Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Keith Austin - Lewes' Mr Bonfire - RIP

A Lewes legend, Keith Austin, has died aged almost 75, and last Friday (20 September) his funeral took place in the town he loved. 

A big man with a big heart, he put Lewes first, whether in his work for Lewes Bonfire Council, Southover Bonfire Society, Lewes Operatic Society or in his service as an independent town councillor among his many other public-spirited activities.

For half a century Keith propped up the bar at the King's Head in Southover, displaying loyalty to his local through good times and bad. 

He loved the pub life and made that public house his second home.

Keith would regale other customers with stories of the Lewes of yesteryear in its cattle market and horseracing glory days, amid other tales such as the occasion when, as a young man, he was entertained by Noel Coward on his yacht in the South of France.

Keith was also independent minded, displaying the “We Wunt Be Druv” Sussex spirit in his ways. 

 Nonetheless, he was also self-deprecating and played down his contribution to the town, although he would have every claim to the title of “Mr Bonfire".
I first got to know Keith when I moved to Lewes in 2002. 

I spent quite a lot of time hanging out with him and the other regulars at the King's Head including Chris Harris and Matt Street.

Keith was an extraordinary drinker. He could easily put away a gallon of lager or cider in an evening - more if he made an early start.

He was always there, sitting on his bar stool, ready and eager to chat about anything.

Gradually, I came to learn about him and his life.

He had come to Lewes in the early 1960s and ran a coffee shop on Cliffe High Street called The Den.

Keith had met a man called John Burford who had been the love of his life.

Sadly, John had died young - I am not sure when but possibly the late 1970s or early 1980s - breaking Keith's heart. 

When you attend a funeral, you realise that what you know of a person is purely a handful of snapshots of their life.

At the funeral and wake, you become aware of many other handfuls of snapshots and a fuller picture of the deceased starts to build up in your mind. 

At Keith's bash, there were a lot of stories about his exploits over the years. People spoke of his kindness and how incredibly active he was in the community.

The proceedings - meticulously organised by Southover Bonfire Society with help from her six sister societies - started outside the undertaker's, Cooper & Son, atop School Hill.

I was there from around 12.30pm, with my Cluniac monk's habit in a plastic bag. I had a chat with my friend Ruth, Mayor of Lewes, also Stormin' Norman Baker, the town's MP and also Transport Minister in the Coalition Government. It was good to see them both there.  

Respect is so important.

Keith departed, in a classic Rolls Royce hearse, for a quick tour of the town, accompanied by an escort of his former colleagues at GM Taxis. 

After retiring from the bathroom trade, Keith took a job as the controller in the taxi firm's office just outside the station.

Many a time I would chat to him about the challenges of getting the taxis to pick up their passengers while I did my photocopying at his machine.

It was good to see the whole fleet driving one in the procession.

The Bonfire Boys and Belles walked down the hill to The Dorset - currently home of Cliffe Bonfire Society of which Keith was Secretary for many year.

Even at 1pm there was a fantastic turn-out of people in the garden. I was intrigued to see the Southover Bell Cart there, awaiting Keith's coffin.

It has been decked out with flowers and placed under a marquee in case of rain. No fear of that. Afters days of wretched weather, the heavens were smiling.

A perfectly blue sky above.

The sun smiling on Keith.

It was a moving moment when Keith's casket arrived and was borne onto the cart. As he lay in state the crowd got bigger, more pints of Harvey's Best were drunk and the photograph album on the table was perused.

I was struck by how handsome Keith had been in his youth.

I had only known him in his larger days.

At different periods of his younger life he has resembled Pinky from Brighton Rock, Clive Anderson and Ken Barlow from Coronation Street.

Sadly, there were no family members at his funeral. There had been a family rift over his sexuality. 

He had been told he was not welcome at his sister’s funeral and none of his surviving relatives were present at his. 

It is so very sad when people who loved each other no longer will see each other.

Forming up for the procession took a few minutes to happen and then we were off, Keith on the Bell Cart at the beginning, followed by seven friends, one from each of the bonfire societies, a jazz band and the Cluniac Monks of Southover, myself included. 

After us, were the ranks of the other bonfire societies and others such as members of the operatic society and the Lewes Lions.

The drinkers came out of the Gardeners Arms, a pub where Keith often drank which, to pay their last respects.

