Making your celebration go with a bang

Making your celebration go with a bang

It’s a birthday, Christmas, a special event. What’s a good way to make it go with a bang so that everyone can join in the celebrations? What better than a firework display? Year-round, they are on sale, the pyrotechnics ever more spectacular. And the most popular season is upon us now; First Diwali, followed by Guy Fawkes night, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year.

Diwali is a festival of lights, the triumph of good over evil, and fireworks are among the ways it’s celebrated. What it is not is a celebration of who can be the loudest. Thanksgiving is an American tradition to celebrate the harvest. Christmas and New Year are times of joy and looking to the future. Guy Fawkes night celebrates a failed plot where gunpowder wasn’t ignited!  None of them requires the sounds of war. Yet fireworks creating awe-inspiring patterns in the sky are inevitably followed by a crescendo of explosions, echoing off walls and hard surfaces. What purpose do the bangs serve? The impact is in the visuals. The blasts are unnecessary and irrelevant. But they do have an impact of their own. On creatures that associate noise with threat. Pets and wildlife cower at the sounds, seeking safety and to escape from the danger they hear and don’t understand.

And it’s not just one night. Diwali is five days. The remaining events seem to last interminably and well beyond the appointed days. Plus, the occasional wedding and birthday where it seems the bigger and louder the bang the better. For dogs, cats, birds – most living creatures – there is no respite.

What makes all this so difficult to understand is that we are supposedly an animal-loving nation. According to the PDSA, 52% of adults own a pet. In the UK, there are ten million pet dogs, eleven million pet cats and a million pet rabbits. Building and development schemes invariably include clauses protecting wildlife. Yet fireworks that inflict stress and trauma on animals continue without restriction. Where is the logic in that?

This is not an argument to ban fireworks – although there is an irony that roads are being closed to traffic to safeguard us all from vehicle particulates while fireworks are dropping far worse. According to Forbes, ‘Fireworks create highly toxic gases and pollutants that poison the air, the water and the soil, making them toxic to birds, wildlife, pets, livestock — and people.’ And there are alternatives that are environmentally sound. Although not from your local ‘All Year Round’ supplier.

There is also a raft of regulations on how and when fireworks can be used to safeguard us all – the Met Police list times and conditions, though these are seldom, if ever, enforced.

Yet in their guidance notes, even the Met writes, ‘Everyone should be able to enjoy fireworks safely, whether at an organised display or in their back garden.’ Quite where this human right to fireworks came from isn’t explained but, if the tradition of enjoying coloured lights in the sky is so embedded, does it have to be accompanied by a cacophony of explosions and banshee screams? Can we not admire them, with a gasp, an ‘ooh,’ and ‘aah’? Most public displays are accompanied by music anyway.

Or is the bang a feeble attempt at machismo, defiance against normal standards of behaviour, or just plain ignorance?

Meanwhile, for the next few months, pet owners will have animals cowering, trembling, uncontrollably defecating.

Everyone wants their celebrations to be a success. But do they have to go off with a bang?

Serene on the racetrack before retirement, hiding in the basement to escape fireworks. We’ve laid bedding on the concrete floor to offer some comfort.

RSPCA campaign against fireworks –


Sorry, but I’ll have to pass

One of the joys of watching Arsenal Women is their passing and possession game, the smooth transition from the back, to midfield and to the forwards, not forgetting the accuracy of long passes from deep when Leah Williamson is in the side. Even with tight marking and opponents on their heels, they retain control, the ball is shielded and laid off, skidding across the turf to a teammate. It’s a style I’ve enjoyed and has been successful over many years, marred only by Chelsea’s arrival in town.

And I’d been looking forward to taking my season ticket to Borehamwood for the Women’s Super League match against West Ham on Sunday. I’ve long argued that the home of the Arsenal is N5, that we are one club and for one of its first XIs playing in a National League stadium does not befit the club’s status, nor that of the women’s team. Ground sharing is not the Arsenal way. (OK, we did it during the Second World War, but that was somewhat different!) Yet, I’ve grown fond of Meadow Park, the intimacy of the smaller stadium, the ease of access, switching from seated to standing at half time, the friendly welcome from the Lunch Box crew. The change of snack providers and the new restrictions on where you can sit or stand has tarnished this somewhat, but even so, I wanted to be there for West Ham.

