Wednesday, October 18, 2017

I give you Jim Harman, the man who seems to know everything and will tell you about it all at great length. But be quick, he us off to Australia very, very soon

I mentioned an Italian restaurant called La Pappardella in my last entry, and that’s where I first bumped into Jim Harman. La Pappardella is on the Old Brompton Road, in Earls Court, London, and if you are ever nearby and fancy eating Italian, I can recommend it. It is not part of a chain, and because it is not a chain, you get value for your money, e.g if you like chicken salad, as I do, you don’t get just three or four small cubes of chicken as you do in the bloody fake-Italian chains which you have to hunt down amid the mounds of shredded cos lettuce, but three or four generous pieces of freshly grilled chicken breast. I’m no skinflint, but I do like value for my money. Also the staff and everything about it, including the noise, are Italian.

La Pappardella has a small narrow terrace outside on the street, about five feet wide, with about four tables, and that’s where we smokers sit and dine. I go there on a Sunday when I work only one shift, and I am usually there from about 7.30 till 10, except in the warmer weather when Luigi, the manager, slides open the restaurant glass front to allow in fresh air (as in the ‘fresh air’ you get from a reasonably busy, semi-residential street with traffic passing all day and all night) and has politely and firmly made it clear that when those doors are open, he doesn’t like me sitting outside smoking cigars. Punters smoking cigarettes are fine, but not those who like a cigar, however modest that cigar might be. Oh, well.

I should, by the way, yet again point out that I am most certainly no rich putz with money to burn on cigars, but that I get my La Paz Wilde Cigarros from a shop in Amsterdam which sells boxes of 20 for €14 (i.e. around £12.50/$16.50), though just five of them will set you back £13 here in Britain (which is why I get them when I travel abroad to see my sister or my aunt). To put that figure in perspective, anyone who smokes 20 cigarettes a day, and many smoke a damn sight more than that, will be blowing at least £70 a week or more. My modest box of 20 usually lasts me about a month. Just saying.

I was at La Pappardella one night about a year ago when Jim Harman turned up. He had recently returned to Britain from Australia to sell his flat just down the road from La Pappardella, before leaving Old Blighty for good and settling Down Under. I don’t know how we started talking but we did, and he seemed an affable, interesting guy. The terrace and its diners are shielded from the pavement by a long, four-foot high piece of plate glass, and Jim stands on the pavement side of the glass, with his bottle of lager, cup of espresso and glass of brandy on a terrace table, leaning over the glass to reach it. In all the time I have known him, I have known him, I have never seen him sit down.

Anyway, we got chatting and in our first chat he told me the long and very involved story about how he had gone to his dentist a few days earlier to have some slight work done to his teeth, but how the whole episode had ended with him in intensive care at the Kensington & Chelsea hospital on the Fulham Road because the dentist had accidentally injected him with undiluted something or other and had more or less burned out his sinuses. I do seem to remember that he said ‘bleach’, but surely to goodness injecting a patient with bleach, however dilute, is not standard dental practice, so it must have been something else. Who knows.

He was, he said, at death’s door for 48 hours and was later told by his consultant, he said, that only some fluke or other had saved his life. All this had apparently taken place over the previous weekend. I must admit I was a little dubious about it all, as he didn’t seem much the worse for wear and was knocking back the lagers and beers with gusto, not least smoking his ciggies, which, he said, the doctors had strictly forbidden, but as this was all part of a little light conversation, I gave him the benefit of doubt. And, anyway, it was an entertaining enough story.

There was even a sequel to it, which I got to hear the following Sunday: during the week he had been getting very bad headaches and sinus pain but nothing would help. Finally, noticing something ‘plastic like’ peeping from one of his nostrils, he had pulled at it, then pulled at it a little more, then a little more still until finally a load of gunge emerged. Once that was clear he was felt a lot better. This was somehow the remnants of the ‘bleach’ or whatever the silly dentist had - undiluted - injected him with. I was again a little sceptical as yet again he didn’t in any way seem under the weather, but, hey, what the hell. Who knows? And did I care?

Jim would turn up at La Pappardella at around 9pm, and it wasn’t just on Sundays that he turned up. Sometimes, after ending my Monday or Tuesday double shift at 10pm, I, too, am in the habit of washing up there for a glass of wine and a smoke. And so in further conversations - I supposed I should more strictly call them recitations - I heard how he had, while working on the telecommunications side of things for an oil company in Nigeria, witnessed rebel fighting and how a dishonest female correspondent for British TV gave a live broadcast of the action, describing the bullets flying all around her, while actually she was standing two miles away on the other side of a valley.

On another occasion he told me how to deal with corruption in Nigeria and how he regularly outwitted various Nigerian cops looking for a bribe. There were several other stories - for several years, it seems, he was down and out in Salazar’s Portugal - but, to be frank, the details now elude me.

It was gradually and only later, once over the months I had heard several anecdotes several times and began getting a little peeved that for Jim ‘conversation’ means ‘listen to what I have to say on that topic’ - whatever the topic - that I began to find him just a little less interesting. Brexit is a favourite, but he has knowledge of and an opinion on pretty much everything you might care to raise and he is more than happy to share all with you. He is one of those people who talks so seamlessly and at length that there is no hope of getting a word in edgeways. Sadly, thought perhaps not unexpectedly, he is less interested to hear what you might have to say.

Most recently I heard all about some Michelin-starred Italian chef who had been a big noise in London finally jacking it all in and returning to Italy where he now runs a successful restaurant on the outskirts of Rome. It is on an archaeological site, so is not permanent, but consists of a tent in which he serves only British food. Knowing how much Italians like their food, and knowing just how unlike Italian food British food is, I told him I found that hard to believe, but no, he said, it was true.

Then there was the tale of the son who took over the family’ very successful vineyard and ran it into the ground because he wanted to use his new ideas. (I never knew this, but vineyards keep barrels of ‘reserve’ wine from good years which they then mix with wine from less good years to keep up the overall quality. It seems this fool, the son, that is, not Jim, thought the practice was all stuff and nonsense and refused to keep ‘reserve’ wine. End of vineyard, it seems. Or something. Once again, I got a little lost in the telling and am hazy on details.)

Jim is 77 years old, but could pass for younger. He has a slight Australian edge to his accent, but is Suffolk born and bred. Come November 2, I shall never see him again, because that is when he is flying out to Australia and leaving Britain forever (and where he will apparently spend the next few months building a small domestic solar electricity generating plant for the property he owns out there. Again, I got full details but became a little confused rather quickly. It seems he will, through some quirk in Australian out actually be able to make money by not selling his power to the local Australian power company. Or something).

After what I gather was a lucrative career working first in telecoms and later for British Aerospace in electronics he appears to be not short of a penny and owns his flat in Earls Court as well as land and property in Australia. The other night, once I had decided to mention Jim in this blog (although I didn’t tell him), I actually asked him for a brief rundown of his life history. As it turned out, it that rundown wasn’t at all brief, though briefer than it might have been as I, keen to get the details for this blog entry, was rather ruthless in interrupting him and urging him to stick to the point. Going off at tangent is something Jim is very good at.

This is what I have pieced together from what he told me and had previously mentioned over the past few years. He was born into a large Suffolk farming family of hard drinkers and fighters. His brothers were always getting into fights in the local pub, usually to protect him (or something). He left school and worked on a trawler, though for just one trip: he fell overboard and as fishermen regard that as an ill omen, no one would take him on as crew after that.

He then worked in a factory, although I can’t remember what kind, before (if I remember correctly) his foreman told him he was too bright for that kind of work and should get himself an education. So this he did, studying whatever you have to study to work for - I think - the telecommunications arm of what was then the GPO (General Post Office - this will have been in the 1950s, when life was still in black and white, policeman were the friendly sort who would give you a kindly clip ’round the ear to keep you on the straight and narrow, all women were virgins until they married and when they married all took to going to bed in hair curlers, and life was apparently better in every way).

rom there he was headhunted to work for British Aerospace (or something) and after working there, one thing led to another and he was again headhunted, this time to work for the Ministry of Defence who apparently needed someone with his background to work on some of their missiles system. Or something. I did at the time try to pin him down on dates as it was all getting a bit confusing, but apart from ‘it was in the 1990s’ (which is plausible enough, I suppose) still couldn’t get a proper timeline out of it all. And how all this ties in with Nigeria and Portugal (‘that was in the 1970s’) I can’t really work out.

But there you have him: Jim who knows pretty much everything about everything and furthermore has an opinion on pretty much everything and will pass on his knowledge at no cost but at great length. If you do want further details of him and his life, please don’t rely on my account which, as you can, see, is pretty sketchy, but get your skates on and take yourself down to La Pappardella at 253 Old Brompton Rd, Earls Court, London SW5 9HP where you can catch him on almost any night from between 9pm and midnight. But make it snappy as he’s off to Australia on November 7.

And if you want a really long chat, get him started on Brexit.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

It’s the little lad of four, sitting on a sofa trying to eat a fried egg with a knife and fork while a dog stood just feet away pissing which did my head in. Kidnapping was the best thing to do

I don’t know why this occurred to me an hour or so ago while I was leaving work and heading for here, La Pappardella in Earls Court, where I am settling in to a half-bottle of so-so to not very good house red wine, a cigar and, later perhaps, a meal, but it did. And it has nothing to do with anything which happened today, this week, this month, this year or – well, nothing to do with anything I can think of. It simply came back to me. NB This entry was actually written with the immediate bit below last, but I’ve realised that I took an age getting to it, so I have brought it to the top.

