nichollsretirementproject

Archive for the month “May, 2017”

What goes around comes around.

Like many a new undergraduate in 1972, I found myself faced with the prospect of finishing my degree and having to go out into the big bad world to start some kind of a career. I would finish university with a degree in German, but the one thing of which I was certain was that I didn’t want to become a teacher.

I had done some amateur teaching as a language assistant in Germany during the third year of my course and had enjoyed it immensely.  It gave full rein to the show-off within me.  Indeed I can still remember the two comments from the senior staff at the school where I was ‘assisting’.   One was from my mentor, the Head of the English Department, who wrote in her report on my year’s work  ‘Mr Nicholls has outstanding pedagogical ability.’

The other was from one of the senior English teachers, a burnt-out and grumpy older man, who insisted that I taught his class of fourteen-year-olds British History, despite my protestations that History was the one GCE that I had failed, with flying colours!  Having no knowledge about British History and finding the idea that I should be teaching it to anyone quite ridiculous, I decided to base my lessons on the silly stories and legends that 900 years of history inevitably contains.

So I did lessons on shivering Romans in sandals and short togas on Hadrian’s Wall, King Alfred burning his cakes, Bodecea and her chariots with knives on the wheels, and, eventually, Wellington thrashing Boneparte at the battle of Waterloo.  (My lesson about this  latter story particularly upset the English teacher, because it made no mention of the crucial role played by General Bluecher, who, in a feat of engineering genius and outstanding bravery,  took his entire army across the Rhine in small boats to come to the aid of Wellington, thereby turning impending defeat into a stunning victory.  The reason I hadn’t mentioned Bluecher’s contribution to the victory was because I knew next nothing about the subject in the first place.  British school text books don’t mention the contribution of foreigners unless we defeated them. Well, I did warn him!)

That teacher’s unforgettable comment on my year-long contribution to his English class was “If  Mr Nicholls could resist the temptation to turn all of his lessons into cabaret performances, he might turn out to be a half decent teacher.”

So on leaving university, I knew I could teach but the prospect of going from school to university and then back into school filled me with horror, so I faced the end of my final year at Manchester University with some trepidation. And then I saw the poster for VSO that said “It’s better to light a candle than complain about the dark,” and I few months later I was landing at Khartoum Airport at the start of my first two-year VSO stint.

I was assigned to work as an English teacher at the Higher Teachers’ Training Institute in Omdurman.  I was put in charge of a language laboratory, (remember those?) and given some English Literature classes.  Imagine teaching ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ to a group of Sudanese young women who were all studying Home Economics so that they could become the consorts of Sudanese diplomats!  The cabaret continued. Great fun ensued.

The problem was that The Sudan was going through a politically turbulent time on its downward progress to the parlous state in which it now finds itself. As a consequence of that, my Institute was on strike more often than it was open.

For a VSO volunteer that sort of thing is a disaster, because you are a long way from home in a strange country and no raison d’etre at all.  You also can’t travel because you have to be available just in case the students decide to go back to work. The result:  crushing boredom and mounting frustration.

And then I saw another poster, this time for the Khartoum Repertory Company, an amateur group of thespians, based on the unashamedly expatriate Sudan Club.

I joined and took part in several theatrical extravaganzas before the suggestion was made that I should direct a play.  My directorial debut was the unforgettable 1973 performance, which is, I am sure, even today, the talk of Khartoum town  –  Ta-dah…..

 

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OK, I admit, it wasn’t the most professional poster you have ever seen, but hey, this was Khartoum in 1973, so give me a break!

It was clear that I wasn’t the only expatriate who had time on his hands.  We had a set builder who transformed the open-air stage into a down-at-heel country house that was itself transformed into an inn or a garden by the removal or addition of a few flats.

Finding actors was also not difficult.  I managed to cast the Head of the British Council as the country squire, Mr Hardcastle, and his deputy as the lovelorn, if rather duplicitous gentleman, Mr Marlowe.

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Mr Hardcastle berates his daughter, Kate, about her unnecessarily flamboyant dress.  “I could never teach the fools of this age that the indigent world could be clothed out of the trimmings of the vain!”

