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Thursday, 29 June 2017


The death of Michael Bond, the creator of Paddington Bear, was sad news indeed. But it reminded me of the importance of reading books to children. To be more specific, reading books to babies and from the earliest possible moment getting them used to the rhythm, melody and flow of words.

I cannot remember anyone reading to me when I was a child. I might be wrong there but I really cannot remember. But, within weeks of my two sons being born, I would read to them every night as they were drifting off to sleep. I assumed the sleepiness was due to their natural human tiredness, although I suppose it could have been my delivery. No matter. The important thing was to read stories to them. Over time they developed their own favourites and would prefer to hear stories repeated, a kind of verbal comfort. Some evenings, I would be so exhausted after work that I would skip a couple of sentences and the boys would perk up knowing full well that I was editing the stories. It showed me they were listening, absorbing and enjoying this nightly entertainment.

Thankfully there is no shortage of books out there but I wonder if there is a shortage of parents who can be bothered to read to their children. Maybe they think a glass of wine or a TV show is higher up the agenda. To me, investing time in children from their first gurgles as babies until they develop the skills to read and write for themselves, is not a pious or worthy effort. It is essential.

My sons grew up on fairytales, nursery rhymes, Roald Dahl, Dick King-Smith and many others including the wondrous Michael Bond and Paddington. (Nurture a bond with books. That just came to me!)

Books are great lifelong companions. Start the friendships early.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017


Today is the 50th anniversary of the first bank hole-in-the-wall machine, launched in Enfield, north London by Reg Varney.

My earliest memory of Reg Varney was his appearance as Reg Turner in The Rag Trade (1961 - 63), a sitcom set in a textiles factory called Fenner Fashions. The boss was played by Peter Jones and other characters were played by Sheila Hancock, Miriam Karlin ("Everybody out!") and Barbara Windsor.

From memory, he starred as various characters in a short-lived comedy series called The Valiant Varneys (1964 - 65). It was a tea-time family show with daft scripts, but I'm sure it was funny in its day.

He guested on several TV shows including Emergency Ward 10 through the 1960s too.

His third series was Beggar My Neighbour (1966 - 68). He played Harry Butt, a handyman, and the cast included June Whitfield and Pat Coombs. It was a sort of keeping-up-with-the-Jones's comedy.

Reg Varney hit TV gold when he took on his most famous role as bus driver Stan Butler in On The Buses (1969 - 73). It ran for 68 episodes and spawned three feature films. It was an ensemble sitcom full of silliness, insults, innuendo and scheming. Stephen Lewis very nearly stole the show as Inspector Blake ("I 'ate you Butler!') and the rest of the cast threw themselves into the hugely successful farce that it was. In retrospect, On The Buses is clunky stuff but the ratings were good back in the day and, from time to time, ITV repeat the show. It is worth a look but brace yourself for 1970s comedy which almost certainly jars with today's expectations.

Interestingly, whilst Reg Varney had a decent career up to his On The Buses work, he was in his early fifties when he first starred in the show. When the run finished, he took his one-man show on cruise ships and to Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

At the end of the 1970s, he retired and suffered with health problems including a heart attack in 1981 and a stoke in 1989.

He died at 92 on 16 November 2008.

My generation will remember a lot of funny moments featuring Reg Varney, one of television's most popular comedy actors, and it is nice that his name is highlighted today, if only for the anniversary of a cash dispenser.

Thursday, 22 June 2017


If any publication would like to commission a regular column based on a revised set of questions, asking well-known people, please contact me at to discuss.

James Lipton on the excellent Inside The Actors Studio ends his interviews by asking these questions, a list inspired by French journalist Bernard Pivot.

James Lipton’s Questionnaire

1 What is your favourite word?
2 What is your least favourite word?
3 What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
4 What turns you off?
5 What is your favourite curse word?
6 What sound or noise do you love?
7 What sound or noise do you hate?
8 What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
9 What profession would you not like to do?
10. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Lot of interesting responses over the years. Try it.

I'm sure some of the answers would change over time, but this is how I answered today:

1 What is your favourite word? Nonchalant
2 What is your least favourite word? Hopelessness
3 What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? Human kindness
4 What turns you off? Bigotry
5 What is your favourite curse word? Bollocks
6 What sound or noise do you love? Church bells
7 What sound or noise do you hate? Loud music in shops
8 What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Actor
9 What profession would you not like to do? Pathologist
10. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? You ain't seen nothing yet!

If you try this, please share your answers in the comments box.


In past ages of tragedy, worry and despair, newspapers have always tried to include some light relief in cartoons and also in humorous writing. As a Belfast kid, through some of the darkest troubled days, I found solace, entertainment and laughs in the columns of John Pepper and Billy Simpson, both more often than not illustrated by the great Rowel Friers.

Billy Simpson was (maybe still is) an exceptional writer.  His column appeared on Mondays in the Belfast Telegraph and it was impossible not to crack a smile as he developed a story, launched a flight of fancy, stretched an observation and did what he was hired to do – be funny, and funny was guaranteed.  You never knew what to expect.  On one occasion he retold Custer’s last stand (“The Scalps My Father Wore”) with an Irish influence in the shape of Native Americans talking in Oirish accents and passing round the war shillelagh. In “The Barley That Shook The Wind” he described the Poteen Taster of the Year contest; in “Zer Boink Tapes” he exposed a scam of someone trying to sell tape recordings of conversations between William of Orange and Pope Alexander; in “Brief Encounter at the Customs” he imagined the scenario of a man trying to smuggle pythons in his underpants; “The French Concoction” had this introduction: “There are several things in life that a man should approach with caution. Matrimony. Unattended parcels. And home-made liquor.”  Classic humour that hit the spot back in the 1970s and, after a re-read, just as funny today.

But who are the humour columnists today? Point me in their direction.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017


26 June 40 years ago, Elvis Presley's last concert (in Indianapolis). 7 weeks later, we lost him.


Huge capital letters on a newsagent’s board:
ELVIS DEAD – handwritten in black felt-tip –
And I gasped as I headed to Chadwell Heath railway station.
“What? WHAT!” I thought in my own capitals,
“How can this be true?” Beyond moody blue.

I felt like throwing a sickie, going back home,
Smashing an LP to pieces, finding a sharp end
And slitting my wrist, I was that pissed.
They didn’t even try to break it to me gently,
Just BAM!!  Right there for all to see. Heartbreak.

Later, after work, watching the news and pictures
Of scrawny Elvis, beautiful Elvis, fat Elvis,
I saw the beginnings of him, the wonder of him,
The decline of him, that rotten rock and roll thing,
A complete and utter waste of a king.