Holiday Book Bag: Spring 2023

A long time ago I was reading a biography about Richard Burton called ‘Rich’ by Melvyn Bragg. The book used Burton’s own diaries and mentioned, amongst other things, Burton’s love of books. When Burton went on holiday he looked forward with delight to the contents of his ‘book bag’. I know it’s a pretty tenuous link but one thing I have in common with Richard Burton is a love of books and when I go on holiday, one of the delights of lying under a warm sun on my sunbed is a good, undisturbed read. I read a lot at home and before I retired, on my lunch breaks at work but it’s a few minutes here and a few minutes there and whenever I get interrupted it kind of breaks the flow. Some books, as we all know, are just made for a really long, uninterrupted read so here are the books I took on holiday with me recently, all sourced from either the internet or secondhand bookshops.

I Wanna Be Yours by John Cooper Clarke

I’ll start off this book bag with this autobiography by John Cooper Clarke. I wrote about it a few weeks ago so I’ll keep it brief here. This was a wonderful read. It wasn’t the I did this and then I did that conventional autobiography, it was a very observational book and Cooper Clarke paints an interesting picture of Manchester and Salford from the 1950s to his heyday as a punk poet in the 1980’s. The last quarter of the book resembles a more conventional biography and it made me want to read some of his poetry.

Verdict: A fabulous, entertaining read.

10 Years in an Open Necked Shirt by John Cooper Clarke

This was a poetry book by John and to be fair I found it a little disappointing. The thing is, Clarke is a performance poet and his grammar free poetry doesn’t work as well on the printed page as it does when Clarke performs it on stage. Some poetry I suppose is meant to be read, other poetry needs to be performed and Clarke’s comes into the latter category.

Verdict: Interesting but not my cup of tea.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

I first heard about this from seeing a trailer to the new film version and it looked pretty interesting. I do love something that is new and original and so Liz and I went to the cinema to see it which was my first cinema visit for a long time. It’s a good film but not a cinema classic and I wondered if the book would be better. The story is about Harold Fry who is retired and lives with his wife on a suburban housing estate. He gets a letter advising him that a friend and former workmate named Queenie, is dying of cancer and he pens a short note of sympathy in reply. He goes out to post the letter but decides to walk further wrapped up in thoughts about Queenie. At a petrol station where he buys a sandwich the young girl assistant tells him a story about her aunt who suffered with cancer and she -the shop assistant- feels that real faith and positive thoughts can help beat even something like cancer. Harold decides there and then to walk all the way to Berwick-upon-Tweed and see Queenie in person.

Along the way Harold meets various people and when news of his march reaches the media, many others come to join him. Along the way he thinks a lot about the events of his life, in particular his relationships with his wife and son and eventually both he and his wife, who he speaks constantly to on the telephone, seem to reach a sort of understanding about what has happened to them as well as an unspoken desire to reunite and move forward. The book was a great success world wide and many reviews printed on the back cover tell the reader what an uplifting read it was. It wasn’t a bad read at all but I actually found it not only sad but rather miserable and, to be honest, not uplifting at all.

Verdict: Original and interesting but a bit too melancholic for me.

Then Again by Diane Keaton

This is another autobiography and like the one by John Cooper Clarke it was a rather unconventional one. Diane Keaton is a film actress you might remember from the Godfather movies or from Annie Hall. Diane’s mother had died and looking through her effects she had found numerous notebooks and diaries in which her mother had written about her life. In this autobiography, Diane has tried to link her story with that of her mother and has put her own experiences and memories side by side with those of her mother. The result is for the most part a really very interesting book, told in a very open and talkative way by both Diane Keaton and her mother. Diane doesn’t get too personal but does talk quite a lot about her work and her life in particular with Woody Allen and Warren Beatty, both of whom she was involved with for a time. She also had a long relationship with Al Pacino who she played opposite in the Godfather series of films and it seems to me she was expecting to marry Al but for whatever reason he decided to call the relationship a day.

The last part of the book is really about her decision, late in life, to adopt two children and the result for the autobiography is rather like when one of your friends has a child and all they ever seem to do is go on and on about their new little boy or girl. Her mother sadly develops dementia and Diane’s experience of trying to look after her was all too familiar to mine.

Verdict: The book goes off on a bit of a tangent towards the end but generally I really enjoyed it, especially the bits about working with Woody Allen.

The Richard Burton Diaries edited by Chris Williams

I mentioned at the start of this post about reading Melvyn Bragg’s biography of Richard Burton and how Burton used to always take a ‘book bag’ with him whenever he went away. Bragg’s book was based partly on these diaries which have now been published and are available to everyone.

There is a lot I like about this book and a lot that I don’t like. I tend to prefer paperbacks but I bought this one from the internet and it’s a big heavy hardback and as I’ve dragged it across France it’s generally getting a little tattier every day.

Moving on to the text and I see a lot of the big events in Burton’s life are missing as sometimes he stops writing for days and even months at a time. We don’t hear about the making of Cleopatra and his meeting and affair with Elizabeth Taylor but he does mention some of those events in retrospect.

The book starts with his schoolboy diaries which are rather like mine, brief and to the point. Later, the main diary starts in 1965 and as I write this, I’m up to about 1970. Burton tells us of his immense love for Taylor and how he has given up womanising to be faithful to her but sometimes I get the feeling he isn’t being totally honest, after all Liz has free access to his diary and she frequently jots down her own comments too. Burton was rumoured to have had an affair with Genevieve Bujold during the filming of Anne of a Thousand Days but of course, gives no mention of that in his journal. He does talk a lot about food and having lunch in places like Paris and Rome. He enjoys having money and delights in spending it on jewels for Liz, a new private jet plane and a yacht which he thinks might actually save him money as he can stay on the yacht rather than use hotels. Even so, he continues to use hotels anyway. At one point he considers buying a barge, modernising it and touring the canals of France.

He doesn’t seem to enjoy his acting and in fact rather looks down on it as a profession, although unlike an actor like Brando who had similar thoughts, he did take pride in what he did, learning his part and his lines whereas Brando couldn’t even be bothered to learn the script for the film of Superman despite his million dollar fee.

Surprisingly there is also quite a lot of professional jealousy in the text, for instance, he gives Robert Shaw a bit of a slagging off for his performance as Henry VIII in A Man for all Seasons which I thought was rather good, better or at least the equal of Burton’s Henry VIII in Anne of a Thousand Days.

Burton drinks a lot and frequently argues with Liz, sometimes he is banished to the spare bedroom and usually he regrets his drunken words and wonders why he did what he did or said what he said.

He was though a man who loved books, reading anything from the classics to detective novels. He enjoyed books immensely and even had ambitions of being a writer himself. His entries are peppered with quotations from authors and poets and of course Shakespeare.

I was really looking forward to reading this book but after the first few pages I thought it a little uninteresting. As the narrative moved from 1968 into 1970, Burton seemed to be putting more effort into his journalling and consequently it became more enjoyable to read. Later large gaps appear in the diaries and he doesn’t appear to have written anything about his breakup with Liz Taylor. The entiries become less frequent and to be honest, I ended up skipping quite a few pages.

Verdict: A book that promised a lot but failed to deliver.

The Pelican Brief by John Grisham

I’ve read a few books by this author before and always enjoyed them, this one being no exception, in fact it might be the best book by Grisham I have read so far. The book opens with the murder of two US Supreme Court judges and this in some ways plays into the hands of the President as he can now nominate new judges who share his political views. At the same time law student Darby Shaw is having an affair with her law professor. She decides to look closely at the murders and develops a thesis, an idea about who may have done the murders and why. The thesis becomes known as the Pelican Brief and she passes it to the professor who in turn sends it to his friend, an FBI lawyer. It then gets passed up the chain to the head of the FBI and on to the White House where the President asks the FBI not to investigate further.

Not long afterwards the professor is blown up in a car bomb which Darby narrowly avoids and from then on, she is on the run trying to evade death herself.

This for me was one of those unputdownable novels which was exciting and kept me interested all the way to the end.

Verdict: A brilliant read.

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John Cooper Clarke and Some Other Thoughts from a Sun Lounger

It’s that time again for Liz and me to troll through France in our motorhome, on the look out for swimming lakes, cheese, wine and restaurants. The weather has so far been good but not great so sometimes I’ve been relaxing on my sun lounger, other times I’ve been inside wondering, where the hell is that sun?

As I write this we are about a week into our holiday and the sun has made an appearance. We’ve had three or four really hot days and a few of those spring days where it’s really warm in the sun but move into the shade and yes, it’s freezing. You might be thinking what do we get up to in France? Visit museums? Explore fascinating French towns? Well, we have done all that stuff in the past but these days we tend to relax in the sun, read a lot, sup copious amounts of red wine and visit a lot of restaurants.

