My life and times

All posts in the My life and times category

How do you like to watch yours? Multiplex, flea pit or barn?

Published 13/01/2014 by damselwithadulcimer

I’m old enough to remember when cinemas were still a throwback to the theatres that they replaced. They used to have magical names like the Essoldo, the Alhambra or the Astoria where uniformed commissionaires used to organise the queues of moviegoers who would line up for separate performances. Regardless of programme times, you could still take your seat halfway through a film and then sit right through the programme and stay for the part you had missed. Usually there would also be an usherette with a red beamed torch to show you to your seat if the lights had already been turned down.  As children growing up in south London, our favourite venue was the Astoria, Brixton (now the Academy) where the interior of the auditorium was decorated and modelled to resemble a Moorish palace.  Just gazing up and all around, instead of at the screen, was entertainment in itself.


Inside the auditorium of the Astoria Brixton – picture courtesy of


As well as the smartly dressed commissionaire there would also be ladies selling ice creams and cold drinks from large trays hanging from their necks. If you went to the pictures on a regular basis you might have your particular favourite, or you might want to chop and change: Kia-ora orange squash, Mivvi, Walls or Lyons Maid ice cream, or just salted peanuts.  We didn’t supersize, nor did we munch from giant buckets of popcorn washed down with a gallon or two of a heavily carbonated drink.

When I was still quite young, and even into my teens, we hadn’t become heavily Americanised, hence the difference between refreshments then and now.  We went to the pictures to see a film, never to a movie house to see a movie.  The main feature may probably have been an American import, but the Pearl and Dean adverts (ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba…) and the ‘Look at Life’ short films were as British as they could be.  Especially with the precisely enunciated voiceovers that would introduce us to events and occupations in and around our island as well as in other countries of the world.

Most people would go to see a film weekly and the two main chains (ABC and Odeon) showed new releases on a weekly basis.  You eagerly awaited the latest production featuring your favourite films stars, or even singers.  For an Elvis fan like me, the only chance you would have of seeing your idol was on the silver screen, where he would appear larger than life.  Fans followed their favourite heart throb actors, be they Steve McQueen, Paul Newman or Marilyn Monroe.  Of course our parents would have had different priorities, including Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck or Bette Davis.

If you didn’t want to wait for a film to go on local release you could always go ‘Up West’ to enjoy a film in one of the more plush Leicester Square cinemas, although you had to be prepared to pay the difference in cost.

Nowadays cinemas seem to have lost a great deal of their former glamour.  Although we are still in a recession, somehow seeing a film doesn’t offer the escape that it would have presented during the 1930s and the dark days of World War II.  Film stars no longer have the charisma they once had.  They sell their stories to magazines like Closer and Heat and people try to emulate them and their life styles.

With these changes in viewing habits cinema venues have also undergone a major alteration.  Many of the old movie theatres have been demolished or restructured.  Large picture houses have been converted into venues that can show two, three or four films in smaller ‘screens’ and large multiplexes have been constructed, often in conjunction with shopping malls, so that viewers have a much larger choice of films to watch at any given time.  Of course there are still cinemas up and down the country, such as the Phoenix in East Finchley, that defy this trend and are classed as art house cinemas, showing independent and foreign films.  Some of them retain the picture palace traditions of the 1920s and 1930s when they were built, and have been extensively renovated to restore them to their former art deco grandeur. 


The Phoenix Cinema – picture courtesy of


On a visit to Totnes in Devon my daughter took me to see ‘A Long Walk to Freedom’ in a converted barn on the Dartington Estate; a cosy cinema with its original vaulted beamed ceiling, where the seats are conveniently raked so that everybody had a good view of the screen.


Picture supplied courtesy of


Perhaps as more and more people buy larger and larger televisions for their living rooms, there will be even fewer visits to the cinema.  Why venture out on a cold wintry night to see a film with a host of other people, all munching away at their popcorn and slurping their CocaCola, if you can watch in the comfort of your own home?  On the other hand you can still visit some beautiful old picture palaces, such as the Duke of York’s Picture House in Brighton.  Opened on 22 September 1910 it is Britain’s oldest purpose built cinema that has continued to screen films for longer than a century. I think I would rather join the queue for the 5 shilling and sixpenny seats (or whatever the equivalent cost is now) outside that kind of building than watch a DVD on my home television.


The Duke of York’s Picture House – picture courtesy of Wikipedia

Words … words … words

Published 12/03/2012 by damselwithadulcimer

The power of words is an immensely strong one.  Without words we wouldn’t be able to communicate and share ideas, and without the written word it would be impossible to read what others have written.

I recently had an interesting day built on the power of words.  During the afternoon I helped to run a class where we discussed, and then attempted to compose our own, poetry.  We were a mixed bag, men and women with varying interests, some of whom hadn’t had a huge amount of exposure to poems.  I brought along copies of a few different verses: Henry Shukman’s ‘Spring Lamb’, ‘Adrian Henri’s Talking After Christmas Blues’, and A A Milne’s ‘Daffodowndilly’.

We started with the Shukman poem, which evoked a range of responses.  The overall feeling was that it was very emotive, started a little sadly and pessimistically, and finished with a happy ending.  The language is relatively simple, but the poem does exactly what it sets out to do, it leaves the reader feeling happy and optimistic.  We also agreed that it doesn’t follow rigid rules, nor does it rhyme, but it fits in with the theme of renewal that is prevalent at Easter, and therefore in the spring.

We then went on to look at the Adrian Henri which is partly in rhyme, follows some basic patterns, but also breaks them.  It conveys human emotions and feelings of loss.  We agreed that it was probably a man writing about a broken relationship with his wife or girlfriend, and unlike the previous poem it didn’t have a happy ending.  It also drew a response from a widower in our group, who read us a poem that he’d written about his wife after her death.  Even though he is not a poet, we were equally touched by his use of words and felt honoured that he offered to share these extremely heartfelt words and emotions with us.

The final piece was ‘Daffodowndilly’, which may seem like a simplistic poem for children, but which is rich in imagery, anthropomorphising a flower.  It also provides a surprise in its final line as it juxtaposes the statement ‘Winter is dead’ with the earlier light, colourful imagery of spring. The overall impression was of an informal class that had been enjoyed, and possibly where expectations had been confounded.  I’m very much looking forward to the next time we meet.

A couple of hours later I attended a lecture at University College London about the final years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and of the responses evoked in literature and art to the fact that the queen was past her fertile years, remained unmarried and childless, and there was no successor to follow her to the throne.

This lecture was so skilfully given, and so easy to follow, that it made me wonder why I hadn’t made all these assumptions myself.  However, in the hands of another academic, who possibly may not have the gift of explaining and conveying these same theories in a way that was easy to understand, it could easily have turned into a boring and uninteresting hour.

We don’t have to be academics to read and learn from the printed page.  We can all enjoy on different levels as the fancy takes us.  But what a strange place the world would be without the written word.

The Big Society: Are We Really All In It Together?

Published 28/01/2012 by damselwithadulcimer

At least Stephen Hester and his huge bonus are not on the front pages again today.  My other half tried to convince me that the RBS boss is worth all those shares and explained how much money Mr Hester has saved his bank.  Sorry, I’m still not entirely convince and need somebody to explain to me, very slowly, why bankers are so highly valued.  In my opinion there are many people working in far less high profile jobs and professions and who contribute to society in much more beneficial ways.  From where I’m standing it appears that our cabinet of millionaires, and multi-millionaires are far more closely allied to the ‘fat cats’ of industry and big business, than they are connected to the majority of people in Britain.

Although I’m jobless, I’m lucky that I don’t need to apply for benefits, although I would love to work. However I use some of my spare time to volunteer and help out others and I believe I have I much more balanced and sympathetic view of those who are far less well off than I am.  Today I put money in a collection box for Alzheimers and Dementia, simply because I’ve often stood in the same spot and collected for my local branch of Mencap.  Life is not fair these days, and can even be extremely cruel, but I usually feel pretty good in myself after a couple of hours holding out a collecting tin and feeling it getting heavier and heavier.  I know what I take in an hour or two would be a mere drop in the ocean compared to the earnings and bonuses of the big bank bosses.   I often feel incensed when people smile at me and walk away without putting a penny in my tin, but I feel more of a connection to those less fortunate than I would do if I carried on living my own self-centred life.

