In this blogposting…
Now, cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war…

Our latest AGM took place as planned at Birkheads Nursery (and Secret Garden), near Sunniside. The hardy stalwarts in attendance were Linda, Vivienne, Hildie, Neville and yours truly.

In honour of the sunny - not to say laughter-laden - occasion, I think I can do no better than present to you the portraits you see above of each of the truckshunters who were there. What an impressive line-up of ageing reprobates!

It was a splendid occasion - and not just because of the awesome company we all kept. The day was perfection itself, and the venue was perhaps the biggest contributor to the success of the AGM. It wasn’t just the cafe’s outdoor terrace, either - lovely though it is. The view across the Secret Garden to the rolling West Durham countryside, with its fields and woodlands where once languished the regrettable eyesores resulting from the mining of coal, was simply lovely. There’s no other word for it.

In a way, it’s a shame that this corner of the north-east is so little known to outsiders. On the other hand, that means we have it all to ourselves. So, if you haven’t been down that way recently, take a look.

I know what you’re thinking. ZSOFI is an acronym: the Zoological Society of the Faroe Islands, perhaps, or the Zero Sustainability of Farming Initiative. (Many years ago, when I was in the Civil Service, I worked with the Further Adult Training Programme Implementation Group - FATPIG - whose chairman was Jenny Bacon.)

Zsofi, though, is thankfully not as esoteric as that. It is the Hungarian version of ‘Sophie’ and anyone who has attended one of the many AGMs we’ve held at Pret a Manger in the Town will know that Zsofi is the splendid young lass who sees to our every need. Always in high spirits, always cheerful and always attentive and happy to help.

Well, at least for the moment, we’ve seen the last of Zsofi. Today, she worked her last day at Pret a Manger before embarking on a new and very challenging life in Ghana, where she’s going to do her bit to make the world - or at least one corner of it - a happier and friendlier place.

It isn’t going to be easy, either. I don’t think we can even begin to imagine the difficulties and trials that lie ahead of her. Zsofi, though, appears to know exactly what she’s letting herself in for - and is relishing the prospect. After all, she has already uprooted herself from her native Hungary and settled successfully in England, where she found herself a job and has made many, many friends, us amongst them.

It’s always seemed to me that we are far too keen to demonise young people nowadays - to constrain them and stifle them so that they behave like dreary 40-year-olds, and to criticise them harshly and unfairly when they don’t.

Isn’t it wonderful that the spirit of adventure and excitement still thrives in the hearts of young lads and lasses like Zsofi, who still believe, despite all the odds, that they can make a difference to the lives of those much less fortunate than themselves; and that it’s not too late to make changes for the better in our unhappy world.

It was sad to say goodbye to her today. On a personal level, I will miss her very, very much. On the other hand, it was extraordinarily uplifting to see the obvious sparkle of excitement in her eyes and her wide smile of impatient enthusiasm. I wished her the very best of good fortune and happiness on all our behalves.

In your thoughts, please remember her as she embarks on the greatest challenge of her young life so far.

Ghana doesn’t know what’s about to hit it!

It’s gratifying to be asked so often how my friend Sue is. She made occasional, usually thought-provoking, contributions to The Nightshift which always generated an appreciative response.

I’m glad to say she’s alive and kicking in deepest, ruralest Herefordshire. To prove it, here are some jokes she sent me recently….

I said to the gym instructor ‘Can you teach me to do the splits?’
He said ‘How flexible are you’
I said ‘I can’t make Tuesdays’

I picked up a hitch-hiker. Well, I think you ought to when you hit one.

My grandfather was shrewd. People threw small, furry animals at him until he suffocated.

How many Spaniards does it take to change a light-bulb? Juan.

My mother is always taking photographs of me. She said ‘If you disappear, I want you to look good on the news’

If God hadn’t been in such a hurry to create the world in six days, he could have done something about nettles. And the French.

As a kid, I was made to walk the plank. We couldn’t afford a dog.

I like to annoy my Israeli flat-mate by giving him any post that’s just addressed to ‘The Occupier’

My brother recently asked me about the derivation and modern usage of the local dialect word kiff. We know it means ‘very good’ - my mother and grandmother used it frequently. My brother, though, seems to recollect it’s only being used negatively: ‘I’m not feeling kiff today’.

Is he right? And can you throw some light on the origins and usage of the word nowadays?

Thanks in advance for any help you can give us.

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com
Middlesbrough - hell on earth
In this blogposting…
*The Good Old Days
Tread softly…

Our next AGM will take place at 1100 this upcoming Wednesday 27 April at Birkheads Nursery, the road to which is just a couple of hundred yards south of the Tanfield Railway.

A splendid time is guaranteed for all but ONLY if you bring an idea for a ‘viral lie’ we can spread on the internet; see blogpostings, passim.

I hope we’ve all been good citizens and completed our census forms on time and accurately. To be honest, I thought it got a bit personal in one or two places and was sorely tempted to tell them I was a 19 year-old trainee chicken-sexer from Ogle. This in turn pressed the buttons marked ‘deranged’ on my febrile imagination and I decided that I could be a seismologist in Quakinghouses or a Bereavement Counsellor in Pity Me or a French Polisher in Shiney Row or a Prison Officer in Crook….I could go on.

But common sense - and the thought of a hefty fine - got the better of me. I told them I was a Nobody in No Place ( - surely the north-east’s most surprising place-name).

To remind us of how lucky we are, though, I’ve done a little cursory research into some of the trades and occupations mentioned in previous censuses (censi?), most - but not quite all - of which have thankfully disappeared down the plug-hole of history.

How about, f’rinstance…

*Dung Boy..
This was the lad who swept up animal manure off the streets using a pan and brush. He then slung it into a bin. Locally, these bins were taken to a spot near the coast where they were shamefully allowed to pile up higher and higher. In time, the mountain of stinking ordure grew so big that some bright spark in Whitehall decided to give it County Borough status and call it Middlesbrough.

