A Day Out

This week was Mental Health Awareness Week, so to do my bit for the cause, I went mad. In the resulting days off work, I went for several walks, always useful for boosting my mood at the best of times. I had forgotten just what an odd world it can be outside of the office. Below are just some of the strange things I saw, which we mightn’t always imagine while we’re sitting at our desks.

  • Public transport running smoothly – checking tram arrivals against the timetables on the platforms, I saw they were all running perfectly punctually without commuters to slow them by getting on and off. Let this be a lesson that the best way of running a truly efficient transport network is not to let anyone use it.
  • Dispossessed paramedics experimentally using their defibrillators on trees, bins and passing cats – anyone daring to challenge them was given a 3000v charge to the leg or head.
  • A Guardian journalist sitting in a café, writing for tomorrow’s edition, looking frantically at their watch and screaming, “Why haven’t I written it? Why haven’t I written it? Why haven’t I written it?!”
  • Buskers practising quietly in the corner of a park; growing frustrated with parts of a song they hadn’t yet mastered, taking a deep breath and whispering to themselves, “Come on. It’s for the fans. For the fans. And the money.”
  • A playground populated by the elderly residents of a care home I live close to. They sounded far less distressed than they normally do through the walls of the building when I go by on my way to work. Some were on the swings, some were cartwheeling along a see-saw, and some were playing a bat-and-ball game with each other’s drips. Noticing me, they froze for a moment, then immediately scarpered at a speed impressive for their age.
  • Housewives and husbands necking bottles of red wine in the park, delighting in their children’s and spouses’ absence, and refusing to waste their day on housework that could easily be accomplished in a creative 45 minutes. They were determined to get what joy they could out of the sunshine before GSCE study leave really kicks in.
  • An elitist and exemplary outdoor school where every child claiming to be home-schooled is educated. “We need to keep it under wraps ideally,” one of their tutors told me. “If people knew this was running, the stigma might vanish and everyone could want to send their kids here. The whole thing would be ruined.”
  • A Daily Mail journalist on their knees in front of a newsagent, looking at that day’s edition, pulling frantically at their own hair and screaming, “Why did I write it? Why did I write it? Why did I write it?!”
  • A postal worker transferring the contents of a post box to her van. Taking her time to sift through the envelopes, she successfully identified every birthday card to a child, opened them up, and popped a £10 note inside each. She then re-sealed them and drove them off, further on their way to their happy recipients.

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Tomorrows of Yesterday

I’m always fascinated by past dreams of the future. A recent haircut, during which I was subjected to half an hour of my barber talking in mysterious tones about his new “invention”, inspired me to revisit a 1964 catalogue of new cutting-edge technology intended to revolutionise the home. I’d bought it years ago, long after all the innovations within had been proved unworkable after all (as I discovered upon digging a little deeper). Below are five of my favourite boons that never were.

  • Electric ice cream: For the summer months, an ice lolly whose temperature was kept at a constant low by a miniature cooling unit housed within the stick, allowing the delicious treat to be enjoyed for longer. The device needed to be plugged into the mains to work effectively, and the energy required caused the stick to generate far more heat than normal, invariably melting the lolly within three minutes.
  • Mobile oven: For busy housewives unable to serve dinner to their families on top of other chores, this was an oven on wheels that could be programmed to drive to the dining room or living room, allowing consumers to reach in and take their food out without having to stand or move. Programming it proved never to be an exact science, and there are numerous horror stories of pets and toddlers being run over by a scorching Sunday roast throughout the two months for which the oven was on the market.
  • Automatic big sister: Designed to nurture children for the space age, this was a luxury robotic companion that would advise boys and girls about the latest fashion tips, pop groups, films, television programmes and gender binaries. A very expensive item to run, as it required constant feeding of new updates from the company that made it, only available by paid subscription. This was in addition to all the items recommended for purchase within the updates. Parents quickly began looking for excuses to cancel their subscriptions, many householders taking the opportunity when the machines began speaking positively about female emancipation, which many British fathers found distasteful.
  • Memory-maker tape recorder: A network of tape recorders to be fitted about the house, preserving every detail of every conversation to ensure that no precious memories forged within the home could ever be forgotten. Increasingly, couples would use the tapes as ways of winning arguments and scoring points. Ultimately, households with the tapes fitted reported a breakdown in communication. People would not vent as they had before, for fear of their words coming back to haunt them; for long periods of time, they might not speak at all. Quietly, a number of families and marriages dissolved as a direct result of this technology, now superseded by social media.
  • Dream window: Especially for high-rise flats with limited to no outside views, these were backlit holographic cell images designed to put inhabitants in mind of more idyllic settings. Sunny beaches, the Swiss Alps and futuristic cities were all options to be viewed, and the devices were very popular for a time. Sadly, the more frequent their use (very high as viewers became increasingly dependent on the fantasy), the more the celluloid and inks would deteriorate. Gradually, the images became murky, warped, and increasingly red-tinted. Viewers would sometimes take time to notice that their paradise on the wall was slowly coming to resemble the deepest pit of Hell. Happiness faded with the pictures, and soon occupants decided to switch them off for good, resigning themselves to making the best of the imperfect world outside, whether they could always see the good in it or not.

