In The Darkness Of The Road – Hearts Aglow


One of my pleasures this past winter has been following twilight A roads with a sliver of magenta in the distant west and Weyes Blood (pronounced Wise Blood) sweeping aside all but the silent ocean, barren headlands and growing darkness. And In The Darkness Hearts Aglow a suitable title for both album and experience. A hint of that in what Weyes Blood, real name Natalie Mering, is maybe aiming to convey on track three Grapevine. Taking it’s name from the vertiginous mountain road east of Los Angeles and a breakdown (both car and I’m guessing relationship) in an old ghost town. Melancholy, uncertain and a long way from home. Sort of sums up the record. 

From the pulsating almost foreboding synthesiser introduction to several of the ten tracks the tempo barely shifts either side of a walking pace maintaining a sombre ambiance underpinned by a piano or guitar overlayed with multi-tracked vocals, more synths, and tubular bells. Mering playing most instruments barring strings. Think luscious alternative pop with a dash of ecclesiastical. Hardly your classic pedal-to-the-metal music.

A common comparison with Weyes Blood (pronounced Wise Blood, taken from the Flannery O’Connor novel and the name Mering adopted for herself when she was 15) is Karen Carpenter and while Mering’s vocals are far from as sweet as that legend’s there is the same delicacy, almost a nonchalance, but with a hint of The Beach Boys circa Pets Sounds. Particularly so as Children Of The Empire shifts a gear on the chorus with the introduction of finger snaps and distant bells. Imagine a rework of The Sloop John B. Is it a coincidence that early sessions for the album were at LA’s Sunset Boulevard studios where Pets Sounds was recorded. Mering and her co-producer Jonathan Rado eventually pulled out of those studios for fear of making a tribute album. There maybe some irony in there.

There is tragedy in her vocals that remain low key and under performed at all times. It’s as if she doesn’t want to overplay the grandeur of the production. A step back. Never more so than on what for many reviewers is the stand out track God Turn Me Into A Flower. It has the feel of a hymn with multi tracked vocals underpinned by a deeply resonant ecclesiastical organ. Fading into a bucolic avian landscape.

If all this appears gloomy and despondent – it isn’t, always. At times it feels and sounds like the audio equivalent of an epic movie, all landscapes and distances with the odd celestial choir thrown in for good measure. Think of the scene in Gladiator when Russell Crowe is running his hand across the wheat in the Champs-Elysees. It’s also unapologetically LA with references to the place they ‘got’ James Dean, a pier, and ferris wheel and candy cotton. Ambivalent with the American dream but anchored to its memes. 

She writes all the material here in addition to playing guitar, keyboards, bass and drums. Still in her thirties she is in tune with the seventies and is openly out of step with the digital app driven social media age, enthusiastic for a time of analogue contact and nostalgia. In 2019 she told US magazine The Believer “I miss so much. I miss going to the video store and renting a video. I miss calling a friend on a landline. I miss when people couldn’t break a plan because they had no way to get in touch with you, so they couldn’t leave you hanging and just send you a bullshit text.”

Nostalgia runs deep through Mering’s work. Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade Of Pale in her live set when a journalist from New Yorker magazine (how I discovered Weyes Blood) visited her at home with songbooks by Joni Mitchell and Elton John open on her grand piano. She talked of her admiration for Jim Morrison and The Doors and especially the tune Riders On The Storm. Echoes of that haunting panorama permeate her work.

Quite how the sound of And In The Darkness Hearts Aglo and its almost equally satisfying predecessor Titanic Rising evolved isn’t easy to comprehend. Her earlier forays into music were considered avant garde. This included phases with a homemade eight foot guitar, lead singer (aka ‘screamer’) with a grindcore band that involved exploding bags of fake blood, and a spell biting bits of fruit wrapped around the microphone. Don’t ask me. I have similar struggles with many of her lyrics that those more perceptive than I have interpreted. 

So – “living in the wake of overwhelming changes, we’ve all become strangers, even to ourselves. We just can’t help. We can’t see from far away, to know that every wave might not be the same. But it’s all a part of one big thing.” A song about the effects of the pandemic, maybe?

I’m hoping it will all make sense when I get to see Weyes Blood at the Colours Festival at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill On Sea Saturday June 24. 

Until then all I know for certain is that Mering’s patient, swirling, melodic and panoramic pop/rock/folk is my go to drive music. I’ve told others and they agree. ‘It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody’. 

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Endelienta – Amen to that

Times are definitely changing. Take a recent music concert in which I was expected to say, after a brief initiatory prayer, ‘amen’. 

The fact that I was in a church may have had something to do with the religious angle but I was holding a glass of Pino Grigio that I’d bought at the bar – yes, bar –  on the way in. And being required to pray for the “gift of music” (that had cost a very reasonable £12.00 a ticket) seemed, well, a bit odd.

And that wasn’t the only oddness. Either side of our seats three pews back from the crossing I could see women engrossed in knitting; one in a black sweater with the word believe embroidered across the front.

I was at St.Endellion Church, the home of Endelienta  Arts, a north coast crucible of music, literature and visual arts. And what a sublime venue it is too. Built in the 15th century, lofty and grand with carved stone pillars and arches, and tall ceiling buttresses the elegance and grace further enhanced by subtle spot lighting. A measured grandness and perfect acoustics augmented by medieval paintings in both transepts of the church and clerics in what at first glance appear to be golden Russian icons. In some ways St.Endellion feels more like an elaborate and ancient theatre than a church. 

Apart from smatterings of Beethoven and Elgar I confess I know little about classical music beyond things I’ve picked up from movie soundtracks and that doesn’t extend much further than Ennio Morricone. Thus when handed a programme of what to expect from flautist Jenny Dyson & Friends  (pianist Freddie Brown and cellist Bethan Lloyd) I didn’t, in truth, know what to expect. The three musicians have played with many of the the world’s very best, from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic to London Chamber Orchestra,  St.Martins in the Fields, and Klosters. Only when Dyson explained the theme of the event was to be passion did I glean something of what to expect. 

The first half began with an exuberant Flute Sonata No4 in C Major by Johann Sebastian Bach in complete contrast to the much lower and soulful next piece, Etude No4 from Argentinian Astor Piazzolla, a composer and bandoneon player perhaps better known for his jazz interpretations of tango. Bethan Lloyd stepped up to the microphone to explain that in her rush to drive down from London for the concert she had forgotten her shoes thence introducing a strangely angular piece for cello written by her father also a cellist. The half closed with the challenging Jet Whistle for Flute and Cello by Heitor Villa-Lobos that in its most pastural moments reminded me of those mesmerising Morricone orchestrations deployed just before someone dies. Dyson told us to listen out for the Jet Whistle when it came as if anyone could have missed it. Imagine a classical locomotive whistle – only louder and harsher. 

The second half began with Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune featuring Dyson and Brown. Think of those mysterious and swirling passages of music in Hitchcock’s 1940 classic Rebecca when Joan Fontaine steps tremulously down to the waterfront. Brown played solo piano for my favourite piece of the evening, Johannes Brahms Intermezzo, op, 118, no.2 a slow, delicate, tender and romantic piece that more than any other lived up to the the event’s promise of ‘passion’. And it could have ended there for me but did in fact come to a close with a sprightly three way affair from Phillippe Gaubert, 3 Aquarelles for Flute, Cello and Piano. 

The skill, enthusiasm and charm of those young musicians combined with an off-the-wall choice of music and loveliness of the ecclesiastical stage made for a memorable evening. 

Endelienta Arts, St.Endellion Church, PL29 3TP. 

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Dirty Work

no more of this…

I am proud to announce that I have achieved another personal best: wearing the same shirt daily for nine days without washing, largely unstained and all but odourless. Previously I’d regularly managed four and half weekdays only changing into something fresh and uncreased towards the end of the fifth day for my traditional Friday night libation crawl. With the radio and press full of water shortage stories I decided to push the envelope and guided only by frequent sniffing and the occasional damp sponge wipe to remove spots of food (!) I saw out nine full days in the same indigo Ralph Lauren button down. Aired on a clothes hanger each night and smelling if not quite like a spring day and more like a warm damp autumn dusk it could have gone on longer were I not committed to attend a sad event and so changed it for a freshly laundered other (also dark blue) out of respect. 

Washing my clothes as seldom as possible is not a new phenomenon (aka hobby). I have suits bought in he the early 2000s that have never, not once, been dry cleaned and that look and smell as good today as the day they were bought. The same goes for several pairs of trousers that only require sponge wiping and pressing to sharpen up.

For a brief period – pre-decimalisation (look it up) – my classmates and I were entertained by a shaggy haired geography teacher who when asked why he always wore a dark blue shirt instead of a traditional white one replied “it needs less washing because it doesn’t show the dirt.” It’s funny how some things stay with you. 

What I hadn’t anticipated was a growing movement actively opposed to over washing. Among them designer Stella McCartney who vocally discourages people from washing their clothes unnecessarily: for the negative impact on the world and wasteful damage to the actual garments.  McCartney, who learnt her craft in Savile Row is “not a fan” of cleaning clothes. She says you should never clean a bespoke suit. Simply leave any mark (usually food) to dry before simply brushing if off. 

In an interview with The Guardian the designer, who admits to being incredibly hygienic, went on to say ”I don’t just chuck stuff in the washing machine because it’s been worn.” 

Like me she’s an advocate for placing niffy items in the freezer rather than washing them.  I started doing that some time ago to get on top of a moth situation that was eating away at my suits. But it works equally well for killing the bacteria that make clothes pong. If you put a worn jumper, shirt or denim back in the drawer it can resurface weeks later with a distinctly vomit odour. That’s when to shove it in the freezer. 

Obviously there are exceptions. Few would or should keep wearing the same undies (unless you’re French where it’s a cultural thing). Socks are best changed regularly too.

The facts speak for themselves. Even a new high tech washing machine uses upwards of 30 gallons of water in addition to around 500 watts of electricity. It’s reckoned 17% of domestic water usage is in washing machines. And as for tumble dryers they belch out nearly half a kilogram of CO2 per load. Trying thinking about the ice-cap next time you’re in a hurry to find something clean something to wear. 

Kim and I don’t have a lot of synthetic fabric fast fashion items. I buy natural fibres which may explain why I’m wearing cardigans, jumpers and shirts  bought in the 90s. They may cost more but they last longer. Washed cheap stuff sheds micro-plastics, infinitesimal specs of plastic that fish eat and which, don’t ask me how, end up in 83% of our drinking water as well as our food. I recall worries in the 80s that plastic drinks bottles leach chemicals that increase the risk of infertility. 

Of course washing and the impact it has especially on cheaply manufactured garments is a major reason why shoppers lap up more and more cheap stuff. Frequent washing fades colour and degrades fabric. So you’re not just cleaning your clothes by chucking them in the washer after you’ve worn them you’re destroying them too. 

According to Fashion Revolution that among many cultural, economic and environmental aims wants ‘an end to throwaway culture and shift to a system where materials are used for much longer and nothing goes to waste’  “nine out of ten pieces ends up in landfill because over washing has degraded the material and colour has faded.”

That was a lesson I learnt years ago with denim jeans. I’m one of those who prefers dark indigo to the washed out faded variety. When I read that jeans should be worn for a minimum of six months prior to any form of washing in order to build up natural oils in the denim I knew what I had to do.  This really only applies to classic heavy duty denim 12oz in weight or more and I found myself explaining this to the customer of a men’s store in Richmond-Upon-Thames earlier in the year. He was buying a pair of jeans and was concerned about colour loss. Being the good busybody I stepped in and explained the Edwins I had on that day have only been washed once since they were bought six years ago. He and his daughter looked aghast as the salesman nodded approvingly before admitting the Edwins did look rather good for unwashing. 

I read somewhere the CEO of Levis hasn’t washed his jeans in 10 years. Hans Ates head of Blackhorse Lane Ateliers, manufacturers of fine but pricey jeans says: “If you buy good quality denim jeans you could wear them for maybe ten, twenty years if you know how to look after them, wash and care for them, they could live with you forever.”

This could catch on. There are now clothing companies treating items made with recycled fabrics with a variety of natural oils to maintain freshness longer. How about that – a future in which fashion brands sell their garments as much on looks as the need not to wash them. 

US merino wool manufacturer Wool&Prince is one of this new breed. In addition to pointing out that most of us don’t wear 80% of the clothes we own (oops)…”washing and drying account for a surprisingly high percentage of a garments carbon footprint. And all this washing isn’t easy on clothing either. Cleaning often breaks down a garment just as much, if not more than actual use. We encourage you to wear more wash less…”Going on to point out that body sweat is actually ‘clean’. It only goes off when bacteria gets a hold. That’s when you stick whatever it is in the freezer. 

In closing I can announce another record smashed. The freshly laundered short I put on for that sad occasion is still on my back – 14 days later! No wonder the man at South West Water told me on the telephone that Kim and I use well below the national average for water consumption. Around 11 cubic metres a month instead of the more normal 15. 

All I need now is an excuse to put on another clean shirt.

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Too Old To Care

After a lot of thought I have come to realise the point of young people is they’re who I/we turn to when we can’t fathom how to master the simplest high tech, internet call it what you like electrical thingamajig. I came to this conclusion after repeatedly being asked by neighbours to perform the sort of digital task most ten year olds do in their sleep, between buying Bitcoin and watching streamed pornography films on their phone (nobody does video anymore). We’re not talking advanced cybernetic algorithms or tracking viral DNA code here. The assistance I’ve been able to provide to people even older than me is – accessing their bank account online, and buying a airline tickets. I printed an online map for another who needed to get to a hospital miles away and who was so thrilled I thought he’d hug me to death.  Yes I know they’re the easiest things any any primate with a tablet can accomplish but believe me when you’ve spent your life opening the mail (anyone?) and popping down the bank (remember them) the new other way of doing things is, well – off putting to say the least. 

Infact I came to this realisation much earlier, some time in the 90s while struggling with another Baby Boomer to programme a VHS recorder (you know – a box that was plugged into the television  to record programmes and used large plastic boxed video tapes and was controlled by a timer); a sort of forerunner of the DVD recorder. Anyway neither of us could make head nor tail of the instructions and were only able to record yours truly on an island in the Pacific Ocean for the BBC thanks to the deft ability of my friend’s six year old Millennial son who I seem to recall completed the operation single handed while simultaneously channel hopping with the remote control.  

Two of my neighbours have mobile phones reminiscent of those old fashioned pocket calculators; about the size of a packet of fags with screens the size of matchboxes. They’re called dumb phones by the modern generation despite the fact that they are anything but dumb; people, usually older,  sometimes talk on them. I only mention them because on more than one occasion both phones have erupted with deafening ring tones striking up like exuberant cabaret dance bands. Upon asking each how they did that both confessed (with pride) it was their grandchildren who configured their phones to be so annoying. 

Another has a smart speaker in the dining room that yells “gin and tonic o’clock” every day at 5.30pm. A useful reminder programmed not by her but her Generation Y daughter.

I bought a new old car three years ago and it’s taken me that long to figure out how the music system works. It does accept compact discs, but who buys them anymore? Link it to your phone advised my mechanic. Fine if I’d figured out how to download music on to my not so smart as some phone. As I understand it there aren’t CD players in the newest vehicles which by my reckoning will translate into a lot of head scratching or employment opportunities for Generation Alphas. (Look it up).  I sat in a Tesla recently and listened to the owner ask the car to run the windscreen wipers and switch on the radio.

Ironically the smarter phones become the less people speak on them. Anybody, everybody, persons who can’t write a sentence for toffee, haven’t written a letter since being forced to pen Christmas and birthday thank you letters as a child, would rather text, email or What’sUp than talk. My friends always answer with a hi Johnny whereupon  when I inquire how they know it’s me their reply is you’re the only person who calls. So that’s nearly £1000 for an iPhone you don’t talk on.

Infact I need a new phone and I’m shopping around for a Generation Z-er to advise me. My current one the Vodafone salesperson said was ideal for me, his mother has the same model. The model he pulled out his jeans made me gasp. I’ve had drinks and au d’oeuvres served to me on smaller things. 

I’ll admit I’m not comfortable with the demise of high street banks, post offices, shops, anything useful being replaced by online or call centre communications. Barclaycard texts me with payment reminders that begin hi or heads up. Heads up? It’s a bank and we’re talking money (infact, that’s the issue – we’re not talking). I’m that person who doesn’t speak when spoken to by a digital voice prompt. I’ll press keys on command but I draw the line at having a conversation with it. I ignore them when in tech speak they suggest that I say things like, resisting the temptation to shout bollocks. I always wait and eventually someone in a living room in a different time zone picks up. We’ll finish our conversation with them suggesting an app or a bot or a chat, or all three. I say I would never do that as they’d be out of a job.

