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Now and Then, and then again…

Words, music, pictures, and more words

Ma-Ma Belle

OK, so it’s one ‘Ma’ short of the 1973 Electric Light Orchestra track title, but it will serve my purpose in pulling together the initial letters of two belle English towns/areas where I have holidayed many times.  Yes, this is an undisguised advertisement for the joys of spending holiday time in your own country, rather than fighting with airports and cultures that may not be familiar.  It must be said that the British traveller, humoured for so many years by the more refined cultures of most European countries, due to the amount of tourist money that he brings in, is now regarded in many places increasingly as an unwelcome pariah, who may be tolerated, but only just – and Brexit will not have helped to smooth choppy waters.

So we shall relax into a more traditional, quiet English holiday, in both Ma-tlock and Ma-lvern, which I heartily recommend you visit to sample the very best of an English holiday.  Give e other or both of them a go.

Firstly do they have anything in common part from being a long way from a sandy beach?

Indeed they do:-

  1. They both owed their initial prosperity to the fad for healthy water (hydrotherapy as a rest-cure) in mid Victorian times.  Both towns have natural springs, which were ‘borrowed’ by the entrepreneurs and snake-oil salesmen of the time, and marketed as giving you the healthier life.  With most town water being of dubious quality at the time, it was an inspired move which made many men rich on the proceeds of….clean water
  2. They are both set on the hills from whence the waters flow.
  3. Their architecture and their town parks are of that famous, classic Victorian type – mature and well-maintained.
  4. They both have classic Victorian railway stations – Matlock’s being at the end of the line up from Derby, but Great Malvern being a ‘two track’ station on the Birmingham to Hereford line.  The stations are worth a visit on their own merits.

Matlock is set amongst the hills of the Peak District of Derbyshire, with much to do in the town itself, and even more within walking and cycling distance on specific trails (former railway lines).  Great pubs and villages abound.

Part of the Cromford Trail, a former railway to the south of Matlock (it’s actually steep downhill in this photo.  The trains were dragged up the incline by an ingenious system which is well worth investigating)

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Great Malvern is set on the eastern slope of the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, with the flatlands of the Severn Valley in front, and the rolling Herefordshire countryside on the other (western) side.  Again, great walking and cycling country, with villages galore in easy striking distance, but the range of hills have a magic all of their own, and are c 10 miles long in a north-south line, and it makes for a great walk.

You need to go to appreciate the places – lots of different styles of accommodation, from hotels , b&b, to airbnb, depending on your pocket.  You won’t be disappointed with either, and you can do your homework on the places before deciding.

Sue atop North Hill in the Malverns.  The Severn Valley is behind her.

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New York City…with Patricia Beard and Kevin Kline

You will all know something about NYC and probably something about the actor Kevin Kline, but maybe know little – if anything – about Patricia Beard.  She is an internationally-acclaimed American author – perhaps best-known for her two books about Wall Street – Blue Blood and Mutiny – the Fight for the Soul of Morgan Stanley and After the Ball.

She lives in upstate New York with her husband, and they were on their way back there from London in November 2007, on the same flight as me – and not just the same flight, but in the adjacent seats to me.  They were reading through and commenting on some book reviews, and something she said triggered a comment from me (without being seen as an eavesdropper).  She introduced herself as the published author and I confessed that I didn’t know of her work.  She minded not at all, and my abiding memory of her at that moment was of a thoughtful, interested, and most interesting lady.  Delightful company.  Her husband was equally delightful, and we took a standup break talking ‘soccer’ for a good 20 minutes.

We said goodbye in the security queue at JFK airport, with Mr Beard wishing Sue good luck in her endeavours.

Sue was not on the ‘plane with me, as she was running the New York Marathon that day, and I was due to join her, as pre-arranged, in a bar on Broadway that evening.  If that ain’t romantic, what is!!

I took the train from the airport into central NY, alighting at 46th Street, coming up to street-level, and looking up to see some real skyscrapers.  Wow, just wow!!!  My lodgings (unlike Sue’s swanky hotel) were a 5 minute walk from there.  I had time to check in, do a quick change, let Sue know that I was in town, and walk back onto Broadway to locate the pre-arranged bar.  En route, I passed a theatre at which Kevin Kline was taking the lead role.  I stopped to read the billboard, and who should walk past me at that moment, but…..Kevin Kline.  I said ‘Hi’ (as you do), and he wished me ‘Good evening’.  So, the one and only time I met KK, was one early November late afternoon in 2007, in NYC.

The reason that Sue was staying in a swanky hotel, was because she had gone out there with a group of runners organised by 209 Events, a few days in advance of the run, to acclimatise.  I followed on run day itself, with a view to spending a few days seeing the sights together.

Walking into a bar on Broadway, and seeing Sue looking animated with a glass of Guinness in her hand, and that smile as she saw me – well, just one wonderful and unforgettable moment.

We walked and walked for the next few days, the length and breadth of Manhattan, taking in Central Park, Bleecker Street, Ground Zero, and climbing (via the high-speed elevator, to the ‘Top of the Rock” – the roof of the Rockefeller Center.  We ate American portions.  It was balmy late autumn weather – we were truly blessed.

Sue ran the marathon in 4 hours 54 minutes, thereby getting her name in the New York Times for her sub-5 hours finish.

A great experience all round, and a visit which we must repeat at some point.

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And with daughter-in-law Nataly, who had met Sue at the finish line…

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Hi-Viz and a Hornit

I can still remember that sensation of grounded free-flight when my Dad took his supporting hand off the back of the saddle, and I coasted off on two wheels under my own balance and power.  Fortunately, I instinctively seemed to know what to do when I had to come to a halt – put a foot down to prevent the rest of me going down in a heap.

And from that point in my early youth, it’s been difficult to keep me away from a bike for long.  Now in my 70th year, I am cycling more than I ever have – c70 miles per week, and enough to give the lungs and legs a good workout.

There are a greater number of active cyclists now than there ever have been, with great bikes available at great prices and all manner of kit, clubs, and opportunities to cycle, not just in our country but across the world.  France is my favourite – a country that reveres cycling, with motorists knowing how to act when sharing road space with them – quite unlike in the UK, where motorists have a different sense of priorities, i.e. they think they have the right of way even when they don’t, and brook no interruptions to their journeys.

Which is not to say that cyclists are always in the right – far from it.  Think how many times you’ve seen cyclists pedalling gaily through red lights, or careering thoughtlessly down pedestrian areas and pavements.

After the Welshman Geraint Thomas won the Tour de France in 2018, he embarked on an ‘always wear a helmet‘ campaign.  Something of a waste of effort in my book, as most already do, and those that don’t are probably past convincing.

But he could have brought his considerable influence to bear on what I think are two far more pressing problems in the cycling world.

Firstly, Geraint, call on cyclists to wear hi-viz clothing at all times, and NOT black-only, which is very much de rigueur amongst the faster-cycling male fraternity, together with their black bikes.  I’ve always thought cyclists to be a cut-above in the intelligence stakes, so this ought not to be a huge leap for them.  They are extremely trusting, expecting motorists to see them in all circumstances.  I have good eyesight, and I don’t always see them soon enough.  Many drivers have eyesight so bad, that they are a liability to all other road users.  Common-sense ought to rule the day here.

Secondly, I know that a bell is a compulsory fitting on any new bike, but how many resist the temptation to take it off straight away on the grounds of unnecessary additional weight?  I keep a keen eye open for bells, and people who use them.  There are barely any.  I have a gizmo called a Hornit, which is ‘the world’s loudest cycle horn’ according to their website.  I have to say that it’s brilliant and it’s loud, warning other cyclists and pedestrians of my presence.  It has the desired effect of making people look round to see what the noise is – and it inevitably raises a smile and a thank you, (yes, really!)

Go on, Geraint, I dare you to use your influence to good effect – and, in case you’re wondering,  I always wear hi-viz clothing, and whilst I know it doesn’t guarantee being seen (as I know to the personal loss of skin and blood), it gives me a far better chance of staying alive and uninjured – and I happen to think that mine looks rather cool.

Here I am, somewhere on the North Devon coast, looking bright…

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150 Part 2 – The Journal Reviews

‘The Journal’ has been Newcastle upon Tyne’s daily morning newspaper since its first publication in 1832, and well in excess of 50,000 editions to date.  Its readership is predominantly middle-class and professional, and it will come as no surprise that it has had a thriving Culture section – theatre, music and the arts in general –  most notably in recent years under David Whetstone as Culture Editor – at least until 2018, when the Culture department was disbanded and those in it made redundant.  I’m not sure what this says about newspapers and the North East in particular.

In those halcyon days, only a few years ago, I was asked to join the Culture team as the classical music reviewer, and this is the story of how this came about, and some subsequent highlights.

The reason for the title ‘150 Part 2…’ is that the closure of the Journal’s Culture department came about after I’d had c150 reviews published.  It seems a popular number in my recent past.  Maybe I’ll live to be 150….

When I had started Classical NE1fm (see the ‘150 Part 1’ post), I had put some posters up in places where classical music fans might see them – Sage Gateshead and the JG Windows music shop in Central Arcade, Newcastle, amongst them.

I received an email from one Robin Seaman, who said that he had seen my flyer on a recent visit up North, and wondered if I would mention an upcoming concert which he was organising.  Robin helps run the Hertfordshire Chorus (north of London), and they were coming to perform in Gateshead.  He also promised me two tickets for the concert, which would of course in no way influence my decision to mention the concert (really!)

I duly mentioned said concert, went to see it at the Sage, met up with Robin and his wife Rachel, and thoroughly enjoyed it all.

Subsequently, I had another message from him, saying that he was coming up to the North East on a scouting mission for a further concert, and would we like to meet for lunch at the Pitcher and Piano (Newcastle Quayside), and he would be with conductor David Temple (now MBE for services to music in the 2018 New Year’s Honours), and would I mind if David Whetstone (DW) joined us as well, being the Culture Editor of The Journal.

We all met up – DW arriving late due to an overrunning previous meeting – and enjoyed a convivial lunch, with David Temple remarking how unusual it was to talk football at a music meeting, with a glint in his eye.

The conversation moved around, with DW remarking how much he had to do, as he couldn’t find someone ‘suitable’ to write on/review classical music.  Robin Seaman said quietly to me after the meeting had concluded, ‘I think he might have been making a play for your services.’

Whilst not being sure if that was the case, I’ve always enjoyed writing, so I thought ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’, and I sent DW a short email, expressing my potential interest, and asking what was involved.

He suggested I have a go, and ‘here are two upcoming concerts – either the King’s Singers or a performance of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony – choose one and I shall arrange tickets, and write me c350 words as a review.’  I chose the Mendelssohn on the basis that I could add little to the bible of glowing comments and reviews about the King’s Singers.

I wrote a non-too serious or erudite view on proceedings and sent it in.  I had a mail straight back from DW, commenting to the effect that I must have done this sort of thing before, and it was more than fine.  Would I like to do more?  “No pay but a couple of tickets for each concert, and you can choose what to review.  Please submit a monthly list of those you want to cover for an OK.  Nothing out of the area, unless there was local relevance for the North East readership.”

So, over 4 years later, and approximately 150 concert reviews published in the Journal and online, I am back to the first paragraph of this little story, when I was told that it was all coming to an end, due to redundancies at the Journal.  A huge shame…

I think that I had settled well into the role of reviewer, and ended up covering much more than just classical music along the way, and even writing an occasional article for the Journal as well.  I struck up (mostly online) friendships with some of the personalities whose work I covered, such as Gateshead’s conductor par excellence, John Wilson.

Some review highlights from the 150 (mostly at Sage Gateshead, except where noted):

John Wilson Orchestra – any of his Hollywood soundstage tributes to the memorable, such as MGM and Cole Porter

The Simon Bolivar National Youth Choir of Venezuela – sheer class and enthusiasm for singing

James McCarthy’s Codebreaker premiere (at the Barbican), and his 17 Days (at Sage Gateshead)

Rowan Pierce (Teesside-born) soprano walking down the aisle of Durham Cathedral at a stately pace to Handel’s ‘Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’

Strictly Come Dancing Live Tour – immaculately presented and performed at the Newcastle Arena

Barbara Dickson and her a cappella solo of MacCrimmon’s Lament to end her concert

The Bratislava Hot Serenaders and their evocation of ’20s and ’30s hot jazz and dance band music, including the original jazz band setting of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue

Jeff Lynne’s ELO at Newcastle Arena

Voices of Hope – winning National Choir of the Year in Cardiff

Handel’s Theodora – set in 1950s USA, including the messenger cycling on stage at the Sage (Handel would, I am sure, have approved)

The Wipers Times – on stage at Northern Stage

Georgie Fame – at the Gateshead International Jazz Festival with the Guy Barker Big Band

 

So much music, so much joy, so many great memories…….

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150 Part 1 – Classical NE1fm

As I spent a large part of my career making business proposals in boardrooms, and presenting at Seminars to rooms full of people, trying to keep them engaged and interested, I often thought along the way, that I could do a radio programme.  By ‘do’, I mean to present a music programme, as opposed to be a forensic cross-examiner of studio guests in the style of John Humphrys.  I had been in BBC studios previously on Children-in-Need duties, and always enjoyed the experience – far more so than I imagined that I would enjoy TV work. But, as more than one person said along the way, ‘You have a face for radio’.

Younger daughter Alice had a contact at a radio station in Sunderland, and whilst this didn’t directly lead to anything, it did lead me into the clutches of NE1fm, the Newcastle-based community radio station, for whom I did a couple of early evening pop/rock tester programmes, which seemed to go very well.  I played music I wanted to play, with a bit of chat around each song, about each song.

Having passed the initial test, I was asked if I would like to do a regular spot in the schedule.  This wasn’t so easy, as I was working full-time, which limited the time possibilities.  So, I said ‘yes’, but it would have to be 7-9pm on a Sunday evening, and I would be happy to do a classical music show, as NE1fm didn’t do one, nor did many other stations outside the two ‘nationals’ – BBC Radio 3, and Classic FM.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

12 February 2012 was show #1 FOR CLASSICAL NE1fm.  Each of the ensuing 150 shows was 2 hours in length, with music from across the ages from the 15th century to the present day.  My personal watchwords were that each selected piece would have to ‘carry a tune’ and cover solo vocal and instrumental, choral and orchestral in almost equal divisions.

I had a decent selection of classical music in my own collection to get the first programmes off the ground, but made contact with the major record labels, who were only too keen to ship their latest releases to me.  I was soon submerged in CD cases, and lots of wonderful music from a whole raft of composers who were new to me, into the bargain.

I learned a few convenient tricks along the way to keep the show fresh.  I had guests on occasion whom I would ask to bring a sample of works which were important to them.  This hit their sweet spots – talking lucidly on subjects close to their hearts.  Classical music performers, as I soon found, were never short of a few words – radio presenter’s Heaven!  I even had a subset of the Chamber Choir from Sage Gateshead in the studio, to sing ‘live’.  It was a crush but great fun.

I usually had a longer piece at the start of the second hour, which gave me the chance to grab a cup of something, and stretch my legs.  I should add at this point, that I ran the whole programme.  No producer, no assistants – just me in the studio, and I chose the music and I wrote the scripts.  Blooming’ perfect, as I had total control!!!  And I even worked out how to finish the last piece of music one second before the pips went for the news bulletins, on the hour, every hour.

There were a few technical ‘events’ – i.e. the station going off the air on occasion, my CDs not playing – but nothing which ever forced me to reconsider the role.  I did pre-record shows from time to time, as I couldn’t be there every Sunday.  My Apple Mac comes with a copy of Garageband, which is perfect for a pre-record.  I could then send the file to the station, and they would play it out at 7pm, and no-one was any the wiser about my whereabouts.

It was always a treat to receive messages from around the world (NE1fm is an Internet station) – I had a regular listeners in N America and South Korea – and a friend mentioned that he listened for the whole two hours sitting on top of a cliff in Norway, watching the sun set to my dulcet tones.

I felt that I had achieved all that I wanted to with Classical NE1fm after 150 shows, so bid my farewell in March 2015.

A rare treat and a rare privilege to have been able to do this – and I gave away hundreds of the CDs sent to me, through charity shops, so that in turn others and the chance to listen to the music.

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The Token Pom

There are places I have visited on multiple occasions for holidays and leisure pursuits.  These include the Peak District, Lake District, Malvern Hills, and Norfolk Broads.  A mention of these very English locations may not make you salivate at the prospect of following in my footsteps, but they have the undoubted benefits of being familiar, easy to get to by car, full of great places to walk and cycle, great pubs and cafes, and easy on my wallet.  I look forward to further visits in the future.

Conversely, there are places which I have visited only once or twice, which I shall always rate as deeply memorable – most notably Moscow, New York (my thoughts on these to be written up separately), and very specifically, the subject of this entry, Adelaide, South Australia.

Sue and I went there as a result of her qualifying to represent Team GB in her age-group, at the Duathlon World Championships in October 2015.  (Please see My Wife, the International in this series, for how this came about).

We have no family down under, and hadn’t found a compelling reason to visit, on the basis that it’s a long way, and one would have to spend a minimum of 3 weeks there to begin to do justice to such a large continent.

On this occasion, we opted for a 12 day, one location visit, and I, in particular, was totally bowled over by the place.

It was a long flight from Newcastle on Emirates, shared with the Tonga rugby union team which had just been knocked out of the World Cup, but fortunately with only one change of ‘plane, and a 2 hour break, in Dubai.  We arrived at around midnight Oz time, but my body clock was in meltdown by this time, and it could have been any time of day or night.  It was their summer, and gratifyingly warm at our late hour of arrival.  A short ride from the airport brought us to the team hotel, and one of the best one in town, the InterContinental.

Having grabbed a few hours sleep, we awoke to the daylight, and the first view of Adelaide.  Parkland dotted with trees not found in the UK, the sound of birds not heard in the UK, the broad (at this point) River Torrens, and across to the impressively imposing Adelaide Oval cricket ground.  Reminder to self at the time – be sure to take a guided tour.

Breakfast duly taken, we were out taking in the sights of this handsome city – a beguiling combination of the imposing Victorian architecture of the city fathers, the very modern in the business district, and what seemed like streets from a cowboy movie, just back from the main thoroughfare, North Terrace.

Of course, this was a ‘business’ visit, in terms of acclimatising before Sue’s event, so her needs came first, but we were left with plenty of opportunities to explore the city and the surrounding area, in temperatures of 35-40C.  Yes, it was hot, but the heat was so dry, it was more like someone pointing a hair-dryer at you, rather than standing in a pool of your own perspiration.  I never tired of this weather.

Rather than ramble on, here are a few of the memorable and magical moments spent in the Adelaide district:

  • Glenelg – not just a palindrome, but Adelaide’s big beach, and a few stops on the tram from the CBD (Central Business District)
  • The City Hall – where we went for an evening concert
  • The University – Victorian but could have been built yesterday – no air pollution here
  • The Museums – particularly seeing Tarnanthi – the Aboriginal Art Festival – both stunning in its elegance, and evocative of life before and after the English came and impeded their way of life
  • The Migrant Settler Exhibition.  It wasn’t all roses for the (predominantly) English migrants, particularly those on a £10 passage after World War 2
  • The many memorials to Aboriginal life as it was before the settlers came
  • Hahndorf – back in the Adelaide Hills, and where Germans came to settle.  We took the bus (they even accepted my UK bus pass, which is more than they would in Cardiff!).  We walked up the hill from there to The Cedars – the Hans Heysen Art Studio, where he lived and worked.  His old car was still in the garage
  • Mount Lofty – the viewing point over Adelaide, and time spent there with Peter and Marilyn, whom we had met on a cycling holiday in France
  • The burble of the ubiquitous V6 and V8 Holden cars – petrol is cheap in Oz
  • The Adelaide Oval – a gem of a modern sports arena, with its original 1911 scoreboard and scoring mechanism still in place.  I had the grand tour along with a few others from Oz and NZ.  We all had to introduce ourselves and say where we were from.  I was up last, and introduced myself as the ‘token Pom’ – to much hilarity.  Lovely, experienced guides took us around for a couple of hours
  • It’s CLEAN, CLEAN, CLEAN
  • The people were fine and friendly, with no ‘side’ to them.  It’s worth adding that Adelaide was established as a settler-colony, not a penal-colony, and named after Queen Adelaide, consort to King William IV.
  • Just sitting in the Botanic Gardens amongst the native trees and birdsong in the sunshine

One of my life’s great experiences, all told.  Here’s Sue, on the side of the River Torrens, having just finished her event.  The Adelaide Oval is in the background.

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‘Ken Clarke in the radio car’ – Part 2 of 2

(you should read Part 1 of 2 before embarking on this).

Fast-forward 11 years from 1993.  Following that halcyon day with Eddie Mair at the BBC in London, he/she who offered the £600 donated the money, never followed through with a name and address.  The BBC couldn’t help with this, so, the bag of football club pennants (minus a few needed to complete the full set), was temporarily ‘filed’ in our loft – and, it must be said, forgotten about.

By 2004, children had grown up and all bar one had left home, and it was only due to a household reshuffle, that the large blue bag was recovered from under a pile of similar bags, full of clothing and other discarded ‘stuff’.

Right – we need to get this show on the road, complete the set and auction it off again for Children in Need.

My work entailed many a tour of the country, so I made it my duty to visit the few clubs whose pennants I didn’t have, and persuade them to contribute to the collection.  I shall say straight away that they were only too pleased to help (could they really say ‘no’?).  MK Dons didn’t have pennants, so gave free match day tickets or other memorabilia instead, and as for Kidderminster Harriers – well, I’ll save their story for later in this article.

Within a month, I was down to just one unhelpful club who couldn’t enable me to complete the set of 92.  Yes, I could have bought one, but that would have spoiled the effect.

After two visits, and being unable to see anyone who could/would help me, I came across a sympathetic receptionist at Newcastle United (being the unhelpful club).  Fair to say that they had a well-known reputation at that time for not entertaining charitable donations of this sort.  So would they be shamed into it?

The receptionist asked someone to come out and see me.  She listened to my story, looked exasperated and defensive in equal measure – probably not helped by me saying that I was due on Radio Newcastle the following day, and ‘it wouldn’t look very good if the only club not to help me, was….’.  She narrowed her eyes and sharply told me to ‘Wait here’, and promptly disappeared from whence she came.

5 minutes later she returned, clutching a large brown envelope.  To quote her exact words “I haven’t given you this, this is nothing to do with me…”  And with a slight lack of good grace, she turned, and exited the reception area.  The receptionist and I exchanged triumphant smiles – yes, I had the set, and just in time for my radio appearance on Children in Need Day 2004.

The ‘live’ appearance at BBC Radio Newcastle was a strange affair.  The interview, conducted by BBC presenter Martin Emmerson, was fine and friendly, and he was ‘intrigued’ by the gift from Newcastle United, as he was well aware of their stingy reputation.

Then, a few minutes into the interview, Mr Emmerson was bodily picked up by two BBC pranksters known as ‘The Two Dafties’, and who, by listening to their voices on my cassette tape of the programme, sound uncannily like the Hairy Bikers.  “Just carry on, Robert, tell the audience a story about the pennants” and leaving me on my own with a ‘live’ microphone, and an audience waiting for pearls of wisdom, if only I could instantly think of some.

My Kidderminster Harriers story fortunately came to mind.  They were a club relatively new to the bottom tier of professional football (they have incidentally since dropped out, back to non-league, unfortunately).  When I called at their ground, the Aggborough Stadium, I was told that they didn’t provide pennants – other things like mugs, but not pennants.  Silence ensued in the office; but then Jenny, their Commercial Manager, said “But we had 100 made when we were promoted into the Football League, and this one hanging on the wall, is the only one left.  You can have that – I can’t think of a better place for it to go.”  

Eyes began to water on both sides of the counter, as I respectfully refused her kind offer, perhaps knowing that she wouldn’t let me refuse it, and that it genuinely meant a lot to her if I would accept it, which in the end I graciously did.  So, full marks to one of football’s minnows, who showed the way in terms of real generosity.

By the time I had finished this story, Mr Emmerson had been released by the Two Dafties, and the conversation began again.  A lovely experience all-round, which kindled my desire to somehow get involved with radio – more of which in a future blog post.

The full collection of pennants and memorabilia were auctioned once again, and the highest bidder was Carr Hill Primary School (!) in Gateshead, and I am sure that the pennants are flying high there still.

(Whilst I never did get a recording of my BBC London interview, the BBC Newcastle experience with Martin Emmerson still works, and is among my few remaining cassette tapes).

‘Ken Clarke in the radio car’ – Part 1 of 2

It was in 1993 that our family was sitting around the kitchen table, debating how we could raise money for BBC Children in Need.

Various ideas were forthcoming, but football looms large in this family, certainly with the two boys and I, and the most manageable and ‘do-able’ idea seemed to be to assemble a collection of pennants from the 92 professional football league clubs, and then auction them as a job lot.  The amount raised would be our contribution to the appeal.  Importantly, we hadn’t heard of anyone doing this previously.

So, grabbing the bull by the horns, the children compiled a hand-written letter, and we acquired a copy of the FA Yearbook which contained the names of all the clubs’ Commercial Managers. We also thought it would be a good idea to enclose a large stamped return address envelope to make their job easier. Within a couple of weeks, we had received around half the pennants (plus lots of other signed memorabilia we hadn’t asked for – fantastic!!).

By coincidence, I had been introduced to Alec King, Sunderland AFC’s Club Secretary at a recent match – my company had a ‘box’ at Roker Park, the ground prior to the move to the brand-new Stadium of Light.  I went to see Mr King, told him what we had done, and he suggested that if we were to attach a Sunderland AFC compliments slip with a note from Alec ‘as helping out this family doing a good deed’, it should help in our efforts to acquire some of the outstanding ones.

We took the trouble to let the BBC Radio Newcastle Children in Need office what we were doing, and they passed it on to the BBC CiN appeal HQ in London.  I then received a phone call on behalf of Eddie Mair (then presenting the lunchtime programme on Radio 5 Live).

“Was I ever in London?”  “Yes”.

“Could you come in to the BBC and talk live on air about it?”  Try stopping me.

The day arrived when I was in London on business, and an arrangement was made for me to go to the BBC.  I duly turned up, and was ushered to where Radio 5 Live was broadcasting.  The traffic news lady (Lynn Bowles at the time) welcomed me and saw to it that I had a coffee, before being brought in Eddie Mair’s presence.  He sat me down in the studio, directly opposite him, and we chatted briefly ‘off air’.

He then explained that he would be turning either to me or ‘Ken Clarke in the radio car’, and at this moment he didn’t know which.  Ken Clarke at that time was a Government Minister – now, in 2020, he is the recently-retired Father of the House (of Commons), a title bestowed upon the MP with the longest record of continuous service.  In his case, he became an MP in 1970.

I relaxed in the knowledge that a Government Minister would be rating slightly higher in the mind of the presenter and of the listening nation, than a one-off visit from a bloke from the North East talking about football pennants.  I confess I switched off a little.

“Now, opposite me I have Rob Barnes, whose family has been collecting football pennants for Children in Need.  Tell me, Rob, do you have any other collections?”

The words registered….aarghh, it was ME, not Ken Clarke.  The light on my microphone shone brightly, telling me that the nation was holding its collective breath waiting for some words of wisdom from me.  What a question!! Talk about being blind-sided by the presenter.  Not having consciously collected anything of note over the preceding 40+ years, apart from stamps, and dead flies on the front of my car – neither of which was likely to lead to riveting conversation – the only thing I could think of, was, that over the last 10 years or so we had had 4 x Citroen 2CVs in the family.  That at least made Mr Mair laugh, the ice was broken, and so we set off into a comfortable discussion about the collection of football pennants.

On the back of this, someone bid the princely sum of £600 on the Radio 5 Live auction.  A brilliant result…..but that wasn’t the end of the story.

The second instalment will be published tomorrow.  😁

Bonkobar

The name of the nearest Metro station to the apartment rented by our eldest when he took his first teaching post in Moscow, is Voykovskaya – or Bonkobar as we used to call in, due to our simplistic pronunciation of the native Russian Cyrillic script of Во́йковская.

We took trains to and from this station during our first trip to Moscow in 2003.  It is an unremarkable station, built in the 1960s to a strict budget, and having none of the gorgeous architecture of the central Moscow underground stations.

Having gone through the standard (and costly) palaver of obtaining visas for our first foray into Russia, we were collected from Sheremetyovo airport on a snowy December night, bundled into a taxi which had probably gone around the clock 3 or 4 times, and joined the permanent traffic-jam to inch our way to Chris’s apartment.  Not a brilliant introduction to one of the world’s great cities.

Once we had dumped our bags at the apartment, we took the Metro to Ploshchad Revolyutsii station, close to the entrance to Red Square, came up to street level and, heads down against the driving snow, walked to one of my life’s most visually memorable moments.

We turned under the arch into Red Square and saw, lit up gloriously, St Basil’s Cathedral at the far end, through the driving snow.  A fairy-tale scene and truly unforgettable – we really were in Moscow.

Here’s a picture taken 6 years later, with daughter Alice in shot – but it’s the same St Basil’s Cathedral with some new snow on the onion domes.

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