Significant Songs (84)

The Closest Thing To Heaven

The north-east of England has provided us with some of Britain’s stars over the years, but not that many. The Animals spring to mind, as Eric Burdon and the rest of that group were all from this industrial area of the UK. More recently, Cheryl Cole has made much of these roots, and traded on the distinctive accent too. In 1985, another sound emerged from county Durham, a trio that went by the name of The Kane Gang delivered a song that was in the new ‘sophisti-pop’ style. Somewhere between smooth soul, and the British new wave, it appealed to me a great deal, although it was some years before the wonderful ‘Swing Out Sister’ would take this genre to a new level, and mainstream acceptance.

The first Kane Gang album, ‘Bad And Lowdown World Of The Kane Gang,’ had all the right credentials. Produced by Pete Wingfield, (Eighteen With A Bullet) and with backing vocals by stars-in-their-own-right Sam Brown and P.P. Arnold, it also had the excellent ‘Small Town Creed’ (released before my choice), ‘Losersville’ and a cover of ‘Respect Yourself, all included in a list of tracks that were good enough to be singles. The trio looked serious enough, did not try to appeal to young girls, and wrote some of the tracks that were not covers of existing songs. I was suitably impressed, and bought the album immediately, pleased that the popular single release was included. I played it a lot, and looked forward to the next offering.

I had to wait almost two years, for the 1987 release, ‘Miracle.’ It was more of the same, so still pretty good. The standout track was ‘Motortown’, released as a single, it sold well on both sides of the Atlantic. Then that was that, as the saying goes. With band members seeking solo careers, as they often do, the line-up split in 1991, after less than seven years.

Here is the official video of the emotional ballad that started it all. Love those vocals.

The Beetley Riviera

I had an early (for me) start this morning. I had some household tasks to do, and I wanted to get them done before it got too hot. That’s a very unusual sentence for me to type, I know, but the last few days have been very hot, and today was predicted to be the hottest of the year so far. I am not complaining, not at all. After nine months of miserable grey weather, cold and rain, sleet and hail, I welcome this bounty from the south, with open arms.

I needed to clear the tree debris from the guttering. An accumulation of twigs, small leaves and seeds that needs to be shifted on a regular basis. If I fail to do this, the gutters overflow during heavy rain. As it’s a bungalow, it is easily accomplished, using a smallish ladder. Despite all the things advertised for sale for doing this job, the best method is to scoop it all out by hand, fling it on the path below, and sweep it up later. Once that was done, I thought I might as well clean the windows, at least those out of direct sunlight, so the back and side of the house. The front faces south-east, so gets the sun until late afternoon. Ollie was out too, watching what I was doing, and changing position as I moved about.

I use the simple soapy water method, washing down the windows, sills and surrounds, all in one sweep of a sponge. Then comes the wiper-blade squeegee, finishing off with paper towels. It’s never perfect, and you can sometimes see the lines later, but it is still preferable to using spray or lotion cleaners, which are guaranteed to smear. As well as the windows, there are the two glass-panelled doors, one leading out from the kitchen, the other the rarely-used main front door. As it is all double glazed, and made from brown poly-carbonate, it is a fairly simple job, if a tad repetitive. By the time I got to the last door, the heat was excessive, and I was glad to be almost finished.

I went back inside for a lunch break, and noticed that a strong breeze had got up. The curtains were billowing, and the tips of the hedge at the front were moving too. After a bath, and securing the house, I went off with Ollie for his regular walk. I soon discovered that the strong breeze was in fact a warm breeze, not unlike walking into a hair drier. Over at the Meadows, I took to the shady areas, as walking in the open was reminiscent of being in the south of France, or Spain, rather than central Norfolk. Ollie seemed indifferent to the heat at first, but soon plunged into the river to cool off, after only ten minutes running around. It was nice to feel the heat after a long winter, but it was wearing without stopping for a rest. By the bend in the river, lots of people had turned out to enjoy sitting by the picnic benches, and were paddling in the shallow water.

