Thursday, December 31, 2009

End of year singalong

Have a good one. See you next year.

Monday, December 28, 2009

...and breathe

Well, that wasn't so bad after all. Almost entirely uneventful, in fact. Which comes as a major relief.

The run-up to the Christmas hostilities had been punctuated with so many family rides in ambulances I was worried we were going to make a habit of it. After everyone's finally getting sorted out (or as good as) I was concerned that the sudden onset of proper Winter was going to give one, or more, of the walking wounded the opportunity to do themselves some more damage. Which is where Winter itself made the decisions for us.

The first casualty was a family Sunday dinner at a picturesque restaurant in the middle of nowhere, Lancashire. This was always going to be a tad ambitious as it's a bit of a hike out from our neck of the woods and we take a bit of organising but it's a lovely location and we're assured the food is good. I was a bit worried about the length of the trip out given some of the medical conditions involved. Then it snowed for certain. The (relatively) younger elements of the Pennine Fringe contingent were gung-ho and up for it. For once the elders of the tribe prevailed: in no uncertain terms "have a bit of sense" was the order of the day. Especially as one of those younger elements was only a couple of days out of hospital after cracking her head open in a fall. The trembly bottom lips were assuaged when the restaurant said they were snowed in and couldn't receieve trade. As a consolation, us Southlanders nipped over to the local carvery for what turned out to be quite a nice meal, nothing flash but tasty nonetheless. The state of the roads, and the drivers, even down our way confirmed the sensibility of not trying to go much further.

The week running up to Christmas was characterised by snow. Locally we've had it fairly light, just an inch or two. Up north just slightly, my sister had a scary drive from work in the deeper snow and had to leave her car at the bottom of the hill and walk home. It became very clear that the plan to have Christmas dinner up at her mother-in-law's on the edge of Winter Hill was going to be a no-no. (The original plan had been that my sister would be hosting the meal, but she lives above the garage and my mum's not so good on stairs at the moment. Her mother-in-law suggested the change of venue, with my sister still doing the cooking.) My parents had bought a turkey and the trimmings anyway for Sunday dinner (as my sister was planning on cooking a goose that the cat had caught) so that became Christmas dinner. My sister and her partner stayed put and ate the goose. And my sister's brother-in-law got his skis on and went to his mum's for Christmas.

Ironically, my brother's family travelled up to North Yorkshire to see my sister-in-law's folks without any incident on Christmas Day. On the way back on Boxing Day they had a dead easy ride of it right up to the top of their road where the car slid sideways into a badly-parked Mercedes and scratched both their paintworks slightly.

On the evening of Christmas Day it started pouring down. We'd already had a few days' worth of thaw-and-freeze. On Boxing Day morning the streets and pavements were a single sheet of dead smooth ice with a thin layer of water on top. Even my dad, who'll walk out to the market in a blizzard despite promising to stay at home and use up the stuff in the freezer (we had that conversation last week), took one step out said something rude and decided not to go out for a newspaper after all. Even with my best walking boots, steel grips and a stick it was a scary walk round for dinner. I had earlier rehearsed all my excuses for not going over and they were all a bit too thin to be acceptable.

So nothing went as planned; nearly all the presents are in the wrong place (or so the little boy that Santa Claus forgot imagines); Yuletide celebrations have been muted though still quietly jolly. But the key thing is that nobody got hurt, nobody took any unnecessary risks (pace my Boxing Day stroll) and everyone is in decent health.

Hope you and yours had a good, and safe Christmas. And ditto for New Year.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas carol

Be careful with all that tinsel, now.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Doing the fat bloke's work for him

The preparations for Xmas are always a trial. For the most part my preparations consist of two or three weeks' worth of worrying about other people's preparations. I love giving people presents. I like watching people's faces as they open presents. If Xmas were just about giving people some presents, having a cup of tea and a chip butty I'd be quite OK about it.

But it never is, is it? There's always the pressure of creating some miracle of the culinary arts, which I have to admit straight up I could never manage myself. It's a nice meal to be offered, but please don't stress yourself out in the doing of it. Please. I'll be happy with very nearly anything you'd be likely to offer, honestly.

And I can't be doing with all that goodwill to all men crap. I've never been good at handling hypocrisy and it's a bit late in the year to expect it of me.

But I love the giving people presents bit. At this time of year I start fretting terribly that I've not got all the presents. I'm already convinced that I've missed somebody. Or somebodies. The Christmas Cupboard has been being fed throughout the year with whatever caught my eye, or was on sale, or just turned up on the doorstep. There should be enough but I'm not convinced. I'll have a last-minute panic over the next couple of days. Then, on Xmas Eve, I'll start doing the wrapping up and I'll wonder: where did all this stuff come from? Invariably there's more than enough for everyone with a little spare left to seed next year's Christmas Cupboard. And inevitably there'll need to be a bit of creative thinking along the way: who would be thrilled to receive a pair of nutcrackers in the shape of King Leopold I of Belgium? And yet... And yet...

I'll be hitting the shops tomorrow lunchtime.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Always a soft touch for a bit of elfin

It's not entirely EmmaK's fault.

Coincidentally, I'd gone for a meal with friends the other night and was surprised to see that one of them has grown her hair out a bit so that it's an elfin bob rather than the usual very attractive sandpaper. As the lady is not available for bothering I took the opportunity to do a full appraisal and very nice she looked, too. Even so far as to join her partner in paying her a few compliments, which is a 100% sure way of winding up middle-aged women when you're in a mischievous mood. So it's not entirely EmmaK's fault.

The truth of the matter is: show me a gamine with an elfin bob and I'll go all Wembley at the knees every time.

Life is full of trials and tribulations.

Friday, December 18, 2009

At the limits of Bakelite

One of those interesting days when half a door handle comes off in your hand.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Film fun

If you're on the mailing list of The Cornerhouse you can get a copy of their monthly listings booklet, which has been generally pretty good. So of course it couldn't last, could it?