*Nymph of the Pavé
Victorian prudery dictated that prostitutes did not exist - so Victorian semantic jiggerypokery had to come up with alternative ways of denoting them, of which this is one. Others included ‘fallen’, ‘unfortunate’ and even ‘gay’ - which only goes to show how times have changed.

It makes you wonder, though, if you’re allowed to put ‘prostitute’ on a census form nowadays…

*Bulldog Burner
Be still, your beating heart. This has nothing to do with those wretched creatures in studded collars pulling their charva owners back home to Redcar. Oh my word no. My sources tell me that a ‘bulldog burner’ was (and I quote) ‘the man who roasted tap cinder from blast or puddling furnaces’ - thus producing ‘bulldog’, a ‘refractory slag for lining puddling furnaces making wrought iron or steel’.

So now you know.

(In truth, if anyone out there can explain any of that in terms that a 6-year-old would understand, get in touch.)

*Lucifer Woman
I know what you’re thinking; that we’re back to fallen nymphs again. But no. A Lucifer Woman was, of course, a woman who made or sold lucifers, they in turn being the oversized Victorian version of matches.

It was a terrible job. The business end of a lucifer was made of antimony, sulfide or stibnite, potassium chlorate, gum and starch. To mask the stink of all this, white phosphorous was also added to the mixture - which caused diseases like ‘phossy-jaw’.

In a way, the north-east is to blame for the match-girls’ plight. Matches were invented in 1827 by a Stockton chemist called John Walker. Interestingly, he got his cumuppance in the 1970s when Stockton Council decided to honour him with a statue. Unfortunately, it’s a statue of entirely the wrong John Walker - not the inventive chemist but a local councillor and bigwig from 50 years later.

The Teesside effect. Its aural equivalent is available on BBC Radio Tees every day.

*Fat Lad
Forget the jibes. This was a truly horrendous occupation. A young lad was employed in a mine (often an iron-ore mine) to grease not only tub and bogie axles but also the sheaves and drums guiding haulage ropes. And he had to do it in the dark.

I’d be interested to know if local coal-mines employed someone like this.

The origin of modern slang 'knackered', this trade - which appears in every 19th-century census - was concerned with the disposal of dead or dying horses, which would be collected - or taken away and slaughtered - to be cut up for cat meat. There must be many people still alive who can remember the local ‘knackers’ yard’. We discussed them on-air once and I was amazed at the number of calls we received about them.

There were famous knackers’ yards in, I think, Byker, Wallsend, Hebburn and Gateshead. You can get a pretty good idea of what they were like by simply visiting Bishop Auckland.

We’ve already come across the ‘dung boy’ in our survey and it’s weird to think about how commonplace and prevalent horses were in our everyday lives. My eldest brother’s first job was helping out on the local Co-op’s delivery round - which was horse-drawn, even in the early 60s.

And, of course, a colourful local way of describing a well-built bloke is to say he’s built ‘like a store horse’.

*Sad Iron Maker
Apparently, ‘sad iron’ was another expression used for ‘flat iron’ - the sort that some benighted people waste their time using to press clothes and other things. They weren’t, of course, electric in the Good Old Days; they were rather those heavy, clodhoppers you see at Beamish and other museums. Overworked abigails would stand them over the fire below stairs until they were hot enough to be yanked away and pressed onto madam’s bombazine until it was as flat as a proverbial pancake or until the unfortunate slavey passed out from sheer exhaustion.

No wonder they were called ‘sad irons’.

It all makes me glad that I’m alive in 2011 rather than 1911. We have no looming world wars (as far as we know) and no dung boys. Give me cheap flights and the internet any day…

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com
Hildie and I paying our first visit today to The Quadfather, Paul's new venture.
Go and find out for yourself - it's at the A1/A19 junction near Seaton Burn,
in Northumberland
In this blogposting…
*A Problem With Words

*1,001 Buildings

*Never Never Never Do This


Our next AGM will take place at 1100 on Wednesday 27 April at Birkheads Nursery, the road to which is just a few hundred yards south of the Tanfield Railway on the Sunniside to Stanley road.

There is an agenda: see Never Never Never Do This, below.

I’ve had an intriguing email from truckshunter Peter - or should I say, another intriguing email, as any communication from him usually raises an interesting point or two.

This time, it was all about words; well, two words in particular.

1 - The first part of his email says (and I quote)..
‘One of the lads used a word the other day, describing what state he was in at a party: ‘chemist’. Or as you and I would call it - drunk.’

Peter suspects that, with this meaning, this is a Sunderland use of the word and asks for further enlightenment and/or information.

I’ve given the matter some considerable thought and have got nowhere. Is it rhyming slang? If so, what is it meant to rhyme with? If not, what is the derivation of its use by our benighted friends in Sunderland?

I’ve even txted my brother, who has lived in Sunderland for decades. He hasn’t replied as yet. Shame, probably.

Of course, I know exactly what’s going to happen now. Some bright spark is going to point the joke out to me and make me look very foolish indeed, specially if the explanation is obscene. But I’m used to that.

So, if you know - or think you know - why the word is used this way, please get in touch.

2 - The second part of Peter’s email is even more esoteric. It says…
‘That great Newcastle icon the Swing Bridge......does it ‘swing’ on its pivot or ‘spin’ on its pivot? Has it been named incorrectly for all these years?’

Peter raises a linguistic and semantic question of great profundity with this one.

I think he’s absolutely right to suggest the the Swing Bridge does not, in fact, swing at all. As far as I am concerned, something is ‘swinging’ if it’s tethered at one end and moving back and forth at the other - like a child’s swing, a pendulum or a swinging gate or door.

My dictionary’s definition seems to confirm this:

‘Swing: to cause to move to and fro, sway, or oscillate, as something suspended from above.’

The Swing Bridge doesn’t do this. As Peter says, it moves around a central point or pivot in the middle.

But it doesn’t exactly ‘spin’ either. Surely there’s an element of speed attached to spinning. Like my dictionary says:

‘Spin: to cause to turn around rapidly, as on an axis; twirl; whirl.’

To see the Bridge ‘twirling’ or ‘whirling’ would be quite an event!

No. I think that the nearest we can get to describing what the Bridge actually does is ‘swivel’.

