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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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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The Story of My Life Part 2

OK, here we go. Remember the post from a few weeks back? Life story in less than 2500 words? You do? Great stuff. Here’s the continuing story then, this time restricted to 2390 words.

Only 2390 words? What can I say? I did 1000, then 1500 then after 2200, I felt I’d gone as far as I could, not only that, I felt I had to go out and do some Christmas shopping instead of living dangerously and waiting until December 24th like I usually do. The funny thing is, when we get to Bonfire Night on November the 5th, I always think that this will be a good time to take a crack at Christmas shopping. I always think that. I never actually do it, you know, actually buy anything but I do think about it.

I think I finished part 1 at a point where I was working at an insurance company in Manchester city centre. If you want to refresh yourself with that earlier work, feel free to click here. I really did enjoy my time working in the insurance world. Well, I liked being in Manchester city centre and I liked the world of after work drinks in the city centre, evenings after work in the city centre. Actually, I suppose I just liked the city centre.

Back in the 1970’s there were a number of great bars and pubs in Manchester. I remember an exclusive looking bar I sometimes ventured into on a side road just off Deansgate. It was called Sims as I remember. I used to get myself a bar stool and order a very James Bond dry martini. For a while I wore a grey trench coat and it has just occurred to me I must have cut a figure similar to Delboy in the classic TV comedy Only Fools and Horses. Remember that scene where he leans on the bar but doesn’t realise the bar top has been lifted up? Well happily that didn’t happen to me although I must have looked like a right plonker sat at the bar sipping my dry martini. Of course, in those days I knew nothing about drinks or what to order. I spent quite a few years ordering a pint of mild in pubs all because I hadn’t a clue what to ask for. I remembering ordering a beer and the slightly stunned barmaid asked ‘what sort of beer?’ Luckily just then I overheard someone nearby asking for a pint of mild so I asked for the same having no idea what it was. Later on, when I realised all my mates were drinking lager, I started drinking that.

Sometimes, I felt that I wasn’t in the mood to quaff a full pint, especially at lunch times. We had a short lunch break at the insurance company where I worked so I felt I had to order something smaller. I’m not sure why I didn’t just ask for a half pint but for some reason, perhaps I had read too many James Bond books, I ordered a dry martini and lemonade. My work colleagues were always rather amused by this so I decided to try and change back to beer. It wasn’t easy. The barman at the time in the Beef and Barley had made it his mission to have my martini all ready when I came in. I’d approach the bar and before I could say, pint of lager please he would whip out a dry martini. If there was a bunch of people at the bar, he’d always find time to sort out the martini before I could put my order in. I wouldn’t mind but it wasn’t as if I was giving out big tips, after all, as a committed and fully paid up tightwad, tipping is not only not part of our mission statement, it is completely against our cultural ethos. These days I’d just say, look, I’ve stopped drinking martini, give me a lager. Back then, the only answer was to just stop going in there and walk the extra 100 yards to the Salisbury.

The Salisbury pub in Manchester City Centre

Incidentally, my uncle Raymond, who lied about his age in order to join his older brothers in World War II, once told me he had been arrested by MPs in the Salisbury so that pub has a particular bit of Higgins history that I have always liked.

Another bar I used to frequent, especially on a Saturday night, was the ‘Playground’, a small disco bar on Oxford Rd. Flickering multi- coloured spotlights rotated across the red carpeted room, which, on Fridays and Saturdays was generally packed. It had a small dance floor sunk low like a pit, where people up on the raised bar level could look down at the gyrating girls, and where also, on week day lunchtimes, a topless dancer appeared at the stroke of one o’clock to translate the soul and disco music of the time into pulsating physical motion, the eyes of jaded office workers glued to her as she did so.

My friends and I used to meet up in the Salisbury, by Oxford Rd station, have a few pints and a bit of a natter to any Insurance colleagues who we might find there, then make the short walk to the Playground. There was a paltry fifty pence charge to get in, the solitary bouncer was silent, but not unpleasant and the DJ, who always began the night with ‘Love’s Theme’ by the Love Unlimited Orchestra, played alternate sessions of rock, disco and chart music.  We were all mad about Jenny, the barmaid. She was lovely. She had a kind of round, open face, framed by thick blonde hair and her skin was a creamy white. She served us Worthington ‘E’ and we melted into the hubbub of people on their Saturday night out while the music of the seventies drifted through us.

