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Third series, episode 21

All 113 episodes are available here on the HebWeb.

In the latest episode there's rail travel, sisters and nieces, nurses and curses, Rome and a Ron, a Bill and an Alan, an attack by a tree, a queer chap, two writers, rent men and salesmen, two sailors, a Don Juan and a Mrs missed.

Ticket to ride

A week before the latest round of strikes, we bought train tickets for a mini break in Chester. I'd nipped across to the booking office the day before, to get advice on the cheapest times to travel. I told the ticket guy I was glad we still have such things as booking offices and station staff. I didn't tell him I thought HMG is holding the RMT and the public to ransom, by failing to give workers a pay rise unless they agree to staff cuts and changes to working practices, and the wage rise they are telling the train operators to give would mean in effect a large  wage cut, which seems unfair to a group of employees who laboured through lockdown to keep the country running. How much did the nation profit then from their toils?

On the train the guard pointed to a list of stops and pointed to Mytholmroyd, asking "How do you pronounce that?"

"Put the stress on My, in Mytholmroyd. And the 'Sore Bee', in Sowerby Bridge."

He passed on my remarks to the train announcer, who managed to get Mytholmroyd right. But then she failed at the next stop. I suspect Sowerby Bridge residents will continue to be affronted by flowery rhyming versions of their home town's place name, despite the best efforts of Sally Wainwright.

Our Chester train was smart, almost on time, open plan and allowed us to spread our newspapers across a table. But after completing the quick crosswords, we chatted nostalgically about the delights of the steam trains of our youth.

Sixty years ago, on holiday in the Isle of Man, I watched A Hard Day's Night (1964) three nights running. Despite the delights of Douglas, what sent me back to the cinema each evening was the medley of melodic songs, sung in the railway carriage and post room.

Once, on a school rail trip to London, Raymond Grice challenged me and other lads to take turns in saying all the swear words we knew. We had only voiced a few before the Guard burst in on us. He must have been listening to our profanities at the carriage door, judging by his disdainful countenance.

In one of Alan Bennett's recent diaries, he recounts the tale of a friend who married a former prima ballerina. After she retired as a performer, she worked for a while as a music teacher at a posh boys school. When returning with her sixth form lads from trips to shows in London, she chose a different boy each trip for some 'hands on' tuition in her carriage. I'll spare you the detail, although Bennett doesn't. In all that time the guard failed to burst in to protect the innocence of the music teacher's chosen ones.

In contrast, our guard told us to keep the curtains up, not for a moment believing that we  had a licentious school mistress hiding in the luggage rack, but reckoning that sweary Sec Mod kids with Beatle mops would wreck his lovely third class carriage if he didn't keep a close eye on us.

Carry on Nurse

We met up with my three sisters in a café above the covered market in Chester. The next day was my younger sister's 70th birthday. A gathering of her daughters and grandchildren had been organised for the following day at a local hostelry by Nicola, her oldest daughter. Nicola, unfortunately, would have to miss the get together she'd arranged, because she was suddenly able to have an overdue operation. A couple of days later, Chris texted me to say, Nicola waited 3 hours to be called down to the operating theatre before she was informed that she couldn't be operated on that day. Perhaps she wasn't surprised by this outcome, with all the current pressures on the NHS. Nicola's a nurse.

Painting Ron

In Chester, we met up with our friend Brian, an artist who is about to open an exhibition in Chester Cathedral. He gave us a preview to the exhibition in his studio, on the top floor of a luxurious building above the medieval rows. His main focus was on famous buildings in Rome, his bold brushstrokes capturing his reactions to changes in light and shadow. But a few of his pictures harked back to the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.

Brian had befriended the great distance runner Ron Hill, in Ron's later years, and the Ron Hill firm use Brian's depiction of Ron's raised fist as he crossed the finishing line at the end of the Edinburgh Marathon on some of their latest products.

He told us a comic tale of Maurice Morrell of Wirral athletic club, a 6'5" Birkenhead policeman and one-time National javelin champion and (an unusual combo) a successful Cross Country runner. Back in 1970, teenage Brian was dismayed to find that his seat in the stadium at the Commonwealth Games was obscured because he was seated directly behind big Maurice. So he sat on the Stadium steps to get a better view, only for PC Morrell to tell him to shift himself, he was causing a hazard. All of this is depicted in a painting which has a small arrow pointing to Maurice gazing down from his lofty perch at the start of the finishing straight.

