June 20 2005

The disappearing coin got me every time. When you reached for the sixpence it vapourised and you were left clutching thin air.
The patter, delivered in a gentle West Country burr, never varied.
“What have you done with it?”
“Well, I gave it to you and now you’ve lost it.”
Chuckles all round, then the routine would be repeated several times before the sixpence was eventually handed over.
Mr Thompson was the best conjuror ever.
He was also a chemist and a visit to his shop at the top end of Sidney Avenue was almost always a learning experience.
I went there often; usually to get him to do his trick, sometimes for advice.
The chemistry set I got one Christmas came with a booklet of experiments, one of which explained how to grow crystals by dangling a piece of cotton into a solution of copper sulphate. The set was short on chemicals, particularly copper sulphate.
Mr Thompson saved the day and threw in several sheets of litmus paper and a couple of test-tubes for good measure.
Sometimes I’d take along a volume of my Arthur Mee Encyclopaedia opened at the Things To Make And Do section. He’d measure out three drams of methyl-violet aniline, a couple of ounces of barium sulphate and a shot or two of glycerine and I’d go home to make something or other. Our greatest collaboration was the hectograph.
I thought you’d never ask. It’s a primitive sort of duplicator made from bits of the above mixed with gelatine and poured into a biscuit tin lid to set. Then you write on a sheet of paper using the methyl-violet wotsit as ink. Press the paper on to the hectograph and leave for a few minutes. The impression it leaves on the rubbery surface is powerful enough to make 40 or 50 copies, simply by pressing on and peeling off clean sheets of paper.
I became reporter, editor and publisher of the Daily Trumpet, which ran to three editions and carried the serialisation of Jules Verne’s life story, copied paintstakingly from the Great Authors Of Our Time Section of Arthur Mee.
Mr Thompson took out a subscription.
Once I showed him how to step through a postcard (no prizes for guessing where I learned how to do it) and he was so impressed he rewarded me by revealing the secret of the vanishing coin.
I’ve been baffling people with the trick ever since. I have a variation using winegums, which always went down well with my daughters.
It backfired once in Greengate Street when my eldest, two at the time, insisted on me producing a sweet from her ear (another variation). I was out of winegums and she threw a fit, the sort of Cecil B DeMille number that has passersby shaking their heads and whispering to each other what they’d do to her if she was theirs.
The only time she improved on that one was the day she discovered her shadow and screamed for me to take it off.
I couldn’t, of course. Mr Thompson never explained how to do that.



June 27 2005

Uncle Jim went to the trenches and came back with a sadness he never lost. He had a glass eye that as a child I imagined replaced the one he’d left somewhere in a foreign field during that war to end all wars.
He lived with my Gran, his sister, in her house in South Walls and, in spite of the gentle melancholy that always hung around him, a visit there was never gloomy.
That might have had something to do with the pocket-money he gave me every Saturday, a threepenny-bit usually, one of those umpteen-sided bronze ones, but sometimes a silver Joey that I was loath to spend.
The army shirts he wore almost matched his walrus moustache, stained a bright khaki by his combined habit of sniffing mountains of snuff and puffing on a stubby pipe which he filled with tobacco noxious enough to kill a German sniper at fifty yards.
The glass eye, several shades darker than his good brown one, was hypnotic and I couldn’t stop looking at it. It never moved and it didn’t blink when the other one did, but he could wink with it which he did each time he handed me my threepence.
He wore a cap which stayed on even indoors and I don’t remember ever seeing him without it or his pipe.
He spent most of the day sitting on a tiny wooden stool almost on top of the fire in the black-leaded grate, listening to the wireless and studying the racing pages, absently stroking Mawkin, one of two cats, mousers who ruled the house like dowager duchesses. The other, Girlie, never got close enough to anyone to let herself be stroked; she considered it common. Occasionally, Jim would refill his tin mug from the huge brown teapot that sat on the hob from morning till night.
Superstition played a big part in his life and inevitably some of it rubbed off on me. He made sure I threw spilled salt over my shoulder, warned against putting new shoes on the table, and if I was around when there was a new moon we had to go through a strange ritual which must have baffled his neighbours. It involved us stepping into the street where we would both chant, “Lady Moon, Lady Moon, bring me good luck” while clutching a half-crown apiece. We then had to turn around three times. He never explained why it was necessary, but I was happy to go along with it, even though I had to hand my half-crown back.
Superstition played a part in his death, too.
During a family trip to Milford one summer’s day my mother found a horse-shoe and picked a small bunch of heather, both symbols of luck for some. When we got home Uncle Jim was dead.
He’d put a cushion in the oven and turned on the gas. Then he lay down and quietly drifted back to No Man’s Land.
I was wrong about his eye. I was told years later that he lost it in a fishing accident.
A couple of years after he died I poked around in a drawer at Gran’s and found one of Uncle Jim’s tobacco tins. Inside were a set of false teeth and a glass eye.
I never opened the drawer again.
When I told my father he said it was probably a marble. But he was wrong.
Marbles don’t wink.


