Blogs, Video and a Social Media Marketing Mix

The lockdown of last year didn’t really affect me that much. It was a bit of a pain not being able to go out and I did miss the pub quiz night as well as my visits to my favourite restaurants. Essentially though, I’m not an outdoor kind of guy. I like my TV and my laptop and I’m pretty happy sitting outside in the summer reading a good book. This last week I’ve been experiencing a more personal kind of lockdown. Liz has just had a hip replacement and I’ve been off work tending to her every need.

Even people who are close can have their differences. Liz likes to be challenged by word games and I like my challenge in the form of a good documentary film.

‘Not another quiz show’ I usually say when she has got the TV remote.

‘Not another Kennedy documentary’ she tends to say when the remote is over on my side. Oh well, recuperation is important and if she can put up with the occasional JFK documentary I can deal with another Countdown, I suppose.

When I’ve had a brief moment to myself, I’ve been looking at my book, Floating in Space, and wondering what more I could do to promote it. This entire blog is about promoting Floating in Space, at least that was the idea when I started. Every blog post, whether it’s about books, films, my life or any other random subject that comes to mind always ends with a little plug for Floating, right down at the end of the post. It usually comes in the form of a short video with the prime intention of making the viewer wonder if their life is worth living if they haven’t got a copy of my book. Most people and I’m talking a good 90% plus of people who decide to watch decide that life is worth living without a copy of Floating in Space and decline to buy. Pity, especially as I went to a lot of trouble making those videos.

A lot of people ask me about the title, Floating in Space. Why is it called that? Is it a sci-fi book? No, it isn’t which makes me wonder whether changing the title would be a good thing. The title comes about because of the way the main character, Stuart Hill, looks at his life. Sometimes it’s a good thing to look at your life not in little segments but as a whole. How could you possibly do that? Well Stuart does it like this.

Updated version of Floating In Space available now from Amazon!

This technique, for want of a better word, is best employed in the summer. Find yourself a quiet outdoor place. Lie down on the grass facing towards the sky. A clear blue sky isn’t much good for this. What you need is a blue sky and a good selection of white fluffy clouds. Now relax. A good way to do that is start at the top of your head and relax your scalp, then go down to your eyebrows and relax them. Then your eyes, nose and so on, all the way down to your toes.

Now, I don’t know if you can remember those visual teasers you used to see in comics years ago. For instance a line drawing of a cube which by an effort of will you could make into a solid box or, again using only your mind, see the box as an open box and look inside. That’s the thing to do now looking up at the sky. See the curve of the sky bending down towards the horizon at the extreme end of your peripheral vision? Well turn that around so instead of looking up at the sky you are looking down. Imagine you are floating in space, seeing the blue, not of the sky, but of the planet Earth and down below is you and your life, going about it’s everyday cycle of work, sleep and relaxation. Down there on the Earth are moments of enjoyment, moments of happiness, moments of sadness and sadly, moments of horror.

Most of my promotions for Floating tend to focus not on the process I’ve described above but on the city of Manchester where the book is set. I’ve only visited my home city once since the pandemic and it’s looking good. New towering skyscrapers seem to be going up with every month that passes by, at least according to the small group of Manchester photographers that I follow on Instagram. Manchester’s nickname is the Rainy City because of course it rains a lot and one of my favourite photographers makes a habit of photographing the puddles of the city, either with the city’s new buildings reflected in the water or low angle pictures with a rainy puddle in the foreground and some Mancunian architectural delight in the background.

When I visited Manchester a few months ago I took my camera along and made a bit of a walkabout video. I had my selfie stick and walked around chatting to the camera. I looked at some of the new hi rise towers and then walked round to the old end of town and took a stroll down the Rochdale canal which was completed in 1804. Instead of writing a narration I just stayed with the video of me chatting to the camera and added a few voice over comments and snippets of info. That video is currently one of my most watched videos so if I had any sense I’d probably make more of the same but it so happens I’m just not that comfortable walking around chatting to my camera. I much prefer my usual videos, many of which have voice-over narrations which originate in many cases from my blog posts. Like a lot of my blogs and videos, I can’t leave them alone, I’m always tinkering with them and here’s a case below, another edit of my favourite Manchester video.

I am of course an old school video producer. I like videos that open up gradually and have titles and an introduction. That technique, I am reliably informed, is very old hat indeed. In the 21st century social media world, videos need to be straight to the point. Quick introductions, a quick statement of your credentials, perhaps a brief exhortation for the viewer to subscribe to my channel and then wham, straight into the subject. That is internet video in a nutshell because there are thousands of other videos out there that are just a click away and can instantly nab your viewer if you fail to grab and keep their attention.

Getting back to blogging, I have probably written more words, in my blogs and tweets and other social media posts promoting my book, than are actually in the book itself. Oh well, that is one of the facts of the self-publishing world: Writing a book is one thing but marketing is an entirely different ball game altogether and of course the competition is fierce with more than 5000 new books released on Kindle every day! Is it worth it you might ask? Why do I do it? Well, quite simply I do it because I like doing it and when the enjoyment has gone, I’ll start thinking about doing something else with my spare time.

Nothing improves and hones your writing skills more than the writing process itself and as a blogger with a deadline of 10am on a Saturday morning I have even started to feel like something of a professional writer. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to log into WordPress and find that someone has liked one of my posts, or better still has left a comment. I’ve always thought that an intrinsic element of the human condition is finding that out that there are others in the world who think the same way as you do and like the things that you like.

I do tinker quite a lot with Floating in Space and some time ago I added a version which hopefully corrected the book’s various grammatical mistakes and I also added a small index to help explain 1977 to my younger readers. So, what else should I do to market my work? Another Tweet? Another Facebook post? Another YouTube video? Perhaps I should go further afield in the social media world and do more on Instagram or sign up for Tik Tok?

Actually I think I might just give marketing a rest for a while. Liz is still in bed so I think I might just relax for a while with Oliver Stone’s new Kennedy documentary.


