Lockdown and the Winter Holiday Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casa Carlos: Fishy food, salad and pizza!

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

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

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

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

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


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A 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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The Story of My Life Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

The Salisbury pub in Manchester City Centre

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

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

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

The Playground as it is today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Story of my Life in Less than 2500 Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE SCENE. INTERIOR. DAY. TRACY ISLAND LOUNGE.

JEFF TRACY
This is a job for Thunderbird 3.

ALAN TRACY
OK Dad. Ready for launch.

JEFF TRACY
Off you go Alan.

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

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

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

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

ALAN TRACY
Thanks Dad.

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

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

JEFF GOES OFF STAGE RIGHT TO LOOK FOR GRANDMA.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m already over 2500 words!


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How Barack Obama Ended up in my Junk Mail and Other Stories

It’s always worth just having a peek in your junk mail. You never know what may be found there. I tend to look when I’m expecting an important e-mail and it hasn’t turned up in the usual place, my inbox for instance. I’m always pretty amazed at what I might find there: Invitations to join groups. Blogging advice. Video seminars. How to make money with bitcoin. Russian women who want to meet me and so on.

I’m always surprised at the volume of Russian women who want to meet me and just lately an increasing number of Ukrainian ladies have expressed similar feelings too. I can’t really say that I’ve ever thought of myself as good looking but perhaps when the light catches me in a particular way, something is visible which just catches the eye of Russian women.

A few years ago, I wrote back to one of these ladies who claimed to have seen me on an international dating site and tried to explain I thought she was the victim of a scam and that I had never been on a dating site. The lady in question wrote back with a three-page email detailing her life in a remote region of Russia and how my photograph had so enthralled her she had decided to join me in the USA at the earliest opportunity. I’m sorry to say I didn’t reply although I was tempted to say I would be waiting at JFK in New York whenever she wanted. Funnily enough, she’s not the only person to think I live in the USA.

One day I was scanning through the junk folder and there it was. An e-mail from Barack Obama. That’s right, former President of the USA Barack Obama. Obama clearly wanted my help. He was urging me to vote for Joe Biden. I’m not sure how he had heard about me, maybe he has read one of my blog posts. Of course, if he had, I’m guessing he would have spotted that I’m English although perhaps it isn’t completely clear from my blog posts that I actually live in England, although now I think about it, it actually is.

Joe Biden. Pic courtesy Wikipedia

Don’t get me wrong, I’d be happy to vote for Joe as a favour to Mr Obama, even though I do wonder whether or not Joe is getting a little long in the tooth for the top job at the White House. I say Mr Obama but as we are now on email terms, maybe I should just call him Barack? He could call me Steve or even Ste if he wanted, after all we are now friends, well, email friends, sort of.

Of course, I’m not actually eligible to vote in the USA which could cause a problem with our friendship but I thought I’d keep that to myself until after I’d asked Barack to maybe plug my book, Floating in Space. After all, one favour deserves another and like I said, I am willing to vote for Biden, if I could.

I’m wondering now whether the issues from the last election regarding President Putin came about because he had also received an email from the democrats urging him to vote for their candidate which at the time was Mrs Clinton. I don’t know Putin personally but I can see him being the sort of guy who might take offence at that and maybe cause him to vote for Trump. Putin of course, not being American can’t vote for Trump either but again, I wouldn’t want to be the guy who has to tell him that. One thing that might get in the way is that I don’t actually speak Russian although I do happen to know that the Russian word for no is niet. Putin however, strikes me as the kind of guy who doesn’t want to hear niet, nein, non or basically anything in the negative.

Tell him what he doesn’t want to hear and next thing you know you’d be hearing reports of the English blogger getting hit by a poisoned dart or being invited for a cup of coffee and then suddenly suffering from a bout of radiation poisoning! Putin is not a man who takes dissent lightly and if you don’t believe me try asking Alexei Navalny. Good job I’m not a coffee drinker is all I can say about that.

