How to spot the real Father Christmas


Father Christmas original historicalOther children had other questions: how does he get around everyone in just one night? how can he carry all those presents? Where does he live (is it the North Pole)? The question I posed as a six year old was a simple one and was perhaps more pertinent: how could he get into our house when we didn’t have a chimney? The answer provided by my Dad was just as simple: he has a magic key. I was satisfied.

But more interestingly than that, I remain satisfied. That answer is more profound that at first glance. Firstly it completely and utterly answers the question. Secondly, although it appears to raise further questions (how does the key work? where did he get it? does it work for all houses?) it renders those questions redundant because their answers are located in the first answer: it is magic. The nature of magic is that it is magic and is therefore indivisible. It is a closed loop that logic cannot break into.

But here’s another question. Pondered by many, but whispered oh so quietly, as perhaps the undesired answer is already known. But let’s ask it openly and attempt to answer it.

Is Father Christmas real?

Real, unreal; these are modern words that polarise a greater truth that exists somewhere in between. But even truth is contextual. In our ever increasing literal world where things must be concrete, they must be pinpointed and we must be certain, do we throw out a closer more relevant truth of unknowing; they grey area of multiple truths all being correct at once? Like Heisenberg, who showed we can’t know both position and momentum, the more we are certain of one, the more the other slips away, so is it with myth.

Myth does not mean ‘untrue’ as dull literalist dogmatics would have you believe. It means ‘very true’ as if there is another dimension to truth, at right angles to all the facts, that makes a myth more true than fact.

In mathematics we use the square root of minus one, called the number i, as the imaginary impossible number. It can’t exist unless you imagine it. (Try it on any literal dogmatic unimaginative calculator if you need proof). And yet, if we include this imaginary number in various equations, it can help solve them. You can’t solve certain quantum mechanics problems without it. These problems are real world ones too, found in electrical engineering and computing. Without the imaginary number you wouldn’t be reading this on a computer.

So is the number i real or unreal? Real or unreal is the wrong question as i exists, even if it is imaginary and it has a real impact on the world. So even though it’s a dumb question, we have to say i is real.

So let’s return to the original question. Is Father Christmas real or unreal? Bear in mind that he is of similar substance to i. He has the same characteristics: he has a real impact on the world; he explains certain phenomena; he is needed to complete certain functions; he is the square root of minus one.

He is by the literal terminology, real.

So where can we find him?

Father Christmas original historicalAny old fat man in a red suit and fake beard is unlikely to be the real thing. A simple test that drawn upon history is this: is he wearing a hooded cloak? If not, and bears a bobble cap instead, he’s a Coke drinking imposter who’s probably in the payola of the neo-capitalist branding conspiracy to brainwash children. It was Haddon Sundblom, who drew the red-suited fat elf for the Coca-Cola company from 1931 to 1964. Sundblom said he was inspired by Swedish tomte, mythical little creatures with red caps and long white beards but his images owe a lot more to Thomas Nast’s 1863 drawing.

The real Father Christmas may not always be dressed in red (sometimes blue, sometimes green) and may have a holly wreath on his head if his hood is not up.

It was the New York Gazette which, in 1773, gave him to joke moniker of St. A Claus (based on the Dutch ‘Sinterklaas’ which became ‘Santa Claus’) a name which even Clement Moore rejected in his 1821 poem, sticking with St. Nicholas, the name of the 3rd century bishop who gave presents to the destitute. It was Moore who popularised reindeer as the preferred mode of transport. Prior to that, Father Christmas would more likely arrive on horseback.

But his origins are more mysterious and ancient. Originally he was the god Saturn, whose festival, Saturania was celebrated on December 23rd in the Greco-Roman world from pre-history to the arrival of Christmas in the fourth century AD. Saturn, now a fallen god, bowed to the greater authority of Jesus and swore to no longer demand child sacrifice. It is an irony that it was originally the children who were gifts for him rather than him bringing gifts to them.

In his new fallen role and new allegiance, Saturn even turned up at the nativity as one of the ‘wise men’ from the East, bearing gifts for the infant Saviour. Thus the pagan festival and the Christian one unite.

So be careful if you stay up late on the night of the 24th, you may just catch a glimpse of an anthropomorphism of one of the few ancient primal forces still left in the world.

Oh, and the answers to those other questions? If you really don’t want to know, look away now.

How can he carry all those presents? He carries only what is needed for each home with each trip.

Where does he live (is it the North Pole)? The North Pole is a literal version of the farthest place we can think of. Nobody ever said what it was the North Pole of…

How does he get around everyone in just one night? He does them all simultaneously. Since the number i can be all it needs to be at once, so can he. It’s also easy that he only needs to be where an imaginator resides and can easily be personified by them, they become him and do his work for him, as him.

Well, you did ask.

More clues here:
http://www.arthuriana.co.uk/xmas/pages/english.htm

and a history here:
http://www.christmasarchives.org/santa.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturnalia

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The wonder of the Short Story


short stories science fiction ghostI’ve always preferred short stories to novels. There are two reasons I think. One is that it’s so exciting to discover the one (or sometimes two) really big ideas that a short story can present that really make you stop and think. The other is that if the story’s boring you can safely skip it and jump onto the next one.

I’ve published my first collection of short stories. My intention is to ask the question, ‘What if?’, to take a situation and give it just one or two big ideas, like an extra twist, at right angles to reality, to make characters twitch and a situation unfold. That, for me, is the essence of science fiction: to make just one or two changes to the universe we know about and see where those changes could lead.

It’s a mixture of science fiction and ghost stories. Much as I love the clichéd paraphernalia of film and television science fiction; the cheeky or dangerous robots, the spaceships, the starships and the bolt cruisers, the bug-eyed monsters and the cyborgs, and as much as I expected myself to, I found I wasn’t really including them in my stories.

It comes in part from the thing that non-science fiction fans hate the most; that the technobabble gets in the way of the story, or is a substitution for it. I know what they mean, and I agree.

Godstow nunneryFor me, in writing these stories, I had the further thought of where my imagination might be sourced. I wanted to make sure my invented worlds were as original and believable as possible and did not want to adopt or ride on the back on any pre-existing science fiction methodology. By that I mean how some authors adopt the short hand or methods of another writer. It’s easy to do, but if I’m going to write about visiting other worlds, I don’t want to rely on hyperdrives or warp drives, teleports or transporters, have evil empires or benevolent federations without good reason, independently arrived at. That’s why most of my stories have to be drawn from something I know something about, which admittedly isn’t that much. Some things are harder to avoid. If you’re writing about robots, you’re going to bump into Asimov who’s already been down that road. If you go to Mars, you’ll probably find Ray Bradbury, and if you start exploring subterranean crypts, H.P. Lovecraft will lock the door behind you.

