2013 in review

31 December 2013

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,700 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Is there anything I can do to help?

13 October 2013

The principle I generally adopt with my writing on this blog is that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.(I don’t know why you’d want to be catching flies but I can see that if you did the saying makes sense.) P1120299 The launch of an enjoyable, more ranty blog by a friend I worked with in the UK and an event last weekend have resulted in a post that I intend will be more vinegar than honey.

To continue the football theme from last postings, but having now returned to France, I did not see the recent Manchester City games at their ground. Last Saturday I was in the town centre Irish pub with a friend and fellow  supporter to watch the game against Everton. 1381394_10152257576129348_297195993_nEverton had been something of a bogey team to us so, after the football lesson we’d received from Bayern Munich in the midweek I was apprehensive about how things would go. However Everton had changed their manager and it did seem to be him who inspired them to reach heights when they played City. When they went one down after fifteen minutes I feared for what was about to come but we equalised one minute later and ended up winning quite comprehensively. The pub was having a Oktoberfest promotion and the beer was being sold in litre glasses and, despite the early start of the match I got around to trying them in one of the glasses, The result of having such a large glass is that it is difficult to lift when full. That, together with the result, left me in quite a good mood.

As you will see from the photo, despite Strasbourg being a brewery town – an area of the town is called canonCronenbourg and that is where Kronenbourg was brewed until they moved out of the city about forty years ago – I was drinking Paulaner. I drink German beer because I do not like French beer, It is strange but I find the French beer I’ve tried too bitter to like it yet I can drink 1664 in the UK because it is brewed to British taste for Lager but not in France. Incidentally it is called 1664 because on 1 June that year Jérôme Hatt started brewing beer in Strasbourg at what is now the restaurant Au Canon pictured on the left.

JimmysI had agreed to meet a friend for a drink the following weekend at the new version of Académie de la Bière at 29 Rue des Juifs, in what had been Jimmy’s Pub (pictured right) but then did not know whereabouts it was on the street so on leaving the Irish bar I headed  down Rue des Juifs to find where it was. As luck would have it near the end of the street was where it was located.

I was told when growing up that my handwriting is not the best in the world. I didn’t really agree as I think it is quite easy to read but as a result I have used a fountain pen since the 90′s as I think it makes my handwriting even easier to read. Papetrie du CentreEarlier this year I lost my pen. I had decided to replace it as a reward to myself for my work in the UK over the summer but had not yet got round to it. Rue des Juifs is the kind of street that has two shops selling fountain pens on it, one opposite Académie de la Bière.

By now you are probably thinking I have sold you short, I promised a ranty post and have not delivered on it, even when I said I do not like French Lager I did so quite levelheadedly, it couldn’t be further from as rant if it tried. OK so here goes.

20131013_144258What is it about customer service that shops in France do not get? Apart from all of it that is. I am going back to the UK for work in a weeks time and I’m looking forward to getting a cheery greeting and a smile from the people in the shops I go into. So I go into the shop I try and look at a number of pens and decide to buy the one pictured. I also buy the case to protect it and a bottle of ink, learning the French for a bottle of ink whilst doing so. I refuse the offer of cartridges, as I’m buying ink! 20131013_144447So I get the pen home and take it out of it’s box and all I have is as pictured on the right.Where does the ink go? It doesn’t as they had not thought that I might need an ink reservoir with my pen. I, clearly stupidly as it turns out, had assumed it was in the pen. I had delayed the moment of gratification of filling up and using my new pen until after the time when the shop was closed. As everything is shut here on Sunday I therefore have to spend an hour of my life on Monday going back to the shop to buy the ‘pump’ as I discover it is called here. How can anyone think someone will spend money on a pen, something to carry it around in and a bottle of ink and it is OK to sell it without a pump? The answer is, if they are French and working in a pen shop.

Blue Moon II

21 August 2013

No posts about football for ages then three come along at once. Ah the oldies are the best.

According to reports, like this one, yesterday was a ‘Blue Moon’. it doesn’t mean that the moon is actually blue, just that Blue Moonthere is an extra one in a season, four this summer rather than three. The football link? ‘Blue Moon’ is the song that Manchester City supporters sing, as I witnessed when watching them at their home ground for the first time earlier this week. Why ‘Blue Moon’ what has it got to do with Manchester City? I do not know, however I will bow down to Manchester City historian, Gary James, who was quoted on the Manchester City FC website this morning as saying,

“The first time I can ever recall it being sung was at the opening game of the 1989-90 season at Liverpool,” he said. “It had never been sung by fans during the seasons before that.

“At Anfield, City fans were kept behind for a while after the match and a few lads started singing it as we started to make our way out. They sang a sort of melancholic version, but it caught on.”MoonBlue

The words were written by Lorenz Hart and the music composed by Richard Rodgers. It has been recorded over 60 times including by; Django Reinhardt, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Julie London, Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, The Supremes, Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart. At the ground different versions are played including those by Doves, Supra, The Marcels, Sha Na Na Na, and Beady Eye.

The most important thing, the words;

  • Blue moon,
  • You saw me standing alone
  • Without a dream in my heart
  • Without a love of my own.
  • Blue moon
  • You knew just what I was there for
  • You heard me saying a prayer for
  • Someone I really could care for
  • And then there suddenly appeared before me
  • The only one my arms will hold
  • I heard somebody whisper please adore me
  • And when I looked, the moon had turned to gold.
  • Blue moon
  • Now I’m no longer alone
  • Without a dream in my heart
  • Without a love of my own.

