February Commentary


The Reunion

Matlock Bath last month and this month: just Bath.

Bath is one of those creamy, warm cities garnished with royal crescents, enviable bridges and collectable stony facades. It really is a city just gagging to have some regency feature filmed about it (maybe even a bit of Les Miserables?) or maybe even a novel or two.

Jane Austen was a one-time resident in Bath (although she wasn’t keen on it). She set two of her novels (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion) in Bath.

Bath is probably unchanged in the older part of the city, and many of the places in which she would have twirled her parasol are still there – the Royal Crescent, the Circus, Queen Square, Pulteney Bridge, and the Pump Rooms.


Photo by David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Just to rub it in, Bath also has the rather splendid River Avon nudging its way under the Pulteney Bridge, which is one of only four bridges in the world to have shops sited across its full span.

Not far from the bridge is Bath Abbey in all its ecclesiastical splendour, towering and imposingly bulky against the grey February skies.


But the main attraction was waiting across the main square.

No, not the remarkable Roman Baths but my Long Island buddies Tom, Laura and Kristine!

A great day was had by all with plenty of reminiscences about last year’s USA trip to Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore and beyond. Obviously, it’s difficult to have a reminisce without a tall frothy one so a suitable drinking den was soon unearthed.


Peaky Blinders playing a blinder

However, it would be unseemly to visit Bath and not seek out its main attraction, so a seemly bunch of us traipsed our way around this ancient Roman resort.


Getting ready for the pub

Bath has the only thermal spring in Britain, much enjoyed by the Celts before the Romans shouldered their way in sometime around AD43. They built a bath complex called Aquae Sulis – a resort devoted to rest, relaxation and probably a little fooling around.

The main pool is overlooked by a terrace of statues, the hot water itself looking anything but enticing these days with algae fooling around in it.


The whole complex is quite a feat of engineering, and provided healing hot baths, swimming pools, cold quarters and sweat rooms all ministered to by an impressive plumbing system.

There used to be a high colonnaded hall arching over the baths but it now stands open to the sky. There was once a handy temple nearby for worshipping between washing.

The Sacred Spring, a natural phenomenon where piping hot water hissed up through a crack in the earth, helped this plumbing along. The Romans took it to be the work of the gods.




Speaking of natural phenomenons, the Bowie Experience at the Alexandra Theatre contrived to pay tribute to a musical one (you’ll never guess who?)

Red shoes were put on and Bowie’s life’s soundtrack was, if not danced to, at least enthusiastically nodded to as the concert did justice to his various musical personas from A to Ziggy. Vocalist Lawrence Knight was a convincing stand-in for the great man, and virtually all of Bowie’s hits were powered through – Life on Mars, Spaceman, Space Oddity, Fame, Rebel Rebel and Heroes, finishing on a high with All the Young Dudes.

No sign of the Laughing Gnome though…



Old Moor up in South Yorkshire was the venue for a spot of birding this month.

Old Moor is in the heart of the Dearne Valley, and has several trails and pathways to steer the happy wanderer around the open wetlands of reedbeds, meadows, scrapes and meres.






The feeding station next to the visitor centre generates as many birds as you’ll be likely to see the rest of the day. Especially good are the finches with good numbers of Bullfinch, Greenfinch, Chaffinch and Goldfinch.



The bird feeders attract huge numbers of other species too – Tree Sparrows, Reed Buntings, Robins, Blackbirds and Dunnocks, as well as a decent selection of pigeons and doves. A Kestrel perched up close by but affected such lack of interest that a tiny Bank Vole mustered a few nervous little scurries out from under a log to snack on a seed or two.

Jackdaws mobbed a Marsh Harrier, Goosanders goosed around the pools and a small gathering of barely-visible snipe hunkered down by the water’s edge.

Snipe fun fact: hunters have such difficulty shooting this bird because of its erratic flight that it gave rise to the term ‘sniper’ – meaning a highly-skilled marksman!

Here’s a snipe from the RSPB website (curiously, they don’t have any illustrations of snipers).


The Winslow Boy – Birmingham Rep


This little production was pretty good – not bad at all.

Here’s the Express & Star’s take on it, by Kirsten Rawlins.

At the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, about thirty per cent of the population were practising Christians. There was a rigid class structure and a very strict code of moral ethics. Perhaps the most highly valued of these was to always tell the truth, which is the central plank of Terrence Rattigan’s 1946 drama The Winslow Boy.


Dorothea Myer-Bennett & Raquel

The history of politics is littered with the names of those who have failed in this respect. David Lloyd George sold knighthoods and peerages while John Profumo was involved with prostitutes and spies. Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitkin went to prison for their misdemeanours. In most cases it wasn’t the deed that caused the problem but telling lies about it most certainly was.

The play has 13-year-old cadet Ronnie Winslow expelled from Naval College for allegedly stealing a five-shilling postal order and cashing it.
When questioned by his father he denies the charge and the family decide that they will do whatever is necessary to clear his name.
This requires the hiring of the best barrister in the country, Sir Robert Morton, QC. The case takes nearly two years to be resolved. The Winslows lose most of the family money, the daughter is forced to break off her engagement, and the eldest son has to give up his place at Oxford University while the father’s health deteriorates rapidly. But the mantra ‘Let right be done’ ensures that the family will keep the action going.

