A Sapper goes to War

October 24, 2015

My mum has just celebrated her 80th birthday. Part of the celebrations included a party for friends and family, some of whom, sadly, couldn’t make it. On of those was my Godfather, my ‘Uncle’ Cyril, who is 95 and, as much as he would have loved to come,  is wheelchair-bound and the journey would have just been too much for him.

His daughter, Margaret, sent this lovely picture of them all celebrating his 95th birthday.

Margaret also sent me a copy of a piece written by my Uncle Cyril a short while back. He was in the Royal Engineers (the sappers) during the war, and below is his account of his time as a sapper. It is a beautifully clear, vivid, and moving tale and I am very grateful to Cyril and Margaret for allowing me to reproduce it here. I hope you enjoy it.

A SAPPER GOES TO WAR

In 1942 I was stationed in Tullibody, Clackmananshire, Scotland. In August we commenced a programme of intensive training, being called out in the night to go on a forced route march, building bridges at double time and everything else that sappers do. At the same time we were packing stores and writing on the boxes “Not wanted on Voyage”. “Hello” we thought, “are we going abroad?” Nobody knew anything, not even the friends of the friends that worked in Company Office where all our inside information came from.

The next rumour was everybody to have seven days home leave and all leave to be finished before the second week in October. I was one of the last to go on leave and on the last day of my leave I said to my parents “Mum, Dad, I am going overseas”. My Dad said “I know that lad”. Of course he knew, he was an old soldier and recognised the signs, the sudden leave, the insignias on my arms, the things I was saying. Sure enough all leave finished before the second week in October and then for security reasons we were confined to billets; no telephone calls or posting of letters.

The 26th October the order “All kit to be packed and stacked outside Company Office before 12 noon”. This is it, we are going abroad but where to doesn’t anybody know? That night, after dark, we marched down to the railway station where we boarded a train with dim lights and drawn blinds. After an hour or so of travel, we arrived at Gourock on the Clyde. A railway porter told me that there were lots of ships anchored out there and that Americans had been boarding them all day. It was that dark I couldn’t see a thing. We boarded a boat at a small jetty and were ferried out into the black Clyde. We came up against a huge wall of black steel with a little door in the side and a ladder running down to the water, a troop ship to be sure. Then a voice “up the ladder lads as quick as you can, chop chop”. It was easy up the ladder, just like going upstairs, a hand rail on each side, no problem. Down a dimly lit corridor, down a staircase into a brightly lit deck with rows of hammocks hanging from the ceiling. Another voice “choose yourself a hammock lads and keep it for the remainder of the voyage”. I chose one at the far side of the deck up against the bulkhead.

That morning, the 27th October, I went on deck and was awestruck. I was on a cruise liner named the SS Cathy belonging to the South Africa Line. She had been converted to a troop ship and was the biggest ship I had ever seen. She was huge.

After a couple of days at sea, I worked out that my hammock was just below the water line and I thought that if a torpedo was to strike the ship, it would hit right where I was sleeping. I need not have worried though because escorting that convoy of 33 ships was 51 warships of the Royal Navy. More than one warship per merchantman. What U-Boat would dare to attack such a formidable ring of steel?

As an ex-Scout, it wasn’t difficult for me to work out in which direction we were heading. SW America. Why? Two days sailing from America we were joined with an American convoy of troopships and their equipment and did an about turn and headed west towards Europe, definitely Second Front, I assumed.

There was a brass plaque on the bulkhead and the wording read “Four times round this deck equals a quarter of a mile”. We shared the deck with a Battalion of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders and every day they marched round and round that deck to the skirl of the pipes. I maintain that those Highlanders marched all the way to North Africa.

After 10 days at sea we were assembled on deck to be told where we were heading. North Africa, capture Algiers, Tunis, deny Rommel supply ports and take the pressure off Malta. We were ecstatic!

Early morning 10th November, after 15 days at sea, we were cruising up the Mediterranean when there was a shout. “Hey look there’s Algiers.” Very slowly the ship began to tip to starboard. “My God we are going to capsize.” 5000 troops tried to get to the rails to look at Algiers. The Captain on the bridge shouted through the ship’s speaker system “you men down there get to the other side of the ship”. Some idiot shouted an obscenity to him and everybody laughed, so the Captain sounded the air raid alarm, which meant everybody below decks. As the troops dispersed below decks the ship slowly righted herself. I breathed a big sigh of relief!

The Yanks landed at Oran, the British at Algiers, except our ship. We sailed through the night to a small town named Bougie, off Bougie Bay. Here we came within range of the Luftwaffe based in Sicily, who soon gave us their unwelcome attention. The Infantry were the first to go ashore and as we waited our turn to be called forward, we could hear the bombs dropping around the ship and the ships Bofor Gun pounding away on the stern.

