1947 A WONDERFUL ACHIEVEMENT

As a child, one is so ignorant of what is done for you and others in the same boat. It was the late 1940’s, there was rationing, and everyone and everything was recovering from the impact of the war. Yet, The Birmingham Royal Institution For the Blind had gathered together over one hundred blind and low vision children in a large house, secured funding from Local authorities and was giving us a proper start in life. Cash and resources were scarce meaning that we had to have lots of oral lessons with no textbooks and apparatus. But, unbeknown to us, the staff were working  on curricula for reading/writing, Maths, and the production of a braille library. Staff were being trained to meet the special needs of visually impaired youngsters and the College Of Teachers Of The Blind was beginning to make a national  impact. We even had braille maps to investigate. I was very interested in exploring the shape of the British Isles and the whereabouts of towns and cities whose names I had heard on the radio every Saturday afternoon when the football results were read out. I discovered that my own home town, Wolverhampton, was near to Birmingham somewhere in the middle of England but not  precisely in the middle. I am not sure how the maps were produced but  much of the braille lesson material was produced by hand and without a system of mass-production – a huge tribute to the dedication of the staff. 

It did not seem to matter to us children that the classrooms were disused huts with the most basic electricity and water provision. Toilets were inadequate and the coke stoves left us freezing much of the winter’s day, especially during the first lesson. It was a five minute walk from the old house to the classroom and I have a very happy memory of bomb-fire night 1946. Walking back to the house, I announced to the world that I had seen a star. It was an opportune announcement because I had just returned to school from a hospital stay and an eye operation. It turns out, however, that I had spotted the moon which seemed to follow me all the way. 

the  following spring was one in a hundred for us children The snow was piled up to the level of the window ledges, we could slide and skate everywhere including all the way down a slope to the stable yard and even across the lily  pond and back.

1950 It’s All In the Head

I am in bed latish at night not able to sleep, hungry and thirsty, surviving on stale bread and jam from a 5:00 tea. The smell of staff supper chips wafted tauntingly up into our dormitory. I was beginning to work out a mental framework of injustice in the world, the glimmerings of my long-term wariness of professionals. But I guess we had learned to be happy enough. I was playing chess with Bill. No Chess board, no table, no o other observers. I think Bill had no sight by then and, when sat at a chess board, I would have had to peer closely at the pieces and worry about where the light was coming from. From time to time, I would have been touching the pieces to reassure myself of the current position. But this was now all in my head and I could see the pieces more clearly than sat at a real board. I can still imagine a chess board position today but lack the ability to play a game in my head as I could then; I suppose because I don’t practise and so much more is going on between the ears that I don’t find the time to concentrate and focus. 

This in the head business, mental mapping, practising   braille reading and writing with my fingers on the sheets, similarly running through my current music lesson performance,, is so vital in the development of all human beings but massively so for sight loss children. We can appear to be still when in fact we are mentally working pretty hard; We may not have the skills to control our facial expressions and exhibit our alertness and understanding, but we may well be virtually mighty busy nevertheless. I most likely knew far more about virtual in the head imaginational things than I knew about the physical world detail around me. I was from an early age entranced by radio plays; I never needed the missing visual enhancements; The sound experiences were rich enough in themselves.

But, returning to the bed, the smell of chips and my dawning sense of injustice,  I am reminded of a rather joyful instance of me beating the system. On a couple of such occasions, I crept down to the pantry on the ground floor. I found a tray of cheese cake  pieces and knew precisely what they were and who had made them. She was a lovely German lady who spoiled us with titbits so I grabbed and ate a couple before re-arranging the rest and scuttling back to bed.

1950 THE GOOD AND THE BAD

Purely from my point of view, I have listed some memories as good or bad.

Good: Fish pie on Fridays and  sometimes cheese pie on Tuesdays. Second helpings and great joy.

Bad: Horrible black tough meat on Wednesdays or Thursdays. Aggro, kept in over playtime and sometimes sent to bed for the afternoon.

