Frozen in an F1 Barbecue Summer

When I first started this blog a few years back I used to post pretty randomly but after reading up and subscribing to a few blogging experts I felt that I should decide on a regular time to post. I chose 10am on a Saturday morning. The great thing about having that particular slot is that I can focus my writing towards it, it’s almost like being a professional writer and having a deadline for a newspaper or magazine column. The flip side is that when I’m not so well or haven’t any ideas I start worrying. What will I write about? What if I cant think of anything? So far everything has gone pretty well, the deadline actually gets me motivated to write. Maybe I need a deadline to help me with the follow up to Floating in Space!

Just then the phone rang. I checked my mobile and it was my editor, Issy Readiyet.

‘Issy, how are you?’

‘Steve, I’m great, how’s your new post coming? Is it ready yet?’

‘Well, I’m still working on it Issy, it’s still in the err developmental stage. I’ve got a working title though.’

‘What is it?’

‘Frozen in summer.’

‘What? That sounds a little cryptic. Not sure the readers would go for that. What’s it about?’

‘Well, it’s still a work in progress but it’s summer, and it’s really hot and I’ve got this . . .’

‘What?’

‘Well, I’ve still got a sore shoulder. A frozen shoulder . .’

‘Oh Steve, you’re not still on about that trapped nerve and the shoulder pain? Haven’t you written about that already?’

‘Well, yes but I think there’s still a little mileage in there and I could do with a little . .’

‘Sympathy? Come on, snap out of it Steve. Call yourself a writer? I need some copy and don’t forget we’ve got to sort out the graphics and images and maybe search for some video links. It’s not easy being an editor you know! Get on with it and don’t forget to change that title!’

I would have said ‘bye Issy’ but I was already listening to a dial tone.

Up here in the north west of England it’s been a hot week and last weekend it was one of the highlights of the year for me, the British Grand Prix. Here in the UK Formula One racing can only be seen live on Sky TV. I do have Sky, the basic Sky but being a member of that ancient and revered order, the order of tightwads, I really cannot break my solemn oath and just go and randomly pay for an expensive TV F1 package. The only alternative of course is to watch the highlights on Channel 4, the only terrestrial channel that broadcasts F1.

The big bonus for the British Grand Prix though is that it’s live, yes, actually live on Channel 4, and not only that, they are showing the practice sessions, the qualifying, (my favourite part) the sprint race (something new) as well as the actual race live. It’s the only race Channel 4 are allowed to broadcast live so as I have done a great deal of moaning about only getting to see the highlights I should be happy, shouldn’t I? Finally seeing an F1 race live in this new 2021 season which has been a great improvement on previous rather dull seasons. The flip side to this is that just lately a lovely summer has settled down on us here in the north west of England. Do I really want to be sat inside watching F1? Should I just record it and watch it later? That would defeat the object wouldn’t it? After all, as a true F1 fan I should really be watching it live.

Because of Covid and now also because of my sore shoulder (did I mention the trapped nerve and my shoulder pain?) we haven’t used our motorhome much this year. We did have a run out to Yorkshire a while back and a pub stop over before that but otherwise the only trip was a run out to the garage for the MOT. Liz had bought a small portable gas barbecue ready for our travels and it was lying unused in the corner so we thought it was time to give it a trial run.

(Editor’s note: Barbecues? Where are we going with this?) I do like barbecues but the flip side is that they are dirty and smelly and greasy. I always start off with some dry wood, pack in the charcoal and light up with some firelighters. Sometimes we’ll get a slow burner barbecue so we end up supping too much wine while we wait for things to get going. Other times we’ll get the reverse, a barbecue that catches quickly and voom, goes off in a big hot burn. That’s usually when we are expecting a slow burner and are still finishing off the salad and so when we sit down I realise I’m going to have to slap all the meat on quickly before the coals burn themselves out. The really annoying thing is when we are in the motorhome and I realise that after the barby has finished, I am somehow going to have to clean this horrible, greasy mess and get it packed away so we can move on.

So how have things gone with the gas barby? Pretty smoothly actually. None of that messing about with the coals and lighter fluid. The portable job snaps quickly together, slap in the calor gas cylinder, press the starter and hey presto, we are ready to barbecue. The other great thing about this one is that there is a water reservoir that catches all the grease and fat. Just swill that away somewhere in a corner of the garden, a quick wipe with a paper towel and we are all ready for next time. Barbecuing with gas, I love it!

(Editor’s note: you’re not giving me much here that can be linked to a film clip or video. We need some visual content to liven up this post!) Ok Issy, calm down, how about this: Author Ian Fleming had some trouble with his back and actually incorporated the experience into one of the James Bond books, Thunderball. Bond gets sent to a health farm called Shrublands. There, the inquisitive 007 notices a fellow guest has an interesting tattoo on his hand and decides to contact headquarters to see if they recognise it. The guest overhears this and decides Bond needs to be taught a lesson. The opportunity arises when Bond is placed on a traction machine that is supposed to stretch Bond’s back, just the sort of treatment I need! Anyway while Bond is on the machine it is suddenly ramped up to high speed and nearly breaks Bond’s back. Luckily Bond is rescued in time but later gets his revenge. That traction machine clearly made an impression on Ian Fleming.

I was so engrossed in the easy preparation for our upcoming barbecue I forgot about the Grand Prix. At about 4pm, a full hour after it started I went inside to see what was happening. One of the great inventions in the world of TV has to be hard drive recording. Don’t you just love it? You can actually start watching the race or indeed any programme while it is still recording. I started with the race build up and fast forwarded through all the team baloney about how the mechanics and engineers and everyone back at the factory had done a great job, blah blah blah. Paused for a moment when I thought will anyone actually say anything controversial? No was the answer.

I did stop for a moment with Daniel Riccardo, the Australian driver. Looking at his race team fireproof top and all the advertising on there I started to wonder whether it actually does those advertisers any good, sponsoring an F1 team? I mean who or what is Splunk? What do they do? What product do they make or what service do they provide? I’ve no idea, so do all the millions they pump into McLaren ever get a return? Does anyone think: Daniel had their logo on his shirt, I’ll buy their product? Nah, doubt it.

Ok, they have got their name in front of the public but they need to do a little more to start making use of that.

(Editor’s note: So how was the Grand Prix by the way?) Sorry Issy. After fast forwarding through the usual baloney which I must admit I quite used to like, we finally got to the nitty gritty. The green flag was waved, the red lights went out and Hamilton and Verstappen dived straight away into a great wheel to wheel battle. When they reached Copse corner, the two went for the same piece of tarmac and Verstappen was off into the barrier and Lewis lost his nose wing but managed to continue. That left Leclerc in the Ferrari out in front. Fast forward through all the accusations and counter accusations -Max was too aggressive, Lewis was too aggressive- blah blah blah. Lewis was able to take the restart but Max sadly wasn’t, his car being a total wreck. The race restarted and Lewis chased Leclerc all the way to the end of the race, took a ten second penalty and still won. An OK race and despite fast forwarding through most of it, it was quite exciting although as soon as Lewis took the chequered flag I was off out back to the sun.

Yes, Grand Prix out of the way and it was time to relax. A bottle of merlot had been warming gently in the sun and now it was time to test the wine. Liz poured our drinks and we took a sip, yes it was a cheeky little Spanish number, easy on the palate and just right to serve with steak, sausages, burgers and small kebabs all of which were on the menu that day. The great thing about the small gas barbecue was that instead of having to get up and keeping checking and turning the meat, out new gas barby perched happily on the table top just by Liz so she could easily reach out and turn the kebabs.

Obviously, I would have liked to have done the barbecuing myself rather than be waited on by the lovely Liz, but sadly, being partly crippled by neck and shoulder pain I wasn’t able to assist in the way I normally would. (Editor’s note: Baloney!)


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A Pain in the Neck (and Other Body Issues)

I’m not sure how I came to write about this subject but what the heck, I’ve started so I’ll finish as they say. What can I say about my body, that great big lump of flesh and bone that I drag out bed every morning? Well for a kick off I don’t think it’s quite fair that I got lumbered with this particular one. Why couldn’t I have one like Tom Cruise perhaps or even Arnold Schwarznegger? Yes ok, I know that I could have had a body like Arnold’s if I had spent a lot more time in the gym, it’s just that I’ve always found exercising a little boring.

Having said that a few years back I was handed a twelve-week freebie at the YMCA and Liz and I spent a little time down there once or twice a week, cycling, walking and weight lifting and it was, not exactly fun but interesting for a while. I particularly liked walking out of the gym with a little exercise high and feeling pretty pleased with myself and ever so slightly fitter.

Just lately I’ve found out that I have type 2 diabetes and before starting with medication my medical practitioner has given me three months to slim down and change my eating habits. I think I’ve done reasonably well so far; I’ve stopped my nightly nibble on chocolate and my daily biscuits every time I have a cup of tea. I’ve tried to reject potatoes and chips although I must admit I did have roast potatoes with last Sunday’s roast dinner, but then seriously, who can have a Sunday roast without roast potatoes?

