Lillabullero is desperately trying to catch up …

As one who found that news photo of the Prime Minister’s weirdly angular curtseying to Prince William in June one of the most cringeworthy and humiliating of recent times in a highly competitive field (she’s only 26 years older than him, just for starters) obviously I’m going to be cheering along with Tom Bower‘s hatchet job on the man Private Eye calls Brian, Rebel Prince: the power, passion and defiance of Prince Charles (Collins, 2018).   Bower claims to being a monarchist who fears that Charles will do for the institution, while I feel that the continuance of the monarchy is a human rights issue, not least for the damage it does to the poor bleeders born into it; not to mention the privilege, expense and general cheek of it all.

Never mind the disputed claim that made headlines about taking along his own toilet seat with him on his travels (or rather his staff doing so), a lot of the well documented evidence here, much gained from interviews from those close to the action, including ex-employees, may well take your breath away.  The book only covers the last 20 years and has five interweaving themes:

  • The long haul post-Diana’s death PR job to re-establish the deeply unpopular Charles with the public and soften them up for the prospect of Queen Camilla
  • His personality, extravagant lifestyle and sense of entitlement.  Six houses, full travelling entourage, private planes, billionaire’s yachts.  Don’t get me started.  Plus: “Loyalty was always a one-way street.”
  • His bonkers ideas – lecturing the BMA on where science has got it wrong! – and attempts to gain them wider favour, involving  establishing a series of wastefully administered charities, mostly funded by billionaires vying for places at the banquet table, writing to Prime Ministers etc.
  • The Paul Burrell affair: a rat of the first order, his prosecution for purloining Diana’s stuff was dramatically dropped in court, after months of assiduous work by detectives, when the Queen suddenly ‘remembered’ a conversation in a car two years earlier, and of course she couldn’t be put in the witness stand; he was threatening to reveal third person court gossip about Charles which no sane person would credit, and which half the world – though not us in the UK, because of an injunction – had heard anyway.

I could go on, but here are some favourite quotes.  How’s this for cynical PR early on in the rehabilitation game (and of course the papers lapped it up):

… photographers were summoned to the reception at Somerset House for five hundred guests to celebrate the National Osteoporosis Society, chaired by Camilla. The charity’s trustees could never have anticipated the enormous interest, but the media had been tipped off by the usual reliable source that Charles and Camilla would greet each other with a kiss.

And here’s a rarity – something good you can say about Tony Blair, who

had been spared Charles’s pained response to his letter which started ‘Dear Prince Charles’ and was signed ‘Yours ever, Tony.’ [A flunky] called Downing Street to stipulate that in future Charles wanted Blair’s letters to start ‘Sir’ and to end ‘Your obedient servant.’  The Prime Minister’s private secretary replied that he refused to ask his master to change his style.

Oh yes, and here the future king is at his fêted Poundbury village project in his (!) Duchy of Cornwell:

Charles was introduced to the owners of a new two-bedroomed house. ‘I have always stuck to the principle,’ he told the couple, ‘that I would not let anyone build a house here that I could not personally live in.’ The occupant of six grand houses did not intend any irony.

Enough!  If you want a good laugh in between bouts of incredulity and outrage (or ‘fury’ as the tabloids would have it), Bower’s book is a good read.

Waiting for Doggo

I took Mark B. MillsWaiting for Doggo (Headline Review, 2014) home from the library by mistake.  A friend has been trying to convert me to the pleasures of Magnus Mills and I thought I’d picked up two of the his books.  Still, though I don’t do cute animal stuff, I liked the title and it made for a pleasing diversion.  Chapter One is an apologetic Dear John letter to Daniel, who would have made a perfect part for the younger Hugh Grant, well before he became Jeremy Thorpe:

And I’m sorry about Doggo.  That’s totally my fault.  God knows what I was thinking.  What was I thinking?  that he would make a difference, even heal us.  You’ll hate that word, like you hate it when I talk about journeys and energies and, yes, angels.
      The thing is, I DO believe in them. And you don’t.  Is this what this is really about?  Maybe.  I used to love your polite tolerance, the sceptical smile in your eyes, but now it pisses me off.  It looks cynical and superior to me now, like you think you have all the answers.  Well you don’t.  Who does?

This had me chortling, and so it continued.  Doggo – at least part-MacGuffin – is the ugliest dog in the world; they hadn’t even got round to naming before she left.  Plot-wise he gets into places and works a certain alchemy therein by spuriously getting away with being described and excused as an emotional support dog.  (Mind, many moons ago, when I was working for Camden Libraries, the Chief Cataloguer – remember them? – used to have this big shaggy thing, never a bother, under her desk all day long; I don’t think anyone was prepared to call her bluff).

Anyway, Daniel, a decent bloke, is a vague would-be-writer who has ended up at Indology, a trendy new advertising agency.  What goes on there is a rich variety of office intrigue, politics and romance shenanigans, all set against a rich satirical look at the industry in general.  Pièce de résistance is the competition between creative teams in the agency for the pitch to give to a client, a French car maker launching a supremely ugly car.  I’m not saying whether “The hatchback of Notre-Dame” is adopted, but I laughed out loud.  All in all great fun, and as it says on the cover, life-affirming … in a cosy but not quite cloying sort of way.  I never got round to reading the Magnus Mills.

The return of the Vinyl Detective

Victory Disc (Titan Books, 2018) is the third in Andrew Cartmel‘s splendid The Vinyl Detective comic crime series and I zipped through it just like the others, which have been extensively and positively reviewed here at Lillabullero, so I’m not going to spend too much time on it, carrying on, as it does, all the fun, thrills, spills and inventiveness of its predecessors.