"Our new calendar below hs been created to accommodate flexibility in our film scheduling so we can respond to your demands and give you more opportunity to see popular films. This means for new releases it isn't possible to list times here."

That's right: in order to provide a better customer experience you have to guess when the films start.

I wonder if Orwell would laugh or cry at our clever modern world.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Friday, December 11, 2009

What's the weather like over Cologne, Jean?

It's Cliff Michelmore's 90th birthday today.

I wonder if they've finished giving him the bumps yet.

Friday, December 04, 2009

I really must stop walking through mirrors

On the bus into work this morning I actually, really heard somebody say, in a loud, clear voice:

"Hi! I'm just ringing to let you know I'm on the 'phone."

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Dearie me...

I do miss Belisha beacons...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A bit of a headache

I used to get migraines quite frequently: about once every six or seven weeks. At the risk of tempting fate, I've not had a 'real' migraine for a few years (one of the very few positive side-effects of the anti-depressants I was on for a few weeks). I can't say that I miss them.

I once had an argument with somebody at a conference who said that they wouldn't wish a migraine on their worst enemy. I would. In fact, I think that everybody should have one migraine in their life, if only to put paid to the fiction that a migraine is "a bit of a headache." Each person's migraine is an individual nightmare. No two seem to be the same. I think most of us get the completely disorienting pain and nausea, and the agony of somebody's driving a rusty tent-pole down from the top of your head right through your palate. After that we seem to get a variety of scary experiences.

I'm slightly synaesthetic as a matter of normal course. Nothing spectacular, and certainly nothing as interesting as the reader who told the Radio Times:

"To me Thursday evening has always been pale pink with a faint green stripe growing broader towards nine o'clock. I am sure that all your readers will be thrilled to know this."

In my case I usually just have a slight blurring round the edges between sight and sound: some sharp sounds have a vague visual component, a bit like a flash of light caught in the corner of your eye or. If I'm really tired they might translate into a momentary flash of some dark amorphous shape, a bit like the negative version of the shape you see when caught unawares by a bright light. During a migraine this was amped up to the max, to the extent where some noises almost became a physical assult.

I'd know I was leading up to a biggy by the signs. At the time I was sharing an office with Jimmy Huddersfield; whenever his 'phone rang I'd get a jab in my head (at the parietal/post-orbital boundary) and a messy navy-blue rectangle would sort of hover about three feet away to the left. The idling of a bus engine was vaguely orange. When the migraine proper kicked it all I could do was lie down, close my eyes and watch the firework party, in between mopping myself down and wiping up the sweat.

These days, touch wood, I just get the preliminaries. The worst I get is the dizziness provoked by high-contrast repeat patterns at the periphery of my vision (think shopping centre designer vinyl flooring). I reckon that's bad enough.

My sympathies, for what they're worth, to any of you who suffer the real thing.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


The small niece has been regaling us with song. She started with an entirely passable (and word-perfect) medley of Half-Man, Half Biscuit songs (including exactly the right cadence for the lines "I'm going to play Pat Boone/On the county bassoon"), then gave us the naughty schoolchild's version of the Spiderman theme and finished off with a lusty rendition of "Jingle bells, Batman smells."

"Who taught you these?" I asked, knowingly.

"My daddy," she beamed.

I can't help feeling territorially offended. It should properly be the uncle's job to provide the irresponsibility in the tot's life.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Letting the side down

Catching up with Monday's incoming mail I find that the RSPB has sent me an Urgent Albatross Appeal.

If there's not a spare one in the airing cupboard I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint them.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Just because...

Sunday singalong

And keeping the running Kurt Weill vibe...

Friday, November 20, 2009


Presented as a public service...




Saxe Blue

Chinese White

Purple Madder

Silk Green

Tyrian Purple

Primrose Yellow

Raw Umber

Burnt Sienna


Donkey Brown


Crimson Lake

Cobalt Blue

Persian Blue

Naples Yellow

Raw Sienna

Hooker's Green

Indian Yellow

Prussian Blue

Lamp Black

Paris Green

Vandyke Brown

Duck Egg Blue

British Racing Green

Pansy Violet

Scarlet Lake

Sap Green

Venetian Red

Yellow Ochre


Salmon Pink


Japanese Imperial Purple

For some unaccountable reason I have an urge to dig out the Oxo tin full of pastels...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When was the last time you saw bice?

Back in the old days, back when hedgerows were fringed with the scent of Riley Elf and Jowett Javelin, small children would occasionally be awarded a paint set. In them days a paint set was a gaudy bit of tin tray holding a confectionary array of teeny-tiny tablets of watercolour paint, each one exotically-labelled. There would be Gamboge, an earthy orange fire that did the business for ginger toms and ice cream cones. Chinese White, always the colour of colouring-book paper, would be there, too. As would Silk Green and Primrose Yellow and Purple Madder. And Bice.

What was Bice about? It wasn't Olive Green, because that was over there next to the Raw Umber. Bice wasn't quite brown, nor green, nor yet yellow. It was that strange not-quite khaki that you only ever saw in paint boxes and the stairwells of government buildings that had been redecorated under the Utility Mark in the forties.

I haven't seen Bice since the early seventies. Nor yet Silk Green or Chinese White. Nor fiery, exotic Gamboge. They have gone the way of all things. We must enjoy our Vermillions and Burnt Siennas while we may, we shall not see their likes again.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Under the weather

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Layers of regret

A friend. a good friend long since passed from us, once got more than usually annoyed with me when in her cups two hundred miles away and rang me in the middle of the night to give me an ear-bashing. She had decided, quite rightly, that in my timidity and cowardice I was damaging the feelings and self-esteem of a very attractive Scotswoman. And so I was and did.