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The Idea, The Inspiration and The Kebab

A few weeks back I was asked to test some new editing software for a company whose software I used to use regularly. They were trying something new, in fact a feature that I had advocated a few times on one of their forums. It was a surprise to be asked to test the new feature but also rather nice. It’s always nice to be acknowledged so anyway as soon as the feature was enabled I set out to make a test video.

I thought about doing a new version of my usual content. You know the sort of thing, the videos that you usually find down at the end of my blogs extolling the virtues of Floating in Space and A Warrior of Words. Instead, I thought of doing a quick few minutes on the subject of poetry writing. It was called Ideas, Inspiration and Effort.

Nothing can start without an idea. Amateur writers like me just tend to wait for an idea to come but to be really professional you have to make the ideas come. You have to sit down and start writing. It’s only then that the ideas come. The same is true for blogs. I do get ideas. I get them driving to work. I get them while watching television. Sometimes I get no ideas at all but then I can always write about the books that I read, the old TV shows that I like and the classic black and white films that I watch on TV. Either way, blogs or poems, everything starts with the idea.

Next comes the inspiration. Again, when I’m in amateur writer mode I usually just wait for the inspiration to come. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. The thing that makes it come is just to start writing. Sitting down at the keyboard with the TV on and the sound off, that’s usually when inspiration strikes. Last week if you may remember I was doing battle with my electric company because they wouldn’t give me my money back, the money that I had paid, in error, into the wrong account. I wasn’t happy about it at the time but on reflection I could see the funny side and that is hopefully what made that particular blog post rather amusing. The good thing as well is that it’s that kind of self-deprecating humour which Floating in Space is all about so if you liked that post, you should like Floating. (An in-post plug for Floating! Hey, I’m pretty pleased with that.)

The same is true for poetry, once I have an idea I start playing with words until inspiration finally comes. Then of course I need to make the effort. The effort to get down to work, typing away until the first draft is ready. Then more effort comes, the effort to edit and to develop the blog or poem until I think it’s finished. That of course is where I usually fail. I don’t have my editor on my back, I don’t have a publishing company that has paid me a million-dollar advance and is waiting for the book I promised them. The only promise I have made is to myself, a promise to one day complete another book which actually may be a long time coming. The thing is there are so many other things to do, restaurants to visit, books to read, TV shows to watch and so on.

Anyway, it’s time for another blog post and as usual lately I’m struggling. What I need is an idea. So using my own method above I thought about an idea and I came up with disappointment. Yes, what has disappointed me lately? Let me see, well there was the pizza I made the other day.

When I spend a little time on my own I tend to eat a lot of snack food. I do love sandwiches as you might have guessed if you had read this old post about sandwiches but sometimes I like to do something a little more exciting. I do like cooking with my slow cooker and I’ve made numerous bologneses, chillis and curries in this way but the other day I thought I’d try and make a pizza, a proper pizza made from scratch. I had some flour and yeast and I had Jamie’s Italian, Jamie Oliver’s Italian cook book to guide me so what could go wrong? I mixed all the ingredients and made some basic dough then I gave it a good kneading and eventually I got a good spongy dough. I left it to prove and a bit later made it into a few portions. I left one to rise once again and made a simple tomato sauce using tinned tomatoes. Later I slapped on the sauce then some cheese, some pepperoni and some onions and I was all ready to bake. Jamie recommended putting the oven on its hottest setting, gas mark 9 so I slapped the pizza in and about ten minutes later it was looking good.

The crusts were ok but the rest was a bit soggy. Even so, it was pretty reasonable. The next day I tried again and looking at some other recipes I thought it was better to cook the base first and then add the toppings and cook again. I did that, added the toppings but this time I left it in too long and the pizza emerged a little frazzled. Maybe I should just stick with chilli in future.

Here’s something else that was disappointing. Sitting down to eat I was happy to find that The Time Tunnel, the sixties Sci-fi TV show was about to start on the Horror channel. It’s about two American scientists ‘lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages, during the first experiments on America’s greatest and most secret project, the Time Tunnel. Tony Newman and Doug Phillips now tumble helplessly toward a new fantastic adventure, somewhere along the infinite corridors of time’ as the opening blurb used to go.

The Time Tunnel starts off with a Congressman coming to investigate the growing budget of the time tunnel complex and threatens to close things down unless he sees results. Scientist Tony Newman decides he must therefore travel back in time to prove that the tunnel really works and save the project. Tony ends up on the ill-fated liner Titanic. His colleague Doug follows him back to 1912 and the control room struggle to shift the two in time before the ship sinks. Unable to return the duo to the present, the technicians struggle every week to shift the duo to somewhere new just in the nick of time. One episode that I particularly remember was when the pair land in Pearl Harbour, just before the Japanese attack in 1941. Tony meets himself as a young boy and finally solves the mystery of the disappearance of his father in the attack.

The Time Tunnel was a sci fi series from the 1960’s and as a child I was crazy about it. I thought it was wonderful but it only lasted one season before producer Irwin Allen moved on to something new. I had missed the first few episodes of this latest re-run but as I settled down I realised that my favourite episode, the one about Pearl Harbour, was about to start.

Tony lived there as a child and his father was reported as missing in action so the first thing Tony and Doug decide to do is to go and visit him. Cue some rather daft dialogue and some clumsy situations which led on to more clumsy dialogue and daft situations. What a disappointment that episode was and yet for years and years I’ve looked forward to finally seeing it again. There are some things which just don’t stand the test of time.

Another thing that I found rather disappointing this week was a large donner kebab. My last few shifts at work this week went pretty well and as I drove home after the last one I thought it was time to treat myself. I ordered a large donner with salad and chilli sauce, took it home and settled down with a small beer.

The salad was as limp as the Time Tunnel dialogue, the chilli sauce didn’t have much get up and go and the donner meat had seen better days. All in all, I could have done with a trip through the time tunnel to Manchester city centre in 1986 and gone to my very favourite kebab emporium where they served donner on naan bread with fresh salad and a tasty hot chilli sauce. Yes, I had the idea, I had the inspiration, I just wish I hadn’t made the effort and got that kebab!