Our narrator is the eponymous Vinyl Detective and the established crew are all in evidence.  Much loving bickering with his sardonically witty American girlfriend Nevada – in many ways developing into the star of the show – their tolerated mate Tinkler, a grammarian and valve amp and vinyl equipment obsessive, and the cats Fanny and Turk, to name the major players.  It’s full of music, and we get cooking tips too.

This time the VD has become the Shellac Shamus.  The discs he’s been engaged to find are ultra-rare recordings of the Flare Path Orchestra, the British equivalent of the Glen Miller Band, along with collecting memorabilia and contemporaries’ memories of its leader, the late Lucky Honeyland, bomber skipper and postwar successful children’s writer.  Who turns out not to be the ‘decent chap’ he appears to have been; Lucky for an unsuspected reason.  There’s a miscarriage of justice to be uncovered too, discussion of the role of saturation bombing in wartime, and many interesting characters to meet on the way to a nicely wrought climax at a concert at the Royal Festival Hall.

Let me give you a joyful flavour of the language and dialogue: how does the notion of ‘high end cat biscuits’ grab you?  Or ‘frizzy, toffee-coloured hair that hung around her face in untidy waves’ described as ‘a Pre-Raphaelite mess‘?  Ok, maybe a bit specific in its target audience, but some more hair for you consideration: ‘It had been cut in a deliberately nerdy manner, as though he was a member of a 1960s pop band that had wrongly considered itself ironic‘.

I give you, in closing this segment: a post-fight de-briefing, a discussion about light orchestral music, and a clarification:

“We shouldn’t joke about it really.”
“Yes, you should,” said Tinkler. “It’s not every day you get to address a neo-fascist with a breeze block.  As a matter of fact, I think that entitles you to another large glass of red wine.” [Nevada specifies the bottle].

“It’s a slippery slope,” I said. “And awaiting at the bottom is Mantovani.”
He laughed. “Mantovani had his moments, you know. Fucking brilliant use of strings.”

“What is adultery?” said Tinkler. […]
“It’s shagging someone you’re not married to,” said Nevada succinctly. “And if you tell me it should be ‘someone to whom you’re not married’, Tinkler, I shall break a plate over your head.”

To the river

Olivia Laing‘s To the river: a journey beneath the surface (Canongate, 2011) was June’s Book Group book (well I said I needed to catch up) and though I wasn’t able to attend I gather reactions were mixed one way or another on three continuums: get over yourself, get on with it, and … but it had its moments.

In the spring of 2009 I became caught up in one of those minor crises that periodically afflict a life, when the scaffolding that sustains us seems destined to collapse. I lost a job by accident, and then, through sheer carelessness, I lost the man I loved.

He moved back to his native Yorkshire, in case you’re interested, but of this we hear little more (though he bought her a vacuum cleaner for Xmas once).  A hydrophile, she decides to walk unaccompanied, as near as she can, the course of the River Ouse in Sussex, a river she knew quite well, from its source to the sea.  Therapy or career move?  We are not told if she had a book contract before or after she succeeded.  The Sussex Ouse is the river Virginia Woolf drowned herself in, so for me at least – Woolf called Ulysses pornography and thought D.H.Lawrence common – it did not augur well.

As a physical journey it’s not without interest.  Just actually finding the source is fascinating, for starters.  We get a lot of naming on flora and fauna in atmospheric descriptions of specific moments, that take a lot for granted in trying to see what she sees, but some of the brushes with humankind, in pub gardens etc. work nicely almost as wild life observation.  It’s a relief to reach the sea, and the last stretch is fascinating in looking at the changes the river has seen.

The psychogeography drags a bit, a lot, I suspect, book-sourced after the event, though I suppose it depends on what you’re interested in.  Simon de Montfort – nah, but fascinating that the finder of a significant early iguanodon find and the perpetrator of the Piltdown Man hoax lived round the corner from one another a century apart in Lewes.  She goes for a couple of dips in the chalky waters, but shares with us the thought that:

It was in a wallow like this that Iris Murdoch and John Bayley began their courtship, or perhaps more accurately consummated it, for the first swim is not dissimilar to the first time a couple spend the night in bed.

To the river was seemingly well received in on the higher-brow book review pages, but it felt to me like it was struggling for a profundity more wished for than delivered.  And every time I contemplate that title – and I bet it’s happening to some of you too – I hear Al Green.  So, to save you some time, here he is:



Charmed by the welcoming staff into renewing our RSPB membership at Minsmere.  Nesting sand martins make for an enticing start.  The Coast Trail – all two miles of it – seemed like a long walk in that sun when we were not being blown about, but the pools and reedbeds are rewarding.

Finally got to see an avocet.  Not the greatest photo, I’ll be the first to admit, better one of a snipe, but avocets a big deal for me (long story touching on a bungled quiz question and a meditative Bert Jansch instrumental album).

Coast Trail also takes in remnants of the World War 2 coastal defences. Prompting thoughts embedded deep in the annals of social psychology: There’s always one …


And so, second attempt, we make it to Southwold.  Charmed, once out of the car park, sited strategically to one side of the celebrated Pier, where it does not impinge on the attractiveness of the town.  Traditional seaside with a minimum of tat.  On the pier the eccentric and imaginative slot machine arcade out of the mind of Tim Hunkin – called The Under the Pier Show, which is, of course on the Pier – provided entertaining shelter from the buffeting winds, which never gave Hunkin’s water clock a chance.