(It is my way: my problem is that I actually like women very much. When I find my feelings moving from friendship to passion I'm afeared of ruining a friendship by saying something stupid and scaring the poor woman to death. I find it vanishingly unlikely that my feelings would be reciprocated and am consequently very hard work indeed and Extremely Trying To The Patience. The one time in my life that a woman has literally thrown herself at me in a fit of passion I thought she'd slipped on her high heels and that the subsequent tears of anger and frustration meant that she'd hurt her ankle. She reminded me of that for years.)

My friend on the 'phone had seen enough the previous weekend and wasn't going to shilly-shally any:

"Hello love, are you OK? Why are you ringing at this hour?"

"Ooh, you do annoy me! I've decided you need a good talking-to. Are you listening? Next time you see her this is what you do..."

"Oh. Right. Thank you for that. You know, if I'd ever done that to you you'd have given me a thick ear."

"If you'd ever done that to me you'd have deserved a thick ear. Now have you been listening to me? What have I just told you?"

And so on. For another half hour.

I don't know how we got into the habit. I'm not even sure which of us did it the first. Every so often when we'd get together one, other or both of us would bring along the current object of affection for approval. At the first opportunity, one would lean over to the other and whisper: "Well? What do you think?" We'd been doing that for a dozen years before I realised it myself.

My friend was a wonderful mixture of keen intelligence and apparent innocence. As wild as little strawberries, she was a humanising influence on me and she recognised that the attractive Scotswoman was both a civilising influence and somebody who'd put up with a bit of my routine stupidity without indulging me in it. And when I got that last, consoling, kiss on Blackfriars Bridge I realised, too late, that she was dead right.

My friend managd better. We all knew when she finally found the elusive "Mr. Right." As they told me stories of their adventures and their plans for adventures to come I leaned over to her, winked and whispered: "He's the one."

"Oh yes? How are you so sure?"

"You let him call you 'babe'."

Losing somebody at sea is a strange thing. It sounds like carelessness and there is no ceremony of closure. I find it difficult to let go at the best of times and the fantasy of its being an unfortunate happenstance with a happy ending was a difficult one to chase away. How long was Alexander Selkirk on that island? In my dreams I'd have a million-and-one questions, nearly all of which would already have been asked in wearisome and/or distressing detail. And in my dreams I'd just ask the one question: "have you time for a cup of tea?"

In a sane and just world she'd be surrounded by cats and kids and empty yoghurt pots with odds and ends stuffed in them. It isn't and she isn't and it is to be regretted.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Mirror, mirror...

One of those days where I realise that I've stopped playing at middle age as I'm fast approaching it.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Friday singalong

I've spooked myself: while chatting online with somebody about David Bowie records I suddenly realised that the singer from The Flying Lizards reminded me of somebody I used to know.

You can't fight fate...

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Splish, splash, splosh, little autumn showers

I'm fairly lucky in that despite all the recent rains we're not overly likely to get serious flooding round our way. We're close enough to the Mersey in its juvenile stages for to get the necessary drainage. Which isn't to say that we get off entirely scot free: the roads are like rivers due to the council's cutting the corporation gulley suckers out of last year's budget. Each roadside grid is like a small, oily lagoon.

If I get the chance this weekend I'll have to tip some of the water out of the baskets and containers in the garden. My usual problem is under-watering the poor beggars; I don't think this will be an issue in the next week or two.

It's been a funny autumn out there. Everything seemed to stop flowering for a week in early October and I thought that was it until the winter shrubs kick in. Then, one by one, flowers started to pop up at random. All the roses are now in full bloom again, as are the snapdragons and sweet williams, and the fuchsias are doing better now than at any time so far this year. Really odd, but rather nice.

witch hazel and Olearia More disappointing are a couple of recent casualties. I had a really splendid witch hazel, just in sight of the living room window. For some reason that's died a death. And over the past two weeks the Olearia that had been doing so well in the far border has pegged out. A pity.

I'll have to grub both out this winter and have a think about what to put in their stead. I fancy some oriental poppies and a load of fennel.

Monday, November 02, 2009

End of Part One

Just after the hit radio show "The Burkiss Way" and before "Whoops Apocalypse," here we find Andrew Marshall and David Renwick writing the nice, genteel, drawing-room comedy that we just don't see any more...

Sunday, November 01, 2009

True romance

My mother and father:

"Now what are you doing? I'm trying to read the paper."

"I'm holding your hand, love. Doesn't that send a thrill of excitement through your body?"

"Not especially. I hope your hands are clean."

"You used to like me holding your hand when we were courting."

"If I let you have two free hands you'd have eaten all my sweets."

Friday, October 30, 2009


The lack of trams across Manchester city centre has done wonders for my waistline and circulation as the two mile-long walks a day take effect but has had the side-effect of putting an intolerable strain on my powers of concentration. I have come to the conclusion that pretty young ladies with long legs should not wear black leggings, especially if they have long red hair pulled back into a pony tail. There appears to be a profusion of them and it is very distracting.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Chuggety chug

I've always had my suspicions that Passenger Focus was a bit closer to the industry than its stated aims might suggest. Its annual statements of the state of the travelling nation's railway experiences have never really chimed with my own, nor with those of anyone I know.

Up until recently the only time I'd ever been surveyed by Passenger Focus was about ten years ago. Mid-afternoon on a nice sunny day travelling on the slow train between Carlisle and Barrow.Which was a pleasant thing to do if you got the chance. I couldn't complain about the journey: it was very agreeable and it was on time. I can't help noticing that these days they've halved the number of journeys on this route and replaced the double-carriaged sprinter with a single carriage so that it doesn't matter what time of day you travel it's going to be standing room only and there's no space for bikes, buggies or wheelchairs. Such is progress.

