The Secret of Writing Poetry

I’ve been looking through my poetry work lately and I started to think that I could write a blog about writing a poem. Now I’ve started I’m not sure how this is going to work out but anyway, let’s give it a shot.

For me there are two ways to write a poem. One is where I have to work at it and the other is when the whole thing just comes to me. I once read that Paul McCartney thinks that his songs and melodies are just hanging in the air and all he does is to entice them down to him. I’m clearly not on the same level as McCartney but that image just captures exactly how I feel when a good poem comes to me.

There is a particular state of mind that I enter for this process to happen. The best time is when I’m driving my car. I don’t know why, and I can only guess that driving sends me into that perfect state of mental concentration where a poem or an idea will come to me, enticed down, as Paul McCartney suggested, from the cosmos. That is the purest way to write a poem, one where either the whole thing or at least a couple of verses present themselves and then I have to sit down and work at the rest.

Sometimes an idea comes to me in odd ways. Some years ago in one of my old jobs, I used to return home from work in the mid afternoon. I started very early and usually worked through my break, getting home between 2 and 3pm. I would get changed, have a quick wash and come into the kitchen to put the kettle on. The kitchen was in the front of the house and in the summer months I noticed the cat from the house across the road would usually be getting comfy under the small tree on their lawn while I waited for the kettle to boil. I often watched that cat. I never noticed it as I reversed my big van into my drive but later, in the kitchen, I would invariably see the cat settle down for an afternoon nap.

One day I came home from work, got washed, and from the kitchen noticed the cat getting into position as usual under the tree. I took my tea and toast into the lounge and settled down with the TV. Later I heard something, a commotion of some sort but nothing that was compelling enough for me to shift my lazy butt and see what was happening. Not long after that, my partner came home and I could hear something going on. She seemed to come in and go out again. When she finally came in I asked what had happened and it seemed that the lady opposite had returned home and found that her cat was still under the tree but not sleeping, it had died.

That particular lady was someone who was a bit of a diva and very often made a lot of fuss about things that really, weren’t worth making a fuss of. Apparently, she began shouting and screaming and various neighbours came over to assist while I, in blissful ignorance, was busy dozing. Still, that little event became the inspiration for the poem The Cat Across the Road. I made the assumption, rightly or wrongly, that the cat was ready to depart his life; maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he felt he had a few more years left of sun lounging, mouse chasing and bird catching. If he did his heart must have stopped without warning during his or her feline slumbers. All in all, not a bad way to go.

 

Everything seemed in order, I suppose, to die

It was a warm enough day

Certainly

 

The sun shone and birds sung

Even though birds would cause a feline heart to race

Normally

 

I’ve had my fill of life

Of titbits and cosy sleeps, sometimes in next door’s shed

Informally

 

And I’ve had my chases and midnight hunts

And I’ve always remembered my owners and left them a mouse or two

Naturally

 

A last cuddle would have been nice

Still, all in all it’s been a good life, and I’ve loved it

Enormously

 

I’ve always liked this tree

I can keep my eye on the birds and the sun comes down

Warmly

 

So now I’ll just close my eyes and die

And go on to the next of my nine lives

Expectantly.

The other way of writing a poem is where I sit down determined to write something. Recently I saw in one of the poetry newsletters that I subscribe to, an item about a poetry contest. They wanted a poem about love. Now I am not a person who can describe himself as well qualified to write on that particular subject, but I settled down and began to play with ideas and words. After a while I came up with the beginning of a poem, one that I had to return to in the following days to flesh out. As I mentioned before, love isn’t one of my specialist subjects and I took that thought literally into the poem. As I am a cool sort of customer, not one for spouting or talking about my feelings I thought that might be a relevant message for me and others like me.

I don’t think I can remember my mother and certainly not my father ever talking about love. They loved me, I knew that. I knew it when my dad picked me up off the floor when I fell off a ride in the park. I knew it every time my mother washed my jeans and shirts and made my favourite meals. Still, there are others who need love spoken in words. I realise and respect that but for me there is No Need to Talk of Love.

To save me typing the poem out here and also to liven up this post a little, here’s my YouTube video version:

That’s about it really. Take an idea, try and boil it down into a phrase, something with resonance and some lyrical attributes and go with it. I was actually pretty pleased with the poem above. I sent it off to the poetry competition with high hopes. I have to admit, I didn’t send it off in the form it is above. Since then I’ve worked on it some more and edited it a little but sadly it wasn’t a winner or even a runner up.

As a writer though and not one who can really call himself a professional one, the fundamental result of writing and the reason for doing it has to be the pleasure of crafting something that is pleasureable to me; pleasureable to write and to read. It is the process of writing itself which is most satisfying to me, perhaps that is why I am always skimming back over my past work. Well, someone has to read this stuff, it might as well be me.

I do love it every time someone presses the like button here on WordPress or over on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube but the Ferrari, the motorboat and the Spanish villa that I expected, or more accurately hoped I might earn from all this scribbling has not arrived. Indeed, those things may never arrive but even so if you come looking for me you’ll probably find me with a notebook or my laptop in my hand, writing.


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A Week in the Life of a Locked Down Blogger

A major disaster happened to me this week. Not an actual disaster like a car crash or anything but for a writer and blogger it was the blogging equivalent.

I spent a few days at my mother’s house as usual, checking the mail, tidying the garden, giving the heating a good blast in this cold weather and so on. It’s also good, especially being a writer, to have some time alone to work on my various projects like my blog, my books and my videos. Last week I did just that. I added a few more pages to the two novels I’ve been writing and tinkered with some of my videos as well as creating some new ones.

I added a couple of my new videos to two Facebook pages, one for amateur video makers and another for YouTubers. They both did quite well there and brought in some new viewers. All my videos have a link back to this blog and all these blog posts have a link to my books, Floating in Space and A Warrior of Words so with a little luck these new video viewers might even add to my sales which in turn will add to the Higgins coffers.

The crazy thing about the pandemic and the resulting lockdown is that just lately I’ve been spending less money so I’ve actually got a little more in the bank than usual. My usual spending on restaurants, pubs and taxis has stopped completely and I do wonder how all those establishments are faring without me.

This Valentine’s Day, instead of dining out we dined in. We ordered in a full restaurant meal, including wine and settled down in front of the fire to await delivery. I’d ordered the meal a few days before from the Birley Arms, a pub I haven’t visited for many years but it does have a restaurant with a reputation for great food. The day after I ordered the food my phone rang and someone came on the line asking about my order. They didn’t say they were from the Birley Arms, in fact I didn’t actually catch their name but they started talking about my food order so I guessed it was they. All was in hand but apparently I hadn’t specified when the food was for. Now as I’d ordered the Valentine’s Day special I thought it was pretty obvious we would be wanting it for Valentine’s Day. That thought hadn’t occurred to my caller until I mentioned it but he quickly recovered, said something about just making sure and he was off.

What else has happened to me this week? Well, for a long while I’ve been after an eye test; it must be over two years since I last had one. Every time I called the opticians they gave me a date weeks into the future and as I wasn’t sure which shift I was on I always declined and said, I’ll get back to you. I tried again recently as now I have a brand new app on my phone which shows the days I am working. Great! I’ve had the app for a few months and it works fine. I tried it the other day, one hand on the app and the other poised to call the opticians and of course, it wasn’t working. Nothing I could do would get it to work again, not uninstalling, reinstalling, pressing force stop, updating my mobile phone software; nothing.

Anyway, diary at hand – manual diary that is, you know, the old-fashioned type made of cardboard and paper – I went online to the optician’s eye test booking app and lo and behold, there was a free appointment the next day. Presumably a cancellation but what the heck, I grabbed it anyway.

The opticians had changed considerably since my last visit but of course everything now has been affected by Coronavirus. Masks were mandatory as was hand sanitising. I was gradually moved to various socially distanced seating areas, finally ending up with the optician. My eye test was a traditional one using those special glasses where the optician drops in various differing lenses to adjust your vision. So much better than my last eye test at Specsavers. No offence Specsavers but I really do not like having my head in an electronic headset where the lenses are changed at the touch of a button.

Later I decided to order my new glasses from Goggles4U, an online site that I found and have since bombarded me with various offers. The new specs were cheap and were made even cheaper by various discounts. I had some problems getting my order through and then heard from somewhere that my new eyewear would be coming from Pakistan! Was this a con I thought?

