Midwinter musings from the Shire-tiddely-pom…

28 01 2013

snow‘The more it

SNOWS- tiddely-pom

The more it

GOES- tiddely-pom




And nobody

KNOWS- tiddely-pom

How cold my toes-tiddely-pom

Are growing’


By Winnie the Pooh (with a little help from his friend – A.A. Milne)

 Monday 21st January:  ‘Blue Monday’

It has been calculated that the third Monday in January, ‘Blue Monday’, is officially the most depressing day of the year.

blueHow do we know? – Because psychologist, Cliff Arnall, told us so. His scientifically based assertion, first made in 2005, was determined using a complex formula. I’m pretty light on the detail, and I expect only Cliff can properly explain his bizarre equation, which factored in a whole lot of  stuff like: miserable weather, outstanding debt – with Christmas bills rolling in, post-Christmas anti-climax, broken New Year’s Resolutions, short daylight hours,  and low motivational levels, to name but a few.

All very clever but what’s the point? Naming the day as ‘depressing’ is somewhat of self-fulfilling and counter-productive surely? Well yes, but then we learn that the whole notion of discovering a single day when we are all, supposedly, at our lowest ebb was dreamt up by a travel company.

In his letter from the executive editor, Stefano Hatfield of the ipaper picked up on this, dismissing the concept of ‘Blue Monday’ as, ‘a fine example of pseudo-science subverted by marketers …so we can be sold remedies for ‘the blues’: sunny holidays and chocolate to name two.’  

Arnall’s get out response to those who question his claim, is that he is happy that it has stimulated debate around depression and that he is ‘encouraging people to refute the whole notion of there being a most depressing day.’ He wants us to use the day, ‘as a springboard to the things that really matter in life.’ 

They just might include holidays and chocolate…

Tuesday 22nd January: ‘Quartet’ falls flat…

downloadIt seems every Tuesday is ‘Supersaver Tuesday’ at Vue Cinemas. I only discovered this last week when Chris and I went to see ‘Les Mis’ – albeit on a Thursday. Anyhow, we are both now fully signed up members with cards to prove it, complete with a promotional code number.

Apparently there is also ‘Orange Wednesday’, a 2 for 1 ticket offer available to Orange mobile or broadband customers – which unfortunately we are not!

Yesterday we used our Supersaver 10% off cards for the first time, hoping that ‘Quartet’, based around life in a retirement home for classical musicians, might help lift the January blues.

Despite a fine cast, of veteran actors and musicians, director Dustin Hoffman’s, debut feature film, a drama comedy, is perfectly pleasant but eminently forgettable. Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by ‘The Life of Pi’ and ‘Les Mis’ – both outstanding cinematic experiences. In all honesty, this ninety minute BBC production (based on a West End stage play) didn’t warrant the  big screen treatment and would have been more at home in a cosy TV film format.

A simple, predictable, storyline based around the relationship between four retired opera singers, ably played by Pauline Collins (Cissy), Tom Courtenay (Reg), Billy Connolly (Wilf) and the obligatory Maggie Smith (Jean) – who is enjoying something of a renaissance since the emergence of Sunday evening period drama, Downton Abbey – and whether they will, or will not, reunite to top the bill at the annual fund-raising concert to celebrate Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday.

quartetTheatrical temperaments and old rivalries are eventually put to one side and, surprise, surprise, the show, directed by a splendidly eccentric Michael Gambon (Cedric), goes on.

Filmed in its entirety at the charming Hedsor House, in Buckinghamshire, and with added musical authenticity provided by professional musicians, ‘Quartet’ is easy on the eyes and ears. There is plenty of pathos but too little humour, although Billy Connolly raises the odd smile – nothing more.

While ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ (set in India, and also starring Dame Maggie – which I thoroughly enjoyed) a similarly bitter-sweet movie, built around issues of ageing and coming to terms with one’s twilight years, maintained a lively Bollywood tempo throughout, with enough humorous high notes to leave me feeling upbeat, ‘Quartet’, by contrast, was more pastoral largo, which left me feeling somewhat flat.

Wednesday 23rd January:  Bill Oddie – all of a twitter…

blue_tit_300_tcm9-139623_v2Flakes, as big as dinner plates, were tumbling out of the sky, as I carried out my Winterwatch duty – trudging to the top of the garden to feed our feathered friends. To quote Alfred Hitchcock (well Toby Jones playing Hitch – in recent TV film, ‘The Girl’) ‘’The Birds’ is coming’

And so they are. ‘Orchard House’ has become a regular winter haven for peckish visitors. I’ve been trying to do a tit-bit to help them through this recent cold snap but it ain’t ‘cheep’. They have already pecked their way through a 12.75 kg sack of wild bird seed – in just three weeks!

imagesNo wonder @Bill Oddie is tweeting, ‘break the ice, clear the snow, scatter the seed, hang up the fatballs. Garden alive with hungry birds. They need us now.’

A 2kg bag of Bill’s ‘Really Wild Bird Food’ is currently available, online, for a really wild £10.50 – and we are asked to believe that is a really wild reduction on the regular price of £18.81. While a small plastic seed feeder marketed under the Bill Oddie brand retails at £8.07, or if you’re feeling flush there is a top of the tree, 360mm metal model, for just £19.99!

goodies (1)‘Ecky thump’ It strikes me a bit ‘Oddie’ that the former ‘Goody’, now a high-profile ornithologist and wildlife presenter, has turned ‘Baddy’ by allowing his name to be used in marketing such grossly over- priced products. He deserves to get the bird. On yer ‘Trandem’ Bill, it doesn’t strike me as at all, ‘Goody goody yum yum’.

