Wednesday, 28 June 2017


Image result for ice dancer torvill and dean
When we went to the wedding a few weeks ago I caught up with my cousin from Canada who had flown over specially from Toronto. He brought his wife Debbie with him and I had forgotten but Debbie is an ice-skating teacher. Full time. She must be ace; didn’t say so or admit to being ace but she is now in her early sixties and been doing that job for forty-years or so and there can’t be anything she can’t or hasn’t achieved in that world.
Teaches kids from age four up to twelve. Both boys and girls.
Gosh, she was interesting. Has had many future ice-hockey stars through her classes over the years as well as ice dance girls who later achieved Olympic standard. I asked her if she could spot the ones who would go on to greatness in their later years but she said not really, and often it was all down to pushy parents whether they became millionaire Major League players, or simply faded. She named one or two but they were meaningless to me, not living in North America. Apparently, Lacrosse is the national game of Canada; Ice-hockey is the national game of both Russia and the Czech Republic.
Despite being a born and bred Canadian she named Torvill and Dean as the greatest ever ice dancers.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017


photo B Beaven
photo B Beaven
photo B beaven
photo B beaven
photo B Beaven

When we visited Wales recently we went round several beautiful gardens [in the rain]. I hadn’t realised that there were so many examples in Wales although it should be acknowledged that early June is probably the best time to visit any Welsh garden; everything seems to peak then. The one which most intrigued me was Veddw.
Intrigued is the right verb because it was designed by a well-known garden writer and a garden photographer, who still live there as a couple. Effectively the garden has been designed for themselves: you can come and look if you want to.
Set against a steep hill with views across heavily wooded valleys to the skyline over on the other side, it is west-facing and comprises garden rooms bounded by carefully trimmed hedging which is cut almost like topiary. Except there are no spirals, roosters or other ornamental details such as one finds in dedicated topiary gardens; here it is all curves; all of the same size, repeating all the way up the slope. Within the rooms there are different planting schemes; in one there is a shimmering pond utterly clear, no weeds or other detritus which has the formality of the hedging reflected in its informal surface. A very nice piece of detailing. There is a wildlife garden and a large area dedicated to meadow planting; an orchard, a tiny lawn and a small vegetable garden.
The house itself is small, a little ramshackle with solar panels tacked on adding to the impression of a couple living very much on their own terms, not exactly outside society . . . I mean they both have jobs that must keep them aware of and grounded on the world’s treadmill . . . but very much living and doing it in their own way.
I should have loved it but I didn’t. Superficially, it is a brilliant, iconoclastic expression of two knowledgeable and dedicated minds and I am definitely for iconoclasm and self-expression, breaking the mould and all that but I found myself troubled by the egotistical nature of it. In a way, they shouldn’t open it up to the public. It can’t be about money . . . I think it was £7.00ea to get in . . . so keeping it private shouldn’t be a financial issue, its more about why anyone would want to showcase something so . . . so . . .  personal to the world.
It is unchanging. The planting palette is restricted. They have planted monocultures of brightly coloured grasses to suggest, they say, the colours of the crops in the past but you can never modify or alter this feature. When everything is finely poised, even if you might want to plant a swathe of dahlias, you can’t: it would upset the equilibrium and then you would have to change ten other things to restore that original balance. The designers will not alter the garden: this is it, fixed for ever.
So, you have no flexibility. I wouldn’t like that. I want to see the seasons: daffs in spring; lilies in summertime; Meconopsis finally opening their beautiful blue petals in September. I am sure the designers consider the garden to be a work of art, made to be admired in artistic terms. But it doesn’t nourish the soul, not my soul anyway.
Thinking about it later, I wondered if it could be fairly described as an intellectual garden. Is it about tension and ultimate release? By creating these rooms, then imposing a strict framework, forcing them to relate to the hills around, referencing the ancient history in the planting and the curved forms, what they have done is create something unchanging, immutable and undeniable. But isn’t that the nature of photography; or sculpture? It is not in the nature of a garden to be fixed like this. Surely the whole point is the freedom, the ever-changing reversible character of the space, the weather, the land, the personalities of the plants. Whether this plant flourishes or not, whether the rain will stop before everything is washed away, whether the wind will cease and there will still be shrubs left to admire . . . I think that is both the challenge and the delight of a garden. 
You need to go and see for yourself. It’s in Monmouthshire.

Friday, 16 June 2017


Image result for ghost towns in texas
We stayed over in Dudley in West Midlands just south of Birmingham, in a very nice upmarket hotel at the weekend. The hotel was almost empty. It was/is part of a complex called Merry Hill, a late-nineties development of offices/shops/apartments, by the canal.

As I understand it, the Local Authority were in possession of a disused industrial site plus some government enterprise zone grant money. Unfortunately no-one, certainly none of the large developers, was much interested in putting any of their own money into a development project in grimy south Birmingham; the site was contaminated and undercut by mine shafts, out of the way and as downmarket as it is possible to go.