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, 1934 ©

Blue Moon

20 August 2013

I do not know when I became interested in football. In particular I do not know when I became a fan of Manchester City. Untitled I assume that, like most boys, it happened around the age of 6 or 7. Seeing as the club were in one of their all too few golden spells at the time it might explain how this lifelong affair attached itself to them. Another possibility is that my parents and grandparents are all followers of the red side of Manchester and that I’m just plain contrary, and the fact City had a great team was an added bonus, helping my contrary choice be made much more easily.

Francis LeeThe early memories I have of football involve two things which both happened in 1970. The first was I remember being very interested in the World Cup in Mexico. I collected the coins given away by a petrol retailer (like that pictured left – as something of a hoarder I still have some of them), I had a sticker book (which has now gone), and I had a programme size book that I remember poring over. I am confident about the items as they have a physical existence in the way memories are not so my memories of some of the matches comes from later as my memories are in colour and we did not get a colour TV until a couple of years later.

The other football memory relates to the 1970 FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Leeds. I went to school in a village outside Reading. Most everyone supported a London club. When big football matches came up it was the habit to link arms and go round the playground chanting and singing songs we had made up for one or other of the teams involved. I remember the large number of pupils at the school went round chanting for Chelsea. Most everyone did. My brother was not long at the school and, through the same lottery, was a Leeds fan. I remember being one of a handful who linked arms over shoulders and went round the playground for Leeds. I remember there being times when being in the minority felt intimidating. I also do not remember doing the same for City despite the fact they were in the FA Cup Final the year before, perhaps it wasn’t as intimidating? Who knows.

MCFCSo, all my life I’ve followed Manchester City. As it is held that proper fans should do I have followed them through thick and thin. The great times in the early seventies through the decline in the 80′s and 90′s; till they sunk to the third tier of English football and the famed Manchester derby in City’s case featured the game against Macclesfield Town.(Friends repeated on a regular basis, for it to be annoying, that City stood for Conference [The fifth level of English football] In Two Years.) And then the time of revival and now wealth.

colin_bell_classicIn all the time I’ve followed the club I’ve not seen them often. Growing up in the south I got to an occasional match – I remember seeing the game at Arsenal in the late 70′s when Colin Bell attempted to return from his injury as a treat for my birthday and joining a school friend to see them play QPR in the early 80′s. Not even going to university in the north led me to see them and then returning to the south just seemed to result in me putting it out of my mind. I did see them a couple of times at Reading when their orbits coincided. I got to see a match at Maine Road whilst it was still their home when in Manchester for work. Subsequently, after moving  to France I’ve made do with seeing the matches at a local pub with a friend and fellow supporter.

Most summers I’ve been working in the UK but have finished before the football season starts. This season I’m working in the UK for longer so I was present for the start of the football season. Working in the north of England and not the south also means I am in easy reach of Manchester.

I wrote before about my bucketlist. One item I had put upon it was to see Manchester City play a match at their home ground. the Etihad Stadium. The Premier League fixture arranger organised that the first match of the season was to be at home, against Newcastle United. Stories about the stadium selling out its 48,000 seats lead me to be concerned about the possibility of making this dream become a reality. However on the day the tickets went on sale, despite spending half an hour discovering that a device was not working then having to register on the website, I managed to get a seat for the match on Monday 19th August.

I finished work on 19th August at 15:30, went home and changed then walked to the station and collected my tickets to Manchester and back. A pleasant train journey through the Pennines calling at towns in wooded valleys such as Huddersfield and Dewsbury, before sighting the Etihad Stadium from the train in advance of arriving as Manchester Piccadilly. I had received an email from Manchester City setting out a route from the station but I had not brough it with me so I walked around the station but did not find it so headed in what I thought was the right direction. 20130819_180705[1] Between the occasional sign for Manchester SportsCity, asking locals and my inbuilt sense of direction I had my first sight of the stadium (pictured right) no more than 30 minutes after leaving the station - not a lot more than the 20 minutes the official route had promised. 

20130819_182523[1] On arrival, as planned I headed to the shop (pictured left) and resisted every other form of merchandise offering to entice me so I resolutely managed to get away with a replica shirt for £55. I was given a free copy of the autobiography of Mike Summerbee, which everyone buying something, whether just shirts or just anything, was getting. Near the store was City Square where there was entertainment, drinks and food outlets giving something of a party or celebration atmosphere in the evening sun. After getting some pulled pork in a bun, food at a football match has come on some since I first went, I waited near the entrance for the arrival of the City team. Untitled After seeing them safely arrive and trying to insert the wrong part of my ticket into the barcode reader (pictured right) I went through and had my first look at the inside of the stadium then a couple of pints before the match.

I discovered that I had a seat near to the Newcastle United team dug-out with a group of season-ticket holders who had become very friendly with each other. One of them had given up the season-ticket for my seat so they were interested to learn if I was going to be a replacement season-ticket holder for the seat, I was asked also by a couple of people who were interested in getting a season-ticket for the seat. When I sat down the teams were already out warming up on the pitch. City had decided to dedicate the match to the memory of their famous goalkeeper, Bert Trautmann, who had died in the close season so all the players were warming up wearing green goalkeepers shirts with Bert’s number 1 on the back and when they came out for the match Untitled (pictured left) the players had black armbands on  and there was a minutes clapping before the game started.

I will not write a report of the match, the journalists present can do that better than me, here’s the Manchester City website report, the Daily Telegraph, Guardian, and Daily Mirror. Obviously with City scoring after little more than five minutes, having already having had a couple of chances, gave hope that we would win the match well. I did not relax though until Newcastle had a player sent off when we were already 2-0 up, just before half time. At that point Newcastle had to take a player off to allow them to replace the defender who was sent off and the people around me commiserated with him for being taken off, especially when he was playing so well. I’m not sure the commiserations were totally generous and that they weren’t winding up the player. Not long after the people around me started a conversation with the fourth official about how many extra minutes he would give the two teams, starting with a couple of minutes and bidding it up to five. He gave three extra minutes. There had been a jokey discussion with him about his svelte figure so at half-time he was asked if he wanted a burger to which the response was to just have the lettuce.

I didn’t think there was the time at half-time to do anything other than visit the toilet, Untitled further drinks would not be consumed in fifteen minutes without needing a further toilet break during the second half. (people in the concourse pictured right.) The number of people arriving back late from the first-half and having to leave during it showed to me the correctness of this view. Two more goals and an incorrectly, in my view, disallowed goal, completed the match. I clapped the players off (pictured left) Untitled and made my way though the crowd to walk back to the station. Leaving the stadium and the floodlights I noticed for the first time how dark it had got. I started on the route I should have taken to get to the ground and, although I’m not sure I had still taken the right route I arrived back at the station in less time it had taken me to do the outward journey. The train stopped in more places on the journey back and had on it some Newcastle supporters drowning their sorrows whilst making their long way home via York, and not expecting to get home before 2 the next morning. For me, I was home before midnight but not much before.

Altogether a fantastic evening in a fantastic atmosphere. A great way to see my first match at the Etihad. Not just the score but the fellow supporters, the atmosphere, everything made up a great evening.

Red or Dead

13 August 2013

I have not read any of the writing by David Peace, yet, although it isn’t for a want of trying. I did see ‘The Damned United‘ the TV film of his story about the time Brian Untitled Clough became and then was the manager of Leeds United. I have bought another of his books from the Red Riding Trilogy, Nineteen Seventy-Seven, as a paperback but thought I would wait to read it until I had read the precursor which I bought on my old Sony Reader but, unfortunately, it died before I was able to read anything.

Last week he was in Leeds at Waterstones bookshop for a reading and signing for his new book. The picture below shows the book lined up waiting to be bought. I had read a less than complimentary review of the book in When Saturday Comes and an interesting excerpt from it in the magazine in the Times last Saturday so I was interested to hear the author read it and to hear the questions.

I arrived and got a complimentary glass Red or Deadof wine and bought my copy of the book. The room started to fill up (as seen a couple of pictures below) and there must have been over a hundred people present when David Peace, Anthony Clavane and someone else called, I think Bob, who was the MC, entered.

David Peace (pictured below) read first from a piece in his book about Bill Shankly ringing Don Revie up the night before the Liverpool – Leeds match in 1965 and then about the match.

Then Anthony Clavane started asking questions and the first one became a discussion of the pronunciation of the surname of the former Leeds manager Don Revie. Was it Reeeeeevie or Don Revie, with a very short e. A straw poll of the Leeds audience had it as the short e. He picked up on the fact there was a friendship between the managers in the sixties and seventies, that they would call each other up, sometimes not to the best Red or Dead interest of the players when the managers agreed to keep down the wages of players.

Anthony Clavane then asked David Peace why, as two of the managers of the greater teams of the time, he thought there now was a positive view of Shankly’s time but a negative one of Revie.  The answer given was that Don Revie was uncomfortable with the media whereas Bill Shankly would practise one-liners in front of the mirror until he had got the quote well-formed.

Anthony Cleavane then read from his book, Red or Dead ‘Does Your Rabi know you’re here?’. His excerpt was about trying to play football with his schoolmates  when the headteacher would confiscate whatever they were using for a ball and tell them that  their playing football would end up with them being secular. David Peace asked if he had ever considered writing this, or his previous book ‘Promised Land: The reinvention of Leeds United’ as novels. He replied (pictured above) that the earlier one had become a play and there then was a discussion about the line between fiction and non-fiction and how people seem more comfortable with this in America and Norman Mailer, with his fictionalised accounts of Marilyn Monroe and Gary Gilmore were given as examples.

David Red or Dead Peace then said that he had sent the draft of this book to people from LFC websites and one of the people came back and said, ‘would it be OK to send some suggested corrections?’ He said OK and received back 6 foolscap pages of corrections!

Anthony Clavane then asked about both the subject of David Peaces’ books, Brian Clough and Bill Shankly were socialists to which David Peace says that it brought him onto his second reading. The first half of the book is about Bill Shankly’s time at Liverpool and the second half is his life after he retired. This one, chapter 82 of 90, was about him listening to the 1979 Charity Shield at home on the radio then being interviewed by the local radio in Liverpool on the result, Liverpool won 3 – 1, and then talking with some youngsters who knock on his door for a game of football.

