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Proper chips

I’ve concluded that England is in the midst of a national crisis. I’m not talking about affordable housing, pot holes, or the cost of getting a plumber at the weekend. I’m talking about the desperate quality of the chips that so many establishments serve.  

Our chip shops should be wonderful places we can proudly direct tourists to, promising them a meal as good as any weiner schnitzel, moules fritte, or sautéed reindeer.  You should be able to find them in every city, town and village in the land. 

Instead, we give a look of embarrassment when a visitor asks where can they find a chip shop.  I’ve actually been thinking about rounding up some students and organising one of those demonstrations with whistles, banners, and all that kind of thing, and maybe, for good measure, some inflatable haddock and lobsters.

I’ve spent over half of my life in search of the perfect chips, but, with a few exceptions, outstanding chip shops in England are as rare as finding cage fighting on the list of recreational activities in an old people’s home. What you are likely to be served are pale, often hard, chips, usually flecked with green or black, and a fish in a batter that is either soggy or has the texture of a strip of wallpaper. 

Even those places with coloured stickers on the door informing you that Trip Advisor thinks they are excellent (Trip Advisor seems to think everywhere is excellent), or that they have won some sort of award for their dishes are no better. I don’t know who the judges of these awards are but they know as much about chips as I know about electrostatics. 

So what should a perfect plate chips look like?  That’s easy. They should have a golden colour, be crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.

Nowadays you’re more likely to get a plate of decent chips in a pub or a restaurant rather than at a chip shop. I can think of several occasions when I’ve been served something approaching perfection – at a pub on Portobello Road, at another in Bakewell, and in a restaurant in Crystal Place. Yet I have to report that the quality in pubs and restaurants can vary as much as the weather on a Spring day.

The seaside should be the ideal place to enjoy chips.  All that salty air, the big blue sky, and the shimmering sea with a small boat gliding across it.  You can’t think of an English seaside town without thinking of the smell of malt vinegar. Sadly, the situation in most seaside towns has been dire for decades. Last year, I visited Hastings, which – if you ignore the rather shabby road that greets you when you emerge from the station and all the charity shops you pass – is a charming town, with qaint pubs that you could imagine spending all day in, narrow streets with timbered buildings, inviting shops, and even a museum to celebrate fishermen.  We opted to eat in a pleasant looking restaurant just yards from the sea, figuring that in a town which is home to the country’s largest beach-launched fishing fleet, we would be guaranteed a superb plate of fish and chips.  While the cod was succulent, the chips were inedible.  I came away, shaking my head in disbelief and vowing to write a stiff email to the British Potato Council. 

It has taken me a while to discover the best method of cooking chips. At one time, I used to simply drop the chips in hot oil, but they always turned out too hard. Then I tried blanching them in boiling water or cold water before frying. The result was much the same. I tried Heston Blumenthal’s triple cooked method, but I felt this was unnecessarily laborious.  But that’s Heston Blumenthal from you. Why make a task simple when you can make it complicated? 

The perfect method was revealed to me by a chef in one of the BBC’s Good Food videos.  Once you have peeled the potatoes, making sure to remove any green or black bits, and washed them in cold water to get rid of the starch, you pat them dry with paper kitchen towels. You then place a thermometer in the pan and wait for it to reach 130 degrees. You then fry the chips at 130 degrees for seven minutes, remove them from the pan and put them in the fridge for an hour or so, and then return them to the pan for another seven minutes, this time ramping up the heat to 180 degrees. It works every time. You just need to remember not to cut the potatoes too thick, as they will take longer to cook, and not to crowd the pan with too many chips, as this reduces the temperature. 

So which potatoes are best to make chips?  I like Maris Piper and King Edward’s, but my favourite is the slightly creamy Vivaldi, which I’ve only found in Sainsbury’. I do possess one of those compact deep fat fryers, but I stopped using it because you had to fill it with two litres of oil. Instead I use a saucepan, which only requires a litre of oil.  

James Martin says chips should be fried in beef dripping.  He might well be right.  However, vegetable oil is easier to get hold of, and I’ve had no complaints about its results.  

Port chaplain on the Covid-19 frontline

I wonder how many of us realise that without seafarers the NHS wouldn’t have vital medical supplies and equipment, we wouldn’t have fuel, and supermarkets wouldn’t be able to stock much of the food they sell. Seafarers are very much on the Covid-19 frontline.

“If you’re a seafarer, you work on a ship for months at a time. But now you can’t get off it. People say it’s hard having to stay indoors and only go out once or twice a day. But seafarers can’t even do that. It’s very tough for them,” said Father John Lavers when I spoke to him recently. 

He’s the director of chaplaincy for the Catholic charity Stella, and is based in Southampton.   Before he became a priest he worked in intelligence for the Canadian government, specialising in combatting terrorism.

Because he is classified as a key worker, Father John is continuing to provide pastoral care and practical help seafarers through the covid-19 crisis.  

