Frozen in an F1 Barbecue Summer

When I first started this blog a few years back I used to post pretty randomly but after reading up and subscribing to a few blogging experts I felt that I should decide on a regular time to post. I chose 10am on a Saturday morning. The great thing about having that particular slot is that I can focus my writing towards it, it’s almost like being a professional writer and having a deadline for a newspaper or magazine column. The flip side is that when I’m not so well or haven’t any ideas I start worrying. What will I write about? What if I cant think of anything? So far everything has gone pretty well, the deadline actually gets me motivated to write. Maybe I need a deadline to help me with the follow up to Floating in Space!

Just then the phone rang. I checked my mobile and it was my editor, Issy Readiyet.

‘Issy, how are you?’

‘Steve, I’m great, how’s your new post coming? Is it ready yet?’

‘Well, I’m still working on it Issy, it’s still in the err developmental stage. I’ve got a working title though.’

‘What is it?’

‘Frozen in summer.’

‘What? That sounds a little cryptic. Not sure the readers would go for that. What’s it about?’

‘Well, it’s still a work in progress but it’s summer, and it’s really hot and I’ve got this . . .’

‘What?’

‘Well, I’ve still got a sore shoulder. A frozen shoulder . .’

‘Oh Steve, you’re not still on about that trapped nerve and the shoulder pain? Haven’t you written about that already?’

‘Well, yes but I think there’s still a little mileage in there and I could do with a little . .’

‘Sympathy? Come on, snap out of it Steve. Call yourself a writer? I need some copy and don’t forget we’ve got to sort out the graphics and images and maybe search for some video links. It’s not easy being an editor you know! Get on with it and don’t forget to change that title!’

I would have said ‘bye Issy’ but I was already listening to a dial tone.

Up here in the north west of England it’s been a hot week and last weekend it was one of the highlights of the year for me, the British Grand Prix. Here in the UK Formula One racing can only be seen live on Sky TV. I do have Sky, the basic Sky but being a member of that ancient and revered order, the order of tightwads, I really cannot break my solemn oath and just go and randomly pay for an expensive TV F1 package. The only alternative of course is to watch the highlights on Channel 4, the only terrestrial channel that broadcasts F1.

The big bonus for the British Grand Prix though is that it’s live, yes, actually live on Channel 4, and not only that, they are showing the practice sessions, the qualifying, (my favourite part) the sprint race (something new) as well as the actual race live. It’s the only race Channel 4 are allowed to broadcast live so as I have done a great deal of moaning about only getting to see the highlights I should be happy, shouldn’t I? Finally seeing an F1 race live in this new 2021 season which has been a great improvement on previous rather dull seasons. The flip side to this is that just lately a lovely summer has settled down on us here in the north west of England. Do I really want to be sat inside watching F1? Should I just record it and watch it later? That would defeat the object wouldn’t it? After all, as a true F1 fan I should really be watching it live.

Because of Covid and now also because of my sore shoulder (did I mention the trapped nerve and my shoulder pain?) we haven’t used our motorhome much this year. We did have a run out to Yorkshire a while back and a pub stop over before that but otherwise the only trip was a run out to the garage for the MOT. Liz had bought a small portable gas barbecue ready for our travels and it was lying unused in the corner so we thought it was time to give it a trial run.

(Editor’s note: Barbecues? Where are we going with this?) I do like barbecues but the flip side is that they are dirty and smelly and greasy. I always start off with some dry wood, pack in the charcoal and light up with some firelighters. Sometimes we’ll get a slow burner barbecue so we end up supping too much wine while we wait for things to get going. Other times we’ll get the reverse, a barbecue that catches quickly and voom, goes off in a big hot burn. That’s usually when we are expecting a slow burner and are still finishing off the salad and so when we sit down I realise I’m going to have to slap all the meat on quickly before the coals burn themselves out. The really annoying thing is when we are in the motorhome and I realise that after the barby has finished, I am somehow going to have to clean this horrible, greasy mess and get it packed away so we can move on.

So how have things gone with the gas barby? Pretty smoothly actually. None of that messing about with the coals and lighter fluid. The portable job snaps quickly together, slap in the calor gas cylinder, press the starter and hey presto, we are ready to barbecue. The other great thing about this one is that there is a water reservoir that catches all the grease and fat. Just swill that away somewhere in a corner of the garden, a quick wipe with a paper towel and we are all ready for next time. Barbecuing with gas, I love it!

(Editor’s note: you’re not giving me much here that can be linked to a film clip or video. We need some visual content to liven up this post!) Ok Issy, calm down, how about this: Author Ian Fleming had some trouble with his back and actually incorporated the experience into one of the James Bond books, Thunderball. Bond gets sent to a health farm called Shrublands. There, the inquisitive 007 notices a fellow guest has an interesting tattoo on his hand and decides to contact headquarters to see if they recognise it. The guest overhears this and decides Bond needs to be taught a lesson. The opportunity arises when Bond is placed on a traction machine that is supposed to stretch Bond’s back, just the sort of treatment I need! Anyway while Bond is on the machine it is suddenly ramped up to high speed and nearly breaks Bond’s back. Luckily Bond is rescued in time but later gets his revenge. That traction machine clearly made an impression on Ian Fleming.

I was so engrossed in the easy preparation for our upcoming barbecue I forgot about the Grand Prix. At about 4pm, a full hour after it started I went inside to see what was happening. One of the great inventions in the world of TV has to be hard drive recording. Don’t you just love it? You can actually start watching the race or indeed any programme while it is still recording. I started with the race build up and fast forwarded through all the team baloney about how the mechanics and engineers and everyone back at the factory had done a great job, blah blah blah. Paused for a moment when I thought will anyone actually say anything controversial? No was the answer.

I did stop for a moment with Daniel Riccardo, the Australian driver. Looking at his race team fireproof top and all the advertising on there I started to wonder whether it actually does those advertisers any good, sponsoring an F1 team? I mean who or what is Splunk? What do they do? What product do they make or what service do they provide? I’ve no idea, so do all the millions they pump into McLaren ever get a return? Does anyone think: Daniel had their logo on his shirt, I’ll buy their product? Nah, doubt it.

Ok, they have got their name in front of the public but they need to do a little more to start making use of that.

(Editor’s note: So how was the Grand Prix by the way?) Sorry Issy. After fast forwarding through the usual baloney which I must admit I quite used to like, we finally got to the nitty gritty. The green flag was waved, the red lights went out and Hamilton and Verstappen dived straight away into a great wheel to wheel battle. When they reached Copse corner, the two went for the same piece of tarmac and Verstappen was off into the barrier and Lewis lost his nose wing but managed to continue. That left Leclerc in the Ferrari out in front. Fast forward through all the accusations and counter accusations -Max was too aggressive, Lewis was too aggressive- blah blah blah. Lewis was able to take the restart but Max sadly wasn’t, his car being a total wreck. The race restarted and Lewis chased Leclerc all the way to the end of the race, took a ten second penalty and still won. An OK race and despite fast forwarding through most of it, it was quite exciting although as soon as Lewis took the chequered flag I was off out back to the sun.

Yes, Grand Prix out of the way and it was time to relax. A bottle of merlot had been warming gently in the sun and now it was time to test the wine. Liz poured our drinks and we took a sip, yes it was a cheeky little Spanish number, easy on the palate and just right to serve with steak, sausages, burgers and small kebabs all of which were on the menu that day. The great thing about the small gas barbecue was that instead of having to get up and keeping checking and turning the meat, out new gas barby perched happily on the table top just by Liz so she could easily reach out and turn the kebabs.

Obviously, I would have liked to have done the barbecuing myself rather than be waited on by the lovely Liz, but sadly, being partly crippled by neck and shoulder pain I wasn’t able to assist in the way I normally would. (Editor’s note: Baloney!)


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A Pain in the Neck (and Other Body Issues)

I’m not sure how I came to write about this subject but what the heck, I’ve started so I’ll finish as they say. What can I say about my body, that great big lump of flesh and bone that I drag out bed every morning? Well for a kick off I don’t think it’s quite fair that I got lumbered with this particular one. Why couldn’t I have one like Tom Cruise perhaps or even Arnold Schwarznegger? Yes ok, I know that I could have had a body like Arnold’s if I had spent a lot more time in the gym, it’s just that I’ve always found exercising a little boring.

