Computers and I go back a long way. When I came to London as a research student in 1967 the whole of London University was serviced by a single huge computer. It was called Atlas and it occupied a whole building in a street alongside Euston Station. It looked like something from a science fiction movie, with rotating tape reels and flashing lights but no keyboards or screens and nary a mouse to be seen as they had yet to be invented. Atlas was staffed by young men in white coats — I don’t recall a single female operative — and mere students weren’t allowed anywhere near it. The data from our experiments had to be fed in on punched cards, and at UCL there was a special shed full of hole-punching machines where distraught researchers like me cussed as they punched holes in the wrong places and had to start all over again. If you were lucky you’d find that there was already a programme to analyse the data on your cards, but if not you had to write one yourself, and I was sent on a programming course to learn how to do this. There was a waiting-list for data processing, and when you eventually got your results they came in the form of numerical print-outs: reams and reams of paper. Not even the science fiction writers predicted that in the future all this would be miniaturised and made affordable for home use.
It took a while, however. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the publishing firm I worked for could obtain sales figures from the warehouse via a dial-up modem attached to a telephone line, which was a slow and highly unreliable process, and once again I was allowed nowhere near it. More years went by, and I started my own publishing company. Towards the end of the 1980s some of our authors were writing on Amstrad computers with green lettering on black screens (no graphics), saving their writing on floppy disks and expecting us to be pleased about receiving these as submissions. A decent-sized novel could occupy three or four disks and we had no computer to sort out the damn things, so people quickly acquired daisy-wheel printers and sent us stuff that we could actually read. We saw no reason to get one of these crappy computers or printers for ourselves.
I didn’t acquire my own computer until 1995 when, feeling I ought to be learning about these new-fangled things I enrolled on a basic computing course, which I got for free being theoretically unemployed at the time. Windows 95 was hot news at the time, and while it was ok for processing text its graphics capabilities were pretty well non-existent. The course was fun, though. Most of the other students were college-leavers trying to get a first foothold in the job market, and some of them were female. They all watched Friends, in which Monica was just embarking on an affair with Richard played by Tom Selleck, an older man with a moustache, which seemed to give some of them the idea that getting to know an older man might be a neat idea.
I was certainly no Tom Selleck, but I was an older man called Richard with a moustache, and two of them started getting very friendly towards me, surprising as this may seem. One of them was clearly unstable (you don’t have to be clinically insane to fancy me but it helps, as the saying doesn’t quite go), but the other was tall and slim with closely-cropped black hair and had just graduated in Art History. I’ll merely say that we got on extremely well, and if she hadn’t had this boyfriend back home in Warwick … I still think of her sometimes. Damn it, I should have tried harder.
[As I’ve been writing this piece I’ve found Pulp’s ‘Help the Aged’ playing in what’s left of my brain. Can’t think why.]
The Windows computer didn’t last much longer than the course and the romance, but computing for me changed vastly for the better when my friend Bob who was supporting a big project that I was working on gave me an Apple Mac. Astonishingly kind, and I lost no time in enrolling on another course, learning Photoshop, Illustrator and Quark XPress over a period of eight months and copping an NVQ Level 2 into the bargain, boast boast. This enabled me to do most of the things that we now take for granted on our macs and pcs, though not many others were doing desktop publishing at the time and it helped me get going as a freelance editor and designer, and saved my bacon financially. Since then we’ve got much faster computers and near-universal broadband and — well, you know the rest as well as I do.
It’s astonishing to realize that the tiniest modern laptop is more powerful than Atlas was. I was relating all this to a 20-something young woman who works in the tech department of her company — I’m a fascinating conversationalist — and trying to persuade her that if things could change so much in the last 50 years computing would be vastly different 50 years hence when she’s a granny, but she was reluctant to believe that items like keyboards, screens and mouses would disappear and be as forgotten as card-hole punchers and floppy disks when they’re superseded by all the data and imaging going directly to the brain. It’s already happening. I read in the newspaper the other day that a dog has been trained to move things about on a screen merely by willing them to do so, and I believe that Elon Musk is working on direct connections to the head. I’m glad in a way that I won’t be around to see the fruits of these researches, though I’d quite like to return to this young woman as a ghost saying in spooky tones “I tooold you sooo.”
Am I woke? If I am woke is that a good thing or a bad thing? If I’m not woke should I be? What is woke anyway?
From Wikepedia:Woke is a political term that originated in the United States, and it refers to a perceived awareness of issues that concern social justice and racial justice. It derives from the African-American Vernacular English expression “stay woke”, whose grammatical aspect refers to a continuing awareness of these issues. First used in the 1940s, the term has resurfaced in recent years as a concept that symbolizes perceived awareness of social issues and movement. By the late 2010s, woke had been adopted as a more generic slang term broadly associated with left-wing politics, social justice activism and progressive or socially liberal causes such as anti-racism, LGBT rights, feminism and environmentalism (with the terms woke culture, woke politics and woke left also being used).
I became aware of the word last year. I missed Erykah Badu’s song ‘Master Teacher’ in 2008 which apparently popularized it with the chorus ‘I stay woke’, but the Black Lives Matter movement last summer brought it to much wider notice, including mine, while the recent accession of Joe Biden to the US presidency provoked a lot of questions along the lines of ‘Is he Woke’? and the right-wing media have seized on the term with stories like these, all from the Daily Mail in the last few days:
Why NO ONE is safe from the woke warriors trying to stamp out free speech
REVEALED: How ‘woke’ English teachers have cancelled Shakespeare because of his ‘white supremacy, misogyny, racism and classism’ – and are instead using his plays to lecture in ‘toxic masculinity and Marxism’
Black Country residents have slammed ‘woke’ Facebook rules after a local history group was threatened with a ban for discussing the local delicacy – faggots and peas.
It’s reminiscent of the scorn which greeted the Political Correctness movement a few years ago when people ridiculed the more extreme examples with cries of “It’s political correctness GONE MAD.”
From what I’ve learned I think I’ve been woke ever since I first became interested in politics and social issues in the early 1960s when nearly all of my generation were lefties. Some of my friends went to extremes, becoming Trotskeyites and even Anarchists and looking forward to the Revolution that seemed imminent as the sixties progressed. One of them told me that he and a few fellow radicals had been practising with home-made Molotov cocktails on some waste land somewhere, and many of them attended the anti-American demos in Grosvenor Square; Graham Hall (now dead so I can name him) boasted of having knocked over a police horse, which disgusted me as I didn’t think that horses held political views.
I never bought into any of that stuff. As a jazz fan I knew about Jim Crow from an early age and was horrified by the accounts of what had happened to some of my heroes: Lester Young having an appalling time in the army, Billie Holiday not allowed to sit with the rest of Artie Shaw’s band, Duke Ellington having to buy sandwiches for his band because no restaurant in the South would serve them … and as the 1960s progressed there was much talk of Revolution, but I knew that there wasn’t going to be any such thing. For one thing, the people planning it were so incredibly inept, but we did what we could on a local level, starting adventure playgrounds for disadvantaged kids, getting involved with ‘alternative’ publications, supporting the Labour Party etc. — but this isn’t a recital of my own woke credentials, such as they are. I did a bit, but nowhere near enough.
I think I’m woke, though I hope I’m not sanctimonious about it and definitely not a woke warrior. Which takes me on to the next key question of our times: am I a Snowflake?
I recently posted some photos of myself on my Facebook page and was surprised at the number of Likes they got. The pictures showed me playing my saxophone — or pretending to play it — in 1963 shortly after I’d acquired the thing from a family friend. I’m somewhat diffident about posting pictures of myself, but people do seem to be interested in these things and I may post more.
Incidentally, my record number of Likes on Facebook has been 528 (plus 65 Shares) for a little snippet that I posted in a forum called The English Language Police, probably because it mentioned Neil Gaiman who appears to be enormously popular these days.
When he was a young wannabee Neil and another guy submitted a book proposal to my fledgling publishing company, and I turned it down. Oh dear…
But the photos set me reminiscing to myself about my various musical endeavours, which have been many and various, and wholly unsuccessful. They started with Saturday-morning piano lessons taken at my mother’s insistence when I was a schoolboy in Leeds. The teacher was Miss Banbury who lived in a rather gothic-looking house in a sort of park nearby. To get to it I had to open a huge creaky garden gate then walk up a long path snaking through overgrown rhododendrons to the house, where the door was opened by a maid who ushered me into the drawing room which housed the grand piano to await the arrival of Miss Banbury. She had leg-irons so I could hear her clanking towards me long before she arrived, which added to the Gothic qualms I was feeling — but she was actually a nice old lady, if rather strict.
For homework she gave me a booklet called Forest Fantasies which contained simple little tunes for piano which I dutifully worked my way through with no enthusiasm at all, but I pored over the cover which was by someone called W. Heath Robinson. I had shown some little talent for drawing and I thought that if I ever got good at it that was the kind of thing I’d like to do. A seed had been planted, albeit a non-musical one. The original booklet is long gone but much later I got hold of another copy which is now framed and hanging on my wall.
Miss Banbury got me through Level 1, which was quite an achievement as playing the piano was for me just a grim duty, and when I was packed off to boarding school at the age of twelve I flatly refused to have any more lessons. My mother told me that I’d regret it later and she was right, I do.
Music for me as a child consisted of the hymns we sang in church, the choruses and songs we sang as Boy Scouts (‘Ging-Gang-Gooly’ etc.), and Uncle Mac on the wireless who played a seldom-changing selection of so-called children’s records every Saturday morning. My sister and I were plonked down in front of the radiogram for this supposed treat, but I hated all those songs, especially the ones that left us little listeners hanging: there was The Runaway Train who ‘came down the track and she blew’ which ended ‘For all I know she’s blowing still’; the Three Little Fishies who swam and swam right over the dam and right out to sea, and the Billy Goats Gruff and the troll … and some of the records were downright creepy, like My Grandfather’s Clock which ‘stopped short never to go again / when the old man died,’ and of course the Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly (‘She’s dead, of course’). Uncle Mac was much later revealed to have been a suspected pædophile.
The radiogram housed a small collection of records — 78s in those days — handed down from my Harrogate grandparents and supplemented by a few that my father had bought. His taste was for the lighter sort of classical music, Mozart and Gilbert & Sullivan plus a few sacred songs, which I sometimes played when it was raining outside and there was nothing else to do. My favourite was one of my grandfather’s, ‘(I Got Spurs that) Jingle Jangle Jingle’ by The Merry Macs, but I secretly quite liked ‘All In the April Evening’ by the Glasgow Orpheus Choir and its flipside ‘By Cool Siloam’s Shady Rill’ which I heard as ‘… shady Rhyll’, the North Wales resort which we’d visited and which hadn’t seemed particularly shady to me.