Well as it happens my new specs arrived and they are just great. It always feels so good to have a new set of lenses. Everything looks so good and so sharp. People with 20/20 vision probably take perfect sight for granted but as a spectacle wearer since I have been a child, I assure you, I do not.

Okay, let’s get back to Valentine’s Day and there we were, waiting with bated breath and dangling tongues for our food. The appointed time came and went. Knives and forks had been deployed and the plates were warming and just at the point when I was searching for the pub phone number to complain, our Valentine’s feast arrived. There seemed to be quite a lot of it but then again, the meal consisted of appetisers, starters, mains and puddings. We slapped it into the oven to keep warm before nibbling on the appetisers and then it was on to the starters. One big mistake was when we put everything in the oven, we had forgotten that one starter was pâté. Warm pâté was new, not something I’d tried before but I liked it.

Round about then I realised the delivery guy had not left any wine. A quick call and happily the driver was nearby with an order for someone else so the wine came shortly after. Luckily, another bottle of red was already warming by the fire but with so much food, that second bottle came in pretty handy.

Just to make your mouth water, we had various appetisers including crab on toast and belly pork fritters. Starters were smoked salmon, prawns and scallops for Liz and duck spring roll and chicken liver pate for me. Mains were Beef Rossini for me and Rack of Lamb for Liz and a bevy of desserts, all for me as Liz isn’t a lover of sweet things.

We enjoyed the meal although I have to admit, being served at a nice table in a restaurant doesn’t really compare to a take away, even a restaurant standard one.

So what was the big disaster you might be thinking? Before I get to the main one here’s another. Back in January I bought a bundle of six CDs. They were advertised for £25 and I offered £18, the seller declined but they failed to sell and the buyer came back to me and finally accepted my offer. I waited and waited but they never turned up. I contacted the seller and she asked me to wait a little longer in case Covid had affected the Royal Mail. The CDs still didn’t arrive so ‘sorry’ I said, ‘I want my £18 back’. The seller duly refunded me and the very next day, what should turn up but the CDs!

I’m not sure PayPal understood when I asked how could I refund a refund?

Finally, back to the disaster I spoke of earlier. At my mother’s house I had done some writing and fiddled with my videos. After staying for a couple of nights I tidied up, took out the rubbish and gave the place a hoover. Outside in my car I began to wonder if I had forgotten anything but it was cold and whisps of snow were in the air so I drove off. Later I realised I had left behind my iPad and laptop! Nightmare!

Luckily, I updated my iPad a few years back and still had my old one so this blog post is my first written completely on an iPad. A number of my apps were missing so apologies for the lack of graphics.

Hopefully I’ll have my trusty laptop back for next week’s blog instalment, as long as I don’t suffer protracted symptoms from laptop separation syndrome of course!


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Movie Themes

Can music really make a good film? Can a really great theme lift a good or even mediocre film up into the lofty heights of the great films? I’m not sure but that’s today’s blog theme and here are a few examples.

Rocky.

Rocky is a pretty good film. It actually won the best picture Oscar in 1976. It’s good, actually pretty good but was it really worthy of a best picture Oscar? I’m not sure. Anyway, it’s about boxer Rocky Balboa played by Sylvester Stallone in his first starring role. Rocky is at the bottom end of the boxing ladder taking cheap weekend bouts as a boxer while he works as a strongarm man for the local loan shark. An incredible piece of luck comes his way though; Apollo Creed, the world champion finds that a multi million dollar bout has fallen through. Wanting to recoup something from the fiasco, Creed decides to fight an unknown boxer in an exhibition match in the hope of saving the event from cancellation. He randomly chooses Rocky. Rocky though, starts to wonder if he can win and backed by his old trainer he starts training and is soon on the path to fitness. Creed wins but Rocky goes the distance with Creed, the first opponent of Creed’s to do so. The second film in the series involves their re-match and is pretty similar to the first as are most of the following films. Rocky doesn’t seem to have much of a technique he just seems to get battered and when his opponent runs out of steam, Rocky usually lands the knockout blow.

The whole series of films in the Rocky saga are pretty much the same. I’ve watched 1 and 2 and gave most of the others a miss until Rocky Balboa. I’d heard it was a good one and picked up a copy of the DVD in a charity shop and to be fair it is an excellent film. Rocky has retired from the ring, his wife has died of cancer and Rocky gets by managing an Italian restaurant where fans come not only for the food but to chat with Rocky himself. Rocky then gets involved in a computer fight with the current champion, an idea based I think, on the computer fight between Rocky Marciano and Mohammed Ali. It’s a bitter sweet film but well put together. All the films use variations of the famous Rocky theme but my favourite is probably in the first Rocky where Stallone takes his fitness routine through the streets of Philadelphia, through the Italian market, finally alighting at the Museum of Art where apparently there is now a statue of Rocky himself. Did the Rocky theme tune really lift this film right up? To be fair it is a good film anyway but that theme tune gave the film, and the series, just that extra boost.

It’s not really relevant but I must add my favourite Rocky story here. Stallone wrote the script in three and a half days after apparently watching a boxing match between Muhammed Ali and Chuck Wepner in 1975. Wepner was expected to be easily beaten but made it through to the 15th round. United Artists liked the script but wanted an established star to play the role, even offering Stallone a million dollars to let James Caan play Rocky. Stallone turned them down, played the part himself and the rest is history.

Verdict: Great film, great theme.

The Magnificent Seven.

The Magnificent Seven was a 1960 remake of Kurosawa’s classic The Seven Samurai. Director John  Sturges directed this version, set in the American Wild West. Yul Brynner produced and starred in the film and the cast also included Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson and Robert Vaughn. The story concerns a small Mexican village who hire a group of gunfighters to protect themselves from bandits. Only three of the seven survive the eventual gun fight.

As much as I love a good western, I’ve never really cared for this film. It was, according to Wikipedia, a box office disappointment in the USA although a smash hit in Europe. The score was an Oscar contender but lost out to Ernest Gold’s score for Exodus.

Verdict, love the music but essentially, the film was nothing outstanding and I know it’s a bit mean but if not for Elmer Bernstein’s theme I think The Magnificent Seven would be a forgotten film today.

Mission Impossible.

Mission Impossible was a movie adaptation of the 1960’s TV show about a small team called the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) that take on, you’ve guessed it, impossible missions. This film became the first in a series of films produced by and starring Tom Cruise. Cruise plays Ethan Hunt who is sent to stop the theft of a list of agents kept inside the American Embassy in Prague. The mission fails and Jim Phelps, the agent in charge is wounded and all of his team are killed except for Ethan Hunt. There is clearly a double agent or mole at work and various things happen until we find out the mole was Jim Phelps which was just a little bit sneaky because all of us who watched the 1960’s TV series knew that Jim Phelps was a character in that show and therefore could not possibly be the mole. The fact that he was made me feel a little cheated by this film because they used my nerdy TV knowledge against me. In the TV show Jim Phelps always gets a taped message with instructions for his mission that then self destructs. Tapes are a little old fashioned now in the high tech world of the 21st century but there are a few little nods to the old series along the way.

The last instalment I saw was the fast moving Mission Impossible: Ghost protocol. It was pretty exciting and one particular part was interesting. Ethan Hunt and his people visit the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world. In one sequence Hunt has to climb outside to get to another room in the building. The sequence looked pretty impressive even though I assumed, it was shot with a green screen in a studio. It was with some surprise then to find that the scenes were shot actually on location with Tom Cruise doing his own stunts, actually climbing outside this impressive structure. He was held safely by cables which were digitally erased in post production. I take my hat off to you Tom but seriously, next time, do it in the studio!

The Mission Impossible theme is an iconic one written by Lalo Schifrin. There are many versions of the theme but personally I like the one from the TV show. Has it enhanced the films? Yes, I think so and of course it makes the connection between the TV version and the films.

Titanic.

Titanic is a 1997 film written and co produced by James Cameron. The production had a budget of 200 million dollars, a staggering amount and included a full scale replica of the ship at Baja in California. The replica was not an ocean going vessel but one built into the dockside and incorporated with a 17 million gallon water tank which provided a sea view and a ramp which could tilt the whole structure for the sinking sequence. Only parts of the ship were fully made, most of the ship itself was just a steel outer structure.

Director Cameron wanted the singer Enya to create the music for the film but she declined. Instead he turned to composer James Horner. The two had fallen out during the making of Cameron’s film Aliens but managed to put that behind them and collaborate on Titanic. Cameron did not want music with singing in the film so Horner composed My Heart Will Go On in secret and played him the demo when he thought Cameron might be responsive. According to Wikipedia, another factor was that a hit song would be a positive factor surrounding the film.