In true ‘Blue Peter’ style I have made my own large seed feeders out of recycled 2 litre green plastic bottles, fitted with a screw in adaptors costing about £2.50.

Thursday 24th January:  Russian red tape …

communist_ussr_russian_hammer_and_sickle_tie-p151665235024382367en71g_216I spent most of today failing to complete an online Russian visa application. We’ve recently booked Easyjet flights, on their new route to Moscow. No frills by Stelios hopefully a safer bet than Aeroflot! We’re not off until late March, but having secured budget accommodation, at the very Russian sounding ‘Capital House Hotel’, close to the Bolshoi Ballet and a gentle stroll from Red Square, allegedly, I thought it best to sort out the visas sooner, rather than later.

mcdonalds1It soon became apparent that despite perestroika, glasnost and the arrival of the golden arches in Pushkin’s Square, there is still plenty of red tape to cut through, and a hammer and sickle might come in handy.

Having read through the accompanying notes, the first stumbling block announced itself. Every application needs to be supported by a ‘letter of invitation’ or a ‘tourist confirmation document.’ These are readily available, varying, considerably, in cost between a range of internet providers – and I eventually managed to save a few roubles by tracking down a £14.00 per person deal.

???????????????????With tourist vouchers and confirmation numbers winging their way through cyber space – and in fairness they arrived by email within the promised 24 hour turn around, I started completing the visa application.

Everything was pretty straight forward until I hit the ‘recent travel’ section. Please indicate every country you have visited in the last ten years and your date of entry to that country. What?

That’s something of an undertaking! I started with existing visas and passport stamps – where the dates were often barely legible – and from their I had to resort to my electronic travel photograph albums, which luckily I had catalogued by year, together with scraps of information from various travel logs I had invariably started with good intentions but invariably aborted a few days into the journey!

So something of an ongoing process, but when I do finally complete and submit the aforementioned information, my application will need to be accompanied by a postal order (how old-fashioned – whoever uses those these days?) for a visa fee which will be only marginally cheaper than the return flight!

It’s enough to make a grumpy old man turn to vodka!

Friday 25th January:  Chocks away …

16862sUp at the crack of dawn, but my early morning drive across the Cotswolds was rewarded with beautiful winter wonderland vistas. And on arrival in Caversfield, the old Parade Ground was ankle-deep in snow as I helped Nicci move into her newly renovated, 1926, Grade 2 listed apartment – previously living quarters at RAF Bicester.

The 23 acre, former Oxfordshire Bomber Command base, once home to the Bristol Blenheim bomber, spitfire and mosquito, its red-brick architecture heavily influenced by the 1930s Garden City movement, is now a conservation site.

The beautifully landscaped Garden Quarter development is just 12 miles outside Oxford, and 48 minutes by train to Marylebone Station in London, with the popular Bicester Village retail park right on the doorstep. Having halved her daily commute to school, it is an ideal location for ‘Nic’ to take her first step on the property ladder.

So chocks away ‘gel’ and enjoy the flight old thing!

Saturday 26th January: Forest stung by Hornets…

snowDespite the big thaw being well under way in the Shire, there had been significant overnight snow around the north Nottinghamshire village of Papplewick, which caught me completely by surprise, causing no little embarrassment as I swung into Dad’s cul-de-sac and slowly ground to a halt, following a failed reverse  manoeuvre on to his drive. It took two men with big snow shovels several minutes to dig me out, before I was able to slide into a parking spot nearer  the somewhat clearer main road, ready for a slippery get away.

Meanwhile, in Nottingham itself, down by the riverside, the City Ground had received only a light dusting of snow which had been dissolved by the under-pitch heating. But it didn’t stop Forest slipping up against Championship promotion rivals Watford.

Matej_2847972They were stung three times by the Hornets, twice by Czech goal machine Matej Vydra. Incisive on the break and ruthless in their finishing, they made Forest look very ordinary. On this less than tricky showing, promotion is neither likely nor desirable for the Trees this season.

Despite playing three up front Forest looked heavy footed throughout and were never really at the races after going behind. A lack lustre showing saw them booed from the pitch and left Big Eck pulling no punches in his post-match assessment.

I’m sure he’s no quitter, but given such an uninspired display by what, on paper, looked a pretty decent side, the level of post-match abuse levelled at him on social networks, erratic recent behaviour by the owners and their apparent inability, up to this point, to make appropriate bids for the players he has identified as needed to strengthen squad, he must be feeling up against it on all fronts.

Given the current inconsistency of performance, irrespective of any 12th hour signings before the January transfer window slams shut, on Thursday, the best The Reds can hope for is a mid-table finish.

For me, the owners got it horribly wrong, switching to a new manager mid-race. I fear the old adage, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, will be levelled at them time and again between now and the end of the season.

 Sunday 27th January: Here we come a wassailing…

Wassailling ceremony - Clive's 27.01.2013It was up to the ankles in mud at Clive’s Fruit Farm – hardly living up to its Frost Fair billing, with adjacent lanes once again threatened by flood water, from a River Severn swollen by snow-melt.

There was a slippery ascent up through the orchard, in the wake of the Faithful City Morris Men, to the site of the traditional wassailing ceremony, in which the wassail tree is hung with pieces of toast, and anointed with cider, as the fruit trees are awakened and evil spirits frightened away by much banging and 150958_10152479288095113_1900707116_nshouting. The ancient pagan proceedings, with touches of Christianity thrown in for good measure, were concluded by three welly squelching circuits of a spitting bonfire – all good rustic fun to ensure a plentiful harvest of apples and pears next Autumn.

