Thursday, October 31, 2013

Absent Friends

I have lost so much over the past couple of years, it is no wonder I feel bereft.
Much of it is still too raw or painful to write about but it has taught me a lot about friendship and about my friends.
The old notion that “when your life goes awry, you find out who your real frends are” could not be more true.
Some of my friends have been incredible: kind, understanding and helpful. They have done what I hope I would do for them in the same situation.
Other old friends, however, have not been seen for dust.
One, who I have known since 1983, lived with in Coventry and London and went on holiday with on two occasions, dropped me without so much as a word, ignoring my letter and Christmas card.
And he was the guy who once told me that when his chums came a cropper, he’d waste little time in calling them up and taking them out to lunch. Perhaps, he was only referring to famous friends!
Another old friend sent me a single condescending and hopelessly ill-informed email and never followed it up with so much as a phone call or letter. A third said he would call me back in five minutes and never did. Again, not a word of explanation was deemed necessary.
“A friend in need is a pain in the backside” is an apposite adage.
These incidents have made me think a lot recently about how people react to you when life gives you a kick.
I suppose I have always grappled with the concept of friendship. When I was at school, I had very few friends.
At junior school in Cumnor, Oxfordshire, my only friend was a boy called Basil Harris and when Basil invited me to his birthday party I recall being told that he had had to not invite two or three other friends to be allowed to ask me to attend. I remember being rather shocked and puzzled by this.
At secondary school, as a victim of physical and psychological bullying, I also did not make a great number of friends, although by my fearful sixth form years I had a small number of Dungeons and Dragons players around me, led by an intelligent boy called Paul Eggleton a.k.a. Egg.
 I regarded them as friends but I guess they did not see me in the same light; the slightest disagreement led to me leaving (or being ejected from) the group. I can’t remember exactly what went wrong.
At university and in my early jobs, I formed my first true friendships and a few of these friends are still with me.
My definition of “true friendship” is a “deep, supportive relationship through good times and bad”.
However, I have long been aware that the modern way is to make little distinction between what I would call true friends, mates, acquaintances, colleagues, contacts or clients.
Social media sites have encouraged this approach, coercing online addicts to try to build up the biggest possible network of people to form a kind of “fan base” rather than a grouping of genuine friends. I found myself doing it before I was weaned off the highly addictive Facebook and Twitter.
In the real world, sadly, who you associate with often comes down to their relative status to you.
An old friend may go up in the world, join a swanky London club, the Ivy, Groucho or Soho House, and get to know some minor celebrities and/or politicians.
Suddenly, you find yourself arranging to meet your old friend through his secretary or being asked by him to set up meetings at his club for him with a mutual friend.
You no longer have the same status as your erstwhile friend. 
So you either accept a subservient role or forget the so-called friendship altogether.
Friendship has become like a kind of dating.
Single men and women often consider themselves out of each other’s leagues.
Exactly the same occurs with friends who have become very successful, wealthy or/and famous. Suddenly, they can be out of your league. They might wave at you from afar but really they are no longer interested; they have bigger fish to fry.
I sometimes wonder how many people understand what true friendship is about: that it is a two-way street, that you take the rough with the smooth, that you care for each other.
Briefly I worked for a City financial PR agency where one of the directors used to boast at pitches that her clients became her friends.
She did it, no doubt, to persuade prospective clients of what a great, attractive, friendly bunch of people she and her colleagues were. But I believe what she said was neither correct nor desirable.
Conversely, you can find yourself in the “old friend being treated as a business client”, with the “email my PA about lunch” scenario, as described above, which is insulting and belittling.
However, perhaps I should not be harsh on those who behave in this way.
There has always been a pecking order in life and, as people move up and down, it is hardly surprising they relate differently to each other.
Who of us could honestly say we have not dropped a friend?
Also interesting is the behaviour of former girlfriends, who are often eager to meet former boyfriends when they [the girls] are single, but often very unwilling to do so when they’re in a new relationship or married.
Some of this you might put down to the male psyche of their new partners.
We still live in a very traditional world. Some men are so insecure or chauvinist that they ban their partners from seeing exes.
And, of course, some women simply see no point in seeing an ex once they have a new man. The old bloke had his uses once - but now that’s all in the past and best forgotten.
Again, none of this should be surprising. Nothing, it seems, goes on forever.
You can so very easily become just someone your former beloved used to know. 
That’s the way the love cookie crumbles.
Someone told me the other day of an elderly woman whose husband had died.
She was bereft and distraught and expected her female friends to rally round to support her emotionally.

A few of them did but most avoided her, apparently out of fear that widowhood was catching or that she might “go after”  their husband or partners. 

