Nimby!

It’s not true that all the people who oppose the building of new homes near their own houses are nimbys (Not in my back yard). It’s just that I haven’t met any other sort.

Robert Winston McNaughton

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A Letter to Mr Polly

This week we are required, or perhaps exhorted would be a fairer word, to write a letter to a fictional character. I nearly gave up until I remembered Mr Polly so I’ve written to him. The letter explains itself

Dear Mr Polly

The History of Mr Polly – HG Wells

I suppose it must seem a bit odd to be writing to a fictional character just over 100 years old so I’d better explain. I encountered you first when I was about 15 years old. Up to that time, I had only any enthusiasm for Arthur Ransome’s children’s books and for text (as opposed to cartoon) boys’ comics: Wilson the Super Athlete and Alf Tupper the Tough of the Track amongst others were my heroes. These apart, my literary experiences were few and superficial. Even in those days I couldn’t connect with Biggles. I like to think it may have had something to do with his careless racialism but I suspect lesser motives.

Anyway at 15 years old we were advised of our set works for O levels. I can’t say any of us was overly enthused at having to dissect Henry IV Part One or the consumptive poetry of Keats. The inclusion of your History as told by Mr Wells was a completely unexpected and, for most, an unfortunate choice. For me, however, it was a revelation. I suspect I may have been the only member of the class to read your History avidly and regularly. I could do the required stuff with Henry IV and blessed Falstaff and his troupe for enlivening an otherwise ridiculous tale of the miraculously reforming rake that was Hal. In later life it pleased me to discover that his smashing victory over the French in 1415 at Agincourt was more down the unbelievable incompetence of the French than his bumbling leadership. Keats, of course is straightforward – just remember the poor bugger was dying of TB and you can’t really go wrong. I have to admit that I struggled with La Belle Dame Sans Merci because I couldn’t really get past the schoolboy translation of the title into The Beautiful Woman Who Didn’t Say Thank You. And, of course his Ode to a Grecian Urn spawned a thousand jokes.

But I digress: I don’t actually think I made much of a fist of the examination questions about your History but I certainly would have been able to demonstrate my knowledge of the text. At fifteen and sixteen I was far too young and callow to admit of any genuine emotional response to a work of fiction but your story has echoed through my life and, over time, I think I have begun to understand why. Firstly it is because you were portrayed as a man ‘cut from the common clay’: neither a hero nor an anti-hero, just a bloke. I appreciated and enjoyed your attempts at cleverness and wisdom through the use of convoluted and ornate language. It echoes my love of words and use of wit to cover my inadequacies and believed shallowness. I still thrill to your phrases of which I think my favourite is ‘funereal bakemeats’.

I liked you because I could relate to you despite my coming from a loving family and a vastly different and more fortunate background than you. You reflected the fact that most people are not wholly villains or heroes, not wholly good or wholly bad but sometimes one and sometimes the other; more the victims of circumstance and timing than innate nature, upbringing, planning or principles. We are all, to some extent, washed along on a tide of inertia and compromise. It seems now that your acquired courage in fighting Uncle Jim reflects the courage of most of us. We need to be pushed to the point where courage becomes an easier option than flight.

Anyway, one way or another, I got a very decent O level pass in English Literature, which was, in part, the key to four wonderful years of further full-time education and on to night school study and good qualifications. More than this though, I believe it inspired me to use my later teens to catch up on reading books, classics, poetry and modern novels and instilled a love of reading and learning that has stayed with me.

So Mr Polly, for all that I owe you thanks. We shall never meet. If we did I doubt that we’d be natural friends but as I settle into the comfort of my older years, I hope you continued your happiness after the vanquishing of Uncle Jim and lived happily ever after.

Thanks again and goodbye.

Rob

Robert Winston McNaughton

Back from the brink of extinction….

There is a sure fire way of reviving the fortunes of rare native species, plants, insects, birds and especially amphibians. Find a piece of land that by topography ought to be where the rare species should reside and apply for planning permission. It’ll do the trick every time.

Robert Winston McNaughton

A Fair Cop

Hello – yes that’s me, Frank Packard, Duty Sergeant, Melchester Central nick. Melchester is a pretty normal mid-sized town. I joined the force from school and I’ve no real complaints. Five years off retiring now, unless the bloody government reneges on its latest set of promises. Anyway this story concerns golf. Specifically a charity golf competition sponsored by one of our local celebs, Billy Rich. You’ll have heard of him of course, comedian and telly game show host. He’s done OK has Billy and like a lot of showbiz folks he’s always up to support some charity or other. This one was for disabled kids.

