Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Sherlock Holmes is Back........

As a devotee of Sherlock Holmes and his many rivals - Conan Doyle was not the only writer of detective short stories in late Victorian England - I was interested to pick up a copy of Cavan Scotts' The Patchwork Devil (Titan Books, London (2014) isbn: 9781783297146.)

This is a full length novel, set in the aftermath of the Great War, which sees Holmes having left Baker Street, and enjoying semi-retirement as a bee keeper on the South Downs.

Of course,  during a brief stay in London with his companion Dr Watson, now living in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, with his second wife, the pair get quickly drawn into yet another seemingly unfathomable mystery.

Following the discovery of a severed hand on the banks of the River Thames, the two find themselves up against a government conspiracy, involving Holmes' brother, Mycroft, that leads them to the most horrific of discoveries.

This is clearly not the pen of Conan Doyle, but a cracking story it surely is. I simply could not put the book down.

One of the joys of Conan Doyle's stories for me is the descriptions he gave us of individual buildings, streets, and districts in London. He placed Holmes and Watson perfectly in what was the actual London landscape of the day, and as one with a passion for the history of late-Victorian/Edwardian London that always added a great deal for me.

Scott of course would not have seen those sights with his own eyes, unlike Conan Doyle. Although some of the places mentioned in the original stories can easily be found and recognised, Scott's descriptions of some of the better known areas suffice.

The dialogue between Holmes and Watson is absolutely spot on. Of the course the two men are now a little older, and both a little grumpier, but the humour remains and this is one of the strongest points of the book.

The story itself is first rate. As the plot develops, we see the influence of another great writer of the period, Mary Shelley, enter into the storyline. I will say no more about the plot - read it yourself!

Sunday, 25 September 2016

British Rail Travel: Some Things Never Change

I know that I have been quite critical of Belgian public transport in the past, but there is nothing that quite matches the experience of a train journey in England, especially if the train company concerned is Abellio Greater Anglia.

Yesterday George and I took the train from Bishops Stortford to London, a journey that should take 40 minutes or so. We arrived at that station and, after the inevitable sharp intake of breath when I saw the cost (Belgian train fares are very low, and I so have been somewhat spoiled over the years), we headed for the platform. We had to cross to another platform, where the 10.09 was waiting - it was 10.08, and I figured we had no chance - but the train departed a few minutes late, and so we made it.

This was fortunate, as I noted during our dash that the following train had been cancelled. This should have set alarm bells ringing.

Boarding the train was problematic as it was totally packed with irritable people and their suitcases (for which there is virtually no storage space). It was standing room only, and a shoulder to shoulder crush.

When the train eventually departed, it all began.

The driver informed us that due to a broken down train ahead of us, our journey would be slow. He wasn't kidding. In fact, our train made an unscheduled stop at the next station, Sawbridgeworth, just some minutes down the line. After a little time the driver opened the doors to allow us to alight onto the platform and get some air.

As well as the broken down train, we now had another problem. Apparently the barriers on the level crossing ahead of us had not come down, and so it would be unsafe to proceed. George and I fished our paperbacks out of our bag, and we settled down to pass the time reading.

Shortly, the driver informed us that the barriers were down, but he was not sure they were for us. So we carried on reading.

Eventually, we were told that the train ahead of us was moving, albeit slowly, but we still could not proceed as the barriers had been raised again. A young hockey player who was due at a tournament in Poland, and so had a flight to catch, was getting very worried at this point.

As the problems did eventually resolve themselves, a new one, somewhat inevitably, arose. It transpired that there was some plastic sheeting on the line outside Harlow, and we would have to wait for engineers to arrive to clear the line. And wait we did.

We were eventually told that the engineers had arrived at the scene, but had to wait until the appropriate moment to switch off all overhead power cables before they could do anything.

After 4 or 5 chapters of an admittedly absorbing detective novel, we were on the move. Hurrah!

However, there would be a further delay, we were told, due to an unscheduled stop to collect passengers whose train had been cancelled. When you make an unscheduled stop, nobody gets off; they only get on. Lots of them in this case.

This is where it got serious. As we tried to squeeze into nooks and crannies to allow families and their luggage onboard, a lady of rather advanced years, and in some distress,  entered into the equation. She needed help standing, and there were no seats. A young lady offered her own seat, but to get there the elderly lady had to get past several dozens of people crammed in like sardines and with nowhere to go. Then the train started moving. It was not pleasant, and no elderly and disabled person should ever be put into such a position. But of course there were no staff to help her. There are seemingly no staff other than ticket inspectors at all.

We did, eventually, arrive in London. Our journey on the underground took much longer than anticipated because - yes, you've guessed it - several lines were out of operation. Quelle surprise!

I appreciate the fact that sometimes things do go awry, but the fact is that it is like this seemingly every time I use the train.

Over the last 4 weeks (or thereabouts) I have had a row with passengers who put their suitcases on seats meaning other passengers have nowhere to sit. (Admittedly they have nowhere else to put them as there is precious little space for luggage, and this on a line that runs from Stansted Airport to London. You would have thought it might have occurred to somebody that such a train would require space for luggage, but no, apparently not!) Customer complaint form number one from me.

Then, a week or so later, due to non-functioning ticket machines at Tottenham Hale I was forced to queue for ages to buy a ticket at the counter. 3 windows, only one staff member working, so it was a long queue. I explained that our party would be travelling out together, but returning on different days. He sold me 3 return tickets. On the way back, travelling alone, I had my ticket seized by an inspector as it transpired that the idiot at Tottenham Hale had sold me the wrong ticket, and it was only valid if everybody traveled together. I was told to pay a fine, which I resolutely refused to do. Customer complaint form number two from me.

Form number three I will fill in tomorrow. That's three complaints from one customer from just six journeys.

And for this we have to pay.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

These arms of mine: Otis Redding

"And if you would let them hold you, oh how grateful I would be..."

I can actually remember the day, during the Summer holidays of 1976, the hottest Summer in England since records began,when I started to look beyond Rock n Roll, and cast my net towards Soul.

I had heard Otis Redding's 'Sitting on the Dock of the Bay', and I knew that this was something very special indeed.

As a young Teddy Boy I was aware of the fact that our mortal enemies, the Mods, adored Otis, but I wanted to hear more. And so I bought, from the record shop Sounds Around in Borehamwood, a compilation album of Soul music,  purely on the strength of the fact that there were a couple of Otis' tracks that I hadn't heard before.

I can even remember that the album cost me 49p, the equivalent of 2 hours pay for my part-time job filleting Cod at the Leeming Road Fish Bar (3x2 hour shifts per week - probably illegal today under child labour laws - but I loved it!)

And so, in August 1976, at the age of 14, sitting alone in my bedroom I heard Otis sing 'These Arms Of Mine' for the very first time.

When I heard it, I was instantly mesmerized, and I probably played the track 20 or 30 times in succession on that afternoon.

Otis tore his own heart out in every song he gave to us, but I had never before heard any man express himself verbally like this. I hoped so much that I would be able to explain my own emotions like this when the time came - but who could possibly do so? Otis was unique. The Byron of Soul music, maybe....

40 years later, after much joy, much tragedy, and even a couple of wars, of course I see the world in a different way from when I was 14 years old, but this performance still takes my breath away. In my opinion it is Otis' masterpiece, far superior to Dock of the Bay both musically, and lyrically. This is pure poetry.

I listen to it often, and it still catches me every time exactly as it did during the Summer heat wave of 1976.

Well done, Otis!

Listen and enjoy.....