I’m still struggling with a sore shoulder as I mentioned last week so I am continuing with my exercises and have moved on from extreme agony down to a more acceptable pain level. I’m tempted to add a picture of me wearing my cervical collar but no, let’s not go there. Having said that I’ll probably be posting that picture on Facebook in an attempt to get some internet sympathy.

As I mentioned in a post a few weeks back my eyesight has always been poor but just lately I’ve upgraded to a pair of varifocals and I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to read things without changing specs. It’s great whenever I troll through charity shops and I can actually see the writing on the CDs and books. Amazing!

A few years go I had a great urge to get my body into shape through cycling. Come to think of it, fitness was just a spinoff; the real reason I went cycling was to clip on my GoPro camera and shoot some video. After my mountain bike was stolen I dragged my old bike out of the garage. I spent a few minutes oiling the chain and adjusting the seat and handle bars when perhaps I should have spent a little more time.

One of the tyres was flat so after fitting a new inner tube I was ready for a quick test spin and luckily, as it turned out, popped on my helmet and gloves. As I went down the avenue I noticed that I hadn’t tightened up the handlebars enough, so I turned round and headed back. My big mistake was in not getting off the bike and walking back because the front wheel turned sharply, I turned the handlebars and of course nothing happened, except that I ended up in a heap on the pavement. Still, I had my helmet on, no head injuries and my natty little bike mitts had prevented any cuts on my hands. As I pushed the bike back home I noticed my leg hurting a little and later on my ankle swelled up. A two hour visit to casualty revealed no broken bones but I was pretty happy no one was around that afternoon to video my escapade and post it on you tube!

Some time later I tried again. Exercise is one thing but to be honest, I just like messing about with cameras and video and pretending to be the film director I always wanted to be. Anyway, after three laps of the immediate area and about forty minutes of camera video, it was time for a cuppa. Then it was time to spend days, weeks even, fiddling about on Windows Movie Maker, cutting and splicing and so on until I managed to produce a workable edit.

Editing can be a slow process but as long as you have a clear result in mind it can be very satisfying.

I do so like photography in the digital age. No expensive films, no waiting for the film to be developed and printed. No more expensive mistakes. Today, if you take a bad picture, delete it, take another in fact, take multiple exposures and just delete or edit the bad ones later.

Digital video is pretty much the same. Delete what you don’t like and start again. Even if what you have shot isn’t good, it can be saved by cutting or effects like slow motion. In the editing suite, build your video slowly, adding each scene and then later your soundtrack, adding layers to the original sound with effects, music and narration.

I remember editing in the VHS days, juggling different tracks on my sound mixer, having to cue each track and fade in when ready, keeping an eye on the monitor all the time. Once, in one of my airport videos I had to do a narration, fade down the original video soundtrack, pause while a helicopter flew into the shot, fade in a helicopter sound effect, fade in the next section of original sound while I narrated the next paragraph and finally, cue and fade in the music and then fade out the original sound. Today, with digital, all that is a step by step process.

Sorry, I seem to have rambled on a bit there so back to my body. One thing I would probably like to change is my hair. When I was younger I had a big, thick head of hair and I remember being quite shocked one day in the 1970’s when I decided to get a really good haircut. I’d gone down to the city centre in Manchester to a place called Paul Brendon’s Hair Design and asked for a cut like David Cassidy. Cassidy in case you either didn’t know or can’t remember was the star of a TV show called The Partridge Family. The show was a big hit, in fact it was such a gynormous success I’m not even sure that the TV producers were prepared for it. Cassidy became a huge star and his ‘group’, the fictional Partridge Family had a string of hit singles. Cassidy himself was a major heart throb with numerous young ladies screaming and swooning over him at concerts and personal appearances.

Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think that having a David Cassidy cut was going to get me a shed load of screaming females, although I wasn’t actually averse to that idea. I reckoned that if it happened I’d just deal with it on the day but I did think that having a haircut a little more stylish than my usual one was a good idea. After sorting my hair out and taking my cash, the barber -sorry, hair stylist- said just watch out, your hair’s going a bit thin on top. Thin on top? What on earth did he mean? He couldn’t mean I was losing my hair, could he? Surely not! Yes, I just rejected the obvious for quite a few years although what I could have done about it, I don’t know. If I was particularly vain, if there was something, some cream for instance that you could just rub on your head and would bring back your hair would I go for it? Of course!

I mentioned earlier about trying to get my weight down. I’ve tried to cut out carbohydrates. I haven’t succeeded totally but I have cut down quite a lot and until I hurt my neck had upped my walking schedule. My dad was a great walker. In fact, everywhere we went as children involved walking as dad didn’t have a car and couldn’t drive.

When he retired, he used to get up, have breakfast and then take the dog for a walk. He walked for miles and his dog Mickey, who was a pretty old dog then, used to be worn out when they returned home. Mickey would head straight for the water bowl and then drop down on the floor somewhere to recuperate, oblivious of everyone having to step over him as he dreamed his canine dreams.

Once, one Sunday, my Dad and I went for a drink together. Dad said he’d take me to the Griffin for a pint. ‘The Griffin?’ I asked. ‘Where’s the Griffin? There’s no pub round here called the Griffin?’

‘Oh yes, the Griffin. It’s not a bad pub. It’ll be a nice walk.’

Well, off we went, out of Wythenshawe where we lived, past Peel Hall and down towards Heald Green. Heald Green was a good thirty to forty minute walk and I remember saying, ‘look Dad, let’s go into the Heald Green hotel for a pint.’

‘No,’ he said. ‘The Griffin’s not far away now.’ So we walked and walked, past Heald Green and on towards Cheadle and eventually, after about an hour’s walk if not longer, we came to the Griffin. Inside there were a bunch of fellas who nodded to my Dad and he nodded in return. Up at the bar the barman came over and said ‘pint of mild Ralph?’ He’d been here before, apparently.

I was exhausted and gasping for a drink and I was probably hanging onto the bar for dear life when my dad asked what was I drinking?

‘Pint of lager please,’ I said. Dad nodded to the barman then looked back at me. ‘Not a bad stretch of the legs was it?’ he said.

Another form of exercise I do like is swimming. Usually at this time of year we will either have parked up our motor home by a plan d’eau, a French swimming lake or have rented a nice holiday home complete with swimming pool. There Liz and I will be doing some regular swimming and keeping pretty fit. Alas, the pandemic has sadly put the blockers on our regular French trip. Even if it hadn’t though, I wouldn’t be up to driving down to France, not with my sore neck and shoulder. Pity though because I reckon a little swimming might have loosened up my shoulder. A few years back I opened up my camera case in France to find my new GoPro camera complete with underwater housing. What could I possibly film with that I thought? Well, there was always the swimming pool:

I’m hoping that I will be able to do some more walking soon. The thing is though I might need a whole new wardrobe by then. I noticed that last week when Liz and I went out to Quiz Night at our local pub, my favourite pair of trousers which at one time were a little on the tight side now seemed a little slack. I normally wear them without a belt but now I have had to not only wear a belt but also have added a new notch to tighten them up. Yes, sometimes this body can be a bit of a pain in the neck.

That reminds me, time to take off this neck collar and do my neck exercises. . .


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Avatar and The Cycle of Life

I don’t know about you but this hasn’t been a great week for me. I started off with a bit of an ache in my right arm but when you are as ancient as me you get used to your body sending over these signals of age every so often. After a few days it became worse, a nagging ache that turned into a pain. As it happened, I’d had that pain before, in fact, I’d even written about it in a blog post. I was going to write about it again but there was the old blog post just aching to have new life breathed into it, to be rewritten, remodelled or repurposed as we blog writers like to say. After all, no work of art is ever finished, just abandoned. Of course, I do have a sore arm and it’s difficult to type at the moment but what the heck, anyone who knows me understands that at heart I’m just a lazy old codger and so instead of writing something new like a real writer, here’s what happened last time I had a sore shoulder.

2002 (ish)

Samsara, in the Buddhist way is the cycle of life; birth death and rebirth, represented by the circle. That circular vision of life is not always so easy to explain but let me tell you about it in my own way.

A long time ago, years ago in fact I had this really bad pain down my right arm. It didn’t get any better, in fact it got worse and worse so I called in for an appointment at the doctors’. I got to see Doctor Kowalski (as usual names have been changed to protect the innocent.) The thing with Doctor Kowalski was that anyone could see him any time because he wasn’t a doctor who was much in demand. Why not you might ask? No one really wanted to see him because all he wanted was to get you into his office and get you out again.
I sat down and the doctor smiled and asked ‘how can I help you?’
‘Well,’ I began, ‘It’s this pain down the side of my arm . .’
I stopped because Doctor Kowalski was already writing out a prescription. Already, and this was before he had examined me and before I had even finished speaking. Moments later I was on my way out of his surgery and the next patient was already on his way in. All I had to show for it was a prescription for pain killers.

