Vandals at work – the death of the bungalow

There soon won’t be any 1930s bungalows left. While conservation groups, local authorities and investors, watched closely by the likes of English Heritage, take pains to preserve ancient cottages as well as properties from the Victorian and Georgian eras anything built between the First and Second World Wars, notably during the thirties, will either be demolished or refashioned in such a way as to be rendered completely unrecognisable.

This appealing yet ridiculed moderist architectural era, cleansed of the pompous garnitures of the Victorian period and inspired by the geometric simplicity of art deco (the affecting designs of Frank Lloyd Wright and notably William Morris’ Red House in Kent) 1930s houses and bungalows will soon be forgotten. Those garden suburbs of bay windows, sunrise garden gates and oak  front doors with inset bottom-of-the-bottle windows, red bricks, diamond shaped leaded window panes, gable ends, and garages with verdant drives, will be consigned to the historical dustbin. Their replacements bland anonymous structures created by expediency.Where once there had been well proportioned rooms with tiled fireplaces and parquet flooring there are now ‘living spaces’. It’s as though the gods of evolution have decreed that we should look at the dishes in the kitchen zone while we watch tv in the relaxation zone. The millenial take on refurbishment is all about space, unadorned floor to ceiling windows, and white walls.

In some ways the 1930s bungalow, a relation of the Californian Hollywood home, often with metal ribbon windows and curved ‘pantile’ tiled roofs, is a victim of its own success. Single story and built upon on large plots of land by proud home builders they lend themselves to property vandalism. Off comes the roof, often low hung in that appealing mansard style, to be replaced by a taller ‘A’ frame structure thus creating a first floor and more rooms. An increased value but at what cost? Diminished style and in many cases rendered unaffordable for the retirees and cultist 30s adherents who traditionally lived in them. 

The majority of 1930s bungalows have been bought not by people who enjoy their design cues and provenance but by bourgeois philistines who want to enjoy something else.

The architectural website Bricks and Brass states: “…this is a tragedy because in one aspect they have not been ‘neglected’; they have been the target of several decades of do-it-yourselfers who have ‘improved’ them to suit the demands of life…without preserving their character.”

This destruction is happening everywhere but non more so that in my patch of Cornwall. As each elderly owner moves on (single story buildings have an obvious appeal to the elderly) new money moves in accompanied by architects behind expensive Nordic spectacles muttering the same nauseous mantra – “more light, more entertaining space and low maintenance garden.” Encouraged by columns in national newspapers and online builder’s websites these genuinely modernest bungalows, often within classic English gardens, are remodelled into structures reminiscent of airport departure lounges with interiors boasting as much personality as a squash court.

Some four million homes were built in the 1930s, most of them in the suburbs or by the sea. I grew up in a 1920s semi-detached house wearing many of the design cues that would mark out those built a decade later. On a recent visit most of the Tudorbethan (mock Tudor) style houses in that estate now have plastic windows and clumsy boxy roof extensions. And where there were once gardens there are now, by and large, low maintenance concrete or brick car parks stained with sump oil. This is especially galling as nearly all 1920s and 1930s developments had access to garages to the rear via communal alleyways. The idea being that nothing  so vulgar and utilitarian as a car should be permitted to undermine the synchronicity of good urban design.

I had hoped to buy a 1930s bungalow some years ago. It was painted in that soft eau de nil, with a red pantile roof, nestling in its garden with the period elegance of something from Beverly Hills. In fact I think Jack Nicholson may have stepped inside one just like it in Chinatown. The only fault with it was a cheap plastic door porch. With that removed and some tlc it could, in my hands, easily have been upgraded to a pristine example of art deco coastal architecture. Sadly I couldn’t sell and so couldn’t buy and today that bungalow is unrecognisable. Like many others of that era it has sprouted extensions and windows and in so doing become another casualty of the war against the first truly modernist movement in British architecture.