In the past we’ve visited the blockhaus in Eperleque, a huge concrete structure where the Nazi V weapons were launched against the UK in WWII. The building was rendered useless by the efforts of the RAF Bomber Command and the heroism of those pilots has guaranteed the freedoms we enjoy in western Europe today. I’ve always been moved by the museums and memorials to those who lost their lives in the war. In one place and I can’t remember where it was, we went to a museum dedicated to the French resistance and an old French chap, noticing that we were English told us how much the freedom fighters were aided by the RAF dropping supplies and ammunitions.

Another thing I look forward to on a long trip is reading. Yeah, I know you might think that’s a bit boring but I do love a really good book and one book that has really inspired me this week is an autobiography by the Bard of Salford, John Cooper Clarke. I should really save all this for a forthcoming book bag blog post but out on the road, drinking fine wines and eating good food, I really need to knock out a blog post whenever I can.

I love the way Clarke tells his story, maybe because he writes a little like me. I’ve always tried to make my posts chatty and colloquial, using the kind of language I might use when talking and John Cooper Clarke does pretty much the same thing in his book. It’s a very observational book and he talks about life in Salford in the 1950s and later in the 60s and 70s and very gradually slips himself into the narrative. It’s not a me, me, me type of autobiography. It’s not I did this and then I did that and then I did something else. It’s a fabulous book and though I’m not that interested in the punk music scene which John was very much a part of, I still love it.

Salford is the twin town to my home town of Manchester and a lot of the places and people in the book resonate with my own memories, even though Clarke is a north Manchester guy and I’m from the south. Many years ago though, I used to frequent a place just on the Salford/Manchester border. If you turn off Deansgate and go up Bridge Street and cross the bridge over the River Irwell, you are going into Salford. The bar there, the Mark Addy, was actually the last place my small family (myself, my brother and my mum and dad) had an afternoon out together. It might have been my dad’s birthday, I’m not sure. The four of us had an afternoon lunch at the pub where they served these really tasty cheese and pâté platters. They came with chunky bread and salad and were really lovely.

Mum had her one bottle of stout and then she wanted something lighter. I ordered her a tea and she was pleased to see it was served in a very elegant way with a little teapot, a small jug of milk and a bowl of sugar.

Some years ago the bar, of which the lower floor was down on the banks of the river, was flooded when the river level rose during a storm. They couldn’t get insurance and the place closed and remains empty till the present day.

Just across the road is a small square where Manchester’s first sports superstar George Best had his fashion boutique. Back in the 1960’s my friends and I travelled into Manchester by bus to hang about Best’s Boutique. We never saw the man in person although what we would have done if we had? Ask for an autograph perhaps? I don’t know but at that time George Best had a kind of local fame that was on a par with a film star. The newspapers even dubbed him the fifth Beatle in the sixties because of his Beatle like haircut and his undeniable charisma.

Best was born in Northern Ireland and came to Manchester to begin his career as a footballer aged only 15. In the 1970s he seemed to fold under the pressure of his own stardom. He began drinking heavily and was eventually sacked by his team, Manchester United. Best died in November 2005 aged 59.

Anyway, getting back to John Cooper Clarke. He decided early on that like Dylan Thomas he was going to be a career poet and to his credit he eventually achieved just that. He was and is very much a performance poet and became famous performing with punk bands in the 70s and 80s. His big problem from reading his book seems to be that he was a habitual drug user, even becoming a heroin addict. In the later pages of this book, it does seem that he is very laissez faire about his addiction and wherever he goes to perform, he always makes arrangements to score his drugs just like you and I might try to source a bottle of milk or a packet of tea bags. On one occasion he finds himself in New York, desperate for heroin. The only dealer available to him is based in some dead-end part of the city and a friend lends him a gun which he is advised to keep in view while he goes up to the seventh floor of a dilapidated building to score. Happily, all went well for him but this kind of thing appears to have been the norm for him, having to do what he has to do to get his drugs. In later life he realises he must break the habit which he eventually does, helped by the love of a good woman who he eventually settles down with.

Much of the text is written in his own rapid fire colloquial idiom and is for me, at any rate, a joy to read. Like me he is a man who loves his pies although Clarke prefers the meat and potato version to the steak variety which I rather like. Like he says though, a steak pie is full of gravy which makes it a little harder to eat on the move.

A memorable moment in the book is when he arrives in Scandinavia for a gig. He is starving but is advised that after the performance there will be a huge buffet laid on. There was, but this being Scandinavia it consisted of a great deal of pickled fish and not the hoped for pies.

Clearly he is a great rock and roll fan and lists various members of the rock and pop fraternity who he has either worked with or bumped into over the years and if you happen to be a fan of punk, Clarke points you in the right direction for either further reading or music listening.

I thought Clarke would have had a back catalogue of poetry volumes but that doesn’t seem to be the case although I did buy one of his few poetry books, Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt. That might be my next read.

OK, that’s enough reading and writing for tonight. Time for a glass of some vin rouge and perhaps a nibble on some cheese. Yes, don’t mind if I do . . .

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Concert Memories

I mentioned in last week’s post about, among other things, seeing Paul McCartney and Wings live on stage in 1975. Someone asked me what I remembered about the concert so this week I thought I’d talk a little more about music.

Seeing Paul McCartney and Wings at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester back in 1975 was probably just about the best concert I ever saw. I’d been into the Hall on my lunch break to buy tickets to see Kiki Dee and her band but while I was waiting, a sign went up saying that tickets for McCartney were now on sale so as well as getting tickets to see Kiki Dee, I bought tickets to see Paul as well.

I asked a girl from work to come to the concert with me but she declined. It turned out she was more interested in ballroom dancing than pop music so I dragged my brother along with me. While we were queuing to get into the venue a guy approached my brother and offered him £100 for his ticket. My brother who was and still is a pretty mercenary sort of guy was pretty keen on accepting the deal. I think I even remember him offering to go halves on the deal with me, £50 each. I had the tickets though and I declined. The young lad had told us he was Paul McCartney’s biggest ever fan and I remember thinking, perhaps rather meanly, that he might be McCartney’s big fan but unlike me, he didn’t have tickets to see McCartney in concert.

I hope my brother was glad I turned down the offer because seeing Paul and Wings that night was a fabulous experience. The band had just released Band on The Run and they performed all the hits from that album as well as many other songs. Part way through the evening the band left the stage and Paul sang alone a few of his best Beatle numbers including Yesterday, just him and his guitar and then his bandmates returned and played some more Wings hits. It was a fabulous night.


Back in 1975 I already had the Wings album Band on the Run, on vinyl. It was a great hit at the time and featured a cover with Paul and Linda and their other band member Denny Laine posing with various celebs including talk show host Michael Parkinson, comedian Kenny Lynch, actors James Coburn and Christopher Lee, MP Clement Freud and boxer John Conteh. A few years ago I bought a remastered CD version which in the tradition of film directors producing  DVD director’s cut film remixes, was a new version featuring outtakes and highly different versions of some of the songs. My copy has three CDs and there are other versions with even more CDs but to be honest, the original version was actually the best.

A few weeks after the Wings concert I took my friend Steve to see Kiki Dee, also at the Free Trade Hall, a venue that these days has been overshadowed by the MEN Arena. I say MEN Arena although the name of the Arena changes according to which organisation has paid to have its name up there. Originally it was called the Nynex Arena when it opened in 1995 then in 1998 it became the Manchester Evening News Arena. Today, according to the internet it is called the AO Arena, sponsored by God knows who.

Kiki Dee is probably most known for her duet with Elton John on Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, a 1976 hit for her and Elton. Her own musical performances are perhaps less popular and my favourite track of hers is I Got The Music in Me which was a hit in 1974. My copy of the single has ‘play loud’ in large letters on the disc which I used to think was an invitation to blast out the music but actually the single plays at a rather low volume so you have no choice other than to play it loud.

Back in 1976 when I went to see Kiki Dee, we had seats right at the very front and rather disconcertingly, right in front of me was a huge speaker actually about my size and I wondered if Kiki was taking that ‘play loud’ instruction a little too seriously. Just as the concert was about to begin, a guy armed with a huge stack of cameras came over, grimaced at me and returned a few minutes later with some concert staff heavies. It turned out we were in the wrong seats and we were shown to other seats in the section behind, which as much as I loved Kiki Dee, I was actually pretty happy about. Hope that photographer didn’t have hearing issues after the concert.

