The drinker I didn’t know

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It’s quiet living by the sea. Alright, it can seem a bit like London Fields during the height of the summer season when the Camel Trail teams with cyclists and every door step and bench is occupied by someone eating a pasty. But for much of the time it’s tranquil, almost – empty. Though ironically that is when living by the sea is it’s most sociable. That’s when it is impossible to walk more than a few paces without meeting a friend, or more likely a casual acquaintance with whom to share a minute or two musing upon the weather (the most popular topic of conversation here in the south west). Or discussing the arrival of an unfamiliar boat in the harbour, or the next event on the town’s social horizon. Small communities are just that. Intimate, entwined, with common ground and interests, and levels of history  as multitudinous and revealing as the concentric rings embedded within the trunk of an ancient tree. I’ve met people with huge financial stakes in the town. Others who have sacrificed everything for little reward. The children of those who died going about their work, spoken of with sadness and respect decades after their untimely demises. And others who at first meeting distain those who have done them some injustice, only to witness a 180 degree about turn when their chips are down and discovering that they are in some convoluted way distantly related. In a small town there is a charming and gregarious openness within and without, a labyrinthine of secrets.

Kim and I moved into our new house, after a decade and a half in the other, almost exactly a year ago. I haven’t paced it out but I doubt the distance between the two properties, a slate hung cottage in the old town and close to the harbour and the Edwardian detached house at the end of a road of Victorian and 1930s homes on what would have been farmland a century ago, is more than 500 yards. Despite the closeness in distance the two homes are in many respects worlds apart, and the ribbing from former neighbours reminded me of that dished out to this day by north Londoners when speaking to those living south of the river. Prior to the extension of the London Overground rail link to places once unknown even to those living south of the Thames I had shared the belief that the other side of the river was a forgotten place best left alone. However,quite how such geographical prejudice could be applied to this town was beyond me. That is until we had actually moved in. It was then then that I discovered that even within a small town that could be slipped into a modest London park there are inconceivable differences; other sounds, unimagined characteristics, difference issues, and new people, those who have apparently never ventured those few hundred yards into that other world:

There’s the girl with the ponytail in black and yellow latex upon a racing bike who passes the house at some considerable speed every morning, despite the gradient of the hill. There are horses and riders, and farmers with tractors, and the man who lives down the lane who drives a vintage Landrover, and a local businesswoman who enjoys Pinot Grigio soirees on her terrace. The mayor lives nearby, as does the man whose pasties have won accolades the length and breadth of the country, and the man with hands like tea trays who drives a pick-up and clears building sites and who speaks like a contestant on University Challenge. All of them, and the young man who tossed his empty beer cans into our garden.

I don’t know exactly how many empty beer cans I collected those first few weeks, but it was in the dozens. And when the man with the tea tray hands and a stooped colleague had combined chain saws and brute force on our overgrown garden there were more. Not the cheap, flavourless, low alcohol stuff. The empties we gathered in black plastic bin liners were premium brands; Special Brew, Red Stripe, Carlsberg Export, Grolsch and some Polish brews with AVBs figures closer to hat sizes than alcohol content. Our litterbug was clearly a drinker who didn’t like wasting time. This was the detritus of a drinker with one mission in life; to get obliterated as swiftly as possible. Oh and another mission, to store their empties in the unloved, overgrown, slightly dilapidated, down at heel house at the end of the street.

It wasn’t long, no more than a couple of weeks, when I discovered the perpetrator, a tall, rangy young man with a purposeful stride, taking regular slugs from a beer can in his right hand. I’m not good on ages. It’s an aspect of getting old that everyone with ungreyed hair appears youthful and could be any age from late teens to early forties. But noticing the gel in his perpendicular short black hair I took a punt on 25. His equine face was unnaturally florid and his eyes, even from a distance, impassive. I ran outside and positioned myself at such a place that he could see me and would be aware of me watching him as and when he decided to eject another empty. As he got nearer his eyes appeared even emptier, as though there were nothing behind the strident, strutting beer swilling visage. He didn’t acknowledge my presence for a second, looking straight ahead all the while, vacuous, supercilious perhaps. He turned the corner, crossed the street and about ten houses down appeared to throw something over a garden wall. No furtive glances to see if anyone was watching. Moving stridently forward with just the deftest flick of the wrist. A skillful maneuver perfected from many months, maybe years of practice. I confess to having been a bit diminished. In the short time I’d been in our new home I’d assumed that the empty cans were intended for us. Some indictment of home ownership. But I was wrong, and faintly hurt. My languid and strutting neighbour clearly wasn’t in the least partial where his cans finished up. Any garden would do. It was just that mine, overgrown and unloved, had been the most convenient.