The stand-out performance of the night comes from Dorothea Myer-Bennett, as Ronnie’s elder sister Catherine, who is a leader in the early Suffragette movement and clearly a proto-type feminist. She remains committed to her brother’s cause even if she has some doubts.

Timothy Watson gives a nicely judged portrayal of the celebrated barrister and admits that his courtroom style is in the pursuit of what is right. There’s tremendous support from Tessa Peake-Jones (Raquel from Only Fools and Horses!) as Ronnie’s devoted mother Grace and Aden Gillett as his father Arthur.


The production has no quirky distractions and characters are allowed to develop. The drama is carefully unwrapped and tells a compelling story most convincingly.

The play does have a sad irony: It is based on a true story about George Archer-Shee who left his naval college and went to another public school. He was commissioned in the South Staffordshire Regiment at the outbreak of World War One, but was killed in action in the first battle of Ypres in October 1914 aged just nineteen.



Now for this month’s walk – a bright, blue spring day ramble just a short hop from Brum. At lunch time, there was a classic car garnering quite a bit of attention in the pub car park (I think it was a 90 year old Austen 7).

Here we go, courtesy of Paul Hands:

Parking & Start :

New Wood Lane, Blakedown – parking on grass verges on left hand side of lane.

GR: 880777     OS map Explorer 219

The Walk:

Take the footpath North to Blakedown. NW past the golf course to Waggon Hill. Then Bridlepaths and footpaths to Churchill via a good viewpoint. Footpaths to Stakenbridge Farm, then on S of Harborough Hill to Broome. Footpaths S from Broome to Drayton for lunch at the Robin Hood – pleasant pub with good food and beer (and a good little sun trap on the patio!)


After lunch, take the footpaths to Hillpool, Sionhouse Farm. Bridle path over Barnett Hill (good views) and back to the cars.

This is pleasant, gently undulating walk, with lakes, some nice views, not far from Brum.


Lunch Hour

This month, the Flat Disc Society offered a double-bill: two main features with a similar theme.

Lunch Hour, a tale of a romance between a married junior executive (looking not unlike a rogue Alan Partridge!) and one of his designers. They begin their romance by sneakily booking hotel rooms under an assumed name, but before long the lies told to the hoteliers take on their own form.


Une Liasion Pornographique

Next up was Une Liasion Pornographique from 1999.  Unavailable commercially in the UK, Une Liasion Pornographique tells the story of two people who meet after she places a no-strings attached advert in a paper. They share their experiences individually and directly to us after the event. But are their meetings really that simple?


Apropos of nothing really, but here’s a Father Ted sketch to nicely round things off this month:


January Commentary 2018


Spent the New Year in Matlock with the family (that’s not Matlock above, by the way…)

Situated on the edge of the Peak District, Matlock does a nice line in rocky outcrops, underlying bedrock and watercourses. The River Derwent winds its way through nearby Matlock Bath, and appears to possess something of a dogged nature, opting to cut its way through a limestone gorge rather than follow an easier route to the east. Geologists may suggest landslips or glaciation would account for this but sometimes a river just wants to get out of its comfort zone.


Annie and Sarah in need of some winter sun

Matlock Bath developed as a spa town when thermal springs were discovered there, and both John Ruskin and Lord Byron – celebrities in their day – popped over to check the waters out. Not long after, they may well have been inspired to a bit of canvas daubing and sonnet scribbling.

This may be an opportune time to introduce a few notable quotes from Lord Byron:

Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine.

Friendship may, and often does, grow into love, but love never subsides into friendship.

The great art of life is sensation, to feel that we exist, even in pain.

There is pleasure in the pathless woods, there is rapture in the lonely shore, there is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music in its roar; I love not Man the less, but Nature more.

I only go out to get me a fresh appetite for being alone.

Lots of necessary drinking took place with an inevitable curry at Maazi’s – a contemporary Indian restaurant set in a former cinema with an incongruous tuk-tuk plonked neatly above the main entrance.


An incongruous tuk-tuk


I’m not sure if Alan Bennett ever went to Matlock Bath (I’m betting he has) but in his memoir, Keeping On Keeping On, he borrows a line from the poet R. S. Thomas on political correctness, which is worth an airing:

I am not going to affect the livery

Of the times’ prudery.


That’s enough culture to be going on with. How to follow a great few days in the Peak District? I would have thought going to a Pen Museum would be the obvious answer.


Pen Museum – Oosoom

Based in a former pen factory, the wittily entitled Pen Museum celebrates the story of how our modern pens evolved from quill to steel nib to fountain pen.

Birmingham’s factories supplied the majority of pens to people all over the world with thousands of skilled craftsmen and women employed in the industry. Apart from anything else, it encouraged many who previously could not afford to write to develop literacy skills.

Tucked away in the Jewelry Quarter, it is a quirky little museum packed with exhibitions and fascinating bits and pieces.

Of course, the whole business collapsed after the invention of that pesky little Biro – but that’s another story…




The annual trip out to Rutland Water turned up its usual blend of birds and banter but we didn’t manage to cover as much ground as usual. This was probably due to a surfeit of waterfowl splashing around on the water, and we enjoyed particularly good views of the bonny Smew (it’s a duck!)


There must be something feathery out there…

There also seemed to be more waterfowl than ever ducking and dabbling around the pools in huge numbers – just about every species of duck you would expect to see including Pintail and Goldeneye. A sneaky Caspian Gull also managed to immerse itself in with a flock of floating gulls until some sharp-eyed birders dug it out.