Afterwards David Peace(DP) got a question asking if he had a view about the premature retirement of Bill Shankly and it was something he said he had been intrigued by Shankly’s resignation and  his own autobiography is ambiguous on the matter. We’ll never really know. David Peace suggested that it could have been sheer exhaustion as Shankly had carried the club for more than a decade and his wife was not well.  Anthony Clavane said he was fascinated that he did it at 60 when you consider Alex Ferguson has only just done it at 72 and went on to say that Liverpool treated Shankly shabbily. He then contrasted the way Don Revie had not built a succession at Leeds whereas Bill Shankly had managed the transition of his first team into their successors whilst maintaining their success. DP said this was too simplistic a view of what happened and that Shankly was offered money and directorships and that he had wanted Jack Charlton to succeed him and not Bob Paisley yet there is a picture of the celebrations after Liverpool won the 1981 European Cup and Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley are at the bar chatting. He was offered lots of other jobs, including managerial jobs, but didn’t take them, he probably didn’t want to do anything other than manage Liverpool. Red or Dead

The next question was about the amount of repetition in the writing, the person asking had difficulty with it before. DP said it was just as well his publishers were not there as he could say to look at the book before you buy it. When he started he wanted to write about the resignation and retirement of Bill Shankly but come to the view that he couldn’t do so without talking about his achievement, this was the man’s life. DP wanted it to be a lived experience, that by the time you get to his retirement  you have experienced the sacrifice managers at thins time made for these clubs. Bill Shankly trained every day for 15 years, just writing that doesn’t give the impression of what was involved.

Why are there no photos in a book over 700 pages long. DP said there had been an intention but it didn’t happen for various reasons but he did use photos as a reference when writing the book.

There was then a question about socialism in football and whether, with the retirement of Sir Alex, there is an openning for someone. AC said that he also taught in Barnsley  and has worked with pupils and the local school and that it is to be found in places like that where the football club is at the heart of the local community. DP said that Shankley’s socialism had come from the Kop, from the people.  He also talked about how inspiring he found what Bill Shankly had done, that he hoped the book was not just a lament but would serve as an inspiration.

There was then a question to Anthony Clavane about the role of football in secularising the Jewish community to which he talked about the integration of people into the city and country, people came to Leeds and became part of it. This led into a discussion of the incident in Leeds where their then two players  were involved in a situation with racist overtones outside a nightclub. From the floor it was suggested that lee Bowyer, one of those involved in the nightclub incident, and a current Liverpool player (Well when this is being written) Luis Suarez both show sociopathic tendencies.

DP then talked about being in Liverpool to film a piece for the book and the recording took place at the Albert Dock and there were a group of 14 year olds hanging around, asking questions about what was happening and then trying to get into the 20130812_233546[1] picture once they knew what it was. After filming he had talked to them and a few said their father or grandfather had talked about Bill Shankly. Then one kid said he had been to see Liverpool  Anfield and the others said it was true he had.  It was posed what this said about the current state of football if only one of a group of Liverpool teenagers has got to see the team?

It was suggested that Geoff Boycott might be suitable as a subject for a future work by David Peace to which he joked about his style being perfect, “ball comes down wicket, ball comes down wicket….” So what comes next them he was asked. The reply was that he wanted to finish the third of the Tokyo trilogy then that in writing this book, and other work he had touched upon Harold Wilson and he seemed to say that he would be interested in doing something on it.

Anthony Clavane was asked about whether he had experience anti-Semitism to which he replied that he was punched once on the kop at Elland Road but not really. When Leeds were doing badly when Billy Bremner was the manager the chairman was Jewish and there was some then but it disappeared as soon as they became successful. In Yorkshire when there is any anti-Semitism it tend to be directed at Leeds but the situation with racism and anti-Semitism now is totally different and it is just not acceptable.

There was a question about whether the panel had optimism for socialism to which DP talked about how a biography of Burns was a bible to Bill Shankly and that was where he had got it from and he saw it in the kop, in the Liverpool team. There was nothing similar there now and it was part of the motivation for DP to write the book.

20130812_233534[1] Someone from the floor asked about whether there would be any inaccuracies in the book, that Peter Lorimer had definitely scored the goal in 1965.(Presumed to be a reference to the Damned United) AC said that the film of that book had more inaccuracies. DP said that people had picked him for having Brian Clough refer to Hartlepools whereas he grew up there and it was how people talked about it at the time. He also had not seen the film properly.

The final question asked DP whether all the books were imagined out of his head or did they come another way? He went back to the piece he had read. The all from the journalist about the Charity Shield really did happen and was printed in the paper the following day but the conversation between Bill Shankly and the children after came from his imagination, helping him to fill out the scene and paint a picture of what was being said.

I joined a long Red or Dead queue to get my copy of the book, purchased that night, signed. When I got to David Peace and was chatting with him as he did it I asked him about something I had read that weekend. Like me he was a teacher of English as a Foreign language, for him it was in Istanbul and  Japan. I asked what he liked about the work and he said that it was the people and then talked some more about it. I left thinking what a nice genuine human being he was, no rush through and get your autograph but he wrote something more and took time to talk to me. I have posted a copy of the monograph above.

UPDATE: This was edited on 20th August to correct a mispelling of Bill Shankly’s name.

