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When you walk through a storm

BLOG 72

As the pound continues to fall, food prices and the cost of holidays rise, businesses switch their investment to mainland Europe, the universities struggle to attract foreign students and the NHS, farming, construction and hospitality industries highlight their growing labour shortages, and the Leave EU voters mutter, “Nothing to do with us”, this Blog has sought diversion in harmless pleasures while awaiting the next Tory party inspired crisis known as the general election.

Owing plenty not only to the NHS but also the charities that keep it afloat, this Blog and Mrs Blog, and, in the past, both Blogdaughter and Blogdog, set out each May in the sponsored Brighton Heart Support Trust stroll along the seafront. I think this is aimed in part at showing bystanders that bionic “body parts scroungers” can still put one foot in front of another, and perhaps also at convincing us survivors of the same thing.

This Blog has made full use of the NHS over the years

The weather usually looks kindly on our walk, it provides more opportunity to enjoy the city than when you’re trying to park, and it offers unlimited prospects of bacon butties and donuts on the pier.

 

Displaying great self-discipline, we restrict ourselves to just one sandwich each….

….so we can afford to be a little more self-indulgent at the donut stall.

Mrs Blog and I, both being semi-retired, have taken to walking on the South Downs and  visiting National Trust properties, shops or tearooms during midweek with the result that the world seems full of old people. I suppose they have to be somewhere but they do seem to take a long time to choose a cake.

Midweek matinee fun

On the other hand, we find that children are also best avoided. The housing estate where we live (Mrs B doesn’t like me using that word — I think she has middle class aspirations) has organised a Street Party one Sunday in June. Now, we’re British and, despite recent security warnings, not easily frightened, at least not until the threat level hits “Replacement Bus Service” or “Street Party”. We have accordingly Googled, “HELP! Where else can we be on 11 June??” and will be attending the annual memorial service at the Chattri.

Our cul de sac always overdoes it with these things. This was to celebrate the completion of the draft neighbourhood plan

As it happens, this is a favourite walk destination for us and we have planned to make the service for a while. The Chattri is a fine, marble monument, a listed building, set high on the Downs outside Brighton with distant views of the sea. It marks the spot where Hindu and Sikh soldiers, injured in action in the WW1 trenches and brought to the temporary hospital in Brighton’s famous Pavilion, were cremated if they failed to recover. (Only if they died, as Mrs Blog rather pedantically insists that I point out.) Wiki tells me there were over 800,000 Indian soldiers fighting for the Empire at the time and that King George V felt that the exotic mock-Indian surroundings of the Pavilion might help them feel right at home.  That, and the pier, sticks of rock and Donald McGill postcards, no doubt.

Visiting any scene of “ultimate sacrifice” like the D-Day beaches, Flanders war graves or the Menin Gate is inevitably a most moving experience and to stand at the Chattri and think of those men a century ago, fighting and dying so very far from home, is right up there.

There must be something in the air because I met up with an old school friend a week ago at the Imperial War Museum. (Did I say I was seeking diversion in harmless pleasures?) He was over from where he now lives near San Francisco (it’s always sensible to retain friends in useful places) where they don’t have any history of course. This Blog isn’t really into weaponry and not obsessed about set piece battles, but the IWM is about so much more. It’s one of the best places I know for telling a story and engaging your interest. We spent a good three hours without even making the shop or café, which Mrs B found hard to believe – the shop and café bit. The more or less permanent, extensive exhibition on the holocaust would be hard to beat – and we did take in the equivalent in Jerusalem during a recent cruise – but our starting point was the temporary gallery on “Fighting for Peace”, the story of conscientious objectors, the Greenham Common women and protest marches against the Iraq war.

You put your whole self in….

The age old scenario: you finish your demo and there’s never enough buses

Adopting our “we’re approaching middle age” practice of buying tickets for midweek matinees, Mrs Blog and I went to see Richard Wilson as the headmaster in Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On at the Festival Theatre in Chichester. Having read the play several decades ago it was nostalgically comforting to hear Bennett’s familiar lines:

“wild horses on bended knees couldn’t have dragged me away”

“it was the kind of library he had only read about in books” and

“I have never understood this liking for war. It panders to instincts already catered for within the scope of any respectable domestic establishment”

That’s about as experimental and challenging as theatre needs to get for Mrs Blog and me.

Not exactly Alan Ayckbourn, though, is it?

Next week we take another adventurous step, this time musically, to the hip coastal resort of Eastbourne. Sorry, that should read, the hip replacement coastal resort.  It’s for a Gerry and the Pacemakers concert and there’ll be pacemakers everywhere. Along with all the other scouse ex-pats on the Sussex coast I’ll take me red and white scarf for the cardiac recoverers’ encore…..

“Walk on, walk on, with hope in your hearts….”

Gerry always gets a great encore at the Eastbourne Hippodrome

 

 

 

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The Discreet Charm of the Hop-on Hop-Off Bus

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Knowing that what we really, really needed this year was to hang out with lots of overweight old people keen to tell us how much they love Donald Trump, we booked a cruise in April from Dubai to Venice.

The flight out to Dubai was memorable only for the chap in the seat in front lecturing a young mum on the need for her toddler to show respect for other passengers. (He had, as it happens, complained about the wi-fi before taking his seat, occupied one entire luggage bin with various bags and rebuked a steward loudly for bringing him the same wine as he’d had previously and not a different one – but, hey, he knew how toddlers should behave.)

Our trip from the airport to our hotel was enlivened by the taxi driver showing me photos on his phone of his family and the countryside in his native Nepal while the car in front braked hard and my subsequent scream may have saved him a significant repair bill. Indeed taxi drivers throughout our few days in Dubai seemed to hail from a wide range of nations, and it seems reassuringly “equal opps” that a complete lack of knowledge of the road network, traffic regulations or visitor attractions was no barrier to employment.

Dubai, a definite first for Family Blog, proved fascinating. We learned from a video that the Maktoum family – the ruling dynasty – isn’t interested in money but in creating a Vision for Dubai in which all may share. And that many innovators are attracted from all over the world to help build this Vision (and not to make money. Though I think our Nepalese taxi driver may have been OK with making some money, as that may be easier to send home.) Mrs Blog, working on the assumption that the MacToums were of Scottish origin, has in mind setting Blogdaughter up with one of them if we can work an introduction.

