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Because It’s There…

BLOG 83

Mum was (we’re going back a bit here) keen for me to read Swift comic and, when old enough, Eagle.  We were that kind of family, aspirational. I suppose we still are. Not for us as youngsters the simple delights of the Beano or Dandy. That came later in my post- ironic phase (roughly from university onwards…)

Anyway, while most Eagle readers of my generation may fondly recall Dan Dare and the Mekon, Storm Nelson or the tales of Scottish detective Harris Tweed, my strongest memory is of a one -off account of the “lost” Everest expedition of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine

I was old enough to know about the great 1953 “conquest of Everest” by Edmund Hillary and sherpa Tensing Norgay – it was a very big news item!  But I was gripped by the idea that a much earlier (1924 to be precise) expedition might have reached the ultimate goal, but that the fate of the “summit” pair was unknown, including the (possibly important) question of whether Mallory and Irvine actually made it to the top and came a cropper on the way down or perished while still heading upwards.  I say “possibly” important as some would no doubt feel that getting back alive formed an essential element of the project.

Andrew Irvine, back row left, and George Mallory, back row, next to Irvine

The story has continued to run intermittently ever since with carefully argued theories supporting both “yes, they probably made it” or “no, afraid not”. What isn’t disputed is that they didn’t make it back down, either live or dead, and neither the immediate search and rescue attempt nor the years that followed threw up any firm evidence one way or another. No pocket camera with a selfie pic of the two of them smiling at the summit, no T-shirt proclaiming “We summited in the Himalayas”.

Mallory was the best known and most accomplished climber of his generation. He it was who, when asked by an American journalist why he wanted to climb Everest, famously replied “Because it is there.”  Close friends apparently insisted that the response was meant to be off-putting from a man weary of answering questions that he found irrelevant and repetitive. Whatever, those few words seem to have taken on a life of their own…

While we are unlikely ever to discover just what befell the two climbers in 1924, what is certain is that nobody climbed as high again for another quarter of a century as the (well in excess of) 28,000 feet that they were observed to have reached by others in the expedition before they disappeared into the mists and into history. Indeed, none of the fourteen Himalayan peaks over 8,000 metres (26, 240 feet) would be climbed until the 1950 French ascent of Annapurna. Whether or not Mallory and Irvine reached the very summit of Everest, they deserve to be remembered for their achievements as well as the manner of their passing. And this with 1924 equipment and while wearing hobnail boots, cotton wind suits and as many other layers as they could comfortably wear under their tweed jackets.

Respect!

My longstanding interest in the near-mythical “did they, didn’t they”” and “how did they die?” of the ill-fated 1924 Everest expedition was piqued a few years go by the publicity afforded to the “1999 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition” led by my near namesake and accomplished American climber Conrad Anker.  Although they had a number of possible secondary objectives in mind (and Anker reached the summit for the first time), the clear purpose of the expedition was to follow up on previous rumours and suggestions emanating over the years that a corpse from the relevant period just might have been spotted in the “right area” if one were seeking the last resting place of George Mallory or Andrew Irvine and whatever clues that may furnish to their demise.

If, like me, you watched the TV documentary about the expedition or picked it up as a news item (I recall it was treated at the time as quite a big thing and not confined to the Nerd channels), you may be aware that they succeeded in finding the mortal remains of the great George Mallory, paid their appropriate respects, very carefully examined and in some cases removed small artefacts and, in accordance with usual practice, left him up there.

An excellent account of both the 1924 expedition and the 1999 Conor Anker 1999 one exists in the form of Anker’s book “The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mount Everest” which I’ve recently finished and, for anyone out there with a gleam of interest in the story, can thoroughly recommend.

Spoiler alert: no sign yet of Andrew Irvine!

Changing subject, some of you are aware that I’m receiving radiotherapy treatment. I was warned at the outset that there might be side effects but they would be hard to predict. The rather comprehensive list of ‘possibles’ included ‘character change”, which sounded fun.

Does this suggest that I might no longer fancy my Friday night Indian takeaways? Not retain my recall of such essential nuggets of information as old Football League grounds, capital cities and the latest names of emerging nations, effectively b*gg*ring our decent record in pub or cruise quizzes?

