Saturday, 30 January 2016


This piece came to mind during a cold, windy walk up a very steep hill in Gladstone Park, NW10. It was a couple of weeks ago when we were relieved to find that we still got a bit of cold weather in this country, and even dogs begged their owners for an overcoat, though perhaps not the ones they got. Roll on global warming, I thought, and why did I forget my scarf?


The neck has been neglected. Hearts and minds, limbs, organs and viscera all have their place in the sun, but the neck only features in the most grisly of circumstances: hanging, beheading and strangling. And yet it is a vital conduit, sheathing a number of tubes which carry food to the body (and occasionally back again), the blood supply to the head and brain, breath, and all the commands from HQ, and all the sensations we experience, travel this route. Not to mention allowing the head to traverse 180 degrees, and to nod agreement or discord. Yet with all this vital payload, it remains one of the most vulnerable parts of the body, only having protection at the rear, from the spine.

I came to appreciate the neck through the scarf. Late in life and long after most of the Northern Hemisphere, I discovered that the application of a scarf to the neck produced a totally disproportionate increase in warmth and comfort in the whole body, apparently. Not being a Creationist I tend to look for answers in evolution rather than any deity’s Grand Design.

Perhaps it evolved as a thermometer? It is like the face in that it is the only constantly exposed flesh through every season (when unscarved) which assesses the temperature immediately, and guides our conduct: that would explain why it is not covered in hair like the head. It quickly initiates an assessment of the ambient temperature: it is cold, I will put on scarf and wear down jacket not a t-shirt. (The exception to this is Geordie football fans who remove their shirts in Mid-February, regarding driving sleet and snow as an essential tribal cleansing ritual.) So, because it can influence our behaviour it becomes not just a thermometer, more like a thermostat. Dead clever the body, innit?

So the neck starts to assume a greater prominence, something much more important than just an M1 from body to head and back. And when we add in the presence of the thyroid gland whose ubiquitous influence can kill you if it goes awry, we begin to see the neck as more like an SSSI: Site of Special Scientific Interest. But in stead of celebrating the neck, our idioms are ambivalent or negative: brass neck, neck and neck, roughneck, pain in the neck – only necking gets a good press, but even that patronises teenagers, in a way, and seems to have fallen into disuse.

The Neck should be a prized icon, not a mere soft motorway. Neckrophilia should be cultivated, not despised. So, bring on the sharks! (Sorry, ignore that, I sometimes get iconography and oceanography a bit mixed up).


Private Eye used to run a regular feature called Separated at Birth: two (usually celebrity) people, who looked somewhat similar were featured side-by-side, usually with their names reversed. Maybe they still do. I am reviving this in a kind of hommage to the mother and father of contemporary British satire, without which we would probably still have Sir Alec Douglas Home as PM leading a Tory government approaching its 55th anniversary of taking office. Credit where it's due.

David Hockney

Alan Bennett

OK , so maybe it's just the
Yorkshire accent and the glasses. So what?

If you can think of other good candidates please write their names in the Comments section and I'll feature them.
No fee.

CUNNING LINGUISTICS:  a sideways glance at etymology

I don't know if this happens to you, but every so often I write or speak a word which doesn't feel right or as though it's not part of the English language. They may be perfectly commonplace, but for some reason the spelling seems wrong, or they don't sound right because they are outdated and have largely passed out of use.  I give you the example of 'pullover'. Not too hard to sort out the etymology, but it is weird because you don't call an overcoat a 'button-up' or a mitten a 'fingers-in-sock'. Sweater is a good alternative, but how often does it actually make you do that? Woolly is OK, but doesn't distinguish it from Woolly hat, tights or onesie. Jumper is perhaps the most common synonym, but where does that come from? Please don't tell me it comes from 'woolly jumper' a.k.a. sheep, because coy cuteness makes my toes curl.


In the 60s Peter Blake produced this iconic image; you would encounter it time and again in student flats not only because it was a very compelling image, but also because, being screen-printed on aluminium, it was impervious to cigarette or dope smoke, splashed alcohol or projectile vomit, the raison d'etre of student parties in this era. I still like it despite those associations. Wipe-down art was a welcome development, but it never stuck.


"It's deja vu all over again".....Yogi Berra, legendary US baseball catcher and coach

"Bigamy is having one wife too many; monogamy is the same"    Oscar Wilde



Sunday, 24 January 2016


Welcome to The Sunday Items, a weekly publication of random writing. It's come from needing a home for the kind of writing I've been posting on Facebook which is really too long for the speedy, short attention-span, mode people get into when they are trying to stay on top of the tsunami of posts that appear daily. But there will be other stuff like nice images, some cartoons/humorous references, IMHO, probably some puns that will make you leave the house saying “I may be some time”, but definitely no weather forecasts,  cat antics, Page 3, mindless newspaper horoscopes or furtive, blurry pictures of Cameron trying to resuscitate a dead pig, using whatever comes to hand. There will also be words from the mouths of other people because I like to share good quotes and anecdotes.  This blog should not be confused with a national Sunday newspaper, but like its imitator, it will appear, weekly on a Sunday: unlike that revered organ, it is free, leaves no carbon footprint, and has absolutely no connection with Jerry Hall’s new toyboy.


This is a memoir which is mostly about my parents, long gone, who I’ve been feeling fondly of lately, and thinking it would be nice to have a cup of tea with them, if Heaven does parole or day-release. Like Spike Milligan, they had a major role in Hitler's downfall, and I think this should be recognised. I posted it on Facebook a while back, but my sister pointed out a couple of inaccuracies, hopefully forgivable because I wasn’t actually alive at the time, unless for some reason my parents lied about my age. So the material is second-hand, drawn mostly from the extremely active memory of my mother's cousin Sybil. Sybil was a war photographer who went round after the air-raids photographing the damage to buildings and housing. In the process she saw human remains, including children, which affected her deeply. She once said to me that she saw things that really people shouldn’t ever have to see, the first time I’d heard such a sentiment. Looking back I think it expresses something more eloquently than an actual description of the carnage.

My father was a pharmacist, which was a reserved occupation, necessary to continue the smooth running of the society and maintain essential services. There was a moment when he thought he might see action: the slightly hearing-impaired recruiting officer asked him his occupation but wrote down ‘farm assistant’. Without stereotyping, Jewish businessmen don’t generally look much like farm labourers, do they, so the mistake would have been discovered very soon. Probably when they asked him to do anything practical or manual. That was not his forte; he was not particularly well-co-ordinated, or practical with his hands, and clung to the belief that Polyfilla could solve any household problem short of subsidence (where underpinning using his other favourite building material, Rawlplugs, might have to be deployed).  He would have gone willingly to war but it’s as well that he didn’t. I think it’s possible he might have been an early victim of ‘friendly fire’ – probably his own. On the other hand, he was something of a raconteur and could tell a good joke, so he might have boosted Allied morale.

If you do the math, it seems likely that I was conceived within minutes of the end of World War 2: let’s say ‘in the shadow’ of The War, for my childhood was dominated by it, from rationing and shortages to the nostalgia and anecdotes of my parents’ conversations:  even 10 years after VE Day the War kept surfacing in their minds; that 6-year conflagration was a constant reference. Maybe they had been transported by the wonderful news of peace to start a new life: double meaning intended. That’s OK, I’m content with being created in elation.

 I’ve often thought that in the hysteria of the War and the Blitz in particular, he must have suffered from the combination of being Jewish and a non-combatant. Men who weren’t fighting were sometimes viewed with disapproval or suspicion. His constant fire-watching on the Holborn rooftops, however dangerous, arduous and exhausting (on top of a full-time job), somehow didn’t count in the minds of people who had relatives in the line of fire. It was understandable but unfair.

My parents took a flat in Bloomsbury in the early part of the War, until the Blitz intensified and drove them out. It sounds posh, but they had calculated that their saving on fares to work more than outweighed the higher rent there than the suburbs, and saved the commute. Later my mother and sister were evacuated to a large country house in Wiltshire where the lady of the manor reconstituted the essence of the Slave Trade (only without the travel), substituting ‘Cockneys’ for Africans; they were totally miserable and fled the place for London at the first opportunity, pausing only to strangle Her Ladyship and remove the silver and one or two of the better paintings.

