Sunday, 30 November 2014

Number 42 update

First, here's what October Jones does...

Brilliant, simple idea. What could be tricky about that? Before trying it out on a plane, I'd master the art on a train journey.

I climbed onto the long-delayed train heading in the wrong direction, and unpacked my camera and my new post-its and sharpie. I'd expected to be in a reserved seat on the crowded London train, using the crowds to be disguise what I was doing. But a theft of copper cables from Slough a week before meant that didn't exist, so I was sitting on the Birmingham train in an empty carriage. At Bicester Shopping Village, a handful of people got on, mostly sitting behind my left shoulder, but right in my eyeline was a massive African man with smart suit, bags and bags of designer shoes, and the largest head I'd ever seen, as wide as his shoulders and coming straight out of them. He was my man, and he was going to have Father Christmas's head. He obliged by immediately nodding off to sleep. This was too easy.
I carefully took out the post-its, angled them to fit his body, and drew a quick Santa as discretely as I could. As I finished, I had a stupid paranoid feeling that people were watching me. Although I knew this was ridiculous, I looked around. Five people were looking at me, some sniggering and some just sneering. 
Ha ha, I smiled. Just drawing Father Christmas on a post-it. Not trying to superimpose it on anyone's body or anything, oh no. 
I waited ten minutes until everyone had forgotten, and subtly got out my camera. I used the camera's viewing screen as a rear-view mirror. It was OK – everyone was looking out of the window. I switched on the camera and disabled the flash. Millimetre by millimetre, I edged my Santa picture into the middle of the table, and sank low into my seat to line up the photo. It was hard to line up. I went lower, and lifted the post-it slightly. Still no good. I slid down as far as I could – that was it, more or less, except the picture was much bigger than the man. I stretched out my arm as far as it would go, and pressed my head back into the seat. Now it was lined up, but the post-it was in focus, and the man wasn't. I focused on the man instead, and the post-it went blurred. Hmm, not great, but worth a test shot. I squeezed the shutter. The light flickered for a few seconds, then lit up the carriage with a bright flash. There was giggling and tutting behind me. I felt myself reddening, and struggled up off the floor and back onto my seat. I glanced backwards – six people now sneering at me. I spun back round, tutting myself now as if my camera had gone off independently. The large African man was scowling at me, as you would if a tosser with a post-it had woken you by taking a flash photo of you uninvited. 
I switched off my camera, and gave in to the shame, wishing I was skilled, cool and subtle like October Jones, or, better still, just somewhere else. I didn't take the post-its on the plane.

