31 March 2009


Amazingly, Michael based in Australia guessed that Shirley and I are bound for Hong Kong and to begin with we will be staying on Lantau Island at the Silvermine Beach Hotel. Possibly tongue-in-cheek, one respondent expressed surprise that a teacher should be able to fund a trip to Hong Kong. Hells bells, I have a first class honours degree. I have taught in secondary schools for thirty two years without a single day off for illness and I have been a head of department for seventeen years. Shirley is a senior practice nurse specialising in the treatment of diabetes. We have successfuly raised a family. Why shouldn't we be able to fund a trip to Hong Kong? We don't smoke. We don't have expensive hobbies. We live in a basic semi-detached house.... so Hong Kong here we come where no doubt we will go to see The Big Buddha...
Or perhaps we will try some fresh crap... Mmmmmm...

30 March 2009


As longtime visitors to this blog will appreciate, instead of hoarding all his unused income in stocks and shares or wise pension investments, Mr Pudding instead likes to squander all his ill-gotten loot on travel. With Mrs Pudding hitting fifty last week and with your humble writer planning to jettison himself from the tired classroom this summer, where to this Easter? Cleethorpes? Clacton on Sea? Perhaps the Costa Brava? See the picture clue below and guess if you will...

28 March 2009


"Never heard of him". That's what my twenty six year old work colleague Emma said when I told her I was going to see Jackson Browne in concert last night. The venue was Sheffield's magnificent Oval Hall in the beautifully refurbished City Hall building in our city centre. Of course, I had heard of Jackson Browne. His songs first came into my life back in 1973 when my younger brother Simon lent me his first album - "Saturate Before Using". I have bought every other album since but only once before had I seen him in concert - in Nottingham five or six years ago.

This time, now sixty years old, Jackson Browne brought a band with him. It was a very tight band which skilfully enhanced the songs in a well-reherased set. There was Kevin McCormick on bass, Mark Goldenberg on guitars, Mauricius Lewak on drums and Jeff Young on keyboards and vocals. Back in 2001, Jackson met two black students at an LA high school concert and later drafted them into his musical circle as backing singers - Chavonne Morris and Alethea Mills. The overall sound quality at last night's concert was brilliant - balanced and clear with band members working together as a team with egos suppressed.

We were sitting on the front row - me and Simon. In A7 and A8. Supposedly the seats had a "restricted view"but I didn't notice any resrictions. It was great to be within twenty feet of the Southern Californian legend himself.

Jackson comes across as a pleasant, self-deprecating man with a healthy sense of humour but with a mission to deliver his repertoire as effectively as possible. He brought in songs from his new album "Time the Conqueror" but loudest applauses were for old favourites such as "Doctor My Eyes", "These Days", "The Pretender", "Fountain of Sorrow" and the foot-stomping "Running on Empty" which had most of the audience up out of their seats jigging to the music. After long and sustained hand clapping, wolf whistling and "More!" yelled from the auditorium, he returned to give us a smashing and heartfelt rendition of ""Before The Deluge". It was a really brilliant and uplifting concert.

As a wordsmith, a teacher of English and a lover of words, I have always found Jackson Browne's well-crafted lyrics particularly appealing. There is humour there, humility, anger, awareness of beauty, metaphor, memory, political protest and tenderness. His voice has a resonance to it which is plaintive and true, giving oxygen to words which perhaps when seen as mere text lose some of their poetic power. It is arguably only when they're linked with the writer's voice and his tunes that they get up and grab you.

I love the opening of "The Pretender" which seems to me to be partly about the heroism of ordinary working people living their unremarkable routine lives - "I'm going to rent myself a house/ In the shade of the freeway/I`m going to pack my lunch in the morning/ And go to work each day/ And when the evening rolls around/ I`ll go on home and lay my body down/ And when the morning light comes streaming in/ I`ll get up and do it again/ Amen/ Say it again/ Amen" Here he was in Seattle last September:-

Thank you for visiting Sheffield Mr Browne. But next time come round to our house for a cup of tea.

