Now and Then, and then again…

Words, music, pictures, and more words

A Short Health-Related Story

During the excessive heat of Summer 2022, I developed a case of conjunctivitis – a rather unpleasant eye infection, for which I visited the doctor and he prescribed suitable treatment, which superficially cleared the problem.  But it did leave me with a rather bad case of dry eyes, to be controlled by liberal use of various eye drops, suitable for day or night administration.

The dry eyes never went away, but being a patient soul, I persevered as was suggested until early February, at which point I felt I had to get something done – runny eyes, difficulty opening them at night to the point of pain, and manual intervention to get them moving.  So, should I ring the local world-renowned Eye Infirmary (only 6 miles away), the doctor or the optician?  I was told that I couldn’t go directly, but had to be referred to the Eye Infirmary, so I chose the optician, mainly because I trusted the lovely Irishman who had looked after me previously (“you have immaculate maculas, Mr Barnes”), and he will have appropriate equipment at his immediate disposal.

He quickly diagnosed a classic case of corneal erosion, which comes as a result of the dry inside of the eyelid rubbing the outside of the eyeball.  He showed me the microscope view of the outer front and top surfaces of the eyeball, which looked like a Hobbit landscape.  “You need to be referred to the Eye Infirmary, and they’ll set up a treatment regime for you, and I’ll write to your doctor who will set the wheels in motion.  Oh, and the cataract in your right eye is worsening as well, but that’s what happens when you reach a certain age, but nothing for you to worry about.”  Worrying a lot, I thanked him for his prompt attention.

I received a letter from the doctor confirming the referral and then one from the Eye Infirmary telling me that they would be in touch in due course.  Good, some real progress.

6 weeks go by, and no contact, so I phoned last Monday.  “Ah yes, Mr Barnes, you’re on the list.  It’ll be about 5 months.”  Trying my best not to laugh or shout at the poor woman on the other end, I politely asked how I could be moved forward on the list, as my right eye, especially, was giving me much concern.

“You need to contact your doctor and ask for an ‘Expedite’”.  So I phoned the doctor’s receptionist that day, and she said she would see to it right away.  Good, but it could be a few weeks before I heard. Oh well, if it reaps some dividends, so much the better.

The very next day, I had a call from the Eye Infirmary.  “Mr Barnes, can you get to your local Hospital tomorrow at 11 o’clock?”  I could.  “The specialist can fit you in whilst he is there on Out Patients duty.”  Blimey, and only a 20 minutes walk from home – perfect.

I arrived at the appointed hour, and was given a swift vision test by a nurse, and then ushered in to see the consultant without a further wait, even though I had been told there were three people in front of me.  A full exam, and a proper regime established using steroid eye drops plus others depending on the time of day.  “There could be some side-effects from the steroids, and if you suffer any problems, phone my secretary and she’ll slide you into my diary.  I’ll call for you in 3 months – and I’ll see you back here, as it’s obviously easier for you to come here rather than the Eye Infirmary.”

“And when to get down to the Hospital Pharmacy, your meds will be ready for you to take away.”

Trying not to stand there with my mouth too far open in disbelief, I thanked him profusely, and the meds indeed were handed to me after a 1 minute wait.

How did that work?  From a 5 months’ waiting list, to being seen by the top man within 3 days?  I put it down to being polite on the phone, being 73, and obviously being on the receiving end of a National Health system that appears to be joined up.  Needless to say, I am most impressed, still slightly confused yet most appreciative.

It’s the Difference Between Working and Labouring

A hymn in praise of a wonderful invention – the simple addition of battery power for the cyclist on the move – the e-bike.

“Ah, but it’s not real cycling”, say the sceptics. “Ah, but it is“, I say.

I have ridden a two wheeler since I was a youngster, not with any pretensions to be a ‘cyclist’, but because it was a pleasant way to get around and see the countryside. Not for me the figure-clinging lycra and drop handlebars (my less than sylph-like figure unable to do the designs or the pose justice), but I always wear hi-viz and a helmet* unlike so many who call themselves ‘cyclists’.