I left the Cathy as I boarded her, through the little door in the side, down the ladder into a ship’s lifeboat and away to the shore. I heard a terrific explosion and looked back to see the Cathy enveloped in a big cloud of black smoke. She had received a direct hit which blew off the stern. How many were killed, I never knew. When I got to the shore, I looked for the Cathy. She had settled on the seabed with just her funnel and part of her superstructure sticking out of the water. All our kit went down with her. All we possessed was our equipment, weapons and a blanket.

After a day and night guarding an unused airfield, our transport arrived from Algiers and we began our advance to Tunis. At this time, the Germans were pouring troops into Tunis and advancing towards us. We met up in the extreme end of the Atlas Mountains, where both sides dug in and harassed each other. We made camp about 2 miles behind the Infantry and after a couple of days, it rained. We had no shelter, no buildings, no trees, no walls, nothing but cactus bush. At night we put our ground sheets on the ground for a bed and covered ourselves with the blanket. Sleep was impossible. This went on for several days with no chance of drying ones blanket. What misery.

After 2 weeks we received 2 man bivouacs. What luxury to crawl into a bivvy wet through and then put on wet clobber in the morning!

At this time, the enemy was entrenched on a high hill overlooking our positions. He could see every move we made; that is if we dared to move because any movement invited a hail of fire. At the foot of this hill ran a Wadi that snaked along the valley just like a World War 1 trench. One morning at dawn, a battalion of the Royal West Kent Regiment attacked this hill. Supporting the West Kents was my platoon of Sappers. Our primary task was to neutralise any minefields. So far we had not encountered any, so we split up into pairs to do individual searches. I must mention it was raining heavens hard. We were soaked and slipped and slithered all over the place with the mud.

I and another Sapper were detailed to reconnoitre as far as possible along the top of the Wadi, which we proceeded to do. We hadn’t gone very far when the enemy started to bombard us with his trench mortars. As these bombs came sailing through the air, they made a terrifying screaming noise, that put the fear of death in you and they were exploding the whole length of the Wadi. Without hesitation, my friend and I jumped down into the Wadi and crouched down with our backs to the bank, silently praying that we would not be hit. In an attempt to calm our nerves we each lit a cigarette. Whilst puffing at my cig’., I contemplated my position. I thought, I’m wet, cold, hungry, tired and more than a little afraid and a long way from home. I couldn’t be more miserable. As these thoughts were passing through my head, my mate gave me a gentle nudge and calmly said “don’t look now but there’s a German down that Wadi watching us”. Without looking up I said “ignore him, he’ll go away”. After a slight pause he said “Cyril I’m serious. There’s a German down that Wadi watching us”. This time I looked up and about 5 yards away the Wadi bent to the left. Stood in the bend was a German and with his big steel helmet and his long grey coat he looked about ten feet tall and the rain was just streaming off his helmet, as it was off mine. My mate didn’t have to spell it out that he expected me to deal with the situation! So I got up clutching my rifle in both hands and walked right up to him. I said “now then Fritz, what’s your game?” He just looked at me and pointed around the corner. I looked round the corner and saw several of our stretcher bearers doing what I was doing, sheltering from the mortar fire. They told me that the German was a prisoner and had volunteered to help bring in the wounded, which I considered was very brave when he could have gone back down the line to safety.

Several days later we were told to pack up everything, as we were moving out. We moved out after dark and travelled for about twenty miles under cover of darkness to a small town named Beja. We dumped our kit in a building that resembled a committee room and re-boarded our trucks. After half an hours travelling, we arrived at a quarry where we loaded the trucks with stone. We were going road-making for the Artillery. After another half hour, the truck stopped just as dawn was breaking. There were eight of us on top of the stones, all sleeping or dozing. Next our Corporal banged on one side of the truck and shouted “everybody out”. No-one moved, we were too sleepy. Something urged me to get out of the truck, which I did. I went around to the front to speak to the driver, who said “how are you Cyril?” I replied “very tired”. I then stood in front of the engine, placed my arm on the radiator and rested my head on my arm. Instantly, I felt a blow on my head that I can only describe as being hit with a sledgehammer. I awoke and found I was lying in the road. “What am I doing here? I don’t remember going to sleep in the road”. I slowly got to my knees, looked around and saw that the truck was a smoking ruin with stone and bodies lying all around it. The driver was slumped over the steering wheel dead. Five of my friends were dead too. So badly injured they were unrecognisable. ”What has happened?” I asked myself. “It wasn’t a bomb. I didn’t hear any aircraft. It wasn’t a shell because I don’t think we are quite in the battle area. What was it?”

We had an anti-tank mine shaped just like a small cigar box, powerful enough to blow the track off a tank. We carried six of these mines strapped to a board (ready-primed) at the back of the truck cab. We assumed that somebody had accidently banged one, consequently detonating the rest. What made me get out of the truck, walk around to the protection of the engine and rest my head on my arm so that my steel helmet took the full force of the blast? Only one answer. The Good Lord was watching over me. I found that I was completely deaf and dizzy. I went by ambulance, along with the two injured (one of whom was my best friend) to the advanced dressing station, where a medical officer diagnosed ruptured eardrums, concussion and lacerations. He informed me that I had to go to hospital, which I wasn’t happy about. I didn‘t think I was that bad but he explained that I could suffer secondary shock, which could be nasty and my ears could become infected. With that he slapped a “wacking” big piece of sticking plaster over each ear. Now I was deaf!

The medics lay my friend Colin McCloud on a makeshift table, where the officer took one look at him and said “my God, where do I start?” Poor Colin was just a pulp of bloody flesh. It was horrible. The officer just covered him with a blanket and had a look at my other friend, who was no better. The three of us were placed in an ambulance and whisked off to the Casualty Clearing Station, where we spent the night. The next morning the Chaplain informed me that Colin had died. This upset me greatly, in fact to the point of tears. Reg died some time later. Through the grace of God I was the only survivor of that terrible explosion.

After breakfast I, along with eleven other walking wounded, travelled 200 miles in an ambulance to hospital in Algeria. The hospital was a series of marquees set up as wards. I was examined by a medical officer, who asked what was my problem? I said “I can’t hear sir”. He replied “I should think not with this stuck on your ears” and promptly ripped off the plasters. I thought he had ripped off my ears! After examination, he told me that there was no cure for perforated eardrums. They must be kept dry and clean and they would be self-healing. Also, I should be sent back to Algiers for recuperation but if I wanted, I could stay at the hospital for three days and then re-join my unit. Re-joining my unit was music to my poor ears, so I opted for that. His reply “good man – I wish they were all like you”.

Whilst in the hospital I made friends with an American Corporal who was in the Engineer Regiment, so we had a lot in common. Six months after meeting this Corporal I was in Sicily patrolling down a country lane along with several other Sappers, when we spotted a group of soldiers coming towards us. Germans we assumed. We decided to ambush them and took up positions behind trees and in the ditches. As they drew near we could see that they were Yanks and leading them was my friend from hospital. There were handshakes all round.

The day of my discharge from hospital, I was sent to a transit camp. It was a prison camp as far as I was concerned. I was placed in a bell tent along with several strangers and I did not like that. The next morning I was sat on the ground eating my breakfast when a driver in the Service Corps approached me. He was a sight for sore eyes. He was wearing the Battle Axe on his arms. At last a friend. He asked me how long I had been in the camp. When I said “yesterday” he said that he had been there for three days and that we could be there for two weeks. That to me was a death sentence. He asked me if I would go with him to the Camp Commandant for permission to make our own way back to our Division. I agreed. The Commandant was a Major in the Royal Artillery. My new friend was the spokesman. “Please sir, can we have permission to make our own way back to our units?” “And where is your unit?” he asked of me. “Beja Sir” I said. “And what if your unit is not there?” he said. “Then Sir I’ll find it”. He knew that we didn’t know for sure where our units were but he did know that we were genuine and not potential deserters. He gave us a chit to take to the cookhouse for rations for one meal and then report back to him, which we did in double time! He gave us our discharge papers and said “off you go and good luck to both of you”. We went to the main road and headed east for Tunisia. Shortly an Army vehicle approached from behind. He was going to the railway station. What luck, we clambered aboard. A train in the station! Where is it going? I don’t believe it. Beja. LOOK OUT YOU FILTHY HUN – WOGGIE IS ON HIS WAY BACK!!!

We arrived at Beja just before nightfall. No sign of my unit or of the Division. Where are they? We saw a couple of soldiers on sentry duty outside what looked like a town hall. We asked for the Sergeant Major. He said “what is it about you Battle Axe men that you want to get back into the war”. “You are not the first to come here.” He asked when did we last eat? “Midday” we told him. He sent us to the cookhouse for a meal. Whilst eating he came and told us that a truck from our Division would collect us about 23.00.

We travelled through the night in the back of a 15cwt pickup to our Divisional Headquarters. At 06.00 my unit ration truck took me back to my platoon. Home at last. I never again saw my Service Corps friend. I pray that he survived.

Cyril Walkden
NPA 5413169
Royal Engineers

ARMY NUMBER: 2094000

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I can’t believe I’m starting with a diversion, but writing that title has just reminded me of one of my favourite Trev and Simon jokes. It comes from a never-screened pilot we made. Me and Trev are at home (Morecambe and Wise style) when the post arrives. Trev has received a Readers Digest type winning envelope (remember, this was last century). He is overjoyed, ecstatic. The letter tells him; “Congratulations! You have won a car”. Trev celebrates, unfolds the letter, and reads the remaining print; “digan”.

Well, I like it!

But to the point. It’s not often (at my time of life) that something can come along and knock you off your feet, but last night, on Twitter, Clayton Hickman (@claytonhickman) sent me a tweet that took my breath away. (Yes! I know! Knocked off my feet! Breathless! It’s a heady combo!) Clayton had stumbled across something so mind-blowing it might, possibly, just have ripped a hole wide open in my Atkinson-Shiffrin Memory Model (don’t worry- I don’t know what I’m on about either. it’s just a bit of fun. Try and keep up, it’s early days yet).

This is the story of a cardigan. We can trace the cardigan back as far as The Crimean War if we want to, but let’s not. For this story we need only trace the history of a singular and particular cardigan. A cardigan that goes back to the 80’s.

This cardigan, to the best of our knowledge, was first worn by Joseph Marcell in the serial Remembrance of the Daleks (the first serial of the 25th season of Dr Who) in 1988.

Joseph Marcell cardigan

Joseph, Sylvester McCoy, and the cardigan

In time this cardigan would come into my hands. In the meantime Joseph Marcell would go on to become Geoffrey the butler in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Back to the cardigan. What happened to it? In the late 80’s, going into the 90’s, I worked on two Saturday morning live TV shows, Going Live! and Live and Kicking along with Trev Neal. We did comedy sketches and such, and we were also responsible for finding other comedy acts willing to appear on the show. One act  we discovered wasn’t a comedy act but a musical act. We, perhaps foolishly, thought they might appeal to the Saturday morning audience.

The act was called The Singing Corner. We first saw them perform at The Velvet Percush’n in Amsterdam’s Kliegersstaffhen District. We assumed they were a spoof act, there was something so quaint and naive about them; but after talking to the club’s owner, Hansstraff Munck, it became clear they were for real, and so we asked for an introduction.

We met Don and Bob in the dressing room of The Velvet Percush’n. The two of them, in their psychedelic threads, blended neatly into the narcolepsy-inducing grasswhort curtains and hanging fabrics of the Percush’n’s inner sanctum and, what with the floating fog of jazz mist swirling around our curlicues, the two of us spent the first two hours of our meeting smiling not talking.

Eventually one of us spoke. Don was the first. All he said was ‘Hello’, and yet it took him seven minutes to say it.

11 minutes later and you couldn’t get any of us to shut up.

We assumed they were called The Singing Corner because each night they would sing in a different corner of The Velvet Percush’n’s 28 corners (the club was as famous for its many corners as it was for the calibre of musical acts that performed there; 28 acts every night, a different act in every corner). But no! It was a coincidence. They were called The Singing Corner after their names; Don Singing and Bob Corner.

(A little diversion: on Saturday 17th April 1965, the opening night of The Velvet Percush’n, the line up of acts was truly amazing. Take a deep breath: Bob Coats Trio, Melaniecholy, Dave Suave and his flute, Pancho, Bob Dillon, The Troublers, Sweet Toast, Brother and his Sisters, Carparque, Leslie Cousins, Donna Van Dyke, Long Jack Hankie, Melting Pot, Dizzy Dennis Dickens, EarthenWhere?, KFJ, Leo Sayer, Mustang Alley, David Singing (Don’s father), The Clark Fife Four, The Burds, The Beatles, Turtleneck Beach, Feather Conspiracy, The Simon Sisters, Waferbaby, Mardy Wah!, Big Clint McFlintlock, and (headlining) Art Garfunkel.

What a night that must have been. And, for the eagle-eyed, amongst you, I know that’s 29 acts! Don told me that his father wasn’t supposed to sing. He was there, ostensibly, as Long John Hankie’s whisperer (Long John Hankie could never remember the words to any of his songs ever since being diagnosed as forgetful by a recently qualified doctor and so always had a whisperer on stage to help out). Unfortunately LJH was also partially deaf and so David had to whisper louder and louder until, in effect, he was singing. The story goes his voice was sweet enough to make statues weep.)

So… back to wherever we were. Ah yes! Don and Bob and me and Trev in the dressing room of The Velvet Percush’n. A friendship started that night; a friendship that would last until it finished.

We persuaded Don and Bob to come along and perform on Going Live! They were keen from the start and (once we’d found our way out of The Velvet Percush’n’s dressing room) nothing was going to stop us from introducing The Singing Corner to the UK. (The 28 corners meant that the dressing room was a very unusual shape, and it was not uncommon for it to take an hour or two to find the door: rumour has it that Sixto Rodriquez spent 17 years in there.)

However, once Don and Bob landed in the UK, they started to get edgy. It didn’t help that the first thing they saw upon entering the country was Big Fun with their Handful Of Promises.

It knocked their confidence for six. And what could we say? The competition was tough in those times and we fully understood Don and Bob’s reticence.

Annoyingly, we had already told our boss, Chris Bellinger, that we had a great new act lined up. The kind of act that would make Big Fun look like medium fun. What could we do? How could we persuade the boys to give it a go?

Chris suggested we tried snazzying their image up a little, take them down the Kings Road, do a bit of shopping. He even gave us an envelope stuffed with cash to make sure we got top notch clobber. “Maybe something with hoods”, he said.

Now! This next part! It wasn’t my idea ok? All of the following was Trev Neal’s work.

Trev said (and this is verbatim. I was there), Trev said; “ere, Simon. There’s a pretty penny or two in this John Paul*. What say you we take these two geezers down the old BBC costume store and deck ’em out in some cheap duds? They don’t know the Kings Road from The King’s knackers. We get ’em kitted out and, in the process, we make a Salamander each!”

I wasn’t in favour. I mean a Salamander (slang for £78.90) wasn’t to be sniffed at in those days. But even so, it felt low.

Hey, it’s in the past now, and I may well be testing your patience with this post. The be all and end all is that I took part in the fraud, Don and Bob were taken by us to the BBC’s wardrobe department out in Acton, and Bob, thinking the Kings Road was inside a concrete tower block, picked a certain cardigan to wear.

Bob corner cardiganIt’s an incredible story. And, despite the ups and downs, despite the fraud and almost indecent deception, something must have gone right, for Don and Bob had a no.61 hit with Jennifer Juniper.

The BBC costume collection no longer exists. Nor does its wig collection (not that Don or Bob ever needed wigs). In 2008 “the BBC management team concluded that the best option was to close the department and dispose of the stock”. Idiots.

Huge thanks to Clayton for making me aware of the cardigan connection.

two jumpers

Where is the cardigan now?

* Trev used to call envelopes ‘John Pauls’ after the current Pope. it was a short lived Cockney style he experimented with between March and April 1990.

Go Sober- Day Seven

October 7, 2013

Day Seven! That’s nearly a week! That’s almost a quarter! 25% there; ‘there’ being staying sober, throughout October, for Macmillan Cancer Support. And so far me and my wife, as Team Mr and Mrs Hickson, have raised £196 for the charity. Thank you to everyone who has donated.

It’s been a difficult weekend too. My mum visited from Manchester for her birthday. We visited Trev and his family. There was food, birthday cake, Prosecco! But we managed it. We had champagne glasses filled with fizzy water!

It was also Broadstairs Food Festival this weekend. We strolled around the stalls, with their home-brewed ales, foot-pressed ciders, and wind-dried wines. There was even a owl display. look!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

a owl

But, the best discovery by far was a drink that we can drink during Go Sober that, just about, at a pinch, if we seriously try and delude ourselves, can fool us into thinking that we are still drinking alcohol.

That drink is: Rochester ‘Dickensian recipe’ Non Alcoholic Ginger Wine. A drink with “the kick of two very angry mules!”

It’s good! It even looks the part (ignore the whisky hiding at the back).

rochester

Pic courtesy of Rochester Ginger Wines

Now isn’t the time to wonder what a “Dickensian Recipe” is. In fact, that time is never. Just try the drink. As far as non-alcoholic ginger drinks go it’s the best. I’ve never been kicked by a mule, or two, angry, or not: but this drink has that kick! My worry is, having bought one bottle, it will be gone by dawn. I’m also worrying about overdosing on ginger; tea, wine (fake), biscuits. but that’s the price we are paying.

Please help us. We have set ourselves an unreachable target of £1664. It’s early days though. If you can sponsor us one bottle of Rochester’s (£4), I am sure we will do it. You can sponsor me, or my wife, or both of us here, here, or here. Thank you for helping. Here’s a owl for you.

Only six sleeps to go until I have to give up drinking for a month as part of Go Sober for October; one of those daft things to do like growing a moustache in November or stroking a weasel on a Wednesday. All in the name of charity. In this instance the name is Macmillan Cancer Support.

