The Ramblings of a Locked Down Blogger Part 3

While the lockdown is still ongoing there is not much going on my little life except for work, television and eating. I’ve written a lot about TV in the past, in fact as a couch potato of the highest order, TV viewing is one of the few activities in which I can claim to be an expert. Still, when it comes to food I’m an expert too, an expert in knowing just exactly what I like. Just in case you the reader ever decides to ask me over for dinner I thought it might be an idea to blog about my favourite foods.

Sandwiches.

What I thought I’d do is just stick with sandwiches for now. Now you might be thinking sandwiches, wow, that’s not really grabbing me, what else is available on WordPress? Where’s my google tab when I need it?

Let me see if I can just stop you from navigating away, just for a minute.

Personally, I love sandwiches. I have sandwiches every day at work and even on my days off, I tend to look longingly towards the bread bin round about early afternoon, especially if I’ve had an early breakfast.

A while back I was eating in the work’s mess room and one of my colleagues, a lady, in fact a lady of somewhat larger proportions sat nearby, and we began talking about healthy food. A lot of what she was saying was some sort of a rant about people who eat unhealthily and regrettably not a lot of what she was saying has quite caught in any lasting way onto my memory banks, but I was able to remark, in response, that my lunch, ham salad on a brown bun, was pretty healthy.

Healthy? She replied in a very shocked and surprised manner. Bread?

What’s wrong with bread I asked? It’s one of the oldest foods known to man.

As a general rule I should add that it is better never to argue with a woman who has found an almost religious fervour for the techniques of dieting and weight loss. Bread as far as I am concerned is one of the oldest and healthiest forms of food. Over on Wikipedia it is described thus:

Bread is a staple food prepared from a dough of flour and water, usually by baking. Throughout recorded history it has been a prominent food in large parts of the world. It is one of the oldest man-made foods, having been of significant importance since the dawn of agriculture, and plays an essential role in both religious rituals and secular culture. 

The name sandwich comes from John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich who one night asked his valet to bring him some meat between two slices of bread so that he could continue his card game, apparently cribbage, and eat without using a fork or getting his hands greasy. Sandwiches though, at least a form of sandwich, arrived in the world at a much earlier date and bread in various forms has been used to scoop up or wrap food in many cultures all over the world. I have always liked the humble sandwich because the sandwich enables one to eat on the go and as a hungry bus or van driver I’ve always taken advantage of that fact. Even today working in a purpose built hi tech control centre, my colleagues complain when the microwave is out of order or the oven has failed. Ha, I think, you should have brought a sandwich!

Anyway, here are a few of my favourites.

Bacon Sarnie

We in the northwest of England sometimes call a sandwich a sarnie or a butty and one universally loved in the north is a bacon butty or bacon barm. A barm, actually a barmcake, is a round white bread bun or bap. Cut one across the middle, butter it and slap on some grilled bacon and there you have the perfect way to start the day. As a further refinement, slap on some brown sauce or even an egg.

Sausage Sarnie

Similar to the bacon sarnie. Slap a few sausages on the griddle or pan. Cook until ready. Slice down the middle and arrange on your bread. Perfect with brown sauce.

Bacon Grill Sarnie

Bacon grill comes in a tin and is similar to spam in appearance and texture although in taste it is similar to sausage meat or bacon. Like a Big Mac it’s supremely unhealthy but one sandwich every now and again won’t hurt. Open the tin, slice the bacon grill and slap it on either a frying pan or under the grill for a few minutes. Transfer straight away to some buttered white bread and enjoy.

Ham salad

Probably what I’ll be eating tonight at work, I prefer this on a brown bun, split it in half, slap on the butter or margarine then chop some iceberg lettuce, some red onions, some sliced tomatoes, salt and pepper and then plenty of thinly sliced ham.

Cheese and onion

Not much to this one, get a brown bun, cut in half, slap on the butter or margarine and then you’re ready for some cheddar cheese either sliced or grated. Throw in some red onions to taste. This is nice on some plain white bread too.

Cheese and ham Toastie.

You really need a toastie maker for this but if you haven’t got one you can either grill your toastie or dry fry in frying pan. Butter the bread on the outside so it won’t stick in the toastie maker. Throw on your ham, grate some cheese and add a little onion. Slap it into the toastie maker until the cheese starts to melt. Great after a busy late shift at work. Serve with chilled lager.

The Steve Higgins Special

There’s a great moment in the Woody Allen film Broadway Danny Rose. The films starts and ends with a group of comedians, actually real-life US comedians discussing the world of comedy in New York. The conversation turns to Broadway Danny Rose, an agent who has a stable of not so great artists. Later, at the end of the film they mention that Danny Rose has received the ultimate New York honour, a sandwich named after him in the deli where they congregate. Here then is my own contender for that special honour. If I ever get to New York I might just mention it to any deli owner willing to listen.

I prefer this with a fresh white bap but it’s equally as good with a brown bun: split and butter it. Slap on some thinly sliced honey roast ham, then some grated cheddar and to finish off add a generous portion of coleslaw. Settle down, tune the TV onto your favourite channel, pour yourself a cup of tea and enjoy!

Fires.

I very nearly added a line in that last paragraph above about turning up the heating, after all, summer is long gone and now the temperature has dropped considerably. Liz still has a traditional fireplace and it is nice to sit in front of a roaring coal fire (with a steaming hot cuppa and my ham, cheese and coleslaw special) while we still have the chance. The government has banned the sale of coal from next year, so we have been buying extra supplies.

Our first few coal fires this year were a little smoky, so we felt that maybe the chimney could do with a clean. Many years ago, when I lived at home we had a coal fire. My Mum used to get up early and sort out the fire which would have been left murmuring away from the previous night. In those days the fire also heated the water in the house so no fire, no hot water.

I can fondly remember evenings sat in front of a fire watching television. Our old family dog, Bob, so named because all my Dad’s dogs were called Bob, would make his way forcefully to a spot right in front of the fire. After forcefully pushing either me or my brother out of the way he used to get as close as he possibly could to the fire and gaze thoughtfully into the flames until his nose dried up and Mum would shout at him until he reluctantly moved. A dog with a dry nose? No, not on Mum’s watch!

The visit from the chimney sweep was a big event for us kids back then. The lounge would be covered with white sheets and the sweep would bring his collection of brushes and connecting rods. Firstly, the brush would be shoved up the chimney then the next rod would be screwed on and the brush shoved up further. Then the next rod or pole would be connected until the chimney sweep would ask me and my brother to nip outside and look out for the brush popping out of the chimney.

It was always pretty exciting to see the brush pop up out of the chimney. We’d rush back in and advise him of the situation. Then he would bring down the brush, disconnect the rods and pack things away. Mum would spend forever then cleaning up despite the sheets that covered all the furniture. The dark fingers of soot would appear on the window frames and mantelpiece but the fire that evening would be brighter than ever.

I’m not sure if there still are chimney sweeps in the 21st century but it so happens that Liz has a set of chimney rods and brush, so we set about cleaning the chimney ourselves. The fireplace was sealed with a sheet of plastic and the brush poked through a small hole keeping the lounge free of soot. Ramming that brush up wasn’t so easy but finally I made some headway and started on the next connector and then the next and so on. Luckily for me Liz lives in a bungalow so there wasn’t too far to go but after a while I ended up stripping off my top as I was pouring with sweat. Afterwards, covered with soot and sweat it was time for a shower.

They must have been a tough old lot those chimney sweeps!


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So Who is the Greatest F1 Driver Ever?

As I write this Lewis Hamilton is the Formula One driver with more wins to his name than any other driver. More F1 wins that is; how he stands on actual wins in any form of racing I don’t know but back in the 1960’s and 70’s, Formula One drivers competed in a number of other non F1 races such as Formula Two or Three, Sports Cars, Saloon Cars, Can Am racing and all sorts. Now the F1 driver has an unprecedented tally of over 20 races in a season; making one every other weekend, they don’t have much time for other racing. Either way 94 F1 wins is a pretty impressive total and everything Hamilton wins now is a new record because the previous winner of the most Grands Prix, Schumacher won only 91. Only 91? Well 91 is pretty good too. The previous record holder before Michael was Alain Prost and his total was 51.