A few Red Kites were spotted en route to Rutland in the morning. On the return journey, further diversion was provided when a loud crack came from the roof of the coach. Some air-conditioning mechanism had been torn loose, and there was a bit of a cold journey back for some.

One bird at Rutland that did get pulses racing – plus a fair bit of jostling and jousting in the hide – was that splendid little wader, the Whimbrel.


Always a bit of a star whenever seen in the UK, they seem ten-a-penny in the Canary Islands. (This is a lazy little tie-in to that other annual pilgrimage of ours – a cheeky week in the sun!)


Arrecife Gran Hotel & Spa

Lanzarote was the island of choice this year and although not overly sunny and hot, there was still enough warmth for shorts and T-shirts during the day, and a fleece in the evenings.


Steve and I stayed at the Arrecife Gran Hotel & Spa. Located on the front and alongside the harbour, overlooking the Reducto Beach. It is the biggest landmark on the skyline with seventeen floors (we were on the sixteenth, just below the panoramic bar!)



The capital of Lanzarote, Arrecife was once a small fishing village – boats could be hidden behind the black volcanic reefs to deter pirate attacks.

Another defensive stronghold to keep out the pirates was just along from the hotel, the Castillo de San Jose, a historic fortress now housing contemporary art exhibitions in the barrel-vaulted rooms that were once used to store powder.


Castillo de San Jose


“Eat my goal!”

On Sunday, we went to watch Lanzarote FC play the Villa.

Brad Cockerell (the son of a friend of a brother) plays in midfield for Lanzarote’s top team but unfortunately he wasn’t on the pitch as they went down 0-1 in the last minute to Villa Santa Brigida.

The neighbouring resorts of Costa Teguise and Puerto del Carmen are all within easy reach of Arrecife. Certain levels of exploration were required, which took in several bars along the way.


Great Grey Shrike at Costa Teguise



Steve finds his spiritual home


As do I

Puerto del Carmen was within walking distance along the coastal pathway that sneaked around the airport. Flitting around the rocky beaches were more Whimbrel, Turnstones and Sanderlings, which provided the ornithological diversion between beers.




Bar-tailed Godwit





Ringed Plover


Grey Plover

The marina also became a favoured spot for a little light drinking…





Stop Press! A children’s book that I illustrated is now up and running on the shelves:



After the publication of the children’s book, it seemed of only natural to attend the Wolverhampton Literary Festival at the end of the month.

At first I thought it would be a good opportunity to discuss the metric structure of Byron’s love poetry with kindred spirits – or possibly to interrogate the conflicting interpretations of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

But really I wanted to go so I could ride on the tram.

There were a couple of very good talks to attend – a passionate delivery on the merits of writing groups by the Oldbury Writing Group, and a interesting discussion given by a panel of self-published authors, which provided much grist to this mill.

Now, here’s a little extra plug for my own novel published a couple of years ago (in the very unlikely event that anyone missed this little gem!)


Please read the amazon reviews first though – it definitely isn’t a children’s book despite one friend accidentally ordering several copies for her children’s library!


The Flat Disc Society’s film offering this month was this excellent choice:


It scored 93% on the Tomatometer – and here’s a review by Hal Erickson from the Rotten Tomatoes website:

John Huston’s 1948 treasure-hunt classic begins as drifter Fred Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), down and out in Mexico, impulsively spends his last bit of dough on a lottery ticket. Later on, Dobbs and fellow indigent Curtin (Tim Holt) seek shelter in a cheap flophouse and meet Howard (Walter Huston), a toothless, garrulous old coot who regales them with stories about prospecting for gold.

Forcibly collecting their pay from their shifty boss, Dobbs and Curtin combine this money with Dobbs’s unexpected windfall from a lottery ticket and, together with Howard, buy the tools for a prospecting expedition. Dobbs has pledged that anything they dig up will be split three ways, but Howard, who’s heard that song before, doesn’t quite swallow this.

As the gold is mined and measured, Dobbs grows increasingly paranoid and distrustful, and the men gradually turn against each other on the way toward a bitterly ironic conclusion. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a superior morality play and one of the best movie treatments of the corrosiveness of greed.

Huston keeps a typically light and entertaining touch despite the strong theme, for which he won Oscars for both Director and Screenplay, as well as a supporting award for his father Walter, making Walter, John, and Anjelica Huston the only three generations of one family all to win Oscars.


There was a short introductory cartoon, Bugs Bunny Rides Again, to start things off – one of the first cartoons to pair Bugs and Yosemite Sam who faced off in the Western town of Rising Gorge.


That’s all folks!


December Splendour


Yes, let’s squeeze another gig in, why don’t we?

Following Queen’s regal offering on the previous evening, pop punk-alternative rock-pop rock-punk rock-skate punk-emo pop-post grunge-emo band, Good Charlotte went at their set-list with renowned vigour, and not a little mascara. The gig was at the 02 Academy, supported by Against The Current.


After more than two decades on the scene, Good Charlotte proved they’re still relevant with lots of younger fans singing and dancing around to their hits. There were also some significantly older fans that should have known better – dad dancing is not a prerequisite when attending these sorts of gigs.
The Maryland band, formed around the Madden twins, opened the sold-out show with hit The Anthem, which had even the oldest members in the crowd jumping around like teenagers (like I said: dad dancing!!!)

