The dangerous lives of thirteen year olds

The first year students are no longer new, but nor are they worldly-wise. They are reckless about their own safety and I have realised that my warnings fall on deaf ears. They give me a fist pump and a smile and go on their way. Death for them does not exist.

Of course, we knew about death.

It was the 1960s, the Second World War was only a generation previously. In our own small community, there were people whose sons and husbands and brothers had not come home. War deaths were not just among those who had died in the forces, the bombing of the milk factory in Somerton had added a list of civilians to the war memorial in the town square.

Within my family, Uncle Bill, a great uncle, was the first death I remember.

Uncle Bill drove a big black Humber car and brought Aunt Ella from their home at Hedge End in Southampton. Hedge End seemed a magical name for a place, it seemed like something from a story book. When Uncle Bill and Aunt Ella came to visit the farm, they always brought comics with them. The death of Uncle Bill seemed, to a small child, to threaten the supply of Jack and Jill and The Beano. What the death of Uncle Bill did not do was to suggest that death had anything to do with us.

Death was to do with wars or to do with older people who had lived a very long time.

The only exception to the rule, the only young person I knew who died, was Trudi, who lived next door to my grandmother. Trudi went on a school trip to France and fell from a bicycle suffering a head injury that was to prove fatal.

Yet there was a feeling that this was something that happened in another country, it wasn’t something that affected us.

There was a policeman who went around the schools telling stories of the danger of riding bicycles without lights, not having brakes that worked, and not observing the Highway Code, but he did not live in our village where cars were few and far between.

In plain terms, death was not part of our life. It existed, but it did not exist in a way that threatened us. We could ride our bicycles as recklessly as we chose, we could climb trees, we could go where we wanted, we could do as we liked. One day we would get old, but that day was so remote we didn’t need to think about it.

Watch a group of teenagers and you realize that there are ages in life when you are going to live forever.

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Clocks work

Last week, I found a photograph of an old friend in his room in the student hall of residence in which he lived forty years ago.

On the shelf above his head was his alarm clock. It had an alarm bell so loud that it must have exceeded noise pollution guidelines and a tick that would keep awake all but the heaviest sleepers.

A ticking clock was a feature of my childhood.

When the house was quiet, the ticking of the clock was clearly audible. There would have been many quiet moments.

Television broadcasting hours were limited and there were only three channels to watch during those hours.

The idea of a television being a constant background noise would have seemed odd. Why would anyone switch on a television if they were not going to sit down to watch a specific programme?

The television page of the newspaper would have been scrutinised to decide if the set should be switched on, electricity was not for wasting.

There was a radiogram in the living room, with four wavebands. On the Long Wave, there was BBC Radio 2 at 1500 metres and on Medium Wave there was Radio 1 at 247 metres. Radio 3 and Radio 4 were somewhere on the Medium Wave, if anyone had chosen to listen to them, not something that happened frequently.

In teenage years, Radio Luxembourg would be found at 208 metres; its programmes rising and fading according to the climatic conditions. Pressing the Short Wave button allowed you to find strange stations, some were foreign language and meant nothing; others, like Radio Moscow, had programmes in English that were full of strange names and ideas.

There was an FM frequency, it was interesting sometimes because you could eavesdrop the conversations of the local police force: it was a lesson in how boring was the life of a country policeman.

In the majority of hours, when neither television nor radiogram were turned on, the house would be silent and there would just be the ticking of the clock.

There were three clocks in the house; one was part of the electric cooker in the kitchen; one was a metal alarm clock that rang very loudly if not switched off before the time for which it was set; one was the clock that did the ticking.

The ticking clock had brass numerals and brass hands mounted on a round wooden face. The clock was mounted on a wooden base and sat in the middle of the mantlepiece above the fireplace in the living room. It was the authoritative clock, the clock that provided the right time for leaving  the house, the clock that declared whether or not you were late home from wherever you had been and whatever you had been doing.

At a time when there are constant reminders of the time on every electronic device and when noise accompanies every moment, the gentle ticking represents a world of tranquility.

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Footballers are dishonest

Not all of them, not most of them, but certainly some of those who play football are dishonest and cannot but be aware that their intention is to deceive. They will endeavour to ensure a game goes their way, whatever the form of cheating that may be required.

In the rarefied atmosphere of the English Premier League, the opportunities for deception are limited, although even there players seem to fall over at a passing breath of air.

Outside of the world of live television cameras and video assistant referees, the chances of misleading the match officials are more abundant.

At matches at grounds where spectators can stand within touching distance of the players, the attempts at deception are much more noticeable.

Players will know that a ball has hit them, or may actually have kicked it themselves, but will insist that the ball has gone into touch off of an opponent. They will knowingly bring down an opposition player and insist they were not responsible. They will handle the ball and claim they did not do so. And time and again they will fall to the ground feigning serious injury, when all that has happened is that they have lost the ball.

Perhaps the problem lies with following two codes,  having a season ticket for a soccer team that plays at a level comparable with the National League in England and for a rugby team that includes thirteen of the Ireland team that overwhelmed England at Twickenham in March.

