Well kiss my Ringo

Liverpool came over all cultural tonight as the blessed Ringo 'St.Cecilia' Starr led a beatified collection of musos in launching our year as EUroPEEEan CAPital of CUL-TURE (as the stentorian presenter would have it). Somewhere between the BBC's estimate of 25,000, and the Liverpool Echo's bullish claim of 50,000, squished ourselves into and on to Lime Street and all balconies, steps, pavements, bollards, van roofs and trees for a view of the shenanigans. It was an evening of mercifully clement weather, with not a hint of drizzle and not even the lightest of zephyrs blowing. Miraculous, given the previous week's stormy weather, and that Gloucestershire and the South West were this very evening being hammered with gales, rain AND snow. Phil Redmond clearly has more talents even than his greatest fans had suspected. Either that or a piece of evidence damning enough to blackmail the God of Weather into compliance. Ah no - maybe it's because we had a former Hurricane on the roof already.

The sainted Mop Top (well, shaven mop in woolly hat) and his freezing chums ranged themselves along the edge of St George's Hall's classically proportioned roof, with an isolationist and anonymous guitar-plucker atop the Wellington Memorial (that's a lot of narrow spiral stairs to climb). There was a lot of noise with little discernible melody, but the ground shook with the decibel level of woofers big eough to give nightmares to the Hound of the Baskervilles. Whatever was going on got occasional applause from the sardines in front of the action and the big screens, but in Commutation Row there was little in the way of words, pictures or harmonies that arrived intact at our eyes and ears.

But we were there. We could tell lots of stuff was happening, and it was kindly kept to 45 mins to save us all freezing solid in the dry, still but gelid January night air. Liverpool is good at producing large, good-tempered, happy crowds when the occasion demands, and it was great to be a part of it.

The city isn't short of beautiful buildings, and the patch around SGH is stuffed with them. It was fantastic to see the County Sessions House lit to fabulous advantage at the end of the show - a stunning building given a starring role for once.

Displaying new Bluecoat treasures

Private view at the Bluecoat display centre – jolly, civilised sorts like John and Dot here, swamped with beautifully crafted temptations that at least one of them failed to resist.

Flash Harry

Heeeeeeeeeeeeeere's Harry! Harry Goodwin - photographer extraordinaire - at John Lennon Airport, where a huge exhibition of a tiny part of his collection of portraits is permanently on show in the departure lounge. Harry was Top of the Pops photographer for nine years and has photographed every legend you can think of. To see the exhibition you have to be flying out of JLA, so book yourself an easyJet weekend immediately.

Here's Harry with one of his greatest fans, the lovely Carolyn Tasker, of Peel Advertising.

Story of the week

Couldn't resist this story from Ananova: what a fantastic conflict of interests...

Mourners shivering in a chapel are to be kept warm using heat generated from cremating their loved ones. The idea will be tried at a crematorium near Manchester where grieving friends and relatives have complained of the cold during services.

Tameside Council will use heat from cremating bodies to keep the mourners warm at Dukinfield Crematorium. Town hall chiefs say the heat generated will be enough to power the boiler and light the chapel, reports the Daily Telegraph. But they admit it is a "sensitive" issue and have promised to consult clergy and the wider community. Robin Monk, environment chief of Tameside Council, said: "I'm not sure how people will react, but we don't want to upset anyone. We will carry out full consultation with priests, vicars and the public before a decision is taken."

The Rev Vernon Marshall, of Old Chapel, said: "As a final act of generosity, it's a lovely way for the dead to provide comfort for the living at a difficult time."


I am lost. Doomed!

Damn and blast and curse the BBC. Now it has released its iPlayer for the tellybox (I have been using it for radio, and that was bad enough), I am DOOMED.

Backstory: I haven't had a TV in the house for over 20 years (barring four short and ill-advised months in 1990) because I'm a self-confessed television addict. Not the quiz-show variety but a dishonest-to-badness I-can-handle-it addict. In 1987(ish) I refused an invitation from a chum to go out one Saturday evening because (this was not the reason I admitted to the chum) I didn't want to miss Noel's House Party. Oh, the shame of it. That night the stark, harsh, brutal realisation hit me about the chops. It was the equivalent of waking up in the gutter. The next day the demon device left my house, never to return. Cold turkey it had to be.

I rediscovered The Archers (despised but ubiquitous through my childhood) and delved into the delights of Radio 4 for the next two decades, happy with that, and although rather worried by the mass of entertainment suddenly provided by Radio 7 in the last few years, I could still cope.