Dr Kowalski must have looked good on the surgery stats as it looked like he dealt quickly with a lot of patients but as we all know, statistics don’t always tell the full story.

A few days later the pain was as bad as ever so I went back but I asked to see Doctor Edwards. Now Doctor Edwards was one of the most popular doctors in the surgery. Why? Because he actually listened to you! He was fully booked up for a while and it took me a week to get in to see him but when finally I sat down in his office, he listened attentively, asked a few questions, took a look at my arm and then sent me for an X ray. It turned out I had a nerve trapped in my neck which was referring pain to my arm and I needed to see the physiotherapist but the waiting time was about six weeks so I decided to go to a private physio.

2021

Anyway, back to 2021 and here I am finding that the only pain free position available is reclining on the couch. Ok I thought, as I’m in position anyway I might as well fire up the TV and slap a DVD in. What did I have that I hadn’t seen for a while? Well the DVD I chose was Avatar. A few years back I got into a conversation with Liz’s younger daughter about the great films of all time and the one she chose was Avatar. Yes, I said, but you’re probably not familiar with real great classic films like Sunset Boulevard, Citizen Kane, Casablanca or even The Godfather. No really, she said, watch Avatar, it’s amazing.

Avatar was written and directed by James Cameron and I have to admit he has made some pretty good films. The first two Terminator films were his projects and he was also responsible for Aliens, the second in the Alien series of films and a great film in its own right. Titanic was again written and directed by Cameron and was just not only an enjoyable film but also a magnificent feat of film making involving a huge mock up of the Titanic built on hydraulic rams which enabled it to drop into the sea for the sinking sequences.

Avatar makes a lot of use of CGI, computer generated images, only this film takes CGI to a whole new level. I actually think that CGI can detract from a film because sometimes it’s so obvious that you are watching something generated by a computer. In Avatar, the imagery and effects are nothing short of incredible. The film is like a sci-fi combination of Dances With Wolves and a Vietnam war film. In the future, an alien planet called Pandora is ripe for exploitation of its vast mineral wealth. The only problem is that a tribe of humanoids, the Na’vi, inhabit the planet and they are not so happy about moving just so the earth people can come and dig up their planet and mine its precious metals. Because of this, the military have initiated the Avatar project which involves growing an alien body and then using technology to transfer a human mind into it, so better first hand relations can be made with the tribe. Jake, a crippled ex marine is invited into the team to take over one of the Avatars and a series of events enable him to get close to the tribe. His job is to convince the Na’vi to move away but as time goes on, he finds himself becoming closer to the tribe and evermore understanding and respectful of their ties to nature and their way of life.

Computer technology has enabled Cameron to produce some incredible scenes of beautiful other worldly forest landscapes as well as numerous animals the tribe interact with and the story that the director weaves is a very thoughtful and moving one. Avatar really is a film that is up there with the all time great films of the cinema world.

2002 (ish)

I eventually got to see the NHS physio. She was a lady, a little old lady in fact. When I walked in to see her she offered me a seat then shouted at me to ‘sit up straight!’ No wonder I had neck and back issues because my posture was dreadful! She may have been a little old lady but she gave me some stick, not only verbally but she did a lot of work on my neck with her hands and eventually the pain in my arm slipped away and I gradually returned to normal.

At the end of my treatment she told me that if the issue returned not to bother going to the doctor again; ‘Come straight to me and I’ll sort you out but for heavens sake, sit up straight. Get your posture right and you’ll be fine!’ ‘OK,’ I said, ‘thanks.’

Some months went by and I began to get the same symptoms again so I went into the doctors’ surgery and asked to see the physio. The lady on the desk said no, I had to see the doctor first. I told her what the physio had said, go straight to her but the receptionist was adamant- I could only see the physio with a referral from the doctor. As I was dejectedly leaving the surgery I saw the physio and went over and told her what happened. She took me back to the reception, gave the receptionist there some first class stick and booked me in the next week to see her. Happy days!

About six to eight months later I once again began getting the neck and arm problems so I returned to the surgery. The receptionist advised me (with far too much smugness, I thought) that the physio had retired and a new younger model had taken over and this one would not see me without first seeing the doctor.

I made an appointment, went in to see the doctor and found myself with Dr Kowalski, pen in hand, ready to write me out a prescription for painkillers!

2021

My arm was really killing me so I went in to see my GP. I called in for an appointment but apparently, appointments can only be arranged by calling in at 8am. The next day I tried calling but could only get an engaged tone. When I finally got through all the appointments for that day were taken. I did manage to get myself booked into a private physiotherapist and he got straight to work giving my neck and shoulder a good pummelling and leaving me with a regime of exercises to do.

The next morning Liz got up at 8 and called the doctors’ surgery. After about thirty minutes she finally got through and managed to get me booked in to see the doctor. I dragged myself and my sore arm along and as I was telling Doctor Khan my story of pain and woe the good doctor was already sorting me out some painkillers and a sick note and telling me that I would be fine within a week, a prediction that has so far failed to come true.

See, the world is a circle after all!


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TV, Westerns and The Outlaw

Once upon a time Howard Hughes was the richest man in the world. In today’s society being the richest man requires some serious wealth and Howard Hughes ticked all the financial boxes you can think of. He inherited his father’s tool company when he was very young. Too young in fact to take control but he found a law that said if he could prove he was capable of running the company then he could take control. He proved he could and did just that, took control. His father had designed a tool bit that was essential to America’s oil industry but instead of selling the drill bit he patented it and then rented it out. Howard Hughes though had other ambitions which did not involve oil or drilling but the profits from the Hughes Tool Company were vital for his ambitions in aviation and film making.

Hughes combined those two interests in making the WW1 movie ‘Hell’s Angels’ about fighter pilots and for the shoot he assembled the largest private air force in the world. Towards the end of the shooting, sound pictures made their appearance so what did Howard do? He reshot the entire film with sound equipment!

The_Outlaw-poster-trimAnother movie Hughes made that is famous, or perhaps infamous, was the 1943 Movie ‘Outlaw’ starring Jane Russell. Hughes appeared to be obsessed with Jane’s breasts, even to the extent of designing a new bra for her and reshooting a famous close up of her time after time. Hughes clearly had some psychological issues; he was a compulsive, obsessive man. He usually had the same meal when he went out with one of the many starlets he courted. Jane Greer recounted in a TV interview how Hughes would eat things in the same order; the peas first, then the potatoes and finally the meat. Once when they dined Hughes came back to the table and Jane noticed that his shirt was wet. Hughes had spilt something onto his shirt so he had washed the shirt in the men’s room, rinsed and squeezed it out, then put it back on.

As his mental health deteriorated, Hughes retreated into a world of blacked out penthouse suites and midnight telephone calls to his army of assistants, some of whom were private investigators keeping close tabs on anyone Hughes had an interest in, particularly starlets he had signed to personal contracts and his girlfriends like Katharine Hepburn or Jean Peters whom he later married.

Anyway, this isn’t a post about Hughes, it’s about TV and looking through my old posts I noticed a couple that caught my attention. One was about Hughes and I have to confess, I pinched the text above from that post, and another was about my life as a couch potato and avid TV viewer. A few days ago, staying at my mother’s house I once again had a few couch potato days. On the first one I was tapping away on my laptop with the TV on but no sound. On Mum’s old TV you can go through the on screen menu and choose programmes you want to watch and the TV will flip to that channel at the appointed time. It was Saturday afternoon and even though that Saturday’s post had just been published, as usual I was already worrying about the next one.

As I looked up from my laptop I could see a new film had started. I switched on the volume and was surprised to find it was The Outlaw, the Hughes film I mentioned above. I had never seen the film and everything I knew about it came from either books, documentaries or films like the Aviator, the Martin Scorsese film about Hughes himself. Hughes filmed The Outlaw in 1941 but had trouble with the film censors of the time. He had to cut half a minute from the film where the camera had lingered for too long on Jane Russell’s ample bosom. 20th Century Fox however decided not to release the film thinking perhaps it was too hot to handle. Hughes decided to build his publicity on that very idea. The film was released for a quick showing and then Hughes put the film under wraps for the next few years while his publicity people whipped up controversy and hysteria, meaning that when it opened in 1946, released finally by RKO, the film was a huge hit.

Even over half a century later people like me are still liable to be caught up in the controversy because I always thought the film was about Rio, the character played by Jane Russell and was of a risqué nature, or at least as risqué as films could get in 1941. I have to admit I missed the beginning of the film the other day and the famous scene of Jane Russell in the hay must have occurred either before I looked up from my laptop or when I was in the kitchen making a brew.

Hughes seemed to be obsessed with Jane’s breasts and wasn’t happy with the way they looked on screen, so much so he designed a new cantilevered bra for her, perhaps the first push up bra ever made. Russell later claimed that the bra was a nightmare to wear so she simply used her own but padded the cups with tissue, which apparently achieved the effect that Hughes wanted.

