Two Degrees West by Nicholas Crane


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Travelling Companions: A Series looking at British Travel Writing

Episode 8

I read this when it was first released in paperback back in 1999. And I enjoyed it very much. The writer was new to me and quickly impressed me with his drive, his enthusiasm and his wide-ranging knowledge. I liked a challenge and it didn’t much matter to me how contrived that challenge was.

At about the same time I had become a fan of the BBC television series ‘Ready Steady Cook’ where chefs were given a bag of ingredients and 20 minutes to knock it into something tasty. Th first series was impressive, the second even more so. Chefs had twigged that the (£5 limit) shopping bags, provided by members of the public, invariably contained one or more of; a bag of rice, an onion, a pack of minced beef, some chicken breasts.  For a couple of years we admired the end dishes and then realised that it was all a bit pointless. Why £5? Why 20 minutes?

On another channel Tony Robinson played the gormless idiot to a group of archeologists. We got a fascinating insight into how these people uncover the past. But again there was a contrivance that eventually palled with the public. These were serious academics uncovering a site of special interest and yet they were given a mere 3 days to do it. Why? Instead of careful work with a trowel and a small paintbrush, a large mechanical digger would rip open trenches. Robinson would dash across to report the discovery of a wall, or a fragment of pottery, and announce it in tones reminiscent of Kenneth Wolstenholme celebrating a goal in the world cup. The artificial nature of both programmes made them unlikely successes but eventually made watching them a dry and tedious affair. Viewers realised that the drama was contrived and they were being manipulated.unadjustednonraw_thumb_d248Re-reading Two Degrees West was like watching a re-run of either of the programmes. He had set himself the task of walking a line on a map and I couldn’t help asking, Why? To what purpose?

A good travel book relies on three ingredients: the journey, the things we see and meet along the way, and the traveller. The journey has to serve a larger purpose than merely getting from A to B and enduring hardships (real or contrived). Leigh Fermor, Theroux and JB Priestley chose routes that told us an awful lot about the lands they travelled through and revealed important insights into human behaviour.. They were wiser men than Nicholas Crane, more widely read in terms of literature and understanding. A Jarrow terraced house in Priestley’s hands becomes an indictment of economic policy, a Welsh boarding house allows Theroux to expose the quiet rotting despair of the small business woman in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Their journeys are planned to encapsulate a greater whole. Crane’s choice is to make a journey no-one else has ever done before. The whole book is ultimately about him, and the 17 hours it takes to read, is a long time to spend in his company.nick-craneFirst things first. It is an impressive walk. If someone from down your street had done it then I think you’d be fully justified in popping a tenner in their charity collection tin.

The device chooses the route and the route isn’t propitious. The first half of the journey is over moorland. It’s inspiring countryside. I know it well.  Unfortunately there is only so much to say about walking over moorland. It has a habit of repeating itself. In the wrong hands fifty miles of heather and bog is one mile fifty times over. All travel writers rely on anecdote and chance meetings. Many of the meetings in this book are pre-arranged and Crane isn’t a natural storyteller. Neither is he a particularly perceptive observer, he lacks a good ear for dialogue and seems uncomfortable around anyone who isn’t from a public school background. On the positive side, he’s enthusiastic, loves numbers, and trains and is happiest when giving a great deal of information about locomotives or triangulation points. In short he is something of a nerd. craneThe problem with a wide readership is that you either have to take your readers into the specialism and make them work, as Stephen Hawking did with A Brief History of Time or you water down your thesis. Crane goes for mass appeal (no doubt encouraged by the people at Penguin). Lacking true substance, it uses the exact same ingredients as Ready Steady Cook and Time Team. Manipulated tension and  bonding to a central contrivance. We are asked accept that walking the 2nd meridian is important and difficult. In reality it is neither. He anticipates great problems and shares them. How can a man with a rucksack get across a large reservoir? How will he cross a motorway?  The danger is fake and the outcome is almost bathos. He has pre-arranged with a boat club member to sail him across the Derwent Reservoir and there is a large farm tunnel under the M62. In terms of a recreational walk it is a tough old wander but in terms of serious geographical and physical challenge it is small potatoes.

He could do what many writers before him have done and make light of the journey and concentrate on the views of England that he passes through. He doesn’t. He continues to emphasise the rigours he has to endure which involve him sleeping outside without a tent (millions of British people are hikers and many of them have bivouacked regularly in comparable conditions), getting wet, getting a bit tired and being turned away from bed and breakfasts on the grounds that they are full.dsc_0049When he can’t find anything to write about we get little guide-book histories that  romanticise the past. Smugglers are loveable rogues who rob from the rich, grouse moors preserve species and ancient ways of life and people learn to know their place. He makes occasional reference to other writers all from the distant past (Byng, Leland, Cobbett, Fiennes). We get snippets of what they had to say but little is revealed. It feels like someone with a reading list claiming to be well-read.dsc_0092We don’t learn very much about the history and geography of England  and it certainly doesn’t capture a snapshot of the summer of 1997. The death of Diana gets a few mentions, he visits Longbridge and sees a production line at the, soon to be bought, robbed and shut down, Rover car plant. He gets a lot of help from his over-bearing father, various friends, including the runner Christopher Brasher (who gets introduced and largely ignored in the text), and especially the military.dornoch-firth-2Crane went on to find a certain celebrity as one of the presenters of “Coast”, a series which made a slow journey around the British Isles revealing what was there. It was more thinned down specialist stuff for the wider market with each episode divided between several presenters. Enjoyable, attractive television that we watch and then forget. It owed as much to television planners as it did to academics. It has gone the way of Ready Steady Cook and Time Team. Remembered fondly until you come to watch it again. dsc_0034Two Degrees West is not a bad book if you like a little well-mannered escapism. If you want well told anecdotes and incisive historical document it probably isn’t for you. If, however, your need is for detailed information on the dates, costs, materials, and method of building  the network of the little concrete towers called triangulation points, then this is the book you’ve been waiting for.

Season of Missed Melons and Fruitfulness


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Mainly Concerning Food

It’s easy to forget how much I enjoy doing these, and seeing them. It never fails to delight me. They don’t get a lot of thought during the month; the philosophy is simple. Try to find at least one point in the day to sit down together and enjoy nicely prepared food and conversation. So it’s make a meal, take a photograph, eat the meal and forget it. I work mostly from home these days so the cooking falls to me. Our lifestyle determines the food to some extent. Something that can be easily prepared and left to stand, sit or roast for half an hour while we walk the dog and talk about the day.

We lack sophistication. We were both brought up to expect the evening meal to be on the table at six. We stick with it out of habit I suppose, but also because it suits. I’ve never much cared for evening dining and the Spanish idea of eating towards midnight would be plain crazy in this house. How can you enjoy a meal when you’ve been asleep for the last two hours?

So I enter the kitchen sometime between 4 and 4.30 to rattle the pans. Once it’s ready I take a photo, then forget about it until the blog appears. I’m always surprised at just how many enjoyable meals we have had. I expect a simple menu and get a banquet. Life is far too important to manage without good food.