After Maurice's comments, Brian strolled off and wandered around the back of the stand, desperate to find a way past the ticket checking stewards who were guarding all the entrances. As luck would have it, at one point he nipped into the gents, where he found himself urinating next to the BBC sports commentator Frank Bough, a man who would in later years be outed by The News Of the World as a frequenter of South American brothels and a cocaine addict. Bough chatted to Brian for a wee while, before remembering he had to dash off, as some track finals were due. In his haste he managed to wet his trousers. As Bough dried himself, Brian thought of a  cunning plan. He fell into step behind Frank as he left the gents and nonchalantly sailed past the Stewards at the gate leading into the media section of the stadium, where he was delighted to discover rows of empty seats, on one of which he sat.

After a while, Brian gained the confidence to sidle his way down to a seat behind the cameramen, to be nearer the finish line. He befriended a photo journalist, who adopted him as his runner, getting the young interloper to take his snaps and messages up to the media centre. Brian was a keen photographer himself and after a while he offered to reload the guy's camera. The cameraman gave his side kick a PRESS arm band, and after the track finals, Brian was standing a few metres away from the finish line of the marathon as Ron Hill raised his fist in triumph to celebrate winning his gold medal, an image which became imprinted not just on Brian's memory, but 50 years later on Ron Hill's kit.

Present tense

To Halifax to buy presents. I kept reminding myself that PW had dropped a hint that she wanted the Bill Nighy biography. As she knew which book she wanted, you may well ask why the onus was on me to buy it for her, but these things are part of the strange rituals of the modern Christmas. In WH Smith's, most of the people wandering around the shop, and queuing at the tills, held lists of the presents their loved ones had requested. Fortunately, I only had one item on my mental list. Not finding the Nighy book, I eventually saw the Alan Rickman book in the Biography section, but there was no sign of the Nighy.

Rickman was retailing as a SALE item at £17.99. If only Rickman had been PW's choice. I tottered off to meet Jude in the Piece Hall, thinking they were bound to have the Nighy bio at the Corner Bookshop. Jude waited outside the shop, where the assistant checked her computer and reckoned there had been an unauthorised biography of Bill Nighy, back in 2012, but nothing since then. She asked if I was sure my wife wanted Bill and not Alan? I nodded and, disappointed in my quest, nipped off to join my son. I'd promised him a mulled wine.

Jude's favourite story of the moment, shared with all and sundry, is that his dad thought mulled wine was not an alcoholic drink, but Billy at the White Lion had said the seasonal concoction was definitely alcoholic, having only been heated rather than brought to boiling point. After we'd enjoyed the hot bevy in a packed Piece Hall cafe, I decided to give in and buy the Rickman book. Back at the Book Corner I didn't ask the price of the present because, with exquisite timing, PW texted that she was waiting for us. It was only after I'd waved my card over the machine that I noticed the price was £25!

On the way to meet Kath, my woolly hat was deftly lifted off my head by the lowest, therefore longest, branch of a giant Christmas tree I'd somehow failed to notice.  I had to make several leaps before retrieving it, much to the delight of a group of festive shoppers. When we caught up with PW outside M&S, I admitted that I couldn't find the Nighy biography, so I'd purchased the Rickman instead.

PW said, "The Rickman's the one I wanted! But you could have got it for half that price at Sainsbury's."

Queer Rochester

In Michael Stewart's Walking the Invisible (2020), one  walk is around beautiful Hathersage, where he met up with Claire O'Callaghan. Claire partnered him recently in a talk on the new Emily film at our Picture House. Hathersage was once home to Ellen Nussey, Charlotte's best friend, as well as generations of the aristocratic Eyre family. In a Brontë studies essay, '"He is rather peculiar, perhaps," Reading Mr Rochester's Coarseness Queerly.' O'Callaghan cites Charlotte's interest in Byron, a bisexual, politically radical writer, in support of her case that Rochester may have swung both ways. Depictions of Rochester in films omit the  parts of Charlotte's narrative where Rochester dresses as a woman, unbuttons Mason's shirt and 'nurses' him after he was bitten by Bertha, as well as his playful seduction of Jane, including a scene where he dresses as a gypsy, but continues to act like the stern Rochester she was used to. His compassionate adoption of Adele, despite his belief that she was not his daughter, also challenges the depiction of Rochester as the traditional masculine, romantic hero in the films of Charlotte's brilliant debut novel.

