Saturday, 29 September 2012

When In Doubt Chicken Out

When you think of the times we have come to blows with China throughout history, the Korean War will probably be the most memorable event. For those with a greater knowledge it will be the First or Second Opium War, the Boxer Rebellion or the incident on the Yangtse when H.M.S.Amethyst was fired upon.

The one which doesn't readily spring to mind is the pitch battle outside the Chinese Legation in London. In August 1967 Red Chinese wielded iron bars and traded punches with police and members of the public who had been demonstrating and taunting the officials. The result was a draw with equal injuries on all sides.

The Cultural Revolution was at its height and some Chinese were standing on the pavement quoting from Mao's Little Red Book and the place was ugly until a truce was called.

I am used to seeing people's passions running high and situations escalating quickly. I have found myself an innocent bystander in a riot in Warsaw once, where the police were lobbing teargas cannisters indescriminately at the crowd. I have been in the wrong place at the wrong time in London, when police were charging at a group of people with their batons raised.

What do you do?

I took the least brave and ran like f**k in the opposite direction. Boldness be my friend and all that, but self preservation kicks in. At times being a bus driver brings out the same responses.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Allo, Allo, Allo Now What's Going On Here? My Many Brushes With The Law

Not many people can say they have been searched for by the head of the Metropolitan Police (or the Comissioner of Police of the Metropolis to be absolutely correct) in person. When on my gap year or two in Australia,  I had been having such a good time that letters or any form of communication home had become non-existant. My worried parents mounted a search party and as luck would have it, the future top policeman, who was then just Chief Constable of a regional force, happened to be going out to Brisbane on holiday.

He arrived equipped with my last known address, the appropriately named London Road - no number - no suburb - simply London Road, Brisbane, Queensland. However on arrival in Brisbane, he discovered that there were many London Roads and London Streets. Undeterred he set off and managed to go to all bar the one I was actually living in. He never found me. Nonetheless it was a remarkable achievement for anyone to spend some of their precious holiday searching for a semi-dysfunctional son who was living too much of the good life.

It would be economical with the truth to say that it was my first 'brush with the law.' At the age of five I remember a Squad car (pictured above) coming to the door. Though I look remarkably calm and interested, I seem to recollect that was just a veneer and I ran off into the bushes and hid. I was petrified they had come to arrest me for a succession of evil deeds over the last few months;

- asking my mother whether she liked bonfires. When she said yes I went and put a match to the tablecloth ....... while it was still on the table,

- stealing an extra 3d bit when I had already been given the bus fare,

- locking an elderly nanny in the cupboard under the stairs. Fortunately she was burly enough to push the door so hard that the hinges broke and nanny, the door and a whole lot of other stored stuff came flying out and landed in a heap on the floor,

- and probably the worst was going into the wood, do a No. 2, carefully wrap it in wrapping paper and hand it to my grandmother telling her that I had a present for her.

No wonder I ran off at the sight of the Police. I was an evil child at best. It didn't get any better as I got older. Dysfunctionality as a teenager abroad was forseeable on past performance. Later I was put in my place by a policeman. It was on New Year's Eve, just outside Trafalgar Square. It was 1982, the year when two women were crushed near the barriers. It caused massed panic and the crowd turned and ran. It was one of the most frightening things I have ever been in. You had no control, having to walk fast in the direction being pushed from behind by a huge weight. Blimey, I thought, if I fall or trip now, I'm a gonner. One of the girls in our party did just that and the crowd ignored her and trampled her like a cattle stampede. I managed to hold her hand. As the crush abated, one man stood on her and remained standing on her so that he could get a better view. I swore at him. Obviously I swore loudly because he immediately got off and from behind a John Nash Regency pillar protruded a helmet head.

'Oi, you,' yelled the policeman. 'You with that language must have gone to school at Harrow.'

In a bizarre moment, I forgot about all the mayhem around me and felt briefly despondent, before laughing. I had been to school at 'the other one' Harrow's deadliest rival. I wandered off to find a bar which would, in the most unlikely event be open, with a warm glow inside me.

In times of adversity the British are still the best.  

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Funny Faces And Heart Humiliation

How do we see ourselves? How do I see others? Do I think all French artists look like the above? Will I end up looking like this? Do I look like this already?

Does my wife look like this? Will she ever? What does she think?

I have no idea. I sometimes ask myself these sorts of questions as I look at myself in the mirror each morning. I like looking at myself in the mirror. Not out of vanity, but out of interest. I try to amuse myself by making funny faces, see how far I can raise each eyebrow and distort various muscles in a way that promotes an amateur form of gurning. I have been inspired by the Gurning Championships which are held each year in Cumbria at the Egremont Crab Fair.

A little too inspired as I received some strange stairs from other motorists when I practiced in my car mirror, to try and relieve the boredom of waiting for the accident ahead to be cleared. Though I came off better than a friend who used to tell me that one of the best facial expressions is to put your hand in front of your mouth and as you remove it say- 'Prunes', which makes you appear to be blowing a kiss. He unwisely said 'Prunes' to a truck driver who had cut in on him and carved him up. The trucker's reaction was to get out of his truck and punch my friend on the nose.

The rest of the journey was agony and humiliating, he said, because everyone he spoke to on the hands free microphone of his mobile phone aked him if he had a very heavy cold.  

I understand humiliation. It has happened to me all through my life. It is not a bad way of stopping me getting too arrogant or pompous. It happened to me recently when I tripped over a branch while mowing the lawn and damaged the muscles in my thigh.

It was awkward having to tell the organiser of my Heart Rehab Class (I have to since having three stents in my heart) ?' that I couldn't make in front of many more senior patients eyes who were recovering from far worse conditions than my own.

Eyes were raised all round the room.

So What's New?

'So, tell me babe what's new? And how the scene is with you?' sung Peggy Lee in 1966. Not a lot is the answer. 46 years later, the British are still mesmerised by the weather. Yes the floods were bad yesterday in places, but they've been worse.

I loved listening to a woman being interviewed in her flooded house, somewhere in the North by a radio reporter asking silly questions.

'So how do you feel? Will you have to sell your house?'

'NO,' said the lady, horrified at such a thought. 'We're quite used to this. It's fine. Everyone rallies around. Everyone helps. It usually gets the carpet, but we've lifted it and it's got the underlay this time.'

She was cheerful and honest. In a world where everything is on tenterhooks, it was wonderful to hear some straightforward common sense. 

'The only thing we get mad at, is these motorists who stop outside to take photos. White van was stopped this morning while I was baling out the water. When they do that, their cars seem to push the water back through the front door.'

At that precise moment you could hear someone shouting in the background.

'That's just my neighbour,' she replied.

Yes they were writing letters about the weather in the 1960's.

And as for what is about to happen in Scotland - the political parties were banging away years ago too.

I find it all rather consoling.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Anyone For Tennis? My Failed Sporting Career

The clever thing about Wimbledon, a friend reminded me, is the fact that it has changed dramatically, yet kept the same atmosphere without anyone noticing. Different from other large sporting events, barring the rowing at Henley and a few others, which have succumbed to the X Factor school of presentation and encourage drinking, flashing cash and other ways in which to show off.

Wimbledon has quietly changed its always good facilities into outstanding ones with state-of-the-art grandstands with sliding roofs etc. This has made sure it has maintained its rightful place as the best tennis tournament in the world by a mile.

Look at the above list. It was always organised in a slick military way. It would be interesting to see how many people are employed today. Probably not many by the Club itself, but there may well be more agency and sub-contracted staff.

I love tennis. I have always had a great admiration for Andy Murray, partly for his superb athleticism but mainly because I have always viewed him as the original 'Grumpy Scot' with a very good, hidden dry, sense of humour. On the basis that it takes one to know one, Andy will improve with age and may well become an excellent and funny commentator in years to come. Just look at John McEnroe. Who would have thought he would be such a great comentator when he was stomping around the court, smashing racquets as he tried vainly to beat Bjorn Borg.

As for the Accidental Bus Driver's career on the tennis court? The best way to describe it is in similar terms to his driving. Patchy. Good in parts. Promises much yet fails to deliver. In fact my complete sporting career I can be summed up in the following events and here is some good advice associated with my failures:-.