What if I suddenly presented, heaven forfend, as ‘opinionated’?  A passionate Trump supporter?  Someone who found they could actually identify a fragment of point to Brexit?  Please, if this last, feel free to shoot me…

Another side effect of the overall treatment package seems to be an unavoidable rise in blood sugar levels, which is, I can see a ‘bad thing’. Happily, if I now indulge in my lifelong tendency to binge on chocolate or sweeties, Mrs Blog is swiftly on hand to sacrifice herself on my behalf and eat them before I can reach them.

I owe her so much.

The precision of the radiotherapy bombardment (you’d worry if it was otherwise) requires a very tightly made to measure mask, such that, on emerging to rejoin the outside world, you might on some days bear for a while an intriguing lattice across the cheeks, prompting the greeting, ‘Hi Waffle Face!’  But I guess I’ve been called worse things in my time…

It seems to be a mixed summer weatherwise but Mrs Blog and I certainly enjoyed some splendid bluebells earlier this year…

Mrs B taking a morning stroll through our small but invaluable patch of woodland…

…and now a wonderful display of water lilies at Sheffield Park.

On our most recent visit there we watched a striking family of Egyptian Geese and wondered if, as descendants of earlier exotic imports, they might be categorised as illegal immigrants, asylum seekers, or indeed victims of trafficking, and therefore how should they be treated. Perhaps I currently have too much time on my hands.

Mrs Blog has been hard at work over the last few weeks single-handedly renovating our shamefully neglected garden and pond using just a fork, spade and bucket as relaxation when she’s finished work for the day. While I focus on the household’s priorities like our response to emerging news items and the continuing shame of just about everything our government says and does, Mrs Blog concentrates on the digging, planting and maintenance. From my position on the patio I am able to contribute advice, for which she is of course most grateful.

Not quite the way she wants it yet but a work in progress, and a credit to her…

One of this Blog’s most passionate foci is its devotion to Liverpool Football Club, so it will be no surprise if I mention in passing that the outcome of the recent final of a major European tournament was ‘a tad disappointing’. That said, is it wide of the mark to suggest that the whole adventure of reaching the final appears to be making a sustainable contribution to a growing city pride and ‘community regeneration’?

The same thought arose in connection with the success a few weeks earlier of Birkenhead’s own Tranmere Rovers, many Merseysiders’ (including me) ‘second team’ in the play-off final at Wembley which secured their return to the grown-up Football League from the depths of the Fox’s Biscuit Conference or the Dave’s Scrapyard League or whatever its current nomenclature. I may (may??) have been a rarity in having watched the whole game live on TV, but the passion on display amongst the 10,000 or so Rovers fans present and the clear, unlimited joy and relief visible at the final whistle, suggested that the result might mean more to Tranmere than to their undoubtedly impressive opponents on the day, Boreham Wood, from Hertfordshire’s sylvan acres. But who knows?

Followers of this blog will also be aware of its enthusiasm and support for the incredible effort and achievement in the last century of the suffragettes, suffragists and others devoted to securing Votes for Women and other progressive measures. It was therefore what I understand we are obliged to call nowadays a ‘no-brainer’ that Mrs Blog and I would attend a recent appearance at the Charleston Literary Festival, just a few miles along the road, by Helen Pankhurst (great granddaughter of Emmeline, granddaughter of Sylvia, and a most helpful contributor to my own recent book)

Helen P signing my copy of her recent book Words Not Deeds: The Story of Women’s Rights Then and Now at Charleston provided me with the opportunity to deliver personally a copy of my own new book  for which Helen had kindly provided very supportive words for the front cover by way of endorsement

The presentation at the festival was a ‘two-hander’ by Helen and Jane Robinson, writer inter alia of Hearts and Minds – “The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote” – which I have just finished reading.