I say six sleeps (as opposed to six days, or any other time measurement system) to try and bring a little child-like fun to the terrifying prospect of going without any alcohol whatsoever for – heck! – for 31 sleeps!

Enough of the sleep thing. A month! A whole month with no booze! It is, simply, unthinkable.

To make matters worse, just think of this (if you can, given that I have just described the whole debacle as unthinkable):

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November.
All the rest have thirty-one,
Excepting February alone,
And that has twenty-eight days clear,
And twenty-nine in each leap year

Sober! October! Go Sober For October! Do you see? They only went and picked bloody October because it rhymes!

What the fuck, I ask you, is so wrong with Don’t Be Merry For February?

Still… I’m committed.

One thing that may help me is thinking of alcoholic drinks that make me sick.

Early in September we went on holiday to Menorca. A bar in Cala Galdana had, as it should, a Happy Hour. Two drinks for the price of one.

On our first go we all had the local drink that none of the locals drink: Pomada. It’s a cocktail (if you can call Menorcan gin mixed with lemon Fanta a cocktail; and I can).

Here’s Zoe, Andrea, and Frank enjoying their Pomadas (I’m taking the picture, giving me 30 seconds of practice for the forthcoming month).

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Nice drink.

Happy Hour was 6.30pm til 7.30pm. At 7.29pm we panicked. All was well though, we got our order in. Zoe and Andrea went for Cava. Me and Frank took a gamble.

In 1964 Che Guevera said:

We must move forward, striking out tirelessly against imperialism. From all over the world we have to learn lessons which events afford. Lumumba’s murder should be a lesson for all of us.

Until now… as in now, as I write this… I had never heard of Patrice Lumumba. He was the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo and he was executed by firing squad. The UN failed to help him, and (according to Wikipedia)  MI6 might have had “something to do with it”.

I am completely ill-informed, but, as far as I am concerned, the only thing Patrice Lumumba can truly be found guilty of, is giving his name to the shittiest cocktail ever created.

If you are ever offered a Lumumba, just say no!

If you plan to Go Sober for October, spend the next six days drinking nothing but Lumumbas. After only one day you will be willing to embrace a lifetime of sobriety.

You may have gathered by now that me and Frank, in our ignorance, ordered Lumumbas.

It looks like this:

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It’s a cocktail that comes in a pint glass.

A Lumumba is some kind of cold chocolate drink mixed with Brandy.

It is not for me.

Please help me not drink for a month. Please, if you can, give a little money to Macmillan. For every £5 you donate, it not only goes towards supporting families and individuals living with cancer, it’s also five pounds you won’t be able to spend on a Lumumba.

You can sponsor me here.

Mike’s Place

June 29, 2011

Crete. Sissi.

My first holiday holiday (a holiday holiday being a holiday where all you do is be) in yonks. A holiday without the sightseeing, without the doing things: friends lent us some snorkelling gear – flippers, snorkel, goggles – we craftily left them at home. When I go in the sea I float on my back and look at the sky, none of that downwards stuff.

Just being. Sitting by a pool or the sea, looking into the sun so your eyes hurt. Then trying to read a book; something distant, removed, with short chapters. I took Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis. And The Information by Martin Amis (I started this in 1995, it’s about time I finished it).

Drinking is good too. That’s part of the deal. Cocktails even. As the sun goes down. In (it’s true!) a bar called Hemingway’s.

And food.

Ah! Food (not as in ‘Aaaah! Food’).

Food in Greece isn’t what I expected. I don’t know why but I expect food in foreign parts to be exciting, different, maybe blue. Certainly involving things I’ve never had before. Like Kakamaska and Toremosalinas. Or perhaps a Bigou plant. Or a Bigou fish. Or some Chevkasalakas. It doesn’t matter what it’s called, just make it exotic. I quite fancied some Fekhamadoras, but even they weren’t to be found.

Meat was available though. If you like Meat go to Crete. Lots of meat.

One of the restaurant’s recommended to us (for its authentic Greek cuisine) was Mike’s Place. It didn’t look too promising:


It turned out Mike’s Place was just up the road. This was simply where Mike sat to tell you what his daily speciality was.

Mike’s selling point was that he offered an ‘ecological menu’. This meant that all the meals came from Mike’s farm, just up the road.

I’m guessing here, but I think Mike lets a few animals (goats, sheep, chickens, pigs, octopi) run around his garden (free range) and every morning, when he awakes, he thinks to himself  “what should I kill today?”

He makes his decision, kills, then sits on his chair, by his sign. And as you pass he says: “Ecological menu. Today – goat – from my farm!”

We didn’t go on the goat day. We went on a lamb day. The vegetables came on a side plate. They had to, there was no room on the meat plate. Here’s my plate after I’d finished my meat.

I’ve made this pic  smaller. I’m not sure why. I think I may feel bad. Earlier in the day this was a little lamb, gamboling.

Here’s Mike’s farm (maybe). All I know is, the next day, as we walked past, there was one less goat.

possibly Mike's farm

And to think I used to be a vegetarian. I blame Mike. And Bret Easton Ellis.

Do you like driving around? I do. I know it’s bad and we shouldn’t do it; not just for the hell of it anyway. I do my best by to try and tie it into a trip.

I’m staying up in Manchester, looking after my mum as she recovers from an operation.  Over in Sheffield lives my lovely Zoe. So last night I drove there, and today I drove back.

And it’s one of the best drives you can do. It’s 80 miles long and 80 minutes long. And you only use two roads; the M62 and the M1.

How do I even begin to describe how joyous this journey is?

Of course, for me, it’s a win-win situation; either coming or going. On the one hand I get to see Zoe and on the other hand… Wait! Let me tell you about my mum’s car.

I’m using it while I’m up here, and, if you’re thinking of doing any driving around, I recommend you use my mum’s car too. Or, for the best, your own mum’s. Here’s why: Free petrol!

Also, you can have fun rooting through your mum’s cassettes. Who knew my mum had Home by Terry Hall? Most likely not my mum. I doubt she’s ever listened to it.

I should have known, since my writing was all over the old TDK thing (the other side was a hideous mix of M People and Blur; what was I thinking? Did I really make this compilation? Yes! When? IDK).

So… get into your mum’s Toyota Starlet, put in Home, and head off.

Here’s the main joys:

1- It’s a sunny journey. The weather is absolutely beautiful.*

2- No matter where you are;  on the M1 or the M62, coming or going; you can always see Emley Moor transmitting station.

It’s foolish to take photos whilst driving, so here’s one of the majestic big stick thing by Tim Green.

Emly Moor (Image: Tim Green)

It’s dangerous on so many levels to take photos at 70mph. It may well be illegal. That’s why I didn’t take these photos this morning.

not taken by me today, as I drove

Nor this

These pics bring me on to joy 4:

4- The bridges. The ones above are good, but they’re not the best. There are some truly beautiful bridges along the M1. I think they were built during stage 2 of the M1’s construction, in the 1960’s; gorgeous and simple asymmetric, white concrete designs. In need of a coat of paint, yes, but in the sun they still shine. I didn’t get any pictures, but take a look at them here at The Motorway Archive.

5- The M62. A glorious road from Liverpool to Hull; this stretch taking in the highest point of any motorway in the UK at Windy Hill. And also passing Stott Hall Farm, immortalised here by John Shuttleworth:

6- The pigs. I only caught a glimpse of them. But as the M1 joins the M62, look to your left, see the free range pigs.

I’m sure there’s lots more to enjoy.

Oh yes! One of those motorway lighting up signs declaring Think bike; think biker. Now, the thing is, the truth, I don’t really like that. It’s just that it reminded me of the original Think once, think twice, think bike.

Years later I adpated the slogan for my own entertainment, coming up with think once, think twice, think nice.

Here’s what I was listening to. Terry Hall proving he’s the best James Bond we’ve never had.

*not always.

Goody Goody Yum Yum

February 13, 2011

It’s the BAFTA’s tonight. Are you going? I’m not. Instead, I’m sitting here thinking about goody bags. They go crazy for them at the BAFTA’s don’t they? They love them, the Jeffs, Colins, Natalies and Coens. Christopher Nolan only made Inception so he could get a gold cover for his phone. And some booze.

They love booze, those film folk. But if there’s one thing they hate, it’s paying for it. It’s a known fact that BAFTA luvvie  Russell Crowe once pinned the TV director Malcolm Gerrie to a wall just because Gerrie had the nerve to tell Crowe his Tia Maria was £4.50. Or something like that. I don’t know. Don’t quote me. Don’t hold me to it. Don’t pin the messenger to the wall.

Here’s what gets them all so whoop-di-dooed.

Let’s see. There’s a phone, some booze, some shampoo. You get the idea.

It’s a goody bag. But it’s not the goodiest bag.

Last night I was at a Valentine’s Ball. It was the Caravan Valentine’s Ball. Held at the Marriott Hotel in High Gosforth Park, Newcastle (winner, in 2008, of the North East England Large Hotel of the Year Award!)