Verdict: I love the music and feel it enhances the film in many ways, so much so I bought the soundtrack CD.  Titanic is an epic production with some outstanding production elements that cement Cameron as a director of the first echelon.

So, what is your favourite movie theme?


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Book Bag: The Early Days of Cinema

My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin.

Charlie was born in 1889 in Walworth, London and spent his early life in the London suburb of Kennington. His parents were both music hall performers but separated when Charlie was about two years old. His mother was poor and the small family, Charlie, his mother and older brother Sydney, were admitted to the workhouse on two separate occasions.

In 1903, Charlie’s mother was committed to Cane Hill mental asylum and Charlie lived on the streets alone until his brother Sydney, who had joined the navy, returned from sea.

With his father’s connections Charlie secured a place in a clog dancing troupe called the Eight Lancashire Lads and so began his career as a performer. After appearing in some minor roles in the theatre he developed a comic routine and, with help from Sydney, was signed by Fred Karno, the famous music hall impresario, for his comedy company in 1908.

Chaplin became one of Fred Karno’s top comedians and Karno sent him with a troupe of other comedians on a tour of vaudeville theatres in the USA. One of the others was Stan Laurel, later to find fame with the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy.

By far the most interesting part of Charlie’s autobiography is where he talks about the beginning of his movie career. On a second tour of America in 1913, Chaplin was asked to join the Mack Sennett studios as a performer in silent films for the fee of $150 per week. He wasn’t initially keen but liked the idea of starting something new.

His first film for Sennett was called Making a Living, released in 1914. Chaplin himself wasn’t so keen on the film and for his second appearance selected a new costume. After searching through the costume department Chaplin chose a bowler hat, a jacket that was too small, baggy trousers, shoes that were too large and a cane. It almost seems as though the clothes made him become the character of the tramp which was to make him famous. The film was Mabel’s Strange Predicament although another tramp film made afterwards, Kid Auto races at Venice, was released to the public first.

Chaplin clashed frequently with his directors when his ideas or suggestions were dismissed but after exhibitors asked Sennett for more Chaplin films he was allowed to direct his own. When his contract expired in 1914 Chaplin asked for 1000 dollars per week. Mack Sennett complained that that figure was more than he was getting and refused. Another film company Essanay, offered him $1200 per week and a signing fee and Chaplin signed. He wasn’t initially happy with Essanay and didn’t like their studios in Chicago, preferring to work in California.

Chaplin was also unhappy after he finished his contract at Essaney because they continued to make lucrative Chaplin comedies by utilising his out-takes. Chaplin was however an astute businessman. In his new contracts the negative and film rights reverted to Chaplin after a certain amount of time. This was in the days when a movie had a life of months, if not weeks.

Chaplin seems strangely perturbed by his fame and fortune. He writes about an incident between contracts where he takes the train to meet his brother in, I think, New York but word has got out to the public he is travelling and everywhere the train stops, masses of people were waiting. Eventually it dawns on him that it is he they were waiting for. Many times the narrative describes meals and walks taken alone giving the impression of a solitary, lonely man.

The thing to remember about reading this book is that Chaplin tells the reader only what he wants them to know, nothing more. His various marriages are only skimmed over although when he is making the Kid, probably his most important picture, he explains how he thought the negative may have be taken by lawyers acting for his estranged wife so he takes the film and edits it whilst almost ‘on the run’ in various hideaways and hotel rooms.

Chaplin was known for being attracted to young girls and one of his conquests, a girl called Joan Barry, was arrested twice for her obsessive behaviour after he ended their relationship. She became pregnant and claimed he was the father and began a paternity suit against him. J Edgar Hoover who believed Chaplin to be a communist, engineered negative publicity against him and public opinion began to turn against Charlie. He was ordered to pay child support to Barry’s baby despite blood test evidence which showed he could not be the father. The blood test evidence was ruled inadmissible.

The earlier part of the book is by far the most interesting but the later part, where Chaplin is famous the world over, becomes an excuse for name dropping, despite there being a clear absence of any notable anecdotes involving the famous names. Even his best friend Douglas Fairbanks makes few appearances within the pages.

A fascinating read none the less.

Stan, The Life of Stan Laurel by Fred Lawrence Guiles.

I have a lot of time for Fred Laurence Guiles. He wrote one of the definitive biographies of Marilyn Monroe, the one Norman Mailer used as the basis for his classic book about the star.

Stan was born in Ulverston in Cumbria, as a matter of fact, I once visited his old home in the town. It was a small house as I remember and a little bit tatty. I remember being rather disappointed to view this old house with photocopied pictures of Stan on the walls. Either way it was still fascinating to think that Stan, one half of that great duo, Laurel and Hardy, had started life here as Arthur Jefferson. Guiles follows Stan -as he began to call himself- from northern music halls to being part of Fred Karno’s comedy circus and to the USA and Hollywood. Fred Karno was the great music hall impresario of the time and he sent teams of entertainers all over, even to the USA. In his early days touring the USA for Karno, Stan shared rooms with Chaplin although not once is Stan mentioned in Chaplin’s autobiography. Chaplin just seemed to ignore or black out anyone from his memory he either didn’t like or thought was a threat.

Stan Laurel appeared in a number of silent comedy films. He eventually signed with producer Hal Roach but decided he was going to move into scriptwriting rather than performing. One day Oliver Hardy was too ill to perform so Stan stepped in and played his part. Later the two appeared together in various films and director Leo McCarey noticed the positive reaction from the public. Together with McCarey the two worked at their comedy and after McCarey suggested they both wear bowler hats, their partnership took off and their Laurel and Hardy series began in 1927. In 1929 they moved from silent pictures to sound with Unaccustomed As We Are. Unlike many other stars of the period, the two made a seamless transition into talking pictures and are today recognised as giants of comedy.

In 1933 director Frank Capra made the first of what was an entirely different kind of comedy film and, according to author Guiles, this actually spelt the beginning of the end for the slapstick comedy type of film humour that Laurel and Hardy, and others such as Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, were so good at. It Happened One Night starred Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert and after a slow start, the film became an enormous hit, winning eleven Academy Awards. Some writers thought that film comedy had finally ‘grown up’ and sadly, just over 10 years later Laurel and Hardy would be making their final Hollywood film.

After Hardy died in 1957, Stan declined to work without his comedy partner and he retired to a modest flat in Santa Monica, California. He was listed in the telephone directory and was happy to answer calls from his fans. He spent his retirement answering his fan mail and meeting with other comedians who revered him; people like Jerry Lewis, Peter Sellers and Dick Van Dyke. He died in 1965 aged 74.

Hollywood.

I think I wrote about the 1920’s in a previous post saying that if I could go back to any time and place I’d go back to Hollywood in the 1920’s. You didn’t need a degree in filmmaking to be a director then as the whole industry was new. Hollywood was just a mass of orange groves when someone decided that with its wonderful climate, Hollywood would be the perfect place to make films. In 1910 DW Griffiths came to Hollywood to film In Old California and other film makers followed him as not only was there perfect weather and excellent light but it was a great place to avoid Thomas Edison who owned patents on the movie making process and wanted paying. In the 1980’s there was a wonderful TV  documentary series called simply Hollywood and this is the book that was published alongside the series. The TV version was narrated by James Mason and was filled with interviews with former writers, directors and stars of that bygone age. It’s a pity it hasn’t made its way onto DVD but apparently because of all the stars involved, all of whom will have passed away by now, getting the releases signed for DVD has been problematic. It just so happens that I have the first episode on VHS video and of course, the book that accompanied the series.

The book I have is subtitled ‘The Pioneers’ and concentrates on the first great Hollywood stars both in front of and behind the camera, people like director DW Griffiths and actors like Valentino, Chaplin, and Garbo who became the first ‘movie stars’. Then there were others like John Gilbert and Buster Keaton who did not make the transition to sound successfully and Laurel and Hardy, who did.

One particularly interesting thing about the TV series and the book is that many of the veterans of silent pictures were telling their stories for the first time. Kevin Brownlow who wrote the book and directed parts of the TV series says that some of the interviewees were very old but even so, they were very lively and interesting in their old age with many stories to tell about filming, editing and the beginnings of Hollywood. Back then Hollywood shunned those who worked in films. They called them ‘movies’ and many hotels and boarding houses had signs up saying ‘no movies’.

Sadly many silent films have not survived to the present day because the nitrate film of those days was highly volatile. Many of the films that have survived are made from poor quality ‘dupes’ or copies so it is not easy to appreciate how good those films originally were. This book though with its superb quality production stills does go some way to invoking the sense of what those films were like. I live in hope that one day this wonderful series will find its way into digital media.

After writing this I wondered what were the chances of an episode or two finding its way to YouTube? A quick check and I was happy to find the entire series there. That’s me sorted for the next few days then . .


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A Mostly Musical Slice of my Locked Down Week

The other day I was idly lazing about in the lounge in what might be described as my default position. You know what I mean, in my favourite chair, the TV remote within easy reach, my iPad just beside me.

After scanning through several TV channels in search of something to watch, I settled on plugging my earphones in and listening to Spotify. What I love about Spotify is that as you listen to the various tracks that you love, Spotify will create playlists for you of not only your favourite music but also similar music which it thinks you just might like also. You can also build your own playlists and recently I turned my old Top 100: one hundred of my favourite tracks I compiled quite a while ago, into a playlist.

Another great thing is that you can listen to new music, free of charge before you shell out and buy the CD or download the track. Recently I listened to the new album by Paul McCartney which seems to be pretty popular. McCartney wrote, sang and played all the instruments on the album which he recorded himself in his own studio during the lockdown. Now, you don’t need me to tell you what a talented guy Paul McCartney is but the fact is I didn’t think McCartney III was that good at all. I liked the first track, actually an instrumental one but the rest was pretty forgettable.

A few years back I decided that I was going to try and buy all the Beatles albums on CD. Not all in one go of course, just gradually, as and when I saw them up for sale. I started with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band which was pretty good except for one awful George Harrison track. George, in the latter days of the Beatles, was getting a little fed up with Lennon and McCartney because he wanted some of his songs on the albums and they wanted, well just Lennon and McCartney ones. I can kind of see the Lennon/McCartney point of view because on the Sgt Pepper’s album, I copied all the tracks to a new CD for use in my car, but cut out George’s song because it was pretty awful. Harrison must have been fairly pleased with the Beatles break up because then he didn’t have to argue the toss about getting his music recorded, he just did what he wanted and in fact made some pretty successful albums.

Anyway as I bought more and more of the Beatles albums I actually became a little disillusioned. I’ve always found that even though the great Beatles hits are actually great, a lot of the other tracks on their albums are actually not that great at all so my project for buying all their albums gradually fizzled out except for getting most of their hit collections.

In the canteen at work the other day where we all sit at separate tables due to social distancing, I couldn’t help overhear two of my colleagues discussing music. One said that she and her husband had oceans of CDs between them but as they were all copied to their ‘master hard drive’ and that as streaming throughout the house of this music had somehow been enabled (I’m pretty low tech so don’t ask me to explain) she was urging her husband to get rid of his CDs. Get rid of his CDs? I couldn’t think of a greater blow she could have hit her husband with if I had tried. Get rid of his CDs? Outrageous!

One of the things I love about music is not just the music itself but the actual disc and the packaging and the sleeve notes. Now sleeve notes are not what they were back in the 70’s and 80’s. An album back then, a vinyl album of course was pretty big, twelve inches actually which gave the artist plenty of room to talk about his work, include the lyrics, details of the recording sessions and so on. It’s hard work getting all that stuff on a much smaller CD package but even so, I like the physicality of a record or a CD and although a download is pretty convenient sometimes, I still prefer my CDs.

Getting back to the afternoon that I started off with, there I was, listening to music and just generally meditating when I became aware of a nose hair. Now generally speaking, I am all for some personal grooming most days but now when the lockdown has stopped us going to restaurants and pubs and so on I suppose I’ve been a little lax in that department. You know how it is, like me you’ve probably been lazing about under lockdown in the same old jogging pants and sweatshirt you’ve been wearing for ages. Not going out to restaurants or pubs means I’ve not been grooming myself in the bathroom mirror as much as usual and as all the barbers and hair stylists are closed, my hair has been getting noticeably longer.

The result of that non-grooming soon became evident because as I relaxed I idly passed a hand over my nose and to my dismay I discovered a random nose hair dangling out from my left nostril. Going by touch only, it appeared to be a pretty long one so as my appearance is pretty important to me -heck I am a well-known writer, blogger and YouTuber– I thought the best thing was to yank it out. Now I’ve removed nose hair before, but this particular removal sent me into a paroxysm of pain and some serious sneezing. It put me in mind of a cartoon I snipped out from a magazine years ago and glued into my scrapbook. It was a guy at the dentist and he was having a tooth pulled out. The caption went something like ‘this might hurt!’ and it showed the dentist pulling out the tooth which had such a long root it also pulled out the fellow’s private parts.

My parts were intact, but that hair removal certainly made my eyes water.

What else happened last week while I was glued to my couch; grooming, listening to music and watching TV? Oh yes, Joe Biden was sworn in as the next President of the USA. All the living former Presidents with the exception of the poorly Jimmy Carter came to see Joe being appointed as President. One particular guest was missing though; that was Donald Trump, the outgoing President. Of course he wasn’t expected to attend because the whole thing was a stitch up because Joe, Trump maintains, stole the election. Well as far as I know, despite this terrible crime of election tampering being committed, no actual evidence of the tampering has come forward or been revealed.

On a BBC2 documentary the other day they showed a tearful young woman crying for the loss of Trump and all he stood for and has done. What he actually stands for, I don’t know and what he has done, well actually I don’t know that either. He was keen on building a wall to keep out the Mexicans but I’m not sure if he did that. He promised to lock up Hillary Clinton but he definitely didn’t do that. I know for a fact he’s played a lot presidential golf but that wasn’t one of his election promises.

I have always felt that Trump’s supporters would most likely be his fellow millionaires and billionaires but the majority of people who rampaged through the Capitol building the other week didn’t look like millionaires to me either, unless they were all disguised as para military fatigue wearing rednecks. Trump then leaves the White House as a bit of an enigma. Some pundits think he might even leave the Republicans and start his own party. Wonder who the first presidential candidate for the Trump party will be?

I spent some time this week looking back through my old posts in search of inspiration. I didn’t get an idea for anything new, but I did begin to think that one of my old posts, Four Simple Secrets of Self Publishing could be made into a video. I do love tinkering about, editing video so I decided to shift my lazy behind, crank up my laptop and create something for my YouTube channel.

There are probably two ways to make the kind of video I had in mind, one is to put a rough cut together with an eye on what I think I’m going to say in the voiceover. The other way is to record the voiceover first and then cut some images together to fit the voiceover, which is what I did.

So there you have it, the story of a few of my locked down days: Some music, some TV, some grooming and a little bit of video editing. How was your week?

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Lockdown and the Winter Holiday Blues

Anyway you look at it, this whole Coronavirus thing is quite frankly, a bit of a bummer. I might even go the whole hog and say a lot of a bummer. Of course, there is the tragic side of the virus, people dying in their hundreds and indeed thousands across the globe. Some fools even protest and say it’s a conspiracy and that the government is trying to control us! If they are it’s no mean feat for governments across the world to agree and work together, even if it’s just to keep us lot, the public, under their thumb. That control does come at a price though. Already businesses are closing and going under. Many pubs and restaurants may not survive and those who are self-employed may suffer the most as in many ways they fall outside the various schemes the government has concocted to help workers.

It is a sad time for me just now as months of planning and expenditure have failed to come to fruition. Last Saturday was the day we should have jetted off to Lanzarote for a month in an exclusive villa with a heated pool a mere stone’s throw from all the bars and restaurants we love at the Marina Rubicon in Playa Blanca. We found the place last year when we stayed at another villa, a slightly disappointing one just around the corner from our new find. Last year’s villa was OK if a little bare. The cupboards were sadly empty, there was nothing, no salt or pepper, no washing up liquid or any of the staples you expect to find in a rented villa.

There was not even a welcome pack, so everything had to be bought from scratch, even a scourer to clean our dirty plates. The pool had no cover so every day when the 70 degree temperature warmed the water up to an almost acceptable degree, that heat would then dissipate into the cool Canarian evenings. Still, those freezing dips in the pool gave my body a freshness and vitality I had not experienced before, even if that extra energy was only employed to get the hell out of that pool as soon as possible.