They did a survey of passengers in Manchester the other week. A lady stood at Victoria Station, a rail terminus, handing out the forms. As hordes of passengers came in on late, badly over-crowded old and rackety trains, or arrived late because the previous train hadn't bothered to stop at their stations so that it could arrive at Victoria in that state of "On Time" that only exists in the minds of Railway Performance Managers, they were handed forms asking them for their opinions on their outward journey. These people had arrived. And Passenger Focus didn't want to know about their inward journey.

I asked the organisation if there was any way that passengers could flag up repeat failures of services. After all, there's a world of difference between a one-off cancellation due to exceptional calamity and a service that's routinely twenty minutes late or cancelled three or four times a week. The answer is no: they "want the train operator to have the opportunity to resolve the complaint first." "Resolve the complaint" in this context is "send a stock reply within a week or two of the complaint." So long as you get your fob off in the alloted time all is well with the world.

As you stand, crushed nose-to-armpit, hurtling through Suburbia at a steady two miles an hour in a rusty old egg crate that should have been mothballed permanently a decade ago, it's good to know that somebody, somewhere doesn't give a flying fuck.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


I'd forgotten it runs in the family. My father was telling my wee niece a selection of the usual daft stories when he reminded me of one I'd completely forgotten.

The 1960s for so many of us was more Sheila Delaney than Carnaby Street and it was all black and white up to the summer of 1968 when Mrs. Gmerek brought in some tubs of lime green and mandarin orange paints and infant class 3 tried to go psychadelic. By then we were living in the flats in the suburbs. Before then we'd shared my nan's terraced house in Old Trafford, five yards away from where it became Hulme and Manchester corporation rates. Times were hard but they had their sense of the ridiculous to help them get by. Which is how it came to pass that one day my mum and nan had the fright of their lives as an ugly old tart popped her head round the doorway and said: "Hello dearies! What's for tea?"

It was my dad, dolled up in my mum's Max Factor war paint and with granny's shawl round his head.

There it would have been, just another daft little thing in the scheme of things but for one unforeseen happenstance.

The lipstick wouldn't come off.

Max Factor industrial strength kiss-proofed carmine lipstick. (I have quizzed my mum about this and she says she'll tell me about it when I'm older.) Nothing but time would shift it.

Which is how come my dad turned up at the plumber's yard the next day with cute little red rosebud lips and two rouged circles on his cheeks.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Reaffirming my cultural identity...

Sing along now!

(I'm still not sure how the last line of that song ever got past the censors of the time!)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

There are some things that man can never understand

This morning was the first properly cold one we've had so far this autumn, with a biting wind whistling through the undergrowth. As I stood on the railway platform it occurred to me that I should have brought my gloves with me. One of my fellow passengers, one of the familiar faces, puzzled me somewhat.

She's in her late thirties. Today she was wearing a short skirt, low-cut top, short-sleeved cardigan...

...and a scarf.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Half the people round me are having a worse time of it than me so I should buck my ideas up.

(Spider alert for arachnophobes)

I think I'll dig out my Trapdoor videos and make a night of it.

The voice is Willie Rushton. The animation is Cosgrove-Hall. Rather nice.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Health news

"You'll have to start watching what you eat," said the doctor.


"Why's that doctor?"

"You've got it all down the front of your shirt."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The shock of self-awareness

Margaret Hilda Thatcher, in her pomp, declared that any man over the age of thirty who was still relying on bus services was a loser.

Belatedly I am come to the conclusion that the bitch was right after all.

Monday, October 12, 2009

I think we need this...

(We were always enthralled by the idea of a Junior G Trout)

(We're re-thinking the image...)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

While I'm in the mood...

Sunday singalong

I've been trying, and failing, to write something out of my system. Which should come as a great relief to the passing reader.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

News from behind the iron curtain

It's been a lovely, sunny autumn day full of that crisp splendour that makes a walk in the woodlands so very, very wonderful. So I wasn't chuffed to be hanging round the station waiting for a bus to take us into town because some scallies had nicked the lead off the roof of the signal box down the line. And then, having got in, having to negotiate my way through the cordon sanitaire they've had up all week to keep the latest bunch of nitwits away from the consequences of their fantasies. Last year it was New Labour, this year the Tories, next year who knows, save that there'll be a ring of steel around the City Centre yet again. I've been trying my best not to go off on one about it, so I wouldn't even have mentioned it here save for a conversation I had with a couple of folk this evening.

"They have to do it for security reasons," insisted one.

"Bollocks," replied the other. "Both parties are supporting wars and curtailments of civil liberties because we're all targets now. If we're all targets now we should all have proper security, not just them buggers. It's nothing to do with security. It's all about keeping the political classes safely cocooned from everyday reality."

"They do go out and about every so often you know. MPs' surgeries, constituency visits, that sort of thing."

"They're just playing at being shepherdesses in the gardens of Versailles."


"If it was really about security, they'd put the political classes into some sort of quarantine."

"What sort of quarantine?"

"Well, I was thinking something like Rockall..."

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Sunday singalong

Thursday, October 01, 2009


Every so often the testosterone kicks in and I find myself doing Man Things. Not scratching my goolies and staring at ladies' bottoms. Well, not just scratching my goolies and staring at ladies' bottoms anyway. Luckily, the hardware shop on the way to work has closed down so I can't drift in to browse the sandpapers or pick up an odd half-ton of assorted wood screws. It's not like I'm any good at DIY, I just succumbed to that same primitive urge that pulls you towards the old Biggles books in the Oxfam Shop or makes you fall in love with steam trains.

There I was, quietly reading a learned journal when my eye wandered to the outdoor clothing adverts. A padded waistcoat with a thermal lining and 17 pockets. Thornproof, waterproof exterior fabric and 17 pockets. Lightweight and flexible and with 17 pockets. Breathable interior, subtle lovat shading and 17 pockets. I could do with having a decent weatherproof waistcoat for when I'm out for a walk. And something warm on my back seeing as I'm not as young as I was. And it has 17 pockets.

Ladies' handbags are a matter of mystery and terror to us poor mortals. Exploiting secret advances in tesseract technologies, they cram their bags with all matter and manner of things of which we daresn't speak aloud. The last time I was in a relationship of any sort we used to snuggle by the fireside listening to "Educating Archie" but I still end up being the one who stands in the shop "just holdings this" while one or other female acquaintance looks for their purse/bus pass/lipstick/tape measure/whatever. It's like being a contestant on 'Crackerjack' without the cabbages. Well, usually. Somebody did once have a small savoy cabbage in her handbag. We were in an art gallery at the time. The same people who walk around with all this crap in an over-priced bag will then witter on and on and on again on about men's pockets.

"They've always got to have things in their pockets."

Well yes. We do. That's what they're there for. It isn't rocket science. It's a design classic. Sheer functional elegance. That's what I say. (I think I talk back too much to be in a relationship with a member of the opposite). It isn't a good idea to sew up the pockets. No. It isn't.
"It would stop you spoiling the line of the jacket."
Listen, let's get real: me getting into the jacket spoils the line of the jacket. So we don't sew up the pockets. And we sympathise when I buy a jacket that only has the one functioning pocket: the left-hand one is just a dummy with a pocket flap. No, seriously, we do. I mean, I've got to fit all the gear into one pocket. By the time I've put in the small change, the keys, the receipts, the commonplace book, the pencil, the white mouse, the box of chalks, the lump of cobbler's wax and the screwdrivers I'm walking with a distinct list. Luckily, I'm balanced out by the bag full of paperwork, newspapers, books and stuff so I'm not twisting the spine too much.

17 pockets. I wonder if they're all sewn up.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Two versions of Jimmy James' fantastic box sketch. Enjoy.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Stooge for England!

We seem to be losing a lot of our iconography lately. And while it's true that we afford them their due deferences and mourn their passing I can't help but feel guilty about not singing their praises more loudly in their lifetimes.

So let us sing a song of Nicholas Parsons.

At least half of my English readership will have smiled at that sentence. In itself that is a tribute to the man's work. Starting out as one of the myriad unremarkable young actors who'd do little cameos in films or plays he has become A National Treasure. And he has managed it by more than mere longevity.

Like many of his contemporaries, Nicholas' early career involved his playing respectable, if a bit wet, characters with impeccable Stage English. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he carried on doing precisely that, acting as stooge, or straight man, to a succession of comedians and, finally, The Nation. The big turning point was his teaming up with Arthur Haynes who was one of the big TV stars in the fifties and early sixties. Haynes generally played the stroppy 'little man' who thought he was being hard done-to by authority, very often typified by Nicholas Parsons. Other times he would be a rather wet middle-class friend to Haynes' "common man."

When that partnership dissolved he became a regular on The Benny Hill Show. (BTW: one of the things I like about Benny Hill is that he continued the tradition of surrounding the comic with straight men and character actors and then letting them be funny.) Hill was lucky to have both Nicholas Parsons and Henry McGee in his troupe.

Parsons was, and is, a consummate straight man. This isn't easy. In fact, it's damned hard. It's easy to imagine that all a straight man has to do is stand there and say his lines while the funny man does the comedy. It's easy to imagine that and dead wrong. If you want to see how easy it isn't, just watch the next time a US President teams up with a comedian for one of those "let's entertain the White House Press Corps" skits. You laugh, if you do, at the novelty of the event and at the good sportsmanship of the President. If the President was Joe Bloggs from down the road you'd think this was a pretty mediocre bit of comedy. The straight man has three important jobs to do. He has to provide a counterpoint to the comic, in physique or personality, or both. He has to provide the feedlines properly - the gag lines must not appear contrived and the feed must not accidentally telegraph the gag. Sometimes a feed deliberately telegraphs the gag, in which case the straight man and the comic both must have confidence in each other not to say a word until just that right moment. A good comic working with a good stooge who he knows and trusts can ride an audience's knowing what the joke is going to be for a good many minutes. (The longest I've seen was Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough riding a very weak punchline for the best part of ten minutes, made the funnier by Dawson's mercilessly trying to corpse Barraclough by staring him out.) The straight man must never step on a laugh.

Strangely enough his big step up to fame had nothing to do with comedy at all. He was the long-time presenter of Anglia TV's Quiz Of The Week, "Sale of the Century."

These days he is more well-known for his stint as chairman of the long-running radio programme "Just A Minute," where he has acted as the foil to the likes of Clement Freud, Derek Nimmo, Peter Jones, Kenneth Williams, Graham Norton and Paul Merton (and about half a million other celebrities, with all due apologies).

I don't know for sure, but I have my suspicions, which of these turned a jobbing actor and presenter into something else. Nor do I know for sure why he was the chosen one: it's not like the seventies was short of people presenting slightly tacky games shows (Mr & Mrs had both Derek Batey and the bloke with the moncle!) Whatever. It happened. Nicholas Parsons became one of the butts of the nation's comedy. Here's an example from 'Hello Cheeky,' circa 1975.
Stranger Than Truth: A new volcano has appeared on an East Indian island. Reports say that it just sits there rumbling and spewing hot air. The natives call it Nicholas Parsons and throw rocks at it.

A picture, or even just the name of Nicholas Parsons became a short-cut for a quick laugh, whether it was the Goodies using him to scare off policemen or the 'Burkiss Way' telling us that "as The Minute Waltz fades away, here's the man who doesn't." In the eighties and nineties both he and his agent worked bloody hard. It often appeared that he would show up at the opening of a packet of crisps. You'd see him in the most unlikely places, always ineffably nice and polite and bemused and always making sure that the clever and funny people appeared to be that little bit more clever and funny. I met him once briefly in a Green Room (nothing clever on my part: I was riding on the coat tails of my brother's ligging and meeting Nicholas Parsons was a bonus). In the Green Room he appeared exactly as he had appeared on set: nice, polite, and apparently bemused to be there. (I have every confidence that he was the only one in the room who had much idea why any of us were there.)