25 March 2009


Did you catch this story? The eighteen year old son of a wealthy Berkshire landowner apparently climbed up on the roof of the family home and painted an enormous phallus there - an estimated sixty feet long. The son is currently travelling abroad. His parents say he will have to scrub it off when he gets home. That chimney had better watch out! It's thought the offending item has been up there for over a year and may have remained unnoticed if it wasn't for a passing light aircraft. The pilot probably thought it was a signpost to business celebrity Alan Sugar's mansion!
Don't you agree that acts of relatively harmless mischief are part and parcel of wholesome living? My Irish builder friend Joe has a dirty white van and I have been known to write mischievous things in the grime with my index finger - "Ireland RUFC Team Bus", "Joe's Love Wagon", "Donegal Or Bust", "Union of White Van Men" etc..
At Mediterranean hotels, you will find ignorant and selfish guests claiming sunloungers with towels long before they arrive to lie on them. Once in Minorca, I noticed how some guests laid their towels out around midnight ready for the next morning! Unbelievable! Departing Minorca, we had a flight to catch at around six in the morning so we were being picked up from the hotel around three a.m.. I crept around the sunloungers collecting every damned towel. Then I took them to the kids' pool table round the corner of our block and very neatly I piled these towels up one on top of the other in no particular order. There were at least thirty of them. Shame I never got to see the guests' faces when they sauntered smugly to their "reserved" sunloungers later that day or angrily sorted their towels out from the pile.
"Who would do something like this Brian?"
"Probably that Yorkshire nutter in Apartment 32. The one who was always reading!"
The phallus boy almost inspires me to dream up a new and much bigger act of mischief of my own. Something new. Something original. Something that would make folk giggle. Any ideas?

21 March 2009


"Rendering" by Jackson Pollock
What did I do wrong? This is the second Saturday I have been up a ladder painting the rendering on the side of our house. Painting rendering should be made a punishment for petty criminals. Several hours of this activity would convince them never to break the law again. "No - not painting of rendering! Fine me, give me community service, lock me up in the cells but please - I beg of you - don't make me paint that rendering!"

For the benefit of overseas bloggers and ignoramuses, what exactly is this "rendering" to which I keep referring? Well, back in the 1920's when our house was built, it was considered fashionable to cover first floor brickwork with a mix of mortar and stones. This is what we call "rendering". The stones are knuckle sized and the resulting surface is coarse and uneven - making painting an absolute nightmare. You have to dab and swirl, swish and prod - and you often find yourself going back over what you have already painted.

My right hand feels as sore as hell through five hours of wife-inspired punishment. This is certainly not the kind of painting that Katherine at "The Last Visible Dog" is so good at. I bet her wrists don't ache like this after a session at her easel. No! What I was doing was real painting. Painting that hurts.

Painting interior walls, doors and windows can actually be quite relaxing - almost therapeutic -as one's brush or roller glides over the surface while a pleasant radio show plays in the background. But painting rendering is definitely not like that.

Today was the first official day of Spring but as I stood on the flat roof of our house extension, a chilly wind was funnelled through the gap between the houses all day. My face is red and chapped like an Arctic explorer's. And though I tried, I did not quite finish the painting today. There's a couple more hours left to do in the morning. Oh woe is me!

18 March 2009


I always think of Ohio as bedrock America. It sits four hundred miles west of New York City, beyond the Appalachian chain and south of Lake Erie. It's not a state that tourists would automatically flock to. Ohio is a hard-working state of blue collar workers and busy families but it has also produced no less than seven presidents. They call it The Buckeye State after the American buckeye trees that grow there producing buckeye nuts that are rather like Europe's conkers.

In 1800, only 45,000 people lived in Ohio, now there are eleven and a half million. The biggest city is Cleveland with a metro population of some 2.25 million. Many of the original white settlers were of Germanic origin and you just have to scan surnames in a phone book to see that the Germanic links remain. In Ohio, there are no less than eighty eight counties. Just as the state itself is like a separate country within the USA, so within the state these counties have their own identities and regulations and Ohioans can be fiercely loyal to their counties.

The two counties I know best are Cuyahoga and Mahoning. When I was a student, I thought - Christ, I can't work at Butlins again, nor the turkey farm or the agricultural chemicals factory - I'm going to apply for camp counselling with BUNAC (British Universities North America Club). My application was successful but you had no say at which camp you'd end up - it was all luck of the draw. I ended up in Cuyahoga County, Ohio at the now deceased Red Raider Summer Camp. It took in the sons and daughters of the well-heeled dwellers of Shaker Heights and other exclusive suburbs of Cleveland. Marvellously, it was also a day camp so the little darlings went home at four thirty making evenings and weekends free for the camp staff. I wasn't complaining.

I got to see the Cleveland Indians, Neil Diamond in concert, Barry Manilow. I went to parties and got invited back to palatial American homes. I played guitar and sang in a local club for twenty bucks and as much beer as I could drink and I became a regular at Skip and Ray's or Chuck and Janine's laughing the night away. I fell in love, fell out of love, camped out in the forest with my group of Wyandottes, ate well and relished every day. It was so good I can't tell you. I went there two years in succession.

