Monday, October 01, 2018

From Anthony

A fairy about to learn to never flirt with a Pixie's pet man ....

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

22 Infantry Division - Prussia - 1916

Photo - Officer and Detail. None of them are identifiable.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Saturday, August 18, 2018

By Sousu

Choice of shoe style reflects one's personality.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Cambridge 2018

by Occasional Reader

     So for the fourth year running the Occasional family behaved like superannuated hippies and attended the Cambridge Folk Festival along with 14,000 others. Last year it rained. This year it didn’t. The sun blazed down and we baked, cooked, roasted…

     As always the festival for us started with a queue. The gates to the main center and campsite opened at 10 am – we got up at some unearthly hour to be in the queue from around 7 am to get our key spot, somewhere with shade but not too far from the rest rooms... So I sat on my camp chair in the queue for three hours and read my Times newspaper. There was an article on the front page that said that drinking four and half bottles of wine a week (about three times the recommended UK limit) will mean you are less likely to go down with Alzheimer’s disease than if you were teetotal. I read that again. It really did say that. So looking at the necessary provisions my fellow queuees had, it seems they were really taking that to heart, although the weather was more suitable for iced beer than red wine. Of course it could just mean that if you downed four and half bottles of wine each week, you might just die of something else before Alzheimer’s got you. Still it was a thought.

     What do we want?
     Better memory.
     When do we want it?
     Want what?

     Or as no doubt I have said many times before; when you get to my age three things start to happen. First your memory starts to go. And the other two I can’t remember…

     I always determine when I go away that I am going to catch up on so many things. So I took away a number of volumes that I had started, but not finished.

     There was the detailed report of a conference on a religious group in which I have an interest. I assisted two of the authors with their chapters, but my particular interest was in what can only be called the lunatic-fringe. I did read some of that, shook my head slowly, laughed (sort of) before having another beer.

     There was the latest biography of Jerome K Jerome. It was rather nice to find myself referenced in it, as I have written on this author on a number of occasions and supplied several chapters for a 150th anniversary celebration book. (Pause to look smug). One of the first articles I ever wrote on this blog was about a school teacher, Mr V, in what the UK calls the juniors, who tried to read Three Men in a Boat and went red in the face and guffawed most of the time in front of a large class of bemused eight year olds. But that is how I started. There was a special second hand bookshop that I used to visit when returning to London and they put Jerome books away for me. Alas, like so many others, long gone. But I read a little.

     What I really planned to do was to complete an article for a history blog on a fascinating character named John Adam Bohnet. He spanned crucial decades of a certain group’s history and whenever they (collectively or through individual members) found themselves in court, he would invariably turn up as a witness. But I lost my notes. When I am home they will turn up no doubt, but they didn’t turn up before we left for Cambridge, so John Adam is going to have to wait a bit longer.

     What I did read at length, because it was on my eReader was Lying for Money by Dan Davies, subtitled How Legendary Frauds Reveal the Workings of our World. It was both hilarious and sad in equal measures; from people being sold not-existent land in South America in the 19th century, to the failed attempt of notorious London gangsters, the Kray Twins, to liquidate their book-keeper, to Ponzi schemes and huge business frauds of recent decades. One highlight was the American fraudster who used huge vats of salad oil as collateral for his wheeling and dealing. He was known as the salad oil king. However, since oil floats on water, the vats were actually full of sea water with about two inches of salad oil on the top. He got away with it for years. News of its crash and exposure was overshadowed by the assassination of John F Kennedy which happened on the same day. The subject matter was to be taken as “A WARNING” - or as a guide for future fraudsters.  Take your pick. I enjoyed it immensely.

     Of course we came to listen to music and make music. As always, some was good, some was execrable. Perhaps the worst (and I won’t give a name) was someone who decades ago was a real wild child. More punk than folk, she used to cuss at the audience and spit. When you see the same person as a lady in her seventies with matted white hair, still cussing the audience and spitting – er, as the Sunday papers used to say when exposing “VICE” – we all made our excuses and left.

     Of the good guys, we saw Darlingside again, who sing four part harmony with full instruments around just one mike – the technique for getting the balance spot on was amazing. Rosanne Cash (daughter of Johnny Cash) was a revelation. I knew her work because one of her biggest hits in the eighties was Runaway Train, written by John Stewart, although she didn’t include it in her set. But with one accompanying guitarist and harmony singer (her husband of 23 years) she made a fantastic sound. The CD tent was cleared of all her merchandise before I could get there, which tells its own story.

