A Series of ‘What If’ Events

Last week I wrote a blog post about my life with spectacles. I’ve worn glasses almost all my life and I thought writing about the world seen through corrective lenses was a pretty good idea. I’ve said many times in this blog that my writing is always aimed at one person in particular and that happens to be me so it’s no surprise that I actually really liked that post.

I tinkered with it for quite a while adding new bits here and there. I made a pretty interesting graphic for it made from shots of myself wearing different pairs of specs. I liked that so much I went a step further and made an animated version, one where the text and the pictures seem to just slip into place.

Feeling pretty pleased with myself I thought I’d make a quick promo video with which to plug the post on Twitter and Facebook. Yes, there I was feeling good about my work and my media profile. I put the video on my Facebook page with a little announcement ‘New Post Coming Tomorrow’. I felt like a real media genius and then while I was scheduling the post for my usual time on Saturday, my big fat fingers slipped and pressed the publish button by mistake. If only it had gone out at the usual time of 10am on Saturday morning, I reckon it would have pulled in so many more readers and potential book buyers. Oh well, if only . . .

I wrote about my old Dad a few weeks back. I wrote specifically about his diary as like me, he was keen on keeping a diary and a notebook. Journaling is important for us writers. Don’t take my word for it; Marcus Aurelius Thought so too and he was a great Roman philosopher and of course, an emperor.

My Dad died when he was 72. He lived, I suppose, a good life. He worked hard and was happy walking his dog and keeping his garden in shape. He enjoyed his favourite sport of boxing and was fond of anyone who might possibly beat Mohammed Ali. Ali, or so Dad thought, was a fraud and the ultimate ‘fix’ was Ali’s fake ‘defeat’ of Dad’s idol, Rocky Marciano, in a so called computer fight.

In his youth Dad had a few years of excitement when he joined the army and his memories of army life he kept with him to the end of his days, sharing little stories every now and then to me and my brother. He left school at 14 and worked on farms because back then before World War II, Wythenshawe, a suburb to the south of Manchester where I was brought up, was very much a rural area before the urban development of the 1950’s and 60’s.

He told me once that a farmer he worked for was moving to a new farm in neighbouring Cheshire, in a village called Lymm. Lymm is a very posh area indeed and because a lot of it is green belt land, few housing developments have emerged there, so today it looks pretty similar to what it did in my Dad’s time. At least it did when I last visited, many years ago. The farmer asked my Dad to come with him to Lymm to work on the new farm. It was a better area he said and he would have sorted Dad out with accommodation but Dad declined, choosing to stay in Wythenshawe with his family. If he had moved he would perhaps have met someone else other than my mother. He would have courted and eventually married this new lady and I might never have been born. If I had still emerged as his son, I would have been substantially different, with a different gene set up and a different background.

Strangely enough, many years later I met an old friend on that long defunct web site Friends Reunited. Alan lived just round the corner from me and as children we used to meet up regularly at either his or my back door and we’d both produce a selection of comics, usually American ones like Batman, Superman, Spiderman and so on and decide which ones to swap. I always liked Batman and Superman but there was also the Green Lantern, The Fantastic Four and a whole host of superheroes that today’s youth are probably more familiar with from the cinema. I enjoyed the first Superman and Batman films and also the first Spiderman movie but some of the rest haven’t really done it for me. Maybe that’s because the comics themselves have changed. In the film world they often talk about rebooting a particular film franchise with new actors playing the parts of the franchise hero. James Bond is probably the film series that started off the notion of franchising.

Sean Connery gave way to George Lazenby; Lazenby gave way to Connery again and then Roger Moore and so on down to the present day Bond, Daniel Craig. The Superman films have been rebooted and also the Batman series. Ages ago I picked up a DVD copy of Batman Begins. I wasn’t crazy about the film, mainly because it was so different from the comic book Batman I used to read. The thing is, while I had been absent from reading comic books and generally getting on with my life, the comic books themselves rebooted with new artists and a new origin story for Batman. In this version Bruce Wayne’s parents are still murdered by a mugger but then Bruce goes off to Tibet or somewhere and in a sequence a little like Batman meets Kung Fu, Bruce, who is Batman’s alter ego in case you didn’t know, is trained in the ancient arts of martial combat. He then returns to Gotham City and becomes Batman.

Yes, other comics have rebooted things too with new artists and new layouts and new back stories for their characters. I didn’t care much for the X-Men films but I did used to read the comic versions. In my day The Beast was one of the X-Men but he is nowhere to be seen in the films and Wolverine must have been just a gleam in some comic book writer’s eye when I read about the X-Men because I had never heard of him until I saw the film

Anyway, getting back to Alan my comic swapping friend. Alan was shorter than me and a pretty tubby guy. In the late 60’s he and his family emigrated to Australia. I never heard from him again until we met, as I mentioned, on Friends Reunited. One day on our internet chat Alan asked me to pass on the regards and best wishes of his Dad on to my Mum. I told her and asked did she remember Alan and his Dad. It turned out that Alan’s Dad was once engaged to my Mother. They had gone out together for a while but Mum liked dancing, Alan’s Dad didn’t and when she went dancing he was forever questioning her, asking her who she was with, who she danced with and so on. Eventually she gave him the bullet.

Of course, if she had married Alan’s Dad, once again I wouldn’t have been born. At least not as I am now. I would have been Alan. I would have been the short chubby lad who liked comics and moved to Australia. The thing is, if my Dad had also married someone else, where would that leave me, buying comics in Australia or flicking through comics in a Cheshire village shop?

