Being and Nothingness

May 31, 2023

Fifty-seven years ago this week, a Vietnamese nun poured gasoline and set fire to herself in Hue. Twenty-seven years ago today, Timothy Leary died in his sleep.

After all these years, I honestly don’t know whether Dr. Leary’s work helped us understand why the monk’s death was important to us, or whether he helped mask us from the true meaning by taking us elsewhere. Many saw no conflict in actively protesting and actively tripping. In fact, many claimed then that the “enlightenment” received through herbal and chemical stimulation was an important component of our political activism. These days, I wonder more often whether we were just bullshitting ourselves and simply following the pleasure principle.

In the end, of course, both the revered Buddhist martyr and the revered western materialist trod the same path into being and nothingness.

The Longest of Memories and the Highest of Mountains

May 29, 2023

everestToday is the 70th 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!

Remembering The Big Bang

May 18, 2023

Forty-three 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.

Dirtiness Is Next to Godliness

April 14, 2023

When I was a kid, I bet I ate a whole field’s worth of dirt as I played.  My mates and I mucked around in the Thames which, in those days, was little better than a sewer; we got colds and upset stomachs and simply ran them off, more as likely in pouring rain.  Sometimes we got real diseases like mumps and measles but they were considered age appropriate and we all knew it would be over in a week or two.  If any of us had suggested we had an allergy to peanut butter, say, then we would have been stuffed with it until we got over it.  We spent our childhoods shaking hands with every germ and bacteria on the ground and in the air and we grew up to be a fairly healthy generation.

These days parents protect their kids from any kind of contamination and we have the sickest kids in history, I bet.  Many parents pride themselves on keeping their home environments as — or more — sterile than hospitals.  And yet their children have allergies to this and contra-indications to that.  They are as clean as they can be and they are sick as dogs.

I believe there is a direct relationship between the health of kids and the amount of dirt they eat.  The more bugs they collect early in life, the better immunities they develop later; and the more sniffles they get as a child the less likely they are to show hypochondriac tendencies as adults.  To put it another way, the less a household pays in cleansing and sanitizing and “protecting” their kids, the less they will need to spend in health care costs later.

This change from healthy dirt to dangerous prophylaxis has occurred within my lifetime.  How did it come about?  Marketing and capitalism, that’s how.

By the 1940s and 1950s, major industrial cleaning companies had developed a whole range of cleaning solutions.  No one really needed them, but the marketers set out to convince parents, mothers especially, that they were doing their children great harm if they did not use their products.  They used fear as the primary motivation — not only fear of sickness in their kids, but more viscerally the fear of appearing to be a bad mother. And they succeeded perhaps beyond their wildest dreams.

And now we are all paying for it, with a generation of children with allergies and neuroses and medical conditions that were almost unknown fifty years ago.  It sure did the Johnson & Johnsons and the Hoovers of the world a lot of good financially, but is this really progress?


Memoir: King

April 6, 2023


The dusty road had held us all day long. Huge trucks belching choking fumes had raced past us, barely missing our outstretched thumbs by inches it seemed. Sometimes they blared their industrial strength horns at us, scaring us, pushing us away from the road edge. There had been very few cars, and those mostly tiny SEATs already filled with farmers and dogs and kids, and certainly not looking to pick up two hippies dirt-encrusted from too much unsuccessful hitchhiking.

I guess we managed to walk three or four miles that day, in the blazing sun, just south of Valencia. We had expected better luck (“Gibraltar by evening!” had been our war cry as we emerged from a night in a roadside culvert) and had not prepared for such a long long day trudging through heat and dust and flies. We were exhausted, and more, we were dehydrated, the half dozen blood oranges we had each consumed notwithstanding.

Ahead of us we could see the outskirts of a village, and a village meant a cafe and Coca-Cola and even iced water, perhaps. It was one of those days when we knew we were willing to spend a few of our remaining pesetas. We stumbled forward, the dust scuffing beneath our feet, coughing. We must have looked liked ancient mummies straight from the desert as we finally collapsed into the two canvas chairs set out under the tin-roofed patio of a tiny cafe. I can only imagine the thoughts that were flowing through the old man’s head as he took our order for two Cokes.

We had been sitting for some minutes before we realized that an old radio was scratching its way through the late afternoon heaviness. And it may have been a minute or so more before we understood that it was speaking to us in English. American Forces Radio, probably from Germany. “…And as the crowds begin to gather from all across Memphis, we remind our listeners that President Johnson will speak to the nation this evening, on this day when Dr Martin Luther King has been shot and killed on his hotel balcony…”

The Cokes, glistening as the ice melted down the sides of the bottles, stood unremembered as our tears washed black gullies across our cheeks.

The Nostalgia of Radio

March 28, 2023

I had a decent small radio from a very early age and it was a lifeline for me.

In the late 1950s in London, I laid in bed late at night listening to crackling baseball games coming from American Forces Radio, Voice of America broadcasts in “simple English” (or “slow talkers of America” as my Dad and I called them), Radio Moscow propaganda, the glorious voice of Garner Ted Armstrong and his Worldwide Church of God, lots of boxing matches where I had to imagine the impact of the blows, and early rock and roll, Radio Luxemburg.  It was wonderful.

When I first came to Canada in the late 1970s, I worked up in Stewart near the Alaska border, and there wasn’t much TV that I recall.  But that was when I discovered the wonder of late-evening and early-morning CBC Radio.  Allan McFee’s Eclectic Circus (going out to “all those in vacuumland”) was my end-of-day sleeping pill, while a time-shifted Morningside with Don Harron woke me up (I stopped listening once Gzowski took over).

Great days they were.


Do They Ever Fix The Sidewalks?

March 24, 2023


I am now the proud owner of a mobility scooter.

This was a necessary purchase as I am no longer able to walk more than about half a block without needing to rest for long periods. It will allow me to get out of the house more often, and I am looking forward especially to resuming a more active participation in the monthly Changes on the Drive exercises.

Today, I took it out for its first long run — from Adanac along Victoria to 1st, and then down to Commercial, returning home along Commercial. It gave me a great sense of freedom and satisfaction. However, it also got me intimately concerned about the state of the sidewalks.

The eight block stretch of sidewalk along Victoria Drive that I took was a minefield of uneven surfaces; huge ridges, major cracks, and other impedimentia that several times threatened to throw me from the chair. These are not so noticeable as you walk along, but riding on solid wheels they are a significant hazard.

I know that car drivers often complain about how long it takes to fix potholes in the street. But I wonder if the sidewalks are ever fixed?

Memoir: Marrakech Express

March 20, 2023

It was 1971 and Ken and I took the ferry from Algeciras to Tangiers. We looked as if we had been on the road for months but, in truth, it had been only a couple of weeks — we had just let ourselves go on the easy road down through France and Spain. A man in his late twenties — which we considered to be very close to middle age and possibly wisdom  —  whom we had met near Barcelona, told us that the Moroccan authorities were targeting long-haired Europeans. This didn’t bother Ken who always kept his hair short.  But here I was on the windy deck of a Mediterranean ferry with half-way-down-my-back-length hair tied up in string and stuffed uncomfortably inside an oversized cowboy hat I had found near Valencia.

When we arrived, the customs officers barely looked at us, stamped our passports and waved us through. But our Barcelona sage had not warned us about the swarm of ragged boys who descend on arrivals, shouting their wares, begging for attention, pulling at sleeves. Most seemed to be about ten or twelve.  I cannot recall any other passengers on the ferry  — although there must have been — and the crowd of boys seemed to concentrate on Ken and I, circling us with their pleading hands and eyes, until we were brought to a stop on the quayside. Ken pointed to one boy indistinguishable from the rest. It seemed to break the spell and the others slowly dispersed.

“Francais?” he beamed through broken teeth.  We shook our heads.



“Anglais good, very good!” We were following him down the quayside now, toward the intersection where the souk gate led off to the right, and a more ordinary seafront stretched to the left. And all the time he was listing off, in a musical melange of English and French, his perceptions of our wants and how available they might be.

“You want hotel, yes?”

“Yeah.  You know some?”

“Bien sur. Many hotel, many fine hotel for ‘ippy.”  I looked at Ken and Ken looked at me. We had no real idea why we were following this kid, but neither of us had any alternative suggestions.

tabgier-soukBy this point we had reached the entrance to the area of the Petit Socco. Following the child-guide now meant pursuing the unknown deeper and deeper into alleyways that we could never hope to find our way back from.  Not, at least, on this, our first day. But follow him we did, and it was not too far into the market when he pulled us into a building sporting a colourful sign in Arabic and French — “Pension d’Petit Socco”.

The kid did the deal for us. It was even cheaper than we had expected and within a few minutes we were in a room with two mattresses on the floor, no other furniture, and a window onto a rubbish-filled courtyard where a very young girl was struggling to put heavy laundry through an ancient hand-operated wringer.

“You want keef, yes?”  Not daring to voice the thought, we just nodded. He gave us a huge gappy smile.

“Vingt dirham. I return in quarter hour.” He thrust out his hand. Ken gave him the money and the kid ran out of the room. Ken looked at me, and I looked at Ken. What the hell had we done? Would the kid bring the police to bust us?  Would he just steal our money? Shit! What had we done?

The mattresses were dirtier than anything either of us had experienced before. We didn’t need to actually see the bugs moving to know they were there in force. So we didn’t sit down. We stood at the window watching the girl work, smoking the last few of our English cigarettes, thinking our own thoughts of what the inside of a Moroccan jail would be like.

The kid was back in ten minutes. Closing the door, he threw me a huge brown paper bag full of deep green leaves, and a pack of ZigZag papers. His smile, if anything, was broader than before.

“You want girl?  Young girl maybe?  We shook our heads.

“Not my sister.  Honest.  Virgin girl, very good!”

As he said this he looked so young, far too young to understand what he was offering. But he seemed clear enough.   We shooed him out of the room, but not before he had wheedled another 10 dirhams out of us for finding the hotel.  In the end he seemed pleased enough with his morning’s work.

We stacked Ken’s huge back pack against the door.  Then for another ten minutes we stood there, staring at the bag of kif, sure that this was when the police would actually arrive. But our resistance weakened with every passing minute. I took the ZigZags and created a three paper spliff into which I tipped the last English cigarette. In the meantime, Ken had cleaned a small pile of leaf and we added this to the mix. A good tight roll, a piece of the now-empty Player’s package as a filter band, and we were ready. We took turns toking, leaning against the back wall, watching the door, expecting the gendarmerie at every moment. But the kif was good — very good — and our fears gradually drifted away like the thick aromatic smoke.

We stayed in Tangiers for four days, becoming ever more confident in our trips along the steep alleyways and covered lanes that tumble over the hillsides. We explored the Grand Socco, a large square with a permanent market that attracts visiting tribesmen and tourists alike; we tramped the precincts of Moulay Ismail’s minaret which dominates the souk, reveling in the sight and feel of its cool polychrome earthenware tiling;  we even wandered south to the tourist beaches where we leaned on iron balustrades and fantasized about the buxom daughters of German burgher tourists who were obliged to sit on the sand in the wan January sun. But most of the time we sat around outside Café Maroc in the P’tit Socco, just a few steps from our hotel.

Café Maroc was a happening place. It was in the youth of its career as a meeting centre, social club, and bulletin board for the ever-increasing number of young travellers from all parts of the world making their way through Tangiers. At the Maroc you could find a lover, a good deal on dope, a ride on a Harley through Afghanistan, a tip on the best place to stay in Bombay or Katmandhu or St Louis, and, most important of all, friendship and company. You could also get the Hippy Breakfast (a huge omelette and an orange for a couple of dirhams), one of the best tajines in the whole of Morocco and a fine cup of hot sweet mint tea. It was, perhaps, the aroma of heated mint from a score of cafes and market burners that best defined the P’tit Socco.

It was at the Café Maroc on our third day that we heard about the train to Marrakech. I had spent the whole of the time it took to slowly eat my omelette listening to a Canadian fellow’s grand idea of hitching his way around the entire perimeter of Africa, south from Morocco, down around the Cape, up again through Egypt. It was a grand plan fueled by several chillums of calculation. When he left, Ken and I started thinking about what we were actually going to do, now that we had arrived in Africa. I was keen on reaching Kenya somehow, maybe working on a game farm; Ken had his eye on South Africa – he never did have any politics. Nothing seemed too hard to imagine, nothing seemed to difficult to try. Ken walked back to the hotel and returned with his map. Over more tea and another sweet kif spliff, we traced various routes on the map which was so small that sometimes our fingers covered whole countries.

It was at about this time that someone at another table mentioned the train to Marrakech. We waved him over and plugged him for information. He had just returned from the southern city, he told us, and taking the train back had been a trip: cheap and colourful, and a heck of a lot quicker than the trucks he had hitched to get down there.  He couldn’t tell us much more before he was drawn away into another conversation. Ken and I peered at the map.  Marrakech was a long way south of Tangiers.  That was a start.



When I left England, I wrapped three T-shirts, three pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks and some washing gear in my bedroll. In the small Army pouch I’d purchased from a Surplus Store, I kept my money, my passport, and my copy of “Siddhartha”. Ken, on the other hand, had purchased the largest back pack I had ever seen. In it, he crammed enough clothes and camping gear to last him at least three years after any nuclear holocaust. It weighed 40, 50 pounds! By the time we had spent three days hiking through France, he must have realized he had brought too much gear. But, at every stop, he would unpack and re-pack the whole darned thing. I spent our last night in Tangiers lying on my bedroll on the floor — we had stacked the mattresses in the corner — smoking and dreamily watching Ken go through his ritualistic packing. It was if he thought that to pack it differently would somehow reduce the weight. I fell asleep laughing.

We arrived at the station early the next morning only to discover that the train didn’t leave until late afternoon. Ken didn’t want to carry his pack (which mysteriously had lost no weight through repacking) all the way back up to the souk, so we sat in the huge cool ticket area and watched the crowds milling around. At that time of day, everyone looked to be just like businessmen everywhere. It would have been really boring if we had been straight. Sometime around lunchtime we decided to buy tickets.

“E” class was  half the price of third class. In third class, you were able to fight for a seat:  in “E” class there were no seats. The carriage was definitely not a cattle car — it had a full complement of windows. Rather it appeared to be a regular train car with all the seats and fittings removed. We thought we had gotten on early but the carriage was already full. Tribesmen in white shirts and pants, their heads swarthed in dark cloths, carrying ancient long barrelled rifles, sat on wide wooden boxes. Dark robed women squatted amid goats, their eyes and their hands — both moving always — the only visible expression of their personality. And dark-eyed, ragged-kneed kids everywhere it seemed, their apparent malnourishment and bright white teeth a lasting memory. Ken and I stood in the doorway for a long minute, surprised and a little scared, until another group of women and their goats pushed us in from behind.  At the far end of the carriage we found a spot and sat down, trying to claim as much space as we could in the crowd.

It was dark when the train pulled out with a sudden shudder that threw me awake from a sitting doze. Ken looked down at me from his perch atop his backpack. The smell of too many close bodies and goats mixed with the coarse smoke of Casa Sport cigarettes assailed me first. I have always been sensitive to smells. It was not unpleasant on the whole, but there was a lot of it. I fished in my pouch and lit my own Casa, turned around to look down the length of the carriage. A dozen small lamps had been lit as soon as we were away from the station. They swayed in the hands of children or perched threateningly on boxes, throwing a warm, golden light. And as I watched the shadows play across the roof and along the creases of flowing garments, I slowly became aware of the low hum of voices, of muffled snores, of children playing quietly.  I closed my eyes and imagined I was in some transplanted hobo novel.

As the slow night moved on, family groups seemed to close up together, leaving a little more space on the floor.  I unrolled my bedroll and lay flat out on it, snoozing almost immediately with the gentle swaying of the train.  As I was drifting off, I vaguely noticed Ken lay his pack down flat, and rest his head on it.  And then I was asleep.

