Horror in the Barbers’ (the story of a boy’s haircuts). Cert 18.

21 Jul

I am four years old and my mother has delivered me across the main road into Mr Middlemiss’s barber’s shop on the corner of Robinson Street for my first haircut that doesn’t involve a bowl and a pair of kitchen scissors.  Naturally, I am both inquisitive and also slightly apprehensive (though I don’t realise this at the time having never previously encountered either of these words).

Mr M shows us towards the largest chair I’ve ever seen and then, for good measure, places a padded box on top of that before perching me on the box.  He adds to the general air of anxiety by vigorously pumping the hydraulics of the chair without warning.  I am now so far off the ground that altitude sickness is starting to kick in and the precipitous drop (several times my entire height) only compounds the terror of the impending procedure.

Mr Middlemiss is considerably older than me (at around one hundred) and his scissors are even older than that.  He proceeds not to cut my hair as much as to tear it out by the roots before seizing my right arm and applying the electric trimmers to my quivering flesh: “you see Nicholas, these won’t cut you – but they do make a lot of noise.”  Thanks for that Mr M – maybe next time, demonstrate on a part of your own anatomy first?

In the coming months, I grew accustomed to the frequent assaults from Mr Middlemiss until we eventually left Little Harwood and my mother’s ‘Wool & Drapery’ shop for pastures (and barbers) new.  Over the years I frequented ladies’ hairdressers with my mother and sister after school, Ernesto the Italian barber in the town centre and various others until my teens when my mother discovered Martin.

Martin’s shop was around four miles from our home and this required a journey by car.  Naturally, I was only delivered to the shop on Saturday mornings when it was busier than a nest of wild bees in high summer.  I would be deposited on the pavement and collected an hour and a half later to ensure that I would have snaked my way through the endless queue.  There were no mobile telephones to enable a quick “I’m done, come and pick me up” call.

Other than the incessant noise of Red Rose Radio’s menu of endless pop music (which I hated) the shop was deathly silent because talking, evidently, was not allowed.  There was no: “how would you like it doing?” nor even the ubiquitous “do you have any holidays planned?” just a nod in your general direction, a theatrical flourish of the gown (like a scissors-wielding matador) and then the procedure itself, rounded off by scraping the top layers of skin from your neck with an unsterilised cut-throat razor.  Everyone left Martin’s shop looking the same, for to the best of my knowledge, he only knew how to undertake the one cut.  I would then retire to the bench and sit out the remaining fifty minutes waiting for my lift home.

I hated the whole event from beginning to end and so was completely nonplussed when my mother announced that I needed a haircut in mid December.  Having only endured the ordeal a fortnight earlier I’d been hoping that I might last until mid January.  “Don’t be stupid,” she replied “it’s Christmas.  You know very well why you need a haircut for Christmas.”  I didn’t.  I still don’t.

Eventually, having passed my driving test, I was sent off to Martin in the car on my own.  Thank goodness I wouldn’t have to sit there waiting for a lift home.  Driving myself was to be my salvation and I would never again dread my haircuts.  The queue was longer than ever and it must have been forty minutes before I even came close to its head.  The telephone rang, shattering the stillness in the shop.  Martin stopped scalping the unfortunate youth ahead of me, everyone looked up from their copies of The Sun and even Jason Donovan paused his crooning on Red Rose Radio.  Martin picked up the ‘phone and listened intently.  Would he actually be capable of speech?  Nodding, he turned to the assembled in the shop:

“Is there a Nicholas Palmerley here?  Your Mum’s on the ‘phone she says you’ve never been out in the car on your own before and she’s worried you’ve had an accident.”  Cheeks burning, I surreptitiously raised one shy finger.  A thousand sniggering men tittered then dropped their eyes back to page three and a small part of me died.

As an adult, haircuts are so much more pleasant.  Paula drops around to my home every three weeks or so and we sit chatting comfortably in the conservatory, a glass of wine at hand.  After 34 years and the tyranny of Mr Middlemiss, Martin and accomplices, I have finally come to enjoy the procedure – just as my hair is rapidly receding, haircutting time is short and I must look to the future.


Hilda Townsend – a tribute to a remarkable lady

12 Jul

Hilda Townsend relaxes with (on) Jack

Hilda Gertrude Doran was born into a world on the brink of plunging into the turbulence of the Great War. It is remarkable that one of her earliest childhood memories should have been of seeing Zeppelin airships over Manchester.

On 11th July, 1940 she married Harry Townsend and the couple went on to have two daughters and a son. Whilst in hospital herself, she learned that her husband was also an inpatient (in another institution) and was gravely ill. A couple of days later she was simply informed of his death leaving her a single parent of three young children in a pre-benefits, much less tolerant society.

She would often speak of her early life, always with a cheerful smile as if looking back with fondness on some halcyon time, rather than describing the day-to-day hardships which I suspect few of us would be equipped to cope with in 2012. Reminiscing was a favourite pastime and those of us who knew her will always remember the tale of her sweeping the board in the winemaking competition, a ubiquitous story, sequel to the phrase: “I used to make wine, you know”.

In the near eleven years I knew her I never once heard her speak ill of anyone (or anything), nor complain of aches and pains. She delighted in spending time with her family (despite being so hard of hearing that 95% of all social occasions must have passed her by) and even into her ninth decade she could be found “looking after the old dears” in a local day centre. Well into her nineties, she fell and broke her hip. Visiting her in Leicester Royal Infirmary I wondered if she would recover her health or whether this assault on her frailty would spell the beginning of the end (as it has done for so many of my patients). My fears proved unfounded and she made a remarkable recovery.

Until the final few months of her life she lived mostly alone in her own home (spending time with her daughters at intervals) with a razor-sharp mind born of years of reading, meeting people and extensive travel. Her visits to our house were always enjoyable – “Can I get you a cup of tea or coffee?” would most likely be answered by: “I’ll have a glass of wine, dear”.

She always struck me as something of a Queen Victoria-type figure, the well-spoken matriarch at the head of a huge extended family, but unlike the distant monarch she was simply “Nanna” to children, grandchildren and latterly, great grandchildren. A year or so after we met she said to me one day: “I’d like to be your Nanna too if you’ll have me, Nick?” It was an honour to have been asked and quite simply a privilege to have been able to accept and to know such a remarkable person.

Hilda Townsend, born 19th February, 1913, died in hospital on what would have been her 72nd wedding anniversary, 11th July, 2012.

The British trousers the weather cannot spoil

7 Jul

There can be few things in life as sickening as the slow realisation that the chair you’ve just sat in in the nursing home was slightly damp and that someone else’s urine is now slowly soaking its way through your trousers and underwear headed towards your snuff dry thighs. You spend the rest of the day with a uriniferous odour invading your nostrils at intervals.  Is it really there?  Do I really smell like a public lavatory in late July?  Is it just my imagination?  Does the word ‘uriniferous’ really exist?

Many ‘do I smell of stale piss?’ hours later you head home desperate for a shower, a change of clothes (and a change of nursing home).  Many of us working in the caring professions will have similar contamination incidents to recall which is why I now purchase trousers impregnated with Febreze cotton-fresh and wear PVC underwear to cover all eventualities.

In recent weeks however, I’ve been able to revert to the much simpler tactic of wearing full sou’wester on sorties beyond the confines of the surgery.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Met’ Office inform us that we’ve had a summer that’s wetter than a Cliff Richard Christmas song and happily, waterproof clothing is now available in tweed.  The ‘fallout’ from Vera’s urinary tract infection as well as that from clouds more dark and foreboding than the prospect of compulsory attendance at a two hour fire lecture are now amply taken care of.

Our dog Jack doesn’t seem to mind the prospect of a walk in the rain which is surprising considering that he’s hairier than a female wrestler from the Ukraine and soaks up water like a giant canine microfibre cloth.  This afternoon we came home with horizontal rain blowing in our faces – me gritting my teeth and adjusting the visor on the mobility scooter and Jack happily trotting along, occasionally sniffing my trousers for some reason.  Once dried off in the porch he looks like Toyah Wilcox on a bad hair day – but that’s easily fixed after an hour with the GHD straighteners.  (I was joking about the mobility scooter).

This year, on the one hand, we’re all thoroughly disappointed with what passes for our “summer” because we feel cheated that day after day we suffer endless dark skies, wind and rain.  On the other, we’re delighted that we can commiserate with each other, moaning endlessly in the way only the British can.  And do.

Last week a patient dashed into the surgery exclaiming: “I got caught in a shower – I’m piss wet through!” Believe me – until you’ve sat in the ‘throne of urine’ in Vera’s nursing home, you have no idea what ‘piss wet through’ means.

The Furry Biker’s Cookbook

29 May
Jack Shepherd explores a North Yorkshire delicacy in an extract from his forthcoming Furry Biker’s Cookbook

I’ve been travelling the length and breadth of the UK in recent months looking for exciting new recipes to tickle the canine tastebuds for my new TV Series The Furry Biker.  In Wales, the Welsh Rabbit was disappointing (owing to a distinct lack of rabbit), and in Edinburgh, the omelette didn’t go exactly to plan (must have been something to do with the Scotch eggs).  The BBC looked at me as if I was mad when I suggested a trip to Venice to try some venison sausage (and suggested I might like to look in on North Korea instead) but I’ve managed to scrape together one or two dishes which have gone down a storm.

My labrador friend e-mailed what looks like a lovely recipe last week and I’ve been dying to try it: feline daube with prunes (a lovely slow-cooked dish done with onions, a little red wine and a twist of garlic) but fresh cat is proving so difficult to get hold of and frozen just isn’t the same.  So I’ve fallen back on an old favourite which I do hope you’ll try (it’s delicious with a Nottage Hill Cabernet Shiraz – £4.98, ASDA):

Dessicated frog with a grass and sheep dung salad


1 or 2 dessicated frogs

A pawful of well-sniffed grass

Fresh sheep dung

Gravy bone garnish (optional)

Cooking time

Just as long as it takes your owner to realise what you’re doing, tell you off and steer you away with a gentle pull on your lead




1.  Rip apart one dessicated frog – now they’ve filled the pond in these are relatively easy to get hold of (if your pond is still full of copulating amphibians however, then you could try: http://www.driedfrog.co.uk).  You could use toad – but they lack the piquancy and aren’t quite as stretchy.

2.  Sniff some tufts of grass on your walk – you can get away with this quite easily because they think you’re looking for somewhere to squat – and rip off a few mouthfuls of stale old grass that a cat peed on yesterday (if you’re not bothered about dressing on your salad you can omit the urine).

3.  Wolf down a bite-sized piece of fresh sheep dung as you’re walking across the field.  This should be done in one slick move like swallowing an oyster – don’t chew.  This time of year they’re rich and tasty and slightly smaller from the lambs.  You will need to make sure that your owners have forgotten that you do this and don’t have you on a short lead to prevent it.

4.  Ignore the sound of your owner vomiting with disgust behind you.

I like to serve this dish as a light snack between meals, ideally as a simple, yet wholesome starter before dinner.  After all, everyone knows that a quick G&T (grass and turd) before supper makes a wonderful aperitif.  Enjoy.

The Furry Biker, 7.30 pm BBC 5, Tuesday 5th June.  Thankfully, NOT in HD.

Home broadband – a journey into the unknown

19 May

Some time in the early 2000s I recall thinking that it might be quite fun to have access to this internet thing that everyone was chattering about in the media.  To be honest, I couldn’t really see much point but I’d heard that there was plenty to read and wonder at and with the recent cancellation of the British Journal of Labrador & Tweed decided it was worthy of cautious exploration.

Being ever the victim of fashion I travelled to our local retail park one Saturday and spent around £1000 (equivalent to £1.25m in 2012) on a brand new Apple iMac which promised “out of the box connecticity” to the world wide web.  I was not to be disappointed: within mere months I was happily listening to the sound of my modem dialling some  unfeasibly long number then passing a happy hour watching the screen build an early version of the BBC News website (in truth a photocopy of the script from the previous night’s Nine o’clock News).

Dial-up internet had all the speed and dynamism of a hibernating tortoise, but though we may mourn the fact that these crepuscular reptiles are no longer readily available in the UK, I suspect few of us miss the demise of the discordant modem contacting our ISP whilst we whiled away the long hours waiting for a connection (I can still remember the “tune” the infuriating thing “played” as it taunted me with line-by-line BBC website striptease).

Some time later I registered my interest with BT in their upgrade of our local telephone exchange so that we might be treated to the wonders of broadband.  We needed only 4 million local signatories before this could happen (one of whom had to be the Secretary General of the United Nations) – but incredibly it did and I was soon checking my bank balance, sending e-mails (with actual attachments) and perusing the schedule of our local cinema all on the same day from the comfort of my spare bedroom.  It was wondrous.

Eventually a change of job meant that the time came to move house.  It’s true that our new residence was somewhat rural, but BT assured me that the wonderful new broadband would still be available.  Imagine my despair on discovering that this had been a mere conspiracy (I suspect the estate agent had bribed them to falsely reassure us) and that we were once again back to the jingly-jangly world of dial-up, interminable waiting and frustrating dropped connections.

