Thursday, 27 November 2014

Monte Carlo or bust!

Extract from “The Haunting of a Favourite Son” by Noel Hodson*. Childhood memories of holiday journeys – being driven round the bend by a rally-mad dad!
Edwin Hodson with his TR4 which he drove in the 1962 Monte Carlo Rally
“Though Father had not yet embarked on his racing and rallying activities he took every opportunity to practice winning. Every car journey was to him a competitive event. With a big family he bought big second-hand cars. We had a black Wolsey, the familiar ‘forties police car. We had a pale-green Rover with a Viking ship on its nose. We had a great Jaguar, racing green with wide running boards and huge free-standing headlamps that Father and I toured Scotland in together. We had an Austin Sheerline, an immense machine with built in under-floor hydraulic jacks and a secret emergency petrol tank that could be switched to from inside the car. These sedate family cars became high revving, Formula One racing machines in Father’s hands. 
A holiday would start with the loading procedures, Father was tidy and precise;“Shipshape and Bristol Fashion,” as he put it.
Luggage for up to six children and two adults takes a lot of space. Father despised roof racks for aerodynamic reasons. At least two of the children, at any one time, would suffer acutely from travel sickness, exacerbated by the real leather, the real wood, the anxiety, the tension and, when in flight, the bucketing, pitching and rolling at maximum speed. Father, as driver and captain, had the most space. He needed room to hold his arms straight – as good racing technique demands, he needed clear space around him to ensure his lightning fast reflexes were not obstructed, and he needed clear views in all directions. 
Mother was installed in the front passenger seat, apprehensive but silent at this stage. This was before the government decided to insult the inherent skills and good sense of all drivers by insisting on cars having safety belts, so there were no entanglements of that sort to be accommodated. Under her legs would go a suitcase and on her lap would go the youngest child. The boot would be hard-packed with cases and slammed tight. The remaining children and luggage would be crammed into the rear seat and on the floor. Older children would baggsie a corner seat with window, though we were mostly too short to see out, and the younger ones would end up perched on suitcases in the middle of the seats. Sometimes we took the dog with us just to make up the numbers.
Mother would become deeply silent and pale. Father checked the car, checked the house, checked the weather, re-checked the house, used the loo, then did a roll call and then started the engine. At which point Mother would say tensely, “You will drive carefully won’t you Edwin?”
And he would reply “Hrrrummphh!! Hrrumph!! Of course dear, of course.” 
Only in towns and built up areas was there a speed limit. There were no motorways, dual carriageways were rare and the ubiquitous lethal three-lane highways to death were highly regarded. On a modern map the journey from Stockport to Llandudno looks short enough and safe enough. In the late ‘forties, on twisting country roads, through market towns, up hill and down dale, in a loaded car weighing two tons, with primitive brakes, puking, bitching children and an increasingly hysterical wife; it was a long, long way. Several times we made the thirteen-hour trip to Cornwall; and of course, back again. 
But Father never wavered in his parental duty to get us to the holiday destination as rapidly as possible, dead or alive. On one return journey, with the car bucking and heaving with the terrified family, racing up the busy Chester Road to Manchester, Father dancing the car past all lesser mortals and dodging into spaces two feet shorter than the car at seventy miles an hour, we were followed and were eventually stopped by a police car. The policemen looked perplexedly into the jammed interior. There was no question of exceeding speed limits, as there were none.
“Where did you learn to drive, Sir?” said an officer in a neutral tone, and before Father, shrinking into his seat, could answer…
“…We’ve been following for about five miles, and couldn’t keep up, Sir. You passed four lorries back there into oncoming traffic, Sir,…” He paused then continued admiringly
“...And I’d swear the back of your car shrank as it went through the gap! Mind how you go, Sir.” 
Half an hour into a journey, as we left the relative sanity of thirty-mile-limits behind us and as Father swooped past all other road users at frantic speed, Mother’s nerve would start to fail and she would launch into an endless critique of his driving and a continuous prophecy of doom.
“Slow down Edwin! You’ll kill us all. You’ll kill all these children. Oh my God, you nearly hit that van then. Look, he’s shaking his fist at us. Oh My God, you’re going too fast. If you don’t slow down now Edwin, I’m getting out at the next police station and I’ll have you arrested. Look Out! Look Out! Those lights are on red. Can’t you see? Can’t you see? Oh you’re NOT going to try to overtake here are you. You’re a madman. Stop the car Edwin – I’m going to turn you in. I will I swear it. I’ll see you in prison for the way you’re driving. Oh Holy Mother of God save us – look out! look out! he’s pulling out...” 
And on and on she would wail. 
Father would completely and utterly ignore her and our headlong flight would continue, with squealing tyres, booming exhaust, opposite lock, braking on a sixpence and with all the excitement of Le Mans until an inner-seat child was sick. Inner because the outer children, before they spewed-up usually had time to wind down the window, stick their heads out and, if they didn’t get their heads knocked off by a passing branch or fence or car, they could happily retch and watch the bile liquid spatter onto the rear wing and make its way with the full-speed slipstream round onto the boot. Most journeys ended with both sides of the car thus redecorated and two retching, wretched children in danger of falling out of the back windows as Father negotiated a double-chicane on opposite lock with masterly skill. But Father’s fastidiousness overcame his racing instincts if a child threatened to spew inside the car. By long experience he had learned that sick over his luggage was unpleasant and took a lot of cleaning; so a heaving child without access to a window, could, in extreme circumstances, bring the express journey to a halt. We would all pile out, shivering from the shock of continuous vomiting for a breath of clean air with no sick fumes and Mother would become silent again, gripping the passenger bar and staring palely and tight lipped into the far purple mists of the Welsh mountains still ahead of us.
As he rid himself of the obligation of ferrying his wife and six children, driving fast became Father’s overriding passion and in nineteen-sixty-two when I was nineteen and he would be forty-eight or so, Triumph fitted his two-seater TR4A with engine number one and made him leader of their rally team for the Liège-Rome-Liège Rally. Later that year he also privately entered the car, red, low and lethally quick, in the Monte-Carlo Rally that then still ran on public roads, mostly through ice and snow, from Edinburgh or London and other European capitals, across France, into the French Alps, through the cols and over the peaks, and down after three days and nights of frantic driving, without sleep, to the warmth of Monte Carlo. Of course this event required preparation and practice. The car was equipped with six additional spotlights plus an adjustable spotlight on the roof for examining snow covered French signposts. The engine was tuned to perfection and a new copper straight-through exhaust added, to give it tone. Racks were welded on to help carry the four spare wire wheels fitted with spiked ice tyres. This was Father’s twelfth or thirteenth entry as a private competitor and he spurned the modern, dependent, corporate idea of a support team in a van carrying all the spares they might need. 
Perhaps in late latent revenge for the locked lavatory, or more charitably, maybe stirred by a distant feeling for what other father’s seemed to do with their sons, Father invited me one rare snowy evening to accompany him on a practice run. He had to use every snow and ice hour that came, to test and hone his driving skills. 
We burbled menacingly out onto the deserted roads of Alderley Edge as snow fell heavily and silently in the darkness. In the passenger seat I was confronted by technical instruments screwed roughly onto the fascia and an additional horn button – all aids to the navigator. The large red horn was to relieve the navigator’s mounting tensions and terrors as the car hurtled into blind corners on sheet ice, on public roads, often with a thousand foot drop at the side. Airplane cockpit type harnesses pinned us into our seats. We turned towards Prestbury and growled through the deepening snow as all the Manchester millionaires withdrew into their mansions and turned up the heating – this was no night to be out and about. The road took us through Macclesfield and up into the narrow stony lanes of the Pennines. As we passed the last terraced cottages Father opened the throttle and fed full power into the new snow tyres, that span and spat grit and stones viciously as the rear of the car snaked and slithered and the exhaust boomed its challenge to all comers. 
I pitied the would-be navigator who would sit in this madly bucking seat for three days, inside the protective steel cage welded under the roof, all the way to Monte Carlo, head buried in maps and shouting warnings of what twists and dangers the road ahead presented. We shot up the narrow main road towards Whaley Bridge, slipping and sliding into hairpin bends at sixty miles an hour to skid through them sideways, wheels on opposite-lock, relying on the power of the engine to the rear wheels to thrust the car forward in the right direction at the correct split second, and to avoid cannoning into the murderous black rocks flanking the road. Exciting stuff on the main road but far too easy for Father. At the Highwayman Inn, lighted but closed up and deserted, we turned off into narrow lanes, past the stone inscribed with the mystery of the death of a faithless husband, and scrambled and scraped at dizzying speed through the lanes towards the forbidding and mournful Goyt Valley and its vast, deep black reservoir, as the snow fell ever faster. Now the spotlights came into their own. On a good straight the TR4A would rocket up to seventy or eighty miles an hour making it important to be able to see at least a little way ahead. Brakes were of course completely useless at those speeds; the driver had to rely on rapid gear down-shifts and screaming deceleration to reduce to speeds where we stood the slightest chance of chewing the car through the next unsympathetic bend. The eight lights streamed ahead of us into the snow laden air, forging a fabulous white, glowing, dreamlike tunnel through the black night; a tunnel that we fell down, faster and ever faster. Father, hands in his lap, spun the steering wheel from below at an impossible rate, passing it through his dancing fingers. ‘Never, never, never cross your hands when you are driving’. He would advise his absent audience and whoever happened to be in the car at the time. 
Not all of that part of the Pennines is uninhabited. There are remote hamlets, lonely farms and gaunt isolated houses with immovable rusted gates set into unwelcoming stone, blackened by the industrial revolution. The taciturn and hill toughened locals mostly have the wisdom to lock their doors and stay off the roads in snowstorms. But sometimes, just sometimes, they have to venture forth. Thus it was, as we thundered down to Wild Boar Clough, through a snow tunnel on one of the rare straight stretches, at eighty miles an hour, with eight headlights searing through the snow tunnel, with the narrow lane reduced to less than a single track by new snow banked down from the walls, banked over the rocks and spread blanket like on the verges, that the local district nurse, out on an errand of mercy, nervously steered her black Morris Minor 1000 through a right angled bend in the snowy night and came face-to-face with us at the bottom of our straight run. Our six spotlights and the two headlights were all full on. As we plummeted towards her, every minute feature of herself and her car’s interior was blindingly illuminated. She was driving, sensibly, at about five miles an hour, we were plummeting down at her at eighty miles an hour and behind her was an unforgiving, craggy rock-face that marked the tight bend that she had, a moment ago and a lifetime away, so carefully negotiated, little suspecting that within a split second she would be in the limelight and facing total annihilation. 
I knew that our time had come and was able to reflect briefly on my short life and its adventurous end. I could hear Stephen Court, my long headed, fatherless, young-fogey friend who owned the shoe-shop on Heaton Moor Road and who warned us constantly of the apocalyptic Yellow Peril that would soon invade the district and who greatly admired Father’s driving, breathing in his hushed slow baritone, ‘Magnificent’ as they untangled the tortured red metal and chrome lights from the Triumph embedded in the staid black metal of the Morris, and tried to reconstruct the deconstructed people. I dispassionately noted the hairs on the mole on the District Nurse’s completely startled face, the minor red veins in her popping blue eyes and the wording on her jaunty little hat. The phrase ‘Rabbit in the headlights’ came easily to mind. She in her turn could see nothing. She was blinded by the light and transfixed by panic. Instinctively, and some might say, intelligently, the District Nurse stopped her car in the middle of the snowbound lane.
 Father, hands flying from steering wheel to light switches to gear stick, feet tap-dancing back and forth to effect a double de-clutch, feather the brakes and modulate the accelerator, muttered “Bloody Fool.” at the hapless nurse, flipped the red missile, TR4A, engine number one, up the snow bank on our left, on my side of the track, at a forty-five degree angle, where the ground miraculously held firm, around the paralysed Morris Minor and its briefly illuminated woman driver and down again into the roadway with just enough time and space, about forty yards, to get the hurtling vehicle into a sideways drift at ever reducing velocity, into the right-angle of the bend, from where we screamed out again in second gear, full power to the bucking and slithering back wheels, to regain the speed the bloody fool of a nurse, now plunged back into total darkness and undoubtedly composing a UFO report, had lost us by freezing-up in the middle of the track at such a crucial moment. On a racecourse, such as at Oulton Park, her obstruction could have cost a split-second - and the winner’s laurels.
“If only…” Father might say,
“…if only people would learn to drive properly before they took to the Queen’s highways, the world would be a better, happier and a safer place.” 
Some years later, as a Justice of the Peace on the Bench, to Mother’s eternal embarrassment, Father enjoyed a moment of infamy. He was interviewed on TV by the fearsome, merciless intellectual Bernard Levin, and was caricatured in the Daily Express by the famous cartoonist Giles, for refusing to try motorists who exceeded the new seventy-miles-an-hour speed limit; on the logical grounds that if everyone drove at that same low speed, they would lose concentration, drive in convoys and it would cause Motorway pile-ups, killing God only knows how many district nurses in the ensuing chaos. And who, apart from Bernard Levin, in the light of subsequent events, could assert that he was wrong? - a Prophet in his own time and country. And we, the loyal family even including Mother, after full consideration, concluded that Bernard Levin had at last met his match.”