Having said that a few years back I was handed a twelve-week freebie at the YMCA and Liz and I spent a little time down there once or twice a week, cycling, walking and weight lifting and it was, not exactly fun but interesting for a while. I particularly liked walking out of the gym with a little exercise high and feeling pretty pleased with myself and ever so slightly fitter.

Just lately I’ve found out that I have type 2 diabetes and before starting with medication my medical practitioner has given me three months to slim down and change my eating habits. I think I’ve done reasonably well so far; I’ve stopped my nightly nibble on chocolate and my daily biscuits every time I have a cup of tea. I’ve tried to reject potatoes and chips although I must admit I did have roast potatoes with last Sunday’s roast dinner, but then seriously, who can have a Sunday roast without roast potatoes?

I’m still struggling with a sore shoulder as I mentioned last week so I am continuing with my exercises and have moved on from extreme agony down to a more acceptable pain level. I’m tempted to add a picture of me wearing my cervical collar but no, let’s not go there. Having said that I’ll probably be posting that picture on Facebook in an attempt to get some internet sympathy.

As I mentioned in a post a few weeks back my eyesight has always been poor but just lately I’ve upgraded to a pair of varifocals and I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to read things without changing specs. It’s great whenever I troll through charity shops and I can actually see the writing on the CDs and books. Amazing!

A few years go I had a great urge to get my body into shape through cycling. Come to think of it, fitness was just a spinoff; the real reason I went cycling was to clip on my GoPro camera and shoot some video. After my mountain bike was stolen I dragged my old bike out of the garage. I spent a few minutes oiling the chain and adjusting the seat and handle bars when perhaps I should have spent a little more time.

One of the tyres was flat so after fitting a new inner tube I was ready for a quick test spin and luckily, as it turned out, popped on my helmet and gloves. As I went down the avenue I noticed that I hadn’t tightened up the handlebars enough, so I turned round and headed back. My big mistake was in not getting off the bike and walking back because the front wheel turned sharply, I turned the handlebars and of course nothing happened, except that I ended up in a heap on the pavement. Still, I had my helmet on, no head injuries and my natty little bike mitts had prevented any cuts on my hands. As I pushed the bike back home I noticed my leg hurting a little and later on my ankle swelled up. A two hour visit to casualty revealed no broken bones but I was pretty happy no one was around that afternoon to video my escapade and post it on you tube!

Some time later I tried again. Exercise is one thing but to be honest, I just like messing about with cameras and video and pretending to be the film director I always wanted to be. Anyway, after three laps of the immediate area and about forty minutes of camera video, it was time for a cuppa. Then it was time to spend days, weeks even, fiddling about on Windows Movie Maker, cutting and splicing and so on until I managed to produce a workable edit.

Editing can be a slow process but as long as you have a clear result in mind it can be very satisfying.

I do so like photography in the digital age. No expensive films, no waiting for the film to be developed and printed. No more expensive mistakes. Today, if you take a bad picture, delete it, take another in fact, take multiple exposures and just delete or edit the bad ones later.

Digital video is pretty much the same. Delete what you don’t like and start again. Even if what you have shot isn’t good, it can be saved by cutting or effects like slow motion. In the editing suite, build your video slowly, adding each scene and then later your soundtrack, adding layers to the original sound with effects, music and narration.

I remember editing in the VHS days, juggling different tracks on my sound mixer, having to cue each track and fade in when ready, keeping an eye on the monitor all the time. Once, in one of my airport videos I had to do a narration, fade down the original video soundtrack, pause while a helicopter flew into the shot, fade in a helicopter sound effect, fade in the next section of original sound while I narrated the next paragraph and finally, cue and fade in the music and then fade out the original sound. Today, with digital, all that is a step by step process.

Sorry, I seem to have rambled on a bit there so back to my body. One thing I would probably like to change is my hair. When I was younger I had a big, thick head of hair and I remember being quite shocked one day in the 1970’s when I decided to get a really good haircut. I’d gone down to the city centre in Manchester to a place called Paul Brendon’s Hair Design and asked for a cut like David Cassidy. Cassidy in case you either didn’t know or can’t remember was the star of a TV show called The Partridge Family. The show was a big hit, in fact it was such a gynormous success I’m not even sure that the TV producers were prepared for it. Cassidy became a huge star and his ‘group’, the fictional Partridge Family had a string of hit singles. Cassidy himself was a major heart throb with numerous young ladies screaming and swooning over him at concerts and personal appearances.

Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think that having a David Cassidy cut was going to get me a shed load of screaming females, although I wasn’t actually averse to that idea. I reckoned that if it happened I’d just deal with it on the day but I did think that having a haircut a little more stylish than my usual one was a good idea. After sorting my hair out and taking my cash, the barber -sorry, hair stylist- said just watch out, your hair’s going a bit thin on top. Thin on top? What on earth did he mean? He couldn’t mean I was losing my hair, could he? Surely not! Yes, I just rejected the obvious for quite a few years although what I could have done about it, I don’t know. If I was particularly vain, if there was something, some cream for instance that you could just rub on your head and would bring back your hair would I go for it? Of course!

I mentioned earlier about trying to get my weight down. I’ve tried to cut out carbohydrates. I haven’t succeeded totally but I have cut down quite a lot and until I hurt my neck had upped my walking schedule. My dad was a great walker. In fact, everywhere we went as children involved walking as dad didn’t have a car and couldn’t drive.

When he retired, he used to get up, have breakfast and then take the dog for a walk. He walked for miles and his dog Mickey, who was a pretty old dog then, used to be worn out when they returned home. Mickey would head straight for the water bowl and then drop down on the floor somewhere to recuperate, oblivious of everyone having to step over him as he dreamed his canine dreams.

Once, one Sunday, my Dad and I went for a drink together. Dad said he’d take me to the Griffin for a pint. ‘The Griffin?’ I asked. ‘Where’s the Griffin? There’s no pub round here called the Griffin?’

‘Oh yes, the Griffin. It’s not a bad pub. It’ll be a nice walk.’

Well, off we went, out of Wythenshawe where we lived, past Peel Hall and down towards Heald Green. Heald Green was a good thirty to forty minute walk and I remember saying, ‘look Dad, let’s go into the Heald Green hotel for a pint.’

‘No,’ he said. ‘The Griffin’s not far away now.’ So we walked and walked, past Heald Green and on towards Cheadle and eventually, after about an hour’s walk if not longer, we came to the Griffin. Inside there were a bunch of fellas who nodded to my Dad and he nodded in return. Up at the bar the barman came over and said ‘pint of mild Ralph?’ He’d been here before, apparently.

I was exhausted and gasping for a drink and I was probably hanging onto the bar for dear life when my dad asked what was I drinking?

‘Pint of lager please,’ I said. Dad nodded to the barman then looked back at me. ‘Not a bad stretch of the legs was it?’ he said.

Another form of exercise I do like is swimming. Usually at this time of year we will either have parked up our motor home by a plan d’eau, a French swimming lake or have rented a nice holiday home complete with swimming pool. There Liz and I will be doing some regular swimming and keeping pretty fit. Alas, the pandemic has sadly put the blockers on our regular French trip. Even if it hadn’t though, I wouldn’t be up to driving down to France, not with my sore neck and shoulder. Pity though because I reckon a little swimming might have loosened up my shoulder. A few years back I opened up my camera case in France to find my new GoPro camera complete with underwater housing. What could I possibly film with that I thought? Well, there was always the swimming pool:

I’m hoping that I will be able to do some more walking soon. The thing is though I might need a whole new wardrobe by then. I noticed that last week when Liz and I went out to Quiz Night at our local pub, my favourite pair of trousers which at one time were a little on the tight side now seemed a little slack. I normally wear them without a belt but now I have had to not only wear a belt but also have added a new notch to tighten them up. Yes, sometimes this body can be a bit of a pain in the neck.

That reminds me, time to take off this neck collar and do my neck exercises. . .


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Another Slice of My Locked Down Life

The lockdown has almost come to an end here in the UK this week. There are still some restrictions and it’s still advisable to continue wearing a mask in public and to keep washing your hands. If anything, at least we may benefit from the increased hygiene standards in future. I’m lucky in that I haven’t had the coronavirus but not only that, the winter is usually a bad time for me because I always, always end up with the flu or at least a very bad cold. This year I haven’t and that must surely be due to the continued hand washing and mask wearing.

What is also interesting is that we are now ok to fly to Australia and New Zealand. That’s great but the flip side is that those two particular places aren’t willing to let us in yet. Oh well!