As each 1930s bungalow is sold it is transmogrified into a bland domestic living/rental unit existing in a sort of architectural vacuum. I have black and white photographs taken 30 years ago of the estate near me. Each bungalow with a garden at the front. Most still retaining their original metal windows and bays. Each has a chimney and not one has a car on the front garden. Bungalows to be proud of? Only if you happen to live in Richmond-Upon-Thames. There the Conservation Area – Rosecroft Gardens no.46 (https://www.richmond.gov.uk/media/4077/ca46_rosecroft_gdns_lr.pdf), a triangular shaped estate of semi detached and detached 1930s bungalows, is enjoying a level of protection absent elsewhere. Among a raft of intentions that include a ban on front facing dormer windows and an insistence that metal windows be replaced like-for-like are the sentences – ‘…preservation, enhancement and reinstatement of special architectural quality and unity. Retain original detailing or ensure that replacements are of sympathetic design and materials…”

I have a hunch Richmond-Upon-Thames’ appreciation of 1930s garden suburb bungalows is out of step with the pervading ethos of originality bad, pumped up blandness good. In this way  a small but integral part of our British cultural heritage is vanishing.

Dilapidated and insanitary cottages have been saved in their thousands. As have endless rows of unloved Victorian terraces. The red bricks painted in pastel shades and fireplaces and ceiling mouldings reinstated. Just maybe, as a generation of young house buyers is driven ever further from city centres into the still reviled 1930s suburbs some of those currently overlooked art deco gems will be ‘discovered’. I hope so. If not we’re in danger of erasing an an entire era from the architectural history books.

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Last Orders At The End Of The World

There’s nothing quite like the imminent end of the world to focus one’s thoughts on food. Long before Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump the father of a school friend of mine set aside a bedroom in the large detached family home in west London to store the bare necessities – should all hell break loose. Within a five foot tall pile beneath a white sheet in the centre of the room were sealed crates of baked beans and tomatoes, jars of pickles, biscuits, enough tea and coffee for an army, dried eggs, bundles of spaghetti and enough lavatory paper to maintain family hygiene standards for some time. Why John Tallent chose to stash these items away we never knew, although as a source of late night snacks the bedroom pile couldn’t be beat.  This being the early seventies it was, by current MAD (mutual assured destruction) standards, a reasonably stable world. Vietnam was a long way off and nobody was talking nuclear. Certainly the of threat of armageddon had dissipated since the nervy days of October 1962 and the Cuban missile crisis. Then the world held its breath following the discovery of Soviet warheads 90 miles from the Florida mainland. “We didn’t know if having gone to bed we’d wake up in the morning, that’s how close it got,” said my mother, who resisted the urge to fill her cupboards with  Cote D’Or praline chocolate elephants and Vesta curries. No, I suspect Tallent Snr’s bedroom stash had more to do with what he perceived as an end of life as we knew it due to the seemingly unstoppable influence of the British union movement. After all there had been the three day week, mining and refuse collection strikes, and frequent electricity blackouts. As a result the nation had been gripped with the notion of self sufficiency; shelves of survival books and novels like Doris Lessings Memoirs of a Survivor, and the television series The Good Life, set in Surbiton, in which Richard Briers and the sublime Felicity Kendall upset their posh neighbours by keeping pigs and growing their own veg; in contemporary parlance – doing their own thing.

The truth of the matter is food, more than millions of dead people and no means to recharge our phones or cars will be the priorities if things turn bad between the North Koreans and our special relations in Washington. According to experts each of us is nine meals from anarchy. This the number of meals that could be cobbled together with bits in the backs of our cupboards combined with anything we can loot from the local supermarket.

Opinions differ on how long any of us could survive without food. Mahatma Gandi, already a waif, went 21 days without sustenance. The IRA hunger strikers hung out for much longer. But what would sustain you if there was no end in sight for starvation. No food production and distribution, not forgetting a nuclear ‘winter’? The issue  was examined by Cormac McCarthy in his 2006 book The Road. A film version starring Viggo Mortensen came out two years later that I’ve never seen not wishing to be reminded of what could be one of the most unspeakable consequences of global starvation and anarchy.

Barely a day goes by without some wag hereabouts remarking that there may not be any point concerning ourselves with the effects of Brexit or the fall in the value of the pound or the lack of affordable housing. The War of the Stupid Haircuts looms ever larger: Kim Jong-un firing missiles over Japan and detonating nuclear bombs underground and Trump warning of ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen’. “There may not be a next year to worry about,” is phrase resonating in the pubs around here.

