nichollsretirementproject

Oh Blog! How I have neglected you!

I don’t know why, but I haven’t felt inspired to write a blog entry since the middle of November last year. Perhaps it was the dark nights or the deadening effects of lockdown illustrated by the fact that on New Year’s Eve, on the stroke of midnight, there was no-one out on our street ‘toasting in’ the new year. Or perhaps it is my fault in that I have been so angry over the past two months as the constant torrent of stories have emerged that show our government’s contempt for the suffering that people endured during lockdown. Our political leaders have partied on regardless as they locked the rest of the population down and then have tried to ‘media manage’ their way out of trouble by turning the news agenda in any possible direction to deflect attention away from their behaviour. Migrants crossing the Channel, Prince Andrew’s latest revelations, ‘unreasonable’ Brussels negotiators trying to wreck the Northern Ireland agreement – anything to move the public’s gaze away from what the government has been doing.

Last week we reached the absolute pinnacle of diversionary stories as Downing Street tried to move the headlines away from the various drinks parties, or ‘work events with wine’ that have been taking place under the Prime Minister’s nose . There was a major announcement that the Transport Secretary is going to introduce legislation to limit the number of announcements that can me made on commuter trains! Wow! Thank God we have a Transport Secretary with a vision for the future of Britain!

Senior Conservative politicians are constantly coming on the radio and TV to tell us that we shouldn’t worry about illegal drinks parties taking place around Whitehall when ordinary people couldn’t visit their dying relatives in hospital. We shouldn’t worry about whether our Prime Minister has lied to Parliament or has tried to pull the wool over the eyes of every TV and radio journalist in the country. We should look at the Government’s achievements. The two ‘achievements’ that are always quoted are Brexit and how well the government has dealt with the Covid crisis. So let’s look at these.

Well, we are still waiting to see the benefits of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic has been a god-send to Brexiteers in allowing our politicians to say that it was not their fault that Brexit has achieved absolutely nothing except a shortage of labour in manufacturing and farming, a desperate shortage of staff in care homes, huge queues on the roads into Dover and a worrying deterioration in relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It’s all the fault of the pandemic.

On the coronavirus situation, we are treated every night to an update in the news bulletins which records the number of people who have contracted Covid, how many have died in the last 28 days and how many vaccinations have been carried out. Tory politicians are constantly telling us that our vaccine programme is a ‘world-beater’ and far in advance of any other country. We are also given the figures for the total number of deaths since the start of the pandemic, (currently around 160,000 people). But we have a world-beating vaccination rollout, our government proudly stresses, so we needn’t worry.

What is never mentioned are the international comparisons on deaths from Covid, because, as we know, ‘comparisons are odious’.

If we look at the number of deaths per 100,000 across Europe, we night see Britain’s performance in a different light. For example: according to John Hopkins University last week, the ‘league table’ for the total number of deaths per 100,000 people in Western Europe looks like this:

Netherlands : 122 per 100,000

Germany: 139

Sweden: 151

Austria: 156

France: 189

Spain: 192

United Kingdom: 227*

Perhaps we shouldn’t shout quite so loudly about how ‘world-beating’ our response to the coronavirus pandemic has been.

Is it any wonder that I haven’t felt much like writing an essentially light-hearted blog recently?

*(recent figures from Oxford University almost completely mirror the John Hopkins totals.)

Nepotism Rules OK!

Every year when we were teenagers, the St Barnabas Youth Club in Swansea used to present some kind of ‘show’ around Christmas time. Often it would be nothing more than a series of plagiarised sketches, stolen from the TV and performed to an audience of indulgent parents. And then we started to get a bit more ambitious and the Christmas show developed into a full blown pantomime.

One such show was ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ a theatrical masterpiece in which I took the unforgettable role of Bill Blowpipe, a performance, indeed a ‘tour de force’, that, I am sure, is still being talked about amongst the theatre-going intelligentsia of Swansea. (For those of you who are familiar with Daniel Defoe’s excellent novel of the same name, you might want to stop reading at this point, as our production of the Crusoe story bore absolutely no resemblance to Defoe’s famous tale.)

I like to think that I was given the leading role of Blowpipe at the tender age of fifteen because of my highly developed acting talents and the subtlety of the interpretation that I was able to bring to the role. Another, less charitable, explanation might have been that I only got the part because my dad was the producer!

For those readers who are not aware of the British tradition of pantomime I should point out that it is a particular form of theatrical performance, mainly performed for children, that usually takes place around Christmas time. Having said that, much of the humour in these shows is aimed at the parents accompanying the children and we are indebted to our French neighbours for the expression ‘double entendre,’ which permeates much of the script of the average panto. The words ‘subtle’ or ‘sophisticated’ have, as far as I know, never been used in the same sentence as the words ‘British pantomime’.

I should also point out that the French also have their own tradition of pantomime, that bears absolutely no resemblance to the British version. French pantomime is a much more artistic, well-crafted and ‘grown-up’ form of entertainment that includes a skilful blending of dance, acrobatics and mime and is aimed mainly at adults. If ever they find themselves, by any misfortune, watching a British pantomime, most French people usually sit in stunned silence and some may end up in need of therapy!

There are several long-held traditions associated with the British pantomime, one of which is the buxom pantomime ‘dame’, who is always played by a man in outrageous costume with heavy make-up and usually a huge wig. As I mentioned, the humour is not subtle!

Image result for Pantomime Dame. Size: 136 x 204. Source: alchetron.com

If the narrative allows, and usually it is subverted to make sure that it allows, the story will include somewhere the appearance of a donkey, or similar dumb animal, played by two poor actors in a heavy, and usually very hot, costume. As the reader may notice from the photo below, the tradition of an actor, or two actors, playing the part of a horse or donkey goes back a long way in theatrical history. In ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, even Shakespeare introduced us to the character of Bottom who was transmogrified by Puck into an ass, which must bestow a degree of legitimacy on the practice of introducing donkeys into theatrical performances. Indeed, there is probably a PhD to be written on the Role and Importance of the Ass in English literature and culture.

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A classic pantomime horse.

However, notwithstanding my somewhat contrived link with the Bard of Stratford, no one would describe British pantomime as sophisticated theatre.

A classic pantomime horse a hundred years ago.

The other tradition associated with pantomime, is that of the principal man, in our case, Robinson Crusoe himself, who is almost always played by a woman. See the gallant Robin Hood below.

In the St Barnabas Youth Club’s epic production of Robinson Crusoe in 1965, the title role was played by Linda, who thought she had been given the role because of her highly developed acting talents and the subtlety of the interpretation that she was able to bring to the role. It would be uncharitable to suggest that the fact that she was my girlfriend at the time and that my dad thought that “she had the legs for the part” had anything to do with the casting decision. (Note: I should point out, in my father’s defence, that political correctness had not been invented in 1965!)

So there we were, Linda and me as Robinson Crusoe and Bill Blowpipe, See below!

I should perhaps point out that the beard, that I am so manfully sporting in this picture, was stuck on with glue. It was to be many years before I was able to sport a real beard!

Apart from being an invaluable addition to the world of British theatre, the St Barnabas Youth Club pantomime had a value that transcended even its theatrical excellence. It gave a lot of young people, with differing skills and differing levels of confidence, the chance to get up on a stage and challenge themselves. In all, twenty kids appeared on stage in roles ranging from Man Friday to the Sea Witch to the Pantomime Horse. (How a horse managed to be on Robinson Crusoe’s desert island I will never know! But it did.)

Through taking part in this production and others that followed it, we young people learned how to project our voices and to overcome our fear of standing up in front of an audience. It is perhaps no coincidence that from the cast list of this one show, one of our number ended up running an international non-Governmental Organisation, another became a senior cleric in the Church in Wales, one became a Head of Social Services in the west of England and at least four went on to become successful teachers.

And behind the scenes there were yet more young people who were able to develop skills in a range of areas. For example, there were no fewer than of four people who were responsible solely for the stage make-up, a pretty daunting job when you consider that at least four of the cast, including the future vicar, were supposed to be cannibals. (Note: I should point out that in 1965, ‘blacking up’ was not uncommon in British theatre. Even the Royal Shakespeare Company would think nothing of casting a white actor to play Othello and the BBC ran a very popular programme called the Black and White Minstrels Show for over twenty years before the practice of blacking up (and excluding genuinely black actors) became unacceptable.

Robinson Crusoe is made ready for the footlights.

There was work for kids with all sorts of skills in putting together a pantomime. Apart from the actors and the make-up department, someone has to operate the stage lights. Someone had to organise the costumes. Someone had to sell the tickets. And someone had to paint the set. And thereby hangs a tale.

This lavish programme was sold for 3d, (three old pennies)

As the photo below shows, the set had to portray the lush vegetation on Robinson Crusoe’s island.

One of our number, Vaughan, was quite a reserved young man and was certainly not interested in dressing up and cavorting around the stage. He was, however, quite good at art in school, so he got the job of designing and painting the set. A few of us were enlisted to give him a hand one weekend and for me this was an early lesson in what it meant to work with someone who was naturally talented.

Vaughan sketched out the palm trees and the distant mountain and told us helpers where to daub the different colours of paint. When we had finished the set looked dreadful! We left the stage with our heads bowed. Then Vaughan came along with his paintbrush and dabbed paint here and there in an apparently random fashion. Suddenly the whole set came alive.

Whatever became of Vaughan? Well actually I know the answer to that question. He left the UK many years ago and moved to the United States to an insignificant little town, just outside Los Angeles, called Hollywood, where he made his name as a celebrated film set designer!

Funny how things work out. I think my dad would have been quietly proud of the small role he played in developing the skills of the young people who took part in the St Barnabas Youth Club’s Christmas pantomimes.

Life after the Church Choir.

I recorded in my previous blog entry that I left the choir of St Barnabas Church in Swansea in a fit of righteous indignation following the vicar’s decision to spend unconscionable amounts of money on decorating his church. There were, however, two significant elements to the parish of St Barnabas. one was the church and the other was the youth club. Having stormed out of the church, I am very glad I didn’t storm out of the youth club. If I had, my life would have taken a very different course to the one it eventually took.

“Why is that?” I hear you ask. Good question. Well, it was like this.

The St Barnabas Youth Club was run by Mr Jones, the very mild-mannered curate of the parish. (We never referred to him as the Reverend Jones. Perhaps you don’t get that title until you graduate from the role of curate. Who knows?) The club was held in the church hall every Friday evening.

There was always ping-pong and darts and the rest of our time was usually spent chatting up the girls/boys respectively. From time to time we would have visitors from various organisations to entertain us. I remember when the Bowmen of Gower came to give us an archery demonstration and let us have a try at shooting arrows at a target. On another occasion we were graced with a visit from a woman from Boots the Chemist who came to give a demonstration of make-up techniques. (This was, of course, a ‘girls only’ activity. The days when boys would be comfortable taking part in such an event were still a long way away!)

One week a Barn Dance was organised and Mr Jones invited kids from another youth club in Townhill, which was, and probably still is, one of the rougher areas of Swansea. Big mistake! We well-behaved, middle-class kids from St Barnabas wouldn’t be seen dead in Townhill. Indeed, we wouldn’t have dared step foot in that part of town for fear of being eaten alive by the thugs and hooligans that we were sure inhabited the place.

Seared into the memory was one of the dances where boys and girls were arranged in concentric rings and we all walked around until the music stopped. You were then supposed to carry on with the next part of the dance with whichever partner was facing you. Then you would stop, walk around again and find yourself another partner. I think Mr Jones thought this would be a good way of getting the kids from the two communities to get to know each other. It had the effect of scarring my psyche for life!

I was about 13 years old and as I progressed around the room, the music stopped and I found myself standing opposite a much bigger girl from Townhill. She was probably about sixteen and she proceeded to ‘snog’ me, tongues and all! I was shocked to the core of my being! It still amazes me that I didn’t end up in therapy!

So, given this terrifying early experience, why am I so pleased that I attended St Barnabas youth club. Well, that’s another story!

Going for a Song.

I was a very angelic looking choirboy when I was ten. At least that was what my Mum said.

Every Sunday I would be there in St Barnabas’ Church in Swansea in my red cassock, white surplice with a ruff around my neck, singing my little heart out for the assembled faithful.

Sadly I have no photos of me in this impressive angelic costume to back up my claim. The only picture I can offer you, dear reader, is one taken of me at about the same time during my one and only, and sadly unsuccessful, bid to become an international rock star.

I am standing, on the stage of the Odeon Cinema in Sketty, Swansea, posing for the camera in what, in today’s parlance, might be called a ‘publicity photo shoot’. It was four o’clock on a Thursday afternoon and I had come directly from school in my school uniform, which accounts for the short trousers, scuffed shoes and dirty knees. (The crew cut is a whole other story!)

But back to St Barnabas Church and to my brief and inglorious ecclesiastical career.

Our family was never particularly religious. To this day I believe that my parents put me in the church choir just in order to get me out of the house for a few hours every Sunday morning and evening.

I, in turn, never really bought in to what I saw as the mumbo-jumbo of the services but I quite enjoyed being a member of the choir and exercising my reedy treble voice. I can still remember the sense of untrammelled wickedness I felt whenever the hymn “To be a Pilgrim” appeared on the hymn board. A small sub-group of us cassock-clad, angelic-looking ‘trebles’ would take great delight in singing “To be a grim pill” and then grinning broadly at each other in shared, subversive delight. We never tired of it.

Once of the big disappointments of my life, and the day when I first learned just how perfidious the world of grown-ups could be, was when the BBC came to our church to record an episode of “Songs of Praise” which was, and still is, broadcast nationally every Sunday.

We knew exactly when our moment of fame was due to be broadcast to the nation, but Mr Andrews, our choirmaster, made us promise that we would not stay at home on that Sunday evening to watch ourselves on TV, but would come to Choral Evensong as usual. In return, he said he would organise a private showing of the programme, just for us, at a later date. I am still waiting for that date!

Time passed. I reached my 13th birthday and I was still singing in the choir, Christmas came around, as it does quite regularly. That year, OXFAM was running a Christmas fundraising campaign as a result of which we had, on our mantlepiece at home, a little cardboard collecting box into which we were asked to deposit any spare change we might have to help the world’s poor.

We were five children at home. The oldest would have been just out of college, the youngest hardly out of nappies, my two elder brothers still at home and me in the middle. My mother didn’t work and my father held a junior middle management position in an aluminium factory. Money was tight.

With Christmas approaching, I remember seeing my mother putting what looked like a lot of money into the OXFAM box on the mantlepiece. I asked why she was doing this. It turned out that she was feeling very guilty about the fact that we were preparing to have a special family Christmas dinner while half of the world was going hungry.

At almost exactly the same time, the vicar of St Barnabas Church decided that his church was not grand enough. He decided it needed a ‘reredos’, which is an ornamental screen that stands at the back of an altar.

The reredos cost £3,000. In today’s money that would be £52,000!

I left the choir.

You Turn your Back for Fifty Years and Everything Changes!

At about ten o’clock last night I took our dog out for her evening walk. I bumped into one of our neighbours who was on his way down to the railway station at the bottom of our road to collect his sixteen year old son.

“Has he been to London?” I asked.

“No. He’s just make the journey down from Aberdeen!”

It transpired that my neighbour’s wife and three children had been in the north of Scotland visiting relatives. The young man had decided to abandon his mother and two younger sisters, who were planning to fly home, and to make his own way by train, just for the experience.

“Wow! Good on him,” said I “ A brave thing to do, all on your own, when you’re only sixteen!”

I continued my walk with the dog.

It being a quiet night, I fell to thinking about the young man’s epic train journey and I realised that I had made a similar journey at about the same age, over fifty years ago.

My brother, Andrew, had been living in Aberdeen at the time and, for reasons I cannot now remember, my parents decided to visit him, taking me along with them.

My relationship with my elder brother had always been a bit strained, so I was not keen to prolong my visit any longer than I had to.

Added to that, I was missing my girlfriend, now my wife, Linda, who lived in Swansea in South Wales. I decided to cut short my stay in Aberdeen and make my way back home to Swansea, ahead of my parents.

The distance from Aberdeen to Brighton, which my neighbour’s son had just completed by train, is 595 miles. The distance from Aberdeen to Swansea is 560 miles.

The difference is a mere 35 miles. The other difference is that I hitch-hiked it.

This was, in fact, my second epic hitch-hiking journey. The previous year I had hitched to Lucerne in Switzerland. I had intended to travel with a school friend, but at the last minute, his parents started to get worried and refused to let him travel. I decided to go on my own and my parents gave me the green light.

At that time I had a part-time, after-school job in a chemist’s shop in Swansea, delivering prescriptions to elderly customers. When there were no prescriptions to deliver, I helped out the stock-man behind the scenes in the shop, unpacking goods, pricing them and putting them away in the store room.

The stock-man’s name was Ieuan. When he heard about my proposed journey, he told me that he had visited Lucerne some years previously and had taken the cable-car up to the top of the magnificent Mount Pilatus. The view from the top had been stunning and the experience of standing on the summit of such a huge mountain had made a big impression on him. The Brecon Beacons just didn’t compare.

He gave me a five-pound note and told me that if I ever reached Lucerne, I was to use that money to pay for the cable car up Mount Pilatus. If I failed to reach the mountain, be would expect me return his five pound note.

I was determined that there was no way that I was going to let him have his money back. When I finally got back safely to Swansea some three weeks later, I presented him with my cable-car ticket.

What amazes me now, as I look back at these adventures, is that my parents were happy to let me don my rucksack and without so much as a mobile phone to keep me company, set off into darkest Europe with Ieuan’s five pound note in my pocket. My dad even arranged my first lift in a huge truck from Swansea to Croydon.

After conquering Mount Pilatus, the trip from Aberdeen to Swansea was a walk in the park. What could possibly go wrong?

And the truth is that nothing did go wrong. I returned unscathed from both adventures and went back to school.

How things have changed. I am sure that if either of my children had suggested at the age of sixteen that they wanted to hitch-hike on their own into the middle of Europe or into the furthest reaches of Scotland, there would have been some very serious discussions to be held! The idea that either of my grandchildren would want to undertake such a mad-cap journey when they reach their teens is unthinkable.

And yet, are the dangers of such an enterprise really any greater now that they were in the 1960s? Or is it that we are now so saturated with rolling news, much of it very dramatic and sensationalised, that just wasn’t available fifty years ago? Are we in danger of so scaring the next generation so that they become increasingly risk averse as they grow up?

Either way, it is certainly the case that the kind of adventure that was open to me in the 60’s would probably be unthinkable now. Sad, eh?

Troubling times.

The more I see of Boris Johnson, the more depressed, the more angry – and the more worried- I get.

This ex-journalist knows exactly how to get his photo on all the front pages.

The jokey, clownish architect of Brexit, who happily had himself photographed during the Brexit campaign supposedly ‘stuck accidentally’ on a zip-wire, brandishing two Union flags, went on holiday yesterday.

He seems to have completely shrugged off any responsibility for the queues of vehicles outside petrol stations all over the country, (because we don’t have enough tanker drivers), the planned culling of thousands of pigs and turkeys, (because we don’t have enough butchers) and the rotting of crops in the fields, (because we don’t have enough agricultural workers to pick them!) Thanks a lot, Brexit!

But at least we have ‘Taken Back Control’ and ‘Got Brexit Done’ and, more importantly, we have finally got rid of all of those pesky foreigners who used to do all of this work for us. Well done, Boris!

So now that we have walked out of the huge EU market on our doorstep, we are, at last, free to make deals with that mighty economic world power on the other side of the world, Australia. Now we can import large quantities of cheap lamb, and effectively undercut our own lamb producers at the same time.. Good move, Boris! Makes us proud to be British.

And there are other worrying trends going on with this government. For example, you almost never see a cabinet minster interviewed on television without them being framed by huge Union Jacks, the national flag that is supposed to represent the ‘unity’ of our increasingly divided nation. This arrogant and divisive Conservative party seems to have appropriated the national flag as its own party symbol, implying that if you are not enthused by this crude display of ‘patriotism’, then you are not being loyal to your own country.

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Clown Johnson pulls a funny face and pastes himself to the national flag.
How dare he?

Someone should remind Boris Johnson that, as long ago as 1775, his namesake, Samuel Johnson wrote that “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” And so it has turned out to be.

And speaking of scoundrels, but now more seriously, it is perhaps no coincidence that two years ago a new and rather scary far-right party called ‘Patriotic Alternative’ was founded in this country. The party is anti-semitic, anti-LGBT and denies that the holocaust ever took place. It calls for the deportation of “people of migrant descent” and propagates a white supremacist ideology that aims to combat “the replacement and displacement of white British people by migrants”. It has been described as a ‘neo-Nazi’ party, and it claims to have attracted some 15,000 members in its first two years of existence. Other estimates put the membership at nearer to 5,000, but 5,000 neo-Nazis is still 5,000 neo-Nazis.

Its website offers conferences, camping trips, lots of flag waving and men carrying out healthy outdoor physical fitness training. Any of this sound familiar?

Returning to our own government it should be remembered that at a time when people who cannot feed their families are increasingly turning to the ever-growing number of food banks, Johnson’s government has just spent £163,000 on Union flags to frame its ministers when they are on television. Repeat, £163,000 to drape the Conservative party leaders in the national flag.

The last time I can remember a regime whose leaders used every possible opportunity wrap themselves in their national flag, things didn’t end well.

Indeed it ended in the Ruhr being obliterated and Berlin in flames.

And the top prize goes to…. drum roll, please!

Tell me that’s not ‘street art’! The best I’ve seen so far, but who knows what’s down the road?

Perhaps a huge mural of Saint George on his white horse. Look forward to it.

Prize for the poshest street art goes to…

A restaurant that is due to open right next to Brighton’s Theatre Royal.

That’s art, that is!

Opening a restaurant at any time is a risk. Opening one in the current circumstances is brave.

And when you practically have to demolish the existing building to accommodate it, well that’s downright foolhardy!

We,, let’s hope they do well, once the pandemic has receded. Courageous entrepreneurs or perhaps a Saudi prince seeking a base from which to launch his bid to buy Brighton and Hove Albion football club!

Why? Beats me!

It has been great fun taking photos of the endless variety of Brighton’s street art, (or ‘graffiti’, depending on your point of view.) Most of the examples that I found were self-explanatory and it was not difficult to see what the artist, (or ‘hooligan’, depending on your point of view), was trying to achieve.

But some of the creations that I discovered just made me shake my head in confusion.

What, for example, does this mean?

It was scrawled on a pillar outside a supermarket. Why?

And then there was this.

Four strawberries and a fish? Why did somebody risk prosecution to convey this message? And what was the message, anyway?

And clearly someone was trying to say something to somebody with this. But it beats me. (Suggestions, please.)

And finally, just to show that street art can adorn absolutely anything, I give you…..

Brighton’s derelict, and now iconic, West Pier. It just goes to show that you should never leave anything lying around in the street when the graffiti artists are around.

Somebody’s watching you!

Some of the boldest examples of street art adorning the backstreets of Brighton were faces , some of which filled a whole wall. Perhaps the most frightening was a twenty foot portrait of Alfred Hitchcock.

Followed by a couple of characters that you wouldn’t want to meet in a back lanes on a dark night!

But wouldn’t you just love to be able to paint a face like that – before the policeman caught you?

And rest assured! I’ll be back!

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