Nearly three years ago I added a new bike to my stable of one ‘normal’ bike, so that I was now the proud possessor of two meticulously maintained bikes – one non-electric, and one electric.

I chose the electric one very carefully after copious amounts of research – affordability, reputation, ease-of-use, weight etc – and landed on a British-built Ribble AL-E as being the one which ticked the most boxes. 3 years on I can confirm it was a good choice, with just a few consumable items needing replacement along the way. My enjoyment is undoubtedly enhanced by a visit to Velo Culture on Team Valley, Gateshead, who ‘fitted’ the bike to my size and shape – totally worth the time and modest investment, and a hearty recommendation for anyone riding any sort of bike.

The bike looks like a normal bike and weighs just over 14kg, which means it’s easy to lift in and out of the car (not the case with most electric bikes).

And back to the title of this piece….in case you don’t know, you still have to pedal the bike as normal. It has three settings when you choose to utilise the battery power, basically low, medium and high which can be changed when riding along to suit the terrain. As a bonus, and to save the battery, you can ride it like a normal bike with the battery assistance turned off – it’s your choice.

In normal conditions, where I might set the assistance to ‘low’ for most of the time, I average about 80 miles’ worth of cycling before needing to recharge the battery. Recharging takes a couple of hours connected to a standard 3-pin wall socket.

Yes, I still have to work when cycling and particularly going uphill, but I no longer need to labour uphill, as I have a friendly electric hand in the small of my back to take the unnecessary sweat out of it.

You can buy e-bikes which look like racing bikes, or gravel bikes, or multi-terrain bikes, so you’ll always have to bike for the job.

  • For the reason why I wear a helmet, please look back at my February 2020 entry On The Rocks”

Hot Plates in Scarborough

One aspect of the restaurant trade that has always bugged me, is the inability of so many eateries to serve hot food on hot plates. Hotels usually manage warm, but generally cafés (from my experience) drop hot food onto cold plates. This is galling, especially with a fried breakfast (yes, I know I shouldn’t).

We had occasion to make one of our infrequent visits to Scarborough, and circumstances made it appropriate to stay overnight. January is not high season in Scarborough, so we had a decent choice of hotels at decent prices. I found one with consistently excellent reviews, with the added bonus of an indoor swimming pool. So the Park Manor Hotel, opposite Peasholm Park it was.

We were greeted by a warm and friendly Yorkshireman who informed us that we were two of only four staying that night, and would we like to dine in. We looked at each other and jointly decided that to go out would be the better option. He insisted that he would get a chef in if we wanted to stay in to eat (very accommodating), but no, we would go out and could he recommend anywhere within walking distance. Italian would be good.

So, Gianni’s was the recommendation – a 20 minutes’ walk away. The weather was fine so this would be a welcome burst of fresh air after the rigours of this particular day.

Gianni’s is much like lots of other Italian restaurants around the country – welcoming, with lots of noise from happy diners. We chose main courses – spag and meatballs, and spag a la carbonara – and a bottle of house white.

The plates were hot, we were warned. Delightful, we said, having had too many dishes on cold plates over the years, whereby the meal is cold half way through or worse. This experience was different. I cannot remember one single meal where the last mouthful was as hot as the first. Full marks Gianni’s and a model for so many others to follow. It can’t be that hard!

The breakfast at the hotel the following morning was similar, egg that stayed hot to the very end. Blimey, twice hot in two meals – we must come to Scarborough more often…

This may seem trifling, but believe me, it really makes all the difference to the enjoyment of a meal.

So, a hot plates experience in Scarborough at the coldest time of year. Everyone was lovely and couldn’t do enough to help. The Stephen Joseph Theatre we visited for a spot of lunch was a revived Odeon cinema built in 1936, with all of the traditional touches. FYI, Stephen Joseph was the mentor of playwright Alan Ayckborne, also from the town.

Just great and it all appealed to our innate sense of Yorkshire.

‘You’re Not In There To Eat Sheep’s Cheese!’

Christmas can be a tense time for all manner of reasons – money (or lack of it), expectations both gifting and culinary, too much packed into too short a space of time, ungrateful relations – all typical and well-documented reasons for a spike of temper even from the calmest and most organised of people.