June 30th 2005


Davy Crockett, frontiersman, backwoods politician and all-American folk hero, played a key part in my musical education.
Historians will tell you that the charismatic Crockett, crack shot, witty speech maker, humble with it, served two terms in the Tennessee state legislature and three in the House of Representatives, before being martyred at the Alamo in 1836 by Santa Ana and his Mexican hordes. He never ventured much further east than the Mississippi and certainly never set foot in Stafford.
But that’s all historians know.
Me and my pals Bugs and Clifford were like that with Davy. He was part of our gang for the whole of the summer of 1955. That’s why we knew for a fact that he was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, greenest state in the land of the free. We never doubted, either, that he was raised in the woods so’s he knew every tree and that he kilt himself a b’ar when he was only three.
History had nothing to do with it.
Blame Walt Disney and a long-forgotten actor called Fess Parker.
Together they lit the blue touch paper of a film firecracker that exploded into a baby boomer phenomenon.
The Davy Crockett Craze began with a half-hour TV series in America, grew into three full-length feature films and ended with every under-ten-year-old boy in the western hemisphere sporting a coonskin cap and carrying a flint-lock popgun called Old Betsy.
Oh, and there was that song.
The Ballad of Davy Crockett was written in 20 minutes by a pair of  studio hacks and used in a Disneyland show in the autumn of 1954 as a teaser for an upcoming adventure series with Fess Parker in the title role.
It was recorded by among others Eddie Arnold, Fred Waring, the Sons of the Pioneers, Steve Allen, Mitch Miller, Rusty Draper and Burl Ives. The most popular version, by Bill Hayes, sold nearly seven million copies and spent six months in the Top 20.
Fess Parker’s was the only one Bugs, Clifford and I would consider listening to. It was the first record I ever bought and we played it white.
Summer companions in previous years included Dartagnan and Allan (correct) Quartermain, but they couldn’t hold a candle to Davy Crockett who taught all three of us how to shoot, fight red indians and die bravely.
It sounds immodest, but my DC outfit was a worldbeater. The coonskin cap bore more than a passing resemblance to a jumble-sale fox fur donated by my Gran and real authenticity was provided by a buckskin shirt made from the blouse of my sister’s old Brownie uniform.
Shucks, I was the envy of every corpse at the Alamo, the location of which depended on whose garden we were in at the time.
Davy hung around until we went back to school. I don’t think that old 78 found its way on to the record-player again and by the following year my musical taste had matured.
The next single I bought was The Ying Tong Song.