Anyway the format of these things is fairly standard. The local club draws for members to compete and the sponsoring celebrity drums up other people to play and be a bit of a draw for spectators. Most of the celebrity guest players are his show business mates, local football players and perhaps other local personality faces. There are nominally a few prizes but mostly it’s about getting people to make donations. Billy’s agent had brought a whole crowd of pretty young girls dressed in little more than a few hankies and smiles to circulate and drum up the cash.

I come out of the draw and I am playing in a fourball with Billy’s agent, Manny Nugent who is about 60 going on 45 with a fairly obvious facelift and more than a bit of botox but he seems OK. The other pair is Wayne Lugg, who used to play centre forward for Melchester and remains a bit of a local hero. He now runs a nightclub of sorts, about which the Force has, shall we say, some reservations and his partner is Charles Rance, an accountant and another Club member. I’m off a seven handicap, which is the right side of good and the wrong side of very good. Charles is off 9, Manny 12 and Wayne is 5. On paper it’s a good match. We’re second off. Billy and his four go first. He takes the tee, rips off a couple of fair funnies, nothing naughty with the kids there, and tees off with a nice shot followed by the rest of his four. Then it’s our turn. Obviously Wayne is the main attraction so he gets the honour on the first tee and we follow, relieved that all of us hit at least half decent shots.

It’s on the fourth hole that I start to get a bit worried. Manny was clearly a bit optimistic about a 12 handicap on his current form and hadn’t featured in the scoring so far. In fourballs only the players on each side with the best score on a hole count. At this point I should diverge to tell you something about golf and its rules. Perhaps because it’s a game where it would be so easy to cheat, cheating is just about the worst thing a golfer can do and, even more than cards can get you ostracised p.d.q. with no way back. There is a legendary story about the great Arnold Palmer who went into and played out of a bunker in a very important tournament and then reported himself immediately to the official covering his playing group, saying he’d accidentally touched the ball and had to take a penalty. No one saw it. The television ran it again and again and couldn’t spot the touch. No spectator ever said they saw it but Arnold knew and Arnold called it himself – greatness!

Now I was sure that Manny had hit a Spalding Topfilight number 1 off the tee and I was equally sure that he holed out for a par with a number 7. He’d had a bit of a rummage in the rough to look for his drive. Had he just spotted a lost number 7 and thought it his ball or had he done the other. You can bet I was watching him like a hawk from then on. We started to catch up with and overtake the other two and by the turn at the ninth we were two points up with a very respectable score and I was damn sure Manny was cheating: a little nudge here to improve the lie of his ball and another nearly lost ball incident where I was convinced he dropped a ball down the inside of his trousers.

As a copper and, more importantly, as a golfer I was horrified. I was also on the horns of a dilemma. If it carried on this way we could be in the prizes. If I called him out then it would cast a real cloud over what was supposed to be a happy day out for charity. In the end I did the only thing I could do. Me, Frank Packard, threw the match with some judiciously bad chipping and putting and a lost ball I was actually standing alongside. Back in the clubhouse I had one drink with the four for form’s sake and then faked feeling sick before leaving as soon as I could: not though before I left a little note in Manny’s golf bag.

Dear Mr Nugent,

If ever I hear of you playing in any public golf event again I will call you out as a cheat. Marvellous little things these new phones are with their built in cameras. Take up cards. They shoot you if you cheat at that.

Yours sincerely

Frank Packard, Melchester Constabulary’.

A far as I know he retired to Marbella a couple of months later. Oh, and I had a quiet word with Billy Rich. He’s got a new agent now.

Robert winston McNaughton

Musings

I have just watched a series of three television programmes about the building of the London Cross-Rail line. Two things could not fail to strike the viewer. Firstly the staggering level of human skill, knowledge, learning and sheer talent displayed from the top project and tasks managers and the design engineers involved and secondly that the vast majority of the specialised heavy equipment employed in the work had been imported from Germany.

That even the top managers and designers who are achieving this engineering miracle are paid, at best, salaries that would hardly amount to a fraction of an investment banker’s average annual bonus which, together with the chronic lack of investment in UK engineering manufacturing, seems to say something (maybe everything) about the twisted set of values that marks our nation’s priorities and keeps us behind other western nations. Britain sadly values making money way above earning it.

Robert Winston McNaughton

A Derby Match

With apologies to Roger McGough

Plagerise; why d’you think the good Lord made your eyes.’ (Tom Lehrer)

A Derby Match

young

lovers

playing

footy

together

alone

Liverpool

Everton

star

two

one

crossed

coats

goal

she

attacks

he

defends

she

scores

they

go

off

home

he

scores

 

Robert Winston McNaughton

A Curious Coincidence (True story)

A couple of weeks after the writing group task to imagine I was blind I was asked to collect and drive a blind person to one of our choir’s singing engagements. The choir is pretentiously called the Joyous Praise ‘Rockin’ Gospel Choir, which, apart from being a mouthful is a pretty big claim for a collection of Norfolk people, mostly white and many over pension age! We do our best, as they say. Anyway our musicians are a pianist, a bass player and often, for some songs, a drummer. Edward is our drummer on these occasions and plays a mean pair of African drums in sort of bongo style for us. We have a close relationship with an African drumming group and often play together.