The Playground as it is today

I’ve got to admit, I’ve cheated a little bit here because that last section about the Playground was lifted straight out of Floating in Space. I loved that bar and I was pretty gutted when it closed down. It’s still a bar today in 2020 but not quite the same. The dance floor has gone although there is still a bouncer on the door. I spoke to him last year before this whole nightmare Covid 19 stuff and he showed me round and said it was OK to return with my video camera and take some shots. Maybe I will in 2021.

Sometimes my friends and I went down to our favourite club. It was a place called Genevieve’s. Genevieve’s was in Longsight, which was a pretty rough area of Manchester and one of the hazards of the place was that you never found your car quite the same as how you left it, if you found it at all.

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

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

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

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

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

I spent a lot of my young life in that club. Tracks like Bus Stop by The Fatback band and Young Hearts Run Free by Candi Staton always remind me of Genevieve’s. Despite the watered down drinks and the frequent fights, my friends and I had a lot of fun there until one day it either closed down or we found a better place to go.

Just to try and give you a better idea of the times, in 1978, Jim Callaghan was the UK Prime Minister and Jimmy Carter was the US President. The movie Grease was released starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John. The Bee Gees released Night Fever and the biggest selling hit of the year was Rivers of Babylon by Boney M.

Anyway, after a few years of working as an office clerk my friend Chris and I decided to pack our jobs in and go and work in Spain in a place called Lloret de Mar. His sister was based there and according to her it was a great life; sun, sand and of course, the young ladies.

We both decided to finance the deal by selling our cars. My car was a major mistake. It was a Mini Cooper and although it was a great car the insurance for that particular vehicle for a young man back in 1978 was pretty horrendous. When I came to sell the car, it attracted young men like me, all of whom were pushed to pay the insurance. Then a whole lot of problems occurred with the car and so I ended up selling it for a measly £50.

Chris and I hitchhiked down to London then got the boat train to Paris and then after being becalmed in French hitchhiking hell for days, we just jumped on a train direct to Lloret.

We met two girls on the train and had a fun time travelling together for a few days. ‘My’ girl was called Lee, which she said was short for Emily.

On arrival in Lloret we found a small pension consisting of a couple of rooms and a bathroom and spent a lot of time going down the pub drinking beer and chatting to girls.

We were pretty popular for a while. A short while. Later I realised our popularity was directly related to the money we had. The locals we met, by locals I mean the British ex pats who had flocked to the area just for the same reasons we had, all had pretty much nothing and anyone else who either was a new arrival with money or an expat who had some kind of a job was fair game to cadge off. For a short time I worked in a pub. I wasn’t paid any money but they gave me a meal for my trouble. Any time I was behind the bar collecting plates and glasses for washing, my new mates all hissed ‘Steve, pour us a lager while no one is looking!’ I didn’t and as a result my popularity plummeted. One night I was in the pub drinking with friends and after an evening of fending off various cadgers I told one of them to, in polite terms, go and have sex with himself. Alas this did not go down well and I became somewhat unpopular in that small Spanish town. After a few weeks I got a little fed up of this and so I moved on and left my friend behind. He was happy, he was a popular guy and he spent the summer with new friends loitering about Spain.

I started hitchhiking back north through France. I remember meeting an American guy. He was doing something similar to me, he had packed in his insurance job, sold his car and was travelling around Europe. We travelled together for a while. Every night he checked into a hotel and I put my tent up somewhere nearby. He had his evening meal in the hotel, I had some bread and cheese from the local shop and we had a few drinks together of an evening. Like all Americans, certainly those I have met, he was a friendly guy. It was clear to me he was dining well and I of course wasn’t. I must have ponged a little though after all those weeks on the road and I have to say I wouldn’t have minded using his shower, but the offer never came. After a while we parted company.

