Month: January 2011

A Simple Act Of Kindness Can Change The World

I’ve just got back from a walk in my home town of Portsmouth – and I’ve learned how one person really can change the whole world.

I was walking past a little brick-built church on Old Portsmouth’s High Street, called the John Pounds Church, when I suddenly remembered reading that there was something special about it – a little museum dedicated to Mr John Pounds himself.  So, on that sunny winter afternoon with some time to spare, I decided to take a look at exactly what that museum comprised.

At the back, in a neat courtyard, a small wooden hut is built on to the side of the church.  It is a modest little museum.  If you look in through the barn door you will see a mannikin of a cobbler looking over the shoulder of a boy reading from a bible, while around him are other figures of little children in Victorian clothing, ragged and poor, sitting and reading from a book or scribbling on slates.

John Pounds's House
The Original Cobbler’s Shop Where John Pounds Lived And Worked

It is the image of a makeshift Victorian schoolhouse, which John Pounds’s house and cobbler’s shop became.  Pounds had only two rooms in his house: one downstairs and one above.  And in the room downstairs, he taught the poor to read.

Pounds himself was self taught.  In 1778 at the age of 12 years old, he was indentured into the dockyard in Portsea.  And at the age of 15, just a few days after his father died, the teenaged Pounds fell into a dry dock and was crippled for life.

He was carried out of the dockyard, and that, as far as his employers were concerned, was the end of their responsibility for him.  He stayed with relatives in Portsmouth, and over the coming months he slowly recuperated.  Illiterate but with an enquiring mind, in that period of recovery he taught himself to read.  Then, as his vitality returned, he trained as a cobbler and set up his little shop on the main thoroughfare between the fortified town of Portsea and the High Street in Old Portsmouth.

Recollections of John Pounds by the Rev Henry Hawkes is available from Life Is Amazing, publisher

The poverty in that part of Portsmouth at the turn of the 19th Century was smothering.  A report from several decades later describes, for example, a tiny close called Messum’s Court that butted up against the garrison town’s fortifications and was approached via a two foot wide tunnel called Squeeze Gut Alley.  Here 116 people lived below sea level in a damp, dismal courtyard supplied with water from a single standpipe that ran for just 10 minutes a day, and with one privy between them.  An open dunghill stood in the middle of the courtyard, through which also ran an open drain.  The denizens of this court, some of whom lived in cellars, dug their own wells outside their front doors, down which their small children were in constant danger of falling, while the water drawn up was often contaminated by seepage from the open sewers and cess pools nearby.  Children growing up in this poverty with no hope of an education were condemned by default to a future of yet more grinding poverty, and of crime.

Children were criminalised easily back then.  Again, a few decades later, by the mid-1800s, it is recorded that the offences of hopscotch, flying kites or playing marbles were, among many other offences, punishable by hard labour and a mandatory whipping.  But since those children were turned out on to the streets by their parents who didn’t want them at home, what else were they to do except loiter and get into trouble with the law or be recruited into criminal gangs?

It was in this milieu that Pounds took to teaching children to read and write in his cobbler’s shop.  To draw the kids in, he kept injured birds that he was nursing back to health in little cages hung from the ceiling, and little pets.  With his stooped walk that was a result of his dockyard fall, he would go out on winter days with hot jacket potatoes in his coat pockets (it is said that he had sewn in extra pockets to hold more of them) and hand them out to the children who were shivering among the timber stacked near Spice Island, or huddling in little crannies by the sea, out of the wind.  “There are plenty more where that one came from,” he would tell them, and the children would follow him to his shop.

Inside, it was cramped, but it was warm, and the kids learned to read under Pounds’s tutelage.  Often, 40 children at a time would be squeezed into the tiny little shed where he worked.  It is thought that in his lifetime he taught hundreds of children to read and write in that little room.

John Pounds At Work
John Pounds At Work

The fact was, there was no money in this for him at all.  If he got an inkling that your parents were able to pay for schooling, then you would be replaced with someone more needy.  As John Pounds put it: “I wants they as nobody cares for.  They’s they for me.”