The barbecue was in working order and plentiful supplies of red wine were freely available from the local shop. Our favourite tapas bar was a ten minute walk away and Playa Blanca itself was within easy reach via a short bus ride so despite the lack of scourers, things were not too bad at all.

Some months back we began to get an inkling that perhaps our holiday for 2021 might not be on the cards. First, we went into tier 3, then 4. In tier 4 foreign travel was not allowed except for certain circumstances. Of course, that was only advisory. We could still go away, couldn’t we? A negative Covid test was required and conveniently a testing station was set up at Manchester Airport, so we began to fool ourselves into thinking we can still go to Lanzarote. After all we had been isolating and wearing masks and consistently washing our hands. Then came the final blows: The flights were cancelled and Boris Johnson, our revered leader introduced a new lockdown. No winter sun for us, no tapas, no watching of the sun slipping behind the hills as we sipped red wine. As I said at the beginning, Bummer!

Looking back at my snapshots and old Facebook posts from last year was probably a mistake. There was the delightful Chinese restaurant we used to visit in Playa Blanca itself, eating lovely Chinese food with an ocean breeze wafting over us in the semi open dining area. Casa Carlos was Liz’s favourite restaurant over at the other end of the bus route. It wasn’t my cup of tea as the menu focussed mostly on fish and not being a great fan of fish I always felt the steely glare of Carlos after he would finish proudly reeling off the various fishy specials his chef had created, only for me to usually plump for a pizza. Sorry Carlos.

My favourite place down by the marina is the Cafe Berrugo where many of the locals come. They serve various rustic tapas dishes as well as burgers and chips to satisfy common English tourists like me and it’s nice to relax there in the evening with a glass of wine or two.

Out of the window has gone my usual winter fitness regimen. I know that me and fitness are not two things that anyone who knows me would usually put together however, in Lanzarote I forswear biscuits and chocolate and swap chips and potatoes for lashings of salads. I swim every day and return to the UK in February at the peak (if such a thing is possible) of my fitness.

Marina Rubicon in Lanzarote, a place for lovely walks, views and restaurants.

I read once that Noel Coward learned early in his adult life the joys of ‘wintering’ in warmer climes. He usually wangled an invitation from one of his rich friends to spend the summer in the south of France or somewhere considerably warmer than England. Later when he bought his house Firefly in Jamaica, he spent the winter there. He would rise at 8 and work on his latest play or book until lunchtime when he would then join his friends for a swim before luncheon. What a perfect arrangement I have always thought, and Noel Coward went up highly in my estimation the first I heard of it.

Casa Carlos: Fishy food, salad and pizza!

My personal routine on holiday goes something like this. I’m usually awake pretty early, generally around the nine o’clock mark, (nine o’clock? Early?) sometimes slightly later. First thing on my personal agenda is making a brew and bringing it back to bed. While we sup that I’ll usually check my emails and schedule my twitter posts for the day which consist of the usual calls for fellow Twitter users to either (A) read my blogs (B) watch my videos or (C) buy my book. Undeterred by the wave of disinterest that these tweets will create I will usually finish my tea and then perhaps saunter over to the bathroom for my morning ablutions. The knowledge that Noel Coward would have written an entire new act in his latest play by now spurs me on to lay the table for breakfast which Liz will be preparing as we speak. Later after my bacon and eggs have been digested the time will have come for a post breakfast cuppa, or emergency back up cuppa as I sometimes call it.

Washing of the pots completed, my first swim of the day will be due and to get myself in the mood for writing I usually find that a good idea is to settle down by the pool and have a read. As things warm up another swim will be in order and then my favourite part of the day, relaxing on my sun lounger and feeling the sun gradually warming and drying my body. That’s usually when ideas start to develop in my mind and after a while I’ll feel compelled to nip inside, crank up my laptop and actually write something. Noel Coward would surely be proud.

Post Brexit Europe is in the news as I write this. It seems that a UK trucker had his ham sandwich confiscated as he entered Holland. The Dutch customs officials were not happy that the driver had the audacity to prepare some ham sandwiches for his journey and had them wrapped neatly in silver foil on his dashboard ready for a bit of a snack later. Meat apparently cannot be imported into Holland and quoting Brexit the official whisked away the driver’s sarnies. Now this could have a severe knock on effect for me because when Liz and I travel to France in our motorhome, we usually take with us some bacon (in my book an absolute priority) and various other meats. We will also have a couple of steaks in the freezer ready to slap on a barbecue at any given time. On one occasion we took some meatballs and pasta in tomato sauce anticipating a quick stop over to heat up, eat and then get back on our way towards the south of France.

Confiscating a driver’s sandwiches though, surely that must be grounds for war or at least for the firing of various warning shots over the channel. Presumably in pre-EEC days our truckers and holidaymakers popped over the channel to Europe without any undue issues and many of these current problems will hopefully be teething troubles. In the meantime, I’ll be checking the motorhome over for any secret compartments capable of storing my bacon.

And just in case there are any Dutch customs officials reading this: we usually make up some egg sandwiches for our journey so get your beady eyes off my sarnies!


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A Diary and Some Random Memories

DiaryTravelling to work on Christmas day afternoon was interesting. I expected the roads to be quiet, after all, Christmas day is not usually a day for travelling, especially when we are in the middle of a pandemic. The lockdown then was a bit of an odd situation, especially where I work because my workplace is right where three different counties meet, Cheshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside and all three were in different states, or tiers of the lockdown. Now that we are all locked down the situation has at least been clarified.

Oh well, it was certainly quiet enough and I was able to sit back and listen to my music as I drove into work. As I came through junction 28 on the M6 motorway two people were on a bridge wearing Father Christmas hats. They looked to be a middle aged couple but as I passed under them they waved and sadly I wasn’t quick enough to wave back. To surprise myself, the previous day I had slapped five new CDs into my CD changer randomly without trying to read the labels, so as I drove into work on Christmas Day, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself listening to the themes from the various Rocky movies complete with the odd quote from Sylvester Stallone, things like ‘Yo Adrian’ and so on.

As a blogger I read quite a lot of my fellow bloggers posts, some even inspire my own posts, but a blog I read a while ago was about millennials and 10 things they are not doing. Millennials, I assume, are those people born in the 21st century and one of the 10 things they are not doing is apparently learning to drive cars. Not all of them of course but 20% less than usual. I can understand that in the big cities where there are good transport links but even so, as a youngster I longed to have my own car. When we moved to a new estate in Handforth, transport links there were dreadful but not only that I wanted a car for the freedom to travel when and where I wanted and also, I liked cars and I liked driving, even though it took three attempts to pass my test. These days, cars are clogging up the roads of the world and the day must surely be coming when everyone will not be able to own a car simply because of the sheer numbers of vehicles out there already.

My Dad wasn’t a driver. He went everywhere on his old push bike but never showed any interest in having a car.

Every week day he rose early to get ready for work. He had porridge for breakfast, mounted his battered old bike and taking his shoulder bag with his box of sandwiches my mother had made for him and his brew can, he left for the ride to work. He did that every day of his working life and, come rain, snow or sunshine, he rode his bike to work. In the mid seventies we moved to the Manchester overspill estate in Handforth that I mentioned above and the result was a much longer journey for him.

He was a fit man, much fitter than me but sadly he and I wasted such a lot of time when we were younger, not getting on together. One day something quite shocking happened to me. It seemed like the end of the world at the time. Anyway, I knew I would have to tell Mum and Dad. I couldn’t face Mum, so I told Dad. Instead of getting the negative response I expected, my Dad was full of support and from that day on our friendship never looked back.

When he died, those wasted years always seemed to haunt me, but then, we were people from such different generations. Young people and their parents are so much closer these days in terms of cultural identity but for me and my Dad things were not like that. He came from a background where he was given an apple and an orange for Christmas whereas my brother and I, who received a sack full of presents on Christmas Day, were part of a new youth culture involving music, television and film that he struggled to understand.

Dad had served in the South Staffordshire regiment of the army and I remember once my brother did some research and found the regiment had been merged with the North Staffordshire regiment in 1959 and later with other regiments to become the Mercian regiment. He told me that when he had called the regiment to enquire what kind of records were kept, they had asked him various questions. When my brother replied that Dad had done his national service as a lowly private they said rather coldly that records of enlisted men were not kept.