Not so long ago I found my old notebook from those days and written neatly in there are his name and address and phone number in the USA. I’ve always wanted to visit the USA and the Americans are such friendly, outgoing people. Wonder what he’d say if I turned up on his doorstep. Remember me? Steve Higgins? France, 1978? Any chance of using your shower?

I fondly remember turning up at home. My mum answered the door with a look of shock. ‘What are you doing here?’ she asked. I thought you were going away for six months?’

I’d returned after about six weeks. ‘I don’t know where you’re going to sleep’ she went on. ‘We threw your old bed out the other week!’


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The Story of my Life in Less than 2500 Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE SCENE. INTERIOR. DAY. TRACY ISLAND LOUNGE.

JEFF TRACY
This is a job for Thunderbird 3.

ALAN TRACY
OK Dad. Ready for launch.

JEFF TRACY
Off you go Alan.

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

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

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

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

ALAN TRACY
Thanks Dad.

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

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

JEFF GOES OFF STAGE RIGHT TO LOOK FOR GRANDMA.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m already over 2500 words!


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Reputations and Points of View

Now that lockdown is easing I’ve spent quite a bit of time at my mother’s house in Wythenshawe which is a suburb of south Manchester. Wythenshawe is the site of a huge council estate once known as the garden estate because each house had a front and back garden unlike the terraced houses in Hulme and Salford where most of Wythenshawe’s tenants came from back in the 1920’s and 30’s when the estate was first started.

My mum went into a care home just after Christmas. She had been in hospital since early December suffering from a bad chest infection. For the past two or three years dementia has taken its toll on her but her increasing immobility had make it much harder for me and my brother to look after her despite having the assistance of carers coming at various times throughout the day.

Anyway, I tidied the garden of her house up as best I could and made a start on sorting out mum’s things ready for the inevitable time when we must give the house up. Recently I came across a plastic handle of some sort that was incredibly familiar but I couldn’t work out what is was. Later I found a blue plastic brush which fitted on the handle and it was then I realised this was a back brush that has always lived in our bathroom for as long as I can remember. When that memory came back to me I felt reluctant to throw the brush away. After all, I’m sure we had that brush in the bathroom when I was a schoolboy in the 1960s making it something over fifty years old.

Wythenshawe doesn’t have such a great reputation but from my point of view it isn’t really such a bad place. It isn’t, as far as I know, a haven of drug dealers and gangsters and the streets are fairly safe to walk, even late at night but when a place gets a bad reputation it’s hard for some people to see past that. I’m not sure what kind of reputation Manchester itself has in the world at large. Personally I think it’s a great city but then again, on a recent episode of the TV show Come Dine With Me, the announcer mentioned that Manchester had been voted the UK’s rudest city! Oh well.

Years ago I worked in Liverpool servicing and repairing cigarette vending machines. It was actually a pretty good job except that I had to get up early every day. The machines were all sited in pubs and bars so I tried to do the majority of my work before the pubs opened as naturally, I didn’t want everyone and his dog knowing what I was up to and that I had a van full of cash and cigarettes.

The cigarette machines were fairly reliable but they did break down now and again but as long as they were kept in good order callbacks as we called them, were minimal. At least they were on my round. I discovered early on that the big problem with vending machines are coins. Coins are dirty and greasy and sometimes sticky and every time a coin goes through the coin mechanism, it leaves behind dirt. That dirt will build and build until one day the machine just won’t work and then an irate pub landlord would be on the phone saying ‘Steve, we’ve got a big night on tonight, you’ll have to come out and sort the machine!

What I used to do on my regular visits was spend a few moments at each machine and give that coin mechanism (coin mex is what we used to call them) a quick check and clean and those few extra moments prevented the dreaded callbacks.