All of which leaves me in the local supermarket adding non perishable groceries for dinners at the end of the world. I already have one shelf of a kitchen cupboard nearly full. In case you’re wondering there are lots of tinned new potatoes, flageolet beans, mushy peas, sweetcorn and Ancona hot sauce. You’ll just need to provide your own loo paper.

 

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A good day for Tilly

Tilly – all at sea

Little Tilly will never know how close she came to never enjoying another beach walk. Today, September 4, 2017, was to have been the Staffordshire Bull Terrier’s last. No more runs on Harbour Cove with Asta, her jaws clenched ever so tightly around the ball her Airedale friend would give her eyeteeth to get hold of. Waking this morning to the sound of gulls Tilly had been unaware that she had awoken from what by rights ought to have been her last night last curled up on the bed next to Jane, the woman who has cared for her, fed her and walked her, and carried up the stairs to her apartment, and more recently taken her to the veterinary surgeon to learn the worst, the sum of which the little terrier will never know.  And to be frank, it didn’t look good. The tumours that tyrannise her seven year old body – first appearing on her skin thence spreading to muscles, organs and bones –  and that have made her sick, and yelp in pain at the lightest, and tenderest touch, were such that today was to have been the final adios. Jane had duly notified everyone with a care for Tilly and all shed  tears at her prognosis: Ollie, Jane’s son, with whom Tilly had lived until a change in his domestic circumstances; Juan Carlos the lodger who hadn’t known Tilly that long but like all who came into contact with her was overcome with her loyalty and joi de vivre; and finally Mark, the Californian writer next door who watching how many of us derive pleasure from caring for our animals, and seeing how that affection is reciprocated, remarked that should he have the chance to come back in another life, “I want to come back as Asta.” Mark, like the others wept this morning in the full knowledge that as Tilly stepped into the back of Jane’s Nissan it would be for the last time. Placing the fate of a pet in the hands of a veterinary surgeon whose only hope is to make the imminent passing as swift and painless as possible isn’t easy. I’ve been there three times and all I can say with any authority is that it gets worse each time. Each pup wears an expression that  asks, what is happening? They know the routine they love and adhere to has changed but cannot comprehend how or why? They don’t know why hills are steeper and cars are higher, their little legs are stiffer, and food no longer tastes as good. Everything they depend upon and trust is you. Confident that in the last resort there is nothing you would do to harm them is what sustains them. Until. Well, happily for Tilly fate had other plans.

“Like Lazurus she’s risen from the dead,” exclaimed Jane, almost unable to comprehend the turn around in Tilly’s fortunes, who was, by all accounts, back to her old self at the surgery. Her cancer is as invasive and relentless as before, but as if sensing something irreversible Tilly put on such a show of good health that all plans for a merciful end were  shelved. She’s not exactly better, but she’s rallied enough to swap tears for apprehensive smiles. Steroids and other drugs prescribed Tilly was sent packing with nought more severe than advice to keep an eye on her.

Way to go Tilly. Harbour Cove awaits.

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Hello, I’m Seamus – give me your money

 

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I’m not unique. We’ve all been there. The phone rings and a voice introduces themself as Andy, or John: One insisted to me his name was Seamus without so much of a hint of an Irish accent; although perhaps with a dash of irony.

What follows is a technically convoluted speech in which Seamus (lets give him the benefit of the doubt) tells me there is something seriously wrong with my computer. He warns that all kinds of people could be accessing my hard drive as we speak, helping themselves to my personal details. Fortunately Seamus, all the way over there in the back of beyond, can fix the problem. I just need to give him direct access to my computer and all will be fine.

Yeah. Does Sean think we were all born yesterday? Well, maybe he does because ‘spoofing’ or ‘vishing’, as it is variously known in the online fraud trade, is on the rise. As an industry in the UK last year it was worth £755 million, representing an increase of 26% over the year before. That’s roughly the turnover at Harrods and slightly more than Selfridges. And that’s the stuff they get away with. Prevented online fraud during the same period was £1.76 billion. Yes billion.

My friends joke how they swear down the phone at Seamus and his associates. Whereas I, not wishing to encourage any online backlash, tend more to the polite thank you and goodbye. Except for one occasion earlier in the year when I told him to ‘fuck off’. It didn’t work. He called me back a few moments later and told me to “ fuck off”. I called him a name I normally reserve for my closest  friends and right wing politicians whereupon he rang back and called me the same name, adding that various members of my family are whores, and so on. I left the phone off the hook for a couple of hours to be sure he wouldn’t call again.

Nothing quite that surreal has happened recently. I still receive unwanted calls, in addition to the endless PPI and ambulance chasing insurance scams. But most of my contact. with this underworld, this dark web of crime are via emails, or ‘phishing’ as it is known. These are the emails that to all intent and purpose have originated from a reputable organisation, one that I may have regular contact with either via email or telephone. Those purported contacts that make us feel wanted and important. That make us feel a part of this interconnected digital world.

Indeed, as I write a fake LinkedIn email has dropped in telling me of a message awaiting me; just click. And another from an imaginary Chloe Matthews at Gmail.  In this world of instant digital communication the criminals know few of us can resist the invitation to log on – to connect. This is the post-thinking age afterall.

In the old days of high streets, half crowns and honest bankers my only infrequent contact with villains was pickpockets in the west end and Gard du Nord.  Nowadays, thanks to the internet, modern con-tricks  are unfolding in my living room. Confidence tricksters used to look like Terry Thomas, with pencil moustaches and oily hair and an eye for the ladies. Today’s come dressed as bank managers, courier companies, and social media platforms.

It’s not new. A couple I know, banking with Barclays, had £15,000 or thereabouts taken from their savings accounts after responding to an email that looked like it had originated from their bank. It stated that their account had been compromised and they needed to renew their security details.

They got their money back because in the early days of online fraud, before the sums involved became so eye wateringly huge, banks were sympathetic. That’s all changed. Nowadays banks are much more likely to blame the fraud on our  negligence. Of course it’s nothing to do with the fact that banks are closing local branches faster than you can come with your umpteenth password, and forcing us to bank online or by phone whether we like it or not. Banking by smart phone anyone? According to the most recent statistics 2000 smart phones are stolen each day in the UK.

According to Financial Fraud Action UK 75% of all financial fraud is card payment. Fraudsters use stolen card information to go on shopping sprees. The next most popular is remote banking, accounting for 22%. That’s when we click on the fraudulent hyperlink on a phishing email that dispatches a ‘cookie’  (such a friendly name for such an insidious invention) to the heart of our secrets and allows criminals to help themselves to our money.

The third most type of fraud is cheques, accounting for, wait for it, 3%. Cheques being the payment method the banks want to discontinue, along with branches and real people on telephones.

Every day is struggle against the forces of darkness. This week alone (November 2016) I have received daily emails from two banks (Barclays and Santander) and something that looks it may have come from FedEx, advising me of a parcel awaiting delivery with the obligatory hyperlink to hell. In the age of internet shopping who isn’t expecting a package? The man at FedEx couldn’t mask his boredom when I inquired if the emails were genuine. “No,” was all he said.

Some of the emails are easy to detect. Like on of those from a Barclays clone that said, and I paraphrase, that if I didn’t clink the link provided and enter my security details, “it would be very bad.”

Perhaps the scariest email out of maybe 200 or so this year arrived at the beginning of the week purporting to come from a dear friend. It was a link to a website or article she thought that I would be interested in. And yet there was something in the language. It didn’t ring true. I put the email to one side and got to speak with my friend some hours later. She confirmed that it wasn’t from her and confirmed also that another friend had received one similar. She speculated that a recent hack in the Yahoo site, with whom she had an account, could be behind it. When I put her on hold to look at the email again and give the exact wording it vanished right before my eyes. Spooky? Tell me about it.

I don’t know about you but it’s got to the point where I won’t open any email until I am convinced it is genuine. Life has become an unwanted daily struggle against an army of well trained and highly motivated criminals – all probably on minimum wage, wherever they are? I take a screen shots and delete all the originals and just to make sure I empty the trash. According to a particularly patronising voice at my bank I am right to be sceptical. But why do we have to be on our toes in our own homes? It’s modern life you say. Well, it’s not the one I want to be a part of. Admittedly there’s not a lot we can do individually, except perhaps stop online shopping and banking. Think about it. High streets would come back to life. Delivery drivers and warehouse employees working on or below the minimum wage could get decent shop jobs. The last time I looked 135,000 bookshops have closed in the US as a direct result of Amazon. By 2014 the number of independent bookshops here in the has fallen by over a third, to below 1000 nationwide in ten years. It’s one of the reasons I stopped using Amazon seven years ago.

