Little boy lost

I remember a family outing to a forest in Devon with a river running through it (broadly similar to Tarr Steps). I was probably somewhere between 6 and 9 years old at the time. I was there with my parents, siblings, grandmother, aunt and uncle.

We were heading back towards the car park and I had run on ahead. Just before the car park I stopped and decided that it would be a funny joke to head up the hill a little and hide behind a tree. As family members gradually arrived back at the car park I watched from my hiding place as they started to look around for me. After a few minutes they started to get more worried and a couple of them headed back they way we’d come to search along (and in) the river. The more serious things got the less keen I was to venture down from behind the tree and to reveal myself, fearful of the inevitable tongue-lashing. But at a certain point it became unavoidable so I meekly trotted down the hill to where my uncle and gran were waiting while the others had gone off looking in various directions. These being the days before mobile phones we had to wait until they’d all come back before they knew I was safe and sound.

And this was back in the 1970s when parents were noticeably more relaxed about their kids wandering off on their own. I’ve experienced a couple of occasions where I’ve ‘mislaid’ a child and it doesn’t take long for the cold feeling to grow in the pit of your stomach and for your mind to leap to the darkest conclusions. Somewhere between thirty and sixty seconds.

So…yeah. Sorry, mum.



I used to share a bedroom with my brother, who was (and still is) 11 years my senior. He liked to share his taste in music on his gramophone, so I was exposed at an early age to the likes of Earth Wind and Fire and Level 42. But in addition to music he had a collection of comedy LPs from the likes of Monty Python, Not The Nine O’clock News, Derek and Clive (which was quite a shock to my tender young ears) and Rowan Atkinson. I came across this classic sketch on youtube today and the memories came flooding back.



P.S. My brother turned 50 last week. Happy birthday, Garry.

Susannah York

As you may or may not be aware, Susannah York died over the weekend. Did I ever tell you about the time she held my face in her hands and gazed into my eyes? No?

Late summer 1996. I left university with a respectable humanities degree and no job prosepcts, so I ran away to join the circus film industry. My first job found via a friend led to my first professional contacts and a second job followed almost immediately: lighting assistant on a low-budget British film (is there any other kind?) shooting in London and Norfolk (from which I had only just escaped, having attended the University of East Anglia). The cast included the then-unknown Andy “Gollum” Serkis and one Susannah York in a small role as the protagonist’s mother. Although I was aware of her work in a vague sort of way, for me should would always be Superman’s mum. York’s son Orlando Wells was also working on set as a runner.The title of the film ended up being Loop, although the working title during the shoot was “You Can Keep the Animals”.

The London portion of the shoot went well enough, if you don’t count the complaints, threats, and police intervention during a night-shoot in a residential area for which we didn’t have a permit and which necessitated the use of an insomnia-inducingly loud lighting generator. We ran lots of long cables and hid the generator around the corner so as to reduce the noise interfering with recording of the dialogue. Local kids figured out what we were up to and would occasionally switch the generator off, meaning that all the lights would go out mid-shot, so we had to post one of the runners as a guard.

In Norfolk things were more pleasant. The gaffer (head electrician) left part way through the shoot for another job which held more appeal for him (something about “actually getting paid”, I think), leaving me to take his place, which was pretty laughable. I mean, I got quite good at the spark’s job of setting up the actual lights, but I don’t know my AC from my DC, so making me responsible for the power supply was asking for trouble. Miraculously the only problem I had was one evening when I got something in my eye. I don’t even remember what it was, but it was quite painful and wouldn’t go away, despite repeated attempts at washing or rubbing it away. At one point the lovely Ms York insisted that she take a look, so I knelt down in front of her chair as she held my face and investigated. Unfortunately she was no more successful than anyone else and in the end, as my eye was quite inflamed by that point, an assistant director drove me to the local doctor to have it cleaned out. During my absence the generator broke down. Not normally a problem, apart from the interruption to filming, but for the shot in progress an actor was laid on the floor with the camera on a tripod directly over him. As the whole scene was plunged into darkness various crew members turned on their torches to make sure that no one accidentally knocked the camera over onto the actor’s head, or indeed kicked the actor as they walked past. Needless to say my return was greeted with much relief and enthusiasm.

Still, it was a lovely few weeks’ shoot. The weather was glorious, and the tiny village in which we were staying was very welcoming; the one and only pub was happy to stay open as long as we liked, as they’d never had so much business. Susannah York hung out with us and was happy to share movie anecdotes (her favourite director to work with was Robert Aldrich, she said).

Loop was shown once at a tiny film festival in London some years after it was finished, and then showed up one wet Wednesday afternoon on BBC2 when no one was watching. I have a copy on DVD.

R.I.P, Ms York.

Art Attack

This is Shawn. Shawn has a scar on his forehead, but he’s no boy wizard.

Shawn recently visited Paris and Brussels with his Japanese wife and her parents. While strolling around a Parisian square his wife’s attention was caught by the work of a street artist. She pulled out her camera and took a photo of one of the paintings. The artist was seated a little way off and noticed what she was doing. Perhaps understandably miffed at this infringement of his intellectual property rights, he threw a rock which he apparently had about his person in case of such eventualities. Whether by accident or design the rock hit Shawn square in the temple, rather than his wife. A stream of multilingual abuse issued from the aggrieved artist’s mouth, to which Shawn replied with an apology.

I’m trying to imagine how this little drama might have played out in other, more litigious cultures.

Fireman’s lift

Last Friday at 1530 at work an ear-splitting electronic screech sounded through the entire building, lasting for several minutes. I was prepared for the noise, just not the volume. I donned my flourescent jacket and set about evacuating all the offices on my floor.

The noise was a fire alarm, and I’m an EPI.

EPI stands for Equipier de Première Intervention, which I guess translates as something like Fire Safety Officer? Basically I’ve been trained to put out fires and lead people out of burning buildings to safety. In reality all we’re expected to do is check every office and make sure everyone goes down the emergency stairwell (no, don’t take the lift!) and outside to the meeting point where we wait for the professionals to arrive and handle the hot stuff.

The exercise on this occasion was slightly compromised. In order to be an effective simulation it had to be a surprise (fires don’t usually give two weeks notice before they start), but the department responsible for organising the exercise is obliged to inform the top levels of the hierarchy so that it doesn’t interfere with any major meetings, and once the bosses and their assistants know…well, information wants to be free, as they say. By the time the alarm sounded at least a third of the staff (including myself and many of my immediate colleagues) were already well aware of what was going on, and some of them had pre-emptively gone out for a coffee or a cigarette. Those that did evacuate properly often got distracted on the walk to the meeting point and found themselves in a nearby café instead. After the entire building had been cleared and we headed back, some colleagues mysteriously never made it back inside. Who would have thought that would happen, during an evacuation exercise at 4pm on an unseasonably sunny Friday afternoon?

I was first trained as an EPI a couple of years ago, just after I joined the organisation. I was prompted to join up by the prospect of being allowed to play with fire extinguishers and getting an extra day off per year able to provide a valuable service to my colleagues and employer. The initial training session lasted one whole day: theory in the morning, practice in the afternoon. Only the “practice” became all too real for a couple of members. Once exercise involved using small, handheld extinguishers to put out a fire in a small container of flammable liquid. We took it in turns, and once I’d done mine I moved to the back of the room. As my back was turned I heard a loud “whoomff!” and I turned to see a large fireball heading towards the ceiling and one of the trainee EPIs running across the room screaming, flames licking around her head and catching her hair where it poked out from underneath her helmet. Apparently the guy refilling the containers after each person had extinguished them hadn’t been paying attention properly.

Two people were sent to hospital for minor burns to their head and face, and shortly afterwards my employer decided to switch to another training company. I’m due to attend my annual refresher course next month.

“Unaccustomed as I am…”

I’d never considered myself someone who was particularly good at standing up in front of a large group of people and talking, although it was something I had to get used to while teaching English in Italy, and I’m generally ok as long as I have some idea what I’m talking about. Talking last night to a friend who’s a member of Toastmasters reminded me of an experience I had during that period in Genoa.

Most of my teaching schedule was taken up with individuals and small groups who came to the school where I worked for lunchtime or evening classes, but occasionally the school would offer us work “outside”, and one day they proposed that I go to a nearby college and speak to a group of students about English poetry, as a supplement to their English language course. They already had a text book, so the idea was that I’d just sit with a small group of them and read and discuss the poem. Once you get to a certain level of language learning lessons essentially become long conversations anyway, with occasional interruptions to clarify points of grammar or vocabulary, so no real preparation seemed necessary.


I arrived and found the relevant room. The first shock: This was not a seminar room for a small group of people to sit and have a discussion around a table – this was a lecture hall with dozens of rows of seats all facing a desk and a blackboard. Then the teacher responsible arrived, and it emerged that this was not a small discussion group at all – this was an occasion for about 100 students to sit and listen to me talk at them for about an hour.

Panic. I grabbed a spare copy of their textbook and frantically flicked through it so as to find something to talk about. Finally – salvation! Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” –  a poem I knew well from my own school days. I scribbled a few notes as the Italian teenagers filed into the room, took a deep breath, and started. I read the entire poem, as slowly as I dared, and then started a line-by-line analysis. Were they bored? I didn’t care. I just wanted to manage to keep talking until it was over and then get the hell out. I tried to make it a little more appealing and less dry by dropping in some contemporary references which might bring it to life a little for them, and accentuating the sexual jealousy aspects. I even managed to coax a few responses when I posed questions or asked them for their own interpretations. At the end, having exhausted all possible aspects, I filled the last ten minutes with another snail’s pace read-through.

Somehow the hour passed, and I was actually pretty pleased with my performance. The students filed out again, and the teacher came up to me and told me how interesting she had found it.

Then another group of about 100 students filed in, and I had to do the whole thing all over again. I managed to pretty much repeat my entire improvised lecture, with a few minor variations. Again the teacher thanked me, and I returned to my school, where I informed the administration that things had gone very well thank you, and could they please find someone else to do it from now on as I had no intention of going back.

Could do better

I spent the morning browsing through some old school reports (yes, I’ve kept them all). Looking at them now, apart from the endless “could do better, must try harder, not fulfilling his potential” stuff that at least three or four teachers mentioned every year, there are some surprising (and surprisingly pleasant) comments.

Age 9:

  • Physical education – “Simon usually enjoys these lessons”. I was pleased with this comment at the time, but my parents warned that it may have been meant as a criticism, like I was having fun instead of trying hard.
  • Written Work – “He has a good imagination and is correct but does the minimum of work” (this one is repeated, with minor variations, throughout my academic career)
  • Attitude – “Simon is a talented boy who does not seem to work to anywhere near his full capacity”. Duh. Does any nine-year old? We have other things to think about, like drawing tauntauns.

Age 13

  • Religious Studies – “Simon could do better in this subject”. Hah! The following year – “Simon shows little interest in the subject”.
  • French – “Simon has continued to work well and very cheerfully – often extremely cheerfully”. I blame the teacher, who was far too much fun.
  • Music – “Simon sings well”. Nonsense.
  • Art – “Simon has an interesting sense of design and colour and his handling of paint is improving. He has worked well at drawing”.

Age 15

  • French – “Simon has continued to make progress in his usual sprightly, sometimes impulsive manner”. If there’s one word I’m pretty sure could never be used to describe me, it’s “sprightly”.
  • Music – “He has done quite well in class, though for some inexplicable reason made no effort at all in the examination, filled the paper with vulgarities and obtained by far the lowest mark in the class”.
  • Biology – “His pleasant personality is particularly refreshing in class discussion”.

I won’t go into detail about what I thought of the teachers who made these comments (although I’ve long thought that it would be a good idea for pupils to be able to write reports on their teachers, for the sake of balance), but an honourable mention goes to my favourite, my French teacher Mr. Lawrence Sail, who, apart from being the warmest, most humane, funniest and most encouraging, is also an accomplished an acclaimed poet.