The focus of this ‘hot off the press’ tome is the somewhat neglected six-week protest march undertaken in 1913 by thousands of non-militant supporters of votes for women, known as the Great Pilgrimage. Converging from places as scattered as Newcastle and Carlisle in the north, Cromer and Yarmouth in the east, Bangor in Wales, and Land’s End, Portsmouth, Brighton and Margate in the south, 50,000 ‘rallied’ in Hyde Park.

Jane Robinson also authored “Bluestockings: the remarkable story of the first women to fight for an education”, which, comprising elements both horrifying and risible, led to a brilliant play at Shakespeare’s Globe a couple of years back.

… and ‘A Force to be Reckoned With: a History of the Women’s Institute’ – which, again, I can wholeheartedly recommend.

My own recent endeavours in authorship – “Northern Soles: a Coast to Coast Walk” – have, I am pleased and grateful to say, been boosted recently by some very positive reviews on Amazon and in relevant periodicals, and a supportive “twitter push” by my own favourite travel writer, Tim Moore (Spanish Steps, The Cyclist who Went Out in the Cold, French Revolutions…)

Please feel free to see whether you agree!

Cheers and best wishes!

http://www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk/product/9781781327562/northern-soles

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Health

You just can’t beat a book!

Blog 80

My most recent post on this blog highlighted two things:

  1. The publication last month of my “Northern Soles: a coast to coast walk”, an account of a 2016 200 mile walk from Mersey to Humber, sponsored for the British Heart Foundation. Kind followers of the blog, either direct or via social media, have been more than kind in their responses and comments, and I am most grateful. All support is very welcome! It is available through usual channels. This link to the publisher’s website may be helpful:

http://www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk/

2 . I had just been diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour, outcome unknown.

 

This initially presented itself just a few short weeks ago as an unexpected loss of grip in my left hand. A scan at Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton revealed the guilty party and an operation to remove the bulk of it was carried out swiftly, which has brought some benefits in “functionality”.  I have been discharged from hospital and am now based at my home in Lewes. Following further scans, investigations and detailed meetings with oncologists and other members of the team, I am now due to undergo a three week course of radiotherapy in Brighton in May, outcome to be monitored in due course.

The publication of Northern Soles has in some ways been timely. Not only in providing me with healthy contact with my “real” life and warm hearted responses, but also in creating a subject for chat with staff when in hospital. I love nothing more than chatting with people about their aspirations and backgrounds, and nurses seemed very happy to share with me, on seeing the book,  their tales of training in Hull or Warrington!

This is probably not the time to share with you any hospital based anecdotes but I will say this. While the techy limitations of a lack of a mobile signal or a wi-fi connection while incarcerated, drove me to distraction, I have continued to take comfort in the solidity of hard copy books, both in hospital and now at home. My own choices during this difficult time will make sense to nobody but me, but they work for me!

Helen Dunmore’s The Siege

Engel’s England: 39 counties, one capital and one man

Histories of Nations: edited by Peter Furtado

And, perhaps most surprisingly of all, a new 600 page biography of Clement Attlee titled Citizen Clem. (If there is another genuine contender for the unofficial title of greatest British politician of the 20th century, I can’t identify one…)  As I say, my blog, my choices! Plenty of scope for lighter reading material too.

Next down the line will be Helen Pankhurst’s new book Deeds not Words which Helen signed for Mrs Blog and me at the book launch in the Pankhurst Centre in Manchester just a few weeks ago. Those who have followed this blog or made contact with my own new book will be aware of Helen’s support for my own humble efforts and I will remain in her gratitude and in admiration for her continuing campaigning work. A lovely lady.

If all goes well I still hope that one of my own small book promo events might eventually take place at the Pankhurst Centre.

I will do my best to continue to communicate any progress. I can say unequivocally that the support  received from around the world as well of course as that from close family and friends, is invaluable in any recovery.

Many thanks and much love

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Travel

Northern Soles: a coast to coast walk

Nother Soles_FINAL Cover Proof (5)

Blog 79:

Northern Soles: a coast to coast walk

Regular followers of this blog will know that it undertook a 200 mile sponsored walk in 2016 from Mersey to Humber as the basis for a book, initially titled “The Road to Hull is Paved with Good Intentions!” but published last month as “Northern Soles”.

The dedication reads:

To the charity volunteers and staff striving to save the social and environmental soul of your communities. The nation owes you thanks. To all of you this book is dedicated.

 

The cover and content carry kind words of support from: Polly Toynbee, Journalist and writer on social affairs:

This delightful road trip from Liverpool to Hull takes us along the way through history and present day, from industrial revolution to good works, art works, environmental wonders and remarkable people. Exploring multitudes of unknown highways and byways, Steve Ankers’ journey bristles with insights into how we live now and how history shapes our present and our future

 

From Helen Pankhurst, international development and women’s rights activist:

“Travel writing with good humour and a welcome attention to issues of equality and social justice”

From Fiona Reynolds, Environmental campaigner and writer: I so enjoyed this witty, somewhat serendipitous adventure led by our guide from Liverpool to Hull; and enriched by memories, encounters with stalwarts of the voluntary sector that is the beating heart of England, and enlivened by the truth that walking in the countryside isn’t always the sublime experience it’s cracked up to be. Do read it.

 

From travel writer Mark Elliott:

“… a wisecracking travelogue, liberally peppered with British rain, bunions and endlessly curious factoids from the recipe of ‘blind scouse’ to how Adam Ant found his stage name in a Liverpool urinal.

 

 

 If all this sounds a bit too serious, then I’m misleading you. Pl see this flyer for a neater summary.

Northern Soles by Steve Ankers (1) (1).pdf

 

 And thank you to all those whose who supported me on the walk and in the writing. Many of you kindly sponsored me along the way for the British Heart Foundation. We made it!  If you enjoy what you see, pl feel free to give wider circulation!

 

Meanwhile, I have just embarked on a very different journey of which the outcome is less certain. Having been diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour in the last few weeks, I will have a battle on my hands and am very lucky to enjoy the total love and support of my family and a wide network of friends and colleagues. If fortune permits, I look forward to blogging successful progress! Fingers crossed!

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Christmas

Christmas comes but once a year

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Blogdaughter is always prepared to hang out with her parents if there’s stuff on offer, and this Yuletide (if Trump claims to have relaunched the word Christmas, that seems enough reason to use another one) has been no different.

We headed for the Shuttle on 20 December, en route for Belgium (who needs the Caribbean in midwinter when there’s Flanders mud on your doorstep?) I’m always puzzled that emails can reach me overseas, or indeed under the sea – but, then, driving through the Mersey Tunnel when younger, I was unfailingly surprised that my music cassettes could still be heard even if the car wireless, and Sports Report, couldn’t.

We bought a “GB with EU stars” bumper sticker at the Folkestone Shuttle terminal to demonstrate in a post-Brexit future that it wasn’t our fault.

Alongside the minor drawbacks of Brexit  – national impoverishment, the falling pound, loss of export markets, acute labour shortages in the building and farming sectors, reduced ability to attract foreign students and funding to universities, reduced employment rights, social upheaval, more overt racism, reduced environmental and food hygiene protections, an NHS starved of staff and a sufficient taxpaying population of working age to support it — we can at least look forward, hallelujah, to the triumphant return of the good old blue passport.

A passport is of course the ultimate product of the sublimation of national aspirations in favour of co-operation. The basic requirement of a passport is that it should meet the demands of the nations to which one wishes to travel. The UK, and every other nation, can devise whatever passport it wants but if its contents and standards don’t meet the security and other requirements of, say, the USA or countries of mainland Europe, you ain’t going anywhere even if you can still afford to. But you will have a nice souvenir of Empire to look at on your mantelpiece alongside a bottle of Camp coffee and a copy of the Just So Stories.

That those intellectual giants of the Leave movement, Johnson, Farage, Rees-Mogg and IDS, have trumpeted the return of the blue passport as something to celebrate tells you all you need to know. Provided it still contains all the requirements laid down by the EU there may be little to worry about but that won’t stop many of us from buying an “EU coloured” cover for our passport to reduce the acute sense of embarrassment that we now belong to a nation that, while once regarded as reasonably grown up, is now viewed by our European friends and neighbours with a mixture of amusement, bemusement and pity.

What better way to celebrate man’s love for his fellow man at this festive time of year (sorry, person’s love for his/her fellow person) than attending, as we did, the daily Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres. Because nothing says Christmas quite like the half million casualties at Passchendaele.

Blogdaughter has never entirely forgiven me for the “Holiday of Death” in the north east of the USA which the family so enjoyed a few years back. Personally I thought it was really interesting as well as educational to visit the Arlington cemetery with the Kennedy memorials, Ford’s Theatre in Washington where Abraham Lincoln was shot, the Peterson house across the street where he died, the Iwo Jima monument, the Vietnam War memorial wall, the Washington monument, the Lincoln memorial… But I digress.

After one night in Ypres, to Bruges via a really, really big Commonwealth war cemetery at Tynecot. We visited Bruges last year at this time for the seasonal (another synonym for Christmas?) market and were very happy to repeat the experience, complete with horse-drawn carriage ride, canal boat trip, ice rink and way too much Gluhwein and street food. Nothing touristy about Family Blog.

One treat which I’d missed out on last year but was delighted to discover this time was Bruges’ Frietmuseum, “the first and only museum dedicated to potato fries”. What’s not to like?

The potato, we learn, was first domesticated near Lake Titicaca in Peru. Which leads one to assume that, until then, it had enjoyed the freedom to roam the Andes, no doubt searching for a welcoming salt pan or vinegar cascade (Sarson stones?)

The popular root vegetable’s progress from uninviting Peruvian tuber to global success story was not without its challenges. In 1597 a certain John Gerard denounced this economic migrant from the Americas as “provoking debauchery” – which, as anyone in a British city centre around Saturday midnight can confirm, isn’t a bad summation — a conclusion supported by Shakespeare, no less, in Merry Wives, who also refers to the humble spud’s aphrodisiac qualities.

I can speak with the authority of one who has carefully studied the display panels of the Frietmuseum in telling you that “French Fries” first appeared under that nomenclature during WW1 (which is never far from this narrative) when French speaking Belgian squaddies offered them to GIs – the Americans no doubt under the impression that, with the exception of the Germans who were something of a special case, one European nationality was much like another.

The Belgian Union of Potato Fryers (I wonder if I could have joined that one in the 1970s instead of NALGO) awards medals each year on National Belgian Fryers Day (should we have gained another bank holiday for this?) Deserving cases might be eligible for a Silver Cross after 15 years while, after 25 years, one might be designated Knight for “Outstanding service to the sector and the identity of the Belgian Fries Culture”. Even more elevated status is afforded to an Officer of the Union and – the ultimate recognition – Grand Officer (“For invaluable contribution to the defence of potato frying”).

Back home to Sussex in good time to prepare for Santa’s visit but, as ever, too excited to sleep for fear of waking to find that the bearded, white haired, overweight chap padding to the loo in the middle of the night wasn’t, in fact, me.

Mrs Blog and I, knowing one another’s interests too well, proved to have bought each other a copy of “You Can’t Spell America without ME”, Alec Baldwin’s tribute to Donald J Trump. But otherwise I think we did ok. Fortunately, most of the presents that I had bought for Mrs B – books, restaurant vouchers, designer chocolates – proved to be suitable for sharing with me. And the person who gave me the suffragette coasters and the tea towel carrying a likeness of Sylvia Pankhurst (daughter of Emmeline, sister of Christabel) and an extract from one of her speeches could clearly see into the future. Sylvia’s words “a society where there are no rich or poor” and “everyone will have enough” are clearly aimed at a world which still lies just out of sight around the corner.

So far so good.

Life took an unwarranted and unexpected turn just before New Year when this blog was delivered cold and unconscious and with a barely discernible heart beat to the main Brighton hospital. It seems that either I was whacked on the back of the head by a family member or neighbour after a more than usually competitive game of post-prandial Monopoly or experienced some dramatic form of “ticker” malfunction. (I missed all the excitement at the time and must rely on witness statements and bloodstain splatter analysis – a lifeskill acquired from years of watching subtitled crime drama on telly). But at least the nature of my injuries blended in well with the other Saturday night regulars in A&E.