Every fourth week I had to work a weekend for my team mates and cover any problem calls that came in. I rarely had callbacks, they were always for my team mates who couldn’t be bothered to clean those machines. One weekend I got a call from some pub in the outskirts of Liverpool. I can’t remember exactly where it was but it was a semi country area, off towards Ormskirk I think. This was pre-google maps so I had to troll through my A to Z and find it. I remember cursing my team mate Joey about it. I had called him to have a moan and he said I had to be there before 11am or the Landlord wouldn’t let us in until the pub was open. I got there in time but it turned out the landlord was on holiday and the relief manager, actually a manageress, was a pretty amenable lady.

We chatted as I struggled to get the jammed coins free and she said it was clear from my accent I wasn’t from Liverpool. It turned out we were both Mancunians and she asked me whereabouts in Manchester I hailed from. When I said Wythenshawe she nearly fell over. ‘Oh my God’ she said, ‘it’s rough round there!’

I spent some time trying to reassure her about Wythenshawe and explain that it wasn’t such a bad place. Trying to change the subject I asked her where she hailed from and she replied ‘Moss Side’. ‘What!’ I exclaimed. Here was someone who thought my home town was bad when she comes from a place that makes it look like paradise!

Moss Side is an inner city area of Manchester and quite frankly, it is a very rough area indeed with more than its fair share of villains, drug dealers and other unsavoury characters.

Back in 1992 I studied video production and media techniques at the WFA media centre in neighbouring Hulme, and when I say neighbouring I really mean next door. We were in teams of three making short videos and after a week or two of filming in Manchester we moved on to editing. I loved editing and we spent a lot of time in the basement working in what was then state of the art editing suites. After further work there we had to put together a rough cut to show the rest of the school. Our video rough cut went down pretty well. It was a short documentary about taxi drivers in the city centre. One driver who we interviewed mentioned that certain places in the city were dangerous to visit, especially late at night. Places he said like, wait for it, Moss Side!

We were on a small stage and my two colleagues had nominated me to answer questions as the taxi idea had been mine. One woman condemned the taxi driver immediately for being racist as Moss Side does have a large black and Asian community but be fair I said, there was no mention of race, just people who did a runner when they arrived at their destination, people who wanted a taxi ride for free which obviously, didn’t go down well with the taxi drivers.

We weathered the storm which was only minor anyway and went back to our editing. My colleagues wanted to cut out the offending taxi driver but I wanted to leave him in. I can’t remember if I got my way but here’s the finished video if you want to check.

Nowadays, Moss Side has been regenerated and looks much nicer than it used to. Is it still a rough area of the city? Maybe yes, maybe no. Looking at the screenshot further back up the page about a Moss Side shooting I’m not so sure. I suppose it all depends on your point of view. Even though, I wish I could show the video to that Merseyside pub manager!


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The Ramblings of a Locked Down Blogger

I thought for a minute of changing the title of my whole website to that which you can see above: The Ramblings of a Locked Down Blogger. Maybe even the crazy ramblings! Still, in a few weeks or perhaps months, the lockdown and Coronavirus will just be a bad memory. In fact, my first post lockdown restaurant visit has already been booked and my table and meal are actually only a matter of hours away.

It will be nice to socialise again and also to dress up. I’ve spent the last two months wearing the same small selection of jeans, shorts, tee shirts and sweaters. Will I still be able to fit into my smart shirts and trousers I wonder? Well, I’ll soon find out.

I have been watching a quite inordinate amount of TV during the lockdown. That has not been any hardship on my part, in fact it could be argued that watching TV is my default position. I do love TV but not any TV; I am quite choosy in what I watch. I love films and only a small fraction of the films I love have I seen at the cinema. The other 99% I have seen on my television set with constant supplies of either tea or red wine near at hand.

At my mother’s house where I come to tidy up and keep the garden in order, I have just recently been trying to sort through my vast supplies of VHS video tapes. Any VHS films I have can be just junked as they will be either shown again on TV or are available on DVD.

Documentaries are a different matter. Films are shown time and time again but great documentaries are seldom shown again. It’s the same with made for TV films. A great film I have on VHS is Across the Lake, a made for TV film starring Anthony Hopkins as record breaker Donald Campbell. I have not watched it for ages but it’s a great film, well written and with an excellent performance by Anthony Hopkins documenting Campbell’s last and fatal attempt at the world water speed record. Why the BBC don’t think of showing these outstanding made for TV films again I really don’t know.

