Fight with cudgels by Francisco Goya

Every man is, no doubt, by nature, first and principally recommended to his own care; and as he is fitter to take care of himself than of any other person, it is fit and right that it should be so.

Adam Smith: The Theory of Moral Sentiments



A search for Donald Cottee… - Don sets the scene by examining who he might be. He searches for himself without much success. He then introduces himself, comments on his lost education, discusses sheep and goats and goes back to school

            A search for Donald Cottee in this information-rich, perhaps wisdom-neutral age reveals a wealth of potential identity. Like everyone with broadband, I regularly Google my name and even minor variants to see if I still exist. Browsing results carefully ordered for relevance I imagine possible identities, alter egos that one day I might be tempted to adopt.

I could be a black belt in taekwondo, bi-locating between California and Indiana. This version of Don Cottee is an active type, both younger and fitter than me. Alternatively, I might be the co-author of an Australian educational resource, no doubt enlightening for those who experience it, if, that is, experience has time to crystallise in an attention span trained by search engine response times. In another persona, I might even be involved in agriculture. But, despite pursuing a personal enlightenment in recent years, farming was not a discipline I explored. For Donald Cottee, perhaps, the life of a beef eater or indeed Beefeater might have appealed, but a beef farmer, no, since along West Lane in Kiddington I have lived close enough to the odour and ordure of husbandry to know they offer no attraction.

            D. Cottee might be a specialist cleaner of carpets and rugs in Western Australia, no job too small or too large, contact me and I’ll quote. As a reader of these pages you will soon begin to appreciate how often I do quote! When I do, I will usually refer, as my recently acquired academic respectability now requires. Back in the search results, I might be a retired public works officer from New South Wales, rather than an ex-electrician from Old West Yorkshire’s coal mines. In that alternative guise, I might have facilitated bicycle usage, initiated bush-care projects and demonstrated simple ways to store water. He sounds a far worthier specimen than the village lad of my continuing and, as yet, unrealised aspiration.

            As a lad, indeed, I might have played baseball in one Terre Haute American Little League, but I played rugby league and that none too well. The story of my sporting life deserved no Oscar nomination. Despite my origins down the pit, where players of the game reputedly bred, my time has been firmly on the spectators’ side, in that vast indefinable team that always turns up, never participates and never shares the victors’ pride, life being at best a temporal draw.

            But the one I would dearly love to have been is the researcher, the Cottie D., who has achieved fame via the intricacies of bronchovascular downstream blood pressure changes in exercising sheep. I applaud the specificity of his achievement but personally I aspire to a broader landscape, wondering whether a single lifetime might suffice if one were to travel upstream as well. But I applaud his achievement of academic respect, perhaps the only kind of respect that is more than academic. Academe has, indeed, become a recent obsession of mine, but it was human society that formed my focus, not the insides of an animal’s gullet.

            So if none of these is me, then who am I? At one level the answer is easy and already I recognise that I am stretching the etiquette of the blogosphere by not having introduced myself at the start. We can all have endless fun speculating on who we are not! I am Donald Cottee, usually Don. I am sixty-four years old. I am not losing my hair: it dropped out years ago. My wife, Suzie, is still my valentine and our newly-adopted Spanish residency has assured a copious supply of wine. I don’t stay out late, never did, though in future, and together, Suzie and I might try a little town painting in the local clubs. So no cottage in the Isle of Wight for Don and Suzie, and no grandchildren either, it seems. I can’t explain. Dulcie, our daughter, seems happy enough these days, though things maternal never really seemed her priority. But Rosie, our motor home in a Benidorm caravan park, is precisely what we wanted, our years of scrimp and save thus having borne enough fruit to juice up a few final years.

            Suzie and I have been together, more or less, since our teens and she has never called me Donald, always Don, a title that here in Spain endows me with unexpected and undeserved kudos beyond imagination. Don is actually short for my nickname, my extra name, which Suzie coined. It was Eccles, in the dark cellar, who told Bluebottle that most people called him by his nickname. “What is it?” the lad asked. “Nick,” said Eccles. But mine is Don, short for Donkey, not Donald. To Suzie, I have always been a donkey. This hypocoristic label has nothing to do with an alliteration of Donald, or any loose consideration of homophone. It derives from my large, fleshy, usually shining, salivated lower lip. Suzie would see a donkey on the television, or a horse, hippo, moose, camel or llama for that matter, and pronounce with a mocking finger wag, “That’s you, Donkey.” Anything but a llama, I used to say. They have harelips. I did call foul at a similar reference applied to a rhino. I may often get horny, but my nose is a quite normal length, width and shape, firmly within one standard deviation of the mean for a man of my size and shape. And that, incidentally, is one metre seventy-eight in height and eighty-five kilos in weight. That’s five ten and thirteen stone five in real money.

