November 27 2005

Booze when you choose was never an option. A night out at one of Stafford’s two top teenage draws in the early 60s meant a packet of crisps and a couple of bottles of pop.
The jazz club at St Thomas’s church hall in Derby Street was dry. Oddly for a music born in the bordellos of New Orleans and nurtured in Chicago’s speakeasy gin joints, the lack of alcohol did nothing to deter the faithful couple of hundred or so who turned up every Saturday for their weekly infusion of trad.
While the drainpipes and DAs flocked to the hop at the old Borough Hall, got drunk and fought the good fight, the duffle coats and cords turned up to bop the night away and went home quietly at 11pm whistling Chimes Blues and sneering at the very mention of rock and roll.
Trad was the pop music of the day. Chris Barber had paved the way into the charts with Petite Fleur and countless funny-hatted English revivalists followed. Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball, Alex Welsh, Alan Elsdon and many others became stars and in towns all over the country amateur and semi-pro bands modelled on their Top 20 heroes flourished.
In the late 50s, Stafford had a series of jazz clubs, usually in pubs, and most organised by a young enthusiast called Pete Meyricks. One of the key figures on the scene was Colin Cooper, a young ex-grammar schoolboy who played a mean clarinet and led a band ca
One of the biggest drawbacks of the 24-hour drinking law is the 12-hour hangover. I managed to avoid one at the weekend but fell victim to the other.
My wife and I were guests at a teetotal wedding on Saturday and left the party late afternoon full of bonhomie induced by nothing stronger than a couple of glasses of fizzy grape and apricot cocktail.
Thence to Birmingham for a family celebration, and another abstemious few hours save for a small tipple for a toast.
I drove home full of holier-than-thou thoughts and wondered at the stupidity of those unable to enjoy themselves without getting legless.
Sunday morning announced itself with the mother and father of all headaches, withdrawal symptoms brought on I imagine by depriving my body the night before of its customary couple of snifters.
The hair of the dog – a couple of glasses of red with a late lunch – stopped the drumming in my head and I thought more about our new booze when you choose law.



November 29 2005

Until I was eight or nine I thought my grandfather was a sea captain, a misconception due to a framed photograph at my grandmother`s of him in full naval rig, looking like a cross between Lord Jim and Admiral Jellico.
It gave him an heroic status which persisted even after I learned that he never went to sea. The uniform was for a play he had once appeared in and even when Granny showed me pictures of him in other roles, it was the navy image that lingered.
He died a decade before I was born, but he was a real presence in my early life because my father spoke of him often and always with great affection.
Granny was his second wife and considerably younger than him. A son from his first marriage died on the Somme, so I guess Dad was especially precious to him. Certainly they seem to have been very close, even though circumstances meant that they often didn`t see much of each other.
When his parents were touring, my father was left for long periods with a couple who ran a pub in York where racehorses were stabled, which probably explains Dad`s lifelong and frequently costly flirtation with the sport of kings.
The demands of a career in the theatre meant that Grandad and Granny spent much of their lives on the road, not always together. By himself, he was an innocent abroad.
“When I travel alone I have the happy knack of losing myself,” he wrote to her in a letter I still have. It was written from an address in Liverpool, one of the hundreds of theatrical digs they knew so well.
In it he speaks of a day that was probably typical for him. Bound for a theatre in New Brighton, he got into the wrong portion of his train and ended up in Manchester where he had to wait several hours “. . . and what with meeting people and visits to the Old Swan, seeing people off and more visits to the Old Swan, little Willie Copeland was about boozed”.
His travels brought him to Stafford several times. His last visit was to the old Lyceum Theatre in Martin Street where he appeared with Granny in a play called Alone in the World. His address book lists two landladies, Mrs Ashton and Mrs Corcoran, both in Earl Street.
But Grandad`s career was erratic and when times were hard he had to turn his hand to other things. He had a fine tenor voice and sang in concert parties and in pubs around Liverpool, his home town. For a while he managed a cinema in Frome, Somerset, and once in the early 60s Dad and I made a pilgrimage there while holidaying in the West Country. The cinema had been closed for the best part of 30 years, but the building was still there and so were the faded posters of King Kong, the last film it had screened.
By the time theatre work eventually dried up the stress of looking for it had taken its toll. He had a breakdown (neurasthenia, they called it then) and retired with Granny to a rented flat in Chelsea where he died looking much older than his 68 years in 1933.
Granny moved to Stafford to be near Dad and lived for many years in a two-down, one-up in North Walls, the photo of her sea captain the only reminder of an earlier and very different way of life.