I’ll never know if it was the sound of Ken’s head hitting the floor that woke me, or whether the youth ran over me on his way to the door that separated our carriage from the next. Whatever it was, I was wide awake and watched as the kid struggled to get Ken’s pack through the narrow door. Ken was still rubbing his head as I swiftly rose and went after the boy. Passing through the now-swinging entrance and gingerly stepping over the gap, I pushed open the door into the next carriage and looked for the kid.  He wasn’t there;  and he had certainly not had time to run the full length to the other end. From the bleary looks I was getting, it seemed that I was the only disturbance the travellers had seen that night. I stepped back into the gap between the carriages and looked out into the dark.  We were travelling quite slowly and as my eyes accustomed to the dark, it looked like the passing ground was flat.  Ken joined me.

“He jumped,” I said.

“Jesus God,” he whispered.

We must have stood watching the dark night pass by for an hour or more without speaking.



Day Trip To M’Hamid

March 16, 2023

It has been so cold in Vancouver this winter that I was reminded of a really hot day decades ago.

* * * *

Late May, 1971, and I had been living in Zagora, for a few weeks already. Zagora lies close to the indistinct border Morocco shares with Algeria.  Further south, and the last habitable oasis before the Great Desert, lies the village of M’Hamid.   During the months I had lived in Marrakech, I had heard tell that the camel trains to Timbuktou gathered at M’Hamid before heading south for Mali and the Upper Niger.   I was determined to find out.  In fact, I was determined to get to Timbuktou.  To do that, I decided to hitch a ride to M’Hamid on one of the heavy trucks we had seen occasionally head south.

Zagora, an oasis famous in the history of the western Sahara, is a hundred miles or more south east of Marrakech, and on the farther side of the High Atlas.   My friend Ken and I had gotten here by hitching a flatbed truck south all the way from Djema el-Fna in the big city.  We had no idea that the truck would take the steep and curving mountain roads at 100 miles an hour, nor that we would literally have to tie our belts to the truck and then to our wrists simply to hold on as the flatbed careened wildly from side to side.   I was only 21 but I knew right then that I would never be so scared again in the whole of my life.

After the incredible noise and crush of Marrakech, Zagora had turned out to be a zone of peace.  A garrison town, it had a couple of thousand or so permanent residents, a few hundred conscript soldiers, an assortment of Taureg coming to and from the weekly market, and a half dozen hippies.    Ken and I, two Frenchmen and two Dutch girls lived on the south side of town, in a grove of trees along the slow, brown Dra River.  The Dutch girls lived in their VW microbus, while the rest of us slept on the open ground.  During the day we hung our groundsheets in the trees to create shade, and we kept the few groceries we could afford — watermelon, mainly — in the river.

I had left England the previous winter with a small army pouch, a bed roll and thirty pounds.   By the time we arrived in Zagora, I still had my bedroll, I had no clothes but the djelaba I wore, and I had the equivalent of five pounds in dinar.  Life was good:  We ate cheaply and well at the local cafes, drank orange juice by the bucket, mixed with the locals, made friends with the Bluemen, made fun of the occasional Land Rover Adventure Tourists.  We were stoned all the time, from morning til night, each of us having stocked up on the necessary supplies before leaving Marrakesh.   Life was indeed good.  But now I wanted to move on.

The road to M’Hamid was also on the south side of town, bearing off from the river road, the two paths demarcated by a low stone chip wall.   I arrived at the junction in the early dawn.   The view was bleakly magnificent:  dunes, rock slabs and shimmering dust hanging in the sunrise.  I sat down, leaning against the wall, rolled a thick joint, and waited for a truck.

By eleven the sun was high, bright and scorching.  The hood of my djelaba was pulled low over my face giving me the only shade available.   I smoked another joint and watched a local farmer mercilessly beat a donkey about half a mile away.  For the longest time I couldn’t work out what he was farming.  Then, with a flash of kif wisdom, I realised he must be farming for stones.  And all the time he beat his donkey.

I must have fallen asleep because it came as a shock to me that the sun was so low in the sky.  I was sitting in a wide pool of dampness, the sweat from my body soaking my djelaba and the ground on which I was sitting.   I tried to stand up, but couldn’t. I wasn’t sure why, thought it might just be a stiffness from sitting so long with my knees hugged to my chest — the better to create a tent-like space under my gown.  I tried again and my feet just wouldn’t push me upright.  

The faintest tingling in my feet made me look down.  My toes looked like tiny stalks of stewed rhubarb, purple and fat.   While I sat there through the heat of a desert day, the hem of my gown had failed to cover my toes: they were badly sunburned and I had immediate and detailed and horrifying visions of rough amputations taking place at the fort medic’s office.   I gently covered my toes with the edge of my gown and wondered what to do.   Just about that time, Ken and one of the French guys came looking for me.

It was about a mile to our river encampment and they carried me every step of the way.  Once there, they gently placed me in the river so that the heat in my feet could be dissipated in the cool stream.   I screamed at first, but quickly relaxed, lying full length in the water.    Later, the Dutch girls brought me food from the nearest café and made sure I drank as much water as I could.   Even later, we were joined at the riverbank by one of the locals who had become a regular visitor, sharing our kif and telling us news from the outside world.  he listened to my story, a smile playing across his face.

“The caravans have stopped for the year,” he said.


“Sure.  They finished last month.  They start again in September.  No one tries to cross the erg in summer.”

I looked at my blackened toes, took another toke and learned another lesson.

Definitions of Homelessness

March 14, 2023


I spent considerable time in the late 1960s and early 1970s effectively homeless, travelling throughout Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and America with little or no money. But neither I nor the many others I met in that period considered that we fit that description. In fact, it would never have occurred to me to think of myself in that way.

We were hippies; heirs to the hobos, moving from place to place in search of a few hours or days’ work in return for a few bucks or a room for the night; seeking the experiences and sunshine (and cheap drugs) while we “found ourselves”. Many of us had plans — hitch to Kathmandu, work on a safari park in East Africa, whatever — but those plans tended to run second to the immediate joys that each day brought us.

There were places where many hippies gathered — Marrakech, for example, the beaches of southern Spain, London, the Greek islands. But even there, I never remember anyone calling us homeless. We were called “hippies” or “filthy hippies” or “damn longhairs” but never homeless, even though we were. We often slept rough but were not referred to as “rough sleepers” as the homeless in England are called these days.

I’m not really sure where this piece is going, but I wonder at the change in vocabulary. We hippies were often sleeping in the streets, taking drugs, and were generally and purposefully idle. But the language used to describe similar groups in cities today has gotten far harsher than anything I ever heard back then. And much of this invective comes from people my age who lived through or experienced the life I have been describing.

Perhaps the change in language and attitude followed the change in the drugs being used. We had very few opiates in those days and, of course, no fentanyl. But we did have lots of marijuana, pills of various types, acid, and a great deal of alcohol; and I strongly suspect that the middle-class straights thought of those as just as evil as the opiates of today.

Perhaps we have just become a lot less tolerant.

Anyway, just some thoughts on a long afternoon.

The Death of Manchester United

February 6, 2023

When I was 8 years old, my parents had very little money and we lived in what today would be called a slum. We couldn’t afford magazines or anything of the sort, but we did get the Daily Mirror. The walls of my bedroom were covered in smudgy newspaper black-and-white photos of my heroes, Manchester United, and, most especially, their young superstar Duncan Edwards.

Sixty-five years ago today, an airplane carrying the team on a flight from Munich back to England crashed on take-off in the snow. Twenty people died at the scene, including ten players and trainers, and three others, including Duncan Edwards, died later from their injuries. It was a tragedy that brought England to a standstill.

Clubs didn’t have huge bank accounts in those days and the disaster almost caused the club to fold.  In the end it took manager Matt Busby (who had been seriously injured in the crash) ten years to rebuild the team and win another championship.  Being young, I didn’t have the patience to wait, and I had already switched my allegiance to Chelsea by then.

Gone, But Still Never Forgotten

February 4, 2023

A long, long time ago…
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And, maybe, they’d be happy for a while.

But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver.
Bad news on the doorstep;
I couldn’t take one more step.

I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride,
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.


You have to be almost as old as God herself to remember this, but 64 years ago yesterday Buddy Holly, Big Bopper and Richie Valens died in a snowy plane crash at Clear Lake , Iowa.  I, too, learned about it from the headlines I read during my paper route the following morning.  It’s a long, long time ago.

Spies: A Cold War Memory

January 24, 2023

When I was eleven years old I lived in Ruislip Gardens which is a tiny suburb of Ruislip which, in turn, is a small suburb hanging on to the western edge of London.  I had a newspaper route which I took care of seven days a week starting at six each morning.

In London in those days we had a dozen or more daily newspapers and each subscriber to our delivery service could receive any permutation of papers. Most houses took two papers, and some many more. Sorting the right papers into the the right order in the right bags was a vital part of each morning’s routine at the shop.

By Christmas 1960, I was one of the senior delivery boys and had thus inherited a long route that covered the main road from Ruislip Gardens to Ruislip and included several side streets along the way. It took almost two hours and I sure earned my breakfast every day. On school days, it was split between two boys.

One of the side streets to which I delivered newspapers every day was Cranley Drive. And at 45 Cranley Drive lived a Canadian couple, Helen and Peter Kroger. I know I delivered papers to them but I don’t recall them at all, not even from the Christmas tip. However, in January 1961, the Krogers were arrested, and I do remember the street being closed off one cold morning by police cars and constables. It was revealed over the next few months that the Krogers were really Russian spies Morris and Lona Cohen, and that their basement on Cranley Drive included a sophisticated radio communications setup with Moscow.

It seemed exciting to a young kid in those dangerous days of Atom spies, the Third Man, Checkpoint Charlie. And I have kept my fascination with moles and sleeper cells ever since.

Towers of Snow in Grandview

December 20, 2022


False Memory Syndrome

November 22, 2022

Fifty-nine years ago today, my mother and father and I had been visiting their closest friends, Ron and Betty, who lived a few miles from us in West London. I was in the backseat of the small black car.  It smelled of leather and my parents’ cigarettes. I was sullen because I was just turned 14 years old and I had far better things to do than visit my parents’ old fogie friends to play cards.

I remember this all so clearly because, as we were driving home, the car radio broke off its normal programming and a solemn voice replaced the happy chatter.  The voice announced that President John F. Kennedy of the United States had been shot and probably killed.  I can still feel the gooseflesh that crawled over my skin. I remember the loud gasp as my father realized what had been said.  John Kennedy was one of my father’s heroes, and he was mine too. He was our hope for the future, and now he was dead. Nothing else about that evening do I remember.

Within two years of that day, though, JFK had — in my eyes at least — fallen from the pedestal upon which his charisma, his beautiful family, and his martyrdom had placed him.  He was quickly revealed as just another centre-right US politician who was happy to send the boys to war, who was happy to squander the nation’s wealth on weapons and imperialism, who had no answer to segregation but brother Bobby’s federal agents.  We also learned (perhaps we always knew) he wasn’t quite such a great family man, either; that Camelot was an expensive sham.

Kennedy and his people lived in the tuxedoed world of High Society that was soon to be swept away by the real world of Soul on Ice and Revolver.  We might have hated that big Texas bully who followed Kennedy, but it was Kennedy not Johnson who pushed the US into South Vietnam, and it was Johnson not Kennedy who brought forward the Civil Rights Acts. Looking back, we can now see that both Kennedy and Johnson were equal participants in the cabaret that is America the Superpower. Unfortunately for the truth, Kennedy will always have the smile, the beautiful wife, the cute John-John and Caroline, while Johnson will always be pulling the ears off those damn beagles.

On Being Seventy-Three

October 29, 2022


Today is my birthday, which I share with Bob Ross, Joseph Goebbels, and the ballpoint pen.

I am seventy-three years old.   Just saying that feels unreal.  When I was born in 1949, average life expectancy for a man in the UK was about 65 years; I have somehow managed to beat that.

I am part of the generation that didn’t trust anyone over thirty, and who made terribly dangerous choices on a regular basis throughout their thirties and forties. By the 1990s, what with all the drugs and the booze and the carousing, I was certain I couldn’t possibly reach fifty, and I wasn’t all that sure I wanted to.

Now, I have kids in their late forties, grand-children in their thirties, and I am sure that great-grand-children can’t be far away.

The fact that I am still here, walking and talking and pretending (to myself at least) to be young, is astonishing, a wonder, a miracle of modern medicine, and a tribute to the Everloving who takes such good care of me.

My future keeps catching up to my present and I hope it keeps doing so for a long time.  After all, I have promised myself my first ever Big Mac on my one hundredth birthday!

Thirteen Years Of Freedom

October 22, 2022


Thirteen years ago today, I was called into my boss’s office and told that I was being laid off.

The locally-owned company where I had worked for a good many years had been taken over by a larger American group earlier that year, and they wanted to put their own people into senior management positions.  I wasn’t the first or even fourth senior manager to be sent packing, and I had expected this meeting all through the summer. I was almost sixty years old and bored with working for someone else. When the hammer fell, I was greatly relieved and happily accepted the generous severance pay they offered.

Luckily, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the first part of my enforced retirement. I was keen to write a history of Commercial Drive and over the next fifteen months, that’s what I did.  Along with this I helped establish the Grandview Heritage Group which kept me busy and interested.  At the same time, I wanted to become a lot more involved in local politics, knowing that a Community Plan was about to be thrust upon us.  Any regular reader of this blog will know that I was and remain deeply involved in those matters to this day.

The Community Plan experience led to my third book Battleground: Grandview which was published last November, and the Heritage Group has allowed me to continue my focus on writing about the history of Commercial Drive.

So, I have been busy these last thirteen years.  But the genuine sense of freedom has been the really exhilarating feeling. I wake up when I want, dress in whatever I want, spend time with the Everloving, cook, take long luxurious naps, read, write, and relax.  We certainly don’t have the money we had when I was working, but we get by OK, and I’ll swap the money for such freedom any day.

It has been a grand thirteen years, and I quietly thank my old firm for laying me off when they did.

Aberfan: The Death of Childhood

October 21, 2022


Aberfan disaster, October 1966.jpg

Today is the 56th anniversary of one of the saddest days of my young life. A rain-soaked and ill-sited colliery spoil tip that loomed over the south Wales village of Aberfan collapsed, burying houses and a school, killing 116 children and 28 adults. Lessons had just begun for the morning when the 34m tip spilled 140,000 cubic yards of spoil into the village.

I didn’t know any of the victims, and had not even heard of the village until that morning. But I remember weeping as the news came over the radio, and I am tearing up now as I type this.

The National Coal Board and several employees were found to be responsible, and money was raised. But nothing could replace the lives that were lost due to management’s callous disregard for public safety.

Amsterdam and Burgers

October 12, 2022


Tonight, the Everloving and I had our first date night since the plague began, and we went to the movies. We saw Amsterdam.

David Russell’s movie is brilliant, anarchic at times, beautifully written and crafted, and superbly cast down to the smallest bit parts. I will definitely watch it again sometime.

After the movies we had really good burgers at Earls next to the theatre.

A fine night out!

Beep Beep Beep

October 4, 2022

I was just a few weeks away from my 8th birthday when my father sat me on his knee specifically to listen to our old radio spit out some strange sounds — “Beep.  Beep.  Beep.”  Even through the static we knew we had never heard the like of it before.

On October 4th, 1957 — just sixty-five years ago — the space age began with the launch by the Soviet Union of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite.  I’m sure the surprise in the US was far greater than we felt in Europe.  We Europeans were already terrified of the power of the grey beasts just a few hundred miles to the east of our cozy nest in West London.  It seemed to many that Russian tanks could overrun Europe at any moment, and the technological genius of Sputnik simply confirmed our anxiety.

But again, there was always that secret spot inside that reveled in the fact that a European power had beaten the Americans into space.  And for my socialist grandfather and his cadre of friends, it was yet another sign that the Workers’ Paradise was superior in every respect to the Mickey Mouse- and Doris Day-loving capitalists.

In the end, I’m sure this had little to do with the ultimate end of the Cold War.  The costs of the space race were minuscule compared to the economy-shuddering trillions spent on the arms race by both sides.  But without Sputnik and all that followed, we would be a very different and more distanced world today.