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. 

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Rolls Royce - Britain's Finest

Vintage cars are an acquired taste. You either love them or you don't. I have never been interested in them .... except for once. That was back in 1977, when the largest parade of Rolls Royces assembled on Ascot Racecourse in a celebratory event for the Queen's Silver Jubilee.

They started at Windsor Castle, drove up the Long Walk and snaked their way through Windsor Great Park. It was a magical sight.

Why did I like it? Simply because it was like a history lesson in some of the finest engineering. And I suppose it was still a British invention and British made, making enthusiasts have a warm inner glow of pride.

Or as Boris Johnson said:

'We perfected the finest cars on earth - and now Rolls Royce is in the hands of the Germans. Whatever we invent, from the jet engine to the internet, we find that someone else carts it off and makes a killing from it elsewhere.

Angry Notes In The Car Park. Why?

The angry looking sunset typified the mood of the country. Or that is what I have found over the last few months. The two weeks of optimism during the Olympics aside, the nation seems to be losing their rag over car parking.

I have had a succession of notes put on my windscreen. So has my wife. So has my friend. When comparing notes, through the mispelt threats, we found that the only constant was the use of varied tenses for the verb 'to fuck.'

My friend parked in the street somewhere in Yorkshire, to find a note which read:


My wife parked in a street and walked to work. When she came back in the evening, there was a large note glued to her windscreen, which read:


And my most recent note appeared under the windscreen wiper on a scrappy piece of paper, of all places, outside Mothercare, in the special parking bays for children.


I think this was an American habit, initially. They get very het up in the car parks. They're notes are usually a little more eloquent and use only one swear word which tends to be 'Asshole'. 

I once had a friend who went to the races. After the last race he jumped into his car and drove for two hours to get home. At the end of his drive he suddenly had the dire revellation that this was not in fact his car, but one which was a similar make, model and colour. Amazingly the key fitted both ignitions.

He had to drive back to the track where there was only one car left in the vast car park. His car. His car with an irate man sitting on the bonnet.

'I'm going to sue your arse, you asshole,' he shouted. And he did too.

Bus Drivers Make Disgruntled Passengers

What do bus drivers and airline pilots have in common?

Very little really, except that the both seem to make terrible passengers. I have experience of both. I once travelled with an off-duty pilot to some grey city behind the then Iron Curtain, in some ancient and possibly under-maintained Soviet Tupolev 134. He had taken me into the Queen's Building at Heathrow (you were allowed as security was not so tight) where we had sat in the pilots' lounge drinking coffee and looking at the weather reports.

'There is a big storm coming our way. But don't worry all pilot's fly around them,' he said cheerfully.

Our pilot didn't. He flew straight through the middle of the damned thing. The plane was buffeted violently and rose, fell and twisted alarmingly. I was fine until I looked across the aisle to where my pilot friend and to seek some sort of consoling signal or nod that everything was alright. Instead I saw him gripping the armrest tightly, looking a whiter shade of pale and sweating profusely.

That was when I bagan to worry.

'I don't believe it. I don't believe it,' he kept on muttering. 'Bloody cowboy Commie pilots.'

As a bus driver, I sometimes felt the same when the roles were reversed and I was a passenger. I tended to make mental notes about the standard of driving, near misses and blatant ignoring of red lights etc. I tried not to but it was hard. The galling thing was that 9 times out of 10, the driver seemed to be a much more capable drivers than I could ever be.

But the one thing which grated more than anything was having a rude and snotty driver.

I had one last week. I was so insensed that I spent the whole journey thinking what card I might send his boss. Something like the one below was a contender.

The bus rolled up at the stop I was standing at. The driver got out of his seat and checked the door mechanism. I stood ready to get on. But he shut the doors and began to drive off.

I chased the bus and banged on the window, as it waited at the traffic lights. The driver slowly and reluctantly opened the doors. 

'Is this the bus for Newcastle?' I naively asked.

'What do you think mate?' he said sneering.

'I don't know.'

'Well it should be, because it says Newcastle on the front.'

Smart-ass. And not even a humourous smart-ass. I thought the best policy was to ignore the sarcasm. He had patently had a bad morning.  

I sat down in the disabled only seat and smarted. then again I thought of the bad mornings I had when I drove and the plethora of stupid comments and questions. Some of the passengers were unpleasant and fully deserved the sign I sometimes used to pin to the dashboard.

Why are bus drivers so rude is a question which can be found on many forums on the internet. Most answers  tend to take pity on them and blame it on the heavy burden and pressures associated with an lowly paid job. Others say it is because many bus drivers hate their jobs.

Either way I find the majority of drivers to be pleasant. But then I am biased.