‘Swivel: - a fastening device that allows the thing fastened to turn around freely upon it, especially to turn in a full circle. a pivoted support allowing a structure to turn around in a horizontal plane.’

So, from now on, I think all truckshunters should start calling it The Swivel Bridge - and encourage everyone we know to do the same thing.

Sir William Armstrong would be proud of us!

And, thanks again for your email, Peter.

Time once again for the next ten ‘buildings you should see before you die’, as recommended in the lovely book I got for Christmas.

The buildings in the book are in chronological order. This list brings us up to 1195.

If you’ve seen any of them (except for number 58), or plan to, please get in touch.

51 - Basilica of St Sernin, Toulouse, France
52 - Dalmeny Church, Scotland
53 - St Lazarus’ Cathedral, Autun, France
54 - Jaisalmer Fort, Rajasthan, India (pictured)
55 - Le Thoronet Abbey, France
56 - Abbasid Castle, Baghdad, Iraq
57 - Monreale Cathedral, Palermo, Sicily
58 - Durham Cathedral, England
59 - Angkor Wat, Cambodia
60 - Minaret of Jam, Afghanistan

Durham Cathedral’s appearance in the list raises the tally of buildings I’ve actually seen to five; it also marks England’s entry to the fray for the first time.

National totals so far are:
Italy 11, Egypt 5, China 4, France 4, Ireland 3, India 3, Syria 2, Croatia 2, Iraq 2 - then 1 each for Afghanistan, Armenia, Cambodia, England, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Indonesia, Iran, Isreal, Japan, Libya, Mexico, Myanmar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, South Korea, Spain, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.


A couple of days ago I received an email which proves, yet again, the power of urban myth, specially in the age of the internet.

This is what it said…

A few days ago, a person was recharging his mobile phone at home.

Just at that time a call came in and he answered it with the instrument still connected to the outlet. 

After a few seconds, electricity flowed into the cell phone unrestrained and the young man was thrown to the ground with a heavy thud. 

His parents rushed to the room only to find him unconscious, with a weak heartbeat and burnt fingers. 

He was rushed to the nearby hospital, but was pronounced dead on arrival. 

Cell phones are a very useful modern invention. 

However, we must be aware that it can also be an instrument of death.

Never use the cell phone while it is hooked to the electrical outlet!

My first reaction was to call to mind the many occasions on which I’ve used my cellphone while it was charging. My natural scepticism was aroused!

It didn’t take me long to discover that the ‘cellphone death’ story is a total fabrication - an ‘urban myth’ that’s been circulating on the internet for over 7 years. I’ve seen a copy of an early email which mentioned it in 2004. Interestingly, the wording is exactly the same - even the rather quaint ‘electricity flowed into the cell phone unrestrained’. Wow - unrestrained electricity! Whatever next?

I think it’s time we harnessed the power of the internet ourselves. At the next AGM, why not bring along an idea we can start circulating on the net; a spurious news story, a ludicrous explanation for something, a new ‘unsolved mystery’?

Let’s cause some trouble.

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com
Photo of AGM XXV courtesy of Vivienne, who unfortunately therefore isn't on it
In this blogposting...
*En route
Continuez - mais avec attention!

One of the reasons I don’t visit France as often as I may perhaps like is that the journey is normally of rococo complexity - or at least, it seems as though it is.

Firstly, I have to walk to the bus stop at the top of the street. Normally, this would not be a problem; it’s only 150 yards or so. However, the Fates have joined forces with my natural thrift and provided me with a cheap suitcase-on-wheels that seems to be noisier, when trundled, than a dozen thunderstorms. Other people’s suitcases whisper up the street with all the commotion of a flapping butterfly, whereas mine sounds like a marshalling yard as I drag it behind me at some unearthly hour of the morning. As I pass by, lights go on and curtains are opened.

The bus takes me to Newcastle city centre where part two of my journey awaits me; the Metro. This can present palm-sweating complications of its own. I always seem to arrive at the station just in time to have missed a train - and with the following train missing for staff shortage reasons. This can produce a gap between trains of almost half an hour and, if you’re as congenitally late as I am, can engender those helpless feelings of mute panic we’ve all had at one time or another.

Eventually, though, I am deposited at the airport so that part three of my trip can begin: running the gauntlet of ‘security’.

Naturally, it always seems to be me who has to pass through the Arch of Doom almost naked because the damned thing keeps beeping and flashing its red light at me. It’s always my suitcase that has to be opened and emptied so that all the charvas jetting off to Sharm-el-Sheikh and Bodrum get a full, unrestricted view of my outsize, middle-age M&S kecks, nightshirt and candle-sconce while Big Bertha, the security ‘woman’, shouts to her colleagues in her loudest, Ethel Merman, voice that ‘it’s OK - it was his cold-sore cream that caused the alarm to go off’.

Then there’s part four: the flight to Paris.

And that can only mean one thing: Doris Karloff - a name we used to use at Radio Newcastle for a particularly formidable female member of staff, but which, at Newcastle Airport, refers to an even more intimidating character: the unbelievably officious harpy who makes it her business to ensure that your cabin luggage does not exceed the permitted size by even a hair’s breadth.

She does this by asking - er, instructing - you to place your suitcase into a cage designed for the purpose. If it is even a millimeter too large, she smiles smugly and tells you to check it in as hold luggage. This applies to everyone except good-looking men between the ages of about 18 and 30, at whom she smiles sweetly and rather hopelessly as they board the plane with several outsize suitcases, backpacks, hold-alls, kitchen sinks and wardrobes.

Unlike most airlines, easyJet does not allocate seats to its passengers, so it’s ‘first come, first in the seats with good legroom’ - important for a hulking six-footer like me. There aren’t many of these seats, though; three on each side right at the front, so that people can queue to go to the toilet right next to you, or six on each side in the middle by the emergency exits, so that if the plane has the misfortune to make a forced landing, it’s up to you to rip off the doors and help your panic-stricken fellow-passengers out and onto that helter-skelter blow-up thing featured at the end of Airplane!

