Tuesday, 31 October 2006

Things that go bump in the night

I blame The Dick Van Dyke Show. Or possibly Bewitched. At any rate, I’m sure that it was one of those wholesome, 1960s, American family comedies that introduced us to the dreaded transatlantic concept of ‘trick or treating’.

In my childhood we just used to wander round the Fairways estate in a disconsolate sort of way, holding turnip lanterns. I realise now that this must have been an authentic folk custom because we met the crucial test that Thomas Hardy set to identify genuine West Country morris dancers from Victorian revivalists: we exuded misery as we went about it.

It wasn’t seen as a fund-raising opportunity. That was reserved for ‘Penny for the Guy’. What a contrast with 2006, when 31 October brings you the annual convenience of being mugged on your own doorstep.

All over the country tonight, terrified pensioners will be huddled behind their sofas with the lights off, pretending to be out, while the bolder spirits will be lurking behind their own front doors with Army surplus flame-throwers poking out through their letter boxes, preparing to cackle in an appropriately maniacal way as they yell ‘How’s that for a trick, kid?’

The supernatural itself will, as usual, not be much in evidence. In 50-odd years, I’ve only had three encounters that seemed to defy rational explanation, only one of which could be deemed vaguely scary. So the occult comes pretty low down my league table of terrors, well below Gordon Brown, Osama bin Laden, teenagers and dentistry.

Shortly after I moved to my current home, I pulled over on a narrow road to allow an old man to pass with his horse and cart. Only when I looked up after completing the manoeuvre, he wasn’t and never had been there.

A couple of years later, shortly after my mother died, my then partner and I were walking our dog when he ran off, wagging his tail furiously, and gave an effusive greeting to someone or something that neither of us could see. My mother loved that dog. Who else could it have been? And, yes, he has done a number of other mad things over the succeeding 14 years, but he’s never pulled another stunt even vaguely like that.

More recently, I was sleeping soundly in an Oxford college when I was rudely awoken by the bedside lamp apparently being hurled at me. It was 2 a.m. on an uncomfortably clammy midsummer night, yet the room was as cold as a walk-in freezer. Having dined well, I didn’t spend too long thinking about this, but pulled the covers over my head and went back to sleep. The following day, I discovered that it was but the latest in a long series of similar incidents reported over many years, often at precisely the same time of night. Though mercifully less dramatic than some of them, which tended to involve doors being opened unexpectedly by disembodied hands.

All these things had been reported by intelligent people who had probably drunk more than is good for them. Maybe that explains it. All I know is that, although I have been back to that college for other dinners, I’ve always spent the night in an hotel.

According to a TV documentary last week, some of us will never have the opportunity to walk the earth again on Hallowe’en, because we shall never die. Just hang on until 2029, presumably pass some hugely divisive test of suitability, and your brain will be downloaded to a computer so that you can think great thoughts or play snap for all eternity. At least until some passing cleaner pulls your plug out. Listening to the wide-eyed scientists who are so looking forward to this – the sort of men whose idea of work is controlling rats by putting electrodes in their brains – it is hard not to agree strongly with Evelyn Waugh’s dictum: all fates are worse than death.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 24 October 2006

The Real History Boys

At the start of this month I went to a London preview of the film of The History Boys. The author himself was there, doing his celebrated impersonation of Alan Bennett. And it was a good night out – if not quite as gripping as the original play. It was also a strangely eerie experience for someone who actually spent an extra term in the sixth form of a northern grammar school preparing for the Oxbridge scholarship examinations in history, albeit a decade before the film is set.

They don’t have entrance scholarships at Oxbridge any more, of course. Far too elitist in an age that prefers to focus on dumbing down, increasing diversity and improving access. Though, funnily enough, more northern working class children got into Oxford and Cambridge in my day than now, thanks to those dreadfully divisive grammar schools. A system that was enthusiastically smashed up by politicians of both major parties on the grounds that, if an opportunity can’t be made available to absolutely everyone, it must be denied to all.

Here I’d like to state a few controversial facts. First, academic education is inevitably elitist. Second, some children are too thick to benefit from it. Third, sending the thickoes to fringe institutions re-branded as ‘universities’ and handing them BSc degrees in lawn maintenance or macramĂ© is achieving absolutely nothing for this country either socially or economically, and risks making us an international laughing stock.

Having got that off my chest, how accurate is The History Boys? Well, it’s not much like the Royal Grammar School in 1971. We didn’t work like navvies all term. Sauntering in for one lesson per day was more like it. Nor did we receive the attentions of any serial gropers. (Yes, I know I could have been the exception, as no-one wants to grope the fat one, but I’ve checked with a number of my contemporaries and they all say the same.)