I saw him several times over the coming weeks. Asta, our Airedale, had clocked him too, running parallel to him along the garden fence had shown her disapproval of public drinking by barking at him with what Kim and I agreed was uncharacteristic ferocity. She’d see him in the distance heading our way and then run up and down the wall as he strode past, growling, and barking and true to form, wagging her corkscrew tail fervently in friendship.

Over the ensuing weeks, when neighbours and acquaintances from our former corner of town (and some of those hereabouts who had been monitoring our arrival) asked us how we were getting on we remarked that everything was going according to plan. The house was everything we had hoped it would be. Yes, there was a lot to do, and that included clearing the endless supply of discarded beer cans. These neighbours were all, without exception, familiar the perpetrator, and they all, again without exception, lowered their heads and said just that he had problems.  No argument there then. This was a young man who’d be taking hits of premium lager when most of us enjoying our tea and toast. I’d say he had problems.

Problems or not you couldn’t fault the young man’s time keeping, or his thirst. It got the point where I could expect to see him three or four times a day. Always around the same times; about 8.30 in the morning; early lunch, between twelve and one, and then again late afternoon, around 4.30. Neither could you fault his posture. See him walk most purposefully and erect down the hill to town I was reminded of one of a scene in John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King when Michael Caine tells Sean Connery they should ‘polish our buttons, stuff ramrods up our jacksies and look bold’. There was something equally predetermined, and inexorable about my hard drinking neighbour.

Purely by virtue of driving past the moment he put the key into the lock of a grey front door I discovered that our man lived in a small block of flats just along the way. Watching him, can in hand, I wondered if he opened a can before he left, while dressing perhaps, or if he kept that pleasure for when he was on the street? And then polishing off nearly all of contents in the minute or so it took to reach our garden fence? It is a small, unremarkable block within which every life is concealed behind net curtains. Affordable homes for local people priced out of the property market hereabouts by the likes of me.

I doubt it was the sight of me, in overalls working on the house, that persuaded him to toss fewer cans in the garden. More likely it was Asta’s admonishments, those she reserved for postmen, horses, dogs so decrepit they can barely turn to face her, and him. Then, on two occasions I thought I heard, in hushed tones, a voice say “hello Asta” as she stuck her head through the fence at the second he brushed past. By then she had stopped kicking up a ruckus each time he appeared and was more content to run along the fence and wag her tail.

Simultaneously the numbers of cans dwindled and I began to realize just what a dapper lush he was. A little red around the gills but he neither wore jeans nor sneakers favouring loose fitting trousers with a billowy dash of New Romanticism, worn with an untucked shirt and long jacket. As the weather improved he wore a long double breasted blazer in off white to such insouciant effect that he could have easily claimed to being one of the best dressed men in town.

I can’t recall when it dawned upon me that I hadn’t seen him for a while. But when I did I also realised that I was looking out for him. He and the cans had become part of my neighborhood furniture. A not entirely joyous element of my new world, but an element nonetheless, and I missed him.

It was a couple of weeks later I learnt he’d died. The bearer of the news didn’t know the cause of his death, only that the funeral had taken place the week before, and had been crowded. The boss of the company he’d worked gave a eulogy in which he’d made a point of how hard the deceased had worked. Not an engaging job by all accounts. Monotonous, and dreary. But he’d been one of the hardest workers there, and would be missed. He was 34 years old. He been living up north somewhere but had returned to the west country to be with his father suffering a terminal illness. I think I’d have drunk much more if it had been me.

I raised a glass to the passing of the neighbour nobody seemed to know much about when he was alive, but for all the empties – who hit it off, in a quiet sort of way, with Asta.

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Don’t Lose A Day – it could cost you

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Asta and I had enjoyed the short saunter into The Old Town the other day to pass on some back issues of The New Yorker magazine to the only person I have ever known to read that wordy periodical from cover to cover; no mean feat when many articles can be over 10,000 words long.
The recipient of my half read east coast’s bibles is a dear friend who shares a handsome Georgian house with a reluctant black Labrador. The house is a monument to faded elegance, illuminated almost entirely by my friend’s seductive radiance; a rare and very special hybrid literary fashion glam. In one room there are two open fire places, with logs chosen as much for their aesthetic charm as their latent thermal qualities. There are chandeliers, and books, feather boas draped across the furniture, and framed photographs on every wall
I hadn’t seen my friend for a couple of weeks. She had cancelled a dinner arrangement on the grounds of having a dicky tummy, that I suspected at the time of being entirely self inflicted. She is stick thin, with a back straight as a rod, surviving on a diet of home baked bread (made with treacle), vegetables, Prosseco, and sea kale. The sea kale, that grows in abundance on Old Town Cove, along the Camel past the Iron Bridge, she serves to a cow-eyed obeisant relative, in-order to give her the shits.
In fact, my friend’s illness turned out to be something more serious, and within seconds of appearing at her door, in that assertive, faintly 1940s schoolmarmish way she has of speaking, she barked “you must live every day to the fullest. Don’t lose a day.” Spoken with the sort of certainty she normally reserves for demanding a second bottle of Prosseco.