December 5 2005

The flurry of snow a few days ago raised hopes of a sledging expedition over Milford Hills. Christmas had arrived, crisp and even but, as it turned out, not very deep.
I could almost taste the mulled wine and roast chestnuts.
Sports, winter or otherwise, aren’t my thing, but the first hint of the white stuff sends me into the garage with wire wool and Brasso to polish the runners of the rather posh wooden sledge I bought a few years ago (for our grandchildren, you understand). Our winters being what they are, it’s had little use.
The polishing took twice as long last week because a friend who was having a clear-out recently gavc me a second sledge (for our grandchildren, you understand), a vintage, all metal streaker as mean as a Porsche.
Hopes of a test run evaporated quickly when the snow failed to deliver more than a gossamer veil over the common and the hills. I cancelled the mulled wine and the chestnuts.
The frost set in that night and while out crunching with the dog next morning I met one of the countless amateur meteorologists who roam the Chase every day looking for people to bore.
“Too cold for snow,” he said.
I nodded and kept on walking.
The frost went quickly, washed away by heavy rain that turned the Sow rusty brown and made it gush noisily with ideas above its station. All sound and no fury.
That’s the trouble with our weather: it’s all talk.
What we need is some good Old Testament stuff to remind us what it’s really all about. We’re not talking Genesis here; nobody is looking for forty days and forty nights of rain.
But a short, sharp touch of the Jack Londons would be good.
A rerun of the winter of ’47 would do for starters.
Now that was something really worth talking about, a life-changing experience for some.
Take my neighbour, Ray, an artillery veteran who fought with the Shropshire Yeomanry in Sicily, Italy and Africa before being demobbed late in 1946.
Out of work, he hung around Milford over Christmas getting his Civvy Street bearings and uncertain what the future held.
Then towards the end of January, the weather took a hand.
Winter blew in with a vengeance. Britain suffered its worst blizzards for generations and roads everywhere were choked.
Ray offered his services as a casual labourer with the council and spent the next three months shovelling snow at £3 a day.
“The drifts were taller than me,” he recalls. “We’d clear the roads by day and at night the wind would get up and send the snow drifting back so we’d have to start all over again.”
It was March before the thaw began and by that time Ray had been offered full-time work as a lorry driver by someone who’d been impressed by his hard work during the freeze. It was the start of a successful career in transport and he later moved into management.
It’s an ill wind
Today, the Chase is soggy and the prospect of anything other than more rain seems remote. White Christmas? Dream on.
Meanwhile, does anyone have a canoe they’d like to swap for two sledges?


December 12 2005

In one ican of his anything goes monologues forty years ago, Lenny Bruce said most white women would leap over 25 Charles Laughtons to get to one Harry Belafonte.
This was proof, he claimed, that there was no such thing as racism.
If only life were that simple.
A decade earlier, a group of us kids who lived in Sidney Avenue, Silkmore Lane and round about were smothering ourselves in black greasepaint and winning first prize in the on-foot section of Stafford Pageant, as Cetewayo (correct) and his Africian warriors fresh from their victory over the British at Isandlhwana.
By the time we reached Stone Flats, the common where the parade ended, sweat had streaked through our make-up so that we looked more like Zebras than Zulus. It didn’t matter because we were having the time of our lives.
Such fun would be unthinkable today.
That sort of thing has gone the way of Robinson’s golliwog badges and the Black and White Minstrel Show.
And good riddance.
It was, I suppose, all part of the sort of institutionalised racism that Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, was accusing the media of last week.
It didn’t seem like that at the time and even now, it’s difficult to understand why anyone should take offence at such innocent goings on. But better safe than sorry.
Which, I guess, is why political correctness, despite its often self-defeating daftness, has to be a Good Thing. Even so, it’s not easy to cast out demons when you’ve grown up with them.
But newspapers, TV, radio, racist? Surely not. The very idea.
Well, all right, maybe just a tad, but aren’t we all still?
The other week I bought a newspaper because it came with a DVD of The Millionairess, the 1960 film comedy which starred Sophia Loren and Peter Sellers, doing his goodness-gracious-me Indian doctor routine that helped make him an international star. It’s dated, patronising, insulting and very funny, but why should that be any more acceptable than kids blacking up as Zulus?
When my phone inquiry is switched to someone in Calcutta whose perfect command of English is disguised by an accent so strong I lose every other word, frustration produces a rage in me that would make me a danger behind the wheel of a car. But I like to think that it’s because I’m a grumpy old man, not a racist.
It’s a fine line and sometimes its difficult to see.
Lenny Bruce had a point all those years ago and, though he was pilloried for it in the media, he knew how to make it.
Sir Ian Blair also knows how to make a point. He’s no stand-up satirist, but he must have anticipated the reaction his comments on the Soham murders would receive. If he didn’t, he shouldn’t be the country’s most senior policeman.
He has since apologised to the parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman for suggesting that almost nobody could understand why the girls’ killings had become “the biggest story in Britain”.
It was a crass and insensitive thing to say. But without the furore he provoked, his claim about racism dictating news coverage would probably have sunk without trace. Instead, it’s a talking point. In the media at least.


December 19 2005

The taxi driver who took us to town for the office do was lamenting the death of Christmas.
“Kids today,” he said, easing into his stride. “They wouldn’t be satisfied with an orange and a few nuts in their stockings like we were. They want computers and stuff.”
We nodded from the back seat.
“It’s not what it was,” we said.
But we were wrong.
It’s exactly what it was. There’s just more of it.
An orange and a few nuts wouldn’t have kept me or my friends happy for very long.
Neither, for that matter, would a stocking.
Spoiled rotten, we expected and usually got a pillow case crammed with goodies.
We were given early presents at school parties, we sent begging letters up chimneys, sang snatches of carols and banged on doors for money. On the day itself we were up at dawn, tore open gifts without looking who they were from, ate mince pies and selection box choc bars until we felt sick and we exhausted both ourselves and our parents with the sheer Christmasness of it all.
Some of us believed in Santa Claus.
My father was recruited as a stand-in for the old chap at my school once and everyone in the class knew it was him except me. Even when I stood in line and he handed me my present I hadn’t the slightest inkling.
I clung to the magic for longer than most, but not as long as my friend Bugs who lived a couple of doors from me.
Apart from a short blip he never stopped believing.
One Christmas Eve, he refused to go to bed, insisting that if there really was a Santa he wanted to stay up until he came.
My parents were invited round for a drink and Bugs, his scepticism boosted by the non-appearance of the festive visitor, steadfastly stayed put. As the evening progressed his cockiness grew and finally he blurted out his conviction that Father Christmas was just a story for kids.
A sharp knock on the window changed all that.
An old man in red and a long white beard peered in and asked: “Why aren’t you in bed?”
Bugs shot upstairs and was asleep in seconds.
A few minutes later my dad rejoined the party.
So here it is again. Season of overindulgence and spreading waistlines. A week for stopping work, drinking too much, eating too much and killing ourselves on the roads.
It’s a singularly inappropriate way to celebrate that Bethlehem business.
Bernard Shaw thought Christmas was forced on a reluctant population by shopkeepers and the Press.
“In its own merits,” he said, “it would wither and shrivel in the fiery breath of universal hatred, and anyone who looked back to it would be turned into a pillar of greasy sausages.”
Humbug, Bernie.
The tills are jingling louder than ever and it gets more difficult each year to see anything of value behind the tinsel. But the magic refuses to go away. Don’t you just love it?
Have a merry one.



Seeing, as Sherlock Holmes pointed out, is not the same as observing. It’s a truth that 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.