Walked up and down the High Street – not unpleasant in itself, though the pavements a bit crowded – but failing to find what the guide book had called the “ultimate chippie”.  This failure being entirely due to your humble scribe’s inability to distinguish one small Suffolk seaside resort from another, despite there being 20+ pages dividing them in said guide book; next time for Aldeburgh, then.

Nevertheless, we did have an excellent plate of fish and chips – well crispy batter – from the Beach Café, watched over by George Orwell, who spent time in Southwold – official mural by PureEvilx.

We did manage to find the right church, St Edmund’s, a four star-er in England’s thousand best churches, noted for its ‘flint flushwork exterior’.  A sign by the gate quotes from Psalm 66, though “All the earth worships Thee / they sing praises to Thee / sing praises to Thy Name“, not as obvious in meaning as it once was, sounds like a recipe for trouble in these days of instant celebrity.

Inside they were setting up for a concert, wires and equipment all over the place, but the lighting gave something to the organ loft.  Photo fails with the scary choir stall arm rests and the angels, and the impressive roof angels.

We take to the water

Saturday, last full day in Suffolk, and we take the Waveney River Tours morning hour and a half tipping your toe in the Broads trip.  In truth some of our motivation for this was down to TripAdvisor and some interesting reviews.  How to resist the likes of : “There is not much to see apart from reeds“;  “It’s a waste of money most of the people were sleeping as they were bored” (sic);  “I can see why some people would find it a bit boring“; “See some nice houses along the river and some wild life … Wouldn’t recommend to be honest”?

But it was cool, the strong breeze off the water, and while the most interesting thing in the water was a bit of a monster barge being pulled by a rubber dinghy, we did get to see a marsh harrier more than fleetingly, which counts for something.  The commentary was thankfully inobtrusive, but he knew his stuff.  A while ago, in telling us about their whole week boating on the Broads, a relative had used that ‘boring’ word.  This short trip had the value of ensuring that’s another option we can safely rule out.

East Anglia Transport Museum

For shame, there is no mention of the East Anglia Transport Museum, situated in Carlton Colville, a suburb of Lowestoft, in our esteemed guide book.  We had a great time there, riding on the old trams – overhead wires, tram tracks, the whole authentic experience – and wandering around the fine collection of buses, trolley buses and more trams, taking in the various displays and refuelling with some splendid egg sandwiches.  To take up a theme mentioned earlier in our Suffolk travels, here truly is the best of British: crazy (in the best sense of the word) enthusiasts and volunteers, who run the whole show; I couldn’t stop one talking.  Back in 1962 all that was here was, according to the guidebook, “just a large, disused meadow with a dilapidated wooden shed in one corner” … and enthusiasm; it now covers 5 acres.

On the left, Blackpool, in the middle a futuristic looking Sheffield, and a Belfast trolley bus.  You can ride as much as you want – a short journey, there and back to a woodland ‘terminus’ and picnic spot – but the ritual of the punching of the ticket must be adhered to.  We had two conductors – a sprightly older man, and a young teenager (an enthusiast’s grandson caught early?) – both delighting in the calling of “All aboard”, “Hold on tight, please” and ringing the bell.  At the end of each trip they took pride in reversing the seats – flipping the seat backs in their groove – so travellers were always front-facing.

Would have loved to have got a decent photo of this historic ‘streamlined’ Blackpool front gem, but it was having some work done, and there was a Land Rover (a classic itself) parked in front, so here’s the best looking overhead wire contact.

They don’t make bus shelters like this art deco beauty anymore.

What else?  A kitted out Anderson shelter from WW2.  A roadmender’s hut with all its old mod cons –  they lived in them while the job was ongoing – you can sit in that one; indeed, Tar, sweat and steam, is a permanent display about historic road building including a good-looking Armstrong Whitworth steam roller.  A Mini same model and colour as I once had, a Trabant and a Sinclair C5, taxis through the ages, a fully fitted fifties caravan (so tiny), many other vehicles.  A fascinating wall full of loads of old road signs.  Some decent rose bushes.

We had a grand afternoon there, might have stayed longer were it not for the heat.  Here’s their website: http://www.eatransportmuseum.co.uk/We even bought a peg bag because our old one disintegrated.  It performs very well:



… but public transport can’t exactly be said to take the strain.

We decide to make use of our bus passes.  A theoretical journey of less than two miles, it takes an age to get in to Lowestoft and, seated in traffic, we see the next bus we need (an hourly service) on its way out.  On alighting, the racket from seagulls on the neighbouring church tower is deafening:

Later, on another building, we see them nesting on top of the anti-seagull wire defences.  This may be some sort of strategy because the birds are relatively scarce on the best bit of extensive beach  where the beach huts are, away from the town centre.  But I jump ahead of myself.

There are three 99 buses an hour, but two of them only do a shorter round trip to somewhere on the way to where we want to go.  Boarding one of the latter, we ask to make sure, and are told we want the one that leaves at ten minutes past the hour.  We waste some time wandering around a bit in the town.  What we are not told is that the one we want is a double-decker.  So we trustingly get on the single-decker that duly leaves at ten past the hour.  It takes nearly half an hour to reach the suburbs of Lowestoft, which is not a large town.

This may be a good point at which to introduce the guide book we have borrowed from the library.  Laurence Mitchell‘s Suffolk (Bradt, 2014) is an entertaining and droll companion, one of Bradt’s Slow Travel series.  Lowestoft – pronounced ‘Loos-toff’ by the locals, he tells us – gets barely two pages, kicking off with “Lowestoft has probably seen better days“; he makes great play of the town making great play of its being the most easterly point in the British Isles.