            You may have already noticed that I like to be accurate. My memory instinctively opts for precision on the grounds that its products may be needed one day. This tendency has landed me in trouble as often as it has been a saving grace. But years of accuracy and manual dexterity with my soldering iron, my insulation-stripping clippers and scrutiny of colour-banded resistors have fostered both accuracy and precision. Donkey does things right and in the right way, but no doubt the onrushing sloth of retirement will calm my over-active brain and teach it to let things pass. “That will be the day,” I can hear Suzie say.

            Our latest pride, our trusty steed, is Rosie, our Swift Sundance, our motor home, now driven all the way from a Yorkshire village to a Benidorm plot. We’re hooked up to water and electricity, we have satellite television for the football and now, as of today, we are on-line, hence this, the first blog entry of a new era, Donkey Cottee’s blogosphere retirement. It’s no more hiking through the rain to the pub, no more dashing down to the chippy in the car, no more fighting along the aisles of Asda in the prefabricated retail park outside Bromaton. From now on it’s t-shirt and shorts, flip-flops, salad and wine, beach walks and blogging. Our trusty Rosie, our Swift Sundance, may be something of a rusty plodder, but a Sundance is what it promised and a dance in the sun is precisely what it has faithfully delivered. Nowadays the dance is of necessity a linearity of age rather than a twist of youth, though we still manage the occasional rock’n’roll, just for old times sake, even if it does leave the hips and knees grinding.

            As a youth I was too eager to twist, rather than stick. It was a chequered childhood: I know that now. I knew it before I was twenty-five, but by then I was already bust, committed, even over-committed to the whirring and ever-speeding treadmill of consumerism’s cage. I was married - to Suzie, of course - and Dulcie was ready to start school. We needed more money, our aspired lifestyle demanded it. Like everyone, we wanted to be something different, someone else. In those days it wasn’t done, of course, but, if we were young today, we would have been first in the queue for a new face, a new image, a new identity to put alongside the new car, the new house, the washer, the camera, the holiday, the carpet and the garden lounger, things we had to have but never paused to enjoy.

            How we strove to be who we wanted to be! But the acquisitive affluence that society demanded needed resources we didn’t have, entitlements to which we were not entitled. I had drifted along in my job, doing well, earning good money, but the words ‘have a rise’ never quite rhymed with our avarice, and money was always short. But then, one day, there was a chance of promotion. I applied for the job I had already been doing for a year, covering for Ted who had gone long-term sick. I knew I could do it. My mates knew I could do it. My boss knew I could do it. But management appointed a lad, straight out of college, a newly qualified entrant to the industry. He’d had sponsorship, I think it was called, a label that was only ever mentioned in hushed terms, like a disease you shouldn’t catch. But it was far from an impediment. It was nothing less than a privilege for the already privileged. It meant that the Coal Board had paid all his college fees, his upkeep, his books and probably his beer since the age of sixteen. There he came, clutching his HND, still hot off the press, a diploma both national and higher. Along with the sponsorship, that made three things he had that I didn’t, four if you include the piece of paper. And so I was passed over, but it was a pass-over where I supplied the identifying blood and where I became the sacrifice. And so I embarked on what has since become my life’s mission: education, the enlightenment of the mind, plastic surgery for the persona.

            I only had myself to blame, of course. I passed my scholarship. Mrs Brown saw to that. There were two classes at the top of Kiddington juniors, Mrs Brown’s and Mr Taylor’s. She was a fiery, smock-wearing matron, whose temper could make you shake at the flip of an unspoken word. He was a soft-spoken Burton-suited genial gent in his middle age, with leather patches on his dark green jacket elbows, dandruff on his shoulders and bad breath. In a contest between the two of them, she would have insisted on shouting “go” and he would have been third away.

            All the bright buttons of the village went to Mrs Brown. The snotty-nosed, dribbling, farting, lice-shaven, frayed-end, scruffy rabble went to Mr Taylor. There was always much talk of sheep and goats. I said I preferred pigs and chickens, but they never took me seriously. It was a distinction I failed to comprehend at the time. Having already lost the basis of Christianity and with it the automatic association of sheep with the faithful, laudable flock, and goats with the opposition, I became doubly confused by Mrs Brown’s clandestine socialist subversion. You see, despite her professional insistence that we should all achieve the sheep status that entry to her class ought to endow, she regularly confused us by sharing her farmer’s daughter experience that sheep tended to follow blindly, whereas goats often practised independent thinking. Thus, she would tell us, she would rather see us become goats rather than sheep, thus inverting received values we hadn’t yet received. And I have remained confused ever since. At the time, the idea that Mrs Brown might even have borne a carnal respect for the animal never entered my head. Worship is a strangely human state. So, thus inverted, we became Mrs Brown’s goats, and, contrary to the divinely desired and naturally revered flock, we became a working-class inversion, transformed into independent-minded, perhaps subversive kids, Mrs Brown’s locally privileged goats in contrast to Mr Taylor’s predictable, second-class sheep.