I suppose it is hard to criticise what the developers created given the backstory of an old industrial site, local politics and changes of government. The Council eventually chose a small-scale local developer called Richardsons; quite likely because they were the only ones willing and able to take it forward but what they have produced appears to me now to be a ghost town. Empty flats, or half-empty which is probably worse because it means you can’t sell; closed bars that on the Friday night we were there should have been heaving with couples and singles looking for a good night out; the almost empty hotel . . . how sustainable is that? Car parks with only one car parked: just asking to be vandalised. One or two people walking dogs and a few men fishing in the canal. It’s clean. Tidy. Well cared for, it hasn’t been abandoned as such. Someone is still trying.

But it looks as though it was doomed from the beginning. High floor, low ceiling, is how it could be readily described in other words its upward potential is limited. The architect’s plans must have looked amazing at the time: the canal winding its way through the middle, actual boats tied-up at canalside, trees over here, shrubbery over there, stick figures jogging along the towpaths, all the apartments turned in toward the canal rather than out to the remainder of the contaminated site. But then the Contractor got hold of it and the project was progressively watered down and obligations renegotiated. The flats are seven stories high, was that in the approved plans? They are way out of scale with the rest of the buildings. There are no shops, just bars. It’s all in a beige brick, all of it, no changes of texture or even colour with bog-standard metal doors and windows either bright green or blue to the facades. Bog-standard planting too: low-maintenance [actually, no maintenance] greenery that gives nothing away to the hard-edge builder basic block paving scheme.

It might have worked if they had tried harder to maintain the quality the designers and planners had originally specified. Might. Now it is unattractive, it even has a sense of being out of the way, an island, soulless and generic like a suburban industrial park.

And no-one wants to be there any longer than they have to be, so you have the beginnings of a ghost town.


We have ben to Nevada a few times and one of those times we went to a real ghost town. There are in fact a lot of ghost towns in Nevada, even more in California.

The Tourist Board have a kind of map showing where they are located but in fact as unarmed foreign tourists we thought it best to take advice from one of the guides and they pointed out seven or eight where they were certain that there were no one-off residents keeping an eye out for unarmed foreign tourists. Like us. The one we chose was around fifty miles away from Las Vegas although there was an opportunity to visit another one which had only been uncovered three or four months previously, when South Lake Tahoe had receded due to temporary climate change. But we are not historians or academics and the pleasure of walking around eighteen-sixties dripping wet/drying-out wooden buildings just held no appeal.

So we went to the first one which incidentally featured a tourist attraction on the outskirts, a disused silver mine. The ghost town was much as one would expect; dry as dust in the high desert with boarded up buildings, faded signs, a surprisingly wide main street and nobody around. No cats, no dogs. No tumbleweed, although we saw lots of that down in Arizona. The mine was extremely interesting, with a good, knowledgeable guide who led you down tunnels lit from the ceiling by bare bulbs strung through pit-props. We went deep into the mountain then trekked all the way back again. You would never be permitted to do that here in the UK: Health & Safety would not allow ten people to go underground into a mine without two weeks training and orientation first. I assume it had become a ghost town when the mine ceased to be profitable.


I believe there are ghost towns or more specifically, ghost housing estates in Northern Ireland. I’ve not visited one first-hand. I am not sure but I think they are situations caught on the wrong side of an invisible sectarian line.

If you drive out past Stanhope in County Durham and into the North Pennines you can visit the remains of two lead mines; one is open-cast and the other is part open-cast and part conventional shafts. I have been to both. The nearest town is Nenthead which comprises one street, two pubs, four shops and a variety of farming suppliers plus maybe twenty houses, all of which appear to be for rent. Someone, a developer one presumes, has constructed a mini-housing estate of sixteen new houses on the edge of the village. They are all up for sale: all empty. Two of them look as though they have been sold then put back on the market and one of these could be occupied because there was a car parked outside the day I drove through.

Weird and no real explanation from me. The houses are substantial; detached, brick-built, when everything else in the county is stone but they all have good-sized plots, not packed densely together, four beds, cheap as chips [£225000, the builders can hardly be covering their costs at these prices] and in another location, would have been sold out long ago. Okay the weather is notoriously awful in Weardale but I can’t quite see what has gone wrong. Perhaps there are no schools?

At the very least they could find a market as second holiday homes.

Riccarton Junction [a real place] is a ghost town: it was the main theme of my book. Kiri had been studying the loss of the lace-making industry in Nottingham for her dissertation and how not only had the local economy suffered but the whole way of life for the community, the women, friendships and families, all swept away with nothing to replace them and that, when they go, rightly, wrongly, naturally or by imposition, something irreplaceable is lost.




Wednesday, 14 June 2017


Image result for persepolis iran
Revolutionary Ride [By Lois Pryce]. Liked this, liked it a lot. It is [currently] No 2 in Amazon’s Non-Fiction lists and No. 1 in Adventure & Travel. She writes well, in fact . . . heresy . . . it is almost as good, might actually be better than the greatest travel book I have ever read, Jupiters Travels [By Ted Simon].

It’s about Lois, obviously, who takes a motorcycle journey from Tabriz in North-west Iran across to Tehran, then down to Yazd, across to Isfahan then down to Shiraz. Then she flies home. A journey I made myself forty-years ago, except I avoided Tehran. And I didn’t attempt it on my own or by motorbike.