. . .

Only two stories found me while I was working as a district reporter in North Gwent, in South Wales, which were worth anything, and even one could perhaps be bullshit. But the second wasn’t.

The office phone rang, and I answered it.

‘Is this Patrick Powell?’ a low, very low and rather mysterious voice asked, one I could hardly even make out.

‘Yes, it is,’ I said, ‘why?’

Then he announced: ‘Social services have kidnapped my daughter.’

You get accustomed to nutters even when you are working for a very low-level, not very successful evening paper in the back of beyond in the South Wales valleys, but unless they are dangerous or, at worst, drunk, they help to pass the time. Oh, really I asked, give me more details. But the guy wouldn’t give any. Instead he asked me to meet him.

I went to the address he gave me. It was one of several very substantial houses in a very substantial avenue in Tredegar which had not only seen far, far better days, but which could not even remember them. There was a lot of empty housing in North Gwent and the terrace house could be snapped up for a song, but as no one had the dosh to buy the bigger ones, such as this, they were bought up by the local council and used to house those council tenants who had caused trouble everywhere else they lived.

These people were the utterly forgotten people, people who no one knew what to do with and about whom they cared even less. They existed on miserly benefits – not at all large even in 1977 – and everyone could pretend they were being taken care of. They had reached the end, an end you and I will, God willing, never meet. The house, like all the others in the row was wasted, falling down, a wreck, however grand it might once have been, almost an ex-house.

The guy who answered the door took me into his very large sitting room, and I mean the room was large. But there was nothing in it but a table and three chairs and a broken-down sofa on which sat a young child of about four. And the sight broke my heart. The child wearing very little was sitting on the sofa with a plate balanced on its knees trying, with a knife and fork, to eat a fried egg. I sat down in a chair to listen to the man’s story. But as I did so, something even more distressing occurred. A large Alsatian dog, a male, matted and ragged beyond belief, walked in, stopped, then without even cocking its leg as male dogs do, pissed, right there, not feet from the child. And then it walked on, leaving the puddle of piss behind it.

The man told me his story. It seemed that not a year or two ago, his wife had fallen pregnant and was taken to hospital to give birth. Then, once the child was born, it was whisked away by the nursing staff, never to be seen by the mother of father again.

I was astonished.

‘Are you sure?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ he told me. And he gave me the family doctor’s name, the doctor he claimed was responsible for it all.

I jotted down various details, then took off back to Ebbw Vale. I rang the doctor and explained what I had been told.

‘It’s true,’ he said. He was very matter-of-fact, as doctors who do not aim for a celebrity career on TV usually are.

‘What, you took the child away?’

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘But why?’ I asked.

‘Well, you’ve met the father, haven’t you.’ That, he felt was explanation enough. He then told me the child had been immediately given up for adoption.

I kind of understood. And I never got in touch with the father again. Did I do the right thing by doing nothing? I really don’t know, but I’m certain that child had a slightly better life than he or she might otherwise have had.

. . .

Now the bit which initially came first: A few years ago, I decided to read some Somerset Maugham short stories, and then read the very good biography of the man by Selina Hastings (which I have written about before here). But this has little if anything to do with Maugham. I simply mention him because many of his stories, in fact a great deal of them, were based on incidents that occurred, anecdotes he heard or, very often, anecdotes his companions and partners, Gerald Haxton and later Alan Searle, heard and would relate back to him. In fact, Maugham is said to have relied on both heavily for ‘material’. Incidentally, both were very important to him, though Maugham described Haxton as ‘vintage’ but Searle as ‘vin ordinaire’.

Haxton had ‘breeding’, but I put the word in quotation marks because although I admit it does mean something, I dislike much of the snobbery inherent in the word. Maugham and Haxton were together for a very long time, but eventually their relationship disintegrated because of Haxton’s excessive drinking and druggery. He finally died, and although Maugham was inconsolable for a time, he also admits to something akin to relief. Haxton caused him all sorts of trouble. Maugham, a man essentially of the 19th century, was at pains to keep his homosexuality (although he was bisexual and had many female conquests) quiet, whereas Haxton, usually drunk, made no secret at all of his orientation, forever picking up rough trade and getting into all kinds of scraps.

After Haxton’s death, Searle, a working-class lad from Bermondsey, was taken on, ostensibly as his ‘secretary’, and he did, indeed, function more as an employee although he was also, most probably more in the early years, a sexual partner for Maugham. One of many, apparently.

When he was still quite young, Maugham developed a bad stammer, one which caused him quite a bit of social embarrassment, so he was grateful to Haxton who could act in his stead as host and being an ebullient sort take the spotlight off Maugham. Haxton, it is said, had the easy charm of a many to whom many would open up, whereas Maugham could be quite intimidating, although he never meant to be.

My point is that Maugham worked many of the tales Haxton and later Searle brought to him into stories, and the following account, although true, could well serve the same purpose.

. . .

In October 1976, what? 41 years ago? I left the Lincolnshire Chronicle where I had worked for 16 months as a reporter and joined The News, one of two weekly papers circulating in what was then called Gwent, in South Wales, as one of two North Gwent district reporters. As a ‘career move’ moving from one weekly in Lincoln to another in South Wales served no purpose at all, but then I didn’t much have a purpose and was simply driven by a desire to move on. Anywhere, really. It was most certainly not a ‘career move’ and wasn’t intended as one.

Life was simple and easy in North Gwent. Life as a reporter on a weekly is not onerous, not even if you have ambition, and I had none. I fell in with Julie Davis, the other district reporter who had taken a shine to me, and after staying overnight with her on the night of the paper’s Christmas party in her small cottage in Llangattock, just across the River Usk from Crickhowell, within weeks I was staying overnight seven days a week and we were living together. It was not love, but it was easy: a cooked meal every night, telly, then sex. But although I was not ambitious, I was conscious of still wanting to move on, and move on I did, to become on of the local North Gwent district reporters for the local evening paper, the South Wales Argus.

Apart from working for the local evening paper instead of one of the two local weekly papers – the other was the Gwent Gazette – life carried on as it did, except that I was now based in the Argus’s Ebbw Vale office. Stories came from meetings of the local district council, Blaenau Gwent, and the magistrates courts, Ebbw Vales, Tredegar, Abertillery and, until the closed both, Nantyglo and Aberbeeg. The routine was to stay in court or at a council meeting until I had enough ‘stories’ to file, then bugger off back to the office or even home, to write them up and then call it a day.

The job was quite lucrative, too, although indirectly, in a kind of abstract way. A district reporter’s job will not keep him or her in diamonds and pearls, ever, but my weekly wage was supplemented by – at The News’s request – submitting court stories. These were the same as I had phoned over to my paper, except that they were three or four times longer, because I was being paid ‘lineage’ – the longer the story, the more moolah would be added to my wage packet (the South Wales Argus and The News were in the same stable, so the wages office was the same). Then there were ‘expenses’ and Lord was I able to milk the paper.

‘Police calls’ could well be done over the phone, ringing up to get a rundown of local petty crime and road accidents. But for some reason we were ordered to pay each police station a visit in person. My local police stations were in Abertillery, Ebbw Vale, Brynmawr and Tredegar, so that is what I did. To same time, of course, I drove to Brynmawr, about four miles down the road, then on to Abertillery, then back to Ebbw Vale and on to Tredegar, and it was all done and dusted in just over an hour. That was the reality.

For expenses, I claimed mileage from the Ebbw Vale office to Brynmawr and back; then from the Ebbw Vale office to Abertillery and back (and before they were closed to Nantyglo and Aberbeeg and back; and finally from the Ebbw Vale office to Tredegar and back. My actual round trip was about 20 miles. The way I worked it bumped that up to about 50 miles. And this was claimed every day. I really can’t remember what my weekly wage was, but I do know that I was getting as much in lineage and mileage as my weekly wage.

The very, very odd thing was my expenses were never questioned, ever. Ever. Why, I don’t know, but there seemed no reason to find out why. It has long been a principle of mine to do something first and then be told to stop rather to go, cap in hand, to authority to ask whether, you know, is it OK if I do this. To which request the answer can all too often be, no, you can’t. So the moral of the story is: don’t ask in the first place.

. . .

But to get to the nitty-gritty. I did, once in a while, come up with a non-court and non-council story, but with one exception they all seemed to fine me rather than as a result of any diligent sleuthing on my part. (The one good story I came up with was so neutered – probably for legal reasons – as not to be much of a scoop when it finally appeared in print. At one court hearing, a man was fined for importing TV sets from the Channel Islands to North Gwent without paying customs duty. He was fined.

Then, about four or five months later, I was – unusually I have to say – looking through a report of one of the many ‘land regeneration schemes’ launched, paid for by Welsh Office funds, to try to do something about the economic blight destroying North Gwent, but also, and more purposefully, to show ‘the public’ that the Welsh Office was tirelessly beavering away on its behalf. As they say, perception is nine-tenths of the game.

Looking through a report on the latest, a one-million pound scheme to do something or other (and this was in 1977/8, so your £1 million pounds would now, 40 years on, be worth about £5.7 million according to the Bank of England I came across a name which struck me as familiar. What I did next I don’t recall, except that it was to establish that the gent behind the scheme was the very same guy done in the courts a few months earlier for not paying import duty on TV sets from the Channel Islands. What, I asked myself, is going one? How come a two-bit petty crook was being paid a find sum by the Welsh Office.