I thought about heading over to Hoe Rough for a while, but the herd of cattle are grazing there now, and they have small calves with them. This makes them nervous, so I have to be careful with Ollie, keeping him on the lead most times. I didn’t want him to have to walk on the lead, so I decided to do some more circuits around the meadows. Many of the regular dog-walkers were absent, avoiding the heat of the afternoon, and walking in the evening instead. Ollie was not too bothered, and spent most of his time in the river instead, rummaging under the foliage that overhangs the bank, no doubt searching for voles, otters, or ducks; none of which appeared. His antics did disturb the technicolour-blue damsel flies though, and they rose off the water in large numbers, as I sat on a handy bench, watching from the bank. I had planned to take my camera out today, but the heavy skies and low cloud did not provide a good light. It was flat and dull, and not lifting any colours. By the time it got near the end of our walk, someone showed me a temperature on his mobile phone, registering 34 C.

Hot enough for England, but I’m still not complaining.

Ollie and the bear hunt

Ollie has never seen a bear. Bears no longer exist in Norfolk. According to Wikipedia, the last wild bear ever seen in Britain was in 1000 AD. So apart from a few escaped captive bears since, there are no wild bears in our homeland. Ollie doesn’t know this of course, and he doesn’t even know what a bear is. He understands the word ‘ducks’, and will leap into the river if I say it, searching for the wildfowl. He certainly knows ‘squirrels’, and will immediately look upwards if he hears that word, scanning the branches of trees for long furry tails. Any mention of ‘bunnies’ will have him investigating burrows and warrens, or anywhere that he has ever seen a rabbit. The same applies to ‘deer’, which will have him scurrying off to the last place he ever chased one. If he is at home, and hears ‘cats’ he will rush out of the back door, looking for any cat that might have ventured into our garden. But we have never had a bear in the garden, or seen one in Beetley Meadows, or over at Hoe Rough.

At weekends, we rarely have company on our walks. The usual canine companions that join us during the week are off with their owners, doing other things. They are visiting relatives, enjoying excursions to the coast, or just changing their regular walking times, to accommodate different activities. For Ollie, this means a lonely couple of hours, with no dogs to scamper around with, and only me for company. He can seem fed up, often crying, and he is always searching for his friends, unable to understand why they are absent. To make his walk more enjoyable, I have to use my imagination. I try to change the normal routes, or walk in an area we have not been to for a while. This doesn’t always help though, so I try my best to simulate what dog-walking really feels like to a dog. A hunt. As far as most dogs are concerned, the daily routine of their walk is just hunting. They are looking for their pack, leaving scents, and searching for something, not always sure what that something is. As the notional ‘pack-leader’, it is up to me to lead the hunt, and to provide direction and leadership during it. The outcome is food, replicated by Ollie receiving his dinner not long after we return. He may not have caught it, but it is undoubtedly his reward for participation.

Over at Hoe Rough, there is a nice little dell. I have mentioned this before, the place where birds will come close, if you sit quietly on a fallen branch. In an unusually large dip in the ground, the shade from the group of trees, and availability of branches to use as seating, makes this a nice place to rest, and I use it a lot. It looks like the kind of place where a bear might choose to live, if bears lived in Beetley. Resting from the unaccustomed heat yesterday, I noticed that Ollie was bored. He was nibbling grass, and wandering back and forth aimlessly. I had an idea. ‘Find the bear’, I suddenly exclaimed. His head snapped up, and he started to investigate the area, nose hard to the ground. Moments later he rushed off into the long grass, showing such purpose, I was sure that he had discovered something. He had, but it was a pheasant.