As Keith had lain in his box outside The Dorset, where he had enjoyed a jar or two on many a occasion, the sun beamed down on him and one of his old friends gently placed a pint of lager on his coffin.

People queued up to read the memorial photograph album which was very interesting. It started with black and white images of Keith in his youth. 

There were also pictures of a young Keith with his family. A very happy bunch they looked in those days. 

Some of the places in his life were also pictured. 

He had grown up around Crystal Palace, in South London, and, it seems, had loved the railways.
Later on, you saw pictures of Keith serving behind the bar in a pub in Lewes, playing a dame in, 
I assume, the Lewes Arms Pantomime and in a variety of different Bonfire costumes, including as the Archbishop who preaches to the people while being bombarded by fireworks on the Fifth.

 I said to Keith once that he must have been mad to stand on a platform while fire crackers were thrown at him. 

He said it was part and parcel of Bonfire and he did not care about his own personal safety.

 At 2.20pm, the crowd at the back of The Dorset had been large. 

It was interesting to see the different colours of the seven Lewes bonfire societies commingling. 

It was very sad processing through the streets of Lewes. I felt morose as I marched in my monk’s outfit past my church, St Thomas a Becket on Cliffe High Street, past where his coffee shop The Den had been, and along the street to Cliffe Bridge. 

We processed over the Bridge, from which Keith would have watched the burning of tar barrels on many a Bonfire Night with the Cliffe Bonfire Society, and then through the Precinct, across which the old Uckfield railway line had once passed. 

Then, Friars Walk, past the Chinese takeover which for years sustained Keith, supplying the food to the King’s Head at around closing time; and Station Approach, where he had worked in the taxi office, and right into Priory Street, his stomping ground, past his little house and the King’s Head public house, his home from home. 
Finally, we reached St John’s, Southover, an ancient place of worship renamed Southover Church by the evangelical wing of the Church of England which now runs it very successfully. 

As my mate Chris Harris had predicted, the church’s lavatory was in great demand before the service. The church was full before the rector Steve Daughtery led in the funereal procession.

It was a moving service. 

Four friends reflected on Keith’s life. I was interested in his work as a Lewes Lion, although I am not entirely sure what a Lion does. 

 A friend who had stood an independent town councillor with Keith (they were both elected) said that Keith was overjoyed at his success.  

“This is the happiest day of my life,” said the great man, “if only the pubs were open!”

The story of his days in the 1970s whizzing around Lewes in an MG sports car, going from social club to pub to pub to pub showed another side of the man. I imagine he cut a different figure in those days, a bouvardier full of energy, fun and action.

 The most moving tribute came from Southover’s Commander-in-Chief Matt Street, who I believe had enlisted Ketih to help in the resurrection of the dormant Society in the early 2000s. 

I was also a (re)founding member, although I honestly cannot remember if it was Matt or Keith or both who got me on board.

Matt spoke beautifully from the heart about his old friend, concluding that he would “miss the old bugger”.

The homily was preached by Steve Daughtery who I always think of as a kind of Christian goal hanger, ever eager to bang one into the back of the net for Jesus.

 I am not sure I really understood his sermon, peppered as it was with popular psychology, and it was disappointing that he interjected a reprise of his message betwixt a recording that Keith had made introducing his favourite hymn and the singing of that hymn.

It would have been so much better if the hymn had been allowed immediately to follow the deceased's moving words.

All the same, Steve is a good man; his heart is in the right place.

The great thing about the service was that Keith had organised it.

For hymns he had plumped for Fight the Good Fight with All Thy Might by John Monsell, I Vow To You My Saviour by Richard Bewes, and You’ll Never Walk Alone by Rogers and Hammerstein. 

The readings were from Matthew Chapter Five, Verses 1 to 12, and from Psalm 25. And we were treated to the good old version of the Lord’s Prayer which I have never heard said in Southover Church before. All good!

In a sense, it had been Keith Week. 

We had gathered in the King’s Head to celebrate his 75th birthday and unveil a brass plaque at his place at the bar. 

Very appropriate, I felt. 

There were many times when Keith would be the only customers in. 

During rocky periods, his custom kept that pub open. 

No one could fault his dedication.

It was very strange hearing his recorded voice again over the PA system of the church, his long “s” lisp and the emotion he put into words like “emotional”. 

He spoke about how important it is to overcome personally tough times and to have a positive outlook. Absolutely right! 

However, it is fair to say that Keith struggled to do this as much as any of us. 

He had his happy days and his sad days.

The singing of You’re Never Walk Alone was led by the Lewes Operatic Society, for which Keith was Secretary, and very magnificent it was too. Later, they did a repeat performance in the pub.

Keith’s coffin was carried out of the Church and the “Bonfire Prayers” recited as he was placed back into the hearse. 

It slowly set off down Southover High Street – Keith’s final departure from Lewes, the town he made his home and his life's work.
Most of us retired to the King’s Head for a few pints of Harveys’ Best in the setting sun. 

It was really good to meet folk from other bonfire societies. 

I had never dared to talk to them before. 

The Commander-in-Chief of Borough Bonfire Society had also been Keith’s landlady. 

She said she had installed a washing machine for Keith but he had never used it, preferring to wash his clothes by hand. 

Inevitably, the evening wore on. 

Harris returned, having traded his funereal attire for a hoody. He told a very funny story. After a good evening at the King Head’s, Keith was well known for collapsing during the short walk from the pub to his front door. Other regulars would quite often help him home, a bodybuilding experience if ever there was one.

On one occasion, Harris and his friend Ginny were returning from the pub and found Keith drunkenly sprawled across his threshold. 

They were attempting to get him to his feet when a policeman arrived and asked what was going on. 

“It’s our mate,” said Chris, “we’re trying to get him to bed”. The copper called for assistance, three police cars arrived with sirens blaring and soon, to a still-conscious Keith’s delight, six strapping policemen were putting him to bed. 

In the pub the next day, according to Harris, Keith was far from contrite, saying: “It’s what I pay my taxes for!”

In among the outrageous yarns about Keith, there were so many tributes in spoken and written words. Stephen English, Chairman of Southover Bonfire Society, spoke about how Keith could close an issue down at meetings purely through his silence; Duncan Roy, “Archbishop” of Southover, said that Keith told him that when he played the same role for Cliffe Bonfire Society in the 1960s, the predominantly male crowd would chant at him: “Give us the pill! GIVE US THE PILL!”
Norman Baker MP talked of Keith’s “straight-talking, determination and integrity”. 

Martin Crees, a former denizen of Keith’s coffee shop The Den, in Cliffe High Street, wrote in the Southover Bonfire Society Programme: “The Den was us. . . we had Parkas or Leathers and were Mods or Rockers, and yattered about makes of scooter or  bike, trying to flirt with the girls with our jukebox picks, nudge the pinball machine and hope Keith had not seen it. 

"Keith ruled us with firm kindness, when not making expressive noises at the Expresso coffee machine. 

"I don’t know that he ever said he was homosexual – what a brutal word it now seems – but somehow we sensed he was, and that softened that phobia. 

"In all those years to 1970 there never was a fight between the Mods and Rockers [in The Den], because we liked and thanked Keith for this haven where we could begin to grow up. His disapproval would have been like exile.” 

Over the past few years, Keith's health had become worse and his mobility poor. 

At times he seemed in his cups, very depressed.

But, there was still life in the old dog. On various occasions he was also on cracking form. 

Who can forget when he discharged himself from hospital in Eastbourne after, I am told, almost dying, and caught a cab straight back to the King's Head for a pint of cooking lager.

That's laughing in the face of adversity!
And Keith had a whale of a time at the Mumford Weekend which raised a lot of money for Bonfire. 

Sadly, I had to work up in Warwickshire that weekend, but you can see from the picture (apologies for the quality of it) that he was really enjoying himself, even if he did later complain that he should have been allowed to work behind the bar at the gig!

His send-off was a fitting one. The sun shone, much imbibing took place, the jazz band played and good food was consumed. 

The big man was the centre of attention, never far from our thoughts.

Keith would have loved every last second of it!

On the Fifth this year, we of the Southover Bonfire Society will firing some of Keith's ashes up to the skies in a rocket. I am sure the other Lewes bonfire societies, who have all been offered Keith ashes will follow suit.

It will be a fitting end for the one and only Mr Bonfire!

Keith Austin, 1938 - 2013, RIP

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Harvest at Earwig Corner

It is that time of year again when I harvest the fruits of my labour at my allotment at Earwig Corner, Lewes.
Harvest at the alloment comes rather later than in much of mainstream agriculture. 

