Coronavirus Diary 84 – Deserted icons of London in Winter

A few days ago I took two lovely people around some of the most famous sights in London. Normally even in January there would be crowds of people everywhere but as you can see out of millions of people, we use about had the whole place to ourselves.

If you’ve never thought how people are surviving when they work in tourism or hospitality, don’t worry neither have the British government or if they have, after 22 months of no help whatsoever then they clearly don’t care.

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London’s Biggest Explosion. Silvertown 1917

Tomorrow will see the 105th anniversary of the biggest explosion that London has ever seen and considering all of the industry, terrorism and world wars then that is saying something. However as is often the way with these things, to a great extent it was an entirely avoidable disaster albeit with the mitigating circumstances of war.

A few minutes before seven, on the evening of January 19th, 1917, people who happened to be out of doors in London noticed a vivid red glow in the sky in an easterly direction. Many of the people were standing at the doors watching the fire that had broken out, and not realising the terrible danger they were in. Suddenly there was a deafening roar, a fountain of flaming debris was projected high into the air and this spread out like a fiery rose, dropping death and destruction over the whole district.

This is a contemporary photo of another munitions factory explosion in 1917.

The force of the explosion sent pieces of machinery, some weighing several tonnes, flying through the air with the result that cottages and factory buildings that were not wrecked by the concussion, were crushed and battered by the hail of fragments that came raining down upon them.Several streets of houses were converted into heaps of rubble in a second. Those that escaped total destruction remained as mere skeletons among the wreckage.

What had happened? On 19th January 1917, a devastating fire and explosion broke out in the melting pot room of the Brunner Mond Munitions Factory at Silvertown in West Ham, in the East End of London. The factory was being used to purify trinitrotoluene (TNT).

After the fire broke out, West Ham Fire Brigade, based at Silvertown Fire Station, attended the scene. The station was only three years old and just a few yards away from the factory. At 1852hrs , approximately 50 tonnes of the TNT contained within the factory exploded with catastrophic results. West Ham station was completely destroyed and two firefighters were killed instantly alongside many factory works and local residents. A total of 73 people were killed in the blast and more than 400 people were seriously injured.The explosion was so severe, the sounds of it were clearly heard at the Royal Residence at Sandringham, Norfolk, more than 100 miles away. The blast was so powerful, the fire engine from Silvertown Fire Station was found over a quarter of a mile away.

As a report from the Times wrote… ‘The scene immediately after the explosion beggared description. The burning debris had started fires in many of the factories and mills nearby, which became roaring furnaces as the night progressed. In all directions, people who had escaped serious injury were picking themselves up in a dazed condition. Mothers were frantically looking about for their little ones, many of whom were buried in the ruins, while on the pavements were the bodies of the pedestrians who had been struck as they were walking along.

The epicentre of the 1917 Silvertown Explosion

As a spectacle, England will probably never see its equal. In all directions, great buildings were blazing, fire engines and ambulances were dashing up from all parts of London, hundreds of volunteers were at work rescuing the injured and searching the ruins for bodies. Homeless people were wandering off to neighbouring districts where every available hall had been thrown open to give them shelter.’

In 1915 a huge political scandal had wracked wartime Britain…. a shortage of artillery shells to shoot at an enemy in a trench war that would surely be one by the country that could blast the other to pulp the first. It brought the government down and led to a successful campaign by David Lloyd George for a national munitions policy. The result was a coalition government with Lloyd George as minister of munitions, and a huge demand for existing factories to be quickly converted to munitions production.

The Brunner Mond Factory in Silvertown had been built in 1893 to produce caustic soda. Production had stopped in 1912 which meant a fully equipped chemical plant lay idle. When approached by Lord Moulton who headed the Explosives Supply Department, Brunner Mond & Co agreed to convert it to TNT purification, despite the fact that 3,000 people lived nearby. Bruner Mond later said ‘The company strongly expressed their reluctance to carry out such a dangerous manufacture in a densely populated district; but the urgency was so great they eventually consented. Lord Moulton was well aware of the danger to civilians, but later explained that the Brunner Mond works were effectively requisitioned because “we could see no other way of obtaining purifying works within the time that they were necessary”.

If the war effort was mainly to blame for the location of the TNT plant, what actually caused the terrible explosion? To help answer this we now have access to the detailed government report, kept secret until 1957, into the likely cause of the disaster which took evidence from 36 experts and witnesses immediately after the disaster.

By this time, the danger of TNT explosion in the purifying process was well known – the inquiry report lists 29 previous fires or cases of accidental TNT detonation. In 1915, a big TNT explosion occurred at the crystallising plant at Ardeer, Scotland causing one death and several injuries. A committee looked into the causes and recommended that TNT should no longer be exempt from the 1875 Explosives Act, but this was ignored by the government. Had they taken this advice, perhaps the Silvertown explosion may never have happened. What caused it was something of a mystery at the time as many Londoners thought it was the result of a Zeppelin raid despite there having been no such raids for several months and indeed no sighting of them that night.

Another line of investigation was that it could have been arson by a German spy, and the inquiry looked into this carefully. They found adequate security and no “alien enemies” working there. There was a 57-year-old German man worked at Brunner Mond, but not in the TNT plant. He also had been living in England since he was ten, had an English wife and 12 children, three of whom were serving in the British Army. Moreover, he had left at 6pm that day and was considered beyond suspicion. However, the inquiry did identify a major security issue that may have been exploited by an enemy.

Raw TNT came to Silvertown from a factory in Huddersfield and took several weeks to arrive via rail, barge and lorry. The inquiry found that barrels and kegs of TNT often arrived broken, and the contents were not checked before melting. The inquiry reported that it would have been quite easy for an enemy agent to add a chemical, like a freely available stick of caustic soda coated in varnish, into a barrel along the route. As caustic soda can ignite molten TNT as temperatures as low as 82C, it could easily cause a fire in the melting pot. No evidence or accounts of sabotage have emerged in the German records, but it remains a possibility.

In the end the inquiry came up with the more mundane if likely cause in that a detonation spark caused by friction or impact.

A government safety inspection, just three weeks before the explosion, revealed some unsafe practices. TNT was left on the floor around a hopper and if degraded, it could have been ignited by a boot nail, grit or something metal. There were no regulations to prevent grit on the floor and, astonishingly, metal tools (which could easily create sparks) were found in the TNT building.

Another possibility was a fire caused by alkali left over from the caustic soda making years before. A century on and its unlikely any new evidence will come to light as to the cause of the explosion but what isn’t in doubt is the massive ramifications it caused.

The hardest hit were the families and friends of the 73 victims, who ranged in age from four-months-old to 76 years. Hundreds more had to cope with injuries. Six hundred families were made homeless and an estimated 70,000 properties were damaged in some way. The government paid compensation to the victims and repaired remaining houses in Silvertown, indeed some of the Victorian houses that were packed up are still visible today.

The inquiry recommended that security of TNT should be improved and it should be stored in magazines away from processing plants. It also called for the inspection system to be strengthened and that TNT should be regulated as an explosive under the 1875 Explosives Act. But it took another explosion at a TNT factory, which killed more than 40 people at Hooley Hill in Manchester, for action finally to be taken on the report findings.

The Special Service Branch of the War Office was put in charge of munitions factories to improve security and in August the Ministry of Munitions finally classed TNT as an explosive under the Explosives Act. All future factories would require a licence following rigorous safety checks and procedures.

A few days ago I decided to go down to Silvertown and see if I could find any memorial to those who died. The whole area has been and still is being transformed and doesn’t resemble in any way what people from overseas might think London to be, such is the legacy of WW2 and the ever-changing face of London.

In the midst of the new developments are several parks and in one I found this simple but beautifully situated memorial just 2 minutes walk from a very expansive River Thames.

Memorial to those that died in the Silvertown disaster

On each side of the memorial are inscriptions to different sad histories including those who died onsite during the production of explosives and also local people who died in WW1 and WW2.

It also gave me the opportunity to take some photos for the new book I am researching and writing.

If big explosions are your thing then check out The Lochnagar Crater and a relic of war from over a century ago or for an impending disaster in the making The ticking timebomb shipwreck that could damage half of London

You might also like my WW1 history book that was published just a few years ago, Lest We Forget.

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Lady Florence Norman – The Scooter riding Suffragette

In London and many other cities, they are the either a much needed liberating ‘last-mile’ mode of transport or the latest bane on urban life. Scooters, particularly those standing e-scooters are loved by riders and seemingly hated by many others in equal measures.

They seemed to appear almost overnight in 2019 or 2020 as if they were harbingers of a covid destruction. One thing they aren’t though is new and neither is having someone nearly ride into you.

 Lady Florence Norman, a British activist and Suffragette, who is seen riding her scooter around London in 1916.

Petrol but also electric scooters of Autopeds as they were known were driven all over Edwardian London and many other places besides.

Like today they opened up new frontiers of easy travelling for those too old or unfit to walk or cycle or too young or poor to have a motorbike or car. They were particularly popular in WW1 Britain as they had a very low fuel consumption. As can be seen in the photo above, they were also a symbol of female empowerment.

Just as today with food delivery services even back then  businesses also gave the new-fangled contraptions a try, with some postal services using them to make deliveries whilst gangs quickly made use of them to carry out crimes and back quick getaways.

However, these scooters flopped not long after the Great War ended. The practicality of lugging around 100lb vehicles were not insignificant, especially for ladies and just as we have today scooter riders were unsure as to whether to use the roads, which were unsuited to the scooter, or the pavement where they were mostly forbidden.

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The redemption of King Richard III and a new lead on the ‘Princes in the tower’

For a few centuries, King Richard III has been largely denigrated as perhaps the monarch without any merit whatsoever, even more so than bad King John… and that is saying something.

He was ugly, he was deformed, he murdered his nephews. Even when we go to the toilet, some of us have a Richard III or turd. Who else suffers this indignity? Well perhaps our current Prime Minister whose surname if used in slang perfectly sums up what some think of him!

Ever since King Richard III was discovered underneath a carpark in Leicester, a whole lot of redemption has been coming his way and the team who put together the mystery of where he had lain for 500 or so years have since been working on one of the biggest historical ‘Whodunnits’ of all time. The Princes in the Tower, presumably murdered by their wretched uncle.

Richard III
Earliest surviving portrait of King Richard III

Researchers claim to have found evidence that the older boy Edward may not have been murdered, but instead secretly allowed to live on his half-brother’s land under a false name.

They have followed a trail of medieval documents to a rural Devon village, where royal Yorkist symbols have been found carved in the local church. Inside, an effigy of a mysterious man named ‘John Evans’ gazes directly at a stained glass window revealed to depict Edward V, the missing prince himself. The research suggests that Edward V and John Evans were one and the same, and that he may have even left clues inside the church for future generations to find.

The four-year “cold case investigation” called The Missing Princes Project has more than 100 lines of inquiry including the possible fate of the younger brother, Richard of Shrewsbury. The story is like something out of the Da Vinci Code where hundreds of miles from London, a ancient church in rural Devon is layered in secret symbols and clues that if deductions are correct may entirely re-write history.

The new research suggests that Edward was sent to live out his days on his half-brother’s land as long as he kept quiet, as part of a deal reached between his mother and Richard III, and later with Henry Tudor.

King Edward V and his younger brother Richard of Shrewsbury were aged 12 and nine when they were lodged in the Tower, in preparation for Edward’s coronation after the death of his father Edward IV.

But before the young king could be crowned the brothers were declared illegitimate. According to the narrative handed down by Tudor authorities, and popularised by William Shakespeare, their evil uncle Richard then had his young nephews quietly murdered before taking the throne for himself.

The boys were last seen playing near the Tower in the summer of 1483, and scholars have argued about their fate ever since. No conclusive evidence has ever been found of their murder apart from a contested pile of bones discovered under a Tower staircase in 1674. These lie inside an urn in Westminster Abbey, but the Queen herself has reportedly refused three times to allow scientists to analyse the remains.