Fangio (Picture courtesy Wikipedia)

Of course, can we really understand a driver’s greatness just from his winning record? F1 racing, like all forms of motorsport is really about winning. In every Grand Prix TV interview, drivers will talk about aiming for a podium, looking to score points but really none of that matters, except the maximum points and the top step of the podium,  you know, the one where the winner stands. Hamilton, at the time of writing this has stood there 94 times which is a pretty hefty claim in the all time greatest driver stakes.

So who are the other contenders for the title Greatest Driver Ever?

Juan Manuel Fangio

Alberto Ascari was Formula One’s first ever World Champion but then came Fangio, winning an incredible 5 championships in the 1950’s, a record that stood for 46 years until overtaken by Schumacher in the 1990’s. Like Hamilton, Fangio drove for Mercedes as well as Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. Fangio won 24 F1 races out of the 52 he entered, an amazing percentage of 46.15%, the best of any F1 driver.

Jim Clark

Clark equalled Fangio’s record of Grand Prix wins and pushed the record up to 26 before he was killed in an F2 event at Hockenheim in Germany. He won only 2 world championships and drove exclusively for Colin Chapman’s Lotus team.

Jackie StewartJackie Stewart

Stewart won his first F1 race for BRM in the 1960’s and then moved to Ken Tyrell’s team in 1968. Stewart was a close friend of Clark’s and was devastated when his fellow Scot was killed. Stewart took the world championship in 1969, 1971 and 1973. He was due to compete in his 100th Grand Prix when team mate François Cevert was killed in practice for the US Grand Prix. Stewart withdrew from the race. Not only was Stewart fast, he was intelligent as a driver and had a great capacity for not only understanding his car but explaining the issues to his engineers. In 1988, he test drove the Lotus Honda of Nelson Piquet who was being soundly beaten by McLaren despite using the same world beating Honda engine. Stewart correctly divined the issues with the car after only one test drive. He took the record to 27 wins before retiring. Today Stewart is one of the elder statesmen of the sport but from what I have read on social media, he is not universally popular. He mentioned recently that neither Hamilton or Vettel are on his personal list of great drivers.

Ayrton Senna

Senna is a controversial driver in many ways. He was killed in 1994 at Imola during Formula One’s black weekend where he and fellow driver Roland Ratzenberger both lost their lives. Senna was dedicated to his profession, completely focussed on taking pole position in qualifying and from there winning races. He had a great natural talent but his ruthless attitude and determination made him few friends. I remember once being at Silverstone and heard him soundly booed although today he is revered as a legend of the sport. Senna won three championships and took the record for wins and pole positions to new heights.

Alain Prost

Prost was known as the Professor, a nickname which reflected his intelligence and race craft as well as his undeniable talent. He and Senna enjoyed a fierce rivalry which ended with Prost stepping down from the race winning Williams team rather than accept Senna as a team mate and repeat their toxic relationship from their days at McLaren. Prost won 51 races and four world championships.

Sebastian Vettel

Vettel won four world championships but later moved to Ferrari where things have not gone quite so well for him. He has been involved in various controversies over the years. He overtook Red Bull team mate Mark Webber despite a radio message asking the drivers to hold their status as first and second and he was once involved in a wheel banging incident with Lewis Hamilton when he perceived Hamilton had unexpectedly brake tested him. He leaves Ferrari at the end of 2020 for the new Aston Martin team.

Michael Schumacher 

Schumacher is another controversial driver. A hard racer, he won his first championship by pushing Damon Hill off the track in Australia. He moved to Ferrari taking with him the key technical staff from his previous team Benetton and went on to retire after collecting 7 world championships and 91 Grand Prix wins.

Lewis Hamilton 

Hamilton’s victory in the recent Turkish Grand Prix confirms his win of the 2020 championship and came with his 94th win. It was actually an epic win where he started down the grid due to a poor qualifying performance but kept things together, gradually moving through the field to the top spot.

Hamilton has of course had the best car just like all the other great drivers. F1 is a team sport and the days when a driver could manhandle a bad car to the front of the pack, just with driver skills alone are long gone. Another advantage Hamilton has had is coming straight into F1 driving for the top team which at the time was McLaren. There were no up and coming years for Lewis, no trying hard to show off his talent in a poor back of the grid team.

McLaren’s days at the top have waned in recent years but perhaps Hamilton saw McLaren’s fall from the top coming, which may explain why he moved to Mercedes. Mercedes have brought on board other great talents in both the managerial and engineering fields and today, Mercedes are the undisputed kings of F1. I think Hamilton has a strong claim to be the number one of all time and it’s sad that some people still refuse to admit as such.

Still, any judgement of drivers across the many decades of the sport is bound to include personal tastes. Many would include Gilles Villeneuve in the hallowed halls of the greatest ever drivers. For me he was a good driver, nothing more. Conversely, I always thought Ronnie Peterson was one of the future greats and would go on to multiple championships; sadly, he never did and was killed in 1978 but I have always thought of him as high on the list of great drivers. Nigel Mansell with his one and only championship in 1992 was another great driver. His was not a natural talent. I’ve always thought that like Graham Hill, he was a man who had to work hard for his victories. It was not for nothing the Italian Tifosi named him ‘Il Leone’, the lion. Spare a thought too for Stirling Moss, the greatest driver never to win a world championship. His record of 16 victories stood for a long time as the best of any British driver.

Hats off to Lewis Hamilton then. 94 wins and more will take some beating.


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Locked Down Blogger Part 2

It finally happened last week. It had been rumoured and expected. It had been predicted many months ago and so here it is. I’m talking of course about the second wave of the Coronavirus epidemic and the resulting second lockdown. There was some advance notice and as a result Liz and I were able to book a table and enjoy a last meal out. We even thought what the heck and went for a second bottle of wine just like the other couple in the next table sitting a socially distanced two metres to our left.

So that’s a month coming up with no nights out at the pub, no meals out and no quiz nights. The big problem with this second lockdown is the weather. In the first one I was quite happy sitting out in the sunshine reading a book. Now we have entered November here in the north of England it seems as though it has been constantly raining. What can we find of interest then? Well the big interest for me just lately is the American election. Like many people, I thought the election was a foregone conclusion, that Trump would be out and whoever the democrats chose would be in. It just so happened that the democratic candidate was Joe Biden. Joe is getting on a little bit for the top job and wouldn’t necessarily have been my choice but then again, neither would Donald Trump. As I write this the election is still ongoing, they are still counting the votes in a few remaining states. Both candidates are claiming victory and one is claiming huge voter fraud. Biden has so far been pretty much acclaimed as the winner, having received congratulations from previous presidents Obama and George W Bush. No congratulations have been forthcoming from Donald Trump and his legal team has already initiated legal action. I’m not sure who exactly they are planning to take to court but either way, that has not stopped Joe Biden getting his transition team together and making plans for when he takes office.

I wrote something back in 2016 about the smooth transition of power in the great democracies and even wondered what would happen if ever the outgoing president refused to budge. That was just wild blogging speculation but now some commentators are saying it could actually happen. This is almost as interesting for me as Watergate.

There was a time when I thought I understood the US election, now I’m not so sure. Hillary Clinton and Al Gore both won the popular vote in previous elections but failed to get enough electoral college votes to take them to the White House. I’m even confused about the primaries, I mean I was convinced Bernie Sanders would be the democratic candidate, but he stepped down earlier in the year and then Biden seemed to become the candidate virtually unchallenged and his projected walkover victory over Trump has just not happened. Many people actually support Trump. Some give their support because they are dyed in the wool Republicans, some presumably admire him but either way, 48% of the votes were for him.

I was watching TV the other day and a female black voter was being interviewed and surprisingly, she was voting for Trump. She wouldn’t vote for Biden she said because he was a socialist, which in the USA is one step from being a communist. Maybe that explains why Trump has such a following; in many places he must be seen as the anti-socialist. Trump did well in Florida where many Cubans found home after leaving communist Cuba.

When Nixon won the election in 1968 he spotted a supporter in a crowd with a banner proclaiming Bring us together and made that a campaign slogan. Bringing Americans together is a big ask for whoever wins in 2020 but I wish him luck in doing just that.

Theoretically this should be a great time for writers. What could be a better time to write than the lockdown, after all there isn’t much else to do. A few months back I shelled out a hundred or so dollars to list my screenplay on a web site called InkTip. InkTip is a way of bringing producers and writers together. They produce a newsletter for producers listing scripts and also provide subscribers with weekly lists of producers who want scripts. My screenplay has seen a lot of action lately with various producers reading either the synopsis or the script itself but that million-dollar deal has yet to surface. I live in hope.