The cooking varies. I’m a better than average cook, if I may pay myself a compliment, and am capable of restaurant quality food on a good day. I’m also a fellow from a working class background who, though delighted to have had his tastebuds awakened by the many delights of the modern food world, can take enormous pleasure in the simple fare of my childhood. My cooking ideal is the sort of wholesome, tasty meals that were put on the table in the smallholding farmhouse kitchens that I am descended from. I love stews and roasts, have been brought up to liver and kidneys with steak as a very special occasion treat. I’m also more than happy with a tin of beans or a fish finger sandwich.dsc_0058There was a birthday last month. We gathered to celebrate T’s anniversary and a family gathering will often involve a trifle. It goes back to when the children were very small. Trifle was a special occasion treat for a while in the seventies. It’s gone out of fashion. People tried to fancy it up – often with the addition of alcohol – usually sherry – but this doesn’t help. Sponge, fruit, good custard and whipped cream are all delightful ingredients in themselves. They don’t need jazzing up. I’m not a fan of adding alcohol to food. There is a real skill in knowing which alcohol, how much and what blend. Most of us don’t have this skill. I don’t drink alcohol these days- no longer like the taste – not sure that I ever did. I never much cared for sherry which is the drink that has ruined many an inoffensive trifle. By all means have a glass of sherry with your trifle. It’s like the English ‘artisan’ (translates as a middle class person who has decided they can set themselves up as a food producer) cheesemakers putting apricots and cranberries into the cheese. No!!! A hundred times no! Serve the cheese with anything you like but don’t incorporate it into the cheese. And don’t put alcohol into trifles. If you don’t like trifles without alcohol have a different pudding. (My blog; my prejudices!)dsc_0057This was intended to be a fancy checkerboard cake but I couldn’t find the icing bags needed to create the pattern so I thought I’d attempt my own record for the highest Victoria sponge. The photograph doesn’t have anything to allow you to gauge the scale but take it from me, that is a big plate it is standing on. It was T’s birthday and a fun cake seemed to be in order. I’ve also just had a new cooker installed and sponge cakes are an excellent way of getting a feel of cooking times (every cooker is different). The jam is my own home made plum jam. The cream is shop bought double cream whipped.dsc_0056Having been carried away by the delights of sour dough I have been a little negligent with yeast based bread. The day I made this loaf was hot and humid. The dough had been double proved and the loaves into the oven within 3 hours. The same process can take twice as long in the winter. In my new found love of sourdough I’d forgotten how nice this bread can taste. And it is perfect for sandwiches. Many restaurants and tearooms, including some very good ones, use sliced bread for sandwiches because it is impossible to cut fresh bread thin enough. (Paul Hollywood) Some leave the proper loaves until they are a day old. With well  baked home made bread you can cut the bread as thin or thick as you like as soon as it has cooled to room temperature.dsc_0055Uncle Bernard (sadly no longer with us) loved what he called comfort food. We all have our own definitions of comfort food. Fish pie is the epitome of it to me. It fills the kitchen with warm, safe, nostalgic smell, it evokes kind memories, is the sort of food you can eat on a tray in front of the telly in your dressing gown, and it’s so dashed tasty. This is as simple as fish pie gets. Cod fillets, parsley sauce and good mashed potato. I love frozen peas with many things but they fit the comfort food label perfectly. I felt a whole lot better after a portion (or two) and I wasn’t even ill before I began.dsc_0047We’ve had another wonderful late summer. The sun was a long time coming this year but it is in no rush to leave. We’ve had a lot of meals in the garden this September. I really enjoyed this bowl of chilli con carne made with three different sorts of beans and good cubes of beef cut from a piece of topside and stewed slowly. A few tortillas and a dollop or two of Turkish yoghurt; and lots of late season sun. Blooming marvellous!dsc_0029A plate of happiness. This was my platter for the rugby league challenge cup final. In previous years I’ve enjoyed hotdogs or burgers or a packet of crisps (chips) or a plate of chocolate biscuits to enjoy this essential part of Simon’s sporting calendar. Fruit, bread, cheese, cold meats and a cracking match between Warrington and Hull with the Humberside team sealing it with a breath-taking match-saving tackle in the last minute. Perfection!dsc_0027Figs were things we never saw as children. The occasional mention in Bible stories at school and a place in an oft-used figure of speech “don’t give a fig” meaning “don’t care” “not bothered”. I was a parent before I cut open my first fig and saw this delightful sight. As good to look at as to eat and a real treat to do either. Here served with a Yorkshire curd tart. The sweet tartness of the fig off setting the creamy stodge (not often used as a compliment but very much so in this case) of the tart.dsc_0026The bread is mine but everything else is from the deli counter. Do they do Scotch eggs in other parts of the world? Some people have passed unkind comments on the Scottish diet and perhaps this way of serving the humble egg says a great deal about Hibernian attitudes to food. Take a perfectly innocent egg and give it a thick jacket of sausage meat, roll this in breadcrumbs and deep fry it! If you make these yourself with good quality sausage meat they are wonderful. Occasionally you can buy a good one. More often than not they are a victory of hope over expectation.

I’m delighted to see that I’d bought some tongue for the cold meat plate. Tongue, along with seafood and offal is my preserve. No-one else in the family will eat it. Every generation seems to find something that their parents ate disgusting. I make no apologies for enjoying tongue, liver, kidneys and heart. Ethics says that if you are going to justify killing the beast for food then you should eat all of it. I do my best and think that cured tongue with English mustard on white bread is about as good a sandwich as you can get.dsc_0019Can’t remember whether this was breakfast of tea. The cups of coffee suggest it was the first meal of the day. Nice to see two coffee pots, a fresh pineapple and a jar of home made chutney in the background. I’m less impressed with the packet of pre-sliced cheese.dsc_0018Comfort food part two. Spaghetti Bolognese as taught to us by our (English) mums. This was the first dish we (as a nation) learned when pasta first became readily available (in blue sugar paper packages in the early 60s) We’ve adapted it slightly and serve it with good Parmesan cheese these days, but it is otherwise unchanged from the way mother served it to a hungry family of nine.dsc_0011I’ve featured quite a few cooked breakfasts in these blogs over the years. You are actually far more likely to find this on the Johnson breakfast table. I love fruit however it comes, and can think of no better accompaniment than yoghurt.dsc_0010The simplest and perhaps the tastiest of the pasta dishes. Spaghetti Carbonara. Ten minutes well spent of anybody’s time. Beaten eggs added at the last minute and cooked in the residual heat of the pasta and sauce as it is stirred to thicken.dsc_0007These innocent looking little treats should come with a health warning. Any actor needing to bulk up for a part would manage it in a month on croissants. They look light and fluffy, are oh so easy to eat, and the weight just piles on. A treat is a treat though. They are far too good to cut out all together. Impossible to manage on just one!dsc_0006Home made vanilla ice cream with fresh strawberries.dsc_0004A writer’s lunch. A whole Camembert, a small French loaf and a few grapes.dsc_0004In between jobs that have to be done I’m trying to find a couple of hours a day to practice the array of musical instruments I have surrounded myself with. In the foreground a fish finger sandwich. In the background, Worcestershire sauce, ukulele tutor, selection of picks and a harmonica.dsc_0009Home made scones with my own gooseberry and apricot jams. These scones are my effort. I usually leave it to the current Mrs J and she does a much better job.dsc_0013Not a vintage year for produce but we had plenty of broad beans, gooseberries, black and white currants, potatoes, tomatoes and peppers.dsc_0014Home grown tomatoes  (and chilli) on toast with bacon.dsc_0016My snack tray for the Australian Rugby League Grand final. Cronulla just beating Melbourne while I eat crisps, mini salamis and apples.dsc_0017No month is complete without steak. Yellow fat is almost always a sign of quality beef. This tasted superb.dsc_0019Good mushrooms on good toast. What more do you want?dsc_0020dsc_0022dsc_0023The greatest snack food of them all. Toasted cheese!dsc_0003When we were young and courting I made steak with corn cobs and baked potato for T on her birthday. The tradition was in need of revival. 35 years on it is still just about my favourite meal.dsc_0026Home made chicken soup.dsc_0027dsc_0032Rack of lamb.dsc_0035dsc_0036Ernest Hemingway’s favourite breakfast. Eggs sunny side up with fried potatoes.dsc_0037

Toasted cheese with home grown tomatoes and capers.

L is for Liverpool

Liverpool Revisited: September 2016

Those parts of the journey I rarely make but often hear. Announced over the station platform or on the train. The litany of stations. I’d get off the Leeds train at York and miss Darlington, Durham and Newcastle. Or in other times you can add Alnmouth, Dunbar and Edinburgh. Getting off at Exeter St Davids always denied me Dawlish, Teignmouth, Newton Abbott and Plymouth and a whole host of near mythical names in that Cornish country away to the west of the world. The ones I missed the most were Warrington Central, Widnes, Liverpool South Parkway and Liverpool Lime Street. I invariably got off in Manchester and missed out this part of the journey. Widnes was a rugby league team that punched above its weight and the station is supposed to be where Paul Simon was sitting with suitcase and guitar in hand and his ticket for his destination.

It looks grey in late September with a Lancashire drizzle masking the views and what you can see doesn’t look all that appealing.