I did everything by phone, ringing up the Welsh Office, ringing up the company involved and all the rest. It’s not at all difficult, and just needs a little common sense. And the great thing is that people more often than not tell you more than they want to, especially as they don’t yet know that you know what you already know. I wont’ – and can’t – go into details except for one: I spoke to the guy involved and he denied he had anything or anything to do with the company concerned. I then spoked to several other people in the company who all gave me a slightly different story. And when I told one that the man he referred to as ‘his boss’ denied outright being ‘his boss’, he came out with the following great quote: ‘If my boss says he isn’t my boss, then he isn’t my boss.’

Given that there was some kind of scam going on, but given that those involved were low-level knuckleheads (and Lord knows what was going on at the Welsh Office), that about summed it up. I was very proud of my story and wrote it up. The subs then neutered it, and nothing, but nothing at all came of it.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Killing time with a gratuitous kick at vino-loving francophiles

Bordeaux airport, Merignac

More time to kill, so as I am increasingly doing and lacking anyone to talk at, I have decided to post yet another blog entry, which would be my third in just a week. There’s not a great deal to write about, but as my prime intention is to pass the time, that might worry you rather more than it would worry me. Traffic on the motorway and Bordeaux ring road (rocade, my French is coming along nicely, and it isn’t an encouragement to play music as loud as possible) was average, so there’s nothing to report there, and I shan’t do so.

There was the usual rigmarole here at the airport in security checks, but I seem to be getting more used to it. Maybe it’s the wisdom of age. Maybe it’s just that I can no longer even be arsed getting uptight about something I can do nothing about. I should have discovered that years ago.

On the last two full days staying with my aunt I have taken off in the household car (and managing to scrape the left wind on the garage wall parking it last night). I set off on Tuesday to see a photographic exhibition in Langon, but contrary to promises that it was open from every day until the end of September, it wasn’t. It was shut. So I took off into town after I spotted a poster for another exhibition – water and places/towns in South Bordeaux – and eventually found it. It was as exciting as its title promised, i.e. not much, and furthermore everything was in French.

Now just as waiting for a bus or a train not due for another 30 minutes you are apt to read pretty much any and every poster available, from admonishments to keep the platform clean to suggestions about what to do if you ever find yourself at a loose end in Paignton or Blackpool or Chester or pretty much anywhere, I set about trying to decipher the exhibition. I can follow some written French to a certain extent, but after about ten minutes ‘reading’ the first exhibit, I gave up. Had I carried on in that manner throughout the whole exhibition, I would still be there next Tuesday (and on a practical note, would have missed my flight).

Earls Court, later

Back in Old Blighty after a relatively painless journey from Bordeaux airport (I started this entry in the Billi terminal café). There was something akin to controlled chaose at the airport, when for whatever reason, and with three flights setting off at the same time, passengers for all three flights were channelled into the same two passport control booths.

At 12.40 and with just ten minutes to go before our scheduled departure, there was a crowd of at least 250 people queuing up to show their passports and I did wonder whether the flight would leave without us. As it was it left just under 20 minutes late, which is pretty much par for the course for any short haul flight leaving later than 10am from pretty much anywhere. As it was we flew out to Bordeaux from Gatwick about 20 minutes late and boarding had seemed to go completely smoothly. Ah, the tribulations we jet-setters have to put up with.

. . .

Over the past 52 years I reckon I have visited about 20/25, perhaps a few times more, but can honestly say I don’t know the country at all well. My father was stationed in Paris for five years from 1968 on, but in those five years I probably only went home about eight times, every Christmas and then once or twice at Easter. My parents marriage was disintegrating (and my father had a mistress on the side back in London whom he married when my mother died suddenly at 60 after suffering a huge heart attack) and the atmosphere wasn’t very nice.

After that it was once or twice on holiday in the early 1980s (quite recent for me, the distant past for anyone under 30 (I often remind myself that 1986 to me, the year I joined the South Wales Echo, would have been 1959 to my father, the year he and his family went to live in Berlin, but anyone of my age and a little younger will know exactly what I am talking about). Ironically, with one exception when by brother and I spent two weeks in an out-of-season sky chalet apartment near Morzine in the Haut-Something or other Alps, every other visit, including to with my then girlfriend, Sian, was to the same area, Gironde. And to be frank the countryside there is nothing special.

So I know very little of France and unlike my brother and sister, who both attended a French school for five years while my father was working there, don’t speak any French. I mention the countryside because a little later today I shall be leaving La Pappardella here in Earls Court, where I am enjoying a class of wine, I shall be jumping into my car and schlepping all the way home for the next four and a half hours. And in doing so I shall be passing through some very lovely countryside. I know parts of Germany and I know a small part of France, yet – and I don’t think I am at all biased – English countryside, Wiltshire, Somerset, Devon and then Cornwall – knocks it into a cocked hat.

It’s not just all the bloody rain we get here, but there seems more variation. I really no claiming that France, Germany and the rest don’t also have nice countryside, just that vast swathes of those two countries – Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) in Germany, for example – are awfully flat and dull.

. . .

Many Brits have a peculiar dog-in-the-manger attitude to France. I am not talking of all Brits, but those, for example, who might refer to wine as vino and sniff the cork when opening a bottle. Question their patriotism and they might be apt to reply that they ‘love the Queen’ and would certainly ‘die for their country’, but in many ways they seem to regard France as simply a better place, a leader in so many areas where, in their view, Britain lags well behind. ‘The French,’ they will announce, ‘know how to live,’ to which you would be quite entitled to respond ‘what the hell are you talking about?’ But your response will be met by an air of queit disdain that you don’t know what you are talking about.

The French ‘know wine’, ‘eat well’, are ‘superbly chic’ they will tell you, and although such men - it is always men - would be the first, if the occasion arose, to resort to that hoary old cliche that ‘to be born English is to win the first prize in the lottery of life’ (with Scots and Welsh men substituting ‘British’ for English), their gushing over France and all things French would make it seem they actually believe otherwise.

I, who likes food a great deal, am the first to admit that I prefer the French attitude to food and drink and would disagree fundamentally with such self-decribed francophiles. A visit to any supermarket or a stroll in any city, town
and village in France will inform you that your average Frenchman and woman know as little about fashion and chic as our average Brit. As for the conviction of the French that they are ‘a nation of thinkers’, I also beg to differ. Certainly, they seem to argue a lot more with each other and certainly they will discuss pretty much anything at length and then some, but that falls well short of somehow being intellectually in the avant garde.

As for food and drink, the French do seem to value quality more than the Brits, but I as someone who likes cooking, know that it is the attitude to food which differs, not the food itself. (I wish to God many of the items available in French supermarkets were available to us here in Britain. That they are not merely means that there is no call for it. If the Brits wanted it, you can bet your bottom dollar Asda, Morrison, Tesco, and Sainsbury would supply a far wider selection of cheeses and pate far, far better than the slush they offer at the moment. But, as I say, the Brits just aren’t interested.)

A meal is not something to be wolfed down in three or four minutes, but something to be enjoyed. Any meal eaten on any day in France is essentially as simple as one eaten in Britain. It is most certainly not all haut cuisine, but it is also most certainly not the unhealthy stodge that passes for food in Britain.

As for wine, well, there is plenty of the cheap rotgut stuff available in France and there are plenty of takers for it. If you like wine, and I do, you can get perfectly good wine in any supermarket in Britain, just don’t go for the very cheap stuff, bearing in mind that with with the production costs and tax imposed on it, it will be very cheap stuff indeed. Still, if you are one of those ‘j’aime le vin’ Brits who beetles off to France every year to enjoy life as the French do, you’ll still be thinking I haven’t a bloody clue what I am talking about.



Tuesday, September 19, 2017

An afternoon in Langon drinking pastis, smoking a cigar and chasing down a viable wifi connection (as you do)

I am sitting outside a café in Place J. David (and I have no idea who he is was) in a town called Langon in the Gironde, South-West Frace, doing what we all seem to do in such a situation, apart from refreshing ourselves and possibly lighting up. I’m looking for wifi. Why, of course, I don’t know and, more to the point, well, why? Theoretically, my 3G connection should be enough (I am on my iPad), but of course Sod’s Law is kicking in and it isn’t. But why should I need or even want wifi.

Well, of course, I don’t, but that is obviously beside the point. I could try to justify it, but I shan’t. I shall simply offer an explanation. I have just taken a picture, then cropped it, then tinkered with it, and it seems to me a reasonably good picture typical of provincial France at pretty much any time. I wanted to post it on Facebook (look me up if you want, Patrick Powell, one of several Patrick Powells, but I’m sure you will sooner or later be able to choose the right one) but I can’t because the … scrub all that, solved it.

I’ve got to say that for one reason or another I prefer to be completely alone on holiday. It’s not that I don’t like staying with people (Marianne), but that when I go on holiday, I feel completely free. There’s no supper to get back to, no timetable of any kind. I can just suit myself. There are, of course, slight drawbacks if, like me, you are the sociable sort and, for example, enjoy eating a good meal or visiting a good concert or exhibition in company, so as to compare notes.

Well, despite that drawback, I just love having no deadline whatsoever. None. And I love, just love mooching about aimlessly, going where my nose takes me. And in company that usually doesn’t work if, for example, your companion doesn’t like mooching about aimlessly and there’s the sense in the back of your head that you don’t want to be boring. And one thing I like doing is finding a pleasant outdoor café like this one and just sitting (or, as is the case here, blogging.

About 30 minutes ago I took a picture, this picture, where the guy was what I was taking the picture of. But because I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable, I made out that I was simply taking a picture of the street and he happened to be in it. Then I cropped it to what you can see here. Deadline, a deadline, looms. Langon is about a

30-minute drive from where I am staying and I am taking my aunt out to supper tonight. And I have to shave and get changed, so it is off with me quite soon. Damn.

So, a short blog entry for a change. More’s the pity because I do so like rambling on about absolutely nothing. Trump is now threatening to destroy North Korea, but I have no time to pontificate on that (and Lord could I pontificate!), so au revoir ici (j’espere). Hope that is right and not bloody awful French.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

And an entry pretty much in keeping with the title of this blog, in which I fly in a plane, wonder what planet Jean Claude Juncker is on as yet again he bangs on about ‘ever closer political union in the EU’, remember once more why it’s lethal for me to drink at lunchtimes and – well, nothing more really – BUT DON’T GIVE UP

Illats, France.

This is a late addition to this blog entry, but I am putting it here upfront, because the rest of this entry is so stupendously dull that I doubt anyone would carry on reading and get to it. Earlier on today, my aunt (see below) announced that Francis Coppola’s (or to give him his full name Francis Ford Coppola, though I really can’t see what the ‘Ford’ is necessary, I mean it’s not as though his last name is a boring old Smith or even Powell) recut version of his classic Apocalypse Now, usefully re-titled Apocalypse Now Redux (which makes it sound related to an anti-vomiting medication) would be showing on French/German channel ARTE. The reason she told me was that it was a ‘VO’ screening, original version.

Well, we all sat down at 8.5pm (20.55 for fucking Eurohphiles) and the film started. In bloody French. My aunt (see below) expressed her disappointment, and I thought ‘sod, it, I was looking forward to this’. Finally, after about 45 minutes of French dialogue – er, I don’t speak French – I gave up and announced I was going to bed.

But I knew that a few months ago I had downloaded the film – in English – and promised myself that when I got back to Old Blighty, I would scour my 17 laptops looking for which one it had been downloaded to. But, dear friends, there is a god: it was downloaded to this one, the trusty small, 11in Lenovo x121e I take on my travels. So guess what I am going to do once I have added this to my blog entry? Watch the film? Well, why not?

This blog entry was started several thousands of fee up in the air, for no very good reason than that I have never done that before. In fact, I can see a series coming on, a series of blogs written in unusual places or circumstances: a blog written (obviously at some considerable risk) in Russian president Vladimir Putin’s private lavatory, one written while simultaneously trying to break the record for eating the most doughnuts (US ‘donuts’) in an hour while typing with one hand.

Well, this blog entry is being written, though by necessity will not be posted while flying easyjet EZY8019 from Gatwick to Bordeaux, mainly because I am bored, don’t really want to read the Economist and watching a film on my iPad (on which this entry is being written) is not as easy as it seems because I find the noise of the engine tends to come through and dialogue is surprisingly difficult to understand.

But first things first: I, as everyone else who came to Gatwick to fly off somewhere (as opposed to all the staff in the many shops, bars and cafes selling tat, drinks and grub at hugely inflated prices – I had a Tony Powell moment when I was asked to pay £3.55 for a regular, i.e. ‘small’, cappuccino and made my feelings plain) had more or less to strip naked to pass through security.

Now I obviously fully understand the reasons for the whole rigmarole, but it always puts me in a bad mood and makes travel by plane such a pain. I like the flying, it’s the stripping off and hanging around that pisses me off. Today our flight – and not one towards the end of the day, but the 9.40pm to Bordeaux – didn’t leave until 10.25pm.

It did make, though, make me realise that I would make a rubbish refugee or economic migrant. And for once that isn’t some cheap, silly joke: given that their lot doesn’t involve mere 40-minute delays and that they are treated like shit by pretty much everyone they come across, they have my wholehearted respect. If I were a refugee, there would be not one but a great many Tony Powell moments, until they come to an end when I am shot through the head by some thug who got fed up with all the whinging.

. . .

The big news this week, or rather the 17th biggest news this week given that the wee chappie in North Korea has sent another rocket off across Japan which arguably is rather bigger news, is that one Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European made his ‘state of the union’ address to gathering of the few who can still find it in themselves to be interested and in which he banged on about chasing forward ever faster towards ever greater political union, an EU army, EU-wide this and EU-wide that. ‘Europe, he declared, ‘has the wind in its sails again. Well, perhaps, perhaps not. As usual we would have to wait for at least 50 years and preferably far more to get a balanced, reasonably objective account of how the EU fared once Britain had upped sticks and buggered off in a huff and few if any of us reading this will be around then.

I read the report of his speech in the Guardian, a paper which is not known for its Brexit tendencies, but even it was remarkably sniffy about Juncker and his speech. It pointed out that the contents of the speech were more fantasy than anything else, given that not a small number of EU members who might well be keen on most aspects of the union are – for any number of reasons – not at all hot on ‘ever closer political union’. This is something Juncker is apparently still big on.

As for Brexit and Juncker’s take on it, you pays your money and you makes your choice as to how important the great man thinks it is. The Guardian reported that he spent less than two minutes addressing the issue. You can read more details here.

The Daily Mail on the other hand made a big thing of Juncker’s references to Brexit, which is no great surprise, of course, reporting that the great man insisted Britain would regret leaving the EU.  and a second account here.

There, in a nutshell, is the problem for anyone trying to find out objective accounts of this another matters. The Mail says one thing, the Guardian another. And given the choice of two interpretations most of us accept the one which best reflects our views. But then it was ever thus.

 . .

I have now been here in Illats for a few days, days which are following their usual pattern. My aunt, who is basically Irish but who has lived in France for more than 50 years does things the French way. So lunch is the big meal of the day. It’s not that the French treat themselves to several haut cuisine dishes at every meal, so by ‘big meal’ I mean main meal, even though it does always – in her household and even though it is essentially a simply meal – consist of hors d’oeuvres (pate, cruditie, that kind of thing, then the main course, then cheese, then fruit. And it is not all gulped down in four minutes. I should though point out that my aunt (strictly speaking my stepmother’s sister, but I regard here as an aunt and her two sons as cousins) and her husband are both over 80 and grew up in a different age. Supper is something simpler, often just salad with dressing, bread and a bit of chees. But wine is drunk at both meals, and it is the wine which does for me.

I can’t say I drink a great deal, but even a glass of wine at lunchtime can knock me out for the afternoon, and it is usually two or three glasses rather than just the one. Obviously, I am not being forced to drink, but I do like a leisurely meal and nothing makes a meal more leisurely than a glass or three of wine. I can’t say I know a great deal about wine (at home I stick to one of two brands of Spanish Rioja and although neither is the cheapest in the supermarkets, buing them most certainly doesn’t risk me breaking the bank), but my aunt’s husband – who may no longer drink alcohol for health reasons – does, like many French of his age know a bit and buys in good wines, which are always a pleasure to drink. So after lunch, I retire to my room, try to read, but very soon give in and nap on and off for an hour or two and finally end up feeling like death. Some people are refreshed by an afternoon snooze, some are not. I am not.

In the past few years I have been coming to Illats in July to take in several concerts at chateaux in the region, but it wasn’t possible this year, so I am here in September. There are, sadly, no concerts at the moment (in July there is are there different series of them) but last night we did catch a nine-strong group of Georgians singing their lusty hearts out at the Cite du Vin in Bordeaux (a very futuristic-looking building). Apparently, it was all part of a marketing drive to push Georgian winesnd there was any number of brochures about Georgia’s wine industry, one claiming – not doubt truthfully – that the cultivation of grapes and wine-making began in Georgia around 6,000BC.

The singers (who each carried a foot-long dagger) had great voices and they harmonised as I have so far only heard the Welsh do.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Becker dead already? Good Lord, why didn’t anyone tell me? Oh, that Becker, not the Venezuelan basketball player. Really. Well, I suppose it’s got to happen to us all at some point. How old was he?

Here’s a surprise: I and my peers, friends and colleagues are all reaching our four score and ten – or getting damn close - and one by one ‘names’ we grew up with, especially musos, are falling off their respective perches. And the surprise? Well, the surprise is that they are all rather surpised that even though in the past folk have tended to kick the bucket pretty much at any time on from the age of 60, they (and their peers, friends and colleagues) expect somehow to buck the trend, to live on for ever if not longer.

Earlier this year it was Prince, and now Walter Becker has gone to meet his maker. I mention those two because I went a bundle over their music, and then some. In Prince’s case I have to admit that I was surprised by his death in that he was still only 57, but also that his death came as the result of a drug overdose. It was not, however, a ‘drug overdose’ as in ‘injecting too much heroin’ or suffering a heart attack after years of cocaine use and abuse  – Prince was, in fact, rather sniffy about using drugs in that way - but a ‘drug overdose’ in that to cope with pain from a damaged hip and to carry on working for days on end without any sleep, Prince had become addicted to painkillers and had been taking them in ever greater amounts. So it wasn’t actually ‘for the pleasure’ of taking drugs or, to use the ludicrous phrase which is often used by folk to try to demonstrate how broadminded they are, he was not taking the pain killers ‘recreationally’.

Becker, on the other hand, was at one point hooked on heroin, though I don’t know when the habit was formed and he did not die of an overdose. Nor do I – or anyone else apparently judging from the obits – know a great deal about the man. Each obit I have heard recites and recycles the same ‘facts’ as though they are cribbing their copy from each other: of his childhood we are told that he ‘was born in Queens in New York’ and that ‘he had rather a rough time of it’. What his parents were called, whether he had siblings and what became of them, what his ‘rough time during childhood’ consisted of we don’t know. I mention that because such details are known and repeated about his songwriting partner and the guy he formed Steely Dan with, Donald Fagen.

Then we are told that Becker ‘attended Bard College ‘a private liberal arts college in Annandale-on-Hudson, a small hamlet in New York’. Such an education at ‘a private liberal arts college’ does not come cheap, so it might be safe to assume that Becker’s miserable childhood was not due to poverty or race. At Bard he met Fagen and both found they had a lot in common – they liked the same jazz, they were into sci-fi and shared the same sense of humour. They formed a band or two (and, a usual factoid often included, comedian and actor Chevy Chase was once a drummer in one of those bands). And on it goes.

My point is that nothing much new is known about Becker apart from the details always trotted out. So: once he was addicted to heroin, his then girlfriend, a Karen Stanley, died of an overdose in his flat. A few months later, he was hit by a taxi in the street and spent a long time in a wheelchair and was confined to the wheelchair while helping to produce the album Gaucho. Except by then his habit made him inconsistent and unreliable (heroin does that kind of thing) and more often than not Fagen was obliged to do most of the work.

Final facts: both decided to put their partnership on ice and Becker took himself off to Hawaii where he beat the habit, married and became an avocado farmer (and I still can’t decide whether that last ‘fact’ is indeed a ‘fact’ or just another in-joke for the two). Either way it is now appearing in Becker’s bios and his obits.

Yes, there’s a bit more which is trotted out, but not much. You will now see him lauded as ‘a great guitarist and bass player’, but it is legitimate to ask why if he was so great did he and Fagen hire so many other guitarists and bass players? He could certainly play, but, for example, his guitar playing has - had I suppose - that noodling quality which can often give the impression of being great without actually being great.

. . .

The friend mentioned in the following (below) informed me a few hours ago that an incident at a Steely Dan concert he and I attended in London was referred to in the comments from readers which are appended to the obit which was published in The Guardian. Here it is. I took a look but couldn’t find it the reference to the incident. So I then googled ‘hotel california “steely dan” “wembley arena” to see if I could track it down. I couldn’t but reached the following, rather breathless, piece about Steely Dan. And here is the comment I left there. I have simply copied it and reproduced it here quite simply because it makes points I would go on to make here and – call me lazy if you like – it saves time.

I avoided listening to Steely Dan during the Seventies because it was trendy to do so. Then one day, in 1977/8 in a god-forsaken down-at-heel steel town in South Wales called Ebbw Vale where I was working as a reporter, I was going through the bargain bin in a newsagent’s chain — of all places, not even a record shop — and came across Aja. It was on sale for 50p (half of £1, about £2.71 in 2015), and at that price I bought it. Even if it was complete shite, at least it was cheap. [But] I loved it immediately and over the next few months I bought all the other albums, which I also loved. Then Gaucho came out, and I bought that and loved that, too.

I still like the music, though I only play intermittent tracks, and went on to buy Fagen’s first solo album — great — then his second, not at all so great, Becker’s first — great and even his weedy voice somehow works, and then SD’s comeback albums, in turn. I like those tunes, too, but something had gone missing.

I think it was their age and possibly because by then they were pretty much at the centre of New York’s art establishment, which whenever I’ve come across it, almost always on TV — I have no personal experience of it one little bit — strikes me as far to self-regarding for comfort, as in ‘Christ, aren’t we cool.’ A good example is David Byrne and his band who are fine as popsters but who seemed to think they and their acolytes are somehow ‘art’. No, you’re not kids, you were just another generation of popsters.

Becker and Fagen strike me as the same: pop/rock dies when some pretentious fuckwit wants to promote it to the status of art and all that ‘art’ brings with it: significance, importance, morality and loads of other crap. And Becker and Fagen seem to have bought into the whole pop as art notion completely.

In the early 1980s I heard an interview with them on Radio 1. I had tuned in eagerly, but was left distinctly disappointed: my then heroes came over as such self-conscious clever dicks that I wanted to puke.

More recently I and a friend went to see them play the Wembley Arena. It was (I’ve just looked it up) in 1996. And once again my one-time heroes showed themselves to have feet of clay: Becker, to his eternal shame, supposedly cool as shit Becker began with that corny old standby ‘hello, London, we love your fish and chips’ and received, as I suppose he expected and wanted, whoops and cheers from the faithful. I felt ill.

A little later — we were in about row three right at the front of the stage — I mischievously shouted to Fagen ‘why don’t you play Hotel California’, and boy did he hate it. This was right just as another song was going to start and it must have preyed on his mind throughout cos when it finished he — rather lamely, I thought — came out with ‘bad things happen to people who say that’.

But oh well, there’s still the music, especially the early music, and nothing can detract from that: music is music is music. But as for ‘the Dan’ and ‘cool’ and arty Becker and Fagen, er, I’ll happily leave the adulation to someone else.

. . .


Don’t get me wrong: I still love Steely Dan’s songs and music, Fagen’s voice and their individual solo albums (though Fagen’s Kamakiriad is, in my view, a little weak). It’s just (and I think I’ve said this before) the usual adulation makes me feel a little queasy. And when someone dies, it becomes intensified. My comment in the Guardian appended with the rest to the obit it was carrying of Becker and where everyone and his dogs was recording just what a sheer genius he was, that we would never see his like again (cont p94) consisted of asking whether ‘Anyone been down to Kensington Palace yet to dump flowers at the gate? It's got to happen, to honour ‘the People's Guitarist’.’ It was not a popular comment. The responses were:


It seems you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

It’s just that I really, really don’t go a bundle on all the canonisation and beatification, and boy does it go on. I’m praying that a certain Bob Dylan is in great health and will wait until I have popped my clogs before he, too, goes. I really don’t think I could survive the hoopla about him.

. . .

PS I was chasing around the ‘information superhighway’ – sorry, the web – looking a picture of Walt and found myself deciding whether to use one of him young or old, until I decided not to use one at all, when I came across this: a woman who claims she was married to Becker, but has been written out of all the bios. Well, you decide. . .

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A sigh of relief as we witness the political suicide Jacob Rees-Moog’s way – same-sex marriage and abortion are wrong. It’s not what the country feels, cos we are a little more (what?)

Stopped off at my usual Wednesday evening haunt, The Brewers Arms, South Petherton, on my way home after quite literally working my bollocks off trying to avoid real work these past few days in London. It ain’t easy. Bosses are getting smarter and can spot a wrong ‘un like me far more easily than when I started in this racket in June 1974. (NB I always thought it was Monday, June 14, 1974, and smugly congratulated myself on having a ‘good head for dates’.

Thing is, I recently, for no very good reason, looked up June 1974 on my iPhone calendar and it turned out June 20 was a Thursay. And as I joined the Lincolnshire Chronicle (which at some point in the past 43 joined all the other dead newspaper in Heaven, when I don’t know) on a Monday, it must have been June 17.

Then there’s the date I started with the Evening Mail in Birmingham – January 4, 1980. Except it cannot have been – that was a Friday. And as January 1 was New Year’s Day, when no one works (or rather does even less work than usual), it must have been January 7. So much for having a ‘good head for dates’.

. . .

I began stopping off here because it has a comfortable outdoor smoking area, but more to the point, I can usually watch the second half of a game of football, often a Champions League match or, if not, a Premier League game. But, dear friends, there’s no football tonight, no rugby and no cricket. There might well be Formula 1, tennis, basketball or something else, but those sports really don’t grab me as much. So I decided to scratch that itch and write, and so here I am, posting. And boy is there much to sound off about – hurricane’s, the possible run-up to World War III, Brexit negotiations and various riffs thereon, and more domestically, the announcement by one Jacob Rees-Mogg that he doesn’t agree with same-sex marriage and is against abortion under any circumstances, even if a woman becomes pregnant after being raped. And who is Jacob Rees-Mogg?

Well, briefly, he is a Tory MP, though one who stands out rather a lot because for many in Britain he is the very definition of ‘posh’. Now, I don’t much hold with ‘posh’ (allegedly derived from the letters POSH appended to names on cruise ship passenger list of those who were well-heeled and could afford to pay for a cabin which was ‘Portside Outbound, Starboard Home’ and thus always had a view of the sea rather than less fortunate and less well-heeled folk whose cabin was ‘Starboard Outbound, Portside Home’ and who were obliged to put up with the less picturesque view of the coast).

‘Posh’ only impresses those, or rather is taken seriously only by those who don’t know what real ‘class’ is. And the beautiful thing about ‘class’ is that it is as equitably distributed among the different social ‘classes’ in Britain as are, say, long noses and not taking sugar in your tea. Real ‘class’ knows no ‘class’ distinction: you’re as likely to find real ‘class’ on the Coedcae estate in Ebbw Vale and darkest East London as among the ‘middle’ classes (and its ludicrously insisted upon sub-classes and variations - the ‘upper-middle class’, the lower-middle class) as that mythical entity ‘the upper class’. And pertinently you can find any number of folk who distinctly lack ‘class’ among those who oddly assume it is somehow related to income and wealth. And in my book anyone, but anyone, who pays any attention to what might be ‘posh’ demonstrates nothing at all except that she/he doesn’t have the faintest clue as to what ‘class’ is.

