Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The birth of my wanderlust - chapter 1

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Neil Armstrong July 21st, 1969.

My arrival on planet earth was a little over three months before Neil Armstrong's arrival on the moon. Unlike Neil's arrival however, there was little debate over the authenticity of my landing. Whilst it took over twelve hours, three midwives and a whole lot of pushing and pulling to extract me from my mother's womb, Neil was allegedly bouncing around in zero gravity, having a whale of a time. His prophetic words were to become forever etched in the conscience of future generations. Whilst my poor mum's screams of pain went largely unheard at Bramley Mead hospital. Certainly by my dad's ears anyway, he turned up a day late by all accounts.

I am sure that everybody has referred to their family as nutters at one point or other, but my family really were Nutters. My grandma, that's my mum's mum, one Zilpha Nutter was one of ten children. There would have been twelve but two died in child birth. That's what happened back in those days. When I was born, the Nutter's had virtually taken over 
Healeywood Road in Burnley. With members of the family occupying at least five houses on the street. Interestingly, my great aunt, Miss Alice Nutter, who died when I was less than two years old shared the same name as one of the unfortunate ladies who were tried as witches in the nearby Pendle region. Even more bizarrely, she was tried for poisoning a fellow by the name of Henry Mitton.

After leaving Bramley Meade hospital, which strangely enough was located on the border of the hamlet of Great Mitton, I was taken to my home in Osbaldeston; the quaintest of English villages in the heart of the East Lancashire countryside. Here, my family and I dwelled in a tiny 16th century cottage called Sykes Cottage. This was attached to Sykes farm. My mum worked the milk round for the farm and was in turn given reduced rent of £6 a week. My dad worked in a nearby engineering firm by day and operated the pumps at the local petrol station in the evening. They scraped by.

To a young kid this was perfect. An idyllic little cottage surrounded by luscious green fields, babbling brooks and huge posh houses. But beneath the surface things were harsh. Dampness infested the whole house, there was no bathroom (the kitchen sink lifted up to reveal a bath) and the toilet was to be found in the backyard. There were no two ways about it we were poor. Although, what you've never had, you never miss right? That was the case with my sister and I. So what! If we could only bathe in the kitchen once the washing up was done? It was kind of exciting to be soaking underneath a kitchen sink, and there is something equally enticing about wandering outside in the pitch dark searching for the loo.

My life was full of the happiness that only a rural environment can bring. A school bus took my sister and I down Higher Commons lane every morning to the tiny 
St Leonard’s primary school, where Mrs. Armstrong spent many an hour trying to get me to hold my pencil. My mum was informed on parents evening, that every time Mrs Armstrong turned her back from her endless endeavours she would hear a clunk as my pencil fell out of my hand and hit the ground for the hundredth time that day.

My sister Janet meanwhile who was three years older than me excelled in all subjects. It was as if we were spawned from different parents. The only time that Janet and I interacted at school as far as I can remember was at lunch time, when we were forced to eat all our food before we could leave the table. Being a fussy eater it became a custom of mine to fill my pockets with a mixture of any food that I didn't like. This ranged from semolina to mashed carrot and brussel sprouts. I would then trick my sister into checking my pockets by employment of a whole host of devious techniques. These ranged from "Janet, I've got something in my pocket for you," to "Janet, I think I have a hole in my pocket, can you check for me." Which ever deceiving method I chose to use the outcome was always the same. My sister ended up with a mitt full of uneaten food.

Weekends and holidays were spent at on 
Healeywood Road in Burnley which became our second home. Here, Janet and I would spend our time flitting between my great aunty Annie and great uncle Edgar's house, and my grandma and granddads. These were referred to as down home and up home respectively. My grandma lived at 121 Healeywood Road, a two up, two down terraced house originally built for mill workers at the turn of the century. Although the house was tiny, each room had its own pompous label. The hallway was referred to as the lobby, the front room was otherwise known as the parlour, the kitchen was the scullery and the tiny store cupboard under the stairs was better known as the pantry. 