So – we get to keep our money. Stop the crime, and save our high streets. Not a bad way to start 2017.

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Asta and Judgement Day

Asta turns the other cheek while Kim resist the urge to throw a punch

Asta turns the other cheek while Kim resists the urge to throw a punch

It’s generally inadvisable to loose temper with a man of the cloth. The ramifications could go on for, well, a very long time. Of course I knew of the local vicar, the one who oversees much of community life around these parts with his easy-going, witty and frankly disarming demeanor, was only trying to be supportive; aiming to ameliorate some of the inevitable tension. But by stopping directly behind Asta and I at the very moment the judge at the Trevone Fun Dog Show was assessing my girl’s eyes for the prestigious Prettiest Eyes section, I’ll admit  – I very nearly lost it.

The night had not begun well.  Kim and Asta got off to an abysmal start in the Best Pedigree section. There were so many entrants the judge sensibly elected to whittle them down to a final elite with Asta, and many other handsome specimens, ejected in the first round. Kim’s expression said it all. Kim doesn’t take failure lightly, making accusations of a fix on the basis that the judge, a professional dog groomer was inevitably going to choose those dogs he’d worked on. Inspecting Asta the judge had apparently said Airedale Terriers were often aggressive. I thought Kim was going to throw a punch.  According to her the man next to her in the ring had said that he and the others were wasting their time as Asta was evidently a shoe-in. An opinion echoed by the ruddy faced woman on the plants stall who said Asta not winning was clearly a miscarriage of justice.

The event was being held in the grounds of Well Parc, a family run hotel in one of the finest locations on the north coast. It faces due west with uninterrupted sunset views of the Atlantic with verdant cliffs spanning north and south to Padstow and Newquay. There are rumours that a certain celebrity chef wants to buy it and transform it into the jewel in what is already a pretty impressive catering crown. Which would be a shame as this part of Cornwall could do with a few more old fashioned, affordable, un-west London, un-groovified places for those who are happy enough with a pint and a packet of cheese and onion. Looking around at some of the tall, pelate thin, blonde holidaying mums with a lots of spelt bread inside them, their glossy cockapoos at the heels, anyone could see a change is coming.

We were there because our friend Jane, novelist, aesthete, and motivator behind our Thursday night film club, was the dog show’s chief organiser. She’d pretty much insisted that Asta should enter, all the monies (£2 a category) going to local church charities. Fearing the worst ( Kim still smarting from Tashi Delek crashing out of a dog show in Camden some years earlier) we nevertheless decided to give it a go. In preparation Kim had stood Asta atop the kitchen table for much of the morning preening and grooming. However, after that humiliating first round there was talk of abandoning the event altogether and going to the pub.

Of course it would have been churlish to to pull out so early on so we (ie Kim) decided that I should step into the ring with Asta for the Prettiest Eyes contest. Downing a large gin and water I began to remove my cravat fearing I might be overdressed for such a fleecy, shorts and Crocs event and thereby risk prejudicing the judge against Asta for a second time. Kim insisted the cravat remain.

Competition was again very stiff. There were a great many entrants, maybe twenty. After all who doesn’t think their dog’s eyes are the prettiest? Indeed dog’s eyes are often thought to be the most endearing pooch feature of all. Ok, tails are popular too, and can tell a good deal about a dog’s character and temperament. Asta does in fact possess a very fine tail. Rare among Airedale Terriers to be un-docked, long, curly and bushy with Pre-Raphaelite curls. The snag was that it doesn’t wag preternaturally, or of its own accord. She has a fine wagging tail when she chooses to wag it, but it doesn’t sashay back and forth 24/7 the way others attached to – I don’t mind saying it – less sophisticated dogs. Certain things set her’s off. One of them, said Kim, is me; my arrival at any situation. With this in mind the pair of us hatched a plan in which I would conceal myself behind the beer tent. Then upon Kim giving the Asta whistle (this is the tune of Pluto Shervington’s ‘Dat’ that some readers may know was a reggae hit in the 1970s) I would burst on to the scene and Asta  would react by wagging furiously. However, the sheer number of people and dogs meant we couldn’t guarantee Asta would see me in time. The plan was too risky.