Good: playing on the bikes and trucks in the grounds most Saturdays.

Bad: Revolting Chewy bacon for breakfast and an up-hill walk to a boring church , crocodile  fashion with a unchosen partner.

Good: Learning to play Draughts and later Chess in the Winter evenings and beating the supervisor teacher who taught us.

Bad: receiving a food parcel from home.

Bad: Never getting to eat it because it had to be shared by everyone.

Good: Lots of interesting lessons and quiet time to hear music.

Bad: Hours spent in that noisy play room environment  with no chance of decent communication.

Good: The Care staff became much mor human as time went on.

Bad: in the early days they seemed like witches. We all cheered when a partition fell on the Matron’s angkle when she was up front making our lives a misery again.

Good: There came a time when we could go home for a half-term weekend.

Bad: There was no such going home in my first year, apart from the three main holidays.

Good: I took two braille books with me to read in bed at night. One to read and one to place under my bed!!! Smile.

Bad: we were not allowed to read in bed. It has always been a great joy to have a braille book on my belly in bed.

Good: When it came to the time for meto leave,I did feel a little regret and sadness.

Bad: For most of my stay, I dreaded the sinking feeling that came over me as holidays came  to an end. Only once did I get a stay of execution, when I severely damaged my hand the day before I was due to return to prison. Very good: an extra three weeks at home.

1950 LOVE OF LEARNING

I now can’t remember too much detail but we very much enjoyed school and the teaching while almost hating the house and care side of things. Of course, I now understand that the care staff were pretty fantastic. I Maybe re just resented that the care came from others and not our mums and dads. I was beginning to get an understanding of my place in the pecking order, my ability level. Once way from home in the school routine, I found myself actually happy and fulfilled but I was not ready yet to admit that the holidays could be boring without my school mates and the many activities and lessons. By this time I had a few very close friends. We spent lots of free time together and even helped each other out with school work as well as playing games and just talking. 

We looked forward to regular radio programmes, Dick barton, Special Agent most evenings. We knew deep down he would escape from the latest impossible situation and certain death but the excitement was gripping. PC49 gave us I am sure a very unreal vision of life  in the London Police Force. But best of all were the Saturday night Theatre plays. Meant for an adult audience they were more than OK for our young minds and imaginations. 

In the classroom I began to realise that I was one of the more clever ones and I loved learning new things. By now I could read many books for myself in braille and the forward-thinking staff had created whole courses in math and literature and we were guided to read up history and science as well as stories from ancient Greece and Rome. 

Several teachers read to us leaving us engrossed in animal stories as well as famous people from the past. I would read Black Beauty and Little Women to my own special needs pupils when it became my turn to be the teacher. We gave teachers that really cared about us no peace. The braille teacher, for example, used to sit in with us at dinner time. Every day the poor chap had to bring a problem with him for us to solve while eating our meal. But we loved it all; our brains just wanted more and more learning and sometimes we would take away the problem in our heads and come back with the answer the next day. Sometimes we argued black was white to try to understand a difficult concept. Minus numbers! All very logical but I knew they could not really exist!!! Smile. We were challenged by imaginary situations where we were given the height of a tree, another piece of information and we had to work out how far from that tree a man was standing. Just occasionally, he would catch us out completely. If it takes one man three hours to cut a lawn, how long would it take three men? He would get up to go for his smoke, laugh in a mischievous way we knew and remind us that the lawn had already just been cut.

My music was progressing well but I’ll make that the subject of a separate section.

1950 Realisation dawning

Not sure precisely just how old I was but I am sat in a very noisy dining room at school. Obviously too noisy because Matron calls for silence and we know we are in for the next ten or more minutes of silent boredom  when we want to be chatting to our mates. So I surreptitiously, unknown to everyone else so I think, gently touch Tony in the rib. ‘Roger, don’t be vulgar’ came the voice from out in front. Being the only Roger, it was a fair cop, although even then I did not think I was being vulgar. There were then several options open to her in charge. Hands on head, stand out in front, wait behind and miss what’s left of my playtime. I did not care; It was all part of the silly power charade game she played every day. 