But now – oh, the smell of sulphur - the Beelzebub BBC has opened the gates of Perdition, in the shape of broadband technology which allows me access (although a tiny screen) to every BBC production online, on my Mac, on my desk, on tap.

It's like plumbing a whisky main into an AA member's kitchen. Not fair. Boooo. Don't expect to see me between now and Doomsday, because I'll be watching some bloody rubbish. Somebody save me.............

Hostage to fortune

The idea is that I take a snap of everyone I meet this year. It's my 50th in April, it's my 20th year in Liverpool, and it's Liverpool's year as Capital of Culture. Seems a good time to try. Given my abysmal record of self-discipline, this nice idea might peter out by the end of the week, but you can see for yourself by checking the 2008 PEOPLE blog (see link opposite).

Huzzah and hosannah, we're cultural!

Happy New Year, and a spiffingly cultural 12 months ahead, to capitalise on being in Liverpool. These pics were taken in the opening moments of the year, with Great George tolling from the cathedral tower, and a gospel choir singing Beatles songs (natch) supported by a couple of thousand natives clustered below the falling fire. And who should I bump into on the way out? None but the main man of the moment, Kris Donaldson, now charged with delivering Liverpool Culture Co's 12 months of jollity. Here he is, in the golden glow of the street lights, looking suitably cheery.

So - if you're in Liverpool, make the most of it, have fun, enjoy the ride. If you're not in Liverpool – come and see us, join in, spread the good word, and come and see us again. Lots.

Love those ideas

LoveMyIdea is a new site from a Liverpool-based team which is well worth regular visits. Saw this one this morning – terrific. Tell your debt-ridden chums, children, siblings and others. Got to the LoveMyIdea link and look for this one: Graduates Can Get Out of the Red while Helping Charity

Must go to BED

But not before I've brought this blog up to date. I'm not doing well - the year is speeding up. Have a meeting in 7 hours and I want SLEEEEEEEEEEP. In a moment. I've hardly set foot in this office over the last month - at least that's how it feels.

Enterprise Week was fun - was at six events in London and Liverpool, talking to MPs, young entrepreneurs, enerprise graduates, GCSE students, and primary school girls. The enthusiasm and excitement from every group was infectious and I have signed up for all kinds of projects and schemes over the next year to keep the excitement going. More of these plans later.

Before that we had our last book launch of the year, waving off LEAVING, volume 5 of Mersey Minis. With the fifth volume we could launch the set in its chic PVC belt, clear, so you can see all the colours and cover illustrations. Very cute. AND we had an exhibition of all the illustrations at the same event. Lots of fun, and bundles of books vanishing with new owners - lovely.


And now it's 10th November. No it's not, it's the 11th. Just after 11am, too.

Managed to hear the distant chime of Big Ben from someone's radio and was in time for the minute's silence. While I am not militaristic and don't think war is a way to solve conflicts, the least I can do is stand for 60 seconds to remember the courage of young men and women, and the terrible waste of life - and not just British and allied lives, but all those involved on the orders of their leaders, not to mention civilians of all ages caught up in the violence.

If anyone reads this and doesn't know what I'm talking about – it's 11 November, the anniversary of Armistice Day in 1918, the end of the First World War. The day serves as Remembrance Day to commemmorate the dead of wars of the 20th century and the 21st.
The poppy was the only flower to grow among the devastation of the battlefields of France and Flanders, which is why it has become the symbol of the dead men who fell there.

11am is the moment that people stand for a minute's silence. Knowing that I am joining millions of others for that minute is very moving - everyone has their own thoughts: of family members and friends who died, of their personal experience of war - whatever they might be.

Moments of communion are important, drawing people together in spirit wherever they happen to be, with a common intent.


It's been a hectic six weeks. That's my excuse for not updating the blog since the end of August. BAD Arabella. I'm still alive, and there's lots of news, but it's nearly 9am and there are wolves outside the door clamouring for my blood. I really should do some of the things they're howling for, before I get eaten. So see you again in a bit.

Happy birthday to us!

Less than three hours to go now until Liverpool's 800th anniversary. Eight centuries since Bad King John did a Good Thing and signed the first charter to turn Liverpool from a fishing village into a charter town, albeit with a modest seven streets. And it's at the bottom of one of those original streets, where the Mersey used to lap at the wall of the chapel, that we will be launching Mersey Minis 3 tomorrow afternoon. Huzzah thrice! Happy jollies to us!

Yum – so delicious you could lick them

All the Mersey Minis are back from the printers: utterly scrumptious. Green one to launch next Tuesday, pink one end of September, and purple one in early November. And then they'll be tinned for Christmas. yum yum.