Just going back to superheroes for a minute, I reckon it would be kind of good to have some superpowers for a day or so. Not necessarily superpowers even, I’d settle for some martial arts skills. During the period I had the powers or the skills, I’d take no messing from anyone. If anyone was rude to me, they’d get a slap and if someone tried to mug me, well I’d send them flying along with a flea in their ear. Once when I was in my twenties, I arrived at my friend Chris’ house to pick him up for a night out. Sometimes we’d go to the Valley Lodge Hotel near the airport where they had a really good night club. I’d leave my car there and Chris and I would both make our own way home. Sometimes he’d pick me up and we’d go into town and he’d be the one to leave his car somewhere.

Once when I was waiting for him to finish getting ready there was a knock on the door. It was a guy called Dennis. Dennis was a bit of a local villain, a very tough hombre and although I knew him, I didn’t know him very well. He had somehow had his car towed away by the police. I’m not sure why but naturally he wasn’t happy. Actually, he was hopping mad and looked like he wanted to take his anger out on someone. He was visiting his mother’s house a few doors away from Chris when this outrage occurred and he wanted an urgent lift to his friend’s place, a ten minute drive away. Chris suggested I take Dennis while he finished getting dressed. I wasn’t too keen on the idea but went along with it. Five minutes down the road we came across a big fella wandering idly across the road. I beeped my horn but all the guy did was give me the V sign and swear at me so I swerved across the road to miss him. ‘Wait a minute’, said Dennis. ‘That’s well out of order, we’re not having that’.

‘It doesn’t matter’, I said. ‘No! Pull up here’ snapped Dennis. We stopped and Dennis stepped out of the car to advise the big fella that his manners were substantially lacking. The guy didn’t take this well, in fact he wasn’t happy at all and a fight began. Dennis basically taught the guy a major lesson in manners that I doubt he ever forgot. I dropped Dennis off at his friend’s house and he left me with thanks as I had apparently got him out of a major spot. ‘If there’s anything I can ever do for you’ he called, ‘give me a shout’.

Now I had no intention of giving Dennis a shout I can assure you and in fact I never did. The good thing about knowing Dennis though was that his reputation as a tough thug was pretty welcome sometimes. I once met him whilst queuing up to get into Fridays, a local nightclub, and he greeted me like a long-lost friend. He convinced the bouncers to let me in without paying the usual outrageous entrance fee and once inside after chatting with him at the bar for a while, I had the feeling that the local punters were eyeing me with a new found respect.

Another place I liked to frequent was a huge pub called the Snooty Fox. They had live music on at weekends and the place was on two levels with a games area upstairs. It had a late bar so back in those far off days, my friends and I could stay out late without having to pay night club prices. Also it was full of pretty girls waiting to hear whatever corny chat up lines we were using back then. The bouncers on the door were of the big neanderthal gorilla type and to be fair, they needed to be because that bar was a pretty rough place. I remember going in one time and a new bouncer stopped me at the door.

‘I know you from somewhere’ he said, breathing stale donner kebab breath all over me. ‘You look like a trouble maker.’

‘Me? No, I’m a quiet lad. You’ll get no trouble from me’

A bit later on I realised who he was. Yes, he was the guy crossing the road the time that Dennis had given him a lesson in bad manners. That was my last night in the Snooty and I was out of there like the proverbial wonga bird before he realised who I was. Pity! If only I hadn’t given Dennis that lift . .

Here’s one final, ‘what if’ story.

I think I’ve mentioned before in these pages that I went from working in an insurance company to being a bus conductor. Working on the buses wasn’t a great career move by any means but I didn’t like being out of work and for a while that new job was actually quite a lot of fun. Friends told me that working shifts would be the end of my social life but actually it was really the beginning of my social life. At the end of an early shift, I could usually be found down at the busman’s club, playing snooker and pool. After a late shift I’d be heading to the pub for last orders or sometimes heading off to a night club. It was all great fun and as someone who suffered greatly from an intense shyness, I found that being a bus conductor brought me out of myself and that gradually I was becoming more and more confident.

Some years later though the company made us all into one-man drivers and driving through the streets of Manchester on my own wasn’t my cup of tea at all. I was desperate to get another job but I didn’t know how to do it or what to do. One day I decided to start my own business selling motor sport merchandise. I called it Armchair Motorsport and I rented a unit inside the Corn Exchange in Manchester city centre. I worked on my small business for about a year. I didn’t make a great deal of money but I did spend a great deal of time chatting about Formula One racing. In fact, now I think about it, a great many of my customers used to come in and buy me a tea from the nearby café, come in, sit down and we’d talk Formula One.

One of my customers was a big Ferrari fan and was always on the look out for Ferrari memorabilia. There was a particular book he wanted and it took me a long time to get it for him but he was really pleased when I did. He mentioned that he drove a Ferrari and said he’d come down one day and show it to me. On the appointed day he came into the shop and asked me to hurry as he was outside on a double yellow line. We hurried outside and I have to say, I was eager to see his car. I expected a blood red Ferrari Dino or something similar.  As a matter of fact, I fully expected to see my favourite car the Ferrari Dino 246GT, the one driven by Tony Curtis in the TV series The Persuaders.

The car wasn’t a Dino, it was actually a very dull saloon car. It wasn’t even red. It was a rather drab green and I have to say I don’t think I disguised my disappointment very well although my customer assured me that the car drove and handled every bit as well as one might imagine a Ferrari to handle.

The aftermath of the IRA bomb, Manchester, 1996. Photo courtesy of BBC

After a year of relatively poor trading, it was time to sell up and say goodbye to the Corn Exchange. I’ve always wondered if I could have lasted longer. Perhaps if I had advertised more, done more promotions, increased my advertising I could have built up a good business. I could have made a decent amount of money, expanded and perhaps employed some staff so I could have spent more time at home or dining at my favourite restaurants but it was not to be. If only I could have made it work.

Then again, not long afterwards the area was destroyed by an IRA bomb planted nearby. If I’d stayed, if my business had worked out, I could have been blown to pieces.