….and nae’ for the money, Jimmy

Dubai has shopping malls in much the same way as a hedgehog has fleas – all over the place. At the end of the day, while the one that Mrs Blog took me to (presumably by way of retribution for some failing on my part) did boast its own ice rink, huge aquarium (the largest crocodile in the world, allegedly) and, no doubt, full-size replicas of the Great Wall of China and the solar system, it’s still a bl**dy shopping mall and therefore guaranteed to ensure that one’s will to live drains rapidly into the desert sands.

Mrs B, you will be unsurprised to read, felt differently. The discovery of several branches of Marks and Spencer put a real spring into her stride and she was observed texting to her clanswoman in Scotland “You’d love the shops here. Gorgeous. Nothing you can afford at all.” And Subway did us a nice butty.

Burqa clad women sporting fetching eye make-up and Samsung 6 phones seemed well in control of their menfolk and were clearly setting themselves for a long stint of retail experience.

Mrs B made a pit stop at the “usual facilities” but had not, some 20 minutes later, reappeared. It took a while longer, and a series of text messages and a phone call via the nearest satellite, to locate her, having emerged via an alternative exit seemingly located in a different emirate.

It’s my belief that the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus is a much maligned, guilty pleasure – and rightly so, I hear you cry. Not afforded much coverage in the Lonely Planet guides, the lack of a flexible open top bus trip for city orientation purposes won’t, in my opinion, do anything to help places like Sana’a, Aleppo or Gaza build a sustainable tourist economy. I’ve grappled with faulty headphones, wandering language channels and noisy passengers who have clearly boarded the bus, not to see or be informed, but to shout continually to each other, but I’m still a fan – and have amassed a significant collection of route maps and little red and yellow earphones which I’m prepared to donate to a reputable museum. (On the Dubai tour I assumed there was only a brief introductory commentary rather than a full narrative, until I noticed that Mrs Blog had disconnected me while rooting around in her handbag.)

After three days’ sightseeing in Dubai (only partly on the bus – we also took in the top of the Burj Khalifa, the older parts of the city, the souk and the river) we joined our cruise ship. The ship’s departure was delayed until Mrs B pronounced herself satisfied with the new ID photo taken at check-in, but eventually we found our cabin (outside, with balcony), Mrs B rapidly annexed 90% of the cupboard space and, after a few false attempts, we were soon able to find our way back to our cabin from most parts of the ship.

As Brits we were naturally appalled to find there was no kettle in our cabin but, on urgent request, one was soon supplied and an international incident was avoided. Mrs B shouldn’t be expected to start the day without a nice cup of Twinings. You can take globe-trotting only so far.

An addition to the lengthening list of “Things you only do once”: Mrs B, in sensible cost-saving mode, packed into my suitcase a large plastic bottle of stuff for washing clothes. On unpacking in the cabin, all of the liquid was undoubtedly still in the suitcase but only part of it was still in the bottle. This had an interesting, and in one or two cases terminal, effect on the contents of the case.

Before departure we were all invited to muster on deck with our life jackets, standing in searing heat while we waited for those passengers who had found more interesting things to do. At least it was an opportunity to check out the other people you were intended to share a lifeboat with if things turned turtle. It wasn’t encouraging.

…and you won’t catch me saying “Women and children first”

Later, in our cabins, we were given further instruction on how to respond to anything that might arise involving pilates off the Somali coast. This made more sense once Mrs B, whose hearing may be better than mine, clarified this to “pirates”. On the basis that this was effectively an American ship, I assumed that at least half of the passengers were armed and we should be ok. The thrust of our briefing was that access to the open decks would be prohibited for three nights and all lights dimmed with the intention that we might be mistaken for a cargo ship rather than a cruise liner. My subsequent research (very expensive wi-fi) revealed that, while no cruise liner had ever been approached by pirates in this area, cargo ships were a fairly regular target. I thought it important to bring this point to the attention of the captain but was unable to do so.

Extract from our briefing video

Our first night’s cruising brought us to Muscat, capital and major port of Oman. And the opportunity for another Hop-On Hop-Off Bus tour followed by a spot of retailing in the Muttrah Souk. A chap doesn’t like to wander too far from life’s essentials, like wi-fi, but the internet café boasted a line of frustrated users looking for a “fix” like the sort of queue I recall from university outside the only working phone kiosk.

Entertainment that evening was “Musicals from Broadway and the West End”, or more accurately “Musicals from Broadway”, though some were familiar. This was also characteristic of the food on offer (no reference to the part of the world we were passing through; a wide choice each day but essentially the LCD of what, one assumes, an unimaginative American family might wish to take with them.)  Many of these passengers do not look as though what they really need is unlimited free food 24 hours a day, or more elevators, come to that. TRY THE STAIRS FOR GOODNESS’ SAKE!  Just because there’s hot dogs and cheesecake and grits and eggs and chocolate pie and rib-eye and syrup on the counter doesn’t mean they have to go together on your plate.

 

I have come to the realisation that most bodies look better covered up, and that those which don’t are not on this ship. Mrs B tried on a dress she’d brought for the formal evenings onboard. She wondered if it might be too big but I was able to reassure her that, on this ship, it soon wouldn’t be: for some reason this seemed not to be the right answer. I suppose one could prepare in advance for this kind of trip, not by honing one’s “bikini ready figure” but by building steadily for months towards a “cruise ready body” to make it easier to blend in.

A North American flavour also arose with some of the onboard quizzes: they were much easier if you were au fait with US soaps and crime series. Perhaps they should operate a handicapping system to give foreigners like us a sniff.

Longstanding readers of this blog may know that it takes itself way too seriously when it comes to quizzes and that robust debate with the question setter is never far away. I did try to pretend to myself that it didn’t matter but I put it to you, members of the jury, “What is an appropriate response to the following?”

Questionmaster (bearing, presumably following bouts of cosmetic tweaking, an uncanny likeness to Kryten in Red Dwarf): In which country are the Victoria Falls?

