Tuesday, 26 May 2009


Is there such a phenomenon as Bank Holiday bloodlust?

There might be something in it. The Mods and Rockers always used to enjoy a nice Bank Holiday punch-up at Weston-super-Mare or Brighton.

Cheese rolling ('Cheesy' yesterday) is a Bank Holiday tradition involving the Roman-style spectacle of lemming-people risking limb and life hurling themselves down the steepest hill I've ever seen.

Admittedly, it's a bit tame for the Romans what with the "catchers" waiting at the bottom of the hill to stop uncontrolled contestants impaling themselves on the fencing. The Romans would have had hungry tigers and lions salivating at the foot of the hill and the chasers might have needed determined prodding to go down. But the whole massed chorus of baying cheering hoi polloi struck me as the kind of crowd you'd get in on a big night at the colosseum.

The other big Gloucestershire bloodlust tradition hasn't been seen for many years. It was a good one; firing a woman out of a cannon across a river.

It must be twenty five years ago at least that a guy called Joe Weston-Webb would rock up to Tewkesbury on Bank Holiday Monday with his human cannon. It was a big black home-made job about the size of a fire engine. The human was a girl called Mary, who was no more than 17 and looked 13. She probably lied about her age. A slight, slip of a thing with no glamour about her whatsoever. Not for her the Las Vegas showgirl glitz, the Madonna brassiere, the skimpy bikini or humungous improbable implants and Tangoed body. She dressed in jeans and an anonymous baggy T shirt. She looked as though she was taking a break from the milking parlour.

Her only protective clothing was a black helmet which could have been salvaged from the World War I.

Large crowds would gather alongside the River Avon after paying their groats or whatever was the currency in those days and Mary would climb on to the cannon and let herself gingerly down into the tube. The plan was to emerge head first.

There would be a significant delay of 45 minutes punctuated by announcements about delays for "important safety checks" while many hot dogs and beers were sold to the expectant masses.

Joe's henchmen had a net waiting somewhat optimistically on the other side of the River Avon.

Call it tension, call it boredom, but one or the other, or both would build until the crowd yelled along with the final countdown to blast off.

There was a minor explosion half as loud as a shotgun, wisps of smoke from the cannon and we would wait muttering "Oh my God. She's toast" until Mary's helmet appeared from the end of the muzzle. She would wave to assure everyone of her continuing health and disappear again for the cannon to be reloaded.

If we were really lucky, there would be another slightly louder explosion and Mary would be expelled, legs and arms flailing. Breaths would be held as everyone plotted her brief trajectory into the river. She generally popped up to the surface pretty quickly. Rescue personnel would heave her on boat their boat and take her to the bank where she'd clamber up to a heroine's welcome.

After at least two successive years of broken promises, there was a definite feeling that the crowds were calling out for more. Plopping into the river wasn't enough. After all, she was supposed to be shot clear across the river. That was the point. People don't like failure and lack of blood. It's tedious. No-one dared admit it but the ghouls had only turned up in order to see either a girl shot clear across the river or fodder briefly roasted inside the cannon.

I was told on the quiet that the stunt was quite safe as long as Mary landed in the river. The real risk was if by some quirk of nature, she actually did make the distance because, er, there was no direction-finder on the cannon, the net wasn't actually that big and it was much easier to miss the net than the river.

So imagine the brown trouser moment the Bank Holiday when there was really quite a large explosion (think a dozen boiled-dry eggs exploding in a saucepan in a small kitchen) and Mary flew in a perfect arc, (legs and arms aerodynamically trained by now) and cleared the Avon by an alarming margin.

It was one of those horrifying slo-mo sequences. It was looking as though, this time, this one time she was flying so far that she was also going to clear the net.

There was a choral "Ooooh..." then silence.

Some sensitive souls flinched and turned away. Mary ricocheted from the very edge of the net and bounced into the middle like a broken puppet.

The silence continued. She lay crumpled and still. Then she twitched, stretched and waved a cheerful arm with a fist clenched in victory.

She had done it. A roar of approval from the satisfied spectators. They hadn't seen blood but they had very nearly seen a tragedy. They seemed content. Jubilant, even. My knees were jelly and I felt a bit sick. For once, Joe had lived up to his promise. I vowed never to go again. Too traumatic.