All this digital malarky is so convenient. That’s what the pretty young thing at a wedding I attended said referring to an online retailer – whose name I can’t bring myself to mention -that gets to know the sort of tunes she likes to hear online and suggesting others. Because it’s convenient. When people use the ‘c’ word I automatically think of public lavatories and nerds. I associate it with salad rinsers, electric trousers presses, Roladex filing systems and electric hair dryer stands

Yes, I know I can have an app (!) for all essential services on my not so smart as some phone. Both my regular supermarkets encourage me to have theirs and we all know people who use apps to check-in for flights and trains. That said the three recent and longest hold-ups I’ve experienced at a supermarket check-out was when customers, again, even older than me, attempted to app pay for their groceries. All three failed and needed the sales assistant (much younger, probably early Generation Z-ers) to do whatever it takes to help people who ought to know better to join the 21st century. 

In a few short years whatever it is that Generation Zs and Alphas are doing faster and better than me will be struggling to keep up with what’s coming down the line. Because what’s so new today will be gone tomorrow. Floppy or laser discs anyone? Four track tapes and mini discs, or those Apple spectacles with computer screens on the insides? History is full of redundant break throughs. Encyclopedias? No, Wikipedia and Google are so much more convenient, especially at pub quizzes.  And what about the typewriter; I recently bought to avoid distraction from the convenient internet? Somehow in the course of a conversation with a young woman at my opticians she confessed she didn’t know what a typewriter is? Which is funny because they and vinyl records and books are all making admittedly limited comebacks. 

If I were e of those Z-ers wearing ear pods with my phone glued to my hand at all times I’d think seriously about moving to Norfolk. According to an article in The Guardian there are more over 65 year olds there than in any other county in the UK. And why not, it’s the centre of the universe if you want tea rooms and flat easy walking. Sounds good, and the beer is tasty too. I’ll bet digital trauma is a pandemic there with thousands of bald heads being scratched daily until they bleed. Maybe a new frontier for career minded young people who think the cheque book is travel guide from from eastern Europe. 

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Freedom From Flavours

Epiphany is probably too strong a word. Stepping back a shade it’s enough to state that yesterday I had a Cornish pasty for lunch. I know what you’re thinking, in this neck of the woods there are more pasties than you shake a surfboard at. And that would be correct. The difference yesterday, and the reason I almost went all the way and called it an epiphany is this particular pasty wasn’t your classic meat and bits of veg, nor even the growing in popularity cheese ’n onion. My pasty of choice, primarily because it was on sale at the reduced price of 74p not having sold at the previously discounted price of £1.50, was a vegan quorn pasty – arguably the most right on pasty not very much money can buy. 

For those unfamiliar with quorn it’s a microfungus – fusarium venenatum – that was discovered somewhere in south east England in the 1980s and thence incorporated as a meat substitute. Sound tasty? No, it doesn’t do much for me either. Vegan was the word that  resonated for me. The knowledge that nothing previously scampering around an intensive livestock farm had been slaughtered to satiate my appetite. A warm glow of culinary pride passing through me as I slipped the the pasty into a reusable carrier bag. 

A golden puffed up pastry case with a thick crimp along one side emanating an aroma during its 20 minutes in the oven filling my olfactory glands with eager anticipation. Having shifted my infrequent pasty consumption to the vegetarian option some time ago, being especially partial to a Rowe’s pasty made with feta cheese, I was ready to take the next step toward saving the planet and eliminate animals and animal by-products altogether. In other words – go vegan.

And that’s when it struck me – vegan food doesn’t taste, of anything. That vegan quorn pasty was the most tasteless bland thing ever to pass my lips. I’ve eaten meals that were downright dull until being lathered with anything from Branston Pickle to Encona very hot sauce. Even the most insipid plateful can be made into something notionally edible with the culinary equivalent of a spicy defribillator. Believe me – not this vegan quorn pasty. It was way beyond saving. The contents looked good. Bits of green and orangey vegetable and saucy looking moistness giving it an acceptable texture. But bite it and – urgh. I’ve seen more tantalising party political broadcasts. 

But perhaps that is the point. To be vegan is to make a pact with our senses to renounce the decadence of flavour and taste. Veganism isn’t about exciting our taste buds it’s about providing the maximum amount of nutrition without slaughter or sensory indulgence. It’s practical, and there is a lot to be said for that – just not flavour. 

The argument for going tasteless is persuasive. Food production creates some 17.3 billion metric tonnes of greenhouses gases annually, of which 57% comes from meat production. Then factor in the methane gas, more deadly than carbon dioxide, caused by millions of cows burping and farting. In fact there are climate change scientists who assess that meat eating has a  more detrimental effect on global warming than car driving. 

So how about it? Remove fashion and style and shifting seasons from our daily dress sense and think instead purely about modesty and warmth and keeping dry. Then apply this rule to food. It’s simple. Not as much fun perhaps but better both for our health and the planet. 

There’s been a steady drift towards tastelessness. It hit home in Lewis, in West Sussex a couple of years ago when Kim and I were sat with Asta at a coffee shop just off the high street. We’d ordered coffees (opting for oat milk because they didn’t serve dairy milk ought to have raised the alarm). And because Asta has a thing about croissants we ordered one of those to share. Asta developed her taste for French patisserie when she was a puppy en France to the extent that I buy one for her whenever we have them. She can smell them warming in the oven, it being the only occasion she rises up to join of us for breakfast. 

But something was wrong. She sniffed the hunk of croissant Kim offered and turned the other cheek. Kim tried again with another piece. Asta looked like she’s rather be anywhere but there. I tried and she turned away and lay on the floor. 

I knew a bit about gluten free baking – another aspect of the vegan/vegetarian experience – due to a growing number of friends having given up gluten on health grounds. It’s a protein found in most grains that helps with ‘structure’ during baking, I think. Anyway, our croissant we later learnt upon inspection of the menu was gluten free. 

Being something of a past the sell by date bargain shopper I bought a Pizza Express American Hot. Only something wasn’t right. It didn’t taste of much – least of all an American Hot. That’s when I noticed the small print on the box in the bin – gluten free. A pattern is emerging. 

Fast forward to the holiday apartment downstairs at The Red House. An artist friend who has stayed there more than any other left some Linda McCartney soya mince in the fridge. Unbeknown to me spiced up with Worcestershire Sauce and seasoning Kim produced a very tasty Shepherd’s Pie – or at east I thought so. She didn’t fool Asta though. We got the same reaction from her to the Shepherds Pie as she given to the croissant in Lewis. A major paws down!

Cutting to the chase almost any vegan, gluten free, quorn, soya what you will dish can be made munchable with a generous dollop of spice. It won’t taste of anything but chillie and that’s fine if you like hot food that doesn’t taste of anything but chillie. But if chillie isn’t your thing and you plan on saving the planet and animals bring on the bland. Embrace a food that does nothing but fill you up and provide enough vitamins and roughage to keep you going.  Freedom from flavours.

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For Sonia


I can see her over 20 years ago when she will have been younger than I am now in a black one piece swimming costume, slender and erect. The waist of a model and the shoulders of an athlete stepping over the pebbles towards the waves breaking upon an empty Cornish beach. Watched only by her two black Labradors on the foreshore and my wife and I, unseen on the path leading from the town. 

She cut a lonely figure that flinty spring morning slipping through the spine tingling elements of sea and sand and sky. Years later she told me she’d found that swimming costume on that very beach. She has a wardrobe full of hats, shoes, sun tops, sweaters and scarves, all saved from a watery grave. One day I expect I’ll see her in the Ralph Lauren baseball cap that went overboard on one of my infrequent sailing days around the estuary. She’ll look better in it than me.

She was there every day on that holiday, impervious to the icy cold of the north Atlantic, swimming slowly but strongly against the current for never longer than two minutes. A gamine head of nickel hair protruding above the water like the prow of a ship.

Asking around I learnt that this siren of the seas wasn’t ‘local’ – in the strictest sense of the word. She’d arrived from the other side of the country several decades ago ruffling the senses of the people along this barren stretch of the north coast with her easy laughter, her Jean Muir dresses and Afghan coats, and her and her late husband’s predilection for the sort of British sports cars favoured by sixties rock stars and secret agents. They’d arrived at a time when many hereabouts boasted they’d never ever left the town. In a region popular with retirees whose sole purpose appears to be sitting in a window in zip up fleeces gazing upon an indistinct horizon, until the day their daily nip of sherry misses their lips and the dribbles begin, this pair of boho immigrants, with a dash of rock ’n roll had sought a new beginning. Not for them a death by a thousand dribbles. They’d arrived at a place to feel alive, to sharpen their senses and be seduced by the elements. She’d sought a place to walk her Labradors, where the reflections of the sky upon the ocean are never the same two hours later never mind two days. 

“If the weather is bad, just wait an hour,” she says accepting her daily meteorological challenges with relish and widening her radiant blue eyes with a flash of anticipation. 

Her name, for the sake of discretion, is Monica and she is sat opposite me in a room that I always imagined Dickens depicted Miss Haversham in. With brass and wood adornments, garnitures, brocade drapes and stout curtain poles, hessian baskets and small shrines to lives past, everything connected by gossamer cobwebs and “provenance”. Her home is a townhouse where centuries past there lived a certain Dr.Marley whose surname Dickens, believed to have been an acquaintance, purloined for A Christmas Carol. The house is no brighter behind the shuttered sash windows now than it was in the 19th century. There are stout iron fireplaces at each end but a fire in only one. There are alcoves of leather bound volumes. Heavy gilt picture frames and hefty settees with heavily pressed cushions like body moulds (“I like to see the impression of where people they have sat,” she says eagerly). There is a softly tapping grandfather clock, a demi lune bearing ornate crystal glass, chandeliers, the satisfying scent of old dog, wood smoke and elegant neglect. We are a long way from the blue and white china factory prints of fishing boats, and table lamps made from pebbles that feature in many of the cheerily gentrified homes nearby. Monica has no need for furniture purporting to be contrived from driftwood (arriving in a cardboard box with a label that states made in China). No faux fishing village paraphernalia here. This is the richly embellished domain of one who values provenance above all else. Point to any artefact and be lost in its story.

She’d grown up during the Second World War on the other side of the country in a place where a brown sea washes against a barren hinterland. Not far from where our own puppy comes from. I remember the breeder deriding the eastern wind that each sweeps across that vulnerable landscape; exposed, cold and treeless. It’s a description that could just as easily apply to the place Monica found herself in a generation later. Except here there is soft sand and the bluest sea. 

She’s had Labradors by her side since being a child, and for a while was accompanied by a young pigeon she’d nurtured back to health whom she named Andrew and who perched upon her hat as she cycled across the fens to school. She married young but years later fell for another, also married, and the pair, with her children, ran away to set up home in former railway station in Sussex. She remembers evenings on the roof gazing at the stars and soirees going on for days. Despite, or perhaps because of the parties, the cars, the friends, the eccentricities others can only imagine, she sought out the far west for her holidays moving here permanently in the 1970s.

“I don’t think Richard particularly wanted to be here but he agreed because I wanted to. Like he used to say, ‘Monica, if you want it – you can have it’.” With an attitude like that, and an Aston Martin, is it any wonder she fell for him?

Monica is a woman of contradictions, one moment gregarious and witty the next distant and aloof. Small wonder many around here keep their distance, especially those intimidated by a natural beauty, her a fondness for acidic one-liners and a predilection for Proust and champagne. 

“Quelle bliss,” she muses.

“That there Monica Flemming,” to some, while others, acknowledging the sparkle in her eyes and the glamour in her clothes, encouraged a rumour that she was a former Tiller Girl from the London Palladium. She was and remains an enigma in a town she’s called home for over 40 years.

Monica and I were on courteous nods, no more, when one lunchtime Kim and I chanced upon her and Richard outside a pub a couple of miles out of town. Their grey coupe parked across the way. We drank there infrequently owing to the landlord being a curmudgeonly type. Tall, dark with the demeanour of a resentful headmaster and an axe to grind. Nevertheless the pub has a pleasantly bucolic outlook with fields and an ancient church across the way. 

“Oh you’ve found us,” she bridled, with merely a hint of cordiality.  Another time when she and Richard were walking to a garden party at the local stately home I fancy I made her colour a little. She was wearing a long gown and he full black-tie. She blushed when I told them they were the best dressed couple in town. She reasserted her composure and graciously accepting the compliment pressed on.

I can’t recall how we came to know each other. It was long after Richard’s death and doubtless had something to do with dogs. In my limited experience there are two social lubricants; subjects that will get almost anyone talking. One is football that I have had success with in taxis, bars and many times abroad, especially for some reason  in Turkey and Spain. Except Monica loathes football, almost as much as she loathes people using smart phones in her company or peering through her windows when the nights draw in and her living room is alight with a flickering glow. So it had to be the other, dogs. Kim has made many friends here and elsewhere among the dog walking community.  But it wasn’t out walking, it was our dog and the daughter of a friend depicted in a photograph taken outside Monica’s home. It’s one of those charming depictions of childhood innocence that could feature in a travel article, in which terraces of slate grey roofs and pastel painted cottages tumble to a harbour. In the foreground a scene of unbridled companionship; a young girl in a sunhat with a dog skipping along. The girl’s mother took the photograph and sent us a copy as a memento of a happy holiday. After some discussion (after all, Monica was just as much a ‘that there Monica’ to me as others) I decided to have it framed and took it around hoping she’d accept a gift from an occasional neighbour and dog walker who lived on and off (a second home owner then) a  few yards down the road. She was delighted and instantly hung it on the fireplace wall where we can all enjoy it whenever we share an open fire and a bottle. During one such evening she told us she chose this treeless stretch of Cornwall’s north coast over the “whimsy, flimsy, wooded” south of the county for its big skies (perhaps recalling those of her native East Anglia). And for the moon, in its lucent brilliance, that illuminates our lambent estuary. For the magenta sunrises and the waves pummelling Pentire Point. For the feral deer, the falcons, the egrets, and kingfishers, the curlews, gulls and buzzards. For the restless Atlantic forging new contours and revealing sunken booty. Fast forward two decades and its Kim’s turn to scour that beach for lumps of coal for Monica’s fire, welcome bounty from a cargo ship sunk off Gull Rock back along. There is a map inside a book by Brian French that  charts the dozens of ships that went down here in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The timbers and maybe some old bones remain there to this day. Years ago the black gold was washed up in lumps the size of hearth rugs. Today Kim is lucky to retrieve a piece as big as a fist. 

Much is made both here and beyond of genuine locals; the descendants of people born and raised upon the land on which their ancestors toiled. Such  connection instills status in a small community, and no small degree of social one-upmanship. By way of contrast I admire the peripatetic itinerants, the wonderers whose destiny is elsewhere for the making. Those who choose to live many many miles from where they grew up. They who have grabbed their lives by the jugular and Banking over the north east wind arrived where the wind suits their clothes:The Australians and New Zealanders who worked in the local newspaper industry where I trained in North West London; those Windrush children who worked alongside me in the music business; pals raised in neglected parts of Liverpool and Glasgow coming south for the opportunities London promised; people just like Monica, unsatisfied and thirsty for improvement. Of course, many don’t have a choice. They up-sticks and move for work, or war or famine. Others, like myself and Monica, step out of the car and straighten our clothes for no other reason than to be somewhere that satisfies our senses. Far enough away to be other worldly. Somewhere to be forgotten in. A place where clifftop walks are treacherous and exhausting but which nourish the soul in a way the even the best martini cocktail fails to. Alright, a great vodka martini with a twist does have an edge, but it’s the exception rather than the rule. 

This town is peppered with Monicas. Not as modish and sophisticated perhaps, but all from very different backgrounds lured by the freshness of the saline air and the shifting sands, and formerly and the affordability of the property.

Benjamin was stationed oversees when he asked his wife Celia to find them somewhere to live. She found a former bank with the vault still intact in the basement and a hallway large enough to host five-a-side football. 

The building leans towards the sea with every piece of furniture in the south facing extension maintained on an even keel with graded blocks of wood; Vida moved down shortly after Monica finding many suitors when her husband passed away. Husband number two passed away too leaving her alone with her beauty and terriers; John from Portsmouth fell in love with a Cornish maid; Jenny, a cardiologist, hailing from a stucco mansion in Belgravia keeps house for the local gentry in a pile that dates from the 16th century. For a time she lived in a former coffin store off a ginnel running beneath and between ancient homes. (There are many narrow, subterranean thoroughfares hereabouts.) Jenny was drawn to the endless beach and the sky but misses those essential decadences on sale in London’s Jermyn Street. I’ll wager her’s is the only coffin store on the planet with a bathroom decked out by Czech and Speake; Tamsin, divorced, followed her son here, who has been hooked on surfing since his early holidays on the north coast in the 90s. He works as a coastguard and among Tamsin’s multifarious activities hereabouts is running film club from her front room. She lives next door to a tall man from Philadelphia who, when he is not dreaming about plastic surgery, writes articles for students in another country and quaffs Pinot Grigio and irks local restaurateurs (the way all Americans do) by redesigning to his own exacting standards the simplest meal. I’ve yet to meet an American who can accept even something as undemanding as a sandwich on face value;  Simon was a journalist, and by all accounts a bit of a bon viveur. Someone said he wrote about fashion which is believable as he cuts a dapper figure in a town where with only a few exceptions, Monica and Avril among them, style is a term used only for interior decorating. As far as I know Simon is the only resident to possess an overcoat and a hat with the snap brim. His wife is an artist and sells in a local gallery. Her works depict the joys of beach life; then there’s the local musician and raconteur Christopher, from Liverpool, who hosts a Friday night shindig in a bar overlooking the quay. He plays the bars and restaurants along the coast in a number of musical configurations. Sometimes with his son on jazz vocals, and other times with Little Phil or The Lost Causes; there are teachers, and lorry drivers, publicans and retired accountants.  A raft of people who have settled here for all manner of reasons, many enjoying  a cliquey network of clubs, societies and charities. But not Monica. She’s a woman who values distance, the space between her and the outside world. She didn’t move here to make friends despite there being a great many desirous to befriend her.  When I think about it she must have given those muddy farm boys in East Anglia sleepless nights. Whenever I see her I hear Dave Rawlings’ ‘Short Haired Woman Blues’. She’s never worked and by all accounts never given it much thought. 

“They say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day,” she says quoting Winnie the Pooh, then casting her mind to the precise location in her of that tome? “Beneath the second wardrobe in bedroom three on the first floor. No, sorry. On the stairs, four steps up by the garden window.” 

Monica’s been too busy being a beautiful mother, reading and walking her black Labradors to do anything so plebeian as work. While Richard took a sledgehammer to the house, reconfiguring a warren of Marley’s rooms into something unstable but with more grandeur Monica read everything she could get her decorous hands on. There are books everywhere in her shadowy home of bitter sweet memories. They line the stairs and fill the alcoves. Others in a bookshelf integral to a standard lamp with a tasselled shade. There are many more, boasts this nocturnal reader, beneath her mahogany four poster bed where at night the red and golden illuminations of a dredger in the estuary shines “Christmas lights” on her ceiling. “Quelle bliss,” she says in her favoured Franglais, revelling in the perfection of her maritime twilight show

Monica prefers biographies, poetry and history. She enjoys The Daily Telegraph and The New Yorker and reads fashion magazines, Vogue and Harpers & Queen. She steered me towards Lauren Bacall’s autobiography after something I said about Bogart, and thence to a book about clouds: I now sit in my kitchen and stare at the alto cumulous Stradivarius that interlock like celestial chainmail, and monitor the nimbus clouds soaking Rough Tor and Brown Willy on the eastern horizon. She insisted I read Nana, Emile Zola’s study of prostitution and despair in 18th century Paris, and her favourite book, The Rings Of Saturn, by the German writer WG Sebald, because it chronicles an immigrant’s odyssey through the county towns and coastline of her youth in East Anglia. It contains  a passage from Thomas Browne’s Hydrotaphia she is especially fond of.

…there is no antidote against the opium of time. The winter sun shows how soon the light fades from the ash, how soon night enfolds us. Hour upon hour is added to the sum. Time itself grows old. Not even those who have found a place amidst the heavenly constellations have perpetuated their names: Nimrod is lost in Orion and Osiris in the Dog Star. Indeed, old families last not three oaks. To set one’s name to a work gives no one a title to be remembered, for who knows how many of the best of men have gone without a trace? The iniquity of oblivion blindly scatters her poppyseed and when wretchedness falls upon us one summer’s day like snow, all we wish for is to be forgotten… 

Sebald, himself an immigrant, a German scholar who taught in Norwich, walked the coast from Great Yarmouth to Southwold, dwelling upon a number of places I have visited over the years. I was especially drawn to the segment in Southwold’s Seaman’s Mission and another describing a long gone former palace near Lowestoft. His previous book, The Emigrants, published three years earlier in 1992 (ironically a gift from the American who exchanged Pennsylvania for Cornwall) recounts the experiences of four characters who have left their native Germany for new lives in this country and the United States. Whenever I think of it I can hear Carole King lamenting nobody staying in one place anymore?

Monica is alone much of the time.  Both her children taken much too soon. Richard’s Moulton bicycle unridden for over a decade is chained to the front railings. The frame and wheels encrusted with rust and there is moss on the saddle. It has the aura of something recovered from an architectural dig. Two French youths were photographing it when Monica appeared at a first floor window directly above them.

“What are you doing,” she wanted to know?

They were polite and respectful and inquired why it was there, and in such a state?

“It’s a monument,” was all she said.

Could they photograph it? “Yes,” she replied, evidently softened by their courtesy. 

Monica isn’t enjoying her advancing years very much despite being sharper, better dressed and with more recall than those a quarter of her age. In moments of exultant exuberance we three put her demeanour and well being down to “vanity and alcohol”. Whereupon we raise our glasses with the easy conversation veering off to some other overlooked but essential decadence..

For much of the winter she remains indoors. She has an Aga upon which she dries the logs for her fire, and bakes jacket potatoes. In the summer she moves outside, her  garden a verdant jewell in a cramped town where every available square foot is built upon. A serpentine path and screens of foliage twist and turn revealing hidden enclosures and romantic perspectives. It is overgrown in a controlled sort of way thanks to Monica’s daughter-in-law who strives to keep it in check. In it Monica can follow the courtship of the randy sparrows going about their noisy seduction within an ivy that is silently wrenching the stained glass mullioned porch away from the rest of the house. Or she can sit in her summer house and marvel at the blooms that burst in spectacular profusion from the vast and magnificent magnolia grandiflora.

Without her dogs mostly it’s just her now, her photographs and books. She seldom if ever leaves the house she says with pride is falling apart around her. Her only company for much of the time her daughter-in-law who lives next door and who cleans and shops and manages Monica’s affair. Monica no longer enjoys impromptu tete a tetes and has been known to remain unseen, concealed beneath piles of sofa throws and blankets to avoid visitors. Her stringently enforced isolation only interrupted by bi-annual soirees: hot ticket events every spring and autumn equinox. Within the town’s expat community these are not to be missed. On a table spanning the entire length of the lounge are savouries to satisfy the most discerning gourmand and all the wine anyone, even Monica on a roll, could want. We’ll sit together, her in something floor length and body hugging with long silver earrings glistening in the firelight, while at the other end of the room guests in fleeces and unspeakably bad footwear enjoy their time at the ‘go to’ party of the season. That’s when she’ll lean over to me and quietly inquire who half of them are? It’s then she’ll stand erect, a glass of sauvignon blanc in her hand and work the room with her seamless social repartee.

That’s when I am reminded why I love her.

“So, precisely how many husbands have you had?” asked a guest bearing the expression of unbridled earnestness, dressed as though he might just have stepped off a rubber dingy. 

“It was perfect,” Monica told me later. “Peggy Guggenheim’s retort was there for the saying. 

“I asked him, do you mean mine or other women’s? Quelle bliss.”

How could it be anything else?

Sonia Morgan April 25, 1930 – February 28, 2022

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Taking To The Hills – Malvern


…from British Camp Hill Fort

The most significant change to my life since being dumped from The Sunday Times by a man with a name synonymous with lavatory cleaning is no longer automatically being shown the best room in the hotel. Nowadays I must dig my heels in to be guaranteed anything comfortable and convenient enough in which to swing a couple of very large cats.

Such was the case in Malvern a few days ago when Kim and Asta and I were directed to a double room in what felt like an entire time zone distant from the reception, along ever narrower corridors towards the back of the Abbey Hotel. In the centre of town, adjacent to the estimable museum and in the shadow of The Malvern Hills, the hotel is a grey-stone marvel of crenellations and mullion windows draped in Virginia creeper, with a magnificent carved central staircase of the kind you imagine Bette Davis gliding down. 

Our room in the modern wing was quite adequate, with all the necessities for a brief stay, yet not good enough if the three of us were to spend a lot of time there. Thus I called reception to request something larger in the old building and closer to the entrance. Bingo. For a modest supplement we switched to a room with a bay window below the hotel sign. Ceilings in the clouds, a window seat bigger than most sofas, a dressing room, a decent size bathroom, and chairs and an occasional table where the three of us could enjoy breakfast croissants.

I have become rather partial to Malvern in the past 18 months, just inside Worcestershire and very nearly within Herefordshire and Shropshire too: A vast sway of grey green and tawny landscape stretching from the Shropshire Hills to the Brecon Beacons and Gloucester. The town clings to the dawn side of the Malvern Hills from the tops of which the aforementioned are visible in breathtaking clarity. Our first glimpses approaching junction eight on the M5, passing through boaty Upton Upon Severn, loomed larger and more wondrous by the mile. They are what Edward Elgar marvelled at growing up on the outskirts of Worcester moving to Malvern Link where between walking the hills and cycling steep wooded lanes he composed many of his greatest works, among them the Enigma Variations one of only a small handful of classical discs in my collection.