Anyway, back on the bus we realise that the scenery (an out-of-town shopping facility, actually) is beginning to look familiar.  This bus may have left at 10 minutes past the hour, but only because it was running massively late due to the log-jammed traffic (for which we could see no cause other than, well, traffic; somebody should do something).  We cut our losses and get off at Lowestoft’s sea-front; another day for Southwold, then.

On the front, obviously, an ice cream is called for.  The combination of intense mid-day heat and stiff sea-breeze makes this something of a sticky – though admittedly seagull free – adventure and we are in dire need of hand-washing facilities.  These are not easy to find, and when we do find the toilets in Kensington Gardens – a pleasant little oasis, flowers, grass, pond etc – they are equipped with those all-in-one machines: in theory you stick your hands in and soap comes, water comes, hot air finishes the job and you remove your hands, fresh, clean and dry.  Out of action in both the men’s and women’s; I don’t think I have ever seen one of these working anywhere.

Buses back to Oulton Broad are scarce at the best of times so we decide to sample the train, which, only being a little unfair, is approaching heritage status.  Hourly timetable, so a dash to the station.  Here it’s probably worth mentioning that Lowestoft seems to be making a bid for the Guinness Book of Records in the category of longest wait for pedestrians between pressing the button at lights to cross the road and the lights changing; it becomes a topic of conversation as crowds build.  We make it with a couple of minutes to spare.  There are two trains sitting in the station (one for Ipswich, one for Norwich – useful for  a rainy day, if we ever get another one)  and in my hurry I manage to fail totally in my reading of the display board, and we sit in the one and watch the other pull out.

As it happens this works to our advantage, because the walk from Oulton Broad South Station (as opposed to North) takes us back through Nicholas Everitt Park, location of Lowestoft Museum, where we had every intention of going anyway.  A word about the splendid Nicholas Everitt Park: every town should have one, a good old-fashioned park, with plenty of grass, flower beds, practically an arboretum of tree varieties, a bandstand, a pond with fornicating mongrel ducks, a bowling green (delicious to sit the other side of the hedge and hear the bowlers’ commentary as the ends progressed), a big well equipped playground, a choice of cafés … and a slightly quirky museum in a Grade II late-seventeenth century building (but later for that).  This is what rich people used to give back to their communities, as opposed to competing among themselves over luxury yachts and abodes, private planes et al.  Thank you Nicholas Everitt, round the world adventurer and spy, among other things – and philanthropist – for this park in 1929.

There’s a lot stuffed into the volunteer-staffed Museum.  Fossils, Roman remains, porcelain (a big deal here in the eighteenth century, apparently), the fishing industry (also big, more, but not too, recently) and a lot else.  Much taken by a cabinet full of Stacey & Evelyn Fincham’s miniature scenes, full of detail and wit – those newspapers are not much bigger than a big thumbnail.   Their website can give a fuller picture (www.lowestoftmuseum.org/).

Knowledgeable, enthusiastic volunteering, becomes a bit of a theme over our Suffolk days.  One of the most attractive and flourishing features of English life.  As opposed to the sights and sounds of the youth (and older) emerging from the pub down the round from where we stayed after England’s defeat by Belgium in the group stage of the World Cup.  Minor vandalism and the out-of-tune strains of “I’m England till I die” fading into the night almost enough to make one wish for the early failure of Saint Gareth Southgate’s praiseworthy band of brothers.  Gawd help us if we’d made the Final.

Wednesday and we’re flashing the nash again at Sutton Hoo, famed boat burial ground of Anglo-Saxon royalty.  The National Trust have done a great job in telling the tale in the Exhibition Hall with its narrative boards and displays of original artefacts and – especially – the high quality replicas large and small.  It was good to hear a recording of the story of how the 1939 excavation started in the rich East Anglian burr of the local man who recognised what a big deal it all was.

As a librarian, i just thought: Yes!

King Raedwald’s fully kitted out burial chamber in the hull of a ship is an experience, while the spectacular polished replica of the iconic helmet – Rick Kirby’s giant working of it hangs over the entrance to the Hall – is a wondrous piece of art to behold, doubly so when one of the NT volunteers explains what’s going on with the symbols and decorations in all their intricacy.  The original – made with iron, bronze, tin, gold and silver – is in the British Museum.

Note the tactical placing of the fur to prevent plucking of the harp. Damn.

I was much taken by the Warrior Bards section of the exhibit, recognising their importance in the creation and maintenance of a shared identity among a population.  “They sang of ancestors and the fates of men, of dragon-slayers and family feuds, of wars and adventures … The stories of these people, not written down, were told by kings and minstrels to the music of the harp.”  Not for the first time, guilt at not having read Beowulf (the Seamus Heaney translation came in the post this morning; so far so good with the good intentions – whether it gets read is another matter).

At school they told us these were the Dark Ages.
We walked the parched lands of the burial grounds under the sun, and took some respite in the trees.

And so to Dunwich Heath and Beach.  Failed to negotiate the new National Trust parking procedures involving sticking your card in a machine; were assured by helpful volunteers we were not the first and would not be the last.  Such a welcome big breeze off the sea, but in spots of such severity as to require the donning and shedding of items of clothing.  Fascinating to see the battle for ground cover, the incursions of ferns among the heather (or vice versa? is it perpetual?)

Blown away on the beach too, but context is all.  The sea may have been brown, but it was still the sea.  And we live in Milton Keynes; it may be just another crap photo of the sea to you, but).  For a while we were the only souls in sight.  With Sizewell as distant backdrop lending a science fiction end of the world edge.

