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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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 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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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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TV, Books and the Lockdown Blues

You might think that the lockdown is heaven sent for a writer. Stay at home and write stuff, perfect! After a few weeks though I have found not only have I not written much at all. Actually, I’ve been feeling a little bit bored, just like a great deal of the population I suppose.

Television

One thing I have done is watch a great deal of TV although a lot of it has been disappointing. Back in the late 1960s one of my favourite TV shows was The Time Tunnel. It was an American sci-fi show produced by Irwin Allen who made The Towering Inferno and the Poseidon Adventure among other things and a few weeks back I was delighted to find that it was being re-shown on the Horror channel.

In The Time Tunnel two American scientists are ‘lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages, during the first experiments on America’s greatest and most secret project, the Time Tunnel. Tony Newman and Doug Phillips now tumble helplessly toward a new fantastic adventure, somewhere along the infinite corridors of time’ as the opening blurb used to go.

The Time Tunnel starts off with a Congressman coming to investigate the growing budget of the Time Tunnel Complex and threatens to close things down unless he sees results. Scientist Tony Newman decides he must therefore travel back in time to prove that the tunnel really works and save the project. Tony ends up on the ill-fated liner Titanic. His colleague Doug follows him back to 1912 and the control room struggle to shift the two in time before the ship sinks.

One episode that I particularly remember was when the pair land in Pearl Harbour, just before the Japanese attack in 1941. Tony meets himself as a young boy and finally solves the mystery of the disappearance of his father in the attack. That was one of the better ones.

Unable to return the duo to the present, the technicians back at Time Tunnel HQ struggle every week to shift the duo to somewhere new just in the nick of time. They never seem to manage to get the pair home as there is never enough power for this process despite a huge powerhouse courtesy of the special effects department which we see a glimpse of almost every week. The other thing is that if they did get back home, there’d be no show next week.

I did love this show as a 12 year old sci-fi fan but here in 2020 I seemed to be fast forwarding through all the boring bits, of which there were plenty. Some things don’t seem to stand the test of time and the big problem with the Time Tunnel is that the stories mostly weren’t good enough and many episodes seem to revolve around what appears to be stock footage that was filmed for some other project. I’m really cheesed off that I missed the Pearl Harbour episode though.

Coronation Street, like all the TV soaps is suffering because the lockdown has prevented further filming of the series. Instead of going out six times per week, we are now only getting three episodes to satisfy us and even those are looking like they are missing something. It looks to me like the current main storyline involving controlling husband Geoff and wife Yasmin has been the focus of the last filming sessions while some other content involving the minor storylines is missing. Last Wednesday’s episode seemed to have a slightly odd narrative flow, returning to the same scene when perhaps we should have cut to something else, the cafe or the Rover’s Return pub. Still, the editors can only work with the footage they have and sooner or later there will be nothing and our favourite soaps will be on hold until staff can return safely to work. I noticed also that TV quizzes like Tipping Point and Countdown are now just re runs of older episodes.

Spotify

One other thing has made my life slightly more interesting during these slightly surreal times and that is Spotify. You might not have even heard of it but it’s a music app I’ve downloaded to my iPad. I thought originally that it was a way of downloading music. I’m not a great downloader but the previous place where I used to download music was the HMV digital site, 7Digital. It had, I first thought, gone to the heavenly resting place of defunct web sites but when I finally got connected once again after many years I found it not very interesting and so in my search for internet music I came across Spotify. Now with Spotify, you cannot actually download music, well actually you probably can if you pay for Spotify premium but as the cheapskate that you know I am, I’m happy just to listen to music. On Spotify you can set up favourites and playlists and here’s the really extraordinary thing, after a few days use Spotify starts to suggest things you might like, new music that is similar to music you have already played. Now, after only using it for a couple of weeks, I have built up some pretty substantial music playlists.