Ollie seemed to know that the game bird was not the target of his quest, and returned to my branch, looking intently at me. I stood up and asked him ‘Where’s that bear?’ He took off in a circular pattern, sniffing the grass in detail, returning to the dell to investigate the leaf-litter and fallen twigs. He soon started along the path, heading for the south side of Hoe Rough, before rushing into the central scrub-land area, no doubt certain he had found a good scent. I didn’t have the heart to tell him how large bears are, and that they couldn’t conceal themselves in coarse grass. The quest kept him busy for at least forty minutes. He didn’t look into the river, or up at the trees, and he avoided all known areas where he had seen a deer. He seemed to realise that he was looking for something very different, even if he had no idea what it was.

If bears ever return to Norfolk, they had better watch out.

The Summer of ’76

As the weather warms up, we had our first uncomfortable night of 2015, with the fan on in the bedroom, to counter the stifling feel of overnight humidity. I was reminded of the summer of 1976. For those of you not old enough to remember, and many of you were not even born, I thought I would use this post to reminisce about that long hot summer.

That spring, I had just moved to Clapham, in south-west London. My Mum had bought a shop, an off-licence, (liquor store) and we were living above it, in the large rooms on three floors that had once been part of the former pub on that site. It took a few weeks to settle in to running a business that was open from eleven in the morning until eleven at night, except for a couple of hours during the afternoon, when we closed due to licencing restrictions. By the end of May, it was beginning to feel quite warm. Weather people on TV predicted the possibility of a hot summer, but we didn’t give that a lot of thought, as they were so often wrong.

At the start of June, temperatures began to climb significantly, and it had not rained for a very long time either. Trade increased; the demand for cold drinks outstripping both supply, and our capacity to keep them cool in our one large chiller cabinet. By the last two weeks of that month, we were seeing regular daily temperatures over 30 C (86 F) and this continued, day after day. The nights were hot too, rarely dropping much below what we would normally have considered to be daytime highs. Sleep was hard to come by, and even opening the huge Victorian windows all over our flat did not seem to let any air in. Long days in the shop, followed by sleepless nights, all contributed to bad moods, and feeling exhausted.

There was little point trying to get out of London to escape the heat. It was just as hot at the coast, and with everyone rushing to seaside resorts all over the country, traffic and parking were both worse than we had ever seen. By the time July arrived, Britain had its hottest day ever recorded, 36 C (97 F) and there seemed to be no let-up on the horizon. The water shortages became so severe, the government even appointed a ‘Minister for Drought’ and talked of measures to reduce water consumption. This was all quite alien to the British. Despite experiencing some periods of decent weather over the years, nobody could remember a summer like it, with the combination of consistently high temperatures, and the complete absence of rain. Sunburn and sunstroke were featured on the news, those with breathing problems like asthma suffered unduly, and our usual fascination with the weather was propelled into a national obsession.

Back in Clapham, we had all but run out of soft drinks and beer to sell. Companies were rationing supplies, and shop customers were moaning about our inability to meet their needs. Trying to use the car to go to the bank or shops became unusually difficult. Parked on the street, the steering wheel became so hot, I had to take a towel out with me, to wrap around it. The tarmac on the road was becoming soft, and sticking inside the tyre tread. Few cars had air-conditioning in the UK back then, so once in the car, every window had to be opened to try to get some breeze into the vehicle. I began to experiment with ways to get some rest at night. My girlfriend (who later became my first wife) suggested that we drive to nearby Wimbledon Common, late at night. We rested on the cool grass, and I managed to get a couple of hours sleep. Unfortunately, I was also bitten everywhere by all kinds of insects, so that wasn’t going to work. We even resorted to driving down to Gatwick Airport, where the terminal was air-conditioned, and sat around inside during the early hours. Trouble was, we had to go back into the heat, to return home for work.