Earlier I had made haste to the newsagent to pick up everybody’s favourite red top – at least in the Aldridge family – as just two weeks into her new job, journalistic Gem had scooped her first ‘Sunday Mirror’ front-page splash, and an exclusive at that: ‘Fury at Ben (Kinsella)Killer Compo – cops forced to pay £20,000 over murder hunt raid.’

An amazing start to what I hope will be a long and successful career as newspaper journo, providing a warm and satisfying glow at the finish of just another midwinter week in the Shire – tiddely pom!


Not so easy like a Sunday morning without Andrew Marr…

13 01 2013

download“Andrew Marr, renaissance man, polymath, wise commentator, painter, runner, brilliant cook – and ace editor. Get well soon. Needed in public life.”

Polly Toynbee (Journalist with ‘The Guardian’)

Ed-Miliband-One-Nation-Mental-Health-speech“On behalf of myself and everybody across politics I wish Andrew Marr a speedy recovery, all best wishes to him and his family.”  

Ed Miliband (Leader of the Labour Party) on today’s ‘Andrew Marr Show’.

_64791958_64791956It wasn’t quite the same today…

Something, or rather, someone was missing…

A man on a scooter, who weaves his way through sleepy London town to deliver the Sunday papers through my TV screen…

I’m nothing, if not a creature of habit. My Sunday morning routine consists of lounging in dressing gown and slippers, spooning cereal and sipping tea in front of the early a.m. BBC TV.

Walkers---Campaign-Launch-001First up is the 07.30am re-run of ‘Match of the Day’ – given I’m generally too tired, these days, to sit through the late Saturday night show.

At 9.00am it is usually time to exchange one set of oversized lugs for another; crisp munching Gary Lineker’s FA Cup handle-sized appendages replaced by the sticky out ears of journalist and political commentator Andrew Marr.

Andrew_Marr__responding_well_to_treatment__after_suffering_a_strokeThe Sunday morning ‘Andrew Marr Show’, an hour long weekly look at what’s happening in the world, a review of the  Sunday papers, and interviews with key newsmakers, is  one of my TV highlights of the week. But unfortunately, today, the former editor of ‘The Independent’ and political editor of the BBC News was missing – recovering from a serious stroke, suffered earlier this week.

As the news broke of his hospitalization, many high-profile names from the world of politics and media took to Twitter to wish the political news veteran, and host of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Start The Week’, a hasty recovery.

article-0-16E7DFC5000005DC-681_634x347Although conscious, responding to medication and making progress, it will be some time before Andrew is able to return to the TV studio, but the BBC insist the show will go on, with a number of leading  current affairs presenters lined up to take turns in  keeping his seat warm.

First up, today, with the unenviable task was James Landale, old Etonian contemporary of ‘Call Me Dave’ and ‘BJ’ (Mayor of London). The Deputy political editor for BBC News, sensed he was on a loser from the start, opening with, “It’d be much better if Andrew were here,” before demonstrating beyond doubt that Andrew Marr’s are exceedingly big shoes to fill.

paxman460Landale’s somewhat hectoring manner and continual interruptions, during the interview with Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, owed more to the late night, ‘Newsnight’, condescension of the ‘Paxo’ school of interviewing – stuff ‘em and roast ‘em –  rather than the more ‘easy like Sunday morning’ – coffee and croissants – style of Marr.

That isn’t to say that Marr’s courteous and deceptively easy, manner allows his interviewees to get away with anything. He is something of a smiling assassin, backing his political guests into corners with seemingly innocuous questions or feeding them enough rope to hang themselves.

vine-286Hopefully, next week, ‘Eggheads’ quizmaster Jeremy Vine, who presents his own BBC Radio 2 programme of news, views and popular music, will be more in tune with the ‘AM Show’ ethos.

Mad-Magazine-mad-on-cartoon-network-24503591-1024-768Andrew Marr may have been described as gangly, geeky and bearing passing resemblance to the face of ‘Mad’ magazine – perhaps one better suited to radio – but he is a charming, erudite, presenter with a wry sense of humour.

And, despite his 2010 Cheltenham Literature Festival, pronouncement that, “ (A) lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower nosed young men  sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting. They are very angry people” – I don’t harbour any grudges.

I simply hope he is soon fully recovered and back on his Vespa, so that my lazy Sunday mornings can get back to normal.

‘There are places I’ll remember…’ – Liverpool

15 09 2012

‘There are places I’ll remember

All my life though some have changed

Some forever not for better

Some have gone and some remain

All these places had their moments

With lovers and friends I still can recall

Some are dead and some are living

In my life I’ve loved them all.’

(Lennon & McCartney – 1965) 

Liverpool has dominated the news headlines this week – and rightly so. After 23 years the truth surrounding the Hillsborough disaster is out. As a result of the tragic events, of April 15th 1989, 96 Liverpool supporters never returned from an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest – victims of catastrophic failures in public safety and a subsequent grotesque campaign of lies, by the British establishment, in order to cover-up. 

As a Forest fan I had hoped to be at the Sheffield Wednesday ground that afternoon. As luck would have it, it was one of the few big match occasions, during the Clough years, for which I was unable to get a ticket. I can vividly remember tuning into the radio that afternoon, expecting to follow the match commentary, and being stunned as reports of the tragedy unfolded. 

