Top Banana by Kath Middleton

Top BananaThis came as a welcome relief after the last three books I’d read proved such heavy going that I’d given up on each of them.

No such problem here. This is the third book I’ve read by this author and although they are very different, they have something in common; they are all well written. The writing flows smoothly, introducing well-formed characters and carrying the reader through plot developments in an undemanding way.

This is the story of 24-year-old Steve, an under-achiever still living with his parents – and therein lies his problem. His mother controls his life rigidly, routinely undermining his self-confidence as if any sign of success on his part would be a personal affront. But things change when Steve is bitten by a tropical spider, an event that has a curious effect on his attitude to life.

Will his new attitude enable him to escape his mother’s control and turn his life around? How will his mother, and his put-upon father, react? You’ll have to read the book to find out. In doing so you will find that this is a pleasing tale told with humour that at times verges on farcical slapstick, but below the layer of humour there’s a warm empathetic understanding of human relationships.

It is available from Amazon in print and ebook formats.

Dr Hook – back where I used to be.

DrHook DVDLast week we were part of a large audience packed into the Princess Theatre in Torquay for a Dr Hook concert.

I suspect that everyone knows, but I’ll say it anyway, the name Dr Hook refers to the band and not to Ray Sawyer – he of the eye patch (he lost an eye in a car crash) and cowboy hat. The band name began as Dr Hook and the Medicine Show, being a reference to the touring medicine shows that were common in the 19th century. Their first poster bore the words, ‘Dr Hook & the Medicine Show – a tonic for the soul.’ That managed to combine references to soul music, Hook (being a strong piratical image of Ray’s eye patch, even though Peter Pan’s Captain Hook didn’t wear one) and a jokey comment on their use of soft drugs.

The name was soon shortened to just Dr Hook.

The original line-up included two main vocalists, Ray Sawyer and Dennis Locorriere. It was their animated faces that became the widely known image of a band at its peak through the 1970s, that drifted apart in the early 1980s. They accumulated 35 platinum and gold records.

From time to time Ray Sawyer and Dennis Lacorriere have put together bands and toured reprising the Dr Hook hits.

How is it that in 2015 a band that includes just one former member of an American band that broke up 30 years ago can pack an English theatre with an enthusiastic audience, many of whom weren’t even born at the time of their biggest hit 43 years ago?

Surely the answer has to be the sheer quality of their songs that range from the raucously, impishly funny to the very moving and sentimental. Like many bands, members (in this case Sawyer, Lacorriere and George Cummings) wrote some of their material, but Dr Hook had a secret weapon.

Dr Hook Rolling Stone coverMany of their songs were written for them by poet Shel Silverstein. He wrote all of the songs on their second album and many of their greatest hits including ‘Sylvia’s Mother’, ‘Cover of the Rolling Stone’, Everybody’s Making it Big But Me’, ‘More Like the Movies’, ‘I Don’t Want to Be Alone Tonight’ and ‘Sweetest of All’ – songs that still sound fresh to me after 40 years and countless playings. I wore out several tape cassettes and was relieved when their albums were re-recorded onto cds.

Well, what about the concert itself? It was delayed for six weeks because Ray had a fall in an M4 services and broke his right arm. He still had it in a sling. It didn’t stop him enjoying himself. He enthusiastically conducted both the band and the audience with a drumstick in his left hand, but it clearly upset him that he couldn’t wear his trademark eye patch. He said he couldn’t put it on one-handed and so was reduced to wearing standard dark glasses.

I didn’t know any of the band Ray had assembled for this tour, but it was an interesting and accomplished line-up with two lead guitars, bass, keyboard and Ray’s son on drums. Occasionally Ray wandered off stage and they played non-Dr Hook material until he returned. I was particularly taken with a ten-minute instrumental passage they slid into at the end of ‘Sylvia’s Mother’.

2014 Dr. Hook (Edmonton, Calgary) 003I actually found that the concert produced mixed emotions. I’ve loved the Dr Hook songs for more than 40 years and it was great to hear the music performed live, to see Ray Sawyer in the flesh and to be part of an audience who clearly shared my enthusiasm. The trouble is that when I play the songs I see in my mind’s eye Ray and Dennis as they were all those years ago.

I know perfectly well that Ray is now 78 years old, but it still came as a shock to see him as the old man that he is – old and rather unsteady on his feet. It was easy to see how his recent fall came about. I’m sure many of us in the audience were uneasy at his constant movement around the stage, threading his way between all the electronics and stepping over the many cables.

He may be getting somewhat infirm, but his personality is as huge as ever. And his humour still charms:

“Right – we’re gonna do the next song because I’m pretty sure I can remember it.”

Of course, the thought didn’t escape me that in the 45 years I’ve been enjoying his music he’d not the only one to have grown old.

So, it was a moving evening: rather sad – and rather wonderful.






The Highs and Lows of Motorhoming

After our first one-night trip we were happily planning more, but first I wanted to make a small addition to our Compass. The door lock to the habitation area felt insecure to me. In fact, more than one of the keys could be used to open the door. On the site at Dornafield I’d spotted a number of motorhomes with additional door security, so I bought and fitted one of these Fiamma locks. I have to say that I felt better with it in place.
For our next trip we ventured a little further afield and went to the Exe Valley Caravan Site, details here. This place is an absolute delight. It’s a long narrow site in a wooded valley with the River Exe flowing down one side and a mill leat down the other. It’s ‘adults only’ as neither the river nor the leat is fenced. There’s a good pub a very short walk away. The charming owners live on site in the converted mill building. On Sunday mornings they give guided tours of their fascinating home which has been created around the still-functioning mill machinery. We intended using the site as a base for excursions onto Exmoor, but we never left the site – apart from strolling to the pub. We spent several totally relaxing days on the riverbank doing nothing apart from soaking up the peace and quiet. We decided that motorhoming had a great deal going for it.
It seemed like the right time to join one of the two clubs that could provide help with choosing campsites, advice and support. There didn’t seem much to choose between the Caravan Club and the Camping & Caravanning Club. We joined the former solely on the basis that the website seemed easier to navigate around. We’ve been pleased with our choice. Every Club site we’ve visited has been excellent, the website/forum has been useful, the newsy emails interesting and I look forward to the monthly magazine dropping through the door.
A number of other short trips to fairly local sites followed, including attending Teignmouth Folk Festival.
Folk festivals have grown in popularity so much in recent years that arranging nearby accommodation has become difficult. Teignmouth is only about an hour’s drive for us so in the past we’ve driven home after a day’s entertainment, but driving means no drinking, and enjoying folk music without a pint in my hand just doesn’t feel right. The organisers arrange space for tents at a sports ground and motorhome parking at a school. There are no facilities, but being self-sufficient for a weekend isn’t a problem and it’s a very short walk into the centre of town where the main venues are. We had a great time, enjoying both the music and the ale.
So we’d had a number of highs, but a big low was to follow.
I’d been reluctant to buy a motorhome on a Fiat/Peugeot base vehicle. As far as I can tell there is no significant difference between the two, both being built on the same production line of the Sevel plant in Italy. They have a poor reputation for reliability, particularly involving the minor electrical components. I actually thought that the Peugeot Boxer on which our Compass is based was so old that we might avoid the usual problems. For example, we wind the windows with cute little handles and there is no central-locking. However, it wasn’t a little problem that struck.
On the way back from Teignmouth I was forced to admit that the gearbox needed attention. I had receipts showing that a new clutch had been fitted and the gearbox re-built only 2,000 miles previously. I had been conning myself that ‘notchiness’ when changing into second was a stiffness that would resolve itself with use, but it was definitely getting worse.
I phoned my local, trustworthy garage and was dismayed to hear that they couldn’t help as their workshop isn’t high enough to get a motorhome up on a ramp. I started phoning businesses that advertised transmission services for commercial vehicles. The conversations took on a pattern.
Me, “I’ve got a problem with the gearbox on my motorhome.”
Garage, “What’s the base vehicle?”
Me, “A 2002 Peugeot Boxer.”
Garage, “It’ll be second gear then.”
Me, “Yes.”
Garage, “Can you read out the VIN.”
I read out the number. There’s the sound of fingers hitting a keyboard.
Garage, “Sorry, the manufacturer no longer supplies spare parts for that box. We can’t help.”
After a few of those I was starting to have a nightmare vision of scouring breakers’ yards and fitting a box that would turn out to be no better than the existing one.
Fortunately, I eventually found Torquay Transmissions. They’ve been in business for a very long time and carry a large stock of spares. This time the conversation went differently. A cheerful voice assured me that they had shelves full of the bits that might be needed. They replaced second gear, and spotting that fifth was looking sad, they replaced that as well. The real shock came when I asked if they could explain why the box should fail so soon after the previous re-build.
I’ve no doubt that some of you reading this will already know the answer; this is, after all, a common engine/gearbox combination on motorhomes of this age. The rest of you may find what I was told hard to believe – I know I did.
This gearbox isn’t watertight. Let me say that again – the gearbox isn’t watertight!
Opinions vary. Water could be getting in via the gasket, the gear change mechanism or even the wiring for the reverse warning – or via all three. What isn’t in dispute is that water gets in there somehow. The mechanic who did the work reckoned there was at least a pint of water in there. He also pointed out something that had made the problem worse in our case.
Most of the water running off the large windscreen passes through a grille into what is known as the scuttle, runs to the low point (in front of the passenger seat) and discharges out of a spout. There is supposed to be a rubber hose attached to the spout to lead away the water, but in our case, in typical Fiat/Peugeot style, the spout had rusted away and disappeared together with the tube. This meant that water from the scuttle was pouring onto the gearbox located directly beneath the scuttle drain point – a gearbox that let in water.
I drove to our local garage where the bodywork department fabricated a lining for the scuttle together with a new spout and fitted a long tube to carry the water well away.
Unfortunately, it didn’t mean that the problem was completely solved. Not all of the rain hitting the front of the vehicle runs into the scuttle. Some goes into the channel that runs around the engine compartment. If we park facing uphill, with a slope towards the passenger side, rain builds up in the channel, overflows and heads towards the gearbox. Actually, I suspect that simply driving in heavy rain means the box gets a soaking.
I may be doing them an injustice, but it did occur to me that the couple who sold us the Compass might have known all about the problem. They could have had the gearbox re-built, spotted that gear-changing was again becoming difficult, returned to the garage to be told that the gearbox was probably filling with water and that spares were no longer available. Maybe they then put it on the market at a low price, hoping for a mug – and I turned up.
Anyway, there we were at the beginning of summer with a long list of folk festivals to be attended and an even longer list of sites we wanted to visit. We had a clean and tidy motorhome, apparently mechanically reliable, and with a gearbox that was (at least for the moment) smooth and slick. We decided to just say, “What the hell,” and get on with enjoying it.
Some nine months later the gearbox is still fine and we’ve had fun. More about that next time.

Rose by Martin Cruz Smith

RoseMartin Cruz Smith is probably best known for his stunning series of novels featuring Russian investigator, Arkady Renko. The series began with the award-winning Gorky Park set in the Brezhnev era and has continued over the years authentically capturing the atmosphere within Russia during and after the break-up of the Soviet Union. World-weary Renko doggedly pursues the truth despite the barriers put in his way by corrupt officials.
‘Rose’ isn’t a novel in the Renko series. In some ways it could hardly be more different, but there are similarities. The main difference is obvious – rather than being set in modern-day Russia, this is set in Wigan in 1872. Once again MCS has clearly done his research and the reader is carried back convincingly to the heavily industrial Victorian scene where most of the population work in appalling conditions in the coal mines or cotton mills – except, of course, for the rich owners of the mines and mills.
The central character is Jonathan Blair; born in Wigan, father unknown. His mother and her toddler son boarded a ship for America. During the crossing she either jumped, or fell, to her death in the ocean, so young Jonathan arrived in his new country as an orphan. After an unusual upbringing he became a mining engineer and has spent recent years in Africa where his close relationship with the native population made him unpopular with his colonial masters.
He arrives in Wigan suffering with malaria and desperate to return to Africa, for reasons that become clear. He needs the help of Lord Hannay, who is also a bishop and head of one of the most powerful families in England with extensive mining interests in Africa and Wigan. That help comes at a price. Hannay will only help if Blair finds John Maypole, a young cleric engaged to Hannay’s daughter, who has disappeared without trace.
Blair finds himself having to act as a reluctant detective – and this where the similarity with the Renko novels lies. Blair acts just like a Victorian version of Renko, showing the same persistence to discover the truth. He is treated with suspicion and hostility by everyone, even Hannay’s daughter. Everyone that is, except for the mysterious Rose, one of the controversial pit girls who shock society by wearing trousers and doing men’s work sorting coal. They are accepted by the pit owners because they work for less pay than men.
Even without the intriguing story line and the strong characterisation, this book would be worth reading because of the vivid capturing of working life below ground with the constant threat of explosion and roof fall, and of the injustice of the class system.
Another gem from Martin Cruz Smith. It is available from Amazon in hardback (secondhand), paperback, Kindle and audio formats.

All Cornwall Thunders At My Door by Laurence Green

All Cornwall Thunders At My DoorCharles Causley was undoubtedly one of our finest poets, whose poetry covered the widest spectrum, including deceptively simple poems for children. This meticulously researched biography is a must have for anyone who enjoys his work. Events from the poet’s life are described alongside extracts from the poems, so if you’ve ever pondered the significance of any particular imagery created by Causley then you may well find the answer here.
Before WWII he was a bookkeeper in a small company. He spent the war years in the Royal Navy and afterwards trained as a teacher. He completed the training just as a vacancy occurred in the school in Launceston that Causley had attended as a child. He got the position and returned to the town to live with his widowed mother. During the long school holidays they often toured Europe together. They shared houses until she died in 1971.
He was a complex man, seemingly modest and unassuming, but at times it was plain that he had a clear idea of his own worth – given the number of awards he received, it would have been hard not to.
The book reveals his friendship with the leading poets of the time, particularly John Betjeman and Ted Hughes, and quotes an amusing story that Hughes used to tell about the time that Causley took him into school to meet his class.
After retirement from teaching he had spells as Writer-in-Residence at both Australian and Canadian universities.
The author has had access to the poet’s diaries and other personal records in the creation of this first biography. The result is a fine biography from someone who clearly admires and respects his subject, but who hasn’t avoided tackling the potentially difficult areas of Causley’s life. I found it a fascinating read.
It’s available from Amazon in paperback and ebook for Kindle formats.

Deep Water, Thin Ice by Kathy Shuker

Deep Water, Thin IceThis is the second book I’ve read by this author and I really enjoyed it: so much so that I was sorry to reach the end. I’m not at all surprised that other reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads have reacted similarly. I see that one described it as a love story, and so it is – but it’s also so much more.

We begin with an apparent suicide, but the description creates a lingering doubt that stays with us as we move into what follows. The cast of convincing characters, led by a vulnerable young widow, are beset by a psychopath with diminishing self-control. Stirred into the pot we have the unravelling of an unsavoury family history, social injustice, sexual deviancy and a haunting. All this is cleverly set against the contrasting background of a peaceful Devon village and the nurturing of a new nature reserve. This very well written, and satisfyingly long, book is highly recommended. It’s available from Amazon in both paperback and ebook for Kindle format.