Tag Archives: southsea

Good Night, Knight And Lee, Southsea.

As the retail ritual of closing up, bending down to secure the floor bolt then reaching up for the top bolt on the double doors of Knight and Lee was enacted for the last time at 5pm on July 13th 2019, a crowd of around 50 middle-aged, middle-class shoppers suddenly looked as if their spiritual heartland had been nuked.

The scene was made both more poignant and absurd as it came at the end of a set sung to the collected mourners by Rockchoir.com, which had included classics such as (ironically enough) I’m Still Standing, a mournful version of Only You and the spiritual hope of Hallejujah. It was (as it should have been) like a religious service in commemoration of a departed loved one.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sad to see Knight and Lee go from Palmerston Road. Its stalwart service to the local community is well known. Its position in the corner of Palmerston Road and Clarendon Road, opposite the soon-to-close Debenhams that was once Handley’s Department Store together created a presence – a bit like the great statues in the Lord of the Rings as the Fellowship arrives in Gondor. These two shops did not announce to invading hordes “You shall not pass”, but were sentinels guarding a near-lost civilization called High Street Retail.

Yet the loss of this aspect of civilization at least in part lies at the feet of these very retailers.

Yes, Amazon most definitely enjoys an unfair advantage in cyberspace – not having to pay the same levels of staff, able to operate out of warehouses with considerably lower business rates, not needing to use expensive space to put items on display – and perhaps most importantly for Amazon, being able to avoid paying tax, and thus giving absolutely NOTHING back to local communities.

But Amazon’s advantage to one side, there is also a hard lesson retailers have failed to learn. That lesson is you can’t out-Amazon Amazon. You have to offer something different from what Amazon offers. And let’s face it, what DOES Amazon offer? The answer is stark – it offers cheapness and fast delivery with no fuss.

The High Street was never going to be able to compete on those terms of mass storage, immense ordering power and wafer-thin bottom lines that empower Amazon, and what it failed to do was change.

In a world in which more and more people are shopping online, we are equally seeing a world in which there is less and less face-to-face human interaction, and more and more isolation. Anxiety, societal dysfunction, depression, these are all symptoms of society no longer fitting together and functioning properly. That isolation has led to record levels of suicides. Human beings are social creatures. We may not acknowledge it, but we need people. The reality is, the chat in the Post Office or outside the butcher of the old days was as much a part of the shopping experience as the retail high shoppers used to get in the 1980s laden with designer goods on their ways home from Oxford Street – and probably still do at Westfield, Oxford Street, Gunwharf and other destination shopping complexes. But those are different creatures from the town High Street, that now needs to find its own model.

It’s no surprise that businesses that are thriving on the High Street are classically those businesses that focus on uplifting vibes.

Coffee houses where people meet, barbers, hairdressers and nail bars where people can chat – and charity shops where you can buy stuff you just can’t get anywhere else and which catch your eye and leave you feeling clever for being the one who snapped the bargain – all these have at their hearts the same thing: good feelings.

What retailers like Knight and Lee need to learn is that in a world which is increasingly global we need to offer locally those things the globalist offer can’t give.

That means face-to-face contact in a real location with real people. In fact, the answer to globalism is that old word localism – though I don’t mean it in the David Cameron context of Big Society or any other thing that has the initials B.S.

Portsmouth and Southsea are actually extremely well placed to offer that approach to locals and visitors alike.

We are, after all, fiercely proud of our local identity. I’ve often been told by visitors that Portsmouth has a sense of self in a way many other English towns don’t, whose High Streets have already been cloned into mini faceless shopping streets that are now on their last legs. To counter the bland flavours and products made in China that play the numbers game, making tiny profits per transaction from clone products that sell to billions, we in Portsmouth need to go the other way. To recognize our uniqueness and make that our selling point.

So, good luck to Knight and Lee and its staff. I am sorry to see you go. Let’s take our hats off to the service you provided. But now it’s time to start taking our lives back from the globalists who are shaping our lives. Not through silly nationalist notions, because globalisation isn’t going to go away – that’s just not a possibility unless you have in mind dismantling the internet and disinventing the jet engine – but by going local and making a celebration of who we are and our uniqueness – as a counterbalance to ever-present globalism – to thus give people the choice and the rounded experience they want and need as they go down to the marketplace.

Time to build community pride and offer world class products and experiences you can’t get elsewhere. We already have so many of them in Portsmouth. The Dockyard is an extraordinary world class experience. The Solent Forts are unique. Businesses such as the Portsmouth Distillery are offering something truly special. The Victorious Festival, the way we did D-Day 75 despite all that interference from Washington in the planning – these are the things we should be looking for to show the way. There are so many others – the list is very long of big and small, local businesses offering something special, right on our doorsteps. We do great things here, and they are uniquely ours and this is what we should be focusing on.

Because, unlike on Amazon, people ain’t going to get THAT Pompey vibe anywhere else. Our local identity – that is our greatest asset.

RIP Knight and Lee.

Viva Pompey.

Why Conan Doyle’s Southsea Life Should Inspire Writers

Writers looking for reasons to keep going when times are tough, should look no further than Arthur Conan Doyle’s early life in Southsea. His story of struggle, finding his way and eventual success is one for every writer to learn from.

In his autobiography, Memories and Adventures, Doyle talks about those early years after his arrival in Southsea.

I made £154 the first year, and £250 the second, rising slowly to £800, which in eight years I never passed, so far as the medical practice went. In the first year the Income Tax paper arrived and I filled it up to show that I was not liable. They returned the paper with “Most unsatisfactory” scrawled across it. I wrote “I entirely agree” under the words, and returned it once more. For this little bit of cheek I was had up before the assessors, and duly appeared with my ledger under my arm. They could make nothing, however, out of me or my ledger, and we parted with mutual laughter and compliments.”

So, what changed? Doyle confesses that he never imagined he’d be able to make a living from writing. In the early days, he was so poor he had no staff at his surgery on Elm Grove and cooked bacon over the gas lamp in the back room. But, he adds:

In many ways my marriage marked a turning-point in my life. A bachelor, especially one who had been a wanderer like myself, drifts easily into Bohemian habits, and I was no exception… with the more regular life and the greater sense of responsibility, coupled with the natural development of brain-power, the literary side of me began slowly to spread until it was destined to push the other entirely aside.

Though Doyle did write before he married, he was paid an average of £4 per story and made around £10 or £15 a year from his work, which works out at between £1000 to £1500 a year.

A great insight into his creative life follows:

But though I was not putting out I was taking in. I still have notebooks full of all sorts of knowledge which I acquired during that time. It is a great mistake to start putting out cargo when you have hardly stowed any on board. My own slow methods and natural limitations made me escape this danger.

A Study In Scarlet in the famously rare 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual, of which only 11 complete copies are known to exist.

After he married, he wrote most of the stories that appeared in his book, The Captain of the Polestar. He progressed steadily, until he appeared in the prestigious Cornhill magazine, with his short story Habakuk Jephson’s Statement.

Doyle had to deal with hostile reviews and keep on, even then. One reviewer stated: “Cornhill opens its new number with a story which would have made Thackeray turn in his grave.”

Doyle was also willing to take on any writing job that came his way:

I was still in the days of very small things—so small that when a paper sent me a woodcut and offered me four guineas if I would write a story to correspond I was not too proud to accept. It was a very bad woodcut and I think that the story corresponded all right. I remember writing a New Zealand story, though why I should have written about a place of which I knew nothing I cannot imagine. Some New Zealand critic pointed out that I had given the exact bearings of the farm mentioned as 90 miles to the east or west of the town of Nelson, and that in that case it was situated 20 miles out on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. These little things will happen. There are times when accuracy is necessary and others where the idea is everything and the place quite immaterial.

Doyle’s next realisation about his writing is a useful one for any writer.

It was about a year after my marriage that I realized that I could go on doing short stories for ever and never make headway. What is necessary is that your name should be on the back of a volume. Only so do you assert your individuality, and get the full credit or discredit of your achievement.

His first venture was The Firm of Girdlestone, which he acknowledges as a “worthless book”. He adds:

When I sent it to publishers and they scorned it I quite acquiesced in their decision and finally let it settle, after its periodical flights to town, a dishevelled mass of manuscript at the back of a drawer.

Then came his inspiration for Sherlock Holmes:

Gaboriau had rather attracted me by the neat dovetailing of his plots, and Poe’s masterful detective, M. Dupin, had from boyhood been one of my heroes. But could I bring an addition of my own? I thought of my old teacher Joe Bell, of his eagle face, of his curious ways, of his eerie trick of spotting details. If he were a detective he would surely reduce this fascinating but unorganized business to something nearer to an exact science. I would try if I could get this effect. It was surely possible in real life, so why should I not make it plausible in fiction?

Doyle adds: “It is all very well to say that a man is clever, but the reader wants to see examples of it—such examples as Bell gave us every day in the wards…” Next came the choice of the name. something not too obvious for a clever man, such as Mr Sharps or Mr Ferrets, but something else.

First it was Sherringford Holmes; then it was Sherlock Holmes. He could not tell his own exploits, so he must have a commonplace comrade as a foil—an educated man of action who could both join in the exploits and narrate them. A drab, quiet name for this unostentatious man. Watson would do. And so I had my puppets and wrote my “Study in Scarlet.”

In fact, Doyle wrote the book over a period of 3 weeks in 1886. It was a novella rather than a novel – but he was rightly proud of his achievement.

For the writer, the question then, is how to deal with publishers who just don’t “get” your work? To push on and hope, appears to be the answer. And a matter of luck is always part of the equation, it seems:

I knew that the book was as good as I could make it, and I had high hopes. When “Girdlestone” used to come circling back with the precision of a homing pigeon, I was grieved but not surprised, for I acquiesced in the decision. But when my little Holmes book began also to do the circular tour I was hurt, for I knew that it deserved a better fate. James Payn applauded but found it both too short and too long, which was true enough. Arrowsmith received it in May, 1886, and returned it unread in July. Two or three others sniffed and turned away. Finally, as Ward, Lock & Co. made a speciality of cheap and often sensational literature, I sent it to them.

“Dear Sir,” they said,—”We have read your story and are pleased with it. We could not publish it this year as the market is flooded at present with cheap fiction, but if you do not object to its being held over till next year, we will give you £25 for the copyright.

“Yours faithfully,
“WARD, LOCK & Co.”
“Oct. 30, 1886.”

The story famously appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual of 1887. Doyle never received another penny for it.

Doyle did not wait for publication the next year, but wrote a historical romance, Micah Clarke. For which pains, he was asked by publishers how he could waste his wits and time writing historical novels. Other comments from publishers were in a similar vein.

I was on the point of putting the worn manuscript into hospital with its mangled brother “Girdle-stone” when as a last resource I sent it to Longmans, whose reader, Andrew Lang, liked it and advised its acceptance. It was to “Andrew of the brindled hair,” as Stevenson called him, that I owe my first real opening, and I have never forgotten it. The book duly appeared in February, 1889, and though it was not a boom book it had extraordinarily good reviews, including one special one all to itself by Mr. Protheroe in the “Nineteenth Century,” and it has sold without intermission from that day to this. It was the first solid corner-stone laid for some sort of literary reputation.

As for Sherlock Holmes, British literature was fashionable in the United States at the time, and it was a Mr Stoddart, an American agent for Lippincott’s who asked to meet up with him in London in 1889. He thus had dinner with Stoddart and Oscar Wilde, the latter of whom had read Micah Clarke, and liked it very much.

The result of the evening was that both Wilde and I promised to write books for “Lippincott’s Magazine”—Wilde’s contribution was “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” a book which is surely upon a high moral plane, while I wrote “The Sign of Four,” in which Holmes made his second appearance.

Doyle now went on to write The White Company, feeling once again the urge to write historical romance. When he finished, he writes:

I felt a wave of exultation and with a cry of “That’s done it!” I hurled my inky pen across the room, where it left a black smudge upon the duck’s-egg wall-paper. I knew in my heart that the book would live and that it would illuminate our national traditions. Now that it has passed through fifty editions I suppose I may say with all modesty that my forecast has proved to be correct.

He goes on:

This was the last book which I wrote in my days of doctoring at Southsea, and marks an epoch in my life, so I can now hark back to some other phases of my last years at Bush Villa before I broke away into a new existence. I will only add that “The White Company” was accepted by “Cornhill,” in spite of James Payn’s opinion of historical novels, and that I fulfilled another ambition by having a serial in that famous magazine.

These remembrances should act as inspirations for writers in Portsmouth, and indeed, everywhere. It’s one reason I decided to celebrate him and his greatest creation Sherlock Holmes by bringing out a facsimile reprint of the first appearance of A Study In Scarlet through my publishing company, Life Is Amazing. The truth is, the most famous writers come from somewhere. One of those places could be where you are right now. In fact, one of those writers could be you.

[NB: This article was updated on 12th February 2019]

Snow encounters

Sometimes when the cold grips the town it grips my heart, too, and I feel the need to get out in the snow and walk.

Just so in winter’s late flowering yesterday, when I headed out in a flurry of flakes and trod over the iced streets down to the sea, where the water was green against the white downs of the distant Isle of Wight and the grey sky above.

Cold. Ice cold. On South Parade Pier, a guy was shovelling a path through half-melted snow that had refrozen into a sheet of ice, while the sea rolled and scattered beneath him. At the pier’s far end, I took it all in, the sea, the sky, the ice in the clouds, the unforgiving breath of winter – and felt immune to it all in my sheepskin jacket. Warm. Toastie. Against all that out there.

Then I went through that little enclosed space, the Rose Garden. Thorned twigs were coming to life in this early spring, their jagged edges dark against the snow. I felt the need to sit somewhere, quiet, and allow the depression that’s got me at the moment to just sit with me. Depression, she’s an unwanted visitor, but I find that I can’t just rail at her. Every time I do, she settles in more comfortably. When depression begins to warm her cold hands on my heart, then I find it better not to complain too much, but to drop the pace of my life and accept her latest visit. Don’t overdo it, don’t give yourself too much to do, but don’t do nothing. Sit with her. Bear her.

So I made my way to the shelter that sits on the seaward side of the Rose Gardens, elevated and looking down from what used to be a gun emplacement in Lumps Fort, a long time ago. Thus, I mounted the ramp with a mind to sit and enjoy the snowbound geometry of the rosebeds.

At the top of the ramp there is an alcove in a wall, where once perhaps soldiers stored artillery rounds. A pile of cloth was stuffed in there I noted. Then, getting closer, I saw a rucksack, and realised it was a sleeping bag next to it.

The sleeping bag was not moving. Perhaps it had been dumped? But no, I could see a shape of a body. Suddenly afraid, I straightened and stood stock still, alert for any movement. There was none. I stepped closer and listened and could hear no breathing either and the fear grew stronger. Depression does this. It makes one less willing to face life, leaving one’s emotions all raw and ready to be stung and poked without any filters.

After a while, I walked away, not sure what to do. I took a breath. The image of the sleeping bag would not leave me and I went back. Perhaps I could get a hot drink. Chocolate or something. With a growing sense of dread, I continued to watch. No movement at all. Nothing to indicate a life in that snowbound scene. And so I walked over and said:

“Are you okay? Just checking in with you. Let me know.”

I watched and waited. And then, the sleeping bag moved and rolled over, away from me, and I could see it had its back to me, and whoever it was wanted to sleep more. I thought: Alive and was relieved.

“Do you want anything?”

But the bag just rolled itself up more, trying to get away from my voice.

I stood there a while and felt useless, and turned away, making my way round the snowbound edges of Canoe Lake. I felt pathetic for my ineffectuality.

On the far side of the lake was a man in a thin summer coat over a cheap jumper. I saw him talk to another morning walker, who looked embarrassed and walked on. When I got closer, I saw he had a half-drunk bottle of wine on the bench next to him.

As I went by, I was struck by his watchful calm.

He spoke to me:

“There’s a big snowball there, if you want to throw it,” and he pointed at a ball of dirty grey snow about 75 centimetres wide, the remnants of a snowman that some kids had built and others had kicked in with gleeful indifference.

“Shall I throw it at you?” I said.

He laughed, and we fell into conversation.

“I’m freezing,” he said.

I looked at him more closely. He didn’t look like a tramp. His clothes had a washed-out grey to them, and his trousers were dirty, but his skin was freshly washed and his hair clean. There was a look about him that said he was well fed, but his lips were grey and starting to go blue.

“Well, what are you doing, sitting out here?”

“I’m in a residential home,” he said with desperate passion. “But I can’t stand it. It’s an awful place, I don’t want to be there with those goons. They’re all in their 80s and I shouldn’t be there. I’m only 64.” He added the last with a pathetic plea in his voice.

“Can’t you move out?”

“My brother put me in there. My own brother – put me in a home and I can’t get out. And he’s got all my money. He’s got loads of money – a great big place in Hayling Island and just gave his kids £200,000 each to buy a house, and he puts me in a home I don’t want to be in.”

I looked at him for a moment. It was a strange story that didn’t quite make sense and I felt that I shouldn’t get tangled up with him. But then… he looked so desperate.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Donald.”

“Matt,” I said, and offered him my hand. He shook it and his was like a block of ice. I was shocked at how cold he was. He, actually, really was freezing, as he’d said. “You know, wine isn’t going to warm you up.”

“No. But I like the taste of it, you see. And I need to do something. And it’s only £4.30 from the Co-op, which is a cheap wine. It’s rubbish. But it’s a bargain. Do you go to any pubs?”

I told him I did and so we passed the time. At one point he said.

“How long can you go without food?”

“What?”

“Days? Weeks? The landlord who runs the home, he fasts for a month,” he said, seemingly baffled. “His name is Abdullah.”

“Ah, well, you see, they can eat at night, just not in the daytime.”

“What’s the point?” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. He says he’s 12 stone, but he’s half the size of me. With a shiny head.” He looked at me. “I say he’s like a little black ant.”

The words he was speaking told me little and much at the same time. Snippets of a life, like a jumbled book of postcards.

“You can’t stay out here,” I said. “It’s too cold.”

“I’m not going back there,” he replied, adamantly.

“Couldn’t you go and sit in the library? At least it’s warm.”

“Where’s that?”

But then he dismissed the idea out of hand.

He was getting colder by the minute. I could see it.

“Look, do you want to get a cup of tea? I’ll get you one,” I said, and pointed over to the Canoe Lake cafe.

“That’s very kind.”

I reached in my pocket and realised I didn’t have any cash on me.

“Wait. I’ll be back.”

When I got back from the cash point, he stood up and walked with me on unsteady feet.

He sat down to drink his tea and was shaking so much from the cold he could hardly hold the cup. I need to warm him up, I thought, and so I carried on chatting with him. Depression, I suppose. It helps me to help other people. Distracts me from myself.

As we talked, we began to loop around the same subjects. He reintroduced himself to me, and asked my name again, then told me he was in a home and couldn’t stand it. He would mention other housemates, and then, after a brief digression, go back to them again. “We argue,” he said. “I can’t stand them.”

At another table were some Down’s Syndrome people, talking loudly – out on a walk to see the snow. One of them was squawking and grunting, and Donald became agitated.

“Who are these people?” he asked me, clenching his jaw. “Who are they?”

He had his back to the group and seemed so angry that he couldn’t look round at them.

“They’ve got Down’s Syndrome,” I said. “They can’t help it.”

He looked at me and forced a smile. “Nor can I,” he said.

As he talked more and I began to see the pattern of his conversation, I realised that he was probably in a home because he had early onset Alzheimer’s. He couldn’t hold thoughts for long, and drew on older memories. Everything recent was blurry. At one point he told me that he’d had his wallet stolen, then that he was due an inheritance, then that his brother was keeping the money from him, looping and looping around.

I went to the counter and asked the women if they’d seen him before. One of them had.

“He’s in a home,” she said. “A really awful place. I’ve heard it from someone else, too. The other guy, his window is smashed and hasn’t even been fixed. He was in here, crying.”

I sat with Donald a while longer, and then, when I saw that he’d warmed up, left him with a pot of tea and headed out.

I realised he needed better care than he was getting. That he needed medical attention and his case dealt with properly – and if that were done, he could go to a place where he would at least be a little more happy. One thing was clear. The way things were now had led him to hypothermia in the snow.

A few days earlier, I had been in Waitrose, and overheard an old woman complaining about the homeless begging outside.

“It’s just so awful having them here. Why can’t they move them on? Or get rid of them?”

“I know,” said the shop assistant. “They come in here, and it’s really offputting.”

“And they’re conmen,” she said. “They’ve got places to go, they just can’t be bothered to work. They sit out there all day, and they could be working. Why aren’t they working? How do I know they’re homeless? They’re not homeless. They’re just begging because they’re lazy.”

She said it with authority. She had obviously read it somewhere.

It was then I realised the lack of imagination of so many of us, who can’t see the other stories of people’s lives that don’t fit our world view, and how easily people can fall through the cracks in society’s imagination. And at that moment of a lack of imagination, we fall back on defensive positions that feed on the worst of us. Her incomprehension that in modern Britain, people could be homeless made me wonder how far removed her world view is from mine.

Yet, how easy it is to be vulnerable. How easily Donald had nearly made himself seriously ill by just slipping outside for a few hours to sit on his own. How easy it is, in our precarious world to slip. How, by making tiny mistakes, we can end up freezing on a park bench in the snow, or sleeping in an alcove, with no-one around to care.

14 things Eddie The Eagle taught me

Eddie The Eagle mobbed by autograph-hunting fans.

Eddie the Eagle has an ambivalent reputation in the British psyche. As a boy, I remember the Press sneering at him and implying he was in some way an embarrassment for Britain, or painting him as a kind of likeable buffoon worthy of a comedy mention, but little else – a cringeworthy footnote in the history of the Winter Olympics.

Going to his talk at the King’s Theatre, Southsea, on 27th May 2017, I didn’t know what to expect, but suspected it might easily be the forced story of a wannabe inspirational speaker. That, I guess, was the cynical pressmen at work, even after all these years.

Eddie and me

In fact, Eddie the Eagle’s story of how he got to the Calgary Olympics in 1988 to become Britain’s first Olympic ski-jumper since 1929 is a tale of a young man so in love with his sport and so determined to get there that he was willing to go through extreme hardship to make his dream come true. And all the while he did it, he regarded the setbacks, the knocks, the poverty and the pain as something to shrug off because it was worth every moment of it. Only at the end of the night, when he plays footage of ski-jumpers involved in horrifying accidents does the real danger he exposed himself to in pursuit of his dream came through. His talk, Try Hard, was genuinely uplifting – and I have seen many speakers over the years telling their stories of success.

So, here are fourteen things I learned from Eddie the Eagle Edwards:

  1. Eddie came from a background with no advantages when it came to making it to the Olympics. His dad was a builder with little money, and he was born with a birth defect meaning he had to have his legs straightened in plaster casts – much like the old style pictures you see of kids in calipers.
  2. Eddie fell in love with skiing when he was a kid on a school trip, and his love of the sport took over his life. He did his very first jump across a road on that first trip and began to jump friends, cars and trucks for charity as his skill grew.
  3. As a boy, he beat the members of the All-England squad at races in the UK and was asked to join the team. He lasted for one morning, when the class-ridden prejudices of the squad led to him, a lowly working class kid in secondhand kit, being dropped from the team despite his obvious talent.
  4. He pushed on and ignored the prejudice – opting for the ski-jump option when he realised there was no GB team and hence no competition, and that it might be a way of entering the Olympics more cheaply.
  5. He broke his neck and back in a race with a rival skier after losing control, flying through the air and landing on his rival. The prize for the race was to take a woman out for dinner. The rival skier did so and married her, while Eddie got 6 weeks’ traction for his efforts.
  6. He did his first ski-jump at Lake Placid in the USA, using discarded kit left in a hut by other skiers.
  7. He went from a 5 metre jump to a 40 metre jump in the space of an afternoon under his own steam – a progression that usually takes years of training with a coach.
  8. His first helmet was tied on with string, and later popped off when he did the 90 metre jumps.
  9. His kit early on was provided by donations from teams from across Europe who saw him struggling while training with low quality equipment.
  10. To feed himself while training in Switzerland, he took food from the bins at the Scout house where he was staying and recooked it after the scouts had finished eating. Custard and gravy, he says, is delicious.
  11. In the build-up to Calgary he broke his jaw in a jump. With no insurance, he tied a pillowcase around his head to bind his jaw and carried on jumping – holding his face when he landed to keep his bones in place.
  12. He had to pay for his own flight to the Winter Olympics, working in the hotel where he was training with the US team in Steamboat Springs in order to buy his air fare.
  13. His absolute love of his sport is infectious, and he is really a likeable guy who simply tells his story with no pretentiousness – it simply is a tale of something he had to do.
  14. Eddie lands on his feet with this talk. It’s not the story of someone reaching the pinnacle of success in the eyes of the public, but setting his own standard of what he wanted to achieve, and going for it with every part of his soul. It’s a story of bravery, of joy, resilience and dogged determination. He is well worth hearing.

I am so glad I was impressed! It’s a recommend.

Review – Cirque de Glace, “Evolution”, King’s Theatre, Southsea, 8th May 2017

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for the circus, so when I saw Cirque de Glace were performing at the King’s Theatre, I couldn’t resist going. I LOVE CIRCUSES, and this was one with a difference. The whole thing was a circus on ice, with a real refrigerated floor for the performers to skate around on! How would they do it? I wondered, how would the circus motif be transformed with this added frisson, or freeze-on, of a potential slip-up at any moment?

From the start, I knew things were going to be different. Taking our seats, the theatre was already filled with theatrical smoke. The show started with lights across the audience and ponderous music. The scene was set. We were at the start of the universe itself, and stars were being formed, the booming narrative informed us. Planets coalesced, the rock that would become the Earth was struck by a gigantic meteorite, splitting the proto-planet into Earth and moon and suddenly – boom! crash! – we were in the world of the volcanoes, billions of years ago…

Next, the skaters appeared, making a circle around a rather small volcano in the middle of the stage and skated around it. The music boomed, the voice continued talking about magma and rocks and the formation of the planet and… I started to lose my focus.

There was some great skating, but the first 15 minutes of the show felt like an extended geography lesson for children with Attention Deficit Disorder. I think I was meant to feel a sense of awe and wonder, but actually, being told that rocks formed and that somehow that had something to do with people skating around the stage… I’ve got to say it didn’t quite hit the spot. It was Geology On Ice.

Nevertheless, I persevered. Perhaps a narrative would evolve that would hold my attention. Sure enough, next came the creation of the sea, then insects, and Gaia doing acrobatics on an earth-shaped ball. Everything the performers did was brilliant technically, and I marvelled at the aerial silk performers dangling from the Fly Loft… except that the smoke I’d mentioned earlier hadn’t cleared away, and with lights directed straight at the audience, it was actually quite difficult to see what they were doing. The special effects distracted, until the performance got lost in smoke and lighting.

The skaters were brilliant, but something about the concept of the show didn’t quite work. The booming recorded voice of the narrator at times took on a tone half way between environmental activist and children’s poet – and when the narration descended into terrible doggerel, it introduced a new level of struggle for my tiny brain, that had to decipher what was going on, as well as fight the blinding lighting and deafening, meaningless words.

At the same time, the performers didn’t seem to understand the grammar of applause. The action flowed from one scenario to another, not giving the audience the right cues to clap. I was waiting for that breathing space to show my appreciation for the extraordinary feats I was viewing, but there was no room to allow it. Sitting just a few seats away, a member of the crew tried to encourage clapping by doing so loudly herself. That worked for the first two or three times – but people just wanted to watch. The clapper seemed not to understand that applause should come at the release of dramatic tension. The simplest way to do that in trad circuses is to do a drum roll, have the performer do their trick, then stand with arms outstretched. Bang! There’s your cue to clap.

No such cues were given to the audience. The planted clapper distractingly picked the wrong moments to clap, pulling the audience’s appreciation too early, so that when the right moment came to clap there was silence because they were already “clapped out”.

I so wanted to really enjoy this show. Don’t get me wrong, I did think it was good. But watching the story of the world unfold, with trees being chopped down by men with chainsaws, and then the voice track telling us that we were reaping the whirlwind of our own destruction, it all felt that we were being hectored and accused for the faults and greed of people we can’t control. That the refrigerated floor must use up a hefty dose of carbon emissions was an irony not missed on me. The performers were brilliant. The production, like the clapper, was just a tad heavy handed. 6/10.

A Talk at The Temple of Spiritualism, Southsea 5th Aug 2016

02 Arthur_Conan_DoyleA lovely email from Sue Hayes at the Southsea Temple of Spiritualism, where I gave a talk about Conan Doyle’s faith on 5th August 2016:
 
Dear Matt
Thank you so much for your talk, knowledge and enthusiasm that you displayed in the Temple on Friday evening. As you were aware from the response, your talk was very much appreciated. I think you are a brilliant speaker – most engaging and inclusive. Thank you.
 
Richard was absolutely amazed that someone who is not a Spiritualist has such a knowledge of Spiritualism. There are very few people at present in SNU Spiritualism who would know as much as you do, and have such an objective and informed attitude. Thank you for that.
 
We would love you to come and speak again in the future, for you to share more of your knowledge and wisdom with us.
 
With very good wishes to you and Jackie
Sue Hayes
General Secretary/Officiant
Portsmouth Temple of Spiritualism

Does Disney’s new Jungle Book do Pompey’s Rudyard Kipling justice?

Disney’s 1960s adaptation of The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book is a classic of silliness with great tunes. It also has, apart from the title and the names of the characters, nothing to do with the pair of children’s books written by Rudyard Kipling in the 1890s. The books are far darker, deeper, truer and better in every way. So, what of the new 2016 version?

I admit I was late to Kipling. I only read The Jungle Books as an adult, having been steered away from them by the light and frothy cartoon. But, one day, having read that they were true classics, and considering Kipling’s Portsmouth pedigree, I thought I would check out the work of this locally grown boy.

Kipling’s life in Portsmouth was tough. Left in the town by his parents, who returned to India where they worked as civil servants, he found himself in the clutches of a psychotic nanny, Mrs Holloway, to whom he later referred in his autobiography Something of Myself as “The Woman”. Six years of hell ensued, as she terrorised him, punishing him for the tiniest, ordinary things kids do – even punishing him for “showing off” when it was discovered he needed to wear glasses. Justice for such transgressions took the form of beatings, and of being locked in the house alone while the household went on holidays, or prevented from reading, which he averred, made him seek to read all the more earnestly. It was bad. In fact, his life in Southsea led to a nervous breakdown at the age of 11.

Little wonder that many of the short stories in The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book tell the tale of a child, Mowgli, abandoned in a hostile jungle where he must learn The Law to survive. This is a direct reflection of his own experiences. No surprise, either, that Mowgli grows up determined to kill his tormentor, in this case, the lame tiger Shere Khan. In another story written after The Jungle Books, Kipling produced a fictionalised account of life in Southsea, Baa Baa Black Sheep. In this, the boy threatens to burn down the house of Aunt Rosa (this story’s verson of The Woman), to kill her and her son and wreak awful revenge on the boys who bully him at school at Rosa’s instigation.

Despite all this darkness in Kipling’s childhood and in the childhood of Mowgli, The Jungle Books are filled with wonders. The behaviour of the animals to each other and to Mowgli, of the man-cub’s learning to become socialised into the group and the adventures he has along the way are rich in poetic truths. From the specifics of an imagined boy’s life, one learns the way real human society works and how a child must learn to fit into his environment and still be himself. Thus, the learning of secret words which will make the animals help him (interestingly, Kipling also wrote about Freemasonry – another society using secret codes, in The Man Who Would Be King; the motif of secret communication returned again in Kim); or his kidnap by the Bandar Log monkey tribe, during which he discovers their utter fecklessness; or the wise guiding paw of the old bear, Baloo.

Striking is the choice of antiquated modes of speaking, which emphasise the formal and informal. Throughout the book, the animals refer to each other as “thou”. This convention, and the semi-mythical register they speak in makes the stories read almost like religious texts at times. They feel powerful in a way that most children’s books don’t – and truer because of it.

Of the final vengeance Mowgli wreaks on Shere Khan, the tiger’s brutal death and how Mowgli skins the body and brings the hide to The Council Rock where the wolves meet to discuss The Law of the Jungle, that section is truly horrific.

So, how does the new Disney live action / CGI movie fare?

Neel Sethi in Disney's The Jungle Book

The movie is, actually, pretty good. It is in many ways truer to the spirit of the books than the 1960s aberration that does so little to recognise Kipling’s genius. Bagheera, the black panther, is sleek, noble and powerful. Baloo, annoyingly, is a charming buffoon – a hangover, I suspect, from the cartoon. Kaa, the giant snake is, inaccurately, interested only in eating Mowgli, whereas in the original stories their relationship is far more subtle – and indeed in the books it is Kaa who saves Mowgli from the Bandar Log when he arrives at the last minute after Baloo and Bagheera are overrun. Kaa’s hypnotic fascination of the monkeys is spine-chilling in the book.

In the movie, the collection of stories is streamlined. So, it is now Bagheera who finds Mowgli, whereas it is the boy himself who walks to Raksha, the she-wolf, in her cave, and is adopted by her. It is she who faces down Shere Khan who tracks him there. All this is removed from the story, understandably so, because the relationships would become too tangled.

What suffers because of this is the subtlety and nuance of the many-faceted stories and their meanings as they are pulled together into a single narrative, and, unfortunately the film takes on a far too familiar shape. Mowgli has an arch enemy, Shere Khan, and must acquire the skills to overcome him by finding his true self. It is the old story of the Hero’s Journey – pretty much the secret origin story of every single superhero movie that has been made in the last 20 years. It feels as if Hollywood has forgotten that there are other stories than those told by the DC and Marvel franchises.

There is one outstanding positive about this movie, however. Neel Sethi is the only real person we see in it, and he is utterly convincing. How he acted against green screens opposite non-existent co-actors is difficult to imagine. Sure, there would have been stand-ins for him to play against in the scenes, but the act of sustained imagination required of acting in such an environment is impressive. One moment sums it up for me. Mowgli is sitting on Baloo’s stomach floating down the river, when the bear unexpectedly splashes him. The look on Sethi’s face is one of genuine surprise. It feels utterly real – and this with a character made of digitalised pixels.

In other ways, the choice of Sethi as Mowgli is perplexing. He has long gangling legs in the film, and seems often to shuffle around, as if he is picking his way along a stony beach, barefoot – surely not the way a child born to jungle life would move. This, again, is perhaps a call back to the perennially annoying Disney cartoon in which Mowgli is comically gawky.

Towards its end, the movie descends into the Bond-villain-meets-his-doom denouement that this type of production can’t avoid.

So, what happens to Shere Khan being trampled to death and skinned in an act of concerted pack revenge?

All this is gone. Instead, Mowgli faces the tiger alone, and consigns him to the flames in a grandiose fall into a jungle fire. It is a very different feeling from the books, which emphasise co-operation. This is the story of a hero acting alone.

Nevertheless, this is a good effort. Unlike the 1960s cartoon, it does have something to do with the books it is named after. Not as much as I would like, but at least a little bit.

Perhaps it is a good thing that these films are so different from the books. After all, the books continue to stand in their own right as a separate – and far superior – entity to the Disney versions.

My Little Life

Up early and the sky is a muddle of whites and blues above the white villas cum flats opposite. A summer morning, but with that tinge of damp in the air that nearly the whole of this summer has had, and the way the shadows are, that sense of the city not yet woken up.

I’m in my O’Neill shorty with dive boots when I unlock the bike and cycle down Victoria Road South to the sea.

There’s not a car. Not one car. Just the silent sleepy white fronts of the houses, and the tall elegance of the plane trees at The Circle – nature’s green and girdered architecture.

Down we go, along Clarence Road, past Clarence Park, past the Clarence Boutique Hotel, looking like something from a Beeb period drama. Down further, to the sea. The little perfect gardens on the Common, planted to look pretty and slightly untamed at the same time, then along by the Pyramids and out to the sea.

There is a monster of a ferry coming into harbour, out by Spitbank Fort. Blue and white, with great big radar domes on stalks, like someone very big is about to tee off in a game of colossal crazy golf. The ship is shining. The sun is maybe an hour above the horizon, and South Parade Pier is looking for a moment marvellous.

Down the big-stoned beach and into the sea. A kind of inept splashing about for ten minutes or so, mask and snorkel catching glimpses of the sand under the sea. The water is surprisingly warm and the night’s cobwebs wash away. Pretty place. Pretty city. Horizon. Stretch of water. Sky. The honest stuff of life.

Something in the water. A muddle of bladderack, bifurcated, like a mermaid’s tail, submerged. Little joys.

Then, back out. Back on my bike on to the empty, wide roads, and out along the Ladies’ Mile across the Common. A man walking his dog wearing a surgical support – the man that is. Under the green leaves of the elms, the air changing warmth and dampness. On again, feeling the emptiness of the city now, up Palmerston Road, past the street cleaner stopped talking with a cyclist.

A shout of “hello” from a homeless in a shop doorway, then on again. The tramp-like figure of Vincent, one of the care in the community guys who lives nearby.

“Vincenzo,” I shout.

“Ah, Matto,” he calls back, laughing at the sight of me in wet suit on a bike.

Then home. The seagulls are scavenging the carcass of a bin bag put out for the dustmen today. As I watch, a cat pounces, sending them scrabbling upwards, talons clacking against slate roofs, explosions of wings and beaks and necks and eyes. The cat, satisfied, picks around the carcass itself.

It’s all here. My little life. And I’m okay.

Moderate Depression, Wiped Out With NLP (And Hot Chocolate)…

I had a  lovely result today.  On a sparkling day in Southsea, I met a client in a cafe, over a cup of hot chocolate.

She was a young woman with a slightly lost expression, looking pained and a bit confused.  Upstairs in the cafe, in the bright light of the Autumn sun, she sat across a table from me, telling me how she couldn’t get over a break up with a guy who was,  essentially, one great big waste of space.

I have been so busy lately doing other things than hypnosis, and this was a great opportunity to dust off the NLP skills and give her a blast of reprogramming.

Hot cholate: A mind-altering substance...

It was a lovely environment to do it in.  Soft chairs, silence, clear light – oh – and the hot chocolate.

How did we make the change?  First: I ran a series of metaphors about how we use technology to find places so much more easily these days.  The email I sent her had a link to the cafe so she could immediately find out where it was, rather than have me take loads of time talking to her and giving her boring directions. Instead of blindly groping around searching for answers, we find what we are looking for with the help of novel ideas for more quickly… such a change in the speed with which we get to where we really want to be would have seemed impossible just a few years ago…

And then, on to the reprogramming.  A simple disconnection of the current feelings from the memory, then moving swiftly on, finding positive emotions and getting her to journey with them into her future.

I kept looking over my shoulder as I put her into a trance and lifted her hand, doing good old-fashioned arm levitation to get her to reprocess the information I programmed in.  I thought how strange it would seem if a member of the public walked in to the room, seeing her in a relaxed state, eyes closed, giggling as I tapped the anchor on her leg.  She was an amazingly responsive client.

After this, when I asked her about how she felt about the break-up, she looked at me blankly and said: “What break-up?” before struggling to recover the memory.  Then she added: “It’s weird… I feel lighter…” and she smiled a broad, happy smile.

We walked out into the sunlight, with her still wearing that broad, sunny smile.  I will keep my eye on her, but I’m pretty positive we’ve nailed the depression.

Thank you Richard Bandler and Paul McKenna.  You showed me how to knock out another little patch of unhappiness in the world, and plant a garden there, all in about 45 minutes!

The Birdwoman of Southsea

Walk into a pub in the Banana Republic,  not far from the old Royal Marines Barracks on a Sunday afternoon, and you might be lucky enough to hear a woman singing some jazz numbers, backed by a pianist and a bass player.

She lilts out the numbers with a steady ease, lifting her smooth voice over the drinkers’ pints as they gather for a relaxed pubday afternoon, and weaving for a moment little pockets of joy and sadness, laughter and tragedy from that oh-so malleable raw material: sound.

“No Moon At All” – Helen MacDougall and her Musicians

This singer, with her dark hair and her lean figure I think of as The Southsea Birdwoman.  She has sung in pubs and in clubs around the south of England, and she has played gigs to big audiences down at the Southsea bandstand.  Thousands have basked on the grass by the sea, or danced swing, while her full band has filled the air with jumping rhythms.

But there is far more to the Birdwoman than being a singer.  She is an unusual, massively gifted individual who has the hands of a builder, the muscles of an athlete and the voice of an angel.

Helen MacDougall - The Southsea Birdwoman

Catch her on a summer afternoon down at the beach.  She lives only a four minute walk from the solid shingle incline that shelves down to the sea.  If you time it right, and the wind is in the right direction, you will find her taking wing on the waves – windsurfing over white horses, catching the air in her sail and scooting over the spray.  Her tensed arms and her solid body taking on the elements, allow her for a moment to soar over the pale-green Solent on her single, white wing.

At work, you may find her in the trees, helping kids to find greater confidence by climbing with rope and harness up into the canopy.  Or she may be at work building a bivouac, or showing kids how to light a fire and make artefacts out of wood: little pots from bark, perfectly made, with a lid and a base, as if a little craftshop has sprouted in a glade.

And at home, you may find her building her nest: hammering and sawing, making little additions to her home.  The decking she built at the back of the house is a genuine feat of construction, with pillars of wood sunk deep into concrete, and a space where a tree has been given room to grow up through a hole specially cut.  This is a sociable watering hole she has made, a lucky horseshoe of seats for friends to gather in the back garden on a summer’s day.

Indoors, for warmth in the winter, she has built a fireplace.  She poured and set half a ton of concrete to build a suspended constructional hearth herself, and then put in place a cast iron Victorian fireplace.  She has reboarded the downstairs floor, painted and decorated the whole house.  Upstairs, completely unafraid, she took a circular saw to a wall in order to extend a room and build a clothes cupboard from the narrow space where an old boiler tank used to live.  And she plastered over the place where the original door was so that it is now impossible to tell that it was any other way.

Consider her now: singing for all to hear, or flying on her windsurfer, or hopping high up in the trees – or again – building her nest – and now you understand why she is the Birdwoman of Southsea.

he Southsea Birdwoman

Walk into a pub in Eastney, not far from the old Royal Marines Barracks on a Sunday afternoon, and you might be lucky enough to hear a woman singing some jazz numbers, backed by a pianist and a bass player.

She lilts out the numbers with a steady ease, lifting her smooth voice over the drinkers’ pints as they gather for a relaxed pubday afternoon, and weaving for a moment little pockets of joy and sadness, laughter and tragedy from that oh-so malleable raw material: sound.

This singer, with her dark hair and her lean figure I think of as The Southsea Birdwoman. She has sung in pubs and in clubs around the south of England, and she has played gigs to big audiences down at the Southsea bandstand. Thousands have basked on the grass by the sea, or danced swing, while her full band has filled the air with jumping rhythms.

But there is far more to the Birdwoman than being a singer. She is an unusual, massively gifted individual who has the hands of a builder, the muscles of an athlete and the voice of an angel.

Catch her on a summer afternoon down at the beach. She lives only a four minute walk from the solid shingle incline that shelves down to the sea. If you time it right, and the wind is in the right direction, you will find her taking wing on the waves – windsurfing over white horses, catching the air in her sail and scooting over the spray. Her tensed arms and her solid body taking on the elements, allow her for a moment to soar over the pale-green Solent on her single, white wing.

At work, you may find her in the trees, helping kids to find greater confidence by climbing with ropes and harness up into the canopy. Or she may be at work building a bivouac, or showing kids how to light a fire and make artefacts out of wood: little pots from bark, perfectly made, with a lid and a base, as if a little craftshop has sprouted in a glade.

And at home, you may find her building her nest: hammering and sawing, making little additions to her home. The decking she built at the back of the house is a genuine feat of construction, with pillars of wood sunk deep into concrete, and a space where a tree has been given room to grow up through a hole specially cut. This is a sociable watering hole she has made, a ring of seats for friends to gather in the back garden on a summer’s day.

Indoors, for warmth in the winter, she has built a fireplace. She poured and set half a ton of concrete to build a constructional hearth herself, and then put in place a cast iron Victorian fireplace. She has reboarded the downstairs floor, redecorated and painted it all. Upstairs, completely unafraid, she took a circular saw to a wall in order to extend a room and build a clothes cupboard from the narrow space where an old boiler tank used to live. And she plastered over the place where the original door was so that it is now impossible to tell that it was any other way.

To consider her now: singing for all to hear, or flying on her windsurfer, or high up in the trees – or again – building her nest – and now you understood why she is the Birdwoman of Southsea.

She is an amazing character, a kind and good hearted individual – and one, I am pleased, to call my friend.