Donald Trump. Picture courtesy Wikipedia

This week I watched the first presidential debates between Biden and Trump and like many people I really wasn’t impressed. I’m not sure what the population is in the USA these days but it must be pretty big. All those millions of Americans and this is it? These two guys are the best on offer? Actually, that’s not necessarily true because believe it or not there are 1207 candidates in this year’s election. 1207? That’s right, 1207 although the media for some reason will only focus on two.

On a completely different topic, this past week Liz and I went to the funeral of a virtual friend of ours, Johnny Two Sheds. Now neither of us have ever met Johnny but we have both chatted to him out there in cyberspace on various facebook pages relating to Lytham and St Annes. Liz spoke with him much more than me and the two of them had a great deal of cheeky banter over the years particularly on one page which is more dedicated to cheeky banter than to actual news worthy items on the Fylde coast.

Johnny alas was banned by Facebook because as you may have guessed Johnny ‘Two Sheds’ was not his real name. He rose again on Facebook with the name Johnny Phoenix but sadly passed away some weeks ago. Due to the current regulations, only thirty people were allowed at his funeral although it was nice to see his coffin arrive at the country church in Wrea Green escorted by a paramedic motorcycle rider and the street outside lined by his fellow paramedics.

Johnny’s brother was there to answer one important question. Actually I felt a little nervous about posing the question so I gave Liz a nod and she obligingly did the honours. Did Johnny have two sheds? Apparently, he did.


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Movie Connections Part 2: Nora Ephron

A while back I wrote a post about my movie connections. Every time I see a great film it registers up there in the old grey matter and at some point I’ll take a closer look at the credits of those films and see if there was a connection. In the case of that particular post the connection was Terence Rattigan. Rattigan was a playwright who wrote many film scripts and adapted many of his own plays for the screen and in the course of my often extensive TV viewing I’ve come across a number of great films all written by him.

In another similar mental exercise, I examined another group of films and the common denominator turned out to be Nora Ephron. Now some of you out there may never have heard of Nora. Who was she anyway? Well Nora was a journalist, a screenwriter and a director. She’s probably most famous for penning the brilliant comedy When Harry met Sally.

Photo by David Shankbone -, courtesy Wikipedia

When Harry met Sally is one of my all time favourite films and one that I wasn’t keen on at first. It didn’t impress me that first time at the cinema, the second time I saw it on TV I thought, hey, this isn’t so bad and I made a particular effort to seek it out a third time. After that third viewing, I loved it so much I bought the DVD version.

I was sad to hear of Nora’s passing in 2012 and made a mental note to find out more about her. Naturally, being me, a lazy semi-retired English blogger and occasional maker of YouTube videos, I never did.

A few weeks ago and eight years after making that mental note I was scanning idly through the TV listings and noticed a documentary film about Nora called Everything is Copy. The writer and director, Jacob Bernstein turned out be Nora’s son so he was clearly qualified to make a documentary about his mother. It wasn’t the greatest documentary film I’ve ever seen but it was certainly interesting. The film told the story of Nora’s life through various interviews. One surprising one was with Carl Bernstein, the famous Washington Post reporter whose articles on Watergate with Bob Woodward revealed the Watergate scandal to the world and eventually forced President Nixon to resign.

Nora was married to Bernstein and after becoming pregnant for a second time with their other son Max, Nora discovered he was having an affair with Margaret Jay, a British journalist and friend. Nora used the experience to write a book called Heartburn which was later made into a film starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. I have to say I’ve not seen the film or read the book but once again I’ve made a mental post it note and stuck it firmly up there in my brain for further attention.

After watching the documentary film I felt even more determined to find out more about Nora so I went to abebooks on the internet and after some research ordered a copy of I Remember Nothing, a book by Nora that seemed to be a memoir. The book starts out as a sort of memoir, telling humorous stories about this and that, and her life without really giving much away. Nora wanted to be a journalist and after working for the Kennedy White House for a short while she joined the staff of the magazine Newsweek. In her book she tells the story of how Newsweek did not hire female writers and offered her a job as a mail girl. She doesn’t appear to have been upset by this despite it being blatantly sexist. She just got on with her job, still determined to be a journalist. In her book Nora makes the whole episode sound quite amusing, especially when she later writes a parody column during a newspaper strike and as a result gets invited to write for the New York Post. Over on Wikipedia, there is a slightly different story in which Ephron gets involved with a class action lawsuit filed against Newsweek for sexual discrimination.

I Remember Nothing is an amusing book although it’s a little short on copy for someone for whom everything is copy. I enjoyed it enormously although had I been reading it on holiday, I could have got through it in an afternoon by the pool. Even so, the book has some great stories, in particular I liked the one about when Nora was nearly an heiress and thought she was about to inherit a formidable sum of money. There is another one about Christmas dinner and the one about when a meal was named after her in a posh restaurant. All of the stories are nice blog post sized stories which if I were devious enough, I could easily steal for the days when I have no idea what to write about.

When Nora was married to Bernstein, she put together a screen version of All the President’s Men which was ultimately rejected (William Goldman eventually wrote the script) but her version was seen by someone else who offered her the chance to write the script for a television movie and that was how her screen career started.

Nora wrote the screenplay for When Harry met Sally in 1986 and apparently imagined herself in the role of Sally, and Rob Reiner, who directed the film, as Harry. Nora wrote the screenplay after interviewing Reiner and producer Andy Scheinman and various others about their lives.

There is one scene from When Harry met Sally that has become a classic. It’s the one where Harry and Sally are eating in what looks like a diner or cafe and Sally shows Harry how easy it is to fake an orgasm by demonstrating it there and then in the cafe. According to Wikipedia, the cafe was actually Katz’s Delicatessen at 205 East Houston street in Manhattan. Also, just while I’m in the mood for dishing out useless information, the lady in the film who says to the waiter, ‘I’ll have what she’s having‘ when Meg Ryan, who played Sally, had finishing orgasming was actually director Rob Reiner’s mother and the line was suggested by Billy Crystal who played Harry.

Personally, I’d be hard pushed to tell you my favourite scene in the film although the one where Harry tells his best friend about his divorce is a major contender. Harry says he only knew about the split when the moving men came to his house to shift his wife’s stuff. One of the movers wore a t-shirt with the legend ‘don’t f’**k with Mr Zero’ on his chest and Harry’s friend asks ‘are you saying Mr Zero knew you were getting divorced before you did?’

I thought the pairing of Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal was wonderful and I could never understand why the producers of films like You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle paired Meg with Tom Hanks. Then again, Nora actually directed both those films so maybe she just preferred Tom Hanks.

Here’s one of the crazy things I love about movie connections. Ages ago, I caught a film on TV about a woman who wrote a cookery blog. Can you imagine that, a film, an actual motion picture about blogging? Who could do that, who could make a picture like that? I missed a few minutes at the beginning of the picture and made a mental note (yes, another one) to make sure to record it next time it was shown. No, I didn’t record it the next showing but to answer my last question, who would make a picture about blogging, the answer was, surprise surprise, Nora Ephron.

In 2009 she released Julie and Julia, a film based on an actual blog by Julie Powell, an American who decides to cook her way through the cookbook of Julia Child, a 1950’s American cook played by Meryl Streep. As Julie blogs about her cooking the film flashes back to the life of Julia. It’s a great film and the only film I can think of which focusses on blogging.

Nora died in 2012 from pneumonia, a complication of the leukaemia she was suffering from. She had not shared her illness with friends or family, thinking it might impede her career. However, in I Remember Nothing, she left a list of things she would miss when she had departed:

They include Spring, a walk in the park, reading in bed, the view out of the window, Paris, butter and taking a bath.

She was 71 years old.