Trouble is, the fixture planners have made it a double header, men’s first, women’s after, but in different stadia, sixteen miles apart and an hour’s drive away – seventy minutes by public transport. And that’s not allowing for leaving the Emirates and queues on roads and at stations. Late, lamented Maria Petri once told me she did the reverse, taking a taxi from Borehamwood to Ashburton Grove and she still had to leave the women’s game early and arrived late for the men’s. So, what chance seeing all the 2pm kick-off against Nottingham Forest and arriving at Borehamwood to see all the match against West Ham? None I’d wager.

Then there’s something I’d never considered before. Overload. I can normally be guaranteed to want to watch any match, whether it’s on a recreation ground, in a cage at a sports’ centre or in a lower league. But I found last week, watching the men labour against PSV before going to the WCL match against Zurich, I was left drained and exhausted. It was great to see Jordan Nobbs back and performing well, and to see Lina Hirtig’s first goals for the club. Surely they should have provided me with the antidote to an anodyne performance from the men. Instead, two consecutive matches and three hours of football left me oversaturated, numbed almost. The rule that more is less seemed to apply.

I would hope that somehow, someday, the authorities will coordinate men’s and women’s games, so these almost clashes don’t occur. But with TV companies involved and fans not anywhere near their first priorities. I’m not holding my breath.

So, reluctantly, one of my season tickets will go unused.  I am in an unusual position in that I live almost on the doorstep of the Emirates. And I have been supporting the men and visiting Highbury since before the Beatles.

Which means, for this weekend, I’m sorry to say that, for Arsenal Women against West Ham Women, I’ll have to pass.

Going to pot!

It’s been some time since I launched STAN (Stop Those Acronyms Now) and today I am launching CACTUS (Campaign Against Cruelty To Urban Shrubbery).

Walk any ordinary street and glance into gardens. Without doubt, some will be decorated by plants gasping for water – or worse, long since parched beyond recovery. Bought with enthusiasm and goodwill to demonstrate green credentials to the neighbourhood and add a little colour to the front of the house, they will have been blighted by neglect.

Check out the hanging baskets, window boxes, tubs and pots, and tell me I’m not wrong. Some will be newly planted or thriving. But there will be at least as many with leafless stems and lifeless stumps. Perhaps the instructions supplied by the garden centre failed to include ‘needs water’.

What makes it all seem so strange is that the owners will have laid out not inconsiderable amounts of hard-earned cash to buy them. People are busy, but how have they not seen their investments failing as they wilt? Are they too reliant on the disclaimer they will have read when saving up to obtain a mortgage – the ones that warn ‘investments can go down as well as up.’ Once plant stocks go down, there is only one direction. Rather like shares went in Debenhams.

Perhaps plant watering awareness should be added to the National Curriculum. Or perhaps they should issue warnings as they do on cigarette packs. ‘Parching kills. Water now.’

Yet is not the evidence clear enough when a plant is drooping? It’s not because the plant is fatigued or resting, it’s because rainwater is insufficient for life support.

Of course, plants needing water don’t just stop at the garden wall. There are some that are just as thirsty, growing in the pavement. As bowls of water are tipped down the sink, a few seconds away, saplings are left to gasp their last. Planted by local councils for public enjoyment, the public seems to choose to look the other way.

Not that the councils themselves can be completely exonerated from accusations of neglect. In the council chambers, elected representatives will have vowed their dedication to greening their streets, accompanied by pious grunts and head nodding.

But when the work is done, what happens? The reality seems to be that keeping them green is a stretch too far, interest moving on to something new, more eye-catching – and vote-winning. Maybe they think the locals should do more – and we know how that turns out.

Inevitably, there is a downside to all this plant growing. Too much watering might lead to growth that falls foul of the neighbourhood and powers-that-be. An 84 year-old widow in Essex has been ordered to cut back her shrubs because (according to the Daily Mirror, June 11, 2022) ‘they are blocking the pavement, despite there being a three-foot gap between them and the road.’

Elsewhere, local authorities are reportedly looking to punish householders whose garden greenery is deemed excessive, sending out threatening letters, warning of fines and costs for remedial pruning. Daylight shrubbery, people might cry.

In truth, it will take much watering and many growing seasons of care and attention before the average garden plant is at risk of offending Health and Safety sensibilities. And the evidence suggests that’s more than most people are prepared to give. For all the good, initial intentions, the trend is towards neglect and abandonment.

Is there an answer? Perhaps the challenge is to set up Neighbourhood Water Schemes alongside Neighhood Watch to keep an eye out for suspiciously drooping plants. Or vigilante groups, who, instead of glueing themselves to trains and roads, roam the streets with watering cans.