Here is young Jacob’s his Wikipedia entry but if you can’t be arsed to look it up, briefly he is the son of one William Rees-Mogg, former editor of The Times, was educated at Eton, went on to Oxford, then made his moolah in the City of London before starting his own money-making firm and who entered Parliament as the member for North East Somerset in 2010, a constituency which probably suits him more than Central Fife in Scotland, a strong Labour seat, were he went down like a lead balloon and reportedly simply couldn’t understand the locals. Most probably they couldn’t understand him, either.

Given his pronouncement today about gay marriage and abortion – Rees-Mogg is a practising Roman Catholic – it is ironic that as editor of The Times, his father William, although quite obviously a member of the Establishment, was rather broadminded and liberal in his views, although he was undoubtedly a Tory.

. . .

I should be a little bit more honest about my attitude to abortion. I am staunchly pro-choice, yet I am also, privately a little queasy about the idea. For me – 68 next birthday, for God’s sake – it is essentially the ending of human life, however immature that human life is. But there is a little more to it than that.

When I was 25 and working as a reporter in Lincoln on the Chronicle, I got a young 18-year-old girl pregnant. And when she told me, she also announced, in the same breath and in the same sentence, that she was going to have an abortion.

My immediate feeling was one of relief: but not relief that she was having an abortion, that my life would not become complicated and that I had dodged a bullet, but that I would not be called upon to help her decide whether or not she should have one. She had decided and that was that. She was due to start a university course and undoubtedly that was part of her thinking.

In a moment I was brought face to face, quite practically, not in some academic seminar of debate on the rights or wrongs of abortion, with the fact: and I realised, not intellectually, but in some more fundamental way, that I wasn’t as at easy with the idea as were others. Nevertheless, and I want to stress that, mine is a personal view and I do staunchly believe in pro-choice and that it is a woman’s sole right to decide whether or not she wants the foetus in her womb to grow and be born or not.

The girl’s termination was on August 29. And there are one or two details to do with the matter which I shan’t record here, but only because I don’t not just come out of the matter not at all well, but rather shabbily. But ever since, every August 29, I think of it all.

. . .

Rees-Mogg Junior (henceforth simply referred to as Rees-Mogg) has, over these past few weeks been touted as a ‘possible future Conservative Party leader’. This all has to do with the fact that the Tories are hopelessly split over Brexit (as in the United Kingdom relinquishing its membership of the European Union), and that is an irony in
itself. That is because the bloody stupid referendum called by the former Tory leader, David Cameron, was at heart just a shabby attempt to ‘see of the UK Independence Party’ whose gains in the pools and in the 2015 election had put the wind up the Tories.

Another irony was that UKIP’s gains were also far more at the expense of the Labour Party than most people expected. The referendum was thus called – in my view – for purely party political reasons, but now we have the mess. And an even bigger mess it will undoubtedly become.

Our current Prime Minister, Theresa May (Cameron resigned after the referendum result went against him, although I suspect he was rather relieved to jack it all in and be able to spend more time with the family money as he never struck me as what could be called a conviction politician) made a complete fool of herself by first announcing that she would not be calling an election before the next was due in 2020 before about-turning and then calling an election.

This was mainly because the Labour leader, one Jeremy Vladimir Josef Corbyn, popularly regarded as being on the far Left, was regarded as a dead duck, and May will have imagined that turning her slim House of Commons majority into a rather fatter Commons was a cert. Was it fuck. She ended up with a ‘hung Parliament’ (and made me £150 after my bet that she would came good).

So it is no longer Corbyn who is the dead duck, but Theresa May, and crucially it is her own party who see her as such. Furthermore, the Tories are still horribly divided over Brexit, half being staunch ‘Eurosceptics’ who imagine Britain leaving the EU will be pretty much Heaven on Earth, the other half – in my view the far saner half – believing (I would like to say ‘understanding’) that it is a sure road to economic chaos.

I shan’t recite the pros and cons about Brexit here, not just because they are as much a matter of opinion and hugely subjective, but because I really don’t want to bore you, the reader. But in practical terms the it means that May is holding onto her job by a very slim thread.

The one thing delaying any ‘leadership challenge’ is that it can only lead to even more chaos and if the worst comes to the worst, the Conservative Party splitting, but also because in one way or another it might finally result in Jeremy ‘the Red’ Corbyn being the winner in any future election, one which might have to be called sooner rather than later.

This has all been bubbling under for several weeks and the upcoming Tory Party conference in, I think Newquay on the North Cornwall coast, will be a damn sight more interesting than such occasions are usually. Will there be a leadership challenge or not? Who knows? Who cares?

Well, quite obviously everyone in what we hacks now call ‘the Westminster Bubble’ care, but more than that any dissension in the Tory ranks will make the already utterly impossible task of reaching a ‘good’ Brexit deal even harder.

. . .

So back to Jacob Rees-Mogg. The man is no dumbo, but he is most certainly not the face of modern Britain. I have to admit that I have rather liked him: he has a pleasantly quiet and ironic sense of humour, just the kind I like. He is most certainly no grandstander. When he has spoken out on things – and I don’t agree with his Euroscepticism – I tended to think he was on the side of the angels. Sadly, no longer. To recap: he has unquivocably denounced same-sex marriage and abortion. But even there I will insist that just as I have my views and would like them to be respected, so must he, however much I think him utterly wrong.

What occurred to me when I heard those views this morning that however much they might find an echo in Britain, it will be a very quiet echo. And if he were to be elected as the next leader of the Tory Party – and, as always the possibility is scoffed at as so much media froth – most certainly the Tories will lose the next election.

The Brits are an equitably lot, broadly, and are rather tolerant. Maybe some, the elderly Tory voters in particular, don’t much take to the idea of ‘queers and lezzies getting married’ and maybe some, rather fewer I should think, have older views on abortion. But ‘modern Britain’ – the quote marks are necessary because in a sense it doesn’t really exist except in newspaper articles and blogs – simply doesn’t care. The Brit attitude is pretty much ‘oh, what the hell, good luck the them’. So as far as I am concerned, whatever leadership ambitions Jacob Rees-Moog had, however quietly he has been harbouring them, he can now kiss the farewell and goodbye.

. . .

Just found out a guy I have been calling Chris for the past four or five years is called Simon. Oh, well.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

If you are going to waste time, might as well waste it like this: some of those one-offs I like and you might, too

NB This post also included soundfiles, so if they don’t work on the browser you are using, try another browser. But then you’re way ahead of me, aren’t you?

Woke up this morning with good intentions and abandoned them within a minute or two. Was going to go to the gym - I got home on Monday night instead of tonight, Wednesday, because blah, blah, my daughter decided blah, blah, so I’m having a longer ‘weekend at home’ than usual blah, blah and didn’t get to the gym this week - and then retire to the genius centre, the newly decorated and inaugurated genius centre to do whatever I inteneded to do there, but, you know, as it is, one of those things, lay in bed a little longer, came downstairs, dawdled a little longer, you know how, we’ve all been there and anyhow, I got down to something else.

We’ve all heard of one-hit wonders and one-off hits, and I’m sure we all have a list of such songs, songs we like and get to hear every so often by chance, on the radio or in someone’s house. I don’t suppose my collection below, or part of my list because there are many more, can really be regarded as songs by ‘one-hit wonders’ because the artists involved most certainly had other hits and long careers. It’s just that apart from the particular song - of some of these - I like the song but had no more interest in the artist themselves and don’t really know - or care - what else they have done. Well, below are a few or my songs.

The first is Eric Carmen’s All By Myself which is a great, great song to listen to if you have a bottle of cheap red or white wine handed and, crucially, have been dumped. If it doesn’t bring you within a close sniffle of weeping, you are not human. I can’t actually remember listening to it as a new dumpee, but I have always liked it ever since Carmen released it in 1734 (a great year for pop, incidentally). This is a longer version I found on Spotify and which I had never actually heard before, and I am assuming it is an album version. The bonus is that there is a piano interlude of several minutes which, if you think it was great, you might like to know it wasn’t written by Carmen at all but by Sergei Rachmaninov.

Carmen was a mean pianist (and guitarist and violinist) who had been playing piano since he was very young and openly admits his song cribbed the chord sequence from Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. I’ve included a recording of that, too, so if you have the inclination (and you might already be familiar with it) give it a listen. It is well worth it. I don’t, as a rule, like an awful lot of late 19th-century Romantic music and find a little of it goes a long way. But I have a definite soft spot for Russian Romantic music which - at least the music I have heard - seems to avoid the often stodgy sickliness of some, especially late German. (For the record Richard Wagner leaves me very cold indeed, and then some.)


All By Myself - Eric Carmen

and


Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto - Second movement

. . .

After that, I’ve got a recording of Bette Davis Eyes by Kim Carnes. What’s to say, it’s just a great song. And I haven’t heard anything else my Ms Carnes and don’t intend spending any time seeking out any more of her work.


Bette Davis Eyes - Kim Carnes

. . .

Then there is Fly By II by Blue, a band I have otherwise no interest in at all, but I love this song. I first heard it while using the gym at work and for catchy pop song it has it all. And there’s not much more to be said about it.


