A Musical Shock

It came on the radio. It was Sunday afternoon and one of those programmes that trade on a brand of nostalgia that is not really my scene – Da Di Da, Di Da Da Didi Didi – The Wheels Cha Cha. God! It wasn’t the most sophisticated music at the time and certainly not my taste; then or now. Nevertheless it had the effect of spinning me back to when I was seventeen. Seventeen and never been kissed: that came just a bit later but it was a good time. I’d discovered music; Lonnie Donegan, Elvis, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers. My first record purchase was then; Be-Bob-a-Lula by Gene Vincent. We didn’t even have a record player and I toted around the few friends I had to stick it on their Dansette or radiogram.

I am always puzzled looking back to those days. As a family we were doing OK with Dad and Mum running an increasingly successful shop and able to afford a good second-hand car. We’d just moved from ‘living over’ to reclaim our parents’ house in Menlove Gardens and I had a good bike. I should explain that a good bike was a not inconsiderable status symbol. My parents ran a newsagents business and with about thirty paperboys, all bike mad, it was important to keep up. Mine had come courtesy of unexpectedly good GCE exam results. If I have any retained resentment of my parents it was that they expected little from me compared to both my younger and older brothers, who were ‘clever’. I rejoiced in the sobriquet of ‘practical’. The puzzle is that when programmes now come on the television that depict that era accurately it always looks rather grey and utilitarian. I think it probably was but we lived an optimistic life where things were getting better all the time. MacMillan’s famous ‘You’ve never had it so good’, was, at least for us, true. I’d made it to Building College, which was what I wanted and it was proving a good choice for me. Shankly had arrived at Liverpool FC and we’d all decided that we were on the way back to the first division. The fortnightly ride to Anfield where we paid sixpence to an old women to let us put our bikes in her yard was a happy routine, followed inevitable by a scratch match in the pub car park against the shop wall when we got back: a match that Liverpool invariably won

Anyway back to the music. You see dad gambled. Actually he was a ‘good’ gambler and lucky to boot. Every year he put money aside in a separate bank account and that money and only that money was wagered; a bit of the pools, a bit on complex combination horse racing bets and a bit at poker. If the money ran out he stopped betting but I can only remember one year when that disaster happened. Mostly he broke even or a bit better. His maxim was only ever to bet what you can afford to lose and your stake was the price you paid for the entertainment. It was his habit to tot up his year’s accumulated winnings and either distribute them around the family, including the original stake money or buy some luxury. It was, I’m sure, the year of 61 that he bought a Grundig tape recorder. It cost about £75, which was a lot in those days. For those of you too young to remember, these machines were a sort of domestic version of large reel to reel tape recorders. They had just a small pair of tape reels and pathetically small speakers but they could record speech and music. Because there was no electronic interface music recorded from the radio or TV was of pretty poor quality but then most recordings were pretty poor quality.

We did what everyone did with these modern marvels. We recorded each other’s voices and laughed at the difference between the recorded voice and our internal impression of how we sounded. That, however, is a limited kind of activity. I and my brothers used it mostly to record music from the radio, desperately trying to cut out the inevitable DJ voice over each song. The buggers used to vary it from the opening or closing of every one. It was not long before there were pre-recorded music tapes available in the record shops and later these gave me access to the Blues and types of Jazz that I have treasured ever since. However it was when my father returned from a trip to his newspaper wholesaler W H Smith that a life changing event occurred. Smiths retailed records and my father had purchased a pre-recorded tape of the Joe Loss Orchestra. He proudly put it on the machine and regaled us with, amongst other horrors, Wheels Cha-Cha. How could this happen? The man who I almost worshipped actually liked this shit. It was all too much. I have never really recovered. It has been a tenant of my own fatherhood never to press my musical tastes on my children and to try and listen to what they like. This policy has also, I’m happy to say, introduced me to some wonderful music. It’s also required me to endure some pretty awful stuff.

Wheels Cha-Cha was perhaps a delayed and inevitable epiphany and most of my Dad’s reputation survived the crash but we never ever talked about music again. In his later days I resorted on visits to whisky when he insisted on watching the regular James Last Orchestra shows on the TV. Perhaps it’s good that dads are not made to be perfect.

Da Di Da, Di Da Da Didi Didi; God, now the bloody things stuck in my head!

Robert Winston McNaughton


Fireworks at Firenza

This piece was inspired by a very clever bit of writing in which the first letter of every word in each paragraph was the same. I’m afraid I couldn’t manage without a few errant prepositions. It was, however, fun to try.

Frantic Freddie fired the fire-red Ferrari for a fizzingly fast first-lap at Firenza. Freddie Forbes a frenetic fool of a fellow forced to face forty fit, fast fellows in final, futile, face-saving farce. For Frantic Freddie faced face-loss and forfeited Ferrari for failure to finish first.

Bugger borrowed big bucks to bet Bertie Brown, based on Bertie’s being behind. Bet before beholding Bertie’s brand-new borrowed beast of a Berlinetta. Behold Bertie’s borrowed Berlinetta; a beauteous bigger-engined baby betokening breakneck briskness. Beetle-browed Bertie blithely boasted Berlinetta beat the best at Brooklands.

Sweet Selina sympathetically saw swain’s sad scowl. She sought some subterfuge of support for sorrowful sweetheart. Selina sloped from swain’s side and slipping with stealth and silence, slitheringly slowly she submerged. Scanning the steel skeleton she sought some sprocket to sabotage. Suddenly she smiled, stillettoed a sidewall, sliding swiftly, seen-not, to safety.

Ten, twenty, thirty times the throaty, throbbing tin toreadors traversed the twisting turning track ‘till the tortured tyre tore. Terrifying, tenacious torque took traveller off track in twisting turns to terminality.

Following, Frantic Freddie fires forward the fabulous Ferrari, finishing first. Feeling flush and flourishing fortune, Freddie finally forgoes the fanfare. Finds and feels the fine feline frame of his fascinating flame.

Selina speaks – subtly suggests swain settle with Selina.

Frantic Freddie frowns furiously, fancies fair female but fancying Ferrari further than fatherhood forswears felicity of future.

Spurned sweet Selina sighs sadly, spins and sashays sexily slowly to seek steadier swain.

Bruised and bandaged Bertie Brown beholding beautiful broad bearing-down banishes bitterness at broken Berlinetta, bows to beauty; braves brush-off, blurts-out bravura bespoken bouquet to bewildered belle. “Beauteous beloved; beaten, bruised and battered Bertie beseechingly begs betrothal. Bertie’ll bestow boodles of brass on blushing bride; build a baronial bastion for bedded bliss.

Selina smiling a secret smile of soft submission settles for steadier, so-substantial suitor says “sure sweetie.” and swings to side-lined sometime swain.

Fuck-off Freddie!”

Robert Winston McNaughton

Energy in a can!?

The benefits of so-called energy drinks appear to be vastly overstated. As far as I can tell from the seat outside my local store the vast majority of those who drink these canned marvels haven’t the strength when they’ve finished to transport the empty can 10 metres to the nearest litter bin!

Robert Winston McNaughton

Just Good Friends

When the man came to view the house he had vanilla scented candles. Can you believe it?”

Well Sharon if you say it was so then I must believe it.” said Bill Travers in the usual sarcastic tone of voice he used when talking to junior staff. “Who was it, by the way?”

Martin Hicks, the retired bank manager fellow who’s looking for a small house in one of the villages round here.”

Oh, I recall the fellow. Was an area manager I think? Got given an early bath, as they say: any reason for the candles then?”

Well,” said Sharon, “According to him his mother liked them and he said that until she died they were often lit to cover the smell of his pipe. He said he doesn’t ever smoke indoors now but he needed to see what the house felt like when it smelled the way he was used to. That’s why he wanted to view the house when it was empty”

Sounds unusual but perfectly reasonable Sharon: the important question is will he buy the damn place?”

In due course the man Martin Hicks did buy the house. It was the right size and very close to the little station that would enable him to get up to town easily and close to the golf course of which he was a member and past captain. As he explained to Sharon, he had many interests and duties in town; rotary, masonic and charitable committees and the train would allow him to travel without the drinking restrictions. “Not that I’m a drinker,” he explained to Sharon, “but the odd glass of amontillado doesn’t hurt.”

Sharon had giggled about that with her mum after she’d looked up amontillado on the internet. Sharon quite took to the old fellow for so he was in Sharon’s eyes though in truth fifty six is no great age these days. She helped him organise a cleaner, someone to do his laundry and someone else to get his shopping for him twice a week; as she explained to her mum. “He’s just a confirmed old bachelor. He needs people to look after him. Until he decided to come here he’d been looking after his mother who died after a long illness. I think he was very fond of her.”

Martin Davies was a very clubbable man and in most of the circles he moved in it was generally assumed that he was probably gay. However, in the way of such matters in his bourgeois society the men didn’t really care one way or another. He was well enough liked and whatever his proclivities he never gave cause for more than locker room speculation and humour. The women were more definite about his leanings but again he was a polite and likeable companion and a useful squire on occasions being no cause for marital jealousy.

He’d been in the new house about a month and the decorators had just finished when Martin finally met his immediate neighbour. They’d spied each other over the fence and naturally introductions were made. Martin weighed up the other man who affected a somewhat more flamboyant dress sense than Martin’s, particularly by topping off his ensemble with a soft round velvet cap. Martin was polite enough to show him round the newly decorated house with its spare but comfortable furnishings and he been rewarded with an invitation to tea, which he accepted. Rupert Bridge his neighbour fussed about getting tea made and laid out with good china on a small tray with biscuits. “Are you OK with Assam? I’ve got some China or Earl Grey if you’d prefer.”

Martin assured him that Assam was fine and over the next hour they shared their histories. Rupert was a little over sixty and effectively retired though he did a bit of lecturing at the local college, “Art history, you know. I taught art for many years and dabbled a bit without ever being famous. My real love was the stage but I never quite had the courage to go for it full out. I’m with the local am dram society. Would that interest you?”

Only as a spectator”, confessed Martin, “I’d never have the nerve.”

Over the next couple of years the two neighbours became firm friends. Rupert liked cooking and often cooked for them both. “It’s hardly worth putting yourself out for just one person Martin.” Martin, for his part regularly attended the am dram productions and admired the effort and enthusiasm of his neighbour who strode the boards like some reincarnation of a nineteenth century actor-manager.

Apart from that their paths rarely crossed socially but became more mutually dependent domestically and their interest in their gardens became both a cause for sharing tools and competing about which garden was the prettiest and most productive; they’d almost unnoticed slipped into being almost a couple; unnoticed both by them and even the village. The latter probably because their social lives were not intertwined apart from Martin’s attendance at Rupert’s am. drams.

They had arranged to dine out together at a posh restaurant in the town one evening. It was Martin’s way of thanking Rupert for the many meals he cooked for them. It wasn’t until they were settled that, looking round Rupert realised this was not a normal evening. Suddenly he twigged. “Good God Martin do you know what the date is?”

Martin’s eyes swept the room with growing horror. “Oh shit, it’s Valentine’s Day.”

Too bloody right, old love. We’re sitting in a room full of people who’ve got us firmly pegged as a couple of old queers.”

What the hell are we going to do”, was Martin’s anguished retort.

Put on a show for them of course”, said Rupert placing his hand firmly over Martins on the table. Martin gazed intently back into Rupert’s eyes and they both slowly collapsed in a fit of the giggles.

Robert Winston McNaughton


It’s not true that all the people who oppose the building of new homes near their own houses are nimbys (Not in my back yard). It’s just that I haven’t met any other sort.

Robert Winston McNaughton

A Letter to Mr Polly

This week we are required, or perhaps exhorted would be a fairer word, to write a letter to a fictional character. I nearly gave up until I remembered Mr Polly so I’ve written to him. The letter explains itself

Dear Mr Polly

The History of Mr Polly – HG Wells

I suppose it must seem a bit odd to be writing to a fictional character just over 100 years old so I’d better explain. I encountered you first when I was about 15 years old. Up to that time, I had only any enthusiasm for Arthur Ransome’s children’s books and for text (as opposed to cartoon) boys’ comics: Wilson the Super Athlete and Alf Tupper the Tough of the Track amongst others were my heroes. These apart, my literary experiences were few and superficial. Even in those days I couldn’t connect with Biggles. I like to think it may have had something to do with his careless racialism but I suspect lesser motives.

Anyway at 15 years old we were advised of our set works for O levels. I can’t say any of us was overly enthused at having to dissect Henry IV Part One or the consumptive poetry of Keats. The inclusion of your History as told by Mr Wells was a completely unexpected and, for most, an unfortunate choice. For me, however, it was a revelation. I suspect I may have been the only member of the class to read your History avidly and regularly. I could do the required stuff with Henry IV and blessed Falstaff and his troupe for enlivening an otherwise ridiculous tale of the miraculously reforming rake that was Hal. In later life it pleased me to discover that his smashing victory over the French in 1415 at Agincourt was more down the unbelievable incompetence of the French than his bumbling leadership. Keats, of course is straightforward – just remember the poor bugger was dying of TB and you can’t really go wrong. I have to admit that I struggled with La Belle Dame Sans Merci because I couldn’t really get past the schoolboy translation of the title into The Beautiful Woman Who Didn’t Say Thank You. And, of course his Ode to a Grecian Urn spawned a thousand jokes.

But I digress: I don’t actually think I made much of a fist of the examination questions about your History but I certainly would have been able to demonstrate my knowledge of the text. At fifteen and sixteen I was far too young and callow to admit of any genuine emotional response to a work of fiction but your story has echoed through my life and, over time, I think I have begun to understand why. Firstly it is because you were portrayed as a man ‘cut from the common clay’: neither a hero nor an anti-hero, just a bloke. I appreciated and enjoyed your attempts at cleverness and wisdom through the use of convoluted and ornate language. It echoes my love of words and use of wit to cover my inadequacies and believed shallowness. I still thrill to your phrases of which I think my favourite is ‘funereal bakemeats’.

I liked you because I could relate to you despite my coming from a loving family and a vastly different and more fortunate background than you. You reflected the fact that most people are not wholly villains or heroes, not wholly good or wholly bad but sometimes one and sometimes the other; more the victims of circumstance and timing than innate nature, upbringing, planning or principles. We are all, to some extent, washed along on a tide of inertia and compromise. It seems now that your acquired courage in fighting Uncle Jim reflects the courage of most of us. We need to be pushed to the point where courage becomes an easier option than flight.

Anyway, one way or another, I got a very decent O level pass in English Literature, which was, in part, the key to four wonderful years of further full-time education and on to night school study and good qualifications. More than this though, I believe it inspired me to use my later teens to catch up on reading books, classics, poetry and modern novels and instilled a love of reading and learning that has stayed with me.

So Mr Polly, for all that I owe you thanks. We shall never meet. If we did I doubt that we’d be natural friends but as I settle into the comfort of my older years, I hope you continued your happiness after the vanquishing of Uncle Jim and lived happily ever after.

Thanks again and goodbye.


Robert Winston McNaughton

Back from the brink of extinction….

There is a sure fire way of reviving the fortunes of rare native species, plants, insects, birds and especially amphibians. Find a piece of land that by topography ought to be where the rare species should reside and apply for planning permission. It’ll do the trick every time.

Robert Winston McNaughton