It had to be the “Prettiest Eyes’, with the cravat.

The ring filled up with a range of breeds. An American Eskimo, Collies old and new, a Dachshund (bearing a rosette from an earlier round), a Spitz, Schnauzer, a Pomeranian, a young white Whippet, a lovely old brown Labrador next to us and a mixed assortment of also rans. Most were pulling their owners hither and thither. Dogs sniffing each others’ behinds and owners trying to stop them. To counter the ‘aggressive’ charge I knelt down beside Asta. She responded perfectly by sitting down next to me. I wanted her looking straight ahead so that the judge could see directly into those soulful brown pools of canine innocence. The young girl with the chubby chocolate brown Lab next to us knelt down too.

“Oh look,”  she said looking into Asta’s eyes. “They are lovely.”

As the judge made his rounds, from our left to right, the silver haired vicar, speaking whimsical words of encouragement and support through across the Tannoy, moved around behind us. He stopped to say something about Asta the very second the adjudicator was attempting to look into her eyes. Asta span around to see what was going on behind her, eyeballing the vicar and pointing her arse at the judge. I tried, gently, to turn her the other way to no avail. The damage was done.

“You’re a hindrance,” I barked at the vicar, regretting it as soon as I’d said it. He smiled and moved on.  Asta turned back to face the judge who had also moved on. It was turning into a re-run of Camden; bearded youths with heavy metal t-shirts were winning bottles of Jack Daniels; dogs the size of pasties were winning bags of treats; and Asta was going home empty handed.

All that remained was for the judge, who I don’t think stopped smiling for the entire duration of the show, grabbed a handful of rosettes, in all colours, and gave one last look at all the ‘Prettiest Eyes’ entrants. Perhaps to reassure himself he’d made the right decision.

And the winner?

“You,” he said giving Asta a toothy grin and handing me the red rosette for first prize.

“Because she does have the prettiest eyes,” said the little girl to our left who didn’t seem to mind at all that the judge hadn’t given her lumbering chocolate Lab a second glance.

Kim was delighted. Jane, perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who’d recently leant me both Rupert Everett biographies, said the judge had been looking into my eyes and not Asta’s. And the woman at the plant stall was so delighted with the result she threw her arms around Kim.

Asta stuck her head so far inside the treats bag it stayed on as a hat. And I think the vicar forgave my outburst because as we turned to leave he smiled and said Asta was lovely.

the eyes have it

the eyes have it

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Raise a glass to Gilbert, and Ronaldo

Watching the France versus Portugal final of the European Football Championships it occurred to me that my limited knowledge of that nation extends to fortified wine, pasteis de nata, and just one single person. I’ve travelled to the far west of the Iberian peninsula, reporting on Lisbon and the Douro Valley for the UK press and television media and yet the only Portuguese person I’d ever sat down and talked with at length with – was right here in Cornwall.

His name is Gilbert, Gil to his friends, and not only does he hail from Portugal he actually knows Ronaldo, the Portuguese captain stretchered off the field of play in 25th minute of the final, in Paris. An Arsenal supporter himself, following the Gunners on a large flat screen television in an apartment overlooking the harbour, often with a single malt at his madeiraside. I can’t remember how we came to be discussing the Real Madrid star but whatever it was my opinion of the ‘Galactico’ increased exponentially after Gilbert set me straight.

Gilbert was born on Madeira, that tiny archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, 620 miles south west of Portugal and 310 miles off the coast of Africa. A population little more than a quarter of a million living in the foothills of verdant, misty mountains. Gilbert’s frequent holidays there yielded avocados the size of rugby balls grown  in his family’s garden in the hills.

