Month: December 2017

Opportunity Knocked But…..

It was mid-winter 1935 that I turned my back on the opportunity to become a great actor.I was just a few weeks away from being 12 when selected above all others to play John Peerybingle in The Cricket on the Hearth, the great Christmas story written by Charles Dickens – and for years far more popular and highly acclaimed than his Christmas Carol and the salvation of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Dickens, always prolific, wrote five Christmas stories: The Carol in 1843, The Chimes in ’44, The Cricket in ’45, The Battle of Life in ’46 and The Haunted Man in ’47. The Cricket was the best-selling of all five with early sales double those of the first two. Only the one appears to be remembered these days, and that courtesy of the brilliance of British film makers and actor Alastair Sim’s incredible Scrooge.

I was personally selected for my role by English teacher John Francis Bacon – better known to the student body as “Flitch” – a man of obvious perception and, as his Christian names suggest, from a literature loving family. He was not, as some irreverent friends suggest when noting my advanced years, the original John Francis Bacon of the 1500s.

It was years before I learned why Mr. Bacon selected me from a throng of other dirty faced would-be Thespians. The script called for someone who could portray “a carrier, a lumbering, slow, honest man.” Courtesy of my grandfather’s training, I could harness a horse to a cart and could handle a pony and trap, so I qualified as a “carrier”. And, my mother always said of me, usually with a sigh: “He’s a good lad, but clumsy” which I suppose is a mother’s way of saying I “lumbered.” As for “slow”, well, chores certainly had a braking effect on me although I was pretty fast when it came to games and pleasure. And I was honest – except for apples swiped from the Vicar’s orchard, which we called “scrumping” because we knew stealing was dishonest; and the occasional cigarette lifted from my Uncle George’s open pack for smoking in the dark of a Saturday afternoon movie. I can’t remember how I justified snitching an uncle’s “fags” but I’m sure my 11-year-old reasoning was sound.

Anyway, there I was; John Peerybingle type-cast perfectly and hoping that Marjorie Barnett would get the nod as Mary Peerybingle. She was a few months younger but that’s what the script called for – a “much younger woman” – for John’s wife. She, for reasons known only to Dickens, is referred to as “Dot” throughout the story and was suspected at one time of being over amorous with the lodger Edward Plummer.

I was rooting for Marjorie because she was extremely good looking – and her parents ran a pie and pastry shop on Abbey Street. What better dreams could an 11-year old have just before Christmas?

The plot of The Cricket was typical of Dickens. John and his young wife Mary (Dot) are supposed to be of modest means but have a live-in nursemaid for their baby. The nursemaid (a “great clumsy girl” is called for) has the gorgeous name of Tilly Slowboy. The nine-member cast is rounded out with an old toymaker, Caleb Plummer, who is bullied and treated with contempt by his employer (known only as Tackleton); Bertha Plummer, Caleb’s blind daughter; a friend of the family May Fielding and her irritating mother; and the lodger who at play’s end turns out to be Caleb’s son, long presumed lost or dead in South America.

Ah, and one other character, never seen but playing the title role – the Cricket. The Cricket chirps advice from the hearth and at one tearful point (there are many) assures John that Dot isn’t having it off with lodger Edward, who is really in love with May Fielding whom the evil Tackleton is determined to marry.

As in the Carol, Dickens uses dreams and disembodied voices to enhance his plot. I could hardly wait to see how John Francis let me handle Peerybingle “as he soberly and thoughtfully puffed at his old pipe, and as the Dutch clock ticked, and as the red fire gleamed, and as the Cricket chirped; that Genius of his Hearth and home (for such the Cricket was) came out, in fairy shape, into the room, and shaped many forms of Home about him….”

As in all Dicken’s stories, whatever the tragedy in the body of the tale, truth and justice eventually prevail. In The Cricket, Tackleton is turned from darkness to light by the Christmas spirit and graciously allows May to marry Edward; there’s a strong hint that Caleb’s blind daughter gets her sight back; and John and Dot, all suspicions allayed, rejoice in each other’s arms.

I was looking forward to that – but it never happened. At third rehearsal I was cut. Couldn’t remember my lines. John Francis said he was sorry and told me why I’d been hand-picked for the role. “I had hoped,” he said “you would be as good in the role as your brother Tom who was so wonderful as Peerybingle three years ago.” Upstaged by my big and talented brother.

And that’s how stage and screen lost a star extinguished before his first strut on Manor Park School stage. But there it was. Opportunity knocked and I didn’t – couldn’t – open the door. But as another Christmas season slides into the past and another New Year pops up on the calendar, I can still gaze into a glowing fire and listen for a Cricket on the Hearth to tell me what might have been – and maybe what happened to Marjorie Barnett whom I coveted almost, but not quite as much as, her parents’ jam tarts and mince pies.

(And thank you to the many friends and readers who remembered my 94th birthday and wished me well. May you all have a Peerybingle future.)

An Old Fowl Makes Great Chicken Stew

There were a few white Christmases when I was growing up in England’s industrial Midlands, but not many. For the most part Christmas weather was chimney-smoke dreary, wet, and cold.

But that was just the weather, not the spirit of the times.

By today’s standards we didn’t have much to be happy about, but happy we were. Even with a father out of work in the great depression of the 1920s, and a mother trying to raise four children while taking in other people’s laundry, or scrubbing other people’s kitchen floors to keep bread – and some joyous days, butter – on the table.

They were hard times for my parents, but I don’t remember them being hard, for we children. We were sometimes hungry, but never desperately so. There always seemed to be a slice of bread and “dripping” or, in rare moments of luxury, butter and jam. And on Christmas Day a wonderful feast of chicken stew with dumplings the fowl being supplied my grandfather who had a small holding three miles in the country. Astute cooks will know the difference between a chicken for roasting and a fowl past egg bearing age for stewing.Hungry children ask for seconds.

I have been trying to figure out what made Christmas on the edge of poverty so happy for our small family of five, before deaths and time scattered us to dust or faraway places. I have no desire to return to the sometimes-lean days of childhood, but I wouldn’t mind seeing restored some still well remembered things.

Like the Salvation Army Band playing Christmas carols on grimy, rain-wet, streets with crowds huddled under gas-lit street lamps to listen and sometimes join in. Only readers old enough to remember childhood before new-fangled electric radios piped Christmas music into every home will understand. Those were the days when the first carols were heard only a few days before Christmas; when a boy soprano could send O Holy Night echoing through the shadows of an old church’s vaulted ceiling like an angel singing; when most of us could sing along with the great choruses of Handel’s Messiah. And some of us still can.

Radio, and later television, relieved us of the thirst for street corner brass band Christmas music, or the walk to church on Christmas Eve for a feast of carols. Sure, we can still find carol services in local churches and cathedrals but they have, alas, had their beauty – and their inspiration – diluted by the tidal wave of Christmas musak pumped out by radio, television and the ubiquitous piped music of the mall. Christmas carols swamp us from early November, and long before Christmas week we become overwhelmed, senses deadened, to any message from old hymns composed to lift the human spirit. They have become homogenized background sounds, ignored and unheeded, by stressed shoppers trying to buy the Christmas spirit.

It would be wonderful to see a voluntary ban on Christmas music until, at the earliest, December 15. Merchants could keep their marketing strategies and push for ever-higher Christmas sales, but have the good grace to leave what remains of the spiritual side of Christmas to the churches. It would bring me joy to see more downtown, week-before-Christmas, Salvation Army Band street concerts.

One other thing merchants could contribute to recapture lost Christmas values would be restoration of the old “lay away” plan – the pay before you take delivery scheme – that saw even the poorest of families able to buy Christmas gifts and wake up on Boxing Day debt free.

When I was the youngest lad in the family I had to accompany my mother and sister to the street market every Saturday morning, dreading at every step that I would meet a derisive schoolmate. The most important stop was at “The Co-operative”, a department store where Co-op members were encouraged to start in January to “lay away” for next Christmas. Every Saturday mother would buy a stamp for her most carefully protected possession “the Co-op stamp book.” The money for her stamps came from the floors she scrubbed; and the sheets she washed, ironed, and folded immaculately.

Come Christmas week she would have enough stamp money laid away to provide every member of her family with a present – including a new clay pipe and a stick of evil smelling black tobacco for my dad. My first bike – a Raleigh three speed – when I was 14 must have cost her acres of scrubbed floors, and a multitude of crisp white sheets. But when I got it in 1937 with a “Merry Christmas/Happy Birthday” message, it was already paid for.

It was important to her – and to the merchants who served her – that there should always be enough money to pay the Christmas bills – before Christmas. Debt, both banks and merchants taught us back then, was bad.

I have given up on banks with their greedy credit card inducements to create ever higher “charge it” burdens, but I think merchants, with genuine Christmas good will, could lead us back to “lay away” debt free days. It would be a great Christmas gift to offer their customers. And if they gift-wrapped it with a promise of “no pablum caroling before December 15”, I would wish them all a PROSPEROUS AND VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS – and thanks for at least trying to create a debt free society.

(First published in 2004. Public – and government – personal debt continues to expand. My hopes remain firm, but alas, still only as a dream.)