Another concert I went to was Michael Jackson at Roundhay Park in Leeds. That was back in 1988 when I was a coach driver. Actually, by the power of Google I see it was August 29th, 1988. I was a coach driver for a company called Charterplan. I wasn’t keen on the job but on that trip, I was happy to see that a fellow driver was a guy called Alex that I had known for years. After dropping off our passengers we decided to see if we could blag our way into the concert and eventually the security staff did let us in. The thing I remember most was a long, a very long introduction and Alex turned to me and said when is Michael going to appear? Just at that exact moment, Jackson popped up onto the stage propelled by either a rocket, compressed air or some sort of catapult. Alex wasn’t amused as he had missed Jackson’s spectacular entrance completely.

The other thing about that night was that another driver had estimated there were about 90 coaches in the coach park and there was only one exit so if one coach exited every minute then it would take 90 minutes for us all to get out. I was glad that I had told my passengers to get back to the coach ASAP and they did, all except for one guy. I waited and waited but he didn’t turn up so I pulled into the queue of buses trying to get out. The guy eventually turned up knocking on the door. He wasn’t happy but when he started to complain the entire front section of the coach gave him the slagging off of his life and he wandered shame facedly back to his seat. We were stuck in that queue for ages trying to get out. Alex told me later he had arrived home a full hour before me that night. I wasn’t amused.

That is probably it for my concert memories. I have seen Barbara Dixon at the Lowther Pavilion in Lytham. I’ve also seen Justin Hayward and John Lodge in Manchester when they had just released their BlueJays album. They had three video screens above them and I could never work out which screen to watch or just to watch the stage.

Barbara Dixon came out after her performance and signed CDs and programmes for the audience. On stage she looked like a typical female rocker but when she appeared to sign autographs, she popped on a sort of old lady’s shawl and reading glasses and looked like a little old dear.

Those are my concert memories, what are yours?

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Scrapbook Memories

I’m always on the hunt for new ideas for blog posts so when I was a little stuck today, I thought I’d take a look at my old scrapbooks and see what was in there.

I started making scrapbooks when I was much younger and my prime source was a comic I used to buy, TV21. TV21 was based on the TV shows of Gerry Anderson all of which were set in the world of the 21st Century. In the 21st Century there was a World President, a World Government and many global organisations such as the WASP, the World Aquanaut Security Patrol and WSP, the World Space Patrol.

Those organisations featured in Stingray and Fireball XL5, futuristic puppet series created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson and the two followed them with series like Captain Scarlet and Joe 90 and perhaps the most famous, Thunderbirds.

TV21 featured all the series above in comic book format and the front page resembled a newspaper style headline featuring the stories that were inside as well as smaller stories and items such as stop press columns, again all relating to items inside the comic.

I couldn’t find my oldest scrapbook but it must be around somewhere. I did find some of my newer ones though. One featured a page similar to the ones in that first book with clippings from TV21 featuring the submarine Stingray.

The first scrapbook I could find was labelled Scrapbook 6 and I can see my interests have moved on a little from TV puppet shows. There was a page featuring Olivia Newton John. Olivia was probably my first celebrity crush back in the early 1970s. One item was dated 1973 and says ‘Olivia to sing for Britain.’ She was chosen to sing for Britain in the Eurovision song contest. I didn’t care for her song though, Long Live Love. I bought many of her albums and records when I was younger and her poster adorned my old bedroom wall. Sadly, she died in 2022.

A more personal item in the scrapbooks was my ticket and programme from seeing Paul McCartney and Wings in 1973 in concert in Manchester together with a review from the Manchester Evening News.

I’ve always loved magazine covers and among the ones in my scrapbook is a cover featuring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. I wrote a post about the duo some time ago; it was about famous couples like Burton and Taylor, Douglas Fairbanks Jr and so on. On holiday I hope to take along my new copy of Richard Burton’s diaries with me to read which I hope will be interesting. Burton was a frustrated writer so I think his diaries might be a cut above some other diaries I have read.

The first season of F1 motor racing I followed was back in 1970. In those days a lot of races were not televised and I had to look to magazines and newspapers to find out the race results. I have scrapbook entries about Jackie Stewart, my all time favourite driver and lots of other newspaper cuttings about motor racing. Back then or so it seems to me, the only time the big newspapers were interested in motor sport was when a driver was killed and there are cuttings from the deaths of Jochen Rindt and Peter Revson to name but two. One more positive newspaper headline was when James Hunt won a dramatic world championship at the very wet Japanese Grand Prix of 1976.

Ronald Reagan went on to win a second term as President by beating the Democratic candidate Walter Mondale in 1984. ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet’ ran the newspaper headline in what might have been the Daily Express.

Reagan had previously defeated Jimmy Carter in 1979 and served two terms as President. Reagan also had various summits with Gorbachev, the head of the USSR and another news cutting is from August 1991 with the headline ‘Gorby arrest: Soviet Chief Toppled’ which as we all know was the beginning of the end for Gorbachev and the Soviet Union.

A lot of my interests are showcased in the scrapbooks. I do love modern mysteries and there is a cutting about Lord Lucan who disappeared in 1974 after the murder of his children’s nanny and others about the JFK assassination in 1963. On the cover of the Sunday express Magazine is the so called ‘magic bullet’, the bullet that the Warren Commission said passed through John Kennedy and inflicted various wounds on John Connally in Dallas in 1963.

Could a pristine bullet like the one in the picture have really passed through two bodies?

While I’m on the subject of JFK, things must have been hard for his widow, Jackie. How she carried on after seeing her husband shot to death while only inches away from her, I don’t know. I saw a documentary about her today which asserted that she wanted to commit suicide afterwards but carried on, kept afloat only by her love for her children. In the scrapbook there is a clipping of her winning a trophy for some kind of horse event but horses may have helped her keep sane as she had loved and ridden horses since childhood.

Just like today I was a big Doctor Who fan back in my scrapbooking days. The first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast on UK TV the day after the JFK assassination in 1963 and as no one was interested in anything other than the JFK assignation that day, it was rebroadcast the following week. In January 1982 Peter Davison had just become the new Doctor Who, replacing the hugely popular Tom Baker. Tom Baker was probably my favourite Doctor and I was sorry to see him go.

One interesting news item I spotted was about John McCarthy and Jill Morrell. They were in the news back in the late 1980s when McCarthy, a journalist, was kidnapped in Lebanon and his then partner Jill was actively campaigning for his release back in the UK. McCarthy was finally released in 1991. He and Jill wrote a book together but they parted four years later. That was all pretty interesting but I’m pretty certain I stuck the item in my scrapbook because I actually rather liked Jill.

In my last scrapbook from the 1990s there are many empty pages but there are also a stack of cuttings that have yet to be stuck in. There are some F1 items and some from the news. One interesting one is about writer Patricia Cornwell who writes the Kay Scarpetta series of crime thrillers. According to the article, Patricia wanted Jodie Foster to play her character Scarpetta in the film version. Jodie had already played an FBI agent in The Silence of the Lambs and apparently wasn’t keen to be involved in another gruesome murder film. That was in 1997 and as far as I know, Scarpetta hasn’t made it into the cinema yet although I did read an item only today which suggested Nicole Kidman might be soon playing Scarpetta on the small screen.

I spent quite a while last week relaxing and skimming through my scrapbooks and I think I’ll finish with my favourite item. It’s a small clipping which was on a page of smaller funny items.

Do you have a scrapbook? If so, what sort of things do you keep in it?

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Writing, the Village and Young Higgins

Liz and I will soon be off to France in our motorhome. It’s had an MOT, it’s been taxed and has had a good wash and clean up and it’s pretty much all ready for the trip. As a writer, I try and get ready for the trip too, I like to get ahead with my weekly posts so I have a few all written and ready to be posted, even if I’m in the middle of the outback of the Loire valley. All I have to do is press the post button and I know that I will have met my deadline, my one deadline of 10:00am on a Saturday morning when my new post goes out.

A couple of weeks ago I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, I was actually three blogs in advance, a whole three weeks, all I had to do was keep writing one blog per week and then in the hoped for sunny Loire I could relax, read books, sunbathe and swim and still put out my one blog post every week. Of course, there are some writers, some bloggers whose output is considerably more than that. Even so, my one blog post per week keeps me honest as a writer and of course I do actually write more. I’ve started to recycle my old posts over on to hopefully engage more readers and even sell more books. One day, when my royalties build up, I might even have enough to splash out on a pint of lager on our regular Thursday night pub quiz.