1. Never play football with a relative and a dog. I did. Whilst playing football with my brother, my mother's wild Dalmatian called Sheila (she was called Sheba when she came from the dog pound but my mother vhanged her name), who loved the sport, came hurtling down the hill, missed the ball and connected with my ankle sending me tumbling. I ripped all the ligaments. My ankle was never the same again. My unpromising career at the time became even more hopeless.

2. Never play snooker with jockeys. I did - in Hong Kong once. Never again. They looked so innocent before they say 'let's have a little bet' before playing like Hurricane Higgins and relieving you of a great deal of money. I was taken to the cleaners in Hong Kong. One of the jockeys, Brian Taylor, who had won the 1974 Derby on Snow Knight and four years later tragically died after the horse he was riding, Silver Star, stumbled and threw him out the saddle at the finishing line, smoked a pipe as he cleared the table in one sitting.

3. For a safe life avoid jockeys altogether. They love the high life. They used to head for the most dubious of clubs. Once I took an American jockey around London. As I drove, he sat on the front seat, on his girlfriend's lap in the front seat and everytime I pointed out a famous landmark, he would enthusiastically shout 'Wow!'.

4. Never agree to take part in a charity running race at a greyhound track. I did. At Hall Green in Birmingham. I had no choice. My boss entered me in, with some other representatives from rival bookmakers, a Warwickshire county cricketer, a small time actor, whose name I cannot remember and Sonia Lannaman who had just won a Bronze Medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics in the 4 x 100 m Relay. It was meant to be a bit of fun.

It wasn't.

It was an arduous trip from London to Hall Green in those days. No M25 and the M40 only went as far as the outskirts of Oxford. I wasn't meant to be there. I had entered a girl from our firm, who when she was not working for us was a near top class athlete. The race was at 9pm. She rang at 5pm saying she had a bad cold.

'You'll have to do it,' said my boss. 'There's no other option. Go now.'

I jumped in the car and arrived just as the others were limbering up. The cricketer took me to the bar and made me sink a couple of pints, which I later realised was a deliberate attempt to nobble me as he thought it would be like giving a horse a bucket of water before a race. He needn't have bothered as I was a smoker then. A heavy smoker. Between 40 and 60 a day.

The other bookmakers representatives were already on the track. They were dressed in the latest athletics garb, looking every inch the professional, feigning the fact that they were unfit and hiding the truth actual that they had been in serious training for the last six weeks. As I had left London in a hurry I had no clothes, so I had to take off my jacket and tie, and ask for a pair of scissors to make my white jeans into shorts just above the knee. In the hurry the symmetry was all wrong and one side was above, while the other covered the knee.

We were paraded in front of the stands. As the spectators were behind glass, there were few detrimental comments, though I did hear a gateman say:

'Look it's Del Boy's twin brother,' as I walked past.

We walked as the bugle tune 'First Call' was played over the loudspeakers, as it usually was when the six greyhounds were paraded before any race. We were taken round the bend, lined up in starting blocks and started by a starting pistol. The bookmakers representatives shot off into the distance, closely followed by the cricketer. I lolloped a long way behind and Sonia Lannaman gently trotted a metre or so behind the puffing billy. We jumped a hurdle and with all my effort, I thought that the indignity of finishing 5th out of 6 would soom be superceded with the pride of beating a Commonwealth Champion. This was not to be as with ten yards to go, Sonia Lannaman swept past with grace and ease as if she was walking up her garden path.

Afterwards I stood at the bar, trying to ease the pain. I did. But not the humiliation as, having no other clothes, I stood there in my frayed, uneven shorts.

5. Never take on past champions who are now pensioners. I did. On several occasions and to my cost.  Henry Cotton was as good at golf in his later years. Runners can still run fast. Footballers can still score.

So, if you are tempted by an elder who was a good athlete in their time, who suggests having a little wager for interest's sake - take care, be wary.

You have been warned.  

Friday, 7 September 2012

The Trouble With Being 6' 6" And A Half - Stay Away From Tanks

Stopping at a petrol filling station last night brought not only a most unusual sight, but some unhappy memories as well. Parked at the HGV pump was not a truck or a bus or even a tractor, but a tank. A military tank. A soldier was was standing alongside, filling her up (if tanks are indeed female). It was a surreal sight which stopped other motorists in their tracks. People got out of their cars and gawped.