July 4 2005

Ever taken part in a police line-up? Me neither. But an incident at school came close once.
Across the road from the main gates, the chairman of the governors had a grocery shop and one sweltering day some lunchtime chancer pinched a melon and a couple of pomegranates. The fruit and veg counter was outside the shop and I’d often been tempted myself but never had the nerve.
Presumably, the spoils were divided and scoffed by the thief and others before the afternoon school bell went because no trace was ever found and a melon’s not the sort of thing you can shove in a satchel and hope it won’t get noticed.
We knew something was wrong when the bell went again half way through the first lesson. It wasn’t a fire drill: one short burst meant we had to assemble in the hall.
It didn’t happen often, but when it did it usually meant someone was in for a caning.
The headmaster’s regime was firm, occasionally violent and usually just. Six of the best across an offender’s hand was all it took to make sure most of us didn’t transgress.
On this occasion, the girls were sent back to class and the boys hung around nervously, hoping for the best, expecting the worst. And sweating.
We didn’t have to wait long.
The headmaster arrived with the chairman of the governors and from the stage we were briefed about the Case of the Missing Melon.
The thief had apparently been spotted hotfooting it away with his booty and his blazer was all the evidence needed to point the finger at one of us.
We were lectured about telling the truth and schoolboy honour and given the chance to come clean. For a minute that lasted several hours we studied our shoes. Looking innocent is a knack, but it’s not easy when your adolescent hormones are in overdrive. The blush factor kicks in with everything from a smile by the girl you’ve been having forbidden dreams about to a hug from your mum in front of sniggering pals.
No one confessed, so we were lined up while the wronged grocer strutted his stuff, squinting accusingly at each of us in turn.
We looked straight ahead. And sweated.
It was agony waiting for him to reach me and when he did the game was up. I knew he knew it was me and I was all set to confess.
Then he moved on.
Strange thing, guilt. It can make you a quivering wreck even when you’re innocent.
The culprit was never fingered, but every boy in the hall grudgingly shared the blame and we were detained during the headmaster’s pleasure which meant an hour after school while he lectured us again and we considered the error of our collective ways.
We each came out sporting a halo. As miscarriages of justice go, it was no great shakes, but the air of injured innocence it generated hung around us for days afterwards.
It tasted good.
Infinitely sweeter than a slice of melon.


July 11 2005

On the musical journey between Lonnie Donegan’s Skiffle Group and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, there was briefly, Victor Sylvester and his Ballroom Orchestra.
Don’t look like that – I can explain.
It had nothing to do with the music. Those cloying saxophones and syrupy violins and that rinky-tink piano were never my thing, but for a few months in the late 1950s waltzes and quick-steps were.
At 15, the Saturday night hops in town were out of bounds. A touch of your sister’s mascara brush to darken the hair on your upper lip might have been good enough to get you in to see X films at the Sandonia, but it didn’t fool the Borough Hall bouncers.
Next best thing? The weekly dance lessons held in a wooden hall at the back of the Alexandra Hotel on the corner of Tipping Street where Superdrug now stands.
Mr and Mrs Davis, the Welsh couple who ran the sessions, were ballroom dance crusaders. Their aim was to teach the young men and women of Stafford (even those, like me, with two left feet) how to become Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
We boys turned up every Friday night, a pimply army, high on the fumes of Old Spice, all wearing Burton’s finest Italian pin-stripe suits, winkle-pickers and white shorty macs.
Dressed like that you couldn’t fail to pull.
If you knew how to dance.
So we slow, slow, quick, quick slowed our way through an hour or so of intensive tuition, with Mrs Davis partnering each of us in turn to the strains of I’ll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time, The Anniversary Waltz and such.
The last hour of the session was our chance to impress the girls who for some reason I never understood rarely took part in the lessons but who were nevertheless brilliant dancers.
By then, the Old Spice effect had worn off and we needed Dutch courage to gain the necessary confidence to approach a partner. The mascara ruse worked on the unsuspecting bar staff and we were able to indulge in a pint or two of Black Velvet, with sweet stout and cider substituting for Champagne and Guinness.
Most of us learned the basics. Fred Astaire was never in danger, but Mrs Davis managed to equip each of us with sufficient skill to create the impression that we were waltzing. What we were actually doing was a stiff sort of shuffle in three-four time which was fine while moving in a straight line, but when we needed to turn panic set in.
It was a technique I never mastered, so a change of partners was necessary every few yards.
My quick-stepping was no better but I developed the knack of doubling up on the waltz manoeuvre and the result was close enough.
Sadly, after a few weeks of this, it became clear that my Ginger Rogers wasn’t going to show, so I gave Victor Sylvester the elbow and moved on to greater things.
I bought my first Hot Five record.
And learned to jive.


July 19 2005

Seeing, as Sherlock Holmes pointed out, is not the same as observing. Failure to appreciate this truth has landed me in the soup on a couple of occasions.
Once, in the late 1960s when such things were considered trendy, I owned a knitted tie. Two, actually.
The first, striking in a fetching mustardy sort of way, was bought on a trip to Germany.
I stole the second. In broad daylight under the noses of the Old Bill.
A couple of days after the German visit I popped into a photographic shop in Cannock to inquire about a camera I was considering buying. I’d been wearing my new tie earlier, but it was sunny and warm so I’d removed it and put it in my jacket pocket.
When I left the shop two women were chatting, one of them holding a knitted tie. I recognised it immediately because it was striking in a fetching mustardy sort of way.
So I grabbed it and put it in my jacket pocket.
“Thanks,” I said, smiling politely. “It’s mine.”
Neither woman argued as I stepped into a waiting car and sped off.
That evening I found a tie in each pocket and gave myself up. The police station was just across the road from the camera shop, but the women hadn’t reported the incident and, after giving my details, I was allowed to keep the tie, which was logged as lost property. I was told I’d be expected to give it back if it was claimed within three months. It wasn’t, so I didn’t.
The second incident, a couple of weeks ago, involved another German product: a six-pack of lager, bought for £2.57 from the Aldi supermarket in Rugeley.
Two of the bottles were duff, filled with a non-alcoholic, colourless liquid which drew odd looks when poured for guests.
I returned the empty bottles to Aldi expecting a goodwill pack. Company policy, apparently, doesn’t run to such gestures, and they offered two bottles.
I pointed out that I regularly spent three hundred or so pounds a month at the store (“Irrelevant”) and that M&S would have unhesitatingly offered a replacement pack (“This isn’t M&S”).
Miffed and having received no apology for being sold substandard goods, I phoned Trading Standards who checked (and gave the all-clear) to the entire lager stock at both Rugeley and Cannock branches.
Cut to last Thursday and the monthly visit by our window cleaners.
Stick with me. There is a point to this.
“Thanks for the beer,” they said as I handed over a tenner.
It was sweltering when they called the previous month, so I’d left them a couple of bottles of lager in a bucket of cold water in the back garden while I went to town.
“But you didn’t drink it,” I said, recalling that I’d found the unopened bottles still in the bucket of water and put them back in the fridge.
You can see where this is leading, can’t you?
Quite so. They’d filled the empty bottles with water and replaced the caps to see if I’d be daft enough to think they hadn’t been touched.
Wizard ruse, eh?
Can’t you just hear those Aldi people chuckling? And Trading Standards?
The moral, Watson?
Don’t jump to conclusions. Especially, wrong ones.


July 25 2005

The Red Arrows dropped in during a family picnic at Milford a few years ago. It was a birthday party for my mother-in-law and we said we’d arranged the fly-past in her honour.
They came from nowhere, roaring in like rolling thunder, low enough to touch and vanishing in seconds, leaving everyone blinking and breathless, with just a trail of red, white and blue vapour to show we hadn’t been dreaming.
The picnic coincided with RAF Stafford’s open day, five miles down the road at Beaconside, but nobody had told the guest-of-honour and for a second or two she thought those jets really might have been just for her.
When they reappeared half an hour or so later on their way home, she was all but convinced.
We held those picnics every year. It became a tradition, a chance for brother and sisters and their spouses to catch up and boast about how well we were all doing and for the cousins to check out what had been happening on the boyfriend front since Christmas.
In the early days the kids entertained themselves, rough and tumbling on the hillside above the common and getting lost in the bracken. Later we did the parent thing, refereeing ball games and demonstrating how not to fly kites. Before we knew it they were bored teenagers complaining that high-heels were no good for rounders. Arms tightly folded, eyebrows raised, tutting barely audibly, they let us know, just in case we hadn’t guessed, that this sort of thing wasn’t for them any more.
So the picnics stopped and get-togethers became less frequent.
We still met up, of course, but in smaller family chunks and then there we all were one day at a funeral and suddenly there was no longer any excuse for a birthday picnic.
Earlier this year someone suggested we should try again, so a couple of weekends ago we all met at Milford under the same old Scots pine.
The weather was perfect, the food plentiful and the wine flowed. We sat in folding chairs and watched our kids doing the parent thing while the babies rough and tumbled and lost themselves in the bracken. The older ones played ball games and tried not to get annoyed by our dog.
Then, Sam, Adidas-cool and the third oldest of the new generation, gave a shout from 30 yards down the path he was exploring on a solo safari.
“There’s a snake!”
We flew down the path, the kids to get a good look, the grown-ups to make sure they didn’t get too close.
And there it was: a young adder, brown and beautiful, graceful and pugnacious, and ready to take on the whole lot of us.
“It’s Britain’s only poisonous snake,” some know-all whispered.
Sam was elated and his dad took some video as the adder slowly subsided out of strike mode and slithered off. We watched the diamonds on its back disappear into the heather.
The Red Arrows didn’t show, but that was probably just as well. That snake would have stolen their thunder.


August 1 2005

Before antibiotics ruled the world, there were onions and brown sugar. And sometimes there were sweaty socks, parsley and lemon juice. And charms.
Sore throat? Slice a Spanish onion, cover it with brown sugar and let it steep over night. Strain off the syrup next morning and take a teaspoonful or two as required.
Chesty cough? Tie a pair of well worn socks around your throat, lie back and think of England.
Freckles? Rub them with a mixture of parsley and lemon juice and watch them fade before your very eyes. (Don’t try this at home. My mother used this concoction on mine for several summers when I was young and all it achieved for me was a lifetime aversion to parsley sauce).
Warts? Send for Mrs D.
Old as the hills, toothless and thin as a nail, Mrs D was a charmer.
In a different time and a different place they would probably have called her a witch, but in South Walls in the late 40s and a good part of the 50s, she was the wise neighbour everyone relied on. And feared ever so slightly.
I remember her smile, but I can’t recall what the D was short for or her first name. More than likely it was Alice, or Edith or Ivy, because every woman of her age in South Walls was called Alice or Edith or Ivy. None of them, though, shared her skills.
When I was nine or 10, Mrs D was invited to charm away a clutch of warts on the back of my left hand, a result my Gran was convinced, of handling a toad or touching the inside of eggshells.
Whatever the cause, they were corkers; conversation stoppers in any language. Mrs D took one look and whistled, clearly excited by the challenge.
She didn’t mess about with incantations, potions and such. All that was required, she said, was for my mother to bury a slice of the Sunday joint in the back garden.
Reason, half a century or so later, tells me this was so much mumbo-jumbo.
But a couple of days after the deed, my warts had gone and Mrs D, not surprisingly, got the credit.
Goodness knows where her power came from, but power it was and she used it to great effect. Warts were only part of it.
She also read tea-leaves with breathtaking accuracy and she was unerring in her ability to predict the sex of an unborn child.
Her skills, though, were not all supernatural.
When there was a death in the street, it was Mrs D they sent for to do the laying-out. Her job was to make the deceased presentable to family and friends before the undertaker arrived to do the funereal stuff.
And, tidily, when Mrs D herself took to her bed for the last time, she saved anyone else the trouble by crossing her arms on her chest before shuffling off into eternity.
Her dark arts went with her and when, a few years later, I had a new crop of warts, the NHS was around to do her job. Efficient but charmless.


August 8 2005

Don’t take this the wrong way, but I have a strange relationship with my dog. All dogs, really, if I’m honest.
It’s a communication thing.
My wife says it’s a language barrier and she could be right.
Our four-year-old border collie is Welsh and my knowledge of that tongue doesn’t extend beyond “Welcome to Wales, please drive carefully”. I’ve been told my accent is good, but Dylan remains unimpressed and returns my best efforts with a slightly unnerving stare, which might indicate annoyance or bewilderment.
We got him as a pup from a farm near Portmadoc when he and hundreds like him were being foot-and-mouthed out of their jobs by men in white coats carrying shotguns.
A bargain at fifty quid, he came complete with his first injection, a microchip, a warm nature and a mind of his own.
Take food. When we got him, his diet consisted entirely of those slightly greasy but otherwise dry pellets that vets rate so highly and all dogs hate.
We searched for weeks to find a shop that sold the brand he was used to, but by then he was on the verge of anorexia, sniffing suspiciously and rejecting anything that wasn’t heavily laced with soggy stuff from a tin.
It was a battle, but I won because, in spite of accusing looks from my wife, I became a subscriber to the if-he’s-hungry-he’ll-eat-it school of canine nutrition. Now each month he munches his way (still without relish, it has to be admitted) through a ton or so of crunchy lumps, gluten-free and packed with extras.
MSM? It’s for healthy joints.
Glucosamine and Choindoitrin? Don’t ask, but every dog should have some, apparently.
Impressively, the sack carries the stamp of approval of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection because it isn’t tested on animals.
Odd that.
Given Dylan’s lack of enthusiasm for food of any kind, training was a particular headache. Pointless offering chocdrop or biscuit rewards; he just wasn’t interested.
But he did learn to come when called and he’s good with other dogs and children. He fetches sticks, even when I haven’t thrown them, and he poos when told to, but that’s a non-verbal instruction conveyed with a series of finger clicks. I’m particularly proud of that one.
In dog training, it’s not so much what you say as how you say it. Which is just as well because the only word he understands, apart from his name, is “sit”.
But it’s a useful word. Four times out of ten, uttering that single syllable with subtle inflections I can persuade him to lie down, stay and, er . . . sit. Annoyingly, my non-Welsh-speaking sister-in-law, who took care of him for us one weekend, taught him to shake a paw, but he won’t do it for me.
And if I do decide to take a proffered stick, “sit” is the only word that makes him drop it. Anything else results in an exhausting tug-of-war.
The poo-to-order trick is handy. He never does it when we’re out walking, but even so I always carry a plastic bag. The only time I didn’t was the one occasion he disgraced himself on a crowded Milford Common.
Ever tried poop-scooping with a dock leaf?


August 15 2005

There was no place like my Gran’s home. She lived in an odd, flat-roofed one-off that looked as if the builders had stopped for lunch one day and never returned.
Unlike her neighbours’ houses, it had an entrance hall which might have made it a des res in a street where almost every other front door opened into the parlour.
There was, though, no way to reach her back door from the rear of the place, which meant that the coalman and the dustman had to trail through the house to make deliveries and collections.
The floor was about a foot and a half below street level, so the living room windows were knee high. You got to recognise neighbours by their legs.
Gran’s bedroom was on the ground floor and must originally have been a back parlour. It was dominated by a framed photograph of her mother, which frowned disapprovingly as I explored draws full of corset bones, embrocation linament, Beacham’s Pills and something mysterious called Fuller’s Earth.
The kitchen, which smelled of carbolic and cabbage, doubled as the dining room on week days and had a skylight that rattled in the wind. There was a scullery (the “back kitchen”, Gran called it) where the washing was done in a tin dolly-tub and a red sink big enough to swim in.
A passage led outside from the kitchen to the coal house and the whitewashed lavatory which had a polished wooden seat and spiders the size of frogs. The passage sloped upwards away from the house so that each time it rained, the kitchen floor got wet and became treacherous to walk on.
But the thing which really set the house apart was its garden. Not a yard, you understand; every house in South Walls had a yard. Gran’s had a garden, with mint and gooseberries, rhubarb and pears.
There were nettles, too, and an ocean of rose bay willow herb. Best of all, there was golden rod which went to seed leaving stalks as tough as bamboo. They made the finest swords any musketeer could wish for.
The garden was enclosed by a brick wall, too tall to peer over, which would have been dangerous anyway because of the broken glass embedded on top.
There was no water feature, but a wooden barrel which caught the rain as it ran off the outhouse roof, attracted all sorts of pondlife, and provided ammunition for endless reruns of the Battle of Little Bighorn, fought with water pistols. We died with our wellies on.
I’m not sure, but I don’t think Gran ever ventured into the garden. It bloomed in spite of her, a triumph of nature over benign neglect. Every year the gooseberries and rhubarb ended up in mum’s jam and the pears were scrumped almost as soon as they appeared. I never tasted a ripe one or bit into anything more delicious.
Gran moved out in the 1960s just before the bulldozers moved in. The council gave her a maisonette with a neat little lawn and mum stopped making jam.
The garden is covered with asphalt now and I sometimes park the car on the spot where Custer fell.
Planners, eh? They should have been there.