Google Analytics

Thursday 31 December 2015

Reviews - Ian Jack: The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain and Paul Kingsnorth: Real England

Ian Jack: The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain and Paul Kingsnorth: Real England
Ian Jack
The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain: Writings 1989-2009 (5*)
Paul Kingsnorth 
Real England: the Battle Against the Bland (4*)

Both these books observe how Britain has changed during the last half century.

Paul Kingsnorth is concerned about the march of corporate consumerism and how it replaces all things distinctive and different with things uniform and meaningless, be they shops, town centres, pubs, canals, farms, orchards, the countryside or communities. He rejects accusations of nostalgia or being anti-progress. His concerns are about the replacement of the good with the not-so-good, and the loss of value and our identities.

Ian Jack is one of the writers I would like to be. His collection of long and short pieces also compares then with now, evocatively merging fact with personal experience. I was especially moved by his analyses of the ideological changes that led to the Hatfield rail crash, the changes to Dunfermline high street, and the demise of the cinemas in Farnworth, Lancashire. There seems little risk of Ian Jack losing his identity - he maintains it through his writing - but in the end he exemplifies Kingsnorth's concerns.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Previous book reviews 

Reviews - David Kynaston's and Dominic Sandbrook's histories of post-war Britain

David Kynaston histories of post-war Britain
David Kynaston
Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 (3*)
Family Britain 1951-1957 (3*)
Modernity Britain (Book 2) 1959-1962 (3*)

Dominic Sandbrook histories of post-war Britain
Dominic Sandbrook
Never had it so good : A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles (4*)
White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties 1964-1970 (4*)
State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain 1970–1974 (4*)
Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 (4*)

I have been reading gradually through the enormous Kynaston and Sandbrook tomes - not to be undertaken lightly as one of them recently took me most of the summer. They are worth the effort though. Having lived through much of their periods, they bring back lots of associations. I find Sandbrook for the most part more entertaining, but Kynaston is arguably the more impressive, especially in the rich tapestries he weaves from disparate events all occurring on the same day. (read 2012-2015) 

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Previous book reviews 

Thursday 10 December 2015

A Silly Christmas Love Story

And what’s wrong with that? 
This year’s Christmas offering is a story about school dancing.

From mid-November until the end of term, when the rugby pitches slid shirt-soakingly wet from the autumn rains, or scraped skin-scouringly rough from the first hard frosts of winter, games lessons were displaced by dancing practice. The boys and the girls, with their teachers Mr. Ellis and Miss Poskitt, came together in the gym to prepare for the school Christmas party. It was one of just two occasions in the year when games lessons were co-educational (the other being when they all traipsed down to the public swimming baths). The girls tolerated it. The boys felt embarrassed. Miss Poskitt obviously enjoyed it and joined in. Mr. Ellis did not.

The wall bars, climbing ropes, horizontal beams, benches, spring boards, vaulting horses, medicine balls and rubber mats were all stowed away, and the boys and the girls assembled dolefully on opposite sides of the gym.

Mr. Ellis called them all to order. “Gentlemen,” he announced with false gaiety, “please cross the floor and take your partners for the Dashing White Sergeant ... and walk, don’t run,” he added in an exasperated voice on seeing that some boys were already half-way there. “We walk across the floor in a civilised manner and courteously ask the young lady to grant us the honour of the dance.”

Now I know this sounds awful – sexist male chauvinistic objectification you might call it – but it is simply the way things were for thirteen year old boys in the nineteen-sixties. There were some girls you would happily dance with, and others you would not. ‘Nat’ Lofthouse always wanted to dance with Wendy Godley, but as she was pretty, so did everyone else. On the rare occasion he managed to be one of the first to cross the floor, he was usually bundled aside by one of the more civilised and courteous members of the rugby team, and would find himself face to face with Wendy’s friend, Amanda. Even when not one of the first to cross the floor, he still more often than not found himself face to face with Amanda. And when it was a ladies choice, when the claws came out and the fur started to fly, yes, you’ve guessed already, Amanda was always the one to choose him. He began to suspect some kind of conspiracy.

Sadly, Amanda was not one of those girls you wanted to be seen dancing with. It was not just that she wore glasses, and had spots, but more to do with the hideous and rather slimy orthodontic brace that glinted inside her mouth. She was taller than him too. And a little on the hefty side. Why did he have to keep ending up with Amanda?

The class knew The Dashing White Sergeant well. The school only had about half a dozen records to play on its feeble gramophone, so they danced the same dances every year. They went straight into it:

Rum-tum rum-tum, Rum-tum tiddle-liddle, 
Rum-tum rum-tum, Rum-tum tiddle-liddle, 
Rum-tum rum-tum, Rum-tum tee, 
Tiddle-liddle liddle-liddle, Rum tum tum.

The Dashing White Sergeant
The Dashing White Sergeant

The remainder of the afternoon was occupied by a varied choreography of allemande holds, steps forwards, backwards and sideways, two-three-four, hops, spins, do-si-dos, grand chains, polkas, waltzes and two-steps. The willow was well and truly stripped. It was odd though, that whenever you were supposed to progress on to other partners, Nat always found himself back with Amanda at the end. It definitely was a conspiracy.

The following week, he decided upon a new tactic. When Mr. Ellis began to instruct them to take their partners, he would set off early, walk not run, be civilised and courteous, and grab Wendy first before anybody else could.

“Gentlemen,” said Mr. Ellis, and Nat set off. “Please cross the floor to take your partners for ...” Nat realised he had gone too soon.

“Ah! Lofthouse,” said Mr. Ellis in predatory mock surprise, “How wonderful to see you so keen. Perhaps today you would like to ask Miss Poskitt for her hand so you can demonstrate the Veleta Waltz for the benefit of us all.” Unconstrained laughter echoed around the gym.

Da-ah de, da-ah de, da-ah de, dum,
Da-ah de, da-ah de, da-ah de, dum,
Da-ah de, da-ah de, da-ah de, dum,
Da-ah de, da-ah de, diddle-it-dit dum.

The Veleta
The Veleta

On the first run through of each dance, it was Miss Poskitt’s custom to select an unfortunate victim to demonstrate it with. It was never Mr. Ellis, he never danced, it was always one of the boys. And when she danced, her natural, neat, flowing movements transformed her from a rather uninteresting girls’ sports teacher into a fascinating and graceful danseuse. On each third beat of the Veleta she rose nimbly upwards on alternate ankles, poising briefly to show off her well-developed county hockey-player legs. As she moved him around the floor, and changed sides to demonstrate the man’s leading role, Nat was as powerless as John Betjeman’s subaltern  partnering Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, weak from the loveliness of her “strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand”. He glowed bright red as Mr. Ellis led the class in a round of applause.

*                   *                  *

The following year, when the school playing fields were once more shrouded in fog and choked up with mud, dancing came round again as predictably as an unwanted partner in a well-executed Circassian Circle. The boys and girls assembled reluctantly as usual on opposite sides of the gym. Also as usual, it was the first occasion during the school year when classes of the same age group came together, when an interesting new face might be noticed. Any new member of Wendy’s A stream girls would be seen for the first time by Nat’s B stream boys.

Even so, when Nat crossed the floor to take part in the traditional partner-selection ritual, and was brutally barged out of the way by one of the school prop-forwards, he was surprised to find himself face to face with a new girl – an attractive new girl who glowed with health and perfection. Actually, he’d spotted her a couple of months earlier and wondered who she was, the sporty girl playing tennis with Wendy. She played so well, so athletically, a true Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. Nat hesitantly mumbled his request to dance. The new girl gave him a lovely smile, thanked him for choosing her and said she would be delighted to accept.

They took to the dance floor for The Military Two Step. Heel toe, heel toe, de diddly diddly dum de diddly, heel toe, heel toe ... Nat had never seen anyone heel and toe so elegantly. Not even Miss Poskitt.

“Look at you!” his partner whispered in wide-eyed admiration at the end of the dance. Nat was taken aback by her intimate, affectionate tone. She turned to face him, looked him up and down, and stepped so close he could feel the warmth of her face on his. She reached up and placed her hand on top of his head, and then moved it backwards over her own. “You’re taller than me now,”  she said.

To his astonishment, Nat realised it was Amanda. What a change!

I don’t need glasses any more,” she laughed, amused by his bewilderment, “or that hideous brace.” 

And then, before they could say more, it was The Finnjenka Dance to the school’s newly bought record, ‘March of the Mods’ by Joe Loss and his orchestra. Joe Loss? Dead Loss! Within seconds she had marched on to the next partner and was gone. But as always, as if through some secret feminine wile, she ended back with him just in time for The Gay Gordons.

Da, Dah-de dah-diddy, Dah-de dah-diddy, Dum dum dum diddy, Dum dum dum

The Gay Gordons
The Gay Gordons

“We’re dead good,” Amanda raved at the end. “Really great! Natural partners! Ace, brill and fab! You have to come round on Saturday. I’ve got all the music at home. Come round to practise on our own. Then we’ll go to the party together.” Nat wished she would keep her voice down. Mr. Ellis pretended not to hear. Miss Poskitt rolled her eyes and blew them a kiss. 

Nat loved being bossed and organised by Amanda. They did go to the party together. It was at the Baths Hall where every winter the pool was drained and boarded over with a dance floor, the only hall in town large enough to accommodate the whole of the school year. They danced all the dances, and “held each other glad all over into something good” to The Honeycombs, Dave Clark Five and Herman’s Hermits.  They laughed when the science teacher, Mr. Richardson, as ever, stood up and recited entirely from memory a long poem about young Albert and a lion called Wallace and a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle.

It had begun to snow during the party, and after ‘Auld Lang Syne’ they came out into a winter wonderland and walked home together merrily, singing ‘Jingle Bells’ and pretending to be reindeer. Nat dared to kiss Amanda’s soft warm cheek and she produced a piece of mistletoe to hang on his imaginary antlers. She kissed him back and gave him a tender hug.

He was sad that before school resumed again after the holidays, Amanda had left with her family and moved to Johannesburg.

*                   *                  *

The next year everything changed except the weather. The Christmas party took place in the pristine new school hall, and the traditional dances and Mr. Richardson’s recitation were consigned to the past. Nat made an excuse not to go and hid from the cold at home, dreaming of tennis and Christmas dancing in the summer sun at the other end of the world.

The image of the nineteen-fifties dance in a school gym is by H. Armstrong (Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images). Multiple copies are widespread across the internet and I therefore assume it is now in the public domain, but will remove it on request if still under copyright.

Mr Ellis also appears in:
          Jim Laker, Mr. Ellis
and the Eagle Annual

Tackling Rugby