DadThe record keepers of the regiment may not have cared about my Dad but he certainly cared about his regiment. He was very proud of his army service. He served in Northern Ireland, Germany and Hong Kong, and told me many stories about his army life. In fact some time ago when I posted a picture of him on Facebook showing him at work for the council highways department, one of his old work mates replied mentioning the stories he used to tell his workmates about his army sergeant major.

One of my Dad’s early jobs was as a milkman but not for him the electric milk van. No, he had a horse drawn milk trolley and he told me with pride how, as he ran up and down through the gates of the various houses dropping off milk on doorsteps, he didn’t have to run back and move his trolley up. No, just a whistle was all it took, and his horse would trot quietly forward to my Dad and he would replace the empties and take out fresh bottles for the next house. My Dad was pretty attached to that horse. It was stabled not far away in Northenden. Once his father, my grandfather, a WW1 Veteran of the Royal Horse Artillery, came to see the horse. He checked the horse’s teeth, apparently a good indicator of equine health and pronounced himself satisfied.

This week I was trying to sort some of my Mum’s things out and I came across my Dad’s diary for the year 2000, the year he died. It was a sad read.

The diary starts out on the third of January and continues with a daily entry for many months. There is nothing exciting to read. Dad records the weather and where he went on his daily walk. He talks about trips to the shops and days when he and Mum went to get their pensions. He walked every day with his dog.

He once owned a pedigree dog. It was a dachshund he bought from someone. The dog came with a long certificate listing his various forebears, but he was the nastiest bad-tempered dog I have ever met. When I visited he would be reluctant to get off the chair, so I could sit down. I sometimes had to use a water spray on him to get him to shift. If Dad was there though, it only took a word from him and Ben would obey, give me a mean look and saunter over to his master where he would glare at me for the rest of my visit.

He died not long after Dad adopted my late gran’s dog Mickey. Mickey was a wonderful dog although he had his own little quirks. He would always chase after a thrown ball but would never give it back. He would take it and bury it and long after he too departed, Dad would find balls buried in the back garden. The dog he had in later years was Bouncer. Bouncer was a rescue dog whose previous owners tired of him because of his supposedly constant jumping up and down. If he did do that, my Dad, an ardent dog lover soon cured him or trained him not to jump up and in his diary Dad records all the many walks the two went on.

As the diary comes to April the daily entries become briefer, sometimes just one sentence about the weather. Dad’s handwriting seems to become a little less firm. It is still the same hand, sloping gently to the right but it somehow seems perceptibly weaker. On July 17th there is an entry in my Mum’s hand. She always wrote in capitals for some reason. FOUND RALPH IN BATHROOM ON FLOOR she says. He went to the doctor and they found nothing. Another entry on July 20th, again in Mum’s hand, FOUND RALPH ON FLOOR IN KITCHEN. He was taken to hospital and on the 26th July a brain scan found that he had a tumour on his brain.

I remember meeting the doctors at the time. Mum and I sat down in their office. My brother must have been there also. The doctor said to me, ‘great news’.

Great news? What was it.

‘You’re all OK. You, your brother and mother, you are all OK. A brain tumour is not something that you’re all going to get.’ I felt for a moment we had slipped into some alternate reality. We are all OK? What about Dad?

There was a problem with Dad they admitted. He needed an operation to remove the tumour. Great, we said, go ahead.

Looking back, I wonder whether doctors are trained to try and give some good news before they give some bad or maybe they want to try and break things gently.

That reminds me of the joke where the guy goes abroad and asks his brother to mind his cat. He gets back and asks the brother ‘how’s the cat?’ the brother replies, ‘The cat’s dead’. ‘What!’ says the guy. He is heartbroken. ‘That was the cruellest thing I ever heard. You know how much I loved that cat, why couldn’t you have broken it to me gently. When I called you should have said something like, well she’s OK but she is up on the roof. And then when I called the next time, tell me, bad news, she fell off the roof and she’s at the vets. And then the next time break the news that she passed away. At least I would have been a little prepared for the bad news.’

‘Yes, you are right. I am sorry for being so heartless.’

The guy accepted the brother’s apology for being so uncaring, and then said, ‘Oh, by the way, how’s Mother?’

The guy thought for a moment then said, ‘Well, she’s OK, but she’s on the roof . . ‘

I’ve flipped the mood a little there, as if there is going to be a happy ending. Sadly, there wasn’t. Dad had the operation and improved a little. He came home for some days then they moved him to a nursing home. Mum visited him frequently. I came usually after my early shift or on my days off. I remember being with him once and talking about death. He must have known the end was coming and I think I asked him to try and be prepared. He answered that he thought about death sometimes and it was ‘frightening’. That was the last time I ever saw him.

In the diary Dad’s last ever entry was on June 2nd. It says he took Bouncer for a walk and went to visit my brother who lived not far away. Underneath my Mum has arrowed across to May 31st, so it looks like Dad wrote his entry on the wrong date. His eyesight was failing, He was due to have an eye operation for cataracts but the operation was cancelled because of his tumour.

On the 15th November Mum wrote that he slept all day. On the 22nd she spent the whole day with him from 11am to 11pm. He slept a lot of the time. On the 23rd November Mum had written RALPH PASSED AWAY AT 2AM.

That of course was over twenty years ago. He was born, he lived and then he was gone, just like the wind.

I’ve mentioned the wind for a particular reason. He had a notebook in which he jotted down all sorts of items he found in newspapers and books. If he ever came across a word he didn’t know he looked up the meaning and jotted it down. He was someone who left school at 14 with a poor education but that didn’t stop him wanting to learn. One item caught my eye.

I don’t suppose it was something he actually composed but then, who knows:

Who has seen the wind?

Neither you nor I

but when the leaves are trembling

The wind is passing by.


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Kitchen Sink Dramas of the 1980’s

A while back I did a post about the kitchen sink dramas that emerged in the 1960’s but I thought I’d look now at some later films that have continued that tradition of focusing on working class life. I’m not really sure that today in the 21st century the working class still exist. Modern UK is, to a great extent a classless society. Then again, perhaps it’s just a society of the haves and the have nots. That concept relates particularly well to the 1980’s. The decade of Thatcherism and Yuppies and inner city riots. Kitchen sink dramas were almost exclusively northern, set in places like Manchester, Liverpool and Lancashire with strong no nonsense northern characters. Here are four films from the 1980’s that fit that category.

Educating Rita (1983)

This was a breakthrough film for Julie Walters and I remember Michael Caine who also stars in the film saying that this film would do for Julie what Alfie did for him. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. The film is about a Liverpool hairdresser played by Julie who wants to better herself. She decides to take an Open University course in English Literature. Her tutor played by Caine is initially confused as he has the name of Susan White on his documents and Susan explains that she has now changed her name to Rita after reading Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. Frank Bryant (Caine) is not keen on taking Rita on as a student but she convinces him otherwise. Rita finds Frank has ignited her passion for literature but has to contend with her husband who wants her to be a traditional wife and produce babies. Husband and wife finally split leaving Rita to pursue her studies. She moves in with a fellow student and gradually, as she mixes with more students and studies more, she becomes less and less like her former self. Frank becomes more and more fond of her, possibly even in love with her but his position as a university lecturer is compromised by his heavy drinking.

In a lot of ways this is such a good film. Julie Walters is outstanding as Rita and Michael Caine is excellent too. The big problem for me is that while Julie plays Rita as a typical scouser with a superb Liverpool accent, the setting clearly isn’t Liverpool. Not only that but the other accents in the film all grate with Julie’s as they are a mix of various northern accents. Caine of course as the lecturer, doesn’t have to have to be a Liverpudlian but the hotchpotch of brogues, some from Manchester, some from Liverpool just seemed to jar to my ear. The film was apparently filmed in Ireland so why not make Rita and her family Irish? That would have made more sense although filming in Liverpool with a local cast would have been the better option. Perhaps production finances made that impossible.

Shirley Valentine (1989)

Like Educating Rita, this was a film based on a play written by Willy Russell. In this one Liverpudlian Shirley is getting a little bored with her life. Unlike Rita in the film above it’s not learning that Shirley wants, it’s a good holiday. She is getting a bit fed up of waiting hand and foot on her husband and when the chance comes to go to Greece with her friend she wonders if she could really do it, really leave her husband behind and swan off to the sun? A couple of things make her decide that it is really time to put herself first. The first one is when her husband gets really annoyed when she serves chips and egg instead of steak for their Thursday evening meal. Surely she knew Thursday was steak night? The other is when her daughter comes home and like her dad, expects to be waited on so off Shirley goes to Greece. Things don’t go quite to plan when her mate finds herself a man on the flight over and leaves Shirley to her own devices. After a few days Shirley finds her confidence and begins to enjoy things alone. She meets Costas, a bar owner and spends time with him on his small boat and when the time comes to leave, Shirley decides she is going to stay.