I first started creating stories in the playground with my friend Barry. Aged eight, we became fascinated by the idea of creating a whole world-view within which to set a franchise of stories (although we’d never use or even know those words), like Flash Gordon, Star Wars and Star Trek. Barry knew about the military, so he added the workings and politics of army know-how. I was interested in spaceship and robot design and we both loved the psychological weirdness of Sapphire and Steel. Together we invented motivated villains and evil races. We concocted a reason how the Earth in the near future could engage in interstellar travel by having a ‘wormhole’ appear in the orbit of Jupiter. (We didn’t call it a wormhole, it was a ‘Time/Space Tunnel or Portal’). The playground stories became comic strips and then written down tales as we became older and the stories more sophisticated. We’d created a structure that, if published today, would seem similar to Star Trek Deep Space Nine, although our vision was created fourteen years earlier.

The WallThe stories I’ve collected in The Voice in the Light are about the thoughts that occupy my conscious and subconscious mind: the nature of dreams, of faith, of history, time, and the nature of light. They’re inspired by the kind of writers I’ve enjoyed, that some might call classic science fiction; Brian Aldiss, John Wyndam, Frank Herbert and Larry Niven, forgotten authors like Paul Capon and more recent deities like Douglas Adams and Philip Pullman.

Some of these stories were written over the last year, some a decade earlier, and a few over twenty-five years ago, although I’m not going to reveal which is which. You can try to guess.

Each story comes with an illustration I’ve done (in pen and ink).

The book is available in paperback and on Kindle at a very reasonably low price.

My only wish is that you enjoy reading the 18 stories as much as I enjoyed writing them, and perhaps one or more of them does make you stop and ponder and think, ‘that’s interesting. I wonder, I wonder, I wonder…’

ink drawingHere’s a description of the kind of stories you’ll find…

• A boy seeks solace from his imaginary friend from another dimension…

• A robotic experiment goes disastrously wrong. But why is a psychic detective called in?

• Imagine being able to create extra time to spend as you wish. What would you do with it?…

• A machine that allows you to ‘see’ into the past…

• In a distant future, our cities are avoided as cursed tombs of a doomed race…

• A student joke with a ouija board unlocks a dark past and a prediction is made as to who will die first…

• A boy enters a secret world to enlist magical creatures to help him do his homework…

Get your copy in paperback or Kindle.

 

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

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The story of a long lost friend, found again


Palitoy Talking Dalek

In the attic…

I’ve become obsessed with an idea, or rather a feeling or memory of an emotion. It’s linked directly to an artifact that you probably don’t have the same interest in, let alone have any connection to. But the object isn’t the point of this, the linkages and thoughts that are connected to it are. So for you there may be a similar effect but with a very different artifact. Let’s see.

Five days before my sixth birthday, on Christmas morning, I awoke to find a box in my stocking, left by Father Christmas. It measured 8” x 6” x 6”. It was still dark when my brother and I climbed excitedly into my parent’s bed to open our presents. I unwrapped the box to discover what would be the most treasure toy of my childhood and my most valuable possession until I owned a computer six years later.

I played with the toy constantly until I was around eleven. Then it became an ornament on my windowsill, on display to see every day. Then, when I eventually left home to go to university, never to return, it was packed in a cupboard in a box which a decade later made its way into my loft.

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a fan of Doctor Who. My parents knew I was that Christmas as I opened my presents to reveal The Dr Who Annual 1977 (which I wasn’t capable of reading until a year later) and the joy of joys: a Palitoy Talking Dalek.

Even the box was exciting. It had an illustration of a red Dalek on one side and a silver one on the other side. Mine was silver, with blue spots. There was a little bag in the box that contained the appendages; the eye, gun and sucker-arm. I put it together and put in the two HP7 batteries and pressed the black button on the Dalek’s head. It had four phrases, “Exterminate, Exterminate!”, “What Are Your Orders?”, “You Will Obey!” and “Attack, Attack, Attack!” Later I would discover that these were located on a small vinyl record disc inside the Dalek. David McKiterick took the record out of his bothers Dalek and put one in from a talking doll. So the Dalek said “Mama! Mama!” and some poor unfortunate little girl’s doll said “You Will Obey!”

I made the later, regretful, decision that I didn’t need to keep the Dalek’s box. It got thrown out on Boxing Day. That was the last toy box that I didn’t keep. So with future toys I would be able to keep them in pristine condition, return them to their box and open them up again, re-enacting opening them for the first time. But with my Dalek, the box had gone.

I did see a box, one more time, the following year when we were in Durham’s department store, Doggarts (later to become a branch of Boots). They had Talking Daleks on sale there. I longed to have a red one to compliment mine, but at £5, they were far too expensive. Simon Payne brought his red one to school when we were allowed to bring in a toy one day. I took in some teddy bear. There was no way I was going to risk any damage or loss to my Dalek.

But somehow, even with my due diligence, the sucker-arm was lost. I made a replacement one from a sucker dart from one of those guns that fired suckered darts. I made a replacement arm, gun and eye for Simon Mckiterick’s too. His dad had bought the last Talking Dalek from Doggarts, without the box or appendages. His Dalek didn’t last long, after losing the record, it got totally dismantled. I saw the shoulder section from Sarah Woolfenden’s bedroom window, inexplicably on her garage roof.

The following Christmas I was lucky enough to receive a Doctor Who doll (in the likeness of Tom Baker) and his Tardis, as well as the most prized book of my childhood and beyond; Terry Nation’s Dalek Annual 1978.

It was then that I noticed that something was amiss with my Palitoy Talking Dalek. Namely, it had the wrong number of spots. Looking at the pictures in my Dalek annual it seemed that the number of skirt panels were wrong too. Even though it was, to date, the most accurately reproduced model Dalek, the head was a little too small and squat too. Why did the sucker arm have a central spike and why was it and the eye red? I had suddenly become visual discerning.

The inaccuracy in Doctor Who toys is startling. The Cyberman had a nose. Tom Baker’s face looked exactly like Gareth Hunt from the Avengers (that was because the Tom Baker mould was damaged just before production so they actually did use a Gareth Hunt mould). Later 1980s toys had big errors such as the six-sided Tardis console having five sides, Davros, famous for having just one arm, had two, and the robot dog K9, who everyone could tell you was grey; was green in the toy.

But these things didn’t stop me having fun playing with my Dalek. I painted the eye the correct colours and in 1979 stuck on black stickers on the shoulder slats to match the on-screen look of the Daleks in Destiny of the Daleks.

By 1981 my Dalek would no longer talk. He stood on my windowsill until I went to university  in 1990 and was then packed into a box that sat in a cupboard and then was shipped out to my own house and made it’s way to my loft.

Someone on ebay makes replica arms and boxes. What a crazy and yet genius idea. So now I have the parts to restore my Talking Dalek. But can I get him to talk once again?

I brought him down from the loft, dismantled the mechanism and washed him, taking off the stickers from 1979. His silver grey plastic had a slight golden tinge to it, probably due to exposure to light over the years. The inner mechanism is a tiny record player with a transparent disc that contains the phrases. I cleaned all the parts and removed the dust but nothing happened. I feared the motor had given up the ghost but after attaching the batteries directly to it, it started to spin. It too was probably clogged. I left the battery connected for ten minutes and the motor span faster and faster. Putting the needle back in and assembling the whole thing, I pressed the button.