How much we all owe to the NHS and its underresourced heroes and heroines, and how easy it is for politicians to damage it without even trying. If government were to shift its priority from seeking to create profits out of the NHS for shareholders to the provision of healthcare, there may still be hope.

Enough. I’m home now under the TLC of Mrs Blog and kitted out with a pacemaker which will add to my nuisance value at Gatwick’s security gates.

2018 will no doubt bring its own unique challenges and opportunities. Blog family are ready. I have a book to publish. Bring it on!

 

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Travel

“Forever for Everyone” says the National Trust

BLOG 75

Visiting posh houses on Sunday afternoon was what we did when I was little, along with castles and ruined abbeys. Seeing where the monks sat in a line to move their bowels was great if you were a child but I never really got into all that furniture and porcelain. And you always saw it from behind a rope – no fun at all. In later years I didn’t take my own family to National Trust places very often as we had a dog that needed a lot of exercise so we spent any free time at weekends meeting her needs – and she wasn’t really into porcelain in a big way either. Only when the old Labrador died and our day jobs tapered down a bit did we get round to joining the Trust as members: this is what I guess the marketing people would call the “dead dog” marketing segment.

Two “fascinating facts” from the Trust’s website which I’m happy to share. Over 43% of the rainwater in England and Wales drains through a NT property, but fortunately not always the same one. And gravity was invented by Isaac Newton in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire in 1665 on what is now NT land.

Never one for half measures, as soon as I became a member of the Trust, I signed up with them as a volunteer — to serve on a committee on the grounds that you can never have enough committee meetings. I’m pleased to see that my recollection of old houses of the rich being saved for the nearly rich to savour is no longer the be all and end all of the Trust’s mission.

The name of Octavia Hill comes up on a regular basis as one of the Trust’s founders back in 1895. (Not enough people are christened Octavia these days, if you ask me.) As concise tributes go, it would be difficult to improve on these words from the website of her birthplace museum in Wisbech: “Octavia Hill (1838-1912) was a woman ahead of her time. An artist and a radical, she was a pioneer of affordable housing and can be seen as the founder of modern social work.” Which isn’t a bad way to be remembered.

This was not a woman, I’m inclined to think, who would have wanted me to peer at boring old porcelain from long range as some form of punishment for not eating up my peas at Sunday lunch. This was someone who clearly wanted me to have a good time, climbing trees, poking about in Victorian kitchens and dressing up as an undertaker’s mute. Now that’s worth conserving stuff for.

If you’re passing nearby, as Mrs Blog and I did recently, do visit Wisbech and the Octavia Hill house. You can’t but feel in awe of someone who broke free of the shackles traditionally imposed on Victorian women and made a difference.

From Wisbech to King’s Lynn and more fine buildings than you can shake a conservation area management plan at.  Very proud to display its Hanseatic League history, and with so many of its regeneration schemes financially supported by the European Regional Development Fund, the area voted heavily to Leave in the EU referendum….

And so to York where Mrs B has fellow clan members.

The Jorvik centre, interpreting the city’s Viking history through a Disney style ride, has reopened after severe flooding. Apparently these be-horned invaders were into mindfulness and just wanted to be left alone with their embroidery and tofu. Who knew?

I felt a profound bitterness at my parents that they hadn’t been able to bestow on their offspring a decent moniker like Mum and Dad Bloodaxe were able to pass on to their little Eric. Now that’s the kind of name badge you’d fancy picking up at a conference before heading for the twiglets.

There was still time to take in (again) the National Railway Museum. Awesome! But I’m reminded of the tendency for history to big up the achievements of those who write it. As a child I was taught that, along with killing or enslaving natives to make them (a) Christian, and (b) civilized, we could take pride that, in Mallard, we broke – and indeed still hold – the world speed record for a steam train. It’s only later that you discover that the record speed of 126 mph was attained for one second at which point the “big end” overheated and Mallard had to limp to Peterborough for repairs. But hey…

En route home from York we diverted to Isaac Newton’s old pad handily placed for the A1, or Great North Cart Track as old Isaac probably knew it. They still have the apple tree or, at least, its direct descendants so you can see if it still works. The kindly National Trust volunteer asked us if we had any questions to which Mrs Blog, not unreasonably, replied, “Does it work for cooking apples too?”  Bless.

