Saturday, 23 May 2009

Getting Past The Footnotes on Page 431

In my early years as a cub reporter on The Stockport Courier, then-editor Wally Green impressed on me a maxim which I have pretty much tried to live my life by. "It's your role to write the news, son - not to make it. Remember that, and you'll go far."

On the whole, I managed to keep my nose clean during my distinguished career in print. Whenever I was tempted to stray, Wally's wise words would always come to mind.

It would be easy to think, therefore, that I have not had much of a role to play in the pages of history. Anyone making such a dangerous assumption would be wide of the mark, however, as I am about to reveal how Bill Blunt, during an idle afternoon in 1983, helped Michael Foot to relax during the rigours of that year's election campaign.

I'd forgotten all about the incident until, earlier today, I was flicking through a copy of Kenneth O. Morgan's Michael Foot: A Life in the Liverpool branch of Waterstones bookshop. That I was standing not more than a couple of yards from popular TV presenter Les Dennis is merely incidental to my tale...

While perusing Mr Morgan's tome, I came across an account of Foot's visit to the Manchester suburb of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, and I was transported instantly back a quarter century to the days when, as a mature student I was studying at Manchester University. My flatmate at the time, an equally mature Henry Smith, was the nearest embodiment of a Michael Foot 'groupie' it would be possible to find. To say he idolised the chap would be a gross understatement. I myself had a sneaking regard for Foot, but it was as nothing to Henry, who had collected every word that Foot had ever consigned to print.

When we learned of the impending visit of the Labour leader to Chorlton, he immediately suggested we should pop along to offer our support to the shaky election campaign. He dug out his pristine, two-volume copy of Foot's acclaimed biography of Nye Bevan which he fully intended he could persuade Mr Foot to autograph. Not wishing to appear churlish, I grabbed a paper-back copy of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, to which Michael Foot had penned an introduction, and off we sped to meet the battle bus.

When we arrived at the carbuncular shopping centre in Chorlton, the place was a throng of folk, and it was with some dismay that Henry realised that our prospect of securing his idol's signature was somewhat remote. After half an hour of jostling, we were no nearer our quarry, and I, anyway, was getting more than a little bored by the proceedings. I told Henry I wished him well, but that I needed to pop into a nearby newsagents to buy a packet of B&H, so would meet him in a quarter of an hour.

When I emerged from the shop, the crowd had moved on, so I made my way back to our meeting point. As I turned a corner, I was confronted by a phalanx of fellow members of the press, walking backwards (as we are trained to do) while scribbling in their notepads. And there - closer to me even than Les Dennis was today - amidst the tumult was no less a person than Michael Foot himself. Rapidly stubbing out my fag, I pulled the dog-eared copy of Gulliver from my duffle-coat pocket, proffered it to the ageing politico with a pen, and asked him if he'd sign it.

I quote from Mr Morgan:

"Sometimes attempted meetings with electors could turn into 'a media scrimmage', although it was certainly not Foot alone to whom that applied. One pleasant touch came when a student in the Manchester suburb of Chorlton-cum-Hardy offered him a copy of Gulliver's Travels to sign. He did so with much charm, and gave the audience a short discourse on on Swift and how he had prophesied the existence of the bomb. It was one of the rare moments in the campaign when Foot was truly at ease." (p431)
When I finally caught up with Henry, I hadn't the heart to tell him what had happened and (thankfully) I didn't have to. The very next day, The Guardian (of which he was an avid reader) told the story in a front-page sketch of Foot's visit to Chorlton.

And so you have it. Bill Blunt's role as a footnote in history. I only hope Wally Green isn't turning in his grave.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Walkies

When a young lady of my acquaintance recently suggested I might accompany her on a walk along the coastline of the Wirral, I can't pretend I wasn't flattered. I try to keep myself in trim, despite my advancing years, and the prospect of a seaside saunter with a beautiful lady at my arm was rather enticing.

As my alarm went off at 6.30am yesterday, however, I must confess to having had second thoughts. I'd envisaged a mid-afternoon stroll - perhaps followed by fish and chips for tea - but her instructions were quite firm. I was to meet her at Seacombe Ferry at 8.15am.

As I parked the car beside the ferry terminal, my sense of foreboding only increased. The car park was jam-packed with vehicles, and hundreds of folk were milling around at a time on Sunday which most normal people reserve for breakfast and a cursory review of MP's expense claims.

It soon became apparent that this was no ordinary walk. I had been enticed - unwittingly - to join the thousands of people who every year complete the Wirral Coastal Walk. When my companion rolled up with a packed lunch at the ready, any thoughts I had of a gentle amble quickly evaporated. "It's only 15 miles," she said. "We should have it done by lunchtime."

It transpired she'd done the walk a number of times before, usually as part of a group, but wanted this time to establish a 'personal best' time for it. After enrolling, we set off at 8.25am precisely, at a pace that might charitably be called 'brisk'.

My readers will be glad to know I put on a brave face and did my best to keep up with the human dynamo at my side (or, more accurately, just slightly ahead of me). We covered the first five miles in an hour. I've been in traffic jams that moved less quickly, and I felt surprisingly exhilarated at the achievement. As my old bones began to feel the strain, rain clouds began to gather across the Dee estuary and an ominous sense of foreboding gripped me. This woman was clearly on a mission, and any thoughts I had of us perhaps having a rest were repeatedly batted away. "If we stop, you'll never get started again," she said.

And so, the miles fell away, the last five in pouring rain. En route, we were passed by only two people - both of whom had strides that would not have disgraced a Roman centurian. I am sure my aching legs held us back but, nevertheless, we completed the 15 miles in a little under 3 hours 45 minutes.

Enjoyable though the experience undoubtedly was, I have made a mental note to ensure that, when I consult my diary for Sundays in May 2010, I will discover that I am due to be watching television.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

SpotifyWhack

Thanks to that wonderful website, Spotify.com, Bill Blunt is proud to launch a new challenge. After GoogleWhack and CensusWhack, it's time to play the odds with SpotifyWhack.

Following the principles of previous Whacks, the aim is simple. Using the Search Facility conveniently supplied by the site, can you come up with a word or a phrase that only appears once on Spotify?

Here are a couple to start you off... 'Gynacologist' (sic) and 'Loss Adjustor' - for whom we have Die Kassierer and Jarvis Cocker (respectively) to thank for that.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Rubber Banned

I am sure there is a whole generation of youngsters growing up for whom the concept of popping into WH Smiths for a box of elastic bands must seem a rather alien, and even antique, business.

Ever since the Royal Mail adopted its policy of strewing our pavements with rubber bands, the need to trot off down to the stationers to replenish supplies has become unnecessary. Our postal service has - in between deluging us with junk mail – thoughtfully made the buying of elastic bands a redundant occupation.


I’m not exactly sure how they achieve this, but it’s almost impossible to walk more than a hundred yards in any town or city without seeing one of these bright red rubber bands. I like to think they have fleets of vans patrolling our streets in the dead of night, distributing them by the fistful through open windows as they speed along.


However they manage it, I take my hat off to them. They certainly know how to win the hearts and minds of the British population, and it can’t be long, surely, until they move on to phase two of their master plan – Operation Paper Clip. If that goes well, it’s only a matter of time until every street corner will have its own Community Stationery Cupboard, and gone will be the need for the middle classes to pilfer items from the office.


That day can’t come too soon, in my book.


Wednesday, 13 May 2009

He Who (Re)pays The Piper

Amid the clamour of our 'Honourable' Members of Parliament scrambling to write cheques to repay the dosh they so easily grabbed from the taxpayer over the last few years, it's easy to become blasé about the odd few grand spent on upgrading second homes.

I know there will be some who will wonder whether I can justify employing my techno-savvy son, Jasper, to redesign my blog. I want to take this opportunity to reassure my readers that any (presumed) increase in the value of Bill Blunt's Blog will be declared to the tax authorities. Nepotism does not come cheaply - as any MP will tell you. In any case, my accountant has assured me that this is not, in fact, my first blog, so there should be no question about tax liability that he can't handle.

If only it were the same for Hazel Blears. Poor Hazel has done her best to keep her punters onside (by which I mean her voters, obviously) in electing to repay any Capital Gains Tax otherwise due on her second home. Well done that woman!

It's a brave man who would ever accuse Bill Blunt of being a financial whiz-kid. I don't pretend to understand these things but - nevertheless - I can't help wondering whether she's still made a tidy profit on all this first / second home 'swrching' she's supposed to have been involved in.

If that's the case, just paying the tax on the profit doesn't seem enough.


Sunday, 10 May 2009

Life in The Old Dog Part II

Just because Bob Dylan can't be bothered to refresh his concert programme with tracks from his new album, it doesn't mean we should all take his cue and sit back on our laurels.

Whilst ambling about the Secret Gardens of Oxton this afternoon, I was fortunate to bump into my good friend Bob, a partner in Knowles, Ranterby and Suffolk, the renowned PR agency that was (partly) responsible for the recent relaunch of the Fiat Cinquecento. Bob took half an hour out from his day job to cast his eye over my blog - and his conclusions were pretty much in line with previous critiques.

"You've got to simplify it," he said. "It's as simple as that!" He liked the fact that I'd managed to post an article about The Secret Gardens of Oxton only a couple of hours after they opened. "But your punters won't really know if they're going for a red-top or something more traditional."

I can't pretend I wasn't a bit shocked. I was brought up in the 'substance over style' world of journalism. No one at the Stockport Herald was ever taught to put layout before words - whatever the subbies said.

Still - I know free advice when I see it. So I've set the dogs loose and overhauled my blog - for good or ill. I like to think it's now the kind of place Elizabeth Hurley and John Torode would feel at home in. We'll have to see how it goes.

Can You Keep A Secret?

Those readers of my blog who haven't happened by because of their interest in Bob Dylan will know that I have long had an interest in gardening - by which I mean the proper cultivation of fruit and vegetables.

I take my cue in all matters horticultural from the estimable Mystic Veg, and now and again from the even more estimable Crofty.


I've never had much of an inclination for lawns and flowers. Nevertheless, when I was invited to join a friend on a visit to the Secret Gardens of Oxton this morning, I thought it would be churlish to refuse.

I'm glad I went. Oxton is a delightful old village that has been all but engulfed by the suburbs of Birkenhead. It's the kind of place where John Torode, if he was ever thinking of opening a new restaurant, would find a ready audience.

It's hard not to imagine Elizabeth Hurley - fresh from her Indian wedding, perhaps - taking tea on one of the carefully-manicured lawns. Not when it comes to trying to increase the number of readers of your blog, anyway.

Not everyone will have been able (whether through indolence, over-indulgence or churchly-responsibilities) to get up bright and early to tour the secret gardens of Oxton this Sunday morning so, for those who couldn't make it, I thought I'd post a small, select sample of what you've missed.

When all is said and done, there's something peculiarly British about enjoying poking about in a stranger's garden, and thanks to the Oxton Society it can all be done legitimately in something like 30 venues for just a fiver.

I'm off for a spot of lunch just now, after this morning's pleasant stroll. It's looking as though the weather might fair up a little, with the sun set to break out when I resume my tour.






Thursday, 7 May 2009

Bill Blunt's Dream

As someone who was once (self) proclaimed as the distinctive voice of my generation, I can't pretend I have enjoyed the seemingly steady slide into obscurity since I officially 'retired' from being a jobbing-journalist.

The odd syndicated article in the Harpenden Gazette notwithstanding, I have had to slowly acknowledge that my time in the spotlight was over. The halcyon days of my scoops at the Stockport Sentinel are but dusty memories - yellowing cuttings stored in boxes in my attic, yesterday's news that quickly became today's fish and chip wrappings. Or, rather, the day after yesterday's. If you know what I mean.

When I was first introduced to the world of blogging, I'll admit I thought I'd easily recreate my audience. The early signs were encouraging. My technologically-adept son, Jasper, assured me with his regular analysis of the stats gleaned from Statcounter that my readers were, indeed, weeping. Then, the rot set in. Perhaps I took my new-found fame for granted - although it would be a brave man indeed who accused me of that. Whatever the reasons, no matter how often I mentioned Wetherspoons, Waterloo Street in Oldham, Prolectrix products or Kappa tracksuit fetishes, my readers seemed to melt away.

As reality started to bite, it was easy to start posting less frequently.

Until, that is, Jasper rang me last night.

'Pa!' he exclaimed - 'Your stats have just gone mental!' Apparently, my recent post about Bob Dylan had touched a nerve amongst the recent readers of the online fanzine Expecting Rain. To underline the point, he faxed me through the Statcounter figures which, in case there are any circulation auditors out there reading this, I am more than happy to reproduce below:


As you can see, I think I accidentally stumbled on blogging Paydirt - my average 10 or 11 visitors per day increased to 550 just by an accidental mention of the singer from Hibbing (I wouldn't want to tempt fate by mentioning his name so, rather like the Scottish Play, I'll resist).

There's a lesson in this somewhere. When I've worked it out, I'll be back. Broken, but not unbowed. Or something like that.

Of course, it's quite possible that my circulation increase was due to the free fridge magnet in my last post - so here's another one.



Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Expecting Visitors

I was heartened by the number of visitors who popped across to read Bill Blunt's account of his visit to the Dylan concert at the Echo Arena earlier today. Many of them came from Expecting Rain - the most comprehensive list of Bob Links you'll find anywhere.

Call me a shameless old hack, but I know an audience when I see it.

By way of thanks, here's a handy 'cut out and keep' Fridge Magnet of Bob. Time to recycle all those old magnets adorning your fridge, and update them with a Dylan one, methinks.



Sound advice from Bob, too.


Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Life In The Old Dog Yet

It's heartening to learn that travelling troubadour and songsmith, Bob Dylan, has claimed the No 1 spot in the UK Album Charts this week. Just a couple of weeks short of his 68th birthday, he's now the oldest artist to top the UK charts - a fact that should encourage all of senior age to keep plugging away.

It's incredible (and sobering) to reflect that it's 38 years since Bob last reached the pinnacle of the UK music trade. I had to wait until I returned from holiday before I could take Together Through Life out for a spin, and I'm pleased to say it was worth the wait. It's a warm and engaging album, suggesting someone who is at ease with himself for the first time in many years (check it out on Spotify, if you haven't already bought it).

It was surprising, therefore, that he chose not to play a single track from his new album when he appeared at the Liverpool Echo Arena last Friday. Watching Dylan perform live is always a challenge. His constant re-invention of his back-catalogue (surely one of the largest of any recording artist?) makes it hard to Name That Tune In One - they invariably emerge in a new style, with a new patina and presentation. Anyone seeing Bob play live for the first time will sometimes struggle to recognise even his most famous hits, so altered can they become when played on stage.

I was accompanied at the Arena by my latest squeeze, who hadn't seen Dylan live before, and she was aghast that so few people were dancing in the aisles - until she realised the number of zimmer frames that possibly impeded movement, that is. Thankfully, Dylan was off the stage by 9.40pm, so us oldies could be home for our Horlicks and bed in good time. Unless they were lured to Flanagan's Apple, that is, where the music can at least be guaranteed to get you bopping. In his younger days, one could imagine Bob himself visiting a live music venue like Flanagan's for an apres-show wind-down. Not now, of course. He'd be tucked up in bed by then, I'm sure, having kicked off his slippers and ensuring his false teeth were safely stored on his bedside cabinet. How I envied him that night.