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Peter Fleming at Machynlleth Comedy Festival 2018

Hi everyone, I’m away at Machynlleth Comedy Festival with Sam & Tom this week, so I’ve handed over once again to Peter Fleming. One of the leading lights of the golden age of British children’s TV, he followed us here and has had a bit more time to take everything in. Take it away, Peter!

Hello, there!

Well, well, well, it’s lovely to visit the glorious town of Machynlleth. It was a very long and harrowing drift up the River Dovey on my raft, but more than worth it to see the town when I finally arrived on land. A beautiful place, once thought of as the ancient capital of Wales, though never recognised as such. I sympathise greatly, such was my own frustration when I worked at the BBC and was never recognised as a producer.

I feel a real affinity with the place, thanks in no small part to the antique shops that have populated the town ever since the community had the bright idea to replace much of its vital infrastructure with them, round about 1982. I’ve always loved these quiet, old places, and was nearly sold in one once in 1994, when both customer and proprietor mistook me for an Edwardian mannequin. I had a look around when I arrived here on Friday. No old copies of my programmes to be found, but I had a brief thrill when I thought I’d discovered one of the original props from my historical programme, The Court of King Louis XV (1965), sitting on a shelf for just £5! Unfortunately, it turned out to be a genuine eighteenth-century French crown, which I presume was of far less value, so I left it be.

That same evening, the thought of my programmes fresh in my mind, as I suppose it always is, I dropped by the local sports centre and gave a short talk about my work. A very receptive bunch, although some in the management sphere were less pleased, as they hadn’t actually booked me to appear. But there were no hard feelings, and I must give credit to the security personnel. I think it’s just about the friendliest violent hurling from a building I’ve ever received.

Waking up on the pavement the next morning, I decided to have a wander about the place. After a time, I came to the Centre for Alternative Technology. I was in awe of the facility, and I was glad to see the lessons of Professor Zany’s Mad Laboratory (1962) had not gone unlearned! All sorts of exciting innovation was on display, and do you know, the whole place was powered by energy generated there! I tried pushing through similar technology back in 1974, of course. Sensing how over-reliant the BBC had become on coal, I arranged for us to make our own out of wood and burn that instead. Never caught on, sadly, but it was good to see that my work back then had made just a small positive difference, as part of wider efforts over the years.

After that little visit, I went for a wander across the fields, and must confess I found myself a little lost. But I realised I’d reached the wind farm in Cemmaes when I was scooped up from behind by the propeller of a turbine. Was stuck there for the next 24 hours, slowly rotating above the ground. It was an interminable experience, but then I’ve found much of the last few decades to be such. As it was, it was refreshing to be swept along by forces beyond my control as I got increasingly sick and tired in mid-air, instead of on the ground for a change. And it was a pleasant reminder of my 1969 series, Archibald the Bird Boy. Chasing his own feathers and looping the loop in perpetuity.

Now free once again, I should think I’ll have a very enjoyable last day here, wandering the fields more safely. Perhaps I’ll even see some of the entertainment on offer! Provided I can slip past security again, as I have no money to buy any tickets.

Best wishes,

Peter

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Headphones

When I’m on the go and in a stressful situation, for instance rushing for a train about to depart, or being outdoors, I like to keep myself focused by listening to music. The familiar element underpins the experience and makes it more bearable. It’s at times like this I find myself deeply irritated by buskers – any noise can be unwelcome, but the concentrated sound of a rival song to the one I’m trying to listen to intensifies the stress I was trying to cancel out, my efforts to find temporary peace frustrated.

