The four paintings scattered around this posting are by Mexican artist Octavio Ocampo, who has an expo running in Paris at the moment. They're lovely, aren't they?

I promised Dave Shannon, whose idea this was, to come up with my nominations PDQ. In true Robinson style, I'm late - again.

It's much more difficult than it seems, as you'll know if you've tried to do it. I've enjoyed it immensely, though - so thankyou, Dave.

And let's have some more nominations, please.

Here, for what they're worth, are the eight records I would need with me on my mythical desert island...

The Darktown Poker Club - Phil Harris
Anyone who, when asked to choose music from their earliest years, cites The Nun’s Chorus and Cigareets, Whuskey, and Wild Wild Women in the same breath, was bound to grow up into an unstable and confusing maturity, and I did. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but there you go.

I don’t remember us as being a particularly musical family when I was young, although I suppose we must have been, because other melodic snatches kept drifting up from my subconscious the deeper I delved; Serutan Yob, O Sole Mio and a good half-dozen Children’s Favourites favourites like The Laughing Policeman (yes, I’m that old) and even Buckingham Palace, for heaven’s sake.

But only the dry wit and humour of Phil Harris deserves a precious place on my desert island. I can remember hearing The Darktown Poker Club on the Light Programme when I was very young indeed - it was actually released in 1947 and was one of that year’s biggest hit records (as they were called then.) It’s fast and furious - so much so that the lyrics are difficult to hear, let alone understand ( - there’s a lot of poker-playing patois in there).

Phil Harris’ utterly unmistakable vocal mannerisms re-appeared in my life many years later. His was the voice of Baloo the Bear in Disney’s The Jungle Book, from which he had a ‘twilight hit’ with The Bare Necessities.

So before I leave on my fateful voyage, I’ll print off the lyrics. Once stranded under the palms, I’ll set myself the task of trying to decipher them. That should keep my mind occupied for a while.

The Last Time I Saw Paris - Jonathan and Darlene Edwards
We’re up to the early 60s, and music was very definitely a big part of family life by now. My brothers (Barry and Deryck) grooved along to the skiffle of Lonnie Donegan, the rock’n’roll of Bill Haley (and the Comets, natch), the trad jazz of Chris Barber (and the wonderfully-named Ottilie Patterson) and the nascent British pop music scene represented by the likes of Joe Brown and Cliff Richard ( - although none of us ever formed an attachment for Elvis Presley).

We even owned a double bass, which our Deryck actually played with considerable joie-de-vivre. I don’t know where it came from or where it went, but after it disappeared, he progressed to a ‘broomstick’ bass as a member of the ‘jolly boys’ in the local pub.

I was only in my early teens, though, and - then as now - it was humour that was still catching my ear. It was at this time that I became captivated - nay, enthralled - by a duo for whom my affection has not dimmed from that day to this.

It takes considerable skill to play the piano as confusingly and as waywardly as Jonathan Edwards did; later, Les Dawson got halfway there. It’s even trickier to sing slightly - but unerringly - off-key and off-beat a la Darlene. No-one has even dared to emulate her since. Over the decades, I’ve tried to collect every track they recorded and choosing just one is iniquitous; all eight of my Desert Island Discs could easily have been theirs.

I’ve chosen The Last Time I Saw Paris because Jo Stafford (whose voice it is) won an award for the album from which it’s taken, and because Paris has played an important part in my recent history. This track keeps it in its place.

Strawberry Fields Forever - The Beatles
We move on through the 60s now, and no other band (or ‘group’, as we used to call them) comes within a thousand miles of The Beatles, and the influence they had on me.

It seems to be fashionable these days to belittle The Beatles and to treat their songs and careers with a kind of smug contempt. But, if you were there at the time - and in your teens, as I was - you will have no doubt at all of their musicality, innovation and invention or of their tireless efforts to break new ground and make sounds that pop music had never heard.

After Love Me Do, every new Beatles single was awaited with enthusiasm coupled with eager curiosity; what would they come up with next? With Strawberry Fields Forever, they hit my heights. The production values, the mix, the effects, the sheer bravado and sophistication of the song itself, took my breath away.

Of course, many other groups jostled for attention in the wonderful 60s - the Stones, the Kinks, the Searchers, the Swingin’ Blue Jeans, the Hollies, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Freddie and the Dreamers - and you can still buy their tracks on compilations or Greatest Hits albums. But The Beatles bestrode that revolutionary decade as if they were masterminding and inspiring the many changes that took place in the world.

I remember buying a poster of Alexander Dubcek, pinning it to the wall of my tiny bedsit in London and listening to Strawberry Fields Forever while I looked at it.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Saint-Saëns - Symphony No 3 ‘Organ’
I met my first boyfriend in 1972; he was called David and he changed my musical life forever - which is only right and proper. When I first visited his flat, I was completely overawed - and I mean ‘completely’ - by the biggest collection of LPs I’d ever seen. David had 2,000 of them - two thousand - and they were all classical.

Two walls of his living room were stacked floor-to-ceiling with records, all arranged in alphabetical order. I think that the greatest pleasure he got from our short-lived relationship lay in educating this untutored blank page of a bus driver in the delights awaiting him within the sleeves of that vast music collection.

It was a revelation. At first, he played me music he knew I knew and liked; Handel’s Largo, The Ride of the Valkyries, the 1812 - good, solid stuff like that.

But then he extended my range. I got to hear more, and less famous, music by Handel, Wagner and Tchaikovsky. Then he introduced me to composers and music I’d barely or never heard of. There was Bach and Berlioz, Chopin and Brahms, Beethoven and Mozart, Bizet and Debussy, Dvorak and Rossini, Sibelius and Vivaldi.

He opened a door I hadn’t even been aware of. And the music of Saint-Saëns blew the door clean off its hinges.

In a long musical career, Saint-Saëns wrote operas, ballets, overtures, ‘concert pieces’, sonatas, organ fugues, concertos. He was the first classical composer to write music specially for a film - The Assassination of the Duke of Guise - in 1908!

His ‘greatest hit’ - The Carnival of the Animals - is even more popular now than when he wrote it.

But his story does not end happily. Although he lived to a great age ( - when he was born in 1835, Beethoven had just died and Victoria wasn’t yet on the throne; when he died in 1921, the First World War had just ended - ) he was a deeply unhappy man for much of his later life. Both his children died accidentally within weeks of each other in 1878. Perhaps understandably, he never recovered from this loss.

Saint-Saëns became a wanderer, virtually living on trains and steamships for over 40 years.

Arguably (except for me) his masterpiece is his third symphony, which incorporates an organ, to unforgettable effect. It’s rattled my bones, made my hair stand on end and moved me to tears every time I’ve heard it since David introduced me to it.

It’ll do the same on my desert island - and it won’t be just Saint-Saëns I’ll be remembering.

Broken Bicycles - Bette Midler
In her heyday - in the 70s and 80s - Bette Midler was truly the Mae West of the age. Cheeky, mischievous, naughty, provocative - she paved the way for Madonna and Lady Gaga, both of whom are pale, attention-seeking imitations of her. Bette Midler was the queen of vamp and sleaze.

This is hardly surprising, as she started her career in the smokey, sexy bars and bath-houses of New York’s gay scene. The only thing she could do to divert her audience’s attention away from the steamy, testosterone-filled performances going on all around them in the dark, was to become the queen of camp as well.

This part of her career reached its zenith with a stage-show called Art or Bust, which is awesome. She and her ‘Harlettes’ (geddit?) performed her greatest hits, dressed for each one as characters from famous painting styles. There was cubism, impressionism, surrealism, art deco and - for Broken Bicycles - art nouveau.

She looked wonderful. Like a pre-Raphaelite model or one of those art-nouveau lamps where the bulb is being held aloft by a prancing, wrought-iron lady. And then she sang.