My screenplay was one I wrote quite a few years back and I read through it recently and had an idea for a new ending. I added the new ending, tidied everything up and that final version was the one I added to InkTip. As I reviewed it again the other day – I don’t know about you but I’m always reviewing my old stuff- I realised that it was written before today’s mobile phone, Twitter and Instagram age. Not one of the characters has a phone. I might have to spend the lockdown adding mobile phones to my screenplay and bringing it into the 21st century.

Another project I’ve been working on during the lockdown is a video covering my recent trip to the Scottish Highlands. It’s mostly GoPro video from a camera stuck to my motorhome window. I’ve added some stills and some bits where I talk straight to the camera. I had a lot of technical problems putting it together, particularly recording the voice over. The voice over is pretty important because the actual visual stuff isn’t that exciting. When I recorded it, my laptop clearly couldn’t keep up with playing video and recording sound at the same time, so I had to record my voice separately and then add it to the video. That makes it difficult because normally as I’m reading the narration I tend to react to what is on screen so I can slow down or speed up if required or just add lib if I need to.

I was feeling pretty pleased with myself when I finished it and quickly got it uploaded to YouTube. I added the video to a video creators page that I follow and got some pretty reasonable feedback. What was really annoying was when I decided to tinker with it and spotted a couple of things I hadn’t noticed. One was in the credits at the end where I credited the music as Soul Grove instead of Soul Groove. Oh, and there was one more. In one of the stills of the motorhome I hadn’t picked up that Liz was rather cheekily giving me the V sign through the window! The thing is, the video had already garnered 72 views so do I delete and add the updated version or just leave things as they are? Decisions, decisions.

I’ve has a couple of nights on my own this week, as usual keeping my mothers house ship shape and lived in. One night I thought I’d make one of my favourite dishes, bruschetta. It just so happened I had some ciabatta in the freezer as well as onions and tomatoes. So here we go, I sliced the bread and popped it in the toaster for a light toasting. While that was going on I chopped the tomatoes and onions, mixed them up with a little garlic and olive oil. I Popped the bread out, slapped on the tomato and onion mixture and settled down to eat. It was wonderful.

It was so good I decided on another Italian favourite for the second course. aglio olio peperoncino. It’s basically spaghetti with olive oil, garlic and chilli. What could go wrong with that?

The quick answer is everything, overdone spaghetti, burnt garlic and those chillies I used last week on a curry that weren’t very hot: this week they were hot!

When is my favourite Italian restaurant opening again?


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My Top Ten Books of All Time Part 2

I do love books and like everyone I have my favourites. Last week I wrote about reading a blog post asking the reader for their top 5 books of all time. I decided to go one better and work out my top ten. I gave you the first five of my top ten books of all time and this week it’s time for the other five, all in no particular order.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

This book is a cold war thriller from the famous spy writer John Le Carré. Leamas runs the Berlin station and his opposite number over in East Germany is bearing down hard on his agents. Back in London Control, the head of the Secret Service has an idea to deal with this man. Leamas becomes a little fed up with himself. He gets a new job in a library, he drinks too much. He gets involved with a young librarian who turns out to be a communist party member. He assaults a small shop owner and ends up in prison. When he emerges, he is approached by various persons all wanting background information for a foreign news service. Leamas becomes a defector and only then do we realise what his mission is all about. Le Carré isn’t actually one of my favourite writers but in this book his slow burning style is perfect as the plot evolves slowly and methodically. A great read.

2001 A Space Odyssey

I first saw the film version of 2001 in the summer of 1968. I was only 11 at the time and I remember my Mum being surprised I had spent hours at the cinema on a lovely hot day. I watched the film in the huge movie theatre in Northenden, now a Jehovah’s Witness assembly hall. There were only a few people in the picture house that day and it was wonderful having this huge place almost to myself and seeing this incredible film in 70mm on the big screen. I recall being somewhat confused by it all, especially the jump from Neanderthal times to the future. I was so confused that I had to buy the novel by Arthur C Clarke which explained things in a way the movie did not.

The book is a wonderfully well written, plausible space adventure. It is about a mysterious monolith which appears on earth in Neolithic times and helps the ape men of the day to develop. Later, in the future, the mysterious monolith is found buried on the moon and when it is exposed to sunlight for the first time, it blasts off a signal to Saturn. Anyway, the scientists of the day decide that the monolith is part of some extra-terrestrial intelligence and set up a manned space mission to investigate. As the mission progresses, the onboard computer, HAL, decides to have something of a nervous breakdown which creates an unexpected hazard for the crew. All the technology that Clarke wrote about had its origins in science fact, both the space missions and the computer technology which make up the main parts of the story.

Verdict: The book is a wonderful read, one of the classics of science fiction.

The History of Mr Polly

This is not a science fiction story despite being penned by H G Wells. Our hero, Mr Polly finds himself in a very dull job with a very dull wife and resolves to commit suicide. Anyway, events unfold and instead of committing suicide, Polly accidentally starts a fire which threatens the whole street and he then mounts a brave rescue of an old lady. Instead of dying, Mr Polly becomes a hero and when the insurance money comes in, he leaves his wife, nicely settled with the insurance money, takes a little for himself and departs for pastures new. He sends some money to a post office in another village and gradually meanders in that direction, sleeping in fields and hedges, getting himself a tan. He works occasionally when he wants and sleeps when the mood takes him at other times.

He comes across the Potwell Inn and asks for work and right away finds himself at home. He potters about happily at the Potwell Inn, cleaning, serving and doing various odd jobs. One day the landlady’s nephew appears. He is a violent bully having been in and out of prison for years. He doesn’t like Mr Polly getting in the way so he decides to scare him off. What should Polly do, stay and help or just leave?

I first read this book many years ago and I’ve always liked its simple philosophy. If you don’t like your situation, change it says the author.

The History of Mr Polly is a lovely gentle read by a classic author.

My well thumbed copy of David Copperfield

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.

I couldn’t tell you what my number one favourite book of all time is, but a strong contender must be ‘David Copperfield’ by Charles Dickens.

It’s a book written by a wonderful wordsmith and is rich in powerful and subtle images.

A lot of Dickens’ characters display their personal characters and traits through their names. Uriah Heep and Mr Murdstone for instance. Even when we are yet to be introduced to these fictional people we can understand a lot about them from the sound of their names. This is how Dickens works, giving us numerous hints and pointers to who these people are and what they are like.

James Steerforth though is something of an exception. He is my favourite character from within Dickens’ pages and he is neither a Heep nor a Murdstone; neither a Pickwick nor a Bumble. Apart from David Copperfield himself, he is the most human of Dickens’ creations. He is kind but can be unpleasant, caring and yet selfish, thoughtful but also unfeeling. In short, as Mr Micawber might say, he is full of human contradictions.

The best part in the book probably, for me at any rate, is the storm when David returns to Yarmouth. Dickens builds the storm slowly and each word and phrase adds a new layer to the sense of danger and foreboding and when Copperfield is finally reunited with his old friend Steerforth at the height of the storm’s ferocity, death comes between them and Steerforth is sadly drowned. Dickens reveals this in a unique way for he does not tell the reader Steerforth is dead. He leaves the reader to realise this themselves and in the process, makes the reader almost at one with the narrative.

Throughout the book, Dickens mentions in passing Steerforth’s habit of sleeping with his head on his arm. It’s referred to many times in the narrative almost as matter of non-interest. Something unimportant that the reader doesn’t really need to know, but when David Copperfield spies someone aboard a stricken ship trapped in the fierce storm who evokes some faint remembrance for him, a tiny warning bell is set off.

Finally, when the body of a drowned man is brought ashore and lies mutely on the sand, his head upon his arm, we know just from that simple bit of information, without the author telling us anything more, that Steerforth is dead. The prompts and clues that Dickens has hinted at have paid off for the reader in the most satisfying of ways.

I’ve returned to this wonderful book time and time again, to enjoy that unique almost religious feeling, that communion with the thoughts of a man who died in 1870, over a hundred and forty years ago, yet whose frozen thoughts live on in the pages of his books.

As long as people read books, Charles Dickens and his characters will live on.

The Da Vinci Code

I thought I’d finish with this book, the Da Vinci code as it’s the most recent book in my selection. It was Dan Brown’s second book and it was a publishing sensation. It was the book everyone was reading and the book that you just had to read. It was also involved in some controversy as the writers of a nonfiction book the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, claimed that Brown had pinched their ideas. The dispute ended up in court with Brown winning his case.

The book opens with the murder of a man named Saunière in the Louvre museum in Paris. Robert Langdon is called in to help with a cryptic clue left behind by the deceased. That and other clues lead Langdon on a chase to find the murderer, a monk named Silas. Silas works for someone known only as the Teacher and together they are on a quest to find the Holy Grail. Sir Leigh Teabing explains that the grail is not a cup but a tomb containing the bones of Mary Magdalene.  Later Langdon discovers that Teabing is in fact the Teacher and he wishes to destroy the Catholic church by proving Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.

For me this book was just an amazing read and one that I just couldn’t put down. I had also read the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail many years ago and Brown tips a nod to that book in many ways. One was naming his murder victim as Jacques Saunière who was a real individual in the Holy Blood, a man who took over a small church in the French region of Rennes-le-Château and one day became very rich. He had found something hidden in the church, perhaps it was gold, perhaps it was something to do with the mysterious Priory of Sion and their claim that Jesus and Mary produced a child who later became related to the Meringovian Dynasty of France.

Is it all true? I don’t know but Dan Brown has picked up these historical threads and woven it expertly into an unputdownable novel.


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My Top 10 Books of All Time

The other day I was looking through one of those writer’s pages I subscribe to. One particular page is for writers to talk about stuff, you know, publishing, agents, even actual writing but writers being a self-indulgent selfish lot, they usually just post links to their new books. Being similarly selfish I tend to add links to my new blog posts but on this occasion, I noticed something different, someone had asked a question. What are your 5 favourite books of all time?

Straight away I jotted down four, I struggled for a fifth and then remembered I had already started a post about my top 100 books of all time. It was waiting there quietly in my drafts folder and I’m sorry to say I was well short of a 100. I had got as far as 21 books and so for the purposes of this blog post, I’ve whittled it down to 10. I’ll give you five this week and five the next so here we go, in no particular order . .

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

What can I say about this modern classic that hasn’t be said before? I’ve tried reading other books by Fitzgerald, but they haven’t really hooked me. This one though is nothing short of wonderful. It’s a sad haunting book and the text is so lovely, so lyrical it could almost be a poem, especially the very last page.

Gatsby is an enigma. A millionaire rumoured to have made his money during prohibition who holds lavish parties in the New York neighbourhood of West Egg. The bright and beautiful of New York are drawn to these parties like moths to a flame and one day, or so Gatsby hopes, Daisy, his lost love, will come too.

Things don’t work out as Gatsby has planned because Daisy has a husband and children. A hot summer in New York adds to the tension and Fitzgerald presents the jazz age to the reader with warmth and nostalgia. Read this book and revel in the author’s lyrical elegance.

Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse

I’ve always loved this book. It’s a very northern book, written by Keith Waterhouse and it’s about a young lad who fantasises a lot. So much so that he has a whole fantasy world up there in his head. It’s called Ambrosia. In Ambrosia the army traditionally salute with the left hand, a tribute to survivors of the revolution who all lost their right arms in battle. Billy fantasises about writing a great novel, the one like mine that he is always going to start tomorrow. He has two girlfriends on the go, both of whom he has proposed to and has given them both the same ring. He wants to be a TV scriptwriter and has gone as far as sending his scripts to a TV comedian. He dreams of going to London to work. The book was a successful film and someone once told me they saw the stage version which used a revolving stage for Billy to enter into Ambrosia.

Lost Horizon

James Hilton is one of my personal writing heroes and yet his name may be unfamiliar to many of you reading this blog. He was a journalist and an author and made the trip from his home in Leigh, Lancashire, (now Greater Manchester) in the UK to the Hollywood Hills in the United States to become a screen writer. He is probably more well known for his book ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ which was made into a film with Robert Donat (actually another northerner from Didsbury in Manchester) but my favourite of his books and quite possibly my all-time favourite book is ‘Lost Horizon’.

Lost Horizon is a book I found in a second-hand shop many years ago. A battered 1940s paperback, I paid twenty-five pence for and yet that small investment has paid me back many times over for sheer reading pleasure as Lost Horizon is a book I re read every year or so and I often pull it down from my bookshelf when a current read fails to entertain me.

Lost Horizon is a completely original idea and is about British consul Robert Conway in the dark days before World War II. Conway is helping his fellow British citizens escape from civil war in China and he and his small party escape in the last plane, only to be kidnapped and taken to a distant Tibetan monastery. Conway meets the High Lama and after a time it is revealed that the Tibetans want to preserve the best of world culture and art and make it safe from the coming war.

Hilton is one of those few people who have invented a word or coined a phrase that has become part of the English language. In this case it was the name of the Tibetan monastery, Shangri-la which has since become a byword for a peaceful paradise, a distant haven. Camp David, the US President’s retreat was originally called Shangri-la until renamed by Eisenhower for his son, David.

Lost Horizon was made into a movie by Hollywood director Frank Capra and starred Ronald Colman as the urbane British diplomat of the novel. It’s a movie that was restored some time ago and is a great DVD if you happen to see it.

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

You might possibly be wondering about this book and how it got into my top ten. OK, it isn’t one of the classics and it isn’t exactly by a world-renowned author but what the heck, I’ve always liked it and it’s one of my favourite books. Books come in all shapes and sizes and while some books focus on strong and emotive subjects like love, life, tragedy and the universe, some books lift you up in other ways. I’ve always had a dream of living in France in a big old country house and in this book the author and his wife move to a village in Provence. In a quietly amusing way the author documents his new life which involves things like dining out, sorting out a new boiler and engaging French workmen to remodel his house. They once made it into a rather badly received TV series but the book is a gentle, relaxing summer read.

A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow

Whenever I plug my own short novel, Floating in Space, I usually try to link it to classic kitchen sink novels of the past like this one. The sixties were a great time for working class novels and many of them were made into films.

The story is a very simple one; Vic Brown is a draughtsman in a Yorkshire factory and he gets involved with a secretary called Ingrid. When Vic learns Ingrid is pregnant, he does the ‘proper’ thing for the 1960’s and offers to marry her. Sounds simple but this is a complex and fascinating book and looks at the subtleties of relationships and how the characters make their way through a series of difficult choices. For a northerner like me, it’s also nice to read about things and places I can directly relate to. The first part of the book where Vic, who narrates the book, talks about a family wedding brings back so many memories of similar weddings when I was a child. Barstow was a Yorkshire writer and A Kind of Loving was the first part of a trilogy. My well thumbed copy has all three parts in one volume.


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The Story of my Life in Less than 2500 Words

My life in 2500 words? Really? My whole life, everything? Is that possible? Well, hang on a minute, give me a chance. I’ve been reading a book by Nora Ephron called I Feel Bad about my Neck and its really just a series of essays. In fact, Nora would be a great blogger because all her essays are nice blog sized pieces which could all easily be humorous blog posts. Her book is a little bit of a cheat really, it reminds me of a book by Spike Milligan I read years ago, A Bit of a Book I think it was called. It was full of little drawings and sketches which could easily be flipped through and other things like blank pages entitled the blank of England.

It was all very humorous but I read the book in about thirty minutes. Nora’s book is one I tend to read at work on my lunch breaks and if I had taken it on holiday, I would have easily read it in a few hours. Anyway, I shouldn’t really be bad mouthing Nora because her book is pretty funny and one of the essays was called The Story of My Life in less than 3500 Words which has inspired this blog post. Some of course would say that this blog post is a blatant rip off of Nora’s book but I can assure you it isn’t. Well, not that much anyway.

This won’t be my whole life of course, I’ll probably leave many things out, especially the bad bits and the boring moments but here we go.

I was born in 1956, way back in the mid-20th century in Manchester in the north of England. I was born in October which has always rather annoyed me. Why couldn’t I have been born in July or August or better still earlier in the year, sometime in the spring? I don’t like October; in fact, I never have. I don’t like the fireworks coming up in November and the endless weeks of bangers going off at unexpected times of the day and night and neither do I like Hallowe’en where complete strangers have the cheek to knock on my door and ask for treats. Not only that I don’t like the cold which is why I would much prefer a warmer time of the year for my birthday. It’s not much to ask and I would enjoy it much more.

(I’m starting to worry now about fitting everything in. Here we are, two paragraphs in and I’ve not mentioned much except my birthday.)

I went to school in Wythenshawe in the south of Manchester and I’d like to tell you that I excelled in various things and won various prizes and stuff like that. The fact is I didn’t although I did get picked for the school high jump team once. I had managed to jump an incredible six foot and to be honest I’m not sure how I did it. I could say I discovered an innate skill for high jumping but well, that’s another of those things I’d like to tell you, despite it actually being untrue. One day I did this amazing jump, I’m not sure how and the next thing I was asked to join our team at a local school for some sort of athletics competition.

The big problem with that was that the match was on a Thursday and on Thursdays I used to like to be at home for my favourite TV show which at the time was Thunderbirds. I did mention to the other members of my team that the possibilities of me arriving at the rival school for the high jump was pretty non-existent but my fellow team members, who I might add at this point were all older and bigger than me and actually now I think of it, rather hostile explained a lot about team spirit and stuff like that and how much better it would for me to be on time.

This is me when I was a pretty good looking guy. Later my looks went all downhill.

Some threatening behaviour was involved which made me think more about the team spirit thing and so I turned up ready for the jump. The annoying thing was at this school, the name of which escapes me, the high jump was set up on a sort of uphill slope which made it a little difficult for me to get up to speed for the correct lift off for the jump. To cut a long story short, I failed my jump, I was eliminated and was never asked to join the team again. To this day I remember the look on our team captain’s face as he shook his head mumbling ‘Six feet?‘ The flip side is that I was free on a Thursday for Thunderbirds.

I liked junior school but after that, school just went downhill for me and I left aged 16 clutching my four O levels. I should confess that actually one of those O levels was a CSE grade 1 which counted, so I was told, as an O level pass. Still I am now 64 years old and never once in my entire life, not once, have I been asked for proof of my 4 O levels, not in any job ever. So now I think of it, I just might as well have told my employers I had ten O levels or maybe even just upgraded them to A levels. Of course, that’s the kind of knowledge that only comes with experience and nowadays, no one is interested in whether I have 4 or 12 O levels or even whether I have any at all.

When I was at school I wanted, among other things to be a journalist. I went along to our careers teacher, Mr Sherriff, imparted this information and waited for his advice. I remember him asking me how I was going to do that. Him asking me? Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way round? Wasn’t he supposed to tell me that I could go on a course or maybe apply to the Manchester Evening News to be a trainee reporter? The next few minutes are a bit of a blur but I remember leaving his office after being told that I would soon receive a letter telling me about my coming interview. Now the Manchester Evening News had been mentioned, mostly by me and I remember telling all my friends I was soon to be interviewed for a reporter’s post with the News. My schoolmates were impressed, in fact very impressed because all Mr Sherriff ever did was get pupils a job with Barclays bank. A few days later Mr Sheriff called me back and handed me a letter. I had an interview arranged for 3 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon. I remember hoping that I would be back in time for Thunderbirds. Did I know where Barclays bank was asked Mr Sherriff? It didn’t matter because he gave me a handout detailing its location in Manchester city centre. Barclays bank I asked? What about the Manchester Evening News? The Manchester Evening News don’t have trainee reporters blared Mr Sherriff and quickly dismissed me.

I went for the interview. It was all very pleasant but I didn’t get the job although I wasn’t particularly upset about it. Once again my Thursdays were free for Thunderbirds although by this time, I was probably watching the next Gerry Anderson series, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. I wasn’t a great fan of Captain Scarlet although I do remember getting a model of an SPV, Captain Scarlet’s Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle for either Christmas or my birthday so I must have been at least somewhat interested in it.

After a quick look on the internet I see that by 1973 when I left school, Gerry Anderson was making the live action series The Protectors so that’s my Captain Scarlet memory right out of the window.

I’ve always been a fan of Gerry Anderson, all the way from Fireball XL5 to UFO. I didn’t like Space 1999, I much preferred Star Trek but before leaving Gerry I just want to say a last word about Thunderbirds. It’s really more of an observation than anything but I just want to get it off my chest. It’s something which has been annoying me ever since I first saw the show as a schoolboy, and it’s this:

Thunderbirds was a sci-fi puppet show from the 1960’s. A secret organisation known as International Rescue is based on former astronaut Jeff Tracy’s island home. His five sons pilot the Thunderbird vehicles and Alan Tracy, as you might know, is the pilot of Thunderbird 3, which is a space ship. Thunderbird 3 launches from underground, blasting off right through the circular opening of the island’s Round House. Now to access the craft, Alan sits down on the settee in the Tracy Island main house. His Dad, Jeff Tracy, flicks a switch and Alan and the settee drop down into an underground complex. OK? With me so far?

Well this is where the problem arises. As you can see from the video above, Alan and the settee drop down on a sort of hydraulic pole, just behind him we see another settee, being pushed up towards the lounge on another hydraulic pole, where it pops into the vacant slot where Alan’s settee was moments earlier. However, as Alan’s settee is going down on the first hydraulic pole, and the alternate settee is on a second hydraulic pole to his rear; there is no way that second settee is going to pop into the vacant slot left by the first. Also, what if Alan was watching TV when the call came in and he goes off on the departing settee with the remote control? It could be halfway to trajectory insertion when Jeff wants to switch over to Sky Sport and he says, “Who’s got the remote?”

Not only that, imagine if Alan was on his way to an emergency launch which came in while Grandma was in the kitchen making everyone a cup of tea and a slice of toast?

THE SCENE. INTERIOR. DAY. TRACY ISLAND LOUNGE.

JEFF TRACY
This is a job for Thunderbird 3.

ALAN TRACY
OK Dad. Ready for launch.

JEFF TRACY
Off you go Alan.

ALAN TRACY
Bye Dad, tell Grandma I’ll have a brew later.

JEFF TRACY
Look Alan, those tea bags don’t grow on trees you know. We have them imported from the UK.

ALAN TRACY
Gee whizz Dad, never thought of that. Only thing is, that rocket on collision course with the sun, don’t you think that has to take priority?

JEFF TRACY
Well . . . Sometimes I fancy an extra cuppa anyway so I guess I could always finish yours off. Hot diggedy dog Alan, you’re right. Off you go and I’ll sort your brew out.

ALAN TRACY
Thanks Dad.

JEFF PRESSES A SWITCH AND THE SETTEE DROPS AWAY ON ITS HYDRAULIC POLE INTO THE CAVERNOUS SECRET WORLD BENEATH THE TRACY HOME.

JEFF TRACY
Right, that’s that. Think I might have a gander at Sky Sports. Where the heck is the remote? Grandma! Grandma! Where has the old biddy got to? Bet she’s got the damned remote, she’s always watching daytime TV.

JEFF GOES OFF STAGE RIGHT TO LOOK FOR GRANDMA.

GRANDMA ENTERS STAGE LEFT WITH A TRAY OF TEA AND TOAST.

GRANDMA
Jeff! Alan! Now where have those two got to? Where have they moved the settee to? Sure it used to be just hereeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

Yes, when you look closely, that Thunderbird 3 launch procedure has a major health and safety issue!

This where I have to make a confession and reveal the stuff above about Thunderbirds I wrote for an earlier post a few years back but it’s nice to see that it has slotted in so nicely.

Anyway back to the story of my life. My first job was as a clerk in the estates department of an insurance company, Refuge Assurance Ltd. Now on my very first day the first thing I was told was the difference between Assurance and Insurance. I’ve often thought about that. I wish I could remember what the hell that difference was. It’s bothered me for quite a while. Anyway, I worked in the Estates department which I have to say was actually really interesting. Our company owned a lot of property in central Manchester and I used to collect the rents and enter it all in a big ledger. Once, we were told in hushed tones about the impending arrival of a million-pound cheque. As it happens, I’ve written about that before but just in case you didn’t read that earlier post, this is what happened:

As I was only a mere teenage accounts clerk, I was running low on the pecking order to see this cheque, although it was actually my job to process it as I did with all the other cheques that came into the department. In due course, one of the very senior managers came down with the cheque and with great reverence it was handed to my boss Mr Ross. Mr Ross perused the cheque for a while along with a small clique of other managers and then conveyed it to the senior clerk, Mr Elliott. After marvelling at this great artefact for a few moments, he then passed the cheque to me. Numerous staff members from our and neighbouring departments also came to take a peek at this financial wonder which I believe, was the result of the company either selling off our sister company, Federated Assurance, or doing some fabulous property deal.

Anyway I did my job and duly entered the cheque into the ledger then put it in the safe ready to go down to banking prior to 3pm, as in those days, banks closed at 3pm. ‘Good heavens!’, declared one of the senior managers, ‘we can’t just leave the cheque there, all afternoon.’ I don’t know what they thought was likely to happen to it but I was despatched on a special journey to the bank for this very special cheque. Actually, that suited me quite well. After paying the cheque into the local bank I sauntered round the corner to the sandwich shop, ordered sausage on toast and after a quick gander through the Daily Express, made my way quietly back to work. Just as I arrived back in the office, I realised that the senior management staff were still there, waiting for news. What had happened? Were there any problems? They seemed rather disappointed when I told them that no cataclysm had occurred, the bank had not come to a standstill but the million-pound cheque had been routinely deposited. Thinking back, I’m not sure I liked the way they were looking at me, perhaps they knew all along I’d been to the sarnie shop!

Anyway, getting back to the cheque, it was actually not really that impressive. It was not printed but hand written in a very scrawling, looping, and altogether unreadable hand and it occurred to me that the payee, Refuge Assurance Company limited, could quite easily be changed to Stephen Higgins Esquire had there been some tippex handy. As this was an accounts department you might think we had a great deal of tippex, however tippex was completely Verboten.  It was never used, and in the event of a mistake being made, the procedure was to strike a line through the error, sign your name, date it and then add the correct figure. Looking back, I’m starting to wonder whether that’s why management were so keen to get that cheque into the bank, did they see me eyeing it up with a greedy sort of look on my face?

A few years later I handed in my resignation. Just before that a colleague who had a degree but as a clerk was completely useless, also handed in his notice. After our resignations we compared notes. He looked very pleased with himself because the company had offered him more money to stay on. I lied and told him they had offered me more money too although actually they didn’t offer me a bean. As a matter of fact, looking back, they seemed rather happy to see the back of me.

Well, I’d like to tell you more about myself, how I left the Insurance world behind and went on to greater success. I’d like to tell you that. I would. But the truth is . .

I’m already over 2500 words!


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Birthdays, Highlands and Hamish Macbeth

Last week was my birthday week and Liz suggested a trip up to the Scottish Highlands. The Scottish Highlands I thought, is it hot there? Can you sunbathe and swim in the sea? Well, you can although I wouldn’t advise it in October. The thing is with the current lockdowns in place all over the country and indeed the world, jetting off to somewhere warm isn’t much of an option. Anyway, our much under used motorhome was sitting on the drive just waiting for an opportunity for a run out so off we went.

Traffic was quiet on the M6 north so we made good time, arriving at our designated stopping place in the early evening. Park4Night is a great app to use for motorhomers telling us about handy stopping places nearby. We stopped in Lanark for the night just by the Loch and used a local chip shop to get our tea. Fish, chips and mushy peas seemed to take a hell of a long time and a great deal of commotion seemed to be aroused in the back office of the chip ship. However, finally our food arrived and we nipped off smartly back to our stopping place by the loch. Communicating in a Lanark chippy wasn’t easy, especially for the Italian guy who took my order. He had to go from Scottish/English to Mancunian/English which must be hard for any foreigner, especially so for an Italian living in Scotland. That is probably why I ended up with baked beans with my chips instead of peas. Beans with fish and chips is an insult to any northerners palate so the beans were stowed away for breakfast. The fish and chips were good though.

The next day, despite the rain, we made our way steadily to Loch Lomond where we stopped for the night. The Balloch House inn apparently welcomes motor home stop overs as long as they use the pub so we booked in for our evening meal. My meal, actually my birthday meal was nice but Liz’s wasn’t so good. New social distancing rules meant we could only stay for 90 mins in the Balloch House but round the corner we found a nice socially distanced pub serving some great beers.

Mallaig

Day 3 found us arriving at Mallaig, the quiet fishing village where we could board the small ferry to the Isle of Skye. Skye was a spectacular place, starkly beautiful and it reminded me so much of Lanzarote with deep valleys and great hills and mountains reaching into the sky. We found an excellent parking spot, again recommended by Park4Night which was conveniently just across from a fantastic chip shop. Fish, chips and peas was our evening meal again, although this particular chip shop served haddock rather than cod. The food was excellent and though it was a little pricey, the portions were huge. The view from the car park across the bay at Broadford was one we could only really appreciate the next morning.

The view across the bay.

The rain finally eased off the next day and we explored Skye bathed in warm autumn sunshine. We made a quick stop to pick up some Isle of Skye black pudding and after some more exploring we left the island over the bridge to the mainland and went in search of Plockton.

The splendour of Skye

Plockton is a small highland village where the TV series Hamish Macbeth was filmed. Macbeth is played by Robert Carlyle and he is the village bobby in the small fictional village of Lochdubh. Macbeth is a laid-back relaxed character. He is not averse to poaching the odd salmon and he likes to apply the rule of law in his own way. He avoids promotion as all he wants is to remain in his beloved village. The TV series is actually completely different to the books on which the series was based which was a little of a surprise to me and most of the characters in the series are the invention of the TV writers and not M.C. Beaton who wrote the books. I’m not sure how happy I would be if someone made a TV show out my book and then proceeded to change all the characters, still I did enjoy Hamish Macbeth as a TV show. It was an oddball quirky little drama which ran for only three seasons. I’m sure I once picked up a copy of one of the Hamish Macbeth books. Pity I can’t remember what I did with it otherwise I’d add a review.

I’m always surprised when I come across a location that I have seen before on TV because film seems to make things look bigger. Plockton was small and narrow in real life although on television it looks considerably more spacious. Years ago I visited Portmerion, the Welsh location for the TV show The Prisoner. The Prisoner was a hit TV show in the late sixties starring Patrick McGoohan as number 6, a former spy who resigns and who is whisked to a secret village where number 2 constantly asks the question ‘why did you resign?’.

It was a great series featuring elements of sci-fi and espionage and although outwardly a thriller there is much more to The Prisoner, and its counterculture and fantasy themes gave it a cult following which has continued to the present day. All the exteriors were shot in Portmerion and when I visited in 1986 or 87, number 6’s cottage was used as a shop by the Prisoner Appreciation Society. Like Plockton everything seemed smaller but I did recognise a lot of places used in the TV show.

Hamish Macbeth is completely different. I love the oddball characters like TV John, so named as he was the first in the village to get a TV set. The other villagers who meet regularly in the village pub are just as oddball as John but Hamish himself, torn between two women, Isobel the local journalist and Alexandra the author, is probably my favourite. He expertly solves various minor crimes and issues in the village, making sure visiting officers get all the credit so he can escape promotion and remain quietly in the village he so loves.

Plockton itself is a tiny village with a small harbour. We parked up at the car park while I went for a wander about. I found the row of cottages where Isobel, the town reporter lived but the village pub, a white building in the TV show eluded my searches. There was a pub, a grey building with an outside seating area looking over the bay, but it wasn’t the one I knew from the television. As we drove off, we passed another couple of pubs, neither of which was the TV village pub but I could imagine having a pleasant evening in Plockton with a nice pub crawl thrown in too.

Travelling south on the A82 (I think) we came across a monument to the commandos of World War 2. The commandos trained in the Scottish Highlands and the memorial is not far from Achnacary Castle where the commandos were based. The memorial is a sculpture by Scott Sutherland and as usual in these sort of places, I was humbled by the courage of these courageous men who fought and died to preserve freedom. In comparison, I’ve been rather lucky. I’ve not been called to fight in any wars, I’ve not suffered prejudice or been sent to a prison camp, in fact I’ve enjoyed a pretty easy life really. It’s not been that exciting and a lottery win would have been very welcome but at least I’ve been safe.

Coming further south towards Loch Lomond once again we found another lovely stopping place. A few other people stopped also for a photo opportunity at the Loch Tulla viewpoint. We took photos as well but we were lucky enough to be able to put the kettle on and have a steaming hot cup of tea and a corned beef sandwich.

Ah, the joys of having a motor home.


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Beer, Chilli and Gentleman Jim

My brother and I usually go out into Manchester every few weeks. We get something to eat and have a few beers and a good natter. It’s always nice to visit our old haunts in Manchester and to find new ones. There always seems to be a new venue popping up and the only flip side to new venues in Manchester seems to be the extraordinary prices they like to charge for food and drink. Maybe, being the fully paid up tightwad that I am, I should stick to the old, less trendy and cheaper places that I know.