This song was followed by The Story of my Old Man, My Bloody Valentine, and Boys and Girls – which every Good Charlotte fan knows the words to (but I don’t, as I’m busy googling this set list).

The final set hit its stride with Dance Floor Anthem, I Just Wanna Live, The River, and finally Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous.


The final bird trip of the year was to Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire (loved for the biggest skies and the tiniest creatures).

Wicken Fen is one of Britain’s oldest nature reserves, and has been a National Trust property since 1899.

We first visited this site a few years ago and, despite seemingly having no shortage of wide open spaces and reed beds, we saw very little of note.

It seemed a similar story this time around although there were plenty of Kestrels about but not a great deal else.

Pete and I took an extra long walk that took in the Reach Lode, before doubling back into the reserve and checking out The Mere and Sedge Fen.

It was towards the end of the day, with dusk pooling, that we saw the first Marsh Harriers homing in on their roost for the night. Top sighting though was the male Hen Harrier, which elbowed its way over the fen before settling down and going to reed bed. A splendid view of a splendid bird (as can be seen from the RSPB’s ID guide above).


An evening of laughs with the Wax Elephant comedy night was to be had at a new venue – the Dark Horse in Moseley, with Craig on the bill with Jack ‘n’ Andy and Paul Tonkinson – plus a guest appearance from Joe Lycett.  The club had a very friendly atmosphere, and was held in rooms above the pub. Further ale and banter was to be had downstairs afterwards with open mic entertainment that took us sailing past midnight (rebellious or what?)


It seems to be all about gigs at the moment, and next up was a return to the 02 Academy for a stonking show by The Darkness.

The Blackfoot Gypsies did a decent enough job as warm up before Darkness took the stage, the shy and retiring Justin Hawkins kept his appearance pretty much low profile with a sparkly, spangly cape and tight turquoise cat suit.

The Darkness are good fun to watch but they also have the necessary hard rock credentials to strip away any pretensions of a novelty act. Justin Hawkins is an engaging frontman – few can shriek as fetchingly as he – and he obviously enjoyed the banter with the sell-out crowd.

It was interesting (to me, at least) that the drummer of Darkness was Rufus Taylor, the son of Queen stickman Roger, who I had seen hitting the drums just the other week in the Birmingham Arena.

The hits were belted out (if there was a ballad in there too – it was also belted out) – I Believe In A Thing Called Love, One Way Ticket and, of course, Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End).


Before the Film Club, it was time to off-piste and watch something totally mainstream. Justice League…


…before the Flat Disc Film Club reigned us in for more challenging reels. This month’s festive feature was Home For Christmas, a Norwegian yuletide yarn that Wikipedia will now explain:

The film follows several different Christmas celebrations in the small Norwegian town of Skogli. Paul is a thirty-three-year-old labourer who marches into his doctor’s office demanding a prescription, then proceeds to lay bare all his woes. The doctor is beleaguered by his own marital and financial difficulties (he’s left his upset wife to work emergency calls on Christmas Eve). There’s also an elderly man preparing an esoteric ritual, a vagrant who runs into an old flame, a middle-aged couple in the throes of passion, a boy hopelessly in love with his Muslim neighbor, and a young émigré couple whose car breaks down as the woman goes into labour.


A short feature, Every Day Except Christmas, introduced the characters, and sights and sounds at London’s Covent Garden market in a bygone era (1957). The style of the documentary was ground-breaking at the time, showing working class Britain in the 1950s going about their business in a style which modern reality TV owes much to.



Paul H led the next walk – to the Malvern Hills – and here’s the usual lead-up:

Parking and start:

Quarry car park between West Malvern and Upper Wyche. GR 767448. Above the Spout marked on the OS map: OS map:  Explorer 190

The walk can be flexible depending on how the weather is (it was crap!). The plan is to meander around North Hill, then drop down to St. Anne`s well for a cuppa (it was closed!). From here to Wyche cutting and the pub, The Wyche Inn.

After the pub we can climb Worcestershire Beacon and down to the cars via the Quarry.


A little more walking – and a heap more drinking with a Boxing Day wander around Sutton Park:



Of course, a New Year will need to be celebrated in time-honoured fashion (alcohol, friends, family) so we took ourselves off to Matlock in readiness to ring in the new, and to wring out the old.

But first, this little gem from YouTube:  “Fairytale of New Street”:



November Embers


No sun – no moon!
No morn – no noon –
No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! –

Thomas Hood


Not too much of the out-and-about this month but plenty of gigs and stuff, which means I can purloin all those lovely reviews from the local papers and make them my own!


First up was Alison Moyet at the Symphony Hall – this girl looks and sounds great. She has lost weight but her powerful, distinctive voice would tip any scales ten times over.


Here’s the abridged review by Zyllah Moranne-Brown from the Gig Junkies website:

Tonight at the Symphony Hall we find a vocalist right at the top of her game, making exactly the adventurous electronic pop music she wants to at this moment in time, with her voice and songwriting intense, poetic and thought provoking. 

Support from tonight comes from Hannah Peel, an adventurous composer, musician and vocalist, with ethereal singing. One of her unique musical takes is singing along to a hurdy-gurdy music box, the paper strip to operate the instrument all cut by hand. She’s atmospheric and moody, experimental and surreal.