What is relatively well established however is that on 1st March 1484, the princes’ mother, Elizabeth Woodville, emerged from sanctuary at Westminster with her daughters after reaching a deal with Richard III, who was made king following the death of her husband.

She then wrote to her eldest son Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset, a rebel who was in France with the pretender Henry Tudor, telling him to come home as Richard had agreed to pardon him as part of the agreement. Curiously no mention was made of the Marquis’ two young half-brothers or their whereabouts.

Just two days later on 3rd March 1484, royal documents reveal that Richard sent a trusted follower named Robert Markenfield on an unknown mission from Yorkshire to the remote Devon village of Coldridge, which lay within Thomas Grey’s seized lands.

At some point afterwards, a mysterious person called John Evans arrived in the same village and was granted the titles Lord of the Manor and ‘Parker’ of the deer park behind the church, where ran 140 “beasts of the chase”. The grant does not appear in any official chancery documents, and no record has been found of Evans’ life before his arrival in Devon.

Even in the long and sometimes weird twists, turns and co-incidences of British history it seems a little strange that this John Evans was given these prestigious titles despite apparently arriving out of the blue. Perhaps Edward was sent here to live in secrecy as part of the deal that we know was agreed between Richard and his mother.

If Edward was indeed John Evans, then he kept quiet for years until around 1511, when he built his own chantry at the local St Matthew’s church, which looks much the same today as it did 511 years ago. Laden with symbolism and hidden meaning, it is here that the researchers claim Evans left multiple clues to his true identity.

The chantry was usually intended for prayers to speed the donor’s soul through purgatory and onwards to heaven. But the Evans chantry is instead overlooked by a politically-charged stained glass window depicting a saint-like Edward V, the deposed boy king thought to have been murdered 26 years earlier.

Only two other glass portraits of Edward are thought to exist, including one in the royal window of Canterbury Cathedral. This raises the question why is there a royal portrait of Edward V in a parish church which in the bigger scheme of things is pretty much in the middle of nowhere? Could the mysterious John Evans be leaving us clues about his true heritage?

Above Edward’s head floats a large crown, with the Yorkist Falcon and Fetterlock motif carried by Edward’s grandfather, the Duke of York, at its centre. This large crown may have originally been over a royal coat of arms in the larger chancel window, researchers believe.

A closer look reveals that the ermine lining is dotted with pictures of 41 tiny deer. According to an inscription on the prayer desks, Evans built the chantry in 1511 when the real Edward V would have been 41 years old.

In the corner of the window a small second face appears, more tightly drawn, as if from life. The unknown man is holding a royal crown rather than wearing it, with a scar apparently drawn on his chin.

John Evans’ effigy, wearing chainmail and gazing with a tilted head directly at the window above, appears to bear the same scar.

Is this a second portrait on the same window of Edward V, but living in hiding as John Evans? Carrying the crown may symbolise that Edward was king, but only briefly. Was he the king crowned in Dublin two years after Richard’s death? We know that his real name was said to be John.

More possible clues can be found on the tomb itself. The name ‘John Evans’ is incorrectly spelt EVAS. Closer inspection reveals that a final letter was perhaps snapped off by vandals and that it may once have said EVASA with EV standing for ‘Edward V’ and AS perhaps referring to “asa”, the Latin for “in sanctuary”. It would seem strange for such a tomb not to have the residents name spelt correctly!

Below the inscription, a medieval scrawl appears to show the inverted word KING. Nine carved lines beneath may symbolise 1509, the year that Henry VII died and Edward V could have reclaimed the throne if matters had been resolved.

Symbols linking the church to the House of York have been found surrounding the tomb and throughout the building. Rose of York motifs have been discovered in the floor tiles, while Yorkist emblems known as the Sunne in Splendour have been repeatedly carved into the wooden roof, the symbol of Edward’s father, Edward IV. Other hidden symbols include an upside-down picture of a Tudor woman with a snake-like tongue, perhaps a slur on Henry Tudor’s powerful mother Margaret Beaufort.

All of this suggests that someone of significantly greater stature than might be expected for a remote and at the time inaccessible church was here, and almost as far away from the political manoeuvrings in London as would have been possible at the time.

Last year a woman with a familial link to the princes was identified through their maternal line. However, proving the Evans theory through DNA analysis may prove difficult because the tomb is empty! The best hopes are that he skeleton was reburied under the church floor.

The research is continuing but perhaps it is beginning to look like the most maligned king in history was perhaps the worst treated by those that wrote that history. It is said that history is written by the victors and one doesn’t lose more blatantly than being hurriedly buried by friends fleeing from a battle in defeat.

 

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New Year, New Rainforest

When people think of rainforests they tend to think of tropical ones such as the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil. Not many people realise that that you can have temperate rainforests and that just as the tropical varieties are currently being cleared by unscrupulous governments and commercial organisations, so to did most of the temperate rainforests suffer a very similar fate although hundreds if not thousands of years ago.

Britain itself used to have vast areas of not just forest but rainforest and a few remnants can still be found such as in Wistman’s Wood in Devon which is a truly ancient relic of what was once commonplace and now the government is putting together plans to begin the epic task of restoring them.

Around 20 per cent of Britain has a climate wet and warm enough for the creation of temperate rainforest, recognised by their abundance of mosses, lichens and epiphytes – plants that grow on other plants and are sustained by the amount of moisture in the air. 

But only around 1 per cent of the country is still home to this original rainforest. Much of it was cut down thousands of years ago by Bronze Age settlers, as they started to move through the countryside to clear land for farmland which in that respect differentiate them from contemporary loggers in that they didn’t know any better and in their own way only cleared land necessary to sustain themselves rather than simply get rich and exploit the planet.

The best conditions for temperate rainforest, and where the remaining fragments can be found, are in the west of the UK, thanks to its combination of frequent rainfall and milder weather. 

Where Britains Rainforest can regrow.