Blog, whispering to Mrs Blog: They’re on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe so what shall I put? Both? Which is he more likely to have down, Zambia?

Questionmaster: The answer is Rhodesia. No, I’m not taking any other answers.

Questionmaster: Which capital city is on the River Danube?

Blog, whispering: Shall I put down all four of them? Or should we go and get a coffee?

 

“and the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is still…”

It is with some satisfaction that I can report that the team of Blog and Mrs Blog romped home in the quiz that was purely on geography, though joy was short-lived when Mrs B GAVE AWAY our prize – a yellow highlighter pen bearing the name of the ship – to the first person she met afterwards….

There followed no fewer than five successive days “at sea”, scanning the horizon for any signs of piratical activity, made doubly necessary by the captain’s clearly misguided tactics of subterfuge. Undertaking this task had the benefit of taking Mrs B’s mind off the absence of affordable wi-fi. Lacking this basic ingredient for life we were obliged to talk to one another more than seemed reasonable for a married couple and Mrs B was reduced to checking out the world clock repeatedly on her mobile as the only function that was still operating – and you don’t want to see anybody reduced to that. She was also obliged to put on her make-up in the dark which had an effect similar to seeing Bridget Jones applying her lippy in a fast-moving taxi.

Intriguingly, fellow passengers were prepared to complain about delays in being served at the bar despite having b*gg*r *ll to do for five days.

Mrs B wasn’t keen for me to enter either the “World’s Sexiest Man” or “International Belly Flop” competitions by the pool, which seemed a shame, but I guess she wouldn’t want people ogling.

We eventually succumbed to the need to renew contact with the outside world and invested in a day’s wi-fi, not least to check via Wikipedia our recollection of old news broadcasts about Aden (Mad Mitch and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) and my favourite all-time country name, the Territory of Afars and the Issas (now Djibouti, if you’re bothered.)

Happily we made it safely through the Red Sea to landfall at Aqaba in Jordan and this was the starting point for our excursion to the wonders of Petra – “rose-red city, half as old as time” and all that. The coach trip was enlivened by a comment from our tour guide:

“One more question before I go for a motion.”

I glanced down the coach, wondering where he might have in mind, and saw one or two puzzled expressions.

“OK, here’s my motion: shall we have 30 minutes’ quiet before I start up again?”

 

I’m sure you can read about Petra elsewhere. It is of course fabulous, and will be even nicer when it’s finished, but after a couple of hours in the coach through the arid heart of “rural Jordan” I decided that my next solo coast to coast walk wouldn’t be across the Arabian peninsula.

From Aqaba through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean. I was so keen not to miss this that, when we entered the canal at 4 a.m., I took myself up onto the open deck to watch. Not too many Mister Universes by the pool at that time, I can tell you…

By this time our list of “passengers to avoid” was lengthening steadily: the elderly male American with the pigtail and his purple haired partner sporting “I Voted Trump” T-shirts; the very loud Australian man (it’s mainly men) recounting what he’d paid for a cup of coffee in every port he’d ever visited; the Brit who wanted us to know how much he’d saved on the cruise and the excursions by booking through some kiosk in Harwich; the Australian couple who’d left the UK 30 years ago and wouldn’t consider returning as the place had gone downhill ever since – I replied “Yes, they weren’t able to replace you” but received a kick under the table from Mrs Blog.

To Ashdod in Israel and another coach trip to a place we’d never been, Jerusalem. Impossible of course not to be fascinated by the Holy City, which was especially busy, being Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday in the Christian calendar, and Passover in the Jewish calendar. We toured on foot many of the locations familiar from the Bible (or Life of Brian) including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western or Wailing Wall, with literally thousands of armed police in attendance, and followed up with a visit to the highly moving Holocaust Museum. We were treated to a heartfelt running commentary from our Israeli guide throughout the day and wondered how a Palestinian perspective might differ.

We docked the next day at Haifa and opted to potter round the town rather than take another coach trip. Possibly a mistake. An attractive and interesting place but effectively closed, being Good Friday.

At sea again on the Saturday and I’m going through my books at a fair old rate. I’m not fond of Kindle, so bring the real things with me. Heavy, I know, but I don’t really bring much else. To date on this trip:

Michael Frayn: Travels with a Typewriter: one of my favourite writers and he’s been knocking out great stuff for decades

Polly Bagnall and Sally Beck: Ferguson’s Gang: “the remarkable story of the National Trust gangsters”

Olivia Laing: To the River

HG Wells: The History of Mr Polly

James Runcie: The Grantchester Mysteries

Fraser McAlpine: Stuff Brits Like

Maria Trapp: The Story of the Trapp Family Singers: I’d run out of books and “borrowed” this from the ship’s library. It’s interesting to compare this original account with the film – and I reckon both the family and the songs were a lot duller…

…plus sundry travel guides…

….well, I’ve never had literary pretensions.

Easter Sunday was spent in Athens, with public buildings again closed but plenty of eating places and shops open. We could see the Acropolis and the Parthenon from below (we’d both been before) and tucked into great moussaka (with retsina for nostalgic purposes) in Plaka. Oh, and two hop-on hop-off bus tours – have I mentioned those?

Two more days at sea approaching the final cruise destination, Venice. The cruise “entertainment” comprised a load of stuff you wouldn’t want to see or do (Family Helicopter Origami, Finish that Lyric Game Show, Walking in Comfort sponsored by Goodfeet, “Thriller” Dance Class) but we had enjoyed two classical/”crossover” concerts by a (British) pianist and young violinist, another two by a (British) electric violinist with small backing orchestra, and two by a Beatles tribute band. Now, these were good, and generated plenty of noise and atmosphere, but I’m not prepared these days to stand, wave my arms in the air and jig about on demand. If I’m going to do “fun” I like to choose my moments…

And so to Venice, the third time for both of us. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise but, even though you know what to expect, it’s still mindboggling. You could look at those views for ever and still have to be dragged away. To do something new, we took in the Peggy Guggenheim collection of modern art. For a change I recognised almost all of the names and some of the works, though at one point I had worked my way through the explanatory panel accompanying one of the exhibits and was attempting to share this with Mrs Blog when it was pointed out to me that the panel referred to the rather different picture on the other side.

 

Our hotel on the Grand Canal. There are worse places to have breakfast.

IKEA now do a nice flat-pack Bridge of Sighs

Having run out of Colgate I picked up a tube of toothpaste at a small shop in a quiet back street. Our “turning in for the night” routine in our hotel on the Grand Canal took a surprisingly tense turn when Mrs B squeezed an unexpectedly brown substance from the tube onto her toothbrush, applied it in the standard way and let out the most fearsome stream of oaths and spitting noises followed by what I feel was an unwarranted degree of abuse. Subsequent investigation of the offending tube has failed to identify quite what we bought in that shop; it may of course have been an Italian response to Brexit.

Not quite ready yet to return to the world of work, we travelled by train next day through the Tyrol to Vienna. Other European nations seem to run better train services than us.

Vienna was a first for both of us, but by no means our first hop-on hop-off bus tour of the holiday. I was pleased to see they had taken a leaf out of Hull’s book and branded part of the city centre Museums Quarter. Buildings like the opera house, Hofburg Palace, St Stephans Cathedral and the upmarket coffee houses (yum) dominate the typical images of the city but we successfully sought out the Hundertwasserhaus (check it out, amazing) and the Secession building, and half of us took a ride on the ancient wooden Ferris wheel (The Third Man, and all that.) The other half of us fancied a go on one of the Lippizaner horses at the Spanish Riding School but my blagging powers are clearly waning.

The wonderful Hundertwasser building and the cafe

If you’re going to go round in a 212 foot tall Ferris wheel in extremely strong winds, make sure it’s made of wood and 120 years old…

…and for those who remember, welcome to 1979…

And so to home to catch up with all our recorded episodes of Line of Duty (no, don’t tell us!), Broadchurch and Homeland, and managing to pick up two lousy colds en route.

Talk to you again soon.

 

 

 

 

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The Road to Hull is Paved with Good Intentions

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“Where are you up to?” I hear you ask.

Coast to coast walk – New Brighton (like Brighton but without the refinement, and sun) to Spurn Head (a mobile, transient kind of shoreline for our times) via Liverpool, Manchester, Huddersfield and Hull – 200 miles duly walked. Booker Prize winning narrative, first and second drafts completed. J K Rowling style publishing contract still a work in progress. Filming rights under negotiation; George Clooney in frame to play the part of “me” but content of Oscar acceptance speech may prove stumbling block.

I travelled on the Mersey ferry, on a ghost train and by narrow boat through the Pennines. I attended a liquorice festival in Pontefract, a Super League game in Castleford, a gathering of brass bands in Saddleworth (sadly Tara Fitzgerald no longer plays solo flugelhorn with Grimley Colliery band)….

… a whole assortment of museums and theatres, Edwardian swimming baths and a wildflower centre (in Liverpool!) I was made welcome at the finest cat hotel in Dewsbury or anywhere else, at a bingo night in Hull and a pub quiz in Liverpool. I stayed in splendid old railway hotels, hostels, welcoming B&Bs and some distinctly ordinary pubs. I ate more curries, scouse, spam fritters, home-made ice cream, Hull potato patties and full English than you can shake a black pudding at. There was snow and torrential rain on Merseyside and heatstroke on the Humber. I hung out with the Pankhursts, Elizabeth Gaskell, William Wilberforce and Philip Larkin. And Kay Kendall.

Yorkshire folk, they’re not like other folk…

And I was privileged to visit some of the most exciting conservation schemes and heart-warming community and social projects you’ll encounter anywhere, meeting volunteers and staff making huge efforts to preserve and enhance the social and environmental soul of the country – with little reward beyond the knowledge that their contributions are greatly appreciated by those who benefit from them. While public services continue to be sacrificed to the false gods of austerity and tax cutting, the nation owes a huge debt of gratitude to those who unflinchingly put their fingers in the dyke and strive to stem the tide.

All I need now is the book.

I’m grateful for your suggested alternative titles.

“John”, sensing the value of wordplay, gave me “To Hull and Back”, adding the proviso that it would only work if I turned round on reaching the North Sea and did the whole walk in reverse. We haven’t spoken since…

“Keith”, seeking a musical link between my start and end points of Merseyside and Humberside, posited “Hull hath no Fury, but it does hath Ronnie Hilton and David Whitfield”. Mm.

I think I’ve got the dedication sorted, along these lines:

To the taxi drivers of Yorkshire for your unequivocal advice, thank you. I wouldn’t have grasped the subtleties of Brexit or Hull, City of Culture without your help.

Well, it’s a work in progress…

I am very pleased to have help from Jennifer Barclay, a real travel writer with a website and everything, in honing my magnum opus, accepting the excessive grumblings of a knackered cross country walker and reminding me that I don’t have permission to use song lyrics or quote extensively from eminently quotable sources.

As it happens, I have now been given permission by Alison McGovern MP to quote from the lyrics of her grandfather, Pete McGovern’s In My Liverpool Home:

 “We speak with an accent exceedingly rare,

   meet under a statue exceedingly bare,

   if you want a cathedral we’ve got one to spare

   in my Liverpool home….”

… which is cool.

I still need the nod from Gerry Marsden, Philip Larkin, Anthony Gormley and the authors of Crap Towns but it’s surely only a matter of time.

To create an illusion of narrative merit I’m also delighted to say that Polly Toynbee (nowadays mainly The Guardian), Dr Helen Pankhurst (very much a Pankhurst and as helpful as one could possibly imagine) and Fiona Reynolds (National Trust, CPRE, writer and much besides) have all kindly supplied words of endorsement for the cover. Which may give you a flavour of how it will read…

Even before it comes off the presses The Road to Hull has had the benefit of press coverage. Back in the spring of last year this blog was approached by a student journalist from Sussex University asking for an interview about the Great Trek for a piece to be offered to local papers. A meeting was arranged to fit in, for the sake of convenience, after an appointment I had made with the local foot doctor to examine some seriously walk-battered toenails. A quick examination revealed that these couldn’t all be saved and, after a swift toenailectomy while I bit down on my newspaper, I crossed the road to a café for our meeting.