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Airports, Saturday Nights and Ally McBeal


I really hated work this week. I hated it for a number of reasons even though I only worked one day. Now as I’m semi-retired I only work three days anyway so one day, well, you might think ok, that’s not so bad, wish I only worked one day this week. Wrong! I actually wish I’d not worked any days. The first day I was poorly with a bad tummy. Day two I was still poorly although not quite as bad and day three I was feeling a little better so I went back to work. I was actually feeling bad about having those two days off, yes guilty about taking sick leave. Maybe I should have called in sick the third day and then after my six days off (yes, I get six days off) I’d be fully ready to start work again. Come to think of it, that would mean fifteen days off wouldn’t it? (Six plus three plus six, see what I mean?)

 Oh well, I still hated that one day either way. The funny thing is, I was recently looking at my horoscope and it said something about how I needed to get rid of something in my life to make room for something new. Is the cosmos hinting that I should just pack the job in? Would a great new job then come my way? It’s a nice thought but I’m not convinced. I tend to look at horoscopes for entertainment rather than to see into the future so I’ll just keep sending out my CV for now.

After my one day at work I thought I’d spend a couple of days at my mother’s house and make sure everything was ok. The garden was looking good. I had planned on giving the lawn a trim but I thought, what the heck, it’ll be ok for another week. More time for me to write and work on my various projects.

One long running project is the sequel to Floating in Space. It’s called the Girl in the Yellow Coat and it’s about a character that made a fleeting appearance in Floating, a girl in, guess what, a yellow coat. As I’ve not worked on it for a while, I started reading through what I had written so far, which then made me look back at Floating and read some of that. I love my writing, I really do. I’m not claiming it’s brilliant or anything but the thing is it’s written for me, I write it purely for myself so I’m bound to like it. The other thing is that a lot of my work is based on real things, real events and real people and sometimes when I read it I remember the real things that inspired the story. It’s like a walk down memory lane, looking back on things I’d actually forgotten about and people who I hadn’t thought about for years. Maybe that’s why I’m not making much headway on the book; I’m too busy reminiscing about stuff to get creative.

Another project I’m working on is making another version of one of my most popular YouTube videos; it’s called Manchester Airport 1986 and follows my late friend Steve and myself talking about spotting aircraft in and around the airport. I was never a real plane spotter myself but as a child living a stone’s throw from the airport, it was fun to tag along with my friends who were. I did love watching the big jet planes taxi out to the runway and blast off to their various destinations around the globe and people like Steve, Paul, Phil and various others all jotted down aircraft numbers into their notebooks. In the video, Steve and I visit a quiet country lane round the back of the airport where plane spotters gather and many other places like the Tatton Arms pub, ideally situated on the runway approach path and the old and original Airport Hotel. I say original because various other places have sprouted up in the area using that name.

On a whim on Saturday afternoon I decided to drag my brother out and cajoled him into filming with my video camera while I drove to the old locations. What about a sort of then and now video I thought, comparing the airport of 1986 to the huge place it has become now? Going into the airport itself I knew it was going to be different but I wasn’t prepared for just how different it actually was. There are three terminals at Manchester now and T2 was closed because of Covid 19. Anyway we wandered around and filmed various things although many areas seemed to be coned off and everywhere there were double yellow lines. Manchester Airport is not a car friendly environment and cars are discouraged from stopping or loitering. Nowadays you even have to pay to use the drop off and go areas.

I did manage to find the entrance to the multi storey car park which looked familiar. Back in 1986 Steve and I went to the top level and joined various other plane spotters watching aircraft but last Saturday I thought I’d save that for another day. I went off in search of that small lane round the back of the runway. That was easier said than done. Back in the 1980’s there was an old country pub called the Ship in Styal village, a posh village that is actually over the county border in Cheshire. It was a sleepy old pub and sometimes my friends and I would visit on a Friday or Saturday night.

