Goodness Gracious Me, Chapel Street!

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

Mother: “Look, I’m a student. I’m balancing a traffic cone on my head.” /     Son: “That’s not a traffic cone; it’s a small aubergine.” / Mother: Aubergine, traffic cone. I’m too drunk to tell the difference! – Goodness Gracious Me, BBC TV comedy series.

I’d had to move because Mum and her partner had to relocate. I was uprooted from New Moston School and sent to a strange foreign land: Clayton. I hated life in Clayton Brook Primary School. Luckily, I would spend just one and a bit years at the school.

“It took John a little while to settle down in class 3. He is a bright boy and is now working very well. Although he is very untidy, he has a good understanding and has been very enthusiastic about some topics we have tackled. He wants to do well and his attitude to work is excellent. Number work is also good, but he does tend to be careless. A very good start at Clayton Brook.” – I. Proudfoot, year 2 teacher, Clayton Brook Primary School, 3rd July 1990.

Chapel Street Primary School made me stronger. It was never an easy time there, but it wasn’t the worst time of my life. To my younger self, bullying and getting into childhood scraps probably readied me emotionally for puberty and the tests of young adult life. It didn’t scar me. In fact, I look back and think of how much of a little terror I was. I made silly mistakes – more than any other kid (probably).

Before Chapel Street, I’d already been at New Moston Primary School and Clayton Brook Primary School. They’d taken our classes to Moston Baths and Ravensbury Primary School’s swimming pools respectively. At Levenshulme Baths, Chapel Street Primary School students had long been making the area into a madhouse. Levenshulme Baths used to be located opposite Levenshulme Library and both were next to the back gate of our school. The Bluebell Pub (at one stage ran by a parent of a classmate) was to the other extreme of the back of the school, and lay across the north-eastern flank of the school was Chapel Street Park. Here I can remember great times playing football with Ben McGreavy and Kevin Fairfax, or climbing (trees?) with Dan and Peter Ridyard, or digging for treasures with Alex Muir.

At Chapel Street, I recall the great dinnerladies being ever so friendly and the dinnertime assistants at lunchtime (yeah, there’s a whole problem of terminology regarding mealtimes going on there). In the morning we’d have a bottle of milk around 10am. To this day, I sup as much milk as the cows can produce. I draw the line at soy milk. It gives men breasts, I read somewhere. The school day had three breaks, all of which involved the playground, running around crazy (pretending I was a velociraptor after seeing Jurassic Park at the Davenport Theatre; or I was one of the Royal Air Force Red Arrows after attending Woodford Airshow). I had my imagination and Micro Machine cars or Lego figures were in or out of my pocket often.  I wasn’t the closest friend to anyone.

“How big is his danda?” – example of a catchphrase from Goodness Gracious Me, BBC TV comedy series

Mrs Clegg’s class during year 4 meant that I would lose many Micro Machines and Lego men. Her big plastic laundry bag must have held hundreds, if not thousands, or possibly millions of them. She was an incredibly strict teacher who like many in her profession drank copious amounts of coffee. I recall her reeking of coffee. At that time, I hated the smell of coffee, but in hindsight, she knew best, coffee is wonderful. Although now, I only drink 1-2 cups a day, if any. I’m in China and there are too many wonderful teas to sample. This week at St. Lorraine Anglo-Chinese Primary School, Miss Zeng gave me Peach Oolong tea and anther oolong tea that tastes like champagne. At primary school, as a kid, all I’d drink was corporation pop (water) and the odd Barr’s Dandelion and Burdock if I had 20p to hand.

I joined Chapel Street Primary School in year 3 with a short-haired teacher (who I cannot remember the name of) charged to calm me down. I’d entered part way through the school year and was a little unsettled. I soon became friends with the shortest member of the class, Peter Ridyard. He had a few brothers and sisters. His sibling clan of seven weren’t all dwarves. Far from it. I always remember his long-haired taller and older by a year or so sister Amanda with golden-red hair flowing like Rapunzel. I was scared of her instantly. She was a girl and a taller one at that. Then there was Steven, and he was older and much more streetwise. He was the guy with the cool kids and maybe some trouble. Apart from one incident over they years, Steven was fair to me, and never gave me problems. Actually, he stopped a few local knobheads kicking the crap out of me. Dan was Peter’s younger taller brother. Jodie, Adam and Sally made up the younger trio of the Ridyard clan. I used to sing to the theme of a Toys’R’Us advert tune, “Millions of Ridyards all under one roof…” but I did it with affection and jest. One thing about their mother, Margaret, she is a damn strong woman and has raised seven kids over a tight age-range. Dan and Peter would go onto be my best friends. I’d enjoy good friendships with Alex Muir and James Cliff too, but both would drift away in time.