By the middle of August, the drought was getting serious, and the hot temperatures continued unabated. Despite always longing for a hot summer, experiencing three months of continuous unrelenting heat was something we were neither used to, nor prepared for. Commuters suffered miserably on trains and buses. People working in shops and offices were still expected to maintain dress codes of uniforms, or suits and ties, despite the weather. Cars overheated in traffic jams, and our houses did not have stone floors, shutters, or even fans. Those retailers selling fans had all sold out by the end of June anyway, and they had become one of the most sought-after items in the country. By the time heavy rain arrived at the very end of August, the truth was that almost everyone had had enough, and welcomed the fresher weather that followed. During September, we had almost constant rain though, so we were soon complaining about that of course.

That summer of 1976 was the hottest for almost 500 years. It still stands as the hottest recorded in the UK, for such a long period at least. There have been hot days and hot months since, but as anyone who experienced it will tell you, 1976 will never be forgotten.

Making my mind up

Many years ago, my first wife and I went on a holiday to Turkey. It was a two-centre trip; the first week spent in Istanbul, then a transfer to the south coast, near Antalya. In Istanbul, there is a huge market, called the Grand Bazaar.
Inside this enormous place are many shops that specialise in jewellery, and in particular, gold. We entered there one morning, my ex-wife keen to explore the numerous gold shops. In the first small shop, she found an item that she liked a lot. The owner sent out for mint tea for us, and weighed the item, as is the custom. After some consideration, she advised the shopkeeper that she would ‘think about it.’ We then toured the market for hours, looking at similar items, in near-identical shops. We were served countless mint teas, and in one place, a small boy even washed our feet!

After all this coming and going, we found ourselves back at the first shop. She went in, and bought the original thing we had seen, many hours earlier. There is no real moral to this tale, except that sometimes the thing you see first, the one that looks just right, and has a fair price, is the one you should buy. You can save yourself a lot of time and trouble that way. But this post is not about foreign travel, jewellery, or the gold market in Istanbul. It is about cameras.

Some time ago, I wrote a couple of posts about wanting to change my camera for something more portable, without the weight of an SLR, or the fuss of interchangeable lenses. I did a lot of research, and decided on two that I liked, with a firm favourite. I asked you, dear readers, for thoughts and suggestions, and as always, you responded with help and advice, kind people that you are. Unfortunately, as is often the case, that advice, and one suggestion in particular, threw me off the track completely. I no longer wanted my first choice, and began a new round of late-night research on the Internet, reading reviews and looking at specifications, until my head was swimming. After allowing myself to be convinced that my original favourite was not up to the task, I arrived at a new shortlist, and yet another first choice from that list. Trouble was, they were much more expensive, and my ideas of trading in my old camera kit were deflated by unrealistically low offers for it. At the sort of trade-in price they were offering, I might just as well keep it. It might be handy as a back-up, and would also make a nice gift for someone later on, perhaps.

This left me with the desire to own a camera that I couldn’t really justify spending the money on, with the only option left to wait a while, a long while, until this fairly new model came down in price; by at least half. Add to this the fact that I had to spend a lot of money getting my car repaired, and I had given up on the idea completely. I was reminded of the useful old phrase, ‘Cut your coat to suit your cloth.’ For a while, I stopped looking at cameras and test reports completely, until I was sent an e-mail from a supplier, suggesting I have another look at one of the most expensive cameras. I checked their review, and found that it was compared to my original, much cheaper choice. And it compared most favourably too. So this week, I started to look at tests and reviews of that first choice again, focusing on the positives rather than the negatives. One of the best positives was the price, as a new one was available at less than £280 ($440), almost £80 ($126) cheaper than it had been some weeks previously, and £220 ($347) cheaper than the one I had been considering. No doubt an updated model is on the horizon, hence the fall in price, but that is always the case with electronics, and you could wait forever for that ‘perfect’ time to buy.

I then found a hands-on review, from a photographer in Canada. He pointed out all the various faults of the camera, but showed that there were just as many positives, and he illustrated the article with some convincing images too. He didn’t say it was fantastic, but he thought it was good for the price. The most important thing he mentioned was that he enjoyed using it, and that it made him want to take photos. That was just the sort of key statement I was looking for. Armed with the knowledge of the limitations, I decided to trust his comments, and placed an order. I won’t be getting it for a few days yet, and I had to order an SD card from Ebay too, as I only had different types of memory cards. When it arrives, I will take some photos, and put them up on this blog, as so many of you have requested.