It was a magic moment as an unearthly voice from the past grated out those famous words. What you need to appreciate is that sound coming from the Talking Dalek is not electronic; we’ve become too familiar with toys that have sampled digital sounds stored on computer chips. This is different. It’s an analogue, organic sound. The whir of the motor and the scratchy, wobbly sound echoing from the tiny disc. The Dalek toy is designed inside as a sound box which echoes and amplifies the sound, reverberating it throughout the inside of the Dalek.

Perhaps that why this was not just my favourite and most treasured toy; it was somehow alive. I wonder how he feels now, working again, being played with again. I wonder how he feels looking up with his red eye into my eyes, to see I’m no longer a five year old boy.

Palitoy Talking Dalek and boxIn February 1977 we sat on my parents bedroom windowsill, looking out into the evening as the snow started to fall. We watched it fall, my Dalek and I. First it covered the black tarmac with a powdery white covering. Within the hour it had hidden all sign of the curb as the pavement and road became a single blanket of white. We watched as the night fell and the street lights came on in the silence that only snow knows. Then it was tea-time. Outside the snow continued to fall and the wind blew drifts over the village.

That’s why there’s a value for me in this adventure. By restoring my Talking Dalek I’ve somehow re-connected, not with a old plastic toy, but with the little boy who used to treasure it. We are the same he and I, separated by a gulf of half a lifetime, of sorrows and joys. I need to remember that we are the same. Whatever trials and tribulations face me today, I owe it to that little boy to not let him down.

I also have children of my own now. There are at the age when they will be forming memories that will define for them their own history of who they are. It’s my job to facilitate and support that process in whatever form it takes. It’s unlikely to be a Talking Dalek that will excite and inspire them. They had fun pushing the button for a while before running off to play some other game.

My Talking Dalek also remind me that we are all unique in our loves, our passions and our journeys. My parents could not have guess the relevance of my Talking Dalek and I may probably never know what memory triggers my own children will find.

So have a think at what connects the dots in your life. Is there an artifact, a sound, a place that connects you to that small child from all those years ago?

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com

Creativity and imagination from Star Wars


Star Wars figuresI was born at exactly the right time to live through the Star Wars phenomenon as it happened. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

To older, more boring unimaginative people, Star Wars was just a film, albeit a very popular one with people queuing around the block to get tickets to see it, that broke new ground with special effects.

But to me it was like witnessing the Gospel.

I was the last to see it at my school. I was six years old. I badgered Sean as to what it was like. I knew there were robots in it, a gold humanoid one and a small Dalek-like one. I asked him if R2D2 had a gun, did he shoot like Daleks did? Sean couldn’t remember. Couldn’t remember? How could he not remember? I was busting to see it. I started to guess what it was about and made up a story that I thought might fit the bill.

We went to Newcastle one Saturday. There was an enormous poster of Darth Vader’s head covering the front of the cinema. I’d only been to the cinema once before, to see a Children’s Film Foundation film about a hot air balloon. We were given a programme in the foyer that introduced us to the concepts in the film.

The next day we had Star Wars Weetabix for breakfast. There were transfers in the packet that you could rub onto a diorama on the back of the box, of Darth Vader and Ben Kenobi’s lightsabre duel on the Death Star. We had to finish the packet before we could cut the box up. We’d never eaten so much Weetabix.

That was 1977, Jubilee year. This week, Jubilee year again and 35 years later to the day, I opened up the Sacred Glass Cabinet at the top of the stairs. It contains my 100+ Star Wars Action Figures. Mabel (4), Verity (nearly 2) and I selected a (large) collection and we took them downstairs and along with lego we created an adventure story. (Neither of the girls have seen Star Wars).

This is what they came up with:

Princess Leia (in Bespin outfit), R2D2, C3PO, TC14, and a friendly Jawa arrived in their snowspeeder to an ancient ruined pyramid which the team suspected contained a great secret. R2 went in through the gap in the wall, but didn’t return. C3PO was too nervous to investigate so Princess Leia called for help and Chewbacca and Hammerhead arrived in a landspeeder. Hammerhead’s big hands managed to move more bricks and Chewie went inside only to be met by a fierce Gammorean Guard. It turned out he wasn’t a baddie, he wanted to warn them of the unsafe structure. Chewie and Bossk went carefully in and pulled out R2 and a Death Star Droid who was in need of repair. 9D9 and Powerdroid got him working again and he told of the treasure that was still inside the pyramid. Working together they removed enough bricks to pull the treasure out. The Princess changed into her ceremonial white dress and it was time for everyones lunch.

Stories happen!

My girls were doing exactly what I’d done all those years ago. Star Wars figures are wonderful because they are so interesting. Palitoy seemed to deliberately make figures of all the minor characters and leave out many of the main ones. You couldn’t get Grand Moff Tarkin (played on screen by Peter Cushing) who’s central to the story. But you could get Death Star Commander, who you see for two seconds in the background.

My brother and I never played with them to re-create scenes from the film, instead we’d create characteristics and adventures for these lesser-known creatures, people and droids. R5D4, Dengar or Snaggletooth may only have appeared in the films for less than a second, but that’s what made them so fascinating. They could be whoever we wanted them to be.

I never got a Millennium Falcon playset, or the so obviously not-to-scale rubbish cardboard Death Star. I didn’t get the Jawa Sandcrawler, Boba Fett’s Slave One spaceship or the exciting giant AT-AT snow walkers either. They were all far too expensive and elaborate.

But I’ve never been so grateful for anything from my childhood as I am for NOT getting those toys for Christmas because it meant that instead I made my own.

I collected my Mum’s perfume bottle tops, cardboard, any plastic packaging. It was all saved up, glued together and painted. I had far better playsets than the ones prescribed by Palitoy and learnt model making into the bargain.

Oh, and the story I expected to see before I seen the actual film? I wrote it down and developed it as my own movie franchise with its own characters, robots and monsters. I even made action figures of them using Fimo.

I don’t think I’m particularly unique in having an imagination. Every child has one. But it needs to be developed and encouraged. I think it was mainly good luck that I became embroiled in Star Wars at the age I did in the way I did. It was such a good vehicle for the imagination. It still is. It’s a simple story, but so well told with such background depth that’s perfect fertile ground for the seeds of a child’s imagination to take root, explore and grow.

I believe we need to teach children how to play – not all of them can learn how to do it on their own. And I believe we need to give them the tools of play but need to be careful not to over prescribe too tight a formula and format. With many modern toys and especially computer games I feel there’s a real risk of that.

If your child finds more interest in the box the toy came in rather than the toy itself – keep watch, something interesting may be happening in that imagination of theirs…

Ayd works with people and businesses to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


The end of a friendship


Sherburn Village Infants and Juniors 1977

If there ever was a golden age, it was here, 1977, Sherburn Village Infants. That’s me, seated front row in the middle in an orange polo neck. That’s Sean, front row far right on the mat.

He was my best friend from that time when you actually named your best friend as number one, as if friendship was the pop charts with various friends jostling for that coveted top position.

We’d met when we were both five at the very first day of school. We’d had some great adventures. We’d discovered Star Wars and Superman and The Incredible Hulk together. We’d discovered the secrets of Sherburn Hill together, explored the country lane, the slag heaps and the rubbish dumps together. We’d learnt to read, write, draw and collect Action Jacks together. We’d created magic potions, travelled back in time, been bounty hunters, saved the world from a Dalek invasion (many times) together. We’d learnt how to burn our shoelaces with a magnifying glass, sing the Beatles songs from Help!, programme our Commodore VIC20 computers (and reach level ten in Arcadia.) We’d made recordings on a tape recorder that were so funny we laughed until tears streamed from our eyes and we lay on the floor holding our aching sides.

We’d always sit together in class until Mr Hall banned it and said we had to sit at opposite sides of the room. We were also told that boys weren’t allowed to put their arms around each other in the playground (but girls were). The dinner ladies had reported it to the teachers who’d sent letters home and we were told that the only physical contact boys could make with each other was to punch each other, otherwise you were a ‘puff’, whatever that was. (Turns out, neither of us were).

How is it that you can get really close, so tight in a friendship and then… something happens? This is what happened.

It was a hot afternoon, early summer. I got my bike out of the hut in my back garden and wheeled it down the grass and out of the gate. I rode up to the end of the cul-de-sac and up the curb to ride past Sean’s house and looked in the window to see if there was any sign of life. There wasn’t so I rode up the hill to the tarmaced area called ‘Play Area One’. Everything on the estate had a name. Behind my house was a hidden pavement that was secret until the houses behind were lived in. We called it ‘the secret passage’ ever since.

On the play area was Sean and Sid with their bikes. Sid was a year older than Sean and I who were 12. Sean used to live next door to him when he lived further up the estate, before he moved opposite me. Sean and I had Commodore VIC20s and Sid had a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. We had a software writing corporation called MISARM-SOFT. The initials were the first letters of our names; Michael, Instone, Sean, Adrian, Robert, Murphy. The A and S also stood for Andrew (Sid) Smith.

Sean and Sid had collected a few bricks and a wide plank. They’d made a ramp and were jumping off it with their bikes. I watched for a while then had a few goes too, it was too hot to just stand around. Someone decided to change the arrangement of the bricks to make a higher ramp. I picked up a brick to help with an idea of how I could make it higher but more stable. I was about to put it in place when I dropped it. It broke.

I tried to conceal the broken brick by hiding it under another and I look around to see if there was another brick to replace it. There wasn’t. Sean noticed.

“What have you done that for man?” he said.

“You’d better get another brick.” snapped Sid.

“All right, all right, I’ll get one.” I wondered where I could get another brick from.

“He’s got loads of bricks in his back garden” Sean said to Sid. He turned to me, “haven’t you?”

“But my dad needs them for a wall” I said.

“Go home and get one” said Sid. I got on my bike to ride off when Sean said, “Hey, he can get away. We’ll go with him!”. Sid grabbed my back wheel.

“I said I’ll get one” I said.

Sid dropped my back wheel. I raced off, not looking back. When I got home I thought about it all and came to the conclusion they didn’t deserve a new brick. I sat down and watched The Dukes of Hazard with my brother. I looked out of the window and saw faces peering through the fence at the back from the secret passage.

A year earlier, during the last few weeks of junior school I had been very ill with some sort of fever. Before the illness it had been just an ordinary June, just like all those that had gone before, stretching back into our pre-history. There had been no sense of endings then. If there had been a feeling of occasion in those final weeks of school, I’d had missed out on it. Mr Jackson the headmaster retired that summer and there’d been event to commemorate. I’d missed that too. I’d never said goodbye to any of my classmates who I’d grown up with since that September day six years ago when we were all five. And except for the few that lived on my estate I’d never saw any of them ever again. Barry said that Mr Jackson had died not long after.

So after that summer had passed we’d all moved up to a bigger school. But I’d gone to a different comprehensive school to my infants and junior compatriots. They all went, I assume, to Gilesgate, the rough, tough inner city ‘Grange Hill’ type school. I went to Belmont, which seemed more refined, almost like grammar school. When the new term began at our separate schools I’d slowly started to lose that regular contact with Sean, even though he lived opposite. Presumably he’d made new acquaintances, new alliances, new friends and a whole year of new school had passed.

That first year had ended and it was the start of another summer holiday and I was feeling I needed to keep clear of Sean because of the brick incident that week. Barry lived at the other side of the village. I told him about Sean and the brick. He and Sean had never got on. At school, when I’d played with Barry, Sean would always resent it. Barry mentioned that he’d seen Sean riding around the village with a small gang. I’d been reading The Lord of the Rings and jokingly referred to Sean as ‘Sauron’ and his gang as ‘the Nazgul’, ‘the black riders’.

Barry and I were round at Graham Stead’s house, drawing maps of fictional islands and continents we’d made up on rolls of anaglypta wallpaper. We saw Sean’s gang coming round the corner on their bikes. Barry and I leapt on our bikes and rode off. Graham went back inside his house.

There’s an adrenaline that comes from being chased. Especially if you know you’ll always get away. We seemed to have shaken them off and got to Play Area One and found my brother there. He joined our gang and so did his friend Neil. So there are now four of us. I was in the middle of explaining the situation to my troops when some retard called Nigel came up.

“I’m going to tell them where you are.” he said.

“You thick head.” I said “You think we’re going to stay here?” Nigel shut up and started throwing a tennis ball off someone’s house.

It was getting late so we all headed home. I was pleased that I had at least got four members recruited to my own entourage. I looked out of my brother’s window and saw something disturbing in the street beyond the back garden, between the garages. In the dim light, Barry was stood near Sean. Then Neil went up to him. I opened the window so I could hear. Neil had said, “Can I join your gang?”.

The next day I rode around the village on my own. I turned into a narrow path only to see it blocked by Sean and his black riders. I knew I couldn’t get away this time. They stopped me and Talley grabbed my front wheel.

“Why don’t you give Sean a brick?” he said. Before I could answer, Renny came up from behind and crashed into my back wheel.

“Sorry, my brakes don’t work.” Renny said grinning.

I was frustrated, worried and wanted to get away. I hit at Talley, trying to get him to release his grip on my bike.

“Right, you asked for it.” he said and jumped on me and I fell off my bike. I lashed out at him again which gave me the chance to jump back on my bike and get away. My bike made a grinding noise, the mudguard on the back was buckled and scraped against the tyre.

A day or two later, Barry and I had been up the moors. On the way back we headed to ‘the Bash’, a huge and thrillingly dangerous slag heap, a remnant of the village’s coal mining past. After collecting a few fossils, we walked back to the village and there, just in front of the entrance to the secret passage behind my house was Sean and his riders. They cut us off. They used their bikes to block up the entrance to the passage and crowded around us. But Barry had slithered out towards the back and when I looked around he was standing well behind them all.

I looked around for a means of escape but there wasn’t any. To the left of me was the barricaded passage entrance. Behind me to the right and left were rows of garages for the flats and behind me was a fence. Stood around were Sean, Sid, Cheeky, Daz and Renny. This lot had all been my mates, for years, just less than a year ago. Sid had with him his tiny brother Steven with dirt around his face. He must have been just two years old.

“Why did you call me Spud?” said Sean from the back.

“I didn’t” I said.

“Yes you did” said Barry.

“No I didn’t” I repeated.

“Yes, you said you’d used names out of the book you were reading” said Barry.

“I don’t recall ‘Spud’ being in Lord of the Rings” I replied.

Daz picked up little Steven.

“Steven, kick him, go on, kick him!” he said. The little toddler did just that. Perhaps they wanted me to go for the poor kid but I just moved out of the way.

“Ha! Look, he’s scared!” said Daz.

I was getting anxious. I wanted to go in for my tea. Then everything seemed like slow motion. I ran and leaped over the barricade of bikes, giving them a kick behind with my right foot, knocking them all over. Then Renny rushed at me and jumped on my back. He was a small potato-like shirtless lump. I threw him off and heard him go splat on the ground. Cheeky came next. He ran at me and I grabbed the scruff of his neck and picked him up. Oddly, he laughed out in surprise. I threw him to the floor. Then Daz tried it and I knocked him to the floor too.

Then it happened. The others had retreated and Sean moved towards me with fire in his eyes. I lashed out. He hit me in the stomach. But with the next blow, our fists collided, like some sort of stalemate. Our knuckles cracked. Everyone else just looked on.

Further down the passage our gate opened and my brother came out. He shouted back through the gate to the house and my Mum came out and I backed off. Sean’s face was red and I was shaking.

Later I told my Mum the whole story and after tea she took a brick over to Sean’s house. We didn’t see each other again after that, and at the end of the year my family moved far, far away from the village where we all grew up.

Three years later my Dad had some business in the North East and because it was in the holidays I went up with him. It was early evening when he dropped me off in the village and I walked round to Sean’s house as the light faded. We were now both fifteen. His mum answered the door and I went in and up to his room. Sean was there with two boys I didn’t know, playing computer games on a Sinclair Spectrum. I wondered what had happened to Sean’s VIC20 and we talked about nothing as if nothing had ever happened ever. It was as if he could only just remember who I was. The only thing he mentioned related to the past was that there was another boy now living in my old house. After a while I said, ‘see you later’ and left them to it and walked out into the night to the spot where my Dad was due to pick me up.

Even that is now 26 years ago. This isn’t even a story to be proud of. But somehow I knew it was important as I wrote it down at the time. I’ve developed longer and deeper friendships since. But there something different about those early years, the foundation for who we are and what we’ll become.

The threads of our life’s tapestry is laid down in those times, and although so short, sometimes they do feel like the most important threads of all.

If you liked this theme of childhood and school memories you may like:

I own the only surviving copy of time

My headmaster still owes me £50

Why do we remember what we remember?

Everyone remembers a good teacher

Where does our ‘right and wrong’ come from?

The Creative Troublemaker

Don’t Talk to Strangers

Ayd works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com

Children are not sophisticated


It was a phrase I first heard in the late 1980s that ‘children are more sophisticated today’.

It was used as a deceitful excuse for removing budgets from children’s television by canceling many programmes that had run for years, including the pre-school programme Play School, which had run for 24 years, Play Away, Crackajack and others to fund breakfast television. What was cut from the schedule were the quaint, gentle and silly programmes for young children.

The it was used to justify lowering the certificate rating on films and video releases.

It’s used to today to justify fast moving, complex, sophisticated themed children’s programming, use of computers and computer gaming.

I’ve been experimenting on some unwitting children. I found an episode of Andy Pandy on YouTube. It was an example of one of the very first British children’s television programmes (when CBeebies was called Watch with Mother). The episode was from 16th September 1952.

I sat down with my own children (aged 6, 4 and 18 months) watch it. A programme from 60 years ago. The target demographic for that episode when it was made would now be 63 to 67 years old. The makers of that programme are most probably no longer with us.

It was 15 minutes long, in black and white, low definition and in 4:3 ratio. But my children loved it. They laughed at the funny bits. They warmed to the characters straight away. Here they were, in the unimaginably distant future watching and enjoying a programme made for their grandparents.

How could modern, sophisticated 21st century children possibly stomach such a basic, simplistic, primordial out-of-date piece of television?

Because children are the same as they’ve ever been.

My children are very familiar with the current pre-school television programme, In the Night Garden. It was made by Ragdoll productions, the same company that made Telletubbies for late 90s children and Rosie and Jim for early 90s children. To an adult the programme seems like the most bizarre convoluted jungle of nonsense, “Iggle Piggle rides the Ninky Nonk with his friend Upsy Daisy to visit the Tombliboos as Macka Paka polishes his stones”

It was carefully designed as a bedtime hour programme to tell simple stories set in a garden for very young children before their bedtime.

Let’s compare Andy Pandy and In the Night Garden. They both have the same running length and are narrated by an unseen narrator. They are both set in a garden in an undisclosed location. They both feature toy-like creatures who come to life.

But hang on they’re not just similar, they’re almost EXACTLY the same. Iggle Piggle IS Andy Pandy. Upsy Daisy is Loopy Loo. Macka Paka IS Teddy. When a character appears they each sing and dance their own signature tune.

In the Night Garden IS Andy Pandy. It’s the same. The only difference is the technology of their production and that’s not relevant to their enjoyment unless we as adults have made it so.

Children of any age respond to the same stuff because children have not, and do not, change. They want fun. They want play. They think falling over is funny.

Children are not ‘more sophisticated’, they’re children. They don’t expect or demand more sophisticated entertainment because they are children, they don’t expect anything. They don’t compare anything to anything unless adults do that for them.

If parents and teachers ‘condition’ children, through action or inaction, then children will become to expect certain things. Children create their world view from the environment they’re in. They have no control over that environment. Only parents and teachers do, so any change in children is not some mysterious evolution, but trackable changes made by particular people on particular children.

For many children as soon as they are able to walk and talk, there is an emphasis begin to remove what is considered babyish entertainment.

It’s as if we want out children to grow up fast by forcing adult themed entertainment on them as soon as possible.

Moving images affect people. They affect mood and outlook. They can modify and change behaviour. Violent imagery can and does begat violent behaviour.

Barry Norman, the one time film expert and presenter once said that it was nonsense that people were affected by violence in films. He made the classic mistake. What he should have said that he wasn’t affected by violence in films. Clearly some people are and it’s usually vulnerable people and it’s certainly true for children.

Some children are labeled as ‘sensitive’ as if its some kind of flaw that a frightening adult themed piece of ‘entertainment’ gave them nightmares or caused them to wet the bed. It’s somehow braver and worthy of merit that a child can stomach violence, killing, brutality and cruelty without being affected.