This all changed dramatically in 1958 when the family moved from Yorkshire to Bromborough on the Wirral where I soon fell in with a bunch of kids who were into rock ‘n’ roll. One of them, Graham Noble, had an older brother who was a big fan of Elvis Presley and between them they had a collection of records by Elvis and a few others. I was vaguely aware of Elvis but hadn’t liked ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ — too slow, too morbid — but when Graham played ‘Hound Dog’ at full volume I was an instant convert. Our old radiogram had been discarded when we moved house and my father had bought a portable record player which would play these new-fangled little 45 rpm records, and I soon started collecting them myself whenever I could scrape together the money for one. After a few false starts — the very first record I bought was ‘Big Man’ by The Four Preps, and to my subsequent shame and the mockery of my friends I even bought a Pat Boone EP — I soon tapped into the real thing, and for the next few years rock ‘n’ roll became something of an obsession: not much Elvis as Graham and his brother had all his records, but Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, Bo Diddley, Brenda Lee, Jerry Lee Lewis and, best of all and partly because he was the one my otherwise tolerant parents couldn’t stand, Little Richard.
Rock ‘n’ roll in those days was regarded as a plebeian taste and at my posh boarding school it was frowned upon, but I soon found that there were a handful of boys who shared my passion for this degraded music and we formed a little rebellious clique. The records we collected were I suppose a form of escapism, seeming like mysterious messages from another, much more interesting world — the USA — and apart from their sheer excitement we learned from them that there were such things as sock-hop balls, red bluejeans and girls called Moronie. We puzzled over some of the more mysterious lyrics much more assiduously than we did over our French irregular verbs or the more obscure passages of Shakespeare. What on earth was ‘Jambalaya’ on about, for instance? Gotta go do a what on the bayou?
Back home in the holidays I soon discovered that the best record shop in the Merseyside area was NEMS in Liverpool, and I soon became a regular and rather annoying customer — annoying because having come a bit late to rock ‘n’ roll I was always looking for the more obscure records invariably to be told that they were deleted. (There were no ‘golden oldies’ or reissues in those days and once a record had had its few weeks in the charts it was removed from the catalogue, seemingly forever.) I remember being served by a polite, smartly-dressed young man who who addressed me as Sir seemingly without satirical intent and who asked if I’d like him to order it for me, which never produced the goods. It got to the point where I had only to show myself on the stairs leading down to the record department in the basement for the rest of the staff to yell out “It’s deleted, it’s deleted,” which was embarassing for a self-conscious 14-old, but I was on a mission and it didn’t deter me. A couple of years later when the Beatles were becoming famous I recognized their manager, Brian Epstein, also becoming famous, as the smart young man who had sometimes tried to help me in the shop.
Like many other kids on Merseyside I wanted a guitar and there was excitement when my dad came home from a church bazaar with an interesting-looking parcel, bulgy at at one end and tapering at the other which turned out to be … a banjo. It was an ancient instrument with five strings, one of which disappeared down a sort of tunnel half-way along the neck. This sure as hell wasn’t what I wanted as I had no enthusiasm for trad jazz or folk music, but I did what I could with it until my teenage pal Brian Patten (not the poet, another one) called round and saw me through the window posing with it in front of the mirror, trying to make like Duane Eddy. When he came in he was laughing so hard he actually fell over. But Brian had a schoolfriend who was looking to sell his guitar, and my dad obligingly bought it for me. It cost £3 and it was a wretched thing, a Spanish-style acoustic with plastic strings and a very wide fretboard, but at least it was a guitar: much better for posing purposes and on it I managed to teach myself some basic chords and was soon able to play a few simple songs and even compose a couple of my own. But I was on my own with that. Brian and Graham had no musical instruments of their own, and on my trips to Liverpool I didn’t happen to meet John Lennon or Paul McCartney who might have helped me.
We did hear about these Beatles quite early on, however. Some of Brian’s schoolfriends had been to this place called the Cavern Club and Brian wanted us to go (“Apparently they play songs by Little Richard and Buddy Holly — all the stuff we like”) but our parents wouldn’t let us, thinking that as a club the Cavern would be serving alcohol which was strictly forbidden to us young Methodists, so we missed out on that treat though we did get to a Beatles concert in Southport a couple of years later.
At the time though (1959-62) we only very occasionally got to hear some live music. The first time was at the Liverpool Empire early in 1960 with a bill shared by Duane Eddy and Bobby Darin. I had all of Duane Eddy’s records including his first LP and was delighted to find that on stage he was as good as he sounded on the records. This wasn’t always the case: when British acts performed live on tv backed by some hastily-assembled session musicians the results were usually dire, but Duane had brought his own band The Rebels with him and they were terrific, filling the theatre with sounds that it had probably never heard before. Bobby Darin was excellent too. Graham and I went back a couple of nights later and got their autographs at the stage door.
Back at school in Bath in term-time there was even less opportunity to hear visiting Americans, and I ached with frustration when a package tour with Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent played at a theatre in the city. There they were, these legendary figures whose records I knew by heart, performing just down the road while I was stuck at school doing prep with absolutely no way of getting out. It got even worse when it came on the news the next day that their car had crashed shortly after the gig and Eddie Cochran had died in a Bath hospital. Happily, Gene Vincent survived and I was able to see him a bit later when my school friend Chris phoned me in the holidays to ask if I’d like to join him seeing not only Gene Vincent but also Jerry Lee Lewis doing a show in York, where he lived at the time. Indeed I would and it was a great experience, with the two stars supported by two emerging British groups, The Animals and The Nashville Teens. Chris and I had a bet on which of these groups might make it big. I opted for The Nashville Teens …
… And there I must leave it for the moment as I find I have much more to say about music than I originally thought. You’ll have gathered that it means a great deal to me and I’ll write more soon.
Will Richard abandon rock ‘n’ roll when it goes all soft in 1961? How and why did he get into jazz? Did he ever learn to play that saxophone properly? Why does he now have several guitars lying around the house, and where does Bob Dylan fit into all this? Has Richard’s enthusiasm for music been passed on to the next generation on the other side of the world? Don’t miss the next thrilling installment of My Musical Career, coming soon to a blog near you.
I had my first one yesterday. The summons came out of the blue by phone on Monday evening, and the appointment was for Tuesday afternoon. I’d hoped that these Covid-19 innoculations would take place at my GP’s surgery which is easy for me to reach, but no: I had to go up to Tottenham and the first problem was how I was going to get there. A few minutes online research told me that parking my car anywhere near the centre would be impossible, and the nearest tube stations and bus stops are further away than I could walk even if I dared used public transport, which I haven’t for months. It would have to be a taxi, then.
The local taxi service that I’ve been using for hospital visits were busy with many more such calls but said they would take me there and bring me back again — I’ve been a good customer of theirs and a generous tipper — so at 3:40 off we went. Our destination was the Lordship Lane Primary Care Centre which has been hastily adapted for administering hundreds of jabs, and the place was seething with mask-wearing seventy-somethings. Checking in, I was given a ticket and found that I was No. 60 in the queue. As I sat down No. 32 was called, so I sat down and waited.
There was only the vaguest attempt at social distancing, and many of the waiting oldies were getting increasingly agitated and distressed as the numbers were called. Some of them were in wheelchairs or on crutches. We were asked to write our telephone numbers on a form that each of us had been given to fill in, and the woman in the chair next to me couldn’t remember hers. Like me she had a taxi waiting outside to take her home and the cost of it was bothering her as we waited and waited as the meters ticked over. The room presented a distressing scene.
The book I’d brought with me proved less than gripping, and as I waited my mind started to wander. I started to see the place as a field hospital in a future war in some dystopian science fiction story where old people are conscripted and treated as expendable cannon-fodder, while the younger ones sit safely behind enemy lines in bunkers operating their computers and managing the conflict. This might make an interesting movie, I thought, since there are so many famous actors now too old to play action heroes or romantic leads. There would have to be a rebellion of the old against this appalling treament, of course. I wondered whether Clint Eastwood is still alive …
My reverie was interrupted when I heard my number called. I was ushered into a corridor and told to follow the green line on the floor which led me to another corridor. The jab itself was very quick: sit down, roll up your sleeve, dab dab, you’ll feel a bit of a prick (stop sniggering at the back there), didn’t feel a thing, then we’re done and follow the green line out again, which led back through the still-crowded waiting area to the observation room, where jabbees have to wait for fifteen minutes in case there are any immediate side-effects. None of us seemed to be showing any.
It was dark by the time I got away. My taxi-driver was still there and remarkably good-natured about the long wait he’d had to endure. He’d been hanging about for more than an hour. I gave him a very decent tip. At home with a large mug of strong tea I turned on the news and learned that during the course of the day 1610 people had died of Covid-19: a new record, so despite all the hassles I’m very glad to have had the jab. By my very rough calculation I’m the four million, two hundred and sixty-six thousand, five hundred and somethingth person to get the jab in the UK. When I’ll get my second one is anybody’s guess, so I’ll just have to sit around for a while longer waiting for the call.
I wonder how many old folk missed out because they couldn’t manage a trip to the Centre, or couldn’t quickly find £40 or so for a taxi. I hope that local charities and neighbourhood networks are mobilizing to help them, but full credit to the authorities for getting the innoculation programme organized so quickly even if the organization isn’t always perfect — and we must suppress the resentment many of us feel about them getting us into this mess by acting too late in the first place then relaxing the rules much too quickly. The ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme seems almost suicidally stupid in retrospect. Some of us thought so at the time, and said so, and I was appalled at the speed with which some people immediately started socializing and even going on foreign holidays as though there had never been a pandemic. So foolish, so appallingly selfish.
Only another twenty-five million jabs to go, then we have to do it all over again for the second jabs, and after that there are the kids to protect — if the jabs are effective.
My previous post was uncharacteristically upbeat and even jolly, but now it’s time to get back to normal with a quick look back at some of the year’s nasties together with a few perennial grouches.
ALCOHOL: I enjoy an occasional drink myself and don’t want to be hypocritical about this, but having had to watch two of my closest friends succumb to alcoholism and eventually die of it and quite a number of promising young writers ruin their talent and their lives because of booze I’m very wary of it. I’m not being preachy here, but I’ve seen some dreadful things and been unable to help.
‘ALBATROSS’: We booed Fleetwood Mac for selling out (as we thought) when they played this at a free concert on Parliament Hill Fields one Sunday evening long ago, and since then I’ve become really sick of hearing it played as a party winds down. Try this instead.
BEETROOT: Nature’s most unappealing vegetable. Dear friends, If you’re kind enough to invite me round for a meal please don’t let it be beetroot-based and especially not borcht. It has happened.