My interviewer asked why I was doing the walk, how many miles I hoped to do each day, how it had gone so far, what was still to come. It was gratifying to share my thoughts and experiences with someone who was interested. I gave it my best shot, threw in plenty of anecdotes and told him where I’d been immediately before our meeting.

I picked up a copy of the local paper later in the week to see if I was in there. There was a big article with a photo under a bold headline:

66 Year Old Chiropodist Patient Plans Coast to Coast Walk

To help me in my endeavours Mrs Blog has bought me a fine writer’s hat.

That at least is how she described it when persuading me to buy one at the Bruges Christmas market. It may have been what she thought I needed to keep my head warm and dry but I prefer to believe in its special creative qualities. Without his hat Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have been just a short fat bloke from Portsmouth stood in front of a pile of chains. Without his hat Indiana Jones would have been some supply teacher of archaeology with a frown and a bullwhip fixation. Without a writer’s hat this blog would be just some bloke with a cold; but don his new, size 7 literary headgear and he is transformed into a bloke with both a cold and a hat. And with those anything is possible.

…but, even with a hat, some people are beyond help

Mrs Blog and I will be taking a break in April with a cruise line owned and frequented by Americans. She has instructed me not to mention, or respond to, or think about, the T word. I promise nothing…

But before that this blog has an appointment in London on Saturday 25 March with tens of thousands of others, the ones who’ve looked into the chasm that is Brexit and are sore afraid. I attended a “What happens next?” panel event last week featuring our MP and spokespersons for the other parties. The MP’s position can reasonably be represented as:

  1. She voted Leave in the referendum
  2. She saw the chief benefits as being able to trade with the US to take advantage of their lower standards of food safety and environmental protection, and with China so we can improve their human rights record, and ensuring that Filipino nurses should have the same opportunities to seek work here as French nurses. (She’d had, presumably, nine months to come up with those.)
  3. While a 52/48% split for Leave was highly significant in the national vote, a 52/48 % split in favour of Remain in her own constituency on the other hand meant we were split down the middle.
  4. However obvious and appalling the economic and other implications of Brexit were now becoming, she would – now that parliament had, against the wishes of the government, been given a say — support “Article 50”.

And we used to think we had a sophisticated democracy…

Join me in London on the 25th!

 

 

 

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Politics

Is there a Point??

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Wiktionary: Remoaner: One who complains about or rejects the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum on the UK‘s membership of the European Union.

Sounds good to me. Where do I buy the t-shirt?

If “Leave” voters are to be believed (I know, why would you, but stay with me), we should give up. They won, we lost, get over it. Or, more likely from what I see on social media, “p*s off to yuropp, yoo w*nnk*”.

We all have lives to get on with (sort of) so perhaps we should focus on what we can actually do something about. Like my team’s football results…   Probably not a good example.  Like the price of — what is it that “Remain” voters eat, samphire?  Like the weather then – what do they say, “everyone complains about it but nobody does anything”?

I’ve reached an age when I ought to be gurning contentedly into my milky night-time drink and carefully monitoring Scandinavian police procedurals after the 9 pm watershed. If I stay up that late. But I find myself strangely moved to “action”, if that’s not too lively a term, politically.

I suspect, looking back (I know, I can sort of remember so I obviously wasn’t there) to my student days, that I was quite “straight”. More rugby and beer than forcing the Yanks out of Nam. And no free love. Though that was mainly because they wouldn’t have me.

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This blog: the babe magnet years

So I’ve been in no position to complain if more recent younger generations appear to have been too preoccupied with making money (or, more recently still, even getting an income at all) to care enough for the important things in life, like protesting or wearing kaftans. But one major plus – perhaps the only positive — from Brexit has been the awakening of interest, rage even, among those seeing their futures casually blighted by those who evidently feel that bringing back the florin, destroying the NHS and shouting abuse at foreigners will make us great again.

I didn’t really go in for marching or demos when young though I did break that rule for Margaret Thatcher’s decision to do away with my job, which seemed only fair. But I appear to be taking to it now. Joining my daughter and her friends on the big march in London immediately after the EU referendum was a joy and a privilege, and had therapeutic qualities for this person of mature years. Today’s youngsters have a whole new range of songs, chants and European food-based jokes that Joan Baez would surely have been impressed by.

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I’ve signed up for a “March on Parliament” taking place just before Teresa “I have no idea what will happen next” May is due to invoke the start of the process towards making the nation a poorer and more divided place. Happily Mrs Blog and I are of one mind on this. Mrs B supports the idea of me getting out of the house more, provided I wrap up warm, but has a mild distaste herself for the idea of being kettled. Particularly in the company of people to whom she hasn’t been properly introduced.

One of the more daunting weapons in Mrs Blog’s own armoury of protest is the prospective withdrawal of her purchasing powers. A minor twitch in her patterns of credit card patronage would make tyrants and unprincipled heads of business quail. She assures me that she will deploy this power selectively and that M&S are safe for now.

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It would be like losing her right arm but….

Sadly my own social calendar doesn’t currently feature any awards ceremonies, in Hollywood or anywhere else, but I have drafted an acceptance speech for a neighbour’s daughter’s Brownie citizenship badge that I can guarantee will inflict lasting damage on Donald Trump.

Along with nearly two million others in the UK (or fewer than two dozen, according to the Spin and Alternative Facts Department of the White House), I have been concerned enough about Trump’s history, particularly with regard to women, to sign the online petition to prevent him getting anywhere near our Head of State if he sets foot here.

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And, if he is rash enough to invade, the Scots are ready….

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.…including Mrs B who is hard at work preparing in her own way

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These may all appear pinpricks of protest but we must each do what we can. It is not enough to assume that the very existence of Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway  in Washington render satire impossible. Ridicule is a powerful tool. Where is Spitting Image when you need it?

It is tempting to head for the underground bunkers and wait for four or more years to pass and to accept that one-third of the UK’s eligible voting population has the right to bugger up the nation’s economy, welfare state, environment and belief in decent values for a lifetime, but that temptation should be resisted.

Altogether now, where’s my beads? Where’s my hair? We shall not, we shall not be moved….