In 1982 I was sickened to know some of my friends were playing a computer game where the object was to run over cats in the road (I was 11). That game used less than 48k of computer memory, it wasn’t any more sophisticated than the joke in a Christmas cracker. But todays computer games are photorealistic. You can kill, torture and rape people and it all looks very real.

In a report from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference this year, teachers have reported that children have increased aggression and more violent as they are being left unsupervised by their parents to play inappropriate computer games.

You can read the original report here.

“Pupils as young as four are acting out “graphic scenes” from games in class and in the playground… there are fears youngsters cannot separate fantasy worlds from reality.”

“…I watched my class out on the playground throwing themselves out of the window of the play car in slow motion and acting out blood spurting from their bodies,”

“Out of 27, four or five-year-olds, most have TVs and laptops in their bedrooms, most have sight of or actually own Nintendos, playstation, Xboxes and Wii and many said they watched older brothers, sisters and cousins playing games.”

“… and there is a lot more hitting, hurting, thumping etc in the classroom for no particular reason.”

The myth that children are tech-savvy future-focused intellectually advanced gadget geniuses is nonsense. It’s placing our prejudices and failings onto them and making excuses or simply not noticing that age inappropriate material is so easily accessed by young children..

They are children. They just want to play. And they’ll play, learn and develop along the lines of whatever we give them.

And that’s the secret to their success, if we don’t kill off their creative play before they get to learn from it.
Douglas Adams (philosopher and author of the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy) said there are rules to how we view and relate to ‘technology’:

“Everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal; anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it; anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really. Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.”

Technology is unimportant to pre-school and early years children. The adult themed worlds of fast moving action, violence, anti-heroes and realistic graphic representations of the world are not required and are damaging to a developing imagination.

We need to take better care of our children to provide better suited entertainment and education that helps them grow in a positive way that will give them (and us) a better society in the very near future. If we end up with a society in 60 years time that is cruel, uncomfortable, impersonable and violent, we’ll only have ourselves to blame.

(We’ve also watched Button Moon, perhaps the most unsophisticated of children’s programmes every made. And they loved that too…)

Ayd works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com

The truth is not out there


I’ve always loved paradoxes and alternative realities.

They are very useful things to be able to embrace if you’re a parent or work with young children. Children operate in a constantly changing, often incoherent and sometimes contradictory reality. As adults we often see our job as to ‘straighten them out’ by getting them to understand ‘the real world’ and to ‘get’ the ‘truth’.

I’ve put all those worlds in inverted commas because I don’t believe in any of them.

(But that’s just me. It is of course possible to prove or disprove a belief in anything you like.)

So what is this ‘truth’ that we are supposed to be weaning them onto?

Here’s an example. Do you believe in Father Christmas? Most dull adults will say ‘no of course not’. Most of the people I hang around with will say, ‘yes’ because they’re a facetious bunch. But the more we think about it, the more that opinion is correct.

Let’s look at the facts: children have a strong image of the Father Christmas/Santa Claus being. There are pictures, films and songs of him. He turns up at school and/or in shops. They write letters to him. There is a mythos surrounding his story, paraphernalia and methods. But most of all: on Christmas morning, presents turn up, just as they have been promised.

This all means that Father Christmas is real. He exists. You can argue with me if you want to and say that it’s daddy who get’s dressed up and/or waits until their asleep. But that just proves my point. The problem with truth is that so many people want to be so blumin’ literal with it. If you want to take it further there are other strands to the mythology of the concept of Father Christmas that are ‘true’ and ‘real’, some positive, some perhaps not so: wishful thinking, positive thinking, hope, greed, consumerism, trust, joy. Those feelings are real.

So to those people who say that encouraging a believe in Father Christmas is ‘lying’ – you’re not only miserable joy snatchers you’re also categorically wrong, according go my evidence and my beliefs.

I’ve heard is said that some people think it’s bad form to let children believe in things that they think ‘aren’t true’. (The list usually includes Father Christmas, faeries and God amongst other things). They think we should tell our children ‘the truth’.

So where do I begin in this quest? And where do I end? Do I tell them about violent pornography and pedophilia? Do I give them the full truth and details of mass murder, torture and cruelty? Do I tell them the details of the Holocaust? Do I explain the pain of dying from cancer? That’s the truth isn’t it? Of course I don’t, and in the moment that I censor any of that ‘truth’, I’m presenting a modified and incomplete vision of the world and  its reality to my children. (And in my opinion, quite rightly so.)

Our children recently watched the Beatles animated film Yellow Submarine. They loved it and began acting out the stories and characters in imaginative play. As a Beatle fan, I have the Beatles records and their other films in the house. Over the past few weeks we’ve also watched A Hard Days Night and Help!

Mabel said, “I wish the Beatles lived in Oxford so that they could come to our house and sing for us”. I wish that too, but I know it’s not possible. I know that the events depicted in those films took place 46 to 48 years ago. I know that Paul is nearly 70 and Ringo is 71. I know that George died of cancer ten years ago and that John was murdered outside his home thirty-one years ago. So do I tell this ‘truth’ to my children, running around the house singing A Ticket to Ride and putting on Liverpool accents and saying “I’ve got a hole in my pocket”?

The answer is of course no. In the same was that I won’t be saying that Mickey Mouse or Scooby Doo is dead. The Beatles aren’t real, not in the sense that our family and friends are real. But in a sense that Thomas the Tank Engine or Tinkerbel is real, then yes they are very much alive. It’s only us boring literal adults, locked into linear time that say they no longer exist.

By the time they realise that Paul McCartney doesn’t now look the same as he did when he was 21 and is as old as their granddad it won’t matter because their understanding of the world will by default have ungraded their own mythologies as their reality changes as they grow.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know I’m a big fan of the television programme Doctor Who. My son is 6 but he’s not watching it because I’m withholding it from him. Why? because he’s what they patronisingly call a ‘sensitive child’. He has no concept of death, and frankly he doesn’t need to have one. Not yet. He will. That will come. But there’s no rush, why should there be? Doctor Who deals with death. It deals with nightmarish monsters that currently have no place in his straightforward problem solving world of Thomas the Tank Engine. So there I am again, creating and maintaining a deliberate different reality to yours (and mine).

My children believe in faeries. I didn’t encourage that belief, but neither have a dissuaded it. The reason is that just like Father Christmas, faeries are real.

My daughter may visualise them as flittering winged creatures, akin to angels, and princesses (and cats, in some surreal way. She’s 4). That’s her reality and who am I to stomp all over it with my Gortex boots.

After all, she’s probably right. Faeries are nature sprites. The small fluttery ones help the flowers bloom. The gnome-like ones work on decomposition and help fungus breakdown rotting matter. What if faeries are our anthropomorphism of these natural processes? That makes them real. I’d go further and suggest that faeries are live, actual beings that do indeed work with flora and vegetation, blossom and decay. Today we tend to call them the more uninspiring names such as butterflies, bees and woodlice. Perhaps faeries are the anthropomorphism of insects? When some people look at them they may see just an insect. Their boring lack of imagination sees a creepy-crawly. I see the miraculous circle of life. If I ingested enough ergot alkaloids I’d probably see pixie faces too, just like our ancestors did.