One evening over a glass of single malt Gilbert mentioned that he knew a young Ronaldo, when he was just another local kid kicking a ball about. His family was dirt poor and Gilbert’s mother would often provide the boy who would become a legend, his parents and siblings, cast-off clothes. Fast forward and Ronaldo is making enough money to buy all his family and friends, and friends of friends, homes. And as if that’s not enough Gilbert said the reason Ronaldo doesn’t have any tattoos is because he is regular blood donor a generosity of spirit forbidden to they who regularly submit to the needle. Some blood banks insist on a needle free period of three months prior to donating.

Watching Ronaldo attempt to play on, with his leg strapped up, and finally carried off on an orange stretcher, tears in his eyes, thereupon there was only one team in the final for me.

I can’t remember exactly when I met Gilbert, maybe ten or 12 years ago, but I recall where it was: The small car park on the quay where he an I kept our cars. Lota’s daughter Andrea had introduced us at a family function, but I got to know him subsequently back and forth along the quay.

I never knew his age, until last year when he and his extended Cornish family flew to Madeira for his 80th. He didn’t look it. Unlined, his skin the colour I like to be after a few days on the beach; lightly tanned, somewhere between a latte and the praline filling of the chocolates my mother used to buy. He dressed well, something of a rarity in these parts, where people comment on highly polished shoes. Soft and casual with just the hint of an affluent golfer.

His strongest feature a warm easy rolling demeanor. His head tilting from side to side as he spoke, with a soft, indistinguishable accent, and a ready smile peppering every conversation. There are people in every town you find yourself slowing down or turning the other way to avoid. Gilbert isn’t one of them. Gilbert is the man you looked forward to meeting. He put you right, reminding you how comfortable life can be.  He even laughed at my jokes.

He and Lota, arm-in-arm, strolling around the quay, were as much a feature of the harbour as the fishing boats. It’s not much of a walk from their front door to the other side of the harbour and the wrought iron bench from where they could see their apartment through the sailing masts and cop a few late afternoon rays.

If Gilbert’s style is casual smart Lota’s is 100% a la mode. Never having been seen in public anything less than completely immaculate. This woman with steely eye and a hearty laugh takes dressing well to another level. Maybe a twin set in a bold colour, or a summer coat. Her lightly curled buttery blonde hair sometimes in a hat, or more often than not wrapped in scarf.

Lota didn’t take to me as easily as Gilbert whom you sense would hit it off with someone who’d just driven over his foot. Lota is more circumspect. I had to earn my stripes, show I cared for the town and in it for more than just turning a quick profit on a property. I had to go to work on her. But I’ve yet to meet a woman, especially one so rigorous in their appearance, who doesn’t respond to a compliment. Lota is no exception.

The pair met in Madeira many years ago. Widowed Lota had gone for a holiday, staying at the hotel where Gilbert worked. She returned several times until the day Gilbert decided to return to Cornwall with her.  They lived in an apartment on the side of the harbour where every autumn Gilbert boiled up jars of marmalade. It was so good I have been pro-ordering several for some years.

Lota is in care today. She’s been ill for some time. Worse, in fact, than anyone outside the immediate family had realised. For some months Gilbert cared for her, alone. It must have been hard because that warm, friendly face soon turned fraught with anxiety and exhaustion. I’d meet him in the street and he seemed withdrawn. I took a bottle of wine around to their apartment one time, family photographs on every shelf, the windows shut and the air hot and heavy. We didn’t drink it. Gilbert wasn’t up to it, but he promised to get the cork out just as soon as both their healths improved.

Of course his didn’t. He died in hospital a few weeks after being admitted with a minor infection. I was asked to say a few words at his funeral, causing me more apprehension than any newspaper deadline. It was enough that few at the service know who I was? But more than that – I didn’t really know enough about him to speak with any authority. Save his opinion of Arsene Wenger. He was just a lovely man, who brightened my days. That would have to be enough.

When Ronaldo limped up those steps in the Stade de France to raise the UEFA trophy for Portugal he couldn’t know he’d done it for Gilbert too. Just like Gilbert and his family had done it for Ronaldo all those years ago.

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Dancing to the tune of Clarks

clarks shoe

I’ve just bought a pair of Clarks shoes. There, I thought I’d spit it out fast rather than get to the bald, some might say shocking truth via some prevaricating yarn. In fact, I’ll be more specific. They are Raspin Brogues – navy suedes, that happen to be some of the most comfortable and inexpensive shoes I have ever bought.

