A view from a room

I thought I’d try an instant post!

I am writing this sitting in a Premier Inn room. It is warm, clean and comfortable. We have a TV, kettle, comfortable bed… Even a sea view. The staff have been polite, friendly and helpful. This is the standard I have come to expect from this chain. It’s in a really convenient location, too.
I must add here that I have a very similar view of Travelodge, although the rooms are a bit more basic and I think a little cheaper. (My only quibble is that in the last one the lighting levels were too low to read.)

No, this is not sponsored. I just want to point out that we are more and more automatically staying in these chains. We have on previous occasions promised ourselves a treat and gone ‘up-market’ but been disappointed. The hotels may have been more individual, with more public spaces; but so often decor has been shabby, staff have been curt, rooms have been poorly arranged. (And what has happened to the lovely B & Bs we used to stay in? They now seem to have vanished or to be horrendously priced…. and of course don’t want a child.)

Premier Inn and Travelodge are above all consistent. They remind me of how war photographer Don McCullin called McDonald’s his eighth wonder of the world, as it was the same wherever in the world he went.
Boring? Maybe. But looking forward to a good night’s sleep.


Musical Bodies

Let me wax lyrical about the two bands I probably love most of all in the world. (Apart, of course, from the Beatles, who are a band apart. And the Penguin Café Orchestra. If there is a god, the Penguin Café Orchestra is God’s house band.)


Gong picture: Pequod76 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The two bands I love are Gong and the Soft Machine. (Always the Soft Machine- I wonder why?) They have some points in common, which I want to explore here. (I told you this would be a self-indulgent blog. I would be interested to know if anybody cares about some of this stuff even half as much as I do.)

Both bands had an Australian called Daevid Allen as a founding member; in fact, the founding member in the case of Gong. I want to keep most of my ramblings about him and the Gong story to a later blog post. Over the years, the bands have shared other members.

A strong common theme has been a high standard of musicianship, with backgrounds ranging from classically trained to self-taught. Better known names who have played with either or both include Steve Hillage, Bill Bruford, Andy Summers (later of the Police), Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers and Karl Jenkins. (Yes, that Karl Jenkins. No, his music with the Soft Machine is nothing like what he is doing now. No, if you like what he is doing now you probably won’t like the Soft Machine. But try it anyway.) Mick Taylor and Mike Oldfield have been guests with Gong.

(A very small prize to the first person to identify the musician who is in both photos.)

What do they sound like? Rock/ jazz/ minimalist/ avant garde/ pop/ electronica/ psychedelia. Often all at the same time. They have often had a strong helping of English whimsy, with titles such as ‘Eat That Phonebook’ (Gong) and ‘Esther’s Nose Job’ (Soft Machine.)

They do, it must be said, usually sound very different and it’s not hard to imagine that some people like one and hate the other. Or hate both. But I LOVE THEM. (Whoops, those capitals were accidental by-products of my apalling typing. But I’m going to keep them.) So, I hear you pleading, explain why.

The musicianship. The whimsy. The cheese. (If anybody can explain that one, you can have a merit.) The sheer joy of the playing- even for late 1970s Soft Machine, who have been accused of ‘monumental coldness’ (Joachim Berendt). The visceral pleasure of the rockier styles. The intellectual pleasure of the more complex stuff. In the case of Gong, the spiritual aspects. Seriously. Did I mention the musicianship?

Both bands are, after nearly 50 years, still playing. In both cases- thrillingly wonderful to me- they have none of the original members. In fact, founder member Daevid Allen died this year. Don’t get the impression that they are like the tribute bands. They are still very much creating. Both have regular album releases of new material. Gong do play some older material, but reworked and fresh, always with new songs, exploring new fields. I haven’t seen Soft Machine- they are, excitingly, playing at Talking Heads next year- but I know they have moved on considerably.


Soft Machine (Legacy): Photo by Mike Judd, from http://www.johnetheridge.com/ Please let me know of any copyright issues.

