Sunday, December 31, 2006

Take this tip from me

Where do you stand on tipping? I go through this confidence crisis whenever I go from the States, where it’s completely out of hand, to France, where I think it’s fairly orderly and sensible (except I hate paying to use public loos.) The UK is somewhere between the two, so you never know where you are. I think a tip is for a service above the normal call of duty and not for someone doing the job he’s paid for. Why should I pay the wages of restaurant staff, hotel flunkies, taxi-door openers and room cleaners? It seems demeaning for both tipper and tippee - no one ever gave me a tip.
I muse on this after a dinner in a pub in Newbury. Tipping-wise, pub eating presents special problems because they’re not restaurants and they’re not MacDonald’s. You do go up to the bar, you order and pay for your food, you collect your drinks and you take them to the table that you have selected. The only element of ‘service’ is when some youngster on the statutory minimum wage comes out and says, ‘Lamb chops?’ You say ‘Here’, and he or she plonks them down in front of you. It’s nice and casual, and infinitely better than some poncey restaurant. But tipworthy? In my book, only if he or she takes your wet coat and hangs it up, or finds you some freshly-made Sauce Bearnaise or puts your grandchild in a high chair.
But to Newbury: we called into a pub called The Swan on our way home from Tesco’s (that’s a possessive – short for Tesco’s supermarket). The manager, an Aussie, is clearly trying to ponce it up into a ‘restaurant’ – but it’s a pub. Usual procedure: belly up to bar, order and pay for wine and food, carry wine, glasses, condiments, napkins and cutlery to table, wait for food. And wait. Eventually girl delivers a plate of food and we eat. The food is quite good.
As we’re walking to the car, I realise I didn’t leave anything for the ‘waitress’. I ask spouse if she left anything. She says not. I was hesitating, wondering if I should go back and leave some token payment, when the pub door opens, a distinctly Aussie voice shouts – no, screams – ‘Fucking freaks!’, and the door slams shut.
Thus not only did this plonker ensure that we would never go near his pub again, but he prevented his girl from getting a tip – and he got himself blogged. Not bad for two words.

We had the last lunch of the year at Le Carpaccio on Villefranche port, sun glinting off the water - loup grillée fresh from the Med, service unfussy but impeccable – and included. How could you not leave a tip?

Happy old year folks and thanks for reading - and good blogging in 2007.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Robin's nest

From rainy, squally London to sunny Villefranche - 90 minutes. Sadly, it's only for a week as the DG is doing Henry Fonda duty next week. But we'll be back as soon as she's saved a few innocent men from the gallows.

No one would have noticed if their plane had not overshot the runway in Miami, but now it’s out.
Those famous free-loaders, the Blair family, have spurned Sir Cliff Richards’s humble Barbadian pad in favour of the altogether fancier Miami mansion of Robin Gibb, the falsetto BeeGee. They sponge off pop celebs because they can repay the debt at no personal cost. (The cadging couple have been reluctant to reveal the names of guests entertained at Chequers at taxpayers’ expense. When told he must tell, Blair said he would reveal all before the end of the year. Now he says he meant the end of the financial year - April 5 - by which time he'll be on his way out.)
Mrs Gibb – seen with Robin yesterday at Heathrow, presumably on the way to join their distinguished guests - said that the Blairs were not paying for the privilege, but this was hurriedly denied by Number 10. They didn’t say how much - just the odd peerage or knighthood I guess – plus a minor adjustment to the copyright laws.
Now that the secret is out, watch for the photo op with Tony and Robin in duet. (Tone, the hole goes at the front.)
Where to next year? Well, Bono just got an honorary knighthood, and - oh my god - he lives in Villefranche!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

A demain, Villefranche

Not really a year to remember, 2006 – in fact a year best forgotten. Everton didn’t win the FA Cup, or the Premiership, or the Scottish Cup, or Sports Personality of the Year – and they didn’t even qualify for the World Conkers Finals. (they wouldn’t stoop to.)
From a national point of view things were no better: the ignominious departure from the World Cup in Germany was probably the worst part – or is that würst? Then this morning, beaten by the Aussies at their National Sport – Pommie-bashing. I may have mentioned the infamous Oz predilection for triumphalism. Having won the Ashes series, instead of letting our guys go home for New Year, their two best bowlers have postponed their retirement until after the Sydney game – not for the joy of a nail-biting game of international cricket, but in order not to miss one single opportunity to humiliate the Poms. It’s a bit like Mohammed Ali knocking out Foreman, and being allowed, nay, encouraged, to play bouncy castles on his lifeless body. Hence I was not surprised to receive the following gloat from an Oz friend:

FOR SALE: one double-decker, open top red bus, rarely used and no anticipated use for next 15 years, Apply to England Cricket Board, or English Rugby Union.

On the Personal front 2006 could hardly have been worse, but there's a little ray of sunshine to end on. You know how you sometimes don’t know how much you love someone or something until you almost lose it or them? Well, after spending a lot of time – and money – this autumn trying to sell our little piece of heaven in the south, it took only two showings to prospective buyers for us to realise we couldn’t possibly let it go.
So see you tomorrow, Villefranche!

Here's hoping 2007 is a great one for all of us. Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

I can see it in your eyes, Fernando

I once met a guy in the States who told me that he had had a wonderful vacation in London - 'and we never saw fog once'. He had clearly expected those gas-lit scenes captioned 'London, 1888' that used to open Jack-the-Ripper movies, but which have rarely been seen since the Clean Air Act of 1948. But this week they were back - a freak high pressure system has kept the whole country under a Dickensian blanket for four days.
British Airways has cancelled, on average, more than 200 flights a day. (Only the less profitable ones, that is – not the long-haul flights, which seem to land and take off without problems.)
So more than 40 years after they proudly demonstrated completely blind take-off and land capability, almost every domestic flight and many short-haul ones have been cancelled and people who thought they were on their way to the sun for Christmas are shivering in tents outside the airport.
The reason, say BA and BAA, (aka ABBA) is that LHR is already working at over 98% of capacity, so the slightest disruption throws it into chaos. You know what’s coming, don’t you? Yes, you’ve got it – we need a new runway!
The DG suggests that the whole shambles could be about getting approval for Runway Three and crushing those sentimental Luddites who don’t want to see their 1,000-year-old church bulldozed. (See Getting the Pip.)
A number of observations tend to support this hypothesis:
1. The Spanish-owned monopoly is claiming that 50,000 jobs will be lost if they don’t get another runway (- and all those aircraft will go and pollute some other country?)
2. Madrid flights have been only slightly affected – they’re flying 747’s on the Madrid run to help clear clear the backlog.
3. Without any sign of the fog lifting, BA promised yesterday that all flights will be flying normally after mid-day today. How could they know that?
4. BA’s CEO is Willie Walsh. (See October 6 re diminutive first names.)
Strangely, ABBA say that the main reason for the chaos is that reduced visibility causes more congestion for aircraft on the ground. (How does a third runway help this?)

Glad I’m not a cynic.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

If all else fails, read instructions

The new – well, nearly new - car has a SATNAV system. We didn’t know how it worked so the salesman demonstrated by keying in our home post code. Wow! We were directed to our humble without a single mistake – which was impressive but not very useful, since we already know where we live.
Then we were invited for lunch to a house in the wilds of the Hampshire countryside. ‘No need to tell us where you live’, we said smugly. ‘Just give us the postcode. We’ve got SATNAV’.
We followed its directions to the letter, and then, on a muddy country lane barely wide enough for a scooter, with tall hedges on both sides and not a signpost or building in sight, the SATNAV lady said, ‘You have reached your destination. The SATNAV system is closing down’. We had overlooked the fact that rural postcodes tend to cover larger acreages than urban ones. While our own postcode covers 41 houses, theirs seemed to take in the counties of Hampshire, Wiltshire and most of Dorset.
We found them eventually - very late and with the nearly-new machine covered in cow manure – by the traditional method of knocking on doors.
But we sure got home all right.

You've been Warned: the Antipodean triumphalists are in full chorus today. One says 'Ashes' means Another Sad Horrific English Series. Not very good but typical of the general level. Slightly better was: Q. What is the height of optimism? A. An English batsman applying sunscreen. And the fat bowler announced his retirement from test cricket saying that he only stayed on this long to see the English beaten. May he get lost in Hampshire next summer.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Getting the pip

A little background for those wanting to know the history of the Ashes.
Sorry you asked?

I never cease to be amazed at the lack of PR sense of our Royals (especially the one who runs a PR company). Then there’s Princess Anne, who treats the media with disdain until she wants her daughter to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.
I have a bit of a problem with the Queen’s granddaughter winning this award. OK, I'll accept ‘BBC’ and even ‘of the Year’, but whether 3-day eventing is a ‘Sport’, or Zara Philips a ‘Personality’, I’m not so sure. Certainly not if her acceptance speech is anything to go by. Quote: ‘People asked if I’d prepared a speech. I was – like – no. […] This is amazing – it’s amazing to be here among these amazing sports people.’
After all, it wasn’t as though she had been unlikely to win it: they couldn’t have given it to a footballer after our pathetic showing in the World Cup; or the international rugby team, which has lost 8 of its last 9 games, or a cricketer after – you get the point. But don't you think, for someone who presumably had the benefit of an expensive private education and access to a whole stable of speech-writers, that the ability to pack three ‘amazings’ into a 30-word oration, is, well - amazing?

About four miles from here is a village with the unfortunate name of Poyle, which in the Berkshire accent is a homophone of the popular name for haemorrhoids but a lot easier to spell. In Poyle there’s an orchard dedicated to Richard Cox. He was a retired brewer, and a dabbler - someone who grows apple trees from pips - and he had the distinction of discovering the wonderful Cox’s Orange Pippin.
Richard lived in Poyle, and it was in his own garden that the first Cox's was grown around 1825. As a tribute, the seats in the orchard are placed to spell out his name – this is the ‘O’. (Good job he wasn’t called Fearnley-Whittingstall or there’d be no room left for the apple trees.)

Why am I blogging Richard Cox? Well, Richard was buried in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin, in the nearby village of Harmondsworth. This church was built in 1067, the year after the Norman conquest, which means that in 61 years' time it will be 1000 years old.
Except that it won’t if the British Airports Authority gets its way – and it usually does. St. Mary’s and the whole village are scheduled to be bulldozed to make way for yet another runway for Heathrow airport. But surely, you say, BAA would not dig up poor Richard and flatten St. Mary's and 700 homes, just to create yet more noise and pollution? Don’t they care anything for our heritage? Well no actually, because BAA, despite its name, is Spanish. It is the wholly owned subsidiary of Grupo Ferrovial, who, I am sure, don’t give a Cox's Orange Pippin for thousand-year-old churches, pollution or greenhouse gasses.
There's an on-line petition against the whole Heathrow expansion project. I don't suppose it will do any good - but you never know until you try.

O what a tangled web we weave

when first we practise to deceive. Did you ever tell a very minor lie that haunts you for years? I used to go to this dentist in Gerrard’s Cross. Charming man and very good dentist – if a bit vague. He once said to me, ‘You know Mrs Graham?’, and I, feeling that I should, said ‘yes’. What harm could there be in that? He said something bland about her and that was that – or so I thought.
It was a long course of treatment, and every time I went to the dentist he would talk about Mrs Graham – she was ‘old Mrs Graham' by then. Should I have said ‘I’ve no idea who you’re talking about’ – and been branded a serial liar? I used to have to psych myself up before each visit – not to withstand the pain, but not to laugh when he got on to Mrs Graham.
It lingered on from ‘Mrs G’s very sick, I have to do home visits now’ to the inevitable ‘Mrs Graham died last Sunday’ – and never once could I comment, or admit I had lied.
But I did learn a lesson – never lie to your dentist.

Remember the saga of the eye appointment? For those who missed the previous instalments: read Monday 11, when Ted was told that because King Edward VII Hospital is on the ‘Choose and Book' system, he could not book with King Edward directly – he must use ‘Choose and Book’. ‘But the system is not operational yet so ring later in the week.’
I ring Friday. ‘We don’t book that hospital, they maintain their own booking system. You must book directly with them’.
Me: ‘But you told me on Monday that I could not book directly with them’.
Ros, the Choose-and-Book booker: ‘Your doctor should have told you.’
Me: ‘But why did you tell me the opposite?’
Ros: ‘Your GP should have told you’.
Me: Then wouldn't it be a good idea if someone told the GPs?
This, I would remind you, is not the eye surgery – this is just to get an appointment to talk about it.
Now, I have great news. I just rang the hospital and got the earliest available appointment: March 12 (but don’t bank on it).

We lost the Ashes. We didn’t just lose them, we handed them to the Aussies as a present. The triumphant e-mails will begin at any second. They’re into triumphalism, the Aussies – especially over the Poms. The Kiwis will be the same if they ever win a cricket match. It seems we planted a sport and reaped national pride.
I remember when an Ossie folk group won a top UK music award: a belligerent Oz accosted me in a north London pub and said ‘See, we even beat you in your own song awards.’ ‘That’s right’, I said, ‘Is that why they call it “We live in a World of our Own”'?
But fair dos – we were pretty bad and they were very good – and, as with the football, we made some basic mistakes. It just wasn’t professional to send the team home on holiday when they should have gone to Aussie for some practice on Oz wickets; then we left out our best spinner because the third best might make more runs – which he didn’t. And above all, we should know better, living in a climate which has rain every ten minutes, than to play against a country where it rains every ten years.
And let’s face it, no one in the world can play against Shane Warne at his best - or even at his worst. Like they say – it’s not over until the fat bowler spins.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Ronnie Scott’s: Jazz Mecca

In the days when my job took me just about everywhere, I applied myself diligently to the study of -- jazz clubs. From LA to Latvia, I spent my nights listening to jazz and my days appearing at work late and bleary-eyed. I collected them the way some people collect stamps. I was a jazz philatelist: Blues Alley in Washington DC, Birdland in NYC, Fat Tuesday’s in New Orleans, Bel-luna in Barcelona, Le Petit Journal in Paris, Jazzland in Vienna… And the best of them all, for the 40 years since I first became a member; and the place where my ashes will be scattered (preferably when there’s no-one in it) is – I hope this doesn’t sound too nationalistic - Ronnie Scott’s.

Ronnie Scott was a jazz musician – a tenor sax player raised as Ronald Schatt in the East End of London. For the decade or so after the end of WWII, when all sorts of exciting things were happening in jazz in the US, a dispute between the American and British musicians’ unions prevented American musicians from playing in the UK, so we Brits had to listen to Billy Cotton or AFN Munich-Stuttgart while the Messiahs of modern jazz changed planes at Heathrow on their way to Paris. So that he could hear what was going on in New York, Ronnie got a job playing dance music on the Atlantic liners so that he could hang out in Manhattan listening to the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.

In 1959 he came ashore and, together with fellow tenor saxophonist Pete King, he opened his own Jazz Club, Ronnie Scott’s, in London's Soho. In between leading his own band – the Jazz Couriers, touring and sessioning with big bands - he presented the artists at the club and during sound checks entertained with an inimitable brand of cynical humour: ‘…try the food here – fifty million flies can’t be wrong’.*
(Many jazzmen become funny writers: the likes of George Melly, Wally Fawkes, Humphrey Lyttelton and Benny Green – who lamented the decline of live music caused by electronic sound with the words ‘Now is the winter of our discoteque’.)
At first his intention was to provide a place where British jazz musicians could jam, but when the American Federation of Musicians lifted the ban on American musicians performing in the U.K., Pete and Ronnie started to present not only the best of British jazz musicians, but the cream of modern US and continental jazz.
They ran the club brilliantly for forty years until, ten years ago this month, Ronnie died. About the worst thing that can happen to saxophone players are teeth problems, and when Ronnie had to have tooth implant surgery, the pain, depression and inability to work led him to indulge in a cocktail of brandy and sleeping tablets. In his distress, he ‘phoned a girlfriend in New York and left a message on her answering machine which, had she received it, might have saved his life – but she was out of town and didn’t hear it until after he was dead. The verdict of the inquest was ‘death by misadventure’.
Ronnie Scott introduced a lot of people to jazz, and many others – including me - to mind-blowing musical experiences too numerous to list here.
One of his favourite lines now has special poignancy: ‘You’re very quiet tonight. Shall we all join hands and see if we can contact the living?’
Belated thanks Ronnie.

* Another of Ronnie's was that of a dyslexic Japanese who, every December 7, attacked Pearl Bailey.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Ghost town

What’s Gaelic for ‘politically correct’? During the sixties a few Irish and Welsh language activists began climbing signposts at dead of night and blackening out English – or English-sounding – place names. It was no problem if you wanted to get to Llangollen, but a blacked-out Radnor or Walton would be replaced by a jumble of consonants that you couldn’t read, let alone pronounce. In Wrexham (North Wales), one of these activists was caught and sent up for trial by the local magistrates court. He proclaimed loudly that he insisted on being tried in the Welsh language. One of the magistrates later told me that they immediately agreed to try him in Welsh, but after a few minutes the defendant had to admit that he could not understand a word of what was going on and asked to be tried in English. In Wales the fad has more or less died out, and today the signage is still in both languages.
In Ireland also, many of the activists were just that – they did not speak the Gaelic - but then the politicians got hold of it. In 1970 the Minister for the Environment ordered the removal of all English-language signposts. He was promptly ignored by the Local Authorities and the old black and white bilingual signs remained. So in March 2005, Minister O’ Cuiv (Cullen in English, I’m told) brought in the ‘Place Names Order’, forbidding the use of the English version of a place name.

All at once, the lovely seaside town on the Kerry coast formerly known as Dingle disappeared from sight. Today it is signposted solely as An Daingean. The townspeople are about to hold a vote on the matter, and the democratic majority are expected to plump for ‘Dingle’ – but the minister has said that the outcome of the vote is irrelevant - An Daingean it will be.
By far the most important industry of Dingle - I think I just broke the law – is tourism. So if you’re looking to spend your pounds, dollars or euros there, I’m afraid it has - like Brigadoon – disappeared in the mist. I hope someone finds it again.

Pain is relative to how closely it touches you. I’m sure there are philosophical papers on this, but I’ve only just thought about it. There could even be a formula for its seriousness. I’m not a mathematician, but it might look something like s=p/d2, where s is the seriousness, p is the pain level, and d is one’s distance from the location of the pain inflicted. Thus the further you are away from the location of the pain, the less serious it is. It’s human nature: if distance were not a factor we would barely be able to live with ourselves. The formula would explain why someone being tortured in Guantanamo, or losing a child to an agonising disease, can be as nothing compared with our own split finger-nail. It can explain the illegal invasion of Iraq, how we can bear to watch children dying of AIDS in Zimbabwe, and also why footballers kick the ball out so that the opponent they have just maimed for life can receive medical attention.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Catch 08456088888

Another gem from our National Health Service (well at least it’s National – two out of three ain’t bad). A week ago my GP referred me to an eye specialist. ‘It’s all computerised now,’ he says. ‘It’s called the “Choose and Book” system. Here is your reference number and password. You can now book the appointment on the internet.’ I try to do so, but after I’ve keyed in the reference and password, it says I can’t book an appointment on the internet – I must phone the above number.
I call the number. After the usual ID and security questions, a lady says, ‘Have you tried to book on the internet?’ I say I have. ‘Ah, she says, ‘then I can’t book you in within the next 30 minutes. Ring back later.’
I call back today. ‘The “Choose and Book” system isn’t working yet,’ she says. ‘Try later in the week.’
I say, ‘But can’t I call the hospital, the way I did for the other eye?’ ‘Oh no,’ she says, ‘they’re on the “Choose and Book” system now’.

