All posts by tonyives

About tonyives

A Yorkshireman of a certain age who likes most genres of music and most makes of old car. Travel is a joy, not least to escape the British winter. Travel by bicycle is bliss and if I’m not lost in music then I’m lost in a daydream about a hot day, tens of miles to cover and the promise of a great campsite and a beer. I like to think I’m always learning and becoming wiser. On the latter point then evidence is in short supply.

The W.I., Dummies & Wallabies – Week 16 : 2022

It seems a long time ago that I was packing my laptop, projector, extension cable and heading off to some dark village hall to talk about my bike ride across the USA. The ‘tour’ of all these village halls had started when I declared on BBC Radio York that I would happily talk about this expedition in return for a donation to York Carers Centre. So began a trip around the local outposts of the Yorkshire Countrywomen’s Association and Women’s Institute. There have been other groups but these are my main victims. I get booked up months in advance. Last week the Easingwold W.I. evening came around. Over 30 women quietly listened to my tale of a long bike ride that included tales of mountains, McDonalds, bears, camping, prairies and coal trains. After I finished I got a cup of tea, a cheque and then quietly packed away my gear. 

I often get waylaid by old dears telling me about their own American adventures. On this night a lady in her 50’s stopped to thank me and talked about her husband’s similar exploits and vast number of bicycles. It was all in the past tense? Yes, he’d got a melanoma and it progressed quickly to his demise in months. She still seemed exhausted and devastated yet capable of reflection. My talk had been an insight into a man’s world of bicycles, obsessive planning, lists of things to pack, a desire for adventure (with stupid levels of excitement) about the unknown. It took her back to happier times. 

My tour guiding tours require me to have an Outdoor First Aid certificate. The one in question required 16 hours of class. I found a course in the Peak District and circled the dates on the calendar for an April weekend. Tony doesn’t do blood, unconscious bodies or mouth to mouth resuscitation: it could have been a difficult experience. So in a scout hut in the small village of Youlgreave I turned up with ten other people who were either renewing their certificate or starting afresh. Most seemed to be tour guides although a couple mentioned ‘life skills’: I need to ask my eldest daughter what those are but I’d guess it was something acquired spending two days kissing a dummy in the countryside.

However, seriously…  The course is focussed, full on and ultimately might help me save a life. CPR and mouth to mouth resuscitation part of the teaching but if you had a nearby defibrillator and an the ambulance turned up in minutes you’re still only looking at a 40% chance of survival and that’s after I’ve broken your ribs by pressing down 6cm on your chest 30 times consecutively before blowing twice into your mouth. Apparently the breath we exhale still has 40% oxygen in it. It was all hands on (in the building and then an afternoon doing it outside in a woodland) and repetitive for the process of assessing the casualty. This repeated assessment did drive it home and it was always with another course member. My unlucky partner/victim was a young bloke called Paddy who runs a gym in Meanwood. He knew it all and constructively appraised my shortcomings and helped me get better.

Preserving life is the number one aim. Maintaining airways and ensuring they cannot choke is the number one priority. Therefore you can move someone with a spinal injury if they’re going to choke to death. Let’s hope I don’t need to kneel beside someone in distress and utter the immortal words of “Hello I’m Tony, I’m a First Aider, can I help you?”

In less profound developments I realised an ambition. I saw a wallaby in real life not in a zoo or Australia but three miles from our house! Great nephew Ted needed entertaining and at a local agricultural college they have some curated wildlife in the grounds. I was disappointed on my time in Australia to have never seen the animals in the flesh and so this realised a bucket list item. This was alongside otters, meerkats, raccoons, marmosets, llamas, goats (!) and giant tortoises. I think I was more excited than Ted but that’s nine year olds for you!

Ted with an otter in the background
A Yorkshire wallaby

Record Of The Week # 129

Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway – Crooked Tree

I feel I should come clean. A lot of bluegrass is like lager to me. Always acceptable but seldom particularly memorable or varied. There, I’ve said it. However of late Billy Strings has caused a stir with his talent and less conventional background. This has enabled his music to be heard wider than the usual aficionados of roots music. Tuttle may have the difference to also make that major break out to a wider audience. She’s no newcomer; this is her third album. However rather than just showcasing her award winning musicianship on stringed acoustic instruments it’s her ear for a tune, thought provoking words and delightful vocals that captures you.

The title track was taken from a Tom Waits quote. He concludes that crooked trees survive and the other straight trees that get chopped down. That is, don’t follow the crowd. Tuttle’s also taken the road less well travelled and unique to herself. “Flatland Girl” has a vocal shared with Margot Price. Price has written about farming in the Mid West and they return to the subject with a lively tune and exquisite harmonies. “Dooley’s Farm” with Billy Strings has a little bit of outlaw sentiment, the farm’s a front for shifting cannabis. Returning to more predictable bluegrass topics Tuttle sings on “The River Knows” about murdering her one time errant lover. Her plaintive voice over a sparse acoustic guitar before strings arrive is spine tingling. It sounds like a very English folk song.

Old Crow Medicine Show join her on “Big Backyard” for a rollicking romp with a terrific chorus and harmonies. “Grass Valley” recalls her own introduction to bluegrass with her father at a festival, a sentimental gem. It’s inescapable that bluegrass isn’t a commercially successful genre for solo women artists. However, with her tongue firmly in her cheek she conjurs up some western swing and sings with Gillian Welch on “Side Saddle” that she wants to join the boys and be taken seriously. I think, for her, that battle has been won.

If you’ve been hesitant and assumed bluegrass was badly dressed bearded men playing acoustic string instruments (expertly) and usually singing about some ancient gruesome event involving a deep well, hard steel and an unrequited lover then take another look/listen. This mainly uplifting and joyous outing will be on a number of end of year lists and maybe mine.

Record Of The Week # 128

Paul Cauthen – Country Coming Down

Sonically this album swings from R&B funk, with sharp beats and psychotic lyrics, to more tender and reflective acoustic numbers. Cauthen seems a true maverick. His has been a been a turbulent journey including addiction and latterly reflection. However, he’s back from all that with high energy and a ‘bad ass’ attitude. He sports a Stetson and places himself in the world of country music. Given the other pretenders that inhabit this genre he’s maybe not a complete imposter but urban rock and shades of americana are more fitting. He’s ably supported by fellow Texans Jason Burt and Beau Bedford (The Texan Gentlemen). They create a variety of modern or traditional sounds and the arrangements are never overly fussy but just right for the message and sentiment.

“Country As Fuck” starts proceedings with a lyric bordering on doggerel and an irresistible dirty funk. (This needs to played at volume 11 on a busy sunny street in slow traffic with the windows down: mayhem.) Lyrically it seems to have been marinated in something illegal – “NASCAR, dive bar, fireworks, guitar / Riding mower, landowner, 83 Texoma / I was driving tractors before it got sexy / Real cowboys don’t rock to Kenny Chеsney.”  Amen to that. As the words go on to say then it’s ‘country’ based on his own definition! The video promoting this is well worth a look. It’s a dynamic start. The album has four other terrific funk numbers “Caught Me at a Good Time”, “Country Clubbin’”, “Fuck You Money” and” Cut a Rug” with a clunky guitar signature on a loop that’s pure Glitter Band in its stomping rhythm. 

When things calm down “’Til The Day I Die” and “Roll on Over” justify his self promoted soubriquet as ‘Velvet Voice’. They’re heartfelt love songs that give his voice a full workout. The choruses are anthemic and Lana Del Rey comes to mind as an inspiration for the arrangements. “Country Coming Down” has our man reflect on a life in the backwoods over an acoustic guitar backing. Such a stripped back tune shows that without the band and arrangements he can craft a winsome melody. It’s a fitting end to the high energy before it. It’s quite a ride and given the profanity it’s not going to make a lot of radio station play lists but I doubt he’ll care. Compulsory listening.

Record Of The Week # 127

Trisha Yearwood (Eponymous)

(Country Music People are running a 90s feature and asked the contributors to write up an album review from that decade. In truth I got interested in Country music in the noughties when we visited Florida seemingly annually with the children to mainly visit Disney. Country was on the TV and on the radio and it was a revelation to have such beautiful tuneful music in copious supply. I did literally return with armfuls of CD’s of Country music and I certainly bought all Trisha’s probably in one fell swoop on such a visit. Picking one album was tough but this one is a great place to start.)

The 90s was when I moved past the UK’s idea of country music, ie. Dolly, Glen, Kenny and Johnny and started to discover a whole new world of US country music. There were new stars for me to find such as Reba, Toby, Dwight and Garth. They were shipping millions of CD’s; why didn’t I know? I’d always liked a pop tune, a sentimental and interesting lyric and a tight band. If you added a voice to die for then Trisha Yearwood ticked every box. Today she’s still releasing albums but is also a TV chef. She has a voice that captivates me. Strong, expressive and possessing that magic that tells the story in a way that makes you believe she’s lived it.

Her debut sold two million copies and spawned a number one country chart single and three other subsequent Top 10 hits. The debut hit, “She’s In Love With The Boy”, gave me an insight into the rural ‘Merica of front porches, Chevy trucks, drive in movies, high school rings and daddies and mommas. Thirty years later the same tropes and stories circulate in any country pop record you hear. It painted a picture and one that I dreamt of and eventually did see at close hand.

To make a classic album you need the artist, songs, arrangements and production to be perfect. This has all of this. Garth Fundis’ superb production placed her voice central to the song. His credentials include Don Williams and Chris Whitley as well as several other Yearwood albums. With Matt Rollings’ prominent and seductive piano throughout we hear her beleaguered yet wordly wise take on life and love. It’s a voice that’s always in control and requires little other than the space for the artist to draw you in with her sumptuous tones. Magnificent.

To Tuscany & Beyond, April 2022 – Part 6 (Final)

The drive up to Castellina in Chianti was quite astonishing. We climbed and climbed through square miles of vines. The town isn’t very impressive by the standards of the others but had a number of restaurants. I pondered if this was to cater for the very wealthy residents who lived in local villas. An estate agent displayed properties of around €2 million. They were lovely abodes with pools and land attached and no doubt cellars full of roubles.

Next came San Gimgnano. This little town with its famous pillars was very easy on the eye.

For reasons hard to fathom it was busy with a lot of Germans and Austrians. We saw the centre but then wandered down some twisty lanes and found a bench near a small park for our picnic lunch. What is clear that is if you’re an expat with a few quid and fancy living in Tuscany then deciding where to buy would be a headache. There are so many stunning options.

Lastly we stopped off at Volterra. This town was attractive but quiet with few tourists. In fact it was a place we might have liked to have stayed. It had plenty of restaurants and walks. It was here I got a call from the car rental company telling I was late returning the car! I wasn’t. However it made me concerned about getting to their office for 5pm and so we left and gunned our little car to Pisa.

Anna had fortuitously booked a B&B very close to the airport and the car rental office. This made for an easy transfer.

After settling in we waked into Pisa to find the Leaning Tower. This proved to be quite tricky to find and there was much wandering about before the magnificent Tower and adjacent Duomo came into view. I was glad we’d sought them out despite the fading light. Pisa is very tatty and a bit run down, I was walking along with little expectation but it was stunning. I say this as if it were the first time. I’d seen it twice before and once ascended the spiral stairway. We were jiggered after our day in the car and this route march. In fact I clocked up 22,000 steps for the day.

Next morning we flew home.

In summary the driving was demanding and I felt I should have researched the places we visited prior to getting there to extract the most out of the visit. But in some ways this tour was mainly about bolting a couple of days on to the end of the trip after staying with Tony and Karen. The scenery and little towns are sumptuous and the Italian food and wine fabulous. I would recommend that you pick your time of the year to visit as the summer seems to be uncomfortably busy to sightsee.

To Tuscany & Beyond, April 2022 – Part 5

Assisi was very busy with Italians. It was the weekend and there are worst places to trip out to. The town is beautiful and folk wandered up it’s steep main drag. The proliferation of souvenir shops was wearisome, in fact it is a feature of all these beauty spots. However, the town is immaculately kept and no doubt the car parking fees extracted by all these hillside attractions helped the upkeep.

Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi

I was harassed by one young man twice. I never gave him the time of day and the second time loudly told him to “leave me alone”. Clearly a hazard in a tourist spot. An unhappy incident but it made me wonder out of his target market and the hundreds here why I seemed worth tapping up?

Back in the car my target was Siena. It was some way off and we settled down to my music (played via Bluetooth off my phone) and the entertainment that Italian motorways offer. In fact the day before we’d played BBC Radio 5 Live and were able to listen to match commentary of Watford versus Leeds United. I like to escape many things from home on a foreign trip but I’m wired into the football and there is no escape. Beside the motorway there were many factories. I’m always impressed and sadden when this is the vista. Pleased that manufacturing is still evident but sorry that in the U.K. we’ve lost so much. I accept and voted for the politics that led to a lack of subsidy for these industries and as a buyer at Ford or Moores I actively moved business abroad in pursuit of lower prices, better designs and more reliable quality: I can’t really complain.

Piazza del Campo where the famous horse racing takes place
This might be a better alternative for Italian road surfaces. Most town centres we visited were paved with this design of stone paving.

Siena brought with it a whole new world of pain prior to entry. The hilltop city prohibited tourist traffic, what to do with the car? After dropping off the luggage on a short term pass I was faced with parking at the bottom of the hill, say, two miles away or subsidising Siena into the next millennia by paying €35 overnight. Being the last of the big spenders I opted for Option B. I had been to Siena before with Anna in 1987 and then in 2002 with Jim on our bicycles. In 1987 it was on honeymoon and I have happy memories. Probably much to Anna’s disappointment 2002 also offers happy memories. We watched England vs Argentina in a bar where Beckham’s penalty settled matters.

Duomo

Again Siena was sensational. Unlike Perugia someone cared for the buildings and the central square (Piazza Del Campo) was dramatic and stunning. The cathedral in its black and white marble was similarly imposing. The many side streets and parks were full of Sunday night strollers eating ice cream, looking in the shops or hanging out. A very typical Italian scene. How the Italians communicate is worth a mention. It can often hover between walking together closely and indulging in what appears to be a conspiratorial whisper or something far more animated that could be mistaken, by the less demonstrative British, as a lively loud argument with wild hand gesticulations.

Anna had booked an apartment that included a small outside yard and galley kitchen. After all the dining out it was a break to eat a few simple things we’d bought at a supermarket in the afternoon. It would have been super to drop anchor here for a day or two but the plan was to leave the next day. Soon we were barreling down the hill looking for another beautiful hill top town, Castellina in Chianti.

To Tuscany and Beyond, April 2022 – Part 4

The Italians have a tolerance or nay… even affection for potholes. The road surfaces can be terrible. For a modern European country many of their roads, including motorways, are simply a disgrace. We crunch along doing our best to protect the car but many road chunks are missing and vigilance is not always successful. On one country lane the surface was so deformed it resembled a ski mogul field: it was astonishing.

There are no three lane motorways, only two lane. A roads as dual carriageways don’t exist. Single lane roads with bad surfaces, undulations or adverse cambers are common. You also may recollect when a bridge collapsed in Genoa killing 43 people in 2018: the Italians have got ‘previous’ on this type of thing. In the U.K. we’re blessed with much better quality, design and engineering.

Oh yes, and speed limits are discretionary.

First stop was Gubbio in Umbria. Another ancient hilltop town with dramatic buildings and vistas.

We drove on to check in at our night’s accommodation. The remarkable Castello Di Ramazzano.

It’s not much but we call it home…
At the very top of the castle
Some bedroom ceiling

Anna found this amazing £130/night establishment on the internet. The original castle dated back to the 12th Century and swapped hands many times until it fell into a ruinous state. After much investment the castle has been partially refurbished and has a suite of rooms and facilities for hosting grand weddings. Alongside this they offer bed and breakfast when not booked out. The costs of restoration must be mind boggling. Certain legal restriction were applied to its rebirth including no lift. There are 62 steps to carry your luggage up to your room! We did rattle around in it as the owner lives off site but in the morning we discovered three other guests.

However, after checking in we went to Perugia. Whilst it meets the ‘grand city built on a hill top’ specification with some dramatic ancients buildings it just had a lot going for it than other cities we visited. It was dirty, busy and rather uncared for. There was a lot of graffiti. 

This seems even less acceptable on antique heavy wooden doors or ancient stone walls: a couple of local youth beheadings would end it immediately I suggest. We had a look round and then headed back to Ramazzano for a bite at a local restaurant. Maybe typically for Italians as we left at 9.10pm there were families turning up with dogs and young children! For us it was about returning to the castle to sleep like a king and queen.

(Anna fell over on the steps from the car park up to the castle. She wasn’t impaired by local vino but attempting to flee from a toad she saw on the steps. The countryside eh?)

There was happiness at breakfast as the Italians celebrated the victory of Ferrari in the Australian Formula One Grand Prix. The castle in bright sunlight still amazed yet it was time to go.

Down the narrow lane from the top we squeezed past cars and church goers attending worship. Many were clutching olive branches and Anna opined it was Palm Sunday. The church was nearly a mile up this steep hill and it had been there for a couple of centuries. I imagine getting to and from Sunday worship was a workout for the village before spontaneous combustion came to the rescue.

We were off to Assisi, a well known tourist spot and another place I’d reached by bicycle with the intrepid Jim.

To Tuscany and Beyond, April 2022 – Part 3

In 2002 I cycled to Urbino all the way from Pisa, and back, with a work colleague, Jim. I recollect it was a windy and hilly ride but I can’t remember it being as demanding as it seemed in the car. With Anna urging caution I threw our little, under powered, French car up and down these precipitous hilly hairpin climbs. As always I had another car behind and it turned into a bit of a competition as I drove to drop him and he drove to hang on! Soon we’d left the Tuscany region and were in Marche.

Urbino doesn’t allow many cars in the city walls and we parked in an underground car park outside the city. (A great solution to the large number of cars and little space on these hilltops.) With some huffing and puffing we lugged our cases up to the hotel. Pleasingly, despite our early arrival, there’s no problem checking in. We unpacked and then strolled around the small city in the sunshine. The streets are narrow and seemingly untouched by modern redesign or construction over the centuries.

Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta
A brilliant view of the old town

It must take a lot of money to maintain these buildings. The facades are so tall and their maintenance must be specialist. We look around the cathedral and also observe the many students who attend the university. Their smart dress is remarkable. Stylish and tasteful every one of them; such a contrast to York’s throngs. After a salad we take a siesta. This isn’t typical but after the walking and gardening of the previous days it was overdue!

Sunny but still a trifle nippy!

Eventually grumbling stomachs lure us outside again. We’re out too early for dining and have 45 minutes to spare before our reservation. We find a bar and ask the barman for a glass of red and white. What does he recommend? He selects and they’re memorable. As is the way the drinks are served with snacks and forgetting our imminent meal we heartily get stuck in. We sat there like teenagers and perused our phones but soon it was time to dine.

Our small restaurant (Taverna degli Artisti), seemingly in a basement, is soon packed. As we take our seat a procession of American students file past to take their seats in an adjacent room; it’s surprising to hear English spoken. Like their Italian counterparts they’re smartly dressed and complement the neat, tidy and elegant walled city. We order our food, the waitress noting our earlier visit and booking has translated the menu into English, how thoughtful.

Our food is delicious and the portions are so appropriate that we have space for three courses.

In fact I thought I had ordered two courses but didn’t argue when it turned out to be three! Anna has a beer as she’s thirsty and I have a glass of red wine. There was no choice if you ordered a glass and my drink is a little sweet and cheap. On a close table there’s two smartly dressed businessmen.

The waitress approaches with menus but they have no interest in the detail and after much dialogue the waitress departs. A minute later the restaurant’s chef appears to greet both men warmly and no doubt resolve their demands. We look on and make a contribution to their evening – Anna passed across a city map for them to use. They solve a wobbling table by placing it beneath the offending leg and tell her “grazie mille”.

A short stroll back to the hotel helps the food settle and I take some more snaps of this beautiful place.

At breakfast we discover that Covid has meant self service is forbidden and we queue and wait to visit the buffet to then point (we don’t know the Italian for the food) and obtain our coffee, cereal etc. Close by at an adjacent table in Bill. He’s 72 and from Vancouver. He travels widely and has Italian heritage. He’s not religious but likes visiting churches. Italy is over endowed with sumptuous temples and he’s working his way around many of them. However there’s a hint of sadness about this solo traveller. He grumbles about the buses, trains and getting around. The vicissitudes of weekend timetables make his movement difficult and he complains of finding it physically hard going. He says he’s ‘a little down’ about it all and comments that talking to us is a lift. I think we can all agree that talking to Anna was the tonic and not me.

I pop out for some groceries and a couple of postcards to write and post. With this complete we pack and descend to the car park and steer our pocket rocket south. We pass Saturday lycra clad cyclists out for a spin; I know a man who would have liked to have joined them. Common throughout Italy is the national flag adorning many buildings; they’re very proud. In Britain many people, including the BBC, sneer if you fly the Union Jack or the Cross of St George: they need to get across here.

Anyway next we’re headed for Gubbio.

To Tuscany and Beyond, April 2022 – Part 2

In daylight we surveyed the house in its setting. Gosh!

Our hosts had deemed that we were walkers; we were. The walks were their favourites. The Tuscan countryside was sublime. Small but steep hills with not another soul in sight. Often we’d crest a hill and another terrific vista would be before us in the Spring sunshine. Our layers peeled off as we ascended and the day warmed up. It was a true delight and we saw small villages often built on steep hillsides and many fields of olives. We chatted away merrily.

Anna, Karen and Tony
Yes, Karen is tightly clutching the remnants of my Liquorice Allsorts

Back at the villa lunch was eaten outside after our first walk

One challenge of having a property abroad is the need to do gardening and/or DIY when you visit. Both Karen and Tony work full time back in Blighty and finding these chores to complete can be a burden. Tony’s ‘to do list’ included resolving a dodgy water pump that sounded very poorly, a dishwasher that wouldn’t switch on (that had worked perfectly until some local friend’s teenagers had used the property for a party) and wi-fi that had stopped working due to problems the provider had created. During the few days we were there he worked his way through these items and all were successfully resolved by ourselves, the plumber or a local handy man.

The latter was a German national called Markus who was fluent in several languages and whilst mainly a gardener had many practical talents that the various expats in the area relied on. When we met he had the new replacement internet router in his van and a plan to prune olive trees. This isn’t a job for a hacker like moi. The tree has to be shaped to enable better picking in the autumn as well as a reduction of too many branches. I’d like to think the Ives’ put their ‘backs to the wheel with a few tasks not least gathering up of branches from around the large garden and creating a bonfire. Such was the too’ing and fro’ing that I clocked up 11,000 steps in the process. Anna did this but also attempted to do some pruning.

Anna up a tree!

As we worked through Tony’s repertoire of home made Italian staples we enjoyed homemade pizzas in the purpose built brick oven and delicious ravioli from homemade pasta. I took several photos as I have no talent and could only look on with envy and gratitude.

All this carbohydrate was vital as the second full day involved more walking. This jaunt took us past the plumber’s gaff. Tony was tempted to knock on the door and enquire as to his overdue scheduled visit? More exciting was the plumber’s private life. He was now partnered with an English project manager/estate agent, who had left her husband, and he his wife to live together. Maybe it could be the start of a racy boxset based on life in the Tuscan hills?

Karen kindly laundered our washing. EasyJet limit your luggage and due to the chilly but sunny weather we found ourselves repeatedly wearing the heavier items of our wardrobe and not the lighter ones we’d also brought. As time rolled by we were on our last night in their company and we went to Sansepolcro to a superb restaurant. Our waitress was nearly worth the visit as she practised her English on us with considerable volume and mirth. I shall never look at a dessert trolley in the same way again. Tony sadly for him, was driving and much of the mirth was left to the rest of us with Karen and myself doing irreparable harm to a very nice bottle of red he’d chosen.

Next morning as we rose and packed our bags there was a new voice downstairs as Tony and Karen greeted Markus. He was here to trim the olive trees and give advice on several matters. Happily and surprisingly he had a new broadband router. As Tony discussed olives I attempted to drag the internet into life. Eventually I got it close to working but was short of a code. Markus had it and the information was typed in.

We munched our toast, hugged and thanked our generous hosts and then pointed the Citroën toward Urbino.

To Tuscany and Beyond, April 2022 – Part 1

Our Italian odyssey started in Stockport (obvs…) with a quick visit to the Favourite Eldest’s to drink a toast to her birthday. She’s starting to accumulate the kind of numbers where women request that disclosure is applied with discretion.) I don’t like driving in Manchester as it has been dangerous on occasion and I worry that the recklessness is created by drivers on drugs. Five minutes from Katrina and Matt’s abode we stopped at the front at some traffic lights. First an old BMW 3 Series pulled up in front of us and then a VW Golf. With the lights at red one turned right against the traffic and the other just kept going. I suspect they were peddling rather than taking drugs and either chasing each other or escaping. Lovely.

Indoor fireworks and some fizz for the birthday girl

Sophie and Harry attended the celebration as well and Katrina’s milestone celebrated. We then proceeded to the Premier Inn at the airport for an overnight stay. We had a fairly early flight and bottlenecks in Security meant getting there well in advance. Even in the ‘Fast Path’ lane we idled for 40 minutes. Worse was to come as my bicycle multi tool was confiscated. I have several but I tearfully said goodbye to something that has traversed America, most of Europe and a long way up Australia with me. I took it because our host had threatened a bike ride. (This never came to pass!)

The flight was routine albeit we were back to wearing masks during the flight (thank you Italy). In fact it was a special kind of mask, more substantial and uncomfortable. After having mooched around the Terminal for so long before the flight, cheek by jowl, with other unmasked travellers then what this mask was going to prevent is anyone’s guess. Italy was also enforcing Covid vaccination status in restaurants and insisting on masks before you sat at a table. Bonkers as regards a preventative measure, but it was nice to use my App after never having used it since my last trip to Lanzarote.

Finding the car rental office near Pisa Airport wasn’t routine. It wasn’t located in the main area for the other rental companies. More by a hunch than knowledge we came across it on a side street near an underpass away from the Terminal. Oh how we laughed over the 40 minute hunt. The chap on Reception then badgered me about extra insurance due to high excesses on car damage. On my declination he took a long video around the car to capture it’s pristine state and waved us away. This small Citroën was so under powered that it couldn’t pull a sailor off your sister let alone comfortably cope with all the hairpins and climbing to come.

The drive to Anghiari is the type of excitement you usually have to pay for at a fun fair. Narrow dual carriageways with cars flashing you from behind if you strayed into the outside lane or massive articulated trucks straddling both lanes as they coped, at speed, with the winding carriageways. The central reservation is a solid concrete barrier. I thought hard at this point about the extra insurance I’d declined. We texted Tony, our host, close to Anghiari and was delighted after the meet up with his idea of a drink and stroll around this medieval hillside town along with Karen, his wife. Frazzled nerves were calmed. Tony is on my website and blogs as an accompanying cycle tourer. We met in 1985, on our MBA course at Bradford University.

The main square in Anghiari
Anna and Karen take the lead
A near dusk sky

The drive into the countryside, to their palazzo, was predictably windy and mainly up hill (welcome to most of Tuscany). This is their second home and much time, love and resources have been poured into creating an idyll over a decade. Such was the remoteness it wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that the locals were still finding German soldiers, in the 1970s, hiding in the woods unaware the war was over. As Tony commented there would be no noise or light pollution at night. The villa with its pool is stunning and the tranquility complete. A frustration is the proliferation of wild boars in the area. They dig up the ground in pursuit of things to eat and a lot of the ground has been ‘turned over’. A fence around the house garden is in place to stop this damage closer to the property. Anna was keen to see the said pigs during her stay but they failed to materialise but we knew they were there due to the ground condition. Apparently they are hunted in the autumn but a licence is needed and a gun!

We enjoyed a brief tour of the home and then especially catering for Mrs Ives a courgette pasta was rustled up and after some wine near a log fire we tumbled into bed ready for sleep. A great start with splendid hospitality and lovely surroundings.

Nuptuals, back fires and war – Week 10 : 2022

Delightful news emanated from Manchester in mid February. Wedding bells. The Favourite Youngest Daughter, Sophie, and Harry were getting engaged. They have been together since university and, maybe unkindly, the first reaction could have been ‘about time’. They have lived together for many years in their own property. Nevertheless this is an exciting and lovely event for August. For the females in the family now is a feast of calls or meet ups on dresses, menus, guests, wine tasting gatherings etc.. Enjoy, this is what the best of life should be about.

However, all is not well with another female love, Samantha. She’ll be 12 this year and is showing signs of age. First there was a misfire and back firing when in second gear. When that was hopefully fixed she started to spray water, via the bonnet louvres, onto the screen. The radiator was kaput and she was shedding any coolant in the system. My treasured Morgan after such a quiet life is now making my, and her, life less smooth.

A new radiator was needed. There were several suppliers and a popular forum website gave me a name for an approved source. (The radiator is not a standard or volume part.) It was the lowest price as well. £619 later I’m trying to find a slot at the local garage to fit it. However, there’s the small matter of towing the car to the garage as it can’t be run there without coolant. I’m sure she’ll be fully restored; it’s important as apparently she may have a bit part in Manchester in August.

More immediately we’ve just had a lovely relaxing week in Lanzarote. We went in search of heat and sun. We got the sun but the temperatures were not as sizzling as we might have ordered. Anna jogged along the front at Playa Blanca and I headed north on a hired bike. My route was a 46 mile loop with 800m of climbing and involved mainly battling into Lanzarote’s horror head winds going north turning round and then ‘flying’ south. On my second ride the wind was so horrific, with sudden gusts, that I decided to walk the bike for about 200m at a height of over 400m as the bike violently slewed across the road. I’m seldom frightened on a bike but this was one such time.

However, aside from that we rested and ate well with the highlight being a Portuguese restaurant and a delicious shared cataplana. Across the island you’ll find many walled fields of ash/lava with withered vines in dug holes attempting to avoid the ever howling wind. I thought it was a very unproductive piece of agriculture and the produce probably mediocre. Little did I know as we sampled some of the fayre at a bodega. It was delicious whether red or white with the latter being a very attractive dry drink. I shall look it up in the UK. In our apartment we had all the main UK TV channels and watched the awful news from Ukraine. What can you say?

There’s no coverage of the actual war. Instead we have reporting on the Ukrainian people, their suffering or flight. We also receive a diet of the latest Russian lies or atrocities and the brave statements of the Ukrainian President. We all feel helpless and angry. At the end of the day I expect this won’t end well for Ukraine with all the displacement, destruction, loss of life and territory. When it’s over and an inevitable compromise negotiated do the Russians expect to trade or mix with the West normally?

In the British media and on social media we have a talent for eventually dividing along the usual fault lines of Left and Right and fighting amongst ourselves. Stand by for 24/7 recriminations about what we did, as regards Ukraine, too slowly, too quickly, too little, too much etc.

Maybe I need another holiday to cope?

Marcelo Bielsa – Lost In Translation – Week 9 : 2022

I nearly wrote a blog about the former manager of Leeds United when we were promoted out of the Championship. Timing is everything; sadly this blog is an obituary.

Like most British football supporters I had never heard of Bielsa when my mid table Championship club wheeled in the latest managerial solution to attempt to lever the club back into the Premier League (after sixteen years in the lower reaches.) Good luck I thought as he looked at the meagre talent in his squad and the absence of significant money to address the problem. Leeds United had turned into a saloon door scenario for managers passing quickly through. The new post Cellino Board had appointed some real clunkers prior to this and nothing bode well.

What happened over the next three seasons is of legends, well at least in West Yorkshire. Bielsa transformed the team into a free flowing, ever running attacking force and got the team promoted at the second attempt. Journeymen players were transformed and the football we played was often sensational and much admired. The desperate and loyal fans were energised, inspired and beyond grateful. What at an exciting time ahead. It was dream time.

Bielsa was, in reality, the anti hero. The very definition of understated. Despite the large salaries coaches earn that could support a very plush lifestyle. Portly and forever dressed in a sweat shirt and tracksuit bottoms he exuded humility, compassion and kindness. He eschewed ever publicly speaking English and seldom looked at the camera in an interview. His post match comments were often weary and evasive gibberish: talk of ‘efficiency’, ‘execution’ and ‘moments’ that never gave you any meaningful information or emotion. So from here we dissected small vignettes of his kindness or personal relief. For example, the enormous hug he gave one of his coaches when the third goal went in against Burnley and secured the three points was such a moment, here was a man under enormous pressure. Kindness involved his interaction with the fans or paying a fine he received for the misdemeanour of sending someone to watch a Derby County training session. Kindness was paying for a gym for staff to use and the endless selfies he posed for. Many of these images were taken around Wetherby where he lived. Morrisons will miss him! He was a very regular sight and even I saw him one Sunday morning.

The inevitable difficult second season in the Premiership came along and Leeds have stuttered. Yes, injuries, a feature of a Bielsa regime, have bedevilled the team along with many complaining the squad was too few in number. I personally don’t subscribe to all of this. The team appeared to fail to turn up for several fixtures and the tactics employed the season before no longer surprised the opposition. Maybe the team was too tired to swamp the opposition. I had no confidence that our catastrophic run of conceding 17 goals in the previous four games was about to dry up. What could the Board do? They did the inevitable, initiated a departure and found a new coach.

The grief and resentment to the Board was palpable amongst many of the fans. Many would have preferred to stick with him and gone down with him. Such folly was the case with Nottingham Forest who stuck by Brian Clough in 1993, all the way until they were relegated into the Championship. Leicester City had no emotional attachment to Ranieri who perished in 2017, the season after miraculously lifting the Premiership title. Football clubs are £ multi million businesses with shareholders, debts and employees. Players have release clauses that may mean relegation sees them sold at fire sale prices etc. It’s logical and correct that changes should be made when needed. Unfortunately for the coaches they are obvious first casualties, unlike players, shareholders or directors who may have all serially failed.

They’re talking of erecting a statue or naming a training ground after Bielsa. I would like that. It would be fitting but, there again, where is the one for Don Revie or Howard Wilkinson? If Leeds do get relegated then Bielsa may have crawled away from the wreckage in good time. I hope the affection endures and his reputation grows as we all go marching on together.

Glorious Northumberland & Yorkshire – Week 7 : 2022

I mentioned in my last blog about taking on a tour guide job for a few weeks during the summer. This week saw me spending time visiting and familarising myself with parts of the Northumberland coast and the Yorkshire Dales along with other trainee guides. I was the only complete beginner and whilst the other guides were not familiar with this sets of walks and routes they were all experienced. What a delight and what countryside to understand! Any visitors will be spoilt (especially if the weather is 10 degrees warmer and the sun peeps out.) Most of the trips are walking holidays with sights at the beginning or end of the walk.

The weather was grey and blowy but with our time constraints we were not encouraged to walk the Pilgrims Way from the mainland shore across the sand to the island itself. This can be taken at low tide. It’s advised to do it in bare feet as the sand clogs everything. Many of the future guests are walkers and will leap at this. We took the tarmac causeway that is only passable at low tide. Personally I’d contemplate the walk in a sedan chair only! From here it was Berwick- on-Tweed. Despite swapping between the English and Scottish over a dozen times it’s been English since the 18th Century. It has a magnificent set of fortifications to walk along.

A quick lunch and then back in the bus. The guides will have to drive this. As the passengers will have, in effect, paid to ride in the bus the driver needs a private hire licence. This means taking a number of tests. Back to school and learning the Highway Code for me. So what colour are the cat’s eyes on the outer edge of a dual carriageway?

Our drive back south took us past the magnificent Bamburgh Castle. At this point the rain was coming at us horizontally.

Next and last was Craster. Famous for it’s crab catches. No such luck for us but we checked out the parking and did a couple of the walks from the village.

The party was getting to know each other and used to hopping in and out of the minibus!

The boss, Will, is sat on the gate with Colette, James, Ceri, Neil and Peter

Day 2 saw us leave our trusty Travelodge and head up first to Walkworth to see my favourite amazing castle.

Walkworth Castle

Next to Alnwick for a planned walk and to visit the castle.

From here it was time for a toasted teacakeat the amazing and famous second hand book shop, Barter Books.

A drive inland took us to Cragside, the first house in the UK to have electricity, and a walk in a forest. Again these form part of the walking tour with Explore!

On the last day in the North East it was time for some Roman history and in increasingly gale force winds we saw some of the sights on Hadrian’s Wall. All these brief visits were not to dwell or enter the sights but work out the route and logistics for when the guests are in our company.

This was all for the day as the weather got dangerous and awfully wet. We drove down to York and the next day was in the Dales. We got to York in a virtual monsoon! We started early on the last day in Skipton and concentrated on the sights around here.

A couple of weeks before I’d been up in the Dales with Peter, the regional manager. We’d visited the llamas near Pateley Bridge, Wensleydale Creamery, Settle and the various hotels that the guests would be staying at. I may now know a lot more about my home county than I ever did before.

After this there is a lot to study and think about. It’s another thing to take strangers around a part of the world that you yourself are not overly familiar with. My first tour is in May and so there’s plenty of time to get that pesky driving licence and become more expert on the history.

Record Of The Week # 126

Buck Ford – I’m Gettin’ There

The first five minutes of research of any artist is the most revelatory. Some are corporate entities with fawning biographies and some are journeymen holding down two jobs who don’t have a web page! Less is more I find. Buck Ford may have a website but information is scant to say the least. He hails from Vacaville in north California probably most famous for the fact I once stayed there overnight as I descended the Sierra Nevada on my bicycle on my way to San Francisco. I may have stayed longer if I’d known something as sublime as this fellow was around.

Despite his tender years Ford has several albums to his credit and I’m Gettin’ There is bordering on perfect. He wrote or co-wrote the songs and lyrically we swing between the usual beer drinking and broken hearts. Musically it’s pacey 90s modern yet traditional country with lashings of pedal steel, picking guitar, fiddle and honky tonk piano. Maybe more critically he can sing, an expressive baritone that delivers the stories with the assurance of a seasoned and lauded star.6

There’s not a poor track here. Lonely relies on his vocal, a catchy chorus and some electric guitar that commands your attention. Honkytonk Ambition is a gorgeous melody. Harmonies and the fiddle give way to another James Mitchell (Willie Nelson and Cole Swindell) guitar solo before pedal steel joins. Michael Johnson’s (George Strait and Reba McEntire) pedal steel adds such beauty to all the compositions. This is a hot Nashville band and the elevation of the whole album is evident. As required by proper country, banjo and fiddle accompaniment is always to the fore.

Heart That’s Gonna Break leans on the pedal steel, fiddle and electric guitar as he sings of a city girl finding life tough in the country. It’s a winning easy rolling melody which only needs his voice to complete. Banjo kicks off the title track with a swooping fiddle before we learn of his accelerated drinking due to withdrawal symptoms created by his departing squeeze. It’s that type of ‘devil may care’ ditty with wry humour. This type of song is part of every mainstream male’s repertoire. Showing his versatility we get the album highlight a brisk two step I Don’t Know. Greg Cole’s close harmonies give this a splendid sound as acoustic guitar and fiddles weave around the vocals, a timeless piece of 60s joy.

I’m not familiar with his back catalogue but if it’s remotely as good as this I’m ashamed I missed out: ignorance is no excuse. The other missing piece of the jigsaw is why isn’t this artist getting the breaks and promotion similar to troubadours such as Cody Jinks, Cody Johnson or Charley Crockett? Whatever you do don’t compound the felony and miss out.

Long Faces In Selby, My Darling Clementine – Week 5 : 2022

Selby Town Hall welcomed one of the UK’s most respected country duos, My Darling Clementine. For those not familiar with Selby it has an industrial heritage and the industrial bit left decades ago; the town is now mainly a dormitory for workers and families in Leeds and York. The Town Hall is a cultural oasis and a credit to the organisers. They curate an interesting selection of acts including country, americana, bluegrass, blues, rock and stand up comedy. The acts veer between several worthy but unknown US acts to UK heritage bands from the 1970s or 80s.

Ordinarily acts play, surprisingly, to a full house. The ticketing arrangement is that if you buy three tickets you get a fourth free. Yorkshire knows value for money when it sees it and there’s not a better offer midweek in winter. However, this season the attendance has been dented by Covid hesitancy. Those who brave the cold and dark nights still often don’t match the acts they’ve bowled up to see in age group, taste or humour. Just as English comedians ‘died’ on stage at the Glasgow Empire then I’ve seen Selby break several creative hearts. California’s Dustbowl Revival were bemused at the indifference to their lively show, blues sensation, Sugaray Rayford wandered amongst the audience to check pulses and I’m surprised someone hasn’t quipped that the only thing that moves in Selby is the smoke from the crematorium chimney. However, whilst Colorado’s The Railsplitters’ bluegrass didn’t get feet moving they did provoke some outrage. The lead singer said she liked the ‘village’ of Selby. The natives grew restless and were quick to demur that the settlement was certainly larger!

So onto our erstwhile impressive duo. This was their first post pandemic gig and the start of a long tour that would see further UK nights followed by a European jaunt and then some dates in the US. In front of depleted numbers Lou Dalgleish and Michael Weston King trod the boards with a backing guitarist and ran through 20 songs from their back catalogue including some from their Elvis Costello covers album. King’s strong voice leads the way whilst Dalgleish, his wife, takes a number of leads clutching her red handbag and scarf. The traditional acoustic country is a delight and the voices meld well and often a special atmosphere is created by the poignancy of their lyrics.

King tries to engage with the audience and soothes any fears of anything too racy by confirming this will be a laid back show (how little he knows) to help them ease back into playing live after the pandemic lockdown. His first misstep was introducing “Our Race Is Run” from their 2013 The Reconciliation? by calling the Prime Minister a bastard and that this song was for him. I’ve sat through many acts apologising for Trump and even more cringingly an excoriation of Nigel Farage by Fairport Convention’s Chris Leslie. What artists don’t realise as they fail to ‘read the room’ is that these UK politicians get a lot of votes in North Yorkshire. Whatever happened to not discussing politics and religion with strangers or in polite company? I digress, other musical highlights include a wonderful “Yours Is The Cross I Still Bear”. King attempts some bants with Dalgleish: if they’re enjoying it then the audience isn’t reacting. As we approach the break Lou implores the gathering to have a drink and return ‘pissed.’ With slumped shoulders they shuffle off for their own stiff drink. I feel their pain.

The second half sees the the adaptation, into duets, of several of Elvis Costello’s country songs. The strength and timbre of King’s voice approximates to Costello’s and the interpretations are superb, not least “Indoor Fireworks”. The explanation of the co-writers that Costello worked with from Jim Lauderdale to T Bone Burnett adds to their performance. King plays “I Felt The Chill Before The Winter Came”, a Costello co-write with Loretta Lynn. He opines that this has  miraculously racked up 6,000 plays on Spotify in Russia and pertinently suggests ‘that maybe Vladimir’s gone country?’ When the audience prematurely applaud “I No Longer Take Pride” before the end, but after his vocal finishes, and before Dalgleish’s starts he ruefully comments that in the ‘duet game’ prenuptial agreement then both parties will have to sing on each song and we’d overlooked this clause!

The crowd is hardly on fire as the set concludes and King turns to another tragic crash. He notes that today is the 63rd anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death. Prior to the encore a rousing “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” is sung as a tribute. I hope they recovered their mojo following Selby. They are superb and I’ll be checking out their quality catalogue. Oh yes, and this is the second time they’ve played Selby. Now that is the stuff of a song!