Both bands have had some name changes, but now retain their original titles, very deservedly. That wise woman, Mrs Oblique, summed this all up very well, comparing the bands to a human body. Your body has none of the cells it had when you were born; but you are the same person, albeit extensively evolved.  I’m eagerly awaiting what they do next

A whole shop? For books? Part Three

There is a future…

This whole bookshop theme was started by finding out about the Barge Bookshop- a bookshop on a narrow boat. I was all for rushing to find it and buy books from it, but it seems it now specialises in ‘little libraries’. Sarah Henshaw, the owner, the owner, has written an excellent book, “The Bookshop that Floated Away”.

The Bookshop That Floated Away

So, what bookshops are still around? Sadly, I can think of few. I have mentioned Foyles and Blackwells. All my ‘real’ books tend to come from Waterstones, who generally have a good selection. W.H. Smith seem to have a reasonable range, but smaller than in the past. After that.. I read that Haye on Wye is a gold mine. I hear rumours of lovely shops in out of the way places. I see very few independent booksellers. Why?

DSCF0539.JPGSarah Henshaw of the Book Barge cites the familiar problems of Kindles, Amazon and the like. Ah yes, Kindles. I have one. There, I’ve admitted it. Why? Because there are lots of free and cheap books available. Money is an issue for most of us. A Kindle is very convenient if I’m away. I once horrified my new in-laws by taking a huge bag of books to Spain. As you can see, I have muddled collections of books all round the house; the Kindle keeps Mrs Oblique happier.

And, yes, I buy some books from Amazon. Price again, you see. I do know the issues involved, including tax. I can’t however blame people for the convenience of online shopping. But honestly, I have never been to a bookshop, found a book and gone home to get it cheaper online.

Charity booksellers must take a good deal of trade from independents. Again, there is the pleasure of finding the unexpected. I really love the little rows of books one finds being sold for funds in unexpected places, such as churches.

I still buy from bookshops. I have no answer to the death of the independent bookshop. I wish I had the money to regularly use them- if I could find them. My resolution is to buy something from every one I come across.

Since starting this post, I found the following link which proves there are some bookshops alive and selling out there. Let me know of any you recommend, especially in Hampshire.

16 charming bookshops

A whole shop? For books? Part two

A brief digression and anecdote

Second hand bookshops are a different case. I have mentioned Gilberts in Winchester and the Book in Hand in Shaftesbury. In modern times, the Oxfam Book Shop in Winchester is up there. Just as with the sale of new books, the joy of second hand books is the unexpected surprise.

There is a subtle shift from ‘second hand’ to ‘antiquarian’. These used to be abundant in Bath. I once went innocently into one with a friend, to browse and possibly buy. We were asked by the proprietor, very brusquely, what we wanted, and were told in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want timewasters. I said the first thing that came into my head… which was that I was looking for anything by Robert Graves. The atmosphere thawed a little…. we were shown what I think was a first edition. I’m not a collector- I declined, saying I wasn’t obsessed. “Ah,” he said, softly. “Everybody should have an obsession.”

A whole shop? For books? Part one

img034The first bookshop I remember was W.H. Smith in Horsham, in the days when they mostly sold books. There was a room for children’s books at the back, with black shelves, where I browsed The Famous Five, Tom Swift, Biggles and Swallows and Amazons before spending the half-a-crown I had save up (yes, really children) which my grandmother doubled if she was with us, so I could buy two books.

After that…. they really do blur. I remember Solstice, in Brighton, which had such wonderful titles as ’50 Recipes with Hash’ ( which I didn’t purchase) and a City Lights version  of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ (which I did purchase and still have.) There was Gilberts, in Winchester- a succession of rooms and cavities, up and down stairs, like a tiny universe of its own, transcending normal space. Most of them were independent, like the lovely ‘Book in Hand’ in Shaftesbury. In the same town, Hardings store had its own charming book section, where I spent book tokens my in-laws gave me for Christmas. Our local Arcade Bookshop for many years had an individual selection of books. In fact most small towns and even villages had their own bookshop, in my (perhaps selective) memory.

All the above have, I think, now gone. Of the large stores in my memory, Foyles in London, a huge treasure trove of books, is still there; and I know that Blackwells in Oxford is still as encyclopaedic as ever. I presume that university bookshops still exist; these like a good tool shop, made me feel I could tackle any task confidently.

More on this subject to follow.

My great-grandfather

This is a self-indulgent post. I am fascinated by this gentleman, and want to record what little I know about him to keep his memory alive a little longer. His family were all agricutural labourers, a far cry from modern times.



My great-grandfather, Isaac, was born on 13th May 1855 in Nottinghamshire. His father was a farm labourer; his mother registered the birth, making a cross as her mark, so must have been illiterate. By the time he was 5, she had died, and he was living with her parents. His grandfather was another agricultural labourer. Ten years later, Isaac and his father had both moved in with his cousin.

He claimed to have run away from home at 14 and worked in a pub, where he was given a cigar on his afternoon off; to have tapped railway wheels and to have been a horse trader. He is on record as having been, variously, a stoker in a waggon shop (at 15), a coachman, a groom, a ‘gentleman farmer’ and a gardener. Finally he ran a tobacconist shop or stall in Earl’s Court Road. He had married and had seven children born alive, two of which later died young. At some point he had moved to London, where he lived in various mews, now very desirable. He ended up living with his daughter, a teacher, and died in 1946, outliving my grandfather by 13 years.

I am fascinated by him, because he was a tremendous tale teller. His second wife told my father not to believe a word he said. He said his stepmother sewed his pockets up. He claimed to be able to castrate a cat without drawing blood; to be the only person in a radius of 50 miles to have this skill; and to have demonstrated his technique to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. He and his son, my great-uncle, told my father that if he planted a dead cat in the garden, it would grow cat’s whisker crystals for his amateur radio sets. I haven’t checked whether my father did so; but when Dad got an electric motor for one Christmas (simple days!) he was told to grease it with goose or turkey fat. Needless to say, it never went again….

The trait for tale telling runs in the family. My father has it…. and I’m afraid I have it. As you may find out if you follow this blog. But so far it’s all been true, to the best of my knowledge.

Art for all

I am discovering that writing a blog is partly about clarifying my thoughts on a subject. Please excuse this post, as my thoughts are more muddled than usual.


I have been fortunate enough to visit some amazing art galleries (and museums). A few of these have been outside the UK, including the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Orangerie in Paris, where, predictably, I cried to see at last the huge Monet waterlily paintings I had read and dreamed about for so long. Less well known is the Kröller-Müller Museum in Holland, which has a lovely sculpture park set in the woods.

At home, Tate St. Ives is one of the loveliest galleries I know, both in setting and in design. The Yorkshire Scupture Park is what it sounds like. But I particularly like the more quirky, individual ones: Kettle’s Yard, the former home of collectors Jim and Helen Ede, in Cambridge (sadly closed at the time of writing); the Russell-Cotes museum in Bournemouth; Pallant House in Chichester.

There are so many more, but I want to mention the great London galleries. The National is astounding, especially the Sainsbury wing, which presents an early Renaissance collection in fresh and exciting views. My earliest love as a gallery was the Tate, now Tate Britain, which retains its charm for me. I remember seeing Picasso and Braque collages and for some reason being impressed by the newspapers used in them. (I can’t pretend to like Tate Modern, which seems to dwarf even the greatest art; apart from Rodin’s ‘The Kiss”, which retains its humanity even in the vast spaces. Perhaps I should go again and reconsider.)

What do the galleries mentioned in the last paragraph have in common, along with the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the Victoria and Albert and others around the country? Correct. Entry is free. Now here is where I might get confusing. I believe that encountering art is a valuable, life-enhancing experience. Mrs Oblique says it “lifts the soul”. It makes you look at the world in fresh ways. We have take school children to galleries and been amazed to see them cry because “it’s so beautiful”. I believe that everybody should have this experience. Furthermore, our  collections are owned by us, locally and nationally. We shouldn’t be charged to see what is ours.

My favourite art gallery, anywhere, is Southampton. It’s a lovely space, or series of spaces. It’s not a daunting size. It has varied and fascinating exhibitions. There is a large collection which is regularly rotated. It has a good education programme. Above all, it’s free. You can wander in at lunchtime, at the weekend… whenever the mood takes you. If your children want to go, you don’t have to think about the cost.

In my very  muddled opinion, publicly owned art should be free to all. Southampton is a shining example. Long may it continue.

Photograph by Jim Champion [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons