My visible life began in 1946 about nine months after my father was demobbed from the Royal Corps of Signals and, what with one thing and another, it still goes on to the present day.
For the first thirty-eight years after leaving Lancaster University in 1967 I was a teacher, first of all in my native Lancashire and later as a Headmaster on four continents.
Six years ago I gave all that up to concentrate on some of the things I’d always meant to do but never had time for. One of the results is A Wigan Childhood (Palatine Books 2010) which I describe as a sort of cross between Cider With Rosie and Who Do You Think You Are? No Baboons in India was published by Amazon in 2013 and In and Around Wigan Through Time, based on 90 old and 90 new photos of the borough and its environs was released by Amberley in February 2014.
Six Steps from Wigan Pier, stories connecting my old town with some surprising characters and worldwide locations, is in the process of writing itself and will be out in time for Christmas.
Then, if I survive, there will be the Spain book...
Shortly after our marriage, when we were still living in a rented flat in a Victorian former nunnery, I took Val to see a remote country cottage in the Lune Valley. It was falling down and had no mains water or electricity. When she had recovered from the shock we ‘compromised’ on a perfectly convenient new detached house with views of Morecambe Bay and the Lakeland mountains. It took me another eleven years to convince Val that I’d found our ideal house in the Cambridgeshire fens.
It was called Rector’s Cottage and it was wonderfully in-convenient, with low oak beams, an inglenook, a secret passage, a staircase as steep as a cliff, a resident ecclesiastical ghost but nowhere the ghost of a right angle. When we asked our surveyor how old he thought it was he said 'Most of what you can see dates from about 1500. What you can't see is a lot older than that. Did you know you'd got a tunnel in your cellar? It runs under the road to the cellar of the Manor House. The Manor House? It used to be owned by the man who shot William Rufus.'
RECTOR'S COTTAGE FOWLMERE, CAMBRIDGE
January 16th 1980
A pale brass sun
Slides down a tinplate sky
The level light
Elongates Cambridge fields
Water glitters in the ruts
Iron trees stand stark
The hedge is a black mesh
A brown hare darts across
My homeward road
Village lights glow gold
The silent house
Smells of the years and of wood smoke
You are two hours old
In December 2001 while we were on holiday from our jobs in Malaysia we bought a small finca in the north of Málaga Province in southern Spain. The 80 olive and almond trees were wildly overgrown and the rambling old stone house sadly neglected. Half the roof consisted of rusting corrugated iron, the wiring was by Heath-Robinson's Spanish cousin and both the internal and external rendering falling away in chunks.
Corresponding by email (a risky strategy and not one we’d recommend) with a local builder who, fortunately, was reasonably efficient and only semi-corrupt, we managed to complete the earlier stages of restoration just on the solvent side of bankruptcy. By the time we returned in June for a six week stay we had a new roof, a new kitchen and an en-suite bathroom. Three poky rooms had been united into one pleasant living area heated by a wood-burning stove. An archway to the extended kitchen opens onto a broad sunny terrace with a view down the valley through the olive groves to the distant blue mountains of the Torcal de Antequera.
In memory of our son Richard’s first home, Rector’s Cottage in Cambridgeshire we have named it el Cortijo del Rector, literally the Headmaster’s Farm. As TS Eliot put it: ‘In my end is my beginning'.
We have resisted the temptation to over-restore and our house remains rustic. The whitewashed stone walls are almost three feet thick. The ceilings are low and supported by heavy un-squared beams of olive and poplar. With the exception of a larger shuttered one in the kitchen, the windows are small to keep out the bitter winter cold and the blinding sun of the Andalusian summer. After twenty years of travelling on four continents it is a place to come home to.
Thirty-odd years of school bells were more than enough for us and here at Cortijo del Rector life is ruled more by the calendar than by the clock. Depending on how late I’ve rolled into it I roll out of bed at some time between five and six o’clock in the morning and, as the coffee perks, proof-read yesterday’s effort before starting to draft today’s thousand or more words. The dogs studiously ignore me until they announce at precisely seven o’clock that it’s time for breakfast followed by a stroll through the olive groves to chase hares and chat with José and María further up the valley. I take Val her wakeup coffee some time between eight and nine and then it’s time for such things as chainsaws, pruning hooks and one or other of the dozens jobs which are part of day to day life on an olive farm. If my five o’clock start sounds spartan to you, let me add that the traditional two hour post-lunch siesta is an honoured custom at Cortijo del Rector.
A fen tiger like his brother, Will was born in Lincolnshire and now lives in Holland with Mariska and their daughter Jaya.
When our beautiful, great, golden Basil died three years ago at the age of thirteen we were grief-stricken. Born in Africa, he had enjoyed a splendid life being petted and admired by children in international schools in Latin America and Asia and his last three years were spent tramping the hills of Al Andalus with me and intimidating the rowdy local curs with no more than an aloof, imperious stare which said ‘If you want to make something of it go ahead but I really wouldn’t advise it’. We missed him sorely and nothing will ever replace him but life without a dog seemed unthinkable. I emailed Pepe’s: ‘We are looking for a big dog. Toys ‘R definitely not us’ (that was before Biggles exploded into our lives).
The game is a foot. And for Biggles every foot is a game.
Boris is one of Nature’s gentlemen, which is surprising given his start in life. Born of an unlikely and no doubt transient relationship between a Mastín (Spanish Mastiff) and a Galgo (Spanish Greyhound), he was clubbed over the head and left to die in a ditch. Workers on the tracks for the new Ave high-speed train heard the puppy whimpering and brought him, bleeding and bedraggled, to Jane and Alan at Pepe’s animal refuge. He grew up into a big, white, handsome Borzoi-like fellow with long legs, huge paws and floppy, spotty ears. The helpers at the refuge loved him, walked him and played with him and during his two-and-a-half years there he became a Pepe’s mascot. But nobody adopted him. Big dogs are generally less in demand than small ones and perhaps Boris’s well-known history put prospective owners off. Surely a big, powerful dog with such a history would carry a lot of emotional baggage.
Boris does have his hang-ups but they are amazingly few. The moment he lopes into view our farmer friends José, Antonio and Alberto whip off their gorras and stuff them into the pockets of their dungarees. Evidently the man who beat him wore a baseball cap and he is still nervous of them. Oddly enough our neighbour Gamba, who loved animals and fed all the strays, could take the most flagrant liberties with him even to the extent of pretending to threaten him with a stick while Boris stood there and looked soppy. Gamba died last year and we miss him.
When he joined us at Cortijo del Rector we thought in our innocence that we were adopting Boris but in reality, of course, he was adopting us. When we call him in because we need to go to the village market he reproaches us with a tragic stare and when we return home he hangs his head in mock misery and raises a shoulder in a hunchbacked pose reminiscent of Sir Lawrence Olivier in one of his iconic roles.
‘Ah,’ I tell him understandingly, ‘Boris the Third’.
Twilight at Cortijo del Rector