Of course, of course it is tremendously interesting to me; I just can’t quite comprehend why it is number one in the Amazon lists. Why is it so interesting to anyone who hasn’t made the same journey? Or, maybe they have: arrogant me, thinking I am unique in having travelled across Persia by road.

I would recommend it though. She makes it so crystal clear why the election three weeks ago last Friday of Hassan Rouhani is of such critical importance to Iranians and why the West should not only support this result but welcome it with open arms and diplomatic relations. She likes Iran; I liked parts of it. She goes to Persepolis and it is deserted, as I found too, except for two middle-aged European bikers on BMW Bling-bikes, on their way home from India. The Shah’s tented village is almost destroyed by weather and maybe vandalism but probably neglect, whereas it was still pristine and under guard back in 1976. 

Not sure what to say about it. She goes out of her way to meet and greet Iranians, gets into trouble sometimes for having done so but she does a lot more interacting than I did; gets into people’s homes or is invited to eat with the Manager and his family, when staying at a hotel or guest house. Finds people who will simply stop what they were doing and show her round. She is gregarious and that is what you need. Someone on Amazon suggests she is too harsh on the regime: I definitely disagree with that remark. Ever been, mate?

Is it worse the Saudi? I guess not because she was allowed in. She couldn’t swan around Saudi on a motorcycle, on her own.

In truth, I didn’t care for the Iranians I met. I remember a guy we met at a hotel, I think in Isfahan, a young guy someone who you might trust; someone you might think held the future in his hands, he said he was a Wildlife Manager. Unusual occupation but good, we thought. The hotel it turned out, catered for Middle-east tourists who wanted to ‘hunt’. They ‘hunted’ sheep. The tourists lay on the desert floor and shot sheep grazing what little grass or fodder they were able to find.   

But of course, it questions your own cultural underpinnings. We kill sheep. Industrially.

Whatevuh. Anyway, I wasn’t keen on Persians. Wasn’t keen on Turks either and pretty much actively disliked the Pakistanis.


Writing Screenplays that Sell [By Michael Hauge]. I quite liked this actually. Dated [1991] as it is he still has something useful to say plus it has straight 5* reviews on Amazon. On page 280 he comments: The underlying principles of the teachers and books I respect don’t differ that greatly. Bob McKee’s structural approach and Syd Field’s plot points and my emphasis on outer motivation aren’t really contradictory; each is a possible method of laying out the story to create an effective, saleable screenplay.

Myself, I thought Story by Robert McKee was outstanding; I still consult it and to be honest, this isn’t really in the same league.

I have recently completed an on-line screen writing course. I enjoyed the process and have already made a start on converting Riccarton Junction into a TV Series. I am quite excited about it and it appears at the moment anyway, to be going well.


Reckless Daughter [By Barney Hoskins]. I haven’t finished this, I am half-way through. I have put it away for a while, even I can’t digest 300-pages of ‘honesty’ from Joni Mitchell in one session.

Barney Hoskins is a UK-based music journalist who is a big Joni Mitchell fan and knowing that Joni doesn’t give interviews ever, he has instead compiled pretty much every review of every album and many, many of her concert appearances since she first started in 1966. He keeps the quality high and contrary probably to his own personal preferences, does not exclude bad reviews. There is a pretty excoriating one of Mingus by an American journalist called Ben Sidran from Rolling Stone.

What do I think? I hardly ever read non-fiction. I know everything. Well, just about everything I want or need to know. I mean, I was thinking today I wished I had studied Shakespeare when I was younger, when I could have had my mind opened but it’s too late now. I suspect it was Keith Richards’ Life that took me to this but they aren’t in fact comparable. I am a Joni Mitchell music fan but honestly I simply don’t care that she plays 51 instruments or that she and the daughter she gave up for adoption are reconciled. If things improve I shall put up another review. 


The Gustav Sonata [By Rose Tremain]. Enid Blyton for adults. This is the key scene:

It was dark, now, in the larder, almost night. Gustav felt sick from the smell of the fermentation and was about to suggest that they should stop, when he noticed one last bottle in a corner of the larder shelf.

 He picked up the bottle and saw that it was full of banknotes. He stared at the money. Then he carried the jar to the window, where a rising moon provided a sliver of light. He unscrewed the lid and he and Emilie put their hands in, like children’s hands into a bran tub, and pulled out rolls of fifty franc notes, secured with rubber bands. It was difficult to calculate how much money was there, but they knew it was a lot.

So . . . every problem solved. Bran tub indeed.

I thought it was appalling.



Tuesday, 13 June 2017


Image result for ysp black steps
Went to Yorkshire Sculpture Park yesterday . . . and saw this. Absolutely terrific, I thought.

It’s called Black Steps and is by someone called David Nash.

Definitely worth a visit; I used to go two or three times a year when I was working because it is just off the M1 and easy to reach if you are just passing but I haven’t been for about twelve months. I have to say they are a well-run organisation and keep the park alive with new acquisitions and move other stuff on when appropriate to do so.

Thursday, 1 June 2017


Image result for be back soon

We are off to Wales for a wedding and will be gone for a week.