I cannot speak for other people, but my life has been a very happy and fortunate one and every day I am very grateful for it. I am not someone that believes in the spiritual aspects of life, neither religious nor agnostic, which may appear strange as my family has a strong religious background and I write fantasy novels about worlds where magic happens.
From my youngest days, I have been nervous of the dark and I hated going upstairs to the toilet as a child and would run and jump back down the stairs to get to the light and safety of the living room, but I explain this to myself as logical. In our ancient past, we must have been more vulnerable during the hours of darkness. It is the time when predators would have roamed and fire, which produced light, kept such dangers away. In fact, we see light as being good and dark as evil, hence the dark side in Star Wars. I am still not keen on being alone in the dark, but as a teenager I had to pass through Gipton Wood most nights of the week. How I felt about that journey said more about my state of mind than anything else. Some nights I took the unlit pathways, avoided the roots of trees that crisscrossed, and barely gave it a thought, despite there being some legitimate reasons to be nervous, but on others, it was a walk of terror. Every sound, every shadow, every second filled my brain with adrenaline and fear. Fight or flight would take over and I would end up running through the wood, until I emerged onto the street at the far side, relieved, embarrassed at my own foolishness. This was what I thought at the time as a teenager, but now it seems quite understandable. Dreadful things did happen to people and I am not sure that they were less common than nowadays, just that we hear about them more, but I could be wrong.
When I was in the choir at St Wilfrid’s Church, I used to walk through the Gipton Estate and again never had any problems, but sometimes I was relaxed and others very nervous. I never had any issues whilst walking alone around Leeds, apart from one time when I made the error of judgement of using the public toilet that was below street level, outside the carpark of The Fforde Grene public house. I was meeting up with friends and needed to go and so I went down to its old, smelly and unattractive depths, used the urinal and left quickly. I crossed over to the Clock Cinema and I saw a man follow me. I thought I was being silly, crossed over to the other side of the road and headed back towards the junction where the Yorkshire Penny Bank was. Sure enough, the man did the same. I was very nervous and at this point crossed back over to the Fforde Grene and The Clock Cinema, crossed again and decided to go into the off-licence that was there. I didn’t want to buy anything, but I hung around and the man must have got the idea and had left when I emerged.
I have had a few scrapes during my life: I’ve been run over by an MG, hit by a bus, nearly died in an old lead mine, been waylaid by axe men in New Guinea, experienced an earthquake of 6.9, and I was on a plane on the same route as the one shot down over the Ukraine, but an hour behind, but I’ve always got away with it, touch wood! Long may my run of luck last, but there have been some things that have happened that are quite coincidental.
One of these was on my first trip out of the UK. I had just started teaching and for forty pounds you could go on a coach trip to Athens. It was advertised in the paper and went from London. A friend and I decided to go for a couple of weeks. I had no idea what to expect, but the trip took a matter of days. We crossed the channel on a ferry, got back on the coach and drove through Europe, over the Pyrenees to Italy and down the coast to Bari. From here, was another ferry trip over to Greece and then a short ride to Athens. This all went well, apart from swollen ankles from sitting too long on a coach. The decision was made to take a ferry to one of the islands and so we went to Piraeus docks and spent the night sleeping in a sleeping bag on a roundabout with loads of others. Luckily, it didn’t rain! We went to Milos first and then a few days later to Crete. Both Islands were fabulous and, apart from Archbishop Mikarios dying (3rd Aug 1977) and all the banks and government offices closing, followed by Elvis (16th Aug 1977), it was all great. I was coming back at the arranged date, whilst my friend stayed on. I wasn’t too keen about the journey on my own, but no problem, I thought. On the way out on the coach we had got friendly with a Canadian girl who had a Scottish boyfriend, but once we arrived we didn’t see them again. The ferry back to Piraeus was uneventful, but I was a bit short of cash, but just had enough to see me back to Leeds. I managed to get to the square and sat outside at a cafe, early on a Sunday morning. As I was drinking my coffee, someone walked past and stopped. “David Cameron?” he said. I was staggered, as it was a fellow ex-geography student from Borough Road. He joined me at the table, ordered a drink and we chatted. He was there to catch a coach back to London and we couldn’t believe that we were both on the same one. This was looking good, as the journey would be much more pleasant with someone to chat to. Whilst we were waiting for the time for the coach to arrive, another couple walked up. It was the Canadian and the Scotsman from the journey out. They stopped and we were all going back on the same coach. The coach arrived and we all piled on and we were on our way. Everything went fine until we got to Italy. There was a problem with the coach and it needed repairing. The coach company owned just the one coach, but after a long wait whilst the driver got instructions from London and he went to the bank, he returned with cash for us to buy train tickets to Lyon in France, where a replacement bus would meet us. If I had been on my own, I am not sure what I would have done, but as a group, we got to the train station and got the tickets to Lyon. The train journey was wonderful and more interesting than the coach and we arrived the next day.