I have been known to complain about unimaginative headline writers, but I have to admit that the best title often comes long after the story. I once did a piece about a walk across Paris from west to east that started on the Pont du Bir Hakeim. I titled the article 'Paris á Pied', (a bit pedestrian, you say?), which the magazine accepted. It wasn’t until years later that I saw the movie that opens with Marlon Brando meeting the girl on that same Bir Hakeim bridge, and realised that I should have called it ‘The Last Mango in Paris’.
I seem to think either of headlines that I’ve no story for, or stories I can’t headline, which is why I liked the one in The Sun (it’s origin is also claimed by the Glasgow Herald), when Aberdeen’s lowly Caledonian Thistle football team beat the mighty Glasgow Celtic – Scottish League leaders by miles: ‘Super Cally go Ballistic, Celtic are Atrocious’. Or what about the recent George Lang piece in the NYT about a visit to Hungary: ‘Nobody knows the Truffles I’ve seen’? Gotta go now – got to do a story about pear schnapps addiction to go with the title: ‘Intravenous Williams’.

When we were in Santiago not long after Pinochet had been extradited to Chile, I asked a number of people if they thought he should or would face trial. They all said there was no point – best that he be forgotten and die in peace. It sounded a surprisingly forgiving attitude at the time, or maybe they wanted to avoid creating a martyr. Either way it seems they were right. He will not get the state funeral that he and his supporters wanted - and it’s not his, but Salvador Allende’s statue that stands outside the presidential palace in which, on Chile’s own ‘9/11’, he was killed.
(The CIA admits it knew about the coup in advance, but ‘played no direct role’ in the execution - neither do they claim to have made any attempt to stop it. Like in the airline schedules that call a flight ‘direct’ even if it makes three stops, ‘direct’ is a subjective word.)

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Never mind the quality, check the volume

It's an ill wind... Windsor’s nice, but the weather’s bad and getting worse. Can you believe a tornado, not in the Gulf of Mexico but in London? At least in the Caribbean you’ve got sunshine between the tornados or tornadoes. (It’s bright and sunny today, Sunday, which is a lesson: in England you have to post quickly before the weather changes.) But still, we have enough memories of NYC to keep us going until our next trip. Some great food: we tend to make for Little Italy – no point in considering French – where the most memorable meal was at Lunella on Mulberry Street, real Italian, with no attempt to substitute quantity for quality – and the worst, at a Korean place called Won Jo on W.32nd that Time Out describes as ‘first-class’, but where the reverse was the case. Quantity - overwhelming!
Also enjoyed the Metropolitan, (their sandwiches are as bad as the National's - you have to suffer for art) where we managed to see the ‘Americans in Paris’ event that we'd missed in London, plus what seemed like about 1% of the permanent collection. What’s striking is the number of benefactors – both private and corporate – who’ve donated or bequeathed works. Unlike our own system of government ‘support’ where funds are allocated by a group of philistine politicians - who have just told the arts organisations to plan for ongoing budget reductions of 7% a year. Why? To help pay for the Olympic Games in 2012, of course.
One more whine then I have to go. Last May I took issue with a well-known UK journalist who said that US television news reporting was infinitely better than that in UK, but I retracted when he claimed better and more up-to-date knowledge than mine. Sorry Bryan, I’m still a big fan, but I would now like to retract the retraction. After six days of watching stale news, (the week-old Litvinenko story was just beginning to attract posthumous attention because someone had thought of a terrorist angle) with its ‘London, England’ parochialism, presented by pretty but puerile celebrity anchors, 'news for grown-ups' on the Beeb was a welcome relief.
One of the things I like to do in the USA is to browse the magazine racks: for fun - DownBeat, Jazz Times etc - and as possible markets. There's one called ‘The Writer’, which calls itself ‘The essential resource for writers since 1887’. Its January 2007 issue (in November?) carries on its cover in 3cm-high capitals the words ’99 WORDS OR LESS’. Doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

‘We’ll have Manhattan…

…the Bronx and Staten Island too’. A few hours in NYC and you get song fatigue: almost every street and building strikes a chord. All the great songsters lived there: ‘Every street’s a boulevard in old New York’; ‘…you'll love the people you meet/ on Mulberry Street’; ‘…on the avenue I’m taking you to, Forty-second Street’; ‘…what street/ compares with Mott Street?’. The Waldorf, where Cole Porter’s Steinway stands in the lobby as if waiting, the Algonquin, where ‘April in Paris’ was written – and so on.

Calling Big Apple Greeters sounds a pretty naff thing to do, especially if you claim to know the town, but what better way for people to get to know a neighbourhood – sorry, neighborhood (why do they remove the ‘u’ for simplicity but leave the ‘neigh’?) – than to have natives introduce visitors to their own nayborhoods? It’s a simple but great idea.

Eileen is the ultimate New Yorker - a local of Greenwich Village, and an enthusiast.
It was cold – but not cold enough to deter the Washington Square chessnuts.

We could have seen The Producers 25 miles from here, in London, but somehow NYC seemed more appropriate. Terrific production: great songs, (Brooks once said his poetic inspiration was W. S. Gilbert , of Gilbert and Sullivan, and it shows) and script, played – or overplayed – to perfection. Even the old lines – the camp Carmen Ghia doing the ‘Walk this Way’ joke – get laughs.

We’ll be back when it warms up a bit, ‘though we wouldn’t like to have missed all the Christmas stuff – even pushed my way through the mob to snap Macy’s windows:

Tesco latest: I didn’t have time to send that indignant letter to Mr T. before we left – which is just as well. Two messages on the answerphone: one asking if I would re-enter the order and one saying please ignore the previous call. But then a man called Stuart rang from Dundee. I didn’t even mind being dragged from jet-lagged torpor because he apologised for the problems and said that if I cared to re-enter the order, they would deduct 25% from the cost, plus a further goodwill deduction. (I know I should have pointed out that the Gigondas that was £34 a case when I ordered it is now £54, but I was overcome with gratitude.) How did he know? Did he read my bog?
Who knows - anyway, the booze will be delivered after all and if you come by you’re sure to find a wee drop of bubbly (cooking, of course). And stuff Calais.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

What, no huddled masses?

What's happened to the US Immigration service? Why is everyone so polite? Instead of spending three hours herded into an oversize chicken coop at 100 degrees and being yelled at by enormous security guards ('Get behind the yellow line!') with disciplinary hardware strewn about their ample waists, we are greeted by smartly-dressed cheer-leaders who use words like 'please' and 'you're welcome'.

Peter Ustinov once said that there used to be a question on the landing card asking foreign arrivals, 'Do you intend to participate in abnormal sexual practices?' His reply, he said, was, 'Sole purpose of visit'

Today's questions reflect the general permissiveness of society and ask less intrusive questions. One is: 'Have you ever been or are you now involved in espionage or sabotage; or in terrorist activities; or genocide; or between 1933 and 1945 were involved, in any way, in persecutions associated with Nazi Germany or its allies?'

Tough one.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Don't talk to me about Tesco today

I was mentally writing a blog in praise of Tesco - the gist of which was to recall how we used to flock to France to enjoy the wonderful supermarkets, but how they have been completely overtaken by the likes of Sainsburys and Tesco, whose stores are cleaner, quieter and more efficient, and whose staff are infinitely more polite and helpful than Carrefour and Champion.
That was until this morning, when Tesco were supposed to deliver our Christmas wine order between 9 and 11. Around 11.10, as there was no sign of them, we had to go out, and when I got home I rang for another delivery date. John in the warehouse said they had tried to deliver at 11.15 and my order had now been off-loaded and I would now have to place another order.
A long harangue about systems that are designed for warehouses and not customers, and how the fault surely lay with Tesco and not me, left John adamant - except that he would give me a £5 discount on the re-order (less than 2% of its cost). Anyone who has had to place a long wine order with Tesco will know how insulting that offer is.
So, I'm sorry if there won't be any Champagne for you this year. And sorry Mr. T., I won't be writing my eulogy just yet.
Which way is Calais?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Those who love me can take the train

No, not Richard Branson's new ad – it’s the English title of a French film. It’s about an artist, Jean-Baptiste, living in Paris, who is dying from AIDS and asks to be buried in provincial Limoges, near his old family home. His friends sre apalled. Why does he want to be buried (literally) way out in the sticks, a four-hour train ride away, when all his friends live in Paris? His response is ‘Ceux qui m'aiment prendront le train’ – those who love me will take the train.

The film is the story of the journey of Jean-Baptiste's friends, ex-lovers and relatives, mostly strangers to each other, and the process of their getting to know each other. You start to think that the wily Jean-Baptiste must have known exactly what he was doing – as if the journey was some kind of test to see who really did care for him - in bringing them all together, knowing that they would get along, and possibly share each others' grief.
In today’s fragmented world, it might be a good principle for any significant event - wedding, bar mitzvah or anniversary – as a way of filtering out those who only come for the beer, and of bringing closer together the ones who care, and whom you love.
But you must ensure that the event be held in a distant location – and that it has a railway line.

'Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.' The young Dylan Thomas tried desperately to get his father to be angry about dying. But why should he if he doesn’t feel it? Men do not anger easily.
It’s a well-known fact that women, more than men, have a tendency to rage - to lose their tempers when inanimate objects fail to do what is expected of them. Let a suitcase not fasten, a door fail to close or a pair of glasses hide from immediate view, and it will be anthropomorphized into a villain - no matter that the suitcase was still locked from its previous use, that the door could not close because a rug was left lying in front of it, or that the glasses were left in another room.
A man, on the other hand, on striking his thumb with hammer or locking himself out of the house, would simply say, ‘Now wasn't that careless of me’.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

In a New York state of mind

This time next week we’ll be there – arguing with security guards, cursing rude cab drivers, browsing in Border’s, shopping in Gap, reading the Times, dodging puddles, looking at Picassos and Cézannes, paying astronomical prices for wines, seeing G. Bush on TV, ah-ing at the giant Christmas tree…
Just like home then.

Doing a lot more walking these days – which is good for me. But to get to more distant places like the barber’s, library, post office, I have to borrow DG’s car. After all, I can’t go wearing out mine.

Poll fault

Great game of footy Tuesday night. Celtic won and went forward to the knockout stage of the Champions League. (The club Championship of Europe.) Some may find it out of character for me to be lauding the victory of a Scottish club over an English one, but you will understand if I tell you that the English club was Manchester United. And although both teams’ managers, one of whom is a Knight, are Scots, it’s the non-Sir, Celtic manager Gordon Strachan, who does not spit his chewing gum out onto the pitch.
The only sour note to the match is my usual gripe: refereeing. There were two crucial decisions in this match, and he got both wrong.
Why, oh why - I’ve just been to the barber’s and am still talking in Daily Mirror-speak - why, oh why, as the game gets faster and more skilful, (not, sadly, thanks to the British-born players, who are hardworking but, Rooney apart, generally pretty unenterprising), do the refs get slower and more indecisive? Worse, why do the more arrogantly stupid ones get picked for the more important games? It seems that the more red and yellow cards you give out, the more impressive your CV, whereas the measure of competence should surely be exactly the opposite: the fans pay to watch football, not referees being rewarded according to the number of times they hold up the game.
The busiest ref. in the Premiership, Graham Poll, has refereed more games than any other this season, and has given out 54 cards, or 4.64 cards per game. The Premiership cards-per-game average is 3.3.
And one last statistic: Poll has issued twice as many bookings to away teams as to home teams. Who's making the decisions?

But the real battle is being fought out at the Woolloongabba Cricket Ground in Brisbane, Oz. The attention of the English-speaking world, with the exception of a few minor colonies, is focussed, not on Baghdad, but on 22 guys in white. In case you’ve been in one of said colonies or on Mars, the Ashes have started. It starts at midnight and ends at 7.30 am UK time – hence my bleary-eyed appearance. I’d like to explain cricket simply, but the only way to understand it is to see it. And if you know baseball it’s even harder.
Unfortunately the ’Gabba is a bit of a graveyard for English cricketers – the Aussies call it the 'gabbatoir' - and things are, as usual, not going well. I was there 48 years ago almost to the day – I was very young at the time – with equally disastrous results: Oz won by 8 wickets with a day and a half to spare. We can only hope for a monumental tropical storm.
Former colonials may be intrigued to learn that England’s opening batsman - if we ever get the Aussies out - will be Alastair Cook. You’re never too old.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Where and who am I?

I guess I should change my handle. It’s a misnomer now. How can you justify calling yourself Riviera Writer when you’re in Windsor? I could call myself ‘WW’ – but people might think it’s just a speech impediment. And I’m not even sure about that second ‘W’ these days. Perhaps a single ‘W’ would be OK: Fleming-ish intrigue is hot right now.

I’m still enjoying my Philip Roth – but then I’m a slow reader. (Bought a book on Fast Reading ten years ago – still haven’t finished it.) Like Joyce, his throw-aways are better than most people’s darlings: eg. ‘…good name for a crow, Status’. But, unlike Joyce, he telegraphs them in advance – dullards like me need that sort of help - which is why I still can’t take large doses of Joyce.

I can’t get on with all this miniaturisation: headphones that either fall out of your ears when you run, or, if you push them too far in, disappear into your Eustachian tubes, (give me those big chunky ones that make you look like WWI pilots); and mobiles whose keys are so small you can never hit fewer than three at the same time. It’s partly eyesight – can’t tell you the number of times in hotel showers that I’ve tried to lather up with body lotion - but not completely - I’ve got this radio on which you can only change stations if you’ve just cut your fingernails. Which fortunately is not a problem since by then my auditory cavities are full of headphone anyway.
Three paras beginning with ‘I’ – it must be time to stop.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Merry Cliché

It’s started. Like the Christmas shop windows that are dressed up earlier every year, the clichés have begun: ‘It doesn’t really feel like Christmas, does it?’ (Gutless as always, I say ‘No’ – but I never know what it is I’ve agreed to.)
And soon. the news stories: ‘Dreaming of a Tight Christmas?: High street feeling the Pinch’. Cue shots of Woolworth’s and Selfridges’s shopfronts and shopkeeper interviews: ‘So far things are looking much better for us than last year’.
Harrods is, as usual, doing well. Their Christmas ‘Diamond’ crackers (presumably containing a diamond) are a snip this year at £799; they’re also doing ‘Russian’ crackers at £999. Do you get a Russian inside each one – or just another cracker?

A recent Rod Liddle piece in the Sunday Times commented on the fact that in its latest attempt to nail the British National Party – our Fascist political party which is almost as far right as GWB and perhaps even TB – the law brought two of its members to justice charged with making racist remarks. The utterances were to the effect that large numbers of British-born Muslem extremists constituted a danger to the British public. After a long and expensive trial, they were acquitted.
Coincidental support came from two influential but unexpected quarters: first, British-born Muslems blew up three packed London Underground trains and a bus, and secondly, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, Head of MI5, reported that large numbers of British-born Muslem extremists constituted a danger to the British public. ‘Will Dame Eliza feel the heavy hand of the Law on her shoulder?’ asked Liddle. Somehow one doubts it.
And does this mean that I am making racist utterances? I don’t think so, but if I am, what about Nottingham City Council? They uttered that they were banning black cabs from bus lanes.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Power does funny things to people

When you’re in a foreign country - and short-sighted - you tend to offer banknotes because you can’t be bothered counting small change. This means that you accumulate a lot of change. I was leaving Nice yesterday with a serious list to the right, rattling a Las Vegas slot.
Coming through what’s laughingly known as security at Nice airport I had so much cash that I had to put it into a little plastic basket. The DG sails through; I stand by the X-ray machine waiting for my cash to emerge – which it doesn’t. When I complain to the ‘security’ guard, she pulls aside a curtain, revealing the missing basket. She casually leans over and flicks the tray with the antenna of her mobile phone - causing it to tip its contents into the machine. Unwilling to leave my cash for this lout, I scratch around (unaided) trying to recover my coins.
When I get to Phase 2 – The Search – the DG is waiting (I had the tickets) and asking what I’ve been doing. ‘That stupid woman', I say, 'tipped my money all over the floor’. The Search officer hears me complaining, recognises the word ‘stupid’ (French: stupide) and – as petty officials do - decides to show solidarity and give me the works. He searches my flight bag as slowly as he can - taking things apart to try to make me lose my temper, or my flight. He finally pounces on a tiny, almost empty tube of ointment no bigger than my little finger. ‘I am confiscating this’, he says. ‘It’s not explosive’, I say, squeezing out the last drop of cream and spreading on my nose. ‘See’ I say, ‘my nose did not explode’. ‘I am confiscating this’, he says again. ‘Oh no you are not’, say I, ‘I am presenting it to you as a câdeau de Noël’, and I hand him the empty tube.
We caught our flight – but only just.
There is no officialdom more petty than French officialdom, because they can’t be disciplined or fired, or the unions will close the airport in a flash. I’ll tell you sometime about the airport Post Office that closes for a long lunch break.

A little pad on the Riviera, some might think, is all cakes and ale or gâteaux et vin. But there are associated problems that many people don’t appreciate. Socks, for instance. A single-homed person finding an odd sock in a drawer will eventually get tired of looking for its twin and throw it out. But the dual-residenced person, especially the mean ones, will say ‘ the mate of this sock must be in residence B’. So they take it with them on their next trip.
But not only do you not find the missing sock there – you discover another single sock - or even two – and assume that their partners are in residence A. So you carry them there - together with the first sock because you think its other half must be in A after all.
Eventually you finish up with this sad bunch of much-travelled but lonely socks – peripatetic hosiery on an endless quest for a partner. You have to feel especially sorry for the likes of Roger Moore or Elton, who, with homes in four or five countries, must spend their whole lives re-uniting socks.
But the DG, who can be pretty ruthless at times, has now come up with an effective if Draconian solution. She has made me swallow the pill and bite the bullet (not easy to do simultaneously) and step up to the plate. We have a new edict: socks still single after ONE trip are to be put down.
It’s a cruel world.

Friday, November 17, 2006

We're all Royalists now

Ségolène Royal has walked away with the Socialist party (PS) members’ selection as its candidate for next year’s presidential elections with over 60% of the vote. She left her next two competitors trailing and her live-in partner – the PS party leader, François Hollande, by whom she has four Royal offspring – out of the race.
The Royal name may sound familiar. In 1985, when France decided to test its nuclear bombs in the south Pacific, the other islands in the region were extremely concerned, and Greenpeace sent a ship, the Rainbow Warrior, to New Zealand with the intention of sailing into the area to try to discourage the tests. The French president, François Mitterand, would not be thwarted: he sent the brother of one of his closest aides to discourage the Greenpeace protesters.
This they did pretty effectively, blowing up the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour killing a photographer. According to Antoine Royal, his brother Gérard planted the bomb. Mitterand’s trusty aide was their sister Ségolène, who said recently that she couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
As the Independent pointed out recently, ‘Mme Royal's meteoric rise in French presidential politics has been based partly on willingness to talk plainly on "family" issues’. But not the Royal family, it seems.