Once a week we would travel east towards the Pennsylvania border through Ohio's Amish country. I never knew such people existed alongside the freeways and the supermarkets - a simple and rather enclosed religious community almost frozen in time. They would gather under the trees in Russell with their horses and traps, wide brimmed hats and beards, women and girls in austere long dresses and bonnets. It was so weird. We were going canoeing with our kids on an Amish farm which had a small boating lake. From the verandah of the Amish farmhouse, an old woman watched us suspiciously from a hundred and fifty years back. One Wednesday she gave me a glass of homemade lemonade. It was delicious. She had never met anybody from Europe before - but that was not uncommon in Ohio in the mid seventies.

I found so many people I met in Ohio to be very friendly and down to earth. They were in the true heart of America and the American dream wasn't only possible it was there within their reach. Once I borrowed Chris's Mustang - like you do - and I was moseying on down to Columbus or some place else one Sunday morning when I picked up a leather jacketed hitch-hiker of around 19/20. He was going to a moto-cross meet. After a few miles and some conversation he said, "Hey man you gotta strange accent. Where you from?"
He paused. "England?... Ain't that somewhere over near Maine?"

Amish eastern Ohio

15 March 2009


Daffodils beneath York city walls.

Here in Great Britain, as the snowdrops tire, daffodils emerge magically from our winter soil at around this time of year. I remember as a student in Scotland, I would often have to travel upon the spectacular east coast railway line. In springtime, I would notice how in Stirling and Linlithgow and Edinburgh, daffodil fingers were only just pushing through the surface but by Durham, flower buds were revealed and by York, the slopes of the city walls were bursting with the gorgeous fresh golds and primrose yellows of ten thousand gaudy daffodils, swaying together like a vast army that had come to suppress the winter blues.

Yesterday, Shirley and I drove over to Swanland, near Hull to meet up with our friends and fellow crazy Hull City fans. It is a lovely, almost exclusive village and having once wandered lonely as a cloud through Beverly Hills, California, I swear that many of the grand houses in Swanland would put Beverly Hills to shame. "Who lives in them?" asked Shirley. I don't know - lawyers, surgeons, business leaders, and perhaps above all people with pots of inherited wealth -I surmised. There were so many fresh new daffodils gathering at the gateposts and on the verges , bursting with pride, trumpeting an end to winter and the renewed fertility of our earth.

For many people who know little of poetry, Wordsworth's famous poem about daffodils suggests a stereotypical cartoon-like figure of a poet frolicking through the countryside like a nancy boy, quill in hand, describing spring flowers. What a gay day! It isn't that at all. He's writing about emotion recollected in tranquility and about mankind's relationship with Nature. He thinks of Nature as a rejuvenating force that we can so easily miss or take for granted. The Lakeland daffodils at the beginning of the nineteenth century are merely a symbol of the uplifting forces of Nature in which human beings are only a jigsaw element.

"Affodils" or as the Dutch called them - "De affodils", have been around a long time, beginning their botanical journey in the mists of time on the edges of the Mediterranean in Turkey and Italy and Spain. They have been nurtured and cultivated to such a degree that there are now countless varieties and though their trumpeting blossoms don't last for very long, they are surely one of our most favourite flowers. A reminder from 1805:-

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretch'd in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed -- and gazed -- but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

By William Wordsworth (1770-1850).

What are my words worth?

10 March 2009


Babbling news on the radio. Ghosts of television images dancing in ten million living rooms. Traffic snarled up again on the M1, narrowed lanes north of Nottingham. Variable Message Signs warn of fog that’s long gone. On the mat there’s another pizza delivery leaflet – Milanos – free garlic bread with every order over £10. The whaa-whaa of a distant ambulance siren. Must remember to book in for an MOT. Who left the message on the answerphone and who rang off? What’s this envelope about – car insurance. Have you made a will? Down the supermarket – aisles of beans, baked beans, kidney beans, beans with sausages, Heinz beans, own brand beans. Do I want cashback? Have I brought my own bags? Funny noise coming from the front wheel. Must get some petrol. Renew the lottery ticket. Wonder what last Saturday’s numbers were. How many people live in India? How many? That damned cat scratching at the door. Something happened at work – press the replay button over and over. Remember to fill that form in, review that spreadsheet. Where did I put it? Do I really have to call the plumber? Can’t it wait. Check this. Check that. Email inbox – delete this, reply to that. Days have passed - time to blog again. I never did get to see “The Reader”. When did I last pick up my guitar. Mick’s windscreen got smashed and poor Heather died today. May she rest in peace. Shirley’s up at five for the diabetes conference in Glasgow. Liverpool thrashed Real Madrid. Memories. Dreams, Everyday survival. What a tangled web we weave.

7 March 2009


Simplicity is a quality that is sometimes tinged with negative connotations. Hence - She's a bit simple - He's a simpleton - It's so simple anyone could do it. Simpleness may suggest plainness, a lack of style and sophistication.

I want to speak up for simplicity. To me it's something that we should often both seek and treasure. With simplicity you know what you are getting - it is clear and honest and true, unadorned and pure. Four examples...

Food. Turn on your TV for nouvelle-cuisine and complicated recipes with multivarious ingredients - making cookery into some kind of high art. But what is better than an honest slice of freshly baked bread or a freshly picked apple, a piece of tender steak with a little salt and pepper or a plateful of grilled sardines. All that complexity can be tiresome. Very often pure and simple food is the most satisfying.

Cosmetics. This isn't a subject I would normally reflect on but it has occurred to me that in this modern world there are many women who have been sucked in by the subliminal messages of the cosmetic and fashion industries to such an extent that they feel they have to wear "masks" of foundation creams, eye shadow, lipstick etc. before they can venture out into the world. It's tragic. How much better to opt for simplicity - clean and healthy skin and a face that is radiant either with a sparkling zest for life or the wisdom and contentment that the passing of years should bring to us. Most men I know positively hate the painted doll look behind which so many modern women hide their true faces.

Language. I suspect that there could be cynics reading this blogpost who could find examples of a lack of simplicity in my use of language. I don't think of simplicity as being expression that is limited to round about a hundred everyday words, I think of it as being a quest to say things more clearly, without unnecessary adornment. The Campaign for Plain English has done excellent work in combating the gobbledygook of officialdom but all of us can strive to use language more simply and purposefully - to ensure that our communication fulfils our intentions both in speech and in writing.

Design. Simple design in architecture, household objects, motorised vehicles and fashion is usually preferable to design which drifts away from its prime purpose. The humble paper clip is a beautifully designed, enduring and entirely functional item which we take for granted. Film actresses attending Hollywood galas in simply cut white or black gowns will generally look more stylish than those who have gone for outlandish designs by self-important fashion gurus.

Simplicity... walking on a beach as the sun goes down, stroking a cat that is curled up on your lap, the innocence of small children's questions, bulbs pushing through the earth in springtime, a solo piece on just about any musical instrument, uncluttered rooms, paintings that speak directly to you, poetry that is so condensed you can see the bones sticking out, a pint of best Yorkshire bitter, from a good night's sleep waking refreshed with the dawn, holding another person's hand with affection, cupping water to your mouth from a pure mountain stream, watching the stars on a clear moonless night... Simplicity is something to seek and to cherish.

3 March 2009


Sir Fred Goodwin pictured recently outside his Edinburgh mansion

To enlighten non-UK visitors, Sir Fred Goodwin was until very recently the Chief Executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland. He presided over record losses - well over £20 billion through unwise financial marriages and then, cunningly, wriggled his way out of his post to retire at fifty years old with a £690,000 a year pension for life. And they say that crime doesn't pay!

This is part of what Wikipedia had to say about the greedy pig:-
In 1990 Goodwin married Joyce Elizabeth McLean, and they have two children. One of his hobbies is restoring classic cars - the first, a Hillman Imp, bought from the proceeds of a summer job; another, a Triumph Stag he spent years restoring. He is also a keen golfer and Formula One racing fan. Other pastimes include shooting - once a year he would go on shooting trips to Spain with Santander chairman Emilio Botin....

FRED Manuel! Buenas dias! Nice to see you again!
EMILIO It's not Manuel! He was that stupid waiter in Fawlty Towers. I'm Emilio. Remember?
FRED Och aye. Si Si Amigo!
EMILIO And don't try to talk in Spanish Fred! You're as bad at Spanish as you are at restoring vintage cars!
FRED Whaddya mean?
EMILIO Well that Triumph Stag! You spent years on it and it's still a battered old rust bucket.
FRED Screw you Jimmy! Ye greasy dago! You try restoring an old banger with trotters!
EMILIO Talk to me like that senor and there'll be no shooting today!
FRED What are we shooting anyway?
EMILIO Nothing! Well nothing with bullets! That's just what you tell Joyce. We're going down the zona rosa. Gonna get hammered Fred The Shred and then we gonna find ourselves a couple of hot senoritas.
FRED Emilio! Ye cunning banker! (Mobile phone rings) What? ABN Ambro? Aye buy 'em! ...Investigation? Naw! (Rings off)
EMILIO You shouldn't have oughta done that Fred!
FRED Why not?
EMILIO Santander were looking at em. ABN Ambro is - how you say in English - buggered.
FRED Holy shit!
EMILIO Hope you've got a good pension plan.
FRED Don't worry about that Emilio. I'm not a knight of the realm for nothing. Now let's get down the zona rosa.... Taxi! Taxi!