     On a personal level I found myself roped in to sing on two different stages with Amy Goddard, and also to do a live interview and sing on Radio Cambridge 105 with her. I don’t know how many people actually tune in to Radio Cambridge, probably miniscule, but the program was to be beamed around the folk world on mix-cloud. One weekend I am speaking to thousands in another context, the next weekend I am warbling folk songs into a radio mike. Weird. Positively weird. Ten years ago I would never have dreamed of singing at all. It is what is known as growing old (dis)gracefully.

     So then it was “home James, and don’t spare the horses” which in our case was a five hour motorway drive with no air-con in tropical conditions for which the dehydrated Occasionals were just not prepared. Back to work, back to catch-up, and back to nearly keel over. I really must pace myself better. While carefully following the Times’ advice to ward off Alzheimer’s of course.

Saturday, June 30, 2018


A rumination from Occasional Reader

This is a very potted history of recorded sound, and the efforts made to produce a silk purse from many a sow’s ear. (Do they use that 16th century British idiom in the States?)

At the start of the recording era, copies were produced from a master that didn’t last too long. So it was not uncommon for popular recordings for the artiste to sing the same tune more than once – and collectors to find tiny variations in different pressings from different masters. When the singer was someone professional like Caruso they could sound identical (or as good as) on every “take”. Things drastically improved when electrical amplification came in around 1925 and the process allowed for copies of masters for disc pressing. So alternative takes generally became out-takes and were unceremoniously dumped.

But moving forward in time some performers who had not been classically trained really struggled to get the finished product together – take after take after take. One tiny mistake would ruin the whole thing. You couldn’t change anything when the voice wobbled or the guitarist hit a bum note, or the percussionist fell over his cymbals. You were stuck with it or dumped it. With some forms of music like jazz it didn’t matter because no-one knew what was going to happen when they started – least of all the musicians - it was going to fly all over the place anyway. But for standard pop tunes, with amateur pretty boys and girls plucked from the street whose delights were purely visual rather than vocal, it must have been a recording engineer’s nightmare. There was a very funny parody of the music business at the end of the 1950s by American Stan Freeberg called The Old Payola Roll Blues, where a kid is plucked from the street, given a song to sing and prodded with a sharp stick at appropriate points to make him sound like Little Richard.

So for aging collectors and completionists, outtakes have surfaced showing the processes that should have been dumped but weren’t. Buddy Holly struggled to record the song Take Your Time. He was tired, he couldn’t see the words properly; he really didn’t want to be doing this. Several duff attempts at the song have survived on the end of other master tapes and released to fans. Then there is Gene Vincent, one of the most exciting performers in his heyday ever. He came to Britain as his career nosedived in the States, was dressed in black leather by Guru Jack Good (later responsible for the cult American pop show Shindig) and limped with a bad leg sustained in a motor cycle accident. He looked and sounded MEAN. I used to do an impersonation of him at parties in my misguided youth guaranteed to offend all the straight-laced parents. Anyhow, there are several songs – I can’t remember which now – where the number of takes ran into the 30s. Vincent used to down copious amounts of spirits each day, which eventually did for him from stomach ulcers at the age of 36, and that affected him in the studio (and on stage towards the end). Someone I studied scripture with (wearing another one of my hats) had been in Vincent’s backing band in “Rock across the Channel” – where a ferry boat went from Britain to France around 1961. It was full of teenagers dressed as Teddy Boys raving it up with Vincent in a full blast performance, then disgracing themselves in some French port and un-cementing Anglo-Franco relations. Vincent’s alcohol intake on that trip was legendary. And thirty odd takes to nail a song – a song that was rubbish anyway –became depressingly common.

So recording sessions could be long as increasingly tired, fractious, and probably drunk performers tried to nail down their latest track.

But then the whiz-kids got in on the act and multi-tracking took over. It meant that American guitarists like Les Paul could sound like an orchestra of sorts. It also meant eventually that you could record all the bits and pieces separately and if something went wrong, you just replaced the one bit. George Martin did this for the Beatles. And it advanced so that now you can just change one word in the middle of a line and no-one outside of the studio will ever know.