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Fancy a cuppa?

Not often I can boast about my career but, according to researchers, it seems that in at least one aspect of my working life I’ve actually done something right!

The key to success, apparently, is being willing to brew up for your colleagues. There are of course die-hard curmudgeons who never offer to make cuppas for anyone else - and a shocking 1 in 5 workers snatch a sneaky tea or coffee while nobody else is looking.

If revenge is your favourite tipple, you’ll be gratified to learn that such behaviour can actually cost the solitary tea-bag squisher the chance of promotion, whereas “the person who brews up for the work crew with a smile is often popular.” Quite right too!

Now, as proven by virtually everyone born in England (especially north of Watford), tea has always been THE beverage of choice…..Oh, we may flirt with coffee from time to time but when the heat’s on and that urgent email/payroll/data/proofcheck has to be processed, only tea will do. Ask most Brits the phrase they’d most like to hear and it won’t be “I love you” but “Fancy a cuppa?”  

Take my Dad, for instance. Years ago when interviewing for staff for his newly set-up accountancy practice he had two criteria: “Can you spell assessment and can you brew tea?” A Lancashire lad to the core!

Health benefits of tea

It’s thirst-quenching, refreshing and one of the few social pleasures we can still enjoy with a clear conscience and without damaging our health.

In fact, tea is very beneficial, providing antioxidants; protecting us against heart attacks, stroke and cancer; strengthening our bones; bolstering our immune systems and keeping us hydrated. OK, water’s better for you but it’s not the SAME!

Wise employers are well advised to have 2 vital ingredients in their kitchen  – a fast-boiling kettle and copious supplies of quality tea - none of your namby-pamby Earl Grey, mind. True aficionados prefer proper breakfast teas (Tetley, PG Tips, Brooke Bond to name a few) served in china mugs and strong enough to stand a spoon up in!

As for employees, you may be willing but are you ABLE to brew a decent cuppa? Be in no doubt, your future career may depend on it, so pay attention to the following instructions!

How to make a proper cuppa

Serious connoisseurs set great store by loose-leaf tea in china tea-pots. Forget that! From personal experience, the very best brew can only be achieved with a single tea bag per mug. Tea cups are fine but mugs hold more. However, too large a mug is not suitable as the tea will be cold before you finish it.

1.   As the kettle begins to boil, pour a small amount of hot water into your mug (or cup if you must!) This will prevent the tea cooling too quickly.

2.   Put in the tea bag (one per mug/cup)

3.   Make sure the water in the kettle is bubbling at its height when you add it to the mug/cup.

4.   Let it stand for approx. 30 seconds (too long and the tea will get ‘stewed’), then squish the tea bag with a spoon to the strength required.

