Going to Portsmouth

My Dad was too young to serve in World War 2, unlike his older brother, who served in the Navy in the Pacific. When it was his time to do National Service, Dad entered the Navy himself, and was stationed at Portsmouth for at least some of his Service. I don’t know where he went or what he did: he fell ill and died before I was of an age to have intelligent conversations with him. All I have is an old photo of him in his uniform. Nor is there anyone left who could tell me things he had told them about these times.

For a couple of years, I’ve been considering a trip to Portsmouth, to see the Naval Dockyard, to see what Dad saw, even if filtered through the prism of seventy years, to make one more attempt to gain even a degree more insight into what he thought and felt. I usually take off to the Lakes for a day each November, as part off the week I take off for my birthday, but this time I decided it was right for a more complicated and longer-lasting expedition.

And now two legs have been put in place. Firstly, I booked two nights in Portsmouth, Tuesday and Wednesday, for a very low price. That came out of last month’s salary. Today, I have booked my train travel, Stockport to Portsmouth Harbour Tuesday lunchtime, returning to Stockport Thursday morning, paid for out of this month’s salary. I am going to Portsmouth, I am going to see the Harbour, I will be visiting Hampshire for the first time, reducing to four the number of English counties I have never yet visited or at least traversed.

All that remains is to choose, and book, the one or more tours etc. available at the Naval Dockyard. I am going to Portsmouth, I’m following in Father’s footsteps, I’m following the Dear old Dad.

And You May Find Yourself – *New Novel*

It’s taken me a great deal longer than I’d expected, given that I’d produced the final draft by February 2019, but I’ve finally published my latest novel, my ninth in total.

And You May Find Yourself is a direct sequel to Love Goes to Building on Sand, which came out in 2018. Though it features the same ‘hero’, and many of the same characters, it couldn’t be more different, in that the first book was largely based in real events, and the sequel is the opposite. It’s working title was ‘The Wildly Overdue Wish-Fulfillment Fantasy’.

And as of tonight, it’s available through Lulu.com for £9.99 and P&P, and for your comfort and convenience, you may use this link. Order it, read it, enjoy it and writeand tell me just how good it is. So what if you have to lie a bit, friends do that for friends.

And in case you’re wondering, I am about two-thirds of the way through the first draft of the third (and final) book, which you can look for in 2020 if we still have a functioning country left by then.

And the next one, please!

Writing can be weird at times. For several years, I went through a period where I simply could not organise my thinking to write novel-length fiction. I made a fair few starts that all petered out at various stages, because I could not maintain concentration.

By transcribing and re-writing a thirty-year old first draft, I seem to have rediscovered those skills.

With that has come an increasing obsession with writing, and with writing every day. Sometimes this manifests in posts for my blog – I currently have four regularly scheduled series and two irregular ones, not counting the increasing number of responses to people dying I find myself have to write – but the novel writing has once again asserted itself as my personal imperative.

2018 was the year of the eventually titled And You May Find Yourself, a sequel to that recovered thirty year old novel. At first, it wasn’t a book project: I just found myself imagining what happened in the future of my fictional counterpart in Love Goes to Building On San, until I’d got so many mixed scenes it was clear there was a narrative here.

I have still more scenes in their ongoing future, but without a narrative, some overarching story, to link them, they’ll only remain in my imagination.

Over Xmas/New Year, I had a major push on And You May Find Yourself. I finished the Third Draft, I did a Fourth Draft revision on certain chapters, I collated a print copy version ready to upload to Lulu.com and I tweaked it so that everything was correct. One way to tell that you’ve finished a book completely is when you get thoroughly sick of going backwards and forwards through the damned thing. On that basis, And You May Find Yourself was finished on the evening of Wednesday, 2 January.

Which meant that I woke up on the morning of Thursday 3 January feeling empty and directionless, without anything to write. Seriously. I had no blogposts I can work on, no novel in my head, what was I going to do?

There was only one answer: as I said above, I had three or four books in differing stages of being started. When I had taken October off to let And You May Find Yourself breathe before I started the Third Draft, I’d picked up one of those, and used the month to rewrite the first, extant, seven chapters and drive the story along to a cliffhanger point. And, after a few minutes mentally improvising some subsequent dialogue, I started work on the next novel. A page or two at the start of the next chapter, some comprehensive notes covering a near future scene, I am back in business. Let’s try to finish this one in six months.

Not Totally Decrepit Yet

It’s been a while since I last deliberately set out for a long walk on city streets, long here being defined as further than our nearby ASDA and then some.