The soldiers were great. They posed with children for photos. 

'Is there a problem?' a customer asked the man behind the till.

'No. Why?'

'Seeing the tank, I thought that some of the locals might have got out of hand.'

'Aye,' said another who was waiting in line to pay. 'I remember Esso used to say Put A Tiger In Your Tank,  but this is going too far.'

Me? I thought about something completely different. I thought about the difficulty of being 6' 6" and a half, or 1.99 metres in newfangled language. There a tendency in today's world towards tallism and everything being catered for the average, the smaller and the wider. Low cost airlines, train companies, car manufacturers, clothing stores, shoemakers and many others make life difficult for us ganglier and heightened members of society.

The army too. Seeing that tank brought back horrible memories of the one time I drove a tank. It should have been one of the greatest excitements in life. The sheer exhillerance of being in control of such power, charging through the countryside, demolishing anything in my path.

Instead I got my knee wedged between joy sticks and the side of the tank, meaning that we went round and round, on the spot at speed, like some grotesque fairground ride. The Sergeant managed to claw his was onto the front, defying dizziness and poked his head into the driver's compartment and yelled:

'Turn the f***ing engine off, sir. Turn the f***ing engine off now.'

I couldn't reach the keys, so he had to do it. That was my one and only attempt. The Sergeant made it plain that he would resign if I ever set foot in any armoured vehicle again, in any way except as a passenger. Maybe it was a lucky break. 

I met one incredibly brave Soviet tank commander once, who found his position being overrun by the enemy and ordered his own guns to fire on him. Miraculously he was one of the few tanks which survived the bombardment, but the battle was won and he received a Hero of the Soviet Union medal. He was braver than one of his colleagues, who came over to do a publicity launch for a charity in the UK. Following the formality of the official ceremony in the boardroom at a well known company, one of the staff noticed that an old gold lighter, which had sat on the boardroom table for a hundred years, had disappeared. Many suspected it had found its way into the officer's briefcase and was taken back to Russia.

I do not know about modern day tanks, whether they have better legroom. I daren't go near them. My father's favourite song was ironically George Formby's Frank On His Tank:

'He does look a swank, does Frank on his tank,
He does look a swank, does Frank
See him dashing around with
The clickety-clickety-clank.....'

I felt I'd let him down a little. I was definitely no swank.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

China Commands The English Language - Er .... Maybe Not

English is a difficult language to muster at the best of times. Pronounciation, grammar and vocabulary are challenging as is the difference between written English and spoken English. What probably confounds every foreigner are the nuances around the British humour which is widely found even in the most unlikely corners.     Sarcasm, understatement, sublety, disgusting, 'ooh er Missus', 'nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more', political and insulting asides and sharp jokes in times of adversity must take some mastering.

It is no surprise to say that the most amusing English is written by the Chinese. It is technically the best (far better than I write or speak) but the nuances go over their heads, hence making it funny. I know they were technically correct calling the hotel in Shandong where I stayed, the Traffic Mansion. It was situated on a busy intersection. The copper plaque from the bathroom, describing the state of the water (above) is now in my bathroom. It makes me smile each morning.

'Will you check our business brochure?' asked one of the civil servants based in the town municipal office who was responsible for international relations. 'We want to send this to many businessmen and women in Europe.'

I had to tell him that it might be a good idea to change the line: 'we wish to have intercourse with you', however technically correct it may have been. He didn't seem to mind.

A communist apparatchik from Poland was little better with his English, when he lost his temper.

'The trouble with you English is that you think you know f**k everything,' he said, 'when, in fact you know f**k nothing.'

Again I had to tell him that, though it may have been technically correct, there were better ways of saying it.

He did mind and started shouting more.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Supermarkets - Allegories Of Our Times

I hate supermarkets in general. I always have. They are soulless places where the customers scowl and try to aim their shopping trolleys at the calves of their fellow humans in the fiercely competitive area around reduced price bin. The staff try their best to look cheerful, but it is impossible for them to keep it up. If you ask them how things are, they usually look mournfully back and say:

'Not too bad, my shift finishes in four hours.'