She is calm and organised – sure, no-one is immune from a bout of ill-temper, but hers are kept to a minimum, with any displeasures being marked by silence rather than by noise.

Anyway, Christmas 2022 was only days away, but with an unusual mash of people coming to stay, and an untimely death in the greater family which was immediately time-consuming. So, alongside all of the other seasonal pressures, the volcano was on the cusp of a mighty eruption.

As one classic pre-Christmas job, an audit of the contents of the kitchen ‘fridge was being carried out one evening only a few days before ‘the big day’. It was his job to answer the questions about quantities and availability in the great white box.

But before the first one was fired at him from across the kitchen, his eyes lighted upon the cheese container, and two pieces which had been forgotten about, having been purchased at a country cheese farm recently. ‘I must taste that one’ thought he, and dived across to get a sharp knife from the adjacent drawer. He was through the wrapping quick as a flash – it was the sheep’s cheese as opposed to the goat variety, and it was different and it was good – and he said so.

Oh dear, this was the lighting of the touch paper, with lists obviously not top of his order of priority at that moment, when confronted by cheese.

‘You’re not in there to eat sheep’s cheese!’ He was well and truly rebuked. His remarking that it was particularly good, merely poured petrol on the flames. This was not a good time for him to be in the kitchen, but he was chastened and returned to his task of providing inventory, whilst laughing out loud at the poetic humour of the expression.

But it does go to show that on certain days of the year, one has to be ever vigilant as to the mood of those around, especially when the loads are already intolerantly high. A little more thought and keep the humour back for a better occasion. He survived the Christmas holiday without any visible injuries.

He Led a Simple Life…

This expression is a familiar one, and one which will conjure up a picture in your mind. For me it’s either the BFG (Big Friendly Giant) as in the Roald Dahl story, or a tall thin and older person living on their own with minimal possessions and no truck for modern life.

As it happens, the latter description would appear to be quite near the mark, with the exception of the level of possessions. The title of this post is with reference to a comment made by the neighbour of a family cousin, following his death aged 86 just before Christmas 2022. There are also next of kin implications and responsibilities.

This cousin has lived on his own for many years in a first floor flat with huge loft above, in what was a farmhouse in a seaside village on the East Coast of England. He had inherited this from his parents upon their deaths many years ago. He had no family of his own and chose the ‘simple’ and solitary life.

He worked as an engineer on land and at sea, and continued work throughout his retirement doing jobs and gardening for other people in the neighbourhood, and was seemingly fit and self-sufficient up until the day he died, when the people who lived in the flat beneath his had called the police due a to a lack of activity and noise above. Their fears were justified. He was found on the floor, his heart having given out due to an arterial problem as stated by the coroner. By any measure, a good way to go, at a great age.

We went down to the seaside town to collect the keys to the flat from the police, who had broken in, and tried to pick up whatever trail we could. There had been no face to face contact with this cousin for 55 years, although Christmas cards and letters were exchanged in the intervening years.

When we arrived at the flat – part of the house formerly owned within the family – it was something of a surprise. With the exception of a pile of CDs from the 1980s, a very small quantity of food in the elderly ‘fridge, and many piles of accumulated post, there was nothing to suggest anyone had lived here since the 1960s at the latest. That’s a big statement, but one which I can confirm, following another visit to the property.

I know you may find this hard to believe, but it is a very real time capsule of an era gone by – clothing, furniture, lack of any form of heating (really!), and room after room full of miscellaneous ‘stuff’ from an old model railway and woodworking equipment to magazines, crockery, and furniture which will have been his parents’. In the midst of all this clutter and chaos from a life lived to a template with which he was patently perfectly happy, rather spookily the very small kitchen table was set with a knife fork and spoon, teacup and saucer, and a plate and water glass – not that there was any likely food to back up this modicum of organisation.

By our usual standards, it was a sorry sight. By his, obviously not so. He had what he wanted and lived to a ripe age, so any judgement from outside sources is unwarranted.

That said, we have to pick up on what is in the flat and decide what to do with it all, as well as all of the other legal responsibilities. This could be really simple – get a van with some strong men and clear it out. No messing, no backward glances, and let them make what they can from the contents. This largely will inevitably be the answer, but it needs a controlled clearance, as we don’t know what may be unearthed that could be critical to his estate.

For example, no Will has been found, although rumoured to be in a box under a bed. No such box has yet been found. Phone calls have been made to all solicitors in his small town, and none has any Will registered with them in his name. It is highly unlikely he would have employed someone from outside his town. There is no trace of him having been anywhere outside his immediate surroundings since he stopped work.

We can cover this off once and for all when seeking our own legal advice, as any Will must be registered. Nor do we know what else may be uncovered, so the clearance must be managed, even if this is just a cursory look in drawers as furniture is placed in the big van.

So this man who led a simple life is leading us on a strange and interesting quest, and one which I shall provide an update for when there is more news. Watch this space….

David Dimbleby and I

No, we haven’t met, but in terms of revered and markedly successful British families of my lifetime, the Dimblebys are right up there. Father Richard was the most famous TV broadcaster of his generation (1950s-mid 1960s), two of his sons, David and Jonathan, have made their careers in journalism and broadcasting likewise, David’s first wife Josceline is a top cookery writer, and one of their sons, Henry, is a chef and co-founded the fast food chain, Leon.

David, born in 1938 and 84 years old as I write this, has spent a professional lifetime in front of the TV cameras and most recently has fronted a series about the “Days That Shook the BBC”, together with presenting part of HM Queen Elizabeth’s funeral proceedings. Quite an accolade when you keep getting the calls at the wrong side of 80. He benefits from good health and retains his pin-sharp and forensic view on life – an example to us all. He is admired by all for his professionalism and objectivity.

He was interviewed for the Times by Decca Aitkenhead at the beginning of October 2022* – – and I was delighted and surprised to find a kindred spirit in a number of things that he said, apart from the bit about resorting to roll-ups in later life.

Following Dad’s Footsteps – I too followed my Dad into the same company – ‘it seemed the natural thing to do’ – with all of the benefits and disadvantages that this brings

No Social Life (and not because he’s so busy). In spite of knowing a lot of people, there are only a very few he could count as real friends. Yes, that’s me too – but it’s not an issue for either of us, it’s just how it is.

A Quiet Family Life. I enjoy the company of all parts of my greater family, and doing this quietly – walking, talking, eating etc. And we don’t need to see each other every week either….

Sitting on the Outside. Particularly in relation to family gatherings, I like looking and listening without feeling the need to play Father of the Clan. I’m more inclined to have one-on-one chats with those on the edge of the jollity – that appeals to me so much more

Voting. He claims to have voted for the three main political parties at different times. Same here – when their policies chimed with my own needs and aspirations

Deference. He doesn’t like or see the need for bowing and scraping when confronted by famous people/Royalty etc, or in fact treating anyone any differently to anyone else. He will have had a thousand percent more opportunities to meet the great and the good than I, but it’s quite obvious in his demeanour on TV, that he isn’t cowed by anyone. Good for him. I have met many captains of industry over the years, and from my experience they delight in being normal and not standing on ceremony. I remember talking football over lunch with legendary conductor David Temple MBE. He thought this brilliant, as so often his usual lunchtime experiences seemed to revolve around choral music.

The lives of David Dimbleby and I have followed very different courses, but if I reach 84 years old with his recall, intelligence, wit and demeanour, I shall be a very happy man.

David Dimbleby – c/o

Brain Fart

This story starts in Scarborough at the end of April 2016, when wife Sue had decided to enter the Yorkshire Sportive, a gruelling 50 miles bike ride around the hills and yet more hills of that part of North Yorkshire. I opted not to enter for the sake of my health and sanity, and walked the town area while Sue cycled.

The evening before the event, we walked out from our retro 1950s hotel to find food. As we were where we were, fish and chips was the chosen fare, and we found a suitably fine local restaurant which served the delicacy. Once seated, we were presented with two menus – one a little pricier and more extensive than the other. Fish and chips were on both.

A young lady came to take our order, and I asked quite naturally what the difference was between the fish and chips on one menu compared with the same offering on the other. She looked somewhat puzzled by the question, or at least that was what I thought. No, she was thinking, and a little later her words of explanation tumbled out in a rush once she had them all lined up in her head. “The fish and chips on the cheaper menu is…less more”. She knew what she wanted to say but the correct words did not align themselves in her head, and ‘less more’ came out. I asked if ‘less more’ meant ‘smaller’, and she looked relieved and she quickly agreed with me – “yes, that’s right, smaller…”. Much smiling and nodding of heads ensued.

The reason I mention this little episode is not to make fun of the young lady in question, but more as an example of the tricks the brain can play sometimes. We had another last week, which made us shriek with laughter.

We had been asked to stay with eldest son, and mind his six and nearly two year olds for a week, whilst his wife went to Canada for the wedding of a lifetime best friend. This would be hard work for two ‘older’ people, even though we know the children in question to be as settled and compliant as one could reasonably expect in children of that age. And so it proved. It was full on, but we made it through to the end of the week, by which time Mum had returned to the nest.

Whilst eating our (entirely coincidental) fish and chip supper, Mum remarked that the 6 year old had dirty marks on her face. Wife Sue came up with the answer straight away, as she knew exactly why the marks were there (she had been drawing with multi-coloured pens). Alas, her brain played a similar trick to that which afflicted the young lady in Scarborough. The ‘drawing’ word would not come, and ‘doing pen’ came out instead, which provoked instant merriment – and we’ll make sure that it won’t be forgotten in a hurry.

Wife Sue is always quick-witted and never stuck for a word, but in a way, it’s quite a relief (for me, who is more often stuck for les mots justes) to know that no-one is infallible.

Isolated moments of brain fart (undoubtedly as a result of over-tiredness) can result in moments of mirth to no-one’s disadvantage. Long live slip ups, we are human after all!!

‘And I Have Never Met the Queen…’

As Ray Davies** sang in his 1967 song David Watts, I too never met the Queen during her long and glorious reign, but I did meet Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in unusual circumstances, during my teens.

I can, though, honourably own up to a very personal smile and wave from the Queen, in the early 1970s. I had heard that she was visiting Sheffield, and would be arriving by train into the city’s entirely unmemorable railway station – what we would have given for a Bristol Temple Meads, or a Darlington even. I found a decent crowd outside together with a Royal limousine at the ready. I positioned myself somewhat away from the crowd on a traffic island, having guessed the side on which she would be sitting. I was right. The limo purred away towards the city centre, right past where I was standing on my own. This coincided with Her Majesty looking at me four-square in the face, with her radiant smile and a wave for me and me alone. Lovely….

Meeting the Queen Mother was a different experience, if only because I wasn’t expecting it. Yes, I knew that both she and Sir Harold Macmillan (former Prime Minister) were present for our school centenary celebrations, but I wasn’t one of the great and good who were lined up to shake the Royal hand. My duty for the day was to play soporific music under an awning – our Combined Cadet Force Band in action!

I played a Tenor Cor, a brass horn instrument. Why was I in the Band? Playing soldiers was never really my thing, especially following the moment I had my top two front-teeth knocked out by a probing rifle whilst hiding in a bush during a night exercise. Apart from that, sitting in a warm music rehearsal room along with 20+ other musicianly skivers was far preferable to square-bashing. We still had to keep our kit clean, but that was a small price to pay.

Back to that summer’s day in 1965, and our afternoon medley was progressing apace, with Henry Mancini’s wonderful Moon River being one of the easiest (and more enjoyable) pieces to play. Not too many note changes, just keep up the rhythm and feeling, so I closed my eyes and lived the moment. Knowing we were approaching the final notes of the piece, I opened my eyes, and what to my amazement should confront me, but the Queen Mother standing the far side of my music stand with a regally wry half smile on her face. Macmillan’s drooping eyelids and moustache did not betray any particular sentiment, one way or the other. My memory doesn’t tell me that I let the band down at that moment by issuing forth a bum note, but I may have stopped blowing until she was past me to smile wryly at some of my fellow bandsmen (for it was an all male ensemble).

It has been wonderful to hear in these days since Queen Elizabeth’s death, that for all the pomp and seriousness of their everyday responsibilities, both the Queen and her mother had well-developed senses of humour in more private – and even some public – moments.

Our kingdom would not be as it is without their good works and service, and for certain, Elizabeth’s quietly guiding hand and influence behind the scenes, will be sorely missed. This is not a monarchist writing, just one Englishman who can see something of what they have brought to our everyday lives. There have been some marvellous tributes written and spoken from across the world. One amazing life….

** Ray Davies did meet the Queen in 2004 when being invested with his CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) medal. She said ‘So many songs’ to him at the time. Sir Ray Davies was knighted in the New Year Honours List in 2017 for services to the arts. The then Prince Charles officiated at the ceremony in Buckingham Palace.


A visit to the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham, brought this to mind. We had booked a time slot which gave me enough time to stand outside Specsavers on the meandering Main Street of the town, and have a photo taken, as a futile reminder of the Dominic Cummings ‘affair’ – just one of many which have damned the Conservative government since lockdown began.

For those innocent of the ‘affair’, this senior adviser to Prime Minister Johnson broke lockdown rules by driving the near 300 miles from London to his parents’ home near Durham. He misjudged the wakefulness of the local populace, who spotted and photographed him in Barnard Castle, and tried to cover his tracks by saying that he had visited the town to ‘test his eyesight’ before driving back to London. Why couldn’t his wife have driven? A national disgrace which piled more trouble on the Government. Mostly everyone else in the country was doing their bit, so why couldn’t he??

The Bowes Museum is most famous for its Silver Swan automaton (it’s brilliant, look to up if you don’t know of it), made even more brilliant by the fact that it was made in the late 18th century. If it had been made last year, the design and manufacturing team would be nominated for prizes.

Its walls are also lined with many excellent paintings from across the ages to the present day. All very rewarding to view and marvel at the artists’ skill, care, love and attention. My efforts at painting fall far short of these, even though I do have to say that the sky which I painted recently over the Glenelg Jetty, just outside Adelaide, is as near to perfection as I am likely to achieve.

Nevertheless, I didn’t find these consummate works of art to be affecting. In other words, they didn’t make me well up inside or out. My heart didn’t beat faster and no tears sprung to my eyes. There was no real sense of wonder and ecstasy, just admiration.

So, you’ll be thinking that the broad world of physical art just doesn’t hit my personal spot, and you’ll be right – enjoyment and admiration, yes, but no more.

By a strange and unconnected coincidence, which walking through one of the galleries, Elgar’s Nimrod, from his orchestral suite “Variations on a Theme – Enigma”, was playing quietly through the tannoy system. I made a sharp intake of breath and the telltale signs of being truly affected by something, made themselves instantly known. Straight to the heart, in the same way that the smell of linseed oil on cricket bats coupled with new mown grass has the same effect. Paintings or sculpture can never do that for me.

I can even remember back in my youth, when the Kinks brought out a new single or album, what sheer unalloyed joy I felt in my heart. And these new releases fortunately always appeared on the promised dates, and I arrived at either Oxley’s in Great Malvern or Wilson Peck’s in Sheffield to collect my trophies. Joys that I was fortunate to find in my life.

So, it’s music that does it for me mainly. No other art form comes anywhere near, nor, I suppose, ever will.

Whilst also being able to knock out a few chords and write a few decent songs, the experience of singing in a choir can have the same effect, whilst being aware that emotions have to be kept in check whilst singing – I have been very near the edge sometimes singing Bass One with up to seven other harmony lines on pieces such as Eric Whitacre’s Sleep, or Morton Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium, and perhaps most memorably Gustav Holst’s Nunc Dimittis in a sparsely filled Cathédrale de Saint-Denis in Paris, when the singing stops just before the ‘Gloria Patri’, and also at the very end. The layered sound rang and rang around the vast space – maybe the sound of Heaven to many…

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