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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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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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In Search of Dark Beer

Last year my brother and I struggled to get our Christmas pint in before Christmas so this year we decided to meet up early and make sure we did. My brother hates it when I drag him round book and music shops so I decided to go out early, have a bit of a nosey about then meet him later for drinks. In particular I was on a quest for that rare item in British pubs today, dark beers; stouts, porters and mild.

Manchester in December is nothing short of an absolute madhouse. The streets were packed, as were the shops. I had a look round a couple of my favourite shops but the rain was relentless and so I retreated into the Arndale centre to dry out. There are a couple of cheapie book shops in there that I always look at and then there is the – actually a shop I can’t remember the name of but it sells all kinds of geeky stuff that appeals to me; CD cases, electronic items, leads, blank media and so on, so I always spend a lot of time looking round there.

Feeling a little hungry I wandered over to the market area and realised it was actually years since I had been there. To my surprise, there was a whole hall of small stalls and shops that I had never seen before. As I moved further inside I discovered a sort of street food area with some tasty looking food. The whole area seemed to be screened off from the rest of the Arndale which is probably why it was relatively quiet compared with everywhere else. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve been in this part of the Arndale since it was redeveloped years ago.

The Micro Bar.

In the street food area there were stalls selling various types of food. I spotted Mexican, Thai, Chinese and Indian stalls but then I came across a Greek takeaway and picked up some Greek Gyros in pitta bread with salad and some cooling yoghurt for £4. Lovely! I wandered about looking for a table and sat myself down only to find I had settled down in front of what was a small bar, appropriately called the Micro Bar, selling some tasty real ales. The barman offered me a taster of the porter he had on. Sadly it was a plum porter, a dark beer flavoured with a plum essence. It wasn’t for me! There seems to be a trend in drinks today calling for fruit flavoured drinks. Various flavours of gin are available in pubs. I even saw a rhubarb gin the other day I shudder to add. Cider is another drink that comes with various fruit flavoured varieties.

I called for a pint of a tasty golden ale to wash down my Gyros and sat back and waited for my brother, watching the horde of shoppers and office workers braving the lashing wind and rain down the High street.

The Grey Horse.

Pint of MildWe decided to take in some of the old and the new of licensed premises in the city. First stop was our old favourite, the Grey Horse, one of the smallest pubs in Manchester but also a pub that serves that classic dark beer, mild. Don’t you just hate it when you go in a pub nowadays and the teenage barman looks at you like you are a nutter when you ask for a pint of mild just because the average teenage barman has never heard of it? Well in a proper pub like the Grey Horse that just never happens.

I think I have mentioned before, in the evening of my years (just a minute, late afternoon surely?) I have moved away from lagers and closer towards the darker beers to be found in life’s brewery. As often as not I end up drinking Guinness or some random guest beer but in the Grey Horse they serve a lovely dark mild.

Pubs and bars are driven by the younger generation and their drink of choice is lager which explains the distinct lack of porters, stouts and mild available these days. For me, I must admit I do drink lager but it’s mild and Guinness I’m always on the lookout for.

As the afternoon moved into early evening we decided to take a wander down to the so-called ‘Northern Quarter’ of Manchester. Really the Northern Quarter is just a PR exercise, a rebranding of the older and more run down area of Manchester, actually Ancoats, so that younger and less savvy people like myself can be lured into small bars that were once probably shops or offices and now charge incredible prices for drinks.

Luckily it was my brother who got saddled with a ridiculous bill for two drinks and not me but now armed with this new information, that the rebranding of this area is just an excuse to double prices, we wandered back to more sensible pubs.

Albert’s Schloss.

For one last pint we went into Albert’s Schloss, a sort of modern German Beer Keller sort of place packed with people and serving lager at inflated prices. (Though not as inflated as the Northern Quarter!) No dark beers to be found there but Albert’s was actually a fun place full of city centre workers spending their hard-earned cash.  I enjoyed that pint of pilsner. Pity I couldn’t have had one last dark beer.

Dark Beers in Classic Film.

Back in the war years dark beers were the more accepted drink for men in the UK. I remember watching ‘The Way to the Stars’, a 1945 war picture in which John Mills, a ground controller at a world war 2 airfield, stays behind when his squadron is posted overseas. The new squadron are a US Army Air Force group flying B-17 Flying Fortresses. John Mills’ character takes the Yanks out for a few beers and is surprised to see them drinking pale ales which he and the other Brits consider a little ‘ladylike’ to use his words! Straight away he introduces them to some dark beers.

Which classic film buff can forget John Ford’s The Quiet Man? John Wayne plays a retired American boxer returning to his roots in Ireland. He steps into the pub, looks around and orders ‘one of those black beers’. John Wayne knew a good pint when he saw one.

St Annes on the Sea.

A couple of days later, back in St Annes, Liz and I popped into the Number 15, one of our favourite local pubs. The premises used to be a bank and what was once the bank vault is now a cosy room at the back. The great thing about 15’s is that along with many guest beers they serve one of my absolute favourites, Theakston’s mild.

I ordered the drinks and waited eagerly at the bar while the barmaid went off to pull our beers. She was back a moment later with an apologetic look. ‘Sorry’ she said, ‘I’d forgotten, we’re not serving mild any more. There’s no call for it these days!’

Clearly I hadn’t been drinking enough of it!


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

Airports and Things

These last few weeks have seen something of a heatwave in the UK and of course we Brits are just not equipped to cope with extreme heat, well not in the UK anyway. In Spain the buildings are built to keep out the heat where as in the UK, our houses are insulated and are made to hang on to the heat throughout the cooler parts of the year as well as the usual dismal summers.