In fact, the two have little in common. Farmers are often producing very large quantities of food using a great deal of expensive science and equipment to feed the world; I am producing a very small amount of food using hardly any science or technology to feed myself.

Still, it gives me pleasure.

I have tending my allotment – which at five rods is half the size of a usual plot – for six years now. It has been a labour of love, but tough going nonetheless.
When I started in the 2007/8 season, the plot  was in a shocking state. 

It was hugely overgrown and had large quantities of discarded corrugated iron and rotten carpet on it. 

Although I grew crops the first year, it was almost two years before I had removed all the rubbish and got the entire site into cultivation.

As the years have passed I have become beset by more and more personal problems. 

Somehow, keeping my allotment has been a battle not just with the soil and the elements but also with the forces of chaos. 

Somehow, against all odds, I have always managed to keep it going. A miracle.

The images illustrating this blog show how much the allotment has changed in six years.
This year, bolstered by a wonderful weekend helper, I have tried to do it better than in the previous five seasons. 

Rather than stringing crops across the plot willy nilly, I constructed a couple of square beds and we collected large quantities of manure and dug it in. 

Then I planted onions, potatoes, garlic and beans in tight rows – my version of intensification of agriculture!

I tried then to weed and water the crops as much as possible, but, in practice, with my great burden of unpaid legal work, this has only happened once a fortnight. 

Weatherwise too, it has been another tricky year. It was a very cold and wet spring, followed by a hot and, at times, windy summer. 

So, the crops have been variously drowned, scorched or broken by the elements. It must be hard being a vegetable! 

I have also not been up in the evenings much because of my transport situation. Still, it has not been all bad.  
My shed, the roof of which I had to completely rebuild last year after it blew off in a gale, has survived (despite a break-in early in the season), and even looks good after we gave it a couple of coats of red protective paint. 
And I have had a smallish but high-quality crop. 

I have harvested one of my two beds so far and have a big bag of potatoes and a couple of large bowls of lovely onions and garlic bulbs.

I spent the other night cleaning up the onions and garlic in the kitchen sink. 

I almost instantly regretted it. What I’d thought would take me half an hour maximum filled at least five times that time and made a hell of a mess of my kitchen sink. At the end, though, I was left with some beautiful produce (displayed with various pandas). 

It made it all worthwhile.
Relations with my allotment neighbours have been excellent. 

The Two Daves – who have large and beautifully kept plots either side of mine – have been really friendly and helpful. 

They are full of useful advice and have both given me stuff to put in, which is extremely kind of them. 

A newcomer, Chris, is also a really good guy. He and one of the Daves helped me fit a big  f***-off lock to my shed and reinforce the door after a break-in, in which I lost my treasured antique tools.

Chris is like the allotment holders’ allotment holder. I often stop to have a chat with him, stroke his dog Stitch and marvel at the wonders he is doing on his plot. 

A coach driver by trade, he is making a bit of a second career out of his allotment. He says he has set up an allotment website, The Allotment Shed, and has had a TV crew round at Earwig Corner to interview him about it. Inspirational!

My first ever allotment was in Hackney in the early-to-mid 1990s. 

I had quite a large plot on the allotments between Stamford Hill and the River Lea. I loved it. That summer I grew delicious cherry tomatoes with the sound of rowing in the distance. They were happy times.
One of the biggest issues faced by many allotment holders is loneliness. Very few seem to manage to keep their allotments as couples. 

If there are issues with their relationship, they come out when digging, planting and weeding. 

So, they either give up the plot (or get kicked off because it turns into a jungle) or one or other partner ends up doing it on their own. 

I have always enjoyed the sunsets in the summer evenings at Earwig Corner but I could not help but feel sad and lonesome being there on my ownsome. 

It is more fun with a helper who can make lunch, do some weeding or just sit around, reading a magazine or chatting with her.
I have wanted to write poetry at my allotment but, somehow, I never seem to manage it. 

Usually, there is too much weeding or watering to do to allow for any creativity. 

I always put aside a few minutes to enjoy the wonderful view of the Ouse Valley which is poetry of a sort.
I sometimes try to read. My new policy of reading whatever books come my way had led to another unlikely choice. 