A popular quotation in our house is from Lord Melbourne, who said of a 19th century British historian, ‘I wish I was as cocksure of anything as Thomas Macaulay is of everything’.
I’ve been musing on this since learning that not one, but two of my most respected friends have described me as ‘inscrutable’.
I’ve always thought myself highly scrutable. Blogito ergo sum. Anyone who blogs lays out his prejudices for all who are interested to see. Like Lord Melbourne, I worry about the number of subjects on which I don’t have any strong opinion, but in general I’ve tended to agree with the person who said it was better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and prove it.
If scrutability means revealing my Thoughts on Life, they are going to be disappointed: these boil down to a few fairly conventional ‘pros’ – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - and even fewer ‘cons’, such as cucumber. More Pandora’s box than Aladdin’s cave.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Nervy (adj.) having or needing bravery or endurance

I‘d never heard of Nervi until a few days ago, but we just spent a couple of most enjoyable days there. It’s a coastal suburb east of Genoa on the Italian Riviera. The drive there is knuckle-whitening – there’s hardly any part of the 200 kilometre autostrada that isn’t a viaduct or a tunnel, there are no straight bits and the inside lane - and sometimes the outside – is bumper-to-bumper with trucks. Our little rented Clio only came up to their hubcaps. But it’s worth every gear-changing, nerve-wracking mile.
One of the myths they teach you in elementary school is that there is no tide in the Mediterranean because it’s an inland sea. (Try telling that to the people of Venice.) You’re reminded of this at Nervi: its whole coastline is a cauldron of waves, glooping into caves and crashing against rocks that are weirdly shaped granite, striped in black, white and the colours in between. There being no beach, the town has made the rocks a feature and built a superb promenade above them, where you can walk, run, eat, drink, or just watch the waves.
It’s probably un-European to say this, and I may get a call from the mob, but I find indigenous Italian cuisine reliable if somewhat short on variety, but in Nervi we had probably the best Italian food outside Soho or Little Italy.
A couple of other nice features: some excellent art musaums and - I don’t know if they’re nationwide or not but it's the first time I've seen them in Italy - a plethora of Vietato Fumare signs. Not just lifts, but shops, bars and even whole hotels are smoke-free zones. And there’s not a trace of Christmas: no trees, no mock snows, no Ho-ho-hos.
We’re going back to Nervi.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

L'Après-midi d'une phone

There’s a huge cyprus just outside here – its shadow is visible in the Oct 29 post – and it’s full of hyperactive starlings. I can’t do a picture of them because they never stay still long enough. Especially when the sun starts to set, when they come out for the evening fly-past and go into feeding frenzy on the bugs that by that time are feeling sluggish after a the long day.
There are human starlings: they attack around dusk, because they think the pickings will be easier. Their market research has shown that, about that time, you should have just got home from work and will be at your most lethargic and least sales-resistant.
We’re talking telemarketeers. You may think they are a nuisance, but to people who work from home (eg. me), they are the plague. I must say that I sympathise with the people who have to do this thankless and degrading job – if they have any human feelings at all they must hate having to disturb someone who wants only to kick off his shoes, have a Scotch and relax. But if you work from home, dusk is about the time the inspirational juices are starting to flow and you’re getting into 4th gear.
These days most of the call centres are on the Indian sub-continent (it’s cheaper than paying less industrious Brits) so the voices sound like bad impersonations of Peter Sellers in The Millionairess. Nothing wrong with that if you’re offering cheaper mobile phone calls or low-entry equity funds, but not if some degree of local knowledge is required, as in, say, telephone directory enquiries. ‘I’m looking for a saddler’s shop in Blackburn’; ‘Is that the Saddler's Inn in Blackpool?’ ‘No’. ‘I’ve got Sadler’s Wells Ballet Company in London’. ‘Never mind’. (Here’s a surprise – calls to directory enquiry services have fallen dramatically since they were de-monopolised. I wonder why?)
My pet hate about TMs (apart from the ones who gratuitously use my first name – see Gnomework) are the people who ring and say, ‘Hello, I’m Daniel’ - or ‘Hi, my name is Sonia’. You feel like saying, ‘No it’s not. You don’t need to Anglify your name - there’s nothing wrong with ‘Gupal’, or ‘Nazalee’. But why should I buy a financial product from someone who lies in their first sentence?’
Although it’s annoying when they stop you in verbal mid-flight, so far I’ve been polite – ‘thank you for calling’ I say, ‘but I never buy anything on the phone’. But the worm is about to turn.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Journalistic clichés 1

I’m moved by a heading on the cover of the current Monaco Times – ‘All that Jazz’, (about the Monaco Jazz Festival) - to protest about headlines. You might think that the fact that no one other than the headline writer has the authority to write them would be evidence of their special skills in that area.
But if this is so, why do they turn in such crappy headlines?
I once did a piece on the summer jazz festivals of the Riviera for another paper, and begged the editor not to use ‘All that Jazz’ – even providing her with some equally pithy, (and, I thought, more eye-grabbing) alternatives. She said she’d ‘do her best’. But no, it came out labelled with the old ‘ATJ’.
You can’t do a piece on a ski resort without seeing it topped ‘Skiers slope off to X’, or a story on a rural ramble without finding the words ‘Wild Side’ in the title.
Worst of all are the Financial columns: ‘Taxing times for the Self-employed’; ‘Barclays banks on Mortgage Business’; ‘Visa: is a rate increase on the cards?’ – and so on. And puns on companies’ products are compulsory. Take your pick: this from this week’s Sunday Times - ‘Cadbury’s future looking sweeter’. Airlines’ revenues, of course, always ‘hit turbulence’. As they used to say in the funnies, Aaaugh!
All this is not to say that I disapprove of punning headlines – I couldn’t, could I? But at least I don’t use some plagiarised worn-out, hackneyed, tired old clichés. Not at all - they are my own worn-out, hackneyed, tired old clichés.

Friday, November 10, 2006

What's in a hyphen?

Further to yesterday’s fearless rant on names, where do you stand on hyphens? I’m moved to ask because there’s a very serious report out today by the head of MI5, on the subject of what George Dubya calls ‘terrism’ – he doesn’t like more than two syllables in one word, unless it's ‘noocular'. But the report's gyst - basically that there are over 200 terrorist cells working in the UK (hey, wait a minute, no one told me about an election coming up!) - is completely upstaged by the name of its author, whose handle might have come straight out of P. G. Wodehouse: Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller.
In the library of a Welsh village, when I tried to book Internet time, I gave my name and the librarian said, ‘We have rather a lot of them in Wales – do you have another name?’ My point is that if it helps distinguish one Williams from another, I see nothing wrong with the odd ‘Rhys-hyphen-X‘. In Wales, they normally add the incumbent's trade at the end – like ‘Jones the meat’ or ‘Manningham-Buller the spy’. But neither ‘Manningham’ nor ‘Buller’ are names that would create havoc in a Welsh public library, so I don’t see the point.
Look, I know it’s not as simple as that: what if your family name is a much-loved and respected one – or what if your father were a knight, say, or a former Attorney General – or, as, in the case of Dame Eliza, both? Then I guess neither an obscure blog writer nor a wavy red underline from WORD would make you want to change it.
So it seems that on this I am – as I am about most matters – ambivalent.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


Mini-rant of the day – car rental companies, airlines, Amazon and telemarketeers who either want me to buy something or to invest in their mutual funds - who use my first name without my permission. If they knew me well enough to use my first name, they would know that no one - except a dear 95-year-old lady in Liverpool – addresses me by my baptismal first name – the name that before PC used to be called the Christian name – because I don’t like it and use it only on my tax return. So please, can we quit with the unauthorised mateyness.
(But then telemarketeers - who do have my sympathy because no one should have to do such an unpleasant job – are a special mini-rant for another day.)

Let’s hear it for the FLNJ. It’s the registered acronym of Le Front de Libération des Nains de Jardin – or the Front for the Liberation of Garden Gnomes. Even the British arm of the organisation calls itself FLNJ because it sounds vaguely political - and I suppose FLOGG would look silly. It is an international movement whose mission is to put an end to the abduction and enslavement of garden gnomes.
Hallowe’en seems to be the official opening of the gnome-liberating season. Last week 79 were sprung from the banks of a river in the Limousin region. No wonder homicides in France go uninvestigated – the flic are too busy retrieving gnomes.
If any of FNLJ investigators are reading this, there’s a couple in Beaulieu crying out for liberation. You’re not likely to notice them unless you’re standing at the bus-stop opposite because if you’re walking by, your eyes will be distracted downwards, intent on dog-poo dodging. But there they stand, feet set in concrete, one female and one male, atop twin gateposts – a sorry sight, seeming to appeal to passers-by to call the FNLJ.
The German chapter, Bewegung der Befreiung der Gartenzwerge, have tended to do things on a more official scale. In the 1990s customs officials confiscated 300 gnomes at the Polish border, and on another occasion seized a consignment of 11,000. Since then, in what are suspected as racially-motivated attacks, Czech-made gnomes have become targets of garden desecration. Blue-eyed, Aryan gnomes go unmolested.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Four legs bad

My sister-in-law is in year 54 of a life sentence, with no parole and no remission for good conduct. It’s not called Strangeways or Wormwood Scrubs. It is called Autism.

Autism: a lifelong disability that affects the way persons relate to those around them. (National Autistic Society.)
No, she is not autistic – her son is. But in the mirror world of autism, it is she who is the prisoner and he the jailer.

Autism usually appears in the first three years of life. (NAS)
Autism was identified in 1943, but it took time for the profession to catch on. Their consultant’s diagnosis (in 1956) on this hitherto happy toddler was: ‘Mrs. J, your child is naughty. Naughty babies are not my job.’
When he was eventually diagnosed, it was obvious that he would need full-time care. They tried specialist institutions over many years, but finally decided they could do better at home. The decision changed their lives.