The action, such as it was, seemed to revolve around the friendship which blossomed between Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday which seems to make Pat Garrett very jealous as he considered himself a better friend to the Doc than Billy. It was actually a quirky sort of film. Walter Huston, father of film director John, played the part of Doc Holliday and Jack Buetel, an actor I don’t think I’ve heard of before, played Billy.

Billy the Kid has been portrayed a number of times in films, as have Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday. Paul Newman played Billy in The Left Handed Gun, a part originally earmarked for James Dean until Dean was killed in a car crash. In the 1970’s Sam Peckinpah directed Pat Garret and Billy The Kid starring James Coburn as Pat Garret and Kris Kristofferson as Billy. Bob Dylan also had a small part as well as writing the music for the film including the hit single Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.

Billy the Kid was killed in 1881 by Pat Garrett. There were rumours however that Pat staged Billy’s death so that he would be free of pursuit by the law. That scenario was used in the end of The Outlaw, although in the film it was Doc Holliday who gets the bullet but it was Billy’s name on the gravestone.

One of my favourite cowboy/outlaw films has to be Jesse James, the 1939 film starring Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as his brother. The film was so successful that they made a sequel, The Return of Frank James starring Henry Fonda as Frank on track to find his brother’s killer.

Two more outlaws whose fame has lasted right down to the present day were Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and the two were played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford in a film called just that: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I saw a film programme a while back on the BBC where Paul Newman explained that screenwriter William Goldman had approached him about making the film and starring as Butch. Various people were suggested for the Sundance Kid and Newman even met with Steve McQueen about the part but eventually it was Robert Redford who won the role.

The film was released in 1969 but has a very 1970’s feel about it. There is even a musical interlude in the film where Paul Newman tries out a new fangled bicycle with Sundance’s girlfriend Etta to the tune of Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head.

My two favourite westerns both star John Wayne, the quintessential cowboy hero. Wayne starred in The Searchers, directed by John Ford. Wayne stars as a civil war veteran whose niece has been kidnapped by a band of warlike Commanches. Ethan Edwards takes his adoptive nephew on a long search for the kidnapped girl until they finally rescue her.

My other favourite is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Lee Marvin plays a brilliant part in that of Liberty Valance, a mean, no good bully who terrorises a western town until lawyer James Stewart manages to shoot him dead, or so we think. Later, when Stewart decides he is unwilling to base his career on being the man who shot Valance, John Wayne reveals what really happened.

Back in the fifties and sixties was probably the heyday of cowboy films and TV shows. Today it seems that the western is a genre that has been almost forgotten. As a schoolkid I was an avid watcher of The Lone Ranger, Branded, The Virginian, Bonanza, Casey Jones and many others. One of my favourites was Alias Smith and Jones, a series about two outlaws, Kid Curry and Hannibal Hayes who are on the run but have been offered an amnesty on the condition that they give up crime and go straight. They adopt new identities, that of Smith and Jones and try to live law abiding lives. It was a great series with some excellent episodes but in December 1971, Pete Duel, the actor who had played Hannibal Hayes committed suicide. Another actor was substituted in the role but the series was never as popular afterwards.

Another great western was Kung Fu. Kung Fu was an oddball western in many ways; it was about a half Chinese, half American called Kwai Chang Caine played by David Carradine. Caine becomes a Shaolin monk after he has been taken in by the monastery as an orphan. Caine has been tutored in the Buddhist religion and martial arts by master Po. When Po is murdered by the Emperor’s son, Caine retaliates and kills him. Now with a price on his head Caine flees to the USA. In the USA of the old west, Caine encounters many situations which then cause him to reflect on his own upbringing and tutoring in China, shown in many flashback sequences. Caine defends himself in many situations with his mastery of Kung Fu and the series became not only a great success but the forerunner in a world wide Kung Fu craze with many Hong Kong martial arts films also becoming popular.

The western film and TV shows seemed to have all fizzled out by the end of the 1970’s. Perhaps these days audiences prefer sci fi series like Star Wars and Star Trek. Tastes change of course and one day perhaps audiences will once again want more westerns. For now I think I’ll settle down after a busy shift, pour myself a glass of wine and wind down with my copy of John Ford’s The Searchers.


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How Does Your Garden Grow?

Whichever way you look at it, the Coronavirus pandemic has been a real pain in the neck. I’m pretty lucky I suppose as I’ve not been furloughed because I work for a government agency. I’ve not lost any loved ones to the virus either but like I say, generally speaking, the whole experience is one I’d rather forget.

Things are looking up a little bit here in the UK. We can now go out and visit the pub, table service only though mind, no standing at the bar chatting. What really gets on my nerves about table service is that when the pubs opened up last time before the second wave there always seemed to be plenty of staff about to take your order and bring over your beer which was actually pretty nice. In one particular pub where the service has always been dreadful, the service actually improved. Now, every pub I go into they seem to just want you to order via the app.

Now not long ago I deleted a lot of apps from my phone. I just had too many of them. Now, pubs don’t want to serve you in the traditional way, they just want you to use the app and order online. How hard can it be to sort out proper table service? Let’s say two staff members behind the bar and one touring the pub taking orders. Sounds easy to me.

The person who takes your order goes to the bar and hands in the order, two pints of bitter please or whatever, the barman pulls the drinks while the waiter is at another table. He comes back for order #1, hands in order #2 for table B and takes the drinks to table A while the bar guy is pulling table B’s pints. The second bar guy can either take orders or collect glasses or just help out with serving or pulling pints whenever necessary. Sounds simple enough to me. What actually happens is a bunch of people are pouring drinks and after fumbling about with the app someone will turn up with the beers. ‘Carlsberg and an Ice Breaker’ announced our server the other evening. ‘A What? I didn’t ask for an Ice Breaker!’ ‘Yes you did’ said the server confidently. ‘Look, I didn’t order an Ice Breaker whatever that is’ I say but the guy only believes me when I show him my app which clearly states Carlsberg and IPA. So off the guy goes to fetch a pint of IPA which comes back a few minutes later. That’s technology for you, it’s only as good as the people who use it.

Anyway, enough moaning for now. The pandemic has actually forced us to turn inwards. Less going out, more staying in and when we get tired of the TV what else can we do? Well, we can go into the garden for a start.

Big or small, the garden can be a little pool of tranquillity and even if it is just a small balcony and a window box, plants and flowers can bring a little extra something into your life.

What I’d thought I’d do for this post is to take a few pictures of the garden and write a little about each one. I should say that’s its not really my garden, it’s actually Liz’s garden. My only contribution is to cut the grass and to light the barbecue but anyway, here we go.

This first picture is of Mr Blackbird. That’s him up there in the eucalyptus, shot with my Nikon D100 and zoom lens. He and Mrs Blackbird have started a nest in a clump of bushes not far from our breakfast table just by the back door. The eggs have been hatched and he goes out many times each day returning with some juicy worms for his chicks. He’s a wily fellow. First he lands on the big tree and does a quick survey. If the coast is clear he will fly into the small patio and land on the fence before hopping down to the breakfast table or one of the chairs. Then if all is still clear, he’ll hop down and fly up to his nest in the bushes.

There’s a distinct hum in the background. Yes, it’s the local bees. This garden seems to attract them and here at the beginning of summer there are plenty of bees about landing on flowers and looking for nectar and just doing what bees generally do.

As we’re not far from Blackpool airport there are other objects flying around like light aircraft and helicopters, I love both, especially the sound of small aircraft, that lovely lazy drone that you can hear from many small airfields. Up above there is a yellow helicopter that I see regularly and one afternoon I managed to put down my book and snap a few frames off with my camera. I have the feeling that the pilot actually knows I want to photograph his aircraft because when I leave my camera inside, that’s when he comes by flying low right above our house and when I have the camera just by, he always does a wide berth.

Back to the garden and out by the breakfast table Liz has planted tomatoes, peas, mange tout, broad beans and potatoes. There are also some cabbages and purple sprouting broccoli down there and a couple of herb pots with sage, thyme, chives and rosemary to name but a few. Next door is some garlic. Over by the table the large pot of strawberries are doing pretty well with some berries just about to change from green to red. Also over there is a chilli plant grown from the seeds of a chilli. In other parts of the garden are raspberries, runner beans, carrots, cauliflower, celeriac, aubergine, green peppers, sprouts, Jerusalem artichokes, butternut squash, padron peppers, globe artichokes and asparagus.

My lemon plants are doing pretty well. (Top right of the montage picture further up)They were grown from lemon pips a few years back but sadly have not yet borne any fruit. This year I’m feeding them with bone meal fertilizer and I’m firmly hoping that one day I might just grow a lemon. It does take at least three years for a lemon plant to fruit but I’m hoping this might be the year.

Years ago Liz and I stayed at a rented villa in Spain. The owner was an elderly chap named André, he was a Frenchman of Russian heritage and in his garden were many lemons and oranges. Spain of course is the perfect climate for citrus trees; perhaps I need to get myself a green house or perhaps even move to Spain!