Why John Howarth is not a fit and proper person to be an MEP

10 July 2013

Labour in the South East of England is carrying out a ballot to determine the position of the selected candidates on the ballot paper. One of the people seeking to be elected to the top of the list is John Howarth. I know John Howarth and I believe he is not a fit and proper person to represent the South East of the UK in the European Parliament and he is not fit to represent the Labour Party on their list. His selection would be a gift to the Tories in the South East of England. I say this not because of any feelings as a result of our working in Reading Labour together for 15 years but because I think he is a man lacking judgement.
Between 1995 and 1999 I was the Councillor in Reading responsible for Transport. It is a subject upon which everyone has an opinion and they are all expert. It is something you need to understand and work with as a basis from which you start the job. Your job in such a position is to work with your other councillors to implement the party policy on transport to try to make things better for the residents of the town. So you have a set of policies which were set before the people at the election and you work with the paid staff, the officers of the council to implement them. These officers are not just slaves, there to do your bidding. They will advise you on the best way to implement the policies, they will advise you on the policies that will be difficult or impossible to implement, and they, often, give you suggestions on ways you can do things to overcome these difficulties. As I said, though, they are not just slaves and will come up with ideas and suggestions themselves. Most of the officers working in transport are engineers or have been working with engineers for long enough to think like them. Engineers like wizzy gadgets. Transport engineers are no different. In their case it is often a traffic model. You input known information about traffic in an area and you can then ask it what would happen if you changed x or y. What if you shut this road, made public transport only or one way?
I gave that explanation because in the year before I stopped doing the job. Reading Council got a new traffic model. The officers played around with it and came to me saying that traffic in the town would move much better if the motorway around the town centre, the IDR, was made one-way. I asked them questions about it, I told them I was sceptical about it but agreed that they should be able to carry on looking into it and when they had something worth taking further to bring it to me. I stood down from the council and was not in a position to hear any more about it.
My successor was not in the job for long before he was followed by John Howarth. Then in the first couple of years of the new decade Mr Howarth went public saying that the IDR was to be made one-way. Having got the support of his fellow Labour councillors he went out to public consultation with the proposal. There was public outrage. Not for the first time people were mad about the traffic activities of the council under John Howarth. He was due to be a candidate at the next election but stood down, not just as the councillor responsible for Transport, but also as a councillor. Labour lost his seat to the Conservatives for the first time in twenty years and now has no councillor in the ward. Two of the wards bordering the IDR were lost for the first time in twenty years in one case and fifteen for the other. His successor had to carry out a review of the scheme which ended up junking the scheme after expenditure of over £1million. John Howarth was responsible, he introduced the toxic proposal and headed for the hills as soon as it got too difficult.
The Labour Party paid for his lack of judgement losing three seats, losing control of the council that year and wasting £1 million.
John Howarth is not a fit and proper person to be a Member of the European Parliament.


6 June 2013

The last two weeks were spent in the UK visiting family and friends. Apart from the less than wonderful weather a good time was had as we toured southern England.(An honourable exception for Plymouth where we went knocking on doors in the sun campaigning for a friend who is the candidate in a by-election, although there was something of a wind.)

Harlequin_167pxAs well as seeing friends and family I got to see and exhibition ‘Becoming Picasso‘(One of the pictures from the exhibition is shown left) at the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House and The Villagers play in Brixton. A trip to ‘The Sound Machine‘ saw me more than a few quid poorer but with some more records to take home and listen to and then convert to MP3 files. A visit to a fantastic curry house in Whitechapel and taking refuge from the storm in the fantastic The Hope - and sampling the 9% Human Cannonball, which wasn’t even the strongest beer there! As well as all this I sated my magazine habit. Since the demise of The Word I am still looking around for one magazine that provides me with the music and cultural information, interviews etc that it used to, to no avail. As a result I have been buying a different one for music and trying out others for lifestyle, cultural information etc.

Portrait of the writer James SalterNow I am home I am working my way through them. Yesterday I sat in the glorious sunshine on our balcony reading Esquire. To be more precise I was reading an interview with an American writer, James Salter,(Pictured right) and they were talking about his time as an aviator in the American Air Force. He is talking about his time in Korea:

“I finished with one [enemy plane] destroyed and one damaged….When I returned to domestic life I kept something to myself, a deep attachment – deeper than anything I had known – to all that had happened.” Later, his feelings hardened. “I felt I had not doing what I set out to do. I felt contempt for myself, not at first but as time passed, and I ceased talking about those days, as if I had never known them. But it has been a great voyage, the voyage, probably, of my life.”

To me he says: Those years of flying have a brilliance for me that is of a different order. The feeling of coming back from something memorable, landing with your wingman, it’s a feeling of having out-sailed a storm.

“But that isn’t my life. I have said many times I don’t want to be considered one who flew fighters. That’s not who I am. I devoted the subsequent 50 years -more – to writing.”