Among the remaining fragments includes Wistman’s Wood, in Devon, one of the country’s best known areas of rainforest, believed to be the origin of Dartmoor’s “Wisht Hounds” which inspired Arthur Conan Doyle.  There are over 100 species of lichen in Wistman’s Woods alone.

Other areas where rainforest may once have occurred include the Lake District, parts of upland Wales, Exmoor and Bodmin Moor. 

Increasing the amount of temperate rainforest could bring significant benefits in terms of the plant biodiversity, but also by protecting rare insect and animal species such as the Blue Ground Beetle, which is found on the edge of Dartmoor. 

Gnarly old trees and millennia of moss at Wistman’s Wood.

Just like the tropical jungles, Temperate rainforests are globally important and highly biodiverse habitats and plans are now being created to plant and regenerate trees in ecosystems which are home to England’s temperate rainforests and can expand and protect these precious habitats.

One of the problems facing the expansion and even survival of the ancient rainforests is that it very hard for them to regrow because of other factors like over grazing, whether by livestock or by the number of deer that are in our countryside…. something which is made worse by the eradication of Alpha predators such as wolves, centuries ago.

You only have to go to some of these ancient woods in the SW, Lake District or Western Scotland to see just how different and primordial they seem in comparison to the beautiful by dry woods of SE England.

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My Project for 2022

I hop everyone has had a Happy New Year and festive period. I can’t believe this is 2022 and yet I can so clearly remember 1982! The summer of 2022 will see my 10 year anniversary of writing this blog and as I write this there have been 912,000 visitors to my blog which seems a little excessive for for something I thought I might give up after 2 or 3 weeks.

New Year is of course the time of year many choose to make a resolution and accomplish things although it’s never been my thing Why I did all my New Year Resolutions at Christmas. though some things are always a good idea 🙂 New Year’s Resolutions For Absolutely Everyone!

I remember a year ago everyone else who was generally very well paid and supported through the first year of the Coronavirus epidemic telling me it was all getting quickly better and 2021 would be a getting back to normal year.

£xcluded Voices

And maybe it was for people who only suffered minimum disruption but personally and for many I know in ExcludedUK, 2021 was even worse than 2020 and even government figures show that travel to London in 2021 was 40% down on 2020…. and you can imagine how many people came then!

So whilst I employ my usual strategy of expecting the worst and so anything better than that will be a nice unexpected surprise, I have decided the one thing I do have control of and time for is to write a new book.

I’ve written 2 #1 books during the pandemic so far in wildly different fields which doesn’t so much put on much pressure for the next book but would make me disappointed if it didn’t do well. I know most people write novels, romance, fantasy, horror, adult even but most of that isn’t me and very few people seem to make any success out of them.

Secret Gardens of the City of London Kindle Cover
Secret Gardens of the City of London Kindle Cover

My niche seems to be quirky non-fiction bookstand one that has been on my mind for a while is to write a guide book to The Memorial To Heroic Self-Sacrifice At Postman’s Park. It is a small park featuring memorials to those who saved the lives of others (often strangers) but who died in the process. I’ve been wanting to do so for a few years and there is indeed a pretty good book about the people who gave their lives to save strangers but it is a little intense and heavy going. Good for some people but not in any way the sort of book I’d like to write that is accessible to everyone and with a different product in mind.

My book sales are increasing year on year and the good thing about my quirky factual books is that they make perfect gifts in the summer and for Christmas and so seem to be perennial sellers and each time a new book comes out, it adds to the selection. If you have 10 or 15 books that sell quite well then it’s likely to be comparable to one book that sells really well… at least for us mortals who don’t write about boy wizards.

Postman’s Park

So it’s not a resolution but it’s something I’d like to do before I get busy with tourism again in the spring of 2037. It is hard to get motivated to do anything when your last 2 years have been like mine but we will see what happens. I’m not starting it now so it is in now way shape or form a New Year Resolution!

If you’d like to read about perhaps the most famous memorial in Postmans Park then cast your eyes on Alice Ayres – A Victorian Heroine

Is there anything that you are hoping to accomplish in the year generally rather than a New Year Resolution?

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My Top 10 Movies of 2021

As with 2020 it’s been a weird year for film-goers. I only managed to go at all because Cineworld gave me a free annual pass. I definitely made the most of it and went to see dozens of films just as I did in 2020. I very much believe that if you like culture, arts and small businesses then you have to support them.

Quite a lot of the films I saw were rather forgettable or perhaps it is just these last two years my real life has been more ‘exciting’ than some of the fare on-screen. I didn’t get to see some of the films that I wanted to see simply because they weren’t released near to me. I really wanted to watch The French Dispatch but it never happened.

I also enjoyed films that didn’t quite make the list such as the recent Ghostbusters film and Cop Shop.

Conversely I made the huge mistake of going to watch Nomadland early in the year. I can’t emphasise enough just what a boring film this was. Almost totally without any plot and indeed without any redeeming quality whatsoever.

There are a few films that might have been released elsewhere but again due to Covid and delays, they haven’t been released in London as I write this on the 16th of December. So we’ll jump over all those rubbish comic book films I refuse to watch and get to the nitty gritty!

10. The Last Duel

Jean de Carrouges is a respected knight known for his bravery and skill on the battlefield. Jacques Le Gris is a squire whose intelligence and eloquence makes him one of the most admired nobles in court. When Le Gris viciously assaults Carrouges’ wife, she steps forward to accuse her attacker, an act of bravery and defiance that puts her life in jeopardy. The ensuing trial by combat, a grueling duel to the death, places the fate of all three in God’s hands.

This film has fared rather poorly despite it being a Ridley Scott epic but this isn’t the only film that suffered from going up against most popular films. I rather enjoyed it myself with it being a historical based film with good actors and a decent period setting. However there were two things that were a little annoying. The first was how we had to go the same events multiple times with differing points of view which though proved not to be boring, like almost everyone else, I’d have preferred a more straight forward narrative especially it it means you don’t have to keep seeing some raped. Secondly for a film that revolved around a lady, I found it decidedly male dominated which though I suppose highlights how her fate was out of her hands, I still felt to be a missed opportunity.

9. Cry Macho

A onetime rodeo star and washed-up horse breeder, in 1978, takes a job from an ex-boss to bring the man’s young son home and away from his alcoholic mum. Crossing rural Mexico on their back way to Texas, the unlikely pair faces an unexpectedly challenging journey, during which the world-weary horseman may find his own sense of redemption through teaching the boy what it means to be a good man.

I actually really enjoyed this quiet and in many ways old fashioned sort of film. It had an old style plot, it was set and paced rather like old films from the 70’s that I was used to when I was young and it stars Clint Eastwood who is err old.

The film had an interest plot that proceeded at a modest pace and surprisingly good characters in it and a lot of heart. It made me laugh a few times too with its dialogue and Clint Eastwood always has his own way. One line that I still chuckle at was when the boys prized chicken was sat on the front passenger seat and Clint’s character Mike was wanting it in the back seat with the boy who was telling him he was a special chicken and had a name.

“I don’t care if his name is Colonel Sanders, just get his ass back there”

Clint Eastwood as Mike in ‘Cry Macho’.

8. The Unholy

Alice, a girl with hearing impairment, is able to hear, speak and even heal the ill after having visions of the Virgin Mary. But when a journalist probes into the matter, he unearths a conspiracy.

This was kind of a regular New England style horror story. It had a few intriguing elements though I do like these sometimes rather generic genre scary films which as they are 15 rated, aren’t particularly scary. I went to watch it mainly as being a big fan of The Walking Dead, I very much like Jeffrey Dean Morgan and I wanted to see him play someone other than Negan.

For my full review of The Unholy, click here!

7. The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It

I’m a big fan of the Conjuring universe stories which all started based on the true life events of The Enfield Poltergeist. All of the films (and there is a large number of them now) are based to various degrees on supposed real life events and exhibits in this real life Mulder and Scully collection of oddities such as Annabel the doll or The Nun in that reliably spooky setting of Transylvania.

In this film Arne Cheyenne Johnson stabs and murders his landlord, claiming to be under demonic possession. Ed and Lorraine Warren investigate the case and try to prove his innocence. Whilst demonic possession doesn’t seem like that plausible a defence as the point is made in the film, at every trial people swear on The Holy Bible or similar book to tell the truth so if there is a possibility of God then it stands to reason there may be a Devil.

To be fair I could fill this Top 10 with horror films but this was probably my favourite of the year, surpassing the new Halloween sequel. I really do like the cast the relationship between the two main characters and the fact that it is based on fact, no matter how tenuously, adds a bit of spice to the mix.

It’s not a gory film but it did make mud jump several times and that was just before the opening credits.

I can’t wait to see the next Conjuring universe film but can it have a better title than The Devil Made Me Do It? You can watch the advertising trailer below.

The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It.

6. In The Heights.

In Washington Heights, N.Y., the scent of warm coffee hangs in the air just outside of the 181st St. subway stop, where a kaleidoscope of dreams rallies a vibrant and tight-knit community. At the intersection of it all is a likable and magnetic bodega owner who hopes, imagines and sings about a better life.

If this isn’t an example of my love of everything film its that I can easily watch The Conjuring 3 one day and In The Heights the next. This was a film that was advertised to death in the U.K. at least and I almost didn’t watch it as there was a finicky thing to it that annoys me every time I saw the advert and that must have been a dozen times at least with my film going habits. The thing that bugged me in the trailer, bugged me in the film but it was easier to overlook it when actually enjoying the movie.

This was another almost by the numbers sort of film whose end point doesn’t matter quite as much as how we get there and this film had some wonderful musical pieces and fantastic on-location shooting in the real Washington Heights area.

A few years ago I was one of the few who said they enjoyed The Greatest Show on Earth and despite what the critics said, it quickly became well loved with its tunes seemingly never off the radio in a way that hasn’t yet happened to Washington Heights but this new film is a bit more of a drama and with a largely unknown cast so it may take a while to catch on, or perhaps it never will.

I remember watching it and thinking it was rather like an update on West Side Story and it kind of is.

In The Heights official trailer.

5. Free Guy

When a bank teller discovers he’s actually a background player in an open-world video game, he decides to become the hero of his own story — one that he can rewrite himself. In a world where there’s no limits, he’s determined to save the day his way before it’s too late, and maybe find a little romance with the coder who conceived him.

I totally loved this film starring Ryan Reynolds. It was cute, smart and colourful and best of all it made me laugh. When is watched this in the summer I was well prepared for this to be my favourite film of the year and if I had to watch any film on this list again right now then I would choose Free Guy.

There are lots I like about this film. Guy is such an innocent and optimistic person and yet he lives in this computer game world where shoot outs and missiles exploding in his street are something that seems totally normal to him.

Free Guy official trailer.

I remember at the time it came out and a film critic said it was an unexpected surprise given it was the only film showing at the time that wasn’t a sequel or a remake or a comic-book film and I think it’s heart and humour and originality make it stand out from the crowd.

Go watch this now and don’t have a good day, have a GREAT day!

4. West Side Story

Love at first sight strikes when young Tony spots Maria at a high school dance in 1957 New York City. Their burgeoning romance helps to fuel the fire between the warring Jets and Sharks — two rival gangs vying for control of the streets.

Well I didn’t see that coming and a lot of people haven’t seen it now that it’s arrived. What a difference from the months of hype for In The Heights, I didn’t know there was a remake of West Side Story until the day it was released.

I’m not sure if a remake of one of the greatest musicals of the 20th Century was needed but if you’re Steven Spielberg you can pretty much do what you want… and I’m glad that he did. Nothing will take away the original film which was my Grandma’s favourite (that or Sound of Music) and one that I too had seen dozens of times and know all the words to all the songs but in several ways this is actually even better than the original.

There is more backstory to many of the characters, even the police. More depth is given as to why these gangs are at each throat in general and we see more locations and generally better and more expansive sets of course than from the 60 year old original.

Nothing too much has changed, the story is almost identical and the new Maria can really sing. One or two of the songs have been repositioned to a way that makes more sense and from what I know, more closely matches the original stage performances. There is also less ballet when people are funning around or getting stabbed which is a bit more realistic, in fact the settings and the appearances of the gangs are more gritty and realistic to modern day viewers at least.

The cinematography is frankly amazing as are the dances and the songs, most of which are identical and even more spectacular. 90 year old Rita Moreno who starred as Anita in the original film even has a substantial role in a female re-working of the old Doc character.

Only a few minor quibbles, I’m not sure the new Tony can sing that well. Some of his songs are a fractionally more hurried and I’m not sure if that is because he can’t sing so good or if it is just that thing with everything modern having to be quicker paced.

The song ‘America’ I think was better suited to the rooftops to the modern arrangements and bizarrely I found it a little difficult to differentiate between some of the secondary gang characters from both the Jets and Sharks as to me in that one viewing they didn’t stand out as much as in the original.

It wasn’t just me who loved it, I could hear the auditorium sniffling away at different points in the film whilst I concentrated on singing along at a quiet enough level so as not to be heard.

Oh and for those wondering, 60 years later and Chino still does that dick move at the end.

I only watched this a a week or so ago and have spent much of the time since calling people I don’t like in my head ‘punk’ and those that I do ‘Daddio’!

West Side Story 2021 Official Trailer

3. Dune

Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people. As malevolent forces explode into conflict over the planet’s exclusive supply of the most precious resource in existence, only those who can conquer their own fear will survive.

Dune was a film I spent a year or two looking forward to and dreading at the same time. Chiefly this is because of the old 1980’s David Lean effort which I never really totally got to grips with. Perhaps this was because I was about 10 years old but I hear that most 30 and 60 years couldn’t make head or tales of it.

There has been a better mini-series since but given the thousands of classic Sci-Fi novels out there, I’m not sure why there is a bit of an obsession with Dune.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that I watch this with a friend. M main straw that I clutched beforehand was that it was being directed by Denis Villeneuve who made the brilliant Arrival in 2015.

I was quite blown away with this new version of Dune which only tells half the story of the original film with no guarantees the second part would ever be made. It is a staggeringly atmospheric and beautiful film to watch and very much one that has to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

Such was the trauma of the first film that I spent the first 2 hours or so of Dune worrying that it was suddenly going to go all dire, boring and confusing on me but it never came close to happening.

I’m going to have to watch this again before the sequel comes out in a few years time.

Dune Official Trailer

2. No Time To Die

No Time To Die is the latest James Bond film that has been long and repeatedly delayed due to Covid 19. I’ve been waiting for it longer than most, not just because I do James Bond Tours in London but because whilst I was out meeting tourists one morning, I actually saw them getting ready to film one of the scenes that is in the film and the trailer. Behind the scenes with No Time To Die – James Bond.

I won’t write too much here as it would only repeat what I said in my rather magnificent (if I do say myself) review which I wrote in October. No Time To Die – James Bond Movie Review.

I’ve thought of No Time To Die quite a lot over the last few months and my feelings towards it haven’t changed. A fantastic film and the death of James Bond had me a bit sad for a few days if only because Daniel Craig is so good a 007 and though I do think killing this particular incarnation off was the way to go, the fact it happened in the middle of our little epidemic is bad timing when the world needs heroes.

Really either Dune or No Time To Die would have been worthy #1 films on my list but as it happens neither are and that is no reflection at all on them

No Time To Die
  1. Last Night In Soho

An aspiring fashion designer is mysteriously able to enter the 1960s, where she encounters a dazzling wannabe singer. However, the glamour is not all it appears to be, and the dreams of the past start to crack and splinter into something far darker.

Like In The Heights, Last Night In Soho was advertised for months in advance and from the instant I saw the briefest of trailers I was hooked and just knew I had to see the film and I savoured every single second of it.

You can see my original review Last Night In Soho Movie Review but to put it briefly, I enjoyed this film on so many levels. The story was intriguing and mysterious rather than outright scary (for the most part) and it built a suspense up rather like the now classic Sixth Sense film.

Sixties Soho

The main actors and characters were tremendous with not a weak spot amongst them and without giving too much away to see Dr Who Matt Smith not be entirely wholesome was something of a shock to say the least.

The music in this film is wonderful and it really captures the 60’s feel. It’s hard not to fall in love with it all just as Sandy in the film did and both myself and the person I watched it with thought the ending to be tremendous and very satisfying as well as it being a touch melancholic and haunting, in more ways than one.

Diana Rigg making her last screen role a memorable one.

What really made this my favourite film of 2021 was how it so perfectly captured London. Not all of London but just one small but incredibly funky neighbourhood in Soho in a way I don’t think has felt so genuine since the very different London film, The Gentlemen, just before Covid hit.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an American film get London right. Usually it’s too twee or stereotypical and the geography makes no sense at all. When Hollywood uses British actors as British characters they end up making them say words or terms that no-one in London uses either because the writers are ignorant or simply because they don’t think American audiences can handle a bit of linguistic authenticity. Even when they film in London, often interiors are in sets and the details are wrong in things such as light switches and plug sockets.

Last Night In Soho perfectly captures Soho and star writer and director Edgar Wright lived in Soho for many years. It just felt real even given the story subject. Soho is exciting, creative, dynamic but ever so slightly dangerous.

I loved it so much that within 48 hours I had scouted out every single Last Night In Soho location and a day or so later my new tour Last Night In Soho Movie Locations Tour was up and running.

I hope you enjoyed my Top 10 movies list for 2021 but before you go, watch the trailer for Last Night in Soho, that’s how you do a trailer!

Posted in Culture, Life, Movies and Films, Popular Culture, Ye Olde England Tours | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

How a dyslexic schoolgirl helped design the Spitfire!

With its graceful curves, elliptical wings and distinctive engine sound, the Spitfireis a British icon. A status solidified since its heroic efforts in the Battle of Britain in 1940. The Spitfire is the most famous fighter aircraft in British aviation history and has a fighting chance at perhaps being the most famous plane in history. 