Anyone who has been at a match at a rugby match will know the relationships are different. At the conclusion there is an expectation that each of the players will shake hands with each of the others and that each team will applaud the other from the pitch.

Of course, there has always been a class difference between the participants in each of the sports, but the dishonesty seems more recent.

Maybe for some footballers it is a case of feeling a need to succeed at any cost, to prove they are dominant. Few of the lower league footballers will have the opportunities enjoyed by many of those who play on a rugby pitch.

However, there seems also a willingness to accept a post-truth culture, to think there is nothing wrong in knowingly telling lies. Political leaders who believe it acceptable to repeat assertions they know to be untrue seem to have had an influence that has permeated working class culture.


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Discussing Franz Ferdinand on the top deck of the bus

The man and his wife and three children came up to the top deck of the bus. Bound for the beach, they carried bags with beachwear, towels and a picnic.

Emaciated, and shaky, the man had taken a day off from the fish and chip shop in which he worked. This was to be a day of which he would make the most.

He sat behind me, noticed a blue scarf and asked where I was bound. I told him and we chatted about sport. Then he asked me what I did, I told him and we began a discussion.

He said he loved history and had been watching a documentary on Franz Ferdinand. It prompted me to refresh my own recollections.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, an empire that included much of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. On 28th June 1914, his visit to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, one of the countries in the empire, aroused hostility among those in Bosnia who sought independence.

Nedeljko Čabrinović, one of the Bosnian nationalists, threw a grenade at the archduke’s car. Čabrinović’s act of terrorism failed; the grenade exploded behind the car carrying Franz Ferdinand and injured the occupants of the vehicle following them.

Franz Ferdinand was enraged. Going to the residence of the imperial governer, the archduke protested, “So this is how you welcome your guests – with bombs!”

It was not as though political assassinations had not happened before and not as though the imperial administrators were not aware of tensions in the city. As the man on the bus pointed out to me, an elementary understanding of security would have told them that Franz Ferdinad should not travel further that day, and, when he did move, should only do so under strict security. Instead, astonishingly, he and his wife were allowed to leave the residence in an open car, to visit the hospital to which those wounded by the grenade attack had been taken.

Even the foolish decision to travel the streets need not have been fatal, had the drivers taken the correct route, there would not have been a problem.

No-one had thought to tell the driver of a car, that had been subject to a bomb attack that same morning, that  the route had changed. The drivers of the vehicles had to turn around, which need not have given an opportunity for further attack, were it not for the fact that one of the cars stalled, bringing the whole line to a halt.

A competent administration would have ensured the archduke’s car was immediately surrounded by policemen or soldiers, but Franz Ferdinand was left unprotected.

Gavrilo Princip, another Bosnian nationalist was sat at a cafe and saw what had happened. He walked across the street and took out a low-powered pistol, at which point one might have expected him to have been brought down by gunfire from those charged with the archduke’s protection.

Princip did not even shoot Franz Ferdinand first; he shot the duchess Sophie in the abdomen before shooting the imperial heir in the neck. The archduke died at the scene, the duchess on the way to the hospital.

The incompetence of the imperial authorities contributed much to the conversation on the bus.

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Attics and Christian Science

I was thinking about my grand aunt.

We called her ‘Nell’, my grand uncle called her ‘Helen’. Only by doing research for the family tree did I discover her official name was ‘Nellie’. It was not a name that had the lofty tone of gravitas she assumed in her conversations with people the status of a lowly nephew.

Anyway, Aunt Nell would have had something to say on the matter.

Having a third floor apartment in a three floor block brings the benefit of having an attic, somewhere to put all the stuff luckier people put in their garage or garden shed. It means that there is a slight semblance of order in the living space, although I cannot imagine what it would be like if someone else were living with me.

Of course, having an attic is only useful if there is a regular gathering of the detritus of ordinary existence and a climbing of the loft ladder.

On the last such elevation of random items, the light bulb in the attic blew. I am not sure why this is such a frequent phenomenon, it is not as though the light is used that much. Perhaps attics are subject to greater variations in heat.

Anyway, I decided that the lack of  light in the roof space made it a dangerous place to be without light as the space is interrupted by beams at various angles. To make it safer, I needed to go up and find what sort of bulb was required.

Taking the bayonet fitting bulb out of its socket, I turned for the hatchway and cracked my head on a beam I couldn’t see. Slightly discombobulated, I missed a step at the bottom of the loft ladder and skinned my shin. I knew I had skinned my shin because I could feel the blood trickling down my leg.

Now, Aunt Nell.

Aunt Nell was a Christian Scientist, or claimed to be anyway. Her chief religious activity was watching Songs of Praise on television and complaining if she didn’t like the hymns.

Christian Science seemed to have little by way of Christianity, and nothing by way of science, but for Aunt Nell it meant that illness was caused by attitude. So my asthma, she told me, was caused by me thinking in the wrong way.

‘It’s got nothing to do with the brochii in my lungs not working properly, then?’ I once asked her.

‘What are bronchii?’ she asked.

Aunt Nell would have seen all illnesses in terms of my attic experience. Wrong decisions leading to painful consequences.

I can’t find a bayonet bulb anywhere.

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