5.   Remove the tea bag, add milk and sugar to taste and relax with the best cuppa ever!

Friday, 12 September 2014

Daydreams - Adventures of the mind

       “Advantage Miss Brean. Championship Point.”
       The spectators hold their breath, waiting for the reigning Queen of Wimbledon to save herself from an unexpected and humiliating defeat. Surely, her 15-year old opponent, this wild card child with a devastating backhand volley, the perfect figure, flawless complexion and really beautiful hair, won’t be able to hold her nerve! Slowly, carefully, the older player tosses the ball into the air, draws back her arm, positions her racket and Wham! The ball zings across the court and skims over the net, spinning wide of the young girl opposite. Jacy reaches out, every sinew stretched towards the round yellow object and....
       “Jacy Brean! What’s the square root of 945?” Startled by this unwarranted intrusion, I find myself back in the classroom with an empty exercise book in front of me. Miss Sheehan is not amused. “Write out one hundred times, ‘I must not daydream during double maths!’”
       From as far back as I remember my life has been divided into three main states of consciousness. When I’m asleep, when I’m working and when I’m daydreaming. The first two activities together account for...oooh, 33 percent of my time. The rest of my time, if I’m honest, has been spent in a parallel universe.
       But I’m getting better. Motherhood, the need to earn a living and do the normal things of life – such as eating – have forced me to ‘get real’, a state of consciousness to which I used to be a total stranger but where, for the most part, I now reside. I’ve not stopped daydreaming completely, though. After all, daydreaming has its uses. While waiting in a queue at supermarket checkouts, I’m actually galloping across the desert on a beautiful Arab stallion; when confronted by a dull and over-talkative acquaintance, I’m mentally preparing for the next assault on Everest; and train journeys fly by when I’m auditioning for my latest West End play. Last time this happened, Judi Dench took so long over her soliloquy, she made me miss my stop!
       Daydreaming is such a wonderful way to escape the problems and tedium of day to day life, I’m surprised more people don’t indulge. But there you have it – the world is separated into practical people who concentrate on realities and actually achieve something, and people like me whose successes are merely imagined.
       People from all walks of life have imagination, of course, but daydreaming goes beyond the normal ability to envision situations. It puts the dreamer centre stage where he or she can actually feel the relevant emotions, as though living in a novel or film.  Such virtual experiences can help a person to develop empathy and to explore outcomes to real-life problems. And, according to a recent study by Daniel Levinson, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA*, people whose minds wander during tasks may be more intelligent, with greater ‘working memory’ which enables them to do two things at once.
       But there’s a downside. Spending most of one’s time on ‘another planet’ may prevent us from confronting issues in the here and now. It can distance us from others and result in an unrealistic, overblown view of ourselves and our abilities. Does every XFactor hopeful really have what it takes, or are they merely chasing the ‘dream’? Sadly, you only have to watch the initial auditions to see how few competitors possess the necessary talent – talent invariably honed by the finalists through years of sweat, tears and training.
       Lack of concentration can be embarrassing too. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve offended by chuckling after they’ve told me their dog/cat/grandmother’s died! It’s not that I’m heartless, mind – just that I lose track between setting sail for Fiji and winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.
       And, while daydreaming may seem harmless on the whole, much depends on their content. A craving for riches, for example, can lead to gambling, fraud or other dubious practices. Romantic fantasies may revolve around another person’s partner, resulting in broken hearts, homes and families. Or they may lead us to follow a glamorous but highly competitive career to which we may not even be suited.
       A few years ago, I asked a group of friends whether they daydreamed. All did. One girl had the very natural dream of marriage and children, the proverbial cottage with roses round the door. One (rather aggressive) young man imagined battling with a faceless opponent over a parking space – an incident that led to violence and a highly dramatic court case.
       During the discussions, my best friend, Lynda arrived and listened intently without adding any revelations of her own. But then, no one could imagine Linda daydreaming, she was far too down-to-earth. “Of course I do!” she exclaimed. “Really?” we asked, by now completely agog. “What about?” Linda’s eyes narrowed with concentration, as we awaited her pronouncement. Finally, she remembered her most cherished fantasy:   
       “Tax rebates.”

*Published in Psychological Science
See also:

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

How to cope with STRESS

1 in 5 British workers physically ill; 1 in 4 reduced to tears in the workplace; unprecedented demand for anti-depressants…..All due to stress.

Yet, stress is not always a bad thing.  The American Psychological Association states that “Stress can be the kiss of death or the spice of life,” depending on how we manage it.

Imagine watching an adventure movie, say Indiana Jones or Fast and Furious. Or riding a rollercoaster.  When things get really exciting, the body’s emergency response system kicks in, making you breathe faster, increasing your blood pressure and heart rate, and really getting the adrenalin pumping as extra glucose and blood cells rush to the rescue.  Once the situation that triggered this response has passed, the body should return to normal.  But if the stress factor continues, the same mechanism can cause intense anxiety.

Much of today’s stress, of course, is far from pleasant, but how we handle it can make all the difference to our overall mental and physical health.  Tobacco, excessive alcohol, overeating or ‘vegging out’ in front of a TV or computer screen will only make things worse.

According to the National Institutes of Health in the US: “The best start to relieving stress is…..a well-balanced, healthy diet as well as getting enough sleep and exercise.  Also, limit caffeine and alcohol intake and don’t use nicotine, cocaine or other street drugs.” Other suggestions are regular breaks, hobbies and spending time with friends and family.

Naturally, different types of stress require different methods of coping:

Overstretched schedule

For some people, it’s hard to juggle work and family commitments, especially when there are children and elderly parents to consider.  But, no matter how packed your schedule, it’s important to find time to relax – otherwise you’re unlikely to help anyone, least of all yourself.  Prioritise, make sure you get enough sleep, and set aside much needed ’me time’.  If your current schedule won’t allow you to, maybe you should simplify your life. Do you really need that top-of-the-range car? The dream kitchen? Or a designer wardrobe?  So many people wear themselves out by chasing after ‘things’ which can never make you happy.  Try to be satisfied with the quality of life rather than the amount of stuff you can acquire!


In recession, job security and fears for the future may hang heavily. People with consistent support from family or friends are less affected by stress-related disorders, so being able to confide in someone close is a real protection. On top of personal anxiety about the future, the news is full of worrying events. Natural disasters, terrorist attacks, violent crime, accidents and illness are on every news item, which doesn’t make them any easier to cope with.

Yes, there are plenty of worries to keep you awake at night - if you let them! Try to avoid negative thinking – those ‘what if?’ disasters rarely happen and will only drag you downwards if you dwell on them. Just take one day at a time, deal with every problem as it arises and, if you’re a believer, pray about it. 

Troubled relationships

Spending 8 or more hours a day with a difficult boss or colleague is bound to get you down. Should they annoy or offend you, it can be hard to keep your tongue in check. But do try. Whereas a snide comment or angry response from you can make the situation 100 times worse, time and time again mildness has proved more powerful than rage, keeping tensions at bay and even softening the other person’s attitude.

If someone ‘has words’ with you, perhaps criticising you unfairly (at least in your view) try to keep the argument private, settling things with dignity and respect. You may believe you’re in the right, but it helps to see the problem from the other person’s angle and you may come to see their grievance is valid. Even if they’re completely in the wrong, be forgiving. People who bear grudges often have an increased heart rate and high blood pressure, while letting go of any resentment will lower stress levels.