DIGITAL ADVERTISING: Does anyone actually like all the pop-ups, cookies and trackers that dog our every movement to try and get at our money by selling us things we don’t want or need? Mac-users might like to install Little Snitch and run it for half an hour, and if you don’t already know you’ll be appalled to see the dozens of unidentifiable creeps that are accessing your computer whenever you go online. It’s especially nauseating when this insidious business is targetted specifically at children, as it increasingly is. I could name names …
DRAG ACTS: I’ve never liked them, and the current popularity of Mrs Brown’s Boys depresses me beyond belief. I find the whole thing demeaning for men and insulting to women. Dame Edna might be an exception.
FISH: Can’t eat it. I say that I’m allergic, which isn’t quite true as fish doesn’t put me into hospital with anaphylactic shock, but if I eat it — and I do try from time to time — it disagrees with me so strongly that I’m confined to the bathroom for hours or even days afterwards, which is a real nuisance as it reduces my personal menu by about a third. And it looks so good!
THE HONOURS SYSTEM: As I write this the New Year’s Honours List is just being announced, with its usual slew of cronies, Civil Service time-servers, sportsmen and sportswomen, and showbiz veterans, most of whom have already been amply rewarded with fame and money. The politicians keep saying that the whole thing needs reforming but they never do it. A quick doff of the hat, though, to the splendid people who have turned honours down, especially Alan Bennett who has refused the offer of a knighthood on three separate occasions, and our friend Herbert who turned down an MBE because being from Nigeria he wanted nothing to do with the British Empire.
‘IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE’: I never saw this movie when I was young and only caught up with it at a time when my business was in trouble thanks to the bank panicking unnecessarily during John Major’s recession — and did my authors, clients and suppliers rally round to support me like the townsfolk do in the film? With a couple of exceptions they did not. The movie lies, people, and I hate it.
LONDON: It used to be a magical city but for me it has shrunk to a few dismal streets and a couple of hospitals. Now unable to enjoy its pleasures I long to get away but — for the time being anyway — I can’t, damn it.
MEN’S PONYTAILS: Don’t have one, guys, unless you’re actually aiming to look like an arsehole.
MY BODY: A wreck. ‘Nuff said about that horror, and definitely no …
SELFIES: A psychologist studying the phenomenon of social media generally and Instagram in particular called the phenomenal number of people continually posting photos of themselves ‘vanity validation’, which seems spot-on. Have we really become so narcissistic? From what I’ve seen, yes. But I hadn’t realized that the selfie could be used as a cruel taunt until I received one from someone who had avoided a get-together and sent me a photo which seemed to be saying “Here I am having fun scoffing fish and chips at the sunny seaside while you’re stuck in London trying to cope with gruelling cancer treatment on your own, ha ha. And by the way, aren’t I cute?” If there’s a good-natured way of responding to something like that I’m afraid couldn’t find it.
TIME: It goes by too quickly, and this sure as hell isn’t how I wanted to spend what I have left of it.
TRAVEL: I’ve never been a keen traveller and wouldn’t want to make a virtue out of not travelling since I can’t anyway, but I’ve been a bit miffed by people lecturing me about not recycling a few garden clippings when these same people jump on a plane at every opportunity, which is about the worst thing anyone can do to our poor suffering planet. The photo on the right shows me on a camping holiday in Spain in a rare moment when it wasn’t raining — but we drove there. Did I just get a bit preachy? Oh well.
WEEDS: Hey Science, when you’ve got rid of the coronavirus could you please turn your attention to producing a really effective weedkiller? The bottom of my Dorset garden is infested with deadnettles which have resisted my efforts to dig them up and burn them and this year they’ve come back stronger than ever while the London garden is overrun with brambles, to the annoyance of the neighbours on both sides. Sorry, neighbours. I’ll have another go when I’m able.
I sympathize with you, Science, when the politicians disregard your warnings and blithely lead us into a second wave of a pandemic that’s even worse than the first one, and I do realize that eliminating the virus is a priority — I’m not completely selfish — but let’s not forget that the world also needs a chemical that will get rid of weeds completely and permanently.
YODELLING: You know those people who can turn their eyelids inside out or bend their fingers right back and insist on doing so just to revolt you? Yodelling is like that to me. Some so-called singers evidently have some throat malformation that enables them to yodel, and by god they do. A bootleg of Bob Dylan when he was young revealed that can yodel but he doesn’t. He deseves the Nobel Prize for that alone.
ZOOM: During 2020 I got sick of being told to clear off because an important Zoom meeting was scheduled. So rude! So humiliating! I’ve never Zoomed myself, and I hope I never will.
Sorry about all that folks, but it’s been good to get a few things off my chest and where else could I have done it? I’m afraid that many of these things will still be around to annoy us in the New Year, but perhaps I can be less of a curmudgeon. Resolutions don’t usually last very long, but mine is a big one: to try and find a role for myself in the post-lockdown world when it comes. I’ve gone on far too much about illness and have been feeling like a burden on the state and to my friends, and urgently need to find a way of making myself useful somehow. What will it be? Charity work as a volunteer. raising money for good causes, being more generous with my limited resources, writing the novel that’s been buzzing around in my brain for ages? We’ll see.
Do you feel as if you’re hanging by your fingernails to the crumbling edge of a cliff?
Have you been worn to a frazzle?
If the answer is yes, congratulations are in order, says my horoscope in The Daily Mail — I hate their politics but buy it on Saturdays for the weekly TV Guide — and it’s as if the paper’s resident astrologer Oscar Cainer knows me personally. It certainly has been a tough year, for you as well as me I’m sure, but I’ve done enough moaning in this blog so let me take stock and look at the good things of 2020. There have been a few.
FAVOURITE ANIMATED CHARACTER: Brian from Family Guy, for about the seventh year running.
FAVOURITE BLOG: M. John Harrison’s ambiente hotel here. Mike and I collaborated on various things back in the day when he was a struggling writer and I was a very amateurish artist, and it’s been a real pleasure to see Mike’s career blossoming since then. His novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again won the prestigious Goldsmiths Prize this year. His blog is elegant, always interesting and of course beautifully written.
FAVOURITE BOOKS: I read a lot and it would be tedious to list all the books I’ve enjoyed, but I was pleased to discover the short stories of Miranda July and am currently reading her novel The Last Bad Man. I was also delighted by David Nobbs’s autobiography I Didn’t Get Where I am Today, full of hilarious anecdotes about his career in comedy writing, and while sorting through old books with a view to getting rid of some I found myself re-reading Viz annuals, following the surreal footballing saga of Billy the Fish from beginning to end.
FAVOURITE CANCER NURSE: Jingle: lovely, friendly, funny and super-efficient. When we were out on our doorsteps applauding the NHS I was clapping louder than anyone — and why did we stop doing it? These wonderful people are still working their asses off and taking great personal risks to keep the rest of us safe and cared-for.
FAVOURITE CAR: I hate my own current car and hope to replace it with a better one next year, so my choice of car is my long-term favourite, the Duesenberg Model J Phaeton. This was Jerry Cornelius’s car in Mike Moorcock’s novel The Condition of Muzak (1977) which I illustrated, and not having access to the real thing and with no internet in those days I bought a plastic construction kit which I carefully assembled and painted in Jerry’s colours (cream and chocolate brown), and drew the car from the model. The book won the Guardian Fiction Prize that year, but I doubt whether my illustrations had anything to do with that.
FAVOURITE CHAIR: My Lazyboy, like me very scruffy and fraying at the edges but still more comfortable than any other.
FAVOURITE CHEESE: Wensleydale, but it has to be the real thing made and perfectly matured in Yorkshire. The plastic-wrapped stuff in the supermarket’s chill cabinet isn’t the same.
FAVOURITE DEATHS: A tie between those of the Moors Murderer Ian Brady and of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper. The world is better off without those two, and now we no longer have to pay for their decades-long upkeep in jail. Also, I wasn’t too distressed by the death of Des O’Connor, who told me to fuck off when I asked for his autograph as a shy and acutely self-conscious 13-year-old.
FAVOURITE DOG: Lady, next door’s elderly Red Setter, now deaf and arthritic but still a sweetheart.
FAVOURITE DOWNFALL: Harvey Weinstein’s. We had some very unsatisfactory dealings with him when I was running my publishing company and we knew he was a wrong ‘un long before news of his sexual shenanigans emerged. He’s currently serving a 23-year jail sentence, his company has gone bust and he’s tested positive for the coronavirus. There is a god.
FAVOURITE DRINK: Heaven’s Door [see my earlier post ‘Heaven and Hell’]. Runner-up: Marston’s Owd Rodger which my friend Bob and I discovered in a country pub we used to frequent, and being less mobile these days I was pleased to find the bottled version for sale in my local Kwik-e-Mart. Not quite as good as the keg but still a wonderful relaxative when needed.
FAVOURITE DRUG: Levothyroxine. A daily dose keeps me alive.
FAVOURITE FILMS: It’s years since I visited a cinema so I have to make do with what gets shown on the multifarious tv channels that I get.
This year I particularly enjoyed How to Build a Girl starring Beanie Feldstein, having read the novel by local author Caitlin Moran. Also good was The Constant Gardener, viewed on DVD as I’d missed it first time around and was reminded of it by the recent death of John Le Carré.
FAVOURITE FOOTBALL TEAM: Leeds United, always and for ever. 2020 was their first year back in the Premiership after a very long and dreary absence, and it’s been a huge pleasure to see them holding their own in the upper tier and playing some superbly entertaining football.
FAVOURITE FRUIT: Pineapple. A surprising late entry this, as for my previous 73 years on this planet I’ve had a sort of ‘I can take it or leave it’ attitude to pineapple, but in recent weeks I’ve found I can’t get enough of the wonderful yellow stuff, and when I haven’t got any I’m thinking about how to get some. The recent hormone treatment I’ve been undergoing has done peculiar things to my body and my metabolism, but I wasn’t anticipating such a strange craving. I think I might be pregnant.
FAVOURITE GARDENING IMPLEMENT: Draper’s telescopic soft-grip bypass ratchet-action loppers with aluminium handles, bought just before the radiotherapy put me out of action for a while. Next year I hope to be able to use them a lot more. Lopping is fun!
FAVOURITE GARMENT: Not much clothes shopping this year because of the pandemic and various misguided online purchases, but a baggy pale grey top by Tu bought on a grocery-shopping trip to Sainsbury’s is very comfortable. I no longer care what I look like.
FAVOURITE HEADLINES OF THE YEAR: “FA confirm Wembley is NOT being turned into a giant lasagne”; “Monday Night Toilet Roll Fights: sport in the age of coronavirus”; “A Man Whose Parents Threw Out His Porn Collection Wins Lawsuit Against Them”; “Bad Sex In Fiction award cancelled – as people have suffered enough in 2020”; “Adolf Hitler elected in Namibia’s local council elections – but has ‘no plans for world domination'”.