Travelling on the tube once, I was trying to listen to Nick Drake (admittedly a quiet choice for a roaring underground train, but it was Bryter Layter, his most raucous album by far), when two buskers boarded. One on guitar and lead vocals, one on melodica and backing vocals, they embarked upon a rendition of Hit the Road, Jack that was just loud enough to be infuriating. To escape the awkwardness of avoiding their gaze as they walked through to accept donations, I leapt off as soon as the train arrived at a stop, and moved to an adjacent carriage. I un-paused my music and carried on my journey – only to realise I had miscalculated the buskers’ direction of travel when they stepped aboard as the doors were shutting, and I had to listen to Hit the Road, Jack all over again.

I compare this to an experience on the tube years later, when I hadn’t yet decided what music to listen to. Before I had the chance, five men stepped onto the train, complete with a clarinet, two saxophones, a trumpet, a guitar, and a small amp on wheels. Starting a backing track, they started playing what I soon recognised as a spruced up, funky arrangement of Hit the Road, Jack. After briefly wondering if the song was haunting me, I amused myself imagining that two of these men were the same buskers from before, and had found it surprisingly lucrative after all. With the fortune they’d amassed, they’d been able to hire more players, instruments and equipment, but had nonetheless not had time to learn a new song.

Unlike the previous occasion, I enjoyed myself listening to it. The spectacle of these men charging on and bursting into the number happened so suddenly. I could see I wasn’t alone in being entertained – lots of the other passengers had been taken aback in the exact same way. For once, people on the tube were having fun with a shared experience, and I was one of them.

I find this happens increasingly these days. Once, on a tram journey, I turned the volume down on my music to listen to someone having an incredibly loud and personal conversation on speakerphone (I remain unsure if the person on the other end was aware). Others did the same, and we exchanged knowing glances. Similar things often occur, and these individual distractions focus all our attentions, in the process turning us from strangers into a community.

Sometimes these moments are essential. The morning after the attack on the Manchester Arena, the tram network was obviously at reduced capability. My usual tram to work had to go slower, and was more rammed than I’ve seen before or since. What was unsettling was the oppressive silence that existed in spite of the volume of people within. No one would break the silence. It was no one’s place to, and what was there to say? Such was the shock across the city.

By Cornbrook, the tram had emptied out slightly, and was being held for a minute or two at the platform. The doors were open, and we caught a brief snatch of conversation as two Metrolink staff walked by. All we heard was one of them, slightly disgruntled, saying, “…it’s the only one that’ll fit my gut…” A couple of us smirked to ourselves, caught each other doing it, made eye contact, smirked more openly, then looked back down at the floor. We were a tram full of people not directly affected by the trauma but nonetheless disturbed, and a little moment like that gave us something to grasp on a difficult day.

I still put my headphones in as a default, and like having the comfort of music to get me through stressful moments. But as time goes on, I find myself more willing to take them out and listen to what’s going on around me. Sometimes I find myself wishing I felt more willing to do that as a matter of course. There are often better things to listen to than the noise, but embracing it is part of embracing the world around us.

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The Watched

Recently finding myself with a surplus of spare time alone, I started looking for weekend work. I value solitude but also run the risk of spiralling during long spells of isolation. What does help when I am in company is my impulse to perform to others. My need to entertain focuses my mind, providing a creative act to occupy me. Eventually, I found what seemed a perfect job at an innovative new park that had recently opened exclusively for the use of people watchers.

The real danger of people watching is the threat of being caught, and the awkward sense of guilt that can follow exposing someone to their own vulnerability. Here, since all people on display are hired, none need fear a glare of disapproval. For some, this negates the thrill of the exercise, but many are willing to compromise for the sake of their innocence.

We can opt to join a group of people to be watched or work on our own. Initially I enjoyed working in the group, building a rapport with the other ‘artistes’, as we developed relationships to be observed by the visitors we were forbidden from acknowledging. But I realised over the first fortnight that my real challenge was to grow used to being alone again – to feel more capable of it. I began doing a mix of shifts, eventually transitioning to the role of a single operator.

My first days working alone were difficult, as I was uncertain what to do with myself. Without distractions, it was inevitable that I’d find the watchers’ conversations impossible to ignore. When you find yourself at the status of exhibit, you are subject to all kinds of projections and judgments from outside, and people won’t hold back from vocalising these brutally if they sense some level of ownership over you. It was like being a celebrity on Twitter, or a woman anywhere.

Gradually, however, I rediscovered how to dull the noise and relish living as an image for a few hours at a time. As the shifts went on, I purchased new outfits, developed completely different aesthetics and crafted completely new personas, so much as my fundamentally wholesome schoolboy figure would allow. I developed new hobbies too, finding jogging and birdwatching especially rewarding. I had been told with affection recently that I seemed like I would be a birdwatcher, and now found myself one after all.