It’s not exactly been a habit of mine, but there have been plenty of occasions when I’ve happily set off to walk a long distance, without any thought of the time and effort this requires. Not since the London Museum Tryptich of 2016, I think (the Eskdale Expedition doesn’t count: despite being 99% tarmac, it was still fell-walking, albeit it in the lowest degree).

It’s been a quiet week, the days slipping by imperceptibly. It’s hard to imagine that this is already Friday and that only the weekend remains before a return to work, albeit for one day early. I’ve barely been out and I haven’t gone far, but today I had to make a trip to the Chemists next to my Doctor’s surgery, to collect a repeat prescription I carelessly failed to sort out before Xmas.

Ordinarily, I’d hop on the bus: ten minutes each way, plus whatever waiting time the 203 requires. Except that my weekly MegaRider card ran out on Xmas Day and I haven’t renewed it yet because I haven’t needed to. Simple solution: renew it, pay for a week’s journeys.

But I didn’t want to do that. I have places to go on Saturday and wanted to renew my MegaRider then instead. The difference is that whichver day I renew, I am starting a seven day pattern of renewals the same day every week, which means having the cash available the same day each week, and it’s going to be easier to do that for Saturdays rather than Fridays.

So, what’s the plan, Stan? I could pay each way on the bus (vastly inflated), or buy a DayRider (less expensive but not worth it for only two trips), or I could walk, there and back.

Which begged the question of fitness for that length of walk, which is, I guess, about two miles each way. I used to be capable of longer walks than that, and when I was having my counselling in Chinley, it was pretty much a mile for station to cottage, and most of it uphill, in hot weather. Nevertheless, I haven’t set out to walk that distance, in cold blood, for a long while. And whilst the age thing isn’t necessarily a problem, the osteoarthritis thing definitely is. I walk with a faint but noticable limp these days.

Due to my basic inertia, I didn’t get myself out until 2.20pm. Plan A was to walk there and back, but I had my fallback positions. Plan B would come into operation if, having got there, I was in too much pain, or general disintegration, to walk back, so I’d get the bus. Plan C represented the extreme position, of being in too much pain, or general disintegration, to walk the whole way there, and having to catch a bus partway.

Nevertheless, I strolled off with what approximates to briskness for me nowadays, pausing briefly at my local McColls for this week’s EuroMillions Lottery ticket (I must check the last couple of months’ worth, in the vain hope of not having to go into work on Monday) before pushing on.

It’s a simple route, straight up Reddish Road/Gorton Road, flat all the way except for the bit just before the halfway mark at Houldsworth Square, where it’s up and down over Reddish South Railway Station, where only one train a week runs. It would cost more to get permission to close the station entirely than to run one train a week through it, the minimum required, so for literal decades that’s been the schedule, though I noticed the timetable now admits two trains a week, request stop only, Stalybridge to Stockport and back Saturday mornings: one day I’ll take that journey, for the hell of it and to say I’ve been through Reddish South Station.

By Houldsworth Square, I was flagging, in the sense that I was no longer walking brskly, but I was in no danger of calling on Plan C so, at a gentle stroll, I pushed on northwards. This was not as tiresome as the trek to Trafford Park for those two undelivered parcels, and though the weather was dull and grey, at least it wasn’t wet.

I reached the lights at the Fir Tree and crossed the road to turn down Longford Road West and into the chemists. There were no other customers, I was served on the spot, my prescription was ready, I wasn’t off my feet for even sixty seconds: bugger!

Back to the main road, and no need for Plan B, so I set off back. Passing Reddish North Library, I took a break for a short browse, picking up three lightweight books (I mean in terms of readability, though as I was proposing to carry these back, their portability was also a key factor).

Definitely, I was not bounding along like a two-year-old on the return leg, and I was keeping in reserve the hitherto unanticipated Plan D, i.e., jumping on a bus if my right leg started giving me too much gyp. A brrief pause at the chippy in Houldsworth Square for some refreshment, a can of Diet Coke, went down well, that, up and over the railway bridge – less gradient from this side – and plod, plod, plod along.

By the time my knee and hip did begin to give me gyp, I was no more than two bus stops from home, and as I intended to call in McColls for milk and the cash for that MegaRider on Saturday, I had to limp on, there and back again (that might make a decent sub-title for a book, one day).

Forty minutes there, fifty minutes back, excluding my halts on the way home, although the hip is feeling the effort now, a couple of hours later. A bit more walking planned tomorrow, and I’m sure I’ll feel it then. I’m not going to start scheduling walks like this more often, the flesh being a bit more willing than the spirit in all honesty, but it’s nice to know I can still get about under my own steam.