The bad weather here in the UK is getting me down. We can’t go out much and inside it’s the usual routine, surfing the internet and watching TV. We decided to take a chance on the weather one day and combine the dropping off of Liz’s car at the garage to fix a faulty electric window, with a short trip to a pub that has outside dining. Liz had contacted the pub, the Midge Hall in Leyland beforehand to ask if we could stay the night in the car park in our motorhome. The landlord seemed ok with that so we parked up in a nice corner. I was glad to see that the pub had a couple of outdoor covered areas. One looked like it had either been made especially for the current coronavirus situation or had been nicely adapted from a former smoking area and another one just by the pub entrance. The ruling that week was that pubs and restaurants can open but customers must stay outdoors.

The Midge Hall

We had arranged to meet Liz’s cousin and her husband there and we had a lovely evening as well as a nice meal. The weather was warmish and it did cool off later but not unbearably so. We dined early so we didn’t stay out late, but it was good to be out and about again and good to be social, to sit at a table with friends just having some chit chat.

Our motorhome hasn’t had much use lately and it was good to get some miles under the belt on the van and give the battery a good charging. We saw quite a few motorhomes on the road and each one we saw, each one, gave us a wave. Their occupants too were glad to be back on the road I suppose.

Just recently at the Oscars, the big movie winner was Nomadland. Nomadland is set in the USA and is about a woman whose husband dies and then she loses her job because the sole employer in her town closes down. She sells up and decides to buy a van to live in so she can travel the country searching for work. I’ve not seen the film but it certainly looks interesting and I look forward to watching it when it either comes out on DVD or I see it on TV. The last Oscar winner I bought on DVD was The Shape of Water. It was universally praised but the fact is, it’s an utterly dreadful film and I’m hoping Nomadland will be better.

I suppose there is something romantic about living a nomadic life in a campervan or motorhome, stopping at a great location and then moving on when you feel it’s time to go. I’ve always loved our trips to France and we’ve found some great spots, all by lakes, plan d’eau they call them in France, lakes where you can swim. I have to say I find myself worrying sometimes; I like places where there are other vans and that always gives me a better feeling of security. Sometimes in the dark of the night when we are alone at a deserted spot and I hear noises I start to worry. The flip side is that after a day reading and swimming, it’s great to light the barbecue and settle down with a sizzling steak and some wine. Another lovely moment was last October on the Isle of Skye when we found an excellent but pricey fish and chip shop just by our park up point.

Parked by a lake in France

Could I live like that permanently? I’m not sure. In France I could perhaps drive further south when the weather turned cold and even spend the winter in Spain. That would have been easy pre-Brexit but I’m not sure how it would pan out now. A while back I started reading a blog about a woman who chose to live in a van for a year in the USA. Her big problem was the winter. I forget which state she lived in, although it might have been Oregon. The blog was called I failed at van life. Here are the 11 biggest mistakes I made. The biggest mistake was her choice of van. Looking at the pictures on the blog she chose a pick up with a camper unit bolted onto the back. She had to exit the car to go into the van area and there wasn’t a lot of space but the thing she really couldn’t take was the cold. When I say the cold, there were a few pictures showing her in what looked to me like arctic conditions. The flip side was also the heat of the summer. Think it gets hot in your car in the summer? Imagine trying to live and sleep in those stuffy conditions. Difficult but at least in our van when we experienced the heat of a French summer, we were able to stay outside until the temperatures eased but even then, the van interior was still warm and sleeping was difficult. On a couple of really hot occasions Liz wanted to leave the van door open at night but security conscious Steve didn’t. I fell asleep with the door closed but I’m pretty certain that soon after Liz opened it up. Happily, there were no roaming villains operating in the Loire at the time and we both survived.

Another easing of the lockdown came this week on the 17th when we could actually enter the interior of our beloved pubs and restaurants. Liz and I had a booking at a place called Ego in Lytham for the 17th, made many months ago and it was wonderful to sit at our regular table and be served by Ego’s friendly staff. The steak was excellent and the surroundings were warm and convivial.

Anyway, the next day it was time to forget about the cold because Tuesday the 18th emerged warm and sunny, the perfect day for some light gardening and a bit of a read out on the patio. Could even have been barbecue weather. Pity it was my back to work day!


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A Matter of Perspective

Quite a while back, probably over two years ago, I seemed to be having problems focussing my right eye. My right eye is actually my good eye, the other, the left one is what my optician has always called my lazy eye. Years ago as a schoolboy I had to watch TV for an hour a day with a patch over my good eye. This was supposed to make my left eye, the lazy one, pull its way a bit more. That was successful to a point but the right one has always been better.

I called the doctor and he recommended that I go to see my optician. I called Specsavers who could not fit me in at first but when I mentioned the eye problems they asked me to come in straight away. I had an eye test and the problem was resolved. I needed a new prescription, no health issues at all, so they said. I wasn’t happy so a more senior optometrist was called in and he concurred, all I needed was a new prescription.

I still wasn’t happy. At the time my right eye seemed to be all gummy and I felt that perhaps I had some sort of infection. I started rinsing that eye with a salt water solution and after a week it all seemed to clear up. I have to admit I was a little scared for a while, after all, it wasn’t as if it was my bad eye, my good eye was the problem one. What would have happened if it had gone worse, if I had lost the sight in that eye? I wouldn’t be able to drive, I wouldn’t be able to get to work. No more motorhoming holidays. It would have been difficult to even write with just my bad eye. Yes, looking back, that was actually a serious health scare, perhaps even the scariest health scare I’ve ever had.

I went back to pick up my new specs about ten days later and surprise surprise, I couldn’t see a thing through them. No wonder! I’d had an eye test when my right eye wasn’t working properly. I still think I had an eye infection that they hadn’t spotted in the opticians. Another eye test followed. It was with a new fangled gadget that I had to put my head in and the optician changed lenses with a touch of a button. I wasn’t comfortable but at least my eye seemed better and a few weeks later I had a brand new pair of specs. They weren’t perfect but at least I could see pretty well.

This year I had another eye test at a different opticians. This time I went to Boots. The optician seemed to be a little more precise than the previous ones and not only that, he gave me an eye test in the traditional way, you know with the frames in which he slips in different lenses and ask things like ‘is this better or worse, is this clearer or not?’

All seemed pretty good until I saw the prices of the glasses they were selling. Being a card carrying tightwad I declined to pay those high street prices and just then found various internet stores selling bargain priced specs. I sometimes find it a little creepy when you do a few searches on Google for something; specs, an electric saw, a digital camera or whatever and the next thing you know, every site that you visit that carries advertising, all you can see are ads for specs, electric saws and digital cameras. Just shows you what those little inoffensive things called cookies do when you let them into your personal cyber world.

Anyway, I bought a pair of specs from a company called Goggles4u. They are based in the USA and looked pretty cheap. Almost just as I was about to press the buy now button, a discount voucher pinged up on my screen and I was able to buy my first internet spectacles at a very low price indeed.

I waited a hell of a long time for them but in the current Covid wary world there wasn’t much else to do except watch TV, listen to music and look for more things to buy on eBay.

One day my new specs arrived. I tried them on and the result was amazing. I wasn’t struggling to see small things anymore, everything was pin sharp. Watching the new F1 season opener on TV I could actually see those little boxes they display on the broadcast showing the current standings and lap times and what tyres each driver was using. To those of you with 20 20 vision you might not understand but seeing perfectly and sharply is nothing short of wonderful. The great thing with my new specs is that I clicked the box for what I’ve always called Reactolite lenses, actually photochromic lenses that react to bright light and darken when it’s sunny. Believe me, I was going round taking in things as if I’d never seen them before.

Fashion is a pretty big part of spectacles. Lots of top designers produce trendy spectacle frames and the resulting product can have a fairly hefty price tag. When I was a school kid growing up on a council estate I always wore national health spectacles with national health frames. You know the ones I mean, the ones with black plastic frames. Sometimes I got called names like ‘speccy four eyes’. I never liked those frames but as I grew up I got the chance to actually have some trendier frames. I always liked those metal rimmed frames. I was probably still at school when I got my first pair. Only after moaning and begging and pleading to my mother. She probably bought those glasses just to shut me up.

One day when I had left school and could afford to pay for my frames I bought some aviator styles. I always loved that aviator shape you know, that sort of stylish aerodynamic looking frame. I even had a pair with smoked graduated lenses. That’s just an excuse to show you my favourite picture of myself. I was 21 and had the whole world at my feet. I was in Paris having just packed my job in and I was having the time of my life with one of my best friends, and I loved those glasses. A lot of years later when my optician recommended a pair of reading glasses I had those same aviator frames turned into reading glasses.