When I was a child a great lure for me on a hot summer’s day was the airport. My friends and I used to cycle to Manchester Airport and sometimes lurk around the terraces that used to welcome ‘plane spotters’ or more often than not, we used to ride around the back of the airport and wander down secret (or so we thought) lanes and avenues that backed onto the runway. We always headed for a popular spot, an old world war 2 pillbox where we would meet and observe the aircraft. I remember spending many happy hours there, jotting down all sorts of thoughts in my childhood notebooks while listening to the appealing drone of light aircraft or the exciting blast of jet engines. I sometimes imagined that the reason I so loved that light aircraft droning sound was that perhaps I was a World War One fighter ace in a previous life when that sound would have been so much a part of my existence.

Some time later, I think I was in my twenties, I knew someone who had an ambition to be a pilot and was taking lessons at Blackpool Airport. He used to alleviate his tuition costs by taking friends or colleagues on his training flights if they would drive him up to Blackpool.

On the day that I joined James (as usual, names have been changed to protect the innocent) as an eager passenger, I drove up to Blackpool Airport pretty excited. James advised that on the day he would be doing some instrument tests which involved flying the aircraft on instruments alone.

I stepped into the back of the small plane and strapped myself in. It was a hot day and the aircraft had a huge glass cockpit making it warmer still. I was at a point when I thought I would have to get out and cool off but just then the instructor turned up. He was an older chap and brought his big woolly dog along as he enjoyed, well so I was told, flying. Fido was led in to the rear seat with me and we eyed each other warily as he was strapped in.

The engine was started, we taxied out on to the runway and a few moments later we were aloft. It was exhilarating to look down on Blackpool and the tower, a place where I had spent many happy holidays as a child. After a while James had to put on a rather odd-shaped helmet which blocked out the view through the windscreen and he could only see his instruments. The small plane flew higher and higher, Blackpool Tower becoming the merest pinprick in the distance. Then the engine stopped.

image courtesy wikipedia.

image courtesy Wikipedia.

I’m not sure if you have ever seen one of those World War Two films when German Stuka bombers hurtle down at their targets with a banshee type wail. I only mention that because it seemed very much akin to our current situation and not only that, the pilot was lucky on this occasion that it wasn’t me issuing the wail, but as we hurtled towards the ground, Fido and I eyed each other with mutual fear in our eyes.

“Now come on James” said the instructor. “What have we forgotten?”

Fido pawed the back of the pilot’s seat in a vain attempt to jog his memory but our downward path continued. If you ever happen to see that rather old film ‘The Sound Barrier’ you might get some idea of our situation hurtling down towards the earth with Blackpool Tower looming ever closer in our windscreen.

“You’ve forgotten something haven’t you? The instructor might have been talking to a learner driver who had not put his hand brake on at the traffic lights.

“What if I mentioned the mixture?”

If that was a hint it was certainly in a much better class than his previous comments but either way the pilot got the message, adjusted the engine mixture and our tiny aircraft’s propeller burst into renewed life and not long later we touched down rather bumpily back in Blackpool.

“Watch out” said the instructor, “Fido gets a bit excited when we land.”

If this was a typical flight with his master then it was clear to me why Fido was excited when he landed but anyway, the dog gave me a look which said in its canine way “We made it!” and hopped out of the plane. James completed his flying studies and left our company. He went on, I assume, to a career in aviation and we never met again but I have learnt one thing.

Next time, if on the way to Spain, the engines of our jet airliner conk out I’ll be shouting to the pilot “What about the mixture!?”

Much has changed with aircraft and airports since those far off days. Also when I was a child, my father who never owned and could not drive a car, took us, my mother and brother and Bob our dog, on long walks around the area. Many times we would end up at a lovely old pub called the Romper where my brother and I would get crisps (chips to you American readers) and a glass of fizzy pop before setting off on the walk back home. There would usually be somewhere to buy some fresh eggs or vegetables which we would have later. The road that took us to the Romper has now been enveloped by the ever-expanding airport and the Romper itself is also quite different. I fondly remember it as having comfy old chairs inside and no pumps at the bar: The barstaff used to fill a jug direct from the casks of ale and pour beer from that. The last time I went into the Romper was at least ten years ago. It was a posh and polite bar and eating house. Nothing stays the same.

Airports have been in the news a lot lately because the government has decided to approve the building of a third runway at Heathrow, despite this meaning the destruction of 700 houses and the entire village of Sipson. It’s pretty probable that noise pollution will increase as well as increased greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s a similar situation at Manchester airport where, as I said earlier, the airport seems to be expanding all the time. A new complaint at Manchester is that where motorists have been able to drop off and pick up passengers freely, a new charge of £3 has come into effect. Three pounds, just to drop your friends or relatives off for their flight!

Personally, I’d advocate a string of smaller airports around the country which would mean people wouldn’t have to travel so far to big airports like Heathrow or Manchester. Liz and I used to use Blackpool airport quite frequently. It’s a fairly small place, very handy for us and those in the local area and it was a little like a friendly bus station until Jet2 stopped flying from there and the location returned to helicopter and light aircraft use.

If you look back at the history of aviation, you’ll see that in the 1960’s Hawker Siddeley developed the Harrier Jump Jet, a fighter aircraft which could take off and land vertically! So why has that concept not been taken up by the commercial aviation world? Imagine airports with VTOL aircraft. No lengthy runways taking up space. What are today’s generation of boffins up to? Get working on vertical take off and landing guys!

This seems to be an appropriate point to plug, no not Floating in Space but one of the videos on my YouTube page. You might breathe a sigh of relief, regular readers, to know that it’s not another video about that aforementioned novel (wonderful read though it is) but a re-edit of my second most popular video, a look at Manchester Airport back in 1986.