However, he’s not allowed on board ships. And the Stella Maris seafarers’ centre at St Bernard’s church in the city centre has temporarily closed.

He is providing packages made up of sim cards, woolly hats, chocolates, and spiritual reading matter, which he delivers to the bottom of a ship’s gangway and then notifies the seafarer on watch.

Before arriving in port, he has to speak to the port authorities to find out what the situation is and whether there are any cases on ships of seafarers who have been infected by covid-19. While in port, he has to wear latex gloves, a face mask, and carry hand sanitizer.

“Pastoral and spiritual work still happens, but it’s done in a different way.  I use social media to contact seafarers. And I’ll often get requests from seafarers for prayers or for a Mass to be offered for their families back home. Some seafarers have been participating in Mass online.

“There are ships in Southampton with cases of Covid-19 on board, and some ships are self isolating their crew.  If seafarers become worse, they’ll be taken to hospital.

“It’s tough for seafarers. I know of a number of seafarers who are in isolation on a ship. We are working with shipping companies to help them communicate with their families back home.”

There is still a lot of vessels coming in and out of Southampton, he added, but there are less cars pass being transported through the port, because car production is down.  “Many of the large car parks in Southampton are empty.”

There are currently four cruise ships anchored in Southampton and another three further along the coast in Dover. Father estimates there could be between 7,000 – 9,000 crew on board, many of whom are likely to be from the Philippines.

“All the passengers have been disembarked. Some of the crew have been repatriated to their own country, but not many. Some ships are completely virus free.  What is allowed on board is very heavily scrutinised.”

What’s most important for seafarers at this current time is to contact family and friends back home, explained Father John. Because of this, he has received more requests for sim cards. In some cases, ships are providing Wi-Fi for the crew. 

Around a third of the world’s seafarers come from the Philippines, with many others coming from  India and Eastern Europe.

“Seafaring life is generally very isolating. But when you know you have family back home that are fighting the virus. This is very stressful on seafarers They are so far away and can do nothing.

“In some cases, family or friends have died from the virus.  The seafarers feel helpless They can’t leave work. Sometimes they have to work longer than their established contract, because they can’t get home. 

“A seafarer on a nine-month contract is now being asked to work an additional three months. That’s a year. The mental impact on a person is massive. 

“You also have seafarers at home who can’t go to work to earn money for their family. If seafaring is your life and only means of income, it’s a very difficult.  And families back home get stressed when they hear a seafarer is in quarantine or in hospital. This is a very stressful time for seafarers.”

Counter cultural monks

This is an interview I did with Nick Hamer whose powerful and moving documentary film Outside the City gives viewers an insight into the lives and faith of the Cistercian monks at Mount St Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire.

When did you first become aware of Mount St Bernard Abbey?

I discovered Mount St Bernard Abbey during the production of my last feature documentary Dear Albert(2014), which is about recovery from addiction. Several of the characters in Dear Albert were staying clean and sober by following the 12 step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, some of the members of these groups have retreats at Mount St Bernard Abbey.

Mount St Bernard Abbey is not actually featured in Dear Albert, but after hearing about it I spent some time there and became intrigued.

When you decided you wanted to make a film about the monks, what did you think its commercial appeal might be?

It’s wonderful being an independent documentary filmmaker, the task is essentially to follow my interests, and curiosity, and to be committed and passionate about what I discover. These are often long journeys; films can take several years to complete. I’m particularly interested in stories that have spirituality at their heart. Whenever I find something interesting I wonder if this could be my next documentary. But it’s never my decision alone, making a documentary like this is always a collaborative decision between filmmaker and subject. I found in approaching the monastery a warmth, a welcoming attitude, the community wanted to do this too.

The commercial appeal is not a direct consideration. I suppose as a filmmaker intuitively I know if it interests me then there’s an audience.

Why Mount St Bernard Abbey?

I live in Leicester, which is quite close to the monastery, and that’s key, because this film was not funded in any way by the film industry. I tried to attract the finance to make the film, but really this project was never compatible with the commercial imperative, so I financed it myself. I work on corporate and commercial films for about half of my time, which makes this whole thing possible.

Any good filmmaking is essentially a reaction or a response to the social context. This film is my response to our context, to our culture of consumerism, materialism, to the complexity of our lives, to the decline of the ancient religions in this country, to our taboos around death, and our denial of our mortality. Because that’s what makes these men interesting: they represent a counter cultural perspective, a different way of living. Of course the monastic life is not for everyone, but there’s certainly something we can all learn from these monks.

How do you think you managed to persuade the community to let you film?  Did the abbot like the idea from the start?

I spent 18 months developing access with the monastery. These monks have a tradition of hospitality, so I was warmly received. Abbot Fr Erik gave me a lot of time, getting to know each other. He gave me a reading and watching list: Andre Louf, Thomas Merton, Philip Groening, amongst others.

