Jon Pertwee: Always setting new trends

Nowadays, when you see the name of a celebrity trending on Twitter, it can often herald bad news. They’ve either died or said something really stupid.

But when I saw the name of Jon Pertwee trending today, I knew it would provoke only happy, nostalgic memories.

After all, Jon Pertwee died in 1996, and the only really stupid things he ever said were in character as the lovable scarecrow Worzel Gummidge.

The reason his name was trending was because today would have been his hundredth birthday, and legions of fans of daft ol’ Worzel had joined forces with fans of Jon’s other iconic TV creation, the third incarnation of Doctor Who to share their memories and sing his praises.

So, in addition to giving life to two legendary characters who brightened up many a childhood in the 1970s and 80s, in true Time Lord fashion Jon Pertwee also managed to travel forward in time and suck the poison out of Twitter for a day.

As achievements go, that has to rank up there with having a cup o’ tea an’ a slice o’ cake with Aunt Sally, or reversing the polarity of the neutron flow to see off the Daleks.

My earliest memory of Jon Pertwee is also my earliest memory of Doctor Who.

It was 1973, I was 7 years old, attending a school friend’s birthday party. After a Saturday afternoon treat of fish and chips and party games, we had all settled down inside to watch the latest episode of my friend’s favourite TV show.

I’d heard of it, but never seen it myself, some science fiction thing called Doctor Who.
And if I didn’t enjoy it, well, it was only on for half an hour, though when you’re seven, half an hour is pretty much like a whole afternoon.

I needn’t have worried.

The episode (part of a story called Planet of the Daleks) flew by and by the time it had finished, I was hooked. And I mean hooked!

From that day onwards, I haven’t missed a single episode of Doctor Who on television, and there have been a lot of those since that Saturday evening in 1973 when Jon Pertwee changed my life (well, if not quite my life, certainly my viewing habits).

I would also get one of the biggest shocks of my young life when a year later, during a particularly thrilling adventure involving giant spiders, my new hero, the Doctor, died at the end.

Hang on a minute…that’s not supposed to happen! What’s going on? And to make matters worse, suddenly, the Doctor’s familiar features changed into someone completely different.

It was my first experience of seeing a regeneration in Doctor Who – I had no idea it was an established feature of the show at this point – and let me tell you, I was not happy about it at all.

In an illustration of the fickleness of children, coupled with the sheer brilliance of Tom Baker, it wasn’t long (ten minutes into his first episode, actually) that this new Doctor had won me over completely and to this day remains my favourite, but without Jon Pertwee first grabbing my attention, I might not have even been watching the show at all to find out.

A Rail-ly Great Adventure: The Trans-Mongolian Express

I’d always wanted to visit Russia. It was mysterious. It was far away. It was a little bit scary. Growing up as a kid in the 1970s in England, it was a place you only heard about when something bad was happening on the news. The only images you’d see were elderly leaders standing on balconies waving as fleets of nuclear weapons were driven past them and lots of soldiers marching. And it was usually snowing.

They were the bad guys. Although they’d once been our allies in the war, when they were the good guys (hey, growing up in the 1970s was confusing).

I thought I’d never get to go. Even after Gorbachev and glasnost, it wasn’t seen as a number one tourist destination by many travel operators, and I didn’t know anyone else who might want to go with me, so it was just something that sat on my as yet unwritten ‘bucket list’ to tick off one day, probably never.

But, many years later, I happened to mention this long held ambition to see Moscow – and that’s all it was at first, just Moscow – to a friend with an impressive track record of adventurous travel escapades behind her, who had a burning desire to take a trip on the Trans-Siberian Express (which runs from Moscow to Vladivostok), and before you could say perestroika, we were busy making plans for the trip of a lifetime.

Not being quite brave enough to make all the plans ourselves, we booked on a tour with Intrepid Travel, and as they didn’t do the Moscow-Vladivostok route as an option then (they do now), we plumped for the Trans-Mongolian Adventure instead, starting in St Petersburg, stopping at Suzdal, Moscow, Lake Baikal, Irkutsk and Ulaanbaatar before arriving in Beijing.

“Four days on a train. What do you do for four days on a train?”

That was one of the questions that kept bugging us both. Russia is a big old place, and one of the legs of this epic journey was indeed a four day stint on the train from Moscow to Irkutsk. Let’s just say for now, we were worrying about nothing!

St Petersburg

On arrival, we were whisked from the airport to our hotel by a German taxi driver, which was a surprise. Quick check that we’d arrived in the right place and we weren’t about to see the Brandenburg Gate looming up in front of us, but before long we’d seen our first fleeting glimpse of a Lenin statue and we relaxed into the journey while our driver told us all about the history of the city, but in German, so we only understood a few of the words we could remember from our schooldays, which wasn’t many.

As soon as we were checked in at our hotel – and discovering that the Russians are partial to quite a lot of bureaucracy in that regard – we ventured out on foot for our first taste of this mysteriously thrilling place.

We made a beeline for the Church on the Spilled Blood, in all its onion domed splendour, because if there’s anything other than a Lenin statue to let a western tourist know they’re in Russia it is an onion domed church.

The Church on the Spilled Blood, St Petersburg

The Church on the Spilled Blood, St Petersburg

As it was early evening and it’d been a long day since leaving London, it was time for refreshment, a meal and our first taste of vodka.

I have to admit, I’m not a big drinker of alcohol at all, let alone neat spirits like vodka, so this element of the trip had worried me beforehand. What if I didn’t like it? Was I likely to cause a diplomatic incident by a wrongly worded refusal?

Well, at first, the only thing I probably caused was puzzlement as I slowly sipped away at the measure I’d been served in a regulation sized shot glass. Russians don’t sip their vodka, I would later learn, in one of the more satisfying cultural lessons of this expedition.

One of the things I knew about St Petersburg in advance was that it was the location of the Winter Palace, legendary home of the Tsars, which just had to be a ‘must-see’ on this visit. What I didn’t know was that it was also now home to the Hermitage, one of the most expansive museums of art and culture in the world, which had been another ‘must-see’ on the list, so quite by accident we were able to kill two birds with one stone.

