AFTER composing columns for 40 years on newspapers from the US to Hong Kong, since 'retiring' Roy writes a weekly one for Fylde coast daily, The Gazette. As he stays home nowadays, instead of Travel Tales (further down page) he'll post latest columns here on Fridays, a day after publication in the paper.

COVID-19 NOTE: Hope all well and keeping our spirits up. We may be 'social distancing' but need to keep in touch in other ways. This pandemic will pass but it will have changed us all - in some ways, let's hope, for the better.

Here's this week's column:

IT was like a stroll back into halcyon times at the weekend, as we enjoyed a sunny start to August.

I'd wandered along the side of lovely Stanley Park and found a match in full swing at Blackpool Cricket Club (pictured).

It was a timeless scene, with the men and boys (or girls) in whites out on the treasured green square, that gentle echo of leather upon willow with polite applause.

What's more, two of my favourite club teams were competing, the home first XI and Lytham's finest too. On the grand clubhouse terrace, with its panoramic view, I found familiar faces, many old friends from both clubs not seen from before Lockdown.

Some had put on weight, others lost it; some had longer hair, others a fresh look; most were in good spirits although, sadly, there was disturbing news of others who weren't.

The sun shone, while the ale and menu lived up to the award-winning reputation, now with government sponsorship mid-week too.

Our lads were skittling out the opposition, I thought, then realised in the absence of my glasses I'd mixed up the teams.

Time to move on, for recent months have changed everything. Almost outside the gate, a bus was just arriving. There was only one other passenger aboard and both of us were masked,

Then, before home, came a socially distanced, quick shop around the neighbourhood supermarket, but I was still in the garden by mid-afternoon.

We've come to savour its quiet retreat, specially at weekends; relaxing under a parasol far from the madding crowd. Those simpler home pleasures of a more restful past have been rediscovered. Now we've done up both house and garden we appreciate them even more.

Hopefully, our world's still on track to a fuller recovery but, in this indefinite meantime, let's appreciate just what we do have – here at home, on our wonderful, diverse coast.

* * *
IT was nice to have a pint again in our traditional neighbourhood pub, here in Great Marton. Since Lockdown, though, it's now a different atmosphere.
There's a 'greeter' checking you in, then sanitiser, arrow-path and spaced queue, also taking of names and contacts, with directions where to sit. It's almost as though we lost a war and have been occupied. Fortunately though, this regimentation is benign and we're no longer rationed.
Worse still, was our casualty list. There were several reported 'missing' at the Saddle Inn – Blackpool's oldest pub - by leading barmaid Lou. They were popular characters who'd passed away, though not necessarily from the virus. It added to an air of solemnity. They will be remembered and missed.
Prominent among those absent was Sailor Jack, otherwise known as Miner Jack and Oldham or more accurately Tyldesley Jack. He and his retirement shipmate Little Paul had skippered the inn's 'Commons' room for a decade or two. Their doorway booth faced the TV, permanently tuned to racing. They were an institution, even getting personal service off Lou and young Ash-Leigh.
You could name any port in the world and one or both of the old salts had been there, with a stock of enjoyable tales to tell. Jack's favourite was Hong Kong, where I'd worked, so we had much to talk about, with Paul chipping in too.
Now former ex-ship's cook Paul is in hospital getting his old land legs rehabilitated; but Jack slipped away quietly at home several days ago. We never talked about his coal mining background, where he'd been severely injured in a pit collapse, but rather his proud, action-packed years before with the Royal Navy.
In those halcyon times he had clearly been Jack The Lad and he retained that charming twinkle in his eyes. We'll miss him and send our sympathy to widow Jean and their family.

* * *

NEWS of the blaze at Central Pier reminded me of enjoyable visits hobnobbing with – and even entertaining – some popular showbiz stars on our piers.
From first days here as a reporter for this paper in the 1970s, I thought it wonderful to stroll out on a pier. Usually it was North Pier, near our Victoria Street offices. I'd eat my lunchtime sandwiches amid the crash of waves and revitalising tang of sea - all enjoyed without even getting my feet wet!
The evening shows were uplifting, too, and I recall meeting the charming Linda Nolan at hers on Central Pier.
It was 'Landladies Night', when guest-house owners and hoteliers (and the Press) were invited to new shows so they could tell guests about them through the season. Linda popped my cork, with a bottle of champagne, probably as I was accompanying entertainments editor Robin Duke.
Of course, it was a different experience approaching winter.
When my parents came to visit, sometime during the Illuminations, I took them to see Cannon & Ball at the North Pier on Saturday night.
We had a bracing walk along the pier in the rain and dark, during which Mum got her high heel caught between the boards while struggling to protect her 'hair-do'. Even once inside the famed theatre, everyone in the audience kept on their overcoats as a howling 'draft' rattled round the old timber rafters.
More recently, I visited there with She Who Knows, for an end-of-pier show. Afterwards she challenged me to ride one of the carousel horses. We were the only two daft enough in late evening. However, the operator kindly started it up then, at her encouragement, racked up its speed.
As I clung on desperately, we earned some late-night applause. It came from no less than stars Hale & Pace, who'd emerged from the closed theatre to witness our 'show'.

* * *

UP in our loft there's a dusty cardboard box containing my past. There are childhood and family pictures, then photo albums from later working overseas. Their covers bear the logo, 'The Times Of Our Lives'.
But my best times weren't then. They're now, at 70-plus!
Yes, those early years were exciting with new horizons. But, upon reflection, I've never felt as free or fulfilled as now. There have been four months to think this over, while keeping a Covid diary – just published - with observations from this lifetime's experience.
While we miss friends and socialising, 'Lockdown' has made us look more closely at our lives and what matters most.
The pandemic brought untold tragedy and will long have a devastating worldwide impact. We are fortunate to have a home with garden, pensions and each other, so this sunniest of springs was spent peacefully with those closest to us.
There was less noise and air pollution, which encouraged wildlife. We were grateful for those working, but sorry for those alone, unable to earn or otherwise suffering. It made most of us more neighbourly and caring.
'Borrowed Times', sub-titled 'Beyond Three Score Years And Ten' is, hopefully, a humorous and uplifting memoir, even within this coronavirus crisis. It celebrates the treasures of life through a cartoon-illustrated collection of anecdotes, confessions and revelations. There might even be some useful advice!
The publisher's blurb reads, 'At the sunset of years life is not black. The view is glorious, with a glimmer of light upon the horizon. A veteran newspaper columnist turns his back on bad news and paints a brighter picture.' (I'll try, anyway.)
'Borrowed Times' is on Kindle or in paperbacks sponsored by the British Arts Council. It also includes some favourite columns from The Gazette (with thanks to the editor).
I hope it helps you, too, make the most of life, even in these troubled times.

* * *

“IF you want to know the weather, stick your head out the window!” advises our no-nonsense friend Margery. But we like to plan ahead, specially my wife.
The odd thing is, although we use the same online and TV forecasts, we rarely agree on what it says.
“Tuesday looks fine for tennis,” She Who Knows will assert, while I'll warn, “There could be showers, also high wind.”
Of course this will be familiar to most married couples, learning over years that husband and wife have different recollections of the same conversation or event. No wonder courts frown upon testimony from spouses, even the defence!
It's like a pal of mine pulled over for speeding. He'd just been reprimanded by the officer, acted contritely and seemed about to be pardoned for his singular offence. Then his wife popped her head into the squad car eager to join in the conversation, adding, “I'm always telling him he drives too fast!”
But that's another story. This one, however, also ends with the man in the wrong. She Who Knows once again proved she deserves that title.
The other day we were both eagerly awaiting the TV forecast, as nowadays weather interests us far more than news, when our regional map appeared with symbols.
“Oh dear, rain!” she exclaimed. “But not for us,” I objected.
“Where do you think we are on this map?” she demanded, rising and approaching the screen.
“Just above Liverpool,” I declared, offended.
“No, we're up here!” she cried triumphantly, pointing closer to Lancaster. It was a good inch higher than where I've always looked.
“Here's the Ribble at Lytham, just south of us,” she went on, finger tapping screen.
Who could deny it? I'd been wrong all these years!
Now I wonder about those other conversations she always remembered wrongly . . .

* * *

“I'VE got a hairdresser's appointment!” She Who Knows exclaimed, bursting joyously into my quiet study at Edmonds Towers the other day.
It had been rare rainy weather during our usually sunny Lockdown, so we were both busy inside.
Now she could look forward to a professional makeover on her 'barnet', which has grown bounteously. (Though She Who's done a grand job home-coiffuring – while saving money too!)
My feeble locks have also grown, but more like fluff down the back of my neck. Neither am I sure when the barber's here might open again, probably the same time as the pub opposite, Blackpool's oldest, the Saddle Inn.

Will they be the same though? Clearly not. My usual few words with the barber could be muted by face masks. As for the pub, or our other 'locals' here – the Number 10 Alehouse and Boar's Head – we should be keeping our recommended distance.
Must we order drinks via mobile phones? Oldies find them fiddly to operate, specially when wearing Covid rubber gloves. Sitting outside might be okay – or inside within metre-wide 'bubbles', but that sounds rather unsociable. Besides, you just know the weather will put a dampener upon us. It's called Sod's Law.
Gone are the old days when we shouted at the bar in our locals' code – “A chicken, a tiger and a couple of hamsters, luv!” (Translates as, a pint of Speckled Hen, one of Everards' Tiger and two Hamlet cigars.) Probably we mustn't say 'luv' either.
Neither should I joke with the barber if asked, “How do you want it?”, by answering, “Thicker would be nice!” The last time I tried that, a camp city hairdresser back-combed it and I looked like an ageing drag act. Sorry, that all sounds very un-PC too.
She Who Knows suggests a permanent face mask could be my 'new normal'.

* * *

IT was midsummer yesterday but our blackbird was still singing from dawn 'til dusk. He's also helped four fledglings grow and spread their wings from Edmonds Towers.
Nearby trees have spread and our garden flourished. We've also sparrows, blue-tits and a wren; even the robin stayed.
Then there's a curly beaked toucan, even a golden eagle – but they're plastic. Also in the menagerie are geese, ducks, a giant toad and red squirrel – all stone.
After ruthless spring-cleaning, She Who Knows is re-floating the economy by spending Sunak-style at the nearby (and dearest) garden centre. We boast a bountiful hanging basket and have potted our new annuals and re-homed bushes into giant pots – our Lavatera's recovering from manhandling by its roots.
There's a new trellis planter with yellow and pink roses; honeysuckle hanging with bluish-purple wisteria (artificial) round our new arch; then exotic crimson climbers (plastic) among our oleander.
I've arranged parasols and chairs (including the now terracotta-painted rocker) to catch the sun or avoid wind, depending on weather and time of day. We move position through afternoon from raised lawn (artificial) to sheltered patio.
It's like a South Sea Island paradise, this little corner of Eden; most pleasant to sit and read, or enjoy snacks, drinks, even ice-lollies.
Friends are doing the same. One former editor from this paper emailed to say, as they're now unable to visit National Trust gardens, his wife is busily turning their own into one.
When everyone's back working or at school, for the remaining summer we now less vulnerable 'oldies' can turn over a new leaf. As well as welcoming 'open' signs at restaurants, theatres and pubs, we'll admire each others' gardens.
Amid abundant nature, we can share afternoon teas and revive those nostalgic, sunny days of Lockdown. Then, as evening shadows gather, raise a toast to everyone enjoying life fully once more, safely together.

* * *

OH MAMMA! As this newspaper rightly said, it felt like the end of an era to hear at the weekend Blackpool's most popular Italian restaurant was up for sale.
Mamma's was an institution on Topping Street, the road regarded as the last frontier for locals before entering tourist-land central in the resort's nightlife.
Its cheering style and atmosphere seduced us away from the Yorkshire Fisheries up the road, with the creamiest of lasagne accompanied by carafes of romantic chianti and roses (plastic perhaps) upon gingham cloths over simple tables with an artfully maintained Italian-village feel.
Those ebullient Italian waiters also helped, of course, with their lively, dramatic manner, flattery and flirting; also the relaxing background music – and, naturally, those reasonable prices.
How often She Who Knows and I walked expectantly along its aromatic entrance corridor, where the owner received all-comers at his cashier command post.
From that dais he overlooked both the cosy bar come waiting area then also the spacious, split-level dining room. It worked like a treat, always buzzing but also reliable. Thinking of Mamma's reminded me of other nearby eateries we favoured over the years. Da Vinci, close by in King Street, regarded itself as a cut above other Italians, with its white linen tablecloths and murals of Venice and Florence.
“What competition?” its owner once asked me, bemoaning the rise of the pizzeria, “the others are all bread factories!”
She Who Knows and myself came to favour another Topping Street landmark, Casanova's, as it was usually less busy than Mamma's and genial owner Paulo flambéed us up tasty Crêpes Suzette for post-theatre suppers.
Paulo still has a home in Blackpool and is often seen strolling amiably through Great Marton, or crown-green bowling nearby. He used to draw the theatrical stars to his cosy ristorante, after their shows, and fondly remembers those good times.
So do we – and thank them all - Grazzie!

* * *

THE window cleaner looked impressed. “Off to play tennis?” he inquired, when I answered his knock and paid for our regular clean. I was wearing tell-tale shorts and sports top, plus he knew we'd been keen players – before 'lockdown'.

“Tried it myself, with a mate,” he told me, confessing, “Our squash club's closed, but we could crawl through a gap in the fence to a tennis court. Difficult game,” he acknowledged, shaking his head, “but I enjoyed it – going to make it my new thing!”
I encouraged him with a few veteran tips: watch the ball, move your feet and start your swing before it bounces; keep your head still and down, or up when serving and smashing. There are plenty more, but he'll enjoy learning.
Thankfully, we got out in the sunshine ourselves, now restrictions are being eased. At South Shore Lawn Tennis Club there was also the clunk of croquet balls and it was cheering to see newly mown grass courts proving popular. Our long dry spell has hardened the turf, though it is still springy underfoot, so providing better bounce while still being gentler on aged joints than unforgiving, man-made surfaces.
Usually, at this time of year, we'd be visiting Ilkley, where there's an excellent pro-tournament week in the build-up to Wimbledon. Those events are, of course, sadly lost in 2020 – like so much else – but we were happy to stay local and 'groove' our shots with a gentle practice.
We also took along chairs and drinks, to relax from time to time in the rural Marton Moss setting - while watching others build up a sweat. Soon we'll be doing the same at leafy Lytham, with its many grass and carpet courts – another favourite Fylde-coast amenity.
Why don't you come along? Soon even the club bars may open again!

* * *

ON my birthday last week, while considering breakfast, I was reminded of some bizarre early-morning feasts during an extraordinary holiday tour, almost 40 years ago to the day.
It was through China,which was just opening up following Mao’s death. We Westerners, a mix of tourists, business types and missionaries, were stared at as though from Outer Space.
All Chinese wore blue or green denim 'Mao suits' with rubber shoes. When daring to approach us, they would closely study our leather-ware, clothing and touch our lighter hair.
The most memorable experiences came in Shanghai. In 1980 there was little high-rise redevelopment and the town-centre, or Bund, and Yangtze reminded me of Manchester and the Mersey. The crowds were huge and their friendliness humbling, specially as our Soviet-style hotel was by the city's former British park - once bearing that infamous sign, 'No dogs or Chinese'.
Our hotel, however, didn't know what to give us for breakfast, when Chinese simply ate rice porridge. Imagine our surprise, on the first morning, when silver platters revealed sausage, mash and gravy. Very tasty, even at 8am! Next morning our anticipation for more surprises wasn't disappointed – with a platter of jam and cream cakes to start the day.
But our evening out in Shanghai sticks most in my mind. Our tour bus motored to the opera house along unlit roads packed with night-shift cyclists. Then we were directed through a separate entrance and upstairs to emerge on the dress circle.
The orchestra was warming up for a classical concert but halted as we took our seats. Everyone turned and stared at us. Then the conductor struck up his musicians – to play Roll Out The Barrel, Pack Up Your Troubles and other wartime British hits, which we were encouraged to sing along to loudly, then enthusiastically applauded.
What a hearty welcome! It's uplifting to remember - even in today's changed world.

* * *

IT'S my birthday today but this column was written before then. At the time, I'd been glancing over BBC's internet news on a sunny morning hoping for something uplifting - and there it was!
Old soldier Captain Tom was getting a knighthood. That seemed a trifle sentimental at first. However, the cheerful centenarian raised more than £32million for NHS charity and boosted our nation's spirits.
PM Boris nominated the honour and described honorary colonel and now Captain Sir Thomas Moore as, “A beacon of light in the fog of coronavirus.”
Reading this in our Great Marton lockdown bunker, I brought a cuppa to She Who Knows and said cheerily, “There's some good news at last!”
After hearing what it was, she complained, “Oh, I thought you were going to say, 'Hairdressers are being allowed to open'.”
I praised her home coiffuring and longer hair, to reassure her, then wandered off to think of others be-knighted. Lots of us may consider certain pop singers and relatively young sports stars haven't really earned that high honour, just doing what they get well paid for. Sir Cliff, of course, is an exception - being another 'beacon' and national treasure.
Then I remembered the 1967 news footage of ageing, round-the-world sailor Francis Chichester, staggering up Greenwich harbour steps from tiny Gypsy Moth. He was knighted with a sword there by Her Majesty, before cheering crowds. That made us proud!
Back to my birthday and there's still no news of even modest personal honours for moi, despite these upbeat despatches every week and a shelf-full of inspiring books too! Still, I'm not down-hearted; who knows, in another decade or two?
Meanwhile, I'll remain a beacon for family and friends and, of course, you dear readers.
Let's just hope our meeting places will be safe to re-open soon, so we can all spread some cheer there too!

* * *

THE strange quiet of Covid life reminds me of walking down Fleet Street, years ago, then turning into sheltered cloisters of the Inns of Court; stepping from noise and congestion into landscaped peace and birdsong.
Back then, No.10 Downing Street wasn't the gated fortress where today's Coronavirus briefings are televised. (Notice, too, how their carpet looks like the virus, with clusters of red balls sprouting blue spikes!)
Experts there field questions and repeatedly use today's buzz phrase “going forward”. One adviser used it twice in one sentence of his uncertain assurances. The persistent media questioning and criticism can seem equally trying, when we're all much in the dark, struggling on for the best.
Of course, sadly the consequences have been tragic and ruinous for many - but also unifying. Now we're more hopeful and can see some light ahead.

In some ways, it'll seem a shame for roads to be packed with cars and less wildlife abounding. Even the sky has been clearer at night and bluer during the day while, of course, making the air we breathe healthier. Perhaps we can recover down a Greener route.
Let's hope, too, our over-stretched hospitals, care homes and valiant staff get the best possible support in future – as many of us will need them again.
Going forward, I might impishly suggest reversing recent well-meaning but clearly ageist rules, by limiting gatherings for all aged under 70. Give our restless young an hour's brisk exercise daily or to shop for necessities, other than fashion, electronics or drugs.
After all, those below retirement age should be working longer and harder, to get our poor country – and pension investments – back on track.
Such a healthy regime would be beneficial for both them and their young families so, going forward, they can all reach retirement age themselves . . .
Then do just what they fancy!

* * *

BELIEVE it or not, there have been some extremely exciting times during our long 'Lockdown', here in Great Marton.
I've narrowly evaded ruthless enemy agents, while journeying across Europe from exotic Istanbul; then I escaped from a sex-maniac wife deep in Australia's roasting Outback, while later enjoying the high - and low - life of Hollywood's heyday.
This was all, of course, through reading, both more widely and adventurously (after gardening, spring-cleaning and DIY duties).
The Hollywood scenes came from 'The Ragman's Son', a full-on, bravely revealing but also amusing autobiography by Kirk Douglas.
It was detective-mystery author Peter Robinson (in one of his books) who helped me discover '40s thriller writer Eric Ambler, whom I've just finished two excellent books by. Then She Who Knows put me on to more recent author Douglas Kennedy (Outback odyssey in 'The Dead Heart').
Ambler (who wrote screenplay for 'The Cruel Sea') was a Londoner, while Kennedy is an American but also a well-travelled Anglophile. However, my most regular reads have come from Peter Robinson (DCI Banks series) and, a recent discovery, Roger Silverwood (Yorkshire murder mysteries). They're both based in Yorkshire but, at least, the TV version of DCI Banks is Lytham-born actor Stephen Tompkinson.
I'm trying to redress this Pennines imbalance by my own handsome but dangerous, Fylde-based investigator of murder and mystery Sam Stone (seventh book on the way). Just published though, is another novel of mine on Kindle and in paperback, about a St Annes bookseller ensnared in sensational global affairs – and risky romance.
What's the title, I hear you demand! It's 'The Lost Hero' and could help you find your own hero in these troubled times. In a period when we all look deeper into ourselves than usual, it's beneficial to share fictional drama, romance and adventure, while also 'staying safe' at home.
Happy reading to you all!

* * *

AH, the darling buds of May and my birthday month – although not so merry with our continuing lockdown. But we're still here and okay, so let's not mope!
I'm writing this in my de-cluttered 'study', our over-flow back bedroom. It's the morning of – well, in Covid-times it doesn't matter but at least the sun's shining.
This week is our eighth in lockdown and, as it's not my weekly shop round the corner at Tesco Express, I'll share 'a day in the life of' myself and She Who Knows.
Great thing about working from home is I can write on a laptop upstairs wearing pyjamas and dressing gown then, around 9.30am-ish, nip back into bed with She Who and our breakfast tray of toast (or rolls or hot-cross buns), marmalade (occasionally peanut butter) and tea.
Afterwards I return to writing, broken by mid-morning exercises to uplifting music, and She Who Knows to her hallowed Daily Mail. After elevenses' biscuits, lunch-times edge towards 1.30pm: with a sandwich or 'some-ut on toast', often eggs, then a cake slice “just to change the taste”, as She Who says.
Afternoons are spent sitting in the garden after any remaining spring-cleaning indoors and assuming it's clement. Our spruced-up garden's flowering with bluebells and poppies (plus a few dandelions for further 'colour'), but patio pots and wall-hangers remain empty of annuals - still yet to emerge in-store.
I'm reading the inspiring life story of Kirk Douglas, 'The Ragman's Son'; while She Who Knows is into her fourth Douglas Kennedy novel.
After mid-afternoon iced lollies, my 'beer o'clock' is 4.30, with a pint of canned Speckled Hen. Then She Who Knows takes charge of the kitchen and, also now inside, I pour the first red wine – then it's Talking Pictures on telly.
Well, it gets us by . . . cheers to you all!

* * *

MANY readers will recall mentions here of my mother-in-law Wynne. Sadly she has passed away from pneumonia but, mercifully, while asleep in the care of family.
To me, Wynne Booker was also an interesting older friend who, though 96, remained bright. “How are you?” I'd ask, entering her home for a wide-ranging afternoon chat.
“Awful,” Wynne would confess but add, “Still, I mustn't be a moaning Minnie,” then she'd smile and inquire, “Is it too early, do you think, for a glass of wine?”
If I complimented her appearance, she'd wryly respond, “Thank you, dear, it just takes longer these days.”
Wynne worked in banking then local government; she brought up two lovely daughters and then travelled widely with her late husband, a gifted musician. While Jack tinkled the ivories, Wynne was social hostess for premier cruise ships and hotels round the world.
Her mind remained sharp and she was supportive, with shrewd observations on my books (she wrote an award-winning TV play herself). Above all, she was fun! Even at bridge she injected humour, to the relief of an inexperienced partner (me).
If reminiscing upon her colourful travels, Wynne rarely name-dropped but might recall remote places where she and Jack motored out to and then picnicked. It gave a charming picture of happy years in a quieter world, although she still took an intense interest in today's events.
Wynne always proudly championed her adopted home of Blackpool. She supported its Grand Theatre, nearby Stanley Park and helped conserve the resort's history.
Sadly, under emergency laws and health guidelines, there cannot be the send-off Wynne deserved; no packed funeral nor service, not even condolence cards - please.
(Ironically, Wynne was often anxious about funeral arrangements and pressures they'd place on her daughters, so perhaps might not have minded so much. She even considered leaving her body to medical science, but found that was more complicated than you'd expect.)
Family and friends will celebrate her 'long life well lived' at a later date.
For now, we raise a glass at home, salute Wynne and pray she rests in peace - although, more likely, she's making sweet music with long-missed Jack.

* * *

LOTS of time to ponder these days, while contemplating spring-cleaning, weeding or painting garden furniture in the sunshine, or later while sipping a pint of Speckled Hen.
By then I'm usually sat opposite our little 'shed', once also my wine/beer 'cellar' but currently full of implements and cushions for our now much-used cottage-style garden. (I only tend to drink red wine these days, so that's better kept in our dining-room rack; while She Who Knows likes her rosé fridge-chilled.)
Anyway, there's a small hole in the bottom of my shed door and quite a story to that . . . as you're going nowhere.
Ages ago it was used (and probably gnawed) by a vole, which I enjoyed watching run out for titbits and even climb a bird feeder as tall to it as Blackpool Tower to us.
But then, to my horror, the vole morphed into a rodent of several inches length – quite alarming, specially if seen by She Who!
I learned it was, hopefully, a fully fledged field mouse, then managed to trap it – humanely – and 'rehome' the rascal in neighbouring wasteland, a suitable distance away.
That was months ago. However now, during this long virus-shutdown, I've spotted something else using the hole – bumble bees.
Yes, it seems we may have a nest somewhere in there. Still, I read that this should make us feel lucky rather than anxious. Apparently, bees don't swarm. In fact, most are males without a sting and the nest is abandoned after a few months.
So, She Who reluctantly agreed, it's staying for now. Our first inclination had been to disinfect then block up hole. However, I'm learning to respect the natural world and our place in it, as I now observe, consider and learn.
What's more, if everyone did that, then I doubt we'd be in this fearful mess!

* * *

DURING 'shutdown' in our Blackpool bunker, there's plenty of time to mull over life and our current affair – for there's only one in the news. It's interesting how diverse nations handle this dire dilemma, but their leaders only reflect their history and culture.
It made me think through our prime ministers. I've lived under perhaps a dozen but only a handful made a lasting impression.
The first was Winston Churchill, old warrior seen on black and white telly through the eyes of a child: bald, bent codger in dressing gown on his birthday, smoking a cigar – extraordinary!
Next 'great man' was peaceful Harold Macmillan, dignified and calm. In a crisis he might raise a thick, grey eyebrow but, most likely, be going to the races. What reassuring style and aplomb.
But this isn't party politics, just those I instinctively trusted, admired or, at least, rather liked.
The next coming to mind would be Harold Wilson, canny Yorkshireman smoking pipe (although really preferring cigars). As my Labour-voting father observed, “You can knock him down but he just bounces up again!”
More recently, I'd warm to John Major who seemed more 'ordinary' and intrinsically decent, though probably - being from a circus family - used to turning somersaults and quite different to how he appeared. At least he didn't step from a privileged background or Oxbridge brains trust. We could relate to him.
Of course, events may make a disaster of the best, well-meaning men, or women. Mrs Thatcher appeared soundly sensible at first but that hairstyle and manner warned of unshakeable sternness to come. I'd probably not get along with any of them, even those admired.
Much to my surprise, if pressed to pick one as temporary companion, my vote would be for boisterous Boris. He's got some bounce! May his salvation prove to be our own.

* * *

LAST week I compared our present social 'shutdown' with the far worse war years of our forebears, which reminded me of boyhood days. Although a child of the post-war 1950s, there was still rationing, bomb-sites and a stronger sense of community than now. I'd like to share some vague, very early memories before even school years.
We moved into a new council house, in Valley Road, Flixton, nowadays part of Trafford but then a leafy suburb of Manchester. I can't remember where our family – Mum, Dad, older brother Mike and little me – had been before, but somewhere rented and problematic I think. My mother was excited about the new house's modern conveniences and heating, with gardens front and back.
It was the back garden I remember, since to me it was very long and stretched down to fencing then fields, beyond which was the mighty Manchester Ship Canal no less. Huge ships from all around the world sailed sedately and magnificently along it, towering over our gardens, displaying their different flags. They were so close the diverse crew on deck would wave back to me where I stood staring from the garden.
At night and in the regular fogs we had then, I would hear their funnel hoots from my bedroom, especially at New Year when I was awoken at midnight by their celebratory tooting. It made me feel that all the world was close and friendly. I still do, for the most part.
We were there only a couple of years before taking over grandmother's house in nearby Urmston – which we all loved. But when, many years later, I returned to Valley Road it stunned me that its green where I'd played was so small and the ship canal deserted.
Still, those plaintive hoots and kindly waves stay with me, sustaining hope and faith in our future. 

(All the best to you on this eerily quiet yet poignant Good Friday.)

* * *

WE'RE all going through a historic disaster which has shaken our domestic, social and working lives to the core. Yet, there have been much worse in living memory, so let's not panic or over-dramatise.
Our grandparents and, in many cases, parents faced going to war, not just staying at home; also it was for years rather than, as we fear, months. They, too, queued for food but for far longer in terms of numbers and time, with rationing going beyond war years. No, they didn't have to 'social distance', but they had the nightly blackout we can scarcely imagine. Also, those staying at home were bombed!
Let's hope our shared dilemma creates a similar sense of communal unity, responsibility and awareness. That, certainly, wouldn't do us any harm and goes for nations too.
Even after the war, my own parents didn't get out at night much for almost 20 years. After feeding and clothing us children they didn't have any money. By comparison, we post-war generations have enjoyed charmed lives. There is time on our hands now to ponder that and be grateful.
I also felt historic upon hearing Manchester Central, formerly G-Mex, was to be a coronavirus hospital, remembering it still earlier when a rail station. From Urmston I commuted daily to the city in a packed guard's van. Still earlier, I remember steam trains filling the vaulted, glazed roof with their clouds, the noise, the excitement . . then there was the music.
As a teen I saw greats such as Count Basie, Simon & Garfunkle and Bob Dylan at the neighbouring Free Trade Hall. Afterwards came a pint at Cox's Bar, opposite Central, much used by railway workers and the Hallé Orchestra in work intervals. There was also a mynah bird there which mimicked patrons' calls.
“Keep your peckers up!” I hear it now caw.

* * *

AS the dark cloud of pandemic remains over us all, at least our weather has improved. The sun is shining and British summertime arrives.
Edmonds Towers is getting a gradual (very) spring clean; so is its garden, where we've hoisted our summer parasol like a gallant flag. I even saw our ivy-hedge robin again, always a good omen.
There's been hardship for all with this dramatic, even disastrous change in daily lives. She Who Knows was suffering an arthritis flare-up and so very vulnerable. Fortunately her trusty, old retainer (me) remains in reasonable health, thanks to a homely diet, in-house exercise and drinking less since nearby pubs closed.
Apart from my grocery shopping we've stayed at home, while sending best wishes to indomitable mother-in-law Wynne, recovering from pneumonia in a respite centre.
'Social distancing' needn't mean being out of touch with everyone. Social media helps, plus phone calls and notes, even occasional chats to neighbours over fences. Most importantly, we needn't be distanced spiritually. This is a time to unite us, perhaps rediscovering what's at the heart of our lives.
I've been reading more and enjoyed a poem which advocated remembering all our good things in the day, as we go to sleep at night – so as to hold on to and awaken to them. In my case this would be watching someone loved at last recovering from ill health; but also smaller triumphs, like seeing the garden, or a corner of our home, looking more cared for after a tidy up.
Then there's the joy of reading others' stories, biography or fiction - which isn't just 'made up', by the way. Instead these come from another's experience, thoughts and sentiments, bringing us all closer together – across the world and even through time.
All these good things remind us we're fortunate and never truly alone.

* * *

DON'T despair, it was the first day of spring on Friday (March 20); the season of fresh beginnings. Even our weather now feels like spring!
Yes, these are worrying times; some are panicking, adding to shortages, and most of us have fears or concerns. That's only natural but let's hold on to common sense and keep the faith.
When illness is about, it's sensible to avoid crowds and, as always, keep ourselves clean, while helping others and being good neighbours. For those lucky enough to be retired, it makes sense, too, not to swell crowds. Let those who still must work get around at busy commuting times.
For what better season to be at home, in your garden in spring sunshine? As the poet said, 'We're nearer God's heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.' 
Nature holds the key to our health and happiness; the food we eat; the way we live, how we treat ourselves. Mankind has advanced dramatically, life is easier and better for most, but we must respect that balance with the natural world around us - or pay a terrible price. What we sow we reap, it was said, and that goes for planting too.

I read in a magazine that the 20,000 leaves of a mature oak release enough oxygen into our atmosphere for the needs of half a dozen people. Trees also lessen storm disasters, preventing ground saturation. A large tree can suck up 500 litres of water a day, through roots to leaves, enriching and binding the soil while drying land and offsetting floods.
Reforestation in the Sahara has apparently rehabilitated five million hectares of desert, now producing 500,000 tons of food a year. There's nature at work for you; also offering shelter, shade, sweet fruits and lifting our spirits too! With the end of winter our blossoming trees are a sign of hope.
The good book had another tip for us too, as told to that multitude on the mount: 'Think not of tomorrow, for tomorrow shall bring thoughts for all its own things.' We must be patient.

* * *

AT the weekend we took a short drive to the theatre and a long ride back in time.
We were visiting the Lowther at Lytham. (Please, don't change this cosy theatre, we love it as it is - and the café!)
Again it was packed, with a mostly grey-haired audience but also exuberant younger 'uns. (Must they stand up, wave phones and whoop?) We were happy sitting, after toasted meal and with plastic wine glass in hand, to relive 'The Magic of Motown'.
Standing In The Shadows Of Love, Tears Of A Clown, Dancing In The Street, The Grapevine, Baby Love . . . it was all there from this tribute band.
Those dance rhythms, sexy voices and romantic songs had haunted our teens, with things we knew little about but desperately fancied trying. Drop us in real 1960s down-town Detroit and we'd have run a mile!
Instead we had played those hit singles on record players in suburban-home bedrooms; wearing waisted shirts and flared trousers, while practising dance moves. Come weekend, I'd splash on my Brut body lotion (and still do) then, with an equally spruced-up mate, catch a bus into town.
There we'd join the 'cattle market' of males, standing by a dance-floor trying to look 'cool', watching mini-skirted girls gyrate round their handbags - studiously ignoring us.
When we finally built up courage to ask for a dance they'd politely oblige, shrugging at our shouted jokes and questions drowned by disco music. Then, with a discreet nod to their friend, they'd tell us, “Thank you,” and depart. (Most of us met eventual girlfriends at work, or local youth clubs.)
At the Lowther we relived those wistful days. How thrilling it all seemed! Still, the party's not over yet. Tonight 'Tina Turner' is there. We'll be pushing back the city limits of Nutbush - wherever that was!

* * *

THERE'S a spring in my step, lifted by our emergence from what seems the warmest winter yet. Yes, I know we've had gales, sleet and, for many unfortunates, desperate flooding, but I've barely got to wear my chunkier sweaters, let alone heavy boots.
Being retired, except for this column and occasional books, I was hoping for snow – always delightfully picturesque, when you don't have to work! Oh to sit, warm drink to hand, watching a plucky robin in your Christmas-scene garden.
Still, I'll settle for the bright show of daffodils, tulips and crocuses which now abound. Sunshine also eases geriatric aches which worsen in cold. Summer sports may be a while off, but I keep the fight for fitness with tai-chi stretches and physio routines against arthritis.
One book on the way is a look at life after 70. In dark humour it's entitled 'Borrowed Times'. But, thankfully, we're now pushing back those allotted biblical boundaries of three score years and 10. As I write this I'm in a tracksuit after a brisk walk, while my personal health adviser – She Who Knows – is at her yoga class. Later we're heading out to an afternoon dance . . . yes, it's all go, here at Edmonds Towers!
In my head, you see, I'm barely past 40. It's just those caring comments from others which can surprise and unsettle me.
“Would you like my seat?” offered a polite schoolgirl on a bus the other day. I obliged, simply to encourage her good manners.
Similarly, my dentist always asks nowadays if my medication has changed . (No, I don't take any!) Then they solicitously inquire if it's all right to slowly lower the chair backwards worried, no doubt, I'll get a dizzy spell . . .
They mean well, of course, but don't they know - I'm still a youngster at heart!

* * *

 Meet another colourful personality from Blackpool, jovial barmaid Jess . . .

FANCY a lively night out? Perhaps some city 'gig' appeals, or trendy Lytham wine bars, even a wild revel round Blackpool's clubland?
I asked the barmaid at Blackpool's award-winning micro-pub, the Number 10 Ale House, where she went for an adventurous evening out.
Jess flashed her eyelashes in shock, then said, “Where else, South Shore of course!”
The lively blonde adores its diverse entertainment spots, while also a loyal patron of local beauty and tattoo parlours.
How times change! When I returned to Blackpool in the 80s, the Gazette accommodated me above a Bond Street newsagent's. Unfortunately, it was after the season finished and most of South Shore closed - for the locals' own holidays in Spain. My first night in this then run-down area, I visited a pub in York Street. It was aptly named The Gauntlet, now also closed, but after a tired pie I left immediately - when a fight broke out.
More recently, we've enjoyed restaurants and café bars around Highfield Road, but Jess can't get enough of South Shore's bright lights. She exudes the holiday-coast spirit and believes in having fun.
“Forget 'Dry January',” she encouraged a moping customer last month. “it's too cold and miserable as it is! New year resolutions are better left 'til later.”
Thankfully, her appetite for life shows no sign of flagging. “I enjoyed a bacon barm for lunch” she confessed the other day, “but fancied a cake to finish. Unfortunately, they only had family-sized. Still, I only ate half of it.”
May kindly Jess long enjoy having her cake and eating it. With an all-year tan and matching sunny disposition, ready smile and vivacious style, she's a cheery champion for this holiday coast.
What's more, have you heard which town offers the freshest air in England? Yes, it's official - South Shore, of course.

* * *

This week's column in The Gazette was pulled just before publication to make way for an interesting 'vox pop' of public views on new attractions to our diverse holiday coast. I'd written about a popular barmaid at a local hostelry, here in Great Marton, who always supported her own district of Blackpool and the Fylde, as Lancashire's Irish Sea coast is named. Anyway, that or similar might appear in next week's paper. In the meantime, it inspired me to write about the coast we both love.

WHEN I first came to Blackpool, back in the late 1970s, I thought it all like outsiders see it - a brash, seven-mile stretch of seaside entertainments, some as saucy as those old seaside postcards, all 'close to the knuckle' so to speak and also quick to grab your hard-earned money.
Soon I learned all of its districts and neighbouring towns were very different, although many of these became wealthy off Blackpool's plump, fun-loving back. In those days, there was fishing town Fleetwood; sleepy shrimping port Lytham; sedate St. Annes and in-between suburbs like Ansdell, Fairhaven, Thornton and busy Cleveleys - all with their special charm and market towns and villages in the rolling countryside.
What more could you ask for, with the Lakes on your doorstep too? Many couldn't believe it when I later chose to return, then marry and stay here, after living first in London, then Hong Kong and later Sydney.
I couldn't forget that first surprise drive to work at the Gazette, then sited just in the shadow of Blackpool's famous Tower, and seeing a line of elephants trunk-to-tail crossing the Promenade dual carriageway and tram tracks to go on the beach. You were closer to the wildlife than in Africa! They were from the Tower Circus and if you walked behind the Tower in Bank Hey Street you could have been in Rome, ancient Rome that is. The intensely acrid smell of lion urine came up from the cages below, rather as they must have in the old Coliseum to worried Christians.
Everyone who was anyone came to Blackpool and, even away from the Prom or 'Golden Mile' of seaside entertainment and attractions, there is still the same alluring mix of stardust, sawdust and, of course, sand. It always attracted a great diversity of characters to live here, too. I touched upon all this in my humorous memoir 'Bright Lights & Pig Rustling', then in the popular 'Sam Stone investigates' series of thrillers.
Personally, I enjoy the coast's oldest district of Great Marton, where we have some of the oldest and newest hostelries and, still, a lively village atmosphere. I tried to express that in a Victorian period mystery entitled '50 Shades of Bass', while also capturing some of its characters in my dedication to my 'local' and Blackpool's oldest pub in 'Saddle Up!'.
But at our newest hostelry in Great Marton, the Number 10 Ale House micro-pub, barmaid Jess is a champion of Blackpool's South Shore district. This area has all the old seaside sauciness, just like Jess herself. But with her extravagent eyelashes, all-year-round tan, stunning blonde hair and vivacious personality, she also reflects it latest bright lights too.
And, what's more important, like most of us here on this friendly coast, she's a fun-loving person with as big an appetite for life as she has for cakes. Jess does have her cake - and eats it!
Hopefully, you'll hear more about South Shore's blonde bombshell in next week's Gazette column.

* * *

February might still be very chilly, and stormy here, but Valentine's Day adds a warming touch . . . 

COME on, you romantics, it's Valentine's Day! That's a date all women should enjoy and She Who Knows (“I'm only a girl,” she says) is no exception.
Back on our first Valentine's evening together, many years ago but still fondly remembered, I was impressed by a whole row of cards she had on display. Only later did I learn these had been saved over years - then put out to keep me keen.
Today we still exchange cards and keep them, too, often putting them up on display again to cheer up these grey winter months. There will also be chocolates and roses – from me to her, of course.
Rightly, these days, every effort is made for equal rights to the sexes. However, that doesn't mean we're just the same. Vive la différence, I say.
Busy young mums or any lady (and I use the term deliberately) appreciate being treated, well, like a lady. Also, what warm-blooded male doesn't get a buzz out of showing some chivalry in that direction?
The other day I was just fixing new light-bulbs for my aged mother-in-law and basked in the glow of her heartfelt thanks. What's more, I complimented her on some tartan slacks she was wearing and she simpered like a flattered, young thing.
'Manners makyth man' was my school motto, while some harmless flirting also helps the world go round.
Incidentally, we don't tend to go out for meals now on Valentine's – I take on the job myself. These days my dinner suit is a bit too tight to wear but, then, it is only the two of us dining.
What's the meal? Well, you can't beat that old, winning recipe to cheer the heart: prawn cocktail, fillet steak (with rich sauce) and something darkly delicious and sweet to follow . . . with some bubbly, of course, to add that sparkle!

* * *

WE'VE been reminiscing and might go back to playing squash,” one of two old pals informed me over drinks at the weekend. “We've got the gear, I just need shorts,” he added, “36 inch waist.”
Even lads earwigging on the next table laughed. He might wear that size trousers, under his paunch, but his waist past 36 the same year he had.
Still, they were trying to get fitter. I advised against a slow 'yellow-spot' ball, as they'd get knackered just warming up. A beginners' blue, or a red one were preferable.
I hadn't played since pulling a leg muscle for the umpteenth time in my 30s. “Don't tell me,” my GP said wryly back then, after hearing it was sustained at the squash club (the Breck, Poulton), “they rang last orders and you got off your barstool too quickly!”
He added, “My surgery's full of old squash players.”
Yet it was at that club I witnessed our dynamic coach (Stuart Baron, I think) thrashed in a match by a portly, elderly Indian. Stuart had to lie down afterwards, while his veteran opponent just strolled to the bar.
My favourite ageing squash-man tale comes from the flight to Hong Kong when going there to work in the 80s. A group of players had boarded, storing racquets above their heads. One seemed familiar so, when going to the loo, I halted and asked, “'Scuse me, but aren't you Phil Kenyon?” (An upcoming Blackpool star I'd watched days before.)
“No,” said the grinning chap, though his wife looked daggers at me, “but I know him, how do you know Phil?”
We chatted then, before leaving, I asked, “Sorry, what is your name anyway?”
“Jonah Barrington,” he said.
The six-time world champion (pictured above) saw my embarrassment and kindly added, “Thanks, anyway, Phil's years younger than me.”

* * *

OUR meals and nights out have changed gradually since retirement. It's isn't just being on a fixed income. We have more time for cooking at home and to enjoy different activities during daylight hours.
Neither do we still seek fashionable places but, rather, somewhere relaxing to spend longer over a meal, drinks or just chatting and reading.
January and February are notoriously 'quiet' for pubs and restaurants, as many people are hard up and the weather uninviting. However, I use the word 'quiet' meaning numbers - but not necessarily noise. Now that many dining places are less crowded there's even more room within them to run amok, for rampaging children.
Last weekend I was savouring an afternoon beer or two with pals inside our cricket club, when our ears and nerves were assaulted by a barrage of excited shrieking from tiny but healthy lungs. We couldn't hear ourselves think and stared at the offending family in reproach, as did others until then enjoying a pleasant meal overlooking the surrounding greenery. The parents, however, seemed completely unaware and clearly indifferent to this high-decibel mayhem.
It used to be heavy smokers or drunks we avoided when dining out previously; now it's uncontrolled children. Complain and you are met with disbelief, contempt or even abuse – from those selfish parents.
“Couldn't you possibly put a dummy in their mouth?” we appealed to one such mother, when our special evening at a favourite restaurant was ruined by screaming.
“He's only a baby!” (he wasn't) she protested, looking outraged. But isn't that just the time to start behaviour training?
Of course, the real dummies are these anti-social 'grown-ups'. I'm afraid they deserve all the unruly disruption and chaos they're nurturing, which will blight their family lives for years to come.
However, please, allow the rest of us some peace and consideration!

* * *

It used to hearten me to see savings grow but today we're lucky to have any . . .

I RECEIVED a letter from my bank the other day. No, it wasn't a dire warning. We manage to keep out of penury, thank God.
Not that the banks mind you getting behind these days; they actively encourage us into debt – for the fat fees on overdrafts. My wife was even asked, down at the branch before it closed, if she fancied a mortgage. It had taken a lifetime to get rid of the last one!

No, this note was on friendly, first-name terms - to inform me our humble savings account was to have its interest rate 'reduced'. I didn't think it could get smaller, without disappearing! This was, apparently, in line with what other banks were doing.
When I checked details, our interest was being halved – from a poultry 0.20% to a risible 0.10%. Looking over the ('non-payment') accounts listed, only one approached a full 1% and had to have £50,000 invested.
We're with the NatWest. I'm glad they've dropped the 'caring bank' title after closing their busy, well staffed branches. But they're all the same, it seems. They want us to pay monthly fees for keeping our money and making profits from it.
Older readers and savers might recall those fulfilling days of 5% on such sensible saving; then tax-friendly ISAs. Interest rates even rose once to 15% when, unfortunately, our mortgages were hammered.
I even fondly remember my first account, at our friendly Trustees Savings Bank, when proudly taking in my piggy bank as a child.
Perhaps reliably run community credit unions are the answer, to help struggling families get by safely. Otherwise, the young are encouraged to borrow, borrow, borrow . . .
It sounds like that first big Pools winner, who was going to “spend, spend, spend”. She ended up tragically, as I recall.

* * *

This week found us in Great Marton all of a twitter . . .

THE big fella, with the long hair and beard, looked like he'd just strode out of the Coen Brothers' remake of True Grit. He ambled into the Number 10 Ale House bar on Whitegate Drive and sidled up to me, his glinting eyes never deviating from mine.
“I've been counting the score,” he muttered, with a deadly calculating look as he towered over me, where I rested against a welcome warm radiator beside the bar. “There were at least 20 goldfinches in my garden, on a special fat-ball I've hung up there.”

“Good heavens!” I exclaimed. “We've only had one in mine. Mind you, I reckon it was a bullfinch; beautiful thing, dazzling blue, black and red.”
The others nearby, Colin the barman – always an avid bird fancier; owner genial George and the manager dashing David, as fast moving as his vapour trail, all looked impressed.
“Glad to see my first robins,” said Irish Tom, bristling into the conversation.
Yes, we men were discussing garden birds.
“You know,” I said to Big Mick, the one with those finches, “when I retired from the Gazette, the first thing I did was get a book on birds and another on trees.” (In fact, the first thing really was to enjoy some Draught Bass at the nearby Saddle Inn, Great Marton, Blackpool's oldest inn).
“We put out a smorgasbord of bird treats, but my neighbour gets flocks of starlings,” Mick told us. “He's got Rowan berries they adore.” His eyes narrowed. “My cats just love it!”
Yes, folks, raw nature's still an amazing and exciting thing, even among us macho northern men. It's vital to get the youngsters interested too!
The important thing is keeping the wild in our west, on this beautiful coast of ours.

* * *

We didn't exactly whoop it up at New Year but it was a fine time. Now life returns to more normal it's worth remembering that mood.

THE festive period just past drew me to our C. of E. church. All was warm and friendly and it was good to see hymns included old favourites Hills Of The North Rejoice and Hark The Herald Angels Sing, or so I thought at first.
In fact, Herald Angels turned out to be another, less hearty hymn most people didn't know and only murmured beneath the choir's soaring tones. Even worse, old school favourite Hills of the North seemed slower and less rousing. Had I remembered it wrongly? Then I spotted a note in the new-style hymn book – it had been 'amended'.
On a TV carols service later, Hark The Herald Angels was sung – but slowed, too, and altered to be 'more inclusive'. Strange that, I always thought the church did welcome all!
Was this the same kill-joy revision trying to ban the triumphal singing of Jerusalem and Land Of Hope And Glory on the Last Night Of The Proms? Fortunately, the hearty audiences still insist upon them.
Even the Lord's Prayer is revised, though I still chant the traditional version which has sinners 'trespassing' and 'power and glory for ever and ever'.
The heart of the matter is that, despite all our feasting and celebrating, true joy springs from within; not from amended hymns or new-style prayers either. Let's continue to sing out loudly for that spiritual gleefulness which makes us glad to be alive.
Such fulfilment doesn't depend upon owning more things; nor by being at the top of the pile; not even from such pleasures as eating or drinking; but upon our soul.
I'm not one to preach but, throughout this uncertain New Year, let's remember what really counts and keep our mood bright. Goodwill needn't end with the season, let's share that sentiment right through!

* * *

Tis the season of goodwill . . . let's share those sentiments still!

IT'S the thought that counts, they say. In the case of gifts, however, that isn't true if foolishly leaving on a lowly price tag.
Over past days we've been appreciating what Santa brought last week, while savouring a stay-at-home New Year celebration.
Thankfully, Christmas morning broke happily at Edmonds Towers. She Who Knows and myself unwrapped gifts over breakfast in bed. We also like to open one present each on Christmas Eve – which was when the problem arose . . .
“You bought me a book costing just £2!” she accused me, quite wrongly as it turned out. That price label I'd overlooked, even though on its front cover, actually read, '£2 off'. It cost me a lot more than that.
Still, it took us back to a distant birthday when I procured her a fur-lined, suede jacket – from a charity shop.
I've perked up my act since then so, this year, felt unfairly accused over that book. Still, her other presents from me – fancy (expensive) cream, special (luxury) chocolates and cosy (embroidered) slippers then, ahem, a diamond necklace, left her joyful and, eventually, honest with me too.
“Actually,” she coyly admitted, after I'd opened many thoughtful gifts – books on poetry, cricket and grammar – plus classy wine, along with some manly cosmetics to repair over-indulgence, “that cosy woollen hat I got you, which you like so much, was from Poundstretchers.”
So, never mind a so-called £2 book, she'd spent only half of that on one of my prezzies!
Still, after a slap-up steak meal cooked, for once, by me on New Year's Eve, yesterday we were out and about and able to laugh it all off . . .
Both her £2 discounted book and, sported proudly and widely admired, my even cheaper woolly cap.

* * *

 Boxing Day, as we call the day after Christmas here in UK, brought some touching memories and grateful thoughts . . .

BOXING Day in Victorian times was when toffs 'boxed up' a hamper of festive goodies for servants who'd worked hard to make their employers' Christmas Day jolly.
Nowadays it's more about the family getting out and working off Christmas calories with a walk, or to watch sport in the fresh air (and on big screens at the pub).
Back in the 50s and 60s, when I was growing up, it was a dull, non-event sort of day when nothing happened and everywhere was shut. All you had to look forward to was cold turkey and chips - delicious too!
But then there was my Uncle Fred and Aunty Daisy. They had no kids and lived in rural Glazebrook, where father grew up. So, we went there and doting Daisy hid gifts all over their big house for us boys to find with clues.
It was great, though Fred was rather old-fashioned and disapproved of us lads having festive shandies, as Dad suggested. He also caught me smoking an old cigar I found behind their piano, which made me sick. However, when I trapped my hand in a train door before returning to Manchester, stuffy Fred seemed very concerned.
Then we grew into our teens and our elderly Gran came to stay with us, though we had less space than other relatives. Also, Daisy died - so we didn't visit so much. However, when Fred too passed on he surprised the whole family – who'd gathered for his considerable spoils.
Fred had left the lot to my parents – for kindly taking in Gran when others wouldn't. It was a case of kindness returned and also allowed my hard-working Dad to finally retire.
So, that's what Boxing Day still means to me – a time to be thankful, for kindness and our blessings.

* * *

Here's my Christmas message come column, from Thursday's Gazette.

THANKFULLY, it's all done now, apart from some Christmas gift wrapping and, of course, those last-minute panic buys. At last, the main festive shopping is sorted, cards sent and arrangements complete – we hope!
This year will be the first She Who Knows and myself have celebrated Christmas at Edmonds Towers – after visiting a few nearest and dearest to spread Yuletide cheer. Previously, we've always been rushing elsewhere. Hopefully, it should be a cosy, relaxing affair. I've got the drinks; she's got the food, so let's settle back and see what's on telly!
Families do get separated nowadays and some of ours are as far as one can go, baking in New Zealand's summer. Also, we're none of us getting younger or as inclined to travel. So, as we do finally put up our feet and relax, let's also think of those who aren't at their healthiest or best and wish them well.
The same rather goes for that bad-tempered and rushed General Election just past – and now resolved. Like Christmas festivities, it's a leap of good faith in humanity, welfare and trust. Nothing we do is perfect and none of us know what's best all the time. We're entitled to our opinions and should respect others' rights too.
Let's accept how events have settled; commiserate with those who lost but, also, support those now burdened with honouring pledges and promises; try to forget old differences so keenly felt and fought over.
As with Christmas, let's show tolerance and share goodwill. It's only by pulling together we will progress and share in the plentiful benefits of these times. Let's light up these chilly but warm-hearted seasonal days with hope; keep the faith and do our best – together; then our New Year truly will be better, for all.
Merry Christmas!

* * *

It was all about the UK's General Election on this Thursday and today, of course, we know Boris has won with a national landslide while,  here in Great Marton, Labour has also lost to the Tories too. At least it means someone has a working majority in Parliament and can get on with governing. Now it's over to him to deliver all those promises. We'll see!

SO, it's our big Election Day; the start of a new era, but with whom at the helm? I can't make up my mind but feel a civil duty and debt to those who fought for our freedom and right to vote.
Politicians all sound so convincing. No sooner has some election broadcast impressed, then a campaign leaflet sways me again. She Who Knows is of firmer mind and we often agree on our course but, afterwards, my doubts return. The heart pulls one way, the head the other; then vice versa.
My parents usually voted for opposing parties. Once they agreed not to bother, as it was pouring down, then Mum muttered, “I'll just nip to the shops.” When she'd gone Dad, too, put on his coat. “Bet she's gone to vote!” he explained, then also braved the downpour.
So our views and votes do matter, at least to us. However, as a teenager I joined the Young Socialists to 'save the world' but, also, because their hall had a pool table. Later I regretted it, noticing Young Conservative discos attracted more girls.
Do we still plough on with Brexit? The nation's bitterly divided and we're stuck in a dithering stale-mate. Also, it seems, you can read anything you like into all those immigration, economic and other statistics, depending on how optimistic or pessimistic your mood. I've looked and listened and, frankly, it's anyone's guess how it all adds up.
Then there's the flagging NHS, social priorities, our security and inequality. I've experienced both privilege but also the lack of it – and now despise both. Perhaps, sadly, it comes down to self-interest but, then, will I still be here for those distant promises?
What a dilemma! Still, today, it's a cross we should all bear – and make.

* * *

This week's column had a certain sartorial smugness - or should that really be snugness!