I do have two olive trees, both of which were gifts and they are both looking good and I do love olives, not that either tree has provided me with any yet.

In the picture above we’ve got cabbage, potatoes and butternut squash.

Further down the garden we have a barbecue and it is so wonderful to light it up and cook outside on summer afternoons. It’s almost like being in France. Well, almost, but not quite. We have a big outdoor table down at that end of the garden and usually I’ll light the barbecue and we’ll start off with salad while the coals heat up. Tomato and onion salad with olive oil is my favourite and recently we have also had home made coleslaw and a rice, chive and cherry tomato salad. A typical meal might be homemade chicken kebabs (chicken marinated in lemon juice, chilli and garlic with a touch of tamarind sauce and cooked on skewers with peppers and onions), sausages, steak and of course burgers. Liz makes her own burgers from minced steak mixed with chopped onion and seasoned well. I like to serve mine on a lightly toasted bread bun with tomatoes, onions and mustard or tomato sauce.

A frequent visitor when we barbecue is this fella above. He or she always appears just at eating time. He makes his presence known by giving us a regular squawk and if nothing happens he will just carry on making a racket until Liz leaves some bit of meat on the garden fence for him. He’ll do a cocky sort of strut along the fence, pretty much like you’d expect a seabird version of Mussolini to do and then he’ll gobble up whatever we have left for him or if he doesn’t like the big guy getting too close and snapping away with his Nikon he’ll take it across to the adjacent roof and sort it out at his leisure. What he does for food when we are not barbecuing, I really don’t know.

When the food has been eaten it’s time to settle back with a glass of red and take a last peek at my book before packing up and going inside. As usual I’ve got a few books on the go. I’m reading the second volume of Sarah Miles’ autobiography, Serves Me Right. Sarah is an actress you might remember from Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines or Ryan’s Daughter. At the same time I’ve started the first volume in the Hamish Macbeth series, Death of a Gossip which I turn to when I fancy something a little lighter.

As usual I’ve tried to think of a link to books and films, bit of a tough task with the subject of gardens but here we go. Being There was a short book I read years ago by Jerzy Kosinski. It’s about a gardener, a pretty simple guy called Chance who has spent his life working for the owner of a large house and when the owner dies, Chance is left homeless. He knows nothing about the world except for the garden but he becomes popular as his simple observations about gardens are mistaken for great wisdom. After a random series of events, he even gets to tell the President of the United States his solutions for world problems, based on his understanding of gardens. You may not have read the book but it was made into a film starring Peter Sellers. Sellers based his own performance on a combination of his own gardener and Stan Laurel, a comedian that Sellers admired greatly.

So, how does your garden grow?

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.


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The Film of the Book or the Book of the Film Pt 3

Papillon by Henri Charrière

Papillon is a book by Frenchman Henri Charrière. It is an autobiographical novel about Charrière’s imprisonment in the French penal colony of French Guiana and covers a period of about fifteen years. The original novel was written on a series of exercise books and is presented in just that way. Charrière describes his experience of imprisonment as a terrible one. He escaped and was recaptured many times and ended up in solitary imprisonment twice. The first time was for two years and he was kept in solitary for 24 hours a day. In his second bout of solitary a new officer takes over the running of the area and prisoners are let out for exercise every day. At one point in his escape Charrière encounters a tribe of Indians and joins them for many months, even marrying one of the Indian girls but despite finding this apparent paradise, he leaves and is imprisoned again. He eventually escapes from Devil’s Island by jumping into the sea aboard a sack filled with coconuts. The book is an incredible read and I found it one I just couldn’t put down. It is filled with action and adventure but also with thoughtful observations about the human condition and there are many moments when simple acts of kindness stand out to the author against a background of cruelty and inhumanity.

The book was an instant hit when it was published in France in 1969 and the author, Henri Charrière, nicknamed Papillon because of a tattoo of a butterfly on his chest, became a French celebrity. He died in 1973 but always maintained the book was true and based on his own recollections despite claims to the contrary. Whatever its origins the book is a true classic adventure story.

The Film

On paper this should have been a brilliant film; Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman star, there was a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr and music by Jerry Goldsmith. The director was Franklin J Shaffner, who I’ve not heard of but there are plenty of big names involved who would normally guarantee a great film. They even had author Henri Charrière who acted as an advisor to the production. Somehow though, they managed to turn out something of a dud. It’s hard to put the finger on what went wrong but reviewer Robert Ebert said the big flaw was that the audience failed to gain interest in the McQueen and Hoffman characters. I think the big problem was that the book was a long book, packed with incident and instead of trying to cram the whole book into a film, perhaps the producers should have concentrated on just a part of it. Steve McQueen was a reasonable actor and he was good in basic action roles but I just don’t think he was good enough to play Papillon. The film skips over many interesting elements of the book and at the end of the film when Charrière is imprisoned on Devil’s Island, McQueen appears to be an old man which wasn’t the case in real life. My advice: Don’t bother with the film, read the book.

The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams

I’ve been trying to remember which came first for me, the book or the film. After some reflection, it was probably the film but I read the book soon afterwards. I found a copy in a box of paperbacks someone had given to my Father. The book is a classic escape story from World War II. It’s a great read and the story starts with a usual day in the POW camp which consists of tea making, cooking and cleaning and exercising by walking a circuit around the camp. The author, real life escapee Eric Williams, tells the reader about the everyday problems of living in a hut full of bored officers looking forward to either red cross parcels, letters from home or escaping. The problems of escaping are many. The soil is soft and sandy meaning that a tunnel would be liable to collapse and the soil cleared from underground is different to the grey topsoil making it difficult to hide from the German guards. The main problem is the distance from the huts to the camp perimeter but the author and a friend hit on the idea of taking a vaulting horse and placing it near to the perimeter fence and having a tunnel dug from there with the prisoners exercised by vaulting over the horse and masking the escape operation. The POW camp, Stalag Luft III was also the same camp where the events depicted in The Great Escape took place.

The Film

The film is pretty faithful to the book and stars the usual stalwarts of British films in the 1950’s, actors like Leo Genn, Anthony Steel and David Tomlinson. It’s a nicely paced film showing the boredom of camp life and then the idea for the vaulting horse and its preparation and use. Various problems have to be overcome including tunnel cave ins and disposal of the resulting excavated sand but all goes well. The two escapees decide to add another man to their escape team and one night the three emerge from the tunnel into freedom. Of course the escape is not over; two of the men make their way to the Baltic port of Lubeck and manage to escape to neutral Sweden with the help of the Danish resistance by stowing away on a Danish ship. The third escapee also makes his way to freedom separately and all three meet up in neutral Sweden.

On her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming

This book as you probably know is one of the James Bond series of books and is one of the last in the series. As usual, the book is well written and James Bond 007 is on the lookout for Ernst Stavro Blofeld whose fiendish plot was thwarted by Bond in the previous book, Thunderball. In this one Bond is close to resigning but after being given some holiday leave from work, meets a young girl, Tracy, who appears to be suicidal. After saving her from one such attempt Bond is introduced to her father Draco, who is head of a Corsican crime syndicate. Draco gives Bond a lead on Blofeld who appears to be trying to establish that he is in fact a baronet. Anyway, without going on and explaining the plot in detail, the book is an excellent read, one of the best in the Bond series.

The Film

The film was notable for being the first in the film franchise without Sean Connery as James Bond. Connery was tired of playing the part and so a search for a new Bond had begun. The new actor chosen was George Lazenby whose only claim to fame at the time was appearing in a TV advertisement for a Big Fry chocolate bar. For me, Lazenby was the perfect Bond. He looked the part, in fact I’ve always thought that he fitted Ian Fleming’s description perfectly. The film is a fast paced thriller and is one of the more serious of the Bond films. Diana Rigg plays Contessa Tracy Di Vincezo who Bond saves from a suicide attempt, just as he does in the book. Tracy’s father Marc Ange Draco who happens to be an underworld boss, gives Bond a tip as to Blofeld’s whereabouts. Bond, masquerading as Sir Hilary Bray, a representative of the College of Arms meets Blofeld in Switzerland on the pretext of confirming Blofeld as a baronet. Bond arrives at the ski resort of Piz Gloria and finds Blofeld is engaged on a new plot against the UK. The film throws in some great fight scenes, car chases and also an exciting ski chase sequence. It was directed by Peter Hunt and is still a favourite today amongst Bond fans. Sadly Lazenby decided not to play Bond again and Sean Connery returned for another outing as 007 in Diamonds are Forever.

Hamish Macbeth

This last entry is a little of a cheat really as the Hamish Macbeth series of books were made into a TV series rather than a film but here we go anyway.

Robert Carlyle played the eponymous TV police officer in the BBC series which first aired in 1995. The series is about a local Bobby based in the village of Lochdubh in the Scottish Highlands. Macbeth applies the rule of law in his own way and dispenses his own brand of laid back justice. Although successful at solving numerous crimes Macbeth avoids promotion in order to stay in the village.