Of course, just lately with Manchester and the whole world dealing with a major pandemic I can’t see any new venues popping up, in fact, it looks like things might go the other way, with places closing down. Pubs, bars and restaurants have been the hardest hit during the pandemic and with the new restrictions, like the 10pm closing times, many more venues will sadly close.

These days, rather than go out into Manchester, my brother will come round to visit and we watch something on TV together while we chat.

Years ago, when I was a schoolboy, I was never that good at mathematics. In particular I was always frustrated by the particular rules that we had to remember. You know the ones I mean, the sum of the sides of a triangle equals the hypotenuse and stuff like that.

Here’s one rule that I have discovered myself. The sum of all the new TV channels does not necessarily equal anything worthwhile watching. Back in the old days when things were black and white and there were only 2 channels, there was actually something usually worth watching. Still, perhaps I’m looking back with rose tinted spectacles. I’m sure there was rubbish on the TV back then; maybe we just don’t remember it.

Anyway, with a chilli on the go in my slow cooker and a few bottles of Becks chilling in the fridge and nothing looking interesting to watch on TV, I dug out an old VHS copy of the Errol Flynn film Gentleman Jim.

I’m not sure how true to life this film was but it supposedly told the story of Gentleman Jim Corbett and his fight with John L Sullivan ‘himself’. John L was, according to Wikipedia, the first world champion of gloved boxing, reigning until Gentleman Jim defeated him in a bout fought under the new Marquess of Queensbury rules in 1892.

Looking at John L Sullivan’s picture on the internet it’s surprising just how authentic Ward Bond, who played him in the film, actually looked. My brother and I both remarked that our dad, who died in 2000, twenty years ago this November, loved this film. He liked both Errol Flynn and was a great boxing fan. His favourite boxer was Rocky Marciano, the undefeated champion who was sadly killed in a plane crash not long after ‘fighting’ Mohammed Ali in a TV computer bout. I remember my dad being outraged at the result which gave the win to Ali. Funnily enough, the version shown in the USA gave the result to Marciano which would have pleased dad enormously.

In my favourite Hollywood book Bring on the Empty Horses, David Niven paints an excellent portrait of Flynn. You always knew where you were with Errol, wrote Niven -he always let you down.

Flynn hailed from Tasmania, an island state of Australia. In Australia he became involved in a film production called In the Wake of the Bounty, a documentary film about the mutiny on the Bounty that featured reconstructions with Flynn as Fletcher Christian. After this he made his way to the UK where he became an actor and spent many years in repertory in Northampton. He was fired from Northampton rep but was spotted by producer Irving Asher and given a part in a film made at Teddington Studios in 1934. The film was Murder in Monte Carlo which has since been lost but apparently Asher, who worked for Warner Brothers, sent word to Hollywood recommending Flynn for a contract. After a successful screen test Flynn was given the starring role in the swashbuckling adventure, Captain Blood after Robert Donat turned down the role. The film was a great success and made stars of Flynn and co-star Olivia de Havilland.

David Niven recounts many tales about Flynn. The two shared a house together in Hollywood after Flynn separated from wife Lilli Damita, ‘Tiger Lil’ as Flynn used to call her.

During the making of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade‘ which Warner brothers decided to set in India rather than the Crimea, Flynn, the new star started to get a little big headed. One big brute of an extra decided to waggle a lance under the behind of Flynn’s horse to teach Flynn a lesson.  The horse consequently threw Flynn off. He got up, dusted himself down and proceeded to teach the big guy a lesson of his own by beating him into a pulp.

Flynn had a yacht named the Zaca and weekends on the boat included sailing trips full of wine, women and song. Many young girls appeared on the boat, none of whom produced any ID which was unfortunate for Flynn as he was later charged with statutory rape. The accusing girls appeared in the courtroom wearing school uniforms and in pigtails but happily for Flynn the court saw through that and he was acquitted, although the image that the press painted of him was not one that he was happy with.

In later life Flynn was bankrupt and became a floating shadow of his former self, sailing the seas in the Zaca. Later he made a great Hollywood comeback playing his great friend John Barrymore in ‘Too much Too Soon.’

In Bring on the Empty Horses, Niven describes a poignant moment after writing his chapter on Flynn.  Niven, living then in the South of France, took a walk along the coast and came across something sadly familiar. It was the abandoned remains of the Zaca lurking quietly in a boat yard.

Gentleman Jim was made in 1942 and was one of Flynn’s favourite films. He took extensive boxing training taking lessons from Mushy Callaghan, a former welterweight champion who worked as a stuntman and boxing advisor after retiring from the ring. During the film Flynn collapsed from a mild heart attack. He had just failed the medical to join the army having suffered from malaria in his younger days as well as having a heart murmur. The production was closed down for a week while Flynn recovered. After the war Flynn was often criticised for not joining the forces but Warner Brothers would not admit that their star, visually a picture of health and vitality, suffered from health issues.

The film is a lot of fun and it was interesting to watch the scenes of John L Sullivan in training. Training in those days apparently consisted of chopping down trees and swigging bottles of beer. Jim Corbett, in a crazy way anticipating the style of Ali many years later, beats Sullivan by his speed and footwork. Alan Hale plays the Irish American head of the Corbett family whose antics in trying to control his brawling clan are always amusing and Alexis Smith plays Flynn’s love interest. Over on Wikipedia Smith is quoted as telling Flynn to takes things easy ‘don’t you want to live a long life?’ Flynn replied that he was not interested in the future, just the present.

By the end of the 1950’s Errol Flynn no longer had a contract with Warner Brothers and his attempt to co-produce a film about William Tell had ended in financial disaster. He was involved with a young girl, 17-year-old Beverly Aadland and in a severe financial state. His health had suffered after decades of alcohol and possibly drug abuse. Beverly was with him when he died in 1959 aged only 50 after a meeting to arrange the leasing out of the Zaca.

I’d not seen Gentleman Jim for many years and I enjoyed it immensely. The chilli was another story though. I’d made an outstanding chilli about a month ago and this latest one was a little tame, not quite right. Pity but at least Errol Flynn still has the power to entertain and that scene where John L Sullivan hands over his world championship belt always brings a tear to my eye.


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How Barack Obama Ended up in my Junk Mail and Other Stories

It’s always worth just having a peek in your junk mail. You never know what may be found there. I tend to look when I’m expecting an important e-mail and it hasn’t turned up in the usual place, my inbox for instance. I’m always pretty amazed at what I might find there: Invitations to join groups. Blogging advice. Video seminars. How to make money with bitcoin. Russian women who want to meet me and so on.

I’m always surprised at the volume of Russian women who want to meet me and just lately an increasing number of Ukrainian ladies have expressed similar feelings too. I can’t really say that I’ve ever thought of myself as good looking but perhaps when the light catches me in a particular way, something is visible which just catches the eye of Russian women.

A few years ago, I wrote back to one of these ladies who claimed to have seen me on an international dating site and tried to explain I thought she was the victim of a scam and that I had never been on a dating site. The lady in question wrote back with a three-page email detailing her life in a remote region of Russia and how my photograph had so enthralled her she had decided to join me in the USA at the earliest opportunity. I’m sorry to say I didn’t reply although I was tempted to say I would be waiting at JFK in New York whenever she wanted. Funnily enough, she’s not the only person to think I live in the USA.

One day I was scanning through the junk folder and there it was. An e-mail from Barack Obama. That’s right, former President of the USA Barack Obama. Obama clearly wanted my help. He was urging me to vote for Joe Biden. I’m not sure how he had heard about me, maybe he has read one of my blog posts. Of course, if he had, I’m guessing he would have spotted that I’m English although perhaps it isn’t completely clear from my blog posts that I actually live in England, although now I think about it, it actually is.

Joe Biden. Pic courtesy Wikipedia

Don’t get me wrong, I’d be happy to vote for Joe as a favour to Mr Obama, even though I do wonder whether or not Joe is getting a little long in the tooth for the top job at the White House. I say Mr Obama but as we are now on email terms, maybe I should just call him Barack? He could call me Steve or even Ste if he wanted, after all we are now friends, well, email friends, sort of.

Of course, I’m not actually eligible to vote in the USA which could cause a problem with our friendship but I thought I’d keep that to myself until after I’d asked Barack to maybe plug my book, Floating in Space. After all, one favour deserves another and like I said, I am willing to vote for Biden, if I could.