I missed my train coming back from a Rocket FM meeting in Lewes and hung out in the Platform Three waiting room at Lewes Station which has a charity bookcase. 

All the books in it were extraordinarily unappealing – the very worst of the 1970s romantic fiction – except one: a 1955 book club edition of a travel book called The Secret of Cremona by Edith Templeton. 
I had never previously heard of Mrs Templeton. It seems she was a 1950s novelist who turned her hand to travel writing. 

She had an easy writing style but almost nothing to say. I have read around 250 pages on her musings on various Italian towns, their art and architecture. 

Nothing much happened throughout. I learnt a great deal about Horace and Virgil and about religious paintings, but it is amazing I am still reading it with another 40 pages of no-action waffle to go. 

I could tell that even in the duller than dishwater 1950s the book club member who’d bought it for four and six (plus sixpence for postage and packing) had given up on page 224. 

Who was Edith Templeton? It seems she died in 2006 at age of around 90. 

Much as she claimed in the book to be English, she was born in Prague in 1916. She was educated at the French Lycee at Prague and married an Englishman in 1938. 

But she left England in 1956 with her second husband, a doctor, to live in India.  

She has certainly discovered the secret cure to insomnia, from which I have suffering on and off for a couple of years.

Nothing makes me sleep like her prose. Over the past week, I have dropped off on trains, coaches and in various people's living rooms.

Even during the week at lunchtime, I go to a cafe and read a couple of pages of The Secret of Cremona to catch 40 winks! 

I have never encountered a more soporific book!

I was very nervous about returning to writing this blog.

* It was really hard - and took weeks - for me to start writing again.

But I am really enjoying it.

My last, sad blog has received some very generous comments and emails.

I was very touched when the guys at the Daily Star read it and said they liked it.

And it seems a lot of people on the Emerald Isle have read it also.

I received a lovely missive from the late Linda Duff's sister, Imelda, who wrote: "I just wanted to thank you most sincerely for the beautiful posting about Linda. You captured her spirit so well. Much appreciated and she would have loved it!"

Dublin showbiz journalist Ken Sweeney emailed: "Loved your Linda Duff stories. I attended Linda's funeral last week. I brought a friend and we were the only journalists, newspaper or media people present. There were no celebrities or pop stars - just about 80 family and close friends. Neil Tennant [Pet Shops Boys] sent flowers. One of the most touching things her brother Dennis said at the service was that Linda spent her last days teaching creative writing to local kids in Dublin."

The great thing about blogging is that, while you self-censor, no one is censoring you or editing your work. It also gives me the chance to use some of the many images I take.

So, finally, here is one of my dad and mum beside The Thames near Oxford.

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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Linda Duff RIP

2013 will for me always be a year of tragedy. I will never forget the terrible loss of my niece in Ireland – an event too painful to write about. I also attended another funeral in Ireland and have since heard of the death of the father of a close friend and lost two friends I knew in England. 

The latest is a remarkable woman and journalist, Linda Duff, with whom I worked for several years while employed by the Daily Star in the 1990s.
I became friends with Linda after she was appointed Pop Editor and Columnist. I had been running the Star’s Pop Desk for a bit, before moving to a job on the Showbiz Desk, while a full-time Pop Columnist was found.

I recall it was the then Radio One disc jockey Simon Bates who recommended Linda, and after she started she made a remarkable difference.

Like the other tabloid pop columnists at the time (Piers Morgan, Rick Sky and so on), I focused on interviewing charts acts (setting up the interviews through PR people) and, occasionally, featuring a Golden Oldie, like The Who, Status Quo or other pop veterans such as Elton John. 

When Linda Duff took over, she took a radically different approach, focusing on the “Next Big Thing” – unknown names who she knew personally and went on to become stars, Take That, Westlife, The Spice Girls, Blur and The Manic Street Preachers among them.
Simon Cowell was a friend of Linda and in a sense she was a bit like him in that she sought out new talent rather than focusing on one-hit wonders acts or the old boys. 

This was a courageous approach by a national newspaper. But it meant that when she was right, she was in on the ground floor.

I was a traditionally trained hack, having attended a post-graduate journalism course, been indentured to a local newspaper and passed my National Council for the Training of Journalists proficiency test. So, I was fascinated and astonished in equal measure by the way in which Linda Duff appeared to operate. 