Here at Lillabullero we are encountering something of a gridlock with at least five books and counting awaiting, plus four days touristing in Suffolk lining up just for starters.  It’s beginning to feel like how the roads around Dover and Immingham are gonna be with lorries next year when Brexit for real gets going.  Brevity and/or small chunks, then.

Bathroom curtains

Tuesday of the last week in June, already well into the heatwave, we head for the Suffolk coast.  Planned a while ago, it turns out to be a lucky; there will be breezes.  We break the journey, flashing the nash – using our under-utilised National Trust membership cards – at Anglesey Abbey, a country house, near Cambridge, and nothing to do with Wales at all.  Lifestyles of the idle rich, second quarter of the twentieth century – American money, British Baronetcy.

A gentleman’s wardrobe: jacket porn

But Baron Fairhaven restored the house, and, being an avid collector, filled it and the gardens with stuff picked up on regular bouts of travel abroad or just pursuing particular manias – some of them more interesting than the room full of mediocre landscapes of Windsor Castle.  Having said that it must be admitted the large Renaissance mosaic, constructed from thousands and thousand of tiny pieces of glass -you would never have guessed – displayed flat in a case and apparently weighing a ton, was a wonder to behold, and more than just as a feat of patience, when it was proudly pointed out to us by an NT volunteer; volunteers became something of a theme over the days.

In the kitchens – classic 1950s – one of the cooks in costume asked us what was the best thing we’d seen: sorry, but a kingfisher – always special – in the Quarry Pool!  But there was plenty of interest in the house; we were not sorry to have spent the time there.

And the Baron had had the grounds done up nicely.  The trees and bushes in the Winter Garden walk, practically an arboretum in its own right, boasted a rich variety of shades of green, while the stars of the Herbaceous Garden (well, borders, but big ones) were the delphiniums, in blocks of blues.  The sundial at the centre of the herbaceous garden’s parched lawn bore the legend, “Fear God, Obey the King” but made interesting shadows.

We were too early for the Dahlia Garden, but there was a phalanx of NT gardeners working on them.  Andrea jokingly, ‘Maybe they could give us some advice’ – we have our first two this year, an experiment on the allotment – but they overheard and were only to happy to help: chicken manure, they said, and, when they start to flower, Tomorite, which, ‘pretty much works for anything’.

As far as the extensive grounds went, we barely scratched the surface.  Not sure what’s going on with these statues which stood either side of the path into, if memory serves, the Dahlia Garden. Poking an eye out?  Swatting a fly, girding his lion?










And so to Oulton Broad, pretty much where the Broads begin (depending on where you’re coming from).  Shame the sun goes down in the wrong place for a more spectacular sunset.




Millennials may have plenty to moan about but their children – so long as the public libraries stay open – have the richest ever variety of picture books available for their delight and edification. Here are a couple of favourites that I’ve encountered in grandparentage.

Ed Vere‘s Grumpy Frog (Puffin, 2017) is a morality tale.  Grumpy Frog insists glories in being green to the detriment of all other colours, particularly pink.  He has a running dialogue with his author as to his grumpiness: Green ROCKS my world! / Leaves are green … YEAH! / Grass is green … FISTPUMP! / DUDE! Frogs are green! / See … NOT grumpy!”  He won’t go swimming with his friends (water’s blue), and a bouncing game is out because it involves yellow, so they go off without him.

After a while he’s in existential crisis: “WHY ISN’T EVERYTHING GREEN? / WHY do I eat flies? / WHY isn’t it my birthday TODAY? / Why won’t anyone hop with me? / I miss hopping / I miss my friends.” 

Pink Rabbit, also into hopping, offers to be his friend, but … yup, no go.  So along comes a crocodile who eats frogs.  It is pointed out to frog that the crocodile is also green.  He is made to realise he is being both grumpy and really mean; he wises up and escapes the croc’s jaws because it only likes to eat grumpy frogs.  Grumpy Frog apologises to Pink Rabbit and is forgiven.  Dude! We all love hopping … together!” Not quite the end, and I’ve missed other bits, but I’ll leave it there.

Can’t say two-and-three-quarters grandson entirely gets Grumpy Frog but he likes it well enough, and it keeps its fun for we who do the reading.  There’s a crocodile to the fore in our next book too, but until he can read most of the pleasure’s mine.

Open very carefully: a book with bite, illustrated by Nicola O’Byrne ‘with words by Nick Bromley‘ (Nosy Crow, 2013) plays with the book format something rotten.  It sets out to be a twee Han Christian Andersen’s The ugly duckling, but there’s an invading crocodile on the loose.  “What’s he doing in this book?

He’s on the move and what he’s doing is eating the letters (“I think his favourite letters are O and S“) before graduating to “… whole words and sentences!”  To stop him it’s suggested we rock the book backwards and forwards.  He nods off.  Revenge attack: let’s draw a pink tutu and ballet shoes on him – “not such a scary crocodile now!

Waking up he is not a happy croc but he’s fed up with this scene and makes a run for it, only to bump his snout against the book’s edge.  Taking pity, we give the book a shake to no avail, but he’s sussed it for himself and … eats his way out.  Of an actual hole in the last two pages and back cover.

Meanwhile, over in the adult section …

I don’t normally do supernatural horror – have never even (whisper it) read a Stephen King – but Sarah Pinborough‘s The reckoning (US: Leisure Book, 2005) is set in the small town I’ve lived in for the last decade – Streatford for Stony Stratford, Gallows Hill for Galley Hill, Dulverton for Wolverton (ouch, though note the publication date), York House for York House – so why not?

Spooky almost from the outset?  Rob, one of the main characters, is a successful horror novelist who moves back to his hometown; Ms Pinborough is a successful writer some of whose work is deep in the genre who has recently moved back to this very same home town (just round the corner, in fact).  The phrase ‘hostage to fortune’ springs to mind, doesn’t quite fit, but I’ll use it anyway.

At a recent local event Sarah said she’d bought back the rights to her first three books (The reckoning was her second).  I’m speculating more to stop the American publisher cashing in on the recent success of the bestselling Behind her eyes and Cross her heart (see below), than out of embarrassment, because it aint half bad.  Indeed it shares some major ingredients with those two much later books – strong characters who swear a bit, friendship across class divides, multiple viewpoints, shifting timelines, an eventful youth coming back to bite, masterful suspense, at least one major narrative twist, and crushing climaxes.

I could nit-pick – the role of the police and other authorities in all the shenanigans is too peripheral – and everything would be much more tightly drawn these days, but in the face of an energetic prose I read on apace just the same.  That since reading it I’ve felt a frisson when I walk down Ousebank Way to get to the river, as I often do, must count as a measure of the book’s success, I’d say.  And after the peaceful resolution, ends all tied where they can be, there’s a beautifully executed tease, charming and chilling, left hanging there in the Epilogue.

Sarah Pinborough‘s latest novel, Cross her heart (HarperCollins, 2018) is such a taut page-turner that it’s difficult to write about in any detail without giving some of the game away. This time around she has eschewed the supernatural and come up with a powerful mainstream psychological thriller featuring,  ultimately, one of the most twisted psyches I’ve ever encountered in fiction (not that I hunt them out, mind).  The book displays all the characteristics listed in talking about with The reckoning above, but the writing and plotting is so much tighter.  There are twists, red herrings and turns aplenty, all topped off with an intriguing road trip pursuit, a scary climax (in Skegness) and a deeply satisfying coda.

The story is told through a web of first person present tense narratives and thought-streams (Now) from three people, interlaced with some Before and After, and significant Him and Her, passages.  The three are Lisa, a single mum, the main woman; Ava, her young teenage daughter, who is being groomed, and disappears; along with Marilyn, Lisa’s best friend from work.  They speak naturally, without particular inflection, with the occasional bon mot thrown in, but there’s no confusion as to who’s head we’re in (something I’ve often struggled with in similar circumstances).   Office intrigue and mother /daughter angst feature early on, and the office delivers a client-cum-romantic lead, who turns out to be highly useful; here’s a book that should be tremendous multi-episode TV.

There’s stuff in Lisa’s past that the others (and we) haven’t got a clue about that is the slow reveal crucial to what’s going on.  If I think too much about this mechanism, the accusation of we the reader being cheated creeps in, a low thought rebutted, I’m prepared to cede, by the real-time nature of Lisa’s worries as they mount.  And indeed they do.

Cross her heart gives great read.  Here’s Marilyn, a nice foil to Lisa, with marriage problems of her own – “My lasagne grows cold. Untouched and unwanted. I know how it feels” – giving a taste of the knots of the situation:

It’s a mean thought and I realise what a bitch being under so much stress is making me.  If Lisa were here we’d probably laugh at it, but alone it’s just bitter and mean.  But if Lisa were here none of this would be happening at all.

And here’s Lisa, on the run and on the hunt:

I pray to a God I don’t believe in before trying my debit card in a cash point, and I laugh with relief when it spits out the maximum two hundred and fifty pounds.  […]  I ditch my card, my handbag and Alison’s phone in a nearby bin and quickly go to Boots and buy battery-operated hair clippers and blue spray hair dye, make-up and black nail varnish.  I visit three charity shops in a row and buy the hippiest, grungiest clothes I can find, along with an army surplus jacket and some second-hand Doc Martens that just about fit.  I pick up a load of big junk jewellery of crosses and skulls and some leather bracelets.  […] They’d be underestimating me. Be big and bold and hide in plain sight. Be someone new.

Speaking of television:

The handmaid’s tale does grind on doesn’t it?  But that Our father who art in heaven … seriously? What the actual fuck?” muttered by Offred over the title sequence after that gruelling 11 minutes ritual execution scene opening episode 1 of the 2nd series is almost enough in itself to justify the whole continued enterprise.

Meanwhile, belatedly, another classic from the pen of Alison Graham, TV critic extraordinaire, in Radio Times, this time about the ITV series The Split, which finished at the end of May:

Characters in The Split spend an awful lot of time on bridges. Here’s hotshot divorce solicitor Hannah on the Millennium Bridge in London looking mournful as she absorbs the full import of revelations about her perfectly nice husband.
Once Hannah is in the office, though, Creepy Christie contrives to be a constant presence in her sightline, passing her glances so laden with meaning I’m surprised his eyebrows don’t fall off.
As Abi Morgan’s syrupy romance glides to a close on a sea of sentiment, we end with a wedding and a turn of events we can all see coming. The door marked Second Series is clearly left ajar. Please, slam it, lock it and walk away.

Amen.  I’ve not watched it, but she’s been on its case from the start, and when it comes to television dramas, Alison Graham is a woman to be trusted.




2018 programme cover designed by Mason Edwards

‘Covers’ being a pretty bad excuse for a pun, as may become evident from what follows later on.