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A Kind of Moany Whingey Sort of Blog Post

As this is my 484th blog post I hope I can be forgiven for tending to repeat myself now and again. I’ve probably said this before but what the heck, I’ll take a risk and say it again; I really don’t like this time of the year. I don’t care for Bonfire Night or Hallowe’en and on top of that I’ve experienced some unmitigated disasters this week involving video cameras and my mobile phone. Anyway, what shall I moan about first? Let’s get Hallowe’en out of the way!

What is Hallowe’en all about and how did it creep over the Atlantic from the USA to the UK? TV is probably the culprit but basically Hallowe’en is an excuse for kids to dress up and knock on other people’s doors and ask for sweets. Go away! This is a Hallowe’en free zone! I keep meaning to put that up on a sign outside the front door but of course I never do, although either way, the neighbours have probably got the message because these days they just don’t bother knocking, so if there are any sweets around I’ll just scoff them myself.

On October the 31st the new series of Doctor Who began on the BBC. The 13th Doctor is of course played by Jodie Whittaker and for some reason the last time the Doctor regenerated into a new body, he or she found himself/herself this time in a female one. In some ways I kind of like Jodie as Doctor Who. She’s kept all the Doctor’s quirky elements and odd humour but instead of being a man, she’s a woman. Personally, all respect to Jodie, I’m hoping that the new Doctor – this is Jodie’s last series in the role – will once again be a man. I mean basically, that’s what the Doctor has always been, male. Of course, in the media there are calls for another woman to play the role and even for the new James Bond to be a woman or even a black man. The thing is if we are going to swap genders and ethnicity randomly why not remake Sex and the City with men instead of women? Why not have a white man playing Shaft?

Here’s an idea. Why not leave things as they are and perhaps make new productions for new female time travellers and new female black, Asian or even oriental secret agents?

Anyway, getting back to Dr Who, this new episode was actually pretty good although there were so many plot elements, I just wondered how they were all going to fit together. The Doctor’s new companion was played by Liverpool comedian John Bishop and he was actually pretty good. In one sequence he opened the door to some kids on Hallowe’en and gave them some sweets but gave short shrift to someone else who was knocking on the door just hoping for a freebie and who had not even dressed up. ‘On your way’ said John to that guy which just about sums up my feelings about Hallowe’en.

The other nightmare that occurs at this time of year is bonfire night. A long time ago a fellow by the name of Robert Catesby decided he wasn’t very happy with the government so he decided to blow the lot of them up. Funnily enough I’m pretty sure that is something the people of 2021 would like to do to the current government. Anyway, I’m not sure what Catesby was planning to do next, take over or start a revolution or what but he and his fellow conspirators, the most famous of which was Guy Fawkes, were apprehended before they could light the blue touch paper on the gunpowder plot and were quickly dealt with.

These days a fellow like Guy Fawkes would be suing the government and claiming legal aid and all sorts of stuff. Back then we didn’t mess about, we just chopped off the guy’s head. Case closed. Actually, not quite case closed because every year on November the 5th, we light bonfires and let off fireworks to remember him. Perhaps this is a subtle message to the government, a reminder that the people can only take so much or perhaps it’s just an excuse to let off bangers and rockets at all times of the day and night for weeks on end either side of the 5th and annoy the hell out of everyone.

I arrived home on bonfire night and believe me, it felt a little like I had been transported to a war zone with great explosions going off around me and sudden unexpected rockets taking off from every corner. I’m glad that’s over anyway, well just as soon as everyone has finished off their firework supply.

At Liz’s house she still has an old fashioned coal fire and I have to admit that it’s nice sitting by the fire with a bottle of wine just on the hearth gradually coming up to serving temperature. The big pain is having to go out in the cold and rain to fill up the coal scuttle and to light everything on a cold morning instead of just clicking on the central heating button.

The other night having made a superb fire I realised I hadn’t filled up the coal scuttle so I had to go out in the rain and cold and fill it up. It was a little dark out there so I took my phone and lit up the torch so I could see where I was shovelling the coal. What a great idea to take my phone out. Wrong because like the twit that I am, I left it there in the rain and it got totally drenched.

When I remembered it and retrieved it, the phone was soaked through. At first it seemed in pretty good shape but then it kept switching itself off and on. Liz had heard it was a good idea to put the phone in a bag of rice which was apparently sure to soak up the moisture. So while that was drying out I thought I’d put the sim card in my old phone. It used to have a serious battery problem which is why I bought my latest phone. Anyway, after charging it up I thought I’d just slip my sim card in. Wrong. My old phone takes a mini sim and my new one takes a nano sim and I couldn’t find the adapter to fit my nano sim into the mini sim slot! Technology! If they are not changing from VHS video tapes to DVDs they are changing sim cards to infinitely smaller ones.

What made the situation worse was that I was expecting a telephone consultation with my physio so I really needed that phone. Of course, I could have called them up and explained the situation but the phone number was on my phone, you know the one in the bag of rice that wasn’t working. I was also expecting a couple of other calls too but once again the only contact details were, well not accessible. Amazing isn’t it just how much we rely on our mobile phones.

Here’s another disaster that happened this week. Disaster is probably too strong a word but it’s something else that goes with this week’s general theme. My latest video Return to Manchester over on YouTube was a walk around Manchester taking in some new hi rise buildings that are changing the shape of my home city and a quick look at the old Manchester, namely the canal that runs through the centre and dates back to the industrial revolution of the past. I made it pretty quickly and instead of writing and narrating a voice over I did it off the cuff, just working from some notes. For some reason it seems to have done pretty well as far as viewers are concerned and as usual, I can never understand why. Why does a blog or video that I have worked hard at do not so well, and something else that was a rush job seem to be popular? I get lots of feedback from both YouTube and WordPress in terms of statistics and analysis but I never really know what to do with it or learn any lessons from it.

Last week I thought I’d make a follow up video with a tram ride up to Manchester Airport and do some similar stuff, a walk round and chat to the camera. I also thought that I could combine some elements from a video I made in 1986 at the airport and compare how things have changed. Return to Manchester Airport sounded like a good title too.