Number 45

I wasn't sure what to expect when I stepped into the community hall. According to the website, the church wishes 'only to provide evidence of life after death'. Blimey. Would it be more like a religious service or a séance?
There were about forty people sitting in rows, facing a table at the front with two women sitting behind it. Everyone seemed to be smiling, and there was a buzz of chat. On the table was a homemade 'Spiritualist Church' sign next to a cross and a hymn board. I knew I had to leave early, and was hoping for a seat by the exit, but the only free chair was right at the front. The woman next to me was friendly. 'We turn off the lights and talk to the dead, you know,' she said. She was laughing, which suggested church service. A silence fell, and the older woman at the front, after a few welcoming words, invited everyone to stand and say the Lord's prayer. I stood up and kept quiet, feeling awkward and intrusive. We sat down and someone passed me a folder full of typed sheets – a homemade hymn book.
The first 'hymn' was Wonderful World, which isn't a hymn, but is a good song. I stood up and opened my hymn book, but couldn't bring myself to sing, possibly because I felt I should stick to my observer role, possibly because my Louis Armstrong voice would be bound to slip out and give me a coughing fit.
We sat down, and one of the congregation was invited to step to the front and read the 'Age shall not weary them...' verse as Remembrance Day was coming up. Next hymn: I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing. This was already getting a bit muddled. After this, the visiting medium was asked to say some inspiring words. She was a primary teacher, it turned out, and she talked about her class's reaction to learning about Ann Frank, and particularly about the people who helped the Frank family. At first the theme was courage, but then God and Angels became involved, and I lost the thread. But it was very soon time for the final hymn: Bring me Sunshine - a fine song to accompany the strange combination of images in my head. 
We settled down, and the visiting medium was reintroduced. Without explanation of what she'd do – everyone seemed to know, she said, 'I'd like to speak to the lady in the second row with the pink cardigan'. The 50-something lady nodded excitedly. 'I'm here with an older gentleman – he's very neatly dressed,' said the medium. The cardigan lady nodded excitedly. 'That's my father!' she said, instantly recognizing him from his unique feature. 'He's a nice man.'
'Yes – that's definitely him!'
The medium thought this was too easy. She proceeded to stage 1b: 'He says things were difficult for him at the end of his life'. Nods 'He says you were really good to him.' More nodding, and what looked like a tear. 'But his life before that was a bit easier,' she said. This was amazing. It was at this point I noticed she was doing strange things with her hands before she spoke, writing in the air with a far-off gaze, or frantically tapping the side of her head, as if she her body and mind were temporarily taken over as she received these messages. Surely people weren't believing this! I looked around - they were. Maybe it was me who was crazy. 'I could be stubborn, though!' she said, switching to the first person. 'And he could get cross if anyone said anything bad about his family,' she added, switching back to the third person, as if she'd gone too far. What were we supposed to be picturing. Was the neat gentleman standing next to her, or had he taken her over. Why was he talking in short, vague, sentences? And what was he making her write in the air? It was too mysterious for me to comprehend, especially when the spirit went on to reveal that he'd had a nice life, and that the lady in pink would have an opportunity coming her way in the next year, which she should take, because it would be a bit of fun. The spirit had clearly read the Daily Mail horoscope when he was on earth.
            The medium moved onto another, oldish, woman. This time it was a cantankerous old lady who actually had a heart of gold who was speaking to her. She was well below average height. The woman in the congregation shook her head. 'No, I can't place her.' The medium momentarily looked annoyed. 'She could be difficult!' she snapped. 'I'm well below average height ... no more than five foot!' The woman in the audience was clearly failing to place her. 'No,' she said, 'It's no one I know.' This was too much for the medium, who clearly didn't suffer fools. 'Does anyone know this lady?' she frowned. 'She's NOT VERY TALL!' There was no response, and the medium rolled her eyes. Forty people in the audience, and not one of the dopy feckers recognizes this basic stereotype. A few deep breaths and she recovered her composure and chose another receiver. The woman – it was almost all women in there apart from a couple of old men, me, and a teenage boy in there with his granny – took the bait, as did the next two, nodding, smiling and even shedding a few tears as the medium typed and tapped, barely keeping up with her inbox.
An hour had passed, and it had long since become tedious. The 39 people whose dead relatives weren't being channeled all carried on smiling benignly, receiving some kind of comfort. I waited till the medium changed receiver, and headed for the door. I caught her reading my mind as I left. My mind was saying that although she was tricking these people, they were there voluntarily and seemed to be comforted. Pretty much the same deal as in any church, but with a bit of homemade charm. I felt a twinge of guilt for intruding.

Number 44

I'd never heard of World Toilet Day, but having read about it, I'm all in favour.
I want to make people's stay in my toilet a pleasant one.
I arrive early at work so I can do my business undisturbed, and identify the cubicle - anyone serious about relaxing would have to choose the end cabin furthest away from the urinals. flat surfaces for flower pots - a basic design fault. I'll have to balance the chrysanthemums on the paper dispenser. I can already see this ending in court.
Then the in-flight entertainment: In one corner, a selection of 'humorous quotations' printed off from google; in the other, a handful of 'photos taken at exactly the right moment' from the same place. In the centre, the official World Toilet Day poster. Hanging from the handle on long pieces of string, Private Eye for the highbrow, and National Enquirer, which I suspect everyone will choose. Enough there even for the long-haul customer...
I keep my ear out for people's comments during the day, but no one mentions toilets in my earshot. Before leaving for home, I pop in to check the poster hadn't fallen down and there's no one lying on the floor beside a shattered chrysanthemum pot. Everything is calm. Only the decorated cubicle is occupied. From inside, I can hear the sound of someone turning the pages of a magazine. That makes me happy, that someone is enjoying a few minutes of relaxation, flowery smells and sensational news at the end of his working day.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Number 41

This happened quickly. Claire had pre-warned our good friend and neighbour, Sam Taplin, that I had this challenge. I went round to his house to ask him if he wanted to go to Laughter Yoga (challenge 24 - he was too tired) and to set up a time for the magic lesson. 'Let's do it now' he said, pulling a pack of cards from out of his ear, and we were off.
'I got robbed by a gang in New York at the weekend,' he said as he shuffled the cards. I chuckled. I liked the patter that went with his tricks. 'They took money out of my account in different places around the city. I lost £500'. I nodded enthusiastically, wondering how the trick would end - probably the 'gang' would be the four kings, that would soon appear stuck to the outside of the window along with 50 ten-pound notes. 'They must have got my bank card number' he said. 'Ha, yes' I said, winking. He looked perplexed. 'No, I actually did get robbed at the weekend'. 'Oh ... you actually ... erm, I'm really sorry...'. So that was the first trick: I'd made myself look like an arse. I listened sympathetically as Sam told me about the nasty incident, then he turned his attention to the trick.
I'd been mindblown by Sam's tricks several times - my only experience of close-up magic. He'd joined the Magic Circle in his early years in Huddersfield, and had honed his skills with Paul Daniels, before shooting off up his own branch of trickery. Surprisingly, I'd actually astonished him, even though I can't do any tricks. One late night in the pub, after Sam had, as I remember it, made the ace of clubs appear inside the barman's eye, I'd taken the cards and improvised a trick, going for the 52-to-1 shot as I picked a random card after various cuttings, clumsy shufflings, and even a flinging, and said 'Is this your card?'. It was, and for a second he was speechless. If only I'd managed to remain cool and say, 'I might teach you that one some day'. Instead I started jumping up and down on the spot, squawking, 'Jesus, what were the chances!' until I was alone in the pub.

So I asked Sam to think of his very simplest trick, halve it, then adapt it as if he were teaching it to a chimpanzee. After a few seconds' thought, he showed me a trick which seemed to involve both reading my thoughts and manipulating cards using telekinesis. If he'd levitated and turned his head 360 degrees I wouldn't have been more amazed.
Then he showed me how to do it. It really was ridiculously simple. It mainly relied on distracting me at a vital moment, which turned out to be slightly easier than distracting a dog with a sausage.
'Is it really that simple?' I asked. I felt pretty stupid for not seeing how it was done. 'But you must think I - and anyone else who can't see the trick - is stupid.' The split-second pause before he said 'No, of course not!' answered my question. 'Now do the trick on me', he said, distracting me easily again.
I tried, dropping the cards clumsily several times (non-opposable thumbs) before triumphantly turning over a card. 'And that,' I said smugly, 'is your card', It wasn't. Bollocks. A few more tries and I could do it, as long as I didn't talk, and he didn't look at me or breathe.
I thanked him and shot home to try it out on Lola before I forgot it. My patter was slick. 'Do what I tell you. Don't talk or breathe.' Six attempts later, just before I ran out of swearwords, I got the right card. 'What do you think of that?' I said. Lola put a thumb up, her face blue. 'You can breathe now.' 'Amazing', she gasped.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Number 43

I've been listening to for a couple of years in preparation for this, and this will be the test. I'm pretty confident I can say 'My apple is bigger than your mother' and 'The black dog is from Spain'. Maybe there are a few more words to learn, but I can't see that myself.

Number 42

Good job we're going to China anyway (on a trip we've planned for seven years). I can't think of a better way to start a fight on a long-haul flight than this. Hope I'm as brave as this artist.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Number 40

Apparently for the last ten challenges, Claire is taking suggestions from friends. I'm a little bit uncomfortable about this idea, because I still remember my fortieth birthday party. At the time we were repainting our kitchen, and we thought it would be a laugh to leave a bit as a graffiti wall, where people could write witty stuff. Caught up in the party, I didn't see the wall till the next day. I was a bit disappointed with the wit. The first person to write on it had written 'Jim is a c***'. Thirteen other people had found this funny enough to write the same. One person had written 'Happy Birthday'.
But Claire's filtering the ideas. So on Sunday night I opened ...
Monday was the first really rainy, windy night of the year, and there are no lights in the little back lanes of Freeland. Squinting through the lashing rain, I thought I saw a 'Church' sign. The lane got narrower and narrower, going down and down, in a tunnel of trees which were blowing down to touch the top of the car.
Ten miles from my own house, I was lost in a classic opening to a horror film. After a few miles I turned back and knocked at the door of the only house with lights. After a couple of minutes, a tall, stone-faced, pale old lady, came to the door. 'Do you know where the church is?' I asked. She didn't change expression at all during the two minute pause, just staring glassilly ahead. 'To the end of the lane, and turn right. The church is on the right through the graveyard.' I thanked her, and she closed the door without a word.
I drove the couple of hundred yards round the corner and parked up.
I got out, braced myself against the driving rain, and walked towards a gothic archway. On the other side, it was pitch dark. I realised then that I never experience pitch dark. I'm always within the range of street lights, or in the car. As my eyes got accustomed, I could see I was surrounded by gravestones. In front of me, I could see a path, I started making my way along it, buffeted by the increasing wind and rain. It was so dark, I couldn't even see the church. A distant memory flashed into my head - Patrick Troughton being speared by a lightning conductor as he ran towards a church in a storm. I ran past the graves, which seemed to be edging towards me, and turned left towards the only faint light I could see. I found myself face to face with a man in a flat cap.
'Neil?', I said.
'We've been expecting you'.
Claire had primed him. It turned out I had half an hour with Neil, who would explain how it all worked, before the bell-ringers arrived and the training started. With no messing, Neil took me up the narrow spiral steps to where the bell-ringing took place, then up two more long ladders to the bells.
He'd given up half an hour of his time to do this, which I appreciated, and was so enthusiastic and selfless that he gave me a very good impression of the bell-ringing world.
In the bell tower, he explained to me how church bells work, and made a bell strike while I was perched next to it. It made me jump an inch off the beam and made my ears buzz for several minutes. I'd never thought about this stuff - six is the standard number of church bells, it turns out. OK - so that's why 'The Six Bells' is a standard pub name. Big churches and cathedrals have twelve - that's where the expression 'knock twelve bells out of someone'.