There’s no doubt, every human on the planet suffers some form of stress. You may not be able to remove the causes; what you CAN do is to deflect your own anxiety by helping others, by reaching out in some way. Giving to others is one of the fastest routes to happiness and peace of mind – the perfect antidote to stressful,and even traumatic, conditions.

Monday, 16 June 2014

How to cope with ANGER

       Sad but true, at some time in your life things will fail to go your way: Family and friends may disappoint you; school, college and work mates may betray you; and people in authority may undermine your confidence.
       So how do you cope when the person you thought was your best friend flirts with your crush, your parents or teachers don’t listen to you and inexplicably you become the butt of feeble jokes? (Hopefully NOT by going berserk with a shotgun – a pattern which seems to be increasing these days as disaffected youths use violence in answer to small or imaginary sleights.)  
       Okay, so the anger may be justified, but can you control what others do or say? Hardly. The only person you can really control is YOU, and hopefully this post will help you to do that.

Stay calm

       This is stating the obvious yet it’s vital not to lash out in the heat of rage. If you feel you’re about to lose control, just walk away.  Better to leave the scene than do anything you may later regret - prisons are full of people like that! Cool down, breathe deeply, then proceed to the next stage.


       Try to view the matter calmly and objectively. Are you being overly sensitive? Could you have contributed to the problem in some way? Were you unwise to burden your friend with a confidence? Did you set yourself up to be ridiculed? Was the other party being cruel intentionally, or just indulging in some witty banter? Even if the answer is ‘No’, would retaliating in kind make things even worse? Could anger make you even nastier than the perpetrator? Or blind you to your own faults:
       “Everyone’s unreasonable except me!”


       Whenever you’ve been hurt, let down or inconvenienced by someone, remember this undeniable truth: Everyone’s imperfect – including YOU! Can you honestly say you’ve never been thoughtless, betrayed a confidence or put your mouth into gear before your brain!
       The tongue can be particularly tricky – like the rudder of a boat, it’s comparatively small compared to the overall vessel, yet, unchecked, it can steer even strong relationships onto the rocks. If you’ve ever blushed at embarrassing things you’ve said in the past, then accept that others can be just as slack-jawed in unguarded moments.
       “If only everyone else was perfect!”

Talk it over

       If, after careful examination, you’re convinced the other person deliberately set out to hurt you, by all means approach them – but only when you’re feeling calm. Think of what you want to say beforehand, write it down and rehearse it. Avoid emotional phrases such as “Why do you hate me?”  “What have I ever done to you?” “How dare you speak to me like that?”  Instead, make statements that are reasonable and matter of fact. For example: “I felt your remark/action/attitude was rather hostile. Am I right in thinking you have an issue with me?”
       You may find the other person was oblivious to the offence; perhaps it was a misunderstanding, or they could simply have been in a grotty mood with everyone. On the other hand, they may have meant to upset you and have no intention of apologising. At least you’ll have set matters straight.
       “Can we sort it out?”

Let it go

       If the person is genuinely sorry for any offence, the best thing you could do is to forgive and forget, especially when dealing with a friend. After all, you wouldn’t discard a favourite shirt or pair of trainers, so why throw away a valuable friendship?
       By keeping calm and standing back from the pain you feel, you’ll often find the matter was nowhere near as serious as you first imagined. You’ll earn respect for your rational way of dealing with things, hold onto genuine friends (however imperfect!) and perhaps save yourself and others from an awful lot of grief!

Thursday, 5 June 2014

For some folk, fairy tales are Grimm!

       Terrific fun, of course, but children’s plays – especially pantomime – can be a perilous occupation. Not only do scripts have to be side-achingly funny, but politically correct, issue aware and socially on message into the bargain. 
       And there’s another factor we writers need to contend with – choosing a theme that won’t give children nightmares.
       According to a recent survey by US TV channel Watch, one in five parents have turned their backs on traditional fairy tales, considering the yarns too frightening for young children. Whether anyone asked their offspring what they thought is open to question – after due consideration, I tend to think not, as most kids I know love nothing better than a good scare!
      Some of the adults interviewed also find some stories either reactionary, unrealistic or immoral.  Tales such as (Hansel & Gretel and Rapunzel involve kidnapping, for instance.) Parents also seem to think children should be set a good example which, apparently, the thieving Goldilocks and Jack (of beanstalk fame) are not. Neither, it seems, are Cinderella and the Sleeping Beauty due to their obvious stereotyping of the female gender. As a result, a whole generation of under-fives are now being reared on modern alternatives such as Thomas the Tank Engine, Mr Men and The Gruffalo.
       Of course, many of the original tales dreamed up by Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm and others were actually quite horrific - no doubt they could give your average video nasty a run for its money! Take the Ugly Sisters, for example; in the original version, they mutilated their own feet to fit into Cinders' dainty glass slipper. Snow White involves a rather nasty account of attempted child murder - by a family member at that! And what the Big Bad Wolf did to poor old grandma doesn't even bear contemplating!
       Even so, it's thought that fairy stories help children deal with real-life fears. Psychologists such as Bruce Bettelheim believe they provide coping mechanisms for youngsters, enabling them to chart their way through difficult situations in an increasingly hostile, adult-controlled world.
       In his book, Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bettelheim argues: "Fairy tales are loved by the child…..because — despite all the angry, anxious thoughts in his mind to which the fairy tale gives body and specific context — these stories always result in a happy outcome, which the child cannot imagine on his own.”
       Children can also learn to identify human traits and frailties. Take any well-known folk tale and it's easy to parallel even the most exaggerated characters with flesh and blood people.
       Like Mum, for instance. When in conflict with her child, a mother who's normally cast as the good fairy is, to the child's mind, quickly transformed into the wicked witch; Daddy becomes the wise old Wizard, the fearless woodcutter rescuing Little Red Riding Hood from the slavering jaws of the wolf, or (my favourite) the eternal magic money-tree! And I'll give you three guesses who Justin Bieber represents. My own handsome prince has just got his bus pass, which just goes to show not all fairy tales end happily ever after! Meanwhile, a host of walk-ons in these fantasies i.e. ogres, beasts and pixies substitute for teachers, siblings and various friends or rivals.
       Personally, I find echoes of old fairy tales in almost every book I read, in films, in plays and even video games. It's said there are only 6 (or is it 8?) basic plots for which every writer has a different way of telling, each unique in its own way.
       And without such tales, there wouldn't be pantomimes - putting me out of a job for a start! Which reminds me, it's time to get on with my next pantomime script!

Monday, 31 March 2014

Hunger on the rise. Why?

“One third of all deaths of children under 5 in developing countries linked to undernutrition” – WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME 

“842 million people do not eat enough to be healthy” – WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME 

“One in every 8 people goes to bed hungry each night” – WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME 
       A lot of people are going hungry right now - and it’s not just developing lands which are suffering.  As well as parts of Africa and Asia where droughts, famines, despots and wars have always caused problems, food shortages now seem to be spreading to the West and once thriving economies such as Japan.
Recently, a British couple committed suicide because they couldn’t cope with unemployment and the lack of money. To supplement their meagre income, they’d  been walking for  42 miles a day to collect rations from a charity centre and, whether from shame or sheer despair, reached the point when they simply gave up - just two more victims from an increasingly desperate generation. Greece, Italy, even America, all are having to cope with a sluggish economy, joblessness and rising food prices.
       In the UK, food inflation is currently outpacing the average wage increase, spiking last year to a 5% increase in what was once perceived to be, if not recession-proof, then certainly a recession-resistant industry.  Delegates at the Oxford Farming Conference a couple of years ago were asked to consider just who has power over food prices. According to the experts, it’s certainly not consumers. Nor is it farmers, who are currently being squeezed by dwindling suppliers on the one hand and the decrease in retail customers on the other.
       But how much power do governments wield? On the surface, very little, they would argue, citing  two reasons: For one thing, agriculture now operates in a global context, and secondly (at least as far as the United Kingdom is concerned), the government is keen to reduce farm subsidies in the belief that increasing world demand along with higher prices will compensate growers for these lost revenues. The demand will always be there, of course. But where is the supply? And  how can people on low incomes afford it?
       As well as the unwarranted increase in costs, another worrying factor is coming into play – the monopoly of food by huge transnational (TNCs) who are investing billions in agriculture and supplies.
Has anyone noticed the speed with which small farms and food outlets are going out of business? How global conglomerates are buying up land for intensive farming and how supermarket chains are getting bigger and more powerful?
       Speaking to the OFC, Dr Alan Renwick – SAC Head of the Land Economy & Environmental Research Group, identified a few of these TNCs with genuine clout. Cargill, Syngenta, Monsanto, Wal-Mart and, to a certain extent, Tesco, are far more influential than the state whose intervention in agriculture and trade has been diminishing.  To date, three TNCs control almost 50% of the proprietary seed market.
       Personally, I wouldn’t discount the role which governments are playing - or are likely to play in the future. No doubt it suits them to maintain a helpless and therefore blameless  profile in the face of rising food scarcity. However, they must surely appreciate the power such a monopoly can wield. Control the world’s food supplies and you control the world.
       We can also count on genetic engineering to create further demand, thanks to the proliferation of GM cereals. At one time, farmers could depend on nature to provide genrously – with one seed purchase providing healthy crops for several years. Yet there is nothing natural about some seeds produced by scientists in labs. They may be resistant to certain pests or climates, but many GM seeds are not self-propagating. Instead of having plenty of fertile new seed for the following crop, the farmer is forced to buy fresh seed from the supplier every time.
       Sadly, starvation and malnutrition are nothing new.  Back in the 1980s, an article in The Boston Globe stated: “A world with nearly a billion persons living close to starvation has to find ways to help the poorest nations to enjoy something approaching the bounty reaped by the richest nations, “The most disheartening  aspect of undernourishment . . . is that the world has a clear-cut capacity to feed everyone.” 
       Surely it’s time that capacity was realised.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

"In the Blink of an Eye" by Peter Coghlan - Sample chapter

Chapter 1
Six o’clock in the afternoon, 21st March 2011. Another summer’s day in Perth. Another barbecue with family and friends.  Me and my stepfather Ted on the terrace downing a couple of ciders, talking, laughing, enjoying a smoke, then me a bit tired, feeling fuzzy, going for a nap....
Awake confused and agitated, slurring my words, remembering the fuzziness earlier in the day, the temporary blindness when my eyes went fuzzy with stars: “Think I’ve had a stroke.” Everyone  sitting by the bar - Jade, Dave, Ted, Sean, Julia, my sister Vicky – are really concerned, trying to get me walking, to walk a straight line down the garden. Then comes the vomiting and my mind starts whizzing – but, hey, it’s cool, it’s cool: “I’ll be okay, just  a piece of toast and a cup of tea, I’ll be okay,” hoping it’ll pass over me like it did before, but my words are slurring badly, the old ticker’s racing and Jade and Vicky are on the internet, seeing what’s wrong....”Better get you to hospital!” says Jade, trying not to sound worried. “Just in case.”
Now things really kick off! I’m in the car and it’s dicing down the freeway and all I see is lights, lights, flashing lights, and Jade is saying “Stay with me! Stay with me, Pete!”  Dave’s driving, foot on the floor, holding me upright in the front while Jade tries to steady me from the back, holding my shoulders while I’m throwing up all over the place, and she’s pleading, “Stay with me! Stay with me!” Racing, racing down the freeway, over a ton, 150 kilometres per hour but it’s too late, I’m losing it, going limp, and Jade’s still yelling, but louder now: “Stay with me, Pete! We’re nearly there! Stay with me!”
Jondaloop Hospital – Emergency Department
We’ve stopped now, at the hospital. I’m being pulled out of the car, then I imagine that two big  blokes are lifting me up, talking about what’s happened, “It’s genetics, mate,” and suddenly they disappear and I’m being wheeled along a corridor, must be hospital, but just don’t know anymore, don’t know anything anymore....God please help me!
Sitting upright in a chair in a big open room with a needle stuck in my arm. Lungs bursting, fighting for breathe, retching, puking, heart going nineteen to the dozen with loud, heavy, ominous thuds. Helpless, lifeless, witless with fear.  “He’s not had anything!” cries Jade, frustration and sheer panic rising in her voice. Three times they ask, wasting time and oxygen; three times she answers; “He’s not had ANYthing!” Wish I HAD taken something, then at least I’d know what’s wrong, but no one ends up this bad after two halves of cider. Jade’s been given a form to fill in while my sister Vicky starts banging on the window, frantically yelling for a doctor.  Nurse walks off, people passing by, ignoring me. Maybe they’re embarrassed because now I’m going into spasm, arms twisting in ways they were never meant to go, shaking like an egg-whisk on full speed. Maybe I’m not here at all; maybe it’s just a bad dream - yes, that’s it, that must be why I’m slipping into the blackness.....
Sir Charles Gardiner – Intensive Care Unit
Vicky really kicked off – so, no doubt realising I’ve not got DTs or OD-ed on ecstasy, the doctors finally arrive, but now I’m shuddering, shaking so violently the only thing they can do is put me into a coma.
Weird place, coma. Dark room filled with smoke, me on a bed, helpless, limp and my head feels so, so heavy, I can’t lift it from the pillow, not even a millimetre. Jade, Mum, Vicky and Maria, they’re here but, hey, something’s not right. THEY’RE not right, not looking at me, expressionless, soundless, weird. A voice telling them to join in – some kind of ‘entertainment’ it says. Middle of the room, an enormous ottoman-type sofa, bright blue and circular and the voice is now telling the girls to take their clothes off.....What? Here? Funny kind of hospital, this. Can’t believe what I’m hearing, can’t bear what I’m this really happening? Now blokes, loads of them, all standing round, waiting for their turn with the girls on the ottoman,  and me – karate brown belt and ju-jitsu enthusiast, ex-soldier - just lying here not able to move, not able to make them stop! Wanting to shout, scream out loud yet powerless to speak, crying inside with pain because these zombies are having an orgy, pleasuring themselves with women I care about, and one of them is Jade.....
Jade. The one. The only. I knew it from the first. Tumbling, dark-brown hair, a smile to split your heart open, a smile to put the sun to shame - that’s if you ever saw the sun in Derbyshire. Move over Mills & Boon.
Trying not to look. Trying to blot it out. It’s not real, can’t be real, I know my Jade! Suddenly the girls have gone and I’m in this purple room, some kind of brothel, with 8 other people and it’s my turn to be a slave, to lie back and take it. I’m desperate to get out, but I just can’t move, my head is so very, very heavy...
Vaguely, I’m aware of my friend Dan d’ Silver arriving while I’m still in ICU. He’s come straight from the airport to see me but they won’t let him in“Carry me out of here, Dan! Please, please get me out of here!” But they won’t let him in! I’m a prisoner! What I need’s distraction, yes, to take myself away, far away from tubes and hospitals and doctors and the rancid stench of vomit and fear. Back to reality, back to the familiar, back to the known.....If only I could lift my head off the pillow.
Just like the cobbler’s children with holes in their shoes, being the son of a copper was no guarantee of good behaviour. From the moment I burst into the world on the 5th July 1977, sucking in huge lungfuls of oxygen to fuel my ear-piercing shrieks for attention, I’ve been a bit of a tearaway. Actually, I’ve been a lot of a tearaway, so much so, it’s a wonder I didn’t end up in jail - can’t even make the usual excuse of a miserable childhood, having never been bullied, abandoned or abused in any way.
On the contrary, I was given the best upbringing ever by my loving parents Phil Coghlan, a policeman, and his wife Anne, a qualified nurse, in the pleasant rurals of Stockport, near Manchester. My childhood was idyllic with sunshine holidays, family celebrations and all the usual mischief small boys get up to. When I was 4 years old, our family was increased by a new arrival, Victoria, my little sister and the closest family member I’ve ever had.
Vicky and I grew up not just as siblings but as real friends, sharing each other’s problems and secrets; you know, the ones no teenage kid ever wants parents to find out about. But Vicky and I - we were close – I felt it was my duty and privilege to protect her for the whole of our lives.
I wasn’t perfect, of course. Especially at school where, as far as I was concerned, reading and writing were the pits! I couldn’t wait to leave the education system and get into the big, wide world to do all the things I enjoyed, such as sport. As soon as I was tall enough to stare Stallone in the kneecap, I took up martial arts, graduating seamlessly through the coloured belt system with surprisingly little bruising in the process. My first love was Shotokan Karate, a very demanding form of self-defence, calling for intense discipline and high levels of physical fitness. Even then, I wasn’t satisfied. After achieving my brown belt, I took up yet another challenge - Jiu-jitsu, which I stuck at for three to four years.
In common with most teenage lads, girls were never far from my mind and me and my two closest pals, Dan Hodson and Matt Storey, made a formidable trio, sneaking the odd pint of beer and tarting ourselves up for nights spent chatting up the local talent. All in all, we didn’t do a bad job of it either, considering none of us were what you’d call street-wise, having never ventured far from our rural village surroundings.
I seem to be in some kind of hell and there’s something really, really disturbing going on. I’m being raped, at least I think I am - but no, no, it’s just an enema, a tube full of water, and it’s being pumped into my rear until I foul myself while Dad and Vicky are watching, laughing at me and pointing at the mess. Of course, it isn’t really happening, they’re not here, not really, only in my mind. Reality is Auntie May, shaking her head with a pained, sad look on her face: “Such a shame, so young, so young.” But then, she can’t see those other people, strange people with no bodies, just massive heads on sticks. Seriously! Human heads on plastic lollipop sticks. They terrify me! Far nicer are the miniature men, two of them, barely three inches tall in tiny black suits and matching blue shirts. I don’t mind them. I think they may be brothers, two kindly little souls who tuck me in, wipe my brow and pull my covers up around my neck to keep me warm. Daft, maybe, but in this half-lit, nightmare world, I’ll take any comfort I can get – however small. Wish I was a kid again, a cheeky kid running wild...
Me and my mates were bound to get into trouble some day. Only with us it was every day, especially in the summer. On one of our treks through the bracken strewn hills and rich green forests of Derbyshire’s High Peak we came across a caravan. You know the sort – dumped in the corner of a field, exterior moulded over green, with windows blackened with age? But for young kids like us, this was a real find, a den, our own special hideaway.
“Best clean it up a bit first,” suggested Carl. Carl Farrell, whose Dad was also a policeman, was a local lad I hung out with occasionally. He was particular like that. So we got started, me with a ragged old hankie, Carl blowing the dust off surfaces and choking himself in the process, although neither of us tackled the cobwebs; that’s ‘cos we were both terrified of  spiders but too macho to admit it. Then I had a brilliant idea.
 “Let’s try this,” I suggested eagerly.
Rooting through my backpack I eventually found what I was looking for – a full can of Easy Start and a box of matches, packed away for just such an occasion. This was a stunt I’d been dying to try, ever since seeing it in a James Bond movie. After shaking the can vigorously, I lit a match with one hand and with my other hand pressed the spray button on the Easy Start can.  Hey Presto! The moisture burst into flames, which in turn ignited the cobwebs along with all their resident creepy-crawlies. Unfortunately, they ignited the curtains too.
“Ooops!” I said, looking sheepishly at Carl, and paused to consider the effects.
“Know what I think?” Carl nodded understandingly – I’d swear the lad was psychic but come to think of it, there was only one thing TO do.
”GET-OUT-OF-HERE!” I yelled, and we hurled ourselves out of the caravan, now engulfed in flames, and managed to sprint a few yards distance before the whole vehicle morphed into an enormous fireball. Had we any sense, we’d have legged it there and then before the fire engines arrived, but were so fascinated by our home-made inferno, didn’t think to run until the farmer grabbed us each by the ear....
It won’t move. My head won’t move. It’s like a massive demolition ball, a dead weight dropped from a great height, smashed into the pillow where it now slumps helplessly, too heavy to move. I try to raise it, even an inch, but no. It won’t budge. Nothing will budge. The only thing moving in my body is saliva, drools of it, dribbling freely down my chin, my neck, my sheets, everywhere, litres and litres and litres of the stuff....
The caravan escapade cost me a packet – a year’s pocket-money in I had to help out at the farm to make amends! Make the punishment fit the crime, my Dad always said, but it didn’t put me off. Some folk never learn do they? My next trick was more ambitious - setting fire to a whole row of ‘House for Sale’ signs, an act of vandalism everyone blamed on turf wars between rival estate agents, a mythical feud which many locals believe in to this day.
On another occasion, I almost combusted my best friend, Dan, by placing lighted tapers between his fingers as he lay unconscious in a barn after a particularly heavy acid session. No malice intended, of course. Thanks to his sense of humour and amazing tolerance, our friendship has remained inflammable. Looking back, this not-so-latent pyromania no doubt influenced my decision to live in Australia – all those Barbecues!
Jade’s here. Not sure how, not sure when, just know she’s here. But that’s Jade, always with me, from the beginning. And she knows that I’m here too. Bends over to whisper in my ear, voice kind and gentle: “Pete?  Can you hear me? If you can hear me, blink.” And I blink. Afraid she’ll think it’s just a natural tic, I blink again, harder this time, hard as I can. That’s done the trick, now Jade knows I can hear, she can talk to me and I can answer her! Thank God! I’m not alone anymore! Jade’s with me, stepping in, sharing the nightmare.
My Dad never knew the half of it! When I wasn’t blowing up caravans, me and Carl were crawling through sewage pipes underground, exploring empty buildings, whatever mischief we could find that we had a fair chance of getting away with. In all honesty, I was verging on criminal at times, like when stealing chocolate from the local newsagents. This was a regular practice until being caught red-handed with the ‘loot’ - over 200 Mars Bars in one summer! Don’t ask me why, as I never ate them, maybe it was just to irritate my Dad, being the rebellious little so’n'so I was!
Head still heavy, still glued to the pillow by my own mucus and spit dripping remorselessly from my ever-drooling mouth. My mouth and jaw seem to sag to one side, drooped in a permanent downward sneer.
Whether it was coincidental or a subconscious act of rebellion, I can’t say, but when Dad was with the Drug Squad for a spell, I rolled home delirious after eating magic mushrooms, freshly picked from Disley Golf Course. One of their effects was to dilate my pupils, turning my eyes coal black, giving me a demonised look which I tried to blame on beer. Of course there was the usual lecture but, as usual, I wasn’t listening. All I could see was Dad creating trails of technicolour rainbows as he waved his hands about and me enjoying the light show while he ranted and raved. Boy, he was mad that night! I must have been nuts but, back then, a mushroom tea and the strains of Black Sabbath on a Saturday afternoon were my idea of heaven!
Getting arrested, of course, was purely a matter of time. Yet, when it did happen, it wasn’t for arson but for mooning at staff at a MacDonald’s take-away! Police officers on duty were not amused, even less so on learning my father was a cop. “You should know better then, shouldn’t you?” was their only retort, refusing to make any allowances for my family connections as they bunged me and my mates into a squad car.

Locked-in for the very first time.

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Pete working out