Three series of Hamish Macbeth were produced with six episodes each. Although the series was based on the books by MC Beaton, the TV series differs greatly from the books, with new characters devised by the TV producers and various other aspects changed. I enjoyed the series enormously and even once visited Plockton, the Highland village that doubles for Lochdubh on television. MC Beaton, whose real name is Marion Chesney, apparently hated the TV production which I can understand as they changed her work considerably, adding and changing characters. I have to say though, I’ve always liked it.

Death of A Dreamer by MC Beaton

I picked up this copy of one of MC Beaton’s books in a second hand bookshop in Skipton. At first I wasn’t sure if it was a book for me but I soon settled into the story and it bumbles along nicely with a few twists and turns on the way. A lady artist, Effie Gerrard, arrives in the village and develops an obsession with another artist named Jock. Later Effie is found dead. Was it a suicide or was it murder? The police decide it was suicide but Hamish is not so sure and he decides to make further investigations.

In the books Hamish has a dog and a wild cat as pets unlike the TV show where his only pet is ‘Wee Jock’, a highland Westie dog. The book is heavy on dialogue and light on descriptive passages but it was an easy and enjoyable read and I liked it immensely. The only annoying thing was that after finishing the book, the first chapter of the next book had been added to tempt the reader I suppose into buying that one. I read that and found myself wanting the next book in the series so it might be time to begin scouring the bookshops of St Annes for more books in the series.


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Thoughts From A Sun Lounger Part 12

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these sun lounger posts. The simple reason is that just lately I’ve not been anywhere near a sun lounger to have any sun lounger thoughts. However, the sun has finally appeared over North West England, the temperature has gone up and finally it has been time to drag the sun lounger out from its winter hiding place. As the lockdown is still ongoing despite a recent thaw it has not been possible to drive over to France or fly to Lanzarote and take in some sun so the only sun lounging I’ve been doing lately has been in our own back garden, thinking idly back to those halcyon days before Covid 19 when Liz and I were free to roam the continent in search of wine, bread, French restaurants, Spanish Tapas, the sea and the quiet of the French countryside.

The French countryside really is huge and I do love the quiet. Silence is pretty hard to find these days, especially in a big city like Manchester but in rural France, the absence of sound is something pretty profound. Close your eyes while lying on a sunlounger and it takes a while for a city boy like me to take in the silence. No traffic, no shouting, no electronic noises, just silence. After a while new sounds begin to emerge, the sound of birds perhaps, the sound of a gentle breeze, a tractor out in the fields or the faint rumble of one of my favourite sounds, the drone of a small aircraft.

I conjectured in an old post that perhaps in a previous life I was a pilot. A barnstormer in the American west perhaps or a pilot from the Royal Flying Corps. I read a book once called Soul Survivor, a story of reincarnation; a small boy troubled by incessant nightmares of being trapped in a burning aircraft. As time went on the boy remembered more of his nightmares, details of his aircraft, the aircraft carrier he flew from and the pilots he flew and died with. It was quite a story and when the parents of the boy traced the actual pilot who the boy claimed to be, the similarities between the boy and the World War II fighter pilot were amazing. I do love the sound of small aircraft though and just lately, lying in my sun bed, the sound of small aircraft flying from nearby Blackpool airport awakens a distant memory inside me. Perhaps it is the memory of being a young plane spotter at Manchester Airport many years ago, or is it the distant memory of another life?

One time in France we were relaxing with our barbeque just by a plan d’eau after an afternoon swimming and we heard the familiar drone. This time it was a paraglider drifting serenely across the blue sky.

Another simple quality in rural France is the lack of light pollution. In the city, things such as street lighting, neon lights and illuminated advertising hoardings all contribute an abundance of light but here in the country, darkness is something different; a deep, sensuous blackness that almost overwhelms the senses.

Lying back on your chair or lounger in the soft, warm evening and looking up at the sky is a wonderful sensation. Without the interference of ambient light, the sky at night is a whole new world. An enigmatic velvet vista opens up to the naked eye with myriads of stars, some the merest pinpricks, others great beacons in the sky.

Peering into the night sky on one memorable evening, I noticed a particular star, much brighter than the others. It was then I remembered that on my iPad I have an app that can tell you which stars are in the sky. The star in question was not the pole star as I had surmised but Vega. Vega is the brightest star in the constellation of Lyra, the fifth brightest star in the night sky, and the second brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere, after Arcturus. It is relatively close at only 25 light years away from us, here on Earth.

One of the great things about the summer has to be the barbeque. Liz makes the most amazing salads to go with our food; homemade slaws and various mixes of crunchy green leaves and sliced tomatoes and onions to go with our burgers, sausages and steaks. I love it when the coals are hot and ready and the meat sizzles when it hits the barbeque. I do miss our French meals though. We had a brief visit to France in 2020 between lockdowns and I remember one lovely meal sat outside a hotel restaurant we have visited a few times. I had a cool French rose served with a starter of crudités and pâtés and fresh bread. Afterwards with a bottle of red came the main course, a nice steak. I have to say I worry about ordering a steak in France. The French tend to undercook a steak so I always ask for it to be cooked well done rather than my usual medium. The thing is, will the chef think that those stupid English want their food cremated as usual and actually give me a really well-done steak instead of a medium? Perhaps I should just ask for the omelette with fromage?

One of our favourite restaurants is in the north of France, not far from Calais. We found the restaurant just by chance, miles from anywhere. Liz and I stopped for an early evening meal one day and we have returned many times since. For starters I chose celery soup and Liz ordered the pâté.

I was a little disappointed with the rather small empty dish that was presented to me but then a huge tureen of soup arrived which was wonderful and produced about four small servings, one of which went to Liz while I sampled her pâté which was full of rustic flavours and was perfect served with fresh French bread.

The main course was a simple omelette, light and fluffy with a fresh salad and Liz’s fish was lovely with a creamy curry like sauce, unusual for French country cooking.

Anyway, as the weather had improved it was time to take a run out in our motorhome. Looking on the internet motorhomes don’t seem to be too popular lately, especially here in St Annes which is a seaside destination in its own right. Not as brash as nearby Blackpool with its Pleasure Beach and kiss me quick hats but also not as posh as Lytham thinks it is. On the internet I have read a lot of resistance to the holidaymakers arriving here parking up by the sea front. Why don’t they go elsewhere ask bloggers on one of Facebook’s St Annes pages, taking up all the parking spaces? Well, why should they? Motorhomers pay their road tax too and are entitled to park anywhere that is legal, just like a car. One comment said that if we can afford a motorhome then we can afford to stop at a caravan park? Again, why pay to park on a caravan site when the beauty of a motorhome is that we can stop anywhere and spend the night in the back of the van?

This last week we motored off to Yorkshire and stopped for the night in Skipton, a lovely town with some nice old pubs and many attractive barges moored by the side of the canal. We parked for the night on the nearby car park in the company of quite a few other motor homes. The charge for a night’s stopover was the princely sum of five pounds, although after nine am the parking meter wanted more money for a further daytime stay. We stayed a few hours for breakfast and to visit the nearby market which was pretty quiet early on but later when we left about noon everywhere, including the car park, was packed.

Liz’s cod dish: Looks pretty yummy

The next night we found a great pub in the village of Egton, the Horseshoe Inn. They told us the pub was fully booked for diners that night but we could stay free of charge and drink in the outside bar. When we arrived there had been a cancellation so we were able to drink and dine before wandering a few yards back to our motorhome.

In France, many towns and even villages sport their own motorhome stopping places with facilities to empty toilets and top up our water tanks. Many places like this are free, although some charge a few euros to top up with drinking water.

Yes, we’ll be sorely missing our visit to France this year. Of course, if we were still part of Europe that wouldn’t be a problem. It’s the fault of all those Brits who chose to leave the EC in the referendum. Let me see, who do I know that voted to leave, fed up with Brussels and its stifling bureaucracy?

Ah yes, that would be me . .


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Let Me Take You Down: New York 1980

One day in December 1980 I was working as a bus driver and I was driving one of our old half cab buses into Manchester. My conductor, Bob, was kept pretty busy as we took a bus load of passengers into Manchester city centre for their jobs in shops, offices and other places. At one point Bob poked his head through the little window into the cab and told me that he had heard from a passenger that John Lennon had been shot in New York. It was shocking news and when we arrived in Piccadilly, we both ran to the news stand to read the news in the morning papers. There was nothing about Lennon in any newspaper and we wondered if it had been just a mad rumour. Later when we went back to the canteen for our break, we heard the news either on the TV or the radio. Lennon had indeed been shot and was dead.

I can’t claim to be a great fan of John Lennon. I liked him and his music and back then in 1980, I had a copy of one of his albums, Walls and Bridges and a few years later I bought Double Fantasy, his last album and also the last vinyl album I would ever buy but what did happen that day back in December, 1980?