An interesting tale.
Don't get me wrong: I still have some great friends and they mean a hell of a lot to me.
So, in my case, losing a few old friends, who turn out not to be true friends after all, is not the end of the world.
Of course it hurts. I am a regular bloke with regular feelings. When you cut me, I bleed.
It is upsetting but believe me losing those you really love is so much worse.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Bonfire Beckons!

The legendary Lewes Bonfire celebrations are getting very close. This is always a special time of year which I really enjoy.

This year I am triply involved: presenting two shows for Bonfire’s radio station Rocket FM, processing as a Cluniac monk with the Southover Bonfire Society on The Fifth, and staging a special Bonfire Poetry session at Lewes Poetry at the Lewes Arms on Friday (25 October).

The Bonfire Poetry gig is particularly pressing. 

It is the first time I have attempted this and I really hope there is a good turn-out from the bonfire societies. The idea is that the entire evening will be devoted to poetry about Bonfire and remembrance.

I will be compering, in my monk’s habit, and also reading relevant poems. 

Matt Street, Commander-in-Chief of Southover Bonfire Society, wrote a good poem about the late Keith Austin, the Society’s Secretary, which will be read on the night. 

Other poems about Keith and the Lewes Bonfire movement that he so loved will also be read.
Remembrance is a very big part of Bonfire. In the Southover Bonfire Society, we have always majored on it, with an annual theme, commemorating those who have died for their country in wars and conflicts.

I have been working my way through books of war poetry to find suitable poems for the night. I hope the event gets the support it deserves. Doors open at 8.15pm, upstairs at the Lewes Arms, with a show from 8.45pm-11pm. A prize poetry contest for bonfire poems will take place, and there will be a late bar (till midnight).
Of course, I am a little worried that my back – I have torn a muscle – might make compering the show very painful. But whatever happens, the show will go on.
Rocket FM also beckons. 

I have been given two shows, this coming Saturday (26 October) from 7pm-9pm and the following Saturday (2 November) in the same slot, on 87.8 FM in Lewes and the Ouse Valley and also online at:

It is the fifth consecutive year of the Timewarp show – playing the best in “raves from the grave”, as well as featuring guests from the arts world.

This year, I will presenting my first show (on Saturday, 26 October) with the help of poet Laura King and artist and vinyl record expert Guyan Porter.

For the second show (Saturday, 2 November), I will be more than ably assisted by my old varsity friend, DJ E, a.k.a. John Eckersley) with whom I DJ-ed at the University of Hull in the early 1980s.
John is a superb disc jockey and did an amazing job last year when he guested on Timewarp. We chose the music between us. Playing the tunes, the memories came flooding back and the chat flowed like a river.

The Fifth is a bit of a logistical nightmare now I am not longer living in Lewes.
I have taken half a day off from work so I can get into the town easily before it is locked down, and partake in the first procession.

Processing on Bonfire Night is always a somewhat hairy experience. 

However, the bonfire societies have made a real effort this year to reduce the risk of injury by banning the horrendous blue rookies – super-powerful ground fireworks that scare the sh*t out of me.

With the recent demise of our Secretary, it will be an especially poignant occasion.

I always think that when the Fifth falls on a weekday it is particularly special.

When it is on a Saturday or Sunday, the event takes place on a Saturday (Bonfire Boys and Belles will not process on the Lord’s Day) and the town is flooded with tourists who have come from far afield.

I do not object to this as much as many Lewes folk do. Who can blame people from visiting a spectacle as enthralling and photogenic as Lewes Bonfire?
However, it is so much more of a purely Lewes and Sussex affair when the day falls in the week.
As a (re)founder member of Southover Bonfire Society and someone who was persuaded to sign up by Matt Street and Keith Austin, it is always good to see how remarkably the Society has progressed in a relatively short time.
Southover is quite a big chunk of the town and the Southover Bonfire Society’s reformation filled a need and a longing among all the residents of Southover, many of whom, myself included, would otherwise have never joined a bonfire society. (Some other members of the Society are pictured before embarking on the recent Seaford Bonfire Out Meeting.)
And, so, I will proudly and with peace and dignity be playing my part in this year’s Lewes Bonfire celebrations. 

* My NUJ (National Union of Journalists) branch meetings in Brighton used to be attended by one man and a dog! Over the past two years, there have been times when we have struggled to get even half a dozen members together in the back room of the Iron Duke. Now that seems to be changing.

The last meeting, on Monday, 21 October, was attended by more than 80 people, thanks in no small part to the guest speaker, investigative journalist Nick Davies (incidentally, from Lewes), who spoke brilliantly. 

I was particularly fascinated by his take on Julian Assange, currently holed up in the Ecuadoran Embassy, near where I work. A great meeting! It was a great meeting but can we turn an evening like that into a far more thriving branch for regular meetings?