It is scandalous that it has taken until this week for the Liverpool fans to be exonerated and to receive an unconditional formal apology from the Prime Minister for a ‘double injustice’. This after an independent enquiry into previously unseen documents had made it clear that the South Yorkshire Police, guilty of critical errors of judgement leading up to and during the tragedy, had, in its aftermath, systematically falsified reports to shift the blame for the 96 deaths on to their fellow supporters. 

It is high time that those found guilty of gross negligence, and complicit in this outrageous deceit, pay the price.  

Chris and I were in Liverpool on Sunday and Monday of this week, totally unaware, at the time, of the imminent, dramatic publication of the independent panel’s findings. 

My previous visits to the city, two or three times during the early ‘70s, had all been football related – with a Liverpool supporting student mate, David Dodds, but universally known by the highly original nickname, Scouse!

I remember being wedged into the world-famous Kop, swaying in unison, a sea of red and white scarves held aloft, belting out the club anthem, ‘You’ll never walk alone…’  It was the Bill Shankly era, and a Liverpool team that boasted Emlyn Hughes, Tommy Smith, Steve Heighway, John Toshack and Kevin Keegan. As I recall, on the occasion of my first visit, a tidal wave of red shirts swept Chelsea away, 3 nil.          

This time around, Chris and I were taking advantage of a remarkable Premier Inn offer, £19 for a night, in a tastefully converted red brick warehouse, overlooking the Victorian, Albert Dock – now a World Heritage site. 

As lifelong Beatles fans we had pre-booked places on the colourful Magical Mystery Tour bus, a thoroughly enjoyable an informative late Sunday afternoon trip around the parts of Liverpool which shaped and inspired the group.

It was a brilliant two hours, worth every penny, taking in the childhood homes of John, Paul, George & Ringo, and places which famously featured in their songs: ‘Strawberry Field'(s) – the former Salvation Army children’s home, St Peter’s Churchyard (opposite the church hall where John and Paul first met) – site of Eleanor Rigby’s gravestone, and Penny Lane – complete with barber shop, bank, fire station and ‘shelter in the middle of the roundabout.’ The only thing missing was ‘a pretty nurse selling poppies from a tray’!  

The tour wound up at the most famous club in the world, the cradle of British pop music, The Cavern Club (in Mathew St) where the Mersey-sound and Beatle-mania were born, while Cilla Black served espresso in the coffee bar.‘Surprise, surprise’, it wasn’t licensed back in the swinging ’60s!                        

On Monday morning, we strolled around Albert Dock, with its moored narrow-boats and tall ships, and along the regenerated waterfront, passing a remarkably life-like statue of another Liverpool pop icon, Billy Fury (the former tug boat deckhand who made it big as the British Elvis with hits such as ‘Halfway to Paradise’) and a pair of grazing superlambananas, before taking a return ticket from Pierhead to Seacombe on the ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ – immortalised in song by Gerry and The Pacemakers.

As we stood on deck admiring the famous Liver Building landmark, there was even time for a quick reprise of the theme tune from Carla Lane’s popular ‘70s comedy series The Liver birds  – ‘Are you dancin’?’ ‘Are you askin’?’ ‘Well I’m askin’,’ ‘Then I’m dancin’!’    

After a full English breakfast bap and coffee we managed to squeeze into ‘The Beatles Story’ ahead of an excited school party – a near miss! The award-winning exhibition, complete with headphone commentary, video and musical interludes, really brings to life the phenomenal rise of the Fab Four – well worth a visit.

There was also time to visit the dockside Liverpool Tate for the ‘Turner Monet Twombly’ art exhibition, and to take in a few of the splendid sculptures on display – including the controversial ‘Jacob and the Angel’ by Epstein ( Sir Jacob, not Brian) and Salvador Dali’s trademark ‘Lobster Telephone’! 

Finally I rounded things off with a spin on The Liverpool Echo Big Wheel, which affords spectacular views along the river and across the city, including its two cathedrals at either end of Hope Street – the gothic Anglican (5th largest in the world) and the modernist Catholic, affectionately known by the locals as ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’!     

A brilliant short break, and hopefully I’ll be back in 2013-14 to see the Tricky Trees playing at Anfield and Goodison Park – but then again perhaps that’s wishful thinking!    



‘Be curious…’

31 08 2012

‘That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.’

(Neil Armstrong – July 20th 1969)

‘Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.’

(Neil Armstrong)

‘Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see. Be curious.’

(Professor Stephen Hawking – London Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony)


I was on an early morning ‘taxi’ run to Brum Airport (Chris & Nicci off to Venice for a few days!) so had to make do with Sky News highlights of the previous evening’s London 2012 Paralympic Opening ceremony – heralded as a triumphant celebration of humankind’s ability to overcome seemingly impossible odds, and one that will alter the world’s perception of disability. 

Physicist Stephen Hawking got rave reviews for leading the audience, on a voyage of enlightenment, which highlighted a world of scientific discoveries and the fight for equality by the disability rights movement. From one of the most famous wheelchairs in the world, he urged, ‘Look at the stars, not down at your feet and be curious.’      

The 60,000 strong audience were invited to take part in a simultaneous ‘apple bite’ (fruit kindly provided by Games sponsors Sainsbury’s – I do hope it was British!) in acknowledgement of the crunch moment when Isaac Newton realised the concept of gravity.

Later, a blaze of light illuminated the Olympic Stadium, recreating the Big Bang, followed by a Busby Berkely representation of the expanding universe. Prospero emerged from ‘The Tempest’ – this time a cameo role for Ian McKellan (or was it Gandalf?) – supplementing Shakespeare’s poetry with suitable references to ‘the beautiful diversity of humanity’.

4000 athletes from 165 competing nations paraded into the stadium to an electrifying version of the late Ian Dury’s song, ‘Spasticus Autisticus’. New Wave punk rocker Dury, who contracted and was crippled by polio aged seven, wrote it in 1981 to express his disdain for that year’s International Year of Disabled Persons, which he considered patronising and counter-productive. Its uncompromising lyrics, banned by the BBC, were once described by Dury as a ‘war cry’. Last night it lived up to that billing, reclaimed as an anthem for the Paralympics – performed by dance act Orbital and the Graeae Theatre Company (made up of disabled performers).

Thankfully times and attitudes are changing. Those of us who inhabit what Dury’s song calls ‘Normal Land’ are invited by a slogan for the Paralympics to, ‘see the ability not the disability’ – let’s do that.      

It is more than apt that Stephen Hawking’s rallying call for humankind to ‘Be Curious’ should come but a few days after the world mourned the passing of 82-year-old Neil Alden Armstrong –  aerospace engineer, and test pilot, forever assured his unique place in the history of humankind as the first person to set foot on the Moon.

It was on July 20th 1969 that Armstrong captured the imagination of an entire planet, guiding Apollo 11 to a safe touchdown (with just 20 seconds of fuel remaining) before announcing to an anxious, waiting and watching, world, ‘Houston. Tranquillity Base here. Eagle has landed’

Several hours and numerous safety checks later, he emerged from the landing craft, carefully, clambering down its ladder in a cumbersome spacesuit, before stepping from the final rung and on to the moon’s dusty surface, uttering the words by which he will always be remembered, ‘That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.’ As pub quiz pedants are quick to point out, Armstrong always maintained it was meant to be ‘a man’

I was just sixteen years old, sitting 240,000 miles away, along with hundreds of millions of others, watching history in the making, as the live pictures were beamed back to Earth.

There are still those sad conspiracy theorists who maintain the planting of the rigid American flag  into the Moon’s surface and the well-known images of Armstrong and ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, bouncing around unhindered by the Moon’s minimal gravitational pull, were all elaborate hoaxes, stage-managed by NASA.      

As the news of Armstrong’s death broke, our own Professor Brian Cox tweeted that he wasn’t having any of that:    

‘Sad to hear about the death of Neil Armstrong. I do think Apollo the greatest of human achievements. For once, we reached beyond our grasp…’

‘…Rather than calling everyone who tweets that Neil Armstrong didn’t walk on the moon a manure-brained ball sack, I am just blocking them’

By common consensus Armstrong was a reluctant American hero, who shunned the limelight and considered he was merely doing his job. Having fulfilled that duty, as NASA’s first civilian astronaut, he led a semi-reclusive existence on his Ohio dairy farm and as a professor in the relative anonymity of the University of Cincinnati’s engineering faculty.   

For teenagers, such as me, who wondered at that first moon landing 43 years ago, it fleetingly opened up the frontiers of space and the fictional space travel of comic strip hero Dan Dare and TV Time Lord Dr Who suddenly becoming a distinct possibility – within our lifetime?     

There were to be five further manned Moon landings. The last, Apollo 17, was in December 1972, meaning that nobody born after 1935 has so far walked on the moon. I wonder how many instantly recall Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt? I admit I had to look them up. However I did recall that 1971 Apollo 14 member Alan Shepard famously became the first man to club a golf ball on the Moon – hell of a way to go for a round of golf!     

The intervening years have demonstrated that NASA’s curiosity was time limited. Although there have been technological spin-offs, essentially it all turned out to be pretty pointless, inspired by little more than a political need to win the race to the moon – a flag waving, sabre rattling, exercise in the midst of the US/Soviet cold war. But that should not and will not detract from Armstrong’s memory. In the words of President Obama, ‘Neil Armstrong was a hero not just of his time, but of all time.’   



Online lifeline for Desperate Dandy …

17 08 2012

“Comics are essential to childhood and the food for imagination; they’re wide open spaces for children to explore the most crazy ideas and the most ridiculous characters. A place to escape to when the real world isn’t so attractive.”

Jamie Smart: ‘The Guardian on Facebook’

“But thank God for the dear old Dandy, and all it did to shape our national character and to show us that reading was one of the truly great escapes.” 

“It was built on an attitude where everyone, in the end, had goodwill towards everybody else. It celebrated an idea of friendship and a frighteningly cohesive society. And above all, everything in the end had its funny side.” 

 Simon Heffer ‘Mail Online’

December 4th is ringed in my diary – a reminder to visit the local paper shop and pick up the last issue of the UK’s longest-running comic The Dandy, before it disappears from newsagents’ shelves forever.

The final print version of the UK’s longest-running comic will be a special 75th birthday edition, including a facsimile of the first ever Dandy comic. Thereafter everybody’s favorite comic book cowboy, Desperate Dan, together with the rest of the Dandytown characters, will be relocating to a brave new online digital world.    

At the peak of its popularity, during the 1950s, the older, sister-comic to The Beano, boasted sales of 2,000,000 copies per week. In recent times, despite a 2010 re-branding as ‘Dandy Xtreme’, and a celebrity make-over, which enlisted real-life characters such as Harry Hill and Cheryl Cole, the readership has fallen to just 8,000.  