My friends were needed because not long after moving to Levenshulme, my sister Astrid was hit by a car. She would endure many weeks in Booth Hall Children’s Hospital and then years of schooling at a specialist school to help her recuperate and catch up, before she could finally start at Chapel Street Primary School. I love my sister Astrid fiercely and seeing her curled up with traction devices and machines attached to her is a vision that haunts me. When she was finally back out running, I had my sister back. But, around this time, ‘Titch’ was mobile and in the education system. Her and Paul (the youngest of our tribe on my Mum’s side) grew closer. Astrid and Paul were inseparable as I started to outgrow them and their games. It remains a pleasant memory to recall.

5AJ with Mr Andrew Jones was where I switched from maths work lover to someone curious and interested by words. Mr Jones would set us challenges such as write as many words as possible beginning with ‘st’ but we must understand the meaning of every word. I read the dictionary. I started with ‘st’ and then I carried on through all the words starting with S. Then I went to the letter T. I decided I needed to read the prequels A through to R. After that, I decided U to Z needed a look. It wasn’t exciting and I understood very little, but I actually read a dictionary. I recall building Lego models at home and stopping to take in a page, with occasional writing of the word, running downstairs and asking my mum how I could say a particular word. She must have thought I was madness personified.

Around about 1997, I discovered Goodness Gracious Me on BBC Radio 4. Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Syal and (my first crush on an Asian girl) Nina Wadia. I fell in love with Nina Wadia’s voice on radio and then when I did see the television version of the show, well she didn’t disappoint. Not that I could focus on her physique or voice. The show was far too funny for that. Here was a mould-breaking show, fast, witty and dynamic. It laughed itself, it mocked stereotypes, it ripped apart tradition. It flipped views of the British over to those of South Asia. It parodied and spoofed and after just 3 TV series, it left the world a better place. The best sketch has to be: Going for an English. In this sequence a group of Asian friends go for an English meal after a few lassis (non-alcoholic yogurt drink). They mispronounce and bumble the waiter’s name. They request the “blandest thing on the menu” and request a “stronger” steak and kidney pie. Who can possibly eat 24 plates of chips? The parody of British people, and you know there are some who still do this, getting drunk and going to end the night at an Indian restaurant. Surely, we’ve all met the macho guy who orders the hottest vindaloo. How many papadums can one actually eat?! Cheque, please. I need to go and watch Asian Top Gear again.

“The people here believe the tree to be sacred, so that even if one leaf falls onto the track, the whole line is immediately shut down.” – Goodness Gracious Me, BBC TV comedy series, sketch: Great Train Journeys of the World: Fenchurch Street to Southend

During the final year of primary school Miss Rowe (6RO) and her classroom assistant calmed me down. When the final last day came, I never collected signatures on old schoolbooks or signed my school jersey. I just walked out of the gate saying thank you and goodbye. It didn’t seem to be a big thing. The sterile looking Reddish Vale Secondary School awaited. I would move on a free transfer from Manchester’s educaton authority to that of Stockport. How bad could it be?

Chapter John.

你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do,

On the 28th of October 1982 I was born.  I cannot remember it, nor wish to remember it.  My birth certificate was to arrive several days after my birth.  Either the registrar was busy, or my parents were contemplating such names as “Eric”, “Steven”, “Bert”, or “Joe”.  The prospect of being called Peter Eric Acton over my real name is not something I’d have desired – after all my initials would spell out a green garden seed.  Thankfully this was avoided when Mum decided on naming me after a line of Grandparents – John Robert was named.  I have a Mr Tom Danson (Registrar of Births & Deaths) for approving my given name, and also confirming I was born.  I’m sure Mr Danson was a terribly nice bloke, his signature on my birth certificate was stylish!