Eventually I started drafting a treatment (a document describing the type of film I would like to make), we went through numerous drafts until we were both happy. This was shared with the community. I was then invited to spend seven days living with the monks, not in the guesthouse, in the novitiate, something usually only reserved from priestly or monastic visitors. After my visit the community unanimously voted to allow me to film for 12 months.

What do you think was the reason the monks allowed you in?

I think when they found me to be trustworthy, respectful of their way of life, and passionate and committed to doing a good job, they were naturally open to the idea, almost like an act of service to an outsider. It’s important for the monks to reach out to the wider community, but at the same time to protect their cloistered lives. Somehow there was a synchronicity here. The most important thing that enabled the film to happen is the context. The monks are in a period of transition, it’s a historic moment in the life of the community, a change is taking place. This attracts me as a filmmaker, because it’s a story to tell, but also it’s important for the monks to document this defining moment.

How long did it take from idea to agreement through to actual shoot? Give me some idea of a timescale?

The whole project has lasted four years, that’s older than my youngest son.

Is there anything in particular that you felt you really learned about the contemplative life during that time?

There’s a common misconception that the monk is someone who has run away from the city to find a place of solitude to encounter God. That in escaping the city, the monk leaves behind the sins of the world: envy, gluttony, anger, greed, and so on. In fact, it is in the silence and solitude of the contemplative life that the monk truly discovers the sin of the world, on a much more profound level than in the city. Turning his attention interiorly, the monk discovers the sin of the world in his own heart, and at the same time as encountering the self he encounters the divine, and this is the place of transformation.

What impressed you most about the monks? 

I once asked Fr Erik what was his true purpose for being here. He told me it is to encounter God. I asked him how it was going. He chuckled and told me, yes, it is going. He went on to explain, there’s a tendency in our culture to imagine the spiritual life as a journey of acquisition, whereby we add to ourselves, virtues, knowledge, experience, but, in fact, it’s much more of a shedding, a stripping away.

If I ever doubt Fr Erik’s perspective on this, I just remind myself where we’re headed. We’re all on the same trajectory, to the grave. And we’re not taking anything with us. Either you’re ready for that or you’re not. I imagine myself waking up on the other side and wondering if I really exist, because of course I largely define my sense of self by my patterns of consumption, the things I own, what everyone else thinks of me. But who am I if all of this is stripped away, do I even exist? Well of course I do, there’s an essential me beneath it all, but do I ever encounter him? Not often. The monks understand this, and they believe that the direction to knowing yourself is the same direction as encountering the divine. They’re ready for the grave, and are ultimately buried without even a casket, just in their cowl.

How easy was it to get the monks to open up about the life they live (and perhaps struggles they might have or have had)?

As you watch Outside the Cityyou’ll sense an openness and intimacy, the monks speak freely about their lives and experiences. This is real. But in fact, the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject in documentary filmmaking is quite unique. We get to the heart of the matter quickly, the permission is there, no small talk. What’s the point? The stage is set, it’s the subjects opportunity to be heard, and the filmmaker is working to make the subject comfortable.

The monks switched from running a farm to brewing beer. How important is this to the future of the community?

Brewing beer is essential to the monks, it provides their income, they don’t receive any outside sources of finances from Church institutions. They make their own money and pay their own way, work is an essential part of their way of life.

What do you think the audience might learn from the film?

I’m trying to give the audience an experience of encounter with this community, rather than teach them something specific. I spent a year with the monks, and it’s difficult for me to say what I learnt, but I’ve certainly changed as a result. The film is never finished until the audience receives it, they bring their own context to the story and respond accordingly. The scenes of death will be particularly confronting for most of the audience, and I expect this to be a place of spiritual growth for them.

What about your own religious/spiritual background? How would you describe it?

My own religious background is in the Protestant, evangelical, charismatic church. I was raised as a Christian in this way. I’ve just turned 40, and over the last ten years I’ve become hungry for a different kind of spirituality. The mysticism and contemplative life of these monks in many ways represents a counter cultural perspective to my own religious context: a busy, noisy, full of certainty way of expressing the faith. I’m not looking for the right answer anymore, rather an authentic experience, I’ve certainly found that at Mount St Bernard Abbey.

What was the hardest part to film? 

It’s always hard to film when nothing is happening. The subject becomes really aware of the camera and the truth of the situation becomes hard to find. Fortunately, the monks are always engaged in doing something. It’s part of their commitment to live in the present tense. Their contemplative life, means that most of the time they are engaged, even when they’re doing nothing at all.

How did you become a documentary maker?

I became a filmmaker firstly through training, inspiration, ambition and determination. But ultimately, and most importantly defining myself as a filmmaker by doing the making of films. It’s difficult, there are no real professional qualifications in filmmaking in this country, and it’s an elitist industry. Most documentary filmmakers went to public schools, red brick universities, and are independently wealthy, giving them the freedom to pursue this artistic and social endeavor. I’m not against that, but I’m not from that kind of background, and I have not received funding during the production of my two feature documentaries, instead I made money doing commercial filmmaking which financed both my life and the films.

