Nice Times (5)

Ollie was born in the bungalow next door, and since lives with us in a bungalow on one level. When he was less than one year old, we asked our next door neighbours the other side to look after him overnight, so we could go to a wedding in Hertfordshire. We took him into their two-storey house to make sure he would settle there, and he spotted the stairs. Although he had no idea what they were, he ran straight up them immediately, then stood on the landing looking down at us. Then he rushed back down, repeating the process numerous times until he was out of breath. He thought they were a game, like a child on a slide in the park. It was so delightful to see him discovering stairs.

A long weekend in Rome, a present for my 50th birthday and my first time in Italy. On the first morning, we walked from the hotel to see The Colosseum. It was so much better than I had expected, and just took my breath away with its grandeur and history. Standing inside, I pictured the gladiators fighting on the sand of the large arena, and the crowds watching. Some things are more wonderful than you can ever imagine they might be, and that was one of them.

After the break up of my first marriage, I had to basically learn from scratch how to fend for myself. Determined not to fall into bad eating habits like microwave meals and shop-bought pizzas, I bought a copy of Delia Smith’s book, ‘How To Cook’. Following her instructions to the letter, I cooked myself a small joint of pork with roast potatoes, accompanied by red cabbage cooked with apples and spices. I sat and ate it on my own, in the small house I had bought in London’s Docklands development. It was delicious!

In 2000, I had moved from Hertfordshire into my flat near Regent’s Park, in Camden. My (second) ex-wife contacted me and said she was going to be shopping in the west end that Saturday with a friend I knew well, and asked if I would like to meet up. I met them in Soho, at a coffee bar in Old Compton Street that was known for selling delicious cakes. (Amato, sadly since closed down) The late Spring weather was lovely, and I was feeling good. We had a nice chat over coffee and cakes, and when they left, I wandered over to Charing Cross Road to look in some of the second-hand bookshops that the area is famous for. I bought three hardback books, and strolled home to the flat, stopping at a pub in Tottenham Court Road. I sat outside drinking a glass of wine, and flicking through the books I had bought. Happy to be back in the heart of the city.

A year later, in 2001, I made the unexpected decision at the age of 49 to leave the Ambulance Service and go to work for the Metropolitan Police. I had to attend the Police Training Centre in Hendon, and complete an intensive 14-week course. It was a pass or fail course, and I knew that if I didn’t get through I would be out of a job for the first time since my youth. I found it hard, as I was the oldest one in the class, and had very little experience of using computers. But when we had the final crucial examination, I passed in the top half of the group. As I drove home that evening, I felt I had really achieved something.

My London: A Short Film

My good friend Antony sent me a link to this 24-minute film about the area of London where we both used to live. He grew up there, and I lived there from 2000-2012.

This is not the London that tourists tend to see, but it is ‘real’ London, and a short walk north of most tourist sites. It is also packed full of interesting history, as you will see if you get time to watch it. Presented by a Londoner who obviously enjoys his city, it took me back to where I lived, the streets I used to walk on every day, and the pubs and restaurants I frequented for the last years of my time in London.

Drummond Street, Albert Street, Delancey Street, The Black Cat Building that I lived so close to, and the bus stop outside the old orphanage where I waited for a bus to work if it was raining too hard to walk there. Mornington Crescent Station, my nearest tube station, just across the road from the flats I used to live in.

It is a sheer delight for me to watch this, and I hope you will too, to discover that there is so much more to London than Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square.

Significant Songs (24)

Surrender

Over the course of a fairly long life, (so far) I have seen many live performances by music artists. To be honest, most of them were disappointing. After relishing the quality of studio productions, live gigs rarely lived up to expectations, at least in my opinion. I have had a few disappointments, together with a few pleasant surprises, but little has really stood out for me, to better the original recordings. As I got older, I went less and less, convinced that I would be unhappy, and that it just wasn’t worth the bother, and the not inconsiderable expense.

I have mentioned the British group Swing Out Sister before on this blog. Fronted by the talented vocalist Corinne Drewery, this band fused 1980’s pop music with Jazz, and created a unique place for themselves on the music scene. Their debut album ‘It’s Better To Travel’, was an instant purchase for me in 1987, and the hit single release from that record, ‘Breakout’, was an international hit. I didn’t even think about going to see them live. I considered that the electronics, allied to the varied instruments used, would undoubtedly make it difficult to reproduce the sound that I loved so much.

The second single release, ‘Surrender’, was even better than the first. Though not such a big hit, it was truer to the overall feel and style of the band’s sound, and was a favourite track of mine from the recently issued album. I eventually went to see them perform live, almost thirteen years later, at the Jazz Cafe in London’s Camden. As I lived a short walk from this venue, I decided that it might be interesting, to finally see them in person. In such an intimate space, on a very small stage, I really didn’t expect the group to be able to match the sound that I was used to on their recordings. I was just going out of curiosity, and to see the delightful Corinne Drewery, she of the perfect bobbed hair, and wonderful tone.

From the moment they started the set, I knew that I was witnessing something, that for me, was a first. Not only did they match their CD sound, they improved on it, and I felt privileged to be there, and to be a part of it. They had played for three nights there, and I was at the last performance. It left me wishing that I had been to the other two as well. Not only was the atmosphere convivial, with obviously dedicated and loyal fans, but the sound was fabulous. ‘Surrender’ is a track with a big sound, and I thought it would be impossible for them to reproduce it there. But they did (almost), and it was great. It was nearly as good as the CD track, and that’s saying something.

After the gig, Ms Drewery toured the auditorium, chatting to regular fans, selling CD recordings from a basket, and just being a very nice lady. I told her how much I had liked the set, and she was gracious in her reply. I was so overwhelmed to meet her, and still reeling from the evening, that I forgot to ask her to have her photo taken with me. I doubt I will ever see the group again, but I treasure the memory of the ‘perfect gig’. Here is the song, exactly as I heard it that night, recorded live at the Jazz Cafe in 2000, followed by the album version.

Significant Songs (4)

Woman Trouble

In the year 2000, I was 48 years old. I had just moved to Camden, and was living alone, for the first time in ages. I had a new car, and like many tracks featured in this series, I heard a record on the radio in that car, that I had had not heard before. I couldn’t keep still in my seat, and found myself jiggling around, oblivious to strange stares from other drivers, in the heavy traffic leading out to Brent Cross. I didn’t really catch the name of the song, as I was too busy humming along to it, and car-dancing like a fool, to listen to the announcement at the end. I wanted to listen to it again, straight away, and felt empty when it had ended.

I had to endure the embarrassment of going into a record shop in Central London the next day, and asking the juvenile assistant for a record that went “something like this”. What followed was the worst rendition of the tune ever, followed by a puzzled look on the youngster’s face. I suddenly remembered some words, “Oh- ‘fantastic, boombastic’. This snippet was enough to provide the recent school leaver with enough information. He steered me to a CD, telling me “it’s on this, it’s called ‘Woman Trouble’.” The boy knew his trade, and it was the right record, as he confirmed by playing a snatch from the track in the shop. When I said “wrap it up”, he seemed perplexed, and asked, “Do you know it is a compilation of UK garage, you know, like 2-step, by Artful Dodger?” I assured him that it was the right one, and hurried home to play it.

To say that a CD of thirteen tracks, is a classic, and almost flawless, is high praise indeed. However, this compilation of different songs by Artful Dodger, using various samples, assorted vocalists, and fantastic arrangements, is as near perfect as it gets. Young singers, at the top of their game fourteen years ago, render near-perfect songs, and accompanied by haunting melodies, thumping beats, and high production values, the whole thing is a wonder for the ears to behold. There is one track that I am not that bothered about, but one out of thirteen is pretty good odds. This CD is rarely out of my car, and is enjoyed as much today, as it was then. If anything, it gets better with time. As well as the track that led me to seek it out, there are other delights. ‘Think about me’, ‘Please Don’t Turn Me on’, ‘Movin’ Too Fast’, and ‘Re Re-Wind’, to name four more. The CD is called ‘It’s All About The Stragglers’, and is available from Amazon for £3.08p, the price of a large cappuccino. I suggest you buy it, but then I would, wouldn’t I?