Back in London they moved to Mill Hill where I was born subsequently. So far as I know there is not a blue plaque on the house in Lawrence Gardens. I don’t know what can have held this up for nearly70 years, but it can only be a matter of time. In the house there they accommodated waves of American servicemen who were my father’s distant relatives, on leave from the European theatre of war, or en route to their imagined demise. My sister Jacky came in for stellar levels of attention from these brave men who missed their own kids badly; had the war not ended when it did she would certainly become clinically obese from the industrial levels of chocolate they fed her. It has never occurred to me before but this period may also account for her attraction to men in uniform (correction: man in uniform). 
But in their Bloomsbury period the Blitz reached its height. Almost every night they would have to run from the flat to Russell Square tube, or one of the other makeshift shelters. They began to get used to it, feel fatalistic and sometimes just turn over and go back to sleep. But one night it was terrible, and there were much louder explosions, suggesting bombs landing nearby. After a deafening bang my father sprung out of bed and yelled at my mother to head for a shelter, which she did. There was then a bang, followed by my father falling to the floor, moaning, and his weakened voice saying “I’ve been hit….don’t worry about me, save yourself ”

and then there was just the sound of my mother laughing hysterically. In his rush to dress he had stuffed some of the curtain into the back of his trousers, and as he moved away brought down the pelmet on the back of his head. You couldn't make it up. But the valour, the valour...

Paul Merton used to do a gag about the Blitz (I’ve heard him do it several times) that he said was so old that they had a copy in the Imperial War Museum. He said his father had told him that you were perfectly safe in the bombing unless the bomb had your name on it, which was fine for them but worrying for Mr and Mrs Doodlebug next door. 

On the Night of the Guided Pelmet, my parents reached the shelter and survived. Their flat was left standing. But there was a big hole in the roof, and in the roof space the rescue workers found a huge unexploded bomb. And when they defused it and removed it, on the underside there was a neatly stencilled message:  "For Jack & Joan Milner, from Mr.A.Hitler". Uncanny.



Dorothy Parker, on non-invasive psychotherapy:

"I would rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy"

Woody Allen (as Zelig):

"I parted company with Freud over the concept of 'penis envy':
he was quite insistent that it should be restricted to women".


HEROES:   Time's cull


Bereavement time for the baby booomer generation. For those of us who are their exact contemporaries, their deaths are particularly poignant. It's been a bad week or so for Life.

By current norms they have died very young. Reflecting my particular prejudices I can’t help but note that at least three of them had long periods of drug and/or alcohol abuse, not likely to promote longevity. To be fair, Keith Richards has probably exceeded all of their consumption put together, and, against the odds, will probably make it through to 95, even though he looks older than that already. 

They all came to maturity in the 60s when the massive cultural changes taking place encouraged every kind of excess. Three were in an industry where abuse of their bodies was not simply an occupational hazard but a way of life, a philosophy and a totem. Dylan wrote that “He not busy being born is busy dying” and this generation of rock stars were busier than most. RIP

                                GLEN TO KEITH:   "TAKE IT EEEEEEEEASY FELLA:

ARTCHIVE:    a fairytale of New York

In 1978/9 I lived in the East Village for a few months while on sabbatical. At the time the City was experiencing the peak of a street-crimewave, including a lot of violence. There was a great deal of fear around which, fuelled by rumour, led to paranoia. Everyone you talked to had heard of this or that person getting robbed, but few had actually witnessed it or experienced it, apparently. This moral panic led the rest of the U.S. to nod sagely, for it confirmed what they'd always thought of NYC anyway: a city of excess, violence, arrogance, moral turpitude, drugs and, though this had nothing whatsoever to do with these sins, more Jews than Israel.   

I very much like this image, courtesy of the low rent maggots in the Big Apple at that time:

You can add comments below if you want to, but not if your name is Geoff and you just want to have another go at Corbyn. But if your name is Geoff and you want to buy me lunch, write anything you like. Same applies to anyone else for that matter.