It was nice to get back behind the wheel of our motorhome and take it down for its first wash of 2023. I’ve already got a few good books to read packed aboard and it almost seems as though I can already taste the vin rouge and the French bread. Yes, that was a good feeling. A bad feeling though was when I realised that despite being three blogs ahead, it was soon two and then just one and as much as I looked at prompts and old posts, no inspiration seemed to come.

Parked by a lake in France

I did a post a while ago about Ideas, Inspiration and Effort. They, I thought, were the key things to any kind of writing, whether it’s a blog post, a story or a poem. The more I think about it, a better title might be Inspiration, Observation and Effort. Some ideas just come naturally. A writer is inspired, he jots down notes and then writes. Other ideas come just by observing things. A recent idea for a post came from a car journey and observing what happened during the trip and it got me talking about my former job, working as a motorway traffic officer and other ideas from my car stereo and the music I was playing. After that comes the effort, the actual work of putting together a blog or story or book.

This week it’s round about a year since I retired. I’m really still getting used to retirement. It’s nice having a free bus pass and it’s nice not having to go into work all the time. I did think about getting a part time job but I actually don’t need a job. Perhaps if I spend too much on holidays or restaurants then I might have to think about working but so far, I seem to be doing OK. When my father retired, he went out on long walks with his dog. He used to roam about the huge council estate where he lived and take in the farms or what used to be farms where he used to work in his youth. He once showed me an old farmhouse hidden in the estate surrounded by council houses. There was a large green there which he said used to be the farm’s orchard and indeed, there were still many apple and pear trees on the green.

After thinking about my father I thought that I might do a similar thing, have a little walkabout around some places I used to know well and see how they had changed.

Not far from the housing estate is a small village called Gatley and when I was younger I used to go there quite a lot. There was a fabulous model shop there and as a schoolboy I bought many a plastic model kit from there. I used to make models from scratch too using glue and balsa wood which I also bought from that shop. The shop itself was a wooden hut type of affair and walking down there the other day the shop was gone and only bushes and shrubs had taken its place. Right outside the shop was the bus stop for the 45 bus which came from Manchester, turned around in Gatley and then went back to Manchester. Today, the small block which the bus circled in order to turn round has been blocked off so the 45 bus is no more, although there is another bus which carries on through the village.

The Red Lion pub is now a Tesco store. There is still a café on the spot where there was aways a café but despite various visits recently, I have never seen it open. Further down, The Prince of Wales is still there. In that particular pub I had my first ever pint many years ago.

As I walked further into the village the traditional English chip shop I used to frequent is now a Chinese takeaway and the chip shop dining room is another shop entirely. The Tatton cinema was demolished some time ago although the builders kept the façade of the building when they built the new supermarket. Among many other films I remember seeing there was my first James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in what must have been 1969.

Next door is the Horse and Farrier pub. My mother once worked there at lunchtimes making sandwiches and my father too, he was the pub gardener. Once, when I was 16 and still at school, a couple of friends and I went inside for a pint. We left our briefcases outside with our school jackets and just as we bought our drinks and had our first sips of beer, who came in through the entrance but our physics master, Mr Farragher. The three of us shot out of the back door and into the gardens before going round to grab our jackets and briefcases from the front. Ever afterwards we three referred to the pub as the Horse and Farragher!

Today I often have a drink in that pub. On the outside it looks just the same as it always did and when I’m there I often think of Mr Farragher. That reminds me of Return Journey, the radio broadcast by Dylan Thomas I spoke about in last week’s post. Dylan returns to a pub of his youth looking for his younger self. He asks the barmaid about young Thomas and she in turn asks him what he looked like. He replies like this:

Thick blubber lips and a snub nose, a bit of a shower off: plus fours and no breakfast you know, a bombastic adolescent provincial bohemian with a thick knotted artist’s tie made from his sisters scarf. A gabbing, mock tough pretentious young man . .

How would I describe myself if I was looking for young Higgins I wonder?

A tall thin reserved young man wearing aviator spectacles. He sometimes wore tinted glasses even when it wasn’t so bright. A provincial adolescent wannabe writer and film director who packed in his job in an insurance company to travel through Europe and ended up as a bus conductor.

Such a shame we can’t go back and change things.

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Return Journey (More Thoughts in my Car)

This week’s post is a sequel to the one last week and I’m going to talk some more about the thoughts and ideas that come to me while driving. OK, I’ve left my house in Manchester in good shape, trimmed the privets, cut the grass and tidied up inside. Final check in the fridge, nothing left behind that is liable to go off. OK, pack the car and let’s get off back to St Annes on the Fylde Coast.

Returning to St Annes is always a nicer journey that the one on the way down. I’m not sure why but perhaps it’s that all the bad traffic areas are closer to Manchester and generally I get them out of the way first and so I can then relax and drive along to some good music. I always tend to return via the M60, the M61, the M6 and finally the M55 motorways. The M60 is always busy around the turn off for the Trafford Centre which is a huge American style shopping mall. I’ve never been that keen on it and on the few occasions when I’ve been there I always have a job trying to find my car again in the huge car parks.

Just as I pass the Trafford centre the signs for ‘Reports of an Accident’ pop up on the VMS (variable message signs). The traffic slows to a crawl and I start to wonder if I should perhaps divert to the M62. I can see the M62 turn off up ahead but I decide to stay on the M60 for a while. When you see Accident on a sign it usually means that is a genuine confirmed accident but when the signs say Reports of an Accident, well there might not be an accident at all. Most of the accident reports come from motorists who dial 999 and tell the police what has happened. The big problem is that a lot of people don’t actually know where they are. They might tell the police they are travelling towards Manchester from Staffordshire and that they are on the M6. The last junction they noticed was junction 16 so they might perhaps reckon they are between 16 and 17 although in fact they might be further up the motorway than they thought. In some cases the informant might even get the motorway wrong saying M6 instead of M60. Anyway, my colleagues and I in the motorway control room would have checked the cameras and maybe we would find the incident on CCTV. We would also task a patrol to run through the area and check.

Approaching the Trafford Centre

Of course all that is behind me now. I’m retired. The traffic begins to speed up and soon we are back to normal speed again. It could have been there was no accident at all or sometimes the cars involved just get going again and leave the scene.

In some ways I miss my life at Highways England or whatever name it is going by now. (Actually National Highways.) In other ways I don’t miss it at all.  I had a long drive into work, forty-two miles and I certainly don’t miss that journey although on the positive side, most of my ideas for blog posts used to come to me while driving. Somehow concentrating on driving always seems to free up another part of my brain and lots of ideas will come. I even have a dictation gadget in the car so I can blab my ideas into that and save them for later.

Another thing I used to do was to create a room in my head for those ideas and make sure to leave those ideas in there. That might sound a bit silly but a long time ago I read a book by Jack Black called Mindstore and it involved using various techniques to help the reader. I bought the book to improve my confidence, especially in job interviews. The writer asked his readers to relax and create a house inside one’s own mind. In the house would be various rooms which one could use for different things. A bathroom with a shower that washed away any problems or negative energy and so on. Another was one for rehearsing events in a positive way, like a job interview for instance. You would rehearse the interview in your mind, imagine being successful and then save the result on a big monitor screen. One of my rooms was for storing my blog ideas.

An RTC on the motorway from quite a few years ago.

A big accident hotspot on the M60 motorway is junction 13. The big problem here is that traffic is entering the M60 from the M62 and the M602; this traffic is all merging to the right while traffic already on the M60 wanting to leave at 13, which comes up pretty quickly after junction 12, is trying to go left. I always try to stay in the outside lane and avoid all this although further up the road I’ll need to get over to the left to exit onto the M61.

As I mentioned last week, I’ve copied a whole lot of audio onto the SD card I’m using in my stereo so no need to be constantly changing discs in my CD player. The next item comes up and it’s not music but Dylan Thomas reciting his work. He reads some poems which really is what got me interested in Dylan. I like to read his work but it’s the power of his recitals that really hooked me. Dylan wrote various plays for radio and one of my favourites pops up now. It’s called Return Journey. It’s a brilliant work read by Dylan himself in which he imagines his older self going back to Swansea in search of his young self.

Anyway, time to get over to the left and merge onto the M61. The M61 is a busy road and once you come on to it you have to beware of traffic coming over to the left from the A666. The traffic is heavy but so far it all seems to be moving well.

Return Journey was inspired by the devastation Dylan saw in Swansea after the town suffered the blitz of WWII. His broadcast begins with ‘It was a cold white day in the High Street, and nothing to stop the wind slicing up from the Docks, for where the squat and tall shops had shielded the town from the sea lay their blitzed flat graves marbled with snow and headstoned with fences.’