New readers start here: StonyLive! is an annual Festival of Music, Dance and the Arts in Stony Stratford, a small town that used to be in North Buckinghamshire, but is these days, ahem, the proud “Jewel in the Crown” of Milton Keynes. Now in its 20th year, it runs for 9 days from the first Saturday in June to the next Sunday.  (You can see a bit more info and what you (and I) missed by clicking here.  It was a splendid year, so much to choose from)  I always resolve to go to something every day; here’s what I actually managed to take in.

Shall we contradict ourselves by starting with something I went to on the Thursday before.  Yes we shall, because the weekend performances of Carabosse Theatre Company’s Real Ale and Drama Shots 5 were there in the official programme.

Carabosse – “We like it dark” – who take their name from the wicked fairy godmother out of Sleeping Beauty and other folk and fairy tales put on a great show in Swinfen Harris Hall, an intimate venue, full of character.  You knew you were in for a treat when Billy Nomad, knowing smile in minimalist clown-face, stepped up to MC and punctuate playlets with his own ditties.

Immediate coup de théatre with the opener, Eamonn Dolan’s Finn and Tilly: a couple in the audience arguing as a production of Waiting for Godot comes to a close; she all WTF?, he quoting critics as to its profundity; they take it onto the stage and … Godot (a brilliant performance) turns up.  The programme was nicely varied and full of genuine theatrical moments, not least from a chilling theatre of cruelty piece.  Much laughter at Sophie Patterson’s Red Velvet, a Quentin Tarantino take on an Acorn Antiques set in a coffee and cake shop near the law courts.  Three other pieces were concerned with writing or theatre, one in which the playwright is seen as undesirable alien.  The last piece, 19 & 28, featured the whole cast and crew, the dead hanging about awaiting their next reincarnation assignment – a bureaucratic nightmare in a creepy heaven.  Shame about the punchline (methinks) but it all segued nicely into a choral Stairway to Heaven – two “words” in the lyrics of the first two verses?   And it makes you wonder.  Local, yes.  Am-dram? – never: this was the real deal.


Yay!  TheHigh Street closed to traffic and there’s dancing in the street.  All sorts, but primarily, for me, Morris.  Nonesuch, an enthusiastic side from Bristol caught the eye, not so much for their garb as their steps – moves other sides hardly touch taken for granted, I was told.  And so to the Fox & Hounds for the traditional StonyLive! opener, a pint of bluegrass with the as ever enjoyable Hole in the head gang (Sorry. I know there are well-set precedents for surprisingly effective bluegrass treatments of Soul-Stax songs, but for me Mustang Sally is not one that wears it well).

And in the evening the magnificent Roadrunner at a sold-out York House.  Local legends from before my time in Stony, “Rutland’s finest R&B band” as it says in the programme – and you can see why on both counts.  From the opening full attack of Let’s work together they were outstanding.  Yes, you can call them a covers band, but it’s the spark of the choice of material that counts.  From way back to Minnie the Moocher and Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs Wooly bully all the way through to 1993 and George Thorogood and the Destroyers’ Get a job (did they do anything later?), they played with the intensity of classic Dr Feelgood supplemented by some well-oiled showmanship – singer and singer and guitarist delving into crowd with the aid of radio mic-ing.  A good time was had by all.


And the sun shone bright on the Classic Car Show.  Lots of E-types this time (wife thinks they’re ugly).  My car of the show (not that I know anything) was the Bristol they used on the poster, though nothing stood out as of yore (or I’m getting jaded).  When a bunch on scooters unexpectedly arrived on the scene en masse, the musician on the bandstand broke into the Who’s Can’t explain; nifty, I thought, even though there wasn’t a parka in sight.  With camera to hand I like playing with reflections.

Sunday afternoon and it’s the Big Lunch, a family picnic in Rocket Park.  Lovely cod and chips from a van.  Was surprised how moved I was when a Lancaster bomber in World War 2 livery flew over to the strains (eventually) of the Dam Busters March.  Stirring enough to make one put the firebombing of Dresden to the back of one’s mind for a while, and wonder at what the sight and sound of a sky full of these magnificent machines must have been like.

The Youth and Junior Bardic Trials were a surprise too – strongly contested by 6 contestants, all of whom might have been well in the running another year, in front of a decent and appreciative audience.  So close the judges created a new post of Bard in waiting when it was scored a three-way tie.  The future’s bright.


Nice little interlude in the shade of the trees by the Magdalen Tower, all that remained of Stony’s other church after a devastating mid-18th century fire.  Masterminded by Derek Gibbons, 6 out of the 8 Stony Bards each recited a poem dedicated to the tower.  Impressively, without collaboration, each approached the subject of the tower in different ways, ranging from historical chronicle to contemporary trysting place.

Should have been Southern Blues Fiasco from Oxford at the Fox but circumstances meant it was but one of them – a medal winning guitar pedal designer, no less – and an accomplished pick-up band with an age span of 30 years or probably more.  A lively evening of powerful blues and blues-oriented music ensued.  A lovely People get ready with a lot of harmonica made you believe Dylan might have written it.  Was it this lot who did a storming Louie Louie?


… and it’s An evening with the Bard and Friends back at York House, and another fine evening of words and music, most of it original.  So much talent around, all in fine form.  Impossible for me not to resurrect the words ‘quiet power’ when poet Fay Roberts is performing, but she was spellbinding, switching from deadly serious to throwaway flippant and all stations in between within a couple of lines.  Important to mention what ‘Fred’ adds to accomplished singer-songwriter Sian Magill’s work.  Taylor Smith go from strength to strength, with writer Taylor dismissing the infectious rabble-rousing Leaders as ‘folk dirge’.   Shame this event always clashes with the a capella session in the Vaults.


