Writing Relief

July 5, 2020

On 18th May this year, I wrote the first notes about a book I wanted to write. Today, on 5th July, I finished a good draft, 110,000 words. I had forgotten how very satisfying it can be to have completed a long story from beginning to end.

Lots of work, yet, to improve the manuscript, but I am satisfied I have the bones of a decent book.

Perhaps now I’ll have time to put more interesting stuff on this blog?


July 1, 2020

It is not quite six and I just watched an older crow go up and down the back lane lane on the Hydro lines, cawing vigorously and loudly, stopping close to each tree in turn.

Like a crow wake-up man.

Happy Father’s Day Dad!

June 21, 2020


He has been gone 20 years now, but I seem to speak with him more often these days than I ever did when he was alive.  He was a wonderful man and, I now recognize, a marvellously supportive parent; an attribute that I was too dumb to notice far too often when I was younger.

Changes at Western Lake

June 12, 2020

We just got back from a wonderful dim sum at Western Lake. It was the first time we had been back since March 8 just days before the world closed down. They have made a lot of changes to meet covid-19 standards.

First, there are far fewer tables, and I didn’t see any parties larger than four persons.  Formerly, no matter the day or the hour, the place was jam-packed and you were always rubbing shoulders with people at the next table, making new friends. It gave the restaurant a particular noisy vibrancy that I loved.  Now, there is a lot of space and the feeling is very different — not bad, just different.

There also used to be crowds of people waiting in the vestibule, spilling out onto Victoria. No more.

In the scores of times that we have been there over the years not once have I ever seen an empty table, until today when there were a few.  However, I doubt they have lost much business. They had a double-length table set aside for Skip, Uber, and online order pickups where dozens and dozens of bags filled with food went on and off that table in the time we were there.

Finally, all the staff wore gloves and masks, which I guess is standard now.  More interestingly, I noticed that about 90% of the Chinese customers arrived at the place wearing masks, while only about 25% of the westerners did.

The food was as always hot, fresh, and absolutely delicious. I miss the almost frenzied atmosphere of the past, but it won’t keep us away.

Hot War In The Yard

June 3, 2020

Image: stock

We are lucky enough to have a patio or porch that is more than twice the size one would expect for an apartment. We get lots of visits from crows, squirrels, and smaller birds that we happily feed with peanuts. The early morning is usually a busy time for them, crowding the platforms, but this morning I hadn’t seen a solitary critter before 8:30am.

I wandered out to see what might be happening and there in a flowerbox was a large raccoon. snoozing perhaps.  I happen to like raccoons and was pleased to make its acquaintance. It looked at me blearily and decided, I guess, it was time to move on.  So he waddled off to the west, climbed out of our patio and onto a small roof and then onto the neighbour’s wall which he proceeded to follow until he was out of my sight.

From the moment he left our patio until he disappeared from view, no less than five large crows showed up and dive-bombed him constantly. They have nests in the nearby trees and I guess they were protecting their young. The crows were furious and noisy and took turns throwing themselves at the raccoon. He just ignored them, and waddled off.

It is now just gone 9 and the squirrels have still not shown themselves. I hope they are OK.

The Longest of Memories and the Highest of Mountains

May 29, 2020

everestToday is the 67th anniversary of the first successful climbing of Mount Everest by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary.  News of the success arrived in England the day of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation and I remember my father, who was very excited by the news, telling me all about it.  For years thereafter Edmund Hillary was the greatest hero of my young imagination.

I have one or two memories about my brother and me that pre-date May 1953, but Hillary on Everest is the earliest I can recall anything outside the family.  I know from photographs that there were massive street parties I attended to celebrate the new Queen: I remember none of that.  But Hillary on Everest has stuck with me all these years.

The picture is of Tensing Norgay taken by Hillary.  There are no pictures of Hillary on the summit because Tensing didn’t know how to work the camera and, as Hillary said, the summit of Everest was no place to start teaching him!


May 28, 2020

For about a decade now, I have lived and died on Twitter. It has been my main source of breaking news, the place I feel most comfortable to debate, and a platform for my political and personal propaganda.