The impact on the lives of an autistic’s family can be devastating. (NAS)
Living with an autistic turns you into one. You get so used to his phobias that you anticipate the tantrums and avoid situations that might set them off. Our lives are ruled by his pathological fear of four-legged animals. He likes birds and people in that order: we haven’t tried him with ducks and geese.

You flee from little creatures that we can rarely hear.
Terror pains your features - from threats we cannot fear

One summer, we were sitting outside our rented cottage in Tuscany when he suddenly leapt up and ran inside. We couldn’t make out why – until a fluffy kitten, no bigger than a hand, emerged from the long grass. He will run even if the only alternative is into speeding traffic, so you learn to spot the signals – the person carrying a lead, or just hanging about the way that dog-walkers do. His one concession to normality is drinking beer, so we patronise pubs whose car park is next to the bar, so we can pass his beer through the car window.

Autistics have impaired social interaction and lack the ability or desire to communicate. (NAS)
For an autistic, the normal means of communication: touch, speech, eye contact, and gesture are too much of a commitment – autism is shyness writ large. He uses the fewest words necessary to communicate his need – and no words at all if he can avoid them. In the car, a raised finger – never a whole hand - means ‘I need the toilet’.
Despite this handicap, on most days he learns something new. He doesn’t always get it right first time - like when he first washed the dishes and we’d failed to mention that you don’t need a whole bottle of detergent per wash. But he grows in stature with each demon conquered, and my late brother’s widow, now his sole prisoner, will not appeal against the sentence.

‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far way.’ (Thoreau)

Cynic's corner
Surely the Iraqis can't come up with a SECOND death sentence on Saddam Hussein before the the election booths open?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

La Napoule

I never feel more like singing the blues
If Liverpool win and Everton lose.
It happened yesterday: we’re now neck and neck with 17 points each from 11 games, but with us slightly ahead because of better goal difference. Cum ‘ed, lads

Been down the coast to La Napoule today to lunch with an old mate from Oz – a friend of 46 years, of whom I lost track for 20 somewhere between Sydney and London but who washed ashore on the Riviera in the same month as me in 1982. (We’re talking about a 50th anniversary reunion in Sydney in 2010.) The fabulous restaurant, - Le Boucanier (buccaneer – a good price for corn) - is right on the beach, overlooked by a 14th century chateau that was lovingly – and eccentrically – restored between the wars by an odd American sculptor, Henry Clews. (He thought of himself as Don Quixote and dressed accordingly, called his valet Sancho and christened his son Mancha. He’s worth looking up sometime.)
La Napoule also made a big impression on Hemingway, and was the setting for his Garden of Eden.
Great lunch Wally.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The japes of Roth

It's all right about the monograms - two pages later I found that Roth was being ironic. The hero, when the super-confident lawyer finishes giving his advice, says, 'I never again want to hear your self-admiring voice or see your smug fucking lily-white face'. So much for monogrammed shirts - but he sure had me fooled. So not only do I have sluggish reading habits - they're not very perceptive either.

Friday, November 03, 2006

How to get seriously rich

I don’t often do investment advice. It’s too risky – like selling your car to a friend. But I’m making an exception today so you can get rich before Christmas. It’s this: 1. Find what I’m doing, and 2. Do the opposite. A once respected investment journal said I should sell a company now called DSGI, because it had no growth potential. So I sold almost half my holding at 146p. They’re now 218p.
Currency is another of my skills. We’ve decided to break our resolution not to visit the USA until George Dubya has gone – one way or another – and are doing a trip to New York at the end of the month. (Though NYC isn’t really the USA is it?) Smart, say friends – shopping in the USA when the £ buys $1.90. Not really, say I - when I bought mine it only bought $1.40.
More advice next week when I tell you about my adventures in techno-land.

At the end of our road in England is no ordinary Farm Shop: it’s in the Castle grounds and it’s where the Duke of Cornwall (aka. Prince Charles) purveys his produce – and very good it is too, especially the fillet steak. French TV News had a long item last night about the quaint British fad of Farm Shops. Good piece at first – interviewing Brits about why they buy organic foods. (Don’t trust chemicals fertilizers, GM foods etc.).
But the editors, eager to grab the opportunity to plug French beef, decided that it was a story about mad cow disease. It seems Brits are so paranoid about it that they no longer buy home-grown meat, (which is manifestly untrue.)
Why rant, you say? Well, first because BSE wasn’t mentioned in the interviews; secondly, because BSE was a global disease, occurring in France, Germany, USA and Canada – anywhere where cattle were fed dead cattle; and thirdly, for some years after BSE was cleared from the UK, France continued to block Brit beef – and was fined heavily by the EU for restraint of trade (even if they didn’t pay).
So it’s illegal to say that UK cows have BSE – but apparently not to imply it in a national news item. And that’s the last whine of the week: I’ll get to Rainbow Warrior another time.

I have sluggish reading habits, and am only now enjoying, belatedly, Philip Roth. (Hope to start on Jane Austen soon, then the full Brontës.) But Roth describes a self-assured young lawyer whose confidence is signalled by his dress – ‘…crisp white shirt, discreetly monogrammed…’ etc. – and I had to ask myself if a monogrammed shirt is a badge of confidence? It’s a badge all right, but of what? (Similarly with personalized car number plates – especially those with the manufacturer’s name on them. If I see you driving a Jag, do I need the registration plate to tell me so?)
Where do you stand on monogrammed shirts?
(But am still enjoying Roth - I got on to him because he was asked in a Radio 4 interview what he would change if he could go back over his previous work. He said. 'I'd leave out the adverbs'.)

Monday, October 30, 2006

All at sea

I guess you'd have to call it that when you've just spent several seconds pushing your mobile phone up and down the mouse-mat wondering why the cursor doesn’t move.

There was a terrific musical called ‘Jamaica’ (I think), with Lena Horne and Ricardo Montalban, that I never saw but played the disc almost smooth. The opening number is ‘Big Boat in de Bay’, and I sing it every time I wake up and there’s a cruise ship out there. DG says great song, crap singer. (There are three there today - boats, not singers.)
There was a fireworks display last night. Nothing unusual there – there’s one nearly every week - but this one was on the ship. Or is it a ship? It’s more like a floating city – 138,000 tons, 15 decks, 3,114 passengers – ie. half the population of Villefranche. It’s the Voyager of the Seas and is so big it’s obscene - but beautiful.
I’m a fan of cruising, but not on this scale. But the fireworks were magnificent – moonlit night, sitting on terrace with a glass of cool crisp white, every bang echoing to and fro among the surrounding hills. Been reading a few reviews: ‘take Immodium’; ‘dirty’; ‘service non-existent’, and the like. Seems the whole thing looks much better from on-shore than on board. So I’ll stay up here and keep my illusions.

There’s a man in Antibes - just along the coast - who sells nostalgia. He’s called Jeffrey of London and his products are things that are not commonly found in French supermarkets, but without which many expats can’t exist: Heinz baked beans and salad cream, Bird’s custard, Oxo beef cubes and the like. I’d say surely gastronomic change is what coming to France is about – except that we do bring two things with us: tea bags – the French ones are too weak, even if they're English exports; and dry ginger ale – local ginger ale isn’t dry at all and ruins your Jack Daniel's. So if you're passing this way with room in your case…

Only in Texas

As we approached the departure gate for our (wrong) flight, you could hear a buzz of excited chat like a passing squad of colourfully-clad French cyclists.
Which I suppose it almost was in a way. The whole of the rest of the passenger load was taken up by aging Texan couples festooned in the iconography of Harley Davidson: HD T-shirts, HD sweatshirts, HD bomber jackets and, of course, HD baseball caps. I presume their nightwear is similarly emblazoned.
I keep expecting to hear a horde of hired Harleys hubble-bubbling along the coast road, but they haven’t appeared so far. Probably still looking for their luggage - (American Airlines this time, not BA).

Talking about Texas, I know everything’s bigger there, but I think this is a commode too far. It's about the Great John Toilet Company of Loredo - I see they’re advertising ‘the ultimate WC for modern Americans’. It has 150% more contact area on the seat, an extra wide base to prevent tipping, ‘unique side wings (whatever they are) to prevent pinching’. And here's the killer: it supports loads up to 2,000lbs, or 143 stone. I like that 'no tipping' - I never do except in France, where you have to.

Which reminds me, if anyone in the US is reading this, Delta are running a competition, the prize for which is a round trip JFK/Nice. Here’s the link. Good luck.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The X-ray Factor

It’s nice to be back on the Riviera and not feel like an impostor – now at least the first half of my handle is true. Got in last night and our bags arrived this morning and we celebrated this reunion with lunch at Michel’s. I once asked him why the apostrophe – since it doesn’t occur in French – and he said it’s because he wanted it to look English, and both he and his wife are called Michel(e). I didn’t try to explain about the plural apostrophe - I just hope Lynne Truss never sees it. But he does do a fantastic grilled sea bream which I guess is the main thing.

Greeted by Daniel, our newly-friendly newsagent, as we bought our Sunday Times – three times the price in England and half the size – and he thanked us for the plug. Now half the world is flocking to Villefranche to see a cheerful marchand de journaux.

As you get to the departure gate at Heathrow you come upon a mountain of confiscated cigarette lighters because someone once carried liquid explosive. Now they go to new levels of lunacy every time there’s a new scare – after PanAm 003 and the exploding radios they went wild about electronic stuff in your luggage. Then it was beards and back-packs. Then they caught that guy with the explosive sneakers, and they forgot about electronics and back-packs - now you have to take off your shoes in public and go through the metal detectors in your stockinged feet while your shoes go through an X-ray machine.
One only hopes they don’t catch anyone with explosives in his underpants.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

I'm no Scrooge but...