Loki and England's Green

The night after I stepped down from the Committee of Shaggy Dog Storytellers,  I was back on familiar territory at Stubbing Wharf. Despite the Big Freeze, local literati and fans of fine writing were out in force to see two local authors launch their latest works. I was welcomed by friends Deborah and Richard from library and storytelling backgrounds, who were there to hear Melvin Burgess read selections from Loki. 

I own some Burgess books from my time as a HE literature and storytelling lecturer in the 90s and noughties. When I caught up with him after the readings, I stopped myself asking about a temporary falling out he had with Anne Fine, author of Madame Doubtfire, which made the national press back then. Instead, we chatted about his new home in Todmorden. I should have congratulated him on his earlier bravura performance, when his witty, thought provoking introduction led into energetic retellings of episodes from the ancient tale. 

Before the launch party, I've been reading  England's Green, and I've recalled a meeting with  Zaffar Kunial behind the Stubbing, one brilliant summer's day between COVID lockdowns, when we sipped pints beside the canal. My mind can be quite ponderous when accessing free form poetry, despite the poets Peter Riley and Mike Haslam advising me to just 'go with the flow'. But this night I found that following the words as Zaffar read them, helped me to tune in. 

Afterwards, he signed my book and said we must meet up again soon, but I knew he had a T.S. Eliot award to pitch for in the near future, and told him to put his own needs first – this was his Miss Jean Brodie period!

Lovely it was to meet up with other writers in the audience, as well as Face Book friends I'd never previously faced. Later, after laughingly navigating my way across the moonlit skating rink that was the car park with another audience member, I drove home under the starlit sky, feeling quite heady - even on half a pint of porter.

I hear you knocking

Growing up in the 50s, we were used to visits from salesmen, who arrived in vans, their merchandise loaded in the back. The men on foot or on bikes, were the council rent collectors, stopping at every door apart from the one with 113 on it, two down from us, which belonged to the Dodd family, who had bought their home. Sometimes, when Me Mom was expecting the rent man to call, we had to hide behind the sofa as soon as the door knocker slammed. We knew to stay silent. But after a few seconds, if we started to stand up, Me Mom pulled us down again, knowing the rent man would reappear at the window, to squint through our net curtains for signs of life.

One of my earliest memories was a day when I was off school and heard the knocker slamming reproachfully. When I walked into the hall, the letter box opened, and the face appeared through the narrow hatch of a man, his eyes level with mine. I can still recall his pinched features and pencil moustache. Me Mom must have been 'down the Port' shopping at the time. The man and me looked silently at each other for a few moments, and then he let the letter box flap shut.

Salesmen were more welcome visitors than rent men, bringing luxuries to buy on the never never. Before our first holiday in the Isle of Man, Me Mom ordered new frocks for the girIs and a suit with short trousers for me. We couldn't afford a cabin, so we sat on the open deck of the midnight ferry, with the other 3rd class travellers, slopped by the cold  Irish Sea on the worse crossing in years, and frequently emptying our churning stomachs into the pitch black waves. We arrived in Douglas after a nine hour crossing.

My Littlewoods jacket was several sizes too big, but Me Mom had said, "You'll grow into it." So, forty years before David Byrne, I unwittingly caused a sensation when I wowed the audience at the Villa Marina Children's Talent Competition, by singing "He's got the whole world in his hands," accompanied by Ivy Benson's All Girl Band, despite my hands remaining up my sleeves and out of sight during the whole performance.

Over the years, I can remember a salesman demonstrating our first Hoover vacuum cleaner by throwing some dust and grit onto the carpet and then, at the touch of a button, his machine miraculously sucked it up. My parents bought me Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia, from a door to door man, all ten volumes, which must have cost a fortune. Me Mom told me, "Your sisters won't have to go to work, but you'll need an education."

I miss me Mrs

When we retired, in 2010, we went to Liverpool for a break and to celebrate my birthday. We stayed at the Malmaison Hotel, a few yards down from the Liver Buildings. Dining out at a restaurant in the Docklands area, I heard a local guy say, "I miss me Mrs and me Mrs misses me," and I was reminded again of the lilt and rhythm of Scouse, and when we got back home I wrote my second monologue. That tale caused a chap called Tom Robson in Chester, my friend Linda's dad, to form a group of writers - widowers who called themselves the 'I Miss me Mrs Writers Group.'