So, as far as the legroom seats are concerned, it’s every man for himself. Which is why the first person in the queue to board the plane is chosen especially by easyJet as a kind of practical joke. She (and I’m afraid it’s ALWAYS a woman) will choose a seat quite near the front - about 2 or 3 rows back - so that everyone else is standing in the rain on the boarding steps or the tarmac.

Having chosen her seat, she will open her suitcase and take out her Jackie Collins, her Charles-Dickens-windows reading glasses and her Nuttall’s Mintoes. She will then ask the man waiting patiently behind her to lift her suitcase into the overhead luggage locker for her. She could easily reach it herself but she wants to start a conversation about how unreasonably high up they are and how she is going to visit her daughter in Johannesburg (‘would you like to see a picture?’) and this was the cheapest flight she could get but it means she will have to change at Paris and it’s a shame she won’t have time to visit the city because she’s always wanted to go ever since her sister went there on her honeymoon in 1971 (‘would like to see a picture?’) and fell in love with it...

And while she blathers on and fidgets with her scarf and cardigan, 142 people are shivering in the cold and rain outside, agitated and anxious about whether they’ll get the seats they want and wondering what on earth the hold-up is before realising that it must be easyJet’s patience-trying joke passenger.

Eventually, though, everyone settles down, 5 or 6 babies start to cry very loudly indeed and the aircraft starts to taxi to the runway. (The etymologist in me once asked on-air why aeroplanes ‘taxi’ but no-one appeared to know.) It’s time for the obligatory safety demonstration from Tracey, Wayne and the crew.

As soon as the voice-over says ‘please pay attention to the safety demonstration’, everyone stops paying attention. They read their newspapers and magazines, the on-board ‘bistro’ menu (cheese toasties, muffins and the most taste-free Starbucks coffee yet developed), the in-flight magazine (’50 Things You Didn’t Know About Murcia Airport’) or - in the case of our friend - a Jackie Collins potboiler.

In my opinion - for what it’s worth - they should make the safety demonstration more attention-grabbing if they want to grab our attention. I’ve seen a YouTube video of a Japanese airline crew who did it to a disco track, complete with all those authentic, Saturday Night Fever, postures.

Perhaps easyJet crew could do it naked - I for one would certainly have enjoyed watching Wayne show me what to blow into in case of urgent need.

Or maybe they could perform the demonstration in the style of the flight’s destination. All sultry, sexy and smug for Paris; dressed as matadors or flamenco dancers for Barcelona; or leaning 20 degrees to the right for Pisa.

Aeroplane flights are, of course, extremely tedious; there’s nothing to look at outside and nothing much happens inside, either. Marie and Jeremy will pass down the aisle flogging you a muffin for £73 and ‘David Beckham’s latest fragrance Jockstrap Nights for only £147 per millilitre’. The person in front of you will suddenly push their seat back, thus dislocating your kneecaps. And the cabin crew will continue to make their promotional announcements in that grotesque, sing-song style so beloved of airline employees and which bespeaks total insincerity and well-rehearsed thoughtlessness.

(Paul and I once pre-recorded an item at the ‘Leisure and Tourism Training Department’ in Newcastle College. They have a mock-up of an aircraft interior there and I was amazed to find that cabin crew are actually trained to talk like that, as well as to walk down the aisle noisily closing all the overhead locker doors.)

All other things being equal, though, you will arrive at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport in one piece.

If you haven’t been there before, don’t go.

For a start, you have a far greater chance of being killed by falling masonry at Charles de Gaulle Airport than you have of being killed on the flight that got you there. It has to be the worst-designed and most jerrybuilt airport in the western world. It’s practically brand-new but the bulbous, ‘flay away’, design was apparently a little too revolutionary to actually be built safely. Bits of the concrete ceilings keep falling on unsuspecting passengers below, who end up checking in for the very last time in their lives.

Remember, if you will, that at this point I am still only halfway to my destination. I have yet to negotiate the journey into and through Paris and then board a train to Macon, in south-central France. I like to think that I’ve done the trip so often now that I know not to panic or get agitated or cross - to take each element as it arrives and to smile benignly when each new suitcase-on-wheels dunches my shins or runs over my feet.

But I’m honest enough not to believe my own propaganda. I panic and get agitated and cross all the time - specially during the next part of the journey.

For some reason, easyJet flights from Newcastle land in exactly the wrong part of the airport for ease of disembarkation; once on the ground, they have to taxi - sometimes for 25 minutes - to their allotted stand. They could easily add a couple of miles and call it a Guided Tour of the Ile-de-France.

Having disembarked and taken my first lungful of the thickly exhaust-fumed Parisian air, I then have to walk a mile - a whole mile - from the terminal to the airport’s station, which also seems to be in the wrong place. In truth, everything at Charles de Gaulle Airport is like that. The whole place ought to be used as a test-piece on ‘how not to design an airport’. It’s dreadful.

The urban railways of metropolitan Paris are collectively known as the RER and one of them runs to the airport. When they were first put into service - in about 1870 - they must have been the latest in transport chic. Using them for the 40-minute journey into the city nowadays, though, is like being inside a cattle truck with seats - with a matching smell. Expat English Parisians call them ‘moving microwaves’ in summer and ‘wheeled freezers’ in winter.

Because they service the airport, they have been designed with no luggage space at all. Suitcases and backpacks have to compete for very limited space with bad-tempered Parisian commuters, every one of whom looks as if they wish they were concealing a razor-sharp Sabatier knife about their person.

Assuming you arrive in Paris mostly unmurdered, you’re then confronted with the Metro.

I’ve said elsewhere that the only effective way of negotiating the Metro without losing your wallet, your suitcase, your sense of humour or your mind generally is to behave as if you’re the only one on it.

Do not be polite or courteous. Do not offer your seat to anyone old and decrepit. Above all, do not smile at anyone. If you do any of these things, you will almost certainly be regarded as an imbecile.

Try to avoid situations where you actually have to say something. If you use French, they will guffaw at you because of your lousy accent - they call it ‘parler francais comme une vache espagnole’ (‘speaking French like a Spanish cow’) - and if you use English, they will look at you blankly, even though they read Shakespeare in the original from cover to cover only last week.