A Time of Gifts

For a long time, and for various reasons, many of them my own fault, Xmas has become a solitary event. I have no-one to buy gifts for and no-one who would buy me gifts, so I buy things for myself.

But the favourite Xmas gift I recall was one I bought from another, a woman then very dear to me.

It was our second Xmas, and she knew something of what I had bought her. Being of Irish origins, she loved The Chieftains, and she had been with me when I had managed to get her two very early, and then-deleted albums. Indeed, with childish eagerness, she had unwrapped them late on Xmas Eve, looked at them longingly, and reminded me I’d have to tape them for her, as the record deck on her hi-fi had broken down long before we’d started seeing each other.

I smiled, agreed and said nothing.

On Xmas Day, I drive across to bring her present, and those for her children. These went down well, and she was bouncing round like a kid herself, full of life, wanting to know what I had for her. I had it planned out. I dug in my pocket for something, brought it out, handed it over. It was an electric plug. She accepted it from me, looked at it is puzzlement, looked at me withthis wonderful ‘am I missimg something?’ expression.

Theatrically, I snapped my fingers. “Oh yeah,” I said, as if I’d forgotten something trivial, “you want something to go on the end of that.” And with the kids tearing after me, agog to see what I’d got, I went back to the car and retrieved this box from out of the car and brought it carefully inside. It was pretty big and she had a rather narrow hall.

I put it on the floor and stood back whilst she opened it. She was speechless by this point. The box was too big to wrap so she probably realised what it was: a hi-fi. Radio, cassette, record deck, all-in-one. She looked into the box in shock and then, still unable to speak, she flung her arms round my neck and hugged me, really hard.

This wasn’t the woman I married, though she was the first of two women to have loved me as deeply and seriously as I could have desired. I haven’t seen her in over twenty years, nor had any contact with her since an unexpected phone call in 2001, by when I was married. She was a very private person who hated anyone knowing any details about her life being repeated, and I have respected those wishes, but Mary, you are my favourite Xmas memory, and the pleasure I had in choosing something for Xmas that so completely surprised you is a memory I return to on Xmas Day.

If you are still with us, and ever read these words, I wish you health, happiness and joy. You gave me self-confidence for the first time, and trust and responsibility, and these things changed me for the infinitely better. You were rain in a desert, bringing me to life, not a half-life and I hope the years have treated you kindly.

Serendipity and Shadows

Funny how it works.

I was watching this item on eBay yesterday, planning to bid if I could get it near the asking price. I’d seen it offered for much higher prices, too much for my blood. In the end, I was lucky, only bidder.

This morning, off work with a stinking headache, I had an acknowledgement from the seller, asking if I was the Martin Crookall who… Well, with a name like mine, it’s obvious we don’t come in six-packs and yes, I was and am. The seller is an old acquaintance, who I first knew in the early Eighties, as a sixteen year old who had just put together the first issue of a comics fanzine called Shadows. I’d just had a letter published in Daredevil, under a gross mangling of my name (knew I should have printed it and not just signed it), and was surprised to get a letter adressed to my unwelcome alter ego, asking if I’d contribute to the next issue of Shadows.

I did, and to practically every other issue of its run, which led to me contributing to practically every other reputable fanzine of that lost, pre-Internet era, and becoming a regular in both Fantasy Advertiser (aka FA) and Arkensword, the only two ‘zines with circulations topping 1,000.

It was a fun time, making pen-friends and friends, going to Conventions, meeting writers and artists, getting recognised by Alan Moore. For about five years I was what was then called a BNF (Big Name Fan, as opposed to BOF, aka Boring Old Fart, though I’ve no doubt there were many, then and now, who thought the latter more appropriate). Better still, those years of writing and being praised did wonders for my self-confidence and represented an invaluable, indeed vital, stage in my development towards the novels I’ve written since. All thanks to Pete. Thanks, buddy, it couldn’t have happened without you.

I dropped out of fandom years ago. Prior to the messahges today, I can’t remember when I last spoke to any of the community of then. I know that Martin Skidmore and Steve Whittaker have gone ahead but I have no idea of the whereabouts or fortunes of anybody else: Pete Campbell, Fiona Jerome, Gerard Kingdom, Martin Hand, Captain Courageous, Tim Bateman, the lovely Sue Swazey, Hortense the Wonder Goose (who was also from Manchester), Paul Duncan, John Jackson, Les Chester and many more whose names won’t come out of the box immediately.

Pete sounds happy, with a large family. I hope all the others are still with us, and are doing what they wanna do and followed their intentions through (per Syd Straw’s ‘CBGBs’), and if any of them happen across this, I hope they’ll at least post a comment.