One Saturday morning I logged on to a comparison website searching for cheaper home insurance.  After several hours of entering personal details and waiting for screens to load, Norwich Union was returned as the company for us.  I think it might very well have been less time-consuming to actually drive the 400 miles to Norwich and back to obtain my quote in person.  I complained to BT and eventually the broadband signal was switched on to our property.

To say our new broadband was slow was something of an understatement – I’ve seen funeral processions move faster – and the joys of You Tube and the BBC’s iPlayer were a long way out of reach, but at least it wasn’t dial-up and I could just about send an e-mail without printing it out, putting it in an envelope and sticking a second class stamp in the top right hand corner.

One day, we unexpectedly received a letter from local celebrity and leisure industry tycoon Carol Bowe teasing us with the prospect of superfast broadband in our area.  Could it really be true?  Could we possibly join the rest of the UK in the new millenium?  Could Carol consider staying in the UK without jetting off on holiday long enough to actually make it happen?

Detail from the album cover of “The Best of Nick Hall, 20 Enchanting Love Songs”

Eventually we were lured to a public meeting attended by interested locals, Ms Bowe and her personal staff, North Yorkshire County Council’s NyNet team, CNN & Reuters and Nick Hall of Clannet whose company specialises in delivering broadband to rural areas of Yorkshire. It transpired that many attendees didn’t really understand the concept of Nick Hall beaming signals from property to property providing our own superfast network and linking back to NyNet’s optical fibre from a local school and thought that the term “broadband” referred to six middle-aged rockers who’d let themselves go a bit.  After enduring questions such as “so would this mean that my computer would start up faster when I switch it on?” and “the timer on my immersion heater’s stopped working, could you possibly come and have a look at it?” I’d had enough and brought matters to a close by asking: “where do I sign?”

Working with Carol as our indefatigable broadband champion and Nick whose energy and enthusiasm are quite simply matchless, we formed the steering committee of The Vale Of Mowbray Community Broadband Project and within weeks receivers and transmitters were installed on our properties beaming broadband signals around our corner of North Yorkshire with fulminating speed.  Nick’s commitment to our project (which has included dropping everything to repair downed transmitters on weekends and bank holidays) has been astonishing and those of us now enjoying catching up with iPlayer and QVC’s Today’s Special Value have much to be grateful for.

As I sit in my study happily comparing insurance quotes at breakneck speed I wonder what my internet-naive self would have thought had I been able to look twelve years into the future, seeing a world without noisy external modems, scanners, CD-ROM and floppy disk drives to a time when I could happily post cheesy home-made videos to You Tube (and to those in the know, I’m saying nothing about ducks, constipated or otherwise).

Jack Shepherd in Vet Dash Drama

12 May

BESTSELLING writer Jack Shepherd was rushed to the vet by flunkies on Tuesday evening, writes Al Sation, for attention to his foot.

The type of ambulance that was not used to transport Shepherd

The type of ambulance that was not used to transport Shepherd

Shepherd, 4, author of multi-million selling GSD Rescue, From Rags to Royal Cannin and the smash-hit sequel Settling In: The Story of a Shepherd in Pastures New was taken for attention to his right front paw this week after sustaining undisclosed injuries.

Jack Shepherd was not available for comment today at his £120 luxury kennel, agent Nick Palmerley refused to answer reporters’ questions and we’re having great difficulty cracking his voicemail.


A spokesman at the Betty Ford Veterinary Clinic near the writer’s North Yorkshire home said: “We can confirm that Mr Shepherd attended on Tuesday evening with a minor injury.  Our client received a light sedative and a small procedure was performed.  He left in good spirits the same evening and thanked the surgical team and attending nurses for their attention.  He is progressing well and there is no reason for concern.”

The spokesman would not be drawn on the nature of the injury, but a clinic insider said: “Jack ripped open his right front dew claw whilst chasing a cat in the garden.  The claw was removed and the area cleaned.  He’s fine and was sitting up joking with 2 labradors and a chihuahua an hour later.  He was an absolute gentleman – just like an ordinary dog really.”

A passer-by who fancied a few quid and says he  saw Shepherd leave added: “he walked calmly out to the waiting car with his chauffeur, jumped in the back and was driven off.  You’d never have thought there was anything wrong.”


If true, this wouldn’t be the first time that Shepherd has encountered difficulties with cats.  Last year police dog sources report that he was cautioned for chasing a cat across the garden from the pond down to the vegetable patch, and in front of the conservatory to the fence where  it made a lucky and nimble escape.

Celebrity vet’ Trude Mostue didn’t say: “Dew claw injuries are relatively easy to sort, they just need trimming off and as long as the owners keep the area clean bathing with salt water twice daily, the claw should recover in a couple of weeks.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by an issue covered in this article, please contact the BBC Action Line on 0800  110 100 in complete confidence (or leave a comment in the box below).

My name is Nick and I have a problem. I’m a history addict.

29 Apr

There comes a time when you consider that perhaps you should ‘give something back.’  No, I’m not coughing to having been a serial thief over the years with a penchant for stuffing boxes of Shredded Wheat under my sweater in Tesco (which would make me a cereal thief – with a very baggy jumper), I’m referring to doing something for nothing for once.  So far, I’ve spent 6 years at university learning the basics of my trade then the following 14 actually doing it.  For money.  Wouldn’t it be nice I thought, to undertake some form of voluntary activity to benefit the wider community?

Since January 2011, I’ve tried various different activities, some with more success than others.  It’s true that being a boxing coach at our local gym’ didn’t quite work out as I thought it might, teaching contemporary dance in the adult education centre in town wasn’t much better, and though I felt that organising the fashion show for our local sixth form A’-level textile and design group was somewhat more successful I’m informed that tweed might not be a la mode this year (or indeed this century) after all.  How was I to know?

Last year my sister-in-law invited us to accompany the family to Kiplin Hall, near Richmond to see the Victorian Christmas decorations.  We accepted and set off expecting little more than a relatively pleasant day out viewing a few sprigs of holly and a tired old tree with perhaps a cup of tea and a scone to liven up an otherwise adequate afternoon out.  We were wrong.

If you haven’t been to Kiplin, you should.  Built as a hunting lodge in the 1620s by Sir George Calvert (later first Baron Baltimore and founder of Maryland) the hall passed through purchase and inheritance over the centuries to the custody of The Kiplin Hall Trust on its final owner’s death in 1971.  There you go: four hundred years of history in a sentence.  I could go on, in fact I usually do but I’m thinking if you’ve made it this far then I’m not going to push my luck.

Today Kiplin is presented as it might have looked in Victorian times.  It is light and cosy, warm because of its conservation-grade central heating system and filled with homely furniture and paintings, all of which comes together to make the visitor feel as if the family are just waiting to welcome you in the next room (and if you believe the ghost stories surrounding the place, they very well might be).

I’ve been to other grand houses to view their Christmas decorations and been disappointed if I’m honest, but we enjoyed Kiplin’s so much we returned the following week with the other side of the family.  On this occasion, the Warden (Elaine’s) mother (a sprightly octogenarian called Pauline with a razor-sharp sense of humour and the upper-body strength of a professional wrestler) threatened me with physical violence if I didn’t request a volunteer application form before leaving the building.  In my weakened state (having been released from the head-lock) I acquiesced and after managing to find referees who knew nothing of my time ‘inside’ as an international country house art thief, started work on 1st April as a room steward in the library.

I admit to having found the whole experience of volunteering testing at times.  We’ve pestered Dawn (the Curator) for information on each room prior to our attendance (in order to avoid the embarrassment of not knowing that it was Bartolommeo Nazzari who painted the Venetian courtesans in the library – could you even imagine the shame?), learnt the secrets of Mary’s award-winning tearoom and I’ve wrestled with the intricacies of the till (an antique model collected in Livorno by Christopher Crowe and dating from 1734).

If like me, you could cheerfully live in a stately home, immersing yourself in four hundred years of history and would enjoy the pleasure of meeting others of a similar persuasion then you could do a lot worse than volunteering in your local historic house.  I’ve loved every minute of it despite all the revision at home over the past few weeks learning my Crowes from my Carpenters and my de Morgans from my Willements and in truth, I can’t wait to get back there on Wednesday for another fix.  If you’re in the area, do drop in and say hello – though I will sell you a guidebook and a piece of date flapjack because at Kiplin, Mary really does make exceedingly good cakes.

Kiplin Hall, near Scorton, Richmond, North Yorkshire, DL10  6AT. Telephone 01748  818178, e-mail: info@kiplinhall.co.uk.  Open: Sunday to Wednesday 2 – 5 pm until 31st October, 2012 (tearoom from 10 am for lunches and light refreshments).

Images of hall and library © Kiplin Hall.