The Stars At Night Are Big And Bright

It was cold as they crossed the fields. Hoar frost was sparkling on the grass in the small circles of light created by the several oil lamps carried by a group of men well muffled against a winter-night.
They didn’t have far to walk. Maybe 20 minutes from their lodgings in a once historic vicarage across the fields to Bockleton Manor. Readers who call England their “old country” and hail from Worcestershire or Herefordshire may recognize the name. It has been on record in one form or another since the Domesday Book was published in 1086.
The group of men now huddling through the cold and dark of a 1942 pre-Christmas night have little knowledge of the history. All they know is that the manor, now looming massive in the fragile light of moonrise, is a temporary “home” for children in care of the Birmingham Royal Institution for the Blind (BRIB). The children had been evacuated from bomb threatened Birmingham in the early months of WW2 with boys re-located in Kinlet Hall, Shropshire; the girls in Bockleton Manor or Court.
The motley group now knocking on the ancient front door is mixed bag of conscientious objectors, some religious, some political, agnostics and few atheists. Their bunkhouse at the old vicarage is operated by Quakers and they are on hand this evening to offer pre-Christmas entertainment for children and BRIB staff – and the Lord of the Manor and his family if they were in residence and cared to attend. Ushered into the entrance hall then led to the great hall where they were to perform, the nondescript group of a dozen or so was viewed with curiosity and a touch of quizzical amusement. The thoughts were unspoken but obvious: What on earth is this rag-tag-bob-tail crew going to do to pleasingly entertain a large group of blind children, their discerning teachers and a handful of upper-crust gentry?
They had no way of knowing that in what looked like a clean but disheveled gang of ditch diggers, crop-harvesters and general farm labourers were a concert pianist, two classical violinists, a former conductor of the Welsh Junior Symphony Orchestra, four magnificent voices from Welsh Chapel choirs – one bass, one baritone, two tenors, two cast members from the long running British vaudeville show The Fol-de-Rols, and a few writers
The ‘‘Fols” started as a seaside beach show in Scarborough, Yorkshire in 1911, and grew to become one of the most famous and best loved year-round touring shows in Britain until the 1970’s when changing times and tastes rang down its final curtain. It was once written of the Fols that their shows always “had an air of class about them” – and that is what the two former Fols were determined to deliver to this audience of blind children and their mentors.
Together with the musicians they had scripted a close to two-hour show featuring favourite songs old and new, piano and violin solos, classical and popular duets, skits with emphasis on loud slaps, bangs and shouts and terrible puns which brought laughter and cheers from the children – and groans from the adults. There were touches of Christmas throughout the concert, it being that time of the year, but it wasn’t overwhelming.
When the final chorus was sung and the cast had taken its bow, one of the blind school teachers said the children would like to say “thank you” by performing a song they had learned by heart and could sing without accompaniment.
The Great Hall seemed to pause in time. The girls grouped around their teacher waiting for their cue as we wondered what an all-girl choir of blind children, bright faced and best dressed, might sing. “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” seemed an appropriate guess.
We waited. Teacher gave them a note and in joyous voice, the girls of the Birmingham Royal Institution for the Blind sent the ancient walls of the manor echoing with the unexpected but then popular song “The stars at night are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas” with the triumphal three hand claps that followed each short verse.
Seventy-five years later I can still recall the magical sound of that sheer, unexpected burst of joy, the answer of 50 or so blind children to adversity.
On the walk home, the hoar frost had thickened on the grass, the sky was clear, the moon bright enough to light our way without lanterns. And the talk was on the girls, some very young, some in their teens, who had chosen for their “thank you” an upbeat, happy song about big bright stars they had never seen and never would see.
As if on cue our group stopped and looked beyond the moonlight to the stars, then walked the rest of the way home in thoughtful silence. I know all this because I was there, a minor but privileged player, in a joyful Christmas story with a moral to be treasured and remembered.
And I hope, for all of you who read this piece, the next few days will lead you to a Christmas as bright and lasting as the stars.

Strait-laced Morality Or No Laces At All?

