Category Archives: My House

Home is the sailor, home from the sea, And the hunter home from the hill

When we were first married, my wife and I bought a house in the Meadows area of Nottingham. This was traditionally a place of slums, crime and general unpleasantness, but at the time, the early 1980s, huge numbers of unhealthy hovels were being demolished to be replaced by newly built, better quality, council houses, as they were then called. Mixed in with all the rented accommodation though, was a small estate of private houses, and we bought one of those. When we first moved in, we were surrounded by a vast building site:

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In the background is Nottingham Castle, which has very little remaining from the medieval period and dates mostly from the 1670s. It is perhaps most famous for being the trademark on Players Cigarettes:

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And now, it must be nine minutes past four and the teaching day is ended and I have driven home at top speed:

“Home is the sailor, home from the sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.”

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I used to have an old 1964 Hillman Minx De Luxe, with the registration plate BLT 141B. It was my first car, and I loved it dearly. I wish I could have it back again. It had previously belonged to my Dad, Fred, who loved it even more than I did. When the seventeen-year-old car failed its last roadworthiness test, he was so glad that I took the trouble to drive it, fairly illegally, the 35 miles to his house, just so that he could then drive it himself on its last ever journey down to the scrapyard.
This beautiful blue car was “the one” as far as Fred’s motoring career was concerned. One day in 1966, he took me with him to nearby Derby and we visited Peveril Garage, on Friar Gate, up near the headquarters of the Derby County Supporters’ Club:

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Fred told me not to mention anything whatsoever about the day to my mother, not under any circumstances. Without any consultation with her at all, therefore, he bought this marvellous car, which was priced at £510. In those days, that was a princely sum indeed. If truth be told, it was actually a total sufficiently royal, that when my mother did eventually find out what he had done, she would have had Fred beheaded if she could have organised it.

The car was a rich blue, half way between sky blue and navy blue, with a black side stripe picked out in metallic chrome. In later years, when he had problems with rust on one of the wings, Fred was to opt for a total re-spray, which allowed him to retain the same colour blue for the body, but to incorporate a black roof which added that extra, unique, little detail to his beloved car:

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At this time, I had only recently passed my driving test, so, while I waited for the green “Provisional” plates to be invented, I retained my Learner plates, with the Big Red Ell on them. That was enough to be pulled over by a young policeman, apparently tired of arresting burglars, drug dealers, terrorists, murderers and bank robbers. Still, no hard feelings.
And here I am, looking like the man who designs the stage costumes for a 1970s pop group:

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I am wearing my favourite wide lapel purple jacket which had a wonderful Polyester feel to it. My shirt was short sleeved and chequered in pink and white. My extra wide tie was scarlet, and again, made of Polyester for easy cleaning. My glasses were gold-rimmed and my hair was a deep delicious dark brown without the slightest trace of grey:

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I had probably been wearing a pair of trousers throughout my day as a teacher, but they are not visible in this photograph. They may well have been my favourite pair ever, which were generously flared and mid-grey with an emphatic large black check design all over them. This created a whole series of huge squares perhaps four or five inches in size. I eventually gave these show stealers to a charity for the homeless in Africa. I often wonder who got them and what he made of them. Conceivably, some kind of shelter.

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Filed under Criminology, History, Humour, My House, Nottingham, Personal

It’s the Witching Hour : Story Number Eleven

Number 11

“E pur si muove” : “And yet it moves” (Galileo Galilei)

When my father, Fred, died in hospital at the age of eighty, his wristwatch was found to have stopped at 11.04. I went round to his house a couple of days later to check everything was all right, and I found that the old brown wooden clock in the sitting room, which had been a wedding present some fifty or more years earlier, had also stopped at that very same time of 11.04. This is like his sitting room clock, but the time is wrong:

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Towards the end of his life, Fred had been both blind and bed ridden and his house had become very neglected. During the period after Fred’s death, both my wife and I spent a lot of time cleaning and redecorating all the different rooms.

As we did this, day after day, on more than one occasion, we both smelt what we thought was my mother Jean’s perfume. It was as if she were watching over us in approval as we dusted and hoovered. I suppose that if that were the case, then it should not have been too surprising, given that Jean was a typical 1950s housewife, always cleaning and re-cleaning, and immensely house proud.