But maybe I won't in the future. I will see them in a new light following my visit to one last week.

There seemed to be messages eminating  from every corner. It felt like an extension to the news which are bombarded with from every orifice of the media and the political arena. It felt like an allegory of the times we live in. An overview of typical life in Britain today.

What am I banging on about? Pseudo-romantic bilge? Let me explain.

The posters displayed well lit photos of faux-French bread. It was similar to the faux-French bread in my local shop. The difference being that the staff in my local had felt guilty about misleading us and had sellotaped a handwritten note on the wall by the bread oven which read:


Please note there has been some confusion. 
The French bread here may have a French sounding name ....
but it is not French, it is made in Ireland.

The above poster therefore typified the current trend in Britain of 'nothing is what it seems'. 

The heavy yellow lettering typified the war which is going on in Britain between ordinary people and shopkeepers on one side and the councils new found revenue earner of making less parking spaces, upping the charges and flooding the conurbations with parking wardens. There are petitions to get rid of these unpopular measures in practically every place I have visited. 'Little Hitler' headlines spring out of many local newspapers. 'MP Calls For Truce In Parking Storm', shouted mine.

Even the airports have jumped on the bandwagon and now you are charged a fee to drive up and drop someone off, let alone park. London Stansted is up to £9-90 for one hour.

In Scotland I got a ticket because, the ticket fell off the window. The parking warden was pleasant and told me where to write to reclaim the money.

'I'm sure the council use cheap glue deliberately,' he said. 'We seem to have an awful lot of these cases.'

So the supermarket is only following the general trend - yellow lines, number plate recognition cameras etc.

But the most interesting was the horse which was tethered to the gates where the delivery trucks drop their goods. It was an unusual sight in the North East of England. I expected the ghost of Gary Cooper or John Wayne to appear out of the store.

Perhaps it is the most powerful symbol of life in Britain. That times are tough. Recession has bitten and is still biting. A shape of things to come? Who knows? It is certainly a reason to keep visiting your supermarket.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Gimmick Who Stole Christmas

Expect a rough winter and a dour Christmas this year. The signs were evident everywhere yesterday. Asda even opened Santa's Grottos in  seventeen of their stores across the country. It's not a first. Catterick Racecourse held their Christmas racemeeting in August some years ago. I passed through Cebu airport concourse in the Philippines once in August and there were masses of airport staff dressed in skimpy scarlet or green mini dresses approaching all passengers and saying:

'Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas ............... in advance.'

There were other signs I saw whilst travelling around that winter is just round the corner.

The pheasants chicks are just getting to the size where you notice their crass stupidity. They waddle aimlessly up the roads in large packs, ignoring any car which comes perilously close to them.

The 'silly season', traditionally named in the newspaper industry to describe the summer months when Parliament is in recess, everyone is on holiday and when news was light, I noticed was gasping its dying breath. The newspaper hoardings showed one last useless headline of some inanely boring and non-descript story.

But now we are getting somewhere. The media have turned their attention to the winter weather. It is only August and there are talks of the fear of floods, a long, icy and snowy winter and the weathermen on the radio are gleefully saying:

'Turning colder.'

So the shops are just jumping on the bandwagon. Christmas, I feel is similar to the Olympics. A terrible worry beforehand, fantastic on the actual day which soon reverts to a horrible hangover, the day after and worry for the next few months as to how you are going to pay for it.

Welcome to Britain. Would you want it any other way?

I thought not.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Where To Find The Real Comedy At The Edinburgh Festival

Srewart Francis scooped Dave's Funniest Joke Of The Edinburgh Fringe. 'You know who really gives kids a bad name? Posh and Becks,' he quipped I must be getting old - is it really funny? Second was Tim Vine with: 'Last night me and my girlfriend watched three DVDs back to back. Lucky I was the one facing the telly' and it got progressively worse after that.

I went to see the Cambridge Footlights show which was fair, good in parts, dull in others. I went to see Wit Tank off BBC3's Live At The Electric. They were extremely funny in places but the scripts let them down in others.

You see, it's consistency which is the issue with British comedy. There is a shed load of funny people out there, but in parts. They cannot keep it up as the Monty Pythons, Tommy Coopers, Morecambes and Wises could.