My grandma certainly was a nutter, Nutter by name and nutter by nature. She was generous to the core with everybody but my granddad who would have to fight for every single scrap of food that he was ever given. A large percentage of my grandmas sentences were suffixed with "and don't tell your granddad." This was especially so when she was delving into her bloomers to give us money from a special pocket that she had sewn in there. Her reason for this pocket being that it was the only place that he wouldn't find it.

Sunday's were always a busy day at number 121. My grandma would slave away in the scullery making Sunday lunch for the whole family. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that the scullery was smaller than the interior of a family car. It wasn't possible to get more than one person in there at a time. Lord knows how she managed to produce a full Sunday meal for up to six people. But she always did. Come 
twelve o'clock on Sunday, there would be a massive Sunday roast waiting for all those that crammed around the small dining table. The Yorkshire pudding, I hasten to add is still the best I've ever tasted. However, the meal came at great cost. I first had to endure a church service and Sunday school before I was rewarded with such culinary delights. I hated this with more passion than I hated school dinners.

We'd arrive at Central Methodist church in Burnley around 10 am and for the next two hours I tried my best to understand, (a) what this strange ritual was all about and (b) why I couldn'
t be at home watching Barnaby Bear, Bagpuss, the Flumps or a few years later, Having a baby (program about birth), where if you were lucky you'd get a flash of breast as the mother struggled to effectively pass a water melon through her vagina. Any flash of nipple was met by a full length discussion by the boys of Broadway county primary school on Monday morning. Blimey, how times have changed. These days the kids are watching hardcore porn before they even leave junior school. 

The only saving grace on those Sunday mornings was the fact that I got to see my cousin Adrian. He showed about as much interest as I did in church and Sunday school and joined me in general mischief and mayhem, as we found new ways to play tricks on those there to worship our good lord. This culminated one April fool's day in us turning the Sunday school classroom upside down under the pretence that it had been burgled. As you can imagine, this went down like a lead balloon and resulted in a right religious rollicking.

I remember very vividly my dad coming home one day and telling us that we were going to move house. A chance encounter with a man in a tool shop in Blackburn had lead to a new job. He was to be a technical manager in a far off place called Rossendale. In actual fact this was only fifteen miles down the road; but to a kid who considered his garden and country lane in front of his house to be his world, it may as well have been on the other side of the globe.

My dad's shocking news conjured up many questions in my curious mind. Where is Rossendale? Will I have to go to school? Will I have my own bedroom? What's a technical manager? Of course, I didn't want to move at all because I had become quite accustomed to my life in the countryside and feared that a move could only be a bad thing. The tears welling in my eyes, I turned to go upstairs.

"It has a bathroom," my dad shouted out.

"What! With a toilet?" I replied.

"It has a toilet as well, next to the bathroom," he told me, before adding "there's a nice big bath tub too."

"Is it under the kitchen sink?" I asked him with genuine curiosity in my voice.

"No, it's in the upstairs bathroom," he told me. And that was it, I was sold; totally excited about the prospect of being able to have a bath without having to wait for the washing up to be done.

So it was, that in January of 1976 we said goodbye to Sykes Cottage, St Leonards school, Mrs Armstrong, the Apple Man, Rowdy (the neighbours farm dog who almost ravaged me to death when I was three years old), Mrs Greenwood (the lady across the road who offered to buy us a tumble drier because our washing line offended her), and all the other characters who had enriched my life as a young child and still dwell in my mind to this day. And we headed for the Rossendale hills or more specifically the 
village of Helmshore. Famed for its textile museum with working water wheel. Although, I don't ever recall seeing it working.

Our new house, 
3 Raven Avenue, a three bedroom semi detached house complete with real bathroom became our home for the next four years. It was here that my world was to change forever. Gone was the wonderfully serene existence, where the worst trouble my sister and I were ever to get into was making a hay den that accidentally tipped over the local farm labourers tractor. Gone was the babbling brook at the bottom of the garden, and gone was my innocence forever. Although Helmshore was a village itself, it's accessibility to Manchester some twenty miles North meant that I was exposed to a whole different class of people.