The interesting take on it all for me at that time was how on earth did she know what I was up to below table level. I was beginning to understand that sight or lack of that sight thing which seems to have dogged my life and stamped itself upon me and my personality and doings. I was realising I had very little of it and grown-ups had lots of it. Or, at least most grown-ups. There were two teachers, one who taught braille and another who taught music. I sought of knew that the music teacher could see nothing and needed guiding help to get around the complicated environment of the school, big house and grounds. The braille teacher may have had a bit of seeing  and walked mostly alone but needed a companion sometimes. I had thought about sight matters on and off and seemed to have the idea that all would be sorted out as I grew up. But it was really the magic of being able to know what was going on across a room amongst a crowd of people and a multitude of happenings that exercised my wonder. How could Matron know about all of us at once? How and why could she pick on just one of us as earning her favour or her wrath? And she certainly had favourites: ‘Would any one like more toast, David’ I certainly remember her saying. 

1951 arousal

I was sat on a grass bank with Chris, maybe my first real girl-friend. We were quite alone in the world. I found my hand touching her right thigh and I almost but not quite innocently began to ruffle her skirt. ‘I heard myself asking if she liked me but a familiar voice in front of us broke the spell saying: ‘I think it’s time to go back to the house’. It was the braille teacher who later was to be such a positive influence in my late junior learning life. This sight thing taunted me again as I reflected upon the incident many times with some fear, shame and certainly excitement. Yes, she was a girl and I a boy and we were not supposed to mix although we played openly together in the grounds, on swings, bikes, and even the apparatus where we could hang up-side-down and hope to see the girls’ nickers!!!Smile..    Certainly I was being awakened by a new pleasure interest in parts of my own body, especially between the legs. I wondered what I might have discovered inside Chris’s clothes and why I should even want to know these things. 

There was the other side too. I wondered what it would be like if she fumbled into my clothes  and how exciting this could be. I carried a conviction that it was all  very wrong and dirty and did this mean that I was all wrong and dirty too? I wondered if the braille teacher  had seen us, if he had spoken to others about the event, if they all knew and if they all thought I was dirty and wrong. But it was never mentioned again. It was as if I got off physically but struggled mentally to avoid those muddled feelings of guilt and shame. It was becoming part of my being to shut off things  because there was no one to share, no books or pictures, let alone TV or films, to help me understand how normal I was; and Chris too, of course. 

I felt I had to keep it all within myself, my own created mental unshared stress. Once around that time, I woke up feeling very sick in the middle of the night. I tried to make my way to a bathroom away along two corridors but was sick on route. In the morning, there was a fuss about sick on the floor and I must have looked pale but no way could I admit to having been sick in the night. Pathetic I know and even knew then; but roger was learning to keep his private life to himself , thinking he was unique a special case and, yes, maybe not normal.

1952 My Music

I can’t remember not being able to play the  piano at home. Perhaps I was 5, maybe 4 or 6 but I sat at the piano for ages working out melodies  and it never seemed difficult. I seemed to understand the intervals between the notes and I was beginning to use all my fingers sensibly. I used to play the piano on the table or on my bedclothes and hear the sounds in my head. There was no teacher involved  and my parents loved listening to music but were not performers. Years later when full of morphine in hospital, I vividly recalled these early  experiences as if being a child again. And I seemed to make the musical discoveries all over again but this time with my feet: As I moved my feet closer together or further apart from each other, I imagined the sounds. It gets worse! I was convinced I had invented something new and revolutionary  for the music world before drifting back into slumber.

Chords and rhythm came soon but just three or for chords: C, F, G in the main so my playing must have  been very monotonous. But when I got to school I was soon playing a hymn for the infant assembly. ‘Jesus loves me this I know; for the bible tells me so’. I don’t remember any nervousness at that stage And, of course I was soon receiving music lessons from a blind lady for nearly an hour each week.  I used to fetch her from the   staff room and take her to the music room which, in fact, was the Gym as well. 