Broken Bicycles - which was written, and first released, by Tom Waits in 1983 - is a short and rather uncomplicated song in form and structure. And, like many of his songs, its simplicity belies its depth. The imagery is startling and its delivery by Ms Midler left me wanting to come up for air.

I had intended to reproduce the lyrics here, but that never works. Song lyrics need the singer and the music, too. That’s the whole point, after all. So, if you can, have a listen. (You can do this by downloading Spotify, for example, off the internet; it’s free.) Or better yet, watch it on YouTube.

It’s a song of longing and yearning and lost love. It will make me sad on my island but it’s a good antidote to Phil Harris or the Edwardses.

Berlioz - Requiem
Unlike Saint-Saëns, whose sensibilities were deeply rooted in the French middle-classes of the time, Berlioz was a pre-Raphaelite renegade of the first water. Like The Beatles, he consciously fought to move music forward, to experiment with new forms and new effects, to shake up the musical establishment of his era (up to about the 1850s).

He succeeded magnificently. His works, all of which are orchestrated to within an inch of their lives, bounce down the decades and still stir the hearts of his many fans today. Rousing overtures like The Corsair, Les francs-juges, King Lear or Roman Carnival were years ahead of their time. He didn’t number his symphonies like everyone else - he named them; Harold In Italy and The Fantastic Symphony (which includes a heart-stopping musical representation of a beheading by guillotine).

But he really knocked spots off people’s preconceptions with his funereal works. His Symphonie funebre includes one of the most famous and stately funeral marches ever written. And the Grande Messe des Morts - the ‘great Mass for the dead’, more usually called the Requiem - must have had its audience gibbering in the aisles when it was first performed in 1837.

With astonishing Romantic-era panache, Berlioz’ score for the Requiem requires....
*a 180-piece orchestra, including 16 kettledrums, 10 pairs of cymbals, 20 ‘cellos and 18 double-basses;
*four brass bands (placed at the corners of the auditorium) - 38 players in all -
*a choir of 210 voices, made up of 80 sopranos, 70 basses and 60 tenors; plus
*a tenor solo.

Despite the numbers involved, though, it’s not all deafeningly thunderous. Berlioz was clever enough to intersperse the volcanic eruptions with areas of wistfulness and calm. Nevertheless, it’s the deafening thunder that clinches it for most people.

It’s not often performed, of course. The cost is prohibitive, for a start. So I’m lucky to have seen it twice. Which means that I have felt that my life will never be the same again - twice.

The part of the Requiem that makes you wonder what on earth Berlioz was on when he wrote it is the Tuba mirum - the massed trumpet call to the Last Judgement of the Lord. (Even typing those words has given me goosepimples.) The whole ensemble - all 429 of them - take part. The trumpets blare at you from the four corners of the world, the whole of humanity calls to the Lord, who calls back using all those kettledrums, cymbals and double-basses.

The word ‘awesome’ is much over-used these days. I’ve used it myself already in this blogposting. I should have reserved it for now.

Samuel Barber - Adagio
Desert Island Discs is not just about choosing the famous eight records, of course. Kirsty Young (whom the Fates preserve) usually asks her guests how they would manage to survive on the island: catching and cooking fish, for example, or building some sort of shelter or being able to decide which of the island’s lush vegetation is at least digestible rather than agonisingly suicidal.

My survival skills are, of course, minimal (to say the least). They make Barbara Cartland look like Bear Grylls. I don’t want to eat it if it doesn’t come already chopped, sliced, diced, mashed or otherwise prepared and ready to shove in the microwave. If you can’t get a bus or a train there, I don’t want to go. Any fire I made would set the entire island alight in seconds and any shelter I managed to cobble together would implode under the weight of its own embarrassment.

I’m not proud of any of this. It’s unsettling to parade your own inadequacies in public, which is probably why Kirsty’s guests usually tell her that they’d have no trouble at all throwing up a fully-stocked supermarket in a matter of days then settling down to a tasty pot of sea urchin bouillabaisse. Yeah right.

She also asks them whether or not they would be lonely on their island.

I think I’d be OK for a while - for about as long as it takes to recite all I could remember of The Lady of Shalott. Then, slowly but surely, I would go berserk (if it’s possible to go berserk slowly.) I would start talking to myself (which all of us do once in a while anyway) and, not satisfied with the standard of conversation, would soon be having psychotic round-table discussions with myself.

I would present imaginary radio programmes where I always get the better of Wappat. I would walk up and down like Alan Whicker, doing ‘pieces to camera’. By the time I was rescued, I would be as incoherent as Robert Kilroy-Silk or Stanley Unwin.

Which is why my seventh record is Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. It is the most ethereal music I have ever heard; like its competitors for slot 7, it has the power to uplift and calm at the same time; and then to intensify feelings of melancholia and yearning to almost unbearable levels.

Barber’s competition for slot 7 included Albinoni’s Adagio, Pachelbel’s Kanon, Handel’s Largo, Puccini’s Humming Chorus - and much of the music of Philip Glass or Enya.

But Barber's Adagio came out on top because it paints pictures of a mournful but desirable paradise and makes it clear that, however close we get to it, it always remains permanently just out of reach. It leaves you utterly alone with your thoughts. It is almost a dream that doesn't quite turn into a nightmare.

I would listen to it constantly and never stop crying.

Unless, of course, I played record number eight.

I Don’t Feel Like Dancing - Scissor Sisters
As well as being blamelessly and faultlessly enjoyable, I Don’t Feel Like Dancing would remind me of my high days at the BBC. When it was played, I would actually dance in the street (or, latterly, in the studio). And I know I’m not the only one. The combination of song and style is irresistible; this is a modern pop classic and fully deserves to be.

And, because so many of the band members are openly and flamboyantly gay, I guess it would also remind me of how much the world that had abandoned me on my island has changed since I was born.

But - to be honest - I think this track justifies its own inclusion without any supporting evidence from me.

So there I am - Ian Robinson Crusoe.

Except that Kirsty wouldn’t quite have finished.

She would ask me which one of the eight records I would choose above all the others, and I would say the Saint-Saëns symphony because - with its moods changing by turns from flippant and happy to melancholy and finally to thundering victory - it would have the power to reflect whatever state of mind I would be in, and to alter it if necessary.

She would also ask me to choose a book to have with me - apart from the Bible and Shakespeare (neither of which I would want anyway). I would nominate The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran. It was given to me by one of the first happily and openly gay men I ever met - an Australian bus driver called Alex - and although its sentiments now have the aura of 60s idealism about them, I have never failed to find it uplifting, liberating and thought-provoking.

You’re allowed to be shipwrecked with a ‘luxury item’ too. Noel Edmonds showed an all-too-rare glimpse of wisdom when he chose a motorway service area. I can’t possibly aspire to such heights, so instead I’ve chosen to ask for an Apple Mac computer like this one - with a power supply and internet access, of course.

Macs are lovely to look at, even switched off. They’re easy to operate. And, on my island, my Mac would be the only way I had of knowing what truckshunters were saying about me on this blog in my absence.

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com



'Not only is Pisa not the only place with a Leaning Tower - it’s also not the only place with a Leaning Tower of Pisa.'

I couldn’t help overhearing what the rather earnest young backpacker was saying to the terribly polite Dutch couple sitting opposite him on the train, who smiled back indulgently at him.

I tried to assume an air of tolerant curiosity - not always easy with the kind of hangover I had that morning - and asked him to repeat what he’d just said.

Not only is Pisa not the only place with a Leaning Tower - it’s also not the only place with a Leaning Tower of Pisa.

I was barely awake and already the day was taking on a surreal, and deeply unsettling, tone.

Picture it.

Monday morning. Italy was going to work. A new week had begun in this little coastal town and, as Saro drove me to the station, there was a very different feel to it. The romantic, gas-lit street-markets, the crowded trattoria, families walking sociably and lazily around the town square - it had all been replaced by the noise of cars, buses and bicycles jostling for the available road space, cursing pedestrians soaked to the skin by the gentle Ligurian drizzle and rushing to the station or to bus-stops or to and from car parks.