The world is divided into two types of person: hoarders and non-hoarders. In general I see the former as male and the second as primarily feline, though my wife disagrees. According to the pre-nup I get custody of the garden tools.
I have a friend who has complained for 26 years that his wife threw out his thesis. Did he want to read it? Well, no, but…
All this is brought on by the arrival of the new baby. I firmly resolved that, instead of keeping old vinyls safe and warm in the garage while the four-wheeled metallised liquid silver goddess sits outside exposed to wintry rain and a bunch of the least continent, steel-piercing crows you ever dodged, things have to change.
My brother was a hoarder, his wife a chucker-out, and he was barely in his grave before his old jazz vinyls started to arrive – boxes and boxes of them – to join my own collection, much of which it duplicates. How could I throw them out or E-bay them to heaven knows what sort of indignity?
The all-breathing, condensation-proof car cover arrives tomorrow.

Christmas looms. It seems to loom more heavily every year. And the more affluent people become, the more presents other people buy them. Surely if people can afford to buy more things, the other people should be buying them fewer presents? Festivities and family reunions, yes – excessive eating and drinking definitely - but presents? They have to be wrapped, ribboned, labelled and delivered - trees felled, fossil fuels burned, ozone layers depleted… Dickens must be turning in his grave – I don’t think this is what he meant at all. I should declare an interest here: I don’t like shopping.
But if you really must buy me something, my list is at Harrod’s.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Hearts and Minds

El Parque del Amor

The park stands high on the coast of Peru, looking down at the Pacific Ocean below. Lima is a poor city and very crowded, so there isn’t much privacy for a young couple in love. So the municipality – or the church? - has solved the problem in a unique way – by providing a ‘love park’ for them. And to help them to get into the mood, the whole park is overlooked by a statue of a well-built, reinforced concrete pair in an advanced state of snog. Hold on, you say, ‘those two don’t look like a young couple’. Well, you do get the occasional voyeurs.

There’s a garden in Lima, Peru
Where young couples wander, and woo
They gaze at the shore
And swear love evermore
- that is, till they meet someone new.

I’ve had some very complimentary things to say about our NHS in recent weeks, and I don’t retract a word of them, so exclude the wonderful women of Newbury from anything I may say next. But, as Hitler used to say, no more Mr Nice Guy.
On August 14, my GP referred me to our local hospital for a stress test, in which they attach wires to you, put you on a treadmill, and keep racking up the angle of elevation and the speed until you either explode or take off into orbit. A bit like going back to work, in fact.
I got my appointment last week – a couple of months after the referral – and went along, equipped with shorts and trainers as suggested – and they said I should take an ECG first. While I was having the ECG the guy said, ‘did they tell you the treadmill wasn’t working?’
My next appointment is in December. I’ll try to stay alive as I don’t want to miss it again.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Cut off in its

This is the logo of the Chilean Everton. They were founded - well of course - by a fellow-expatriate scouse and are known as 'Los Ruleteros'. Apparently it means roulette wheel. I sometimes think our Everton plays like that. But we won 2-0 on Saturday.

My blog passed 50,000 words last week - since January. I don’t mean ‘passed’ in the physiological sense – or do I? – but it was a very sobering moment. I mean, that’s half a novel. So why haven’t I written half a novel? I know blogging is more fun and more sociable, but the end result is, as the man said when his wife caught him in bed with a dwarf, I’ve decided to cut down for a while. Who knows, in ten months’ time I may have written half a novel.
So here goes with the new, fast-track, economy-size bog:

I had this great post I was going to do on Friday 13th, and forgot. Now I’ll have to wait until January – by which time I’ll have forgotten what it was again.

My study is on the ground floor. The kitchen is on what Americans call the second and the* civilized world the first floor. In the kitchen is a cookie jar that makes a very distinctive sound when you remove the lid. We also keep the sugar in a matching pot.
The DG very kindly brings me a mid-morning and mid-afternoon cup of tea with a chocolate digestive biscuit. It’s a very cosy arrangement, (well, for me anyway). So no problem, you would think - and normally there isn’t.
But sometimes, when I’m working, she decides to replenish the sugar bowl. Immediately, my digestive juices start to flow and I sit here slavering like one of Pavlov’s dogs – when it’s not tea-time. How can you work with a mouse-pad covered in saliva?
Answers on a postcard, marked ‘Conditioned Reflexes’.

* I deliberately left out ‘rest of the’ – just for fun.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

In Darwin's surfprints

Great day today: the British Library put the whole of Charles Darwin’s monumental works (except the Galapagos diaries, which were stolen) on-line for the first time. It was his trip in the Beagle that started the whole thing. I’d always wanted to follow that voyage but there were a couple of problems: first, he took five years to do it, and secondly he had a Royal Navy ten-gun, three-masted brig at his disposal.
With only a two-week holiday, and no brig, we decided to follow only the bits that Darwin travelled more than once: around Cape Horn from Buenos Aires in Argentina to Valparaiso in Chile, via the Falkland Islands and the Chilean fjords. Being brigless, we had to travel by passenger liner. I took Darwin’s diaries along for company.
The delight of the diaries is that they can be enjoyed as tales of adventure: he was engulfed in a locust swarm in the Cordillera mountains, dodged hail-stones ‘as large as small apples’ in Bahia Blanca, was caught in an earthquake in Valdivia in Chile, and threatened by man-eating Indians on Tierra del Fuego. Oh, and the odd revolution.
On Christmas Eve, like Darwin, we anchored off the Falklands. Even at the height of summer, it’s a bleak, windy place. This is not its only resemblance to England: it has pubs selling fish and chips, red telephone boxes and streets with names like Margaret Thatcher Drive. Darwin called them ‘these miserable islands’ and couldn't understand why their ownership should have been so bitterly contested in the past. That’s funny, neither could we.
That evening, just as the Beagle had done 170 years earlier, we headed west towards Cape Horn, which we reached the next day - Christmas Day. Still living the Darwin dream, we leaned into chilling wind and rain, the Atlantic on our right and the Pacific on our left, and photographed the hostile southern tip of the American continent.
The journey around the Horn took us three hours. The Beagle pitched and rolled – and was still in the same place 19 days later. From there it took the Beagle 25 more days to reach Chile’s southernmost island, Tierra del Fuego. We docked in the capital, Ushuaia, that evening, in time for Christmas dinner.
The highlight of this whole trip was to be to sail in the wake of the Beagle through the fjords, including the Beagle Channel itself . It lived up to its promise. It is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, on whose lower slopes are deep ravines filled with glaciers that form sheer cliffs at the water’s edge. As the mist cleared from the surface of the water we could watch the continuing process of dispersion. A loud crack would be followed by a huge lump of ice breaking away from the cliff, creating a mini-tidal wave as it plunged into the water, where it would float away to join convoys of turquoise-coloured icebergs surrounding the ship. ‘It is scarcely possible to imagine,’ wrote Darwin on January 29, 1833, ‘any thing more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers.’
Darwin called Santiago’s scenery ‘a never-failing source of pleasure’, but awoke next day to find someone had stolen his mule. Another unscheduled parallel with his trip was that I was mugged. I had a cold, and had walked into a little park to find somewhere to dispose of my used tissues. As we stepped into the darkness, someone pushed me violently to the ground and a hand went into my jeans pocket. Darwin’s ghost must have been watching over us - I got up to see the bloke running away, clutching a handful of soiled toilet tissues.
The theft did not colour our impressions of Santiago any more than did Darwin’s. ‘Never did I more deeply enjoy an equal space of time’, he wrote. We’re with you there, Charlie.
Only one regret – that we couldn’t have stayed longer in Valparaiso. Any city whose football team is called Everton must be worth a closer look.

Cinematic clichés 2

Like nostalgia, the movie business is not what it was.
In the old days there was always an A and a B movie, so I watched a lot of B movies. You knew where you were with the characters because they were always the same. Casting did not exist as a profession because not only were the characters the same; they were always played by the same actors.
I miss those old cliché characters. Wise old nice guy/priest: Edmund Gwenn or Spencer Tracy; bad guy turned good: Cagney; pugnacious little punk: Leo Gorcey (who made over fifty films as a Dead End Kid or a Bowery Boy); freckle-faced young rascal: Alfalfa Switzer. (I always wondered what alfalfa was – turns out it’s the type of grass Europeans call lucerne.) Wily old fox: Charles Laughton; irascible old man with heart of gold: Monty Woolley, Raymond Massey; ruthless career woman: Joan Crawford, Bette Davis.
Not many Hollywood stars came from Liverpool, but Gentle Middle-aged Moms were always played by Dame May Whitty, (who won two Oscars as GMMs).
Drunks came in two classes – rich and poor. I can’t remember the name of the poor one, but the Society drunk was always Robert Benchley or George Sanders.
My favourite was the tragi-comic Sancho Panza who faithfully served a dozen or more cowboy Quixotes - like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers or John Wayne - and specialised in dispensing home-spun philosophy and dying in the last reel from a bullet that had been intended for the white-hatted, clean-cut hero in whose arms he died. He was always played by Gabby Hayes.
Sancho Panzas went out with Tonto and political correctness, but most of the other roles are still there: for Bowery Boys read West Side Story, for loquacious drunk read Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Look Back in Anger, and for flawed heroes and heroines there’s always Streetcar.
Maybe the writing’s better today, but the characters are so complex you don’t know where you are. With Laurel & Hardy, Abbot & Costello, Martin and Lewis, you knew who was the straight man and who the clown, and they told you when you had to laugh. But what do you do with two guys sitting on a bench for two hours waiting for someone who doesn’t show up? Or a sketch about a dead parrot?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Rejection is good for the soul

New writers tend to get discouraged when they submit work for publication and it comes back with a rejection slip. I remember being mortified when a piece of which I’d been particularly proud came back with ‘Can’t use this’ scrawled across it. Was it too long, too short, not their type of thing – or was it just plain bad? They didn’t say, but I learned something from it: never send anything to that paper again.
That’s my point – you can always learn something from rejection. Even no answer at all is a lesson. When I started to write, my acceptance rate was one in 27 submissions, so I must have learned something. I learned which magazines not to submit to: which magazines use only staff writers; which only accept stuff from celebs (whether they wrote it or not); and which schmucks will turn your article down, and then pass a copy to a friend to write up your idea (You can spot that the staples have been moved.) And of course you find out who likes your stuff.
I sent my book to 31 carefully-selected publishers and agents – before number 32 almost bit my hand off.
I still get rejections, but they’re much more polite these days. They address me by first name, and they explain why. They say ‘Thanks for sending us the piece. Sorry, but we just did a feature on one-armed archery – but don’t stop sending us stuff’. I don’t think I became a significantly better writer – I just started to look at things from the other side. How do you learn that? Rejections.
Just like life really.

Couldn't make it to the Vilnius (Lithuania) Jazz Festival last weekend. What is it about the Baltics and jazz? I think it’s a kind of reaction after Russian and German occupation – neither Hitler nor Stalin liked jazz. And look what happened to them.
There’s this artist who’s holding an exhibition in London. What’s his medium – oils, watercolour? Neither - it’s toast. True - he burns sliced bread with a blow-torch, then scratches his pictures in the black toast. Bet it doesn’t half make a mess in the sink.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Forty years on

Ask an Englishman what happened in 1966 and he'll tell you that England won the World Cup. But ask a Welshman and it will be a different story. At about 9.00am on the morning of Friday, October 21, 1966, a waste tip started to slide down a mountainside in South Wales. The first obstacle in its path was a stone farm cottage, which it crushed, killing all its occupants. Like some giant triffid, it continued its descent towards the small mining village of Aberfan, 600 feet below. It was harvest festival time, and the young pupils of Pantglas Junior School had just returned to their classes after singing All Things Bright and Beautiful at their school assembly.
Although it was sunny on the mountain, it was foggy in the village, and visibility was only about 50 yards. The workers higher up had seen the slide start, but had no way of raising the alarm because their telephones were not working: the cable had been stolen so many times that they had stopped replacing it. But as the slide picked up speed so quickly, it was unlikely that a telephone warning could have saved lives.
Down in the village, no one saw anything. But everybody heard the noise. As the thirty-foot high pile of stones and rubble, weighing half a million tons, approached, it sounded, as a witness recalled, ‘like a jet engine’.
By the time the noise ceased and the slide had come to rest, it had engulfed the school and twenty houses. 144 people died in Aberfan: 116 of them were school children between the ages of seven and ten. About half of the children at Pantglas Junior School and five of their teachers were killed. It took a week to recover all the bodies.
The tribunal set up to investigate the cause of the disaster called it ‘a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by […] men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction’. It concluded that ‘the blame for the disaster rests wholly with the National Coal Board’, owners of the tip.
The Aberfan disaster touched the hearts and consciences of not only Britain but the world. By the time the Disaster Fund to aid the village and the bereaved had closed, nearly 90,000 contributions had been received, totalling £1.6million. In today’s money it would equal at least fifty times that figure.
It was believed that the cause of the disaster was a stream under the tip which had become swollen and made the waste unstable. The existence of the stream was well known locally - but Coal Board officials claimed to have no knowledge of it.
A final outrage was that, as the National Coal Board refused to accept responsibility for the disaster, the fund had to pay £150,000 towards the cost of removing the remaining tips that overlooked the village. The Coal Board eventually agreed to refund this money – 31 years later, and without interest.

Today, on the site on which the old school had stood, Portland stone arches surround a memorial garden. Its blooms are predominantly pink and blue, to commemorate the 116 girls and boys who lost their lives here, on that last day before the half-term holiday, 40 years ago this week.

Four legs good
There’s a notice on the wall in Windsor Library that reads ‘Guide Dogs Only’. The first thing you notice is that the place is full of people, so clearly a lot of two-legged beings are ignoring the instruction. Secondly, if the Town Council hopes to deter dogs of the non-guiding variety from entering, they should have noticed that the sign is placed too high on the wall for any dog – guide or otherwise – to see. Furthermore, since very few dogs can read, it is not possible for either type of canine to heed the instruction, whatever its elevation. And finally, since the owners of the only type of dog permitted to enter the library are blind, they too will be unable to read the sign.
So what’s it doing there?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Great Day in Harlem

I went into a bar in Tallin, Estonia, because I heard some jazz coming out, and there on the wall was a copy of a photo that I have on my kitchen wall - a present from my son.
It was a good clue to the age of the bar’s proprietor - because this picture would not mean much to anyone who’s not a sixty-plus-year-old jazz fan. (I.e. anyone who reads this blog.) But to those who are it was the most significant jazz portrait ever made
The photograph was taken in August, 1958 in front of a 126th Street New York brownstone, and the 57 characters in it include the top jazz musicians of the day.
For jazz lovers, these were the best of times, and Esquire magazine commissioned the picture for the cover of a special jazz edition. It was taken by Art Kane, a young freelance designer, and it was his first photographic assignment.
The biggest challenge was not so much artistic as logistical: how did they manage to assemble together on one day so many top jazzmen and women? Jazz musicians travel a lot and work very late, and on any given morning, would normally be sleeping off the exertions and excesses of the previous night. (One of them said he never knew there were two ten-o’clocks in one day.)
But there they all are, gathered by chance – or instinct - according to their instrument of choice, and roughly in their positions on the bandstand. Drummers and bass players at the back – Buddy Rich, Art Blakey and Charlie Mingus; trumpeters on the right – Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge and Bunny Berigan; saxophone players to the left – Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins; pianists Thelonius Monk and Marian McPartland in the middle, and, in front, the singers – Maxine Sullivan, Jimmy Rushing. Others are gathered according to their affiliations and egos: bandleader Count Basie sits on the pavement right in the front. Anyone interested in jazz should see the documentary called A Great Day in Harlem, produced by a lady named Jean Bach, on the making of this photograph.
Sadly, most of the musicians in it are now dead, and the photographer himself committed suicide in 1995 at the age of 79.
But they are all commemorated in that picture on my kitchen wall – and there they’ll stay, until either I join them, or until some other old jazz-lover steals it.

Those fiendish Frenchies will steal anything.
But they have gone too far this time. Not content with having stolen from us the sandwich, Earl Grey, bacon, horse-racing, football, Jane Birkin, Petula Clark and Concorde, they have now founded La Féderation Française de Conkers, and are sending their best 22 conkers players to compete in the World Conkers Championships –in England, of course. (Bet they’ve marinated their conkers in quick-setting concrete.)
Why can't they steal Tony Blair?

Friday, October 06, 2006

Blue Moon

Sad about Stuart Pearce – he was a breath of fresh air when he came into football management. He managed the way he used to play: enthusiastic, energetic, tough but fair. And never missed a thing that happened on the field.
Then there was the Ben Thatcher incident, when one of his defenders violently tackled an opposing player in a thinly-disguised career-threatening attack. It was time for Stuart to show his mettle. Would he take this opportunity to start to clean up the reputation of football – and of Manchester City - by disciplining Thatcher?
Sorry. Stuart 'never miss a thing' Pearce, borrowing from the vocabulary of such greats as Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger, ‘didn’t see the incident’. (Or, presumably, footage from any of the 20-odd TV cameras.)
Last week his Light Blues were playing the Dark Blues of – as it happens – Everton, at Goodison Park. In the 90-minute match, Everton led 1-0 until the 92nd minute, when Manchester City scored, making it 1-1. City’s Joey Barton, a nasty piece of work with form for violence on and off the field, decided that a bit of triumphalism was called for, and dropped his shorts in front of the Everton crowd.
Another chance for Stu to show some Management – and decency, you might think, as an example to the millions of young kids who watch these games.
But no: ‘I didn’t see the incident myself’, Stu told the BBC after the game. Yet in yesterday’s Times he was able to say that he hoped the FA would not ‘unfairly punish’ Barton, because ‘I was pleased to see him give his shirt [to a disabled fan] and pleased to see his team-mate Nicky Weaver come over and tell him to pull his strides up’.
Funny that – the ‘shirt’ event took place immediately before the mooning, and the Nicky Weaver incident just after it. In between, Stu (‘never miss a thing’) Pearson suffered temporary sight loss, but before and after, he had 20/20 vision.
Welcome to the club, Stu.

As Virgil – former pilot of Thunderbird 2 – once said, beware of people with diminutive first names, unless they’re jazz musicians or comedians. If the guy also has a diminutive surname, (as in Charlie Haughey), he could be double-dodgy. If he’s also a politician, he’s likely to be dodgy squared. (I know the maths doesn’t support that, but it’s a metaphor.)
OK, so we’re talking Bertie Ahern, Irish Prime Minister (and successor to Charlie Haughey) for the last nine years. Bertie, a former accountant, has apologized to the Irish Parliament for accepting about $80,000 from businessmen when he was Ireland's finance minister. ‘It was a misjudgement’, he said. ‘It’ has been various things. First it was ‘only $60,000’, then 'a speaking fee’, then ‘an unsolicited gift to help me over my separation’ then 'a loan’. Now, it’s ‘a misjudgement’. I may not have them in the right order there, but you get the point, which is: keep an eye on those diminutives.
So if you see green truck with ‘Eddie Stobart’ on the side, get in the outside lane.