RECENTLY this column achieved more elevated status in our favourite local paper, by being raised to the top of its page (if only to make room for an advert).
Another change in its appearance last week was an unexpected photo of me wearing “the famous green jumper”.
This is what She Who Knows calls my aged garment as, after retiring from full Gazette employment, I was infamously pictured wearing it with the first of my published books.
“Why didn't you put on your suit?” she'd demanded back then, while a female colleague groaned, “You're not still wearing that old thing!”
As I write this I've again got it on. There's frost outside and hardy gardener Joe, renowned from the nearby Saddle Inn, is battling our overgrown hedge in bobble-cap and scarf. He has also just inquired if we've had a power cut, since the kettle isn't yet on!
Next week will see a Yuletide gathering of retired male colleagues at Poulton's cosy Thatched House pub – with many old jumpers on view. I'll be in a colourful one even more ancient than the famous green one, while still wondering to whom it belonged. You see, I found the multi-coloured woolly discarded in a corner of the office years ago, tried it on and, as no one seemed to miss it, kept it. I often wear this at winter reunions but the original owner hasn't yet come forward. (“Too ashamed,” says She Who.)
I have favourite old trousers, too, along with worn-out tartan shirts which I hide from She Who Knows' clear-outs. A man gets attached to such togs and they're also useful for gardening, which reminds me . . .
Joe says he wouldn't mind having the famous green jumper, should I ever tire of wearing it.

* * *

 A heavy frost outside, as I add this week's Gazette column, but we're warm and cosy within . . .

THERE'S a chill in the air but something else, warming the heart upon entering Edmonds Towers – that timeless aroma of home baking.
With mouth-watering Christmas recipes in the glossy magazines, She Who Knows has been inspired back into her kitchen apron - with, of course, my encouragement.
Last weekend her star creation was 'flat bread', baked in self-raising flour with Greek yoghurt and coriander, flash fried into a thick, soft bread. Eaten with tzatziki it was delicious! I came home early from my afternoon at the local, just to relish this appetiser treat.
After both Hunter's Chicken on Saturday, then roast pork Sunday, we enjoyed her filo apple pie, densely rich in fruit with mixed spice beneath the most flaky pastry, sprinkled with icing sugar – yum!
This was where my considerable contribution came in – I pealed the apples. No, don't scoff at my efforts! There were two big cooking apples and a pair of sweet, green ones. Since I'd forgotten we had a peeler and corker in a bottom drawer, it took almost half an hour. There was a time we could all peel efficiently, specially spuds, but today the chips come in frozen packets.
As a child I'd 'help' mother on baking day for, like washing day, every household had one. She let me make small, open-topped tarts riddled with pastry borders around different jams – what a mess! Still, it was fun. Nowadays some retired mates even boast of their cake-baking prowess.
The kitchen truly is the heart of the house on such days and, with Jack Frost breathing down our necks, I'll be encouraging She Who to repeat previous winter triumphs – like seafood and spinach pie or a macaroni,tomato and potato one . . . bring it on, I say!

* * *

Sorry, I'm a day late posting this as we had a busy time yesterday and, come evening, went to see Elton John. (Well, a tribute act where, of course, everyone whooped but, rather romantically, the backing group's drummer came off stage and proposed on one knee to a girl in the row behind us, who accepted him - they did know each other, we presumed!)

EDMONDS Towers is still a whoop-free zone – until, that is, we switch on the telly.
This I rarely do, loving peace and quiet. However, She Who Knows turns it on if only passing through our living room into the kitchen.
If you look up 'whoop' – as in 'to holler' - you'll learn both these came from the States. Whooping was originally used by cowboys to startle cattle into moseying on, which it makes me do – usually to the sanctuary of my upstairs so-called study. 'Red Indians' (sorry, not very P.C. I know) also famously made whooping chants to instil terror into early settlers.
Nowadays you can't get through a public concert or a television show with a live audience without idiot onlookers breaking into whooping. What was wrong with dignified or eager applause? That's what English audiences used to do. One doesn't even mind the odd hearty cheer, or even an appreciative whistle. (Though, sadly, no longer at the ladies.)
The answer is that whooping makes over-excitable, childish and selfish people feel important and, as they desperately want, draws others' attention toward them. It's the call of someone who can't contain themselves, especially in public auditoriums.
Probably these hyped-up whoopers have been over-doing those unhealthy sugary drinks (also mostly American) - or other, less legal substances.
Whatever the cause, as soon as She Who Knows is out of earshot I turn the telly to mute – or, once she goes back upstairs, switch it off.
Last weekend we saw whooping reach new heights as Strictly Come Dancing came to Blackpool Tower Ballroom. TV previously used 'warm-up comics' before variety shows, now they must have whooper-uppers - waving placards to stir up everyone. By contrast, if I murmur any remarks while we await the results, I'm immediately shushed!
Fortunately, I'd already anaesthetised myself with dinner wine.

* * *

This week's column might help you ease the strain of Christmas shopping and electioneering fatigue!

IT'S a typical retirement day as I write this. Although not yet 10am, we've breakfasted (lightly) and I've seen off She Who Knows to her yoga class. That and some other similar stretching exercises at home keep her remarkably supple.
For my own sake, when I finish this I'll be putting on lilting mood music and doing my tai-chi. It's She Who, too, who has got me into that.
Despite jogging around the block and doing vigorous press-ups and sit-ups for years, my knees were shot and neck so stiff I had to turn round inside the car to glance backwards. I should have learned from those surprisingly fit orientals I used to work alongside in the colonies: gently does it for physical and spiritual well-being, especially as you age.
Now instead of knackering myself trying to stay youthful, I enjoy a routine of what used to be called Chinese shadow-boxing but which is much more graceful - even from me. It's all about flowing stretches, steady balance and proper posture. It may not leave me sweating and breathless but all my body seems to benefit and I feel more wholesome too!
Other easy and enjoyable fitness tips, we've found, are dancing (not disco or break-dance) and, of course, some regular walking, cycling or swimming.
As one who savours life's pleasures, I would add the proviso, 'Just don't over do it!' Enjoying your routine is also part of staying well and happy.
Take that ballroom routine, we might not be as exciting as BBC's hit show Strictly, but our afternoon tea dances attract couples aged up to their 90s – who are still free of walking sticks.
Oh, and lastly comes my favourite tip. As a hospital consultant once advised, “Keep drinking Draught Bass (or other cask ale), it's the best medicine for your great bowel.”

* * *

Politics is hard to get passionate about but people used to . . .

THE blackboard sign outside some joker's shop said it all: 'Electile Dysfunction – occurs when none of the parties appeal in a general election'.
Even the most ardent party activist must feel confused, betrayed or worn out by now. Isn't it stressful enough to have Christmas approaching without also dropping a general election upon the weary British public?
Of course, all candidates are putting on their best party hats under the camera lights, while bearing gifts and goodwill to all. How will we ever pay for it all? What's more, how long will that goodwill last once the long winter chill sets in?
If I'm sounding bitter it's because we've been fed a feast of broken promises, while watching the unedifying spectacle of our leaders and members of parliament squabbling and acting like children. They just won't behave, or follow the rules!
I'm not greatly excited about independence from Westminster for the UK's member nations, but note that they would deny it to us from Brussels - despite that poll three years ago.
But if we look instead to leading personalities in the main debate, I must say that Boris and Nigel seem the jollier contenders to be our December 12 Father Christmas. Jeremy just appears so grumpy and dull. On the other hand, are BoJo and Nige really laughing at us, we ever hopeful, conscientious voters?
Are there answers from abroad? Many dismiss Trump as a dangerous clown but we also wrote off Ronald Reagan as a Hollywood cowboy – and he rode off into the sunset as a popular, successful president of eight years. Perhaps, like those tough-talking, go-getting Americans, we should put our own self-interests first . . .
Or ought we to do the Christian thing at this time of year – and save the planet with the Lib-Dems and Greens? Beats me.

* * *

 A salutary tale this week, plumbing the depths . . .

THEY'VE started calling me Golden Balls at my local pub though, unlike David Beckham, it's got nothing to do with soccer skills . . .
Well, I've not been completely honest there. The new moniker, in full, is actually Golden Ballcock.
It amuses builders, who drink there in late afternoon, that I paid almost £100 to have the ballcock valve replaced in our WC at home.
“Must be gold!” they jest. On the internet you can get a replacement floating ball, arm and inlet valve for £10-20, while the plumber in question was barely in our loo half an hour.
“Well at least he came quickly, wiped his feet and got the job done,” commented She Who Knows, who has a different outlook from myself upon such jobs and, in fact, upon spending money in general. It was cash well spent, she seemed to think.
At least it stopped me bending the ballcock arm and flooding our bathroom. It's just as well he didn't add a call-out charge, otherwise I might now be Platinum Balls. Next time I'll ask for OAP rates – not that I'll be phoning him again.
The last ballcock fitted in our Victorian cottage was for a water tank in our roof space and a plumber called Brian, sadly now long gone, scaled the heights then battled with our dusty old pipework for hours.
“What do I owe you?” I asked the cheery ex-Londoner who revelled in rhyming slang.
“Oh, give us a cock and hen,” Brian said reluctantly, when pressed, meaning a tenner.
If I'd offered £100 he would have fallen out the loft.
Ah, those were the days, when trusty tradesmen imbibing at our 'local' would pop round for the price of a few beers.
But, then, the price of today's pint would have stunned Brian too.

 * * *

Not sure I have the right 'nose' for wine anymore . . .

HERE'S the latest report on my snoring. (Sadly, I come from a family of snorters.)
My wife keeps coming up with so-called cures, all increasingly uncomfortable, for this blip in our otherwise marital harmony; particularly after the guilty party – me - has been imbibing red wine.
First came a plastic lump like a boxer's gum shield, which I clumsily fashioned to fit and now force into my mouth nightly. Unfortunately, this occasionally comes out when tossing and turning in sleep. Rather than switch on the light and hunt for it, I lie back then doze off again – snoring.
Next came a nose clip to supplement that plastic lump now irritatingly referred to as 'Roy's teeth'. Thankfully this clip was tiny, so I hardly noticed it. However, I've lost three of them already – can't imagine where they've gone!
Then She Who Knows returned from shopping with a weird-shaped pillow supposed to promise silent nights. I now sleep on this as well as wearing my other snore zappers. However, I'm not convinced it's worth the crick I'm getting in my neck.
Finally, there's the latest suggestion, a battery-powered gadget worn on the forehead which, can you believe, vibrates with increasing intensity if the wearer rolls on to their back? The newspaper article about it also referred worryingly to 'continuous positive airway pressure', which involved wearing a 'face mask'. However, the report added, 'some people give up on this device, as they find it difficult to sleep.'
Other helpful suggestions in the Daily Mail included sewing a tennis ball into the back of nightwear, though again it warned, 'This can also interfere with sleep.'
“No more,” I exclaimed, “a man can only take so much!” However, it's notoriously chilly and lonely in the spare bedroom . . .
Perhaps white wine might be the answer!

* * *

This week's column was a tribute to an old friend, used to harder times. I'll do more on this in next month's Home post, plus a tribute to another great character, a Mossag called Eric.

IN the midst of life we are in death, as the Book of Common Prayer informs us, and I can confirm that after 70 you attend many more funerals than weddings or christenings.
Last week we saluted old pal John Harrison (pictured), who got a fine send-off just as he would have liked and deserved.
The proud former Mancunian was a man to stand his ground and walk tall but, equally, joiner John's greatest pride was his family and workmanship. Also, he would do anything to help others and was a friend to always rely upon.
Despite being told three years ago he only had three months to live, John (pictured with two of his grandchildren) always had a welcoming smile and looked on the bright side of life. The opening music to his Carleton funeral was aptly Bring Me Sunshine, from Morecambe & Wise, later followed by a rousing Jerusalem (John loved his sport too).
In celebrating another's life we often see our own reflected through past years. A curious, abridged poem - or ballad - at the back of his order of service was The Shooting of Dan McGrew. If you don't know it, look it up. It's from the late 1890s and Yukon Gold Rush days in Canada, when desperate men got by as best they could.
It always reminded John of early years working on our first motorway, now the M6, when billeted in rough timber cabins at remote, icy Shap - with only wood burners and Irish navvies for company. One man could recite the entire ballad and John took the trouble to learn it too.
Nowadays such working conditions would be an outrage and those men up in arms protesting. But, today, how many of us could still have raised a smile and simply carried on manfully . . . when given such a harsh death sentence?

* * *

It makes you want to grit your teeth - dentistry! Ah, it's all done now, why did I feel nervous at all?

BY the time you read this, relaxing in comfort somewhere, I shall have endured an hour in the dentist's chair.
Apparently my molars are crumbling away with age and over-use, probably like the rest of me. But I consider myself fortunate; I'm in good hands.
With mouth wide open and conversation silenced by all the instruments in it, the highly professional surgeon and nurse peer down at me intently – leaving ample time to think of past dental nightmares.
Like the haunting scene when, as a boy in short trousers accompanied by his distraught mother, I watched in horror as my older brother had all his teeth pulled out.
Michael must have had gum disease which, nowadays, would have probably been spotted much earlier and suitably treated. Instead, aged only in early teens, he was heading for dentures.
Mike was duly gassed then, while the unconscious patient drooled blood, an ageing dentist propped one knee up on my brother's lap and frantically yanked out teeth before the poor lad came round.
After witnessing that I brushed my own more eagerly! That was back in days of yore, when dentists had belt-driven drills which sounded like angle grinders and pain was only to be expected. Nowadays I don't even feel the needle's soothing pinprick.
Working overseas wasn't much better. In the Far East it was only sensible, if you could afford it, to go private – though they tended to line their pockets by filling any available cavity. Dentists drilled into me with rapacious ruthlessness. It was a wonder I didn't set off metal detectors at the airport.
We're no longer dependent on NHS and a private insurance scheme permits me the latest high-tech UK dentistry at reasonable costs. Hopefully, by the time you finish this newspaper, I'll be sporting two new crowns - and a relieved smile.

* * *

Bit of 'local' history in this week's column. You can get in Saddle mood, too, on our Books page, reading '50 Shades of Bass', 'Bright Lights & Pig Rustling' or 'Saddle Up!'

IT was a boisterous session in the 'bear-pit' of the Commons and even lively, too, in the Lords. No, this wasn't another Brexit debate. We were in my local, Blackpool's oldest, the Saddle Inn.
Many think of this as a man's pub but there was a marquee party for departing assistant manager Bev, leaving for easier hours and less daily woes and drama – working in a hospital!
Bev was a popular lady, as shown by the good-hearted party extending to a beer-garden marquee - all largely organised by other enthusiastic Saddle ladies. In that, things haven't changed so much in our quaint hostelry.
The Blackpool Herald on November 26, 1949, reported: “While talk of limiting the power of the House of Lords is in the air, let's take a look at a House of Lords where they never reach a decision, although in session every day in the year.

“This House of Lords is a room in one of the Fylde's oldest inns, The Saddle, Whitegate-drive, Marton. The inn, which is over 100 years old, possesses also a House of Commons, but the Lords is far superior, because in here no women are allowed.

“That, however, doesn't make it any quieter. There's just as much talk. And if discussions on things like devaluation and atom bombs usually work round to Stanley Mortensen and Stanley Matthews who will blame them?

“Over the doorway of each is a sign - 'House of Lords' on one, 'House of Commons' on the other. The Saddle has the oldest inn tenant in the Fylde, Mrs Eliza Leigh, who has been there for 57 years.”
So, you see, while those 'superior' men drank and 'discussed', the real work and organisation was being done by women. Perhaps that's the answer, too, for our current problems.

* * *

 Remembering some old rough and tumbles . . . amongst the cow pats!

WITH the rugby world cup under way in Japan, this is a good time to remind readers how much it takes to play the historic game so well.
Yes, it's a rough and tumble out there, but what athletic skills its participants need! I know, after playing myself - though without any ability.
My only asset to the Welsh Borders team which took me under its wing was the thickness of my skull, that they utilised as a battering ram in scrums.
“Try to avoid any contact with the ball,” was the anxious advice of Welshpool coach Howard, after watching me enthusiastically training. I'd joined for something to do while in a dead-end job in nearby sleepy Shropshire.
However, my skull-attack potential became clear upon my first visit, after I'd left the first-team captain concussed from a scrum encounter.
The only other place I excelled was in the clubhouse booze-up afterwards. But I still managed to lose weight and get fit, such was the rigour of their grim training nights.
When playing other rural Welsh clubs, usually upon sloping fields made further hazardous by frozen cow pats, the running, side-stepping and passing talents of fellow team-mates was stunningly impressive, particularly witnessed close up.
Most were humble hill farmers but they brought a passion and courage to the game that was matched only by their glorious singing afterwards.
Of course, the big brutes we see on the telly are all professionals and trained to perfection, but the fears, pain and challenges they face are equally awesome.
No doubt medieval battles in those Welsh hills were far more blood-curdling and terrifying than my breezy weekly encounters. But, believe me, those team endeavours took all you could offer and more while, afterwards, I felt 10-feet tall - even though my head was aching!

 * * *

 Celebrating a large piece of civic pride this week, but there may be changes afoot . . .

IT makes you proud! Blackpool's Stanley Park has again been voted UK's best – for the second time.
The Friends of Stanley Park & Salisbury Woodland do a tremendous job, aided by dedicated gardeners. They run a Visitors' Centre by the popular art-deco café and promote and maintain the largest green recreational area outside London.
Chairman Elaine Smith MBE is a Local Hero, as awarded by the Gazette at the Tower this week – along with three worthy park Friends.
Elaine, who made a profound mark, too, chairing the Civic Society, helped start the Friends 17 years ago. However, she is grateful to council staff for enduring support and particularly thanks the public who voted for our park.
Why, then, are councillors considering a scheme to build on the park extension over East Park Drive? This site is half of the only 18-hole municipal golf course on the Fylde, while its sweeping acres alongside Salisbury Woodland are open to all.
The £45m plan is for 250 holiday chalets and 'Adrenalin World', a big games centre, with investors led by entrepreneur David Lloyd. It has outraged many at public meetings, while the golf club along with other sporting organisations wish to take over the lease and continue as present.
Well, I recall exciting plans for a David Lloyd-style tennis centre at South Shore Lawn Tennis Club over a decade ago, followed by similar proposals at Whitehills near the M55 – which, like an indoor ski-run, all floundered.
Our resort needs attractions but most residents also want to protect our scarce greenery and would only countenance building on this land if necessary for the adjoining, even more precious hospital.
Many regret a carving off of parkland further along, for a single hotel development, instead of a race course to boost our airport and coast. Let's not see more treasures slip away, without due deliberation.

* * *

Last week's column dwelt upon the drinks side of life, this week's focussed on the way to a man's heart . . . food - about which I'm becoming increasingly less adventurous.

IT leaves a bad taste in the mouth – having an expensive but disappointing meal in a restaurant. Mind you, it has to be really revolting for me to complain - because of my upbringing.
As a boy in the '50s we rarely dined out and then only at cafés. In post-war years everyone was grateful for what they got and bred upon Spam and sandwich paste. The one time I heard anyone complain – about his steak – my Dad muttered, “Must be a Yank!”
I didn't protest either, the other day, when I had a miserable main at a favourite Italian restaurant. She Who Knows counselled against it but I was being adventurous - trying a pasta dish unknown to me, but promising authentic flavours of exotic sausage with raisins and pine nuts.
Perhaps it was authentic, to a penniless peasant somewhere, but to me it tasted like cardboard in grey paste. There was no discernible sausage, though we did spot one raisin. Still, our dessert - a first taste of cannoli - made up for this pasta disaster and my wife let me finish her lasagne (creamy but, sadly, without enough meat). We'll be giving that place a miss for a while.
It reminded me of other culinary setbacks. The worst European one was in a small Spanish resort where I ordered crayfish paella. It came topped with a crustacean I attacked spiritedly but from which my efforts failed to extract one ounce of flesh.
Then there was the time I mistakenly ordered a 12-person banquet in Hong Kong, when alone.
However, the grimmest experience was in earlier years at an Indian, ordering what seemed a bargain treat – Bombay Duck. It was a sliver of extremely smelly 'lizardfish' a starving cat would have bolted from, later to be EU-banned for bacterial contamination – very fowl indeed!

 * * *

AS the summer sporting season nears its end, last weekend our spirits were lifted by the annual beer festival at Blackpool Cricket Club.
I was delighted upon entering the hallowed marquee to see, in pride of place at the centre of a score of hand-pumps, the familiar red triangle of Draught Bass (incidentally, the first trade mark to be registered in Britain - in 1877).
“We thought you'd like to taste it for us!” invited veteran organiser Alan Cross, grinning broadly alongside his eager sidekick Ray in his habitual red shorts (slightly more faded than the iconic Bass triangle).
This honour fell to me not simply because I drink this king of ales regularly at my local, Blackpool's oldest pub the Saddle Inn at Great Marton, but also as a long-standing member of the Honourable Order of Bass Drinkers. The order meets monthly in Manchester, on the Fylde and, when the mood takes them, elsewhere.
Bass, of course, was once the main brew on this coast and part of our history. I remember Carl Swarbrick, late of the Catterall & Swarbrick brewing family, who when younger helped Bass take over the resort's pubs.
“The bloke from their head office kept drawing up graphs of sales and order projections while taking little notice of me,” Carl recalled. “You should have seen his face when I finally managed to inform him, most of the Promenade pubs closed over winter.”
The 'expert' was probably as stunned as a would-be author I met by chance at a pub in Wimbledon. He was writing a history of Bass and it was at last ready for publication. Sadly, he was woefully ignorant of the Saddle still stocking Bass or even of the existence of the HOBD.
I had to put him right, as I also had to inform the expectant Alan and Ray in their beer tent.
“Yes, lads, the Bass is as grand as ever!”
* * *

 This week's column took a comic turn - but it's never all about laughs . . .

WE went to the pictures the other afternoon, although it wasn't a cinema. Instead it was the Lowther Theatre in Lytham and a really memorable theatrical experience!
The film was Stan & Ollie, about the last theatre tour in Britain of comedy film greats Laurel and Hardy – and also, touchingly, about the end of their bill-topping careers.
Starring Steve Coogan and American actor John C. Reilly, it was inspired casting (as pictured),with excellent performances from the heart, amid superb settings vividly evoking those struggling 1950s.
Their story was deeply moving too. It made us laugh out loud but also cry. I also found myself at times on the edge of my seat, as outstanding drama should make you.
But, then, I've always felt the toughest and loneliest role in entertainment is the stand-up comedian.
Years ago, when the Gazette was in Blackpool town centre at Victoria Street, the Grand Theatre ran live auditions for aspiring comics. Anyone could have a go and, if promising, perform live in front of a matinee audience of holidaymakers.
One of my late colleagues, features editor Peter Baxter, tried it. He was nervous beforehand but devastated when he actually walked out in front of a packed audience. Peter had previously scrawled a few punchlines in chalk on the stage floor as prompts, only to discover cleaners had erased them.
“It was the longest 20 minutes of my life,” he confided afterwards, thoroughly drained and humbled.
You can read still worse traumas in the autobiography of Fylde funnyman Les Dawson, about his early years on the club circuit. It was Les who partly inspired my mystery series of romantic thrillers, Sam Stone investigates, starting with A Cut Above about a comic's death (see front cover image).
Comedy demands profound experience of life's depths. It is the reverse face of tragedy and disaster - but the tears taste just the same.

* * *

Couple of strange events in the past week gave me pause for thought and undermined my usual cheerful confidence. First was a fall, outlined below, then I nearly had a collision while 'running' a red light behind other impatient drivers - except I hadn't even noticed it was on red, my mind being entirely elsewhere . Happily, I can report that - since then - my driving has been as careful and correct as usual and I'm now back to stylish, winning tennis . . . or losing with sporting dignity.

THEY say pride comes before a fall and so it was for me the other day. There I was, strutting my stuff with younger men on a tennis court, closely watched by an encouraging She Who Knows. Then, suddenly, my footing deserted me and I sprawled inelegantly upon the ground.
There was much fuss all around but, apart from grazed knuckles, only my dignity was bruised. However, at the first opportunity, a short while later, I quietly packed my kit.
“Anyway, your last serve – after falling – was an ace!” Ed, my young doubles partner, kindly reminded me as I sloped off court for the bar.
“What were you doing - leaping about like that?” demanded She Who Knows.
“Well,” I explained while still feeling crestfallen, “by jumping forward into a serve you get more power. Frankly, I was struggling to match those lads' bigger hitting.”
“I'm not surprised, they're 40 years younger than you!” she pointed out.
At least I could still hold my pint, even if my fist looked as though I'd been in a bare-knuckle fight. Still, that's sport for you – and life.
Ups and downs over the years are a great leveller and teach you to respect your fellow man's (or woman's) abilities, whatever age. My late experience playing rugby – not until my 20s - taught me so. I couldn't out-shove bigger blokes but neither could I catch those side-stepping smaller ones!
This time my fall from grace did little damage but it could have been so much worse, as She Who Knows warned. The lesson was clear: act your age or, at least, bear it in mind.
When next taking on those young'uns I'll resort to my natural advantages - through a lifetime's experience - and employ craft and stealth.
Hopefully, they'll see me through a few more years!

* * *

This week's column is close to home but may ring a bell for couples everywhere. Thankfully, my wife found it funny, which always brings a warm feeling . . .

ANYONE depressed by the recent unseasonably drab weather should take heart, because I've just put our heating back on at Edmonds Towers.
“It's still 72 degrees!” I reasoned with She Who Knows, indicating the thermometer and humidity measure I bought her at Christmas (for which she seemed surprising ungrateful).
“That may be, but it feels cold,” she insisted, adding, “and put more lights on will you? It brightens everywhere up, when there's no sunshine coming in.”
Our energy bill looks like we're heating and lighting the whole road, not just our cosy cottage. In winter months I'm often reduced to wearing shorts and T-shirts around the home, while She Who remains wrapped up in house coats and rugs complaining of the chill. The room temperatures and humidity are reminiscent of my steamy years in the Oriental colonies, before retiring here to our fresher climes on the Fylde.
I say take heart, you weather watchers, as now our heating is cranked up again the sunshine will probably return. When it does, She Who Knows will be wanting her bedroom fan turning back on. This had to be bought in July, when it was hot at night if you remember.
Personally, I prefer to have windows open rather than using up more energy with a state-of-the-art, 'silent' electric fan but, admittedly, we do then get traffic noise here in popular Great Marton.
Still, I'm a reasonable man (anything for a bit of peace) so don't insist on nailing open windows, or putting locks on our radiators, like some chauvinistic hubbies I've known.
One male used to also like using his exercise bike last thing, to build up a sweat before going to bed, along with a late supper of cheese and pickled onion sandwiches . . .
You'd need a strong fan and windows open with him in your bedroom.

* * *

C'mon sports! Seeing the funnier side of the Ashes . . . and Australia, currently suffering 75mph winds and storm damage from Sydney to Melbourne - but they do call it the Lucky Country.

WITH four tests still remaining in the Ashes series, a skittled England team at least has the elements on its side. School-holiday weather brings rain and wind to mix with our summer sunshine. Such a variety will hopefully confuse our Down-Under opponents, who aren't used to contrasts.
Upon arrival in Sydney, towards the end of summer, I learned they don't really experience seasons. Instead it bucketed down to mark their 'autumn'. Afterwards the ground steamed like an overly hot sauna then those endless blue skies returned.
It stayed like that, while marginally cooler, for the six months I worked there and toured their continent. I ended up longing for a refreshing shower, or a crispy winter's day . . .
Speaking of showers, I soon learned of the Aussie's long-held view that we were both unwashed and penny pinching. This stems from war years, when colonial troops were billeted in British households. Back in the fighting 40s we did only bathe once a week and also sought to conserve what little money we had.
'Where does a Pommy hide his fivers?' the Aussies like to ask, then reply, 'Under his bath mat.' (Or, 'Under his soap,' is another one.)
Living so far from western civilisation, your 'Ocker' Aussie has a confused notion of history, while the only well-balanced one has a chip on each shoulder.
So desperate are they to assume some valued tradition they even claim to have invented the meat pie! But what can you expect when their few national monuments are rarely older than a century, and their only culinary achievement Vegemite?
However, we should never under-estimate the Aussies' sense of rivalry – especially with ourselves. When leaving the airport on that first day, my bus followed a car with a large sticker in its back window.
The sign read, 'Grow your own dope – plant a Pom.'

* * *

This week's Gazette column led some to accuse me of being a 'Nimby'. However, 'issues' which affect our homes make us passionately concerned. Besides, there is more here at stake - as I explained . . .

 SHE Who Knows rightly scoffed at the phrasing of a news item on Radio Smooth, as we cruised in our MPV (multi-purpose vehicle, or more accurately a 1,200cc hatchback - if you're not up with the abbreviations of today's talk).
“A fallen tree has raised issues,” said the traffic reporter. “As though a tree has 'issues'!” she exclaimed, “Why does no one today dare say 'problem'.”
It's like when sales assistants greet customers with, “You all right there, guys?” when they really mean, “Can I help you?”
Ironically, however, trees have now raised issues by our Great Marton home – turning us into 'Nimbys' (Not In My Back Yard).
A resort firm wants to erect houses where its disused warehouse stands along the gated alleyway behind us, at the historic end of Preston Old Road near the Saddle Inn.
Apart from disruption, noise nuisance, drainage worries and more parking problems, we fear mature trees which have sprouted in the little-used alley may be cut down. 
As I look out my window, it strikes me how much wildlife these towering wonders of nature support - and how treasured they've become to us and neighbours.
Did you know Blackpool has fewer trees than any other town of similar size in the country? I read that somewhere, along with plans to plant many more here – though where I don't know, as we see ever fewer, only new homes everywhere.
Nimbys we might be but, at least, we have flowers, birds, butterflies and untold other wildlife in our 'back yard', rather than more tarmacadam for parking cars upon.
What's more we love it that way and, over years, have learned life is more peaceful when getting closer to nature in our surroundings.
It's an 'issue' we should all be campaigning about – before there's only concrete and bricks remaining.

* * *

With this week's column, we can all sleep more easily in our beds . . .

PEOPLE are so easily offended these days, don't you find? What with sexism, racism, ageism and size-ism – and that's just for starters. You have to be wary of verbal slips – even when asleep!
The other week She Who Knows returned from shopping with her sister, bearing a large box which would make any husband's heart sink. No, it wasn't an expensive new dress, nor thankfully a flat-pack I'd have to assemble (sexist that, sorry – but true).
After presenting the mystery package to me she adopted a knowing smirk which was unsettling. The first lettering I saw on its cardboard container said Snooze Control, but it was far too big for an alarm clock. Then I saw its main label beneath – Anti-Snore Pillow – well!
Just to make it more insulting, there was an offensive picture of an unshaven, open-mouthed man sleeping alongside a fed-up looking, goggle-eyed woman. Sexist or what? But such strictures don't apparently apply the other way around.
Admittedly, I come from a long line of notorious snorters. My mother could be heard all over our house and also talked in her sleep while having vivid dreams. Dad told me she once leapt from their bed and looked under the mattress, exclaiming, “Where's that tiger?”
Apparently I snore like a trooper, too, specially after a glass or two of wine on a Sunday night. But I've already taken precautions. Years ago at She Who's suggestion I got an anti-snore device which fits in my mouth like a plastic gum-shield. It makes me look as though I'm grinning stupidly all the time but works – till I spit it out when asleep.
And the new pillow? Well, pretty good actually. I've certainly been sleeping better myself – till she wakes me with her own snoring. However, I'm not allowed to mention that . . .

* * *

Sport not only gets us fitter and offers exciting, shared activity in (mostly) safe surroundings; it also diverts our aggression, creates friendships and teaches us respect for others. In fact sports provide profound lessons for life - if we're willing to learn them!

GOOD to see Blackpool's biggest tennis club serving up a post-Wimbledon mid-summer treat, with an open day this Saturday offering free coaching and games for all.
You don't need to bring a racquet or balls, just a pair of trainers to South Shore Lawn Tennis Club, on Midgeland Road by Progress Way.
It all starts from 1pm with games and free coaching for toddlers, then older ages and adults through the afternoon and other activities – details from the club (tel.767753).
My first experience on a tennis court was on parks as ball boy for relatives, specially two older female cousins I adored. Later I got to play myself but was never lucky enough as a child to get proper coaching. Instead I read a book entitled Tiger Tennis by Buster Mottram and still use its tips today - just call me Tiger!
At senior school I remember watching sixth-form girls playing doubles and thinking how much I'd like to join in, when old enough. Here was a sport we could play together, unlike cricket or soccer in those days. Now gender mixing is almost compulsory. Well so be it, love-all I say!
As adolescents then young men, we showed off our power and prowess by playing singles and healthily using up excess energy.
Only later did I discover the fascination and satisfaction of team play in doubles. You learn to work as a partnership, helping each other to win, joining together at the net in attack, or back on the baseline in defence, never getting too far apart from one another . . .
Reading that, it's rather like a master class in real life, too, don't you think?
Follow the rules, experience and guidance built up over generations and we can all get the most from taking part and, hopefully, even end up winning - game, set and match!

* * *

The column has a highly localised flavour this week, pleasing for me as I can simply stroll around the various attractions outlined. My apologies to others less fortunate . . .

IT'S great to see a neighbourhood coming alive again. That's happening in Great Marton, up Whitegate Drive, Blackpool's earliest district.
It already boasts the coast's oldest public house. The much-loved Saddle Inn has won awards for its fine ales, food and flower displays, as well as being a forerunner with local beer festivals.
Great Marton also attracted Blackpool's first micro pub a year ago. This was the rapidly popular Number 10 Ale House, with its similarly named sister hostelry in St. Annes, and now doing Thai food.
This all seemed to enliven the area, as most shops are now back in busy operation, even if more likely to be ladies' hairdressers, nail or even tattoo parlours rather than greengrocers and butchers.
Happily, I can now report that what was once Blackpool's most popular locals' pub, the Boar's Head up Preston Old Road - a stone's throw from the Saddle - is in apparently safe hands and reviving under encouraging new management.
Landlord and lady Chris and Karen are offering up an interesting selection or real ales at currently unreal prices (£1.95 a pint), with a wholesome selection of traditional food at equally appealing rates. What's more, I can vouch for the quality of the beer, after popping into the comfortable, tastefully decorated lounge a few days ago.
Chris is ex-Army but also an experienced hand behind the bar, with long experience at the redoubtable Victoria pub, of Sam Smith's beer fame, in Cleveleys.
“We're also dog friendly and child friendly,” confirmed a cheerful Karen, as I stepped over their dozing long-haired retriever. “With sports screens then live entertainment at weekends,” added Chris.
From their confident attitude this seems an addition which will benefit the whole of once-proud Great Marton. It may even bring back memories of golden days in the Boar's 'Fylde Lounge', once beloved of Seasider soccer heroes.

* * *

This week's colum took a rather morbid tone but, as in the Bonnie Raitt song ‘Nick of Time’, life grows more precious, the less you have left . . .

SO, at what age would you like to die, or be content to depart this life?”
Thankfully, the question wasn't posed by a doctor, nor a priest or, as sprang to mind, a crazed serial killer addressing his next victim in a crime thriller.
Instead it came while enjoying a cooling beer sat in sunshine, from genial pal and long-term former colleague Tom.
He always liked to put you on the spot, in an entertaining sort of way, even when previously editing this newspaper.
We'd been discussing ailments as retired folk do and then feeling, particularly in his case, lucky to be alive. Tom has won two battles with cancer, although he says the war is never over . . .
I've been reading a memoir by veteran journalist Hunter Davies, about life at 83 after the death of his dearly missed author wife. It's not maudlin but humorously self-mocking and surprisingly practical at times. The title is Happy Old Me and it was a gift from She Who Knows for my recent 70th.
“Well,” I mulled my answer along with a Number 10 Blonde from Blackpool's first micro pub on Whitegate Drive, “I suppose mid-80s would be acceptable, provided you'd been enjoying reasonable health.”
We had both been moaning earlier about intrusive advertising for funeral plans, along with being nagged over cholesterol, diet and lifestyle choices.
“At least,” I added gamely, “if you're a drinker someone can always wheel you out for a pint. At that age I might even start smoking again!”
Tom, now vaping, agreed but sadly announced, “Yes, I thought about 80, too. Trouble is,” he added with good-natured sang-froid, “that only gives me seven years – I'm 73.”
That concentrated our minds.
“Best get another drink in then,” I offered, “let's make the most of it all!”

* * *

A rare journey out of Great Marton found me locked out with nowhere to go . . .

WHILE Andy Murray restored his tennis career at Queen's, I got inspired at Ilkley's grass-court tournament – a sort of poor man's equivalent.
We were staying in a riverside pub minutes walk from the picturesque grounds (pictured below) and, as with Andy, all was going well – easy drive, nice double room and, by Yorkshire standards, fine weather.
We had front-row seats to marvel at the pros just feet away, while on-site food and drink was good and affordable. What could go wrong?
Usually, She Who Knows can laugh over some embarrassing mishap which overtakes me on such breaks. At least she'd given up persuading me to a Michelin two-star restaurant in the town centre. We got as far as its front door last time, when meal prices stopped me in my tracks. Instead I dragged her across the road to a less expensive but, by that time, aptly named Moody Cow steakhouse.
Trouble is, mechanical things sometimes defeat She Who and, in the small hours, she rattled the door handle of our en-suite loo annoyingly. Then still later, when I had to go, I found the bathroom door now firmly locked - from the inside – while She Who Knows slept cosily back in bed.
Giving up, I crept downstairs in pyjamas only to find the bar toilets also locked. What to do?So it was, at 5am, dawn found me standing in the front garden of our hotel, self-consciously finding relief while warily watching for early-morning dog walkers - then grimly realising I was being filmed on CCTV cameras.
At least I'd provide hotel staff with a laugh at their Christmas party.
Still, any further fears over 'spending a penny' were relieved later that day, simply by inserting a coin in a slot of the twisted door handle, then freeing its lock.
Easy when you know how . . . unlike tennis.

* * *

This week's column is posted a day later than usual as we didn't get back from a grand few days at Ilkley Tennis Tournament until yesterday evening . . .

WE'RE no longer keen on adventurous travel but might soon brave once more the border into Yorkshire.
We'll need suitable clothes, of course, as it's always colder there and those bitter, easterly winds carry heavy downpours. The climate accounts for the stone buildings and the similarly granite-like nature of locals.
The last time we took our passports and language guide over the Pennines was to stay in Ilkley, which was picturesque, if expensive, but we acclimatised.
Our stay was at a riverside inn claiming to be the friendliest pub in the county. After our journey I heaved luggage through the lounge, looking for reception, and encountered a group of locals in the bar.
“Good morning!” I called out cheerfully to the men in flat caps watching me warily.
There faces stayed set, neither did I get any answer – friendly indeed!
“The were nicer later, though,” She Who Knows always kindly chimes in whenever I relate this tale. “When they'd got to know us a bit better.”
And when they'd established we'd be spending some money locally. Most had relatives who could happily serve our needs, for the right money. They were soon keen to recommend suitable places to dine out, shop or even take a horse ride, adding, “Just mention my name, 'owd lad.” (Or words to that effect).
Just to show we're not small-minded Lancastrians (is there such a thing?), we're considering returning for a visit if the weather picks up. I'll let you know how we get on.
In fact, I did find the Tykes slightly less depressing company than a Scottish friend, named Paddy oddly enough, who invariably sees the dour side of things.
Paddy's finally found a day-out destination he really enjoys, to Skipton, North Yorkshire.
It just goes to show that, as we say hereabouts, there's nowt so strange as folk!

* * *

I must have been feeling good and full of love for all mankind when penning this week's column (see below), then it started raining again . . .

IT'S good to befriend different people or attempt something new. The other day, during a break in our June rainfall, we were playing tennis – mixed doubles with a freshly retired policeman and his ex-teacher wife.
They'd just got back from their first sailing holiday, round the Greek isles, and were clearly empowered and uplifted by it. Previously they had only sailed a dinghy at Fairhaven Lake, not a three-berth yacht!
My own sailing experience has been mostly restricted to crewing on others' boats and, frankly, at sea I always felt happier when we were becalmed. It was like my brief rugby career, when I only fully enjoyed the team spirit and exertion after the match and in the bar.
Perhaps the most inspiring change or adventure I've undertaken was to travel widely abroad. You see amazing sights and, of course, broaden your horizons. Looking back though, it wasn't the travelling - that I tired of - which stayed with me. Instead, it was the diverse people and unexpected associates of different colours, culture and creeds who helped or befriended me along the way.
Some simply assisted a lonely traveller with his needs, like getting the right bus or service; even, just as importantly, being friendly. Others I shared an office with for some years, to discover working overseas among such different people was a delightful learning curve.
They all helped mature and improve me, just as a new challenge enthused that former policeman. But the abiding lesson left for me was to offer a cheery smile and encouraging word to those among us who are strangers, or in the minority, or alone.
Don't be held back by shyness or a sense of interfering, even fear of rejection or of the unfamiliar. It's always worth that extra effort. Like giving something freely, it can make you feel even better than receiving!

* * *

 Don't feel down if your summer weather isn't all it should ideally be, storms can be uplifting too!

SWEET June's finally here but, on our Fylde holiday coast, the weather's hardly fitting. At least we have plenty of it to enjoy – what with sunshine, rain and winds!
Where we reside, in Great Marton, we're not overlooked at the rear. As a gale blew the other evening, I stood in our back doorway marvelling at its natural power. Three mature trees including a towering poplar were swinging wildly, while that wind blew through what now remains of my hair.
The feeling of exhilaration reminded me of being a child growing up in the Manchester suburbs. Our home back then, a new council house at Valley Road in Davyhulme, Urmston, had a long back garden which ended alongside the still busy Manchester Ship Canal.
Imagine the thrill for me, as an infant, seeing mighty ships from all around the world passing like giant phantoms at the foot of our garden! It wasn't frightening. Any sailors on deck would wave cheerily down to me. I marvelled at their varied flags and exotic countries of origin. Perhaps it instilled in me a wander lust too.
Fast forward to my 30s and, as a worldly newspaperman, I'd taken a year off to write a first novel while staying with my retired parents, by then in Prestatyn, North Wales. On a wild, windy night I was walking back from a village pub – this time with lots of hair blowing and equally high spirits.
My book was finished and both an agent and top publisher interested. It seemed my life was about to change forever.
Well, nothing came of that but, 40 years later, I've had many more published – and they still haven't changed my life!
However, I have no regrets. You see, it's still wonderful to feel those invigorating sea winds and be alive and happy, here on our wonderful Lancashire coast.

* * *

This week's column, in the Gazette on Thursday, reads like a fogey's rant - but why not? We oldies have earned the right - and time's running out for our wise observations . . .

WITH so many elections of late, there's pressure all round for progress and change – as well as growing self-interest for some.
But we should also conserve traditions born of long experience and, not least, our British good humour.
My opinions changed as I aged, becoming less idealistic and more conservative with a small 'c' but also, I hope, tolerant of others. It doesn't do to get too serious either.
The most refreshing current-affairs comment heard lately wasn't in parliament but from a confused woman neighbour listening to political news. She asked her long-suffering husband to get some of that new breakfast cereal everyone was talking about – Brexit!
My public experience is now mainly in the pub or restaurant, at sports events or the theatre. These are all changing, though not always for the better.
Take Lowther Theatre, a little gem doing nicely now as it is relatively cheap, customer-friendly and convenient. So what do they do? They push to redevelop and make it bigger, just as Lytham also changed its pleasant, one-day charity concert on the Green into a money-making festival bringing week-long disruption.
Well, many of us like this little theatre as it is - complete with popular café which would, doubtless, be replaced by a national-chain franchise. Similarly, the cricket and sports ground opposite has ambitious plans - yet many users just want simple improvements and maintenance which preserve existing charm.
It's the same at our Fylde pubs. Beer festivals become rock festivals in an attempt to pull in the young, only to lose older patrons. Many theatre-goers now selfishly stand and 'whoop', while pub patrons swear and shout, thoughtless of others also there.
Bigger and newer isn't always better. Let's pause and consider before recklessly discarding our past.
We should leave something for the young to grow into and then cherish . . . their heritage.

* * *

 When not writing columns I used to edit pages and coming up with headlines could be a funny old game, as this week's Gazette column recalls.

WOMEN'S sports continue to push back boundaries with impressive professionalism. Mind you, She Who Knows bemoans girls' enthusiasm today for rugby and soccer, championing hockey and netball as more feminine.
Having said that, my late mother was captain of Cheadle-Hulme Girls' First-11 cricket team back in the 1930s.
Now, in the traditionally conservative north, lassies are rolling up blouse sleeves for beefy highland games. Scottish organisers want more female competitors to throw the hammer and toss the caber (a tree trunk).
It reminded me of one of the unintentionally funniest headlines I've seen in a newspaper, this paper in fact, when highland games were planned at Stanley Park.
We sub-editors kept a rogues' gallery of double-entendre headings which had been spotted or, even better, had escaped notice and been published.
These often involved serious news stories, court reports or even tragedies when a hard-pushed editor was trying to devise an eye-catching headline to fit an awkward space with deadlines approaching. There were double-checks, of course, but gaffes can slip through.
One court headline with a rather perverse sexual twist, involved a would-be car thief who'd been caught acting suspiciously but who also, according to his defence lawyer, had been behaving out of character following a romantic upset.
It read, 'Man unhappy in love tried card doors'. Well, it paints an odd picture, doesn't it?
More grimly, there was the notorious headline on a suicide/accident story, 'Man hit by train was depressed'.
Ah, but, back to those cabers. Organisers were short of entries for their Scottish Games in Blackpool and a sub-editor, perhaps too innocent (or bravely impish) for the job, devised the news-page main heading, 'Search is on for tartan tosser'.
“Very funny,” commented an observant senior editor passing by, who instructed, “Change it!”
So the young, rather coy sub-editor did so, to, 'Search is on for Scottish tosser'.

* * *

HERE's this week's column published in Thursday's Gazette, so let's rock on!

ELVIS has entered the building . . . at least it looked like him, in close-fitting, tasselled leathers, and sounded like 'the King' too, with rocking 12-man (and women) backing band.
Excited anticipation ran through the audience at Lytham's Lowther Theatre and Elvis, actually tribute act Chris Connor, didn't disappoint. He hammered out classic rock numbers then spine-tingling, slower ballads in that distinctive style and quality which made the poor boy from Mississippi so great.
We've attended other tributes to pop legends, like Roy Orbison or Abba (even better looking than the stars), and not been let down once. Some nostalgia shows were the real thing, like Tony Christie or The Searchers (two of the originals anyway). Their musicianship is even better now and gallows humour flows in winning style.
It's also refreshing to be entertained by pop 'stars' who don't take themselves too seriously, nor cost an arm and a leg to see.
“This reminds me of my favourite cake,” quipped Chris Connor, before singing 'In The Ghetto'.
It reminded me of teddy boys and being allowed up to watch Bill Haley and the Comets sing 'Rock Around The Clock' on our black-and-white TV.
I wasn't into Elvis; my first '45s' being Cliff Richard's 'Living Doll' then Adam Faith's 'What Do You Want?' – before even having a record player (I went to friends). Another frustration, apart from girls, was my hair having a smaller 'quiff' than older brother's – though we both used pots of Brylcreem.
For any too young to remember, or others seeking nostalgia, catch up with the heady days of the 50s and early 60s on Talking Pictures archive film and TV channel.
Nowadays, I've grown into Elvis - so croon again, Chris! In the meantime a Rod Stewart tribute is heading to town . . .
Speaking of ageing, he wears it well too!


* * *

IT was sad to hear of the famous Waterloo crown-green bowling ground (pictured artfully below), in South Shore, being at risk. I hope its supporters win their campaign for more control and funds.
However, this did prompt happy memories from when Blackpool led the way in many sports and recreation – from its enormous Derby Baths, at North Shore, to the world renowned Tower and Empress Ballrooms on the Prom.
I enjoyed them all close-up, as a young reporter on this newspaper. It was my first daily and it came as a shock having to work weekends. Still, this often involved helping the busy sports department.
On summer Saturday afternoons we had a reporter in the score-box at Blackpool Cricket Club and other league matches. There was also the international junior tennis tournament at South Shore. In winter there was the Seasiders' soccer, of course, plus Fylde rugby and many other fixtures including Borough rugby league on Sundays.
It was great to be out the office and watching some good-class sport. Reporters were also often fed for free and, when the bar was open, it was similarly complimentary. Not a bad day out, when you're being paid!
At the Waterloo they were particularly accommodating. A sheltered VIP balcony caught the sun and also offered free bar and buffet for tournament guests, sponsors and Press.
I recall one Blackpool mayor enjoying himself there – then having to be helped back to the civic limousine by a burly town-hall attendant. Back in those genial days, of course, we would never report such an unedifying spectacle.
Finally, we news reporters pitched in on late Saturday afternoons to assemble final reports and phoned in results, all compiled and sent down to our basement Press as vans waited outside - for the popular sporting Green newspaper.
Somehow there's just not the same excitement today . . . simply switching on a smart phone.

* * *

NEWS used to be so important to me. There again, I was a newsman for 40-odd years, odd often being the operative word.
However, with retirement and ageing (this month heralds my three score years and 10), I realise news rarely makes much difference.
Don't get me wrong, I like to hear local news – from neighbours, friends or, of course, this newspaper. But opinions at Westminster, Brussels or even trials and tribulations of unfortunate people further away, wash over me nowadays.
What matters most is enjoying yourself while, hopefully, helping others do the same.
What a relief it was when I finally cancelled my 'heavy' Sunday newspaper. It was a weekly battle to read through before the next hefty tome came through the door.
How refreshing, too, not to hear the diatribe of conflicting politicians, or depressing details of disasters or dire deeds suffered by others then broadcast on TV and radio bulletins. When there are events which affect us, others bring it to our attention soon enough.
These liberating views have not arisen simply from my fast approaching 70th, but because our newsagent can't get any children to deliver his newspapers. The poor man now has to personally bring round ours every morning, along with 120 others.
Often it doesn't arrive until well after breakfast time, so She Who Knows – who loves to read her Daily over toast and marmalade – now keeps them a day late. What's more, us both now being 24 hours behind hasn't mattered at all. In fact, we've come to rather like it.
By the time some warned-of calamity or panic is due to occur, it's already safely passed us by.
The vital news you see, dear reader, is that life is to be enjoyed here and now - while remembering always that, thankfully, hope springs eternal in the human spirit.

* * *

ANYONE for tennis – even in the rain or a gale?
The Fylde's only purpose-built indoor tennis court will have a public airing this Saturday following repainting, when South Shore Lawn Tennis Club holds its annual open day.
The club is one of the coast's oldest and most successful over years, once famed for an international annual junior tournament and for producing Stanley Matthews Junior, who won junior Wimbledon; not to mention discos and barbecue parties on sultry summer evenings!
There are 'hard', shale and grass courts at the spacious club, on lower Midgeland Road at Marton Moss, while the impressive indoor is carpet – these days an increasingly popular surface. There is also a flourishing croquet club on the rural site, as well as recently refurbished clubhouse with bar, changing facilities and function room.
Tennis has always been popular on the coast, despite our windy weather, and now other clubs are pursuing indoor playing facilities. There are plans for a purpose-built court at St. Annes and hopes of a temporary 'bubble' in winter over two outdoor carpet courts at Lytham.
Still, hopefully this weekend the sun will shine and prospects be good for outdoors as our sporting coast comes to life for the summer season.
For those who would like to learn tennis, or refresh their game, there are coaching sessions at most of the popular and friendly clubs.
At South Shore on Saturday's open day, running from 1pm-5pm, there is free coaching, starting with sessions for children: 1-1.30pm, ages four to eight; 1.30-2pm, ages eight to 10; 2-2.45pm, ages 11-16; then adults, from 2.45pm onwards and, as the club (tel. Blackpool 767753) promises, fun for all the family.
There are also membership offers and all equipment is provided, say the organisers. All you have to remember is to bring trainers – and don't forget your children either!

* * *

This week's Thursday column from the Gazette calls for a clean-up on our streets and, as posted here, has a twist of controversy in its tail . . .

LOCAL elections are on the way, so it's time to talk rubbish! What I notice most about our once proud resort neighbourhoods is the litter – and lack of bins to put it in.
Blackpool bin collections are bad enough, with the majority of residents - especially tenants - ignorant about recycling or bin 'presentation' and collection times.
Fortunately, there are still committed locals who do care. The other day I bumped into 'Bag Man', as I'll refer to him here, coming round the corner from his nearby home. The active pensioner was struggling along with a dog, shopping basket and a black bin bag into which he was putting stray litter.
“Got to make some effort!” he explained to me, when I congratulated him on his public spiritedness, “It looks a disgrace otherwise.”
What's more, he knew the reason why – and it wasn't just untrained youngsters and ignorant adults dropping litter without conscience.
“Trouble is,” Bag Man continued, “Blackpool Council introduced those small street sweeping vehicles and got rid of all their former road-sweeping staff. However, those things aren't much use with all the parked cars blocking their way!” Bring back the street sweepers with their carts, was his clarion call.
My own would be bring back our bins, as the few litter bins which were around the area have now mostly gone – to avoid employing people to empty them. The result of all this is plain to see and, as Bag Man commented, “It's very depressing. I go out three times a day with the dog and have never seen any street cleaners.”
Fylde and Wyre fare better, this is Blackpool's shame. So, I say, vote accordingly and let's clear up this rubbish!
The other concern is speeding, along with police on the streets to enforce our laws.

(Personally, I've given up on Brexit and will be voting Green every opportunity. Call it a protest vote, a plea for genuine ideals, or concern for our beautiful world . . . I might even glue myself to a bar stool.)

 * * *

WHAT a wonderful week! Did winter pass us by? It seems like that late cold-snap forgot to hit us this year – fingers crossed!
Here in Great Marton, Blackpool's premier suburban high street of Whitegate Drive is setting out its stall for the welcome sunshine and days of outdoor leisure ahead.
Our resort town may have fewer trees than any comparable town in England (so I'm told), but those mature sycamores and horse-chestnuts are budding along 'the Drive' – just as are services and businesses here.
Blackpool's first micro pub, the Number 10, has a fresh frontage with tables and chairs facing the sun, along with cool ales and other drinks on tap, also tasty tapas and Thai food.
Just nearby, the coast's oldest hostelry, the Saddle Inn, will be offering a new outdoors bar in its popular beer garden, as well as the award-winning range of cask ales and inexpensive food.
But it's not just about indulging ourselves, with Easter approaching our St. Paul's Church will be marking the most important Christian festival and there will also be a fair outside on the holiday weekend.
There's even a brighter look to Devonshire Square with the renovated Number 3 sports pub and wine bar, as well as new restaurants along the Drive. Other high streets, such as South Shore's Highfield Road, are also bucking the downward trend, with lots on offer for residents as well as the changing face of the town-centre and Promenade attractions.
Then, when the bustle gets too much, I'll join others enjoying a stroll across beautiful Stanley Park to its excellent café, perhaps with a cool one later while watching cricket nearby.
Why holiday elsewhere? The only driving we shall be doing this summer is up to friendly Fleetwood, across to picturesque Poulton or down the free-rolling Fylde to leafy Lytham.
How fortunate we are!

* * *

THIS week's column was a bit of a plug for the latest book, but also thoughtful of those among us who suffer from invisible 'demons' which haunt them. We should all try to show more understanding and care.

HE was a sad sight, the haunted looking man wearily carrying a suitcase. It was as though he didn't notice others on his lonely forced march – seemingly going nowhere.
I'd seen him some times before around our area of the Fylde; always well-dressed and clearly cared for, but displaying no pleasure in his apparently aimless perambulations.
This middle-aged chap seemed another of those unfortunate people receiving 'care in the community' or perhaps from relatives; daily absorbed in his own tortuous ritual, driven by his pains or self-imposed worries.
'Not quite all there!' as they used to say, or, 'One sandwich short of a picnic'. But in reality it wasn't funny. Neither was he a danger to anyone else, only to his own well-being – like those other distressed souls adrift or at the coast's new Harbour Hospital for mental sufferers. There, but for the grace of God . . .
Typical scribe that I am, I didn't offer to help or cheer him, but his unknown story intrigued me and inspired my latest novel.
It's the fifth thriller/romance in my Fylde-based 'Sam Stone investigates' series, just published on Kindle and in paperbacks sponsored by the Arts Council. 'The Mystery of Mister Blues' also features scenes from Paris night-life.
The Sam Stone stories, like my other novels or humorous memoir, aim to be entertaining but also, most importantly, uplifting. I hope in that way to spread some joy and, in this case, perhaps make up a little for this disturbed man's suffering.
His plight made me grateful for my own good health and happiness, here on our wonderful Lancashire coast. This unsung hero, who really does tramp its byways, may never know of my fictional tribute to him but others will and, hopefully, find it uplifting too . . .
So thanks, then, from us to him, poor man.

* * *

WE seem to have a new, all-consuming hobby these days – attending medical appointments. If it's not me with some ailment then it's She Who Knows. I won't go into details, except to say we've had our share, thanks for nothing, of viruses plus unpleasant surprises.
For me the biggest shock was that, according to a nurse doing my annual check, I'd now lost two inches in height – or had I really been deluded for years before?
“Just part of ageing,” she counselled merrily.
Still, there are pluses to it all. “You're almost living here these days,” observed a cheerful caterer in the health-centre café, “Still,” she added wryly, “you've paid in enough, over years.”
There's a gallows humour which triumphs, with occasional treats to keep up spirits – like bacon butties or oozing rounds of cheese on toast with creamy coffees in staff canteens – we know all the right places now.
The health service is our biggest employer and its diverse working staff deserve all our thanks and respect. They're wonderful, despite unrelenting pressure, outrageously long hours and no staff parking. A book I read by a veteran NHS medic, while waiting in A&E, had the right prescription: get rid of management and return control to matrons and doctors.
There's even one lot of pen-pushers now 'dumbing down' NHS leaflet information, as though we're all children. There won't be references to urine, for example, but 'wee' instead. It's rather like those tiresome BBC attempts to be everybody's cosy buddy – with news bulletins always referring to 'Mums and Dads', rather than parents, and needless from-the-scene reporting.
I'm all in favour of a friendly approach and cheerfulness, as well as not standing upon ceremony, but we deserve respect too. So, treat us like adults – those hard-pushed staff always do!

* * *

WE may have been battered by gales and rain recently but there's a freshness of spring in the air on the Fylde these days and Easter, with its uplifting spirit of new life and hope, is now just a few weeks away.
It's also the time of the year when we at Edmonds Towers dig deep into the coffers to renew membership of clubs and social groups which add real depth and shared pleasures into our lives.
In the winter we keep our spirits and health up with afternoon tea dances which, fortunately, abound on our holiday coast, along with a weekly dip in a swimming pool – in my case at the nearby Village Hotel.
We've just paid our subs for South Shore Tennis Club, where we use the coast's best indoor court, and will soon be paying similar to Lytham Sports Club, where we enjoy outdoor carpet and grass courts. There's also Blackpool Cricket Club, with its wonderful facilities and surroundings, then, last nut not least, the Friends of Stanley Park - who do so much for our greatest public attraction away from the Promenade and, incidentally, the biggest green recreational space outside of London.
These places are perfect for families to enjoy outdoor activities and social life together, in a friendly, safe and healthy environment where you can meet friends and make new ones. If you haven't tried such clubs, then you're missing out!
These great facilities, run mainly by volunteers, are residents' true treasures on our diverse coast, away from better-know seafront attractions.
Once paid up, it's time to restore my old strings, so to speak, check out my shorts and T-shirts, then look forward to sunshine bringing a spring to my step.
As for fitness, that's already taken care of for this veteran . . . under the watchful eye of She Who Knows!

* * *

GOOD news for local sports fans and a boost for our popular holiday coast (see pic below) . . . 

IT was good to see thousands of Blackpool Football Club fans back on our streets going to the home game last Saturday. We could hear the Seasiders' cheers and chants from Great Marton, carried to us on a briny breeze. The fans also set tills ringing merrily in hostelries, eating places and many stores around town.
It was a great turnout at a Bloomfield Road stadium now free from the Oyston family's unpopular grip. There was even a last-minute equaliser to add a fairytale finish of sorts.
When I first came here as a reporter for this newspaper, back in the 1970s, I was struck by the local pride of people and their sporting heritage. Their heroes were down-to-earth figures and in Blackpool all seemed possible.
It wasn't just the soccer legends either, I witnessed the Borough rugby team top its league while, down the coast at Ansdell, Bill Beaumont (now Sir Bill) represented union, rugby's other code. Blackpool Cricket Club also topped the Northern League.
What town of similar size could compete with our wonderful sporting facilities; let alone the theatres, restaurants and general entertainment? The place was a winner from all angles and, along its diverse coast, offered everything from fishing port to luxurious gentility.
The contrasts could be staggering. Just a mile or two inland from a buzzing Golden Mile with its razzmatazz, was elegant Stanley Park and homes more like mansions stretching down the verdant Fylde between golf courses. Equally, within a few minutes a train took you from South Shore's cosy cafés to bijou bistros in upmarket Lytham.
We even have our own motorway and international airport, or used to have. If council plans for it ever get off the ground, we're all queueing up to fly from aptly named Squires Gate.
So, let's cheer on our team once more – and revive our pride in this wonderful holiday coast.

* * *

SORRY, readers, a day late posting the column this week when the Cambridges, Kate and William, visited Blackpool. Sadly, it poured down but, as the Gazette proudly said, that didn't dampen high spirits on the day and Kate vowed to return - for a royal family holiday! Pictured below is the Comedy Carpet of comedians' catch phrases from the Promenade which the Duke and Duchess enjoyed.

THE Royal visit to Blackpool yesterday set me thinking about my own regal-style encounters.
Perhaps the most impressive happened without me being aware, not that I can remember; possibly I slept through it.
My parents had taken a ferry to the Isle of Man when the Queen and Prince Philip were also visiting. Douglas was packed, so Dad decided we should wander into nearby countryside and enjoy the sunny day away from crowds. (Not sure Mum agreed but all worked out well.)
Soon we were alone strolling the lanes, except for older brother Mike running ahead and me – in a pram. Then a Rolls-Royce with outriders rounded the corner and the Queen noticed our family and waved to us with a smile. Possibly Philip was cat-napping, like me.
When older I met Princess Alexandria opening a day centre named after her here. It was funny as her hubby Angus Ogilvy was lagging behind, chatting, and got mistaken by a dinner lady for just another hanger-on.
“Hurry up,” she chided the royal, “or all your food will be gone.” He thanked her and did so.
I have also dined and chatted with a couple of governors of Hong Kong, when a colony, but they're not in the same top bracket of course. Still, whatever you think of VIP higher-ups, I always found them refreshingly pleasant and, oddly enough, full of down-to-earth good sense.
Here our royal family are a huge tourist attraction and cause of fascination and envy throughout the world. There's a lot of loyalty and tradition in distant places inspired by them.
What's more I think they're worthy of respect. In our sovereign and her consort's case, they've lived long, met everyone important and been everywhere.
I'd certainly trust their experienced view far above any of our increasingly disloyal MPs, let alone – God forbid – a President Blair instead!

* * *

THE subject of this week's column is still ringing in my ears . . .

BON JOVI – by Jove! It was to be a laid-back evening at Lytham's Lowther Theatre, snacking in the café, enjoying a drink in the bar then relaxing with live musical entertainment.
It didn't matter they were a tribute band; we've seen many and enjoyed them – Elvis, Roy Orbison, even Abba (better looking than the Swedes).
Sometimes they've been the original bands, like Showaddywaddy, and very professional – often being as long-in-the-tooth as their grey-haired audience.
I thought people gave me odd looks when I mentioned going to 'Bon Jovi Forever', but put it down to ignorance. However, it was I who didn't realise they were a hard-rock band – my youthful wife books these things!
On our fateful evening out my ears were burning, from the sheer volume of noise which rocked me back in my seat towards the front of this cosy, little theatre. Even putting in makeshift ear plugs of tissue paper didn't help.
Soon I had my head bowed low with my fingers pressing in my ears, but was still grimacing in decibel discomfort. Also, the seemingly normal audience appeared to have gone crazy too, standing up and waving their arms around like loons.
“It's too much for him - the noise,” She Who Knows shouted to a concerned woman on my other side, who looked fearful that I might be having a heart attack.
I made my excuses and left before the intermission, receiving tutting noises of sympathy from caring female volunteers manning the doors.
I sat in the bar, shaking along with the furniture, until the orgy of noise finished and She Who rejoined me.
“Like sitting next to an old fogey!” she complained. However, she also declined to return for the second half.
No more of the hard stuff for me, thanks. It's The Searchers next time – soothing us with Needles and Pins.

* * *

A SPORTING memory of the Welsh 'dragon' took me back to the mid-1970s and my own mid-20s, partly spent languishing in rural Shropshire on the England/Wales border - as recalled in this week's column.

THE Wales and England 'Six Nations' fixture, this coming Saturday at Cardiff, reminds me of my own gallant days playing Welsh rugby.
Of course, it wasn't for the national squad. For one thing I'm English to the core; for another I was new to the game and lacking any natural flair. But I joined a club in a Welsh market town, while working on newspapers in the Borders, just for something to do at weekends.
Colleague and fellow Lancastrian Big Dave, from Bolton, was the only other English member of Welshpool RUFC, otherwise made up of hill farmers. However, they were good sports and mostly county players.
“Mind you,” an unassuming team-mate explained, “our counties here are tiny, with more sheep than folk.”
Still, they got me fit and used me as a sort of battering ram in scrums against remote village teams. We played on sloping fields with frozen cowpats and had to ask local farmers to make up team numbers. They'd gamely leave their watching families and get changed into our spare kit on the sidelines.
Dave and I even toured with the club, going by coach to London when Wales were at Twickenham, then Cardiff for the return match. However we sat, of course, among Welsh fans, where we'd join in their singing and proudly admire that legendary national side of the 70s.
I wasn't much of a singer either but memorably got applauded at Watford motorway services, when we dozen or so harmonised enthusiastically utilising their gents' toilets' fine acoustics.
Finally, my finest Welsh rugby moment was on the field, playing against Ealing. Amid gasps of disbelief from team-mates, I managed to neatly catch the opening kick then hand it out to the 'backs', just as I'd been taught.
After that, I stuck firmly to our coach's advice to me – carefully avoiding any contact with the ball.

* * *

THIS week's column welcomes the new year . . . you'll see what I mean. Incidentally, outside the sun is shining here - just three weeks after writing our Home page about snow. Still, by March who knows?

I'M married to a rat - which is fortunate, on this Valentine's Day, with me being an ox.
I'm referring, of course, to Chinese astrology, which goes by year and month of birth. We supposedly make a natural pair, though sometimes our serenity is tested.
Rats, like all animals representing Chinese calender characters, are much admired – in their case for creativity, quick intelligence and activeness.
My own lumbering attributes are dependability, strength and endurance, with a dogged independence (or stubbornness).
While She Who Knows impressed teachers by being so bright, quick and agile, my embarrassing school reports spoke of “wallowing in the sloth”. Still, I got to where I wanted in the end.
This year belongs to an even more laid-back animal, the pig. We all rather appreciate porcine particulars. Pigs, apparently, are big-hearted, easily pleased and like to snuffle around then settle comfortably wherever they feel at home.
I think of one 'pig' in particular, an old pal I travelled widely with overseas. Having hated all proper jobs, Howard was a tennis coach. However, he was usually to be seen leaning lazily on a net post, encouraging his students – mostly attractive females who adored him.
We saw a good deal of the Far East together, accepting our respective calender characteristics, relishing banquets and a few beers. He was good, easy company but it was hard getting him out of his bed each day; while 'sleep' would stay encrusted in his eyes until mid-morning, like a child's. He would also be nodding off most evenings by 10pm.
What's your sign? Well, it couldn't be easier to look up these days, on the internet. Descriptions of each animal, or personality, I've checked have been uncannily accurate.
This also brings a welcome reminder at the start of the year – none of us are perfect, nor all wrong. That's consoling for us all!

* * *

MY Gazette column this week offers a personal but heartfelt viewpoint on our biggest political poser of the moment, delivered in a robust, sporting spirit . . .

AGE puts life into perspective. When young I observed the world through rose-tinted glasses and was inspired by idealistic songs like 'Blowing In The Wind' or 'Universal Soldier'.
However, wistful hopes of changing the status quo floundered as working realities got in the way.
I was also a 'townie', eager to see the world and its leading cities. I even campaigned to join the 'Common Market' for peaceful, profitable unity among nations.
Now I wear prescription glasses and see my neighbourhood clearly, while avoiding town centres and travel. Entering my 70th year, I'm aware of the frailties of mankind, doubt political promises and mistrust all grand solutions.
The truth is, we think mostly of ourselves and care about what's closest to us.
Now knowing foreign ways, I'm stirred here by that good-natured patriotism which fills stadiums for the Six Nations rugby tournament, with anthems like 'I Vow To Thee My Country' or 'Jerusalem' lifting our spirits.
I was struck, too, by a couple of other televised events: watching ex-politico Michael Portillo being welcomed across booming Canada; then, here at home, hearing English farmers and industrialists bravely welcoming independence and wider opportunities when we quit a now fractious Europe.
Whatever your view on so-called Brexit, it seems Commonwealth blood has proved thicker than European water - we even have a common language! Also, our politicians while espousing efficiency and profit have, in reality, been asset stripping the UK by auctioning off our industry and utilities.
In local terms on the Fylde, manufacturers and entrepreneurs receive only token support and we have witnessed the sale of our finest agricultural land, at Marton Moss, for new housing dictated by distant policy-makers.
As an oldie, it seems clear to me this isn't joined-up thinking if we are ultimately to feed, clothe and look after ourselves.
Like the England rugby team, it's time to proudly flex our muscles!

* * *

THIS week's newspaper column was a bit of a rant. It also, incidentally, reminded me of some meals I ordered rather hopefully in Hong Kong canteens and restaurants when missing the taste of home. Sadly, I got only what I ordered back then, rather than what I expected: boiled eggs with toast came out as two cold, hard-boiled eggs and a slice of cold, unbuttered toast; roast chicken with vegetables turned out to be a whole roast chicken, with a few diced carrots and peas squeezed around the edge of my plate. Ah, the joys of travel!

A TAKEAWAY meal the other night gave me much food for thought. We'd ordered Chinese, fancying exotic spices, assorted rice and lighter food. I was also indulging She Who Knows' sweet tooth, with sweet and sour main course rather than my preferred curry or peppery Szechuan, along with old favourite of Chinese catering here – banana fritters.
What was delivered was a disgrace: spare ribs with rich sauce but barely any flesh; 'special' rice with little of the promised pork, chicken or prawn; then a sweet and sour which would mystify Chinese anywhere else in the world.
The sauce was stickily sweet but had no tang of 'sour', with a few 'king' prawns deep (rather than shallow) fried in this odd takeaway tradition and, consequently, tasteless. (Originally, perhaps Chinese attempted to copy our traditional battered fish takeaway.)
The dish was full of 'water chestnuts', another tasteless oddity of English-style 'Chinese' food. For only single portions of all, our bill was £20. That would have bought a feast in Hong Kong - I know, after living there years. Their only bad meals were attempts at British cuisine.
We might laugh at foreign mistakes over our traditional fayre; such as 'roast lamp' or 'vile chops' (i.e. lamb or veal) which I've memorably been offered. But Chinese cuisine is the finest and most versatile in the world. The spiciest meals I've enjoyed were in their restaurants, yet also the most subtle and delicate sauces with, for example, seafood.; also the most varied and exciting starters, then innumerable styles for every meat, fish and vegetable under the sun. (Even the tastiest cabbage, savoured on its own in cheesy cream sauce.)
Why won't these expatriate chefs proudly cook us superb, authentic food?
As for fast food, Cantonese shallow frying is the freshest and tastiest you'll find anywhere – while only requiring cheap ingredients. That is, of course, everywhere but here!

* * *

HELLO readers, my apologies yet again - for posting this week's column a day late on Saturday. However, we're still suffering with colds here and I'm busy doing all our shopping, cooking, cleaning - and, of course, the writing. Anyway, here is this week's column - a starry-eyed, local yarn!

I RECALL the proud declaration of a local years ago in our oldest pub, The Saddle Inn. “I'm not from Blackpool,” he insisted, “I'm from Great Marton!”
After 30 years, I share his affectionate loyalty. What's more, this one-time village is becoming more distinctive – and colourful! You might see leading residents sporting outrageous suits – in tangerine or with stars, flamingoes or other garishness. But I should explain.
While our council busily flattens popular, old town-centre haunts, Blackpool's main suburban thoroughfare of Whitegate Drive has quietly redeveloped to current tastes. There are homely restaurants, welcoming cafés, handy takeaways and bright renovations to landmark pubs (thankfully not the period Saddle).
A real-ale renaissance has also brought our resort's first micro pub, the Number 10 Alehouse. Snug cask-ale 'shops' sell other drinks or food and are replacing former post offices, bank branches and corner greengrocers as neighbourhood meeting places.
At the No. 10, which has a sister version in St Annes, I've made many new friends: chatty builders; even more talkative merry widows; many dog owners (pooches welcome); or folk of unusual hobbies, like worldwide crossword fans, or a chap who's sampled every real-ale pub in Lancashire. (He is now revisiting all, to check how many have sadly gone.)
Yes, we're a colourful bunch but none more so than No. 10 owner George White (pictured), whose swashbuckling style brought us this popular new attraction. It was George's 60th last week, celebrated firstly in his St Annes alehouse then here in Great Marton, where he sported his flash novelty suit of stars. I can reveal this startling attire was inspired by retired local teacher Tom, who sensationally wore one ablaze with flamingoes on New Year's Eve.
Fortunately, then, all those depressing downward trends are being reversed here in friendly Great Marton, where neighbourliness and fun are still the stars – like George in his micro empire.

* * *

 MY apologies to readers for posting this a couple of days late on Sunday. I've been struggling with the lurgi (my usual winter heavy cold at this time), which She Who Knows has kindly passed on to me. I hope to be fit for the funeral 'wake' mentioned below and to see other members of the Honourable Order (read on!).

 THE passing of a life is only natural yet it makes a profound mark on us who remain, bringing back special moments, places and shared experiences which shaped ourselves.
It was sad to hear of a veteran local who died last week, but whose spirit lives on in memories which left deep impressions. Richard Brigg, 84, was a strong man; a haulier who thought little of attending one of his heavy goods vehicles for major roadside repairs, even somewhere as grim as Shap on a stormy winter's night.
But he was also a sparkling character, full of life and fun; while deeply respected by those he met socially, or through his work and other businesses he helped run later in life.
It was Richard, when chairman, who introduced me to the Honourable Order of Bass Drinkers, a colourful fore-runner of the Campaign for Real Ale, still flourishing on the Fylde and in Manchester. Here, they met mainly at the Saddle Inn (pictured left), in its coal-lit rooms, safeguarding and relishing Draught Bass - still king of ales today at Blackpool's oldest pub.
He was the straight-backed man in a smart leather overcoat, with a glint in his eye if challenged but who, in an instant, would change that to a twinkle of humour and good fellowship which made him fine company.
Richard and wife Ruth had a well-deserved retirement in Spain but returned recently to Great Marton. “Where else would you rather be?” he asked me, eyes sparkling, on a recent visit to his favourite local.
It was only in his ninth decade that Richard's health faltered. Ruth and sons John and Martin can give thanks for a life full-lived, at his funeral from 12.30 on Tuesday, January 22, at Lytham Crematorium. His spirit will be with us again in a wake afterwards, at the Saddle from 1.30, where all friends are welcome.

* * *

I'M posting this week's column a day early, as we have an early start to our morning tomorrow . . .

I WAS reading of an old chap living alone in a big house who tried not to make friends of wild animals sharing his garden, like birds or a young hare he was tempted to treat like his children.
He hardened himself against them because, nature being harsh, some got killed and that pained him. Yes, love can hurt.
Not only do I talk to garden birds, I even chat to inanimate things too. When rising first thing, as She Who Knows sleeps on, I make a brew and greet her old teddy bear on the rocking chair while drawing our blinds, then the cuckoo clock should it call – which it does now at odd times.
It's not loneliness but a joyful inclination to share my high spirits with whoever is around, even if not alive! True, it's hurtful to find a dead 'pet' or, even, a fallen cuckoo clock (I soon 'mended' it) but, as with real friends or family, we shouldn't build a protective shell about ourselves.
Like most people in friendly Lancashire, I greet anyone who cheerfully does the same – or not. Rebuffs I shrug off, as they're few.
Over festivities last week I greeted other parishioners during a rare church attendance. On a rainy day it cheered us all. The sermon was about trusting the Almighty and being open to all - very inspiring if, like me, you take an optimistic approach to life.
Then I read about that lonely, old man protecting his tender feelings by trying not to care for other living things. That's why it seemed sad, to be hardening oneself and one's life.
How much better to keep the faith, however testing it proves at times, and to trust that, like goodness itself, this brings us its own reward.
In fact, that's seems a fine New Year resolution.

* * *

ONE of the joys of Christmas has been getting together with old friends and former collleagues . . .

“YOU should write a column of memories on working with printers,” suggested Gazette former production chief Dave Earl. We were at our annual reunion for retired newshounds and compositors in Poulton's Thatched House.
No women, I'm afraid, they had more sense. Perhaps they'll join us next year.
To readers who don't appreciate it, I should explain the inside story of producing your local newspaper over the years. When I started in the 70s, the Press men were good enough to show me my first front-page byline coming off their big machine, which shook our Victoria Street building three times a day. Then we retired for refreshment through the back door of what was then The Grapes pub.
Later, when sub-editing, I worked closely with highly skilled compositors who changed our typewritten stories, headlines, photographs and sketchy page designs into a newspaper; first in hot metal on Linotype machines. To edit anything 'on the stone' as their basement workshop was called, we read print upside-down and back-to-front.
You couldn't touch metal-framed pages for the Press, that was their province. But we worked proudly together with – usually - mutual respect, plus many laughs to ease daily deadline pressure. Even during occasional strikes – usually national ones – there was understanding. How could you not warm to a management, in the form of spat and fedora wearing Sir Harold Grime – who sent us out hot soup and 'chairs for the lady pickets' one snowy Christmas?
Dave Earl himself recalled another amiable character – only a lowly messenger girl but with lots of loveable cheekiness. “Hello,” she'd shouted, seeing an 80-year-old Sir Harold at the top of stairs she was about to climb, “come on down Tiger!”
Today the Gazette is still entertaining you, but in ever-changing ways. Here's hoping you enjoy it for many years to come!

* * *

 SORRY, a day late posting this week's column for you - pressure of Christmas parties and giftwrapping!

IS there anyone left in Blackpool, outside of its town hall, who still believes the new tramway works are a good idea? Will our council please remind us again why we are spending all this money while undergoing years of civic misery?
The disruption to provide a tram link from Blackpool North rail station to the Prom has been going on so long most people have forgotten how to get around their once-busy resort.
At the same time, buses have been rerouted and lost their usual stopping points in the town centre, so no one knows where to catch one. Most locals decide it's better to simply stay out of town and leave it to the visitors. Except, of course, those are scarce – since rail travel has been disrupted for electrification, while in a car they face a dizzying maze of diversions.
No, it's all hopeless and chaotic. Last week I huddled across a deserted St. John's Square in a freezing gale, to visit our indoor market and a couple of popular real-ale pubs – all trying to be festive but, for the most part, unseasonably quiet.
These days we don't even like travelling elsewhere. We've only driven once on a motorway in the last three years, then found the congestion and - when we did get moving - speed both terrifying. What's more, everyone drives far too close to each other – as there's not enough space for them all. Just as well we were crawling along.
How much better if we all left our cars at home and used efficient, plentiful and cheap public transport!
But, hang

* * *

BIT of a rant, this week's Gazette column by yours truly. However, at the risk of sounding a fogey, I wanted to give a respectful cheer for that traditional British manner of reasonable reserve . . .

WE'VE been enjoying Strictly Come Dancing on BBC1, but there's an annoying factor which increasingly jars with me. Why is everyone whooping?
It's especially bad on the weekday show, compèred by lively and likeable Zoe Ball. They only have to announce the start of the show, or mention who a guest is and it starts up – wild whooping. Whoever was mentioned hasn't even appeared yet!
Perhaps the floor manager is American and holding up a card instructing our traditionally reserved British audience to, “Holler and whoop!”
Or, possibly, he simply whoops himself. If you listen closely, it sounds like the same man; obviously young, very highly strung and wildly elated - as though high on mind-altering drugs.
Alternatively, this uncontrollable urge to shout above everyone else's enthusiastic but polite applause is some malady akin to Tourette's Syndrome, which should be pitied and medically treated.
Once you've noticed this irritating, anti-social behaviour you start hearing it on other programmes, rather like that annoying and false “canned laughter” they used to play in the background for telly sit-coms, specially American ones. Now it's wild whooping which accompanies most live-chat programmes, such as The One Show or Loose Women. It's even creeping into our theatres, like the Grand or Lowther.
Of course, this unseemly outburst stems from the States. The British, however deeply moved or excited, have traditionally simply clapped, cheered or, among down-to-earth types, perhaps whistled.
According to my online 'urban dictionary', whooping is, “The act of screaming in adoration, generally accompanied by a revolving fist-shake and prevalent in the United States, Australia and other former colonies settled by pioneering herdsmen.' It also supplies a literary reference, quoting, “The buffoons were screaming like idiots!” and finally adds, see also 'Screaming banshees'.
Well quite - and on the Beeb too! Anyway, it's strictly off limits for me.

* * *

THIS week's column saw me wearing my civic awareness hat, supporting our local high streets. However, man doesn't live by bread alone . . .

WE'RE backing our high-street stores by shopping in them, as this newspaper and council are campaigning. However, I know red tape has made some business plans near us flounder.
The micro-pub round the corner had a struggle with officials to establish itself, but is now highly popular. The owners of a new takeaway sandwich and lunch shop, equally well received by the public, gave up plans for a further business grooming pets because of 'council problems'.
This may be the result of others' rules, of course, but let's try and make it easier, not harder, for local ventures to get going and succeed.
For example, church halls - being public places – face many health and safety or planning constraints and expense. Our local one ended up being sold off, while the private entrepreneur taking it over didn't seem to confront such problems.
I can't help thinking we should be trying to save our churches too. They, like high streets, have to move with the times but do still have an important community role to play.
Can the good, old Church of England really expect working couples with young families to attend 'worship' at 10am on Sundays, as our local church does? For many, it's their one day off work and free of other commitments. What's wrong with opening in the afternoon?
Also, what happened to our church social clubs and afternoon Sunday schools? Their discos and sports events were often youngsters' first chance to socialise and make friends, or even to find future spouses. (My first kiss was at a church disco and I remember it still!)
Dancing and table tennis, yoga and afternoon-tea groups can still be popular, but also supplemented by electronic attractions and wider pursuits, such as team sports, rambling, the arts and music nights.
These grand public buildings were built for our enjoyment and advancement, let's put them back into use at the centre of our lives!

* * *

A DAY late posting this week's column, my apologies - but I've been busy ordering Christmas gifts online. Next, though, I'll look round the high-street stores. We want to support our local shops.

BLIMEY, it's nearly December! Christmas cheer, or stress, is breathing down our necks. I've already had invites – and arguments – over festive party dates.
Nowadays, I'm content to meet up with a few former colleagues and friends for a mid-week afternoon in the pub, a week before the big day.
My idea of an evening 'do' would start at around 5pm and end a couple of hours later, leaving time for a TV dinner and snooze at home before retiring to bed. The notion of meeting at eight and going on till late just makes me shudder – with all those loud, boozy crowds filling the bar!
The first Christmas parties of my 'adult' life came in mid-teens, when working within a big, open-plan office at Manchester Town Hall. These 'do's' were always disastrous but us revellers never learned. However, after widespread staff drunkenness and unseemly liaisons in stock rooms, council chiefs finally banned our annual knees-ups.
Later, when employed on newspapers around the country, I often worked up to the last minute before rushing about stores buying late presents - then heading off to railway stations, or motorways, to reach family festivities. It was the worst time of year to travel and the anxious, over-crowded experience very exhausting.
However, I still enjoy a reunion - preferably somewhere handy, quiet and conducive to conversation, like a fireside room in an old pub.
Such cosy get-togethers put life – both our present and the past – into perspective. They round off our experience of others, while inspiring good fellowship. These are also celebrations of our many blessings, so often taken for granted.
With all the care that is lavished upon Christmas, then the hope and energy invested into New Year, this time brings a warmth we need during the coldest season of the year.
So, let's enjoy it all!

 * * *

 BIRTHDAYS, ah, they're not what they used to be - and come round too quickly!

IT was my venerable mother-in-law's birthday again this week. I say 'again' as these celebrations seem to come round ever more quickly. The years probably pass even faster for her. Tired of fuss over her longevity, Wynne now chooses to age backwards, losing a year annually.
Like Prince Charles, I'm facing my Biblical three score years and 10 (in 2019). Oh, you wouldn't think so? That's very kind! What hurts is when people just nod after you've revealed your age.
Glamorous She Who Knows, on the other hand, looks great and has been mistaken as my daughter. Her sprightly gait and fresh complexion owe much to that clean living she attempts to teach me. I, sadly, courted my well-seasoned looks: enjoying a pint, or savouring wine; always clearing my plate, while never known to rush anywhere.
When I once limped into my doctor's surgery – years ago – sporting an injury from the squash club; he quipped, “What happened? Did they ring last orders and you leaped too quickly off your barstool?” Really!
Anyway, I shall share with you my lifetime's sagacity about the ironies of ageing. (Also see my 'Growing Older Book'.)
We're in such a hurry when young to be older that children telling people their age add, “and a half”, or even “a quarter”. Only later - in my case when I ceased to be a teen - do we anxiously wish to slow down time.
In the end, you only get the opportunity to make the most of life when you're considered past it. Also, just as you do acquire that long-dreamed-of free time to indulge yourself, you're warned to cut back on everything.
Still, as veteran entertainer Maurice Chevalier (of 'Thank Heaven' fame) once wisely observed, “Growing older is not so bad . . . if you consider the alternative.”

 * * *

THIS week's column had a refreshing air of nostalgia but also reflected what's often sadly missing in modern, busy lifestyles - peace and quiet in natural surroundings.

AT home during these dark evenings we're enjoying old films on the Talking Pictures channel.
I like their detective series, being gentler and more down-to-earth than modern equivalents. There's Gideon's Way, saluting Scotland Yard; then Public Eye, featuring down-at-heel private investigator Frank Markham.
Before the start of programmes – some going back to the '30s – there is often a warning they may contain scenes or language which could offend. Yet there is none of the violence or swearing of current dramas and films. They mean, of course, these classics are not – to use today's disinfected parlance – politically correct. We're certainly not offended!
Instead they're a delight: tightly scripted and with no gratuitous gore; acted by theatre-trained professionals and, generally, optimistic and uplifting, while also being full of social history.
We're reminded of how people lived less than a lifetime ago. There's greyness, yes, but also harmless fun and cheeriness; a traditional mix of society (sorry, if that offends) and, above all, very few cars!
The films are a reminder of how towns and suburbs once were (like this old picture of Blackpool Tower and Promenade). How wonderful to see mainly pedestrians, a few cycles, possibly a horse and cart – then the odd car; but no double-parking, motorway congestion or road rage. There are even trees lining avenues; gardens and parks, instead of tarmacadam. Trains, buses and trams are packed and fully staffed; they run regularly and are cheap. Those were the days!
Now many young people, with others old enough to know better, care more about their treasured car and its 'image' than their own appearance or, sadly, behaviour to others. I wonder if, in less than a lifetime from now, viewers might look back and laugh, amazed by our selfish, senseless attachment to cars, with their high pollution and costs.
I fear, however, there might by then only be a 'virtual' world remaining.

* * *

MY recollections in this week's Gazette column were of past local attractions recently restored - always good to see. It's so tragic to witness our past being bulldozed for little gain. 

IT'S good to see a former landmark attraction in our resort again attracting investment and crowds.
I'm talking about the Number Three, known previously as the Crown or the Didsbury, but – to locals - always the No.3. Historically, it was the third coaching stop out of Blackpool; the Clifton Hotel being the first, the former Grosvenor Hotel the second.
When I came to Blackpool in the 70s, the No.3 was Number One with locals and hopping at weekends, with lines of taxis waiting to take revellers on to town-centre clubs. The lounge bar was a great meeting place, though many of the girls preferred the exclusive atmosphere of its wine bar. There was also a cosy vaults.  
(I've been reliably informed, since the article was published yesterday, that Roy Cogdell was the landlord from 1975 to 1980, with wife Barbara, whereupon a Tom Dover took over. The wine bar was called Le Bouchon , with the food bar adjacent, and the long bar was at the back of the
ine bar with an old street lamp as a feature, however - says my contemporary source - the vaults were not really 'cosy'.)   
Later in the 80s, I recall the main landlord as Alan Ball – a Scouser with dashing, dark eyebrows beneath a mane of grey hair. He certainly knew his stuff and wife Barbara was an excellent cook and graceful addition to the scene.
Now the Ma Kelly's group has taken over this historic location and re-opened last weekend. This pub/entertainment company has proved a real boon to the resort, taking over many flagging locations and turning them into popular success stories. Its head man, Paul Kelly, came from a catering family who owned the busy Tower Diner on the Prom. Paul deserves lots of credit. Let's wish him the same good fortune with his race horses.
Whitegate Drive is now looking like a great investment opportunity again, with the No.3 reopened, the Belle Vue pub revamped, Blackpool's latest micro pub the No.10 soon offering tapas and, of course, the traditional Saddle Inn, our resort's oldest hostelry. There's even a new Italian, Sotto, opened to popular acclaim.
We lucky locals are again being spoiled for choice!

* * *

THIS week's column springs from the same warm pool of thought and feeling which inspired our November post on this website's Home page. Here, the celebrations have only just begun . . . we say cheers to you, reader, too!

TODAY is a big day for birthdays and anniversaries at Edmonds Towers, Great Marton. So, although November's chill is setting in outside, there's a cosy glow warming us at home.
Celebrations are more muted these days, although still gratefully savoured: a box of superior chocolates, lovingly wrapped; a beautiful bunch of flowers, along with a thoughtful and attractive or amusing card – we especially like those.
In the past, greetings cards to each other often featured romantic couples in elegant settings, usually dancing; or, perhaps, jokier ones touching other interests like tennis. One had an old chap in whites offering a tray of drinks to his lady partner, with caption, 'Tennis players don't get old, they just mix doubles.' Another cartoon-card pictured a 'mature' courting couple, perched in a tree and sharing a box of chocolates, captioned, 'Another Year of Fun!' Yes, that's the spirit.
Today's card has a fetching portrait on its cover of a cute terrier, which even got sales assistants cooing in delight when I chose it. That should stand the test of time. Those cards we most like remain on display, perhaps around the fireplace or alongside photographs on shelves. They're a reminder of the pleasant things in life to share – and much cheaper than an original painting.
Of course, birthdays and anniversaries come round quicker these days. It's rather like these columns, this weekly 'chat' I enjoy with readers. If they spread a little joy; inspire some local pride, or hope where there was little, then it's a job worth doing. The reward, as with personal presents, is in the giving.
Perhaps there's someone whose mood you could lift today. Go on, give it a go! It'll make you feel better too.

* * *

BIT of a rant from me, this week's Gazette column, but it made me feel better . . .

I'M turning green but not with envy – more like the Incredible Hulk. My shirt-busting fury stems from frustration at faceless council officials ruling our lives.
The other Monday I had an anxious, early-morning appointment at the dentist's – to have a front tooth pulled out. What could be worse to start one's week?
Well, I'll tell you - getting back to the car minutes later and finding a £70 fixed penalty ticket. This was just before parking would be permitted for up to two hours. Some blighter had been skulking, ready to pounce!
Yes, I know it's wrong to use a vacant resident's space, even for a few minutes, but no other parking was available by the surgery, plus it was bucketing down.
Round the corner, by Stanley Park, She Who (usually) Knows was also done. Although only parked the short time it took to collect me from a crowded cricket club, she failed to notice a tiny residents-only sign on the far side of the pavement. The air wasn't green but blue! (From me, of course, not She Who.)
The answer, I've decided, is to walk. It's healthier, you see more and meet interesting people. But, then, my anger sprouted again. The final straw – or privet clipping - was my green bin not being emptied.
I've left it out before, full of hedge cuttings and where you couldn't miss it, but – when ringing to complain - been told it wasn't 'properly presented'. No wonder neighbours don't pay for green recycling.
Still, just as I'd penned this and ranted on the council's website, lo and behold! My bin was finally emptied.
Thanks, in the end, council. But then, when I weigh it up, we've still paid £30 for only one collection – and more than double that in parking fines . . .
I'm off again – walking, of course.

* * *

THIS week's Gazette column carried a similar message to this website's latest Home page post for October - a plug for the latest book.

I ALWAYS thought it grand to be a newspaper columnist, rather than doing proper work – even on a newspaper. Of course, the reality is different.
On local papers, columnists tend to write their stuff in rare free moments and often just before deadline, while having other duties like reporting or editing.
Now semi-retired, I'm typing this in pyjamas after breakfast in my 'study' (really the storage and laundry room). It's second nature now and I would miss these weekly chats with you.
Since then I've written for papers in cities as diverse as Hong Kong and Salt Lake City - yes, for the Mormons who were generous payers!
My first column came in my early 20s on a weekly in London's East End (see picture of me as a keen, young hack - it's a shock to me, too).
Mainly, though, I've written about life on the Fylde for this paper - over four decades.
I tell you all this as my latest book is a collection of columns illustrated with occasional cartoons and updates, entitled 'Wish You Were Here'.
I hoped it might entertain, rather than these shared muses, observations and confessions just being chucked out with the fish-and-chip shop wrappings.
It might even make a healthy gift. According to reports, books are good for mental well-being. They take readers outside their daily problems, offer another view of the world and teach us that we're not all so different after all.
However, I prefer to think of it as a fun stroll in good company down the promenade of life.
It's published at this time, with thanks to the Gazette, as autumn is setting in, temperatures dropping and darker nights approaching. When better, then, to settle down beside a cosy fire and escape our everyday concerns?
What's more, if its blurb reads true, you can dip in and out of this book like a warm Irish Sea – and that's a rare treat indeed!

* * *

THE political conference season has just drawn to a close in Britain but, in the future, there's a move to bring back the big party gatherings to Blackpool, where much investment is being undertaken. That all prompted a few vivid memories of the resort's glory days . . .

I'M obliged to well-informed Lytham pal Nick, for spotting an opinion column from the New Statesman magazine. This called for a return to Blackpool for political conferences.
In it, Patrick Maguire bemoaned the trend for big-city conferences by 'urban-professional' politicians only comfortable 'in posh hotels behind a ring of steel' - keeping the general public at bay.
Mr Maguire applauded quality hotels now being built in the resort and £25m invested in Winter Gardens improvements. He concluded, 'If Corbyn and May are serious about people who voted for Brexit, they should have their 2020 conferences in Blackpool.'
This brought back telling memories of true political heavyweights, who let our sea air blow away their capital cares (Which Way To Turn: see picture of PM David Cameron and wife on the Prom).
Who can forget Margaret Thatcher's visits and our streets lined with police sharpshooters? While, previously, Ted Heath had sojourned leisurely at the gourmet River House hotel, at Skippool Creek.
Labour's James Callaghan appealed privately to striking firemen in our town hall, then mistook me for his minders who were also waiting outside the committee-room door.
“Got the car? Shall we go then?” Big Jim asked me. My surprise was such I gaped wordlessly as detectives escorted the PM away.
I remember another Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, falling downstairs at Carriages restaurant, Talbot Square. What a bumbler the unfortunate man was! Little wonder he became a European commissioner.
Then there was grinning Tony Blair posing on breezy Prom, as John Prescott took a limousine to the conference - because his wife had 'just had her hair done'.
Finally, there was the Gazette photographer's story of Harold Wilson. When about to be pictured dining with his Labour Cabinet at the Winter Gardens, the wily PM had them pose with pints - rather than the cognacs they were really drinking. He also swapped a pipe for his cigar.
Oh for such craftiness now, for sorting out Brexit!

* * *

A MOBILE phone proved handy while away in North Wales (see Home page) but I'm still a texting novice, as admitted in this week's Gazette column.

I HAVE a confession to make. I've only texted once and under close instruction. Our Gazette car park attendant was the only other employee at a seminar on our new phone system who was equally ignorant, so we were taught to text 'Hi!' to each other.
I've tried texting since but failed. However, nowadays many services are provided online and there is pressure to learn.
I tell you this as a new book by author/actor Gyles Brandreth, entitled 'Have You Eaten Grandma?', bemoans 'the use and misuse of English in our time'.
Gyles, writing in The Oldie magazine about his book, throws light upon this sub-culture of the young and how they encrypt it to keep adults in the dark.
It made me LOL, as they say. You no doubt know that acronym – Laugh Out Loud (as opposed to lower case lol – Lots Of Love). But, OMG (Oh My God), I didn't know 'Wig' was an expression of delight for something so exciting it would, if wearing one, blow off your wig.
Closely kept codes of the young really Wigged me, such as: CTN – Can't Talk Now; KPC – Keeping Parents Clueless; POS – Parent Over Shoulder. Other shortened expressions seemed good ideas. For example, B3 – Blah, Blah, Blah; SLAP – Sounds Like A Plan; and, to B3 texters, TLDR – Too Long, Didn't Read.
The good news is there are now acronyms for oldies to use when texting. How about: ATD – At The Doctors; BTW – Bring The Wheelchair; FWIW – Forgot Where I Was; GGPBL – Gotta Go Pacemaker Battery Low; IMHO – Is My Hearing-Aid On? Then, my favourite, since the last stressful dental appointment, LMDO – Laughed My Dentures Out.
So there you are, proper English readers, all that remains is to say in text speak . . .
CU lol.

* * *

NOW the kids have gone back to school, the weather has picked up and it's sunny outside. This is only right and just, since it gives all us adults, especially retired 'oldies', a chance to relax and enjoy outdoors again - without the clamour of children, bless 'em! Here's this week's column:

WE had our flu jabs at the health centre this week, marking another year gone while still, thankfully, remaining fit. It was a reminder, too, of the changing seasons, just as in spring I undergo a blood-sample check – hoping for sunny results!
Of course, the place to really appreciate the seasons is outside and, apparently, those great outdoors are vital to our health. According to doctors, the natural environment plays an important part in our physical and spiritual well-being. The Royal College of Medicine and the NHS Alliance both champion 'outdoor healing' and the 'therapeutic role of a garden'.
Unfortunately, our busy and ever-expanding hospitals rarely have time or space to develop tranquil places of beauty with healing environments. However, some charities now maintain gardens by medical centres to give them a salubrious setting.
On the Fylde we're fortunate to have many parks and public gardens as well as the coastline to walk and cycle, or to simply sit and breathe that fresh air so prized by our forebears.
There's something of a celebration of all this beginning next week at Stanley Park, last year voted the best in the UK. Former Gazette journalist Elizabeth Gomm has an exhibition of pictures and words involving diverse visitors, centred upon her memorial bench by the boating lake to her late partner, former Gazette chief photographer Mike Foster. The exhibition is free and at the Visitor Centre run by The Friends of Stanley Park, beside its welcoming art-deco café Parks.
Of course, there are many memorial benches, as well as dedicated trees, around our park - the largest recreational green space outside London. Each tells a different story but all reflect that deep pleasure and contentment from relaxing in an uplifting natural environment.
Let's wish Elizabeth well – and all others who enjoy a park visit. I'll look out for you there!

* * *

BRRR! Autumn is here, with gales whistling around Edmonds Towers and temperatures plummeting. But are we down at heart? Never! Here's why . . .

MY Panama hat is now hanging on the back of our so-called 'study' door, removed from the kitchen where I'd take it out to sunbathe in Edmonds Towers' garden.
Also, last weekend I watched the last game of the season at Blackpool Cricket Club which, incidentally, topped the Northern Premier League's first and second divisions and the Palace Shield's Sunday one. Well done lads – and lasses! Teams are blossoming in the Lancashire Cricket Board's Women & Girls Cricket League.
This week we shall also be playing our last outdoor tennis – at Lytham Sports Club. Fortunately, there's a refurbished indoor court at South Shore Lawn Tennis Club, on the Moss, so we can play there over winter and autumn (which starts tomorrow).
How lucky we are on the Fylde coast to have so much entertainment and diverse activities for all seasons! We keep hearing of new restaurants, particularly in suburbs and aimed at locals not tourists, as well as cosy micro-pubs and craft beer houses appearing in different neighbourhoods. Here in Great Marton we recently welcomed the No.10 Alehouse, a mouth-watering addition to our existing popular pubs, Blackpool's oldest – The Saddle Inn – and the Boars (sic) Head with its exotic Thai menu.
Only the other day, while dining at Lowther Gardens' café before a rock concert, I spotted another possible winter hobby – the 'Tuneless Choir'. It's 'for those who can't sing but just love doing so anyway'. This choir, at St. Annes Parish Church Hall, follows an earlier one still making a glorious noise in Thornton.
My music master told me never to sing in public but mime (after repeatedly hitting me on the head with his wooden recorder), so it might suit me. However, we also have those afternoon tea dances to attend . . .
See what I mean? We're just spoiled for choice!

See also our Poem page - to inspire some autumn awe!

* * *

ALL that glitters is not gold and that's certainly true today when so much is false. What dazzles us most, it seems, is a mix of celebrity and glamour propped up, of course, by wealth.
These are the ingredients making Strictly Come Dancing such a hit for the BBC. It was always top viewing at Edmonds Towers but, of late, has waned in appeal.
On Saturday we watched the preview for this winter's glitzy series and, well, were sadly disappointed. Who were these 'celebrities' anyway? There were no truly household names, famous politicians, sporting legends or top-billing entertainers – emerging from their comfort zones to tackle ballroom dancing in front of millions.
Then there's the superficial glamour. We don't mind sequins, they're fun, but this lavish show was produced Hollywood-style. Film cameras glossed over any imperfections and air-brushed out all wrinkles, unlike those unforgiving high-definition television lenses usually employed. Whitened teeth dazzled like toothpaste adverts while waxed, spray-tanned torsos flashed in the strobe lighting - as professional dancers met contestants and embraced in over-the-top, theatrical jubilation.
The once inspired show formula all started going downhill when producers began interfering and 'glamming up' the excellent mix of experienced and opinionated judges. Arlene Phillips was axed and we missed her sharper edge; then chief judge Len Goodman retired to “pickle his walnuts” in Cockney-land, probably tiring of everything now going so smoothly. Soon, I fear, judges will be as tame and politically correct as those in the anodyne American version of this worldwide hit.
Besides, what will they now really have to judge? Most contestants were young or, at least, fit and agile, while also obviously taught dance at stage schools. It all seemed as plastic as that tatty Glitterball Trophy.
Let's just hope the Beeb still brings the show up north to Blackpool's Golden-Mile Tower, where real life still shines.

* * *

This week's Gazette column was an echo of my latest Home page post of this website, though with a little different slant to each. It's food for thought, whatever you're taste is for . . .

OUR holiday coast was booming last weekend with the Lights Switch-On and Britney on Blackpool Prom; while St. Annes held its International Kite Festival and Lytham, well, leafy and now trendy Lytham is always full at weekends!
The Illuminations and pier firework displays will continue to draw visitors this month but, with Brexit looming, there's some British customs which could attract cultural tourists from further afield.
The Chinese already know Blackpool from its world ballroom dance championships paired with Shanghai, a more exciting link-up than our old friend and 'twin' Bottrop, in Germany. However, our coast is also rightly renowned for fish and chips – a traditional treat fast becoming a 'must-have experience' on tours from China.
A chippy-come-restaurant outside York (Scotts, at Bilbrough Top on the A64) is attracting more than 100 Chinese diners a week. The influx began after its manager introduced Chinese menus, along with a website and messaging 'app' on one of China's most popular social media platforms.
Chinese tour operators now add the 'fish and chips experience' after their President, Xi Jinping, famously shared such a supper with then prime minister David Cameron on a visit to the UK three years ago.
Staff at the Yorkshire chippy cheerfully pose for pictures with Chinese visitors, whom they report are “very friendly, smiley and happy”.
Of course, our coast's award-winning chippies could offer much more to savour than on sale over the dark, colder side of the Pennines. After trawling nautical history at Fleetwood, there's diverse piscatorial catering along the Fylde or, of course, cultural curiosities like deep-fried haggis – or even Mars bars – thanks to Blackpool's Glaswegian associations.
Sometimes, in our Victorian resorts, we can feel we're living in a museum. Well, we might have missed out on World Heritage status, but the sea's blessings might still bring a fresh tide of seaside attractions.

* * *

JUST time before the summer season ends to squeeze in another tennis tale. Last week I commented on sepia pictures in this paper showing the game played on the Fylde during the last century. How smart everyone looked, fresh and sporting in 'whites'!
Now, apart from at Wimbledon, anything goes as regards sports outfits. However, it seems some notables have gone too far. Serena Williams, a favourite TV performer for us at Edmonds Towers, has been banned from again wearing her black catsuit at the French Open. The tournament is to introduce a stricter dress code.
Serena herself said the outfit gave her confidence so soon after childbirth and made her feel like a 'superhero', particularly easing her worries about blood clots which had troubled her. Mind you, we vividly recall her wearing an even more sensational catsuit years before.
Perhaps it's time that local clubs should rule along similar lines – and, for example, ban leggings. These, no doubt, keep the limbs warm in cold weather (as tracksuits do) but, unless worn with accompanying skirts, are skin-tight and revealing.
We've also seen some younger girl players in shorts so tiny many onlookers wondered if they had forgotten their skirts, being reduced to exposing themselves in underwear. After all, tennis isn't competing with beach volley ball to attract more male spectators!
How would those older ladies, who feel the cold most, react if us veteran men started wearing such leggings too? Anyone remember comedian Max Wall? We shudder at the thought!
Then we could also rule that men should not wear floppy shorts – also unpleasantly revealing when sitting down. Or, indeed, skirts shouldn't be so short as to expose knickers when serving or picking up balls . . .
Well, it would be a brave committee member who proposed such, so I better finish there – at Love All.

* * *

As the tennis season nears its end, the local paper took a trip down Memory Lane with pictures of veteran players from their hey days. What a pity they can't be coloured in, as is possible today, but remain black and white - unlike our rich memories . . .

IT'S a shock, though also delightful, when black-and-white archive pictures from this newspaper's Memory Lane section show people you know now – as they were 40-odd years ago.
So it was last Friday for me and other keen players, as The Gazette served up sporting memories from the last century of Fylde's proud tradition of tennis clubs.
The front cover showed half-a-dozen young lady members of Poulton's Moorland club, in 1974, all dressed charmingly in fashionably short, white tennis skirts or shorts, holding wooden Dunlop-Maxply racquets and ready at the net for a fresh season.
Inside was a spread of sepia memories from Thornton, Blackpool, South Shore, St. Annes and Lytham clubs, along with a professional exhibition in the 1950s at Blackpool Cricket Club, featuring world number-one Jack Kramer of the States.
There were a few players (then with long, dark sideburns amongst the men) who are still gracing our courts today; plus shots of clubs now gone, like North Drive, in St. Annes, and Blackpool at Marton Institute – where the once excellent shale courts hold vivid memories for many of us.
I'll be carrying the archive pictures around in my tennis bag for a while, should any veteran players have missed their publication. In my head I also hold memories of many happy years playing tennis here on the coast.
The game brought me together with my wife and also still gives me many friendships and healthy, happy outings. You should try it if you haven't already! Our local sports clubs are still great places to socialise and for families to enjoy together.
I also remember the last time I wielded a wooden racquet – when winning St. Annes' Club's centennial tournament at the Millennium. (It was a handicap event and they'd been generous with me!)
Perhaps there will be pictures of that, too, in another 50 years.

* * *

I must have had a 'senior moment' last Friday, as I forgot entirely to put on that week's column to this page. Happily, I can now, therefore, offer this week's then last week's for your consideration. Both make reference to mother-in-law Wynne, who remains a remarkable conversationalist even as she attains great age.

ONE mellows in older age. It helps us live with life's ups and downs. Even what appeared past disasters have, it seems, become triumphs.
Venerable mother-in-law Wynne pointed this out. “People don't think much of journalists,” she told me frankly, during a chat. “But I always tell them of you and that young sportsman you let off – in Hong Kong.” When I frowned, she added, “He was a football player, who drank a lot.”
Ah, yes, Georgie Best, one of my missed 'exclusives'. George – whom many believe was the best - was on a world tour, telling how he beat the booze.
I worked in Hong Kong and heard him on its breakfast radio. Then, coming home late afternoon from our newspaper office, I dropped into a quiet bar owned by a Scottish ex-soccer player. There was a sad George alone in a corner, supping alcohol.
“It was so kind not to take advantage of that poor man's addiction,” Wynne explained. “It does you great credit, you see.”
Well, perhaps. I never was tough enough for Fleet Street.
My second encounter with a sporting superstar was with snooker player Alex Higgins, another black sheep. After some rumpus he had jumped from a girlfriend's bedroom window to evade the Press, breaking a leg but escaping.
“Where is Alex Higgins?” screamed a Sunday tabloid's front page next morning. Well, as it happened, he hobbled into a pub where I was – in Ramsbottom.
The broken man looked terrible and I felt sorry for him. Although it would be a lucrative scoop, I couldn't betray him. Alex even limped over on crutches and asked to borrow my paper.
“Mum's the word,” I told him, with a wink. His nod of thanks was my only reward – along, of course, with mother-in-law's congratulations.

EVER feel your world is crumbling around you? The other day was like that. I'd been to a reunion, had a hangover and didn't sleep well - so neither had She Who Knows. It all cast a pall over the morning.
This rather messed up our plans for the day but, then, how often do those work out as expected? Even the good book says, 'Don't think of tomorrow'.
What's more, in such a dark cast of mind, you notice all the other things going wrong – rather like spotting more dust around, or worry lines on yourself, when walking about wearing reading spectacles.
There was a crack, I noticed, in the bathroom floor tiles; then many more, once I got down to examine it more carefully. Next I accidentally knocked a wonky shelf in my study (our overflow room) and it collapsed, tearing wallpaper and making a mess.
Everything was going wrong but, ever the optimist, I muttered a silent prayer. Also, I remembered those stern admonishments favoured by mother-in-law Wynne and her generation – 'Pull yourself together and snap out of it!'
Within a short while I'd fixed the cracked floor tile, restored the shelf (still wonky), covered up torn wallpaper and felt better about myself. Also, She Who Knows had indulged in a restorative nap.
Then we went out up the coast; giving ourselves a rest from playing tennis but watching friends instead; even treating ourselves to a late roast dinner at a friendly café - OAP portions please!
Life wasn't so bad after all, you see. It struck me that having a little faith – in yourself, others, life's good side and, dare I suggest, even God Himself – was like lighting a welcoming fire in a chill home; it turns your life aglow.
So much so, I decided to share that good news with you.

 * * *

This week's Gazette column was something of an update on last month's Home page post for this website and of a literary mode . . . with a frustrated dig all round at TV book adaptations!

AROUND mid-day and in mid-week, I felt rather as though on the set of a Midsomer Murders episode – the ITV detective series based on novels by Caroline Graham.
I was, in fact, at a stylish restaurant book-launch in Lytham for top crime writer Peter Robinson (pictured from You-Tube). Thankfully, Peter was a down-to-earth, likeable northerner, both approachable and unassuming.
The event was friendly, too, and smoothly managed by local bookshop Plackitt & Booth. Peter even accepted a copy of my latest novel (Waiting For The Ferryman - see our Books and Chapter/Story pages) though, unlike me, he didn't pay.
There were lots of mainly lady diners – all smartly turned out - and my table companions were 'singles' who, like me, had come without spouses or friends. These were a retired wholesale book dealer from Wrea Green; a charming, retired teacher who'd driven from Bolton, then a lovely New Zealand woman who lived on a cattle and sheep farm when not visiting family in the Fylde.
Fiction reflects life and how enlightening it all was! Peter, we learned, often didn't know himself whom his murderer was until deep into his stories. What we all love, you see, is a bit of a mystery and stepping into others' worlds.
I told them my characters often determined the plots and surprised me, too. Minor ones sometimes proved more interesting and supplanted original heroes. It's stranger than fiction, this writing business!
Peter also revealed a degree of ambivalence about the TV face of his books' hero DCI Banks, the Fylde-reared actor Stephen Tompkinson; as well as having little involvement - or profit - himself in the series. Programmes are apparently put together by “a committee” of executives.
This all confirmed my own suspicions about why telly crime is now – to me - so politically correct, over-dramatised, often confusing and, well, unrealistic . . .
Without the authors, you see, they've lost the plot.

(P.S. Peter used to write a lot of poetry and I've included a lovely line from his latest thriller, Careless Love, just to show his occasional descriptive gems. See our Poem page.)

* * *

This week's column seems a bit grumpy and fogey-like upon reading it again - my arthritis must be playing up!

I FEAR we're becoming a nation of uncouth slobs; taking our plentiful life for granted and, as a school report once reprimanded me, 'wallowing in the sloth'.
My father was a working man; mother a housewife who also did odd jobs. Back in those grey 1950s and early 60s, people were grateful for what little they had and learned to cope. But they still taught children manners, some pride in appearances and inspired a will to improve. Streets were clean, kids obedient and my school motto was Manners Maketh Man.
Now few young people can use a knife and fork. They shovel with fork and fingers, perhaps feet on a handy chair, staring at screens. Even prosperous 'ladies who lunch' pick at food with forks – American style, perhaps inspired by TV cookery programmes where judges often do the same.
As children, we were once shocked by a diner at a seaside café who complained his steak was small, then sliced it up and eat with a fork.
“Must be a Yank!” said Dad. Americans were wealthy but lacked our manners from generations of culture.
Abroad, we admire the dexterity of chopstick users – with their own codes, such as not eating left-handed as it nudges a neighbour's elbow. Many rice-based cultures favour a practical spoon and fork, but no one eats as badly as Brits now do.
We're also usually the worst dressed – either 'grungy' or 'flash', while often hideously obese. Why is it those fattest favour the tightest leggings? We're even lazy in speech, picking up clumsy American expressions and 'like' text-speak.
People eat far in excess of what's needed, wasting much. We're building up medical problems, while losing respect around the world. At our health centres the fittest specimens are the babies.
Hopefully, they'll do better than ourselves . . .
But who will teach them?

* * *

A sporting theme to the column this week . . .

WITH an eventful Wimbledon – and World Cup – just past, it's rewarding to reflect on that sage advice from Rudyard Kipling's 'If', once voted our nation's favourite poem.
Engraved above the players' entrance to Centre Court are his much quoted words: 'Meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors both the same'.
A similar sentiment echoes, too, in former champion Boris Becker's comment after losing on the hallowed turf. “I didn't lose a war,” he told the world's media. “No one died. I lost a tennis match.”
Our family always had tennis racquets about the home, alongside footballs and cricket bats. They were wooden, hand-me-down ones in presses, with strings that were never changed.
I've played tennis for 60-odd years and observed how it is often the worst players who are most fiercely competitive; the least able who impatiently cut short a friendly practice to play a game for points; the most ill-prepared who rush on court late, announcing, 'I don't need a warm-up'.
Odd, indeed, but that's life; which sport merely reflects. Those in a rush to win usually miss the true joys of taking part. Experience, time spent learning, increases the satisfaction. After a good match I often can't immediately recall, and don't particularly care, who finally won.
These days youngsters are coached and have all the gear, which we never did. Sadly, however, those teaching them rarely impart more than how to hit winning shots. They don't explain tactics for doubles, which most clubs play: where to move and why; how to set up your partner, rather than just play for oneself.
Come to think of it, many would benefit from similar lessons about everyday life – on our roads, in the business place, wherever other people are involved.
If only . . . as Kipling said.

Incidentally, if you wish to read more of 'If' by Kipling, currently causing some controversy among British students - presumably as being 'sexist', there is an abridged version at item 28 on our Poem page.

 * * *

This week we're welcoming a cheering development in our nation's high streets . . .

 WITH so many pubs, post office and bank branches closing on our high streets, it's cheering to welcome a new attraction and meeting place.
The No.10 Alehouse Blackpool, on Whitegate Drive, is opening tonight, from 5-7pm by invitation and then onward. In fact, it's actually at property numbers 258/260, once a chiropodist's, but is named after the popular similar operation at 10 Park Road, St. Annes.
Both concerns are headed up by landlord and owner George White, a local man who cares passionately about his project. For George it's not just about real-ale traditions but also this neighbourhood of Great Marton. He hopes his success will encourage others back into our high streets, with cafés, bistros, stores and other communal hubs.
“It's a great 'village' area and I've many friends here. We should do well,” said the genial George. His eager team, including stylish, musical barista Colin, will be a welcome force for local fellowship.
I've also enjoyed visits to the alehouse in St. Annes, or the welcoming Lytham Craft House in Clifton Street. The appeal of 'beer houses' is their cosiness and friendly owner-service. Despite the name, there is more on offer than real cask ales dispensed by hand-pumps. There are usually craft lagers, ciders and the increasingly popular perries; as well as wine and non-alcoholic drinks, including hot beverages and home-made snacks.
But what is specially attractive to most patrons, is the cheerful personal atmosphere. Thankfully, we may still get this in some traditional public houses and even new bistros. However, 'beer houses' tend to be small enough for anyone to join a conversation or, of course, be left in peace with a newspaper or friend.
Let's wish George well and support another promising attraction to our diverse resort coast, so long renowned for its friendly entertainment of visitors and locals alike.

* * *

I AM a bit late putting this week's column on the page, sorry. Still, it is also rather similar to this month's post on our Home page. Forgive the plugs and I shall, of course, report back upon meeting Mister R.

DETECTIVE fiction fans on the Fylde have a red-letter date this month, to meet DCI Alan Banks, the Yorkshire sleuth played on television by locally raised actor Stephen Tompkinson.
Well, it's not DCI Banks himself, of course, but his creator, top-selling author Peter Robinson. On July 25 he's coming to a lunch-time book-signing event, organised by innovative Lytham bookseller Plackitt & Booth.
The day will, as it happens, launch the 25th Banks novel, Careless Love. I'll be there, books in hand, to meet my writing hero Peter.
The Yorkshireman, who splits his time between Richmond and Toronto, has been an academic and taught creative writing. His books, including other novels and many short stories, have entertained, inspired and delighted millions – while also attracting top awards and sales.
However, the books in my hand will not only be a copy of Careless Love, a double-mystery set on the wild, North Yorkshire moors Peter loves to remember when home in Canada.
Rather cheekily, perhaps, I'll be giving him a copy of my latest light thriller, the fourth in my series on Fylde's daring and dashing reporter-come-investigator, Sam Stone.
Waiting For The Ferryman, as it's entitled, also has a wonderful setting close to my heart – Conway near Snowdonia and then County Cork's Sheep's Head Peninsula.
I hope Peter won't be offended by my initiative and enjoys his visit to our friendly coast. There are so many diverse readers who are thrilled and engaged by his writing. I also hope that, perhaps on that long journey back to Canada from this busy book tour, the amiable Northerner might look over my own humble offering and even, later, offer some advice.
It's wonderful and inspiring when our heroes come to life in front of us. On the other hand, what DCI Banks will make of Sam Stone I'm not sure.

* * *

We take our hearing and other senses much for granted - until we lose them, if only temporarily. At the moment I'm still taking ear drops and half-deaf. It truly hinders one's social pleasures. 

“WELL, doctor,” I began, feeling rather unworthy, “I'm fine really. But, every few months, I use drops to clear my ears of wax. I know it doesn't completely clear them and have had them syringed a couple of times in past years.”
The young doctor nodded patiently.
“Well, last week I used some drops and, afterwards, lost my hearing completely for the day. Since then, it's returned almost - except that my ears are still blocked first thing in the morning, while my left one remains less clear than the right.”
“Unfortunately,” I added to my shame, “those drops were three years out of date.” (We really must clear out our cupboards!)
What I didn't tell the doc, whom the surgery receptionist had made an appointment for me with, rather than the nurse, was my frustration, fear and humility while 'deaf'.
Others, apart from my nearest and dearest, tended to laugh off my predicament – or, rather disconcertingly, put it down to advancing years.
What was more, we were booked into a concert the evening following my temporary deafness. Fortunately, I got a reprieve and Tony Christie at the Lowther Theatre was great.
But I can assure you deafness is a lonely, strange and silent world which leaves you unsure of your surroundings and what's happening. It's like walking on cotton wool without a vital sense to guide you. Also, you have to guess what is being said and can offend others by not hearing.
The deaf or 'hard-of hearing' will always have my sympathy from now, rather than causing me occasional irritation as in the past.
As it happened, the doctor simply suggested a week of olive-oil-based drops at night secured with cotton wool.
But he also offered healthy advice: always check medicines before using. Believe me, that's a lesson worth listening to!

* * * 

'ONE is nearer God's heart in a garden than anywhere else of earth', so the popular adage goes. The poem was originally found written in a visitor's book at a stately home.
Our humbler back garden, here in Great Marton, has been a delight of late. This was thanks not only to the 'kiss of the sun', or the mirthful 'song of the birds', but to their bumbling chicks too.
Even our garden arch blowing over in last week's gales, bringing down honeysuckle and roses, hasn't interrupted daily sightings of the blackbird chicks, nor our pair of robins clearly reluctant to disappear as usual for summer.
It was former Gazette country writer and sadly missed friend Jack Benson (pictured) who explained avian behaviour to me. The blackbird's chorus would not be heard into summer, nor my favourite - the robin - sighted again until autumn. This was because the former had established his home, while the other was holidaying in woodland.
Perhaps there's not enough forest around any more, or my garden is getting wilder, but our robins are welcome to stay as long as they wish.
Also, the blackbirds will soon lack any energy for singing, so demanding are those fluffy chicks currently bumbling about our garden wearing worried countenances upon unsure wings.
Thanks to our huge ivy hedge, battled annually by itinerant gardener Joe, we also have darting, dazzling blue-tits nesting with us, chirpy sparrows and reclusive wrens. I shoo away pigeons, wood-cocks and magpies, but not too fiercely – live and let live we say.
While the madding crowds jeer and cheer over soccer's Russian roulette, we're content in a natural haven here on our lovely Fylde coast.
For, after all that feverish sporting clamour is over, it is in a comforting garden where, as poet Dorothy Frances Gurney rightly observed, 'The soul of the world found ease'.

* * *

 Late again putting this week's column on the website - must be another senior moment, though I have been busy tidying up the gardens after a freak gale. As promised, this week I was putting the boot in - to the World Cup. Just joking, of course, for you real fans . . .

EVEN I know today is the start of the World Cup in Russia. I say that as football isn't my thing.
Also, we live between two pubs with big-screen-sport coverage. From fans' cheers, or silence, we know who's winning without turning on our telly – at least when England's playing.
As a lad I practised footy against the invitingly high wall of a neighbour, who would puncture my ball when it went over. I also played soccer and cricket games on the local park, though with soft rubber balls.
At school it was a different story and hard learning curve: facing a bruising 'corkie' at cricket, then a brain-damaging, leather football on water-logged pitches, with goal-mouths a muddy quagmire. It was miserable, specially as I showed no natural talent – except for physically knocking over those flashy, big-headed forwards.
I also hated that terrifying gym equipment and the exhaustion of athletics, though I got by at putting the shot and throwing javelins (which I always aimed at our sadistic games master).
Tennis became my sport, with soft balls, grass courts and, later on, attractive female co-players. Rugby was all right in practice but brutal at adult club-level. Squash, however, was just the thing to work up a sweat during our cold, rainy months.
As for watching football, well, when I first went to see glamorous United at Old Trafford (supported purely in rivalry to my older brother's enthusiasm for Manchester City), all you could see was fog. The next time there I lost a slip-on shoe at the Stretford End then had to hop to the bus stop. Even on telly, the excitable commentators get on my nerves and most players, well, they're grossly over-paid, mostly foreign and cheat, at least by our old-school standards.
Still, I'm not a spoil sport - may the rest of you enjoy it!

* * *

This week's column is appearing here a day late, with my apologies. I was savouring a cup of tea yesterday in the garden. Next week we'll be kicking around the World Cup, not a particularly welcome event at Edmonds Towers!

AT Edmonds Towers we've some grand notions but decidedly aren't royals. We use some so-called 'received pronunciation', saying “thenk-you” - but that's a personal joke prompted by old films where stars all speak very 'properly'.
Like the Queen, we leave some Christmas decorations up until late February. That's to cheer up our little palace during dull winter weeks. We also avoid the word 'toilet', since reading Dame Barbara Cartland on etiquette. It should be 'lavatory' or 'end of the passage', though we prefer 'bathroom' or 'loo'.
However, in other respects we're quite different from Her Majesty and family. I know this from Radio Smooth, which She Who Knows favours in the car. They recently had tips from a former royal butler on making the perfect cup of tea.
They always use a teapot, of course, but then - he claimed - added milk after pouring and never stirred the pot in a circular motion.
This seems all wrong. As She Who Knows points out, if using bone china cups a drop of milk first prevents cracks. Also, it indicates how strong the brew is. As for spooning motion, I suspect he was deliberately stirring up things. No wonder he's an ex-employee. (You can't get decent staff these days!)
Then a Balmoral butler, on a TV programme about how the other half live, discussed serving red wine at the dining table. Apparently, royals never show the bottle but always decant first.
At Edmonds Towers I like to be reminded what I'm drinking, since we may keep a bottle for another day. Only our worst wine goes in a decanter to air (or hide) and, hopefully, encourage mellowness. Anyway, like the late Queen Mother, She Who Knows prefers champagne.
Finally, I keep a bottle or two of beer cool on the Towers' back step. We've yet to learn where Philip keeps his.

* * *

In this week's column we salute a real Lancashireman, proud of the county where 'women die for love' - though that's another story!

EEE, lads and lasses, there's more to our grand county of Lancashire than those Whitehall bureaucrats and soft, southern politicians would have us believe.
A Mancunian myself, I proudly remember our old postal address being in Lancashire, just as it was for Scousers too! Forget that so-called 'God's county', on the cold side of the Pennines; they've all tried to diminish us cheerier people over here, but never will!
One stout chap out to prove as much set off from Blackpool Tower this week to walk round Lancashire's real boundaries – all 400 miles of it. Local historian Philip Walsh is a champion of the 'real' geographical county, as well as my own adopted home district on the Fylde, Great Marton.
Philip's ancestors here go back generations and played a leading part in building our world-famous resort and delightfully varied holiday coast.
Only last Saturday, She Who Knows and myself joined the irrepressible former mounted policeman, operatic singer and church warden on a guided stroll around what had been Marton 'village'. He brought to life its colourful characters and ground-breaking clergy and patrons. In fact, they're still breaking the ground at St Paul's, fronting Whitegate Drive, where ancient but often pristine gravestones are being unearthed, thanks to Philip and volunteers. Why not join them?
Philip's chairman of Friends of Real Lancashire, as well as local history group Marton Past. You can follow their interests and his month-long walk on Facebook or the Gazette.
“We hope to make the media and everyone aware there is more to Lancashire than the 'admin bit' in the middle,” said Philip.
He is also raising money for North West Air Ambulance.The easiest way to donate is via his internet page - Contributions go straight to the NWAA. Also, follow him on Twitter @ FORLancashire and @ Welcome2Lancs.
Otherwise, you could simply leave donations to him at the church.

* * *

TRIALS are under way at Manchester University on a baldness cure, following promising laboratory tests on 40 men. This took me back to being a teenager, working in that city and worried about hair loss.
It was the late '60s and I visited a 'trichology' centre's mobile hair clinic by Piccadilly Gardens. However, I didn't dare enter. The receptionists looked far too pretty to confess my concerns to. Instead, I looked up trichology in Central Library and noted a baldness 'cure' from a dermatology book. In the privacy of my bedroom, this involved sponging yokes on to my hair then massaging the goo into my scalp. It didn't make any difference, except to mum who wondered where all the eggs had gone.
In my 20s, while first working on this newspaper, an older colleague with a full head of grey hair advised, “Rub in onion juice every night, you can't go wrong!”
He must have been pulling my leg, rather than my hair, as the only outcome was a whiffy odour which ruined my romantic life.
Finally, my dad – also follically challenged - offered a sensible observation. “If there really was a cure, son, why wouldn't the royals use it?” He had a point and still has.
In my 40s, as part of a series for The Gazette, I tried the latest 'wonder drug' minoxidil, but that didn't help either. Such treatments aren't available on the NHS and can have side-effects or disappointing results. That's why men undergo expensive transplantation surgery – or just have their heads shaved at the barber's.
For those still hopeful, the Manchester project is led by Dr Nathan Hawkshaw who says it could “make a real difference to people who suffer from hair loss". 
Clinical trials will continue to test effectiveness and safety . . .
Still, in the meantime, eggs and onions are cheap.

* * *

I'M going to write this week about 'Wills' but, don't worry, this has nothing to do with Saturday's royal wedding.
She Who Knows recently went on holiday with her sister to sun-kissed Cyprus. Before she left I alerted them to the dangers – and not just of skin cancer.
“You're travelling into a potential war zone,” I warned. “It's where our jets flew from to bomb neighbouring Syria.”
Then I added, somewhat selfishly, “You'd best make a will.” You see, we mostly share our funds and even the house ownership. What's more, I'm told probate can be long-winded and uncertain when “intestate”.
She agreed and went to the post office for a form, while I planned for afternoons lingering in beer gardens and al fresco meals watching cricket - between brief spells of gardening - while they were away. She Who lashed out £10 on a 'will kit', then arranged for it all to be properly witnessed.
Afterwards, I was putting her will away in our fire-safe document holder when it occurred to me to check it. (During a recent spat over some trifle she'd threatened to leave everything to the dogs' home.)
Moments later I was back, full of outrage. “I don't mind you leaving jewellery to your sister,” I fumed, “but you've left me nothing!”
“You're the joint executor,” she protested. “I thought it all automatically went to you, as the husband.”
Not so, you have to spell it all out in legal terms. Finally, she confirmed in writing to leaving me all her “remaining estate”, apart from that 'modest' jewellery horde.
Thankfully, the ladies returned unscathed, except for a return flight delayed hours and diverted to Birmingham. “Never again!” was her conclusion.
As for my own plans for the week she was away . . .
Needless to say, it rained.

* * *

WHAT a sunny bank-holiday we enjoyed! With the garden at Edmonds Towers tidied, its furniture set up and annuals planted, we've also enjoyed some outdoor events. At least, we did when people stopped rudely getting in our way!
Driving anywhere on the Fylde now involves traffic snarl- ups for road and sewer works. Walking to the cricket club, with a 20-20 local-derby by Stanley Park, seemed a better prospect. But there were still annoying obstacles.
“Would you mind sitting down?” called the old regular sitting near us on the club terrace, for the second time in minutes. Younger men, many with backs turned to the match, were standing and blocking our view.
The lads were obliging enough, even making jokes about their strapping size then settling into seats. However, only minutes later, another would carelessly obstruct the view – usually as a wicket fell. (You miss those TV replays!)
It's the same when we watch a tennis match. Someone will stroll along and thoughtlessly stand in front of us, oblivious to the annoyance caused. When we attend a pop music concert, within minutes of us settling into expensive seats selfish people stand in front taking phone photos, then waving arms inanely. Are they mad, or on drugs?
We're all used to the gentle chatter in a bus, train or restaurant being shattered by those who shout into phones – telling everyone what they're doing. Apparently, it's similarly annoying nowadays for those paid to speak in public.
Weakest-Link star Anne Robinson, writing in The Oldie magazine, said at a recent event where she was chief speaker a woman in the front row began furiously texting within minutes of her opening remarks.
The formidable quiz mistress stopped then announced to the audience, “We'll all wait, shall we, until she stops texting, then carry on?”
That got the phone shut - and everyone's full attention!

* * *

A case of momento mori here, as spring heralds new life - but don't be downhearted . . .

THE Saints came marching in at Carleton, led by a jazz band. It was the funeral of drummer Tony Tolley, who'd played with big names of popular music, particularly The Bachelors back in those 'Swinging 60s'.
Tony, who with wife Alma was a family friend and near neighbour, also helped found the still popular Bill Barrow Band. It was Bill and fellow Blackpool musicians who gave the musical send-off Tony so deserved.
For me, it was the first time hearing a band lead a funeral procession since the early 80s, when in Singapore. I was a travelling journalist back then and, being a poor freelance, was staying in a Chinese guest-house round the corner from famous Raffles Hotel. Still, I would entertain at Raffles over 'Singapore Slings' after tiffin lunches with a palm-court quartet on the lawn.
Later I was roused from my afternoon siesta by a traditional Chinese band, striking up a cacophony while leading a funeral down the market street below. I opened my shutters to watch and a cockatoo, in a cage across the alleyway, also chirped up.
The Chinese would even employ professional mourners, to grieve loudly for days, but it's heartening to also celebrate a loved one's happiness in life. Music helps that process. I know it did at my mother's service, in the same Carleton Crematorium chapel. By chance they played Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, which was her favourite.
Our condolences go to Alma, her family and all others who grieve for recently lost loved ones. But let us remember such times should also be a celebration of their lives.
What's more, it's not all sad news. My Oldie magazine reports funerals are becoming cheaper, thanks to the internet offering comparison sites and more choice.
Perhaps we'll even adopt another Chinese tradition - keeping our own coffin in a corner of the bedroom, polished and all prepared.

* * *

Rather late putting this column on this page - I've been waiting for the sunshine to return to our coast!

WITH sunnier weather we've been enjoying meals outdoors, usually in popular people-watching locations.
Just like many new flats now having balconies, café-bistro dining seems a reflection of global warming or a culture shift in the British social make-up. Over recent years the range of food, opening times and service have also generally improved enormously.
What does stick in my throat, however, is the outrageous mark-up on drinks. It's bad enough being charged almost £3 for a cup of tea or a coffee (let alone the cost of a cake slice!), but on beers (mostly water) it's an affront, while with glasses of wine it's daylight robbery!
We suffer already from being the most taxed country in Europe and so, possibly, the world regarding alcoholic drinks. (Although I hear good, old Down-Under has now gone the same way.) However, it makes me splutter in my shiraz to find cafés and restaurants charging the same amount for my 'standard' glass as they've probably paid for their bottle. A six-fold mark-up is sobering.
One recent mid-week, early evening, for example, we dined happily at a bistro pub by Lytham's Green promenade. The food and service were excellent, as were our surroundings, but my beer (£4 a pint) was not, in my considerable experience, up to best cask condition and She Who Knows' 1.75ml glass of rosé cost £5.20. When she was, nonetheless, tempted into a second glass and asked for small (1.25ml) the charge only fell to £5.
The current trend for mixed gins and cocktails costing almost a tenner is also an outrageous profit bandwagon. We all know there are service costs to consider, but I'm reminded of that annoying French ruse of charging more for sitting outdoors, or sitting at all in cafés.
I'll just have to do what I did there – shrug at the bill then mutter, “Non-comprendez!”

* * *

SINCE my April post (see Home page) the weather has at last picked up, along with our spirits . . .

AH, the darling buds of – well - April, but soon May. Spring sunshine is finally smiling upon the Fylde. I've got out my shorts, gardening hat and sun-tan lotion.
The birds are singing by Edmonds Towers and I've been struggling from the shed with garden furniture, compost and flowering seeds.
What a difference good weather brings to our holiday coast! She Who Knows and myself have cheerfully survived our winter hibernation at Great Marton. We're now treading the tennis courts of leafy Lytham, then lounging over drinks and snacks outside cafés, people-watching. We've a favourite place on the high street there, where quality is good and prices right, but I only mention it to you in 'Whispers'.
Meanwhile, at Blackpool, we're making the most of magnificent Stanley Park and its excellent art-deco café, Park's. Instead of wind-muffled, dog-walking figures, we're now surrounded there by strolling couples and playful children. Even the ducks seem happier, despite the end of those seemingly ceaseless April showers.
Should the rain re-appear we'll head as usual up the other end of the coast, to friendly Fleetwood's historic North Euston Hotel and its elegant ballroom tea dances. What a host of facilities we have to enjoy on our diverse coast! Soon we'll even be running trains again – and trams – from Blackpool North.
Come this Saturday I'll hopefully be languishing back in the sunshine, sinking a cold one or two at our resort's nearby cricket club, as this season's sporting fixtures get under way. The facilities there are top notch and, like Lytham, St Annes or our other summer sports clubs, a great place for all the family to relax in safe but uplifting surroundings.
Yes, the tourists have much to enjoy along our Promenades and busy side-streets but, inland, there is even more for we fortunate locals. What's not to enjoy?
I'll see you there!

* * *

IN a recent episode of BBC's Endeavour, DCI Thursby (a much more interesting character than hero 'young Morse') won a tango contest dancing with his wife.
They maintained dramatic posture and impressive manner but, for me, it didn't ring true. There was gaucho menace, yes, but what about hissed complaints from wife to husband, then his gritted responses?
She Who Knows and I attend afternoon tea dances now that, as with Thursby, retirement time has arrived. But it's rare my performance inspires praise, let alone prizes. Of course, it doesn't help that we've both got arthritis, particularly her poor love.
“You're gripping me too tight!” she'll complain, shaking our clasped hands, “and please, keep your left arm lower.”
Then she makes her own arm a dead weight during twirls and my hand accidentally brushes her freshly coiffured hair as she swings underneath. This prompts an exasperated sigh and wifely glare.
“You're making my shoulder ache!” I protest.
However, none of these setbacks occur with other male 'leads' – especially tutors, whom she occasionally partners. “Oh, he supported me so firmly,” she'll enthuse afterwards, adding, “You should feel the muscles on his arms!”
She Who's a natural, also, at that unflinching eye-contact in steamy Latin numbers. But this is not necessarily inspired by passion.
“You've got two hairs sticking out of your left nostril,” she complained recently, adding with dismay, “What's more, they're grey!”
This all helps build an atmosphere of drama and emotion as we join other couples manoeuvring each other around the ballroom to quicksteps and foxtrots.
Perhaps Thursby keeps his lips buttoned until next day, when sharing a pint at the local with young Morse and eating his sandwiches. However, that scene doesn't ring true either.
Try munching on your home-made butties in a pub at lunchtime, you'll soon get your collar felt!

* * *

NOT long ago an old friend asked why I sometimes attended church. His own life is now marred by ill health, but it didn't seem the time or place for religious debate. I just said, "Because I'd rather believe in something rather than nothing." However, afterwards, it occurred to me a more honest answer would be simply, "It makes life happier." Of course, it can also encourage good intentions. Besides, is there an alternative explanation nearly as uplifting?

HOW did your Easter go? Well, of course, dreary weather didn't lift our spirits much but, as always, one did try to be good.
This didn't just extend to not wolfing down Easter eggs. From around Lent, I've attempted to lose a few pounds by cutting back on beer, fry-ups and chips etc. She Who Knows has helped me, by her example of moderation, while also washing my favourite trousers which now, as a reminder, feel too tight.
But I confess that, within only a few days, my best intentions rather floundered. So much so that, as we neared the Easter weekend last week, there was more a sense of failure than triumph. Neither could I even sit through the Easter service on telly from Kings College, let alone make it to my local church (as I managed last year).
However, I was struck by a simple wooden cross they had erected in the graveyard of St. Paul's, here in Great Marton. It was a gnarled, crude thing which, with its vivid and rather ragged red cloak attached, seemed to reflect the agony of crucifixion and saintly sacrifice.
It made me feel more guilty at my personal failures and easy indulgence through the holidays. But then, by Monday, that torn red cloak was replaced by a beautiful golden one of splendid material, no longer hanging forlornly but carefully folded about that cross.
This perked me up surprisingly, along with the cheering colours of crocuses, daffodils and other spring flowers outside the church I so often pass by.
Then the words of a sermon, at a rare Sunday attendance, came back to me – about how saints had been sinners, too, and even apostles being only human.
It dawned on me, at last, that it wasn't all about becoming righteous somehow; it was the day-to-day trying which mattered. That's what spurs us onward!

* * *

This week's column took a mixed view of so-called smart phones and their use . . .

IF you're reading all this, well done! Today not many, I'm told, have the attention span for newspapers. Instead, they get news 'bites' through social media on smart phones and tablets.
Unfortunately, such titbits are often wrong, sometimes deliberately. Fake news is a growing problem and, besides, a short 'bite' can only tell part of the story.
I was also amazed, when working in a newspaper office, how few young people read books.
We're all familiar, too, with the sad spectacle of couples entering restaurants then each talking to someone else on mobile phones. Even babes in high chairs scroll through online pages with electronic games. It keeps them quiet but what about engaging with the real world?
Similarly, families at meals – a precious time to share - are often separately occupied with electronic gadgets while picking absently through food with a fork, American style.
At a recent classical concert I was stunned to see an orchestra percussionist slide a mobile phone from behind her music sheets, then reply to a text. She did it twice, while still drumming, and didn't miss a beat!
Don't get me wrong. I'm writing this at home on a laptop and will email it to the office. How much easier than typewriters and phoning in stories to 'copy-takers'.
Mobile phones are great for personal safety and keeping in touch wherever we may be. The electronic age brings easier lifestyles and better communication. However, as always with progress, it comes at a price.
We shouldn't lose sight of human aspects of everyday life which are essential to our happiness. There may be someone at the end of that phone text, media message or email, but it's that person who matters, not the gadget itself.
Still, I'm told more young people are now reading books - thanks to discovering literature on Kindles. You can even read me online!

* * *

A LOOK back this week to nostalgia days of some landmark, local pubs - and curry houses for afters.

FEW, I suspect, will mourn the passing of The Star pub, recently demolished at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. However, its late landlord Barry Eastwood was a popular resort character.
When he later took over the old Wheatsheaf, also now demolished on Talbot Road near Blackpool North station, I admired his subtle, traditional style of management.
“Don't give old Harry any more, looks about to fall off his stool,” Barry might whisper to a barman, as he emerged late afternoon in a smart suit to start another long evening. Then he'd glance around at regulars, waving cheerily or perhaps adding to the staff, “Oh, and how many has Lenny had? Don't want him fighting again!”
He'd also find some excuse to chat to any newcomers, perhaps building up the log fire near them, to check out any unknowns. There was also an upright 'joanna' on which, as they say, many a good tune was still played.
Sad to see such historic landmarks go. Still, in Lytham we still have the Taps; in St Annes the Victoria was saved and, in Fleetwood, The Mount. Of course, Blackpool also has its oldest pub too, the Saddle Inn.
But times change; people too. It was decades ago that we lads would finish off a night-out in the resort at the basement Galleon Club, then share a taxi to the Everest on Central Drive, or stagger to Church Street's notorious, late-night Shahi Grill.
I wouldn't care to return, instead now appreciating comfortable modern additions to our bistro-bar cultural scene. Traditional boozers have also had a facelift, with stylish refits such as Blackpool's Brew Room (formerly the 'Blue Room' or Stanley Arms). Craft beer and real-ale 'shops', offering cosy, convivial service, are also springing up along our coast.
I'm sure Barry – along with the resort's other colourful past landlords - would have approved. Cheers to all, I say!

* * *

Dining out can be a hit and miss experience, as this week's column indicated - with apologies to all stressed-out, young mums . . .

HOPEFULLY, many of you enjoyed Mother's Day meals out last Sunday – as long as everyone got along.
When I was a lad, a lifetime ago, we couldn't afford restaurants - of which there were few anyway. Even in cafés, which were then places serving 'businessmen's lunches' or afternoon teas, we had to sit up straight and be quiet. What's more, no one dared complain about anything.
Now, for many, anything goes. As a child I would have approved of such a free and easy atmosphere but now frown, look grumpy and even complain about noise and children dodging about the premises.
The best dining places to avoid family disruption and undisciplined behaviour are dearer restaurants. Pubs no longer bar children and may proclaim, 'Kids eat free!' However, some do have adult-only areas offering escape.
At a favourite Italian, our evening meal was disrupted by two young mothers with children and a baby selecting the table beside ours. Once in his high chair, the tot held court - shrieking then screaming while being generally ignored, except by us.
The Italians hardly noticed, but then their chats are as loud as disputes. Hot countries encourage hot-bloodedness, but cooler climes nurture calmer natures.
“Would you mind quietening your baby?” we finally requested, nerves frayed. The nearest mum looked aghast. “But he is a baby!” she protested. “That's what they do!”
We suggested a dummy and one, finally produced, did the job. However, mutterings of discontent rumbled from their table.
Finally, all stood and grimly informed us they were moving – all because of us. “I've just ordered my pizza too!” complained one little lad, being led to a far table.
It all left a bad taste in the mouth but, at least, peace was regained.
I suppose it's just a culture clash. No longer of different races, but of young and old.

* * *

THIS  week's column gave a plug to a couple of local musicians. We all knew rock stars liked a drink, along with sex and drugs, but it was a surprise to learn how boozy proper musicians were - those who wear dinner suits and play in orchestras. I remember a session on Boddingtons with a couple of them one lunchtime in Wilmslow, Cheshire, with a rugby mate. We downed 10 pints each in under two hours, before meeting girlfriends. Also, in infamous Cox's Bar, formerly by Manchester's old Free Trade Hall, you couldn't get served in mid-evening although the place was empty except for its braying mynah bird. Two barmaids were fully occupied pulling pints of ale. Then double doors from a back street connecting with the hall would fly open, as a thirsty Halle Orchestra burst in for their interval refreshment. Here's the column . . .

YOU may sometimes wonder what goes on behind net curtains at roadside cottages, such as Edmonds Towers in Great Marton.
Passers-by on sunnier days, when windows are ajar, try to glance inside after hearing grunts of exertion. I am, of course, just exercising.
Jogging knackers your joints and gyms bore me. I don't like that macho showing off on weights equipment - and that's just the girls!
Instead, I do gentle stretching to suitable music. At present I'm finding tai chi beneficial. Mine is the Sung type, ideal for arthritis sufferers. I'd practise it outside in the open, but tried that in Stanley Park and got pilloried. A passing father with family noticed me skulking around bushes and assumed the worst.
“Hey!” he yelled, making others turn, “What're you up to there?” I was in a clearing, seeking some privacy. When informed I was merely performing tai chi, he frowned and clearly thought it something offensive to public taste and community spirit.
I could, of course, do it in the back garden but neighbours still think me odd from practising ballroom dancing there with a long-handled brush in my arms, as recommended in a text book to improve posture.
So, it's indoors for me, with gentle music from Dav-Gar. These are specially timed instrumentals, aimed at pilates and other exercise sessions, by Blackpool musicians Dave Alty and Gary Wright (the Fylde's answer to Gary Barlow), who drinks at my local and gave me the CDs.
Meanwhile, She Who Knows is upstairs doing her more trendy qigong exercises, to Chinese music played on her laptop. Fortunately, only a window cleaner is likely to spot her.
Any grunting, by the way, is from my physiotherapy exercises for hips, involving rolling around on the floor. These are also demonstrated on the internet – so you can have a go too!
All you need, then, are the net curtains.

* * *

AS I began writing this column earlier in the week there was a late fall of snow, giving everywhere a winter charm. It came as signs of spring were also appearing, with snowdrops and crocuses, bringing two seasons in one!
Life's full of surprises, most of them nice ones as long as we don't take it, or ourselves, too seriously.
Last Sunday we celebrated Mother's Day. Yes, we were early but all felt like it. Besides, the restaurant was less crowded than on the real date and, well, Blackpool was built on celebration and fun – so let's have some!
We can get too set in our ways and kid ourselves we know everything. Well, I was in for a lesson, from an elder.
“You know your books,” said mother-in-law Wynne, “well, they're very good but I think the titles should more reflect their contents, also the places where they're set.”
I was a bit taken aback but later saw her point. Consequently, my latest novel, still under wraps, has a new title.
It's about a man awaiting his final ferry home, from North Wales to Ireland, and how his mysterious demise uncovers a scandal and atrocities at the highest levels. The working title, rather poetic I thought, was 'The Wings To Fly'.
Now it's called 'The Conwy Ferry Man'. Conwy being the Welsh for that beautiful medieval town Conway. See, we've got you interested already!
So it was good that we had celebrated early, as I'd learned a timely lesson - as well as having a good time.
Our chosen restaurant, The White Tower at the Pleasure Beach, also stood the test of time. It goes to show, don't ever underestimate this old town of fun, or its long-term residents.
They're still going strong and, with the civic motto of 'Progress', keeping up with the times – just like Wynne herself.

* * *

 This is a bit of a rant over modern trends which, my friend Harry says, will pass - but I'm not so sure.

ORDERING a coffee used to be simple: you asked for white or black. There was also what we called 'expresso': coffee frothed up with hot milk, usually mixed half and half.
Then we became sophisticated, with filter coffee from freshly ground beans. More recently there were cafetieres. However, tiny grains pressed to the bottom somehow got into your drink.
Now there are cappuccinos, lattes, mochas, flat whites and more – all dispensed by an irritatingly noisy machine. An expresso now is a shot of continental-style strong coffee.
The closest to my preferred coffee (a gold blend taken white at home) is americano. I used to order it with 'cold milk on the side'. However, often it was so strong that, even when pouring in all the milk, it remained the colour of the Mersey while also, by then, being as cold. A better result, I've since found, comes by asking for warm milk, then I can weaken but still not chill it.
“I'd like half coffee, half hot milk,” She Who Knows insists to me, when I'm about to order our drinks.
If I say this to the young person serving, often also a foreigner, they stare, mystified.
“Like a latte, you mean?” some say, “Or a flat white, maybe?” No, we've tried those. She wants a coffee, half full then topped up with hot milk and, preferably, also a bit frothy.
If you ask them to leave it half empty and give us some hot milk, they usually serve it two-thirds full. Then I have to take a mouthful of boiling black coffee for her to get the mix right.
Sometimes we ask for a 'one-shot americano', sounding like a desperate gun-slinger, with uncertain results.
Best solution, though, is simply 'a pot of coffee for two, with jug of warm milk' . . .
We'll mix it quietly ourselves, thank you.

* * *

IN the 'old days' of my younger years, sorting out your bins was easy. You just tipped the stuff in, whatever it was you didn't want and couldn't sell or even give away, then the 'bin men' would come along and empty it. You didn't have to even put them out on the street yourself, though the bin men would also appear at your door close to Christmas and woe betide you if they didn't get a tip. Nowadays we are obliged to recycle our waste and, I suppose, rightly so. However, it can lead to tedious procedures . . .

IT'S time to talk rubbish. By that, I mean our household waste collection and council recycling. Is it working? Look around and see the answer.
Festive times like Christmas or Easter store up problems, or even chilly winter weekends, when we enjoy heartier home meals with more drinks than when out and about in summer.
Surely, an extra, 'properly displayed' bin bag beside our grey bins can be tolerated and safely carried away by our hard-working dustbin men? But no, that's against council policy. Bags are ignored, except by cats, dogs and seagulls, thereafter spreading rubbish and attracting vermin.
The powers that be are determined we learn the lesson of recycling, with one grey wheely bin per home – however crowded. For green bins and garden waste, we now face hefty charges, so that gets hidden amid the 'grey' trash.
Then there is cardboard. Home deliveries come in ever bigger boxes, which will not fit in those canvas bags provided to Blackpool households for newspaper and cardboard. We and neighbours fold up such items and leave them by newspaper bags, but they're still there days later, in bits and pieces blowing about our neighbourhood.
The same fate awaits black bin bags filled with giant, plastic coke bottles that would overflow if added to blue bins loaded with glass, metal and plastic. Those bags, too, are ignored by our fortnightly collection. Not surprisingly, they end up chucked down alleys, filling roadside 'litter bins' or fly-tipped on open land.
Builders, too, fill any handy bins with waste they would be charged for dumping at official sites; leaving a heavyweight problem for householders. We want to encourage people to use council tips, not drive them out to rural lanes or old industrial sites to fly-tip.
Let's have more common sense and fewer rules! Help responsible householders - and put the lid safely on this recurring rubbish rant.

* * *

EVERTYTHING in the garden is rosy and there's a hint of spring in the air.
Before you warn I'm getting ahead of myself, let's remember we're in the last month of winter. What's more, at Edmonds Towers the snowdrops are emerging bringing a promise of new life and sunnier days.
To an untrained eye the Towers' back garden might look bare at present. This is because of local hero Joe, our gardener. He really was a hero once, before retiring as a fireman. Now he crops our great hedge once a year and, just recently, restored our flower bed which had been over-run by ivy.
With the right equipment and at a bargain price, he cleared in two hours what would have taken me two days. Mind you, the bacon and egg barm cake we gave him helped too.
The robin, my favourite of many birds nesting in our ivy hedge, was first out to investigate the freshly revealed soil bed. Now there are signs of my forgotten clump of daffodils sprouting up too, inspiring me to horticultural endeavours.
Despite being named so grandly, the 'Towers' is really a humble artisan's cottage – though of historic age and cosy character. What I thought wise, following Joe's tidy-up, was to replant flowering bushes which have outgrown their patio pots. However, what I'd really like would be a cottage garden.
“Easy,” the confident Joe told me, “just scatter seeds around then put on some top soil.”
Watching the robin hopping about, before being chased away by a touchy female blackbird, I decided on a compromise: replant those bushes, then scatter seeds around them, so we get the best show from both.
Mind you, it is of course still winter - with snowfalls and frost threatening. I'll just have to have another mug of tea and bacon barm . . . while thinking about sunnier days coming.

* * *

(Note: I include below two weeks columns about my amusing dancing acquaitance named Harry, since the earlier one humbles the ego of columnists. Harry, incidentally, is surnamed Crooks and is a retired council bricklayer, who turned his hands to many other things. These were all legal, though it seems a shame there was never a family firm, such as Crooks Ltd. or Crooks & Sons. Curiously, Harry's dad, who also sounded a real character and, as far as I know, was also reasonably law-abiding and a joker, once told Harry when he was approaching adulthood, "I'll tell you something now, son, which could make you rich. You just have to remember three little words and you'll always have money - 'Stick 'em up!'")

“I LOST my shirt playing cards,” confessed Harry, “also my suit - had to borrow clothes to walk home. She wasn't pleased,” he added, glancing at wife Barbara.
We laughed at our friend's recollection of younger days, playing three-card brag.
I wasn't lucky at cards either. “Your face gives you away,” Dad later counselled, when I'd lost my spending money trying out poker.
On my one visit to the races, a Gazette outing to Haydock, I followed a regular punter's advice and only bet what I could afford to lose – which I duly did. My £1 'on the nose' for each race failed to win, except in the last – when my horse romped home first. Then its jockey was disqualified for 'abuse of the whip'. It was an expensive lesson.
Neither did those old betting shops tempt me, except for Grand National days. They looked seedy, with blanked-out exteriors and no advertising allowed.
I found casinos unappealing, too, with desperate gamblers risking more than they could afford to lose, then looking miserable. Their best attraction was the food, often with free drinks.
However, mobile phone gaming now sponsors most televised sport, using the longest, most lavish and cleverly cast adverts. Worldly men hint of shrewd knowledge and a club-like camaraderie, as they bestride exotic destinations while “betting responsibly”. Or glamorous, young couples pop the Prosecco after free and easy phone bets on latest football scores.
It's all a long way from when dads would check their soccer pools and, on Sundays, we'd read of the latest to become millionaires – only for their world to be ruined by it.
No wonder two out of three teenagers now complain of being bombarded by gambling advertising. They should think instead of Harry - and his reception from wife Barbara, after 'losing his shirt'.
In the end, only the bookies win.

* * *

“I DON'T understand all this,” said Harry, reading this column last week in a lull at our Fleetwood tea dance.
Now good-humoured Harry knows his way round the dance-floor of life; always on his toes, so to speak, but otherwise with feet firmly on the ground.
“Perhaps I was rambling,” I admitted, “promoting my latest book.”
“Thought so!” he grinned.
Yes, we columnists get carried away at times, but our public brings us down to earth.
There was that visitor to our cricket club who exclaimed, “I've seen your articles! You do the gardening, don't you?” We went on to discuss his roses.
Then a regular in the pub announced, “Always read your column; get the paper specially - every Tuesday.”
Mind you, a dog owner named Peter once accosted me at a Preston New Road crossing with, “Aren't you that feller from the newspaper?” I confessed to so being and, urging on pet Lucky, Peter graciously added, “It's not bad, some of that stuff you write.”
A former colleague on our sister paper, the Fleetwood Weekly News, was recognised when queueing at a Chinese takeaway. His turn came and the woman serving announced, “I've seen your picture in the paper!”
“Yes, every week,” John told her proudly, aware of others listening.
To general amusement, she concluded, “You much older than picture in paper!”
My proudest accolade was for these shared pieces to be popular in the Fylde's Newspaper for the Blind. However, our vicar also had welcome praise.
“We really enjoy your writing,” she said, as we parted and I thanked her after a Sunday service. “I always read them to father. (Not our Father.) You usually find an uplifting ending too!”
Well we try, so today's lesson must be: Stay humble and be grateful - for whatever you receive.

* * *

Travel Tales:

Travel broadens the mind, it's true, but usually because of the people we meet and incidents we experience - rather than exotic locations themselves. Sharing the memories of such encounters later is another pleasure. Here we dip into a few such treasured, or troubled, moments from home and abroad, the near present and the past.

67. My Past Flashing By

THIS is an extended anecdotal article by Roy Edmonds, based upon his recent newspaper column inspired by an email from a distant, old friend . . . 

EVER been to a Chinatown, in one of our cities or overseas? They fairly buzz with life and a myriad flashing, coloured neon signs in English and Chinese. It makes you feel alive, part of an exotic, exciting world.
In the early 1980s I was fortunate enough to spend a few years working in Hong Kong for its leading English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post – along with some other former Gazette journalists. It was great fun and memorable, particularly at night. The streets were dazzling in that unique and literally electric visual culture of neon lights, like a permanent Illuminations display.
I paid tribute to its charm in my novel The Last Ghosts and many books and films have been inspired by its glittering spell. Sadly, though, the new governing powers there are now taking down those famous lights which have delighted visitors and locals alike for the better part of a century. They've been deemed illegal and are said to no longer fit in with the current vision of a modern, high-rise, city state.
Most tourists to the former British crown colony will recall layered, multi-coloured, garish signs in Chinese characters or sometimes English in densely packed, busy areas of Kowloon. Some signs had giant, hand-crafted figures, like a cow for Sammy's Kitchen.
Many consider these works of art and, especially in Wanchai on Hong Kong Island itself, they can have historical relevance, dating back to the city's vibrant past. There are echoes of Vietnam R&R days for American sailors and earlier, times celebrated in The World of Suzy Wong, the 1957 novel by Richard Mason and later a hit film starring William Holden.
Wander the old side-streets around 'the strip' of Lockhart Road and you saw signs for such as the Hi Fella Steam Laundry, the Hey Joe Chop Suey Bar or Red Lips Bar (complete with giant lips over in Kowloon). On the Victoria Harbour waterfront, busy with shipping from aircraft carriers to sailing junks, there were dazzling walls of such lights and a huge San Miguel beer sign pointed the way to rest and recreation for British sailors at the renowned China Fleet Club.
I suspect it's a case of cultural cleansing by the new and rather stuffy Chinese establishment. That's a great pity, as the world needs all the glitter it can get. Mind you, I was taken aback at the email from a friend telling me of these changes. His name is Bill Yim, a former Reuters correspondent in China and a great character, latterly better known as a magician and cartoonist.
The picture of garish 'signography' sent with the email was captioned, 'Old photo of neon-lit streets in Kowloon in the 1990s'. It was a shock to realise that the 1990s were now considered 'old'. 
Ah well, I remember the British-style traditional pub along Lockhart Road where some inspiring characters used to hang out, called the Old China Hand. Obviously, I've become one – even in absentia.
At least, here on the Irish Sea coast of Lancashire, we still have the resort of Blackpool - and our famous glittering miles of promenade Illuminations. These Lights shine on until November, every year.

* * *

66. A Taste of Growing Older

HERE is the opening chapter of a light-hearted muse come memoir, The Growing Older Book, due to be published. Its front and back covers are also featured. Check Books page for availability.

No Worries!

AH, another day! In fact, the start of a new year. That means in early morning it is still dark and impossible to judge the exact time. Ideally, it would be between seven and eight, allowing me to potter before savouring breakfast in bed, which we both enjoy every day.
Waking and stretching, I don't feel old at all – just the odd twinge to remind me I'm not immortal. Hopefully, my head is clear and there are no sniffles. I ease back the duvet carefully, as She Who Knows is sleeping soundly beside me; then tip-toe to our bathroom off the adjacent landing.
Incidentally, I first christened my wife She Who Knows in newspaper columns, partly because she does but, more importantly, as she also informed me early on, “I don't mind you writing about us, but please don't bandy my real name about - I'm a private person.”
Anyway, as I was saying, if this should be the first time I've visited the loo since turning out the bedroom light, after reading at around 11pm or earlier, then that's exceptionally good. Usually I've been once or twice in the night. However, talking to other oldies, that's not too bad – just irritating.
“Why don't you switch the light on?” demands She Who, should she too awake and creep out of the still-dark bedroom. “Don't be in there in the dark!”
This request is more for her relief than my own comfort or well-being. Like many women, she's surprisingly jumpy and easily startled when I, moving quite naturally about the house, catch her unawares – simply by entering a room when she doesn't expect me or, more likely, when her mind is elsewhere.
“Oh, my God!” she'll cry out, “Don't sneak up on me like that!”
One of her biggest dreads is to be surprised by me emerging from the shadows as, she tells me, her late step-father used to do at their rambling family house.
Personally, I think the old boy didn't intend anything malign but was, as usual with male heads of households back then, trying to keep down costs and reduce the electricity bill (specially with three women in the house).
Actually, with a thin roller blind, it's not really dark and I like the 'grey light of dawn'. Most men do I suspect. That was even the title of a romantic song lyric from a (slightly older) pal of mine, retired bricklayer come poet Dave 'Simmo' Simpson.
We men aren't anxious, you see, to examine our time-weathered features first thing in glaring lights. Better to embark on the day gently, as when setting sail upon an adventure, or merely stepping out of the front door and into uncertain weather, to start another day.
At the moment of writing I'm closer to 70 than 60 but inside, as long as not glimpsing a sideways or overhead reflection, feel just 35; which is great!
What's more I don't really think about age, except considering – amazingly enough – that this is the most enjoyable period so far of my life, excepting perhaps early days tumbling around amongst toys and being cosseted and spoiled; but I don't clearly remember those far times and probably also cried a lot.
This age is so good that I no longer plan what I'm going to do, in the coming years or even – when left to my own devices – this very day. That's the joy, of course, of being retired, which I heartily recommend.
It's best to live in the present, which slows everything down. Besides, now I think about them, none of my plans ever worked out.
Concerns about age, for me, are a past complaint which, as best I recall, started in my teens.
Of course, even when younger, one's age was soon a matter of personal concern if not worry. If you're three and a half then you would say so, not just say three. Similarly with height, I'm still five feet 10 and a half – or, at least, perhaps now a quarter – of an inch.
But as you progressed through to 'big school' important age gaps were clear. I was five when the easy bliss of playing around at home, in what I only remember as sunny days, suddenly ended.
I was of an age to each morning leave our suburban semi-detached home with its gardens, leafy avenues and nearby playing meadows.
No longer could I simply play there or at the neighbouring 'out-of-bounds' orchards, or nearby parks patrolled by fearsome 'parkies' (uniformed officials who'd wallop you with a stick if caught misbehaving, such as crossing flowerbeds or cycling – you were supposed to push your bikes inside parks then).
Suddenly, I was obliged to spend most of my weekdays at 'infants' school.
All I remember from its first year was playing with plasticine and hammering nails into sewing bobbins for some reason (which wouldn't be allowed now, owing to health and safety 'issues').
In the second year we must have picked up some writing skills since I remember having to write in a notebook how the intervening weekends were spent.
In fact, this weekly report was made-up fantasy in which I shared most activities with a neighbouring boy called Ian, whom in reality I didn't like much, but whose name I could spell; rather than my real best friend Maurice, whose name was too difficult.
I couldn't spell climb either, so remember claiming that we had 'run up' trees. Perhaps it was an early introduction to my future role in journalism, with its habitual exaggeration and half-truths.
After two years at infants we went through a gate in a metal fence which was opened only on these annual occasions – to move up into the 'juniors'.
Here I had my first run-in with authority (other than 'parkies'), when a female teacher, obviously not suited to her profession, called me out in front of class and caned me on my bottom as I bent over a stool.
In fact it was only gently done, sending a warm sensation through my seven-year-old buttocks to match my blushing face. This probably had a profound effect but let's not go there, as they now say.
I won't detail my gradual education up to real canings but mention all this to show those important age changes, like walking through to the 'bigger' school.
Back then the 11-Plus, when so much was decided about your future, was important of course but, in a way, we were still too young to take in all that.
What really struck me after starting 'senior' school (a fine, old grammar in my fortunate case), was my much sought after next goal in ageing – which, of course, was to become a teenager.
They seemed to have so much more fun and were distinguished by conspicuous advancements, like wearing long trousers, having girlfriends and smoking (mostly under-age of course).
Indeed, becoming 13 was wonderful – though I also became a real rebel after being struck by two unanticipated life forces little known to us except by experience: the shock of puberty; then the equally confusing onset of adolescence.
These left us mumbling and embarrassed in public, while in private 'playing with ourselves' and feeling secretly guilty and desperate.
So, back then our age concern was to grow up faster. Only later did we discern the accompanying loss of innocence and, poor measure in return, the burden of unwanted responsibilities.
However, the thought of all that now, of course, just makes me smile.

 * * *

65.  A Nightmare in Hemingway's Bed

IN the mid-1980s, when in my own mid-30s and still a fairly free-rolling bachelor, I was briefly stranded on a Caribbean island, writes Roy Edmonds. It was an oddly mixed experience, of both pleasure and anxiety, which might have led me in various directions. What's more, the whole curious affair was further enhanced by at that time staying in the very bedroom (complete with leaking ceiling) once occupied by one of my literary heroes, Ernest Hemingway, who had been a regular guest at Brown's Hotel.
This bizarre period formed the starting point of my memoir about growing up in suburban Manchester but then travelling the world working on newspapers, entitled Only The Good News – the first chapters of which can be read through links on our Books page and other extracts and explanations in some earlier items below.
But, firstly, it is also entertaining, I now realise, to recount just how my journey to Bimini in the Bahamas came about (see also item 59 below - A Bud and a Jack Straight-Up!) as well as the characters, places and often equally offbeat events leading up to it.
It essentially began in Hong Kong, where I'd been tempted a few years before by a former colleague and friend off the Blackpool-based West Lancashire Evening Gazette, which employed me for three years after working on diverse other English newspapers and magazines.
An air-mail letter from my mate Dave Hadfield, who later went on to become a highly respected rugby league correspondent for The Independent newspaper and Sky Sports, arrived at my rented Blackpool house one rainy, wintry Monday morning as I was grilling breakfast toast.
At the time I'd rather been cursing Dave for having upped and left our house in Leeds Road, shared with a couple of other young men. It didn't help us to get through a blustery winter on the Irish Sea coast knowing that he was swanning around the world with his girlfriend, another former colleague Esther-Margaret Lancaster.
Also, Dave had left an untidy collection of empty Guinness bottles round his front bedroom's window ledge and I discovered much-needed items of our house crockery shoved under his bed and now sprouting mould. However, he was about to make up for such slovenliness. The aerogramme, as these flimsy now extinct forms were then known, had exotic, printed Chinese characters upon it as well as my English address. What was more, its contents were so exciting that the toast got burned and my entire day and future life changed.

As Chief Reporter of the South China Morning Post, the region's leading English-language newspaper, Dave had fixed me up with a reporting job that paid Fleet Street rates in the exciting crown colony where income tax was a mere 10 per cent. What was more, they had a spare room in their Wanchai flat in the heart of downtown bars and restaurants. The choice was, as they say nowadays, a non-brainer. I handed in my notice, booked a cheap one-way flight and also got most of that year's UK income tax back.
It was an extraordinary flat and we were the only westerners within the 11-storey 'mansion' block on the major Hennessy Road. However, one drawback was a Filipino band who played until 4am in a nightclub under our floor. Perhaps that was why Dave and E-M left shortly after I arrived.
However, I was to find a new mentor over the coming three years spent in Hong Kong. He was David Creffield, who edited Asia business magazine and was a former editor of the celebrated quarterly magazine for Africa, Drum. David had been brought up in Africa and was a larger-than-life character. He also needed regular part-time help editing the magazine, which gave me freelance work and time, eventually, to write my first novel, Year of the Gwailo (which remains in manuscript form under my desk).
Eventually David came home to Blighty (where he had a seafront house near Brighton) and started up then later sold the successful Overseas Jobs Express. But before that, while still in Hong Kong, he introduced me to an equally colourful chap called Bill McDonald; a tall, easy-going, good-looking American rather younger than myself but already a successful toy importer from the States.
'Mack' was an easy man to like and he insisted that should I ever visit New York again (I'd once spent six months travelling across the States by Greyhound bus) we must get together - at least for a game of squash and beers. While in Hong Kong I also met an American couple, Dick and Bonnie, at Cantonese evening classes. We gelled too.
So it was that a few years later, after I'd returned to Britain, I went for four weeks to New York staying at lawyer Dick's Greenwich Village apartment with a view to a sideways beach holiday in Florida.
Dick and Bonnie were remarkably offbeat for such a successful pair (she was a designer for Revlon). They would walk down different sides of busy New York streets, yelling across at each other but too stubborn to cross over, and knew most decent bars around the 'Village', as well as the most interesting restaurants.
They were very kind but both working hard, so I also looked up old pal Mack, who was still a bachelor - but only just.
"Great, we'll play squash at the New York Athletic Club," he promised over the phone, "but there's a party I should take you to before then. I think you'll know the hostess - and she's loaded. Oh, by the way," he added in a memorable line, "I'm not in toys now, I'm a movie producer."