I didn't need to worry. That was the last such event in Tewkesbury. I suspect that the fact that Joe had at last succeeded in his aim induced Health and Safety to step in and produce a thick raft of conditions which made a repeat performance impossible.

Joe went on with his shows elsewhere catapulting girls, wrestling crocodiles, racing goldfish.

I'm not sure he shot Mary ever again. It would be nice to think it was her swansong. She is fine, by all accounts because, dear reader, Joe married her.

I last heard of him on "Have I Got News for You" which reported a story about him using his cannon to fire chicken muck at unwelcome intruders. At least he's not firing the wife.... well, I don't think he is.. . maybe only on Bank Holidays.

Monday, 25 May 2009


“It was never like this. This is mad. Absolutely mad.”

Capt. Sensible shrugged and frowned. He hates crowds. So do I, usually.

“It's unbelieveable.” said the son no 2's girlfriend.

“Random,” said son no 2.

We were among several thousand people gathered at Cooper's Hill near Brockworth, Gloucestershire for the annual traditional blood sport of cheese rolling. An eight pound Double Gloucester cheese is sent rolling and bouncing wildly down the slope, which varies between 1-1 to 1 in 3. People are invited to run and bounce wildly after it. They always do. The first one down wins the cheese. Hurrah.

There are four races for the chaps and one for women. In between, there are uphill races for youngsters.

Moving to Gloucestershire from Wales as a child, it was an amazing spectacle. Where I came from, the only Whitsun event was the church parade which involved wearing a new dress, white ankle socks and new white kid-leather shoes. The only danger was that of one of the banner-bearers fainting and small children being asphyxiated under a ton of heavily embroidered material.

It's a bit odd taking children to an event where the contestants might well snap a thigh bone bloodily in front of their eyes or dislocate a shoulder or break a neck. But I suppose people used to take the nippers to bear-baiting and cock-fighting before television came along.

No-one really knows how it started or when. I like to think it was a Morris Men's picnic near the flagpole at the top that got a bit drunken and lairy. Someone nicked someone else's handkerchief and a quite-cross Morris man kicked the cheese course over the edge in a fit of pique causing several hungry Morris Men to attempt to rescue it.

Today the interest was unprecedented. The usual route to Brockworth was completely jammed – so congested that the police had to close a major road and display warning signs and diversions on the M5. Knowing the geography, our party took a little detour and walked the scenic route to Cooper's Hill from the local Roman villa.

The sight that greeted us was most definitely Roman seasoned with a few Mexican waves. We joined a cheering, jostling, baying crowd of several thousand people clustered closely at the top, sides and base of the famous hill. There was absolutely no chance of getting to the sweet spot at the side of the hill where I used to sit with friends; a spot where you really appreciate the speed at which people are tumbling, tripping and falling as they rush headlong after those cheeses.

The crowd thickened. Not that it wasn't quite thick already. Why, for instance, do people take the tiny and defenceless to such massively popular events? A woman with nose rings and tattoos pushed through with a startled-looking prem baby in a baby carrier, his nasal tubes still connected indicating a certain vulnerability. Another woman pushed by thrusting a lost, tear-stained little girl in front of her. A man carried a petrified Jack Russell puppy.

Soon it was nearly impossible to move. Interesting to observe people at close quarters. The smelly, the pissed, the only vaguely interested, the foreigners, the relentlessly loud but witty young Ozzies. I mentally checked those people nearby who I felt would, in emergency, walk on my head without a qualm. I was jostled quite violently by a St John Ambulanceman proving that even the angels of mercy are not without their mean streak. I felt, to be honest, a bit kettled - even in the absence of the Metropolitan Police.

The going was good. Yielding underfoot without being slippery. From the bottom of the hill we saw the cheeses and the competitors bouncing and tumbling and lurching and falling and looking dazed as the crowd cheered and applauded. We had a grandstand view of the St John Ambulance persons and the casualties.

The races are open to anyone who says they're over 18. There has never been drug-testing, in fact, it's the only sport where it's an unwritten rule to get rat-arsed before the race. Alcohol dissipates any unwelcome self-preservation instincts which might cause jarring of bones. It makes you bounce more softly. At least, that's what some have told me.

Suddenly someone yelled “NAKED MAN COMING THROUGH!” The crowd did a simultaneous “Eeeew” and parted like butter under a hot knife. He was indeed naked. He'd chased the cheese wearing only a jockstrap and now some wags had stolen his clothes. Some people just so ungrateful for entertainment.

