Out Now!

Friday, 22 July 2016

No one has talked about Skodas yet


One thing I miss most about the closure of the old Leisure Centre swimming pool is the changing room badinage and those who over the years have become friends. True enough, in a small place like Monmouth, we occasionally pass each other on the street, but a nod and a smile  proves a ghostly reminder.

Respectable pedestrians on the pavement, but within the privacy of the changing room something else.

There was Sirius, an elegant, skeletal 85 year-old, who never bothered to dry his toes and calves with a towel. Instead he’d stretch himself out on the bench and position them beneath an electric hand-dryer: Algy, who once worked in Rockfield Studios and helped produce The Stone Roses: Marmaduke, who arrived each day with the regularity of a cuckoo clock. You’d first hear a scuffle as a bicycle pushed it’s way through the door. In winter, he’d be muffled up like a medieval Mr Toad, his eyes encased by goggles, his head kept warm by a vivid red C14th coife: Ginger, who’d enter with a bounce whenever Liverpool won and wore a weary smile when they didn’t: Tom, a country boy in a small, modern estate, always ready to advise on the best ways of killing a magpie or indeed any rural pest. Conversation was varied and rich.  A small coven of three weirdly owned Skodas and would talk about distributers and parts of a car I’d never heard of before. Marmaduke was an astronomer, who talked with equal authority on local archaeology.

The names are clearly fictitious, the people real, each of us eccentrics in our own different ways but now adrift in picturesque streets.

It was one of the reasons I joined Monmouth Boys Gym and Pool, less to become a bronzed man-god than the fact I missed the non-consequential banter between strangers; easy, uncomplicated.

 The sauna I found disconcerting.  Silence and steam is comforting, the conversations less so. One woman talked non-stop about her daughter's pony, another about her son's disappointing grades. One man talked about an upcoming triathlon.

The changing room was equally disconcerting––At first. The body furniture, If I'm to be honest.

It put me in mind of those online sites that sell steamy romantic novels. They tend to have covers that look much like another: ripped young men staring moodily into the middle distance. Some wear Stetsons but little else, others have a woman draped around them doing interesting things with long, coloured nails. These new, temporary strangers in my life looked like book cover models, many preoccupied by triathlons, marathons and relative track speeds.

 I felt like a chubby Corinthian surrounded by Spartans until the norms of the changing room once again proved universal. After a particular gruelling session in the Gym, two others joined me in the shower room. Both were in their late seventies but looked much younger. One had been wheezing with exertion, balancing on some kind of wobbly ball and pumping iron at the same time. The other had been riding the bicycle at a speed approaching warp factor 9. 

They had nothing but encouragement for my own feeble performance, friendly, wanting nothing more than to be generous. I may have been prejudiced against perfection, afraid perhaps. A week had sorted it out. Old or young, Spartan or non-Spartan, the urge to wind down and talk about nothing to strangers seems nigh universal. 

No one has talked about Skodas as yet.

Friday, 8 July 2016

They never told me there'd be nightmares



There has been a muted but persistent campaign, for some time now, that I need to exercise more. A visit to friends who attended gym three or four times a week would earn me a 'look'. Understandably so because since the closure of the pool, my twice weekly early morning swim has been put on hold. 

There was an alternative. Monmouth Boys School has a fine pool and gym, a snip at £340 a year. I considered what else £340 could buy me and entrenched myself in my soft leather recliner.
Until finally I broke. I’d spent an entire day sitting – working on the computer, watching TV, reading –– and it hit me that one day that would be all I’d be able to do. Worse––I was feeling so sluggardly––– It might be one day next week!

There was general disbelief when I announced my intention of becoming a gym bunny, but that was just the start of it. New trainers had to be bought, and then panic set in. Should I spend money on socks, sole infills to cushion shock, a sports bag for heaven’s sake? I put my foot down. No bag. Why would I need one? A plastic shopping bag had sufficed in the past. Okay, so this was Monmouth Boy’s School. I conceded the point. I’d use a Waitrose bag. It was hopeless. I won the day over sole infills and spanking new socks, but the bag, it appeared, was non-negotiable.  And now I’m the proud owner of a black Puma bag. Very smart it looks too.

The day came when money changed hands. I tried to persuade myself the £340 was a reasonable investment if I went four or five days a week, Hell, I might even get to look like Adonis or at least Vladimir Putin.

The following day I learned a hard lesson. Where I’d gone swimming before was a mile away. This gym and pool was two miles away, which meant I had to get up even earlier, leaving the house at 6 am  to arrive in a state of exhaustion  for when the doors opened.

First off the gym. Already busy. Awful lot of masochists in Monmouth. The guy there ascertained I hadn’t been to a gym for forty odd years and limited me to 5 minutes per machine.

Rowing machine. Feeling good.
Bike, less good but bearable.
Cross Trainer. Longest five minutes of my life.
The swimming that followed gave me time to consider.
Four times a week had come to seem far less attractive.


Especially after the nightmares that kept be awake in the small hours of the morning. Nightmares or demons, they revolved around two figures, increasingly trenchant in their advice"


Nigel Farage extolling the virtues of the Cross trainer and urging me on for a half hour session, and the far more frightening 


Anna Soubry barking at me (at one point I think she was) to stick with the rowing machine. They wouldn’t leave me alone as I tossed and turned, unable to sleep… already looking forward to my next visit to the gym.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Long Black Limousine



I was reading the obituary of Chips Moman, someone I’d never heard of before, and discovered he was the producer of Elvis Presley’s 15th and possibly greatest album ‘From Elvis in Memphis.’ (1969) Moman had a reputation of revitalising careers, and keen to capitalise on the King’s ‘68 Comeback Special.’ Presley’s management approached Moman. They wanted Momon to record and produce an Elvis album in American Sound Studio at Memphis.

Elvis agreed to jettison his default band, the Jordanaires, in favour of the tighter, more adventurous ‘The Memphis Boys’ — Momon’s house band. Elvis also agreed to reduce the size of the huge entourage that accompanied him, and presumably sucked on cough sweets, because he began recording suffering from a heavy cold.  ‘When I told him he was off pitch, his whole entourage would nearly faint,’ Momon later wrote.

What I got from the obiturary was the sheer hard work that went into the album. In the first song, The Long BlackLimousine, “Elvis’s tone is rasping, coarsened by his cold, but the result after nine takes is raw and powerful.” 

Moman knew what he was doing. At the end of the session, Elvis said to Moman: “We have some hits, don’t we Chips?” Without hesitation Moman replied: “Maybe some of your biggest.”
And he was right.

In the words of the rock critic Bruce Eder, other than Presley’s 1956 album, ‘From Elvis from Memphis’ was Elvis’s “greatest album” and “one of the greatest white soul albums (and one of the greatest soul albums) ever cut.”


And so last Saturday when I had the house to myself I played the entire album very loud, and by the Seven Lords of Hell, he was right.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Celeriac it is then

Life is short, and every week I like to try something new—especially when it comes to food and drink; thus I discovered the joy of Roquefort, Pataks Aubergine pickle in cheese sandwiches, the competing merits of Marks and Spencers pork sage and onion stuffing Vs the lighter sage and onion stuffing from Waitrose. One day I will sample celeriac.

Not too sure whether I will sample the latest offering from the Monmouthshire Beacon.

Amidst its pages advertising Welsh Government Grants for Hedges, Shakespeare's magical comedy in Penault, a decade of tea dancing at Bridges and the celebratory bell ringers of St Teilo’s, I came across this:

 ‘Sell-out swingers festival to arrive later this month.’ It’s euphemistically billed as ‘the biggest lifestyle event of the year,’ which I’d find more convincing if it didn’t involve caravans and tents on a mystery Monmouthshire farm. Interestingly on an adjacent page I read, ‘Help your Dad improve his mood this father’s day’ (or at least confuse him.)

But back to the Swingers, all of whom will be wearing wristbands showing their sexual preferences and exhorted to ‘Be clean, smell nice, look good, feel good,’ (which clearly discriminates against Keyton)

As one of its organiser’s said, it’s for ‘…people that are sexually open minded in general.’ To me it sounds like Bear Gryls on steroids and presumably excludes one of our local councillors who approved the decision"
“What people do in their private lives between consenting adults is no one else’s business really, but I won’t be buying a ticket!” Nor, I suppose, will I. Celeriac it is then.


Thursday, 9 June 2016

Bond at the Auction Rooms

A few weeks ago I attended a parish auction with only one aim. It worked two years ago, when I bought a wonderfully old blanket chest at a knockdown price. This year I was after a blue, leather-bound set of Walter Scott, not first editions, but published in 1900. In these events it’s as well not to make your interest to overt, so I hovered over all the books and was even tempted by a first edition of Biggles, meaningful to every Briton of a certain age. Then, when no one was looking, I inspected my quarry. What was so startling was not only their general condition, pristine, but the quality of the paper, still a startling white, with gilt edging.

I sat down in quiet anticipation with my bidding number 44. 

I’d been given strict instructions not to come home with stuff we didn’t need. How a set of twenty-two leather bound book escaped this injunction, I don’t know. Only that my wife is very tolerant. But dear me, I was tempted.

Monmouth is quite wealthy and parishioners generous. There were treasures here, I tell you, gorgeous cut glass, decanters, whole tea sets, fine porcelain, all at ridiculous prices. The acquisitive gene was writhing, bursting for release. I held firm.

Then, at last the books came under the hammer, and I grew a little alarmed when the first edition Biggles was sold for £26. How the hell was I going to afford twenty two volumes of Walter Scott?

My beloved was brought into view, the price starting at a modest £10 for the lot. By this time, I knew the score. I held fire and observed. Who were my competitors? Were there any?

Yes. Two. They began in a fairly bored way, bidding against each other in desultory fashion, each time raising their bids by £2. At £20 one of them dropped out and the auctioneer’s hammer went down once, then twice—>I held up my card! And sensed the gnashing of teeth somewhere behind me. (At this point, I confess to an elementary mistake. I was sitting near the front and couldn’t easily see my competitor who stood near the back)

Time to play mind games. The price kept going up —> £22. £24. £26. Each time I hesitated, sweetening my rival with hope. The auction room had vanished. I was in Monte Carlo, wearing a white jacket, with a martini, shaken not stirred. Bloefield sat on the other side of the card table, face steady, his cards unseen. Who would blink first?

I had my limit—made up there and then—£40. I had my guardian angel, too. My opponent folded at £38 and I left the room triumphant, with twenty-two volumes I’d probably never entirely read. Stroke perhaps.