…lose a year and risk going without

…lose a year and risk going without

I am happy to report that she is back to full health and yet barely a day goes by when I haven’t relived her doorstep advice. Because, of course, losing days is easier that we think. Traffic jams, watching television, dicking around on the internet looking at what your friends ate for dinner the night before, and trying to get hold of anyone at BT are popular ways of losing several days a year.
The late Jeffrey Bernard, author of the Spectator’s Low Life column, who famously consumed industrial quantities of vodka and soda, and whose column was described by Jonathan Meades as “a suicide note in weekly installments”, lost 14 years. Whilst researching anecdotes for an autobiography that never appeared the writer famously appealed in a classified ad for anyone who “could tell me what I was doing between 1960 and 1974.”
All of which brings me to the Department of Work and Pensions, that I see is the papers this week for publishing a disingenuous leaflet in which fictitious people explain how the current changes to benefit is helping them. Looking ahead to the day when I also will be on a fixed income I asked for a projection of what size of pension I could hope to expect? Needless to say it will be well below the figure the present Chancellor of the Exchequer is promoting. Of course, I expected nothing less, especially as a recent report predicted that it will take 20 years before most people will have enough entitlement for the full amount – an eye watering £7400.00, a sum that to paraphrase the Sundance Kid – “won’t even pay for my bullets”.
At the heart of my (and others’) predicament are the statutory 35 qualifying years; the years for which a National Insurance Stamp must have been paid. According to the DWP I am four years shy of the full 35 and will therefore be deducted 4/35ths from the full amount. Three of the years the DWP insists were paid too late to qualify; that is another story. The ‘lost’ year that fascinates me is the one I spent at CBS Records, in London’s Soho Square. Happy times when I worked with my good friends the late Pat Foxton, and Jonathan Morrish. It was a time when I worked with Wham! and also worked with and befriended Sade and her band.
Some year, you’d be justified in saying. And it was. It gave me a taste of travelling in limos, never paying for nightclubs, nor arriving or exiting at gigs by the front door. And yet according to the DWP and CBS Records it that year didn’t exist. According to the DWP I was off the grid that entire year and didn’t make any payments. When I put this to CBS, the architect of my memorable 15 months, I drew a similar blank; all records for that time have been destroyed and as far as the company is concerned there is not a shred of proof that I ever worked there.
The Inland Revenue insists we keep all financial documents within six years, which by default means we trash anything older. Mistake, because the bank also trashes them.
So here I am, under instructions never to lose a day, and what do I do, with a little help from CBS Records, Barclays Bank and the DWP, I manage to lose an entire year. You might not think that much in the grand scheme of things (maybe no more that a bottle of Prosseco a week) but when we can only count on getting four score years (if we’re lucky) losing one can be costly.
My friend’s advice that I lose not a single day is good. It may be even better not to lose any proof that you had that single day in the first place.

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Dispatches to Sir Kev 28.01.2015 – bone idle

oh no, not another view

oh no, not another view

Dear Sir Kev,

Sincere apologies for not writing sooner. I have no excuses, such as too much HSD (that’s beer), or I’ve been worked off my feet, or there’s no internet here in the south west, or even – nothing to report. The truth is I haven’t dispatched a report for the simple reason that I have been overcome with laziness. It’s not entirely my fault. Some responsibility must lie with the location I now find myself in. I know you have an appreciation of landscape, fauna, and natural vistas. Well you try doing something when each day you are confronted by a wide serpentine estuary filled to capacity by the restless Atlantic twice daily, and beyond it gently rolling farmlands all the way to Bodmin Moor. Think Middle Earth’s Argonath without the statues.

That view is partly the reason Kim and I bought our first place here nearly 20 years ago, and its therapeutic and meditative powers haven’t diminished with time. Indeed, in our new elevated position where we can watch entire weather systems unfold on the horizon, on their way to you and our former lives, where entire 180 degree rainbows are as common as oyster catchers and the local youth pulling hand-break turns in the dead of night,  the scene is possibly even more absorbing today; even more prone to rendering all who gaze on it to be unavailing. In fact many visitors have inquired as to how Kim or I ever getting anything done faced with such a view, or for that matter, ever leave the house. I rest my case.

I recall some time ago a friend of yours, down here at the busiest time, school summer holidays, complaining that there were insufficient railings around the harbour, where a young child might easily fall into the briny. I also recall, whereupon it was pointed to him that this is a fishing port and not, like Alton Towers, designed to be infant friendly, your friend dismissed the notion insisting the town is nowt more than a holiday resort. I won’t relay the displeasure that comment caused hereabouts.

I recall his remark because this morning at high tide, with the harbour gate slipping into the water to allow the coming and going of craft, I counted twenty one fishing vessels within the inner harbour alone. I could see more, sea worn and heavy with chains and lifting gear from further afield (Fowey and Penzance), tied up along the outer harbour, with another two, followed by gulls (who clearly hadn’t worked out that they didn’t have any fish on board at the start of the voyage) pushing against the tide on their way north along the Camel past Rock and Polzeath, to Stepper Point, Pentire, Newlyn Rock and the fishing grounds beyond.

There is a pride in these parts in taking what’s for the taking,  that extends beyond fish: It’s ironic that for a town known internationally for seafood I’ve yet to meet a Cornishman who eats the stuff. I recall a trip some years ago to Tresco (the island, not the troubled grocery chain), the most verdant of the Isles of Scilly, and being shown the ceilings, doors, kitchens, and entire extensions built with a pinkish Canadian pine that had been washed up on the island’s shores when a cargo ship struck the rocks.

Closer to home a ship bearing coal that sank in the Camel estuary in the 1950s is still providing fuel for those with the time to scour Harbour Cove for lumps. Most are the size of  fists but occasionally there are others as big as carry-on wheelies. The recent enthusiasm for wood burning stoves in homes has fueled another form of beach-coming. A tree trunk or piece of ship’s decking is enough for two nights burning so you can imagine, with wrecking in the DNA in these parts, the ingenuity and subterfuge employed to secure the most prized bits. In fact, it is not uncommon to find piles of driftwood stashed among the dunes and wooded rocks on St.George’s Well, placed by those awaiting a means by which to transport their booty home. I am not ashamed to admit that I have stashed wood in such a manner and I am not the only one  to return the next day, armed with a saw, axe and burlap bag, to find it all gone.

Not so long ago I came upon some timbers, so saturated and blackened, I guessed they had been at the bottom of the sea for many years. I gathered them together but only had the strength to get one home. By the afternoon the remaining timbers, that I’d dragged to a small cave, had gone. Once dried the inside of my only log was revealed to be riddled with some foul smelling, translucent sea creature. Like some odorous invisible worm. I mention this because I came upon the same rank stink on a visit to a neighbour’s some days later.

One of the most successful beach scavengers around here, a meticulously attired women with a back as straight as a door and a pure white bob, who lives in the town’s most elegantly dilapidated house, and who is rumored to have danced at the London Palladium in a former life, insists “I never come home empty handed.” There is a basket in her living room containing many beautiful twisted branches, all found on the beaches while walking her black labrador retrievers, and that she intends to burn, one by one, upon each of her birthdays.

I mention her because she, and a growing number of people around here, also eat for free. Sea cabbage, or kale, grows ferociously on Old Town Cove, just off the Camel Trail. It can be eaten raw but I prefer it gently steamed when it reveals a bitter, nutty taste, that is delicious in stir-frys and rice. If my elegant friend is anything to go by it is packed with the elixir of life, although it can have a purging effect too. She serves sea cabbage up for a relative, an especially patronising one, she says, and one who is prone to grasping my friend’s wrist, anxiously, and asking in that sombre clerical way, “if I am alright?” The sea cabbage gives her the trots which is another way of telling her to get lost.

The other delicacy to be served up at many a local table is cauliflower. The fields above St.George’s Well are knee deep with them, tended and picked by teams of east European farm labourers working in every kind of weather. They must have instructions to harvest only a specific size and colour because there are discarded cauliflowers close to the cliff path. Kim is not alone in bringing dozens home,  while, as someone pointed out, Tesco (the troubled grocery store not the Scilly isle) can’t give whoppers away for less than 50p. I’ll wager if they mudded them up a bit and left a pile in the car park they’d be gone within minutes.

The tide has turned since I began this dispatch. The sea has receded to reveal swirls of sand bars and mudflats, and the Camel virtually gone as far as the iron bridge.  The oyster catchers and curlews are back, and the men who dig for lugworms are up to their thighs in mud. I can see all of that, so long as I don’t do much of anything else.

Posted in Dispatches from Tarn et Garonne, Seashores, travel, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

shut up and don’t think

sunsetSome things you never forget. Like riding a bicycle, or mixing the perfect vodka martini. It’s the same with Transcendental Meditation, TM for short; the simplest and most effective way I know for, well for lack of a better description, getting rid of the crap.

Simply, once learnt the TM technique is never forgotten. Decades passed since the last time TM’s curative effects are invoked it’s always there, and as rejuvenating as a new day.

vodka martini, once mixed never forgotten

vodka martini, once mixed never forgotten

I mention this consciousness altering technique – a grand and often misunderstood phrase for feeling relaxed and better equipped to handle the stuff that modern life throws our way – for two reasons: The first is I have returned to TM these past few months after a good many years away; the second is because the 21st century’s most celebrated adherent, film maker David Lynch, the guiding light of his own transcendental meditation foundation, is back in the news.