Books

After finishing my last book, Michael Palin’s diaries, I looked around for something new to read and picked up three books. Bruce Forsyth’s autobiography, Khrushchev’s memoirs and a book of three Noel Coward plays. I’ve read the Noel Coward book before but the writer’s wit and humour never cease to amuse me. Blythe Spirit is one of Coward’s best known plays and was also made into an excellent film starring Rex Harrison. Having read that book before I tend to just flip through it and re read some of the best bits although in the end, I went through the entire book.

When Khrushchev’s memoirs become a little too serious and I fancy a change, something a little bit lighter, I turn to either Noel Coward or Bruce Forsyth. I picked up Bruce’s book at a church sale and although I didn’t expect much, it has been pretty interesting. Bruce was probably one of the last old time entertainers. He talks about the days of variety in the 1950’s and 60’s and about being in various shows and playing in theatres like the London Palladium and how he managed to break in to TV with Sunday Night at the Palladium which he compered for many years.

At one time he was travelling the country living in a caravan and performing in numerous shows. The latter part of the book is just an excuse to mention all his show biz chums and drop a lot of names but all in all, it was a good read. Bruce doesn’t tell us much about himself though, except in a chapter about his relationship with the UK press, where he proceeds to give the press a good telling off. Still, Bruce was a proper celebrity unlike some celebs these days who seem to make a career from being on TV reality shows.

The Khrushchev book is interesting but suffers like many books written in a foreign language by not reading quite as well as it should when translated into English. 20,000 Leagues under the Sea was another foreign language book I read a while ago but that was a new translation and actually read pretty well.

One brilliant foreign language book that comes to mind is Papillon by Henri Charrière. This, unlike the two books mentioned above is an amazing read, an absolutely wonderful book and one of my all time favourites. It was made into a film with Steve McQueen which comes out pretty poor when compared to the book. Still, the book is a pretty thick volume and there is probably enough material in there for a TV series, never mind a film.

One part of the book which is pretty relevant to the lockdown is when Papillon is sent to solitary confinement. In case you don’t know anything about Papillon at all, he was a Frenchman convicted of murder and sent to a penal colony in French Guiana and after numerous escape attempts and many adventures, he finds freedom in Venezuela.

When Charrière is sent to solitary confinement he wonders how he will fill a chapter about a time when nothing at all happens to him, locked away for 24 hours a day with a rule of silence. Every day he is made to stick his head out of a small door in his cell so the warders can check to see if he is still alive. If he is, he is given food which has little nutrient. Luckily, Papillon’s friends have bribed the warders to give him some extra food including some fruit, or I think it might have been a coconut, which helped to sustain him. After many months someone new takes over the solitary block and he lets the prisoners out every day to socialise. This easing of the strict regime helps Papillon and his fellow inmates no end. I can imagine feeling similar when the lockdown is eased.

Blogs

Just looking back at some of my old blogs for inspiration, I came across The Big 300, my 300th blog post and was surprised to find that this very post you are currently reading is my big 405! Still, I did start blogging way back in 2016 just as a way of promoting Floating in Space, my novel set in Manchester, 1977. You might possibly be thinking that this has been an excellent time to pen a sequel. If so, how wrong you are!


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Things to do during a Pandemic

I’m pretty much of a stay at home sort of guy normally although I do like to go out now and again. I do love dining out for instance. However, staying  at home day after day may stop the corona virus spreading but it can get a little boring. What can we do to entertain ourselves then?

Well first of all the weather in the UK is pretty nice so why not get the deckchair out and have a read of a good book? The obvious one for me to recommend is of course Floating in Space but I’m trying not to make this post into a plug for my book, although if you fancy getting a copy, click here!

The Murders at White House Farm.

Recently I’ve been reading a great book called The Murders at White House Farm by Carol Ann Lee. The book was made into a TV drama series not long ago which I thought was really interesting and that made me buy the book. In case you’re not familar with the story, back in 1985 Jeremy Bamber called the police to say he had received a telephone call from his father to say that his sister, staying at his father’s White House Farm had gone berserk with a gun. He didn’t call 999 but called his local police station directly. He and the police went to the farm and after waiting for a firearms squad, they broke into the house -locked from the inside- to find Bamber’s mother and father, sister Sheila and her two young sons, all dead from gunshot wounds. Sheila was suffering from schizophenia and the immediate assumption was that she had murdered her family and then turned her father’s rifle on herself.