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Uncategorized

Reasons to be cheerful

2016

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I thought about heading this post “Reasons to be cheerful in 2017” and leaving it blank. Sort of making a point about 2016 and saving me some effort at the same time. A bit existentialist?  (Wikipedia: sense of disorientation, confusion, or dread in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.)

There have been plenty of articles and books about the year 2016 along those lines and I subscribe to the sentiments behind them. Being forced to face the reality of other people’s voting habits, both here and in the US to name but two obvious ones, can only be deeply depressing. One can but hope that reason, integrity, truth and decency make at least a token reappearance on the political scene sometime soon.

It was also of course a year when we lost some famous names, seemingly more than usual. Inevitably some impact on you more than others. I don’t think there’s any obvious logic to this: I have nothing against Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett or David Bowie – fine fellows all – but somehow the premature loss of Jo Cox, Alan Rickman, Caroline Aherne, Johan Cruyff speaks to me (to borrow the jargon) in a different way. In the case of Jo Cox MP, of course, the reason for widespread deep sorrow and anger is clear; in others it may be down to a single performance, even a single phrase which burrowed into one’s memory banks and will never leave.

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And what to say about Victoria Wood? I don’t have the words; Victoria would have done. Long ago I selected the Ballad of Barry and Freda as one of my Desert Island Discs for when I was interviewed after winning the Nobel or a Brit Award and it’s retained its place through the years. Anyone who could come up with just one lyric like this deserves to die happy, and I hope she did.

I can’t do it, I can’t do it, my heavy-breathing days are gone.

I’m older, feel colder; It’s other things that turn me on.

I’m imploring- I’m boring- Let me read this catalogue on vinyl flooring! I can’t do it, I can’t do it tonight.

Let’s do it, let’s do it, I really want to rant and rave!

Let’s go, cos I know, Just how you want to behave:

Not bleakly, Not meekly- Beat me on the bottom with the Woman’s Weekly- Let’s do it, let’s do it tonight!

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But a glance back through trustworthy sources – I’m thinking in particular of this blog – reminds me that there has been, amongst the dross, the occasional beacon. The findings of the second Hillsborough inquest in April, for one, which confirmed unequivocally what more or less anyone connected to Liverpool had known for 27 years – that is, where blame lay for the tragedy and the nature and scale of the subsequent organised deception by the authorities. The authorities, that is, like the police and emergency services, whose priority should have been ensuring that they didn’t make the same grievous mistakes again, not working out how best to cover their tracks – and costing the public at large, as well as the bereaved, vast sums of money and immense heartache in the process. Everton Football Club described the jury findings as the greatest victory in the history of football. I’m not going to argue.

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In the last few days news has emerged that Professor Phil Scraton – Liverpudlian, criminologist, academic, author, member of the Hillsborough Independent Panel and responsible for its research – has turned down the award of an OBE in the New Year Honours List. This, because:

“I could not receive an honour on the recommendation of those who remained unresponsive to the determined efforts of bereaved families and survivors to secure truth and justice… I could not accept an honour tied in name to the ‘British Empire’. In my scholarship and teaching I remain a strong critic of the historical, cultural and political contexts of imperialism and their international legacy.”

What a player! When you think of gongs awarded to wealthy folk for funding political parties and other nefarious goings on ….   But I’ll start drafting my acceptance just in case.

If, at a political level, things have been essentially crap in 2016, decent people continue to make their own contributions. A double page spread in the Christmas edition of the Big Issue highlights just a handful of the many cafes, pubs, football clubs, churches and mosques adding their own kind of hospitality to the efforts of the better known charities, spending time over “the festive period” to prepare and serve hot meals and provide other comfort and support to those less fortunate, and not worrying which part of the world they were born in.

One such venue, hosting a dinner on Christmas Day organised by Liverpool Homeless FC, was the Florrie, or Florence Institute, named as her chosen charity by Radio 2 presenter and DJ Janice Long on this year’s Celebrity Mastermind and a place that provided one of my own 2016 highlights.

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The Florrie before rescue…

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….and after

I’ve been particularly fortunate during 2016 to meet inspiring people and visit some fascinating places. In my first dabble in what I will, when nobody’s checking, call “travel writing” I planned and executed my own coast to coast walk from the Mersey to the Humber, specifically New Brighton, of childhood memory, on the Irish Sea to Spurn Head as a random and slightly weird point on the North Sea worthy of new memories.

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The start of my walk: New Brighton tower, football club, ball room and its “unlucky” demise…

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… and the end: Spurn Head

Some of you reading this (and I have it on good authority that you are doing) have contributed to making this trip so enjoyable en route by providing good conversation, pints of bitter, accommodation, chips and the occasional toe nail surgery. Along with a rugby league game in Castleford, an evening at Mecca Bingo in Hull, a morning at the Pontefract liquorice festival, a (successful!) pub quiz in Liverpool, a visit to the Museum of the History of Policing in Cheshire and an afternoon at the nation’s most luxurious cat hotel near Dewsbury, there have been numerous, sometimes odd, theatrical productions, a ferry, a canal boat trip and a touring waterside theatre, brass bands, more museums, slavers and abolitionists, churches, statues, splendid old railway hotels, a ghost train, swimming baths, pubs, hostels, and more curries, scouse, spam fritters and “full English” than you could shake a black pudding at. There’s been snow and torrential rain on Merseyside, heatstroke on the Humber, Billy Fury, Anthony Gormley, Elizabeth Gaskell and Philip Larkin and an awful lot of walking. And Kay Kendall.

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But what made the whole venture such a joy was being welcomed at so many wonderful community and conservation projects and meeting volunteers and staff making huge efforts to preserve and enhance the social and environmental soul of the country – with little reward beyond the knowledge that their contributions are greatly appreciated by those who benefit from them. While core public services continue to be sacrificed to the false gods of austerity and tax cutting, the nation owes a huge debt of gratitude to those who unflinchingly put their fingers in the dyke and strive to stem the tide. People like Britt at Anfield’s Homebaked project, Anne and Janine at the Florrie in Liverpool, Barry at Victoria Baths, Judith at the Pankhurst Centre in Manchester, David at the Huddersfield Canal Society, Jenny at Nostell Priory, Paul at the Sobriety Project, Margaret at Goole Civic Society, Doug at Fort Perch Rock, Brian at Fort Paull.