It wasn’t really me, of course. Everyone I became every shift was a fiction, and I did what I could to give each persona enough individual nuances. It has been liberating to abdicate my own sense of self for these brief periods, and has helped in real life for me to build upon myself as I grow re-accustomed to being alone. I had felt very exposed, but can now perform even as I walk down the street, and it can be much easier to get through the day as all these different people. The only trouble I encounter is that I find myself struggling to think which of them, if any, is the real me.

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Six Teachers

I’m struck by the unique relationship we have with our teachers. In a professional environment, we form some of our most distinctive memories growing up and seeing these people at work. Sometimes, it’s deliberate on their part, and they exaggerate areas of their own personality to keep things entertaining. Sometimes it feels more like a glimpse behind the curtain, like we’ve seen a little tic not part of the performance, that we mightn’t always feel the significance of until later. Sometimes little of either. It all shapes us just the same.

I had a very funny Geography teacher for two years. At once deadpan and larger than life. To indicate bits of writing on the board, he used what he referred to as his child-beating stick. He maintained enough stern authority to keep the class working silently, but would normally break that silence himself. He’d punctuate the quiet with a brief, loud whistle, or an enormous sneeze that I increasingly suspected was deliberate. Funniest and most sinister in equal turns was his booming voice, calling out in an affected drawl of the American South, “You ain’t workin’, boy.” One boy once had a case of hiccups, which he successfully cured during a period of silent work by hurling a brick at him (revealed to be made of foam upon collision).

A year or two later, I had a History teacher who, though he had a sense of humour, largely kept it buried. Probably the most severe teacher I’ve had, he was largely unpopular with the class. Most striking was the point when another student had forgotten to bring in his homework; in response, he pointed to the back of the room and cried out, “Move over there, you disobedient child!” But he also used me to demonstrate what puddlers used to do on barges, asking me to lie on the table in front of the class, grabbing my ankles to move my legs in the way that a puddler would do as they pushed against the roof of a tunnel, lying on top of the boat. Research online has so far revealed to me no historical record of this job or action.

Another History teacher came into a lesson on the American West dressed as a cowboy, and walked on the desks as he educated us in character over a Morricone soundtrack. I also heard about, but always missed, his annual lesson on the Blitz, when he told everyone to get under their tables and proceeded to throw stationery and chairs around the room. The Nazis gave no thought for health and safety either. It felt like there was toughness beneath the humour. He gave two Remembrance Day assemblies when I was in sixth form. Remembering seeing his dad cry for the first time as he remembered the war, he cried too. He told a variation on the story with different emphasis the following year. To keep himself being swept up again, he slapped himself in the face. He had a temper sometimes, but just as often for himself as for the students.

One day in Year 6, my tutor (and shortly to become my least favourite English teacher) walked past me as we were all reading quietly. Noticing I was reading a Doctor Who book, she pointed and loudly scoffed, “Sad!” I give her the benefit of the doubt now, and consider that she was trying to engage in some light banter, probably on what she imagined was a more equal footing. When she asked me in past tense, “Didn’t you think it was always obvious it was someone in a suit?” it became clear she was speaking as if to an adult who used to watch, not a shy child who was still watching, engaging with the past as a comfort. A misjudgement from which, in my consideration, she never really recovered.

My teacher when I was 8 was more understanding, referring to me occasionally as “my little Dalek” after she found out I liked the show. She gave me a postcard she found in her home one day, commemorating 75 years of BBC Television with a photo taken from the filming of the first Dalek story in 1963-64 (as I could’ve told her). I was always very slow, perhaps too much of a perfectionist. During a lesson about Peru, long into the video we were supposed to watch after finishing our written work, she noticed I was still writing. Everyone looked around at me when she noticed and called me out on it and said to me, “You’re too slow.” The feeling of humiliation was a far more vivid and impactful memory, and lasted far longer and more stubbornly before I came to remember any of the affection that was there the rest of the year.

From the age of 13-18, I had the same English teacher for at least some portion of each year (depending on maternity leave). There were others who were responsible too, but it’s always her I think of first when I consider how lucky I was with the teachers I had. Much as I enjoyed and admired the ones who performed, what I liked best of all was that this one knew well enough that there was no need to. She, and us, and the work were enough. She still had a sense of humour, but she would never show off with it. She was gentle, always the voice of wisdom and reason, stepping in now and then if tensions had risen to high between students and other teachers, often fixing the problem in a couple of minutes. She didn’t talk down, didn’t spoon-feed, just gave you everything you needed to arrive at a conclusion yourself. You always felt respected and valued, and challenged in just the right ways. The only teacher I went out of my way, years later, to go back and visit one lunchtime, when I was visiting home.

I couldn’t fully articulate everything to her that afternoon, and haven’t done justice to my memories of her above either. Our teachers do so much to shape us – they can never fully realise the impact they have. But at their best, they know the responsibility that comes with the impact they can have. If not for my favourite teacher above, I might not have chosen to study English at university, or ended up going to the places I did, meeting the people I met. Life has ups and downs, and so do people, but with every part of myself that was influenced in some way by Ms Matthews, I feel happy.

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On Location

Our homes have been other places entirely. Even if they looked exactly the same at the time, meaning and significance are in the eye of the beholder. I don’t only mean this regarding people who have lived in our houses or our towns or our cities before us, but people who have never been there too. Before and since my birth, my hometown has occasionally been used as a location by TV programmes. Reggie Perrin thought about settling down there in 1976, as he wandered down a street and past a building where I would work 33 years later. One afternoon in 2002, I realised the characters of The Ghost Hunter on CBBC were walking through places I’d walked through most days.

There’s a thrill in seeing places you know appear on screen. Even with the places you don’t, there’s a certain hometown loyalty if you know they’re local. Sylvester McCoy’s much-derided first Doctor Who story in 1987 was shot at a quarry I visited on school trips years later. The cast and crew stayed in a hotel opposite my old school – the hotel was burned down around ten years ago, I assume by fans. Thanks to this fact as much as anything, I often find myself enjoying the story in spite of its flaws (and they are legion).

Frome was only used quite briefly in the programmes I’ve mentioned above. I wonder how it feels to people whose towns have been used more extensively. The League of Gentlemen had difficulties with the citizens of Hadfield (might they now take some pride in being residents of Royston Vasey, I wonder?). Similarly, filming on Last of the Summer Wine in Holfmirth was frequently derailed by the debauchery and violence of the mobs of outwardly gentle pensioners who lived there.

In 1971, a much-loved Doctor Who story, The Dæmons, was filmed in Aldbourne, Wiltshire. The atmosphere of the story (and the setting is a big part of that) is so infectiously delightful that I’ve meant to visit for years. When I was still living in Frome, I looked up the route there, as it was relatively nearby. (I love the idea of visiting lots of the places I’ve seen on TV, in fact.) Since then, I’ve moved away once again, and still haven’t yet got round to going. I’m sure I will eventually, but I wonder how the experience would actually be. I would be walking through a charming village, and I would objectively have knowledge of some brief moments of its history. But I wouldn’t be in “Devil’s End”. I wouldn’t be walking through grainy 16mm film to a Dudley Simpson soundtrack, for a start. (Some people would argue those are impediments to someone trying to go about their day; I would respectfully disagree.) I wonder how many visitors the locals still get, quoting lines of Jon Pertwee’s dialogue and trying to blow up the church.

The places we know are transformed into other places altogether when seen through a lens by a stranger. Anything and anywhere can be imbued with magic by a camera. Ahead of Reggie Perrin’s arrival in my hometown, he wanders through some non-descript, sunny fields – perhaps near Frome, perhaps somewhere else entirely. I have little way of knowing. Now, if I walk through fields and the weather is right, it doesn’t matter where those fields are – I may well think of those scenes.

Without prior knowledge, I might not immediately recognise the school and other locations from Gregory’s Girl (1980), a film that felt like it was reaching out to me personally when I first watched it. But walking through similar-looking places can fill me with just the same sense of nostalgia. Noticeable landmarks in a location are a pleasing, exciting link with the past, but sometimes whether you’re in the right place or not can be totally irrelevant to your feelings.

Thunderbirds was a staple of my childhood, with so much of my youth shaped by Barry Gray’s music. Retrospective documentary Filmed in Supermarionation (2014) visited the studio where the programme was shot, a grey little building on Slough Trading Estate, underpinned by a Barry Gray score. I visited the studio myself months later, and listened to just the same music as I wandered about. It swept over me, and made this grey portion of the South East every bit as exotic and thrilling as the worlds depicted on screen. Between seeing the film and visiting the studio, I went to interview for a job I didn’t particularly want on a trading estate near Rotherham. What could have been a drab day was transformed by the memories that had formed beforehand from the music and the programmes that used it. I find this sort of thing happens very often.

At its best, a good story can take hold and transform your surroundings wherever you are. Our homes can be other places entirely, and other places can be made a kind of home for us.

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