The slump in circulation has been roundly blamed on the popularity of children’s computer games and this has led the publishers to take The Dandy ‘in another direction’, with assurances from Ellis Watson, chief executive of Dundee-based publisher DC Thomson, that there are ‘exciting plans in the pipeline…Dan has certainly not eaten his last cow pie.’   

Desperate Dan, the wild west strong man who sleeps on a reinforced bed with a rubble filled pillow, shaves with a blowtorch and can lift a cow with one hand, is a hardy survivor from that first, 4th December 1937 issue, a rare copy of which was sold at a 2004 auction (only ten are known to exist), together with its original promotional free gift – a ‘metal whistler’, for a UK record £20,350.     

The Scottish Daily Record has disclosed that, cow pie munching, Dan is in transfer talks and could line-up alongside Denis the Menace in The Beano, which will continue in its current printed format. It’s hard to imagine a defection of such proportions, but maybe his enormous gait will bridge both titles, enjoying both a Beano print and Dandy online existence, if anyone can it’s Dan.

It is a shame that the traditional British comic, and in particular such an iconic title as The Dandy, finds itself in decline. It belongs to a bygone innocent age and is apparently not sophisticated enough to tickle the palate of today’s discerning youngsters so pre-occupied with their play station games.

I remember the six or seven-year old excitement of first discovering The Dandy and The Beano (which was always my favourite of the two) in the local barber-shop, sitting on a padded bench seat wading through piles of back-numbers. It made bearable my wait for the dreaded electric clippers up the back of my neck – as did the final peace-offering of a Brylcreem quiff!

My Dad’s choice as a suitable comic for a young son had been his own boyhood favourite, ‘The Eagle’. I did enjoy Dan Dare, 1950s ‘Pilot of the Future’ pitting his wits against super intelligent arch-enemy the Mekon, but much of the rest of it rather serious and dull compared with the anarchic humour of my new-found favourites. On top of that you could get both The Dandy and The Beano, at 3d each, at a time when the going rate for pocket-money was about a shilling a week – leaving a ‘tanner’ (6d) to be spent at the sweet shop or on a saturday morning matinée, at the local cinema.      

So after a bit of manoeuvring, the next time Mum went to pay the paper bill, the switch was made  and I looked forward with anticipation each week to Tuesday (Dandy) and Thursday (Beano), when my comic would plop on the mat, rolled up inside the daily newspaper. Comics really were quite a big thing for kids of the ’60s.

I enjoyed my weekly fix of the Dandy and Beano, pretty much all the way through junior school, and of course there were the Annuals too – a staple item in every Christmas stocking. I always found the Christmas and New Year issues the most attractive, with their snow-capped letters on the title page.  

The characters, apart from Desperate Dan – a given of course, who I most enjoyed in that pre-Bananaman era, were:

Korky the Kat: The Dandy’s original cover star who featured on the front page continuously for 47 years until replaced by Desperate Dan.

Corporal Clott: An accident prone soldier, a liability within the British army, who would crash, sink and destroy anything he came into contact with. 

Winker Watson: A  third form pupil at Greytowers boarding school, a ‘wangler’ – constantly playing tricks and trying to avoid unpleasant school activities – the nemesis of his teacher Mr Creep – ‘Creepy’.

Smasher: A sort of cross between Beano characters Denis the Menace and Roger the Dodger, in his red and black diamond jumper, a walking disaster area who smashed anything and everything he came into contact with – by accident rather than design, of course!

Dirty Dick: Not a name you could get away with these days!  He looked almost identical to Winker Watson, apart from he was always covered in smuts and smudges, and his misadventures always ended with him in some filthy mess or another.  

Black Bob: The Dandy wonder dog, a brave, intelligent and faithful, black and white border collie ‘owned’ by bearded shepherd Andrew Glenn. He had a nose for tracking and catching wrong doers and rescuing those in distress – and enjoyed such popularity that he had his own series of books.

Incidentally the 75th Birthday Dandy Annual is already on sale – I might just add it to my Christmas list, for old time’s sake!  


Oh Danny Boy – Lord of the Rings…

31 07 2012

“We hope…that through all the noise and excitement you’ll glimpse a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of the better world, the world of real freedom and true equality, a world that can be built through the prosperity of industry, through the caring nature that built the welfare state, through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream of universal communication. A belief that we can build Jerusalem. And that it will be for everyone.”      

(London 2012 – Official Opening Ceremony programme notes)

“We had no agenda other than something with values that we feel are true. I felt that very strongly. There is no bull**** in it.”

“I hope you feel we delivered value for money. I try to do that in my films. I try and make them look like $100m films but they cost $20m. So if it looks like a $100m evening and it cost $27m, then I will obviously be delighted.”

Congratulations to Danny Boyle for his momentous, ‘Isles of Wonder’, London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony.

The Academy Award winning director/producer, best known for movies such as ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘Trainspotting’, will now be forever remembered as the man who masterminded the breath-taking ‘warm-up act’ for 10,000 World athletes at the 30th Olympiad.  

His quintessentially British pageant played out, over three hours, by 15,000 volunteer performers, and requiring nearly 13,000 props was watched by an estimated global TV audience of one-billion.

Boyle’s spectacular Olympic overture, put together at a cost of £27m, may have seemed extravagant compared with a post-war budget of £700,000, to cover the entire cost of London 1948, the post-war ‘austerity games’, but was significantly less than the $100m (£64m) spent on Beijing’s 2008 curtain raiser. 

So what did we get for our money?

A ‘Liquorice Allsorts’ of British history:

·        An ‘A-Z’ of GB achievement, from Brunel (played by a cigar chewing Kenneth Branagh) to Tim Berners-Lee (in person) inventor of the worldwide web.  

·        ‘GOSH’ – a celebration of the Welfare State – featuring giant hospital beds, NHS staff and young patients from the Great Ormond Street Hospital.  

·        Touchingly thoughtful tributes to those from all nations who lost their lives in war, and the victims of the 7/7 (2005) London bombings.

A magical mystery tour of our rich cultural heritage:

·        A catalogue of classical literary references from Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’, Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ and Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, through to that best-selling phenomena of modern times, ‘Harry Potter’, – reclusive author JK Rowling making a rare public appearance to read an extract from JM Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’.

·        A virtual trawl through Danny Boyle’s I-pod, provided a varied musical soundtrack, that ranged from Elgar to The Prodigy, featuring live performances by as diverse a group of artists as, amazing deaf percussionist – Evelyn Glennie, Mike Oldfield – complete with tubular bells, local East-end, grime star, hero – Dizzee Rascal, Arctic Monkeys and Sir Paul ‘Macca’ – for yet another tuneless reprise of ‘Hey Jude’ (someone really needs to tell the aging, former, Beatle that his time is up!)     

My Top Show Stopping Moments:    

·        To triumphant GB cyclist, Bradley Wiggins, he of the trademark sideburns, kitted out in his 2012 Tour de France winning yellow jersey, fell the honour of  ringing the 23 ton Olympic Bell* to signal the start of the Opening Ceremony.   

·        The transformation of an idyllic, opening, pastoral set (just a tad too reminiscent of Teletubbyland land for me) to the dark satanic mills of the  Industrial Revolution, complete with flaming red-brick chimneys and a fiery furnace – wherein five gigantic Olympic rings were forged and raised above the stadium.   

·        ‘Good evening Mr Bond’ – The Queen expertly delivered an iconic line, in greeting her security escort, 007 – Daniel Craig, before being whisked, by helicopter, from Buckingham Palace, and (apparently) making her royal entry to the ceremony beneath a Union Jack parachute – absolutely brilliant.

·        Multitudinous Mary Poppins, borne on umbrellas above the Olympic Stadium, doing battle with the stuff of children’s nightmares – giant puppets of Lord Voldemort, Captain Hook, the Queen of Hearts and Cruella De Vil.   

·        Sir Simon Rattle conducting a LSO rendition of ‘Chariots of Fire’, ably assisted by Mr Bean – Rowan Atkinson, playing one fingered keyboard – hilarious.

·        ‘Becks’ escorting the Olympic torch, by neon lit speedboat, along the Thames, beneath a flaming Tower Bridge.

·        Sir Chris Hoy proudly brandishing the Union Flag, at the head of team GB, clad in their ‘Elvis’ style white hooded tracksuits with golden lining (designed by high street retailer ‘Next’ and not, as many thought, Stella McCartney) entering the arena to rapturous applause.

·        Sir Steve Redgrave, rowing gold medallist at an unprecedented five consecutive games, and GB’s greatest ever Olympian, passing the Olympic flame on to seven teenage athletes, for the lighting of the cauldron –  a master stroke, in keeping with the London 2012 motto, ‘Inspire A Generation’.    

·        The igniting of the copper petals (assembled as participating national teams entered the stadium) by the ‘next generation’, before they rose and converged to form a large flaming cauldron in the sky – the most potent sporting symbol in the world.       

For me, Danny Boyle’s London 2012 Opening Ceremony was close to perfect.

Never possible, nor desirable to match the militaristic precision and technical expertise of Beijing, it did, however harness the philosophy and feel good factor of Sydney – ‘The People’s Games’ – while successfully capturing the very essence of modern Britain; an inclusive, multi-cultural nation with a rich and proud cultural history, an innate modesty about its myriad achievements, increasingly comfortable with its place in the modern developing world, but with a perennial tendency towards disarming self-deprecation, unerringly irreverent behaviour, and a wonderfully off-beat sense of humour.

It made me feel very proud and privileged to be British.     

* Earlier in the day, Jeremy Hunt (sport and culture secretary) got the day’s celebrations off to ‘a flyer’, dropping something of a clanger, when the hand bell he was brandishing with gusto  – as part of a national three-minute ring o’bells ‘pealed’ off its handle, narrowly missing a group of onlookers. He was caught on camera, all of a fluster, exclaiming,“Oh, oh dear! Are you all right? Health and safety!” 

It could only happen here – the Olympics are clearly in safe hands…      

C’mon Team GB… 

True Brit – ‘Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl…’

4 06 2012

‘Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl

But she doesn’t have a lot to say

Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl

But she changes from day to day 

I want to tell her that I love her a lot

But I’ve got to get a belly full of wine

Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl

Someday I’m going to make her mine, oh yeah,

Someday I’m going to make her mine.’


(Artwork: Warhol / Lyrics: Lennon & McCartney)

I’ll be honest. I’m not a huge monarchist.

In fact, deep down I’m a republican. In my heart of hearts, I know that a system of hereditary royalty, with its inherited wealth and privilege, should be an anachronism in a modern, fair and equable society.

Despite that, I can’t help but admire the Queen. At 86, she remains energetic, industrious and formidable, hugely revered and respected throughout the world.

This little old lady, equally at home in a headscarf or coronet, is the face of a nation, instantly recognisable around the globe, and a prime reason that our small island punches above its weight, on the international stage.

For six decades, she has been the glue that has bound an often dysfunctional royal family together, keeping it afloat – despite the loss of the Royal Yacht ‘Britannia’! That the British monarchy enjoys as much, if not more, public support than ever before – one only has to look at the response to last year’s royal wedding, and this weekend’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations – is tribute to her.       

The pageantry associated with the Queen and her Royal Family, continues to demand huge interest and attention, at home and abroad, and although, largely unquantifiable, undoubtedly generates significant national income. In short, she pretty much pays her way.                   

Despite the typically dismal Bank Holiday weather, one and a quarter million people, clad in waterproofs and huddled beneath dripping umbrellas, lined the Thames, to see yesterday’s Royal Flotilla, while millions more will have watched the live coverage from the comfort of their armchairs.

In fact, for many, the weather probably added to the occasion. After all, there’s nothing we like more than to tough things out in the face of adversity. It’s a national trait, and it will take more than a deluge of rain to dampen our spirit and enthusiasm! 

Tonight, 20,000 more will flock to the Mall for a celebratory concert of popular music, spanning the Queen’s reign, performed against a Buckingham Palace backdrop – to be beamed across the World.  

The grand finale will incorporate London’s first pyrotechnic extravaganza of the summer. Next time it will be the Olympic Games. At least the manufacturers of Union Flags and fireworks will be doing well at this time of austerity.  

The Jubilee concert has been organised by Gary Barlow (look out for him in the Birthday Honours…) who has also teamed up with Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber to produce ‘Sing’, the chart topping ‘Jubilee Song’, featuring artists from throughout the Commonwealth – complete with an ‘X-Factor’ performance, on triangle, by Prince Harry!     

Interestingly, earlier today, I received a Facebook message from a young friend in Italy – “I heard the Queen speaking in BBC. I want her here please! …”  I guess if you have been brought up with the embarrassment of ‘premier behaving badly’, Sylvio Berlusconi, mis-representing your country, at home and abroad, Her Majesty must seem like ‘a pretty nice girl’…    

The recently launched ‘New Friends Reunited’ – ‘Home of the Nation’s Memories’ – has tapped into  mounting Diamond Jubilee Fever, conducting a cross Atlantic survey amongst its members, in the run up to this weekend’s celebrations, which poses the question, ‘what do you most associate with Britishness?’  

So, what does it take to be a true Brit?

According to the Friends Reunited survey, the top 10 things that Brits associate with Britain and British-ness are:

  1. Fish and chips – 82%
  2. The £ – 79%
  3. Tea – 74%
  4. Wimbledon – 68%
  5. Rain – 61%
  6. The Beatles – 56%
  7. Cricket – 56%
  8. Football – 49%
  9. Stiff upper lip – 45%
  10. A love of the Monarchy – 43%

And, apparently, the top 10 things that Americans associate with British-ness are:

  1.       Tea – 82%
  2.       Wimbledon – 68%
  3.       Cricket – 66%
  4.       The Beatles – 65%
  5.       Fish & Chips – 63%
  6.       The £ – 62%
  7.       A love of the Monarchy – 51%
  8.       Football – 48%
  9.       Bad Teeth – 37%
  10.       Reserved nature – 36%

What is the ‘bad teeth’ thing all about? I can only assume it implies that Brits are less inclined towards cosmetic dentistry?

Interestingly, 68% of Brits, surveyed, rated their Britishness, on a scale of 1-10, as being 7 or more, with Scots and Londoners least likely to feel ‘true Brits’.

Amongst Brits, naturalist and broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough, tops a list of celebrities who epitomise ‘Britishness’ while across the Atlantic, actress, Dame Judi Dench, came out, top of the celebrity pops. I wouldn’t argue with either of those – national treasures both!      

And finally, but still on lists, 1952 – the year the Queen ascended to the throne, was also the year that ‘pop-music charts’ first appeared – based on the weekly sale of ‘singles’. The top four artists over the last 60 years, in terms of Top 40 appearances, are:

  1.       The Beatles (not surprisingly – with 17 number 1 hits)
  2.       Elvis Presley
  3.      Cliff Richard (with Top 10 entries in each of 6 decades, as much a national icon as the Routemaster bus!)
  4.       Madonna

It might not be,‘We’re all going on a Summer Holiday…’ weather, but it is better today – dull but dry – and the family awaits expectantly… 

Okay I give in. It’s time to hang out the bunting, light the Jubilee barbecue, crack a bottle of Cava, and drink the old gal’s royal health. Cheers!

NB: I’ve just finished watching the Jubilee Concert and, one thing is for certain, we can certainly put on a show. There were many star performances. But the one that will certainly stick long in the memory is Madness singing ‘Our House’- the ‘Nutty Boys’ performing on the roof of the palace, as a projected light show transformed its facade into a terraced block.    

Peter Kaye’s comic cameo, dressed as a Beefeater, to introduce headline act, Sir Paul McCartney, was the best comedy turn of the night, by a country mile. He absolutely creases me up, but he did drop a bit of a howler when introducing ‘Macca’. It was John Lennon, who had the middle name ‘Winston’!

Also, a tad, irritating were those US acts, including the legendary Stevie Wonder, who rather embarrassingly seemed to confuse the Diamond Jubilee celebrations with the Queen’s birthday. Gary might wish he had briefed them better. He could have to settle for an OBE rather than a knighthood!