Category Archives: Personal

Downtrodden Towns Depressing

Look along any high street In Britain, especially after the 5.30pm closing time for most UK retail stores and the view is largely bleak. There is a “sameness” involved in the types of big name shops you see and a similar amount of dereliction as well. Sadly many properties are closed permanently and boarded up; there is a plethora of charity and coffee shops and small independent stores are a rare commodity to find. Pubs if they have managed to survive high business rates and rents tend to be open for business.

Recent news of the difficulties House of Fraser and Debenhams have endured has sent shock waves through the retail sector. John Lewis has admitted a reduction in their profits as well. With such big department stores “feeling the pinch” it’s a worrying time for the little shop on the corner (if such a thing exists anymore).

Say what you like about McDonalds and Wetherspoons pubs, but they can offer a ray of light on the high street. They offer a reliable, quick, consistent menu and usually dependable service wherever you go, and are normally open quite late into the night. Take them away and a place like Crewe town centre is immediately “dead”.  Look along the main road in Stoke after 5.30pm on a week day and you see boarded up premises, charity shops closed for business, some takeaways not yet open, a bingo/games arcade and the Wetherspoons pub lights shining brightly, offering a refuge from the bitter winter weather. In nearby Hanley, the main thoroughfare between the bus station and the relatively new cinema/restaurant development behind the Potteries Shopping Centre is closed for evening business. The exceptions are McDonalds, Wetherspoons and some other smaller pubs. There are a few places to eat dotted randomly around in the direction of the theatre, if you know where they are. Many of these establishments have opened in various guises only to close fairly quickly. It’s quite a walk from the bus station to the cinema/food court and then onto the theatre. So the well known fast food chain and pub both situated closer to the bus station and theatre, offer the only quick way of getting an “easy on the pocket” meal before a show.

The bus station in Crewe town centre is in a somewhat dilapidated state and all the shops backing onto it have closed. Even charity shops with 25/30 years of business in the area have gone. The desolate air isn’t helped by the reduction of buses using it after shop closing times due to outlying areas suffering transport cuts. The whole site has been subject to redevelopment speculation for years, and I think work was finally due to begin this summer. The promise I believe is a big retail/multi cinema/restaurant complex, but of course nothing has happened yet! In January 2018 the Wetherspoons pub closed and McDonalds was gone by Easter. Suddenly my late night refuge after doing hospital radio shifts (pub), and reliable eating joints before/after events were gone. Having tried three different places to eat at various times of the week and day, I know how bad things are in Crewe. During a shopping trip on a weekday afternoon my lunch order was forgotten, and I was sitting beside the till! In two other places I did get fed eventually, but almost missed a football match and theatre meet and greet, despite ordering 2.5 hours before the event. Having spoken to other theatre goers they had experienced similar problems around the area in different establishments. The Lyceum theatre does have a small restaurant inside, but the catering isn’t always available for performances. So the whole area is desolate once the big coffee shops and Subway close (by 6.30pm), with only some pubs and Asda open late. People have no doubt already changed their shopping patterns since shops like BHS folded and M&S moved to a retail park, and it will take a lot to bring them back into the town centre. I’m not sure if the new development (if it happens) will be enough of an incentive.

It’s much the same scenario around the country, with more and more shops either relocating to out of town retail parks or simply closing altogether. Of course this means that the choice people have is vastly reduced, as shopping options are minimised and access to a car becomes a necessity. Inevitably this does mean that towns will develop that downtrodden look and air of desolation. Perhaps if more people actually LIVED within the vicinity of the high street things could be improved.

In saying that however, a report out on November 2nd suggested that “unhealthy high streets” can reduce life expectancy by about 2.5 years! Stoke-on-Trent ranked fourth worst in the areas surveyed (70), which I’m not surprised about, but I think Crewe is far worse. Libraries, pharmacies, health food outlets, coffee shops and pubs (for sense of community) gave a higher ranking, whilst betting shops, tanning salons and fast food outlets gave lower scores. Again not surprising, yet a distinct sense of wealth or lack of it comes into play here. When you look at the highest ranked areas Edinburgh comes out top, with Canterbury, York, Brighton & Hove and Cambridge all in the top ten. Many have a thriving tourist industry and/or are university cities. Knowing some of these top areas have quite impoverished districts makes the report somewhat skewed. So not everything is quite as it may seem, but what is indisputable is that the British High Street is down at heel and in need of help.

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Britain a Two-Tier Society

I’ve always known that the UK is a two-tier society, yet recent news reports and discussion programmes seem to suggest the issue is a new concept, or worse ask if the country is about to slip into this state of affairs! Seriously get real, just look around you, the stark economic contrast between people is vast. And I can’t see the imminent new budget announcement (Oct 29th 2018) bringing much consolation.

One report I read concerned young home owners trapped in a “car culture” due to living in new build estates on the periphery of towns. These areas had and I quote “no doctors, no pub, no schools, no jobs”, and so the use of a car was essential to have access to any kind of meaningful amenity.  I know of a few areas just like that built in the 60s and 70s so that’s nothing new, although quite possibly these houses were initially “council estates” with rented properties. And they may well have been serviced by a reasonably decent public transport system at the time. But neither statement is true anymore, with many council properties having been bought up (and never replaced) and public transport links slashed due to government cutbacks. So the young home owners find themselves saddled with extortionate mortgages and tethered to their private ownership transport. Some living in the older styled estates may well be original tenants of the area, are older now with much reduced income, and could find themselves in less well maintained properties, trapped by a reduced public service, with no means of owning their own transport. Two sides of the same coin, although the younger group have an element of choice in the matter.

Closures of post offices (even those small kiosk ones in shops are going now), the disappearance of bank branches and even cash withdrawal machines, are making it ever harder for people to have easy access to financial amenities. Not EVERYONE has access to, or uses, online banking (an urban myth). Then add in the closure/amalgamation of schools due to falling numbers, libraries, doctors’ surgeries, pubs and shops all shutting their doors forever. The heart of communities are  ripped out as a result, and you end up with areas that seem suspiciously like the new build estates, with transport being the crux to getting access to anything. Areas become backwaters with regard to access to amenities in comparison to larger towns and cities.

I grew up in the 70s and 80s on a Scottish council estate, two working parents, neither of whom could drive. Public transport was the only way for us to get around. The idea of “choosing a high school” was broached for the first time just before I was due to move on from my primary class in 1981. My Dad, who had never shown any interest in my education before, suddenly wanted me to go to his old high school; my mammy wanted me to move on with my classmates to the “catchment area” school. When Dad discovered the free bus pass offered for Coltness High was not transferable to his beloved Wishaw High, he dropped his argument. So today’s ideal of “having a choice of school for kids” still rings hollow with me, because many decisions will be down to family economics/dynamics. When I left school and was looking for work, my choices of jobs (area/hours) was directly influenced by public transport access that fitted with the job description. The reason I ended up working in Glasgow was that my village had a good late night running train service, including Saturdays, so I could work overtime in the bank when needed. Local buses and local jobs were not necessarily compatible.

The only way for a good majority of people to get to work/leisure activities/visit family is by having their own transport, and it’s a good job they do.  Looking at bus timetables (I don’t drive) and seeing the ever growing reduction of services is alarming. Some areas don’t have any bus services at all, whilst others have seen weekend/evening services cut off. This has resulted in people needing to get home before dark, and giving up activities (even jobs) they can no longer attend. Personally I can still get to my volunteering in Crewe, but it requires my husband to collect me in the car at night.

A Victoria Derbyshire show last week (Thursday Oct 25th) discussed the issue of disability and ethnic minorities being disadvantaged and marginalised in British society. The question seemed to be “are we heading for a two-speed society? I think it’s fairly obvious that we already are in one, and have for a long time.  Both groups certainly have to fight much harder for their basic rights and needs to be met, although a general decline in benefits and public spending within education and the NHS exacerbates the problem and affects everyone, particularly kids, the elderly and those with disabilities.

New house builds usually cost far in excess of what the average wage earner can afford, and “private” rents have ever increased, especially with the reduction in building affordable rented housing. Combine this with general low wages, zero-hour contracts and benefits becoming more inaccessible due to threshold changes, and you have a perfect storm. Homelessness and the use of food banks are rising exponentially and many feel caught in a poverty trap, even those in work. And until everyone has the same basic level of access to amenities for housing, work, transport, health, education and play, Britain will continue to remain a two-tier, two-speed society.

Midpoint of World Cup 2018

After 32 games of World Cup football in Russia we are at the half way stage of the tournament, with every team having played two of their three qualifying matches.  Already guaranteed through to the next round are Russia, Uruguay, Croatia, England, Belgium, France and possibly Mexico. Definitely going home are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Peru, Costa Rica, South Korea, Tunisia, Panama and Poland. That’s half of the participating teams, so the other 16 have a battle to secure a top two finish in their qualifying tables.

So far there has been no goal-less draws, but almost a third of matches have ended with a solitary goal victory, many of them scored very late in the game. The 32 games produced 85 goals, 13 of them coming from 16 penalties awarded, with VAR responsible for six penalty decisions. Undoubtedly this tournament will see the most penalties ever awarded, and probably as a consequence will directly influence the number of goals scored by the Golden Boot winner.

The host nation Russia got off to a blistering start in Group A with a 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia, opponents who were deemed alongside Russia as the WORST teams in the tournament. Russia followed with a 3-1 win against Egypt securing their place in the next round. ITV pundit Roy Keane was scathing about Russia progressing, although he begrudgingly admitted it was good for the host nation to do well. His attitude disgusted me, considering many of the BIG teams have still yet to really impress.

Group B produced a thrilling 3-3 draw between Portugal & Spain and a surprise 1-0 win for Iran, courtesy of a Morocco own goal. I was pleased for Iran who had doggedly fought to get a point in the game. As a team Iran have not had it easy with political sanctions causing problems with boot supplies, and a ban on replica merchandise sales makes revenue difficult to generate.

Group C with France, Australia, Denmark and Peru have scored the least number of goals with only 7 between them so far. The stand out performance for me has been Jedinak’s two penalties for Australia.

In Group D I felt sorry for Iceland failing to secure victory over Argentina, missing numerous chances to enhance a 1-0 lead before the South Americans equalised. Argentina was well and truly hammered by Croatia 3-0, and must secure a win against Nigeria to have any chance of progressing. The South Americans looked mediocre at best.

Brazil in Group E was held to a 1-1 draw by Switzerland before winning 2-0 against Costa Rica. They were lucky, because until 90 minutes it was 0-0 and I so wanted little Costa Rica to secure a point. But then 7 extra minutes were played and the Brazilians finally turned on the style, although Neymar should have been off the pitch. Throughout the game he repeatedly told the referee what he thought about everything, I’d have slapped a yellow on him to shut his mouth. Then he spectacularly went down in the box, the referee awarded a penalty then bravely reversed his decision having consulted VAR. By rights Neymar should have had a booking for simulation, but eventually he did get yellow carded for dissent. So I feel his petulant attitude could have seen him red carded, therefore he wouldn’t have been on the field to score Brazil’s second goal. Far more convincing a victory was Switzerland’s 2-1 result over Serbia.

Mexico beat Germany 1-0 to get Group F off to an interesting start and then secured a 2-1 win over South Korea. With six points Mexico should progress, but it is not a mathematical guarantee yet. Germany v Sweden was an intriguing match with both teams having a sublime and awful half each. In the second half Germany equalised immediately, and for the remainder of the game Sweden had eleven men behind the ball! Giving away a needless free kick in extra time allowed Tony Kroos to score and snatch victory for Germany. The reigning champions until that moment were almost out of the tournament. Heart in mouth stuff!!!

The first game for England against Tunisia in Group G proved that VAR suffers from human error. At least twice England players were literally wrestled to the ground in the box, and nothing was “seen” by VAR or the referee? Thankfully Harry Kane’s header in the dying seconds of the match secured a 2-1 victory. When England faced Panama the wrestling demonstrations in the box were punished by VAR twice, and another four goals were added to the tally from set pieces. A late goal from Panama saw England on exactly the same statistics as Belgium, 8 goals for 2 against with six points each. Both European teams meet in their final group match and a win result would separate the two, otherwise it may go down to “fair play” (least bookings) or a draw out of a pot to place first and second teams. But after two games Group G has the highest goals tally of 20.

A lacklustre Poland in Group H tasted defeat against Senegal and a scintillating Columbia, ensuring an early exit for the group’s only European representative. Columbia in their first match had a man sent off in the third minute for a deliberate handball in the box, so basically played with ten men for over ninety minutes with added time. They did well to equalise before half time, but couldn’t come back a second time after Japan’s Osako scored with a lovely header. So Japan secured an unexpected 2-1 victory and then battled for a hard won 2-2 draw with Senegal, meaning both teams are on four points with identical statistics. Columbia face Senegal and Japan face Poland in the final group matches and all is still to play for, it’s still wide open.

So many times the big teams prove their ability to slug out a match, waiting to pounce on a fleeting opportunity to showcase a bit of genius. Many of them do just enough to get by and no more, and this does not usually make for attractive or thrilling football in my opinion. I’d much rather see teams with perceived less ability, but who show more heart, progress instead. Initially that happens but inevitably the “big guns” grind down the young pretenders. But one day I’d love to see two World Cup finalists who have never reached that stage before. I can but dream.

Social Media Discovery & World Cup Blogging

It was eight years ago when I began to embrace social media and in general the potential of the internet.

My mobile phone wasn’t connected in any way to the internet, it had no apps or means to log into my subscription email account, which I periodically checked using my laptop. My computer operating system was about to become vulnerable to internet use due to it not being supported for future updates. So a crunch time was approaching, especially with my husband enthusing about Twitter and suggesting I really should consider joining Facebook. So with the purchase of a small pay as you go mobile phone (INQ Chat 3G) I got a Gmail, Twitter and Facebook account and a means to check my emails “on the go”. My social media discovery and tentative internet searches had begun.

Shortly after this epiphany, my husband Rob came across an internet competition looking for official FA Fan Bloggers for the World Cup in South Africa. He mentioned it to me; I entered and won a place on the team. The idea was that all English teams (92 I think) would have a representative writing about the World Cup through blogging, where posts would be uploaded onto a dedicated website for the event. My team were Port Vale because at the time I was a volunteer commentator for them. I’d never blogged before nor uploaded anything onto the internet. The content ideas and writing wasn’t a problem but the technical issues were, with my husband using his computers initially to upload stuff for me. It was obvious I needed a new laptop and some quick lessons, on how to access the dedicated website and upload my blogs. For part of the tournament Rob would be away, so I had to go on a fast learning curve. But I managed to grapple with learning to use my new laptop along with accessing the website. All blogs had to be scrutinised by the FA and considered suitably appropriate, so there was a time lag between the uploading process and website publication. So it was a bit annoying that my last two reports didn’t get officially onto the website, despite being sent in good time. But the operation was closed down within about 2-3 days of the final whistle! As a memento I printed off all my musings, including lists of every team player, and made it into a book. If I may say so it does look rather good.

So the World Cup will forever be associated with my initial forays into blogging. My husband had his own personal blog and persistently encouraged me to do the same. Although I had really enjoyed my World Cup reporter status in 2010 I had felt the pressure, rather like a professional journalist with deadlines to keep and an audience to satisfy. I wanted to do things properly from start to finish, and I did fully cover the South African tournament.

Rob pointed out that with my own blog page I’d have total editorial control and could suit myself. But I didn’t think I had anything to say or write about, so it wasn’t until 2014 that I relented. The 30th anniversary of Torvill & Dean’s Bolero victory was coming up, the Sochi Winter Olympics were imminent, and summer 2014 would see the World Cup held in Brazil. So many ideas, knowledge and feelings about these events rattled around my head, they needed a proper outlet to be expressed. And so my Angies Allsorts blog was born in February 2014 and I’ve never looked back. Shortly after this new personal adventure began, I surprised myself by taking up the reins as a horse racing pundit for a friend’s website, and spent a year doing this too. As the website developed in a new direction, my equine musings found themselves stabled in my Allsorts blog instead.

By 2014 I was in possession of a smart phone with apps to keep me updated on news and sport events. It was also my main resource for internet searches as well, helping me broaden a blog idea, or clarify information I already had. So as the 2018 World Cup is about to start, I look back at the 2010 and 2014 tournaments as significant moments that enabled my social media and personal blogging experiences to develop.

 

Chess the Musical Review

On Saturday May 19th 2018 the day Prince Harry married Meghan Markle; I saw an ENO production of Chess and witnessed a very different, intriguing kind of love story portrayed on the London Coliseum stage. Four people caught up in a maelstrom of emotion bound together and/or torn apart by the demands of East/West political neuroses and the game of chess. The performance was spell-binding, thought provoking and a joy to watch and I felt privileged to be in the audience.

In the first act Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Michael Ball) travels to Merano Italy for the World Chess Federation Championship, where he is to face American champion Frederick Trumper (Tim Howar).  The differing nature of both men’s countries was brilliantly portrayed at the opening ceremony, contrasting between the regimented goose stepping military display from the Russian delegation, to the freedom loving, casual, and commercialised pom-pom wielding cheerleaders of the US. As the battle commenced between the chess players the East/West backdrop of history was cleverly depicted through video montage, chronicling the political statesmen behind the scenes who shaped their countries foreign policy from the beginnings of the Cold War. Successive historical events appeared in the narrative (Sputnik, Cuba Missile Crisis, Man on the Moon, Afghanistan invasion by Russia) and thus the chess showdown progressed between Anatoly and Freddie. The American eventually conceded victory to his Russian counterpart, and then promptly announced his retirement from the game. Both men had strained relations with their seconds (US-Florence, Russia-Molokov), and I don’t doubt this played a factor in Sergievsky defecting and seeking asylum in the West, after his victory was secured. Florence (Cassidy Janson) disgusted at Trumper’s manipulative & violent behaviour runs from her American lover, into the compassionate arms of the Russian and helps him negotiate the trials of Western burocracy.

Back in Moscow Svetlana Sergievsky (Alexandra Burke) hears of her husband’s defection plan through a TV news report. Her lament “Someone Else’s Story” was heartbreaking and Burke’s emotive performance truly expressed a woman subsumed by events beyond her control or understanding. Meanwhile back in the West, the eccentricities of the British foreign office/civil service were amusingly depicted by a scene where dark suited men in bowler hats and wielding brollies, sang and danced a number called “Embassy Lament”. This was reminiscent of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance Policeman’s Song. Video montages of documents with endless words, several heavily underlined, all stamped “pending” “not approved” formed the backdrop (nothing has changed there). A press conference is held to announce the Russian’s defection and when challenged Anatoly silences his critics with the thunderous “Anthem” which brought the first half to a climatic finish. Michael Ball’s rendition was sensational and the hairs on the back of my neck were standing on end.

When the second act begins a year has passed, Anatoly and Florence are lovers and the World Federation Chess Championship is due to commence in Bangkok Thailand. Molokov has trained a new chess protégé Leonid Viigand to challenge Sergievsky the reigning champion. He has also persuaded Svetlana to travel to Bangkok with her son to confront her estranged husband. Freddie now a TV commentator experiences the delights of “One Night in Bangkok” and discovers from Molokov that Florence’s father long believed dead (at the hands of the Soviets) is alive, but has suffered for decades imprisonment in Russia. Molokov (Phillip Browne) hopes this news, and Svetlana’s arrival in the Orient will be enough to blackmail Anatoly into throwing the game, even though he seems supremely confident in his young protégé when singing “The Soviet Machine”. There were some very deep resonant notes in this song which hinted at a brooding menace, and Browne carried them off superbly. This scene struck me as being very similar in style to one in Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye agrees to his daughter marrying the butcher. The men drink a toast to the arrangement (which falls through) and Russians in the bar drink and dance in merriment of the occasion. Nothing works out quite the way it was supposed to in Fiddler, and I suspected the same was going to happen here.

Freddie interviews Anatoly for his TV network, but throws him off guard by announcing that Svetlana is to join them. Anatoly storms off to join Florence off-camera where a heated confrontation occurs, with the Russian emphatically stating “NOTHING must get in the way of my winning the game. I will deal with this other stuff later”. Charming I thought as Anatoly stomped off like a spoiled child, leaving Florence alone to face witnessing Freddie interview Svetlana. The sheer brilliance of the staging for “I Know Him So Well” was breathtaking, as both Cassidy Janson & Alexandra Burke performed this heart rending duet. The video montage juxtaposed both their images together, two women expressing very individual interpretations of their love for the same man, fused together like one heart beating, yet separate entities sharing the same confusion, hope and despair. I was mesmerised by these two extraordinary women, felt oddly empowered, yet was desperately fighting back the tears as well. AMAZING and quite rightly the song received rapturous applause for a couple of minutes afterwards.

Svetlana (under Molokov’s influence) implores her estranged husband to lose the chess match for the sake of their son; life would be made difficult if he didn’t comply. Freddie (colluding with Molokov) tells Florence her father is alive and will be freed from prison if Anatoly forfeits the game. But neither Florence nor Anatoly agree to any match fixing and Freddie is left alone with his thoughts. An apparent mental breakdown seems to occur in Trumper through the utterly devastating “Pity the Child”, which was met by thunderous applause. The tears of Tim Howar seemed totally real as the actor immersed himself into his character’s troubled childhood, and effectively expressed Freddie Trumper’s love of chess as the saviour of his soul. After this redemptive moment Freddie leaves Sergievsky with some tips on how to beat Leonid Viigand, having spotted a weakness in his game.

As the tournament begins there is almost an Ode to Chess as previous world champions’ names are honoured. Tightly fought matches occur between Anatoly and Leonid and with the score at 5-5, a wonderful four way harmony “Endgame” sung by Freddie, Florence, Svetlana and Molokov heralds the decider where Anatoly gets checkmate. He retains his world title and dignity, maintains the honour of the game, but relinquishes his love for Florence and his political asylum. Sergievsky decides to return to his motherland having made an agreement with Molokov, that in return Florence’s father will be released from prison in Russia. Anatoly realises he’s a pawn in a far bigger game, but sacrifices himself in order for Florence to be reunited with her father. Throughout the story this deep rooted issue has haunted her, but now she can gain peace by the Russian’s grand expression of total love. The final scene finds Anatoly & Florence sadly acknowledge their time together is at an end as they sing “You and I”. What an incredible love story portrayed in such an innovative way.

The casting was superb, the singing and orchestration sublime and the setting in London’s Coliseum stunning. And I particularly appreciated the video graphics at either side of the stage, which enabled the audience to see the main characters up close. This was a revelation, particularly seeing the illuminating facial expressions of Alexandra Burke which gave her solos a whole new meaning. But the over-riding feeling I had as the show ended was just how brilliant the music was. I only knew two songs in the production “One Night in Bangkok” and “I Know Him So Well, although I wasn’t fully aware of their context in the storyline. Everything else was totally new to me, and I marvelled at the sheer genius of Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice, although Rice really worked on the lyrics side, which in themselves are clever and poignant.

During the chess competition between Trumper and Sergievsky the music sounded so distinctly Russian in style, you would have thought it came from a composer like Borodin. Yet the Merano bar entertainment sounded like original European alpine music, the foreign office British interlude was perfect, whilst the soundscape of Bangkok seemed so authentic you would swear it emerged from the Orient. And the two main composers of this smorgasbord of music styles are Swedish! Being a huge ABBA fan I always knew how clever Benny and Bjorn are, but Chess exhibits their true genius beautifully. Of course Andersson and Ulvaeus background in the pop genre meant the razzmatazz of American popular music was easy to achieve. But I thought a perfect blend of Russian and American influences was cleverly created in the character of the chess judge Arbiter (Cedric Neal). The depth of some notes this actor had to achieve was phenomenal and rather like American Paul Robeson in style. Yet at other times a truly classical Russian delivery was evident to my ears, and the range of notes produced were positively operatic. Neal managed this difficult task with aplomb. And I couldn’t help but chuckle, as I thought his character came across as a Jay Leno TV larger than life persona, mixed with pure unadulterated Oprah Winfrey charisma. What a combination.

Sydney “Absolutely” Devine In Motherwell

Cleland born entertainer Sydney Devine positively “rocked” Motherwell’s Civic Centre with an electric 90 minute performance on Friday 20th April. Syd’s I’m Back tour returned him to the bosom of his ain folk for the first time in almost twenty years.

The audience, suitably warmed up by the first half acts, always a comedian, a singer and Sydney’s band Legend, awaited with eager anticipation the stage presence of Devine. The arrival of Sydney onto the stage is always heralded by the strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra. As this faded the concert began with “Stop” part of a high octane frenetic paced 10 minute 10 song medley (at least, I lost count).

What followed was a glorious repertoire of songs, the number so numerous because of the longevity of Sydney’s career. He was a boy entertainer long before he left school and turned professional aged 15, and he is still going strong at 78! A nod to his boyhood stardom came from “If I Were A Blackbird” where Syd both sang and unleashed his wonderful bird song whistling, the thing that got him first noticed. Yodelling came into play as well, along with the “Elvis” style knee trembling. In style there has always been an Elvis type quality about Devine’s delivery, not surprising when he sang The King’s songs as The Tartan Rocker, touring in Europe with The White Heather Group back in the 50s & 60s. At one performance Elvis Presley himself was in the building witnessing the Scotsman on stage.

Songs of different tempo and style were included in the playlist,  with several characters acknowledged “Maggie”, “Kelly”, “Laura”, “Honky Tonk Angels” and “Fraulein’” to name a few, whilst “Nobody’s Child” was sung as a tribute to The Alexander Brothers. Other titles I recall being performed include-Save The Last Dance For Me; Eighteen Yellow Roses; A Room Full Of Roses; Cryin’ Time; Make The World Go Away; I Fall To Pieces; Married By The Bible; Pretty Woman; Can’t Help Falling In Love; Crystal Chandeliers and Tiny Bubbles. Audience participation always ensures bubbles float over a part of the auditorium when Tiny Bubbles makes an appearance! Oddly one of Sydney’s three stalwart songs didn’t make the cut and that was “Legend In My Time”.

Knowing the mournful quality of many songs that Sydney performs, I was aware of the carefully crafted playlist created for the show. Not surprising considering the heartache the Devine family have endured recently, when Sydney and his wife Shirley unexpectedly lost their eldest son Gary aged 58 to sepsis.  About an hour into the show Syd slowed the pace with a dedication section, reading out greetings and singing requested songs not already covered. This is where Devine showed his real professionalism, bravely covering most of two songs “The Lightning Express” and “Long Black Veil”, but wisely avoiding the saddest parts. He also used this quieter period to acknowledge his band members and their loyalty to him, particularly Dave on electric guitar 36 years, Dougie slide guitar 42 years and Bill Garden on keyboards 46 years service.

Returning to the show again, Syd began a very moving and emotionally charged section for me. I don’t recall him ever singing “How Great Thou Art” (Mammy favourite hymn) and “The Old Rugged Cross” (Granny favourite hymn) together before. It was like the two most influential women in my life, both long gone, were with me enjoying the show. These were followed by “The Answer To Everything” which always gets me. When Syd sings “do you love me, really love me, as I love you” and the audience scream YES, it’s a spiritual experience. Performer and audience share one heart together in those moments, and it never fails to catch my breath. During “The Answer To Everything” Sydney found himself unexpectedly sharing the stage, accompanied by a fan wearing a red cowboy hat. Whilst the Civic staff had been rigidly enforcing their “no photo” policy, this guy had managed to evade their eye, launch himself from his seat and hurtle onto the stage. He threw his arm around Syd, kissed him and was happy to mouth a few words of the song with his idol. Devine looked a bit flustered by this but continued the show seamlessly, although I don’t think the cowboy seen the show finale, which is always “Scotland Forever”.

The Motherwell crowd enjoyed one and a half hours of sheer unadulterated entertainment, provided by a 78 year old man who is a performer to his fingertips. His vocal range (3 octaves I think) is still there, deep resonances to high heady notes are still knocked out very pleasantly with gutsy conviction. Proof that Sydney Devine is truly a “Legend In My Time” came to me in Glasgow the day before the concert. Walking around a large department store carrying an overnight bag, I was asked three times if I was visiting. Each time I replied I was up to see a Sydney Devine show in Motherwell. Each woman (from three generations) though not professing to being a fan, gave me a big smile and named a different song-“Eighteen Yellow Roses”, “Crystal Chandeliers” and “Tiny Bubbles”. How many other entertainers can say they have made that kind of indelible imprint on the nations psyche?

When the concert finished a throng of people awaited Sydney, all keen to have a word, get a photo or autograph. Every one of them would be met and greeted with humble thanks, charm and good grace. I had a last bus to catch so couldn’t stay, but I managed to grab a photo before leaving.  It was a wonderful show, thanks for the memories Sydney, we love you.

Sydney Devine Waits To Meet Fans. Image credit abmj

The Tale of Two Washing Machines

The story begins with the Hotpoint Aquarius range coming off the production lines in April 2000, that’s the date on the instruction book anyway. Checking the household accounts, our linen-coloured WMA32 model was purchased from the GUS (Great Universal Stores) catalogue in August that year for the cost of £484.89. Hettie Hotpoint-Jackson gave faithful service over the years and continued to do so until her departure yesterday. But signs of late on-set teenage tantrums had been discerned since last September, and my nerves became rather frayed at dealing with them. A younger child would have to be adopted to take up the family laundry business.

I knew Hettie’s moods and voice intimately and I noticed a different timbre in her voice last September. She also developed a sudden interest in the art of dancing, initially taking form with a gentle shuffle with some rattling accompaniment. At the end of her performances I was aware her footprint had moved about an inch to the left. I would monitor this new development carefully. Gradually over the months her dancing craze became more animated and laundry days turned into “hug a machine” mode, as frenetic river-dancing took hold. This was partnered by full on percussion of drums and timpani joining in. The orchestration sounded particularly violent at times, followed by a quieter mellower mode when the shuffle dance returned. Every time I switched the machine on my heart was in my mouth wondering if the load would finish, or if the clothes would be stranded in a locked machine drum full of water. As Hettie’s tantrums grew worse I nursed her along with ever smaller loads, using slower spins to ease her pains. Having private insurance I could have had her examined, but last time the doctor was so bolshie, I was put off. And with her age, the prospect of buying a newer model was becoming a better idea, despite the hassle it would cause. So in the meantime I got what needed to be washed done, leaving the winter woollies and the heavy duty sheets and towels, until I had no choice but to tackle them. The pile of winter jumpers turned out easy enough to do; the sheets produced bigger strops and then the towels. OMG!!! Hettie’s Riverdance obsession hit new heights as she spectacularly leapt several inches off the floor, crashing back to earth and four inches from her start position. A full percussion section framed this spectacle. I felt sick and relief flooded me as the wash cycle finally ended. Somehow she had not done irreparable damage to herself and I managed to nurse her for several weeks after this event. But my psyche toward Hettie was damaged, and research really began with a temporary Which Guide subscription arranged in February (although I had mentioned wanting this in November). I narrowed it down eventually to an all singing-dancing (pardon the pun) Bosch, or a reliable nicely programmed Bush model.

So this was the backdrop to us taking delivery of our new Bosch machine. His first delivery attempt with disconnect old/connect the new model failed, because Hettie’s connector valves were malfunctioning and the water could not be switched off in any way. The guy wasn’t impressed either when he saw our pipe work and the draining tube going into the sink. So the machine returned to the depot. We would have to get Keele plumbers into fix the connector valves at the very least and preferably connect the new machine too. The inner pipe work eccentricities of our flats mean that only Keele plumbers can fully understand them anyway. Negotiations took place between Rob, Keele and AO.com and a new delivery date was set. It transpired that any outside person would be required to have completed a Keele certified safety course, before undertaking ANY kind of work in the flat! That was news to us, and a complete contrast to the remote off-hand attitude of Staffs Housing Association, who we had to go through before. They just left us to our own devices. Keele are all over us like a rash by comparison, which is good in a way, because our museum piece boiler is always maintained to perfection, we’ve had CO, heat and smoke detectors installed and are checked annually, and new wiring a few years back. So it’s rather nice that Estates care enough now to be hands on, and it gave us someone to approach with our dilemma.

Having been flooded at least twice through other peoples’ machines not being connected properly, I can see why Keele are so jumpy now. And as I’ve said, the foibles of  the flats infrastructure means that only Keele guys would know how to carry out work, and not flood the place in the process. So the Bosch was delivered Tuesday night and Gareth turned up first thing on Wednesday morning, to fix the connectors and hook the newbie up. My heart sank when even Gareth showed an element of surprise/dismay at the state of our pipes. The upshot was he would have to fix the connectors, seal the hot water one because washing machines tend to be cold fill only now, and it would need to be plumbed in properly. Pipes draining into sinks are a health and safety hazard with contaminated water, which I knew, but we were operating on a lack of support for over twenty years. So the under sink cupboards had to be emptied and then Gareth cheerfully set about his task.

He was absolutely brilliant, knowledgeable, quick and efficient. As we chatted he talked of the very hard water wrecking havoc on washers and connectors, and how Keele’s miles of pipe work are a law to themselves. We discussed the merits of machine models (Miele, Samsung, Bosch, Hotpoint) as he will have to replace his own washer soon. On discovering that he had been told Bosch didn’t engineer their machines in Germany anymore but in Britain I quipped, “Well as long as young Beau here doesn’t go all Brexit on me I’ll be happy”. That raised a big smile. When the job was done, our all white Bosch baby was fully plumbed into new under sink pipe work (a bonus) and I patted Hettie goodbye as she was towed away.

I haven’t tried the new machine yet, that awaits my return from a trip to Scotland at the weekend. There is a lovely large basket full of sheets and towels to be done, and I’m sure Beau Rex (he is kingly looking, and it’s from T-Rex as he’s a 21st century boy) Bosch-Jackson will do a splendid job. Welcome to your new home my son.