It was a cold day in New York and a man called Mark Chapman took a .38 calibre revolver out of his pocket and calmly fired five shots at John Lennon who had just exited a limo outside his home in the Dakota building, just across from Central Park.

The last vinyl album I ever bought, and the last one that John Lennon made. Double Fantasy. £2.99, what a bargain.

Chapman was born on 10th May, 1955 in a place called Decatur, in Georgia, in the USA. Chapman’s home life was difficult; his father was abusive towards his mother and Chapman apparently lived in fear of him. In his early teens Chapman was involved with drugs and even once ran away from home. In 1971 he became a born again Christian and worked as a summer camp counsellor for the YMCA. He was very popular with the children at the summer camp and even won an award for his outstanding work. Later he worked with Vietnamese refugees at a resettlement camp and once again  impressed his colleagues and superiors.

After his work with the refugees finished, Mark went to college but there he began to feel depressed. He was no longer doing important work with the refugees and thought of himself as a failure. He dropped out of college to work as a security guard and then in 1977 he left home to travel to Hawaii where he intended to commit suicide. His attempt failed but he was able to gain support and help for his depression and even started to work as a volunteer at the hospital that had helped him.

Much has been written about Chapman’s love of Catcher in the Rye, a novel by JD Salinger and how the book somehow turned Chapman against Lennon and indeed inspired him to kill. I read the book many years ago and at the time I thought it rather dull and uninteresting and I remember being surprised that it could inspire anyone to do anything, let alone provoke someone to murder.

The main character, Holden Caulfield has learned he has failed all his classes at school and that he won’t be returning for the next term. He leaves and gets a train to New York where he basically wanders about feeling sorry for himself and moaning about ‘phonies’, presumably people who are false. In the December of 1980, Mark Chapman too was wandering about New York feeling sorry for himself and hating ‘phonies’. For him, the really big phoney was John Lennon.

Lennon was suffocated by the incredible fame of the Beatles, and had decided to relocate to New York in 1971. New Yorkers were not overwhelmed by his celebrity status and he found himself a large apartment in the impressive Dakota Building on the corner of Central Park West and 72nd Street. Lennon lived quietly with his wife Yoko Ono and son Sean and retired from public life during his son’s early years. His comeback album Double Fantasy was released in 1980.

Chapman had a copy of Catcher in The Rye with him when he shot Lennon on the 8th December, 1980. In his copy Chapman had signed ‘from Holden Caulfield to Holden Caulfield. This is my statement’. He had hung around the Dakota building in New York and when Lennon left for the Record Plant recording studio, he had pushed forward his copy of Double Fantasy, Lennon’s latest album, for the singer to sign.

Lennon signs Double Fantasy for his killer

Lennon wrote ‘John Lennon 1980’ on the record and handed it back to Chapman asking ‘Is this all you want?’ Chapman took the album back and Lennon jumped into a limo and was gone. A photographer named Paul Goresh was there and snapped a photo of Lennon signing the album. Chapman was excited about it and asked for a copy before Goresh left. Goresh promised to return the next day with a print.

Later the Lennons returned to the Dakota and Chapman was still there waiting. Yoko entered the building and Lennon was following when Mark Chapman pulled out his 38 revolver and fired five times at the ex-Beatle. Lennon staggered into the Dakota entrance saying ‘I’m shot’. Chapman dropped his gun and began reading the Catcher in the Rye until the police came and arrested him. Another Police car arrived and seeing that Lennon was losing a lot of blood carried him to the police car and took him directly to the Roosevelt Hospital. Staff there tried to revive Lennon but the wounds were too severe and he was pronounced dead at 11:15pm.

On a TV documentary for the ITV series First Tuesday which I found in my old VHS collection, one of Mark’s old girlfriends was interviewed. Judy Williams spoke about the Mark Chapman she knew as warm and gentle. ‘It just wasn’t Mark’ she said ‘He couldn’t have been in his right mind when he did it.’

So why did Chapman shoot John Lennon? Apparently, Chapman had been a fan of the Beatles and John Lennon’s solo music but felt that Lennon had become a fake, a ‘phoney’, someone who preached peace and love to the masses while his music made him a multi-millionaire. Chapman signed out of his security job as ‘John Lennon’ on his last day of work so it is even possible that he identified so much with Lennon that the other Lennon, the fake ‘Lennon’ had to die. Chapman also claimed at other times that he shot Lennon to promote Catcher in the Rye.

I’ve just finished reading Let Me Take You Down by Jack Jones and in the book the author prints pages and pages about Chapman and his disturbed ideas including the fantasy ‘little people’ who filled his imagination and tried to stop him going through with the killing. He had in fact visited New York on a different occasion to shoot Lennon but returned home without committing murder.

I can imagine Lennon in his room in the Dakota, looking down on New York and reflecting on how far he had come. Did he ever think of his home in Liverpool? I am sure he did. He corresponded regularly with his Aunt Mimi who brought him up at their home, Mendips, in Liverpool.

Years ago, when I used to work in Liverpool, I visited his childhood home. I had always imagined Lennon came from a rough council house background but his former home is in Woolton, a pleasant leafy suburb of Liverpool with semi-detached private houses and some rather nice pubs and shops. Not quite what I had expected.

Mendips, Woolton, Liverpool. Picture courtesy wikipedia

After reading Let Me Take You Down I dug out my old VHS documentary which uses numerous statements by Chapman, recorded secretly by the NYPD in the hours after his arrest. I listened to his various ideas about why he had to shoot John Lennon but I’m not sure we can ever understand the workings of a disturbed mind. ‘The Beatles changed the world’ Mark says at one point, ‘and I changed them.’

I like John Lennon of course and I was interested to read this book to see what really happened to him and to find out why Mark Chapman decided to shoot him. I had always thought that Chapman was just a madman and after reading this book I can see that basically, I was right. Chapman was mad. I suppose it was foolish of me to think that there was a definitive reason behind the shooting, some tangible reason, something that perhaps if Lennon or his people had been aware of, they could have taken some action to prevent the murder. At the end of the day, I don’t think there was or even that the actions of a disturbed person can be explained in simple terms. Chapman got it into his head that he had to kill John Lennon and he did.

Mark Chapman is still alive today. He is still serving his life sentence in Wende Correctional Facility in New York and first became eligible for parole in 2000. All Chapman’s applications for parole have so far been denied.

Today in 2021, Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, still lives in the Dakota building.

Sources:

The Man Who Shot John Lennon. First Tuesday UK TV documentary written and produced by Kevin Sim.

Let Me take You Down by Jack Jones.


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A Brief History of the Disco Era (with a little help from Google)

I do love my music. At home when there is nothing much on the TV I like to flip through the recommendations that come my way on Spotify. In my car I listen to CDs. I have always told myself that my precious CDs were too good to be dragged about in my car so I lovingly copied them to writeable CD discs, carefully, in most cases editing out the tracks I didn’t like. I’d be my own invisible DJ making up new CD albums with a track from here, another from there and so on. Lately, I haven’t done that so much and seeing that I don’t play my CDs much at home, I decided not to copy them just to bring the original CDs themselves into my car.

The other day after a particularly bad day at work, a day that was busy, where things didn’t go so well and I was just wanting to forget about things and release all the stress that had built up, I searched for something new, some music that I hadn’t played for a while that would relax me. I chose a CD that was a 1970’s disco collection.

I cranked my motor up, turned up the volume and as I turned onto the M6 motorway heading for home, my mind went back to a better time, a younger, easy going more relaxed time. I went back to the disco era.

So when did the disco era start and what was the first disco record?

Looking on Google to answer that question gives up various results by numerous authors and music writers but the answers are invariably just the opinions of those same writers. One answer was Rock the Boat by the Hues Corporation, another was She’s a Winner by the Intruders. (Never heard of it.) It might even have been that disco classic, Never can Say Goodbye by Gloria Gaynor. When it comes down to it, there is no definitive answer.

A lot of disco music comes from the soul tracks of the early seventies by groups like the O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes and the Trammps. Later, traditional pop bands tried to emulate those soul groups and the resulting soul/pop sound that became disco began emerging in the early 1970s in US urban night clubs and discotheques.

Here’s another random disco fact: the word discotheque is a French word meaning a library of discs. Discotheque became used in France to describe a nightclub where playing records had replaced a live band in the 1940s during the Nazi occupation. Discotheques are where disco music began and something else that I noticed on Google were comments about the disco clubs of the seventies, the most famous one must have been the Studio 54 club in New York.  Another google result mentioned that Seventies Disco was born on Valentine’s Day 1970, when David Manusco opened The Loft in New York City.

Anyway, that’s enough of Google for a while so here are some personal memories.

The record I probably most associate with disco is The Hustle, by a group called Van McCoy. I have a feeling they were just one hit wonders but I might be wrong. The Hustle seemed to me to be the perfect disco record at the time. Great tune, a great dance beat and just really well put together. Looking back at the track today in 2021, it’s still good but it’s not the work of musical genius I once thought it was.