FAVOURITE HERB: Oregano, now that I grow my own.
FAVOURITE HOLIDAY: No holidays this year. No big deal as I hate travelling anyway.
FAVOURITE INTERNET MEME: Wojak.
FAVOURITE JOKE: Q. What’s the difference between COVID-19 and Romeo and Juliet? A. One’s a coronavirus and the other’s a Verona crisis.
FAVOURITE KITCHEN THINGIES: A pair of little rubber grippers, Poundland’s re-invention of the oven glove. They do the job and are much smaller and easier to wash than the quilted cloth things I’ve been using up to now.
FAVOURITE LOCOMOTIVE: Union Pacific 4014, reputedly the world’s biggest working engine. All of the other surviving Big Boy class are in museums but over the course of the year I’ve been avidly following the restoration and testing of this one on YouTube, and the sight of it now running under its own steam is a wonderfully stirring thing.
FAVOURITE MEAL: A pasta dish — don’t know its name — made by Celia-next-door. Her mushroom risotto was really good too. Much appreciated.
FAVOURITE MUSIC: I love music and in recent years I’ve been listening mostly to classical stuff, but I’ve always been a bit deaf to the charms of opera. Finding this on Youtube started to change my mind and I developed a bit of a thing for Elīna Garanča, so when I learned that she’d starred in Carmen I bought the DVD and am entranced by it.
FAVOURITE PIZZA: ‘Garden Party’ with extra cheese, from Papa John’s.
FAVOURITE POEM: If I was trying to impress I’d choose something by Donne or Eliot or Larkin, or something really obscure, but ’Jenny Kissed Me’ by Leigh Hunt (1838) has been popping into my head lately. I’ve always found it rather charming, and with advancing age it has taken on extra overtones. Here is someone reading it quite nicely. I’ve had only one kiss this year and was as delighted by it as the guy in the poem.
FAVOURITE POTATO CRISPS: Vicente Vidal plain crisps. Quite hard to find and rather expensive when you do find them, but as something of a crisp connoisseur I’ve found these light and fresh and much tastier than other brands.
FAVOURITE PUNCTUATION MARK: The colon: I know that I over-use it.
FAVOURITE RADIOLOGIST: Bridgid. It’s been quite a while since an attractive young woman fiddled about with my dangly bits but she did it chatting merrily the while, then retired to a safe room to watch x-rays of my guts while the raygun did its work, so it’s very encouraging to find that knowing me literally inside-out she still wants to see me.
FAVOURITE RELATIVES: The Tauranga mob, and not only because they’re now my only living relatives. It’s rather touching to know that a new generation on the other side of the world knows me by the nickname that my nephew and niece called me when they were children. Yay, I’m still Uncle Whiskers.
FAVOURITE RESTAURANT: I’ve been to only one in 2020 and that was the one at the Whittington Hospital, where the food is rather good with (currently) plenty of social distance between the tables. Their chicken kebabs served with rice and salad are very tasty. No booze at a hospital, obviously.
FAVOURITE SERIAL KILLER: I don’t actually like them of course, but having written and edited and published several books about them I try to keep up with the latest developments in Serial Killer World, and this year I was pleased to learn that they might have finally caught the so-called Golden State Killer, a particularly nasty specimen. He’s currently in jail awaiting trial so I’d better say no more except nail the bastard.
FAVOURITE SLANG WORD: Flart, an old fart who is something of a flirt. Have I been a bit of a flart this year, particularly in the Radiology Dept? Possibly.
FAVOURITE SOAP OPERA: Coronation Street, which I’ve been watching on and off ever since it started and the only soap I’ve ever watched. It’s pretty dire these days, relying far too much on overheard conversations which were a cliché in Shakespeare’s day, but a large part of the pleasure is discussing the preposterous plotlines as they unfold with fellow cynics on the Digital Spy forum.
FAVOURITE SOFTWARE: Photoshop. Yet again.
FAVOURITE TRANSSEXUAL: Darcie Silver.
FAVOURITE TREE: The aspen at the bottom of my garden. It was growing rather lop-sided as a sycamore — in my view the weed of the tree world — grew up alongside it, but men with a chainsaw and a digger got rid of the intruder, and over the course of the year the aspen has balanced itself. I love to see its leaves shimmering in a light breeze.
FAVOURITE STEELY DAN TRACK: We lost Walter Becker this year but much of the Dan’s music is on my perennial playlist, and I’ve been listening to ‘Deacon Blues‘ a lot recently. It seems to speak to me personally, as a good song should.
FAVOURITE TV SERIES: Killing Eve, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, I May Kill You … If pressed I might admit that I’ve also watched a couple of episodes of Naked Attraction — purely for its sociological interest of course. I had no idea that so many young people have so many tattoos.
FAVOURITE US PRESIDENT: No contenders this year.
FAVOURITE WEAPON: My antique swordstick, probably illegal to own these days but I sleep more soundly knowing it’s by the bed in case another burglar appears in the bedroom in the middle of the night.
FAVOURITE WEBSITE: Facebook, which I joined a few months ago and which has put me back in touch with lots of old friends and colleagues, and brought some new friends too.
FAVOURITE WORD: Adomania: the fear that the future is coming too quickly.
Let’s hope that next year will bring more of the good stuff and much less of the bad. Oscar Cainer thinks that for me it will: “The Solar Eclipse heralds a welcome (and positive) change. There’s no need to try to hold on to anything or fight against an invisible force. You’ve done enough. You can let go and flow with the tide. You’re being taken on a course that’s heading towards a safe and welcoming destination. Wonderful opportunities arise that are going to energise your life.”
That’s good to know, and I hope that 2021 will be wonderful for you too. In the meantime may I wish all my readers a very
I don’t think my taste-buds are any less sensitive or less educated than anyone else’s. I’ve dined in some fancy places in Paris, Rome, Madrid, New York and many in London, I’ve commissioned and published books on fine food and wine, I’ve eaten and enjoyed superb meals served by kind friends and now and again I’ve even attempted some fairly exotic dishes on my own account and I know the good stuff when it finds its way into my mouth, but there are times when nothing but a plate of bacon and eggs will do. It would be mad to go to l’Escargot or the River Café for such basic fare, so this is my little song of praise for the places that have provided me with such things at reasonable prices over the years. There are three that I remember with particular affection.
The first, unlikely as it sounds, was a Chinese restaurant called The Rickshaw in Sheffield, just down the road from the university where I was a student from 1964-67. After six years at boarding school I was heartily sick of institutional life so tended to avoid the students’ union cafeteria, since for the first time in my life I could make my own decisions about where and when I could eat. The Rickshaw offered OK food at very cheap prices — sometimes it was indeed bacon and eggs but more often it was their three-course lunch which offered soup, sausage and chips with gravy, and a pudding for one-and six (7½p). I never once had Chinese food there.
A Chinese restaurant in the daytime is not always the prettiest place but I’ve never minded a bit of sleaze and the Rickshaw had that all right, for apart from the shabby décor it soon became apparent even to my still rather innocent eyes that the upstairs, accessed by passing through a bead curtain at the foot of the stairs, was a brothel. Every so often as I and sometimes a friend tucked into our chips a businessman would quickly enter the place looking neither to the left or the right, disappear behind the curtain and ascend the stairs, to emerge equally speedily about twenty minutes later then disappear into the midday throng outside. Highly diverting, though in the three years that I dined there we never saw anyone there who looked remotely like a prostitute, which made it all the more intriguing. I liked to imagine that the upstairs rooms were decorated in ornate Oriental style where might be found a seductive maiden perhaps named Precious Jade or Lotus Flower, but I suspect that it was more likely to be some down-to-earth local lass called Doris.
Another attraction of The Rickshaw was that just across the road was a traditional pub, The Hallamshire, where good ale was served and where I became acquainted with the poet William Empson as I’ve already mentioned, and just recently I was surprised to find The Rickshaw mentioned in the autobiography of David Nobbs, the creator of Reginald Perrin and many other wonderful comic characters on tv and in his novels, who had patronised the place when he was a cub reporter in Sheffield. That was before my time, but it’s rather nice to know that he remembered it too.
I came to London in the autumn of 1967 ostensibly to do a Ph.D but I soon got involved with a magazine called New Worlds [see my earlier post ‘Nigel aka Simon’] and we often worked late into the night to get the magazine out on time at the office in Portobello Road, and on one of these occasions Charles told me that he had designed a menu-board for a café that was opening next-door-but-one in return for a couple of free meals. This was The Mountain Grill, and as it seemed to be open and we were hungry Charles suggested that we go there and have those meals. As I recall, this was a fairly dismal experience: we were the only customers — possibly their very first — and the place was distinctly lacking in atmosphere, though the food was OK.
Soon after that Charles moved to the USA but I still spent a lot of time at the nether end of Notting Hill, as many of the people associated with New Worlds were still around, including my friend Bob who roped me in to help run the adventure playground that he and a few others had built in one of the bays underneath the newly-built Westway flyover. By now I had a full-time publishing job in the West End, but on Saturdays Bob and I helped to run a stall in Portobello Market to raise funds for the playground. The Mountain Grill was our local hangout and It soon became known to us as Maria’s after its roly-poly proprietress, and after several hours on the stall on a freezing winter morning it was great to be able to go and get warm and stuff our faces there. Our favourite dish was chicken pilaf which was served on white oval plates with rice AND chips: a really good big plateful for a couple of quid. When husband George introduced sheftalia — spicy little Greek sausages — onto the menu we sometimes had those, and very tasty they were but not as filling as the pilaff.
The lunchtime clientele was interesting. Apart from the other stallholders, playworkers and assorted locals, members of the newly-formed space-rock band Hawkwind often hung out there. I knew some of them through Michael Moorcock, the editor of New Worlds who was working with Hawkwind as lyric-writer and occasional performer, and Mike sometimes joined them there. He once decribed Hawkwind as ‘like the crazed crew of a spaceship that didn’t quite know how everything worked but nevertheless wanted to try everything out’. They sometimes performed under the motorway when the stalls had been cleared away, and an added attraction was Stacia who danced to their music in a creative and often naked way, and I suspect that some of the crowd came less for the music than for a glimpse of Stacia’s magnificent boobs, or perhaps they were keen students of modern interpretive dance.
We were thrilled when Hawkwind actually scored a top ten hit with ‘Silver Machine’ with its vocal by Lemmy and appeared on Top of the Pops (“Hey, I know those guys!”) Here they are doing their thing, though Stacia is rather restrained on a tv appearance. The café gained a degree of fame for itself with Hawkwind’s punningly-titled album The Hall of the Mountain Grill with fine cover artwork by Barney Bubbles, and in one of Mike’s novels he included a seating-plan showing where he and each member of the band would sit.