People were starting to arrive now, so we went down. As people were coming in, Neil taught me the basics about pulling the rope to swing the bell higher and higher until you can sense it's vertical up there in the tower. That's the point where you have to be careful, or you risk being pulled up into the bell tower as in a thousand comedy films going back to the early days of cinema. Six people trickled in, all middle-aged and all very friendly. They seemed pleased to have a stranger in their tower. They showed me the secret code ...
Eventually there was a full house.
'Right,' said Neil, turning to me. 'We're going to get in a circle, and pull off with a hand stroke.'
'Hang on a sec,' I was about to say. 'That's exactly the kind of business that made me leave the rugby club.' But they were off ...'Treble's going ...' called Neil. '... She's gone!' He tugged on his rope followed at split-second intervals by the other five. From up above was the classic village-church downward peal. 'Two to four!' called Neil. Two of the ringers must have put slightly paused or sped up their pull, because the pattern of the peal changed. 'Five to three' called Neil, and the pattern changed again.
And so it went on. It was hypnotic watching this in action, and after an hour watching and listening to the rhythmic sounds and movements in the claustrophobic little circular room, I had no memories of the world I'd come from.
Anthony the Master Bellringer arrived during the break, and gave me some very detailed and strict tuition on the hand stroke and back stroke. My golf-grip thumbs were fine, it turned out, but I took in too much rope, put my hands up rather than let them be taken up by the rope, didn't bend my elbows enough on the way down, mistimed my catching of the sally on its way up, and, most seriously, forgot to flick my thumbs downwards at the end. Despite this, they decided I was up to joining in with a peal.
I was tense as the circle formed. Anthony was next to me, coaching in a whisper. 'Time your pull slightly after Michael,' were his last words before the treble went. I was sweating, my eyes fixed on Michael. As his hands reached halfway in his pull, mine set off - got it! 'Just after Michael!' hissed Anthony. I thought I had. Next time round I let Michael's hands get to the bottom of the pull before I started. Was that better? 'Noo!' whisper-wailed Anthony. 'JUST... AFTER ... MICHAEL'. For ten minutes I tweaked my timing until there was no part of Michael's pull I hadn't used as a cue. 'Stand!' called Neil finally, and we stopped. 'I told you to go after Michael,' said Anthony, perspiring with frustration. 'I was trying to,' I said, gesturing towards Michael. 'Couldn't seem to time it right.'
'Ahem,' coughed the little bloke on the other side of me. 'Actually, I'm Michael.'
not Michael
It was clearly time to go. We had a group photo ...
... and I set off back down the tight spiral stairs. In an hour and a half, I felt I'd already spent enough time with this little group of people to never forget their faces.
I stepped out of the door into the stormy, pitch-dark graveyard - the exact opposite of the cosy circle filled with living bell-ringers. More confident now, I trusted my sixth sense and ran to the car. I jumped in and put 'Terry the lonely reindeer' on to calm my nerves.
I won't go bell-ringing again, but enjoyed being welcomed into this secret little world with a fine group of people for a couple of hours.

Monday, 13 October 2014


Claire wrote a blog post for the Guardian about my fifty things, and I can safely say it divided opinion. Most comments were from people who got it. Lots were critical but acerbically funny. Some gave good suggestions for challenges - sorry, RedTelecaster, but I can't include your challenges involving the swan and the nun, because I've already done them. What a night that was! My memory of the evening is blurry, but I still get texts from the swan, so it must have been the nun I caught, cooked and ate.
Some people were angry. Very, very angry. The very last commenter, for example. She gets straight in there.
GorgeousRedHead   The trouble with this nonsense is that none of it involves a genuine risk. 
How about standing for election against UKIP? How about becoming a 100% raw food vegan and being an advocate?
Two of these I see as great things to do. I'd be proud to do them myself and tip my hat to any who does. But these are serious things. My present was for fun.
How about joining a spiritualist church and sitting in a mediumship circle to learn to talk to the dead?
Slightly unexpected turn, but wouldn't say no.
How about campaigning for the Kurds? Tie yourself to Downing Street, camp out at Parliament Square against any and all military action against everyone everywhere.
Again, I respect people who put themselves forward and protest - possibly in a more focused way, though.
Actually do something that will make your wife think about divorcing you ...  
Why would I do that? I don't want to.
... and off the top of my head, how about taking a vow of silence for six months? Move to the Himalayas? Walk naked from Lands End to John O'Groats?
Hmm, tricky from a work point of view. And we seem to have lost the helping-other-people thread.
Campaign for an innocent in prison, ...
Yep, great. But then comes the sudden wave of anger from nowhere. Snarled out like Kathy Bates.
... or how about just going away because your life is so complacent you can't even see it?
Followed by the full-apoplexy.
Visit a Crop Circle? [ ... #$@&%*! ... unable to speak now with fury; tomato face; flailing fists punching the air ] ... Create one!!!!!!!!!
Surreal and brilliant. Now some deep breaths to calm down, and let's have the punchline in a sinister whisper:
Oh, and get arrested. Happy Birthday.
Birthday wishes were a nice thou ... hang on - I hope they were genuine. I'll be offended if they weren't.
This is the fury of someone who was browsing the Guardian Lifestyle section. Was she lost? In any case, there were enough clues in the title of the article to show it wasn't the latest report on all military action against everyone everywhere. If I do become a 100% raw food vegan, I'm going to spend all my time in a butcher's shop, screaming at the sausages.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Number 39