 

Famous for being a bit rubbish

Reputations can be hard to establish. You don’t get to be the UK’s worst post-war PM like Theresa May (oh, ok, second worst) without a lot of determination. But other reputations  are acquired with ease. Eddie the Eagle became famous for ski-jumping without bothering to be good at it. The swimmer Eric Moussambani Malonga (“The Eel”) of Equatorial Guinea reached new heights (depths?) at the 2000 Olympics by completing his 100 metre freestyle heat in just shy of two minutes, or roughly a minute slower than anything other than Gondwanaland had managed before him.

It occurs to me that there are plenty of individuals and organisations out there whose reputations for particular products or performances are based on equally flimsy porridge. You will have your own list; this is mine.

Agatha Christie: may have been jolly good at, I don’t know, arm-wrestling or disappearing acts, but, Agatha, stay away from crime fiction. All that last chapter stuff when you produce brand new characters and scenarios out of the hat that we’ve never heard of to explain the inexplicable, come on! It’s like watching every episode of Death in Paradise, again and again and again…

Lynda La Plante: stick with the TV screenplays, Lynda, cos the books are clunky beyond belief. Like trying to read a Jeffrey Archer.

Starbucks: give up on the coffee – it’s just not you. Seriously, have you ever had a decent cup of coffee in a Starbucks?

Pret a Manger: ok provided you’re not looking for a sandwich. How can they be that dull? Fillings are supposed to be tasty for goodness’ sake.

Hershey: I have met people who claim they can eat Hershey bars but no non-Americans. How can they get chocolate so wrong?

Humous/hummus/hommous: no other words are needed.

Australians: sport? Really? Other than cricket, which?

Joe Allen: give up on the football, Joe. Try something you have an aptitude for. I could choose plenty of examples for this one – you’re just unlucky, Joe. Or a special case.

Boris Johnson: famous for what? Political acumen? Humour? Being an approximation of a trustworthy, half-decent human being? Nope, on all counts.

Virgin Holidays: hit the top of my “put them on hold, play them hugely irritating, ‘jolly holiday’ sounds for hours on end but, whatever you do, don’t answer the phone” list every time. “Your call is important to us – but not important enough for us to employ anybody to talk to you.” Customer care? Oh pleeeeze….

The Lord of the Rings films: Give me strength. Need a wee during the film? No need to press “pause”, you’ll miss nothing. They’ll be doing one of two things: marching across some landscape or it’ll be another fight to the death between people and things it’s impossible to care about. When you come back there’ll be some more marches and plenty more pointless scraps. Only the addition of a car chase could make it worse. If they feature the special effects in the trailers, you know it’ll be rubbish.

The King’s Singers: there used to be the Flying Pickets and a cappella singing was – briefly – fun. But sadly there’s also the King’s Singers, like dragging your finger nails down a blackboard.

Omid Djalili: the world’s unfunniest man in an admittedly crowded field? (Donald Trump has his own edgy “high risk” category). I’ve caught this bloke on numerous occasions on TV or radio and I always hope that humour will be along any minute. But it never happens. Is he a spoof?

The Nou Camp, Barcelona: it’s supposed to have “atmosphere”. I’ve been, for a vital, end of season Spanish championship decider. Trust me on this, it doesn’t. Unless you’re easily impressed by sweet unwrapping noises in a cinema and polite applause. If they built a roof it might help them.

White supremacists: if they’re so superior, how come they never win anything?

UK: once famous for showing the world how to do democracy. Now it’s too complicated for us and we’ve given up the pretence. Just leave us alone….

 

Apologies for the temporary absence of illustrations from this blog. There may well be a reason for this. Normal service will be resumed shortly.

 

 

 

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Travel

The Road to Hull is Paved with Good Intentions

BLOG 70

“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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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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