Like Michael Caine in Alfie, Shirley talks straight to the camera and reveals she is in love. Not with Costas but with herself. At the end of the film her husband arrives in Greece and the two sip wine together by the sea. Will Shirley return with him? The film leaves the question open.

Shirley Valentine is a much better film than Educating Rita. Shirley and her husband played by Pauline Collins and Bernard Hill come across as authentic Liverpudlians and the whole film, especially Shirley talking to the camera, works very well. Both films were directed by Lewis Gilbert who directed amongst other things, the Michael Caine classic Alfie. With some better casting in the smaller roles, Educating Rita would have been just as good.

Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1987)

Like the two films above, this too was based on a play, in fact it was two plays that were adapted and merged together into a screenplay by the play’s author Andrea Dunbar. Andrea was raised on the Buttershaw council estate in Bradford, West Yorkshire and became pregnant at 15. This event inspired her first play The Arbor. It was written originally as a classroom assignment and encouraged by her teacher, Andrea developed the work into a full blown play. The film was filmed on the Buttershaw estate where Andrea continued to live, despite several residents threatening her because of the negative portrayal of the area in the film.

In the film, two babysitters Rita and Sue, begin an affair with Bob for whom they have been babysitting. Bob’s marriage later breaks down when his wife finds out. Sue later gets involved with an Asian taxi driver called Aslam who becomes violent. He attacks Sue but Rita arrives and the two both turn on the taxi driver, disabling him long enough for the two to escape. They flee to Bob’s house where Aslam turns up and pleads for Sue to forgive him. Bob arrives and then the Police, who have been called by the neighbours. The Police leave in pursuit of Aslam and Bob decides to have a bath. When he goes into the bedroom, the two girls are in bed waiting for him.

This is really an incredible film on many levels. It is funny but also shows northern council estates for what they are, a mix of rough and ready characters, some of whom take pride in their homes and the way they conduct themselves and some who do not. The tone of the film shifts quickly from humour to drama and back again and the documentary style of filming gives the film a gritty realism.

Gregory’s Girl (1981)

Gregory’s Girl was a low-budget movie made in 1981 and was written and directed by Bill Forsyth. The film is a gentle comedy about a young lad who fancies a girl who has just joined his school football team. The film was one of those special films where so many things come together to make a truly great and memorable film, in fact it is ranked number 30 in the British Film Institute’s list of the top 100 British films.

It reminds me so much of my own schooldays in so many ways even though it was filmed in Lanarkshire in Scotland. The hairstyles in the film were similar to those of myself and my friends back in 1973, the year I left school (armed with only four O levels to take on the world). The school ties and jackets were similar to mine, as were the classrooms and lead actor John Gordon Sinclair’s clumsy and shy manner both on and off the football field was just like mine.

Gregory lives on a new estate just like the one my family moved into in the mid 1970’s. He develops a crush on a new girl who has just joined the school football team and eventually he plucks up the courage to ask her for a date. He borrows his friend’s jacket and off he goes to meet her although things don’t turn out quite how he planned. Gregory’s Girl isn’t as gritty as the films I’ve mentioned above but for me it’s like a nostalgic trip back to my schooldays. Look out for the film on TV or you can even find the complete film on YouTube.


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Statistics, 2020 and a Troll Through Some Popular Posts

Being a creature of habit, I always tend to do a blog post at the start of the year, looking back to my posts of the previous year. In one of my first posts of 2020 I did one looking back through what had happened to me in 2019 and linking it to my best posts of the year. My best or favourite posts are not necessarily the ones that picked up the most views or the most likes. WordPress has a pretty comprehensive stats page so this year I thought I’d spend a little time going through them. All the links to previous posts open up in a new page.

image courtesy wikipedia

My all-time top scoring blog post is this one about David Cassidy. Cassidy became a big star on the hit TV show The Partridge Family about a family that formed themselves as a pop group. When the songs from the TV show were released as singles they quickly became hits and Cassidy himself soon began making his own records. His star shone very bright for a while but then faded leaving Cassidy trying to make his way in film and TV almost as a has been when he was still young. My post is actually about me and the time I went to the barber’s -sorry, hair stylist- and asked for a style like Cassidy’s. One of the reasons for the success of that post might be that its very search engine optimised, meaning that it always comes up in any search for Cassidy. I like to think it’s a pretty good read too. The post also showed up as my second most read post in 2020.

My most read post in 2020 was one from 2016, 6 Kitchen Sink Dramas which is a post about a new style of films in the 1960’s that focused on the working class. The post looked at 6 particular films that I thought were the very best of the 1960’s. A similar sort of post from 2020 was this one, Films, Allegories and McCarthyism which was about films which were in some way related to the McCarthyism of the 1950’s. Hollywood was particularly affected with many actors, writers and other film professionals having their careers either compromised or in some cases, completely ruined. The post was also one of the first for which I decided to make a short video trailer for use on social media to bring in those new readers. The post doesn’t seem to register that well in my stats, but it was one that I personally thought was good and I enjoyed doing the research and writing.

Coming in third in my all-time most read posts was one from 2014 about the JFK Assassination. Again, this is another post that always seems to do well. I spent a lot of time on the post doing research with the stack of books I have on the subject. In this post I stay clear of wild theories and tend to stick with the basics in particular Lee Oswald’s rifle, famously found on the 6th floor of the Texas School Book Depository. The rifle had a telescopic sight which the FBI found later was not only mis-aligned but actually impossible to set up. They solved the problem by adding metal shims to the mounting, meaning that FBI shooters who test fired the rifle used it in a configuration that was not available to the alleged assassin Lee Oswald.

While I’m on the subject of the Kennedys, another post that’s showing up well in my stats is an old one from  2015 about Marilyn Monroe. Researching from various books and websites I tried to piece together the events of Marilyn’s last day. Marilyn was very angry in her last days. She claimed to friends she was fed up of being tossed around ‘like a piece of meat’ by the Kennedy brothers and threatened to blow the lid on her dealings with them in a press conference. Bobby Kennedy wanted her notebook, the one in which she had noted down details of her meetings with him. Kennedy wanted it destroyed and Marilyn kept quiet. The Mafia wanted derogatory information on the Kennedys and had even had Marilyn’s home bugged. A press conference was arranged for Monday August 6th, 1962. Was she about to reveal her affair with Bobby? Sadly, Marilyn was found dead in the early hours of the 5th

Another of my favourite topics concerning the USA are the Nixon years and coming up third in my 2020 stats was a 2016 post about Howard Hughes and the Watergate Tapes. Billionaire Hughes wanted the US government to shift their underground nuclear tests from Nevada to somewhere else. In his dealings with President Nixon he bandied around a figure of a million dollars. Was this the same million dollars that Nixon mentioned to presidential aide John Dean?

Fourth in this year’s rankings and also fourth in my overall stats was a post about American Pie, the hit song by Don McLean. I’ve always loved that song and years ago I used to read a magazine called The Story of Pop. One edition was dedicated to the song and it fascinating to read about the true meaning of Don’s lyrics. Who was the Jester? Who was the King? All is revealed in the post.

Jason King

In fifth place in my 2020 most read posts was one from 2014 about Jason King. Jason who, did I hear you asking? Back in the 1970’s Jason King was a character in the TV show Department S. Jason was played by Peter Wyngarde. He was an author who worked with two colleagues in a government investigatory department set up to solve the most baffling of mysteries. Jason was a very avant-garde character, especially in his clothes and Wyngarde himself, no slouch in the fashion department, used his own clothes in his portrayal. Chief among his fashion items was a tie with a fashionably large knot and as a teenage schoolboy, I made it my mission to emulate that super knot! Did I succeed? Click this link to find out.

A lot of my 2020 posts seem to have been eclipsed by views of posts from bygone years but one of this year’s posts was my 6th most popular. It was a book post and reading, especially second hand books, is one of my great loves. During the first Lockdown in 2020 the weather was good and the sun was shining so Liz and I spent a lot of time reading and generally pottering about in the garden. One of the books I read was the diary of Michael Palin of the Monty Python team. The diary talks about Palin giving up smoking, making the first series of Monty Python and various other film and TV projects. It was interesting especially the peripheral things Palin mentions, the Apollo 11 moon landings, the strikes, the three day week and so on and it also brought back a lot of memories of my schooldays when my fellow pupils and I were great fans of Monty Python. Click here for the full post.