It made me stop and think about my life. For me, my years active in politics have a “brilliance that is of a different order.” Working to achieve something and seeing it happen, working to get someone elected – especially when they are not expected to do so – has that “feeling of having out-sailed a storm.” I too felt that I had not achieved what I set out to but I was lucky. I had ceased being an individual, active myself but I was still very active in working in politics. It had been my ambition to work for an MP and I now was. It meant that I could throw myself fully into that now that I was not having to balance it with being a councillor. So when it finished I did not feel contempt for myself. Then my work for the MP ceased and my life changed, first in London, working close to politics, then moving to France and discovering and learning teaching. My involvement in politics was a “great voyage” but, for me, there are other voyages to come that could still be the voyage of my life, who knows where? Talking of voyages, towards the end of my time working for the MP I really discovered the joy in travelling which led to the project to visit all the European capitals. Subsequently I discovered the joy and thrill I get from acting, this part of my life seems to be about standing up in from of people and talking, a lesson or lines I learnt. So, I don’t want to be known as someone who was previously in UK politics, in however small and humble a role, that’s not who I am I’ve devoted the subsequent 8 years to living and hope for there to be many more to come.

I don’t think much about what happened but concentrate on what’s coming and where to go next. So I don’t think about my time in politics too often. So it was strange that after an occasion where I had thought about it, it was brought back almost immediately again.

When I worked in Westminster I would join some people at the end of the day for a drink before walking home. This mainly happened in the Stranger’s Bar and I would often have the drink with MPs or other assistants working in MP’s offices. When I left I didn’t keep in touch with any of these people, they were social acquaintances whose company I enjoyed rather than friends. This was not strictly in the same party. MP’s, whatever party, work under the same conditions, suffer the same difficulty in getting to speak or initiate debates. They all have constituency parties full of ‘swivel-eyed loons’. For assistants, working for an MP is pretty much the same, you have to do the same things in the office, have the same battle with the Parliamentary Authorities to get what ‘your member’ wants. So often the people whose company I would enjoy would be Conservative as well as Labour. There wasn’t much mingling with representatives or assistants of the smaller parties, there was less of them around for a start and the one thing people from Labour and the Conservatives can usually agree on is the awfulness of most Lib Dems.

Even so it was shock to find that one person whose company I enjoyed had died. She lived alone with few remaining family. It was only in April when she stopped turning up to work, without any excuse being given – something she would always have done – that a couple of colleagues went round to her home. They got no answer and called the police. The police broke in and found the person dead. She had had breast cancer but had not told anyone about it. Colleagues had thought she had increasingly had not looked good but had not asked in that very English way. I am working in the UK this Summer and had already bought my ticket. It means that I will be able to go to the Cremation in Mortlake and then on to a service in the Chapel in the Houses of Parliament. I am pleased to have a chance to pay my respects to Claire.

Buttons of Brixton!

25 April 2013

When I lived in Brixton I bought a blazer from the nearby MacMillan charity shop for about a fiver.P1110885 It’s royal blue with red stripes.(Pictured left.) If the shop obtained it from nearby residents it must have come from one of the more leafier parts of Brixton as the label says it is ‘Aquascutum of London at Alfred Sayers of Ealing and Wembley.’

I wore it quite a bit in London but now living in Strasbourg the winter’s are too cold and the summers too hot to wear it much of the time. I’ve been here five and a half years so I must have had the jacket more than six years. In that time it had it most of the buttons had decided to part company with the blazer. The buttons were quite dull, unobtrusive metallic ones.(Pictured right.)P1110889

At the weekend JTO and I went to the restaurant Marco Polo to celebrate her birthday – the Jambonneau braisé au miel et picon bière, pommes sautées, salade was fantastic!

Afterwards we adjourned to one of Strasbourg’s record shops to se if there was anything worth buying for Record Store Day (Here known as Disquaire Day!) – I hadn’t seen anything listed that I wanted so I hadn’t made any special effort to get anything. There was nothing.

P1110922We returned home via Petite France (EN) to go to La Mercerie Du Bain Aux Plantes to see if they had any buttons I could put on the blazer. After some effort we found some gold circular ones that fitted the existing holes and really  jazzed up the blazer.

We returned home and it had been quite an awful day , weather wise, so we were not going to go out. Why not sew on the buttons? I first did the three on the frontP1110886 used to do the jacket up and they were a bit tight but worked.

I then had to cut off the two remaining old, dull buttons on one sleeve and sewed three new buttons on each of the sleeves. As you can see from the picture on the right, they look really quite impressive. I must say I was quite pleased with myself.

I was taught to sew by my mother just as she taught me to cook etc as she believed boys should be able to do these things. I also learned to sew at school as, by the time I was studying everyone did these and everyone did metalwork. I have previously written about my sewing exploits.

I desperately wanted to avoid ‘Suits You’ as the headline so the one above is a play on:


16 April 2013

I had not really heard the term bucket list much until recently. 9788883701009-850_1I must have missed the film with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. A bucket list is a list of things to do before you die, you kick the bucket. I have for a long time had a list of places I wanted to visit. I kept them in my Moleskine notebook.Like the one on the left) Also in it were details of books I wanted to read and records to buy.

I then found out about the website where you can post details of your bucket list, of course there had to be such a thing in MV5BMTY2NTUyMjIyNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNzYwMDM4._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_good old cyberspace. So I got an account and put a few things on it.

Today I was uploading my list from my notebook to the site. (Sounds very technical, I was just typing the item into the list and giving some background on why I wanted to do the thing as a start for writing the mater up once I had achieved it.) I was pleased because I found that I had achieved one item from the list already. It was written in April 2008. (I know that as there are items written before and after it which place it at that time.) That item which had been achieved was to visit Hamburg which I did in the last weekend of June 2011.