Things didn’t start well when my GoPro camera wouldn’t charge up. I had my trusty Canon GX7 with me but I had wanted the GoPro to take some additional stuff. Luckily in my bag I had my cheapo action camera with me. It’s a cheap GoPro copy that takes reasonable video. Anyway, the tram arrived which I filmed on my Canon. I nipped aboard and went to a seat at the front where I clipped my handy suction mount to the window and pressed record. Well, I thought I had pressed record but in fact I’d pressed the wrong button and nothing happened, not that I realised it at the time. I left that to its own devices and shot some hand held stuff with my Canon. At the airport I had a wander around and filmed some chatty stuff to the camera then went down the walkway towards terminal 2 which incidentally, in a few short days I’ll be flying from!

Later, on the way back to the bus station my trusty Canon declined to record any more. The memory card was full but did I have my spare memory card? That would be a no. That was when I realised that when I was on the tram I’d been pressing the wrong button to start recording on my action cam so I hadn’t shot anything of the trip up towards the airport except for stuff I’d shot with the Canon. OK, keep calm, press the right button now!

Back home I found I had only a short burst of video on the tram and had nothing at all of the bus and tram station. However, I did have some in car video I had filmed during the summer of part of the route. It was actually a part that had changed substantially because of the new tram route and I also had some video from 1986 showing how things were many years ago. Yes, in a burst of creative editing kudos I was able to cut all that together and actually put a video of sorts together.

The good news is that I was using the wrong charger on my GoPro camera. I found the correct one and now it’s fully charged up. A bit late in the day for the airport video but ready for action on my next production. The really good news was that a few days later my phone, fully dried out was back in action again. Note to self: make sure you keep that coal scuttle filled up Steve!


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The Big 65

Birthdays are not something I look forward to these days. Years ago, when I was a school boy I did look forward to them, at least I think I did. Now I come to think of it, I’m not sure I was that bothered about them even back them.  I do remember as a schoolboy being very impressed with the film 2001 A Space Odyssey and I started working out if I stood a chance of being alive in the then distant year of 2001. I was 45 in 2001 which to a young schoolboy must have seemed pretty ancient. Add on another 20 years and that same schoolboy would surely have imagined himself as a decrepit old guy barely alive in 2021. The thing is, despite being 65 I don’t really feel that old, at least, not inside.

Back in 2016 when I was a young whippersnapper of only 60 I wrote a little tongue in cheek piece about my birthday:

2016

At a press conference this past Monday morning at Wetherspoons in Southport Mr Higgins, reputedly now 60 years of age, was asked numerous questions about his advancing years. He was heard to ask “Pint of lager, please mate,” numerous times but did not seem willing to discuss his birthday further.

Although Mr Higgins seemed somewhat reluctant to engage with people, he responded to a question about television in the early years of the second half of the twentieth century.
He confirmed there were, in the 1960’s when he was a child, only two TV channels. There were further gasps from people when he mentioned, almost nonchalantly that he and his family were at one time forced to watch programmes in black and white!

As Mr Higgins moved onto his next pint he enlarged upon his theme. “Yes, in those days there was no colour TV, no internet and no mobile phones.”
“How did people send messages?” one journalist asked.
“Well,” said Mr Higgins. “The only way was to get some paper and a pen or pencil and laboriously write out a message. Afterwards it had to be sealed in an envelope and posted after of course, adding a stamp.”
“What, you mean it wasn’t free?”
“Of course not!” snapped Mr Higgins, rather testily. “Not only that, you had to take it round to the post box and mail it yourself.”
“How long would the process take?” asked another.
“Well, it could be anything from a couple of days to almost a week”

A young lady reporter fainted and was revived by splashing cold water on her face. As she came round, she looked up at Mr Higgins and asked, “How did you carry on, how did you survive?”

“Well,” answered Mr Higgins. “I suppose we were a tough generation. It was hard then. You lot have things so easy!” Returning to the bar, Mr Higgins waved over to the bar staff and commented. “This lager is a bit naff. Have you got any dark beers? What about a pint of mild?”

Picture courtesy perfectpint.com

Picture courtesy perfectpint.co.uk

“Mild?” replied the barmaid, a young Romanian girl of about nineteen. “What iz zat?”
Mr Higgins looked a little frustrated until the bar manager came over and revealed that Theakston’s mild was one of the guest beers that day. Mr Higgins immediately perked up and called for a pint.
“Lovely jubbly.” he commented, “Cracking pint! Now, what else do you lot need to know? I’ve got some serious drinking to do.”
“What about films?” someone asked. “Surely it was just like today; I suppose you could download a movie onto your tablet and watch at your convenience?”
Mr Higgins, now onto his fourth pint seemed to jump on the word tablet and exclaim “Tablet? In my day that was something you took for a headache! If you wanted to see a film, you had to go down to the picture house, pay your money and go in and get your seat and watch the film.”
Someone asked if the term ‘picture house’ could be explained.
“The picture house! Cinema! A big place with a huge screen where they projected the picture!”
“Do you mean you had to sit with other people?”
“Of course you pillock!” replied Mr Higgins. He turned back to the bar just as his all day breakfast arrived. “Right, that’s it now. If you want to learn about the old days, like the seventies, just get yourselves a copy of my book, ‘Floating in Space!’”

Yes that was the 1970’s; no internet, no mobile phones and a pint of bitter was only 25 pence.

2021

As it was my birthday I had arranged a pre birthday date for lunch and drinks with my brother. I was staying at my mother’s house and I fancied a look around Manchester. I had not been to the city centre since 2019, before the pandemic and every time I look at Instagram or the photography page I follow on Facebook, I keep seeing photos of new space age hi rise buildings and I wanted to take a look myself.

I planned on going early into Manchester so I gave my brother a quick call so as to arrange where we could meet. My brother however told me he wasn’t feeling well and was staying in bed. Well, I wasn’t happy but no amount of cajoling could get him to change his mind. As I sat on the tram travelling into town I started to think about making a video. I had my camera with me so I decided to leave the tram at Deansgate where I knew that some new skyscrapers had been built and then just follow wherever my camera or my nose took me.

At the end of Deansgate on the far edge of the city the builders had created a whole new complex of hi-rise buildings called Deansgate Square. There was an interesting mural there with a short history of Manchester from the first Roman fort in AD79 to the industrial age and right through to the present. After shooting a lot of video I wandered back towards the station and decided to drop down to the canal. The canal runs right through the middle of the city centre largely unseen, hidden by the large buildings and in some places disappearing into tunnels. I came across a canal barge navigating one of the locks and got chatting to the occupants. The barge was a hire boat and came from Middlewich but the crew were surprisingly from Washington in the USA. They showed me how to navigate through the canal lock, opening and closing the lock gates and opening the water valves to raise the boat up to the next level.

Later I walked down Oxford Road and found myself drawn to the old Refuge Assurance building. When I started my working life at the tender age of 16 my first job was as a clerk in the Estates department of the Refuge. Construction on the building began in 1891 with a final extension completed in 1932. It’s a grade 2 listed building finished in red brick which today is known as the Kimpton Clocktower Hotel. I entered through the side entrance, the one I last used in 1977 and walked through the tiled entrance hall into what used to be the main office. It was still pretty quiet and various people were sat in the luxurious lounge eating and drinking. I ordered a pint of lager and found myself a comfy seat where I sat and drank and let my mind wander back to 1973 when I first started there.

1973

In the Estates department my job was to collect the rents we were owed for numerous properties in the city centre, enter them in a ledger and bank the money. Another job was to allocate a proportion of the fire insurance to our tenants, based on the floor size they rented. One incident that sprang to mind was something I’ve written about before but is worth telling again. I came into work one day to find that there was the hum of excitement in the office and my colleagues and I were advised of the imminent arrival of a million pound cheque.  As I was only a mere teenage accounts clerk,  I was running low on the pecking order to see this cheque, although it was actually my job to process it as I did with all the other cheques that came into the department. In due course, one of the very senior managers came down with the cheque and with great reverence it was handed to my boss Mr Ross. Mr Ross perused the cheque for a while along with a small clique of other managers and then conveyed it to the senior clerk, Mr Elliott. After marvelling at this great artefact for a few moments, he then passed the cheque to me. Numerous staff members from our and neighbouring departments also came to take a peek at this financial wonder which I believe, was the result of the company either selling off our sister company, Federated Assurance, or doing some fabulous property deal.

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

2021

I finished my drink and walked back up towards St Peter’s Square. Back in the late seventies I used to spend my dinner break there on warm summer lunchtimes, eating my sandwiches and reading whatever book I was hooked on at the time. Things have changed in the square too, the seating area has gone and most of the area has been taken over by the trams.

The trams run every few minutes and I saw one approaching and so I ran up the steps and jumped aboard. I had shot quite a lot of video that day and already I was thinking of how I could put it all together and so I spent the next day glued to my laptop doing one of the things I love the most, editing video. I normally write a narration for my videos but this time I thought I’d put together one off the cuff. That is I made some notes and then switched on the microphone and started talking. The result was a verbatim commentary rather than a pre written narration. It’s not quite as fluid as I would have liked but it seems to work.

When the actual day of my birthday dawned I was feeling a little miserable. Perhaps it was the sudden onset of the cold wet weather or it might have been one of the symptoms of getting old. Anyway, I cheered up after opening my cards and presents and later Liz treated me to a meal at a lovely Italian restaurant. Yes, some garlic bread, pasta and red wine can go a long way towards cheering up an old codger like me and let me leave you with what I thought was a particularly interesting way of looking at the big 65 . .


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From Blog Post to Video

I’ve had my YouTube channel for quite a while now but unlike this, my WordPress blogging page, I’ve always found it rather hard to create regular video output. Don’t get me wrong, I like making videos, I really do although the best part of making a video, at least for me, is the editing. With virtually every one of my videos there are multiple versions to be found in the video folder on my laptop. Yes, videos are just something I cannot leave alone. Every time I rewatch one I start to think didn’t I have a better clip for that scene? Why have I put that scene before this one? Wouldn’t it work better if I swapped them round? Why did I say that in the narration? I should have said this! And so that’s when I start tinkering and re-editing.

A few years ago I thought about making my whole blog into a YouTube Vlog. Of course, that would involve shooting and editing and then adding in the music and perhaps sound effects. For someone like me who has taken laziness to new heights, I’m not sure that would be possible, at least not for a weekly Vlog.

When I’m stuck for video content I usually find myself looking back at my older blog posts and wondering what would work as a video. One regular blog I’ve managed to convert to video are my Book Bag blogs. It’s pretty easy to make them into a video. I sit myself in front of the camera, glance through my notes and then wax lyrical for the camera about the various books I’ve been reading.

The first Book Bag Vlog was difficult though. I made it on holiday in Lanzarote. I hadn’t brought my tripod along but I picked up an adjustable clamp in the market place, actually a gadget for taking selfies that worked pretty well once I had got things lined up. Back then I was using a small Panasonic video camera which looked a little bit like a mobile phone. Today I have a Canon GX7 with a viewing screen that can be flipped over so if I’m shooting myself I can easily frame the shot. With the Panasonic, it wasn’t so easy. The filming for that first Book Bag Vlog went something like this:

Take 1. OK, went pretty well, I blathered on a bit and forgot the author of one book so time for take 2.

Take 2. OK but I’m holding the books slightly out of camera shot.

Take 3. I lift the books higher but gradually as the take goes on the books are getting lower and dropping out of shot. Cut, I shout, getting my director’s hat on.

Take 4. I’ve reframed and lowered the camera a little. I’ve actually cropped off the top of my head but the books are centre stage. I fluffed one of my lines calling Noel Coward an historical figure instead of a theatrical one but recovered that one OK with a little laugh at myself. I also say the Germans were ‘disappointed’ with Hitler at the end of World War Two when discussing a book about Albert Speer, one of Hitler’s ministers. Bit of a understatement there, I meant to say shocked or devastated, anyway, time for take 5.

Take 5. Start to stumble a little here, perhaps I need cue cards. Dorothy Parker wrote what for New York Magazines? Check the blurb on the back of her book again and time for take 6.