This is the bridge that I drive over every morning to get to work, which I chucked the message-in-a-bottle off in challenge no. 17. It's not a job you want your kids to aspire to, but the toll-bridge guys always do it cheerfully. They start at 7, so I normally get over the bridge before then to beat the queue. Sometimes - and this is exciting - I'm the first motorist to have to pay at 7. They say 'thank you' per hour more than anyone else in the world, I reckon, and that's extremely British. I'm sure they wouldn't if Witney was in Peru.
I've got extremely good, over the years, of synching my clutch control and pressing down the 5p into the outstretched hand, so I can pay and perform the subtle social exchange without losing speed.
Originally, Freddie's baby seat was on the left-hand side of the car. All year round, he insisted on listening to his Christmas cassette in the car. So when we used to go over the toll bridge, 'Terry the lonely reindeer' would be playing in the car, but as far as the toll men could see, I was alone in the car. I'll never forget that tiny smirk they'd give me. I moved him to the right. He used to beg me to let me give the toll-bridge man the money. Eventually I said yes, and made sure he had the 5p in his hand, sticking out of the window as we approached the man, which wasn't easy. He released his grip 1/10th of a second early, unfortunately, and the 5p hit the ground and rolled away. He never stopped the badgering, and over his young years dropped around £135 just short of the toll man's hand.
Here's what they're getting. Hope it makes them feel appreciated. 
In this box. If they spot me, they'll probably be expecting a young female admirer. They may be disappointed.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Number 38 update

I did eight ...
1. Mike Conboy 
The weekend started here. A few days before I was going up, my old mate Mike Conboy got in touch to say he was back for a couple of weeks from New Zealand, where he emigrated countless years ago. This was the first time I'd seen him in 28 years. I only had an hour, so we went for a pint in what used to be the Moss, where we'd go for a drink before Altrincham FC home games from the age of 14 without anyone being interested how old we were. Beer has gone up. Great to see Mike, a really nice guy with a surreal and brilliant sense of humour. 

2. Riddings Court
A soulless little estate in a soulless suburb. This isn't the original street sign - that was stolen by a teenage idiot a long time ago as a souvenir when he left home. In fact I ... erm ... whoever did it only took it to the tip a couple of months ago.
Our house - the middle one in the picture - was one of the first finished when we moved in, so we had the excitement of living on a building site for a year. It was a sad day when my sister chased me into a kitchen where a startled family were having lunch, and we realized it wasn't our playground any more. This photo is taken from the spot where my sister's bike skidded from under her when we were doing speedway racing on the unsurfaced road. She took all the skin from up the side of her leg, and the bloodstains on the floorboards of the house are still visible.

3. house and parents
My parents in front of the house they've lived in for 44 years. The garage used to be me and my friends' goals for playing football in the road, but the best game we played with the garage was filling it with cardboard boxes we'd collected, then riding our bikes full tilt into into it. In teenage years the garage was the place where I'd come back with friends and carry on after the pub closed, if we still had nonsense to talk.

Here they are on their wedding day in Leicester, 1957.

4.St Hugh's Roman Catholic Primary School
I walked through this entrance when we moved to Timperley when I was six, and into Miss Murphy's class. Miss Murphy was in her 60s, hated children, and was brutally and randomly violent. I got several full-strength slaps across the face, which would have launched me out of the classroom if I hadn't been sitting in a desk. Charmaine Kirwan made the mistake of going to the classroom sink to wash her hands without asking permission. The rest of us covered our faces as if watching a horror film as we saw Miss Murphy approach her silently from behind. With a single sudden movement, she grabbed her hair and threw her across the room through the air. She landed face down and crashed into the opposite wall.
The next summer we went on holiday to Ireland, staying in a little village called Annestown in Waterford, just past the arse-end of nowhere.
Imagine my delight when we went to the local church and I got a poke in the ribs from behind. Miss Murphy was there. This was where she was from. Not Hell as we had all thought. Don't let it put you off Annestown, though, she wouldn't have had offspring.
That's Miss Murphy's classroom on the far right. They've probably got all the bloodspots off the ceiling by now. In the playground, the boys who didn't want to be part of Leone Poli's hyper-violent game of War played British Bulldog between the netball areas, or football with a tiny plastic cube. Balls were thought to be too dangerous, unlike Miss Murphy. On a rare day when we weren't playing football, I had a fight with Stephen Morphy on the exact spot the photo was taken. I fell on top of him in the clumsy struggle and he broke his arm and was taken off in an ambulance. I stood outside Mr Finnegan's office for an hour waiting to be seen. I was sure I was going to spend the rest of my life in prison, and was seriously considering running away from home. When he finally opened the door and ushered me in, Mr Finnegan just said, 'Did you do it on purpose?' Thinking quickly, I said, 'No'. And I was free.

5. St Ambrose
I passed the eleven plus and went to the nearest Catholic school, just over three miles away so I got the free bus pass, hoping to continue my education with uneducated, alcoholic, brainwashed thugs. My luck was in! The Christian Brothers were shadows of their former fearsome reputation by now, but a couple of them could still inflict pain. First-year French, which I'd really been looking forward to, consisted of Brother Owen reading to us about all the miracles that had taken place at Lourdes. We were motivated to listen because if we didn't, he would hit us on the hand twice with a three-play leather shaving strop.
Third-year History was brother Rynne, who was a hard, ignorant bastard with the ruddiest face and the biggest ears you could possibly imagine. His teaching method, which in retrospect could have been based on research and way ahead of its time, consisted of putting down a heavy box of history books at the front of the class. He would then go and sit on the counter at the back of the class and say, 'Now take a book'. Now came the keystone of his methodology. 'Now read your books. If yer look to der soid, oi'll t(h)ump yer teet(h) to der back of yer t(h)roat!' Actually what he did if someone looked to the side was sneak up and hit them on the back of the head with his knuckles, with a technique it was rumoured he used to slaughter cows in his youth.
One of my main general memories is I was always starving. In Brother Rynne's ... ahem ... 'lessons' ... I always used to pick out Extracts from the diary of Samuel Pepys, and turn to the page where he said what he had for lunch - 'a piece of plain fish'. I was so hungry, I just read the paragraph with that sentence in for forty minutes, dribbling desperately.
 I actually got to really like Brother Rynne a lot by the time I left - there was a sweet man under the brutal exterior, and I felt really sad he'd been pushed to spend his life in that way. A couple of years after I'd left he fell asleep in bed while smoking and accidentally burned down a good part of the Brothers' house, killing the oldest Brother.
Here's the house where the Brothers lived in celibacy and whisky-fumes.
Craggy Island come to life. Facing you when you walked in through the front door was a staircase with a lifesize Virgin Mary staring terrifyingly down at you from the top. The statue in the photo, which wasn't there in my day, appears to show St Ambrose holding a small boy against himself affectionately. Are you sure that's a good idea, Brothers, in the light of former Chemistry teacher Alan Morris's eight-year prison sentence for holding small boys against himself affectionately?
The extracurricular syllabus at the school was surreal. The one trip we went on was to the Imperial War Museum in London. The coach journey took six hours. The museum was closed that day - no one had thought to check. So we came back.
The school's careers service, however, was solid and efficient. 'Would you like to become a priest?' asked Brother Doyle.
OK. Can you send the next boy in, then.'
Sex education came without warning. Classes were suddenly interrupted one morning and the whole school was ushered to the assembly hall. There was an atmosphere of dread among the Brothers - had the Pope died? We noticed there was a projector and screen at the front of the hall, which itself caused a ripple of excitement, as we thought the school only had a cassette player.
Brother Rynne walked to the front and there was silence. 'You need to watch this', he said sheepishly, and pressed the on switch. The screen crackled into silent action, and you could make out a blurred image of two people. It came into focus for a few seconds, and you could see it was a man and a woman on a beach. They were wearing swimming costumes, holding hands and looking at each other. The image crackled off. Was that the end? What was happening? Suddenly an image filled the screen. We just had time to see it was a penis, covered in seeping sores, and the screen went black for good.
Brother Rynne stepped to the front, even redder than usual. 'Right, back to class!' he barked.
No one was quite sure what message to take away, but I for one haven't been on a beach since.