Which brings me – finally - to my own recording adventures and the word “Time.”

Now I confess that I am not a singer. But since that has never stopped anyone else, and since I appear under several pseudonyms and keep bits of my life compartmented, I have been emboldened to try. My daughter is a singer and musician and sometimes has this quirk of wanting the Von-Occasional Family Singers in on the act.

So, on her latest venture I was drafted in to drone an odd backing vocal and on one song to do a duet.

The song was written and recorded by John Stewart many years ago. I was a fan of Stewart and used to inflict bootleg cassette tapes of him on my daughter as I drove her to and from school, so I guess I only have myself to blame.  

The song is called Hung on the Heart of a Man Back Home, and is a real stinker to sing – even for a real singer. And over a very long career no tapes have emerged of Stewart singing it live. I wonder why?

It has the usual quirk of folk-style music (although this song is probably more country) of cramming too many syllables into a line. So the verse of the song that I had trouble with goes

Spent our time mostly just laughing
Not enough time to name the day
(gasp for breath)
Ever feel like running away

I had trouble with the word “time” in the first line. I was told it was a diphthong, so I diphthonged it – ti-eme – nah that was wrong. So time, teme, tahme, thyme, oh drat - polystyrene peanuts!.

So on a round trip of around 400 mile I have just re-recorded the one word, TIME, time, time…. Time and time again. The least-worse rendition has been plucked from the iPad, and sent via Dropbox to a whiz recording engineer in Detroit. He, I am told, will plop the word seamlessly into the rest of my line. The results will be amazing. You might even imagine that Occasional could sing.

Hmmm. Just don’t ever ask me to do it live.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Polystyrene Peanuts

A dissertation from Occasional Reader

There are certain expressions that have been used by people when they stub their toe, drop a prized possession, or otherwise mess up. Not wishing to use the standard expletives, they find an alternative – devotees of creaky old movies may remember W C Fields and his “Godfrey Daniels” or on a slightly higher cultural level, Sylvester (when losing out to Tweety Pie) “Sufferin’ Succotash…”

Well, the Occasional household have just got their own, their very own - Polystyrene Peanuts.

It has a certain sound to it. And as with most of these things there is a ring of truth in it.

We recently bought some polystyrene peanuts. You might know them as loose fill chippings, void-fill, or something similar. Basically they are made from polystyrene off-cuts, and look like unshelled peanuts. They are used to surround and cushion fragile items when sent in the mail, so that the combined efforts of the postal system – store it upside-down, throw it across the room, crush it with huge weights and generally totally ignore signs like Fragile and Handle with Care – may still allow the contents to reach their destination relatively intact.

I have recently been selling a large collection of 78 rpm shellac recordings. This system took over from cylinders around the start of the 20th century and lasted until around 1960, when vinyl and 45s and 33s took over. Interestingly, the old 78 revolutions per minute recordings – while they have the nostalgic background sound of bacon frying – have lasted a lot longer than modern electronic data storage systems are expected to last. But that is another story.

My 78 rpm recordings are religious in nature, from the days when an American preacher was regularly recorded and then taken around and played to people on their doorsteps. The message was not flavor of the month for everyone, and after a few acts of violence, there was even a famous American court case Cantwell v. Connecticut about it.

So these recordings are an acquired taste. But some collectors have this taste and who am I to deny them the privilege of paying me silly money to clear box-loads of them.

The problem is as noted above is that they were made using shellac, which cracks and breaks and warps in sunlight and is particularly susceptible to inferior packing. So – at great expense all these records have to be packed between layers of specially cut thick card, covered with bubble wrap and then suspended in a large double-walled cardboard box with the aid of our old friend, polystyrene peanuts.

So far, it has worked a treat.

BUT – where do you get polystyrene peanuts from? There is obviously one answer – eBay. I started with small boxes, but they cost the earth and didn’t even fill one large box I was sending. But someone offered bulk supplies and for a ridiculously small figure, I could buy 30 cubic feet of the stuff. I did some rough calculations of volume and made the same mistake as the film Spinal Tap, but in reverse.