Later Dylan is in a Swansea pub asking the barmaid if she remembers young Dylan. He describes his younger self to her and she replies ‘There’s words, what d’you want to find him for. I wouldn’t touch him with a barge pole’.

Later he meets the old park keeper in his childhood haunt, Cwmdonkin Park. Does the park keeper remember him as boy. Of course, replies the man, he remembers all the boys who played there even the ones who would ‘climb the reservoir railings and pelt the old Swans. Run like a billygoat over the grass you should keep off of.’  It’s a very moving piece indeed.

I notice accident signs on the message boards and the traffic begins to slow. Ahead I can see the flashing lights of a Highways Traffic car, slowing the traffic down. A year ago one of my jobs in the control room would be running an incident like this. For a rolling road block the patrol would call for a dedicated radio channel and someone like me would shout up that they were ready to take over. On the M61 the dedicated channel was 28. We had dedicated channels so that any police patrol nearby could also change over and assist us. I’d confirm the patrol were on the channel and drop the speeds down on the motorway signals. The patrol would slow the traffic then sometimes bring it to a stop while they shifted any accident damaged or broken down vehicles to the hard shoulder. A quick sweep of any debris and the patrol would move to the hard shoulder and wave the traffic on.

Me in the Highways Agency Control Room

One particular traffic officer used to make me laugh. When he returned to the main radio channel he would always hail the control room and advise Romeo Echo Three One: Back from the dark side!

As we leave Greater Manchester and enter Lancashire, traffic begins to thin a little although on summer weekends the M6 gets busy with holiday traffic making to the Fylde Coast as well as the Lake District.

I pass a Police car on one of the Police Patrol parking points. They are distributed about on various points of the motorway network. There was a Police desk in our control room and I’m happy to say that generally we at Highways had a good relationship with them. The big surprise to me working with the Police was that I always thought the Police were, well the Police. The thing is, the UK Police are not just one single organisation, they are numerous separate Police Forces that actually all work differently and independently.

Appropriately The Greatest Hits of Sting and the Police starts up on my stereo. I’ve always rather liked the Police and I do love the music of the eighties.

Anyway, getting back to the actual Police, Lancs Police do things differently to Greater Manchester Police and Cumbria do things differently to everyone. Why there isn’t a more centralised Police Force I’ll never know. In our control room the Motorway Police Group is headed by Cheshire Police. They used a computer system that wasn’t compatible to the one used by GMP. When an incident occurred that came from GMP the staff at Cheshire had to copy the incident over to their system. We both used a system called Command and Control. They could then send the incident electronically over to us so we could set the motorway signals and respond with our patrol.

When I left in 2022, Highways had a new system called (I can’t remember!) and Cheshire Police had a system designed by Saab. I know it sounds a little controversial but why don’t all the Police and even other emergency services use the same system? Wouldn’t that be better?

The Police are singing Every Little Thing She Does is Magic just as I take the slip road onto the M55 for the very last leg of my journey. There are roadworks here that seem to have been going on forever. They are making an entirely new junction and of course all the slip roads and overhead bridges have had to have been constructed. A lot of it is nearly ready but it is still a 50mph zone.

Sting is the frontman to the Police and I read somewhere he got the nickname Sting because he used to wear a black and yellow sweater. His real name is Gordon Sumner and I’ve always thought his attachment to the name Sting kind of silly but what the heck, I still like his music. After leaving the Police, Sting went on to a successful career as a solo artist.

Just as I pull up at home, one of my favourite Sting tracks comes on; If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free. I’m tempted to sit and listen to it but I flip back to the beginning and switch off my stereo. Sting will be all ready for me on my next journey.

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Thoughts in My Car

Every couple of weeks or so I hop into my car and set off on the journey back to Manchester. I usually have some provisions packed although a lot of the time I will pop into the shops and pick some things up, a loaf of bread, a bottle of milk. I’m a man of simple tastes.

The car starts up fine and I’m off down the drive and heading towards the M55 motorway.

Once I’m moving I crank up the stereo and settle back to drive and listen to my favourite music. I hate adverts. TV adverts are bad enough but radio ads are the ones I really hate so no commercial radio, just CDs. My stereo takes five CDs which is great as sometimes I might get bored with the current CD and I like to click forward to the next one.

Coming along Queensway towards the M55 and there are roadworks ahead. There’s not a great queue but the only other route involves a huge excursion to bypass the area so I reckon I’ll just stick it out.

My much missed Renault convertible

My car is a Skoda Octavia Scout 4 wheel drive. It’s not anything I’ve gone out of my way to buy it just happened to be available when I wanted to change cars so I went for it. The only car I’ve ever really gone out of my way to buy was probably my last car which was a Renault Megane convertible. I don’t suppose I took the roof down that much now I come to think of it but a convertible was something I’d always wanted. I really did love driving on a warm summer’s day with the top down. My previous car was a Rover and it had a somewhat old fashioned radio and tape player. Not that I minded having a tape player. Ever since my teenage days I’ve enjoyed copying my vinyl 45s to tape and making what they call these days a mixtape, although back in the mid seventies that wasn’t a phrase I’d ever heard of.

Anyway, I loved tapes and I enjoyed compiling them. If the tape broke: no matter, they were only cheap, throw it away and record another. Bored with a tape? Again, no matter, just record something else over whatever was already on there.

Tape cassette

Finally through the roadworks on down towards the M55 motorway.

When I moved up to the Renault my collection of tapes was consigned to the storeroom and I brought a box of CDs into the car. I wasn’t totally happy but then I realised I could continue in my mixtape recording by just creating collections of my favourite music on CD. I began to copy CDs onto my laptop so I could burn my favourite tracks to new CD collections. I even had a program in which I could digitise some of my very best mixtapes which had clips from TV and film shows and burn them to a new CD.

Finally I turn on to the M55 motorway. I see I’m perhaps a little short on fuel but I’ve got easily enough to get me to Manchester and back. It’s always worth checking your fuel as when I was a motorway traffic officer, running out of gas could be a big problem. So many stranded motorists used to call up and mention they had run out of fuel as if we were going to pop down with a tank of petrol. No, we would be towing their car away and charging them £250 for the privilege, assuming the police didn’t get involved and give them a ticket. Imagine if they had run out of fuel in the fast lane or on a motorway with no hard shoulder; that could be dangerous and even fatal. Always check your fuel before going onto the motorway.

After a while I thought about actually having my original CDs in the car rather than copying and editing them. After all, if you come to a dud track it’s easy to just flip to the next one. So I brought a couple of boxes of CDs into the car, one in the passenger footwell and another in the boot. Every so often I’d rotate them.

Not so long ago I was stuck in a traffic jam. I was a little bored with my current five CD selection and wondering if I should reach over and select some new music from the zip folder of CDs in the glove compartment or even reach down to the box of newer CDs on the floor. We started to move up slowly but just then my eye happened to catch something on the front of the stereo. There was a small slot I hadn’t seen before and was that worn mark the symbol of a SD slot, you know, a slot for a memory card? We started moving and I made a mental note to look into that later.

By now I’d reached the junction with the M6. I took the slip road for the M6 south but I knew that soon I’d have to make another decision. Should I go M61 south and then M60 ring road or stay M6 south and then M56? Decisions. The M61 is not one of my favourite motorways. It always seems to be busy and then there’s the confusing link to the M60 anti clockwise where you have to move over to the right but traffic from the A666 that wants to go M60 clockwise tries to go left. It’s an accident hot spot and I can almost hear myself in former days when I was the radio dispatcher: Romeo Lima three four. Can you make to an RTC southbound M61 just by the junction with the M60 clockwise?

‘State five, Hotel Alpha’ would be the hoped for response, state five is code for enroute to the incident. Hotel Alpha was my call sign. Anyway I decide to stay on the M6 south. It’s a bit of a risk as I know there are roadworks and a 50mph zone but I still reckon it will be better than the M61.

Police and Highways dealing with an incident. This was on the M25

I checked the stereo and guess what? Yes it was a slot for an SD card. Now it just so happens that all the music I have copied and digitised I had already placed on a micro SD card for my MP3 player. I copied all that to a standard size SD card, popped it into my stereo and now I can listen to my entire music collection without changing CDs, without rotating boxes of CDs, without having the footwell of the passenger seat full of CDs. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. OK, I’d have to copy all the newer CDs in my collection that I hadn’t already transferred to the SD card but even so, I still have a huge collection of music on that card, all of which I like and all advertisement free.