At this time, my brother, Ken, who had always been so firmly convinced that the house was haunted, refused to go into the empty property on his own. He had always had the idea that spirits, whether good or bad, are pushed into the background by human activity, but that when potentially haunted houses are empty, then the ghosts will begin to claim them back as their own. Ken certainly believed in the story of the little man who had lived there in the 1940s.

Similar feelings were expressed by my daughter Lauren. As I mentioned above, during that period immediately after Fred’s death, my wife and I were readying Fred’s house to be put on the market. We were spending all of our time cleaning, painting and decorating.  Meanwhile, Lauren sat upstairs in the smaller of the two bedrooms revising for her imminent GCSE examinations. She spent all of her time sitting with her back to the wall, scared stiff as she worked. She felt that there was somebody else in the room with her, but that they really did not like her being there. These disquieting feelings only came when she was on her own. As soon as anybody came into the room to see her, all her fears disappeared.

It is easy to dismiss ideas like these out of hand, but it is a little like the difference between walking through a graveyard at three o’clock on a sunlit afternoon:

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as opposed to three o’clock in the cold, dark depths of a winter’s night:

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With this idea in mind, on the very last evening before the contracts were exchanged and Fred’s house passed out of my possession forever, I decided to do an all-night vigil in an effort to experience something ghostly.

To cut a potentially long story short, I saw or heard absolutely nothing. But, at the same time, though, I was, throughout the entire night, so scared that I never did manage to switch the lights out. I really was very frightened. And, just like Lauren, I too spent all my time sitting with my back to a wall.  Read into that what you will.

There were other strange happenings as well as the stopping of the wristwatch and the old wooden clock. We were experiencing them, I suspect, because we were clearing out Fred’s house after his death. It is very frequently said, for example, that building work, and many other types of physical change such as painting or wallpapering, are extremely good for provoking a strong reaction from any ghosts that may be present.

One day, I had been cleaning and painting the living room. This was the downstairs room where Fred had spent the last two, painful, years of his life, except for his stays in hospital. He had a bed, an armchair, a commode and a television, so he was self-contained in a sad, forlorn sort of way.

That particular day, we had reached lunchtime, and my wife and daughter were outside in Fred’s old summerhouse, finishing off their fish and chips from Renée’s Fish Bar. For some reason I now forget, I was alone. Suddenly, I had the strangest feeling that Fred was there in the room with me. I called out to him,

“Are you there, Dad? It’s me, your son, John. If you are there, give me a sign.”

Straightaway, the curtains in the window looking out towards the garage and the concrete drive where Fred had parked his cars for so many years, began to shake and move. Then they stopped. I waited a few seconds and then called out for a second time.

“Is that you, Dad? If you are there, then make the curtains move again.”

Without delay, the curtains again began to move. I went outside, and called in my daughter, Lauren. I told her to come into the living room and just to stand still and watch, and not to say a word. I called out to Fred for a third time,

“Are you there, Dad? This is your granddaughter, Lauren. If you are still there, give her a sign. Make the curtains move like you did for me.”

Immediately, again the curtains began to move, and then stopped. I turned to Lauren, and asked her if they had actually moved, and that it was not just a coincidence. She replied that she had seen the curtains, and that, yes, they had moved, and that apparently, it had been in response to my request.

So, for a fourth, and final time, I called out loudly,

“Are you still there, Dad? If you are, make the curtains move again.”

And sure enough, they did. I have no explanation for these events other than the supernatural.

There was no window open. No door was open. The central heating radiators underneath the window were switched on throughout the entire episode, but this would not explain the fact that the curtains actually came to a fairly abrupt stop on four separate occasions. Neither was it my imagination or wishful thinking. That was one of the reasons why I asked Lauren to come in and be a witness to events. And to this day, she maintains, Galileo-like, that, yes, the curtains did move.

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Not surprisingly, perhaps, for quite a while afterwards, Fred was to appear in my dreams. There was one that stood out among the rest.

This dream took place on a huge luxurious ocean liner, standing around a grand piano which stood at the meeting point of several long and wide corridors:

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Fred was standing there, listening to the pianist who was tinkling away at the ivories in rather desultory fashion. I was talking to Fred, and was trying to trap him into giving me details about the afterlife.