But I found true longevity in funniness ... on the top deck of the Number 27 bus. It was funny from the start of the journey near George Street to its end at Golden Acre. The banter was witty and quick and earthy and just plain hilarious. There were drunks, fat ladies, tarty women, delinquents both juvenile and elderly and farting dogs. A comedian's dream just come true, with enough material to keep him going at the Apollo for years.

And when you disembark at your stop the comedy continues. There are phallically bent bollards.

Bollards with bonnets on.

Appallingly awful graffiti.

And me playing golf in East Lothian for the first time in fifteen years. I spent most of the time vainly trying to pick balls out of the prickly gorse bushes. I nearly hit a hare who was legging it across the fairway and I wasn't too far away from clonking a serious golfer with a single figure handicap.

So comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe is over-hyped. If you want the real stuff - come and see me.

I Went Round The Mediterranean In The Womb: 6. Istanbul Of My Past, Istanbul Of My Present

Do you think the people who love the heat and the general living standards of people who live in sunny and hot places, have been subjected to it by means of being carted to somewhere hot just before you are born? I do. Many people I know told me their parents went on holiday to a hot climate while they were growing inside their mummy's tummy.

It just could be that a baby gets used to spending time in something like a nan bread oven for two weeks, that it influences later life. Wishful thinking, I think and really it must be complete and utter poppycock.

Thanks to my parents I developed a love of the places they went to and which I later followed in their footsteps and visited. The Greek Islands, though by the time I got there they had been ruined by package tours and overcrowding.

I loved Athens. Not for its beauty. It's not. It is a busy, dusty average city. I liked the people - they were spirited and I liked (surprise, surprise) the food. Someone who worked in the British Embassy told me to go to a little backstreet taverna. There I was sat down on a hard wooden bench and without asking a bowl of beans, half a loaf of bread, some spinach, some feta cheese, some olives and a large flagon of red wine from Nemea were put down in front of me. If I shut my eyes, I can still remember the smell. 

Then my parents moved on to Istanbul. What a place. One of the finest cities in the world, with so much variety. The 1960's caps may have gone, but the colour and attitude of the Turks is still the same.

But now I can satisfy myself with a little piece of Turkey in Newcastle. You used to have to travel to Tottenham and White Hart Lane to find the Turkish community and delicious restaurants. Now I can dine in style at Red Mezze, devour bowls of soup and sip tea at various cafes and have my hair cut at the Istanbul Barbers, a shave and a flaming mop shoved in my ears to burn out all evils for £15. The best part is bieng able to watch some foreign soap opera on the tv while you wait which put Eastenders and Coronation Street firmly in their places.

So who knows? Does a love of life come from yourself or does it become engendered before you are born.

My mother took me everywhere. I ruined the authenticity of these places sometimes. In oparticular, once when I was taken to her favourite Italian Restaurant called L'Esperanza on brompton Road. She was slighltly surprised when I said I wanted a glass of water instead of the usual Coke or Lemonade. When it came I produced a tin of Cremola Foam (now re-named Krakatoa Foam) and started to pour the chemical powder into the glass. My mother's frown deepened as I put too much and the foam exploded over the top of the glass leaving an irreversible pink stain on the white table cloth. The waiters surrounded the table and shook their heads. My mother's face reddened. I was removed from the restaurant.

Perhaps at that moment, she regretted taking me around the Mediterranean in the womb. It must have encouraged all sorts of naughtiness.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

I Went Round The Mediterranean In The Womb: 5. The Earthquake Hit Paradise Of Santorini

I don't know what extent the holiday companies alert prospective visitors to Santorini to the fact of the likelihood of an earthquake on Greece's most popular island. I'm sure they do as the seismologists took the three recent quakes seriously (one of which measured 5.2 on the Richter Scale) and check on whether it is related to volcanic activity. The last eruption was in 1950.


In 1956 there was the largest earthquake of the 20th century in the Aegean Sea to strike Greece with a magnitude of 7.8. Santorini suffered greatly with 53 people killed  and collossal damage to buildings. It also triggered a local tsunami.

The Church before and after the earthquake.

My mother and father arrived in Santorini five years later. There were still signs of devastation.