Take 6. Looked pretty good. Wait a minute, did I really say ‘my holiday blook blag‘? Time for take 7.

Take 7. Radical re think needed here I think so I’ve smartened myself up a little, put on my favourite holiday shirt and re positioned the camera and my clamp gadget. Wish I’d brought my tripod along! Anyway here we go. Action: ‘Hi I’m Steve Higgins and I’m here in . . er . . ‘ CUT! It’s Lanzarote!

Take 8. Slight camera adjustment as take 7 wasn’t particularly well framed. Forgot to mention who Albert Speer actually was. Will people know who he was? Well, if they are interested in history and World War Two yes, otherwise no . .

Take 9. ‘Bleak House by David Copperfield’? What is this guy talking about? Cut!

Take 10. Not too bad, faltered a few times over some words, mumbled a little perhaps but generally not bad. Sure I can do better though; still a little slow. Needs more pace.

Take 11: Whoa, slow down boy! I said pace not rabbit on and on without taking a breath!

Take 12: Not happening! Time for a swim!

The book bag posts are pretty easy to make, it’s just me in front of a camera chatting away. As long as I manage to chat without mumbling, getting words wrong, forgetting the name of the book author and so on, I usually end up with a reasonable result. I somehow don’t think I have a career as a TV presenter coming anytime soon. Here’s a video I made with a whole lot of out takes, How not to Not to Make a Promo Video.

As I said earlier, I’ve always found it hard to leave a video alone. After all, no work of art is ever finished, only abandoned, as someone once said. A few years ago I made a video about the Graves and Cemeteries of Two World Wars.  It was shot in Northern France and for the narration I used in part, the text from one of my blogs. I talked about time and how time seems to have slowed at those sacred places where once so many people fought and died and how it must have seemed, in the past, in the heat of the battle, that time flowed so quickly.

The big problem with that video, and I only seemed to realise it much later, when the video had accrued a sizeable number of viewings was that the opening sequence was not really in keeping with the tone of the film as a whole. I had started out with an idea that came to me while shooting at a French municipal aire, a quiet motorhome stopping place. I’d started off a sequence with a really impressive motorhome and then panned over to our, much smaller vehicle implying initially, that the first vehicle was ours, before showing the smaller one. It might probably have worked for a general motorhoming video but the humour was out of place for something about the sad subject of war.

For the re-edit, I removed that sequence, tidied up various fades and added some stock photos from the war years. To promote it I added it to various video festivals and at one, the Think Shorts festival, they decided to publish my video on their platform. I even got a special badge which I proudly added to the video icon.

I think I mentioned a few weeks ago about the challenges of making an audio recording into a video, which I did for a radio interview in which I had to participate by phone because of Covid 19. I started by thinking, foolishly, that I could mime to the audio recordings to create a fully lip synced video. That didn’t work out at all so I made a video with still photos and screen grabs with a few shots of me talking into a phone although making sure my mouth wasn’t visible when I spoke. I think I got away with it.

I did make a video called A Letter to my Younger Self, the text of which came straight from a similarly titled blog post. The blog post was pretty good, at least I thought so. The video lacked something in the voiceover department as my monologue seemed a little less than dynamic. Another post derived straight from a blog post was 4 Simple Secrets of Self-Publishing which is not a bad little film which reminds the self published author that if anything needs doing in regards to his or her book; promotion, press releases, advertising and so on, the author is on his or her own. Being a self published author is a one person operation.

Over at the busy end of my YouTube page there is a video called Trucking: 1980’s Style. It was shot on my old VHS compact camera and I followed my old friend Brian for a weekend in the late 80’s delivering goods in his wagon. It was a tough old job, lugging great trolleys and boxes of Sharwood’s curry sauces about the country. Stopping in Truckstops, sleeping in the cab and finding his way about with the help of his CB radio. It is currently my most watched video with over 140,000 views at the time of writing. Lots of trucking enthusiasts follow me on YouTube expecting more of the same and what they think when they find a new poetry video in their notifications, I don’t know. I did think of making a follow up video with Brian, something on the lines of Trucking; 40 Years Later. Brian was still a truck driver until a few months ago but unfortunately for me and the YouTube world, he has just retired.

Last year Liz and I drove our motorhome up to Scotland for a few days visiting the Isle of Skye and various other places. I should perhaps have asked proofreader Liz to check the resulting video film because right at the end I announced that the music in the film was called Soul Grove instead of Soul Groove. I rectified that and some other blemishes which I won’t go into in a re-edit which I uploaded to Vimeo. Vimeo has some great little advantages over YouTube, the main one for me is that if you choose to edit a video you can just replace the new version with your old one, without losing any of your viewer count. One disadvantage though is with a free Vimeo account, there are restrictions on how much content you can upload per week, which is why I had to make the resulting video into two separate parts.

Here are two final videos, both inspired by blog posts. The first is yet another re-edit. Manchester 1977-2017 is a visit to my home town of Manchester where I look at the city as it was then in 2017 and how it was in 1977, the year in which Floating in Space, my self published book is set. A lot of the narration is taken from a blog post about the city, Manchester 41 Years On. I talk about the pubs I used to visit, the square where I used to eat my sandwiches on sunny weekday lunchtimes and how the city centre has changed.

I have quite a few poetry videos both on YouTube and Vimeo. Most of the ones on Vimeo are re-edits where I’ve tried to improve on the original, either with the visual content or my usual weak point, my narration. In one blog post The Secret of Writing Poetry, I tried to impart my ideas on writing to the reader showcasing a few example poems on the way. That in turn inspired the video version which is pretty much the same, me talking to camera and delving into the background of three particular poems. I did it all one one or two takes and perhaps I might have been better going for take three but at least I think I have managed to get my general idea over.

Which of your blog posts would you make into a video?


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A Pain in the Neck (and Other Body Issues)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Locked Down Blogger Part 2

It finally happened last week. It had been rumoured and expected. It had been predicted many months ago and so here it is. I’m talking of course about the second wave of the Coronavirus epidemic and the resulting second lockdown. There was some advance notice and as a result Liz and I were able to book a table and enjoy a last meal out. We even thought what the heck and went for a second bottle of wine just like the other couple in the next table sitting a socially distanced two metres to our left.