“Where do you live now then, Dad?”, I asked.

“You know that already.”, he said with a slight smile.

“And where you will you go tonight ?”, I asked. “Where will you sleep after we’ve left ?

He did not offer any reply.

“Well, Dad, will I be able to come and see you sometime?”

“Of course you will come and see me…..one day,” he replied, with a strange, wry look, and then walked off for ever down one of the corridors.

I have had no real contact with Fred since, but deep down, I am sure that this will not be the end of the story.

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Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History, My Garden, My House, Personal

Hallowe’en Tales : Numbers Five and Six

Number Five

The UFO

It was perhaps in the first half of 1959, a spring and summer of bright white clouds, bright blue skies and bright warm days. I was in the first year at Junior School, in Miss Cartwright’s class. I must have been seven years old. It was the morning of a late spring or early summer’s day, and we had just finished morning playtime, with little bottles of milk and the excitement of straws.

Before each class went back into their classroom, the teachers used to make the whole school line up, in an orderly fashion. Once everybody was quiet and behaving themselves, the classes could start to go in. We members of Class 6 were patiently awaiting our turn, when we all became aware of what even we, as small children, could immediately identify as an unidentified flying object. It was moving silently toward the south west, and was to all intents and purposes, like a grey, or perhaps metallic silver Zeppelin airship:

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It was not like any of these obviously fabricated modern UFOs:

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Under the main section of the craft, which was like a short, stubby cigar in shape, there was some kind of gondola, which was of the same colour, and had a number of conspicuous round portholes in the side. There must have been at least four of them.

I have not found any exact match for the UFO we all saw, but these two are both close. There weren’t any lights on the ends, though, and both drawings lack the gondola, which carried the portholes:

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The UFO was only a few hundred feet up, at perhaps the same height that we used to see the Vickers Viscounts and Canadair Argonauts from Burnaston Airport flying over:

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There were of course, no airships in 1959. I myself was a keen plane spotter, and in any case, at the time I watched it, I was sure that this was no plane. I still know the boy who was in front of me in the queue. I see him from time to time even now, fifty five years later. He too has no way of explaining away one of our most vivid childhood memories, despite having grown wise with a wrinkled face and long white hair.

Number Six

Mad Bill

Over the years, my friend Stuart Taylor was to tell me many stories about the ghosts which either he, his mother or his father had either seen or heard. At the time I believed him implicitly, although as we have drifted apart, and I have heard more about him from other sources, I have begun perhaps to doubt the veracity of much of what he told me. I find it difficult to explain away, however, the story of Mad Bill.

Near to Nottingham, at Netherfield, the main railway line to Grantham runs over the River Trent, and over the frequently flooded water meadows alongside it. The railway line crosses the river on a long, cast iron viaduct, which was constructed around 1850. The orange arrow points towards the viaduct:

land orth of

Popular legend among the railway workers said that in the depths of the night, as they worked on the track near the ageing viaduct, men would occasionally hear what was known as “Mad Bill”.

“Mad Bill” was a strange ghostly manifestation, and consisted of what sounds like somebody throwing down, very loudly and very angrily, a huge old empty oil drum. There is then a delay while Mad Bill apparently walks across to pick the oil drum up again, before throwing it down, and then beginning the process all over again. Nobody has ever seen anything, and it all sounds rather ridiculous, although as Stuart pointed out, these things can seem a little more serious when you’re all alone on the viaduct in the pitch dark at three o’clock in the morning, going back to retrieve a hammer or a shovel you’ve left behind.

“Mad Bill” always occurred on the isolated farmland to the north of the viaduct, which is still indicated by an orange arrow:

viaduct

“Mad Bill” could also be heard on the lonely fields to the south:

land to th south

One winter’s day, I was out bird watching with Stuart, on a gravel pit, next to the viaduct. It was around three o’clock in the afternoon, when suddenly every single bird took to the sky in blind panic. That is usually a sign that a raptor is about, and we scanned the heavens eagerly with our binoculars, in the hope of finding a Peregrine, or some other bird of prey.

We didn’t see one of course. But we did hear something, over on the far side of the river, on the deserted and inaccessible water meadows. It sounded just like some muscle bound idiot smashing a very large and empty oil drum onto the ground. It was still daylight, and we were able to check the area. There was nobody there, and as far as we could see, we were the only people for miles around.

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A peaceful dove in the garden

One regular visitor to our garden is the “Stock Dove” whose scientific name is columba oenas. This bird is a kind of pigeon, but a very unusual one for a city.

Normally, Stock Doves live out in the countryside and may congregate in their hundreds to feed in fields or on stubble which has been recently harvested. They also like to live in the parkland which surrounds large country houses. In England there are some 260,000 breeding pairs of Stock Doves but they are certainly an unexpected bird in a city suburb full of traditional 1930s houses like our own. Apparently, there has been an isolated colony of Stock Doves in suburban Sherwood for at least the last seventy years. They might even date back to the period before the houses were ever built:

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First of all, let’s eliminate the Wood Pigeon with the prominent white mark on its neck. This bird is a fantastic flier. It is the Lockheed Hercules of the bird world:

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It can easily manage sixty miles an hour or more, and it can easily do vertical take-offs, but its facial expression is permanently that of a slightly apprehensive, brainless, gormless idiot:

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Stock Doves are not feral pigeons either. Stock Doves have dark eyes, whereas the feral pigeon’s eyes are often red. Feral pigeons frequently have diseased feet. A group of feral pigeons will never have any real uniformity of plumage. Any dark marks they may have on their wings will be a lot longer and more extensive than the markings on the wings of a Stock Dove:

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The markings of a Stock Dove are consistent. An iridescent green patch on the neck and two dark marks on the ends of the wings. As well as dark eyes, they also have pink legs and feet:

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Like all birds, they have a nictitating membrane to protect the eye, in this case as the bird feeds with potentially harmful plant leaves to contend with:

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These are probably male and female. In birds of prey, the female is larger than the male, but otherwise, in almost every other species of bird, the female is 15% or so smaller. You would normally not notice this, but when the two are together, it can be quite obvious:

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Unlike feral pigeons, Stock Doves are quiet, almost shy birds and can be very self-effacing:

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As promised, a beautiful bird in the garden

In a previous blogpost I extolled at great length the many ways in which a fascinating plant called the teasel was extremely beneficial to wildlife. In the summer therefore, our garden played host to a number of lovely butterflies:

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The teasel also kept us human beings interested by drowning passing insects and slowly absorbing the chemicals from their bodies. Here is the teasel in flower:

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I hope you have not forgotten though, how I made a solemn promise that, when the seeds had matured, the seed heads would play host to one of our most beautiful birds, the Goldfinch.
They should have been here in autumn, but now, at last, they have finally made their long awaited appearance. I, of course, missed them on their first visit, but my daughter and fellow blogger saw them and took a few photographs. Here are some of them.

Firstly, it may actually be a case of “Spot the bird”:

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Not always an easy decision to make:

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Yes, at last, a Goldfinch:

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As far as I know, the males and females are the same:

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At least, they look it:

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Be like Mary Poppins! Feed the birds!

Now is the time in this cold weather when you should be feeding the birds, even if you have done very little so far. You can save the life of a robin just by buying a packet of digestive biscuits. Every day, take two biscuits, crunch them up into a powder in your hands, and put that powder down on the ground in an area where he might come and eat it.

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If you can, try to put food out in the same place every day, and you may well find that the robin becomes really tame. Apparently, robins evolved in the forests of Stone Age England to follow great huge fat wild boars around the place, so as you might imagine, I am having great success with my new little feathered friend.

A wild boar in autumn forest

After only a week, “Rockin’ Robin” sits in the bushes and waits for me to go out in the morning and feed him. As I arrive he seems to cheep a three syllable greeting which I have taken to mean “Good-Mor-Ning”. When I leave, he manages two syllables which I hope are “Thank-You”. I may however be mistaken in these interpretations. The little chap, though, is certainly very tame and I think if I had the time I might be able to train him to perch on my hand and take the food directly from there. Anyway two digestive biscuits is not a lot to ask.
If you want to go any further then you could refer back to my blog post about erecting your bird table. It was called “The five golden double entendres of buying a bird table”. Even if you do not have a bird table you can still put food down, perhaps a few feet or so away from where you feed the robin.