It’s grey and wet in Liverpool too but it doesn’t matter all that much. I’m staying at the Adelphi. It’s a stride or two away. Not time enough to get even damp in this finest of rains. More a moving mist than drops.imgp5211Lime Street station is a big glass curve over a dozen stone arches with an old inter-city sign giving the impression that the railways, round here, still belong to the people. Behind the station towers the gothic pile of part of John Moores University and across the road is St Georges Hall. You’re in Liverpool la! These are proper buildings. There isn’t anywhere in England, outside London, with such an array of world class buildings. If you’ve been reading the publicity from the anti-Liverpool brigade (and there is one) you wouldn’t be expecting this, or maybe you’d think it was one glorious square with miles of squalor all around. No this is Liverpool. One of the great cities, not just of Britain, but of the world.imgp5209It doesn’t feel like Manchester or Leeds or Birmingham. If anywhere, and you ignore the lack of towering skyscrapers, it feels more like New York than another British city. There’s a working class grandeur to the place. This is a city built from the streets upwards. It’s a city of much greatness, many celebrities in the true sense of the word and huge success but the real heroes of Liverpool are the people you pass in the streets. This is a town where to be ordinary is to be extraordinary and often celebrated as such.imgp5221It has suffered. It has suffered terribly. Every powerhouse town and city that generated the wealth of the nation, put it in a place of greatness on the world map, has been sucked dry and left to fend for itself. If you were looking for a rational explanation for the irrational vote the British people made to leave the European Community, it is one rooted in the dissatisfaction of the working class communities that unloaded the ships, made the steel, dug the coal, wove the cloth and turned the lathes of the factories, mills, mines and docks. One by one their industries were closed down and nothing was put in their place. Nothing of note. A sweatshop distribution warehouse in the heart of a mining community where conditions are comparable (by a House of Commons committee) with a Victorian workhouse, a call centre in the heart of Merseyside where the lack of stimulation in your work is matched by the lack of pound notes in your wage packet. The working people saw London and the South East, and the educated bastards getting richer from Europe but they saw very little of it themselves. The vote may have been a case of ‘if we’re not getting it then neither are you’ spite; but it is understandable under these terms.

Alan Igbon, Michael Angelis and Tom Georgeson in Alan Bleasedale's Boys From the Black Stuff

Alan Igbon, Michael Angelis and Tom Georgeson in Alan Bleasedale’s Boys From the Black Stuff

Liverpool was simply impoverished and stigmatised by affluent Britain. Once the second city of Empire with docks that stretched for miles and a workforce of many tens of thousands, the docks were simply closed down and the population left without work. The situation was captured with a tragic beauty by Alan Bleasedale in his remarkable series of television plays “Boys From the Blackstuff” and by Willy Russell in Blood Brothers. We see the human side of the removal of hope from a proud people. The pieces, and many other plays, novels and poems, still resonate. But happily the dark days are passed. The Liverpool I step out into has a skip in its step, has rediscovered its mojo, has once again got on the Mersey beat.imgp5273The Adelphi seems as old and grand as Liverpool. Inside its a Britannia hotel. This means that has seen better days. Britannia seem to be buying large hotels that had once sparkled but have become the end destination of cheap coach holidays. Hotels where the temptation is to stack your plate high at the self-serve buffets before realising that you’ve got to eat it. The chain then does its best to raise the standard while being shackled by its own budget prices. There is a shabby grandeur to the place that I like. I also like the courteous staff who let me drop off my bag, point me towards the spa and gymnasium (spa for me) and generally make my stay as nice as they can.

I’m here for the Labour Party conference but I’m in no rush. In fact I’m of a truant disposition. Alan Bleasedale had talked of the swimming pool beneath the Adelphi when he was on Desert Island Discs and I was keen to try it out. It satisfied two of my criteria for a good swimming pool. It was rectangular and it had very few swimmers in it. My allotted lengths completed I sit it a hot bubbling tub, shower, swim again, sweat out my pores in a steam room while listening to two true scousers bemoan the fact that the current Everton striker closes his eyes to head the ball. “My school master wouldn’t have picked him for the school team if he did that. It’s a bag of wind with some stitches. It ain’t gonna hurt you!” In the changing rooms I hear him using the same lines to make the same point to another football fan.imgp5286It’s standing room only down at the conference centre as shadow chancellor John McDonnell holds forth on the economy and how he’d borrow to invest in a huge programme of council house building. The press have spent a year rubbishing every aspect of the current Labour leadership but I’ve yet to find anyone who disagrees strongly with any of their policies. There is a huge lack of affordable housing in the country. The rental sector has been hijacked by corporate capital and has become very expensive. House prices are now way out of the range of anybody on a standard income and a previous government sold off the bulk of the council houses at below market rates. The plan to build half a million new houses for long term rent from local authorities smacks of common sense to many but of socialism gone mad to the press. By socialism gone mad they mean it harks back to the policies of the Attlee government from after the second world war. They built hundreds of thousands of council houses and gave millions of people their first decent place to live at a fair rent. Houses with bathrooms and gardens for the families of those who had fought the war. The Attlee government also nationalised the railways and coal mines and gave workers in those industries their first security of employment as well as the people of Britain ownership of these vital national assets. And of course they gave us the National Health Service where every citizen could receive first class medical treatment regardless of their ability to pay. I like John McDonnell. He isn’t the usual professional PR trained politician who sounds good and sways with the wind of public opinion. He has a few principles and he isn’t afraid to show them.imgp5303He’s received surprisingly well and the journalists outside the hall struggle to pooh pooh what he has said. I wander off through the conference complex until I find the large room where education is on the agenda. My memory of fringe meetings is of smoke (my last time at conference was in the late seventies when everybody smoked) and bustle and voices raised in indignant and righteous grievance. It wasn’t like that here. A union official was chairing a debate on aid to overseas education budget. Guest speakers held forth to a sleepy bunch widely dispersed around the tables of a big room. Among the speakers was Stephen Twigg. I hadn’t seen him since election night in 1997 when, as part of Tony Blair’s landslide victory, he defeated the then loathed Tory heir apparent, Michael Portillo in what became known as the Portillo moment. People asked each other if they stayed up for Portillo, meaning, were they still watching TV as his result was announced at about 2.30 a.m.. This particular poll didn’t only see the end of Portillo’s political career but also announced the end of 18 years of Conservative rule. Twigg had been a fresh faced, smiling victor that night while the seasoned politician behind him looked greasy and woebegone. Time has played them differently. Portillo has re-invented himself as the face of travel programmes on British television,  while Twigg looked far older than the 19 years that time had allotted. The fresh faced hopefulness of 1997 had disappeared. His appearance wasn’t a good advert for a career in Westminster and he didn’t have very much to say about overseas education.

I finished my third apple of the day, decided to skip the afternoon events among the party faithful and went off in search of Liverpool.


The Visiting Hour: Nottingham Actors Studio


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A New Occasional Series of Plays, Music and Exhibitions from the Region

The visiting Hour by Elle Pemberton

Nottingham Actors Studio: The Basement

Time shapes plays. The way time moves. In many plays the movement is from A to B in a straight line. Circular plays are also popular. They begin with the concluding passage, then take us back and explain how we got there. My favourite dramas take the concept that time isn’t just curved (Einstein), but is actually a spiral. J B Priestley takes his fascination with this into several of his best plays, including An Inspector Calls. Time here isn’t linear, nor is it necessarily sequential.  A spiral explains how patterns recur while evolving. (It also provides a possible explanation for re-experiencing moments; what we refer to as deja vu).  Common sense and convention tells us that we exist in the present with an unchangeable past behind us and an unwritten future ahead. Playwrights and quantum scientists exist in a world where the boundaries between these elements are porous.

We are surrounded by spirals. The galaxies of the universe are spirals, hurricanes (think of the remarkable photographs of huge storms taken from space) are spirals, our DNA is spiral, shells, fossils; we are everywhere surrounded by this fascinating shape. Our very thoughts can spiral. As a noun it symbolises complexity. As a verb it suggests a lack of control. If something is spiralling then we feel danger. Noel Coward’s best play The Vortex picks up this theme. Life is a river, or an ocean. We must avoid the whirlpools (nature’s favourite spiralling symbol of danger).visiting-hourThe Visiting Hour by Elle Pemberton is a spiral. It uses time cleverly. The play takes place over many visiting hours in a hospital yet the title reduces them to one. The definite article and the singularity are significant. We progress forward only to find ourselves back where we began, but each time something is different. We seem to be travelling through something like a spiral shell with no promise that the thread will emerge. Daedalus in Greek mythology is able to thread a spiral seashell (He does it by tying the thread to a tiny ant and letting the ant crawl through the spiral; that should keep the kids occupied on a wet afternoon at Cromer!) There is hope that there will be light but also a fear that the further we journey the more likely we are to meet a dead end. It’s claustrophobic, imprisoning even. But not without humour. The play made the audience laugh regularly, but never comfortably.