Devotes of Spinal Tap may remember the Stonehenge sequence – pronounced Stone’enge by purists. (Americans are usually rubbish at authentic British accents, but this time they got the flat Essex vowels off perfectly). This huge stadium rock number planned to have a huge model of Stonehenge descend from the sky at a given moment. Unfortunately the person who ordered it got his symbols for feet and inches mixed up and a tiny model came down to the stage and the “little children” (actually vertically-challenged adults) then fell over it during the instrumental break. I still laugh every time I see it, and Mrs O looks at me and sighs…

But in reverse, I had the vaguest of ideas as to how large 30 cubic feet were. I was either wrong, or the company just filled the largest bag available without worrying and sent off a removals van to deliver it.

I was out when it arrived. Mrs O was not. She opened the door to be greeted by what appeared at first sight to be a scene from the original Steve McQueen film The Blob.

Just getting it into the house was interesting. Squeezing it along the hallway to then fill the downstairs rooms was an art she had unwillingly managed by the time I arrived home. The only thing you could say in the monstrosity’s favor was that the material was very light.

Where we were going to store all this stuff? The only logic place was the attic. Many years ago I built an enlarged trap door for the attic with folding stairs up to it. I know I have told this story before, but I am of an age where repeating myself is a given. Sawing away at ceiling timbers while balancing precariously on a ladder, working on my own in the house (which was both daft and dangerous) I actually brought the ceiling down. I watched in mesmerised horror as a small crack suddenly spread and with a huge thwack 120 years worth of lathe and plaster and accumulated coal dust came thundering down, taking me with it. My daughter came home from school to find her father sitting at the bottom of the stairs, doing an impersonation of Al Jolson, laughing hysterically. She joined me. We sat there rocking back and forth as if we were stark raving mad. Then Mrs O arrived home. She didn’t laugh.  I remember that very clearly. I also remember the grief of several weeks putting our Humpty Dumpty domicile back together again.

Anyhow, enough of past less-than-glorious moments, I now had an enlarged trap door to get through. But it was bad enough getting the stuff up the stairs in the actual house. We decanted huge quantities of polystyrene peanuts into the largest black bags we could find and a jolly time was spent getting them into the attic, snagging them on the folding stair mechanism, and watching as polystyrene peanuts in their millions wafted through the atmosphere to cover every available surface.

You now cannot get in the attic for huge bag loads of these things. Tools and suitcases and old guitars and forgotten books and the ghost of lesson-plans-past are all swamped by the stuff. And every time I sell another batch of records, I have to rescue a bag or two and make my way down the ladder to civilization without another burst bag and polystyrene peanuts everywhere.

The income from eBay is of course compensation. But Mrs O wants me to go back to selling badges – tiny little paper things, again going for amazing prices – but with not a polystyrene peanut in sight. I assure her that the 78s won’t last forever, but there were around two hundred of them to start with, plus multiple sets of some titles. And then there are transcription records which are 16 inches across… No matter how many I unload, at the moment the piles still look about the same. We may even have to send off for another U-Haul’s worth of void filling. But I haven’t dared telling her that… Yet.

Yeah – now wash your mouth out with soap d’y’all hear - polystyrene peanuts!

Sunday, April 01, 2018


Rachael has asked me to post this review from the Fatea Music magazine. I confess to having an interest as our family have known this singer/songwriter for some time. 

Amy Goddard
Down in the Mine
6 track EP

The sign of a true artist is that they can take a concept we're all familiar with and turn it into something greater. Amy Goddard is a Welsh singer/songwriter now living near Portsmouth, but she grew up in the valleys not far from Aberfan. For the 50th anniversary of possibly the most avoidable mining disaster ever she released a single, "Remembering Aberfan", which went on to become FATEA Song of the Year 2016. That encouraged her to explore the concept of mining further and the result is a new EP which will, I believe, cement her reputation as both a writer and musician of the very highest quality.
The EP opens with "Blue Murder". This explores a situation that was very common in the mining industry, that of emigrant miners being lured across the world with the promise of easy money only to find themselves trapped in jobs with terrible pay and conditions and unable to do anything about it as they didn't have the funds to come home again. In this song the destination is Australia, but similar situations could be found in the coal mines of Canada and elsewhere. The song is sung almost a capella duet with a very light drum to hold the beat and really emphasises the desperate situation these people found themselves in, being driven harder and harder with their whole lives controlled by the Company, who would have also owned the houses the miners lived in and the shops they had to buy from.
"Dark As A Dungeon" takes us underground and can be considered the title track with it's line
'It's dark as a dungeon way down in the mine'. It's dark, damp and dangerous and the miner is already looking forward to death as the only possible release, by which time the dust in his body will make him almost coal himself. For a gloomy subject the tune on this one is very upbeat with guitar and fiddle giving it a real lift and a country feel. The chorus becomes surprisingly sing along very quickly.
Track three, "Green Is The Colour", was the second single to be released, late in 2017. Here the subject is arsenic, mined in huge quantities along with tin during the 19th century and in demand as a very effective pesticide. Discovering it also made a very vivid green, which was used in wallpapers, probably wasn't a great idea. The strength of this song is that it doesn't consider just the miners but also the home owners who took to this fashionable new decorating material and died as a result. As the song says for "the rich man in his townhouse and the miner underground, death was the guest at the table". This song clearly draws it's inspiration from the traditional Black Is The Colour, reworks it very well and is in the living tradition of songs evolving over time.
Whilst we tend to associate mining with coal, as has already been seen it wasn't the only mineral that had to be dragged from the earth. "North Country Blues" is a Bob Dylan song, takinges iron ore as it's subject and the mining is on a huge scale. There were cycles of boom and bust but even in the good times the mine was a dangerous place and the narrator recounts the deaths of various family members either from incidents at the mine, or sickness from the environment. Eventually the mine shuts due to cheaper imported raw materials, the town dies and the narrator, a woman from a mining family now married to a miner, faces a bleak future in a place where the shops have closed down, her husband has deserted her and her children will have to leave to find work. Although the song is set in the USA it's a scene that has been repeated around the world.
As has already been said, this EP had its roots in the disaster that was Aberfan and it was one of those events that becomes a marker in the lives of people who were around at the time, whether they lived nearby or not. This tragedy also inspired the song "Palaces of Gold" by Leon Rosselson, but Amy has chosen a much more focused view of the event. "Remembering Aberfan" is the story of one mother and her son and it's that simplicity which makes this song so incredibly moving and powerful. I saw Amy perform it at Cambridge Folk Festival last year and in in the audience was a young mother with her son sat on her lap. By the end of the song she was in tears and hugging him; that is the power of music. "Remembering Aberfan" is a song everyone should hear and once they have they'll never forget it. Masterpiece is an overused term, but this song is a masterpiece.
Ending the EP is "Underground Road" and returns back to coal miners and their families. Again the narrator is a woman who watches her father and brothers, and eventually her husband, heading below ground every day and wondering if they'll come back. There's a wish from her husband that their son won't have to following but she knows there'll be very little chance of that happening. Eventually, of course, tragedy strikes and as she watches her son play the earth shudders as the mine explodes and 100 men are lost. The real tragedy, though, is that those left behind have no option but to remain and eventually head back underground again. That's a common link in these songs. When a community is reliant on one industry it forges a community but leaves them dependent and completely reliant upon it, no matter the cost in lives destroyed.
This has to be one of the finest special project pieces I've come across. The songs are incredibly good and I believe they will be a worthy addition to the lexicon of mining songs for a long time to come. But, this EP offers even more and that is Amy Goddard herself. She has a voice, likened by some to Sandy Denny or Joni Mitchell, that is made for tragedy. It's gentle timbre, with a sense of vulnerability, brings heart to stories of people who are never going to get a fair chance, not through their own wrongdoing, but simply because they're playing life with a loaded dice.
The album has an official release date is 9th April, followed by a launch event in Boarhunt, near Portsmouth, on Saturday14th. If you want to get hold of it sooner there is a pledge campaign running until the 4th April and pre-orders will be posted out soon after. As I said at the start Amy is a real artist and some of the offers in the campaign reflect that. There are hand drawn plaques alongside the more usual handwritten and decorated lyrics. You can even own part of the actual music from the album as the strings from Amy's guitar, which she made herself incidentally, have been turned into bracelets.
Tony Birch

Sunday, March 18, 2018


Rachael seems to be making slow but steady progress health-wise, which is good to see. Most of her comments and updates can currently be seen on twitter. She has asked me to post this for a regular contributor here, Occasional Reader.


In 1990 the British Crime Writers’ Association produced a list of the top 100 crime novels of all time. Obviously this was very subjective, and maybe the list would change considerably if revisited today. But top of the list, in their view the best crime novel of all time was one written by Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time. Tey weighed in again at number 11 with The Franchise Affair. A sub-section The Whodunnit placed The Franchise Affair at number 1. And another sub-section, Romantic Suspense, had another Tey offering, Brat Farrar, at number 8.

Quite an achievement for someone who viewed her detective novels as “her knitting,” a hobby for when she was not concentrating on her real work as a dramatist under the masculine name of Gordon Daviot.

There have been several TV dramatizations of her work and at least three films – Hitchcock adapted A Shilling for Candles as Young and Innocent (1937), The Franchise Affair came out as that title in 1951 and Brat Farrar was given the Hammer horror film treatment as Paranoiac in 1963 (but wisely leaving her name off the credits).

But it is her command of language and dialog that makes the books special for me.

There was a biography finally produced for her in 2015 by Jennifer Morag Henderson. Going off onto one of my usual hobby-horses and tangents, as someone who has been proof reader for a number of writers over the years, it could have done with more work. You can get away with spelling to some degree today, because modern computers have spell-checks, and grammar and syntax can be very individual. If James Joyce can write Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy in Ulysses with virtually no punctuation, who are we to argue – other than mutter something rude about pretentiousness…  But a proof reader’s art is to spot where a writer defines things they’ve already explained in detail but forgotten. Or where the writer assumes they have covered something and in the final incarnation they haven’t, presenting you with a jigsaw with missing pieces.  A proof reader has to read the complete product from start to finish if they are to spot these problems. Well, the biographer of Tey could have done with a bit more of that. 

However, very much on the positive side, the book did solve several questions about her life. She was born Elizabeth MacKintosh in Scotland and as a young adult went into nursing and teaching, qualifying as a physiotherapist and PE teacher. But she had to give up her career in England to go back to Inverness to nurse her mother until she died, and then spent nearly 30 years caring for her father. As soon as she got her freedom after he died she was struck down with cancer and died within fifteen months herself. But over the decades, she got away to London on the railway twice a year by employing a temporary housekeeper and under the pen-name Gordon Daviot had a huge hit in 1932 with an historical play on the West End stage (Richard of Bordeaux) that made the career of John Gielgud. Three volumes of her collected plays were published after her death.

But then under the pen-name Josephine Tey she wrote a series of detective novels, especially after the Second World War, including the three mentioned at the start of this article. The number one winner of the best crime novel Daughter of Time has her main policeman stuck in a hospital bed totally bored out of his skull, who then starts researching the murder of the Princes in the Tower (c. 1483). Tey, through her detective, “proves” that the usual suspect Richard III was not guilty! The same plot device, detective in hospital solves ancient case, was reused by Colin Dexter with Inspector Morse and The Wench is Dead. Tey died aged 55 and could have written many more classics had she lived.

The biography dispels a myth about her last days. The usual story is that, knowing she was mortally ill, she came to London for one last time. She stayed at her club. She contacted no-one. What did she do? Where did she go? When her death was announced in the newspapers it caught the theater world by surprise.

In fact, the truth was far more mundane. She took a trip south to have an operation in a London hospital. While staying at her “club” sounds a little esoteric, it was an accommodation address for nurses, sharing premises with The Royal College of Nursing, for which she qualified from work during the First World War. The operation showed her to be in the terminal stages of cancer. She went back to her sister’s home in London, where the family nursed her for a short time until she died. That she’d planned to go straight back to Scotland after the operation is indicated by the fact that the water pipes in her home in Inverness all froze up without attention, and when the family eventually made the trip after her death, water had been pouring out of her home for some time and the neighbors apparently didn’t have a contact number. Much in the house was ruined, but fortunately not the manuscript for her last novel The Singing Sands, which was published posthumously. But the other tale with its hints of mystery in the midst of tragedy sounds better. As one of the last lines in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Because she was such a private person who never married there was an aura of mystery about her. A modern novelist has used her as a character in a detective series of her own, and portrays Tey as a lesbian. In reality, correspondence shows Tey rebuffing advances from a famous actress, and like so many she lost a boyfriend in the First World War, and her second love, a poet, died in the 1920s. History created a dearth of men for the 1920s and her situation was by no means unique.

So what was she really like? Half the fun of reading her books today is looking for clues, although different readers will interpret differently. I believe she saw herself as Marion Kane in the Franchise Affair (loosely based on the 1753 Elizabeth Canning case). Her waspish portrayal in the same novel of a predatory teenage girl probably came from her experience as a teacher. Her dialog of theatrical poseurs probably comes from her contacts in the 1930s London theatre world and shows off her skill as a dramatist – which as noted above she believed to be her first calling. But her plays are long out of print and unperformed; whereas all her detective novels have remained consistently available.

What the biography has done is send me back to the original books. One of my favourites, based on the phoniness of the London theatre world of the 1930s and 40s with a bit of cross-dressing thrown in for good measure, is To Love and Be Wise. I think I’ll start again with that.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Thursday, January 18, 2018


So ... I'm finally out of the prison they call "The Hospital." I have to say they took remarkable care of me. But the stay was still miserable. I was going to stay in the little stone house on our pasture. [It started life as a trading post in the late 1840s,] But that won't happen for a few days.

I came home to spiffy house thanks to my daughters. And Annie made a chocolate cake. I'm posting this and going to bed for a while. Everything is difficult.

Now this: These two photos I'm calling Bright Eyes and Flower Contemplation. Enjoy.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

O Reader's Essay: MOM


     In Britain she would be Mum, in much of America, Mom, and in Wales, Mam.
     I come from the UK, so Mum was the standard. She passed away several months ago aged 98, and those in the know made a few nice comments on this blog and back-channel.
     So this is a brief review of her life.
     She was born in 1919 to older parents. Her father was in his 40s, having risen to company secretary in a very large textile company in Bradford. Her mother had nursed a sweetheart for ten years before he died of MS and was well into her 30s. They met during the First World War at a Gilbert and Sullivan choir practice in London, when he was down south on business and where she came from. He’d put on shows at the Bradford Alhambra Theater, and my grandmother came from a theatrical background and was a singer, accustomed to doing most of the (cruel) older women parts in G and S. They clicked, they married, and along came a single daughter who was doted on.
     Her world came crashing down when her father died suddenly when she was 13. Her mother got away from Bradford as soon as she could having never been truly accepted as a southerner, and finally settled back in London.  My mother grew up but then went back to the Bradford area by accident when training as a nurse during the Second World War. (Nearly seventy years later we took her back again and met school friends she hadn’t seen since a child.)
     My grandmother, when not singing became manageress of a large holiday hotel that put on concerts for residents. On a war time family visit to join her, my mother met the master of ceremonies and official comedian who was there for a resident two week stint. He was a widower, in real life a company secretary like her father, also an entertainer like her father, and more than old enough to actually be her father. It ticked the boxes. On his side he wanted to join a family he really clicked with and the easiest way was to marry the one unattached female in the party. Remnants of that family still remember him with great affection, which is more than my mother did.
     Hence my parents got married, both with totally unrealistic expectations.
     As a child I regularly saw my father on the stage – “That’s my Dad” “Shuuush” – and also both parents performing. They did a routine impersonating two well-known singers in the UK, Ann Zeigler and Webster Booth. They would announce that Ann and Webster had been booked, but weren’t able to come – so instead… My father would be in drag as Ann Zeigler and my mother would do a Vesta Tilley routine as Webster Booth. There was an old vaudeville act in the UK for about 50 years called Wilson, Keppel and Betty who did an Egyptian sand dance, and who kept going so long they used to change the girl playing “Betty” about every seven years. My parents did a pared-down version of their act with just the two of them – I remember that too. I used to think my father’s act was wonderful (and my mother’s contribution not bad) – only later in time did I discover where he stole all his material from. (Towards the end I did some writing for him, which was probably even worse, but that’s another story).
     Not that long after they married my mother embraced a religion that dealt in certainties. She still supported her husband in shows and an annual pantomime at a huge American air base near us, but now drew the line at supporting him in ladies’ night at the Masonic Temple, where he was Grand Master. Keeping up appearances and getting on in business were almost paranoid obsessions of his, and eventually he did a runner.
     He used to say his first wife led him a dog’s life – he was a little more careful about what he said about my mother to me – but his subsequent third marriage was equally dismal for him. My mother summed him up as very funny on stage but a real misery off it. I suspect she had a certain prejudice by that time, but there was probably a kernel of truth in it.
     Anyhow, this is about my mother. She worked full time for the religion she had adopted for several years and then as the sole breadwinner went back to nursing. She kept on nursing all her working life, ending up working in a nursing home where she was older than most of the residents. She loved her work and was nothing if not determined.
     We moved from the suburbs back into London to care for my grandmother when she grew old, and there my mother met her second husband, E. I left home to do voluntary work as soon as I could in my late teens and I think that was an arrangement that suited all of us.
     My abiding memory of my mother over the years was the performing. The meetings she attended gave a certain limited scope for theatricals, which she embraced with a gusto that meant you never knew what you were going to get. Quite often it wasn’t even what she’d planned – she had the let’s-drop-the-props-and-bump-into-the-scenery quality about her – but could improvise. When it was her turn on the platform we would settle down and wait for it.
     There’s an anecdote I’ve told before on this blog, but it sort of fits here again. One of the religious meetings I attended with her was called a school. People rehearsed before an audience how they might approach different sorts of people with their message in such a way that they might get a hearing ear.
     My mother was never contents with just doing it straight. She would dress up for the part. As a little lad I remember she had one special friend who we shall call Eve. They were often put on together. The audience loved it. You never knew what you were going to get. The intent may have been serious, but the results were often Laurel and Hardy.
     We had a meeting room on the outskirts of London that had formerly been a welfare institute for Railway workers. Using what was already at hand, it had quite a high raised platform at one end, and the backdrop was three large panels. The middle one was brought forward about three feet. It meant that you could enter from the rear, either stage left or stage right, walking around the middle panel.
     So picture the scene. My mother appears from rear stage left and sits at a table with her props. She is shelling peas or something similar from that era, wearing an apron and humming a nameless ditty. Everything is lined up for the Oscars. Move over Marlon Brando, this is method acting for all it’s worth.
     Eve is supposed to mime knocking on a door so that my mother can rise and greet her, invite her inside to then be disarmed by Eve’s presentation. Perhaps they had some illustration lined up that would fit the scene. Who knows?
     So my mother sits there, humming away while fiddling with the vegetables, but starts looking less than pleased as long seconds go by. There are appreciative titters from the audience. They’ve no idea what this is about, but it looks like it will be a lot more interesting than the previous part of the program. My mother frowns, and in the loudest of stage whispers known to the hard of hearing mutters out of the side of her mouth - “Eve....Eve... Come on, come on...”
     Nothing happens. My mother scowls. Now she could stop a naughty boy in his tracks at a hundred paces with just a glance. Next, she gets up from her table and with a look like thunder goes to investigate rear stage left.
     The split second she disappears rear stage left, Eve bounds into sight from rear stage right, to be faced with a totally empty platform – no partner, and an audience now in hysterics. The look of first surprise and then panic that covered her face has stayed with me down through the years. The presentation never recovered.
     The years went by and she and her husband left London and came to live near us. From this era, her granddaughter has a memory of being teamed with her – most unwillingly – in a sketch where an older person helps a young person to reason on certain matters. My mother made a big production of presenting my daughter with a notebook and pen, instructing her to write down the litany then presented. My daughter was of an age where she pretended to write and allowed her mind to wander elsewhere, only to be brought up horribly short by her grandmother demanding she read back what she had written… They used to time these playlets and ring a bell when your time was up. If ever “saved by the bell” was apt, this was it.
     The group regularly put on large social gatherings where different ones did their party pieces. (Some would be dire, some would be quite good, and as I became older and respectable I generally escaped by being behind a camera.) Well into her mid-80s, now widowed, my mother would recite Stanley Holloway and Moore Marriot monologues that Brits of a certain age would remember. I would be out there in worry-mode, mouthing the lines along with her in case it all went pear-shaped, but she remained word perfect and had the Yorkshire accent nailed.
     Her last years were sad. She lost her mobility, then her sight, then her hearing to a large degree. We fought and won battles with officials who can only “follow procedures” and watch their own backs to keep her in her own home as she wished as she went from using a motorized wheelchair in supermarkets (running down other shoppers) to a wheelchair we propelled, to permanent bed and carers around the clock.
     Everyone in the area knew her. Her very direct old-school proselytizing was well known, and even though neighbours didn’t share her views they would never turn her away and had a huge affection for her, attending her memorial service along with the carers.
     For me, a history and a lot of memories.