To get our bearings, and see if Asta has a taste for vertginous open terrain, we took the advice of some dog walkers (always reliable sources of information) and followed the A449 a couple of miles south along the eastern fringe of the hills to British Camp Hill Fort an Iron Age site close to the village of Colwall. The car park charge  £4.30 for a full day and across the road a popular cafe called Sally’s Place serves date flapjacks and sloe gin and lime and coconut liqueur ice creams. Around back the public loos boast some of the best views in the region.

a bit of a climb but worth it

Faced with two paths to the top Kim chose the steepest, a flight of steps that soon had me feeling my age. Happily it doesn’t take long to get above the tree line to be met with a panorama to rival those we’d found in the Sierra Nevadas. Miles of landscape beneath a shifting mackerel sky blown alternatively grey and azure by a chilly northern wind. We were around 300 metres above sea level, practically alone except for a handful of photographers and some sheep behind an electrified fence. Below us the more popular and less arduous path we were to follow back to the car.  

Strolling around the precipitous Great Malvern, Malvern’s opulent heart with shops, a theatre, museums and railway station, I was struck first by the sheer scale and number of manicured palatial buildings, some commercial premises but many more grandiose homes towering over peaceful verdant avenues. In a range of architectural styles from Victorian Gothic to Edwardian and Regency. Ornate glazed towers and orangeries, elaborate porticoes shaded by cedars of Lebanon and towering sequoia. Indeed this is a town of trees. I am no botanist but among them copper beeches, hornbeam, oaks, field elms and varieties of spruce planted by health conscious Victorians who flocked to the town for the efficacious qualities of the natural spring waters.  In the first half of the 19th century the town’s water was considered curative for eye disorders, ulcers, digestive problems and blood circulation. There is a Malvina Spring drinking fountain half way up the steps to Bellevue Terrace. A number of people were having a sup but Asta wasn’t sure. 

Another pooch walking tip directed us to Malvern Common a huge tract of gently undulating openland to the south sandwiched betwen the mainline railway and A449. On one side miore fabulous homes and on the other the ground works for a more affordable estate of homes. Cutting through the grounds of Malvern College the common extends to Worcestershire Golf Club and The Three Counties Showground.  

I don’t think Malvernites will object to me describing them as a bit posh. Women in knee high leather and fabric ‘country boots’, leggings and bum freezer quilted jackets and the men nearly all beneath flat caps. As if further proof of Malvern’s exaulted status is required there is a Waitrose supermarket although I was informed by one suspicious local that some aspirational shoppers stock up at Lidl before transferring their items into Waitrose carrier bags for their journeys home. Imagine?

The second thing that struck us about Malvern was how slim and trim its residents are, perhaps a result of the steepness of the high street and the walks nearby. The simple fact is you cannot get anywhere in this town without working those glutes. 

A young estate agent called Sam suggested that for lunch with Asta in tow we might enjoy Faun, a deli/cafe at the top of Great Malvern with views over Worcestershire. Good call. It’s run by a woman from London who told us many city folk are moving to the town for the quality of life, the prices of properties and the road and rail transport links: London in two and a half hours by rail, or Bristol on the M5 in 40 minutes.

a very tasty eccles cake

One of the waitresses provided Asta with biscuits and water while I enjoyed the best eggs on toast of my life. Made with rich yolky cacklebean eggs (from Stow-On-The-Wold), hazelnut dukkah bread, with seeds and other garnishes. Kim opted for the caramelised onion and cheddar tart with winter leaves and apple and golden beetroot slaw. Best of all were the made on the premises eccles cakes, which as the few readers of this site will attest I have a weakness for. Three inches in diameter and an inch and a half high, crunchy and golden on the outside and packed with fruit and a hint of cinnamon within. I took two home with us.

If the town has a downside – it is its dark side. Situated on the eastern side of very sheer and tall hills the sun disappears quite early depending on the time of year. It’s why West Malvern, where sunsets last long into the night and the distance is considered the fashionable spot with the cool crowd. It’s where the principal road follows the contours of the hills passing splendid 19th century homes built by well watered and well heeled incomers. 

We’d planned our last night meal at The Red Lion pub a steep five minute walk from our hotel. The night before there we’d had halloumi fries, and burgers that were so good we three complimented the chef who I think was the first person we’d spoken to with anything resembling a midlands accent. “Get that dog out of here,” was the abrupt end to our return visit. Thence our final dinner a Chinese takeaway in our upgraded suite, the magnificent Malvern Hills looming large in the darkness. 

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A bigger SPLASH


The most important thing for Kim and I to remember today (November 5) is to empty the bath. It remains half full or thereabouts for much of the week and sometimes longer, depending on how infrequently either of us actually take the plunge. But it is absolutely essential that on this one day of the year one of us pulls the plug. 

It wasn’t always a priority. Indeed I think it true to report that for most of my life baths, either full or empty, were the last things on my mind come November 5.

That date, a Friday this year, has always enjoyed  a particular resonance within the Futrell household as it was my father’s birthday. While we all take pity on those with birthdays on December 25 for having their one big day subsumed by a much greater and significant event November 5 was all the excuse anyone needed to go big time on gunpowder displays. We could see neighbouring bonfires from my bedroom window and brother weren’t they pathetic. I’ve smoked cigars that gave off more heat than those bonfires. As for fireworks, as a rule just those bargain basement mixed assortment boxes you bought in the sweet shop comprising a couple of Catherine wheels, some crackerjacks, maybe a Roman candle if you were lucky and rockets that would be lucky to make it beyond the garden fence. 

That wasn’t for us. Dad would be collecting firewood for weeks stacking it into a giant pyramid at the bottom of the garden upon what was called the compost heap. With trees and fences on two sides, a leaning pyracantha on another and the greenhouse located at the other (ideal for keeping the fireworks away from the flames) it had the feel of secret grotto the flickering orange glow reflected in the glass. 

Dad didn’t skimp when it came to the fireworks either. He got things off to a spectacular star with the biggest Catherine wheel in the shop. It comprised a wooden frame with two tubes of gunpowder at either end with hole in the middle where dad fastened it to a fence post with a nail the size of a finger. There were bangers and sparklers and firecrackers and air bombs that had to be plugged securely into the soil that hurled something invisible and explosive and very loud into the adjoining garden, and rockets launched from copper tubes fixed into the handle of a garden shovel spraying the night sky with golden tinsel.

Mother produced trays of roasted chipolatas and bacon rolls on sticks and there were jacket potatoes wrapped in silver foil in the embers around the edge of the fire. 

The tradition was maintained for years after father’s death only dwindling with significance when Kim came on to the scene with a succession of dogs, Karla, Fozzie Bear and Tashi Delek non of whom appreciated unforeseen explosions just feet away. To make matters worse many Londoners didn’t stick to the November 5 only rule, especially of the big day was in the middle of the week. That meant fireworks and explosions and strange fizzing sounds for a week or longer either side of the fifth. 

Asta was different – at first at least. I well remember while living in Islington, and her just five months old, walking out with her on Highbury Fields whereupon the still early November autumnal tranquility was shattered by the succession of the sort of explosive fireworks you’d expect to illuminate The Thames on New Year’s Eve – not a day or two before Firework Night in an otherwise quiet residential area. Asta? She didn’t bat a furry eyelid. Infact, I don’t recall her showing any reaction whatsoever. Whereas I nearly keeled over with cardiac arrest. I think that was the moment my hair started falling out and I never wanted to see another firework as long as I lived. Meanwhile Little Asta was home bound, tail erect and a bounce in her trot. 

Domestic firework displays are few and far between today. A combination of health and safety, political correctness, shops restricting who they sell fireworks to and of course Covid-19 mean more of us look to local councils to light the blue touch paper. On the bright side we now get fewer household displays although conversely it means those we do have are bigger and much noisier. Like the council one here  three years ago. With The Camel aglow Kim shouted if I’d seen Asta? She had to shout because to deaden the impact of the display we had Exile On Main St quite loud on the deck. I yelled back, no idea. 

Turning down The Rolling Stones in order to hear each other we became aware of a splashing sound somewhere in the distance. 

“The bath,” shrieked Kim on her way through the living room door. Sure enough, it was Asta. Up to her tummy in freezing cold dirty bath water, shaking and sending a spray all over the room. It wasn’t a complete surprise. She’d jumped into an empty bath in our last place in Duke Street; once on Bonfire Night and another time when someone was using a chainsaw a few doors away. But that was before Kim’s mission to save the planet by saving bathwater. I often wonder what was worse for our pup? The temperature of the water or the explosions outside?

I think I’d better stop here – and empty the bath lest I forget. 