You can see the entire film on YouTube but here’s a short clip:

One thing I love in films is originality. There are a thousand films with car chases and shoot outs and murders but it’s great to see something new. One DVD I watched recently is The King of Comedy. Even though it’s directed by Martin Scorcese it’s not a gangster film, it’s something very different. Robert de Niro stars as a wannabe stand up comedian who wants to get on a show hosted by Jerry Lewis. Jerry plays a TV comedian who is pretty much Jerry Lewis himself. He turns in this outstanding performance as a TV host who is kidnapped by De Niro and held hostage in return for De Niro getting a stand up spot on Lewis’ show. De Niro is helped by a Jerry Lewis obsessed fan played by Sandra Bernhard turning in another great performance. This is a film that is funny, dramatic and completely original. Keep a look out for it on your favourite TV film channel.

Another original film I saw lately was Big Eyes. It’s based on a true story of an artist, Margaret Keane, who turns out some popular and charming pictures, all of people with big eyes. Margaret is a woman who can paint but is not so good at selling and marketing her work. She meets future husband Walter who seems to be a bit of a whiz at the promotion lark. He decides to rent space on a local nightclub wall to get attention for both Margaret’s and his paintings. Surprise, surprise, it is Margaret’s paintings of the doe eyed girls that get all the attention but Walter decides to play the part of the artist as some people have mistakenly thought that anyway. Margaret plays along but gradually becomes very unhappy having to constantly deny her own work.

Big Eyes is, incredibly, a true story. Margaret eventually leaves Walter and has to sue to be finally acknowledged for her own talent. Margaret’s paintings are captivating although art critics are divided on her true worth as an artist. It’s worth noting though that Andy Warhol said this about her work: ‘It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.’

I’ve also been editing my own films during the lockdown. My friend Steve and I made a video about Manchester Airport in 1986 and it’s my second most watched film on YouTube with 16,000 viewings. In 2018 I realised that if I took out all the pop music used on the soundtrack the video would be eligible for monetising, that’s YouTube’s word for getting royalties from your video. I added some copyright free music, tidied a few bad cuts in the video and reposted it to YouTube. Rather annoyingly, YouTube decided just then that video producers have to have a minimum of 1000 followers to get royalties and as I only have about 220 that’s another income stream that has been denied to me.

When trolling through my VHS tapes I found another version of that same video. Yes, even 30 years ago I was still tinkering with my videos and re-editing them. Anyway, I took this one and re-made it again adding some sound effects and new music. Could YouTube stand a third version of the same video? I’m not sure but then again, some mainstream directors like to tinker with their own work when the time comes for the DVD version. I’ve got quite a few ‘directors cut’ DVDs in my collection like Aliens and Apocalypse Now to name but two.

During lockdown I’ve also been listening to my favourite podcasts. The BBC Radio 5 Live F1 podcast is a constant disappointment. When F1 races are on, the 5 Live people assume that listeners know what happened in the race. That’s not the case, I usually listen when I’ve missed the Channel Four broadcast on TV so I listen in for a race report not a load of F1 chit chat. When there are no races, like during the lockdown, I actually do want to hear some F1 chit chat, some gossipy stuff about which driver’s contract is about to expire, which designer is moving teams, will Vettel retire or go to the new Aston Martin F1 team? Stuff like that. No, they don’t even bother to do a podcast when there is no racing.

Instead I’ve been listening to my new favourite podcast, The Slowdown, a poetry podcast that usually lasts about 5 minutes, not too long, not too short. The presenter, US poet Tracy K Smith has such a wonderful voice she seems to make any poem sound good. Wonder if I could get her to read one of mine?


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Blogging by Numbers

Despite being constantly at home and within easy reach of my laptop and notebook I seem to be struggling to write anything lately. I was looking around for a new blog post and finally decided to set myself a task. Writing about numbers. Difficult I know but if I’m the top notch writer I think I am then it won’t be that hard, will it?