For a blind child, there are two ways forward with music: Braille music is well developed but very complicated and, although I  struggled with it, it proved to be beyond me. Sad, because one needs musical score to take one to a high performance level. The other option is playing by ear which seemed good to me. She would play first the right hand and then the left hand of a piece and then put them together. She would play stuff over and over for me until I got it in my head and she guided my fingers to maximise my playing efficiency. And Those scales!!! Enough  to put anyone off. But we were friends and I wanted to work hard for her. As I grew older,. I was given the opportunity to go to concerts in the Birmingham Town Hall on Thursday evenings and I was hooked on classical music, at least to listen to. But performing was a very different matter and I came to hate my own lack of ability and having to play simple silly tunes as I thought of them. 

Once or twice when I was perhaps 11, I went over to her home on a Sunday afternoon and we sat together listening mostly to Mozart on her new fangled record player which mesmerised me with its sound quality. Oddly, though, it was the piano part that sounded the poorest. After music came the cakes but before we could eat, she had to inject herself being, as I later would learn, a poorly diabetic. On the last occasion, she hugged me and gave me a plastic ring and I felt emotional and uncertain. I kept her ring safe for a while but it worried me to have it so one day I let it drop amongst the trees  and decided to keep her in my head with happy memories. It was the dawning of a realisation that even a talented blind   person could be lonely, touch-hungry and unfulfilled, not to mention vulnerable . 

Some how all this poisoned my love of learning music and, like many   teenagers, I let it all go; wishing to bang out boogie-woogie rather than practise the serious  music served up to me by another talented teacher in my senior school It is only now in my retirement that I am back at the piano for at  least half an hour every day. I have a great friend who teaches me as I used to be taught and then records the phrases patiently for me to work at between lessons. I hope I am somehow repaying the music teachers at school for their fruitless efforts with me at the time. What a muddled mind I have but I love music.

MY DAD

This is as good a time as any to talk about my Dad.  In my world photographs are a bit pointless and sadly we have no audio or video relating to his part in my early life. But the sense of smell evokes magical restoration of the memory of him in my head. You will see that, in our little world, the olfactory is almost a spiritual sense and the role he played in our  lives was on the way to being almost godly. 

 He had a deep and gentle voice; his bald head shone like mine does now and he was always busy.  He was our provider and creator.  His shed smelled of wood-shavings, paints and varnish.  The lawn-mower and his tools smelled of metal and oil.  There were tins of nails, screws, glues, and paints, everything to order and in its rightful place.  When a wheel came off our toy car or lorry, he would fix it after work.  When the chain came off our bikes or we punctured a tyre it would all be sorted out in his shed.  

In his garden we had raspberries, strawberries, apples and a pear tree.  The blackcurrants were fantastic straight from the bush, and the smell of the leaves and the half-squashed stolen fruit in our grubby hands was exquisite.  I used to lie on his lawn, on my belly, picking the blades of grass and sniffing them up into my body in the hot sun, and I used to crush his lavender in my fingers and rub it into my hands to cleanse and soften them.  His roses in their millions on the fence and back wall were the most fragrant I have ever smelled.  Somewhat later, we bared his well-cut lawn with our cricket and bike races and I smashed down his best chrysanthemums with my finest off-drive! 

My Father’s greenhouse was his pride and joy.  Rumour hath it that he actually piddled in the water with which he fed some of his special plants.  Lettuces and cucumbers from the super-market plastic bag are nothing compared to the smell of salad carried from the greenhouse to the kitchen by a small boy, sniffing the stuff on its journey of less than half an hour from the soil to the table.  Best of all was being given a small ripe tomato from my Father’s fingers in the green-house itself.  