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no goodbyes

Friends and those on the fringes of friendship don’t walk out on you overnight, they just sort of fade away, like sunsets. Okay, there’s a handful of I would and have crossed to the other side of the street to avoid. But thankfully they’ve been few and far between. Most friends, loved ones and people I’ve known without ever really liking, whether from school, work, next door, down the pub, or in bed – simply vanish. One day they’re there and a decade later they’re just a bystander in a frayed photograph. I’ve heard about old chums and lovers reuniting on websites and social media platforms sharing intimate details of what they had for dinner in addition to more serious issues like maybe becoming an item. But you know what, I would rather let bygones be bygones. When the drink has gone it’s gone. Until that day when, by chance, my past catches up with me. Sometimes it’s good, surprising even, but not always.

Like that time a couple of years ago, over a coffee with the daughter of a former school friend, giving her tips on how to break into journalism, she’d slipped into the conversation that her father and the boy (now a man) whom I’d never taken to at school, wanted us to have lunch together. What the..? But he’s a di…Oh, sorry I shouldn’t have said.

Lunch happened some months later and after a tricky start, not having a clue what to talk about, it was suggested, due to our mutual friend having been forced to cancel at the eleventh hour, that I may want to leave. He knew, and it took something to say as much. So I stayed and you know what, we enjoyed a very agreeable lunch. So agreeable in fact he, the man I’d have put close to the top of the list of people I never wanted to share so much as a snack with invited me to join him at one of the Eden Sessions to watch Kylie Minogue on stage. I resisted telling him I’d sat next to the Australian chanteuse at a Chinese restaurant in Camden Town. And in case you’re wondering we talked about Minis, the cars not the skirts, she planning to buy one. 

Then there’s the time I’m strolling along my local high street when glancing inside a popular greasy spoon I saw to my amazement one of my oldest and closest friends seated at a table with people I didn’t recognise. We’d been inseparable but had drifted apart the way you do when you get a job and a wife and a home and the future looks different from the past. We’d never exchanged birthdays and Christmas cards, not that the absence of cultural formalities mattered as on the rare occasions our paths did cross (very rarely) we’d pick up from where we’d left off; somewhere around Electric Ladyland. He’d appeared hesitant as I waltzed through the door and called his name: “Whit-ney!” Not his real name and the reason nobody else looked in my direction. He seemed uncomfortable, ill at ease, swivelling in his seat and looking at the others across from him and those behind. I could sense I wasn’t welcome. It seems I’d stumbled upon some sort of therapy session for unhappy people, he telling me as much minutes later when he breathlessly caught up with me on the high street. Others have cropped up: A woman I can’t remember if we did or didn’t do the thing (thankfully I don’t think she could remember either); someone I knew as a child who somehow obtained my address and has been corresponding for several years, now a dear friend I didn’t know I had; and a keen but struggling young writer I once tried to encourage by handing him a Thesaurus which, believe me, turned out to be a big mistake. Imagine The Good Old Days’ Leonard Sachs reviewing reggae releases. He was on the pavement at a shop opening event and impressed that upon seeing him after an absence of maybe 15 years I’d abandoned my car, engine on, at the traffic lights in order to rush across the pavement and heartily embrace him. Weeks later he sent me a monogrammed chessboard and pieces. All those years editing out splendacious and rhapsodic I hadn’t known writing was a second string and that his first passion and principle sources of income were fine carpentry and marquetry. And you think you know people.

Something similar happened a sunny morning in Soho. Those were high powered expense account times and stepping on to the street with a suitcase in my hand, after one of those number crunching meetings that amount to nothing, I was headed for Victoria Station to catch the Gatwick Express bound for New York and another meeting that could just as easily have taken place on the phone; with the added attraction of a five star hotel, a limo and all the scallops I could eat. The black cab that pulled up was shiny with a scent of pine and the driver, beneath one of those buzz cuts favoured by the prematurely balding, kept tilting his head toward the gap in the flex-i-glass screen that could have done with a wipe. Pulling out into the westerly carriageway of Oxford Street, passing a jingly jangly group of chanting Hari Krishna disciples I caught him glancing at me in the rear view mirror. Our eyes met causing him to jerk his gaze away. Approaching Beauchamp Place at a snail’s pace behind a convoy of red buses he tilted his head toward the Flexi glass opening and inquired if it was me?


“You know.”

No. Who?

“The Great Mephisto. You are The Great Mephisto, aren’t you?”

I dare say sporting a black goatee beard with an incipient handlebar moustache and a double breasted grey herringbone Crombie overcoat with a black velvet collar (located at a vintage clothing store in Stoke Newington) I may have appeared a shade, how to put it, pretentious? If so believe me it was unintentional. I’d spent a little too long around over dressed pop stars and flamboyant nightclubbers and some of that beau monde silliness had rubbed off. So I could see how someone might be confused and mistake me for a thespian, or at the very least someone hoping to look like one. 

I ummed and erred a bit before offering “sorry, not me.” At which point the cab came to an abrupt stop behind a number 7 and my driver spinning around to face me proclaimed “I know you’re not The Great Mephisto and you want to know how I know? Because you’re Jonathan Futrell…” Only he pronounced my surname the way my parents had done making a sort of ‘trull’ as in ‘full’ sound at the end of the second syllable, at the point where the tongue gets tangled up in the bottom lip. As opposed to the easier to pronounce ‘trell’ ending I’d introduced some years back. I sometimes correct those who continue with the trickier traditional pronunciation but thought better of it. Who the hell was it? I edged forward to get a better look. It didn’t help.

“I didn’t think you’d recognised me – although that would be you through and through,” he added laughing, a but to too cynically.

“Colin, Colin Daniels Hanworth Sec. You beat the crap out if my mate Stu because he was even shorter than you. Remember now?”

Of course. How could I ever forget Colin and Stu? Peas in a pod. Little and Large and completely inseparable.  Colin tall for his age and slim and freckly with a tidy basin cut and always immaculate. Indisputably the best dressed pupil at Hanworth Sec, and smooth with it too. And his best friend Stuart Overin, short, dark, equine features but just as mod cool, and always sniggering in an unctuous irritating way and disliked by just about everyone at the school except for the man in front of me. 

I thought I’d be surprised, but I wasn’t. Colin Daniels  a cabbie and still as cheeky and impudent as ever – it made sense.

“Didn’t you go to some private school after Hanworth, not good enough for you were we? And then,” he continued up a key “I heard you were in newspapers or something.” He leant around a bit further and failed somewhere between the steering wheel, seat belt and the flex-i-glass partition. I told him he seemed to know as much about me as me. He didn’t laugh and then said he’d got my paper round whenever it was I quit. 

 Did he stay in touch with Stuart?

“Who Stu? So you remember him? You really worked him over. remember that. Stu did. Bloody killed him. ‘’Scuse my French. ” 

For a moment I considered reminding him that I only threw two punches, one to the chin and the other to the gut. He’d gone down on the second conveniently slumped in a sitting position on the changing room bench, framed by an assortment of duffle bags and school blazers, moaning a bit but otherwise fine. To tell you the truth I didn’t hang around to see if he was ok. I grabbed my gear and legged it in case Martin and the B stream hard-nuts returned from the gym and found his best pal bent double. I thought better of it.

It’s not easy making idle conversation with someone you haven’t seen for the best part of 25 years especially one who you’d gone out your way to avoid wherever possible. But I gave it a shot, maybe not my best shot, but I was intrigued. How did he like being a black cab driver and was he married and where did he live? I fished around my pockets for my passport and airline tickets and the schedule Jody had handed me as I’d left the office. He was talking, to me or maybe it was cabbie stuff on his shortwave radio? He tilted his head to his left shoulder, the way we anchor phones to leave our hands free, a vein the size of a robusto cigar standing up on the right side of his neck.

“And up yours too sunshine,” barking at a cyclist giving us the finger.

“No insurance, no road tax, and no effing road sense.” That vein even bigger now. I’d never taken Colin for a tough guy. Too dapper and cynical for that; all mouth and finely creased trousers without the punch. Clever answers but always on the back foot. Being tough had come later. At school I remember he was more the quietly sarcastic type. Always a cute excuse but never threatening like some. He could knot a tie though. Indeed both he and Overin always wore relaxed full Windsors, forever making minor adjustments in any available mirror or window. 

I’d met then on my first day at my new junior school, as they was known then. There’d been a sort of welcome assembly/roll call in the school hall. A stage at one end a number of teachers sat upon straight back chairs, each holding a sheaf of paper, and to our left floor to ceiling windows overlooking a tall manicured hedge.  I didn’t know anybody and nobody seemed to know what was going on. The pupils, maybe 200 or so I didn’t count were split up into four groups for reasons that were not apparent at the time but which would become clearer later. They began with what was deemed by the head master, a cherubic looking man with a pink face and thinning hair, D Stream working backwards to A into which I was allocated. Nobody actually said the pupils assigned to D were the no-hopers or that those like me in A were the goodie-two-shoes because the four categories could just as easily have been based on some sort of dress code. Except that that wouldn’t have held up to scrutiny because while the pupils in D were unquestionably the scruffiest, few even in the school’s black and white uniform, nobody could dispute that the B Streamers were by far the best turned out. Looking at them I recall experiencing what I came to understand was my first  ever pang of style envy. Needless to say Martin Daniels and Stuart Collier were both assigned to B the coolest collection of 11 going on 12 year olds I’d ever seen while I’d been grouped with what could best be described as the Young Fogies Stream; appropriate school wear worn with a collective awkwardness. My parents would be pleased I was in the A, I having missed out on either of the two local grammar schools that a number of my more studious primary school colleagues were to be enrolled in, although I’d have accepted a demotion to B in a heartbeat. I can remember looking at them, their ties slightly loose and cocked irreverently to one side and haircuts like the dancers on Top Of The Pops. If Daniels had said his night job was in Herman’s Hermits I’d have believed him. 

“So where you headed for?” He’d flicked a switch and his crisp west London accent, midway between Estuary English and Home Counties coming over loud and clear on some sort of PA system. It made me jump but I could hear the advantages. It meant Martin didn’t have to turn and inflate that robusto vein. 

I told him it was work. A string of meetings and some contracts to be signed.

“Expense account piss up then. I’d always fancied a job like that but with one girl after another in the family way I learnt early on to ditch any ambition of a life on Easy Street and to get on and earn some dough.” His eyes filled the rear view mirror. 

His dad had got him work with a plumber looking to train a youngster. He didn’t like it. Then retail, which made a sort of sense and finally with the council on some truck or other. 

“Didn’t like taking orders. Cabbies are their own boss.

“Stuart always said you’d do ok for yourself. Dad was some kind of journalist or something weren’t he?”

Daily Mirror.

All-Right. Big stuff. You still in that game?”

I told him not anymore and he nodded and ummed approvingly when I explained that these days I was in the music business.

“So freebies up to your ears. I picked up some fella in a bomber jacket with some group’s name I’d never heard of on the back. He handed me a bunch of 12 inch singles when he got out. Load of crap. Gave ‘em away. Nice enough fella though. Tip an’ all. 

“You meet any famous people? I’ve had a few in my cab,” turning and laughing again. “Yeah yeah, I know, we all say that.” And turning a bit further and pumping up that robusto, “ I could say I had the Great Mephisto in mine. The Great Tough Mephisto.” 

Our drive continued like this for a while; at a standstill by Selfridges, left at Marble Arch, stopping for someone holding a sign on a stick guiding two lines of children across the road, and down Park Lane amber in the autumn sunshine passing a woman in a fascinator disembarking outside The Dorchester. I asked him why he didn’t have a white taxi too. Something a bit different for a man of style like him. 

Slowing to a standstill to allow traffic flowing in from Hyde Park he swivelled in his seat and with his left hand holding back the flex-i-glass grinned and replied, “it’d be like driving with me bollocks out.” I could see his point.

That first year at junior school my father died suddenly from something nobody new quite what for certain. My sister and I often didn’t see him from one weekend to the next what with him staying late to see the paper ‘to bed’ and all that beer to be drunk after. The first time I knew he was ill was the morning I learnt he had died and it’s times like these you learn how childish children can be. 

“Lost your dad? Don’t you remember where you left him?” Overin wasn’t the only one to find it funny but he just happened to be no bigger than me and alone in the changing room when I got even. 

Did he see much of Overin?

“You mean Stu? Oh you remember him. You really worked him over. For a split second I thought about reminding him that it was only the two punches; one to the chin and another to the gut. He’d slumped back on to a bench moaning some but otherwise fine. I don’t recall him missing any school time. I think some of the others thought I’d done them a favour. 

“He died. Some intestinal complication, internal bleeding that sort if thing. I don’t know the proper medical term but I think he was in pain for years. Had to watch what he ate and drank.” 

He glared bug eyed into the rear view mirror and I wanted to be somewhere else. Thankfully not much further.

The conversation had come to a stop. No more wisecracks or cabbie anecdotes. Just a pair of old acquaintances with an ocean of distrust and resentment between them. Proof, were any needed, that the past should remain in the past. 

Stepping on to the pavement I asked how much? He looked at me and pulled that toothless grin I’d seen countless times at school. The fare. How much?

“I’n not going to charge the Great Mephisto. This one’s one me.”

Come on.

“No. My pleasure. Say it’s for old time’s sake.

Oh, and Stu – he’s fine. You never could take a joke. Have a good flight mate.” And with that he was gone. 

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A Pub On The Road To Nowhere In Particular


My favourite pub isn’t on the way to anywhere in particular. It’s off-the-beaten-track, its isolation playing a key part in why I rate it so highly after just two visits. I clearly recall departing on both occasions with little more than a couple of beers inside me to inflame my good opinion that this is the pub I’ve wanted – down my road – for years. Infact, since the last time I had a favourite pub, a long time ago now. 

This pub, my new undisputed favourite, is so off-the-beaten-track that I’d never have known about it or gone there had not a friend mentioned some years ago that he intended having a landmark birthday there. One of those birthdays when people give zimmer frames and walking sticks.

All my life friends have claimed their pub, curry house, and takeaway is best there is. I even went so far as to have a ‘pizza challenge’ with friends who in blind loyalty claimed their local pizzeria in Muswell Hill was  better than ours in Camden Town. I mean, who in their right mind would think of ordering anything Italian in N10? But I had a hunch the man who introduced me to my new favourite pub, a motorcyclist, with an ear for Dave Rawlins and an eye for a well cut denim jacket, knew what he was talking about. He didn’t disappoint. At the end of a chain of narrow lanes with more passing points than there are roundabouts in the county, on a verdant green with only grey stone cottages and a church for company, the pub wears its skills for beer, pub grub and conversation lightly. 

On our first visit, winter some time ago, we sat in the L shaped bar beneath a timber ceiling festooned with I don’t know perhaps as many as 200 porcelain tankards and just as many beer mats. There were eight ale pumps and the sort of dark wood furniture that nobody wants anymore, unless you own a classic pub and value authenticity. Many of the pubs I used to frequent don’t know if they’re a pub, a wine bar, an airport waiting room, a restaurant or a creche having replaced anything that could be mistaken for being pub like with IKEA spartan. There is a pool room to the rear and a bar maid who likes to banter with the customers and doesn’t need telling when a barrel needs changing. 

The local bitter is golden – almost a lager in colour, but without bubbles, and packed with hops and £3.80 a pint. Others are darker and stronger. Better still among the bar snacks in jars below the spirits optics was pickled eggs. I thought I’d be pushing it to ask if they also had pickled walnuts as well.

Heading toward the door on the way out a group of whom I took to be locals and or regulars asked about Asta, and then where we were from? You’ll be glad to be here then said one and the beer’s cheaper too said another and you’ve got somewhere to park the next, the laughter as intoxicating as the ale. See you soon then they chimed as we stepped through the draught excluder curtain onto a chilly and seductive nowhere in particular and a still you could wear. 

Little had changed when we returned for lunch except except for two signs hanging from a shelf behind the bar, one advertising olives and scotch eggs and the other declaring my new favourite pub to be a ‘Wi-Fi Free Zone’.

“We want people to talk not look at their phones,” said the barmaid. I heard a cheers to that somewhere in the dimness. 

There is a dining room to the right as you enter the pub but with the rain indecisive we agreed to enjoy some of that fecund Cornish autumn air and relish the silence that still shrouds off-the-beaten-track villages. I bit into my pickled egg, took a long slow gulp of beer and left my senses to do the rest. 

Soon we were chatting with a woman of indeterminate age but profound fitness who had been walking since crack of dawn. Seeing Asta she told us of an Airedale Terrier that donated its blood to a poorly dog  that would surely have died without the transfusion. Kim spoke to a man heavily tattooed about a pair of Patterdale Terriers sat at the table with him and a couple two tables along let it be known their admiration for Asta. 

What I hadn’t realised until we got there is that only pre-booked lunchesget the full choice of traditional Sunday roasts: beef, chicken, lamb or pork. Served with roasties, broccoli, carrots Yorkshire pudding and gravy. Some friends turned up unexpectedly and whilst unable to have roasts (just enough bought in to accommodate those who had booked) there was however a selection of homemade fish cakes, fish ’n chips and looking across at a table nearby mackerel ploughman’s that I’ve earmarked for our next visit. I probably shouldn’t have ordered a pud but who could possibly turn down bananas and custard crumble? 

My Favourite Pub, Halfway Along A Winding Lane To Nowhere In Particular.



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