More than any other aircraft, it captured the hearts of the home front and became synonymous with the hope and protection of the British Isles.

Designed by Supermarine Chief Designer Reginald Mitchell, it was initially destined to be named the ‘Shrew’. Only after much discussion around a pub table was the iconic name the ‘Spitfire’ decided upon.

Sadly Reginald Mitchell died at the age of 42, having only ever seen a prototype of the Spitfire fly. Development of the aircraft was taken over by his successor at Supermarine, Joe Smith.

Between 1936 and 1948, over 20,000 Spitfires were produced. The design of the aircraft changed dramatically from the Mark I through to the F Mk -24.

Some modifications gave the Spitfire more power. In its final incarnation, the aircraft could produce up to 2,375 horsepower, more than twice the output of its original design.

Other alterations affected its manoeuvrability. The ‘clipped’ wings of the LF Mark V affected the aircraft’s ability to turn as tightly, but meant it could roll much quicker to evade German Focke-Wulf Fw 190s.

However, one decision early in the Spitfire’s development may have been especially crucial to its success and it was all down to a 13-year-old schoolgirl played a significant role in its design? 

In 1934, the British Government took what some saw as an astonishing decision. The new fighter aircraft being developed would be armed with eight Browning machine guns, instead of four.

They had been convinced by Captain Fred Hill, a Scientific Officer in the Air Ministry. He had argued that a larger number of guns would be necessary to bring down enemy aircraft moving at speed.

Many believed that the extra guns would be too heavy for the Spitfire, affecting its speed and making it less manoeuvrable.

To persuade the government that the extra guns were required, Fred enlisted the help of an unlikely assistant. His daughter Hazel, a 13-year-old schoolgirl from North London.

Hazel though partially dyslexic and according to her son, perhaps because of this, was a gifted mathematician and helped her father to complete the complex calculations he needed to make his case to the Air Ministry. Sat around a small kitchen table, the two worked long into the night analysing the results of the latest firing trials.

They started on the assumption made by the government that the new plane was to have four guns that fired 1,200 bullets a minute but they realised that 256 bullets would be required in two seconds to bring down an enemy bomber at the increased speeds of the new aircraft and for this eight guns were required.
 
In July 1934, Fred presented his findings at a meeting of the Air Ministry. Only his superior officer knew about Hazel’s contribution to his work and for many years it remained largely unknown.

Had it not been for Fred’s persistence, the outcome of the Battle of Britain could have been very different. Had it not been for Hazel’s calculations, the legendary status of the Spitfire could have been far from assured.

After school leaving school, Hazel Hill studied medicine at a university in London and joined the Royal Army Medical Corps after graduating in 1943. At the end of the war, she became a GP and in 1948 married Chris Baker, who was one of the soldiers she had treated in the war. The couple moved to Wednesbury in theWest Midlands, where Hazel got a job setting up a child health clinic in the newly formed National Health Service. She later trained as a psychiatrist and published research into school phobia, anorexia and autism. Hazel had four sons: Robin, Richard, Frank and Ted. She died, aged 90, in 2010.

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Personal thoughts on the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu

I was saddened to hear a few hours ago about the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Not because at 90 years of age he could be said to be short-changed on that account but because there are so few people in prominent positions who espouse his ideals on the world stage.

I’ve often said I can’t think of a single world leader who I’d say is a decent person and a good leader, in fact I find it very hard to think of a President or Prime Minister who is either.

As a child in the 1980’s I used to always see the Archbishop on the news. He always seemed such an affable and compassionate man. Most of all I loved his sense of humour which was irascible.

One of my first television memories was staying up late with my mother to watch Roots. Living in a suburb of Newcastle at the time, I had never met a black person in real life before and even upon moving towards London I would be 11 before I did so.

I remember not getting why the white people in America were being so horrible to Kunta Kinte in Roots. It didn’t make sense to me, I didn’t see skin colour then and don’t now. My mother did her best to explain it to me but even to my 4 year old brain, it made no sense… much as how soon later I didn’t understand why someone would want to shoot John Lennon. But people of every colour are still racist, I lost count of how many times on an almost empty set of train seats, some people (particularly women) of darker colours would rather squeeze into an overcrowded section of seat with people who look like them rather than sit in 6 seats with only myself squashed into a corner.

It’s rather sad I think to hear politicians such as Boris Johnson trying to pay tributes to a man that they are not just not fit to lick his boots but seemingly deliberately choosing to be the opposite sort of person. Not everyone can act like an Archbishop but one can choose not to lie, to cheat, to be immoral and to cause harm and hurt to others.

Two of my favourite quotes of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu are:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

I can only see Boris Johnson as being an oppressor whilst hopefully my life is full of doing good deeds.

One of my favourite spots on my Secret Gardens of the City of London walking tour is Fen Court Garden and the Abolition of Slavery memorial which was opened a little over a decade ago.

Fen Court, a secret sacred garden in the City of London
The Gilt of Cain a collaboration between sculptor Michael Visocchi and poet Lemn Sissay.

It’s a beautiful little garden right in the city with connections to wonderful people like William Wilberforce and Archbishop Desmond Tutu and so I often find myself thinking of Archbishop Tutu, perhaps more than most people. So I will miss him; not feeling sorry for his death but more for the emptiness of the world without him.

Thankfully as well as a wonderful example, he has left us with hundreds of immensely truthful quotes. Here are a few that I liked just from just a few minutes of browsing.

― Desmond Tutu “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” 
― Desmond Tutu “Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.”
― Desmond Tutu “Forgiving is not forgetting; its actually remembering–remembering and not using your right to hit back. Its a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you dont want to repeat what happened.” 
― Desmond Tutu“My father always used to say, “Don’t raise your voice. Improve your argument.” Good sense does not always lie with the loudest shouters, nor can we say that a large, unruly crowd is always the best arbiter of what is right.” 
― Desmond Tutu “We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.” 
― Desmond Tutu: “Differences are not intended to separate, to alienate. We are different precisely in order to realise our need of one another.” 
― Desmond Tutu: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” 
― Desmond Tutu“Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.” 
― Desmond Tutu“We learn from history that we don’t learn from history!” 
― Desmond Tutu“A person is a person through other persons.

