Due to unforeseen and unpredictable circumstances - of the sort that cause minor wars or reveal breathtaking verdant landscapes to hitherto lost explorers - the next AGM must be postponed.

So AGM XL will now take place exactly one week later than previously posted; that is, at 1100 on Thursday 7 March.  The venue - at, or within Thornton’s Coffee distance of, Grey’s Monument - remains unchanged.

I’m sorry if this completely buggers up your social life.  This time, it’s not my fault!


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In this blogposting…
* Ambiguity and Idiosyncrasy
* Snowflakes
* Le blog à Pépère
If you have tears to shed….


We haven’t seen Vivienne for a while so it was good to get an email from her the other day.  It included a list of some English language ‘ambiguities and idiosyncrasies’, of which these are a few…

* Atheism is a non-prophet organisation..
* If man evolved from monkeys and apes, why do we still have monkeys and apes?
* I went to a bookshop and asked a salesperson where the ‘self-help’ section was.  He said it would defeat the purpose if he told me…
* What if there were no hypothetical questions?
* Is there another word for 'synonym'?
* Would a fly with no wings be called a ‘walk’?
* How do they get wild animals to cross motorways only at places where they put those signs up?
* What was the best thing before sliced bread?
* How is it possible to have a ‘civil war’?
* If you try to fail and succeed, have you failed or succeeded?
* Does an atheist need insurance against acts of God?

Thanks Vivienne!  Hope we see you soon…

Speaking of which….


Our next AGM will take place at 1100 on Thursday 28 February at (or near) Grey’s Monument in Newcastle - more specifically, at the coffee tables outside Thornton’s at the top of Grainger Street.

If it doesn’t ‘turn out nice again’, we’ll withdraw inside Grainger Market.

The ‘default’ day for AGMs seems to have become Thursday, as if that’s what nature intended.  I’m aware, though, that many people have the great misfortune to have to work for a living and that Thursdays middays are not the most thoughtfully convenient timings for them to get to an AGM.

There’s no reason at all, though, why they shouldn’t take place at weekends or in the early evening - as some of them have, in the past.

If this is an issue for you, please get in touch.

And don’t hesitate to contact me or Hildie if you have any suggestions for interesting new venues.  Dave has already suggested one in Westerhope - and I expect we’ll soon be mustered at Birkheads Nursery again soon, as we are every Spring.

In the meantime - see you at 1100 on the last day of February…


Hildie and I met up with Dave Shannon the other day and, while we chatted, Hildie pointed out to us that we are all almost exactly the same age - to within just a few days.  Weird or what!

And, as Dave pointed out, this means that we have a lot of radio and record memories in common.  With the help of Dave’s prodigious memory, which is much more efficient than mine, we were able to recall…

Stan Freberg.  Do you remember The Yellow Rose of Texas?  Or how about Little Blue Riding Hood?

Alan Sherman.  ‘Hello muddah, hello fadduh - here I am in - Camp Grenada…’

Bob Newhart.  Who could ever forget the letter Sir Walter Raleigh wrote to the Queen about his discovery of tobacco?  ‘They roll it into a tube!  They set fire to it!  And then - they put it in their mouths!!!!’

To me, these were radio voices, scattered across Two-Way Family Favourites at Sunday lunchtimes.  But we remembered the awesome tv presence of Victor Borge, too - specially his masterpiece:  Phonetic Punctuation.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you haven’t lived!

On my way home, grainy black-and-white images came flooding back from my past - from my Nana’s sepia-screened Alba, sitting proudly in the alcove of her colliery house in Blackhall, or our Ekco at home in Peterlee, which had a ‘close-down dot’ that never seemed to disappear.

And I was watching Tony Hancock, Tommy Cooper, Stanley Baxter....


Dave’s memory really is a lot better than mine.  He can remember me reading a poem called Snowflakes during a Nightshift programme; he says his heart skipped a beat when he heard it.

And earlier today, I got this email from him.


Whenever a snowflake leaves the sky,
It turns and turns to say Good-bye!
Good-bye dear clouds, so cool, and gray!
Then lightly travels on its way.

And when a snowflake finds a tree,
Good Day! it says, Good Day to thee!
Thou art so bare and lonely, dear,
I'll rest and call my comrades here.

But when a snowflake, brave and meek,
Lights on a rosy maiden’s cheek
It starts - How warm and soft the day!
T’is Summer! - and it melts away.

Isn’t that just lovely?