Some officers weren’t so sure about that scenario and a number of things didn’t add up. For instance a struggle had ensued between the killer and Jeremy Bamber’s father Neville, so how did the 27 year old daughter manage to overcome the bigger and stronger Neville? Sheila shot herself after the murders but there were two shots to her head. How could she then shoot herself a second time? Blood was all over the master bedroom where Neville and his wife June were first shot yet Sheila’s feet were clean and free from bloodstains. Some officers and family members were concerned at Jeremy’s lack of emotion and his plans to sell off and convert into cash his parents’ assets.

Later Julie, Jeremy’s girlfriend came forward to reveal Jeremy had told her of his plans to murder the family. Her story though had a number of flaws; in particular she claimed Jeremy had used Matthew McDonald, a friend, as a hitman for a fee of £2000. McDonald had an alibi for the night and vigorously denied any involvement in the murder.

When the case came to court Bamber was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. This was a fascinating read but I found myself confused about some elements of the case. The author focusses on many aspects in detail but is a little unclear on others. The really strange thing is that Jeremy Bamber was convicted without any forensic evidence showing him to be the murderer. There was no evidence showing him to have been present that night, in fact he was seen leaving for home after working on the farm that day but he supposedly returned on a bicycle to do the murders. Again, there was no proof of that. He was found guilty only by his ex-girlfriend’s testimony which I find a little scary. Maybe he did it, but then again, maybe he didn’t.

TV

Of course, in a situation like the corona virus lockdown the TV comes into its own. We need entertaining but also, we need information. Information about what to do and how to keep ourselves safe during the crisis. The other day we downloaded Rocketman, the film about Elton John for viewing when we get bored with the usual TV output but so far we haven’t got around to watching it. We have watched Flesh and Blood on the ITV hub. In case you didn’t see it, Flesh and Blood “is the modern story of three adult siblings – Helen, Jake and Natalie – who are thrown into disarray when their recently widowed mother Vivien declares she’s in love with a new man,” according to ITV.

“This is no ordinary relationship drama, as someone in the family will be dead by the end of the story – but the question of who dies and who is the killer keeps us guessing right up to the last moment,” the channel added. I found it really good and I look forward to seeing series 2.

Jobs around the House

There’s a joke I’ve seen on facebook a number of times. It’s the one where the guy says ‘If a man says he’ll fix it, no need to remind him about it every 6 months’. Anyway, recently during the lockdown I’ve repaired the garden gate, fixed the leaky gutter and given the lawn it’s first 2020 mowing.

Writing

I read somewhere that during the plague in Elizabethan times, Shakespeare’s Globe theatre was closed down just like other places of entertainment. People at the time had no idea how the bubonic plague was transmitted so the authorities of the day banned mass gatherings, just like 2020 in fact. Between 1603 and 1613, the Globe and other London theatres were closed for 78 months according to an article in the Guardian. Plague was an ever present threat for Shakespeare and other actors and performers of the day and in fact, there is some evidence to show that King Lear was written during a plague outbreak in London in 1606. Everywhere was quarantined so Shakespeare clearly thought, might as well get down to it and write something new!

I had the same thought and maybe by the end of this outbreak I might even have completed something new. Well, one or two pages anyway.


A Slice of my Life Part 4

Just now we are approaching my favourite time of the year. The days are getting longer, spring is nearly here and the days are beginning to get warmer. Understood by our ancestors to be a potent portal of power, the Spring Equinox which happened yesterday, has long been celebrated as an awakening time of growing energy and budding new life. Its earlier roots begin in many of the most ancient myths and tales about the Goddess regaining her power and fertility after the long months of winter. Just now though, all I can think about is what a pain in the neck the coronavirus is turning out to be. It’s pretty easy when you are watching the TV news, to sort of dismiss things that don’t seem to affect us but when you find that you actually are affected then it’s a whole different story.

Recently Liz and I were looking at our next trip in our motorhome. We thought about taking the ferry to Spain and spending a leisurely few weeks meandering north back through France and finally back up to the UK. Now we’re starting to realise it might not be worth booking that trip at all in case the ferries are cancelled. I noticed on the news that Jet2.com with whom we have flown to Lanzarote many times have cancelled their flights to Spain and the Canary Islands so we were lucky to have had our holiday in Lanzarote earlier this year. Certain countries like Spain, Italy and France are on a virtual lockdown situation. Things are looking very grim indeed, in fact it’s almost like being in the middle of a crazy science fiction film, something like Twelve Monkeys or The Andromeda Strain where a virus devastates a US town leaving only two survivors, a baby and an old man, and scientists race to find the connection and hopefully the antidote.

Recently, in the Washington Examiner, believe it or not, I read an article about an American writer who lived in Blackheath in London in the 1980’s. He pointed out that Blackheath was so named because of the 60,000 Londoners who perished as a result of the Black Death in the 14th century, many of whom are buried in Blackheath. The Black Death changed everything; it pushed up the value of labour and created a wage economy. No doubt today’s pandemic will bring about change too but as somebody once said, there is nothing new under the sun.

Mum

My mum who for a long time has become very unsteady on her feet finally entered a care home some weeks ago.  My brother and I have done our absolute best to look after her over the past two years and more but we had done as much as we could. Her mobility had dropped dramatically and her dementia has increased, with her grasp on reality gradually slipping away. At her new care home the staff specialise in dementia patients but this week when I went to visit they told me that no unnecessary visitors were being let in. In a way that means a little break for me. My mother sometimes seems reasonably lucid and at other times not so. Recently she told me she missed her mother and father and I had to tell her they died many years ago. She was very upset but I’ve always tried to be straight with her and not tell her lies. Another time she asked me why my dad had not visited her and fighting back some tears I gently told her he was working. He died twenty years ago.

Dementia has made a liar of me.

Australian Grand Prix.

One big upset relating to the virus has to be, for me at any rate, the cancelation of the Australian Grand Prix. For the past few weeks I have been checking my email updates from various Formula One blogs and web sites. I’ve read about the testing sessions in Barcelona and about the controversy over the Ferrari engine from last year. Apparently, the governing body, the FIA investigated claims that Ferrari’s engine was illegal. They dismissed the claims but declined to comment further. The other teams have protested, claiming that the FIA has tried to hush the incident up. Anyway, that incident has been forgotten now the future of this year’s racing is in doubt. F1 may not begin in earnest until May, if it begins at all.

Pity, because this could be the year that Lewis Hamilton equals Michael Schumacher’s record of 7 world championships but if there are no races, or not enough races will a championship even be awarded?

Woody Allen

The other week I was a little poorly myself. Not the corona virus but some bug that caused me to spend a lot of time being sick. I spent a lot of that time at my mother’s house just generally feeling sorry for myself and drinking hot water and lemon and watching a lot of DVDs. Looking back, those few days have got me ready for the current climate of self-isolation. Anyway, the handy thing with a DVD is that every time I had the urge to run to the toilet I could pause the film, do what I had to do and then return to my couch. Yes, I know that we can even pause live TV these days but Mum’s TV doesn’t support stuff like that.

Anyway, to entertain myself I cranked up some Woody Allen stuff on the DVD player. Midnight in Paris is one of his later films starring Owen Wilson. I’m not sure I have even liked Owen Wilson in the past but watching this film, he plays the perfect role that Woody himself might have played in his younger days.

I followed that with Radio Days, Woody’s homage to the days when radio was universally popular and kids in the pre TV age were as obsessed with radio as I was with TV in the 1960’s. Woody doesn’t appear in the film but narrates it and it tells various radio themed stories. One big point he makes is that radio listeners tend to imagine the broadcaster or actor looking as good as whatever part they are playing, so of course the hero of young Woody’s favourite show, the Masked Avenger, turns out to look nothing like we might imagine.

Third in my trilogy of Woody Allen films was Manhattan which I’ve always thought was much better than Annie Hall, Woody’s Oscar winning 1977 film which won awards in 4 categories; best film, best script, best director and best actress for Diane Keaton. Manhattan is famous for its black and white photography and it’s Gershwin music score and is just generally a lovely film, not outstandingly funny or hilarious but gently humorous.

For real laugh out loud humour, you have to go back to Woody’s earlier films like Take the Money and Run and Bananas. My favourite moment from these earlier films is in Bananas. At the end of the film Woody marries his love interest played by Louise Lasser who was once upon a time his real-life love interest. The two go to bed to consummate the marriage but the ‘bout’ is shown on TV with two actual US TV commentators Howard Cosell, and Don Dunphy. Allen and Lasser get under the sheets and afterwards the two discuss the action with the interviewer as if they have just competed in a prizefight.

Despite his wonderful films, Woody Allen is a controversial character these days. His latest film lies unreleased, despite a deal with Amazon, and a similar fate has fallen to his memoirs. I recently read an interesting article about Woody and Woody’s memoirs, which were apparently dropped by publisher Hacher after a staff walk out. Journalist Hadley Freeman said ‘What a strange, through-the-looking-glass world we live in, when people who consider themselves to be liberals celebrate suppressing others’ words.’

Woody has been investigated for abusing his step daughter Dylan Farrow twice and declared innocent, although his now adult step daughter still claims Woody was an abuser. The abuse apparently relates to only one occasion and no other person has come forward to complain of abuse at Woody’s hands, unlike people like producer Harvey Weinstein, Michael Jackson or Jimmy Saville to name but three.

Freeman goes on to point out ‘It would have been one thing if Hachette had never agreed to publish Allen’s memoir in the first place. Fair enough; that’s a publisher’s prerogative. But for it to sign him, edit him and then fearfully drop him because some people object is a terrible precedent for a publisher to set.’

Click here to read the complete article in the Guardian.

YouTube

Despite being an avid video maker, I haven’t produced any great video works lately apart from the usual trailers that I use to plug my book, Floating in Space. As I’ve had a distinct lack of ideas, I’ve tended to continue making short video versions of my poems which keeps me busy and not only that, as a frustrated film director, there is nothing I like more than messing about with video, cutting and splicing and mastering sound effects.

Every so often I try to update the introductory video on my YouTube page. It’s nothing outstanding but I do like to try and make it reasonably exciting, so as to lure followers -and potential readers- into my clutches. Just recently I made a new version over on Animoto.com which is an online editing studio which comes with various templates themed for various types of project. My new video was pretty similar to the last one but I’d added a new block template which inserted a series of pictures fairly quickly. Perhaps that was the reason why, when it was uploaded to YouTube, they quickly deleted it as apparently it had infringed YouTube community guidelines involving spam, misleading metadata and scams!

Now the video in question may not have been Oscar material but it certainly wasn’t a scam or spam for that matter. You can’t see it on YouTube but here it is on Animoto.

YouTube were pretty quick to delete the video and send me an e-mail about it. They said I could appeal so I did so straight away, after all it’s a pretty innocuous video, it’s not offensive and it’s hardly spam. They sent me back another e-mail saying my appeal has been approved but the video is still not visible on my channel. Not only that, I couldn’t write back to YouTube to complain because their email would not accept replies. YouTube is like a big monolithic entity and they are actually pretty difficult to contact. I suppose I’ll just have to wait and hope that some person, some real person rather than a computer program, will look at my video and say ‘that looks OK, let’s reinstate it!’

I live in hope.


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Yet Another slice of my Life

Yes, it’s time to take a rest from books and classic TV and take a look at my own life again, not that there is much going on there but hopefully I can find something reasonably interesting to tell you about and stop you clicking away to a rival website for a while.