Ok, I’ll slow down. I’ve become aware that I’m maybe piling on the information. Taking too much for granted. You think I’m some kind of Caravaner. I do wish I was, but I’m not. This Caravan is the name for the National Grocers’ Benevolent Fund; the charity for the grocery industry. It’s a fundraiser and everyone there does there best to raise money for grocers who’ve fallen on hard times.

You can laugh. But I’d rather you didn’t. I’ve fallen on hard times myself now and then (mainly now), and Caravan has come to my rescue too. And yes, I know I’m no grocer (if it helps, my grandpa and grandma were). Caravan help me in other ways. Caravan give each guest a goody bag that, frankly, makes the BAFTA goody bag look like a la-di-da ponce-fest. Yes Portman, you deserve all the best for your skinny-ballet horror lesbo romp. You deserve a gold phone. But be honest, wouldn’t you rather get your bony fingers on this?

Look closer. Let’s spill the bag and see what’s inside.

There were also crumpets and tea cakes. Actors, that’s a Goody Bag!

Snow pics

December 4, 2010

Who you gonna call?

December 2, 2010

If you’ve got a problem with a ghost (and I hope you haven’t, unless it’s a Casper and he’s friendly… but then he won’t be a problem, will he?) then you know what to do. You know who to call. Ghostbusters. The one and only. Ring them, they come, they sort you out. There may be other ghost-busting agencies available, but not to my knowledge. It’s all so easy. Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters. Sorted.

Now let’s say you’ve got a problem with the weather. A bit of snow. And let’s say the trains are not up to the job. Who you gonna call?

Tricky, isn’t it.

A few years back you’d have called the train equivalent of Ghostbusters; a little-remembered institution called British Rail. They were responsible for all train things. Snow? Want to know what to do? How to get somewhere? What’s running? What’s not? Who you gonna call? British Rail.

But they had to go. I’m not sure why. I guess they just weren’t making enough money for the men in suits.

So, everything got split up and now who are you gonna call? Network Rail. They own and operate Britain’s rail infrastructure. If you have a problem with infrastructure, call them.

The trains I tend to use are operated by Southeastern. They provide services for South london. Should I call them?

Yers, the snow’s bad. I’m sure it affects trains and infrastructure in ways I can’t begin to understand. It seems to affect information display boards too. And staff.

The information boards freeze up and just tell us there is disruption. The staff freeze up and lock themselves away.

It’s not the staff’s fault. And I don’t balme them for locking themselves away. It seems they are as much in the dark as me.

Two days ago, at Hither Green Station, I waited for a train. It wasn’t snowing, but it had been. A bit. Trains were delayed. I looked at the info things just wanting to know which platform I should wait on. They weren’t working. I went to he counter. All three ticket booths had the ‘closed’ blinds pulled down. The door on the platform which is always open so you can speak to someone… closed. In time I tracked down a member of staff. I was nice. He was nice. They are all  nice at Hither Green. He was apologetic. After a bit of polite banter I asked him why no info was displayed. It was because they had none… that’s ok, Im thinking, but why don’t they put up info that says they have no info. Something along these lines:

Now what is the message there? The message is that there are no “knowns.” There are thing we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. So when we do the best we can and we pull all this information together, and we then say well that’s basically what we see as the situation, that is really only the known knowns and the known unknowns. And each year, we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns.

It sounds like a riddle. It isn’t a riddle. It is a very serious, important matter.

Donald Rumsfeld at NATO 6th June 2002

Tell us something, don’t just hide away!

I did ask the member of staff why they didn’t just make regular announcements. Even if it’s just letting us know there’s nothing to announce. He said they weren’t allowed to/didn’t have the facilities (one of the two, I can’t remember which).

In time I got where I was going.

Then I had to come home.

At Waterloo East about fifty people gathered around an info desk. I asked the man if he knew what platform the next train might arrive at. At that point his colleague leaned over and said “we don’t have to take this abuse.” The man I was talking to tuned to his colleague and said “He isn’t being abusive, he’s being very polite”. Thank you sir. And then his colleague declared “I don’t have to take any more abuse!” She ripped the cables out from underneath her monitor and stormed off.

Moments later an angry passenger behind me called out “Why don’t you just shout loudly so we can all hear. If there are no trains just tell us.”

I turned and shouted “There are no trains.” He looked at me and said “a bit more information would be nice!”

It’s just crazy.

I shouldn’t complain. At least I didn’t get stuck on a train overnight.

A few days ago I went to see Unstoppable, the new Tony Scott/ Denzel Washington runaway train extravaganza. Southeastern should make their own non-action film, Stoppable.

Or Network Rail. Who do I pitch it to?