Why I Am

I try not to make this blog a version of therapy. It’s supposed to be about me only in respect of my opinions of various things that interest me, or my experiences of fellwalking or other expeditions. My ‘issues’ stay in the background for the most part.

Sometimes, things break through, like my post this week about attending my oldest mate’s father’s funeral, and going on to a new counselling session in which my own experience of losing my father, almost half a century ago, was one of the major issues we discussed. The blowback from that carried over into Friday and a day’s work, for which I was not best fitted.

Sometimes I wonder why losing Dad, even at such a significant point in my life, still has the power to crush me. I feel weak for letting it affect me so, but then I look back to the things that shaped me in the years before that happened, and it’s all too clear how I had already become an isolated child. There was a whole long line of things that, coming within a relatively short period, combined with an effect that could not have been bettered by any calculation.

It begins with my birthday being in mid-November, 1955. I started at the local school, which was literally at the end of the street, in the nursery year when I turned 4. This meant starting school in January 1960, when everybody else had started in September. This is, as far as I can recollect, one of the few things not to have any negative effect on me: I met my oldest mate in the nursery and we have been friends for almost 59 years.

My birthday didn’t become relevant until my final year at Elysian Street Mixed Infants and Juniors, in Junior 4, the year in which we would all sit the Eleven-Plus Exam. I was a bright, academic boy, obvious material for a Grammar School, and my Headmaster wanted me to get that chance. However, to enter this Eleven-Plus, you had to be eleven on or before August 31 1966. Three of us were excluded from the mock exam because of our birth dates. The other two would almost certainly be ok: one girl born September 1, one boy no more than 4 to 5 days over. I was ten weeks outside the line.

My Headmaster, Mr Phillipson, went in to bat for me. I can only thank his insistence that I get my chance. The immediate consequence of his failure would have been repeating Junior 4. It would have been disastrous.I’d have fallen back into a year of class-mates I didn’t know, who I thought of as children in comparison to myself, and I would have been repeating an entire year of work I had not only done but in many instances had gone past already.

But that was not all. Harold Wilson’s first Government had been elected in 1964, and re-elected in 1966. The Comprehensive System was coming in, where selection for schools was based more on geography than ability: in 1967 there would be no Eleven Plus for me to sit, nor Grammar School to attend.

And there was even more to it than that. My parents had lived in Brigham Street since they were married, in 1950. By the mid-Sixties, they wanted to move up. A bigger house (there were two children), a garden, a nicer area. All they were waiting for was the school I would go to, to give them an area to focus upon.

There was another, much more important factor. East Manchester in general, and Openshaw in particular, was being redeveloped. Hundreds and thousands of terraced streets were being torn down. My mother’s parents and her sister’s family had already been moved out, to Hulme and Hattersley respectively. Brigham Street was coming down in 1970. House-owners – of whom there were only three in our street, my Dad one of them – would be re-housed, but only if they had owned their property for three years. That set an inflexible deadline. If the house didn’t sell before 31 December 1966, that was it. It would be blighted. There would be no buyers.

So there was a lot resting on my sitting, and passing, the Eleven Plus. No pressure, then.

How much of of this I was aware of, I can’t recall. I do know Mam and Dad wanted to move, but when I don’t know. I passed the Eleven Plus, one of only two boys to be offered a choice of four Grammar Schools. The two North Manchester Schools were rejected out of hand, the nearest was in Gorton, which wasn’t much of a step up from Openshaw, if any, and my parents chose Burnage Grammar, away in leafy South Manchester suburbia.

My exact age meant I had to have an interview with the Headmaster to check just how mature I was, but I got in and started in September 1966. Mam and Dad had identified a house about a mile away from the school, and were negotiating with a buyer, who I’m pretty sure knew how strong a position they were in given our circumstances.

But I was still living in Openshaw when the First Year started.We wouldn’t actually move to Burnage until a fortnight before Xmas, a week before end of term. To get to School for 9.00am, I had to walk ten minutes to the main road, catch a bus to Fairfield Road and change to the 169/170 route to Burnage, an hour’s travelling, and an hour back.

Given the distance, I got a Free Bus pass from the Education Committee, but the distance I had to travel meant no hanging around getting to know my new class-mates, let alone the rest of the First Year. With only one other exception that I was aware of, they were all local to the School, coming from a limited number of Primary Schools, all of them arriving at Burnage knowing anything from a handful to a dozen of new boys already. Understandably, I was the only boy from Elysian Street.