I’d hit the roadworks on the M6 and dropped to 50mph as per the speed restrictions. A lot of people look down on my Skoda but Skoda is actually part of Volkswagen and the engine is basically a Volkswagen engine so really the car is actually a pretty impressive vehicle. I’ve got a cruise control so I set the speed to 52 MPH and glide gently along in the slightly faster moving outside lane. I’m gradually working my way through my SD card and along comes some music I haven’t heard for a while, the soundtrack from the film Aliens.

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley from Alien

Aliens was the James Cameron sequel to the Ridley Scott sci-fi horror film Alien. Alien is a sci-fi classic and I’m never sure which is the better film Alien or Aliens. The other sequels in the Alien series were poor and even the prequels weren’t that good, even though Ridley Scott himself directed them. The first was Prometheus which he followed with Alien Covenant. I tried to watch Prometheus but just got bored with it. Alien Covenant was much the same.

Alien had a top-notch cast including Tom Skerrit, Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm, John Hurt and others. The actors in Covenant were good but I just didn’t have any interest in them. The plot seemed pretty similar to Alien; a spacecraft receives a distress call and goes to investigate. This involves a long hike through the countryside although why they couldn’t have landed closer, I don’t know. Instead of the eggs and the face hugging parasite from Alien some alien spores are encountered by one crew member. He is taken back to the spacecraft and to the medical bay. One crew member gets locked in with the deteriorating man and guess what, an alien bursts out of his body and attacks the other one although just about then I switched off. Why is Alien so good and Alien Covenant so bad? It’s hard to say. Was it just the charisma free actors in the latter or the slow pace? Alien ticked along fairly slowly too but the director always kept the viewer interested in what was going to happen, plus the actors in Alien were so good.

A dubious area of the M6 is around Warrington where the M62 joins us and things always seem to get busy. There are queue caution signs up but these are automatic signals which are activated by a system called MIDAS. Motorway Incident Detection and Signalling. Slow traffic has been detected but then it is always busy in this area. Things speed up and we are soon over the Thelwall Viaduct and onto the M56.

I click onto the next CD on the SD card and it’s a singer called Rumer. Rumer is a British singer-songwriter with a really lovely voice. I reckon it’s just as good as Karen Carpenter and both have the same smooth and warm tone. The album that’s playing is one that has a fabulous version of a Carpenters classic, I Long to be Close to You.

Listening to the wonderful voice of Rumer, I pass the airport, another incident hot spot, without any problems and soon I’m pulling up at my mother’s house. I’ve got my laptop with me and I’ll have a few days to write a new blog post.

Not sure what to write about though.

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More Random Film Connections

Back in the 1970’s. TV presenter James Burke made a TV show called Connections. It was a really fascinating series which connected various historical events to make a sort of chain which led up to something which was pretty unexpected. The episode which stands out in my memory is one about the atom bomb, various unconnected events and discoveries that together, led to the splitting of the atom. I’ve written a couple of posts in which I’ve tried to do something similar but all relating to the world of classic film so here are another collection of film connections which I hope you will find interesting.

Leslie Howard and Gone with the Wind

I thought I’d start with Gone with the Wind and see where it takes me. Gone with the Wind was a major film adaptation of the book by Margaret Mitchell. The book was a huge hit and producer David O Selznick bought the film rights. Production was delayed for a long while as Selznick was determined to get Clark Gable for the part of the roguish Rhett Butler. Another delay was a distribution deal with MGM which couldn’t be finalised until Selznick’s then current deal with United Artists had expired. Selznick used the delay to begin a huge search for an actress to play the part of Scarlett O’Hara, the spoilt daughter of a plantation owner in the deep south of America. Scarlet has a crush on Ashley Wilkes played by British actor Leslie Howard in possibly his most famous role. The film was one of the major hits of 1939 and was the highest earning film up to that time.

Julie Andrews and My Fair Lady

In 1938 Leslie Howard played the part of Professor Higgins in the film production of Pygmalion based on the play by George Bernard Shaw. A musical version was a big hit on the stage in the 1960s. Julie Andrews played the part of Eliza Doolittle to great acclaim on the stage but when the time came to make a film version in 1964, the producers wanted a major star and so the part went to Audrey Hepburn.

Julie Andrews only had to wait a short time for film stardom though. She appeared in The Sound of Music in 1965. The film was based on the true story of the Von Trapp family singers which was also a hit stage musical. Julie Andrews played Maria, a nun who becomes a nanny to the Von Trapp children, eventually falling for the father of the children played by Christopher Plummer. The film was the hit of 1965 replacing Gone with the Wind as the highest grossing film up to that time. The director was Robert Wise who tried to reduce the amount of sentimentality and sweetness which he had seen in the stage production.

Robert Wise and Citizen Kane

Robert Wise had a great background in the film world. He was a former film editor whose first film as a director was The Curse of the Cat People in 1944. In 1941 he was a film editor at RKO Studios and was the editor on the classic film Citizen Kane.

Orson Welles often boasted about the fabulous contract he had when he arrived in Hollywood. In a BBC interview he stated the terms were not financially brilliant but gave him unprecedented creative powers. His first film for RKO was Citizen Kane. The film opens with the death of Kane, a millionaire newspaper magnate. His last words were ‘Rosebud’. The makers of a cinema newsreel decide to find out what or who Rosebud was.

To do so they research Kane’s life; his inheritance of a huge fortune, his takeover of a newspaper, his great wealth, his power and influence, his marriage and divorce and ultimately his death.

The cinematographer was Gregg Toland, one of the film industry’s top photographers. Toland asked to work on the film and Welles replied ‘Why? I don’t know anything about making films.’ Toland countered that was exactly why he wanted to work on the film because a film by a newcomer would produce something new and original.

There are some fascinating elements to Citizen Kane, especially in the special effects department. A famous one is where the camera flies through a rooftop sign and then drops down through a skylight into a restaurant. The shot was done with a sign that came apart as the camera approached and then a fade from a model shot into the restaurant set disguised in a flash of lightning. Citizen Kane was and is a classic of the cinema.

Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth

Orson Welles in a way experienced his film career in reverse, he started at the top and steadily worked his way down, ending up as an overweight although always entertaining raconteur doing voice overs for Carlsberg TV advertisements.

Welles married Rita Hayworth in 1943. She was one of the great stars of Hollywood’s golden years. She appeared in one of her husband’s films The Lady from Shanghai in 1947 but the film that was considered her greatest success came the year before in Gilda. According to Wikipedia, the film made her into a cultural icon as a femme fatale.

Welles and Hayworth grew apart and finally separated. Rita said that Welles had no idea about married life or even settling down. When she suggested buying a house together, a natural move for a married couple, Welles said he didn’t want the responsibility.

Rita Hayworth as Gilda

After splitting with Welles, Rita became involved with Prince Aly Khan, son of the Aga Khan who later became a Pakistani diplomat. Aly was a socialite and man about town. He and Rita married in 1949 and had a daughter Princess Yasmin Aga Khan. Rita gave up her film career to be with Aly but Khan’s womanising proved fatal to the marriage. Rita moved to Nevada with her daughter in order to set up a legal residence and begin divorce proceedings. The two were finally divorced in 1953. Khan offered Rita a million dollars for her to bring up their daughter as a Muslim but Rita declined.

After her divorce Rita had no income and was forced to return to film acting. Her comeback picture was Affair in Trinidad in which she starred with Glenn Ford. Rita was contracted to Columbia Pictures and fell out with Columbia boss Harry Cohn on numerous occasions during the filming. She was even placed on suspension for a while, however the picture was very successful. Her last picture for Columbia was in 1957 when she starred in Pal Joey with Frank Sinatra. She married again, this time to singer Dick Haymes who was in severe financial trouble. The marriage lasted only a couple of years and ended when Haymes struck her in the face in a Hollywood nightclub. Rita packed her bags and left him.

In the mid 1970’s, Rita’s behaviour began to become erratic. She drank heavily and was even once removed from a TWA flight because of her drinking. It was eventually found that her symptoms were masking the real issue which was the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. In 1981 when her condition had deteriorated, she was placed under the supervision of her daughter and the two moved into adjoining apartments together in New York. She died aged 68 in 1987. Her former husband Orson Welles, spoke of her in his very last interview, recorded the day before his own death. He called her ‘one of the dearest and sweetest women that ever lived.’

David Niven and Leslie Howard

Just to backtrack a little, in 1958 Rita appeared in Separate Tables. The screenplay was by Terence Rattigan and concerns a group of residents at a small hotel in the south of England. David Niven plays a disgraced former army officer who has been found guilty of apparently sexually harassing young women at a theatre. A news story in the local paper highlights this and he tries to stop the others from finding out, without success. Niven won an Oscar for his performance.