Alison Moyet was one half of the legendary Yazoo, the duo forming after Vince Clarke walked from a little known band called Depeche Mode after just one album. Electronica is where it all began – and in 2017, she is embracing it in all its glory.

The set is dark, and dry ice rising, and onto a spoken word interlude, silhouetted Moyet and her electronic wizards start off  ‘I Germinate’; powerful and haunting. Moyet is chatty and engaging, although she tells us that her “mouth’s not working…” That is definitely not the case as she sings, ‘Wishing You Were Here’ shows her true vocal power and mesmerizing vocals, in a venue that seems like it is especially built for this moment.

‘Only You,’ ‘All Cried Out,’ ‘Whispering Your Name,’ ‘Love Resurrection,’ and ‘Don’t Go,’ are stunning, and received to massive applause.

Alison Moyet was just truly stunning. The Symphony Hall is a great venue in which to celebrate her amazing vocals, humility and humanity.


A couple of days later, the Symphony Hall was again the venue of choice – an evening of Spectacular Classics, culminating in an explosive 1812 Overture (complete with cannon effects and indoor firework finale – as promised on the flyer).

We’ve been coming to this Classic Spectacular for many years now – although there’s very few surprises, its always a familiar and fantastic night out.


For the record, here’s the general run of things: Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, a bit of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, followed by a lofty Vaughan William’s The Lark Ascending with some soaring violin-shredding by Alexander Sitkovetsky. Next up was Verdi’s Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, a selection of Bizet, Puccini, an extra slice of Verdi and a little Pomp and Circumstance. Sibelius popped up, as did Vivaldi, and Delibes before Elgar and Handel chimed back in. Then it was all flag-waving Rule Britannia with Soprano Ilona Domnich and Tenor David Butt Philip. Butt Philip then went for broke on an impressive welkin-busting Nessun Dorma before the finale – with a bit of Can-Can to follow.


There was an equally spectacular classic to get my teeth into this month: Thor – Ragnarok. Such a high-brow offering doesn’t need a review – just go watch it!



It was good to get out into the fresh Autumnal air whenever there wasn’t a gig a-going on, and this month’s walk took us to Abberley in Worcestershire.


This walk stepped through some interesting vantage points. In 1405, it was on Abberley Hill where King Henry IV glowered across the short divide at Owen Glendower’s Welsh army, who were mingling out on Woodbury Hill.

With the help of France (they just have to stick their noses in, don’t they?) Glendower invaded England and faced the King’s men on these opposing hills. The armies never engaged in battle but with their supply routes blocked, the Welsh began to starve. Eventually, Henry stood down and withdrew to Worcester, and the Welsh headed back home for a leek and ale pie.


Woodbury Hill just can’t get enough historical action. During the reign of King Richard III, the Duke of Buckingham also occupied Woodbury Hill. This particular duke couldn’t decide which team to support during the War of the Roses, and was also a prime suspect in the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower.

Here’s Paul H with the write-up:

OS map Explorer 204 – 1 mile east of Shelsley Beauchamp. GR 746637.

The Walk

Head north over Woodbury Hill to Great Witley and on to Abberley Hill. Then head northwest along the top, and down to Abberley. Fetch up at the Manor Arms for lunch (beef or pork sarnies).


Back along the Worcestershire Way via Walsgrove Hill to return. There is a fair bit of climbing on this walk (tell me about it!). Some of it is quite steep and slippery. Although there is some climbing involved, it is rewarded by some wonderful views in all directions. Sticks are recommended!




A third visit to the Symphony Hall in as many weeks!

This time to see Black Country Blues guitarist Joanne Shaw Taylor tearing up the place with her screaming guitars and smoky vocals (that’s right: ‘smoky’ – I’ve been reading the promotional material…). South African musician Dan Patlansky was the support with a more than impressive set, which JST did well to top.

Photo from THSH website


Time for a little cartoon from the Crow Collection – another one that never made the cut but is a bit silly…


Really? Another concert? Well, not any old concert but a Queen concert!!!

Yes, the Mighty Ones were on song, with Adam Lambert, and what a mighty concert it was at the Arena Birmingham .

Here’s the Birmingham Mail review, effortlessly doing the leg-work for me:


Veteran Queen stars Brian May and Roger Taylor roll back the years with boy wonder frontman Adam Lambert.

Let’s cut to the quick – this show was dynamite with laser beam after laser beam. And in all the colours of the rainbow, too.

It’s 26 years this week since the once athletic, outrageous and irrepressibly flamboyant showman Freddie Mercury died at the age of just 45. In the mid 1980s’ era of Live Aid, certainly, we all thought the human “rocket ship on his way to Mars” would live forever – until HIV / AIDS claimed his soul in 1991.

Shy off stage, but one of the all-time great rock stars on it, Mercury’s spirit will endure for all time judging by this fantastic concert which ended with current frontman Adam Lambert wearing a crown during his spellbinding rendition of We Are The Champions.

This gig was like watching a rocket blasting off ready for a spectacular tour of Queen’s “supersonic” rock and pop universe.


Its payload included one of the best nights of special effects you could ever wish to see.

Never once, though, did the show look set to burn up on re-entry because, while the stage hydraulics, the lighting and big screen visuals were all world class, the crystal-clear sound was always even better.