These days my life seems to be split into two, five days looking after my elderly mother who is 90 years old and suffering with dementia and then five free days with the lovely Liz in St Annes.

As I’m semi-retired I only work for three days out of nine but as I spend those with my mother my poor old brother has to do some extra caring when I am at work.

Sometimes, as is the case with many dementia sufferers, my mum can act pretty normally and then at other times she can be very difficult.

One night this week she woke me up 5 times with various issues and I was so tired when I came into work. That particular day was a busy day but I was in my favourite role, running the radio channel in the motorway control room where I work. It can be a difficult job especially when there are many incidents and you have to remember what is happening at each incident and prioritise the workload.

In one incident a few weeks back a driver was seriously injured and we had to close both carriageways of the motorway while the air ambulance landed and took away the casualty. Later he sadly died in hospital and it seemed to highlight to me the fragility of life; here was someone on the way home from work, his wife may have planned something special for tea, perhaps not. Either way I can imagine the dinner sitting there uneaten, left by his family who were perhaps expecting a mundane weekday evening rather than the complete upending of their lives.

I was glad that day to have had a busy day on the radio desk. My mind was focussed on my work rather than how my mother would behave later. That night she complained that my brother had not given her any food and that she was starving. She frequently says things like this as she cannot remember having eaten. Sometimes I try to prove to her she has had a meal, by showing her her plate, or the pan I cooked the food in, things like that. On this occasion I was about to make some supper anyway, so we both had a bacon sandwich together and she calmed down, had half a cup of hot milk and went quietly to sleep.

My brother and I frequently throw my mother’s comments back at each other. ‘These are not my clothes’ I declared to him the other day. He replied with ‘this isn’t my house!’

If we didn’t laugh in a situation like that I’m sure we would go quietly mad.

It’s always a relief to hand over to Jimmy after my five days. By the way, my brother is called Colin although I tend to call him Jimmy. I much prefer it to Colin.

The next day Liz and I were off for a short jolly at the Royal Clifton Hotel and Spa in Southport. We checked in after a short drive and were soon feeling the trained hands of a masseuse on our necks and shoulders. My masseuse asked me if the pressure was ok, did I need more or less? I answered that it was ok although this petite lady was pummelling my shoulders with a grip similar to that of a trained sumo wrestler. I’m not sure how she could have increased the pressure as it seemed pretty forceful anyway but, enjoyable though it was, I was glad when it was over. Later we dined in the hotel restaurant and decided to upgrade from the menu which was part of the offer Liz had purchased and chose from the à la carte menu. An extra £8 but well worth it and further offset by a £5 discount on a bottle of red.

Later after a second bottle to help wash down an excellent cheese board we returned to our room where I slept the sleep of the just and truly knackered.

The next day after breakfast it was time for some more pampering. A few laps in the pool and a dip in the Jacuzzi punctuated by various visits to the steam room left us feeling relaxed and clean. I do love a steam room especially when they have that stuff in the steam that clears out your nasal passages as well as your pores.

Later that evening after a substantial nosh at our friend Salvatore’s place we went over to the Cheshire Lines pub for the quiz there. It’s slightly more highbrow than our usual quiz back in St Annes but still an enjoyable one. Not only that, they serve my favourite drink in there, Theakston’s mild.

At the end of the quiz there is always a draw and the winner gets to answer a jackpot question. Last time we visited I drew the jackpot card and the 64,000 dollar question (actually £250) was who entered the US music charts straight in at number ? I can’t remember if there was a time scale to that question but I instantly thought of Elton John. When the 30 second clock began to tick though I started to wonder, maybe it was Elvis when he died in 1977. I wrote down my answer, Elvis Presley, the quiz master seemed to look a little relieved because the answer was . . . Elton John.

Maybe it was me but did the locals look a little too happy that I wasn’t taking away the jackpot?


Floating in Space is a novel by Steve Higgins set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.