So that’s a month coming up with no nights out at the pub, no meals out and no quiz nights. The big problem with this second lockdown is the weather. In the first one I was quite happy sitting out in the sunshine reading a book. Now we have entered November here in the north of England it seems as though it has been constantly raining. What can we find of interest then? Well the big interest for me just lately is the American election. Like many people, I thought the election was a foregone conclusion, that Trump would be out and whoever the democrats chose would be in. It just so happened that the democratic candidate was Joe Biden. Joe is getting on a little bit for the top job and wouldn’t necessarily have been my choice but then again, neither would Donald Trump. As I write this the election is still ongoing, they are still counting the votes in a few remaining states. Both candidates are claiming victory and one is claiming huge voter fraud. Biden has so far been pretty much acclaimed as the winner, having received congratulations from previous presidents Obama and George W Bush. No congratulations have been forthcoming from Donald Trump and his legal team has already initiated legal action. I’m not sure who exactly they are planning to take to court but either way, that has not stopped Joe Biden getting his transition team together and making plans for when he takes office.

I wrote something back in 2016 about the smooth transition of power in the great democracies and even wondered what would happen if ever the outgoing president refused to budge. That was just wild blogging speculation but now some commentators are saying it could actually happen. This is almost as interesting for me as Watergate.

There was a time when I thought I understood the US election, now I’m not so sure. Hillary Clinton and Al Gore both won the popular vote in previous elections but failed to get enough electoral college votes to take them to the White House. I’m even confused about the primaries, I mean I was convinced Bernie Sanders would be the democratic candidate, but he stepped down earlier in the year and then Biden seemed to become the candidate virtually unchallenged and his projected walkover victory over Trump has just not happened. Many people actually support Trump. Some give their support because they are dyed in the wool Republicans, some presumably admire him but either way, 48% of the votes were for him.

I was watching TV the other day and a female black voter was being interviewed and surprisingly, she was voting for Trump. She wouldn’t vote for Biden she said because he was a socialist, which in the USA is one step from being a communist. Maybe that explains why Trump has such a following; in many places he must be seen as the anti-socialist. Trump did well in Florida where many Cubans found home after leaving communist Cuba.

When Nixon won the election in 1968 he spotted a supporter in a crowd with a banner proclaiming Bring us together and made that a campaign slogan. Bringing Americans together is a big ask for whoever wins in 2020 but I wish him luck in doing just that.

Theoretically this should be a great time for writers. What could be a better time to write than the lockdown, after all there isn’t much else to do. A few months back I shelled out a hundred or so dollars to list my screenplay on a web site called InkTip. InkTip is a way of bringing producers and writers together. They produce a newsletter for producers listing scripts and also provide subscribers with weekly lists of producers who want scripts. My screenplay has seen a lot of action lately with various producers reading either the synopsis or the script itself but that million-dollar deal has yet to surface. I live in hope.

My screenplay was one I wrote quite a few years back and I read through it recently and had an idea for a new ending. I added the new ending, tidied everything up and that final version was the one I added to InkTip. As I reviewed it again the other day – I don’t know about you but I’m always reviewing my old stuff- I realised that it was written before today’s mobile phone, Twitter and Instagram age. Not one of the characters has a phone. I might have to spend the lockdown adding mobile phones to my screenplay and bringing it into the 21st century.

Another project I’ve been working on during the lockdown is a video covering my recent trip to the Scottish Highlands. It’s mostly GoPro video from a camera stuck to my motorhome window. I’ve added some stills and some bits where I talk straight to the camera. I had a lot of technical problems putting it together, particularly recording the voice over. The voice over is pretty important because the actual visual stuff isn’t that exciting. When I recorded it, my laptop clearly couldn’t keep up with playing video and recording sound at the same time, so I had to record my voice separately and then add it to the video. That makes it difficult because normally as I’m reading the narration I tend to react to what is on screen so I can slow down or speed up if required or just add lib if I need to.

I was feeling pretty pleased with myself when I finished it and quickly got it uploaded to YouTube. I added the video to a video creators page that I follow and got some pretty reasonable feedback. What was really annoying was when I decided to tinker with it and spotted a couple of things I hadn’t noticed. One was in the credits at the end where I credited the music as Soul Grove instead of Soul Groove. Oh, and there was one more. In one of the stills of the motorhome I hadn’t picked up that Liz was rather cheekily giving me the V sign through the window! The thing is, the video had already garnered 72 views so do I delete and add the updated version or just leave things as they are? Decisions, decisions.

I’ve has a couple of nights on my own this week, as usual keeping my mothers house ship shape and lived in. One night I thought I’d make one of my favourite dishes, bruschetta. It just so happened I had some ciabatta in the freezer as well as onions and tomatoes. So here we go, I sliced the bread and popped it in the toaster for a light toasting. While that was going on I chopped the tomatoes and onions, mixed them up with a little garlic and olive oil. I Popped the bread out, slapped on the tomato and onion mixture and settled down to eat. It was wonderful.

It was so good I decided on another Italian favourite for the second course. aglio olio peperoncino. It’s basically spaghetti with olive oil, garlic and chilli. What could go wrong with that?

The quick answer is everything, overdone spaghetti, burnt garlic and those chillies I used last week on a curry that weren’t very hot: this week they were hot!

When is my favourite Italian restaurant opening again?


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Beer, Chilli and Gentleman Jim

My brother and I usually go out into Manchester every few weeks. We get something to eat and have a few beers and a good natter. It’s always nice to visit our old haunts in Manchester and to find new ones. There always seems to be a new venue popping up and the only flip side to new venues in Manchester seems to be the extraordinary prices they like to charge for food and drink. Maybe, being the fully paid up tightwad that I am, I should stick to the old, less trendy and cheaper places that I know.

Of course, just lately with Manchester and the whole world dealing with a major pandemic I can’t see any new venues popping up, in fact, it looks like things might go the other way, with places closing down. Pubs, bars and restaurants have been the hardest hit during the pandemic and with the new restrictions, like the 10pm closing times, many more venues will sadly close.