Maria died young. George carried on for a while and even had his own name painted on the sign-board outside, but after a while he turned the café into a fast-food joint and soon after that it closed, to be taken over and re-opened in various trendy guises (latterly it was called Talkhouse) as Notting Hill became gentrified. Google Street View currently shows the place closed and boarded-up, another victim of the pandemic I guess, but Mike is still writing fine novels, Hawkwind are still recording and performing, and Stacia is now one of my Facebook Friends.
I moved to Crouch End in 1977 and have lived mostly in the same area ever since, during which time I think I’ve checked out every greasy spoon — no offence — within walking or short driving distance. My favourite for a long time was a very basic café in Middle Lane, which if it had a name I’ve forgotten it. Here the bacon and eggs were good and after running errands in Crouch End I liked to go there — since my Rickshaw days I’ve never minded lunching on my own (dinner is a different matter) — and have a tuck-in with a mug of strong tea and a couple of fags, have a glance at the redtops (provided by the café) then have a stab at the Guardian crossword. I got to know the proprietor and shared his misery as the place quickly lost most of its customers, driven away by the triple whammy of the smoking ban, draconian parking restrictions and soaring business rates. Crouch End was a shabby area when I first came here but it too has gone up in the world, and this unpretentious greasy spoon became the rather precious Wisteria Café. I tried it once — not my scene, maaaan — and now it’s The Haberdashery, which is even less appealing.
More recently my favourite breakfasting place has been the one nearest my house, which has changed its name and ownership and appearance several times over the last couple of decades and is currently Café Carmel. It’s nothing special, no great atmosphere, no rock bands and no sign that it does double-duty as a whorehouse, but it’s clean and the food is good enough which is really all I want these days. My last breakfast there was a year ago on the day of the general election.
I’d gone out mid-morning to cast my vote and decided to take a detour on the way home to visit the café , and wandering back after a good feed I began staggering and had to cling onto walls and lamp-posts to support myself. I nearly made it home but at the garden gate my legs turned to jelly and I measured my length on the pavement. I didn’t lose consciousness but I couldn’t get up and there was no-one around to help me, so I had to crawl up the garden path to the stoop and managed to reach up to the door handle and drag myself indoors. I’ve fallen down a couple more times since then and bought myself a walking-stick which makes walking a bit safer, but it’s very frustrating; I used to be a great walker — I even used to climb mountains — and thank goodness I’m still able to drive.
My hope for 2021, apart from world peace and all that, is therefore a very modest one: to be able to walk unaided to this café and have another late breakfast there.
A quick update to previous posts and news about some changes to this site.
In ‘What’s Going On’ I suggested that the Colston Hall in Bristol be renamed, and much more influential people thought likewise so a few days later it was. It’s now called the Bristol Beacon, and the statue of Edward Colston has been removed and put into storage somewhere.
When I wrote ‘Who Was Betty?’ I couldn’t find a photo of my maternal grandmother and put in a random pic as a placeholder. Later I found and scanned photos of both grandparents which have now taken their place where they should have been in the first place. To save you scrolling down here’s my Nana, in my view the real Betty. One of the good things about a blog is that things can be changed and mistakes rectified.
On that score, I revised ‘Home Alone Again Unnaturally’ in the light of subsequent events which didn’t work out as I’d hoped they would. That’ll teach me to write anticipatory pieces. I wish life could be changed retrospectively. The warnings I included about the dangers of quitting lockdown too soon and flouting the advice about social distancing have proved all too valid, alas.
I’ve revamped the site in various ways, the main change being the addition of an Image Gallery. Clicking on GALLERY in the strapline above will take you to this pictorial wonderland. I’m really no great fan of my own work but some people have been curious about what I actually did in my earlier life (though they’re too polite to put it quite like that) so for them I’ve included some scans of my designs and illustrations, and since a blog like this is inevitably something of an ego-trip I’ve made sections for family photos and pictures of friends. But no selfies!
The inclusion of some of these Friends has raised the odd eyebrow, if an eyebrow can be raised via email. An e-brow perhaps. Was I really friends with William Empson, for instance? Well, sort of. He was the Professor of English at Sheffield University when I was an undergraduate there and we often lunched at the same pub and over the course of the three years that I was there (at the university, not just in the pub) we got to know each other a bit, starting with just a little nod of acknowledgement of my presence from him and eventually we’d be chatting over our pints. What we talked about wasn’t his poetry, however — he was a formidable figure and I wouldn’t have dared to broach that subject — but cricket.
So the Friends section should ideally have been subdivided into categories like friends, colleagues, clients, writers I’ve known, drinking companions at one time or another, and so on, but these categories all overlap. Some of the writers I published became friends as did some colleagues, some friends became writers, some people I knew only casually but liked and remember fondly, and quite a few of them are now dead … so for better or worse they’re all bundled together. Sue me.
Since starting this blog I have after much hesitation about engaging with social media created a Facebook page [www.facebook.com/jonesrglyn] which has proved to be a very good move, putting me in touch with many people who I thought might have forgotten me. I’ve been trying to link the blog with this Facebook page as I think the Comments would be better there but haven’t quite figured out how to do it yet. I’ll get there eventually but meanwhile the Comments are back in the sidebar on the right.
Postscript: A newspaper last weekend reported that Marco Bielsa has been spotted in the Harrogate Bettys Café, which I still think of as our family business. As a lifelong supporter of Leeds United I’m immensely pleased to know that the manager who brought us out of the wilderness of the lower leagues to the Premiership is a customer. I knew that guy had class!
Autumn is my favourite time of year. I have no patience with those who complain of cooler weather, falling leaves, the nip in the air, darker evenings etc. I love these things and this is England, for heaven’s sake. Sun-worshippers should live somewhere else.
Summer was a bummer. For many it was a season of uncertain weather, travel restrictions, masks, social distancing (ignored by lots of young people, with the consequences we’re now seeing) and the general frustrations of a pandemic-stricken world. For me it was an even more joyless time with much of it devoted to a stepped-up course of cancer treatment. Strong prescribed laxatives played a large part in this.
The daily drive across North London to the hospital was no fun at all, consisting of rat-runs, speed bumps and white vans which seemed to be on a concerted mission to clip off my wing mirrors. Once there the staff in the radiology department were as wonderful as NHS staff always seem to be, overworked but friendly and gorgeous and very tolerant of a sometimes difficult patient, but there was an awful lot of just hanging around, waiting. There were unpleasant side-effects of the treatment too, depressing to manage at home on my own and not helped by a quarrel with someone I thought was sympathetic to my situation but who turned out to not to be. To some extent it was probably my own fault for poking my nose in where it wasn’t wanted, or simply being old and sick and boring when there was fun to be had elsewhere, but it was painful to have my friendly overtures spurned so callously and in the process to be made into a laughing-stock. Nasty stuff, and being somewhat autistic• I found this more than usually difficult to cope with. Still do.
After that shitstorm I was desperate to get out of London. Driving south down the motorway and leaving the suburban sprawl behind I felt my spirits gradually lifting. The trees were still green — no autumn colours just yet — and speeding through the gently rolling countryside gave me a feeling of freedom and exhilaration that has been on furlough lately. I stopped at the services to buy some food for later and a couple of cans of a lager called Hells, which seemed apt for the occasion. I thought that if I could sink that and expel it in the all-too-familar way it might act as a sort of symbolic purging of a rotten time, but it didn’t.
Broadstone was looking a bit sad even before the pandemic hit, and every time I approach it these days I find Iris Dement’s ‘Our Town’ running through my brain. I first heard this as it played over the closing credits of the very last episode of Northern Exposure, maybe my all-time favourite US tv series, when it actually brought a little tear to my eyes. Listen to it here. Seems to suit the general mood. What has been called The Death of the High Street has hit such places hard as people increasingly shop at trading estates or online, and lockdown made things even worse in Broadstone with many of the long-established shops and cafés now closed and the premises vacant. Gone are Irené’s dress shop; Pampurred Pets where we bought things for the cat and who found her a new home when my mum had to go into care; The Owl’s Roost where my parents often went for morning coffee; Harris and Nash where we got our electrical goods and who mended them on the premises when they went wrong; McColl’s the biggest and best newsagent’s with a fine array of magazines … and I’m particularly sad to find that the Oxfam shop has now closed, where for years my mum worked as a volunteer doing the accounts and generally helping out. This sort of thing is happening all over the UK but it’s especially sad when it’s your own patch, which holds so many bittersweet memories.
Even so, I’m more than glad to be here. The house is looking better than it has for some time thanks to the gardening skills of Raymond who has been loaned to me by my neighbours and has been looking after the place while I’ve been away, so the lawns are neatly mown, the bushes pruned and the hedges clipped. It’s been raining almost continuously since I arrived but I don’t mind a bit. There have been no mists and no fruitfulness, mellow or otherwise, since a deer got into the back garden and ripped the leaves off the little fruit trees that I planted a couple of years ago — a beautiful creature but in gardening terms a pest — but there may be hedgehogs, which would be welcome. They eat slugs. Celia next door has found evidence of them in her garden though she hasn’t actually seen one so far (neither have I), but ‘ghost hedgehog’ signs can be spotted around the area, and I’ve joined The Dorset Mammal Group to try and do my bit to help.
I’m still reeling from the effects of the treatment I’ve received. I’ve been taking things quietly since I’ve been here and have been feeling better day by day, and have even managed to get a few things done: a new computer, a decent-seized bed at last. My neighbours here have been such good friends, inviting me round for meals and drinks, listening patiently to my moans, and gently setting me straight when I seem to be going astray. Their daughter Michelle, who knows about medical stuff — she’s just got her Ph.D — bought me a bottle of tonic to help with my depleted energy levels, and it works! I’ve ordered further supplies, and since we’re all Bob Dylan fans we’ve been sipping from a bottle of Bob’s personally blended bourbon, Heaven’s Door, which helps in other ways.
Broadstone isn’t exactly Heaven but for me it’s the nearest thing and I’m very fortunate to be able to spend time here, but I have to go back to London in a couple of days and I’m dreading it. It’s a long time since I was able to enjoy the things that London has to offer and I’ve been living in the same house and locality for much too long. It has all become over-familiar and boring, and there’s no reason for me to be there except for the cancer treatment. There are indications that it may not have worked too well, with the damn thing spreading into other parts of my body. This is what killed my beloved sister over ten agonizing years and I know all too well how it may progress, so the next round of tests and scans may not be the routine things that we expected, and as I’m now feeling like a pariah in my own neighbourhood I’m finding it difficult to be positive and brave, let alone cheerful — and a new lockdown has just been decreed. Fucking hell.
Meanwhile I try to live in the moment. At the bottom of the garden are two lovely trees, an aspen and a huge beech. Next time I come here their branches will be bare, but today I’m very happy just to sit and watch the leaves turn from green to gold.
I’ve wanted for a while to write about being autistic but found it very difficult to do without sounding self-pitying. which on the whole I’m not. If I can find a way of doing it I’ll post it on this blog.
The prospect of a Zombie Apocalypse, which I’m assured is imminent, raises the question “Who would you most like to see returning as one of the undead?” which takes its place alongside other topics for late-night debate such as “Where would you go if you had the free use of a time machine for 24 hours?” and “Are you happy? No, really happy?” God, we have fun. Anyway, here’s my candidate for zombiehood.
1977. A crowd of around 150 people gathered in the cemetery at San Antonio to see a large wooden crate being lowered into the pit that had been excavated to receive it. Inside the crate was the corpse of a beautiful young woman named Sandra West seated at the wheel of her favourite sports car. This is her strange, sad little story.
Born and raised in southern California, Sandra Ilene Hara had a fairly prosperous childhood. Her parents ran a store selling classy children’s clothes and Sandra often saw wealthy customers coming and going, which may have given her ambitious ideas about how her own future should be. Details of her schooling and adolescence are scanty but she was bright and grew into an attractive young woman, soon becoming popular on the local dating scene.
She wanted much more than casual dates, however, and her first serious shot at bagging herself a rich husband was by starting an affair with a guy named Sol West whose money came from extensive cattle and oil interests in Texas, but Sol was a womanizer and serially unfaithful — and Sandra had discovered that his older brother Ike was the real heir to the West fortune, so she switched her attentions to Ike. On the face of it he seemed even less promising than Sol as husband material, having been banished by his family to Mexico to try and cure his booze and drug dependency in the care of a sort of bodyguard, but Sandra was not deterred; she travelled to Mexico to meet Ike and ‘with loving patience’ (as one account puts it) she helped him to clean up and convince the family that he was fit to take charge of the business, with Sandra by his side of course. They married soon afterwards and moved to California to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle together.
It didn’t last long. They moved into a Beverly Hills mansion and spent lavishly on the fine things of life, including the blue Ferrari 303 America that would eventually become Sandra’s coffin, but Ike’s bad habits soon returned and he died at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas in 1968 ‘under mysterious circumstances’ according to my source, which gives no more details. Whatever had happened, Ike’s demise left Sandra a very wealthy widow. She wasn’t shy about flaunting her new wealth and soon she was dating the likes of Frank Sinatra, Nicky Hilton and even Elvis Presley, and her behaviour became flamboyant. She was liable to appear in public dressed as a Texas Rodeo Queen, and she once drove up to exclusive Chasen’s restaurant, made a grand entrance, ordered a single hamburger to go, then drove off at speed into the night munching it. She bought more cars — she had a bit of a thing for Ferraris — and wore more and more jewellery. It looked as though she was having a fabulous time but people who knew her said that she was lonely, and as the years went by she became increasingly reclusive and her behaviour more eccentric.
She became fascinated by the Ancient Egyptians, especially their practice of being buried with their worldly possessions, and she made a will insisting that she ‘be buried next to my husband in a lace nightgown seated in my Ferrari with the seat comfortably slanted’. She crashed the car in 1976 but the damage was fairly minor and she didn’t bother to have it repaired as she was now pretty much a shut-in heavily dependent on drugs, which like many rich Californians (and Elvis) she was able to obtain easily despite being under the supervision of a nurse, and her death in March 1977 was due to an overdose of barbiturates and codeine.
There followed a long legal battle over her will. No-one disputed that brother-in-law Sol — remember him? — was the only realistic heir, but Sol wanted the money without going to the trouble and expense of interring Sandra in her car, so while the wrangling went on she was buried in a temporary grave until things were resolved. The California court eventually ruled that Sol would only get the dough if Sandra’s wishes were carried out to the letter, so the blue Ferrari was sequestered and Sandra’s body was dug up and both were transported to San Antonio in a large wooden crate, where Sandra was dressed as she had wanted and placed in the car: an unusual job for the morticians who presumably did it. Diggers made a large pit in the ground and a large crane was brought in to lift the crate into it. The grave was then covered with a thick layer of concrete to prevent anyone getting at the crate and its contents — not so much Sandra as the Ferrari which would now be worth around $2 million. The site was marked with a simple stone slab placed alongside that of her late husband Ike, and it has now become something of a tourist attraction in the local area even though there’s nothing much to see.
Come the Zombie Apocalypse, when the dead rise from their graves, I would love to see the turf part and the concrete shatter and the crate splinter, and Sandra come roaring out of the ground in her Ferrari (also miraculously restored to life) to wreak a terrible revenge on the people who had treated her so shamefully.
As I was drafting this piece I heard from my former colleague Isabel Lloyd who by an odd coincidence has recently published Gardening for the Zombie Apocalypse subtitled ‘How to Grow Your Own Food When Civilization Collapses (Or Even If It Doesn’t)’, which within a humorous framework is a thoroughly researched and superbly presented guide to growing vegetables and fruit in extremis. Click on the picture for more info on the book, and here for the website.
Isabel worked with me for a few years until my company folded, and subsequently went on to much greater things in the field of magazine publishing. I’d like to take credit for talent-spotting Isabel but It’s clear that she’d have done extremely well anyway, and her husband Phil Clarke (co-author of the book) has progressed from being a scuffling stand-up comedian to one of the UK’s leading comedy producers (Big Train, Brass Eye, Peep Show, I May Destroy You and many more) now running his own very successful production company.
Personally I’d welcome the Apocalypse. I’m old and my life doesn’t matter much but I’d like to hang around long enough to see a bunch of annoying Millennials have their smug little brains sucked out by zombies and their toned, tanned bodies ripped to shreds. Bring it on!
My claims to fame as a publisher are small-to-nonexistent but if I’m known for anything it’s as the one responsible for Christine Keeler’s book Scandal which was made into a very successful movie in 1989. In the process I got to know Christine pretty well, and even now people sometimes ask me what she was really like.
I’ve tried a few times to write about her but found it difficult. The thought of summarizing the whole Profumo Affair of 1963 by way of introduction seems superfluous since there have been so many books, movies and tv series about it and anyone who’s only casually interested can find plenty of material on Wikipedia and elsewhere, and a further problem is that although Christine herself is now dead she has relatives and friends still living and I wouldn’t wish to embarrass them, especially her son Seymour whom I got to know and like, so I’ll confine myself to a few brief anecdotes.
Background: The producers of the movie Scandal wanted to tie it in with my publication of the book, which was good news for its prospects (it became a best-seller, earned Christine quite a lot of money and got me the house I still live in) but meant that Christine would have to do a lot of promo, and having parted company with her agent she asked me if I would take on that job as well. I should also explain that although we had some tricky moments I liked Christine very much and deplored the way she had been treated, so I felt obliged to look after her interests as best I could.
OK, here are the anecdotes.
♦ She was scheduled to appear on the BBC’s prime-time chat show which was then being hosted by Sue Lawley, and the day before there had been the usual briefing in a hotel with an assistant running though possible questions Christine might be asked and assuring us that it would be a friendly interview.
Next day at the Beeb the makeup girl was applying cream to Christine’s face and Christine liked the results. “That’s marvellous stuff!” she said; “What is it?” “Oh, I’m afraid this is only for sale to professionals,” said the girl, and we were hustled on to the green room where we got to meet John Hurt who was also appearing on the show, having played Stephen Ward in the film. Fine actor, very nice guy.
Just before Christine was due to appear the assistant from the previous day arrived in some distress. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “but I’m afraid that Sue Lawley has decided to take a much tougher line of questioning. Really sorry.” There was no time to reconsider so we made our way down to the set and if the camera had panned a bit wider I might have been seen more or less shoving Christine onto the stage hissing “Good luck.”
I thought she handled it pretty well in the circumstances — judge for yourself here — and as we left I felt a tug on my sleeve and slowed down. It was the makeup girl: “I didn’t like to tell her,” she whispered, “but that stuff was actually hemorrhoid cream.”
♦ I got to see a bit of the high life myself. I wonder what the neighbours would have made of me in full evening dress being picked up from our quiet backwater by a chauffeur-driven stretch limo to take me to the movie première, but I don’t think any of them were watching, damn it. There were a few other such glitzy occasions too, and I remember:
Noticing a famous newsreader sneaking out of an awards ceremony with a full bottle of scotch in each hand.
Seymour wearing jeans to the star-studded Scandal première.
Finding myself alone in a lift with Britt Ekland who was looking fantastic in a shimmering and very tight-fitting outfit. “I can’t sit down in this dress,” she said with a dazzling smile. I’m still trying to think of a suitable reply.
Escorting Christine to some function and being asked by the paparazzi outside “Who are you?” and telling them that I was nobody in particular and certainly not the new man in Christine’s life, though I did look rather carefully at the newspapers the next day …
Feeling rather miffed at never getting to meet Joanne Whalley, who had done a beautiful job of playing Christine in the movie. She missed all the Scandal promo by going to the US to make another movie and marrying Val Kilmer. So selfish.
Walking through the West End and hearing a cry of “Richard!” It came from John Hurt, who was sitting by himself drinking coffee at a table outside a pub. I was amazed that he remembered me and even knew my name, but I joined him and we had a friendly chat, mostly about Scandal and Christine, whom he had liked very much. As I said, a nice guy.
♦ It promised to be an exciting day out, a glimpse into the world of rock stars, movie-making … showbiz! Christine had been approached about making a cameo appearance in a video promoting Bryan Ferry’s new single ‘Kiss and Tell’, which meant a trip to Pinewood Studios with the full star treatment. The call was for 12 noon with a chauffeur-driven limo laid on, so we left Christine’s council flat in some style with Christine’s son Seymour, then a rather stage-struck teenager, and my assistant Liz. On the way we listened to a tape of ‘Kiss and Tell’ and by the time we got to Pinewood we were sick of it.
Christine was given her own spacious suite there. We settled ourselves in and waited … and waited. At various times people came in and told Christine that she was wanted in make-up or wardrobe and she disappeared for a while, and Bryan himself popped in to say hello, and we went down to the set to see the guitarist miming his solo, but mostly we just waited. We were told that we could help ourselves to food from the buffet downstairs, and we did — the Beef Wellington was excellent — but mostly we just waited.