Now that I have turned to the internet I am the proud owner of quite a few new pairs of specs. My favourites are probably the rimless ones but they do have a bit of an annoying element. Almost but not quite outside my vision to the right and to the left are two hinges that connect to the spectacle arms. I can’t quite see them but they are there and they are annoying.

Of course you might be thinking why even bother with glasses? It’s the 21st century, I could get contact lenses or even have laser treatment. Laser treatment? Like when they fire laser beams into your eyes? I don’t think so. I’ve worn glasses from ever since I can remember so I think I’ll stick with them if you don’t mind. One of my earliest memories was as a very young schoolboy going for that regular meeting with the school nurse or ‘Nitty Nora’ as we referred to her. For us spectacle wearers the first thing Nitty used to ask was to take off our glasses and place them on the table. That was OK if you put them down face up but bad if you set them face down because that way the lens could get scratched or marked by the table top.

Elton John is probably the most famous spectacle wearer of all time. He even once wore a pair of specs with little windscreen wipers. John Lennon is another famous spectacle wearer. He wore those famous round glasses that you will see if you just type ‘Lennon glasses’ into Google.

The glasses he was wearing when he was shot dead in 1980 were used by Yoko Ono to protest against gun violence. She also used the picture on her solo album Season of Glass which I’ve always found hugely shocking but then shock was an emotion that she and Lennon used frequently in their work.

Superman wore glasses too. Clark Kent, Superman’s alter ego wore a set of black plastic specs as a disguise. How Lois Lane who worked with Clark at the Daily Planet newspaper never noticed that Clark was just Superman wearing a suit and a pair of glasses, I’ll never know. The funny thing is the glasses that I always hated, those black plastic ones that Clark and my younger self wore, are today pretty fashionable.

Which pair shall I wear today then?


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Some Thoughts on Books and Reading

I really do love books and reading. My idea of heaven is lying by a pool in somewhere like Lanzarote with the sun shining and a book in my hand. What is important for a good read is time. It’s alright to read a book on your lunch break or on the bus travelling home after work but to really get into a book, some uninterrupted time is important. So, what is really so good about reading? You, the reader must like reading otherwise you probably wouldn’t be reading this but for me reading is about connecting with worlds I will never see and connecting with my own world too; finding that I’m not as unique or as different as I had thought and that other people have had similar experiences to me.

Looking through a box of my old books I found a book I had read many years ago. It’s called the Wooden Horse and it’s a classic wartime escape book. The author conveys vividly the boredom of incarceration during WWII as a prisoner of war and the feelings that time was just slipping away and also the petty arguments that arose when confined with other people. Escape was on the minds of many but digging an escape tunnel was difficult as there was such a long way to tunnel. The huts were deliberately placed well away from the camp perimeter. One day, one of the men had an idea, what if they could start the tunnel nearer the wire? They hit on the idea of making a vaulting horse, putting a couple of men inside and then digging while their fellow prisoners exercised above.

The Wooden Horse was written by one of the actual escapees, Eric Williams. He was an RAF pilot shot down over Germany and imprisoned in 1942 and in 1950 the book was made into a classic WWII film.

As a child I remember reading books at night in bed before going to sleep and arguing with my brother who wanted the light turned out. Sometimes I’d read under the covers with a torch.

There was a small library a short ten-minute walk from my old house and I used to spend many an early evening there with my mother and brother. I remember a particular series of books I used to read when I was very young about someone called Mr Grimpwinkle.

A quick search on Google showed my memory had not failed me and there was such a series of books. They were written by a lady called Joan Drake. One example was Mr Grimpwinkle’s Marrow published in 1959. The going price on Abebooks was £148.95, quite a considerable sum for a book. The author, Joan Drake, seems to have published quite a few children’s books but I couldn’t find out anything more about her. I did actually fancy buying a copy of Mr Grimpwinkle’s Marrow just for nostalgic reasons but £149 is a lot to pay for nostalgia.

Another book I particularly remember was one I got for Christmas one year. It was two stories in one book. I forget the title and the author but one part was the story of Robin Hood and the other was about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The end of both stories has always struck me. In Robin Hood, Robin lies on his death bed and fires a last arrow asking to be buried wherever the arrow lands. That could have been tricky for Robin’s merry men but as far as we know everything went to plan and Robin was laid to rest somewhere, I assume, in Sherwood forest. When Arthur lies dying, he entrusts one of his lieutenants with the sword Excalibur and tasks him to throw the sword into a lake. The knight, who I believe was Sir Bedivere, wasn’t happy with throwing away such an excellent sword so he hid it. When Arthur asked what had happened and Sir Bedivere replied ‘nothing’, Arthur knew he was lying. Eventually the knight was persuaded to follow Arthur’s instructions and saw that Excalibur was caught by the lady of the lake, brandished three times then disappeared into the waters.

Now that is a book I would like to read again and ever since that first read many years ago I have always been interested in Robin and King Arthur.

The story of Robin Hood has been made into many films. A recent one from 2010 was Robin Hood which starred Russell Crowe as Robin and was directed by Ridley Scott. I’ve only seen it once but it was a pretty good film. Another version from 1991 starred Kevin Costner. Robin Hood Prince of Thieves was a highly enjoyable film if you can overlook Costner’s American accent. Alan Rickman plays a slightly over the top Sheriff of Nottingham and the film is well worth watching.

Douglas Fairbanks made the original version of Robin Hood in 1922. It was the very first film to have a Hollywood premiere which was held at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on October 18th 1922. I’ve always thought that this was the film in which Fairbanks slides down a huge curtain by slashing it with his sword but after a quick internet check it looks like that was The Black Pirate from 1926.

Alan Hale played Little John in Fairbank’s version and interestingly, he played the same role in the later Errol Flynn version The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938.

Flynn’s version is probably the definitive film of Robin Hood. It was shot in Technicolor and starred Flynn alongside Olivia de Havilland as Lady Marian and Basil Rathbone as Guy of Gisbourne. Claude Rains played Prince John who plots to steal the throne from King Richard who is away at the Crusades. Michael Curtiz directed.

King Arthur and the legend of the Knights of the Round Table has also inspired quite a few films. King Arthur and the Legend of the Sword from 2017 was probably the latest. It was directed by Guy Ritchie and stars Charlie Hunnam (never heard of him myself) and Jude Law.

There was a version called First Knight from 1995 starring the highly over rated Richard Gere and a 2004 version simply called King Arthur with Clive Owen as Arthur. ‘A gritty attempt to update Arthurian legend’ said the one review I found on Google.

There was a cartoon version, the Sword in the Stone released in 1963 and a musical, Camelot from 1967 but my favourite film adaptation is Excalibur directed by John Boorman. Nicol Williamson plays an impressive Merlin and the film is an absorbing mix of sorcery, legend and fantasy all remaining fairly true to Le Morte d’Arthur, the book published by Thomas Mallory in 1485.

Under normal circumstances I might go on to talk further about my favourite books but I have done that already. I think I did my top ten favourite books in two parts a few weeks back. At various points in my blogging life I’ve written about David Copperfield, The Great Gatsby and Lost Horizon, my three all time favourite books. I’ve also written a few posts about James Bond, the UK’s top secret agent but I’d like to focus on one of the Bond books, Goldfinger.

Back in the early 1960’s Harry Saltzman bought the film rights for the Bond books. He formed a partnership with fellow producer Albert Broccoli and they cast Sean Connery as Bond and in 1962 produced the first Bond movie, Doctor No. I was a schoolboy back then and had never seen the films but there was a great deal of hype about them on television. So much so that I went down to the library to read one of the books. There was only one in stock at the time and it was The Man with the Golden Gun, one of the worst books in the series. The author, Ian Fleming, had passed away before finishing the final draft of the book which accounts for the poor quality. Luckily, my uncle brought round a box of paperbacks for my dad to read and one was a cheap paperback version of Goldfinger. I read it, thought it was wonderful and embarked on a mission to buy all the other Bond books.

At school in English class our teacher had asked us to bring in a book with a vivid description of someone and my choice was Goldfinger. The book is about a man called Auric Goldfinger, a rich businessman who is suspected of smuggling gold. Bond is tasked to find out more and Fleming gives the reader a particularly compelling description of Goldfinger.  Fleming describes him as having a body seemingly put together with parts of other people’s bodies. I always thought that was pretty good. Fleming used to write his first drafts of a book and then add in all sorts of details afterwards like the vodka martinis that James Bond liked so much and the Sea Island cotton shirts that Bond favours in the novels. It was actually Fleming who wore those particular shirts and who drank vodka martinis and also preferred scrambled eggs for breakfast. Many people have speculated who Bond was based on and my feeling has always been that in fact it was Ian Fleming himself.