Coronavirus is basically a total pain in the neck and has ruined everything from Christmas celebrations to our regular quiz night down at the Lord Derby in St Annes to our random nights out in various pubs and our regular meals at a whole host of restaurants that we used to frequent. I hope 2021 turns out a lot better. We started off 2020 in Lanzarote and while we were there we found a fabulous villa close to all the bars and restaurants we loved. What the heck we thought and spent a shed load of money to book it for 2021. Now we’re in the middle of the second wave of the pandemic but I still live in hope that we may still be able to go there. So apart from that trip last January we didn’t do much travelling. We did do a few trips in our motorhome though and my post from this year, The Ups and Downs of Motorhoming did pretty well, coming in as my 8th most popular post. This was another post for which I used a short video trailer over on Twitter; here it is below:

Later in the year, in October we went off to Scotland visiting the Highlands, the Isle of Skye and Plockton among other places. I even managed to put together a video which pulled in some reasonable stats over on YouTube. Pity I didn’t spot a few typing errors in the post’s captions but now it’s got such a lot of views I don’t like to replace it. You can read the post and see the video by clicking here.

There are plenty of other stats that I’ve gleaned from my WordPress stats page. In my first year of blogging, 2014, I wrote 58,895 words. That figure has gradually expanded and this year, up to the 26th of December as I write this, I published 76,659 words (plus however many words are in this post). Average words per post in 2014 were only 633 words so these days at an average of 1446 words per post the reader is getting real value for money. I say value for money but as SteveHigginsLive.com is an entirely free service that’s not strictly true but I like to think I am doing something towards keeping readers amused during this locked down, mask wearing, hand sanitising time.

76,000 words though, I wish I could motivate myself to write that much on the sequel to Floating in Space!


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A Bit of a Blog or a Blog of Bits: Christmas Version

Well, we’re at that time of year again, Christmas. This time it will be Christmas with a difference; no parties, no meals out, no pub nights. The Coronavirus has changed everything. When it comes down to it, I’m not a great Christmas fan. It was good years ago as a child, waking up with the excitement of it all; the presents, the food, the cosy evening watching classic TV. But now I find myself wishing it was all over. I find myself looking forward to my favourite time of the year, the spring when days are getting longer and warmer and the bad weather is beginning to ease and  things are gradually becoming more light than dark and more warm than cold. This Christmas I will be working, even though I only work three shifts out of nine it turns out that my three days this week have fallen on the 25th, the 26th and 27th. Still, I’ve worked Christmas days before now as well as New Year’s day and Easter and other holidays. This time however, I’ve promised myself I won’t be working another one.

There isn’t much to do during the lockdown and apart from work, the only excitement in my life has been TV, books and writing.

TV.

The good thing about Christmas, speaking strictly as a couch potato, is the good stuff that will be on the television. At least, the good stuff I expect will be on. Last week I sat and watched one of my favourite films Fantastic Voyage. It’s a brilliant film in many ways. Firstly, it’s so incredibly original. We’ve all heard of outer space and seen a hundred or more films on the subject but this film is something different, it’s about inner space. An important scientist lies stricken with an inoperable blood clot on the brain and the solution is this: take a team of doctors, put them in a submarine and shrink them down so that they are so small, so very tiny that they will fit in a hypodermic and can be injected into the scientist’s bloodstream so they can journey towards the brain and clear the blood clot from the inside. Brilliant, wish I’d thought of it. Some of the special effects are a little tame and to be honest, it’s a film that is ripe for a 2021 remake with 21st century CGI special effects. Even so, I enjoyed it just the same.

The film stars various well known actors, from the glamorous Raquel Welch to the villainous Donald Pleasance. Also starring is Stephen Boyd. Boyd was an Irish actor who appeared in over 60 films. Boyd was a good actor who seemed to vanish quite abruptly from our film and TV screens. I looked him up on Wikipedia to find out what had happened to him and discovered that he had died suddenly at a very young age. He hailed from County Antrim in Northern Ireland. His big movie breakthrough was the film Ben Hur in which he played the part of Roman Tribune Messala for which he won a Golden Globe award. He was only 45 when he died of a heart attack whilst out playing golf at a course in California.

A few days ago I watched a repeat of one of the Christmas episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond. One of the great things about that show is Liz and I both enjoy it. In this episode Ray, just like me, is wondering what presents to buy. In particular he wants something for Debra, his wife. Previous failed presents were a set of pyjamas, he bought the wrong ones and his present idea, a space heater. Brother Robert, the funniest character in the show suggests a first edition of Debra’s favourite book, To kill a Mockingbird. Ray gets the book, Debra is over the moon -Ray finally bought her a good present- but Robert ruins everything by revealing the book was his idea. That show always makes me laugh especially as I’m so bad at buying gifts.

Just as I was doing the final edit for this post I took a quick glance at the TV guide. Bypassing Stalkers who Kill scheduled for Christmas Day –somehow I don’t think I’ll be watching that– I noticed It’s a Wonderful Life showing on Christmas Eve. I love that film and come to think of it, I haven’t seen it for quite a few years. It’s about George Bailey played by James Stewart who looks forward to an interesting life of travel but then finds obligations force him to stay in the small town where he has always lived. George is beset by problems and even considers suicide but then his guardian angel -literally- arrives to help him. The secret of this film is, I think, the fact that despite the fantasy premise of the film, everyone plays their parts as if they were in a serious drama. The result is that the drama and emotion of the situation rises to the surface and we are left with a vibrant and dramatic piece of cinema.

Books.

Hollywood has always fascinated me, especially Hollywood’s Golden Age. Just recently I’ve been reading Murder Hollywood Style written by Samuel Marx and Joyce Vanderdeen. Samuel Marx worked in Hollywood for many years and was a story editor and later a producer. He was a friend of Paul Bern who had married the original platinum blonde, Jean Harlow, in 1932.

On the morning of September the 5th, 1932, Marx received a phone call advising him that Bern had been found dead that morning. Bern was a former script writer who now worked as a producer for MGM where he was assistant to Irving Thalberg. Thalberg was known as the ‘Boy Wonder’ of MGM having produced a number of hit films such as Grand Hotel and Mutiny on the Bounty. Marx was shocked by the news and went quickly over to Bern’s house. Thalberg was already there and Marx spoke to neighbour about a mysterious veiled woman who had arrived the previous night. She arrived in a limousine and the neighbour heard various sounds that evening. Some sounds of laughter, some of anger. Marx went to go inside Bern’s house but Thalberg told him not to enter. Bern had committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. It was not a pretty site. Louis B Mayer the famous head of MGM had been to the house already and the head of the studio police force was also there. Marx, who had dined with Bern and his wife Jean Harlow only recently was shocked and left for home.

Strangely nothing appeared on the news until the next day. Who was the woman in the limo and had Bern really committed suicide? Marx takes us on an interesting tour of 1930’s Hollywood and along the way talks about many of the famous personalities of the time as well as the background to MGM studios and the films they made. He explains how the studio managed the press and dealt with the law enforcement officials of the day. Nothing was allowed to upset the carefully managed careers of stars like Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, her co-star in the hit movie Red Dust which was completed after Bern’s death.

All in all, a fascinating read.

Writing.

I was watching a TV quiz show the other day and one of the celebrity contestants mentioned that he had just finished writing a book. He did it by setting himself a target of 2000 words per day. Now sometimes I’ve hit 2000 words myself although certainly not every day. Sometimes it’s just 200. Writing isn’t always that easy and working from home there are so many distractions like emails and time wasting web sites like Pinterest and eBay. On eBay you can not only waste time but also spend money that you didn’t want to spend. When I’m stuck on a blog post or any other writing project I tend to look back at my half finished projects and work on those. I have a whole stack of half written poems, some of which I wrote many years ago and recently I put together a collection of poems with a vague idea of publishing them on Amazon. Lo and behold, just then a publisher contacted me asking to publish my poems! It was an Indian publisher and over on their web page there was a lengthy portfolio of their published editions which will soon be joined by my own book, A Warrior of Words.

Hope you’re having a good socially distanced Christmas. All the best and I’ll see you over in 2021.

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