On this particular Saturday afternoon the tiny car park was now three times as big as I remembered and was packed. The small lane was also crammed with parked cars making it hard to squeeze past. There is an old water mill further down that lane. We visited it once on a school trip. It’s nothing really exciting but today I could only imagine that all these visitors were either visiting the pub or the mill, after all there is nothing else in the village except the pub, the water mill and a small shop.

Eventually we managed to get past but in the old days the road carried on and eventually came to a steep hill just by the Valley Lodge hotel. Nowadays the road ahead seemed to have become a sort of pedestrianised walking area and traffic was forced off to the right. This must have been the old lane where we filmed in 1986 but the airport had grown and gradually encroached on and swallowed up some of the surrounding land. High barbed wire fences kept the public away and there were no longer any rough graveled parking bays to stop in. Eventually we came across a new and unfamiliar road which led us back into the airport itself.

The Tatton Arms looked similar to how it used to look but now it is now part pub and part bistro. We stopped for a moment, took a few pictures and left. Change is inevitable of course but I don’t think I was quite prepared for the scale of the change.

Getting back to Floating in Space, the main character, Stuart, is bored with his nine to five office job. He yearns for something different and lives for the weekend. The book starts off like this:

 The countdown starts on Friday afternoon at four thirty when my colleagues and I pour out from the Regal Assurance building and stream and scatter for the cars, buses, and trains that carry us away to different and better lives.  The countdown is for the weekend, and the weekend is one long high-energy cassette that plays on the hi-fi of life until that moment, that far distant moment, when the alarm bell rings for Monday morning and there are five days before you can rewind the tape and play it again.

That of course was 1977. In 2020 Stuart, like me might have been tempted to go into Manchester for a night out but Manchester is a hot spot as far as the Coronavirus is concerned. Bolton, a Manchester suburb has been forced back into lockdown because of a spike in Covid cases so for the time being I thought it might be better to just stay in and stay safe. That’s how I came to settle down in front of the TV with a can of Guinness and a packet of Doritos. I combed through my old VHS box looking for something I hadn’t watched for years. I picked up a couple of documentaries which looked interesting and then came across my Ally McBeal DVDs.

It’s a long time since I have seen Ally McBeal. It was a hit US show in the 1990’s and is something that I’ve never seen repeated even on all the new TV channels that have sprouted up, seemingly overnight. Ally was a Boston lawyer played by Calista Flockhart. She starts work at Cage and Fish, a Boston legal firm. The senior partners, John Cage and Richard Fish are two oddball characters presiding over a wacky company that has unisex toilets and on most nights everyone goes into a bar in the same building where resident singer Vonda Shepard regularly performs, sometimes handing the microphone over to the office staff. Barry White makes an appearance there as does Sting and other pop icons. The series is a comedy but with elements of drama, sentimentality and music all mixed in together.

My favourite character was John Cage played by Peter MacNicol. He was a shy character, unsure of himself who falls for Ally and fantasises about Barry White singing ‘You’re the First, My Last, My Everything’ in order to bulk up his confidence. In the first episode Ally loses her job at another firm because of sexual harassment, bumps into Richard Fish who immediately hires her and sets about suing the sexual harasser.

So that was my Saturday, getting lost at the airport, a place I used to know like the back of my hand. Staying in on a Saturday night and watching Ally McBeal, a TV show that was cancelled in 2002. What shall I do this Saturday I wonder?


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Actors, Lemons and The Big Sleep

I was going into work the other day and remembered that I didn’t have anything to read. I do like to have a read on my break so I looked around and picked up The Big Sleep. If you haven’t read the book by Raymond Chandler you must surely have seen the film with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I love the opening scene where Bogart meets with General Sternwood and has separate encounters with his two daughters. Sternwood, an old former general lives in a sort of greenhouse where the heat that keeps his tropical plants alive makes Bogart wilt. That was a great opening and sets the scene for the rest of the film.

When I sat down on my break and flipped open the book, a small cutting fell out. It was a newspaper cutting dated November 14th 1995 from the Daily Express. An Actor Bombs went the headline and went on to tell the story of an actor:

An out of work actor was amazed when his agent rang and offered a part in a Shakespearean play. All he had to say was ‘My Lord, I hear a cannon.’