            When Mrs Brown’s goats practised their fractions for the umpteenth time, Mr Taylor’s ovines were out gardening. Well, at least the boys were. The girls were probably elsewhere learning to wash and iron. While goats recited tables, forwards, backwards and at random, there was touch and pass for rams and rounders for ewes. Goats wrote essays, while sheep copied from the board. When goats studied the Roman Empire, sheep returned to that sojourn of the infant school, desktop sleep, head placed comfortably to the side, resting on folded arms, eyes no doubt surreptitiously staring out the most recent playground target.

            Mrs Brown’s goats, of course, were being prepared for the eleven plus, or Galton’s Pleasure, as I prefer to call it, that enshrinement in rationally-justified science of Britain’s feudal class system. Mr Taylor’s sheep were being schooled for life minus, the goats for life plus, a grading for life, if that’s the right word to describe what might be left after Galton had taken his prurient pleasure. Plus-graded goats headed for a grammar school, complete with Latin and French, while sheep were branded with the equally obnoxious pair of labels, secondary and modern. Rams would practise the skills of metal and wood that British industry had already exported, while the ewes were confined to the practice washing of plastic babies in an era when the birth rate would drop to historical lows as the command of the dual domestic income sent most women out to work. Goats, for the most part, at least in terms of what they read or wrote, were sexless.

            But I passed, achieved my goat status along with twenty others from Mrs Brown’s class, the nine who didn’t subsequently being referred to as ‘tailored’ by the exam. That year two of Mr Taylor’s class actually passed. God knows how.

            So I went off to the grammar school in Bromaton. It meant having a uniform, and that had to be bought. Just one shop had the franchise. It was called The Queen’s in The Springs, that gentle incline of a street that skirted the cathedral. It was an unfortunate name for the lads, since every year the ovine rejects would goad the goats with bent wrists, swinging hips and creamy voices, asking whether they had yet been to The Queen’s. When you shouted at them, saying it was because you had an IQ, they would retort their version, which was ‘indisputable queen’. The street is a precinct now, a word that when I went there for my school blazer and cap, we only knew from the scripts of black and white American cop shows. And what stupid hats they used to wear!

            Going to The Queen’s in August was a village ritual. It marked you out as different, determined which friends you would keep, and which would reject you. The chosen would advertise their anointment by going to the chip shop in their new uniform, complete with their silly quartered or target caps, just to show off. The kids hated it, but the parents seemed to lap up the status. Whenever I see mutton-dressed-as-lamb middle-class women with an haute coiffeur miniature dog in tow, I am reminded of that annual parade of newly uniformed Kiddington kids being pulled along by their mothers.

            There were two primary schools in Kiddington, ours, the large, newer one, and an old church school with too few children to have a class per year. It’s been demolished, its triangular plot large enough only for a single house. The kids who went there, sent more out of tradition than choice, had about zero chance of learning anything. Half the time they had to look after the younger ones in the same class while the teacher marked books. But pass some of them did. Kiddington’s Galton Pleasure roll each year was probably about seventy-five, of whom twenty-odd passed. It wasn’t a bad show for a mining village, I later learned. It still meant that two-thirds of the population went economically in the direction of the slag heaps that surrounded our pit.

            “Of course we’ll have to go to The Queen’s in the holiday,” was a phrase that successful parents bandied around the village after the results came out. In the queue at the chippy, in the queue at the butcher’s, in the queue at the bus stop, in the queue for the one-armed bandit in the Working Men’s Club, “Of course, we’ll have to go to The Queen’s in the holiday,” would rise above the babble of village gossip, intoned loud enough to ensure even the distant might hear. Ribs would be nudged, eyes would glance their momentary lift skyward and “Hark at her” would be whispered aitchless by those whose families had been branded secondary and modern.

            Except in the famous and still recalled case of Mrs Turner, of course... She made a right laughing stock of herself and her family by anticipating the result. Whether she had married into poverty was never clear, but her aspirations were forever above her status. Whenever she asked, in a plummy-vowelled, tight-lipped voice full of cream for strips of ‘stomach’ pork in Elseley’s, the butcher, the mimicking titter that would ripple round the queue was nothing less than memorable, no matter how many times you had heard it.