Time for a quick précis. Hannah has been hospitalised by an eating disorder that has made her behaviour unpredictable and uncontrollable. She hates being confined but knows that any alternative (being sectioned) would be worse. Her behaviour continues to be erratic, difficult. We don’t know how much this is the illness, the treatment or even wilful awkwardness. And we’re not meant to know. The authenticity of Hannah’s state of mind is clear in the writing and the acting. Often in linear narratives the audience is in a dominant position of knowing more than any character on the stage. Here the audience don’t know and this makes for an uncomfortable, but satisfying journey. The journey lasts an hour; is this the hour referred to in the title? Are we the visitors?

The play opens with the arrival of Hannah’s cousin Olivia for a visit. Her arrival is unexpected. Hannah is expecting her mother but we soon discover that the strain  of looking after Hannah has reduced her mother to a state of nervous collapse. Olivia is a reluctant replacement. She cares enough to visit but she doesn’t want to commit herself. She is fearful of getting involved with Hannah and what this will entail. She knows her cousin well and is familiar with her antics and she is right to be apprehensive. She feels in her mind that she ought to do her duty but then get out as quickly as she can. Her main difficulty is that she cares. She stays, she commits. She gets drawn into the spiral.


The performances are strong. Elle Pemberton takes the role of Hannah as someone who is determined to both dominate and to shut out unwanted intrusions into her life. The cleverness in the acting being that what we see on the surface is rarely what we believe is going on inside her. It is a difficult and complex act and is carried off with great accomplishment.There is no raving; she plays the irrationality of her character with considerable rationality. She has a keen awareness of what is happening, what the various treatments involve and has developed a world weary cynicism to counselling, talking cures, therapists and self-help. At one stage she opens up and reveals that she shuts out half of the attentions because she doesn’t trust those making them and shuts out the other half because she doesn’t feel as though she deserves them. It is a truly touching moment.


Hannah Hall brings great resourcefulness to Olivia. She is often at the point of exasperation, at one stage actually walking out in frustration and anger. She is drawn into helping, encouraged that it seems to be doing some good; but every time the wheel turns back and she is left with rags for broadcloth. She fears that she is being played with. That Hannah is simply manipulating her. She runs through every strategy she can think of. Where she succeeds is through caring. She is a cousin but has a sister’s love. If there is an answer here, and the play is ultimately optimistic, it is that the cure will be found through love and honesty.

Both actors are skilful in the use of pauses. There is a great deal of meaning , and a mass of tension, in the silences.

This is a fast moving powerful hour. You’ll feel half-beaten up by the end of it. At all times there is a feeling of walking on egg shells. We journey through the darkness and each time we feel the light, the spiral continues and we’re back in the dark again. But the spiral isn’t a circle. We never end up in the same place twice. Patterns recur and develop.

Thought provoking writing, careful direction and skilful performances make this a play to watch out for. It’s only in preview at the moment. I know the Nottingham Actors Studio. This will appear again and it will be even better. That is just the way they do things there. The play is already very good. They don’t settle for very good in this part of Nottingham.

The previews run until Saturday but word has got out: it’s already a sell-out. If you’re lucky enough to live in range of Nottingham you’ll have to wait to see if it gets a full commission. My money is on the play.


The studio puts on some of the best new writing in the Midlands and the North, runs a brilliant little theatre space and provides free training for many many young people from in and around the Nottingham area. Training that leads on to professional work on the television, film screen and the stage. These people are worth supporting. You may wish to help them reach their summer fund-raising target. All donations are gratefully received and will be very well spent.

Please click the link below to donate.


The Long Riders : 1980


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Westerns  :  Part Something or Other

The selling point of The Long Riders is that it casts brothers as brothers. The enormous importance (and dangerous insularity) of family, in the narrative, is brought out by having siblings played by siblings. And for the most part it works. Hollywood is often, and correctly, charged with nepotism but the fact remains that children of great actors often take advantage of their privileged positions to become pretty fair actors themselves. If learning a trade is about gaining experience, watching the best and practicing for the 10,000 hours required then Hollywood offspring have a flying start.theridersThere are a lot of acting brothers and sisters. In the modern era we have Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ben and Casey Affleck, Ralph and Joseph Fiennes and no end of Baldwins. In this film we have a family enclosure of Keaches, Carradines, Quaids and Guests playing (respectively) Jesse and Frank James, Cole, Jim and Bob Younger, Clell and Ed Miller and Charlie and Robert Ford. The strength is in the middle. All three Carradines and both Quaids are up for this, the others fall short by some distance. In the matter of the Guests it’s a quaint set of performances and a quirky thought to think that Jesse James was killed by Nigel Tufnell and his brother. In the case of the Keach brothers, too much is resting on them.  James, in particular, isn’t able to carry the weight of the main role. He’s good in parts but doesn’t sustain it. Much the same charge can be made against the film script. There are some excellent lines and at times the narrative gets to grips with its biggest dilemma; how to make a bunch of murderous bandits sympathetic to the cinema audience.* It should be commended for asking the question. The answer falls a little short. Look at the bottom of the film script and there are two unnecessary names; James and Stacey Keach. They also act as producers. Presumably they played a big role in casting. The whole thing smacks of pet project and these don’t have a good history.the_long_riders_1980Having said that it isn’t a bad film. There is a lot to commend it and, if you’ve got a couple of hours to spare and a copy of the dvd handy then it passes the time quite well. Happily the Keach contingent allowed Walter Hill to direct and Hill is at his best in the western genre. He knows it, pays tribute to it and borrows very heavily.

The opening shots are from the canon. A steep, grassy ridge at twilight, in this case richly coloured in greens and slate blues. And on come the silhouetted horsemen. It could be Winchester 73: it could be a whole host of movies. The cinematography is deep and gorgeous. It sets the tone. The progress of the film is between alternating interiors an exterior scenes. In the exteriors the buttons are pressed onto full (up to 11 as Christopher Guest might say) for colour and texture. Interiors are drained of colour. Faces in particular are shown in sepia. There is a hint of the now common technique (most famously introduced in Schindler’s List) of draining all the colour from a scene except on a specific item. In the case of Schindler it was a child’s red coat. I don’t know if Walter Hill and cinematographer Ric Waite were pioneering this technique. It’s certainly the earliest instance I’m aware of.4419_4Interiors and exteriors have a greater symbolism. The rich alluvial land, with fine woodland, open trails, good farms represents the heritage and freedom of the south. It is almost a second Eden. An idea undermined by the farms’ inability to yield. Farming cannot sustain the way they want to live so the the Jameses, Youngers, Millers and Fords turn to armed robbery. And it’s all done for family.

And then there is the intrusion of the biggest character in the whole western genre: The American Civil War. These boys are “Good Old Rebels” and are not content to allow any documents signed at Appomattox Court House to change their allegiance. They aren’t latter day Robin Hoods, robbing the rich to feed the poor. (Though there is an effort made to portray them that way – not least inside the film with the interesting character of the New York newspaperman collecting the story as it unfolds and re-telling it as instant legend in the East). These are a criminal gang with a highly developed set of prejudices against Yankees, Squareheads and any immigrant who hadn’t farmed Missouri for three generations.01-1The difficulty, alluded to earlier, is how to hold the sympathy of the audience. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (there are strong echoes of George Roy Hill’s masterpiece here) it is done through the wit and charm of the main characters and the bond they have with the beautiful Katharine Ross. In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid it is also done with charm and the force of personality of the main character who at all times takes the side of the oppressed against the oppressor. It also has friend against friend with the audience staying with the friend who didn’t sell out to big business. In the case of The Long Riders few of the gang have any great depth of likability. The Keach brothers are full of self-preservation. (There is an interesting journey from brotherly comrade to troubled leader who won’t accept criticism, or even questioning, as his judgement starts to fail. It works in principle but in practice is brought out by having James Keach stare dead faced into the mid distance while sweating in half shadows.) 4419_1David Carradine is engaging but his characterisation of Coleman Younger is brutal. There are some signs of a deeper emotional well beneath the surface, but that surface is tough and of a man who cannot live without the thrill of danger. Keith Carradine brings some pastoral lyricism into play. I like Keith Carradine immensely as an actor. He can make a great deal out of a small role as he had shown in an earlier (and much better) western, MacCabe and Mrs Miller. Amidst the increasing violence his role is lost. His character’s lasting legacy to the film is a loyalty, first to the gang, and then to his brothers. My favourite character, and the best performance in the film, is Clell Miller played by moon faced Randy Quaid. There is humour in his brutality, purpose in his loyalty, a backstory in his actions and demeanour. Eight performances of this quality would have equalled a very good film. In short we never take the James/Younger gang to our hearts. I don’t think we’re meant to but herein lies the difficulty. We certainly aren’t rooting for anyone else.