For weeks the actor rehearsed his line, giving it a variety of interpretations. Walking down the street (My Lord, I hear a cannon.) In the bath (My Lord, I HEAR a cannon.) In the shaving mirror (My LOOOORD, I hear a cannon)

The day came and the actor strode on to the stage and turned to the audience

The cannon went off with a terrifying bang and he shouted ‘What the *** was that?’

That newspaper clip really made me laugh and sometimes we all need a good giggle. That’s one of the things I love about second hand books; who put the clipping in the book? Did they find it as amusing as I did? I hope so.

Anyway getting back to The Big Sleep. The book was written by Raymond Chandler and he had this really fabulous talkative way of writing. You can almost imagine hearing Humphrey Bogart’s voice as you read the book. Here’s a quote from the text, an example of Chandler’s descriptive style:

I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble. She was stretched out on a modernistic chaise-longue with her slippers off so I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stocking. They seemed to be arranged to stare at. They were visible to the knee and one of them well beyond. The knees were dimpled, not bony or sharp. The calves were beautiful, the ankles long and slim with enough melodic line for a tone poem. She was tall and rangy and strong looking. Her head was against an ivory satin cushion. Her hair was black and wiry and parted in the middle and she had the hot black eyes of the portrait in the hall. She had a good mouth and a good chin. There was a sulky droop to her lips and the lower lip was full.

Not bad eh? Dilys Powell called his writing ‘a peculiar mixture of harshness, sensuality, high polish and backstreet poetry’ and it’s easy to see why. Mrs Regan was played by Lauren Bacall in the film and up till now I had always thought this was the film where they had met. Wrong! A quick check on Wikipedia and I see the couple met on the set of To Have and Have Not in 1944. Bacall was 19 and Bogart was 45 and married to his third wife Mayo Methot at the the time. Sparks apparently flew between the couple and Bogart divorced Mayo and married Bacall the next year, 1945. Despite the great on screen chemistry together the couple only made four films together.

The film version of The Big Sleep was a brilliant adaptation of the book and some of the differences are interesting. For instance, early in the book detective Philip Marlowe played by Bogart meets General Sternwood’s daughter Carmen. She looks at Marlowe and remarks how tall he is. In the film, Bogart of course wasn’t that tall so the dialogue is reversed ‘You’re not very tall are you?’ comments Carmen.

Carmen was played in the film by Martha Vickers and Chandler felt that she seemed to overshadow the performance of female lead Lauren Bacall. For that reason many of Vickers’ scenes were cut. Release of the film was delayed by Warner Brothers and in fact another of Bacall’s films shot after The Big Sleep, Confidential Agent, was released first. Reaction to Confidential Agent was so good Jack Warner, the studio head, decided to beef up Bacall’s part in The Big Sleep so new scenes were shot and added to the film including a new ending.

The plot of the book and film are pretty complicated, although having just read the book I think that the book is easier to follow. During the filming the director and his stars wondered who killed the character of Owen Taylor, the Sternwood’s chauffeur? They sent a cable to Raymond Chandler asking him. Chandler told a friend later ‘Dammit, I don’t know either!’

One strange element in the film, certainly for me, is a scene where Philip Marlowe (Bogart) is watching blackmailer Geiger. Geiger has a shop that sells rare books in Hollywood and Marlowe asks for information in another bookshop opposite. There he chats to a bookseller played by Dorothy Malone who, if you are old enough, will remember her from the Peyton Place TV series. Malone and Bogart seem to hit it off well in the film but he never returns to the bookshop and Dorothy is never seen again in the film.

Every time I watch the film I always expect Malone to reappear but that’s one of the many dead ends the film leads us down. I think it was Hitchcock who said that every scene in a film should lead the audience somewhere and Quentin Tarantino of course said the reverse. Perhaps director Howard Hawks favoured Tarantino’s view. Over on YouTube I found a clip from that scene. It was titled, The Big Sleep, best scene ever. I wouldn’t go that far myself but see what you think.