A few years back, when touring down in the deep south, well to Nottingham to be precise, in the cellar of a transgender pub, alongside my mate Rod Dimbleby, I  added a little censorious intro to my tale.

Here's a tale regarding  fashion a la mode,

'Bout a salesman who broke the salesman's code.

Though some customers are kissable,

Kissing em's dismissible:

When work and pleasure meet,

Allus be discreet.


The Yorkshire Don Juan

I left my Yorkshire home one fateful day,

For a salesman's job on t' streets of Liverpool,

But not long out of school, 

T' sales team tret me like a fool,

And had me selling day by day,

Ladies slippers and lingerie.


I met two merchant seamen set to sale,

And asked what they missed most when out at sea.

T' Small Un said, "Dis ale!

But sometimes in a gale,

I miss me Mrs and me Mrs misses me."

So we had a toast to his fidelity.

And Tall Un says, "That's true that, I agree.

We've got girls in every port, 

And although we don't go short,

I miss da kisses that me Mrs gives to me!"


So I told them that I sold from door to door,

Such items as a Mrs might be missing,

Special stuff for t' bottom drawer …

But sometimes they wanted more.

And I really made them listen,

When I started reminiscing 

'Bout this woman I'd been kissing.

"She's a reet big lass, as lives on Daisy Street,

She wears size 10 slippers –

An' those slippers are reet full of feet.

In a flannelette nighty,

She looks like Aphrodite.

An' when that big Mrs kisses, I really know what bliss is!"


But Small Seaman started to repeat,

"She wears size 10 slippers and she lives on Daisy Street?

She gets flighty in a well upholstered nighty?

Dat's my Mrs giving kisses in dem slippers,

And dat nighty was a treat!"

T' atmosphere in t'  Mermaid Inn grew tense …

I said, "Ooh, that's a coincidence!"

But Tall Un said, "Before you do him in,

Your Mrs is a twin … And it's complicated this is,

Dat twin lives near your Mrs …

Perhaps he never kissed her …

Perhaps he kissed her sister?!"

A foghorn sounded mournful out on t' Mersey,

As Small Un came up close, nose to nose.

My heart wor pounding in my jersey –

I knew I'd get no mercy.

He said, "Da question is:

Was that flannellated Mrs,

Giving kisses in Dem slippers, Rose or Liz?"


Now, questioned under oath,

I would have answered, "Both."

Instead I pondered, 'Where did Small Un plight his troth?'

Then I took a gambler's chance,

And I chose, "Rose!"

Small Un said, "That's grim,

I'm married to Liz … But Rose is married to him!"

Then Tall Un shook his fist, saying,

"Do you want some of dis?

My biggest wish is to feed you to da fishes!"


But  Small Un said, "It's alright son, we're joking.

There's something about a salesman that's provoking.

Our wives are quite petite,

They've not got size 10 feet!

But dose twin sisters, giving kisses in dem slippers,

Were once … Misters!"


'I said, 'Run that past me again.'

He said, 'Rose and Liz of Daisy Street,

Were once called Reg and Len.

You think you're a Yorkshire Don Ju-in,

But you don't know what you're doing!'

And after many more jibes at me,

Those seamen went back to sea.


So enjoy your kisses while they last,

Here's a toast both strong and tender,

To every lad and every lass,

And those who swap their gender.

Strange times

At his book launch in The Stubbing Wharf last week, Melvin Burgess said that the last three years have been the 'strangest' in his lifetime. To which I muttered, "Yes!" He was echoing my own thoughts, except I'd push the strangeness back a few years. In that same pub in 2016 the folksinger Keith Donnelly said he was going to show us something really scary, then he put on a facemask of Donald Trump. The Oxbridge educated  couple next to me commented that Trump wouldn't get elected. Hilary Clinton was well ahead in the polls. Yet something told me that he would.  At least in these strange times the conflict in Europe has brought out the best instincts in many people, as evidenced  in this valley by charitable responses to the needs of refugees, and in national  politics by cross party support for the besieged Ukrainian people. 

So I wish you a very merry Christmas, and - even more – I wish you a Happy New Year.

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