Half demolished houses were everywhere.

But the island recovered. My parents said it was one of the most beautiful places they had ever been to.

No wonder it is Greece's favourite island.

Few of us have experienced earthquakes. I have only twice and they were only minor. the first time was in Tokyo. I was in a high-rise building. I felt hardly anything as the building was one of those newfangled skyscrapers, built on rollers which moved with the earth. Outside the other buildings seemed to move and the odd tile or bit fell off them. It was over in seconds.

The second was in England. I was awake in the early hours of the morning, venting my spleen and writing a letter in response to a vitriolic one I had received. The house vibrated in an extraordinary way. Unlike the vibrations of a passing vehicle it felt like a large pneumatic drill was pounding every brick.

I looked at the half-full bottle of wine beside me and checked the alcohol percentage. The next morning the news was buzzing with reports that an earthquake had occurred with a reading of 5.2 with the epicentre near Market Rasen in Lincolnshire.

Even though I forgave the bottle of wine, I have not drunk so much since.

I Went Round The Mediterranian In The Womb: 4. The Archetypal British Tourist And The Archetypal Tourist Trap

'Not another Tourist Trap,' was one of my mother's favourite expressions.

Though she used to always head for the nearest one - just to look, of course - rarely to buy. When they travelled on to Greece the sellers of tourist tat and hawkers came thick and fast. As soon as they disembarked out of the back of the bus, they were surrounded by men in white caps trying to sell anything they could.

Of course this was not helped by the obliging British tourist. He seemed to turn up at every stall. My mother was obviously enthralled with this man's behaviour and took snaps of him at every opportunity.

From the back view, typically hunched over the stall, looking at all the items ..... the side view of him doing exactly the same thing. He would keep the bus waiting as he decided on which item to purchase.

It was obviously something I took note of from inside the womb, for as I grew up I did exactly the same as my mother and went seeking out weird and wonderful emporiums around the world. I used to like (and still do) finding places which sold tacky, bizarre items. My very great French friends, with whom I am in lifelong competition to find the worst gifts the world has to offer, have a good adjective to describe this. They label it 'craignos'. 

There are loads of fantastic places:  Soho in Paris, Da Yoopers Tourist Trap in Michigan, USA, Bangkok market, the Jiggery Pokery shop in North East England and the Tetbury Furnishing Company in Tetbury, Gloucestershire (now closed) were amongst the best.

I even found out that Tommy Cooper's brother ran a joke shop in Slough called Coopers.

There is something fascinating about huge stores filled full of cheap goods. They beat the insipidness of some of the same old, same old out of town shopping centres we have to endure. The boredom of seeing the same shops with the same products.

But I've got a tip for you - if you go to IKEA and do not want to get lost in the one-way system through millions of items of furniture. If you head straight for the Exit doors and wait until someone with a trolley-load of stuff triggers the automatic doors, you can sneak in and miraculously find yourself next to the hot dog stall. The food department in IKEA is, for me, the only interesting part and full of good stuff.

My mother would have been proud of her son.

Friday, 24 August 2012

I Went Round The Mediterranian In The Womb: 3. A Roman Holiday, Summertime, A Room With No View But No Death In Venice

No wonder I ended up a bus driver.

My mother and father's pension for finding hotel rooms with good views of roundabouts and other traffic hotspots seemed to be prevalent throughout their trip around Italy. The rhythms of the rumbling traffic must have filtered through into the womb and instilled the inspirational vibes of Baby Stan Butler (Reg Varney) from On The Buses instead of Baby Einstein.

The romance of Siena took over from the romance of Rome and Positano. Perhaps my love of horseracing came from the sounds of thundering hooves of the horses racing around the Piazza del Campo in the twice yearly race called Il Palio. The restaurant where they sat, Ristorante Alla Speranza is still there, 51 years later, which is quite a feat for any establishment and still serves good Tuscan food.

That's where the romance ended. My parents managed to find a hotel with glorious views of the local petrol station.....

.... and another roundabout.