Raspin, I subsequently discover, can mean either the sound a cat omits by way of asking to be fed (a series of short sharp meows), or a hard working person who is dedicated to their job; I’ll assume the nomenclaturist at Clarks had the latter definition in mind when aiming to get a handle on this robust pair of shoes. Sold as ‘mens formal shoes’ incorporating Clarks’ ‘XL Extralight’ technology, ie a lightweight, springy white rubber sole and heal, they were bought for summer casual wear. A semi smart alternative to the ubiquitous trainer and those strappy trekking sandals, all velcro and nylon, that make everyone’s feet appear three times the size they really are. The uppers are blue suede brogue and the linings are leather. I’ll admit I wasn’t taken with the slight distressing around the toe caps and heals but I figured suede being suede they’d soon look distressed after I’d spilled a few pints of lager on them. So what the hell.

They are supportive and comfortable enough for a hike in the woods. Light on the beach, and look the part in the bar. In fact, my Raspins, like so many other styles with the ‘XL Extralight’ soles are ideal travel shoes; they bend any which way and come in at just 730 grams, about 25% less than the equivalent pair of trainers.

Writing as one who has been shod these past 30 years by the likes of  Bass Weejun, Churches, Florsheim, Justin, Loewe, McAfee, Pollini, Sebago, and Walk-Over (you’ll appreciate a definite tilt towards US brands) it was something of a shock to find myself scanning the racks of heavily discounted footwear; it was sale time. Instead of the calm clubby, almost scholarly atmosphere of my usual shoe shops I found myself fighting for space with people who thought nothing of pushing anyone and anything out of their way to grab a bargain.

My renewed interest in Clarks (it’s some 30 years since my last pair, described by then girlfriend as ‘omelettes’ that were equally as effective at retaining foot odour as they were comfortable) was kindled one rainy afternoon. I’d ducked into a Clarks doorway with the aim of relighting a  Hoyo du Monterrey Epicure Number 2 (a task that mustn’t be rushed). I was in the market for a pair of suede chukka boots, a quest I undertake every three or four years, and was taken by a pair in the window. They had that pre-distressed look too, but with hefty Commando style soles, and a price tag of £85, they demanded to be taken seriously. And the more I looked the more my curiosity was engaged. In fairness not every style would have won the approval of St.Crispin, the patron saint of shoemakers. Yet there were enough, understated and eminently wearable casual shoes, and almost all below £100, to make me give Clarks, a byword for high street, a second thought.

It was my godson, Alfie, who alerted me to the fact that Clarks shoes have a near fanatical following on the other side of the pond. In Jamaica Clarks, particularly the classic crepe soled desert boot, have the sort of iconic status other manufacturers dream of. In fact, they been the go-to footwear for fashionable Jamaicans since the rise of the rude boy in the 60s. Such is their regard they have been eulogized on disc by a raft of reggae stars from Dillinger to Dennis Alcapone.

In 2010 MC Vybz Kartel and Friends featuring dancehall ragamuffin, Popcaan, charted with the tune Clarks https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_Mr7j4nNNs  (“everybody haffi ask weh mi get mi Clarks”) and a couple of years later this Jamaican obsession was documented in Al Fingers’ book – Clarks In Jamaica.

The brand’s popularity is such that they once became the subject of a crime wave. So much so that any rude boy in the dancehall found, during a raid by the JA police, to be wearing a pair of Clarks was assumed to have stolen stolen them.

While the Clarks designers endeavor to keep up with shoe fashion at the backbone of the West Country company is honest to goodness affordable quality. It’s been a touchstone since the firm was founded, in 1825 in the Somerset village of Street, by the brothers James and Cyrus Clark. It’s why generations of parents take their children to Clarks. They didn’t have the magical ‘fluoroscope’ foot X-Ray device that some shoe shops enticed shoppers with half a century ago, but they did develope the ‘footguage’ a device for measuring the length and width of young feet correctly.

Trying on my Raspin Brogues the young salesman turned and asked me if I required the standard or wider fitting? I can’t remember the last time I was given the option, unless it was at another Clarks store in another life.

http://www.clarks.com

jonathan futrell / http://www.goodgear2go.com

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