Back in the 1980’s I received my first debit card just like many other people. Debit cards were a new concept back then. We already had credit cards but a debit card, what was that about? Back in pre-debit card days when everything was in black and white like an old film, we used to have to go into the bank to withdraw cash. I remember queuing at the bank on a Friday lunchtime in Manchester City centre waiting to draw some cash out for that weekend’s activities. The way we did it back then was to write a cheque to yourself or as I was taught to do ‘pay bearer cash’. In 1987 debit cards were first introduced in the UK although they had been around for a while in the USA. As you can imagine I didn’t actually know that, I had to look it up so while I’ve got that Google page open here are a few interesting facts from the BBC:

The earliest known cheque was written in 1659 dated the 16th February. The Bank of England was established in 1694. The first five pound note was issued in 1793 and was the lowest denomination note until 1797 when war drained the UK bullion reserves forcing the bank of England to issue one and two pound notes. 1966 was when the first UK credit cards were issued and of course, the debit card in 1987.

The first cash machine was put into use by Barclays Bank in 1967 and the machine was revealed with much fanfare by comedy actor Reg Varney who you may remember from the TV series On The Buses. The cash machine of 1967 was operated not by a debit card but by a voucher issued by the bank which was then entered into the cash machine.

It was interesting to hear about Reg Varney because, getting back to numbers, for my debit card secret number I decided to use the fleet number of the bus I was driving that day.

14.

Here’s another number: 14. Yes 14 was the number of the house I lived at as a child. My parents house was a council house and it was my grandad and grandmother’s house until they bought their own house and moved away to Wales. My mother managed to take the house over on the understanding that her brother and sister could continue to live there although by the time I came along they had both found their own homes.

Many years ago I came back to the house and parked outside and spent a few moments remembering the times of my childhood. I parked opposite and took the picture you can see here from the same spot where many years earlier I had first riden my two wheeled bike. The bike was really too tall for me and I could only get on it from the pavement. I spent a lot of weeks riding round the block making only left hand turns until I returned to my starting place. Eventually I got the hang of it. There used to be a hedge across the front of the garden which has now been removed to access the parking place which is also new. I do have a nice picture of me stood in that garden. Wish I could find it for this post but it’s upstairs in a box at my Mum’s house. One day I think I’ll go back and try and reproduce that picture if the present occupants will let me.

The memories that come flooding back just from looking at that picture. My friend Gary Chapman lived just around the corner and we went all over on our bikes. One Christmas, Gary’s parents bought him a set of walkie takies. He always got really great presents. I remember once complaining to my mum who promptly told me that because Gary and his family lived in a flat and not a house, they had less rent to pay so had more money for presents! A few times Gary left me one of the walkie talkies and we had a conversation later that night. Battery power was limited so we arranged to switch on at a prearranged time, 8:30 or something. Our conversations went like this:

‘Gaz, are you receiving?’

‘Gaz here. Loud and clear. Are you receiving Ste?’

‘Steve here. Loud and clear.’

‘Receiving you loud and clear Ste.’

Not long after that Gary and his family were offered a council house but it was in Gamesley, Glossop, a Manchester overspill estate. Gary moved away and I didn’t see him again for years. I met him again in the late 1980’s. A mutual friend of ours, Chris had bumped into Gary’s sister, got Gary’s phone number and we all arranged to meet up. I remember being in a bar in Manchester waiting for Gary. I was at the bar which was pretty busy, getting the beers in when I heard Gary’s voice. It was just how I remembered Gary from years ago. I could hear ‘where’s Ste?’ ‘he’s over there at the bar’. I turned round expecting to see Gary but there was just this guy stood behind me that I didn’t recognise. Where’s Gary I thought? ‘Ste?’ said the stranger. It was Gary. He looked completely different but his voice, a distinctive throaty voice, was just the same.

71.

My very first car had the registration plate PDB71M. It actually caused a lot of confusion when I bought it because I traded in my motorbike, a Honda CB250 with the very similar registration PDB1M. Incredibly, checking on the Gov.UK website my motorcycle is still registered. It was a green Honda first registered in 1974. It has no tax or MOT so presumably it is languishing in the back of someone’s garage, rusting and probably neglected. My car was a Reliant Bond Bug which does not come up on a website search so presumably it went to the scrap yard many years ago. I bought it because I failed my first two attempts at the driving test and was really getting fed up. Of course we didn’t have a family car so the only driving I could do was the one hour a week on a Saturday morning that was my actual driving lesson. The Bond Bug was a three wheeler car and could be driven on a motorcycle license. After a few months regular driving I booked the test again and sailed through it.

I remember pulling up at home in my car feeling very pleased with myself. The car was small, it was an orange wedge shaped two seater and my Dad took one look at it and said ‘How are we all supposed to get in that?‘ and walked away. Presumably he thought I would be taking the family away on holiday. Sorry Dad!

126.

While I’m on the subject of firsts, my first camera was either a birthday or Christmas present and it was a Kodak Instamatic 126. I still have the camera. From my point of view it was a wonderful present; from my parents perspective, perhaps not, because back then in the late sixties cameras needed film and film had to be developed and printed which was fairly costly, especially if you had a child that liked taking pictures and also, whose first attempts were not so good. These days if you take some dud pictures with a digital camera- delete them! It’s no big deal. Back then it was expensive!

I remember getting a major verbal lashing from my Mum when we had gone to Boots to collect my photographs. I was using colour film and Mum had to shell out for my pictures of my action man in various poses in the back garden! (Action man? Hey, I was 12!)

I remember telling the lady in the camera shop about my photography and how I used to build all kinds of stuff out of cardboard and photograph the results. She told me about a close up lens you could buy which just fit snugly over the camera lens on my Instamatic and enabled me to get really close up shots. I’m not sure how much it was but I had to save up for it, my first ever new lens!

0063.

Back in the eighties when I received my first debit card I was a bus driver. Why I stayed in that job for so long I’ll never know but back then in the eighties there was a relentless move towards one man operated buses. Eventually I became a one man driver. It involved more money but also more work. Instead of just driving the bus you had to issue tickets and collect fares but anyone becoming a one man driver in those days was given a new staff number. I became driver 0063: Double O six three, licensed to drive buses.

Just looking at those numbers together (not including by debit card number of course) gives me 1,4,7,1,1,2,6,6,3. I could add my present staff number into the mix, 6102 and there must be a lottery number in there somewhere. Is it a rollover this weekend? Excuse me, think I might just get myself a lottery ticket!


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James Hilton, Winston Churchill and the Lockdown

When I get stuck looking for a new idea for a blog post I sometimes look back at my old ones just to see if anything there might inspire me. Sometimes I’ll think of something I could have said about a particular subject which I didn’t say at the time so I’ll start writing about that and then I’m off. Sometimes a writer just needs something to start him off. In fact over on Twitter I sometimes use a meme that goes like this

Some old posts can also be re-purposed. That is to say an old post can be given a new lease of life by a re-write, a few new paragraphs, some new pictures and maybe a link to a relevant video. One old post I looked at tapped right into a long running daydream of mine. Imagine me, a writer from the north of England getting the chance to go and work in Hollywood, writing scripts. I can just imagine the trip over on a Jumbo Jet or whatever passes for a jumbo jet these days. Arriving in Hollywood and looking at all the sights I have read about and imagined over the years, The Brown Derby restaurant, Romanoffs, Schwabs drugstore and maybe even catching a glimpse of Pickfair, the old Fairbanks/Pickford mansion on Summit Drive, the home according to David Niven’s book Bring on The Empty Horses of many of the great stars of the golden age of Hollywood.

Alas, every single one of those places has gone eclipsed by the passage of time. Even the new owners of Pickfair, actress Pia Zadora and her millionaire husband, decided that after aquiring such an historic place, the best thing to do would be to knock it down. Termites had ruined the property, or so they claimed.

One other thing that is real enough is the bit about the writer from the north of England making his way over to Hollywood. No, it wasn’t me, it was James Hilton, the author of one of my favourite books of all time.

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

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

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

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

Hilton’s journey from Leigh to Hollywood must have been a magical one and one I envy, especially as his time in Hollywood was a golden age for movie making. Lost Horizon was made into a movie by Hollywood director Frank Capra and starred Ronald Colman as the urbane British diplomat of the novel. It’s a movie that was restored some time ago and is a great DVD if you happen to see it. Colman also starred in another movie authored by Hilton; ‘Random Harvest ‘.

Hilton settled in Hollywood and wrote a number of screenplays for classic Hollywood movies such as ‘Mrs Miniver ‘. Sadly he died from cancer in 1954.

How would Hilton have coped with the Lockdown? Pretty well I should imagine. Professional writers are not like us amateurs, they are not governed by how they feel, if they are in the mood or not, if they are feeling creative or not. They just get on with it.

A few weeks back I decided that a good project for me would be to make one of my blogs into a video. I chose one from a short while ago A Letter to my Younger Self. I opened up my laptop, clicked on my Animoto page and began. I’m still working on it. It wasn’t as easy as I had thought. I could quite easily have read the post to camera but I wanted something a little more exciting and the good thing about Animoto is that they have a great library of stock footage and photos so combined with some of my own images the result should be good.

Here’s the problem though, and this is the big issue with technology that I come across time after time. Once the designers have put together a great peice of software or an electronic device, they just cannot leave it alone. Windows Sound Recorder: they replaced it with Windows Voice Recorder and all the things I used to do on there, I can no longer do. Windows Movie Maker: my favourite video editing platform: discontinued in favour of HD Movie Maker. The old version was so much better especially when editing sound. The new version is quite different. In the past I could position and reposition sound clips with the mouse now in HD Movie Maker the user can only trim sound or use the delay option. Oh well at least Animoto, the online editing platform I use frequently is untouched, or so I thought.

Wrong! This week Animoto unleashed a new version of its editing software on its users. Does it have improved features? Yes. Is it easier to use? No. Well to be fair it’s not bad but every so often the web page seems to crash and I have to reload the page and start editing again from the point my work was saved. Perhaps that’s the fault of my laptop although it never lost the page with the old version. There are some other litle teaks I don’t like too so I might just put that project on hold for now.

This week Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided to ease the current lockdown. Now we can return to work and also travel around if we want to visit somewhere. Most businesses are still closed of course but it might mean places like Blackpool and other seaside resorts will be expecting daytrippers soon. Personally I think his advice is ill advised and we should be keeping the lockdown on for a while longer. The thing is, the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales seem to agree with me so if you are planning a trip to either of those places soon, forget it because the lockdown is still in place there.

The other night I stayed up late watching the film Darkest Hour which is about Winston Churchill and the beginning of his Prime Ministership in World War II. It paints a rather bleak picture of Winston’s premiership with the Conservative party apparently holding back from supporting him and a growing clique actually wanting to replace him with Lord Halifax. When France fell to the Nazis Halifax wanted to explore peace talks with Hitler which Churchill was violently opposed to. I’m not sure how true to life the film was and although I can imagine not everyone was 100% behind Churchill, I found some of this film a little hard to believe. There was a vote of no confidence in the commons in 1942 although Churchill won this by a resounding 475 votes to 25. In the film, conservatives still will not support Churchill in the commons until outgoing premier Neville Chamberlain signalled them to do so by placing a white hankerchief on his knee. By then Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement were totally discredited so would he really have had such sway over his fellow MPs? I doubt it.

What Churchill would think of today’s devolved government I shudder to think.

In these difficult times I take comfort from, as usual, Marcus Aurelius. I receive a regular email from The Daily Stoic and it is surprising how words of wisdom from the past can be relevant to today. One email I picked up this week went like this : All of us who are alive today are the last in an unbroken line of our ancestors who survived two world wars, the plague and much more. They kept calm, they carried on. They learned, as Marcus did, that things can only ruin your life if they ruin your character. We might not control world events, but we can control how we respond. We control whether we hold our heads high. We control whether we help our neighbours. We control whether we contribute to the panic or not.

Not only that, the important thing to remember about the Corona Virus is that . . .


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