Dad’s smells were all about the house too.  His brushes on the kitchen window-sill smelled of turps when he was finishing off decorating the living-room.  The sweet smell of his shaving lather lingered in the bathroom long after he had left for work.  His newspaper smell hung around the sofa even when the newspaper had lit the morning fire while we children were still sleeping.  And when we woke up, his bacon breakfast smells filled the whole house to reassure us that a new, safe day had dawned. When he came home from work, over 12 hours later, his whole being smelled of oil and slurry as he enveloped us in his tired arms on his knee.  Once or twice, mainly around Christmas, his face smelled of something called beer and he talked about a party at work. He was very lively!  On hot summer afternoons, the smell of the blow-lamp meant he was preparing the outside of the house, or killing ants.  

  He died 55 years ago in bed on Friday afternoon with a screw-driver and a light fitting he was repairing by his hands on the bed covers. Downstairs I heard a thud and he was gone.

In the lottery of parentage, I did really well. He introduced me to practical things, hammers and screw drivers, to Chess, Maths and the freedom to explore the world. 

I remember with shock the first time I heard him swear in front of us but it was only a “bloody”. I remember his knowing laugh the first time he noticed that bulge in my teenage pyjama trousers  at bedtime. Years later, in the hospital ward after a cancer operation, the power of morphine brought back scratchy recorded memories of his voice talking and singing to me as he used to. So my happiest memory of him is the whole family in bed on a Sunday morning and he demonstrating just how low he could sing a scale  – D R I N K I N G – right down to third octave F. 

If you have an OK plus Dad, you are on the way to being able to adopt the idea of God The Father  but if you are not so lucky with your Dad, well the whole God Father thing might seem very hollow. Here the seed  is planted and I imagine I will return to this theme in later sections.

MY MUM

What I don’t understand  is this: As in most households, Mum is the anchor, always there and doing most of it too. Yet I can’t conjure up the same magical memories of my mum as I  do for my dad. I can’t think of a list of special smells relating to her so spontaneously and this gives me cause for shame. As I grew up I treated her poorly, visited her less often than I should have, and failed to repay her with my focused time and love as she deserved. I wonder if I am on the verge of  getting to the root of why the paternal as opposed to the maternal is so dominant in many societies and cultures. I did love her very much but I was so up my own Ars  and self-centred that I could not show it AND I ALLOWED MY FORMER WIFE’S WISHES  NOT TO BOTHER WITH HER TO CLOUD MY JUDGMENT AND BEHAVIOUR. . 

In those days she was little and slim and I loved to cling to her before bed and feel her let-down hair and sniff the remnants of today’s perfume. My childish memory of her is that she was attractive warm and loving. Dad had fetched her from Blackpool in his motorbike and sidecar after a holiday romance. But the happily ever after story did not quite work out, I don’t think, in her case. Of the five children borne to her, two died at birth and three had very significant sight loss, with apparently  no previous family history of such troubles.   We tinies knew nothing of all this, it goes without saying.

By the time I was on the scene, her days were fully occupied. Cooking Dad’s breakfast at six  and sorting us out for the day. Lots of visits to the Eye Infirmary and long waits on green benches waiting our turn to see the great man. Caring for Nanna Hinds   who came to live with us as she grew more and more helpless and cantankerous. Reading endless stories to three children who could not themselves read. She spent hours with us in the kitchen so we could make a mess and learn to make jam tarts, Cocoanut Pyramids   and Gingerbread men. And her cooking!!! The smell of liver in the oven all day; Cornish Pasties, stuffed with corn beef onion and baked beans, almost ready to eat; and chips and Sunday roast potatoes, my favourites, even though I hated the meat that others’ ate with them. 

It was she who bathed our  knees when they were cut with stinging yellow Iodine; it was she who took me to hospital when I tried to cut off two finger-ends in my spinning bike wheel; and day after day it was she who took three blind children on and off buses, out to picnics, fishing for tiddlers in the local park and always back to the safety of home where she seemed to have it all just so. We were  experts in fighting, screaming and driving her to distraction but mUMs cope and, in her case, probably SHE paid dearly for her stress later in life.

Later you will hear how she played a pivotal  role in my senior schooling and university education as a result of the hours of reading books she, and often I, did not really understand. She also had the guts to speak to me about the mess in my teenage bed.