It was a few years ago that I first wrote about revered poet Lord Byron and wondered how he would make out reputation-wise in today’s world of confusion when moral and amoral standards are debated.
Byron was 36 when he died in Greece on April 19, 1824 – a day still fondly remembered by lovers of beautiful writing who gather to recite his tender “She walks in beauty like the night”, murmur the hinted bawdiness of “So we’ll go no more a roving” and shed a tear for “Fare thee well”. They react with dismay when reminded Byron was far from a loyal lover or friend and cared little for those whose lives were ruined by his amoral arrogance.
It is written that he contracted a fever and died while being treated by what was then the standard procedure of bloodletting. When the news reached England, the reaction was traumatic. A national hero in the UK – and revered in Greece where he had gone to join that nation in its war with the Ottoman Empire – his body was embalmed and returned to England. Some sources say his heart was removed before that final journey. The people of Greece wanted some part of their hero to remain with them.
In England his body lay in state for two days and news reports of the day record “huge crowds” lining the streets to pay their respects before he was to be interred in Westminster Abbey. But the Abbey balked at the request for an honoured resting place from supporters of a man they felt of “questionable morality” and denied the request. It was written that he had lived a life full of “aristocratic excesses, huge debts, (and) numerous love affairs with more than one gender.”
Undeterred, Byron’s friends – and they were many – launched a successful fund-raising drive to commission a statue. That work by Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen was completed in 1834. However, it remained in storage for 10 years while the country debated where to place it. The British Museum declined to display it. So did St. Paul’s Cathedral, the National Gallery – and holding fast to its original refusal, Westminster Abbey.
Trinity College, Cambridge, finally found a quiet corner for the statue.
In 1907, a lively debate calling for some sort of recognition for Byron was supported by the New York Times. In a column signed “Galbraith” the NYT suggested England should be proud to honour Byron, not ashamed of him just because he had lived a flamboyant immoral life. The writer admitted “neither Byron’s writing nor his mode of life are such as to appeal to the straitlaced, this seems to be no excuse for refusing the great poet proper recognition.”
In 1969, 145 years after his death, a modest memorial was placed in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner. It is a replica of one the King of Greece donated to mark Byron’s grave at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.
It all leaves me wondering still how the play would end if re-enacted today. Would our easily frenzied media be in high “straitlaced” dudgeon concentrating only on Byron’s extravagant but contemptuously tawdry life style? Would the Twittering classes be breaking viral records regurgitating the latest Byronic sexual romps – both hetero and homo?
It leaves me wondering too, if in the 48-years since Byron was accorded his “modest” marker in Westminster Abbey, “amoral” has overwhelmed “immoral” and if the world is paying a high price for the switch from “straitlaced” morality to “no laces required at all?”

What Took Them So Long?

Contrary to popular belief, automobiles powered by electricity
are not new. They were silently rolling around workshop yards in Scotland, Holland, Hungary and the USA close to 70 years before the first gasoline powered car rattled down the streets of my hometown Victoria, British Columbia.

Tradition has it that first “horseless carriage” to thrill Victoria residents was part of a travelling circus making a city stop in 1899. In her fascinating book Above Stairs: Social Life in Upper-Class Victoria 1843-1918, Valerie Green tells us after the circus departed “the first automobile of note to be acknowledged as such was owned by Dr. Edward Charles Hart, one-time Victoria coroner. His was a 3.5 horsepower Oldsmobile that arrived in Victoria on May 23, 1902, to be driven down Johnson Street the following day by its proud owner. It set Dr. Hart back $900 and was capable of achieving speeds of 15 miles an hour.”

While the natives and immigrants to the British Colony on Vancouver Island were marveling at the noisy but wonderful new gasoline driven carriage, old world scientists were reaching beyond internal combustion. Between 1832 and 1839 Scotsman Robert Anderson, Holland’s Sibrandus Stratingh, Hungarian inventor Anyos Jedlik and one Christopher Becker claimed to have electric vehicles up and running.

It is generally held that Anderson of Scotland was the first to invent what is described as “the first crude electric carriage powered by non-rechargeable primary cells.” Some insist the leadership claim is still under debate. The life of Anderson’s first car – described as “a crude beast” was as brief as its non-renewable battery, but it launched the search which continues to this day for ever better long-life or easy to recharge batteries that can store power for longer periods.

It may be surprising to some that the electric cars now being re-introduced to our highways and byways as the new and best way to go drive-about are merely re-claiming a position they once held in the late 19th century and early 20th. Englishman Thomas Parker, electrical engineer, is credited as being the man who built the first practical electric car powered by his then revolutionary high-capacity rechargeable batteries.

That was in 1884. Four years later German inventor Andreas Flocken introduced the Flocken Elektrowagen and by the turn of the century, electric powered cars were the vehicle of choice. It is estimated that by the time 1900 rolled around 30,000 electric powered vehicles were offering a level of comfort and ease of operation far beyond gasoline driven vehicles.

In that same year, 192 cars were produced in the fledgling USA auto building industry. Twenty-eight per cent were powered by electricity. Of all the cars on the roads of New York, Boston and Chicago one third were electric. Close to 20 per cent of New York taxis were electric – and then came 1908 and Henry Ford’s Model T; gasoline powered, noisy, and polluting, but within financial reach of most working families.

Four years later Charles Kettering (cct) invented the electrical starter to eliminate the heavy hand cranking required to start an internal combustion engine. The push-button starter and mushrooming proliferation of gasoline and service stations made internal combustion king of the road with non-polluting electric cars pushed into hibernation.

Close to 100 years later, a stirring of environmental conscience and ever rising gas prices resurrected the desire for clean electric power. Major auto manufacturers are now switching entirely or partially back to electric or hybrid power, all claiming leadership in the race for cleaner air.

When we remember that the first hybrid car running on gasoline and electricity was built by Porsche in 1899, it seems justifiable to ask the entire auto industry – what took you so long?