The paramedics called 'Make way!” and stretchered an unlucky competitor through the crowd on a spinal board. A woman in front of me raised her camera above her head and snapped a picture; a photo of an injured person who she probably didn't know. Something to show the girls in the office.

It didn't feel much fun to be standing with ghouls hoping for a good shot of a snapped bone protruding or someone with a suspected C2 fracture.

We'd all had enough by then anyway. We'd done the traditional Bank Holiday thing of being in heavy traffic, standing in a massive crowd watching a Great British Tradition.

We had sometimes watched it through binoculars from my mother's back garden in Brockworth, sitting in deckchairs drinking iced lemonade. On reflection that was probably the most civilized way to do it.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Home movies

Films are one of the nearly-essentials of modern life. Books, music and art are the real thing but films run close because they just blitz the senses. Well, good ones do.

Even if you're not particularly enjoying it, there's no denying the powerful emotional impact of a movie. It can make you laugh, cry, or just plain nauseous. One film made me faint right off.

There's never sufficient time in life to take in everything you want to see at the cinema so we just joined one of those dvd club which send you a couple of films a month and you post them back, just to see how it goes.

I didn't think it would be much cop, to be honest. We Sky+ films and then delete them because there's no time to watch, lacking time partly because I feel you should see a film from beginning to end with no interruption to get the full flow and effect.

In the living room, no matter how comfy the sofa (and ours is lush) at the dramatic moments when you shriek, you shriek alone – not like the cinema.

In the cinema the absolute best moments are when the audience is more than the sum of its parts; the intakes of breath are positively choral, the squeaks of fear orchestrated to the split-second and the mass snufflings (I'm thinking final scene of Romeo and Juliet..and more recently Marley and Me) signal emotional upset on the grand scale. The Jaws moments, the Silence of the Lambs moments, the ET moments – all times when the experience transcended mere cinema and branded itself memorably on your soul.

But there are compensations when you watch at home. You don't have to be quiet or sit still. You can eat, drink and heckle. It's all very Shakespearean. We are like the groundlings, getting a bit lairy and raucous. Heckling and laughing and inserting lines which explain the action or which the characters should be saying in order to make it ridiculous.

We had a particularly good time with Van Helsing the other night. Hugh Jackman. Well, you would, wouldn't you?

Considering it's not my goblet of gore at all, it was astonishingly entertaining. Until his clothes all started to fall off, Jackman mostly wore big hat and a long dark coat and was accompanied by Kate Beckinsale looking demure and very like one of the great forties movie beauties.

I haven't watched that genre since Peter Cushing packed up so it came as a shock to realise that werewolves wear underpants before they go all furry. And when the fur comes off, the pants stay on. Decorous, I call it. Like the old days. Fangs for the memories.

The pyrotechnics in the hall of the Vampire in Chief were amazing – worthy of Merthyr Tydfil on bonfire night but without the blazing cars.

Then there was Kate Beckinsale shinning up a rope in a corset. Respect! I was always hopeless at shinning up anything. I have weak girly arms. But so has she. I can't help but think a special effects man was giving her a bunk up. Well he would, wouldn't he?

The monk made me laugh when he got an offer he couldn't refuse from a bawdy wench.

“But he can't! He's a monk!!!!” I exclaimed.

“He's just a friar” remarked DT man.

“And I think she's ready to sizzle.”

I lobbed a breadstick at the screen in disgust. You could never do that at the cinema.

Size isn't everything.

I went in spite of the warnings. I had been told in no uncertain terms “Beware, for you enter that portal and the devil will take your soul and file it under “odds and sods.”

It wouldn't be inappropriate, me being both a little odd and occasionally, a bit of a sod.

It looked like an anonymous Government building. There was a barrier which indicated you had to be in the know to get into the car park. High black railings, spiky wire at the top.

It was the kind of two storey red-brick building with temporary single-storey off-shoots which might be used in Spooks or 24 as a place where anonymous Eastern Europeans beat the living shit out of double-dealers. The empty room, the chair in the centre, a smelly, unshaven John Prescott bearing down on the suspect with a dental wrench, blood on the floor.