It was written by Mary Mapes Dodge (1831-1905), whose portrait adorns this blogposting.  Here are a couple of other charming quotes, firstly about April…

Now the noisy winds are still;
April's coming up the hill!
All the spring is in her train,
Led by shining ranks of rain;
Pit, pat, patter, clatter,
Sudden sun and clatter patter! . . . .
All things ready with a will, 

April's coming up the hill!

I love that ‘shining ranks of rain’.

And here’s something Mary wrote about the way rain must ‘think’…

She waits for me, my lady Earth,
Smiles and waits and sighs;
I'll say her nay, and hide away,
Then take her by surprise!

Thanks for the memories, reminders and thoughts, Dave.


Serge’s blogposting 181 contains some splendid quotes about Love.  For those whose French is as ropey as mine, they roughly translate as…

Love someone who loves you and not just one that attracts you.

Love is not just two people gazing at each other; it is also two people looking in the same direction.

Love is easy; the hardest part is to be loved by the one you love.


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The Flower Sculpture by the Rhône

I'm going to get myself into a lot of trouble with a lot of people for writing this blog.  Tant pis.  Here goes...

The French have got themselves a not entirely undeserved reputation for being rather prim and smug about their language - specially when it comes to hearing it being mangled, mispronounced and otherwise misused by foreigners whose great misfortune it is not to have French as their mother tongue.  Of which I am one.

So this posting is by way of being my affectionate - yet mysteriously spiteful - rejoinder to all those insufferable French pedants who have corrected my grammar, syntax, vocabulary and pronunciation over the last three years or so.

(It should be said, en passé, that ‘prim’ is the very last thing the French are when speaking the language themselves.  The rate at which they insert obscenities - or at least crudities - into their everyday conversation must have given mid-Victorian French teachers in English public schools the vapours.

The nearest translation of cul, for example, is ‘arse’.  So when we refer, in England, to a ‘cul-de-sac’, we are calling what is probably a perfectly respectable, middle-class suburban close a ‘bag arse’.  Try imagining a No Through Road street sign with ‘Bag Arse’ written under it...

Famously, Merde! is a much commoner expression in France than ‘Shit!’ is in English.  If you keep tripping up, the French say that you ‘have shit on your shoes’ and keep dropping things clumsily and you’ll be told you have ‘shitty fingers’.  Generally, we polite English speakers have neutralised this into ‘butterfingers’, although it throws a new and disgusting light onto ‘cack-handed’.

 Between two impressive French cocks - in snowy Lyon

If an eagle-eared Frenchman or woman hears you allotting the wrong gender to a noun, or conjugating a verb incorrectly, or forgetting that it’s reflexive, or mispronouncing a French place-name or personal name, you will be loudly castigated, humiliated and ridiculed in public for mangling God’s own language.

The French do not, of course, apply these rules to themselves when they are speaking someone else's language.  Because they are French, they are allowed to torture any other language to within an inch of its life without being criticised or corrected. 

After all, have you ever heard a French person speaking English in anything other than a very, very strong French accent?  ‘I speck zuh Ingliss ay leetul.  I ‘ave lairn eet een zuh skuil.  Ow air yui?  I am vairy guid...’

You might think I am being gratuitously unkind to people who are doing their best to speak English.  The point, though, is that that is precisely and adamantly what they are not doing.  My experience has taught me that the French are perfectly well aware of how awful their collective pronunciation of English is and are perversely proud of it.

Tell them that ‘house’ and ‘home’ have an audible, breathy ‘h’ sound at the beginning and they will repeat ‘ouse’ and ‘ohm’ ad infinitum whilst insisting that they are mimicking your pronunciation exactly.
 The local train

To be honest, I have more than a sneaking suspicion that they do this on purpose - specially when they use foreign proper nouns; the names of places and people.

So Heaven protect you if you say ‘Marsail’ for Marseille, ‘Dipardyou’ for Depardieu or pronounce any ‘h’ at all.

But when the boot’s on the other foot and you hear Mohshestair for Manchester, Kayvah Kohsnair for Kevin Costner, Noru-weesh for Norwich or Eddawshuildairs for Head and Shoulders, you must smile sweetly and say how absolutely perfect the speaker’s mastery of English is.  You must say this even if you haven’t understood a single word of what they’ve said.  I have been in the deeply embarrassing situation of asking someone what language they were speaking and being told it was English.  At times like those, it’s very, very difficult not to behave like a French person hearing bad French and laughing out loud.

(English gets off lightly.  Hearing a French person trying to speak German is genuinely terrible.  It’s a linguistic nightmare of the first water and is probably the reason why Esperanto was invented.)