I think those of us further down the heap have more of a connection than those who preach to us.  Would they really want to donate spare time to help people learn the internet for nothing at their local library (assuming that they have one that is still open)?  I will expand this to teaching computing and internet to elderly carers in my area next month.  These are the unsung heroes of our society.  Those people who have no option but to care for friends and family with disabilities.  The people they care for are not scroungers, but people who are afflicted with problems, difficulties and illnesses that prevent them from working.  In spite of these handicaps, I know of men and women with learning disabilities who work to a certain extent and do the best they can.  And I haven’t heard one of them moan or grumble about their situation.  They just get on with it and carry on as best they can.

We are definitely not all in it together.  In Animal Farm George Orwell famously stated that ‘all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.’  It was ever thus and will never change, unless those who are more equal roll up their sleeves to help those who are less equal.

Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger

Published 10/11/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

I’ve been a Penelope Lively fan for years, so I jumped at the opportunity of attending a radio recording of her talking about her Booker prize winning novel, Moon Tiger.   I’ve been to the BBC Radio Theatre several times, but this was a World Service programme, so it took place at Bush House.

The experience was a completely different one.  We were taken down a couple of flights of stairs and across a courtyard then down a further couple of flights, ending up in the bowels of Bush House.  Having started out at the Kingsway entrance to the building, we were now over on the Strand side.  In a highly civilised manner we were offered glasses of wine before going into the studio, where Penelope was already seated with Harriett Gilbert.  There were only about 30 of us in the small studio, and I was told that mine was to be the second question of the programme. 

After Harriett introduced Penelope, the writer read a short passage from the novel before taking the first question.  The pattern of the programme was a series of questions, some taken from the audience, others put to Penelope by Harriett, who had received them by email, and a couple more came in by phone from around the world.  It was interesting to take into account the questions posed by others and to learn of some of the writer’s insights into her working processes and the building up of character. 

My question was on the conflicting perspectives given in the novel, others asked about the research put in to build up a story, why the story didn’t have a necessarily happy ending and how much of the writer was in the protagonist.

It will be interesting to listen to the programme when it is broadcast in a few weeks, especially as our hour and ten minutes in the studio will be edited down to 53 minutes.  After that the programme will remain in the BBC’s archives indefinitely. 

Migraine is a pain in the neck as well as in the head

Published 25/10/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

I’ve suffered and struggled with migraines for at least thirty years.  On my worst days I just have to give in to them and rest, but at other times I try to keep going and certainly find it helps a little to swear at them, in the hopes that they really will b****r off!

I can’t believe that I’ve only just discovered (and joined) Migraine Action, an association that was founded in 1958 to support migraineurs and specialist clinics and to help research into migraine, its causes, diagnosis, prevention and treatment.  I had the opportunity to attend their recent AGM and education day in London, and am so pleased that I didn’t have a migraine on that day and had the opportunity to meet so many other sufferers, and to listen to, and get advice from, some of the country’s leading specialists in the field.

The day was focused on three major topics.  The first one was a talk on preventative treatments for migraine and was presented by Dr Manjit Matharu, a consultant neurologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, where the day was also organised.  The first interesting fact I gleaned is that migraine is a brain disorder and there are approximately five million sufferers in the UK.  Although there are a few basic symptoms, many of us also report other experiences and variations, and a horrifying third of all patients don’t respond to any treatments.  We talked about the various over-the-counter analgesics that are available (although they must be taken at far higher doses), complementary supplements that can be bought, along with the recommended doses, and the prescription only preventatives, along with any side effects.  We were also given scientific data relating to the trials of the various medications, so that we could weigh up how useful they have proved and compare their use to the results achieved from taking placebos.

Dr Andrew Dowson is the Director of Headache Services at King’s College Hospital in London.  He outlined the available acute treatments and the latest research into treating migraine.  Again we were given facts and figures regarding treatments and learned about some of the research that is currently ongoing.  This includes needle free injections and transdermal patches.  He also explained the differences between the various triptans that are generally prescribed to treat migraines, and advised me to try an alternative to the one I’ve been taking for years.  So I’m off to see my doctor next week, duly armed with my information.

The third speaker was Dr Sue Lipscombe who is both a GP, and a headache specialist.  She was more interested in discussing ways of managing migraines and also of encouraging alternative and complementary therapies and treatments.  Although scientific data rules out the effectiveness of chiropractic and acupuncture (to name but two) we were given evidence to show that these treatments have worked with some sufferers.  Nobody is sure if there is a placebo effect or how the results can be explained, but it seems there is a case to be answered for these other therapies.  She even cited a sceptical patient, who had no belief in a therapy being offered to her, but who contacted her several weeks later, having been migraine free since that time.

All in all an extremely useful and informative day and a chance to chat to other migraineurs.  It was a shame to learn that Migraine Action is struggling to raise funds just now, so we need to recruit as many members as possible, and to find other fundraising routes.

Collecting for Charity

Published 25/10/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

As part of my ongoing involvement with my local branch of Mencap, I sometimes shake a collecting box outside a local supermarket.   Last week it was the turn of the nearest Tesco (in fact they only allow one collection day a year).  Unfortunately it’s not one of the more lucrative spots either, but a couple of hours spent coercing the public here and there is never wasted.  Even when passersby remark on how cold I appear, I remind them that I choose to be cold for a couple of hours, but the people I’m supporting have no choice and are disabled for life.

The two hours that I give up of my time seem to pass really quickly.  Although the collecting tin might feel rather empty to start with, it’s made worthwhile by those who drop money through the slot.  Many people will just give a pound or a fifty pence piece and others will empty all their small change into my tin.  I’ve also had the extremes: one lady folded a five pound note and poked it through the opening, whilst somebody donated one penny last week.  I kept quiet and reminded myself that I had no idea of his particular circumstances.

There are those who push past me with their shopping trolleys as if I’m obstructing them, some look me in the eye and walk past, and others mutter something about no change, or having spent it all on their shopping.  Whenever somebody stops before reaching me and fumbles in their bag, wallet or purse I’m always hopeful, but sometimes they’re only hunting for their car keys.  On the other hand, it’s a pleasant surprise when somebody pats me on the back, having passed me, and offers me money.  Of course young children always love to feed money into a collecting box, and love to have a sticker in return.  Very often I find that elderly or disabled people are the most empathetic and will donate to Mencap.

A couple of events stick out from my last collection.  The first was a very heavily pregnant young woman who staggered to the bench outside the entrance, holding her bump from underneath.  Whilst she was sitting down she kept massaging her pregnant stomach and I wondered if I was going to have to be a midwife as well as a charity collector.  However she assured me that the baby was very active and she just couldn’t manage without a rest.

I was also kept company by a gorgeous King Charles spaniel.  The owner left him outside whilst she shopped, and he kept seducing me with his big brown eyes.  He was such a sweetheart, with long, silky ears and I was sorry to see him leave.

Collecting gives me a chance to chat to strangers.  Many will stop to talk, will ask about the cause, or will just pass the time in a good natured way.  We exchange jokes, such as threatening to catch them on their way out, and one lady even remarked how I’d managed to change sex as the previous collector (when she entered) had been a man, and I was now the one rattling the tin.  It all goes some way to restoring your faith in human nature and making you feel that you are helping to contribute something for others who are less fortunate.  There are many demanding causes.  We can’t all contribute financially to everything, but we can donate some of our time.


Published 05/10/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

I haven’t visited this ancient city for thirty-eight years, so couldn’t resist the opportunity to see if it had changed.  Our original plans to catch the metro into the Plaka area were hurriedly altered when we felt the heat,  and arranged for a local taxi driver to take us to the main sights and wait for us whilst we looked around.  After all, only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun and even the dogs are sensible enough to take a nap in the shade.

The first stop was the Acropolis.  When I originally visited it forty years ago we were able to clamber wherever we wanted, but now everything is roped off and scaffolded as part of the ongoing restoration work.  It also seemed like much harder work to climb up to the top, but then our legs are forty years older now.  Our allotted hour passed and we had to make our way down again into the deliciously air conditioned taxi.  The driver showed us the Presidential palace with an Evzone guard on duty outside.  He explained that the guards take it in turns to spend an hour at a time on duty.  Anything longer would be impossible because of the heat and because they must stand perfectly still.  I don’t think he even blinked while we were there.

After this the driver had to take a detour because of demonstrations that were taking place, causing road closures.  We visited the remains of the Temple to Olympian Zeus  and then he deposited us on Amalias Avenue for our stroll around the Plaka and the flea market.  Everything’s changed a lot since I was last there and it seems even more touristy than it used to be.  Anyway we fortified ourselves with a delicious Gyros with vegetables in bread and eventually managed to find our way back to the taxi, and then to the ship to cool off and relax.


Published 05/10/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

My cultural side wanted to take a ferry to the nearby island of Delos, with its architectural remains of the Temple of Apollo, but my lazy, tourist side won the battle.  Hence we spent the next few hours wandering around the island of Mykonos, browsing and shopping for local products.

Mykonos is full of stray cats (similar, but on a smaller scale, to Istanbul).  As usual I couldn’t resist any of them and shared my Gyros lunch with a ginger and white tomcat, although I kept my yummy, flaky, crispy Baklava to myself.  But cats don’t appear out of nowhere; they have to start off as appealing little kittens.  The first one I came across was a friendly little tabby, who was quite happy for me to pick him up and cuddle him.  However he was more interested in food and proceeded to try to suckle my clothes and was perfectly happy for me to stay with him.  As I’m not a nursing female cat, the best I could offer him was some water, and had to leave him to fend for himself.

The next kitty was a tortoiseshell that was equally friendly and bold with people, but not so brave when it came to an encounter with the island’s tame pelican.  His response to this huge bird was to climb a nearby tree and look anxious.

You can’t visit Mykonos without climbing up high to see the old windmills that no longer turn.  We duly visited, along with all the other tourists and our cameras, until we’d photographed everything possible and it was time for lunch.


Published 05/10/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

An overnight sailing brought us into Haifa in northern Israel.  What a contrast between this city and Ashdod!  The port has views of the Carmel (and the Bah’ai Temple) that lure the visitor to want to explore this beautiful city.

Despite having arranged for a hire car, we still had to negotiate the local taxi drivers,  who were all touting to show tourists around this area of the country.  We finally struck a bargain with one of them, who dropped us at Eldan to collect our car (with fewer dents than the previous one).  First stop was my sister-in-law’s grave high up on the Carmel and overlooking the Mediterranean.  What a beautiful, tranquil spot for a cemetery.

All this had taken longer than anticipated so an iced coffee  was needed, and a three-legged dog petted, before we made our way to Tiberias.

The area around the lake is much lower than Haifa, and consequently much hotter.  However the views across the Sea of Galilee and over to the Golan Heights  were spectacular, especially when accompanied by a plate of the local St Peter’s Fish,  dutifully shared with a local black and white cat.  Moggies the world over treat humans as their slaves, but they do it in such a way that animal lovers cannot help but be seduced by them.  I’ve always said that felines have tremendous chutzpah, but Israeli cats have even more than most.

After a brief paddle in the lake, and no walking on water for mere humans, it was time to wend our way back to the ship and say goodbye (or shalom) to Israel.

My first visit to Jerusalem

Published 03/10/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

We were warned not to drive into Jerusalem between 8 am and 10 am as the traffic would be very heavy,  so we left the ship a little after 10 in the morning for a drive into the most disputed city for the world’s religions.

Our first stop was in the Arab quarter of the old city, where we were constantly accosted and waylaid by vendors trying to sell their wares.  The old city has probably not changed much since biblical times, but is also similar to other old Middle Eastern cities, such as the souk in Tunis or Lindos on Rhodes.  After a little bit of shopping, the constant touting for business became rather tedious as the salesmen became ruder and we resorted to fighting fire with fire.

Our first tourist visit was to David’s Tower, from where we had the most amazing views across the old city, dominated by the Dome of the Rock with its golden roof.   However the most important sight for me was the Wailing Wall, the site of the First Temple, which we first viewed from higher up.  I thought I was clothed modestly in a maxi dress, but my sleeves (despite covering my shoulders) were too short and I had to borrow a scarf to cover my upper arms.  Conservative Judaism is still misogynistic.  The greater part of the area in front of the Wall is allocated to the men, whilst the women have to squeeze into a much smaller space and it was impossible to get close enough to the holy stones, or to leave a message between the bricks.

After visiting the surface area of the Temple, we joined a fascinating tour under the walls of the structure, and learned that the stones were quarried nearby and that the bottom ones weighed 570 tons each.  They were dragged into place and then chiselled flat once in situ.  Emerging into the evening light we caught the end of a girls’ choir singing Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem; an appropriate reminder of where we were and a warning that Jews must never be forced out of their homeland ever again.

A bus ride along the walls was like stepping back several hundred years.  Most of the passengers in the vehicle were orthodox Jews, men sitting at the front and women in the back half.  A rather unnerving experience for a twenty-first century Londoner.

Having actually visited Jerusalem, my appetite has been whetted and I will definitely return, perhaps not ‘next year in Jerusalem’ but before too long.