I was born a male, and thankfully still remain one [I checked earlier, and have been doing so since I was a teenager].  Crumpsall Hospital, now North Manchester General Hospital, gave rise to me.  I imagine I was a terrible burden on my parents, probably burping, farting, and vomiting to a strict schedule.  Something I may have carried on with throughout life, but cannot confirm.

After my birth and entrance to life, my parents returned to Margate Avenue in Newton of the Heath [a greyer place there was not].  There was no peaceful return, screams and wails ruled now.  Newton Heath, the origin of a certain controversial Trafford based football team, and was also made up of many railway workers.  The area was not an ideal Conservative Party recruitment point.  The house was also home to Beaut, a German Shepard dog, who sadly passed away with old age in early 1983.  Mum had Basil, a black and white cat whose hobbies included Samurai sword fighting and bingo.  We all uprooted to Warbeck Road in Moston.  We were joined by a new family addition, he was young, black with golden patches, and available for free donkey rides.  Pup Acton, our wee dog had arrived, and he grew at an alarming rate over the years, keeping his big floppy ears.  He would lick many people, and always be by made side for many years.  Basil and Pup loved each other, in a cat chases the dog, dog chases cat kind of way.  On the 13th of August 1985, my Grannydfather John Roberts died aged sixty.  The family was devastated.

As I grew older, my parents grew apart.  Divorce soon followed.  My Dad moved back to  Ludgate Road, in Newton Heath, with Nana and Granddad.  A crappy settlement was agreed upon whereby Dad could only pick me up on Saturdays.  A primary school child would always feel worry, when Dad would not ring, nor arrive on Saturdays.  A waiting child would regularly sit watching through the front lounge window, without even a hint by phone that my Dad would not be turning up.  After twenty minutes of waiting past the time of his expected arrival Mum would tell me he was probably working.  Still I’d wait until long after the sun would set.  I’d expect every diesel engine car that turned onto our road to be his car.  I’d often cry myself to sleep, crying for wanting to see my Dad, hoping for him to arrive.  There was one night I remember when I was young when Dad visited late one night, full of excuses.  I did not care for his excuses.  I just wanted to see him.  He brought with him a Goblin head, which when you pulled its eye out, it made a gurgling sound.  It was a really heavy toy, with bright and thick orange hair set on a green head littered with scars. I wish I had that toy but am most satisfied that I have the memory. I hope the good moments never leave my skull.

I would not care whether we went to watch football [be it Man City or Oldham Atheltic, Maine Road F.C. or whoever], go to the allotment (Pup could tag along too), or visit Nana and Granddad.  Time with Dad was always enjoyable.  We would spend many days on the allotment.  The allotment on Brookdale Park may not have seemed a magical place, but my imagination and the company of Pup made it wonderful.  Dad would provide fizzy pop, cooled in a barrel of rainwater, as a treat.  I and Pup would trek into Brookdale Park and its wilderness, whilst Dad would build a greenhouse or dig up his plot.  We’d plod over imaginary mountains, I’d climb trees whilst Pup bounded around below, we’d play hide and seek, and walk up the park stream.  And when I became tired we would ascend the highest point of the stream embankment looking down onto the allotment.  We would sit on the peak and look down at Dad working hard.

After a day out or at the allotment, Dad would take me to Nana and Granddad’s house for our evening meal.  Nana would cook something homemade and always wonderful to the taste buds.  Nana would spoil me with sweets, usually Chewitts, Vanilla slices or Boost chocolate bars.  Granddad would treat me to some yellow tomatoes which were his specially grown variety.  I miss the stew, dumplings and delights. The return home would not fill me with joy, because I never knew how long it would be before I could see my Dad again.  How long would it be before I would see Nana and Granddad again?  Nana was an amazing lady, always treating the younger family members, and spoiling the dogs she kept over the years:  Snowy (a West Highland terrier, for which breed Nana loved), Nomaz (a Yorkshire terrier short hair, of which breed Nana also adored), Suzie (also a West Highland Terrier and perhaps the oldest of Nana’s dogs during my lifetime), Pup (when he visited), and even the neighbours dog Nobby (who was clearly the offspring of Pup, as were the majority of Newton Heath’s mongrel dogs – sorry, RSPCA!).

A bowl of Nana’s homemade stew alongside some potato croquettes or chips and you would soon feel full.  There would always be room for desert, and desert always came with custard, warm or cold.  There was no need for posh restaurants as far as I was concerned; a meal at Nana’s was luxury.