If the French really do deliberately mangle English, I can almost understand why.  The English language - and Anglo-Saxon culture - is all-pervasive now, all over the world.  Computery is dominated by it; KFC, Subway and McDonald’s are as common in France as they are everywhere else; and popular culture has been English-based for decades.

French has been forced to adopt English words, despite the best endeavours of the Academie Francaise to keep it out - one of the most recent examples is ‘le relooking’, which is what the French call a ‘makeover’.  Weird or what.

And with ‘yogurt’, we come full circle.  This is how the French refer to a pop-singer who is trying really, really hard to sing a song in English - and doesn’t understand a single word of what they are singing.  With no knowledge of English, they’ve learned the lyrics parrot-fashion and regurgitate them to order. 

It’s chronically bad at the best of times.  At worst, it’s musical purgatory.  That it’s tricky to learn the words of a song in a language you don’t speak is no excuse at all.  If you don’t know what you’re singing about, you should sing something else - in French.  Otherwise, you run the risk of making noises that no-one understands.

I was watching the French version of The Voice the other night and two of the contestants sang songs in what I was assured was my native language.  It was complete garbage from beginning to end.  Pure French yogurt.

And this being France, when they’d finished singing, they were told (in French, by French judges) how good their English accents were.  The French are really, really good at self-satisfied mutual congratulation.

For far too long, the English have accepted the role of the world's worst language learners/speakers.  And it's true that Winston Churchill's French accent was diabolical (although the Queen's is perfect - even the French themselves grudgingly admit it).

No.  The title of the planet's worst linguists must now be passed to the French for the artless way in which, when they speak English or any other language, they make it sound as if they're speaking a combination of Ancient Greek, Swahili, Icelandic and Yoruba - backwards.


To restore the critical balance, this posting is adorned with some more pictures of Lyon, a city of which I am very, very fond indeed.


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In this blogposting...
* The Receptionist
* The Daily Wisecrack
* Romancing the Wind
Once more unto the breach...


Thanks to Brenda for sending me this...

‘Frank had an appointment to see the urologist who shared offices with several other doctors.

The waiting room was full of patients.  As he approached the receptionist's desk, he noticed that she was a large unfriendly woman who looked like a Sumo wrestler.  He gave her his name.

In a very loud voice, the receptionist said, ‘Yes, I have your name here.  You’ve come to see the doctor about impotence, right?’

All the patients in the waiting room snapped their heads around to look at the very embarrassed Frank.

He recovered quickly, and in an equally loud voice replied, ‘No, I’ve come to enquire about a sex-change operation but I don’t want the same surgeon who did yours....’’


And speaking of wisecracks...

Here’s another septic-tankful of bile-laden wisecracks received from various sources over the last few weeks.  I’m blushing as I type.  And laughing...

* We all spring from apes - but you didn’t spring far enough.
* Your dog is so stupid he chases parked cars.
* I’ll never forget the first time we met - but I’ll keep trying.
* I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening - but this wasn’t it.
* I’m busy at the moment - can I ignore you some other time?
* He’s as useless as rubber lips on a woodpecker (or - from another emailer - as useless as a windscreen-wiper on a goat’s arse)
* At least you’re not obnoxious like other people; you’re obnoxious in completely different - and much worse - ways.
* Moonlight becomes you.  Total darkness becomes you even more
* And there he was - reigning supreme at number two.
* Any friend of yours is a friend of yours.

Thanks to all contributors.  Keep ‘em coming...


Thanks, too, to the many people who have sent me this link recently.  It must be doing the rounds of the internet - and, if you watch it, you’ll see why.

The tagline that comes with it says:

‘The guy flying the 3 kites is in his 80s, and he's from Canada. He comes to the Washington State International Kite Festival every year.

His skin is like leather as he normally flies his kites with his shirt off.  He is deaf, so when he flies we hold our hands up and wave them for applause.

He flies two kites with his hands and the third is attached to his waist.


And - watch right to the end.  You will be amazed.’

If the link doesn’t work, cut and paste it into your internet browser’s Search box.


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Along with the Razzies (awarded to each year’s worst films) and the Darwins (given posthumously to particularly stupid people whose folly kills them), the Bulwer-Lytton Awards are the most anticipated event of my cultural calendar.

Each year, enthusiasts submit overblown and wayward prose in the style of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, an otherwise distinguished Victorian writer who got rather carried away with the inflated minutiae of his own verbosity.

This is the sort of opening paragraph of which the Great Man was notoriously fond...

‘It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness….’


Here, then are this year’s winning entries.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. 

OVERALL WINNER - Cathy Bryant, England
‘As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, as she noted the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodicids burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum therein, each female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, causing inflammation, whether the eyes are truly the windows of the soul; and, if so, his soul needed regrouting.’

‘As an ornithologist, George was fascinated by the fact that urine and faeces mix in birds’ rectums to form a unified, homogeneous slurry that is expelled through defecation, although eyeing Greta's face, and sensing the reaction of the congregation, he immediately realized he should have used a different analogy to describe their relationship in his wedding vows.’
WINNER:  ADVENTURE - Greg Homer, California
‘The stifling atmosphere inside the Pink Dolphin Bar in the upper Amazon Basin carried barely enough oxygen for a man to survive – humid and thick the air was and full of little flying bugs, making the simple act of breathing like trying to suck hot Campbell’s Bean with Bacon soup through a paper straw.’

‘He swaggered into the room (in which he was now the ‘smartest guy’) with a certain Wikipedic insouciance, and without skipping a beat made a beeline towards Dorothy, busting right through her knot of admirers, and she threw her arms around him and gave him a passionate though slightly tickly kiss, moaning softly, ‘Oooohh, Scarecrow!’’

WINNER:  CRIME - Sue Fondrie, Wisconsin
‘She slinked through my door wearing a dress that looked like it had been painted on … not with good paint, like Behr or Sherwin-Williams, but with that watered-down stuff that bubbles up right away if you don’t prime the surface before you slap it on, and – just like that cheap paint – the dress needed two more coats to cover her.

WINNER:  FANTASY - David Lippmann, Austin, Texas
‘The brazen walls of the ancient city of Khoresand, situated where the mighty desert of Sind meets the endless Hyrkanean steppe, are guarded by day by the four valiant knights Sir Malin the Mighty, Sir Welkin the Wake, Sir Darien the Doughty, and Sir Yrien the Yare, all clad in armor of beaten gold, and at night the walls are guarded by Sir Arden the Ardent, Sir Fier the Fearless, Sir Cyril the Courageous, and Sir Damien the Dauntless, all clad in armor of burnished argent, but nothing much ever happens.'

WINNER:  HISTORICAL FICTION - Leslie Craven, New Zealand
‘The ‘clunk’ of the guillotine blade’s release reminded Marie Antoinette, quite briefly, of the sound of the wooden leg of her favorite manservant as he not-quite-silently crossed the polished floors of Versailles to bring her another tray of petit fours.'

WINNER:  PURPLE PROSE - Guy Foisy, Ontario
‘William, his senses roused by a warm fetid breeze, hoped it was an early spring’s equinoxial thaw causing rivers to swell like the blood-engorged gumlines of gingivitis, loosening winter’s plaque, exposing decay, and allowing the seasonal pot-pourris of Mother Nature’s morning breath to permeate the surrounding ether, but then he awoke to the unrelenting waves of his wife’s halitosis.’
WINNER:  ROMANCE - Karen Hamilton, Texas
‘‘I’ll never get over him,’ she said to herself and the truth of that statement settled into her brain the way glitter settles on to a plastic landscape in a Christmas snow globe when she accepted the fact that she was trapped in bed between her half-ton boyfriend and the wall when he rolled over on to her nightgown and passed out, leaving her no way to climb out.’

WINNER:  SCIENCE FICTION - Mary E Patrick, South Carolina
‘As I gardened, gazing towards the autumnal sky, I longed to run my finger through the trail of mucus left by a single speckled slug – innocuously thrusting past my rhododendrons – and in feeling that warm slime, be swept back to planet Alderon, back into the tentacles of the alien who loved me.’

WINNER:  WESTERN - Ted Downes, Wales
‘They still talk about that fateful afternoon in Abilene, when Dancing Dan DuPre moonwalked through the doors of Fat Suzy’s saloon, made a passable reverse-turn, pirouetted twice followed by a double box-step, somersaulted onto the bar, drew his twin silver-plated Colt-45s and put twelve bullets through the eyes of the McLuskey sextuplets, on account of them varmints burning down his ranch and lynching his prize steer.’


Next year, I’m thinking of having a go myself.


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 A handsome bearded bloke - and his brother 


The first thing to say about Turkish Baths is that they were not originally Turkish at all. 

The idea of sitting around in alternately hot and cold rooms, with added swimming pools and massage, as a relaxing and cleansing therapy dates back - like so much else - to Ancient Greece.

And, also like so much else, the Romans adopted the idea and spread it round their empire.  There were versions of ‘Turkish’ Baths at their forts at Wallsend, Chesters and Housesteads.  We call them ‘Turkish’ because, although the Roman Empire perished early on here in the west, it survived until the 15th century in the east, with its capital at Byzantium - which became Constantinople and finally Istanbul.

So it was there - in what became the Ottoman Empire - that the concept and design of hot/damp and cold/dry bathing reached its most sophisticated and luxurious levels.

Remember, too, that the original Graeco-Roman idea spread much further than the boundaries of the Empire or even of the Mediterranean, changing emphases as it travelled.  In Scandinavia - and particularly in Finland - it grew into the sauna; intensely hot and dry, then ice-cold, with the massage replaced by birch-twigs! 

In Russia and eastern Europe, it developed into the hot mud-baths still extremely popular there, although there are also fully-functioning Turkish Baths in many places in Hungary.

And, because of the influence of the Ottomans, hot, steamy baths are still very common in north Africa, from Egypt to Morocco, as well as in Syria and even in India.

We call them ‘Turkish’ Baths because that’s what the men who introduced them to Britain called them - ardent Victorian turcophiles called David Urquhart and Richard Barter.  They opened the first one in Ireland in 1856 and the idea took off.  By 1860, Manchester and London had Turkish Bath-houses.

Their popularity was long-lived, too, outlasting the Victorian era by several decades.  Newcastle’s Turkish Bath, designed in what was by then the traditional, opulent, Art Deco ‘eastern’ style, opened in the 1930s and has been popular ever since.

But not, unfortunately, popular enough these days.

The cost of maintaining and operating Turkish Baths (or ‘hamams’), and the rather ‘old-fashioned’ Victorian design of authentic ones, has resulted in their gradual demise all over the country.  Britain once had over 600 of them.  There are now just eight in England - in London, Birmingham, Carlisle, Doncaster, Harrogate, Northampton, Swindon and Newcastle - and two in Scotland - in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

And if Newcastle City Council gets its way, there will soon be one fewer.  They intend to close our Turkish Bath at the end of March.

I have visited it twice now.  On the first occasion, it was with my brother Barry, who lived in Istanbul for a few years and is probably even more of a turcophile than David Urquhart was.

Most recently, we were joined by my old sparring partner, Paul, who - I’m glad to say - was just as amazed by how wonderful it is as my brother and I were.
 The cubicle passage, palm and cupola

There are palm trees and mosaics, heavy oak panelling, big comfy leather sofas, old-fashioned curtained changing cubicles (with couches and side-lights for you to read by if you want) and the walls are adorned with prints of Victorian pictures.

Inside the Bath itself, there’s a very hot steam vapour room and three ‘dry’ rooms maintained at different temperatures.  There are marble massage tables, a whirlpool bath and several open showers.
A massage table and the whirlpool bath
You can buy a coffee or cold drink, too, and there’s usually a bowl of fruit - sliced oranges and melons - on offer.

If it sounds astonishing - well, it is.  It is self-indulgence of the kind that looks over-indulgent these days.  And that, I suppose, is its problem.

Although it is a cultural and architectural asset to the city, the Council - exhibiting the kind of crass philistinism not unknown amongst local authorities - will find it easy to shut it down.  Tastes, they will say, have changed and they will say that not enough people use the Turkish Bath to justify the cost of running it.

For a new enthusiast like me, though, there is another side to the discussion.

Paul and I were on-air together for over 5 years, excluding the early, Saturday morning programmes we did.  Throughout the Blue Bus’s career we were never invited to visit the Turkish Bath, with or without the Bus.  Our producers and ourselves were not even aware of its existence.  Then as now, the Council does not promote it or advertise it, even though the experience of visiting it is so jaw-dropping - and even though it is a listed building of great rarity in England.

You get the feeling, when you’re there, that the Council has deliberately allowed the hamam to fall into disrepair so as to justify its eventual closure.

Unfortunately, their ruse will work.  We live in cash-strapped times and, while councils are closing day-care centres, nurseries and other essential facilities, an appeal not to shut a Turkish Bath will sound frivolous - a fact they are relying on.

Nevertheless, all three of us - my brother, Paul and I - believe that there must be a way of keeping the hamam open.  It’s such a treasure and for so many reasons, that someone, somewhere must have the nous - the gumption - to think of a way of saving it.  It would be a long-term tragedy for Newcastle to lose an asset of this vintage and of this quality.

If you want to know what I mean, visit it yourself.  It’s part of the City Pool complex (all of which will be closing down) and a three-hour visit will only cost you about £7 - a fiver if you’re over 60.  Go on - it’s worth it.  Do it before it’s too late.
The hamam's resident evil spirit

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