Back in the mid seventies I used to occasionally visit the discos of Manchester, places like Pips, Saturdays, Rotters, Fagins and a dozen other clubs I can hardly remember. There was a club called Sands in Stretford which was always packed to the seams but the disco I remember the most was one I wrote about in Floating in Space, it was called Genevieve’s.

Genevieve’s was in Longsight, which was a pretty rough area of Manchester and one of the hazards of the place was that if you went there in your car, you never found it in quite the same shape as how you left it, if you found it at all.

I remember one long ago Saturday night. My friends and I had to queue up for about ten minutes to get inside but we took that as a good sign. After all, a queue meant the club was busy. A group of grizzly bouncers scrutinised us and under their intense gaze we paid the entrance fee then went on inside. We were met by the warm fireside glow of soft lighting and the loud, pulsating beat of disco music. Coloured spot lights flashed over the four dance floors, in the hub of which sat the DJ, turning slowly around in a revolving booth.

There were five bars. Two small corner bars, two long bars, and a circular bar at the far end of the club. It really was a well set out place. We headed for one of the corner bars and my mate asked “bitter Steve?” I nodded and he called out to the barmaid.

A small army of bouncers was wandering around the club and as we waited for our drinks an argument broke out at one of the slot machines. Without any questions two burly bouncers grabbed the offender and propelled him expertly to the door. Another hooligan tried to come to the rescue by jumping on the back of one of the bouncers but a third bow-tied, black suited gorilla punched him solidly in the side, twisted his arm up his back and quickly removed him also. It was the sort of place where they didn’t stand any messing and the beer tasted like 3 parts water to one part beer and your feet stuck to the floor as you walked around. No one to my knowledge ever decided to complain to the management.

Genevieve’s attracted all sorts of people. There were smartly dressed, obviously wealthy people, peeling off rolls of bills to pay for whiskies and gins and other spirits. There were many attractive, well dressed girls. The younger girls drank halves of lager, sat in groups, and danced in groups to the Motown music of the sixties. They would drop their handbags onto the floor as they converged together for the formation dance routines for ‘Jimmy Mack’ and ‘Third Finger Left Hand’.

There were groups of lads too, who held cigarette packets and lighters in their hands, or placed them down in front of them on the tables while they drank, talked and eyed up the girls.

I spent a lot of my young life in that club. Despite the watered down drinks and the frequent fights, my friends and I had a lot of fun there until one day it either closed down or we found a better place to go.

The track that really reminds me of that club was Bus Stop by the Fatback Band. It had a strong disco beat and lyrics that just seemed to consist of ‘Bus stop!’ ‘Do the Bus stop!’ ‘Are you ready? Do the Bus Stop!’

In 1977 John Travolta appeared in the ultimate disco film ‘Night Fever’ and Travolta danced away to the music of the Bee Gees and tracks like ‘Stayin’ Alive’ and the title track ‘Night Fever’. I don’t ever remember there being dancers like that in any club I ever visited but what the heck, it was still a good film.

It wasn’t enough to buy the records and dance to disco records in clubs, you had to look the part too. I had a stack of shirts with ‘penny round’ collars and matching fat ties and quite a few pairs of flared trousers. Oh, and don’t forget the 1970’s platform shoes. I must have looked about seven foot tall back in those days.

Disco came to an abrupt end in 1979 in the USA where there seemed to be an outcry against the genre. Many music fans apparently felt that the music industry had been taken over by disco and many artists who had begun to produce disco music themselves, people such as Rod Stewart, were accused of selling out. In the UK and most of Europe, disco music morphed seamlessly into new electronic music. Artists like Michael Jackson took dance music to a new level and his album Thriller which spawned a number of hit singles became one of the best selling albums of the 1980’s.

What was the last ever disco single? The easy answer is that there wasn’t one. Dance music continued into the eighties and from there to the present day. Groups like Shalamar and Colonel Abrams just carried on producing dance tracks but if I had to put my finger on any one track as being the last of the disco era, I’d vote for I’m Coming Out by Diana Ross, released in 1980 when flared trousers were making way for drainpipes and when ties and shirt collars were thinning down.

What was your favourite disco track?


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Another Slice of My Locked Down Life

The lockdown has almost come to an end here in the UK this week. There are still some restrictions and it’s still advisable to continue wearing a mask in public and to keep washing your hands. If anything, at least we may benefit from the increased hygiene standards in future. I’m lucky in that I haven’t had the coronavirus but not only that, the winter is usually a bad time for me because I always, always end up with the flu or at least a very bad cold. This year I haven’t and that must surely be due to the continued hand washing and mask wearing.

What is also interesting is that we are now ok to fly to Australia and New Zealand. That’s great but the flip side is that those two particular places aren’t willing to let us in yet. Oh well!

The bad weather here in the UK is getting me down. We can’t go out much and inside it’s the usual routine, surfing the internet and watching TV. We decided to take a chance on the weather one day and combine the dropping off of Liz’s car at the garage to fix a faulty electric window, with a short trip to a pub that has outside dining. Liz had contacted the pub, the Midge Hall in Leyland beforehand to ask if we could stay the night in the car park in our motorhome. The landlord seemed ok with that so we parked up in a nice corner. I was glad to see that the pub had a couple of outdoor covered areas. One looked like it had either been made especially for the current coronavirus situation or had been nicely adapted from a former smoking area and another one just by the pub entrance. The ruling that week was that pubs and restaurants can open but customers must stay outdoors.

The Midge Hall

We had arranged to meet Liz’s cousin and her husband there and we had a lovely evening as well as a nice meal. The weather was warmish and it did cool off later but not unbearably so. We dined early so we didn’t stay out late, but it was good to be out and about again and good to be social, to sit at a table with friends just having some chit chat.

Our motorhome hasn’t had much use lately and it was good to get some miles under the belt on the van and give the battery a good charging. We saw quite a few motorhomes on the road and each one we saw, each one, gave us a wave. Their occupants too were glad to be back on the road I suppose.

Just recently at the Oscars, the big movie winner was Nomadland. Nomadland is set in the USA and is about a woman whose husband dies and then she loses her job because the sole employer in her town closes down. She sells up and decides to buy a van to live in so she can travel the country searching for work. I’ve not seen the film but it certainly looks interesting and I look forward to watching it when it either comes out on DVD or I see it on TV. The last Oscar winner I bought on DVD was The Shape of Water. It was universally praised but the fact is, it’s an utterly dreadful film and I’m hoping Nomadland will be better.

I suppose there is something romantic about living a nomadic life in a campervan or motorhome, stopping at a great location and then moving on when you feel it’s time to go. I’ve always loved our trips to France and we’ve found some great spots, all by lakes, plan d’eau they call them in France, lakes where you can swim. I have to say I find myself worrying sometimes; I like places where there are other vans and that always gives me a better feeling of security. Sometimes in the dark of the night when we are alone at a deserted spot and I hear noises I start to worry. The flip side is that after a day reading and swimming, it’s great to light the barbecue and settle down with a sizzling steak and some wine. Another lovely moment was last October on the Isle of Skye when we found an excellent but pricey fish and chip shop just by our park up point.

Parked by a lake in France

Could I live like that permanently? I’m not sure. In France I could perhaps drive further south when the weather turned cold and even spend the winter in Spain. That would have been easy pre-Brexit but I’m not sure how it would pan out now. A while back I started reading a blog about a woman who chose to live in a van for a year in the USA. Her big problem was the winter. I forget which state she lived in, although it might have been Oregon. The blog was called I failed at van life. Here are the 11 biggest mistakes I made. The biggest mistake was her choice of van. Looking at the pictures on the blog she chose a pick up with a camper unit bolted onto the back. She had to exit the car to go into the van area and there wasn’t a lot of space but the thing she really couldn’t take was the cold. When I say the cold, there were a few pictures showing her in what looked to me like arctic conditions. The flip side was also the heat of the summer. Think it gets hot in your car in the summer? Imagine trying to live and sleep in those stuffy conditions. Difficult but at least in our van when we experienced the heat of a French summer, we were able to stay outside until the temperatures eased but even then, the van interior was still warm and sleeping was difficult. On a couple of really hot occasions Liz wanted to leave the van door open at night but security conscious Steve didn’t. I fell asleep with the door closed but I’m pretty certain that soon after Liz opened it up. Happily, there were no roaming villains operating in the Loire at the time and we both survived.

Another easing of the lockdown came this week on the 17th when we could actually enter the interior of our beloved pubs and restaurants. Liz and I had a booking at a place called Ego in Lytham for the 17th, made many months ago and it was wonderful to sit at our regular table and be served by Ego’s friendly staff. The steak was excellent and the surroundings were warm and convivial.

Anyway, the next day it was time to forget about the cold because Tuesday the 18th emerged warm and sunny, the perfect day for some light gardening and a bit of a read out on the patio. Could even have been barbecue weather. Pity it was my back to work day!


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