If there was an AA meeting for Twitterers, I would be saying about now: “My name is Jak and I am a Twitter addict. I have been clean and sober for seven days…”

At the end of last week, I finally decided I was ready to write another book. I started work on it, and discovered — to my shock and horror — that the constant breaks I took to check up on my Twitter feed were interfering with my writing flow. There were times when it stopped me completely. As I got more and more annoyed, I made a promise to myself that I would not visit Twitter at all last Friday and for the entire weekend to follow.

I did that, and managed to pull together more than thirty thousand second-draft words on my project by Sunday night. I was happy and a lot more relaxed than I have been in a long time. So I kept going.

It is now Thursday evening, I have managed to continue avoiding Twitter (though the temptations have been strong) and I have a pleasing sixty-thousand words completed and ready for editing.

There is a long way to go on this book project and right now I am in no mood for Twitter to regain its prevaricating hold over me.  We’ll see if I can maintain this sobriety for another few weeks.

Memories of Bob Dylan and the Hawks

May 26, 2020

Fifty-four years ago today I went to the Albert Hall in London to see Bob Dylan.  There were walk outs and cat calls in the second half as Dylan went electric accompanied by the earliest iteration of The Band (most of whom were from The Hawks).

I have a sense that I enjoyed both halves of the show just as well, though the second half, the electric half,  was still unexpected even though one knew it was going to happen.

Dining-In as a Treat

May 26, 2020

Yesterday, I had to go to the pharmacy. They were busy and I was asked to wait twenty minutes for my prescription.  I had no problem with that as I am at an age where having to sit in their comfortable chairs and wait is a bit of a blessing, to be honest.  However, I had noticed on my walk passed, that The Dime had re-opened, and so I went there instead.

The Dime in pre-plague days

The Dime is one of my favourite places on the Drive and I was genuinely excited to get back in the door for the first time in a couple of months. They did not disappoint.

On entering, you have to sign in with your contact information. I noticed I was the fifth diner. That business, plus some blocked off tables and the use of a much-smaller paper menu, were the only signs noticeable to me that we had gone through this plague. There were no gloves or masks, but each setting was well cleansed after being used. It was service with a smile from a server who seemed genuinely happy to be back at work.

I sat in my usual spot, looking out onto the Drive, thoroughly enjoying my Swiss Peppercorn burger and a long cold drink of Dam Amber beer. Beside the Dime being a lot more empty, and a lot quieter, than usual, I felt back at home!

A Cut Too Close To Home

May 21, 2020

One of the great barbers of our generation is closing.  Tino, who has been a fixture on the Drive since 1993, has decided to retire, the latest victim of the virus.


In 1993, Tino took over Tommy’s Barber Shop at 1834 Commercial. I first went there in about 1996 and he has cut my hair ever since.  Some years ago he was obliged to move to 2111 Commercial, a space that is now sadly empty and gutted.

He was always a steady source of Italian gossip, a great stylist (so long as it was very short all over), and will be greatly missed.


Fitting In Outside The Mainstream

May 20, 2020

Arizona meI doubt if I fit into anyone’s description of the mainstream:

  • I haven’t owned a car in 29 years
  • or a microwave (22 years)
  • or a mobile phone of any kind (ever)
  • I’ve never eaten at McDonald’s
  • I’ve never seen a Star Wars movie
  • My sports of choice are rugby, cricket, cycling and sumo
  • I read history texts for pleasure
  • I’ve never been on Facebook

And yet I fit into this neighbourhood so well.  That’s what I love about Grandview and Commercial Drive:  diversity is boss, and a ready acceptance is standard.

Demolishing Without A Permit

May 19, 2020

Back in the very early 1970s, in Manchester, my then-girlfriend had a brother-in-law who made a living stealing lead from the roofs of parish churches. Well, it made him a living before he slipped off one particular parish roof and died on the pavement below.  I hadn’t thought of him for a while, but he came to mind this morning.

The entrance to our underground parking is a wooden structure that has seen far better days. The roof is made of tin, covered some twenty-odd years ago, by tar paper or something similar, and it is in terrible shape.  I look out onto it every day through my home-office window. Some commotion made me look out today, and there were two large crows picking at something, squabbling.