It is best in my opinion to buy ready-made specialised food rather than your own food scraps from meals. After various experiments, we have found that the best value is Wilkos where the bird food is cheap and seems to be of a good enough quality for the birds to eat it quite happily. If you have bird feeders, the best thing to buy is sunflower seeds which are cheap, and birds such as blue tits seem to absolutely love them. Alternatively, seed eating birds and robins and dunnocks all seem to like the finch food.

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Of course you can still buy peanuts and put them in your peanut feeder. Do not eat them yourself.

Robins enjoy small bird food and any suet-based product.

The great thing about Wilkos is that you can order delivery at a specific branch and then you go and pick it up. It’s free. And no, I am not paid to advertise Wilkos. It’s just that I know from my own experience that they are cheap and the birds like them. There are lots of companies on the Internet who will be only too pleased to send you bird food (“Our special blend”) but you will pay enormous amounts of money for the privilege. Among ordinary bird watchers, this is a very well-known method of separating  a well intentioned nice person from their hard earned cash.
The finch seed does not contain wheat or grass seeds. A lot of the foods sold in shops seems to contain these two and it means that in the spring you will get a lot of unexpected grasses growing up, probably where you don’t want them. On the other hand if you have always wanted your very own mini wheat field they are absolutely excellent.

Unfortunately many bird foods may also attract wood pigeons and squirrels, both of which will behave like living vacuum cleaners.  They are quite capable of eating every single bit of food that you have put out in about ten minutes. When squirrels or wood pigeons arrive you should chase them away if it’s the early part of the day and then the little birds will get their chance.

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Once it gets towards late afternoon though, the squirrels and the wood pigeons will do quite a good job of clearing up any surplus food that might otherwise attract our nocturnal little ratty friends. The same can be said about the special squirrel proof cages which can be put on the ground over the top of your bird food. We don’t have one of these but somebody told me that they work very well in the sense that squirrels are too big to get through the holes in the cage, but unfortunately, the holes are small enough to let in rats.
Overall I would encourage you to experiment in the way that you feed the birds. More or less anything that you do will be appreciated by them. Every year the people of north-western Europe save the lives of hundreds of millions of birds who otherwise would die in the cold. And on a less elevated level, the birds will soon become your friends and you can spend many a happy hour watching them and if you feel so inclined, singing to them. You may even have the time to learn the words to a well-known song in Hungarian:

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Next door’s cat, Secret Agent 007

To his neighbours, this individual always used to be regarded, quite simply, as “next-door’s cat”.

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We did not know that he was a deeply placed secret agent. Fifteen years ago, he was an inhabitant of London, the abandoned offspring of unknown feral parents. He was saved by his present owner who took him in as a very tiny kitten and fed him milk through a pipette hour after hour, day and night, until he was big enough to feed himself. And she continues to feed him generously, every day, and he sleeps in her house every night. He is, we all presume, her cat.
Occasionally, when her little boy gets a bit boisterous, and feels like a good chase game, the cat, who rejoices in the name of Ying Yang, will come over to our house for a few hours. His favourite occupation is lying on the very same wooden bench which used to be in the garden of my parents’ house, and on which their own cat, Sam, loved to sun herself.

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Imagine my wife’s amazement, though, when she went up the Avenue to check arrangements with our neighbours about where our visiting builders’ van might park. Not only was Ying Yang there, but he had his very own food bowl. The neighbour sincerely believed that he had taken in a stray cat, which now belonged to him, because he fed it copiously on a regular basis. He did not know where his cat went to at night, but that didn’t matter because lots of male cats like to wander around during the darkness hours and then return in the morning.

The most amazing thing, though, was that Ying Yang himself quite clearly recognised my wife, but pretended not to. He ignored her totally. That may sound a little anthropomorphic, but she is absolutely certain that that is what he was doing.
You can imagine how pleased his real owner was when she heard of Ying Yang’s secret life, as somebody else’s cat.

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The amazing thing, though, was that even on a minimum of at least twice the meals he should be getting each day, he doesn’t really seem ever to put on too much weight. That makes me feel very jealous indeed!
How many cats do this? How many spend part of the day and the night with one owner, and the rest of the time with what we must consider the victim of a very slick confidence trickster?

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