call the fatuous words that appear on letterheads, websites and backs of vans: “working together, delivering quietly” declared the words in big letters.

“I like that,” I thought, “delivering quietly: that is what people want. Do the job quickly and efficiently and don’t make a fuss about what fulfilling what would have been an automatic expectation in times past.”

Impressed by the counter-cultural declaration on the van, I then realised that I had misread the words, it was not “delivering quietly,” it was “delivering quality.”

“Delivering quality” was a nonsensical term worthy of someone from the school of management-speak. Vans can deliver goods, parcels, supplies, equipment, objects of every sort: quality is not something carried around in a van. Do companies actually pay for the sort of vacuous phrases that appear on their vehicles? Or do people sit around in a room and come up with ideas before they vote on which one they think is best?

It was disappointing, the idea of a quiet business seemed attractive in times that are filled with empty noise and dishonest boasts. Old fashioned ways of honesty and integrity would be in complete contrast with the sort of customer service offered by most companies.

Even better than “working together, delivering quietly” would be “working quietly, delivering quietly.”

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