David Niven is one of my favourite actors and he wrote what I’ve always considered to the best book about the golden age of Hollywood, Bring on the Empty Horses.

In 1942 Niven was in England having left Hollywood to sign up with the army. He was asked to appear in what was a propaganda film at the time; The First of the Few, a story about R J Mitchell, the designer of the famous WWII aircraft, the Spitfire. Niven was under contract to Sam Goldwyn at the time but he allowed Niven to appear, in exchange for the US rights to the film. Niven played Squadron Leader Geoffrey Crisp who tells the story of his friend Mitchell beginning with the Schneider Trophy aircraft race of 1922. Later Mitchell visits Germany and sees how the Nazis are rearming and so resolves to design a powerful fighter for Great Britain. Mitchell died just as the government ordered the Spitfire into production and Niven as Crisp, ends his story just as he and his fellow pilots are scrambled into action.

Leslie Howard played the part of Mitchell as well as producing and directing. He was killed when the KLM flight he was aboard was shot down by the Luftwaffe in 1943.

Howard of course played Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind which brings our connections full circle.

Thanks to Wikipedia creative commons for the use of the pictures in this post.

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Aliens, F1 and a Quiet Saturday


My alarm goes off early on Saturday morning as a man from the council is coming to service my boiler. The council have given me an appointment ‘window’ which is from 08:00 to 15:00. Sometime during that window, the gas guy is coming to do the check.


I’m up and washed and wondering if the guy will actually turn up at 8am. I hang about expectantly in the lounge and by 08:10 I realise he isn’t coming this early, in fact he’s probably still asleep in his bed somewhere. I decide to make a quick breakfast, just a few rashers of bacon and an egg.


I’ve had my breakfast which was actually a little rushed so as I’m still hungry I think I’ll have a slice of toast and marmalade and another cup of tea.


I’ve had my tea and toast and I’m still checking the window for the gasman. No show so far. I take a quick look at the internet but I’m worried that I might see something about the qualifying results of the Australian Grand Prix. The qually took place early this morning but is not due on terrestrial UK TV until 11:15 so I don’t look at my notifications and quickly delete any emails that even faintly resemble F1 newsletters.


Time for another brew. I check the hall as the last time I waited in for the council I happened to pop into the hall and find a card slipped through the letter box which said we called today but you weren’t at home. This was after an entire day sat watching TV with the sound turned low so I wouldn’t miss a knock at the door. As you can imagine I was fuming and sent numerous threatening emails to the council and the next time the guy turned up on time.

Anyway, quick check and no card.


I decide to check the doorbell and I find that it is making no sound! I change the batteries and all is well, the bell is ringing again.


Time for another brew. There seems to be nothing on TV so I watch something I taped last night about Bob Lazar. You may have never heard of Bob but he is an American physicist whom claims he worked at Area 51 in the late 1980s to help reverse engineer captured flying saucers. He first appeared in the media with his face and voice disguised using the name ‘Dennis’. Later he went fully public and it was his claims that brought Area 51 into the public eye. Lazar says he worked at an Area 51 facility called S-4 and there were nine captured saucers there. These vehicles were powered by an antimatter reactor and the propulsion was anti-gravity based.

(I just realised I’ve written taped instead of recorded. Do people still say taped or is it just old guys like me?)

Bob says he worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory but according to the documentary when staff at the lab were questioned, they said that no Bob Lazar ever worked there. However he appears in the lab’s own 1982 phone book as Robert Lazar and a clipping was found from the 1982 Los Alamos Monitor which profiles Bob and his interest in jet cars and mentions he works at the lab as a physicist. Are the authorities trying to discredit Bob or has he made up the whole thing? If he did make all this up, why would he do it?


I get a notification on my phone and I take a look without thinking. Luckily it’s from WordPress telling me my latest scheduled post has just been published. No more notifications now until I have seen the qualifying.


I need to use the toilet but I take a look outside and I can see a van arriving with ‘Gas’ on the side. No movement yet so maybe he is just sorting out his paperwork or something. Actually I fully expected him to arrive at five minutes to three. He was originally due last week but I was busy and so I asked my brother to let him in for me. My brother waited in all day only for me to get a call from the council late in the afternoon telling me the guy had called in sick!


The gasman has arrived!


Gas check all complete. I actually wanted to ask him something but he shot out of the house like a rocket. Well, it is Saturday, I suppose he was eager to get home and enjoy his weekend.

The documentary shows that Bob Lazar had a polygraph test which he passed with flying colours. His mission seems to be to tell the world there are extra terrestrial beings and the government in the USA is aware of them but for whatever reason is not telling the public. I do love these UFO documentaries. The next one was about people who claim to have been abducted by aliens and tested and probed like guinea pigs. When you come to think about it, the universe is big, really big. So vast it’s silly to think that life exists just on Earth and not elsewhere in the universe.


Kettle on. Now I can visit the toilet without worrying that the guy is going to knock on the door while I’m otherwise engaged.


Got myself a fresh cuppa and all set for the Australian Grand Prix qualifying.

The big problem with modern formula one is that a lot of the interviews that precede the big events as well as those that come afterwards are just full of modern PR talk. You know what I mean, the team did a great job, thanks to the guys back at the factory blah blah blah. No one seems to have anything that is actually interesting to say. In today’s broadcast there seems to be a lot of focus on Daniel Riccardo, the Australian driver, who thanks to his sacking is not actually driving this year. He now seems to be a sort of reserve driver for Red Bull but the other day I heard their team boss saying Daniel couldn’t expect a drive even if either of their main drivers were sick or incapacitated. So what is he then, just a test driver? Due to testing restrictions Daniel can’t do much testing except in the simulator. The McLaren he should have been driving isn’t looking that great so perhaps he’s glad not to be driving. I bet he wouldn’t mind a go in the Red Bull though.


I’m still hungry after this morning’s rushed breakfast. Should I go for a quick toast? Wait a minute, we’re seeing some actual action on TV. Better wait for the adverts.


Qually over and actually it was a pretty exciting session. These days I really think the qually is better than the race. Max in the Red Bull came out on top but his teammate skidded off at the first corner without even setting a time. He’ll be starting from the back tomorrow. Nico Hulkenberg was looking good in the Haas as was Alex Albon in the Williams. Great to see these drivers doing well in cars that are not really much good. Lewis Hamilton and his team mate George Russell were up at the top too so looks like a good race in the offing tomorrow.


Time for another brew. Time to do some writing so I can actually call myself a writer. I’ve finished some bits and pieces I’ve been working on as well as tweaking some other things. I had a look through some of my older blog posts looking for inspiration. Didn’t really find any but I took two posts about a similar subject, wove them together and published the result on my Medium page.

(I mentioned to Liz I have a Medium page. She said wouldn’t I be better with an XXL one? She can be a little cheeky.)


I started looking for a photo I took ages ago which I wanted to use on the Medium post and now realise I’ve spent over an hour trolling through my hard drive for it. Note to self: Start to label your pictures better Steve and add some keywords!

As I’m looking through some old pictures and graphics I thought I’d add some completely random pictures into this post. Here’s a self portrait I used to use on my Flickr page where I showcase my photography. I’ve always liked this picture, it was shot in a mirror and then reversed.


Time to crank up my microphone and record some audio for a couple of my latest poems. I publish them over on where fellow poets can offer their comments. Reading through some of the latest poetry blogs, I see there are some good poems there, well worth taking a look at. I’ve got the TV on in the background without the sound but I see Ancient Aliens is about to start so I think it’s time for another brew and a bit of TV watching. What about a ham sandwich too?


My brother is due round later on for some food and drink and a bit of a natter so I should start thinking of what to make. I’ve got some beef mince so I’m thinking chilli or spaghetti bolognese or even curried mince. I’m not a great cook by any means and I’m lost without my cookery books. Anyway, out comes the frying pan, in go the chopped onions and mince. I see I don’t have any garlic so I’ll have to do without. Next, throw in the spices including some fresh chillis, then come the tomatoes, a little stock and some tomato paste then I throw the whole lot into the slow cooker and leave it to simmer away. I have a little taste; yes, definitely one of my better ones.


My brother tells me he has a better offer for tonight but he’ll be round tomorrow. He’s obviously not forgotten about last week’s wasted wait for the gas man. Oh well, dinner for one then.

If you are interested, Max Verstappen won a chaotic Australian Grand Prix after various red flags and restarts. Lewis Hamilton took second place and Fernando Alonso was third.