I’ve been a professional filmmaker for 16 years. My first film was a short documentary for ITV in 2004 about exorcist priests in the Church of England, it’s called Deliver us from evil. Since then I’ve worked all over the world for corporate clients, and NGOs, producing commissioned films. 

What was the monk’s reaction to the film?

The monks love the film. They laugh a lot. Places where other audiences wouldn’t laugh. This is testament to my success in capturing their unique characters. The look at each other and say, “Oh, Br Martin would say that” or “Well, of course, Fr Hilary wants to talk on that subject.” They laugh with delight at each other.

Plotting a novel

One of the hardest things about writing a novel is coming up with a plot. Okay, I have a story idea and a main character, but how do I create situations that keep the story moving? This can seem a huge mountain to climb.

EM Forster, the author of A Room With A View, famously said plot is “a narrative of events, with the emphasis on causality… The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief’ is a plot.”

The other day while Googling plot, I stumbled across a method J.K.Rowling used in her books. She produced a hand drawn plot spread sheet and in the columns listed the repetition of themes, characters, places, ideas etc, so she could see at a glance how they evolved.

Author Stuart Horowitz prefers the term “series”, not plot, to describe the method Rowling used. I think this is a more helpful and fruitful way to think about plotting a novel.

So I’ve started to use this Rowling approach in plotting the novel I’m currently working on. And I have to say, it certainly does make it easier to keep track of what happens and what needs to happen in the story.

Series” is what author Stuart Horwitz says shodislikes the word plot

Remembering Clive James

The recent death of Clive James is the death of a genuine intellectual, and an intellectual who was popular, mainly because he could be extremely funny.  This edited extract from P.J. O’Rourke’s introduction to Unreliable Memoirs captures some of what made him such a great and engaging writer.

“What accounts for Unreliable Memoirs being the best memoir in the world? And by that I mean no backhand compliment. The memoir genre has suffered an over-grown pullulating decadence of bloom in the 35 years since Clive’s work was published. One need only be bitten by a shark or fondled by a stepdad to unload one’s history upon the reading public. Nowadays to say “best memoir in the world” is almost to say “best fart in an elevator”.

But do not blame Clive. His book trails none of the stink of the up-to-date memoir. Especially it has no funk of message — no fetor of ” setting goals”, no reek of “courageous persistence”, no effluvium of “self-acceptance”, and none of the fetid compost-heap putrescence of “finding my inner me”.

Nor does Clive ever fall back upon that most pathetic trope of storytellers, “And it really happened.” On the contrary Clive starts his preface to Unreliable Memoirs by saying, “Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel.” Thus Clive becomes, so far as I know, the first honest memoirist. And, so far as I see, the last.

Unreliable Memoirs is written with a mastery of the honest and a down-the-hole understanding of its pitfalls. Honesty comes in various types and the best is exaggeration.

Art students at work preparing the Orientation Week issue of Honi Soit at the University of Sydney in February 1960. From left, Marie Taylor, Jane Iliff, Madeleine St John and Sue McGowan watch Clive James typing while the editor,  David Ferraro, and Helen Goldstein plan other pages. 

Art students at work preparing the Orientation Week issue of Honi Soit at the University of Sydney in February 1960. From left, Marie Taylor, Jane Iliff, Madeleine St John and Sue McGowan watch Clive James typing while the editor, David Ferraro, and Helen Goldstein plan other pages.

Clive exaggerates to wonderfully honest effect. He sets to work with singular material, a combination of an exceptional young mind, an upbringing in the exotically named town of Kogarah, a pained childhood with his father, a Japanese prisoner of war, surviving only to die in a repatriation plane crash and his mother worn by worry and toil and, finally, tragedy. Then Clive, by a wild act of exaggeration, makes all this universal. He takes the yeast of his memory and plants it in the bread dough of ours.

The motto of other memoirs is “Know Me.” The motto of Unreliable Memoirs is the better version, inscribed on the temple of the Delphic Oracle. Or, I should say, the motto is “Getting to Know Thyself, Slowly” – the inscription at Delphos as written by a man too modest to use the imperative mood.

But not so modest that he’s dull and unrevealing about the nature of “The Kid from Kogarah” both inside: “Having a character that consists mainly of defects …” And out: “Similarly uncontrollable was my virile organ, which chose the most inconvenient moments to expand. For some reason riding on the top deck of the trolley bus led to a spontaneous show of strength.”

It is a book of embarrassment. Clive in his room lets the neighbourhood fat kid climb on top of the wardrobe to “bed bomb” in a flying belly flop onto Clive’s mattress. “He had … a behind like a large bag of soil …The frame of the bed snapped off its supports with the noise of a firing squad …” The author hides from his mother. “Once again it was very dark under the house.”