The Winter Palace & Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The Winter Palace & Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The Hermitage is extraordinary. People will tell you it’s big, but you don’t appreciate just how big until you’ve spent the best part of two days wandering around it, and still managed to miss the Van Gogh section. Luckily, it is well staffed, by a legion of mostly elderly ladies it seems, who were happy to help two hapless Westerners find what they were looking for within its labyrinthine innards, all without us speaking any Russian or them speaking any English.

A reminder of this city’s traumatic past can be found at the ‘Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad’, a breathtaking memorial obelisk and underground museum which tells the horrific story of the Siege of Leningrad during World War Two (known as The Great Patriotic War, 1941-45, in Russia). During the visit to the museum, I was approached by a TV crew, who asked me for my thoughts as a foreign visitor. Caught by surprise, I managed to mumble something vaguely coherent, I think. They seemed happy enough, though I’ve no idea what they were telling me about how or when the footage would be used.

Memorial to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

Memorial to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

After a few days of exploring St Petersburg on our own, it was time to meet up with our fellow Intrepid travellers (3 Aussies, 2 Kiwis, 1 Swiss, 1 Peruvian plus 2 more from the UK) and our Russian tour leader, who would ensure we got the most out of this adventure.

I’m not the most social of animals, so going on holiday with a group of, basically, complete strangers, was me going well outside my usual comfort zone. So, before we go any further, I need to thank Linda, Diane, Kristie, Emily, Chris, Laila, Nelson, Rebecca, Dilys and Anton, not forgetting my best pal Fiona, for being the best travelling companions I could have hoped for. Honestly, this trip would not have been the same without them and the laughs we had were quite often hysterical. I’m chuckling at some of the memories now, just typing this out.

Introductions over with, our first meal together as a group done and dusted, the next day would see us heading onto the rails, at last!

All aboard

All Aboard! Ivan & Svetlana (aka John & Fiona) ready for the journey…

They ease you in gently on this trip, as it was only a one-stop overnight train from St Petersburg to the station at Vladimir, where we would catch a minibus to take us to our next destination proper, the town of Suzdal.

Settling in

Settling in

Probably just as well it was only one night, as the toilets at either end of our carriage were soon completely blocked after departure (by other passengers not following the specific instructions on how to use them, I hasten to add, not by any of our group) which made us glad we’d not been drinking too much before embarking.

Suzdal

We arrived in Suzdal before the sun was up, but thankfully our hotel rooms were available early, so we could catch a glorious couple of hours of additional sleep and avail ourselves of bathroom facilities before venturing out to see the sights on a tour with a local guide who told us, in fantastic English but with an exquisite Russian accent that, ‘in Suzdal there are many churches’ and she was definitely not kidding. They are everywhere.

Wooden Church, Suzdal

Wooden Church, Suzdal

The Intrepid Gang (L-R): Nelson, Diane, Linda, Fiona, Chris, Emily, John, Rebecca, Kristie, Laila, Dilys … and Anton behind the lens!

The Intrepid Gang (L-R): Nelson, Diane, Linda, Fiona, Chris, Emily, John, Rebecca, Kristie, Laila, Dilys … and Anton behind the lens!

We began the day with our brollies up, but the weather gradually improved and later we were invited to the home of a local resident, Lena, who not only provided us with a delicious homecooked lunch, washed down with horseradish vodka (fiery stuff) and tea (the Russians, like the English, love tea) but also encouraged us to have a go at our first bit of baking on this trip.

Not entirely convinced about the apron...

Not entirely convinced about the apron…

Baking in Suzdal

Baking in Suzdal

I’m not sure what Mary Berry would have made of our efforts, but we ate them anyway. Yum!

As we departed Suzdal, via minibus for the long drive into Moscow, I used the downtime to try and drum the Cyrillic alphabet into my head, in the hope it would help unlock some of the mysteries of the Russian language. By the time our bus had negotiated its way through several spectacular traffic jams that clogged the approach to the Russian capital, I was deciphering the simpler road signs for fun, and could write my own name too which gave me a peculiar sense of achievement. Give me a break, I hadn’t learned an alphabet since I was a child!

Moscow

The Moskva River

The Moskva River

And so to Moscow. Here at last. Ambition realised. I’m pleased to say it lived up to my expectations, though I hadn’t expected quite so much traffic – remember my childhood images of the place were of marching feet and nuclear missiles – but we were told congestion on the roads is now just a facet of modern day life for Muscovites and in any case, we were going to be on foot for our two-day visit, or underground on the majestic Metro system, which takes your breath away for all the right reasons. Each station is like a time capsule of history, mini museums with trains running through. And they’re also ready to serve as nuclear shelters too, but let’s not dwell on that.

First glimpse of the Moscow Metro

First glimpse of the Moscow Metro

A Metro mosaic, a time capsule of history

A Metro mosaic, a time capsule of history

Setting foot onto Red Square for the first time was one of those ‘pinch yourself, this is really happening’ moments for me. A genuine thrill. The Kremlin walls, the Lenin Mausoleum, the stunning and instantly recognisable architecture of St Basil’s Cathedral. And the discovery that it’s not called Red Square because of anything to do with Communism. It actually means ‘beautiful’, which it most certainly is.

Welcome to Red Square!

Welcome to Red Square!

The Kremlin Walls at night, Red Square, Moscow

The Kremlin Walls at night, Red Square, Moscow

St Basil's Cathedral, Moscow

St Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow

We were able to go inside The Kremlin, which is not just a building, more like a walled city within a city, home to the Russian President and a treasure trove of historical artefacts (although you can’t take pictures of those).

Inside The Kremlin

Inside The Kremlin

It was also hosting a performance of Swan Lake by the Russian State Ballet, inside the building where the Communist Party used to hold its meetings, for the equivalent of about fifteen pounds. Most of our group snapped up tickets for this, but unfortunately due to a prior booking, myself and Fiona had to miss out on this experience, as we were off to the Bolshoi Theatre instead that evening.

Before that, a stroll through the famous Gorky Park and the nearby ‘Graveyard of Fallen Monuments’ which as the name implies, is where you’ll find many of the imposing statues of the Communist era that would once have adorned almost every public square or government building in the former USSR. It’s a sobering reminder of the not too distant past. The familiar visages of Leonid Brezhnev and Nikita Kruschev rubbing stone shoulders with monoliths of Lenin, Stalin and a host of others, nowadays gawped at by fascinated tourists, rather than striking fear and/or awe into the hearts of the local populace.

Gorky Park

Gorky Park

Lenin

Lenin

Stalin

Stalin, minus a nose

And so then, to The Bolshoi. Not, alas, to witness one of its legendary ballets – it was too early in the season for that – but instead a bemusing performance of an obscure Russian play called Masquerade. It would have been hard to follow even in English, but in Russian, it was impenetrable. At least we got to see inside this incredible building, but we couldn’t help but feel we’d missed out on the better experience of watching Swan Lake. We were told at breakfast the following morning how brilliant the latter had been, though we had fun trying to explain what the hell had gone on in the thing we had watched instead.

Outside The Bolshoi

Outside The Bolshoi

Inside The Bolshoi

Inside The Bolshoi

After an all too brief couple of days, we said our goodbyes to marvellous Moscow, vowing to return for a longer visit one day, and braced ourselves for what was to come next. Bags packed, we trooped off in unison to Yaroslavsky Station to board arguably the most famous train in the world: the Trans-Siberian Express.

Well, we were actually boarding the Trans-Mongolian Express, as we were taking a detour through Mongolia to China rather than travelling through Russia to Vladivostok, but let’s not split hairs on a technicality. There was still a long, long ride ahead of us.

Four days on a train…

In truth, it passed in what felt like the blink of an eye. Once you settle into your cabin, pick your bunk (one of four) and get used to the routine of basically doing nothing more than eating, drinking, chatting, playing daft card games, watching the scenery change through the window as the vast expanse of Russia passes you by, and hopping on and off at various stations just for the fun of it or to buy some unusual local produce for the next stage of the journey, you end up wondering where the time went.

Cabin Buddies

Cabin Buddies

Refreshment stop!

Refreshment stop!

Where are we now...?

Where are we now…? Night time in Novosibirsk!

Socialising on board...

Socialising on board…

The carriage attendants (Provodnistas) have something of a fearsome reputation, if you believe the advance publicity, but on the third day, I’m sure I saw one of them smile as they dispensed the umpteenth bottle of beer in the dining car.

Maybe they were laughing at me and my attempts to communicate with a new Russian friend, acquired in the self-same dining car one evening, who was fascinated by our group and generous enough to want to share some food with me. Unfortunately, the food in question was dried smoked fish, a local delicacy maybe, but which I’m not altogether keen on. Desperate to avoid a diplomatic incident, I was doing my best to get it down. Thankfully, my travelling companions and our tour leader Anton came to my rescue and between us all, the fish was fully consumed and Anglo-Russian relations were not jeopardised.

Irkutsk and Lake Baikal

... the end is in sight!

… after four days, the end is in sight as we approach Irkutsk!

Our final stop on this, the longest individual leg of our journey, was in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, but only long enough to catch a bus transfer to Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world and our home for the next couple of days. The lake itself wasn’t our home, though we did get to sail on it, rather we were staying with a local family who showed us yet more wonderful Russian hospitality along with the sights and sounds of this astonishing natural wonder.

Sailing on Lake Baikal

Sailing on Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal … it won’t all fit in the pic, it’s pretty big

Plus, they also had a Banya in the back yard…

If you ever go to Russia, you have to undergo the authentic Banya experience. There is nothing quite like sitting in a steaming hot sauna in the buff (“when in Russia, do as the Russians do”) and then being thrashed all over with birch twigs before stepping outside and dousing yourself over the head with a bucket of freezing cold water. It’s very liberating.

Look, I know what you’re thinking, but if I can do this, anyone can!

The Banya

The Banya

We ended our stay in Lake Baikal with our hosts singing traditional folk songs for us, and then asking us to join in with some of our own, so they could get a feel for where we were from. After a rendition of all what seemed like six-hundred and twenty verses of ‘On Ilkla Moor Bah’t At’ they were probably glad to see the back of the Yorkshire contingent in the group, though if they were, they didn’t show it and even invited us back.

Hosts & Guests at our Lake Baikal Homestay

Hosts & Guests at our Lake Baikal Homestay

Back in Irkutsk, we had an all too brief brief opportunity to look round the city, bathed in glorious sunshine (if you imagined Siberia to be all frozen wastelands, think again) before we were due to board the train again, this time leaving Russia and heading into Mongolia.

Wishing I'd brought sunglasses to Irkutsk

Wishing I’d brought sunglasses to Irkutsk

Goodbye Russia... hope to see you again sometime

Goodbye Russia… hope to see you again sometime

Mongolia

The Mongolian train was the most basic of the journey so far, but spotlessly clean as the carriage attendants barely rested for a moment without scrubbing and wiping something. It may have been old, but they took great care of it. They also allowed us to open the windows (strictly not allowed on the Russian trains, which can get a bit hot as a result) so it was quite literally a breath of fresh air.

Speaking of fresh air, enjoy it while you can on the train, as it is in short supply in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar. I’ve never stayed in a hotel that supplied gas masks instead of Gideons Bibles, until now. I wondered what on earth it was for, until we ventured outside.

The traffic in Moscow may be bad but it is nothing compared to Ulaanbaatar. It’s a shame, as it is otherwise a quite amazing place. Once you get out of the centre of the city, the skyscrapers, the noise and the exhaust fumes are replaced by much more serene sights of monasteries and Gers, the large tent structures that many Mongolians still spend their everyday lives living in.

Mongolian traffic

Mongolian traffic

Away from the hustle and bustle

Away from the hustle and bustle

Ulanbaataar

Ulanbaataar

We were invited to meet one extraordinary lady, an octogenarian, inside her own Ger – her summer residence, we were told, the winter one we would lend a (hopeless) hand in building later! We were served tea and biscuits and treated to some fascinating tales of local life and the rigours of raising a family here. The tea was flavoured with salt, which sent my unprepared British tastebuds into something of a tailspin. After a few sips I nursed my cup in my lap and politely refused seconds.

Tea time in Mongolia

Tea time in Mongolia

How not to build a Ger

How not to build a Ger

For me, the highlight of Mongolia was our own stay in a Ger Camp in the Gorkhi Terelj National Park, on the way to which we stopped off at the impossibly huge metal monument to Genghis Khan (or as we learned to refer to him, by his proper name: Chinggis Khan) standing almost in the middle of nowhere, which makes it even more remarkable, quite honestly.

Chinggis Khan Monument

Chinggis Khan Monument

It's basic, but it's fun!

It’s basic, but it’s home!

We only had one day at the Ger Camp, but we packed a lot into it. A trek to a nearby monastery (‘nearby’ is an ambiguous term in Mongolia, it felt like miles away to me) during which I managed to make a pratfall over a stray log on the ground and planted my hand in the middle of something prickly. Ouch! Still, kept on going like a trooper though!

They didn't tell me how far it was!

They didn’t tell me how far it was!

Then, back at camp, we got to prepare our own evening meal – well, a bit of it, they didn’t want us to completely starve. So quickly forgetting the damaged hand, I was handed an apron (I should point out here I didn’t get to choose the apron) and a rolling pin and off we went on a dumpling making exercise.

Another kitchen based fashion statement

Another kitchen based fashion statement

Get Set, Bake!

Get Set, Bake!

Eating the results...

About to eat the results of our baking… do we look worried?

To round things off, we celebrated three birthdays all at once, for group members Kristie, Emily and Laila, with a rousing party which was absolutely brilliant but which none of us can accurately remember now. I’m told that I had difficulty finding my way back to my Ger afterwards, but who really knows…

One thing I can confirm is that they make wonderful vodka in Mongolia, and by now, we had all learned how to drink vodka properly, ‘like a Rrrrussian!’

Party Time!

Party Time!

In the morning, which came far too early for some (mentioning no names, Fiona) we were given a masterclass on using a bow and arrow by our local tour leader, Nemo. I think it’s fair to say, despite the excellent tuition, we were mostly rubbish at it. Only one shot hit the target during the entire session. Hats off to Emily, how she did it remains a mystery.

"Robin Hood, Robin Hood, slightly worse for wear..."

“Robin Hood, Robin Hood, slightly worse for wear…”

...but not as bad as some!

…but not as bad as this one!

Ulaanbaatar to Beijing

We had a last chance to enjoy the sights and sounds of Ulaanbaatar before climbing on board for our final train journey on this epic adventure and heading to China.

Farewell, Mongolia

Farewell, Mongolia…

As we left the city behind, which we had enjoyed in late summer sunshine, we witnessed the sight of snow starting to fall on the plains. Winter is Coming (hmm, where have I heard that before…?)

The first snow of winter... we just missed it!

The first snow of winter… we just missed it!

The Chinese train had the most beautifully ornate dining car, though we didn’t use it as frankly it was considerably more expensive than we’d got used to paying, plus we were all by now seasoned long distance train travellers, well versed in the art of picking up the provisions we’d need before getting on board and then fending for ourselves…

Crossing the border into China was a lengthy business. Not because of excessive customs or passport checks that you might expect, but because they have to physically change the bogies on every train carriage due to the tracks being on a different gauge. You stay on the train while they are doing it, so there is much banging and clanking going on, for several hours, and eventually you have to go to bed because it takes so long. Then, you are almost rolled out of bed by the jolting of the carriages being recoupled afterwards. Sweet dreams…

Arriving in Beijing, somewhat battered and bruised (I exaggerate for artistic effect) after those overnight shenanigans, we just about managed to avoid losing a member of our group on the exceptionally busy and crowded platform before heading off into the baking hot city for an acclimatisation tour, led for the last time by our brilliant tour leader Anton, who maintained unbelievable levels of energy and enthusiasm throughout the entire journey and went out of his way to make sure we all had the trip of a lifetime.

The end of the line in Beijing

The end of the line in Beijing

This was our final day on the official Intrepid tour, so we all gathered in the evening for a farewell dinner, trying out a vast range of Chinese dishes and sharing our best memories of an unforgettable adventure. We rounded it all off back at the hotel with, what else, a toast of vodka. It was actually by some distance the worst vodka of the trip, which made it even funnier.

The distance we travelled...

The distance we travelled… the map wasn’t big enough to show it all!

The final gathering

The final gathering

Smile for the camera

Smile for the camera

Several of us stayed on in Beijing for a few days to take in the sights of Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and, of course, the Great Wall of China, before heading our separate ways home and back to reality.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing

Tiananmen Square, Beijing

The Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven

...and the Great Wall of China

…and the Great Wall of China

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading, I know this has been a lengthy blog post, but hey, it was a lengthy trip and I wanted to do it justice, and even now, there’s loads I’ve had to miss out.

If you fancy doing it yourself someday, I would definitely recommend it. So much so they didn’t even have to pay me to put the link below!

Trans-Mongolian Experience by Intrepid Tours

No bulldozing my memories of Allied Colloids

The bulldozers and wrecking balls were recently unleashed in Low Moor, Bradford to bring down two local landmarks in the place where I grew up.

I left school at 16 in 1982, started work two weeks later at a local chemical factory, Allied Colloids as it was back then, just round the corner from where I lived.

I loved it. I got to spend the first two weeks in an induction course in an actual chemical laboratory with other wet behind the ears school leavers learning all about the company, its products, ‘elf n safety, the lot. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have had such a gentle introduction to the world of real work.

It was a really exciting time and a great company to work for. They provided free day release further education for all their employees (luncheon vouchers included), had a brilliant subsidised staff canteen (so good I used it every day instead of doing the less than 5 minute walk home) and a thriving sports & social club with loads of activities always going on. I remember being cajoled by colleagues into taking part in an ‘It’s A Knockout’ style event and discovering a real competitive streak that had evaded me all my schooldays, when I was just the one who got picked last for everything and had two left feet (apart from the time I scored a goal in 5-a-side, but that’s another story).

I also got a free pair of steel toecapped shoes (in case anything heavy fell on you while out on the plant area) a pair of white lab coats and various spatulas and other chemistry related accoutrements, dispatched on the production of a signed ‘chitty’ by Arthur the storeman, that made me feel all grown up and a ‘proper’ member of staff from day one, not just a new kid straight outta school.

After the induction, we newbies were all assigned to various different parts of the business (it was a huge plant that dominates a big chunk of Low Moor in Bradford where I grew up) and I ended up in what was known as the Intermediate Lab, where products were quality tested as they came off the plant production lines. It was quite a young workforce overall, with a few older heads to lead the way, and the people I worked with were fantastic. Friendly, welcoming, helpful. Honestly, I could not have asked for a better bunch of workmates.

On a daily basis, I was running tests and procedures, using the full gamut of lab based gizmos: bunsen burners, fume cupboards, test tubes, litmus papers, even got to wear a gas mask every now and then. Also got to go out of the lab onto the plant and collect product samples from the huge chemical vats they were stored in, coming into contact with the guys who worked out there and the, shall we say, more industrial language they used was a real eye and ear opener for me. What larks!

They even paid me to have all this fun. One of the foremen from the plant, Sid was his name, would come round on a Friday afternoon with paypackets to sign for, containing a payslip and actual cash money. My weekly wage was £44.45. It seemed like a fortune to me.

If you ever used a fabric softener or a wallpaper paste back in the early 1980s, there’s a fair chance I or one of my colleagues in the lab quality tested it before it made it onto the supermarket shelves, as that was the line of business ‘Colloids’ (as everyone called it) was in. They also made stuff for industrial use in oilfields and the like.

Why did I ever leave?

There are days when I still ask myself that question… but really it was for health reasons. Me and some of the chemicals in use there didn’t get on very well.

The plant is still there, but the name Allied Colloids is long gone. And now, more recently, so are the laboratory buildings that have formed a part of the Low Moor skyline on Cleckheaton Road for almost my entire life and where I took my first tentative teenage steps into the world of work.

It was strange to see them slowly disappear from the familiar local landscape, a little bit more gone every time I drove past, a much loved part of my own personal history being erased brick by brick.

I have no idea if it is still as good a place to work as it was when I was there all those years ago, but I hope it is. I couldn’t have asked for a better first job.

Sent to Coventry … again

It’s a measure of the distances you have to cover as a Rugby League fan in Betfred League 1 that a two-hour drive down the M1 almost feels like a short hop. I was only in Coventry the weekend before for the Rufus Wainwright gig at the Cathedral, so I thought I knew what to expect from this particular journey. But that was without reckoning for an accident on the motorway chucking a sizeable spanner in the works.

So, just about the time I was expecting to arrive at the Butts Park Arena, I was driving round Uttoxeter of all places following an ever more random set of redirections from my satnav which was desperately trying to get me to the ground on time.

Thankfully, I made it with about 15 minutes to spare and was able to pay my admission money, buy a match programme and park up inside the ground without even leaving my car. Impressive service!

Once inside, there was a lot of activity around the place. It was clear the hosts had made a lot of effort in advance of this game to promote the visit of the Bulls, the pre-match promotion dubbing it the Battle of the Beasts, and to make sure everyone who turned up would have a memorable visit.

I tip my hat to them and their passion for the game which burns as brightly as anywhere else in the Rugby League community.

The Bears are celebrating their 20th year of existence and although the club is not having the easiest time on the field in League 1, they live within their means which seems to be more than some of their arguably more illustrious rivals can boast.

Indeed, it’s an ongoing concern of mine that, for all the fun of watching a winning Bradford team currently topping the competition, the Bulls themselves are not over extending themselves financially (again) in an attempt to get promoted at the first attempt. Fingers crossed on that one.

It was another swelteringly hot day, so I was relieved to see the main stand was providing some decent shelter from the sun’s rays, meaning I didn’t have to lather up with sun cream before venturing out to watch the match. For a ginger like me, this is no small concern, let me tell you. I’d be interested to know what sunblock fellow ginger James Laithwaite uses when he has to get out on the pitch in these conditions without burning to a crisp. Must be good stuff.

Once the game got underway, there was some degree of frustration amongst the sizeable travelling army of Bulls fans that the points avalanche they seemed to be expecting was not materialising. In fact, Coventry opened the scoring themselves, and were putting in plenty of decent moves with the ball in hand, as well as taking advantage of the extra possession the Bulls kept gifting them with a series of handling errors.

I guess the ball must have been pretty hot, but the Bulls did look generally off the boil in the first half, which nevertheless ended 16-6 to the visitors.

It was a different story in the second half, with Bradford piling on a further 16 points in a red hot 8 minute burst straight after the kick off in which the Bears barely touched the ball at all.

If there’s anyone out there who doubts the level of entertainment you get at this level of Rugby League, have a look at the third try of the second half, eventually scored by Elliott Minchella but only after the ball had travelled from one end of the pitch to the other in one set, and passed through at least seven pairs of hands before a kick through on the final tackle. Sure, you can argue all day that against stronger opposition such a move would never happen, but sometimes, you should just allow yourself to sit back and enjoy what you’re watching. Just imagine that – going to a Rugby League match to enjoy yourself instead of finding fault in every aspect of it. Who knows, it may catch on one day!

By this stage, the game had been put out of reach, but Coventry weren’t throwing the towel in either in front of a fully deserved record crowd for the Bears at Butts Park. They got on the scoresheet again, but the Bulls intermittently kept showing their abilities and posting a steady series of points at the other end before the banks really burst in the final five minutes when they finished the half as they had started it with a dazzling quickfire consecutive three try burst.

I almost managed to catch one of them on camera, but Sam Hallas was too quick for me in the end…

The final scoreline of 62-12 to Bradford hardly does justice to the effort the Bears put into this game, and fittingly both sides were treated to a rousing reception in front of the main stand as they left the field.

Bradford will have to play better than this if they are going to fulfil their ultimate ambition of achieving promotion as League 1 Champions this season – stronger sides will be quicker to punish the kind of errors they served up aplenty particularly in the first half and also won’t run out of steam to allow amends to be made towards the end either.

But that’s for another day.

For now, thanks to Coventry Bears for putting on a great event and congratulations on achieving a new record attendance. As a firm supporter of Rugby League expansion, I’d love to see the Bears continue to develop and grow over the next 20 years and hope that whatever structure emerges from the current spat between Super League and the rest of the sport, there will always be a meaningful place in it for enthusiastic, hard-working pioneer clubs like this.

Match Report & Stats from Official Bradford Bulls website

Watch full match coverage via Proper Sports

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Rufus Wainwright at Coventry Cathedral

I’ve been fortunate enough to see Rufus Wainwright play live many times over the years in many different places, from a sparsely populated Lowry Centre in Salford with his mum and aunt (Kate and Anna McGarrigle) before he became properly famous, to the opulence of a packed London Palladium during his Judy Garland phase. Sometimes with a band, sometimes solo, occasionally – as at the Palladium – with a full symphony orchestra.

But never anywhere or anything like this: Coventry Cathedral and the voice of Rufus Wainwright, on this evidence, are a match made in Heaven.

Having already completed a set opening for Kris Kristofferson at Kenwood House the same evening and arriving in Coventry by helicopter – a mode of transport more suited to a rock star than Rufus Wainwright – the event already had an unusual air about it.

Even more unusual to see the headline act being introduced to the audience by the Dean of Coventry Cathedral. One could only wonder what the holy gentleman would make of some of the lyrics he was about to hear. At least he pronounced the headliner’s name right, unlike he had with the support act Nerina Pallot, who would later gently mention during her set that the ‘t’ is silent.

Any fears that Rufus might be worn out by his earlier performance were quickly dispelled. That incredible voice sounded as strong as ever, already warmed up enough to tackle the long note at the end of ‘Vibrate’ as early as second song in.

Performing solo, alternating between piano and acoustic guitar, you hear the songs in their purest – and arguably their best – form.

A selection of new material peppered the more familiar favourites but there was no shuffling to the toilets during these moments. Partly because the temporary event toilets were outside the building – Cathedrals aren’t built with such earthly concerns in mind. Neither are Rufus sets. The new songs sit effortlessly alongside the older material. Who could resist introductions like ‘this is an upbeat song about marriage… and death’. It just leaves you looking forward to their eventual release on record (I know, other formats are available).

The big question was, would he do ‘that song’ here of all places? You know, that song.

Well, yes he did. Of course he did. ‘Gay Messiah’ was preceded by an amusing tale of the infamy it earned him while performing in Italy, and then interrupted half way through by a pause and a glance back towards the enormous mural of Jesus painted on the wall behind the impromptu stage area as we were reminded, “It’s not about him!”

That may have been for the benefit of the Dean, if he wasn’t already outside protesting about the concert he had himself just recently introduced.

Taking advantage of the venue and testing its acoustics to the full, Rufus treated us to a stunning, completely acapella version of ‘Candles’, no accompaniment, no amplification, just note perfect from beginning to end.

Finishing the regular set with ‘Cigarettes & Chocolate Milk’ to a deserved standing ovation, the encore began with a hauntingly pure version of ‘Going To A Town’ – written and released over a decade ago as a protest aimed at a previous US President but finding new impetus as a rallying cry against the American nightmare that is Donald Trump.

The second Leonard Cohen cover of the night, ‘Hallelujah’ followed (the first Cohen number having being a memorable ‘So Long, Marianne’ in the main set) before this extraordinary concert wrapped with the iconic ‘Poses’, and the promise of a 20th anniversary tour in 2019.

 

Hereditary: Don’t lose your head over this scary movie

I’ll start with a confession. I don’t like horror films. Not because they frighten me, but because generally they don’t. So, my judgement on this one may be a little flawed as I haven’t got many terms of reference to compare it to.

I was persuaded to go see it by the hype that surrounded its release, the glowing critical reviews, a friend who also wanted to see it and, of course, the obligatory Cineworld Unlimited card which means it’s easier to take a risk on seeing something you might not otherwise choose to part with a ten pound note at the box office for.

Unfortunately, watching Hereditary hasn’t changed my opinion of horror films.

I found it very slow paced, almost glacial in places, waiting for something to happen. Not necessarily something frightening, just anything at all. The scares are few and far between, and when they do materialise, they didn’t have me jumping out of my seat in shock.

The only scene I found truly unsettling, without giving too much of a spoiler, concerns one of the central characters losing their head in what appears to be an unfortunate accident. But the dread it leaves you with stems from the impact of that loss on the rest of the family and has nothing to do with the threat which is supposedly driving the main plot.

My main gripe would be that this could have been a fine film on the consequence of loss and the impact of mental trauma on an otherwise stable family unit, because the performances of the cast in this regard are excellent. That’s not likely to be box office gold though, I’ll admit.

I wouldn’t describe any of the characters as likeable, but they are believable – except they never think to put a light on when hearing bumps in the night or waking from a nightmare, as any person not playing a character in a horror film would surely do.

The supernatural element didn’t work for me at all. You either fall for this stuff or you don’t, and I’m a complete sceptic when it comes to ouija boards, communing with spirits, summoning the dead and all that, so the whole thing just tumbled towards ridiculousness at the end. I was stifling a giggle at the point I should presumably have been trembling in fear.

The recent British horror, Ghost Stories, was so much better, perhaps because the mundane surroundings were more familiar or because the central character in that film is a sceptic like me, who sets out to disprove a series of psychic events rather than accept them at face value.

I won’t reveal what happens to him in the end, but suffice to say it is a far more satisfying and believable conclusion than you’ll find in this load of old nonsense.

Raiders of the Lost Cause?

Bradford Bulls 124 v West Wales Raiders 0

This match, or shall we call it what it really was, an exhibition, took place a week after York City Knights had rewritten the record books by inflicting a 144-0 defeat on West Wales Raiders. The only matter of interest for anyone who attended was whether Bradford Bulls would set their stall out and aim to beat that record themselves.

There were incentives for Bradford in doing so, beyond records, with York being League 1 promotion rivals and having boosted their points difference to a position that prevented the Bulls, winners of last week’s ‘top of the table’ clash against Doncaster from actually going top of the table.

With the sun making a rare Odsal appearance and the temperature pushing into the mid-twenties Celsius, the heat might have been the only major obstacle in their way, though they kept the scoreboard ticking along in the first half, matching York’s record-setting pace by half-time with the scoreline at 60-0.

Any doubts that the players didn’t have the record in their minds could be set aside by the numerous glances they kept taking at the scoreboard themselves after each try-scoring foray over the West Wales line.

What can a coach possibly say to their players halfway through a match with a scoreline looking like that?

Aside from brief moments of West Wales possession, and even a couple of occasions when they troubled the Bulls in defence near their own line, this was purely one way traffic.

Kick-off. Try. Conversion. Restart. Repeat for 80 minutes.

The only time boos rang out from the home crowd they were in jest as Dane Chisholm missed a solitary conversion in an otherwise faultless display of goal kicking, including several landed from the sidelines.

Child-powered scoreboard at Odsal

In the end, some time-consuming fumbling at the start of each half cost the Bulls their chance of eclipsing York’s record, but they did become the first Bradford side to notch up a triple figure score at Odsal, which caused the children hauling the numbers up and down off the hooks on the manual scoreboard some consternation. They solved the puzzle of how to cope without a third hook by hoisting the number ‘1’ aloft themselves and holding it there for the duration.

Ten out of ten for problem-solving skills, but how this fits in with child labour laws I guess we’ll never know.

The West Wales Raiders players deserve some credit. It’s not their fault they are out of their depth. They were brave enough to pull on a shirt and go out on the field, knowing in advance there would be little reward for their efforts other than being on the receiving end of yet another drubbing. That takes courage. And they stuck to their task regardless, even managing to force a goal line drop out from the Bulls with just two minutes remaining in the game and the scoreboard already well into triple figures against them.

That they allowed themselves to be caught out by a short kick from under the posts by Bradford, who regathered the ball and went the length of the field to score another try just summed up the gulf between the two sides. For West Wales, it was always going to be that sort of afternoon, and there was some acknowledgement of that from the Bulls fans who gave each and every one of the Raiders players a rousing ovation as they trudged off the field at the final whistle.

The Bulls rewrote their own record books today – (if we set aside any argument that this club is the same one that set the old records, given the number of times it has been out of business and reformed over the years) – and if there is any consolation whatsoever to be taken from this latest shellacking for West Wales, it is that Bradford’s previous record score was set ten years previous against Toulouse, who are now sitting pretty near the top of a division above the Bulls and with realistic ambitions of achieving promotion to Super League.

As someone who has always believed that Rugby League should expand its boundaries, I hope West Wales Raiders will still be around in ten years time, and that somehow, they will have moved forward from the travails of their debut season of 2018.

However, I would also hope that in that time, those charged with the responsibility of running the sport in this country will have learned that days like this don’t benefit Rugby League and that if you want to encourage people to play and watch it in new areas, you cannot just give a club a place in the league and then leave it to sink or swim on its own.

We’re seeing in Bradford, a big city with a long and proud Rugby League history, that rebuilding a club from the bottom up takes time, effort and money and there is no guarantee of success at the end.

Expecting a new club in South Wales to be competitive from day one with no outside help is just wishful thinking. If defeats like this become the norm (unlike the aforementioned Toulouse for which theirs was an exception) how long before everyone keeping the club alive just decide it isn’t worth it and walk away?

Match Report & Stats from Official Bradford Bulls website

 

Threads on DVD – Do have nightmares!

Whilst browsing through a recent edition of Empire magazine, I came across a review for a DVD release of a programme I haven’t seen in over thirty years since its original broadcast, but which is still seared into my brain all these decades later and capable of making my blood run cold at the memory of it.

I’m talking about Threads, a BBC television drama depicting what the impact of a nuclear war would be on the United Kingdom, and in particular on Sheffield, the South Yorkshire city barely and hour’s drive from my home town of Bradford.

Perhaps that’s why it had such a chilling effect on me. This wasn’t some glossy, special effects laden disaster movie starring a Hollywood legend or two set in a place far, far away, and it sure as hell didn’t have a happy ending either.

Instead, it portrayed the lives of down to earth, ordinary people, who talked (a bit) like me, and lived in streets (a bit) like mine.

The characters were instantly identifiable, not by the fame of the actors who played them, as there weren’t any famous faces in it, they were like the people I knew and was in the midst of growing up around.

I was still an impressionable teenager at the time, I was 18 in 1984 when this programme was shown, and the East/West tensions and prospects of nuclear war seemed much more real than they have for a long time since (until perhaps more recently, as history has a habit of repeating itself). The feared Soviet Union was still in existence and the USA had President Ronald Reagan at its helm, an ageing former movie star who wasn’t averse to a bit of sabre-rattling, having referred to the USSR as the ‘evil empire’ and embarked on a program of building up America’s nuclear arsenal.

So the scene was well and truly set for a drama which began by showing us these normal, everyday folk, going about their normal, everyday lives, just like us, with the sights and sounds of TV and radio news bulletins recounting the escalation of hostilities in lands far away to a generally distracted populace.

I can recall the mundanity of it. That’s not a criticism of the drama, it is a mark its realism.

It could never actually happen, could it? Common sense would always prevail in the end. That’s what used to go through our heads back then, quite frequently too, in order to persuade ourselves that although the super powers definitely possessed the means to inflict a global nuclear armageddon on us all, they’d never be so insane as to push the button and kill us all.

But in Threads, the button is pressed, the balloon does go up, and the mushroom clouds start to appear over some very recognisable British skylines, and we as an audience (some 6.9 million watched this on BBC Two on 23 September 1984 at 9:30 pm) sat gripped in horror, watching what happens next.

The makeshift shelters, doors taken off hinges and propped up against internal walls and covered with bedding and blankets (sounds ridiculous I know, but this was the kind of information that appeared in the genuine ‘Protect & Survive‘ government information campaign literature), proved hopelessly – and unsurprisingly – inadequate to the explosion of a nuclear bomb, and the catastrophe unfolds slowly and unflinchingly in its horror as death, disease, civil disorder, hopelessness and despair ensue.

There is absolutely no let up in the narrative. No salvation, no resolution, not even the faintest glimmer of hope. The threads of our society and of our humanity are blasted apart and they may never come together again.

It was one of the most uncomfortable, yet compelling pieces of television I have ever sat through. I remember vividly wanting it to stop, to be able to get up off the sofa, to walk away from the screen, have a cup of tea, anything to return to the comforting normality that was all around me, but it was impossible. I just could not move, I could not take my eyes off it. When the final credits did roll, even then I could barely move. I felt numbed by the experience.

It is an utterly brilliant piece of television. Once seen, never forgotten, but I know, even thirty years on, I could never sit through it again.

More on Threads on IMDB.com

Watch it – if you dare – click here to buy it on DVD from Amazon.

 

Kear We Go!

So where did all this optimism surrounding Bradford Bulls suddenly spring from?

After several years of steep decline, dropping like a stone from the upper echelons of Super League to the bargain basement of League 1 via  a couple of desperately unhappy seasons in the Championship and, dare I mention it, more than one stint in administration, Bulls fans have got used to expecting the worst.

Following the latest relegation at the end of 2017, uncertainty surrounded the club yet again, as no one really expected Australian coach Geoff Toovey to stick around, though the ‘will he, won’t he’ speculation still went on anyway, mirroring the situation that clouded the start of his tenure when visa issues meant he was unable to do the job he had been appointed to until halfway through the season, leaving the inexperienced but undoubtedly determined Leigh Beattie to deputise.

Eventually the Toovey saga was brought to a close, with the confirmation he would not be returning, so who would be taking up the reins this time? Who could not only do the job, but also be brave enough to want to do it, given the recent rocky past?

Step forward, to my astonishment and delight, John Kear.

Here was a man with a track record of success in the British game, not just in terms of winning trophies with Super League clubs, which he had done with both Sheffield Eagles and Hull FC, but more importantly given the Bulls’ predicament, getting the very best out of limited resources along and the ability to restore a bit of pride to a battered brand. And brands don’t come much more battered these days than Bradford Bulls.

In my view, he was always the right man for the Bulls job, since the forced departure of the heroic Mick Potter, but it’s probably for the best it’s taken until now for him to get it.

He gets to start with a clean slate, rather than having to deal with all the baggage that has hampered his luckless predecessors in the Odsal hot seat.

No pre-season period in administration. No points deductions to contend with. No off-field dramas threatening the club’s existence – or at least none we know about at time of writing. Bulls fans have learned not to take these things for granted!

I’m not a fan of pre-season games, but the magic dust sprinkled by John Kear’s arrival saw me turn out in all weathers to watch four of them this year, whereas last season it was often a struggle to drag myself out of the house to watch an actual league match. The times they are definitely a’changing.

Wins over Halifax and Sheffield, a loss to Toronto and a boxing match against Keighley (four red cards, two apiece, in a ‘friendly’!!) whet the appetitite for the ‘big one’, the opening League 1 game away at York City Knights.

The Knights are a proactive and ambitious club and wasted no opportunity to pump up the game to ensure it would be watched by a larger than average crowd. They had pulled in a club record attendance the previous season against Toronto Wolfpack, with no away support, so the prospect of a sizeable influx of Bulls fans saw them confident of eclipsing that record quite comfortably.

York are no mugs on the field either. They beat Toronto in that record-breaking game and only just missed out on promotion to the Championship themselves, so for all the pre-season predictions that the Bulls would stroll through League 1 (predictions based more on the club’s name and its past glories more than any incisive analysis of the respective strengths of their opponents in this league, in my view) we were not heading for an unchallenged early coronation.

And so it (almost) came to pass!

It took a last minute penalty goal from halfway by Joe Keyes to see the Bulls run out 22-20 winners in a contest that had just about everything you could want from an afternoon of Rugby League. Great tries, heroic defence, a lead that changed hands several times and a result that really did hang in the balance to the final moments. Not to forget the vocal set of passionate fans from both sides that turned Bootham Crescent into the scene of what felt like an early-season cup final and set a new club record attendance too for York City Knights, which the club richly deserved.

When the final hooter sounded, the noise from the Bulls contingent behind the sticks, which included me for good measure, went up to fever pitch.

If this is how good League 1 is going to be every week, then watching the Bulls rebuild from the bottom up could be more entertaining than perhaps anyone expected.

And as for the man himself, John Kear, the sight of him leaping out of the dugout and dancing with joy across the pitch to celebrate with his victorious team on a thrilling opening day victory against serious promotion rivals will have further cemented the affection which Bulls fans already hold him in after just a few weeks in charge of the club.

On this evidence, he feels it, just like we do, and after all the trials and tribulations the club and its fans have been through these past few years, that really means something.

Match Report & Stats from Official Bradford Bulls website

Watch the whole game on BullsTV

The Greatest Showman

This was the first film I went to see after signing up for a Cineworld Unlimited card, so I convinced myself it was ok to take in a cheesy, critically-panned musical because it was technically ‘free’ – as in, not free at all, but I wasn’t paying for the actual ticket to see this specific film. It’s just part of the deal, it’s on the card, don’t blame me for the choice, I’m just getting my money’s worth.

You get the picture? I was slightly embarrassed about it.

Halfway through the opening number, I was over all that, and just enjoying the ride.

There’s no messing around, once the adverts and the trailers are out of the way, the film opens and is straight into the opening song, Hugh Jackman strutting his stuff as P T Barnum marshalling the performers in his circus ring to the literally stomping beat.

This fades neatly away into Barnum as a boy, and we’re drawn back to the beginning of his rags to riches tale.

Where other movies might have spent an hour on the journey from childhood to adulthood for the star of their show, here it’s all dealt with in the space of a single song, and it’s no worse for that. Significantly better, it could be argued, as it is another quickly hummable earworm.

By this point, you’ll either be heading for the exits or eagerly awaiting the next set piece, and if it’s the latter, you never have to wait too long.

This isn’t a film that gets bogged down in detail or too much exposition. It’s a big, bold, bright, colourful, unashamed piece of old fashioned entertainment, and on that level it really works.

Each song manages to lodge itself in your memory on first hearing, and some would simply stand out on their own in any company: ‘Never Enough’ and ‘This Is Me’ are a couple of absolute showstoppers.

They’re written by the songwriting team that powered La La Land to Oscar glory, but this is much more fun.

Crusty old critics might have looked own their noses at it, but I predict The Greatest Showman will be popping up in Boxing Day TV schedules for the rest of recorded time.

Find out more on IMDB.com