Naturally, when we first met up - at the rather literary Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan - I offered Mack the draft of my novel, Year of the Gwailo. I would like to add that he and his partners in that trendy production company he showed me round snapped up all the rights, then made a hit film and brought me fame and fortune. But they didn't.
Instead we went to that party, which almost impressed me as much. The spacious apartment was in a superb block on the lower waterfront, near an indoor tennis complex. We had to operate an outer security door, ringing up to the hostess's home, then negotiate with a very thorough, uniformed commissionaire, before getting to ride up in the elevator.
Our hostess, clearly infatuated with Mack, met us at her door and ushered us inside a crowded living room overlooking the harbour. Caterers and waiters circulated, conversation buzzed. She turned out to be the daughter of an international publishing family who also owned the Asia business magazine in Hong Kong, and equally enamoured of my roguish friend and its editor, David Creffield.
I mustn't have impressed her quite as much as Mack and David since, within minutes of us being introduced and chatting, she told me to do what Mack was already demonstrating his ability at - and circulate. While doing this I made a few memorable discoveries.
The first was that everyone, within moments of meeting you, asked what you did - which tells you a lot about them too. More congenially, I then discovered the spare bathroom had a bath full of crushed ice, to accommodate countless cans of beer for those not wanting more of the cocktails and wines being handed round elsewhere.
Finally, I came upon another partygoer who looked almost as lost and on his own as myself. He was admiring the panoramic view by a picture window as I, too, sidled up to escape small talk. At least this fellow appeared ordinary enough. We got chatting a little then, inevitably, I asked the party question.
"Oh, I'm a racing driver," he told me, confidently adding his name. However, not being a Formula One fan, I'm afraid it meant nothing.

What an incredible, sophisticated world I now seemed to be part of ! Even I, the humble grammar school boy from Manchester suburbs, could now drop impressive names of exotic places and colourful people. Getting around a bit can open so many new avenues.
However, it felt more comfortably familiar when Mack and I finally had that game of squash (despite the Americans playing with a completely different harder ball). The New York Athletic Club reminded me back then of the YMCA in Manchester's city centre. Both were quaintly old fashioned; all male, as far as I recall, and men swam with naked abandon in their swimming pools. Also, both establishments' restaurants were more like canteens, with wholesome, reasonably priced meals. We finished soup and rolls before going out into the pleasant night air and – against all advice - walking across Central Park to Mack's apartment.
“Muggers? I'll just beat them with my squash racquet,” a confident Mack reassured me.
His attractive, live-in fiancée was absent but we 'boys' loafed together eating pizza she'd left and watching an American football game he tried to help me understand.
I felt on top of the world, with all things possible, and was further excited about my holiday prospects when Mack said, “If you're going to Florida, you should hop over to the Bahamas on little Chalk Airlines. Go to Bimini, I've been fishing there – it was a favourite spot of Hemingway's.”
It was good advice but I should have taken more care in my arrangements. Despite my travel experiences up to then, I still had a lot to be taught about life – and I'm still learning now.
To join me on my journey back then, follow the links and other items mentioned earlier.

 * * *

64.  Food for Thought

WHEN I was very young I remember a rare meal out on holiday at a seaside cafe/restaurant with my older brother and parents, writes Roy Edmonds. I was on best behaviour as we relished one of the cheaper set meals, probably cottage pie or fish and chips, served by uniformed staff. What a treat! Then I heard something very rare - to our ears anyway - for those poor post-war days of the 1950s, a customer complaining loudly. Not only was this lone diner eating steak (then unknown to me) but he was not satisfied. This public display inspired an embarrassed silence among others, while a waiter took the steak back to the kitchen. In a whisper, I mentioned this to my father in hushed amazement. "Must be a Yank," he replied.

The following is another steak experience, many years later, as recalled in a chapter from my latest muse, 'The Growing Older Book', to be published in the not-too-distant future, hopefully, with many later revisions.

'You've Got It!'

HELLO, you guys all right?” demanded the cheerful, young receptionist at the national chain steakhouse, until recently a local community pub.
We probably winced but her smile never faltered as she kept one eye on the computer screen at her greeting podium.
It was all very American and, glancing through the dazzling new interior to where the old bar used to be, I noted glumly that all real ale hand-pumps had now been replaced by trendy gas dispensers.
As I mentioned earlier in the last chapter, it was almost the start of a new year. During this festive week between Christmas and New Year, I'd been spending the latter part of most afternoons at my 'local', fortunately the area's oldest inn with an array of ales and cosy rooms warmed further by coal fires.
This routine arose because most of our regular pursuits, like dancing or tennis, were closed down for the holidays. Also it was chilly on our famously breezy Irish Sea coast and a little depressing to walk far under pewter-grey skies.
She Who Knows wisely preferred to stay indoors, where I would join her for our evening meal at the allotted time (towards 6pm) but, it being so warm and cosy, I tended to fall asleep afterwards.
“You're asleep again!” she would complain, glancing towards me on the sofa we shared. “I only put this film on TV because you wanted it.”
Eyeing the wall clock sheepishly, I would declare: “I'm not sleeping, just resting my eyes.”
This was such a hackneyed defence that at Christmas She Who Knows had bought me a pair of pyjamas with those very same much-used words upon the sweatshirt, above a cartoon of Father Pig. On the accompanying shorts there were lots of little flying pigs going “Oink, oink!”
Oh, yes, fortunately she has a sense of humour – but not all the time.
“If I get called a 'guy' again I'm going to scream!” she warned me as we were shown to a table at the swanky steakhouse.
I had suggested we eat there because she loves steaks and dining at expensive stylish places and, essentially, I felt guilty over all that dozing off.
Fortunately, now both being retired and receiving much deserved pensions, we could go fairly early on a weekday early evening after shopping. It was a perfect way to unwind and a change from turkey.
Also, there was free 'entertainment'. This was unwittingly provided by our waiter for the evening (and his colleagues), who promptly introduced himself to us 'guys' then – before She Who Knows could scream – added, “Hold on, I'm having trouble with the internet.”
I'm surprised he didn't say “my internet”, when glaring at his hand-held device for taking food orders, as he related everything else back to himself.
For example, when telling us of 'specials' he would say, “Tonight I have for you . . .”.
Also, we were sat, he informed us, at “my favourite table”. Then there was, “That's just the way I like my steak cooking”, followed by, “Excellent choice, I'd choose the same.”
Sometimes, during the long process of ordering, he would only have time to mutter “Cool!” in approval at our choices.
All this from a man in his early 40s or, possibly, late 30s after a hard life trying to keep up with trends. He was also fairly local, I'd guess, despite a pretentious vocal leaning to the transatlantic.
We couldn't just rattle off what we wanted to eat as each item had to be input in strict order into his rather sensitive internet device. Select your sauce for steak before your salad dressing and it went on the blink like a temperamental head waiter.
How did we want our steaks? “Medium to WELL!” That was the preferred selection for us (having suffered food poisoning in the past from trendy pink meat, historically unheard of until modern times), but you had to emphasise the 'To well (done)', or they might not hear in this noisy atmosphere.
“You've got it!” he told us, then reading from his hand-held overlord inquired, “What about potatoes? You guys okay with fries?”
We both nodded, dreading the response which duly came, in transatlantic drawl, “You've got it, guys!”
At the next table, two middle-aged couples were getting the same treatment from another waiter who, when he finally left, they mimicked cruelly.
“I can't stand all this American crap!” muttered one of the hefty men. “What's more, I think he just pressed 'medium' on that thing of his, rather than what I asked for – medium well.”
Our own waiter reappeared in a panic, his hand-held tormentor playing up. “I forgot to ask your dressing for the salad wedge,” he apologised.
“I'll try this blue cheese one,” I muttered.
“Cool, you got it!” he exclaimed, rushing away to distant kitchens where a bell was ringing.
“Poor man,” said She Who Knows, “I feel sorry for him. What a performance!”
Still, when it came, our meal was very good and we tipped sympathetically as, at the next table, the man complained, “This steak's not how I ordered!”

* * *

63. Christmas Cheer

THIS is a chapter from Life of Bliss, a 'fictional memoir' by Roy published in 2012 (see Books page). Hero Alfie Bliss is loosely based upon the author and some other characters upon his friends. However, its storyline has enriched real events to shed a positive glow upon life and uplift the spirit. Here he and partner Becky have returned from a holiday in Hong Kong to find their cottage's terrace in Cocker Parade, Blackpool, has suffered a blaze and they are temporarily homeless as Christmas nears. We join them in a fictional pub in Rural Fylde, near Alfie's brother's farmhouse.

Counting Blessings

I STARED across the fields to the snow-glazed Pennines. The view from the gents of the Pump and Trough was as pleasant as ever. I closed the window again as another patron came in; a winter chill was descending over the heavy ploughed fields along with the early darkness of afternoon.
“Grand view,” he commented. “Just time to stroll back afore dark.”
I agreed, though I had other plans. I strolled back only as far as the pub’s firelit snug and settled back in my corner with Fred the farmer. He was recuperating after taking his wife into Preston for the Christmas shop.

“So how’s that house of yours Alfie?” a newcomer settled in an opposite corner chanted across the room.
“Well, we won’t be in for Christmas.”
“Happen you’ll be here in Lower Plumpton for the festivities then.”
“We’ll see,” I said, mustering a smile before taking a long pull on my pint of Pride. That had been my intention but Becky was tiring of life at Daisy Bank farm. She could just cope with the animals but, as she had explained, the kids and my brother’s continual building works were too much. I knew what she meant. Harry and Cathy’s grown up pair were back from university for the holiday. Now they really needed the place to themselves. Perhaps it was time for we fire refugees to move on.
Not that the fire had been at our house. It had been the new neighbour from hell; the child-mother renting the Brown’s next door, who was to blame. Apparently some hair curlers had been left plugged in while she was out shopping with her baby and the heat had ignited the curtains then other fabrics in the bedroom. Flames had spread downstairs before Mr and Mrs Chow from the nearby takeaway, leaving for their Sunday meal and shop at Manchester’s Chinatown, had spotted smoke at the front door. Ours had been the only house unoccupied in the terrace, where smoke was streaming from the roofs, gable end to gable end. It was the spreading smoke which had led the firemen to break into our home, their hoses caused the rest of the damage. Everything in the loft and much in the bedrooms had been smoke or water damaged, while ceilings had collapsed into our lounge and kitchen. Fortunately, my brother Harry had organised most of the clean-up before we returned but the place was still uninhabitable. Becky had insisted we get proper contractors on to the repairs, through our insurance, rather than letting Harry and various volunteer tradesmen from my local pub The Seagull complete the job. No doubt, she was right.
We had stored our remaining belongings and moved to Lower Plumpton, making regular trips back home to supervise. At first I had felt a terrible loss. It wasn’t so much the clothes as the treasured memories in those tea chests in the loft, all gone. Then, strolling to the Pump this afternoon rather than riding as usual (Murphy was being reshod), the burden of loss had slipped off my shoulders in a gentle, cool breeze. I had exchanged stares with the belted bullocks, studied a crow from its high perch and thought whatever was important from the past was still inside me anyway. It was better to appreciate today, my health and this wonderful freedom. I strode on with a lighter step, feeling reborn somehow.
Staring into the burning logs at the Pump’s snug, I thought of Becky and smiled. The house damage, after her initial shock and depression, had brought her a new lease of life. Apparently much of the furnishings we had considered perfect before could be improved upon. She was on a new crusade. Then there was a fresh wardrobe of clothes to acquire. She would be here herself in another 20 minutes, we were dining at the pub’s fine restaurant later with the entire family, on me. It was to be our thanks, plus another restaurant review for Squire magazine. Tomorrow we were driving over to Wales. Apart from bringing my mother up to date on our news, Becky hoped to shop there for lambswool rugs and sheepskin jackets. And it would be a change from the cheerful but chaotic life at Daisy Bank farm.
In fact, we only stayed two nights in Wales. It was long enough to put my mother’s fears at rest over Cocker Parade, to enjoy a pint with the 'Commodore' at Phlegm village and sumptuous meal in The Castle, but the Davies family was also gathering for Christmas and there was no room at their Boathouse Inn. Also, with December, a damp mist hung over Conway Valley and the mountains. It wasn’t good riding weather. Instead we took up an invite from Squire magazine boss Humphrey Rowbottom and motored back along the coast and up to the Lake District. The Cumbrian air seemed fresher and I again felt a lift in my spirits watching Windermere from the car ferry. We lunched in Hawkshead, where Becky found her lambskin and wool garments, then drove on to quiet Steeple Water, a glasslike vision of stillness off the beaten track. Here was tiny Steepleton, a hamlet without even a pub or shop, and Humphrey’s imposing home and office, Steepleton Lodge.

Buttocks, as Humphrey had been nicknamed since school, couldn’t have been a more gracious host. He and his very close 'assistant', the amazing Amanda,  seemed genuinely delighted at our arrival. We represented little extra work to his housekeeper Mrs Batty and her various sons and daughters who helped out round the Lodge when not working on their neighbouring dairy farm. Mrs Batty, a formidable widow in her Seventies, was a large-built, plain-speaking woman and as strong as a battle-axe, but wore little-girl, white socks in the sandals she used all-year round. There were similar contrasts in her nature, being alternatively harsh-viewed and sharp-tongued (“that husband of mine never did a day’s work in his life”), to obviously doting on the gentle Humphrey, laughing hugely at any jokes (or misfortunes) and loving the various dogs and cats which also inhabited the Lodge. We settled in happily. Mrs Batty didn’t stay overnight but left an excellent meal in the oven before going home. Humphrey set about introducing me to the delights of his extensive wine cellar, while also trying to persuade me to take over from him as editor of Squire.
The ladies had other plans. Living on the move, as we had been since returning from Hong Kong, had shown up the limitations of my old MG. They arranged for a new and larger vehicle to be loaned to us on trial from a nearby garage. It wasn’t a four-wheel drive, they explained, but a multi-purpose vehicle. To me it looked like a box on wheels but, then, its height gave great vision, there was much more space and, yes, it was comfortable and fun to drive. Next on their agenda was shopping for clothes and furnishings.
I took to using the Lodge library as my study, from where I sent columns of Bliss At Home and Bliss Abroad to editors Danny Hardman and Miles Bartlett, respectively, via the Rowbottom fax. I also helped Humphrey edit pages of Squire and kept in touch with what was happening at home. The Browns were back at their fire-ravaged house next to ours in Cocker Parade. They confirmed, over the phone, that our refitting was almost complete, under brother Harry’s supervision. We were best staying where we were until final inspection time. 
At lunch times I would sidestep shopping trips into the Lakes’ market towns to have a “business lunch” with Humphrey, followed (for me but not Buttocks) by a stroll round Steeple Water. It was on these walks I began to develop some plans for our future. After all, this holiday, in one form or another, was going to last the rest of our lives. By the time the ladies came back in our bus, as I’d taken to calling the MPV, it was time to shower, have an aperitif and then dine.
It was a pleasant interlude in a beautiful, quiet location which helped us forget the fire and day to day routine. We even got to ride at some local stables. I don’t think we cramped our hosts’ rather odd relationship, though we only once heard the sound of what we guessed to be cane on flesh from a distant part of the Lodge, where the assertive Amanda and aptly named Buttocks slept. Certainly, they seemed keen for us to stay as long as we pleased.
Now,” Amanda said when we’d finished our evening meal, “we should talk about Christmas. Humphrey and I want you both to stay on with us.”
With a log fire flickering, cognac in hand and full stomach, it was extremely tempting.
“Well,” She Who Knows, as I called Becky in columns, said carefully, “that’s very kind.” It was said in that tone of voice I knew, which also implied, ‘We’ll see, shall we?’.
As we later switched off the light in our bedroom, and that profound silence of the country crept upon us from outside, she said: “Amanda’s right. We must make plans.”
“I already have,” I told her, surprising myself a little at the half-truth. “A cruise – you said yourself there should be plenty of late bookings available.”
Becky snuggled against me, spreading warmth to the inner man. “Are you sure?” she counselled, but I could feel the glow of her excitement in the darkness.
“Yes,” I told her. “The house is fine, ready for decoration while we’re away, then your final touches when we return. Danny at the Blackpool Bugle has arranged a festive present. I’ve got the newspaper's box at the Grand Theatre for next Saturday’s Christmas preview, then we can be off – just leave our things and the bus at Daisy Bank.”
There came, in the mellowing dark, a tiny shriek of anticipation.
Then I took a deep breath before adding in a steady voice: “I don’t know if these captains still oblige, or if we’ll have to go ashore somewhere, but I also think we should get married.”

* * *

62. A Taste of Irish

IN his humorous memoir, Bright Lights & Pig Rustling (see Story/Chapter and Books pages), Roy recalls a trip to Ireland around 1990 with a few friends - one of whom had inherited a cottage in West Cork, which they went to investigate . . .

It was a rough crossing for me, back then a single man in my 40s, with Blackpool Gazette colleagues Jo Biddle, Michelle Worthington and Kath Smith, along with her architect boyfriend Charlie, and not forgetting Scouser Michelle's wacky Dalmation dog, Spot.
After a bleak night in a friend's caravan on Anglesey, we had caught the early morning ferry from Holyhead to Dublin. In spite of its name, what a God forsaken place Holyhead appears in the early cold light of day, with a grey and threatening Irish Sea awaiting.
Our jolly few days' outing was to help the kindly Jo check out a remote rustic cottage on the rugged West Coast of Ireland, left to her by an aunt who had passed away to hopefully gentler climes.
On the crossing I was able to confirm my best method for handling the threat of seasickness, by downing a couple of pints of Guinness along with stodgy cheese and onion rolls and with a freshening breeze from deck cutting through the bar, where you're best standing, or clinging while swaying. Failing that, it's time for a stiffer port and brandy.
We were all glad to place our feet on terra firma, even the rather dismal dockside outside Dublin. By far the most unsteady of us was Spot, who had been given travel and sleeping pills by Michelle to keep him quiet while alone down on the car deck – by rule.
Our two-car group headed into the centre of Dublin and stopped for breakfast at Bewley’s Café in Grafton Street, opposite Trinity College. The lovely, old fashioned tea rooms were full of aspidistras, daily newspapers, peat fires and sizzling fayre – marvellous!
“Ah, there's no need to pay into a meter,” advised a passing gent as we parked. “They don't check them until well after 10am.” Such is Ireland.
Refreshed by a memorable breakfast of scrambled eggs, home-cured bacon, local sausage and, of course, potatoes, we let poor Spot out the car. He was still red-eyed from the travel drugs and so unsteady when he cocked his leg against an antique lamp-post he nearly fell over – much to the amusement of passers-by.
We drove across Ireland, pausing only to kiss – or, in my case, just look at – the Blarney Stone; then ask directions from eccentric farmers and their still madder sheepdogs.
It seemed as though Irish farmers were loath to let you down so, even if they did not know the right direction, they'd make a good stab at guessing it. Also it didn't help that some signposts were in longer 'Irish miles' and others in ours – without revealing which.
Still, it was charming countryside to drive through and I relished the hamlets where we'd occasionally stop, get petrol, stretch our legs then load up provisions from a local store – and much more.
These were the traditional village stores where there were groceries, hardware, post office facilities and a bar in the corner, with cured hams hanging from the ceiling and fresh soup and home-made soda bread.
We finally approached the vicinity of the County Cork cottage towards late afternoon.
It was delightful, if remote, with only one neighbour – who'd thoughtfully put peat in the fireplace and tea on the stove ready for our arrival.
The girls in our group set about unpacking and preparing a meal, as we two men, Charlie and me, rekindled that peat fire and scouted about.
Only I wanted to stretch my legs later and try some Guinness in the nearest village, which was Durrus about four miles away.
With steely or perhaps stubborn determination, I strode out into the dark evening night – and halted. It was pitch black. I couldn't see my hand before my face.
However, I felt my way down a hedge towards the rural main road at our gate. Looking upward I was stunned to see the vast array of stars – what a glorious sight! Gradually, my eyes adjusted to faint moonlight through scurrying clouds.
Rather gingerly now, I took a few steps down the road, which had no pavement, facing any onward traffic. Four miles suddenly seemed a long way.
But I need not have worried. After all, this was Ireland – where the good saints take care of everything, particularly travellers.

“AYE, good evenin', 'n' where'd you'd be headin'?” asked the driver. It was the first car that had passed me, a few minutes after setting off down the road, and they had stopped immediately upon sighting me walking.
“Durras, is it now? Well we're goin' through dere – you'd best jump in!” said the cheerful chap at the small car's wheel.
To accommodate me, his wife got out of the front passenger seat and joined a few sleepy children and dogs in the back, along with what looked like a lot of shopping.
“And where'd you be stayin'?” he asked as we set off. “Oh, dat old place is it?” he said when I mentioned the cottage. “We've been wonderin' who'd be movin' into dere.”
I told them the story to date, as grateful for the lift as they seemed for the information and chat.
“Is it one of the pubs you're goin' to?” the driver asked, as we slowed into a rather closed-down looking main street in Durras village.
There were about four pubs, a couple of churches and one or two shops, plus a petrol station – all looking worryingly shut up for the evening.
“Any one that's open, with a bit of life,” I muttered, rather disappointed.
“Ah'll there'll only be one dat's busy, not enough folks to fill 'em all,” the driver advised.
“Now tonight,” he continued, twisting around and scrutinising the dimly lit exteriors of two nearby bars, “I reckon that'd be your best bet dere,” he said, pointing at one of them, “been a fishing contest dere, you see.”
I nodded rather uncertainly and began to get out. “Fancy a drink m'self,” said my driver. “I might just join you. Would you mind, love?”
His wife didn't mind and we abandoned her and the children to cross to the pub he had indicated, she driving off home with the family and goods.
Sure enough, inside its unpromisingly quiet exterior the bar was packed. As we entered the throng, where there was much jollity, he waved to others in greeting and managed to tell anyone interested that myself and friends had taken over the cottage.
I wanted Guinness but first was encouraged to drink from a fishing trophy that was being passed around and turned out to be filled with Irish whiskey.
Songs were starting up, with varying success.
“You'll have to sing too!” someone told me.
“It's expected,” confirmed my driver friend, getting in the Guinness.
I gave them an impromptu 'Leaving of Liverpool', which seemed appropriate – at least Michelle and Spot had travelled from near there. Hearing my rather tuneless tones, the others joined in with sympathy and gusto.
It was my first taste of local hospitality but not unique. In the coming days we got to know the local publicans and regulars. Like on this first evening, there were late drinking sessions – all going quiet when the Garda drove through, checking at closing time.
Also one landlady warned us there was a lot of 'bagging' going on. “Ah,” she added, seeing our concern, “but they only breathalyse you if they can see you're really drunk. Don't want to waste bags, you see.”
We were all welcomed warmly but Spot was our great star. Most pubs had a sign outside declaring a ban on dogs. However, when we asked if we could bring him in from the car they always readily agreed – surprised at us asking - and proceeded to fuss and feed him generously.
“Now what sort of a dog would you be calling him?” they all asked. It seemed Dalmatians were rare in Ireland.
The cottage was fairly close to the rugged west coast, with sheer cliffs down to the Atlantic Ocean, but also beautiful bays with solitary, stone farmhouses – quiet scenes looking like watercolour landscapes.
One particularly windy day, Michelle, Spot and me were dallying in a Durras pub after food shopping.
“Your outside sign is hangin' down broken, McFie!” a regular entering to escape the gale informed our elderly landlord.
“Now y'say it's hangin', but just how bad is it exactly?” asked the licensee, not eager to go out for repairs. “Is it by just one corner?”
“It looks pretty loose,” the chap said guardedly.
“Aye, well it'll probably be all right.” Our landlord went back to entertaining his few customers.
To keep us there and drinking, he had a multitude of tricks. He did magic, making coins disappear; could drop a heavy coin from his lips into a thin slot made in a cigarette packet on the floor – from bomber pilot days, he claimed – and, finally, produced a violin and played a few jigs.
The locals welcomed all-comers but had been disappointed by German landlords who had recently bought up much of the countryside. Unlike some Dutch before them, the Germans used fencing around their newly purchased land.
“A terrible t'ing,” one local moaned, “means we're not free to roam as we please.”
Some villages looked impoverished; others, just a few miles distant, appeared awash with European grants, busy stores and new – rather characterless – white bungalows.
Still, for the most part, we ate and drank well. One vivid memory is of driving over the hills and down a bumpy lane into Bantry Bay, with a song from the Pogues playing loudly on the car's CD player – its rip-roaring lyrics all about coming into Bantry Bay.
The live music and welcome in the Bay's pub we visited was great (they hadn't seen a Dalmation before either), but the local fish and chips were some of the worst I have ever tasted – odd with the sea so close.
After almost a week, it was time for our two-car party to return homeward. We arrived towards evening in Dublin, weary from a day's travel on country roads.
I had expected to love the city but found it rather drab, with the Liffey River looking much like the Mersey and all manner of beggars on the streets.
We found a remarkably cheap but clean and friendly, two-star hotel in a square near the railway station, then strolled into town and O'Connell Street.
After a good steak meal at reasonable cost, we settled for a nightcap or two in a cosy side-street pub.
Here our several-strong group took over a corner and ordered drinks. The busy bar staff didn't want paying up front so we continued, with nothing but a night's sleep ahead before the ferry to Holyhead.
By the end there remained just me, Michelle and Spot, so I ordered a last couple of drinks and asked how much we owed.
The barman looked uncertainly around the now largely deserted premises and asked for a measly two or three Irish pounds.
“Well, it must be more than that!” I admitted in some shock, “There have been several of us here drinking, most of the evening.”
“Is dat so?” he said, “Then how much do you t'ink it should be?”
In how many bars in capital cities would you experience that? In the end I probably gave him too much, all the money others had passed over to me as the evening wore on and they left for the hotel, plus a good tip.
They had, after all, spoiled Spot too.

To read more of 'Bright Lights & Pig Rustling', published in November, go to our Story/Chapter page.

* * *

61. Coach into the Past

IT seems we have reached the age of coach travel, here at Edmonds Towers in Great Marton. She Who Knows has her eyes set on the Shearings' summer/autumn schedules.
Our first foray was last year, all the way down to lovely Lynton and Lynmouth in Devon where, admittedly, I wouldn't want to have to drive from here up north.
Our motorway system, especially in the school summer holidays when we inadvertantly booked, has failed. Like those struggling service station facilities along them, our M-lanes are simply too full for right thinking humans to use.
Fortunately, coach drivers have their alternatives - dipping down into a maze of business parks and country roads, all while keeping us amused, fed, watered and well shepherded like a valued herd.
We were full of admiration for them - and the way they handled all our luggage to magically appear again in our hotel rooms. However, we preferred the quieter drivers who didn't think they could have been entertainers.
Also, a good tip with motorway services is to walk straight through. Usually, there are a few kiosks run by local suppliers and a sitting area out the back. The food here is fresher and cheaper, while the air is clear of fumes and the atmosphere more restful - with crumbs much appreciated by an array of birdlife.
It's true that most coach passengers are elderly, a bit slow moving, rather deaf and consequently occasionally loud when chatting. But, on the merit side, they also doze off after a while, have some old fashioned courtesy and the gentle humour that comes from going through life's mill. Most are likeable characters with a fund of shared knowledge.
On excursions it's easy to avoid the crowd. Simply walk the other way; investigate the quieter end of the village, or beauty spot. There's usually plenty of time to turn and follow their footsteps, when most of the others have decided to sit in the driver's recommended cafe.
Often daily excursions are included in the overall price, but we only take a few of those available on most days of the holiday. Who wants to spend their vacation on a coach? Besides, one quaint village or harbour cove looks much like the next.
Also, it seems wrong that the coach firms should drive their passengers away from their chosen resort, which needs their spending to survive. Many also contrive to keep you in their hotel - with a few free drinks. By all means enjoy these, but also move out and on. The Cornish people are friendly characters, their ale and food delicious and you should try the ciders - like 'Rattler'.
The coach journeys have so far also allowed us to relive our past haunts as children. The charm of old resorts remains, at least in quiet corners.
At Newquay my childhood memories were revived by passing under its soaring, stone viaduct into beautiful civic gardens. Suddenly I remembered the scene as a small boy, more interested in a sweet seller who used to ply his wares at that spot.
Then there were the Cornish pasties which, when staying as a family back in the early 60s, we bought from vendors and ate nightly to supplement our landlady's meagre meals. I remember my father and the other men staying at her guesthouse eventually complaining to the old battle-axe. Portions did improve. We no longer got only one bacon rasher each with our breakfast, while the teatime Battenburg cake was no longer cut into four tiny squares to share.
How deep and wonderful is our past when we delve back into it, rather like revisiting the ocean and being charmed by its splendour all over again.
Also, as adults we appreciate the history and style of past ages.There are no less than three grand Victorian hotels in Newquay, all of which I could only stare at from a distance in wonder as a child.
The town-centre Victoria still has its fine interiors and a garden overlooking the beach. However, amongst the aspidistras there is a slightly worn down air. On the plus side though, there is a good health club and indoor pool; cheaper rooms than before and affordable drinks and afternoon teas. The dining room retains its opulence.
Out on the far headland is the impressive Atlantic hotel, which has been modernised with tremendous verve and deals out wow factor by every turn. This is still very much four star, if a little remote. A good stone's throw to its side is the Headlands (pictured), which we preferred for its more traditional style. Here a crab or smoked salmon sandwich set us back £9, but it was worth it to linger in the beautiful ballroom, lounges and gallery rooms overlooking the mighty Atlantic and Fistral Beach.
The walk to these further flung edifices quite tired out She Who Knows, who elected for a taxi 'home' to our promenade hotel in the freshening Atlantic winds. Built of sterner stuff and ever the explorer, I  preferred to stroll back into town and stop once more at a restaurant bar overlooking Newquay's old harbour.
Looking down the rugged coastline I picked out a cave by Great Western Beach. As a youngster I had surfed daily nearby and my mother, I suddenly recalled, had been caught there - desperately 'short'. Dad and I had to stand watch in the mouth of the cave as she entered its shadowy interior to find solitude.
"We'll call it Dirty Kathy's Cave," my father had announced when she finally emerged again, with a mix of relief and embarrassment. So it was and, also, so I remembered those sun-struck, happy days.
No wonder the sea draws us back to it, like the ebb and flow of life itself, that churning of past, present and future which holds us all in its flow. It was worth the coach ride.

* * *

60. Return to Blighty

THE sun was bright and it was hot in London as I returned in the summer of 1984 from years overseas. But it seemed a different country.
I was staying with friend Dave Part in East Smithfield, overlooking St Catherine's Dock in the revamped East End. It was very busy, even after Hong Kong. Also our quaint, cheap old haunts from Wapping to Brick Lane had been taken over by the City's new lords, the Loadsamoney gang.
"Must be busy," observed the patient Dave, a former Leigh rugby league man from Bolton way, as we queued on a Friday evening for a Bangladeshi restaurant.
"Sorry, sir," apologised embarrassed young Bangladeshis who weren't just being polite to us customers. Most were also daytime students of Dave's inner city school where he taught and inspired a healthy interest in his tough code of rugby football.
When we got as far as the restaurant doorway we saw the cause of this delay. There was a large table of boozed up, young, city types braying in the centre of the restaurant.
"Bring us more drinks!" demanded their rude spokesman although, judging from the detritus about them, they had finished their banquet.
"Only drinks for diners, sir," a plucky waiter tried to explain, pointing out, "many are waiting."
"Then bring us all the same food again - if it'll get us drinks," shouted the spokesman to guffaws from his drunken colleagues.
To his credit, the waiter refused and they eventually staggered out, leaving space for those waiting.
It was an unpleasant contrast to the decorum that had previously ruled our famed financial institutions and capital. So, this was Thatcher's brave new Britain. I hoped not.
It was a relief, after rather warm London beer and traffic fumes, to heave my heavy suitcase (now with a broken handle) on to the crowded Tube and head for Euston Station and the North of England.
But, again, it seemed a different countryside passing me in a blur of years outside. The land was no longer green but bright yellow. I hadn't seen fields of rape before.
Also, my money bought me less now. Instead of the banknotes I remembered, there were now pound coins and ugly 50p pieces.
As usual, most people kept themselves to themselves on the train, just as the suspicious, stand-offish Londoners tended to behave.
Finally, at Manchester Piccadilly, I left my suitcase in a locker and ventured out into my home city - before planning to take a train further on to North Wales, where my parents were now retired.
It seemed less impressive after the skyscraper cities of the Far East but, on the other hand, they'd finally cleaned away soot from the Industrial Revolution and old, stone buildings gleamed in the sunshine - well, rain actually.
It was nearby, too, that I got my first friendly smiles and humorous asides of welcome in a traditional pub - with cool cask ales at a reasonable price, then a pie from a chatty barmaid.
Ah, how wonderful to be back in the North-West!
An hour or two further up the track, I stepped out into refreshing, ozone-filled air from the Irish Sea coast. What a joy after city life!
I was home again - to stay.

* * *

59.  A Bud and a Jack Straight-Up!

WHEN recently publishing a humorous memoir, Only The Good News (see Books page), I rather abridged my holiday staying with friends in America in the 1980s. These recently discovered notes from that time provide a fresh look at Florida and the Bahamas.

EVEN in what appears to be paradise surprises await - nasty as well as nice. I was on holiday, visiting American friends in New York, when I finally gave them a break from my company and flew to Florida. This, back in the late 1980s, was as easy as hopping on a bus in England. No passport was required, though I had two to choose from. My out-of-date, world-weary passport was full of colourful entry visas including one to America stamped “Indefinite” – meaning I could return anytime (then quite common but now as rare as a smile on an immigration officer’s mug at Kennedy airport). Rather than apply for a fresh US visa for my pristine, new passport, the American Embassy in London had told me to take my old one along with it and that would still be valid. This had worked fine and immigration at New York had written “visa in old passport” when they stamped my new one for entry.
With only an easy hop to Florida on schedule, I travelled light and just took my new passport along for changing travellers’ cheques etc. My old one, most of my cash and the rest of my clothes were left at the Greenwich Village apartment of my friends Dick and Bonnie Corwin, whom I had known while working in Hong Kong. Upon arrival at Fort Lauderdale’s impressively new airport I put my find-a-cheap-room theory into action. In the absence of an airport bus I took a cab and got dropped on the “main drag” of the seafront. This looked attractive but was full of fancy hotels with vacancy signs. Ignoring those, I walked inland for a short distance and tried the rented apartments there. Sheer treasure! The tariff was a fraction of those advertised on the front, while I got a more spacious apartment than a room and a pleasant communal garden to sit out in. It didn’t have a pool but that was no problem – I would simply use the seafront hotel ones.
But first the sea! I never felt I had really experienced a country until I immersed myself in its ocean. At Ford Lauderdale the surf was lively and beaches spacious and sandy . . . then the hurricane arrived.
The sky went dark, everyone fled the beach, then a strong wind got up - closely followed by heavy rain. So much for my escape from ‘Cockroach City’, as the security man at Fort Lauderdale Airport called New York. “You’ll enjoy it more here, son,” he had promised, “in the sunshine state.”
The liveliest watering hole nearby to shelter was Penrod’s on the Beach. I approached its now crowded bar and patrons parted momentarily as a barman caught my eye and yelled: “Yessir! What’s-it-to-be?”
I wondered what beer you had on tap . . .” I rambled in a hesitant English voice and – with a shrug at my lack of purpose – he was gone to another customer.
What did I want exactly? I decided upon my order then, having listened to other customers’ barked orders, practised my next attempt.
Yessir!” yelled a fresh barman, pointing me out so a crowd of drinkers barring my way parted like the Red Sea for Moses.
Give me a Bud and a Jack straight up!” I demanded firmly.
Yessir!” grinned the bar-hand, adding: “I like a man who knows what he wants.”

Others nearby grinned in similar admiration and I took my chilled Budweiser and neat Jack Daniel’s bourbon to a side table, walking tall.
Back in my cheap apartment block I found a couple of local tenants enjoying a dry spell in the garden after our storm. We shared a few beers. As a parting gesture of friendship, they gave me a free-dial number to keep down my travelling expenses.
Just use it at payphones – to ring anywhere in the States,” they said.
Good men! I’d never heard of such a thing but was grateful.
Next day was brighter and I strolled the promenade heading to a downtown bank to change traveller’s cheques. It was time to move on and I fancied a look at nearby Miami.
On the return walk it was so hot I stopped at a beach bar, manned by a stunning blonde in a bikini. There were two tough-looking bikers on barstools with their Harley-Davidson’s nearby. The girl was preoccupied with another customer across the bar.
Hot, dry-tongued and tired of waiting, I reverted to my new self-assertion in bars and, grasping its rope, thrice rang a bell hanging from the timber ceiling.
Whoa, my man!” cried the girl, turning. “You just bought this whole bar three rounds – that’s our custom, a round for every customer on each ring.”
I spluttered apologies, explaining I was English and on a tight budget.
That’s okay,” said the nearest biker, who had a grim skull tattoo on his forehead. “Where you heading, buddy?”
They frowned as I outlined plans to bus down the coast.
Miami!” said the bikers, “Man, that place is real rough! We wouldn’t go there. You’re only safe if you speak Spanish - full of mean ‘Spics’, man.”
I took it they meant Hispanics and got their drift. If these tattooed tearaways thought it too violent, the message was clear.
So it was I took another New York friend’s earlier advice and booked a flight at the airport for Bimini, the nearest of the Bahamian islands. While lawyer friend Dick had vouched for Fort Lauderdale, from past raucous vacations with student friends, it was ‘Mack’, or Bill McDonald, a genial former toy exporter (to Hong Kong) turned New York film producer who had suggested Bimini.
We had played squash and had a swim a week before at the New York Athletic Club. Afterwards, Bill had invited me for supper at his nearby apartment just across Central Park. Following Mack’s lead, I had strolled out into the green expanse – now shadowed in mid-evening darkness.
Don’t they say you should not go through the park at night?”
Do they?” big Bill nonchalantly replied.
So I read – because of muggers.”
The tall, good-looking New Yorker set his shoulders, then pulled out his squash racquet and gave it an enthusiastic swing.
Just let ‘em try!”
Nothing happened. We reached his rambling apartment. His girlfriend was out but there was a pizza and he tried to explain American football to me. During commercial breaks in the TV game he had asked about my planned Florida trip then recommended Bimini.
Great little island, fly out there – it’s cheap. Say!” He added, knowing my ambitions to write novels (and scripts for his films, if possible). “There’s a hotel called Brown’s – Hemmingway stayed there. Ask and they’ll show you his room. Then, hey,” Bill slapped my shoulder manfully, “do some fishing and just chill – the seafood’s great down there.”
Getting a ticket was easy and cheap. I walked across Fort Lauderdale Airport’s tarmac and boarded a small plane with several other passengers. Next I got a look at Miami’s high-rise shoreline as we touched briefly down at its airport then came the short hop to Bimini – and the first of several shocks.
We skirted a group of palm-tree islands rimmed by white sands and coral, then came in low over a narrow estuary. To one side I could see an airport runway, lined alarmingly along its length by plane wrecks.
We were also getting perilously close to the water below us, very close, in fact . . . we were in it, skimming along, then turning.

But why was I the only one in a panic? Then it dawned upon me. We were on a sea-plane. We ‘sailed’ toward the shore opposite that runway strewn with wrecks and drove up a shallow incline to finally stop beside a hut sign-posted Bimini Airport.
What relief! Obviously, having had many failed attempts to land on land here, the pilots had switched successfully to water.
Where’s your old passport?” demanded the large, black immigration lady.
Err, in New York.”
She shrugged. “Well, your American immigration visa is in it, I read here.” She handed back my new passport and smiled mirthlessly. “We’ll let you in, honey, but you can’t leave the Bahamas without a visa – certainly not to the States, they’ll fine the airline heavily and still not let you in. Next!”
To save money I used my ‘freephone’ inter-state number from the friends I’d made in Fort Lauderdale. There was only one call box from where I could call the States and that tropical storm had now followed me across to Bimini.
I managed to contact my New York friend Dick at his Wall Street office and he promised to send on my old passport via Federal Express. It was a worrying time, over the next few days, as I waited for its hopeful arrival with fast diminishing funds. Like Hemmingway, whose old bedroom I was now using, I was going island crazy but, unlike him, didn't resort to bare knuckle fights or machine-gunning sharks from a 'row boat'.
But a short time later Federal Express came through – God bless America!
Next morning my visa was mutely accepted at Bimini Airport and I joined several other passengers awaiting the next outward flight – including one, huge, besuited character with an attaché case attached by chain to his thick wrist.
You’ll have to open that case,” insisted another female security officer.
Inside was the biggest collection of US dollars I’d ever seen. There must have been hundreds of thousands.
The security officer eyed its carrier then nodded and he snapped the case shut, shooting a wary glance at fellow passengers. No doubt, he was a leading representative of the local drugs industry.
By contrast, inside my pockets was just about enough cash for an airport coffee and taxi into Manhattan. But, after a short flight back to Fort Lauderdale, my credit card secured an immediate seat on a flight to New York, taking off minutes later. Just like getting a bus but with no money changing hands! I even called Dick again, in thanks, and told him of my return – using that freephone number again.
At last I was back safely and considering where to go next and, indeed, when to go home.
By the way,” Dick said, “I checked on that ‘freephone’ number you were using. It’s a stolen credit card – that’s a federal offence, with a long spell in pokey.”
The lawyer shook his head. “I wouldn’t use that again, if I were you.”
Perhaps Manchester and home were best, after all.

* * *

58. 'A Taste for Travel' is chapter 34 in Roy's autobiography Only The Good News - all food for thought, especially if you're planning to go Down Under . . .

HIGH among the pleasures and frustrations of foreign travel is food. This was perhaps easiest to deal with in Australia, where I ate and drank so well my weight rose from the 12 and a half stones of my fit youth to around 15 stones.
Aussies rarely barbecue sausages, burgers or chicken bits at their local beach or pub. You pick up an inch-thick slab of sirloin or rump and grill that to your preferred taste, accompanied by lots of tasty relish and a little salad.
Rolling Stone magazine once showed a large billboard advertisement for meat producers in the Northern Territory, which was also a reflection of the subtleties of Aussie marketing and cultural slang.
The giant billboard on the open prairies stated in massive letters: 'Eat Steak, You Bastards!' ('Bastard' being a term of endearment in manly Oz; such as in the popular compliment, "He's a good, old bastard!")
And why wouldn't you eat steak? There's great herds of it and lamb, as our school geography classes taught us. Little wonder there are few Aussie vegetarians (not "veggies" - that's what they call their edible greens), at least not back then in the 80s.
Seafood, too, is superlative along the mainly coastal major cities. Never mind fancy restaurants, the neighbourhood fish and chip shop was a revelation.
Fish ranged from red snapper to trout; deep-fried, baked or grilled to order and served with a choice of potatoes and buttered granary breads. Invariably, the next door store would be a wine shop and you could bring in your own bottle if sitting down to eat at the chippie, with wine flutes provided at a reasonable corkage rate.
The Aussies are inordinately proud of Vegemite spread, which slips down easier than the British Marmite. But another of their claims to fame is just too outrageous to stomach.
"Of course, we Aussies also invented the meat pie," insisted patriotic colleagues on newspapers there, with that fervour and misapprehension young nations inspire.
The Aussie version contains minced beef in a searingly hot gravy. They are often served up on trays in bars, where men have little time for idle chit-chat or sitting down to food. Usually, there's no sign of knife and fork either.
The trick in eating them and avoiding gravy down your shirt front, is to bite one corner and suck in some of its contents - cooling down your cauterised mouth afterwards with the chilled amber 'nectar'.
Beer drinking in Australia was also an eye-opener. City pubs rarely had much charm back in the 1980s. They were big on wall tiles, a hangover from the 'Six O’Clock Swill' of the old days - when pubs closed barely an hour after opening at the end of the working day.
'Ocker' Aussie working men used to throw down their beer at such a rate they soon threw it up again, so the premises had to be swilled down with hoses upon closing.
There is one old pub of character at The Rocks. This is beneath the Old Coat Hanger, as Sydney Harbour Bridge is nostalgically called - although it was only 50 years old when I travelled daily across it by commuter train.
Another pleasant local had an ancient chestnut tree in its beer garden (more often found, as I recall, at beach-side hostelries). This latter pub was near my Sydney home at Wollstonecraft in the northern suburbs. Incidentally, on the two-storey commuter trains I was amused to see notices telling office-goers, "Be careful with that surf board."
Most Aussie bar-goers were men but you'd see couples occasionally too - in towns. In the suburbs of rather sedate Perth, I was surprised to witness girls in skimpy lace nightwear behind the bar in early evening - anything to entice those homeward-bound men. By mid-evening the city centre was quiet.
But it was as you travelled more into outback territory that things got interesting. I toured north by bus from Sydney to Queensland, stopping first with friends on the Gold Coast near Surfers' Paradise, then on to more laid-back and tropical Cairns - and beyond.
Timber 'hotels' were pubs with rooms above opening on to airy verandahs. They offered cheap bed and breakfast, plus a basic evening meal, aimed mainly at travelling tradesmen.
One usually entered such bars through swing doors with fly-screens. This led on to a main long bar with stools beneath ceiling fans, amid a scatter of tables with pool and jukebox for amusement. Large screen television hadn't been invented.
Men drank quietly while sat at the bar. In the best establishments there would also be a carpeted room with easy chairs and a television - the ladies' lounge. It was not obligatory for women to sit in there, but most preferred to do so.
Even couples adopted this pattern, with the man leaving his beer-swilling mates in the bar every now and then, to take a drink through to his 'missus' sat with the other 'sheilas'.
The form for a chap like me travelling on his own was as follows. First you sat quietly on a barstool, placing bag at feet and loose change on bar in front of oneself. You avoided eye contact with drinkers on either side; simply awaiting service.
"A beer?" the barmaid would offer, then respond to your nod by pouring out a glass and placing it before you on the bar. She would then count out the cost from your change. Usually a male overseer watched the staff and discouraged any idle chatter with drinkers.
The glasses were small to keep your beer cool. According to the location they were known variously as, for example, a schooner, a midi or a stubbie. You could also drink from a bottle or can ('tinny'), though these were often placed in a polystyrene holder (also sometimes termed a stubbie) to again keep the contents cool.
When your glass was empty the barmaid would repeat the process without asking. You signalled the conclusion of your drinking by shovelling any remaining change back into your pocket, then leaving.
However, it was not an entirely silent procedure. If you observed these rules one of the men on either side of you would eventually engage in conversation.
A typical encounter would run as follows.
"Been a hot one, ain't it?"
"Sure is."
"You're not from round here, hey mate?"
"No, I'm a Pom."
"Well, y'can't help that, mate. So, what brings you here?"
"Travelling holiday - from work in Sydney."
"Going north?"
Long sigh. "Sure be hot up there."
Heat hangs over such places and reduces movement to the speed of a slow ceiling fan. After your conversation, it was time to shower then rest on a bed upstairs, perhaps having a beer sat on a rattan lounger upon your verandah.
It was from such a lofty position in one northern Queensland town that I observed the local male sexual habits in another pub hotel across the road.
An Aboriginal girl had been hanging about the swing-door entrance. Eventually, a local male emerged, beer in hand. They went into the shade of an alleyway and had sex standing against the hotel's timber wall. Then each returned to their previous location, after an exchange of payment. The process lasted only a few minutes.
Aboriginal men were absent from bars and mainly seen skulking in run-down areas. The nation had belatedly tried to make up for stealing their heritage by paying them benefits. However, few could get work, so just got drunk on payout day then turned to petty crime. The happiest groups of native Australians I saw were land workers away from the towns.
This depressing state of affairs was echoed by the average Aussie's jocular contempt for immigrants back then. It might have been 'the lucky country' with a multi-racial population - but only the white majority were lucky and those races rarely mixed.
Hopefully, all that has changed now. But I wouldn't want the outback breakfast to alter.
I fondly remember one such pub repast in Cairns, before a boat trip to Green Island on the Great Barrier Reef. Thankfully, it was a fine day and the sea mercifully calm.
My breakfast was, I considered, a hearty one of bacon, sausage, eggs, mushroom, tomatoes and fried bread, though I warily stayed clear of the earlier prunes and of baked beans.
An itinerant gang of carpet fitters sharing the breakfast room shook their heads in dismay at such a paltry Pommy effort. Their 'full-works' was much the same but went on to include lamb chops, kidneys and even thick beef steaks. Fair dinkum, mates!

* * *

57. Ghosts of Christmas Past

THIS recollection is more a journey into the past rather than a travel story, writes Roy Edmonds. It is set in the south-west suburbs of Manchester, where I grew up happily but was youthfully eager to move on from. Ironically, I now think the British suburb one of the pleasantest places to live but, as an adolescent, had found it too ordinary and unexciting.
No day was more tedious to a youth on the cusp of early teens than a Sunday, especially one where we had to spend the afternoon visiting family relatives. In fact, back then in the early 1960s, the Hughes weren't yet related but still merely the parents of my older brother's girlfriend.
We could walk to their house, a little over a mile from our own, and were set to share an afternoon tea over polite small talk. Thankfully, I got chatting to Jenny's father - a small, overweight Welshman who rather fascinated me. To start with he played a bugle in a silver band; he also drove an odd little three-wheeler car, and he wheezed and laughed heartily while also being a fund of diverting stories.
I'm not sure how we got on to ghosts. Perhaps he'd asked about my faith, after all it was a Sunday and around Christmas time. Anyhow, I told him my doubts were based on never having seen any.
"Oh, I've seen lots," he told me matter-of-factly, as we enjoyed the best part of afternoon tea - some cake. "Always could see them. In fact, until recently I did exorcisms for our local church. The vicar would ask me to help, if people had problems from hauntings."
The cake was almost forgotten in this amazing revelation - delivered so casually. Moments later he was asking his formidable wife for more tea and appeared disinclined to continue, or had forgotten the thread of our conversation.
I eagerly reminded him and asked to know more.
"What sort of exorcisms?" I pressed.
"Well, the last was very sad," he told me. "The vicar asked for help as a young couple had bought this house but were being terribly disturbed. It involved children. I saw them at once when I entered - all in a corner of the lounge they were. There were a few of them and still very unsettled, lost you see."
Mister Hughes paused to finish his sponge cake then explained, "They'd died in a fire there and were still haunting the place - most upsetting for the young couple. I told the children they had to leave now, pass on, that it was no longer their place any more."
He helped himself to more tea, then settled back in the sofa we were sharing. Around us the others were talking about furnishings and then my brother Mike and girlfriend Jen's examinations.
"They were quite happy then," Mr. Hughes recalled, "once they understood their parents were waiting for them. Everything went quiet after that."
He sighed. "That was my last case - had to pack it in. I've just got the band to play in now."
Had he mysteriously lost those supernatural powers - or exorcised all the local ghosts, I inquired.
"No," he muttered with a glance at Mrs. Hughes, now dispensing more cake, "it was upsetting my wife. We even got a visitation here, at home," he told me quietly. "Knocking on the front door it was, in the early hours on the morning. Woke us up it did. But no one visible, to her - just the old door knocker swinging, though there was no wind. Not at all pleased, she wasn't, most distressed!"
Mr. Hughes glanced at me in a knowing, man-to-man sort of way that I appreciated, then repeated, "Had to pack it in after that, didn't I?" He looked regretful but resigned to his fate.
We sat in silence a moment, contemplating this lost sphere of unworldly influence, but then both perked up as his wife offered us more cake. We were back to earth once more.

* * *

56. Travels with Mother-in-Law 

IT was She Who Knows, as my wife is known in these muses, who discovered Hero's Return. This was a Government scheme to honour war veterans and their spouses, offering grants toward a nostalgic return to where they saw service. In my Mother-in-Law Wynne's case, her late husband Jack was based in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) with Lord Louis Mountbatten's intelligence corps. Jack had told Wynne all about those years so she, naturally, was still interested in seeing where he had been.
As Wynne was then in her 80s, we were to accompany her and She Who Knows set about making it a holiday of a lifetime for us all. However, none of us realised how long a stride into the past we were to take nor that, for the inhabitants of Kandy, we were to raise a living spectre of Lady Mountbatten - formerly Edwina Ashley, also from Blackpool of which Wynne was so proud.
Our holiday was at the five-star Sands Hotel by the beach at Sri Lanka's oldest resort in Negombo - just north of Colombo. This, thankfully, entailed minimal travel from the airport as the busy city roads were chaotic and the climate humid and hot.
The Sands was modern and spectacular, with torch-lit dinners on the beach to live but tasteful musical accompaniment. The staff - and people generally - were most gracious and friendly. There was a stunning 'infinity' swimming pool and rolling ocean waves beyond. Sadly, the tennis courts were being renovated after tsunami damage which had blighted the whole coast.
However, this turned out for us to be a boon - since it led us to the nearest other court locally. This was at Brown's Hotel, just down the beach, a refreshing colonial contrast to the smart Sands (and inspiration for the novel A Punt Into Eden - see Story/Chapter and Books pages).
Here the coach had to paint his court's lines each morning on the sandy, clay surface. We also learned of a still older institution, Negombo Tennis Club. This was built up against an ancient Portuguese fort - now a prison, and had been originated by the colonial British in the late 1800s. Members were kind enough to let us to play, which was more than the colonial English had allowed locals to do.
The courts here, too, were sandy clay; the nets were blue, former fishing nets, but the standard of play was good, and the welcome generous on its airy terraces. A retired colonel of police, no less, kept Wynne company with cool drinks as we played. We even had a driver standing by for when we'd finished, as taxis were cheap enough to hire for the day.
Both Wynne and She Who Knows also delighted in the local herbal beauty treatments, which must have worked since the doctor administering them mistook me for Wynne's late husband and, much to her pleasure, to being She Who Knows' father.
However, on further travels inland, we were to stir still more formidable ghosts - after first encountering at close range a charging herd of elephants.
My mother-in-law's pluck and adventurous style are impressive, as are her social skills - she was for years employed by shipping lines and hotels as a cruise or holiday hostess for paying guests. During those travelling years, seeing the world by ship or car, Wynne and husband Jack - a retired insurance manager and talented musician - landed posts together, as hostess and pianist, respectively.
After Jack died, in his late 80s, Wynne kept up a busy diary of engagements back home in Blackpool - with civic dinners, luncheon clubs, bridge sessions, theatre groups and charitable works. She always exhibited great stamina, humour and enjoyed life to the full.
"Don't worry, dears, I was only drinking white wine," Wynne would grandly tell her concerned daughters, after driving home from a prolonged gathering with other ladies of a certain age who lunched.
In Sri Lanka she soon made friends of most of the charming and plentiful hotel staff, then acquired two drivers. One, Gupti, had an immaculate, old Hillman saloon and was hired for full day excursions inland. The other was a jovial, ageing tuk-tuk driver Wynne employed for getting to nearby shops and markets, when She Who Knows and I were playing tennis or otherwise engaged.
This latter driver, of the three-wheeled tuk-tuk taxi, had the magnificent monica of King Edward. He wasn't called after the traditional English potato of that name, but in respect of our royal family. I had already noticed this local tradition, upon names in some of the colonial church gravestones - Princess Mary, for example, as a christian name for a daughter.
This was one of the quaint quirks of Sri Lankan society, which maintained an old-fashioned and polite charm even extending into newspaper reports. People in such articles didn't 'die', or even become 'deceased', but 'passed on' or 'became late' - a far gentler way to impart the sad news, although most of the newspapers were full of a test match at Columbo with India.
One day, Wynne and I had a memorable drive with Gupti inland, to her late husband's former workplace at Kandy (pictured above). She Who Knows remained at the hotel, a nervous passenger at the best of times, after being horrified by the chaos on many local roads.
It was early morning when we headed out in style into the glistening green interior, driven by the middle-aged Gopi in crisply ironed white shirt and as attentive and reliable as a major domo from the Raj.
Just over halfway from our Negombo resort to the old capital of Kandy, there was a memorable stop in the hills at the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage. Here we could watch baby elephants, saved
Then it was down to a riverside restaurant for locally grown tea at the nearby town of Kegalle. There was a wide terrace but we were advised to stand well back in anticipation of the main daily attraction - an excited throng of around 50 elephants filling the town's main clay road, before plunging joyfully into the murky river for a mud bath. Spectators' health and safety was a rather hit and miss affair but we escaped without injury from the chaotic crush, while driver Gupti still boasted a spotless white shirt.
It was time to point the Hillman saloon firmly up towards Kandy, where we ate a mild curry at a hillside restaurant before dropping down to admire the former capital's grand man-made lake.
The lake was created in 1807 by Sri Wickrama Rajasinha, the last ruler of the kingdom. However, its placid majesty belies a harsh history out of step with these gentle inhabitants. Several local chiefs, who protested because their people objected to labouring on the project, were put to death at stakes in the lake bed. The island in the centre was used as Sri Wickrama Rajasinha's personal harem, to which he crossed on a barge.
The British later turned it into a military installation, adding a fortress parapet. The other most prominent construction is the impressive Temple of the Tooth, so called as it houses Sri Lanka's most important Buddhist relic - one of his teeth.
But now we were close to our own relic of the past and mission, the Royal Botanical Gardens where Wynne's late husband Jack served with Lord Mounbatten. Leaving Gupti resting in the Hillman under shade, I reverently accompanied a well-turned-out Wynne as, with rather fine walking stick, she entered the Gardens' great gates for a stroll back into a fabled past. What ghosts we were to stir there!

The botanical gardens were indeed majestic, evoking a Victorian past and calm that still refreshed in the cooler air of the hills.
"Those are the offices, where they worked," Wynne said, "and their barrack quarters." With elegant walking stick, she pointed towards the nissan huts where her late husband had worked and lived alongside Mountbatten's other intelligence staff in the closing stages of the last world war.
The gardens in front of the huts were still well maintained, in tribute to those who helped liberate the region and end that terrible conflict. Somehow, the past with its ghosts is as close and real in Sri Lanka as today's events - excepting, of course, cricket test matches that vie with religion for paramount importance.
Then we strolled on amidst the exotic blooms towards the grand 'bungalow' once occupied by Lord and Lady Mountbatten - who'd done rather well for herself from being an unruly teenager brought up partly in Blackpool's Whitegate Drive (where Wynne still lives today).
At its entrance, we helped a local couple who wanted a photograph of themselves taking - then posed for a few pictures of ourselves, the only westerners around.
Finally, we emerged from the Gardens' great gates heading towards where driver Gupti was stood, almost saluting and ready for our return journey.
"Did you enjoy your visit, madam?" a passing local asked politely, encouraged by Wynne's regal smile upon all.
"Oh, yes," she told him, always happy to chat, "it was wonderful - especially to see where my husband lived and worked during the war, with Lord Mountbatten, you know?"
The fellow stared, scarcely believing what he had, I alone realised, misheard.
"Lady Mountbatten?" he asked respectfully.
"Yes," Wynne said, distracted now by Gupti's tactful approach ready to lead her to his waiting saloon. "Lady Mountbatten, that's right (meaning she'd lived there too). It was so long ago but it's all kept quite beautifully and wonderful for me to see today."
"Please, Lady, you wait!" implored the mistaken local, issuing urgent instructions to some companions who also now murmured in awe.
Someone was despatched to a nearby house from where an old chap with a walrus moustache was wheeled out in a bathchair to meet this VIP visitor.
The crowd around Wynne was growing steadily, charmed by her polite remarks about Kandy and the Gardens. Children were giggling excitedly, photographs being arranged and there was a carnival air.
The veteran with his magnificent moustache seemed transported with delight, barely able to take in Wynne's majesty as he bowed repeatedly.
Only I seemed to appreciate the chaotic misunderstanding that had now got so out of hand, or perhaps the wily Gupti also realised. There was a distinct grin about his features as he at last led Wynne from her admiring throng and into the back of the polished Hillman.
I slipped in beside her and, as we slowly pulled away, Wynne waved regally.
"What wonderful people," she sighed appreciatively, quite oblivious to the misunderstanding she'd unwittingly been at the centre of, "they're so friendly, aren't they?"
Darkness began to fall early as we cruised slowly back through increasing traffic in late afternoon, come early evening. Now happily exhausted, Wynne lay back her head, allowed her chin to drop and slept deeply.
Outside, as villagers passed by our car, now halted or only edging forward in a jam amid gathering darkness, people again began to stare at the elegantly dressed, elderly lady in her chauffeured, escorted car.
Some now looked quite alarmed by her pale face in the dim interior, where I sat rather on edge at the heavy traffic that would delay our journey home.
Then I realised why they appeared so concerned as, prostated by tiredness as she now was, my dear mother-in-law could have been easily mistaken again - but this time for, as the local papers would say, a lady who had passed by . . . and was now late.

* * *

55. Secret of Happinesses

WE ended our Vietnam journey at Ho Chi Minh City, writes Roy. It was the former colonial capital of  French Cochinchina and still known as Saigon, if not as 'Paris of the Orient' anymore.
The climate was sub-tropical with once grand and airy buildings still striking for their colourful style but, by our arrival in 1996, crumbling with age, disrepair and war damage.
In a travel article printed shortly after our visit, I observed: "Here the French-built boulevards are as wide as the Champs Elysees but twice as hazardous to cross. When faced with a phalanx of 80 cycles and scooters the trick is to take 'small steps'."
This was a lesson learned from my travelling companion Howard Sunderland, a tennis coach from Blackpool who had visited Saigon and Vietnam once before. In fact, Howard was to return a year or so later and stay for many years, marrying a girl he met while we were there and finally returning to England with their daughter. Tragically, he died of cancer soon afterwards. His advice on 'small steps' reflected much of his general approach and considerable charm.
"Don't panic or falter in your small forward steps," I added in that article, "and oncoming traffic weaves around you. In fact, it's not a bad lesson for life."
In Howard's own travel diary of the time, in the back of our battered Lonely Planet Guide Book, he records meeting up with his great former friend Heinz, a Swiss German who had a Vietnamese wife and was running a bar and restaurant in uptown Don Dat, near the Opera House.
'After a good look round town and a beer in the Rex (classic hotel with roof garden frequented by war correspondents), back home for a snooze,' Howard wrote. 'Then decided to check on Heinz in the Rolling Stone bar and, blow me, if he wasn't next door - pool cue in hand, like time stood still.'
Later, at Heinz's air-conditioned bar called Sapa, we had our first western meal in Vietnam - along with many complimentary drinks from a new, top-of-the-range beer dispenser our big, genial Swiss host proudly called 'my special fountain'.
A late supper was later enjoyed with Heinz and his mix of friends at Kim's, a popular meeting place for budget travellers.
I noted in my travel article, "Saigon has its ancient and modern relics but one unexpected sight was a reminder of home - illuminated signs on taxis for Fisherman's Friend lozenges, from Fleetwood."
Meanwhile, Howard was resting after our first epic day in the city when we were on the go for almost 24 hours. We both caught up on sleep but then he 'popped out' to a barber's before meeting his girlfriend.
I feared Howard had got lost or failed to take careful 'small steps', when he hadn't returned five hours later. But this was the time he had spent in the barber's, where they not only cut his hair but shaved him, cleaned his ears, gave him a manicure, free beers and, finally, a head massage.
'On our last full day,' Howard later recorded in his diary, 'Roy and I had a look around the Reunification Palace and discovered a seat with a view!'
This was a cryptic reference to the former Presidential Palace of the South Vietnamese Government, under American patronage during war years.
As at the former American Embassy, where helicopters famously picked up the last departing staff and regime supporters, the palace had eerie echoes of past events.
Off an exhibition hall, Howard and I had stumbled by chance upon a large private lavatory suite of presidential grandeur. It was not on the tour so, while inside, we were each undisturbed.
From the elevated viewpoint of our respective W.C.s, we looked down upon a presidential drive ending in high gates that were demolished by a tank of the triumphant Vietcong (and which was still there) - a scene that was to go around the world.
It was like a sudden, poignant glance into history.
However, a concluding sentiment in this much maligned but beautiful country comes best from the attractive wife of Heinz. She explained to us why people we had met were so cheerful, despite their daily struggles with recovery.
"Happiness," Ahn told us, "is not some flighty bird you must pursue and capture. We Vietnamese believe we are born with happiness - and it's one of life's important tasks to preserve it."

54. 'The House of Women'

VIETNAM journey; Log entry, Nov. 12: 'Arrive Nha Trang in reasonable shape after 14-hour trip. Bigger than remember it. Ate some Bao Zeo pancakes, a couple of beers and bed.'
This was travel companion Howard's entry in the pocket notes of our Lonely Planet guidebook back in 1996, writes Roy. We were halfway through an 11-day tour we'd planned of Vietnam, and almost two-thirds down its long coastline heading south to Saigon, or Ho Chi-Minh City.
The coastal Highway One appeared continually under repair from our air-conditioned coach. It was also possible to fly between main cities for around a million dong or £70, though Vietnamese Airlines appeared riskier than local drivers.
We'd found a reasonable hotel room not far from a rainy promenade then, weary from our road journey, had supper at a place he'd found that did pancakes.
I think they should be spelt banh xeo, but they were delicious and the only thing on the menu. The basic pancake house was run by three or four friendly ladies, who took a shine to us.
Their pancakes were a mix of boiled pork, prawns, spring onions and mint leaves spread generously on to fresh pancake then wrapped up, like a giant spring roll which you dipped into a sweet chilli sauce.
Two each made a terrific feast, served with chilled bottles of local beer - even worth putting up with the apparently endemic cockroaches.
I went for breakfast next day (our hotel only did a basic continental) and they were serving a pho, or soup, with noodles, various leaves, vegetables, flower petals and noodles. The sea air was fresh and sun shining. It was one of the tastiest and most restoring breakfasts I can remember.
But let's get back to Howard's log. I'd already told him of longing to take a dip in the ocean, saying, "I don't feel I've really arrived in a country until submerging myself in its sea."
Log entry, Nov. 13: 'Roy's big day down on the beach, which is terrific. Too hot to sunbathe, splashed around, had a great massage and burnt my feet in the process.'
Roy adds, from a travel article later: 'With November temperatures in the 80s, the sea at Nha Trang's perfect crescent beach was cool and clean. There are also islands a short boat ride away and excellent scuba diving. Inland, rivers meander among mangroves into dense jungle and thatch villages.
For our later entertainment, Howard notes: 'Truly awful meal in the evening (our first 'proper' tourist restaurant); which was rescued with a few beers with Bao Zeo girls at House of Women (as we'd nicknamed their place, where new women helpers emerged upon each visit). Leaving tonight for Sai Gon, on the night train. They (House of Women team) fixed us up in a hotel. See her (H's past Vietnamese girlfriend in Saigon) when we get there.'
8.45pm: 'Night train to Sai Gon (I remember us rushing there in a cyclo or pedi-cab). Final meal before the train at the Bao Zeo girls' place. I had been along to the 44 Bomm Bom (beauty shop, I think) hoping to catch a look at the hairdresser from three years ago. I left a message and she came along to the Bao Zeo.
Tui (a girl he'd met before) had changed quite a bit, put on a little weight, on the verge of marriage, I think.
Anyway her English hadn't improved a great deal, so the whole thing was a bit confusing.
Sharing the cabin with an O.K. Danish couple. It's pretty hot and insect ridden. Good test for the old Jungle Formula.'

Incidentally, Roy adds, we also took a trip outside of the resort town to view a giant Buddha statue. However, what made the greatest impression upon me while there was an inland view from the estuary bridge. Fishing boats were painted in dragon colours and headed down-river into thick jungle, as seen on those U.S. war films from Vietnam. That dark, threatening passage was just a cyclo's run from our beautiful beach, with pancakes on hand from the friendly House of Women. How quickly the world about you can change.

53. Steaming Ahead

BY our fifth day in Vietnam my fellow traveller, tennis coach and Blackpool pal Howard Sunderland, and I were halfway down its beautiful coast.
We were now off the single-track railway and travelling by road, in a minibus made uncomfortable by big, western backpackers with even bigger packs.
Howard and I travelled light in more sophisticated style, with cotton slacks and shirts rather than shorts and T-shirts (in which you roasted and were bitten), while carrying neatly packed holdalls with shoulder straps. Shorts also offended locals and large packs were cumbersome on crowded public transport.
Road surfaces also made driving uncomfortable and dangerous, with much war damage remaining. The many military graveyards we passed were testament to the terrible price this friendly country had paid for independence.
Howard made a couple of entries in his log for the day: 'Minibus down to Hoi An via Da Nang. Da Nang looked pretty awful, glad I'm not stopping.' Then, later: 'Very tired and hot in Hoi An. Nice fishing village but too many gai-jans (western foreigners); splendid Chinese/Vietnamese hotel.'
Hoi An was ancient and largely unspoiled. In the 16th Century it had been a leading port but was now a sleepy backwater with preserved charm. It was peaceful and cheap but becoming touristy.
A reminder of the 'American War' was a printed request in the hotel rules to, 'Please leave any firearms and explosives at reception'.
Strolling in the quiet of mid-afternoon, I was struck by the great age and craftsmanship of a wooden bridge across a river in the town's heart, with a quaint Chinese-style tea house sited in the river.
History appeared to have stood still in this now quiet but once prosperous port. Then we saw the crowds of locals heading in great excitement to its main road. They were welcoming the future; easier transport, more tourists and prosperity.
To mounting cheers from spectators, the first tarmacadam was being laid in the area - flattened by an old steam-roller.
We had beaten progress here by just a few hours.
At night we left silently on that new road, heading further south in a spacious coach, on a 14-hour journey to Nha Trang, Vietnam's main beach resort. How I longed to take the plunge and bathe there in that sparkling sea!

52. Kings of the Perfumed River 

ON the fourth day of our Vietnam journey, I and tennis-coach friend Howard alighted from an overnight train at the ancient capital of Hue, near the Central Mountains, writes Roy.
It was November 1996 and we were enjoying a three-week Far Eastern tour before Hong Kong reverted to China the following year. I had lived in that crown colony before, while Howard had previously toured Vietnam. In fact, the six-foot-plus, half-Italian charmer was to end up marrying and living there for many years.
Picturesque Hue was bathed in gentle sunshine. Its wide colonial avenues were tree-lined and restful after the clamorous streets of Hanoi; the locals relaxed and friendly.
With the help of our Lonely Planet Guide, we found the Le Loi - a rambling, French-colonial style hotel with gardens down to the riverside. An air-conditioned, ensuite twin room, in a shaded chalet away from the main thoroughfare, cost a mere £10, or fifteen US dollars or so.
We had already discovered, to our joy, that a good night out with food and drinks could be had for a couple of dollars or pounds sterling (or 30,000 dong). This beautiful country was, of course, still recovering from years of savage warfare, along with the extra burden of a continuing U.S trade and aid embargo.
Hotel rules at different places gave a glimpse of war-torn history, and of traditional values. One warned, "No weapons or explosives to be taken into hotel room," while another insisted, "Couples want to share room, must have a marriage certificate."
After showering, we had an omelet (always a reliable standby) for lunch, at the hotel's white-linen dining room bedecked with fresh flowers. I think the shy but friendly, young male receptionist had rather fallen for my younger companion's easy manner and good looks - as most of the native women also did. What's more, the receptionist was to help us through an embarrassing plumbing emergency the next morning. In the meantime, he organised for us what turned out to be a highlight of our tour - a boat ride, also the next morning, to visit temples of former kings along the Perfumed River; just £8 in total for six glorious hours, including a seafood banquet prepared by our boatman's wife.
Later, in the afternoon of that first day, we strolled the shady avenues of what is considered Vietnam's most beautiful city; visiting the battle-ravaged Citadel, with its Imperial Museum and Forbidden Purple City for past emperors.
We chatted to locals, eager to practise English, had a couple of locally brewed beers then dined at a cafe, where the 'menu' was scrawled in French on the walls. The easiest way to decide what best to eat seemed to be picking the most expensive on offer. Only too late, as we savoured medallions of sweet meat on a bed of pasta, did our school-boy French reveal what we'd ordered . . .
Howard's succinct log in our travel diary for that first day in Hue reads: "Hue: dined on dog, met a beautiful girl." His entry for our epic second day adds, "Boat trip down Perfume River, very peaceful and relaxing. Met the beauty again - really pretty."
Next morning we had to rise early for our boat ride and, as it turned out, to disaster . . .
Howard, I should explain, was one of those people who need 10 hours sleep and are still dozy in the morning. He was leaning heavily on the washbasin in our bathroom, recovering from his early rise, when it collapsed. Also, coincidentally, our full loo was refusing to flush. Water, foul as well as fresh, was everywhere.
"All clean up, never mind," assured our hotel receptionist. "We change room - please you go to boat."
So we did, not the packed tourist one we saw at a nearby jetty but one specially for us - with two armchairs, either side a cool pack of beers, under an awning where the boatman's wife was preparing our lunch of freshly fried tuna.
The distant tombs of emperors proved no less spectacular and charming, free from other tourists and, those a short way inland, reached on the pillion of motorbikes ridden by entrepreneurial teenagers.
We returned to our new garden room refreshed and restored; to see all our meagre travelling clothes neatly hung, and Howard's toilet bag dutifully unpacked about a fresh, clean sink.
We felt like kings as we prepared for our next journey south, to the ancient and picturesque fishing village of Hoi An - where another surprise awaited.

51. Slow Train South

OUR first experience of Vietnamese rail travel was going south down the long coastline, writes Roy. We were on an overnight sleeper from Hanoi to the old capital of Hue. The long, diesel-pulled train was painted in an institutional green and stood tall in the tracks; we had to clamber up aboard from the station platform.
Travelling companion Howard Sunderland and I (both continuing our Far East tour) had tickets for a first-class sleeper. This wasn't a so-called 'super sleeper', with air-conditioning, but had a couple of small but effective in-laid ceiling fans. The compartment was plain but clean with firm, plastic bench seating either side and drop-down berths above. Bars at the windows were disconcerting, not least when we learned these were to keep 'marauding villagers' out rather than us in.
As far as I recall we had the compartment pretty much to ourselves, though on later trips we shared. One quiet, well-to-do Vietnamese kept himself to himself; a German backpacking couple were jolly and particularly favoured and bitten by mosquitoes; a Swedish couple were a pain - with the pith helmet-wearing man objecting to Howard smoking his cigar - which helped keep mosquitoes at bay. Then there was a drunken steward who tried to join us on another occasion, fed up of his deckchair in the corridor. He finally left when we threatened to tell police at the next station of his harassment. The poor man apologised, red-eyed, next day.
The trains were ex-Soviet and solidly built, except that ceiling fans stopped working as soon as we pulled out of the station. This meant you were plagued by mosquitoes. On the top bunk they amassed on the ceiling just centimetres from your face. Howard would cover himself with Jungle Formula deterrent spray but missed the tip of his nose, which - much to my amusement - got bitten. 
The journeys were slow, halting affairs. In the late 1990s Vietnam had only a single-track railway system. Whenever we met an army or more important official train, ours would be shunted off into a branch siding to stay idling for hot, humid hours (or so it seemed).
It was also the worst railway food I have tasted - usually stale, doughy bread with what looked like shredded cabbage and an uncertain paste, or tough meat, served in a cardboard box. Better, by far, to bring your own - along with a few drinks. The coffee, though, was acceptable - thanks to French colonisation.
A toilet and wash basin were kept serviceable for each carriage. To stretch my legs I explored further down the train. Second and third class were more packed with no fold-down bunks. Then, eventually, I entered bottom class. This was simply hollow carriages with low, wooden benches running lengthwise. No wonder it was called 'hard-seat' class. However, families were cooking meals there which looked far tastier than our ticket-bought snacks.
But what a joy of sights to behold through the window bars, after waking, washing and holding your strong coffee in hand! To add to the delight of it all, I had on headphones playing Puccini arias sung by Maria Callas. Her soaring voice matched the wonder of scenes from another, beautiful, unchanging world glimpsed between dense patches of jungle.
There would be paddyfields worked by peasants in coned hats, harnessing lumbering water buffaloes; lakes with long fishing canoes, their owners using trained herons to catch their fish; all this sheltered and enhanced by a stunning backdrop of green moutains.
Then we would be passing a tiny village, its schoolchildren all waving from in front of their timber classrooms and, finally, at a bend in the coastline, miles of unspoiled white beaches and palms, a dazzling South China Sea that I longed to plunge into and swim.
What a privilege, it felt, to be transported so comfortably (once the train was moving and our barred windows open for air) past such untrammelled landscape.
On village streets the food would have been delicious, too. It was just the soured ways of a Soviet-built and officially over-burdened, state-run railway that left a bad taste in the mouth.
Still, we had no real complaints. Later, we were to find the wars had left many roads unpassable, owing to bombing and shell damage. They ran beside endless military graveyards and minefields, dotted with rusting tanks and half-sunken artillary.
It was easy to share the excitement at one isolated country town, when its first tarmacadam was laid. The whole populace, including Howard and myself, turned out to cheer on a Victorian steam-roller.
Progress was at last coming to this beautiful land and its hard-done-to but deserving people.

 50. Meeting 'Colonel Stool'

THERE was an excitement and clamour about the railway station in Hanoi, as at the start of all great journeys, writes Roy. This was also evident in the popular, open-air cafe close by, where we were drinking weak draught beer and checking our travel plans.
My companion, tennis coach Howard, and I were then interrupted by a tall, silver-haired westerner named Phil. He was also travelling south and begged a glance over our Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam, since he'd lost his own.
We were happy to oblige and share more beer. In reward we were regaled by him with tales of Second World War experiences. These covered areas Phil still called by their outdated names of Indochina, Cochinchina and Tonkin - populated by 'Annamites'.
"Your Annamites are beautiful and resilient people," he told us. He also agreed with a traveller's comment in the Lonely Planet guidebook, which I quote now below:
'Of the 30 or so countries I have been to, Vietnam is easily the most beautiful. I saw more shades of green than I knew existed. Rice fields manually tended from dawn to dusk were always in view, as were forest-covered mountains. I also frequently caught glimpses of pristine deserted beaches from the train window as we made our way along the coast . . . '
Phil, it turned out, had been an Army captain and, by chance, led British soldiers who liberated Saigon from the Japanese (who, in turn, had driven out the colonial French). He was telling us this in 1996 yet remembered vividly those bloody days in the 1940s, decades before Vietnam's notorious 'American War'.
"The worst mistake I made was releasing French Legionnaires," he recalled. "They were animals and went round killing, raping and pillaging. We couldn't cope on our own. In the end, I had to re-arm some of the Japs and they helped us police the city."
His best decision, Phil considered, was not reopening the town's brewery. As a result his troops remained sober. But the locals and their country had always impressed him so, now widowed and in his last years, he was retracing his footsteps and memories.
"And how are you young fellers doing?" the genial Phil finally asked, as we all made our way to Hanoi Station. "Are you keeping well?"
We were and also admired his spirit of adventure and robust health. Then he let us into a military secret.
"Always check your stools!" he advised. "First business of your day! I always told my men that, too. It shows up any problems early. That helped get us all through."
As Vietnam's railway was a single track down its long coast, we were to bump into Phil many times on our journey: to old capital Hue, through Nha Trang to today's Ho Chi Minh City.
Eventually, we even saw our rather eccentric and slightly befuddled friend, the old war hero, being lauded on Vietnamese television.
By then we had fondly promoted him in our thoughts, knowing he would greet us with the same cautious concern: "How are your stools?"

49. Temple of Learning - and a Bristling Menu

AT the end of the 1990s I was on a tour of Vietnam with friend Howard Sunderland, who had visited briefly there before and become enamoured - writes Roy.
Apart from stunning landscapes between mountain jungle and sandy beaches; the natives were attractive, friendly people - and it was cheap.
A good night out with food and drink could be had for a couple of pounds sterling (or 30,000 dong in local currency). The most readily accepted money was, ironically, U.S. dollars.
We were in the noisy, colonnaded sidestreets of charming but run-down Hanoi.
This was the old communist capital of the north, demonised and ruthlessly bombed by America in their terrible war from the 1960s.
Being on the ground gave you a different perspective. We had visited the mausoleum of leader 'Uncle' Ho Chi Minh, but hadn't known he read law in England.
Neither had I previously realised the Vietnamese had such a proud history and war record. When hated French colonialists ran from invading Japanese in the Second World War, locals bravely fought for their freedom with weapons dropped by grateful Western allies. After the Japanese were driven out, however, the Allies denied Vietnamese their independence and reconstituted French rule. This the locals overcame against massive odds - even after the Americans became involved.
With a long running U.S. trade embargo, the war-ravaged country was impoverished but bore us western visitors no grudges.
The depth of Vietnamese culture and history struck me most poignantly at Hanoi's Temple of Literature. This was an oasis of calm near picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old Quarter. It was founded in 1070 and dedicated to Confucious. Vietnam's first university was established there six years later.
Although centuries earlier than Oxford or Cambridge, the Temple, with its entrance gate (and original inscription asking visitors to dismount) had courtyards with a similar air of learning and tranquillity.
Those who obtained doctorates were commemorated on tablets like gravestones, supported on stone tortoises - perhaps representing gentle but enduring progress.
The temple also held a lesson for me. In one of its pavilions, students were practising on antique string instruments. The girls wore traditional white robes, or ao dais, and were charming. They were also charmed in return, by Howard. He was, after all, several years younger than me; a couple of inches taller, and with the darkly handsome looks of an Italian father. I might not have existed - for all the attention heaped upon him. It was my first experience of that 'invisibility' an older person gets used to from the young.
As our last hours in Hanoi passed,  it was time to take an overnight train down coast to the ancient capital of Hue, near the central mountains.
But first, at a small street restaurant, it was hard to reconcile the simple premises with a menu of exotic game. Were there really wild boar and venison out back? Grilled porcupine tickled the fancy, but doubts returned at cat pie. In the end we stuck to our staple street food of pho, or stewed meat (pork and chicken, hopefully), vegetables and noodles - delicious.
Our diary from that time, written in the back of a battered Lonely Planet guidebook, records us then obtaining train tickets - before enjoying draught beers in the Hanoi sunset, at a popular, open-air cafe near the railway station.
All unexceptional, the diary records, apart from a chance meeting with 'Colonel' Phil - soon to be known to us as Colonel Stool, a fellow traveller with remarkable stories . . . as well as healthy army advice.
We'll continue our journey soon.

48. Blue Moon in Hanoi

BY the late 1990s I'd given up working overseas and was settling down here on the Fylde coast, writes Roy Edmonds. However, I wanted to see Hong Kong before it reverted to Chinese rule and also had a rare chance to tour Vietnam with someone who knew it well.
My companion would be tennis coach and friend Howard Sunderland who, though in his 30s and a decade younger than me, had seen a good deal of that country before.
Howard would show me Vietnam; I would reveal Hong Kong to him.
We arrived with little ceremony at Hanoi, after a short flight from Hong Kong where we'd rested only briefly in Kai Tak airport - after flying from UK.
It appeared surrounded by paddy fields. On a mini-bus ride into town, we passed simple villages and I remember seeing a pretty, young local girl leading a huge water buffalo by the nose. On the Oriental calendar I am an ox or buffalo and, after years clumsily toiling and muddying my feet in the Far East, rather empathised with the lumbering beast.
By contrast, my tall, good looking, half-Italian friend Howard was born in the Year of the Pig. He was lazy but lovable and wallowed amiably in life's pleasures.
Hanoi reflected its French heritage with wide boulevards and elegant, shuttered villas and pavement stores; but was crumbling with age, neglect and years of American bombing. The boulevards were a seething mass of cyclists, rickshaws, buses and scooters - all honking their horns. It was hot and chaotic.
We found a cheap and clean shared room, thanks to our Lonely Planet guidebook, and - despite both having indomitable snores - caught up with our sleep until early evening.
During the long and vicious Vietnam War over the 60s and 70s, we in the west were led to believe Hanoi, capital for the communist and ruthless Vietcong, was a centre of evil intent.
How amazing, then, to awake and see it in twilight, as birds nestled in the trees and a mist settled upon the tranquillity of Hoan Kiem Lake just across the boulevard from our inner-city hotel.
"Just take little steps and don't stop or falter," Howard had advised, stepping out into the mass of traffic that miraculously parted around us like the Red Sea before fleeing Israelites.
People smiled readily and children were apt to hold our hands; good noodle broths and stews, served with locally brewed beers, were available for around one U.S. dollar - between us.
There were no recriminations here, least of all from those who milled about the popular street-side book stalls with many western novels on sale (particularly Jeffrey Archer's).
People were impoverished but clean and polite. They made us welcome and were gently curious.
Then, as our longest day waned, an aged jazz combo led by an alto saxophone played a haunting rendition of Blue Moon. How enchanting, human and peaceful.

47. Caveman Instinct

WHEN I got tired of living in cities it was the Greek Islands that offered an antidote, writes novelist and restaurateur Ed Black (see our Books page).
There in the Aegean, days were full of sunshine on the beach, followed by sultry evenings in tavernas or rooftop dancing beside the sea. But was it all just a mirage?
The locals' laid-back lifestyle appealed - but not the tourist traps.
A former P.R. man, I considered myself well-travelled, worldly and, as a young bachelor back in the 1980s, quite a swinger.
However, on Mykonos I saw an incident that took my breath away. Here, I was left thinking, was life at its most elemental and stunning. What was more, the event happened daily.
Now Mykonos was famously broad-minded and had two well-known nudist beaches: one hetero, called Paradise; the other gay, called Super Paradise.
But I'd stumbled upon an unspoiled beach elsewhere, with just one taverna. Here boats only docked if asked to, while few visitors knew the way to it walking from white-washed and winding Mykonos town.
It was nudist, all the regulars young, attractive and tanned, coming sometimes for weeks on end from different parts of the world.
You lay on the beach in your buff and tried not to stare; swam out naked in the silky sea; chatted or played backgammon, and only put on clothes if going in the taverna or departing for town.
I'd been gently chatting up a girl backpacking from New York, lay sunning ourselves on a rock out at sea, when I first witnessed the naked horseman.
You couldn't miss him. He galloped down on to the beach, stark naked, long hair flowing, riding bareback on a white stallion.
Any men who thought themselves smooth or stylish on the beach were hopelessly upstaged.
The rider was very tanned, wiry and well-muscled with wild but handsome features and a careless, arrogant air. He appeared to be in his 30s and indifferent to stares from sunbathers.
He trotted along the shore front then waded out to sea on the horse, washing it and himself in the deepening water, while still mounted.
Finally, he'd turn back to shore, canter gamely on to the sand, then look around. When he'd made his choice of the women watching him in awe - he would wave them to approach, or walk to where they lay and stretch out his hand.
It didn't appear to matter whether these girls were accompanied by a man or not, they never refused.
We would watch silently as the chosen one stood, took the rider's hand and was swung up - naked - to ride bareback behind him, clinging on as the horse broke into a gallop.
At the end of the short, crescent beach, the rider would ascend a small headland then rear up his horse - making his passenger cling still tighter - then gallop out of sight.
Follow that, I thought.
Later, in town, I learnt from locals the naked rider was a fallen priest from Rome. After being defrocked, the Italian had come to the island then settled in one of the many caves where islanders, too, had once lived.
He was said to be eccentric, perhaps even mad, but to the islanders he had the holy air of a reclusive prophet.
They left food and wine outside his cave and had even presented him with that fine horse he'd bonded with so closely.
They drew the line of hospitality at their daughters, however tourist girls looking for adventure were considered fair game.
Apparently, the cave dweller had a leaner time through winter when, one assumes, he even put on clothes.
But I shall never forget him or how, penniless and carefree, he had upstaged every other man.
After witnessing such abandonment, it no longer seemed just a crazy impulse to pack in my career and buy an island bar.
Since then, like the naked ex-priest on horseback, I've never looked back.

 46. Jogging the Memory

IN  Hong Kong, autumn only lowered temperatures a little but at last the humidity dropped from the high 80s. In was in the 1980s, too, that I recall being there, writes fellow website novelist Ed Black.
I was a free-rolling P.R. man growing fat on expense-account lunches and boozy consultations - then I had a heart scare.
All this led me to the Adventist Hospital, high above Victorian Harbour near The Peak, where - after remedial treatment - I joined a very special jogging group admitting all in good heart.
About a score of we former cardiac patients, fitness-minded nurses and friends would run up to 12 miles, three times a week, overlooking the spectacular high-rise skyline of Hong Kong Island and its harbour.
But, most of the time, I watched the girls running in front. They were gorgeous, chattering like songbirds - to make sure we didn't run too fast - and steadily lengthening our stamina . . .
I was losing six pounds in weight on every run; gaining beautiful friends, and revitalising myself - all while seeing the wider horizons of the city and life. (I also met Roy Edmonds, then writing his first novel after leaving the employment of the South China Morning Post. Roy kept fit by jogging with the group.)
In fact, after hearing many of the group would be running in the New York Marathon, my new enthusiasm took me all the way to that other dynamic island metropolis.
While trying to also work there in public relations, I learnt that Hong Kong's easy-going expatriate ways were not up to demanding Manhattan standards.
I turned instead to a different career, as a partner in a Greenwich Village taverna run by a Greek pal who also jogged. (This period also inspired my first novel, Harry's Hand - see Books page.)
That led me, in turn, to the Aegean island where I now live and post to you from periodically.
What really opened my eyes, though, was a defrocked Italian priest who rode naked on a horse each day to pick up girls on the beach in Mykonos . . .
But that, as they say, is another story.

45.  Travel Terminus

BY my mid-30s, Roy Edmonds writes, I had worked several years in the Far East and Australia, while travelling a good deal in between. But I wanted a change, pause for thought, something more . . .
Fortunately, before leaving I had a month or so 'hanging about' - doing what I fancied in Hong Kong. During the days I sweated over my first novel - about a young journalist going east . . . familiar? In the evenings I drank and ate out like most expatriates, but also jogged - up and round The Peak, about 12 miles. The latter got me into shape (as well as befriending my collaborator on this website Ed Black).
When I finally arrived back in Britain I was fairly fit; had a comfortable wedge in the bank; the manuscript of a long, romantic novel, and an open mind about my future.
"Well, stay as long as you want," said my generous parents when I pitched up at their retirement bungalow in Prestatyn, North Wales - land of seaside castles and Celtic dreams.
It was a friendly, quiet resort; pretty in summer below the Welsh mountains, and refreshingly quiet at night.
But what really persuaded me to stay was my father's diminishing health in his mid-70s.
He introduced me to some quaint, hill-village pubs and, even though suffering - as we later discovered - from cancer, was fit enough to join me on long, talkative walks.
When he died a few months after my return I was grateful we'd had that time together. However, mother was distraught; they'd been so close.
I had the means and opportunity to stay on longer and help. This I did, while also settling down to tidy up that rambling novel. It was to prove a long year of emotional recovery for her, and one of steady self-discovery for me.
This culminated, for me, one memorable and windswept autumn evening in a joyful walk home from a hillside pub in Meliden - after completing that revised novel, then learning I had a contract with an agent.
Also people wanted to offer me work, first in Manchester and then in Blackpool - where Mum later came to live and to, finally, meet my wife-to-be.

I hadn't realised it when arriving in Wales aged 35, but my reporting and travelling days were largely over.
In future I was to do mainly editing work on newspapers; keeping evenings and weekends clear for writing I really enjoyed, and sharing with someone else.
My literary life was beginning and, best story of all, I was at last making a home.

44. Thanksgiving

A GREAT benefit of travel and working overseas is friendship with different people from diverse places.
This also means you can visit them later - not exactly for a free holiday, but more for an enlarging experience and glimpse into others' worlds.
So it was with friends Dick and Bonnie, whom I'd met and got to know while working in Hong Kong. Once they were home again in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, I was invited over from Britain for that hallowed American tradition - a family Thanksgiving.
It was late-afternoon rush hour, already dark but snowing when I arrived in New York. I felt excited and full of anticipation, like an extra in one of those upbeat, sentimental films set there starring Bing Crosby or Gene Kelly. The place looked magical from my yellow taxi from the airport and I was loaded with Christmas-style gifts from home.
My friends had a swanky, low-rise apartment in a period 'brownstone' block, with canopied entrance where I was met by a uniformed commissionaire.
It turned out they weren't home from work yet but the commissionaire had been told to expect me. He was big, black and in his late 40s. He had a genial manner and became a friend. Amazingly, his name was Abraham Lincoln. (He inspired the character of that name in 'Harry's Hand', the novel by Ed Black - see this website's Books page.)
After Abe had escorted me up in the elevator, I paced restlessly about the two-bedroom, tastefully furnished apartment, glancing down from time to time to the dark, honking traffic jams four storeys below.
Then Bonnie's cheerful face appeared, obviously delighted to see me. However, she did surprise me a little by adding ice and dry ginger to the fine malt whisky I'd presented her with, then shook me a lot more by adding casually: "Oh, by the way, Dick's in Seoul."
Her husband rang us later from South Korea and chatted casually and at length about his work as an international shipping lawyer. Another tanker had gone down, and insurance claim made, hence his sudden departure across the world.
Bonnie was a discerning designer for Revlon packaging but took me on an intrepid tour of her favourite Village bars through a deluge suitable for 'Singing In The Rain'.
During the day I found myself unable to use her high-tech kitchen and enjoyed dining at a 'deli' nearby. The stores, like New York, had everything.
"If you do go out," Bonnie told me, "please put a tape on for the cat - they're from a therapist for stress."
Suddenly, I felt less like an extra in a Gene Kelly movie but more like one from a zany Woody Allen comedy.
We had to take carved pumpkins from Grand Central Station out to the traditional timbered house of Dick's father  in a gated suburb on Long Island.
His parents were charming and the setting suddenly reverted back to Hollywood glitz, with homely Thanksgiving traditions. However, their cocktail aperitifs were dynamite - with original martinis of half vermouth, half gin.
Later, at a table for 12, Dick's dad stood in Scottish 'trous' and carved the turkey. The alcohol had given me a healthy appetite.
"Could I have a little more turkey?" I inquired, after devouring my portion.
There was embarrassed silence, during which my request was ignored, then conversation continued as before. Eventually, our host stood again with sharpened carver.
"Now," he said, in time-honoured tradition, "would any one like more turkey?"
I felt suitably chastened but caught a wink from Bonnie who, fellow bohemian at heart, disliked the regime of treasured family customs.
My faux pas was soon overlooked. I was given Dick's "old room" and waved off upon departure like a long lost friend.
The film set moved again, as we neared the city by rail, from silver screen charm to razzmatazz Big Apple. Then it was home to England's once industrial North-West - and to Blackpool, not quite like anywhere else!
Yes, travel broadens the mind - but also keeps us in our place.

43. England Revisited

I WAS ready and excited to return home to England after several years away in the 1980s. But what a shock awaited me!
It was summer and as hot as a day in the Far East, though not as humid - or so I thought. But, once down in the London Underground system in early-morning rush hour, my suitcases weighed me down and I sweated heavily, too, even in light colonial clothes.
On the rail journey home to Manchester, it felt like I was travelling through a foreign country. The green fields were still there, but what were those bright yellow ones? I'd never seen harvests of rape seed before. Then there were the strange, thick new coins. When I had left to travel abroad British pounds had been notes.
These were the days of Maggie Thatcher's new thrusting Britannia - with 'loadsamoney' louts replacing champagne Charlies in the emerging City of London banking and investments houses.
Before moving north from London I had stayed and enjoyed a night out with a teacher friend, Dave Part, who lived in a Greater London Council new property by St Kathrine's Dock and the Tower Bridge. He tought problem kids, now mainly Bangladeshi, in Tower Hamlets.
After a stroll round traditional pubs in Wapping, alongside the fortress-like new headquarters of Rupert Murdoch's News International, we ended our evening having a curry in Brick Lane.
This was once an infamous East End market area, Dave explained, but now popular even with City high-fliers for its authentic curry houses.
"Hello, sir," a young Indian greeted us at the door of our chosen restaurant - and beamed in recognition.
"One of my former pupils," confided Dave, "in fact some of the kids waiting on are still my pupils - and should really be in bed by now."
It was so busy we had to queue and, as we edged nearer to the restaurant interior, I saw why. A large group of noisy, besuited, young city 'gents' were lingering over their table - ignoring people stood waiting.
They had clearly eaten, as the detritus of abandoned platefuls showed, but now wanted more drinks.
"You can only have alcohol with food, sir," explained a young waiter politely to a loudmouth who was demanding more wine all round. "Besides, there are customers waiting." He pointed us out.
"Well," the drunken spokesman of this City 'elite' responded indifferently, "bring all the food again then - we'll pay twice - but fetch us more wine and champers first."
There were guffaws from his drunken cohorts at this but, fortunately, the waiter stood his ground. The party, he insisted, had consumed their meal and drinks. Now it was time to leave and let others enjoy the same.
Thankfully, he won the day, and we at last got seated and served. However, that selfish behaviour showed a new face of Britain and left a nasty taste in my mouth.
Emerging from my train journey at Piccadilly Station, I found Manchester different to my recollection. All the Victorian soot over its impressive buildings had been cleaned off, showing the sandstone or granite beneath. However, it seemed odd now to see a city that had so few buildings above four storeys.
Only when I entered a familiar, old pub near the main fire station, did my spirits rise. A barmaid greeted me in friendly style, others leaning on the bar escaping the hot sun nodded and chatted pleasantly - and the cask beer, unlike in London, was served chilled and with a creamy 'head'
At last I was home, in the north!

42. Roman Ruin

MY stay in the Eternal City was brief but salutary. Being in western Europe felt almost like home after living years further east. But it was not home and I was tired of travel.
World weary as I was, my first visit was to my carrier, Japan Airlines, at the airport. However, this being Italy, the offices were all closed for late-afternoon siesta.
I had wandered with my shoulder bag into the site's commercial area and must have appeared suspicious. While ambling about the closed business mall, a policeman came to investigate me. He didn't understand English but made it clear I should leave the area pronto - by prodding my stomach with the muzzle of his submachine gun, then gesturing towards the airport exit.
I got an airport bus then located a cheap hotel by the railway station in central Rome. A nearby restaurant provided dinner and I left sightseeing until the next day.
It was my only clear day now in the Eternal City, since my flight there from Cairo had been delayed by several hours and, of course, I had been unable to extend my stay through JAL at the airport.
Perhaps as well. As I emerged next morning, suitably awed, from St. Peter's, my pockets were picked by a gang of cheeky gypsy children in the square.
I felt as down as a slave in the Coliseum, destitute, persecuted and unloved. It didn't help, when trying to lift my spirits, by visiting the nearby Sistine Chapel.
"Is closed!" Exclaimed a guard, as I saw the tail-end of the last tourists being allowed through that day. Apparently it took so long to admire Michelangelo's inspired ceiling there now wasn't time left in the day.
With what funds remained back at my railway hotel, I ate a humble supper and drank deep of my rough Chianti.
Next day would see me at long last back in England, on the train home to the North-West, to friends and loving family.
It felt like a Papal blessing to be going home.

41. Exit from Egypt

I WAS eager to leave Cairo, an historic but inhospitable place. However, it was reluctant to let me go.
At its chaotic airport, my Japanese Air Lines flight to Rome had been delayed by sandstorms - for eight hours. What a start to my day!
I handed over my entry pass to a dozy security guard, then stood in a gated crowd with nowhere to sit or go. Finally, I spotted a JAL office, where help and advice might be forthcoming.
It was only yards away so, foolishly, I left my heaviest case and again passed the now slumbering guard.
The airline office was open but its manager absent. Staff advised me to bring all my luggage and wait.
By now that sleepy armed guard had awoken again - and refused to let me re-enter the secure area. I pointed to my bag but he angrily refuted that I could have passed him while he slept at his post. Probably, under Egyptian military rule and security tensions, he'd have been shot.
So now I had no flight or luggage . . . and the noisy airport was getting still hotter. Little wonder I'd had enough of lone travel.
It was the mid-1980s and I was returning to Britain after working in the Far East and Australia, flying back as slowly as possible with lots of stopovers. A multi-stop, round-the-world ticket had been a thrilling idea at the start, but my heart was no longer in this adventure.
Back at the JAL office, cheerful, young manager Saeed had arrived - looking very smart and efficient. As my ticket had been a one-off economy negotiation back in Hong Kong, it seemed I had to catch the delayed flight. All other passengers had been re-routed.
"No problem!" he announced, "You can use my hotel room till your flight comes."
I mentioned my luggage difficulty and he sighed impatiently at such nonsense.
Seconds later Saeed was berating the shamed guard and then himself picking up my suitcase. We then hopped in his Mercedes and crossed the airport site to a modern hotel, where he left me in his luxury suite with two double beds.
Saeed promised to phone later, when I should get up, allowing plenty of time to order food on his account and then shower and change - what service, what relief!
Within minutes of him departing I was dozing off in his spare bed.
And Saeed was as good as his word. He phoned, I showered, ate a snack and met him outside.
Finally, he escorted me to a deserted departure lounge from where, after a short delay, we two boarded an otherwise empty airport bus to cross the tarmac.
"That's your flight, just landed," Saeed said, pointing out the awaiting JAL airliner. Passengers' faces peered curiously as we left the bus.
"They'll be wondering who you are," he added with a grin, "the only passenger boarding here."
Sure enough, all faces turned towards me as Saeed shook hands in farewell and I was greeted by a Japanese stewardess.
I felt like a film star or, at the least, an important dignitary - but that feeling soon went into reverse.
The diminutive Japanese stewardess insisted on giving me a personal pre-flight demonstration, even strapping me meticulously into my seat.
She went on so long about precautions and aids, pointing out my sick bag, exits and advice displayed in my inflight magazine and which buttons to press for help, that it became embarrassing.
I feared that my aura of celebrity was slipping, sensing a change in the other passengers' impressions of this singular new arrival in their midst.
Most, I felt sure, would now perceive me as a dangerous simpleton being ejected from the country and requiring careful personal supervision.
This was confirmed later when I ambled along the aisle to use the toilets. Everyone avoided eye contact and edged warily away.
Still, I was now heading for western Europe and my final stop-over before London. Rome beckoned with all its famous wonders. However, a wave of nervous nausea also invaded me - the single traveller.
Unlike others readying to disembark and be reunited with friends or families, I had no accommodation or onward transport arranged; I spoke no Italian, had none of its currency.
We would be landing towards the end of afternoon, probably in rush-hour, and I was ill-prepared.
Belatedly, as we descended, I began looking up phrases and recommendations in a guide book. Oh, how vulnerable I felt, this lonely, world-weary traveller!
Yet even I did not suspect the worst of what awaited me: a sub-machine gun prodded into my stomach.

40. Ahkmed and the Aussie Amazons

ALIGHT from the Blue Train at Luxor station and you are greeted by a baying crowd akin to that which Gordon faced at Khartoum. Here, though, they want not your blood so much as your money.
I maintained a stiff upper lip, light shoulder bag in hand, and stood to one side of the melee as offers flew at me of transport, cheap rooms, food and female relatives - or even young male ones.
"Sir, who do you wait for?" asked the last and most determined of the train greeters after the others finally slinked away as passengers were satisfactorily processed.
However, I rudely ignored him - at last spotting the nearby cafe my Cairo pal had told me to visit. This was where owner Ahkmed, his cultivated acquaintance, would help me with accommodation while visiting the Valley of Kings and others tourist sites.
It looked clean inside and encouragingly efficient. But there was a problem.
"Ahkmed not here, maybe later," said a waiter.
Back in the wide dirt street (this was the 1980s) the sole remaining train greeter watched and waited with cunning tenacity.
"Sir, may I help you?"
"It's all right," I told him, irritated, "I'm waiting for a friend of a friend - called Ahkmed."
The gnarled Arab opened his hands as though to admit all wonders.
"But I am Ahkmed." He smiled. "Who is your friend?"
I told him my teacher acquaintance's name.
"I know him well, very intelligent, educated," said Ahkmed. "How fares he, is he well?"
"Fine - but he said you owned the cafe."
"Yes," Ahkmed confirmed and waved to a couple of the cooks looking out at us. "But the rooms are full there - I have others close by. Please," he added, offering to take my bag, "you follow, sir."
So I found myself in a small dormitory in a humble dwelling down a side-street. There were several beds and no security apart from its locked door. Ahkmed could see I wasn't impressed.
"Maybe you take whole room - special price for friend of friend."
It didn't sound that special but I accepted, rested up, then took a ferry across the Nile towards the Valley of Kings.
There again, crowds of hawkers awaited. I was offered taxi rides at inflated prices or battered bikes unsuitable for a long journey into the desert. Boys offered fake Pharaonic artifacts - or their sisters.
"Best to share a cab, mate," said a strapping blonde backpacker. The tough Aussie Amazon was with an equally bruising brunette from Brisbane. They both shouldered huge backpacks.
I eventually squeezed into a wreck of a taxi with them and their packs, letting the impressive twosome beat down its skinny driver to an embarrassingly low price.
As we journeyed towards those once hallowed burial grounds, the 'girls' ordered regular stops for photo opportunities. Finally, we visited the tourist-tired tombs before returning to our down-trodden, still unpaid driver. Upon our safe return no tip would have been forthcoming  - without my conscience. I felt sorry for my fellow man.
Taxi drivers had been greedy and bad-tempered in Cairo, tormented by hours of gridlock. In Luxor they were desperate. My next outing was to Karnak and its huge temple complex - in a horse-drawn cart with a boy driver.
The lad negotiated as ruthlessly as he drove his poor nag. I had taken the usual course of offering a tenth of what he demanded, but made the mistake of paying him at Karnak for that leg of the journey. He'd gone by the time I returned to our meeting place, no doubt for a better fee.
Still, as I walked back through villages in twilight, I was offered mint tea by families sat in gardens and saw a gentler side of local life.
Oddly no one bothered with the smaller temple at Luxor, right beside the Nile. Upon my late arrival back, I wandered its moonlit ruins alone and was enchanted.
On my last day Ahkmed strolled down with me to the Cairo-bound Blue Train. As he haggled with new arrivals, I noticed a smart-suited man organising staff in the nearby cafe.
"You wouldn't be Ahkmed, by any chance?" I asked the urbane cafe boss.
He was, had been expecting me earlier in the week, and had fairly priced air-conditioned rooms.
"Then who is that impostor?" I  pointed at my host of the last few nights, still negotiating in the street.
But, with a cheery wave, my 'Ahkmed' was off - leading away more bewildered clients.
Good luck to him. It was, as they say, God's will.

39.  Nubian Night

AT Cairo's main railway station I was to board the overnight Blue Train for the Valley of Kings but, instead, was horrified by what greeted me.
Desperate commuters were climbing through open windows into a train that appeared to have been burned out or come from a wrecker's yard.
Then, thankfully, the long Blue Train shunted on to our platform, with uniformed stewards at coach doors checking tickets.
It was not the luxury expected, being - like everything else in Egypt - old, care-worn and dusty. However, compared to the debacle on the neighbouring platform, it appeared efficient and comfortable.
What's more, I had a double sleeping cabin to myself - until the last minute. Then the conductor showed in a young, very black Nubian who spoke no English.
He looked in his late 20s, a few years younger than me, dressed in loose, local robes and carrying battered luggage.
We were destined to spend the night and next 14 hours or so together in our cabin's close confinement.
I tried to converse a little over an evening meal we were served in the cabin while seated side by side. This only resulted in polite smiles, shakes of the head and mutual embarrassment.
By mid-evening, with nothing but darkness outside, the steward made up our couchette beds on opposite high bunks. It looked like being an early but long, tedious night.
Then the Nubian produced from his knapsack one of the biggest bottles of whisky I've seen. He pointed at the label Black & White, showing one black and one white Scottish terrier, then at we two. We were the same, he indicated, black and white. We both laughed.
It's remarkable how alcohol can break down cultural and language barriers. By the time we turned in around midnight we were having a rare old time; showing each other family photographs, communicating through gestures and caricatures.
He learned that I was on holiday and sightseeing after working in the Far East; I gleaned, miraculously, that he was returning home from engineering work in the desert to, sadly, attend a sister's funeral.
We slept like dead men; then awoke to find ourselves convivial but, once more, unable to communicate much. Instead, we watched the Nile Delta slip by outside as we enjoyed a hot breakfast.
Days later, when I stumbled across a quaint Nubian village near the Valley of Kings, I felt quite at home and took a photograph of a small, cute child mounted on an ass.
She immediately demanded money and, when I demurred, spat with venom in my direction.
Time had moved on. Wariness of strangers had returned.
Still, forever afterwards, I had my Nubian night to fondly remember.

38. Faded Pharaoh

IN the mid-80s I was in Cairo on a slow journey home from the Far East. My accommodation was at a fellow Englishman's flat in the prosperous enclave of Zamalek. I think it was around there that he introduced me to a small, hard-to-find, colonial bar called the American Club - but it was rather quiet and stuffy.
The only other place I found to have a cold beer was the Nile Hilton. I had crossed the bridge from Zamalek and was trying to get over my disappointment at how rundown Cairo city-centre was.
"It rains rarely but, if it should," warned my academic host, "don't stand under palm trees. You end up black from soot accumulated over years through traffic fumes."
The dusty pavements and roads seemed in a state of continual mis-repair, usually by miserable-looking conscripted servicemen in ill-fitting army uniforms.
Prominent places, like the Hilton, had sandbags outside - but not in case of flooding from the Nile. They were machine gun posts against, presumably, popular uprisings, Islamic terrorism or Israeli invasion.
By sheer chance, on my first day's rambling, a familiar face emerged from the Hilton and called to me. It was an engineer I'd played at squash with in Hong Kong. He, too, was having a break from that high-rise sauna.
We had a locally bottled beer that was acceptable but for its exorbitant price in the Hilton bar. Then he took me by shared taxi to the Great Pyramid at nearby Giza.
"Viewing is cooler and more dramatic in the early morning," he advised, "but then it's also full of tourist coaches, hawkers and touts."
There was only one tout there when we arrived in baking mid-afternoon. He followed us on a mangy camel he urged us to ride upon but, exhausted by his long day in heat, gave up easily - after half-an-hour or so.
It was odd for we two, on our chance encounter, to be wandering otherwise alone through the rubble beside the Sphinx in this oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
"Really early in the morning," my mate told me, "some foolish tourists climb up the pyramids, to see the impact of sunrise. But then they need guides to help them get down, which is much harder than climbing. Or they fall - there's a few killed every year."
The Great Pyramid stood in splendid, silent mystery beside its two slightly smaller neighbours under a cloudless sky.
Finally, we paid to enter a small entrance then, sweating and growing increasingly ill-at-ease beneath the huge, monumental weight of stone above us, crept along an increasingly claustrophobic corridor that rose steadily to a central King's burial chamber. It was empty.
There were tiny side-tunnels where, it was said, those who ventured could get lost forever.
We re-emerged into blinding sunlight 20 minutes later, relieved and sweating. I'm glad we weren't stuck behind queues of other visitors, as usually happens. There are annual casualties inside, too.
My next foray into Pharaonic history was more leisurely - at the Museum of Antiquities back in the city. This rather squat, colonial building was fairly packed with detritus from the depths of ancient civilisation. But there was also dazzling gold, from the vaunted Tutankhamun exhibition - back from its long world tour.
"My kids at school come to class with Pharaonic findings all the time," the teacher who was putting me up had said, "dig in any Cairo garden and you'll find antiquities."
It was all rather overwhelming but I was disappointed to find the "Mummy Room" locked.
An official notice on its closed door explained this was to keep the priceless relics intact and to respect those who had been mummified, then so thoughtlessly exposed to the elements and infidel eyes by we colonials.
Fair enough, I thought, mollified and impressed by such local dignity and pride.
"Psst!" muttered a nearby museum guide, who then rubbed his fingers and thumb together in that worldwide gesture of those 'on the make'. He added, "Want to look inside?"
I coughed up what he thought a reasonable entrance fee and was quickly ushered and locked inside .
There beside me lay the great king, Ramesses II, Ancient Egypt's most powerful Pharaoh. Or, at least, there lay his frail bones. (See also Number 5 on our Poem page.)
Still, you could clearly make out the 'living god's' features: a cruel hook nose and stern, unyielding brow with, incredibly, strands of red hair. Had it been dyed in the mummifying process, or had Egypt's ruler been so fair?
"Psst!" Hissed the guard once more, furtively reappearing around the door.
It was time once more to re-enter the Twentieth Century.