At any moment, Jack Bauer could grab me from behind, hand clamped over my mouth, hissing in my ear his trademark “Trust me. I won't let them hurt you.”

Yeah, Jack. He's the man but you can't believe anything he says. Approximately four minutes after that assurance the woman is being buried alive in a ditch and he's half an hour late to the rescue, having made three personal phone calls to the President, flown a helicopter to drop a small atomic bomb in some desert and despatched a couple of villains within a ten mile radius first.

The main door had no intercom but I had to fill in forms before they allowed me in. I was instructed to leave my bag and belongings in a locker. They didn't make me wear paper knickers but, frankly, it was a worry, I can tell you. The other worry was someone coming at me with rubber gloves on. It might be their idea of research but it's not mine. Logically, though, there was more of a risk of a frisk on the way out.

The next trauma was having to leave all my pens (I have at least fifteen lurking in the darkest recesses of my bag) behind too. Only pencils are allowed. Thank goodness for my Shakespearean 2Bornot2B even though the lead is poor. They went for wit over quality but that's usually a fair swap.

I proceeded to the room where you could order up old documents and papers from the Strong Room. They don't let you in there to mess about amid their priceless archives but the very name sounds as though the walls are bent like sheer tensed muscle.

I waited in an airy room full of tables and chairs where the walls were packed with shelves of old books. Big sets of them; directories, year books, you name it. I ordered up my Old Stuff and settled in with a couple of volumes of 19th century Hunt's Directory and Court Guides; wonderful, detailed, absorbing and accompanied by engravings and advertisements.

Cheltenham for example attracted “wealthy and influential personages.” They were “the titled, the opulent and invalids of the more affluent classes, who during the summer season arrive in throngs, not only to behold the fairest essay of Nature's skill and care but to partake of its health–restoring waters and inhale its pure and genial breezes, the extraordinary salubrity of which has long been proved by the longevity of its inhabitants...” etc

Those Victorians. Never used one word where a dozen would do but I rather like it. It would not be unpleasant, I fancy, to take a course in Victorian language. If there was, perchance, a Victorian chatroom on the internet, one might venture to pass the time of day with persons of similar 19th century persuasions. Either that or rent a boxed set of period drama DVDs.

I kept an eye on the whiteboard on the other side of the room. When your name goes up there you know your Old Stuff is ready and you can collect it from the desk.

It's not unlike Argos. You are at the desk, the archive person goes to the shelves. But instead of waiting for a troglodyte boy to lurch about for ten minutes, inspecting the tickets on every single thing except the huge lawnmower box you're waiting for, the archive staff know their stuff and they are quietly efficient.

The expectation was intense. There were three of us. The first woman collected an armful of documents – remember the size of the class homework pile when you were at school? Say 38 pupils, a couple of sheets each. Well it was twice the height of that, tied in five bundles with old ecru ribbon and they were all tea-coloured. Maybe it was the class of 1648.

I had no idea what mine would be like. This was the first batch of three different lots of Old Stuff. In my experience documents are either A4, A5 or a map. Anything different is awkward.

Then one of the archive ladies emerged from a back room lugging a cardboard tube about eight feet long and a foot wide. She offered it to the guy in front of me.

Jeez. I thought. He's got a Swiss horn!! It was the exact same size. He'd have a job on his hands to drag it to the alpine pastures, though. He'd never get it past the stern lady on the front desk who was, in all probability, fully trained in martial arts and you could never negotiate a package that size through the small window in the gents.

Whatever it was, I was impressed. They lied when they said size doesn't matter. It bloody does. It was all I could do to stay in the queue and not follow him like a puppy as he dragged his quarry into a side room. I was jealous and a tad wistful. It was probably a map. A ****-off big old map. I love maps.

I swallowed my disappointment. It caught in my throat like the Vitamin C tablet that almost killed me once. Sweet irony. I hadn't read the “soluble” bit on the pack and it turned out to be precisely the width of my oesophagus.

Then it was my turn. The archives lady approached the shelf. Would mine be that pile on the top, or that thickly folded bundle with the red ribbon beneath?

She returned with a slim piece of cardboard. It had plainly been cut by someone who wasn't very good at making cardboard folders and tied with a faded pink ribbon. It was the smallest, slimmest thing anyone had collected.

I took it to my table, thankfully still unoccupied by anyone else. I didnt want anyone looking at my stuff. I'd actually been tempted to take some of the old books and build a kind of wall around my pencil and paper to keep prying eyes out.

I pulled at the ribbon, gingerly lifted the folder and out slipped several pieces of folded paper. Letters. The first was to a lady in Birmingham with several gentle admonishments about looking after herself and getting out and seeing people. There was another in similar vein. Both 1920's letters from and to people I'd never heard of.

They've got it wrong, I thought. Given me the wrong bundle. Maybe I'd got a number wrong. Then I unfolded another piece of paper. Flowing, exquisite script written with the finest nib and a fabulous signature with many flourishes. I recognised the name. This was it. Tricky to read but breathtakingly old, original and somehow alive in my hand.

I already knew enough of this particular gentleman to see him sitting at a particular desk near a particular window with a particular view. I just don't hear his voice yet. But I think that will come.

Just one small letter – not even A5 - but saturated with significance. Wow, wow and thrice wow.

A bell went, sounding the end of the session. Just as well they throw you out. I could live in that place.

Meanwhile mapman was probably struggling to get it back into his Swiss horn tube. Who wants a map anyway? Pah. Size isn't everything.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009


You know how something seems a great idea and then life intervenes and the great idea relegates itself imperceptibly to the third division of not-great-enough ideas?

That's how it was with Krakow and Nigel Kennedy. The eldest boy had a Polish/American/French girlfriend whose mum had a flat going spare in Krakow, so he and the girlfriend used to go there for weekends.

And one day he mentioned, apropos of nothing “Oh we saw that Nigel Kennedy. In a bar. He was playing jazz when he happened to wander in...”

I wasn't sure the boy had got it right as I thought Nige lived at Malvern and was busy doing his viruoso violin thing in front of wealthy cultured folk in the world's largest concert halls.

He must have been doing that too, but unknown to most in those days, he was also escaping to the free and musically stimulating clubs of Krakow to enjoy jazzy jam sessions. It was mostly jazz in Krakow and mostly free, I was informed. You might spot Nige at the bar or Nige in his Villa shirt making music.

So I was dead keen to go to Krakow on the basis of good fortune enabling us to happen upon him in some anonymous, dingy dive. We never did make it. Eight or so years later, on Monday, however, the Nigel Kennedy Jazz Quintet made it to Cheltenham.

All eyes were on the band setting up on the Town Hall stage when long, low violin notes became evident and Kennedy walked slowly down the darkened aisle heralding the start of an unforgettable gig.

I've always admired Nige. He is a phenomenon. A true virtuoso and the world's best selling classical music violinist. The dynamic vivacity and the luscious sensitivity with which he plays classical pieces just knocks me out. The soul of Elgar inhabits him, no doubt at all. In Chelters on Monday Nigel provided further proof of an extraordinary assimilation of man and violin.

He plucked his electric fiddle, played it like a guitar, stroked it like a lover, abused it with vicious bowing. To me, he'd never looked more alive or released or relaxed or at home or at one with his fellow musicians.

We giggled as he sang his comical “shopping blues” and settled back for a set which sucked us into a mind-blowing maestrom – including a hint of Hendri, a smidge of Smoke on the Water – which displayed the exceptional talents of the keyboards guy, the saxophonist, the guitarist. Drummer Kryzychu Dziedzic was fabulously manic.

“We're keeping him out of prison” Nige joked. Dziedzic playing with such furious passion that he snapped three drumsticks and lost a fourth during the set.

Kennedy's bowing was sometimes blindingly fast too, the register ear-splittingly high at times but the magic was in the surprises; the tempo dropping to a pulsing whisper then giving way to a sudden sonorous, Vaughan-Williams style pastoral solo emerging pure and beautiful as sun piercing cloud.

There is always joy when Nigel Kennedy plays. Some might find him irritating and contrived but I like his obvious, childlike zest for music and life and most of all, the sharing of it. The enthusiasm was palpable at the Cheltenham. The crowd cried out for more (lyric, anyone?), there were two encores and the gig went on past 11pm.

We saw another side of Nigel Kennedy. It felt an intimate privilege, listening, watching his musical soul melting, fusing and fizzing with the brilliance of the others.

I found myself wondering whether any orgasm could improve on what Nigel was experiencing. Making out could only be second-best to what we'd just witnessed there on stage.