But here’s a thought. Instead of fuchias, coleus, busy lizzies and lemon trees, might the answer for window boxes and garden planters be a plant that barely needs water?


And at the same time avoiding another unnecessary acronym.


I’m writing this on the so-called fifth day of Christmas. When my true love is supposed to be giving me five gold rings. Which, according to a quick search on Google, are supposed to represent the first five books of the Bible’s Old Testament. Apparently, the whole song was a secret code for Catholics when Catholicism was banned back in the day. So the first day of a Partridge in a Pear Tree represents Jesus, the two turtle doves on the second are the Old and New Testaments, up to the twelve drummers drumming, who represent the twelve points of the apostle’s creed. It makes Wink Martindale’s Deck of Cards seem almost plausible! (A song from the sixties, if you don’t know it! Made the top ten, too, which seems even less plausible! May Bygraves did a version in the UK, too.)

I’d have the decorations down as soon as the guests have left. And in COVID-infested times, when guests are few and far between, that could even have been Christmas night!

It’s bad enough finishing off the leftover turkey or nut roast, the bread sauce and the cranberry, not to mention the mountain of cheese that was bought in a frenzy the week before and sits untouched in the fridge. When Christmas is over, get the decorations down!

Using the twelve days as a marker for keeping up the decorations is a step too far for me. Tradition has them in place until twelfth night, and that it’s bad luck to leave them up for longer. Even worse would be to follow a tradition from Medieval times that has them left until the 2nd of February. None of this works, to my mind.  Christmas Day and – at a push -Boxing Day are enough.

I’d have the decorations down as soon as the guests have left. And in COVID-infested times, when guests are few and far between, that could even have been Christmas night! It’s bad enough finishing off the leftover turkey or nut roast, the bread sauce and the cranberry, not to mention the mountain of cheese that was bought in a frenzy the week before and sits untouched in the fridge. Who needs leftover tinsel, candy sticks and gaudy ornaments? Take them down!

I should say that, in principle, I love the jollity and happiness around Christmas – and I’m really very sorry for anyone reading this who was unable to enjoy it for personal reasons. But it seems to me that the celebrations should surely be the day itself – and before that, the fun of expectation and anticipation.

I used to bemoan the first decorations appearing in shops during October, with Slade blaring out not long after. I’ve since come to appreciate how they signal the approach of the joy and excitement that is the Christmas spirit. It’s all about looking forward with hope and positivity – buying the tree, putting up the decorations, searching for presents that delight, preparing for the big day.

I often used to miss out on the excitement – it’s amazing how people create artificial deadlines for just before Christmas, tying you to work, even though nothing then happened for a month or more. And there can be a load of hassle in getting organused and setting up. But despite the frenzy, it’s worth trying to take some time before the day. This is when the carols are sung, trees still smell of pine and their needles haven’t dropped, all the bulbs in the light strings are working and the batteries haven’t run out, and everyone is wishing you a ‘Merry Christmas’. The atmosphere is bright and positive. A magical time to dream of something special.

Afterwards? It’s all as stale as the rotting Roquefort, untouched, alongside the Christmas ale still chilling and the brandy cream that was never used as everyone was too stuffed to eat the Christmas pudding. 

And what a sad sight is the lights still illuminating empty streets, beaming to no-one, the party well and truly over.

Thoughts now are not on what to buy but where to put the stuff you’ve been given, what to keep, what to return or give away, and trying to eat everything before it passes its best-before date. And on going back to work, things left unfinished, new tasks, new projects.

Yet in the corner of the living room stands a sad, bedraggled tree, branches sagging, lights rarely switched on, reminding you that Christmas is over, baiting you of the things you’d hoped for that disappointed.

Of course, getting rid is interrupted by the second celebration, New Year. So invariably I resist stripping out the decorations until January. But come the 1st, I’m ready to begin. Except, while you’d think I’d relish the moment, there’s a catch. I hate taking down the decorations! It’s as tedious as it is depressing. As I’m winding the lights from the tree, with needles dropping everywhere, I find myself asking what were we doing bringing it into the house in the first place. Or why we covered it in such fragile and absurd decorations.

Worse, the very act of denuding it, heaping the baubles, angels and stars into boxes and to the back of the cupboard until next year is like abandoning the joy, happiness and goodwill they represented.

And the forlorn trees dumped on street corners are a poignant reminder of the anticipation, now replaced by the reality of the present.

Yet the longer it all remains in the house, the sadder it becomes. So my philosophy is to keep on moving forward – enjoy the build-up, make the most of the holidays, then make the removal quick and early.