I would watch her interview someone on the phone and observe her only writing the odd word, often on a piece of scrap paper or the back of an envelope. As someone who took a note in shorthand, this seemed incredible to me. Yet, from her handful of key words, scores of paragraphs of vibrant Star copy would soon flow.
She would come in with her photographer and then partner, a giant of a man known as The Bear, at around midday, produce her column and sometimes another feature by 6pm and then set off into the night to find new talent and stories. The Bear was essential to the operation. He kept Linda company through thick and thin and took some remarkable, unusual pictures of up-and-coming pop stars.
I sat about four feet from Linda in the Star’s office, then at Blackfriars Bridge in London, and there was a constant stream of repartee betwixt our desks. At one point, Linda stocked her desk with bottles of spirits and mixers and, after lunch, she would serve up gin and tonic – gratis – at my desk. 

Indeed, she was incredibly generous. On one occasion, I met her and her boyfriend in the Doggett’s Coat and Badge bar across the road from the office. When I entered, she said to The Bear: “Order a magnum of Champagne for Ollie”. A magnum of Champagne duly appeared and a very jolly time ensued.
When someone you know well dies, it is interesting to see what is written about them. One major piece that appeared online about Linda focused on her time before working for the Star. 

Of course I knew she had worked for the Daily Mirror, before joining the Daily Star, and I think she mentioned working for Smash Hits, but it was interesting to learn that she had started her career working for a Irish music magazine called Hot Press, starting as an advertising sales girl and becoming a writer. I was also interested to learn she was 53 when she died. I had always assumed she was younger than me. She was always so full of joie de vivre.
In those days, the Star was a bit Wild West in its working practices, but Linda was tough enough to thrive in that atmosphere. On one occasion, a senior executive was miffed with me for a reason lost in the mists of time and Linda espied him tearing down the office, clearly intoxicated. 

Quick as a flash, she said: “Get under your desk, Ollie!” I slipped under my desk and pulled in the seat. The ranting executive arrived and shouted: “Where the f*** is Ollie?” Linda replied that she had not seen me, and the executive grabbed her by the lapels and started shaking her. Linda quickly sent him into retreat and when I emerged from under my desk we fell about laughing like idiots.

And how could I forget the time when Linda introduced me at a party to a young musician called Robbie Williams with whom I took on like a house on fire. A wild drunken evening with Robbie ensued.

Linda adored her wine. I love the story told by one of her team who went on to be a big noise on the now-defunct Screws of the World. When he joined the Rave column, Linda took him out to lunch at a posh London restaurant. As is traditional, the wine arrived for Linda to taste. She ignored the glass and instead looked at the label. "Thirteen percent alcohol," she said to the amazed waiter, "that'll be grand. Two bottles please!"

Another memorable occasion happened after I complained to Linda that she was not taking the three to four hour boozy lunchbreak enjoyed by the showbiz team. She and The Bear came in early one day and took me out to lunch at a Jewish restaurant in London's jewellery quarter, Hatton Garden. 

Somehow or other, during the proceedings, I managed to completely split the trousers of my suit. The rest of the day was hilariously spent with me trying literally cover up this fact with Linda, upon our return to the Star office, making more and more improbable excuses as to why I could not leave my desk to attend meetings. 

I also fondly recall that Linda was very taken with a band called Sultans of Ping F.C. who had a hit called Where's Me Jumper? At her desk she would sing the chorus which went: "Dancing at the disco, Bumper to bumper, Wait a minute, Where's me jumper? Where's me jumper? Where's me jumper? Where's me jumper? Where's me jumper? Where's me jumper? Oh, no!" 

Linda and The Bear persuaded me to go to see the band in a clarty, black-walled venue in Islington. After the mandatory bucket of booze, Linda and I worked our way to the front of the crowd and were pogoing as the group played Where's Me Jumper? When the lead singer first sang the chorus, in a moment of inspiration I ripped off me jumper and threw it at him, yelling: "Here it is!" It landed on his head, shrouding his face. He kept it! It was a good jumper.    
Her passing brings back so many memories of a halcyon time in my life when everything seemed so care free. But nothing lasts for ever. I decided to take voluntary redundancy from the Star in 1995, wanting a change. 

Remarkably for a work colleague, Linda kept in touch. She was promoted to Features Editor – a role more senior and very different from her previous one. Even so, she spared the time to fax me cuttings to help with articles I was writing for other publications.  

After she was made redundant from the Star, we saw each.  We met at The Dome in Islington for lunch and she told me how disenchanted she was with her new role developing programme ideas for a pop TV production company. 
When that contract ended, she turned her hand to finding and managing talent. I was invited to dinner with her and The Bear at their penthouse flat in Islington and to meet a young singer she was had taken onto her books. The singer seemed very pleasant but I could not for the life of me think how I was going to help make her a star.
A little later, Linda took on a musical comedy double act who she persuaded me to put on at my outlandish Stoke Newington comedy club, Joe’s Comedy Madhouse. They were brilliant! It was an amazing evening. She ended up taking them to the Edinburgh Fringe.
I bumped into her in Edinburgh one August. She was promoting the act; The Bear was playing in a band. He was a remarkably good guitar player, I thought, after seeing him perform at Edinburgh’s Café Royal.
As time went on, I guess Linda found the going tough, as happened to so many of us Star redundees. The penthouse Islington flat went. She moved to a place up in Enfield or somewhere similar, which she told me was rough. 

The Bear, she said, was glad to have got a job as a night watchman at the Imperial War Museum. Her relationship with him eventually fell apart.
The last time I met Linda Duff she took me to a music club in London’s Tin Pan Alley – Denmark Street, a mecca of guitar shops and muso hang-outs near Centre Point. A great band was playing, she was drinking huge glasses of wine, looked happy. Linda was in her element. 

A cheeky stand-up comedian I knew, who later became pretty successful, happened to be in the club and made a pass at Linda, but she wasn’t interested. 
I heard later that Linda had gone back to Ireland. Someone told me was managing a nightclub with a sister. I often wondered what became of her but, as happens so often in modern life, I did not track her down or get in touch. Now it is too late.
She was buried in Dublin last Saturday. Linda will be remembered for her kindness and generosity, her love of life and desire to live to the max. 

Linda Duff was a one-off.

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Friday, September 06, 2013

Starting Over

It has been a long since I last wrote a blog. 

It seems like the past two years, when I have been stricken with personal problems, have almost entirely blotted out my writing activity - particularly the creative side. Now I feel it is time to let go and start over again.

Life is a strange beast. Sometimes the harder you try, the more difficult it becomes. 

However, over the summer, I realised that when there is absolutely nothing you can do about a situation and you have exhausted every channel, there is no choice but to get on with your own life.

It is vital to count your blessings, and that is what I have started to do. 

In many ways it has been a good summer. I went sailing for a few days with an old friend. We sailed from Port Solent, near Portsmouth, to Poole, in Dorset, and back via Lymington. We rose early on the first morning to catch the tide but were alarmed by weather forecasts of a Force Nine Gale which would have given his 35ft. yacht a hell of a ride. Wisely we decided to chill out in the marina to let it blow over. 

So, we read in the morning, had a long lunch at an inexpensive Mexican quayside chain restaurant, followed by a siesta. 

In the evening, we had a big steak dinner, a glass or two of red wine followed by an early night.

The following morning was perfect. We motored out into the Solent and then caught the wind and sailed at speeds of up to nine knots to Poole. It was a lovely day, idyllic with the boat keeled over, so one side of the deck was touching the water, and going like the clappers in the bright sunshine.

I grew up in Poole in the 1970s and was looking forward to returning after decades away. Sadly, I have to say it proved a disappointment. Back in the day Poole Quay was attractive to the eye with a good mixture of industrial and tourist establishments. 

By sheer coincidence the postcard I was using as a bookmark was one with an image of Poole Quay from those days with the Waverley ferry moored in front of it.

We arrived in late afternoon and, after the initial excitement of docking had subsided, Poole showed its true colour. It has been developed in a most ugly fashion. 

A marina, where we berthed, sits in front of the Quay. Many of the industrial works have gone, replaced by unappealing hotel developments. 

 The Harbour Master’s House has been gutted and turned into a ghastly pub. Many of the little old public houses have vanished and even the ones that have survived are overly commercial.

Poole High Street was even worse. I recall an interesting variety of shops, cafes and restaurants and pubs bursting with character. I bought my first adult bicycle – a classic Rudge Pathfinder – from there Poole Cycles there. 

Now it is a desert of pound shops and charity stores. The pubs are cavernous, chain-owned boozers with the character of a soggy sardine sandwich. 

We saw an amazingly fat seagull at Wetherspoon’s – bloated on the scraps of the cut-price grub. I sought out the Old Harry, a High Street pub where I worked during the heady summer of 1980. It too had been filleted and turned into a vast and almost empty establishment called The Globe. 

I learned from the barmaid that even my old school, Henry Harbin Secondary School, where I spent a term in 1974 before going to Poole Grammar School, had been renamed Poole High. She had been there too.

The following morning we rose at the crack of dawn to catch the tide to sail back. It was a truly sublime sunrise but I was feeling a little jaded after the festivities of the night before. The Poole Quay chicken and chips was especially troubling me.

Despite my great ineptitude as sole crew and my seasickness, we eventually got the boat sailing at eight or nine knots again. We tried to go into Yarmouth, on the Isle of Wight, but a nautical cad nicked our berth. So, highly miffed, we motored across the channel to Lymington which was most pleasant. 

Another siesta and then a walk around the cobbled town perusing the second-hand bookshops followed by a quiet drink, some chores on board and an early night.

Our final day was windless so we chugged back to Port Solent on the trusty diesel motor. All in all it was an excellent few days and, thanks to my friend, I improved my sailing, although there is still a long way to go!

Most of the rest of the summer has been spent in Brighton where the weather has been glorious. 

My only other trip away has been for two days in Berlin. It was wonderful to see how well it has been developed particularly on the East side of the city. 

I went on the bus tour which skirted around where the Berlin Wall had once stood. 

It was fascinating to go to famous spots such as Checkpoint Charlie, so vividly described in John Le Carre’s novels during the Cold War.

In Brighton, after the lousy winter, no one expected such a glorious couple of months. 

I especially like hanging out on the seafront and listening to the singers at the outside Brighton Music Hall.

British Airways also turned up with a crane which suspended a metal dining table and some 12 diners some 100 feet above the seafront. 

Promotional girls walked up and down the seafront giving away bars of rock. If the inside of the label of your stick said “winner”, you were allowed to go on the “flight”. 

Mind did not, but I was treated to a free drink in the BA beachside area under the crane. I overheard an elderly Irish lady telling the steward that she had no one to go up with, and I volunteered to help.

The Irish lady and the steward enthusiastically took up my suggestion and I found myself being ushered into the VIP area where we were plied with Champagne for half an hour, given a short talk about tourism on San Lucia – the entire exercise was to promote a new British Airways service to the Caribbean island. 

A BA employee gave us a safety talk. I have to confess I started to feel a little nervous when I realised that the seats were simply welded onto the table. Apart from a small foot rest there was nothing beneath you. I was advised to leave my beach shoes behind in case they fell to earth.

In the event it was an exciting experience. The team strapped you into your seat in a way that meant you could not possibly fall. The crane gently hoisted the table to 100 feet above the seafront and more wine and a delicious San Lucian curry were served by the crew and the chef who stood on a small platform between the seats.

Needless to say the view was breathtaking. Seated at the corner of the table, I could see for miles. Brighton’s tower blocks were way below. It was quite windy up there in the sky.

The Angel of Peace looked tiny and the people on the seafront were like ants.
The table was slowly rotated during the half-an-hour flight until exhilarated, we were gently lowered to earth.  

The only other excursion this summer was a day-trip to Coventry to see my old friend Jason and his young son Max. 

Max and I had a great time playing trains and, later, going on the a miniature train ride.

During the summer and spring I have been reading a lot. My efforts to read the books on my shelves leads me to all kinds of work, old and new.

I have read Mark Twain’s Pudd'nhead Wilson, which was superb, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, which was weird, Graham Greene’s The Comedians, and Doctor Fischer of Geneva, which were both very good and entertaining, four of Alexander McCall Smith's novels, In The Company of Cheerful Ladies, Tears of the Giraffe, The Kalahari Typing School for Men, and Morality for Beautiful Girls, which were enjoyable, Richard Gordon's Doctor at Sea (fun), Further Tales of the City (OK but not as good as the first book), Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard (interesting) and John Le Carre's Smiley's People (brilliant once you got into it).

The next Lewes Poetry gig is on Thursday, 26 September: 8.30pm, Lewes Arms, Lewes.

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