May proved he can still run to the front of a projecting stage while not missing a beat. Then, as the two-hour mark approached, the astrophysicist’s big electric solo was even played out against an interplanetary backdrop.

It was that kind of night when you just had to be there, to appreciate the best of British being complemented by the outstanding Adam Lambert.


Once a runner-up on American idol and now 35, the Indiana-born star led the line with fine humour, a rare vocal prowess and a beautifully camp awareness of – and utter confidence in – Mercury’s place within the band’s heritage.

From his opening appearance wearing a virtual reality-style visor, Lambert dresses the showbiz part with multiple, lightning-fast outfit changes, but he doesn’t imitate. The effect is to offer a fresh perspective on Queen without tarnishing the legacy.

As Brian May himself joked while admitting he’d lost count of the number of times he’d enjoyed playing to such a warm, Brummie audience: “Who’d have thought I’d be back here at the age of 89?”

Surely that’s enough gigs for now…?


October Over and Out

laddermontageSituated on a farm, The Barn at Upcote in the Cotswold Hills was the perfect location for Gavin and Keira’s wedding. Getting spliced in the old threshing barn wasn’t as painful as it sounded either.

Here are some photos of the happy few hundred…:



















Gavin on a CHAIR…!!!


Enough of the wedding – now for some nature.

Merlins are magical birds and two separate sightings of these raptors were conjured up during the WMBC’s visit to Gibraltar Point in Lincolnshire.

There was a distant, hazy view of a beached Merlin resting out on the sands beyond the Mill Hill viewpoint, and then a ringside showing from the platform off the new Visitor’s Centre. The latter flew up over our heads and sped away to perch awhile atop atree. The Merlin, a female, loitered long enough for leisurely views of this elusive falcon before zipping off out of sight at a rate of knots.

There was a blizzard of Knots and Oystercatchers whirling around in front of the distant wind turbines. Gibraltar point is a dynamic stretch of pristine coastline with sand dunes, saltmarsh, ponds, and lagoons and woodland so it’s not so difficult to rake up a good haul of wildlife on a walkabout.


Seals were hauled out on the sandbanks, and sooty multi-horned Hebridean Sheep converged in the grassy hollows of the reserve. These hardy sheep are particularly effective at scrub control, and help maintain natural grassland and heathland habitats.

It had already been a good day at a very good reserve, having just clocked a confiding Pink-Footed Goose knuckling down in the rough grass, which turned out to be not so much confiding as broken-winged.

Spotted Redshank, Greenshank (bereft of spots), Avocet, Snipe, Water Rail, Mandarin Duck, and several Kingfishers were spied along the freshwater lagoons. In a small wooded clearing, a cheeky little Pied Flycatcher was sensibly keeping a low profile with all those Merlins about, and a flock of Redwings scattered overhead as if shot from a gun.


Lesser-Spotted Twitchers – can you spot them?

Quirky Aside: en route to Gibraltar Point, we passed through Boston so the American city and the English town were quirkily tied up as having both been visited within a matter of weeks!


It was soon Film Club Night and the Flat Earth Society went Peter Vaughn-mad (the actor died last December and was widely known for his menacing cameos in BBC’s Porridge as Grouty).

The main feature was Symptoms.

Having been released back in 1974, British horror film Symptoms has always been incredibly difficult to obtain. It was last seen on TV in 1983 and has since lived only in legend.

Here’s Movie Marker’s Stu Greenfield take on this mysterious and under rated film:

Set in a large country house surrounded by woods in the English countryside, Symptoms focuses on Helen and Ann. They return to Helen’s family home from Switzerland and it soon becomes apparent that there is more to this situation than meets the eye. As they spend more time together Helen’s nervous disposition becomes apparent, as does her affection for Ann. A previous occupant of the house, Cora, is spoken about but appears to touch a nerve with Helen who refuses to talk about her in any detail. Also present is the grounds keeper Brady (Peter Vaughn), and the cracks in his relationship with Helen are tangible, but without context. Gradually the sinister and disturbing truth is revealed…

Angela Pleasance, daughter of Halloween’s Donald Pleasance, is perfectly cast as the lead role. Her piercing blue eyes and ability to portray a seemingly vulnerable and nervous young lady whilst also providing a sinister undertone is outstanding. Symptoms is a must for any British horror fan.

Symptoms was ably supported by The Return:

Lonely spinster Miss Parker has been employed as the caretaker at a huge home for the last twenty years. It’s been up for sale the entire time and over the two decades she’s seen living there all alone, not one potential buyer has expressed interest in purchasing it or even renting out a room there. Could be because its reputation precedes it…

Plus a bonus A Ghost Story for Christmas story: Warning to the Curious.

Broadcast in the dying hours of Christmas Eve, the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series was a fixture of the seasonal schedules throughout the 1970s and spawned a long tradition of chilling tales for yuletide viewers.

An amateur archaeologist arrives in Norfolk and strikes out in search of the lost crown of Anglia, but at every turn, something unearthly guards it…


Bristol and the Zoo

One of Sarah’s birthday pressies was to be Keeper for a Day at this famous zoological garden, so a weekend in the making was summarily made.


Chuffed to be here…


The rare Red Dave

Bristol Zoo is justly famous, of course, for providing the television backdrop to many a seventies childhood with Johnny Morris and Animal Magic.