If you are particularly unlucky, you will be busked on the Metro.

Normally, I think buskers are an adornment to city life. But the Paris Metro is plagued with utterly untalented ‘entertainers’ who are keen to serenade you and even keener to accept your loose change. The last time I travelled by Metro, an immaculately coiffured older lady got on, complete with microphone and portable speaker system, and broke into Edith Piaf’s Greatest Hits. As the old joke has it, she had to break in because she couldn’t find the right key. It was truly and embarrassingly awful; she sounded like a cat being throttled by a herd of angry goats. It was positively purgatorial. It was worse than being mugged.

La vie en rose it wasn’t.

But eventually, despite the smells and the commuters and the buskers - and, by now, the sheer fatigue - I reach Gare de Lyon, the Paris terminal for trains to the south.

And that’s where I want to go - to the south. I have a seat by the window on the upper deck of the TGV, the superfast train that carries me away in style from the tribulations of the journey. Paris disappears in minutes and the lush green fields of France spread themselves out around me.

That’s what it’s all for. I want to see the lonely hills of Beaujolais again. The farms and the villages and the smiles. I want to hear the language - the mellifluous, nasal tones of rural ‘street French’ welcoming me back to what has become my second home.

It’s really only on this final leg of the trip, when I’m sitting back on my train watching northern France turn quietly and seductively into southern France, that I begin to relax. I start to wish I’d travelled all the way from Newcastle by train.

Sometimes, that’s exactly what I do. But that’s a different story.


...will take place at 1100 on Wednesday 27 April at Birkheads Nursery, the road to which is just a few hundred yards south of the Tanfield Railway on the Sunniside to Stanley road.

By now, it should go without saying that a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

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

In this blogposting…
*Voices Of Spring
*Alan Savage
*A Dirty Joke
Look before you leap…

As rosy-fingered dawn creeps over our window-sills earlier and earlier, there’s now a noticeable spring in her step, isn’ there? And, after such a deplorable winter, I reckon we deserve the longer, warmer, sunnier days we’ve been having lately - and which we often anticipate knowing that we’re likely to be disappointed.

Not this Spring though. I’m told that the snowdrop display at Howick Hall this year was as good as it gets. So - another year, another opportunity I’ve missed of seeing one of Northumberland’s less trumpeted but most heart-stirring sights.

Despite being so diminutive and unassuming, snowdrops always give good value for money (as it were). Presented in great, white, woodland carpets, they are amongst the first flowers to uplift the wind-blown, slush-sodden soul. And they can last for weeks.

Which is, I guess, more than can be said of crocuses. Pretty though their multicoloured roadside rugs always are, they often seem to me to disappear by the time you make your return journey later the same day.

Nice though.

But the real harbingers of the year’s turn are, of course, the daffodils. Shameless hussies appearing like magic in gardens, along roadsides, in parks and woods. In small, friendly, reassuring clumps or in huge, open bankside drifts - big, bold, look-at-me flowers staring at you - looking you straight in the eye and challenging you to look away if you can.

And, of course, you can’t. Whatever colour a daffodil is (and I always fancy that they choose their shade themselves), from the palest, subtlest colour of clotted cream to joyful, glad-to-be-alive sunrise yellow, they almost hypnotise you with their perfection. To me at least, at this time of year, absolutely no other flower in no other colour would quite fit the bill. Daffodils are required. Wonderfully obligatory. They are necessary for Spring to be Spring.

By comparison, tulips merely follow on their coat-tails, trying to steal their glory. Tulips - for which the Dutch still harbour a deep and blameless fascination - brandish their multitude of colours and variety of shapes in the hope, I think, of outshining our native daffodil, and they very nearly succeed. In truth, the depth of their colours is astounding - you could drown in the flawless reds and purples. And seeing the almost mythical black tulip for the first time glues you to the spot.

But not all of Spring’s heralds are as bold or as obvious as crocuses, daffodils and tulips.

Every year, on my many journeys along the Felling by-pass and up and down the A19, I can’t help but break into a smile when I see the carpets of tiny, white flowers that adorn the central reservation in vast numbers. They look like a dusting of late snow.

Many years ago, I mentioned them on-air and asked if anyone knew what they were. A listener called Alan Savage called at once to tell me they were called ‘Danish scurvy-grass’ - a particularly inauspicious name for them, I thought. Not so, he countered. They’re ‘Danish’ because they are. They are salt-loving plants that grow in great profusion on Denmark’s coast and were originally carried here on the wheels of Danish juggernauts. They survive so well on our dual carriageways because of the high concentrations of salt they find there.

And why ‘scurvy-grass’? Because, for centuries, they were used by the Danish navy as a valuable source of vitamin C - to prevent scurvy, just as we used oranges and other citrus fruits.

So, on your next highway journey, say a quick ‘Goddag’ to any of these pretty little Viking flowers as you pass by - before they disappear again until next year.

As for now…

I’m waiting for the gorse to come into flower. In a couple of weeks, my journeys down the A19 will be through a tunnel, or at least an avenue, of gorse and broom. Their massed sprays of tiny yellow flowers, so unexpected on the thorny, tough bushes on which they appear, and growing wherever they can get an undisturbed foothold, mean that Summer isn’t far away...

Speaking of Alan Savage…

As a direct result of his call, I went to visit Alan in East Cramlington, where he was responsible for the Millennium Arboretum, an ambitious project to plant 2,000 different types of tree. At the time, it looked lovely, even though many of the trees were mere saplings.

He was even gracious enough to plant a rare type of oak-tree in my honour. It was at the western edge of the arboretum, near the A189 footbridge.

I wonder if the arboretum has survived the years. And I wonder if Alan’s still the tender-hearted tree-shepherd he was then.

Does anyone know?

From the truly sublime to the mildly ridiculous now.

Someone who has asked to remain anonymous has recently sent me what he calls a ‘dirty joke’. Never having been married, I cannot vouch for how accurate the punch lines are.

Yes, there are two punch-lines.

Here goes…

‘A man and a woman who had never met before, but who were both married to other people, found themselves assigned to the same sleeping compartment on a trans-continental train.

Though initially embarrassed and uneasy over having to share the compartment, they were both very tired and fell asleep quickly - he in the upper berth and she in the lower.

At 1am, the man leaned down and gently woke the woman saying,..........

'Ma'am, I'm sorry to bother you, but would you be willing to reach into the cupboard to get me a second blanket? I’m awfully cold.'

'I have a better idea,' she replied. 'Just for tonight...... let's pretend that we're married.'

'Wow! That's a great idea!', he exclaimed.

'Good,' she replied...'Get your own f***ing blanket.'

After a moment of silence, he farted.

The End’

If you’re still reading this…

Our next AGM will take place at 1100 on Wednesday 27 April at Birkheads Nursery. To the uninitiated...the road to the nursery is just a few hundred yards south of the Tanfield Railway on the Sunniside to Stanley road.

Any mention of the royal wedding will be STRICTLY forbidden.

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com
These are pictures of a Boeing 737 converted into a place to live. Neat, huh?
In this blogposting…
*Insurance Claims
*‘Dear Dogs And Cats’
Make the most of it ( - precious little)...

Another big Thankyou to Peter, in South Shields, for sending me details of some outrageous insurance claims received recently by Aviva and Lloyds/TSB…

*..a diamond eaten by a small child…
*..a potato stuck behind the brake pedal, causing a car accident…
*..a contact lens that fell off the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa…
*..a car windscreen smashed by a frozen squirrel…
*..a wasp sting that made the driver accelerate into the car in front…
*..a window broken when a woman threw a plate at her husband and missed…
*..a dining room chair that melted in the sun…
*..a dog that ate a digital camera…
*..a cow that jumped on a quadbike
*..and a video recorder damaged when a sandwich was inserted into the tape slot.

Another big Thankyou, this time to Lynn, who has emailed me with ‘this lovely little thing someone forwarded to me from the internet…'

The following is an actual question given on a University of Washington chemistry exam paper. The answer by one student was so profound that the professor shared it with colleagues:

"Bonus Question: Is Hell exothermic (gives off heat) or endothermic (absorbs heat)?"

Most of the students wrote proofs of their beliefs using Boyle's Law (gas cools when it expands and heats when it is compressed) or some variant.

One student however, wrote the following...

'First, we need to know how the mass of Hell is changing in time. So we need to know the rate at which souls are moving into Hell and the rate at which they are leaving. I think that we can safely assume that once a soul gets to Hell, it will not leave. Therefore, no souls are leaving. As for how many souls are entering Hell, let's look at the different religions that exist in the world today.

Most of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to Hell. Since there is more than one of these religions and since people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all souls go to Hell.

With birth and death rates as they are, we can expect the number of souls in Hell to increase exponentially.

Now, we look at the rate of change of the volume in Hell because Boyle's Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in Hell to stay the same, the volume of Hell has to expand proportionately as souls are added.

This gives two possibilities:
1 - If Hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter Hell, then the temperature and pressure in Hell will increase until all Hell breaks loose.

2 - If Hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase of souls in Hell, then the temperature and pressure will drop until Hell freezes over.

So, which is it???

If we accept the postulate given to me by Teresa during my Freshman year that, 'It will be a cold day in Hell before I sleep with you,' and take into account the fact that I slept with her last night, then number two must be true, and thus I am sure that Hell is exothermic and has already frozen over.

The corollary of this theory is that since Hell has frozen over, it follows that it is not accepting any more souls and is therefore extinct......leaving only Heaven, thereby proving the existence of a divine being which explains why, last night, Teresa kept shouting 'Oh my God.''

This student received an A+.

Our next AGM will take place at 1100 on Wednesday 27 April at Birkheads Nursery, the road to which is just opposite the entrance to the Tanfield Railway.

A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

The following was found posted very low on a refrigerator door.

'Dear Dogs and Cats:

The dishes with the paw prints are yours and contain your food. The other dishes are mine and contain my food. Placing a paw print in the middle of my plate and food does not stake a claim for it becoming your food and dish, nor do I find it aesthetically pleasing in the slightest.

The staircase is not a racetrack. Racing me to the bottom is not the object. Tripping me up doesn't help because I fall faster than you can run.

I cannot buy anything bigger than a king-size bed. I am very sorry about this. Do not think I will continue sleeping on the sofa to ensure your comfort, however. Dogs and cats can actually curl up in a ball when they sleep. It is not necessary to sleep perpendicular to each other, stretched out to the fullest extent possible. I also know that sticking tails straight out and having tongues hanging out on the other end to maximize space is nothing but sarcasm.

For the last time, there is no secret exit from the bathroom! I must exit through the same door I entered. If, by some miracle, I beat you there and manage to get the door shut, it is not necessary to claw, whine, meow, try to turn the knob or get your paw under the edge in an attempt to open the door. Also, I have been using the bathroom for years - canine/feline attendance is not required.

The proper order for kissing is: Kiss me first, then go and smell the other dog's or cat's bum. I cannot stress this enough.

Finally, in fairness, dear pets, I have posted the following message on the front door:


1 They live here. You don't.
2 If you don't want their hair on your clothes, stay off the furniture.
3 I like my pets a lot better than I like most people.
4 To you, they are animals.. To me, they are adopted sons/daughters who are short, hairy, walk on all fours and don't speak clearly.

And remember, dogs and cats are ‘better’ than kids because:
1 they eat less,
2 they don't ask for money all the time,
3 they are easier to train,
4 they normally come when called,
5 they never ask to drive the car,
6 they don't hang out with drongos,
7 they don't smoke or drink,
8 they don't want to wear your clothes, or buy the latest fashions
9 they don't criticise with the "eye roll" or muttered remarks,
10 they don't need a gazillion pounds for university and
11 if they get pregnant, you can sell their children .....'

It was sent to me by my friend Kathy. Mwah!

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com
Sigurd the Mighty, in fetching wolfskin waistcoat, toggled with attractive desiccated bear intestines. Little did he know what fate had in store for him as he beat off the crowds at the IKEA sale...
In this blogposting…
*What A Way To Go
*The Worst Film Ever Made
*1,001 Buildings…
So gird up your loins…

Kev has thoughtfully emailed me a 14-page list of gruesome historical deaths. These are all from page 2.

In 892 Sigurd the Mighty of Orkney strapped the head of a defeated foe to his leg. But the tooth grazed against him as he rode his horse, causing the infection which killed him
In 1063 Béla I of Hungary died when his throne's canopy collapsed (which is no more than he deserved for having a sissy name like Bela)
In 1135 Henry I of England is said to have died after gorging on lampreys, his favorite food
In 1219, according to legend, Inalchuk, the Muslim governor of the Central Asian town of Otrar, was captured and killed by the invading Mongols, who poured molten silver in his eyes, ears, and throat
In 1258 Al-Musta'sim was killed during the Mongol invasion of the Abbasid Caliphate. Hulagu Khan, not wanting to spill royal blood, wrapped him in a rug and had him trampled to death by his horses
In 1322 Humphrey de Bohun, 4th Earl of Hereford was fatally speared through the anus by a pikeman hiding under the bridge during the Battle of Boroughbridge
In 1327, and maintaining the anal turn of events things seem to have taken, Edward II of England, after being deposed and imprisoned by his queen consort Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer, was rumoured to have been murdered by having a red-hot poker inserted into his anus (and I'm not referring to the familiar garden plant here)
In 1410 Martin I of Aragon died from a lethal combination of indigestion and uncontrollable laughing
And finally, in 1478: George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, was executed by drowning in a barrel of Malmsey wine at his own request.

If you want some more selections from Kev’s grisly list, I’d be happy to provide them. Or maybe you have your own nominations…

How good or bad a movie is usually depends very much on who’s watching it. There are some films, though, which almost everyone agrees are truly awful. Whole books have been written about them, there are websites (like ‘Rotten Tomatoes’) dedicated to them, and they even have their own annual awards ceremony (the ‘Golden Raspberry Awards’, or ‘Razzies’).

You could have a lot of fun scratching the internet in search of them but, thanks to Wikipedia, you don’t have to. That omniscient portal to all the world’s knowledge has helpfully agglomerated known lists of cinematic catastrophes into one stomach-churning catalogue.

The list includes:
Glen Or Glenda (1953)
Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (1964)
Howard The Duck (1986)
The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (1987)
Leonard Part 6 (1987)
Highlander 2: The Quickening (1991)
Freddy Got Fingered (2001)
Gigli (2003)
SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2 (2004)

I now feel that I am at last in a position to add to this roll-call of celluloid dishonour. I would like to nominate the film that was shown to the Silver Screen cinema club at the Tyneside Cinema on Monday 4 April. It was called Young Hearts Run Free - and it was awful.

At this point, I was intending to launch a critique of the film - but I honestly don’t know where to start. The cinematography was cluttered and dull, the acting gave concrete a good name, the script was truly diabolical, the main characters were badly-drawn and inconsistent, the accents (the film was set in a Northumbrian mining village) were inauthentic, the cliches of the north-east announced themselves a mile away….

Even the typeface used for the opening credits is somehow ‘wrong’. Dammit - even the title of the film is misleading.

And that’s not all. The film was, apparently, made on a budget of less than £20,000. This means that the director could not afford wide shots - like street scenes - which would have been full of anachronisms like satellite dishes and Ford Focuses ( - the movie is set in 1974). So every shot is a close-up. Virtually all you see are talking heads. Even the interior scenes - and almost all the ‘action’ takes place indoors - lack ‘establishing’ or wide-angle shots. We don’t even get to see the whole kitchen or pub or shop counter; just looming close-ups of somebody saying something totally expected.

Budgetary constraints are one thing but cinematic carelessness is quite another. In one scene, the leading character is given a meaningful gift by his best friend; she is trying to encourage him to take up painting again so she gives him a paintbox. He actually opens it on-screen - except that the director maintains the head-and-shoulders shot so we don’t actually see what the gift is. And this is a seminal moment in the film.

It is also the moment when we decided to leave.

The wooden acting, the atrocious and predictable dialogue and plot, the cliches lurking round every back-street corner, the sheer claustrophobia of the direction - all conspire to make this film the worst I have ever seen or - hopefully - am ever likely to see.

What makes me angry is, firstly, the fulsome praise given to the film in the Tyneside Cinema’s current brochure - praise which they know was wholly undeserved - and, secondly, the fact that they chose to show it at Silver Screen. They’ve shown that they regard over-60s as cinematic dross who can happily be shown any old piece of tut because they cannot discriminate between good and poor movies.

Some films are so bad, they’re good. They achieve a kind of cult status, like Plan 9 From Outer Space. But Young Hearts Run Free is just bad.

It was the director’s first film. The next time he is offered a budget of £20,000 he should buy shares in a prefab in, say, Dawdon, buy two short planks of wood, soak them in water and watch them warp. I might join him. It would be more fun than watching this appalling film.

...will take place at 1100 on Wednesday 27 April at Birkheads Nursery, the road to which is just opposite the entrance to the Tanfield Railway.

Our guest speaker, should he wish to take up this offer, is the director of Young Hearts Run Free.

Here are the next ten buildings from my lovely book.

With this list, the tally of buildings I have actually seen rises to four, with San Miniato al Monte in Florence and St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.

The buildings in the book are in chronological order. These date from between 998 and 1105.

If you’ve seen any of them, or plan to, please get in touch.

41 The Great Mosque, Cordoba, Spain
42 Chichen Izta Observatory, Mexico
43 Brihadishvara Temple, Thanjavur, India
44 St Sophia’s Cathedral, Novgorod, Russia (pictured)
45 Sal Miniato al Monte, Florence, Italy
46 Glendalough Round Tower, Laragh, Ireland
47 St Mark’s Cathedral, Venice, Italy
48 Qui Nhon Ban It Towers, Binh Dinh, Vietnam
49 Great Mosque of Masjid-i-Jami, Isfahan, Iran
50 Ananda Temple, Pagan, Myanmar

We are now 5% of the way through the list. National totals so far are:

Italy 10, Egypt 5, China 4, Ireland 3, Syria 2, Croatia 2, India 2 - then 1 each for Iraq, Greece, France, Libya, Turkey, Armenia, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Japan, Isreal, Guatemala, South Korea, Germany, Indonesia, Spain, Mexico, Russia, Vietnam, Iran, Tunisia, Myanmar and Uzbekistan.

Firstly, from outrageous leftfield writer Hunter S Thompson…
Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!"

And secondly, from a book I’m reading at the moment…
In my experience, when misfortune comes in by one door, philosophy leaves by the other.

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com
In this blogposting…
*Good News From Bishop Auckland
*What A Way To Go
*And Finally…
Proceed with caution…

A surreal headline if ever there was one.

But - as you probably already know - it’s true. The 13 Zurburan paintings which the Church Commissioners had threatened to sell, and which I lost my rag about in posting 252, have been saved.

This is truly wonderful news - and all the more so for being so totally unexpected. Remember, these are not just 13 paintings of international significance; they are also housed in what is, de facto, the world’s oldest purpose-built art gallery.

And suddenly Bishop Auckland Palace itself - a remarkable building which, up till now, has shut itself off from the world outside, grudgingly opening its doors only very rarely - seems to have a fighting chance of re-inventing itself as a much-needed arts and cultural centre for South Durham.

The online Telegraph article I read today deserves to be quoted..

Hedge fund manager Jonathan Ruffer has donated £15 million to save for the nation a series of paintings he has never seen.

Mr Ruffer bought 13 paintings of ‘Jacob and his Sons’ from the Church of England and immediately gave them back to the Church as a gift.

The 17th century masterpieces by the Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbaran were due to be auctioned by the Church Commissioners to raise money for the upkeep of Auckland Castle, the seat of the Bishop of Durham, where the paintings hang.

But after reading about the proposed sale, which could have resulted in the paintings going abroad or into a private collection, Mr Ruffer, 59, a devout Christian, decided to step in.

He had, he said, “shouted at” the Church when he heard about the plans to sell the paintings, then realised that: “I was the only person in a position to do anything about it. I happened to have £15 million. I wanted to do something for the north-east, where I come from. And I collect such paintings.

“My first thought had been a commercial one – that I could buy them for myself – but then I realised that there was something much more important to do.”

Asked what he thought of the pictures, he replied: “I’ve never seen them…it sounds funny, but I’m just very busy.”

Mr Ruffer, who was brought up in the North Yorkshire village of Stokesley, added: “People underestimate the symbolic power of art. Look at the Angel of the North… These paintings are quite monumental.”

Mr Ruffer also joked that buying the paintings had made his life much simpler by using up all of his spare money.

“The distraction of this job is being constantly fingered for money,” he said. “It’s just terrific to say that there isn’t any.”

With the help of a £1m donation from The Rothschild Foundation and advice from the National Trust, the Church intends to turn the Castle at Bishop Auckland into a regional heritage centre, with much greater public access.

Zurbaran, a contemporary of El Greco and Velázquez, completed 12 paintings of Jacob and his Sons between 1640 and 1645. They were bought by Bishop Richard Trevor in 1756 for £124. The 13th painting, of Jacob’s youngest son, Benjamin, is the work of the 18th century copyist Arthur Pond.

Each of the paintings stands 8ft tall and hangs in the Long Dining Room at the Castle, which has been the home of successive Bishops of Durham for more than 800 years and is open to the public during the summer.

More than 3,000 people had signed a petition demanding the sale of the paintings be stopped, and last week Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, urged the Commissioners to ensure the pictures could continue to be “enjoyed by the public”.

Dr Richard Chartres, Bishop of London and Acting Chair of the Commissioners, said: “Jonathan Ruffer’s generosity has made that rarest of scenarios possible: the best of both worlds.

“There is now an opportunity to create a leading arts and heritage centre in the north-east, and a chance to contribute to the wider spiritual, social and economic regeneration across the region.”

So three very loud cheers to Jonathan Ruffer.

And mustn’t it be awesome to be able to say ‘I happened to have £15 million pounds….’?

Kev has sent me a list of gruesome historic deaths. There’s 14 pages of them. All of these are from page 1.

(Beware: those of a nervous disposition should look away now.)

* In 430 BC: Empedocles, a Pre-Socratic philosopher, secretly jumped into an active volcano (Mt. Etna)
* In 207 BC: Chrysippus, a Greek stoic philosopher, is believed to have died of laughter after watching his drunk donkey attempt to eat figs
* In 162 BC: Eleazar Maccabeus was crushed to death at the Battle of Beth-zechariah by a war elephant. Charging in to battle, Eleazar rushed underneath the elephant and thrust a spear into its belly, whereupon it fell dead on top of him.
* In 53 BC: The Roman general and consul Marcus Licinius Crassus was reported as having been put to death by the Parthians after losing the battle of Carrhae, by being forced to drink a goblet of molten gold, symbolic of his great wealth.
* In 4 BC: Herod the Great reportedly suffered from fever, intense rashes, colon pains, foot drop, inflammation of the abdomen, a putrefaction of his genitals that produced worms, convulsions, and difficulty breathing before he finally gave up.
* And in 260: Roman emperor Valerian, after being defeated in battle and captured by the Persians, was supposedly used as a footstool by King Shapur I. After a long period of punishment and humiliation, Shapur is said to have had the emperor skinned alive and his skin stuffed with straw or dung and preserved as a trophy.

...will take place at 1100 on Wednesday 27 April at Birkheads Nursery near the Tanfield Railway.

A splendid time is guaranteed for all - naturally.

...echoing Hildie’s good wishes in the Comments box of posting 265…a VERY happy 57th Wedding Anniversary to Eric and Jean, who run The Commercial in Tantobie.

Many years ago, when I owned my own micro-brewery in Crook, they were regular customers of mine and we’ve been in touch almost ever since. This blog would be a mere shadow of itself without the many contributions Eric and Jean have made - including the wonderful caricatures above.

Recognise them?

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