For this ‘gig’ (see how with it I am or would be if ‘with it’ was a current phrase) we just needed Edward’s drums, with Edward of course and Edward is profoundly blind and has been from birth. He is in his late teens or early twenties, the former I think, slim and good looking. Dark glasses always cover his eyes. Apart from this you would not notice his disability. We had passed the odd greeting before but never really talked. His usual lift was not available so I was asked to transport him and his drums.

Five minutes before the due time I arrived at his house, a bit to tucked away for the accuracy of my satnav and Edward was waiting. I already had the drums in my car from the previous night’s practice. Being willing but clueless I asked Edward to just tell me what to do. He pushed me to his right side, caught my elbow lightly and said “OK let’s go.” He folded himself easily into the car, put on the seat belt without a fumble and we were off. At the end of the road he said turn left and the satnav ‘Sally Satnav’ said turn right. “Ignore it,” he said so I did and sure enough his directions got us out of the village on the right road.

So, Edward, what do you do when you’re not drumming?” He replied that he was just finishing a course in performing arts but not, as I might have suspected as a musician but more about the technical aspects, staging, sound, etc. He went on to volunteer that he would be graduating in the next few weeks and had a job interview with the County Council to help people with disabilities to use technology. He was quite matter of factly hoping that being blind would be an advantage. He intrigued me by apologising for not having a white stick and relying on me as a guide. He said he only did it with very good friends or people like the choir, people whom he felt didn’t think that helping him was an imposition. I thought about this for a second and felt quite complimented. As we chatted I began to understand more and more what an intelligent young man he is and how well sorted about his situation. Though he had plenty of blind friends and acquaintances he seemed quite comfortable in the sighted world and confessed his main unhappiness had been a spell in a special blind residential school. He had not liked living in an exclusively ‘blind’ world and become quite depressed.

It was about an hour’s drive to the church where we would be singing and we prattled on with me feeling increasingly comfortable talking back and forth with Edward and me gradually relaxing out of the sadly avuncular tone I’m inclined to use with younger people. Once at the Church, or rather close to it, we parked and with the help of some other choir members who happily turned up at the same time we struggled round with the drums: Edward with a drum under one arm and his hand on my left elbow. I got him sat down in a choir stall and busied myself, returning regularly to let him know that I hadn’t forgotten him. I thought it must be a regular bind for him to be left in strange places and said so. He replied to the effect that it was just an inevitable fact. He asked if it would be in order for him to eat his lunch sitting in the choir stalls of the Church. I assured him that I didn’t mind. I was certain that Jesus wouldn’t and if anyone else did I’d think of a suitable parable. I stayed around whilst he ate just in case anyone did have a different view but it was OK.

Eventually we got sorted out for the performance. Despite the kind things said then and after it wasn’t good. I had a cold and was struggling anyway but the sound was all wrong: too little amplification for the soloists, too much for the bass and piano. Maybe the front of the choir could be heard but I was sure that I and the rest of the men at the back were wasting our voices. Eventually we finished to polite rather than enthusiastic applause and I wasted no time in getting the car and bringing it round to where there was a road access to the church. Getting the drums and Edward back in the car was difficult. It wasn’t Edward that was the problem. It was just moving the drums and stands through the throng of people waiting for the next event and then threading my way through with Edward: he seemingly so sure-footed as we dodged and weaved to the door.

Back on the road and inevitably the post-mortem, “Not good, Edward. How was it from where you where?”

Not good Rob, too much bass and piano, my drums were almost drowned out and the choir needed more and better amplification. I could sort it technically but I’d need help with all the plugs and wires. Really we need better kit.”

We agreed something had to be done but quite what neither of us was sure. I know I had struggled with a cold, which didn’t help my already doubtful voice. I said so to Edward and he confirmed that he hadn’t even heard me. I remarked, “No change there then.”

No, not true. I can usually hear your voice well. Your timing is very good.” I felt complimented despite the fact that probably my timing is the only good thing about my singing.

Eventually we made it back to Edward’s house to be met by his Mother who thanked me too much for taking Edward. I thanked Edward and his mother and assured them it had been a pleasure. It was. As I drove away I reflected that it had been more than a pleasure. It had been a privilege. I think being around Edward will always be a privilege.

Robert Winston McNaughton