            Her husband, a stooping, tweed-suited, wiry man with a thin black moustache, a cowering manner and a body volume about a quarter of his wife’s, suffered terribly. Without his knowledge, Mrs Turner had taken Galton’s Pleasure for granted and fitted out young Adrian at The Queen’s long before the results were known, before he had taken the test, long before they learned he had failed. The father hardly spoke for six months, and never showed his face in the village, except to catch the bus towards Gagstone at the stop at the end of the common, the stop hardly anyone else used. His ploy worked because the bus was always full by the time it reached the end of the village, meaning that he had to hang on to the rail on the conductor’s platform at the back, the noise of the road across the open space precluding any social contact with his fellow Kiddingtonians.

            The son, Adrian, suffered the real butt of the communal joke, however, and found himself branded for the rest of his life. He had to leave Kiddington in the end. He couldn’t stand listening again and again to “Oh, yes, you’re the one whose mother went to The Queen’s and…” He would try to stop listening, but you could see the hurt in his face, a hurt inflicted for life by nothing more than an untimely purchase of clothing, clothing that proclaimed a status that was not his to claim.

            Adrian had been in Mrs Brown’s class, and a dead cert for the cert, so to speak. Mummy took Galton’s Pleasure for granted. Every weekend he was instructed to wear the barathea blazer she so proudly bought, on tic no doubt, so that he could be paraded up the road by the common, tugged determinedly by the hand by his leading mother. The knife-edge pressed grey turn-upped flannels accompanied, as did the quartered cap in blue and brown. All of us lads in those days used to wear shorts, by the way. I didn’t go into long trousers until I was fifteen! So there went Adrian, resplendent in his new uniform, a spick and span member of the class to which his mother aspired. And the poor bugger failed! Oops! I used a non-word…

            Adrian couldn’t show his face for weeks. While the rest of the anointed goats paraded their Queen’s purchases through the village and the sacrificed sheep publicly gathered, he stayed firmly locked indoors. “Is Adrian coming out to play, Mrs Turner,” delivered by conspirators with convincing innocence across the doorstep, presented respectably, yellow-edged with scouring stone, would elicit the curt response, “He’s poorly,” and inside he would stay. They kept it up for the whole summer. You could see the curtain twitch as Adrian peeked out to see who was asking after him. Eventually he did transfer from his secondary and modern to the grammar, one of the few that made the impossible dash. You had a better chance of crossing the Berlin Wall than passing the thirteen plus, but Adrian did it. These days he would have been diagnosed dyslexic, syndromed into a corner, boxed into a stereotype, excused his birthright, but back then he was simply given the second chance that most dismissed. By then, of course, he had long outgrown the barathea and the flannels, and anyway he was already into long trousers, unlike most of us, his mother convinced he was mature beyond his years. As far as I know, the original uniform is still in his wardrobe. His mother was too proud to offer it second hand and probably afraid to throw it away, since its unread name tags had been dutifully attached at every specified place.

            But now, from the perspective of a life lived, I can see that we Kiddington lads were out of place at the grammar. The girls at the high fared better, basically because the ladies found it easier to adopt airs and graces, even if they later rubbed off just as quickly. I did all right. I was never top of anything, and never at the bottom either. There were O-levels to take at sixteen, but I, along with most of my Kiddington mates, left at fifteen to go down the pit, because the local competition we had entered had already been won, and that was the limit of our ambition. We had taken Galton’s Pleasure and were neither secondary nor modern, blissfully unaware of any competition beyond Kiddington’s borders. So apprentices we became. We learned a trade, that essential adjunct to the human being that would not only automatically assure an income, but also, by virtue of endowing title and role to a name, would supply an individual identity. Any idea that we might ‘stay on’ and train as solicitors, bank managers or even teachers never entered our heads. It wasn’t for the likes of us. You tried to stay clear of the law and most Kiddington people were paid in cash, solicitors and bank managers thus being generally associated with life’s problems, not its advantages. There were always a couple of Kiddington kids who broke this mould, but usually they were from the big houses at the top of West Lane and they went to the toffee-nosed schools in Punslet, or that other one, orbiting in its own universe, a place where people paid for education, a dimension the rest of us could not even imagine.

            But then it’s all different now. I have that piece of paper I needed all those years ago. I’ve studied my units, done as the great course designer has deemed, jumped hoops, hurdled intellectual challenges like a pro. I now have my honours and can proudly attach BA to my name, courtesy of The University Of The Air. We used to joke, Suzie and I, with her parents, who used to tell her that she should get a BA. We told them that she already had one, if it stood for big arse. Oops, there’s another one… Anyway, we wanted to get married and she was pregnant straight away. Dulcie was the sweetness of our life.

            I have overstated my welcome … and I am going to be told off for my non-e language[1]. I blog. You blog. He, she or it blogs, but not too much. Enough.