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Poor Mr Marlowe is too shy and bashful to speak to ladies of high degree, although he is perfectly able to be free with “ladies of another stamp, you understand me!”  He has come to court Mr Hardcastle’s daughter.

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Mr Hastings, Mr Marlowe’s partner in courtship, who seeks the hand of Miss Hardcastle’s cousin, Constance, flatters Mrs Hardcastle in the hope of separating her from the jewels which she is holding until her niece, Constance, marries her son by her first husband, Tony Lumpkin, thereby keeping the money in the family.  ( I hope you are following this.  It gets worse!)

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Mrs Hardcastle, believing that she is lost upon the heath and that her husband is a murderous highwayman, pleads for her life and the life of her errant son, Tony, who has caused all the mischief.  (Note: This scene is supposed to be in the middle of the night somewhere on the Hardcastles’ country estate, not in the drawing room, but the ‘Lost on the heath’ backdrop didn’t come down, and nor did the lights.  So everyone carried on regardless.  True pros!)

So why am I telling you all this?  Well, it is a shameless, and somewhat wordy advertisement for the forthcoming highlight of Brighton’s summer cultural calendar.  Drum roll, please… Ta-dah

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The difference this time is that the play is directed by someone who knows what she is doing and that Brighton Little Theatre has someone who can produce a decent poster.

The other difference is that I’m not directing, I’m playing the part of Mr Hardcastle.

Gotta go – lots of lines to learn.

 

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One of the joys of the northern hemisphere.

We have spent a good number of years either in the tropics or close to them and one of the things that you notice is that in such places, one season is very much like another.  The days are more or less the same length at any time of year and the vegetation doesn’t change an awful lot.

One of the delights of coming home, therefore, is to watch the seasons change and, in particular to watch the steady on-march of the spring and the summer in its inevitable and irresistible battle against the ravages of the winter.

The following pictures might show you what I mean.

I start with the view from our bedroom window on a cold, damp and misty morning in January.P1070962

Followed by the very first signs of spring on a cold morning at the beginning of March.

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Just the merest hint of green, but just wait a few days and….

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… no, nothing much changes.  But then…

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Yes, definitely some signs that we have got the winter on the run.  And then…

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… before you know it …. Spring has sprung!

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… and the Summer is here!

There are worse places…

… than the Sussex Downs in the spring.

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Don’t you think?

 

Strange things happen…

… between April and May.

You start with this.

Easter Island head

Then you get this.

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And, finally, tah-dah!

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The Easter Island face still doesn’t look particularly cheerful, regardless of the improvement in his looks.

You don’t see that every day.

The village of Henfield, just outside Brighton, is  pretty little place that is just full of surprises.

A house covered in cats, for example;

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Or a house being guarded by a giant bird;

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But the most surprising thing, a couple of weeks ago, was the sight of eight harps, in the same place at the same time.

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Now, I’ve seen a harp before.  I sing with the Brighton Welsh Male Voice Choir and we quite often have a harpist just to provide a bit of variety and contrast at our concerts.  But eight harps?  No, that was a first.

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And some very fine harps they were too.

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We were attending a concert by a group of harpists called Glissando.  If you ever get a chance to go and see them, make the effort.  It was well worth it!  Eight harps, played together, make a joyous noise.

You live and learn.

In my latest blog entry I mentioned our recent trip to South Wales and, in particular, our visit to Rhossili on the Gower Peninsular.

If you look in one direction from the clifftop, you look down over the long stretch of golden sand.  If you turn  your gaze to the left, about 90 degrees, you will see the promontory with defines Rhossili, the mysteriously named Pen Pyrod or Worm’s Head.

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Again, Rhossili provides a feast for the camera lens…

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… as the Worm’s Head points its rocky nose out into the ocean.

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To get to the Worm’s Head itself you have to cross a rocky causeway, a feat that should only be attempted by the intrepid and the lucky.

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And there are plenty of warnings to alert the unwary.

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And not just in one language.