My current read is a book I mentioned last week, Charlie Chaplin and his Times by Kenneth S Lynn. Chaplin was a music hall entertainer working for the great impresario Fred Karno. Karno regularly sent teams of entertainers to the USA and while there Chaplin was invited to make a film for Mack Sennett, the famous producer of comedy films. Chaplin’s films proved to be enormously popular and so Chaplin moved on to different studios, all for better and better money until he established his own studio. I’ve always found the early days of Hollywood to be fascinating and this book is no exception.

Which books are you reading?


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Life but Not as We know it

 

lifeThis week the lockdown has eased a little here in the UK. Groups of six can now meet together in public places and soon we will be able to go to the pub once again, as long as we stay outside. No doubt pubs who don’t already have beer gardens or some sort of outside area will be scrambling to get one set up. It will be nice to go down to the pub or restaurant again and take another step towards normality.

Once again I’ve spent a few days at my mother’s house, checking that everything is ok, tidying the garden up and so on. As I am alone here this should be the perfect time to write. After all, what could be better for a writer; quiet, solitude and my trusty laptop? One other thing that is important is a writing routine and a few ideas. Of course, if I was a professional writer, let’s say a newspaper columnist for instance, my editor would surely be on my back asking for my next article.

I can just imagine a scene like something out of All the President’s Men, the 1976 movie about the reporters who broke the Watergate story at the Washington post. There’s a nice scene there that goes like this:

EDITOR: Bernstein! Is that story ready yet?

BERNSTEIN: Yes, I’ve finished it.

EDITOR: Let me have it then.

BERNSTEIN: I will. It just needs polishing.

I tried to find the video of that scene but failed. Here’s the trailer instead:

I do have a few articles or I should say blog post drafts, that need polishing. Fifteen actually. I think of them as my stand bys. Posts I work on when I just haven’t got any idea what to write about. Sometimes I will look at one, get an idea or an angle, a new way of looking at the subject and then I’m off and I actually finish, or get closer to finishing the post. Other times I just end up adding another draft that will probably never get finished.

This week I had a plan. I always seem to wake up at 7:30 no matter what. At home I usually just nod off back to sleep but here at my mother’s house I rarely seem able to do that. So, here’s the plan: wake at 7:30. A quick clean of my teeth and splash a little water on my face. Back to bed. Check my emails and social media. Then back to the bathroom for a shave and a proper wash, downstairs for breakfast and ready to get writing. Great, there is nothing like having a plan, now to put it into action.

Sunday. I wake up and check the time. It’s 8:30. 8:30? Wow, I’ve actually had a good sleep for a change. OK. Clean teeth and back to check out my emails. Now the big mistake there is that recently I’ve subscribed to Medium. It’s a story website and there is always some interesting story I want to read. There are numerous true crime stories that I like. In particular I do like reading about cold cases; old police murder cases that are now being solved by new DNA technology. It must be great for the families and the detectives to see crimes that were thought to be finished and unsolved, now being given a new lease of life by technology.

This week I watched a TV documentary about a famous cold case, the disapearance of Suzy Lamplugh. Suzy was an estate agent who left work to meet someone wanting to look at a property. The only clue was that Suzy had left a note in her diary that she was to meet a ‘Mr Kipper’ on the 28th July, 1986 in Fulham, London. She was due to meet Mr Kipper at a property at Shorrolds Rd at 12:45. She went to meet him and was never seen again. Her car was found half a mile away from the property at Stevenage Road, also in Fulham.

suzylamplugh

Picture courtesy Wikipedia

Witnesses saw Suzy with someone at the Shorrolds Road property; a smartly dressed man with a bottle of wine or champagne with a fancy wrapping. Later another witness saw Suzy in a BMW in Stevenage Road. Nothing was ever found and despite reinvestigation in 1998 and 2000, Suzy was never traced.

In 2000 it was suggested that convicted rapist and murderer John Cannan could have been the culprit. Cannan looks startlingly similar to a photofit picture produced by Police, of the man Suzy met at Shorrolds Road. Cannan denied being the murderer but he was staying in a hostel for released prisoners not far away at the time and others at the hostel said that Cannan used to leave at night through a window. Cannan visited pubs and restaurants in the area and could have seen Suzy there, in fact she had lost her checkbook and a local pub called Suzy to say they had found it the day she disappeared.

It was all rather shocking and the programme left me fairly convinced that Cannan was the villain although the man himself, still serving time on another murder charge, denies everything. Suzy’s parents sadly never lived to see the crime solved but they did establish the Suzy Lamplugh Trust that helps people with their personal safety and also runs the National Stalking Helpline.

Anyway, back to my personal writing plan. After that late start it was nearly 10 so I dragged my lazy behind out of bed and made it down to the kitchen. I hurriedly sorted out some egg and bacon ready to eat during Star Trek, the original series on the Horror channel. Star Trek however wasn’t on. It must have just finished because I realised just then that it’s Spring and we have now moved to BST, British Summer Time and it was actually eleven o’clock, not ten!

Come to think of it, they don’t show Star Trek on a Sunday, it’s just on Monday to Friday so there’s my whole blog post blown out of the water. Anyway using the power vested in me by WordPress what I think we’ll do is just fast forward to Monday at 10. There I was eating pretty much the same breakfast -OK, I’d thrown a sausage in and a few beans but what the heck, variety is the spice of life in these highly irregular Covid 19 times.

Let’s start again. There I was with substantially the same breakfast on Monday ready to eat and watch Star Trek.

I do love Star Trek, in particular the first episodes starring William Shatner as Captain James T Kirk. Forget Captain pointy head Picard, Kirk is a proper captain and by 10:30 he will usually have blasted a number of aliens with his phaser (a sort of ray gun) and done some pretty serious kissing of any beautiful girl, alien or otherwise, within a 100 yard area. In the episode I watched, Kirk decided that the only way to get free from a planet where androids had imprisoned him was to show the androids that there was more to life than working in an underground prison. He gave the tonsils of one android lady a good work out and lo and behold, that sent her into some serious confusion. She then encountered another android who clearly was in need of some snogging software as he wasn’t so keen on kissing, so she gave him a quick blast of her ray gun, enabling Kirk to once again take control and show everyone involved that messing with James T Kirk is not a good idea.

It just so happens that William Shatner has reached the venerable age of 90 this week so it was good to read in the media that he is still going strong. Wonder if there is any chance of him playing Kirk again just one last time?

Anyway, back to the plan. You know, the one I was talking about earlier, the writing plan, up early have breakfast and then write stuff. Well after Star Trek I thought I might just check to see if any more emails had landed on my virtual doorstep. One was a newsletter from the Guardian newspaper. I’ve signed up for a few newsletters from the Guardian; one for films and another about books. I get one every week and there are a whole list of bookish articles about various book related topics. Usually I have a quick scan and if there is nothing of any interest I just hit the delete button. This week there was a post about a lady called Vivian Gornick. I’ve never heard of the lady but apparently she is a journalist and memoirist and in the book section the Guardian hit her with their regular bunch of questions so I thought I’d just see if I could answer those questions myself.

What book am I currently reading?

Well just lately I’m really fascinated by the silent film era as you can see from my Book Bag post a few weeks back. I’m reading Charlie Chaplin and His Times by Kenneth S Lynn. It’s a really interesting read about Chaplin and the author, who happens to be a really great researcher, checks out all the various stories in Chaplin’s autobiography and compares them to actual records. All fascinating stuff about the early days of film making.

What book changed your life?

Not sure about that one. Did any book change my life? Well I’ll have to say David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. That changed my life in that it opened up my mind to how an author could take his reader on such an incredible journey and manage a story in such a way that the reader could experience it and feel almost as if he was living the narrative with the writer. You’ve guessed by now I just love that book.

What book do I think is most overrated?

That’s another tough question and I’d have to answer Wuthering Heights. I read something ages ago about 100 books I should read before I die so I picked a copy up in my local charity shop, back in the days when we could go into shops, and read it. I should say tried to read because I just thought it was a little dull. Sorry, I know it’s a classic but it just didn’t do it for me.

The last book that made me laugh.

I think it would have to be The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. You might have seen the TV series with Leonard Rossiter playing the part of Reggie Perrin. I’m not sure which came first, the book or the TV show but it’s a really funny book.

The book I couldn’t finish.

This has to be Catch 22 the novel by Joseph Heller. One of my friends gave it me and said it was brilliant and I had to read it. I tried but I just couldn’t get into it.

I guess this must have taken me into lunchtime. I was feeling a little hungry round about then. I suppose that when you start working like a real writer with a writing plan you must need a little sustenance to keep you going. What I needed was a corned beef sandwich and a large cup of tea with maybe a chocolate biscuit on the side. I made my way into the kitchen to sort out that little feast but just then the phone rang and I’m guessing the call was from an alternate universe because it was my editor yelling down the phone:

EDITOR: Where the heck is that blog post you promised me?

ME: That blog post? Oh yes, I finished it.

EDITOR: Where the hell is it then?

ME: It’s just . . . er . . . I’m just . . polishing it!


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Money, the Lottery and Three Very Rich Men

Quite a while ago, I pondered in another post what I might do if I should win a lot of money in the lottery. I thought about it quite a bit and came up with the usual answers like new home, new car, holiday homes and so on. Maybe a new laptop or stand-alone PC. The fact is, not being used to money and not having particularly expensive tastes I probably wouldn’t have much of a clue. At home I have a whole lot of collectable things, model cars, antique telephones, books and DVDs so I could easily find myself being like the character in the film Citizen Kane, buying lots of things and having them stored somewhere. Would I be affected by a big win? I can see the headlines now: Northern Lottery winner says his 32-million-pound win won’t affect him. But of course, that wouldn’t necessarily be true. How did big money affect others? Let’s take a look at three multi-millionaires.

Howard Hughes.

Once upon a time Howard Hughes was the richest man in the world. In today’s society being the richest man requires some serious wealth and Howard Hughes ticked all the financial boxes you can think of. He inherited his father’s tool company when he was very young. Too young in fact to take control but he found a law that said if he could prove he was capable of running the company then he could take control. He proved he could and did just that, took control. His father had designed a tool bit that was essential to America’s oil industry but instead of selling the drill bit he patented it and then rented it out. Howard Hughes though had other ambitions that did not involve oil or drilling but the profits from the Hughes’ Tool Company were vital for his ambitions in aviation and the movies.

Hughes combined those two interests in making the WW1 movie ‘Hell’s Angels’ about fighter pilots and for the shoot he assembled the largest private air force in the world. Towards the end of the shooting, sound pictures made their appearance so what did Howard do? He re shot the entire film with sound equipment!

Another movie Hughes made that is famous, or perhaps infamous, was the 1943 Movie ‘Outlaw’ starring Jane Russell. Hughes appeared to be obsessed with Jane’s breasts, even to the extent of designing a new bra for her and re shooting a famous close up of her time after time. Hughes clearly had some psychological issues; he was a compulsive, obsessive man. He usually had the same meal when he went out with one of the many starlets he courted. Jane Greer recounted in a TV interview how Hughes would eat things in the same order, the peas first, then the potatoes and finally the meat. Once when they dined Hughes came back to the table and Jane noticed his shirt was wet. Hughes had spilt something onto his shirt so he washed the shirt in the men’s room, rinsed and squeezed it out, then put it back on.

In the 1940’s, Hughes designed and built a prototype large transport aircraft for the US military. The aircraft, nicknamed the ‘Spruce Goose,’ was made entirely of wood due to wartime restrictions on aluminium and was not completed until 1947 after the war was over. Hughes was called to testify about the project before a senate committee investigating his use of government funds. The investigation distressed Hughes enormously and led to his retreat from the public eye.

As his mental health deteriorated, Hughes retreated into a world of blacked out penthouse suites and midnight telephone calls to his army of assistants, some of whom were private investigators keeping close tabs on anyone Hughes had an interest in, particularly starlets he had signed to personal contracts and his girlfriends like Katherine Hepburn or Jean Peters whom he later married.

The incredible thing is despite his illness, he and his company produced aircraft for the US government, including the ‘Spruce Goose’ mentioned above, many of which he test flew himself. However, in July, 1946, Hughes crashed while testing his XF11 reconnaissance plane. The aircraft crashed in Beverly Hills and Hughes was seriously injured. He survived but remained addicted to morphine for the rest of his life. His company also produced the Glomar Explorer, an undersea recovery craft for the CIA and it was part of a plan to raise a sunken Soviet nuclear sub in an effort to learn the USSR’s nuclear secrets

If you want to know more about Howard Hughes my favourite movie about him is not the Aviator, the Scorcese/ Di Caprio movie, good though it is, but an old TV mini-series based on a book by Noah Dietrich, ‘Howard, The Amazing Mr Hughes.’  Tommy Lee Jones gives a great performance as Hughes in the film.

Noah Dietrich was once Hughes’ chief executive and financial advisor. He resigned after becoming more and more unhappy with Hughes’ bizarre behaviour. In later years Bob Maheau, a former FBI man employed by Howard, experienced much the same thing; numerous obsessive memos, midnight phone calls and so on.

Hughes died in 1976, cocooned from the world by morphine and the close attention of his Mormon aides. Despite his wealth Hughes was emaciated and underfed, addicted to drugs which his aides rationed in order for them to manipulate him. Surely, final proof that money is not everything.

Robert Maxwell.

Maxwell was born Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch in 1923 in Czechoslovakia. He escaped to France before the Nazi invasion and joined the Czechoslovakian army. After the fall of France he was attached to a British unit and fought in the allied invasion achieving the rank of captain and winning the Military cross. Maxwell was Jewish and lost his family in the Nazi holocaust. He became a UK citizen after the war and changed his name to Robert Maxwell. Using his contacts in the allied occupation, he became the British and US distributer for a series of scientific books and after acquiring a major share in the Permagon Press, built it up into a major publishing house.

Maxwell served as a British MP for a while but after losing his seat he carried on building his business empire. He bought various other companies, one of them becoming the Maxwell Communications Corporation, Later he bought the Mirror Newspapers Group in the UK and various other companies in the USA. In 1991 he bought the New York Daily News.

As well as his business activities, Maxwell was rumoured to have links with British intelligence and the Israeli Secret Service, Mossad. Maxwell denied all these claims although at his funeral many serving and former heads of the Mossad were in attendance.

In his later life he seemed to cut a sad figure. An old BBC documentary I watched recently claimed he had developed an obsession with a female assistant who later left his employ.

Beset by legal troubles he missed a meeting with the bank of England over his default on a 50-million-pound loan and instead sailed in his yacht, the Lady Ghislane to the Canary Islands. He was alone on his yacht apart from the crew. The BBC documentary showed him visiting the islands on an earlier trip and dining alone.

On the 5th November 1991 he was found to be missing from the yacht and his body was later found floating in the ocean. It was speculated that while urinating over the side of the ship as he frequently did, he suffered a heart attack and fell overboard.

After his death Maxwell’s companies collapsed owing huge amounts of money. It was also revealed that Maxwell had tried to save the impending collapse by secretly using hundreds of millions of pounds from his companies’ pension funds.

Maxwell was buried on the Mount of Olives in Israel and his funeral there was attended by the Israeli Prime Minister, various serving and former heads of Israeli intelligence and by many dignitaries and politicians.

His daughter, Ghislaine was recently in the news due to her involvement with Jeffrey Epstein and a sex trafficking scandal. She was arrested in July 2020 and is still in custody awaiting trial.

J Paul Getty.

J Paul Getty also had the dubious honour, like Howard Hughes, of being at one time the richest man in the world. I became interested in Getty after watching the Ridley Scott film All the Money in the World. It’s about the kidnapping of J Paul Getty III which I remember quite vividly from the news in 1973. Getty’s grandson was kidnapped in Italy and the kidnappers made a demand of 17 million dollars for his release.

J Paul Getty’s father was in the oil business and gave his son $10,000 to invest when he was 22. The young Getty invested the money wisely in a new oilfield and made a great deal of money. In the coming years Getty bought more and more oil companies and expanded into the middle east where his talent for languages helped enormously.

He was married and divorced numerous times and owned property all over the world including a mansion in the UK. In his fourth marriage he produced a son, J Paul Getty Jr who became the father of J Paul Getty III who was kidnapped.

In the film, and I’m not sure how true to life it was, J Paul Getty III is living the life of a hippy in Italy. He has mentioned to various people the thought of a fake kidnapping as an idea to raise money from his grandfather. He is then kidnapped for real but an investigator for Getty thinks the kidnapping might be a fake and so Getty declines to pay the ransom. After the kidnappers cut off his grandson’s ear and send it to the newspapers, Getty decides to pay but only after knocking the price down to 3 million dollars. Even then, he only pays 2.2 million (a figure that was apparently tax deductible) and loans the remainder to his son at 4% interest. Finally, the grandson, minus one ear was released.

What is quite interesting about the film, and actually this has nothing to do with millionaires and tycoons, is that Kevin Spacey originally played the part of J Paul Getty but after allegations against Spacey regarding sexual advances towards a young boy of 14, Spacey was cut out of the film and substituted with Christopher Plummer.

Getty was a major art collector although he always tried to buy at knock down prices. He was a notorious tightwad (nice to know I have something in common with a multi-millionaire). In his mansion Sutton Place in Surrey, England, he installed a payphone for guests to make personal calls. He did his own laundry by hand and always replied to letters by writing back on the reverse of the letter he had received in order to save on stationary.

Getty died in 1976 at the age of 83.

J Paul Getty III was traumatised by his abduction. He suffered from drug and alcohol addiction in the years after his release and in 1981 suffered a stroke brought on by taking a cocktail of drugs and alcohol. The stroke left him severely disabled for the rest of his life. He died at the age of 54 after a long illness.

Spend, Spend, Spend.

In 1961 a woman called Viv Nicholson and her husband won a huge prize on the football pools declaring to the press that they would spend spend spend! The couple won £152,000 equivalent to just under three and a half million pounds today.

Viv and her husband grew up in extreme poverty and true to their word they went on spending sprees involving clothes, sports cars, holidays and anything they could think of. Viv later said she seemed to be almost addicted to spending. Things went sour when her husband was killed in a car crash and all that they owned was deemed to belong to his estate. She had to sue to get a share of their purchases but her uncontrolled spending soon emptied her financial coffers.

Viv married again but eventually ended up a penniless alcoholic. In later life she wrote an autobiography called Spend, Spend, Spend. It was made into a remarkable BBC film written by playright Jack Rosenthal. I went on YouTube to look for a clip to show you and there wasn’t one but I did see that the book had been made into a musical starring Barbara Dickson. Some stories seem to just have a life of their own.

Conclusions

Looks like big money didn’t guarantee a great life for the three tycoons or the pools winner above. Still, I wouldn’t say no to a big cash win. Ages ago in another post I wrote this about my first lottery win:

When the lottery first began I would spend Saturday night glued to the lottery programme just checking my numbers. (Sad or desperate, I don’t know which.)  I’d decided to use numbers of houses I’d lived at, and one evening I was getting ready to go out, getting changed in front of the TV just in case and the first number came up; number 1. Great, give my ticket a little tick. Second number: number 4, whay, another little tick.  Third number; number 28. Whoa! A slight sweat beginning to break out on my forehead, a third tick on my lottery ticket.  Fourth number, number 38! Oh my God! Four in a row! Heart rate increasing, a nervous tension beginning, starting to breathe faster and faster!  Then the fifth number; number 6!

Of course, I hadn’t chosen number 6 so I wasn’t happy but still, that was pretty good going, four numbers on the trot. I won £100 which is better than a slap in the face but believe me, I was so excited that if I’d actually got the six numbers I’d probably have dropped dead with a heart attack, never living to enjoy my millions!

Anyway, I’ll have to go. Just got time to buy my lottery ticket for tonight’s draw.


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Pandemics and Podcasts

This blog seems to come round pretty quickly, too quickly really. Looking at my stack of blog post drafts I couldn’t see one that I could really get excited about finishing. That lethargy and tedium is of course a consequence of the lockdown. The lockdown continues to plod along, bringing everything down to its slow and humdrum pace. I’ve stayed at home like most people and pretty much done a great deal of nothing. The usual highlight of the week used to be a night in a restaurant and a visit to our local pub quiz. Now it’s a trip to the shops. What will be in the special offers aisle?

The Dentist.

A really big event this week was a trip to the dentist. I’ve not had a check up for quite a while but this one was a little different. We usually spend quite a bit of time waiting in the waiting room but no, due to Covid 19 precautions we weren’t even allowed inside the building until it was time to actually see the dentist. As Liz and I actually live together it was deemed OK for us to enter the surgery together. The dentist then changed his mind and decided no, one at a time must be the norm, irrespective of living arrangements. It was me of course who was ejected and rather than sit in the cold and rain I parked my car so it was just opposite the dentist’s doors and the nurse or dental assistant could just wave me over when it was my turn.

After a quick check of my molars, the dentist decided an x ray was in order. An old filling needed replacing so a new appointment was made for that. Oh and that crown I asked about some time ago. Yes, that was the one the dentist thought was unnecessary, well now after a few months without any income, the dentist has decided yes, we can sort that out, that will be another appointment and £280 please. Of course, the private non NHS crown is much better and will blend in much better with my current set of choppers. That will be £550.

A few moments later when the dentist’s assistant handed me a whopping great bill my inner tightwad kicked in and I thought, Whoa, steady on. Let me think about that for a while.

Two Topical Events.

Sometimes I think I should try to be a little more topical on my posts and so perhaps I should mention this week’s big news, the Harry and Meghan interview. I’ve read that in the USA it went down really well making the two really popular. In the UK it went down pretty much like a lead balloon as we Brits really don’t like anyone upsetting the Queen. Meghan was whinging that her children won’t have a royal title, well the fact is, neither do any of the Queen’s other great grandchildren and if they are so upset about publicity and want to live a quiet life, why go to the USA and court the media? Of course, now they are no longer on the Royal payroll they need to make a few quid to support themselves. After all, Harry has only got the meagre ten million his mother left him so embracing the media might be a good move for him.

Personally, I think that the royals are over paid, over privileged and over here. The flip side is that like them or lump them, the Royal Family are the glue that holds the United Kingdom together. If we had a President the country would descend into chaos and be split apart. Would Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland accept an English President? Would the Scots accept a Conservative President? Perhaps the Irish would want an Irishman but then would they want a Protestant or a Catholic? The Queen is happily above all that which is probably why she has endured for so long and kept the Commonwealth and the UK together.

The really big news this week for me was actually the death of Murray Walker the famous motor sport commentator. Murray has commentated on motor sport and particularly F1 for almost as long as I can remember. Murray used to commentate on rallycross and motorcycle scrambling back in the 1970’s and I once remember him commentating on a segment of the Le Mans 24 hour race and being surprised when the broadcast cut back to the BBC sport studio and there was Murray sat at a desk in front of a monitor with his microphone. I had just assumed he was at the race track. The BBC began a regular F1 broadcast in 1978. Before that they just used to show the odd event here and there which was not good for race fans like me. Walker became the undisputed voice of the sport until he retired in 2001. Clive James once said that Murray, in his quieter moments sounded like a man with his trousers on fire, such was the high spirits and enthusiasm of his broadcasts. F1 will never be the same again.

Podcasting

What else have I done this week? Well, a long time ago I thought about starting a podcast. Now I don’t know much about them but I thought as I’ve produced more than 400 or so blog posts, (actually this epic you are now reading is my 450th post) surely a few of those might be easy enough to convert to a podcast. I mean, I could just read out a few of them into my laptop microphone, cut out a few umms and ahs, just as I do with my video narrations and Bob’s your uncle.

A good idea to start, I thought was a post with some good turns of phrase and perhaps a good theme. Now one that came to mind straight away was a post I did yonks a go about time. Yes, time. The idea occurred to me when Liz and I visited some military cemeteries in Northern France. All the places we visited had a calm and tranquil ambience. Clearly that can’t have been the case during the First World War. Then the place must have looked like a wilderness filled with craters. The sound of deadly gunfire would have been all around along with explosions from the artillery bombardments. Time must have run faster then so now to compensate, time, or so it seems to me at these quiet and peaceful memorials, runs slowly.

What made the podcast easier to produce was the fact that I had already used some of that text in a narration for a video about the military cemeteries of France. I took the sound recordings, added a little intro, the welcome to my new podcast type of stuff, cleaned up the sound in my trusty sound mixer and hey presto, I finished up with a good five minutes of me rabbiting away as a new podcast.

Anyway, after all that, I set about working out how to actually broadcast a podcast, how to actually get it live on air. I spent a fair old bit of time trying to sort it out but failed dismally and put the whole project on the back burner.

The other day however, I opened up WordPress to find a new article titled ‘How to grow Your Podcast with Anchor’ there in front of me. I logged into Anchor and found that I could actually convert my written blog posts straight into a sound recording. I had a choice of two voices, one male and the other female. I chose the male voice which had a sort of Cary Grant quality. Not actually like Cary himself but similar, sort of like a newsreader with a transatlantic kind of tone. The resulting reading wasn’t perfect. Sadly it couldn’t differentiate between ‘it’ and ‘IT’. That’s when I remembered that earlier podcast recording about military cemeteries and time.

It was really quite fun to open up Spotify and find, alongside my favourite podcasts, the new Letters from an Unknown Author. Click here to listen to the first episode.

Click here To listen on Pocketcasts or try this link with various options.


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More From a Locked Down Blogger

The lockdown isn’t over yet but at least we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. As much as I like staying at home and watching my favourite films and TV shows I miss visiting my favourite bars and restaurants.  Our motorhome has been left quietly on the drive awaiting the day when we can once more drive off for a short or even a long break. We did take it on a run to the shopping centre a few weeks ago but that really doesn’t count.

As the weather has brightened up lately I thought it might be a good time to take my new drone for its maiden flight. It was a Christmas present from Liz but the cold and the rain have put me off venturing out to use it. Now that some nice weather has finally appeared here in the north of England I charged it up and had a quick scan through the instructions. I noticed that on the box the drone was described as perfect for 14 years and older so how hard could it be to fly one?

Flying the Drone

Down by the beach in St Annes I had envisioned some establishing shots from up on high looking down to reveal the layout of the sea front and the pier; a tracking shot showing the sturdy girders holding the structure in place followed by a flight moving up from the sand to the top of the pier. Maybe now is the time to mention that the drone also has a video camera. I’d recently watched a very poor drone video taken in the same area and I knew absolutely that I could do better.

The beach was pretty busy on the day I chose to venture out but everyone seemed to be keeping their distance. I found a suitable spot and switched on the drone. All ok so far, the correct lights were flashing but the rotors were not spinning. I went through the start procedure and still nothing happened so I went for that old computer stand by, switch off and switch on again.

A small group of locals began to hover around me. I heard a young boy tell his mother about the man that was about to fly a drone. A man called his dog to heel and he also stopped to watch. A group of lads appeared too. They all seemed fascinated by the forthcoming spectacle. The big problem was that I just couldn’t get anything to happen. Like a fool I was wearing my new pair of specs I had bought from a cheap online site. The specs were wonderful and had photochromic lenses, the ones that go dark when it gets sunny. I may have looked pretty cool but began to realise I should have worn my substantially uncool reading glasses.  Then I could have made out what was going on with the various lights that were lit up on my drone control panel. A few beads of sweat began to form on my forehead and I could feel my audience getting restless. The young lad was dragged away by his mother and the dog walker was fed up of waiting. It was time to pick up my drone and leave.

I imagined myself for a moment as a music hall performer being booed off the stage, departing before an onslaught of rotten fruit came my way.

Back at my car I pulled out the instructions, written of course in very tiny writing and with the help of a magnifying glass gave them another look. Ah ha. The drone must first be synchronised by pushing the throttle lever forward and then back. Armed with this new information I walked over to the nearby car park. It was mostly empty, although there was a big white van parked right in the centre.

This time I felt a little better as there was no audience to distract me. I went through the process a few times without getting anywhere. Another look at the instructions. Had I forgotten to press the start flight button? Ha! A press of the button and finally the rotors began to spin. Up we went to about ten or fifteen feet. Move left, fine. Move right, fine. Move back, not so fine. The drone seemed to wander away from me towards the white van and just as I thought we might have a possible impact I remembered the end flight button and the drone settled softly down. I tried two or three more flights and every time the drone began to wander towards that van but luckily I was able to abort the proceedings before the inevitable impact. Drone flying is not quite as easy as I had thought and the video of St Annes pier which I had hoped to include on this post must sadly wait for another day.

Stan and Ollie

Not so very long ago in my Book Bag Silent film edition, I talked about Stan, a biography of Stan Laurel by Fred Laurence Guiles. Since then, I’ve been pretty interested in seeing the biopic about the comedy duo, Stan and Ollie. I did hope that one day it might come up on Film 4 or some other free to air channel but alas, it has not. The only alternative for a low-tech guy like me then was to browse eBay until a suitably cheap DVD came available. There are some who will tell you that I am mean, others who will say I am a cheapskate. There are even some who might describe me as tight as a fish’s rear end. None of these descriptions really get to the heart of the matter because I am in fact a fully paid up, card carrying tightwad and I am happy to report that an ‘as good as new’ DVD copy of the aforementioned cinematic epic is now in my possession after parting with a minimal amount of my hard earned cash.

Some time ago a young TV salesman who was close to selling me a very expensive new television set told me that DVDs were ‘old technology’. Sadly for him, he lost a sale as I vehemently disagreed. The idea that the customer is always right was clearly lost on him. I love DVDs and this particular one gave me a great deal of pleasure on the evening I decided to pour myself a glass of port and settle down with a cheese sandwich, the remote control and then pressed the play button.

Stan and Ollie is about the latter days of the comedy twosome. Their film career is over and they have come to the UK with their stage act as at the time, it seemed to have been the only offer available to them. Stan is hoping that the two might be doing one final film and looks forward to the producer, Mr Miffen coming to the theatre to take in their performance. Mr Miffen sadly never appears and neither does the hoped-for film production although in real life the pair made a film in Europe called Atoll K that was beset with production problems.

In the early part of the film Stan is at odds with producer Hal Roach. I had always assumed that Laurel and Hardy were a long-time comedy duo that brought their act to the movies. Not so. They came to the Roach studio separately and it was Roach and director Leo McCarey who brought the pair together but they were on different contracts that expired at different times so they could never sit down and negotiate a contract for Laurel and Hardy together. Stan laments the fact that Charlie Chaplin owned his own films and made a great deal of money, while Stan and Ollie were only contract players. Stan thought the two should have held out for a better deal with Roach or another studio but the fact is that both men had trouble with wives, divorces and financial settlements and always signed with Roach again because they were always short of money.

Later in the film, Oliver Hardy suffers a heart attack and though he gamely carries on with the tour, the two realise after a performance in Ireland that their performing days are over.

The film correctly shows that Stan worked long hours with the director and editors of the films as well as scripting much of their work but the incident where Stan decides to work with another comedian in England but then fails to go through with it, is not true.

It’s a little disappointing that the film strays from real life in many ways and I always find it hard to reconcile this in true to life films. If you are going to portray real people and real events then why change them and add a dose of fiction? Perhaps the answer here is that it was a way to show the spirit of the relationship between the two comedians in their twilight years. The two principal actors are excellent; Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy. They pick up the essence of the comedy duo very well although the film has a bittersweet tone rather than a funny one. The strange thing is that for me, Stan and Ollie were laugh out loud comedians and I still laugh at their antics today but I’m not sure the film shows just how funny they were. The bittersweet tone is really more appropriate to a film about Chaplin because although Charlie makes me smile, he could never really make me laugh like Laurel and Hardy.

Oliver Hardy died in 1957 and despite many offers, Stan declined to work without Hardy. Stan died in 1965. All in all, Stan and Ollie is a sad film but a highly enjoyable one and it is clear that all those involved with the production had a true affection for Laurel and Hardy.

Covid 19

A few days ago I finally had my invitation from the UK government to be innoculated against the dreaded Coronavirus. I was pleased as a couple of people who I knew were younger than me had already had their invite so I was beginning to wonder whether I had somehow been missed off the list. Anyway, I made my appointment and on the appointed day, Wednesday March 3rd, I made my way to the vaccination centre. The staff there, all volunteers apart from the NHS professionals actually giving the jab, were all cheerful and efficient. I queued for a short while at the regulation 2 metre distance and finally was asked a few questions about my health and then quick as a flash, in went the needle. It wasn’t painful and it all seemed to go ok. While we filled in some bits and pieces of paperwork the lady filled up another needle with the vaccine and for a moment there I thought maybe the vaccination involves two injections. Happily, that was for the next victim. The next day I felt a little queasy and had a mild headache, nothing more but that was one small step towards sorting out the virus and getting back to normal.


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

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

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

TV.

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

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

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

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

Books.

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

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

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

All in all, a fascinating read.

Writing.

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

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

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