And anyway, it’s not long to Easter!

If you enjoyed reading this, why not try Richard’s novel, Homeward Bound, still available in paperback and Kindle and from bookshops.

That’s it for the KitKat

I started this blog as ‘Praise be the KitKat’. How quickly things can change.

I was inspired when I ate a KitKat at half time at an Arsenal match. The team was on a bad run – the three games before the KitKat had been three consecutive defeats. But with KitKats, the season was turned around, and a long unbeaten run began. There could be no doubting the power of those four chocolate fingers. After all, it’s happened before as I do have form.

My first encounter with the magic of the KitKat at halftime was at the start of the 2003-4 season, and as I repeated it, game after game, the team matched me with wins and draws, never losing, going on to become ‘the Invincibles’, undefeated during an entire Premier League campaign. 

The one match they did lose was an FA Cup semi-final, played at Villa Park. Walking from my car to the ground I couldn’t find a confectioner- or at least one that was open for the early kick-off. It meant, as I entered the ground, I knew the result was predestined, defeat was inevitable. And so it came to pass.

But for the rest of the season, KitKats blessed the team and they lost not a single game. (For purists, who will argue Arsenal lost matches in the European Champions’ League, that doesn’t count. It’s obvious the power of the KitKat won’t stretch beyond English competitions. Or the League Cup, for that matter.)  The following season, the KitKat’s energy drained away, finally extinguished by Wayne Rooney. But I was going to have to give it up anyway. Too many KitKats meant I was at risk of becoming obese.

Miraculously, thirty-two years earlier, there had been a similar sweet arbiter of success. In the 1970/71 season, it was a fresh cream cake that wove its magic spell over the team. I bought one before a match (a cream meringue, if I recall correctly) to consume after, and Arsenal went on to win the domestic double of League and FA Cup. (Dave and Ansil Collins were top of the UK singles charts, in case you don’t remember!)

The one match where the shop had sold out before I reached it resulted in a 5-0 drubbing at Stoke. Otherwise, it was unprecedented success for the club, and I had no doubt what was causing it. Who knows what heights might have reached if I’d continued. But the shop stopped selling cream cakes and an Eccles cake didn’t have the same efficacy.

And so to this season. I was religious in keeping the KitKat buying routine once the team started winning, the result being an undefeated run. And even when it came to a crushing end at Liverpool, I didn’t doubt the KitKat. I put it down to my wife, who’d bought one for me as a helpful gesture, rather than leaving me to buy my own. I returned to the proper routine for the next match and the result was a victory, so my faith was restored. I knew that it was the change of routine that had broken the spell.

Except, now I know differently. In the two matches since, the results have gone against the KitKat. My faith seems to have been misplaced. It didn’t ensure success after all. I should have realised.

Next match, I’m buying a Lion Bar.

A version of this post also appears on

Scottish play and English vegetables

Browsing in my local greengrocers, I found a veritable cornucopia of vegetables. Oregano, mange tout, pak choi, rocket, okra, samphire, fennel, sweet potato . . . all wonderfully cosmopolitan, but no sign of a humble marrow.

I don’t mean zucchini or courgette, often described (wrongly) as being baby marrows. I mean full blown cucurbit, described in as ‘an egg-shaped gourd, commonly eight to ten inches long. It is noted for the very tender quality of its flesh, and is a favorite culinary vegetable in England’.

Not so favourite that I can find one.

I asked in my local greengrocer and not only had they no marrows in stock, but also asked me to spell it, so they could write it down (M-A-R-R-O-W) to ask their wholesaler.

In the unlikely event of anyone finding a marrow anywhere, the usual way of serving it is to stuff it with meat, served grilled or as a curry; or make into a cake; or turn it into soup. For me, I just like it boiled and sliced, then served with beef mince or lasagne, peas, red wine and copious amounts of gravy!

My vegan daughter says marrow’s tasteless. But then, if you looked at my record collection, you’d say the same about my musical tastes! So marrow and me are a perfect match.

In the absence of any on the shelves of the shops, I could always grow my own, I suppose.

But my garden is a small, city space that supports wildlife (frogs, toads, newts, birds of all shapes and sizes) but has insufficient room for me to become a modern-day Tom Good and go for self-sufficiency. And anyway. my fingers are better suited to a keyboard than being green.

Perhaps I am forever scarred by my father’s failed attempts at horticulture, with the annual ritual of green tomatoes lining the window frames and rotting until December before being consigned, with a reluctant sigh, to the rubbish (in days before there were compost bins).

It has occurred to me that I should initiate a Marrow Appreciation Society, to spread the word, commend marrow to the world at large, build up some enthusiasm for it. It has led me to carrying out some research on its history. Disappointingly, I found only two references in literature. Dickens mentions marrows in Nicholas Nickelby;

What!’ said Nicholas, ‘cucumbers and vegetable marrows flying at the heads of the family as they walk in their own garden!’

Use as a projectile was not what I had in mind.

Then, as I recall from my schoolboy Shakespeare, growing them crops up in Macbeth.

To marrow, and to marrow, and to marrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day.’

At least, that’s what I thought he wrote. Maybe that explains my C- grade in O level English Literature.

But popular culture aside, my tastebuds still crave marrow. Except it’s November and marrow is seasonal. I’m fearing this could be a marrowless autumn. This blog is my last hope. Should you happen across one on a shelf somewhere, please let me know. Failing that, I’ll have to go to my local greengrocer and ask for turnip. Yes, that’s T-U-R-N-I-P.


If you’ve been wondering why my blogs had dried up over the last few months, it’s because I’ve been concentrating on a second novel. It’s now with my editor and any day now, after months of working on it, I’ll get it back with the inevitable ‘good draft, now it needs some work. . . .’ In the meantime, if you haven’t caught the first, Homeward Bound, you should still be able to find it on

It’s not COVID, it’s pollen

It’s April and officially summertime. Not that I count the year in months or in seasons. I count it by what makes me sneeze.

We’re in birch, having come out of a long hard willow, and am dreading moving into oak, plane, oil-seed rape and a long hot grass, before moving into mould spores and heading into Christmas (when my wife says I’m allergic to opening my wallet). These, on top of unseasonal pets, air fresheners and, quite frankly, life.  Not to mention reactions to dust that is invariably brought on by talk of doing housework.

I know when all this started. I went strawberry picking to make money as a teenage student, during which I amused myself by successions of twenty or more sneezes in almost as many seconds. Fifty years on, the novelty has worn off. I’m told allergies are supposed to diminish as you get older, but I’m running out of time to find out if that’s true. I have this image of a crematorium chapel at my funeral. As the curtain closes to my wife’s selection of music (I’d expect Linda Rondstadt’s You’re No Good or Elton John’s Better off Dead), from inside the casket comes the sound of me, still sneezing.

But I have a more immediate problem. When I’m outside, freed from the constraints of lockdown but surrounded by people still in fear of COVID, people don’t take kindly to someone suddenly sneezing uncontrollably nearby. I might try to wheeze, “Don’t worry, it’s not the virus,” but they’ve normally already scattered – and I’m not sure they’d believe me if they’d stopped to listen. Boris is pushing for a vaccine passport to get access to clubs and events. I need one to wave when I convulse with sneezes. And don’t even mention what it’s like wearing a mask when this happens.

I’ve had all the treatments medical people can offer, (left – and some!) and I’ve tried a few of those that non-medical people propose as well. The only cure seems to be when I repair to the darkest, deepest space beneath our house.

Which just happens to be where I keep my record collection. And as my wife has just remarked that the stair carpet looks in need of vacuuming, I can feel my eyes and nose itching and a convulsion approaching.  So excuse me while I head off downstairs. I can already hear Paul Simon’s song Allergies in my head. I may emerge when I’ve played an album or two!

If you thought this post vaguely interesting, you might like Richard’s hearwarming debut novel, Homeward Bound, a story of family, ageing and ambition. With a bit of music!

Strange sightings in the garden

Who is Phileas? And what’s he doing in the back garden of a north London terraced house?

This is Phileas, a pheasant that has miraculously appeared in the back garden of our north London terraced house. A pheasant meeting the peasants, a neighbour in the posh houses up the other end of the street commented. But it’s a mystery what brings such an decorative creature, common in farmland and woodland, to Zone 2.

I first spotted him pecking beneath our bird feeder, seeking out the grains carelessly discarded above by the ubiquity of sparrows and whatever collective noun applies to blue tits and great tits. It didn’t take him long to discover the heap of seeds that, not long before, I’d carelessly spilled when refilling the feeders, gorging on this free and easy feast.

I first spotted him pecking beneath our bird feeder, seeking out the grains carelessly discarded above by the ubiquity of sparrows and whatever collective noun applies to blue tits and great tits. It didn’t take him long to discover the heap of seeds that, not long before, I’d carelessly spilled when refilling the feeders, gorging on this free and easy feast.

We are lucky that, over the years, our feeders have attracted as diverse a selection of birds as you could imagine this far into the city. Robins, blackbirds, parakeets, woodpeckers, even the occasional sparrow hawk, along with magpies, crows, jays and the inevitable pigeons, are amongst those costing me a small fortune on bird feed every week. But Phileas the pheasant was a first.

As he worked his way through the seeds, he met with another of our garden visitors. Squirrels. When they’re about, the birds normally scatter. But not Phileas. He was standing no nonsense. When one brave squirrel dared to investigate the booty, Phileas squared up, beak to nose.

The squirrel backed off. 1-0 to Phileas. Yet I feared defeat was still on the cards, if not from a squirrel, from other intruders into our small space.

Once satiated, Phileas retreated into what he must have considered to be the safety of the undergrowth. Maybe in the New Forest he would have been invisible. But here, his camouflage through a clump of daffodils against a trellis and concrete wall was not convincing. It certainly wouldn’t convince the foxes that roam the streets each night and trespass in our garden. My wonder turned to worry. If I fed him more seeds, would I not be encouraging him to stay, luring him to a certain fate of snarling jaws and journey’s end?

There was also another problem. Keeva the greyhound. She’s ours. Friendly, docile, somnolent. Until she sees something that she can chase. An ex-racer, a serial winner at Romford, Harlow and Crayford, she makes the end of the garden in next to no time. A cat or squirrel that catches her eyes needs to be quick off the mark and over the fence.

Even after finishing fourth, third and a lowly fifth in consecutive races three years ago, before being subjected to a life in retirement, she’s still quick. Probably too quick for a slightly ungainly pheasant.

Keeva running free, three years after retirement.

So for a day, we kept Keeva from going into the garden where Phineas was taking shelter, leaving her to stare balefully through the patio door windows, looking longing at the bright-colours of a potential prey.  But we couldn’t keep her cooped up for longer than a day. I made a decision. As hungry as Phineas appeared to have been, I must offer him no further inducement to stay.

It was with some relief that, as evening fell, he loped off into the trees, perhaps disappointed that dinner was not going to present itself. That just left me to worry about the night, and a likely encounter with the foxes and his becoming dinner.

I needn’t have worried. Early next morning, there he was, back in the garden.

But Keeva needed to use the space. There was no option but to let her out.  Although we kept her on a lead, for Phileas, the sight of a dog built for speed was too much. He hopped into a tree and from there, out of sight, to we know not where.

It’s what I’d hoped for really. All for the best, make his own way on his round the world journey, free and without human intervention.

For me, I was grateful that I no longer needed to feel a sense of responsibility, to protect him from an environment he is not ideally suited to. Even though I know I’d not be up to the task.

And yet, even as I write, I’m still glancing out the window, worrying about him, contemplating throwing down some more seeds should he be hungry and wanting to come back.

When I’ve finished writing this, I’ll go and have a proper look.

If you enjoyed this blog, you might just enjoy Richard’s first novel, out now. A heartwarming story of ambition, ageing and family, it’s called ‘Homeward Bound’. It’s available online, through bookshops and here.

The trouble with Henry

I hate Henry.

I hate to admit is, but I loathe the happy, grinning face on the body of our vacuum cleaner.

It’s worst when the cleaner (I refuse to call it ‘Henry’ or ‘he’) has wedged itself on a chair leg and I have to trail back to untangle it.

Or the flex has become entwined in the banisters and I have to struggle back downstairs to release it, carting said vacuum with me. And all the while, I’m being stared at by that unrelentingly cheery look.

The origins of the face are, according to Wikipedia (that source of all accurate information) to ‘prevent late night and early morning workers from feeling lonely.’ Created and built in the UK, it first started sucking up dust in 1981. If there were such a crime as violence towards inanimate objects, what might the incidence rate have been before that date and after? A sharp rise, most likely.

Described variously as ‘iconic’, ‘loveable’ and a ‘legend’ by the manufacturers, Numatic, Henry has been joined by other family members. There is a Hetty, whose contribution to equality of the sexes is a pink body and large fluttery eyelashes. Whether this subtle femininity would help me contain my bursts of anger I can only conjecture. There are also Henry’s cousin’s Charles, James and George and probably, before long, a Boris, a Kier and a Sir David.

Perhaps part of the problem is that the vacuum cleaner is only in use when I’d rather be doing something else. It might be the result of a three-line whip to clean the house, often in preparation for a cleaner coming. The house apparently mustn’t be too dusty or untidy for such visits.

Or it’s a displacement activity. Like when I’m agonising over writing a particularly troublesome paragraph. Getting out the vacuum cleaner to suck up a cobweb that’s been irritating me for months is one way of escaping the frustration of writer’s block, at least temporarily. But it means I’m already predisposed to rage. It inevitably erupts when, perched on a chair and stretching, the nozzle doesn’t quite reach, the face topples and I lose my balance, leaving me on the floor alongside that face baiting me., still grinning.

Perhaps the answer is a cordless vacuum cleaner. My experiences have not been good, though. Scarred in my youth by a Pifco cordless, a Ewbank, and a battery driven cleaner that neither cleaned nor lasted long enough to manage a rug, I am left deeply distrustful.

A recent arrival is an Amazon Robotic Vacuum Sweeper. Like a floor-mounted drone, it buzzes across the kitchen and aggregates an alarming amount of dust and detritus, no matter how many times the floor may have been swept already. But although spared the Henry face, it still drives me mad, demanding attention. Its apparently random movements and wild trajectories make escape from it like some futuristic game of dodge ball.

And if you leave it to its own devices, it’s quite likely to fall down a step or trap itself on some unlikely obstruction. Then, like an ostrich stuck in a corner, it will bounce endlessly from side to side until it’s rescued. I want to punish it for its stupidity, pick it up, shake it, except that’ll result in all the dust its collected returning to the floor.

But the truth is, I guess, I just hate housework.

And at this point, I was planning on concluding that I should acknowledge the efficiency with which these devices have the desired effect of cleaning dusty surfaces and it’s really all my fault. That the problem is mine, not Henry’s.

Then I changed the end and decided to suggest that maybe the manufacturers of Henry, Hetty and the rest could help me out by creating a different face; one that is responsive to my mood, offering me an expression that is non-patronising, sympathetic and understanding.

Then I changed my mind and went for an excoriating paragraph on anthropomorphism, that a face on a vacuum is entirely inappropriate. I’m quite justified in my ire, I was going to write. But then again, isn’t that a sign of personal weakness . . . ?

At which point, I concluded it was all just too problematic to find a decent end and  . . . if I’m not mistaken, is that not a sliver of dust under the sofa? Excuse me while I go and fetch the Henry . . .

If you enjoyed this blog, maybe you’ll enjoy my first novel ‘Homeward Bound’, a feelgood tale of family, ageing and ambition. Available from bookshops, Amazon (paperback and e-book) and other online retailers.

A heartwarming Christmas read

A recent tweet said of Homeward Bound: If you enjoyed #RichardOsman‘s novel, try another heartwarming story about ageing, family & ambition: Homeward Bound – Richard Smith. Characters are likeable, their journey is fascinating and poignant. Highly recommend. You won’t regret it! (Stephen Thorpe@Steve999Thorpe·29)

If you fancy it as a gift or for yourself, you will find Homeward Bound here and here both in paperback and as e-book.

Other readers have written: ‘This book is a lot of fun – I read it in two days, finding it hard to put down. Humane, witty, super-readable, enjoy.’ and ‘Wish I could read it all over again! If this book was a song, I would play it every day.’

That’s just the tip of the reviewberg and if you want more testimonies, please click over to another blog of mine.

And if you want a short taster, please try this below. Hope you enjoy it – both taster and the novel itself! Merry Christmas!!

Seventy-nine year-old George is reminiscing. He’s sitting in a room full of his records with his dog Hunter. It’s a sacred place to George that he allows no-one else to enter, although his granddaughter – who he’s taken in as a lodger – and her boyfriend have just broken his rule. Alone again, he reflects on how he met his wife, Evelyn.

Even before Tara had left the room, George had closed his eyes and started rocking in his chair. His peace was momentarily disturbed by something warm nuzzling his hand. “Why are you in here, Hunter? You know you’re not allowed.” He looked down to see a pair of obedient brown doe eyes staring back at him.“ Oh, alright. If that apology for a boyfriend of Tara’s can barge in here, I won’t keep you out.” George patted his lap and Hunter jumped up, curling himself round before settling. “It’s just you and me now, old boy.” George laid his arms across the dog’s warm body. It was strangely comforting. “You miss her too, don’t you?” As he gently rocked the chair, his thoughts drifted back to the first time he met Evelyn. Evelyn Little she was then. He remembered so clearly the speech her father had given at the wedding.

“It’s all my fault we’ve got George as a son-in-law,” he’d said, barely looking at the sheaf of notes he’d prepared for the biggest event in their family’s life. “It was my dad’s shop and his before that and they’d hardly changed a thing over the years. I wanted to bring us into the sixties. I’d seen electric signs in other shops and wanted one for us. Evelyn’s mum wasn’t keen, said it’d be a waste of money. I laughed at her and bought it all the same and it brought us at least one customer. Our new son-in-law, George. Who’s laughing now?” The Reception gave him a rousing round of applause.

George could still see the neon glow of ‘Little’s Grocery, Big Reputation’ that had enticed him into a shop he’d previously passed without noticing. It’d been a Thursday evening and he was on his way from his office to a rehearsal. And there was Evelyn, emptying broken biscuits into a jar, head down, her face hidden behind long mousy hair. And she was singing to herself, quietly, under her breath.

George knew the tune well. ‘I Almost Lost My Mind’. A rhythm and blues song from the American South, he’d not heard it since his National Service. How did this young girl know it – let alone sing with such feeling?

“Can I have half a pound of sugar, please?” He waved a ten- shilling note. “And can I ask how you know Ivory Joe Hunter?”

The young girl stopped what she was doing and produced a bag of sugar from beneath the counter.

“Who’s Ivory Joe Hunter?”

“It’s his song you’re singing.”

From the tiny window to her face behind her hair, George could see her blush.
 “Dad doesn’t like me singing. I didn’t think anyone would hear.”

“It’s an R&B standard. How do you know it?”

“Pat Boone. He’s the most.”

George’s heart sank. He’d always hated Pat Boone as a crooner from the fifties who took the rhythm and blues out of R&B. But now she tossed her head back, he could see she had an earnest, welcoming face.

“Isn’t he a bit too old for you?”

“I guess. I like Bryan Hyland and Bobby Vee better. And Cliff of course.”

“Of course.” He didn’t mean it.

“Do you like them too?” She stared intently at him before allowing her hair to fall back over her face.

“Cliff Richard’s rock’n’roll’s OK. Bobby Vee’s a bit too soft for me. More Fats Domino, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Elvis.” He looked for signs of approval or recognition. When there were none, he changed tack. “What about the Beatles? Everyone likes them.”

She shrugged. “They’re OK.”

He took a deep breath. “I’ve got my own group. The Beat Boys. If you like e Beatles, you’ll love us. I reckon they copied us.” Again, he looked for a reaction. Again, there was none, at least as far as he could tell. “We’re playing tomorrow night at the British Legion Hall. Wanna come?”

Being this forward was right out of character. He was more at home hiding behind his music, confident with his piano and guitar, not with people. Certainly not one-to-one. It was how he had stayed single all these years. But this girl wasn’t a threat like most other girls he fancied.

“We’ll even do ‘I Almost Lost My Mind’ for you.” He saw her glance towards the bacon slicer where her father was tormenting a leg of streaky. He followed the look and knew at once the outcome of his moment of courage.

“I’d better not. My dad wouldn’t approve.”

He might have asked her to check, or even steeled himself to ask her dad himself. But what would it show? That she was just letting him down gently. He was timid enough without needing confirmation that he couldn’t even get a date with a girl who wouldn’t turn the head of anyone else.

“Some other time, then.” He handed over the ten-shilling note, picked up the sugar and accepted the change without making further eye contact. Not that there was any risk of that, her face having retreated fully behind the curtain of hair.

For a few months he didn’t go back to the shop, but was eventually driven in by an empty larder and a wet evening. To his surprise, the same girl looked quite different, more confident, her hair styled, wearing make-up. And she remembered him.

“Hello again. Haven’t seen you in here for a while.”

“No, been busy.”

“What can I do for you?”

“A quarter of Cheddar, please.”

“Coming up.” She placed a block of cheese on a slab and estimated a quarter of a pound, slicing it off with a cheese wire. “I’m Evelyn, by the way. How’s the group?”

“We’re still performing. Hope to get a record deal soon. And I’m George.”

“Like George Harrison?”

“He’s lead guitar. I’m bass. And piano.”

She smiled. George fell in love. She continued weighing cheese. “Anything else?”

George studied her fingers as she caressed greaseproof paper around his Cheddar. “No, I think that’ll be all.” He determined to offer no sign of how he felt, nor risk being let down.

“You were right about the Beatles,” she said as she smoothed the edges of the packet, making neat hospital corners. “That Ringo’s fab. Even bought the LP.”