When Pounds died at the age of 72, after dedicating a lifetime to teaching children to read, his cobbler’s shop had only a few items inside.  There were the tools of his trade, and a handful of personal effects.  He had lived and died in poverty, but had given hundreds the opportunity to work as shopworkers, join the Navy or get some form of employment other than manual labour – and had shown them possibilities other than crime.

Soon after his death in 1839, as people realised what an amazing thing he had done, the Reverend Thomas Guthrie was inspired by his story to set up the “Ragged Schools” movement, which provided free education for the poor across the country.  Portsmouth’s first “Ragged School” was opened just 10 years after Pounds’s death.

By 1852, the movement was so powerful that Parliament set up an inquiry into the condition of “criminal and destitute juveniles in this country and what changes are desirable in their present treatment, in order to supply industrial training and to combine reformation with the due correction of juvenile crime.”

This was a milestone in the development of something that would change the English speaking world forever.  That something was Universal Free Education in the form of a State Education.

If you are reading this and you are from Britain or one of its old colonies, it is likely that you received your education precisely because of the acts of kindness of a cobbler in Portsmouth, who 200 years ago walked out into the cold with hot jacket potatoes in his pockets, and set in train a course of events that would lead to the liberation from poverty of literally hundreds of millions of people across the globe.  He lived half a mile from where I live, and I could not have written this blog without him.

And you, wherever you are on this planet, would not be reading it.

English? Yes… But Not Patient Enough…

I’ve just watched one of the least enjoyable movies I have ever had the displeasure of enduring, and it’s not what you might consider a “usual suspect” for such a distinguished honour…

It was as much a surprise to me that The English Patient, starring Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas was the culprit as it would have been if I had spotted a crashed biplane on the surface of the moon.

It’s funny, because it really did take years for me to get to this movie. Every time I saw it lurking in the DVD drawer, or scheduled on the box, something in me recoiled.  But I eventually decided I would have to succumb to its call.  Anthony Minghella was, after all, from the Isle of Wight.  I have eaten his family’s overpriced ice cream and sworn at the ice cream sellers who rip you off on Southsea beach, just across the water from “his” island.  We have things in common.  So watching it would be showing solidarity with a local boy, right?

Oh!  That I had left it out of the player!

So, what exactly is wrong with The English Patient? (- Apart from being hideously burned and looking like a mummy, obviously.)  That was the question I began to ask myself when I got about an hour in and found my attention wandering despite efforts to shepherd it back.  I had the feeling I used to get when reading worthy books that were supposed to be masterpieces, yet plodded on towards the most predictable of endings.  This movie was the filmic equivalent of something by Chekhov or Hardy: ploddingly dull.

Now, there’s no doubt The English Patient is beautifully filmed, although, somehow, not beautifully enough – despite all of the soft shadows on fleshy sands, implying the curves of a woman’s body.  It has pretty people in it, although they might have been either more real or more pretty.  And the costumes look authentic, down to the German uniforms, and the leather flying jackets, the white cotton dress.  The scenes set in Khan Al Khalili look real and sumptuous; the desert looks exotic – mostly.  Everything is visually engaging in a 1970s Turkish Delight tv advert sort of a way.  So that’s not where the problem lies.

Nope, the thing that did it for me was that I actually didn’t care one tiny little bit for any of the weird characters, who wandered about the desert having their affairs.  Not one of them aroused in me the slightest feeling of sympathy, whatsoever.  From the autistically deadpan Ralph Fiennes with that strange face he has that looks like it has the texture, flexibility and expressiveness of a crusty bloomer baked in the desert sun, via Colin Firth who comes across as neither hearty nor dull, through to the cold and emotionless Kristin Scott Thomas, nearly nothing engaged my sympathy.  Experiencing a series of emotionless faces on a sandy background simply left me wondering if this is what the English really were like before the War.  If it were the case, I decided to thank the next German I met for starting something that at least collapsed a culture that was so horrendously repressed that it didn’t once know how to throw its posture off the symmetrical, or put a glimmer in its eye.  I might as well have been on Tattooine, so alien were these Sandpeople.

Which of course, left the love affair that was to determine the fates of thousands to be a completely incomprehensible nonsense.  Why did Kristin Scott Thomas’ Katherine not recognise the weirdly distant Count Laszlo as a stalker?  Why did she cheat on her perfectly serviceable husband who had it all: money, looks, kindness and an aeroplane?  There’s no explanation.  I charge the film makers with deception.  And Exhibit A, your honour, is Breadface’s pulling technique.  Ready for this?