Searching for something to clear out the synapses I’ve taken to quiet rooms, closing my eyes and entering the world of emptiness revealed to me as a teenager. The method remains the same, but I have discovered that the passing of time has the same effect that years of patient waiting has on Rhone wines.

Looking back I think I had it all wrong. Encouraged by the celebrity appeal of TM (its supporters included The Beatles, some of The Beach Boys, Britain’s Dylan, aka Donovan, and gamine movie star Mia Farrow) my friends and I attended a sort of TM clinic in a comfortable mansion flat close to the Thames, at Richmond, Surrey. The inductees spoke in hushed voices  of calm pools of consciousness. One man said his wife had become more genial.

To put it into context this was a time when everyone was looking for something,  defining;  some sort of inner meaning. While contemporary disciples are primetime news for queuing up overnight to buy the latest smart phone back then people sought a more spiritual dimension, and TM, whilst not having any religious, quasi-religious, was part of that scene.

The key to TM, practiced twice daily for 20 minutes, is the mantra. Once given I was advised not to divulge it to anyone as then it would no longer be unique to me. While suspecting every TM practitioner has the same one as me I have never divulged it. Described it variously as either a word or a sound (and certainly not ‘om’) it’s a sort of mental key. I suppose if every TM user does have the same mantra,  so what? But I don’t know if they do, and frankly I’d rather not know. Your mantra is your own and you might as well keep it that way.

The mantra is repeated, silently during the course of 20 minutes, in a method designed to clear the mind and focus purely on a sort of emptiness. As thoughts and events drift into view the mantra is reasserted thereby pushing any distractions away.

Initially, perhaps poorly instructed who knows, I’d rattle the mantra off like a camera shutter on motor drive, never feeling any different when my 20 minutes were up. I stuck it for four or five months, and I’ll admit I wound up thinking it was all a load of baloney, agreeing with Lennon when he dedicated Sexy Sadie to TM guru, and spokesperson The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. With his long grey beard, and cartoon laugh – a gift for a sceptical media that loves a good caricature – the Maharishi is thought to have trained over 40,000 TM instructors worldwide, and until his death in 2008 oversaw an organisation with an eye watering income. Estimates claim there are five millions TM practitioners worldwide.

But a lot of things were different then. I was different, and my recent return to TM  has been a much more fulfilling experience. As Lynch, promoting the boxed set of his Gothic television soap, Twin Peaks,  told the Guardian’s Jeremy Kay this month, “…more happiness in the doing…” You bet.

Instead of blitzing the mantra I now take things much slower. Making the mantra more, well, emphatic, a more resolute barrier for the distractions to penetrate. The effect is to make the self induced cognitive calm, the state of consciousness where there is nothing but (I know this sounds loopy) the here and now, actually very enjoyable.

There’s the warm rush in the arms, and sometimes – I know not why – a sudden twitch or shift and a sort internal gasp in the solar plexus. Funny things happen when you’re mind stops thinking.

Strangely the second 20 minute session is proving the superior. Perhaps those more able to concentrate than me can enjoy both sessions. But I’ve always been easily distracted: my primary school end of term reports said as much. I can’t even read a newspaper with the radio on. It’s as if by the the second 20 minute shift my concentration is honed, more concentrated.

I put all of this to a lifelong friend who yelped with untrammeled delight as though his pal had finally thrown off a lifetime’s blindfold to really see for the first time. “Write that, right there, write that,” he implored.

My friend was never taught any accepted method of meditation. A former child actor, professional dancer (he’ll kill me for this, he was one of The Young Generation), an artist and now mariner, he nevertheless instantly recognised the physical effects as described by me,  before claiming to have enjoyed an altered state himself, that very day, in the car, on route to the supermarket. I tell you, you learn something new every day, although I’m not sure I’d readily accept a lift from my friend if I thought for a second he was enjoying an out of body experience behind the wheel.

With his Stan Laurel hair, buttoned up white shirt and fixed expression, David Lynch has just the sort of cookie look to make anyone unacquainted with TM run the other way. I like his website ( It goes out of its way to demystify TM. No Holy Men or intergalactic space cadets here.  There are soldiers and vets discussing the help TM gives them, and regular people from all walks of life with one thing in common; they each want to find some space in which to function. For each the bottom line is stress, and if TM can do away with that, without resorting to Prozac or the couch, then ok.

We all need a hobby. It’s just that mine, and that of the other five million, is quieter and cheaper than most.

Lynch sums it up: “…when you start diving within and infusing that pure consciousness: happiness, intelligence, creativity, energy, peace, love. It’s like gold coming in, garbage going out.”

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It’s A Family Affair: Twenty years of Robert Elms shows.