One year, Dad drove me and Mum to Knowsley Safari Park.  On arrival we sat in the car, watching the Peacocks outside.  Dad suggested we had some food in the car, and handed out Spam sandwiches.  We watched the Peacocks for hours.  The zoological park had closed eventually.  I think Dad was a little short of cash and could not afford to go in.  I loved the day trip never-the-less.

My New Moston Primary School days hold little memory for me.  I just remember playing catch the girl, kiss the girl and catching my classmate Claire at the time; a friend called Anthony; and me having a pooh in a classroom because the teacher would not allow me to go to the toilet.  I whipped my trousers down, squatted in a playroom kitchen pen and laid one down.  Sadly, a fellow pupil and classroom whinge-bag Kelly spotted me and promptly enlightened the teacher to my doings.  I never got away with it.

A couple of weeks prior to my seventh birthday I learned to swim.  The school enforced visits to Broadway swimming baths enabled schoolchildren back then to combat the risk of drowning.  They simply subject you to water deeper than your body height, throw you in, and watch you learn that no kicking of the legs or motion in the arms will ultimately result in swallowing excessive amounts of water towards the lungs and belly.  My first width certificate was in the bag on the 13th of October 1989.  It was also noted that you could leave a yellow slipstream behind you if the teacher would not allow you to the toilet.  Had she not learned from my earlier primary school actions!?

Not that my teacher was the only victim of my terror, the dentist who had not warned of his intentions to probe my mouth, soon found his hand littered with a John-size bite mark.  Having someone else’s hand in your mouth will always seem wrong to me.  Even Mum became a victim of me pouring cornflakes down the toilet, blocking it with old toilet roll tubes, and also seeing exactly how much washing up liquid would empty from the bottle in one squeeze (naturally onto a clean surface, for example the carpet).

My craze for Thomas the Tank Engine was quickly topped by Ghostbusters, and before long Dangermouse, Count Duckula, and eventually the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Lego remained faithfully by my side throughout the years. Secret showings of The Gremlins on video at my Nana’s house when Nana was away, under Dad’s supervision had me praying for a Mogwai for my birthday.  Instead Dad allowed me to choose a present at Morrison’s superstore in Fallowfield.  Naturally, I went for a small Lego pirate set along with a large truck space carrier.  The next day Mum invited my friend Neil and another friend who like Turtles too around for a birthday meal.  I was allowed the choice of food, so we had Bangers and Mash with beans.  This was my favourite at the time.  Mum had brought me a Lego castle set, as she was always trying to bring out my imaginative side.  Neil came from several doors down.  His mum Miriam knew my mum.  To get to Neil you could walk along the front road, or run to the back of the garden and cut through the back of several gardens past the man who always recited “Peter Piper picked a pepper…” to us and made us giggle.  One day on the route down to Neil’s house I discovered a dead gull.  It looked lifeless as expected, and when prodded with a stick, it was rock hard and crawling with small beetles.  There was a lesson to be leant, but it passed me by whatever it was.

In 1988, Astrid was born.  I now had a little sister to fight with, and to love and cherish.  It was around this time that Basil the cat had left home, and moved a few doors away to be fed.

Mum, met Paul Mathers in early 1990, and we moved to 2 Range Street, Openshaw.  Dad moved from Nana and Granddad’s house into 76 Warbeck Road, and I often visited to share bowls of Frosties for an evening meal!  Plus, the new neighbours to my Dad were of Chinese origin and loved to share Lego with me.  My new primary school was to be Clayton Brook Primary.  They made me retake my width certificate on the 8th of October 1990, the idiots were holding my progress back with P.E.  However, I could zoom far further ahead with mathematics and science in classes.

We added Ben the cat to the family; and Mum and Paul also added a new child to the family.  Paul Anthony Mathers junior was born on the 15th day of November 1990.  After escaping to my room to play with Lego and eventually exhausting my supply of bricks, I decided to play out in the new area.  Originally I was only allowed to the park around the corner, and to the top of my street.  I did make one friend, but he was banned from playing with me by his parents one day, as a result of me hitting his head off the opposite side to a see-saw I was on.  Accidents do happen.  I did not like Openshaw, I knew very few people there, and the area was riddled with good for nothing kids and derelict factory buildings.

TO BE CONTINUED?