I’ve got grown up friends who have seen ghosts, spoken to them (and got replies). The fact that I haven’t doesn’t make them wrong either. It doesn’t make their experience less valid. I haven’t seen one and I know nothing about such things. My experience proves nothing about the subject.

The esteemed professor Dawkins and his cohort would have us not believe in God. His non-belief is his own rightly held opinion although he can’t have any evidence for it, only lack of it as you can’t prove a negative. But his assertion that such a belief is like believing in an invisible unicorn or a chocolate teapot in orbit around Mars or a spaghetti monster is not the same thing and his weakest argument. No-one believe in those things because there’s no point in believing in those things. There’s a great point to believing in a creator God or a Father God and many people derive great joy and meaning from their beliefs which is why they have them and keep them. (If someone has a belief that is a threat to others then we may well have to step in to challenge their reality but they’re not the people Dawkins et al go after, preferring instead softer targets, which is a shame.)

If you ever watched the 1990s television series about the unknown, The X Files, then you will be familiar with the phrase ‘the truth is out there’. I think that the truth is NOT out there at all. It’s in here, that is I have my version and you have your version.

Another more useful phrase from that programme was on a poster behind Agent Mulder’s desk. It said, ‘I want to believe’. I like it because it has a positive flexibility within it. I may not be able to believe, but I’ll seek out the evidence accordingly, rather than a default setting of disbelief which is as inflexible as any other dogma.

To those who still maintain that so-called supernatural beings aren’t real and don’t exist: our society has some fashionable concepts that are, by all modern definitions, ‘not real’ and yet we all believe unquestioningly in them. Money being a good example. We all believe in things that very few of us really understand (such as Electromagnetism).

In mathematics there are calculations that cannot be done unless you invoke what it called the ‘imaginary number’, i. It’s determined as the square root of -1, which is impossible (and therefore imaginary). And yet we need it to solve the equations that make our modern world possible as it’s needed for signal processing, control theory, electromagnetism, fluid dynamics, quantum mechanics, cartography and vibration analysis. Some mathematicians describe i as not ‘imaginary’ but ‘pure real’.

We need the imaginary in our lives which it is just as relevant and therefore just as real as anything we can actually see and touch, which, when you come to think of it, is such a tiny proportion of our so-called reality don’t you think?

Perhaps we live mainly in a ‘pure real’ world…

Ayd works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com

3rd March 1976 – Don’t Leave Me This Way


It’s a different sun. It’s more golden. Like in the old films. I feel the warmth of it on my skin. It’s my brother’s birthday. He’s four. It’s March the 3rd and it’s already high summer.

We’re playing out in shorts and shirts with no jumpers on the hot tarmac in Meldon Avenue. This asphalt is less than a year old, still inky black and soft like rubber. Something tells me that this is going to be the hottest summer on record. The ladybirds aren’t here yet, but they will come, in their millions.Gillian’s baby sister can’t say ‘chicken’. She says, ‘ticken’. Still the sun shines.

I go off for a walk, past the tarmaced Play Area One, as we call it, along the fence of the cornfield. It’s made from the wire that the fences that surround tennis courts are made from. They’re the ones that, if you hit the ball at it hard enough it gets stuck in the gaps, although I’ve never hit a tennis ball. Not yet. The fence isn’t that high, but is too high to climb. We’ll get in through a hole someone will cut later on, at the other end of the summer, and create a labyrinth with secret corridors and rooms within the corn.

But there’s no corn yet, just the dry brown ploughed earth stretching into infinity. I see something black and shiny, glinting in the sun, caught between the grass and the fence. It’s a 7” flexi disc, a record. I pick it up. There’s dried mud on it, clogging up the microgrooves that encircle one side. There’s some writing, but I can’t read it because I can’t yet read.

Memory is like a darkened room with all sorts of objects, known and unknown, littered about in it. No-one knows what is in that room until we shine the torch of the conscious mind into a corner, picking out a few odd details of the room. But we are unable to focus on more than one thing at a time. Whatever the torch is shining upon may well be brightly lit and visible, but the rest of the room will remain in darkness and although still there, cannot be seen and we cannot guess at what may or may not be hidden.

The present day conscious mind is like the tip of the iceberg that feels it is all that exists, unaware that it is but a tiny part of the powerhouse that is the unconscious, the storehouse, the deep engines, the foundations of the years. It is not the gentle wind that gives the iceberg direction, but the invisible currents that exert those powerful forces deep underneath the surface. What is memory? What causes some events to be recorded and others not? Why are some clear, crisp and accurate like the microgrooves of a record and yet other tracks, covered in mud, may not re-play.

I race home with my new treasure and with the help of mummy wash it. The furniture in the lounge has been re-arranged, presumably for my brother’s party so the record player has been moved. Daddy lifts the lid. There’s a smell of 1960s electronics. He flicks the switch to the 45 r.p.m. setting and slots the flimsy disk onto the spindle and pushes it down onto the rubber platter. The cream coloured metal arm that contains the needle swings across automatically and, robot-like, lowers itself onto the rotating disk. The room is filled with the sounds of a song, Don’t Leave Me This Way.

Amazed by the startling success of my brief adventure I set off again, this time with my brother, to look for new treasure. We head to near the same spot, just a bit further on. Yes! There, a few feet into the field, flapping in a dry furrow is another disc. My brother sees it too and quickly and gingerly is up and over the fence, retrieves it and hands it to me. We return home and after the same preparatory ritual is followed, the sound of You Keep Me Hanging On, by the Supremes, fills the air.

Then my memory comes to an end and I’m back in 2012. My brother is 40 today. Outside large flakes of snow fill the sky but at 2 degrees it’s not quite cold enough for them to lay.

It was just a day. Just a particular day and yet I remember it all as if it had just happened. Perhaps our memories are all there, all stored somewhere. Perhaps it’s not that we forget, rather it’s that we forget where we’ve put them until some trigger, some key, unlocks the doorway to them.

I have no recollection of the rest of that day. No knowledge of an actual 4th birthday party, or even if there was one, although I feel sure there was. I have access to no recording of the following day, 4th March 1976 and nothing for the day before either.

If we are our memories and we lose access to them, who are we then? Caught by the paradox that we won’t know what’s gone, we don’t remember what we can no longer remember. Not being able to remember is like losing part of who you are. Without remembering, you become less, you begin a journey to being nobody.

Perhaps my mind isn’t a carefully catalogued library of books after all, but instead is a collection of broken pottery. The occasional piece is cracked but complete, but most of the collection is broken fragments and clay shards. Perhaps the ‘being’ that I call ‘me’ can only be a museum curator of these memory artefacts, an archeologist of my own timeline, every day re-defining who I could be based on the scant remaining evidence.

I typed my password into iTunes. Don’t Leave Me This Way by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes downloaded in 17 seconds and began to play.

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


Where does our ‘right and wrong’ come from?