My idyllic world was soon turned upside down. Within a few months of moving to Helmshore I was mixing with kids who swore, smoked, set fire to things, tortured small animals, bullied me, stole from me, and exposed me to their private parts. I won't mention any names but if you happen to be reading you know who you are. On a brighter note these same wayward kids introduced me to Rossendale golf course which was to become my world for the next eight years. During this time, Rossendale golf course was my retreat, my refuge, my place for adventure and my place of freedom. My eternal hunt for golf balls, during my childhood and early teen years, is a passion that I never since rivalled.

My school years passed me by in a haze of nothingness. If I'd spent as much effort studying as I did trying to find ways not to study I might have left school with more than the bare minimum of qualifications. Hindsight is such a bastard! I did however manage to jump on the home computing bandwagon pretty early on, and with some encouragement from my form tutor I was able to get enrolled onto a great new IT course. Had I taken this course seriously it should have been my stepping stone to a lucrative career. Then again I wouldn't have been writing this story.

The course was based in Bury around 10 miles from my parent’s house. I would commute there everyday on my Honda MT 50 moped, or the hair dryer on wheels as my mates liked to call it. On the course we were given basic training in micro-electronics, computer programming, and general office skills, for the first few months. After this initial training period we could choose which area we wanted to specialise in. I quite naively assumed that my skills in playing computer games and specifically being able to complete Manic Miner, automatically qualified me as a master programmer. How wrong I was! Within weeks, I was out of my depth, sinking in an ocean of binary logic and Cobol programming.

When I left Bury ITeC some 13 months later, I had once again gained very little in the form of education. But more importantly I did make a great bunch of friends, who are still my friends to this day.

So, what next? I repeatedly asked myself before stumbling into the next job. From the dizzy heights of information technology in its infancy I was catapulted backwards in time to a quite Dickensian office at an old wax factory in Walshaw. Over the next six months I was to be passed from job to job within the company as it was realised that I was pretty useless at everything I turned my hand to. During my time there I was demoted from the general office to the switchboard, the switchboard to the filing room, the filing room to the laboratory, and the laboratory to the factory floor. As often has been the case throughout my life it was only because I was well liked that nobody had the heart to fire me. When I eventually decided to leave in November 1986 the bosses seemed genuinely happy that I had come to this decision myself. Who knows what department I would have ended up in had I decided to stay! Most likely the tea boy.

On November 5th (Bonfire night) 1986, I started work in a factory that manufactured printed circuit boards. A friend had essentially got me the job in a company that was new, small and had big ideas of fast development. This was a proper job with a decent wage and I got to work with some real Lancashire characters, all of whom had nick names, like Snapper, Empty, Tubbs, Wimp and Donkey Nige. The next two years were to be a rite of passage for me as I learnt to be one of the lads. Of course, I got tricked in the age old ways that all newbies do; asked to fetch a glass hammer, a bucket of air and some tartan paint. And yes, I fell for it every time.

My role within the company was to painstakingly inspect PCB's (Printed Circuit Boards) with my naked eye. A pretty tall order considering I have the concentration of an ADHD kid on a pint of orange juice. I dread to think how many electronic devices malfunctioned because I was day dreaming about losing my virginity.

After a year and half of working in this dead end role I realised that my life was going nowhere. With this thought firmly in the back of my mind I decided to try and find a job in a more challenging role. When I saw a job for a Cobol programmer advertised in the local newspaper I wrongly assumed that the job already had my name on it. I mean, Rossendale was small and Cobol was a niche computer language. It turned out that I was half right. There can't have been many applicants because I actually got an interview despite the fact that the application was typed up by mum on her old typewriter and was littered with mistakes. This was picked up on by the interviewer within one minute of the interview starting.

Interviewer: So, Mr Mitton, you do know how to spell computer don't you?

Me: Yes, of course, C O M P U T E R.

Interviewer: So, why have you spelled it C O M P U T O R throughout the whole application, am I to believe that somebody typed this application for you?

By this point my knee's were knocking, and my sphincter was twitching. I admitted defeat.

“Yes, my mum wrote it for me,” I timidly replied.

Things got worse. I was then put in a room with a pen, a piece of paper and a problem to solve using Cobol. Of course, I couldn't do it. In all honesty, I never was any good at Cobol. So I did the only thing I could think of doing to save my dignity. I escaped through the window while the guy was gone. This would have been all good and well had he not come back and caught me, half in and half out of the window. A problem further compounded when he ordered me to “GET OUT!” and I couldn't decide whether to leave through the window or by more conventional means. I elected for the window. Needless to say, I didn't get the job.

My confidence well and truly knocked, I decided to stay at the circuit board company to save as much money as I possibly could until a better idea came along.

Despite blowing a big lump of cash on a lad’s holiday to Spain in the summer of 1988, I had still managed to save the princely sum of £600, by October of that year. To me, this meant that I was a millionaire. I never dreamt that I would have so much money in my possession. My mind was practically out of control trying to assimilate all the thoughts that I was having, as the endless opportunities started to reveal themselves to me. I had quickly established that I was not really cut out for the world of work, at least not in the conventional sense. So what would the future hold for me?

The answer came to me to me in a flash of enlightenment. I was walking around a book shop in Manchester one Saturday afternoon, when a book called "Hitch hike your way around the world" suddenly caught my eye. It was a magic moment. I knew within two minutes of picking it up that it was going to change my life forever. I purchased it with lightning pace, as if somebody was going to snatch it from my grasp, and I caught the next bus home to eagerly scour its pages.

One word kept coming up again and again, and that word was kibbutz. I'd heard about the kibbutz years earlier when I was at school. One of the lad’s brother's had been on one. I wrongly assumed that because it was in Israel it was something religious and therefore weird. However, after some research it sounded like a real fun thing to do and almost a rite of passage for any aspiring traveller. Positively bursting at the seams with excitement I rang my friend Luke, who I had not talked to for some time. To my amazement he had been having exactly the same thoughts. Within the week, we had contacted an organisation called Kibbutz representatives and got ourselves an interview.

The interview took place in a Jewish suburb of Salford and was more of a formality than anything else. It was also a time to get to meet the other young people that had chosen to go on the kibbutz at the same time as me and Luke. My overriding memory of that day back in November 1988 was that the place stunk of dog shit and everybody (especially me) was complaining about it. It was only when I got in my car after the interview that I noticed that my pedals were caked in shit and that I had been the source of the pungent smell all along. 

The interview turned out to be somewhat of a formality because everybody who turned up and paid the money basically got the job.

The months following the interview seemed to drag on forever. This was a time for wrapping up my old life and preparing for a voyage into the unknown; a time for buying things to make my journey more comfortable, and a time for visiting people that I had not caught up with for some time. Fortunately Christmas was there to provide a distraction and make time seemingly pass more quickly. 

This was in the days before the Internet, which meant that information on the kibbutz was not plentifully available. I knew very little about what I was letting myself in for beyond the information that I had received at the interview and via my hitch hiking book. This made my forthcoming journey all the more exciting. 

So what was I expecting? Well, I had read that the kibbutz movement had begun in the early 20th Century in Israel, inspired by Zionist and socialist ideals based on common ownership of the means of production and consumption. Put more plainly, a sort of commune where all the money earned was shared out among the community. I also knew that I would probably be working in the fields because most kibbutzim (plural of kibbutz) were based largely on agriculture. After working in a factory with no windows, for the past two years, I was enthralled by this prospect. Even more exciting to me though, was the thought of spending time with young folk from all over the world. This was going to be a time when I could learn about knew cultures, make new friends and hopefully disseminate my wild oats in a more international fashion.

A week before we were due to set off, Pan Am flight 103 was blown to pieces by a Libyan terrorist bomb over the small town of Lockerbie in Scotland. A few days before we were due to leave, British Midland flight 92 came down on the M1 motorway near Kegworth, after there was an engine malfunction and the captain shut down the wrong engine. Plane crashes just before I embark on a trip have plagued me ever since.

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