Little coincidences

I love falling across little coincidences. Have just discovered one about William Huskisson, who was MP for Liverpool and president of the Board of Trade, and champion in Parliament for the Liverpool-Manchester Railway. Famously, also, the first man to be killed by a train – at the Rainhill Trials, when he was run over by Rocket.
The coincidence? His first seat in Parliament was as MP for Chichester in 1812 – which is the constituency in which I was born and bred (West Sussex).
Meaningless, but pleasing.

Birthday drumbeat

On 28th August 2008, Liverpool is 800 Years Old. Do YOU want to be a part of History?
Mutual Arising is looking for 800 drummers to perform at St Georges Plateau, Liverpool City Centre, on the night of this Historic Date. Anyone can take part as the rhythm we have created for the event is very simple to learn but is very powerful to hear! The event is open to everbody and of all ages.
They would like YOU to Play YOUR Part by coming along to the event and joining in! If you are not one of the final 800 you can be part of the groove by following their ONLINE TUTORIAL (Learn At Home) available now. If you have any type of drum at home, fancy making a simple one or just want to clap, then make sure you are part of this Historic Event by and for the people of Liverpool.
Help them create the biggest beat in history. The nights activities are also being filmed and will appear in the Mutual Arising ‘Spirit of Liverpool’ movie, due for release in 2008.
There are daily workshops (not Mondays) in St George's Hall between now and the 28th – for details go to the Drum 800 website at http://www.mutualarising.com/drum800/eventnews.htm or email Drum800Workshops@mutualarising.com

I'll be there, with my drum. Hope to see you there too.

Ed Reardon's blissful week

If you haven't discovered Ed Reardon yet, discover him. He's on Radio 4 and BBC 7, in different series. He's my hero of the moment. There's no-one who can rant, rage and rampage like the gloriously irascible Ed, at least not since John Cleese in his prime. Described by the BBC as 'author, pipesmoker, consummate fare-dodger and master of the abusive email', he describes the media as 'run by idiots, lying charlatans and moronic twelve year-olds who should've been drowned at birth in a bucket of raw sewage'

Written (with Andrew Nickolds) and performed by Christopher Douglas, it has a blue chip cast and there are 18 episodes to writhe through. Voted Best Radio Programme by the Broadcasting Press Guild.



Aghast, avast, and flabber me swashes

I don't normally indulge in Culture-baiting, but the news that the Mathew Street Festival has been cancelled leaves me reeling. But now for the entrepreneurial spirit of the city to rise like a phoenix – who is going to come up with the Button St/Rainford Square fest (not the Pier Head, surprise cause of all the trouble)?
I usually avoid the MSF with such scary enormous crowds, but if there's an impromptu happening I'll go, just to cheer.

Chez Crown Prince Harpikuu

His Regal Lusciousness Harpik├╝ di Ruritanie graciously hosted a garden party on the only sunny Saturday in July, for many fortunate revellers who drank drink, wielded croquet mallets and danced little happy dances to celebrate whatever it was that the Crown Prince had in his head at the time. The identity of the partygoers remains a mystery as none of them were sober enough to remember their names, but his Coronial Blueness has a list somewhere.
This faithful subject took part as kitchen skivvy for 5 hours, then transmogrified into an oddity from Sighisoara for the remains of the day. This frightening creature drifted round the lawn like a malign spectre with a large camera, recording evidence for The Dark Prince Harpkik├╝

Awards were made by his Celestial Boloksiness to certain elite members of his chosen guests, who danced with joy on receiving a stuffed and mounted Unicorn, a rare vegetable in the shape of generative organs, a large castle, and a small vessel of grapejuice (fermented). Traditional Ruritanian tunes encouraged the joyful dances of gratitude, which were heartily applauded by the unluckier citizens.

To come, dear readers, is the 17th century Toxteth Park Advent Dinner, probably on Saturday 8 December, but to be confirmed. It will be splendid, and not to be missed.

Put some of this in your diary

I found this on the Bookstore Tourism blog (US-based) by Larry Portzline – I went there for a speech by Dana Goia on culture (a must-read - see link opposite) and trawled down to find several bits on UK events and ideas, including Sedbergh, the book town. Not just books, but ideas and old-fashioned heartwarming entertainment. Don't throw up - have a look. It's great. I plan to be singing on the Settle railway and am seriously tempted to go carol-singing. Not to mention to the book fest and the ideas festival (Dana Goia would be thrilled by this).