Here’s a YouTube clip for anyone feeling nostalgic:

Many breeding firsts were acclaimed here – the first Black Rhino in Britain, the first Squirrel Monkey in captivity, and the first Chimpanzee in Europe. It is probably fitting that Bristol is also home to the magisterial BBC Natural History Unit.

Before hitting the zoo, it was incumbent upon us to see what Bristol had to offer on a fine Sunday morning, the Saturday having been a wash-out, relentlessly driving us into a selection of sheltering pubs and bars.



There was a Banksy on one wall (the elusive graffiti artist is believed to be from Bristol), and some very fine buildings through which the River Avon weaves its way. The River Avon made Bristol a great inland port, and in later years boomed on the transatlantic trade in rum, tobacco and slaves.


A Banksy on a wall


A vantage point on Brandon Hill can be easily reached from which to view the city. A better view would have been from Cabot Tower just behind us but only Theo had the liver for it after the previous night’s drinking.


All this plus an enormous gorge running through part of the city ensures Bristol is regularly cited as one of the UK’s most liveable cities.



October was rounded off with the soothing sounds of thrash heavy metal as Paul C and I took in a brilliant Raven Age gig. They previously supported Anthrax earlier in the year but were now headlining for the head-banging at the old Digbeth Institute with their own support – In Search Of Sun.

…and there was more:

Craig and I went to see The Elvis Dead at the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton. Elvis Dead is not another thrash metal offering but a brilliantly innovative show by Rob Kemp loosely based around the film Evil Dead II and Elvis (naturally). It is certainly difficult to categorise (the flyer has it as a unique thrill ride of hip-swinging music and blood-soaked mayhem, so that will do for me) but very easy to enjoy.


Here’s some YouTube footage to give you a taste…:


Dismembering September


Occasionally, the UK provides little scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in the wilds of the America West (admittedly there may be a certain lack of fire and brimstone).

One such occasion happened during our weekend in Minsmere in Suffolk where we enjoyed the spectacle of three otters winnowing about in the shallows of Island Mere. (There was also a fourth otter – we saw one earlier but it may have belonged to this particular trio). A Marsh Harrier circled the otters on the lookout for fishy scraps; a Kingfisher fished and caught a fish, a Bittern sailed into the reeds, and a Water Rail sprinted between reed beds.



Water Rail Chick with a bald spot


Rare Headless Water Birds

As dusk approached, a Red Deer trotted past us, and several Green Woodpeckers rose up and pegged it as we walked up Whin Hill. Late sightings of Stoats, Muntjac and Red-legged Partridges all capped a fine day.


With acres of woodland, wetland, scrapes and heath – and a bit of coastal to go with it, you could spend weeks in Minsmere and never think it enough.

Mingling with the ducks and waders were Spotted Redshank, Ruff, Avocet and godwits. Elusive Bearded Tits (stop sniggering at the back) showed well in the reeds, and a Red-necked Phalarope dropped in. Raptors were well represented by the harriers, a Peregrine, Sparrowhawk, Hobby and Kestrel. Emerging from the grazing marshes, a Chinese Water Deer stepped out from the tall grasses for a quick munch.



There is much to recommend Southwold for its proximity when visiting Minsmere. Not least the Adnams brewery, which faithfully stocks the town pubs with a selection of its wares.

The town was also the home of a number of Puritan emigrants to the Massachusetts Bay Colony so it ties in nicely with the previous post.

Southwold has a pier, and a lighthouse; brightly painted beach huts overlook the sand and shingle beach.


Pre-squabble Gulls

A short hop past the old and new water towers took us to Southwold Harbour, where a squabble of gulls fought over a dead rat. The rowing boat ferry service then rowed us over to Walberswick where a quick pint was quaffed. It was not long before the rain lashed down and forced us into Southwold’s pubs.


Now for a little Crow Collection cartoon before we go into the culture section: This one almost never made the cut as it was deemed too icky but it sold quite well:



At the Barber Institute, there was a Monet doing the rounds.

Water Lily Pond, on loan from Chicago in exchange for a Gauguin, was showing well in the Blue Gallery. Probably one of the most recognisable motifs of Impressionism – the Japanese bridge over the water lily pond in Monet’s garden at Giverny was a theme he became obsessed with – and this version is considered one of the artist’s most luminescent masterpieces.


Water Lily Pond

Minding its own business close by was an early oil painting by Henri Matisse – Landscape in Corsica – on long-time loan from a private collection.

The Barber Institute never fails to deliver, and in a little offshoot gallery, an exhibition was showing 19th-century portrait photography, with many public figures striking notable poses including Queen Victoria, Oscar Wilde and John Hanning Speke.


Craig Deeley was appearing at the Glee Club’s Rough Works with Joe Lycett, Andy Robinson and a whole bunch of comedians. For the comedians, Rough Works provides an ideal platform to try out brand new material, and the packed audiences are very encouraging and supportive. A very funny night out with drinks before, during and after – and the comedy was pretty good too (drum roll).


The resumption of Film Club opened with the Spanish animation film Wrinkles, the story of a retired bank manager who has been shuffled off into an elderly care home. The Tomatometer from Rotten Tomatoes website gives it 96% and the consensus can be agreed on as such:

Poignant and tender without succumbing to schmaltz, Wrinkles offers a thoughtful — and beautifully animated look at old age.