Fly By II - Blue

. . .

Blue also released a version of Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word by Elton John (who also sang backing for their version), and that song is another of my favourites. Thing is my feelings for Elton John himself veer dangerously close to ‘can’t stand the cunt’, and I find his voice grating in the extreme, all phoney emotion and the rest. On his version it isn’t as bad as on most of his other song, but I was gratified to discover while looking it up on Spotify that there are several other versions, including one by Joe Cocker. But the one which really grabbed me was the one below, by Diane Krall.

Krall has a great voice and her take on the song would be great if it didn’t lose a little on points where a rather twee instrumental interlude takes the song from feelings to sugar and back again (it is those bloody flutes, never trust flutes. Oh, and strings can sometimes teeter on the edge). But it’s not enough to ruin the recording for me.


Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word - Diane Krall


I was also pleased to find Ray Charles had made a cover version, then less pleased to find it comes from an album of duets - and who should be duetting with ol’ Ray but Elton John. But I have included it, or part of it, because it highlights very well why I can’t stick Elton John: Ray Charles starts off and sings as well as he always sings, then Elton gets a verse, all fake emotion and the rest. It is his singing in comparison with Ray Charles which makes the phoniness of it all so obvious. And don’t worry, I faded it out once Elton ‘The Dickhead’ John had made my point for me



Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word - Ray Charles with Elton John

. . .

Another song I heard in the gym at work and which immediately grabbed me was Cooler Than Me by Mike Posner. Catchy isn’t the word. For some reason, and in a bout of odd enthusiasm I bought the his debut CD which has this song, and after listening to it once, have never listened to it again. But this one stands out. It’s simple, too, just three chords, and if I’m not mistaken the same three chords as George Michael’s Careless Whisper.


Cooler Than Me - Mike Posner

. . .

Kendra Morris’s Banshee, also grabbed me the first time I heard it, on Ray Donovan (with Liev Schreiber), and I have loved it ever since. I also bought the CD on which it appears, also I think a debut album, but unlike Posner’s I do listen to it again and again. She has a great voice.


Banshee - Kendra Morris


. . .

Then there’s another favourite of mine, again one I happened across while watching a film (I never finished watching the film, which wasn’t very good), and identified by googling the lyrics. It’s by a singer/songwriter called Lina who is from Denver, Colorado. She covers so many areas I love with her style, soul, jazz, R&B and her sound often oddly harks back to the Thirties (if that doesn’t sound too fanciful. The rest of her stuff isn’t half bad, either.


I’m Not The Enemy - Lina



. . .

PS It’s just occurred to me that is also quite interesting to do this process in reverse: list the songs I dislike (although, for very obvious reasons, not go to all the bother of tracking the songs down, working on them, lodging them in cyberspace so that they are available, then linking to them on my blog with the appropriate code). And there are quite a few awful songs, many of them sodding ‘classics’.

So, in no particular order, songs that make me grit my teeth, leave the room or otherwise avoid include John Lennon’s Imagine (drippy, dreary shite), Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, Don’t They Know It’s Christmas by everyone whose manager could get them in on the act to win the brownie points going round, and coke, I should think, too.

By the way, as someone pointed out, the song was uniquely inappropriate for the starving of Muslim Ethiopia given that being Muslim, they don’t celebrate ‘Christmas’ and many are not likely to know what it is anyway. So, no, they probably didn’t know it was Christmas. The song is a useful example of just how self-centred the West is: even when attempting to do good - and their intentions were admirable - they still see the world from their perspective.

Then there’s Art Garfunkel’s Bright Eyes, which almost makes my skin crawl, any song whose lyrics include the word ‘destiny’, anything and everything by the ginger-haired tosser from Simply Red (and do you Yank or other non-Brit readers understand the word ‘tosser’? I’m sure you have your own versions, but to make it clearer, it’s synonymous with ‘wanker’).

Now I’m trying to think of the songs I loathe, none are readily coming to mind, and I’m certain far more will occur to me once this addendum is posted and I am a million miles from a computer. But hey-ho, life is tough.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

What’s this hang-up with ‘meaning’? Might it explain by Dylan was so slow to collect his Nobel Prize. I do think it might

NB There are soundfiles in this entry which your browser might not be able to play. I don’t think Opera does well on that score. In that case, try another browser (assuming, of course, that you actually want to hear (originally ‘here’, none of us is perfect) the songs).

I am well aware, especially since a friend pointed it out, that the introduction to these posts can be very discursive, and it has occurred to me that not everyone might like that. I am in the habit of, say, starting a piece with a number of choice platitudes (most of which are usually cribbed from the Economist) about the danger of Trump starting a World War III over North Korea’s nuclear threats or how no one understands the worldwide implications of Guatemala’s foreign policy, only eventually within a few paragraphs to get to the main thrust of the piece, the low standard of contemporary hair conditioners or why minimalists artists always seem to come across as so small-minded.

All that occurred to me when I was considering how to get this post started. I must confess that some might well feel my approach is a more than a tad pretentious (a pretension made all the more egregious by these two rather fey opening paragraphs), to which I can only respond that I am resolved to leave no doubt on the matter that I loathe pretentiousness avec une passion sauvage. On the other hand, well, tough.

. . .

I had my first ever guitar lesson (or as my good friend Pete would point out, every first is always a ‘first ever’ so ‘first ever’ means nothing and is just a waste of four perfectly good letters which might well be more usefully employed elsewhere, but there you go. Hi Pete) last Friday afternoon. That’s not to say I have decided to learn to play guitar, because I have, in fact, played guitar for the past 54 years, although I am the first – but not only – man to admit that for far too many of those years I played with more far more enthusiasm than skill. And like too many of my ilk, I am an incessant noodler, playing a bit of this for a minute or two in this style, then long before anything can get going, breaking off and playing something else in that style, before soon losing interest and taking off in yet another direction.

I have now decided that enough was enough and that I should get a little more serious about it all and get proper tuition to become a little better rather as a mediocre tennis player might be able to improve a little by being coached by someone who knew what he (or, or course, she) knew what they were talking about.

A week or so ago, I asked Nigel who works at Craig’s Music in Bodmin who he could recommend, and he said go to Paul Berrington in Padstow. Not only will he help you (he helped me a hell of a lot, said Nigel), but he’s also a nice guy. Well, I did, and true to Nigel’s prediction Paul has already helped a hell of a lot in just one lesson and even though we spent almost 90pc of the time talking music and chord theory – that is, he was talking and I was listening - and hardly touched a guitar (well I didn’t). But that is only the first stage in this discourse (which I’m hoping is also the noun related to ‘discursive’).

Whenever I want to learn a song – over these past few months, these have included Cry Me A River, Julie London’s version not Justin Timberlake, or Me And Mrs Jones – these days I go to YouTube where there is any number of useful videos, and many more other useful videos just about playing guitar – Marty Schwartz of Nextlevelguitar.com is one of my favourites. Well, most recently I decided I finally wanted to learn a favourite tune of mine, Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic, which you can listen to below. I found three videos, and after cannibalising them came up with a pretty good chord sequence which 1) is satisfying and 2) I can play. As always with Steely Dan the chords are not at all straightforward, although in this case they are rather less not straightforward than usual. They involve major sevenths and major sixths and ninths, and I don’t know what else, which, to my ears at least, are a damn sight more interesting than the usual G, C and D and Am, Em and Dm we all start out on.

A bonus is that if you have a certain feel for rhythm and, it has to be said, chutzpah (and I do have some of the first and a little of the second), you can play major sixths, sevenths, ninths and thirteenth or whatever chord of that kind takes your fancy in almost any order and bullshit that you are a rather competent guitar player. Certainly, a good guitar player will suss out the bullshit within seconds, but ordinary Joes will be impressed.

The point it that I know just how good I am – which is pretty well not that good at all - which is why I decided the time has come to try a little harder and so I shall be a regular of Paul Berrington’s once the holiday/tourist season has ended and getting to Padstow is less of a two-hour schlepp and once again the usual 20-minute drive. And so on to the main point of this blog entry (or, if you like, after all the above discursive shite the equivalent for this particular post of why modern hair conditioners can’t hold a candle to those we sometimes used in the 1970s and 1980s): wondering why everyone seems to keen to know the ‘meaning in songs’.

. . .

Steely Dan, that is Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, and their songs are, I think it’s fair to say, in a league of their own, both musically and lyrically. ‘Sophisticated jazz rock’ and ‘clever, ironic/wry and witty lyrics’ are some of the gush about their music you will get from music journalists (and mention of which – and their ‘gush’ - obliges me to repeat the quote from Frank Zappa: ‘Most rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read, ‘ and that pretty much hits the nail on the head.’) But the ‘clever, ironic/wry and witty’ plaudit notwithstanding, Messrs Becker and Fagen do, at least, write interesting lyrics, lyrics which are often far more interesting than those written by many other songwriters.

On the other hand, I, for one, don’t think the ‘meaning’ of their songs is all that important. And sometimes (as in the case of Bob Dylan, of whom more later (©Daily Mail/Geoffrey Levy and other of the paper’s feature writers) the hunt for meaning can, as far as I am concerned, get very out of hand. The thing is that - at the very least, in the case of Steely Dan and Dylan, but I’m sure with other artists, too, fans want – no they demand - meaning. They just can’t do without it. I, on the other hand, am perfectly content with lyrics just ‘sounding good, interesting and intriguing’ and to fuck with meaning.