The original has had 7.8 thousand views which is pretty impressive but as it is enhanced by the top 20 chart music of the time, all of which is copyright protected of course, no royalties are payable to me. Naturally, that was quite a motivation for me to re-edit the film with some new copyright free music. Just as I had finished YouTube announced that as I have less than 1000 followers I am no longer eligible to be a YouTube ‘partner’ and therefore ineligible for any royalties.

My old friend Steve, now longer with us, introduces various aspects of the airport, a place he loved and knew a great deal about. A few years later I took the original video and edited him out, substituted some new video and added a lot of Steve’s introductions into my voice over narration. He wasn’t happy. Not long ago when I copied the video to DVD ready to convert to digital for yet another re-edit, my laptop would not accept the digital data. I sometimes think that maybe his spirit was watching over making sure that particular version never made it to YouTube. Oh well, perhaps I’ll leave it for another day, a day when I’m eligible for YouTube royalties!


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

Manchester, 41 Years On

A lot has changed in Manchester city centre, at least on the surface, but to a great extent it’s still the same city as it always was. My book, Floating in Space is, as you probably know if you have ever visited this web page before, set in Manchester in 1977 and I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the city, some 41 years later.

In 1977 there was no internet, no mobile phones and wireless was an old fashioned word that our parents used for the radio. Manchester was a busy and bustling city even back in 1977. People came into the city to shop, visit the cinema, eat at restaurants, drink beer and socialise in pubs and bars, pretty much just as they do today.

I loved my Saturday nights in Manchester. There was a quality of security, of expectancy, a feeling that the night and the future were going to be good. A feeling that you might just meet some gorgeous girl and that even if you didn’t, it didn’t really matter because there was always the excitement of the people and the music, and everything else that made up the evening. Then there was always the expectancy of the next night, and the next, and on and on into the future. The past building up inside you like a great data bank, reminding you, reassuring you, like a light burning in some empty room in the corner of your mind.

The main venue for me and my friends on a Saturday night in 1977 was the ‘Playground’, a small disco bar on Oxford Rd in the town centre. Flickering multi-coloured spotlights rotated across the red carpeted room which, on Fridays and Saturdays, was generally packed.

It had a small dance floor down at street level and when people stepped up to the bar, which was up on a slightly raised level, they could look down at the dancing, gyrating and mostly female dancers. Interestingly, on the same dance floor 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 then make the short walk to the Playground. There was a paltry fifty pence charge to gain entry, 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, (Barry White’s backing band) played alternate sessions of rock, disco and chart music.

We were 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 whilst the music of the seventies drifted through us.

Those then, are my memories of Saturday nights in Manchester. Beer, music, girls and a kebab or curry before getting the late bus home.

I’m sure there are still Saturday nights like that, in Manchester’s 21st century world. Most of the pubs I used to frequent are still there, repainted, refurbished and in some cases re-named. They may look different but peel away those new outer layers and you’ll find things pretty much the same. Different decor, different music but still very similar people enjoying an evening of drinks, music and chat.

The Salisbury is still there. Today it looks just like it always did. Inside the pub has been refurbished but in a good way and it looks pretty similar to how it used to look. The room where my friends used to sit has gone. It’s now an office or a private room. Still, the same flagged stone floor is there and whenever I step inside the memories come flooding back.

The Playground is still there too, well not the Playground exactly but the building is there. It’s now the Palace Theatre bar and what it looks like inside I do not know. The last time I passed by it was closed but I imagine that the DJ’s booth and the dance floor have gone. Perhaps Jenny passes by and remembers the old times just like me. Perhaps not, perhaps it was just another bar job to her.

Once upon a time in 1977 I was a young office clerk who ate his sandwiches in St Peter’s Square on sunny weekday lunchtimes. All is different there now. Today Manchester looks cleaner and sleeker. Modern buildings of steel and glass sit side by side with traditional architecture and through it all glides the modern tram, toot tooting its way through the city.

Even at the old end of town, things are cleaner, smoother. Warehouses and old buildings have been reformed into trendy bars and restaurants and dance music venues. A short walk from Deansgate Station takes you to the Dukes 92, a lovely and trendy canalside bar but take plenty of money with you, it’s not cheap!

Walking up Peter St from Deansgate, the Café  Royale is gone. There is a bar called Henry’s Schloss, a huge Beer Keller sort of place where 2 pints of lager cost nearly ten pounds and large groups of men quaff beer and enjoy themselves. It’s not really my sort of place.

Just round the corner though, is a place that is my sort of place, the Abercromby, actually the Sir Ralph Abercromby, is one of those pubs that is a little like stepping into a time capsule. The decor is authentic seventies with lots of stained dark wood and leather seats and they serve a decent pint. I read on the internet that it was the model for the pub in the TV show Life on Mars. The former footballer turned property developer Gary Neville apparently wanted to knock down not only the pub but an entire block in the area to build two skyscrapers and a hotel. The fact that the pub dates back to the early 19th Century and is the only structure remaining from St Peter’s Field, site of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre clearly meant nothing to him. Happily the council planners would not let him have his way.

As you read this on a Saturday morning the cleaners are busy in those Manchester bars. The chillers will be stocked, the carpets cleaned and the tables polished. New barrels of beer and lager will be made ready.

Everything is ready for another Saturday night.


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Personal Encounters with George Best

I can’t say I have ever been interested in football. As a matter of fact I’d go as far as saying I not only hate football but I can’t even stand the sound of a ball being kicked anywhere near me. Strange then, you must be thinking, for me to be writing a football post. Then again, I’m a Manchester lad, a town that boasts two Premier League football teams and a town that looks at George Best as both an adopted son and as one its icons.

George Best. Picture courtesy Wikipedia

Back in the late sixties and early seventies, George Best was Manchester’s very own celebrity sports superstar. In fact, George was a superstar before the word was even coined.

George came from Northern Ireland and arrived at old Trafford having been signed up by the club in 1961. He lasted only a matter of days before homesickness drove him back to Ireland. Later he came back for another try and this time he stayed. He made his debut for United’s first team in 1963 and scored his first goal for the team in only his second appearance.

Despite all I have said above about hating football I did visit Manchester United’s ground many times in the early seventies. My old friend Mark was a great United fan and we used to travel up to Old Trafford on the train and watch the game from the Stretford End. Later, Mark’s dad used to pick us up and drop me off at home. On the 24th October, 1973, Mark and I went to see Tony Dunne’s testimonial game and although Best wasn’t at his peak, he lit up the pitch with his talent.

He was dribbling the ball, flicking it back and forth and through peoples’ legs, changing direction and making the other players look like amateurs. At one point he seemed to run out of steam and become tired like an ordinary person and not the super fit athlete he should have been but his incredible ability and ball control was there for all to see.

On another occasion my friends and I travelled into Manchester by bus to hang about Best’s Boutique near to Deansgate. We never saw the man in person although what we would have done if we had, I don’t know. Ask for an autograph perhaps? I don’t know but at that time George Best had a kind of fame that was on a par with a film star, The newspapers even dubbed him the fifth Beatle in the sixties because of his Beatle like haircut and his undeniable charisma.

Amazingly, despite his celebrity status in the late sixties, he lived in digs in the Manchester suburb of Chorlton with his landlady Mary Fullaway; digs that had been arranged by his football club, Manchester United. Hardly the place for a footballer of Best’s status to rest his head, so in 1969 Best asked architect Frazer Crane to design him a new house. His only demands were apparently a sunken bath and a snooker room. Crane designed a modern building with a white-tiled exterior with full length floor to ceiling windows and electronically operated curtains.

There was an underground car park for Best’s Jaguar E Type and the house had all the latest gadgets such as under-floor heating and a TV that would retract into the chimney stack. The finished house was the ultimate bachelor pad for a man already famous for chasing the young ladies.

picture courtesy Daily Mail

When I did a search on the Internet the house is described as being in Bramhall, that posh suburb and home to Manchester’s very rich before they started gravitating towards Hale. Actually, I remember the house as being in Cheadle Hulme, a very smart area of private houses just prior to Bramhall.

When Best moved into the house, my friends and I piled into someone’s battered old banger car and drove up to take a look. The newspapers had reported that the house looked rather like a public toilet which was a little unfair. It looked rather nice to me, very modern and worth every penny of the £35,000 it reportedly cost. The day my friends and I visited, there seemed to be crowds of people around, in fact, I even remember a coach parked up there. People had come from miles around to get a closer look at the number one footballer of the day and his new house. My friends and I chatted for a while, supped a couple of cans of coke and then went on our way.

Years later I was saddened to learn that Best would arrive home to find the same traffic jam on his doorstep and even had to ask people to move so he could gain access to the property. He might have been tired after a day’s training and perhaps fancied a quiet cuppa and some TV viewing, but the crowds gawping at him from outside made him want to turn the whole house around so he could escape the commotion outside his full length windows, a commotion that I was part of. The house should have represented a sort of freedom to the young footballer. Instead, it became a sort of prison and Best soon afterwards moved back to his Chorlton digs.

Years afterwards when I became a bus conductor and later a driver, the shift work seemed to spur my colleagues and me to seek out more and more social events. After an early shift we would spend afternoons at snooker and pool clubs and after a late shift we would go to late night bars and clubs that overlooked our bus uniforms. Sometimes we would take a nice shirt to put on in order to enter a smarter class of establishment. One night we went into a small place in Chorlton. I don’t remember the name but it was near to the old bus station. You had to climb up a set of stairs, knock on the door and a small hatch would open and a face would scrutinise you for a while. If you were known or looked not too thuggish, the door would open and the doorman would bid you to enter.

On this occasion my colleague, who was apparently a regular, vouched for me; we entered and went in search of the bar. The place as I remember was a series of small rooms. We ordered our drinks and went to take a look around, perhaps to see who was in; any friends or other bus colleagues. As we were about to enter one small room the landlady stopped us and said ‘George has had a bad day at training today so don’t go mythering him.’ I looked through the open door and there was George Best himself. He was sitting with a small group of friends or acquaintances and was chatting and drinking something that looked like lemonade but could easily have been a vodka.

That was my last personal encounter with George Best. Like many I watched his decline with increasing sadness. He was sacked by Manchester United and when Sir Matt Busby retired, a number of subsequent managers tried to wrestle Best back into the United fold but with only limited success. ‘Best misses Training’ seemed to be a regular headline in the Manchester Evening News and finally George played his last game for United. The incredible gaze of the media made life so very hard for George. I can’t think of any other footballer of the time whose life was under such an intense media spotlight. Once, when he had missed training, the press tracked him down to actress Sinead Cusack’s London flat and numerous bulletins were broadcast from outside the building. Best must have watched the TV news with horror.

Perhaps experiences like that drove him to drink. Perhaps he just liked the night life too much. Perhaps the descent into alcoholism was something George never even noticed, a gradual slide that saw heavy drinking become something else. There is a scene in ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ that I’ve always found very telling. Chief Bromden, an apparently deaf and dumb native American Indian tells the story of his father’s drinking.

The last time I seen my father, he was blind and diseased from drinking. And every time he put the bottle to his mouth, he didn’t suck out of it, it sucked out of him until he shrunk so wrinkled and yellow even the dogs didn’t know him.’

George moved to the USA and played for a number of teams over there when ‘soccer’ as the Americans call it was gaining popularity. He battled with his problems for a long time after marrying his wife Angie and having a son but the booze would always be in the background. I watched a BBC documentary a while ago where Angie recounted a story about when she was taking her son to hospital in heavy rain. She drove past a man, drenched to the skin walking home drunk. She realised two things. One, the man was George, Two, she was finished with him.

George Best died of multiple organ failure after a kidney infection in 2005.


If you liked this post you can read more about Manchester in the 1970’s in my book Floating in Space. Click the links at the top of the page to find out more or watch the video below.

Manchester, Metrolink and the Saga of a Mobile Phone

The other day I was staying at my Mum’s house in Manchester. It’s always nice to be back in the old home town. I was meeting my brother in the city centre and he advised me the best way to get there was by using the Metrolink, Manchester’s tram service.

Now, from my Mum’s place to Manchester city centre by car, it takes about twenty to thirty minutes, depending on traffic. The bus which comes down her road takes nearly an hour, why? Because it takes in a tour of various small estates within the larger housing estate of Wythenshawe, then takes another tour around Sharston and Northenden, eventually ending up in Piccadilly.

The tram is no quicker. It too takes the passenger on a tour of Wythenshawe before passing through Chorlton and Trafford and finally ending up in Manchester.

Cornbrook is a place I’ve never heard of before. It’s a remote tram staging post at the outskirts of the city centre. It looks like a vast industrial area where in the recent past, passengers from Manchester airport have to change to get to the city centre. Metrolink have done a lot of advertising recently telling the public that we no longer have to change at Cornbrook for the city centre: Wrong! You can go a stop further to Deansgate, the very edge of the city  but if you want to go to the heart of the city, Piccadilly for instance, you still have to change trams so sorry Metrolink, your publicity is just not true!

I should add that there is a tram every few minutes so it’s not a great inconvenience to have to change but it’s still rather annoying because the trams are always pretty packed. They vary from absolutely jam-packed to pretty busy and it makes you wonder where all these people come from. Are the buses all now running empty? Are there hundreds of cars left at home or have a great load of travelling public suddenly appeared from nowhere? I don’t know but the trams are certainly packing them in.

One other observation about the trams: It is a very impersonal way of travelling. There are no conductors and the driver is shut away in his cab. The passengers are all locked into their smartphones, many with earplugs further blocking out the outside world and passengers have to buy their tickets from a machine by the station platforms.

Anyway, it was nice to be in Manchester again. My brother and I were due to shoot some video of me blathering on about my book, Floating in Space, and once again urging the public to buy it. He however had found a mobile phone, a rather nice Samsung device costing I would guess between 150 to 200 pounds. He went to drop it in at Wythenshawe police station, a new building erected in the last few years. It is pretty big so I assume the local constabulary are expecting a lot of business. Anyway when he went round it was closed, as was another police station he tried. He called the police on the non emergency number but the officer who answered urged my brother to go to the station!

A little frustrated he had brought the phone with him to Manchester and I said we could go to the police station near to St Peter’s square and relax afterwards with a drink in the old pub the Abercromby, a watering house I had not visited in years. Alas, the cop shop was closed down and looked ready for demolition, no doubt ready to make way for a brand new futuristic office block which as we know are in short supply these days, so we took refuge in the pub.

The Abercromby, actually the Sir Ralph Abercromby was one of those pubs that is a little like stepping into a time capsule. The decor was authentic seventies with lots of stained dark wood and leather seats and they served a decent pint. I later read on the internet that it was the model for the pub in the TV show Life on Mars. The former footballer turned property developer Gary Neville apparently wants to knock down not only the pub but an entire block in the area to build two skyscrapers and a hotel. The fact that the pub dates back to the early 19th Century and is the only structure remaining from St Peter’s Field, site of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre clearly means nothing to him or to the council planners.

The mobile phone was locked so we were unable to get access to any stored numbers and we also noticed it was set to silent so it wasn’t easy to pick up incoming calls. Two calls came and went while we chatted, both of us too slow to pick up the call. Eventually my brother answered a call from the owner, arranged to meet him and hand over the mobile. That sorted, we decided to get on with our video shoot.

There was another camera crew in our chosen location in St Peter’s Square. They had an impressive looking camera and tripod but we found ourselves a spot away from them and with my mobile phone sized video camera, hand-held by my brother, we set to work. The result was something vaguely similar to other videos I have made but this time I tried to evoke the spirit of the 1970’s by mentioning people, music and films from the time. For instance, in 1977 (the year Floating in Space is set) the Prime Minister was James Callaghan, the US President was Jimmy Carter, a hit album from Fleetwood Mac was Rumours and so on. I’ll post the result after the usual editing process. (I edit in a way similar to George Stevens, the director of Giant with James Dean and Shane starring Alan Ladd to name but two of his classic movies. I review all my footage, all fifteen minutes of it, and take my time with the final cut. Any similarity to George Steven’s work will probably not be evident!)

The fellow who had lost his mobile duly arrived to meet my brother, said thanks and took away his phone. Now I may sound a little churlish here but my brother had saved the man a good £150 to £200. He had made numerous efforts to hand the phone to the police and had politely resisted my outrageous but not totally serious suggestion to keep the phone for himself. In a similar situation I think I might have offered £10 or even a fiver to the finder of my lost phone for his honesty and efforts.

No such luck on this occasion so whoever you are Mr Recently Reunited with your Mobile Phone -shame on you!


Floating in Space is available from Amazon.co.uk Click the links at the top of the page for more information.

Swimming pools, Pubs, and the March of Time.

swimming poolThe Swimming Pool.

Time changes everything. Even in this remote (well, remote-ish) part of the world (the Cher region of France, as I write this) there are changes. The great thing about this gîte is the rather lovely pool which last year was open to the elements with a large patio but has now been covered by an enclosure, an abri as they call it here. It keeps the water warmer and means that the pool is useable in the cooler parts of the year. It also means that the pool complies with all the bureaucracy that goes with having a pool in France. Every pool must be protected against the accidental falling in of children so a small fence has to encircle the pool to keep wandering and unescorted children out of the water. We used to rent a place in the Loire which had a sort of concertina cover, which was in sections, one fitting into the other which could be all pushed completely back, opening up the pool in hot weather. Sacré Bleu! Said the French bureaucrats, This cannot be possible! That pool soon had the mandatory fence erected covering the exits. The owner was a little surprised when we pointed out that when the concertina covering was pushed back the fence could be bypassed. Mon Dieu! The next day we found that parts of the concertina had been screwed down, meaning it could only be opened within the fenced area. C’est la vie!

Photo by the author.

This is how the pool looked last year

Health and safety has reared its ugly head here too. There is a metal hand rail that leads one down into the pool but of course when it is hot -this year in the 90’s and hotter- the metal handrail gets . . hot! One of the previous tenants complained so the owners added a sort of padding, wrapped around the rail to protect one’s hands and fingers in the hot weather. (Note to self: exposed metal gets hot in 90 degrees plus!)

It’s funny now to think back to the first ever pool I swam in. Well, swam isn’t exactly the right word as I couldn’t swim then. I’m talking about when I was a schoolboy at Sharston school in Wythenshawe, Manchester many years ago. Every Monday, I think it was, we walked down to the baths at Sharston and our teacher sent our small group of non swimmers down to the shallow end, issued us with a polystyrene float and that was the last we saw of him till the end of the lesson. He spent all his time with the ‘advanced’ swimmers down at the deep end and at the end of the year he expressed himself very dissatisfied with our group as we hadn’t progressed to the ‘advanced’ stage. I wonder sometimes, if he had ever thought why we hadn’t progressed? Did it ever enter into his tiny mind for one minute that my schoolmates and I had no idea how to progress, how to become swimmers when apart from being handed a float, we actually had no swimming tuition at all? Strange that.

sharston

Sharston Baths

One year, at the end of the term, our teacher was so disappointed with our group that he took us up to the deep end where our more advanced schoolmates were doing their swimming proficiency medals. They had to jump into the deep end wearing pyjamas, undress, and then pick up a weight from the deep end. It was so very, very, easy that even we, the non swimmers could do it, he said. That was how I was compelled to jump in at the deep end wearing pyjamas, hanging onto a very long wooden pole with our swimming teacher holding the other end. I grappled about underwater for the weight and couldn’t find it. Not surprising really with my eyes shut. I couldn’t get the pyjamas off. Not surprising either as I hung onto the pole with both hands as if my life depended on it -which it did actually- and when finally dragged spluttering and choking to the surface, I was beached on the side of the pool like a stranded whale. My non swimming pals escorted me back to the shallow end like a hero. I must have been a sort of hero, to them, although inside I was a gibbering wreck, although I do remember thinking that if, by some strange chance I had come into contact with the weight at the bottom of the pool, I would have seriously considered whacking our teacher over the head with it!

I’m not a great swimmer but I finally learned to swim, after a fashion, in the warm waters off the South of France many years ago and as for my swimming teacher, Mr George, thanks for not completely drowning me!

Sharston.

Some years later the local planners decided to run the M56 Sharston bypass right through the centre of Sharston. A deep trench was cut, completely obliterating Sharston High street and its shops and businesses.  (Interesting idea that: Bypassing a place by completely obliterating it!) Some years afterwards Sharston Pool was knocked down too, as was Sharston Highways depot where my Dad used to work, and my old school, Sharston High, as was the school of our arch enemies, St John Vianney’s Catholic school round the corner. Yes, times indeed change.

Towards the top of Sharston, where Princess Parkway begins, is an area known as Royal Thorn. A pub bearing that same name used to stand there and an even older pub stood on the site in earlier days. Apparently the name dates back to the 16th century. The Royal Thorn was demolished a number of years ago though I still remember Sunday afternoon walks round the area which culminated in a drink in the large gardens to the rear of the pub. I, as a child, used to get a lemonade and a packet of crisps and would occasionally run to see the steam trains passing by.

sharston-hotelThe Sharston Hotel, once a local landmark is also gone. In its place stands an empty, unused, rather unattractive building.

The Salisbury.

Recently I was rather shocked to find, via Facebook, that an old haunt of mine, the Salisbury, a pub right by Oxford Road Station in Manchester, is in danger of demolition! Times move on, clearly, and the life of the city centre must change but why do we have to destroy those wonderful places of years gone by if it is not really, really, necessary? Shouldn’t the face of a great town like Manchester adequately reflect the past as well as the future?

The Salisbury

The Salisbury is a lovely old pub and one that I remember from my youth. In the mid seventies I left school and started work at the Refuge Assurance company on Oxford Rd and spent many a lunchtime and early evening at the Salisbury. I visited the pub last year and clearly a refurb has been done but happily it was a sympathetic refurb and the pub looks very, very similar to how it looked in the seventies. The stone flagged floor is still there. The food serving area has moved, in fact the bar has moved a little and the end of the pub, where my old office workmates and I used to congregate is now either an office or a private area but substantially, the pub looks pretty similar to how it used to look. On the outside, the pub is exactly the same as it always looked, and every time I see it, it is almost like the past, welcoming me back again.

Manchester city council, please, please don’t knock this pub down!

Thanks to the Facebook Wythenshawe page for the old pics of Sharston.


If you liked this post, why not try my book, Floating In Space? Click the links at the top of the page for more information.

paperback writer!

It’s been a long wait but you can finally buy the Floating In Space paperback version from Amazon! Just click on the picture below to take you to literary heaven! (OK, that’s a little over the top but, what the heck?)

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