Robert - suited and booted for his birthday

Robert – suited and booted for his birthday

What does it take to get Sir Paul Smith, Gilbert and George, Nick Lowe, Gary Kemp, and very nearly Rod Stewart, into the same Soho jazz club at the same time? The answer, were you not tuned into Radio London 94.9 on Friday, is the 20th anniversary of Robert Elms’ Monday to Saturday lunchtime show.

To celebrate, what by any reckoning is a milestone achievement – two decades unearthing the capital’s secrets, giving voice to its musicians, artists, writers and creative forces, and generally doing for London what its corpulent politicians can only dream about –  the BBC team chose to broadcast  the anniversary show live from Ronnie Scott’s in Frith Street, that iconic venue that has played a major part in shaping Robert’s lifelong affair with London’s underbelly.

Robert with Sir Paul Smith

Robert with Sir Paul Smith


In fact, our Ronnies seats (his and mine), on stools, our backs against the bar, directly in front of the stage, are, along with my season ticket seats at Fulham, are my most cherished seats on the planet – and believe me I’ve sat on a few gooduns.

Cuing the show in with George Benson’s Breezin’ Robert, suited and booted for the occasion,  observed “I’ve never seen Ronnie’s in the morning before, except in the early hours  when I’ve been heading in the other direction, and very drunk.”

He explained that when he’s started the show, on June 20 , 1994, for what was then Greater London Radio (GLR), it had been as a temporary stand-in. His intention was to turn London back on itself, engage with his listeners at every opportunity, and throw the spotlight on those creative Londoners who in the old broadcasting order would have remained unsung and unheard. To assist those tentative and uncertain early days he recruited some of his pals. Spike was arguably radio’s most eccentric film reviewer. He once reported live from a telephone kiosk in Cornwall, and on another occasion was offered the keys to Cartagena by an art house film club in Colombia.

My own weekly slot was Secret London. A twenty minute segment broadcast live – using a mobile phone the size of a shoe box –  from, well anywhere a bit quirky. I began with the house in N1’s Mackenzie Road that is festooned with decorations each Christmas; the owner, a hospital porter, builds a santa’s grotto above his fish pond. Another broadcast was from the top of Canary Wharf (literally outside as it was being built), and my own favourite, Dennis Severs House in Spitalfields.

The three hour birthday broadcast, with an audience of regular listeners – ‘Pete from Acton’ as he is known was photographing the event as a favour – and family and friends – Kim and I sat with Bob’s wife Christina and our godson Alfie – was an affectionate, often funny, and sometimes moving collection of London anecdotes.

Sir Paul, who shares with Bob a passion for cycling, gave a condensed history of his company from the initial four story building in Floral Street, without stairs, that opened  in October 1979 when I recall Covent Garden being derelict with homeless people and open braziers on many corners. He said he doesn’t know how many stores he has today, but that there are 265 in Japan.

Of course Bob is known for naming Spandau Ballet (he confessed to stealing the name from the wall of a public convenience in Berlin). He and the band’s leader and songwriter Gary Kemp have been friends for years, going back to the fashion excess of the New Romantic era. The Spandau frontman paid his respect with a stirring acoustic version of Chant Number 1 (I Don’t Need This Pressure On). Gilbert and George, whom Bob and I know from our frequent meals at Dalston’s Mangal ll restaurant, were tweedy and effusive:

Robert with Gilbert and George

Robert with Gilbert and George

“Go on, said Gilbert, the short one, “tell him your joke.” Upon which George, the tall one, related an encounter with a “skinhead lorry driver”, who upon leaning out of his cab called to London’s tweediest artists, “my life is an effing moment – your art is an eternity.”

Rod Stewart, along with Queens Park Rangers, Savile Row suits, and lager tops, is another one of Bob’s life essentials. He often plays Rod and Faces tracks on air, the singer from Archway listening on the internet from Los Angeles. Rod called in from a traffic jam on the Embankment to apologize for not being able to attend – “I gave it my best shot” –  explaining that he was due in Blackpool that evening for a concert and was concerned he wouldn’t make it if he made a detour.

He did reveal though that he would be moving back to the UK shortly. “So my kids can grow up here.” Thanking Bob’s listeners for buying his music “and keeping my children in shoes and pencils.”

Nick Lowe

Nick Lowe

Nick Lowe, whom Bob has championed for as long as I remember, introducing the singer and songwriter as the ‘Bard of Brentford’, performed two songs, Love Is A Battlefield that he wrote for Diana Ross, and an achingly spellbinding Alison that first saw the light of day on Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True album. I like Nick Lowe on record a lot, and live and unaccompanied at Ronnie Scott’s he is immense. His voice resonating longer and deeper than any other matinee singer I know; a craft he has being honing these past ten years or so.

Between the songs and the jokes Bob reminded us of how his show handled with the events of 911 and 7/7, a tornado in Kensal Rise, the Olympic Games, and in a tearful moment the day his late mother Eileen telephoned the show to wish her son a happy fiftieth birthday.

And that’s what twenty years of the Robert Elms show is all about; a family affair – for all of London.




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Dispatches to Sir Kev 15.6.14 – Dressing The Part

Journalists likes to think they have the power to influence. It’s part of the appeal of the job; mass coercion. Shaping opinion goes with the territory, and by and large readers keep to their side of the bargain.

It’s why Kim insists, every time we encounter a group of holiday-makers tap tapping past our Cornish home, their fingers wrapped around polished aluminum walking poles, of the kind Sir Ranulph Fiennes uses for assaults upon far away wastelands, that I am responsible. But there aren’t any glaciers around here, and the pavement isn’t in bad shape either. Nevertheless, says Kim “your readers”  (‘my readers’) “have read your columns and bought the gear.” She has a way of turning praise into mild condemnation.

The gear they’ve bought on the basis of ‘my columns’ doesn’t start and finish with those poles (I am particularly taken with the Leki Photosystem that doubles as a camera monopod). Gore-Tex waterproof over-trousers are popular (you can hear them coming a ways off), stormproof cajoles too, and boots imbued with more technology than smart phones.

You were there Sir Kev. You photographed many of the items I wrote about in The Sunday Times, so – persuasively. Do you think I should slip in a caution to the effect that unless ‘my readers’ on being a laughing stock they should just go to the seaside in what they’re wearing? You know, normal shirts and trousers and comfortable shoes.

Frankly, I’m not sure such a caveat would have had any effect. As a nation we are gripped with the desire to surround oursevles with appropriate gear. I recall David – who is the man, an old friend who sorts out my cars –  upon learning I was spending increased amounts of time in the west country, suggesting I buy a 4×4. I had to assure him that there are surfaced roads in Cornwall; a regular car would do.

It is easy to make a mistake. Some time ago I accompanied shoemaker Oliver Sweeney on one of his favourite Dartmoor hikes. At the time he spent his weekends in a converted chapel in Devon. I arrived, dressed to the nines in high tech walking kit provided by one of those outdoors companies favoured by BBC foreign correspondents expecting Mr.Sweeney to be similarly attired. He was in shorts and a t-shirt when I arrived and when I suggested he get changed into something suitable for the hike he rubbed his eyes and told me he was going as he was – with the addition of a pair of his own Oliver Sweeney derby shoes. I learnt a lesson that day, I almost never forgot.

evidently local

evidently local

I say almost because as I think you know I am partial to a spot of Ralph Lauren. We all have our weeknesses, yours being expensive bicycles. After a visit to the Ralph Lauren store in upper Manhattan (described by a musician friend as the Eighth Wonder Of The World) I have picked up items at good prices wherever I can. Nevada’s Death Valley is an unlikely place to find a Ralph Lauren wax cotton sowester hat, it being one of the driest places on the planet. But that may explain why the green sow ester (pictured) – think designer trawlermen  – was so heavily discounted. A little something to wear with the also discounted Ralph Lauren wax cotton coat bought previously. I wore the sowester with pride the day I returned to Cornwall only to be met with “you can tell you’re not local,” by one of the dog walkers on Harbour Cove. There was a similar reaction the day I stepped outside in my Mark Powell tweed suit: Leather golf ball buttons, twin vents and lapelled waistcoat; every inch the country gent. I hadn’t got further than the front door when one of the local fishermen – the real deal –  said something unprintable.

People around these parts don’t do appropriate clothing. But holidaymakers do, perhaps in the belief that they will seamlessly slip into their new surroundings, and possibly be mistaken, if not for someone born and raised in these far away parts, then at least someone accomstomed to the rough and tumble of life in the teeth of the Atlantic Ocean.

First there were wax cotton, calf length, storm shouldered Barbour Australian drover’s coats. Very sensible you might think Sir Kev. And you would be right. But few around here can afford them. Proving perenially popular are white sailing anoraks with huge (we’re talking billboard dimensions) numbers on the backs so that yachting  events marshalls can identify the wearers from several miles. To this panapoly of seaside attire add walking poles, usually used in pairs, as opposed to the single walking stick, and often employed by entire families and their friends. Plus a number of sub-genres: Crocs sandles, wax cotton biker jackets, sleeveless gadget vests (of the sort photgraphers and fishermen are thought to wear but rarely do), and my own personal favourite – waterproof ankle gaiters, the accessory of choice for enjoying the local park. “More of yours,” says Kim.

Forget the pen being mightier than the sword. In my line of work it’s only tougher than common sense.

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Kid’s Stuff


he's happy

he’s happy – not sure I am

You want to know the worst thing about the roller-coasters in Disneyland?

No, it’s not the white knuckle twists and high velocity turns, or the stomach wrenching plunges into an abyss. It’s the banks of photo screens as you leave each one where the terror you’d rather forget is there for all to see.