OK, what was a 48 year old (now almost 62) doing listening to UK Garage, and jumping around in his car, like an unruly teenager? All I can say, is that if you can listen to this and not move an inch, see a doctor. Here is the track in question, an ‘official video’. Try the others please, they are all out there somewhere, free of charge.

London Life (3)

My previous two posts on this subject painted a less than attractive picture of living in London. They need to be balanced, to some degree, by this post about the positive side of London Life. After all, if it was that terrible, nobody would stay there, would they?

 
London has many parks, and most are well-known, even to outsiders. Perhaps the best two parks are the ones most used by locals, and less known to visitors to the centre. Primrose Hill, between Camden Town, and St. John’s Wood, offers one of the best views over London available from anywhere in the Capital. A short climb up the hill, which is surrounded by a small park, rewards the visitor with a marvellous vista, stretching across Central London to the river, and beyond. When it has been snowing, toboggans and sleds appear suddenly, and local children and adults alike, take advantage of the steep incline, to enjoy the closest you can get to winter sport in the City. On Firework Night, or New Year’s Eve, locals make the climb, in any weather, to enjoy the free show of fireworks from every area of London, visible as from no other location. On hot summer days, lovers, friends, and families take picnics to the hill and the park, to enjoy the open space, and get some relief from the heat inside the area’s small homes. There are occasional tourists, wandering there from Camden Market, or after a visit to nearby Regent’s Park Zoo, but most are local people, making full use of this amenity.

On the other side of London, south of the Thames, lies the area of Greenwich and Blackheath. This is also on high ground, and the park houses the famous Royal Observatory, with the whole area being a must-see for travellers on riverboat trips along the Thames. The view from this high point offers the splendour of The Queens House, The National Maritime Museum, and the Old Naval College and Hospital. You can also see the Millennium Dome, now called The O2 Arena.

You will also see tourists inside the grounds of The Observatory, straddling the line of the Prime Meridian, thus being photographed in both halves of the World at once. South of the park, and across the busy main road, is the large public grassland called Blackheath. This is popular with kite-fliers, and home to football grounds for minor league players, as well as vast areas where any outdoor activity can be enjoyed. In the small town of Greenwich, there is a popular weekend market, and two famous vessels moored in dry dock, as visitor attractions; these are The Cutty Sark, a tea clipper that is the symbol of Greenwich to many, and the Gipsy Moth lV, the first ship to be sailed single-handed around the World. The area is best visited outside the summer tourist boom, with the leaves turning brown on the trees in the park, and stronger winds, ideal for kites.

The other great joy of living in London, and the one that I miss the most, is the ability to eat out, with a selection of restaurants and cafes unsurpassed anywhere in Europe. This applies especially to the central area, north of Oxford Street, and stretching up to Camden Town, and beyond. I do not believe that there is any cuisine that is not catered for. I know of Mongolian, Armenian, and Eritrean restaurants, alongside the more familiar Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, and Greek eateries. Arabian tea bars, with customers sitting outside on large cushions, sipping mint tea, or enjoying shisha pipes, Italian espresso bars, popular since the 1950’s, and traditional English cafes, serving a full breakfast, all sit side by side.

When I was young, eating out was restricted to Pie and Mash, Jellied Eels, Fish and Chips, or the occasional foray to Limehouse, to enjoy a basic Chinese meal. By the late 1970’s, this had all changed, and anything imaginable was available.

During the last 12 years, I have had to travel no further than the area from Charlotte Street to Camden Town, to find delightful restaurants, at all price levels. In Camden alone, the choice is so great, I did not manage to visit them all, during the time I lived there. From the recent addition of the mighty Gilgamesh, which is worth a visit to marvel at the interior, even if you do not wish to eat there, to the older establishments on Parkway, and every street in between, there is something to cater for every taste. Inverness Street, a pedestrianised street market, is home to no less than six restaurants, including Hache, where they serve the best burgers in London, and Bar Solo, where you can enjoy a three course meal, or just have a coffee outside, and watch the life on Camden’s streets. Further along, there is Bar Gansa, a Tapas Bar, with live flamenco on Mondays, and Made in Brasil, a place with a great atmosphere, especially when Brazil are playing football! I have enjoyed many happy evenings, and some great food, in all of these, and more.

So, not all of London Life is to be demonised, or reviled. Wandering around Soho, or Chinatown, can be relaxing and enjoyable too. The unusual bookshops of Charing Cross Road, or the antique shops of Camden Passage in Islington, provide a nice diversion when you have time to spare. When the tourist season is at a low ebb, and the workers commuting in and out have gone home, London can offer much to those who actually live there. I am glad that I did live there, and equally glad that I no longer do.

The Beetley Ferret

Ferret

This morning, Julie and I were sleeping in, after a late night . At 8.45am, We were awakened by the sound of the doorbell. This may not sound like a big deal, but this is Beetley. There are no Jehovah Witnesses visiting on a regular basis, and we were not expecting a parcel, so the doorbell is always a surprise. I donned my dressing gown, and went to the front door.

There was a neighbour, from the ‘back’ (Spinney Close), accompanied by his grand daughter. I recognised him from a brief meeting, whilst walking Ollie in the nearby meadows. His opening line was, “Have you lost a ferret?”. Now in my former flat in London, this would have been answered with a guffaw, so I had to remember that I was now in Norfolk. ” We have just seen a ferret in our garden, heading your way. It was this big”, he continued, opening his arms in the way of a boastful angler, indicating a size approximating to a slender fox. “You will have to be careful that it doesn’t attack your dog”, he warned, adding that he remembered Ollie from the encounter in the meadows.

I assured him that I had not seen a ferret, did not own one, and knew of nobody nearby who did. He left, with advice to keep my dog in, in case the said mammalian carnivore should appear on my patio. His bemused grand daughter was texting on her mobile phone throughout, no doubt updating her Facebook status as ‘hunting a ferret’. I went back inside, and told Julie what the excitement was about. We decided to get up and prepare for the day ahead. As I was enjoying my morning drink, the doorbell sounded again. After hearing a commotion, and loud Norfolk accents nearby, we guessed it concerned the ferret.

Julie answered this time, and there was another neighbour, also from Spinney Close, warning us of the roving ferret. This neighbour also recognised Ollie from the meadow, where he had enjoyed a play with her dog, Winston. When Julie told her that the other man had previously warned us, she made her apologies, and left. We later heard loud conversations, and quite a few people out and about (for a Monday), presumably in search of the hapless ferret. To the best of our knowledge, it was never seen again, so presumably made good its escape. (See below, for an update)

This led us to reflect on how different life is in Norfolk. Less than a year ago, in Camden, we could well have had a Police helicopter hovering a hundred feet above our flat, searching for an escaped gunman, or there might have been a door to door inquiry, following a fatal stabbing two hundred yards from our front door. Since living in Beetley, nothing has happened. The incident of the ferret has been the biggest cause of animation among our neighbours, and caused us to receive our only unsolicited callers, in seven months.
It makes me feel glad to have moved here.

Here is an update to the above post. The ferret has appeared! When I was out walking Ollie the next day, Julie spotted the big beige-coloured animal lurking around the back of our leylandii hedge. She went outside to take a photo of it, and it ran towards her. Scared it might bite her, she retreated inside the house, and the ferret went into the shed to investigate. When she had seen it leave the shed sometime later, Julie locked it, and stayed inside the house until I returned.

So there really was a Beetley ferret, and it turned out to be an escaped pet.