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Many thanks to all of you for making 2016 a better place. I hope my scribbles can do justice to your efforts – I’ll be back in touch!

Thanks also for your generous contributions to the JustGiving page set up for the walk on behalf of the British Heart Foundation. Over £1300 raised so far and it’s still open so if you’re feeling Christmassy here’s the link:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Stephen-Ankers-the-Road-to-Hull-is-Paved-with-Good-Intentions

I hope the New Year brings you joy and so on and so forth and that you kept all the receipts.

Blogfamily made it to Bruges last week for the Christmas market before the barriers to European travel are erected. We plan to go back in 2017 and spend a few days – Mrs.Blog didn’t allow me time during this visit to take in the museum of chips. I see that its website has a tab for “reservations” so I’m looking forward to checking in for a few nights’ hard earned sleep handily placed amongst the potato peelers and vinegar bottles.

Father Christmas apparently decided that what this blog most wanted to open on Christmas morning was two coffee grinders and two bags of beans (coffee – no beanstalk in sight). His representatives in Sussex, Mrs. Blog and Blogdaughter, are currently occupied with the instructions. Mrs. B tells me that the coat and special writer’s hat she bought me a few weeks back were my main presents and that we’re economising this year in case Donald Trump gets his way and we all end up living underground burning old copies of The Guardian for warmth and buying slightly used spam on the black market.

Hoping that enough of us will still be around in 2017 to make up a four for bridge, I wish you all you would wish for yourself. Unless of course you support Manchester United, Brexit or UKIP, in which case I can’t help you.

 

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Politics

Five things I like about Britain

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Five things I like about Britain

  1. The countryside: maintained largely by farming, dependent primarily on European markets, supported by European funding and subject in environmental terms to EU directives.
  2. Eating out: catered for in my part of GB by underpaid, exploited, possibly illicit immigrants.
  3. Sport: watching and supporting GB teams comprising multi-ethnic athletes and players and a Premiership football side made up largely of foreigners whose skills and contributions make me happy.
  4. Being able to travel relatively cheaply and easily abroad and with free health cover over much of Europe.
  5. Accommodating both our colonial past and a unique position in Europe.

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Now that’s what I call a proper British meal…

 

Things I used to like about Britain but we don’t have any more

  1. The national health service
  2. Trains
  3. Industry
  4. Billy Fury
  5. Political leadership, except in Scotland
  6. Newspapers with integrity, with only one or two exceptions
  7. An informed electorate
  8. “British values”
  9. Social welfare and a sense of community
  10. Racial and religious tolerance
  11. Council houses
  12. Detached parts of Flintshire
  13. Fry’s Five Boys Chocolate

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Traditional British values coming to the fore again.

 

Five reasons we shouldn’t feel too bad in Britain in 2017

  1. We didn’t elect Donald Trump as President
  2. We didn’t elect Theresa May as Prime Minister
  3. Parliament can act in Britain’s interests and reject the self-inflicted economic, social and environmental horrors that the Daily Mail, Express and Farage seek to inflict on the nation beyond my lifetime.
  4. Young people.
  5. Jose Mourinho may be gone by the end of the season.

 

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The new leader of the western world in full statesman mode

 

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The British PM reminding us that Brexit means Brexit and she has absolutely no idea what to do about it

… but it’s good to know that we have men of stature and integrity to see it through

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Travel

To Spurn: transitive verb: tread sharply or heavily upon

 

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Webster’s dictionary has it about right. By the time I reached Spurn Head at the end of my 200 mile plus coast to coast walk I guess I was treading pretty heavily. But I made it and have some arty pics to prove it.

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The final stage of my walk began in Hull – a place I had never visited before this summer but where I have now had three brief stays and am keen to revisit to sample the joys of the City of Culture programme next year. I took the view that my accommodation in Hull would be at the Royal Station Hotel on the basis that if it was good enough for Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and five royal children back in 1853, it’s likely to be quite old and worn now so probably affordable. And, although Hull megastar and beat poet Philip Larkin described “Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel” as:

Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.

……even that’s ok as they’ve emptied the ashtrays now.

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Hull commemorates one of its most famous residents; Larkin in Paragon Station outside the Royal Hotel

Faced with a free evening on arrival in Hull I did the only thing a global traveller like myself could do and headed straight for the Mecca Bingo hall opposite the hotel for an intensive, eyes down session of housey-housey. I had prepared thoroughly for the occasion and made full use of the helpful Mecca website:

“Bingo is like theatre: it has a beginning, a middle and an end.”

“Shelley deserves to go higher in the bingo world.”

And I noted that Kirsty, with no less than 39% of the poll, had emerged as Online Chat Moderator of the Month.

I was particularly taken with a part of the website devoted to “Lost Bingo Halls”. These, it transpires, tended to have been cinemas before they became bingo halls in the 1960s but were sadly no longer viable and had been lost to “the beautiful game”. Memories and photographs of these treasured venues were invited. It’s funny, I always thought of them as much loved cinemas lost to bingo; not any more.

I now know that the period from 2005 to 2010 was “particularly savage” (Mecca website again) for club closures owing to the 2007 smoking ban and changes in the laws limiting prize payouts and number of gaming machines.

I can confirm that they no longer call “clickety click” or “two fat ladies”, if indeed they ever did. And, on the basis that I won not a brass farthing all night, I’m happy to convince myself that skill is not an essential criterion for success, an outcome which seems to correlate quite closely with waist size.

Four days of walking took me from Hull through Holderness to Spurn Head via 19th century Fort Paull, the faded seaside resort (is there another kind, and if there were, would I be going there?) of Withernsea and the attractive village of Patrington.

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Having, for lack of choice, booked a room (“shared facilities”) in a Withernsea pub, I have concluded that I’m getting too old for that kind of intimacy. Shared bathroom ok, shared towel less so. Fag end outside my door, no thanks. But excellent spam fritters for tea at the Golden Haddock nearby.

Withernsea’s Lighthouse Museum – probably the only museum in the UK (only the UK?) devoted to the memory of actress Kay Kendall, a native and former resident of the town – is a joy. (I feel confident that KK would have referred to herself as an actress rather than an actor, though I have nothing to back that up.) Known to many primarily as a star of light comedy films like Genevieve (reviewed by the Catholic Times as “unsavoury … smut”) and Doctor in the House, she was described as having “more allure in her eyes than Marilyn Monroe has from top to toe” (Picturegoer, 1954.) Kay Kendall died from leukaemia at the age of 32.

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In carrying out the vital background research for my walk, I acquired, and read, her biography. To prove this I will relate that the four stars of Genevieve — Kenneth More, John Gregson, Dinah Sheridan and KK — each earned two thousand pounds from the film. If you are riveted by this nugget of information, you must feel free to make me an offer for The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall without delay. Seriously, the sooner the better.

At Patrington’s Station Hotel I was generously treated to an excellent dinner on account of my tales of derring-do. While awaiting my meal I took the opportunity to catch up with the local headlines in the Holderness Gazette – visitor numbers at the Withernsea Lighthouse Museum, news of the 2017 City of Culture programme and a controversy over plans for a new visitor centre on Spurn Head. Nothing however rivalled the item headed:

“Council to replace bent post”

Now I was truly hooked. Referring to a damaged sign in Queen Street, Withernsea – good heavens, the very road where my zero rated accommodation had been the previous night –  the story ran, “mystery surrounds …. believed the pole was inadvertently bent by a van making a delivery to a shop”. So, at least terrorism had been ruled out. Happily it appeared that moves were afoot to restore order as an East Riding spokesperson had announced that the council was aware of the problem and would be removing the bent post in due course and replacing with a new post and sign. It wasn’t made clear whether the authorities were still seeking anyone in connection with the incident, or that anybody was receiving counselling.

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A post

 

Having reached the end of the known world, or at least Spurn Head, with nowhere else to go, I was picked up by Mrs. Blog – arriving just a brief three and a half hours after me – in a hire car. There followed several days’ enjoyable R&R in Hull (where else?), Beverley and York with Mrs. B plus her fellow clan member and two good chums and former colleagues intent on me celebrating in style and sampling the best fish supper in the East Riding, on condition that I didn’t show them my toenails.

I wasn’t entirely off duty while still on the Humber, fitting in a meeting with Goole Civic Society, a private tour of the splendidly Edwardian Beverley Road baths, a visit to William Wilberforce’s House (“There was always a great Yorkshire pie in his rooms”) and a failed meeting with the Hull City of Culture 2017 team. Unfortunately their Head of Communications hadn’t told anyone I was coming – which doesn’t augur well for next year.  (It’s ok, we’ve kissed and made up since.)

The meeting-that-wasn’t did mean there was time for a second visit to the Deep which is a truly ace (sorry, I must brush up on my travel writing technique) attraction. It’s an aquarium in the same way as the Shard is an office block and it’s full of excellent information panels:

Amphioxus “prefers to spend its time buried in the sand in tropical lagoons”.  That’s you and me both, Amphi baby…

“If attacked the Sea Cucumber can shoot out its stomach and leave it behind”.  Come on, what wouldn’t you give to have that as your superpower?

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 Denizens of the Deep?

From Hull via Beverley to York in case Hull were to prove too earthy for Mrs. B and some TLC  was needed in the form of Bettys tearooms (three times, and we were only there for two days). This brief stop also embraced a river trip, a wander round the walls, evensong at the Minster (religious beliefs not required), the Shambles (it is) and the National Railway Museum (Mrs. B thought Mallard was nice and shiny.)

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Thanks so much for all the moral support and generous sponsorship on behalf of the British Heart Foundation during this walk. Over £1300 raised so far – and there’s still time!

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Stephen-Ankers-the-Road-to-Hull-is-Paved-with-Good-Intentions

Now I just have about 60,000 words to write before I forget where I’ve been – a not uncommon problem, I find.

 

One separate, non-coast-walk visit to report amongst a handful of Heritage Open Day treats: a guided tour of Lewes prison. This sits almost next door to Blog Mansions in Sussex and our neighbours are always popping round to borrow things, like crowbars, and stuff to put in a cake.  We like to point it out to tourists and tell them it’s Lewes’s Norman castle.

The tour was a sobering experience, whatever view one takes of forms of punishment and standards of treatment. We were shown the bomb disposal pit outside the front gate. This is where, on discovering a suspect package, you should run and get rid – a role, I understand, generally delegated to new recruits.

We toured the library – just like any other library, we were told. But presumably without the same imminent closure.

We were informed that a new inmate was permitted to wear his own gear until sentenced, and I suddenly remembered that, personally, I’d always favoured black trousers, a white shirt, black tie and epaulettes, and the word “warder” in large letters.

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Recently arrived prisoner in “civvy” gear…

They showed us where the hangings used to take place, both public and private, and we heard about some of the more noted “guests” – Reggie Kray, Eamon de Valera, Sion Jenkins — and Mick Jagger (just a one night gig, we understand, for “possession”.) Sadly there are no blue plaques on the cells of the famous, no Loyd Grossman asking “Who lives here?” as the cameras pan round, no prospect of newly convicted prisoners putting in a special request for a celebrity pad.

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Mick, probably not what you want to be wearing inside, even if it is your own kit…

But perhaps, amongst all the other discouragements to a continuing life of crime, the most chilling became apparent towards the end of our tour: no wi-fi but unending repeats of Eastenders.

 

And a thought this week for Terry Jones. Python, Ripping Yarns, Labyrinth. Actor, comedian, film and opera director, poet, writer. Historian – his “Barbarians” is an excellent read. Recipient this month of a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Welsh Baftas. And approachable. I contacted Terry two or three years ago, having attended the same Oxford college, asking if he would be kind enough to take a look at a light hearted book I’d written on the joys of living with a vet with a view to a few words of endorsement for the cover. Terry obliged swiftly and generously, for which I remain extremely grateful.

He is now apparently suffering from an illness which will progressively impede his ability to communicate. It’s desperately sad that he won’t be finding new ways to entertain and inform us, but that’s one hell of a portfolio, Terry. Very best wishes.

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