37. Valley of Kings - and Knaves

WHEN I arrived in Cairo to holiday with friends-of-friends, the raffish Egyptian beside me in the plane offered to share a taxi into town. He was rather oily but well dressed with a winning smile, so I agreed.
"I'll first just pop into duty-free," he told me. I bought a bottle of Scotch for the family who would be putting me up, then left him looking at kitchen appliances. While waiting, I changed a large sum in travellers' cheques into impressively large and ostentatious Egyptian pounds.
"By the way," he advised, wheeling out a cart piled high with luxury domestic goods, "don't exchange money in the airport - you get treble on the streets."
He then confided his purchases were for wife and girlfriends, as such goods were rarely found in Cairo stores and prices outrageously inflated.
'Well,' I told myself, to get over this exchange gaffe, 'at least I won't be locked up for dabbling on the black market.'
Outside the airport an armed policeman saluted my new friend and addressed him as 'colonel'. He was a chief of police. Guards helped the colonel load his girlfriends' presents into the boot of our shared taxi.
As we drove into Cairo the colonel began a stream of calls on his mobile phone. I could tell from his tone which were to his office, then wife and girlfriends, though not in that order.
Outside we passed what looked like a demolition site. Vultures circled above mud huts and crumbling, block-like dwellings that reminded me of drawings of ancient Bethlehem I'd done in Scripture classes at school. Smoke curled up from open fires amid the rubble. I saw wandering goats and donkeys, then a few scavenging people - wearing robes that also looked Biblical.
"The old city," explained the colonel, before launching into another call.
I noticed the meter on our taxi's dashboard wasn't working. The colonel negotiated a fare before we parted on the city outskirts: me heading into a salubrious suburb; he loading his purchases into a battered, waiting police car.
I gave the colonel what seemed a tiny amount of cash and the driver took me on to my destination without further word. That was the only taxi ride I was to take that didn't end in argument, recriminations and near violence over the settling of my fare.
The friends-of-friends I was staying with were wealthy and expecting me, but looked unsure about a seasoned traveller lately from the fleshpots of the Far East exploiting their home and tainting their children.
"We've decided," said my well-to-do hostess after our first - and last - dinner together, "you'd be better in the city centre - staying with a bachelor friend who teaches our children. He's happy to accommodate you, glad of the company."
The next day, back-pack repacked, I was driven into Cairo by her dutiful husband - then deposited with a reclusive, young academic who clearly didn't welcome my intrusion.
However, he was politely complying and, most important, his spacious flat was in Zamalek - a prosperous island on the Nile, at the heart of the great capital.
What a disappointment that old harlot of a city turned out to be.

36. Shot In Siam (part two)

AFTER work in the Far East I was resting in 'Paradise' during a slow journey back to life in UK.
In fact, it was the Paradise bar and rooms in Phuket - but that was close enough after a six-day working week on the South China Morning Post in high-rise Hong Kong.
I just wanted peace and quiet but, unusually for an average sort of young bloke from Manchester way, stunning girls kept pursuing me.
"Hi, sexy!" A beauty, wearing a bikini and riding a motorbike, shouted to me as I lay innocently on the beach.
Her name was Zim and she worked at the beachside bar, where she kept flirting whenever her boss wasn't looking.
Being English, I attempted to maintain my dignity and distance, but was wavering weakly.
Ultimately and predictably, I was spending more money on my beach holiday than intended. However, the arrival in the bay of a U.S. Fleet ship, bringing scores of sailors, diverted Zim and ended our friendship.
Since my money was running low, I returned to Bangkok not by internal flight but by a rural bus trip that became a nightmare.
They'd seen me off in style from Paradise, so on the crowded, early-morning bus I was hungover. A Thai comedy show, at full blast on the driver's radio, did nothing to aid my recovery as hours of travel ground on.
Few if any passengers spoke English, so I stared stupidly at amazing passing landmarks - such as giant statues of cockerels in the jungle - and ate unfamiliar meals alone at regular refreshment stops.
Just as the 14-hour journey was nearing the outskirts of Bangkok, there were ominous mutterings among passengers.
"Much rain," explained a young Thai to me, "capital flood - maybe we no arrive."
This was a fresh cause for stress, as I had a flight to Egypt scheduled in the early hours.
Outside, pedestrians in the city suburbs were walking by up to their waists in water, their clothes sensibly piled upon their heads. Other vehicles were mostly grounded.
We drove on, agonisingly slowly, through evening and then suddenly halted.
Disaster? Well, no, everyone was clapping and laughing again.
"Is terminus!" Explained my Thai informant.
Hardly believing my luck, I stumbled out with backpack and, again miraculously, managed to commandeer the only taxi on a bit of dry land.
Soon I was celebrating with my pal from the Bangkok Post. We were dining with beers in an open-air, backstreet restaurant. I was eating conservatively, a cheese omelet with chips, bearing in mind my early-morning flight.
Then the punch-up started, between passing members of  a young gang and other Thai yobs playing pool in the same restaurant. They began by exchanging insults, then some of the passers-by burst in to trade punches and kicks.
"What should we do?" I asked my colleague, as a pair of grappling young men rolled over the end of our table.
"Stay absolutely still," he advised coolly then, as an explosion rang out, he paled and added: "My God, that was a shot!"
One of the gang outside had drawn a gun and fired  into the restaurant, thankfully to little effect. The fight still raged about other tables.
Finally, the owner/chef emerged with kitchen cleaver in hand and bravely drove off the ruffians. He apologised and tidied our table.
"Careful," cautioned my pal, "there may be broken glass in our food."
But my appetite had bit the bullet.

35. Shot In Siam

AFTER working in the Far East and Australia in the 1980s, I headed back to Britain - to spend more time with ageing parents and finish a first novel, writes Roy Edmonds.
However, I still wanted to see more of the world and arranged a slow, diverse route back from Hong Kong - booking stop-overs in Thailand, India, Egypt and Italy with Japan Airlines.
JAL fell out with India before my flight from Hong Kong, so I had even longer in Thailand than originally planned. Naturally, I knew of temptations there to virile, single young men.
Such fleshpots are focussed upon in my humorous fictional memoir In Search of Big Eileen.
This website's close collaborator, fellow traveller and soul-mate, Ed Black, has also written on the shocking diversions of Thai capital Bangkok, in his rip-roaring, colonial novel Romp & Circumstance.
Incidentally, for more about these novels or to order one, turn to our Books page.
From Thailand the next destination on my cheap man's round-the-world ticket would be Cairo, where I was to stay with the young family of an Australian friend. Certainly, I did not want any embarrassing health or personal problems to compromise me or them once there.
In short, my intention in Thailand was to relax on a beach and behave myself.

How was it, then, I found myself entangled with a girl named Zim; on a desperate, cross-country  bus journey; stuck in chaotic floods and, finally, shot at in a restaurant?

It all started well enough.
I landed at Bangkok and got a taxi to meet a former journalistic colleague, now on the Post newspaper. My large suitcase was stored safely at his flat then, travelling light, I took an internal flight to the island of Phuket. He even gave me the names of American friends there, who might put me up.
They had a beach bar, called Paradise, from where - on that first day - I watched a perfect sunset.

To be continued.

34. Outback and Up Front

IT sounds wonderful when well-travelled people talk of exotic places and amazing experiences. Truth is, there is little point in travelling to no purpose.
When young you hope to find romance, as well as adventure, and perhaps even success. However, love is more likely to be awaiting you back home - where success can also be steadily worked towards.
But the young don't wish to hear such things, writes Roy Edmonds.
After working in Hong Kong, where I'd been encouraged to travel by friends already there, I later followed them on to more newspaper employment in Australia.
I also tried to travel around the vast country. At Perth, when staying with old friends and working briefly on the Daily News, I was reminded how isolated the beautiful coastal city was when a weary immigrant complained to me:
"The nearest place with any life is Singapore!"
To complete my sense of travel and adventure, I looked for the furthest point on the world map from home back in Manchester.
It was a dot at the top of northern Queensland, a town just inland amid swampland up the Endeavour River, and named after another curious Englishman - Cooktown.
After flying in a six-seater bush plane (the weekly bus had gone a day or two before), I landed at a clearing in the Outback jungle and got a lift in a pick-up truck.
In the 1980s, Cooktown was a one dirt-street settlement of timber-shack stores, homes and 'hotels'. The first of these latter was the Cooktown Hotel.
At 10 in the morning I swung open its fly-screen double doors and stood in the entrance of a shadowy saloon, letting my eyes adjust like a Wild West gunslinger new to town.
Beneath slowly turning ceiling fans, half a dozen men stared at me silently from the bar. Most were bearded, with unbuttoned shirts and bare feet on the foot rail.
Outside, the only movement in the sun-baked street was from an odd stutting bird. Forlorn Aboriginal men crouched or lay in shadows, awaiting the next benefit payment to get drugged and drunk.
"We've got plenty of rooms," the bar woman told me, "they're all vacant."
Upstairs, off a wooden verandah, I took an airy bedroom for one. There was no key for its door.
"Who'd steal anything here?" she asked. "There's nowhere to hide!"
As the men downstairs proved mute and unfriendly, my only company was the woman's pet sausage dog - that joined me on the terrace until, bored at studying distant mangrove swamps and reading a Gideon Bible, I turned in for an afternoon siesta.
At the end of the day, farmers drove in from miles around off their vast landholdings. They all carried pump-action rifles to shoot kangaroos blocking the road (and troubling their stock). They also drank from "stubbie" beer bottles on the way - to stay cool.
"That was a four-stubbie drive!" One said to another as he drew up outside the bar, kicking empty bottles into the street from the cab of his pick-up.
Their guns were left in neat rows by the swing doors, as the men played pool, listened to old Elvis numbers on the jukebox and ate meat pies.
These latter were of minced steak in a searingly hot gravy. You bit into the pie then quickly sucked in its contents to avoid staining your shirt (if, indeed, you were bothering to wear one).
For further diversion, Aboriginal women waited outside. You could keep your beer in hand while entertaining them against the hotel side-wall. The whole sordid business took them only a few minutes.
After one pie and a few cold, lonely drinks, I turned in for the night, missing home and family and friends.
Why had I travelled so far anyway? There was nothing for me there.
It all awaited me back home . . .

The long, eventful journey - from Down Under, and East to West - will be relived here in the New Year.

33.  Hanging Out at King's Cross

ED BLACK writes . . . My senior website collaborator Roy usually provides these memoirs but, since he is currently reminiscing on this page about Australia, I wanted to add my own shameful contribution.
Frankly, the place bored me. It had sunshine but none of the charm of my adopted home of Greece.
Aussie men had no style and their Sheilas lacked guile. Also, they didn't like outsiders.
Particularly brutal, was Sydney's red light area of King's Cross. I had strayed into this shabby district while looking for an offbeat restaurant during a public relations trip back in the mid-1980s.
"You want to party?" Demanded a strapping six-foot dominatrix emerging from a shadowy doorway wearing a black, leather basque and holding a whip.
I yelped a polite refusal and retreated. Up ahead on the pavement was a dangerous looking gang of Hell's Angels admiring each others Harley-Davidsons.
To avoid them I made the mistake of entering a neon lit club doorway. Besides, I was now desperate for a pee, following too many ice-cold 'beers'. I'd been in the 24-hour Journalists' Club, with nothing more interesting than beers, pies and one-armed bandits.

The nightclub I had entered was called the Pink Pussycat. At the top of a steep flight of stairs was a seedy bar with a stage for strippers. But, at least, there was a spacious gents' toilets.
Unfortunately, at every urinal a comatose punter was slumped with head against the wall, while others must have dozed off or were otherwise engaged in the row of locked cubicles.
After an agonising wait nothing had moved, so what could I do?
To my lasting shame I sought relief in one of the inviting handbasins. (I did run the tap). It was either that or wetting myself.
Just then the larger of two unpleasant bouncers who manned the downstairs entrance came into the conveniences.
"What're you doin'?" He bellowed, shoving aside a drunk to relieve himself and glaring at me.
I apologised, explaining my predicament but my words, and particularly their accent, only further incensed the brute.
"Out!" He cried, grabbing me by the collar and frogmarching me through the club as I hastily buttoned up my trousers.
We then halted at the top of those precipitate stairs.
"This dirty Pom," he shouted down to his mean looking hoppo, "has just p****d in the washbasin!"
Then he shoved me as hard as possible down the stairs, rabbit punching the back of my neck and trying to trip me up. I hung on to a banister and descended covering my face as best I could.
To fall, as he no doubt wished, would result in a kicking. But he did bloody my nose with an undercut through my shuffling guard.
Before they could set about me further I barged through the double doors and out into the street.
Passing revellers parted about me as, head bowed, I still tried to protect myself.
"Don't bleed on our pavement!" My persecutor yelled nastily, but remained in his doorway.
"You all right, mate?" Someone asked.
I looked up to see a huge, bearded Hell's Angel astride his motorbike.
"Had better nights!" I muttered, nose bunged up with blood.
This amused the giant hellraiser and his pals.
"Don't worry, cobber," he told me, "them cowards won't step foot outside. They know what they'd get if they dared."
I nodded in thanks but that only worsened my bleeding.
"Don't just sit there, girl," he ordered his pillion passenger, "clean up the man!"
The biker-girl politely passed me  tissues and dabbed clean my face.
"Want a lift, mate?" My burly new friend called.
However, I'd had enough excitement for one night and declined.
"Call him a taxi, girl!" Shouted my tattooed saviour.
When that welcome cab came, the gang helped me inside.
"It's not for you, this place, mate," were the Hell's Angel's final words.
I was grateful and he was right.

32. Veggies With Your Chuckie

ON my first shift for the Sydney Daily Telegraph as a sub-editor I arrived early on the train from my shared flat in Wolstoncroft.
I passed the winos outside Central Station and entered the enormous News International building owned by media magnate Rupert Murdoch.
It was the 1980s and I was supplementing my humble income as a part-time reporter for Australian Associated Press. There I worked mainly day shifts. At the Telegraph I was to work occasional evenings.
Rupert, 'the Dirty Digger', and his top cronies were in London trying to introduce computerisation into Fleet Street.
However, back in Australia the unions ruled with an even tighter grip. The Telegraph was a middle-of-the-road morning tabloid; a local bread-winner compared with the 'cream' of Murdoch's quality newspaper, The Australian.
There were no computers in the newsroom and, at a quarter to six, only two people at the large subs' table: the boss, or chief sub, busily drawing up pages and writing headlines; and a sub who was the union rep. - reading leisurely and drinking coffee.
"You're early!" They both commented, with contrasting reactions.
The boss had a spare story quickly in hand for me to sub-edit (that is, to check spelling and grammar, polish 'intro', cut in length to fit a shape on the page, then write a headline for that also fitted - and all with instructions, on type and style, to compositors downstairs).
The subbing colleague come union man had other ideas - and his prevailed.
"Go and get something in the canteen," he instructed firmly, adding, "no rush mate, come back in half-an-hour."
Our beleaguered 'boss' reluctantly confirmed this was his wish too.
The jovial canteen staff were homely 'mums' offering up wholesome fayre. Of course, they had marked Aussie 'twangs' and, like most Australians, shortened words in casual style and added a rising tone at the end of sentences, which made every statement sound like a question.
Chicken was the special that day and I'd only had a sandwich back at the flat. I was due to work from six pm up until around midnight, when the paper was all 'put to bed'. So I duly tucked in.

"Do you want veggies with your chuckie?" They asked, spooning up a generous helping of roast chicken, then roast potatoes and a mix of vegetables. It was cheap too!
At half-past six I returned to find the oval subs' table busy and now attended by several others.
"Only one job at a time," said the union man sternly, when the boss tried to hurry me along with a second news story to edit. It was always a slow-learning curve as every newspaper had its own methods and style.
"Don't let the bastard bully you," my union colleague told me, with a warning glare at the hapless management man struggling to meet deadlines.
At about 8.40 he spoke out again: "Well, mates, it's almost nine - time for our break." He looked over at the boss who kept his head bowed over headlines, making no squeak of objection. "You'll be coming, cobber!" He told me.
At the pub on the corner the pace of drinking and round-buying was frantic. Like all Aussies, they had their chilled lager-style beer in 'half-pint' or even smaller measures - to keep it cool.
"Must be my round," I said, wanting to make a good impression.
"No rush, mate," said the union man, winking at the barmaid.
"When are we due back?" I asked, seeing by my watch it was already 9.30.
He stared at me as though I was a madman.
"When they close," he said, "about 11."

31. The Old Coathanger

IN the past it was possible to travel the world as a British-trained journalist working for newspapers in former colonies. Their papers were in English and computerisation in its infancy, so there were few barriers to working 'casual shifts'.
Once settled  in the early 1980s with friends of friends in Sydney, I worked a few reporting shifts a week for Australian Associated Press. This was the national and international Press agency with headquarters in Pitt Street.
The news editor in their large, open-plan office at first gave me routine jobs like checking on petty crime tip-offs or ringing around neighbourhood police stations to ask if anything newsworthy had occurred.
"Bit of a ding-dong down at Bularrato," some rural copper would cheerfully inform me.
"And where exactly is that?" I'd inquire, then ask how one spelt Bula-what-oh.
"Strewth mate!" They'd cry at the other end of the line. "Where you been hiding yourself?"
Mind you, being a relative stranger and separated by a common lingo was just as bad back in Britain where, when working reporting shifts on the Daily Mail in Manchester, I had to do a similar round of calls to Scottish or Geordie police, fire and ambulance stations.
Sometimes it was so hard to understand the local vernacular I just had to quietly forget the information and hope we hadn't missed a major story.
I didn't really enjoy the office work in Sydney as, for one thing, in news agencies
What's more, the boss seemed to rate me.
"Half the bastards in here are just waiting for other jobs," he complained to me, not realising I was also looking for better paid work, "they're careless. You may be a Pommy but you're reliable."
Well, it was praise of a sort. I should add that in Australia 'bastard' is a term of manly endearment - as in the famous Outback bill poster from a meat producer which read in huge letters, "Eat steak, you bastards!"
Then one day I arrived mid-morning from our shared flat in suburban Wolstoncroft.
"Sorry, I'm so late," I said, "but the bridge was closed."
I commuted over the distinctive Sydney Harbour Bridge (pictured) by train.
"Strewth, Pommy!" Muttered the news editor. "'Course  it's closed, you drongo, it's the Old Coathanger's 50th Anniversary."
The Coathanger was how Sydney citizens sentimentally referred to their impressive bridge. Also, 50 years was big history in a nation as young as Australia. Many offices and schools had closed so people could walk over the structure and celebrate this important occasion.
"What's more," he told me, calming down now, "I want you to cover it. Go out and have a look yourself, then phone in with a colour piece for radio - that will go out live at mid-day. Then come back and write up your story."
I left the office rather stunned. Not only did I know little about the Coathanger (except what I'd gleaned from AAP's cuttings library that morning), I was an Englishman having to give an impassioned voice-over to the city's big day of nostalgia.
Sure enough, the bridge that was usually busy with traffic and trains was now a mass of holidaying crowds taking family pictures in the sunshine. Flotillas of yachts sailed by beneath in the glittering harbour.
Then I heard the sirens.
As a reporter I've always been lucky - being in the right place at the right time - though it's not always lucky for some other poor person.
A quick word with attending police and ambulance teams established that a pensioner had suffered a heart attack while walking high above the bridge. It was being cleared temporarily for emergency vehicles.
It was my high noon and I was able to phone in a live commentary on the brick-like office mobile as the human drama unfolded above me, amid a huge public day of celebrations.
For me it was a triumph. I'm also glad to say that the man at the centre of it all survived.

30. Planting a Pom

WHEN I arrived to start a new life in Australia, the "Lucky Country",  it was hammering down with rain.
"Not much of a welcome!" I observed to an immigration officer at Sydney Airport, already disconcerted by being sprayed with insecticide upon landing.
"Usual in September," the laconic officer told me.
Months later, when I inquired about extending my visa and quoting its reference to 'special circumstances', another immigration man told me:
"No, Roy, it's not just a matter of breaking a leg . . . far more serious, you'd probably have to marry a Sheila."
It rained most of that first day but the Aussies have a dry humour (and a chip on their shoulders).
As the airport bus followed halting traffic through the city, I read on a car's rear screen:
"Grow your own dope - plant a Pom!"
I was duly installed in the spare bedroom of friends of friends from England. They were a young, friendly couple named Macmillan, who had the most spectacular rows.
We lived in the otherwise quiet, leafy and convenient suburb of Wolstoncroft. It had a couple of decent pubs, shops and a typically great chip shop with wide range of fish offered baked, grilled, shallow or deep fried - and a dining room where your could bring your own booze (from an off-licence next door).
Australia in the mid-1980s was trade union conscious and news organisations keen to employ British-trained journalists. A couple of phone calls brought me shift work reporting for Australian Associated Press and also sub-editing on Sydney's Daily Telegraph.
It was easy work after the more pressured conditions of Hong Kong.
Wolstoncroft Station was like a carefully tended Surrey railway platform in the 1950s, with flowerbeds, sitting rooms and staff in neat uniforms (very English except for shorts worn with long socks).
The short journey into the city took us over Sydney's Harbour Bridge. Two-storey carriages conveying office commuters had incongruous warning notices that exclaimed: "Be careful with that surf board!"
In between my different day and evening shifts, the Macmillans drove me to beaches like Bondi (by then a bit rough in all respects) and Coogee (a favourite), for surf followed by turf - large steaks at pub barbecues.
What a life!
This Pom was flourishing.

29. 'Passion' and Paradise

THE East Coast of Malaysia turned out to be a very different place to the easy going west with its holiday hotspots like Penang and colonial history of tea and rubber planting. The east side was Muslim and, even back in the dynamic 1980s, I was immediately aware of its constraints.
I was well turned out for a lone, young traveller with just a holdall of spare clothes. Instead of the backpacker look despised by Asians, I wore long trousers, a long-sleeved shirt and suitable hat, as well as being showered and shaved.
But as I wandered through villages of traditional huts on stilts, mothers ushered in their children from the passing infidel; while in town streets passersby objected if I inadvertently caught their image while taking photographs. They must have believed we westerners extremely wicked.
Tiring of all this, I made my way northwards on shambling local buses to the enticingly named Beach of the Long Night of Passionate Love. It was, indeed, a spectacular beach, but deserted. After swimming in rough surf I spent a sleepless night at a mosquito-infested rest house where they had no alcohol. The only other guests were a young, German backpacking couple with little English.
From there I went southwards down the coast and eventually found a bit of life in the convivial resort of Kuantan. It was very beautiful but still rather staid for a worldly, young traveller.
It was shortly after that my ageing guidebook led me into a curious situation.  Despite my taxi driver's odd reluctance, I drove out to stay at a rather grand place in its own grounds. True, it looked a bit rundown as we ventured down its long, palm-lined drive in early afternoon. It was rather quiet and deserted, too.
The driver left me alone sharpishly. Finally, a sleepy-eyed reception clerk booked me in for one night - though seeming surprised I wanted to stay even that long. Later I found out why.
Upon going into the lounge bar at evening after a sleep in the rather battered bed, I found an Indian proprietor ringing bells and shouting the equivalent of "Time up!" to male patrons behind curtained alcoves and closed doors. It was what he quaintly called a "short-term hotel" where customers booked in only by the hour - not entire nights - and female company was provided.
Still, his sons were at Oxbridge and he was keen to chat to a passing Englishman, while advising me as I  eyed his flirtatious staff: "Not for British gentleman, like you sir!"
I found it difficult to even find acceptable food in East Malaysia but, just before returning to my other belongings in Singapore and travelling on, I had an unexpected taste of "paradise". It was rather uncomfortable, too!
A chance reunion with the German backpackers led to all three of us paying fishermen to sail to a tiny island with vacant huts and only giant turtles as inhabitants. In this "unspoiled paradise" we slept on rush mats on wooden floors sheltering from a relentless sun. Our fishermen hosts would bring us food but no alcohol.
Three days in "paradise" was enough, though we did witness a turtle laying eggs one night - only for  fishermen to steal them as the plodding creature went back into the ocean.
It was time for me to pad back into my natural element, too. Singapore and civilisation beckoned, with hopes of a new job and life in Australia.

28. Malaysia By Bus

AFTER my work in Hong Kong in the early 80s, I was heading to a new life in Australia - but in no hurry to get there. Leaving my main suitcase with a former Hong Kong colleague now working in Singapore, I took the bus to Malaysia.
How quickly we were across the Straits and in historic Malacca which, sadly, left me unimpressed. My main memory is of its crowded bus station, where I at last found shade and sustenance in an upstairs cafeteria.
"You join us please!" Encouraged local students enjoying cold beers and keen to practise English on a lone, young westerner.
I finished my curry but had misgivings about pints of chilled lager - with a long bus trip in prospect up the western coast.
"All coaches have conveniences on board," they assured me, so I joined them for two or three drinks and an impassioned history lesson (to me) on the colonial English. They were obviously happy to be independent but held few grudges.
What a fascinating mix of races there was back in that bus queue: Malays, of course, but also Chinese; Indians, and a few in between but none the worse in looks for that.
Being the biggest vehicle on the road, our driver and sidekick simply drove down the middle of the highway, blasting the horn. A few miles into our riotous journey I needed to check out that on board convenience.
Carefully, I climbed over the woman slumbering beside me with live chickens in a bamboo basket on her lap, then made my way up the packed, swaying, single-decker 'coach-bus'.
There it was, a convenient toilet as promised, right at the back. Unfortunately, its metal door was rusted firmly into the frame and would not budge.
Seeing my plight, two natives stood and ushered me to stand clear as, together, they kicked in the door. They then picked up the door, now off its hinges, and invited me inside before lifting and holding the heavy metal portal upright again to save me further embarrassment.
When I was finished, the pair dropped their burden and grinned. No one else seemed to have noticed or cared.
Ah, how refreshing all this was after stand-offish Hong Kong then clinically efficient Singapore!

Port Dickson was charming but my locally recommended beachside hotel too expensive for a touring budget. I moved on and took a ferry to beautiful Penang. Here my old guidebook led me to simple lodgings used by backpackers, from where I explored picturesque coves and colonial mountain retreats.
But it was all too touristy for a seasoned traveller.
After savouring the island breezes, I shared one of the long-distance taxis (an excellent communal practice) and followed the old colonial trail in order to "summer" in the cool hills of the mainland.

The Cameron Highlands was stunning, like an old-fashioned Surrey village but surrounded by mountain jungle. I stayed in its cheap but clean rest house; strolled in rose gardens and park playground, then went to the local cinema - where everyone moved loose chairs around to join friends, eat and chat noisily throughout the evening.
Alone, however, these relaxing delights soon waned and I set my sights on the more exotic but remote East Coast. There, just across the mountains, was an intriguing landmark whose name struck an instant chord . . .
The Beach of the Long Night of Passionate Love.

27. Down In Bugis Street

IN SINGAPORE I was in transit between working in Hong Kong and going to live in Australia. During my short stay in the early 1980s, it soon became apparent that there were two city states: the Singapore Lee Kwan Yew's reformist government wanted the world to see and, just below that modern, skyscraper surface, an older, shameful colony that still lingered on - unloved by the powers-that-be and uncharted on tourist brochures.
Take the dazzling, state-of-the-art airport as example. Its air-conditioned and luxurious welcome mirrored the famed hospitality of Singapore Airlines, along with the almost sanitary safeness of the modern city. However, it was built on a mosquito-infested swampland that earlier housed the horrific Japanese concentration camp of Changi.
As I approached the famous colonial hotel of Raffles, I was again aware of this dichotomy. The refurbished and spruced-up tourist attraction was still in streets that, until recently, were slums. It was past here that the colonial British and their troops had been marched in shame by conquering Japanese, and where previously loyal locals exhibited their duplicity.
I had an overpriced Singapore Sling in its long bar then went in search of lodgings I could afford, before beginning my mission of finding the officially non-existent but still infamous Bugis Street.
A humble Chinese establishment called the Tin Tin Hotel in the nearby old town matched my pocket. The bathroom was shared and showering still carried out on wooden slats by pouring a 'Shanghai jar' of cold water over one's head. But there were two beds in my clean, airy room overlooking the teeming, colourful streets and a parakeet in the shuttered windows opposite me.
An old fashioned notice on my bedroom door read: 'Guests are politely requested to maintain their self-respect'.
That was a warning I would have done well to observe.
An evening out on the town started at Raffles' palm court and degenerated to a rundown colonial style bar I stumbled upon near a regeneration site. Here at last I found some genial company, an ageing expat who joined me in a couple of Tiger beers.
"Oh, yes," he confirmed, "Bugis Street still exists and is quite near here, just hop in a tut-tut and ask for it."
Some while later I found myself watching a colourful parade of nightlife outside a bar in Bugis Street. A couple of the infamous "lady-boys" even came to sit beside me and chat until, realising I wasn't interested in what they were offering, they cheerfully departed.
It was then I noticed a rather lost looking girl of mixed Asian heritage who reminded me in my tired state of a young Shirley Bassey. She had a quality about her but looked down on her luck.
To cheer her up, I offered to buy her a drink which she - rather apprehensively - accepted.
Minutes later a man - minder, boyfriend or relative - appeared, berated her then even slapped her across the face, causing her to cry and spill that drink.
Naturally, I intervened and drove off the bounder. But my damsel in distress did not appear pleased.
"Now where can I go?" She demanded. "I have no money and nowhere to sleep!"
I offered to give her some cash, then discovered my jacket pocket had been emptied - those "lady-boys".
However, I could change a traveller's cheque and, as it became clear I was going to help her, the girl began to relax and cheer up.
Less chivalrously, I mentioned there was a spare bed in my room (well, I was on a tight touring budget). This, and a whimsical suggestion of lunch tomorrow at the nearby Raffles Hotel, won her over.
We crept into the Tin Tin Hotel past a slumbering Chinese night watchman. Any romantic impulses I had disappeared as she went into a convulsion of consumptive coughing, poor thing.
Next morning I awoke with a thick head and a thin enthusiasm for my guest, who had kept me awake most of the night - by snores and rasping breath.
I made a discreet gesture of offering her some cash as a farewell gift, that was readily accepted. However, she also reminded me of that lunch I'd promised.
Meanwhile, reception pointed out that my bill would be doubled as there were now two in the room - the old watchman hadn't been sleeping after all.
At the upmarket Raffles (pictured above), my guest ate ravenously through lunchtime tiffin with an appetite that drew astonishment from neighbouring tables, along with that cough. No doubt her inappropriate evening dress also attracted attention.
"If you return, sir," a turbaned head-waiter muttered with a knowing look as we finally left, "please do not bring your-er guest."
It was time to move on.

26. Preserving the Wah

"SO, you will be all right," Jonathan asked anxiously as he prepared to leave me at his home, "and preserve the wah?"
By this he meant the peace of his neighbours in this highly traditional and old district of Tokyo, where I was his guest during a brief holiday from my work in Hong Kong.
Jonathan, a post graduate student of Japanese, was going off in early morning to teach English to adult pupils before they went to work. An impeccably educated Cambridge product, he obviously did not trust his older guest to behave.
In fact, I had no intention of going anywhere until he returned, content to rest up in his quiet, comfortable room with its tiny kitchen, tatami matting and oregano display. But I understood his concern.
"Certainly!" I promised.
Going anywhere locally was rather fraught. Jon's widow landlady bowed and cooed when you met her in a hallway of her traditional timbered house, while her schoolgirl daughter practically prostrated herself. Japanese society and culture was a tight maze of rigid, polite behaviour with as many layers as modern Tokyo had traffic lanes, rail stations and skyscrapers.
I finished dressing then put on the kettle for green tea and slid open a paper-screen window. Outside the quaint, pedestrian-only lane was deserted; its fruit trees were in blossom and all looked ancient and serene. Incredible that the dynamic city was just a stone's throw away.
Then I saw it.
Smoke was issuing from the upstairs, side window of another wooden house across the pathway. What was more, I had read that the greatest danger in these timber and paper-house neighbourhoods was fire.
I should raise the alarm immediately.
But was it smoke? Could the 'smoke' be steam, from some bathroom shower or other appliance?
If I shouted "fire" and ran amok, it would spread terror and panic.
'Above all, preserve the wah', Jonathan had instructed so earnestly. Mutual respect and placid, tactful behaviour was at the very heart of Japanese beliefs.
For some minutes, I criss-crossed the rented room, first checking on my boiling kettle, then on the steam/smoke - definitely getting thicker - from our opposite neighbour's upstairs window. Silently, I prayed for a passerby who might take action instead of me.
Then, just as I had calming green tea to hand, the front door opposite burst open.
Smoke plumed out of the downstairs living quarters across the lane and an elderly gent in pyjamas staggered in distress into the street.
I saw flames behind him amid the dark smoke. My God, his pyjamas were also smouldering with them.
Stupidly, I stood frozen for a moment, as the old chap hopped about and flailed at his burning pyjama top. Then other people rushed from their homes and, just in front of me, Jon's landlady ran to safety carrying prized personal possessions.
Grabbing my passport and wallet, I quickly followed and was, once again, bowing in turn to the widow.
Then we were just as quickly ushered back into our houses by spacemen.
Except they weren't spacemen but Japanese firemen in flame-proof outfits and protective perspex visors under stylish steel helmets.
They rolled down water pipes from their pump, which could not get down the narrow pathway, then clambered up the little house's facade as waves of water played on the flames.
A small ambulance managed to negotiate the narrow lane and its occupants fussed about the old fire victim.
To my shame, I saw them treating burns across his back. The old boy just sat, staring ahead inscrutably.
Humbly, I finished my green tea, acutely aware I could have prevented those injuries and much of this damage and disaster by acting decisively earlier.
Best say nowt, I decided.
Then Jonathan was back in the room, rather wild-eyed and concerned after following all the activity almost to his rented home.
"Thank goodness," he sighed, "I feared you'd set this place alight."
"No," I told him, "don't worry. I preserved the wah."

25. Honourable Hospitality - And A Piggy-Back Home

"I'LL leave you at my local bar," said Jonathan, whom I was staying with in an old neighbourhood of Shinjuku, Tokyo.
He was off to give an English class to evening students.
Like the house where he rented a room, the tiny bar was in a small, timbered building with traditional sliding doors and paper windows. Obviously crime wasn't high around here.
Jon introduced me in Japanese to the kimono-wearing barmaid who bowed deeply. Then he further explained to her and her two elderly patrons, sat on stools at opposite ends of the bar, that I spoke no Japanese.
He ordered me a local beer, which she poured with more bowing, and I chose a stool equidistant between the two old men wearing business suits.
"I'll see you in a couple of hours," Jon told me, "we'll settle the bill and tip later. They know me here and where I live - I'm the only foreign resident - so behave!"
Well really! What cheek from my young host. After Jon had left I smiled and nodded at the others, then sipped my beer slowly with due deliberation.
Eventually, when at last about to order another bottle, a small, unsolicited jug of warmed sake appeared.
Seeing my frown, the lady behind the bar indicated one of the elderly men. As I glanced over he stood slightly and bowed.
I poured and raised the tiny porcelain cup to him in thanks . . . and so began a memorable evening we shall return to later.
Throughout my short stay in Japan, the hospitality and friendliness of its people to a passing stranger amazed me.
While killing time in a railway station buffet, I was sent over a beer from another elderly businessman - who bowed and waved to me, then sat down again to his meal.
When Jon and I were eating at a traditional restaurant, with its menu chalked on walls in Japanese, extra side dishes began to arrive.
"They're from other diners, dishes they want us to try," Jonathan explained.
We would taste these then look round appreciatively. Across the room someone would stand  and bow and we would wave our thanks then bow in turn.
"Hope you like it," Jon added after one treat, "you've just eaten raw horse."
It slipped down well, in fact, with the right marinade.
Two girls at another table in a pizza place even asked us, via a waiter, to join them for coffee at their table. Of course, I was a lot younger then . . .
But back to that little traditional bar in Shinjuku on my second evening in Tokyo.
Warm sake, I discovered, goes straight to the head and quickly lowers social barriers.
The old chap who had bought it had one in front of himself. He indicated these should be downed in one. I obliged him with much bowing and thanks.
Minutes later a second jug was in front of me - this time from the other old chap. More bowing and drinking followed.
It seemed rude not to order a round myself. This time the old gentlemen shifted stools to join me.
Soon we three discovered - in an endless round of sake - we could converse perfectly well, by gesture, sign language and mime.
What a grand time we had until, quite suddenly, one of the old gentlemen keeled backwards off his stool.
Fortunately, he wasn't hurt but proved incapable of standing.
Here the kindly, middle-aged lady of the bar intervened.
Helping the chap partly upright again, she ducked under him and wrapped his arms about her shoulders. Then, half-bent as if still bowing, she shuffled out and round the corner - giving her comatose customer a piggyback home .
Minutes later she was back, grinning broadly at me and the remaining old chap - now propped up happily with arms around each others shoulders.
"I don't believe this!" Someone said from a long way away.
It was Jonathan, standing in the doorway and stunned by the transition in our demeanour.
That night I slept like a dead man in my futon on tatami mats in Jon's room, awaking as in a dream next morning.
"Did last night really happen?" I asked him, appalled. "I can never show my face in there again."
"Don't worry," Jon grinned. "They loved it! You'll be welcomed with open arms."

24. Orderly Vices

JAPAN is such a carefully structured society that even perversity and vices are catered for in orderly fashion. In fact, the only human trait they seem shocked by is disorderliness.
Used to the pushing and shoving that replaces queues in Hong Kong, on my first trip by rail in Tokyo I began to barge my way on to the train before onboard passengers had alighted. All present were stunned by my uncouth behaviour, even in rush hour. Passengers on the platform ushered me back and indicated that those on board should first be allowed to get off.
I was also corrected and embarrassed at a highway junction when, seeing no traffic in sight, I began to cross the road. An urgent murmur from other pedestrians still back on the pavement halted my progress. Had I dropped my wallet perhaps? No, they were horrified by my jaywalking. I was beckoned back to the kerbside then my attention directed toward the traffic lights still showing green. When they finally turned red the crowd happily urged me forward again.
Yet, behind their polite exterior, there can lurk a darkness as gross - and as regimented - as sumo.
When travelling on crowded commuter trains about Tokyo, I was shocked by the reading matter of middle-aged businessmen sat alongside me. They had prurient paperbacks bought from vending machines on the platform, showing explicit strip cartoons of women being bound, assaulted and worse - blood and gore abounded. Not a flicker of embarrassment or concern there, even with schoolchildren sat amongst us.
Similarly, I switched on the television one Sunday evening and was stunned by what Japanese stations were showing at a time when, at home, Songs of Praise would be broadcast. A naked woman was hanging upside down from a cross-beam she was roped to, then being lashed between her legs by another scantily clad female in thigh-length boots wielding a bull whip.
In busy city-centre streets there was always much bowing to colleagues and business associates, each trying to bow lower than the other or as their relative status demanded. Even saying 'thank you' in Japanese is complex, there are so many levels of gratitude, respect and humility.
Yet on Friday evenings in Tokyo you would routinely see young and not-so-young businessmen staggering drunk after end-of-week drinking parties straight from the office. They vomited in trains and urinated in the street with barely a glance from fellow passengers or passers-by.
"Getting drunk is the only way they can open up to bosses, or criticise company policy - even positively," explained my host Jonathan Inman, a law and languages student who also ran English classes.
"It would be unthinkable normally to oppose views of your seniors. But, if they're drunk and later apologise, 'face' is saved all round. Getting drunk with colleagues after a hard week is acceptable."
What was more, when being wined and dined you were expected to get drunk - as I later found out.
Similarly, it was impolite not to leave food on your plate. A cleared one suggested your host had not adequately provided.
Better to at least appear overfed and drunk as you stagger from their low table, then bestow and show satisfaction . . . with a gratifying belch.

23. Baring All In Japan

IN the early 1980s, while working in Hong Kong, I was invited to visit Tokyo. My host was Jonathan, whom I knew from the Fylde and who was then a post-graduate studying Japanese.
He was later to marry a local then become a highly successful lawyer jetting between London and Tokyo. However, back then he had a simple rented room of a traditional Japanese home in the old district of Shinjuku.
I was tired from my flight and in need of a shower - but saw none in the room we were to share, with its tatami matting floor and futons sleeping bags. There were sliding screens and paper windows; it was a period piece . . . and so was its plumbing.
"I use the sento - or public baths," Jonathan explained.
Fortified by a green tea or two, I followed him down the narrow pathway between the huddle of houses and blossom trees. Outside a larger building was a collection of shoes.
We left our own on the doorstep and entered the bath-house. There were no changing closets.
"Just select a locker and undress where you stand," Jon instructed.
As I did so, female attendants gathered at a nearby counter. One even came sweeping about my feet.
"Don't be embarrassed!" Jon advised cheerfully. "We're the only westerners who use this place so, naturally, they're intrigued."
Apparently, all the changing room staff were female and they watched with unwavering interest as, now naked, we carefully soaped ourselves down at washbasins and then soaked away remaining suds.
Thus cleaned, I eagerly followed Jon from the prying attendant eyes and we approached a large pool of steaming water. Several local men were reclining, water up to their necks, relaxing in different parts of the bath. A bamboo barrier across the pool's centre separated us from the women's bathing half, though we could hear their chatter.
"It gets hotter the deeper in you go," Jon warned.
I edged into the nearest water, which felt scalding hot. No wonder the men proudly braving its deeper waters were the colour of lobsters!
Eventually, I did move in deeper until - after 15 minutes or so and with every nerve in my hot body now tingling - I finally retreated.
My emergence was greeted by another excited gathering of attendants at the counter.
To avoid them, I foolishly followed Jon as he jumped into a small, sunken bath located outside - an ice-cold plunge pool.
I decided against the marble bench where a man was being thoroughly beaten with birch twigs by the only male attendant seen so far.
For me it was back, now shivering, into the changing rooms - amid chastening giggles from delighted staff.
I might only have been in this strange land a short time - but they had already seen more of me than most!

22. Wine, Women and . . . Gong! 

WE have read, in the last two entries, how young expatriates - mostly male in my day - court romance. Then, of course, there's the drinking - or 'wining and dining'.
In hot, humid climes with a different language and culture, expats gather in clubs or mock-ups of places reminding them of 'home', such as British-style pubs.
The difference in a place like Hong Kong is that these may not shut until the late 'early hours'. Sadly, drunkenness is common.
One 'pub' in Wanchai's notorious Lockhart Road had a notice warning: 'This bar will close promptly at 7am.' To my shame, I have emerged at that hour, blinking in harsh morning sunshine as schoolchildren bustled by in neat uniforms.
But more spectacular tales of expat drunkenness abounded. Many surrounded a colourful New Zealander who was for a time my assistant editor. He had once been a smoker but contracted throat cancer, so - being a forceful character - afterwards crushed others' packets of fags whenever he could grab them.
At the bar of Radio Television Hong Kong, our celebrated Kiwi had a drunken argument with another boozy heavyweight which got out of hand. The terrified Chinese barman closed the shutters, though it was only mid-afternoon.
My Kiwi colleague was so incensed a green bile shot from the hole in his throat where his voice box had once been. This so sickened the other adversary that he, in turn, threw up over the New Zealander - a shocking mess, indeed, but one that became legend.

On a more salubrious level, eating out in Hong Kong during the 80s was glorious.
My favourite restaurants ranged from French, for fillet steaks, to a backstreet Shanghainese for winter noodles, cabbage in cheese sauce and bean curd with chilli. Other places included one offering Malaysian, Singapore and Indian dishes; a Russian restaurant (for Borsch soup), and an Australian one, for pies.
The choice was dazzling and prices so reasonable that most locals also ate out most of the time.
Even on outlying islands there were exceptional seafood treats and, on Lamma, a pigeon restaurant that also served a wonderful dish of minced quail and cashew nuts served in lettuce hearts. Then there was Macau, a Portuguese-Chinese fusion!
But my largest meal, and greatest embarrassment, came early in my years there. I had practised my chopsticks technique and decided to brave eating out locally on my own for once.
At a large, popular Pekingese restaurant in Wanchai, I strode confidently upstairs and was seated, alone, at one of the large tables accommodating up to 12 diners. The menus were also big but I found dishes that met my expectations.
An old waiter approached uncertainly and, as my Cantonese was not up to the mark, I pointed to the menu items desired: sweetcorn soup, grilled prawns and then chicken. The price seemed higher than usual but within my bracket.
Unfortunately, I had failed to notice the establishment was a banqueting restaurant. It only served dishes for a dozen diners, each arriving to the striking of a gong.
First a veritable vat of soup came, closely followed by a silver platter overflowing with large prawns, then another bearing what must have been at least three disjointed, roast chickens. With a final flourish, the waiters added a giant bowl of steaming rice that would have fed an extended family.
I was the only non-Chinese in the crowded restaurant and everyone stared openly at me, curious at my predicament and behaviour.
What could I do?
Pouring my beer, I tucked into bowls of soup, stacks of prawns and Henry VIII-size chicken portions as though this was exactly the meal wanted.
At last, an hour or so later, I had made some impact on the tableful of food. Rising with what dignity I could summon, I paid with relief then staggered slowly downstairs.
At home I lay upon my bed groaning - with only my confidence and pride deflated.

21. Opposites Attract

THERE seem to me many ironies in life. Highs are followed rapidly by lows, for example, and - more philosophically - we're never happier than when we forget ourselves. Yet another irony applies to romance: opposites attract.
The very strangeness of the opposite sex in a foreign land adds to their allure.
Slightly built, darker Oriental men are fascinated by large Western blondes. Similarly, large Western men are soon enamoured by delicate Oriental ladies.
In Hong Kong expatriate men called it yellow fever. I contracted this after only a few weeks there. In fact I even remember the occasion, well, two occasions as it turned out.
At a well-seasoned Canadian reporter's party I spent some time chatting beside his attractive Chinese girlfriend, whom he appeared to be ignoring owing to host's responsibilities. Her perfume was quite dizzying in the humid atmosphere, even where we sat on the balcony admiring the night lights across Victoria Harbour.
But what went even more to my head was the delightful way she giggled at all my little jokes, or found my comments so interesting. She had the charm of an older, gentler world of politeness forgotten by so many of us in the West.
Later I was shocked to see her discreetly entering a bedroom with said host, then to learn from others she was a professional hostess of his long acquaintance. It was I, in the end, who was proved naive. Later, I couldn't get her out of my mind, or that scent she'd worn and her laughter . . .
On a day off, shortly afterwards, I was strolling through Victoria Park on a sunny afternoon. A smartly dressed, local girl passed me and our paths converged for a while. How demurely but provocatively she walked; how shy and slight, yet beguiling and feminine . . .
You see, readers, all those apparent contrasts again!
I had succumbed to the yellow fever and for years it never left me.
My first awkward dates with Chinese girls were gentle, polite affairs but also mesmerising revelations.
Mix-ups in language and culture could lead to bizarre misunderstandings. One girl, whom I had been out with but once, arranged to meet me next time outside the local family planning clinic. The place was just a  landmark to her, while to me it was ominously suggestive - a warning, in fact.
A girl who would be embarrassed by you holding her hand in public might, once in relatively private surroundings such as a lift (or elevator in U.S.), embrace passionately with the pent-up power of a volcano.
I would take girls to swanky hotel restaurants, only to discover they struggled using a knife and fork.
They would disapprove of me drinking more than one or two beers or glasses of wine, yet slurp their tea and noodles.
Girls were appalled by my sweating yet oblivious to my shock at their dark tufts of underarm hair. They ticked me off at any abruptness to others but, discreetly, spat in the street.
Above all, saving and giving 'face' was essential. In the Orient this is far more than just pride or self-esteem - even in modern Hong Kong.
Every year schoolgirls would throw themselves off tower blocks, because their exam results dropped below family expectations. Imagine their reaction if jilted or 'compromised'.
What's more racial pride is high too.
"You have wonderful, large eyes," I told one girl, adding curiously since becoming more aware of Hong Kong's ethnic mix, "do you have some Filipino blood?"
Her smile disappeared, she stiffened her back, then declared: "I am pure Chinese!"
You live and learn, even we self-effacing British embarrassed by our own empire.
Many locals did not agree with 'mixed' marriages and warned of clashing cultures. But, with suitable tolerance and understanding, the results of such social adventures were usually charming and refreshing - even in the most stressful or painful situations.
My Chinese dentist had three local nurses who fussed about me solicitously as I came under the drill. So attentive and gentle were they that visiting the surgery became an erotic experience. I left grinning, until getting his bill.
In fact, looking back at it all now still makes me smile.
As those worldly French would say . . .
Vive la difference!

20. Getting to the Heart of Bar Girls

WHEN a young man arrives in the Far East there is an air of romance. An adventurer also wants to learn the many ways of the world . . .
But in Asia, even in dynamic Hong Kong, local girls live in a very different world - and even era.
Arriving in that high-rise British colony in the 1980s I discovered the girls were living in the 1950s, or even earlier.
They were demure, coquettish and, in matters of  romance, rather wonderfully old fashioned. I admired them all the more for that and felt privileged and enchanted whenever on a 'date', however innocent.
But I was already 30 and, like most of my young expatriate colleagues, soon found myself also exploring the red light districts - when they were not invaded by the American Pacific Fleet for 'rest and recreation'.
At first I made spectacular blunders.
For example, as I lived near Hong Kong Island's main R & R district of Wanchai, I did what under-age drinkers might first do and experimented further from home.
Across the harbour in Kowloon one late afternoon, I sneaked nervously into a naughty looking, back-street establishment beneath a neon-lit, painted mouth. It was called the Red Lips Bar.
The barmaid who greeted me, called Annie, was friendly and put me at ease as she poured a slightly over-priced but cool San Miguel beer. However, disappointingly, she looked old enough to be my mother.
There were discreet booths where similarly 'mature' ladies were playing cards or mahjong with middle-aged Chinese businessmen, while a classic-style jukebox played Elvis and other old hits. It was a time-warp.
Later I learned its nostalgia was the curious charm of this old-fashioned 'girlie' bar. It had changed little since the Vietnam War two decades before. Also most of its 'ladies' had adopted the western name of Annie and could be differentiated between only by nicknames upon their diverse attributes. Hence, there was Big Annie, Little Annie, Old Annie and, though I had - typically - failed to meet her, Young Annie.
All except that last Annie had been at the bar for decades and knew just how to listen, console and entertain as an experienced barmaid should.
Many customers were obviously regulars: coming to see their usual 'girl'; leaving their personal bottle of spirits behind the bar for next time, with its level marked.
In its rather homely, eccentric way the bar was wonderful but, of course, not what I was looking for.
Next I explored closer to 'home', along the bustling and notorious Lockhart Road in Wanchai. Here the girls behind the bars' velvet entrance curtains were young and many 'topless' - wearing a clinging, silk cheongsam specially undercut to reveal often surgically enhanced busts.
They were stunning, as well as very adept at parting a green young man from his cash. Beer prices here were more inflated and the girls' own 'cocktails' (usually non-alcoholic) an outrageous rip-off. But you were buying the girl's valuable time, so every 20 minutes or so she would smile, lean closer and whisper:
"You buy me another drink?"
The topless girls covered their vital assets with a silk shawl, unless a steady flow of drinks prompted otherwise. There was no touching, only teasing encouragement and delightful company for a lonely, young bachelor. Of course, if your pockets were deeper, further negotiations and arrangements could be made. But most young visitors were relatively broke and already drunk before braving their entrance.The final bar bill usually came as a sobering surprise.
 Inevitably, personal esteem and reputation at the bank took a plunge each time a spidery signature crossed a cheque to such as the Panda Bar or Pink Pussycat.
Still, young fools always returned and would be welcomed each time by the same girl. They never stole each others' admirers. Some fortunate girls even charmed their escape from the seedy underworld of the bars.
A friend from England, called Barbara, visited Hong Kong and asked, after we'd eaten nearby, to see the infamous girlie bars.
I tried to put her off, warning they were unsavoury, but she was intrigued and determined.
As we approached one, its doorman waved in recognition and announced: "Good evening, Mister Loy!"
"Oh!" Barbara exclaimed with winning smile, "Does Roy visit often?"
She was rewarded with the reply:
"Mister Loy comes here all the time!
I thought this an exaggeration but we were joined, once at the bar, by a girl familiar to me. She looked uncertain at first of my friend but soon chatted to her in obvious enjoyment. Even the bill was reasonable, for once.
Slightly bemused, as we left I observed: "You two got on well."
"Yes, thanks, we did," said Barbara. "I thought she was really a very nice girl. What a shame."
Usually, the bargirls and hostesses were tough survivors from harsh backgrounds. Most were on drugs, supplied cheaply by triads, to keep going through long, often boring hours.

One popular girl adopted a western name from the film and novel which inspired my first interest in the Far East, The World of Suzy Wong.
Our Suzy was a sexy and ruthless vamp as she tempted and dallied with her paying prey. But her most natural and beautiful smile, of pure joy, emerged one night when told she could leave early.
Suzy changed into jeans and sweater then hurried by us gleefully, explaining:
"Now, I go home and see my baby!"
It was a rare glimpse into her heart.
Years later I returned  to the same bar and asked  if Suzy was still there.
"She a grandmother now!" laughed the current girls. "Now Suzy serve behind supermarket counter."
Thankfully, her little boy must have grown up after all.

19. Can't Buy Me Love

JUST as I had found my feet as a reporter in Hong Kong and was enjoying covering the McLennon Inquiry  which was nearing its dramatic end (see 15 below), they asked me to help run the South China Morning Post newsdesk.
This was not to my liking, though flattering. It meant missing out on extra earnings from freelancing and, besides, I liked being independent and out of the office. Now I was desk-bound and organising others, which I hated and was not good at.
The news editor and our immediate boss at that time was a  young woman whose drive and application we all admired but rather shrank from. Most expats were there to have a good time, make money and move on. We more experienced hacks stood up for ourselves and dodged her sillier ideas but the politer, more submissive local reporters were driven hard by her.
Many Chinese staff worked 10 to 12 hour  days, struggling diligently with what was, after all, a second tongue to them on Hong Kong's leading English language newspaper. Working evenings now, from 3-10pm, I had to assign jobs to them for the morning and occasionally dispatch them on breaking news. But this could mean disturbing them in our canteen.
In Hong Kong only the elderly tend to be religious. Most locals are more concerned with working hard and investing wisely (or gambling). Money counts, but the nearest activity to a religion for most of them is eating. They love dining out and preferably in a crowd.
So it was at our 7th floor canteen, despite the food falling short of most local standards. The Chinese reporters would all try to eat together and woe betide anyone who interrupted them.
Our news editor was oblivious to these sensibilities, while I had to interrupt their meal only once when a huge squatter settlement had caught fire near the border with China.
She once also dispatched two Chinese messenger 'boys' to look for a cheque accidentally binned, expecting them to sift through Hong Kong's main garbage site. The wily pair stopped trying to make her see sense when that determined glint came into her eyes. Instead they simply took the office petty cash she offered them for a long distance taxi and had a meal up the nearby road - returning with a weary air to report drawing a blank at the tip they never visited.
Another occasion a Chinese reporter diligently phoned in from Kai Tak Airport to say he and his family had just arrived after a delayed flight back from holiday, apologising that he had missed his evening shift.
"Don't worry," said the steely female boss, "there's an interview you can do now nearby - just leave your luggage and go to the following address."
After that, of course, no one would phone in with an apology but just continue straight home.
So it was that, on the occasion I interrupted the reporters' evening dinner, one of their more senior members took me aside.
"We like you," he said, "you're a sensible man. Unfortunately our news editor isn't - but," he added with a wink, "we think you can relax her and give her what she obviously needs."
He grinned but I was rather slow on the uptake.
"That's right!" said one of the prim looking girls who now had a twinkle in her eye. "You have no girlfriend; she has no boyfriend. So, you take her out. We have collection for you!"
With that, the older reporter pulled out a fistful of notes and flourished them, adding: "You're the man for the job!"
But they could never have offered me enough.
Their assistant news editor hurriedly made his excuses and disappeared downstairs.

18. New Adventures

HONG KONG was a great place for new beginnings - though there were pitfalls. When I first took up a desk there I observed how many different races and types were employed in the newsroom of the South China Morning Post. Also I noted a warning letter left under the desktop glass by the last occupant, a South African reporter named Dickenberg.
 It was a cutting from the SCM Post's letters-to-the-editor page from a visiting professor of anthropology. His letter related to an article Dickenberg had written about a small group of adventurers who had taken a canoe trip down the Orinoco river through the Amazon Jungle.
As office legend went, Dickenberg had interviewed the travellers who were stopping over in Hong Kong for an evening. He'd had a few drinks with them as well and later lost his notebook. As the group would be departing next morning, the reporter had decided to write their story off the top of his head and "beat it up a bit". The result was a thrilling adventure yarn worthy of Boys' Own magazine and was accorded a fine spread in the Post, the colony's usually rather dull but worthy newspaper of record.
All was well until that letter from the professor - written in response to the article and in somewhat tongue-in-cheek terms.
"Dear Sir," the Prof wrote, "My speciality is the Amazon Delta so imagine my surprise and delight upon this brief visit to Hong Kong in discovering an entirely new source of information about it . . . "
He went on in similarly amusing but cutting style: "I had thought the greatest risk to human life there was now industrial pollution, so was amazed to read reports of naked natives attacking visitors with poisoned darts, then of dense jungle concealing headhunters."
Our rather unfortunate but highly inventive and entertaining reporter got the sack, which left a place open to Yours Truly.
Other opportunities came my way readily too. Dynamic Hong Kong regularly threw up interesting and unusual challenges. I was offered the editorship of its equivalent to TV Times, despite knowing little about the local stations and sounding, as one executive interviewer observed, like a tipsy Eddie Waring (the BBC's wacky, north country-accented rugby league commentator). I became an occasional correspondent for Reuters, a monthly columnist for a Mormon newspaper in Salt Lake City and, latterly, got my dream job as free-ranging reporter and columnist of the SCM Post group.
The experience took me on to freelancing in the region and, lastly, to reporting and editing in Australia.
You heard of many other remarkable job offers too. My favourite example was a journalistic colleague overheard playing jazz piano in a hotel bar in Hong Kong by visiting Japanese Airlines executives. They offered him the editorship of their inflight magazine with all perks in Tokyo, as long as he also played piano in the JAL social club there on Saturday evenings.
Only in the Far East could such bizarre offers materialise . . .
I tip my old reporter's hat to Mr Dickenberg. Although we never met, his sudden departure provided years of excitement and adventure.

17. A Hot Christmas Curry

IN the 1980s, before Rupert Murdoch bought it, the South China Morning Post was said to be the wealthiest newspaper in the world. It was also rather stuffy and colonial but, at least, directors gave staff one hell of a bash to mark the end of year.
The 1980/81 party was a classic - thanks to one man who caused a sensation.
As it was in Hong Kong and most of the staff Cantonese, this celebration always came at Chinese New Year rather than Christmas - but we expatriate British staff treated the "do" as our festive time too.
The company took over one of the biggest banquet restaurants in the city. Every worker, from editor to van driver, was invited together with spouses and the whole evening was free.
It started around 7pm with mahjong fuelled by lots of brandy, a cocktail reception, then a sit-down, several-course banquet with lashings of wine. After a few speeches about how well the Post was doing, a full orchestra swung into action with suitable dance music. But everyone behaved themselves as the bosses were watching and indiscretions would be remembered with loss of 'face' to follow.
Then the orchestra leader asked if anyone had a request or would like to perform, karaoke style. A new journalist in the office Mike Currie, a strapping 'Geordie' from the north-east of England, leaped up on stage to have a word.
Mike had only joined the office a few weeks previously. He was a bit of a lad with the ladies and keen bodybuilder, despite sharing the customary expat drinking style. However, he was cheerful and popular.
Chinese staff were always well behaved, particularly the demure female ones. There was general surprise at such a newcomer behaving so brazenly. But something far more surprising was to come.
Mike hadn't just got a request. He wanted to entertain - and did he ever!
After some consultations, the orchestra swung into 'Can't Get No Satisfaction' from the Rolling Stones and Mike, microphone confidently in hand, strutted the stage and beat out the number with impressive gusto.
The assembly, numbering a couple of hundred people, were at first stunned, then the Chinese ladies squealed in glee at such an exhibition and everyone crowded forward to watch the Mick Jagger-like gyrations.
The exuberant performance was nothing short of sensational. Finally, high on his success, Mike jumped from the stage, landed on his knees and slid across the dance floor to end, triumphant, in front of open-mouthed but delighted Chinese secretaries.
Drinks flowed again, the orchestra picked up speed and everyone was dancing, except our directors who quietly left - put in the shade by this startling new star's performance.
It was hot stuff from the Geordie and talk of the office for months.
"Must have had a beer or two too many," Mike modestly commented later - but he had given us a spicy Currie all there would remember.

16. The Beach of Passionate Love

I EXPLORED most of the South East Asia region while working in Hong Kong. Few areas were as full of contrasts as Malaysia. From the relatively touristy west coast above sophisticated Singapore, the east side of the peninsula beyond mountainous terrain was profoundly different. As a bachelor touring alone I was drawn to its furthest reaches, simply by the name of a long bay - The Beach of the Long Night of Passionate Love. How could a young, red-blooded fellow have resisted?
But first I got a bus down the west coast from Melaka, which disappointed me. The historic port was rather charmless and I was soon waiting to depart from its busy bus station. Friendly young students in the cafe there persuaded me, a lone foreigner, to join their beer drinking session. I only did so after being promised all coaches had toilets on board. When I mounted the north-bound bus I saw they were true to their word and settled into a window seat as the coach rapidly filled. It rattled along the highway at a dangerous lick and, when the cold beer did its work, I had to climb over a woman beside me laden with shopping including live chickens. Then I found the metal door to the toilet rusted into its surround.
Two local men came to my rescue. They politely ushered me aside then kicked in the door. Afterwards, they held it up discreetly until I had finished, before dropping it noisily once more.
Penang was beautiful but commercial, while the Cameron Highlands were like a Surrey village high in jungle hills. Kuala Lumpur was sweaty and noisy and my colonial hotel, the Coliseum, had stunningly dressed transvestites gathered on its terrace in the evenings.
So it was I travelled the tortuous route to The Beach of Passionate Love across the peninsula near Kota Bharu. The battered buses I took often broke down and villagers along the Muslim coast regarded me with suspicion. When I finally reached the spectacular beach it was deserted. I took a lonely swim then had a depressing night in a nearby rest house or hostel where alcohol was frowned upon but mosquitoes abounded.
It was there a young German couple persuaded me to join them, further down the coast, for a few days on an uninhabited island. Fishermen sailed us there and rented us a rudimentary hut. We slept on thin mats on a hard floor, with water from a well and no toilet facilities. They wouldn't bring us any beer from the mainland as it was against their religion. It was a sobering time. The only high spot came when a giant turtle waddled ashore and laid its eggs.
Finally, further down the coast, I sought out a remote country hotel recommended in my out-of-date guide book. The taxi driver seemed reluctant and I observed after he had dropped me at the end of its long drive that the place was rundown. But there was someone in its scruffy reception. The chap looked as stunned as my driver when I booked a room for a few nights.
After a nap in a battered bed, I went along to the bar. The chatty Indian owner told me about a son studying at Cambridge, while busily switching on and off lights and ringing bells in nearby rooms.
It turned out the place was a short-time brothel.
The girls, who looked rough but were friendly, stared curiously at me and, as the evening wore on, I had to admit to being tempted.
But my new friend, the colonial minded Indian owner, wouldn't hear of it.
"Not for you, young sir," he insisted respectfully, "most unsuitable!"
So ended my passionate tour.


15. Incredible Inquiry

SOON after arriving to work as a reporter in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post news desk took me off general news and assigned me to continue coverage of the McLennan Inquiry.
This had already started an international sensation. It followed the death by several gunshot wounds of a Scottish expatriate police inspector called John McLennan (pictured). Despite the number of his wounds, the young bachelor was found dead in his locked apartment and - as all the shots came from his pistol - he was officially classed as a suicide.
Unlikely, you might think, but firearms experts were later to testify that it was not uncommon for multi-shot suicides - even with many head wounds. What really stirred up media and public disquiet was that McLennan was due to face a special squad who investigated illegal homosexual activity. At that time, despite the laws in Britain, its colony still regarded sex between men as a crime - at the insistence of its conservative Chinese population. Crucially, just before he was found shot to death, the inspector had let it be known among colleagues that, if he was going down, then he would take big names with him. At that time in the early 80s, it was rumoured that several leading figures in the administration were so inclined.
Hence the uproar for an inquiry into the shooting and international interest when the colonial government finally agreed to one.
I was to cover the inquiry for almost a year and, though it proved a godsend to me, evidence and cross-examination rarely fell short of both sensation and farce.
When I joined the inquiry Press team proceedings were in the Government Secretariat, a colonial block in Lower Albert Road, Central. After passing through reception with its uniformed commissionaires, one went along a first-floor corridor lined with prints of Chinnery and Borget paintings. Closed doors had lights outside, some glowing red to indicate meetings were in progress.
The inquiry was in the main conference room and packed with the world's Press and other interested parties. It was presided over by Mr Justice Yang, a High Court judge. The commission of inquiry was headed by a British Q.C. called John Beveridge, who had a legal team of two local counsel. The McLennan family were also represented by a British barrister and there were barristers for the Hong Kong Police and a number of the other parties who feared their reputation might be tarnished or they might face prosecution as a result of the investigations.
I arrived to see the first of a number of male prostitutes being interviewed at length over their dealings with the ill-fated inspector, or anyone else of interest for that matter. He was called Lulu and was interviewed in English that was then translated into Cantonese, then his answers relayed again by court officials into English. It was a ponderous procedure but he still looked terrified and managed to deliver a number of shocks, not least to my colleague and friend big Dave Hadfield from Bolton.
When one of the barristers asked Lulu if he had dealings with other foreigners who were present in the proceedings, the witness said he had.
In a tense atmosphere, he was asked to point out the culprit and, with a wild look round the chamber, settled on strapping northerner Dave, probably the biggest man there and famously heterosexual.
My taking over had nothing to do with that, however Dave was afronted and the man's testimony found hopelessly unreliable.
Later the long-running inquiry moved to the nearby Legislative Council chamber and the Press and public interest greatly diminished until there was just a handful of local hacks regularly attending.
"How do all these other foreign newspapers, television and radio stations manage to carry reports?" asked one of the legal wizards, mystified.
The answer, of course, was that we were all furiously freelancing for them as well as filing our own reports. I even had calls in the middle of the night, from BBC's Radio Glasgow asking for a live commentary then and there. It was an enriching experience.
Best of all was when the commission went into private legal discussion, usually around lunch time. We hacks agreed not to tell our offices but quietly debunked to the beach, filing our many reports later from a corner of the bar.
That was the life. And the outcome? It was agreed that poor McLennan had killed himself and, unlikely though it might seem, I was convinced.

14. R&R in HK

HONG Kong is a dynamic place to live and work. Even back in the 80s, when I was a journalist on the South China Morning Post, you needed to let off steam and find some peace of mind.
Rest and recreation for most expats revolved around exclusive clubs where you could be pampered with drinks, meals, swim and play sports such as tennis, cricket, rugby and bowls - all very British!
As a mere reporter I couldn't afford the joining fees. But there were many curious local bars to enjoy, extraordinarily diverse ethnic restaurants and, above all, the outlying islands to retreat to from our five-and-a-half-day week of long hours.
The south side of Hong Kong Island had beautiful beaches, like Repusle Bay and Stanley or remote Shek-O. But these, like the hiking trails around The Peak or in the New Terrritories, were packed at weekends. The local Chinese love to do everything in large groups.
My delight was a day-off in mid-week, when I would take a cheap ferry ride out to either Lamma or Cheung Chau islands.
The ferry would sway gently along on a calm South China Sea, past deserted islets topped by old temples, to the bustling fishing harbours of the Outlying Islands an hour or less away.
These were like another world, with no traffic but banana fields and quiet beaches just a short walk from the waterfront.
After a swim I would sunbathe.
"Excuse me," asked a local girl at one beach, "what is that you put on skin to stay so white?"
She and her friends, huddled under parasols to avoid the sun, had been watching me ladle on sun tan oil - obviously with little result.
Then there were seafood restaurants close to the fishing fleets. In the early 80s for a few dollars you could enjoy crab or lobster chopped up in a tray of blackbean sauce, ready to eat with your fingers.
Alternatively, at Lamma, there was a hillside restaurant where friends and I would eat roast pigeon with lemon juice, accompanied by minced quail and cashew nuts in fresh lettuce hearts. Again, this was all eaten casually by hand then washed down with a cheap bottle or two of excellent Tsingtao beer from the mainland.
We felt like kings, ambling back along the pathways through smallholdings, then idling on the returning ferry to the bright lights of Hong Kong Island . . . refreshed for another bout of city work.
I hope such simple joys remain near the cosmopolitan metropolis, and try to recapture them in books composed here - amid the comparative quiet of Lancashire's Fylde coast. Happy days!

13. Victor, the Multi-Lingual Swearer

WHEN reporters at the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's premier English language newspaper, went out on an assignment it was sometimes necessary to phone in their story - rather than returning to the office and typing it up.
The SCM Post had a large newsroom but only one copy typist, an ageing Chinese-Portuguese called Victor Garcia. He was a character and no mistake!
"Are you getting this okay?" I asked, after dictating several paragraphs from a complicated legal hearing. There had been none of the usual grunts or occasional queries from the copy taker.
"Yes," replied old Victor, sounding offended - then retorted: "Is there much more, it's very boring."
There were screeds more, as it was the Maclennan Inquiry into a police inspector's controversial 'suicide' from several gunshots.
Next day I checked the paper and my story was word perfect.
Victor, whose family originated from nearby Macau, had been a bus driver in Birmingham. His English was great and, according to Chinese reporters, his Cantonese most colourful. He had been well educated - his brother was a high court judge in Hong Kong - but was the black sheep of his family. I think he had also been in the navy and well-travelled, since he spoke many languages.
"I can swear fluently in them all!" was his proud boast.
Over the years his knowledge of court procedure and reporting restrictions had grown to match his illustrious older brother's.
Victor could take copy from a Chinese reporter dictating in Cantonese, type it in English and correct the reporter's legal mistakes as he went along.
"He's irreplaceable!" one executive commented. "We did retire him once but no one could replace him. You'd need a team of linguists and court copy takers."
Victor had all the vices. He lived on Cheung Chau, a busy outlying island, with the youngest of several wives he had outlived or been divorced by, along with many children and grandchildren.
Midweek he slept in a rented room somewhere near our office in Tong Chong Street, Quarry Bay.
He liked drinking with us on our street corner shop 'bar' (see Country Club, earlier); gleaning tips from our expert racing desk, admiring anything available in a skirt and, in quiet moments, fishing from our office dock on Victoria Harbour quayside.
I visited him once or twice at weekends, after catching a ferry out to Cheung Chau and enjoying a day on the beach. He would send his oldest offspring out for bottles of beer and we would have a fine old natter and laugh in his little house, tut-tutted over with much affection by his devoted but resilient wife.
Victor features prominently (along with his old office colleague Guy Searles - see also, below) in my thriller The Last Ghosts.
I only hope, should he hear me at a book reading from his celestial resting place, that he would not mutter querulously:
"This is very boring! How much more is there?"

12. Lost in Peking

THE climax of our early China tour in 1982 was its capital Beijing, or Peking as most of us called it back then. Our group, a mix of western businessmen, professionals and missionaries, stood on the edge of Tiananmen Square trying to take in its immense scale.
There was a freezing mist. Before us, across acres of central paving surrounding Mao's mausoleum, was the Great Hall of the People. Then, to north and south, the old city gates from which a giant image of Mao stared out over the crowds. Here also was the historic residence of past emperors, the Forbidden Palace.
As we took in this vast arena, locals crept curiously about us examining our leather shoes and tailored clothes. They all wore the drab green or blue Mao suits we were now used to.
But there was a difference in the capital. Shanghai had revealed no resentment against former colonialists, even in the park where a sign had once declared: No dogs or Chinese.
In Beijing there was a hardness in people's stares - particularly the stiff soldiers guarding Mao's remains as hundreds of partisans filed by.
We had admired the Great Wall which, back then, appeared to attract mainly rural peasants. They posed on a tethered and rather moth-eaten camel for photographs from a box camera.
It had been similarly quiet in the Forbidden Palace, where I had found myself alone in a small square. Only an elderly man in traditional robes had crossed, entering a side-door in one of the temples. He could have been a ghost from imperial history, such was the profound atmosphere of lost ages.
But I was tired of being shepherded about by our watchful minders, the New China Travel Agency guides.
Armed with a tatty street map found in our hotel, I sneaked out alone in mid-afternoon. It proved to be a bad mistake.
I walked briskly away from familiar landmarks and only too late realised the map was out of date, with many major roads changed and renamed.
What was worse, whenever I tried to stop and get my bearings or consult the map I was mobbed. I could not have attracted more attention if naked, while to pause or sit saw me quickly surrounded by a jostling crowd.
I paced on like a hunted animal, trying to look as though I knew where I was going but inwardly quelling a growing sense of panic.
No one spoke English; shops were basic stores with empty window displays and queues outside, there were no public telephones, no police, nor taxis or even hotels - just curious crowds and unfamiliar streets.
Furthermore, darkness was falling and this had brought even more people on to the pavements. Alarmingly, many now appeared aggressive towards me.
Young men, in particular, deliberately altered their course or performed a sideways jink as our paths converged - then brushed or banged against my shoulder.
There was nowhere to hide and no resting place. My mouth was dry with apprehension, my stomach churned with anxiety.
By early evening I felt weary but, finally, salvation came. More by good fortune than sense of direction, I saw in the near distance one of the Tiananmen Square "gates".
By the time I reached the far, northern end of this vast square it was dark. Our accommodation was in a government hostel for foriegn visitors, in sidestreets nearby, but I was thoroughly disorientated. The nearest landmark where I might get help was the famous Peace Hotel - but where was that exactly, and who could direct me there?
It must have been mid-evening by now. The square was curiously deserted and a freezing mist descended.
I went to a line of smart, remarkably tall sentries standing like statues outside a government building. They were all bristling with weapons.
"Excuse me, where is Peace Hotel? Do you speak English please?"
They stared at me with open contempt. I had the gut feeling these soldiers would happily have skewered me, then and there, with their polished bayonets.
Their silent, hate-filled reaction was more chilling even than the fog now swirling densely about us.
I retreated, feeling chastened and vulnerable, only to turn a corner and encounter a huddle of students. They had emerged from a college building that was closing and soon in darkness. One or two eagerly tried out their English on the passing foreigner.
"Good night!" "How are you today?" "What is your name?" They chanted.
"Are you American?" demanded another, hopefully.
I found the energy to answer their questions, welcoming some human warmth and interest, though their breath was overwhelming with garlic and their English limited.
"Yes, Peace Hotel!" One finally confirmed, then pointed to a high, nearby shadow. I could just make out a fading neon sign, along its roof.
As I thanked them and left, one student followed me a few steps, looked furtively about him and then slipped a sealed envelope into my hands.
"Please, you take!" He pleaded, then looked alarmed when I started to study its address. "No, no! You hide letter, please sir!"
I put the envelope inside my jacket and we went our opposite ways.
"You can get a taxi here, easily, dear chap," said the urbane, East European diplomat. He had an impressive moustache and was one of a small group of western drinkers, mainly businessmen, intrigued by my appearance in the Peace Hotel lobby.
I had explained my predicament to them and gladly accepted a drink and chair at their table.
"Taxis are only allowed to take foreigners from one special hotel for westerners to another," he added, "then they must wait there for a return booking from another guest. As it is late and dinner time now, they might prove reluctant to go out - but I'll help you."
He also explained that those people in the streets had not been aggressive.
"It's considered good luck to touch a foreigner," said the diplomat. "Now those bumping into you will be gambling like mad!"
And those threatening soldiers?
"Terrified in case seen by their superiors talking to you, breaking discipline - not that they would understand what you wanted anyway."
I didn't mention the student and his letter.
Back in our hotel I was chided by my official guide. Only when safely tucked up in bed, did I open the envelope.
It was addressed to: 'The President, White House, Washington, United States of America'.
Inside was a description of the student's education and poor family, in old-fashioned but passable English, then a plea for help in reaching the west.
I felt humbled and touched. How long had this wretched young man carried his dangerous letter in the hope of meeting a westerner?
When I finally got back to Hong Kong I passed it on to the American Consulate there, but with little hope for its author.
It reminded me, however, how fortunate I was and what a debt we owe to those who secured our freedom.
Also, I felt a glow of personal pride from that dark encounter. For, after all, it is a free press that helps preserve our rights and independence.
China hadn't just shown me its own culture and history; it reflected our own in a different light.
I was free - and truly thankful for it.

11. The Prime Minister's Bath

WHILE on one of the early group tours into China in the 1980s, we enjoyed a restful sidetrip to Hangchow and its beautiful West Lake.
It was a relief to escape the depressing, rundown aura of cities like Shanghai.
Here was the China some of us had glimpsed from the sky while flying to Hong Kong; that vast, diverse country so steeped in history and culture yet hidden until recently from the world.
We travelled this time on a steam train, seated in a buffet car of Victorian splendour. A high tea was served elegantly as we chuffed through lush paddyfields with a mountainous backdrop and occasional traditional villages. As the afternoon waned we saw peasants eagerly cycling home beneath gathering clouds.
By the lake our accommodation was a former government rest house for top officials. It was in art deco style, cavernous, and seemed largely deserted.
However, there were armed sentries outside. Whether these were to keep us in, or the locals out, was unclear. But it was a cold September evening now that we were further north and a storm was threatening. I doubted anyone would be venturing abroad.
"Your suite," said the hotel worker who escorted me, "was often occupied by Mister Chou En-lai, former Prime Minister."
I had an hour or so before our evening banquet downstairs. There was a decanter of fortified wine, which I tried but didn't like. I suspected it had been there since Mao's righthand man previously stayed.
Period radiators gave only a faint hint of warmth and the spacious rooms were forbidding in their chill.
There was only one way to warm up! I ran hot water for what seemed an age into the big bath, quickly discarded my inadequate autumn clothes and sank in, but not gratefully.
It was tepid and the water now running cold.
Only my breath misted the mirrors in the vast bathroom. There was no steam.
Unhappily, I laid there with an image in my mind of the late Prime Minister with his handsome but austere features and striking, thick-black eyebrows. That great statesman was definitely frowning at me, casting a further Communist chill over this spoiled westerner usurping his old holiday quarters.
Despite a grand banquet later, I slept uneasily in Chou's giant bed and was happy to rise with the larks.
A sentry, who'd probably been up all night through the storm, eyed me cooly as, with another early riser from our group, I took a stroll before breakfast.
The West Lake spread before us under a strengthening sun. There was a mist floating across it like a scene from Swan Lake. But here there were delicate willows, temples on islets and other reminders we were in the Far East; an ancient Orient that transcended those overcrowded, blighted cities we had journeyed through.
"Excuse!" said a shy young man, emerging from a nearby copse. "You please take photo?"
He handed me an old-fashioned box camera then went back to a coy girlfriend, before posing in front of the famous view.
At least I'd been of some use here - though I doubt Chou approved.
Still, perhaps the old pragmatist would have been cheered by the outrageous prices state officials were charging us.
I returned to his rooms, warmed by sunshine and with a fresh lift in my stride.

10. Roll Out the Barrel . . . for breakfast!

ON one of the early group tours into China, at the beginning of the 1980s, the greyness of the post-Mao era was depressing.
Everyone wore 'Mao suits' and cities were equally drab and nondescript.
I had been expecting a taste of the old, wicked Far East when we arrived in Shanghai. The famous Bund area of this former "Paris of the Orient" was more like Fifties Manchester and, what was more, it was raining.
People looked depressed and poor, as most were. The mighty Yangtze was busy but as dreary and dirty as the Mersey or Ship Canal.
Our big hotels were drab, too; more Soviet than colonial, and staff sleepy and disinterested.
Only the breakfasts cheered our motley group of western visitors. Our communist hosts, unused to foreign tourists, didn't know what to give us. Evenings were taken up with elaborate, six-course Chinese banquets - but what did foreigners eat for breakfast? Not the doughy bread and rice porridge most locals opted for - they had to find something western and impress us.
Breakfasts arrived with some style, under silver salver covers, and were opened to our astonished eyes with pride and panache.
The first morning we were stunned by . . . sausage, mash and gravy (very nice too, if a little over facing).
Another memorable morning it was . . . chocolate cream cakes.
Yet another . . . steamed jam pudding with custard.
At least these surprise experiments brought relief, for the rest it was like a tour of crumbling imperial glories and grim contemporary failures.
At night it seemed even more oppressive, with no street lighting, thick smog, chilled pedestrians and thousands of cyclists in gloomy shadows.
The city had a population in excess of 12 million and could only cope by putting schools and factories on shifts over 24 hours. No wonder everyone appeared ground down.
But there were lighter moments and these pointed to the vibrant city Shanghai has since become.
I stole out one evening to a 'nightclub' spotted in a corner of our vast hotel. There was a trad jazz band playing whose members must have had an average age of 70. The enthusiastic audience wheeled in their precious bikes and clapped and jived to keep warm. Their local, bottled beer was heart-warming too.
But the finale was our last evening's visit to an opera house. Our coach, the only vehicle with lights, crept carefully through unlit traffic junctions surrounded by ghostly cyclists and occasional dark lorries.
We were guided to a side entrance of the vast, Soviet-style hall and taken upstairs to emerge at the front of its dress circle. A row of best seats awaited us, amid a sea of curious faces.
The place was packed, with a full orchestra warming up below us.
What were we in for - triumphant military symphonies or, even worse, traditional Chinese opera?
To our amazement the conductor turned round, grinned directly at us then struck up with . . . Roll Out the Barrel, It's a Long Way to Tipperary and other wartime favourites.
That this offbeat start was specially to welcome us became clear, when everyone in the auditorium turned round, laughing and singing as best they could and encouraging us to do the same.
With sausage 'n' mash for breakfast and a rousing greeting like that, how could you not love them?
We'd been Shanghaied!

9. Alien Visitors

WHILE working at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong in the early 1980s, I took one of the state-run tourist trips into China. It was a memorable experience.
The China Travel Agency was not sophisticated then. The vast mainland had just begun to open up to tourism and trade with the West. But most people still lived in the shadow of Mao whose "Bamboo Curtain" kept China isolated from the world for decades.
Everything exported by China was under the brand name Double Happiness and noted for tacky style, cheapness and unreliability.
It felt rather like a Double Happiness deal on the plane from Hong Kong to Guangzou (formerly Canton). CAAC, the Civil Aviation Authority of China, used former state air force pilots - who flew passenger planes as though they were fighters. The stewardesses also looked like People's Army surplus.
We took off with little warning; one American fellow tourist beside me was still loading his overhead luggage.
Immediately, the stout stewardesses started to wheel down large urns of boiling tea and hand out pink plastic planes as gifts.
The American passenger turned out to be a pilot himself and spent much of the short flight shaking his head in horror and disbelief.
"If you knew as much as I do about what is not being done safely here," he told me, "you, too, would be terrified."
We were a mixed international bunch. I was the only journalist but there were other professionals who, like the pilot, were curious about China, then businessmen and finally missionaries, some of whom spoke dialects of Chinese.
The Chinese were obviously still suspicious of visitors, since we had an unscheduled landing at an air force base where we were herded without explanation into a reception hall then carefully filmed from its balcony before being loaded once more on to our plane.
"Checking for CIA," whispered the American pilot.
We landed so heavily at what most of us still called Canton that the oxygen masks dropped down in front of our startled faces. (The pilot beside me was muttering a prayer.)
From the airport we were coached into the city, under the direction of the first of many official state guides. These were all personable and highly educated graduates who answered questions with a smile, and the guile of diplomats.
The first shock was that everyone still dressed in either blue or green denim 'Mao suits', with simple, rubber-soled shoes. There was also still national service and, even after discharge, civilians wore the same outfits as the People's Army soldiers and sailors. They just weren't armed.
However, there was a subtle hierarchy.
"Only officers have pockets in tunics," explained our guide.
We duly visited tourist sites but were ourselves a much bigger spectacle to the surrounding masses.
People stared at our tailored clothes, leather-stitched shoes, 'blond' hair and, no doubt to them, big noses, with open-mouthed amazement that would have been rude in the West.
One tourist who dallied too long in a park became surrounded by a curious crowd. Observers became braver, feeling his clothes, then his hair . . .
"Don't worry, whack!" cried a Scouse voice, "They're just nosey, never seen a foreigner before."
The tourist saw the speaker was a little Chinese man dressed like the rest. The fellow introduced himself and turned out to have been a merchant seaman who had picked up English in Liverpool.
As they chatted, the crowd grew but the tour guide was becoming worried and waved angrily from the coach, while the driver blasted his horn.
The tourist went back obediently, waving to his friend and a mass of ogling spectators now the size of a decent football match crowd.
"Next, we fly to Shanghai!" proclaimed our guide.
The pilot beside me slumped, then prayed once more.

8. Colonial Character

IT was American Guy Searles (see 7 below) who brought to my attention that personal, international calls could be made from the South China Morning Post on the editor's phone (when the editor wasn't present, of course).
Guy admitted to occasional bouts of nostalgia when, on lonely night shifts, he would call a takeaway in his native Seattle and inquire how their Southern chicken tasted.
"Finger-lickin' good, sir!" they always replied, which cheered him.
Such is colonial life. My expatriate homesickness was cured a little by regular calls home to Blighty when I was on night shifts in Hong Kong. I would chat to my parents in their Welsh retirement bungalow after they had just lunched. (In fact, in an obliging neighbour's bungalow since my parents still didn't have a phone back in the 1980s.)
I should also like to point out my personal calls were timed and paid for through the Morning Post switchboard, under the scrutiny of the editor's efficient English secretary.
My only free international calls at work came from Salt Lake City in the States. A Mormon newspaper used to call at their expense and pay me to dictate a fortnightly column on the oddities of life in the Far East. I never saw a copy of their paper but they paid me religiously and were the politest journalists I had ever dealt with.
It was in the editor's office (when, again, he wasn't present), that I noticed the different coloured lines of paint running across the floor to the building's exits.
"They are the fire escape routes," his secretary explained. "We all have our different colours and routes to follow, not that I'd survive on my mine."
Of the many jumbled lines, all heading in different directions, hers was green and led round the building, up and down various floors and, finally, to a distant fire escape.
Mine, as a valued columnist and senior reporter, was red and led off in a slightly more direct route, though still on to a different, higher floor.
The editor's escape line was black and went directly to the news room's fire stairs only seconds away.
"The poor amah doesn't even have a line," the secretary noted.
This lady was like the office maid. She dressed in a black uniform and white pinny, pushed around a tea trolley and kept our desks tidy with a feather duster.
However, she saved my skin on many a day. For colds (from the contrasting humidity and air-conditioning), she gave me jasmine tea; for hangovers, it was chrysanthemum tea. Yet not a word of English did she speak. It was all done by mimes and mutual understanding.
Like any real fire escape would, of course, have been.
We would have all simply run for the nearest exits.

7. Wanchai's Father Christmas - the old villain!

"I'M the city editor," said Guy Searles when I started work at the South China Morning Post.
He was an imposing sight. A big, overweight man in his Fifties, his ample body loosely enclosed in a faded blue safari suit. He wore an old-fashioned, green eyeshield once favoured by printers, had swept-back, thinning, grey hair and a short goatee beard. Guy had a waxy palour and his eyes were milky grey. He spoke with a lazy, west coast accent.
Yes, Guy was American, from Seattle. He had come over to cover the Vietnam war for one of those US-based news agencies that no longer exist, U.P.I. I think, then stayed in Hong Kong. He loved the ladies, liked most people in fact and had become, in a curious way, a local film star.
To Americans 'city editor' meant being in charge of the news reporters; to British journalists the term implied financial editor. So, there was confusion from the start. But that was typical of Guy, whom I became thankful to and fond of, and based a leading character upon in my book The Last Ghosts.
He was much happier wandering around the newsdesk watering his many potted geraniums; or using his popcorn machine and sharing out the "cookies", or telling rambling, ironic stories - than he was of doing any work.
Guy was not an organiser but, like many of the old boys languishing at the SCM Post in the 1980s, he was liked and respected by editor Robin Hucheon. Robin had an interesting past, being born in Shanghai of Australian stock, marrying a Chinese and writing books about modern art. But he was rather introverted with people and, I suspect now, liked having a few livelier, interesting characters about - who could also be sent out to represent him.
Guy was a good writer with an eye for a sentimental cause. Later I learned he had also been president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club when it owned an old mansion on The Peak. The place was hired and used as a hospital for the hit film Many Splendoured Thing, starring William Holden.
But Guy also got into the "movies" - mainly as a villain for Sir Run Run Shaw, who ran Hong Kong's own Cantonese 'Hollywood'.
"After the (Vietnam) war, the Shaw brothers wanted western actors for parts in their films," he explained once. "I kinda enjoyed it and still do some commercials - that's why I've got all these damn watch mechanisms in my desk drawers."
He showed me his newsdesk was indeed full of watches and their bits. Apparently he had once played an old, Swiss watchmaker in a local TV advert. Ever since, the less sophisticated SCM Post employees had left their broken watches for him to mend. They were left discreetly, when Guy wasn't at his desk. He even tried to mend them and became increasingly proficient - he liked tinkering, particularly with electronic gadgets. If successful, Guy left them out to be collected and often received another potted plant in anonymous thanks. When they could not be repaired nothing further was said or done - to save loss of 'face' all round.
"Guess what I was doing this morning," he challenged one day, when takingover from me for the evening newsdesk session.
I shook my head, hoping it was nothing embarrassing (Guy was remarkably frank about some of his offbeat experiences).
"Lying naked in a bath full of cold baked beans," Guy said with a little laugh. "I guess that was what the commercial was for - never did find out."
But, like any actor, he loved to dress up. Every Christmas Guy would don a Santa outfit then ride on his 50cc Honda from Wanchai, where he lived in the middle of the red light district, across town to industrial Quarry Bay and the SCM Post building.
"I wave to the kids and hand out what gifts I can," he explained.
In fact, Guy would help anyone out and was a soft touch for the girls in particular (while also getting a few favours in return, the old dog).
Most memorably, he took a group of us from the office to a late night showing of one of his old films at the Pearl Theatre in Causeway Bay.
He played a baddie from the opium smuggling days, with a glorious waxed moustache that he continually caressed while chasing village virgins.
When he was finally kung-fued to death at the end, the midnight audience of locals stamped their feet and cheered.
As the lights went up, Guy leaned forward towards a row of young girls in front of us.
"Hope you enjoyed that performance, ladies!" he drawled.
His timing was immaculate and their delighted screams a fitting finale.

6. Where Size is Everything

IN at least one aspect of private life in Hong Kong, size was everything.
I mean, of course, your accommodation.
After learning what work you did, where you lived was the next question anyone you met there asked - quickly followed by that vital clue to income, well being and status . . .
"How big is your flat?"
This was because in overcrowded Hong Kong, which has some of the most densely populated urban areas in the world, space is at a premium.
My first was a middling 700 square feet. But it was shared and in an unacceptable (though thrilling) area - Hennessy Road, Wanchai.
Back in 1980, when I arrived to work on the South China Morning Post, Wanchai was a notorious bars area and "rest & recreation" retreat for sailors, particularly America's Seventh Fleet.
I shared my flat there with old pal and colleague Dave Hadfield, then another colleague, Arthur from South Africa, who worked nights.
We were the only westerners in the ageing, 11-storey "mansion" block.

Neighbours were mostly Chinese, along with a Sikh whom I thought - despite his great stomach - must have been a professional hockey player. Each morning he would leave his flat carrying a hockey stick. This, I learned later, was his weapon for his job as a jewellery store security man. (The local banks had better-armed Sikhs - known for their bravery - who carried pump-action shotguns.)
The drawback to our cheap, two-bedroom flat was a noisy cabaret club directly underneath us which had a Filipino band playing nightly until 4am. When I once went down to complain, the pragmatic Chinese owners invited me in, gave me a free beer then provided a "hostess" to keep me quiet. The cost of her drinks ensured I never returned.
As rents began to soar, I embarked on a strange period of "flat sitting". When colleagues went on holiday or assignments round the South East Asia region, I would move in to their flats and, paying a negotiated rent, remain until they returned. It meant their possessions were secure and I would water their house and balcony plants.
In between, I might stay at the "S & S" - the Soldiers and Sailors Home, a colonial hangover that was cheap, clean and basic but also still in lively Wanchai.
It was unsettling, all this moving, but it showed me different areas of Hong Kong and, most importantly, got me away from that Filipino band.
In latter years in Hong Kong I pulled another well worn trick - staying illicitly in government flats that civil service friends got for free, and allowed me a room at minimal rent.
These latter were luxurious by contrast but never had the charm or character of my earlier stays - in places that, during quiet, nostalgic moments, I marvel at still.
My first flat hop was round the corner and up some colourful market lanes to Wanchai Street. There I had the top, 23rd floor flat for a while - inherited from a Glaswegian sports writer.
Like the old, narrow skyscraper building's lift, the flat was tiny and seemed precarious. The lounge was just big enough for a two-seater sofa, TV and bookcase. Through sliding doors it gave on to the flat's best feature, its balcony. This ran round the building and doubled the accommodation size.
However, the illegally erected balcony was only of quarter-inch metal plate with fancy wrought ironwork. It looked stylish but bent under your weight.
I only built up courage to walk its full length and sit after several attempts.
Only one person could squeeze into the kitchen; a loo doubled as a washroom, with an overhead shower, and a double bed entirely filled the one bedroom. But did the place have atmosphere! Also, it was too high for the mosquitoes.
Insects were a part of life when I took over a house on an outlying island, Lamma. Geckos darted across walls and ceilings, chasing mosquitoes, cockroaches scuttled across floors in the dark and bullfrogs kept me awake croaking at night. But there was no traffic.
The pretty island was reached by an hour's ferry ride from Hong Kong Island. When arriving in the dark you carried a torch, checking the narrow paths up from the waterfront for snakes.
Hot noodles for breakfast on the ferry to work were a treat but, all too soon, they built a power station by the island's best beach and changed it forever.
I also took over more spacious flats, particularly one by Happy Valley race track. The traffic made it too busy for my taste, but I would marvel at the vast crowds drawn regularly to back horses.
Finally, I got my taste of how the other half lived. At the Albany I moved into one of the old, colonial government flats waiting to be levelled for new high-rise apartments.
We looked down upon Government House and Central district and the maid's quarters and my balcony were bigger than previous apartments I'd had.
It was like a taste of a different age, of spaciousness and opulence. I'd moved from the Wanchai of William Holden's film, The World of Suzy Wong, to his other earlier classic, A Many Splendoured Thing.
How dazzling and different was the Far East!

5. How I Got My Chinese Name

I LOVED the old South China Morning Post editorial office. It was on the fourth floor of our building, the top and seventh being a canteen with harbourside view, and others housing printers and various departments, along with the Asian Wall Street Journal. We were on an industrial wharf exposed to Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour.

Sandwiched in the middle, were several desks of general news reporters - studious Chinese graduates, ardent American travellers and fairly sloppy Brits. Of these the Brits were invariably the best reporters because of better training, natural cynicism and a certain affinity (or was it a love-hate relationship?) with the ruling British establishment.
We were watched over by the newsdesk, occupied by a morning or evening news editor or chief reporter with their Chinese assistant who kept tabs on the Cantonese press, radio and TV stations while keeping our assignments diary up to scratch.
To the side of the newsdesk was the oldies' hangout. These were former executives who knew everything about the Morning Post, the colony, China and much of the South East Asia region but were past their best for the daily grind of headlines. They were mostly Chinese or Indian and wrote occasional leader articles and gave out advice.
As I struggled with the many assignments that could pile up in a day, the phone calls and unpredictable early VDUs and computer system, I deeply envied these cosy veterans as they chatted, supped large mugs of tea and, sometimes with feet up, browsed through newspapers and magazines.
A new reporter felt he had arrived when he was given his business cards. But I was disappointed there was no translation on the back, as Chinese reporters invariably had.
When I mentioned this to our news editor, then a young Aussie trying to give up the drink, he pointed me to the oldies' desk.
"I was told you might give me a Chinese translation of my name," I breezily told the three elderly residents that day. One was Jimmy Yip, a grand little feller with a misshapen foot and large-bowled pipe; T.S. (old Chinese were known respectfully by their initials unless they had adopted a western first name), a genial but rather unctuous China expert, and Rhummy, a jolly, rather stout chap who had once been chief sub-editor.
They got in an unexpected lather over this simple request but seemed enthusiastic enough - I often chewed the fat with them when there was a spare moment.
"We shall give it some thought," said Jimmy Yip, puffing on his pipe and looking amused by my impatience.
"But I could do with the new cards, you see," I insisted in my youthful rush.
"It'll take a day or two," concurred Rhummy.
"At least," muttered a cautious T.S.
This left me bemused and I became further astonished at their slow progress as, over the next few days, whenever I appeared in the office one of them would ask some further detail about me.
"What is your approach to the job? Are you a campaigner at heart?" inquired old Jimmy, adding astutely: "You're obviously not an establishment man."
"You seem a hearty, enthusiastic fella, like me," Rhummy observed, before asking: "Is it really the writing you enjoy most, as you're more careful than many over grammar and presentation - perhaps you'd make a sub."
"And when was your birthday, exactly?" demanded T.S. "What about your year of birth?
"Ah! You're an earth ox by sign and, therefore, very steady, strong."
Finally, I muttered to the newsdesk assistant, young Jimmy Cheung: "Is all this fuss they're making really necessary? At this rate I won't get my new cards for weeks - can't you make something up, it's only a translation?"
Jimmy looked shocked.
"But your Chinese name must reflect your personality as well," he explained, "it must tie in with your age and birthsign, encompass your job and your whole approach to life."
Well, I was stunned. No wonder those old fellows had been regarding me so closely and huddling together in deep discussions since my carefree request.
"It is an honour to receive and serious matter to consider," young Jimmy concluded, with wisdom beyond his years. "It should not be rushed."
Finally, the three Chinese characters which were deemed to match my English name, personality and purpose were agreed upon and written down.
When pronounced they sounded like: Loy Aye Mon. The design of them was very complicated but all the staff were suitably impressed. Each character conveyed several meanings which, when all put together, they all agreed summed me up well.
Youthful and strong, caring but cautious, a writer and campaigner but also a professional with balance . . .
Typically of those clever and diplomatic Chinese, it was all very flattering.
In due course my new cards were printed and handed out with pride wherever I went for the next few years.
In fact, more than three decades later, I have one beside me now as I write.
It makes me smile at my youthful nerve, demanding such a privilege with so little thought from those worldly veterans.
But, mostly, I am minded of their amused indulgence and kindness in taking on my precocious request.
They are gone now but I still feel humbly in their debt.

4. Country Club

WHEN starting work at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong I was introduced to the "country club".
This was not the exclusive recreational development across the harbour in the rural New Territories. It was, in fact, a corner sweet shop on dusty Tong Chong Street.
This short but busy thoroughfare off the congested Kings Road dissecting Hong Kong Island's urbanised north side, led into the Taikoo sugar wharf where the SCMP was based in 1980.
This was in industrial Quarry Bay which was aptly named as scores of lorries a day were pouring hardcore into the sea to reclaim more of Victoria Harbour for building upon.
That was why Tong Chong Street was so dusty. But its many residents and shoppers were used to putting up with noise and disruption.
I don't know what the country club's real name was, probably something like Uncle Ho's. The family who owned the little grocer's, sweets and pop store were originally from Vietnam and its patriarch was 'Uncle' who had a long goatee beard and looked like a frail Ho Chi Minh. His daughter and grandchildren were always about the shop, which also doubled as their living room complete with television and probably extra sleeping quarters to the rooms they occupied above.
On the pavement next to their large fridge, they put out a table each day and would bring fold-up stools for anyone who wanted to sit and have a drink. As well as milk and soft drinks, there was beer and Uncle had become adept at supplying a special cocktail for regulars from the Morning Post.
It was the Indian staff who favoured the country club most. The Chinese preferred the SCMP's top floor canteen which supplied bottles of local San Miguel beer and had a view across the harbour to Kai Tak airport.
Vernon, a white-bearded Brahmin, and "Mhutto", who sported an impressive waxed moustache, had a century of reporting between them on papers like the Times of India. They spoke several languages and knew more about British history than I did. They were great fellows and a joy to drink with and talk to.
"Sit, sit!" the rather bossy Vernon would insist with an engaging grin whenever you were passing. He had come to HK to escape the Gandhi family whom he'd had a feud with. Vernon edited the letters page and opinion column in the Post, which was Hong Kong's paper of record rather like the Times used to be in England. The genial, gentlemanly Mhutto wrote leader articles and was equally worldly.
Uncle would solicitously move a portable fan nearer the sweating newcomer at their table, adjust the awning above it to keep off the intense sun, then pour 'cocktails'.
These were dispensed in chilled beer mugs kept in the fridge and consisted of a third of Guinness topped up with the excellent Tsingtao bottled beer from northern China (in a brewery founded by the colonial Germans).
Sometimes the party would grow and, to the amusement of passing locals, all but fill the pavement.
If hungry, we could order food through Uncle and a grandson would be dispatched up the road to a restaurant. Later a waiter would jog down with pans of noodles, rice, sauces and dumplings balanced on a bamboo pole over his shoulder.
Fuelled by stout and bitter, our office gossip and well-travelled reminisces soared above the din of the neighbouring steelworker's store and rumble of passing quarry lorries. At night we competed against the songs from hastily erected stalls selling pirate CDs of Cantonese singing stars, along with the acrid smell from a tofu or beancurd hawker's hot offerings.
I suppose it was the equivalent of office workers in London stopping off at the nearest pub for a pint or glass before their commute home, except in this very local and untouristy part of town there were no bars.
One leading local star from the Post even had his farewell party at the country club. Sadly, it was before my time but I saw the pictures with besuited revellers filling Tong Chong Street and champagne flowing.
Yes, somehow that grit from the hardcore lorries only added to the flavour of our Tsingtao stouts.
I raise a glass in memory to them all, now sadly departed from us and that colourful setting - along with the Morning Post itself.
Yam sing!

3. Squashed Ego

I HAVE Sir Freddie Laker to thank for the style in which I departed Britain in 1980 with a one-way ticket to Hong Kong. His ticket price war with the major airlines meant I could afford a business class seat in Cathay Pacific's Marco Polo section.
The 747 soared skyward from Gatwick and I relaxed with the first of many free drinks on my 18-hour flight. I had just turned 30, was on the threshold of an adventure working abroad and was free as a bird.
Yes, I'm afraid, the drinks from those stunning Oriental stewardesses flowed - gin and tonics, wine with lunch, liqueurs afterwards. All I was short of was some company. The young German couple next to my window seat had fallen asleep.
At the time I was fit through playing squash and only a night or two before had watched an exhibition match at my local club, the Breck at Poulton-le-Fylde, near Blackpool. It had featured our club coach and a rising professional player whose name I now forget. But he was dark-haired with a moustache and impressive; we'll call him Jack Brown for convenience.
Anyway, just before we had taken off at Gatwick, several people had boarded carrying bundles of squash racquets and one, I felt sure, was Jack.
They all stored their racquets and other sports gear in the overhead lockers.
The Jack lookalike was sat with his wife, while his squash colleagues had nearby seats. They were apparently all players heading for a tournament. The more I studied the chatty Jack up ahead (and the more I drank), the more certain I became it was him. What a coincidence!
By the time we were flying over the Alps I needed the loo and was also dying for a chat. Climbing over the sleeping Germans, I made my way up the aisle and stopped beside Jack.
"Excuse me," I said, encouraged by his ready smile, "but aren't you Jack Brown?"
His grin, dashing with that thick, dark moustache, never faltered. However, there were some titters of laughter from his friends. I also noticed with concern that his wife was glowering at me.
"No," he said genially, "but I'm acquainted with him. How do you know Jack?"
"Well . . . " I rambled on about the exhibition match at our Lancashire club.
"I see," he said pleasantly when I finally finished, "and what's taking you out to Hong Kong?"
I rambled on about that as well until the call of nature pressed more firmly. I began to make my excuses and leave . . . but then paused, a fresh thought striking me.
"So, who are you?" I demanded.
"My name's Jonah Barrington," he replied matter-of-factly.
I stood stunned. The veteran world champion was still the biggest name in squash and a living legend in the annals of sport. I wished the riveted steel plates of the Boeing might part and let me slip silently to that Swiss snow below. What a faux pas!
Mrs Barrington was studying me with interest, rather enjoying my appalled reaction. Others nearby were turning round to smirk at my gaffe.
I began to burble apologies but the squash god halted me with a raised hand.
"Don't worry," said Jonah, "in fact I'm rather flattered - Jack must be 10 years younger than me."
It was time to contritely depart with the great man's blessing, if not his wife's. What a gentleman that star was!
In coming months, after obtaining a job and settling in, I was invited to play at a number of squash clubs by new colleagues and friends.
But it was always the same. After a game I'd be introduced to other members then a club chairman or other official would add chattily:
"You know, we had Jonah Barrington out here earlier this year, on an exhibition tour.
"Terribly nice fellow and very entertaining - he told a very funny story about some chap on his flight . . . "

2. Mister Odd Job

"I AM not having a boyfriend who is an ice-cream man!"
Babs, my first real girlfriend, was insistent. She did live in a very nice house and her mother was a teacher at a leading grammar school. But she was also only 18, three years my junior, wearing a preposterous miniskirt and was, on the sly, a bit of a tearaway.
"I thought it would be fun," I protested, rather lamely, "for the summer anyway. You could have a free 99!"
We were sat in my parents' trendy mini after an evening at a pub in Urmston, near Manchester, and it was 1970 - when everything seemed possible for the young.
After almost five years in the wrong job, as a trainee quantity surveyor, I was desperate to start something I really wanted to do. At 21, it seemed to me, I was a late starter in life - as with girls.
My odd job period covered the year or so I was studying 'A' Levels part-time at St John's College, Manchester. It was all with a view to reading English at university and then reporting for a "serious" newspaper. The courses left me plenty of time to earn money from a casual job.
After finally packing in surveying, an easy few weeks as a council gardener near Old Trafford had appealed. However, the day I started they had our team begin digging a new water-pipe trench across the park - backbreaking work!
Then I had my favourite job to date, as assistant barman in nearby Davyhulme Golf Club. I had wanted to be a greensman
My best memory was serving Manchester United superstars with drinks after their pre-match steak lunch. Bobby Charlton and Dennis Law were perfect gents as I poured them a favourite kickstart drink: sherry with raw egg yoke. Afterwards they would play nine holes and I would marvel at how bandy legged both strikers were.
CWS Transport depot, helping out wherever assistance was needed. The works, situated where the Trafford Centre retail park is today, made trucks for the Co-operative Society empire. I toiled at packing bits and pieces for other depots, assisting the boiler man, doing clerical work and then as sidekick to the personnel manager. He taught me to drink cocktails and had me ghost write his outspoken autobiography. There was also a lot of flirting with the office secretaries.
That book never was published but storylines in my own life reached predictable endings. Babs and I split up, as she found someone more mature and with a better job. After too many cocktails, I crashed the mini my parents could barely afford into a stone wall (they forgave me, as I could have died - like the mini). Finally, with a handful of previous dead-end jobs at 22, I had to make up my mind about a proper future.
I didn't qualify for an English course, but Manchester University offered me a place to study Economics. Similarly, I had applied half-heartedly to a textile magazine's journalist vacancy, attended a chatty interview and, to my surprise, been offered a job as editorial assistant in their smart, new offices.
Neither of these two alternative were what I really wanted, so I tossed a coin.
"Why did you take me on?" I asked the magazine's editor, when we were better acquainted. "I had no experience and knew nothing of textiles."
"Because in my experience," he said with a lopsided, easy-going grin, "the best journalists are those who have failed at everything else they've done."
Well, that was me.
Three enjoyable years later I started on my first newspaper, a brash tabloid weekly in Ilford near London's East End, and tried my hand at a Fleet Street News Agency on weekend duty (just once, as it was far too hard going).
A couple of years later, I had my briefest ever job on a newspaper as sub-editor on the Cambridge Evening News (two hours); then returned north and did Sunday shifts reporting for Manchester's Daily Mail, while working other days in a pub in North Wales.
When I wasn't offered a full-time job at the Mail, I toiled for a year subbing Welsh weekly newspapers from sleepy Shropshire, then spent three lively years reporting in blowsy Blackpool.
"What a chequered background!" commented the straight-talking boss who then interviewed me for a plum job (which I didn't get) on Piccadilly Radio in Manchester.
In fact, all those mixed up younger years, along with romantic attachments, real ale, coarse rugby and many colourful characters, are covered in an earlier memoir Last Resort (see Books page).
At 30, still single and long short of my dreams, more determined action was clearly required.
That was when, one cold and rainy morning in Blackpool, an air mail letter from an old friend arrived inviting me to Hong Kong. I let my breakfast burn as I read it but, for once, didn't waste any time.
I booked a one-way ticket to the Far East. This was the scene of my fantasies since boyhood, after seeing a film called The World of Suzy Wong then lovingly reading (three times) Richard Mason's bestseller.
Taking flight to the other side of the world seemed a real adventure . . .
And so it was to prove!

1. A Murky Beginning

THIS collection of  anecdotes about local reporting from around the globe could open with a racy tale of Hong Kong's neon nightlife, or a glimpse into earthly paradise from a Bahamian backwater. But I think the right place to start is a smoggy evening in old Salford at the end of the 1960s. That was where my career, such as it was, began . . . with a highly embarrassing medical.
A couple of days earlier I had attended an interview for a Dundee newspaper group called D.C.Thomson. They were prepared to take on a trainee reporter with no experience for their Weekly News. Its rundown offices were in Salford, a former port and then a Cinderella sister city on the wrong side of Manchester. I'd been asked by a lugubrious editor to write an essay in his office on 'What I Did On My Holidays'. Then he had given me a spelling test and warned me the money was not good, should they take me on.
That was not the glamorous beginning I'd imagined. Still worse was the GP's surgery where I was to have a company medical. Through the coal-fired fog I could make out the surgery light in a corner block of terraced houses on what remained of a slum area. There was a queue of muffled, coughing figures waiting outside in the dark under a struggling gas streetlight.
As there was half an hour before my 'private' appointment, I got out the cold and lifted my spirits in the only other prominent building left on the semi-bulldozed site: a pub.
A couple of pints later I emerged to find the queue gone and went inside a cosy waiting room. Politely I sat awaiting my turn until, after quarter of an hour or so, I regretted not using the dodgy toilets back at the pub. My bladder was bursting but there seemed no sign of a loo and the lone receptionist appeared too formidable to ask. I was not the boldest 20-year-old.
I stood, coughed and pointed out shyly my appointment was overdue.
"But you're private!" she said after checking my name, then forced an obsequious smile: "You can go straight in - next opportunity."
Seconds later I was being examined by a terse, middle-aged Scotsman who apparently did all D.C. Thomson's Salford check-ups. My heart and blood pressure appeared to pass muster, judging from his grunts and quick notes.
"Right," he said finally, "just pop behind the screen and give me a sample."
He gave me a stainless steel kidney bowl and I went behind the tall, folding screen in a corner of the room.
What relief!
However, as the steaming tumult burst forth into the small receptacle, I noted with trepidation that there was no sink or other vessel for any overflow.
Fortunately, I just stopped in time.
Carefully I retraced my steps. The doctor was bowed over his leather-topped desk and notes once more.
Taking infinite care not to spill a drop, I silently but rather shamefully placed the brimming, steaming bowl before him.
The GP's reaction was instant. His head shot up with such surprise that his glasses dropped to the end of his nose; his mouth dropped open in astonishment.
"Well, if that's all," I muttered quietly and left his surgery to a stunned silence.
I never did take the job. Somehow the whole depressing tawdriness of the operation put me off. Later I learned that most newspapers were based in the rundown parts of towns and glamour played no part in their offices.
The only other medical required by a newspaper came much later, in Hong Kong. Doctor Woo's surgery was near industrial Tong Chong Street. But that's another story and the results of my examination much more worrying.