Biting bee bums

Just discovered a delightful page on the RHS's Wild about Gardens website (link below). In an article titled 'build a bee hotel' is this marvellous description of how baby bees emerge from their birth cells:
"All being well, the bees hatch in spring, almost a year after they were laid as eggs. The oldest wakes up first but can't get out because it has several siblings in front of it. So it breaks down the mud wall and bites the rear end of the bee in front. This process is repeated until the front bee gets the message and emerges, leaving the way clear for its brothers and sisters."
To read more about bum-biting mason bees, go to:
http://www.wildaboutgardens.org/Gardening/DoOneThing/BeeHotel.aspx or hit the link opposite.

Countryfile in Transylvania

The BBC's rural programme Countryfile rocked off to Transylvania the other week to look at the farming and village life that takes the likes of us back 50, 100, even 500 years. The Mihai Eminescu Trust (supported by Prince Charles, amongst others) is doing its damnedest to keep the best of the traditional while giving the villagers something of modern European comforts. A very tricky balance to strike, which the quangocrats in Brussels won't do much to help. The Carpathian ecology is in severe danger of being destroyed by box-ticking admin police with no understanding of the enormous value of what Transylvania still has, that the sophisticated (aka ruined) economies of Europe, the USA and elsewhere have lost.
Come and see for yourself. Ecotourism is a lifeline for Transylvania now, and the best means of helping to preserve a European treasure.

Reader's gold star

We had a great email this morning from Orkney. Gladdens a publisher's heart, this kind of thing. Tom gets a gold star and undying gratitude.

"I was really impressed with the 'Mersey Minis' book..... it is a gem. It's quirky, charming and 'unputdownable'. The woodcuts by Clare Curtis compliment the book so well and give a sense of atmosphere and life to the text."
-- Tom Muir, Orkney Boat Museum

Liverpool shot

Marvellous photos of Liverpool taken during the ShootLiverpool event at the end of May. Some daft idiots about, and some beautiful images found or created. Click the link opposite (but come back here afterwards, eh?).

HGVs and Transylvania

Killing two birds with one stone, and because I have so far failed to mention HGVs as promised above, here's a photo taken last week, of Dan Dan the Truck Man thundering through the village in Transylvania. Dan now has two trucks, an old green thing and this rather newer white and blue number. Dan is the Man who fetches all the wood, sand, gravel, concrete bricks and assorted building materials from the main road all the way up five miles of potholed roads and hair pin bends, 500 metres up to the village, and up again over the hill to my house, along a track which had never seen a motor vehicle till I got Dan over there for the first time.

For more Transylvanian photos, and the latest from my Carpathian village, hit the Transylvania Adventures link opposite.

Spring clean addendum

Bliss. I came back yesterday after 9 days out of the country, to find a beautifully empty little bedroom (see 9 April for spring clean story) now painted by the fab Steve (anyone need an ace decorator in Liverpool, let me know) in brilliant white with one wall a luscious duck egg blue. The walls now look huge (Edwardian terraced house with high ceilings) and the extreme cleanness, freshness and glorious uncluttered colour are balm to the soul. I shall keep the room empty, bar one chair, and use it as a retreat during stressful days. I will, I will. I will not stuff it full of rubbish again, no no.

Grapes and blackbirds

Inspired by my friend Paddy, who has a close friendship with the pair of blackbirds nesting in her lovely walled garden in Chichester, I have started putting out grapes for my nesting blackbirds. They have moved into the ivy (on the house wall in this pic) and get very narky when I have my breakfast outside, believing themselves to be the ruling monarchs of this small green patch of Liverpool. They make their presence felt, I can tell you. More of this later.
Last year I tried a grape or two, and these were carried off with glee. So I draped a small bunch of grapes over a branch of the viburnum, and watched the blackbirds attacking these with more glee, delighted to find a grape tree all of a sudden.
Yesterday's bunch of grapes was too feeble to withstand the weight of a great greedy blackbird, so I put the grapes on the table below their nest instead.
An hour later, half the bunch had been shunted to one side of the table, and the other half had presumably dropped through the hole in the middle, as it was now on the little circular ledge half way down the table legs.
This morning this bunch had completely vanished, stalks and all, so whether the birds had been keen as mustard, or it was a rat, or a gnu, or a grape-eating giraffe, I have no clue. But someone's had 'em.
The point of putting out food for wildlife is so one can enjoy said wildlife having it away with the comestibles. Sneaking off with them behind one's back is not cricket. I might have to have a word.
I speak excellent Chicken, and pretty good Seagull, but as yet haven't mastered Blackbird, so I will have to rely on tone of voice to get the message over to the recalcitrant yellow-beaked miscreant.


If you have too much, and want to be rid of it, then here's an excellent way of doing so.


Ignore the irritating banner ad, and shoot down flying sheep. Moronic old-fashioned simplistic fluffy ovine murder. Completely unfair as what did sheep ever do to you? But even for strict vegetarians this is a guilty pleasure.

Rush hour blues

I caught the 6am train from Runcorn yesterday, to get to the London Book Fair for 9am; I had composed a letter to the editor of my local paper about the ghastly ordeal of the rush hour before I'd got to Euston, so confident was I that the tube at 8.15am would be hell on earth. Wrong. It was really quite civilised - no shoving, even room to read the paper in comfort. Where was everyone? Was it Sunday? Was it Christmas? Was it a parallel universe?
No - just late. When I lived in London, most people got to work for 9am. These days only London laggards and country mice are still commuting at such a decadently late hour. This became clear at the end of the day when I caught the tube back to Euston at 7pm and the place was crammed with worker bees released from the hive, a good 90 minutes later than the 1980s norm.
So I can still write my hurrah-I-don't-live-in-London-any-more letter to the editor of the Liverpool Daily Post. For a while there I thought I'd have to revise my prejudices about my erstwhile and unlamented home, but I'm safe after all.

Clairvoyant genius

I'm a genius, I tell you. I should be on telly as a racing pundit.
I have long maintained that when it comes to picking winners, I'm the nag's knees. When I pick a horse for the Grand National, and back it, it falls/goes backwards/heads for the beach. If I pick a horse and don't put any money on it, it wins.
I didn't put any money on Silver Birch on Saturday. It won. Ditto Lucius in 1978, and Amberleigh House; unditto the winning non-winner Esha Ness and a string of losers in past years. Ipso facto, QED, I obviously have a spooky superconscious link to the future.
How much is it worth to trainers (let alone bookies) to make sure I don't back their darlings next year?
Maybe I should test my extraterrestial sensitoritivitiness on other races.
I smell a fortune coming my way.

Spring clean

Feel very smug as spent much of the Easter weekend clearing two rooms - one the smallest bedroom, and the other the scullery/boot room/whatever one calls the space at the back of the house with garden stuff, kitchen stuff, rolled up rugs, jamjars full of picture hooks, copper nails, plumbers' oddments...
The bedroom was stuffed full of boxes of books, boxes of old accounts, boxes of old 78 records, bags of wrapping paper and cards, bags full of linen sheets and curtain hooks...
In other words, two small spaces full of chaos.
And now, clean, tidy, and either half empty or completely empty.
sigh. Utter bliss. Am using Freecycle to find new homes for as much as possible, otherwise it's the charity shop for anything usable, or the dump as a last resort.
Whether or not you credit Feng Shui with any logic or sense of experiential rationality, the act of clearing chaos and getting rid of STUFF is both therapeutic and fun, and the resultant clean space is balm to the soul.
Why don't I do it more often?

Confirmed – batty

The little gits - they're leaving in droves. The brain cells, that is. Another piece of incontrovertible evidence this morning that I'm going steadily and rapidly bonkers. Listening to Radio 3 on the way home from a meeting, spent the time from Falkner Street to Ullet Road (this is Liverpool) trying to remember what the piece of music was. In times gone by I'd roll my eyes at my mother's (or other aged adult's) stupidity in failing to recognise music instantly. sigh. My mother's dead, so now I'm it. The daft old bat. It's Sibelius. No, it's something English. But it's not Elgar, or Vaughan Williams. Or is it? No. Ah - that does sound like Sibelius. I know this music so well.
And then it stops. There I was thinking it was the first or second movement, but the audience are clapping. The end. Shit - not Sibelius then. And then the announcer wrecks my day. Meistersingers. Overture thereof.
Oh god. Wagner. Wagner. I am not a Wagner fan. How nuts must I be?
Don't think I'm a pretentious music buff - I'm not. But I know what I know and especially what I like. Or I used to.
That's it, then. Not only on the slippery slope, but on a tin tray, at speed.

Mersey Minis on press

The next book out is now on press in Verona: the first volume of Mersey Minis – a delightful five volume series of little books (postcard-sized, 128pp) that will be published this year – Liverpool 800th anniversary. This is what the editor, Deborah Mulhearn, has to say about them:

"Bursting with brilliant writing inspired by Liverpool and the River Mersey, LANDING includes writers ranging from the extremely famous to the completely unknown, from well-loved novelists to young arrivals, from poets and princes to maidservants. What they have in common is Liverpool. Some of the writers were born in the city, others are strangers passing through, or experiencing their first footfall in Europe. But they have all visited or lived in (and in one notable exception merely dreamed about) Liverpool, and, luckily for us, committed their impressions to paper.
"The notion of bringing all this amazing output together into one series was irresistible. It seemed a simple enough idea, but as I started digging deeper, I was awed by the sheer volume and variety of people who had recorded their time in Liverpool. There was enough material for a shelf full of books, and how to select and present it all became the challenge. Landing is about first impressions, new encounters, beginnings, meetings and openings particular to Liverpool. They are funny, fascinating, touching, churlish, bemused, sad, or downright surreal, but all memorable accounts of this singular city and the often quixotic experiences it offers.

The first volume will be launched on Friday 27 April, at the wonderful new BBC building in Liverpool and will be in the shops the following morning – as well, of course, as online at www.loveliverpoolbooks (hit the link to 'lovely Liverpool books' opposite).

In the name of freedom

Slavery. Hmm. Well, if people can really learn the lessons from 200 years ago, that's great. But given the number of people being treated in much the same way today, it's a moot point.
And what about those profiting today from 'cheap' labour? What about those profiting from the arms industry? Is it better to enslave a man than to kill him?
Maybe in another 200 years our successors will condemn us for tolerating warfare and mass killing in the name of freedom and democracy.
Think on.

Ran at the top

Just heard from Louise - Ran's minutes away from the summit of the Eiger - just the most fantastic news - am so relieved, and thrilled for him. God, he's brilliant. Well, I've got one easter egg with his name on it, and can now without superstititous fear of jinx, hunt down the biggest egg I can find, as promised.

Malc on the BBC

Well, on the site at BBC Cumbia, actually... but next stop Hollywood...

This is a photo from the book 'Time and tide: 200 years of the Bibby Line Group' published on 8 Feb. Malcolm (pictured here with Mrs Liz Goodyear outside the George and Dragon Hotel in Dent) drives a tanker for Bibby Distribution, collecting milk from farms in the South Lakes. Bibby's drivers at Crooklands collect 450,000 litres of milk a day, from 250 farms. These pictures make it look like a cushy number, but it was a glorious August day (all week before it had been hissing down, and the day after it was thick fog) and we were having a laugh. But according to Bibby's fleet manager the milk collection is one of the toughest jobs in distribution - so these pics show the best of a good day. While you're looking at these pics (use this link), overlay sheeting rain and biting wind, or black ice on the roads and frozen mud in the yards. What it takes for us to get our pint of milk...


Equine posterior of the week

Oh, god...... I'm still only 48, albeit with my 49th birthday next month, but at the rate my brain cells are defecting, I'll be completely gaga before I get a sniff of a bus pass.
I was due to speak on Tuesday evening to a lovely bunch of gournet gardeners in Sussex, about the gourmet life amongst the wild gardens of Transylvania. How delightful - was really looking forward to that, plus the bonus of rambling about West Sussex seeing old friends for two days.
Then the phone rings, and it's the charming woman who booked me, last summer, to speak to a group of formidable ladies about Liverpool. In Liverpool, on Tuesday lunchtime. She's just ringing to make sure all is well for the long-awaited date. 'Ah,' I utter in a tone between a groan and a scream. 'Yes, lovely. Indeed. Tuesday. Of course.'
I will have to phone her back because I have no idea what she told me about times and arriving and suchlike. I was having a fit of hysterics to myself as she was speaking, because I had completely forgotten the promise.
A 45 minute talk about Liverpool, in Liverpool, on Tuesday, after lunch. A 30 minute talk about Transylvania, in Sussex, at 7.30pm. Technically possible, in benign traffic, to make it from Liverpool city centre to Petworth in four hours, but down the M6, through rush hour...... I don't think so.
So I've just had the painful experience of ringing the Gourmet Gardeners organiser to confess. She was sweet, understanding and very polite in the circumstances. She even said she'd offer me another date.
These things may happen, and my not being there on Tuesday won't result in global meltdown, but I feel a complete heel. Or to be precise, a horse's arse.

Ran Fiennes' 6,000 ft Eiger challenge

In about five hours, Ranulph Fiennes sets off for his latest challenge, to climb the treacherous 'death wall', the North Face of the Eiger. Good luck, Ran – I'll have a gargantuan Easter egg waiting for you when you get back.
Do please support this amazing man in this deadly challenge – he's aiming to raise £1.5m for charity, so do follow the links to find out more.
Keep your fingers crossed for him, will him up that cliff, and back home to his family, in one piece and as soon as possible.


Cool - or cold..... getting warmer

We clever evolved technologically advanced humans forget one vital fact: we are mammals, and we still have all our mammalian instincts and drives, albeit overlaid with homo smartarsiensis sophistication. But that's a veneer, and pretending we can ignore our recent past as primates only gets us into strife.
Early on in my year’s training in therapeutic massage, our teacher stated what seemed like an outrageous opinion: ‘If each of us had bodywork every day or even every week, hospitals would soon be out of business.’ He talked about touch deprivation, the lack of simple human contact that means that most of us crave touch, although we probably don’t even realise it. We might call it loneliness – we all know that it’s perfectly possible to be lonely in a crowd, lonely in a marriage. It’s not solitude that gets you, it’s the being out of touch.
Remember the shock of seeing pictures of young children in Romanian orphanages, almost catatonic, standing behind the bars of their cots, faces devoid of emotion. They were starving, not from lack of food, but from lack of human contact. Too many children and not enough staff. No-one with time to play with them, talk to them, hold them. The medical term is marasmus: failure to thrive and dying for no apparent reason.
Britain has been a very disconnected nation since Victorian times, at least; touch is conducted under strict but unwritten rules. In the 1970s a study of 400 human societies found that those who lavished affectionate touch on their children, and were tolerant of teenage sex, were the least violent societies on earth. He also found the converse true.
Touch is the first sense to develop in the human foetus. Frequent pleasurable touch for infants results in positive change in brain tissue, while chronic touch deprivation results in measurable brain damage. Touch-deprived adults may turn to food, alcohol or drugs to make up for the lack of physical contact, or adopt behaviours from promiscuous sex to shop lifting. Touch, or the lack of it, can dramatically affect emotional, mental and physical health. It has huge implications for society, let alone the family and the individual.
The research points to Hippocrates having it right 2,500 years ago. Let’s learn from history, for once, and put more trust in the innate ability of humans to heal with the tools we were born with: head, hands and heart.

Cool – or cold?

Talking to a chum in London last night we got to talking about why the English are such a cold nation, how urban cool has turned to chill, why we are so afraid to show warmth to other human beings, even ones we know well.

But we're not a cold nation. Liverpool, where I live for much of the time, is a warmer city by far than the capital – which is one of the reasons I moved up here 18 years ago. Here strangers smile at you, throw out a few chirpy words, pay you an unnecessary compliment (if you're really lucky). Unlikely characters can commit acts of random kindness. Beyond city limits, humans warm up yet more. Courtesy and curiosity prompt conversation with strangers; cuddling a child is a naturally affectionate gesture, not evidence of deviant criminality.

Cram too many people into a space and they have to create the illusion of space by ignoring the crowd. Out walking in my local park, despite the greenery, I am still firmly in the city: I can spend an hour in uninterrupted solitude amongst a hundred other walkers. I'm more likely to have a friendly exchange with a passing spaniel than talk to a fellow city dweller.

Still, it's better than in London where I would avoid catching someone's eye in the street, let alone smiling at them, for fear of – what – ? And that was 20 years ago. My chum Tony was saying last night that these days everyone is so determined to look cool and hard that they'd rather be aggressive than risk looking vulnerable in any way. They'll shove you out of the way to get off the bus in a rush instead of asking you to let them out a few seconds earlier; walk in the road and challenge the traffic rather than having to step out of the way of another pedestrian.

Kids shooting each other dead may seem a bit of a leap from that, but it's not that big a leap. When a society is run on fear, the adolescents – who react the most strongly to every emotion and are least in control of their feelings – will show an extreme response to the fear we all deny.

There are remedies, but they are too simple, too fundamental, too gentle and too free for the policy makers and budget setters to value. More of that later.

Missing person

Yesterday was the third anniversary of my sister's death. Ginny was 56 – she'd have been 60 this July. I spent the morning with my brother in law sitting in the little garden we made for her on the hill overlooking the house on Exmoor, where her ashes are buried and her presence is strong. She had poured so much of herself into the land, creating a farm out of the steep moorland hills and building a herd of sought-after Angus cattle, as well as black sheep and gaggles of waterfowl. That was all after she was the first woman to be awarded the Queen's Polar Medal, and the first woman to be allowed into the hallowed portals of the Antarctic Club. She was no slouch, my sister. 800 people crammed into the Royal Geographical Society for her memorial event. Today the weather was meek. I don't remember the weather the day she died, except that the daffodils were out in the hospice garden. The day of her funeral it snowed. Yesterday morning, sitting up there for a couple of hours, it was all too easy for a moment to believe we'd go back down to the house and find her in the kitchen where she'd have a clutch of newly hatched goslings in a box on the Aga. Brutus was one of her hatchlings. A Hawaiian goose, he was an amazing little bird. He was fierce (although he couldn't peck much above your knee) and hated almost everyone, but because my voice is so like Ginny's, he used to follow me around the place, hooting softly like a clarinet; he got to recognise the sound of my car, and ran to the gate calling for me. Dear Brutus. It was enough to make you weep.

Time and tide

There aren't many businesses that make the 200 year mark; there are even fewer which are still under family control, let alone with the sixth generation having both hands on the wheel. Liverpool has one of these treasures – and a shipping line, to boot. Capsica launched our latest book (TIME AND TIDE) on 8 Feb looking at this intriguing asset – the Bibby Line Group. Remarkable company, fantastic project, terrific people.
For more on the book launch, the book and the business, go to http://icliverpool.icnetwork.co.uk/liverpooldailypost/ourview/columnists/peterelson/tm_headline=success-based-on-staying-local-and-ahead-of-the-times%26method=full%26objectid=18611357%26siteid=50061-name_page.html
(If this URL doesn't work, go to http://icliverpool.icnetwork.co.uk, click on Daily Post, find the columnists, look for Peter Elson's column of 12 Feb.)

Solid steel proof

Here's a close up of the star, so you can see the steel rivets. Hard to imagine this thing is made of thick steel plates – including the HUGE arching tail – but it is. See for yourself.

Star attraction

It's Liverpool's 800th anniversary this year – at least the octocentenary of Bad King John's concession to a few local burghers who had been whingeing about paying for King John's new castle so the Bad King could set sail for Ireland with all its Celtic gold, colleens and wolfhounds. But glossing over the expediency of giving the little fishing village a Royal Charter, it now means we, the current denizens of Liverpool, can kick up our heels in fine style. The picture above does not show Liverpool, but Verona. The fantastic thing lighting up the big piazza is not a flimsy special effect, but a solid steel structure created in 1984 by what the Italians call an archisculptor (great name) called Rinaldo Olivieri. It's huge, it's fantastic, it's staggeringly impressive, and if Liverpool's City Fathers chose to commission something of this scale and quality, it would be quite something. OK, City Dads, come on, beat this.
Toodle pip.

Hot and spicy

And while I'm at it, I'll explain Capsica. No-one can spell it, or say it, or knows what it means. Simple, really - it's the plural of capsicum, ie peppers. big sweet ones, like bell peppers, or fierce little biters like these peperoncini, or Scotch bonnets. Full of goodness, hot and spicy. Just like us. 'Us' being me and Fiona Shaw, the two directors of Capsica. Photo of us as the Kray twins to come later. Worth waiting for.

Kind hearts and coronets

This is the neighbour's gaff, just down the mountain from my des res. The most famous past resident was Vlad the Impaler, Voivode of Wallachia and template for Bram Stoker's romantic bloodsucker. The castle (genuine 14th century edifice) belonged to the Romanian royal family until the Communists kicked them out, but last year they got it back. The man who would have been king of Romania is, I gather, an architect in New York called Hugo (correct me if I'm wrong). So the neighbourhood's looking up – from a mere Count to an Almost King. And the other side of me, in the same county, Prince Charles now has a bijou pad – well, a rural building in a Carpathian village. So I'm hedged about with coronets.

Taking wing

Why Batland? Mostly because I'm a dreadful old bat, but also because I have a house in Transylvania, home to the most stylish bats in the business.

For the time being (and for the last 18 years) I live in Liverpool – the original, not one of the 15 or so around the world – and almost make a living as a publisher of gorgeous looking, life-enhancing non-fiction books under the imprints of Capsica and Garlic Press. Have a look at http://www.loveliverpoolbooks.com for some of them.

Garlic Press, incidentally, had nothing to do with the Transylvanian connection. I was taking drawing lessons, and we had to bring in a kitchen implement to sketch. I brought in a garlic press and it occurred to me that it would be a great name for a publishing house. At the time (1992) I was a business journalist and it hadn't occurred to me that it might be me doing the publishing. It's an odd world.

Gagging to know more about Transylvania, eh? It IS a real place and ISN'T full of vampires. Full of vampire-chasers, certainly - lots of foreign (ie not Transylvanian) nutters running around the mountains looking for Dracula. But although Vlad the Impaler's 14th century castle is in the valley below my house, and the village next to mine is named after a bat cave, and you can occasionally hear wolves howl from my back door, the place is idyllic ather than Gothic. Not dark and dangerous, but light and full of wildflower meadows. Much more of that later.

For now, the sun's out and it's Chinese New Year, and Liverpool has the oldest Chinese community in Europe, so I'm off out.