There is a folk memory, and I don't know if it is more true than that, of Benazir Bhutto turning to a companion in a Broadcasting House lift and asking: "why does everybody in Britain hate Nicholas Parsons?"

The truth is that we don't. He is guyed and he is mocked and he fills theatres with his one-man-shows and recordings of "Just A Minute." He is what he is: The Straight Man To The Nation. And God bless him for it.

Straight actors and actresses, once they reach a certain vintage, are accorded knighthoods and damehoods almost by default. In contrast to that, "light" actors like Ian Carmichael and Nicholas Parsons are consistently, and disgracefully, ignored despite their having put in many decades of work sustaining public morale. It is a national disgrace that it is not Sir Nicholas Parsons.

And when the time comes, as it must, what will the reason be given for the title? Why, for nothing more nor less than his services to the tomfoolery of the nation. And long may he prosper for it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Sunday, September 20, 2009

The never-ending story

My dad is growing a pineapple plant for me. I've no idea where it'll go, given how congested the windowsills are even now, but it's a fun thought and a kind one. He's got one on their bedroom windowledge, taken as a cutting from the top of a pineapple I bought them one weekend. It's become a fine thing and he's keeping his fingers crossed that next year it may flower and fruit. I hope so, it'll be compensation for the frustration I caused him by buying him some seeds of the black bird of paradise plant. He successfully raised five plants, which we shared round the family. It isn't a small plant. In fact it is spectacularly large for the living room of a post-war semi. And I reckon he's still got three years before he'll be seeing flowers on it.

At some stage very soon I'll have to dismantle the hanging baskets and bring into the house all the pelargoniums and suchlike before the frosts do for them. This year I went for a pile of scented leaved species which I've hung up by the front door so that I can accidentally get wafts of perfume from their leaves. By far the most spectacular have been some large-leaved peppermint-scented varieties. There hasn't been enough sun to really suit the lemon ones. I'll have to bring the banana plant back in, too. It's been on summer leave in the front garden and has somehow managed to survive being three-quarters severed at the base by one of August's unseasonal gales. I think I'll keep it well away from the living room window this time: that's quite bothered enough already by the aphids that keep having a go at the peppers. I have learned two new tricks there: it's very easy to eliminate half the infestation by hoovering them up and the plants are small enough for me to swill a lot of the rest away under the tap. At some stage I shall have a dozen or more small, slightly spicy red peppers just the right size for stuffing with a bit of cheese and some basil.

The first tinges of autumn are on the leaves. The blackbirds have had the rowan berries I didn't pinch for hedgerow jelly. The Crocosmias and most of the clematis have flowered themselves into exhaustion and the Michaelmas daisies are just breaking bud. I've planted a load of iris and jonquils, in the hopes of replacing all the ones dug up by the squirrels last year. I'm also trying again with some rhizomes of the widow iris, something I fell in love with when I saw it in the wild. I have to do that in containers: my soil is way too heavy for it to thrive in the beds. I've also planted a load of sea hollies, again in containers, for the same reason. Seeing as how the slugs have thwarted each and every attempt to grow some autumn salads and beetroot in the box container of the patio I've decided to turn it over to ornamentals. There isn't anywhere near enough blue in this garden so the sea hollies will be useful. I'm debating whether or not to stick some camassias in with them; it's a combination I enjoyed for a couple of years when I first moved in and the garden was a lot more bare.

I've also trimmed one end of the clematis that is almost smothering the lilac bush (no mean feat: it's a bosky lilac bush!). My next-door neighbour trimmed a couple of branches (well, twigs: he doesn't allow branches at all on his side of the fence) of the lilac and this freed the clematis to swing, door-like across the pavement. I'd have preferred to have waited until the flowering had finished but I can't very well rail about drivers blocking pavements and then let my garden take over so I did the necessary. The plant is so vigorous that my taking off a wheelie binful of branches and flowers has barely figured. It's C. vitalba, awash with small, white, starry flowers smelling strongly of yeast and honey. I'm not entirely sure I enjoy the smell close up.

The robins and starling have demolished a large pile of mealworms left on the feeding table and the goldfinches have gone through a 2kg bag of niger seed in a week. Ah well. I think I'll have a plate of toasted crumpets.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

I got the blues...

Plane crazy

It occurred to me on waking up this morning that it's over thirty tears since I last used a box plane. I've spent the rest of the day wondering why I'm upset about it.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Once in a thingy

Gadjo's memed me and I'm asked to name 5 things that I've done once in my life which I would never want to do again.

The spirit's willing but I'm struggling. There are lots of things that I've done a few times, or rather a lot, that if I had any sense I should never do again. Ever. And there are quite a few things I've done once that I'd like to do again a few times. But most of my regrets are about sins of omission not commission. I could cheat by going along the lines of "I chose not to..." but no, let's try and go by the spirit of the thing.

#1 Wearing eye shadow. I was young. I was going to a party with a friend. She suggested it and I was too daft to stick to my guns. It wasn't a good look. We stopped off at a dead rough pub for a drink en route. She reckoned I'd pulled. I reckoned I was lucky to get out of the place.

#2 Looking after a gerbil for somebody. Not the most charismatic or intelligent of rodents the gerbil. Oh yes, they're picturesque in a big-eyed Disneyworld sort of a fashion, but they don't have the character of a rat, mouse or hamster or the avuncular charm of a guinea pig. And they are crap parents. The owner didn't even know the thing was pregnant so I didn't have to account for the aftermath of the births, thank God. Every morning began with my having to remove the evidence of the night's infanticides. Yuck.