These days, rather than go out into Manchester, my brother will come round to visit and we watch something on TV together while we chat.

Years ago, when I was a schoolboy, I was never that good at mathematics. In particular I was always frustrated by the particular rules that we had to remember. You know the ones I mean, the sum of the sides of a triangle equals the hypotenuse and stuff like that.

Here’s one rule that I have discovered myself. The sum of all the new TV channels does not necessarily equal anything worthwhile watching. Back in the old days when things were black and white and there were only 2 channels, there was actually something usually worth watching. Still, perhaps I’m looking back with rose tinted spectacles. I’m sure there was rubbish on the TV back then; maybe we just don’t remember it.

Anyway, with a chilli on the go in my slow cooker and a few bottles of Becks chilling in the fridge and nothing looking interesting to watch on TV, I dug out an old VHS copy of the Errol Flynn film Gentleman Jim.

I’m not sure how true to life this film was but it supposedly told the story of Gentleman Jim Corbett and his fight with John L Sullivan ‘himself’. John L was, according to Wikipedia, the first world champion of gloved boxing, reigning until Gentleman Jim defeated him in a bout fought under the new Marquess of Queensbury rules in 1892.

Looking at John L Sullivan’s picture on the internet it’s surprising just how authentic Ward Bond, who played him in the film, actually looked. My brother and I both remarked that our dad, who died in 2000, twenty years ago this November, loved this film. He liked both Errol Flynn and was a great boxing fan. His favourite boxer was Rocky Marciano, the undefeated champion who was sadly killed in a plane crash not long after ‘fighting’ Mohammed Ali in a TV computer bout. I remember my dad being outraged at the result which gave the win to Ali. Funnily enough, the version shown in the USA gave the result to Marciano which would have pleased dad enormously.

In my favourite Hollywood book Bring on the Empty Horses, David Niven paints an excellent portrait of Flynn. You always knew where you were with Errol, wrote Niven -he always let you down.

Flynn hailed from Tasmania, an island state of Australia. In Australia he became involved in a film production called In the Wake of the Bounty, a documentary film about the mutiny on the Bounty that featured reconstructions with Flynn as Fletcher Christian. After this he made his way to the UK where he became an actor and spent many years in repertory in Northampton. He was fired from Northampton rep but was spotted by producer Irving Asher and given a part in a film made at Teddington Studios in 1934. The film was Murder in Monte Carlo which has since been lost but apparently Asher, who worked for Warner Brothers, sent word to Hollywood recommending Flynn for a contract. After a successful screen test Flynn was given the starring role in the swashbuckling adventure, Captain Blood after Robert Donat turned down the role. The film was a great success and made stars of Flynn and co-star Olivia de Havilland.

David Niven recounts many tales about Flynn. The two shared a house together in Hollywood after Flynn separated from wife Lilli Damita, ‘Tiger Lil’ as Flynn used to call her.

During the making of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade‘ which Warner brothers decided to set in India rather than the Crimea, Flynn, the new star started to get a little big headed. One big brute of an extra decided to waggle a lance under the behind of Flynn’s horse to teach Flynn a lesson.  The horse consequently threw Flynn off. He got up, dusted himself down and proceeded to teach the big guy a lesson of his own by beating him into a pulp.

Flynn had a yacht named the Zaca and weekends on the boat included sailing trips full of wine, women and song. Many young girls appeared on the boat, none of whom produced any ID which was unfortunate for Flynn as he was later charged with statutory rape. The accusing girls appeared in the courtroom wearing school uniforms and in pigtails but happily for Flynn the court saw through that and he was acquitted, although the image that the press painted of him was not one that he was happy with.

In later life Flynn was bankrupt and became a floating shadow of his former self, sailing the seas in the Zaca. Later he made a great Hollywood comeback playing his great friend John Barrymore in ‘Too much Too Soon.’

In Bring on the Empty Horses, Niven describes a poignant moment after writing his chapter on Flynn.  Niven, living then in the South of France, took a walk along the coast and came across something sadly familiar. It was the abandoned remains of the Zaca lurking quietly in a boat yard.

Gentleman Jim was made in 1942 and was one of Flynn’s favourite films. He took extensive boxing training taking lessons from Mushy Callaghan, a former welterweight champion who worked as a stuntman and boxing advisor after retiring from the ring. During the film Flynn collapsed from a mild heart attack. He had just failed the medical to join the army having suffered from malaria in his younger days as well as having a heart murmur. The production was closed down for a week while Flynn recovered. After the war Flynn was often criticised for not joining the forces but Warner Brothers would not admit that their star, visually a picture of health and vitality, suffered from health issues.

The film is a lot of fun and it was interesting to watch the scenes of John L Sullivan in training. Training in those days apparently consisted of chopping down trees and swigging bottles of beer. Jim Corbett, in a crazy way anticipating the style of Ali many years later, beats Sullivan by his speed and footwork. Alan Hale plays the Irish American head of the Corbett family whose antics in trying to control his brawling clan are always amusing and Alexis Smith plays Flynn’s love interest. Over on Wikipedia Smith is quoted as telling Flynn to takes things easy ‘don’t you want to live a long life?’ Flynn replied that he was not interested in the future, just the present.

By the end of the 1950’s Errol Flynn no longer had a contract with Warner Brothers and his attempt to co-produce a film about William Tell had ended in financial disaster. He was involved with a young girl, 17-year-old Beverly Aadland and in a severe financial state. His health had suffered after decades of alcohol and possibly drug abuse. Beverly was with him when he died in 1959 aged only 50 after a meeting to arrange the leasing out of the Zaca.

I’d not seen Gentleman Jim for many years and I enjoyed it immensely. The chilli was another story though. I’d made an outstanding chilli about a month ago and this latest one was a little tame, not quite right. Pity but at least Errol Flynn still has the power to entertain and that scene where John L Sullivan hands over his world championship belt always brings a tear to my eye.


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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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The Ramblings of a Locked Down Blogger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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