He stares at her a bit.

Yes, that’s it.  That’s what brings the erudite, brilliant, funny but cold Katherine to the conjunctive bath tub.  One would think that with so much going on in her head, it might take more than staring at her a bit to cause her to open her legs to him.

But apparently staring at her a bit really is enough.  As is talking in a dull monotone.  And not letting anyone know what you’re thinking.  Useful tips, which I am sure I have tried to less than erotic effect.  That Katherine woman is a singular individual, that’s for sure!  If only all socially inadequate stuffed shirts could meet someone like her!  I’m sure I’ve read of people in the modern age who’ve tried that staring thing, and they either got arrested, beaten up, or had a restraining order put on them.

And here is the problem with the movie: everything that follows from him staring at her a bit seems as nonsensical as his staring at her a bit does.  For another hour, a parade of faces looking disengaged and dull goes by, and I find myself looking once again for how much more of this I will have to endure.  At the end of two hours, I start talking to the living room saying: “Please, oh movie, just surprise me.”  By now Katherine has been abandoned by Laszlo in a cave as he looks for a doctor.  But we all know they’re going to die.  And the fact that he sacrifices most of Northern Egypt to the Germans for the sake of recovering her corpse does not seem such a romantic gesture. It just seems as inexplicable as the rest of Breadface’s behaviour throughout.

True, on the other side, Juliet Binoche does save the scenes set in a monastery where she has holed up with Laszlo, and she does have a fleeting romance with a Sikh Bomb Disposal Officer, which adds a medium amount of spice to the proceedings.  They talk a bit about Imperial attitudes, and then he talks to Laszlo about how much he dislikes Kipling.  But hey, big deal. Binoche’s caring, kind face that actually displays emotions is not enough to engage the attention, because a narrative would also be useful at this point.  This very point clearly perplexed Ondaatje and Minghella, who introduced to the plot the thumbless “Moose” Caravaggio.  But all he does is go around being a bit sinister in a half-hearted kind of a way and muttering about past lives and revenge, and that is meant to produce the narrative tension the film is lacking.

Once again it’s not enough.  There is no narrative tension.  Everyone lives these internalised, introspective lives, and then they die.  Of course, it was always going to end unhappily, as we knew it would from the opening scene.  Besides, we all know how the love triangle must end in this sort of a movie.  It all seems very French, what with all that predictable misery that comes from Breadface and the Ice Queen getting it together.  I wondered whether Binoche had been included because it might fire off a few cultural buttons about the Gallic obsession with doomed love affairs.  A kind of shortcut to class.

And that’s the end of the movie.  The Breadman becomes Toastman, the Ice Queen melts away in the cave of the swimmers, the Moose ends up getting married unexpectedly, and the Frenchwoman is left to seek her Sikh in a Christian church in an Italian town.

All very picturesque, but missing the passion, missing the feeling – and missing a cast of human beings that actually walk, talk and emote like human beings…

Perhaps a biplane really did crashland on the moon.  I just wish that someone had told me before I watched it that all the characters were meant to be aliens.

A Mashed Potato Race

The minute we sat at the dining table, six-year-old Charlie and I started having fun.  The truth is, I love sitting with kids at dinner tables.  They are so much more enjoyable than the adults.

Within a few minutes, we had discussed the lobsters that live on the ceiling, and sometimes lose their grips and fall on the heads of the diners, and we talked about how the dwarf fireman comes in with a high power hose to wash the lobsters away, and the little-known fact that the hotel we were eating in every night put out trampolines for the lobsters to exercise on, and cleared them away in the morning before the diners came to eat. And we talked about the bizarre nature of monsters.