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There is even evidence that not just holiday-makers have come to grief on this particular piece of coastline.P1080044

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So, as I mentioned, I have known about Rhossili and the Worm’s Head since I was a teenager.  However, during our recent visit, I was chatting to the volunteer in the National Trust gift shop and I casually remarked that the Worm’s Head didn’t look like any worm I had ever seen.

“Ah” said the wise woman behind the counter. “That’s because the word ‘worm’ comes from an Old English word ‘wyrm’, which used to mean ‘dragon’.

Suddenly, all was clear!

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Yep!  Definitely a dragon!

Taking it for granted.

Linda and I were brought up in Swansea.  Linda was actually born there, whereas I was an early interloper.  I think I was three years old when my Dad got a job in an aluminium factory in the splendidly named village of Waunarlwydd, just outside Swansea and we moved to a house in the equally wonderfully named suburb of Sketty.

To the west of Swansea lies the Gower Peninsular, which, during our teenage years, was our very own adventure playground, complete with bays, beaches and tiny inlets with names like Brandy Cove or Bracelet Bay, redolent of pirates and smugglers.  It was our place to get lost, sandwiches in hand and spend the day exploring the coast, coming home late with weary feet.

To us, at that time, the Gower was nothing special.  Just a good place to escape to.  Going back there now, fifty years later we never cease to be amazed by just how beautiful and varied the peninsular is.  Rugged cliff walks alternate with long sandy beaches, most of them accessible by bus.

Our favourite haunts were places like Three Cliffs, Caswell Bay or Crawley Woods, but at the end of the peninsular was the tiny hamlet of Rhossili, where we hardly ever ventured.  There were two reasons not to go to Rhossili.  One was the fact that the bus journey could take a couple of hours and your chances of getting a bus back on the same day were, to say the least, limited.  The other reason was that my German teacher lived there, and there was nothing more guaranteed to take the shine off an afternoon walk with your girlfriend, than stumbling across your German teacher.

Anyway, time moved on and a few weeks ago  we were invited to Linda’s brother’s significant birthday party in Swansea.  One of the very few advantages of growing old is that friends and relatives start to reach significant milestones, so there are plenty of parties to attend.  The day after this party we decided to go and explore Rhossili.  It didn’t disappoint!

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This picture was taken on a Sunday morning.

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The little carpark up on the cliff-top was full.  There was still room for a few more visitors on the beach.

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Bloody foreigners……..

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…..  they come over here, invading our native woodlands, turning them all blue in the springtime!

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Last Friday we were out with the local Park Ranger again, but this time our mission, if we chose to accept it, was to repel and eradicate foreign invaders.

Apparently British woodlands are being taken over by nasty, sneaky, foreign bluebells!  Now that we are all fully committed to Brexit, it’s time to root out these European upstarts and take back control of our woods!  We are the last line of defence against this dastardly, Brussels-inspired attack on our botanical sovereignty.

Now, I am as willing as the next man to indulge in horticultural xenophobia, but I must confess to feeling slightly uncomfortable about grubbing up flowers that seemed to me to be no less pretty than their British counterparts.  Compare the following:-

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Both of the above are beautiful British bluebells …

… and then …

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… no  less beautiful, but rather more vigorous, Spanish bluebells.

Our Ranger boss tells us that the Spanish bluebells are so prolific, once they get established, that they can take over from the native variety and so, from a biodiversity point of view it make sense to dig them out when they start to encroach into native bluebell fields.

There is a counter-argument that says that if the native species can’t assert itself against the foreign invader, no amount of intervention by enthusiastic eco-warriors on a Friday morning is going to make much of a difference.

And the question has to be asked about how the Spanish bluebells got into British woodlands in the first place.  Personally I think it’s part of a Spanish plot to systematically deplete our bio-diversity and homogenise our meadows until we give back Gibraltar.

Just look at the mess they have made of Stanmer Park in Brighton.

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Oh, actually, I’m not sure if these are Spanish or British Bluebells.  Pretty, though, eh?

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These are definitely British bluebells, even the white ones!

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