Somehow, we managed to get a message from the coach company that the replacement would arrive a couple of days later and we had to wait at the station. Now, I was in a bit of a financial pickle, but my friends from Canada and Scotland provided the cash to keep us all going. We drank vin ordinaire during the day, slept on the benches in the station, ate at restaurants that were very good value, and apart from desperately needing a bath or shower, we enjoyed ourselves. The question was, would we ever see the replacement coach or had we been abandoned? The day came, and at the allotted time, a coach pulled up. Now, of the coachful that had departed from Athens, there was less than half. I guess many found alternative transport and couldn’t wait. The rest of the journey was uneventful and we arrived in London safe but tired.
In 1986, we went to work in Papua New Guinea and my wife and I attended a Small School’s Conference in Lae. Whilst we were there, we were invited to a dinner in one of the hotels. It was quite a grand affair and the UK High Commissioner was present. Surprisingly, a visiting opera singer performed and it was quite grand. Mid-way through the evening, a young English woman came over to speak to us. She worked for the UK Government, but had heard that we were from Leeds. She introduced herself and we chatted and I learnt that she was the sister of one of my classmates from Roundhay School. She was John Greenhalgh’s sister. It made me realise what a small world it is. Whilst living on a mission in the Western Highlands called CLTC, we were introduced to a visitor from England. This was thought of as a good thing to catch up with people from your own country and so we met her, and as we talked we realised she was from Stoke-on-Trent, like my wife and it turned out she went to the same school, Thistley Hough.
To add to the coincidences, the school Thistley Hough had a teacher who moved to Roundhay School and was quite a feature. Miss Rose taught my wife and though I was never taught by her, I was subjected to her ire on more than one occasion. This teacher merged with my young child nightmare, Mrs Killfeather, and became the evil villain Headmistress of Wickergate Primary School in my first novel. I have a firm memory of her vapour trail of suffocating perfume and little gaggle of chosen girls following on.
Despite my lack of belief in the supernatural, others do not share that view, and at Borough Road College the main building was named after Joseph Lancaster. It was primarily offices with some tutor rooms, but the top level was student accommodation. Not many were housed here as there were two separate buildings for student accommodation. It was a gothic style building, which has since been converted into private apartments after the sale of the land and buildings. A friend had a room there and he showed me a door that was locked and no one could enter. The history was that a student had hanged himself in the room, throwing a rope over the old beam. After this incident, it was not used for student accommodation. This seemed an appropriate move, but it was decided it could still be used as a lecturer’s study. The only problem with this was, that whilst in the room some people would catch sight of, in the corner of their vision, a noose hanging from the beam. This worried the Christian College sufficiently for an exorcism to take place and the room to be permanently put out of bounds. I wonder if the people living there now are aware of this? The other tale in the college regarded the dumb-waiter lift that the cleaners used for moving equipment up and down from the lower levels in the Lancaster Building. During Rag Week, someone had thought it a joke to hang someone by their legs over the top of the empty lift shaft. Who would do such a thing, you might ask? The truth was that drunken students, particularly PE students were prone to stupid behaviour. Swimming contests across the beer sodden bar floor, being such an example. Anyway, someone lost their grip and the poor victim fell to his death and if you were on the corridor late at night, it was said that you could still hear his screams as he fell.
Truth? Who can tell? Life is strange, fun, scary, challenging, wonderful and mysterious. Long may it be so, as I still have a lot to do and enjoy!