I carry a notebook around with me most of the time, and Charlie and I started drawing monsters.  He started first with a velociraptor, which was an okay kind of a monster, with big teeth and big eyes, and a pointy tale.  But I wanted to show him one of the ways his imagination might work, and how he could get to make up the rules – so we drew monsters with all sorts of extra bits: one with wheels on the ends of his 6 legs so that if he got too scary, when he fell asleep we could push him off a cliff.  Another with a fierce looking hook for one hand, and a rather civilised salad server for the other, a snake for a leg, and a hedgehog for the other leg that made him go “owww!” when he walked. Another that rushed at you shouting “I will eat me!” and then did exactly that when it attacked you, so that there was nothing left, except yourself, blinking at how a monster could turn into nothing in such short time.  Soon Charlie was howling with laughter and started adding bizarrenesses of his own to his monsters.  A roller-skate monster with the weirdest face and a leg growing out of its back was the starting point.  He was alight, and I was loving it.

When it came to ordering our food, I decided that we were going to get along famously, so when he ordered sausage and mashed potato, I did the same.  This made us little conspirators at the end of the table, while the grown-ups talked about all the things that grown-ups talk about at their end of the table.  Our mood  was so much better then theirs, I thought, and we laughed even more, and had to quieten down a little because we were getting a bit raucous.

Then the food came, and the thing happened that I remembered had happened to me when I was a boy.  When Charlie started eating the sausage, a change came over him.  His eyes puffed up, he pulled a face and looked longingly down the table at the burger and chips someone else had ordered. “I should have ordered the burger,” he said, sadly, and his throat tightened as a lump formed in it, that was made of all the grizzles and struggles he’d had with food he didn’t like at other dinner tables on other days.

Oh, I remembered all that from when I was a kid.  Not liking the taste of a partcicular food, and being told to eat it, I had turned the food into an instrument of torture with which I had made dinner times a living hell – not only for me but for my parents, too.  I saw Charlie pick up the sausage and start trying to pull out the bits of herb that he took exception to, and realised that if I didn’t act quickly, we might have a bit of local difficulty.  I smiled at him and gave him a wink.

“What do you think of it?” he asked me.

I prodded a piece of sausage on to the end of a fork and put it in my mouth, chewing theatrically.  “Scrummy, yummy, scrummy,” I said.  It was the first moment at which our rapport had been dented, and I saw him internalising a struggle.  I imagined it as follows: Everything I had said up to that point had been reliable and fun, now he was a little sad that he was on his own.  I jumped in quickly as he put his head on his hand and looked at the bowl of sausage and mash as if he were gazing down a mineshaft at an afterlife of eternal damnation and proddings with tridents.  And I said, really quickly:

“Remember when you had really good times and laughed?”

He looked up at me.  “When?  I can’t think of any…”

“What about when monsters have salad servers for hands and lobsters live on the ceiling?”

He brightened up and smiled at me.

“That’s amazing, isn’t it?  The fun of it.  And then there were all the times you’ve played and had a really good time.  And when you put that piece of sausage in your mouth, you’ll remember them.  I don’t know if you know it, but if you taste a food you thought you didn’t like 11 times, your body starts liking the taste.  It’s like magic.  And when that sausage goes in your mouth, you’ll remember sunshine, and play and laughter, and all the fun you’ve ever had will explode across your mouth, and it will be amazing!”

He had gone quite quiet as he thought about what I had just told him.  He tried the sausage again, with a little bit of uncertainty.  He didn’t like it so much, but he was fascinated by the future pace of 11 tastes and the possibility that things might change.  It just needed one more element to shift it all the way.  And it was further down the table: a little pot of ketchup.  I grabbed it.  “Dip it in there, first!”

He dipped with some pleasure, and when he put the sausage in his mouth I pulled a funny face and said crazy things, and he laughed as loud as he could.  Then he ate some more, and every time he did, I told him what a great guy he was, and gave him a big “well done” in a light and friendly way.

Later on, his mum asked him to eat the mashed potato, and I could see that it wasn’t that he didn’t like it, but just that he was full of sausage.  I had paced him, and had left my mashed potato, too.  And so, we just needed to do one more thing to make sure that he had eaten enough food to get him through to the evening meal:

“On your marks, get set… go!”

Yes, we had a mashed potato race, as the invisible trampolining lobsters and the roller-skate monsters and the self-devouring beasts looked on, shouting for one of us, or the other, to win.

And Charlie was obviously very good at mashed potato snaffling, because, when I looked at his empty bowl, it was clear he had beaten me.  Hands down.  And all around us, staring from the little nooks and crannies of the ceiling, and beneath tables, and from behind chairs, the monsters and lobsters were cheering!