As I write this I have spent the day at my Mother’s house in Manchester. She is suffering from dementia and is being looked after nearby but sadly, because of Covid 19, I am unable to visit. Lately, every time I have visited her house with intentions to sort out the garden it has done nothing but rain. Today dawned nice and sunny, at least it was when I awoke at the ridiculous time of 6:30 am. After looking through my e-mails and planning my daily social media broadside into Twitter cyberspace I arose, had a wash, made a quick breakfast and got cracking. I mowed the lawn, trimmed the hedges and cleared the sharp and unruly brambles that have appeared at the end of the garden. I strimmed the path and finally, everything seems to look neat and tidy.

The apple tree in the corner, a birthday present from me to my dad who died 20 years ago this year is looking well but unlike last year I couldn’t see any apples. My mum used to make apple pies from the apples from this tree but after my dad died I came home to visit one day and was shocked to see the council had chopped down the tree. I was absolutely fuming and while I silently planned what I would do to the nameless official who had perpetrated this tragedy, my mum mentioned casually that it was she who arranged to have the tree chopped down. What on earth for I asked? She had been worried that the tree, which grew at an odd angle might trip her up.

Today the tree has  grown again, this time straight up and I can look forward to one day making apple pies again.

While I am on the subject of trees I might as well mention my lemon trees. I do love taking a stone or a pip from a fruit and growing something. I’ve grown quite a few lemon trees and I have two now, both grown from pips and both growing strong. They look good, I keep them well watered and fed but, no lemons. Liz bought me another lemon tree a while back. It was small but it came with about three small lemons. After a short while each of those lemons dropped off but no more have grown. It seems as though when it comes to lemons, I’ve got the kiss of death but if I could just grow a lemon, just one, it would really make my day.

My brother is planning to join me later. I’ve got a couple of lagers in the fridge and a chilli on the go in the slow cooker (gardening, blog writing and cooking: it’s been a busy day!) Tuesday, not much on TV tonight. Think I might just dig out my DVD of The Big Sleep!


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A Bit of a Blog or a Blog of Bits . .

This week I’ve been focussed on other things rather than blogging so I decided to take a few half finished posts and stitch them into one. Maybe it’s worked, maybe not. Here we go . . .

All of Me an autobiography by Barbara Windsor

Barbara is probably best known as the blonde from the Carry On films. It’s a niche that’s she stuck in despite her appearances in later years in the TV soap Eastenders. Maybe she likes that, maybe not but either way, she’s rather good at what she does. In this book, she tells her life story and it’s very frank and pretty entertaining.

‘Bar’ as her friends call her, doesn’t hold back and basically tells it like it is. She talks about her climb to fame and the husbands she has had along the way. First was Ronnie Knight, an East End gangster and friend of the Kray twins. Ronnie and Bar seemed pretty good together for a while but neither of them were interested in each other’s careers. Barbara would be off filming and Ronnie it seemed wasn’t bothered at all about that. He would be off to sort his nightclub out and Bar would be happy at home having to get up early for a film or rehearsing for one of her many stage roles. On one occasion in the early morning, the police burst in and carted Ronnie off to the nick for armed robbery. Barbara stuck by her man then but soon after, she’d had enough.

After Ronnie got the push, he was ‘aving it off’ with a blonde down at his club; Bar moved on to a younger guy and when that didn’t work out she moved onto an even younger guy. That younger guy, Scott, is still with her today and was in the news recently as Barbara has sadly been stricken with dementia and may have to go into residential care.

One surprising aspect of the book is that although like fellow Carry On star Kenneth Williams, I’d always thought of Barbara as a film and TV star, in fact a great deal of her career involved the stage and she appeared in many stage productions including her own one woman show.

This book, written in 2000 is a great little read and well worth picking up if you see it in the book shop. It’s written in a friendly talkative chit chat style, almost as if Bar has dictated it to someone and that’s something I particularly like about the book. The last quarter of the book though feels a little as if it has been tagged onto the end of another book. It mainly concerns her relationship with final husband Scott and is perhaps a little gushing and overly romantic and Woman’s Weekly style but I reckon Bar deserved a little romance in the twilight of her days. Nice read and a book well worth picking up.

Chaplin directed by Richard Attenborough

Searching through my old VHS videos the other day, I came across Chaplin, a film about the great silent comedian, directed by Richard Attenborough. I can’t say I’m a great fan of Attenborough as a director and this film showing us the life and times of Charlie Chaplin is lacking in many ways, but having said that it’s a pretty good film in many other ways.

I’ve often thought that if I could go back in time to any era, I’d go back to Hollywood in the 1920’s, the time of silent films. Someone, and I forget who it was, discovered that Hollywood had the perfect climate for making movies. Great weather, plenty of sun, all the requisites for making silent movies. Films back then were shot either outdoors or with basic sets without a roof, all lit by the relentless Californian sun. You didn’t need a degree to be a director in those days, just confidence and the ability to put a film together, not only in your head but to transfer it to film.

I don’t think Charlie Chaplin was really that funny, certainly not as funny as Laurel and Hardy for instance but he was the first film comedian to do more than link a series of funny images or sketches together. He added a little pathos, made the viewer feel for the character, care about the character as well as laugh at him.

Chaplin is loosely based on Charlie’s own autobiography, with a fictional editor played by Anthony Hopkins trying to add in all the bits that Chaplin didn’t want to write about, his various young wives for instance. Robert Downey Junior plays Chaplin and Geraldine Chaplin, Charlie’s real ife daughter, plays Chaplin’s mother who sadly descended into madness. Chaplin brought her to America and looked after her although he visited her infrequently.

The great loves of his life were his mother, his brother Sydney and his great friend Douglas Fairbanks. Sadly, Chaplin emerges  from his autobiography and from this film as essentially a sad fellow, someone in a way unfulfilled, although his films indeed changed the course of cinema history. In his time he was probably the most famous person in the world, his silent films were unrestricted by the restraints of language and his fame covered the entire globe, anywhere in fact that had a projector and a screen.

There are some great performances in this film, Kevin Kline is good as Douglas Fairbanks as is Dan Ackroyd playing the part of producer Mack Sennet. Robert Downey isn’t so bad either in the title role. I read somewhere that the film was a disaster at the box office. Pity. Personally I really enjoyed it.

Annoying Things Part 17

I was saving this for an ongoing blog post about annoying elements of the 21st Century which I update every now and then but instead here it is now. Having been cooped up at home for over 12 weeks I called into work ready to get back to my desk but apparently the Human Resources Department (years ago we used to call them ‘personnel’) decided I couldnt go back until August 1st. As a lot of the lockdown has eased we decided to have a trip out in the motorhome.

We found a nice spot to stop and set up our little camp, part of which involved a ground sheet. Now a ground sheet is something used by campers to lay down on the ground. It came in a smart plastic case and we unfolded it, spread it out and spent a considerable amount of time in the sun on it, lying around, reading, sunbathing and so on.

Later on when we packed up, I folded the ground sheet up but somehow it must have grown or stretched because no matter how I folded it, and I did do it according the still visible folds on the sheet itself, no way would it ever go back in that case. A similar thing happened the other week when I bought a hair cutting kit. It came in a box, the electric hair cutters, various length combs, a plug and so on. After I had performed my post lockdown personal haircut would that lot fit back in the box? Of course not! I’m sure one of the main design factors in these items is to make the box so small that the items will only ever fit in once and even then only in a certain way.

Of course I could put the hair cutters in the plastic bag from the groundsheet and then just tie up the ground sheet with an old belt. Result!


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The Ramblings of a Locked Down Blogger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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