·       * I have a new favourite public house in Brighton – the Foundry, on Foundry Street. I chanced upon it because I was walking back from my guitar lesson last week and needed a rest from the pain of my back. So, I dropped in. 

      There are incredibly friendly and pleasant in the Foundry and play Scrabble at the bar. Even an old bloke with a stick and a crook back seems to be welcome. The beer is really good and there is an acoustic group on a Monday night. If you don’t fancy an alcoholic drink, they are happy to make you a very pleasant coffee.

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Friday, October 18, 2013

Visit From Dad and Mum

My parents came to visit me for the first time in a long while.

They used to regularly visit me in Lewes but, since my dad has been ill, it has been so much more difficult.

Now every excursion, however short, has to be planned with military precision.

Dad had said he wanted to visit me in Brighton and the visitation had been organised for a few weeks ago.

Unfortunately, he was too tired on that occasion and, so, it was rearranged. Even the new date looked dodgy with a terrible weather forecast.

In the event, fate smiled on us. There was a pause in the torrential rain for precisely the duration of their visit.

They were driven over in the morning while I did my housework.

I don't mind doing housework but while preparing the flat for my parents' visit, it occurred to me how seldom I do a really "deep" clean.

It actually took me around six hours to make everything absolutely spotless, to scrub and dust. It is amazing how quickly things get dusty and dirty.

After coffee and biscuits in the flat, we walked along the seafront, which Dad loved, and I look them for lunch at the Regency, one of my favourite pubs.

Dad wanted to go to the Lanes which was great. He particularly loved a brass band playing pop songs.

Music gives him such pleasure.

However, because of his condition, his energy suddenly ran out and the shutters came down. It seemed a very long and anxious walk back to my flat.

I also took Mum and Dad over to my allotment, at Earwig Corner, in Lewes.

Then it was straight back to Oxford.

The visit was an undoubtedly success, and I am glad it was possible. 

Old age and illness makes things very hard.

It makes me feel sad but at least, since my own personal circumstances changes dramatically two years, I see my parents much more frequently. Every cloud. . .

I visit my Dad and Mum in Oxford at least every fortnight. 

For his birthday recently, his 81st I believe, I went to Oxford and cooked them a big Sunday roast. That was also a success. I had a very good recipe and did a really elaborate and tasty roast chicken.

I used six pans and two roasting tins (I did a vegetarian roast as well).

It is strange cooking in someone else's kitchen. My Mum said I was the only person apart from her who had ever cooked in her kitchen. It seemed surprising.

The day after Dad's visit, I went to Marlow - a place I have not visited since around 1980.

The last time was when I stayed with my school friend, the late John Constantino, at the Compleat Angler (his dad was the luxury hotel's manager at the time).
I recall cycling 20 miles through a storm to get there one night.

Mrs Constantino was shocked by my condition when I arrived, in the small hours, soaked to the skin.

She let me eat in the five-star restaurant at the hotel's expense - quite a treat for an impoverished student.

The Compleat Angler is still a good hotel. We had a hot chocolate there. It is lovely inside.

As for Marlow, I cannot say the decades have been kind to it.

It seemed far more down at heel that it had been some 33 years ago. Chain-shop town! Apart from the river, a fairly ugly place, even if it is bridged with the lovely Budapest.

On a different subject, I am still doing a lot of reading.

I enjoyed Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, a marvellously succinct and well structured book. A total classic, of course.

Then I read the very lengthy Life by Keith Richards, on the recommendation of my guitar teacher.

Having ploughed through its 550 pages, I was left with the thought: "How did Keef get away with it all?"

Nevertheless, it is a fascinating and well written book. Whatever you think of Keef, the man and the myth, he has had an extraordinary life and has a great love of music.

When (and if) I am good enough at guitar, I would love to jam with him. I am sure we would get on well.

Then I read So You Want To Be An Actor?, by Prunella Scales and Timothy West. I don't want to be an actor but still found it interesting (and sensibly short). I go to a drop-in acting class and some of the tips were useful.

I have almost finished Songs For While I'm Away by Thin Lizzy legend Philip Lynott, whose lyrics don't really work without the music. Interesting to read, all the same.

Finally, still on a Dublin them, I am reading a book simply entitled Guinness Dublin. 

It is a lovely old volume about the history of the Guinness brewery, making much of the famous porter's medicinal qualities.

Which is good because I have ripped a muscle in my back and am in agony.

My back is like a washboard and I had only get around with the aid of strong painkillers and a chestnut stick. The pain is indescribably bad.

I am not even supposed to sit down, according to the doctor, although sitting down is my only respite from the pain! And the only way I can work.

What a life! You have to count your blessings.

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

London Town

London has always held a certain magic for me. As a teenager in the 1970s I was occasionally allowed to come to the great city with my big brother. We would walk the streets fascinated by how busy it was compared with our home stomping ground in Poole and Bournemouth.

I recall going with him to the UK’s first branch of MacDonald’s, on Oxford Street, and experiencing the buzz of the West End and Soho for the first time.
On the way in on the train, you would pass Battersea Power Station. I was stunned by how a city could put a big dirty power station in its midst and by the simultaneous beauty and ugliness of it.

My love affair with London continued into the 1980s. I remember taking my first proper girlfriend, a Hull lass called Belinda, to the South Bank and Covent Garden in 1982. The flash stores, the cheery markets and daring buskers all seemed all alien yet wondrous to us.

Later, I stayed with another friend in a flat in the East End, on the cusk of the City of London and went clubbing to the Fridge, in Brixton.  In the mid-1980s there were many riotous nights around London Bridge with my mates at The Stage newspaper.

In 1988, I moved to London to start work on Fleet Street and lived in Finsbury Park, Angel and Stoke Newington where I had a house until 2006. I loved it; London in the 1980s was so raw and thrilling.  
Much as I enjoy Lewes and Brighton and Hove, there is nothing like being in London. Belgravia during the day is a great place to be and, occasionally, I am able to stay up in town and enjoy the sites.

Recently, I read in the Evening Standard that Battersea Power Station was to be opened for a weekend, as part of the Open Houses event, for the last time before its redevelopment.
So, the following Saturday, we decided to have a look. Unfortunately, the publicity had worked rather too well. When we passed the Power Station on the train up from Brighton, we were astonished to see what looked like a throng of thousands of people outside.

At Victoria Station, all the trains there had been cancelled because of a death on the line (yet another suicide on the railways), and by the time we got to Battersea Power Station on the Tube, the organisers had closed it early because of the crowds. Shouty security guards turned us away. Thanks, guys!
Instead we walked along the short River path there (quite interesting, particularly the enormous houseboat just under an ugly apartments development) and then returned to Victoria to check out some embassies on Belgrave Square.

The Italians, Romanians and Argentine diplomats and educationalists were very hospitable and suitably amazed that I was one of their neighbours on Belgrave Square, albeit only as a humble office worker.

We particularly liked the Argentinean Embassy which is especially spacious being on a corner of the Square and has the most wonderful fittings and paintings. Very friendly people, too! I would love to visit Argentina.
A week later, I went on a river cruise on The Thames. If you get the chance, it is a great thing to do. I have worked beside or near The Thames on at least three occasions: at Blackfriars Bridge for Express Newspapers from 1989-95; at Canary Wharf for the Sunday Telegraph from 1995-97, and at Eccleston Square for the Catholic Bishops of England & Wales from 2002-04. In each of these jobs, I have greatly enjoyed the proximity to Father Thames.
Even working for the bishops, I would often walk across the bridge to Battersea Park, accompanied on occasions by a Jesuit priest friend, Peter Scally – a fine chap now running a parish in Edinburgh.

The event I attended a few weeks ago involved a trip up the Shard followed by the river cruise. It was fabulous. To be frank, the Shard was built without me really paying it any mind. To me it was just another modern building. I did not know what the fuss was about.

However, when you are accelerated upwards from ground level to the 33rd floor in around 30 seconds and then from the 33rd floor the 69th in even less time, you realise it is something special.

At the 69th you can walk up a couple more floors and actually be outside way above the other buildings of the great city.

When I visited, it was a quintessentially sunny, clear autumnal day. You could see for miles and miles and miles. It was great to look down on Canary Wharf, the River a sinuous snake beneath you. The air at that height is wonderfully cool and fresh – really superb.
There is also a bar halfway up the Shard, although you have to return to ground level and re-enter the building by a different door. It has great drinks (and slow service) and a great outlook, including the finest view from a gent’s in London!

For the cruise, we set sail from Tower Bridge and chugged upstream to Battersea. On deck it was wonderfully clear and beautiful in the sunning sun, sipping a glass of wine and enjoying a canapé or two.
Relaxing in London always brings such memories: previous river trips, walks in Clissold Park, Sunday service at St. Bride’s in Fleet Street where my youngest was christened, life in Islington, Stoke Newington, Blackfriar’s, Docklands.  So many happy and sad memories, so much water under the bridge. . .
The next day I visited a lovely old church at Tower Bridge and lit two candles. It is a remarkable place. 

A little piece of seafaring history where Samuel Pepys used to worship. In a book beside a ship’s bell, the names of those who have been lost at sea are written in a classical script. Very special.

Seeing it for the first time rounded off a great couple of days in my world-favourite capital city.

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