21 March 2009

"Humiliation, that's what you need..."

Our village hall still has one of the original Roy Castle Clean Air stickers in its window, having proudly (and pompously) banned smoking within following the ex-Record Breakers host's campaign during his last months to get smoking banned in public places.

His dying wish was, of course, granted as law a couple of years back. My personal belief is that the smoking ban has ruined pubs and clubs, but that's another issue entirely. Each time I walk the dogs past the village hall and see that sign, it reminds me a great story from my time as a hack.

Castle was from Huddersfield originally, the town where I worked as a rubbish agency reporter between 1993 and 1998. Upon his diagnosis with lung cancer, he immediately began to embark upon his campaigns to research specifically into lung cancer and rid public places of the risks caused by passive smoking, as this was the proffered explanation for how he caught the disease. He had been a lifelong non-smoker but had spent many years playing the trumpet in smoky venues.

Part of the campaign was a Tour of Hope, as he called it. This was deliberately timed to coincide with his terminal decline to add extra poignancy and give him something of a positive send-off. His wife, Fiona, became a major figurehead and much praised individual as she dealt with media inquiries while having to watch her husband get closer to death in public.

The tour involved a coach travelling the nation, handing out leaflets and giving speeches and interviews and generally spreading the word that people should be protected in public places from other people's smoke. Press campaigns got Castle to stick dogends on his chemotherapy-assisted bald pate, which were helpful but a little disconcerting, but there's no doubt that the media responded and the publicity was vast.

The timing of the tour itself was deliberate, as was the final venue - Huddersfield. Castle was well-loved in his hometown even though he'd not lived there for years. He had been born in 1932 in Scholes, a tiny village on the edge of Holmfirth, and had done his early dancing at a tap class in the town.

Now, by the time the coach was due in Huddersfield, Castle was very weak. His declining strength had rendered him unable to dismount the coach at previous venues to carry out interviews and press the flesh. Therefore, his people had hired Simon Bates to act as spokesperson for Castle, and his job would be to say hi to the crowds and then do the individual media interviews.

So the coach pulls into Huddersfield railway station, one of the more beautiful stations in the country, and polite applause greeted Castle as he waved out of the window. Bates jumped off the coach, clutching the vehicle's microphone (the one that was probably used to say: "on your right, Cooper Bridge auto-spares where Peter Sutcliffe got his false number plates" as the party left the M62) and gave a brief but positive little spiel to quite a large crowd. He explained that Castle had not spoken on the last handful of stops around the country, but as this was his hometown and the last one of the tour before he went home, he would be doing so.

This brought some nice applause. Meanwhile, me and the assembled local hacks were behind a cordon, desperate to get some audio. Sue Cain, a skilled reporter from BBC Radio Leeds, flashed a winning smile at a security man which was enough to get her under the rope and her labelled mic was soon poking round the corner of the coach as Castle began to address the crowd from his seat, with the window open.

I can only remember his first line: "By, it's grand to be home!"

Anyway, he gave his speech and got wildly applauded, and then it was time for Bates to do the individual interviews. As a newspaper hack, I didn't need to talk to him individually as I could just make notes from his replies to one of the radio hacks. So as Sue interviewed him, I scribbled in my best Teeline the wise, earnest words of Bates. I can't recall him saying "But what was the year?" once...

Afterwards, a small throng of us were comparing notes when we noticed that Christa Ackroyd, famed host of Yorkshire TV's nightly Calendar programme, had turned up. It was the middle of the afternoon so she wasn't doing a live broadcast but she was swanning around through the cordons in a way the other folk representing media organisations were not allowed.

A few mumbles among the rest of us had begun when we noticed an elderly lady, in full overcoat and hat, approach her, clutching a notebook and pen. They were close enough for the conversation to be heard.

"Excuse me, are you Christa Ackroyd?"

She noticed the autograph book and immediately plastered on the smile she keeps for the proles.

"Yes I am."

The old lady nervously shuffled closer.

"You're Christa Ackroyd who's on the telly every night?"

"Yes I am."

By now, Ackroyd was trying to coax the woman into thinking she was quite approachable, quite normal and more than happy to be asked for her autograph.

The woman got braver.

"I wonder if you could do me a big favour?"

Ackroyd now had a look on her face which seemed to just say "for God's sake YES! Just give me the book!"

"Of course, my love."

The woman paused, shoved the book and pen at Ackroyd and asked:

"Would you get me Simon Bates' autograph?"

Well, I've never seen a face drop as quickly as Ackroyd's did. I can only compare it to those old films which feature the Golden Gate bridge suddenly collapsing into the strait and floating away, cars and all, to the Pacific. The gaggle of earwigging hacks of which I was part was in silent hysterics, trying to conceal our mirth by swiftly walking away to a safe distance before letting it all out. I have no idea whether Ackroyd took the book to Bates or just stormed off in a huff. I don't suppose either ending matters because the plot was just so perfect, although I'm sure she did the right thing as on the one subsequent occasion I did meet her, she was very civil and perfectly fine.

I got a smattering of copy in a couple of broadsheets the next day and Sue Cain became a good mate until I left Huddersfield. I think she's in Scotland now. Roy Castle died just weeks after his visit.

20 March 2009

Friday fluff

We've had an extension built, as you know. This gave us the opportunity to refurbish the existing part of the house as well. So, a stylish new silver settee now adorns our comfy, cosy living room.

And when we entered in the room last night after our evening meal, this is what we found...

From left to right: Oliver, Twizzy, Harvey and, looking at the camera with his permanently gammy eye, Sidney.

All that money for a luxury cat bed. The fifth cat, Sox, was on the matching pouffe but I couldn't get her in the shot.

Anyone would think they lived with us...

19 March 2009

"Oooh, the Face, that God gave you...."

Facebook, then. I've got into it now. The new layout is appalling as they've tried to quell Twitter's growing influence by apeing its house style. It works for Twitter because that relies exclusively on status updates, but it looks messy and is hard to navigate on Facebook.

Other observations...

1 - Word Challenge is damnably addictive, though I've no idea if being an Anagram Cyborg is good or bad.
2 - I can promote this blog easily on Facebook as I'm not anonymous and the traffic to here has increased immeasurably. It's a pity therefore that F-C, VS and BA can't (unless they'd like me to do it for them, for a small commission)...
3 - I do not want to be a pirate, nor to lick your lollipop, nor to be a Mr Man of any description, sorry.
4 - Being a friend of Cameron Stout (thanks to the interview I conducted with him for OTT after his Big Brother victory) gets you lots of messages from friends asking how the hell you know such a high-profile figure...
5 - Being a friend of Cameron Stout does not, however, earn you access to Jon Tickle, though I've tried...
6 - Whoever puts together the movie or music quizzes should be barred from doing so until they've learned to spell properly.
7 - And on a similar tack, there's no point in concocting a quiz on a specific band if you have only a pidgin knowledge of them ("Who is Queen's lead singer?") - you're just wasting everyone's time.
8 - Facebook does not work for my club setlist updates in the way it does for Twitter, but now that I've downloaded the software that puts Twitter updates automatically on Facebook too, I'm a bit stuck.
9 - You get really insulted when someone you ask to be your Friend doesn't respond, even though you meet regularly for drinks or text frequently - then you realise that they only switch on their PC every other month.
10 - Facebook has the capability, depending on who's online when you are, of making you feel 18 all over again.

17 March 2009

"You're going out the world backwards like you did when you first appeared..."

I was doing a spot of city centre shopping yesterday. It's not something I do often but it is something I rather enjoy as Hull has become, in the last 15 years or so, a great city centre.

Having bought some new trainers and also a birthday present for my nephew's impending 11th, I got a tad peckish. I bought a pasty from the Greggs on Whitefriargate and sat down on one of the pensioner benches.

It's always interesting to watch and listen to the world go by while you sit on a central bench in the middle of one of a city's busiest pedestrianised streets. The most interesting sentence I heard from someone as they conversed their way past me with their friend or relative, oblivious to me and other earwiggers, was this:-

"So I said to her that I'd lose me f**kin' flat if the f**kin' bitch stopped me f**kin' benefits."

This was from a seemingly active, if limited in vocabulary, young chap in a garish white tracksuit. He was about 24. I don't know the context of the above quotation, of course. Maybe he has an appalling back injury and is being mistreated by the DSS while he struggles to find a way of returning some peace of mind and personal pride in finding suitable employment. If so, my sympathies are with him.

I doubt it though.

My initial reaction, which I almost blurted out loud, was to shout: "Well, get a job then. Get. A. Job. You know what a job is? It's where you fulfil a set purpose under employment laws and in return receive financial remuneration. You could do anything. File stuff away at an accountants. Do the photocopying at a solicitors. You're about to walk past a branch of Birthdays which has a notice advertising for staff on its glass door. My local chippy needs a server. I know there's an increasing unemployment list, but there are all sorts of jobs still out there designed for all sorts of people."

I didn't blurt it out, of course. I merely thought it. But there is a number of people in the UK - a number which boasts a fair few noughts, I'd reckon - who are in precisely the same situation as this young man; ill-educated, a respect vacuum for themselves or anyone else, who assumes that the world owes them something because they're here. Stopping benefits is a draconian measure, and as I said I don't know the context of the one line I heard from him as he scowled and scuffed his way past me as I munched my pasty, but sometimes a shock tactic may be the only way of getting some of these malingerers doing what the rest of us do.

The pasty was nice, by the way. Sausage and cheese melt, highly recommended. Then I bought a new shirt and some toothbrush headers and then went home.

EDIT: PS - the above photo is actually Whitefriargate.

15 March 2009

It's your turn to do the washing up

A close friend of mine has enjoyed a long and no doubt fruitful bachelorhood but now, at the age of 41, a lady has finally moved into his house this week.

Last night I asked him via text how it was going. The reply was priceless:

"Very well. We need Sky Multi-Room though."

This made me howl. No more than 48 hours since she moved in and already he appears to be banned from watching Match Of The Day in his own living room.

Today, according to his morning Twitter update, he is going to do the big shop with her.


That really is a sobering experience when you're part of a couple. It's still the one thing I'd happily never, ever, ever, ever, ever do again.

You're never too old to learn...