It was almost not the same town. The space and gentile quietness available on Sunday night for quiet twilight strolling had been taken over completely by screeching brakes and car horns. It felt as if I was in the middle of Rome.

And I had a headache which seemed out of all proportion to the meagre quantities of wine I had drunk last night. At least, they had seemed meagre at the time. It was my Grand Tour’s first real hangover.

The drizzle was turning to rain as I rushed into the station. I turned to take a final look at the town but it was almost invisible behind the rain and the traffic. I also wanted to wave Saro goodbye but he’d already gone. I watched as he drove madly up to the end of the street, cut in front of a crowded bus and turned right into a ‘no right turn’. Somehow I realised that I would never see him again, quirky hospitality notwithstanding.

You Italians.

The opposite - northbound - platform was crowded with commuters. Genoa (properly Genova) is only a few kilometres up the line. It’s a big city and obviously draws a hefty proportion of its workforce from its hinterland, of which Chiavari is a part. Almost everyone seemed to have a small cup of takeaway coffee, gripped lovingly in both hands. There weren’t many umbrellas to be seen but hats, scarves, overcoats and gloves were in abundance - evidence that the morning was what Italians regard as ‘cold’, despite the steam that was drifting up from the platform surface.

‘Cold’. Hmmmmm. It was already in the low twenties and I felt self-conscious when I undid another button of my shirt and stepped out from under the awning to allow the rain to cool me down. I knew perfectly well how foolish I must have looked but, at this stage on my Grand Tour, I don’t particularly care.

There are few, if any, commuter-friendly cities south of Chiavari, though. Pisa and Livorno are the nearest in that direction and they don’t seem to have the economic clout of Genoa to the north. (Why, incidentally - and as Saro took the trouble to point out - do You English change the name of Livorno to Leghorn, a name with no aesthetic value whatsoever?)

This meant that, although my train was by no means empty, there were lots of spare seats. I chose one on the right-hand (sea-facing) side and settled down to enjoy the views as the train pulled out of Chiavari towards La Spezia, Viareggio and Pisa.

And, at first, it was undoubtedly the views that grabbed my attention. The morning was overcast, the clouds were of varying shades of blue to dark grey and seemed to me to match the drama of the coastal cliffs we were passing beneath. Even the Mediterranean was roused from its usual torpor and crashed against the boulders along the foreshore as the train wound its way along from Liguria back into Tuscany. Once in a while I found myself ducking as the waves bounced up against the train window. It was very exciting!

One of the stops along the way was Carrara. In my researches for the Grand Tour, I’d heard about the marble quarried hereabouts. It was used to build the Pantheon and Trajan’s Column in Rome and Michaelangelo swore by it; his David, in Florence, is carved from a block of Carrara marble. It’s highly-prized to this day and it was interesting to see the many marble-yards by the railway line. Blocks of white and cream marble, some of them the size of small bungalows, banked together behind acres of barbed wire.

There’s still money to be made from Carrara marble.

We were about halfway to Pisa when the conversation going on around me suddenly diverted my attention from the stormy morning outside. I found myself listening in as the curly-haired - and not totally unattractive - young man sitting opposite me explained to the couple across the aisle that he was visiting Pisa as part of his backpacking trip ‘to see if their Leaning Tower is as good as ours’.

He was American and spoke with that vague, unplaceable American accent which made it impossible to determine which of the fifty states he was from. (We found out later that it was Colorado and that his name was Steve.)

Not only is Pisa not the only place with a Leaning Tower - it’s also not the only place with a Leaning Tower of Pisa.

His comment about the Leaning Tower puzzled and amused me as much as it did the Dutch couple to whom he was speaking. We all looked at him and, I think, wondered whether to change our seats. Summoning up a sense of reason from I know not where, I asked him what he meant by ‘ours’.

‘We have the Leaning Tower too,’ he said.

‘Do you?’

‘Hell yeah. It’s totally awesome’. (I’m not making this up. I made copious notes about it as soon as I got off the train.)

‘You mean,’ I ventured to continue ‘that there’s another Leaning Tower of Pisa which isn’t in Pisa?’

‘Yes sure,’ he said. ‘It’s in Niles.’ He said ‘Niles’ as if we ought to have heard of it. It was obvious that none of us had. ‘Niles, Illinois’ he said. We still hadn’t heard of it.

He opened a notebook in front of him on the table. It was full of scribblings, drawings, charts and maps. ‘I’m doing Leaning Towers’, he said. ‘Gotta start with Pisa!’

I felt intrigued and unsettled at the same time. How many Leaning Towers were there? And why had this all-American boy-next-door backpacker decided to visit them all? Perhaps, I thought, he was a trainee architect spending his gap-year on a fun thesis for his Master’s. On the other hand, he could be exhibiting Obsessive Compulsive Disorder of the most extraordinary kind.

He scuttled through the pages of his notebook, telling us about Leaning Towers he intended to visit in Germany, Poland, Romania, Spain and Britain.

‘Britain?’ I asked. ‘There’s a Leaning Tower in Britain?’

‘Sure. There’s eight.’

Eight? Eight?

I asked him if I could write down his list of the eight Leaning Towers of Britain. Here is the list.

*the ruined Great Tower of Bridgnorth Castle, Bridgnorth, England
*the southeast tower of Caerffili Castle, Wales
*the Albert Memorial Clock in Belfast, Northern Ireland
*the tower of Temple Church in Bristol, England
*Greyfriars Tower - the remains of a Franciscan monastery in King's Lynn, England
*the spire of the Church of St Mary and All Saints, Chesterfield, England
*the tower of St Martin's Church at Cwmyoy, Monmouthshire, Wales.
*Bateman's Tower in Brightlingsea, Essex, England.

For shame. I looked at the list and realised the scale of my misjudgement.

My friend Sue lives in Herefordshire, in the Welsh Marches. Not far from her house lies the tiny village of Cwmyoy, just inside Wales. About ten years ago, Sue took me there to see the church’s amazing Leaning Tower, which looks as if it would much rather be down in the valley below than perched on its hillside, and is taking active steps to get there - very slowly.

Kathy lives in Chesterfield. Less than a year ago I was once again gaping up at the crazy ‘Twisted Spire’ of Chesterfield church, which looks as if it’s suffering from the same kind of Grand Hangover that was afflicting me.

About 20 years ago I visited Bridgnorth and marvelled at the castle’s Great Tower. Cromwell had tried, and failed, to blow it up and it leans heavily to the north to this day.

On the walls there’s a notice about another castle whose tower leans, and for the same reason. Caerffili.

This innocent and perfectly pleasant lad, about whom I had been inwardly so sceptical, had simply decided to add extra interest and ‘spice’ to his backpacking holiday round Europe by giving it a quirky theme. He had done his research thoroughly and passionately.

I hope he becomes somebody famously eccentric so that I recognise him on tv or radio and can remind myself - yet again, and as if I will need to - that the world lines up surprises for us round every corner, wherever we happen to be. Even on a local slow-train on a stormy Monday morning in deepest rural Tuscany.

When I left the train at Pisa, I shook Steve’s hand and wished him a happy and rewarding vacation.

I wonder how it went. I so wish I’d given him my phone number or email address.


While I was waiting for my connecting train from Pisa to Florence, I took out my trusty notebook and scubbled down a few ideas for themed holidays of my own. I call them my Leaning Tower holidays…

*visit only places beginning with A - Avignon, Antwerp, Aberdeen, Athens…
*visit places featured on each of the Ordnance Survey Landranger maps - 204 in all…
*make a list of Europe’s most impressive, historic or exciting bridges - and visit them…
*plan a battlefield peregrination…
*visit the birthplaces of 10 of my favourite composers…
*visit 5 places where some of my favourite films were shot…
*go and see a few more Leaning Towers, including the one at Niles, Illinois…

Then the Florence train arrived.


Continental trains are not the same as ours. They are usually (but by no means always) more comfortable, more punctual - and faster. Contrary to popular belief, though, they are generally not cheaper than English trains. Because of the cursed system whereby what you pay for your seat depends on when you book it - now universal throughout the countries I visited - I think that our prices and theirs balance out.

Well, almost.

The big differences lie, I think, in what you get for your money; all those small things which, when taken together, make the experience of travelling by train in continental Europe vary so much from our day-to-day journeys at home.

Electronic seat reservations, for example, have been in use over there for a decade or more. Each reservable seat has a small electronic ‘window‘ attached to it. This tells you if the seat is reserved, and if it is, from where to where. In England, most trains still appear to use a system that could easily have been invented by George Stephenson himself; flimsy bits of paper or card are slotted into the backs of seats - so that they can easily be removed by anyone so inclined.

On German Inter City Express (ICE) trains, every passenger is given a specially-printed itinerary for the journey. It gives you the train’s full timing, tells you about all intermediate stations and any connexions you can make there.

Throughout the continent, double-decker trains are now very common. I’m still juvenile enough to find them terrifically exciting. Being rushed through undulating French countryside 15 feet up on the top deck of a TGV doesn’t half get my ageing adrenaline flowing.

The fact that you’re sitting in comparative comfort helps, of course. Continental trains seem to be roomier, although I still can’t decide whether this is reality or an illusion resulting from their design. Certainly, when I returned to England and caught my final train to Newcastle from London, it felt overcrowded even though it wasn’t full by any means. I suppose it must be something to do with the way the seats are placed.

Train announcements, too, are of a different order. In Germany, they don’t just tell you the name of the station you’re approaching but also which side of the train the platform will be on.

And in Germany and Italy, train announcements are always in at least two languages, one of which is always English. (Incredibly, on the train between Munich and Verona, four languages were used: German, Italian, French and English.) Station signage too is always bilingual.

This is extraordinarily helpful, of course, and makes our train system at home seem positively unfriendly and unwelcoming. In an age of international travel - more and more of it by eco-friendly train - it’s unbelievable that our trains here at home still make the contemptuous and arrogant assumption that everyone on board speaks perfect English and can understand it even when it’s spoken in a heavy Geordie or Yorkshire accent.

Every country’s trains have their own idiosyncrasies, of course. English trains have by far the most colourful liveries, I think. Swiss railways are engineered to be able to climb like mountain goats amongst the Alps. French trains serve the best snack-bar food (although German trains come a close second). Belgian and Dutch trains seem to be the most frequent; they seem to be criss-crossing their respective countries endlessly, day and night.

As for You Italians….

The one single fact that everyone seems to know about Italian trains is that Mussolini made them run on time. Naturally, this is very far from being the case. The Italian railway system’s refurbishment had been substantially completed before Mussolini came to power.

What he did do, however, is instigate the rebuilding of virtually all of the country’s mainline stations. And what an amazing bunch they are, too; strident monuments to the prevailing, and rather severe, art deco style of the times (the 1930s). Flights of steps leading up to rigidly pillared porticos, vast concourses (often with mosaics around the upper walls), huge windows and characteristic 1930s lettering on all the original signs and notices. And all faced with polished marble.

It seems that part of Mussolini’s mission, of which many Italians still approve, was to rid Italy of its ‘stuck-in-the-Dark-Ages’ tweeness. And, with his station-building programme, he almost succeeded.

The ones I used made up an awesome collection of monumental architecture, notwithstanding their faintly fascist overtones. As works of art, I loved them. They were splendid places to wait, to arrive at and to depart from.

And I was just about to arrive in Florence again.


It was mid-afternoon on Monday, and it was time I turned my attention to present-buying.

I am the first to admit that, unlike many people I know, I do not have any kind of flair for buying gifts for people. Birthdays, Christmas, holiday souvenirs - I can usually be relied on to buy something that’s not necessarily ‘wrong’, just hopelessly inappropriate and/or inadequate.

On my first rip abroad - on a school trip to Germany when I was 16 - I brought back a clothes-brush for my mother.

I’m not sure what this infacility says about me and, to be honest, I’d rather not think about it. All I knew, standing on the steps of Santa Maria Novella station in Florence, was that, this time, I would make amends.

When I'd asked Massimo and Stefano about this, they'd made a couple of suggestions which I now decided to follow up. In doing so, I stepped straight out of the 21st century into the heady days of Florence’s Renaissance heyday and into the ancient arts and crafts of Tuscany.
Just five minutes’ walk from the station is one of the city’s hidden treasures; a place you need someone like Massimo and Stefano to tell you about. It’s called the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, and it’s one of the oldest perfumeries in the world. They’ve been concocting beautiful aromas and fragrances here since the 15th century; it’s a palace of perfume. It’s breathtaking - literally.

An ordinary-looking street door leads to a long, statue-lined corridor, up a few steps and into the grand parlour. The photographs don’t really do it justice; no photograph ever could. This - and the two other rooms beyond - stop you in your tracks. Marble-tiled floors, ancient glass-fronted display cabinets 12 feet high, baroque painted ceilings. I spent half an hour just taking pictures and then felt compelled to make a small purchase, as you do.
I bought a bottle of aqua colonia - eau-de-cologne. It would have been more sensible, of course, to have bought eau-de-Cologne in Cologne instead of in Florence. I’d been to Cologne, after all, and hadn’t bought any there. So what my purchase amounted to was two missed opportunities.

See what I mean about present-buying?

It was getting seriously cloudy as I walked from the perfumery, through the Piazza del Duomo and along a typically narrow Florentine alleyway towards my next port of call: Sbigoli Terrecotte.
This little terracotta kiln and workshop has been here since 1850 - and it was ‘the business’, as they say. The small shop’s walls were covered with Tuscan terracotta whose colours were so hot and vibrant that I needed a drink of water to cool down. Every plate, saucer, coffee-cup and bowl was different. The designs - some pictorial, some semi-abstract - were all traditionally Tuscan. The colours were deep and vivid. I knew at once that, brought home as souvenirs, any of them would bring the brightest Italian sunshine into the dullest English midwinter.

I spent a wonderful half hour with owners Antonella and Valentino, who showed me the kiln in the back workshop, and how they derive their designs, all of which are hand-painted onto the ceramics.

As I walked back to my B&B, two things happened.

Firstly, I realised I was more typically English than I’d been willing to admit heretofore. I’d spent the entire time in the shop apologising for my lack of Italian - in English.

And secondly - it started to rain. At first lightly but, within a few seconds, very heavily indeed.

I was halfway home when the storm really started. The rain came down in sheets so thick that visibility was severely impaired. It bounced hard and high of the streets and pavements. Repeated flashes of lightning lit up the darkling sky and the thunder, cracking and roaring directly overhead, was deafening.

I was soaked to the skin in seconds and, I’m not entirely ashamed to say, not a little afraid. I hadn’t experienced a storm like this in years and - according to Massimo later - neither had Florence. Drains overflowed and traffic lights cut out.

For shelter, I dipped into a small flower shop and bought a cactus (of all things). But the transaction didn’t take as long as I’d hoped, despite my attempts to engage the shopkeeper in a conversation about the storm, and by the time I arrived at the flat I must have looked like a Titanic survivor who’d been swimming since 1912.

I gave the wretched, waterlogged cactus to Massimo, who smiled drily (how else?), told me that he was cooking a special Tuscan evening meal for me, gave me a glass of wine and told me to strip off my wet clothes.

At last, I thought. My hangover has finally dissipated. My luck has changed.

'Did you know,' I said 'that not only is Pisa not the only place with a Leaning Tower - it’s also not the only place with a Leaning Tower of Pisa.'

Not all those who wander are lost....

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com


In this blogposting…
*A Word To The Wise: Part Two
*Desert Island Discs
Now - on with the motley…

...took place as planned on Thursday 16 September. It started out in the elegant surroundings of the Cafe Teatro in the Theatre Royal but, mostly because of the clemency of the late summer weather, it quickly moved outside to the even more elegant surroundings of the same cafe’s outside tables in Grey Street.

In any case, being in a hushed and cultured environment doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the kind of raucous misbehaviour to which AGMs tend to be inclined, so we were probably better off outside anyway.

It was a modest, but hugely enjoyable, turnout. Hildie, Vivienne, Linda and me were joined by our Honorary President, the doughty Ada and together, we toasted our (by now) long absent friends. We hope you can join in again - or for the first time - soon.

It was a lovely AGM. I thoroughly enjoyed myself as usual and think that there should be another one after the usual gap for respite and recuperation. AGM XX will therefore take place sometime in mid-October. Any venue suggestions would be gratefully received, as usual.

And my thanks, once again, to the happy bunch who turned up on Thursday. And to Vivienne, whose camera took the pictures above. You can see a couple more on murphyanddorastravels>blogspot.com.

Following the list of common-sense axioms, aphorisms and home-truths from montaguedave in posting 219, here are some more, this time sent to me by Kev, whom the Fates preserve.

*A clean desk is a sign of a cluttered desk drawer.
*Anything worth taking seriously is worth making fun of. (I love that one.)
*Better to understand a little than to misunderstand a lot. (I bear that one in mind when I’m trying to understand what the devil all those French people are trying to tell me.)
*To sit alone with my conscience will be judgement enough for me. (That one almost sounds Biblical.)
*An escalator never breaks . . . it only becomes stairs
*When you get older, lack of pep is often mistaken for patience.
*The secret of success is to know something nobody else knows. (The more you think about that one, the truer it gets.)
*If you're driving no faster than the speed limit, you're in the way.
*It's not an optical illusion. It just looks like one. (That’s almost metaphysical.)
*Today is the last day of your life, so far. (Another Biblical warning.)
*No man really becomes a fool until he stops asking questions. (That could easily be a truckshunter motto or rallying cry.)
*People never grow up; they just learn how to act in public. (So could that.)
*One half of the world will never understand the other half and it doesn't matter which half you're in.
*The minute a man is convinced that he is interesting, he isn't.

Thanks, Kev. More contributions, please.

In a Comment to posting 213, montaguedave suggested that we each compile our own list of ‘desert island discs’ - the eight records we’d want with us if we were ever to be stranded on some remote, far-flung lump of rock with nothing to distract us except a gramophone.

(I’ve just realised how old that makes me sound. Discs? A ‘gramophone’? I can’t help it, though. I still call the hi-fi stereo thingy in the corner a ‘gramophone’. And after all, despite MP3s and iPods, the ‘disc’ hasn’t withered completely; ‘CD’ stands for ‘Compact Disc’ and we still talk of DJs - disc-jockeys. There now. I feel better for that bit of sophistry.

Nevertheless, I can foresee a time in the not-too-distant future, when Radio 4 may have to change the name of its long-running programme to Desert Island Downloads.

To business…)

The first truckshunter to volunteer was Linda. To recap, her choices are given here.

*Putting On The Style - Lonnie Donegan
*The Lonely Goatherd - Julie Andrews
*Positively 4th Street - Bob Dylan
*Let It Be - The Beatles
*Because You're Mine - Mario Lanza
*Rhiannon - Fleetwood Mac
*God Only Knows - The Beach Boys ('the greatest love song ever written' says Linda)
*Fields Of Gold - Sting

It’s a fascinating and varied list, with some surprising juxtapositions, and I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from it.

On the radio programme, each guest is asked to tell us why they’ve chosen the music on their list, and that’s what’s missing in this exercise. So...Linda...why these eight tracks in particular?

(Incidentally...although it’s not my job to be contentious, I definitely don’t agree that God Only Knows is ‘the greatest love song ever written’. What do other truckshunters think? Which song would you nominate?)

So Linda, please get in touch and tell us what it is about these songs that make them indispensable. (If you respond via email, I’ll copy your response into a blogposting.)

And that request also applies to montaguedave himself. His nominations are…

*Songbird - Eva Cassidy ('soooo beautiful')
*In My Mind I'm Going To Carolina - Alison Krauss ('tears to the eye')
*Its Magic - Doris Day
*There’s A Man Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis - Kirsty MacColl
*I Was Born To Love You - Freddie Mercury
*War - Edwin Starr
*Beat It - Michael Jackson
*Gimme Hope Jo'Anna - Eddy Grant

Reading these lists is infuriating, isn’t it? If they make you want to argue the toss about individual songs (as I just did above) or compile your own list to be thrown to the lions, please get in touch. I’d love to see what you come up with.

As for me...well, I agree with Linda. It’s maddeningly difficult to whittle down a life-time love of music to just eight items - which is where the fun of the idea lies, I guess. I’ve already drawn up four lists, without any of which I would surely wither and die on Robinson Island. If only the programme allowed you to take 500 or so.

I promise, though, that I will come up with a list of my eight records. It may just take longer than I thought, that's all!

(It might even be fun - if a little bit tricky - to compile lists of each other's choices. Now there's a challenge!)

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com

The only picture from the Grand Tour that actually has me on it...



‘You English!’

There was more than a slight touch of scorn about the way Saro said this that put me on the defensive somewhat. There was an edge to both his tone and his deprecatory expression which suggested that there was something he wanted to get off his substantial Italian chest.

‘You English!’

I felt a little wrong-footed. Until that very moment, I’d been happily sipping a smooth, but mysteriously strong, Italian coffee at a wholly innocent-looking street cafe overlooking the ‘Field of Miracles’ while Saro had been giving me a schoolboy-style potted history and running commentary of its sights. The Baptistry, the Duomo, the ancient cemetery and - of course - the Leaning Tower. I’d been full of admiration, awe and wonder, as anyone would be (and many millions have been before me) at my first experience of these legendary monuments.

‘You English! It’s so typical of you that you call it Pisa!’

‘Er...I call it Pisa because that’s what it’s called’.

I still had no idea why he had launched what was obviously building up into a salvo of unfriendly fire against me and my apparently hapless compatriots. After all, I concluded, it wasn’t my fault if Pisa had another name of which I was unaware.

‘No, you don’t understand’, he said (and he was absolutely correct about that).

‘So why don’t you explain?’

As soon as I’d said this, I regretted it. I’d only met Saro a matter of minutes ago, but already I knew that he was the kind of fellow who spoke his mind. And he spoke it in almost perfect English too, thus gaining a double advantage over me.

‘The name of this city only has four letters’, he said. ‘P, I, S and A.’

I couldn’t disagree with him there, and bravely said so.

‘And you English mispronounce three of them. Every time you say 'Pisa', you are 75% wrong.’

‘What’s wrong with calling it Pisa?’ I asked. Naturally, I was pronouncing it peezuh.

‘The ‘ee’ sound is too long,’ he said. ‘It’s not like the ee in ‘cheese’; it’s like the ee in ‘peek’’.

I practised this.

‘The ‘s’ is an ‘s’ and not a ‘z’’. I practised this too.

‘And make the ‘a’ a good Italian ‘a’, not a wet English ‘uh’’.

Suddenly, the You English way of pronouncing Pisa really did sound flaccid. Peezuh. Stiffen it by making it rhyme with Lisa (an Italian name) and you’re just about there.

So now you know. For centuries, You Italians have been silently seething because You English have been slovenly about the name of the city I was in that Sunday morning.

So I never want to hear peezuh again. We mustn’t upset You Italians, after all.


To be honest, most of Pisa - including the city centre - is a bit ordinary, like a kind of Italian Wolverhampton. If it wasn’t for the Field of Miracles, no-one at all would visit Pisa. That, however, is a very big if it wasn’t, because the Field of Miracles hosts what is arguably Italy’s Greatest Hit - the Leaning Tower.

It’s truly an astonishing structure, both aesthetically and historically. It’s 191ft high, weighs 16,200 ‘short tons’ (what are ‘short tons’?), has 296 steps to the top and leans a sublime, if not totally ridiculous, 13ft from the vertical.

Here is my annotated version of what Wikipedia says about it...

Construction of the tower occurred in three stages across 177 years. Work on the first floor of the white marble campanile began on August 8, 1173 (*before Durham Cathedral was finished) during a period of military success and prosperity. (*At the time, Pisa was actually a coastal city with one of Europe’s busiest ports; the sea is now about 6 miles away.)

This first floor is a blind arcade articulated by engaged columns with classical Corinthian capitals. (*
I’m not going to annotate that bit because I don’t really understand it myself.)

The tower began to sink after construction had progressed to the third floor in 1178. This was due to a mere three-metre foundation, set in weak, unstable subsoil, a design that was flawed from the beginning. (
*As this was only five years after construction began, I can’t help wondering if the architect/mason responsible for such ludicrously shallow foundations was still around; and, if he was, how long for?)

Construction was subsequently halted for almost a century. This allowed time for the underlying soil to settle. Otherwise, the tower would almost certainly have toppled.

In 1198 clocks were temporarily installed on the third floor of the unfinished construction. (
*That’s because the Tower wasn’t intended as pure ornamentation; it’s a campanile, or bell-tower. I guess it must have seemed like a good idea to install some kind of time-keeping device in it to justify its continuing, if unstable, existence.)

In 1272 construction resumed. In an effort to compensate for the tilt, the engineers built upper floors with one side taller than the other. Because of this, the tower is actually curved. (*
I didn’t know that. Did you?) Construction was halted again in 1284.

The seventh floor was completed in 1319. The bell-chamber was finally added in 1372. (
*So the Tower has been a Leaning Tower for the best part of 700 years. I have to admit that, when Saro told me this, my respect for it increased dramatically. The anonymous buffoon who miscalculated the foundations did, it’s true, get it all wrong - but he got it gloriously all wrong.)

There are seven bells, one for each note of the musical major scale. (*
I didn’t know that, either.) The largest one was installed in 1655.

After a phase (1990–2001) of structural strengthening, the tower is currently undergoing gradual surface restoration, in order to repair visual damage, mostly corrosion and blackening. These are particularly pronounced due to the tower's age and its exposure to wind and rain.

There was no wind or rain that Sunday morning, though, and - once Saro had calmed down - I was able to relax and watch my fellow-tourists go about their business in the gentle Italian Spring sunshine, for such it was.

When people of a certain age listen to Rossini’s William Tell overture - a piece of superbly-crafted, intricately-orchestrated and dramatic classical music - they can’t help thinking of the Lone Ranger. They just can't help themselves.

The Field of Miracles is like that. You sit at your cafe table knowing that you should be admiring the bulbous majesty of the Baptistry and the soaring lines and intricate design of the Duomo. But instead, you just can’t take your eyes off the wretched hordes of people taking those inevitable ‘forced perspective’ shots of the Leaning Tower - the ones where somebody adopts a pose to make it look as if they’re holding it up, or pushing it over.

The urge to take such a photo seems to be irresistible and ensnares tourists of every hue, including a particularly boisterous group of Italian pensioners (although Saro insisted, rather defensively, that they were Swiss). Eventually, I weakened and, realising that it was all good, clean, harmless fun, I offered a few of them the chance to be in their own photographs by taking their pictures myself.

If you don’t get the hands in exactly the right position, you naturally make the photographee look daft; the picture is a complete failure. I thoroughly enjoyed myself trying to position Swiss/Italian pensioners so that the desired effect was achieved. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to ask for copies. The urge to laugh out loud is difficult to resist even now.

Interestingly, as my Grand Tour progressed, my offers to take photographs for people, and their reactions to my offers, became a kind of subtle measure of the place I happened to be in. You’ve already met Steffa and Gyorg (amongst several others) in the Grand Place in Brussels. In Cologne, it was a group of students who were delighted to have got good results in their exams; I invited them to jump up in the air (as students have to do for British newspapers) and the resulting picture was a joy. Again, I’m sorry to say that I didn’t ask them to forward me a copy.

The only place on my entire Grand Tour where all my offers to take photographs for people were turned down was Venice. At first, I thought this may have been because I had the look of an Anglo-Saxon white-slaver or drug dealer about me that day. On reflection, though, I think the reason lay in the city itself. You don’t have to be in Venice for very long to realise that your chances of being fleeced, scammed, or even robbed, are quite high - or seem to be.

Sadly, I too would have hesitated before handing my camera over to a total stranger in St Mark's Square, no matter how kindly the offer was made.

When I’d finished my duties as Pisa’s photographer-in-waiting, and had wandered round the incredible structures on the Field of Miracles, Saro took me by surprise by inviting me back to his home town ‘to see what a real working Italian town’ was like. I’m not vain enough to imagine that he had any other motive.

We had a final cup of coffee so that I could take one last look at what is, without any doubt at all, one of the world’s most iconic architectural sites. I’ll probably be unable to visit Pisa again and my life will be a little poorer for it.

The ‘real, working Italian town’ that Saro wanted to take me to was Chiavari. What I hadn’t realised was that it was all of 70 miles away, up the coast in Liguria, not far from Genoa. Saro (whom I’d arranged to meet in Pisa via a gay travellers’ website) had driven all the way down from Chiavari to be my host for the day. Who was I to turn down such a gracefully offered invitation?

Besides - and despite his playful obsession about the pronunciation of Pisa - I liked him very much. He had a wide, sunny and sexy smile, a glorious beard and dark, flashing eyes…

On the long car-journey back to Chiavari, through the lush coastal countryside of northern Tuscany and Liguria, I found myself looking at him and smiling (as you do). He looked like the kind of rough-hewn, hairy hero - with an earthy name like Tom or Sam - who turns up in a Mills and Boon novel to save the heroine from the clutches of a slightly-built, clean-shaven, devious cad called Charles or even Peregrine. Or so I’m led to believe.

For all his description of Chiavari as ‘ordinary‘ and ‘nothing special’, it was a delightful little town. It clung precariously to a narrow coastal strip of southern Liguria on what is known by geologists as a ‘raised beach’; in distant geological time, the land tipped backwards from the sea and left a former beach as dry land. So tiny Chiavari has its back to the cliffs and its face to the sea.

It’s streets were lined with ancient arcades; at its centre lay a mediaeval fortress-prison and the large parish church. Building land was so scarce that the town park had to be laid out up the side of the cliffs behind the main square. It’s the only vertical public park I’ve ever seen.

There was a wonderful country market in one of the narrow lanes leading off from the town square; it stayed open until late and I still have a very strong sense of its heady aromas and tastes. The town made no concessions to tourists at all, on the very sound basis that it doesn’t get very many. Since I had spent the last few days in places which tend to do little else - Verona, Venice, Florence, Pisa - this made an invigorating and eye-opening change. It was exactly the ‘comma’ that my Grand Tour needed. It was like coming up for air.

That evening, we ate at one of Chiavari’s trattoria - the little local cafes that pop up everywhere along the streets of every Italian town. It was small, popular and packed to the rafters. Everyone had their favourites on the menu, the tables were packed tightly together, the service was friendly and brisk and the talk all around us was happy, loud and incessant. I loved every single second of it, even though I can’t remember anything about what I had to eat.

Saro’s little house stood on the bank of the river, which ran past his front garden. As we sat on the garden wall sharing a late-night bottle of wine, I looked out over the river to the twinkling lights and buildings just a few feet away on the other side.

‘Chiavari is such a nice place, Saro. Thankyou for bringing me here.’

‘That’s not Chiavari over there’, he said. ‘That’s Lavagna. It’s awful’

Not all those who wander are lost….


Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com
(l to r) Jenny, me, Chris Heaps, Matthew Braid (Chris' mate), Mark Braid (Matthew's dad), Jenny's husband Steve (whom she describes as 'an old codger')

In this blogposting…
*Jenny: An Update
*A Word To The Wise
Now, cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war…

.….will take place at 1100 on Thursday 16 September at the cafe inside the Theatre Royal in Newcastle.

Bring a flower.

As always, a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

In blogposting 214 I told you about my meeting with the redoubtable Jenny, up in the clouds at Hartside Top. I also asked her to get in touch with the names of the people in the photo I used, and tell me the name of the charity that was involved in the escapade.

Well, she has got in touch (thankyou Jenny) - which is why I’ve used the photo again, but this time with a caption.

There were, apparently, more photos and details in the Evening Chronicle of 26 August but I’ve searched their website until my mouse-fingers ached and can find no trace. If you have better luck, get in touch.

The charity that Chris ran for is called Papyrus; it’s active in trying to investigate and prevent suicide, especially amongst young people. It’s a worryingly worthy cause and you can donate at www.justgiving.com/c2crun

And finally…

I think I may have jumped the gun by saying that Chris was Jenny’s future son-in-law. Er...my apologies.

A big thankyou to ‘montaguedave’ for sending me this lovely list of aphorisms, axioms and just plain ‘home truths’.

*My husband and I divorced over religious differences. - - - He thought he was God and I didn't.
*I don't suffer from insanity; - - - I enjoy every minute of it.
*Some people are alive only because - - - it's illegal to kill them.
*Don't take life too seriously; - - - no one gets out alive.
*You're just jealous because the voices only talk to me.
*Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder.
*I'm not a complete idiot - - - Some parts are just missing.
*Out of my mind. - - - Back in five minutes.
*God must love stupid people; - - - He made so many.
*The gene pool could use a little chlorine.
*Consciousness: - - - That annoying time between naps.
*Ever stop to think, - - - and forget to start again?
*Being 'over the hill' is much better than being under it!
*Procrastinate Now!
*A hangover is the wrath of grapes.
*He who dies with the most toys is - - - nonetheless DEAD.
*A picture is worth a thousand words, but it uses up three thousand times the memory.
*The trouble with life is there's no background music...
*I smile because I don't know what the hell is going on.


Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com

I like 'forced perspective' photographs like these. I can't help it. I just do.

In this blogposting…
*Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know
*Howick Hall
*This Blog
*Desert Island Discs
And now...Play up! Play up! And play the game!…

….will take place at 1100 on this upcoming Thursday 16 September at the cafe inside the Theatre Royal in Newcastle. If it’s too posh or too expensive, we’ll go somewhere else. To a Greggs, perhaps.

In any case, a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

*Each of us tells an average of 657 lies a year (although how anyone can rely on the truth of this assertion, judging by the methods that must have been used to gather the information, is anybody’s guess).
*The 150-year-old chestnut tree in the garden of Anne Frank’s House in Amsterdam has been felled by a storm.
*The University of Durham is going to offer a Harry Potter course as part of its Education Degree.
*At current rates, the pay of female managers will equal the pay of male managers in 57 years.
*The cost of school uniforms has halved in the past six years.
*Two thirds of us don’t know who lives next door.
*The average woman spends 2.5 years of her life cooking; the average man, 1.4.
*Any Rubik’s Cube formation can be solved in 20 moves.
*Gordon Brown’s latest book has sold less than 40 copies in four months.

Thumbs up to the sainted Greggs, without which my life, for one, would be infinitely poorer. They’ve just posted record profits. And this from a business which started in 1930s Northumberland, where John Gregg would deliver yeast, bread and eggs to people’s houses.

He and a partner bought their first shop in Gosforth High Street in 1951. They now have over 1,400 of them - more than McDonald’s.

For the record, Greggs’ best-sellers are….
*Savoury: the sausage roll - over 133m sold each year…
*Sandwich: chargrill chicken oval bite - 5.5m sold each year…
*Sweet: jam doughnut - 23m sold each year
*Bread: soft white roll - 9.6m sold each year…

(Quite interesting titbit: The name of the Norwegian composer Grieg - he of the Piano Concerto and Peer Gynt - is a Scandinavian version of Gregg; his grandparents were Scottish.)

Another local thumbs-up, this time for Howick Hall Gardens in Northumberland. I think all I need to do is quote from a review I read recently.

‘In the garden, there are good, mature trees and an extensive network of paths through 65 acres of grounds. So what makes this place so extraordinary? These are trees grown from seed that has been gathered from far-flung corners of the world, from Nepal to China to Korea. Since the 1980s, Howick has become the largest private collection of wild trees in Britain…

Howick is quiet, subtle, slow and beautiful. In a world where our horizon is, at best, centred on our own lifespan, and gratification comes in pre-packaged chunks, this is the prefect, refreshing antidote. Along with a great gulp of fresh air off the North Sea.’

I’ve been to Howick Hall Gardens twice - both times in connexion with my work at the BBC. The first was to record a walk through the astonishing, and locally very well-known, display of snowdrops in late winter. The second was to record a light-hearted piece about the twelve days of Christmas: the pear tree was at Howick! (Though not, I’m sorry to say, the partridge.)

If you’ve never been, give it a go. Autumn is a spectacular time of year and the gardens at Howick show it at its best. If you’re really brave, you can take the woodland walk that leads you for a mile, all the way down to the coast,


Attentive readers will have noted that Linda Grierson has finally worked out how to leave a comment in the Comments box of a blogposting - see posting 213.

So Linda...for the benefit of the many people who’ve emailed me to say they can’t figure out how to do it...How do you do it?

A great idea. Linda’s already nominated hers. What are yours?

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com
Vladimir Ladyzhenskiy - last year


In this blogposting...
*Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know About The Weather
*In Memoriam
*I Never Knew There Was A Word For It
Now - onward and upward...

...will take place at 1100 on Thursday 16 September. Elsewhere, I’ve suggested we might hook up at the Laing or the Theatre Royal, but if you have any more exotic venues in mind, please get in touch.

A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

While I was in the Lake District recently, I heard the oft-quoted axiom about the weather there: if you don’t like it, wait five minutes or drive five miles. I decided to put the theory to the test when it began to pour with rain in Keswick. We drove south and, by the time we’d reached Grasmere, the sun was beating down and we felt very silly indeed in our sou'westers and galoshes.

Later that same afternoon, we experienced a phenomenon which, judging by Serge’s reaction, is unheard-of in France: we were drenched by a downpour that seemed to be coming from a clear, cloudless, sky.

Under these circumstances, ‘changeable’ seems to me to be a wholly inadequate way of describing our weather. I prefer to think of it as a kind of mixture of ‘mischievous’ and ‘contrary’. Serge’s utter bafflement at our weather’s sheer unpredictability, and his amazement that we manage to cope with it - and even to quite like it, as I do - has inspired me to dig around a little for weather-related facts and incidents appropriate to this time of year.

This is what I’ve come up with….

*The average minimum temperature on 9 September is 10.1C; the average maximum is 18.4C (although it reached an all-time high, for this date, of 32.2C at Geldeston in Norfolk in 1898).

*A mighty gale struck Britain on 9 September 1658. While it was raging, a Lincolnshire schoolboy amused himself by trying to calculate its force. First, he jumped with the wind, then directly against it. After measuring the length of each leap, and comparing it with the distance he could jump in perfectly still weather, he rated the force of the storm in feet. He later said that it was one of his first-ever scientific experiments. His name was Isaac Newton.

*In an average year, the first sloes can be picked on 9 September, although country lore dictates that you should wait until the first frosts (which occur, on average, on 25 October) if you want to make good sloe gin. And who doesn't?

*On 11 September 1800 William Pitt’s government banned the distillation of spirits and the powdering of wigs with flour. They did this because it had rained continuously since 19 August and, after drought in July and severe hailstorms in early August, the harvest was completely ruined.

There were Bread Riots in the streets and the military were called out.

The famine soon had international consequences. Most of Britain’s imported grain came from the Baltic states, which Tsar Nicholas of Russia promptly blockaded. In the following Spring, Vice-Admiral Nelson was sent to break the blockade and did so at the Battle of Copenhagen, having famously put his telescope to his blind eye.

And all this because of a wet summer….

*In 1919, autumn shrank to just nine days. At Raunds, in Northamptonshire, 11 September was the hottest day of the year, at 32.2C. On 21 September, snow fell in Wales, Scotland and northern England

From The Guardian, 8 August…

The annual sauna world championship in Finland has been called off after a Russian man died after spending six minutes enduring a temperature of 110C.

Vladimir Ladyzhenskiy was pronounced dead after being dragged from the sauna by judges. Police were investigating the cause of death.

Another competitor, Timo Kaukonen from Finland, was also pulled out and is being treated in hospital for burns. Officials said the competition will not run again.

This was the 12th world sauna championships, where competitors try to outlast others in the heat and steam. The event has been held in Heinola, 86 miles north-east of Helsinki, since 1999.
Ladyzhenskiy and Kaukonen had made it through to the final ahead of more than 130 other participants, but six minutes into the contest, judges noticed something was wrong with the Russian, and dragged both competitors from the sauna.

Both middle-aged men were seen to have severe burns on their bodies and were given first aid after they collapsed.

Ossi Arvela, head of the championships, said the event had been immediately suspended following the incident, and confirmed police were investigating.

"All the rules were followed and enough first aid personnel were in place," Arvela said in a statement, adding that all the competitors had been required to present a doctor's certificate before taking part.

Saija Jäppinen, cultural secretary at Heinola City Council, later announced the end of the event. "After this incident we decided that this game is over and done," she said.

Rules in the competition require the sauna to be heated to 110 C (230 F). Water is added to the stove every 30 seconds and the last person to remain in the sauna wins.

Competitors must verify their condition by giving a thumbs up to judges when asked, and be able to leave the sauna unaided.

Kaukonen is a five-time winner of the event and reigning champion, while Ladyzhenskiy is believed to have come third in last year's contest.

Every single one of them are candidates for the Darwin Awards, don’t you think?

A Dutchman once told me that they have a word meaning ‘to walk along the clifftops in a high wind’. I’ve never found out what that word is, but a lovely book called I Never Knew There Was A Word For It lists many words and expressions in foreign languages for which there is no one-word English translation. Such as….

*gurfa (Arabic) - the amount of water scooped up in one hand
*kontal-kontil (Malay) - the way long ear-rings swing when you walk
*ho’oponopono (Hawaiian) - solving a problem by talking it out
*cotisuelto (Caribbean Spanish) - a man who wears his shirt-tail outside his trousers
*pesamenteiro (Portuguese) - someone who joins a funeral in order to partake of the refreshments afterwards
*faire une queue de poisson (French) - to overtake then cut in close in front of a car (‘to do a fishtail’)
*gattara (Italian) - a woman who devotes herself to stray cats
*resfeber (Swedish) - to be jittery before a journey

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Sanctuary! Sanctuary!


In this blogposting…
*Life in France: The Devil’s Tongue
Now - excelsior!


Oh dear me. Or Oh la vache!, as the French say.

I know I’ve whinged about this before but….

Three Frenchmen and an Englishman go into a French bar. (This is not a joke.) The three Frenchmen engage in animated conversation - naturally - while the Englishman tries to pick up whatever it is they are talking about. The little French he knows suggests that their conversation is either about this year’s salad crop, the performance of the French football team, the new Citroen DS3, the physical attributes of Jane Birkin or a fishing expedition they all went on seven years ago.

In short, the unfortunate Englishman, mishearing and misunderstanding the words, phrases, gestures, shrugs and facial expressions which make up this diabolical system of communication can take little or no part in the hale badinage he is so desperately trying to make sense of.

French is truly the Devil’s Tongue.

Listening to ordinary people speaking ordinary French can be soul-destroying, specially if you’ve been trying to grapple with its deviousness for several months like I have. Its constructions, idioms, fluid emphases, sinuous nasalisations - they all combine to give an earnest learner like me a cross between a headache and nausea. You can get seriously sea-sick listening - and trying to interpret - its seductive and meaningless lilts.

I’ve spent several sleepless nights trying to figure out what it is about French that makes it the Devil’s Tongue. As far as I’m concerned, there are two main culprits.

Firstly, its construction.

French is analytical. It doesn’t like long, complicated concepts strung together; it prefers them to be laid out (as it thinks) simply. Thus ‘Michel’s sister’s vegetable garden’ would need to be, and is, ‘the garden of vegetables of the sister of Michel’. Michel’s sister could grow a crop of potatoes in the time it takes to say that.

This is all because, uniquely amongst European languages, French does not allow nouns to be used as adjectives. Thus ‘peanut butter sandwich’ is unthinkable, as is ‘computer desk’, ‘cigarette holder’, ‘bus stop’, ‘matchbox’, ‘baby-sit’ or ‘Christmas card’.

Whereas English is happy with railway, German has Eisenbahn and Italian has ferrovia - all of which mean more-or-less the same thing - French insists on chemin-de-fer, ‘way of iron’. ‘Sea-sick’, above, is another example. Mer-mal would be too easy; it has to be ‘mal-de-mer’.

This obsessive need to break ideas and concepts down into their constituent parts can sometimes lead the Devil’s Tongue into the most convoluted linguistic cul-de-sacs. The worst I’ve found so far is the French way of saying ‘broadband’; transmission a haut debit.

The other problem - and it’s landed me in trouble several times - is false friends; words which look much the same as English words - sometimes exactly the same - but which mean something different. Occasionally, their meanings are inexplicably different from their English counterparts, as this list shows….

Car does not mean ‘car’ - it means ‘coach’.
Location does not mean ‘location’ - it means ‘rented property’.
Malice doesn’t mean ‘malice’ - it means ‘mischief’.
Agenda doesn’t mean ‘agenda’ - it means ‘diary’.
Manifestation does not mean ‘manifestation’ - it means ‘demonstration’ or ‘protest march’.
Occasion doesn’t mean ‘occasion’ - it means ‘second-hand’.
Personne doesn’t mean ‘person’ - it means ‘nobody’.
Penguin doesn’t mean ‘penguin’ - it means ‘auk’.
Camera only means ‘camera’ if you’re talking about tv or movie cameras; an ordinary household camera is an appareil-photo - how cumbersome is that!

And while I’m in full flow…

Why is there no French word for pie?
Why do the French expressions for 'straight ahead' and 'to the right' sound almost exactly the same? (Tout droit, a droite.)
Why are the words for 'above' and 'below' virtually indistinguishable? (En dessus, au dessous.)

You’re probably wondering why I bother.

Well, I guess the answer is a permutation of... the wonderfully graceful and mellifluous sound of French….the obvious pride its speakers take in speaking it properly and ‘musically’….the stout and shameless way they defend against any corruption of their language….and the warm-hearted and knowing kindness they show to its hopelessly entangled lovers and admirers.

Late in the evening, back in the that bar I mentioned earlier, I remarked that it was getting late. One of the Frenchmen replied cela ne faire rien - loosely ‘that makes no difference’. It reminded me of how close our two nations really were and still are. My Nana, and a great many other people, habitually used the garbled phrase san fairy anne.

How, I wonder, did that particular phrase manage to find its way across La Manche…..?

...will take place on at 1100 on Thursday 16 September. Perhaps we could try the cafe in the Laing? Or the Theatre Royal? Or, if we want to be really ambitious, we could head for ‘Lickety Split’, an ice-cream parlour in Seaham, or Colman’s famed fish and chip shop in South Shields, both of which made it onto a recent Guardian list of the best places to eat at the British seaside. Well done them.

I promise not to go on and on and on about France, its people or its language, so a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

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