A poem about the joys of cycling



I wanted to ride the Tour de France
Then one summer my dreams
Of yellow jerseys fell to pieces
On a downhill descent head over handlebars I flew
My chin scraping the hard tarmac.

Just another crash I thought, no harm done
Until I noticed my white t-shirt soaked in blood
front wheel badly buckled, bike now unrideable
walking towards home bike over my shoulder
a passing motorist picked me up

The doctor spent an hour taking grit from the wound
then one stitch after another
I still have the scar to prove it.

And I’ve never ridden a bike since that fateful day you may say
But some years later I was back in the saddle

Cycling along a shiny wet tarred surface
I glance down to see my reflection
As raindrops sting my face.

Poised like a lance, arms strong
As I grip the handlebars
Living the lie, the bigger they come the harder they fall.
But my only drug of choice is caffeine
in small roadside cafes where
town gives way to country.

An uphill climb
Lactic acid builds up
Thighs ready to die
Lungs take the brunt

Then the
in low gear
the cool
breeze in
my face…

It’s not the Alps or the Pyrenees

There’s no supporters urging me on

no painted message on the road
But this is one of life’s simple pleasures

Which no drug can manufacture

a multi-coloured carbon fibre and lycra parade.

woods and fields go whooshing by.
Endorphines pumping in

what psychologists call “the zone” –

That transient state of bliss where body meets mind.


Alas – Smith & Jones no more


The Dreaming Armadillo’s official deceased comedians’ obituarist Philip “Skinny Banana” Larkin returns with a tribute to Mel Smith who died last month.


I was spending a weekend with friends down in Milton Keynes a couple of weeks ago, and we decided to go for a long walk in the glorious sunshine. We stopped at a convenience store to grab a few items for dinner, and it was there that I saw on the front of the Daily Mail a photo of Mel Smith and Griff-Rhys Jones in one of their head-to-head conversations.

“Good”, I thought, “they must be coming together for another series, or a special programme.” Then I inspected the photograph more closely. The caption tagline read: “MEL SMITH DEAD AT 60.” He had died from a heart attack. I felt sad, for a number of reasons. The first I suppose is one we all feel when someone we remember as a feature from childhood passes on, someone who has been metaphorically “in our house” through TV. I recall watching Alas Smith and Jones with my brother years ago, us laughing like drains at one of the “Home Video” sketches, where a family of chavs and their slobbish lodger, Len (Mel Smith, obviously!) made a very feeble attempt to re-enact Star Wars. It was hilarious. The second reason I felt somewhat sad was because he died at such a relatively young age, and never got the chance to enjoy the fruits of his achievements and life with his family into old age. That said, he did lead a very full life.

I’ve recently been finding out quite a lot of new information about Mel, but some things about him were obvious to all. He came from an ordinary family in Chiswick, London, where his dad was a bookie – Mel was, I discovered, very fond of the races and a flutter on the gee-gees himself – I suppose that it was in the blood! Apparently from the age of six or so he would direct little plays and sketches with his friends in the neighbourhood, so it’s perhaps no surprise that he took this route in life. He would have admitted himself that he was never the handsomest of men, but he could use somewhat bulbous nose, thick lips, and hangdog appearance to amazing comic effect – he looked funny, and was aware of it, turning what many men would see as a curse to his advantage.

He was one of those people who, once you saw him on TV, you wouldn’t forget. His appearance and frequent portrayals of slovenly and louche characters belied a sharp intellect and a strong sense of street savvy: as my dad would have said, “The softest part of him was his teeth.” From his grammar school he won a place at Oxford to study psychology, but, as he later said, he was attracted to Oxford primarily due to its famous and prestigious Drama Society, of which he later became president. It was through this office that he met Griff Rhys Jones, who was president of the Cambridge Drama Society, with whom he was to form a long-standing partnership. From what I’ve read, Mel was one of those people who really loved life, and all the good things that it had to offer, such as good food, alcohol, cigars, and quality cars. Sadly, it seems as if his fondness for the first three of these took its toll on, since he had suffered from much ill-health in recent years.

I first remember him as a child, appearing in episodes of the then ground-breaking comedy show Not the Nine O ’Clock News, together with other young newcomers Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson, and, of course, Griff Rhys Jones. This show, much of which has stood the test of time, was pure gold once it hit its stride, poking fun at more or less anyone and everything, including older, more conventional comedy shows. CW will confirm that I nearly choked with laughter one night when he put on the CD of Mel and Griff’s skit on the Two Ronnies, “The Two Ninnies.” We both later found out that the late Ronnie Barker was extremely upset about this sketch, labelling it “excrement.” I know that CW is bored with me saying this, but I do think that Ronnie overreacted a bit (and allegedly he did come to realise this when he had calmed down), when it would have been better to see the funny side of it. Another memorable sketch featuring Mel was one with Rowan Atkinson and Pamela Stephenson, where he was a professor on a chat show with Gerald the Gorilla (Atkinson), whom he had taken from the wild and made perhaps too good a job on civilising, including teaching him to speak flawless English, study philosophy, and play a game of one-upmanship with the professor.
Professor: “Let’s put this all in context, when I brought Gerald from the jungle he was wild.”
Gerald: “Wild!? Wild!? I was livid!!”

Priceless stuff, and the comic rapport between Smith and Atkinson was brilliant. Yet it was Jones with whom Smith was to go on and form a long lasting partnership with. Practically all of us of a certain age remember the famous head to head dialogues against a black background, where Smith would play the know-all (who really knew very little), and Jones would play the credulous, dumb bloke who occasionally would hit on a nugget of clear reality, puncturing the inflated pride of Smith.
Mel also scored great success as a producer and director, developing the Talkback production company with Jones, and selling in on to make them multimillionaires. He also directed the Mr Bean movies, starring his old colleague Atkinson. To me, it’s just a pity that time caught up with him so soon and he couldn’t have continued to enjoy life for a bit longer.
Many tributes have been written about him in recent weeks, but I believe that the best of these comes from an old childhood friend from Chiswick, Terry O’Sullivan, who grew up with Mel:

He was a few years younger than me but my mum and his mum, my sister and his sister, we were all friends together. We all used to play in the street together. It was after the war.
We stayed friends even after he went to the local grammar school and moved away and went to university.
I was just a normal working class lad and became a signal engineer, but it didn’t make any difference to Mel. He treated everyone the same and he came to my mother’s funeral.
We used to play cricket in the street together, he had all the bats and the stumps and we played football too, well you did back then.
He was a very generous man and a kind character. Not bad at cricket either!

Perhaps of all the eulogies he was given, Mel might be most pleased with this one cited above. Perhaps he was the archetype of the “working class boy made good”, whose attitudes towards friends never changed despite his success. One thing is certain, and that is that the world of comedy has lost a truly talented man, who brought laughter to us while alive.

Rest in Peace, Mel.

“I drink, therefore I am” – Is alcohol a fundamental part of our society?

The so-called binge drinking culture and the problems of alcoholism have in recent years been the subject of much debate and government initiatives, but largely to no avail. A recent example is the Scottish government’s failed attempt to raise alcohol prices. Whether we like it or not alcohol is an integral part of the social and cultural fabric of these islands. In continental Western Europe where drunkenness is largely frowned upon the cafe culture is prevalent. The continental cafes are – much like our own pubs – social and communal meeting places, but where all sorts of food and drink (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) are sold.

At the time of writing the Cartoon Museum in London has just opened a new exhibition on the relationship between alcohol and society. In a feature about the exhibition on BBC Radio 4’s morning news programme, a former newspaper editor, a recovering alcoholic himself pointed out that it would be pious to suggest that drunkenness isn’t funny – it is funny, but it’s also tragic.

We even have an entire culture based around various tribes and the type of beverages they imbibe. There is the 1980s phenomenon of the “lager lout” on the football terraces or the beaches of Ibiza, the stereotype of the bearded, jam-jar bespectacled “real ale twat” from Viz comic and in the upper strata of the society the Pimms brigade. The local pub is the social hub of a rural village or urban district, the source of gossip, where business deals are conducted, where friends and partners are made, but also where fights and arguments start and where lives are ruined.

When I was growing up in the 1980s alcohol advertising was all over the television, on giant billboard posters and on the shirts of famous footballers. This may still be the case today, but it seemed to be much more prominent back then. Although I grew up in a household where alcohol consumption was mostly confined to the odd glass of wine or sherry at Christmas or very occasionally to accompany the Sunday roast had you asked the 11-year old Ciaran Ward back in 1985 how many brands of alcoholic drinks he could name, he could have rhymed off about 10. Off the top of my head without resorting to Google the following slogans spring to mind which as an 11-year old I could have recited verbatim:

“Harp – Very much to a Viking’s liking” (as seen on billboard poster circa 1985)

“Get into the good taste of Guinness/Have a Guinness tonight”

“Smithwicks at the heart of the night/Smithwicks – it’s one great beer”

“Great stuff this Bass”

“Carlsberg – probably the best lager in the world” (spoken in a voice similar to that of Spock from Star Trek, but I’m not sure if it was definitely him)
“Fosters – the Australian for lager”
“Martini – anytime, anywhere”

Then there were the celebrities who made a tidy sum by advertising alcohol. Think of the comedian Griff Rhys-Jones as Marilyn Monroe’s plumber in the Holstein Pils ads, Paul “Crocodile Dundee” Hogan as salt-of-the-earth Aussie stereotype in the Fosters commercials, comedian Peter Kay and John Smiths and more recently Top Gear’s James May extolling the pleasures of London Pride

Many of these ads were not surprisingly quite entertaining and innovative, given the fact that the drink manufacturers spent and continue to spend millions on promoting their wares. One particularly eye-catching commercial from the mid-80s was for a now long defunct variety of lager known as Lamot – see above. It featured an animated film of a knight in armour riding a tiger-like creature through a Tolkienesque fantasy sword and sorcery-type landscape on a quest to seek out this bog-standard beer. Such imagery would appeal to a 12-year old hobbit obsessive, who may never have tasted beer, but would certainly be imbued with the desire to try this particular brand.

It would be several years before I drank my first pint – as a naïve, awkward teenager my early experiences were with cider, then graduating to lager with a shot of lime to make it more agreeable to my inexperienced palate. But repeated exposure to the apparent pleasures and thrills of drinking alcohol during my schooldays through ruthless advertising had certainly whetted my appetite. And a few short years later those clever chaps in the drinks industry came up with a solution to the “problem” of awkward teenagers like my younger self being unfamiliar with alcohol by producing “alco-pops”, a cynical, almost criminal exploitation of the market for underage drinkers.

The impact of alcohol advertising on a pre-teen as described above is somewhat disturbing when one considers the culture of underage drinking and the binge sessions which occur throughout our towns, villages and cities on any Friday or Saturday night. And as if this wasn’t enough, during freshers’ week at universities up and down the country there are organised pub crawls and special offers of cheap drink.

After many years of compulsory government health warnings featuring prominently on tobacco products we now have similar warnings on bottles and cans, promoting the “Drinkaware” website. This is a move in the right direction, but in my humble opinion, not enough. The roots of the problem must be addressed.
It may be an unpopular proposal, especially among those who wish to stem the influence of the “nanny state”, but although I enjoy the odd drink or two myself, I personally believe that all forms of alcohol advertising should be banned. The manufacturers, distributors and the pub and off-licence trades would no doubt be up in arms at such a move, but in desperate times desperate measures need to be taken. The burden on an already struggling health service in dealing with alcohol-related injuries and illnesses is phenomenal. An all-out ban on alcohol advertising wouldn’t stop those who already drink from continuing to drink, but if young children and teenagers were less familiar with well-known brands the desire to start drinking in the first place may well to a certain extent be quelled. We can still enjoy our favourite tipple down a t the local without having to see it on TV, at football matches or billboard posters.

The Doctor Who does this woman’s work

 1981_farewell-tomThanks to “SillySteve2006” for coming up with the ingenious idea of posting this rather moving clip on Youtube.  It’s the last moments of Tom Baker as Doctor Who accompanied by the Kate Bush song “This Woman’s Work“.   

Picture the scene – it’s 1981 and the tall curly haired goggle-eyed, toothy-grinned man, who a generation of children has come to know as the hero of Saturday evening TV has just plunged to his imminent death from a radio telescope in the process of saving the universe yet again. 

And now he’s about to morph into that vet from “All Creatures Great & Small”. 

OK, so at the end of the day in the grand scheme of things it’s not a big deal.  All that’s happened is that the lead actor in a children’s TV show is being replaced by another actor.  But when seen in conjunction with the song, which is poignant and moving enough in its own right, it stirs certain emotions in the listener/viewer.  We get the apocalyptic sense that this is truly the end of an era.  The song is actually about pregnancy and childbirth and the traumas and emotional pain involved, a theme which fits in nicely with the regeneration of a dying Time Lord and the beginning of a new life.   The Doctor’s battered body lies prostrate on the ground as he sees flashbacks of old friends calling out his name while Kate mournfully wails about all the things she should have said but didn’t say and urges him not to die, citing “I know you have a lot of strength left, I know you have a little life left in you” – brilliant:

No doubt something similar will occur when David Tennant, probably the most popular Tardis pilot since Tom Baker morphs into the controversially chosen Matt Smith.  But it just won’t be the same.

But this blog posting isn’t really about Dr Who or Kate Bush, but about how childhood memories, certain powerful and evocative pieces of music or film can trigger off strong emotions in the human mind.  The real video for the song, featuring Kate herself alongside Tim “Percy/Captain Darling from Blackadder” McInnerney can be viewed here.   I would defy anyone to play  it without being moved in some way.

But then maybe it just affects 36-year old batchelors with too much time on their hands.  “Batchelor?” I hear you cry in amazement.  Well, I write a blog and I like Dr Who.  Go figure as the Americans would say.

Putting the meltdown into perspective

While clearing away some old newspapers I came across an article published in the Observer in January by Tim Adams which explores the anxieties and fears curently engulfing western society in the face of the current financial crisis. One paragraph in particular sticks out:
“I was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in September, an awfully long way from where our generally abundant nation was fretting about its mortgage extensions and its job prospects, and I wondered just how the people there – who had lived with war for 15 years – coped psychologically with the constant fears of their lives. Why weren’t they all on the verge of a nervous breakdown? How could they sit and laugh in the sun? The most plausible answer was that they did not have even the luxury of anxiety; their expectation of security had never extended much beyond the next hour or two. Anxiety is a disease of relative plenty; it arises not from fear at what you do not have, but fear of what you might lose.”

Probably of scant consolation to anyone who’s just lost their job, but it does put things into perspective.