Desmond Tutu “None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. I am because other people are. A person is entitled to a stable community life, and the first of these communities is the family.” 
Desmond tutu: “When we see others as the enemy, we risk becoming what we hate. When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves. All of our humanity is dependent upon recognizing the humanity in others.” 
― Desmond Tutu“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” 
― Desmond Tutu: “A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.” 
― Desmond Tutu: “We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family.” 
― Archbishop Desmond Tutu “In the end what matters is not how good we are but how good God is. Not how much we love Him but how much He loves us. And God loves us whoever we are, whatever we’ve done or failed to do, whatever we believe or can’t.” 
― Archbishop Desmond Tutu“We were made to enjoy music, to enjoy beautiful sunsets, to enjoy looking at the billows of the sea and to be thrilled with a rose that is bedecked with dew… Human beings are actually created for the transcendent, for the sublime, for the beautiful, for the truthful… and all of us are given the task of trying to make this world a little more hospitable to these beautiful things.” 

― Desmond Tututags:“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” 
― Desmond Tutu“Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” 
― Desmond Tutu“Religion is like a knife: you can either use it to cut bread, or stick in someone’s back.” 
― Desmond TutuWe are made for loving. If we don’t love, we will be like plants without water.” 
― Desmond Tututags: “Dear Child of God, I write these words because we all experience sadness, we all come at times to despair, and we all lose hope that the suffering in our lives and in the world will ever end. I want to share with you my faith and my understanding that this suffering can be transformed and redeemed. There is no such thing as a totally hopeless case. Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine. God created order out of disorder, cosmos out of chaos, and God can do so always, can do so now–in our personal lives and in our lives as nations, globally. … Indeed, God is transforming the world now–through us–because God loves us.” 
― Desmond Tutu“It is through weakness and vulnerability that most of us learn empathy and compassion and discover our soul.” 
― Desmond Tutu“Dear Child of God, I am sorry to say that suffering is not optional.” 
― Desmond Tutu“A person is a person through other persons; you can’t be human in isolation; you are human only in relationships.” 

― Desmond Tutu, “We must be ready to learn from one another, not claiming that we alone possess all truth and that somehow we have a corner on God.” 
― Desmond Tututags: “There is nothing more difficult than waking someone who is only pretending to be asleep.” 
― Desmond Tutu “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime. Teach a man to cycle and he will realize fishing is stupid and boring.” 
― Desmond Tutu “The Dead Sea in the Middle East receives fresh water, but it has no outlet, so it doesn’t pass the water out. It receives beautiful water from the rivers, and the water goes dank. I mean, it just goes bad. And that’s why it is the Dead Sea. It receives and does not give. In the end generosity is the best way of becoming more, more, and more joyful.” 
― Desmond Tutu “Forgiveness does not relieve someone of responsibility for what they have done. Forgiveness does not erase accountability. It is not about turning a blind eye or even turning the other cheek. It is not about letting someone off the hook or saying it is okay to do something monstrous. Forgiveness is simply about understanding that every one of us is both inherently good and inherently flawed. Within every hopeless situation and every seemingly hopeless person lies the possibility of transformation.” 

If you’d like to learn more about the over 100 secret gardens in the City of London, nearly all of which have a special history just like the garden mentioned above then you might like my #1 book below which is available in Paperback, Kindle and iBooks.

Secret Gardens of the City of London Kindle Cover
Secret Gardens of the City of London Kindle Cover
Posted in Life, News, Opinion, Religion and Faith | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Coronavirus Diary 83 – The (lack of) joy at Christmas and discombobulated thoughts

I must admit that I don’t feel 1% Christmassy and that is 1% less than last year when at least I knew everyone else was to various degrees miserable and isolated but I’m 22.5 months now into being Excluded (15 months or more of that Shielding alone). It’s hard to get concerned about people having to wear a mask going to a pub or limiting Christmas parties when your food and heating comes from charity.

I’ve been continuing to campaign and a month or so ago my MP Oliver Dowden had the misfortune to walk right by me. I didn’t even have to introduce myself before he shouted that he knew who I was which only can presume one to think he knows about the situation but clearly doesn’t care.

He couldn’t hurry away quick enough and the most Conservative Facebook friend I know watched a video I filmed of the whole thing and he said he was shocked to see how polite and respectful I was whilst Oliver Dowden clearly couldn’t help coming over as pompous, arrogant and rude.

I won’t put the video up here to spare his blushes but the image below gives you an indication of the look on his face when he saw me run across two lanes of traffic to speak with him.

Actual footage of Oliver Dowden when approached by a constituent, me!

Talking of Squid Games which I haven’t but from which the photo above is taken; I have to say that was by far the best television programme of 2021 for me. I loved the games themselves that were often so clever and heartless as well as the ensuing suspense and drama. That was such a low moment when the old man with dementia was cheated out of his life by best friend (above) in the process who took advantage of his failing memory to stay alive himself.

I guess Covid disrupted most television shows and I can’t think there were many unmissable efforts. One that I did want to watch was the final season of The Walking Dead but having bought out the rights, Disney decided to make the final episodes pay per view only and so I guess after a decade or so of watching the show, I will never find out what happens.

I did though enjoy Clarksons farm and a few dramas, the most gripping of which was Angela Black and it was suitably tense and miserable which seemed fitting.

A day or two ago though something happened which not only did I not expect but I forgot was even a thing. I was on the bus and I heard someone laugh. I’d totally forgotten that people laugh and there is such a thing as happiness and joy in this world. Apart from some all-to-easy insults I make about Boris at protests, I’m not sure I have heard anyone laugh for about 2 years and it was at first a shock but then a really nice feeling to hear such an innocent and unexpected moment of joy.

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I hope your day is spent full of love and laughter rather than like my own which will no doubt more resemble that of Squid Games.

Posted in Life, television | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments