Pie in the Sky

I don’t watch much TV, but late at night, when I’ve finished my writing for the day, I often watch things on catch-up, or on the various channels which offer repeats of old series. At the moment I’m watching ‘Pie in the Sky’ which is a very gentle police procedural, starring Richard Griffiths as a detective who owns a restaurant – ‘Pie in the Sky’ of course! he wants to retire from the police on concentrate on cooking marvellous food, but he is forever being drawn back to solve cases, which he does in the eccentric way TV cops do!

It was first broadcast from 1994-97, and ran for five series of a total of forty episodes. As well as Griffiths as Henry Crabbe, there were other regulars as you might imagine, Maggie Steed as his wife, Malcolm Sinclair as the Assistant Chief Constable, Bella Enahoro as Crabbe’s sergeant, Nick Raggett as Leon Henderson a supplier and odd job man, Ashley Russell as the waiter, Samantha Janus as the waitress and Joe Duttine as the other chef. If you look down the list of other actors who appeared over the years there is just about every famous TV name of the 1990’s and 2000’s.

It is as I said, a very gentle drama, not much violence and any there is toned down compared to the gory stuff shown in similar shows now. The phrase pie in the sky, which means unrealistic desires or ambitions, came from the early part of the twentieth century, apparently made up by a song writer and radical Joe Hill’s in his song The Preacher and the Slave. However it only came into general use thirty or so years later.


Silent, eloquent gestures

I knew the poet Henry Reed for his verse, mainly the wonderful ‘Naming of Parts’, a very different sort of war poem from what we usually think of. However, I was surprised to learn he only published one volume of verse, although more was published after his death in 1986. He was born in Birmingham in 1914, and went to the university of his birth city where his BA thesis was on Thomas Hardy.

He became a teacher and served in naval intelligence during the war, moving to the BBC in 1946. I didn’t realise that he wrote a series of humorous plays about Hilda Tablet, is a fictitious “twelve-tone composer” who invented the equally fictitious ‘musique concrète renforcée’ – reinforced concrete music!

These plays were broadcast in the 1950’s and had what might be called a stellar cast:

  • Hugh Burden – Herbert Reeve
  • Mary O’Farrell – Hilda Tablet
  • Marjorie Westbury – Elsa Strauss
  • Carleton Hobbs – Stephen Shewin
  • Deryck Guyler – General Gland
  • …and – Denis Quilley, Leonard Sachs, Michael Flanders, Norman Shelley and Rose Hill
  • Hilda’s music – Donald Swann
  • producer – Douglas Cleverdon.

‘The character ‘Herbert Reeve’ was given the name as so often Henry Reed was mistaken for Sir Herbert Read (art historian and poet, 1893 – 1968)

So here is Henry, not Herbert, Reed, not Read’s poem:

Naming of Parts

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.

Henry Reed

Jules Verne and the Mole Man of Hackney

While I was doing the ironing this morning I was listening to a programme on the radio called ‘To the ends of the earth: lost worlds, new worlds’ ; it was an introduction to a series of programmes about exploration and the history of exploration, including a dramatisation of Jules Verne’s ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth.’ It was a fascinating programme which you can hear on the link below.

It did not just discuss Verne and his other books (including ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ – and a visit to the submarine museum in Portsmouth) but also other ‘exploration’ books of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. I was an avid reader of all these sort of books, so it was particularly interesting to hear them discussed, the Victoria adventurer writers, H.G.Wells, Mary Shelley (who was earlier actual in fact) , Conan Doyle, and of course Rider Haggard, my particular favourite. The programme discusses the ‘lost world’ genre of writing, which is still popular today, especially in science fiction and movies like the Indiana Jones series and the Mummy series.

I was surprised at how early Verne was writing – I think I knew but had forgotten; he was born in 1828 and his books and stories were published from the 1860’s. Rider Haggard whose work is also explored in detail in the programme was born in a different generation, in 1856.

To find out more I went on the programme page on the BBC site, and there was a little quiz about underworld and undersea exploration, and there was a mention of the Mole Man of Hackney. Intrigued by this I looked him up; not a fictional character but a real person, a somewhat eccentric person, William Lyttle, who took to excavating beneath his own house in Hackney and digging tunnels in all directions, much to the alarm of his neighbours. There seemed no purpose for his tunnels and he caused a huge amount of damage – but he did become a bit of a celebrity. He died in 2009 having spent forty years digging… Poor neighbours!

Here is a link to the Mole Man:


… and here are links to the BBC pages:



Last holiday

It’s strange how unexpected and probably quite innocuous things can have a tremendous impact years and years later. As a reader, and as a writer I have a great dislike of what I call unsatisfactory endings. I don’t mean that the end of every book I read or every story I write should be full of joy, laughter, love and happiness – in fact that would be an unsatisfactory ending too if it’s not feasible or realistic within the context of the rest of the plot!

I have just realised when this first struck me – a very long time ago, when I was watching an old black and white film called ‘Last Holiday’. it starred Alec Guinness but had a stellar cast (for those days)

  • Wilfrid Hyde-White – in so many films but best known as Colonel Pickering in My Fair Lady.
  • Sid James – comedian side-kick of Tony Hancock and star of Carry On films
  • Bernard Lee – in many, many films, also was M in James Bond films
  • Ernest Thesiger  – famous stage and film actor
  • Lockwood West – father of Sir Timothy West and grandfather of Samuel West
  • David McCallum – father of David McCallum the Man From U.N.C.L.E. and NCIS

The story of Last Holiday is very simple; Alec Guinness’s character is diagnosed with a terminal disease so he sells up everything and goes to a fancy hotel in the country, where the other guests mistakenly believe he is a rich man. Because of his supposed wealth all sorts of things happen even though he is very modest and unassuming. He learns that the diagnosis was wrong and he is perfectly healthy, however on his way home from the doctor who tells him this wonderful news he crashes his car and dies.

When I saw the film it made a great impact on me – mainly because of the ending. In a way, if he’d really had the illness and died, it would have been a more satisfactory ending… or if he had survived and the other guests had realised their folly of liking him for his supposed wealth, so he may have been without ‘friends’ but at least he would have learned something. But no… he was dead. After going all the way through the film which I remember thinking as a child was funny and moving and meaningful, suddenly without any thought for the audience, he was dead. I felt annoyed and cheated.

I felt the same about ‘Cold Mountain’ by Charles Frazier; it was a wonderful novel, marvellous, and although long, carried the reader through all the terrible events the main character endured as he walked for months and months, back to the woman he loves. He is almost in sight of her home when he is shot dead… It wasn’t the fact he was killed particularly, but it was the fact that the book just fizzled out after all the struggles – of the characters and the readers.

I mentioned that I have been reading The Red Tent by Anita Diamant; without giving anything away and spoiling it if you haven’t read it – which I recommend you do – the ending is totally satisfactory, even though the characters have had horrific things to deal with.

In my books, I really try very, very hard to create a satisfactory ending – not always happy, and sometimes with a huge and difficult and maybe unachievable challenge for the characters in their future unwritten-about lives…

So maybe, although Last Holiday was a disappointment to me, it taught me a great lesson in my writing – maybe, as my dad would have said, it was a good bad example!

By the way, my featured image is from very happy seals – nothing to do with my post!

Shiver those timbers

I’ve been sharing some examples of nautical slang over the last few days, and my friend David mentioned ‘shiver me timbers’! I didn’t know if it was an actual piece of sailor-speak or made up by Robert Louis Stevenson in his wonderful book, ‘Treasure Island’. The phrase was in the original, but I think it was brought into common parlance by the different actors who over the years have played the part of the most famous pirate of them all, Long John Silver.

So many different actors have taken on this role on radio, TV, film, including:

  • Wallace Beery
  • Robert Newton
  • Orson Welles
  • James Mason
  • Peter Jeffrey
  • Jack Shepherd
  • Brian Blessed
  • Charlton Heston
  • Eddie Izzard
  • Anthony Quinn
  • Bernard Miles
  • Peter Vaughan
  • Alfred Burke

Back to the shivering of timbers; these days the word shiver is nearly always used for something trembling or shaking, often with cold or fear. The timbers of a ship in a storm would shake or tremble – and also in a battle, or when coming into contact with rocks!

However, shivering could also mean splintering or shattering – and I guess the timber parts of old ships often did splinter and smash, thorough violent weather or contact with rocks and reefs. When cannon and guns began to be used, the damage inflicted by shattering wood was horrific; timbers would almost explode and splinters of flying debris could kill a sailor or maim him for life. Shivering, or splintering timbers were a most dreadful thing.

So did sailors actually say ‘shiver me/my timbers’? Yes, apparently they did! Stevenson was careful to be accurate with his language, and he used nautical language to add colour and realism to his stories and tales… you can find a list here of various terms – including seamen’s slang, here:


And here is a rather saucy cartoon using ‘shiver me topsails’ – other variations include ‘shiver my hulk’.

Unforgotten 2

In 2015 the first series of ‘Unforgotten’ was broadcast; it’s a police procedural with a great cast of Nicola Walker and Sanjeeev Bhaskar as the main investigating officers, and what I described as a stellar cast when I wrote about it before –  Bernard Hill, Trevor Eve, Tom Courtney, Frances Tomelty, Hannah Gordon, Clare Goose, Peter Egan, Cherie Lunghi, Gemma Jones… and others! It was a stunning series, with the solution to the various threads of puzzle kept until the last minute, but all being quite believable.

Now, series 2 has arrived… well, it arrived on TV while I was away in Tasmania, but the DVD arrived at the beginning of the week and I began to watch it last night.

When you have enjoyed something enormously, there is always the little thought that the second time won’t be as a great – the sequel to a book, a return visit to a wonderful restaurant, a film starring a favourite actor. I have avoided reading anything about Unforgotten 2, although a friend has assured me it is excellent, better than the first series!

So far, we have a body found in a crate in a canal, a person who went missing decades ago, a couple who are hoping to adopt a child, a birthday party where two sisters fall out, a teacher going for an interview… and several other prospective story lines, some of which might be red herrings! I am gripped, although a little confused, thinking back there are a couple of scenarios and I can’t quite work out who the people were – maybe I should watch it again before going on to episode 2 – but can I delay finding out what happens next? I think I might just watch episode 2 and if I can’t work it out, then go back!

The acting is superb, I am intrigued, puzzled, and very relieved that it is as good as the first series.  One of the great qualities is its pace… slow but not too slow, measured, giving enough time to each scene but not being boring or drawn out. Yes, i will watch episode 2, I can’t wait!

Here is a link to what I wrote about series 1:


In ten objects…

I think it may have been the wonderful Neil MacGregor, then Director of the British Museum, who first used the idea of a specific number of objects to represent something or somewhere; in his case, he  spoke about the history of the world from two million years ago to the present in one hundred objects.

My friend, the historian and writer, Andrew Simpson, has written about many places, brilliantly using objects or places to introduce particular aspects of history. Having lived in Chorlton-cum-Hardy (actually in he very house where Andrew lives now) I have been particularly interested in his posts about Chorlton.


Here is just an example of the objects he has chosen in this series:

  1. A history of Chorlton in just 20 objects number one …… a bridge across the Mersey 1816
  2. A new history of Chorlton in just 20 objects number 2, the electric supply box circa 1920
  3. A new history of Chorlton in just 20 objects no 3 the community newspaper 1984
  4. A new history of Chorlton in just 20 objects no 4, the graph and the housing boom 1901
  5. A new history of Chorlton in 20 objects, number 5, calling the emergency services
  6. A new history of Chorlton in just 20 objects number 6, the Garden Village 1911
  7. A new history of Chorlton in just 20 objects number 7, the king William IV clay pipe
  8. A new history of Chorlton in 20 objects, number 8, an amusement arcade and the future of Beech Road circa 1983

I’m thinking I might do something similar… objects from  my family history, perhaps, objects from around our village of Uphill, objects from my own life… hmmm, the possibilities are endless… yes, I will ponder on this!!

Here is a link to Andrew’s book about the history of Chorlton-cum-Hardy:


Meanwhile, here is a link to the objects Neil MacGregor talked about: