Friday, 16 February 2018

Delays, diversions and cancellations - when things go wrong.

Considering the number of flights I take – and have taken over the last 19 years or so – I’ve had relatively few big problems. Leaving aside small delays, which are a fairly regular occurrence no matter which airline or route you fly, I can think of only two late cancellations, one missed connection and two unexpected diversions. That’s not bad out of well over a thousand booked flights, both within Europe and intercontinental. Of the problem flights, every one was unique – there is no common thread of inefficiency or incompetence, so this piece is not in any way a stick to beat the airlines with. Indeed, three were down to the weather, acts of God, over which no airline (indeed no person alive) can have any control.

I had one missed connection by courtesy of the UAE Royal family. I had spent a pleasant couple of weeks in Abu Dhabi and was returning via Paris. For a pleasant change I even had a business class seat, and had settled down with my welcome drink, a good book and the music library on my phone awaiting take off. Departure time came and went with no sign of the engines being started or the doors closed. There was no announcement from the flight deck, so we were completely oblivious to what the problem might be. Nearly an hour passed, and I was getting a bit concerned, given my transfer time in Charles de Gaulle (not the most passenger friendly airport in Europe) was under two hours, and I knew I had a terminal change to make. I asked a flight attendant what was happening, and explained my concern. She was very apologetic, and explained that there was a late passenger arrival. I suggested politely it was a little unreasonable to hold the flight this long for a single passenger….. She merely smiled and said it was “a very special passenger”.

He arrived ten minutes later, sweeping on board in his flowing robes and accompanied by his personal assistant and probably two wives, turning left into the First Class cabin. And off we went. We made up some time en route and arrived in Paris fifteen minutes before my connection to Warsaw was due to take off. I had spoken again to the flight attendant, who promised me I would be met by an airline rep at the gate and hurried through – but first of course we had to wait for the Prince and his entourage to leave, and he was in no hurry. Then it was my turn: the crew held everyone else back and escorted me off the plane, where I was indeed greeted by the rep. He was very helpful in getting me through the security and off to the other terminal, then through a second security check, but it was all to no avail. As I ran, sweating, to the gate I could see my flight taxiing out. The airline (this leg was Air France) were very good, and re-booked me on another flight leaving in three hours and gave me a food voucher, so apart from arriving home much later than planned it was actually quite a pleasant journey.

Both late cancellations were weather related and involved pre-Christmas flights, one from Rome to Warsaw on a Friday evening. It had been another cool but sunny day in the Eternal City and I was looking forward to getting home for the Christmas break. I got to the gate in good time and found every other passenger was either a priest or a nun. Again, flight time came and went, this time with no sign of the plane. Then the gate agent started making an announcement, in Polish. Within one sentence she was besieged by a horde of angry and shouting clerics waving boarding passes and all yelling at once (as is the Polish way). I left them to it, having guessed I would not be flying that night.

Eventually, they all left, grumbling in a most un-Christian manner, and I approached the gate agent, who by this time looked stressed and exhausted. I politely asked what was happening. Tearfully, the poor girl explained the inbound flight from Warsaw had failed to materialise because the city was in the grip of a blizzard and there was nothing she could do. I smiled and said no problem, what about checked bags? She directed me to the baggage hall, wished me a Happy Christmas and bolted. So I ambled off to get my bag, and while doing so called my company travel people and explained the problem. Within 10 minutes they called me back with a room at the airport hotel and a flight booking via Munich for 7:30 the next morning. By the time I got to the hotel desk, the e-mailed flight booking was waiting for me. Painless.

I had a good meal and an early night, and caught my flight the next morning. It left on time, but Munich was snowy and windy, so we had to amble around over the city for 20 minutes – and my tight connection time was rapidly disappearing. But Lufthansa excelled themselves. We parked out on the apron, so faced a bus ride to the terminal, but at the foot of the stairs stood a rep with my name on a card. He led me to a minibus, and escorted me to the terminal entrance, where we were met by a security team, who jumped in the back of the bus, checked my passport, wished me Happy Christmas, left, and then the bus sped off to my waiting flight to Warsaw. I was the last passenger to board – and we left on time. Service with a smile. And I still have no idea what happened to the angry clerics.

The other late cancellation also featured Warsaw, a blizzard and a pre-Christmas flight. It happened a few years before the Roman one, before Warsaw joined the EU so security was much tighter at Okęcie airport than it is now. It was also only a few months after 9/11….. I had been living in the country for over a year, and had a very pleasant apartment in town (paid for by the bank where I worked). On the Friday I was not working, but was booked on the late afternoon flight back to Heathrow, the last of the day, along with perhaps a dozen work colleagues. The snow had started the night before, but was very light and no big deal. I took the Metro out to the apartment I had recently moved from to return the keys to the owner, then returned to my new flat for my bags. While I was underground, the snow strengthened to a full-scale blizzard and the taxi ride out to the airport took much longer than expected.

By the time I got there, the crowd around the check-in was chaotic – it turned out half the people were waiting for the preceding flight that had still not left. No-one seemed to know what was going on, so I joined my colleagues at the front of the queue and started chatting. Then, without warning, the destination screen showing the BA flight details went blank, and then replaced by another flight with another airline. We asked what was happening, and were told that check-in was suspended, we needed to go away and wait until it re-opened and then come back. We pointed out that this would mean losing our places in the queue, and the gate agent merely shrugged her shoulders and made to walk off.

One of my colleagues suggested they took our names and queue positions, so that we could be prioritised – this was before the advent of on-line check-in and seat selection – as we all had BA Executive Club cards of various colours (mostly Gold) and business class seats (those were the days!), but again the girl had no interest in helping us.

Go,” she said, brusquely and in fractured English. “Is not my problem.”

It was like waving a red rag to a bull – cue much shouting and anger. By this time, passengers for the other flight were arriving and demanding attention, as well as our two BA flights-worth of passengers, all desperate to get home for Christmas Eve tomorrow. So we all sat down on the floor, and refused to move until we had been guaranteed our places in the queue. The ground staff were going crazy, yelling and threatening all kinds of sanctions, but we stayed put. Then a couple of security gorillas in full body armour and toting machine guns strolled over, demanding to know what was going on. Amid much arm waving, the ground staff explained – presumably calling us trouble-makers, Communists, terrorists and every other epithet available in the Polish language. We remained sitting on the floor, encouraging each other.

They won’t shoot us, don’t worry.” At least, we hoped that was the case.

It’s the airline’s fault!” Which it patently wasn’t.

We’re not making any fuss, just protecting our rights.” Ummmm – let me think about that.

And so on.

The guards looked at us, big smiles on their faces, shrugged their shoulders, said something else to the gate agents, then walked off, clearly completely disinterested. The gate agent picked up the phone, dialled a number, and had a heated and unintelligible conversation with someone. She sat down again, arms crossed, glaring at us. The screen flickered, and the flight disappeared. Pause a minute. Back came the earlier BA flight. We all stood up again, as the announcement was made.

Flight BA351 to Heathrow at 12:50 now open for check-in.” It was now almost 3:00. “Flight BA 354 to Heathrow at 4:50...” (our flight) “….cancelled. Have four seats available, please contact…..”
Cue more chaos as a dozen Exec Club members leapt forward to claim those four seats. I was pushed to one side, and missed out. Gold Card or not, I was not on that flight. In the event all four seats went to lower graded Blue Card members who had sharper elbows. I got to the desk next, and asked what was going to happen to all of us who were left. The girl shrugged her shoulders – clearly she wasn’t bothered.

Tell you what, I said. “I have an apartment in town. If you can check me in to the first flight out tomorrow, with a decent window seat, right now, I’ll go back home and sleep there. One less passenger for you to worry about.” She hesitated. “Please,” I said. “It’s Christmas.”

She shook her head, but held her hand out. “Passport”.

Done. I got a cab back to my flat, through a blizzard showing no signs of letting up, and relaxed, boarding card for the 7:50 flight next morning in my pocket. I slept well, had a pizza and a beer from the fridge, and next morning headed back to the airport. Blue sky, no snow but bitterly cold. The flight left on time and I was at Heathrow by 9:30. As I walked through the Baggage Hall my mobile rang – it was one of my colleagues.

Where are you?” he asked.

Heathrow. And you?”

He was not happy. It turned out the delayed 12:50 flight had taxied out to the end of the runway and sat there, engines running, for an hour waiting for the snow to stop and the runway to be cleared. Neither happened. The plane returned to the terminal and everyone was re-booked on flights later today, then bussed off to hotels for the night. It all took until about 9:00. No-one had been on the morning flight, and most of them on the 4:50. So Christmas Eve was basically cancelled. I did laugh.

And a postscript to that affair. It turned out to be the last Christmas I spent in England. When I flew back to Warsaw on New Years Eve (I was going to a ball with some friends) I found to my surprise that my girlfriend of two months had moved her stuff into my apartment. 16 years later, we are still together, married and still very much in love, with two beautiful children. Funny how things turn out sometimes….

And my diversions?

The first was a couple of years ago. It was the day’s last KLM flight from Amsterdam to Warsaw, due to land about 10 in the evening. The flight was uneventful, until we started circling somewhere close to Warsaw. It turned out the entire city was blanketed in a fog so thick the airport had been closed – even instrument landings were forbidden. So we turned around and flew back to Poznan. There we waited on the plane for another half an hour or so before it was decided the fog wasn’t going to lift, and we were de-planed and taken to the terminal. The airport is a small regional one, and evidently not used to having an Airbus A-320’s entire passenger complement (maybe 170 of us, plus crew) descend on them at this time of day. All the cafes and bars (three of them) were closed, and there were no more than a dozen people in the building, most of them cleaners.

There followed the usual Polish chaos, with one poor young guy who worked there being badgered by a hundred plus angry Poles. It was like Rome all over again, but this time the conflict took place on the pavement outside the terminal and there was not a priest or nun in sight. Eventually we were told buses were beings arranged to take us to Warsaw, but they were having to drive some distance to get to the airport so there would be a delay. Well, yes – over two hours. They eventually arrived at about 2:30 a.m. - and both vehicles carried Warsaw number plates. It turned out there were no local coaches available at short notice and in the middle of the night, so these two had been summoned from the capital just under 200 miles away.

Boarding was, of course, a free for all, with everyone pushing and shoving to get on first and bag the best seats. Bags were left on the pavement while our friendly neighbourhood airport worker tried to load them with no idea whose bag was whose. I would not be in the least surprised if some were left behind or given to the wrong people at the end of the drive. I was travelling with hand baggage only (I had left most of my stuff in an apartment I was using in Amsterdam) so had no problem. The drive to Warsaw took another three hours or so down an increasingly foggy motorway, and we were eventually dropped at the airport at 6:30 in the morning. I had phoned ahead and my wife was waiting for me – in bed and asleep by 7.

And my second diversion was this week – and it got me thinking along the lines that have led to this little set of traveller’s tales. This time the route was Warsaw to Luxembourg, the morning flight on LOT. With departure at 7:40 this always means a brutal 5:15 alarm call, so I try to sleep on the flight – I don’t usually manage it, but this week I was lucky and was out like a light within a minute or two of take off.

A pilot’s announcement woke me two hours later, advising us that Luxembourg airport was closed due to bad weather so we were diverting to Dusseldorf, some 250 km from our destination. We would be given more information when we were there. We landed in brilliant sunshine, a lovely late winter morning, not a cloud in the sky. I called the office to let them know I was running late, and was told by a surprised boss that it was a lovely sunny morning in Luxembourg…...all most odd. I later found out from a mate who lives a mile or so from the airport that there had been a blizzard at 8 that morning, and lacking much in the way of cold-weather gear there had been no option but to temporarily shut the shop.

Anyway, after half an hour’s inactivity, the captain made another announcement – we were returning to Warsaw. We were all invited to remain on the plane and when we got home would be booked on the next available flight back to Luxembourg, but with no guarantees we would not encounter the same problem. Alternatively, we were welcome to leave there and then and make our own way to Luxembourg, but in this case as it was personal choice, the airline basically washed its hands of us. I asked the senior flight attendant if we would be reimbursed our additional travel costs (i.e. train fares) if we decided to make our own way, and she was indifferent – we could try but it was probably not possible.

My view was that since every flight on this route, no matter the day or departure time, was invariably full – typically no more than a handful of empty seats, if any – it might take all week to get re-booked. So I decided to leave, catch a train and send the bill to LOT. I would argue about it later on. With a distance to travel of only a couple of hundred kilometres, it shouldn’t take that long. I got that wrong..

We bussed into the terminal (perhaps a dozen people made the same call), and hopped on the monorail to the main terminal where there was a Deutsche Bundesbahn station. I bought a first class ticket (figuring I had more chance of a seat that way) on a train departing in 10 minutes, with a single change in Koblenz. Simple. At work not much after lunchtime.

My geography was way off. Koblenz was a two hour train ride, that wound its way south easterly along the Rhine valley and stopped at Cologne and Bonn on the way. Then a half hour wait for a connection that headed pretty much south-westerly, much of it alongside the Moselle river and through some rather beautiful hills that were covered along one side of the valley by mile after mile of vineyards. It stopped at a further 13 stations – an express train it was not! The journey was probably closer to 350 kilometres than 250, and took over 4 ½ hours. But, I have to say, it was one of the more pleasant train journeys I’ve had over the years.

DB are, as you would expect, highly efficient and their trains run strictly to timetable. My train pulled out of Dusseldorf airport precisely on time, and kept its schedule to the second all the way to Koblenz. My seat was comfortable, and I enjoyed watching the views outside my window unfold. I couldn’t help but think that much of this area had been devastated by the combined might of the RAF and USAF during the closing months of the War, as the Allies sought to destroy the Nazi industrial machine located along the Rhine and Ruhr rivers. Dusseldorf itself had been badly damaged, Cologne virtually wiped from the map, and Koblenz too suffered huge damage. And yet within a couple of decades the cities had been largely rebuilt, the network of roads and railway lines that served the industrial zones and municipalities relaid, and factories restored to full productivity. The Rhine valley remains an industrial heartland, and on both sides of the main line there was a constant parade of chimneys and industrial zones in view.

From Koblenz I was on a regional train with double decker carriages, so settled into an upstairs seat – the view is better. The first half of the journey took us through scenery that reminded me very much of a favourite route of mine, between Zurich and Geneva. There is a section on that trip where you emerge from a high tunnel and see the whole of Lake Geneva stretching away on the left, and high banked vineyards on the hillsides to the right as the line runs down to Lausanne. Between Koblenz and Bullay, the country was very much like that, except that the Moselle river was to the left instead. We passed through a number of small villages nestling between the river and the vineyards, all with narrow winding streets and small half-timbered houses. There was hardly any traffic on the roads there, and few people, but the villages looked prosperous and well-kept. Each had a big wooden gasthaus (that’s guest house) with outside terraces or gardens. I thought that I could happily lose myself in this neglected corner of Germany and lead a nice peaceful life with my books and my writing and beautiful countryside for exercise….

Beyond Bullay to the Luxembourg border just beyond Trier the land changed and steep hills gave way a greener and more rolling countryside that reminded me of the North Downs in Kent, around Sevenoaks and down through my home town of Edenbridge to the Sussex borders – well ordered green fields cut through by narrow winding lanes and lots of woodland – and this remained the view for the rest of the ride to the outskirts of Luxembourg city. I had seen it described as a Tolkienian landscape, the Shire in middle Europe as opposed to Middle Earth – that’s not too far from the mark. I could settle happily there, too – although I would guess, given the affluence of both Germany and Luxembourg compared to that of Yours Truly, that is highly unlikely. Worth planning a week of touring there in better, warmer weather though…..

And that was it. We pulled into Luxembourg Central station, bang on time at 15:35, and there was hardly any snow. It was very cold, though, and on the final few kilometres between Sandweiler and the city, quite close to the airport, lay the deepest snow I had seen all day. But it was still no more than a dusting, so I still have no idea why the airport had been closed just a few hours earlier. From what I understand from work colleagues, it must have re-opened while we were sitting on the tarmac at Dusseldorf…...a 10 minute delay leaving Warsaw would have avoided the whole affair.

Which would have been a shame.

So is there any point to the foregoing 3700 odd words?

Well, nothing Earth-shattering, to be honest. It’s a collection of reminiscences from my Travelling Life that demonstrate that, when things do go wrong and your travel plans are disrupted by reasons beyond your control, there is always some kind of compensation if you just go with it.

There is no point in getting angry and yelling at the unfortunate groundstaff when you are hit by a cancellation – it’s not their fault. For all their anger and abuse, I would wager that I was back in Warsaw long before that planeful of priests and nuns from Rome. I know I was home in England well before my queue jumping colleagues that snowy Christmas, and my holiday plans for Christmas Eve were unaffected – and I had the added bonus of sleeping well in my own flat and listening to my own choice of music, rather than tossing and turning in a hotel bed watching badly dubbed cable tv. At other times, I was helped and looked after well by airline staff and had the bonus of a meal on them.

Put simply, no matter how meticulous your planning, no matter how early you arrive at the airport, no matter how much you pay for your tickets, sometimes things will go wrong. Getting angry at innocent people, finger pointing and laying blame on airline staff who are only doing their job, and screaming abuse at all and sundry does nothing to change that – it only increases your stress levels and is therefore unhealthy (as well as unbalanced).

Relax. Have a coffee. Or a beer. Call the wife to let her know you’re ok and see how she and kids are. Take your time to decide what to do – whether re-book to the next flight, catch a train or get a hotel room (or a combination thereof) – and then do it. If doing that takes you somewhere new and unexpected, embrace it and enjoy the experience.

Life is too short to get upset by such small irritations!

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

The Return of Travellin Bob

If there is anyone reading this – hello! Welcome to Around the World In 80 Expense Claims.

I’ve been writing this Blog for just over 7 years now, increasingly sporadically. Looking at the Archive figures, it all started in a burst of creativity with 20 essays in 2010 (in just under 4 months), then followed a peak of 38 the following year, before gradually tailing off year-on-year until last year’s nadir of a mere 2 pieces. Nothing at all since the end of February 2017.

It’s not as if I’ve been really busy the last few fallow years (2015 and 2016 were not much better than last year) with my day job preventing me from writing anything. Ever since I’ve been writing it, my work elsewhere has been pretty steady, some years better than others, but I always found time to knock something out. Truth be told, I’ve been suffering from Writer’s Block I think……

I’m approaching the age when I can retire and follow my dream (not too strong a word) of writing full time – or at least those hours when I’m not reading from my extensive and back-logged library, lazing around doing not very much, or riding my bike in an effort to keep fit and healthy. But with no salary coming in, just a probably meagre pension, and no need to get up at Stupid O’Clock to catch a flight somewhere every Monday morning to return home Depressingly Late on the Friday, there will be no excuse really NOT to write.

My equally neglected novel will be finished (I wrote it over 20 years ago, and I’ve been re-drafting it on and off the last couple of years) and published somehow. I’ll probably go for doing it myself as an e-book, given the apparently closed and locked doors to mainstream publishing. I can finish too my memoirs (started a couple of years ago, and proving harder to write than I expected) even though I imagine its audience will probably be restricted to my immediate family. I might even try to re-mould the pieces here into a more substantial and expanded volume of travel writing.

So it’s really crucial that I get the creative juices flowing again, more reliably than they have done lately.

So it’s time for a re-boot of this Blog.

It started as something to keep me occupied during slow workdays while in Trinidad on a long-term project (that was annoyingly truncated a third of the way through by my then employer without warning…..but that’s another story). I had read a lot of travel pieces in magazines and on web-sites, plus some of Michael Palin’s books - amongst others - and thought, I can do that. Having spent, at that time, 11 years criss-crossing the planet for work purposes I had been to a lot of places, experienced a lot of different cultures, eaten some great (and a lot of disgusting) food, and had a lot of laughs. And the odd tear. So there was plenty of subject material. A travel blog seemed the obvious outlet.

As these things do, it morphed as I went along, and a mix of essays on other subjects started creeping in…….an obituary for Steve Jobs. Book and record reviews. Some political op-eds. Family stuff. An article about goalkeeping, for God’s sake! In short, somewhere along the line it lost focus. Perhaps that led to this Writer’s Block, I don’t know – it certainly was one factor in that creative constipation, I think.

I also changed work, of necessity: at the end of 2013 I was made redundant, and at the ripe old age of 60 was faced with early (forced) retirement, trying to find a new employer, or starting my own company and trying to carry on what I had been doing since 1999. For purely pragmatic reasons (for which read “financial”) I took the third option, and spent most of 2014 starting my business. It was hard work, took a lot of time, created a huge amount of stress – but in that year my Blog output was still a respectable 19 essays. The following year, spent pretty much fully employed on a couple of projects, I managed just 6 – and the die was cast. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time travelling and working, and an equal amount of time benched and at home with my family – precious times, those, and spending time trying to write seemed less important. It still does…..but I need to do it.

During this period, too, the world began to change in ways no-one seemed to have foreseen. Refugee crises all over the world, but particularly in Europe that ultimately led to Britain’s referendum vote to leave the EU; the rise and rise (and hopefully retreat now?) of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism; war in Ukraine prompted by Russian aggression in annexing Crimea. The rise of alt-right politics that led to Trump’s election and the Twitter fest of his Presidency, the rise and fall of UKIP and other far-right political parties on the near-Continent, all of them seemingly based on racism and anti-Islamic sentiment, and the continuing financial crisis, 10 years after Lehman’s collapse. These changes are still going on, and I don’t think anyone can accurately predict where it will all lead. I certainly can’t.

As a serial optimist, I found it all very depressing – and I still do. And that sense of anger and depression triggered first a collection of essays that did not find their way onto this Blog but found a home on LinkedIn, where my manic political ranting seemed more at home (and indeed was reasonably well received). And second, it exacerbated that damned Writer’s Block. I couldn’t see the point – if I could find nothing happy and cheerful to write about, then why bother? So I didn’t.

So the Blog ground to a halt. I tried to keep my hand in by working on my books, but that too has suffered. I had really expected to be in a position to launch The Match (that’s the neglected novel I mentioned earlier) on an unsuspecting world in mid 2017, but I’m stuck on the second (or third? Fourth??) revision still. I even launched a website, called optimistically Books by Robert Cooper, as a vehicle for sales and distribution, and somewhere to bring all my writing together in one place. It’s equally becalmed.

But the optimist in me is waking up again, I think. I’m seriously convinced that writing, still very much a hobby, is something I can do and do pretty well. Whether well enough to support me in the future I have no idea (just a sneaking suspicion it might, given the additional time to hone it) but I enjoy it so what the hell…...I’ll continue to do it.

Around The World…. Mark II starts with this little round up. The aim is to publish at least one essay a week, It will remain, primarily, travel related, and I will try to keep the other stuff on the website, together with the progress reports on the books. There are some essays on there, too, so feel free to take a look: you’ll find it at There’s an associated e-mail account so I would welcome your comments, both on the website and this Blog.

So, again, welcome to my world – or at least, my take on Our World.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Soggy skiing in Zwardon

Back in the 80s I had a Chris de Burgh album called Into The Light.  One of the songs (I can’t remember which one and I lost the cassette years ago) had one of my all-time favourite lyrics:

                “The cafés are all deserted, the streets are all wet again,
There’s nothing quite like an out of season holiday town in the rain.”

It’s simple and evokes, at least for this Englishman, a crystal-clear picture of resort towns like Hastings and Clacton and Skegness and Blackpool when the tourists have all gone home, the pier is closed for winter renovation, the pubs and chip shops and cheap amusements arcades are empty, and the wind and sea is howling in on a wave of salt spray.

The song came into mind last week, but not because I was at the coast.  I was, to paraphrase, in an end of season ski resort in the rain……

For the past 6 years, we’ve taken a week in February to go to Szczyrk in the Beskidy mountains bordering Poland and Slovakia and the Czech Republic.  The kids have learned to ski, my wife joins them, and I rest my knees and hips, aching from the cold, either in the snug warmth of a mountainside bar nursing hot chocolate or mulled beer, or (more frequently these days) work in the lonely confines of our hotel room. 

I remember the first year the snow was deep and crisp and even, we tobogganed on the slopes near the hotel between ski lessons, and it snowed every day.  It was a winter wonderland to match anything on offer in Switzerland or Austria, France or Italy, but considerably cheaper, and we had a great time.  In successive years, although we always go the same week (since we’re locked into the winter holidays from school) the amount of snow has decreased progressively and the temperature risen so that last year the slope at Krasnal Ski School was open thanks to snow machines and surrounded by hills and forests that were more a grubby green than sparkling white.  Climate change or global warming, or as my mate insists “merely a cyclical adjustment to the prevailing weather patterns” (and he has the cheek to say I use too many words!) is immaterial… is not as cold nor as snowy as it was five years ago.

But we go anyway, for the change in scenery and a breath of fresh air.  This has been particularly welcome this year as for some weeks Poland in general and Warsaw in particular has been smothered by a blanket of acrid smog several times heavier than is generally considered safe (or admitted to by the PiS Government).

But this year, unable to book in Szczyrk (we left it a bit late) we settled for a hotel in Zwardon.  This is a small town about 30 kilometres from our usual base, at a slightly higher elevation, and less developed.  It is literally on the border with Slovakia: the road from the village centre up to the hotel has a fence along one side that marks the frontier, and this swings round behind the hotel and back up to the road at the other end of the village where the main road crosses into the Slovakia.  More of which in moment….

The drive down was less than pleasant.  There was patchy fog and drizzly rain for the whole 245 mile drive, and roadworks close to Czestochowa forced a 10 mile detour off the highway and along some less than well-maintained country roads.  There had been little snow when we left home – the previous week had seen temperatures rise a few degrees above zero causing a thaw – and as we headed south even this dusting  thinned still further.  By the time we passed Katowice, with perhaps 70 miles to go, there were only a few patches here and there and we were seriously concerned about whether there would be any ski slopes open for business.

In the event, we didn’t need to worry.  As we passed Bielsko-Biala the road was rising up into the mountains and we saw the amount of snow increasing.  Then, just after Milowka, we went through a half-mile tunnel and came out into a blizzard.  In 15 minutes or so we slithered up the drive of the hotel on thick ice and knee deep snow.

The hotel, the Dworek Szwajcaria (in English, Swiss Manor House) stood just outside the village, on the side of a hill looking across into Slovakia.  It’s a big, rambling old place as the name suggests, operating as hotel since 1928, and before that as a private residence.  There are 18 comfortable and modernized rooms, a bar with adjacent kids’ playroom, a cosy restaurant serving very tasty and inexpensive Polish food, and free Wi-Fi throughout.  The staff were all very efficient and very friendly, and gave us some good recommendations for trips out of town.  No complaints at all, and I’m sure we’ll stay there again.

Zwardon itself is much smaller than Szczyrk, and apart from the single ski slope there was nothing else there.  Not a gift shop in sight, only a couple of grocery shops, a station (trains to Katowice every hour on the hour), some houses and that was about it.  Not even a restaurant that we noticed.  The slope itself was good, higher and steeper than our old friend Krasnal, with a chair lift and very reasonably priced ski passes.  At the bottom was a good café to buy your coffee and chocolate and tea and (of course) warm beers, as well as burgers, chips, pizza and zapiekankie (like a French bread pizza – delicious), and behind it a shop to rent your gear if needed.  The kids have their own stuff, but Ania rented a set of skis one day.

So while I beavered away at the hotel, with our cat for company (the hotel is pet-friendly so we were able to take her with us) mon famille were having a wonderful time on the slopes.  At least for the Sunday…..

Then the weather changed.  The temperature shot up several degrees and the rain swept in.  The snow began to thaw, and the whole place took on a grubby bedraggled look, as is usually the case when there is a snow-melt.  On the Monday afternoon, in need of some fresh air and tired from a morning skiing in drizzle, we decided to go for a drive into Slovakia.  We set off and crossed the border five minutes later in proper rain rather than drizzle, heading for a Slovakian ski resort a half an hours’ drive away according to the satnav on my wife’s phone.

A mile or so over the boarder we drove through a sizeable village and the difference a few extra years’ of EU subsidies makes became clear, as the well maintained Polish roads gave way to a single lane bumpy and pot-holed Slovakian road.  The houses and small grocery stores and roadside cafes were not dissimilar from those we are used to, but the pavements looked as ill-maintained as the roads and the poles carrying the telephone lines leaned this way and that.  There was little traffic about, and even fewer pedestrians.

A mile further on and the satnav turned us left onto a side road rising up between forested hills.  In better weather, it’s probably a nice road – there were some pretty detached houses in good sized plots along both sides – but in the strengthening rain and melting snow and ice it was less than pleasant.  A little further along, on a sharp left bend, we were directed to turn right onto another side road that looked more like a track between scruffy looking farm or light industrial sheds.  The snow was deeper here, packed and rutted and we decided further up it might well prove impassable.  We decided enough was enough, about turned with some difficulty and headed back to Poland.

We passed through Zwardon and headed on to Szczyrk.  The place has not changed at all in the year since our last visit, but like everywhere else on this wet and miserable day was uninviting.  We stopped in the middle of town, bought some delicious smoked goat’s milk cheeses called oszczypek at a road side stall (lovely served hot with lashings of cranberry jam), then crossed the street to a restaurant for a lunch that was as usual excellent and filling, the portions huge.   After that we headed back out of town, up into the higher elevations and through the resort of Wisla (from the hills just outside the village is the source of Poland’s main river of the same name that meanders all the way through the country, nearly a thousand miles, to the Baltic Sea) where we stopped at an ice-cream and coffee bar for a tasty cappuccino and ice-cream sundaes, then along the spine of the Beskidy range back to Zwardon. 

The rain continued unabated through Tuesday and Wednesday, and my loved ones skied between the showers while I carried on working at the hotel.  We drove out to Milowka and found a very good pizza parlour for evening meals, and on the Thursday spent the day on the slopes.  By now, much of the snow was gone, but the skiing was still ok on packed snow, and I was totally impressed by the improvement my kids showed since last year.  It was my wife’s birthday, so we had a good meal in the hotel restaurant in the evening, and sampled the local brew (it was actually Slovakian, but a very nice, strong, dark lager).  We packed to return home on Friday.

It was a better drive, with clear skies through mountains that were now virtually devoid of any snow, no fog or rain to delay us, and we made good time.  Then about 50 miles out of Warsaw it all changed, and we ran into a full-on blizzard.  By the time we reached home the front of the car was coated with an inch or so of packed snow and ice, the number plates invisible and the lights dangerously dimmed.

We were glad to be home, but it had been a good trip, despite the weather.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Here we go again - as 2016 passes to 2017

So here we are.  Another New Year – 2017, and I creep ever nearer to a pensionable age that until the last 18 months or so seemed a distant speck on the horizon but is now a mere 15 months away.  Doesn’t time fly when you’re enjoying yourself?

So 2016 was a strange year, in many ways.  I started it in Amsterdam, ensconced in a project that promised a full diary for another three years at least, and before the year was half finished I was out of the door.  “A new focus” within the bank prompted it – way too many expensive contractors like me on the payroll, so a whole slew of us were unceremoniously pushed through the Exit.  A shame – not least for the bank, that now has some alarming knowledge gaps, given the work I and others were doing there, that it will not be able to fill internally for quite a while.  I hope it doesn’t damage the bank too much, because it was a good place to work and there are some great people there.  I saw rumours of a merger with another bank being discussed, so I’ll be following that story with interest.

But it at least gave me a decent summer break – two months.  July was spent, as usual, at the Baltic coast, and was as good as ever.  In August the kids went away for a couple weeks’ summer camp, each to a different location to do different things.  It gave us all some freedom to try new things (at least in the kids’ case) or just relax and do not very much at all (in my case a bit of job hunting).  At the end of August we teamed up again for a short trip out of town, spent idyllically canoeing along a quiet and deserted Polish river in hot sunshine.  It was a lovely end to a lovely summer.

Then back to school, and, in my case, back to work.  I managed to find something very quickly, and ended up spending the last three months of 2016 in Israel.  It’s a country that I had never had any wish to visit – to that extent no different from others I’ve been to overs the years, like Kazakhstan, Trinidad, Latvia, even Poland – but for very different reasons.  I’ve blogged before about the political situation in the Middle East as a whole, and the part that, with its hatred and genocide against the Palestinian people (who themselves are far from blameless) Israel plays in the continuing carnage. 
But the offer was an excellent one, and with no firm alternative I took it.  It has been an eye opener, but one that has not changed my opinion that much.  Tel Aviv is an interesting city, cosmopolitan and less Orthodox than elsewhere (in many respects it’s little different from other Mediterranean resorts like Benidorm or the Balearics or Greek islands) and the people I have met at work and elsewhere have been very friendly and welcoming.  I have never felt threatened, probably because I continue to avoid places and situations that could put me in a (shall we say) difficult situation, and I try to avoid any political argument here. 

And yet…. Palestinian dissidents (or terrorists if you prefer) continue to attack the country.  In my time here, there has a been a nightclub bombing in Tel Aviv (a week or so before I started work here) and just this week a truck driver in Jerusalem drove his lorry at high speed through a crowd of off-duty soldiers (including young women) then reversed back over them to make sure they were dead, before being gunned down himself.  All in view of closed-circuit tv cameras, providing some disturbing images for CNN et al.  And yet…. the Government continues to stoke the fires by building more and more settlements for its residents, on land recognised internationally (by the UN amongst others) as Palestinian, hence rendering them illegal.  And moreover…. calls for a pardon for a young soldier convicted of cold-bloodedly shooting a wounded and unarmed Palestinian dead after the wounded man had himself stabbed an Israeli.  Rather than allow the Palestinian to face justice in a court of law, the soldier executed him – is that not murder?
It seems to me the country, by its actions and insistence of being always “right” and allowing no other point of view, secure in the support of its biggest ally, the US, brings much of these terrorist actions on itself and leaves itself wide open to a criticism that is rarely voiced publicly by world leaders who just may be able to make a difference to a sad situation.  All the time hard-nosed and often corrupt leaders like Sharon and now Netanyahu run the country, nothing is likely to change.

There have been, for me at least, three major news stories this year (that’s besides the birth of my three lovely grandchildren, a boy and twin girls, to sons of whom I am more proud than ever before – and that’s going some!).
First, the continuing slaughter and tragedy in Syria where Assad continues to indiscriminately bomb his own subjects, particularly around the besieged second city of Aleppo.  The siege ended just before Christmas, after four terrible years in which countless innocent women and children lost lives and limbs, while many thousands of victims risked (and often lost) everything including their lives in the mass refugee “invasion” of Europe.  Despite many fine words and waves of shuttle diplomacy by UN diplomats and, in particular, US Secretary of State John Kerry the siege only ended when Russia joined in, on the side of Assad, and introduced even more lethal weaponry to the conflict during 2016.  Accusations of war crimes abound but are highly unlikely to ever be prosecuted let alone proven.  The rest of the world should hang its collective head in shame for allowing such events to drag on for 5 years so far – that is almost as long as World War 2.

The second story has been the emergence of an orange, bewigged, reality tv star, sometime property magnate and multiple bankrupt The Donald Trump as President Elect of the US.  Right up until Election Day, most “experts” continued to insist that Hillary Clinton would win and continue the Obama project.  But Trump managed to tap in to a nationwide dissatisfaction with the American political establishment in a way that Clinton (part of that Establishment) never could, and despite an often brutal and always offensive campaign that showed him to be a racist, misogynistic bully without a policy worthy of the name – and that was just the primaries that won him the Republication nomination – he won the race and will be inaugurated next week.  Even now, the arguments rage as he takes to Twitter in a daily rant against anyone who has the audacity to either disagree with him or (God forbid!) criticise him in some way.  Oh, and he likes Vladimir Putin, another bully with an aversion to free speech and opposing opinions.  Is it just me, or will the world be a tad more dangerous (or a lot…..) after January 20th?

And the third, inevitably for an Englishman I suppose, is bloody Brexit.  The unlamented ex-PM David “Call Me Dave” Cameron called a referendum on membership of the EU, to honour an election pledge from 2015 and more importantly shut up the anti-EU element in his party. And then proceeded to lose and resign in, one hopes, embarrassment.  The campaign dragged on interminably – or at least it seemed interminable: in reality only a couple of months (how in hell do the Yanks put up with a two year campaign every four years?) – and both sides argued and bickered, lied and misinformed to an equal degree, and threw reams of statistics at us to prove their points.  And all without giving us any clear information or idea of what life would be like if we voted to Leave (we knew already of course what being In would be like).  

In the end it came down to LCD (Lowest Common Denominator) Politics – which side came up with the best scare story, trumpeted it the loudest and most frequently.  And in that, led by everybody’s best boozing mate, the loathsome UKIP oaf and leader Nigel Farage (“We want our country back!”), everybody’s favourite buffoon and Have I Got News For You regular Boris Johnson (“Turkey will be in the EU soon opening our borders to 35million Muslim terrorists!”) and the dreadful, smarmy, backstabbing Education Secretary Michael Gove (“Look, you don’t need experts, just listen to me!”) – the Out campaign succeeded.   Like The Donald, the Out campaign had managed to tap into a deep mistrust and anger in a population tired of austerity and nervous about losing jobs to lower paid immigrants from both within and without the EU, and with the In campaign offering little more than “More of the same” they won hands down.

Now, just over six months later, we are no closer to knowing how things will end up.  Legal challenges were made, not about the result per se (though to hear the vitriol being thrown around by Farage and co you would never know that) but more broadly whether further acts of parliament are needed to enact the Exit instead of using Royal Prerogative for this and all other referenda.  The Scots, who voted overwhelmingly to Remain, are increasingly agitating for another referendum of their own (this time whether to break away from the UK).  There are no clues about what leaving will actually mean, apart from a rather vacuous statement from PM Theresa May (conspicuously absent during the campaign….) that “Brexit means Brexit”.  Boris, now Foreign Secretary (dear God…..) says that we will negotiate a deal that allows us to take advantage of the best bits of the single market without the rest (and lacking specifics about what those “best bits” are) and is echoed by Liam Fox (Minister of Foreign Trade) and David Davies (Minister for Getting Out of the EU) – who seem to be continuing to squabble between themselves about who should be doing what and who is more important.  Farage, meanwhile, continues to say “The people have spoken” – true – and “the Government should listen and just get on with it” – true-ish – and “I want my life back!”.  He also supported The Donald on the stump, became the first overseas politician to meet with The Orange One after his win, and would like to be Britain’s Ambassador to the US (even though, as BoJo and May pointed out, politely, there is no vacancy).  Gove seems to have disappeared completely, hopefully up his own arse.

So 2016 has been entertaining and eventful, depending on which way you look at it – and that is ignoring the Euro Championships (another cock up by England, but at least the Welsh did well), the Olympics (in which Britain did rather better than expected), Wimbledon (another win for the now be-knighted Sir Andy Murray) and a plethora of tragic deaths bookended by David Bowie in January and Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia from Star Wars) at Christmas and her mum, actress Debbie Reynolds, the next day.  Sad.

And now we’re in 2017, what to expect?  I have no bloody clue! 

I hope somehow solutions are found to end the mess in Syria and Iraq and Libya, and everywhere else where anarchy and IS currently have the upper hand.  I hope The Donald turns out to be a better President than people expect (but I’m not holding my breath on that score – the man seems a dangerous loose cannon lacking either common sense or common decency: I hope I’m wrong).  I hope the UK Government gets its act together and manages to extricate Britain from the EU relatively easily and cheaply (but I have little confidence the politicians charged with doing so have the quality to succeed).  I really really hope that people across the world – and particularly in Britain – re-discover the tolerance and understanding that once, briefly, allowed diverse societies to grow and flourish in London and New York, Paris and Berlin and elsewhere, before the demons of bigotry and xenophobia were released from the bottle over the last few years and stalled that process.
On a personal level, I pray that my kids, all five of them, and my grandkids, and my wife and extended family of sisters and nieces and nephews and cousins scattered all over this world remain fit and healthy and happy (a bit of wealth wouldn’t go amiss either), and any trials and tribulations they are facing – I know there are some, quite serious – sort themselves out soon and without too much suffering.  And I hope they all stay happy and keep smiling……

Me?  I want to stay fit too, and healthy, to enjoy that extended family.  I want to stay in work, both here and elsewhere, and keep enjoying it, the travel too (though it becomes increasingly difficult with each year that passes).  I want to – no, I WILL – finish and finally publish The Match, and make progress on my memoirs (Living), and keep finding inspiration to carry on these scribblings, more often than for the last couple of years.  I’ll also get this website up and running to pull it all together and put it out there.  I want to stay happy too.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Monday, 24 October 2016

A Gap in Medical Science

The other day I got one of those irritating memory thingies pop up on my Facebook home page.  You know the type of thing - an automatic re-posting of something from a year or more back that you had probably forgotten all about and hoped everyone else had too........the death of an old friend, perhaps, or a particularly embarrassing result in your team's football match.  Or throwing up all over your boss's lap at the Christmas party.  Whatever.....  The one that arrived, unwanted and unannounced (and just WHY do Zuckerberg and his merry men think this is such a great idea in the first place? A topic for another day and another rant...) related to a dental problem from a year ago.

Now, I hate dentists.  I firmly believe they are all sadists.  This dates from visits to the school dentists in my late 50s and early 60s childhood.  Once a year this big vehicle, a cross between a bus and a lorry, would arrive at the school gates, and the school dentist in his blood-spattered white coat (not really: I made that bit up....I think) would examine our teeth and while our mums looked on anxiously, do what he deemed needed doing.  This might be just a clean-up (involving scraping plaque and last night's dinner leftovers away with a spike like a medieval torture implement) to a filling (the drill grinding slowly away by foot-pedal power) to - God forbid! - an extraction!  Fillings were usually done under local anaesthetic administered by the sort of huge needle you typically saw manhandled by Dr. Frankenstein in late-night horror films on the telly, sterilized by rinsing under a lukewarm tap and used repeatedly until blunt......  The dope, whatever it was, never seemed to work properly either......  Extractions were done under gas, I remember - the rubber mask, when placed over your nose and mouth, stunk evilly, and that was before the gas was turned on.  I had just the one, and suffered headaches for a week afterwards....not to mention the bleeding from my poor gums......

As I grew into my late teens, machismo insisted I took myself off to the dentist, and this I did with decreasing regularity, because the treatment never seemed to get any more pleasant (or at least less unpleasant....).  The major advance seemed to be an electric motor for the drill, that did away with the slow, deep grinding inside your head and replaced it with the shrill screeeeech we all know and love to this day.  The little hosepipe that part drowned you and part did away with the burning smell of your rapidly incinerating tooth added to the experience, if I can call it that.  But at least injections were done with smaller and better sterilized needles, and were more efficient so the gas mask was dumped......  But still less than pleasant.

What finished me, once and for all, was an issue with my lower wisdoms.  Not untypically, these brutes were coming through and shoving their neighbours out of the way.  My admittedly poor dental hygiene made things worse by allowing some rapid rotting to take place on them and, again, the adjoining choppers.  My dentist told me they had to come out.  Now I had heard - as I'm sure you have too - horror stories about wisdom teeth, and how the best, most pain-free way of getting rid of them was in hospital under a full anaesthetic, so I wasn't keen.  But he was insistent - they had to go, and he would do it under local.  I had no less than six injections before the lower half of my face was dead enough to allow him to start - that process alone was alarming enough, and took half an hour.  The lower wisdoms actually popped out very easily, in fact - not a problem.  But the tooth next to the right lower.....oh, dear!  That was another matter entirely.  It was like something on a poor television comedy or cartoon.  The dentist pulled and twisted and tugged and sweated and swore.....nothing worked.  So he did a big filling on a tooth on the other side, just for fun, I think, while he got his breath back.  Then he grabbed the pliers, gripped that bloody tooth again, braced himself with both feet, and leaned right back, pulling with all his weight.  He literally lifted me out of the chair by the tooth.......

There was a loud crack.  He staggered across the room, and I slumped back in the chair, sweating like a pig (but curiously not in much pain).  In the pliers was half a tooth.  It had snapped off, leaving the roots still firmly embedded in my gums.  The dentist sighed, tossed it in the trash and got back to work.  Another couple of injections.  Then - I kid you not: this really happened! - he had to slice my gum open, and drill away a bit of jawbone in order to release the root.  When he eventually pulled it out, it was nearly an inch long, much longer than the snapped-off piece.  The job was finished with 8 stitches, thankfully the kind that dissolve over a week or so as the wound heals, and a cheery "See you in six months".  He never saw me again.

The experience has left me, nearly 50 years later, with a deep fear and loathing of dentistry.  Over the years, I've been back for more fillings and extractions and check-ups and polishings, to a wide range of dentists both in England and abroad.  It hasn't got any easier.  I am still physically sick before going for a check-up (I literally can't eat for a day or so beforehand).  But back to that Facebook memory.....  It recalled an event last autumn - almost exactly a year ago in fact - where, visiting friends, I took a bite into a salami sausage, found it a bit crunchy and took from my mouth half a tooth.  Not any tooth, but the one right next to my front teeth, right side, leaving me with an interesting gap in my smile.  It didn't hurt, because much of the tooth was in fact a filling from some indeterminate time in the past, but it looked unsightly.  So to the dentist I dragged myself the next day.  I had a root canal done, and a general tidy up, and a temporary crown fitted, just to get me through before I left for a two week business trip.  I was told that it should hold through to the New Year, but I would need another three visits to replace the temp with a permie tooth.  Ha!  with my track record?

Anyway, the Facebook post made me think a bit - unusual, considering the general quality of stuff on that social media abomination - about advances in medical science.

In my lifetime, we have clearly come a long way in the field.  Appendectomies and tonsilectomies are routine.  Heart transplants commonplace.  Knee injuries that in my youth could and did end football careers are treated surgically and enable players to make full recoveries in a few months at most.  We're even in the realms of face transplants now, as well as a whole list of replaceable organs and limbs. Cataract surgery, enabling the gift of sight to people who in my childhood would be left blind for life, is carried out under local anaesthetic (my sister had both eyes done over the period of a few weeks the year before last).  A friend of mine had a heart attack a few years back, due to a blocked artery.  He was stabilised, then a few days later underwent a procedure, again under a local, that involved inserting a tube in the artery in his groin that held a camera and enabled a fine wire mesh tube, a stent, to be slipped up the artery all the way to and through the blockage, wherein the stent was opened to clear the blood vessel properly.  He watched it all on a screen, and tells me the most painful part was the injection in his testicles that froze the area where the camera was inserted.  Extraordinary - and a life saver that is carried out on a daily basis.

So if we can do all that, and much else, WHY can medical science not come up with some painless dentistry?  Why do we still have to suffer those injections to freeze the gum, and then prolonged drilling to remove a decayed patch of tooth (the noise alone scares the shit out of me, and that damned hosepipe and vacuum cleaner that prevents drowning and speech all at once gives me nightmares)?  Can't lasers be used instead?  They are used to repair eye damage and zap cataracts, and surely the eye is far more sensitive and delicate than teeth......

It seems to me we're missing a trick here......

And my temp tooth?  It's finally going.  A part of the outer plastic flaked away a week or two ago, so clearly it needs taking care of.  So I'm busily plucking up the courage for that first appointment of the three needed to give me a permanent replacement.  I hope to get it done by Christmas.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to vomit.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Bobby Z, The Boss and Sir Rod

Nice to see Bob Dylan getting the Nobel Prize for Literature – it shows that you don’t have to be academically acceptable to win it.  One of the people he beat to the Prize was Salman Rushdie, who is eminently academically acceptable but possibly the most over-rated writer in history.  I've waded through The Satanic Verses and a couple of his short stories and found them bloody near unreadable…….if it hadn’t been for the Fatwa and years of personal bodyguards (at tax payers’ expense, I seem to recall) I think he might well have sunk without trace. 

But he was not as bad as Roy Hattersley, the former Labour Party politician and professional Yorkshireman.  Many years ago, in a budget bookshop in Tintagel, Cornwall, I bought a book of his called The Maker’s Mark, about a steel family in Sheffield in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  It was billed as “part one of an epic and unmissable seven part family saga”.  God only knows what happened to parts 2 to 7 – I’ve never seen them anywhere, which is no surprise: the first book is without a shadow of a doubt the worst book I have EVER read.  Apart from how badly written and turgid and humourless it was I remember nothing about plot or character (I think one of the characters rose to fame playing football for Notts County or someone, but I may have imagined that bit….).   I spent the best of part of a year reading the thing, out of sheer bloody-mindedness and a determination not to be beaten, and then, exhausted, passed it over to the second-hand book stall at the local church summer fete.  Priced at 10p, it was still languishing, unsold and dusty, at the last fete day I went to, perhaps 8 years later.  It’s probably still there now.  I remain convinced it only found a publisher because of who wrote it, not its quality.

So the fact that a songwriter and musician has won this years’ Nobel is refreshing and a bow to popular culture rather than Academia, and this is no bad thing.  Without a doubt, Bob is a fine and inventive songwriter, but whether songwriting should be considered “literature” is an open question.  Judged on sales and influence over a generation, then possibly – and no-one could seriously question Dylan’s output or appeal over the last 50 years.  He knocks Rushdie and the other contenders this year out of the ball-park in that respect.  People will be singing along with Like A Rolling Stone or Lay, Lady, Lay long after our Salman has been forgotten, in my view.  But literature?  Arguable, I would say.

Some poet (who needless to say I’ve never heard of and whose name I have immediately forgotten) was particularly critical, and described Dylan’s lyrics as childish, poorly written and lacking in rhyme and rhythm.  Probably overlooked for the Nobel…….  But childish?  The early stuff, maybe, when he was learning his trade (the same as all of us).  Poorly written?  No, a lot of it is unforgettable – The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and Isis are little gems.  Lacking rhyme and rhythm?  Possibly, but they are songs, so perhaps the rhyming bit doesn’t matter as much as it does in poetry (and since when did say e.e.cummings bother about that?  Great poet, but still trying to figure out upper case letters, never mind rhymes and metre).    Still, each to his own I guess.  If the judges are happy to call it literature, I ain’t going to argue.

As fine a lyricist Dylan is, though, he is not my favourite. 

Nor are Lennon - McCartney, or Jagger – Richard, ground-breakers though both pairings undoubtedly were.  Nor Elton john and Bernie Taupin, another 70s duo still going strong in this 21st century.  All six of them are touched by genius, and along with the late great David Bowie formed and continue to supply the soundtrack to my life and dominate the Music Library on my phone.

In fact, I have two favourites and simply cannot choose between them.  Both have been around for years, and share another huge chunk of my Library.  They are both firmly blue collar working class boys, much like myself, who have made good (and huge piles of money) working their arses off and making some quite brilliant music on the way.

From the US is the brilliant (though often denigrated, for reasons I can’t begin to understand) Boss, Bruce Springsteen.  I first heard him way back in 1975 or thereabouts, when over a few beers in a Tunbridge Wells pub I spent a drunken hour listening to two close friends complaining bitterly about what a poser he was, how his music was boring, pretentious shit, his guitar playing no more than rudimentary beginners' strumming, and much else that was a lot worse.  Intrigued, I wandered off to my local Our Price and purchased an original vinyl copy of Born to Run.  It simply blew me away.  I later bought Born in the USA, also on vinyl, tapes of Human Touch and Tunnel of Love, and later downloaded The Ghost of Tom Joad, The Rising and We Shall Overcome (The Seeger Sessions), as well as a two volume Essential…. compilation.  And the 30th anniversary box set of Born To Run, complete with the DVD of that immortal 1975 London concert that broke him in my homeland. 

I remember watching an MTV Unplugged session, with a band of then young musicians (rather than the magnificent E-Street Band) including, if memory serves, on drums the excellent Cindy Blackman (now married to Carlos Santana and a mainstay of Lenny Kravitz’ band).  He played the first song, solo and acoustic, then said something like “That’s the unplugged bit, now let’s do the real stuff”, brought the band out, strapped on his battered old Fender and blew the place away for an hour and half.  A short concert by his standards – I saw him and the E-Street Band in London’s Earls Court in the mid 90s and was treated to a full-on three hour concert that remains the best gig I’ve ever been to.  Twenty thousand people – including yours truly -  singing along word-for-word Born To Run reduced me (and many others) to tears.  Magic is the only word I can find to describe that night.

But live concerts are transient things, by their very nature.  You buy your ticket, turn up at the venue, enjoy the show (or not – I dozed off in the front row of one once, Barclay James Harvest in Croydon, many years ago: sober too) and then go home again.  Springsteen at Earls Court was exceptional and not to be forgotten, others I’ve been to I’ve forgotten before I’ve arrived home.  What makes a show, and an artist, exceptional is the content – the quality of the music, the skill in the song writing.  In both areas, in my view, Springsteen is without peer.

He is more than a rocker (though tracks like Tenth Avenue Freeze Out and Born to Run, Born in the USA and Glory Days are American anthemic rock at its very best).  Listen to The Ghost of Tom Joad – the entire album is country music, and he is as adept at that as his lung-bursting stadium rock.  Or The Seeger Sessions – pure traditional American folk, complete with fiddles and washboards (and recorded with a local bar band in his kitchen in New Jersey, apparently).  And don’t forget the ballads – the Oscar winning Streets of Philadelphia, Nebraska (which is classic country too), and American Skin (41 Shots).  Ignoring Seeger, all of those feature some sublime lyrics that are in my view more poetic than anything Dylan has written. 

Springsteen appeals to the American blue-collar worker in a way few contemporaries have.  His songs are full of small town America, its people struggling with a depressed economy and unemployment, but always with some hope to keep them going.  In The River, he writes about a young family, High School sweethearts, whose love is fading – some of the most poignant lyrics I’ve ever heard are in this song: “We went down to the Courthouse and the judge put it all to rest/No wedding day smile, no walk down the aisle, no flowers, no wedding dress…”  and again: “I got a job working construction for the Jonestown Company/But lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy”.  Rural New Jersey in the 1980s recession personified.  In Thunder Road there is more hope for the young lovers: “Well I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk/And my car’s out the back if you’re ready to take that long walk”…..and a final bellow of “It’s a town full of losers and we’re pulling outta here to win!”  You did, Bruce – you surely did.  I could write pages of this stuff, quote lines from song after song – but I won’t.  You can find ‘em all on Spotify or iTunes or You Tube, and enjoy them all at your leisure.

My other hero (and that is seriously not too strong a word) is Britain’s own Mod wide-boy, the recently knighted Sir Rod(erick) Stewart,  Highgate’s finest, professional Jock and Celtic fan.  I never saw him perform, but did once see him on the M25 motorway, near Swanley in Kent.  I was driving clockwise towards Sevenoaks one sunny Sunday afternoon, and across the carriageway, on the hard shoulder of the anti-clockwise side was a brilliant red Ferrari Testarossa, a cloud of steam streaming from the rear-mounted engine compartment.  And standing at the front, yelling (presumably) into a mobile phone was Rod.  I guess the AA or Green Flag Rescue was being summoned…..  At the time, as well as the LA mansion, he had an estate near Epping Forest in Essex, in the grounds of which he had laid out a full-sized football pitch that was kept in pristine condition and was good enough for the top clubs to use if they were in town and wanted to train away from the press.  Gordon Strachan, now managing Scotland but then in charge of Southampton used it from time to time, I remember.  Top man, our Rod.

I bought his classic Every Picture Tells A Story album back in 1973, largely because I liked Maggie May, the stand-out single taken from it and his breakthrough chart hit.  I remember seeing him perform it “live” on the BBC’s Top of the Pops show, using his then full-time band The Faces as back-up, with Radio One dj John Peel guesting on mandolin.  All a joke – Peel was clearly miming, as was the band – drummer Kenny Jones was pretending to play bass, guitarist Ronnie Wood was a half-beat behind on drums, keyboard wizard Ian MacLagan tried to look as though he knew how to play guitar, and bassist Ronnie Lane tinkled the ivories.  During John Peel’s little mandolin “solo” (played on the record by Lindisfarne’s Ray Jackson) the rest of the band started playing football on the stage.  It was fun, and summed up that band’s entire ethos.  Thirty years later a couple of greatest hits compilations came out called, very accurately, Five Guys Walked Into A Bar and Nice Boys (When They’re Asleep) - the latter of which I downloaded and thoroughly enjoy.

If there is one thing The Faces enjoyed, it was having a good time.  A few beers (well, several, actually), some Jack Daniels bourbon or a vodka or two, Rothman’s King Size cigarettes, maybe a Castella cigar.  A game of darts or bar billiards (pool was not as ubiquitous as it is nowadays).  And of course, girls.  A whole string of them.  So basically what the vast majority of us were doing on a Saturday (or Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) evening……Friday was usually a night off, because we had football matches to play the next day.  Followed by fish and chips, a curry or a Chinese.  Happy days.

But while the rest of us just enjoyed it all, Rod was busy chronicling it in a catalogue of good-time English rock songs, of which Maggie May was the first and still best known (although in my mind not the best song).  Lyrically, the songs are like Springsteen’s – working class guys enjoying life, stuck in dead-end jobs, looking to better themselves, falling in and out of love.  But instead of America’s vast plains and dusty dirt roads (to quote Springsteen again, from Thunder Road), Rod spread his net further afield to catch a decent phrase.  Whether he had been to all the places he referenced, at that relatively early stage in his career, is doubtful, but they worked exceptionally well in his songs.  The Faces classic Poolhall Richard, for instance, talks of the legendary Minnesota Fats “standing at the back in a plastic mac” while our hero beats the titular Poolhall Richard in a frame of eight-ball in order to save his relationship with his lady – “Man, you’ll never ever steal my lady then!” he sings joyfully.

There’s another reference to the States in You Wear It Well, a later single from the album Never A Dull Moment.  It starts “I had nothing to do on this hot afternoon/But to settle down and write you a line/I’ve been meaning to phone ya but from Minnesota…/Hell, it’s been a very long time”.  Call me cynical, but the American Midwest seems a bit of an unlikely destination for an up and coming singer from north London just starting out – but it works well in the song. 

There are more geographical references throughout the Stewart catalogue, especially in what for me is the best song the man ever wrote, the title track from Every Picture…. The vinyl I bought is long gone, sold for the price of a beer sometime in the alcoholic haze that was 1972 to 1976 in my life, but even then I knew it by heart and loved it.  I found it again on a CD compilation called The Millennium Collection, in a Tesco superstore in Gdynia of all places.  It remains one of my favourite albums and has pride of place on my Music library – there is nothing on there later than about 1976, all taken from his classic solo albums (nothing by The Faces), and every track is good-time English rock that evokes memories of my own misspent youth.

Every Picture…. tells of Rod leaving home to seek his fortune with his father’s advice ringing in his ears – “Daddy said son you’d better see the world/I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to leave/But remember one thing – don’t lose your head/To a woman that’ll spend all your bread/So I got out….”. And out he goes – to Paris (“I got arrested for inciting the people to riot/When all I wanted was a cup of tea!/I was accused!”), then on to Rome (“My body stunk but I kept my funk/At a time when I was right out of luck/Oh my dears, I’d better get out of here/’Cause the Vatican don’t give no sanction”).  I was jealous of the man, and wanted to go too, especially after the next bit….."On the Peking ferry I was feeling merry/Sailing on my way back here/When I fell in love with a slit eyed lady/By the light of an Eastern moon/She took me up on deck and bit my neck”.  But it was perhaps a bit risky, because “Shanghai Lil never used the pill/She claimed that it just ain’t natural!”  And that little couplet sums up Rod Stewart…….a little bit racist (Slit Eyed lady indeed!), a little bit sexist (never used the pill?) but for all that having the time of his life – while I slaved away in what I considered the kind of dead-end job he had escaped from.  And of course I escaped too, in his music.

Apart from a slushy interlude when involved with Britt Ekland, his music never really changed, and the same themes and word play cropped up again and again.  In Dixie Toot from the album Smiler, he sings about being in New Orleans for Mardi Gras – “Sitting in my back yard, wondering which way to go/The sun shines on my back and it hurts” and in the next verse another brilliant batch of fun and games: “I might lose control of my powers/I might even lose my trousers/Smash my glass, behave like trash if I want! Ha!”  Who cares what anyone else thinks, I’m having a great time! From the same album, in Sailor, he sings about a narrow escape: “Running down the highway in the pouring rain/Escaping from my wedding day/I heard the bells ringing in the local church/The ceremony’s nearly under way/Her mama got hysterical, the bitch was cynical/Daddy’s in the corner drunk” then a cry of “Sailor, show me which way to go!/I screamed out loud!”  Considering the man has been married about four times and has eight kids, I find that one a little ironic……but it’s a great song.

He was the same in The Faces before they broke up (when he left to go solo and make his millions in the States, and his co-writer Ronnie Wood replaced Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones - still there forty years later).  The best example is probably Stay With Me: another classic that these days may not have seen the light of day, with a final verse going  “So in the morning/Please don’t say you love me/’Cause I’ll only kick you out of the door/Yeah. I’ll pay your cab fare home/You can even use my best cologne/Just don’t be here in the morning when I wake up!”  On Miss Judy’s Farm there’s another nice throwaway couplet that again offends, this time animal lovers: “She had a peroxide poodle/That I would kick if I was given the chance”.  Not my favourite mutt, either, Rod……

Over the years he mellowed and rather than being the cockney rapscallion he showed a more romantic turn of phrase, but there has always been the odd throwback to a freewheeling youth – Do Ya Think I’m Sexy is a more or less a disco re-run of Stay With Me (boy meets girl in club, takes her home…..the twist is in  “watching the early movie” rather paying “a cab fare home”), Lady Jane (bitter ex-lover who knows “secrets about you” and has “plans of my own”) to name but two of the better known.  And of course the universally panned (but I quite like it) Hot Legs (“You’re wearing me out/Hot legs, make me scream and shout/I love you honey!”).  Not sure whether that makes Rod the irresponsible kid or me……probably both of us.

So there we have it.  The Boss and Rod the Mod.  Two very different songsmiths, whose art has entertained me for most of my adult life and continues to do so still in my 60s.  Born to Run, Thunder Road and The River still bring lumps to my throat and a tear to my eyes, and Every Picture….., Miss Judy’s Farm, Dixie Toot and pretty much anything by The Faces a smile to my increasingly wrinkly old face.  Whether either of them are worthy of a Nobel Prize in the same way as Dylan is doubtful, but for this listener at least their work is better and more accessible than Bobby Z’s sometimes opaque verse.