After all that, what did I get? The Fuji X30, in silver/black. Here’s a link.

Still getting older

I have written about growing older before on this blog. Since the last time, I am of course a little older, so consider this an update. I was recently reminded by an old and close friend, that I had never expected to see sixty. After decades of shift work, stressful jobs, heavy smoking, and a bad diet, I felt sure that I would be carried off by one illness or another, by my late fifties. I imagined my sudden departure being spoken about by friends and colleagues, in the way that these things are discussed. “Did you hear about Pete?” “No, really? And he was only 57.” “Yes, that’s no age these days.” But it didn’t happen. I woke up on my sixtieth birthday, and every day since. I had to learn to cope with getting older, which came as a complete surprise, not least to me.

There are the usual things that come with age. Looking for reading glasses for ages, then discovering that they were on your head all the time. Ransacking the entire house for door-keys, only to find them hanging in the lock, an hour later. The old favourite; walking into a different room, then forgetting why you went in there in the first place, and taking just that little bit longer to remember names, faces, and places. You soon realise that you don’t need to watch the weather forecast, to know when it’s going to rain. Your joints will burn and ache for no good reason, long before the dark clouds appear. It is as if your body has become a barometer, and the falling pressure is registered in your very bones.

When you are young, you always think that it will be different for you. You won’t be like the old people of your youth, or talk or behave anything like your own parents. But you will, to some degree at least. You will hear yourself saying things that echo from the past, catching yourself momentarily, thinking you might have already said this or that before. Then the realisation sets in. It was what old people used to say, and now you are saying it. Most young people begin to seem either lazy, or impatient. Their attention span is limited, their desire to learn absent, and their ambition minimal. This cannot be true of all of them of course, it is just how you see it. But sweeping generalisations are a comfort of being older. You can state them, and leave them hanging to be challenged.

And everything was better ‘back then’. Food was tastier, families were closer, everyone felt safer, and you could walk in and out of jobs at will. Even the summers were sunnier, and it seemed that you never had to worry about anything. It’s not true of course, at least not for everyone. But your mind helps you to come to terms with the inadequacies of ageing, by reminding you that you once had it good, very good. Of course, the ‘now’ can be even better. No work to go to, time on your hands, places to explore, thoughts to dwell on, and pleasures to pursue. It seems, at least to me, that the key is to forget about the numbers, and to stop seeing age as a definition of yourself. You wake up, do what you can do, and make the most of it. Enjoy the freedom, and take advantage of the wisdom and experience.

But it’s not that easy, is it?

Everyday life defines you by age. Fill in a form, and you will see a place for age. I am currently in the 55-64 category. The next one up is 65+, the upper figure undefined. Concessions are given once you exceed a certain age, and you begin to wish away some precious years, waiting for that state pension that you paid into for so long, or frustratingly anticipating a bus pass that you haven’t even used. Whether you like it or not, you become very interested in age. The news seems to be full of people dying. Actors, celebrities, politicians, all mentioned for their contributions. If their age is not mentioned, I immediately look them up, to see when they were born. Quickly working out whether or not they were older than me when they died. This strange behaviour extends to the living as well. Seeing someone pop up in a film, or TV interview, I will exclaim “Are they still alive? I thought they would be dead by now.” Without hesitation, I will look up their age on the Internet, and make some pointless comment about how well they have aged, or not, as the case may be. One of the things about getting older, is that you can develop an unhealthy interest in the ages of everyone around you.

Then there is the perception of others. Something that I heard a lot in the past, especially from my Mum, was that you don’t really age inside, and still believe yourself to be young at heart. I am not so sure that’s always true, but it does come as a shock, the first time someone thinks that you are older than you are. Even if they say that they think you are younger, often by a good few years, your first instinct is to think that they are being kind. But when they add a few years, you can be shocked, and begin to wonder how they came to that conclusion. At the windmill recently, I was happily chatting to an older lady, a fellow volunteer, for a while. When the subject of pensions came up, she expressed surprise that I wasn’t yet old enough to receive my state pension. (It is paid when I am 65) I told her that I was still only 63, and asked her how old she thought I was. She casually remarked, “about 67.”
That is only four years older than I am now, but it is a huge difference in perception, at least from where I was standing!

So there are lots of things to consider about getting older; a lot more than I ever thought there would be, as I didn’t still expect to be here. I might make this an occasional series, I’m not sure. Younger readers might rightly consider that there is little of interest for them here, but I have a suggestion. Print it off, seal it in an envelope, and write ‘To be opened on… (add date of your 60th birthday).’
You can then use it like an instruction manual.

Ollie and the wildflowers

Unlike today, which has been dull and feeling chilly, Thursday afternoon was most pleasant. The sky was blue, and a fresh breeze had driven away the humidity. As Ollie had been stuck indoors waiting for me to get back from the car repairers, I decided to reward him with a longer walk, taking in somewhere we hadn’t been for a while. After the usual couple of circuits by the river, to allow him in for a refreshing dip and a drink, we went across the road bridge, and into Hoe Rough. Ollie likes to roll in the mounds of spiny grass there, and was soon rushing around excitedly.

We carried on through the metal gate, and took the narrower path leading to the Holt Road. This has become quite overgrown, and I had to be careful of the stinging nettles, as I was wearing shorts. We crossed the often busy country road ahead, and continued up to the wooded path that leads onto Hoe Common. This is not an open common, rather a woodland, with designated paths around it. There has been a lot of conservation work there recently, including the clearing of large areas of bracken, and the erection of attractive visitor information signs. I noticed that the bracken had already grown back, threatening to undo all the hard work of those who helped to remove it.

We took the path straight on, passing open fields to the left, which now contain grazing cattle, after being empty for most of the year. There are good views across from the higher ground here, and a handy bench to rest on, as you stop to admire them. But Ollie was in no mood for stopping, and pressed on, heading for the small lane, and the disused railway beyond. I went up to make sure he stopped at the road, and we then walked onto the old railway bridge. I was surprised to see some vintage carriages have reached this far along the line. The Mid Norfolk Railway is managed by volunteers, and they run trains from Dereham to Wymondham, primarily for pleasure trips, but also for the crowds of rail enthusiasts who come to look at their work. They are hoping to extend the line north to the coast, and have been working for years to repair the old rails and sleepers.

Either side of the bridge, the normally fallow fields are now full of wildflowers. In most parts, they are waist-high, but there are tiny narrow paths trodden in them, around the edges. The natural display was good to see, with flowers of all kinds mixed in with the assorted tall grasses. We headed off into the south field, where I walked carefully, making sure that I didn’t flatten any of the flowers or plants. I also had to avoid a veritable carpet of bees. The ground is completely covered in clover, both white and purple varieties, and it is irresistible to hundreds of local bees, who buzzed their wings as they worked. Ollie went ahead, invisible in the deep stems. I could tell where he was by watching the heads of the flowers and grass twitch as he went through. He found some pheasants on his travels, and they took off, squawking annoyance, as they always do.

Heading back the same way, we passed the deep ditches on Hoe Common. These are fenced off by barbed wire, and it is just as well, as the unwary could take a real tumble, if they didn’t watch their step. They are also of historical importance, as they were originally practice trenches, dug out during the First World War. Soldiers destined for service on the western front would be trained in this area, and later, in WWll, they were used as defences by the Home Guard. Once back in Beetley Meadows again, Ollie enjoyed a cooling plunge in the river, before we headed home. We had been out for over two and a half hours, and we had both enjoyed our encounter with the wildflowers.