I was taken out of a close-knit class of local boys and girls, who had been together as an unchanging group for seven years, and thrust into a group of strangers who knew each other but not me, and who were all boys. With my travelling and homework, I wasn’t seeing even my best mates, our little game of six, two Steves, two Alans, a Dave and me. Not even at weekends: on Saturdays we always when to Granny’s in Droylsden and Sundays in mid-Sixties East Manchester were not days where you could go and play out, with or without your mates.

So by the time I’d moved to Burnage, it was too late to make those initial connections and friendships. I was already finding myself slipping into a kind of isolation, the worst kind, when you’re on your own in the middle of a crowd. I don’t even remember getting myself accepted into any of the groups of lunchtime football in the yard until the Second Year.

And I’d arrived in Burnage in the winter, of cold days and early dark. At home, my first home, there was a park at the end of the street too, with a playground, where every kid played, and my house was a terraced house in a dead-end street, with a croft and a lock-up garage wilderland outside. My new home was on a four car-widths wide long, straight suburban road with cars flashing back and forth. Nowhere to play out, not until spring. The nearest Park was nearly twenty minutes walk away and didn’t have a visible playground, and the only other kid who played in our garden was my sister, six and a half years younger than me.

And this is before I relate the Maths Class Incident.

This was in October 1966. Mr Adams was teaching us averages. He was going to do this by calculating the average age of the class in years and months. In alphabetical order, when called upon, we would give our age in this format. Straightaway, I knew this was going to be a disaster. My surname placed me about three-quarters of the way down the list. Age after age was chalked onto the board: 11 years 4 months, 11 Years 9 months, 11 years 1 month, etc, etc. Until me: 10 years 11 months.

You could all but hear the neckbones crack as every single head in the room swivelled to look at me, a ten year old in a class of eleven years old. Mr Adams did not help by asking me to confirm I’d got that right, I hadn’t totally misunderstood and I was really 11 years 10 months. No, I was ten years old alright.

It was the penultimate lesson of the day: by four o’clock, the whole First Year knew I was the only ten year old in a year of eleven year olds. I was publicly identified as the youngest boy in the school.

Remember my saying there was no Eleven Plus in 1967? The Comprehensive system came in that summer. Burnage Grammar School reverted to being Burnage High School. It also put into operation a long-negotiated plan, to merge with the nearby Ladybarn Secondary Modern School, fifteen minutes walk away, the other side of Kingsway. The amalgamated High School would have the Lower School (Years 1 – 3) at the Ladybarn Road site, and its Upper school (Tears 4 – 6) at the Burnage Lane site.

Those who, like me, had entered in the Grammar School years would continue to get a Grammar School education and stay in the Upper School throughout. So, when I returned for my Second Year, I was still the youngest boy in the school. And in my Third Year, I was still the youngest boy in the school. And in my Fourth Year…

I was in my Fifth Year, and my Dad three weeks dead, before there was a boy in the school younger than me. Four years of being conscious of my status.

I had gone from being surrounded by both friends and classmates who I saw all the time, both in and out of school, to knowing almost no-one, and even fewer of them put of School (and if it hadn’t been for Subbuteo…). I knew no girls except my sister and her friends, which was no use when it came to working out how you talked to them as a preliminary to other things you might want to start to do. I didn’t even know anyone with sisters…

Any my Dad died. He’d been ill for over a year and a half, unable to take any part in helping me begin to face how you changed from a boy into a man. I had already learned a certain resilience which has stood me in good stead, has had to stand me in good stead all my life. I had already learned enough cynicism and self-protection to teach myself self-deprecation, leading people into laughing with me at least as often as at me, tempting them with things they could have permission to laugh at, and keeping them from those areas where laughter would have killed, and still, for all my efforts, sometimes did. But my Dad died, and it was a very very longtime before I had anyone who was on my side the way I know he would have been. I learned to live with myself alone, to manage alone.

So many different things. Each of them innocuous in themselves, reasonable, natural, unexceptionable. Each of them nothing for which anyone could be blamed. But it was like being inside the magician’s chest when the swords are being thrust into it. Instead of having a secret compartment I could slip into until the swords are pulled out, emerging whole and intact, I had to contort myself into a tiny, awkward space to avoid being sliced over and over, and when the swords dissolve, the wind has changed and I’m stuck like that forever.

I’m sorry for once again intruding on you with things too personal. I’ve wavered over whether to publish this, or rely only on the effect of writing it, but I’ve come down on the side of being honest. There’ll be other things alone in due course, the stuff you can rely on, but today this is what wanted writing. Thank you for your infinite patience.