Innocent Hare and a pint of Mad Squirrel in a crowded Beer Bear was fun.  Tunes, songs spanning a century or six, add a bit of clog – not to mention good company – are a lovely way to spend an hour.  Damned licensing laws.  (What a fine addition to Stony High street the Beer Bear is, by the way).

So it’s back up the High Street to the Vaults and ‘our’ Ian Anderson’s Blues from the Ouse.  For shame the audience outnumbered the band – coupla guitars, gob iron – by only one at the start but it soon picked up.  More generation spanning musicians, this time acoustic blues of high order.


A Vaultage special for StonyLive!  Not the usual fortnightly open mic, but a one-off pre-scheduled closed mic for songwriters.  No covers allowed.  I say one-off, but apparently so many applied there’ll be another one later this year.  Proceedings were kicked off by Bard 007, Mr Stephen Hobbs, the bee in his bonnet about cover bands a-buzzing strong with this little ode:

A salute to Songwriters
[dedicated to Pat “Vaultage” Nicholson]

I salute you
for daring to be original
for taking a thought
maybe just a whisper –
and giving it life:
for showing us your heart.

Stony Live? Do me a favour!
Gimme a break!
eave it out!

Let The King, The Starman,
The Private Dancer,
The Gingerbread Man,
and the Joker
be themselves:
this imitation flatters no one.

Stony Live? Do me a favour!
Gimme a break!
Leave it out!

You are the freshness
that masks this slurry of covers
masquerading as a festival.
But you are not alone
look around….
I salute YOU!

© Stephen Hobbs

Archivists might like to note that not all listed turned up (H&S, at least one other) but that happily gave a bit more space for the driving reverie of David Cattermole’s songs.  So much talent and variety in one small bar.  Take a bow Pat ‘Mr Vaultage’ Nicholson (no mean writer and performer himself).


I have to admit to a stamina fail.  Guilty to an inability – a failing too sweet and rare many publicans who put on music will say – to spend time in a pub without a glass – or with an empty one – in hand, the week was taking its toll.  I am, however, assured that had I walked up and down the High Street on Friday a fruitful game of Cover Band Bingo was very much in prospect.

ers-stonylive/cover-band-bingo-2/” rel=”attachment wp-att-8865″> I’d give a source if only my source didn’t say they’d love to give a source.


On Sunday Derek  G put up a provocative post on FaceBook saying “Cover bands aren’t local music” which was greeted with varying degrees of approval, moderation, and a fair amount of scorn.  I’m pretty sure I only witnessed one song on that graphic all week, but I wasn’t trying.  I think the point – in the context of StonyLive! – is that you can see cover bands in Stony most weeks, and that there’s a difference between doing a more or less straight cover as opposed to an interpretation.  I shall return to this theme on Sunday.


So much to choose from.  I eschew the traditional outgoing lunchtime bluegrass session with those very fine Concrete Cowboys in the anticipation of a long day at the talent packed Fringe Festival, which I come and go from throughout the day, so I didn’t see everyone.  The Antipoet‘s Paul Eccentric got so worked up about the Americanisation of the English language via film & tv (“It’s not to go / it’s to take-a-fucking-way“) that he managed to draw blood with his signature mic forehead bounce finale of The wrong question.  This was a splendid event – well done JT & co, good to see that Scribal Gathering logo on the poster – but I have to submit to an attack of blogging fatigue here.  It was great to see (and hear, of course) Naomi Rose – one of the best songwriters around –  in good voice.  Headliners Forest of Fools did what they do – with folk-based accordion, congas, drums, bass, sousaphone and a touch of electronica – magnificently .

Mason Edwards design again


A nice relaxed Folk on the Green in a cool breeze and gentle sun.  Climax of, and, of course, a totally separate entity from StonyLive!  First time we’ve settled down on a spot with only a mere soft drink (Schloer Red Grape found in the garage leftover unopened from New Year’s Eve).  A great early set from another prime local singer/songwriter Mark Owen, who has never sounded better (thumbs up to the PA crew) and went down well.  Izzie Walsh and her equally young band gave us a sweet set of Americana, mixing originals and covers.

Paul McClure, the Rutland Troubadour, appeared in what he described as the closing wind-the crowd down-down spot.  This is the refreshing FOTG rethink of the last couple of years, whereby things close not so much with a bang as a … whimper?  No.  When I say Paul did his job well is not to say he was not anything but a charming and engaging end to the day (with a little bit of rock and roll on the side, just for good measure).

Trigger warning: if you are a post-Syd Pink Floyd fan, better to pass over this paragraph of self-indulgence.  Truth to tell, Paul McClure didn’t have much to calm down after Little Pig‘s cover of an obscure (to me) mournful slow Pink Floyd song, the second in their set.  Nothing against the musicianship, and they opened with a welcome workout on Kirsty McColl’s There’s a guy works down the chip shop swears he’s Elvis.  For argument’s sake let’s just say it’s my problem.  It is said that in the golden age of glossy music mags, Pink Floyd on the front cover was a guaranteed circulation boost.  I’ve also heard it said, last week in fact, that every town of a certain size has a tattoo parlour and its own Pink Floyd tribute band (Mr Hobbs, I believe).  I just don’t get it.

Anyway, here’s to the StonyLive! and FOTG Committees and small army of volunteers.  Now, World Cup permitting, it’s back to the telly, and the gloriously bonkers Flowers, and catching up on The handmaid’s tale, The Bridge and that series on African music.  I’ll finish with a rather wonderful detail from a Pontiac in the car show:

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