But the real difference is this. The most daring thing anyone does in the film (apart from the groping and ‘coming out’) is to light a cigarette. Not a drop of alcohol crosses anyone’s lips. There could hardly be a greater contrast with my own days in the sixth form, which were positively awash with beer.

At the RGS in the early 1970s, we had a civilised understanding: the boys went to the Collingwood about 400 yards from the school, and the masters went to the Brandling next door. Every lunchtime, every evening. We must have spent the afternoons reeking of beer, though I don’t recall anyone being obviously the worse for wear.

The proudest moment of my school career – far better than being handed the lower sixth history prize by Lord Robens – was the day that some act of petty vandalism led to the Collingwood temporarily barring schoolboys. As we walked disconsolately towards the door, Betty the landlady called me back. ‘Not you, Keith. You’re a regular.’ I was 16 at the time, and I’ve been trying to replicate that feeling of social acceptance ever since.

It must have been so for generations. At a school reunion dinner many years later, I ran into a man who had gone up to Cambridge, in the early 1950s. On his first day, a friendly don told him to come to his house if he found himself out of college after hours, rather than risk impaling himself drunkenly on the railings. He asked whether the don made this offer to everyone. ‘Oh no,’ he replied. ‘Just the boys from your school.’

The RGS is all changed now: co-educational, forward-looking, brimming with high-tech facilities. The desks on which we were taught are literally in Beamish museum, and there is a powerful rumour that they have even painted the lavatories. There are no Oxbridge scholarships for the boys and girls to win. So what I’d like to know is: does this allow them to spend even more time in the pub?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 17 October 2006

What have you got to hide?

It’s quite difficult to write a vaguely topical column that doesn’t risk offending someone, and these days there are so many sensitive minorities one has to worry about. Virtually everyone, in fact, apart from fat people, who are apparently fair game for anything. Though this may be a special editorial dispensation because I am, as my tailor kindly put it last week, ‘a little portly’ myself. After all, comedians from minority groups seem to be free to describe themselves in words that would provoke riots if they were used by outsiders.

During the eight weeks that I’ve been away, pondering on these matters, I’ve channelled all my creative energies into growing a beard. I knew it had worked when I spent an hour or so having lunch at the next table to the esteemed editor of this paper, and he completely failed to recognise me. So I reckon I should be pretty safe if this article results in the declaration of a fatwa by, say, the members of the Alnwick & Rothbury Secret Eaters pie-guzzling club. With my beard and newish multi-focal glasses, the biggest risk I now run will be from bowler-hatted extremists mistaking me for Gerry Adams.

I’m a bit of a pognophobe myself, ironically. Whenever I see another man with a beard, I think (a) lazy so-and-so, and (b) what has he got to hide? Similar arguments apply to other forms of facial and head covering, whether it be the ubiquitous hoodie, the balaclavas favoured by animal rights fanatics, or the Muslim ladies’ veil. As a libertarian, I think that everyone should be allowed to wear what they like. And if the veil annoys the more rampant female liberationists among us – well, too bad. They could always assert their freedom and independence by wandering around topless, to show the less progressive how it should be done.

Alternatively, if we want to avoid civil war, we could all adopt that old maxim: if you can’t beat them, join them. I mean, which would you rather encounter in Narrowgate as you try to make your way round Alnwick? A Secret Eater in tight leggings and an fcuk T-shirt, or one in a voluminous burka? Exactly. Very slimming, black is. Added to which, extensive tests have proved that it is impossible to insert a pie into the mouth while wearing an outer garment that covers the entire body, apart from a narrow slit for the eyes. Over time, this could prove to be the greatest advance in public health since the discovery of penicillin, and the salvation of the NHS.

We could also crack the whole ‘oppression of women’ issue if men started wearing them, too. I’m quite prepared to take a lead on this, if only for the pleasure of thinking how much use the billions of pounds worth of CCTV cameras dotted around the country will be once the burka becomes our universal uniform. It’ll also be great fun when we turn up at our local cop shop to be registered for the Dear Leader’s cherished ID card scheme, and explain that it is against our deepest principles to take them off.

There are plenty of empty shops in Alnwick (though not as many as there will be once Aldi and Sainsbury’s open up) and as a public service and a money-making opportunity, I’m going to take one on as the first north of England branch of Burkas Are Us. We’ll stock a full range of sizes (extra large, huge, enormous) and colours (black, coal, incredibly dark grey). And as a special opening offer, I’ve just procured an unusual line in burkas from the USA. These ones are white, and come complete with a funny pointy hat. I reckon they’ll be just the thing to wear when participating in that other ghastly American import: trick or treating on Hallowe’en.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.