Women do feature. They should feature more strongly. There is no role to compare with Claire Trevor in Stagecoach or Katharine Ross in Butch and Sundance. In the Long Riders the whore with a heart of gold has no place to live and nowhere to go: so she just disappears.longriders4I like the film for personal reasons. I was taken to see it by the people I was living with at the time of its release. They were big Ry Cooder fans and wanted me to hear the soundtrack. I wasn’t disappointed. They were fine company and the music is first rate. Cooder relies on the great songs and tunes of the Civil War era and embellishes them with gusto. This is get up and stomp music in the social scenes, folk pastoral in the countryside and always played immaculately. In the band is a very young David Mansfield. It is perfect grounding for the work he was going to do in Heaven’s Gate some years later, which in turn spawned Crazy Heart. The film’s musical legacy is strong.

I’ve watched it four times. Once in a Staffordshire cinema in 1980, with pop corn and friends, once quietly at home with an ageing and infirm father who loved westerns and used them to hold his jagged memories together, and twice recently to prepare this. In these recent ones I’ve been joined by two dogs and a sleek black cat who stalk and chase each other around the room as I watch and make notes. The film has lost a little bit of its glory with each viewing. The film will fade but the memories of watching it will remain with me as long as my own memory continues to function adequately.

As a footnote. As well as the three Carradine brothers, famous father John Carradine was also cast in the film. He had played in one of the truly great westerns, Stagecoach, where he took the role of a Southern gunslinger who had nowhere left to go after the end of the civil war. He ends up not surviving the symbolic journey to a new America. In this film he didn’t even survive the editorial scissors. His scenes never made the final cut.


  • It is the film which portrays them as such. Historians differ in their thoughts.

Breakfast Three Times a Day!


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Mostly Concerning Food

This is the first food blog since April. For new readers (and old) a quick outline of my approach to food blogging.

These are point and shoot photographs of meals enjoyed by the family Johnson. Nothing is prepared specially for the blog. Presentation is as it comes. The food is served and a couple of shots are taken just before eating. I choose the better of the two. I sometimes remember to dandy up the plate, wipe away a drip or a drop but it’s pretty slapdash. This is deliberate. There are plenty of first class food blogs around. I follow and enjoy a number of these. This one is neither foodie, nor meant to impress with complexity or cleverness. This is what we eat. We’re two fifty somethings both fully occupied with the world of work and a lot of interests besides food. We like to eat well but can’t afford too much time. The average meal takes less than half an hour and doesn’t cost a great deal. It’s a celebration of eating without being fancy or extravagant. I don’t do recipes. If it’s pasta and mussels in a cream sauce then the recipe doesn’t take a lot of working out. I use quite lot of fresh herbs and dip and delve into the spice box. Apart from that there are few secret ingredients. We try to have something different most nights though old favourites have a habit of cropping up. It’s an unusual month when I don’t treat myself to a cooked English breakfast or a decent steak.

The following meals were served between May and July when I had the camera handy.DSC_0057Linguine with mussels and green peppers. I forgot to add that we try to use our own grown ingredients. No we haven’t got a mussel bed but we do grow a lot of peppers. This was a while back and I can’t remember whether the sauce includes fresh cream or creme fraiche. I’m very tempted by it. May very well make it again in the next few days. I love all pasta dishes but seafood pasta dishes are a particular favourite.DSC_0063There we go. Mr Heinz originally marketed his tinned baked beans as a luxury item. These were intended for the sort of people who shopped in Harrods and Fortnum and Masons. I was shocked on finding out how much sugar he puts into them. These days I tend to go for the low sugar option. I can’t tell much difference in taste. W Somerset Maugham once wrote that “To eat well in England you should have breakfast three times a day.”  It’s as much a damning statement of the fare on offer in the early twentieth century as it’s a celebration of this unbalanced, unhealthy, but oh so tasty, contribution to the world of food. I like a cooked breakfast but try to limit it to no more than once a week, often once a fortnight.DSC_0065Salmon roe caviar on little bits of toasted bread with a decent cream cheese. By decent cream cheese I mean anything that isn’t and doesn’t resemble Philadelphia. It’s a wonderful State but a poor imitation of what proper cream cheese can be. Should be filed with Dairylea and McDonalds. Acceptable but only in emergency and when very hungry. And even then…only just.DSC_0066Simple sourdough pizzas. Take a bit of sourdough. Work it into a pizza shape. Add some tomato sauce (your own preferably) and cheese. This cheese looks like cheddar. It’s ok for pizza so long as you eat it straight away. If you allow it to cool it goes a bit plasticky in texture. I like anchovies. They usually find their way onto my pizzas.DSC_0071Desert Island food number one. Good bread (in this case home made sourdough loaf) with a selection of cheeses and some tomatoes. A grating of black pepper is all that is needed. This is food of the gods. Enjoyed at its best with tea served in cups and saucers and made in a pot. I don’t drink wine, in fact I don’t drink any alcohol. Tea does it for me! DSC_0077Desert Island Food part Two. Once again sourdough bread but this time with air dried Spanish ham and a strong soft French cheese. I cannot remember what type it was. I’d know it again if I saw it. Certainly if I tasted it.DSC_0081Roast beef and lettuce sandwich with a couple of dill pickles. Seem to remember that this was while I was watching a match in the European Football Championships. The bread is shop bought but it made a decent sandwich.DSC_0083Now there are only two of us at home I tend to cut the roasting joint in half and make a stew out of the remainder. Every country has its own dumplings recipes. A beef stew with dumplings is about as English as food gets. And about as tasty.DSC_0085Serve it with new potatoes and green beans. Happiness on a plate.DSC_0089Asparagus: the joy of an English spring. And a doping story that was quickly buried. Many were accused. They denied it. That’s alright then.DSC_0091Lunch the next day. Nothing heats up better than a stew. The dumplings lose something in texture but nothing in flavour. One of the delights of the modern world is the easy availability of asparagus. During my childhood this was kept for the extremely rich and for landowners. If you’ve got the right soil and plenty of space it isn’t difficult to grow. I’m happy to leave it to the farmers.DSC_0092There are a lot of variations on the English breakfast. The best is the simple combination of bacon and eggs with good bread and butter. It has to be butter.DSC_0093DSC_0097Inside the box from Bettys is a Yorkshire curd tart. There aren’t many places to get these. Do not pass one without buying. It is a real pleasure to eat. My grandma used to make these and they were wonderful when still just warm from the oven. I’ve never tried to make one myself which seems something I ought to put right. I never go to York or Harrogate without visiting Bettys and I never leave Bettys without a curd tart; unlike Dr Spooner. Be careful what you order!


Ye Are Many – They Are Few!


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Manchester … Part 2 : The Free Trade Hall

I went to a few concerts in my Manchester years. Saw some of the bands who were changing popular music and giving the city a permanent place at the top table. But I also saw an awful lot of small time music, out of fashion artists, pub bands, some of whom rocked, some of whom rolled over, and a performance poet or two. I saw The Smiths and New Order play to audiences that had already declared them special in the extreme. I also saw Jake Thackray, Spike Milligan and an out of favour Kinks put on a storming show at The Apollo. I shared the upper balcony with an theatre employee. Just two of us. He was full of how he had been sent out on some errand for Ray Davies. My memory tells me it was to get fish and chips but that sounds a little too northern; a little too made up. What I do remember was that he was in awe of the band. I had always liked them without ever being aware of just how good they were. Knew they wrote good songs, didn’t realise just how well they could play them. By the time they opened their encore set with Waterloo Sunset I was in paradise.