Becker and Fagen’s song Pretzel Logic also has ‘obscure’ and ‘wry’ lyrics, all two short verses of it and the bridge, that is, which is not a lot of lyrics. And they are good lyrics. The lads themselves are quoted extensively as saying the song is ‘about time travel’. Really? My reaction to that is simply, up to a point, Lord Cooper. I don’t doubt that when they came to write the song, the notion of ‘time travel’ played a part in its genesis, and when you read the lyrics, you can see that the notion of time travel might well have been one starting point. But as to saying anything whatsoever about time travel and saying something useful or meaningful, the honest observation is: bollocks. Here us the song:


Pretzel Logic


and here are the lyrics:

First verse:

I would love to tour the Southland / In a traveling minstrel show
Yes I’d love to tour the Southland/ In a traveling minstrel show
Yes I'm dying to be a star and make them laugh / Sound just like a record on the phonograph
Those days are gone forever / Over a long time ago, oh yeah

Second verse:

I have never met Napoleon / But I plan to find the time
I have never met Napoleon / But I plan to find the time
'Cos he looks so fine upon that hill / They tell me he was lonely, he's lonely still
Those days are gone forever / Over a long time ago, oh yeah

Bridge:

I stepped up on the platform
The man gave me the news
He said you must be joking son
Where did you get those shoes?
Where did you get those shoes?
Well, I've seen 'em on the TV, the movie show
They say the times are changing but I just don't know
These things are gone forever
Over a long time ago, oh yeah

There are various sites on the web giving ‘the meanings of songs’, and one such includes suggestions as to what Pretzel Logic means.

Songmeanings.com is useful if you are into that kind of thing. I, on the other hand am not, and I am even bemused by what I regard as an obsession to discover ‘meaning’ (and not just in songs, I should add, but here I’ll just restrict myself to songs). I am interested in how a song came to be written, what might have been in the writer’s head at the time, but I’m pretty certain a great many ‘meaningful’ words and phrase are chosen not because they mean something at all, but because they sound right at that point in the song, or because the songwriter hits upon a phrase which exactly matches the beat of the song. In the above example, explanations of ‘meaning’ and just how time travel is described in the song is a ludicrous as suggesting that the line ‘I stepped upon the platform’ refers to the singer – the time traveller who hopes to meet Napoleon – steps ‘on the platform of the time machine’.

. . .

To my mind Dylan, a great favourite of mine, suffers even more from the insistence of those who listen to his music that his lyrics, even the most obscurely outrageous must ‘mean’ something. That isn’t to say that often he is trying to ‘say something’. A good example of when Dylan was trying to describe the world and what might be going on would be Blowin’ In The Wind. Conversely, a song which might sound as though it were full of meaning could be A Hard Rain’s Gonne Fall: ‘Twelve misty mountains/six crooked highways/dozen dead oceans/newborn baby with wild wolves around it’ are all great portentous phrases and they all sound great, but do they ‘mean’ something? I don’t think they do. They just sound right, intriguing and interesting and fit the rhyme scheme of the song.

Dylan himself is on record as being becoming pretty pissed of quite soon in his early days as being regarded ‘the voice of a generation’. And – this is controversial and I cannot prove it or give any supporting evidence – I suspect his silence for many weeks, months even, about being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 was a mixture of embarrassment, incredulity and honesty: he is on record as describing himself as ‘just a song and dance man’ and even though that was a lighthearted comment made at a press conference, it seems to be pretty much the honest opinion of an honest man who has spent the past 58 years doing what he always wanted to do: make and play music and write songs, no less and, pertinently, no more.

That isn’t, of course, to say that there will be many of his songs which don’t have a meaning, perhaps a personal meaning, perhaps songs in which he does want to make a comment – Oxford Town, Masters Of War, from the early days are good examples. But a great many of his other songs are pretty much – well, there’s no other way of saying it – ‘pop’ or ‘rock’ or ‘folk’ songs and no more than that. But that doesn’t deter the hunters after meaning who, for example, haunt this website, bob-dylan.org.uk There you’ll find all kinds of explanations of songs lyrics as well as, I do not doubt, what the wise man prefers eating for breakfast and what brand loo roll he endorses.

Finally, though, and this for me is the clincher that often, if not always, Dylan simply wrote lines and phrases which ‘sounded right’, I few months ago, I watched a two-part TV documentary about Dylan celebrating one thing or another (in which he took part and again struck me as rather more down-to-earth than he is given credit for). In it, Joan Baez, a one-time Dylan girlfriend recalled how once on tour and they were sharing the same apartment or hotel room or something, Dylan was sitting at a typewriter writing portentous lyrics and giggling to himself along the lines of ‘they will have a great time trying to work out what this one means’.

Quite. And that last story makes me like Dylan all the more.

. . .


For comparison here are three more songs. The first is by another favourite of mine, Little Walter and his song My Babe. I can't think too many people will spend too long trying to work out the ‘meaning’ of this song. Essentially, the singer’s girlfriend won’t under any circumstances countenance the singer having sexual relations with any other women as in if he screws another woman that’s it. As lyrics go, I particularly like the completely unambiguous phrase ‘midnight creepin’.


My Babe

Then there’s Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind which I do think he wrote with something in mind, that is ‘we haven’t a clue what the future will hold’.


Blowin’ In The Wind

Finally, there’s his song Went To See The Gypsy. I heard or read somewhere that he did have a particular woman in mind who is ‘the gypsy’, but apart from that, well your guess is as good as mine. Or rather you do the guessing, because I shan’t be bothering.


Went To See The Gypsy

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

More snaps from the past, rescued from Guy's House, that old, old renovated 16th-century cottage none of us knows much about.

I took a week off work last week and set about clearing what we call Guy’s House of all the shite that has accumulated there over since my father died more than 26 years ago. Guy’s House is a very and small granite cottage which was a ruin when my stepmother arrived in St Breward in the mid-Seventies. Her cottage is one of three, all part of the same structure.

My father was still married to my mother, so he was still having an affair with my stepmother, staying at her flat in South-East London during the week and often travelling down to Cornwall at weekends where she had bought her cottage. Then my mother died in 1981, and my father sold our family home pretty soon afterward and the money made from the sale went on extending the cottage, making the kitchen far bigger and above it extending the bathroom and building another room which my father (who had been working on ‘his book’ pretty much since I can remember) used for his writing. But it did not use up all the dosh.

A few years later, my stepmother’s sister, who was becoming more and more disabled bought the cottage at the end of the row (her’s was The Hollow, then there came Middle Cottage, then there was Rose Cottage, my stepmother’s where she still lives). Whoever owned The Hollow also owned Guy’s House (and, by the way, I have no idea why it was called Guy’s House and can only make the pretty obvious suggestion that at one point in its long life it was owned or at the very least occupied by a ‘Guy).

When I first saw it in the mid-1980s, Guy’s House was a tumbledown ruin, covered with ivy. When next I saw it, a few years, later (my father and I went through a period of estrangement, though I have to say it was his decision not mine, but it would be boring for you and futile all round if I went into details here) Guy’s House was transformed. It is not big, but downstairs a small bathroom with a shower had been installed as well as a small ‘wine cellar’, and upstairs, which my father used as his study were all his books in custom-made shelves along two of the walls.

When I say Guy’s House had a long life, I mean it. I have no idea quite how old it is, but it would well have been built in the 15ft century. At one end downstairs his a large granite fireplace with the usual bred ovens on either side. I should imagine that when it was occupied, and though it is small, it housed about 10/12 people because in those days privacy was not something ever expected. My father died in 1991, and since then Guy’s House has slowly been on the skids.

At first it was used as a convenient place for visitors to sleep. I’ve stayed there several times myself. But gradually over the years it became the repository of all the shite was wasn’t wanted or which was superfluous, some of it mine. When my stepmother’s sister died, her cottage was first let out as a holiday cottage, but then in 2007 my stepmother suffered her first stroke and the cottage was subsequently let out to drum up some money to pay for the care home in which she lived. Which is all fine and dandy, but why am I telling you? . . .

Well, last week, I took annual leave and set about clearing out as much of the shite as I could. And boy was there a lot of it. I was pretty ruthless, too. When you are cleaning out, there can be no room for sentiment. But among the things I found there were some a few of the pictures I took in the 1980s when I was still living in Cardiff. That was, of course, in the days before digital, and involved developing film, then printing the pictures and it was that, mucking around in the darkroom, which I liked as much as taking the pictures.

For one thing if you print your pictures, you can try and do all kinds of things with them (things you can these days do as a matter of course, such as cropping). I also used to dick around with a set of dyes, to colour up BW prints. Anyway, here are four of the prints I salvaged. The picture of the women’s legs was taken in Hamburg when I went to stay with my cousin in about 1988. The one of the incurably handsome dude in shades was taken by her and modesty prevents me from revealing that utterly cool man’s name.

The last two were taken in a nightclub or other, I forget with. I particularly liked using fast film with an ASA of 3200 to take pictures in natural light. Not only did it give nice effects, but you could take snaps of folk when they were not aware and, thus were not posing. And using flash well is also by no means easy.








And here is a link to other pictures of that era have previously post here. As for Guy’s House, when it is not occupied - my cousin, his wife and young son are staying there for a week - I shall take a few more pics to give you a better idea of what it is all about.