Clive at university falls in with bohemian aesthetes. “It was my first, cruel exposure to the awkward fact that the arts attract the insane.”

Anyone who is or has been “getting to know thyself, slowly” blushes with recall of suchlike. Yet, universal as Unreliable Memoirs may be, it is not an Everyman’s Memoir. Instead, this is an Every-Thinking-Person’s memoir. It’s a record of the chaos each individual releases into the world at birth. The need for that individual to think is evident in the well-thought-out descriptions of the protagonist’s thoughtless acts, ” … helping to restore the colour in a faded patch of the lounge-room carpet …by rubbing a whole tin of Nugget dark tan boot-polish into the deprived area.”

It is a book of embarrassment rather than humiliation. The root meaning of humiliation is to be humbled, ground into dust underfoot. That can’t be done to Clive James by any person; he’d stub his toe on Clive’s works.

And Unreliable Memoirs is full of lessons on how to overcome embarrassment, or impediments. Although I think these lessons leaked out by mistake. Clive means to entertain. But Clive is so profoundly entertaining that you can’t help but learn something by watching his act.

First, read deeply. I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe reading is a way of tying yourself to the mast so that you can hear the siren-song of ordinary life without smashing on the rocks of everyday existence and becoming a journeyman plumber in New South Wales.

More likely, reading thousands of books is a way of being intimate friends with thousands of people, an impracticality in life, particularly when the intimate friends died before you were born.

Everything in print is a personal and confidential confession to the reader and begins with a literal or implied “I.” Even the mild first sentence of Unreliable Memoirs – “I was born in 1939.” – is not something you’d tell a stranger on a trolley bus, especially not on the top deck.

I do know Clive has read Evelyn Waugh’s A Little Learning, but more learnedly than the way Waugh wrote it. He’s read H. L. Mencken’s Happy Days, wiping the satisfied smirk off its face. He’s read Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, which is autobiography as thinly disguised as Clive in his brief childhood career as “the Flash of Lightening”. (“You would not have known, when this sinister avatar caught and slipped your startled gaze, that his mask and cape had been made by his mother.”) However, Clive writes a Bildungsroman without any tedious Bildungs.

Clive is the best-read person I’ve ever known. He’s read it all, often in its original language, no matter if the language is as unwonted as Russian or Japanese. Once, before the dawn of Google, I asked Clive for the source of a bit of Ring Lardner dialogue that I wanted to use in a travel article. I couldn’t find the quotation in my, I thought, complete set of Lardner.

“The Young Immigrunts,” said Clive, “published in 1920, page 78.” I can’t absolutely swear that Clive said, “page 78.” But there it was.

Clive is a great talker but he’s no mere solo artist. He talks beautifully in duet and ensemble. He does it by listening. Here is Clive listening to his Sunday School teacher: ” … Mr. Purvis would launch into an attack on beer and Catholicism. He pronounced beer bee-ar. The legionaries who pee-arsed Christ’s side with a spee-ar had undoubtedly been enslaved to bee-ar. A sure sign of Catholicism’s fundamental evil was that it required the drinking of wine even in church, wine being mee-arly another form of bee-ar.”

Be self-conscious. Someone else may be looking at a clear path across the lounge-room carpet to the loo. Clive spies the ice-slick patch of Nugget dark tan boot-polish that’s only a step away.

And fail at most of the things you try. No, fail at all of them. The Victorian critic John Churton Collins said, “The secret of success in life is known only to those who have not succeeded.” And Collins would know. His entry in The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English ends, “Morbidly interested in murder, spiritualism and graveyards, and depressive in temperament, he drowned himself near Lowestoft.”

Clive finds a cheerier message in Collins’ aphorism. Fail at everything anyone has ever done. Then you’ll have to come up with something new that no one has done before or will do again, such as write Unreliable Memoirs.

Two Ronnies: London stations conversation

Thanks to the excellent blog Ian Visits for discovering this hilarious Two Ronnies sketch where they have a conversation on a train using the names of London Tube stations.

It’s a superb piece of comedic writing.

RB: Oh, High Barnet.

RC: Mornington Crescent.

RB: ‘ere, don’t Strand up there, Old Street, Regents Park your Barkingside down there.

RC: There we are. Well, I must say it’s Chorleywood to see you again. Harrow-on-the-Hill are you?

RB: Oh, mustn’t grumble. Still getting them pains in me Dalston Junction. Epping nuisance, they are. What about Euston?

RC: Ah, Fairlop to Marylebone thanks, you know. Tottenham Hale and Highbury most of the time.

RB: What about the missus?

RC: Oh, well.

RB: Oh, Dollis Hill, is she?

RC: No, no, Chigwell. Oh yeah, Chigwell, the old Elephant and Castle.

RB: And your brother-in-law, what’s his name?

RC: What, Greenford, you mean?

RB: Yeah.

RC: Oh, still very

RB: A bit Queensway, is he?

RC: Yeah, Brent as Notting Hill Gate as a matter of fact. Mixing with a very funny crowd ‘n’ all. you know

RB: I heard that. He was going around with the Theydon Bois at one time, wasn’t he? Big fellas, aren’t they?

RC: Wapping.

RB: Well, it was Islington down about six o’clock this morning, won’t it.

RC: Absolutely poured with Rayners Lane. Very Wembley Parky out there ‘n’ all now, you know.

RB: Still, good for the Covent Garden, isn’t it?

RC: What, all that Bayswater you mean?

RB: Yeah, Turnham Green that will. Here, my wife wanted to Dagenham up the old Arnos Grove, plant something Bushey and Oxhey instead.

RC: She know a lot about Kew Gardens, then?

RB: No, Vauxhall as a matter of fact. Watford High Street’s the matter with you?

RC: Earls Court up in my Hatch End, I think. There we are, that’s Becontree.

RB: Here, you fancy a Putney after work down the Angel?

RC: More than my Rickmansworth. My wife thinks I’m Maida Vale as it is. If I Ruislip down the Angel I’ll very probably end up all Totteridge and Whetstone. There’ll be Hammersmith to pay when I get home.

RB: Bit of an Aldwych your old lady, is she, eh? Yeah, mine’s just the same. I have to get down on my Hampsteads and Neasdens if I want to go for a Pimlico, you know.

RC: Rotherhithe than me. What’s this? Ah, here we are. That’s it. Aldgate off here, Watford about you?

RB: No, Cockfosters.

RC: Tooting Bec for now, then.

RB: Tooting Bec.

RB: Oi ‘ere, you left your Barbican. Silly Arsenal.

Holidays in Europe

Your eyes wander longingly over the colourful photos on Google images of a picturesque village perched on top of a hill, with steep, narrow, winding streets, a castle, and a medieval church, looking like something out of a fairy tale, and you think, “Oh! let’s go there.”  

You imagine sitting in the sunshine outside a small bar with a bottle of chilled red wine on the table in front of you, taking in the entrancing scene around you – smiling locals emerging from the bakery opposite, clutching loaves of fresh crusty bread, two craggy-face old men in black berets deep in conversation hunched over a chess board on a bench under a sycamore tree, the smell of garlic and mussels wafting from the nearby bistro – with just the sound of birds twittering merrily in the background. Perfection!

The receptionist in the hotel, after much rummaging through glossy brochures and leaflets, most of them, apparently, out of date, tells you that there’s an hourly bus service to the village. So the next morning, filled with anticipation, off you go. You sit back in your seat on the bus, looking out of the window at sparkling fields and farm houses, and congratulating yourself on finding such a pretty place to visit, and contemplating a blissful and tranquil day.

But when your bus deposits you at the bottom of the hill, you immediately realise, with some alarm, that you are surrounded by several hundred excited Chinese tourists, all wielding selfie sticks and umbrellas, and wearing funny peaked hats. 

So you have no alternative but to follow them up the hill, and when you reach the top you are confronted by several hundred more Chinese tourists about to make their way down.  Instead of the serene village you had imagined you find yourself being jostled along narrow streets filled with shops selling expensive painted crockery, novelty t-towels, scented soaps, and designer shoes. There’s no smell of garlic or mussels, but there’s that unmistakeable smell of money.

That’s the problem with going on holiday to Europe nowadays. Everywhere is so crowded. At one time the Chinese wore identical cheap-looking suits, could only afford to get around on wobbly bikes, and for a holiday had to settle for a few days in Beijing, where the main attraction was watching a military parade with lots of rocket launchers. Now, they are flush with yuan from manufacturing suitcases, air conditioner units, and pop-up toasters. And they like Europe. Once they only came here to sell us shredded chicken fried rice noodles and sweet and sour king prawn balls in tin foil cartons, while redefining customer service. Now, they are here to see what a funny lot we Europeans are. And there’s nothing wrong in that. We are a funny lot. Well, at least the Germans and the Belgians are. But will someone tell me why do the Chinese insist on travelling everywhere in such huge groups?  Have they never read Eat, Pray, Love?

While Europe may feel crowded, it’s nothing compared to what it must be like in China. China accounts for around a fifth of the planet’s population.  That’s staggering if you pause to think about it. Imagine what it must be like trying to get a plumber or book a GP appointment.  “Your call is important. You are…three…hundred…and eighth…in the queue.”

What draws so many Chinese to Europe each year is not our wonderful cathedrals, art galleries, and monuments? Nor is it our quaint villages and towns and beautiful countryside. True, they go to take photos of all this, but it’s not really why they have flown several thousand miles. No, they come here mainly to shop. The Chinese are serious shoppers.