“Look at him,” shrieks a nipper beneath Mickey Mouse ears, as I stagger off Animal Kingdom’s Expedition Everest, with its torn up tracks and a section going backwards into a darkened mountain .

“He’s got both hands over his eyes,” he screams. They say the camera never lies, and the fear is etched across my face. I move away before he realises I am stood next to him.

A retired couple, friends of mine, come to Orlando most winters: “We like the sun.  We love the food. But most of all we love the sheer excitement. ” And they’ve got a few years on me. I resolve to try harder, and not be such a wuss.

Arriving at Mission Space – Rocket To The Red Planet fearless kids, and professional cowards like me, are inducted into a NASA space training programme. Four of us in harnesses and given on-screen instructions by actor Gary Sinise, who assigns each a role: I am to be ‘commander’, which feels about right. I am directed toward two yellow control buttons that Gary will instruct when to implement.

Commander! And you thought Disneyland was kids stuff!

I’d come a long way in the three days since checking into the Animal Kingdom Lodge hotel. Beyond its three storey reception, with a thatched roof held up by vast tree trunks, my room is decorated with batik prints, and African carved furniture. Throwing back the drapes reveals a savannah grassland stocked with real zebra, antelope, wildebeests, and flocks of sub-Saharan birds.  There is a look-out by the pool with military night vision goggles to watch animals close-up in the dark.

Fancying myself as something of a movie buff I head straight for Hollywood Studios, that resembles downtown LA circa 1940, with art deco cinemas and avenues of palms.The short film presentation, Walt Disney – One Man and his Dream is a delight, and puts Disneyland into historical perspective, and sets me up for Star Tours – The Adventures Continue. Upon leaving the in-house photographer uses a computer to transform digitally me into – Obi One Kenobi, complete with lightsaber sword.

avoid digital cameras

avoid digital cameras

Having enjoyed the Duck Two Ways the night before at the Brown Derby restaurant (based on the original in LA) I am not sure how I feel when a larger than life Donald Duck sidles up to me during breakfast at Tusker House, a sort of fast food hunting lodge. Every time I try to put a piece of waffle into my mouth he wraps a wing around me and won’t leave until the ten year old at the next table, with an iPhone, has taken our photo.

For all the advertisements in the US about dieting – it’s not working. Many of the Americans in Disneyland are HUGE, like the meal portions. There is a diner at Kouzzina, in the Boardwalk Resort, with a tummy so enormous it looks as though he is sat at another table from his wife.

I shared a wagon on the Spaceship Earth ride with such a man: legs like hams and a tummy like East Anglia. We were to have enjoyed a tour narrated by Dame Judy Dench. But because I couldn’t reach across my companion (struggling with his backpack)  to select the correct language, we listened to the history of the media from the ancient Egyptians to the moon landing – in Portuguese.

Children understand fast food outlets, but it can take me a while to adjust. Splitsville Luxury Lanes bowling alley a case in point. Food – from burgers to sushi – is served at your lane, but I get into a spot of bother mistakenly helping myself to someone else’s tasty tacos. It’s easily done. A man with moustache, a body-double for a Mexican drug lord, is yelling, “he’s stealing our food”.

I’ve always fancied designing my own sports car – and at Test Track that’s exactly what you do – taking a simulated version of your creation on a overhead test track where the design cues, from engine to suspension, are rated.  On screen my car resembles a Batmobile. A sure winner. Wrong. There are a couple of brothers here, not in their teens, who have designed something with the aerodynamics of a front door. It wins hands down.

To escape their adolescent high-fiving I stop by the place with the least kids in all of Disney,  Senses Spa. It’s a short walk from the Grand Floridian Hotel, a weatherboarded palace in red and white: Over 1000 weddings are held annually in its waterside chapel.

I am welcomed at the recently refurbished, and Victorian themed, spa with a glass of freshly squeezed strawberry juice, and a carrot and coriander cup cake. I opt for the Swedish massage, although after looking in the mirror I think I should have opted for a Revitalizing Blueberry Facial.

Chilled and primed Mission Space – Rocket To The Red Planet turns out to be everything I’d hoped it would be – and more, a bit too much more. I enjoy the thrust of G force of take-off; glad I’d missed lunch. As Commander I press my yellow buttons on cue, but the ‘sling-shot’ around Mars, and the crash landing prove all too much. I feel sick and appreciate a helping hand to the fresh air from my young engineer.

Later I console myself at the the California Grill on top of the high-tech Contemporary Hotel, an upscale restaurant where the food is euro/asian fusion and quite delicious. It’s  the best grub at Disney,  and with a wall of glass has an unmissable bird’s eye view of the nightly fireworks display at Magic Kingdom.

My roller-coaster days may be behind me, but I still know a great creme brûlée when I see one.

as published in the Sunday Express May 4, 2014.


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