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.


Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester 1977

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.

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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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Writers Block and Promotional Videos

Every writer gets there eventually; the point where a blank piece of paper stares back at you and you can’t think of anything to put on it. I’ve always tried to write, even when nothing will come to mind, and it’s then I open my diary and write about me and things that I can chronicle and maybe even turn into a poem or a blog. I guess that’s why so many of my blogs are about my personal past, I’ll be writing about myself and something comes to me, a little light goes on and I start thinking, ‘hey, this could be a good blog!’

Diaries are a good way to keep you writing, because something is always happening in your life, even something ever so minor. ‘Watched that Old Bond film last night, Goldfinger. Had a glass of whisky and scoffed half a large fruit and nut bar.’ Not a great diary entry but so what, you are writing again and as more and more words start to come, you are writing and creating more and more. You’ve beaten the blank page and produced something. Not only that, diaries are great to look back on. I tend to open one and look back and see what I did on this day on a past year. 14th September, 1996? Wonder what happened then? Wonder what I was doing? Who was I spending my time with?

Just lately I’ve been waiting for the latest proof version of my book with my latest revisions and the curse of the blank page has hit me. So, I decided to step back from writing and make a few videos about Manchester and maybe link them up with a half hearted idea about talking to camera about events that my book was based on. All the locations in the book, well the pubs anyway, are real life locations, real pubs and in my video I take a look back at some of those places.

The video started well but it took a while for me and my brother to get the hang of what we were doing. He was filming and I was talking. We shot some footage then retired to the pub to check it out. One of the pubs we went to was the Salisbury, a pub I used to frequent years ago and a pub that looks today, pretty much just how it used to look years ago. Even inside the pub; it had clearly had a refurb, but it had been done thoughtfully and the pub with its polished wooden bar and flagged stone floors looked pretty similar to how it used to look. The only thing was that back in the late seventies and early eighties when I used to drink there, my friends and I used to sit in a room at the far end of the pub which nowadays looks as though it’s a private function room, so I couldn’t just sit back in my old seat and remember the times gone by.

Anyway, we reviewed our video, made a few suggestions and shot some more takes. Much better ones. Then we decided to wander down to some other locations. We shot some more video then retired to the pub for another review. We were on our way to the Briton’s Protection when we called into the Rains pub which has a really nice beer garden backing onto the canal. After a few pints I had some ideas in my head for some more filming so my brother cranked up the camera. ‘It’s not working,’ he said so I told him to press the record button again then went off into what I thought was a pretty interesting monologue. Later we realised that the camera was recording when my brother thought it wasn’t so when he pressed the record button the second time it went into pause mode. A great monolgue lost for prosperity! Anyway, at least we had a great afternoon out. As for the video, well, take a look for yourself:

Self Publishing and more Shameless Self Promotion!

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Thought I’d write a quick update about Floating In Space. I’ve been a bit slow in producing the paperback version but a few weeks ago I thought I’d finally sorted it out. I’d got a good PDF file so all I needed to do was upload that to createspace.com, order a proof copy and the book should be ready in a few weeks if not sooner! The thing is, that’s not how it actually worked out.

Writing a book is a pretty big thing but I’m not sure I’d say it was a hard or even a difficult task. Of course, when it’s something you like doing, something that gives you pleasure, hard or difficult hardly comes into it, but editing and proofreading, that’s a different matter.

Spelling mistakes are an issue though most of them can be caught by spellchecker but even then there are some things that slip through. Sometimes spellchecker will okay a word even though it’s wrong, like a correct word but used in the wrong context for instance. And grammar, well there’s a sticky subject that I find really hard work, I thought I knew about grammar until I came to edit my book. No wonder people make a living by proof reading, it’s difficult and involves going over stuff you have written time and time again.  I’ve been DSC_0293through my book so many times I’ve developed a sort of word blindness, I seem to be skimming over things and reading from memory rather than the printed word. I think I’ve got the definitive version, order a proof copy then spot a mistake in print that I couldn’t see in the word or PDF version! In my latest version I thought the font was too big so I resized it, tidied up the chapter headings and some other things I’d spotted, sorted out the PDF file and thought; great, finally sorted it. When I looked through the book on line I noticed various big gaps in the text and on further examination there were various section breaks in the word version that required eliminating! Anyway, I think I’m nearly there!