Of course I missed the most significant Manchester gig of them all. I was only 7 so it wasn’t all my fault. Bob Dylan and his backing band (currently The Hawks and soon to be The Band) annoying the faithful of the folk fraternity (always an easy thing to do and usually an enjoyable one) by plugging in and playing loud.bob-dylan-play-fucking-loud-before-like-a-rolling-stoneThe folkies had invested a lot of time in their champion; a man who single-handedly had stopped folk aficionados from being uncool; and he was making them very uncool again by moving on while they stood still. Famously someone shouted out “Judas”.*

He responded with “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.” before instructing the band to play loud. “F***ing loud!” In its own blustering way it was a moment of musical revolution. Manchester does revolutions better than most places in England.dsc_0141It happened in the Free Trade Hall in 1966 and by the time I read about it, it was all  history – but a history that had changed things; given them a shake. Dylan had subsequently made some of the best records of the modern era; some acoustic, some electric, all showing his astonishing songwriting ability. And many a musician had discovered a groove that would have gone unploughed but for the play it loud moment. Some of the generation above mine hadn’t forgiven him and still hoped he would come back into the fold and sing Little Boxes and Goodnight Irene with Pete Seeger and Tom Paxton. (Don’t get me wrong I love the music of these people, I’m just not sympathetic to the ongoing whining that Dylan should have remained shackled to ‘the cause’ when he obviously had a little more musical adventuring to fit in.)dsc_0133The Free Trade Hall is now a luxury hotel. The last time I’d looked at it seriously it was redundant and looking in danger of being condemned. I’m not sure if a hotel would have been my choice for such an important building but it certainly beats the wrecking ball I once feared.dsc_0174In terms of working class history and the history of radical politics in England, the Free Trade Hall stands on the most hallowed ground in the city. This is where The Peterloo Massacre took place in 1819. Just four years after Waterloo the swords of the dragoons were turned on the working people of Manchester who had gathered to listen to Henry Hunt address them on the causes of the poverty, economic distress and hunger that had afflicted Manchester’s poor since the end of the Napoleonic wars. The cavalry were instructed to arrest Hunt and to disperse the crowd. They charged with sabres drawn. 15 were killed and over 600 seriously injured. It is a source of historic shame that such a thing could have happened and a source of on-going concern that lessons still need to be learnt from it.dsc_0140“The cavalry were in confusion: they evidently could not, with all the weight of man and horse, penetrate that compact mass of human beings and their sabres were plied to hew a way through naked held-up hands and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs and wound-gaping skulls were seen; and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion.” (Eye-witness Samuel Bamford)

The troops seemed to particularly target women. One calling out to a trooper she recognised “Tom Shelmadine, I know you. You won’t cut me.” But he did, opening her chest to the bone.

These were Mancunians to the heart. People who had gathered together, many in their Sunday best, for a joyful, almost carnival occasion. They were calling for universal manhood suffrage. At a time when about 2% of the population had the vote, and the country had seen a great easing of financial burdens from the rich since Wellington’s great victory in Belgium, and an increase in the burden on the poor; the north had taken up the call for ordinary people to have the vote and Manchester had taken the lead in the north. The crowd genuinely expected a happy outcome…and soon. It remains one of the most significant events in the country’s history and yet is barely acknowledged. A small plaque on the front of the hotel yet on the area formerly known as St Peter’s Fields now stand the great central library, the magnificent gothic town hall, the Free Trade Hall, The Bridgewater Hall and The Midland Hotel. The latter celebrating being the meeting place of Mr Rolls and Mr Royce but not it’s place in the history of British radicalism.

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote The Mask of Anarchy in response to the slaughter and though it calls for a non-violent stance against political oppression was nonetheless banned for the next 30 years. It is magnificent.

“Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.

And if then the tyrants dare,
Let them ride among you there;
Slash, and stab, and maim and hew;
What they like, that let them do.

With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay,
Till their rage has died away:
Then they will return with shame,
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek:
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!”

dsc_0138The movement continued throughout the next hundred years. First with The Chartists and later with The Suffragettes. All seeking what we now regard as a natural right of every citizen and yet they were portrayed and treated as criminals. They wanted a say in things which affected them. They wanted the vote. Manchester led the world in this fight for human rights. They might just wish to shout a little louder about their achievements. Butchering your own citizens may be a source of shame but it isn’t Manchester’s shame. I’ve spent most of my adult life (and I must thank Mr Brown our Ulverston history teacher in 1973 for first opening my eyes) in awe of the nineteenth century worker. Down-trodden, denied education, denied rights, denied the opportunity to rise above his or her lot, yet more involved than most are today, better informed, more passionate. Come on you modern citizens of the north. Take pride in your roots. You are still exploited, down-trodden and kept in your place. Remember that it is still the case that “Ye are the many – they are the few!”

In the 1840s Manchester was responsible for 50% of all Britain’s overseas trade. Yes! Half! This gave the city and the region unprecedented power and authority. This was the place where the middle classes were able to say to the aristocratic landowners “We’re making the money now, we shall also have a say in how things are done.” The Free Trade Hall was a centre for public debate over many issues. You’ll still find ornamental sheaths to symbolise opposition to The Corn Laws, Chartists met here, in the 1850s a big public meeting urged the abolition of the death penalty, opposition to slavery in Great Britain is largely a child of the north and played out vital chapters under this roof. Millworkers were prepared to suffer, and suffer horribly, for their principles in this. The American Civil War brought about an embargo on the trade in cotton. Lancashire was almost wholly dependent on cotton. This “cotton famine’ caused great distress. The Confederate States were sure that the British would enter the war on the side of the South to protect its cotton industry. The working people made their position known here in this great building. Their opposition to slavery was stronger than their need to work. They remained solidly behind Abraham Lincoln.dsc_0139Manchester (and indeed The Free Trade Hall) played its part in the birth of of the British Labour Movement. One of the leading local figures was Richard Pankhurst. Advanced in their views on worker’s rights, anti-slavery, anti-death penalty and the need for trades unions, they were backward in the need for women’s rights. Pankhurst never ever thought of extending the movement towards his formidable wife. She recognised the intransigence of the male-dominated labour movement and formed the Women’s Political and Social Union. It met in The Free Trade Hall.

Many of the freedoms and human rights we have accepted as a true privilege of living in Britain, and which are increasingly under fire, were forged in this city: many in this building. The site has seen a massacre, the building was the epicentre of Northern Radicalism, it was bombed in the blitz, re-opened as the region’s premier concert venue and home of the Hallé Orchestra (who I saw there on a rare school trip in 1972; can’t remember much about the music but do remember being told off by a teacher with a big nose for struggling to open a packet of wine gums!) Staged Bob Dylan plugging in, T Rex, Pink Floyd, The Sex Pistols and pretty much anyone who was anybody.dsc_0188As a hotel it’s expensive (about £200 a night for a double room) but if you’re passing through Manchester you couldn’t possibly spend the night surrounded by more history. And the puddings are excellent!


Apparently Keith Butler, the guy who yelled Judas died 15 years ago, after a violent reaction to bee stings. A lonesome fate for a participant in what may be the most hallowed bootleg moment ever.*(Michael Carlson)


Memories of Manchester


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Manchester Part One (How We Met) (An Indulgent Post)

I love Manchester. Spent my university days there. Was living there when I became a dad. I’m regularly drawn back for so many reasons; theatre, shops, art galleries, restaurants, meeting friends. My very favourite thing though is just to re-walk the streets of what I once called home and wallow in nostalgic remembrance while marvelling at the bustling new twenty-first century city that is growing out of the rather run-down and tired post-industrial town I knew.dsc_0064It came about by accident. I didn’t do the usual route to higher education. School, sixth form, university in succession and then out into the world of collar and tie work by the age of 21 or 22, with all the toys safely back in the toy box and a serious promotion ladder ahead that would bring a spouse, some offspring, a mortgage and a progression of increasingly bigger houses, in increasingly leafy suburbs, until retirement to a cravat, a knowledge of whisky and the Daily Telegraph. I left school on finding that there wasn’t anything much there to hold me and began on a trail of jobs that allowed me my own shared house on the ring road and enough money for food and the pub with friends on a Friday night. Once I reached the end of the road with one job (and it is very easy for an independent-minded fellow to reach stalemate with jobs where your direct boss has been carefully programmed in petty hierarchies) I’d reach out and find another. I was unemployed officially for a very short time in seven years and these were little patches that acted as paid holidays and I’d catch up with my brother; go walking over Helvellyn, make the Grasmere Sports, go on a road trip that involved a lot of empty glasses, a lot of games of pool, more than the occasional hangover spent eating breakfast with pint pots of sugared tea in greasy spoons and side street grills. I was single and my sense of freedom perfectly balanced out my lack of ambition.dsc_0068A stint as a caretaker at a northern polytechnic brought me into contact with five and a half thousand under graduates and I enjoyed their company and saw no reason why I couldn’t get some book learning myself. Instead, after a while, I had a sad falling out and went off into the country to do some getting away from it all. Two years of making beds and breakfasts for walkers and cyclists and gap year students from Oz and America was fun but the choice was to continue on, on the bottom rung, or commit to a career I really didn’t fancy all that much. It came to the crunch. I’d been out seven years. The new college year was about to start. Along the way night-classes had brought me my admission passport. A smattering of certificates. All I didn’t have was a place to study. I was ready to get me a degree. I had week to find out if anyone would have me.dsc_0160The girl in Oldgate House had received a print-out that morning. There were places in Nottingham to do history, Leeds to do French and Manchester to do English and Philosophy. She rang a number and said they’d like to see me. I caught the next train and looked out the window as derelict Yorkshire stone-built mills disappeared into a long tunnel to re-emerge as redundant Lancashire brick-built mills. Marsden, Stalybridge, Miles Platting, Manchester Victoria. All looked pretty wonderful to me walking between taller buildings than I was used to. Cross Street, Albert Square, St Peter’s Square, Oxford Road. All the way down to the main building on the main campus. They hadn’t a clue who I was. Certainly weren’t expecting me. Picked up the phone and dialled and said I needed Aytoun Street. Everyone needs a bit of Aytoun Street once in their lives!dsc_0114Feeling fobbed off I made the return journey down Oxford Road, passed the BBC, and the glorious Refuge Assurance Building, turn right along Whitworth Street. Thrilled by these buildings. I’d been two years in the sticks, this place was rumbling with power and people and possibility. Passed UMIST, where Wittgenstein found his study boots. Now that is a building! Aytoun Street; not so impressive. A grey tower block that looked like it ought to be condemned (and was some years later). On the eighth floor a diligent woman patronises me and assumes I have no qualifications and is wondering how to deal. Doesn’t give me much a chance for a word in edgeways but is sure I’d do well with an OND or HNC if I worked hard. Was ready to send me back from whence when a fellow with both braces and broad belt came in with a degree of importance that suggested staff though he didn’t look the academic sort. Checked my A levels, never asked to see any certificates, said I could start next Monday. Registration at 10.dsc_0182

All I needed now was a grant and a place to live.

I walked miles that day chasing flats and bedsits. Gained a geographic knowledge of South Manchester that would come in handy and, after several unfruitful trails found a room at the top of a Victorian Street in Whalley Range that may once have known a Pankhurst or two but had since slid down the social order. The landlord could have been Rigsby. Shapeless, sleeveless cardigan, opened his ground floor door enough to give me the once over. He wasn’t fussy. He had half a dozen rooms. I got one at the top. Below me deals were made, tricks were turned along with blind eyes. My naivety kept me safe. The room had a bed, a sink, a small stove with two hot plates and a tiny oven. The bathroom was shared by the whole house. Nothing smelled good. I’d saved up a couple of months wages but the hostels didn’t pay well and by the time my maintenance grant cheque arrived it was nearly Christmas and I was surviving as best I could. On the December Sunday night my cupboard was pretty much bare. But what was there was unusual. I had a handful of coffee beans, the last two slices of a 4 day old loaf, a pot of lumpfish roe and a single King Edward cigar (pocketed some years earlier at a company dinner when working as a wine waiter). On the verge of want and feeling very hungry I enjoyed my last supper of caviar on toast with a cup of decent coffee, followed by a long lingering smoke of a cigar. Next day the post brought a cheque and a couple of Christmas cards.dsc_0179By then I’d completed a term as a proper student and done it on equal terms with those I’d once assumed were my betters. I was coming up in the world. It was 1982. It was a pretty good time to be young and to live in Manchester. We saw bands. James were starting up a few streets away in Whalley Range, The Smiths were getting a big following very quickly and we saw them in the students’ union where Mick Hucknall (soon to be of Simply Red) strutted with what we thought was unwonted importance. I visited The Hacienda and listened to music in a place that was aware something special was happening. My contribution was busking and was far from special. To survive financially I’d found spots on Market Street, St Anne’s Square and a shopping centre in Charlton-Cum-Hardy where my clattering versions of Bob Dylan and Neil Young brought in more money than they ever deserved. I contributed not a jot to the new music that was happening all around me but this was a city with music in its bones and the people’s generosity kept me going. Without the busking money I would have had to give it all up and return to the endless toil of the non-career jobs I’d come from. I thought I’d made good money back then as I sat in The Shakespeare or The Trevor (both pubs and regular haunts) and tottered out an odd assortment of silver and bronze (with more than the occasional foreign coin) to pay my round before the real band came on. I’ve earned quite well since getting that busking supported degree so that makes the real takings from my versions of After the Gold Rush and Mr Tambourine Man more than substantial.dsc_0158I’ve enjoyed my post graduate career and owe most of it to those cold busking days and all of it to Manchester. Which is why nostalgic moseying is how I most like to spend my modern Manchester days. Buildings are now shinier, restaurants are much better as my pocket stretches further. This is a hell of a city. They used to say that what happens in Manchester today will happen in the rest of the world tomorrow. It was true in my case. What began in Manchester in 1982 has flowered and continued to flower ever since. And there are still buskers on the streets. Some of them are bloody good. All of them get the Johnson pound. As Hector says in Alan Bennett’s play. “Pass it on boys! Pass it on!”


To follow: Historic Manchester and Modern Manchester.

The Uke of Wallington by Mark Wallington : 2012


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British Travel Books : Number 8

Travelling around the United Kingdom is a recurring theme in Mark Wallington’s books. Some of them are out and out travel books; Five Hundred Mile Walkies deals with the South West peninsular coastal path, Boogie up the River follows the Thames from London to its source in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds, Pennine Walkies takes in the Pennine Way (all featuring an amiable and disreputable dog companion), Destination Lapland (a bicycle tour that never gets to Lapland; never leaves these islands in fact) all follow the formula: first person narration of a journey with lots of information, anecdote and companionable presence of the storyteller. The one novel of his that I have read – The Missing Postman – is plotted around delivering random letters in a postman’s sack. In other words it is essentially a tour of Britain. I’ve bought and read all of the above so Mark Wallington has done very nicely out of me. On the whole though, I think I’ve had rather the better of the deal. He’s gained a few pounds (sterling). I’ve gained many hours of pleasure and plenty of chuckles and belly laughs. If you’re reading this Mark. Thank you very much indeed.uke of wallingtonMy friend Jon thinks this is the best of the bunch. I’m not so sure. But then Jon is teaching his wife how to play the ukulele and this may be the key. The dear old ukulele is going through a late flowering in Britain. Seen by young music teachers as an alternative to the descant recorder in the ‘get everyone playing a musical instrument’ stakes, seen by older people as a late opportunity to pick up the musical instrument they always promised themselves they’d one day learn. And one that you can sing along to within an hour yet which has infinite possibilities in terms of progression. (Check out Youtube for many examples of virtuoso uke playing). At one time George Formby and Tessy O’Shea seemed to be the alpha and the omega, then George Harrison declared himself a devotee (he went to Joe Brown for advice and lessons*) and the popularity slowly (very slowly) spread. In the last ten years it has gone crazy. Everybody seems to own a ukulele (I have two!) and everybody seems to have discovered that they sound great accompanying rock’n’roll songs.The book is first rate on the appeal of this much maligned instrument (Hawaii’s contribution to musical heritage). Wallington is a little older than me (63), has lived his life through the rock and roll years, has had several careers, has decided that lack of ability means his dreams of reaching musical stardom by the conventional means of joining a five piece band with guitars, bass, drums and a piano player have come to nothing. So he’s bought a uke and is now setting out on an unofficial tour of Britain, travelling from Brighton to Cape Wrath playing his ukulele in every Open-Mic he can find.

7Ufyj6m2N.B. An ‘Open Mic’ is a semi-formal singing session, usually in a pub where people get up and sing a couple of songs to a (usually) apathetic audience under the guidance of a host (who often hogs the microphone and plays most of the songs himself (it’s invariably a he)). Actually these are hit and miss affairs. Many are a little bit dreary, a little bit, well, er, dead. But if you get a good one it is buzzing. A succession of high quality musicians supporting each other and simply enjoying having a public sing. A free concert. A bloody good night out. Wallington experiences both ends of the spectrum. Both ends of the plectrum perhaps!4076272469

“A concert?!” said my wife.