It was a fantastic visit and I am surprised I did not write about it here. Places I want to goAs well as the Reeperbahn and the Beatles museum we visited the home of the Hamburg football team in the city, St Pauli, walked around the city, had a tour of the harbour, went to the wonderful Sunday morning fish market which sold most other things than fish and ate well and drank some good beer.

Home is in the Rhine valley between the two mountainous ranges of the Vosges and the Schwarzwald meaning the air is pretty still. It was great being somewhere where there was a proper breeze coming inland from the sea.

Since visiting Riga repeatedly when JTO was working there, having completed our goal of visiting every European city, and my having enjoyed living in Liverpool when there as a student, we had decided to try and visit Hanseatic port cities, of which this was the first. Last year we visited Gdansk which I wrote about on this blog here, here and here.

So, it is nice that one item on my bucket list has had some of it achieved.

I’m just not buying it

17 March 2013

Two articles on the future of retail. One talking from an personal experience and the other mostly pontificating url-1based upon stories that had been in other media. A vivid contrast in thoughtfulness, judgement and identifying what can be concluded from experience. To start with the second:

“Redefining the role of retail in regeneration policy is now a key challenge for planners in the UK. Much of the urban re-generation through the 1990s and the first decade of the new century focused on the importance of the city centre(1). UK projects drew from European success stories: Barcelona, Berlin, Bilbao and applied it to our new public spaces. Planning criteria drawn up under John Prescott during the first term of Labour Government acted as a constraint on the out-of-town mall and sprawling retail parks as the first priority for retail chains. The rules didn’t halt out of town development but it did push the balance back toward the urban centre. Had this been a matter of solely planning intent it would have been doomed from the outset. The market was on the side of the planner. Affluence, increasing disposable income and cultural changes created in the UK a much expanded ‘after hours’ economy which was to do with far more than mere alcohol consumption. Eating out in the UK had been something only the better off could do until the 1980s since when it has grown dramatically. The growth of dining out as much as anything else made city centre became a destination for the evening and created employment for an increasing pool of young part-time labour. Music, club culture and the resurgence of cinema all played their part in transforming the ‘closed after work’ UK city centre to an all day, all night economy.”

I’ll start with a declaration of interest in that I was involved in the successful work to revamp the city centre of a imgresmajor southern town in the 1990′s – that’s my qualification for commenting on the shortcomings of this piece. I’ll come back to the first sentence later. The following paragraph I essentially agree with though it wasn’t just the examples from abroad which were followed, there were examples, both the good and the bad, from closer to home that were able to be learnt from. During this time I was also an employee trustee on my pension scheme and after the early 90′s recession the investment which gave the best returns was retail so people were seeking to invest in it too. This undermines the following paragraph as the motor came from investors looking to build new or expanded retail. The paragraph also puts too much emphasis on night-time activity. People want to eat-out, go to the cinema etc as well as shop, and not just at night but throughout the weekend.

“But whatever else was going on in city centre regeneration retail was always the magnet. In the UK we like our retail. Enough urban planners and politicians grasped the notion that ‘going to the shops’ was and is a major part of the lives of many ordinary people, especially women. It was a constant, a given, aspirational consumerism that crossed class and culture. Through the past two decades we created a quality experience around it and our cities thrived. Whatever else might change people would always ‘go to the shops’, wouldn’t they? Well, no and it is having a significant effect in our cities. UK commentators have focused on the recession and falling consumer spending but more significant for the retail sector is the effect of web-based retail. Recent closures at Comet, Jessops and HMV have added to a range of familiar names that have been left behind by the shift to online spending. Retail staff report that ‘going to the shops’ has become a scouting mission – find the facts, touch the product, compare, contrast, get a little demonstration, then go home to order it online for a few quid less. Staff in fashion retail outlets report spending as much time dealing with internet returns as making sales. You don’t need to be chief economist at the IMF to work out the consequences. The trend won’t end with this recession either (whenever that may be). Recession confirms and accelerates market trends, rarely does it create them.”

imgres-1The paragraphs here shows the danger of this kind of black/white pontification. By overemphasizing the constancy of shopping in the first paragraph it sets up that now there have been changes it is catastrophic. I remember the recession of the 1980′s and that at the start of the 1990′s. Some chains of shops went out of business. Largely those who were the least secure economically or just those that were badly run. The last sentence is one of the few things correct about the piece. Recession means that economically under-performing businesses are more likely not to see the other side of the recession. The statement that web-based retail  is a more significant effect is supported with no evidence. Is it really the case that people are buying washing machines on the internet and not at Comet? Really? We then get another unsupported statement that all people do is go to the shops to check things out then go home and buy it on the net.

The crass mention of women though highlights the major error of this piece. Most people do not go shopping to buy something as imgres-2cheaply as possible. Last weekend was my birthday and after eating lunch we went to a nearby record shop on a whim. between two of us we ended up with three records and had a great time looking at different records, showing them to each other and talking about them. When I lived in the southern town I often worked on Saturday and we’d go out or lunch which was often followed by some shopping. Done for the fun of it. I could probably have got the records cheaper on eBay, I would always have been able to get what I bought after my lunch cheaper elsewhere but it was the social aspect of shopping. I have just lost a large amount of weight which my existing shirts do not reflect. When paid last month and this month I’ve bought a couple of new shirts. In one case because I lusted after it in the window of the shop as I passed. You cannot do that on the internet. Another tow shirts I bought because I saw the shops were having a sale, I went in and found shirts I wanted at a reasonable price. One of the shops sends me details by email, I could have bought from them online but I preferred to go in the shop, look at what was available, try the shirts on and buy them.

There was a lot of similar hand wringing when Woolworths departed the High Street, well in the UK. In September I was staying with family in Derbyshire and went into a shop I’d not experienced before, Wilkinson. They were great for the kind of toiletries which are hideously expensive here in France. I visited them again when in the UK staying with different family in Walthamstow where a visit to Wilko’s is an almost weekly event. Just as one of life’s certainties is death, another is that as one dies another is born.

“In Reading, one of the UK’s leading retail centres at a highly successful 90s city centre regeneration that has punched above its weight in the good times has seen a marked increase in vacant and available (on the market) retail space since 2009 (2).

Q4 2009 6.72% 4.69%
Q4 2010 9.03% 7.01%
Q4 2011 10.97% 8.93%
Q4 2012 11.13% 10.03%

While still below the UK average this trend should worry local policy makers, landlords and city centre business operators. The challenges they face are clear:

  • If the magnet for the city centre economies is losing its pull, how do we maintain the health of our cities?
  • How do major retailers respond to the challenge of web commerce?
  • How do national governments and the EU deal with tax sheltering multi-nationals who undercut local trade and put nothing back into communities?
  • What does it mean for property owners, investors and landlords when there is increasing vacancy in relatively new properties?

And aside from the more obvious economic consequences, what does this say for the quality of leisure experience when diversity is sucked out of city centre commerce? What does it do to our social lives? Two experiences brought this home to me: going to a major department store to purchase a lamp advertised in their mailshot only to find stock levels were so poor we were told to order online; and seeking in vain a pair of boot laces (off and on trying around fifteen stores) only to resort to Amazon.

If our city centres are not to enter a new period of crisis and decline creative thinking will be needed on many levels to adjust to these powerful market trends.”

A look at the number of empty properties in the last recession would give similar figures. More important than raw numbers though is the question of where the empty properties are. Are they in the prime retail spaces or in secondary? A much more important piece of information is footfall. The number of people visiting a place. What’s happened to that in the major and secondary shopping ares? As for the questions, well the first is an ‘if’ question so we have not received any evidence in the piece that the magnet for the city centres is losing its pull. In response to the second by selling what people want in a place they want to go to to buy it. The third question is not just restricted to retail, it applies throughout the economy and the fourth is not as obvious as it seems as the way the system works having property empty is not always a problem for a landlord or owner, when it’s retail, as it is when it’s other property. The two finishing anecdotes just reinforce that those retailers that survive will be those which sell things people want and have it available. The message of the much more thoughtful first piece:

What happens after the great retail clear-out?

url“Not long ago Oxford Street had ten book shops. Now it has none – unless you count WH Smith. Not long ago it also had half a dozen places you could buy records. It now has just one – and a sorry, understocked specimen it is at the moment. Records and books are fast disappearing from our retail environment. You no longer encounter them on the way to get a sandwich. They enter most people’s lives as noughts and ones or via the sturdy cardboard Amazon package. I wonder whether they’ll come back. Obviously not on the same level but maybe at a level enough to sustain some manufacture, distribution and retail, many notches below the mad over-supply of ten years ago. We always cherish things just as they’re about to slip away altogether. People had been gaily chucking away vinyl for years before they realised that this redundant, fragile format was about to be reborn as a soulful antique. When I did a programme for Radio Four about bootlegs a few years back there was reputedly only one record deck in the whole of the BBC. Now they’re ordering them up like there’s no tomorrow. Even CDs are now starting to feel just a little bit precious, which never happened before. This is bound to be more the case as new CDs and books become less visible and more expensive, as they’re surely bound to do as the number of retail outlets shrinks and Amazon, having taken control of the market, decides to push the price. I was in Waterstone’s in Piccadilly on Saturday, which is a pretty civilised place to buy books. I saw a book I was interested in. It was £9.99. I looked it up on the Amazon app on my phone. They had it for £6.89.On two occasions recently I’ve walked out of independent book shops which didn’t have what I asked for and hadn’t heard of it either, stood on the pavement outside and ordered from Amazon from my phone. Both times I was thinking “I hope they’re watching.”In Waterstone’s I bought the copy in the shop. It’s a nice environment, easy to navigate and the staff were pleasant. But more important than they, they had it. That’s the clincher.I don’t expect to be able to find comprehensive book stores on every corner. A handful in the centre of London would probably do me fine. I would be perfectly happy with that.”

Two pieces on retail, the last quoted thoughtful and reflective upon experience, both good and bad. The other trying to bend the facts to fit the black and white pontificating, which they don’t, and then ignoring a whole part of the subject. The piece on Reading shows the ignorance and poor judgement which explains why the writer ran away from involvement in politics in the town, just before being run out of the place, after the debacle and lack of judgement that was the one-way IDR. I know who I will turn to for insight and intelligent commentary.


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