Small thoughts 2 / 3

Too little, too late

TOO. What a pleasing little word!  

But have you noticed that to all intents and purposes it appears to have decided to let us manage as best we can without it – unless, that is, we are complaining that something is too big, too small, too soon or too late? 

What I mean is, you are not liable to find it being used to mean also or as well – except, I have noticed, in one special circumstance.  

There is one small group of citizens who like to give too a frequent spot of exercise; who do not intend to let it die of neglect; who say too surprisingly often.

Yes, I mean the missionaries from the Met. And by the Met, I mean the Meteorological Office, not New Scotland Yard. I mean the people who pop up on television to bring news of the weather – and their loyalty to too is quite touching.

Admittedly, I have not made a serious study of too. I cannot tell you what is the average number of times per forecast that too trips off the expert tongues, but I would think it must be one or, er, two.  

Nor have I ascertained why they have adopted too as the sound that signifies confirmation that we are indeed being regaled by the weather forecast, rather than the traffic report. But I do think it is interesting that forecasters as a class appear to be the only group who utter it unfailingly every day. It is they who have caused me to consider too and perhaps wonder why the rest of us seem intent on ignoring it. 

After all, when we discuss the weather – and let's face it, we have been known to do so – nobody catches us saying too. And I think that's a shame –  but somehow it would not seem to fit into a grumble. 

It is, after all, a nice little word; a little word that suddenly pops up at the end of a sentence to urge us not to forget what has immediately preceded it, but which does so in a sort of cheeky chirrup and with unexceptionable good grace. 

I can't think why it has taken me so long to appreciate it so briefly. 

John Slim


A bit of acronym aggro

IT was the otherwise estimable Terry Wogan who inadvertently alerted me to the realisation that acronym is a much-misunderstood little word.

Some time back, as I have mentioned before, he revealed in a heavyweight Sunday newspaper that he thinks QE is an acronym. It isn't. It's called Initials. Unfortunately, nobody employed on the newspaper knew any better than our Tel, who was thus left to fly free and disconcert me with this manifestation of his misunderstanding.

Alas, he is not alone in his misapprehension.

The human race at large seems unaware that initials have to be rather special to be an acronym – special, in that they may be readily seen to form a word. As it happens, our beautiful English language is remarkably short of acronyms – to the extent that it's surprising that anybody ever felt the need to invent a word for them, never mind tell the world what an acronym is.  

The only acronym I can think of is PLUTO, which arrived in the Second World War and meant Pipeline Under The Ocean. As far as I can see, though I am sure I must be wrong, there is not another one – and even PLUTO strikes me as being on a bit of a sticky wicket, open to cricketing consternation because it is liable to be given out on the grounds that it is not a word as such, but a proper noun and the name of the flop-eared hound created by Walt Disney in 1930. 

Nevertheless, every so often, one newspaper or another, written by people who have made words their profession and are in danger of being thought to know something about them, makes it clear that its employees share their ignorance with the Blessed Sir Terry.  

QE wasn't an acronym when it appeared in the Sunday Telegraph and it never has been. The New Collins Concise Dictionary – specifically, my copy of it, which alarms me by pointing out that it was published in 1984 – says an acronym is a word formed from the initial letters of a group of words, and I cannot fault its judgment. 

But then, as an example, it offers UNESCO – which is not a word and no more an acronym than I am. 

A year or so back, moreover, one newspaper paraded its own thoughtless certainty on the subject by describing a football match between Queens Park Rangers (QPR) and West Bromwich Albion (WBA) as the battle of the acronyms. It wasn't. If it was anything, it was an initial encounter.

Meanwhile, I learn from Hall Green Little Theatre's website, under the heading Acronym Finder, thatHGLT stands for Hall Green Little Theatre (UK). This definition appears very rarely.” 

Whether or not HGLT is a definition, rather than just a label, remains open to question – and however rarely it appears, there is little doubt that it should not be filed under Acronym Finder. HGLT could not turn itself into an acronym if it stayed up nights working at it.

John Slim


Postscript to privilege

IT'S been a privilege: this life I've led – and, at least for the time being, am still leading. And it's all because, for reasons which have long vanished in the mists of time, I announced at the age of 14 that I wanted to be a journalist.

First hack in the family, son of a schoolmaster, grandson of a woollen mill owner – what on earth could have prompted me to seek admittance to what were at the time the highly-populated ranks of the world of newspapers?

I realise that nobody is agog to get down to the whys and wherefores, and it's just as well, really, because I have no idea.

Well, yes, I liked writing, which is what everybody says before embarking on the unpredictable pathway of papers, people and hold-the-front-page.

As it happened, in all the 40 years I was involved full time in newspapers, I never heard anybody seeking to hold the front page. As far as I know, back in the days when I was helping The Birmingham Post to ensure that the West Midlands was adequately supplied with yesterday's news and tomorrow's fish-and-chips paper, great events came and went – Aberfan is the one that always comes to mind – without unduly disrupting the hot-metal routine of the linotype operators, the page-makers and the rest of the lads in the works, although there were times when a special extra edition was produced.

But as I say, I can no more suggest why I wanted to be involved in a world of which I knew nothing than I can imagine why somebody else decides to be a professional boxer – than whom, surely, the only man more in need of psychiatric help is the amateur who is happy to have his head knocked off for nothing.


By the way, irrespective of what hand Fate may choose to play, this latest squitter is not intended to be a fond farewell. There's not a drum roll or an ave atque vale in sight. But, to coin a phrase, I've started, so I'll finish

It's just that I thought I might enjoy reminding myself of some of the joys that journalism has brought me. And by joys I am not thinking of events, like the time I was told off to go gliding, go-karting and speedboat racing in the course of one wildly unlikely afternoon, nor of sitting in Westminster Abbey for the ceremonial celebration of a new Archbishop of Canterbury.

No, for me it's always been people – national personalities or ordinary people, their jobs, their hobbies, their achievements, their thoughts on life. People like Alf Tabb, of Kidderminster, who committed his flat cap and stringy frame to riding absurd little bicycles that he made himself and who gave me a demonstration, 60-odd years ago, on a model with four-inch wheels while his purposeful pedalling brought his knees up past his chin; people like Enoch Powell, erstwhile MP for Wolverhampton South-West, back in 1968, straight after his “River of Blood” speech; people like Muhammad Ali, whose leather-fisted career had finally caught up with him and who kept going to sleep on me.

I don't pursue people any more. These are slipper days. If it snows, it can get on with it, because I don't have to go anywhere. But it's nice, sometimes, to remember the madcap times of never quite knowing what the day would bring.

And even nicer, just to let the day get on with it and count me out.

John Slim


Prompt service

HAVING pursued thespians, professional and amateur, across their boards since 1968, I now realise that I cannot recall ever hearing a prompt in a professional production. Perhaps I have selective deafness, I don't know. Even so, 44 years without having been aware of a muffled hiss from the wings is not bad going.

Never having been inspired to strut whatever stuff I may possess since I was The Wind as a mixed infant 74 years ago – when my only line was “Whooo!” and it was supposed to make the flowers growI can scarcely imagine what it must be like to be up there on stage and find that the old brain cell has taken unforeseen leave of absence.

It is surely Death-where-is-thy-sting time. An audience ready to revel in your every utterance, and you can't find one.

But these crises do crop up from time to time in amateur productions.

Not that amateurs are averse to circumnavigating a prompt if at all possible. Denise Phillips, an actress who was already a stalwart of Sutton Coldfield's Highbury Players before I first saw her – as Belinda in Alan Ayckbourn's Season's Greetings in 1984did her best to avert a crisis.

She was sitting at a table that was supporting a china tea service when a man standing opposite her lost track of his lines. I don't know what had escaped him, but Denise did her best to help him by looking up at him and then down at the teacups a couple of times.

It was to no avail. He said later that he thought she was telling him his flies were undone.

There are prompts of which I have a special memory. There was one for a player who dried when high on scaffolding during an autumnal outdoor production at the Swan Theatre, Worcester. I was among an audience looking upwards as we clustered around assorted fire buckets, when, from immediately behind me, the elusive line was roared across my shoulders as a considerable shock to me and a lifeline to the man who was both elevated and in need.


There was also the unfortunate citizen who was alone on stage and offering a soliloquy. He, too, lost his way and was clearly wishing that he could have been swallowed by the nearest trapdoor. From the wings came the sibilant response to his unspoken SOS: “I can't seem to remember. . .”

I cannot have been the only one in the audience to have thought, “How extraordinarily true.”

Keith Gascoigne, erstwhile colleague and former business editor of The Birmingham Post, remembers a man whom he recalls as a hoary old-style stand-and-deliver bit player at Stratford before the war.

“If he dried, he would seize the nearest character and whisper urgently: ‘But soft; here comes the noble Duke.  Couch we awhile and mark' – meanwhile leading him towards the prompt corner.  

“The basis of his device was that there's usually a noble Duke in the any of Bill's plays.

“Voice from the back: ‘What about the Roman plays...?'     Me: ‘Some people are too clever for their own good'.”

This, it seems, was one of the favourite anecdotes of the late Michie Fraser, who was MD of Lawson Trout Publicity in the 1940s and 1950s and had a lifelong interest in theatre – he wrote the history of Birmingham's Alexandra Theatre, many decades before, having grown many years older, it became New.

A prompt is – or should be – the end of a crisis. Subtle or otherwise, it ensures that the show will go on – even if it does knock a year or two off the life expectancy of the person who has been waiting to receive it.

John Slim


Perhaps I'll get a life later

I AM the reason my wife, whose judgment I customarily respect because I know my place in the scheme of things, calls me Peter.

It is spelled PITA and is short for Pain in the Arse.

Usually, it is because my television set upsets me with presenters or news scriptwriters who have yet to master their native tongue. I shout at it.

On the other hand, when my daily newspaper prods my etymological susceptibilities, I surrender to dark and silent despair.

Just a few days ago, its theatre columnist, clearly not knowing that the past tense of fit is fitted, made it clear that he “thought it fit her to a tee.”

In the same issue, another television columnist reported that “neither Grant nor Hoult will reprise their role.” For their, read his. I was also informed that a family from hell was making life miserable for their neighbours.

I haven't had so much excitement since, in the same journal some months ago, Terry Wogan revealed that he thought QE – shorthand for the liner – was an acronym. It isn't, Terry, it's initials. An acronym, as I have pointed out before, is a bunch of initials that make a word – a circumstance that makes it very hard to think of an acronym.

PLUTO – Pipeline Under The Ocean – is the only acronym I can think of, and even then it depends on whether PLUTO can be regarded as a word, rather than the name of a Disney dog and a proper noun.

Meanwhile, it is interesting that this one-off example actually has, all to itself in acronym, a word whose job is to denote its solitary status. I wonder who decided that this was necessary.

And I am bemused by the way in which led is frequently revealed as lead in the press and is worth acclaiming as the only three-letter word that so many professionals can't spell.

My wife does not like my brooding silences any more than she approves of my explosions of disbelief that these same professionals, for whom words are their job, should insist on revealing that they are not fit for purpose.

As I have said before, I know that I ought to get a life while I still have one. All the same, I think it's nice to know I care

John Slim


That man of wayward words

ALL these years, I have never written a syllable about the Rev William Archibald Spooner. He was born in 1844 and we never quite overlapped, because he died a few months before I arrived as the potential heir to the family overdraft.

But in all conscience, I should have acknowledged him long before now. After all, he was the sort of person in whom I am particularly interested, because he was a man of words.

He was, moreover, a very special man of words – because he was for ever getting them wrapped around his neck, not to say his dog collar. He lives on as the source of spoonerisms and is credited, as warden of New College, Oxford, with causing inadvertent surprise and delight by addressing students, in a reference to Queen Victoria, with a cry of “Three cheers for our queer old dean!”

It was he who wanted to know whether it was kisstomary to cuss the bride and who described the Lord as a shoving leopard.

For him, a well-oiled bicycle became a well-boiled icicle, and he is credited with having berated a student by saying, “You have hissed all my mystery lectures. You have tasted a whole worm. Please leave Oxford on the next town drain.”

All of which helps to explain why, when I found that I now had Harpic in the kitchen, I could not help thinking of the Rev and his etymological eccentricities.

My Harpic, I must make clear, is Harpic in nothing like the packaging of the original toilet cleaner, invented in the 1920s by Mr Harry Pickup, of Scarborough. My 21st-Century version bears no resemblance to your bog standard tin as I remember it – a Harpic tin on which, I am sort of sure, was a bright yellow sun, surrounded by pointed yellow rays like isosceles triangles.

Nor is this a tin that is circular and about nine inches tall and containing gritty bits designed to reinforce your bog brush when you have steeled yourself to confront the only seat in the bathroom and pulverise the porcelain.

No, this is Harpic packaged to face the 21st Century, Harpic that is designed to be squirted from a white plastic container – and it brings the aforesaid William Archibald to mind because the container bears the legend, White and Shine.

Here, clearly, is etymological ensnarement in waiting. What, I wondered, would William have made of that – and, of course, there is only one answer.

The man who found a student holding a match, and accused him of fighting a liar in the quadrangle, would surely not have failed to add another arrow to his armoury.

John Slim


Going sadly, in search of a life

SORRY, but we're back to acronyms – only, however, to report confirmation of my suspicion that a high percentage of people who work with words don't have any idea what an acronym is.

I have previously expressed my dismay that there should be this gap in their knowledge of the very tools of their trade – prompted by my discovery that Sir Terry Wogan, no less, was happy to reveal, in a Sunday newspaper, his belief that QE is an acronym, and that a newspaper was blithely calling a football match between West Bromwich Albion (WBA) and Queens Park Rangers (QPR) the battle of the acronyms.

Who ARE these people? They labour under the delusion that any old bunch of initials is an acronym. And which newspaper are we talking about, more in sorrow and disbelief than in anger? All is about to be revealed.

Speaking people-wise, you are in no doubt that the ignoramus in our midst is the aforementioned and otherwise admirable knight of the realm, the wondrous Wogan, because I have just named him – as in fact I did last time that acronyms were preoccupying me. And it was the Sunday Telegraph that was happy to let him reveal his clearly unrepentant wrong-headedness – and the Daily Mail was the journal that came injudiciously to judgment about football abbreviations.

Sadly, it is now all too clear that the Daily Mail does not examine our corner of cyberspace – because the Daily Mail has been at it again.

One of its columnists – and I shall spare his blushes until he produces another explosion of ignorance – has been holding forth on a book called It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. And he asserts that it “includes some acronyms you might not have heard of.”

What he means is that we will find between its covers some random sets of initials.

One of them is POS, meaning “parent over shoulder.” Another is NMJCU, which stands for “nothing much, just chilling, you?” I don't know what that means, even though I now know what NMJCU is claimed to represent. And his final prize example is CWYL (“Chat with you later”).

These are not acronyms. They are letter clutters. And this is nonsense being perpetrated by a professional.

Who ARE these people? I don't mean that. No, I mean I know who this one is, but I can't think how he has progressed so far in his journalistic career without having strayed deep enough into the ambit of acronyms to have discovered what an acronym is.

I am appalled; ashamed on his behalf. I blush on behalf of my profession – though I am beginning to think that my profession largely knows no better.

Yes, I know: get a life. I must try.

John Slim


An Englishman's gnome

A GLANCE into anybody's garden will confirm the theory that the native British horticulturist consists of two sharply-defined species. These are the pro-gnomes and the no-gnomes, and all the sales talk and psychology in the world will get you nowhere if you hope to work a quick conversion job across a representative of either type. 

The reason is that garden gnomes, whether they come in concrete or quick-wipe plastic, do not allow you to adopt an attitude of don't-care neutrality.

You are either all for them, and brighten visibly every time they catch your eye as they peer from between the phlox and the philodendron; or you pale at the mere prospect of ever allowing one to get inside your gate. What you don't do, when pressed for your opinion, is sit on the fence. Not even if it is an up-to-the-minute ranch-style garden fence in steel-reinforced plastic. 

And although gnome-knockers are legion, there are also many millions of people for whom the garden just would not be the same place without its built-in diminutive in a bright red hat. 

It is from among the pro-gnomes that one must hope to learn the answer to any enquiry about where the appeal lies. Ask them what's in a gnome, and prepare to wonder at the range of replies. 

Perhaps they think he imbues the herbaceous border with an air of gentle timelessness as he draws imperturbably on his plastic pipe. Perhaps they like to watch his swing acknowledging every uninterested breeze. Perhaps they find inspiration in that fragile foot, with its non-start hint of non-stop energy as it pushes on its four-inch spade, meaningfully, uselessly and for ever. 


But whatever their particular reason for relying on gnomes to give their garden the touch of individuality that makes it indistinguishable from most of the other gardens in the street, the overriding reason seems to be the same. A gnome about the place, they argue, invests the shifting seasonal scene with a placid permanence – like, for instance, the outcrop of weather-worn sandstone beneath the aubrietia on the rockery, only friendlier. Beyond question, an Englishman's gnome is his castle of content. 

One can imagine, therefore the nice line in consternation that must have bounced across the breakfast tables in Bournemouth on the day that 70 households woke up to the realisation that overnight they had been made gnomeless. Enterprising young men had made off with a fair-sized random sample of the local gnomery, with scarcely a thought for the havoc they were wreaking among the heartstrings of the Hampshire fanciers they left behind. 

It would have been understandable if the impromptu identification parade – for which, without having involved the local constabulary, the gnomes obligingly lined up on the town hall steps and an insurance office lawn – had failed to convince the disconcerted gnome-owners that there was a funny side to the crime wave after all. 

On the other hand, the outsider could have been forgiven for wondering if it were really all that vital for each gnome to be restored to the actual garden that had lost it. To the uninitiated, a gnome is a gnome is a gnome – quite apart from also being an elf, a dwarf or a pixie – and one might well be considered to be an adequate substitute for another.

After all, it is not as if they come in particular shapes for particular kinds of people. There is not an old people's gnome, any more than there is a gnome for unmarried mothers. 

Indeed, the little people as a class seem to have such an inherent interchangeability that there could be a quick fortune in store for the person who organises the first reliable swap-a-gnome arrangement on a nationwide basis. 

At a pinch, it could take in ornamental rabbits, stony cherubs and outsize spotted toadstools, as well as the big-eared midgets who would be its essence.

One of these bright mornings, we may well find that dear old trail-blazing Britain can suddenly boast a National Elf Service.

John Slim


Let's look at the world outside

SIT up at the back, there! Time for a change!

I can't help thinking that I have pushed your patience far too far in welding my witterings – 219 thus far – more or less exclusively all this time to the world of entertainment, and more specifically, theatre.

There is, however, and let us not deceive ourselves, another world; a world that is not grounded in greasepaint; a real world; a world of people who are not required to pretend that they are other people, while improbable correctness decrees that actresses have somehow suddenly become actors.

When did all these evangelists of the unlikely have their heads checked, by the way? When did they abandon their brains? Was there mass certification?

It's no laughing matter. We have been sitting back and allowing the politically imperfect to take us in their grip. As with life in general, we are now afraid, if not of our own shadows, certainly of imaginary toes that are waiting to be stepped on. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

So, in a bold bid to shake off our shackles, I plan to look at The World Outside, to remind ourselves that there is reality beyond the backcloth and that it might be fun to go fetch sometimes.

Ask any terrier.

This is all the more important, now that the wonderful world created by the imagination of talented playwrights may be in danger of being polarised by self-inflicted and preposterous propriety. Don't dare cast a black actress – sorry, actor – as a maid in a historical tale set in America's Deep South. Shock, trauma and hysterics all round for the history-benders.

Such presumption! As a deeply Scottish friend from Greenock used to say, when the pair of us were so nobly serving the late King George VI as National Servicemen in his Royal Air Force, What d'ye think ye're on, yer fairther's yacht?

But the time will surely come when theatre's self-inflicted absurdities are called to account; when all the world continues to be a stage, but when there's just a suspicion of sense about the place.

I realise that it is too late to stem the tide of political correctness. But wouldn't it be good if the flag-carriers for the extraordinary could be persuaded to pause, be it never so briefly, and ascertain just where they are in the ever-spreading oceans of absurdity in which they are expecting the rest of us to swim?

It would be too much to expect them to laugh at what they found – but even so, a small stint of self-discovery would not do them any harm.

John Slim


Suddenly, I'm V-aware

IS it my imagination, or are V-signs becoming fewer by the day?

It has just occurred to me that it seems a long time since I clocked my last callow youth offering one, either to a television camera or – heaven forfend – as   an impertinent personal salute for my own delectation.

Not that I pine particularly. I don't feel left out. All the same, there must be many things that could employ idle fingers more profitably. (As a matter of fact, I don't remember that any young man – and as far as I can gather, naughty fingers were generally attached to young men – has ever actually picked me out as a citizen who deserves so startling a salutation).

I have been prompted into V-awareness by Virgin Holidays. More specifically, by its advertisement featuring an attractive young lady with a 1950s hairstyle, who is hiding what purports to be her naked form as she kneels behind a big red balloon. It's not a balloon really, just a computerised red circle that's announcing Las Vegas on sale, and in any case, she's not naked because she's wearing what I understand are technically known as Heels.

The Heels add a touch of je ne sais quoi but I don't know what it is.


But I stray. Moreover, I stray before I've even mentioned that in the small print at the bottom, on line 3, I am subject to a non-fundable booking fee. Sir Richard Branson – known, with overdone familiarity in Private Eye as Beardie – could probably tell me what a non-fundable booking fee is, but I have no idea.

Non-Re-fundable springs to mind as a possible option, meaning I would pay it to Virgin and Virgin would not pay it back. Otherwise, all I can assume is that perhaps somebody else is not allowed to pay my booking fee.

But I shall have to pursue the NFBF, along with any other BF, another day, because at the moment it is V that is teasing me.

This is because, until January 31, Virgin is offering me two holidays, The Venetian and The Palazzo, for £789 and £899, respectively. Each holiday, it announces, is “5V, 3 NTS”.

Now even though I'm not much of a holiday chap I think I can guess that three nights are involved – but what are these 5V with which I am threatened? Can they possibly be five virgins? And if so, does Virgin not know that I am a no-hoper in my ninth decade for whom the aforesaid 5V would simply have to pine?

In any case, there's another little mystery, in line 4 in the small print at the bottom, I learn that “all the flights and flight-inclusive holidays featured are financially protected by the ATOL scheme.”  And in line 6 I am told that “all the flight (sic) and flight-inclusive holidays featured are financially protected by the ATOL scheme.”

Virgin obviously knows that I have memory problems and I am grateful for its solicitude. Nevertheless, I shall try to remember what 5V are if it tells me.

John Slim


Lost in the labyrinth of language

LANGUAGE is our most reliable means of making ourselves misunderstood – so I suppose we should make every effort to try to keep up with its whims.

When America was in its most recent election frenzy, I took time in front of the television to wonder why its natives cannot cope with the letter T unless it is involved in actually beginning a word – after which, however, they fall apart if the word goes on to include another T or two, like Twidder.

An upfront T holds no qualms for the average God-fearing American. When he is confronted by an internal T, as in Twitter, however, it is a different story. That is when D comes into its own

While awaiting the election results, I sat fascinated at hearing references to indicador, supporders, voded and thirdy thousand – by people who were perfectly at home with technology, today and typical. Not for the first time, I was reminded of Professor Higgins, speaking of English in My Fair Lady, saying, “In America, they haven't used it for years.”

I caught a BBC programme fronted by Jane Hill, who was described a couple of times as “the explainer.” I was all set to say that I hoped that the Oxford English Dictionary was adequately represented among the audience of the night, to ensure that this latest step forward for English as we know it may be assured of its place in a future OED edition – but then, demonstrating the caution that has become a byword among my nearest and dearest, I decided to look it up anyway.

And yes, there it was – tacked with explainable on to the end of the definition of explain, though admittedly without being, er, explained in its own right. And here am I, teetering though my ninth decade without coming within sniffing distance of it until now. It was a giant step for me, if not for mankind.

On the same evening, I had cause to shout at my television when it renewed its habitual practice of referring to “The Reverend”, without according the cleric in question the dignity of his surname. Unfortunately, as is frequently the case on such occasions, it was a drama in which there was a parson about the place, clearly written by a playwright who does not know that although it is correct to call a cleric The Reverend Smith, Jones or Robinson at the first mention and preferably with his first name¸ after that he becomes Mister. And yet again, a director didn't know, either.

Then there was cause to wonder why Midsummer Murders, with its title all in capitals, had its first S as big as its initial M – but then failed to give its second M a similar ranking. I also heard the police losing a syllable and being described as the pleece.

I was, however, consoled to a degree when it was suddenly borne in upon me that Mr Oliver and Ms Smith – Jamie and Delia to their followers, two revered cooks who so often seem to manage very nicely without a surname – rely on five-letter first names with the same three vowels. What a culinary coincidence!

My night was not wasted.

John Slim


Flags of convenience

SAY what you like, life in the smallest room isn't half the life it used to be. When well-meaning experts began to streamline our sanitary arrangements, they also began to chip away their charm.

There was always something friendly, if somewhat ominous, about the half-hundredweight of rusting tank that poised so self-sufficiently above the only seat in the place; something essentially virile about the clangorous prelude to its every outpouring

There used to be a sensation of challenging the unknown every time it was necessary to get to grips with its chain. You could never be sure whether you would have to pull and pause or pull and flee. All that was certain was that if you did not look lively you would fall victim to a swinging rubber cosh, venomously plunging and jerking on the end of its leash and transparently inspired with lethal intent.

For its every visitor, this was life with a sparkle; a constant pitting of wits against a worthy adversary. But today, for most people, the need to approach the plumbing promises nothing of the sort. The old awesome roar has been replaced by a mincing, murmurous apology of a sound – a genteel, discreet response to the call to action. Not that you could really expect anything full-blooded from the genteel, discreet devices with which we are now equipped to make the call.

The lavatory cistern has been liberated from its ball and chain and fitted with footling little handles or bashful little buttons; and the cistern itself has become a mere simper of a receptacle in clinical porcelain or quick-wipe plastic.

It is no longer the personable, unpredictable piece of ironmongery that worked only when it wanted to and was implacably independent of the wishes of its clientele. It no longer ignores you, fights you or frightens you. It has, moreover, lowered itself to our level. No longer does it look down on us from a precarious perch that seemed to suggest that a cataclysmal crowning was a cast-iron certainty for anyone who had the temerity to claim its throne.


What it amounts to is that the water closet, that dignified old warrior, has been robbed of its character and cut down to size. Even the smallest room, the kingdom where its authority can never be replaced, has become incalculably smaller at the hands of matchbox architects and pocket-handkerchief planners. It is a sign of the times, and one that seems to defy a ready remedy. 

For those who care about such things, it is a sobering thought that millions of young people have no idea that things were ever any different from the cosy convenience to which they are accustomed today.  They know nothing of cisterns that stuck or of cracked wooden seats that were apt to nip your comfort in the bud.

For those of us who do know, and who recall the passing of our pristine arrangement with nostalgia if not regret, the only link with what has gone lies in the fact that the manufacturers of mod cons, like the people who produced their rudimentary predecessors, are apt to put a name in the pan.

For some time now, I have been a student of the lavatory label. I would not go so far as to suggest that I could produce a plain man's guide to the subject, let alone a Loo's Who's Who, but at least I am interested enough to know where I stand – as a matter of fact, I am an Almido man – and to notice when the opportunity arises, the names that serve my friends and fellow citizens.

I have found the legendary Griffin, the nautical Benbow; Straight Back, who is militarily inclined and who sounds more of a nuisance than a convenience; the forbidding Phantom, the triumphant Victor. I have found Exe, who wishes to remain anonymous; and Superex, who takes it to ridiculous extremes.

From time to time, my researches have been carried out at second-hand, by the not-so-simple expedient of asking people if they could tell me what theirs was called. Always it is a question that goes over pretty big.

I immediately find myself on the defensive, aware of being eyed either with ill-concealed alarm or with a sympathy that has a habit of being unnecessarily overplayed. Inevitably, I have to explain why I need to know, and it always seems a long and difficult story.

This vicarious pursuit of gems to rejoice over has revealed the interesting discovery that most people have either never noticed that theirs has got a name, or else have never somehow got round to reading it. It has also turned up unexpected information like the fact that at Tewkesbury it is, or was, apparently possible to sit upon The Ramparts.

But sleuthing at second-hand has none of the excitement of the chase proper; none of the hard-won satisfaction of the search for titles in their own setting, be they part of a  palatial suite or in a draughty shed with a leaking tin roof.

Life isn't what it was.

John Slim


Beliefs with bells on

PERMISSIVE age or not, religion remains unforgettably among us. It finds its way into the Press and onto the television with an implacability that is utterly impressive. Every day, in one way or another, it is a topical topic. Viewed from within, it is the Good News; viewed from without, it is the hard news. And, like it or not, you get it.

The fourth Earl of Chesterfield, who informed his godson that religion was by no means a proper subject in mixed company, would raise a stately eyebrow or two if he could see what changes a mere couple of centuries have wrought. And heaven knows, to coin a phrase, there is plenty of religion to claim the attention of the Great British Public; plenty going on outside those harmonious hopes of the Anglicans and the Methodists which received such a slap in the faith a few years back.

Its guises down the years have included Congregational, Christian Science and Latter Day Saints. It is Spiritualist, Seventh Day Adventist and Swedenborgian. It is many things to many men. To the country parson, it is dry rot in the floorboards, death-watch beetle in the belfry and preaching to the converted.

To the doorstep missionary, it is preaching to the unconverted, not to say Let us prey. To the blushing bride, it is a morning of aisle-altar-hymn followed by a lifetime of I'll alter him.

To the harassed housewife, religion is what arrives at the front door and makes the beans boil dry. To the four-wheel Christian, it is something to be suffered three times: by pram for his baptism, by taxi for his wedding and by hearse for his funeral.

Religion has churches and chapels; synagogues, citadels and kingdom halls. It has district superintendents, divisional commanders, diocesan missionaries. It has rectors, ministers, vicars and pastors. It has moderators, councils of elders, synods, head overseers and the Holy Father.

Men live for it, fight for it, kill for it, die for it. They build barricades for it and they love their neighbours as themselves. Religion is generally considered to be Sunday's child but it gets to be briefly more acceptable at Christmas.

In its time, it has been Elim, Apostolic, Unitarian and New Covenant Pentecostal; Christadelphian, Full Gospel and Evangelical Free. It is beliefs with bells on.

It is Sunday Mass in spite of the weather; it is rolling over and going to sleep again because it's raining. It is High and Low and hoping to find the middle way. It is a Roman Catholic relaxation on abstinence, which meant that Friday no longer has to be one man's meat and another man's poisson.

It is for and against contraception. It has grave misgivings about abortion as a way of taking the foetus off your weight. It contains the Church Orthodox (or established) and the Church Bizarre (or jumble sale).


Religion is Friends and Brethren. The Friends are Quakers; the Brethren are Plymouth, Christian and Exclusive. One man's religion uses television to spread its message; another man's religion removes television from the domestic scene. One man's religion shuts up and says nothing to outsiders; other men's religions publish their own newspapers. At least one blows its own trumpets.

Religion is money for the church roof. It is planned giving, covenant schemes and a surreptitious button in the offertory box. It has been disguised as Baptist, Presbyterian and Salvation Army.

For some, it is fire and brimstone, faith and charity, fear and authority. For others, it is singing the hymns, saying the prayers and sucking up to the vicar.

It manifests itself in group worship and in solitary meditation; as a joyful choral noise and as the silence of one man alone with his God.

It is humility on its knees in a quiet and darkened room; it is pride in a new hat, arriving late to a reserved pew in a well-attended church. It has mixed feelings on mixed marriages and it is divided on divorce.

But it is united in offering benefits that are out of this world, on the principle of pay now and live later. It is widely regarded as the most reliable route from here to eternity.

Perhaps the papers should tell us even more about it than they do.

John Slim


Bring on the baby cheeses

ONE of the curiosities of the English language is that it's hard to find much mirth in mis-hearings. So hard, in fact that it has taken me eight decades to find a second one.

The first came many years ago, when I propped myself up in bed on one elbow, looked out of the window, saw brilliant morning sunshine as a backdrop to trees that were swaying in half a gale, and, with my back to my wife, spoke.

“Nice day”, I said. “Bit rough.”

Four little words, four little syllables. As a speech, it somehow failed to match the Gettysburg Address. Nevertheless, it roused my wife with unexpected efficiency from her early-morning coma. She shot out of her slumbers, sat up and addressed me in bemused consternation.

What!? What did you say!?”

“Nice day”, I said. “Bit rough.”

At this, she collapsed back onto the pillow, evincing an air of relief that I have to admit I found most gratifying.

“Oh”, she said. “I thought you said, ‘I'm not staying. I've had enough'.”

My, how we laughed! But since then, I have waited in vain for any similar example of failing eardrums that has managed to be funny. That is, until now.

My morning newspaper has just regaled me with a seasonal snippet concerning a mixed infant, aged five, who returned home from school and reported, “We've been learning about Urgent Mary and the baby cheeses.” Wonderful! My day was made before I had even thought about breakfast.

Less pleasing at this time of the year, however, is the insistence of far too many greetings cards on wishing me a merry Christmas. I'm sure their heart is in the right place, but I just don't like merry. For me, it is for ever associated with getting merry, conjuring up an image of citizens who have imbibed, not wisely but too well, and are rolling, noses a-glow, around the bar.

It is not to be compared to the benediction, “Happy Christmas”, with which it runs in parallel without ever threatening to overtake it in the popularity stakes as an amiable salutation. I have never heard anybody actually saying “Merry Christmas” to anybody. Unless it is on the cards, it's a non-starter – which makes me wonder how it came to become so prominent in the postman's burden in the first place.

Compared to? Going back a paragraph, I have now unexpectedly reminded myself that our broadcasters, as a class, appear united in their insistence on saying compared to, rather than compared with. They don't know that to compare to is to liken to, and that to compare with is to contrast with.

These are people for whom words are their job but who have somehow never got to make  them work properly. Even the ever-amiable Terry Wogan has revealed in all innocence that he thinks QE – short for a ship – is an acronym. It's not, Terry, it's initials.

This is all very distressing for a citizen of susceptibilities. I must cheer up. Pass me the baby cheeses.

John Slim


Stop messing with the clergy
WHEN newspapers write of clergymen, they get into an unholy mess, partly because they allow themselves to be misguided by our pals beyond The Pond.

If television dramas are any guide, any American confronted by a cleric calls him – or her – Reverend. And, sure enough, playwrights on this side of the Atlantic now unfailingly come up with “Reverend Jones” or, worse still, plain “The Reverend.” As ever, they bleat unquestioningly to America's misguided tune.

So do broadcasters involved in news reports.

Why? We usually know that we are confronted by a man – or woman – of the cloth. We don't need to have “The Reverend” repeatedly and mistakenly unwrapped thereafter.

If he is Catholic or High Anglican, a simple Father will suffice for the male of the species. I remain uncertain whether Mother will do for the distaff side, as she could be thereby mistaken for the boss lady in a convent.

I am moved to murmur by a double-page spread in a London newspaper that caused me to shoot into startled disbelief when faced with shapely legs, a shortish black skirt and a stylish £480 black leather jacket. I could cope with all that. But then it disgorged a superfluity of words among which it called the lady who had caught its eye “Rev Hitchiner” – 17   times.

Dreadful! Terribly transatlantic! There's a lovely little pronoun called she which would have at least relieved us of some of the remorseless repetition. Or she could have been correctly called “Ms Hitchiner” from time to time to ease the strain.


Ms, of course is the catch-all label that has come into vogue for when we don't know if a woman is married or not, causing us to shy away from proclaiming her as a Miss or a Mrs.

The article told us in the second line of its first paragraph that her name is Sally – so there was no reason why it could not have missed out a Ms or two and called her Sally Hitchiner, or even just plain Sally, just occasionally. Variety is the spice of life.

But no. Rev Hitchiner she had to be. The Rev Hitchiner, though still wrong, would have sounded slightly less American and therefore a bit better, though far from perfect. Don't these people understand that Rev is preferably preceded by the definite article and needs to be followed by a first name?

Where did they get their journalistic training, if any?

It's another example of standards going down the pan, following recent instances of things like QE being called acronyms – by Sir Terry Wogan, no less – when they are simply initials. Doesn't anybody know anything any more?

John Slim


Can I ask you something?

NOW there's a question! 

If man evolved from monkeys and apes, why do we still have monkeys and apes? 

Fortunately, it's a question to which I know the answer. It's I'm blowed if I know. 

Equally fortunately, I find I am suddenly awash with similar questions. Praise be to the Internet and even more so to the friend who has ensured that I am in on the tsunami of bewilderment that is presumably sweeping Britain at this moment. 

Yes, I now have nearly three dozen questions, all of them alarmingly logical, all of them bespeaking man's endless battle with the alarmingly logical world that they represent. Not for the first time, I realise that I am totally inadequate. 

If I went to a bookshop and asked where the self-help section was, should I be surprised to be assured that if anybody told me, it would defeat the purpose? 

If someone with multiple personalities threatens to kill himself, is it considered a hostage situation? Should a fly without wings be called a walk? If a turtle doesn't have a shell, is he homeless or naked? If the police arrest a mime, do they need to tell him he has the right to remain silent? 

Among my newly-acquired armoury of word-worries, there are two questions that have bothered me for some time: Why is there an S in lisp, and Do infants in infancy have as much fun as adults in adultery? 

But otherwise I am presented with problems that are all-singing, all-dancing, all new to me. 

What was the best thing before sliced bread? If you try to fail, and succeed, what have you done? Can an atheist get insurance against acts of God? 

Somebody, somewhere, has come up with all these and many more – all matters of moment. I am awash with awestruck gratitude. Praise the Lord for twisted minds.

John Slim


Spare me my seasonal sparkle

NOT wishing, of course, to blow my own trumpet, I must nevertheless mention that I have joined the glitterati.

I didn't mean to. It is simply my seasonal acknowledgment of what happens every year at about this time. And no, I am not talking about the glitterati who are accustomed to receive red-carpet treatment far too often for the good of their cranial measurements.

Not like that at all. I speak of Send-the-Cards time – and unfortunately, the card-makers of Britain stand united in their resolve to add a sparkle to my Christmas cards, and thereafter to me, without consulting me and whether or not my dearest wish is to remain sparkle-free.

ۥtis the season to be sprinkled, to be spattered with itsy-bitsy gold dust, while releasing my pristine cards from their box, adding a word of gratuitous good cheer and addressing their envelopes – because a nation's card-makers, in unspoken pact, insist on stinting on their glitter glue.

The result is that I glitter. I sparkle without stint. So does the dining table on which I have scattered several trees'-worth of seasonal sentiments while confessing disbelief that I am stupid enough to have spent this much on the obligatory cards and am about to spend a damn' sight more on posting them.

(Happy Christmas, everybody, by the way).

By the time I have finished, I also have a gold-dust carpet. My selfish consolation is that in homes all over Britain there are carpets now in need of a damn' good vacuuming and that I am not alone in acquiring a glittery top-coat, all unconsulted and without the option.

Somehow or other, I don't feel that I actually need to be gold-dusted.

I am bumptious enough to believe that my friends are reasonably happy with me as I am, sans sparkle. Let me not be seen as a one-man reference to Britain's gold standard.

Please, is it possible that in years to come I may be allowed to hang onto my customary do-nothing drabness and go glitter-free on the last lap to the New Year? It is surely not outrageous to suggest that card-makers who sprinkle sparkle on their Christmas cards should at least ensure that their cards are where the sparkle stays?

Let the cry resound: Use more glue!

John Slim


A-haunting I will go. . ?

I CLAIM no credit for the orderly way in which my four children – youngest now 49 – took their turn at the font. I merely report that they happened to arrive in alphabetical order – Beverly, Gary, Heather and Jacqueline. 

Despite appearances, by the way, that is one boy and three girls – their clearly overwhelmed parents having spelled daughter Beverly with only two Es instead of three.  

That was because when she arrived in 1957 the Beverly Sisters were loitering around the top of the pops with a distinct aura of femininity. Asking no questions, we christened Beverly boy-style – and I have to say that this doesn't seem too have inconvenienced her in the slightest. 

Beverly has gone on to have two children in alphabetical order – Freya and Tom. Gary, not risking a mistake after starting with Toby as a one-off, insists that young T will be the sole heir to his overdraft.  

Heather has adhered to age-related alphabetical principles with Hannah, Katie and Rory. So has Jackie (who was only ever Jacqueline when she was in trouble), with Charlotte, Freddie and George. 

This is the (entirely accidental) game of the name, but I can't help feeling that future generations of family-tree climbers may well feel moved to quiet congratulatory applause while standing back in amazement. 

And things go back further than I have indicated, because although my wife was an only child, I have a younger sister, Margaret, who joined me as the second pawn in the alphabetical approach adopted by our parents a decade or so ago.  

Our parents, in similarly orderly fashion, were James and Muriel – our father's moniker ensuring that he was Jim Slim, which I have always explained away as a shortened version of James Slames and an indication of a slight degree of short-sightedness at the font.  

Our family is an example of the way in which coincidence can push the boat out, now that it has recovered from the shock administered by my maternal grandparents, who used my mother, Muriel, and her younger brothers Edwin and Cyril, to reverse the alphabetical approach completely – while my father, as one of nine children, hadn't a hope of being a part of an orderly name-based system anyway.

But we are now on track with an alphabetical accuracy that is indisputable. Somehow or other, I must break it to nine grandchildren that when the time comes for their own sleepless nights, Tradition expects to be flaunted, not flouted. 

And that those of them who ignore Tradition will have to get used to the idea that I have come back to haunt them.

John Slim


Getting to grips with gas

IF someone were seeking to compile a list of long words, it is highly unlikely that he would choose gas as a possible starter. 

It is nevertheless an interesting word. Only one syllable, only three letters, but it intrigues me.

 It is, after all, an example that reinforces the widely-held suspicion that we and Americans, our friends across the sea, our pals beyond The Pond, are indeed two nations divided by the common language which somehow decrees that the United States is apt to confront its antagonists with innerconinenal missals that are not necessarily inspired by an onrush of evangelism. 

Let's face it, while we honest rustics realise that what our cars need to make them go is petrol, all real live nephews of their Uncle Sam are convinced that their ability to move from A to B is heavily dependent on gas. 

Gas, they are certain, is what comes out of their petrol pumps to appease the needs of their oversized, super-sprung motor cars. This, presumably, is why their voracious vehicles are known as gas-guzzlers. It is also understandable that American flatulence is known as gas. 

But I am intrigued. If gas is what an American puts into his petrol tank and out of his backside, what does he think he is using for his cooker? What is his alternative to oil and electricity in the matter of home-heating?  

Has he ever been moved to use the gas from his car, or indeed from his anus? If so, was he well-pleased with the result? 

In the environs of etymology, is he faced with a gas shortage? Does he need another word? And if he does, how has he managed so long without one? What is he using instead? 

Meanwhile, should gas, as a regrettable alternative to petrol, be sent packing? As Private Eye, that incisive organ of satire and tell-it-like-it-is, is wont to proclaim, we should be told.

John Slim


Putting the cats among the legends

I LIKE black-and-white cats. They are usually pretty, they're clean, and in my experience, which admittedly is limited, they're characterful.

We had a black-and-white cat once. I've told you about his exploits as a goalkeeper in charge of a wicker wastepaper basket – Small Thoughts: Astrophe unforgotten. He was Astrophe, because he was our cat Astrophe, which was a bit unkind, really, because he never did anything catastrophic Nothing remotely approaching what we did to him when he was only a few weeks old.

That was when we created his bedroom in the coalhouse – this was more than half a century ago, when a coalhouse was the norm, not to say a sine qua non –because we had not got him potty-trained.  We were awakened one autumnal night by a huge bang. That was because I had been misguided enough to give him, as a bedroom feature, a fish-box containing ashes, in readiness for storing dahlia tubers – and the ashes were far hotter than I had suspected.

So at about 2 am, there was this tremendous noise, prompting us to look alertly out of the window – and see flames leaping through the newly-exploded asbestos roof of the coalhouse.

Slippers a-swivel, I flicked the bedroom light switch – and discovered that we had got a power cut. Who on earth has power cuts at two in the morning? We do.

We also had rain, coming down sideways in the sort of Biblical proportions that would have caused the late Noah to feel that his Ark was not a waste of money. It was clearly Time To Be British.

So, braving the elements, I headed for the beacon that was blazing merrily at the bottom of the garden, while I called, “Astrophe! Astrophe!” as softly as I could. One tries not to excite the neighbours on these occasions.

I opened the coalhouse door, prompting a sheet of flame to shoot out and deprive me of considerable eyebrow material. With a fortitude to which mere words cannot hope to do justice, I pulled the blazing fishbox out, then resumed my gentle invocation of the cat's name, despite being reasonably confident that he must have been cooked to a crisp.

Astrophe the keeper

Almost at once, from the top of the garden, Astrophe spoke. He said, “Miaow”, which admittedly is pretty standard catspeak, and he said it from by the back door. Once I had opened the coalhouse door, he had clearly stayed not upon the order of his going.

So that was our black-and-white cat. And there's another one, name unknown, who likes our garden, not for its floral delights but because he regards it as toilet facilities that are more spacious than those afforded by his own garden, beyond our bottom fence.

He is characterful, too – clearly undeterred by the fact that, in an effort to keep cat Astrophe's name alive, I call this unwanted visitor Cat's Arse Trophy and have been hurling stones at him for three years, while paradoxically giving thanks for my failure ever to score a direct hit.

But now I read of a third one, alleged by my national newspaper to be called Denis. He may be Dennis, of course: I'm just not trusting a newspaper that tells me of his unusual exploits but somehow fails to indicate the town that is subjected to them, let alone the street where he lives.

Anyway, Denis/Dennis is now reported to be labelled Denis the Menace – on the grounds that he is alleged to have stolen hundreds of items from his neighbours in the course of a crime spree that has now lasted 18 months.

Socks, paint brushes, sponges, slippers, tea towels, a doll, a thong and even a dog chew whose owner was presumably not about at the time – they have all turned up at the home that the newspaper is – presumably accidentally and without Denis's immediate welfare in mind – keeping secret.

Clearly, black-and-white cats are liable to have differing talents: goalkeeping, cat-burgling and indiscriminate defecating. And these are presumably only the tip of the iceberg.

John Slim


A cable from the phoney war

MY telephone is permanently on answerphone. It has no need to be, inasmuch as I am not permanently away. It is just that I have been driven to subterfuge. I seek to escape the natives of Asia. 

Not all of them – just those who have taken to ringing me up, up to half a dozen times a day, expressing concern about my computer and offering to sort it out. 

At the risk of being unsociable, I don't want them to sort it out. It doesn't need sorting out. It is working admirably. Fizzing like a bottle of pop. 

Nevertheless, I am constantly hearing from these ever-polite, super-solicitous citizens, whose names are usually Tom or Jack, clearly agog to exercise their expertise on behalf of my computer

So they have finally caused me to shelter behind my answerphone. I know it's a cowardly opt-out and a pain for the sundry kindly friends who telephone and then have to wait while my wife's dulcet tones tell them that she's sorry we're not available at the moment, so will they please leave a message – but what else can we do, short of breaking off diplomatic relations with Pakistan? 

So the phone rings and we sit tight. Then there are a few moments' silence. That's while the person at the other end is receiving my wife's recorded apologies for being unable to lift the receiver. 

Then, nine times out of ten, instead of hearing a friend's familiar voice, we get the continuous beep that tells us our caller has hung up. And we rejoice because we have scored another point in our silent but seemingly endless war against uncalled-for computer doctors. 

Moreover, we have another, as yet untested, stratagem up our sleeves. One of these days, we will try it out. We will pick up the receiver and promptly put it down on the table – the theory being that as long as long as our phone is occupying our end of Mr Pain-in-the-Proverbial's line, he will not be able to be a nuisance to anybody else. This will be our service to our fellow-men. Please start striking our medals now. 

Not that we have any idea whether it would work if the call is from the other side of the world. But at least it would show that we British don't go down without a fight.

John Slim


Sky's the new amateur limit

AMATEUR theatre is coming to a front room near you, thanks to Sky Arts' new six-part series, Nation's Best Am Dram, which starts at 9 pm on November 14

The series features eight amateur theatre companies who will battle it out for the chance to be claimed to be Britain's best as they take the chance to work with some of the biggest names in the industry. The mentors involved include Roger Allam, Jill Halfpenny and Dame Harriet Walter. 

It's a shame that that it goes all askew with its title.  

For a start, Am Dram, quite apart from being customarily presented as one “word” and not two, is shorthand for amateur dramatics, which is itself a dreadful distortion of amateur theatre.  

And however good the competing companies are, with only eight involved it is at the very least unlikely that any one of them, even the winner, can claim to be the best that Britain can offer from a field that brims with top-quality performers and productions. 

Indeed, it is difficult to see how the title can ever be confidently awarded, with 2,549 companies affiliated to the National Operatic & Dramatic Association (NODA), the movement's umbrella body. 

Nevertheless, this is a brave and welcome step into the unknown for television. It will undoubtedly open the eyes of the habitual scoffers who have never presumed to darken the doorstep of an amateur show – even supposing, that is, that they catch the series by mistake. 

More power to Sky Arts' elbow. November 14, 9 pm. Go find! 

John Slim

Roger Clarke adds:

The eight amateur companies competing, along with their mentors, are

FissiParous Theatre, Wirral - Roger Allam

Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group, Edinburgh - Niamh Cusack

Heath Players, Hertfordshire - Julie Graham

Regent Rep, Dorset - Jill Halfpenny

Crossmichael Drama Club, Galloway - Paterson Joseph

Tell Tale Theatre Company, Liverpool - Martin Shaw

Strathclyde Theatre Group, Glasgow - Dame Harriet Walter

Bingley Little Theatre, Bradford - Richard Wilson

Students of geography might have noticed that it is a toss up between Wirral, Liverpool, and Hertfordshire which is nearest to the Midlands, so it is the actually the nation's best excluding the Midlands . . . London . . . Wales . . . Northern Ireland . . .  the West Country . . .

Having seen the Swan Theatre Amateur Company, The Nonentities, Hall Green and Sutton Arts recently, to name just a few of our affiliates, with productions which would not have looked out of place on the professional stage, I am sure there are Midland amateur companies that would have been worthy of consideration and no doubt amateur companies in Lancashire, the North East, the West Country, the Principality and so on would feel the same.

But as John says, it is a start


Time to veil the vile

I DON'T know about you – naturally – but I'm becoming fed up of finding the man with the near-miss name, Jimmy SoVile, percolating the pages of the London press several days a week. 

Are we so proud of our most prominent paedophile that we have to be fed the latest gleanings of this most unsavoury of citizens as if they are on an unstoppable conveyor belt? If it goes on much longer, it will surely provoke a Savile row. 

The man was a monster; an in-yer-face fiend whose familiar smile can only now be recognised as a lascivious leer. But still the so-called news items keep coming, mocking us through the cigar smoke that swathes the monster's memory. 

These must be terrible times for his family. Road renaming has taken place where it has been deemed necessary to help to cut him from our consciousness. The ostentatious black marble gravestone has been destroyed, I believe, by those who loved him. I feel for them. 

But Jimmy Savile, Kt, Blight of the Realm, has brought more pleasure to more people in his going than ever he did in his execrable existence, swathed though that was in good works.  We are well shut of him. 

So why are we being drip-fed the droppings he has left behind? Is it too much to hope that those in charge of our newspapers will realise that it's time to change the subject, to draw a veil over the vile, and – prompted by the poet – find fresh woods and pastures new?

John Slim


Life in the slow lane

YES, there really was a time when entertainment didn't come at the touch of a button and we could not take our telephones everywhere we went; a time when there were local shops and the supermarket had not been invented; when nobody had been misguided enough to press life's accelerator pedal. 

In Bluebells and Gypsies (History into Print, £5.95), Mary Daniels, who was a  gentle, respected colleague on The Birmingham Post long before somebody decided to make it look less positive by losing its definite article, the memories are eased into a painless perspective of their long-gone era. 

It's instructive: “If you see a rook on its own, it's a crow. If you see a lot of crows together, they're rooks.” It is envy-making mindful of a rural yesteryear, with Mary remembering the skylarks that plummeted, still singing, from the sky to the undergrowth. 

Where birds are concerned, she knows her onions. If you hear a cuckoo after August, be certain that it is a human mimic. 

But then, in 58 clear-print pages, she offers unassuming guidance in all sorts of spheres, even easing my bewildered brain cell into extending my mnemonic of Britain's royalty – “Willie, Willie, Harry, Stee; /Harry, Dick, John, Harry Three” – beyond Victoria, where it ran into the buffers when I was a mixed infant and where it has remained ever since.  

She now presents me with a further six lines, ending with “Elizabeth Two now rules our state, /While Charles the Third just has to wait” – which is interesting, because at some point in my benighted past I was firmly instructed that Charles was destined to become George VII.  


Not that I'm arguing, of course – just saying. 

She remembers childhood visits to Birmingham's Bull Ring, where there were a man on a soap box who was known as Holy Jo and a little woman selling brown paper bags and cajoling bystanders to “get yer ‘andy carrier.” 

These were wartime days, when her family remained stoutly impervious to the poster that asked for old saucepans to be donated for turning into Spitfires. After all, there was the saucepan mender who came round on a mission of repair. “He would put metal patches on the holes in them and they were surprisingly waterproof when he had fixed them, so no Spitfires came from us.” 

Other gems from the home front include a memory of gargles made of sage and thyme, and women painting their legs with watered-down gravy browning when stockings were either scarce or unobtainable. 

There was food rationing. There were clothing coupons. These were the years when Lord Kitchener was resurrected to point at me from a poster and remind me that my country needed me (aged 10). 

This is a joyous little volume, poised to awaken memories in Mary's contemporaries and prompt surprise and perhaps disbelief in later generations. It is packed with the sort of things that have to be written down, because if they escape the affectionate trawl of domestic history they will be gone for ever.  

Here is Mary Daniels, heroine with a safety net. True-born Brummies will be grateful.

John Slim


Initial dissatisfaction

I HAVE become aware in recent weeks that yet another aspect of the English language is under attack. Not deliberate attack, from those who know what they're doing – just accidental assaults prompted by what is clearly long-nurtured ignorance. 

Not to keep anybody in unnecessary suspense, my concern is acronyms – because I have cause to suspect that we don't know what they are. 

Some time ago, I caught the otherwise estimable Terry Wogan, knight of the realm, revealing in his newspaper column that he thought that QE was an acronym. Wrong. 

More recently a newspaper hailed the then-imminent Premier League football match between “WBA” and “QPR” as the battle of the acronyms. Wrong again. 

They're called initials and they represent, respectively, the liner Queen Elizabeth and the shin-kickers of West Bromwich Albion and Queens Park Rangers. 

Acronyms are initials, too, of course – but the difference is that they are so clever that they turn themselves into words. PLUTO is an acronym. It's short for Pipeline Under The Ocean – the pipeline in question being the one from the south coast of England to Boulogne. 

Having dispensed this gem, however, I hesitate. Pluto is also a planet and a Walt Disney dog – but is it a word? Certainly, it's a proper noun, a name. But is a name necessarily a word? Is it to be found in the nearest dictionary? 

Well, yes, to my surprise, it is – at least in its planet proclivities and at least in my dictionary. Though it ditches the dog, it tells us that Pluto is the second-smallest planet and the farthest known from the sun. [The hyphen in second-smallest  is mine, though the dictionary is surprisingly content to do without one and thus prompt me to wonder what is the first smallest planet and how there can be more than one smallest].  

But I am still far from certain whether Pluto, being a proper noun, should be in a dictionary, rather than an encyclopaedia. And it is a chastening thought that some people who work with words and depend upon them for their living have no idea what an acronym is. 

Having dispensed my carefully-subdued sneer, I have to confess that perhaps it doesn't matter that acronyms appear to be unknown quantities among the citizenry – because Pluto is the only one I can think of. Acronyms are clearly in short supply.  

Small wonder, then, that there are people working on newspapers, whose very job is words, who could not define an acronym if they sat up nights working at it.

John Slim


 LinkedIn can leave me out – please

 I AM a simple soul. Not that simple soul, I now discover, is all that simple.

 Being a touch-typist who does not need to look at his keyboard, I did not look at my screen either – until I had written what was meant to be simple soul.

 That was when I found that my fingers had moved one cog sideways and simple soul had been magically transformed into sunoke siyk.

It was as if my keyboard had become a latterday box of tricks that turns everything into gobbledegook in an effort to confuse the codebreakers. The wartime experts of Bletchley Park who cracked the Germans' Enigma code and hastened the end of hostilities might well have been delighted to have a bit of fun with sunoke siyk at the end of another long day. 

I am moved to think of the Enigma code because I have received from LinkedIn, with whom I have never had any dealings, a message of assurance that changing my password is simple. All I have to do, I now realise, is commit my simple soul to my Maker and then use the simple link that LinkedIn has provided: 

How simple can a simple link get? Even if I manage to discover a password I have never used, which I didn't know I possessed and without which I can't help feeling I have been managing fairly adequately thus far, what shall I do on finding my way into LinkedIn, the purpose of which I have yet to ascertain? And what shall I do if I get there? 

Whatever it is for, I assume it is some sort of cyberspatial successor to real life's cold-callers – who these days, as far as I can gather, consist largely of gentlemen with Asian voices promising to mend my unbroken computer. 

These outriders of unneeded help are the reason why my telephone is now permanently on answerphone. When it stops ringing, my wife and I sit through the silence that indicates that another caller is being invited to leave us a message. Nine times out of ten, silence is followed by the sound that means the caller has given up on us. We have defeated yet another of our increasingly frequent and vexatious intruders. 

But this time, I gather, urgency is all. I must deploy my Simple Link within 24 hours if I want to discover what happens next. 

The trouble is, I don't wish to know what happens next, any more than I seek involvement with LinkedIn. I have no desire to be deployed into the mysterious world of whatever-it-is for a fulfilment that remains a mystery. 

Sorry to be a silly old spoilsport, LinkedIn, but I just don't want to play.

John Slim


Tale of the backsliding sheep

IN the days – on the nights – when I was to be found reviewing up to six shows a week, I was sometimes asked whether I had ever been tempted to tread the boards myself. 

Surely, the inference was, seeing these constant coveys of committed thespians must have at least lured me towards giving it a try. 

But no, it never did. Even if I had ever had time to go a-thesping on my own account, I would have spurned the opportunity. I have never been in the position of discovering that I am expected to be a line-learner – but the discipline that this entails, the memorising, the need to avoid the furniture while strolling about the stage, while stuffing me to the gunnels with admiration, have ensured that such ambitions would never have got to the starting-blocks. 

Except twice. And never in the last three-quarters of a century. 

My first theatrical outing found me wearing a dressing-gown, with a tea towel on my head, watching my flocks by night on behalf of the class Nativity. I did not speak. The scriptwriter had not had his talents unduly challenged on my behalf. I was a silent shepherd, aged five. 


The second and final time I was entrusted with enthralling an audience, I was seven. This time, I was a vision of pale blue shantung with a serrated hemline and a streamer burgeoning out of each armpit. I was The Wind.  And this time, I spoke. 

Well, not exactly spoke. Unless you are a poet, you find that winds are not apt to speak. What I did was whiz onto the stage, trailing clouds of streamers if not glory, and go “Whoooo!” At this point, my scriptwriter shot his bolt. 

It was all in aid of making The Flowers grow. The Flowers, as I recall to the best of a faltering brain cell's uncertain ability, were some dozen little girls, crouching in suitable subservience on either side of my trans-stage route. They were clearly in need of encouragement. So I went “Whoooo!” 

Admittedly, it all went like a breeze. Nevertheless, it brought down the curtain on my theatrical career and the nation was able to concentrate on going to war. 

It was not until 1984, when The Birmingham Post colleague who had been appointed specifically to see to the needs of the amateur stage upped-sticks and departed,  that I was asked if I would mind looking after it this week. This week stretched to my alleged retirement, five years early in 1991 and was extended thereafter until several years into the 21st Century, when the Post regrettably abandoned the amateur stage to its own devices – at which point, Behind the Arras found room for it. 

Odd, really. My involvement with things theatrical began by keeping an eye on sheep and the heavens, then led me to dispense with the woolly ones and simply concentrate on cyberspace. 

If it wasn't for the backsliding sheep, I'd have come full circle.

John Slim


There's lots not to like

THE newspaper that has just dropped through my letterbox gives me great encouragement 

There is an article by Anstey Spraggan – and no, I had not heard of her, either – whose daughter Lucy, I now learn, is on The X Factor. Anstey confides that she has made Lucy promise not to get upset over tweets, posts or comments unless they are properly spelled and grammatically correct. 

And she reckons that this will eliminate more than 90 per cent of them. 

How true!  

I have lamented before that it is the oafs among us who have the loudest voices. It is equally true – perhaps with exceptions like the well-born youth pictured swinging on a flag at the Cenotaph and later explaining that he didn't know what it was for – that the twits who take to Twitter are liable to expose themselves as having an immunity to the niceties of their native tongue. 

So the stance of Anstey shines like a good deed in a naughty world. Those who tweet, post and comment via cyberspace habitually reveal their inability to communicate in their native tongue without exposing themselves to the derision of the disconcerted. 

They are not helped by the supine stupidity of the outlets they use. They are allowed to supplement their shortcomings in spelling with shorthand shockers such as ur, which I gather means your or you are.   

Thus, the loveliest language in the world continues to be propelled ever-downwards, to the regions that are over-populated with like, a hitherto harmless little word that is now liable to find itself inserted far too frequently into conversational sentences that could manage very well without it and which gain nothing from its half-witted intrusions. 

Moreover, since it is the young who are particularly prone to saying like, it is clearly guaranteed to remain among us long after those of us with a care for our language have drifted, dismayed, into the hereinafter. There will be no one left to raise the bloodied standard of Received Pronunciation and Sensible Syntax. Like, rampantly out-of-control, is here for ever. 

It has even built its own unlikable question: What's not to like? I'm trying to tell it. 

But there's nothing we can do about it – except, perhaps, just occasionally, indicate, having viewed the evidence, that we Don't Like.

John Slim


Scarborough is ashamed

AUGUST 8, 1974. That was the day, decades before its definite article disappeared, that The Birmingham Post carried my account of my encounter with Jimmy Savile. 

Now that I have seen it again, I cannot for the life of me think why I omitted to mention, after saying that I had caught him in bed at the Albany Hotel, Birmingham – that he had then leapt therefrom with the urgency of a citizen seeking refuge from a rampant hippopotamus, his teeth clamped on his statutory large-economy-size cigar, but stark naked.  

Not to be confused, that is to say, with normal behaviour on meeting a complete stranger for the first time. 

But this was Savile being Savile, undoubtedly for my alleged benefit, and undoubtedly being what was normal for this peculiar citizen. Looking back, perhaps I should have seen it at least as a bit of a hint that all was not well with him. 

He said: “I can't sing. I can't dance. I can't tell jokes. What can I do? Dunno. What's more, I don't really care what I do.” 

Thirty-eight years later, it has become all too clear that the late Sir Jimmy Savile, OBE, didn't care what he did.  

I have just returned from a few days in Scarborough, where I stayed in the Brooklands Hotel on The Esplanade – the road in which the newly unexpectedly despicable Savile had a flat. On my return home, I found that my daily newspaper was carrying a photograph showing the removal, in another road, of a nameplate that said Savile View. 

Scarborough is ashamed, and rightly so. 

But hasn't it taken us a long time to learn the truth about the uncivil Savile? Especially as the final two-thirds of his name had been describing him with increasing accuracy all his life. It is only now, after his departure to whatever was awaiting him in the hereafter, that we have learned of the games of Sir James. 

He would probably say, “'Owz about that, then?” But would he understand if we, like all the young girls he abused for so many years, failed to be amused?

John Slim


It's time to lose these labels

THERE are two expressions that ought to be banned from theatre conversations. Amateur dramatics and Amateur operatics. 

They invite contempt for the productions to which they refer – though these are very often musicals which are presented on the stage of a professional theatre and which could easily be mistaken for professional shows if their casts were about a sixth the size. 

These are labels used by the thoughtless and crying out to be consigned to the limberlost.  

In the first place, amateur – which comes from the Latin amare, the verb that means to love – simply means that those to whom the label is attached don't get paid for their efforts because they do it for the love of it. It nevertheless is apt to invite contempt by those who don't know any better and who have probably never seen an amateur production. Nevertheless, this total detachment does not prevent them from assuming that the quality of amateur theatre is accurately represented by the Farndale romps. 

And dramatics and operatics are thoughtless expressions – pluralized adjectives that have been turned into nouns. They do no favours to anyone whose hobby comes under either banner. They invite every pontificating ignoramus to assume that the Fairy Queen is wearing the net curtains from her mum's conservatory. 

But while such know-nothings have the excuse that they probably have never seen an amateur production, no such defence can be offered by amateur performers who invoke these same phrases – or, indeed talk of amdram, which is shorthand for amateur dramatics and implies a denigration of the gentle art of acting for the love of it. 


Dramatics and operatics do a crass disservice to an admirable hobby – and when they are coupled with amateur, they are lethal. So it's a shame that far too many amateur thespians are among those who are apt to talk about amateur operatics and amateur dramatics, thus underlining the undesirable and linking themselves with the subversive slight that is so freely offered by every uninvolved ignoramus.

Many groups who present musical theatre call themselves operatic societies – and there again, they do themselves no favours. They themselves know what they mean: they do musicals, not opera. But it is the operatic bit that makes an impression on the world outside and helps to ensure that the world outside can sometimes conjure a vision of a night out for toffs, rather than one that offers singable tunes and engaging stories. It keeps bums off seats and probably deters potential recruits because they can't sing like Katherine Jenkins. 

From time to time, there is news of an operatic society that has changed its name. One such is Gloucestershire's Thornbury Musical Theatre Group, which sought a new image when it ceased to be Thornbury Amateur Operatic Society.

When it took the plunge, it explained that the original name did not accurately convey, either to prospective members or to possible audiences, the fact that its shows were musicals and revues. There were also fears that the word amateur conjured a picture of poorly painted backcloths, home-made costumes and primitive sound and lighting equipment – to say nothing of quality-free productions. 

Interestingly, and for a reason I do not understand, amateur is apt to feature in the names of theatre groups in the North of England more than anywhere else. In fact it tends to be a banner proudly borne. Everyone up there who is interested in amateur musical theatre knows that LAOS is Leeds Amateur Operatic Society – informally known as The Amateurs. 

To each his own, of course, but from where I am sitting Amateur simply makes for a tiresome title.

John Slim


England's art must do without me

LIKE the man in the Bible, I was given what I have the effrontery to call a talent. It is the ability, perhaps limited, to write something calculated to give pleasure, pain, amusement or surprise to those who stumble across my witterings. 

It is the only talent to have come my way, and it has managed to give me a lot of pleasure down the long years, irrespective of what dismay it has offered to others. 

I happened to say, à propos nothing in particular, that if there were anything other than writing that I would like to be able to do in the world of the arts, it would be to paint. And it would. But there's no degree of urgency about it. It is an ability I have managed without for eight decades, and empires will not totter if I continue to manage for the next eight, by which time I may well have found my way into a glass case at the British Museum. 

All I meant was that it might be something with which to defy the long winter nights, quietly dabbling away in a corner of the sitting-room, with one eye on the television. 

So I was, perhaps reasonably, surprised when my wife told me that I was now enrolled for Art for Beginners at the village hall, and that the piggy-bank was funding me to the tune of £90. But who was I to argue? In due course, I presented myself, along with ten women and one man, with a view to having a whack at water-colouring. 

I was armed with a sketch-pad that was immediately denounced as having the wrong sort of paper, plus two small brushes, one a bit thicker than the other – but I learned on arrival that I also needed water and a jar to put it in. Silly me. Hadn't given it a thought. 


Fortunately, like all good village halls, this one is armed with a tap, a sink and a supply of plastic glassware substitutes. There was also a kindly lady who gave an encouraging pep-talk and told us, above all, not to be afraid of the paint – even if it is harder to block out watercolour than oils. It was time to boldly go. 

We were all given a printed copy of a watercolour landscape with a house on a hill, plus a helpful hint or two, and invited to do our own reproductions, starting with applying a wash for the sky. 

By this time, I had begun to suspect that my little paintbox was being asked to tackle something that was beyond its scope. The picture that was proffered as my starting-point clearly had hues unsuspected by my paintbox, and mixing colours in an effort to reproduce them was quickly revealed to be a non-starter.  

So my sky was a bold and violent blue that could have been straight out of the mixed infants, except that my sky and my earth did not have the seemingly essential ingredient of any infant's landscape – that broad belt of white that separates them so unfailingly. 

And down at the bottom of my incipient masterpiece was my other immediate failure – the golden-brown cornfield that I could not deter from its insistence on matching my sky for brassiness. 

It was all too clear that England was not about to discover another Constable or an upstart Turner. Moreover, I was not happy. 

Since then, I paint no more, other than with rather bigger brushes and on the garden benches. 

If England is agog to augment its artistic armoury, I fear it will have to wait a little longer. I have hung up my camel-hairs.

John Slim


Sizzling filth. Great stuff!

I SUSPECT that I am not alone in evincing tired disbelief every time another alleged comedian – formerly appropriately called an alternative comedian – offers his alternative to comedy. Surely the time should be long gone when some overpaid, talent-free yob pollutes a nation's sitting rooms with what used to be called gutter language. 

It's not called gutter language any more, because as far as I can gather it is now accepted as Standard English. The F word stands for Filth, and filth, quite clearly, is flourishing. Filth has become the standard. 

This was not the case when Glengarry Glen Ross appeared in 1984. David Mamet's play, featuring a feud between two language-limited real-estate salesmen in Chicago, must have packed more obscenities per line than anything within the experience of its disbelieving audiences. It sizzled. 

I caught up with it nine years ago, in 2003, by which time it had blazed its trail of challenging terminology for almost two decades, leaving dazed disbelief in its wake as the patrons discovered they were taking a terrifying new step into a changing world of theatre. 

It was The Nonentities, the amateur group whose home is The Rose Theatre, Kidderminster, who led me to it. Led me? They waited until I was sitting comfortably, then they walloped me with it. Previous form made me odds-on to throw up my hands and turn pale and interesting, shocked to the core. 


But in fact, in tune with the rest of the respectable, middle-class, middle-aged audience, I was riveted. One had to be riveted in any case, with the script firing scores of deep-shock bullets in swift succession and no time to duck – but in no time at all it was clear that this was filth with a mission.  

It was not the fail-safe patter of a sneering oaf untouched by talent. This was life in the raw, right from the start, with two hard-nosed characters in foul, high-decibel verbal combat. It was making sure, right from the start, that we would have no illusion that we had joined a visit to a day nursery. It was magnificent gutter-speak. 

This was an ambience quite foreign to its audience and it was plain that the script was not going to ease the pressure; equally obvious that it was the patrons who would have to adjust their expectations. 

And adjust they did – not only because they had to, but because the verbal fusillades, although appalling, fulfilled their responsibility of leaving no one in any doubt that this was not only the language of hard-nosed citizens, it was something that they could escape only by walking out of the suddenly-electrified auditorium. It was language committed to its context – filthy and uncompromising. 

I have seen Glengarry Glen Ross only once. It has to be taken on its own terms and presented by a first-class company. So far, it has taken me nearly two decades to fail to forget it. It's time to look back in admiration – and to reiterate my verdict from all those years ago. 

This was a week when bad language had a job to do – in a week that deserves a place in any future history of The Nonentities at The Rose.

John Slim


Marred: one man's early morning

WHAT is a reporter for? A reporter is for reporting the news. What he or she is not for is being the news. 

How discomfiting, therefore, for television's Andrew Marr to open the newspaper and discover, not only that he was the news, but that he had been photographed in a distinctly amiable embrace with a-woman-not-his-wife at 2.30 in the morning. 

This is not fair. A reporter's role is to dish the dirt on everybody else, preferably those citizens who are so-called celebs. It is not to fill a tabloid page with pictures of his own generously jug-eared gum-sucking. 

Mr Marr's problem is that he has risen to celebrity status on the wings of his television job. Like other celebs, he will therefore have to ensure that he is careful with his cuddles. Cuddling may well continue to be an option, but from now on he must not be caught at it – even when practising what he is reported to have described as just a drunken clinch. 

When every phone-carrying busybody is a potential newspaper photographer, moderation in all things becomes a must. And the unlucky Andrew possibly finds little consolation in the realisation that future victims of our snap-happy citizenry will be spoken of, perhaps not as completely ruined but possibly as having been distinctly Marred. 

His name could progress from mere verbal status to verbal adjective, which the late Julius Caesar would have recognised on the instant as a gerundive. I bet our Andrew didn't realise that that was on the cards at 2.30 one recent morning.

John Slim


Don't frighten a four-year-old

WHEN Shakespeare mentioned the winter of our discontent, he was not thinking of pantomimes – but right now, beyond a shadow of doubt, Britain is gearing up for the season of badinage and it's-behind-you. Unfortunately, it is a season that sometimes goes off the rails. 

So, a plea to all panto promoters: try to remember that this is the children's show. What's more, for many of them it will be their first experience of theatre.  

What children like is action, not words. They will laugh their socks off at the bench that has its legs congregated at one end, ensuring that when the man sitting at the leg end stands up, the other one will be spilled onto the floor. 

They will laugh, that is, at “business” that has been around for years. Why shouldn't they? They have never before seen the Ugly Sister fitting into a glass slipper by means of the false leg and dainty foot she has hidden under her voluminous skirts. They have never seen one of the Broker's Men inviting the other to sniff the flower in his buttonhole before causing it to squirt him with a swift water jet. 

They will love this sort of thing, whatever its vintage. 

What they don't want is any sort of scripted muck, directed at embarrassed parents who will be further discomfited when Junior asks what THAT means.

And it is never a good idea to go overboard with the scary stuff, either. Forty-three years ago, I was the misguided dad who submitted his six-year-old daughter to a visit to a Christmas show featuring a baddie in the globular form of The Plum Pudding Flea.  

As soon as he made his first jump-jump-jump entrance, accompanied by a series of boings and twangs, she greeted him with banshee howls of unmitigated terror. And he had to make lots of entrances, with the same effect. In the end, we had to smuggle her out quietly and we never did catch up with the plot. 

I suppose it's poetic justice that in the fullness of time our daughter became a flustered mum with a six-year-old son whose first pantomime featured a character so alarming that young George hid his eyes and shrieked in genuine terror – and that was only the start of it. 

For the next fortnight, he was frightened to go to bed. And when he got there, the curtains could not be closed in case there was something nasty behind them. He had recurring bad dreams, and Christmas did little to soothe him. 

This should never happen. A panto is a place for the Good Fairy and the Golden Egg, not a trial ground for a director to be, er, clever by experimenting with an untimely, unnecessary, unthought-out introduction to a Stephen King nightmare.

John Slim


Comforts precede curtain-up

IT is only very rarely that I have been caught out by something unexpected on the way to the theatre and have thus failed to arrive in time for the kick-off., with a succession of sotto voce apologies to the patrons who have preceded me into my row and have thus provided me with a superfluity of kneecaps, past which to clamber.  

I have habitually arrived in good time, ensuring that my box of Maltesers is half-empty by curtain-up. In any case, my timekeeping is a good thing, because in the absence of any on-stage action I am often able to extract ample entertainment from the conversation of the couple in the seats behind me. 

I never know what they look like, let alone who they are, because if I turned round I would ruin the little game that has so often seen me happily through the interregnum to the start of the show. 

Aforesaid little game consists of listening – without any difficulty, because the chatterers never appear to have considered the possibility that I might not want to hear what they are saying – while allowing my fevered old brain cell to run riot. 

Their generosity in not sparing the decibels thus allows me to fit imagined characters – preferably, erstwhile members of television's former Creature Comforts community – to the voices, and thus turn what might otherwise have been an irritation into a positive pleasure. 

Do you remember the cat and the tortoise, and all the other Plasticine people who were droll delights all those years ago? I loved them. I was their groupie – and these days, the pleasure of any theatre visit can still be magnified if I tune in to the dedicated chatterers behind me. 

Almost unfailingly, they remind me of the languid man-made animals who were wont to exchange vapid thoughts about nothing in particular, offering enormous solemnity to matters of no moment at all. 

And it matters not what accent they employ. Though it is rarely what used to be called BBC English, before the BBC forgot how to speak English, I don't care: they are free to proffer their thoughts in any way at all – including Estuary English, distinguished by a loyalty to the glottal stop that is backed to the hilt by its inability to say glottal – and find me offering silent delight. 

The beauty of this is that I am in charge. I am able on the instant to turn my unseen entertainers into any animal of my choice. I would not dream of turning round and thus spoiling my imaginings. On the contrary, you are liable to find me luxuriating in a joy which becomes even better if I close my eyes. 

Unfortunately, this does bring its own problems, in as much as I am then unable to see that a fellow kneecap-clamberer is edging sideways towards me. But then, I have never pretended that this is a perfect world.

John Slim


A shaggy dog walks into a bar . . . .

FORGIVE me, but I do like silly stories.

An Englishman, a Scotsman, an Irishman, and a Welshman walked into a restaurant.

With them were an African, an Alaskan, an Albanian, an American, an Andorran, an Argentinean, an Armenian, an Aruban, an Australian, an Azerbaijani, a Bahaman, a Belarussian, a Belgian, a Bolivian, a Brazilian, a Bulgarian, a Cambodian, a Canadian, a Cayman Islander, a Chilean, a Chinese, a Colombian, a Cook Islander, a Costa Rican, a Croatian, a Cuban, a Cypriot, a Czech, a Dane, a Dutchman, an Ecuadorian, a German, an Egyptian, an Estonian, a Fijian, a Filipino, a Finn, a Frenchman, a Georgian, a Greek, a Greenlander, a Guatemalan, a Haitian, a Hawaiian, a Honduran, a Hungarian, an Italian, an Icelander, an Indian, an Iranian, an Israeli, a Jamaican, a Japanese, a Korean, a Latvian, a Lebanese, a Liechtensteiner, a Lithuanian, a Macedonian, a Malaysian, a Mexican, a Micronesian, a Moldovan, a Mongolian, a Moroccan, a New Zealander, a Norfolk Islander, a Norwegian, a Pakistani, a Panamanian, a Peruvian, a Pole, a Portuguese, a Qatari, a Romanian, a Russian, a Samoan, a Serb, a Singaporean, a Slovak, a Spaniard, a Sri Lankan, a Swede, a Swiss, a Syrian, a Tajikistani, a Tongan, a Turk, a Ugandan, a Ukrainian, a Uruguayan, an Uzbek, a Venezuelan, a Vietnamese and a Virgin Islander, who accompanied them in alphabetical order because they were a tidy lot.

"I'm sorry," says the maître d', after scrutinizing the group, “you can't come in here without a Thai."

John Slim


Time to sort a vowel disorder

THE Olympics gave our old friend Rogue R a splendidly busy time. 

Every television commentator employed him whenever possible – not intentionally, admittedly, but just every time he could be smuggled in and sandwiched between an A and an E or joining the fun when one A was working in tandem with another. 

You know the enfant terrible I am talking about: the one who is customarily at his liveliest when plaguing Noel Coward comedies by references to the droring room. He gets away with it because actors don't think and directors don't know any better. They share a disdain for preparation that does them remarkably little credit. (Who are these people?) 

But it was the Olympics that found Rogue R finally hitting the jackpot. It was the Olympics that introduced us to swimmer Rebecca Radlington, heptathlete Jessica Rennis and flyweight boxer Nicola Radams, all of them performing under assumed names because there was a surfeit of successive vowels and the commentators couldn't cope. 

I realise that English as we know and love it is going down the pan with alarming rapidity, but perhaps the occasional squeak of protest won't do any harm.  

Yes, I know it won't do any good, either, but lost causes need somebody to speak up for them, just occasionally.

John Slim


Tops are tops Down Under

A FRIEND with my welfare at heart has despatched me an email containing 15 photographs of something called Australian Sand Soccer. 

Unless I have failed to grasp the right end of the stick, the sand and the soccer have very little to do with it, except that they specify the base on which it is played and the game where no spectator cares if it isn't played at all. 

As you would see for yourself if the pictures had not been swallowed by cyberspace, this is clearly a salute to All Girls Together. Two teams of six nymphets, who have remembered their smiles and their very brief briefs but forgotten their bras, are curving becomingly into their remarkably tight tops as they come fiercely to grips with the need to fascinate what appears to be an almost all-male audience. 

Not that I have actually observed them in action. These are still photographs – photographs in which nothing jiggles or bounces and which also give cause to wonder whether these are tops that have merely been painted on. Certainly, they require only the merest imagination. They present the still-life drama of a contest that is keenly fought, nipple-and-tuck. 

I can't help thinking that this is the sort of thing that Australia seems to be very good at. I have never been there, but it does almost unfailingly convey the impression that all human life is there and that it does, in all those wide open spaces and in a manner of speaking, let it all hang out.

John Slim


Wossy's pwoblem – a hit in waiting

I KNOW nothing of Jonathan Ross beyond his public persona as an amiable oaf who can't pronounce his surname because he's got a pwoblem with the R.

Having said that, I do remember that he unfortunately teamed up some years ago with the less likable Russell Brand – he of the dark black barnet and the mad eyes – for a juvenile attack by telephone on Andrew Sachs.

Sachs is the actor who played the long-suffering waiter from Barcelona in Fawlty Towers and had suffered much for his art, long before Ross's uncalled-for intervention. On one occasion, John Cleese hit him over the head with a pan, supposedly augmented with heavy padding. But the scene was filmed in the dark and Cleese grabbed the wrong pan, knocking Sachs almost unconscious and giving him a headache that lasted several days.

All of which is an unintentional diversion from Wossy, the man with the label that was presumably given him in the first place by unkindly associates who had noted without much effort that R was not to be confused with his linguistic strongpoint.

I have observed before that English is a language that is prone to defeat many of those for whom it is their native tongue – the people who can't say integral, communal, formidable and minuscule, for instance.

I don't know where Wossy stands in coping with this particular foursome, but I'm sure that You Tube would welcome a sight of him battling with inferiority, deteriorate and peroration.

Wossy's Pwoblem could be an instant hit. When will it occur to him to give it a try?

John Slim


I'm less and less credible

I GROW ever more fascinated by the foibles of the Internet.  

Its latest manifestation finds me deeply engrossed in a three-line email that says: “Your money followed by a long space and then: have you receiver (sic) your $1,300.000.00us because I travel to France but now I am back, if you receiver (more sic) it let me know
Mr P Nwaba.” 

I know nothing of Mr P Nwaba, except that he's A bawn P backwards, let alone why he clearly knows considerably more about my $1,300,000 euros than I do. 

It is my misfortune that I have not receivered my little nest-egg – just Mr Nwaba's single-sentence missive about it, interrupted only by a comma that should have been a full stop. 

Nevertheless, I am beginning to wonder why I am selected for these esoteric communications. 

As I have previously mentioned, I have already receivered from the Internet all I need to know about the Association of Truly Generously-Endowed Men. I am flattered by ATGEM's attention and can only wonder whether Big Brother has spotted me from one of his satellites and is too fascinated for words. 

Can there really be Someone Out There who needs me, either for my hitherto unsuspected wealth or just for my body? If he's still looking at me, what can I do to help – given that I'm a bit short of euros at the moment and that he might as well forget my body?  In your dreams, boy. It's a non-starter these days.  

(Oh, dear. Bang goes my street cred again).

John Slim


The perils of professionalism

IT'S a bit ironic that in this year, of all years, we had to discover that half the nation can't say jubilee. 

I say half the nation, because in doing so I am assuming that the rest of us fail more or less proportionately to our broadcasters, half of whom clearly haven't a clue and are struggling on with nobody at their elbow caring enough to instruct them. 

Give them their due, the malfunctioning professional 50 per cent do their best. It's just that they don't know when to stop. Jubileeee!, they cry interminably, searing my eardrums and bringing no balm whatsoever. 

Calm down, dears. Its cadence matches that of comedy. It's just that the professionals have never latched on. 

Similarly, there are far too many of the broadcasting classes who can't say communal. The nearest they can get to it is com-you-nal, ever prone to assault the afternoon airwaves when we are seeing somebody being given an escorted tour of a property with a shared swimming pool. 

Happily, I haven't yet caught any of them demonstrating an inbuilt inability to say aitch. The eighth – heighth? – letter of the alphabet seems to be content with the sizeable proportion of non-professionals who come a cropper every time they try to refer to it. They don't talk about aitch very often, of course, but when they do, a territorially-ambitious aspirate gets them every time. 

And then, as I have mentioned before, there is our shortest and surprisingly further shortened month, Febry, which Jonathan Ross presumably knows as Febwy and which the rest of us frequently assault without let or hindrance by deleting an R when we refer to it..   

Moreover, interestingly, there's a word with only three letters which does not have to wait for someone to fail to say it properly – because it sees itself repeatedly spelled incorrectly in newspapers. Led, which we might have assumed to contain few opportunities for a cock-up, keeps coming up as lead.  

You just can't trust these professionals.

John Slim


What's all this ear then?

TALKING about words we can't say, and I'm sure I must have been at one time or another, what about frontier?

This is a word that has two separate and distinct lives. In everyday conversation – not that it crops up very often in everyday conversation – there seems to be no problem. We know that if we are crossing, say, from France to Belgium, we are at the frontier.

And if Scotland is allowed to transmute those new noises it is making into action, Great Britain will presumably have a frontier of its own for no good reason and become Little Britain – though Matt Lucas and David Walliams might have something to say about that and wave a contract to prove it.

After all, there are already many frontiers. This is a planet that is awash with them. It's only when we reach the last one that we run, for no apparent reason, into trouble.  We create a problem for ourselves by shifting the emphasis when we say it.

This is the point at which a simple, God-fearing word joins the playground of the apparently unpronounceable, like communal, jubilee, aitch haitch to the carefree – and Febry, as well as defying the known limits of biology.

How can anything be the final frontEAR? How can either of the appendages on the side of the average head be the final one, implying that the other one is the first one and therefore that the head in question has one ear in front of the other, not properly aligned?

Apart from being an implicit slur upon our Maker, it defies all known observations of the human cranium.

In referring to a final front ear they are suggesting that there is not only a last front ear but a first front ear as well. We're just making problems for ourselves. We're not making sense.

People who are hard of hearing may talk about their good ear or their bad ear – though admittedly it rarely seems bad enough to be called their dire ear – and MPs are apt to intone a sonorous 'Ear, 'ear to cover their uncertainty about whether they are going to vote yea or nay.

But why should anyone imply that one ear is positioned ahead of the other? The only people we should expect to do that are those citizens who take their cue from too many Wild West movies and insist on talking about the final one.

Let's have none of it.

John Slim


An unfortunate way with words

I DON'T mean to be distracted by the printed word or the word as spoken by my television set. Unfortunately, the dismay that springs from both these sources is stronger than all my good intentions to stay schtum.

It's just that I am increasingly aware that people aren't speaking English any more. Even English people. Nor are they writing it. And they're getting worse.

Even though by now I am no longer surprised that the very people who earn their living via the spoken or written word are unable to say either February or deteriorate – two words in which the letter R is prominent, which may be providing some sort of a clue to their problem – I still rise to the bait of berating them, safe in the knowledge that they won't come and hit me.

They're not very good with a U or an A, either, and they seem to be getting worse, not to say deteriorating (because to do so would only make them jealous). So I am plagued with such untutored tidings as The ship sunk and I begun ,where a U has supplanted an A, or distracted by the Birmingham insistence – again based on the apparently irresistible U – on living in the eternal present via I run, meaning I ran.

But it is not only in the Second City that these two letters suffer from an unfortunate vowel disorder. I realised the other day that the plague has spread to the so-called writers in the London newspapers – the papers that David Hopkinson, former editor of The Birmingham Post, refused to call nationals, in a stand confirmed when The Times, once regarded as the paper of record, described the Vale of Evesham as a green lung in the heart of the Black Country.

The A and U problem has now revealed itself in what, as far as I know, is a completely new aberration. A writer in a London paper, regaling us with a driver's inability to control a car, informed us that the vehicle span off the road – and she did so twice in about 250 words.

All this is in addition to the perennial problem that media people seem to have in not knowing that there's a difference between uninterested and disinterested. The reason is simple, and they could get it right by reminding themselves that they are clearly uninterested in the words that are the very tools with which they make their living. This is either due to their built-in ineptitude or that of their teachers. That's for them to know and us to guess at.

Either way, the future of a lovely language, alas, is in their hands.

John Slim


Time for a muse about milk

HOW do you steal a bottle of milk?

Not you, I mean, obviously – not you, the well-known model of rectitude, or possibly a coward at heart who recognises the perils implicit in appropriating a pint of the white stuff from its rightful spot on its owner's doorstep.

No, it's just the logistical difficulty of lifting pre-prepared cow-juice from the place its predecessors have made their own, perhaps for years unnumbered.

Do it at night, under cover of helpful darkness, and you're going to attract the interest of any other stop-out who chances to see you making what you intended to be a nonchalant getaway. Who goes walkies with a bottle of milk when everyone else is either glued to the telly or falling out of the pub?  Questions will be asked.

On the other hand, he who makes his illicit move for milk in broad daylight, probably when he is unencumbered by any other burden, also runs the risk of being recognised as a citizen of possibly doubtful probity. Again, it is the yet-to-be-approved status of milk as a solitary walking companion that will be likely to elevate any passing eyebrow.

I could be wrong, but as far as I know no one has yet penned a drama that features The Case of the Disappearing Milk Bottle. Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie having made their excuses and left, there's a gap in the market that is yearning for Alan Bennett's attention.

I discovered I was one down on my milk count on opening the front door one recent morning with a view to offering a home to two bottles and finding only one of them awaiting my attention.

It was thus necessary to pick up a pinta from the little shop that's 150 yards up the road, a pesky irritation when I am sure I could have thought of other things to do if I had applied the brain cell – even if it was only to the matter of pondering the practicalities of purloining a bottle from a doorstep closer to hand.

This was the train of thought to which I finally offered myself six paragraphs ago – though aware, as I indicated, that I should not expect any practical guidance from a pillar of society such as your good self.

Rest easy. I do not seek to deploy you as an accessory before the fact.

John Slim


Alas, this is funny-peculiar

WHAT do I know about children? Too little to warrant consideration, I guess. Admittedly, there were at one time four of them in our house, the oldest being a modest seven.

Clearly, we were in danger of being overrun by The Little People. Something had to be done – so I did it.

I changed the milkman.

It worked. By now, the youngest is 48, still with no more than three senior siblings – and as the years go by, I am increasingly aware of what is euphemistically called The Generation Gap.

The latest manifestation of my inability to cope with the younger set comes with the newspaper revelation that Humpty Dumpty, friend from my own formative years,  is now considered too much of a handful for today's infants. He has been “sanitised.” He has been fitted with whatever is the nursery rhyme equivalent of warning lights. He is, it seems, an egg too far for the next generation.

This is why the English Folk Dance and Song Society is anxious to make it clear that all the king's horses and all the king's men, who, as we have known for years, couldn't put Humpty together again, are now required to have “made Humpty happy again.”

The EFDSS concern follows somewhat tardily in the wake of a government-funded song book which decided in 2009 that it was time that What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor? should lose any reference to alcohol and have the misbehaving matelot turned into a grumpy pirate. Furthermore, “put him in the longboat ۥtil he's sober” should become “do a little jig and make him smile.”

So there we are. Somebody's looking after the youngsters – and yet again, I have to smile one of my pretend-I-understand ones.

After all, which youngsters are we talking about? Can they possibly be those who made headlines in a different newspaper in the same week – the ones who are seeing porn on TV and then putting it into practice on even younger children?

According to the Deputy Children's Commissioner, there is not a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited, often by their peers. Abominations are therefore becoming regarded as normal, par for the course, by the under-tens – and all this, at a time that tries to hang on to its innocence by requiring children to be off the stage and out of the theatre by 10 pm.

It's a funny old world, except that funny isn't quite the right word.

John Slim


Don't let's forget about Sunderland

CONVERSATIONS can be wonderful. They can pack surprises that you could never have imagined if you had sat up nights working on them.

Admittedly, most of them are unapologetically routine, bereft of anything remotely ear-catching, not worth remembering when they have finished.  They are the sort of exchanges that most of us have all the time.

But just occasionally, there is one that contains perhaps just one special moment, one illuminating phrase, which impinges instantly on the memory – without any need for its appreciative audience to have been involved. Right now, I am still remembering and enjoying the occasion more than 70 years ago when my grandmother, a lovely, white-haired lady who was both blind and stone deaf, started the day by coming into the kitchen, to greet my mother with a cheerful, “Good morning. Is it raining?”

“Yes, pouring!” said Mum – only to discover that the response to her mine of proffered meteorological information was, “Good morning!” Granny's hearing aid had misfired and she was all set to start the conversation all over again.

In eight decades, I have failed to accumulate one single other memorable conversational moment – until now. And even now, I cannot claim any involvement in it.

In truth, this was not a conversation. It was a young woman's account in court of what she said to her friend, an off-duty police officer.

“I said, ‘He's just grabbed my arse'. He said, ‘He plays for Sunderland'. I said, ‘I don't care what he does, he's not grabbing me like that'.”

Let joy be unconfined! The arrival into judicial proceedings, first of Sunderland Football Club, and then of the response it evoked, were irrefutably gems from the larger lunacy. It could have been a moment of hilarity in a stage comedy. Indeed, if it caught the eye of a playwright looking to tickle the risibilities, it may yet become just that. We'll have to wait and see.

John Slim


Sloppy, with a silver lining

I AM sorry to inflict this on you, but I'm a bit fed up. Fed up with the way that Britain's society has become so ill-mannered, so loud – why is it that oafs always have the noisiest voices? – and so sloppy. Why has work become a naughty word?

Why – to get to the point – are we now awash with “poets” who would not know an iambic pentameter if it hit them where it hurts? These are the versifiers who write a chunk of airy-fairy prose, chop it into lines of arbitrary length and proclaim that they have produced another poem. It doesn't rhyme, it doesn't scan. But at least it has not involved them in any work, and has thus not damaged their street cred.

Sadly, sloppiness is now all. Anything goes, provided it can be read in a voice that bespeaks the awesome or portentous, and thus gives it some imaginary virtue.

I have been aware of the slide into sloppiness for a long time, while I have nevertheless obstinately filled the idle hour with verses that do rhyme and that do scan and have the effrontery to have a bit of meaning. By now, there are a hundred or so. I have never sought to do anything with them; never gone out of my way to try to startle  posterity by bothering a publisher – but finally I have, as I say, got a bit fed up with the way in which the gentle art of poetry-writing has been eroded; sacrificed on the altar of idleness and virtually buried.

Why sweat over scansion, as long as an awestruck public thinks it's poetry? Why struggle with rhyme, when so many others do without it and are hailed unquestioningly as Poets?

After all, rhyme and scansion don't come easily. Of course they don't – but this used to be the very point of poetry. The hard work that produces such hallmarks should be what attracts would-be poets and what puts the enjoyment into creating poetry, while nevertheless remaining largely unsuspected by the reader.

Alas, Nanny Britain ensures that while hard work in any sphere is not actually frowned upon, there are always ways of getting round it – and for “poets” today, the obvious way is via chopped-up prose. No hang-ups over rhythm, no need to reckon with rhyme. Just slop something down and whang it at 'em.


If poets had been this bright a few hundred years back, we would never have heard of Keats, Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley and their like. Their work, all those lovely verses that they had struggled to produce, would probably never have been seen unless they had been remarkably lucky. Forget the Golden Treasury:  take your chance on The Golden Shot, sort of thing.  And inevitably they would have lost out in a big way to their slap-happy challengers.

Rhyme has its limitations, of course. Anyone opting for an evening at the theatre and discovering that the play was in rhyme, and that the only relief from rhyme was when somebody forgot a line, would not be agog to repeat the experience. It's the same with rhythm – which is why, in the theatre, the irritation of poorly-crafted verse can be assuaged by the realisation that 2½ hours of boring perfection is not, after all, on the cards.

But theatre is theatre and poetry is poetry, and there's no need to worry as long as they are not expected to work side by side unchecked.

It's when poetry is pulverised for having the temerity to stand alone that I am dismayed – and this is what happened when, finally frustrated at the all-encompassing mediocrity of the world of modern poetry, I decided to push a verse or two of my own in the direction of a literary agent.

For instance, I touched the awestruck forelock and steered Whispers towards an unsuspecting agent who might possibly become its staging-post.




WHISPER soft, lest still, star-sprinkled night,

That holds its breath in magic, silvered bowers,

Shall overhear the tenderness we plight,

Which takes no count as minutes merge to hours.


Whisper soft. Touch gently, in a glow

That has a wondrous softness of its own,

And makes believe that we, at one below,

Have found such love as no one else has known.


Whisper soft, for 'tis night's quirky will

To snatch and steal away the slightest sound,

And magnify it on an air so still

That sheltered secrets shout to all around.


Whisper soft: enlist the black-backed moon,

Whose velvet vault mere man can't comprehend,

To light the face of love, for all too soon

The loveliness of summer's night will end.


Silly me. Doing his best to sound sorry, the agent was at pains to point out that this was no good to him because – wait for it – it wasn't. . . messy.

His word. He meant it actually had the temerity to rhyme and scan and had clearly been worked upon and cared about before it left me. And that's not what's wanted these days. Heaven forbid! Anything goes, as long as there's no form or substance.  Otherwise, all in, run or not!

As always, there's a silver lining – namely, that Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth & Co were able to show the world what poetry is before slap-happy insouciance took over, to inflict upon the rest of us the impenetrable mysteries of Messy.

John Slim


I've been flagging a bit

NEVER let it be said that when pageantry is in prospect this lad is not going to be among those present. Not necessarily within touching distance of the excitement, but handily poised with a television set ready to go and the remote control awaiting his every whim.

It is, however, only rarely that he who perambulates past my front gate receives the slightest hint of the joys I am receiving from the magic screen in the corner – and Jubilee Weekend was one such occasion.

Let there be no secrets between us: among my unsuspected depths, I am a loyalist royalist.

I may not be able to lure my larynx into a reasonable attempt at God, Save the Queen, but no one will ever persuade me that Her Majesty is not A Good Thing. I think she's an unassuming wonder; mother of the nation; apparent eternity in a pleasing hat. But I don't usually let on to the passing populace.

This time was different. I had a weekend of wallowing in everything that my television set was offering me. I was having a lovely time.

Perhaps I shouldn't have sighed so significantly every time one or the other of the professionals filling my screen revealed an inability to pronounce Jubilee. The word of the moment was beyond their competence. Time after time, it emerged as Jubileeee, proffered by an ignoramus who had no idea that the accent is on the first syllable, its cadence exactly matching that of comedy.

But I was delighted at how infrequently the national standard was called a Union Jack, which happened only when the occasional commentator had failed to spot that it was not flying aboard a ship. I was also pleased at my failure until the final day to observe among the Union Flags a flag – quite a large flag – that had been given the distinction of being flown upside-down.

So, all things considered, I reckon the Queen received the small-screen reportage she deserved. And as I was about to say, he whose travels led him past my front gate was given a clear clue to my choice of television entertainment.

An unassuming Union Flag sagged outside the front window. On a small stick. In a window box. Alongside a geranium.

When Britain gets excited, I am with it all the way. This is no time for secrets.

John Slim


Something for the boys, surely?

THE postman, once famed in picture-palace celluloid for always ringing twice, is also well capable of springing a surprise.

A recent offering that he popped through my letterbox proclaimed, Making love often saves your life! 

I remain uncertain whether it was talking about often making love or often saving my life – but such considerations pale into insignificance in comparison with what else it clearly felt could be missing. 

For instance, in proclaiming the virtues of what it calls a “new, revolutionary and explosive formula”, it invokes capital letters and says it OBLIGES my penis to become a truly inexhaustible PISTON, proffering the postscript that all the girls are gagging for it. 

It talks about growing a THIRD LEG that will get the most blasé women – blasée, surely? – howling between my sheets like the most shameless of nymphomaniacs; sharing my new penis with all the ladies and preserving my prostate without even thinking about it. 

I am assured that I will become the owner of something that is full to the brim and hard as a rock, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – a bit of an embarrassment, both to me and my immediate circle, really.  

It lists 14 problems from which I may be suffering, and it helpfully adds that the list was drawn up by ATGEM (the Association of Truly Generously Endowed Men). 

It wonders whether I would like to make love to several partners simultaneously. It does not hesitate to offer “fuller balls” and a “competition-level penis.”  

It is the most intriguing bit of correspondence to have arrived at our house in years.  

Particularly as it is addressed to my wife.

John Slim


A word with the language-dabblers

IT was back in the summer of 2004 that I got all excited because I thought that we British, ever-reliable in our ability to discern the right path, even if we very often fail to take it, had yet again demonstrated our ability to Get Things Right. 

All those years ago, the faint light of hope had found a chink in the armour of absurdity that is donned by the renegades who habitually insist on making a mockery of linguistic life. At least, I thought it had. 

Yes, these seven summers since, I felt encouraged enough to think I could safely bid farewell to proven, the fad word with which television commercials had been regaling me for months. I was able to report that with a handful of exceptions, including an ad about lollipops, one about eyelashes and something that involved spelling correction incorrectly, proven had popped its clogs. 

I was madly optimistic. Seven years later, proven is still with us. It means proved, but it takes an extra syllable to say it. Nevertheless, I cling to the hope that one day I shall realise that proven has breathed its last; that air-headed television people will have found a different word to assail with their ignorance. 

It is probably too much to hope that meet up and meet up with, both of which mean meet but have arrived as thought-free substitutes in the heads of brain-free professionals, will also be summarily despatched; and that sports presenters will also discover that before is widely recognised as meaning ahead of and again saves a syllable. 


And I leave it to the dedicated language-dabblers to tell us why on earth what  used to be conditions have become pre-conditions – as ever, at the hands of alleged professionals for whom words are the tools of the trade they unthinkingly and repeatedly shame.  

Why can't they simply stick with the linguistic absurdities with which we have all grown up and which therefore deserve a place in our affections? Cheap at half the price, for instance, meaning that it would be cheap at twice the price.

And we all know that if a farmer says a cow is in calf, he means a calf is in cow. 

Moreover, I realise that if I say I have just gone head over heels, you will shed the silent tear and ask to view the bruises – although in fact most of us go everywhere head over heels, with our heads a variable number of feet above our heads. It's called walking.  

No, it's not these old faithfuls but the latter-day stupidities that move me to shout at the television. But may all chairpersons, especially those simple souls who think they're a chair, be humoured by being pulled up and sat on quite firmly before being led gently away by kindly men in white coats. 

I must shut up. Before I am led gently away by those who are too indoctrinated to understand.

John Slim


Why I'm rarely going for a song

I ENTIRELY understand, every time I see a millionaire footballer having unmistakable problems with singing the National Anthem.

As often as not, if he is not transparently miming, he is standing with his mouth resolutely shut. Very rarely does the television camera dwell on a man who is clearly giving his vocal all.

I do not find this at all surprising. By and large, professional footballers do not enjoy their nationwide exposition as failed warblers.

They are not paid to provide a musical salute to Her Majesty. Their job is to kick the ball into the back of the net and kick lumps out of the opposition. Anything else is a gratuitous extra.

My heart bleeds for them at international matches. At such times, they are not only expected to sing – they have to do it surrounded by an immediate audience of 80,000 people while risking the mockery of millions who are watching them in big close-up on television.

The camera pans relentlessly along the line, its microphone geared to catch their every faltering note. All too often – and who shall blame them? – they are obviously miming. They are miming, in case their footling inadequacies should somehow be heard above the sound of 80.000 people singing the National Anthem; miming, in the vain hope that the rest of us won't suspect a thing – and all this, while disporting themselves in big boots and silly little shorts.

Were I in their place, I would bashfully baulk at offering my talent-free version of the official Song-Before-Hostilities surrounded by the massed ranks of not-too-patient patrons.


But it's odd. Reticent though I know I would be, standing on my little patch of hallowed Wembley turf, to risk the exposure of the limitations of my larynx before the multitude, I seem unable to shut up when I am at home. The shower is unfailingly the launch pad for my lyrical endeavours. Equally, I inevitably hold forth in a gratuitous bold baritone when planting a pansy or mowing the lawn.

Nevertheless, any stranger, suddenly privy to my assault on the arpeggios, would realise that he was faced with the alternatives of blocking his ears or choking me. I am not a songster. There is but the slightest likelihood of my being confused with the late Caruso – and this is why, on finding myself unpremeditatedly part of a singing crowd, I do not chip in my three-pennyworth.

My vocal ineptitude is such that I am not even any good at miming. And if I am very brave and actually try to nurture a note into action, all I produce is a sort of furtive groan.

Nevertheless, I did mime, five days a week, in morning assembly at school, and I must have performed proficiently enough for the teacher standing at the end of my row to have been lulled into preposterous belief in my abilities, because no questions were ever asked. Clearly, I achieved what I believe is technically termed lip synch.

I contributed not a sound to the morning hymn. I mouthed with dedication, praying that the master looking along my line from the end of the row would not suspect the slightest scintilla of my subterfuge. To this day, I remain reliably ill-equipped to sing in public

Fortunately, unlike England's international football matches, assembly never concluded with a contribution from whoever was the 1930s equivalent of Katherine Jenkins. Obviously, I would have been no contest for her, and it was my good fortune every day to be able to rest on my silent laurels.


In the world of singing, I am a know-nothing looker-on and a hapless practitioner. I reckon to know a pleasing sound when I hear one, but I can't tell an a cappella or accelerando from absolute pitch and could no more rivet an audience at the Albert Hall than pass myself off as the Duke of Edinburgh.

There are people who can sing, and do. There are people who can sing, and don't. And there are people like me, who can't sing but who are apt to be found at informal moments, confirming the obvious to anyone within earshot at the drop of a hat.

My vocal inadequacies, fortunately, have never prevented my being able to appreciate the talents of those who come into the first of these three categories. When the late Paul Robeson cut loose on Ol' Man River, he stopped me in my tracks.

With him in mind, I listen to the shouting screamers and the screaming shouters who have the effrontery to pass themselves off as singers today, and wonder how on earth they mustered the sheer cheek to try to do so in the first place – and, of course, why no one had the good sense to stop them as soon as they started.

They come to their chosen profession, professing to be able to sing and presumably driven more by the lure of gold than by any intelligent hope that the rest of us will hear them and imagine we have stumbled across some latent talent. Susan Boyle is a blessed exception.


But yes, I admit it: in the face of all things reasonable, I am consistently to be found at full warble – always provided that my only audience is a long-suffering wife with the good sense to keep the windows shut.

I sing in the shower. I sing when perched on the side of the bed and changing my socks. I sing in impromptu accompaniment if the radio or television suddenly comes up with a ditty that is more than 50 years old. As I have mentioned before, I am a Far Away Places and Over the Hill man. Sing, Little Birdie can also rely on me to do my best. Nevertheless, if a fellow man has the misfortune to hear me, he will be found doing something representing feverish desperation, with a forefinger in his ear. I am not a font of pleasing sound.

This is something of which I am well aware and which ensures that, despite my readiness to give forth within the privacy of my own four walls, I am not apt to risk upsetting the susceptibilities of the world at large – and I am sure that many of my fellow-citizens are equally hesitant on their own account.

I understand entirely. When it comes to communal singing, I can be counted out, no questions asked.

If I go to church and am required to praise my Maker in song, I sing sotto voce – so sotto that even my immediate neighbour has not a hope of hearing the funny little groan that I have already mentioned.

And yet Maria Callas and Katherine Jenkins have never been known to do otherwise than come out with a belter at full blast. Their unshakable confidence fascinates me. Even if it doesn't give me a Robeson tingle.

John Slim


Poems that rhyme

I  AM not one of Nature's protesters. Well, not a proper protester, anyway. I may occasionally be found shouting at the television, but as far as I am concerned, any flag or banner wishing to progress down the street will have to make its own way.

So it has come as a bit of surprise to me that I find I have penned what are clearly Poems of Protest. Lots of them. It was not until I had finished them that I realised that this was a label that fitted them precisely. Nevertheless, this is what they are.

They have turned out to be a blast at the poetry of today. An abortive one, because nobody is going to give a damn or take any notice. And a blast because that is what I say every time I fall across the stuff that purports to be modern poetry.

After all, it isn't poetry, is it? If you're fortunate, you may find a slight trace of rhythm in it, but you have not a hope of finding much rhyme. Today's lucky old poets are not required to strain the brain in search of cadence while they invoke the moon and June.

No, the general idea these days is to come up with a chunk of prose, chop it into lines of arbitrary length, and then, if offered the opportunity, vouchsafe it in ringing tones to the awestruck faithful.

So I'm afraid I have gone back to basics; to adopt the basic principles of Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley and the boys, who were not afraid to put a bit of elbow grease into their assorted creations – because as far as I am concerned, the pleasure of writing poetry is to be found in actually having to do a bit of work.

The results of my pleasure – nearly 250 of them – are to be found at

Incidentally, among them is what could perhaps be the longest poem in the world to consist of only one sentence. It is a question that contains more than 300 words but has no room for a question mark because when it reaches what should be the end it starts again at the beginning. Poor old sod. Get a life.

John Slim


Pudsey, the pooch who's got it right

I AM a soft touch for small animals. Not for big ones, although I may sometimes be found tentatively stroking one of those extraordinarily long noses that are sported by the average horse. 

No, I do mean small ones. For a long time, my computer had a desktop photograph of a kitten, stage left, standing on its hind legs with its front paws in the air, surrendering to the revolver that was pointing at it, stage right, in the hand of someone who was otherwise not on camera. Whenever I switched on, it was AH! time. 

But yes, they do have to be small, utterly innocent, and supremely confident that the great big world revolves around them. 

Though I fell for Uggie, the Jack Russell who had Hollywood at his feet with The Artist, I have been impervious to the charms of four-footed chums who have tended to be large economy size. Lassie, the rough collie who, so many years ago, in what seemed so many films, was prone to Come Home, failed to stir my paternal instincts. Trigger the Wonder Horse never remotely threatened to enter the reckoning. 

But now, along comes Pudsey. He swept all before him on Britain's Got Talent, earned his owner, 17-year old Ashleigh Butler, half a million pounds and is now reportedly destined to follow Uggie to Hollywood. Yes, Pudsey, to coin a phrase, pushed my buttons. 

He is small, white, hairy and utterly amiable. What is sad is that although he responds with a tail-wagging flurry to the applause he so clearly deserves, he can't possibly understand what makes people think he is something special. He whizzes through a collapsible tunnel, walks on his hind legs, rolls over, rides piggy-back on Ashleigh, and seeks nothing in return but a sausage sandwich.

As far as he is concerned, he is just a mix of border collie, bichon frise and Chinese crested powderpuff cross and is simply enjoying himself. 

And isn't he lucky? He has no forebodings about a future that contains no applause. In designing performing animals, Nature is more caring than in creating, say, comedians. I interviewed the likes of Mike Yarwood, Morecambe and Wise, Les Dawson, Spike Milligan and a string of other funnymen at the height of their careers. Every one of them was aware that it couldn't last; that the blue skies would not necessarily continue to be round the corner. 

But not Pudsey, the pooch who lives for the moment. Pudsey's all-consuming concern is Now.  

And a sausage sandwich.

John Slim


And it's goodbye from me

THE late Dudley Moore, at his piano keyboard, came strangulated to the task of assuring us that now was the time to say goodbye. The Two Ronnies used to make their farewells on the basis of, “So it's goodbye from me,” “And it's goodbye from him.”

To which I can add only that as far as reviewing theatre is concerned, it is goodbye from me as well. The brain cell is not at its best. I teeter with increasing uncertainty into the foothills of my ninth decade, newly emerging from a transient ischaemic attack – TIA to its intimates.

A TIA always takes its unfortunate victim unawares and in my case I had driven quite normally, six miles to Redditch on a coldish Friday night, to collect my wife from a choral concert – only, upon  hitting this mini metropolis and national assemblage of roundabouts, to have had no idea what I was doing there.

A TIA takes no prisoners. A soupçon of silt in the bloodstream floats happily into the brain, cuts off the oxygen supply and leaves the owner away with the fairies.

I have now taken a month off from driving, awaiting any further developments. There have not been any, but nevertheless I have at least made a contribution to achieving an ideal world for my fellow motorists by reaching for my slippers and staying put. If I plan to drive in future, solicitous spouse is intent on becoming my co-pilot, ready to guide me as necessary.

It's either this or implanting a chip in my neck and subpoenaing a satellite.

Naturally, I cannot expect her to become a groupie of the amateur stage, especially at those rare times when it happens to be straying from its customary pleasing standards. So reviews is orf.

I was launched into contemplating the vagaries of unpaid thespianism by the then, and now sadly late, features editor of The Birmingham Post in 1984. That was when the man who had been taken on specifically to concentrate on its unpredictable world decided to leave. I was asked to “look after it this week.”


Twenty-eight years later, 20 years after early failed retirement, I have still been looking after it this week.

But moderation in all things. No more, if greeted at the door by a group's front-of-house representative who asks if I have come to do a review, will I reply, “Well, yes. I don't go anywhere for pleasure.”

No more, when – unforgivably – further asked by the aforesaid f.o.h.r. whether I have enjoyed my evening, will I smile palely and swallow hard before emerging from something god-awful and do my best to record the delights of the scenery.

Happily, the god-awful has been a rare experience. In 28 years, the amateur stage has moved up several notches. Many times, I have seen it the equal of quality professionalism.

But now it is time to stay home at night and keep out of the way of my fellow motorists. I shall miss my theatre friends – some of them, very good friends. I thank them for a concern which sometimes went beyond the call of duty. I am thinking here particularly of a visit to Highbury Little Theatre, when I stayed in my seat for the interval because I had just had a hip replacement – and found one such friend making his way up the auditorium steps with a cup of tea for me.  But the time has come. This is the end of a road on which I arrived by accident and which has given me so many hours of pleasure.

Small Thoughts, however, will remain as long as I can continue to find my way upstairs to the computer, so I apologise that this is not going to be the clean break for which discriminating readers have surely been hoping.

Sorry about that. See you when Fate decrees. Small Thoughts will struggle on. As Kayser Bondor used to say in the 1950s, always look for the label.

John Slim


Just pass me the pretty bottle

BRITAIN'S best after-dinner speaker is Gyles Brandreth – who also just happens to know who is Britain's most efficient raffle-ticket buyer – always provided that efficiency is equated with sales resistance. 

He names John Major, former Prime Minister – and reveals him, moreover, as the man least likely to win a raffle – because although he carries a pocketful of tickets, they are invariably out of date. 

It seems that the revelation came in the Commons tea room. That was when Mr Major pulled five strips of different coloured tickets from a jacket pocket before explaining that if he proffers a quick flash of this delicate paperwork after entering a hall, the privileged handful of officials and ticket-floggers who see it are apt to assume that he has already bought them and thus exclude him from their endeavours. 

And it's true: he has already bought them – but it was possibly quite a long time ago. The ever-buoyant Mr Brandreth relates that raffle tickets came up for consideration when he raised the matter of the Major routine during the J M premiership. 

“There and then, he fished into his top left jacket pocket and there were five strips of different coloured tickets. He said, ‘As you arrive, pull out your tickets and they think: “Oh, that nice Mr Major, he's already bought his tickets”.' 

Moreover, that nice Mr Major saved his punch-line to the end. That was when he said that he had bought the tickets in 1982. 

The most fun I have had with a raffle came when I had given a talk to a Townswomen's Guild group and was invited to draw the raffle. I did as instructed – and drew my own ticket out of the hat. I explained that I couldn't possibly award myself first prize, so I drew again – and out came another of my tickets. 

Again, I played the bashful bridesmaid, and again I drew another ticket – only to confirm that for the third time I was still destined to be the winner. Not to prolong this tale of unaccustomed triumph, let me confess that I drew a fourth ticket – and again I had to admit that I was the reluctant owner of the counterfoil. 

In the end, a forceful Madam President insisted that I had to carry off at least a representative sample of my spoils. It was time to take my leave with something that was pink and liquid in a fancy bottle. 

There are occasions when I know that I am beaten.

John Slim


Hurray – it's Dinner time!

I HAVE already waxed lyrical on discovering that The Nonentities were going to include Don't Dress for Dinner, the Marc Camoletti farce, as part of their season's programme. 

But now, with its first night almost upon us and without an apology in sight, here I go again. 

The action pivots around two friends, Robert and Bernard, in a plot that features a wife who is temporarily off the scene – and a Parisian mistress. It will be in talented hands at The Rose Theatre, Kidderminster, from April 16-21, and I have no doubt at all that it will offer undiluted joy. 

Certainly, that was what I found on the only other occasion I have seen it, when Sutton Arts Theatre made a superb job of presenting it, and I have no doubt that the result will be similar when The Nonentities give it their undivided attention. 

My only regret is that in 28 years of chasing amateurs across their boards, my opportunities to see it have been so limited. 

Can it be that it appears too daunting? After all, farce is a fearsome challenge, far more alarming than your average thriller or domestic drama. If it is not presented with utter precision, its helter-skelter progress is reduced to an embarrassing limp, with an audience consulting its watches amid a cacophony of coughing. 

And I'm not sticking my neck out at all when I say there will be no such problems this time around.

I have seen it only once – a Sutton Arts Theatre production – but I have no hesitation in pronouncing this Marc Camoletti romp an uninhibited joy. 

It is due at The Rose Theatre, Kidderminster, from April 16-21, and for me it will be the highlight of a season that also includes Denise Deegan's Daisy Pulls It Off (June 18-23) which also has a special place in my memory ever since a Birmingham production many years ago issued me with a ticket on which it was called Daisy Pulls It. 

John Slim


Of tender love and pregnant fish

IT IS a long time since I've been called a twerp. Not that I haven't deserved to be: it's just that it's gone out of fashion as a term of innocuous derision.

 So much out of fashion that although my version of The New Collins Concise Dictionary (1985 vintage) confides that a twerp is a silly, weak-minded or contemptible person, my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1983, with a Publisher's Note dated 1972) has never heard of it. Twerp is démodé.

Or is it? Google tells me that a twerp is insignificant, contemptible, presumptuous, ridiculous.

I have always considered twerp to be a sort of affectionate put-down, to rank with the moment, half a century ago, when a colleague greeted me with, “What-ho, you mouldy old heap of parrot-droppings.”

Like all my contemporaries, I was assured that I was a twerp in about 1945. And, of course, I gave as good as I got. I was a twerp surrounded by twerps.

But I never did manage to confirm the definition that claimed that a twerp is a pregnant fish. And, probably like all my contemporaries, I would never have believed, 66 years later, that 50 people had called somebody else a twerp via cyberspace in the space of six hours.

But see how Twitter replenishes the gaps in our education. There was the evidence! “u better not slobber on my face 2nite twerp.”

Sometimes, it's clearly Get-off-the-fence-and-say-what-you-mean time, as with “sometimes i really just want to smack the shit out of my twerp of a brother.”


Sometimes, we are privy to moments of expectancy, tension and high drama – as from “chiiscake”, who confides to the world at large: “At the dentist with the twerp...if he doesn't bite her we all get cake!”

Sometimes, it's political, like this presumably transatlantic one: “Labor's vision is for a world without borders, all obedient to some twerp in Europe, the same twerps who are presently screwing the globe.”

 “The highlight of my day will have been clicking 'unlike' on Justin Bieber. . . that little twerp pisses me off.”

“lol ya how funny :) lil twerp I bigger then the both of us now haha! I freakin loved getting those sand crabs, damn time flys.”

There's also refreshing honesty following unflinching research: “Oxford tells me a twerp is a 'silly or annoying person', that's me. My grandmother used to tell me I was a 'naughty twerp', must be really bad. LOL”

As all this is the product of more than enough years of free education, it is encouraging to see that another enquiring mind has joined in: “Twitterers that tweet are tweeps. So what constitutes a twit or twerp?” Alas, I did not stay glued long enough to see an answer.

But I draw encouragement from that touchingly romantic reminder: “u better not slobber on my face 2nite twerp.”

While tender love is still in the air, can all be lost?

John Slim


Great hopes from little Ayckbourns don't grow

IS this a first? To find a director registering dismay at the prospect of Alan Ayckbourn coming his way, I mean.

John Healey's cri de coeur stems from Bedroom Farce and the realisation that he will be guiding Moorpool Players through it “once again.” The result will be seen at Moorpool Hall, Harborne, from May 16-19.

Meanwhile, however, John confesses that for the second time in as many years his ambition to stage This Happy Breed has been thwarted by a shortage of men – and, he says, a shortage of energy on his part to go out and find them.

He attributes this second factor as being possibly due to his entry at the end of last year into his eighth decade. He says this was something he wanted to keep quiet about but without going into details he reveals that it was marked “rather appropriately and somewhat embarrassingly” by friends, during the interval of a performance of R C Sheriff's Journey's End at Coventry's Belgrade.

He says: “Whilst I've not yet reached my journey's end, I doubt whether I will ever fulfil a burning ambition to stage Sheriff's great play. I've been staging that wonderful ending in my mind for the last 25 years – and that, I fear, is where it will stay.”

Bedroom Farce, therefore, represents excitement's peak – but it is clear that he does not really despair of finding some more, even now.

“There remains a possibility that there will be an act of violence by me upon one or two actors who after many weeks are still on books”, he says. “But of course, that will be hushed up.”

I am sure that his forebodings will prove to be unfounded. But wouldn't it be a touch ironic if he were to be unkindly battered by one of the books?

John Slim


Time to kick the furniture

I SUPPPOSE I began losing a bit of faith in the intelligence of amateur theatre when I discovered the first society chairman who had become a chair. From that day, many years ago now, to this, I have never received an explanation for his transmogrification.  

All I know, with ever-increasing bewilderment, is that his misfortune has spread – until now, whenever you percolate through to the heights of an amateur theatre group, you are liable to find you are in the furniture department. 

Everywhere in thespian-land you can now find men and women who aspire to be a chair.


Folk who declare they're a chair

Are alarmingly less and less rare.

Yet in leg-counts they score

Only two and not four,

With the pair that are there rarely square.


Yes, they have invented the two-legged chair, as nonsensical in its yet-to-be-attained reality as it is in our imagination. What is the matter with these people? 

I can only assume it's something to do with feminism, driven forward by women who curl up at the edges at the masculinity of chairman but are nevertheless prone to insist that they are actors.  

It is the paradoxical manifestation of the politically correct by the pointedly imperfect. 

Clearly, these are women who have no idea which way they are going. In fact, they don't know whether they are coming or going. 

Nevertheless, these are “actors” who would rather be a chair than a chairman. However, pausing only to be actors of course, they are otherwise impelled to renounce all things male, at any price. Heaven knows what they think of mankind. If their influence grows, I suppose the day will come when we are all subsumed into personkind – at least until the sisterhood realises that there are three very masculine letters slap bang in the middle. 

Some years ago, a London newspaper got as far as revealing that its style book contained a page on which this occurred: “Actor. Male and female. Avoid actress except when in name of award, eg, Oscar for Best Actress.” 

With political correctness on the march, a disbelieving director told me that he could not possibly cast an excellent black member of his company as a maid because of the affront it would cause to politically correct history-benders.  

Never mind that in America there was a well-established tendency for maids to be black, we're also bothered these days by deluded militants who are even trying to airbrush the Holocaust – by and large, the all-sapient noise-makers who weren't even on the planet when the Holocaust happened and who can therefore give imagination its head without let, hindrance or bothering their brain.. 

In such a context, a director's forebodings about casting a black maid are apt to, er, pale into insignificance. Nevertheless, if black housemaids, like the Holocaust, are supposed to have become invisible, it's time to say enough is enough. 

Henry Ford may well have insisted that history is bunk, but there is no need for us to support his worst suspicions.

John Slim


Living it large at Mudeford Spit

YES, we do like to be beside the seaside – but do we like to be there sufficiently to buy a wooden beach-hut just 13ft by 12ft? For £126,000?

With a further £2,500 a year ground rent because somebody else presumably owns the bit of beach that it sits on at Mudeford Spit, near Christchurch, Dorset? (And how did that happen?) 

Undoubtedly, somebody, somewhere, is totally enamoured, which is why it recently went on offer to the world at large – and may, indeed, already have become somebody else's bargain of the year. 

It became a bargain, moreover, accessible only by a small ferry, a long walk or a “Noddy” train – with neither the ferry nor the train running on weekdays in the winter and your feet standing in as transport without the option.  

So it's pretty remote and it's doing its best to be inaccessible – although it seems that the estate agents who are looking to its future say that it is its remoteness that makes both the hut and its surroundings as desirable as the rest of us can only imagine they must be. 

Especially as it does not have a toilet and it shares a shower block. Its water comes from a standpipe and it has not extended itself to offer central heating, which means it is especially Spartan from November to February. 

On the other hand, if up to four people decide to spurn both the comforts of home and of neighbouring hotels, it offers them a gas cooker and a gas-powered fridge, and its roof sports solar panels to keep anybody beneath it in touch with newfangled excitements like electricity. And at least you can sit there and look at the Isle of Wight and try to forget that your hut is bright yellow. 

Many, many years ago, I saw a play that was set on a beach. Whether or not it sported a wooden hut is a detail that has disappeared in the mists of time – but if it did, then I have to say that a pretend beach hut viewed from about six rows back in a comfortable auditorium is just about as far as I fancy going  

Nevertheless, the offer for a real one was there and I'm sure it was a lure that proved irresistible to somebody with £126,000-plus to spare and the possibility of being an Englishman whose castle is a wooden hut if the weather warms up. We are a wonderful people.

John Slim


Put a sock in it, my dear

WHENEVER, in my absence, my wife tells friends about my special relationship with socks, I learn that they respond with joy uninhibited and whoops of disbelief. 

Well, perhaps not, but it is clear that they are delighted to have been let in on what they obviously regard as my silly little secret. 

I have never been present at one of these moments of enlightenment, but I don't care. In the matter of ankle-wear, I habitually take a decisive step to ensure that I am never one sock short of a warm foot. 

This is me, being practical – a circumstance so rare in any other of my life's sundry little spheres that I have no intention of abandoning it. Indeed, I am at a loss to understand why, instead of being mocked by my fellow-men, I am not hailed as a help to hosiery and a suspender-like support for socks in general. 

I had noticed, you see, that my socks have a will of their own. They began, with bewildering frequency, going into the washing machine two-by-two, but coming out with their numbers down to half-strength.  

There appeared to be no way to discover how one or other of any pair was able to achieve this intriguing but irritating disappearing trick, so I had to abandon any pretence of an investigation and resort instead to trying to put a stop to it. 

Enter the safety pin. 

It is the safety pin that reduces my detractors to genial good cheer – and gratitude that they have been allowed to hear how I have cracked a problem from which nobody else seems to suffer. They do, nevertheless, think it hilarious. 

My solution is simple and has proved to be 100 per cent effective. Safety pin in one hand and a pair of socks in the other, I harpoon the knitwear with one sharp thrust before clipping two socks into captivity. Done! 

True, this means that I can now lose two socks instead of one, but nevertheless it makes me feel very efficient and quite ridiculously happy. I am a man on top of inanimate objects. I am showing them who's boss. 

For the life of me, I cannot understand why, on being allowed to catch up with the news of my startling efficiency, every successive small audience has collapsed into gales of merriment. Suddenly, I am its built-in eccentric. 

I must ask my wife to curb the urge to spread the news of my prowess. Er, yes, to put a sock in it.

John Slim


Come the new Dawns

A BOTTOM is a singular thing. Singular, that is, strange; and singular in that nobody has more than one of it. 

But it has only just occurred to me that while a bottom is a bottom, the average bottom is habitually squeezed into a wide variety of enclosures, every one of them with its own distinguishing name. There's a singular plurality of bottom-wrappings.  

There are trousers, slacks and shorts. . .  

There are breeches, jodhpurs, pants and knickers. . . 

There are panties and smalls. . .

There are kecks (to quote a usually-reliable Scouse informant) and leggings. . . 

There are briefs. . . 

. . . and probably many more, but I am by no means as well prepared as my man from Liverpool for any discussion of fashion's what's what below the waistline.

And in any case, all this is distracting me from my intended theme, which is not so much today's accepted apparel as the occasional rear-view enormity that it is supposed to cover. 

Both sexes can be demonstrably big on backsides, but somehow it is the frail and gentle sex that most reliably catches the bemused eye. It galumphs along the high street, pursued by a lifting-bumping-grinding action that is clearly intended to defy description. 

Not that it needs describing. There can be few citizens who have not at some time found themselves following it along the pavement – and, I hope, shedding the tear of silent sympathy for an owner whom it is otherwise all too easy to mock.  

I am not mocking. As one who has lately fallen unexpectedly prone, at any hour, to an apparently unstoppable susceptibility to the strawberry jam sandwich, I am in no position to point the accusing finger as I await the day when indulgence catches up.  


It is just that it has occurred to me that although large-economy-size backsides come both male and female, it is customarily those belonging to the gentle sex that are both more eye-catching and more common. Somehow, we mere males do not seem to be as well-equipped to reproduce the ponderous inevitability of large ladies in motion – particularly when their choice of leg-wear is doing them no favours. 

They are far too apt to encase their lower quarters in leggings, which produce a horizontal demarcation line between their shuddering glutinus maximus and the tree-trunk thighs that are required somehow to support it. There's a sort of hypnotic counter-rotating implacability about them.  

These are ladies who are underlining their problem, as if they are ladies who don't care.  

Perhaps they don't. But perhaps, if they do, they will seek inspiration from the bubbly-indefatigable and stones-shedding Dawn French, actress and comedienne who is suddenly not so comely because she did care. And probably not so suddenly, either. She's clearly been working hard for a long time. 

I don't suppose she was thinking of inspiring anybody, but I'm sure she must have done. Only time will tell. Only time can produce the hour-glass figure – which, thanks to the impish words that are always in charge of us, cannot help being a waist of time.

John Slim


Is it nearly knee-knee time?

I SEE that a well-known watering-hole of the intelligentsia, the House of Commons Strangers' Bar, was the venue for a fracas involving three gentlemen who are customarily handily placed to enjoy its amenities. 

One of them agreed in court that he had butted the other two. 

Except that, this is not how the newspapers saw it. The tale in the London press is that he head-butted them, as if readers cannot be trusted to work out for themselves what was the favoured instrument of a butt-style attack.  

Where did this particular example of lamentable linguistics come from? Who started it? 

Your average unassuming goat, long recognised for its tendency to deploy its head when upset beyond endurance, is perfectly happy just to butt. It trusts us to work out that on such occasions it is the head that is to the fore. But for no good reason, when homo sapiens goes head-to-head, he head-butts. 

It is time to fear that there may be far-reaching developments of this intriguing trend. Stand by for the fist-punch, the hand-slap, the foot-kick and the, er, knee-knee. 

Meanwhile, the gentleman who had drunk a bottle of red wine before making himself a violent nuisance has been described in the London press as having “nutted” two Conservatives. He has now embarked on a 12-month community punishment, been barred from all pubs for three months, banned from travelling abroad other than on Parliamentary business and ordered to pay a £3,000 fine and £1,400 in compensation to his victims. 

In the wake of his tsunami of excitement, the rest of us are left to assume that anyone who “nuts” someone else is presumably and obviously a nutter.

John Slim


Dictionaries? Words fail me

WELL, there's a surprise!  Terry Wogan, knight of the realm, professional Irishman and amiability to his fingertips, thinks that QE is an acronym. 

Moreover, he is not keeping this unexpected credo to himself. He has clearly been harbouring it for years, but now he has suddenly shared his secret with the masses. 

He therefore joins the dozens of Britain's journalists, for whom words are their job, who are similarly so positive in revealing their sureness in uncertainty. Oh, the shame of it. 

The problem is that they have all somehow got it into their heads that any group of initials is an acronym. Perhaps they learned it at school from a teacher who also did not know what an acronym is – who cn say? But in any case, it is a bit of an eye-opener to discover that the witty-wise Sir Terry is with them all the way. 

He bestowed the title on QE, which, in the course of his weekly column in a Sunday newspaper, he said “used to be known as an acronym for a cruise ship.” The newspaper, a respected heavyweight, has clearly been economising on sub-editors and therefore had no one to protect him from himself, even if the missing sub-editors had happened to know what an acronym is – and I'm afraid that would be a long shot these days. 

Alas, whisper it not, QE has never been an acronym for anything. QE is just plain old initials – two-thirds of the sign-off line I used to see, as a bemused 14-year-old, at the end of a geometry theorem short form for Quod erat demonstrandum, – and all the special pleading in the world won't get it promotion.  

The wartime Pipe Line Under the Ocean is an acronym, PLUTO to its mates – though I suppose that the particularly pernickety could have problems with this, on the grounds that Pluto is a name, rather than a plain old ornery word.

The same applies to LAOS, which means the Leeds Amateur Operatic Society for people in a hurry who are unconcerned with Asia. Still, it's the best I can come up with at the moment. These things have not yet been found to grow on trees. Apples yes, acronyms no. 


But it's odd, this collective uncertainty about language, our most important means of communication.  

And how deep does the malaise go? My venerable but strangely undated edition of The New Collins Concise Dictionary says that an acronym is a word formed from the initial letters of a group of words – which is all fine and dandy. But then it cites UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, as an example – when, alas, UNESCO is not a word.

Clearly , while some of its readers do not know what an acronym is, Collins does not know what a word is – any  more than the rest of us know what words mean, let alone how to pronounce them.

Moreover, while Collins cannot recognise a non-word when it sees one, the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary had never heard of acronym when it was published in 1983. With one giant stride for mankind, it leaps from achronychal to acrook, which have both just been underlined in red because my computer has never heard of them either. 

As far as pronunciation is concerned, the most insistent evidence of problems in 2012 will inevitably be jubilee, which is all Her Majesty's fault, because she has spent 60 years building up to it. Its accent is on the first syllable, giving it a cadence that matches comedy, but generally speaking our broadcasters and betters – and they are generally speaking – insist on jubiLEE, and there's nothing remotely comedic in that. 

Integral is always liable to defeat them as well, rather like REEsearch, which represents their insistent grovelling to America – where, as Lerner and Loewe perceptively point out in My Fair Lady, nobody has used English for years. 

Inevitably, I suppose, lexicographers will eventually bow their collective beans to the weight of popular ignorance, and dictionaries will start ignoring excesses of this kind and wave them on their way. Dictionaries are supposed to help us, to instruct us. When did pandering become the vogue? 

I suppose it could all be part of Nanny State's over-arching insistence on looking after us unnecessarily. I reckon it's time to call a halt.

John Slim


Challenging times for Wossy

WELL, hooray! We've survived February, the month that so many people can't pronounce, and we're almost on the home straight to Jubilee (the event that so many people can't pronounce). 

February, for many people, is Febry. And it has passed, yet again, without my discovering how Jonathan Ross (“Wossy”) tackles it. All these years! Perhaps he never says it, because he suffers from rhotacism, defined as the idiosyncratic pronunciation of R, which means he can't manage to put the label on his misfortune, either. 

Many people fail to say February because they give it one R instead of two and make it Febry. Wossy has never been known to give even one R to anything, so he really hasn't a hope with a month that doubles the challenge. 

Meanwhile, I have never heard him tackle Jubilee, which on the evidence to date threatens to be the year's most insurmountable word for broadcasters as a class. Many of them just can't get their larynxes round it. (And the alternative plural of larynx is larynges, by the way. Not many people know that, and I've only just found out). 

It's getting jubilee's accent right that's their problem, although it should be straightforward enough. Its rhythm is the same as comedy, with the stress on its first syllable, but our betters at the Beeb are apt to ignore the first one, skip lightly over the middle one and give us an inexplicable EEE! for the third. What are they playing at, these people for whom words are their job? 

It's wouldn't-pay-ۥem-in-washers time again. 

They are also liable to be caught at full throttle in teenspeak, saying like I said. It isn't like they said, any more than it's like a Volkswagen. As a rule, it's precisely what they said, as they could have made clear by substituting as for what has become a grossly overused and misused word.  Like is a teenage tack-on when they can't think what to say but can't stop talking. 

And I recently caught another ignoramus who was going “to lay prostrate to Angelina Jolie's Cleopatra.” He meant he was going to lie, meaning lie down rather than fib about it – but lie is another word that's being hounded into extinction while we try to lay prostrate faster than a hen can lay an egg. 

Sorry. I'm getting carried away again. I shall shut up before I'm carried away.

John Slim


Hair– gone today, remembered yesterday

I READ with interest and a sudden spark of memory that the national tour of Hair has been called off.

The prime mover in the reasoning that has led to the fact that Hair will not be moving at all is our old enemy – Money. Money, that is, or the lack of it.

Hair's latest venture, starring Gareth Gates, was due to open at the Liverpool Empire in April and continue around the country until the middle of July. Alas, not any more it isn't. The producers have filed for bankruptcy. Hair may be Hair today but it will certainly be gone tomorrow.

 “The producers of the tour of Hair have filed for bankruptcy and cancelled the tour.” Fifteen words have scuppered a revival and reminded me of the problems I encountered while trying to see the show, sometime back in the 1960s.

That was the period when I was spending my days doing my bit in the then pristine emporium of the Birmingham Post & Mail in Colmore Circus, and my evenings, very frequently, casting an eye on theatre productions around the region

So it came about that I was destined to see Hair at Wolverhampton's Grand Theatre. I don't know what year it was, but the date was April 3, which I have managed to remember because it was a now-distant wedding anniversary. I was destined to watch it with my wife, who was travelling to Wolverhampton from deepest Worcestershire for the occasion. (We were married on the third of the fourth of the fifty-sixth, since you're asking).

It was, alas, Best-Laid-Plans time; a time for mice and men to stand back while the world demonstrated that it is ever-liable to gang aft agley. Alas, it was not yet time for the mobile phone.


So it came about that at some point on the M6 I was to be found entrusting myself and my car to the tender mercies of the RAC, having availed myself of a telephone on the hard shoulder and persuaded that admirable organisation not only to find me and my suddenly immobile car but to get a message to the theatre for my wife, who was going to be found waiting, all unsuspecting, in the dress circle.

Long story cut short and all that: I eventually subsided into my seat ten minutes before the final curtain and destined immediately thereafter to telephone a review from the kiosk which is probably no longer just outside the theatre.

Desperate times, desperate measures. On reaching the sanctuary of my seat, I whispered a vital question to the young woman who had been awaiting my arrival ever since she had received the message to say that it was not imminent.

 “What's it like?” I hissed.

 “Bloody awful”, she replied. (She couldn't hiss back, because she was short of sibilants, but I got her drift).

Her assessment, coupled with my own ten minutes' viewing, was the basis on which I telephoned the 250 words for which next morning's Post was impatiently agog.

I think that was quite a feat. Can't think why I haven't told anybody until now.

John Slim


A note on the nether regions

I PASS on a rare and happy sidelight in these unlovely times, while the unintelligentsia destroy our streets and our Government keeps hinting that it might just possibly do something about them one day.

A woman was walking along Hurst Street, on her way to Birmingham's Hippodrome, when her attention was drawn to a bunch of hooded yobs who were busy being yobs on the opposite pavement. Intrigued, she stopped to watch – because she thought she had stumbled across street theatre.

All is never lost. Someone managed to draw brief entertainment from Britain's ongoing national disaster. Excellent!

Meanwhile, my attention has been drawn to the nation's nether garments, so this is the point at which I suggest that it would not be a bad idea if theatre's directors included them in their pre-production instructions.

From time to time, enraptured in my first-night visitation to a group's latest offering, I have become aware that I am watching an actor who has had the bad luck to omit to zip up. And before we go any further I should make it clear that I still cling pitiably to the notion that an actor is a man and that an actress is neither a man nor an actor, despite the liberal lobby which increasingly seeks to make me think I've got it all wrong. (What's the matter with these people?)

And the only moment more unfortunate than omitting to zip up, in the scale of bad luck on the social scene, is that experienced by the man who has forgotten to zip down.

But it's the failed zipper-uppers who concern me at the moment – the citizens who have either a malfunctioning brain cell or a misguided pride and who are thus guaranteed to divert the audience's attention from a production on which so many people have been working so hard for so many weeks.

I was most recently aware of an actor who left us in no doubt whatsoever that his nether garments were bright red. When he was motionless, they glared at us with a malevolent eye. When he moved, they became what the late J Keats, poet, would have recognised on the instant as a hammock for bearded baubles winking at the brim. I cannot have been the only one who was reluctantly riveted. They skewered us where we sat.


The problem is always the flamboyant underpinnings that contrast so sharply with the trousers that are supposed to conceal them. So this is where I think the director should make himself useful. He should decree that, to limit their capacity to distract, only those budgie-smugglers of subdued hue, preferably in complete accord with that of their outer coverings, should have any place onstage. Then there might just be the chance, if their owner happened to have afforded them the opportunity to peep out of their vertical window, that perhaps not more than half the audience would notice them.

In regard to all this, it is just as well that actors as a class have not followed what I understand is an occasional female foible – not necessarily onstage – in these enlightened days, and turned up knickerless or whatever is the male equivalent.

That would really give the director cause for talk at the, er, debriefing.

Incidentally, when I mentioned the director making himself useful just now, my know-it-all computer rebuked me by underlining himself, to make sure I knew I had made an unseemly mistake. So, just to confirm that it was being as stupid as it seemed to be, I replaced himself  with themselves. – and saw it accepted without question.

The director, singular, was required to be burdened with a plural pronoun. I know it's an everyday error on radio, television and in common speech, but I want no part of it. Honest!

John Slim


The importance of the reporter

WHY do so many of Britain's diminishing breed of paper-printed journals precede an interview by indicating that the reporter is more important than the subject of the interview?

A recent magazine cover proclaimed that a woman journalist talks to Jilly Cooper. Inside, clearly facing an understandable lack of faith in what is left of my memory, I was again informed that the same woman talks to Jilly Cooper.

In both cases, my appetite would have been rather more whetted if I had discovered that it was Jilly Cooper who was doing the talking. Apart from anything else, she possibly might be expected to know more about the subject than the journalist does.

But no, I was up against the daily aberration of journalistic self-importance – and to make things worse, the interview itself was a total turn-off. Question, answer, question, answer.

No indication that the journalist might have been prepared to do a bit of writing, once she had extricated her microphone from the Cooper nostrils. No sense of the atmosphere accompanying the meeting. No indication that she might have been about at the time when shorthand was a prized and invaluable journalistic skill. For her and her contemporaries, it is now just a case of pressing the play button and repeating what came out. The journalism of idleness. Send for any bank clerk.

This was an opportunity thrown away. What a shame. In the same issue, I found that another woman journalist was talking to Derek Jameson – which also surprised me. What does she know about not bribing policemen, Sid Yobbo and learning to read from the cartoon strips in the Daily Mirror?

I think we should be told.

John Slim


Back to back to backwards

IT is only fairly recently that I have been aware of people saying back to back when they mean either successive or in succession.

Why do they do these things?

I know that we have a living language, but at least the changes we inflict upon it ought to be important, rather than inexplicable. This one is the latest irritant to have leapt at me, mainly from my television set, mainly from football commentators. It does not represent progress. This is back to back to backwards. Unnecessary. Absurd.

And anyway, how can things be in succession if they are back to back? If you're back to back, neither follows the other. You move in opposite directions. Why don't commentators understand? What's their problem?

All right, I know we say that a cow is in calf when we mean that a calf is in cow, but why do we say more importantly when we are comparing what we are about to say with what we have just said – and when what we should say is more important? More important, that is, than what we have just said.

It's an adjective, not an adverb. It's an adjective describing something that is about to come. But no, the in thing these days for the overpaid ignoramuses on television and radio is to say more importantly.

The occasional playwright does it as well, and hapless actors voice it for him. These people add two incorrect letters onto important, almost as if this makes the word, and by inference themselves, more important.

It's one of the odder aberrations they inflict on the rest of us.

And when I just said comparing and followed it with with, that was because I was underlining the difference between two things. That's what the with means – but time after time we hear compare to when a speaker tries to express just such a difference.

Compare to means liken to, as Shakespeare knew when he asked, Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Compare with means contrast with. It's quite different, quite straightforward and quite simple, but again it appears to be beyond our broadcasting betters.

A more recent nonsense is with regards to. With regards to? With regards to whom? Auntie Jane?

What are they on about? It is only comparatively recently that somebody first tacked an S onto regard in this particular phrase, but now there are increasing legions of language-manglers at it.

With regards to is already a well-established ploy in the world of letter-writing. It's a letter-writing sign-off that speaks of affection for a third party and it does it concisely and very well. What it does not mean is that another subject is about to come up for consideration, which is the meaning of with regard to, which it is now being so determinedly made to usurp.

I hope somebody finds another name for English when we've destroyed it.

John Slim


Amateur: say it with pride

THERE'S a theatre word that should particularly interest a lexicographer. Amateur. It has such disparate meanings.

 The pleasant meaning is applied to someone who performs without payment. The not-so-pleasant version is apt to be spoken with ill-disguised contempt, either by theatregoers  who would not dream of darkening the doorstep of an amateur production or by a professional who considers himself to be beyond and far above such a label and is trying to forget that that is how he started.

 These are the lofty lip-curlers who for no good reason other than ignorance have self-elevated to higher climes. The professional amnesiac should be ashamed of himself.

Even if he went to drama school, he probably also did a stint in which village hall productions were the order of the day and they taught him a lot if he was intelligent enough to assimilate it.

Representing the other wing of the attack upon amateurs is the theatregoer who is accustomed only to plush seats. He has probably never seen an amateur production, let alone taken part in one; never seen loyal group members tidying away the chairs at the closing of the curtains. He has no idea of the heights to which amateurs can soar, nor of the impressive sound and lighting effects that frequently accompany their ventures.


 His contempt may be likened to the tale that Shakespeare would have recognised as being told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. He squawks the squawk but has never walked the walk; never bought a ticket at the temporary box office, let alone participated in an amateur production.  

 His ignorance ensures that he has no idea that there are still places where being an amateur is rightly a matter of pride. As far as I have been able to ascertain, they are largely in the North of England where amateur groups do not hesitate to include the word in their name. Leeds Amateur Operatic Society is one of them.  Its productions at the West Yorkshire Playhouse have a quality that explains why amateur is worn as a badge of honour.

Its members don't give a damn that amateur invests their group with an acronym that has overtones of south-east Asia. In their own area, they are known both as Leeds Amateurs and as The Amateurs, and LAOS is a short-form that is a matter of pride.

Even so, wherever amateur is invoked, its frequent effect is to lengthen the label – unnecessarily. Most patrons know that they are seeing an amateur production, and there is a requirement – admittedly, largely ignored – that publicity should include the words an amateur production.

Not necessary. Though classification may be rather more difficult with a large-scale amateur production in a big theatre, a village hall audience knows all too well that those who are entertaining it are not being paid for their pains – quite apart from the circumstance of having friends in the cast and being invited to buy raffle tickets in the foyer.

There is plenty of room for pride in being an amateur. Long may this continue. There is also plenty of reason for ensuring that the scoffers are shown the error of their ways – by being dragged screaming, if necessary, to one of the many productions which every year underline the quality that is taken for granted by those who are not stupid enough to condemn without sampling.

John Slim


A busy time for teeth and axes

MODERN music stirs little response in me, apart from the intermittent moment when I am moved to wonder why it contains so little that is in any danger of being described as musical. 

I am the one who is wont to wander about the house, appalling my wife with my individual but not-very-tuneful renderings of Slow Boat to China and Right, Said Fred. This, I should explain, is the same wife who is unable to resist the temptation to urge me to try to forget Over the Hill and Faraway Places. 

So two of Worcestershire's theatres were in with a pretty good chance of persuading me to sit up and take notice when I realised that they are about to begin luring the patrons with reminders of what was going on in the1960s and1980s. 

On Thursday, March 1, the Forum Theatre, Malvern, presents The Tremeloes,   Herman's Hermits, The Union Gap and The Dreamers – they who were originally led by the late Freddie Garrity – in an evening labelled The Sensational 60s Experience. 

And a week later, on March 8, Worcester's Swan Theatre comes up with a spot of non-musical nostalgia in the form of Phil Cool. Remember the man with the rubber face? The man who, in the 1980s, changed in an instant from Bill Clinton to George Bush to Tony Blair to Gordon Brown to Bugs Bunny? 

One of his impressionist successors, Alistair McGowan, says it was seeing Cool that prompted him to do impressions. Another, Jon Culshaw, is grateful that he made him miss his A-level homework. 

Sadly, although Cool must clearly be credited with unplanned involvement in encouraging Messrs Culshaw and McG to fly the impressionist flag, he himself is no longer seen on television – and he reckons it is because he is now in his mid-sixties and realises he must be up against the ageism for which the BBC is famed and repeatedly reviled.  

I know that nostalgia isn't what it used to be, but I also realise that I am not the only viewer who is glad that axe-grinding and the gnashing of teeth will never go out of fashion – because they are needed more than ever, now that television so often prompts the feeling that it has no intention of showing how successfully bygone glories compare with the often fleeting triumphs of latter-day wonderkids.

John Slim


Astrophe unforgotten. Thanks, Uggi.

Remember Peter 'The Cat' Bonetti - well this is Astrophe - the original cat between the sticks

ASTROPHE was the name. Three syllables. Sounding a bit posh. We thought it a good idea at the time, because he was our cat Astrophe.

He was A Good Thing; an Action Cat who progressed to being A Memorable Animal. He was Astrophe the All Right.

He was our first pet, 56 years ago, in 1956; the first of several felines to rule the marital roost down the years. His successors all had their qualities, but none of them was a footballer.

Astrophe became a footballer – but more specifically a goalkeeper, because his footwork did not qualify him to be an outfield player.

He also became a goalkeeper because he coincided with our custody of a wicker wastepaper basket of the kind that used to feature prominently in school classrooms.

The idea was that the basket would be put on its side and we would say, “Go into goal!” – and when he crouched to guard the big round circle with which he had been entrusted we would make a ball of paper, tightly bound by an elastic band, and hurl it in the general direction of the wickerwork.

Astrophe  at full stretch in his black and white kit with a daring leap to flick a  paper ball  dangerously floated into the area safely over the wall

Sadly, there is no picture of Astrophe in charge of his recumbent basket – just a couple of memories of him practising in the very early days, disporting on the earthen heap that was to become a suitably slabbed patio.

Astrophe came to mind with The Artist, the mostly-silent movie featuring Uggi, the Jack Russell terrier with a penchant for walking on his hind legs, playing dead, or putting his chin on the floor and his backside in the air.

 I can't tell you the essence of the plot because I became an Uggi groupie on the instant. Everything else was an unneeded extra.

I am a sucker for acting animals; the first to breathe a silent “Aaaah!” when a tiny pooch is pushed out from the wings and whizzes across the stage to be scooped into the waiting arms of the young actress who awaits him in The Wizard of Oz or some other production involving a four-footed chum.

Astrophe never made the big-time. He never bestrode a stage. He was simply a very special small-time cat. And Uggi has suddenly brought him back into my brain cell.

John Slim


Sorry – but I'm apostrophising

HERE we go again.

Another barmy brickbat is hurled at our lovely language. Another opportunity is afforded for linguistic know-nothings to claim that their ignorance doesn't matter after all, because an organisation that is up to its neck in English literature is pretending that it doesn't know any better and it wants to claim some street cred.

But perhaps Waterstone's thinks it can hang on to shelves full of Eng lit while abandoning Eng lang. Can it really be a pulveriser as well as a purveyor?

If it can, it's another nail in the coffin of anybody's hopes to give slight pause to the daily mayhem meted out to the most beautiful language in the world by the gonna-gorra-wonna wonderkids who bash my ears on the BBC and whom I would be ashamed to support if I were not so deep into the sere and yellow that by now I can catch them at it without having to buy a licence.

The dismal reality is that Waterstone's is now officially apostrophe-free. Mr Waterstone, who was presumably responsible for launching his outsize bookstore and has until now been apostrophically proud to indicate that he owned it, has gone plural, though he gives no indication of how many of him there now are.

His apostrophe is officially banished. Mr Waterstone wants to be Waterstones and more “web-friendly.” Do I detect an imminent bid for the presidency of the (apostrophe-free) Greengrocers Shops Federation?

But why is it more important to be on chummy terms with the increasingly all-pervasive web than with English? Is the internet to be the ultimate arbiter of communication, as well as the purveyor of porn and countless other goodies?

I think we should be told.

John Slim


The drawbacks of spilling the beans

WHEN is asparagus a green bean?

It's possibly an unlikely question, but it seems that the saga of television's Downton Abbey was faced with an anguish of etiquette. Nobody knew how to eat asparagus in the context of the early 20th Century. Naturally, the series has an historical adviser, but he was not available when he was needed to resolve the particular problem. Sod's Law had struck again.

Apparently, so it has been reported, opinion was divided into three camps – using fingers, using forks, or using “something else.”

It is perhaps not the sort of issue that is likely to prompt empires to totter. Even so, understandably confident that there was bound to be an unimpressed taxpayer out there somewhere, waiting to pounce if they got it wrong, there was behind-the-scenes anxiety – compounded when it became clear that not even Julian Fellowes knew the answer, though I am not certain why it was assumed that he might know, just because he wrote the series and was misguided enough to put asparagus into the mix.

Anyway, he didn't know – and this, so I read, “caused a hiccup during filming.” So, with the urgent resourcefulness that makes us proud to be British, it was decided that all those actors pretending to be toffs would have to be joined by sliced asparagus that was pretending to be green beans.

This makes me realise that we are faced with a question that is begging to be begged. I can't begin to work out why, in that case, the silver tureen could not have contained, er, green beans. Then any reference to asparagus could have been deftly removed from the script, with Baron Fellowes of West Stafford urged to be less fanciful next time. Asparagus, forsooth!

But this was not done and the only reason that springs to mind is that such a substitution would inevitably have separated the company from asparagus and its aftermath, which is that – compared with spilling the beans – it does add a pong to the eater's outpourings. I can only guess that Lord Fellowes and his fellows did not want to forgo the pleasure of swapping their urinary findings.

Just briefly, and just as if they had been eating asparagus, they all turned up their noses.

John Slim


Let's acclaim the man of the caff

YEARS ago, in the magazine of the National Operatic & Dramatic Association (NODA), I drew attention to a citizen who should have been the centrepiece of a stage comedy.

Alas, my words fell, if not on deaf ears then on blind eyes. Nothing has happened in the interim to indicate that playwrights have been rushing in what would be the theatrical equivalent of the January sales. All that puzzles me is how blind eyes can have looked a gift horse in the mouth.

I was, and I am, talking about Pete. Pete, the raucous restaurateur; Pete, the compact character who presided, throatily and nasal, high priest of the tea urn, over the Worcestershire transport caff to which a colleague and I used to repair every day to enjoy the best cuppa in town – and the one-man entertainment that unfailingly accompanied it.

Restaurateur is pitching it a bit high. Caff is indeed more correct. The scrubbed pine tables were parallel with the spotless stainless steel ramparts that were Pete's vantage point, from behind which he maintained a conversational barrage that skewered his customers where they sat. Regulars, who popped in every day for the badinage as much as the brew, had the additional pleasure of seeing strangers adopt a mien of wide-eyed uncertainty when they faced his decibel-charged onslaught for the first time.

Not that there was anything frightening about Pete. Indeed, he was a comfortable, comforting character – stocky, bow-fronted, 15 stones by 5ft 6in, with forearms like hams. But his public persona did tend to hit the patrons full-on. They had no room for manoeuvre, nowhere to run.

Behind the barrage, however, this was the most joyously gentle of citizens, just as liable to enquire solicitously about a regular's newborn baby as he was to unleash a rip-snorting riposte or his highly-personalised verdict on the weather.


He offered a virtually continuous running commentary to the world at large while his customers speared their steaming platefuls of fried egg, bacon, sausage, mushrooms and tomatoes, topped by a tsunami of brown sauce.

The patrons were wont to pause in their confrontation with a bacon butty, the better to assimilate the tidings that washed over them from behind the gleaming tea urn.

First-time visitors paled appreciatively in the face of the unstoppable tide that was Pete at full throttle; Pete, presenting an avalanche of amiability that included confidential asides barely audible on the other side of the street if last man in had omitted to shut the door.

I would have loved to see the Pope step aside just once, switch off a suddenly unnecessary  microphone, and entrust Pete with an Orbis et urbe.

Pete was the unchallenged master of ceremonies; the full-on front man; the man of many insults, all offered – and accepted – in the spirit of gargantuan goodwill that pervaded Pete's Café. He snarled his sneers – always harmless, good-humoured sneers – in a high-decibel groan that defied you to ignore it as he reached for an aluminium teapot of bucket proportions.

His po-faced whispers hurtled into every corner, interrupted only when he paused to shout “Sausage sengwich” over his shoulder, in order that the elderly, white-coated women forming his back-up battalion in the kitchen should have no doubt about the latest requirements for a further supply of the wonderful, fat-running fodder that came clamped between two white-bread doorstops while high-pressure epithets hurtled past their ears like bucketed gravel.


Not that Pete's adjectival arsenal was in danger of being compared to the abysmal flurries of four-letter filth that television aims at our sitting-rooms on a nightly basis, courtesy of speakers unable to master their native tongue or control their own.

No, Pete's epithetical parade, though impressive, was sanguinary, rather than copulative. He was a bloody and a bleedin' man, totally free of malice; a sanguinary Horatio at his bridge of egg-and-bacon abundance.

Alas, he and his characterful domain were joys of the 1960s, now long-gone and surely lamented by others who, like me, were beneficiaries of a gentle but no-nonsense citizen who ruled his little empire with a tongue of iron.

All of which, I trust, may have gone some way to indicate that I think that if a playwright were to reincarnate Pete he would instantly enliven yet another play that would otherwise be full of cardboard characters – characters of no depth or interest or, er, character, whose only justification for existence is in some way to flesh out the plot. A latterday Pete would work wonders.

Into Pete's unassuming empire one day came one of his regular customers. Having had his cup of tea and quietly enjoyed the current entertainment, he got up to leave.  As he opened the door, he called over his shoulder: “Cheerio, Pete!”

The high priest paused in his tea-towel ministrations to newly-washed crockery and watched the small retreating figure. Then he growled his benediction.

“Ta-rar!” he roared. “Mind yer arse on the step.”

John Slim


We've drawn the short straw, chaps

ONCE upon a time, when men were men and women were glad of it, there was no question about who wore the trousers. Men did. 

That was when women were women and wore floaty frocks and men were prone to be delighted. 

By prone, incidentally I mean liable – not the opposite of supine; not, as I see I may have been interpreted, lying on their front, in the expectation of delight that might be coming their way. Alas, televised footballers are for ever falling over and lying on their back and nevertheless being described as prone by under-instructed commentators. 

Alas again, and à propos the floaty frocks I was pondering before being summarily distracted, sexual equality means that women now wear the trousers, too. Legs have been sacrificed on the altar, oddly enough, of feminism – that is, of females' right to look like men if they want to. 

Women make up their own minds. Women know what they want. And if women want to lose their legs, we mere males have to let them get on with it. It is women who are the smarty-pants. There are no flies on women. Nor on their smarty-pants, either, for that matter. 


Equality of the sexes means there need now be no reason why a man shouldn't be able to ask whether his bum looks big in this. In fact, I'm certain that, somewhere in this once green and pleasant land, there must be a genial joker who has already done so – and probably been berated for his pains by ladies who don't like to see one of their favourite lines being stolen by the lads. 

In the female form-book, equality does not confer the right to steal a quote, any more than it paves the way for pinching a bottom. Slice us where you like, it is we men who have drawn the short straw. 

It's all right with me if the girls feel the need to take to trousers. I just wish they knew that there are trousers which are neither black nor denim, and that far too many of them are large economy size and filled to the brim – but who among us is brave enough to break any of this to them? 

I first became aware of trousered women in the early years of the war. Women went fighting on the home front in munitions factories. They had trousers at one end, knotted headscarves at the other and a cigarette somewhere between. Those were the years when ladies lost their legs to the practicalities and their hearts to the GIs. 

By now, female leg-wear can have a special elegance, especially when it comes with bell-bottoms at one end and a belle bottom that's shaped to distraction-point at the other. 

So why, suddenly, am I distracted?  

I honestly don't know – unless it's because I have just begun remembering the ra-ra skirt.

John Slim


A new era for Action Man

A SURPRISING story of Christmas Past came my way in the course of the recent festivities.  

One of the celebratory citizens present related the tale of a child who was a reluctant recipient of Tiny Tears, a doll whom I remember as being all the rage at one time but who as far as I know may well have dropped out of fashion by now, overwhelmed by competition from the electronic marvels that are wont to fill today's toy-boxes.  

For some reason, the aforesaid infant was in no mood to adopt the inoffensive TT – who was promptly subjected to a severe haircut and deposited in a military uniform for immediate resurrection as Action Man. 

Alas, this was an Action Man who needed bottle-feeding and repeatedly had to have his nappy changed. Hardly manoeuvres of a military kind, but I understand that there were no complaints from the victim of what was surely something new in the matter of transgender torment.

John Slim


Dead men don't make us happy

WHAT a wonderful woman he is! To the point of being Queenly, indeed.

It is the impish and irrepressible Gyles Brandreth, doppelganger for Queen Mary – Mary of Teck, Victoria Mary Augusta Louise Olga Pauline Claudine Agnes, to give King George V's Queen, grandmother of Queen Elizabeth, her full dues – in her middle years.

In the poster, there are pearls dropping from his ears, strings of them in all their glory on his new-bosomed chest as he supports a china cup and saucer in his white-gloved hands, little pinky up and to the fore. All the accoutrements.

Not that this is a Brandreth with regina-like pretensions – but he certainly brings to mind such adored divinities as Dames Edith Evans and Maggie Smith, who are among those to have preceded him as Lady Bracknell, fearsome and inspirational creation of Oscar Wilde.

The irrepressible Brandreth became Bracknell, lock, stock and barrel, in the cause of the new musical version of The Importance of Being Earnest at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith. He learned to master high heels and become accustomed to a corset and stockings, though confessedly less happy with his new bosom and failing to understand why any woman can ever opt for an inconvenient enlargement.

He learned to walk like a woman (head held high), sit like a woman (knees together), eat like a woman (smaller mouthfuls and less noise) and make sure he had no conversational boom. There was even the inconvenience of moisturising morning and night, and it was All for Art.

In the bar afterwards, he was visibly tired. Not the happy, zippy citizen who has found his way from fancy sweaters to National Treasure. I told him it was time to slow down somewhat and that I didn't want the low-point of my ninth decade to be the need for writing his obituary.

He promised to rest, be it never so briefly. So at least that's something. Dead men don't spread happiness.

John Slim


We all put our foot in it sometimes

MY friend Anne, with whom I tend to occupy the nave end of the back pew when I go  to church for my weekly kneel, said she hoped I didn't mind mentioning this, but had I had a look at my shoes?

Well, no, I hadn't, but I did –and realised fairly quickly what had prompted her question. On one foot I was wearing a polished brown leather shoe. On the other was a shoe that was suede – apart from which, it was dark grey.

This is something I have never achieved before, and as I freely confessed to Anne while we went on waiting for the kick-off, I am not at all sure how I managed it this time.

My main concern at this point was to hide my feet beneath the 12 ft-long retractable kneeler and eventually to escape without presenting the unsuspecting faithful with a sighting of the unco-ordinated footwear – so I skipped Communion, waited until all was ended and we had the OK to go in peace, and shot out to the car park, staying not upon the order of my going. I decided to forgo calling for my Sunday paper.

I have had other memorable shoe moments, even discounting the time I went to the theatre in my slippers. One was many years ago, during a long-gone English seaside holiday. Elsa and I were taking the mixed infants for a walk, and the strap of one of my sandals broke. The only way of keeping it on was by clenching my toes and defying it to slip off. This inevitably resulted in my walking as best I could with an outsize limp.

As Elsa was at that time facing the world with an upper lip that was sporting a large-economy-size herpes, we began to look like an outing of cripples who had escaped from the local leper colony.


Another happened back in the 1960s. It was actually nothing to do with me, but it impressed me sufficiently to ensure that I have remembered it for nearly half a century. This, for a citizen who habitually struggles to remember yesterday, is going some.

I was walking gently along an otherwise-deserted street in Redditch and was intrigued to see a woman's shoe – small, perfectly formed and in good condition, standing on the pavement just in front of me.  Almost at once, from behind me, a car drew up, a door opened and a woman's voice shouted, “Here it is!” – at which point, I realised that, with no effort on my part, I had found the shoe's owner.

Here, suddenly, was a young woman who hopped, one-shoed, out of the car, picked up the solitary piece of mystery footwear, jumped back in and disappeared from my life for ever. Fifty years later, I am no nearer to understanding how she had come to leave it there in the first place.

I do not claim a monopoly of shoe moments, of course. Most recently, I have heard of two gentlemen called Col and John who are similar in height, physique and shoe sizes. Occasionally they have what they call a “session”, when they sit, drink and reminisce. 

Earlier this year when the snow was still around, they decided to have a session at Col's house, so John took the precaution of using his cycle.  At the end of the evening they were both somewhat well-lubricated.  Eventually, Col made his way to bed and told John to let himself out.

John left the house but had difficulty putting on his safety helmet before setting off for home. He was probably not unduly surprised when he fell off his bike. He later said it was like poetry in (slow) motion. 

When he hit the ground, his helmet came off – which allowed him to see that his gloves were nestling inside it, offering mute explanation of his recent problems in ensconcing his head. When he came round at home later that morning, he realised he was wearing one of his own shoes and one of his friend's.

If the shoe fits – wear it. That's what I say. After all, perhaps you will be the only one who will ever know.

John Slim


The bygone joy of Gerard

THE oafs who sully the fair name of stand-up comedy have even more to answer for than I realised.

An early arrival into my Christmas stocking was Gerard Hoffnung with The Bricklayer's Story, attractively primed in CD format and plastic casing, as a replacement for the version which for years has been giving me so many chuckles in its cassette form.

Naturally anxious to introduce a bygone joyful genius to a generation that has never heard of him – they're called grandchildren, since you ask – I used the opportunity occasioned by having eight of my nine in one room at the same time, and switched on.

What I got was blank looks from the uninhibitedly uninterested. Uninterested, of course, is what the Daily Mail's army of the employed but uninformed habitually refers to as disinterested. Not the same thing at all, but don't tell ۥem: I've a mind to see how many times they do it in 2012 and I might even run a small sweepstake on it.

But back to oafs and grandchildren.

My pre-seasonal failure to engender joy among the junior set brought into sharp focus the culpable clowns who masquerade as comedians and are largely responsible for my suspicion that F has replaced E as the most used letter in the language.

How much has this cost today's youngsters – the particular bunch under review are aged 12 to 19 – in their ability to appreciate humour that is clever and measured, rather than foul and inyerface? (Inyerface is three words that I've turned into one, and for which my computer screen is quietly shouting at me, but I think it's a good word and one that deserves to survive because it says what it means. When will The Oxford Dictionary discover it?).

The Bricklayer's Story is related by Hoffnung in the beautifully controlled and rounded tones that vested him with years of undisputable authority despite the fact that he was only 33 when he unveiled it at the Oxford Union in 1958 – the year before he died.


It is, in brief, the story of how the bricklayer “fixed the building.” It involves a barrel of bricks, a rope and a pulley. It tells how the bricklayer, standing on the ground, “cast off the line”, causing the barrel to plummet to the ground while the bricklayer, who had “decided to hang on” hurtled upwards.

Halfway up, he met the barrel coming down. . . and when the barrel hit the ground, it burst at its bottom, causing all the bricks to spill out. The bricklayer, who by this time had banged his head on the beam and got his fingers jammed in the pulley, was now heavier than the barrel. . .

And so calamity continues. This is a masterclass in making people laugh. It is absurdity encased in an oratorical delivery and punctuated with pauses that are so beautifully timed that they let the audience get ahead of the story and thus have two laughs for the price of one.

But I suspect that you have to be over 35 to picture the scenario, let alone appreciate it.

Which brings me back to our stand-up slobs. They have the impression that the F word is bound to guarantee uninhibited hilarity among the faithful – and, incredibly but sadly, they are right. Alongside computer games, they are responsible for a generation without imagination and which wouldn't see subtlety if it was served with toast and treacle.

It's such a shame. Every day, we are seeing and hearing the destruction of a beautiful language.

John Slim


The day the Arras dodged me

LIFE is for ever leading me down side streets and into side issues. It decides it is time to tell me something, and it tells me without so much as a by-your-leave.

This means, lucky you, that I can now tell you about beh.

I now know all about beh because I was misguided enough to think that if I simply typed beh it would save me all those extra letters in Behind the Arras. After all, I visit Arras and all its works frequently enough: surely Cyberspace is by this time alert to my moods and preferences.

So yes, I simply typed beh.

What an idle clown! Yes, I saved having to type another 11 letters – and two spaces – but I still have not reached Behind the Arras, because I have been distracted. I'm not complaining, because the result is that I can now tell you that beh occurs when an Australian tries to say bear.


Moreover, I can also tell you that whoever is telling me this has got into something of a mess with his next sentence: “They tend to refuse it make you feel bad for telling them they can't speak proper English.”

Er. . ?

Whoever this is (who worries about people who can't speak proper English and who unfortunately can't speak proper English and may even be Australian) is saying refuse it make when he presumably means use it to make – lending support to my belief that words are always in charge and that we are as clay in their hands.

But the really interesting bit is the bit that follows:

“Since Australians are weird, they can't pronounce their R's, so they fail at life. Try to get them to say other words that end with er, like pear. If you get them to yell at you, try to record it and play it to humiliate them.”

Whoever this is (again) mentions words that end with er, then quotes pear as an example. And anyway, how often am I going to get an Australian to say pear by goading him into shouting at me? Pear does not strike me as a word that is liable to invite vituperation. Pear is something to tempt the taste buds; a gentle word that speaks of succulence while rhyming with other kindly words like care and fair.

But this is yet another side issue. Life is at it again.

John Slim


How's your time bomb?

IT IS just possible that every amateur theatre group in Britain is sitting on a time bomb.

How's that for an opening sentence to inspire stuff-strutting thespians with the need to read?

And there's more – because the bomb could go off at any time.

Having said that, I also have to say that it seems pretty unlikely that any explosion likely to trigger dismay and a licking of wounds is going to happen any time soon.

Nevertheless, the late Lord Baden Powell might have been moved to urge us to Be Prepared, so I'm stepping in as his understudy – and hoping somehow to miss the minefield of political correctness that is likely to face me as soon as I mention that what I have in mind is wheelchairs.

I am not saying a word against wheelchairs. Wheelchairs are wonderful. They bring physical activity those who have to use them. One of them is to be found scoring a great success at the heart of The Man Who Came to Dinner – the film of which prompted a delighted cinemagoer to write: “I noticed a scene in which Ann Sheridan is wearing a see-thru blouse. You could clearly see her breast. She isn't wearing a bra. I'm surprised that the censor did not see this. (I'm glad).”

Reverting however, to wheelchairs, it has to be recognised that The Man Who Came to Dinner is merely Wheelchair Pretend, not to be confused with real life. In real life, it is only the very occasional rogue who proves demonstrably able to use his legs by making a run for it when the law is about to catch up with him. The general rule in real life is that people in wheelchairs really need them.


On the other hand, and this is what amateur groups may not have realised, it is always possible in real life that a wheelchair user may ask to join their ranks. And then what?

Will he be accepted, but then have his contribution limited to The Man Who Came to Dinner? What will political correctness have to say about that? Will he become a wheelchair wanderer? Will he accept the need to become a ready-made sit-in wherever The Man Who Came to Dinner is on somebody's schedule, but otherwise to be told that the casting is completed?

All of which begs the next question: where should groups' loyalty lie? How many committees have even considered the possibility that someone in a wheelchair might seek membership – and if such an application is received, how should they react?

The prospect of a real-life wheelchair will probably frighten them to death – because with it comes another question: is their group's first loyalty to its membership or to the paying patrons?

That's not an easy one. And at its heart is yet another question: should people in wheelchairs be given roles that were not written for people in wheelchairs?

If we're all for the quiet life, the answer is probably Yes. But behind it is another uncomfortable question: if, with all the commendable goodwill in the world, it says Yes, is it letting down the audience that had possibly not realised that it was paying to see people in wheelchairs? Is it short-changing the very people upon whom it relies for support? I ask again: is its first duty to its members or its audience?


Yes, it's a minefield, and I suspect I may have triggered an explosion or two already.

Each group, if faced with the question of where its loyalty lies, has to make up its own mind. Like me, it will probably be delighted that people whom life has dealt an unfair hand are determined to cock a snook at its gross unkindness.

Like me, they will probably also realise that patrons who did not realise they were paying to see wheelchairs may possibly recoil in modified rapture.

More than a decade ago, I saw a production containing wheelchairs – wheelchairs that were actually needed by their users to enable them to cope with life. The play was a home-grown venture set in Sherwood Forest in the time of the late Robin Hood. One of them was electricity-powered, which added another unexpected but less important dimension to the one that has bothered me ever since.

The real question, the important question, is the one that I am sure has until now never crossed the consciousness of many groups: if someone has filled in an application form but turns up in a wheelchair, what shall we do?

They need to have their answer ready.

John Slim


All a pose for chopped-up prose

I SUPPOSE you could call anal, banal and canal the ABC of a poet's despair. They look so similar – indeed, they're virtually identical – but you can't make them rhyme with each other or come anywhere to doing so.

But there's always the silver lining. Fortunately for poets these days, rhyme is of no more concern than rhythm is. The day it occurred to one of them that it's far less work to chop up a chunk of prose and call it poetry was the day that creativity was subsumed by sloth. Now everybody's at it.

That's why a modern poet, if so moved, could churn out something in which successive lines ended in flange, filthy, fondle, sixty, seventy, ninety, else and eschscholzia.

It wouldn't matter a damn that these are among the legions of words which make nonsense of the myth that orange, cushion and month are the only words in English that don't rhyme with any other word, while overlooking the slightly inconvenient circumstance that orange manages to rhyme with lozenge.

These days, rhyme is of no concern for a man in search of his muse. Give him his keyboard and watch the stanzas tumble forth, rhyme-free and uncontaminated by cadence. Easy!

I suppose it's a symbol of modern society. Avoid work at all costs. Not, as far as I know, that you can go on benefits for failing to write a poem. You'd have to find some other dodge, which is a bit of a shame. Some slight travail involved there, mate. Not fair.


But it's interesting that among the words that won't rhyme with anything are poem, poet and poetry. At least, it strikes me as interesting. In opting for isolationism, these are words that offer undeserved support to the improbable poets who recoil from rhyme like a schoolboy from soap.

Cut the cadence, chaps, we're going freestyle! And now we have lost Wordsworth and the boys, three little words have pinched the labels that match the idle mission.

Alas, it is a ploy that has backfired pretty profoundly. Hurray, came the unabashed cry, if poet won't rhyme with anything, why should a poet try to force the issue?

I am sure that the possibility of such an outcome did not remotely occur to the words which then found that they had been hijacked – and this is surprising.

After all, words usually know precisely what they're up to. They realised an age ago that today's poetry did not deserve to be dignified by labels that rhymed with any other word, because this is poetry that has turned its back on rhyme and from which metre has gone missing.

Nevertheless, poem, poet and poetry cannot have foreseen that in abstaining from rhyme they would come to symbolise the sloth of modern verse.

Me? I just wish somebody would find a poet brave enough to vest his verse in honesty and make its lines form a natural unbroken succession. And call it prose.

John Slim


Dumbing down, the Amdram way 

THE nightmare of forgetting the words must surely weigh on those who bravely go forth nightly and expose themselves to the pitfalls of performance.

This is something of which I have no first-hand knowledge. Obviously, like any other habitual supporter of the amateur stage, I have heard the sibilant whisper from the wings that follows momentary amnesia. But my own appearances on stage have been strictly limited.

There were two of them. They found me as an uncommunicative shepherd hanging on to his crook on behalf of a mixed infants Nativity production; and about a year later, aged six, as The Wind, whose responsibility was to slip into a crotch-length pale blue shantung frock with a serrated hemline and make the flowers grow.

This involved whizzing on and wailing “Whooooo!” – apart from which, my one-boy breeze could not be accused of being a conversationalist. I remained silent, at one with the late Stout Cortez upon his peak in Darien.

It is therefore perhaps not surprising that I have not sought to unleash any slight semblance of amateur acting talent upon a startled world in all the years in which I have been required to try somehow or other to make myself useful.

Even so, I feel constrained to voice my despair at the appalling shorthand that is used to describe amateur theatre.


Amdram and amateur dramatics are dreadful – and I say this, even though amdram was the quick and easy short-form with which I labelled my amateur stage columns for 27 years on behalf of The Birmingham Post & Mail at the tail end of my years in more conventional journalism, when I had been found making myself a nuisance to citizens as disparate as Enoch Powell, Alec Douglas-Home and Mohammed Ali. 

It is the dramatics bit that I find particularly appalling – despite my discovery that it appears in my dictionary as meaning dramatic productions, alongside histrionic behaviour. It's a word in which I detect no appeal whatever, and the same goes for operatics.

For me, dramatics sounds like the shorthand of contempt, a disparaging, get-it-over-quickly reference to a subject that respectable folk really ought not to talk about at all – which of course is not remotely true of one of Britain's most popular hobbies or occupations.

Operatics is open to the same criticism. Moreover, unlike dramatics, it is not recognised by my dictionary.

I would like to see both terms banished to the outer darkness, or at least into the wings – and certainly by those who have made amateur theatre their hobby. Instead, it is the very practitioners who use them habitually. There is no hint of a tide of change that would see such aberrations washed up on the rocks of repentance and regret.

Amdram, meanwhile, is the journalistic short form for amateur drama and is habitually recognised as embracing thespians who enter stage-left singing their heads off, as well as those who are not required to make their vocal cords hit the heights or the depths.


As far as I know, however, it has not broached the glossary of terms habitually employed by its practitioners – either the straight-play folk or the people who are wont to warble. As far as they are concerned, whatever they do, it isn't amdram. And this is good, because amdram is the shorthand of shoddiness.

This is why amdram does not pain me to anything like the extent that amateur dramatics does. I hear amateur dramatics spoken, and I see it written, by the very people who take enjoyment from their involvement, but who seem to me to be taking a contemptuous swipe at their hobby, even though it is an unconscious one – and by doing so, to be joining forces with its detractors.

And, sadly, there are many detractors – and amateur dramatics is such a handy tool for the outsiders, the know-nothings, who affect to despise all stage work that is not professional and who would not dream of darkening the doorstep of any of the hundreds of excellent amateur productions that could show them the error of their ways six nights of the week.

All right, I must be a super-sensitive soul. Even so, amateur thespians ought to avoid this unthinking belittling of their chosen hobby. The more they throw amateur dramatics into the conversational melting-pot, the harder the opprobrium will stick – and in the end it will be no more than its practitioners deserve.

John Slim


Time to cuss the custodes

I UNDERSTAND that it was an ancient Roman poet, or possibly Plato the bygone Greek, who was moved to ask Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Was it Rome's Juvenal – or was it Plato parading his mastery of Latin and leaving the rest of us to work out that he wanted to know who watches out for the guards and keeps an eye on the baby-sitters?

Pardon my classical outburst. It's just that I have finally confirmed for my own satisfaction that some of the people who set examination papers for schools are indisputably barmy.

For years, the rest of us have watched the steady dumbing down of GSCE and its preparatory questions, ensuring that our universities are in danger of being overwhelmed by an ever-increasing tide of grossly unsuitable applicants, including even those for whom a course in remedial English has to be made available when they arrive there.

And now, heaven help us, there are exam-setters who have reached what will surely remain for some time a landmark in their inexorable progress towards certifiable insanity.

I see that Year 10 students at a North London school have been required to handle a mock spoken English language examination involving  the crackpot crudities vouchsafed in 2008 by Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, well-known alleged funnymen, on the answerphone of Andrew Sachs, the actor who charmed a nation as the hapless waiter Miguel in Fawlty Towers.

Their wit and wisdom has become essential reading for fourteen-year-olds who have been required to study and absorb it as the current stage in what the cognoscenti are pleased to call their education.


The head teacher of the school concerned made a spirited but specious defence by claiming that it was no more coarse or vulgar than Shakespeare – clearly overlooking the fact that Shakespeare dealt either with the dead or with fictional subjects – and suggested in any case that the test paper was all about language and was totally appropriate to the real world in which children live.

Lest you forget, and who shall blame you, the ever-twinkling twosome under review left their sick messages during a BBC Radio 2 show, to the effect that Brand had slept with Georgina Baillie, the burlesque dancer granddaughter of Andrew Sachs, the gentle veteran whose duties required him to be intermittently hit on the head with a tin tray by Basil Fawlty.

They did not put it in quite the genteel terms that I have deployed, naturally, and they provoked more than 50,000 complaints, which led to Ross's suspension and Brand's resignation.

My doubts about the sanity of examiners are prompted by the realisation that more than one school chose this same snide snippet as appropriate for assessing pupils' mastery of English in their mock GSCE exam, and that this particular school moved into the top six per cent of schools in 2001 – when Ofsted awarded it a gold star. Moreover, it was this year applauded as being among the most improved schools in England.

So who does guard us from the guards? Does anybody?

Week by week, we seem to advance further into the swamps of foul-tongued television. There is clearly no caution administered to anyone who is about to go “live” – yet we blithely go on trusting everyone to be civilized in our sitting room.

This, alas, is too much to ask of the average oaf – as the rest of us could have testified, if consulted.

Consultation, alas, is a rare privilege. We are simply required to cough up our licence fees and derive what consolation is possible from cussing the custodes – whose ranks, remember, include the clever-clogs who have decreed that sex education is a must for four-year-olds

John Slim


Sorry, but I can't face Facebook

I HAVE just discovered that I have numerous friends waiting for me. Unfortunately, they are all on Facebook.  

They're very kind, but if I were to be consulted, and at the risk of being deemed to be uncaring, I would have to admit that most of them qualify as acquaintances, rather than friends – and some of them I have never heard of. It's a bit disconcerting. 

It is Facebook itself, having failed to push in my direction any kind of mild enquiry about whether I would like to be offered as a potential recipient for ubiquitous friendship, that has told me of my untimely and clearly undeserved popularity – so perhaps I ought to point out that I have never remotely considered becoming a Facebooker.  

My friends know who they are and I know who they are, but I see little point, if any, in giving away such an embarrassing secret to the world at large – especially when the world at large cannot possibly be interested. Must we, to bend the Bard a bit, hold a candle to our shame? 

I am so remote from Facebook that my computer screen is taken by surprise and underlines it in red on the rare occasions that I type it. It is clear that even my very own know-it-all built-in Big Brother finds no reason whatever to associate me with it. 


Just for the hell of it, I clicked on Facebook and was told that Facebook is a great way to catch up with friends, especially if I've been away for a while.

It may be, but it's not for me. I don't want a wall – for I gather that this is what it is called – on which to scatter my secrets to captivate the curious-but-not-remotely-interested.  

In any case, I am not a mine of undiscovered mysteries, let alone enough of a delusional fathead to assume that everyone beyond my front door will be fascinated to find that I am about to have a toasted teacake.  

My computer has already unforgivably educated me into abandoning letter-writing in favour of emails – though I am fairly confident that I shall never take the next, seemingly unavoidable, step of writing u when I mean you and ur instead of your. I decline to push our beautiful language any more rapidly down the hill that it is already coursing at breakneck speed. Emails do me fine. 

Stephen Fry's is the name that always seems to crop up in relation to Facebook. He, I gather, is a man of many Friends; the Pied Piper of the Lonely Hearts Club. He is well blessed.  

Well, good for him. He is clearly the latter-day example of Homer nodding and he has not yet tired of his fatheaded fad. I know I'm down to my ultimate brain cell, but – undoubtedly to the dismay of millions – I prefer a wall to protect me from the world outside, not to act as a scribble-sheet for everyone who passes by.

John Slim

Roger Clarke adds: You can keep in touch on the move with what John is doing on Behind The Arrras on . . . you guessed it . . .


Tickle my tear ducts. Smash a piano

LET there be no secrets between us. When I sit in a theatre or a cinema, I am a sucker for a sob story.  

Not that I am to be caught flourishing a tear-stained handkerchief with as much frantic furtiveness as I can muster. No, a careless flourish of the forefinger across the eyeball serves its purpose and any residue of dampness can usually be relied upon to sort itself out before the lights go up. 

When I am being entertained, I am one of the world's secret weepers. I may, indeed, sniff under pressure, but it will be a small, silent sniff, broken down into even smaller sniffs to guarantee that my immediate neighbour will not suspect a thing. 

But I am not so good at controlling the old eye-juice in the broad light of day – a failing that was memorably brought home to me several decades ago, when a piano tuner turned up and I was his audience of one. 

I stood alongside him as he sat on the piano stool, and I immediately suspected that I was going to have problems, because he was blind – and because he was such a likeable, happy soul. Life had dealt him a cruel hand, but it was if he didn't give the proverbial damn – and this immediately threatened to do something to my extraordinarily susceptible set of tear-ducts. 

I hardly had to wait a moment before I received confirmation that I was done for. When a happy blind man chooses to regale me with What a Wonderful World, singing to his own accompaniment, I haven't a hope in Hades. 


It is a song that has been with us since Louis Armstrong recorded his gravelly-sweet account of it in 1968. Under any conditions, it is guaranteed to get among my sensibilities on the instant. When it is offered by a blind man who has no idea of the delights that are there for the seeing, because he has never seen them, it is time to surrender while my response mechanism goes into overdrive. 

Piano tuners are special people. As far as I know, they do not complain. They take life as they find it, they sit down and deploy their skills, and they don't expect me to marvel when I am the beneficiary. 

I suspect that piano tuners are rare birds these days – presumably because pianos as a breed were subjected to banal brutality in the cause of piano-smashing competitions back in the 1970s. Ritual wrecking was the order of the day. Without pianos, blind piano tuners are not very necessary. 

Four members of the Robin Hood Karate club in Nottingham must have been so proud of themselves when they smashed a standard upright piano with bare hands and feet in 2 minutes 53 seconds, with every bit of its remains passed through a nine-inch hoop.  

But even their proud feat pales into insignificance compared with the achievement of a 20-year-old apprentice during the Kilsyth Civic Week in Scotland in 1974. He armed himself with a mallet and destroyed a full-sized grand piano before pushing it through a letterbox in two minutes and seven seconds. 

Whatever turns you on, as they say. I prefer a piano to be used as a piano, rather than being pressed into playing – er, second fiddle to a Philistine with an excess of energy.

John Slim


Those operatic parasites

MEMBERS of amateur operatic societies may be roughly divided into two groups – those who do the menial but vital work of clearing up after a show and those who rise with prima donna-like persistence above any contact with such responsibilities; those who strut their not always particularly special stuff on stage and then disport themselves to await the compliments of the sycophantic. 

Oh, yes, there's work to be done in the wake of their latest village hall triumph. They do realise that there's the scenery to shift, the lights, sound equipment and chairs to be removed and the dressing rooms to be cleared. But they also know that somebody else will do that while they go to the bar for a bask. 

And the people who clear up are probably the same people who freely gave their time to install the stuff in the first place – the same people who put all the chairs in place, altered the costumes, adjusted the drapes, ordered and sold the ice cream, distributed the posters and sorted out the programme; the people who do front-of-house and all its ancillaries. After all that, why on earth should such willing workers fret about that extra couple of hours clearing up after the final curtain? It's a puzzle for any parasite, in the unlikely event that any thought of what all those menials are up to actually crosses the parasite mind. 

In any case, these are the loyal labourers who do the jobs whose importance pales in comparison with the contribution of a self-styled star who gets up on stage and warbles the words that somebody else has written; the preening parasite who is not intelligent enough to understand that a production is a team effort and that anyone who does not pitch in to help with the unglamorous bits is a pain in the proverbial. 


Any amateur operatic group that does not have its quota of parasites is very fortunate. But isn't it odd that your average parasite seems not to understand that a production is rather like an iceberg, with more of its vital bits hidden than on display? But perhaps parasites do understand. Perhaps they actually are aware of all the effort that other people have put in to make any starry performance possible – and perhaps they don't care. 

And if they don't care, they are clearly either thick or unspeakably selfish – perhaps both: self-centred dumboes who have warbled the words with which the writer – to whom they never give a thought, naturally – has provided them, and then that's it until tomorrow night or next year. 

Where do these people come from? How do they manage to spread themselves around so that every amateur operatic society has its uncalled-for quota? Any group, immediately post-production, is a hive of activity. If 20 per cent of its members contribute to the work that is at that time involved, it is very fortunate. For every busy bee, there are probably half-a-dozen drones.

 Perhaps every group, long before every production, should give every member a document that says precisely what that production will involve – pointing out that driving it to a successful conclusion will be a team effort. Present the parasites – because every active member knows who they are – with a run-down of responsibilities that have to be met.  

And if any particular parasite is not prepared to get on with it, suggest a payment of, say, three times the normal subscription – and hope that there will be an immediate disappearance in high dudgeon, trailing clouds of imaginary star-dust on the way.

John Slim


Where's the buzz in bee-eating?

A RESPECTABLE Sunday newspaper, which should surely have known better, was recently to be found unashamedly offering its readers the recipes for Love-bug Salad and Chocolate-covered Scorpion.

There it was, not a blush in sight, bringing us up to date on the latest entomological offerings from a restaurant in central London which is apparently fixated on presenting its patrons with platters that would have me bolting for the exit, staying not upon the order of my going and looking neither right nor left.

Heaven knows what would have been the reaction of an abashed actor I saw in Cabaret. He could not even stomach the prospect of swallowing a Prairie Oyster, which is a raw egg in Worcester Sauce, let alone of swallowing the reality that was to follow. So he put his brimming glass on a convenient shelf – from where it was promptly knocked onto the floor by the next dancer we saw.

She then compounded her misfortune by skidding onto her backside in the instant mix of egg yolk and spiky shards. For a few brief, exciting moments, we had the feeling that all the world's theatrical action was happening onstage at the Palace Theatre in Redditch.

But, to revert to the excitement of the Sunday I have in mind, the unappealing article was under the byline of a gentleman called Adam Lusher. Had his words been a little lusher, and if he had remained faithful to his name-sharing predecessor's BC faith in a God-fearing apple, I would have been distinctly more tempted.

But no, he started off by enquiring whether we fancied some scorpion soup or a mixed locust salad with bee crême brulée, followed by a belated warning that our masters in the European Union could be putting these delights on our mesmerising menus before we can shake a stick at them.

Naturally, his words were accompanied by four close-up pictures of the crunchy corpses of assorted wee beasties, lined up for chewing, to ensure that we got his drift.


And it got worse. It seems that our bosses in Brussels have embarked on a £2.65 million project to urge us all into insect-eating. A million or so years after Adam – the first Adam, not Mr Lusher – they are lauding the creepy-crawlies as a vital source of nutrition, prospective saviours of the environment and banishers of food shortages.

Not to put too fine a point on it, they plan to turn us into entomophagists. (I may just have invented a word, but I understand that entomophagy means insect-eating, so insect-eaters themselves must somewhere have a long word of some kind as a short form).

The thinking behind this vile endeavour is that little grasshoppers – for example – can, if pressed, give us 20 per cent protein and only six per cent fat, compared with lean ground beef's 24 per cent protein and 18 per cent fat. And you can't whack crickets for calcium, termites for iron and giant silkworm moth larvae for all your daily copper and riboflavin needs. Oh, yes, and it's thought that if you chobble on a bee it boosts your libido.

Me? I'd rather put my libido out to grass than try to get a buzz out of bee-eating.

Not that there would be much point in any such gratuitous grazing. It seems that scientists have found that so many insect bits find their way into food that every one of us eats the equivalent of 500g of bugs every year.

John Slim


All God's chillun got ۥem

II IS a fact unspoken, though universally recognised: all God's chillum got nipples.

And that's another fact: I have just typed chillum, when I meant to type chillun, and my computer screen has not mocked me with a horizontal red line.

Finding it hard to accept that chillum was not my very own accidentally-created word, I have been moved to consult The Shorter Oxford Dictionary Volume 1 (1280 pages, third edition, 1983) in search of it – and there it is!

“Chillum. 1781. [Hindi chilam.] The part of the hookah containing the tobacco, etc; loosely, the hookah, the act of smoking, the ‘fill' of tobacco.”

Of chillun, alas, there is no mention. So let us speak instead of nipples, which I was trying to do in the first place.

Nipple The small prominence in which the ducts of the mammary gland terminate externally in nearly all mammals of both sexes; esp. that of a woman's breast; a teat.”

That's in Volume 2, which finally calls it a day on page 2672 – and who shall blame it? – with “Zwitterion Physical chem. A molecule or ion that has separate positively and negatively charged groups; a dipolar ion. Hence Zwitterionic.”

All of which has come remarkably close to distracting me from nipples. Particularly those of Carol Vordeman.

I was not at all distracted from nipples when I settled down to watching her presenting Pride of Britain Awards. They sort of met my eye straight away, as they mocked the attempts of her figure-hugging grey dress to conceal them.

But then, lo and don't behold, immediately thereafter, they had vanished, not to say teetered away; distractions of the merest moment. What had happened?


The wonders of television being what they are, there was no untoward disruption to end my distraction. One moment, she was nippled to the hilt; the next, hers was a bosom bereft of monuments. It was if somebody had nipped up the local hill and pinched the cairns. It had been a seamless sort-out.

I have never been part of what is for some reason called a live television audience, though I have always thought it sounds better than a dead one. So I can only imagine that the producer of Pride of Britain Awards, keeping an avuncular but alert eye on the opening moments, must have seen more Vordeman than he expected and leapt from his seat like a rocketing pheasant, thereupon to decree a more effective cover-up.

But what happened next? Obviously, the cameras ceased to roll while something surreptitious was done with the Vordeman underpinnings. But did she retreat discreetly from the sight-line of her live audience, or were amendments effected in situ?


And how long did they take? And did television's warm-up man come back to try to make the live patrons forget what they were concentrating on?

In last year's show, so I gather, Ms Vordeman, who is the regular hostess of the event, wore a low-cut, cleavage-enhancing dress that was considered to be too risqué and prompted complaints from among the watching millions..
As a result, she chose a grey dress with a high neckline for this year's ceremony. We can imagine her saying, “That should do it!”

Er. . .

With all these shenanigans, I can't help wondering how long it will be before we underestimated males start challenging the distaff side for nipple notoriety.

We are undoubtedly putting on the poundage these days. Many of us are now disconcertingly equipped with what have been unkindly christened moobs – and as that's not in my dictionary, either, it prompts my long-suffering computer to uncork another red line – so there will surely come the day when only the citizens of Cannes and suchlike forward-thinking places will be able to contemplate an immodest moob without recoiling like a schoolboy from soap.

Who knows what conundrums the fashion industry will face in future? Who will be the first hero to wear a bra?

John Slim


Brit abroad (2): Italian bank job

IT was my failure at a bank in Italy that made me realise, with a sense of disbelief, that although P G Wodehouse is rightly recognised as the English language's must successful and funniest writer, there is somebody who, in a one-off exercise as opposed to a sustained achievement over successive decades, does leave him standing.

Shock horror!!! What am I saying? Wodehouse is the master and I have been his groupie for nearly 70 years – ever since, in the wake of my School Certificate examinations, my English master read me and my form-mates Honeysuckle Cottage from the Wodehouse short story collection Mulliner Nights.

I was entranced. Who was this Wodehouse fellow? He should go far!

This was the immediate post-war period, when Herbert Jenkins was re-issuing hardback Wodehouse books in its Green Label series at 5s a go. By the time I had bought all of them, about three dozen, I was ready to begin stockpiling the new ones as they emerged.

I now have what I believe to have been his entire output of books – 92 of them. He was the master of felicitous phraseology and plot-twisting. I was devoted. Still am.

But now, shock horror again, I have been into a bank in Italy and realised that PG did not have things all his own way.

Elsa and I had had a coffee in the piazza and it was time to pay our dues. I walked through the door of the adjacent building, clutching my flimsy billet doux – which was presumably something else now that it was involved in this Italian job – and I halted uncertainly in my tracks on realising that I was in a bank. Kindly smiles all round. Hasty retreat.

But it was this piffling incident that led me into what can only be described as a bookman's blasphemy. It reminded me of a tattered, cover-free paperback volume of humorous short stories, Literary Lapses, by American humorist Stephen Leacock. I know not where I came upon it so many years ago. I just plead not guilty to destroying its cover.


More specifically, it made me realise that when I got home I simply had to re-read the first story in the book, My Financial Career. It started, “When I go into a bank I get rattled. The clerks rattle me; the wickets rattle me; the sight of the money rattles me; everything rattles me.”

This is Leacock recounting his failed attempt to open a bank account by depositing 56 dollars. Apprehension becomes rampant anxiety. Anxiety turns to panic and panic prompts him to babble that he now wanted to draw a cheque. The sum he had in mind was six dollars, but when someone gave him a cheque book and someone else began telling him how to write it, everyone else had the impression that he was an invalid millionaire.

He filled in the cheque and thrust it through the wicket at the clerk – only for the clerk to express astonishment that he was apparently intent on withdrawing 56 dollars instead of six..

Thus was confusion worse confounded. Worse was to come when he was mistaken for someone from a detective agency. Then a big iron door loomed alongside him. “Good morning”, he said, and stepped into the safe.

Since then, he reports, he banks no more. No more. The words have a sonorous ring – unlike, for instance, cellar door, which is the most musical pairing in the English language.

He banks no more. He now keeps his money in cash in his trouser pocket and his savings in silver dollars in a sock.


The telling is compact and economical. Short and to the point. It is brilliant. Despite all the laughter I have had with Wodehouse, nothing has matched Leacock in this one exhilarating burst of fun. Wodehouse is the undisputed champion of comic novels and short stories – but Leacock simply leaves him standing in this one-off sprint.

The pith or essence of these witterings is that My Financial Career really should be adapted as a playlet – a playlet without words, just a narrator who would step in, intermittently and briefly, like the captions in a silent movie.

It would be the narrator who would tell us that the man who banks no more now relies on an old sock for his savings.

Leacock wrote Literary Lapses long before my brief and minor encounter at that Italian bank. But it is a classic, the funniest bit of reading I have found, of any length, in 67 years since the long-gone T R Sutherland led me into the arms of Wodehouse.

But I had to fly to Naples, and thence head for a piazza in Ravello, where I sought to bank the bill for my coffee, to remember that I had found it all those years ago.

This was my failed Italian job. Naturally, the first thing I did when I got back home was to re-read My Financial Career – because my Italian job turned out to be such a rejuvenating joy.

John Slim


Brit abroad (1): Stepping out

THIS is Sunday. Tomorrow, I shall pay something exorbitant for today's paper, to read yesterday's football results. It's tough, being a Brit abroad.

We are an interesting mix, here on the Amalfi coast. In Ravello, actually, on the left-hand side of Italy going up, somewhere around the ankle.

There are the Italians, of course – the men with booming voices that speak from the diaphragm and are apt to begin exchanging views once they are a mere 30 feet from the target they are approaching: the conversational shout is their norm; and the women, the chatter-chatter women, seemingly united in subservience to their males, and, like their males, tending to foregather in the piazza only in same-sex groupings.

There are twang-toned Americans, too, with their neck-slung, belly-propped cameras and low-drone voices. There are the occasional Japanese. And no Germans. And, of course, there are we, the British.

This is Italy, where an overcrowded standing-room-only bus gives a sweaty vest-topped male the chance to share with his fellow-passengers the unsought pleasures of an untreated armpit.

And, in particular, this is Ravello, where stone steps are in unlimited supply and there are 52 of them up to our apartment's front door. A visitation to one particular spot involves 1,000 of them, and just as many when making your escape. I had no intention of going, so I made no note of its name.

I have, however, done my bit by the ruins, by going to Pompeii – but I drew the line at Herculaneum. There's a limit to the number of time-demolished houses or stunted pillars that one can take in at a sitting. Not that there is much sitting. Rather, there are several hours of sweating foot-slog and keep-your-eye-on-the-man-with-the-umbrella.


And in our Apartment for Tourists our fellow-pilgrims include a bald, bespectacled, pasty-blubbered lard tub – amiability itself in his futile quest for the body of burnished bronze that he surely will not have the effrontery to inflict upon his friends back home.

Despite such visual distractions, we do like it here. From the comparative safety of our service bus, we see motorcyclists dicing with death on hairpin mountain roads. We see pedestrians taking not one whit of notice as traffic thunders by within inches of their elbows, although their only options seem to be death by autobus or diving headlong into an unlimited ravine.

At our restaurant table we are learning to say grazie in an unconvincing accent and recognise when the waiter is implying that the tip is surely only really meant for a laugh.

We have been by horse-and-trap round Sorrento, old and new, with a kindly driver who had history coming out of his fingertips and whose only concern seemed to be for our enjoyment.

In Ravello, we have pottered like true pilgrims, threading the needle-eye streets, lusting for the huge, gaudy plates that flanked our every step, and pondering the chances of ever getting one home, even if we managed to find 700 euros a time.

We liked the piazza, where a dozen high-decibel boys seemed to be playing football at any given time. And we gave praise for all the shopkeepers who responded to our pregos and our pointings with such resigned patience.

Day after day, the sun blazes down. Every afternoon, it drives the locals inside for a few hours.  But it fails to make my wife abandon her insistence that she doesn't get sunburnt and that any alteration in her customary appearance is because her freckles just join up.

John Slim


 A. Name that's all in A. Name 

I WONDER whether anyone has ever played a character with his own name.

The odds against doing so must be millions to one, but the thought is prompted by the fact that I have – for the first time since I did my first review in 1968 – now seen an actor who at least got halfway there.

The fact that the actor and the character shared the same initials as well as the same surname, and that they did so in what was supposed to be the last production I ever reviewed – Pam Valentine's Spirit Level – simply added piquancy to the unlikely, now that the unlikely had happened for the first time in my 43 years of playing the critic.

But there he was – Steve Willis, playing Simon Willis in the Swan Theatre Amateur Company's production of an as-yet-unpublished play which its creator had never seen performed.

So this was an unexpected bonus on what was already a joyous evening of Worcester theatre. The play features ghostly goings-on in Cobblers Cottage, former home of crime-writer Jack Cameron and his wife – who are now both dead and making free with their surroundings as befits their latterday ghostly status.

The chuckles abound in what is a sort of spectral special – a Blithe Spirit with twice the ghosties, but, as far as I could see, without any hint of a naughty innuendo like that which Noel Coward was able to hide so successfully from when he wrote it in 1941 until I spotted it a couple of years ago.

Just to recap: I realised that the only reason why he had given his central characters the unlikely surname of Condomine must surely have been because it breaks down into condom in E – the E being the initial of Elvira, Charles Condomine's first wife, whose ghost is persistently among those present.

John Slim


Puke and the Duke are Bardic props

DAME HELEN MIRREN was voicing the views of many theatre-lovers when she said that Shakespeare is for acting, not reading.

True, I would have missed out on Montague (that was his surname: his first name has long since vanished into the mists of time) in my third-form years, if we had not been reading Twelfth Night – out loud – and if he hadn't come up with a trifling amendment to the name of the noble Duke Orsino.

But as it was, Monty had his moment and Orsino became O'Rinso, the unsung, clean-as-a-whistle, soapsuddy Irishman who had clearly been lurking in the wings for long enough. The rest of us were delighted. How we chortled!

Monty is memorable, too, in that he was the only 13-year-old I have ever met with every finger on both hands wearing a gold ring so that in effect he sported a pair of permanent knuckle-dusters. I never did find out why – but what really mattered was that he was the amiable, slightly pudgy youngster who produced O'Rinso, and O'Rinso was special. He became another Shakespearian commercial creation. O'Rinso, the Irish laundryman, joined Valentine (the greetings card man), Old Gobbo (the Venetian blind man), and Curio (the antique dealer) – not to mention Peter of Pomfret, a Prophet, who sounds as if there's a limerick coming on when you catch him among his particular bunch of dramatis personae.

O'Rinso was an unexpected livener for us disenchanted 13-year-olds as we infiltrated the iambic pentameters. But O'Rinso, alas, cannot be guaranteed to be on hand every time young people are introduced to the Bard.

Neither can Puke, who emerged as a Puck substitute throughout a schoolgirl's essay account of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Between them, Puke and the Duke offer a substantial indication that it is far better for children to see Shakespeare than to read it.

That's why Dame Helen is so right – as, indeed, was the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2006, when it expressed the fear that boring lessons were doing nothing to alert youngsters to the froth and the depths that are waiting to be explored. Shakespeare has love and lust and derring-do, but these are qualities that don't exactly leap off the page when the textbook is in the hands of those – schoolchildren and adults alike – who have been given no cause to suspect the fun and the excitement between his covers.

A 13-year-old takes no pleasure from reading Shakespeare. And if he reads it out loud, he will assuredly stumble among the stanzas and fail to understand the jokes – and if he does understand them, he will probably make a mess of delivering them to his disenchanted classmates, so there's little delight for them, either.


Nevertheless, I trust that they will not be subjected to the inanities of Shaking Up Shakespeare, as manifested by the dumbed-down texts which have been bursting upon the scene, degrading lines that are beautiful in the hope of finding the common touch. One example is enough to show the way things are going. For centuries, Romeo has been saying something wonderful to Juliet. Not any more, he doesn't. Fresh from clownland, he is now invited to chirrup: “Fancy a snog, then?”

No, even putting this kind of idiocy aside untouched, what youngsters require is Shakespeare on the stage; Shakespeare who becomes a living, lively thing, full of movement and merriment; who has come alive in a way that had been unimaginable to them as they ploughed reluctantly through the text. Liz (“Guiding”) Light, director of Birmingham's splendid Stage 2 youth theatre for two decades, makes a point of presenting the group's highly-populated sallies into the Shakespeare canon in a way that demonstrates how easy it is to understand when it's performed clearly.

But if a text is just read and not acted, hard-pressed teachers will have to rely on the likes of Puke and the Duke to claim the attention of their youthful charges far more frequently than they otherwise have a right to expect.

John Slim



HAVING just seen my first production of The King and I for a very long time, I am aware of a thought that has just occurred to me: is it compulsory for the King to do his best to look like Yul Brunner?

Admittedly, my recent King was not keen enough – and who shall blame him? – to shave his head in obeisance to the shiny-pated look – but he did have the seemingly obligatory fancy waistcoat, unbuttoned, to go with his bare chest. If I, or any other male taxpayer, did it, there would be whispers behind hands and much mirth at the checkout.

Not fair, is it? But the kings of The King and I get away with it every time. Unfailingly. But do they have to?

I only ask, because I have no idea of the dress sense of the kings of Siam, or indeed when there ceased to be any kings of Siam. It doesn't matter: it's just that if I simply step back and take a good long look at every pretend king that I have seen in the course of the show's 60-year history, I can't help wondering whose idea it was to portray him as if he had not had a clue what to do with a shirt, collar and tie.

All I know, as I say, is that if I started dressing in King and I Siamese-style, questions would be asked in the house.

Is this the workaday gear that was affected by kings of Siam? Does anybody actually know how kings of Siam were apt to disport themselves, or was it an inspiration by the film's wardrobe all those years ago?


After all, as far as I have been able to judge, it's not the look that kings as a class tend to favour nowadays, and I can't help wondering whether they ever did. And if the citizenry at large had ever seen their monarch in a constant state of partial undress, would they not perhaps have been moved to copy him and thus improve their own rankings among the fashionistas of the day?

Obviously, we chaps would make sure we tried to cut a fine figure, only partially clothed, if, say, the Duke of Cornwall – William to his pals – were to inspire us similarly? Or would we?

The trouble is, fashion's decrees do tend to leave us standing. By and large, we can take them or leave them – or, indeed, turn our backs altogether on the new look of the moment. Fashion is not for us. Some of us – far too many of us – are apt to greet the summer sunshine by donning those strange long shorts in unbecoming khaki, with outsize outside pockets and hemlines halfway down the shins. We don't care that all that these do is ensure that we look demented.

And what about jackets? It occurs to me that women newsreaders on television are a bit strange in the matter of jackets. They often treat them, that is to say, exactly as the kings of Siam treat their waistcoats – without any underpinnings.

Not that they are apt to tell us about the latest crisis in a flurry of rampant mammaries. Nothing like that. No, they're always suitably sedate – but when it comes to having anything visible beneath the jacket, they do tend to dress Siamese-waistcoat-style, with nothing there except a triangle of bare chest.


Again, it's not something that your average man will opt for. Just as the King of Siam has more flair than we have in the matter of waistcoats, so do our women television queens leave us standing when it comes to the jackets they wear with nothing visible beneath them, while bringing us the nightly bad tidings.

Nothing risqué, of course. No, what we get is two lapels forming a sharply tailored triangle, its internal area consisting entirely of what an affronted friend of mine calls Chest.

Norman makes no bones about it. Consult him, and you will be told that the world is more and more a matter of Chest. Sometimes, he wonders how he continues to cope.

What I don't understand is why Chest somehow does not go with jackets and lapels if Chest is male. As far as I know, no man has ever been caught in public while trying to discover whether it does. We chaps have to be led gently towards a Fashion Statement – and when we get there, we usually discover that we are not ready for one.

No, I fear that the gold-trimmed weskit will have to remain under wraps in the wardrobe just a little longer, and although I shall try meanwhile to get the upper arms up to monarchical standard, I have to admit that I am simply not sure about the vista it would mean that I was inflicting upon my fellow men.

I hesitate. I equivocate.

It was not with a view to wasting my time, as a ten-year-old, that I learned the Siamese National Anthem. All together now: “O What an ah Siam. . .”  

John Slim


How to capture my initial interest

FOR some little time now, I have been whiling away the hiatus between taking my seat at the latest production and the opening of the curtains by leafing through the programme.

Agreed, this is not an entirely unusual pursuit at such a time. Your average patron does like to know who's playing what, and assuming that the venue has reasonable lighting and the programme has not been printed with black text on a dark red background – which can happen, possibly because it can help to hide the misprints – it is quite likely that there will be much leafing back and forth before the action starts.

For nearly a couple of years now, I have spent part of the time before act one on seeing whether I can add to my current score in my home-made game of Match the Initials.

The idea is to see whether a cast member's initials are the same as those of the character whom he or she is playing. Sounds simple, possibly because checking initials is simple. The problem arises in finding a player whose character shares his initials.

And this is understandable, given that there are 26 letters in the alphabet, which means that it's 25-1 against the two first names' initials' qualifying, with the same odds attending a matching of second-name initials. This in turn means that my prospects of sitting in on a show containing a character with two initials identical to those of the actor involved are pretty minimal. 25 x 25 to one against, to be precise, which shows what a total waste of time it is.

So I can't help thinking that I've done rather well by at least finding one example in something under two years of searching.

My grateful thanks go to Emma Dyke, of Dudley Little Theatre. She played Eliza Doolittle in DLT's Pygmalion.

Incidentally, former DLT member, actress Josie Lawrence, was an earlier Eliza – at Nottingham 1994. But she wasn't in the same class as Emma, initially speaking.

John Slim


A quick word in your ear, please

WORDS are pretty busy. They christen us, they marry us, they bury us. They make us laugh, they make us cry. They calm us, they infuriate us. They make us think that a cow is in calf when a calf is in cow.

They disport themselves on signs that say Authorised Access Only, which means you can't come in if you can't come in.

They have preoccupied me inordinately for most of my life. That's why my most prized bit of knowledge is that rotavator is our longest word that is the same backwards as forwards. When I was 14, I was for ever composing crossword puzzles on grids from the Birmingham Mail and getting them published at a guinea a time (tax-free). I embellished one of them with 100 per cent rhyming clues, which I had never seen done before and have never seen done since.

Words that issue from a playwright's pen and then from the stage can be both a charm and a distraction. They move me to silent rejoicing when they demonstrate their creator's dexterity, but they make me grind my teeth every time yet another actor demonstrates an inability to say either communal or inventory. Who is the director who also knows no better? What are the drama schools doing?


It's the same when television and radio people, for whom words are essential tools, precede a phrase by saying more importantly, when they mean it's more important. If adverbalising were a word, that's what they would be doing - adding an L-Y to an adjective that's supposed to describe something they are about to say.

Words are why 1 was delighted to recognise that Charles Condomine, the character in Coward's Blithe Spirit, on whom I have elaborated elsewhere, had all these years been a hidden joke perpetrated with undoubted glee by naughty Noel.

But one or two words have always been a bit of a personal trial. I have never known the difference between ingenuous and disingenuous — let alone had any certainty about what they mean - and it's probably too late to bother finding out now. Having said that, I did look them up recently. Being me, I had forgotten the answer by the time I closed the dictionary.

We have fads about words. For quite a long time, several years ago, empirical went through a phase of appearing in every newspaper every day. It's another one whose meaning totally defeats me, but fortunately it has now been abandoned by the chattering classes, so I am not going to lose sleep over it, let alone consult Collins' Concise.

Then somebody talked about pre-conditions, as if a condition has the option of emerging after something on which it seeks to impose its will. With its users undeterred by such a quibble, pre­conditions caught on throughout the media and they are still going like smoke.

Not enough smoke, unfortunately, to hide the number of times a newspaper that means led says lead, confirming my suspicion that I may have discovered the shortest word that people can't spell. I regard that as my consolation prize.

John Slim


A word from a failed retiree

AS my colleague Roger Clarke has remarked, I seem to have made a hobby out of retiring. The trouble is, I'm not very good at it, so I have to do it again. And again. And again.

I said my first goodbye to The Birmingham Post & Mail – after a mere 37 years – in January 1991. But my willingness to join the pipe-and-slippers brigade was thwarted by my continuing thereafter to review amateur theatre several times a week and to write two amateur stage columns a week, one for the Post and one for the Mail.

So I rapidly realised I was no good at retiring – and compounded my inability to do so by additionally taking on the editorship of the National Operatic & Dramatic Association's magazine and writing the umpteen-page quarterly newsletter of Birmingham Civic Society.

Towards the end of 2009, however, I had moved towards retirement again by effecting disentanglements from both organisations – and in September of that year an upheaval at the Post & Mail brought another laying down of what by then had become a part-time keyboard.

All that this demonstrated, however, was that I had failed again – because that was when Behind the Arras emerged to claim its now-prominent position in coverage of amateur stage in the West Midlands and of professional theatre nationally.

All of which means that I am not at all surprised, having decided to retire from the reviewing scene at the end of the 2010-2011 season, to have caught myself volunteering to continue after all, just a little bit, as well as passing on news items as and when I receive them.

By this I mean that I am liable to be caught continuing to darken the doorsteps of the Swan Theatre Amateur Company (in Worcester), and The Nonentities (in Kidderminster), always provided that they want me to.

Well, I've been loitering in the wings there, as with many other groups, since 1984, and it seems a shame to break the habit when they are both within easy striking distance of Bromsgrove, which is where I am apt to lay the ancient head.

Moreover, Dudley Little Theatre, in no-messing-about mode, has – all unprompted – sent me a cheque to continue its affiliation for the new season.

So we shall continue, in the words of somebody or other, to boldly go but not quite as often, for just one more season. And retirement is a no-no. Again.

John Slim


Roger Clarke writes (a claim disputed by some incidentally): "We may have given the impression in earlier articles on Behind The Arras that Mr Slim was in fact retiring and we apologise to anyone who took this to mean retirement in a strict, fundamentalist and inflexible way.

Retirement in its post-modernist, organic sense within the socio-economic matrix can be interpreted as incremental development, as management might say - in other words he has just retired a bit."

The amateur stage would just not be the same without the sight of Slim slipping into his seat in the stalls. Welcome back - even though you never did quite manage to leave . . . now perhaps we can make his retirement an annual event . . . .

Stealthy does it for BBC sock chiller

I DON'T know how long man has been making a nuisance of himself to the planet – but it surely ought to be long enough to ensure that there are no real surprises left.


Somewhere behind a door in BBC's Radio Four there lurks the Phantom Sock Fiend.

Not that I am suggesting that this hell-raiser among the hosiery means any harm or that he is spreading alarm and despondency. On the contrary, it sounds as if he is offering disbelief and delight in fairly equal proportions among his bemused fellow-broadcasters.

And he does it with minimum effort – by putting socks in the office fridge. Gents' natty ankle-wear keeps claiming shelf space alongside the cheese, the bacon and the plastic-wrapped beetroot - but its owner remains unrecognised.

It could be argued that perhaps he is trying to kick the habit by giving himself cold feet and thus banish the bravery that he requires every time he puts himself at risk of being caught at it.

On the other hand, it has been suggested that he is taking a do-it-yourself approach to tackling an obscure medical condition.

John Humphrys, Evan Davis, Sarah Montague and Martha Kearney declare themselves intrigued – and perhaps just a little uneasy. Well, it can't be good for a broadcaster's peace of mind to receive a round-robin that says, “Sorry to be the one to have to send this email but I found another pair of socks in the fridge this evening.”

Presenters and production teams alike are baffled.

Thanks to incomplete reporting of the phenomenon, it is not clear whether the furbisher of woollies for the fridge proffers old socks or new ones, smelly or untouched by human foot – but this doesn't matter in relation to the principle of the thing, because this is something that is guaranteed to prompt habitués of The World at One, PM and Today to suspect that they are rubbing shoulders with a phenomenon far stranger than anything in the great big world outside that makes up the routine content of their programmes.

In a commendable effort to end the saga of the socks, that apologetic email not only told their owner where the socks had been put for reclaiming, it also sought to ease the pressure on the fridge by naming a website where coolbags are supplied.

Intriguingly, the same fridge was once caught housing a biography of Benjamin Disraeli.

Meanwhile, with Radio 4's news programmes due to move from White City to Broadcasting House, near Oxford Street, the question of the hour is: Will the phantom cooler of the editorial socks be moving, too?

John Slim


Pre-production pants time

I PASS on a rare and happy sidelight in these unlovely times, while the unintelligentsia destroy our streets and our Government keeps hinting that it might just possibly do something about them one of these days. 

A woman was walking along Hurst Street, on her way to Birmingham's Hippodrome, when her attention was drawn to a bunch of hooded yobs who were busy being yobs on the opposite pavement. Intrigued, she stopped to watch – because she thought she had stumbled across street theatre. 

All is never lost. Someone managed to draw brief entertainment from Britain's ongoing national disaster. Excellent! 

Meanwhile, my attention has been drawn to the nation's nether garments, so this is the point at which I suggest that it would not be a bad idea if theatre's directors included them in their pre-production instructions. 

From time to time, while enraptured in my first-night visitation to a group's latest offering, I have become aware that I am watching an actor who has had the bad luck to omit to zip up. And before we go any further I should make it clear that I still cling pitiably to the notion that an actor is a man and that an actress is neither a man nor an actor, despite the liberal lobby which increasingly seeks to make me think I've got it all wrong. (What's the matter with these people?) 

Incidentally, the only moment more unfortunate than omitting to zip up, in the scale of bad luck on the social scene, is that experienced by the man who has forgotten to zip down. 

But it's the failed zipper-uppers who concern me at the moment – the citizens who have either a malfunctioning brain cell or a misguided pride and who are guaranteed to divert the audience's attention from a production on which so many people have been working so hard for so many weeks.  


I was most recently aware of an actor who left us in no doubt whatsoever that his nether garments were bright red. When he was motionless, they glared at us with a malevolent eye. When he moved, they became what the late J Keats, poet, would have recognised on the instant as a hammock for bearded baubles winking at the brim. I cannot have been the only one who was reluctantly riveted. They glowered through their vertical window and they skewered us where we sat. 

The problem is always the flamboyant underpinnings that contrast so sharply with the trousers that are supposed to conceal them – and this is where I think the director should make himself useful. He should decree that, to limit their capacity to distract, only those budgie-smugglers of subdued hue, preferably in complete accord with the colour of their outer coverings, should have any place onstage. Then there might just be the chance, if their owner happened to afford them the opportunity to peep out of their vertical window, that not more than half the audience would notice them. 

In regard to all this, it is just as well that actors as a class have not followed what I understand is an occasional female foible in these enlightened days – not necessarily onstage – and turned up knickerless or whatever is the male equivalent.  

That would really give the director cause for talk at the – er, debriefing.

John Slim


Au revoir, Amy

SO farewell, Amy. You've fallen off your one-girl bandwagon and devastated a legion of Winehouse wailers. 

I'm writing this to say that, much to my surprise, I have joined the mourners. Obviously, I was sorry to learn that you had left us, but I now realise that the legacy with which we have been entrusted is much more impressive than I expected it to be. Not that I actually expected anything at all. I didn't even think about it. 

But now –  just like, I assume, hundreds of thousands of others – I  have been prompted by your departure to listen to what you have left us, because I really had no idea what all the fuss was about, either while you were still with us or when we suddenly discovered that you weren't. I never seemed to be watching my television when you appeared, and it never occurred to me to make a pilgrimage to a Winehouse wow-fest. 

Do forgive me, but in our house you were an unknown quantity – but now, in your absence, I have become a Winehouse CD seeker. More important, you can rejoice with me for I have found that which I had never suspected. I am now a Back to Black aficionado, listening to Winehouse going well while I pour a well-judged libation. 

People call you a singer, but, with all due respect, you somehow don't compare to Joan Sutherland or Kathryn Jenkins. Theirs are names that conjure images of pure, silver notes and a soaring exploration of octaves. You, on the other hand, I now discover at first-hand because I have found a CD, have been not so much a singer, more a growler; more an explorer in the exciting firmament of jazz. And yes, a pseudo-Yank and a latterday delight. 

You also earn full marks in my book for writing your own material. Writers, especially writers for the stage, are so little thought of that theatre programmes are apt to provide every production detail, from lighting design and sound operators to painters of the set and purveyors of ice cream, but too often manage to overlook completely the person who made it all possible by having an idea and getting it down in script form. 

What I am saying, belatedly, is that you appear to have been a one-woman wonder and that I am trying to catch up with what I have missed.  

Clearly, I have missed a lot. I was never even aware of Frank, the album that set you on your way in 2003 – but I do know now that Back to Black, which emerged in 2006, brought you five Grammy awards and that you were Best Female Artist in the Brit Awards in 2007, the year in which your so-prescient Rehab won the Ivor Novello Award for Best Contemporary Song. 

In the matter of Winehouse wisdom, I am a late developer. You didn't miss me, but, all of a sudden, I think I may discover that I am missing you.

John Slim


It's more fun if the surprises keep coming

THE passing years are full of tricks. A friend lost his mobile phone – so he used his landline to ring his next-door neighbour and ask him to ring his mobile for him. 

Er. . ? 

The neighbour, thinking on his feet, asked why he didn't use his own landline. Unable to offer an explanation, my friend did just that – and realised that his mobile was now ringing somewhere at the far end of his extensive garden. 

Hanging up on his landline, he went in search, and found the missing mobile lurking just where he had forgotten that he had left it. He picked it up and found that it was registering one missed call. 

Intrigued, he rang the number as he made his way back to the house – and immediately heard his landline phone holding forth. 

These are the sort of things that mobile telephones can get up to, aided and abetted by faltering faculties that may perhaps not be quite as fully-charged as they used to be, once their owners are no longer in any danger of being confused with the sharpest knife in the drawer. And I have personal evidence of the way in which, just like mobile phones, other inanimate objects are apt to take fleeting charge of our day-to-day passage through life. Socks, for instance. 


Wearying of the frequency with which one sock or another would disappear in the domestic laundry, I long ago launched the habit of pinning a pair of socks together with a safety pin when it was ready for washing. Inevitably, I am now able to lose two socks where previously I would lose only one. I also find that I now take very small strides. 

On the other hand, the safety pin did enable me the other day to sling a pair over one shoulder, one sock hanging in front of me and the other down my back, while I strode from the bathroom in search of the morning's sweater. This left my hands free for the job of actually donning the woolly job. 

It also enabled me to forget that the ankle-coverings were there – forgetting is an art with which I am increasingly at home these days – until I was ready to put them on. This was the point at which I realised that my right shoulder had grown an unaccustomed small lump which defied me to remove it until I had partially undressed again. 

Life, I am increasingly aware, does begin to pass me by – though it always seems to have time to pause and set me up for a laugh. It's one of Life's universal little habits and it has frequently been a source of inspiration for playwrights. It is manifested in comedy, farce and gut-wrenching tragedy – but when it deploys its favourite trick across any of us for the first time, it always takes us by surprise. 

I suppose the surprise is unavoidable. If it told us it was coming, we would be on our guard and avoid it. And look how many silly stories we would not be able to tell against ourselves if that happened. Life is funnier the way it is.

John Slim


Hot air, cold air, the Crescent and Stage 2

IT is not entirely unknown for a theatre to produce advance publicity for a show that turns out to be not quite what we've been led to expect. You could call it so much hot air. 

That's what I'm going to call it, anyway, because it leads me on to my latest experience with Birmingham's Crescent Theatre. And this was entirely unexpected also. 

My wife and I were sitting in our favourite seats – K 27 and K 28, in the back row and handy for the bar, since you ask – but before we had lowered our aged bottoms we were unavoidably aware of a Siberian windstorm gusting around our legs. My wife was the principal sufferer, because I had fortunately remembered to put my trousers on, whereas she was trustingly ensconced in a skirt. 

Our problem – and it was one that I never encountered in all the years I sat there on a pretty frequent basis from 1998 until autumn 2009 – was an air conditioning vent, set in the riser of the high step immediately behind us and going like a good ۥun. 

Fortunately, the production was one which generated an abundance of good feeling and warmth, so there was no danger of our being distracted by the Arctic undertones. And the warmth went on after the final curtain, when Liz Light, multi-talented founder of Stage 2, who could have made her name in the world of professional theatre if she had wanted to, caught us in the bar. 

This was not to bribe us with drinks but to utter some quiet and kindly words to mark the approach of my final goodbye to amateur thespians after 27 years of pursuing them across the boards and to give me a framed montage of a recent Stage 2 show, plus a card with messages from herself and two of the group's leading lights. 

I have been tracking Stage 2 only since 1988, because that was when Liz was inspired to launch a group that has since then generally turned its back on the sort of shows that are customarily considered by youth group leaders when they ponder their next season. Stage 2's website is able to report matter-of-factly that when members did Ionesco's Rhinoceros they learned the history and theories of Theatre of the Absurd. Similarly, Les Liaisons Dangereuses gave them the chance to research period costume, movement, manners and etiquette, and A Midsummer Night's Dream had the entire company, aged from nine upwards, exploring iambic pentameter. 

The youngsters found satire in Once a Catholic, peer pressure in The Crucible and they explored the  relationships in Much Ado About Nothing; mental health in Equus and bullying in Lord of the Flies. 

And so they have continued – young people from a wide mix of backgrounds into whom has been instilled a discipline that may well make the uninitiated shake heads in disbelief when they first see the discipline that underpins a performance. 

As it happens, their latest venture, Our Day Out, strikes a lighter note, and Stage 2 plays it equally unerringly. It almost took my wife's mind off the cock-up that appears to be the Crescent's air conditioning system.

John Slim


Leave the Bard alone – and be grateful

RIGHT, as Bamber Gascoigne, shiny-faced quizmaster of television's University Challenge for a quarter of a century from 1962 used to say, here's your starter for 10.

Is Shakespeare more important than his works?

I think the answer is that he used to be – but that was in the 16th and 17th Centuries, when he was in full flow and there were still gems to be strewn from his treasure chest. Undoubtedly, at that time, it was no contest.

But is he now, 400 years after his passing? Well, no – obviously, he isn't. His job is done. He bequeathed us 37 plays and 154 sonnets – an oeuvre that overtook him in importance as soon as it was completed. At that point, Shakespeare became just a man who had given his all, while his works embarked on what seems deservedly destined to be life for ever.

Today, as the ever-perky Ernie Wise would have been the first to admit, the plays what he wrote have lost none of their lustre – but the Bard himself is a heap of bones. Of himself, he is of no importance whatever. The man had to do what the man had to do, and what we have to do is give thanks and reap the benefit.


Shakespeare said, “Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?” Looking at me, I rather doubt it, but perhaps he didn't have me in mind at the time. Equally, there is no one who can be compared to Shakespeare – and here, incidentally, is a little lesson for all the alleged writers who invariably write compare to,  unmindful that compare with is often what they really mean. Compare to means liken to. Compare with means contrast with.

But, syntax aside, I despair that I now read that there is talk of digging up what's left of Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon's Holy Trinity Church, almost four centuries after he died. It is a sorry story that seems to resurface every 15 years or so, and I have no idea how many times I have read of proposals by archaeological nosy parkers to disturb him, or, indeed, why they seemingly need no prompting before hatching another plan.

This time, it appears, the idea is to try to discover what caused his death in 1616. The would-be disturbers of his peace seem to think we ought to find out. Professor Stanley Wells, honorary president of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, is reported as saying he would be happy if the proposal went ahead, because finding the answer would end the years of fruitless speculation.

Perhaps it would – but why bother? Would the world become a better place for knowing why Shakespeare rose to higher things? I don't think so. Far better if we treasure his legacy and offer thanks for the miracle that created a one-off human being.

John Slim


Funny – but proceed with caution

DISABILITIES are not for laughing at. If I am suddenly aware that the playwright of the moment has forgotten this elementary courtesy, I am uncomfortable. There are enough ways of chasing a chuckle without resorting to unkind inanities – though, having said that, stage deafness is apt to raise a laugh with virtually no work involved on the part of the playwright, and – more important – the laughter can come without malice. 

Especially if the victim comes with a Northern accent that gives him a head start in the funny stakes because it is intended to indicate perhaps that he is not only hard of hearing but tenpence in the shilling as well. At this point, it's practically job done. 

Yorkshire comedian Sandy Powell's heyday was the 1930s-1950s – though he re-emerged in 1970 for a surprise guest appearance on the show of television's glove puppet Sooty. His catchphrase was built around maternal deafness and his catchphrase was, “Can you hear me mother?” In his case, the butt of the joke was always safely out of sight, on the other end of a telephone line. 

My maternal grandmother, bless her, was both stone deaf and blind – a mild, sweet, lovely, snow-haired lady with a smile to charm the birds from the boughs. I was perhaps about ten when she, my grandfather and her outsize hearing aid arrived to visit us from Leeds – without, I hasten to add, bringing with them a hint of the raucous tones that are often apt to identify habitués of the comedy circuit as they seek an easy laugh, and certainly without any deficiency of grey matter. 

I was in the kitchen with my mother when Granny Fearnside made her first appearance of the day. Mother, busy with something at the sink, did not turn round – not that Granny F could have known that, or indeed, could have had any idea who else might have been in the company she was just joining.  

“Good morning”, she said, prompting my mother to return her greeting as a sort of cheerful echo. 

Then Granny spoke again. “Is it raining?” 

“Yes, pouring.”  

It was a reply that clearly did not quite satisfy her need for meteorological enlightenment. Moreover, she misheard it to the degree that she thought Mum was restarting the conversation – which is why, when Mum said “Yes, pouring”, Granny F replied on the instant, “Good morning.”

The whole thing was clearly in danger of beginning all over again. 

These things happen, and when this one happened it was a whole sight funnier than it appears in the cold light of print. It happened only because she was both blind and deaf, and if I saw it re-enacted on the stage, I would laugh with delighted gratitude – as Granny F did when the instant replay on which she had unwittingly embarked was pointed out to her.  

A theatrical re-enactment would not be mocking an elderly, doubly-disabled lady: it would show her at grips with the sort of things that can lurk in any situation that she faces every day and there would be no question of the other half of her conversation intentionally finding mirth in her misfortune. 

Even so, disability of any sort should be treated with care. The afflicted character must not be the butt of cruel remarks. There, but for the grace of God, go the rest of us.

John Slim 


Come and feast! (Bring your own bangers) 

I DO my best to keep up with trends. Things like the latest fashions – not to wear them, naturally, but just to be able to claim that I've heard of them – and the current bit of a beautiful language that has been chosen for airheaded destruction, for example. 

But I wouldn't expect to be invited as someone's guest on a theatre visit and then told to buy my own ticket. Somehow, it would take the edge off my vote of thanks. Teeth-grinding could well replace gratitude. 

But if this is going to be the next manifestation of Britain's selfish society, just remember you heard it here first. The way things are going, it could well follow closely on the heels of what I gather is the latest back-garden fad, whereby you receive an invitation to the barbecue – but you are expected to provide your own food and drink. If you are really unlucky, you will find that you also have to bring your own eating-irons, or the deal is off. 

It seems that Pimms, the drink that hollers for a fruity filling, has done a survey of the Great British Barbecue and discovered that fings ain't what they used to be, not by any means. They're going precipitately down the pan. 

Admittedly, I can't understand why a survey of our backyard yomping can possibly have been deemed necessary – but now that it has happened, it reveals that there is plenty more I don't understand, either. 


I gather that anyone who hosts a barbecue spends an average of £12.56 on each guest – but the average guest is parting with £22.68. The bunch of flowers, the box of chocolates or the courteous bottle of wine, each a civilized acknowledgment of the effort that has gone into preparing and presenting the event, is no longer considered adequate recompense by the friend who has despatched the invitation, so his guests have to cough up a tenner more than he does. 

Yes, where we were once the mannered society, we now demand that our friends turn up with their own grub and their own drink. It's all part of the me-me-me world we now inhabit. Human rights may be the often-nonsensical stuff of everyday considerations, but it seems there is no such thing as a human responsibility to try to keep our visitors happy. Perhaps somebody ought to re-invent it. 

Meanwhile, stand by to hear of the first big barbecue bash at which guests have had to pay for parking on the drive before they got anywhere near the rip-off awaiting them in the back garden.

We are a wonderful people.

John Slim 


Putting our backs(ide) into things

IT IS reported, possibly unreliably, that the delightful soprano Lesley Garrett has confessed to what seems a highly individual way of hiding her problems if she forgets her lines while singing an aria in a foreign language. 

The diva is said to have divulged that all she has to do is to sing arse instead of the errant libretto. I gather that it can be spun out as long as necessary, and presumably repeated at will, to fit any set of lyrics. 

And if she is moved to really artistic heights, she knows that Kiss my arse, I come from Leeds will fit obligingly into anything. Presumably, it needs to emerge suitably disguised by sundry trills and protracted notes, so that everybody thinks she is still singing foreign and nobody suspects a thing. All she has to do is put her back into the problem – as, indeed, she apparently did during a production of Die Fledermaus in 1988, when she mooned at a surprised but suitably gratified audience. 

Bottoms are an interesting phenomenon. Essentially, they are designed to make it possible for us to sit down, so there's nothing remarkable in discovering that any particular specimen is doing just that. On the other hand, given that they are meant to consist of a couple of fleshy curves separated by what may best be described as a crevice, or in extremis a crevasse, they do vary enormously, one from another.

The Tennis Girl, an iconic image of the 70s was reputedly the biggest selling poster of all time with more than 2 million sales. It was taken in September 1976 by Martin Elliot, who died earlier this year, and features his then girlfriend 18-year-old Fiona Butler (now Walker) at Birmingham University, Edgbaston, using a borrowed dress, racquet and balls

They come extra large and are apt to rise and fall alarmingly as they grind along the high street in the wake of their owner. Or they come nicely disciplined and a joy for ever. Or they are sometimes spotted as the meeting-place of legs so thin that they themselves are clearly certain to be almost 100 per cent bone. 

One young lady gave her posterior to posterity in the famous picture showing her holding a tennis racket in one hand and using the other to raise the hemline of her mini-dress sufficiently to ensure that the viewer is left in no doubt at all that she has forgotten to put on her knickers. Many others have responded to the call of Art by going on stage and cavorting in the altogether. 

More alarmingly, so have many men, who customarily thus offer the distaff side of their audience a gratuitous gasp at their gentleman's sausage.  

I admire their cheek – indeed, their cheeks – as well as their willy, but I have to confess to being no more enthralled than I was when Highest Up The Wall was the game of the day during junior school playtime. And I have learned that if the revelation arrives at a suitably serious moment in a play, members of the fair sex are not apt to go into paroxysms of excitement, either – which does say something about their unwillingness to be easily distracted from the pith or essence of the plot. 

Perhaps what they had read about Equus had raised great expectations, but they soon realised, having possibly turned up with a girls' night out in mind, that this was rather more serious, not to say a horse of a different colour, and were prepared to give it a run for their money. 

Good on ۥem!

John Slim 


Time to wave the wave goodbye

THERE'S nothing like seeing a cheery wave. It means you've been spotted from a distance and the waver is pleased to see you. It means that the loyal crowd is delighted that the Queen is going by. It means that the new football club manager is saying hello to his new supporters and hoping he may not be saying goodbye in six months' time.

But there really is no place for the mass wave, undisciplined and unrehearsed, that all too often erupts disconcertingly from the stage at a curtain-call, mainly at the end of a musical, accompanied by huge grins. On the instant, it does away with any pretence of professionalism that may have been engendered during the preceding couple of hours. It means that any thespian competence is being replaced by daft delight.

If the show is a happy one, the audience has a right to expect a parade of smiles. What it should not have to face is the frantic farewell tremble of hands that always puts me in mind of the pierrots who inevitably featured in pre-war family holidays at Filey before Billy Butlin turned up to provide the laughs.


It is a daft and seemingly unstoppable nonsense that some companies have thoughtlessly adopted to indicate that the show's over. But why? We know there's nothing more to come, because we've been paying attention and we've kept up with the plot. And yet, every so often, we discover that what we intended as a civilized incursion into showtime has, in its final moments, become a parade of the happy-daft.

Listen to them: “No, we're not professionals, we're just an ordinary bunch who are absolutely delighted to have somehow attracted an audience. Is that you in the stalls, Fred? So pleased you could come!”

It's a nonsense. Waves have to be approached with caution, not indulged in willy-nilly.

In this respect, I am disconcerted to discover that the Duke of Cambridge, senior scion of our future King, Air-Miles Andy, is an ill-disciplined waver. True, I have caught him at it only in royal processions and on the Palace balcony, but I have to say it's not a wave to be proud of. It's not a manly wave.

A manly wave is one in which the hand is to all intents motionless at the end of a forearm that isn't moving overmuch, either. It's not a fatheaded effeminate flutter. A manly wave goes well with a calm smile, whereas a flutter demands a daft grin. And the ducal flutter is further misplaced if it happens to be teamed with a scarlet uniform and a chestful of medals. Not manly. Not military.

But as far as theatre productions are concerned, it would be reassuring if directors made a point of telling their casts how to accomplish a curtain-call. Don't allow the plague to continue to erupt so long that even the directors of the future don't know any better.

John Slim 


Time to screech to a halt

I HAVE become rather preoccupied with Wimbledon – or SW19, as newspapers appear increasingly apt to call it, in an economy drive that uses six syllables instead of three.

And yes, I think the roof is a Good Thing and I hope there will be similar Good Things joining it in future. Alas, the Bad Thing is still with us, with no sign that we shall be spared it soon.

It is called Sharapova, she of the shrill shriek, who thus remarkably conjures alliteration out of Ssh! – the very antithesis of all she represents. I want to keep on watching, in the hope that she will have the good manners to lose and go away, but by the end of the first week my prayers were in vain.

For some reason, some newspapers refer to her “grunt.” It's nothing like a grunt. It's a screech; an ear-blasting banshee howl, emitted every time she hits the ball and guaranteed to keep me awake, however boring her current match. It is also physically draining – for me, that is, not her: she clearly thrives on the appalling behaviour that can't do much for an opponent's concentration.

No, my problem is that my index finger is surely not going to cope much longer. The only time it feels possibly safe to keep it off the mute button is when she is between games. Whenever there is action on Sharapova's court, I have to reduce it to silence and thus destroy any hope of capturing the atmosphere.

Blonde bombshell she may be, but in our house she is a pain in the proverbial, a scion of Siberia to whom I am delighted to give the cold shoulder. I was pleased to see that there's some talk that players may start forfeiting points for shrieking. Well, hurray, but I can't understand why it has taken so long to get even this close to restoring comparative tranquillity to the tennis court. Rudeness rules.


Sharapova apart, we like Wimbledon Fortnight at our house. We like moaning Murray and his amusing childish tantrums. We like Rafa Nadal and his painstaking practices – the placing of the bottles, the tucking of non-existent stray hairs into his headband, the tweaking of the shorts from his bottom. We marvel at the way a centre-line judge can still avoid serious injury or decapitation by moving at the speed of light, even after being frozen into a crouch for so long.

But we still have not found out why the ball-boys can if necessary stay on duty, perhaps lasciviously looked upon by paedophiles all over Britain, long after theatres are required to ensure that youngsters are safely removed from the premises and the company of adults whom they may well have known ever since joining the drama group and starting to frequent the village hall..

When I enquired about this last year, I was told that Wimbledon has different rules, but nobody explained why and I am still no wiser.

But this is no time to start looking for logic. Got to get back to the shriek.

John Slim 


Fooling none of the people . . .

IT'S quite some time since I last reviewed a Fiddler on the Roof. In fact, as I shall be jumping off this particular bandwagon at the end of the season, I don't suppose I shall ever review one again.

This means that I shall never again see a bunch of black-garbed, black-bearded bottle-dancers  crouching down and shooting alternate legs out sideways while purporting to be persuading the bottles to remain upright on their black hats.

Unfortunately, it does not mean that the charade will not still be played out, somewhere in the world, every night of the week – even including Sunday, which is not, after all, the Jewish Sabbath.

Good heavens, no. You don't banish bottle-dancers as easily as that, not even pretend ones. I fear they are here for keeps, maintaining the most stupidly-conceived bit of codswallop in the world of theatre – and, indeed, for good measure, looking extraordinarily stupid while they're doing it.

They go into their uncomfortable crouch with their arms folded and their bottles aloft, doing their best to keep their shoot-out legs in time with the music, and we're supposed to applaud when it's all over, although they haven't deceived us for a moment.

Unfortunately, we always do, which simply encourages them – which, as I say, means we are stuck with The Great Bottle Baloney for ever. The fact that they have, in the best traditions instilled by the late Baden Powell, Been Prepared, simply makes them look dafter.

I don't know whether their bottles are anchored by Blue Tack, superglue, spit-and-polish or drawing pins: they are simply ones that they prepared earlier. What I do know is that it takes no time at all for the glassware to start moving out of its vertical stance until every bottle is leaning at an angle that is quite ridiculous. The result is that beneath them, the leg-shooters look quite ridiculous, too.


Once, only once, in heaven knows how many productions I have seen, have I been moved to sing the praises of the bottle men – all of whom failed to maintain the bottles' upright status. They deserved the hallelujahs – because they had at least made an honest attempt to complete the dance without resort to subterfuge. The Bottle Dance had for once been enhanced by believability.

One by one, the bottles dropped – but it was one of the most reassuring sights I have ever seen on stage. Here were half a dozen genuine triers, far more deserving of applause than all those clever micks who, as I have been lamenting for many years, simply go through the motions then claim the acclaim because the glue has worked.

Of course it's worked! That's what glue's for! And when it's worked, we all clap like mad. We know they've treated us like fools, so we might as well show how right they were in doing so.

Hooray! Hooray! How unspeakably clever they've been, in failing to fool any of the people any of the time. It's the world's least convincing con trick. But yes, I clap with the rest of them. Noblesse oblige, or something.

But what I really want to do is throw something. Probably a bottle.

John Slim


Can that be Kate behind the bar?

I RECKON it's a good job that we chaps are not expected to kneel at the approach of royalty. Our wives, mothers, sisters and daughters have to practise their curtseys beforehand, but all that is expected of us is a bow of the bonce – a slow inclination of the neck that may or may not display our dandruff.

For this, I thank tradition and custom for their consideration. These days, although I have had a couple of hip-exchanges, I have yet to pop to hospital for a knee-swapping fest. All that the passage of time has brought me is a brace of hips and an arthritic back. Meanwhile I seethe with silent envy every time the latest production regales me with rubber-bodied dancers or citizens who rise from armchairs as if jet-propelled.

I have, of course, had my share of moving without having to think about it first; without the need to consider what I may have to hang on to when halfway through what is becoming something of a major operation. But, as I foresee a future as a sort of seated human statue, changing position only when propelled by kindly carers, I am aware that there will come a time when those who at present simulate the speed of light with every move and gesture will themselves discover that fings ain't what they used to be.

Time does have a habit of catching up. Even the delightful Duchess of Cambridge will not prove to be immune.


Meanwhile, however, it is good to see our latest Royal evincing such a pleasing pleasure in the world about her. Shapely legs carry the country's most popular smile from point to point. Happiness appears to be her calling card. She's a grin on pins.

I don't know whether any member of the Royal Family has ever graced an amateur theatre production – but wouldn't it be fun if it fell to Kate, to either set the trend or to follow an existing but forgotten one?

I'm sure she would not be remotely fazed if she were invited to help out on the bar in the interval. It might even afford her the opportunity to put a Guinness where it belongs, unlike her royal in-laws, who graciously missed the chance when it was offered in the course of the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday celebrations – and who's to say she wouldn't have a go?

Pubs seem to be closing every day of the week, but it is surely a cast-iron certainty that there's a hostelry somewhere that will sooner or later become The Duchess of Cambridge – though I suspect that heads would roll if a brewery had the temerity to support its loyal royal cheek with a signboard bearing the Middleton likeness.

In any case, it's more fun to see her about the place than swinging over the main entrance as a graven image.

She is much older than was the luckless Princess of Wales when she achieved greatness and had royalty thrust upon her – which is why we have so far seen no hint that Diana's trademark early shyness may be repeated. Here is a duchess who, like the sister I have previously commended,  is undoubtedly A Good Thing – meeting the people, offering the royal glove without a qualm, seemingly destined to be a dream of a Queen.

Royal gloves and I are not immediately discernible as odds-on favourites to be close acquaintances in the immediate future, of course – but should I find myself in line for the highly unlikely, it will be no end of a pleasure to bow the old bean.

John Slim


Theatregoer? Don't tell a soul!

TURN up at a theatre's first night and you may possibly not know what is in store for you. Take the audience at Sadler's Wells Theatre for the launch of Un Peu de Tendresse Bordel de Merde.

No, I wasn't there, either, but, relying on the report of someone who was there on behalf of a publication that intermittently calls itself a family newspaper, I gather that “naked male dancers ran into the stalls, rubbed their crotches in people's faces, parted their buttocks within inches of women's noses and generally behaved like apes.”

The article virtually filled a tabloid page and was accompanied by a four-column photograph of three of the dancers wearing blond wigs, scrambling across the seats while members of the audience wore expressions of amusement, disgust and shock.

If it had happened in the street, somebody would have been arrested. Why was nobody arrested in any case? Since when has a theatre been a sanctuary? I know they say you can't find a copper when you need one, but even so. . .


The production was the latest in a tawdry line of offerings in theatre land, featuring male nudity, homosexual rape and masturbation. Who thought it a good idea this time around to present a knicker-free woman straddling a chocolate cake? Who pays to see this sort of muck? Who pays to put it on?

I don't know the answer to the first and second questions, but the answer to the third is a bit alarming: you do. So do I.

We spread our largesse, all unconsulted, our consent taken for granted, because Sadler's Wells is a state-subsidised emporium that separates us from £2.5 million a year. We have to pay our taxes, so we have to be pimps by proxy, because the avant garde among theatre management insist on showing how brave and daring they are – clearly unaware that daring eventually defeats its own object by becoming boring.

So we now get to read of “a gimmicky barrage of genitals” and “bearded bimbos gleefully rubbing their bottoms against anything that doesn't resist.”

Makes you proud to be a supporter of the world of theatre, doesn't it? Still, I suppose we can try to keep our quirk well hidden under our hats. I won't tell a soul if you don't.

John Slim


The bottom line or two

WELL, hip, hip, hooray and Bottoms up!

Just a small salute to the two joints that enable us to bend in the middle, and more especially to applaud good old gluteus maximus, which lets us sit down immediately afterwards.

Like the hips, the backside – also tagged as the posterior and the derrière – is usually taken for granted, but it is habitually more in the public eye than the twin joints that don't last anywhere near as long and are prone to replacement in what has become a matter of routine surgery.

It's not surprising. Hips work pretty hard. And what does the average bottom do? It sits down. It's not overtaxed.

Interestingly, a football ground is the place where bottoms are particularly on parade in all their perversity. Football clubs spend thousands of pounds to provide seats for them, but as far as I can see these oases of comfort are used only at half-time, or when they are being thrown onto the pitch.

Even in theatres, where the seats are habitually even more comfortable, patrons are apt to fail to get their money's worth out of them, especially if the occasion is a pop-filled musical one. At such times, as the show comes towards its ear-splitting conclusion, the audience rises as one to clap and scream and stamp.

I should have said the audience rises, except one. Me.


Naturally, when everybody else is standing up and going delirious and I stay put, I can't see what's happening on stage. I do show my enthusiasm – but moderation in all things. I'm not a standing stamper, but I don't mind clapping along – so it's not at all unusual to discover that I am applauding the writhing behind of the young lady in front of me and sort of sensing that something exciting is going on beyond her.

It does tend to be the female bottom, rather than the hips, that catches the eye and makes the news. Marilyn Monroe's hips may well have been working overtime when she purred Happy Birrrthday, Mr President to John F Kennedy, but nobody to whom the television camera gave the rear view was giving them a thought. It was a day, yet again, when bottoms were tops.

It's the same with Jennifer Lopez, J-Lo to her friends. J-Lo became J-Hi the moment somebody observed the anatomical exception that is her backside and pointed a Nikon at it. This is a bottom with attitude, a stern with expression, a pert little bump of a rump, a rear to hold dear. Our Jennifer joined Hollywood's star-filled galaxy on the instant.

Pippa Middleton has also been hailed as A Good Thing in the matter of bottoms. In her case, it's because it has class, rather than idiosyncrasy. It's a bottom newly brought to the fringe of fame because its owner is the sister-in-law of the Duke of Cambridge.

On the other hand, your God-fearing workaday bottom can be the, er, butt of a joke, if one of those particularly colossal ones is wobbling along, just ahead of a group of loud-mouthed oafs. Or it can be incorporated into the tale of the man who poisoned his wife with a razor blade. (He gave her arsenic).

My sister and brother-in-law once had two goats called Ifs and Butts. It is only their names that prompt me to mention them in this spasm of posterior-pondering – but now I've done it I might as well also mention the name of our first cat before I bring these bletherings to an overdue conclusion.

He was Astrophe. Because he was our cat Astrophe. Life can be so logical.

John Slim


Danes' brown study means Marmite is out

AS far as I know, Marmite has never been mentioned or seen in a play. I'm probably wrong, of course – but if by chance I am right, it seems a shame.

Not a shame that I'm right, just a shame that I don't remember having yet seen the dark brown sticky stuff in its highly individual jar claiming its share, either onstage or on TV, of the product placement routine that is now being allowed to creep into productions on television.

Eventually, I'm sure, we shall see a pot perched on one of Ricky Tomlinson's kneecaps if he and the rest of the Royle family return to the overworked settee that they occupied in three TV series from 1998-2000. It seems certain that an emotion-stirrer like Marmite – you either love it or hate it – will eventually be slipped into our daily round, whether it be as an in-yer-face Product or something slightly more subtle, on a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't basis.

Certainly, Marmite would possibly be less obtrusive than the first product to be “placed” on British television, a Nescafé coffee machine, which was allowed to elbow its way onto This Morning.

The Church of England and the medical fraternity failed to acclaim the oversized coffee box with a flurry of hallelujahs, on the grounds that it could promote unhealthy lifestyles and even damage the trust they clearly think we have in broadcasters. Would they be similarly offhand with, and offended by, Marmite, that simple, unassuming by-product of the brewing industry?


Quite apart from its obvious benefits in adding a tang to the toasted crust – I speak as a Marmite-lover, naturally – I understand that it gets good marks for its contribution to the all-pervading health and safety because it frightens off mosquitoes. It seems that without necessarily having overdosed on the brown stuff, we are likely to emit Marmite vapours through our pores – and the small flying community does not like it one bit.

Clearly, a Marmite sandwich stakes its claim as the ideal precursor for a spot of sunbathing – even if the goo between the bread has come from one of those upstart squeezy jars and has become a bit more liquefied than we are accustomed to, in order to overcome its possible reluctance to emerge.

But not in Denmark. May 2011 goes down as the month in which Marmite was threatened with biting the Danish dust. Its cardinal sin was that it contains vitamins – and vitamins in food are not allowed in this slice of Scandinavia. That's why Rice Krispies and Ovaltine have also been shown a red card. The Danish Government does not mess about: vitamins are bad for you.

I don't imagine that mosquitoes are much less deleterious. Nevertheless, when in Copenhagen, it looks as if we shall have to stick to a Danish sandwich.

John Slim


It's such a pity when the beat goes on

MANY, many years ago, far longer ago than I can remember, in the course of a production whose name entirely escapes me, though seem to recall that it was an offering by Sutton Coldfield's Trinity Players, I watched one of my former schoolmates drop dead.

Not really. Only pretending. It's just that I was most impressed with the way that Tony did it.

With his arms straight down at his sides, and with not a bend of his back or his knees, he simply dropped to the ground. Again, I can't for the life of me think whether he was falling backwards or forwards – though I do seem to recall that he was subsequently carted off in a wheelbarrow.

But I do know, whichever way he went, that I have never forgotten the astonishment that attended his artistic departure to Higher Things. I suppose on reflection that there must have been something to break his fall, but if there was it did not impinge on my awareness at the time – which it why, in its essence, it was one of the bravest things I have seen on stage. So brave that I don't suppose the minions of 'Elf and Safety would dream of allowing it nowadays, were word to reach them of the plan during rehearsal period.

Dying on stage customarily has another connotation, of course. As far back as I can remember, it was associated with comedians at the Glasgow Empire, where Killing the Comic on a Saturday night was the sport that enabled football fans to work off any energy they still possessed after watching a Rangers-Celtic match.

But I must say that I am always a tad anxious for actors who are required to do the Big Farewell for the sake of a production. Not for their safety, as I was in Tony's case. It's just that I have never understood why directors don't make more of an effort to ensure that the corpse of the moment is sufficiently hidden behind a chair or a settee, so that nit-picking patrons like me don't become irritated by the unavoidable realisation that it is still breathing. There's life in the old ham yet, sort of thing.


On television, the Dear Departed can be instructed to hold its breath for a second or two, to avoid the rise and fall of the abdomen that would otherwise rivet my attention, before the camera switches to its face. So with television it's the face – or rather, the neck – that finds me unfailingly bemused.

I just can't understand why I have never yet seen a TV corpse with its pulse beating in close-up – and believe me, being a fully paid-up member of the Let's Be Awkward Squad, I find I am unable to avoid looking for it. But never, since I saw my first television drama – a live production of Rope, on a tiny black-and-white screen in an otherwise darkened room in 1949, in the requisitioned block of flats in which I was ensconced with a few hundred other National Servicemen in St John's Wood – have I seen evidence that somebody's neck is more alive than the rest of his body is supposed to be.

In defying the laws of nature, the corpse has apparently paused its pulse. It can't have done really, I know, but how is it that it does seem to switch it off so unfailingly for the sake of the camera?

But even if it didn't, the wonders of television could surely appear to make it happen. All that is needed is a still photograph – a close-up of the late lamented where he has fallen, so that this can be slotted into the film. I know nothing of the world of TV trickery, and I suppose it is quite possible that this is an artifice that is already widely carried out. I have no idea and I have never heard it mentioned – but having never spotted the indefatigable pulse of the allegedly dead, I feel fairly sure that something must be habitually practised in the matter of pulse-pausing in pursuit of artistic reality. After all these years, I surely could not otherwise have failed to spot a single one.

At the other extreme of dying on stage, there is the Comedy Corpse – the one that is most disastrously dead but then opens an eye. It's the sort of thing in which the Farndale comedies – which have not crossed my path for many years since they were all the rage – are happy to indulge, along with scenery that has been placed upside-down and suitcases that are belatedly but not very furtively pushed onto the stage from the wings so that they can assume their vital part in the action.

Laughter is guaranteed. But for head-scratching, eyebrow-raising, would-you-believe-it moments, my money is on the pulse that stands still whenever a director wants it to.

John Slim


Make way for the audience

IT was with Old Timer's Dismay that I read of Cilla Black's encounter with a seven-year-old boy when she was the Prince in a Liverpool pantomime. 

She did the time-honoured panto thing of kissing her Princess on the cheek – only for a monstrous infant in the front row to shout, “Cilla Black is a lesbian!” 

She did her best. She walked to the front of the stage and addressed the obnoxious half-pint. “I'm a man”, she said. “Can't you see what I am!” 

Well, no, the regrettable little toad made it clear that he couldn't. He declared, “I'm more of a man than you, and I'm only seven.” 

I can't help thinking that if there were any justice whatever in these liberal days, he would be lucky to see eight. And I shiver, in my ninth decade, while Whitehall's whiz-kids unveil their intention of ensuring sex lessons for four-year-olds, at the way in which standards have plummeted since “my” day – a day, that is to say, when I am pretty sure that I had still never heard of lesbians by the time I ended my two years of National Service in the RAF on behalf of the late King George VI, on May 10, 1951. 

In my day, men were men and women were grateful, and I could have been the role model for the man in the joke. He was told that a girl who had just walked into the bar was a lesbian and he went up to her and asked where it was in Lesbia that she lived.  

Our Cilla – whom I interviewed when she was a 17-year-old newcomer – has now joined the ranks of performers who have been challenged by the patrons. I think it was the late Sir Donald Wolfit who brought his misfortune on himself, having been halted in his tracks, halfway through a Shakespearian soliloquy, on becoming aware that he had failed to enthral a man who was sound asleep in the front row. 


Like our Cilla, many years later, he strode towards the stalls. And as with our Cilla, things didn't quite work out as he had hoped. 

“That man there!” he shouted. “Wake him up!” 

On the instant, from elsewhere in the auditorium, came the reply: “You put him to sleep! You wake him up!” Alas, I have never heard the end of the story. 

Unscripted audience involvement is not uncommon. Theatregoing is always prone to be plagued by the untethered idiot who thinks he is funnier than the script. Indeed, the script doesn't even have to try to be funny: drop in on a drama school production in a studio theatre, and be prepared for lunatic braying from the front row because a so-called student finds it hilarious that his mate Tracey is talking in a different accent from the one to which he is accustomed. Somehow, nobody has ever told him that this is called acting. 

There is room, nevertheless, for suspicion, particularly in pantomimes, that things are not as spontaneous as they seem. Anyone who has seen Widow Twankey in Old Peking, or followed a thigh-slapping Whittington on the road to London, knows that, come what may, there is a time when somebody on stage reads out greetings to audience members and soon receives the expected response from the circle: “She's gone to the toilet!” 

The merry widow is also prone to register delight and disbelief that Mrs Jones is 111. Oh, no, she isn't. She's ill. Not for the first time, I realise that I am jaded and jaundiced.  

And yet, inevitably, every time I suffer another pang of familiarity and regret, I am aware that I am in the presence of dozens of children for whom such dross comes shiny-new – and children deserve the delight that it gives them. 

Unless, of course, one of them is a seven-year-old toad who is perhaps over-optimistic about attaining his eighth birthday.

John Slim


Let's have a quick run-through

IT has taken me a long time to catch up with the Ullenhall Players, out there in deepest Warwickshire, but with their latest pilgrimage into Redditch and the lovely Palace Theatre it was time to do so – not only to make amends for having somehow stayed away from them for the last 27 years while making other amateur theatre groups sick of the sight of me, but because I was lured by learning of the way they have been turning the end of every production into a sort of signature scamper. 

It's a simple enough idea: present a play as the playwright has planned – but then present it again at high speed in two minutes flat. That's where a simple idea becomes an exercise in mind-boggling rapidity. It's a tradition that the Players started in 2003, with Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor, and it's one that makes them just a bit different from most other groups.  

It is, after all, a tradition that means that when you go to see a Players show, you end up seeing it twice – with the second time lasting only a couple of minutes. Naturally, there is no time for dialogue – just lots of dashing about and gestures. It's like Charlie Chaplin on fast-forward. 

By now, the Players' regular patrons have come to expect this extraordinarily rapid re-run. If they don't get it, they withdraw, feeling thwarted. But give them their due, the Players have been doing their best to maintain the habit. Since Lend Me A Tenor, they have demonstrated it with It Runs in the Family (2005), No Room for Love (2006). Cash on Delivery (2007), Who Goes Bare? (2008), Business Affairs (2009), It Runs in the Family (a second time, in 2010) – and in their 2011 production, How the Other Half Loves, the Alan Ayckbourn romp. 


Players spokesman David Humphries says: “Production-wise, the finale is quite demanding. It requires split-second timing and enough space offstage for the cast to turn about and re-enter through the correct door. We normally use The Can-Can – The Galop Infernal from Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld – to drive the reprise and we use the natural pauses in the music to emphasise particular parts of the action. 

“The first reprise, for Lend Me a Tenor, was received with such acclaim that in 2005 we decided to adopt this style of finale for all future spring productions at the Palace Theatre. Because of the space constraints at village hall productions, we tend then not to run the finale there – but of course then we get good-humoured complaints from our regular followers.” 

The Players left their own village hall, their home since the 1950s, in September 2009, after the village hall committee decided, for reasons unpredictable and seemingly unspecified, to remove the stage and facilities for scenery storage. They are now based in nearby Aston Cantlow, but the success of their Redditch reprise – coupled with the fine quality of their latest production – should be healing any scars left by the unexpected parting of the ways. 

It also prompts the thought that, with a few other groups already making a habit of culminating in a canter, perhaps somebody should organise a canter festival – a round-up of reprises, presented at five-minute intervals. Yes, the intervals would be longer than the action, but scenery and props don't clear themselves when the action finishes. 

And if the programme didn't give the titles away, there could be a game of Name the Play, with a prize for the member of the audience who got most right. Why not? There's always room for something new in Theatreland.

John Slim


A quick flit from Fliss to Flick

I DID not see Fliss Walton in TV's Doctors or Holby City – but I don't care. I have now started seeing her repeatedly, saying “ISA ISA, Baby” in a television commercial for a product-pusher whose name has never registered with my brain cell. She is a daffy distraction. Who cares what she's advertising? 

It's the same with the efforts of other organisations to prise open my piggy-bank via the box in the corner. Time after time, I see an expensively-produced bit of telly excitement and I have no idea what it is advertising until it's finishing and it turns out to be a car. And when the hoo-ha has subsided, it's no use hoping that I shall be able to say what car. Telly-wise, I live for the moment. 

As far as Miss Walton is concerned, the moment lasts about 30 seconds. She wears headphones and a wide-eyed sparkly-barmy expression, nodding her head repeatedly while moving it gradually from one side to the other. 

I am presumably not the only one who cannot keep up with the plot on these occasions. But I hope my confession that I am a waste of advertising budgets does not result in the banishment of the delightful Miss W from my screen. (As if it would! Oh, the presumption of the man!). 

There are, after all, those who have gone out of their way to be unkind to her. One somewhat disenchanted Internet contributor I found on entering “ISA ISA, Baby” declared: “This is beginning to feel as though Halifax are deliberately making annoying adverts to piss everyone off” – and that is one of the more quotable ones.


But at least this has now given me a suspicion about which is the bank behind the winsome Walton charmer – who, I gather in further pursuing my investigations, is 5ft 8in with brown hair and hazel eyes and weighs in at 10 stone. 

Moreover, I find that she shares with me the likelihood of an unintentional name change. From time to time, I have occasion to tell people who I am, and they write down my name. Unfortunately, they sometimes write it in capital letters: SLIM. Even more unfortunately, they put the I too close to the L and they eventually read it as SUM and write it on the envelope or parcel that I'm waiting for. 

And just as I can be Mr Sum, Fliss is intermittently likely to be Fuss. What's more, although she is by far the most pleasing of distractions, she is not the only habituée of TV to suffer the importunities of L and I. Somewhere in the archives of 'Allo, ۥAllo, there lurks Herr Flick, but I'm not going to talk about him. 

Fliss/Fuss is one of three newly digitised distractions I have found recently. Another is the little black-and-white dog that made an appearance in the first episode of the new Midssomer Murders series. It was caught in the middle of a chat between two people – I remember not who – and as the conversationalists spoke in turn, it twisted its head back and forth to watch the speaker. It looked as if it had been trained at Wimbledon and it was a winner with me on the instant.  

That is more than I can say for the jokey new detective inspector who has joined the well-established detective sergeant – who has also, unfortunately, become one half of what seems to be intended to be a new comedy double act. But I thought the dog was a delight.  

Equally, I find I have a soft spot for a man I can't see. He is the voice-over in the cause of do-it-yourself, and I am fascinated by the way he says Wickes so cosily on a descending scale and comes as near as dammit to turning it into three syllables. That takes some doing.
John Slim


So it's goodbye from me . . .

THE time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things. Or, in my case, to talk about calling a halt.

It is 27 years since I began writing about amateur theatre, entirely by accident. The year was 1984 and the man who had been specifically taken on by the Birmingham Evening Mail to cover the amateur stage had upped sticks and gone elsewhere.

So when the features editor asked me if I would “look after it this week”, I signified that this was all right by me, though without noticeable enthusiasm and with no knowledge whatever of the subject. 

I went on, er, looking after it this week, both for the Mail and The Birmingham Post – this was long before the Post decided to drop its definite article as it pursued an indefinite future – until I took early retirement in 1991. This was part of a very gentle, very civilised winding-down of a career that had largely seen me specialising in scores of major interviews with public figures from all kinds of backgrounds.  

I was at the House of Commons as the first journalist to interview Enoch Powell after his River of Blood speech in 1968; at the Dorchester as the first to interview Muhammed Ali after he was struck by what we now know is Parkinson's Disease.


He spent the entire session with his eyes closed, essentially asleep, slurring answers to my questions through closed teeth and lips that barely opened, and only doing that because I was shouting into his right ear while one of his acolytes repeatedly stabbed his left thigh to try to keep him conscious. This, sadly, had become the real Ali, who bore no resemblance to the man who was somehow to present his customary larger-than-life, showbizzy persona for that evening's recording of the Michael Parkinson Christmas show. 

The amateur stage came as quite a contrast to my great big wide world beyond the village hall. But trying to call it a day on retirement in 1991, just seven years after it had been thrust upon me, made me realise that the amateur stage is something you don't shake off that easily once it has got its hooks into you.  

Having thought I had retired, I not only began editing the national magazine of the National Operatic & Dramatic Association (NODA), Britain's umbrella organisation for amateur theatre, but went on reviewing amateur theatre for the Evening Mail and writing two weekly columns, one for the Mail and one for the Post – which I continued to do until I thought I had retired again, in September 2009, when my 13-year stint with NODA came to an end.

It was then that I discovered that my former Post & Mail colleague Roger Clarke and I were then somehow going to go cyberspatial. Without more ado, we launched Behind the Arras. 

I feel pretty confident in saying that since the Post & Mail virtually turned its back on amateur theatre in 2009, and in the absence of any other significant regional press interest, BTA has turned out to be a pretty good stopgap. It's informative, it's fun and it offers reviews that are observant and authoritative. Long may it continue. 


But, reverting to the Walrus, I realise that my own contribution to the reviews section is reaching the end of its shelf life. I love amateur theatre and the friends I have made within it – some of them right from the start of my own involvement more than a quarter of a century ago – but with the best will in the world I can't pretend that my eightieth birthday at the end of January was just a figment of my imagination.  

It's time to go – or, more specifically, if there is a review on the horizon, not to go. I don't want another winter of night-time driving, up to four times a week. I don't want any more getting home late and then confronting the keyboard until after midnight. 

And to be still more specific, I don't want to find, after 57 years of enjoyable motoring, that I am becoming an irritant to other road users. It's time to go. 

So, with just a suspicion of a tear in the eye, I'm going. No more reviews from me after August. It's a shame, because this has become the job that's become a hobby.

I've had much fun and pleasure and found many friends in my efforts to be appreciative without recourse to soft soap; honest while doing my best not to overdo the anguish for some particular individual; and always being aware that I do have a duty to tell potential audiences what they are letting themselves in for before they spend their hard-earned cash. 


It is all due to end pretty soon. High summer will be high noon. 

But to ease the parting of the ways – for me, I mean, not for anybody else – I shall continue to scatter Small Thoughts as frequently as my brain cell is able to find any, and I shall continue to be the receptacle for the news and views of theatre groups and individuals. Tell me, and I shall tell that portion of the world that is alert enough to tune in to Behind the Arras. 

Amateur productions will continue to be reviewed in Behind the Arras, but not by me. I shall be contemplating the telly and ruminating. They can't touch you for it.  

In 43 years of reviewing – professional theatre came my way in 1968,  as an adjunct to my “proper” journalistic job of that period and 16 years before I began to be a nuisance around the amateur stage as well – I have so far turned up at a theatre in my slippers only once.  

Time to quit while I'm ahead.

John Slim

Mr Slim's departure as a peripatetic reviewer of this parish means that Behind The Arras, the world's leading organ of amateur and professional stage (in the West Midlands . . . involving people called Clarke and Slim . . . and Marston . . . and with a quote from Hamlet in the title) will be looking for reviewers of the world of the amateur thespian. Details to follow shortly.


Proverbial punchbags

IT'S quite fun, using proverbs as punchbags. You know: think of an ancient adage or cliché and turn it into a bit of a surprise. 

I have a friend who insists on saying that he who laughs last gathers no moss. He inspired me to point out that it is only an extremely short lane that has no turning, and that you should not count your chicken before it's crossed the road.  

You get the idea. Encourage words to do what they're best at – packing surprises. 

It's a rare child who knows his own father. A bird in the hand may poo on your palm. A friend in need is a friend who comes scrounging. Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder, so let bygones by big ones. 

You can place a plaque on both your houses or go racist by suggesting that a miss is as good as a mlle. You can graduate with first-class honours in chauvinism by insisting that a woman's place is in the wrong and talking about the back of Beyoncé while pointing out that beauty is only skin. 

I soon realised that proverb distortion comes by the yard – but it isn't just what proverbs and clichés say, it's the way that we say them. How we say anything, in fact, that is an established ritual. I am fascinated every Sunday, for instance, by the kindly but sonorously ponderous priest who intones about the yoonerty of the Holy Spirit and I have wondered for years at my eldest daughter's insistence on saying becausssse with an unhurried emphasis and unmissable sibilance that always grab my attention so unfailingly that I am by now devoted to it. She unwinds it slowly, to hypnotic effect that defies me not to listen. I am hooked. 

And there's the friend – the wife of the friend who gathers no moss, as it happens – who commands the attention every time she disagrees with something. She swaps an R with an L and points out that it is not necesselery so. Meanwhile, aforesaid first friend, on hearing something that surprises him in the course of a conversation, is apt to say, Steps back in amazement! Delete the exclamation mark and it's the sort of instructional thing you may well find in a play script.

My father was prone to exclaim, Bless your little cotton socks! And Go and chop chips! And Well, I'll be blest! 

Another friend – the wife, already mentioned, of the moss-spurning first friend – heaps gentle abuse on her amiable helpmeet by addressing him as You dolly! And I, many years ago, was greeted by a photographer colleague on The Birmingham Post when he strolled alongside my desk with the words, How are you, you mouldering old heap of parrot droppings? 

This sort of thing is possibly known as Words They Live By, and they're special.

John Slim


Whodunit? The Sergeant did!

THE opening episode of the new television whodunit series Lewis didn't do a fat lot to get the old corpuscles racing. 

But before going to sleep after about half an hour there was time to observe that Inspector Lewis's detective sergeant sidekick had the misfortune to be required to say inventory twice – and he made a mess of it both times. 

It's nothing whatever to do with invent and its accent comes on its first syllable. 

Clearly, this has escaped the notice of the actor, the director, the producer and everyone else associated with what is usually a pleasing interlude. So much for Education, education, education.

John Slim


Roll over? It's 9.30 am!

“GET further down the bed”, she said. “Get your head under the clothes. Roll over.”

Well, yes, but I'm reading the paper and it's only 9.30 in the morning. I could have protested that it was a bit early for this sort of thing – and anyway, I'm 80 now. But Pat has an authoritative air about her and it comes through clearly, even on the telephone.

Even on the telephone, moreover, I am discovering that Pat knows precisely where I am, even before I have freely confessed that she has found me opting for my habitually delayed departure from between the duvet and the memory-foam mattress. The moment I responded to her call, she had realised that there was something muffled in my manly tones; something not quite as clear and bell-like as citizens who don't catch me in bed are accustomed to hearing.

I have known her for the best part of 60 years, but this is a talent of which I had not until now suspected her. It seems that when Patricia, by the marvels of telephonic communication, begins talking to somebody malingering between the sheets, she knows on the instant. Apparently, the likes of me come out a bit muffled. She reckons it's all down to having the spine enshrouded in pillow.

I was impressed – so I conducted a small-scale experiment. I had been lying almost supine, but pillow-propped, while I prised yesterday's happenings out of today's newspaper. But now, in the cause of aural science, I undertook the biggest effort of the day thus far and somehow separated my back from the foam-filled comfort on which it had been reclining.

Nearly 30 miles away, she detected the difference on the instant. I was even more impressed – and it struck me that here could be the germ of an idea for a playwright in search of inspiration. Could I have stumbled upon a talent that could be intriguingly incorporated into The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and astound television audiences worldwide?

And there's Alan Bennett, of course: he's reported at the moment as battering abortively at writer's block and could possibly be disproportionately grateful for a bit of a leg-up in his hour of need.

Perhaps he could turn out something about a citizen who specialises in long-distance diagnosis of the positions that people are in when they receive telephone calls. Once he'd started, aforesaid specialist could find himself at the forefront of a science that nobody had suspected we needed. And from there, where could it lead?

I've no idea – but then, I'm not Alan Bennett.

John Slim


Initial indications of a celebration

HALL GREEN LITTLE THEATRE – now increasingly intent on greeting the world from behind its new banner as hglt – attracts my attention by announcing that it will be celebrating its 60th birthday on April 2 and 3.

I am alerted because my 55th wedding anniversary is on April 3 – but Saturday, April 2, is the bigger of Hall Green's two dates. No hard feelings: I'm sure they'll try harder in 2021.

Meanwhile, at 2.30 pm on April 2, there will be a showing of Greasepaint and Girders, the film of early members at work, building their new home, ready for its opening production in April 1951, plus BBC Television's contemporary story of their achievement, Mind Your Own Business.

After a buffet supper at 5.30 pm – which sounds rather more like teatime – there will be a performance of The Unexpected Guest.  Understandably, hglt is at pains to point out that, unlike the supper and the two films, Christie does not come complementary and that the box office is on high alert to sell tickets for Dame Agatha's thriller, which follows at 7.30 pm.


The excitement abates overnight but the intentions to continue with a reet good do are evinced in the plan for a gathering for tea, coffee and reminiscences at 11 am on April 3 – which is the reason for my evincing a rare interest in the timetable for the shindig that is following the sacrificing very recently of a name in the interest of initials.

That first production was The Circle of Chalk and it has been followed by more than 500 others. hglt – capital letters have been abandoned in the face of the insurgence of initials – hopes that former members from down the years will join their current successors to celebrate the anniversary of a little theatre which was built over many months by those who toiled willingly and freely to create it with their own hands.

Meanwhile, didn't I do well? I sense a groundswell of disbelief. Here is a man who can remember his wedding anniversary at the drop of a hat. I claim no credit. I forsook freedom on 3.4.56, which does have a certain helpful resonance. In fact, however, it always comes with a tinge of regret that knot-tying time was 11 am instead of an hour later.

 Regret? Nay, envy! There must be a select group of ancients who can point out that they arrived at the altar at and who have been dining out ever since on this marvel of matrimonial timing.

John Slim 


'Can it really be sixty years?'

This is a question that many of the founding members of Hall Green Little Theatre are asking themselves. In April 1951, the building that they - and many friends who are no longer with us - had toiled many months to build with their own hands, was finally ready for the opening production of ‘The Circle of Chalk.'

The following sixty years have seen many hundred stars of the Midlands put on over 500 shows, from comedy to drama, classics to pantos and more, all supported by teams of backstage and front of house theatre enthusiasts.

It is no surprise then that there will be a celebratory mood this April at Pemberley Rd, Acocks Green, and Hglt are organizing two special days to remember. Current active members have been contacted, but the help of the local press is sought to help spread the message to ex-members that are no longer in touch.

Calling all ex-active members!

A warm invitation is extended to  past active members to come along and share memories of times spent and productions made at the Pemberley Road theatre. The main celebrations take place on Saturday 2nd:

Saturday 2 April

2.30 p.m. Showing of “Greasepaint and Girders” and the BBC television

programme “Mind your own Business” which featured the Theatre;

5.30 p.m (Approx) Buffet supper

7.30 p.m. Performance of Agatha Christie's “The Unexpected Guest”

(There will be a charge for tickets for the play performance.)


Sunday 3 April

11.00 a.m.            Coffee/Tea 


Shaun makes the scientists look sheepish

I DON'T know how long it is that Shaun the Sheep has been enlivening my afternoons for five minutes, Monday to Friday, on BBC 1 – but it is clear that the boffins have only just started taking notice of him.

The folks with the brains are suddenly excited because they have discovered that your average unassuming sheep has more intelligence than they suspected – as much as humans, according to some tests.

Researchers have been rocked by the realisation that sheep can recognise people, respond to their names, work out which of a choice of coloured buckets is the one containing food, and then find food when guided only by coloured shapes – even when the colour does not matter. And they can cross cattle-grids by lying down and then rolling over them.

All this has resulted in sheep being classed as quicker than rats, mice and marmosets but not as bright as Rhesus monkeys.

It's a shame about the monkey comparison, but I'm hanging onto the positives – and I'm back to Shaun the Sheep. I didn't find him until a couple of years ago, but this splendid little chap has been on television with pleasing regularity since his début on Christmas Eve, 1996, in Nick Park's short animated feature film, A Close Shave – and the brainboxes among us have not kept up with him.

Thanks to Shaun, we already knew that sheep can open gates, build dry stone walls, climb ladders, trees and telephone poles, and drive lorries, cars and tractors. They can outwit a farmer, especially if he is able to speak only in monosyllable grunts while he surveys his world through blacked-out glasses. All this, despite having no noses. Shaun, moreover, is a synchronised swimmer.

We were already fully primed. We cannot share the scientists' surprise. Can they really be so – er, woolly-minded?

John Slim


Can we have a word with computers?

I SEE that somebody has upset his computer by having the temerity to try to write about faggots.

You know: they're what one of my dictionaries describes as “a baked or fried ball of seasoned chopped liver etc”, while another one ignores them altogether.

But, bless me, he got into trouble the moment he spelled out faggots. It's not allowed. He was breaching the bounds of good taste. He had to be put a stop to. Muzzled. And he was.

A faggot, alas, is more certainly identified in impolite quarters nowadays as a homosexual. It's a word that has been hijacked. The person responsible in the first place, instead of inventing a new word, simply pinched it – and now, says this particular computer, there's no way of applying it to the Black Country delicacy that has to all intents and purposes been proudly bearing its name for ever.

I might have said, in another age, that that's a little queer, but again the world of etymology has beaten me to it. So let's just say I reckon it's a bit hard – but on the other hand, it's almost exactly the same as has happened to gay.

It was in the early 1950s that I saw Cicely Courtneidge in the Ivor Novello-Alan Melville musical Gay's the Word. She was in her late fifties but accompanying her rendering of Vitality with a succession of cartwheels. Those were the days when gay meant happy and joyful.


Not any more, it doesn't – because gay is indeed the word, the word that has been taken over and re-insinuated into the language with completely different connotations, initially by somebody who presumably couldn't be bothered to find himself a new one.

And and now we're all stuck with having been deprived of what was always such a cheerful little trio of letters. Try to use it now in its original meaning, and you will find you are on the instant into a world of misunderstandings, like the man with the faggots.

As far as I know, the problems that gay encountered were nothing to do with a computer. It was simply stolen – but I am reminded that this whole business of upsetting our computers also cropped up on the West Midlands amateur theatre scene in the early summer of 2009. That was when Birmingham's Billesley Players were preparing to present Noel Coward's Nude with Violin.

Oh, no you don't, said their computer. Nude is rude.

And that meant that their plans to present the play for two nights in June that year, preceded by necessary publicity, were stymied by the affronted box in the corner.

Where are we going? It's no use asking me: I'm just the one who stutters disbelief and wonders why people who are intelligent enough to make computers are so stupid that they allow tin boxes to don dictators' hats and decree that we cannot ignore them.

John Slim


A Rush too soon to the loo

I HAVE finally seen it, and it's a cracker! I mean The King's Speech, the Oscars-grabbing movie starring the memorably-hesitant Colin Firth as King George VI, the monarch who fought such a brave battle with his stammer.  

Original film clips showing his struggles accentuate the accuracy of the Firth performance. It's jumping-on-the-spot, shoulder-loosening time for the admirable actor; hanky-to-the-eye time for the rest of us. 

Geoffrey Rush plays Lionel Logue, the speech therapist with whom the King built a trusting relationship after the shakiest of starts – and it is Rush who is ambushed by an anachronism, virtually at the start of the film. Has any moment of movie mistiming been quicker off the mark? 

Such things are by no means rare, of course. The most recent sighting, I gather (and I know that you can't actually see a sound), concerns Ironclad, something apparently nonsensical about King John and the Magna Carta and succinctly described in one newspaper as historical garbage. It is replete with 13th-Century badinage that includes “Get off my back”, which would drop into context only if spoken by His Majesty's horse. 


It is a far remove from the Oscar-grabbing excellence of The King's Speech – which nevertheless has been tripped up by unnecessary sloppiness. It finds King Colin and his Queen (Helen Bonham-Carter) arriving for their first appointment with Logue, who is nowhere to be found. The Queen gives a hopeful, enquiring cry – and from somewhere out of sight comes the voice of Geoffrey Rush, in full explanatory mode: “I'm in the loo!” 

And that was an extraordinarily far-sighted piece of script-writing, because the year is alleged to be 1934. True, James Joyce's Ulysses is said by the Oxford English Dictionary to have given a hint of things to come 12 years earlier, in 1922, with "O yes, mon loup. How much cost? Waterloo. Water closet." (I can't see it myself, but who am I to argue?) 

In any case, 1934 was long before the loo became the single-syllable substitute for the lavatory, and it had certainly not established any sort of a foothold by the date of Lionel Logue's interestingly posthumous-yet-precipitate saddling with it, to provide a head-scratching moment for surprised cinemagoers everywhere. 

A Rush to the loo, indeed.

John Slim


The great white wine fiasco

I HAVE just finished reading The Summer of a Dormouse, by John Mortimer, QC – wit, raconteur, novelist, creator of Rumpole of the Bailey and user of drugs and a wheelchair.  

It is a delight, felicitously written to describe what he calls a year of growing old disgracefully. But it underlines the anxiety I have long expressed in relation to theatre productions – that people just don't know how to drink champagne. 

Well, all right, they know how to drink it. What they don't know is how to hold the glass. 

The book's dust cover is illustrated with a drawing of about a dozen people, standing and drinking at some kind of gathering, while Mortimer is on his own, being ignored, in his wheelchair. This not only shows the rudeness of the drinking classes, but also makes it clear that they have never been instructed in the finer arts of getting the stuff down their neck. 

We can see seven of the glasses from which they are drawing their sustenance – and in every case, one of them being Mortimer, they are clasping not the stem but the flute. In other words, having been provided with an expensive drink, presumably suitably chilled, they are now warming it up with their hands – five of them using their right hand; and two, one of them Mortimer himself, their left. 

This is something that happens, not necessarily in these proportions, every time I see a drawing room comedy in the Noel Coward tradition. Clearly, director and actors know no better. They should hold the stem. That's what it's for. 

But the book is a delight. Mortimer, whom I met in his prime and who died in 2009, aged 85, describes its subject as a year of growing old disgracefully. He was a charming, shameless old reprobate, but thank heaven he happened to be a barrister who had the skill to put his trials – and tribulations – on paper. 

He also, surely, knew how to hold a glass of white wine – but from time to tiime, I have bewailed the inability of actors, amateur and professional, to drink white wine. 

In any production that involves the pleasing process of doing so, I can guarantee that the stuff in the glass is impaired by the time it reaches the lips. Speaking in the most general of terms, white wine is supposed to be served pleasantly chilled – not slightly warmed.

But slightly warmed is what it habitually is in any stage or television production in which it is offered as a civilized libation – because it is clear that neither the person drinking it nor the director who is supposed to have given precise instructions on how to do it has the remotest idea of how to go about it.


Even so, it was something of a shock to the system, in the final appearance of John Nettles as television's Detective Inspector Barnaby, to see that this likeable outpost of the law in Midsomer Murders had no more idea than the rest of them. All the more so, since he got it absolutely right when he was drinking celebratory champagne at the start of the episode, only to go just as abysmally adrift as his friends in the acting profession when he was required to repeat his success at the end. 

White wine is not served chilled for no reason, and certainly not in order to cool the hands of its imbibers. Nevertheless, when actors are required to drink either the genuine article or a health ۥn' safety imitation, they do so while enveloping the bowl in their drinking hand. This can be relied on not only to give them cold fingers but to warm the wine that is supposed to have been served chilled. It is an aberration that is clearly destined to go on for ever, because it is obvious that the drama schools that are supposed to have taught the actors and their directors alike have no more idea of the niceties involved than have their students.  

Perhaps, just to get the ball rolling, the annual summer school of the National Operatic & Dramatic Association could spare five minutes to start spreading the word by asking students if they can think of a reason why a wine glass has a stem – then pass their supplemented new teaching system on to RADA. 

Though I say it myself, that's not a bad idea. Let us drink to proper drinking – carefully, of course.

John Slim


David's not digitally doodah

You rang , Sir? Gerry Hinks as the butler delivers his line to Inspector Drake played, as always, by Alan Birch

WHEN it comes to evoking chortles in the stalls, Georges Feydeau (1862-1921) offers hell-for-leather lunacy at every revival. Alan Ayckbourn, though prone to black comedy and underlying darkness, even in his rib-ticklers, has about 100 plays to his name and is apt to enrich the humour of theatre with the bonus of an innovative and decidedly different approach. 

For years, Ray Cooney has been the current name that springs immediately to mind for lunatic fun and the frequency with which it emerges. He is the master of farce who first produced a belly laugh with One for the Pot in 1961. 

David Tristram was four at the time. 

By now, however, the Tristram outpouring of plays – 21 – sounds to have come of age on the wings of his steadily-growing reputation. This is why it is theatrically apt that he is now hitting cinema screens for the first time with the po-faced Inspector Drake, who, with Sergeant Plod, has become a quiet cult for thousands of afficionados since they arrived on stage.  

With typical Tristram insouciance, their first appearance, in the 1980s, was Inspector Drake's Last Case. Fortunately, it was a final foray that has turned out to have been followed by several more. And now, belatedly but heaven be praised, we can find the wrong arm of the law at the touch of a button. Not in cinemas, actually, though if there is still a remnant of sense in the real world which Drake and Plod spice with such painstaking lunacy, this surely cannot be long in coming. 

No, at present, Inspector Drake, born to the world of theatre, is still to be found in little-theatre surroundings – though these have, of necessity, to be temporarily embellished with a cinema screen to mark his coming. 

Rightly, the audience arrived black-tied and posh-frocked at The Theatre-on-the-Steps, Bridgnorth, for the gala world première at the Tristram equivalent of Ayckbourn's Joseph Theatre, in Scarborough. And there can be no equivocation over the Down-Under launches in Australia and New Zealand, where Tristram and Drake are a duo of recognised distinction, splendidly supplemented by Sergeant Plod. 


Nevertheless, it was understandable that Inspector Drake – The Movie also arrived without delay at Sutton Coldfield's Highbury Theatre. This is an outpost where productions of Tristram plays have prompted an amiable partnership between playwright and performers, three of whom are in the large company of actors it involved. 

Not, as David Tristram was at pains to point out at the Highbury showing, that there is any danger of confusing his cinematographic start (cost, £10,000) with a Hollywood movie (average cost, more than $150m). The Flying Ducks had £400 in the bank when ambitions stirred and the wheels began to whirr. Fortunately, ambitions were not to be derailed by an outbreak of commonsense. 

The result is a joy – over-long at 2½ hours, as Tristram acknowledges, but a joy. He says it was fashioned on the strength of unpaid actors, a crew of one, borrowed and stolen locations and a damn' good camcorder, and it took six months to make.  

While independent little theatres continue to come up with enquiries about hosting it, the whole lunatic unlikelihood has been committed to DVD – and its improbable length is a testimony to the fact that behind its success is a very talented but very human citizen. After coming up with the script, he directed his host of unpaid actors and actresses – and he says the result was very difficult to cut. You don't, he explains, want them giving their artistic all without reward and then turning up and finding that they're no longer in the cast. 

Inevitably, there were out-takes – but some have been preserved on the DVD, where they take their place after the intended laughter has come to a close.  

It is a civilized approach to multi-layered lunacy – and I am honoured to find that I am associated with it, even at a remove or two.  

When Inspector Drake – The Movie was still on its way, I was waving palms and shouting Hosannas!  Well, perhaps not. But I did write, and it's now inscribed on the DVD cover: “There is no cinematic experience I would prefer. He is Inspector Clouseau-cum-Goon. He is a joy that is largely indescribable. And on film he will be with us for keeps. With all the confidence I can muster, I now declare that he will be an instant high-powered hit.” 

While I don't detract a syllable, David Tristram characteristically betrays no excitement. Ask him whether this is the forerunner of films-to-come, and he says it's still early days. Reassuringly, he gives no impression of going digitally doodah.

John Slim


Beautiful? Who's kidding?

THE recent glossy magazine that came with a Sunday newspaper carried the rear view of a footballer's head. It was bony and bristly at the side and could well have been bald on the top, but it was hard to tell.

What was unmistakable, however, was that, in referring to an article somewhere inside, it spoke of “The beautiful game”, which seemed a bit ironic in that the head in question, being very much like any other head, could not be accused of having beautiful aspirations. 

The Beautiful Game is a label that has been used in relation to association football for more than 30 years – but association football, at its topmost level, is not remotely beautiful. It is a game that frequently sees players fighting in the tunnel or on the pitch – up to 22 of them.

It is a game that occasionally sees a deliberate foul tackle, sometimes with bone-breaking results, which the television camera conveys to our living rooms. It also finds these same thugs surrounding the referee, presumably with the sort of language that viewers are so frequently privileged to lip-read.

Beautiful? Who's kidding? 

It is tempting to suggest that theatre would be a suitable replacement as the standard recipient of the adjective that soccer abysmally fails to deserve. Certainly, it's possible that it used to be. It's not so certain nowadays, not when the patrons are apt to find that theatre is giving its stage to young men who, to coin a phrase, get their kit off. 

Well, there's a surprise! He's got a gentleman's sausage! But we felt fairly safe in assuming that already. Did we really need to see it? At least when a young actress strips to the buff, she is a thing of beauty, if unlikely to be a joy for ever. I do apologise to the PC brigade, by the way, for calling her an actress when it seems, for reasons uncertain, that they all like to be actors these days, but if I had made this one an actor the point would have been rather lost. 

We also get the revered Alan Bennett writing a 1986 play and calling it Kafka's Dick. We get Shopping and F***ing, the Mark Ravenhill 1996 naughtyfest that Birmingham's Crescent Theatre presented in 2007 and which still decorates its website with 49 photographs including a record of its heroes engaged in some enthusiastic gum-sucking and purported anal sex. 

In this respect, as with football's unlovely moments, theatre shows itself to be not remotely beautiful. It's not theatre's fault: it's down to some of the people who write, design, direct or act the sort of stuff that could equally uncomfortably be left to the imagination. 

It's a shame, but yes, it's down to the people. Without the people, we could well side with the poet in finding that every prospect pleases. It was this same poet who decided that man is vile – and do you know, he could be right.

John Slim


Bemusement on the bridal path

SOMEHOW, deeply rooted in the nation's subconscious, is the realisation that if you're a bride you're likely to be found walking up the aisle – but it's clear that we're by no means certain about it: witness a London newspaper. 

The headline was, Don't rush up that aisle, girls – but in the first paragraph underneath it talked about TV presenter Lisa Butcher not wanting her children to go “hurrying down the aisle.” 

Clearly, there is doubt about which way a bride should be going – or, indeed, coming. Moreover, the bemused bystander is not guided with any sense of authority by Bless the Bride (the A P Herbert-Vivian Ellis 1947 musical), The Bride Wore Boots, the Barbrara Stanwyck-Robert Cummings film of the previous year, or the third of the three stories in Neil Simon's Plaza Suite, which concerns a bride who locks herself in her hotel suite bathroom before the ceremony and refuses to emerge.  

But apart from her not knowing whether she's coming or going, when is a bride not a bride? Assuming she is agreed to be going up the aisle to the altar, and this is clearly a matter for doubt, is she still The Bride on the return journey – or should she then be more correctly described as The Wife? 

Only at your peril! Enlightened young ladies these days will come down pretty heavily on the misguided man who talks about The Wife in the same carefree tones that he saves for The Cat, The Car and The Telly. 

And quite apart from this, when was it that a bride last walked up – or down – an aisle?  

Though nobody seems to know this, her customary route to what we hope will be connubial bliss has never involved the aisle. Never ever. It is the nave that she traverses, customarily hanging onto her father and a bunch of flowers, because it is the nave that is the central pathway in the church.  

So where did this aisle business come from? Any bride who uses the aisle must expect to be correctly described as being a bit on the side – and that's another fine mess you've landed yourself in. Make sure you say it quietly.

John Slim


More Small Thoughts 2 / 3