So imagine how disappointed they must feel if they go to Venice and shell out for a piece of its famous cut glass, and then when they return home discover where it was really made. Shanghai.

Books and reviews

I wonder if I’m alone in looking at the one and two star reviews on Amazon when searching for an interesting book.

I began doing this a few years ago after buying a number of books based on four and five star reviews. With a few exceptions, they turned out to be hugely disappointing.

The problem when it comes to reviews of books is that we all have different tastes. Books are like food in that sense.

For example, some people find the best-selling American “humourist” David Sedaris very funny. I’ve tried reading several of his books, but they left me cold. And when I looked at the one and two star reviews afterwards, I found they articulated my own response.

If a book on Amazon has the “Look Inside” feature, I’ll begin to read the first chapter. If the writing doesn’t captivate me in the first few pages, I’ll move on.

There’s another issue related to reviews. And that’s how publishers all too frequently over hype an author.  Often there’ll be a quote on the front of the cover from some big name, but I’ve learned not to trust these. I know from personal experience that the chances are the big name hasn’t even read the book.

So how do you find a book that you are going to enjoy? There’s no easy answer. A recommendation from a friend can be one way, but it’s not guaranteed.

Some of the best books I’ve read are ones that I have stumbled across by accident, either when browsing on Amazon or rooting around in a charity shop.

There are some great books out there waiting to be discovered. It’s just a matter of finding them. So I’ll keep to reading Amazon’s one and two star reviews.

An extract from Waiting for the Night Bus

I walked in apprehensively, carrying my props in a holdall, to be greeted by the sight of a load of blokes with tattoos and boxer’s noses crowded around the bar talking loudly above the sound of Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man. While The Trafalgar Arms could be rough, this place looked like a training camp for psychopaths. In the corner under a window was a small podium with a microphone stand on it and a drum kit and amps. I felt panic began to descend on me.  Why on earth had I decided to do this? I must have been crazy. But I couldn’t back out now.

I went up to the bar and introduced myself to the landlord.

‘You need to get changed or anything?’ he said.

‘Is there a room I can go to?’ I asked.

‘You must be joking. You’ll have to use the gents.’ 

‘The gents?’

‘Yeah. They’re at the back.’

‘Oh. Okay, then.’

All of the cubicles had puddles of water on the floor, broken locks, missing door hooks. Trying to remove your jeans and put on a pair of shorts while balancing on one leg is not an easy task. 

After finishing work one evening, I had bought a copy of The Stagefrom the news kiosk outside Victoria Station.  This was an odd thing for someone not particularly interested in theatre to do, but perhaps at the back of my mind I was still remembering my performance in A Doll’s House in a draughty college hall back in Derbyshire. I say performance, but all I had been required to do was walk on to the stage in the opening scene carrying a Christmas tree and say, ‘Fifty ore.’  

Maybe also at the back of my mind were the memories of being a bingo caller, when I would be greeted like a celebrity by elderly women, who appeared to be sponsored by the makers of Grecian 2000. When I hopped onto the podium and flicked the switch on the machine that sucked bouncing coloured balls up through a chute into a Perspex box, they would be sitting there with cheap pens posed over their cards and eyeing me with intense expressions on their faces that suggested they believed I possessed sacred powers.

I had arrived in London full of optimism and energy, but I could feel all this starting to drain away from me. I had sent more letters to magazines and newspapers enquiring if they had any vacancies, but, as before, I hadn’t received a reply from any of them. I can recall looking up at the tall IPC building in Stamford Street, which was the home of numerous magazines, and wondering what it would be like to work there.

I’d written to a number of colleges and universities to ask if they might consider me for an English degree course with my current set of qualifications. The reply from each one was the same: no. The sticking point was that I didn’t possess a second A level. All I had was a grade E in religious studies. The category below is an F, meaning a fail. I wasn’t going to give up, though. I drew inspiration not just from Educating Rita, but also from Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure, in which a young man in a small village finally achieves his dream of going to university.

I was twenty-five, working in a crummy job, living in a tiny room, and with zero in the bank. I wanted more from life. Like Jude, I also had a dream. It sounds a cliché to say follow your dream, but I think you have to. We only get one shot at life. It’s not a rehearsal. 

In the classified adverts at the back of The StageI had stumbled across several for pub talent shows. ‘Anyone welcome,’ they all said. Why don’t I give it a go? I thought. I was desperate to do something to combat the boredom at Expresso each day, and I was more or less prepared to give anything a go.  

I plucked up the courage and phoned one of the pubs, The Frog and Nightgown on the Old Kent Road. 

‘So what sort of stuff do you do?’ asked the landlord.

I paused and then found myself saying, ‘Well, er, comedy.’

‘You’re a comedian, are you?’

‘Yeah,’ I said, surprising myself at how easily I had taken on my new persona.

He chuckled. ‘Well, you’d better be good, mate, because they all think they’re bloody comedians in this place. Come down next Friday for seven thirty, then.’

Waiting for the Night Bus

My second memoir, Waiting for the Night Bus, was published today. It’s always a big moment when you have book published. It’s a bit like giving birth.

I’m absolutely delighted with how eye-catching the cover is, thanks to the fantastic work of artist Jeremy Sanders and cover designer Mike Keeling-Smith.

If you lived through the 1980s in London, then the book might resonate with some of your experiences. Writing this memoir made me realise just how much London, and Britain, has changed in the last 35 years.

Back in the 1980s there was no internet and mobile phones, few decent places to eat that were affordable, and people bought newspapers to find out what was happening. More or less anyone could afford to buy a property, jobs were much more secure, and there was no obsession with health and safety.

There was no Canary Wharf, 02 Arena, Docklands Light Railway, and hardly any luxury apartment blocks along the river. In many high streets you would find branches of Woolworth, C & A, and British Home Stores. And you could hop on and off Routemaster buses.

But cities are always changing. It’s their nature. I wonder how different London will look in another 35 years.

David Pritchard: a TV genius

The death recently of TV producer David Pritchard will have saddened those, like me, who love the Keith Floyd and Rick Stein programmes.

Pritchard was the man who discovered both cooks. He not only turned them into household names, he came up with a new style of cookery programme. Floyd and Stein didn’t cook in a TV studio; they cooked outdoors and they undertook gastronomic journeys, where they visited fish markets, small restaurants, bakeries, farms, and even people’s homes.  They shared their passion for good produce their curiosity about food, its culinary history, and the people who produced it.

Although Pritchard was the man behind the camera, we occasionally glimpsed him or heard him asking Floyd or Stein a question. In a scene in one of Stein’s programmes in Spain, Pritchard can be heard saying, “You didn’t really like that did, you?” Stein pauses and then says, “I did…I really did…I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t.”  I sensed from the expression on Stein’s face that Pritchard was right.

Pritchard’s love of good food and good wine meant that he was a natural to make such programmes. When you watch any of his programmes you sense that everyone is having a great time, and probably an even better time when all the equipment was packed away and they head off to find a restaurant or bar.

His book Shooting the Cookprovides a fascinating behind the scenes look at how they were made and some of the inevitable arguments and disasters that happened. In one case, Floyd stormed off, and it looked like the programme wasn’t going to be made. Of course, it was.

I can watch the Floyd and Stein programmes again and again. They are simply wonderful. You feel that you too are there in France, Italy, Thailand, or wherever, and they are so entertaining and insightful. This is down not just to the presence of Floyd or Stein, but also to Pritchard creativity and feel for where and what he was filming. He was a genius.

In his obituary in The Guardian, Tom Jaine wrote, “My own small memory of it is of having lunch on the seafront at Arcachon, south of Bordeaux, one summer when striding along the promenade came a posse of bulky Englishmen who turned out to be Pritchard and the crew assessing the location for their next series, Rick Stein’s Long Weekends. The encounter was jolly.”

The demise of Front Row

The scene is a planning meeting for Front Row, BBC Radio 4’s flagship arts programme, at the BBC’s expensive offices in Salford. Around the table are sat the production team.

Editor: “So, what do we all think about Jake’s idea? The guy who’s written the novel about the orphan who gets into crime but then finds his way and becomes rich?”

Researcher: “Is he black?”

Jake: “No.”

Producer: “Gay?”

Jake: “Don’t think so.”

Researcher: “Is he a woman?”

Jake: “Er, he’s a man.”

Researcher: “Oh, yeah…Trans?”

Jake: “Doubt it.”

Editor: “Does he mention the gender pay gap, then?”

Jake: “No, nothing like that.”

Producer: “What about homophobia?”

Jake: “That doesn’t come up.”

Researcher: “What about anti-establishment?”

Jake: “Yeah, you could say that.”

Editor: “Is he anti-Trump, though?”

Jake: “The thing is, the story’s set in Victorian times.”

Editor: “Sorry, you did say. What’s his moral line?”

Jake: “I suppose he takes a traditional Christian view of things.”

Editor: “No good, then. Sorry, Jake. Now, let’s move on…Tell you what, I really like the idea about this arts festival for gay dog owners…” 

I’ve been listening to Front Row for several years, and I’ve heard some great interviews. But, increasingly, when I tune in now I find myself feeling that I am being preached at. I get the impression that some items on the show have not be chosen for their artistic merit, but rather because they tick the politically correct boxes drawn up by BBC bureaucrats who are part of the diversity and equality industry.

Recently, for example, it seems that the main focus of many discussions or interviews on the programme is what a book, play, film, or piece of art has to say about women: the Me Too movement, inequality, under representation, gender stereotypes, sexuality.

Front Row is in danger of becoming a parody of itself – just like the programme depicted in the new Alan Partridge TV series.