The “I Want! I Want!” Art & Technology exhibition at Birmingham Gas Hall was inspired by William Blake’s engraving of the same name. This little engraving shows a tiny figure that announces his desire to get to the moon with a cry, “I want! I want!” It conjures up a memorable image of aspirational zeal.

The exhibition features work by contemporary artists who have been influenced by the rapid development of technology. Some interesting stuff was on show – particularly the Dawn Chorus video installation and a computer animation by celebrated Blur cover-artist Julian Opie.


Bostin’ in Boston


Revolutionary Boston has been the scene-stealer of several key events of the American Revolution. Events such as the Boston Massacre, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Siege of Boston and, of course, the Boston Tea Party.

The key role Boston played in the American Revolution is highlighted on the Freedom Trail, a walking route of historic sites that eloquently tells the story of the nation’s founding.

One of the most popular sites on this route is Faneuil Hall, an old market building sitting at the site of the old town dock. In the day, it was where Samuel Adams, John Hancock and other patriots debated the future of American self-government and set in motion the American Revolution.


Faneuil Hall has been a marketplace and meeting hall since forever, with a statue of the “incorruptible and fearless statesman” Samuel Adams, presiding over the plaza in front of it. Bidding for top billing is the gilded grasshopper weather vane perched on the top of the building.


Quincy Market is behind Faneuil Hall, a bustling stretch of colour and sound leading to the waterfront. There’s no shortage of food or street entertainment along the way. The street entertainers were quite brilliant with some amazing gymnastic/dance troupes, nimble acrobatic comedians, and an impressive young musician playing piano and saxophone to an enthralled audience. Apparently, the “Boston Piano Kid” has played with Billy Joel and, one quick YouTube search later, here he is:




The Old State House is the oldest public building still standing in the eastern United States, now dwarfed by neighbouring skyscrapers. This was once the capitol of the colony, the centre of British authority, and also where the Declaration of Independence was first read to Bostonians from the balcony in 1776.


To celebrate, they had a big bonfire and burnt flags and reminders of British rule, including the original lion and unicorn from atop the Old State House. Replicas of these have since been installed (quite right too!)

Beneath the balcony, there is a circle of paving stones laid out to mark the site of the Boston Massacre when a squad of nervy British officers fired into a jeering crowd and killed five of them – the first bloodshed of the American Revolution.

“Listen, my children, and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…”

Thanks to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Paul Revere is America’s most celebrated patriot (after Mel Gibson). Mr Revere took part in the Boston Tea Party but is better known for having embarked on a midnight ride to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock of the approaching British – the Battle at Lexington ensued, which led to a full-blown American Revolution.

The Boston Tea Party was the result of a resistance movement against the Tea Act, imposed by those pesky Brits – it violated Bostonian rights to “no taxation without representation.”

To ensure their action wasn’t just a storm in a teacup, the protesters boarded the ships and threw chests of tea into Boston harbour. Some chests were thrown in with a little milk, some with a squeeze of lemon. Reports of a sizeable digestive biscuit on the side remain unfounded.


Paul Revere’s little wooden house still stands – it is Boston’s oldest structure. Revere’s remains remain in Boston, lying in the Granary Burying Ground, buried with Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and a plethora of patriots. Mother Goose is also buried here.


Sinking Headstones


Samuel Adams

Named after its English counterpart, Boston was founded by the Puritans, a wealthier and more literate breed of colonist. The Old Corner Bookshop emerged as something of a literary centre with luminaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher-Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorn, and that Longfellow fellow all bringing manuscripts here to be published.

As well as being crammed with American history, Boston has its fair share of greenery and water too. Well, being a port, it would have.

Taking an afternoon whale-watching trip out to the open sea to see slices of Humpback and Minke Whales in their natural habitat was an enjoyable diversion from all that foot-pounding history. It also presented a good opportunity to view Boston from a different aspect, and to appreciate the city from afar.

Boston Common is the United State’s first public park, with the Massachusetts State House overlooking it. Just on the edge of the park is the arguably more famous Cheers bar. I popped in for a swift four-pinter and although nobody knew my name, it was a friendly enough place and I managed to grab a corner in Norm’s seat for a well-earned quaff.





Massachusetts State House

Before Boston, there was Charlestown.

Originally, the settlers settled (its what settlers do) over the river from Boston. However, the wells soon ran dry, and the settlers became unsettled. They decided to up sticks and settle in Boston – or Shawmut was it was then known. The plentiful springs of Boston ensured a steady growth while Charlestown became relegated to a sleepy country town until the Revolution.

The Bunker Hill Monument, a tall, towering obelisk, commemorates the Revolution’s first major battle, which the British won but at such a cost as to weaken their resolve.


Patriot General Greene summed it up well: “I wish,” he said, “I could sell them another hill at the same price.”

Charlestown also harbours another monument of sorts in the Navy Yard – the U.S.S. Constitution; the most celebrated ship in American history is berthed here. The Constitution is most noted for her actions during the War of 1812 against the United Kingdom when she defeated five British warships. Expect Mel Gibson to be starring in the film any day soon.


U.S.S. Constitution

Although the Brits consider the War of 1812 as little more than a minor skirmish of the Napoleonic Wars, the Americans see it as a war in its own right. Of course they would, they won it!


Washington wearing a Grackle


A Grackle