#3 Going to a Stockhausen concert. I only went because a friend was in the orchestra and was extremely stressed about the whole business and needed some moral support. I should have left the poor fool to his own fate. I knew and loathed one of the pieces on offer already. An explanation of the graphic score for a second piece should have given me the opportunity to bail out. Finding out that one of the most inarticulate-but-posy denizens of the Junior Common Room was the conductor should have been the clincher. But no. I was a Good Friend. I went. At one point I wondered if I should eat my own spleen.

#4 Riding at speed along a mountain pass on the back of a flatbed truck, sitting on a pile of window glass. We were doing fieldwork in the mountains of Sicily. The locals were lovely and always asked if we wanted a lift when they found us walking down the road. We spoke little Italian. Well, none really. They had a similar grasp of English. But we got by. One day we were about three miles away from our usual haunt and not especially enjoying the trek back along a stereotypically windy mountain road. To our right there was a sheer wall of rock. Immediately to the left of the road was a cliff drop of about ninety feet. And lots of scary blind bends, with the knowledge that at some stage we'd be meeting one of the local friendly lunatic drivers. Luckily, the first one we met was going our way. Did we want a lift? Yes please! Jump in the back of the lorry. Jump. Shit. He was the local glazier. We sat on the glass, leaning forward to try to put all our weight in our legs and balancing precariously as the truck lurched round the mad corners at about sixty m.p.h. Scary.

#5 Buy a house seen only in daylight. = Buy a vacant house owned by a policeman. Week one in the house involved getting the electricty and gas switched back on and the lavatory undisabled. And we'll draw a veil over the central heating.

The rules say that I have to pass the meme on to another five people. So I will: any of you who fancy playing with this meme can blame me if you want.

Don't have nightmares...

Friday, September 11, 2009

Random samples

I got the train into town much later than usual today, because I could. It's been a warm, sunny day after a clear, cold night and the neighbours have had their washing out from first light. Actually, some of them have their washing on the line 24x7 regardless of the weather. I've never understood the point of that. Even less do I understand the point of somebody firing up a barbecue underneath their washing line. Your typical English barbie with a few cubic yards of damp white smoke and the smell of burning fat from the time it was used last Easter. If you're going to do that why bother with the washer and the spin drier? Just chuck the laundry in the chip pan and have done with it.

I'm lucky lately on the trains. Perhaps my film star looks are putting people off telling me their woes; or else perhaps I've trying too hard at being a national treasure and scaring the buggers off. Whatever. I get peace. Which is more than could be said for the poor wretch who sat down at the table beside mine. We can't often pick our travelling companions, you just have to hope for the best and not give them any more opportunities than you have to. Once he told the old bloke sitting next to him that he is a professional driver travelling over to pick up a car he was doomed. A twenty minute monologue on the toll road practices of Europe, the vehicle taxes of the cantons of Helvetica and the pros and cons of being an Italian lorry driver was more than flesh and blood could stand; and I had the advantage of being able to pretend to ignore him and stare out of the window. As I left them to it the conversation had turned to the topic of the petrol taxes of Belgium. I really couldn't tell you how: each component of the tirade was bolted inelegantly onto the next with no particular passing logic.

Leaving the station I walked past one of the building sites that litter Manchester these days. This one's still being worked and the crew are much in evidence, moving blocks of concrete from one pile to the next and shifting the safety railings as far as they can get away with without the public having to invade the site to use the footpath. I overheard an exchange between two of them, one very obviously a senior (he had his hat on and his boots were brown, not orange). Nodding at a departing body the junior said:

"By gum, he looks rough!"
"You should have seen him when I picked him up for work this morning. He looked like a pissed-up puffin."

Crossing the pavement on Peter Street I was nearly knocked down by a middle-aged bloke riding a five-gear tricycle. I almost stopped him to see if it still had the "Triang" label stuck on it.

Getting the bus home we were delayed a little in the city's business and hotel quarter. We had to wait while a couple of businessmen got out of the way. The pavement at that part is eight foot wide but these two guys just had to stand in the middle of the bus lane to have their conversation and nothing was going to stop them. I suppose we should count our blessings that they didn't have their mobile 'phones to their ears or that would have been the whole weekend gone for a Burton.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Film star looks

I looked at a stray mirror in passing and Cecil Parker stared back at me.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Winter drawers on

The swifts disappeared a few weeks ago and every so often half a dozen or so swallows will hurtle southwards towards the river. Last night I heard the first lot of migrating oystercatchers overhead (when they come they usually pass by about three o'clock in the morning). Me and the squirrel have had all the hazel nuts and the damsons that have gone over are being feasted upon by speckled woods and sundry hover flies.

I've just planted the first bulbs of the autumn - a dozen jonquils and a few yellow iris - and a couple of dozen violas for to flower in the early spring.

Hey ho.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Snow job

Back in the dark ages, in days when I did advice work, I shared a workspace with the council's Trading Standards department. This was useful as part of my working brief was to provide consumer advice so I could always ask for ideas/advice (which very often amounted to: "oh shit is he back in again?" For any of you not in the know, the worst thing that can happen to you when you do advice work is for an elderly gentleman in a club blazer to walk through the door with a bag full of paperwork in his hands.)

Their regular chores involved breaches of the Trades Descriptions Act ("is this product/service as described?") and the laws on pornography. Every so often they'd do raids of the usual suspect and then have to watch the tapes to garner evidence. You could always tell when they were doing the latter because they'd be much more depressed than usual ("I'll tell you something, that's put me off boiled ham for a while!") Once in a while a few councils would band together against the forces of evil. The best one they did while I was there was an investigation of telephone sex services. After about three months' work they had to give up on most of the providers: the services they were providing were very far from being pornographic but they were, hilariously, still within the letter - if not the spirit - of the Trades Descriptions Act.

"Donna's Hard Ride" - charged then at 75p a minute - turned out to be a girl describing a pony trekking holiday on Dartmoor.

Further back in the mists of time, when we were students, a friend bought an audio sex tape. I can't remember what it was called, or even what it was about. All I can remember was its being of such a lousy quality that all we could make out was a bloke with a West Country accent saying: "Ooh... oh yes... oh... lovely!" We weren't sure he wasn't on his own at time of recording.

We couldn't find anything even remotely erotic about the whole thing. Which is remarkable given that we were all teenage males without a lot of luck engaging with the ladies.

Like many people of my age my first real porn movie was "Deep Throat." The Junior Common Room borrowed a copy from somewhere or other and a mass of us paid 50p each for the viewing performance. The video was an umpteenth-generation pirate copy with so much noise on it that it was a good twenty minutes before a restive audience could be convinced we weren't watching "Scott of the Antarctic."

Some of my contemporaries still can't listen to "Sinphonia antarctica" without getting an erection.

Thursday, September 03, 2009


I really shouldn't have shaved my chest.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


I am irritated to bits by the news that a bank is offering Mockney rhyming slang as one of the languages on its cash machines.

"Enter your Gunga"
"Do you want to top up your dog and bone?"


I don't know why they don't go the whole hog and include all the operation in this charade.

"That'll be Oliver, sir."
Oliver Reed = "we'll accidentally deduct a standing order payment from your account and then hit you for unauthorised overdraft charges until your eyes bleed."

"Oh no, sir, plumber's."
Plumber's mate = "we don't see anything remotely unethical in hitting you for mortgage charges 8% above the Base Lending Rate."

And of course...

"Donald is the watch word of our small business service."
Donald Duck = "We know and understand that cash flow is the single biggest problem facing the start-up business and that this necessarily causes unpredictable ebbs and flows in the liquidity of the account but, quite frankly, we couldn't give a flying fuck."

Monday, August 31, 2009

Bank Holiday Film Festival: Finale

Needless to say, any examination of the cinematic depiction of the machinery of government has to include...
Movie poster: Duck Soup
Duck Soup (1933)

"What has four pairs of pants, lives in Philadelphia, and it never rains but it pours?"
The older and more inexperienced I become in the business of public service the more that I come to realise the documentary elements of this film.

The small independent state of Freedonia is on its uppers and negotiates a $20,000,000 donation from the wealthy widow Mrs. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) to save its economy. There is a catch: the money is only available if Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) is appointed President. From here on in it's the ride of your life. These days we have the rewind button; how much must people have missed watching it the first time at the pictures?

I don't want to spoil anything for you if you haven't seen it. You want to see it. You really, really want to see it. The plot's all over the place (just like working in the public sector in fact) and it doesn't matter a bit. It's a freewheeling trip through a collection of mad sketches, dialogues and some of the best visual pantomime on the silver screen.

Good God, even Zeppo gets to play an active part!

As a taster for any tyros, and a celebration for the rest of us...

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bank Holiday Film Festival, second course

Carrying on with this season's theme, let's move on to the business of elections themselves.

the Tory candidate flanked by his supportersLeft, Right and Centre (1959)

"Westminster. The House of Commons. Every nation, they say, gets the government that they deserve. And that is a sobering thought. Beneath that noble roof, my friends, sit six hundred MPs, made up for the most part of Conservatives and Socialists. One might sum up the enormous difference between the two by saying that whereas the Conservatives philosophy is 'the exploitation of man by man' with the Socialists it is exactly the other way round."
A nice, gentle romantic comedy of the late 1950s wrapped up in a light drama of the politics of the Butskillite era. A slight confection, not the cream of the crop from the Launder and Gilliat stable, nor the best film of the year but any film featuring Ian Carmichael, Alistair Sim, Richard Wattis and Eric Barker has to be worth a look. And assuredly it is.

(It's also Gordon Harker's last film. I'm a big fan of his. He's Hardy the chauffeur.)

the TV panel game What On Earth Is ThatThe plot revolves around the Parliamentary by-election at the small town of Earndale, a straight fight between the Conservatives and the Socialists. Suave TV personality Bob Wilcot (Ian Carmichael) - "penguins are very much my cup of tea" - is standing as prospective Conservative MP. His motives are not idealogical: his uncle, Lord Wilcot (Alistair Sim), needs the publicity for his stately home and its myriad commercial ventures. Taking the train down he finds himself sat next to a pretty young woman and they hit it off quite nicely. It is only after getting off the train and being photographed carrying her bags that he learns that Stella (Patricia Bredin) is none other than his opponent.

"I never thought any daughter of mine would put up for parliament. We've always been such a respectable family! Well, good luck Stella!"

"My name is known in almost every home."
"You could say the same for almost any detergent."

They find that despite everything they can't find the heart to attack each other as tradition demands, much to the dismay of their election managers. Richard Wattis, as the Conservative agent Harding-Pratt, and Eric Barker as the Socialist agent Bert Glimmer, are wonderful supports. Both provide suitably cynical and knowing foils to the rather innocent candidates.

Wilcot's arrival at the stately pile is a treat and a half. We're first of all met by a fun fair. Stepping through the turnstile ("Complementary pass, 'is lordship's orders"), he fnds the hallway is turned into an amusement arcade, including "What the butler saw" machines. My own favourite is "Special offer. Lord Wilcot's Own Parsnip Wine. Puts the 'NIP' in 'Parsnip.' Only 3/6 a bottle."

"Accrington and Stockport parties this way please!"

"Robert, we are all governed by dead ideas but when it comes to party programmes an idea has to be not merely dead but to have lost all meaning before it has any chance of being adopted with any real enthusiasm. Remember that my boy. It will get you absolutely nowhere."

Perhaps more convincing than the blossoming romance between the two candidates is the burgeoning friendship between the two election agents as they try to put the kibosh on that relationship so that they can get on with the business of mud-slinging, abuse and general jiggery-pokery.

"Mister Wilcot may know how to fix an injured penguin but will that help a single old age pensioner?"