6. sink
My household job from when I was eight was to do the washing-up on Sundays. Not much to ask I suppose, but it included everything from a roast dinner. I looked forward to it because that's when I listened to the Top 40. It was a big thing then.

7. stairs
These are the stairs at home. When I was about seven, I put my head through them for a laugh. Then I couldn't get it out again. I was stuck there for half an hour, thinking that the fire brigade would have to cut off my head to get me out. In the end my dad suggested walking carefully to the top of the stairs, and my head came out easily. I'd forgotten where I'd put it in.

8. back garden
I've included the corner of our postage-stamp back garden in my memories because this was where I had one of my most painful accidents. There used to be a small tree in the corner, which my dad clumsily sawed back, and which was pretty much covered by foliage. When I was about 13, I climbed over the fence to retrieve a football, then back onto the fence to come back over. Instead of clambering down, I stood on top of the fence, about five feet up, and jumped. My feet were about six inches from the ground and I was approaching terminal velocity when the pointed vertical branch of the tree rammed up into the nerves and tendons of my armpit and stopped me dead in midair. With my weight holding me down, I dangled in a fireball of armpit pain for a couple of minutes until I managed to wriggled free and fall in a heap. 
This is an artist's ghostly reconstruction of the incident. I think Edward Munch did the mouth.
A lump soon appeared under my arm of a size not seen since the days of the bubonic plague, shortly followed by bruising down to my waist. My right arm could only dangle uselessly for the next few weeks.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Number 38

I'm zipping back home tomorrow for an evening and a morning with my elderly parents in Timperley. I don't get a good feeling when I get to Timperley - it's a soulless suburb of Manchester. I'm going to Riddings Court, which is the most soulless part of Timperley. I'm going there because I haven't seen my parents for a while, and they can't take a whole family visiting any more. I really like this challenge because it'll force me to think of details of the 11 years I spent there (6-17). It's going to add a really good layer to the trip. 
No one had ever heard of Timperley when I lived there. Recently, however, it turns out it is THE centre of British culture. I will use a bold font to explain how ... so ... Frank Sidebottom has a statue in Timperley village centre - he (Chris Sievey) lived next door to my friend Aidan Clarke, and was the closest thing we had to a local celebrity when he charted with The Freshies. The Stone Roses lived around the corner from me without me (or them) realising it - in fact they might have been the boys who stole my football in Greenway Road. I'll email them and see if they've still got it. And Caroline Ahern lived there for a while after I'd left. I missed all that stuff that was going on around me. I had some good times there, but I hope this challenge will get rid of the soul-sucking feeling I get when I drive past Timperley Station.
Five memorable memories is never going to be enough. I'll do six.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Number 35 update

A select group of men turned up, with an age range of nearly 20 years. Some guffaws were had and some rubbish was talked. My observing wife, who fancies herself as a bit of a David Attenborough, pointed out there was a long period of chest-to-chest standing up at the start, as we protected our masculinity and sorted out who was the alpha-male. She was wrong:
a) We were actually saying how good each other's hair looked, and
b) comparing our experience of the menopause and how it has affected us emotionally, and
c) the best of us is delta.
I was pretty moved that the social worker and the lawyer found common ground in a long and too-detailed discussion about the precise legal and physical steps that would have to be taken to have me certified 'for a joke'.
Next time I'll drop the cake, I think, but will definitely do something similar again. A very pleasant way to spend the afternoon. Thanks chaps.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Number 37

Hmm - didn't do too well with this one. In the stiff atmosphere of a new open-plan office, I didn't feel this was the right way to introduce myself. I tried to find anyone I knew a bit better to take them into a private corner and whisper a few 'ah-harrrs', but no one was around.
My last conversation of the day was to call Tim Walker to see if he was available for a run. I slipped in a solitary, pathetic 'harr', which was treated with the contempt it deserved. Pirate talk doesn't sound good if you hold back at all. I do wonder how Blackbeard would have talked if he'd had a job in an open-plan office, though.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Number 36

This is no longer a typical raisin - it was flattened by the scanning process, and probably slightly cooked. Hmm, not as wrinkly as I imagined raisins are, and it still has some of its old purple colour - I can definitely see it is an ex-grape. There's something morbid about that - it feels like I'm holding a grape corpse. Also morbid is that it reminds me of a bog body. Compare for yourself. Can you see which one is the raisin?
Apart from its flatness, its main unique feature is that it's burst at one end, also a result of the scanning. Reminds me of when I stepped on a slug on the kitchen floor and burst its head off. I'm putting myself off eating this. 
Quite cool to the touch, rough but slightly human-feeling, like a hand callous. The first few smells are blank, but as I tune into it I can smell sticky sweetness, that seems to stay on the inside of my nose. Nothing interesting is happening in my mouth.
Now it is! The raisin is in! It's in my mouth! I'm just letting it sit there so the sweetness can leak out. I'll give it a couple of nudges with my tongue. Hmm, shouldn't have done that as it definitely felt like a bog person's hand callous moving around in there. Right, I'm going to bite. Surprisingly moist, and an explosion of the taste that the smell was hinting at. Now I'm crushing it with my molars, which is quite a sad moment. I'd got to know the little fellow quite well. OK, so now I'm waiting for the swallowing instinct. Here it comes ... and the raisin is on its way down to my stomach. What a horrible end for a noble grape. How is my whole body feeling? Very hungry, like it's been tricked. Fortunately, a smell of is wafting up the stairs and it's lunchtime. 
I have just stuffed down four pieces of bread and a bowl of chicken and sweetcorn soup. Mindfulness was fun while it lasted, but not practical when you're hungry.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Number 31 update

Claire had said for years that she'd like to do the backing-singer role for some sort of performance, and that she had friends who were also keen. So I needed something that expressed my feelings about being fifty in a style that lent itself to a backing group. I spent a few hours putting together a fifties-style verse/chorus parts, and we met up for the first of two practices. Jen and Sharon threw themselves in, and the only thing holding us back was a total lack of short-term memory. Half an hour before the party, I finished the intro and we had a last run-through - for the first time we managed to remember the whole thing.
With the party in full swing I rearranged the stage and carried down the keyboard, and got the nervous backing singers on standby. I got on the stage (not easy in a pencil skirt), eventually got everyone pointing the right way, thanked them for coming, almost fell off the tiny stage twice, and announced the song. The rest is a blur. The camera captured from after the intro, when the Half-Century-ettes made their entrance ...

Being fifty is quit an adventure
Each day brings a new ache or pain
Every morning a slightly bigger bald patch
A little more fog around my brain
My elderly parents are going batty
My teenage son's gone twatty
All my time is taken up with responsibility
And my sodding eyesight's failed
My childhood heroes have all been jailed
Sometimes it feels like all I have left is my dignity ...

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Number 35

Nice. Maybe we'll all dress up as Jane Austen characters.

Number 33 update

Having found out that nearby Wiltshire is the world crop circle centre. I was excited already. I found out that is the place to find out where the latest ones have appeared, and you can phone up to find whether the farmer whose field it's on is allowing access. I was lucky – there were a couple of fresh ones only a mile or so apart, and the farmer was letting people on. An hour and a half later, in the middle of the Wiltshire countryside, we noticed a couple of cars parked where they wouldn't normally be, and we stopped and got out. Across the field we could see a couple of distant heads, and, to our horror, a combine harvester. Had we arrived moments too late? I hadn't travelled all this way to visit a crop semicircle.
We made our way across the huge wheatfield.
Already it felt like we were in a different world, with the sound of traffic replaced by the gentle shushing of acres of wheat in the breeze. We reached the brow of the hill, and were standing on the flattened stalks of the outer circle. A handful of people were sitting silently and contentedly in the centre. We walked around then walked to the middle along a spoke and joined them. The circle was extremely simple, a ten-metre flat circle joined by a few spokes to a thin, one-metre outer ring. If this was made by an alien, it was made by a useless one on his first lesson. 
It was certainly noticeably peaceful in the centre, although this could have been down to sitting still in a quiet place rather than having our stress sucked out by a lay line.
After a few snaps, we repeated our walk through the wheatfield – the most memorable experience so far – to go to the next circle, which had a bit more of an exciting design. One of the friendly couples told us the exact obscure track to drive up along the road. We did what they said and walked up the track, where a small group of lost people were gathered. It turned out they were crop circle tourists – another species I had no clue existed – visiting from Cambridge for a couple of days. A young chap told me that although humans can make crop circles, 'true' crop circles have their stalks bent in a unique way ... 
... and traces of metals can be found in the soil. The tourist group sent a runner across the fields to find the circle, and she waved us in. This circle had more of an intricate design – perfect triangular islands inside a circle. More interesting, for sure, but not mind-blowing like the giant fractal patterns I'd seen on the Internet. After examining the shapes I lay down for a few minutes and looked up at the perfect blue sky, willing a UFO to appear. I tried to put myself in the aliens' tinfoil, pointy shoes and work out why they would do this. The only conclusion that made sense that it was teenage aliens borrowing their parents' spacecraft, drink a couple of litres of mercury, and go and tag some planets. 
A few souvenir snaps and we were off. It was a brief experience, but it grabbed my interest. I'm not going to be a crop circle tourist, but crop circles will stay in my consciousness from now on, and I'm going to keep half an eye on the night sky for a glimpse of a Venutian Banksy.