“Why not?”

She didn’t want to tell me the truth. “In front of people you don’t know?”

“My plan is to improve as I go along.”

“You don’t think this is a young man’s activity?”

“Bob Dylan is 70.”

“Bob Dylan started playing when he was a teenager.”

“So did I.”

She could see she wasn’t going to get anywhere down this track. She said, “It’s hard when the children leave. You’re bound to feel at a loss.”

“I’m not at a loss. A rock ‘n’ roll tour is something I’ve always wanted to do.”

“How can you do a rock ‘n’ roll tour on a ukulele?”

“I’ll show you.”

“No it’s all right … I believe you.”

“You think it’s a mid-life crisis, don’t you?”

“No. You’re too old for a mid-life crisis.”

It’s a book I can relate to on more than one level.


Me busking in Nottingham with a ukulele. You see the world differently when busking. Incidentally it pays (pro rata) about the same as supply teaching.

And so he sets off, by public transport. We get a feel of the country, of the towns he passes through, of the nerves required to even enter a pub carrying a musical instrument, let alone get up in front of strangers and play a couple of tunes. He’s a good travelling companion (something that is absolutely essential in a travel book. He genuinely likes the England (and eventually parts of Wales and Scotland) he is showing us. A nice mixture of diligent observer, decent wordsmith and is always quite happy to portray himself as a comic character; a sketch that is based on self-deprecation, insight and the skills acquired by a lifetime of being a professional comedy writer.

This is a polite and kindly observer. Not the sort to write a place off as awful or send someone up as ludicrous. Nevertheless there is a subtle pen at work here and a skilful satirist.

“There were indeed some grand and designer houses by the beach, but no one looked more proud of their property than the beach hut owners. In Lancing a couple were sitting out in front of theirs. She was knitting what looked like a map of South America. He was listening to the tennis on the radio. On the table between them sat a fruitcake and a pot of tea with a cosy.”

The journey is a pleasant one. This isn’t a major physical or emotional challenge as some journeys are. This is a gentle stroll, minstrel style, though the summer acres of Britain with musical interludes. The book is never short of entertaining, enlightening and at times very funny. Very few of us will ever tour as a Bowie or a McCartney or an Ed Sheeran but there are literally thousands of us who know what it is like to go down like a lead balloon (zeppelin perhaps) or receive an unexpected ecstatic response to our couple of songs in an open mic. What we mostly receive is polite indifference and Wallington is excellent on how this feels too.


Simon on a Chesterfield Open Mic night. Drowning in a sea of indifference.

I’d recommend any of Mark Wallington’s books. I think it probably helps to have been born between 1955 and 1965 to really get the full impact but I’m all in favour of privileging the late baby boomers. He made a name for himself as a script writer on Not the Nine O’Clock News (one of several high quality satirical shows from the BBC in the line of succession from Beyond the Fringe, That Was the Week that Was (TW3) and The Frost report. And the programme that introduced us to Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones and Rowan Atkinson). His books now fill half a shelf in my study and are all well thumbed. This is reading for pleasure. And why not? It is also a book that does what good travel books should do, and that is to make us want to get up and do it all for ourselves.

Pass me my ukulele I’m off on a road trip!


*They had toured together in the days before The Beatles found fame and he rang Joe Brown up years later and introduced himself with the wonderful words “Hello, I don’t know if you remember me. My name is George Harrison.”


Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome : 1889


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British Travel Books  : Number 7

Three Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of the Dog!


Stephen Moore as George, Michael Palin as Harris and Tim Curry as J in the BBC’s 1975 production

We don’t think of it as a travel book. We think of it is a comedy classic, an encapsulation of a quieter, slower time, a national treasure. And it is all of these. It is the book that has made me laugh more than any other (though I have read it in the wrong mood and not found it funny at all), a book that has inspired several attempts to capture it in film (much the funniest is Stephen Frears 1975 version with Tim Curry, Michael Palin and Stephen Moore as the heroes), a spectacular popular success panned by critics and several stage shows. But it wasn’t planned as such. “I did not intend to write a funny book, at first.” wrote Jerome K Jerome.

It was meant to be a guide book, a history of the river interspersed with the occasional personal anecdote. Jerome was an aspiring writer with an eye to a book that would sell. Boating on the river had become a popular pastime. He thought a factual travel guide full of a retelling of history, geographical, topographical  and navigational detail, recommendations for accommodation and refreshment would find a market. To keep it fresh and original he lightened it with moments of “humorous relief”. He’d rowed the river often in the company of his friends George Wingrave and Carl Hentschel. Like many a travel writer since he cobbled their various jaunts into one trip from London to Oxford. The journey described is essentially fiction but that’s ok. You’ll find the book in the fiction section. The editor of the serialising magazine (Home Chimes) liked the story better than the travel detail. The book became a novel. The guide book stuff was largely blue pencilled and one of the best loved books of the late Victorian period was born; more by accident than design.

Jerome becomes J, George remains George and Karl Henschel takes on the persona of William Samuel Harris and enters the canon of English literature as one of the great comic characters. And of course, there is also a dog, Montmorency. I’ll leave an exploration of Three Men in a Boat as a comic novel for another place.

Three Men in a BoatYet it remains a book whose main attraction is travel. Very few travel books have inspired so many to follow in its plash marks. Take a couple of friends in a boat anywhere between Teddington and Oxford and someone will shout from the bank “Are you doing a three men in a boat?” It does what all good travel books aim to do. It takes you there, allows you to picture the scene, smell the dew, soak in the sun and shiver in the breeze and, above all else, makes you want to get out on the river.

The prose is heavy in stylised Romanticism, faux melancholia and deliberately over-wrought description, yet it paints a lovely picture. Despite editorial demands the author’s love of the Thames shines through in its lyricism.

“One golden morning of a sunny day, I leant against the low stone wall that guarded a little village church, and I smoked and I drank in deep, calm gladness from the sweet, restful scene – the grey old church with its clustering ivy and its quaint wooden porch, the white lane winding down the hill between tall rows of elms, the thatched-roof cottages peeping above their trim-kept hedges, the silver river in the hollow, the wooded hills beyond.” The scene is close to Thomas Gray’s Country churchyard both geographically and poetically.three-men-in-a-boatAt other times he can be found giving practical advice. “We reached Sunbury lock at half past three. The river is sweetly pretty just before you come to the gates, and the backwater is charming: but don’t attempt to row up it.”

As ever the explanation is given in the form of a delightful and very funny anecdote.

Sometimes he gets very close to the practical guide to the river he originally intended.

“We sculled up to Walton, a rather large place for a riverside town. As with all riverside places, only the tiniest corner of it comes down to the water, so that from the boat you might fancy it was a village of some half-dozen houses all told. Windsor and Abingdon are the only towns between London and Oxford that you can really see anything of from the stream. All the others hide round corners and merely peep at the river down one street; my thanks to them for being so considerate, and leaving the river banks to woods and fields and waterworks.”

At still other times we get Jerome the light historian:


Jerome K Jerome with Montmorency

“From Marlow up to Sonning is even fairer yet. Grand old Bisham Abbey, whose stone walls have rung to the shouts of Knights Templars, and which, at one time, was the home of Anne of Cleeves and at another of Queen Elizabeth, is passed on the right bank just half a mile above Marlow Bridge. Bisham Abbey is rich in melodramatic properties. It contains a tapestry bed-chamber, and a secret room hid high up in the thick walls.The ghost of the Lady Hoby, who beat her little boy to death, still walks there at night, trying to wash its ghostly hands clean in a ghostly basin.”

And so it continues capturing time and place in a narrative as rich and varied and flowing as the Thames itself. And it feels different each time it is read. With Heraclitus we cannot enter it twice. The book changes according to the age you read it, who you read it with (it is one of the very best books for reading aloud), what mood you are in or what the weather is like outside. “No man ever steps in the same river twice for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”.

The real pleasure in Three Men in a Boat is in the comic presentation, the wonderful cast, the selection and telling of the most delightful anecdotes, in the laugh-yourself-inside-out comic timing. But the wonder of the book is the journey and the description of the journey. It should be firmly filed under fiction in any respectable library, but I am more than happy to include it in this series of travel books.

Quite simply one of my favourite books of any genre.