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Take Me To The Pilot

I was watching the TV show Countdown the other day and when the contestants took a short break from their word and maths games, Suzie Dent, the mistress of Dictionary Corner went into her usual talk about words. In this particular episode she decided to talk about the word pilot which inspired me to write this entire blog post on the subject.

The word pilot comes from the French word pilote which in turn was derived from the Latin word pilotus. Back in the 16th century the word pilot denoted someone who steered a ship and the term is still in use today mostly referring to those who fly aeroplanes.

Baron Von Richtofen: The Red Baron

Baron Manfred Von Richtofen was an ace German pilot in World War I. He flew a red triplane and was one of the most feared pilots in the skies. He was born in Kleinburg, near Breslau in 1892 and began the First World War as a cavalry officer serving on the eastern and later western front. Trench warfare soon made cavalry units outdated and Richtofen became bored with dispatch work and applied to transfer to the newly formed German Imperial Air Force.

At the beginning of the war it was felt that officers should not be pilots and Richtofen started his flying career as an observer. Times quickly changed though and after meeting the ace pilot Oswald Boelcke, Richtofen asked to be trained as a pilot. He started out badly crashing on his first solo flight but later Boelcke, who had created Germany’s first fighter squadron, Jasta 2, asked him to join.

Fighter combat in WWI evolved quickly. At first aircraft were used for reconnaissance but then aircraft from opposing armies took pot shots at each other with rifles and then later, fixed machine guns. British aircraft were ‘pusher’ aircraft with a propellor at the rear to push the plane along. This meant that a machine gun could be placed at the front so the pilot could shoot at whatever was ahead. Aircraft with propellors at the front were better and faster but how could a gun shoot through the propellor blades?

In 1915 Fokker produced the first fighter plane with a machine gun synchronised to the propellor so the machine gun could fire through the arc of the propellor. This gave the Germans a considerable advantage in the air.

Richtofen’s first confirmed kill came in September 1916 and he ordered a small silver cup engraved with the date and type of aircraft he had shot down. He continued this tradition with his next victories until he had 60 cups but by then the war had limited supplies of silver in Germany and he had to stop. His kills and victories however went on.

In January 1917 he assumed command of Jasta 11 which came to be known as Richtofen’s Flying Circus and which many celebrated pilots of the time joined. In late 1917 he began to paint his aircraft red and also began to use the Fokker Triplane, one of the most famous aircraft of the period.

Richtofen was shot down in April 1918 and killed. He was flying low while chasing a British Sopwith Camel piloted by rookie pilot Wilfrid May of 209 squadron. May’s flight commander Captain Arthur Brown intervened to help May but the dogfight drifted over British lines and the fatal shot to Richtofen is thought to have come from a machine gun on the ground. The British buried the Red Baron with full military honours.

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart was the first famous female aviator of the 20th century. She was one of the first of many female pilots. She was born in 1897 and in 1920 she paid ten dollars for a ten minute flight in an aeroplane. The short flight changed her life and afterwards she knew she had to be a pilot. She worked at a variety of jobs to fund her flying lessons. In 1921 she purchased her own aircraft and the next year flew up to 14,000 feet setting a new record for a female pilot.

In 1928 she was asked to join the crew of an aircraft that was to cross the Atlantic. The flying crew were a pilot and mechanic and Amelia was basically a passenger and admitted that was the case. ‘I was just baggage’ she told the press. Even so, she was the first female to cross the Atlantic in an aircraft and she and the crew were treated to a ticker tape parade in Manhattan and a visit to the White House to see President Coolidge. Later, in 1932 she flew solo across the Atlantic arriving in Ireland on May 20th. Amelia made many other trips and also competed in long distance air racing. She became a celebrity in America and in 1937 began a round the world flight. Amelia piloted a Lockheed Electra 10E and the only other crew member was navigator Ted Noonan. The pair departed from Miami on June 1 and after numerous stops in South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, arrived at Lae, New Guinea, on June 29, 1937. The final 7,000 miles would be over the Pacific. The duo left Lae at 10:00 am on July 2nd and were heading for Howland Island, a small coral island in the Pacific. The US coastguard had sent a cutter there to assist with navigation. As Amelia neared Howland Island the coastguard picked up various messages and it became clear that the Electra was lost and could not see the island. The last transmissions stated that fuel was running low and that they were flying at 1000 feet. The coastguard generated black smoke in the hope that the aircraft could see them but the aircraft never appeared. The coastguard cutter initiated a search an hour after the last message but nothing was found. The next day the US Navy began a search which lasted for three days but no trace of Amelia Earhart was ever found. Some thought the aircraft had ditched in the sea and that the crew had drowned. Various other theories were put forward: The two managed to get to Gardner Island but died there or perhaps they were captured by the Japanese and shot as spies. The mystery has continued to this day.

Elton John and Take Me to the Pilot

Take Me to the Pilot was a song written by Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin in 1970 and released as the flip side to Elton’s Your Song that same year. Some sources on the internet say the single was a double A side disc but apparently DJs preferred Your Song and that became Elton’s first chart hit.

Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong was born on August 5th, 1930. He went on to become a pilot for the US Navy and saw action in the Korean War flying aircraft from the aircraft carrier USS Essex. After the war he became a test pilot flying various aircraft including the famous X-15 Rocket Plane. He joined NASA in 1962 and flew into space aboard Gemini 8 in 1966. The flight was a difficult one as the crew were the first to try a space rendezvous. They docked with a target vehicle in space but a faulty thruster caused the Gemini capsule to roll uncontrollably. Fortunately, Armstrong was able to undock from the other vehicle and stabilise the capsule. Too much fuel was used up though forcing the crew to make an early return to earth.

In 1969 Armstrong flew to the moon on Apollo 11 and became the first man to walk on the moon. It was a tricky mission though and during the landing as the Lunar Excursion Vehicle dropped towards the moon’s surface the spacecraft’s computer kept throwing up ‘1201’ and ‘1202’ program alarms. Neither Armstrong nor Aldrin knew what that was but the controllers at mission control knew. The on-board computer which had less memory than a modern mobile phone, could not deal with all the data it was receiving. Armstrong switched over to manual flight, hopped the lunar lander over a rocky area then finally dropped down safely onto the lunar surface with only a scant few seconds of fuel remaining.

Landing on the moon made Armstrong a hugely famous and popular man and that fame was something he and his fellow astronauts were unprepared for. Armstrong later resigned from NASA and took on a teaching position at the University of Cincinnati. He died in 2012 after suffering complications from bypass surgery.

Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger III

Sullenberger, known as Sully was the pilot of US Airways flight 1549. On take off from La Guardia Airport in New York in January, 2009, his aircraft was hit by a flock of Canada geese and power from both engines was lost. Sullenberger realised that the only thing he could do was to ditch in the Hudson River. He did so and all passengers and crew were rescued safely.

Scott Tracy

Thunderbirds was a TV puppet series from the 1960s produced by Gerry Anderson. The series was part of an entire futuristic world set in the 2060s which other puppet shows in the Anderson canon all became a part of. Puppet series like Fireball XL5, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90 were futuristic TV shows all produced by Gerry and his wife Sylvia.

In Thunderbirds, Anderson tells the story of International Rescue, an organisation created by Jeff Tracy with a secret headquarters on Tracy Island. Thunderbird 5 is a space station constantly monitoring the airwaves down on Earth and listening out for calls for help. When an emergency situation is detected, Thunderbird 1, a rocket plane, is immediately despatched to take charge of the situation and its pilot Scott Tracy will find somewhere to set up a mobile control centre and take stock of the situation.

Millionaire Jeff Tracy is a former astronaut (the first man on Mars if I remember correctly) and it is his sons who pilot the Thunderbird craft designed by their technical genius, ‘Brains’. Jeff’s other sons are Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John, all named after US astronauts from the 1960s.

Scott was named after Scott Carpenter and voiced by the actor Shane Rimmer.

The TV Pilot

Another type of pilot is a TV show. Producers often produce a pilot episode for a projected new series and then decide whether to make a full series depending on the success of the pilot. A famous pilot was the one made for Star Trek. In the pilot episode, Captain Christopher Pike is played by Jeffrey Hunter and he and his crew investigate a distress call from an unknown planet.

NBC apparently weren’t happy with the result and asked for another pilot episode and in that one William Shatner made his first appearance as Captain Kirk. Later the original pilot was re-edited into a new two part episode called ‘The Menagerie’ in which a court martial on the Enterprise views footage from the earlier mission.

Thanks to Wikipedia Creative Commons for the pictures of Manfred Von Richtofen, Amelia Earhart and Neil Armstrong.

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