I’m wondering now whether the issues from the last election regarding President Putin came about because he had also received an email from the democrats urging him to vote for their candidate which at the time was Mrs Clinton. I don’t know Putin personally but I can see him being the sort of guy who might take offence at that and maybe cause him to vote for Trump. Putin of course, not being American can’t vote for Trump either but again, I wouldn’t want to be the guy who has to tell him that. One thing that might get in the way is that I don’t actually speak Russian although I do happen to know that the Russian word for no is niet. Putin however, strikes me as the kind of guy who doesn’t want to hear niet, nein, non or basically anything in the negative.

Tell him what he doesn’t want to hear and next thing you know you’d be hearing reports of the English blogger getting hit by a poisoned dart or being invited for a cup of coffee and then suddenly suffering from a bout of radiation poisoning! Putin is not a man who takes dissent lightly and if you don’t believe me try asking Alexei Navalny. Good job I’m not a coffee drinker is all I can say about that.

Donald Trump. Picture courtesy Wikipedia

This week I watched the first presidential debates between Biden and Trump and like many people I really wasn’t impressed. I’m not sure what the population is in the USA these days but it must be pretty big. All those millions of Americans and this is it? These two guys are the best on offer? Actually, that’s not necessarily true because believe it or not there are 1207 candidates in this year’s election. 1207? That’s right, 1207 although the media for some reason will only focus on two.

On a completely different topic, this past week Liz and I went to the funeral of a virtual friend of ours, Johnny Two Sheds. Now neither of us have ever met Johnny but we have both chatted to him out there in cyberspace on various facebook pages relating to Lytham and St Annes. Liz spoke with him much more than me and the two of them had a great deal of cheeky banter over the years particularly on one page which is more dedicated to cheeky banter than to actual news worthy items on the Fylde coast.

Johnny alas was banned by Facebook because as you may have guessed Johnny ‘Two Sheds’ was not his real name. He rose again on Facebook with the name Johnny Phoenix but sadly passed away some weeks ago. Due to the current regulations, only thirty people were allowed at his funeral although it was nice to see his coffin arrive at the country church in Wrea Green escorted by a paramedic motorcycle rider and the street outside lined by his fellow paramedics.

Johnny’s brother was there to answer one important question. Actually I felt a little nervous about posing the question so I gave Liz a nod and she obligingly did the honours. Did Johnny have two sheds? Apparently, he did.


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Movie Connections Part 2: Nora Ephron

A while back I wrote a post about my movie connections. Every time I see a great film it registers up there in the old grey matter and at some point I’ll take a closer look at the credits of those films and see if there was a connection. In the case of that particular post the connection was Terence Rattigan. Rattigan was a playwright who wrote many film scripts and adapted many of his own plays for the screen and in the course of my often extensive TV viewing I’ve come across a number of great films all written by him.

In another similar mental exercise, I examined another group of films and the common denominator turned out to be Nora Ephron. Now some of you out there may never have heard of Nora. Who was she anyway? Well Nora was a journalist, a screenwriter and a director. She’s probably most famous for penning the brilliant comedy When Harry met Sally.

Photo by David Shankbone -, courtesy Wikipedia

When Harry met Sally is one of my all time favourite films and one that I wasn’t keen on at first. It didn’t impress me that first time at the cinema, the second time I saw it on TV I thought, hey, this isn’t so bad and I made a particular effort to seek it out a third time. After that third viewing, I loved it so much I bought the DVD version.

I was sad to hear of Nora’s passing in 2012 and made a mental note to find out more about her. Naturally, being me, a lazy semi-retired English blogger and occasional maker of YouTube videos, I never did.

A few weeks ago and eight years after making that mental note I was scanning idly through the TV listings and noticed a documentary film about Nora called Everything is Copy. The writer and director, Jacob Bernstein turned out be Nora’s son so he was clearly qualified to make a documentary about his mother. It wasn’t the greatest documentary film I’ve ever seen but it was certainly interesting. The film told the story of Nora’s life through various interviews. One surprising one was with Carl Bernstein, the famous Washington Post reporter whose articles on Watergate with Bob Woodward revealed the Watergate scandal to the world and eventually forced President Nixon to resign.

Nora was married to Bernstein and after becoming pregnant for a second time with their other son Max, Nora discovered he was having an affair with Margaret Jay, a British journalist and friend. Nora used the experience to write a book called Heartburn which was later made into a film starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. I have to say I’ve not seen the film or read the book but once again I’ve made a mental post it note and stuck it firmly up there in my brain for further attention.

After watching the documentary film I felt even more determined to find out more about Nora so I went to abebooks on the internet and after some research ordered a copy of I Remember Nothing, a book by Nora that seemed to be a memoir. The book starts out as a sort of memoir, telling humorous stories about this and that, and her life without really giving much away. Nora wanted to be a journalist and after working for the Kennedy White House for a short while she joined the staff of the magazine Newsweek. In her book she tells the story of how Newsweek did not hire female writers and offered her a job as a mail girl. She doesn’t appear to have been upset by this despite it being blatantly sexist. She just got on with her job, still determined to be a journalist. In her book Nora makes the whole episode sound quite amusing, especially when she later writes a parody column during a newspaper strike and as a result gets invited to write for the New York Post. Over on Wikipedia, there is a slightly different story in which Ephron gets involved with a class action lawsuit filed against Newsweek for sexual discrimination.

I Remember Nothing is an amusing book although it’s a little short on copy for someone for whom everything is copy. I enjoyed it enormously although had I been reading it on holiday, I could have got through it in an afternoon by the pool. Even so, the book has some great stories, in particular I liked the one about when Nora was nearly an heiress and thought she was about to inherit a formidable sum of money. There is another one about Christmas dinner and the one about when a meal was named after her in a posh restaurant. All of the stories are nice blog post sized stories which if I were devious enough, I could easily steal for the days when I have no idea what to write about.

When Nora was married to Bernstein, she put together a screen version of All the President’s Men which was ultimately rejected (William Goldman eventually wrote the script) but her version was seen by someone else who offered her the chance to write the script for a television movie and that was how her screen career started.

Nora wrote the screenplay for When Harry met Sally in 1986 and apparently imagined herself in the role of Sally, and Rob Reiner, who directed the film, as Harry. Nora wrote the screenplay after interviewing Reiner and producer Andy Scheinman and various others about their lives.

There is one scene from When Harry met Sally that has become a classic. It’s the one where Harry and Sally are eating in what looks like a diner or cafe and Sally shows Harry how easy it is to fake an orgasm by demonstrating it there and then in the cafe. According to Wikipedia, the cafe was actually Katz’s Delicatessen at 205 East Houston street in Manhattan. Also, just while I’m in the mood for dishing out useless information, the lady in the film who says to the waiter, ‘I’ll have what she’s having‘ when Meg Ryan, who played Sally, had finishing orgasming was actually director Rob Reiner’s mother and the line was suggested by Billy Crystal who played Harry.

Personally, I’d be hard pushed to tell you my favourite scene in the film although the one where Harry tells his best friend about his divorce is a major contender. Harry says he only knew about the split when the moving men came to his house to shift his wife’s stuff. One of the movers wore a t-shirt with the legend ‘don’t f’**k with Mr Zero’ on his chest and Harry’s friend asks ‘are you saying Mr Zero knew you were getting divorced before you did?’

I thought the pairing of Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal was wonderful and I could never understand why the producers of films like You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle paired Meg with Tom Hanks. Then again, Nora actually directed both those films so maybe she just preferred Tom Hanks.

Here’s one of the crazy things I love about movie connections. Ages ago, I caught a film on TV about a woman who wrote a cookery blog. Can you imagine that, a film, an actual motion picture about blogging? Who could do that, who could make a picture like that? I missed a few minutes at the beginning of the picture and made a mental note (yes, another one) to make sure to record it next time it was shown. No, I didn’t record it the next showing but to answer my last question, who would make a picture about blogging, the answer was, surprise surprise, Nora Ephron.

In 2009 she released Julie and Julia, a film based on an actual blog by Julie Powell, an American who decides to cook her way through the cookbook of Julia Child, a 1950’s American cook played by Meryl Streep. As Julie blogs about her cooking the film flashes back to the life of Julia. It’s a great film and the only film I can think of which focusses on blogging.

Nora died in 2012 from pneumonia, a complication of the leukaemia she was suffering from. She had not shared her illness with friends or family, thinking it might impede her career. However, in I Remember Nothing, she left a list of things she would miss when she had departed:

They include Spring, a walk in the park, reading in bed, the view out of the window, Paris, butter and taking a bath.

She was 71 years old.


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