Autobiography

My Geography Teacher Jammed With George Harrison—A True Story

STOP PRESS: As of April 2022, any new posts will appear exclusively on Medium. Click here to get to my page.

It’s 1991. The 1st Gulf War is about to begin, and I’m watching the bombs explode over Baghdad on my tiny black & white TV.

A few months later, on the same TV, I watch Yakov Tolstiko win the London Marathon. It’s a significant event because he’s the first Soviet athlete to do this. And the last. By the end of the year, the USSR will cease to exist.

Not a great year to be a communist. But a great year to be me. It’s the last year of school. A school I’ve spent the last eleven years at — almost my entire life. And in July, it’ll be over. An occasion as monumental for me as it will be for Yakov Tolstiko when he arrives Back in the USSR after winning his medal.

First though, I’ve got to pass my exams. Which is a problem, because I’m more interested in girls and booze than in hanging valleys.

In case you’ve forgotten: Hanging valleys are formed when a large glacier smashes through a valley cutting the ‘legs’ off the older valleys, leaving them ‘hanging’ once the glaciers have melted. Like below.

— OK, Phil. Thanks for the geography lesson. But what’s this to do with George Harrison?

I’m coming to that. But first, let’s talk about John Croft.

— Who the hell is John Croft?

John Croft, or Crofty, was my geography teacher who on Saturday nights at the sixth form bar used to knock out a few George Formby songs on his banjo ukulele. I was more into Nirvana, Guns ‘n’ Roses and Pearl Jam at the time. But as Crofty was one of the more likeable teachers at the school, it was always good to hear him play.

He was also a close friend of George Harrison.

— I’m sorry?

That’s grabbed your attention, hasn’t it?

You see, we all thought Crofty was just another jobbing teacher like the rest of them. Sitting around in smoky staffrooms drinking endless mugs of weak tea. Or in The Oak pub later knocking back pints of mild to make the evenings go quicker.

Little did we know that the guy who taught us hanging valleys on a Tuesday afternoon, also hung out with one of the Beatles.

George Harrison had always had a keen interest in George Formby and the banjo ukulele (above). He owned one growing up, and wanted to reignite his passion for the instrument.

What better person to get advice from than the President of the George Formby Society and well-known banjo ukulele aficionado: John Croft.

Harrison phones Crofty up out of the blue, and tells him he needs some advice on banjo ukuleles, as he wants to start playing them again. They arrange to meet up, and get on well. Their common interest in the popular wartime entertainer and the instrument, extinguishes any doubts John has about meeting such a musical luminary. I mean, after all, this was a living Beatle.

For the next eleven years, until George’s sad death in 2001, they remained close friends. Not only did Crofty help him build up his ukulele collection, but helped him with his playing technique.

Can you imagine that? My old geography teacher giving music lessons to one of the most famous musicians on the planet?

At the time, as well as studying, I also sang. I remember singing April Come She Will by Paul Simon in front of the entire school with Goichi Hirata accompanying me on guitar. It was a pretty nerve-racking experience. In fact, now I think about it, it was the most nerve-racking thing I’ve ever done.

But imagine, if I’d known that down the road was George Harrison. Crofty could have invited him up. I might have really belted out April Come She Will (if that’s possible). Instead of the rather frail and feeble performance I gave that afternoon.

As it was, Crofty kept the whole thing secret for obvious reasons. He didn’t want the press descending on his house. George was a very private man, and John respected that. Which was why no one knew until much later.

Saying that, there had been rumours. Some say they’d seen George Harrison in town. Another, was that Eric Clapton owned a pub nearby where there were wild parties. The most outlandish one was that Harrison was seen driving Crofty in his new F1 McLaren sports car up the Tanet Valley in North Wales.

(Ah, sorry, that’s actually true.)

It’s a good story, isn’t it? And even though I didn’t feature in it, I feel like I was there in spirit. While Crofty played his ukulele with George Harrison down the road from our school, I was singing songs — maybe even the odd Beatles song — with Goichi Hirata. There’s a nice synergy about it. And when I think about it, it feels like a tiny tiny part of me knew George as well.

You can read more about this story on John Croft’s site The Ukulele Man.


This story originally appeared on Medium on 26 February 2022. You can read more stories on my Medium page. Or you could consider signing up to become a Medium member. It’s $5 a month, giving you unlimited access to my stories and millions of others on Medium. If you sign up via this link, I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Great. Thanks!


(Photo Credits: George Harrison: David Hume Kennerly/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons. Hanging Valley: Pseudopanax/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons. George Formby: Puttnam L A (Lt)/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons.)

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For Richer or Poorer—What Is Wealth?

I don’t know many wealthy people. But I know one. An old friend of mine, who after university, didn’t bum about like me, but got a job.

I met up with him a few weeks ago, and we started talking about money and wealth and what it meant — if anything. As a way of quantifying our progress since we left university almost twenty-five years ago, we totted up all the money we had in the entire world.

It was a bit of fun, we were a bit drunk, but the results were very telling, and quite surprising. My friend has a house worth £800k, has investments worth £300k, plus a steady job earning him £150k a year.

‘So you’re a millionaire,’ I commented. ‘Congrats, you’ve made it!’

He stared at me in disbelief. ‘You’ve no idea, Phil, have you? You’re probably richer than me.’

‘Yeah, right,’ I said, quaffing my beer. ‘I work on a farm in Normandy, for God’s sake, and earn €19k a year. I don’t own any property, and except for my savings, have no investments whatsoever. Compared to you, I’m a pauper.’

He didn’t see it like that, though, and told me that despite his big salary, come the end of the month, he probably has less money than me. In fact, by the time he’s paid his mortgage, his two cars (BMW & Mercedes), utility bills, food, petrol, clothes, nights out, booze, holidays, trips for the kids, etc., there’s barely enough to feed the dog.

I didn’t believe him. My friend has always been prone to exaggeration, but this was silly. And yet, he insisted it was true. Even his wife backed him up.

‘Even after my wage,’ she declared. ‘We still struggle.’

I was reeling. Struggle is not a word I’ve ever associated with my friend. I have other friends who struggle, but not him. I thought my old university flatmate had got it sorted: rich and wealthy beyond my wildest dreams. Turns out, he can’t even feed his dog.

‘So, what do you do for money at the end of the month?’ I asked. ‘Beg?’

‘Not quite, but close,’ he admitted. ‘We borrow. Take out loans, or get another credit card. Move money around.’

I felt cold. Is this how people live these days? On a financial precipice, playing one credit card company off against another, just to pay some bills. If they do, this monthly digital financial hustle seems exhausting. Harder than actually working. Or perhaps I’ve been living in rural France too long, and have lost touch with the reality of 21st century England.

‘I could lend you some?’ I offered, half joking,

I could tell he was considering it, but laughed it off.

‘Why not?’ I insisted. ‘I have money in the bank.’

‘Really?’ they both answered in unison.

I wondered what had happened to my friend. He was no fool at college and had always got much better grades than me and had worked hard to get where he was. And yet, he seemed to be squandering it on £5k TV sets when he couldn’t even afford to feed the dog. It seemed absurd.

My friend freely admits he sometimes gets up in the middle of the night and starts work, he’s so worried about losing his job. It’s not that he’s on the verge of being sacked, his position is quite safe, it’s just that if it happened, it would be a catastrophe. As a result, he’s always tired, doesn’t eat well, and by his own admission, is overweight.

He’s always been a bit of a spender. At university, he was always the one to get the rounds in down the pub. Always the one to buy everyone shots of tequila at closing time. And always the first to run out of money.

He often accused me of being tight. Arguing that money was there to spend, not hold onto like a teddy bear.

‘I’m not tight,’ I would argue. ‘I just don’t like spending money. There’s a difference.’

This subtle difference has shaped our lives, and will probably shape our futures. I doubt either one of us is going to be rich (I mean mega rich), but if one of us ends up poor, it won’t be me, that’s for sure.

After the stay with my friend, I concluded there were two types of wealth:

— Pure wealth

— Perceived wealth

The first one is money in the bank. This is me, albeit on a very minor level. The second one is my friend: lots of shiny whistles and bells (and cars), but when you look in the vault, there’s nothing there except dust.

There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact, I don’t really care. But next time you think someone is richer or wealthier than you, and before you start to feel bad about yourself, go and have a look to see what their dog has got in its bowl. It might surprise you.


This article was originally published on Medium on 25/01/22—click here


(Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash)

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So I Bought a Smartphone!

After years of vowing never to own a smartphone, viewing them as needless childish gadgets, I finally caved in and bought one.

The phone I’ve used for the past ten years (I’ve had three) is the Nokia 105 Dual SIM that weighs 74 grams and is the size of a Mars Bar. It has the battery life of 13 days and even has a radio (and two games). My new phone weighs 220 grams, has the battery life of a day, and has the portability of a chopping board.

There was a time in the not so distant past when people would laugh at you for carrying around a ‘brick’ of a phone. So what happened? At what point did these massive, chunky, cumbersome phones become so popular when twenty years ago you could buy one the size of a matchbox. I’m not a technological anthropologist, if they even exist, but I bet it was the day Steve Jobs stood on stage with his iPhone and said something dumb like “This is the future!”

Cheers for that, Steve. Now even I’ve got to buy one.

Of course, I didn’t have to. He didn’t force me from silicon heaven. But I did. But why? Why did I dispense with a phone that was working perfectly, and had served me well for nearly a decade?

I’m not entirely sure. Yes, I’d been thinking about it for a while. There had been a few occasions when I could have done with one. Like getting lost recently in Caen in sheeting rain at one o’clock in the morning after making a wrong turning from the ferry terminal. There were also a few other times when companies sent me verification texts that could only be accessed via a smartphone, you know the kind.

Of course, none of these warranted the purchase, I could have plodded on regardless and got by with my Nokia. But then I went to my brother’s wedding and everything changed.

During his speech, he affectionately alluded to the fact that I lived in deep technological isolation on a farm in France. Which is true, I do. And I enjoy it. But for some reason, as I was munching on the wedding cake, I felt the urge to buy a smartphone, right there, right then, as though my life depended on it.

I couldn’t as I was in the middle of North Yorkshire, but when I got back to France (after getting lost in Caen), I decided the time had come. So I ordered a Xiaomi Redmi 9A (for Christmas) and when I got it, instantly messaged my brother:

“Hi, Guess what!!!!???”

I waited for the reply, which I assumed would arrive within minutes, seconds even.

I didn’t get one. So I sent it again. But nothing. Had something gone wrong? Was my message lying in some heavily encrypted Xiaomi outbox without me knowing it?

No. Turns out my brother had switched his phone off for Christmas. The irony wasn’t lost on me, for sure.

I actually felt like sending the phone back, as it had served its purpose – I’d made contact with the outside world. But I didn’t, of course. Who sends their own Christmas present back? Not me, so I plugged slowly on, becoming like everyone else: loading up Apps and photographing inane things and then adding faux artistic filters. Like this wine box with a vanilla b/w sheen:

(good idea though, don’t you think?)

So do I miss my Nokia? Yes. Absolutely. I miss the compactness of its design. Its tactility, its sleekness, it’s smallness. The fact that you can hold it between your index finger and thumb with ease. Twenty years ago, this type of phone was the height of sophistication. A statement of cool. A symbol you were on the move, heading boldly into the 21st century, no holds barred.

Now what have we got? A brick in our pocket that weighs us down like a lead weight. Going out of the house these days feels like training for a strong man contest. Have I got my phone, my wallet, my keys, my bag, my laptop, my life! Were things this complicated when I was 25? I can’t remember but probably not. I didn’t even have a mobile phone until I was 28. And even then it was one of those real chunky Motorola affairs made out of indestructible plastic that you could open bottles of beer with. Or even use as a weapon. Not that I did.

When you think about it, the very definition of a mobile phone has become some sick joke. Which is probably why at some point it was changed from a mobile phone to a smartphone to avoid the obvious confusion. Probably by Steve Jobs.

But anyway, the deed is done now. I’ve got it, and it’s not going back. One, the time period to send it back has elapsed. And two, I do like the star constellation app Star Walk. It tells me what stars and constellations I’m looking at as I look through the camera. So if nothing else, if I get blasted into space or kidnapped by aliens, at least I’ll know where I am.

(Main photo/Julius Drost)


Further (hypocritical) reading:

Why I Don’t Own a Smartphone (here)

Why I Still Don’t Own a Smartphone (here)


When a faulty satnav unexpectedly sends British tourists into a deathly quiet French village, it gives its idle mayor, Jean Marc Bulot, a final shot at redemption.

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The Advantages of the UK Leaving the EU on 1st January 2021 (Updated)

I posted this piece last year but feel it’s my moral duty to update it now we’ve been out of the EU for a year.

Like many, I was willing to give Brexit a chance. To see if the benefits promised might actually be true. I wasn’t holding out much hope of course – the economics and figures simply didn’t add up – but as a good-natured chap, I gave it a chance. Why not? Even the stupidest people are occasionally right.

I scoured the news and the available facts looking for that golden egg that would make England great again. Surely there must be something. Perhaps people who voted Leave feel better now, and so are working harder. Maybe they are nicer to their friends and family and give more money away to charity. A built-in ‘feel-good’ factor that is impossible to calculate except for the number of Emoji smiley faces in their text messages.

These same people might prefer Aussie beef and think the EU flag is a bourgeois symbol of a failed utopian superstate. It could be that they’ve always hated croissants and can now be proud of it. And think the German wurst to be a cheap imitation of the good old fashioned British banger. I mean, why not? Everyone is entitled to an opinion, even the kids who weren’t allowed to vote in the referendum on their European future.

But are these advantages? Just because you don’t like something, does that make it worth the fight. I don’t think so. Because like happiness, smugness isn’t quantifiable.

What is quantifiable is the Cheshire farmer who lost £270K last year and had to lay off 10 workers. Or the fashion importer who relocated to Holland and employed people there instead of London. Just two examples from thousands. Maybe, millions.

We’re told by this clownish government that this is only half the story and that we need to wait? Wait for how long? Will I still be reposting this piece in ten years? And what are we waiting for? The collapse of the economy. This fabled US-UK trade deal? This extra cash for the NHS. Ah, sorry, that was a lie, wasn’t it?

True, Covid might have tainted the Brexit dream. But not that much. Even if Covid had never happened, there would be very little to write home about. As you can see below:

The Advantages of the UK Leaving the EU on 1st January 2021 (updated 01/01/22)

(paperclip not included…)

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Internet Distraction!

A few days ago, I was reading the football results on the BBC. Two hours later, I was scrolling down sites of ancient ruins in Qatar.

If you follow football, you can probably guess how I got from A to B via X, Y and Z. If you can’t, then Google it.

Everybody knows what I’m talking about here. Those lost hours (days, months) scrolling down Wikipedia entries on dead rockstars. Do you know Bob Marley died of acral lentiginous melanoma?

I’m not even a heavy internet user. I generally use it for the football scores, banking, bureaucracy, writing this blog and listening to music. I don’t even use it for work as I work on a farm. But like everyone, I sometimes get sucked into the void.

True, I occasionally learn things. I learnt about String Theory recently which I included in the post before this. But most of the time, it’s guff.

Take the Guardian newspaper for example. I’m a keen supporter of the paper and its values, but most of the pieces I’ve read before. Different topics, different authors, but the ideas are the same. Features, articles and opinion pieces recycled whenever there’s some special commemoration, anniversary, or event in the offing. Another climate change summit, another slew of ideas and protests that won’t be taken on board by the politicians, because in short, they don’t give a shit.

On the football front, whenever Man Utd or Barcelona have a string of bad results, there’s a mountain of articles on who should be sacked and why and who should replace them. I’ve followed football all my life and we’re having the same arguments now over the sacking of Solskaer as we had in 1990 over the sacking of Alex Ferguson. (If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about – you can read on now.)

In short, history repeats itself. We all know that. And yet we keep on reading about it, again, and again, and again.

Wikipedia is fantastic but it’s also annoying that almost every other word or phrase in a sentence has a link to another Wikipedia page. By the time you’ve finished reading say a piece on rock formations in the Llanberis Valley in North Wales, you’ve got half the internet open citing everything from granite chemistry to the Stereophonics.

Saying this, (and I have been trying to crowbar this song into my blog for some weeks now), I did find out about Alain Bashung recently just by mindlessly browsing the internet.

I was seeing if the word Lego (as in the small plastic brick) is the same in French as it is in English. It is. And it led me to a song called Comme un Lego written by Gérald Manset and sung by Alain Bashung in 2008. I liked it so much that I’ve started to sing and play it (with mixed results). But I’m glad I found it so maybe browsing isn’t always a waste of time.

Sadly, Alain Bashung died in 2009. Lung Cancer.

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Book of The Week

I don’t normally promote other people’s books because I don’t know many writers. But on this occasion, I will. One, he’s a friend. And two, I enjoy his work.

His latest book, New Ghost Stories Volume 3, starts with the unnerving introduction:

“Ghosts don’t care if you believe in them or not.”

It’s a chilling line, don’t you think? Poking fun at a casual non-believer like myself. Shoving these ghouls and ghosts in my face and saying, ‘Prove we don’t exist, then!’

It’s a skilful tagline I have to admit, and one you’d expect from an experienced copywriter. But there’s a serious side to these books. Because while they boast the author’s name, he didn’t write them.

‘Duh! Well, who did. A ghost?’

Well yeh, sort of.

David Paul Nixon has spent more than ten years chronicling real ghost stories from people who swear that what they experienced was real. Actual accounts of terrifying, traumatic and harrowing events (let’s call them hauntings) that have shaped their lives. More a case study on the human mind than an account of the paranormal. But all thoroughly investigated and painstakingly transcribed. And all incredibly scary.

But are these ghosts real? And if they are. What are they?

Humans are clever, there’s no denying that. We’ve made discoveries and achieved feats of engineering that would astound our ancestors. I live about an hour and a half away from the Eiffel Tower, and every time I see it, it blows me away. Built as a temporary structure from railway girders 132 years ago, it still stands. Yes, it’s clever.

But not that clever. We might be able to build towers and go to the Moon, but even the most celebrated cosmologists, astronomers and physicists admit most of the stuff out there still baffles them. Take Superstring Theory for instance.

Developed in the seventies, string theory attempted (among others) to unite general relativity (gravity) with quantum mechanics (gravity on an atomic scale). It ultimately failed to find a link, but did spawn the idea of multiple dimensions.

The four dimensions we know (length, height, depth and time), plus another six for good measure. Some brainboxes have even postulated the existence of 23.

Most of us struggle with the 4th dimension when it comes to being on time (me included!), so imagine living in a world of 23 with twisting space-time realities, parallel universes, time loops and worm holes.

‘Hey mate, have you got the time?’

‘Err.’

Point is, even trying to imagine this stuff is impossible. Even the guys who make this up admit the human brain simply can’t process these ideas. Visualising this world is beyond us. But it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

We tend to think of the universe where all this weird shit happens as being out there in the distant darkness of space. How did Star Wars begin?

…In a Galaxy Far Far Away.

But it isn’t. The universe is right here. In your coffee cup, in your cupboard, in your basement, in your attic, in your bedroom, in your house. It’s even in our heads. 23 dimensions in our heads. Imagine that? No wonder we’re so fucked up! No wonder we see stuff!

I’m not trying to rationalise, explain or even downplay the strange events that take place in David’s books. I’m just curious. Curious to come up with some explanation as to why. Nothing weird has ever happened to me. Nothing like in the books. But it might, so I have to be armed so I can deal with it when it happens.

‘Ah, I know what you are? You’re not a ghost, you’re a dimension. Number 23?’


New Ghost Stories Volume Three is out now.


Or listen to David read from Volumes one and two below:

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In Search of a Free Lunch

I’m a sucker for free gifts. Always have been. Growing up with my gran in the late 70s, we spent hours cutting out coupons from magazines and newspapers. Sending them off and waiting three weeks for a (then) state-of-the-art Pyrex dish. By the time she died, her entire kitchen was a museum to 1970s mail-order ovenware.

My grandfather wasn’t much better. His vice was collecting cigar cards. He’d smoke like a trooper just to complete the set then send off for the free presentation pack into which you could stick the cards. I’ve still got them, and while many of the cards have become faded or unstuck, the twenty or so booklets on stamps, coins, countries, and trains (to name a few) are a poignant reminder of my grandparents’ obsession with the free gift.

Years later, even my father got in on the act.

If you lived in the UK in the 1980s, you might remember collecting tokens at petrol stations that you could exchange for a variety of household items. He always went for the glasses, and as he drove a lot in those days it didn’t take long for our house to become a shrine to Texaco tumblers, high-balls, schooners and champagne flutes.

Fast forward thirty years and I seem to have inherited my ancestors’ penchant for gimmicks and free gifts. Rarely do I return from the shops these days without a stash of tokens, vouchers and coupons that I trade in for products I don’t need.

I don’t know why I do this. I’m not really the consumerist type, and I know it’s all a marketing gimmick. But like people believe in Jesus or Santa Claus, I too believe somewhere there is such a thing as a Free Lunch. This holy grail my grandparents were seeking out all those years ago.

This obsession came to a head last week when I received a free gift from my bank. Yes, even I was cynical. Bank? Free gift? Really? I was right to be cynical as I had to take out a year’s magazine subscription from the enclosed catalogue in order to obtain my free gift

Oh great! I sighed, magazines are not really my bag. But hang on, I was only thinking the other day that I need to improve my French. I can meander my way through uncomplicated French novels but when it comes to football or politics the language can get quite tricky.

A well known British football commentator coined the word ‘Lollipop’ to describe when a player steps over the ball to deceive his opponent. ‘One lollipop. Two lollipops. Three lollipops!’ goes one of his famous commentaries. The French use a similar phrase, Café Crème, to describe a similar skill. Both terms aren’t covered in any dictionary.

I therefore recovered the magazine catalogue from the bin but the first few pages weren’t promising. Télé Poche, Windows Gamer, Closer, Auto Moto, and Investir magazine didn’t grab my attention. Neither did Femme Santé, Mickey Junior, or TéléRama. At least Google wasn’t spying on me. If they were they would know that TV, gaming, cars and finance are not top of my internet searches.

I eventually went for TIME magazine. At €3 once every two months it seemed like a good deal. €18 a year plus I still get my free gift. Great work!

Only I’d made a terrible mistake. I’d misread the small print and confused Bimensuel for Bimestriel. Every two weeks as opposed to every two months. Shit! Now I was going to be billed €72 a year rather than €18. Suddenly my free lunch didn’t feel too free anymore.

But maybe I can rescue this. Find something else. Change my order.

I grabbed the catalogue again and had a look. Charlie Hedbo and Le Point looked interesting but expensive. Cuisine et Vin  looked OK, but would still cost me €70 a year. And Le Pêcheur (the fisherman), despite being cheap, looked incredibly boring.

Then I saw it. AD magazine – Architecture and Design. Arches, porticos, columns, that sort of stuff. Not my usual reading material, but for €4.50 every two months, I’ll take it. At least my free gift will retain some of its ‘freeness’.

That was last week. I’ve got my magazine, which is OK-ish, a bit heavy on detail, but I haven’t got my free gift yet. I phoned up the hotline and they said it’s on its way. That was Monday. Today is Wednesday and it’s still not here.

It’s got me wondering why I bother. Why me, my gran, my grandfather, and my dad wasted our time clipping out coupons, smoking ourselves to death, or filling our shelves with poor quality glasses. A cynic might argue, it’s a symptom of Western Capitalism. An optimist might argue it’s just a bit of fun.

It’s probably both. Fifty-fifty. Yes, we’re fucking up the planet, but who doesn’t like a bargain. Tell me that? We know the Free Lunch doesn’t exist, but for some reason we keep on looking for it all the same.

Only today I had another offer through the mail: Subscribe to SFR Mobile and Watch Unlimited Football For a Year – For Free!

(tempting, isn’t it?)


My whacked-out rural satire is still available. (No free gifts)


Check out more Blogcasts on Spotify:

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Ten Years of Blogley

I started writing this blog ten years ago when I arrived in Lyon for a teaching job I didn’t want. Here’s the beginning.

“I live in Guillotiere. A heady mix of Arabs, Africans, Vietnamese, Chinese and me, crammed into a couple of blocks south of the Rhône. At the moment I’m standing in my tiny third-floor apartment looking at some Senegalese kids watching a football match on TV through the window of a bar.

I stayed in Lyon for two enjoyable years before moving on. I now live and work on a farm in Normandy herding cows, bailing hay, mowing lawns and eating apples – yes, that’s me below.

I came here to help out a friend for a few months. Two and a half years later I’m still here (BBC – Brexit, Boris, Covid has seen to that). But if nothing else it’s given me time to work on my BIG novel which has so far ‘cost’ me six years of my life.

It’s not BIG in length – it’s actually quite short. It’s just BIG in my head. Like a nuclear bomb detonating every time I look at the manuscript.

It started as a blog post (like this) but somehow enlarged itself into a full-blown novel. Like a minor sore turns into a terrifying disease. It starts quite benignly:

“I’m in the shower scrubbing away at a hangover with some expensive shower gel called EXIT.

At the time I was working at a residential craft centre near Cahors when I had an idea for a range of organic shower gels called START, GO, EXIT. I was trying a prototype out on a hangover but the smell made me feel so sick that I didn’t take it any further, and instead the idea wormed its way into a novel. This happens a lot, which is why my life exists more on paper than in reality. Call me a dreamer.

The title for this BIG novel is called DEATH ON A FACTORY FLOOR. It’s a murder mystery set in London, Derbyshire and France. There are no murders in it, just accidents. It’s more of an Accident-Mystery – a new genre, perhaps?

My only other novel, Le Glitch (2019), is a romantic-sci-fi-farce, according to some book categorisation algorithm I found. You input a few keywords and it gives you a genre match. I tried it out on my half-written novel about a hapless, idiotic TEFL teacher and the algorithm gave me: EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY. Which might explain a lot.

I doubt I’ll be writing this blog in another ten years as I’m probably the only person in the world who reads it now. I think most of my stats are generated by bots. Do people even read blogs anymore?

I used to be on Facebook and Twitter and advertised each and every post. When I deleted my accounts, I assumed fewer people would view them. In fact they stayed the same.

My post about the French writer Guy De Maupassant does well in India, and my quick (and woefully inaccurate) guide to Paris does well in China. My How to Build A Shepherd’s Hut and How to Tap a Walnut Tree for Syrup are my two bestsellers – in Canada.

So if anyone is remotely interested in reading any of my old posts from Lyon and beyond, you can access the entire archive (fuck!) by using the ladder icon at the top of the page. I don’t know why you would want to – maybe you’re in jail or something and have nothing to do. But you might.


You can buy and read Le Glitch – my satirical romp (or romantic sci-fi farce) here as eBook, Paperback, or Audiobook.

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Observation

Wine Box Bike Racks

I’ve been doing cycling tours on and off for years. Bike, couple of panniers, tent, sleeping bag, set off, see where I end up. They’ve always been great fun, either alone or with a friend. Total freedom, plus a clean and cheap way to see the world. But where do you put your wine?

There’s nothing more invigorating than drinking a bottle of wine while cycling. I normally keep it in the water bottle holder on the frame, so that when I come to a difficult hill, it’s within easy reach. A slug of Pays D’Oc decreases the gradient of any hill. Even a tortuous Alpine pass turns into a gentle climb.

I’ve loved touring since I was kid. Me and my school friend Duncan used to cycle round Cornwall in the rain and hail of the British summer. We stayed in youth hostels back then and didn’t drink wine. Just the odd fag now and then to fire our lungs up before an ascent of those ludicrously steep Cornish hills.

My smoking days are done, but the cycling continues. And so does the bottle of wine. Even though it has never been particularly secure, jammed into the flimsy metal wire cradle that was originally designed for a light plastic water bottle and not a heavy Bordeaux.

It of course goes without saying that over the years a bottle of Claret has broken free and shattered all over the road. Total disaster for me and any cyclists bringing up the rear in their skinny wheelers.

Despite the water bottle holder’s shortcomings though, I’ve kept on using it as my wine rack. Until a few years ago, when I found an old champagne crate in a dustbin up the road from where I live.

‘Oh Lord,’ I thought as I measured up the dimensions. ‘It’s perfect. Not only for wine, but beer as well. I wouldn’t even have to stop. Just a quick reach around into my portable bar for a chilled beer or a slug of wine.’

It’s not just that it fits exactly twelve cans of beer and two bottles of wine in it. It’s the utter simplicity of it that I find astonishing. A old box strapped to a bike. And yet it serves its function perfectly. Not just for alcohol. For anything. Books, groceries, vegetables, fruit, wood, dogs, fish.

I’ve seen bikes with boxes on them for years. Even on those Cornwall trips I saw crazy cyclists with gigantic trunk like containers on their bikes as though they were heading off to Africa. And yet I never thought of having one myself. Even as an adult.

Two years ago I cycled 2000 kilometres to Santiago from Nantes with my wife and the wine box went with me. As you can see in the photo it slots in perfectly between the two panniers. My tent went on top longways and was held together by a bungi. Sometimes I stopped in a town or a village and I’d share a glass with some other pilgrims. Then after we’d finished, someone would buy another bottle and put it back in the rack ready for the next people we might meet. Times like these made everything worth it. Not just the wine rack or the wine or the trip, but everything. Everything fitted perfectly, which is the way it should be.

That was the last trip I’ve done for reasons most of planet earth is aware of. I can’t wait to do another. I’ve still got the rack and a cellar full of wine. Allez!

wine box
Photo/Elizabeth Milligan

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Observation

Why I STILL Don’t Own a Smartphone

Do you remember when mobile phones were small and compact? When they easily fitted in your pocket? When the battery lasted for over a week? When they did nothing else except take calls. Do you remember those days?

A few weeks ago, my old Nokia 105 (above) clapped out, and I went to the store to buy a new phone. I was set on a smartphone. Why not? Get with the times.

When I arrived at the impossibly over-heated store, I asked the shop assistant about them. His eyes cracked open from his long shift, and he showed me to a stand.

‘We have the new iPhone 12 for €1300, or we have a basic one for €909…’

‘I’m sorry???’ I spluttered. ‘Can I stop you there? €1300! You must have misunderstood me, I’m looking for a phone not a small boat.’

The assistant stared at me unamused. Must have been a long shift after all. I was pretty blown away if I’m honest. Yes, I knew these things were pricey. But €1300 for a phone? I never realised the world had gone so bonkers.

‘We have cheaper ones,’ he said, noticing my shock, and showed me to another stand.

I stood there gazing at a showy array of chunky technology. ‘Do you have anything smaller?’

‘Smaller?’ he replied.

‘Yes. Smaller. Like in the old days.’

His eyes glazed over and he seemed to fall back to sleep.‘ Err, I think we have some Nokias over there,’ he wearily informed me. ‘But they are not smartphones.’

‘Great,’ I beamed and a few minutes later left the store with a brand new Nokia 105 with dual sim, flashlight, radio and headphones.

Can I watch a film on it? No

Can I watch TV on it? No

Can I listen to music on it? No.

Can I make zoom calls on it? No

Can I take photos on it? No

Can I access the internet on it? No

Can I read the news on it? No

Do I want to? No.

When mobile phones became popular in the mid-1990s (I’m 46, so I remember this) people wanted them small. The smaller the better. Remember those trendy adverts for Motorolas that sat in your palm and had the battery life of interplanetary space probes.

So what happened? Overnight mobile phones became as heavy as dustbins, and as clunky as plates.

Here is a quick comparison:

Weight of iPhone 12: 228 grams.

Weight of Nokia 105: 57 grams

Dimensions of Samsung Galaxy: 150mm x 75mm

Dimensions of Nokia 105: 85mm x 45mm

But here is the best one.

Battery Life of iPhone: 9 hours

Battery life of Nokia 105: 18.5 days.

That is not a typo. Yes, 18.5 days. That’s longer than it took the Apollo astronauts to get to the Moon and back. In fact, if they had taken my Nokia fully charged, they could have called Mum to say they were safe the moment they landed. If they’d taken an iPhone, it would have probably clapped out shortly after blast-off.

‘Hello? Is there anyone out there? Shit! The battery’s dead.’

*phone dimensions and prices are approximate and may depend on the model. Although a Nokia 105 is round about €20** from most retailers. Yes, that is not a typo. Twenty.

**Or in Pounds Sterling, multiply 20 by the Euro Brexit rate and see what you get. If the shit has hit the fan, it’ll about £20 or more. If things are OK, it’ll be about £16-18. In $ it’ll be about 25.

***I don’t know why I’m even doing the arithmetic, because I know no one will buy one. But you might.

Further reading: Why I don’t have a Smartphone here.

(Image/Nokia © 2019)

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