I thought that they had a small bird that they were tearing apart. But looking more closely, I saw that they were actually fighting over bits of loose tar paper. The bigger one flew away with a full mouth load of stuff. The other stayed around and started pulling small sheets of the tar paper off the roof.

I can only guess they use them as nesting materials.

Remembering The Big Bang

May 18, 2020

Forty years ago today, early on a Sunday morning, I was in North Vancouver at a friend’s house with a bunch of other folks recovering from what had been a major party the night before.  My eyes hurt, my head hurt, and I was sure that the big bang I heard, and the small tremors that swept up my legs, were all part of the painful recovery process.  But I wasn’t the only one to hear and feel those things, and we began to wonder.

There was no internet or 24-hour news stations then, and it was probably a while before we learned what had gone on south of us.


Mount St. Helens had blown its head off, and for hours we sat around watching KOMO or KING, gazing in awe as dust settled on towns for miles around, gazing in awe at the power of the mountain.

This was not a day to easily forget.

The Death of Idols

May 9, 2020

I was born in 1949 and so I came of age in the 1960s, but it was the 1950s that informed and coloured so much of my early life and tastes.  This week, we lost two of the most influential figures of that time: the Beat poet Michael McClure, and Little Richard, one of the true originators of rock and roll.

McClure was one of the organizers of the Six Gallery reading in 1955 that introduced us to Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia and Kenneth Rexroth, gave us Allan Ginsberg’s Howl, and began what is called the San Francisco Renaissance.  In his semi-fictional account of that night published as Scratching the Surface of the Beats in 1982, McClure recalled:

“The world that we tremblingly stepped out into in that decade was a bitter, gray one. But San Francisco was a special place. Rexroth said it was to the arts what Barcelona was to Spanish Anarchism. Still, there was no way, even in San Francisco to escape the pressure of the war culture. we were locked in the pressure of the Cold War and the first Asian debacle — the Korean War.  My self image in those years was of finding myself — young, high, a little crazed, needing a haircut, in an elevator with burly crew-cutted, square jawed eminences, staring at me like I was misplaced cannon fodder. … We saw that the art of poetry was essentially dead — killed by war, by academies, by neglect, by lack of love, and by disinterest. We knew we could bring it back to life.”

““It was the critical moment for the Beat Generation, the grouping together of five young proto-anarchists and Buddhists,” said McClure of the Six Gallery Reading. “As we spoke, we realized from the results that we were speaking for the people. We were saying what they needed and wanted to hear, and that encouraged us. We drew a line in the sand and decided not to back off that line.”

I only learned of that event many years later when McClure became a key part of the late 60s revolution, reading at events such as the Human Be-In, the Band’s Last Waltz concert, writing Mercedes Benz for Janis Joplin, and his later close association with Ray Manzarek of the Doors.  I wolfed down huge amounts of McClure and it has stayed with me.

He published more than 30 books of poetry and plays. He died at age 87.

And then there was Little Richard.  In just three years, 1956 to 1958, Little Richard created both a sound and a bravura that would mark rock and roll for ever.  His squealing, his heavy gospel-inspired piano pounding, his quasi-erotic lyrics, his pompadour and flashy clothes, and his androgynous sexuality  set the style from which almost all pop and rock has followed to this day.  “I heard Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and that was it,” Elton John told Rolling Stone in 1973. “I didn’t ever want to be anything else.”

He had already retired and become a preacher by then time I was really listening to music, but his songs — Long Tall Sally, Tutti Frutti, Good Golly Miss Molly — were covered by the Beatles and just about everyone else I followed in the early 60s. He and Jerry Lee Lewis gave us excitement.

Little Richard was also 87 when he died.

Chronicles of the Plague Year #9

May 2, 2020

Another week or more gone.  I rarely know what day it is and sometimes it feels like we are inmates on a prison hulk being transported to a new world.

We have fallen into new habits over these last few weeks. Some, like long naps every afternoon, are merely extensions of what went before. But some are quite different. For example, my usual bedtime these days is an hour or more later than it used to be, presumably because I don’t have plans (or European sporting events) early on the following day.

And then there is breakfast.  For many years we used to whip through the New York Times real estate pages over breakfast. Now, we take our time and this interlude often lasts an hour or more. We watch whatever sumo news is available, maybe some old comic skits (often British or ancient SNL), and then settle down with an episode of University Challenge, probably the toughest game show ever devised.   We found a channel on YouTube that has all the episodes going back to the early 2010s and we are watching them in sequence.  Yesterday we saw the final of the 2014 season.  This morning we started in on 2015.

Talking of sports, longtime readers of this blog will know that I am a devotee of a wide range of sports. The virus, of course, has put a stop to live sports quite literally all over the world. What we are left with is reruns and replays. About thirty years ago I used to lawn bowl at what was then called the Terminal City Bowling Club (I even won a rookie cup my first year). I have rekindled my love of that sport by watching many years’ worth of international matches and marvelling at the skills the best players exhibit.  More peculiarly perhaps, I have enjoyed many years’ worth of elite triathlon races. Even I think that is odd.

Thank goodness for YouTube!

Which reminds me, I notice that I have not been reading books during this time at home. No idea why as I have four library books sitting here that I have until the library re-opens. I have, however, been reading a lot of journal material online, watched some mighty fine documentaries, and learned new cooking skills. YouTube has become my TV of choice.

I miss our friends and the endless street cabaret of Commercial Drive. I am a home body at heart but even I want this to be over.



Chronicles of the Plague Year #8

April 25, 2020

A few months ago we got a new dishwasher.  Last week it stopped working.  Normally, the landlord’s plumber/electrician guy would come by and fix it the next day. However, because it is new and therefore under warranty, we had to call the supplier’s repair agent. “It will be in a week,” they said.  “Can’t you come sooner?” I asked.  “No, there’s a medical crisis going on you know. By the way, have you or anyone close to you got covid-19 symptoms?”

So, for the first time in perhaps 25 years, we have been washing up in the old-fashioned way. To be honest, I find it quite pleasant, messing about in a sink full of warm soapy water. The Everloving not so much. Oh well, it should be fixed on Tuesday — maybe.

I went shopping on the Drive today, and looked in to show support for the People’s Co-op Bookstore that is opening on weekends. I also took some time to notice that something less than 20% of folks were wearing masks in grocery stores. It’s bloody selfish, ignoring the needs of those working there and other shoppers.

On the way home, I rested for a while in Salsbury Park and was entranced as usual by the blossoms that seem to have engulfed the trees almost overnight. The park is covered in dandelions which make a wonderful counterpoint to the trees. I hope the Parks folks with their grass-grazing machines stay away for a while.

As I sat there, a guy in shorts and T-shirt started doing sprints up Adanac Hill, from the Park to Victoria. He would run hard up the hill, walk back down, and run again. He kept at it for quite a while.  I imagined a thick sweaty miasma surrounding him, following him up and down the hill, hanging around for others to breathe.  Healthy for him, maybe, but for the rest of us?

Another week almost done. How many more, I wonder?

Happy Birthday Dad!

April 25, 2020


Today my father would have been 93 years old.  He has been gone 20 years now, but I seem to speak with him more often these days than I ever did when he was alive.  He was a wonderful man and, I now recognize, a marvellously supportive parent; an attribute that I was too dumb to notice far too often when I was younger.

Remembering Radio Caroline, Again

April 22, 2020

About a year ago I wrote about my memories of Radio Caroline, the first of the UK’s “pirate” radio stations from the 1960s.  I just heard that Ronan O’Rahilly — the original pirate — has died.  In his honour and memory, I am re-running my article.


*  *  *  *  *

It is 55 years ago today since Radio Caroline, the first of the British pirate radio stations began broadcasting.  It was an event and a summer I remember well.

In the previous 18 months, the British music scene had exploded, first based on the incredible success of the Beatles but then quickly followed by dozens of groups from all over the country. Unfortunately, the staid old BBC held a monopoly of British radio and so many of us listened to this new music on Radio Luxemburg which broadcast in the evenings. However, the playlists of Radio Luxemburg and BBC TV’s weekly Top of the Pops were more or less controlled by the major record labels and didn’t cover the full spectrum of pop music then available.

Ronan O’Rahilly, an Irish entrepreneur, decided to broaden the choice. He purchased an old ship, refitted it with high powered radio equipment, and parked it just outside British territorial waters. On 28th March 1964, Radio Caroline began broadcasting with a Rolling Stones song, and pirate radio — pirates because they were unlicensed — almost immediately changed the entire British cultural scene.

For the next few years, everyone I knew listened to the pirates (a number of other radio ships had joined in the fun) and no matter the laws the government tried to impose, their popularity continued to increase. By 1967, even the BBC had been completely revamped, with BBC Radio One becoming simply a copy of the pirates.

That was, indeed, the Summer of Love.

The Petticoat Lane Spieler & The Modern Novelist

April 21, 2020

When I was a lad in East London in the 1950s and early 1960s, one of my favourite experiences was to visit Petticoat Lane market on a Sunday. It was — maybe still is — a great open air market specializing in shmutter; thousands of cheap clothes on racks. But there were also stalls selling everything from jellied eels and junk, to carpets and suitcases. It was always packed.

The modern TV infomercial salesmen have nothing on the spielers down the Lane. My favourite was always the china seller; I could listen to his spiel for hours. He would be selling dinner services and tea sets, and he did it by adding each item one by one to a precarious pile on his stall or, most famously, on his arm. “You also get six side plates,” he’d yell, and somehow add them to the pile. “And wait, we’ll also thrown in ‘alf a dozen tea cups, and the saucers wot goes wiv ’em.”  Eventually, he would have dozens of dishes and cups and plates and soup tureens and sauce jugs in a miraculously balanced heap. And he would sell them all for a bargain price.

It was a great show and one of them is featured at the very beginning and very end of this nostalgic short about the Market:

The whole point of the spiel was to sell the dishes of course, but he did it by showing how clever he was piece by piece. Oddly, I was reminded of this as I read Alvaro Enrigue’s 2013 novel “Sudden Death“, which ranges in time between the conquest of Mexico and the Counter-Reformation period of Europe straddling the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

I enjoy erudition and learning new stuff but, in this case, at least through the first half of the book, I kept thinking that the author was trying too hard to show how clever and learned he was by piling one exotic fact on top of another, over and over again. The book is certainly more full of facts than it is of plot.

The link through the book is a pallacorda match between the Italian artist Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, played with a ball stuffed with the hair of the beheaded Anne Boleyn.  Much of the artist’s early career is covered in episodes, as is the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, and Papal politics leading to and from the Council of Trent.  The book swings back and forth in time and location, and the author occasionally breaks through the fourth wall by directly engaging the reader with twenty-first century concerns.

It took me a while to get into this book. The style, while choppy in narrative, is lively and vulgar and delivered in short bursts. Many of the passages are lyrical and, it cannot be denied, an enormous erudition is brought to bear on questions of art especially. What stays with me most is the view of the Conquest from several Mexican points of view.

When I was in my teens, I always finished up my visits to the Lane with a drink at Dirty Dicks pub. It gave me the time to recover from the excitement of the crowds in the Lane and to contemplate what I did and didn’t buy. Similarly, I think it will take me some time to fully appreciate the quality of Enrigue’s work.


April 19, 2020

One of the joys of a full English breakfast are Heinz baked beans. At college, beans on toast were the staple supper whenever money was tight (like always). I doubt there is a larder in England that doesn’t have a can or two on a shelf.

I always assumed that the “Beanz Means Heinz” slogan pre-dated me but that is not so; I was in my late teens when Maurice Drake came up with one of the most durable of advertising lines in 1967. I know this now because of an article in the incomparable Creative Review.  From the same place I learn that Selfridge’s department store has made the bean can a feature of its displays this spring.


When I first arrived in Canada, it was a grave disappointment to me to find that cans of Heinz beans in North America were not the same as the English beans I grew up with.  However, I am glad to say that the original English flavour is now available here, if you know where to look — SuperValu on Commercial, for example.

They are one of life’s simple pleasures.