Snow on Sherburn Hill

Sherburn Hill

I suppose she was the first authority figure we knew, outside our family. Mrs Hailes was headmistress of Sherburn Village Infants. A warm jovial older lady, and although she never took us in class, she taught me the difference between ‘a’ and ‘an’, just while we were waiting to do something else. I would now always know it was ‘an elephant’.

Perhaps ‘being good’ or ‘being naughty’ have little to do with right and wrong or good and evil. I was ‘good’ because I didn’t want to disappoint Mrs Hailes.

My friend Martin ‘lifted’ a Matchbox car from the hall where a jumble sale was being set up. He showed me it in the playground. It was a little second-hand, bashed, paint scratched combine harvester. He held it under the soapy foam that came out of a waste pipe from the sinks in the dinner hall, which was a separate building from the school. The flow of foam made the little combine spin round. It was brilliant, but wrong. I couldn’t believe he’d done it. I knew he shouldn’t have it. I knew we couldn’t put it back. I told him so. Then I dropped it into the drain. I don’t know how Mrs Hailes found out, but she did. We explained everything. She listened. We left. She knew that we knew and that was enough punishment: the shame of letting her down.

We only knew Mrs Hailes for those three first years of school. In 1978, we moved up to the junior side, and Mr Jackson was our headmaster. She retired and went to live on Sherburn Hill. We had a celebration in the hall and she got presents, given by Mrs Reed who would now take her place. She looked happy. But I felt it was sad. I often wanted to go up Sherburn Hill and thank her for the elephants.

If you liked this theme of childhood and school memories you may like:

I own the only surviving copy of time

My headmaster still owes me £50

Why do we remember what we remember?

Everyone remembers a good teacher

The Creative Troublemaker

Don’t Talk to Strangers

The End of a Friendship

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


My headmaster still owes me £50


(What inspires children may not be what we think…)

He was The Headmaster of the junior side of the school. The title alone held us in awe.

He had an office, way, way down the far end of the dark corridor. You didn’t even want to peek in, through the haze of stale tobacco smoke. That room held far too much power. It was also home to the cane. I saw it once, but thankfully never felt its sting.

Mr Jackson carried the potent aroma of his tobacco smoke around with him. At 63 he was probably the oldest man we knew and reminded me of the first Doctor Who, appearing sometimes friendly, sometimes crotchety, sometimes god-like and sometimes fun.

He lived in a terraced house at the entrance of our modern estate. His authority didn’t require wealth to back it up. He’d often entertain us with stories in assembly like the one of his birthday when his son had bought him a new Jaguar car. He’d been told it was parked outside and had ventured out to find a 1:36 scale Corgi toy car in the middle of the drive with a ribbon round it. We all enjoyed the joke, although I wondered why he hadn’t told us if it was an XJ6 or XJS.

When Mr Jackson did get a new car it was a brand new cream coloured Austin Mini Metro. We all crowded round, amazed at the W reg which he pointed out was the first to be delivered in the county. It was the first new model of car that I was aware of. We’d all seen the adverts on TV and in the papers. The Metro just looked so futuristic and how cool that our headmaster was the first person to get one.

Mr Jackson was also a councillor and there was an election around the same time as the general election. The North East of England was always going to be a left-wing Labour stronghold, even with the impending Conservative landslide victory of Mrs Thatcher that year. But Mr Jackson stood as an Independent Labour candidate. I never knew why. Perhaps he felt official Labour was out of step with what the country needed under Michael Foot, but still held onto his socialist ideals. But whatever it was, Sean and I thought he needed some support. After all, he was our headmaster. So we made banners and strode around the village proclaiming ‘Vote Jackson’. We didn’t tell him that’s what we were doing, we wouldn’t have dared. But he found out and thanked us in assembly. I don’t know if our canvasing had any effect, but he did win.

One day he heard me talking to some kids at lunchtime about the Space Shuttle Columbia which was about to launch for the first time. He called me over and asked me to explain it to him. I told him all about it, how the boosters worked, how it would take off like a rocket, the duration of the mission, how it would land like an aeroplane, protected by the heat-resistance tiles and how it opened a new age in space exploration. He listened and then thanked me and went back to his office.

It was early summer, 1982 when we all went as a class for a nature walk up Sherburn Hill. Not the road lined with houses, but the wild, overgrown woodland and heath-like hill, that it was said, was partly an overgrown Victorian rubbish dump. It was certainly mysterious. Mr Jackson came with us and pointed out with a stick the trickle of water that carved its way down the hill, forging the dirt path that we were walking on.

“Look at that,” he said, “water always flows down, always makes its way downwards.”

I thought about this for a moment. He was right, it did. Then he turned to me.

“I’ll give £50 to anyone who shows me where water runs uphill!”

Then he turned and carried on the trek up the path.

I paused and thought. Water does flow downhill. Is there any an occasion that it goes the other way? £50? I had to find a way. Then it came to me. Of course! I’d seen water go uphill… when we put the car through the carwash, the blower blows the water droplets up the windscreen. I quickened my step to catch up with Mr Jackson. Hang on, I thought, what about, what-do-you-call-it, ‘capillary action’, if you put a tissue in a beaker of water and hang it over the edge, the water will rise up out of the beaker. Then I remembered making wine with my Dad too. We had the wine in large demijohns and when we wanted to get it out we’d put in a clear tube and my Dad sucked on it until the wine poured all the way through the tube and into the bottle: the wine had gone up hill. Then I thought about the Space Shuttle. I’d seen water, floating about in big blobs in the zero gravity of space. I’d thought of four ways that water flowed up hill! But I couldn’t catch up with Mr Jackson and most of the rest of the walk we were in single file.

Over the following week I looked for the opportunity to tell him what I knew and claim my £50 but the chance wasn’t forthcoming. Going up to his office wasn’t an option, I had to wait for a opportune meeting.

It was early summer and nearly the end of school. I would have to be quick. But for the last two weeks of term I was quite ill. I missed the celebrations of leaving junior school and, in the autumn we went to different secondary schools so I never saw my old chums again, except for Sean and Barry. I missed Mr Jackson’s retirement party too in that last week. Mr Hall presented him with a gift as he was due to take over, Barry said. The children had all been presented with a gift, an ‘Observers Book of…’ something. Weeks earlier we were asked what we all wanted. I’d chosen the Observer’s Book of Cars. Barry had picked up my book for me. They’d got me the Observer’s Book of Cats.

I never saw Mr Jackson again. Not long after his retirement I heard he had died, suddenly, from a heart attack. I never got that chance to thank him for the riddle, to give him my ideas and to claim the £50.

Perhaps to inspire children we don’t need to be magnificent. Perhaps we don’t need to be momentous. Perhaps all we need to be, is to engage with them and to be there with them, for them. Thank you Mr Jackson.

If you liked this theme of childhood and school memories you may like:

I own the only surviving copy of time

Why do we remember what we remember?

Everyone remembers a good teacher

Where does our ‘right and wrong’ come from?

The Creative Troublemaker

Don’t Talk to Strangers

The End of a Friendship

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