The Kindle version has been updated with spelling mistakes amended, duplicated words removed, and a small index added to help you understand 1970s England! It’s also got a much nicer cover than the print version, even though it was created using the same cover photo. What’s really odd is that the Kindle worked better with a word file rather than a PDF, while the print version works better with the PDF.

Any of you self published authors had silimar issues? let me know. I’ll feel much better if I know I’m not the only one!

Karma, Buses, and the Interconnected Universe.

blogtitileI was on the late shift this week and indulged in some day time TV watching. I was actually on the lookout for a good old fashioned black and white film but instead I came across a new channel five series called ‘On The Yorkshire Buses.’ It is one of those reality TV shows, not something I’m really that interested in but watching this show took me back about twenty five years to when I used to be a bus driver. Things have changed a lot in those intervening years according to this programme. Computer screens, mobiles, vehicle tracking, on board CCTV, yes all the usual twenty-first century technology but applied to passenger transport.

One of the issues the staff at Yorkshire buses had to contend with was a driver shortage and we saw a man who had been unemployed for two years, pass his PSV test and become a bus driver. Of course, it’s not getting staff that is important; it’s getting the right staff.

I suppose getting the right staff is an issue wherever you work. Way back when I worked at GM Buses in Stockport, I remember that we had a rota officially called the 900 rota, although unofficially known as the ‘Sick, Lame, and Lazy Rota.’ This rota was staffed by a bunch of people all near to retirement age and they did a regular split shift, Monday to Friday only, no weekends, and it was all easy work; the odd works’ service and a couple of the easier school runs. Thrown in to their duties also was a gratuitous share of standby time. Standby was when you have spare drivers or conductors, ready to fill in when a bus has broken down way out in the country or a crew has called in sick. The thing was, with the 900 rota people, their standby time was only a couple of hours so they were ninety nine percent certain they would never be called to go out. The drivers were fairly amenable old chaps but the conductors, all clippies, (female conductresses) were all quite the opposite. Go out on their stand by time, when they could be supping tea and knitting? Not likely! As you can imagine the 900 staff were universally unpopular.

When I was a one man driver, in the latter days of conductor operations, we used to do a trip from Bramhall in the morning rush hour. When we got closer to Stockport the bus was always packed to the seams and the extra rush hour bus, covered by the 900 staff always used to hang back and let the one man driver do all the work. Well, can’t expect our senior 900 staff to cover that busy run can we? And knitting won’t do itself will it?

I remember pulling into Mersey Square in Stockport with a bus bursting at the seams and the 900 bus pulling in behind me with about five people on board. I went back to that bus and told them in no uncertain terms they were out of order. The driver was about to say something when his clippie, Doris, the laziest conductress you ever met, pushed him aside and gave me a right mouthful about how I hadn’t been doing the job five minutes and how she and her driver had been at it since before I was born and well, I think you get the picture.

Now I have always believed in the interconnectedness of the universe, how one good deed will come back to you twofold and how those evil doers, as they used to call them in my old comic days, will eventually be punished. Anyway, one fine day it came to pass that I was asked to work my day off. I came in for my stand by duty and sat down with a cuppa and a slice of toast hoping for a nice relaxing read. After a while the tannoy called my name and I went over to the desk to see what was in store for me.

Doris, the laziest conductress in the world was there waiting for me. “Are you driver Higgins?” she bellowed.

“What’s it to you?” I replied in the same happy tone.

Well, it turned out that Karma, that magical mystery force of the universe had poked its nose into our life that day and her driver had called in sick and, guess what? I was her driver for the day. Well, when we came to do the Bramhall rush hour bus I caught up the packed one man bus, overtook it and we did most of the work coming into Stockport. That’s the way it should have been done with the workload, and the passengers split evenly between the two buses. When we got to Stockport our passengers piled off leaving our flustered conductress in a state of disarray and her cash bag full of coins. Her ticket machine had issued more tickets in an hour than it normally did in a week. She was looking a little peaky, if I remember correctly .

Perhaps that’s why she went sick for the rest of the shift!


You can read more about life as a bus conductor in my book ‘Floating In Space’. Click the links at the top of the page for more information!