They moved onto Venice, stopping off for a brief stop in Florence. I recently watched one of David Lean's (Director of Lawrence Of Arabia, The Bridge On The River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago etc) lesser known films called Summertime where Katherine Hepburn plays a middle aged American lady who goes on holiday to venice and she ends up having an affair. It was filmed entirely on location there in 1955 but there was little change six years later and my parents photos were reminiscent of stills from the film.

The old tramp steamer slowly sailing past the restaurant with the multi-coloured seats and the river taxis overflowing with passengers were evocative of a second Venetian golden age.

The third golden age was thirty years later when my boss, Woodrow Wyatt fell into the Grand Canal, fully clothed with a cigar tightly clenched between his teeth. He came up for air, looking like a drowned rat, but with his cigar still in place.

For me, it was fortunate that my mother did not do the same trick.

I Went Round The Mediterranean In The Womb: 2. Italian Beauty, Deception And Collection

Pisa was a quiet place before I was born. Little did the people realise when they looked at my happy and smiling mother that what was inside her, would be back in twenty-something years to flood the hotel next to Pisa Central Station (see earlier blog piece).

Hotels were an issue back in 1961 as well. My mother seemed to be worried about the poetic license used by the artist who produced the postcard for their hotel in Positano. It looked magical and romantic and the view out to see was going to be magnificent.

The reality was rather different. The postcard designer had omitted the road and railway line which their room looked directly onto. Yes, the sea in the distance did look magnificant.

Rome was better. It was still the Rome from the film Roman Holiday. My mother thought Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn might walk around the corner at any moment. It was another five years before she did meet Gregory Peck. But that was in England, on the film set of Arabesque. Audrey Hepburn, however was not there. She had been replaced by Sophia Loren.

I love the photos. Partly for the colours, the beauty and the architecture, but mainly for the lack of traffic and design of the buses. They exude style and functionality. When you look at the ugliness of today's buses and coaches, it is understandable why there is so much interest in 'vintage'. It is hard to imagine, forty years down the road, that there will be the same interest in today's Volvos, Mercedes's and Scanias.

There will, though. There are collectors of everything - including a Vauxhall Viva Owners Club.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

I Went Round The Mediterranean In The Womb: 1. Dodgy Donkeys, Bouncy Buses

If you look at the reams of advice available on the internet, the pundits mostly agree that a baby in the womb can hear sounds at about the 23rd week of pregnancy. Some think that it is possible to influence the baby by reading certain rhymes, stories or singing songs,  as they can make associations with the rhythms and sounds in the outside world.

A light bulb went on inside my brain. That must explain a great deal about me. Wow. No wonder I have, as some of my friends and colleagues never fail to remind me, an eccentric and different view on life and the world.

I had a 'double light bulb moment', when I probably found the reason why I love internationalism of everything, from food to drink, from travel to transport and people in general. It was because my mother, in her mid-pregnancy went with my father on a long tour of the Mediterranean.

I was bounced around in the back of Italian, Greek and Turkish buses, such as the picture of my mother leaning out of the back of a bus in Kos.

I was rattled around in rickety old trains across the Corinth Canal.

I was heaved up many a gangplank onto an Aegean ferry.

And when there weren't any motorised forms of transport, there was nothing for it, but to be bounced over some rough terrain on a Greek donkey (or mule, I am not an expert at spotting the difference). This turned out to be donkey .....

..... after donkey ....

..... after yet more donkeys. I must have been jogged around so much that I must have been stretched. It was no wonder that I arrived into this world in the Westminster Hospital as a 10 lbs 4 oz healthy baby boy.

'He has a good voice,' she said 'showing me off to my father who was standing on the other side of the glass.'

My father grimaced.

'And just look at those feet,' she continued. 'I've never seen anything like them.' How far sighted she was, as by the time I turned 17, my shoes were already up to Size 15, necessitating a visit to the one shop in Britain, outside Northampton which sold anything over a Size 11 at that time. Times have got better of course with the internet and I can now visit the humiliaming websites such as 'elephant feet'.

I also give my mother's pre-natal Mediterranean tour for being responsible for the development of my over-large and sensitive hooter. I can smell any good and proper food a mile away. Only last week did I find a good Turkish in Bolsover and a Cretan in Lanchester. I have to thank my mother for giving me this invaluable homing instinct. She was the same.

Thank you, mother.