Liz and I snuck off to have a look around Pinewood and found that the door to the huge James Bond set was open, so we went in and Liz took a photo of me climbing up a rope that was dangling from the high roof, 007 to the life, then we wandered around some more before returning to Christine’s suite to find that nothing was happening. More food, more desultory conversation …
Evening came and as it was clear that it would still be some time before filming would start they put the limo at our disposal for a couple of hours, and we cruised around the Berkshire countryside for a while before going to an historic old pub that I knew in Penn, but none of us wanted to drink — Christine was on her best behaviour — so we headed back to Pinewood and yet more hanging around.
It was midnight before Christine was eventually called to the set. Dressed in furs she looked very stylish but for some reason there was a wind machine, and Liz and I were ordered off the set when her hat blew off and we laughed. The video did get made eventually (Mandy Smith played the younger woman who had also supposedly kissed and told. She was beautiful and friendly.) and the result can be seen here and there’s a bit more of Christine to be seen in the extended version here. The limo took Christine and Seymour home in the early hours but dawn was breaking by the time Liz and I got back to Crouch End.
Seymour and I agree that what had looked to be so exciting turned out to be one of the most boring days of our lives, and neither of us ever want to hear ‘Kiss and Tell’ again.
♦ During the course of the Scandal promotion strange things were happening back in the office. There were repeated phone calls from a man wanting to set up some sort of meeting with Christine in the Birmingham area. He wouldn’t say any more to my secretary so I took the calls. He said that a group of businessmen wanted to set up this rendezvous and that there would be money involved. It sounded extremely dubious but Christine was always pretty keen to earn money and this was her moment in the spotlight, so trying to be a conscientious agent I tried to find out exactly what would be involved, but the man was vague and wouldn’t even tell me his name. In the end I just told him that we didn’t take anonymous phone calls and hung up on him whenever he called.
I still wonder what was really going on with those calls. Was it an attempted newspaper sting or, worse, MI6 poking about trying to find out whether I’d be tempted to act as Christine’s pimp, the new Stephen Ward? The publicist Max Clifford wasn’t so well known then but it soon became apparent that he wanted to get in on the Scandal buzz, and he signed up a woman called Pamella Bordes who had been ‘seeing’ various famous men and soon she was being prominently featured in the newspapers as ‘the new Christine Keeler’, not without substantial payment I imagine.
Max Clifford died in prison in 2017 after a sex scandal of his own so I guess I’ll never know if he was the mysterious man from Birmingham. Ms Bordes appears to have changed her name and retired into private life.
♦ When she wasn’t telling her story for the umpteenth time Christine had a great sense of humour. Whenever we met she usually had a new joke to tell or a new bit of scandal to share, and she liked to tease me. “Why aren’t you married, Richard?” she once said mischievously; “You’re such a nice chap.” [I’m not making this up, honest] “Well, how about it then, Christine,” I replied; “You and me. You could teach me such a lot.” “Oh, I don’t think so.” she laughed … and so on. She could be great fun.
♦ Pam the PR woman was in a panic when I arrived late at the Hilton: “Where the hell have you been, Richard? They’re chasing Christine all over the place.” I’d got caught up in the traffic in Park Lane — some royal event going on down the road, I was told — and found that there was indeed a sort mobile scrimmage inside the hotel with a pack of photographers pursuing Christine, who showed a remarkable turn of speed for a woman her age. Pam was annoyed because although she’d summoned the press she’d told them that there was to be no photocall and she’d pretty much lost control of the situation: a pity as she’d been hoping to be voted Publicist of the Month.
I joined the chase and confronted the leading paparazzo and told him that if he didn’t stop it I’d smash his camera to pieces. We stood there glaring at each other for a moment, then we both burst out laughing and went our separate ways while Christine disappeared.
The event was the monthly lunch of the BSME [British Society of Magazine Editors] with Christine and the US singer/actress Diahann Carroll as the guest speakers. It was a fairly dull occasion, though Pam was impressed (“Just look at the power in this room!”) with Diahann making a pretty little speech and Christine answering a few polite questions from the editors, who had realized that Christine was no speech-maker.
Pam didn’t get to be Publicist of the Month, but the experience gave me one little insight that I pass on freely to any future biographers: despite her protests Christine had absolutely loved being chased round the corridors.
♦ When the fuss had died down Christine and I met for coffee in a West End hotel to tie up a few loose ends and have a chat. As I’ve said, when the pressure was off she was good company, and I occasionally caught glimpses of the Christine of 1963 who had been so irresistable to men.
By now I had sat with her through many interviews and knew her answers to most of the questions she had been asked. In some circles she was now being seen as a sort of socialist heroine, “the girl who had brought down the Conservative Party”, but it occurred to me that no-one had ever asked what her own politics were, so I did. “Oh, I’m a Tory,” she said; “People like me do better under the Conservatives.” I looked to see if she was making a joke, but she wasn’t.
Note The use of hemorrhoid cream on the face is not recommended, but anyone trying it should be sure to use a fresh tube.
Many thanks to Seymour Platt for good-naturedly allowing me to publish these memories of his mother. His own elegant tribute site is here and has much biographical information about Christine and many rare images. Seymour is also mounting a campaign to overturn her conviction for perjury (here) which I fully support.
Retrospective thanks too to all who helped during a busy and rather testing period: to all at Palace Pictures, especially Stephen Woolley who dealt with a very amateurish agent very kindly and patiently; to Desmond Banks who handled Christine’s legal affairs very capably for all of her adult life; to Tiffany Daneff who skilfully turned a scrappy manuscript into a publishable book; and to my staff, especially Liz (wherever she may be), who supported me patiently and so well.
‘”Seigneur, I have invented forty new dishes for to-night’s banquet,” François said pathetically, his eyes creeping out until they hung on the rims of their sockets like desperate people wavering on the edges of precipices.’ (George Viereck and Paul Eldridge, Salome The Wandering Jewess, 1930)
Connoisseurs of strained similes, mangled metaphors, grisly grammar, excessively purple prose and all writing that is differently good will love Thog’s Masterclass, a regular feature in David Langford’s monthly newsletter Ansible®, essential reading for anyone who wants to know what’s going on in the binary worlds of science fiction and fantasy.
Thog the Mighty is a not terribly bright barbarian hero, the creation of John Grant (Paul Barnett) in his “Lone Wolf” fantasy novels loosely based on Joe Dever’s gamebooks. He first appeared in The Claws of Helgedad (1991) and was soon identified as the presiding genius behind much bad genre writing, with many fans avidly collecting examples of his influence, as they continue to do.
Mr Langford has very kindly allowed me to include a selection of some vintage Thogs here. They’re mostly from SF stories, but not all. My own passing thoughts are in green.
‘Long-since dusty hopes are about to float away on the invisible ink of time, he thought.’ (Robert Newcomb, The Fifth Sorceress, 2002)
‘A minute later, he was vomiting up the breakfast he had not eaten.’ (Peter Straub, Lost Boy Lost Girl, 2003)
‘A thick branch crashed through the tunnel, just missing Filidor’s nose, and he carefully sliced it away before resuming his slow upward progress.’ (Matthew Hughes, Fools Errant, 1994)
‘… a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.’ (Morrissey, List of the Lost, 2015)
‘… the pain marched across my shoulder like a shark army might have.’ (L.E. Modesitt Jr, The Fires of Paratime, 1980)
‘Somehow, the mackerel paté of memory had escaped its wrapper, skipped its kitchen dish, and turned into a flickering silver shoal, darting and twisting in terror against an empty darkness.’ (‘Gabriel King’, The Wild Road, 1997) My memory quite often does that too.
‘She had an annoying habit of running her tongue over his teeth, and as she did that, he realised there was absolutely nothing between them.’ (Jackie Collins, Hollywood Wives: The New Generation, 2001)
‘The wagon lurched forward like an armadillo trying to mate with a very fast duck.’ (James P. Silke, Frank Frazetta’s Death Dealer, Vol II Lords of Destruction, 1989)
‘She shrugged, quivers manifest beneath the thin material of her blouse, the breasts, unbound, moving like oiled balloons.’ (E.C. Tubb, Eye of the Zodiac, 1975)
‘She knew how to embroider and milk a cow.’ (Connie Willis, Doomsday Book, 1992)
‘The underwriter seemed equally amused, frisking up the ends of his moustache, eager for them to join in the fun.’ (J.G. Ballard, Cocaine Nights,1996)
‘A pair of bushy eyebrows jutted out above his orbits like two hands cupped over the brow of a man peering into an unfathomable distance. At the same time, his dense windswept sideburns swerved back dramatically behind his earlobes, as though his mind was speeding faster than the rest of his head.’ (Edwin Black, War Against the Weak, 2003)
‘He was handsome and blond, with the same height and almost the same muscular build as Chastity, except her chest-circumference measurement involved different lumps from his.’ (Robert L. Forward, Saturn Rukh,1997)
‘O’Malley had a face like an inflated punctuation mark.’ (Joel Goldman, Motion to Kill, 2002) Yes, but which punctuation mark – a semicolon? The mind boggles.
‘”Are either of you aware of the fact that there’s nothing between us and the pole to break the wind but an occasional stray reindeer?”‘ (David Eddings, Castle of Wizardry, 1984)
‘She sat down in that earthy way that said she was all there.’ (L.E. Modesitt Jr, The Fires of Paratime, 1980) I know women like that
‘It was dark. No darker than it had been while she fell through her dialectical hole, but no lighter, either. It was the kind of disorienting dark that, had she been a feather in a large, unopened can, she wouldn’t have the faintest idea which way was up.’ (Jenny Diski, Monkey’s Uncle, 1994)
‘I felt my molars reach for each other.’ (Kathy Reichs, Death du Jour, 1999)
‘Jocelyn came through the fog wall, muttering, her breasts swaying like two angry red eyes looking for a fight.’ (Gregory Benford, Furious Gulf) Thog seems to have a bit of a thing about breasts doesn’t he.
‘The horse’s fall had the sound of a bag filled with rocks and lamp oil, landing beside him and rolling over his legs.’ (Steven Erikson, Gardens of the Moon, 1999)
‘She looked up, and the silence stopped. The carbonized sky howled as the Milky Way cracked its sternum, exposing its galactic heart.’ (Bryn Chancellor, Sycamore, 2017) The mind boggles even more.
‘Other-ness plays the same part in urinating as in producing poetry.’ (Colin Wilson, The Philosopher’s Stone, 1969)
‘… there is always something magical about the moment when your eyes touch nipples running free; nipples are a door from one world to another, from the grey of the everyday to a place of enchantment.’ (Francesco Dimitri, The Book of Hidden Things, 2018) … and there he goes again with the breasts.
‘Vienna, in that perfunctory way of hers, has sighed and spread her legs to be shagged by the winter solstice.’ (Adrian Matthews, Vienna Blood, 2001)
‘Somewhere in Snowfield, were there living human beings who had been reduced to the awful equivalent of foil-wrapped Pop Tarts, waiting only to provide nourishment for some brutal, unimaginably evil, darkly intelligent, other-dimensional horror?’ (Dean R.Koontz, Phantoms, 1983)
‘”Pleased to meet you,” Arnstein said, and took the offered hand. It felt like a wooden glove inside a casing of cured ham …’ (S.M. Stirling, On the Oceans of Eternity, 2000)
‘Some women, Commander Norton had decided long ago, should not be allowed aboard ship; weightlessness did things to their breasts that were too damn distracting. It was bad enough when they were motionless; but when they started to move, and sympathetic vibrations set in, it was more than any warm-blooded male should be asked to take.’ (Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama, 1973) No comment, absolutely no comment.
‘Hope was a classic, a classic barmaid, one whose broad behind leaves an imprint on the pages of history.’ (Robert Leckie, Helmet for My Pillow, 1957)
I’ll leave Thog there contemplating Hope’s historic behind, and knowing his predilections I’m sure she had epoch-making breasts too. My own hope is that these quotations will serve as a caution to all practicing writers as well as providing fine entertainment for the rest of us — and budding science fiction writers should bear in mind that Thog is watching.
There are hundreds more examples of Thog’s influence lurking on the Ansible website and here http://thog.org/ Do visit and have a click around (free but donations are welcome) and if you find any particularly good (bad) specimens please email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org then maybe we’ll be able to publish another selection here.
Huge thanks to David Langford for allowing me to do this.
My sister Carol, then aged 13, had got a holiday job as a waitress in one of Southport’s big department stores, the sort of place where ladies of a certain age would go for afternoon tea. One particular old biddy was there every afternoon for a toasted teacake and a pot of tea for one (she appeared to have no friends) and she was proving to be distinctly unpleasant, constantly finding fault with the food and the service and never leaving a tip.
Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant — I never have but I’ve known several ex-waitresses over the years and they all have shocking tales to tell — will know that upsetting the serving staff is not a sensible idea. Revenge may be taken, sometimes in terrible ways: the ‘sneezer’ in Friends was a mild one. My sister was not a vindictive person but the kitchen staff didn’t like to see her treated this way, so before toasting the teacake they would play football with it behind the scenes, then slice it in half and toast it before having another kickabout on the kitchen floor, then Carol would take it to Miss Miserable and serve it with a flourish and a little curtsy (¨Your teacake, ma’am¨) trying to keep a straight face, which was difficult as she had a keen sense of humour and a broad grin.
My own involvement in the food-serving business was brief and dramatic, and not in a restaurant. I had got a few days’ work at the Southport Flower Show as a bar porter. It wasn’t exacting. I had to take the full crates from the car park over to the beer tent in the morning then bring back the empties during the course of the day. There was a lot of hanging-about time, and on the final day the Catering Manager summoned me. “You’re a public-school boy aren’t you?” I admitted that I was. “I thought so,” he said; “You see, you were lounging about with your hands in your pockets, and an ordinary chap wouldn’t dare to do that here. Come with me, I have a special job for you.” It was a curious method of selection but I said “OK, sir” and tried to look pleased and a bit honoured.
My special job was to carry a dish bearing a whole poached salmon over to the trestle tables on the far side of the field where the Lord Mayor was holding a celebratory lunch for the high-ups of the Flower Show plus various wives and assorted dignitaries, all dressed up to the nines. The dish was quite heavy but off I went, and I’d got about half-way across the field when I tripped and fell, sending the salmon spilling in fragments onto the grass. I looked around to see if anyone had witnessed this unfortunate mishap and expected cries of outrage from the Manager and anyone else who might have seen, but in the afternoon heat everything seemed to have gone strangely quiet, the Mayor and his party appeared to be miles away on some far-off horizon, the beer tent was merely a distant buzzing and time seemed to stand still, so I did what any decent, honest, godfearing public-school boy would have done: I bent down and scooped up the chunks of salmon with my bare hands, plonked the fragments back onto the platter and then patted and moulded them into the approximate shape of a fish, looking nervously about to see if I was being observed. I hoped that any odd bits of grass or other greenery clinging to the reconstituted salmon would pass for garnish.
I wiped my hands on my pants and made it to the high table without further incident, where I placed the dish gently in front of the Lord Mayor praying that he wouldn’t notice anything amiss, but he just said “Ah, the piéce de resistance” and started serving it. I muttered “Bon appétit” and went over to the beer tent as quickly as I could without actually sprinting, and there I lurked for the rest of the afternoon doing my best to turn invisible. It seemed only a matter of time before one of the diners would discover a fag-end, or worse, in their salmon, and it would be all too obvious who had been responsible. But there was no immediate outcry, and it soon transpired there were other things to experience behind the beer tent: I was a fairly naïve youth and rather shocked to find that the bar staff, who to my young eyes seemed at best middle-aged and some of them actually old and distinctly ugly, were having sex back there, usually opting for what was then and maybe still is known as a knee-trembler, doing it standing up against one of the tent-posts, and if there was a height difference there were plenty of boxes and beer crates around for the smaller partner to stand on. And I’d thought that sex petered out at the age of about 25.
Back home with my guilty pay packet, I kept quiet. I watched the local tv news expecting to see reports of an outbreak of botulism or salmonella poisoning at the Flower Show, and scanned the local paper the next day expecting headlines like
FLOWER SHOW FATALITIES
POLICE SEEK BAR PORTER
I didn’t tell my parents what had happened because I knew that if I had done my father, with whom I wasn’t getting on too well, would make a big deal out of it, making me write a letter of apology to the Lord Mayor or something like that and blowing the whole thing wide open. I didn’t even tell my sister Carol because I knew that she would find it hilarious and tease me about it, probably concocting a little performance of me effing and blinding while desperately scooping up the salmon. I wouldn’t have minded this because we got on very well and Carol could be extremely funny, but I knew that my mother would soon be in on the joke, and then my dad … I said nothing, but the headlines in my mind grew worse:
SOUTHPORT SENSATION – MISHAP OR MURDER?
After a couple of days with still no hue and cry I began to venture cautiously out into the town with my shades on and my collar turned up, looking nervously about for passing policemen and steering well clear of hospitals and flower shows. I started growing a beard.
My family knew nothing of my fish fiasco but when the parents weren’t around I told Carol about the goings-on behind the beer tent expecting her to be a bit shocked perhaps but also amused — big bro being a bit sophisticated y’know — but she had a better story. She said that she had gone to the basement toilet in the department store and pushing open the unlocked door had found one of the kitchen hands “having a bit of fun with himself”, as she put it. (The expression “having a wank” was not yet current in 1963, at least not in respectable Southport.) Other young girls might have found this traumatic and needed councelling in later life but Carol just found it wildly funny, and suggested that perhaps he might have been making a special ingredient for the Cream of Mushroom soup ordered by the snooty couple at Table 12, and there were more variations on this theme (“Was our home-made mayonnaise to your taste, sir?”), and I realized that li’l sis was rather more wordly-wise than I’d suspected.
I never did tell the family about the salmon — indeed, I’ve never old anyone about it until now, even as a joke. I’d like to say that confessing it has been a relief, an unburdoning of a guilty secret carried for far too many years, and beg the forgiveness of those ancient diners, but after all this time who gives a toss.
For anyone who likes to waste their time on pointless puzzles here’s one, and it’s even more pointless than most because I can’t supply the solution. If you can you’ll be saving me from even more grief.
In my sorting through old papers I came across a single typed sheet headed NON ALIAS PLOT with a list of various names which I soon realized were all anagrams of each other. The typing was done on what looks like my old Olivetti portable and the paper size is quarto, not A4, which would seem to date it back to the early 1970s. But what does it mean, what on earth was I thinking? Above all, what are all these names anagrams of?
At that time I was doing illustrations and writing various things for some of the more adventurous (meaning small-time and unsuccessful) periodicals of the day, and it looks as though this might have been an attempt at some sort of avante-garde piece. Perhaps these characters were to feature in a story or playlet; I can imagine Pat Lion Sloan as the very posh p.a. to a top executive and maybe Alan Tinspool as a rather self-important manager in the grocery business, but after them things take a more bizarre turn. Lon (‘Piano’) Salt is obviously an itinerant boogie-woogie piano player, perhaps in a vague partnership with Pliant Alonso the eccentric dancer, while Spain O’Tallon, Nina Last Loop and Lopo Slantani seem to be denizens of the US underworld, but I can offer no clues about Polliana Sot or Alan T. Loopins. Maybe the denouement of my little tale was to have been that all these characters were actually the same person. I was always trying to be clever in those days, with little success then and not much more now. J.G. Ballard I was not.
I’ve spent more time puzzling over this than I want to admit. The letters in these names obviously came from something, some key name or title or phrase — I wouldn’t have just chosen them randomly — but searching what’s left of my brain produces absolutely no memory of it. I’ve also tried feeding the letters into various online Anagram Solvers but the solution remains a mystery, although they did come up with a few amusing variations: the onanist Pallo making a mess on the post-anal lino and getting a notional slap from his indulgent mum. I feel that the answer is staring me in the face, that with a bit more effort it will reveal itself, and when it does I’ll cry out “Of course! Why didn’t I see it?”
But so far it hasn’t. If one of my devoted readers can figure it out please post the answer in the Comments and put me out of my anguish.
A few day ago I decided to try and make contact with my relatives in New Zealand. There’s been a family feud going on for years but as I get older I realize how stupid these things can be so I sent what I hoped was a conciliatory email to my niece Juliet half expecting her to ignore it or to tell me to get lost — but no: her reply was welcoming and forgiving, and she also put me in touch with my nephew Andrew whose email address I had lost and who has proved equally accepting.
They live close to each other in Tauranga and both now have families that I’ve never met and whose existence I was only barely aware of. Now we’re friends again and they have sent me photos, everyone looking so happy and healthy, and the little kids so damn cute:
I’m as proud as if they were my own, and I’m tempted to print off copies and take them to the park to shove under the noses of complete strangers. I won’t do that, of course, but I’m so damn pleased. It’s a lift I needed because last weekend I was very upset by the antics of … never mind. Finding that I have this amazing family and am not totally alone in the world far outweighs such nastiness. It also means that next time the hospital asks for the names and details of my next-of-kin I’ll be able to tell them, and maybe bring out the photos. I’m finding it hard not to wander about with a great big grin on my face.
Naturally I’m tempted to hop on a plane to New Zealand right now to go and give these people a big hug and possibly do the Lord of the Rings tour as well (would the kids like to come along? I’m determined to be a much better uncle from now on), but alas that’s not possible at the moment. But it’s something to look forward to, something indeed to live for.