Moments and Memories

                           Moments are fleeting , memories are forever…

          A look back at some of my favourite, and not so favourite times….

Memory they say can play tricks on you. Not when it is just you but when you recall an event long ago with an old friend whose memory has a completely different idea of what happened. Who is right? This blog is about my memories so I am right all the time! Unless someone out there I have forgotten about comes back to haunt me!            

Childhood memories always have a rosy glow. For a start it never rained! 

My Dad was in the RAF so we moved around quite a lot. The house I have now lived in for over 22 years is my 25thplace of abode. I attended 10 primary schools and 3 secondary schools. In Yorkshire my surname does not cause comment but head south  and it was never ending abuse at school and after. As I grew older I decided that laughter was the best defence and learned to give as good as I got. My sense of humour has kept me going through good times and bad.

It was in early October 1954 that my Mum and I left our married quarter at RAF Old Sarum near Salisbury and headed care of RAF transport to the docks at Southampton. My Dad had flown to Singapore a few months earlier and then taken the train up the Malay Peninsula to Penang. Unfortunately his RAF record does not name the type of aircraft. We boarded SS Empire Orwell and had a thirty-day voyage ahead of us! All the younger children slept in a large cabin while the mothers slept in another cabin next door. The Orwell was a former German merchant ship converted to a troopship for transporting His Majesty’s Armed Forces around the Empire! Our first port of call was Gibraltar where we unloaded a rather ill -looking gentlemen down to a waiting launch. Then onto to Port Said. We had been warned that the Bay of Biscay could be rough but it turned out to be as calm as a mill pond. The Mediterranean made up for it! Mountainous waves and howling winds. One morning all the children and Mums were kept out of the rest room while it was cleaned. Never mind the waves crashing on the deck. Bunch of jobsworths!

Given the tensions brewing in the Middle East(nothing changes) we were not allowed ashore. However the ‘gully-gully’ man came onboard to demonstrate his skills. One of his tricks was a version of ‘Find the Lady.’ Instead of cards he moved three tumblers around. You had to guess under which tumbler the little chick was hiding! A ‘Gully gully’ man is the name for an Egyptian Street Magician who was usually found in Port Said entertaining ships passengers onshore.

Time to weigh anchor and head down the canal. At this point I can hear someone singing, ‘See the pyramids along the Nile….’ Been there done that! Never got to see ‘The market place in old Algiers!’ But give it time! Into the calm of the Red Sea and a midnight stop at Aden which passed me by! Time to cross the Indian Ocean where I would celebrate my ninth birthday on board. The ship’s radio station played a birthday request for me over the tannoy system. Who can ever forget Max Bygraves singing ‘I’m a Pink Toothbrush!!!?’ We docked at Singapore a few days later and my Dad was waiting to meet us. My next memory of that journey sees me in the upper bunk on an overnight train bound for Butterworth. The Communist Terrorists (as I found out later!) had been attacking trains and every serviceman on the train had a sten gun with him. Twenty -four hours of tiring travel sees us pull into Butterworth Station. Then the ferry to take us on the short journey to Penang Island. Known quite rightly as ‘The Pearl of the Orient.


I resumed my O.U course in 2010 having put it on hold back in 1978! And my original marks still counted! Our first TMA(Tutor Marked Assessment) included a Freewrite where you pick a subject and just write without any planning. (James Joyce did it all the time! Read ‘Ulysses!’)  I chose beaches. My first part took an English beach in winter based on my time living in a flat overlooking the harbour in Newquay. The second part went back to my childhood. And here it is……..

Life was a Beach!

The sun is always shining in my childhood memories. I say ‘always’ but maybe that is not quite true. When I lived in Singapore the monsoon season saw violent electrical storms with rain the like of which is never seen in England. I don’t know about stair rods but lead piping would just about describe the event! But the sun featured large, bright and warm when I lived in the Far East with my parents. My father was fortunate enough to be posted to Penang between 1954 and 1957. Then we returned in 1959 for another few years of paradise in Singapore! I learned to swim in the warm waters off Batu Ferringhi beach on Penang Island. School in the morning and the beach in the afternoon was usually the daily routine. Transport to the beach was in a blue rickety old bus that clattered its way along the beach road. There were no bus stops as such; you just told the driver where you would like him to apply the brakes! He needed a fair bit of notice as the brakes did not always respond first time! (What Health & Safety!?)  Once there it was white sand, green palm trees and a blue, blue sky. The sea was, somewhat surprisingly, a slate grey. Grey it may have been but warm it surely was! The odd stream weaved a path from under the beach road down to the sea. Ideal for building a dam and seeing the size of the lake that came into being. Then down comes the dam and a mini-tsunami heads for the ocean. I was nine at the time so do remember little things please little minds? Small white crabs used to inhabit the shore-line. They had very sensitive antennae because any approach resulted in them dashing into their sandy burrows. I would then dig furiously trying to find them but never ever caught one in that manner. The secret was to sit and wait; and wait; and wait! Then out they would venture, little eyes on their long stalks surveying the scene. One nine year old waits, cupped hand at the ready. The crab approaches and with a dexterity and timing any gymnast would envy the hand sweeps up the hapless crab and into the bucket he goes. I guess we are back to little things…………….

   Acres of beach; and only half-a-dozen people invading the space. So much to see and lots of time! Once sitting at the water’s edge with my legs akimbo a small piece of jelly fish brushed the inside of my leg. Now don’t try this at home but the next time you are on a beach sit down with your legs astride and try to jump three feet in the air? Because I swear when that jelly fish stung me I went into orbit or so it felt. OUCH! And not a bottle of calamine lotion to be found.  It was a while before I ventured near the water’s edge again but when I did it was with a younger friend. We saw a snake come slithering towards us. Having never seen a sea snake before we thought it would be fun to poke it with a stick to much laughter from us. Our parents hearing the commotion came to investigate; suitably horrified they whisked us away to safety further up the beach. I think if I saw a sea snake now I would run a mile and then some! Apparently there was a particular season when snakes appeared on the beach and then off they went leaving us in safety. 

   There were no food stalls or drinks machines on the beach. If you had a sharp knife with you then cutting open one of the fallen coconuts and drinking the milk was an option. We usually brought a flask of cold orange squash and sandwiches. If we were lucky then the ice cream man would stop by on his way between villages. He would have a bicycle and perched precariously on the back would be an ice box. He was the ‘Magnolia Man,’ named after the national ice cream manufacturer. You heard his bell ringing long before he came rushing down the hill to the   road past the beach.

I returned to Batu Ferringhi some forty years later. There along the beach was one continuous row of hotels, fast food outlets, lots of noisy tourists and honking cars. To my delight though the bus travelling along the beach road is still blue, although slightly improved in age from my childhood when life truly was a beach!

The return from Penang saw an overnight train journey to Singapore and then a three-day flight back to a cold and windy Stansted. I have never felt so cold before or since! We night stopped in Karachi and Baghdad. I would not recommend the trip in 2021!!!

Oh happy days! Even further back than Penang and almost into the swirling mists of the land that time forgot I was a birds egg collector! Only seven mind. However, I was told by my Dad that for a seven year old I had the amazing knack of finding a birds nest with eggs in it. Thrush, Blackbird, Sparrow? Ask me to find a Robin’s egg and off I would go. Robin’s eggs are small and creamy white with a brownish-red speckle. Ask me to find one now and I would not know where to start! My greatest achievement was to climb an oak tree to secure a wood pigeon’s egg. Standard boiled egg size and white. Now climbing the tree with both hands free is fine. But how do you get down with an egg in one hand I hear you cry! Simples. You take your school satchel with you!  Sling it on your back for the descent and Robert is your mother’s brother! The tree in question was not far from our married quarter at RAF Duxford. I went back there about twenty-five years ago and the tree was still there. But it was very LARGE! Needless to say collecting birds eggs is now illegal but back in the fifties it was what small boys did.

D-A-T-E-L-I-N-ESingapore, Wednesday October 26 1960, my fifteenth birthday. I held a party in our bungalow. A select group of friends were invited while my Mum and Dad headed for a cinema in downtown Singapore City! Music and laughter and lots to eat when suddenly it seemed the bungalow was under attack. A shower of Chinese fire-crackers landed at the front of the bungalow. We all dashed out and as I looked left the unfortunate red-headed boy who was leading the attack ran under a street lamp! John Troughton was his name and the next morning in school we had a frank exchange of views. He did apologize  and a sort of tacit friendship developed. Master Troughton takes the blame for two things in my life. I found out that he like me would finish formal schooling in March 1961 and attendance at school would mean you became a gopher for the teachers. He was intending to join the RAF through the Boy Entrant service. My Dad thought it was a great idea, my Mum not quite so keen. So I joined. John Troughton as a Supplier and me as an Air Radar Mech. John was not the sharpest knife in the box! In June 1961 he went to Hereford for training and I went to Cosford. We met at the start of our three-week summer leave. The RAF kindly paid for return tickets to Singapore care of Quantas and BOAC. John and I met at Victoria Air Terminal. (Those were the days!) We handed in our cases there and boarded a coach which took us direct to the BOAC Comet  at Heathrow. Oh so very civilized! First stop Rome for refueling. John offers to go and get us a drink. I expected him to return with a bottle of coke. But no. He had two cans of warm Italian beer. It was awful. I have never drank beer again in my life! Dear John saved me a fortune. We lost touch after our training. I heard many years later at a reunion that he had died of cancer in 1982.

 And all that because he was annoyed he had not been invited to the party!

My first posting in December 1962 was RAF Wittering where my Mum and Dad just happened to live. No barrack room for me thank goodness as I lived in Married Quarters with my parents. 1963 was a momentous year in many respects. Not least because British pop music changed the world of music led by the Beatles. I passed my motor-cycle driving test first time on 19 October. I passed my car-driving test first time on 2 November!!! And after only eight lessons in an Austin A40! I met Nina Briggs at Radio Wittering. Our first date was 22 November 1963! We went to the Odeon cinema in Peterborough to see ‘Carry On Cabby.’ As we came out of the cinema we heard people talking about President Kennedy being assassinated. A truly eventful year.

Nina Briggs accepted my proposal of marriage and our wedding was held at St Augustine’s Church, Mutley, Plymouth on 10 July 1965. The most cherished memory and a magical moment all in one. 

I was going to publish this much earlier in the year but the most heart-rending saddest moment in my life prevented it.

I know what Nina will be saying from up above. ‘Thankyou for all the love but it is time to move on. No more fuss please!’

Myself and my family are doing our best to move on but it is difficult. 

Thankyou for all your support over the past few months.


 Well I promised a shorter blog this time and here it is! Before we start just a word of thanks to the 148 visitors to my last blog. I asked for a couple of people to take me over the 100 mark and the response was brilliant;  thankyou.


                                  The Spire at the IBCC Visitor Centre 

I have been a volunteer with the IBCC over four years now. My main job has been to interview veterans of Bomber Command or those who had some involvement with Bomber Command. Thus my first interview was with an air gunner/bomb aimer who had taken part in Operation Manna. One of my last interviews was with a Dutch lady who as a small child in Amsterdam had been a recipient of Operation Manna! In addition I have written a few biographies of aircrew members as part of the project to cover all of the 55573 aircrew who were killed during the bomber offensive.


                                         The view across the City of Lincoln

The IBCC took a while to come into existence but a group of hard working people led by the late and much lamented Tony Worth ensured that it did. In conjunction with Lincoln University it was able to find support and office space while the centre was being built. It officially opened in April 2018 and has quickly become one of the most popular attractions of the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Trail. The IBCC is located on Canwick Hill just outside Lincoln. It has a perfect view across the city of Lincoln to the cathedral on the opposite hill.


                                   The approach to the Visitor Centre

I cannot do better than quote from the IBCC website:


  • To remember the thousands of men and women from across the world who were part of Bomber Command’s efforts during WWII
  • To educate the generations of today and those who follow, about the individuals who served with Bomber Command and the sacrifices they made to preserve our freedom
  • To allow individuals across the world to discover more about Bomber Command and those who served it, through their experiences as told by letters, diaries and memories
  • To tell the stories of those affected by the bombing campaigns across Europe
  • The Walls of Names at the IBCC carry the names of almost 58,000 men and women who lost their lives whilst serving Bomber Command.
  • The IBCC is the only place in the world where you can bear witness to all the sacrifices of this unit. This figure is higher than the number of people serving in today’s RAF and Royal Navy combined.
  • Since inception IBCC has been working with veterans, recording their stories and preserving their documents and photos. Their support during the creation of the project has been astounding.



                                             Inside the Visitor Centre

During WWII over a million men and women served or supported Bomber Command.  They came from 62 nations across the world and were united in their efforts to protect the freedom we enjoy today.  The service included Aircrew, Ground Crew, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, Auxiliary Air Transport, Auxiliary Transport Services, NAAFI and many others.

Bomber Command suffered the highest losses of any unit during WWII but have struggled for recognition.

Every member of Bomber Command aircrew was a volunteer.

The average age at death was only 23.


The IBCC newsletter runs an article series as named below. My thanks to the CEO for her permission to use the article as part of my blog. 

 “A Day in the Life of an IBCC Volunteer”


My name is Rod Pickles and I am a volunteer. Feels like we should all be sitting in a circle!

I joined the RAF in 1961 as a Boy Entrant. I left in 1985 having completed my last five years in the RAF Careers Information Office in Plymouth. That is a lot of interviews!
Not surprisingly when I volunteered, I expressed an interest in joining the interview team. My eighteenth interview took place on Friday 31 January.
I had received a phone call some two weeks earlier when a familiar voice said ‘Hello Rod.’ I had heard the voice before but could not place it. To my delight it was Peter Jones! He had retired about a year earlier and had been my contact at the IBCC. My last interview had taken place some eighteen months earlier but for the saddest of reasons there are not many people left to interview. Peter had one for me. It was a 97-year-old ex-Air Gunner. His niece was the contact. I arranged the date and time with her and waited for the interview day to come around.
31 January – Do my last bit of research. The niece has not passed on any information about what squadron my interviewee was on. However, I know he flew in the Douglas Boston out of Sicily and I had narrowed it down to four squadrons. Time to do one last check on the TASCAM (If you have never used one it is the sound card recording device). Make sure the spare batteries are in the case. Check I have all the relevant documentation and a pen! Then it is a shower and I get dressed in my interview attire which consists of the white shirt, RAF tie, grey trousers and blue blazer. Makes a change from Chinos and a sweatshirt! Pin my IBCC badge on and I am ready to go.
The weather on the drive to Honiton got worse by the minute as the mist and drizzle descended on the A38. Only when I came onto the Honiton bypass did the weather start to clear. This time around I was not bypassing Honiton but heading for an address in the town. My interview was at 2pm and I always aim to be twenty minutes early to give myself time to park and find the address. At one forty pm I arrive at the address and unlike some places I have visited there is no problem with parking! It so happens that the niece arrives in the car park at the same time and recognises my RAF tie and asks if I am there to interview her uncle. Indeed I am!
The man I have to interview looks in good health and if I make it to 97, I hope I am in the same condition. There are a few minutes of conversation while he outlines his story. It sounds quite remarkable. Time to begin! 
We arrange the chairs and the small table for the recorder. I ask him to recite his name and address while I do a sound check on the TASCAM. There are volume indicators on the machine. I mention to him that if he wishes to take a break during the interview, he just has to raise a hand and I will pause the TASCAM. This makes for a seamless restart and saves on editing if he asks me to stop! I have already briefed the niece and mentioned that she should resist the temptation to prompt if her uncle is having trouble recalling an event. I think most of us would pause at some point if they had to think back 77 years!
My role in the process is to say as little as possible and I have found the ideal interviewee. During the course of the interview I rarely have to speak. Part way through he raises his hand and we pause. The niece makes her first intervention which I could have scripted! ‘Coffee anyone?’
After a coffee and a nice piece of shortbread off we go once more. And what an amazing tale he had to tell. He was a member of 18 Squadron, one of the squadrons I had researched. One night he was asked to stand in for someone on another crew. They flew north to Italy. Bombed a bridge near Capua and headed home. On the way back they had to fly through an electrical storm which took all their comms out and drove the Boston off course. Running out of fuel the crew opted to ditch rather than bail out. Neither option was a good one as it was a stormy night and a very rough sea. My interviewee was knocked unconscious as the plane ditched. His only memory is being dragged out of the sea and thinking that rubber dingy had hard sides. Unfortunately, it was not a rubber dingy from the plane but a Sicilian fishing boat. He was pulled out by two fishermen. He lapsed into an unconscious state for ten days. On the eleventh day he came round and was taken off the critical list. He was told that the bodies of his three colleagues had not been found. (The pilot’s body was found and is buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Catania. The other two members of the crew have their names on the war memorial in Malta)
That is very short précis of the interview which lasted almost an hour. I brought the interview to a conclusion when he told me about leaving the RAF and returning to civvy street. As most of my interviewees are, he was close to tears remembering his lost colleagues, but he kept on going. Amazing man.
I check the TASCAM has recorded and take the required photographs with my phone. The interviewee on his own, and then with his niece, and then one for my album with the interviewee. There is always a third person present at the interviews. It helps to put the person being interviewed at ease
I start to pack up. Then comes the most amazing part of the visit. My interviewee is visited occasionally by a Roman Catholic priest. Not particularly religious but he enjoys having a chat and he told the priest the story he had just told me.  The priest made use of the worldwide RC network. Two weeks before Christmas my downed Air Gunner received a letter written on behalf of the sons of the two fishermen who had pulled him to safety! They are now 81 but both remember their fathers telling them about dragging a British airman from the sea. You really could not make it up!
Time to say goodbye and head for home. The weather gets worse by the minute as I near Plymouth. Heavy rain, mist and spray. I pass Lee Mill at 5:02 and know I am nearly home. Just after I arrive an app on my phone tells me that at 5:10 there was a 3 car pile-up at Lee Mill! Sometimes you just get lucky!
After eating and changing back to the chinos and sweatshirt I check the documentation once more. Download and print the photos and put them in the C5 envelope. I play the recording and listen to part of the interview. Then the sound card is removed from the TASCAM and put into a small poly bag and then in the envelope.  The envelope is sealed and ready to post to Peter Jones the following morning. I email the niece and ask her to pass on my thanks to her Uncle for telling his amazing story.  Her Uncle will be 98* in two weeks’ time. I will send a card.

The day is done!

*The middle name of the gentleman in question is ‘Valentine.’ Needless to say his birthday is on the 14thof February!!! 


Over 1200 interviews have been carried out on behalf of the IBCC. All of them by volunteers like me. They are edited for presentation (More volunteers!) and loaded onto the Digital Archive. This can be accessed on the IBCC website. Key in my name and the interviews of mine that have been edited will be available for you to listen to. There are some amazing stories. The one thread that runs through all the aircrew interviews is this, ‘It was just another day at the office,’ as their description of a bombing raid over Germany. There is no triumphalism. At the end of one interview after I had switched off the recorder one man said to me with tears in his eyes, ‘I feel guilty.’ Why would he say that? Because he had survived and so many of his friends had not. I told him his friends would have wished him a happy life and he had nothing to feel guilty about. As I left his wife whispered to me, ‘He is always saying that, thankyou for what you said.’


           The spire is the exact length of a Lancaster wingspan

        Those who survived and those who did not deserved to be remembered.


******WAY OUT WEST******

The myths, the legends, the reality


Laurel and Hardy fans look away now please. This is not a review of their film!

The ‘Wild West’ deserved its name in the early years as there was very little law enforcement and too many lawbreakers. The phrase was coined by a journalist from the ‘civilised’ eastern seaboard! However, to begin at the beginning….

The discovery of America by Columbus in 1492 (OK, maybe a Viking may have got there first?) resulted in a continuous stream of explorers finding their way into the hinterland and eventually over a few hundred years mapping the continent of America. Discovering it is one thing but making the land habitable is another. Despite the abundance of land it remained a commodity over which local arguments turned violent in the remote areas of this vast country.

The ‘Wild West’ was reckoned to be anywhere west of the Mississippi. It ran roughly from the Dakotas in the North to New Mexico in the south. California become part of the ‘Wild West’ when gold was discovered ‘…in them thar hills!’ Gold both then and now remains a metal over which criminals and bandits revert to violence. There were many journeys to the uninhabited lands in the USA but the most famous one was carried out by a couple of U.S Cavalry soldiers called Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. They were commissioned to do so by President Thomas Jefferson in 1804. The expedition lasted two years. Its objective was to explore and report on land recently acquired by ‘The Louisiana Purchase.’ A somewhat misleading title as it was not just the state of Louisiana that was purchased. Millions of square miles were bought from the French (Napoleon himself!) and doubled the size of the United States!

With continuous expansion westward towns started to appear along the trails taken by the wagon trains and the individual intrepid explorers!  Sadly along with those intent on making a new life for themselves came those intent on making a criminal life for themselves in what was a lawless land of opportunity.

Before that however the violent quarrels were between the Native Americans and those they regarded as invaders. The Native Americans were fighting to uphold their culture and their way of life. A concept successive American governments from Washington onwards have failed to understand. There would be almost four hundred years of attacks and counter attacks including some dreadful massacres carried out by the U.S cavalry.

In addition to fighting the Native Americans the Mormons also found themselves under violent attack as they tried to find a place for their members to settle down. Many of their members were murdered before Utah became their home. They rather ruined their reputation by being responsible for the murder of 120 men, women and children passing through the state in 1857.

The American Civil War apart from its armies locked in a battle for supremacy also became the crucible for those bent on breaking the law and finding they could get away with it. William Quantrill with the support of the Confederate government became infamous for his attacks on Union soldiers, wagon trains, and railway trains carrying Union goods. He finally lost the support of the Confederates by his attack on Lawrence Missouri. Lawrence was a base for anti-slavery supporters. Its officials had decided to get back at Quantrill and his men by imprisoning their womenfolk. Something they would come to regret. In the high summer of 1863 William Quantrill led his men on a very organised raid on the town. 185 buildings were burnt to the ground and 150 men, women and children were killed. The Confederate government were appalled and immediately ceased all support for Quantrill. The man himself took his so-called army down to Texas to avoid the rigours of the northern winter. During this time Quantrill found himself out of favour. His once highly organised deadly army split into different factions. All the major bandit leaders including Quantrill himself would be dead shortly after the Civil War ended. Despite the appalling deeds of this man and his deadly comrades there exists today a William Clarke Quantrill Society. I kid you not. Checkout the website. They hold an annual reunion for goodness sake. What sort of people are they who can celebrate a man responsible for the murder of hundreds of innocent people? Only in America?

If those in the west thought their troubles were over they reckoned without Frank and Jesse James. Both of them the sons of a Baptist minister!

Frank and Jesse James

The brothers had been part of Quantrill’s raiders and depending on which side of history you were on they did or they didn’t take part in the Lawrence massacre.  It is a safe bet that they did. It showed them you could literally get away with murder. They robbed their first bank in 1865. Jesse James saw robbery as a way of getting back at the Union government who had in his perception, destroyed the southern states. Then again we have the history question. Perhaps he committed the crimes to make himself rich and could not care less about the southern states! Throughout the James brothers lawless careers the editor of the Kansas City Timesextolled the James brothers and Jesse in particular as modern day Robin Hoods. You would need to know that the editor was a former officer in the Confederate Army and a tacit supporter of Quantrill! Add into the mix Mrs James the matriarch of the family who shared the editor’s view of her sons and continued to paint Jesse as whiter that white before and after his death. There are people today who still believe this nonsense. In 2007 a film was released called ‘The Assassinationof Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.’  Dear me! James was indeed shot in the back of the head by Robert Ford and shooting anyone in the back is the act of a coward. But let us remember that by his action Robert Ford rid the world of a scumbag! Frank James died with his boots on. Despite having murdered at least twenty people he was never found guilty of any crime. The James brothers led a life of crime from 1865 until 1882 when Jesse was killed.  Frank decided at that moment that enough was enough. He walked into the office of the Governor of Missouri and placed his pistol on his desk saying he was surrendering to the governor. He was brought to trial on various charges and found not guilty in the court of a former Confederate state. Surprise, surprise!


                                                              Jesse James

Six years earlier the James-Younger gang had been brought to its knees when it tried to rob a bank in Northfield Minnesota. Local people saw them arrive and recognised who they were. While the gang were inside the bank the locals armed themselves. As they left the bank the outlaws were met with a hail of bullets. Two of the eight were killed and the other six were all wounded. Of the eight only the James brothers escaped arrest or death. (Perhaps history could call them the ‘Teflon’ brothers!)

Billy the Kid

Henry McCarty, William H Bonney, Billy the Kid!! Was he born in New York or way out west? Born in 1859? Maybe. It is truly the stuff of myth and legend. Exacerbated by dime novels, and carpet-bagging authors. What is not disputed is that a gunman known to history as Billy the Kid did exist. And no he never met Jesse James. And no by the age of twenty-one he had not killed twenty-one men! Four is the generally agreed figure although he was involved in a number of gunfights. He was a gun for hire and unlike the James brothers never made himself any real money. His main claim to fame is his part in the Lincoln County war down in what was then Mexico New Territories. A dispute over cattle and the sale of dry goods in the county which saw the gunfighter hired by one side and find himself on the run after killing one man. Lew Wallace, who was then Governor of the New Mexico Territories, promised him an amnesty. (The same Lew Wallace also wrote the novel ‘Ben Hur.’) Wallace did not keep his word. The outlaw was imprisoned and killed two guards when he escaped. Into the story comes Pat Garrett. After various chases and gunfights he finally captures Billy the Kid. Thirteen days later The Kid escapes. Garrett finally tracks him down and in a darkened room near Fort Sumner shoots Billy the Kid twice and kills him. This happened in 1881. In 1908 Garrett himself would be shot out on a trail in the company of two men. There was never any prosecution and to this day no one can prove which of the two was the killer. Other historians claim the involvement of a third party. So within a year Jesse James and Billy the Kid passed into history and the myth-making began. It would be hard to find more ruthless killers than the James brothers or Billy the Kid but I can find you one!

 John Wesley Hardin.

A man with a hair- trigger temper he was reputed to have a shot a man in the next hotel room because he was snoring! Hardin was born in Texas in 1853, the son of a preacher man! Much good it did him! Reputed to have killed his first man when he was fifteen Hardin’s story is one of half-truths and lies. Formulated partly by an autobiography he wrote while spending seventeen years in prison. At the same time he studied law and passed the Bar Examination on his release. While he was in prison it seemed some of his father’s words had stuck with him as he was appointed the Prison Sunday School Superintendent! Hardin claimed to have killed forty-two men but western historians reckon it was half that amount.  Hardin was writing his life for posterity. He was the sort of character who could start a fight in an empty room. Most of his arguments came during a card game. He was good at cards and his fellow players would accuse him of cheating, which he probably was!!!

Having been born in Texas he was brought up in the Confederate tradition. The Civil War ended when he was twelve. He saw slaves as the enemy. It is no surprise to learn that the first man he killed was an ex-slave. He would go onto kill four black policemen. He was never a bank robber. Hardin would shoot a man at the slightest provocation and invariably avoid arrest. He was a story teller and claimed to have been involved in so many shootings no historian has been able to verify hardly any of them. The law eventually caught up with him. He shot a deputy-sheriff claiming in his defence that the lawman was drawing his gun. Hardin escaped for a couple of years but was eventually arrested while travelling by train. In 1878 he was found guilty and sentenced to twenty-five years imprisonment. Considering the number of people he had murdered he was lucky not to be hung! He would spend seventeen years in prison. Having studied law he passed the bar examination and tried to settle down. However his penchant for argument was still alive and well and he pistol- whipped someone called John Selman Jr in 1896 in El Paso. Selman’s father sought out Hardin and caught up with him a saloon and without waiting for an introduction put a bullet in the back of Hardins’s head. As the outlaw slumped to the floor Selman Sr shot him twice more. Selman himself a former outlaw never made it to trial. He was shot dead in a shoot-out a few months later. Hardin was buried in an El Paso cemetery. In 1995 a group of his descendants applied for a court order to have the body removed and taken to Nixon, another Texan town and be buried next to his wife. She had died while he was in prison. A group of El Paso residents petitioned the court to have the body remain where it was. There was an altercation across the grave between the two groups. No one was shot! The residents eventually won the case. And why you may well ask would they want to keep the grave of an outlaw in El Paso? Because the graves of murdering outlaws are seen as tourist attractions!

Wyatt Earp

There were of course many other famous names who strayed across the line into law-breaking, Wild Bill Hickok, Butch Cassidy and his friend Sundance, Johnny Ringo, the Clanton gang, the Younger gang, Black Bart, Black Jack Ketchum and many more. One group in particular deserves our attention here. The Earp brothers. The PR on their behalf leaves the James brothers far behind. Films and television give the so-called leader of the clan an aura of innocence and great deeds in aid of fighting on the side of the law. I remember a TV series of the late fifties about him which had a song sung over the credits, ‘Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp, brave courageous and bold, long live his fame and long live his glory, And long may his story be told! It all depends who you read. Horse-thief, policeman, embezzler, assistant marshall, buffalo hunter, boxing referee, gambler. Take your pick! A book written in the early twentieth century was a greater work of fiction than the Hardin tome. Unfortunately it became the reference work of the Earp legend during the twentieth century. As Wyatt Earp outlived all his contemporaries bar his wife he was able to determine how his legend would be told.

Where to begin?

Monmouth, Illonois, 18 March 1848 I guess. Wyatt was the fourth child of his father’s second marriage. His brothers were James, Morgan and Virgil and Warren. Newton was a half-brother from his father’s first marriage. Warren whose first name was Baxter was the youngest and most volatile of the brothers. Their sisters were, Martha, Virginia and Adelia. Around 1850 Earp senior decided to move his family to California. However illness struck Martha 150 miles west of Monmouth in Iowa and the family stayed put and bought a farm. Martha would die there six years later. Then came the Civil War. The Earp family would finally make it to California but a few years later Wyatt headed back to Missouri. Over the ensuing years he would move from town to town being charged with running a house of ill repute on more than one occasion! He worked for Wells Fargo, he ran a bar, gambled as he moved around.


In Wichita he finally joined the right side of the law. Helping to ensure peace but not always succeeding. A few years later and he has passed through a turbulent time in Dodge City and in 1880 moved to Tombstone. Along the way he had picked up another common law wife who much like the previous ones had a dubious past. OK, they were prostitutes! Tombstone saw him come into conflict with one Sheriff Johnny Behan. Wyatt Earp had stood for election against Behan but lost. In Tombstone Virgil Earp was the Deputy U.S Marshal. The legend would have you believe that Wyatt was the leader of the Earp clan. Not so. Virgil was the eldest brother and the man who gave the orders. Ike Clanton was a rustler of Mexican cattle and generally a rather nasty man who counted outlaws and other assorted riff-raff as his friends. His antics seemed to go on unmolested. The Earps felt he was being allowed to get away with his crimes. They started to put pressure on the Clanton gang who responded by issuing death threats against the Earps. Thus we come to 26 October 1881 in Tombstone. The most famous gunfight in the history of the west and most other places was about to take place. It is known in history as the ‘The Gunfight at the OK Corral.’ In reality it was the ‘Gunfight in Freemont Street.’ Neither side in the conflict entered the corral. The Clanton gang consisted of Ike and Billy Clanton plus Frank and Tom McLaury. A youngster named Billy Claiborne was also present. Virgil Earp had with him his brothers Morgan and Wyatt plus Doc Holliday.

The whole thing lasted less than thirty seconds. The Clantons would claim they were unarmed and had raised their hands in surrender. An explanation which does not quite explain the bullet holes in Doc Holiday’s duster coat. Or for that matter the wounds of Morgan and Virgil Earp. Virgil demanded the Clanton gang dropped their weapons and surrender to him. When the shooting stopped the McLaurys were both dead and Billy Clanton mortally wounded. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne ran away. Sheriff Behan tried to arrest the Earps but they refused to go with him. If Virgil and his brother thought that was the end of it they were to be fatefully disappointed.  An assassination attempt on Virgil did not succeed but rendered his left arm useless. A few months later Morgan Earp was shot dead while playing pool. A coroner’s court named Frank Stillwell and Pete Spence among the killers. Feeling that the law was not on their side and nothing was being done to bring the killers to justice Wyatt Earp and his remaining brothers set out on what became known as the ‘Vendetta Ride.’ Wyatt and his brother Warren with a few others escorted Virgil and his wife to Tucson station. Virgil was heading for the safety of California. The following morning Frank Stilwell was found dead in the Tucson rail yard. Local lawmen reckoned two and two make four and Wyatt Earp became a hunted man. Meanwhile Pete Spence and two other men surrendered to Sheriff Behan. Wyatt and his remaining brothers hunted down two other men who they believed had been part of the gang who attacked their brothers. Both men were shot and killed. Wyatt Earp, his remaining brothers and Doc Holliday headed for Colorado. The lawmakers in Arizona tried in vain to have them extradited from the Colorado. Holliday would die there a few years later through the effects of alcohol but mainly from TB which had wrecked his lungs.

Wyatt and his wife headed for California where he became involved in horse racing and other gambling schemes. His fame at that time was limited to Arizona and California. It was about to become nationwide. Wyatt had refereed boxing matches earlier in his life and for reasons not so clear he was asked to officiate at the Heavyweight Championship decider between Bob Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey on 2 December 1896 in San Francisco. This was not a bout that required the services of an inexperienced referee with little knowledge of the new rules of boxing. Wyatt Earp was way out of his league. Fitzsimmons was overwhelming favourite for the fight but in the eighth round Wyatt Earp stopped the fight and awarded it to Sharkey alleging that Fitzsimmons had hit his opponent with a foul punch. Cue pandemonium!  No one had seen the foul punch. Allegations flew left and right and finally ended up in court where the judge awarded the fight to Sharkey. This was on the grounds that the fight within the city limits was illegal and therefore beyond the jurisdiction of the court. What a neat get out!  Some ten years later the doctor who had confirmed the foul punch admitted it was all a set up. It transpired he was not even a doctor! Wyatt Earp never lived it down and he was accused of taking a bribe. Nationally he became more famous for the bout than the O.K Corral. Sharkey would be knocked out the next time he met Bob Fitzsimmons.


Hugh O’ Brian as Wyatt Earp

Wyatt stayed in California with his wife and lived until 1929. The last icon of the Wild West to die.  Wyatt Earp, hero or villain? Take your pick. One thing is certain; he is a legend.

Keep it short, keep it simple I once wrote! It is difficult with a subject so vast and complex as the history of the Wild West. I have only dealt with four people who feature in that history. But there are so many more I would need to write a very long book to record their exploits. However it is only fair to deal with certain other people who are deserving of a place in this history….

The ‘Ladies’

The Wild West is not just about cowboys. There are the ‘cowgirls!’ One or two of whom were not very nice.

Calamity Jane

Calamity Jane was made famous by a film of the same name made in 1953. It featured Doris Day in the title role. As the photographs show anyone looking so totally different to the real Calamity would be hard to find. Really she was famous for being famous and did very little of note other than hang around saloons being a general nuisance. Her parents had moved around through various states. Her mother died when Jane was quite young. When she was 14 she ended up in Utah with her father and five siblings. Within a year her father had died leaving her as the sole provider for the family. She headed up to Wyoming. From there very little is known about her life. That is not to say that a lot is known about her fictional life! She was a teller of tall tales and historians have failed to verify most of what she wrote in a pamphlet detailing her supposed life. That she was an acquaintance of Wild Bill Hickok is not disputed. What is disputed is the relationship. It seems certain that they were acquaintances rather than good friends. She spent most of her life in Deadwood working where she could. She did marry and there was certainly one child although a few years earlier she had returned to Deadwood with another child in tow claiming she was her daughter. Like many a western icon she was addicted to alcohol which precipitated her early death at 51. She was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok at the local cemetery in Deadwood. Some saw it as a bad joke inflicted by people who should have known better. Hickok’s friends claimed he would have been horrified!

Belle Starr 

Belle Starr whose real name was Myra Maybelle Shirley was a famous American outlaw. Historians have recently disputed her exploits as the work of fiction and some of them contest that she is more guilty by association than complicity in any criminal activity. She first married Jim Reed and after he died she married Sam Starr. Reed had ridden with Quantrill during the Civil War and was a known outlaw. Sam Starr was a Cherokee and together they lived in what was known as Indian Territory. Sam’s criminal friends included Frank and Jesse James who found refuge at the Starr residence while on the run. Sam and Belle were convicted of stealing horses and both spent nine months in a Detroit prison. Sam was killed in 1886 in a shootout with a lawman in which both died.  Belle then married someone called Jim July Starr a well-known horse thief and a relation of Sam Starr.

Belle Starr was implicated but never charged with various crimes and misdemeanours for the few short years she had left of her life. Two days before her 41stbirthday in February 1889 Belle was riding back home along a well-known trail and had stopped to water her horse. She was shot in the back and killed with her own shotgun. No one was ever charged although there were a number of suspects with reasons to want to kill her. One was her own son who she had horse-whipped a few weeks earlier for getting involved with stealing horses.

She was never an outlaw leader and never killed anyone. Her legend is blamed on the imagination of nineteenth century dime novelists.

Etta Place

Like many women of the Wild West, Etta Place’s life is shrouded in mystery and legend. Some say she was a schoolteacher who left her quiet life for the drama of the outlaw life? Or was she Butch Cassidy’s girlfriend? There is evidence that seems to indicate that Etta was born around 1878 and became a prostitute at Fanny Porter’s bordello in San Antonio, Texas. When the Wild Bunch came through, Place went with them to rob banks and live the outlaw life.. She wasn’t with the boys when they were killed in South America in 1909, and some believe she became a cattle rustler, but no one really knows for sure.

Annie Oakley

Not every famous Wild West heroine was an outlaw! Annie Oakley was a renowned markswoman and star who worked for years with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

Born Phoebe Ann Mosey on August 13, 1860, in Darke County, Ohio, the woman who would be known as Annie Oakley developed her superb marksmanship abilities as a teen, earning enough to pay off the mortgage for her mother’s home. She married fellow marksman Frank Butler in 1876 and would later become a star attraction for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show for years, renowned for unparalleled shooting tricks.  She wrote to President McKinley advocating that women should be trained in handling guns and be prepared for combat. She performed before royalty in Europe including Queen Victoria. A revered global figure, Oakley retired in 1913 and died in Ohio on November 3, 1926. Her broken-hearted husband died a few weeks later.

There were other ‘ladies’ in the western story most of whom had short lived careers as outlaws and nearly all of whom disappeared into obscurity.

To name but a few….

While outlaws and lawmen are the most famous feature of the Wild West history there were others who through their activities remain a major part of that history.

The wonderfully named Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving have a place in the history of the west. Before railroad transport became the norm cattle were driven hundreds of miles to their sale and distribution point be it Dodge City or other western towns north of Texas. Each rancher would take their unmarked cattle through country where rustlers, outlaws and hostile native Americans lurked ready to pounce. The two gentlemen created the Goodnight – Loving trail. Ranchers were encouraged to brand their cattle and join one big cattle drive. Each ranch providing a number of outriders to protect the drive. It was Charles Goodnight who invented the Chuck Wagon. Goodnight brought John Chisum, a famous New Mexico rancher who had created his own Chisum trail, into the partnership. When Loving died Goodnight and Chisum extended the trail beyond Colorado and onto Wyoming. There is much to write about Charles Goodnight but here is one story to end his biography. In 1926 his wife died. Goodnight himself fell ill. He was nursed back to health by a 26 year old cousin named Corinne Goodnight. She was young enough to be his great-granddaughter. On his 91stbirthday he married her! Thus she became Corinne Goodnight Goodnight!

How many black cowboys can you recall? One in the film Blazing Saddles, another in Lonesome Dove called Josh Deets? He was based on a real life character called Bose Ikard who was one of the cowboys who rode with Charles Goodnight. Historians reckon that one in four cowboys were African-American between 1860 and 1880. Yet they are barely represented in any history fact or fiction.  The 1860 census in Texas stated there were 180,000 slaves in the state. At the end of the Civil War they were free men. A lot of them had worked on the ranches while the white men were away fighting. They would now become hired hands.

Sadly discrimination was rife in the cattle drive towns. Black cowboys were refused entry to many bars and restaurants. Yet out on the trail each looked after the other regardless of colour.

The most famous black cowboy was Bass Reeves.He was born into slavery in 1838. His owner a certain George Reeves took Bass with him to fight in the Civil War. Somewhere along the way, and following an argument with his owner, Bass escaped. He moved to Indian Territory and lived among the Cherokee and other tribes. In 1865 when all slaves were freemen he headed to Arkansas where he married and took up farming. He farmed for ten years and was quite content with his lot. Then the recently appointed Federal Judge Isaac Parker was given responsibility for the Indian Territory in Arkansas. He had heard about Bass Reeves and was aware of his ability to speak the Native American languages. He invited him to become a Deputy U.S Marshal. Bass Reeves accepted. He would work in Arkansas and Texas for the next 32 years and during that time arrest over 3000 felons and shoot dead 14 outlaws. He was both respected and feared among the criminal community. In all that time he was never wounded or injured. He married twice and fathered 11 children. He retired in 1907. That was the same year that Oklahoma became a state. Historians among you will know that Oklahoma was formerly known as Indian Territory!? Given all that had gone before it is hard to believe that the new states laws prevented African Americans from becoming U.S Marshals!


Bass was asked to join the newly founded Police Department which he did for two years. Ill health forced a second retirement and in 1910 he died. Here was a lawman who just got on with his job.

One historian has suggested that Bass Reeves was the template for The Lone Ranger. Inspired partly no doubt because occasionally Bass would have a Native American accomplice. And of course in the 1950s land of TV in America having Tonto on TV was radical enough so to have a black hero as well. Dear me no!

So far we have dealt with people. But inventions played a great part opening up the Wild West………..

For instance the gun that won the best is usually named as the Colt 45 made by the company owned by Samuel Colt. Colt found it hard to become established with friends and family reluctant to back him. He made it eventually and his guns became synonymous with western culture. The key to the Colt 45 and all similar guns was their repeating ability. Allowing six bullets to be loaded in the barrel was a major step forward in the arms race. He had factories in New York and London. His factory was one of the first to use the assembly line technique for production. Along the way he became friends with someone whose name is also enshrined in American history, Samuel Morse.  The messaging service before the invention of morse code was the Pony Express. The development and improvement of the ‘Electric Telegraph’ and the efforts of Western Union to amalgamate the various companies meant that by 1861 the Pony Express was out of business. The telegraph was to play an important role during the Civil War. Morse became involved with Samuel Colt when the latter was manufacturing cables for use underwater. Morse saw this as a way of the Telegraph becoming international. And he was right!


While most historians accept that the Colt .45 was the ‘gun that won the West.’ There is competition from those who would suggest it was the Winchester repeating rifle. Notably, the Winchester ‘ 73.  (The name of a film starring James Stewart). The colt probably had more users but the Winchester certainly deserves its place in history. It was originally developed from the Henry rifle with limited success. A certain Mr Smith and Mr Wesson set up their own company to develop the rifle but decided that their future lay in the development of the revolver. Smith & Wesson is probably just as famous as Colt in the history of the revolver. Along comes Oliver Winchester to buy the ailing company. He renames the company the Winchester Repeating Rifle Company. He never looked back. The strange thing is that the US Cavalry never adopted it is a weapon. At the Battle of Little Bighorn the cavalry were using single shot rifles and the Sioux army had Winchesters! Who do you think won?


Another invention which opened up the ‘Wild West’ was the railroad. The first regular carrier of passengers and freight was the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, completed on February 28, 1827. Horses pulled the carriages along makeshift rails. It was not until Christmas Day, 1830, when the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company completed the first mechanical passenger train journey that the modern railroad industry was born in the USA.

A man named George Stephenson successfully applied the steam technology of the day and created the world’s first successful locomotive. The first engines used in the United States were purchased from the Stephenson Works in England. Even rails were largely imported from England until the Civil War. The big railway project was to join the east coast to the west coast with a continuous line. The Union Pacific Railway Company and the Union Pacific Railway Company won the contract to build the line. The Central Co. from West to East and the Union Co. from East to West. At the start of the project they were not sure where they would meet. It was a massive and expensive undertaking, and not surprisingly subject to corruption and embezzlement. 21000 Chinese labourers would be employed by the Central Pacific. Racial prejudice made the owners reluctant to use foreign labour at first but the lack of white workers willing to carry out the back-breaking made it inevitable. Irish workers made up the majority of the Union Pacific workers. Dr Thomas Clark Durant was the mastermind behind the building of the Union Pacific line. He was also a crook. He fiddled the books, put unnecessary curves into the railine. Why? Because they were paid for every mile of line! He arranged the finance through various companies which allowed him to siphon off hugh amounts for himself. Finally caught he was sacked by President Grant. Somehow despite a number of court cases Durant stayed out of prison and continued business elsewhere in the country. The two companies met at Promontory Point in Northern Utah on 10 May 1869. A symbolic golden spike joined the two lines. Thus was born the first transcontinental railway ever built in the United States. Estimates vary but at least 1200 people died during the building of the railway. It made travel across country cheaper and easier. Other lines would be built criss-crossing the states. They would hold sway until airliners started to become the norm for travelling across the USA.

In 1874 one simple invention changed the way cattlemen and farmers would mark the boundaries of their land… barbed wire!

At the Illonois De Kalb County Fair of 1873, three men saw a piece of wood with bits of wire sticking out of it that Henry M. Rose had made to control a “breachy” cow (a cow that tries to escape): lumberman Jacob Haish; hardware merchant Isaac Leonard Ellwood; and farmer Joseph Farwell Glidden, a man worried about raising his crops without the security of good, strong fencing. Ellwood remembered the day in A History of De Kalb County, Illinois, notingthat “all three of us stood looking at this invention of Mr. Rose’s and I think that each one of us at that hour conceived the idea that barbs could be placed on the wire in some way instead of being driven into the strip of wood.” With Glidden’s wire stretcher and barbed wire design, which he patented in November 1874, farming on the prairie would soon change dramatically. Glidden and Ellwood became partners in The Barb Fence Company, and Haish became their first competitor with his own barbed-wire design. Their products were met with enthusiasm in the marketplace, and the barbed-wire industry grew rapidly.’– Technology and the making of the West

Needless to say the barbed wire only increased the hostility between sheep farmers and cattle ranchers!

Native Americans

When I was a child back in the fifties we played ‘Cowboys and Indians.’ The Indians were of course the baddies. Media portrayal in the cinema enforced that view. Only Tonto on TV was a good guy. During the fifties western films gave a stereotypical few of ‘Indians.’ The only exception being a film called ‘Broken Arrow’ which gave a sympathetic view of Native Americans for the first time. It would be some time before another film of a similar view came along.

Native Americans have lived in what is now the USA for thousands of years. Over time they have spread to various parts of the vast country and split into hundreds of tribal formations. Horses which once roamed the continent were killed for meat. It would take a European invasion to restore the horse as a natural animal for riding, not eating. That invasion started in 1492 with the arrival of Christopher Columbus and his crew. Columbus actually arrived in what is now the Bahamas and moved on to what is now Haiti. It would be Spanish explorers who would arrive on the mainland in Southern Florida. Others followed heading eastwards. In 1606 Walter Raleigh and others landed on the Eastern Seaboard and founded the Colony of Virginia. Then in 1620 the Mayflower landed in what would become Plymouth Massachusetts. While there would be violent confrontations between Native Americans and the settlers this would not be the main cause of death for the indigenous population. Smallpox would wipe out whole villages of people. Measles and other European diseases proved fatal for many Native Americans.  With the British, Dutch, French and Spanish vying for control of this new uncharted control it was inevitable that Native Americans would be fighting on a number of fronts. Not least among themselves. Some of the leaders thought peaceful solutions a better option than fighting and losing. They were in the minority and it became a running battle between Native Americans and the white man until around the end of the nineteenth century.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was made to sound as though it was beneficial to the Native Americans. President Jackson said all the right things but they were undoubtedly insincere. His main objective was to move the Native Americans away from their homelands and to move them from prime land to the wilderness out in the west. Cherokee, Choctaw and Seminole tribes were among the many forcibly removed. They were required to march hundreds upon hundreds of miles in the depths of winter. In some cases they were given five minutes notice and were unable to take any of their possessions with them. Thousands died on the marches which took place over a number of years. It became known as the ‘Trail of Tears.’

It was a disgrace and despite Jackson trying to pretend otherwise it was not in the interest of the Native American. Around 500 Seminoles managed to stay in Florida and their descendants remain there to this day. The whole thrust of Federal and State legislation was to move the Native Americans away from prime land and into prairie ghettoes known as reservations.

There are so many stories about poor treatment of the Native Americans across the centuries. One website lists 400! And that is the ones they know about? Suffice it for me to remember another two in this part of the blog. The Red Cloud war took place in the area of Fort Laramie in Wyoming and across Montana. There were many casualties on both sides. I should mention here that no one disputes the savagery of the Native American in battle. But it was a savagery they displayed when fighting other tribes and not just the white man. What gets lost in this depiction is the fact that the Native American was very good at fighting a running battle.

After the Red Cloud war the Sioux were granted the Black Hills as their land in perpetuity. Then in the early 1870s gold was discovered. President Grant made a big mistake in sending General Custer to investigate if the rumours were true. Grant and Custer had never seen eye to eye and Custer knew how to hold a grudge. He discovered that there was indeed gold in the Black Hills. He wrote to President Grant. Unfortunately for the President Custer had taken a Chicago newsman with him! The story of the gold spread far and wide. Miners poured into the Black Hills and clashed with the Sioux on several occasions. Negotiations started asking the Sioux to leave the Black Hills and return to the reservation at Pine Ridge.  They refused.

By June 1876 an army led by General Terry was marching on the Black Hills. At first Custer was not invited by Grant to be part of the expedition. Persuasion from his senior officer friends made Grant allow Custer to join the expedition.

George Armstrong Custer finished last in his class at West Point. Fortunately for him he graduated just as the Civil War was starting and was posted to the field of battle as a junior officer. Without the Civil War he would have found himself at a remote fort with very little to do. His conduct record at West Point was one of the worst recorded. That he was courageous is not disputed. He made a name for himself in the Civil War and was quickly promoted to senior rank. What he lacked was humility. He saw the Native Americans as a bunch of savages who had no idea how to fight. His tactics at Little Big Horn would mean he and his men fought their last battle. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were masters of their art. And as was mentioned previously they had repeating rifles whereas Custer’s men had single shot. Who did what and why is an argument that continues today. The discussion is always about Custer never the fact that he was beaten by a better group of warriors! The memorial on the site was known for over 100 years as the ‘Custer Battlefield Monument.’ In the 1990s it was finally changed to ‘Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument.’ Despite the fact the disputed land was in Dakota the battle actually took place in Montana.

The repercussions were hard and fast. Within a year the once proud Sioux nation were brought to their knees. Thousands of troops poured into South Dakota. Crazy Horse surrendered. While being held prisoner he was provoked into retaliation and murdered in 1877.

Sitting Bull meanwhile had moved his men to Canada and safety. In the end he gave into reality and came back to the reservation. But he to was arrested on a trumped up charge. One of his supporters fired a shot and Indian Police immediately shot Sitting Bull. Another contrived murder. That was 15 December 1890.

Sitting Bull


More grief was to follow at Wounded Knee two weeks later. Between 150 and 300 Sioux were encamped by the river not causing any problems.  They had been taken there by the 7thCavalry the previous day. The officer in charge was Colonel James Forsyth. He had orders to disarm the Sioux. An altercation ensued with one person and a shot was fired. The 7thCavalry who had four rapid firing Hotchkiss guns with them opened fire on the unarmed Native Americans. Those who fled were chased down and dead bodies were found two miles from the site. One body was a baby in his mother arms who had been shot five times in the back. Over 150 men, women and children were murdered at Wounded Knee. Some historians say the figure is more close to 300.  It was little consolation to the surviving Sioux that 25 members of the 7thCavalry had been shot by their own side. General Nelson Miles Forsyth’s commanding officer was appalled and immediately suspended the Colonel from duty. A court of enquiry exonerated Forsyth and he was supported by the Secretary of War. Forsyth was reinstated to his command.  Just to make sure there would be no further calls for investigation the Washington government declared Wounded Knee a battle and awarded 20 Medals of Honour. These cited them for showing courage during the battle! They were a bunch of murderers!


There have been many reparations to the Native Americans over the years but Wounded Knee is still classified as a battle. Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Jeff Merkley have presented a bill to the Senate asking for the 20 medals to be rescinded. Appropriately enough the bill is called ‘Remove the Stain.’ At present it is under consideration by the Armed Forces Senate Committee. I wish the bill Godspeed.

The Media View

The first western film appeared in the early twentieth century as a silent movie. Just so you know the goodies wore white hats and the baddies black hats. The goodies had weapons that did not require reloading and fired endless numbers of bullets. The baddies had somehow forgotten to fully load their guns and soon ran out of ammunition. A hundred years or so further on and I think the critics view of these early movies is, ‘What a load of old rubbish.’ Sadly it would be another fifty years or so before any real improvement. All westerns were what I call ‘clean westerns.’ Every actor looked as though they had just stepped out of makeup. Perfectly combed hair well, pressed clothes and shiny clean shaven faces. (I am tempted to and that was just the…. But I better not!) The West did not have any domestic running water, wooden buildings, hard beds and very little quality food. It was a very, very hard life. One of my favourite ‘clean’ westerns is ‘The Searchers.’ John Wayne rides for days through a dusty Monument valley. He returns to his relatives ranch looking like he just stepped out of the shower! Still it is a good story. During the film Wayne uses the phrase ‘That’ll be the day ‘ if another character says something he disagrees with. Down in Lubbock Texas two teenagers called Jerry Allison and Buddy Holly watched the film. Back home Buddy is alleged to have said to Jerry, ‘We need to write a hit song.’ Came the reply, ‘That’ll be the day!’ And the rest as they say is rock and roll!

The film is based on the kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker( see photo below) by Comanches in 1936. Unlike the film heroine Cynthia lived with the Comanches for 24 years. During this time she married and had three children. One son, Quanah Parker, would eventually become the leader of his tribe. Cynthia and one daughter were eventually rescued by Texas Rangers. Among the Rangers was our old friend Charlie Goodnight! She was not grateful for being rescued and tried to return to her tribe on a number of occasions. She became a very embittered and lonely person and in the end starved herself to death in 1870. Photo below.


There have been a few TV series over the years such as Bonanza, High Chaparral, Rawhide, Wagon Train and one or two others. All very predictable and bearing no relation to history! And of course, the Lone Ranger. Tonto was played by Jay Silverheels who some years earlier had played Geronimo in the ‘Broken Arrow.’ Then there are what I call the fun westerns, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Magnificent Seven and Rio Bravo. All totally at odds with what the old west was really like. The spaghetti Westerns of Clint Eastwood come under my heading of fantasies! I did like Pale Rider. A contender for best western is the ‘Unforgiven.’ By a long country mile Clint Eastwood’s best film. Around the same time came Kevin Costner in ‘Dances With Wolves.’ It is one of the few films to treat Native Americans as equal partners in the plot. ’Little Big Man’ being another. But there are so many westerns. You will have your own favourites I am sure.


‘That’ll be the day…’

Alan Le May who wrote the screenplay for ‘The Searchers’ also wrote the novel. He along with Louis L’Amour and Luke Short were part of my reading list for many of my younger years. There are many other writers of the genre. One I came across a few years ago was Larry McMurty who wrote the Lonesome Dove series which also became an excellent TV series starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall. However if you just choose one book to read about the Wild West in real terms then it must be ‘A Distant Trumpet’ by Paul Horgan. An outstanding read but a dreadful film. It starred Troy Donahue and the plot of the film bears little resemblance to the book. Donahue confirms his reputation as one of the worst actors ever to appear on film!

My apologies for the length of this blog. And yet I feel I have hardly scratched the surface as the history of the west is teeming with characters and tales of discovery, bravery, cowardice, battles, massacres and sheer survival.

I promise my next blog will be shorter!

The internet as ever has been a source of much information. However here is a list of books and films that may be worth a look if I have piqued your interest?

A Distant Trumpet  – Paul Horgan – NonpareilBooks, Boston
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee– Dee Brown –  Vintage Books, London
The Wild West,  History, Myth and the making of America – Frederick Nolan –  Arcturus Publishing Ltd, London
The Great American West– Readers Digest – New York
The Wild West a three book series– Salamander Books, London


Broken Arrow(1950) – A film directed by Delmer Davies
The Searchers(1956) – A film directed by John Ford
Rio Bravo(1959) – A film directed by Howard Hawks
Ride the High Country(1962) A film directed by Sam Peckinpah
Once Upon a Time in the West  (1969)  A film directed by Sergio Leone
Dances With Wolves(1990) A film directed by Kevin Costner
Unforgiven (1992) A film directed by Clint Eastwood

.and coming a little more up to date..

True Grit(2010) A film directed by the Coen Brothers
The Hateful Eight(2015) A film directed by Quentin Tarantino
Hostiles (2018) A film directed by Scott Cooper

And finally I feel it fitting to end with the words of Chief Red Cloud of the Oglala Sioux spoken towards the end of his life in 1909:

“The white man made us many promises, more than I can remember. But he kept but one. He promised to take our land…and he did.” 

News of a more recent event…… It was found that the Covid virus was infecting a high proportion of people in the North-East of Arizona. The inhabitants were advised to make sure they washed their hands on a regular basis in running hot water. The people involved were members of the Navajo Nation which is part of North- Eastern Arizona. A spokesman replied that washing hands in such a way was not always possible as 30% of homes in the Navajo Nation did not have running water! Over the last 150 years  Native Americans have found themselves underfunded, neglected and forgotten. Nothing changes. Chief Red Cloud would have understood.




A look at the short-story and some of its best exponents across the literary landscape

I recall an English teacher once asking the class to write a short-story on any subject they chose. His only instruction was, ‘Keep it short, keep it simple!’ And that is really the art of the short-story. It goes without saying that to write an outstanding short-story and still adhere to those rules requires a special kind of talent. Short story writing in the latter part of the 19thcentury and the first half of the 20thcentury was a task undertaken by most writers of the time. I cannot include them all but will use one or two to illustrate my point. In recent times the only place you will find short-stories on a regular basis are in Sunday Supplements or women’s magazines. Or as they are now known, ‘gender specific publications!’ (Dear Lord and Father of mankind forgive our foolish ways!)

Story telling in its oral form goes back into the mists of history. For one thing it was a device to sooth frightened children or to help them get to sleep. Although when I was a small child trying to get to sleep I remember my Dad’s voice reciting, ‘One dark and stormy night three robbers sat in a cave. The eldest said to the youngest, ‘Tell us a tale…’ Nightmares!  Gradually the short- story became a written art and by the nineteenth century had a number of authors purveying their talents. The father of the short-story is generally regarded as the American Edgar Allan Poe.(Photo below) Believed to be the first writer to live on the income from his work his poem ‘The Raven’ established him on the literary scene. Two of his short-stories ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ and ‘ The Fall of the House of Usher’ are generally recognised as helping the short-story become an accepted literary genre. He is also credited with writing the first detective story, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue.’ It would be 47 years before Sherlock Holmes appeared on the scene.

 Poe died in 1849 at the age of 40. His rather disjointed and peripatetic lifestyle had not helped his health problems. The cause of death is worthy of a short-story. Take your pick it seems. Cholera, consumption, rabies, heart disease, meningitis, etc, etc!!!


Whatever his health problems Edgar Allan Poe (He was just plain Edgar Poe, but both his parents died young and he was taken in care by a John Allan.) had set the standard bar high for future short-story writers. Mark Twain’s place in American literary history, indeed world history is based on ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and his chum Huckleberry Finn. However Twain was a prolific short-story writer and produced around sixty of them. My favourite short-story title is from the Twain oeuvre. ‘ The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.’ More fable than story like most of his stories humour plays a big part. Twain’s most famous quote is, ‘Reports of my death have been exaggerated.’ Not to mention, ‘Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority it is time to pause and reflect.’ The sixty odd stories are still in print but are not particularly famous outside the USA. They are good, but not great. Mark Twain took his name from the cry of the Mississippi riverboat men as they tested the water depth. ‘By the mark, twain!’ I think I would have stuck with Samuel Langhorne Clemens which is a great name.

Sam Clemens not withstanding the most famous author of the 19thcentury is surely Charles Dickens. (Jane Austen’s fame did not really blossom into full-blown adoration until the 20thcentury). Dickens most famous short-story is ‘The Signal-Man.’ The protagonist of the story being invested with supernatural vision it is a horror story that Stephen King would be proud of. Dickens did like a ghost story and included them in his short-story collections. Despite rumours to the contrary Dickens and Twain never met. Twain did attend a reading given by Dickens in New York on one of his American tours.

Another American short-story writer still remembered is William Sydney Porter who went by the pen-name of O. Henry. This author had a rather colourful life. His first wife died quite young, his second left him and somewhere along the way he was sentenced to five years imprisonment for embezzling money from the bank in which he worked! None of this deterred him from achieving fame on the New York literary scene of the early 20thcentury. His most famous creation was the Cisco Kid. Most of his short-stories dealt with the ordinary people of New York City. ‘The Gift of the Magi’ probably being his best story. In this a destitute husband and wife want to buy each other a Christmas present. The lady sells her hair and the gentleman sells his fob watch. With the money they receive the lady buys a new chain for the fob watch and the gentleman buys special combs for the lady’s hair. Read on!


Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay in 1865. (Photo above) A child of the Raj he spent his early years in India before he and his sister were sent to school in England. The married couple in Southsea who looked after them were cruel and nasty people. Only holidays with an Aunt in London saved his childhood from total disaster.  Early journalism back in India pushed him towards a writing career. He was a novelist, a poet and a writer of short-stories. Later in life he would write the radio script for the first Christmas message by a reigning monarch. This was George V in 1932. The Jungle Book is regarded as a masterpiece of children’s writing. There was also The Jungle Book Stories, a collection of short stories for children. He would write many short stories in his lifetime, perhaps the most famous being ‘The Man Who Would be King.’ In 1907 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature the youngest recipient then and now. A hundred years ago Kipling was one of the literary worlds favourite writers. As the twentieth century moved on long-forgotten critics started to claim he was an imperialist, a racist, his stories were rubbish and so on and so forth. Strangely enough in India the criticism was not always against him. What the moronic critics could not get their small brains around was the fact that Kipling was a child of his time! 99.9 % of the Western World were racist in the latter half of the nineteenth century and beyond. The term was not even used. It was just their way of life. People really do need to stop judging the past by the politically-correct, risk-averse nonsense that passes for criticism in 2019! People will be reading Kipling for some time yet.

Another author who used the Asian continent for some of his most famous stories was one William Somerset Maugham. As the career of Kipling came to its end Maugham’s star was burning bright. His first novel in 1908 had been a best-seller and his plays matched any other playwright in turns of production on the West–end stage. In the 1930’s he was believed to be the country’s highest paid author. He is often criticised for his ‘plain prose’ but his plots and character descriptions are a joy to read. I think I had read most of his stories before I was 20 years old. Having gone to school in the Far East his stories set there held a certain resonance for me. He wrote most of his short-stories between 1920 and 1945. His Ashenden stories set in the world of intelligence provided Ian Fleming with the idea of creating his very own secret agent! His most famous story is ‘Rain’ set in Hong Kong and describes the collision of culture between a prostitute, ‘Sadie Thompson’ and a missionary. My own favourite is probably the ‘Book-Bag. ‘ It involves the taboo subject of incest and unrequited love on behalf of the lovelorn District Officer. The Bag in question is a laundry bag full of books which the narrator carries with him everywhere he goes. He is addicted to books and does not wish to run out of reading material. I quite like him!

Hector Hugh Munro was born in Burma in 1870. His father was a member of the Imperial Indian Police Force. Following the death of his mother he and his siblings returned to England and lived a morbid childhood with two maiden aunts. Hector became a journalist and this eventually led to his career as a writer, publishing novels, but mainly short-stories of which there were many. Writing under the pen-name ‘SAKI’ he is known for his satirical edge particular when describing politicians in his stories. He wrote 138 stories in all and his most famous collection is probably ‘Beasts and Super Beasts.’ ‘The Open Window’ remains at the top of most peoples lists as his most famous story. The First World War would bring it all to an end. He lied about his age to join up (He was 44 and did not have to go) He declined a commission and served as a trooper. He was in a shell-crater at Beaumont Hamel when he was shot in the head by a German sniper. Compared to O.Henry by many critics he remains one of the outstanding short-story writers of the twentieth century.

Following on the success of Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain came two American authors whose fame was probably even greater. F. Scott Fitzgerald (Photo below) was born in 1896. Brought up mainly in Buffalo New York although he was born in St Paul Minnesota. His family were not well off but rich enough to provide him with a good education although he dropped out of Princeton and joined the Army in 1917 but never finished training in time to take part in any action. His drinking and writing started around 1920 when his first novel ‘This Side of Paradise ‘ was published. The profits from the first year were good but Fitzgerald turned reluctantly to writing short-stories to supplement his income. He published four collections and had 164 stories published in various periodicals. His most famous story is probably ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.’ Renowned as a writer of ‘The Jazz Age’ in the twenties he met up with Ernest Hemingway while living in Paris. However Fitzgerald’s fame rested on two novels, ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Tender is the Night.’ The latter being the better book in my humble opinion. His short-stories were written to maintain his income and are good but ‘Benjamin Button’ apart nothing great.


 Hemingway on the other hand was a different kind of writer all together. Short-stories were invented for him! A writer who never used two words where one would do is sometimes claimed to be responsible for the most famous short short-story. “For sale, baby shoes. Never worn.” Much debate that in a slightly different form the words used pre-date Hemingway. Whoever wrote it the words are sad but brilliant.

Hemingway produced a number of great novels in his lifetime but in between his masterpieces he would publish collections of short-stories. ‘The First 49’ is probably his most famous collection and contains his best short-story. ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro.’ A story about a man on safari with his friend Helen towards whom he has a somewhat ambivalent attitude. The man has contracted gangrene but the party has run out of medicine and their truck has broken down. The story centres around Harry, the man in question, as he reminisces about his past life.

Hemingway published over a hundred short-stories in collections and single stories for magazines. A number of his collections were published posthumously. In 1952 he published what would be his final novel, ‘The Old Man and the Sea.’ In 1954 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Ernest Hemingway was born on 21 July 1899. On 2 July 1961 at his home in Ketchum Idaho he rose early. He sat in a chair in the doorway leading to the verandah facing the rising sun. He put the two barrels of his Bess rifle into his mouth and pulled both triggers. A sad and tragic end to a great career. His family tried to pass it off as a shooting accident. The post-mortem put paid to that suggestion. The Hemingways were a indeed a tragic family. His father, brother and sister committed suicide. Almost thirty-five years to the day of his suicide Hemingway’s grand-daughter Margaux committed suicide. How tragic can a family get? It is an awful legacy to hold. What we have to hold is the writing of Hemingway regarded by many as the greatest writer in American literary history.

Raymond Carver was born in Oregon in 1938. He wrote only short-stories or poems. A restless spirit he moved from place to place in the USA and occasionally travelled to England. He was an admirer of Hemingway but claimed not to be influenced by him. The brevity and anger in some of his stories tended to prove otherwise. He cited Lawrence Durrell as an influence which came as a surprise to me! Durrell’s style and content is far removed from that of Raymond Carver. However Raymond Carver invested a lot of his stories with humour and grit. Not for him the high wealth of the very rich but those down on their luck and short of a dime. His most famous stories are  ‘Will You Please be Quiet Please?’ And ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.’ Raymond Carver brought to the American short-story the world of the ordinary made extra-ordinary by the way he wrote. He is well remembered in American literary circles. Sadly the author was a heavy drinker until he was forty when a doctor warned him that he would be dead within months if he continued. He stopped drinking but carried on smoking and in 1988 aged just fifty he died of lung cancer.

As you can imagine some of the stories mentioned in this blog have had to be revisited and the authors researched. It is a labour of love I will admit. I read a lot of Ray Bradbury in my younger days. (Where did the time go!?) However I never knew that much about him. Reading up on his life story has made me elevate him to the status as one of the great writers of American Literature. I love this quote:

 ‘Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.’



Ray Bradbury was born in Illinois in 1920. The family moved to Tucson Arizona before finally settling in Los Angeles. As a young child one of his aunts read short stories to him on a regular basis. He was 14 when the family arrived in L.A and he thought he had arrived in paradise. (aka: Hollywood!)  He soon made the right contacts and while still fourteen earned his first fee as a writer by selling a joke to George Burns for use on the Burns and Allen Radio Show.’ The young Bradbury made his way around Hollywood on roller-skates. He would head for the entrances of all the major studios in the hope of getting autographs from his heroes and heroines.

This quote from Google is worth reading: Ray Bradbury was an American fantasy and horror author who rejected being categorized as a science fiction author, claiming that his work was based on the fantastical and unreal. His best known novel is Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian study of future American society in which critical thought is outlawed.

‘Critical thought is outlawed?’ The way political correctness is going in this country we may not be too far away from that dystopian future? Meanwhile back at ‘Fahrenheit 451. ‘ For those who do not know, that is the temperature at which paper spontaneously combusts.  It is a brilliant story and much to everyone’s surprise the film mostly kept faith with the book. The book was written in a library study room where there were typewriters for rent. The rental costs were $9:80c! However that book and film were from the fifties. Bradbury published his first collection of short-stories, ‘Dark Carnival’ in 1947. Before that he had attended many various informal and formal gatherings of science-fiction writers in and around L.A. Following ‘the publication of ‘ Fahrenheit 451’ his fame became world -wide and he became richer by the day! ‘The Martian Chronicles’ soon followed. Ray Bradbury had a vivid imagination that was far- reaching and capable of producing an extraordinary vision of the future. Early in his career he proclaimed that he would write everyday and proceeded to do so for the next sixty-nine years! He produced writing for film and TV, over thirty novels and more than six hundred short- stories. It is difficult to name his best short-story. The one that is usually at the top of most lists is ‘I Sing the Body Electric.’ His short-stories were published in various journals and newspapers. Then the best ones would be assembled in a collection. ‘The Illustrated Man’ is one such collection featuring the title story and eighteen other excellent stories. ‘The Illustrated Man’ was made into a feature film starring Rod Steiger. Made back in 1969, a mere fifty years ago!

Sadly on 5 June 2012 Ray Bradbury died in his beloved Los Angeles at the age of 92. He left a remarkable legacy.

Stephen King! Say those two words and ‘The Shining, ‘Carrie,’ ‘ Misery, ’et al come to mind. He has sold over 350 million books! However he has also produced around 150 short-stories. His last collection, ‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams,’ was published in 2015. Nearly all of his stories are written in his usual horror genre. I have not read all his stories as I am not a fan of the genre. My favourite King story is ‘The Shawshank Redemption.’ More thriller than anything else it is a brilliant story. One short-story I have read is, ‘The Breathing Method.’ It concerns a doctor who has instructed a pregnant patient on a breathing method to adopt when the baby arrives. On his way home he comes across a road traffic accident involving his patient. To his horror he finds that his patient has been decapitated. But not only that, her head is still controlling her body! Read on……. (Do not read this story on your own in an isolated creaking cottage where there has been a power failure and the only light is by candles!). Stephen King has always been interested in the mechanics of writing and it is to his credit that he carries the banner for short-story writing in the 21stcentury.

There are so many writers I could have mentioned at length. D. H Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy, H.E.Bates, E.M. Forster, Joseph Conrad, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce; the list is endless!

But this is already a long piece of writing about Short– Stories! So it is time to give you my top three greatest writers of the short-story in my humble opinion.


In third place I would put Anton Chekhov. More famous for his plays, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, the Cherry Orchard and The Seagull. All are regularly staged around the world in this century. Chekhov was born in Russia in 1860. He qualified as a doctor but it was never a rewarding profession as Dr Chekhov tended to treat the poor people in his care free of charge. He started writing while at university and in his early twenties started making connections that would advance his literary career. Also in his twenties he developed early signs of tuberculosis but managed to treat himself and hold it at bay. He is seen as a landmark playwright in that his characters spoke as normal people. Not for him the usual type of speech in other plays of the day with archaic language and long boring declamations. He brought changes to the writing of short-stories which would influence the writing style of future writers. He would lay the characters before the reader and provide their conversations but there was rarely a defining plot with a beginning, a middle and an end. More a start and a finish and the reader could work it all out! He wrote over two hundred stories all to a very high standard. Raymond Carver thought of him as the greatest writer of short-stories. Most lists of his stories would place ‘The Party’ and ‘The Lady with the Dog’ at the top. However choose any Chekhov story to read and you will be impressed. He married a lady called Olga in 1901. A strange arrangement in that she continued her acting career in Moscow and he his writing career in Yalta. In June 1904 they both travelled to a spa in Germany for rest and recuperation. His tuberculosis was now a serious issue. A month later he died at the age of 44. A great loss to the world of literature. In Russia he is placed second behind Leo Tolstoy on their list of great Russian writers. Chekhov had met Tolstoy when the great man came to stay with him on one occasion.


In second place I would put a French author by the name of Guy de Maupassant. Named by many as the father of the modern short-story his three hundred plus short-stories inspired Somerset Maugham and O. Henry among many other writers of the twentieth century. He was born near Dieppe in 1850. By the time he had entered his teenage years his mother had obtained a separation from his father. A brave lady in a male dominated society! She would be the great influence on his life and provided guidance and advice to her son. His working life began in the Civil Service and he did not publish his first story until he was thirty. It proved to be his masterpiece. French is an elegant language and if I tell you the story was called ‘Boule de Suif’ it just rolls off the tongue? Then we translate it to English and it becomes  ‘Ball of Suet!’ Not quite rolling off the tongue! It is a brilliant story of the class system that operated in France during the Franco-Prussian war.  The title of the story is the name given to a prostitute who travels in a coach with people who see themselves as above talking to her. Until they have to! The published story was an immediate success and the author started to publish collections on an almost annual basis. Within twelve years he had written over three hundred stories. Yet at the age of just 42 he died from syphilis first contracted in his twenties. His last months of life were full of pain and madness and he died in Paris in 1893. Despite his short career his stories placed him in the pantheon of great writers and like Chekhov it would be hard to find a poorly written story.

And so to first place. In the non-English speaking world it is likely that Chekhov or de Maupassant would be in first place. In America every writer on the ‘greatest’ list would be American. But here in England on my list I give you Katherine Mansfield.

Katherine was born in Wellington New Zealand in 1888. A daughter of a well-off family she and her sisters attended school in London from 1903 until 1906 when she returned to New Zealand. Finding life there rather mundane she returned to London in 1908 where she found life more exciting. She had started writing while at school and had various articles published. Her tangled love life and fragile health provided an impetus to keep writing. She married a George Bowden and promptly left him within twenty-four hours!  It would take her nine years to obtain a divorce and marry John Murry with whom she had an on off, maybe, maybe not relationship! All in addition to tempestuous affairs with her female and male lovers.  Into this mix were added friendships with D H Lawrence and his wife not to mention Virginia and Leonard Woolf! Her first published collection was in 1911. ‘In a German Pension’ provided the reader with stories that reflected the time she had spent in Germany. In later years Katherine would describe this collection as ‘immature.’ Some critics accused her of plagiarizing Chekhov which was a little unfair. She may have copied his modernist style but the ideas for the stories were all her own.  Chekhov was indeed her inspiration but as she published individual stories in various magazines critics came to realise that here was a writer worth noting. She now travelled regularly between London and Paris usually to avoid the English winter. But tuberculosis is a pernicious and unrelenting disease. Various doctors did their best but their treatments proved futile. By the time her second collection ‘Bliss’ was published in 1920 the author must have known her life was coming to a premature end. The collection was well received and Katherine continued to write. Her collection ‘The Garden Party’ was published in 1922 to great acclaim. She moved to Fontainebleau near Paris in late 1922. On 9 January 1923 she died at the age of 34. Such a sad waste of a life. Along with de Maupassant and Chekhov they could have given us another hundred years of writing? What stories have we lost?  ‘The Garden Party’ is a masterpiece of writing. It deals with the class system and is beautifully observed. A marquee is being erected for the party when a young workman is killed by an accident with a falling pole. The dilemma for the family is do they cancel the party in memory of the young man? Or as he is not one of the family do they continue? Read on! Another of her stories about the class system is the ‘Life of Ma Parker.’ I had to write an analysis of this story as part of my O.U degree course. I must have another look at it some time! After her death John Murry published posthumous collections of his wife’s stories. He did much to make sure her name was enshrined in the history of short-story writing and I certainly did not need convincing!

                         Katherine Mansfield by day and by night

Much revered in New Zealand a statue of Katherine was finally erected in Wellington ninety years after her death. Much debate in New Zealand about whether she would ever have returned to the country of her birth. It is of little consequence to the reader as her work is available wherever you live. (Well maybe not North Korea!)

All that you have read is my subjective opinion and other people would probably compile a completely different list. If you have not been inclined to read short-stories before I hope this blog persuades you to try one or two. Most them can be found in charity bookshops and some websites publish them for free!

Recommended Reading List:

Katherine Mansfield – Selected Stories– OXFORD WORLD CLASSICS

Guy de Maupassant –   Bed 29 and other stories– available on Amazon

Anton Chekhov –  The Steppe and other stories –   Penguin Classics

Somerset Maugham – Collected Short Stories Vols 1 -4– Penguin Books

The Stories of Raymond Carver  –   Picador Books

Stephen King   –   Everything’s Eventual  – New English Library

Ernest Hemingway – The First Forty – Nine Stories  –  Arrow Classics

…and I could not let my recommended list be published without a mention of….

The Perfect Dinner Party and other Word Gatheringsby Rod Pickles!

Still available on Amazon Kindle!

Happy Reading!







Please do not read this if you are of a sensitive disposition.


News recently that a moron had complained to a radio station in the USA. Just one moron, mind. They did not think the radio station should be playing ‘Baby Its Cold Outside’ at Christmas. The metoo, youtoo, whotoo and all the other bandwagon chasers were soon on the case accusing this song of bringing civilization as we know it crashing to the ground. A couple of other spineless radio stations stopped playing it despite the majority of listeners opposing the decision. In the meantime Frank Loesser’s Academy Award winning song moved into the Billboard Top Ten for digital downloads in the week of 22 December!!! Just before Christmas on different days I was in a Garden Centre and ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside ‘ was playing over the speakers, ditto a few days later in Sainsburys. But of course the snowflakes were falling over themselves to find something else to moan about. This time they declared that ‘Fairytale of New York’ by the Pogues should be banned for evermore because of its naughty lyrics. As in the use of the word ‘Faggott!’ Now I could not name you another Pogues song and I think the particular song in question is a load of old rubbish. However I am aware that it is an iconic song of the eighties and should be left alone to air as and when a DJ feels like it.

So what other songs face the icy hands of the sensitive snowflakes around their lyrics. Try these for size:

First up we have Gary Puckett and the Union Gap with …… ‘Young Girl!

Well Gary how to defend this song? ‘That come on look is in your eyes!’ What were you thinking?  If the snowflakes hear this one they will melt!

Then we have the orgy song, AKA ‘Seven Little Girls (Sitting in the back seat kissing and a hugging with Fred!’)  Fred? Was that the best they could come up with? Fred! And then there is the message to the driver. Keep you mind on your driving, Keep you hands on the wheel, Keep your snoopy eyes on the road ahead. In reality the driver would have pulled into the nearest lay-by and joined Fred on the back seat!

A message here for the melting snowflakes. It is only a song, it did not really happen?

Then there is the Stalking Song by Glen Campbell. How did this one escape the recording studio?

Turnaround look at me!!!’ Here is the first verse:

‘There is someone walking behind you

Turn around, look at me

There is someone watching your footsteps

Turn around, look at me.’

Good grief! It is just as well dear old Glen is singing his songs in heaven, or somewhere?

Then of course there is the grooming song from Neil ‘Smiler’ Sedaka! ‘Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen.’ ‘You’ve grown up before my very eyes. I bet she has you little devil!

If I could only recommend one song for the Snowflakes it would be….. ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls’ by that French charmer and lover of little girls who get bigger every day, Maurice Chevalier. Dear me that one would be incinerated if the Snowflakes were capable of striking a match? For those of us of a less sensitive nature it is of course an innocent song from ‘Gigi.’

A close contender for first place on the list comes from South Pacific. That show stopping number ‘There aint Nothing Like a Dame’ is bound to come in for complaint sooner or later. Even money the next Broadway production of the musical leaves the song out?

There are so many songs capable of upsetting the snowflakes. What miserable lives these people must lead. ‘And today we are going to find songs which we can complain about!’ Get a life for goodness sake!

Ever day political correctness creeps across the world trying to restrict free speech and avoid anyone being upset. The recent BBC production of ‘Les Miserables’ was a case in point. It is essentially a story that ten or twenty years go would have featured an all white cast. But not in 2019. We had a black chief of police in the Paris of 1832! We had a black innkeeper married to a white Frenchwoman. This would never have happened! No one can fault their acting but it is colour-blind casting and turns a drama into a comedy. Next up a black Robinson Crusoe and a white Man Friday? You heard it here first!

In our universities the Snowflakes have their headquarters. More and more of these students are demanding ‘Safe Spaces.’ This is somewhere the poor darlings can go and not have to hear points of view that could upset their sensitive nature. Once upon a time Germaine Greer was one of the most rebellious of people and was in great demand as a speaker. How things have changed. Snowflakes were demanding that an invitation to her be withdrawn last year because they took exception to something she said about ‘transgender’ people. It was something along the lines of if you are born a woman then you stay a woman no matter what. Hands up those who would agree? Don’t worry your secret is safe with me!

I could go on but the thought police could well be on my trail. Remember the man who was visited by a snowflake policeman and told he needed to be careful about what he was thinking!!!

George Orwell you should be living at this hour

Franz Kafka should join him. Both would be thinking to themselves:

 ‘But it was meant to be fiction!’

Can you add to the playlist? Feel free to comment

Keep taking the tablets!


           A beginners guide to the novels of Charles Dickens

………..or a refresher for those already familiar with his books?


Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812. He was the son of John and Elizabeth Dickens. His father was a naval clerk in the pay office on average wages. This was something of problem as John Dickens spent as though he was earning a King’s ransome! By the time Charles was 12 years old the family had moved to London.  His father was sent to a debtors prison for his failure to pay money he owed. Debtors prisons were strange affairs. Privately owned those incarcerated could receive visitors more or less as and when they chose. Those with families able to afford it could bring in their own furniture and be provided with a larger room or cell in which to place it. Wives and children would usually accompany the impoverished head of the family. The problem with debtors prisons was that if you did not have a rich family or friends then the rest of your life would be spent in the prison. Those with rich friends were soon able to buy their way out. In John Dickens case he was sent to the Marshalsea the most famous of all debtors prisons. It would feature in future Dickens stories. As would his experience of working in a shoe blacking factory to help out the family income. It was in the factory that Charles met another boy whose surname was Fagin. Thus the formal education of the young Dickens came to a temporary end when he was 12; it would resume when he was 14. And yet he became the most famous novelist of Victorian England!

A few months after his imprisonment the mother of John Dickens died bequeathing him £450 which enabled him to pay his debt and leave the Marshalsea. (He owed a baker £40!) At this point there occurred an incident that would colour the view of Dickens towards his mother in particular, and women in general. She did not request his immediate removal from the blacking factory and Charles took a long time to forget and forgive. Like many a Victorian male he thought a women’s place was in the home, and such decisions about his employment should have been made by his father.

Once he became famous Dickens heard that his father was using his name as a means of underwriting his borrowing. At one time John Dickens even forged his son’s signature! He returned briefly to the Marshalsea but Charles Dickens had the money to buy him out. Undaunted John Dickens carried on behind his son’s back selling manuscript pages from his early novels! Nice man.


The house in Portsmouth where Charles Dickens was born

I can remember the first time I came across Charles Dickens. My father had been posted to Northern Malaya in 1954. Our first year was spent on Penang Island where I had to suffer Batu Ferrenghi beach almost every day! Now people pay thousands to do the same! It was off that beach that I learnt to swim. It was tough but someone had to live there! Then off we went to the mainland and married quarters at RAF Butterworth.  We had a radio for company and every so often the Overseas Daily Mirror arrived to give you a months supply of papers to read! Other than that a visit to the cinema gave you Pathe News. For myself I discovered Classic Comics. They were a sort of graphic novel and portrayed famous books of the nineteenth century. They were published monthly I think and one particular month they featured ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ I was fascinated by the story. You need to bear in mind that I was almost two years ahead of my reading age as my parents had books in the house throughout my childhood. It helps!  David Copperfield followed a few months later. Although my favourite story was ‘Robinson Crusoe.’ The story of someone spending his life on the beach somehow chimed with my way of life!

   Back to England we came and I obtained a children’s edition of ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’  Then, in 1959 I think, the BBC produced the novel on television with Peter Wyngard in the starring role. Then in October the RAF decided to send us all back to the Far East and off to Singapore we went.

‘A Tale of Two Cities’ has always been the Dickens book I know best. However having spent the last few months researching and reading and re-reading Dickens I will run through the novels that are deemed to form the Dickens Canon.

So, to start at the very beginning…….

Dickens published numerous short- stories, plays, sketches, articles essays and of course numerous novels. Fifteen of these novels are considered his main body of work and it is those I will give you a flavour of here. I will then recommend five novels for you to read as you begin your journey to becoming a Dickensian scholar!

The Pickwick Paperswas published in 1836.

 Like all his novels it was published in episodic form. In this case monthly editions. It tells the story of the adventures of members of the Pickwick Club which has one Samuel Pickwick at its head. It is a series of vignettes told with a comic touch and introducing us to Nathaniel Winkle and Augustus Snodgrass. The unlikely names of his characters across all his novels is one outstanding feature of his writing. The episodes were slow to sell but in episode four Dickens, aware that he needed to introduce a livelier character, gives us Sam Weller. Or given Sam’s speech impediment,Veller! He brings much needed humour to the story. All is not sweetness and light though and drawing on his own experience Dickens has Samuel Pickwick find himself in the Marshalsea.

In Pickwick’s case it is refusal to pay a court order that lands him in trouble. While not a profound novel or one with a complex plot it established Charles Dickens on the literary scene. The gentle humour of the stories and the description of the English country life proved very popular. In Sam Weller Dickens had his first star character!

The story was published in book form the following year.

 And in that same year the story of Oliver Twistbegan its journey. It was published in twenty-four episodes between February 1837 and April 1839. The novel was published in book form in November 1838! Seems a strange marketing ploy but there you go! I have to confess this is my least favourite Dickens story. I know that the purpose of the author was to highlight the cruel and squalid lives of street children and the way they were driven into criminal activity. However poor old Oliver is captured not once but twice by Fagin’s gang. It seems as though Dickens has had writers block and decides to recycle the plot? It is one of those books that make you want to have a shower after you have read it? And yet the Victorians loved it! It was good versus evil with evil being conquered. What was not good was the portrayal of Fagin. In the first part of the

story Dickens is constantly referring to ‘The Jew.’ Protests from his friends and Jewish people affected him and in the second half of the story ‘Jew’ is not mentioned. But the damage had been done. Illustrations of Fagin showed him as the stereotypical Jewish villain. Over one hundred years later Alec Guinness would bring that villain to life in David Lean’s film. Much was made in 1948 of the time it took for Guinness to be made up to look like he did. I am sure that in later years Lean must have had some regret about how he depicted Fagin? Anti-semitism has never gone away.  There are many musicals out there that have great songs and daft plots but they provide enjoyment. I just wonder how Lionel Bart pitched his idea to would-be producers. ‘Well you see gov, all these kids is criminals, they are led by a Jewish criminal who sends them out to rob people. One of the main characters murders another of the main characters but not before she has sung one of my best songs, like.’ I really don’t get it. Never have. Yet for a while it made Mr Bart a very rich man. Not my favourite musical.


George Cruikshank’s iconic illustration from ‘Oliver Twist.’  “More boy!”

Charles Dickens took various jobs before settling down to writing. At one time he was a House of Commons reporter. He had various jobs in journalism and edited a monthly magazine. All this helped him make the right contacts and quite soon he was combining his journalism with writing his first book. Following the publication of The Pickwick Papershe eased off his other work and soon became a full time author.

Moving right along….

While writing Oliver TwistDickens also started writing the Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby. And what adventures they were. One of the few novels that Dickens featured people living outside London. There are a multitude of characters in this book with some glorious names. Wackford Squeers the cruel schoolmaster is my favourite. His school was Dotheboys Hall which Dickens based on a school he had once visited in Yorkshire.  Then there is Newman Noggins and Peg Sliderskew! Mind you even Dickens ran out of names and one character is simply, ‘The Man Next door!’ Like a lot of Dickens stories you do need to read the book over continuous days otherwise you literally lose all of the plots! Of which there are many. Events take place in Yorkshire and Devon but most of the action is in London and provides a wonderful commentary on Victorian life for both rich and poor. Yet it lacks a solid core and when I finished reading the book for the first time in many years I was hard put to really understand what it had all been about. Worth a read though just to tick off all the character names! Of course nearly all of Dickens books contain his favourite character…. London. When it was published Oliver Twist still had a year to run so his readers were well served during that time.

They would have a break until May 1840 when The Old Curiosity Shopwas published in weekly parts quickly followed in February 1841 when Barnaby Rudgewas published in weekly parts until November of that year. Barnaby Rudge first!  This novel is one of two historical novels written by Dickens. It is set during the anti-Catholic riots of 1780. They were known as the Gordon Riots. The dubious honour belonged to Lord George Gordon who was considered to be the leader of the Protestant Association. Over 200 people were killed during the rioting across a few days in June. The situation was not helped by the Lord Mayor refusing to read the riot act which just encouraged the rioters to inflict more damage and violence on the Catholic population. And all because a bill enacted two years earlier in favour of Catholics was now the subject of dispute.  Into this melting pot of malevolence steps Barnaby Rudge, a simple soul with a pet raven called ‘Grip.’ Poor old Barnaby is led into trouble and almost finds himself on the executioner’s step. At the other end of the social scale rich men taunt each other, true love is vanquished albeit temporarily. On the way to a happyish ending there is trouble aplenty.

Worth a read for its historical background describing one of the more shameful episodes of English history. One of the least popular of all Dickens novels. It could be because memories of the Gordon riots would still be quite vivid for older members of the then population. One person who reviewed the novel was Edgar Allen Poe who thought more use could have been made of the raven. But then, as the scholars among you will know, Mr Poe had a thing about ravens.  His famous poem ‘The Raven’ was published in 1845. Did he derive inspiration from Grip? No one knows!

Dickens readers were not short of reading material during this time as ‘ The Old Curiosity Shop’was published at the same time. Now, just off Lincolns Inn Fields in Portsmouth Street you will find a sixteenth century building called ‘The Old Curiosity Shop.’ Charles Dickens lived for a while in the nearby Holborn/Bloomsbury area and may well have passed the building on a number of occasions. At this point you need to know that the building was christened ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ thirty years after publication of the novel. The shrewd owner cashing in on Little Nell! This is probably the most depressing of the Dickens Canon but was very popular. American readers waited at the wharves in New York docks anxious for the last episode to arrive! The novel of course contains a wonderful nasty villain in Daniel Quilp. It is a fairly straight- forward story with fewer sub-plots than other Dickens novels. But, once Nell and her grandfather are evicted from the shop by Quilp, the ending is not hard to guess. Oscar Wilde was not a Dickens fan. Of this book his comment was, ‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.’ But then it is easy to be brave when the person you are criticising has been dead for over twenty years?

In December 1842 ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’appeared in its first monthly part. Its final part would be published in July 1844. Thought by many to be one of Dickens favourites as far as his own work was concerned. Not so with the public. By October 1843 sales had slowed down so much that his publishers were threatening to reduce his monthly income. Time then to write another book?

If a quiz show were to ask their usually less than bright contestants to name a Dickens novel the likelihood is that the reply would be, ‘A ChristmasCarol.’ The novel is generally recognised as being instrumental in creating the traditional British Christmas along with Prince Albert and his introduction of the Christmas tree. Written in double quick time between October and December of 1843 ‘A Christmas Carol’is usually referred to as a novella as it is much shorter in length than all his other work. Published on the 19 December it had sold out all 6000 copies by Christmas Eve. There were a further eleven editions published in 1844. In the hundred years from publication in America it had sold two million copies. Far and away his most popular novel stateside. ‘A ChristmasCarol’ is a mixture of an old- fashioned ghost story and the trials and tribulations of Bob Cratchit as he strives to provide his family with a suitable Christmas celebration. Tiny Tim is the hero of the piece and, who else, (?) Ebenezer Scrooge the villain. Scrooge is a name of course that has passed into the English language. A number of literary people over the years have rated this book as the finest example of prose in Victorian literature. Some accolade!

In the meantime ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’continued its laborious sales. The Penguin edition runs to 920 pages before it reaches the appendices! There are just too may sub-plots. John Forster is generally regarded as Dickens closest confident on literary matters. Well if he did read the draft of MC then he really should have advised cutting it by a third! Just to confuse the reader there are two Martin Chuzzlewits and various other members of the family. The plot revolves around the senior Chuzzlewit safe guarding his will and pretending to be friends with one character and the enemy of another when the reverse is actually the case! It is well written and contains one of Dickens enduring characters, Mrs Gamp. A lady partial to a drink or three, and always seemingly carrying an umbrella. Although a minor character in terms of the story her umbrella made her famous. ‘Gamp’ became a Victorian nickname for an umbrella. Unfortunately for Charles Dickens the sales of the book did not really improve but his publishers could bask in the glory of ‘A Christmas Carol.’

The next novel published was ‘Dombey & Son.’ Generally rated as the most Victorian of the Dickens Canon. It was published in twenty monthly parts between 1846 & 1848. It features old Dombey who had always wanted a son but was presented with a daughter whom he chose to ignore. Along comes a sickly son who lives for only six years and whose mother dies along the way! Cheerful stuff. However the world as seen through the young boy’s eyes received critical acclaim for the sensitivity of its writing. Fear not, redemption and salvation are at hand. It is a novel that provided the reader with all they would expect from a Dickens story. Not too many character names that one could call memorable. My favourite is Polly Toodle! Is it an instrument or a dance!?

And then in 1849 over the usual twenty episodes comes the favourite Dickens novel of a good many people: ‘David Copperfield.’ It was an open secret that this was Dickens camouflaged autobiography. Child cruelty, villains, benefactors and of course, Wilkens Micawber. My favourite Dickensian character whose pecuniary advice echoes down the ages, ‘ Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery!’ Micawber was loosely based on John Dickens who could never heed his own financial advice! It is a story with two villains. In the first half we have Edward Murdstone, David’s cruel step-father. The second – half bring us the ever so ‘umble Uriah Heep. Along with Great Expectations perhaps the Dickens novel most adapted to the screen both large and small.

So there you are. The literary agent of Charles Dickens, fresh from his outstanding success with David Copperfield. There he is sitting across the desk from you. ‘So Charles, what do you have in mind for your next two novels?’

CD:  ‘ Bleak House and Hard Times!’

Can you think of two more uninviting titles for a novel? Hard Times was a rarity in that it was set wholly outside London. Bleak Housalso broke the mould by introducing the first female narrator in a Dickens novel.

Hard Times is as its title suggests hard going. But Bleak House was the first of the two to be published between March 1852 and September 1853. Esther Summerson is the heroine of the novel. She is taken into care by John Jarndyce following the death of her guardian. The novel is famous for its scathing satirical attack on the judicial system which operated in the House of Chancery. A case called Jarndyce & Jarndyce is the main feature as an argument about wills rolls on for years. Dickens would not live to see it but a law reform act in the 1870s was helped on its way by the outcry caused by the plot in Bleak House. Great character names abound; Lord and Lady Dedlock, Mr Tulkinghorn. William Guppy, Caddy Jelleby and many, many more. My favourite is the wonderful Inspector Bucket! An uninviting title but an outstanding book.

Hard Times gives us Thomas Gradgrind a name that makes you instantly dislike its owner! Set wholly outside London it is one of the shortest of the books written by Dickens. It is one of two books published originally without any illustrations. Published between April and August 1854 in Dickens own magazine, ‘ Household Words.’ Published alongside it in the same magazine was ‘North and South’by Mrs Gaskell. A novel with a similar theme. Hard Timesproved a successful book telling the tale of a school (Gradgrinds) and its pupils on the one hand and mill workers on the other. Dickens was not convinced that the industrial revolution was a total cause for good. His book is seen as a satire on that industrial society. I have always found it hard to read.

And so we come to Little Dorritt. Published in monthly parts between December 1855 and June 1857. Here Dickens calls on his childhood experience as the first half of the book takes place in the Marshalsea Prison. William Dorritt has been incarcerated for over twenty years and his daughter Amy was born there. His two other children entered the prison with their parents. Her sister chooses to live outside the prison but Amy’s brother remains with her and her father. Amy’s mother has died many years previously. William Dorritt lives what he considers a normal life and makes no attempt to resolve his situation. Then Arthur Clenham appears. His investigations and adventures cause a seismic shift in the life of the Dorritt family as the Marshalsea is left behind and they spend some time in Rome. This is another of those books with an off-putting title. Little Dorritt? Do not be deceived, it is one of his best novels.

No less a personage than Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky thought highly of the book. It gives a wonderful evocation of life in a debtors prison. Not too many great names though, Minnie Meagles and Jeremiah Flintwich are about the best I can do! The book is also famous for Dickens attack on Victorian bureaucracy in the shape of the Circumlocution Office. This is a place where applications just go round and round and nothing gets done! (Sound familiar? Nothing changes!)

Published in 1859 in 31 weekly editions A Tale of Two Cities is reckoned to be the best selling Dickens book. Two hundred million is claimed in some cases but disputed by other experts. Given that book counting was not a primary concern in the nineteenth century it is doubtful if anyone has an accurate figure. What can be stated is that the book has sold a lot of copies! There are books with good opening lines, one or two with great end lines. But only this book can claim both. I would say it has the best beginning and ending of any other book ever published? And no I have not read them all! Here are the opening lines:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

All in one sentence!

And the ending spoken by Sydney Carton:

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

And in between all that you have a relatively peaceful London and the Reign of Terror in Paris as the lives of Sydney Carton and Charles Darney start to intertwine. One of my favourite books. A TV production a few years back was sadly lacking in production values. At the point where the Bastille is stormed it seemed you had about two dozen Parisians on the attack!

For his next novel Dickens returned to childhood and a first-person narrator. It is a companion novel to David Copperfieldin that both explore similar themes and both have same narration device. GreatExpectations received universal acclaim when it was published between December 1860 and August 1861. It has a dramatic opening scene beloved of television producers. The meeting with Magwich in the graveyard sends young children behind the sofa! By 1860 Dickens seems to have eased off on character names. Here Mr Pumblechook is the only one to raise a smile. The book takes us from childhood to manhood as Pip (Philip Pirrip) narrates his adventures. Love and betrayal, secrets revealed, violent enemies causing problems but in the end good friends who see him through. One of the most performed Dickens stories across all types of media. It is a story made for television.

Dickens was not to know it but ‘Our Mutual Friend’ would be his final completed novel. Published in monthly parts between May 1864 and November 1865 it was not one of the more popular novels.  It has rather too many sub-plots and a convoluted main plot. Its redeeming features are as always the characters; Georgiana Podsnap, Sophronia Lammie and Bradley Headstone to name but three!

The plot hinges on a will, or maybe two wills, or is it three, and the untimely death of the would-be heir? But just who is ‘Our Mutual Friend?’ You will work it out as the book draws to its close!

Time for a note about the various illustrators of the novels. Dickens worked closely with his artists and it is accepted that the illustrations in the books match those imagined by Dickens when writing the books. He had one or two illustrators (George Cruikshank for one) before Hablot Knight Brown took up residence. More commonly known by his nom-de-plume of ‘Phiz.’

This particular artist stayed with Dickens for twenty-three years although he did not do the illustrations for ‘A Christmas Carol.’ These were done by another friend of Dickens called John Leech. The last book illustrated by Browne was a Tale of Two Cities. They were not well received and Dickens sensed that Hablot Browne was losing his touch. He employed the son of a friend to illustrate Our Mutual Friend. Marcus Stone was the son of Frank Stone who had helped out with the illustrations on the earlier books.

So there you have the fifteen books. A mixture, most certainly. Any pick of five books is subjective but here are the five I would recommend to you if you have never read Dickens before:

In order of reading I would suggest you start with Pickwick Papers. It will be a gentle introduction to the way Dickens writes and the stories themselves are enjoyable. Follow that with David Copperfield. Without reading the book you may have seen a TV version of it. However it is wise to remember that television productions cut hugh chunks out of any book they adapt for television. Here Dickens will introduce you to child cruelty, devious characters and on the other side of the coin wonderful friends who see him through his difficult start in life. And as I mentioned before this book introduces you to Wilkins Micawber not to mention the equally delightful Betsy Trotwood.

It will be no surprise to you I am sure that the next book on my list is Great Expectations. A slightly different view of childhood to the previous book, and, perhaps, a little darker in places. Both books keep your attention and give a wonderful evocation of Victorian life. Dickens always used his books to satirise the class divisions of contemporary life. In Great Expectations Pip finds himself embarrassed by his Uncle Joe. He has risen in class but forgotten where he came from. It is a book for which Dickens wrote a number of final scenes. Did Pip marry Estella? Or not? Mmmm.

Having read two novels that started with childhood time to read about revolution! ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ alternates the action between London and Paris. As the revolution approaches a Doctor Manette is released from a Paris prison. Arrangements have been made for him to meet his daughter who thinks her father is long dead. This meeting and its consequences provide the central thread of the story.  Love, betrayal, revenge, and finally, redemption. It is all here. There is a wonderful villain in Madam Defarge who carries on with her knitting as the tumbrils roll and the guillotine falls! Sydney Carton is the dissolute hero who finally makes himself fatally useful. The number one Dickens best seller by a country mile!

However as much as I like ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ I have to admit that ‘Bleak House’in terms of its characters, main plot and sub-plots is the finer novel. Esther Summerson becomes the first female narrator of a Dickens novel alternating with an omniscient narrator later in the book.

Esther has a back story that is touched on in the book but never fully explored. An adopted child; her guardian has died. Her new guardian is the kindly John Jarndyce. It becomes obvious that Esther’s former guardian was not a very nice person and Esther sees her prospects improving. (Charlotte Bronte was unimpressed with Esther Summerson as a character. Well Jane Eyre was not exactly a bundle of fun Charlotte?) Various characters pass through the Jarndyce residence building the story. As the sub-plots drop in to the story we are introduced to Lord and Dedlock and their lawyer Mr Tulkinghorne. The sub-plots seem unrelated but as the novel progresses they start to become as one with the main plot. The Chancery case described in the book providing Dickens with a wonderful opportunity to attack the appalling justice system in place in Victorian England. Bleak House is one of those books you will read late into the night. Then look up and realise you should have been in bed an hour ago? If you only read one Dickens novel; read this one!

And there you have your novels. The Dickens stories lend themselves to television and there have been some outstanding productions over the years. Back in 2005 there was a superb production of Bleak House. It had a stellar cast. Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther, Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock. Charles Dance, Timothy West, Denis Lawson, Carey Mulligan all appeared in the production as did Alan Armstrong as Inspector Bucket. The production was shown in half hour episodes which at first seemed a strange approach. However it heightened the tension and turned out to be very clever idea! Great Expectations and David Copperfield are the most produced novels across all media and in the former Gillian Anderson starred as Miss Havisham in a 2011 production. Ray Winstone could be seen enjoying himself immensely as Abel Magwitch!

But if you only watch one television programme about Charles Dickens then make it ‘Dickensian.’ A masterpiece of television. I would read the books first before you watch as that will make it more enjoyable but it is worth watching as a stand-alone programme. The set is brilliant. Snow falling as Christmas approaches in a true Dickensian setting. Here you will find Miss Havisham preparing for her marriage. Here is the back -story of Esther Summerson. Bill Sykes and Nancy before they met Oliver. The Artful Dodger and Little Nell. (Both sadly showing the political correctness of the BBC extends even to Dickens as they are played by actors from an ethnic minority.) We have Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit. Fagin is there as are Mr and Mrs Bumble. Pauline Collins has the time of her life as Mrs Gamp. The stand-out performance for me was Stephen Rea as Inspector Bucket. Given free rein in this production Inspector Bucket is the central character as he seeks to find the murderer of Jacob Marley. It is a wonderful, crazy, Dickens fantasy! There was expected to be a second production but the BBC in their wisdom decided we were all enjoying ourselves far too much and cancelled!

Charles Dickens started work on ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ in April 1870. Sadly he would never live to finish it. He died on 9 June. He had set himself a punishing schedule giving a speaking tour in the USA and following it with another speaking tour on his return to England. He was ordered to rest by his doctor and did so for a few weeks. However he felt he had let down his sponsors and returned to the tour which would eventually lead to his death from sheer exhaustion despite what it may say on his death certificate. He must be one of the few people in the western world to die from overwork. (Isambard Kingdom Brunel is another one!)

Charles Dickens novels have never been out of print. He retains his place as the greatest novelist this country has ever produced. Only Shakespeare is ranked above him on the list of the all time greatest writers in this country. On the world list Shakespeare remains top of the list but in second place some see Dickens, others see Tolstoy. In America you might think a Victorian English author would be long forgotten but Charles Dickens remains one of their favourite writers along with Twain, Hemingway, Scott-Fitzgerald, Steinbeck and the more modern day American writers. When I visited the Dickens House in Portsmouth a few weeks ago I was the only English visitor. The others were Japanese, German, Indian and American.

Despite his earlier relations with both his parents when his father died Dickens paid off all his debts of which there were many. He also set up a trust fund that enabled his mother to live the life to which she had become accustomed!

I hope this rather long blog has encouraged you to re-read or read for the first time the novels of our greatest author?








The story of music hall is best told I think through one performer. She was born in Hoxton just off the City Road in 1870. At the age of fifteen she gave her first public performance under the name of Belle Dellamere at the Eagle Public House on the City Road. She did not keep that name for long. She changed it soon after to Marie Lloyd. Then and now she is known as the Queen of the Music Hall. Before outlining her career back to the Eagle Public House.



It is the only pub to feature in a nursery rhyme. Any ideas…………………..”Up and down the City road in and out of the Eagle, that’s the way the money goes pop goes the weasel!”   No nursery rhyme has been more analysed than this one. Mainly in regard to the word weasel. Well take my word for it the phrase pop goes the weasel is based on cockney rhyming slang. Which is always truncated. Thus weasel is weasel and stoat, coat. Pop was the expression used to pawn something. So you pawn your coat to be able to buy some food. And of course rhyming slang in the nineteenth century was much in use. It had originally been devised so that criminals could hold conversations if they ever found themselves together in police custody, as if there were such criminals in the East End! And of course you could go into an East End pub fifty years ago and the publican might say to you, “Ere mate take your bacon up the apples and tell the trouble she is wanted on the dog.” The translation? Could you take your bacon…and eggs, legs up the apples and pears, stairs and tell the trouble and strife, wife that she is wanted on the dog and bone, phone. Simple really! As a language it is long gone but a few of the phrases remain in use, “Lets have a butchers” is slang for butchers hook, look. Most of you will be familiar with Brahms and Liszt. Use your loaf? Of bread, head. Got any bread mate does not mean the questioner is hungry. Bread and honey, money. And unless you like hospital food never call anyone from the East End a “berk.” The full expression is Berkley Hunt and I will leave you to work out the rhyme! Quite so! That said I think we all may remember of one or two berks we have met along the way!


Back to Miss Marie Lloyd. After her performance in the Eagle word spread and within the year she was taking more bookings than she could manage. It would not be unusual for her and other music hall stars to be booked at four theatres in one evening. So 7 30 at one, 8 20 at another, 9 15 at the next and 10 at the last one. They would usually be within walking distance of each other but stars like Marie Lloyd would be able to afford a pony and trap and would travel further afield. However once she became top of the bill she would stay contracted to one theatre for a week or maybe two. She was without doubt a hard worker. After initial success in London she would tour the provinces and maintain a punishing schedule, Lincoln one night, Plymouth the next then Birmingham, Newcastle and back to Bristol. Must have had a sadist for a manager! Although I guess in the 1890’s the trains ran on time! Once she had made enough money she looked after her family and gave regularly to children’s charities in the Hoxton area, paying the bills for clothes, lighting and heating. She was also very helpful to her fellow artistes. In one particular case she heard of a young impersonator who was including Marie Lloyd in his performance. The young lad was summoned to the presence, no doubt thinking his career was about to end! But no. Marie listened to his impersonation and then pointed out where he was going wrong! If you are going to impersonate me sonny get it right! But surely this paragon of virtue must have had some faults? Well yes. Her private life was a shambles. Her choice of husbands one and three were an unmitigated disaster. She married Percy Courtney when she was seventeen. He was a man without any visible means of support who lived always on credit and gambling. Always seen in the best restaurants and always the best seats in the theatre. He saw Marie Lloyd as his own private bank. The marriage lasted long enough to see the birth of a daughter but after seven years of never ending argument they separated. This did not please Mr Courtney who suddenly found himself in serious debt. They divorced in 1905.

In the meantime Marie was going from strength to strength on the stage and had made a reputation for her saucy songs and her repartee with the audience. There were many stars by now performing at hundreds of halls and theatres. There were Empires, Hippodromes, Alhambras, Royals all across the country. One of the biggest music halls in London was the Oxford. If you were in London around twenty years ago you may have seen the Virgin Megastore on the corner of Piccadilly? That is the site of the Oxford Music Hall. Another big theatre was the Holborn Empire. If you turn right out of Holborn Underground and walk up Kingsway there is a road off to the left. Only about two hundred yards long it looks like an Italian architect has been let loose. That is where the Empire was.

Marie Lloyd was undoubtedly the star attraction but Dan Leno and Harry Relph, better known as Little Tich ran her close. Little Tich was famous for his over size boots which extended out in front of him and he achieved an amazing balance on the tips of the boots. He was four foot six in height. Had five fingers and a thumb on each hand and six toes on each foot! Dan Leno started working in the halls on an almost daily basis from the age of eight. At the age of forty -four he suffered a nervous breakdown and died. He was hailed as the greatest comedian of the music hall in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In 1891 the three stars performed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in the pantomime “Humpty Dumpty.” Tickets were like gold dust because it was not often that all three would perform at the same theatre.

If there is one song that Marie Lloyd was famous for it was this one, “My Old Man Said Follow The Van!”

Fifty odd years ago you could go into a pub and there would likely be a piano in it and at least one person in the place who could play it. Feel free to sing it to yourself!

The song is about a moonlight flit. The rent they couldn’t pay so off they went loading all their worldly goods into a cart, the van in the song. He tells his wife not to hang about otherwise she will not find her way to the lodgings. It is generally supposed that the cock linnet is a bird in a cage being carried by the wife. However cock linnet is rhyming slang for a minute. So did she say she would follow on in a minute and get lost as a consequence? It was one song she never recorded on the old wax cylinders. Other songs from Marie Lloyd included the “The Boy I Love Is Up in Gallery.” Oh Mr Porter, A Little Bit of What You Fancy Does you good. And of course the less than subtle “She Never Had Her Ticket Punched Before!”

Marie Lloyd performed in America, South Africa and Australia. By 1907 music hall was at its zenith and there was money to be made. The managers decided that there would be extra performances but the supporting players would not be paid any extra for this. The supporting players went on strike. This did not worry the managers as they knew there were always out of work actors and performers looking for work and they reckoned they would break the strike within a matter of days if not weeks. They reckoned without Marie Lloyd. By this time Marie had married husband number two, Alec Hurley. One of life’s gentlemen, in every sense. A cockney barrow-boy made good. They offered their home as a meeting place for the strikers and contributed to the strike fund. This encouraged other major stars to boycott the theatres. The theatres were now closing at a rapid rate of knots and the management capitulated. But they would not forget Marie Lloyd’s involvement and they would have their revenge.

Sadly Marie did not realise when she was on to a good thing and her relationship with Alec deteriorated and by 1910 they had separated and Marie was living with one Bernard Dillon. Dillon’s claim to fame was that as a jockey he had won the 1910 Derby in record time on a horse called Lemburg. For those of you who like to know this sort of thing….it came in at 11 to 4!!! His racing days were short lived as he spent most of his time drunk or gambling and physically abusing Marie Lloyd.

In 1912 it was proposed that there would be the first ever Royal Command performance to celebrate the history of Music Hall. Who else would you expect to top the bill? Well not Marie Lloyd. This was the theatre managers revenge. She was not invited. The excuse was put about that she was too vulgar for the Royal ears. Which is a bit rich when you consider that the previous King Edward the seventh was a regular member of the audience at any given performance! Marie answered back by hiring a theatre for the same evening and performing to a sell-out audience. The posters at the front of house proclaimed “Every Performance from Marie Lloyd is a Command Performance.”

In 1913 Marie arrived in New York accompanied by Dillon. They were refused entry on the grounds of “moral turpitude.” Only in America! Apparently our American cousins did not take kindly to the fact that they had shared a cabin on the way over. Despite the fact that a British ship is not within American jurisdiction. Marie argued the case and after spending the night at the Immigration House on Ellis Island they were allowed to stay on the understanding that they lived apart. Amazing! Marie was very popular in America but not as popular as her sister Alice. In Britain the reverse was true,

While on this tour of the US Marie heard that Alec Hurley had died of pleurisy at the age of 42. It is an expression of the esteem in which he was held that the whole of Marie’s family turned out for the funeral. Marie lost a few friends that year as within a short time after the funeral she married Dillon in Portland, Oregon.

1914 saw the outbreak of the First World War and with many stars of the music hall Marie raised money for various charities and performed for the troops home on leave all for free. Here she put in a prodigious amount of charity work while at the same time continuing her performances around the country. Her husband Dillon did his best to avoid conscription but was eventually signed up and then did his best to desert. Nice chap!

Marie Lloyd paid the price for her hard work and the constant abuse by Dillon. Things finally came to a head when he was arrested for assaulting her father who must have been in his seventies by then. So a separation was finally granted but it was too little too late. Not surprisingly she had consoled herself with alcohol to the further detriment of her health. She still had a sense of humour though and introduced a song entitled “I’m a bit of a ruin that Cromwell Knocked About a Bit.!” Everyone knew that Cromwell had had very little to do with it! In early October 1922 she was on the stage of Edmonton Empire singing that song and as she came to the last line she started to fall and as the curtain came down she collapsed in the wings. Three days later she died at home surrounded by her family. Over fifty thousand people lined the route from Hoxton to the cemetery in Hampstead where she is buried. Her brother commented after the funeral that during her life she had earned more than a quarter of million pounds and given most of it away. Known to her close family as “Tilly” her real name was……… Matilda Alice Victoria Wood.

While Marie Lloyd was a good choice of name; for a lady singing funny songs and cracking the odd joke or two “Victoria Wood” might have worked?

Many theatre historians see the year 1922 as the point at which musical hall started to decline. It was all ready coming under pressure from the silent movies and Marconi’s invention of the wireless was about to bear fruit. Strangely enough the theatre managers did not see the movies as a major threat and indeed the films were shown at the interval or the end of a performance. The first acknowledged movie was shot by DW Griffith in 1910. For the next seventeen years the output from film studios around the world was tremendous but none more so then in the sleepy little town of Hollywood. A place more used to tending the lime groves than anything else. The Keystone Cops, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin are all names of the silent era. And you will hear various claims as to who was the best. We will concentrate on Chaplin because he was born in this country and did his apprenticeship in music hall. He appeared on the same bill as Marie Lloyd in 1900 aged eleven as a member of a Lancashire clog-dancing troupe! He then joined Fred Karno and his ensemble. Dear old Fred tends to be used as a derogatory term these days but he was instrumental in giving talented youngsters their start in show business.


Chaplin did a number of tours in this country with Karno as did one Stanley Jefferson who was born in Ulverston in Cumbria. Fred then decided it was time to conquer America which he truly did. So popular was the troupe that Chaplin was poached by Mack Sennett for his Hollywood studio. Stanley Jefferson had been understudy to Chaplin for most of the tour and decided that he too would remain in America. At this time he changed his surname to Laurel. He then met up with a certain Oliver Hardy. Meanwhile Chaplin went from strength to strength with some of the most iconic silent movies ever made. The Marx brothers were emerging onto film at this time having evolved from the American equivalent of Music hall known as Vaudville. Chaplin was to see his old colleague Stan Laurel in competition with him as Laurel and Hardy produced a series of films that matched Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. The silent movies were mainly slapstick routines that many of them would have perfected on stage. Then someone said to the studios. I think I can put sound on your film!!!! More of that later…..

If the Music Hall managers accepted silent movies wireless would be different. Suddenly you could have millions of people listening to one song, at home!! A month after the death of Marie Lloyd the British Broadcasting Company as they were then known was granted a licence to operate. By the following year wireless transmitting stations were opening up in all parts of the country.

A few years later the BBC would be granted its full licence and radio broadcasting would be in full swing. In the early years the theatre managers managed to broker a deal that allowed them compensation for the use of their stars but it did not last long. Music Hall had become variety and was to be found mainly at seaside resorts. There would still be shows in London but Music Hall had seen its best days. In 1958 playwright John Osborne would bemoan the passing of Music Hall but really he was talking about variety.

Through the 1930’s radio broadcasting was matched in expansion by the talkies. If the death knell for Music Hall had been sounded in 1922 then the coming of sound to movie theatres heard the funeral rites for a form of entertainment that had served the British public well. Its stars would find success on radio and film. Strangely enough Chaplin never took to sound and became more involved with production and composing. He was by this time a very rich man. For Laurel and Hardy it just helped their careers move onwards and upwards. They had been a success on stage and then the silent movies. The talkies seemed to be made for them. Unlike some of their colleagues from the silent era in all its forms who were found wanting when they had to speak. Many of them fell by the wayside. And as if that wasn’t enough serious actors started to appear in comedy roles in the movies

And yet for all that you could still see live performances. The theatre was still going strong and the arrival on the scene of playwrights such as Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw over the past thirty years had encouraged other writers to try their luck. There may not have been as many theatres but there were still some good performers out there. One such performer in the thirties was Max Miller. The Cheeky Chappie. He had a very successful career but I can’t help feeling he was born twenty years too late. He was made for Music Hall.



His patter went something like this. I’m not suggesting he used this rhyme but it serves to illustrate his act:

Mary had a little lamb

She also had a bear

I’ve often seen her little lamb

But hey have you heard the one about?

Max had that habit of missing off the last line and leaving it to the audience to imagine it. Thus when challenged about his dodgy jokes he would blame the audience for imagining the worst. For Max Miller there was no such thing as bad publicity. In 1934 he went too far on the BBC and was banned for what would be the first of many times from broadcasting. Result? Mr Miller was never out of work again! And indeed that would be the case until he died in 1963. He worked on radio, the stage and television. And he made about fourteen of films. Whenever he worked in London his contract would always stipulate that the show must finish in time for him to catch the last train home to Brighton the place where he was born, lived all   his life and the place where he died.

Another star to match that of Miller in the thirties and forties was Gracie Fields. Many theatrical historians place her higher than Marie Lloyd as the greatest female star this country has ever produced. She appeared on the stage, in films and television and was most certainly a star of the radio. Both of these stars used the Holborn Empire as their “home” theatre when in London. That is until the Luftwaffe rearranged it in 1941! Radio programmes originating in this country were always through the BBC up until the mid sixties. Radio in the 1930’s was still finding its way but it gave many up and coming comedians their first chance at performing.

But it would be the Second World War that would be the making of the BBC. At first they approached it with mainly classical programmes and very sombre discussions. Someone somewhere advised them that there was enough depression around without them adding to it and that they should lighten up! ITMA! This was one of the programmes that did it, along with Much-Binding –In-The- Marsh and yes that man again Max Miller, although he did manage to get himself banned in 1944! The comedy output combined with their news reporting from far and wide served to place the BBC at the head of the world’s broadcasting organisations in the 1940’s. Workers Playtime, Music while you Work would continue to be broadcast well into the sixties. But comedians would still be appearing on the stage and in films. Television which had been invented some ten years before would not come to production until after the war had ended. This time it would be the film -makers turn to be worried as they would see television as a direct challenge to their productions. Before we leave the Second World War we must mention the Windmill Theatre. Famous for its ladies in various states of undress or no dress at all it was also the proving ground for many a would be comedian. Among those off its production line would be Bruce Forsyth, Harry Secombe, Jimmy Edwards, Tony Hancock and Peter Sellers. The comedians who would be on first had a difficult job because the all male audience had not come to listen to jokes! Incidentally it is not strictly true that the Windmill never closed during the war. For the first fourteen days in September 1939 all public meeting places were closed.

Radio would continue to foster the careers of comedians after the war and in certain cases combine with the theatre to produce variety shows. This is a bill that illustrates the point. And of course shows that Peter Sellers was starting to progress his career.


There at the bottom of the bill are two names which would become equally famous in this country. For a moment I wondered if the above gentleman could be Jose’ Dad!!!

If I had to pick the work of one comedian to take with me to the proverbial Desert Island it would probably be this man. His films and radio work alone in the 1950’s were outstanding. Along with Woody Allen, Shelley Berman and Bob Newhart he produced comedy records in the late fifties and early sixties. Woody Allen started out in his working life as a stand up comedian as did all the others mentioned. I would not have wanted to be part of Peter Sellers shambolic private life but he has made an outstanding contribution to British comedy. Peter Sellers would join up with Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan to produce The Goon Show. Without doubt the most innovative radio programme in the history of comedy. Michael Bentine was along for the first two series but script arguments with Milligan saw him leave the production. A quote from Milligan to Secombe on the question of who would die first. “I hope you go first I don’t want you singing at my funeral!” Plus of course the epitaph on his gravestone; “I told you I was ill!!!” It was anarchic, bizarre but most of all funny! It ran until 1960 as by then the careers of all of them were involving more and more work.

Also around the time of The Goons a programme started on the radio called “Educating Archie.” As a child I quite enjoyed it. But years later looking back you think; “A ventriloquist………on the radio!?” You might as well have had a trapeze artist! And of course when Peter Brough took his act on to television it became apparent why the show belonged to radio!!!! However this is another programme that advanced the careers of a number of comedians, Bruce Forsyth, Tony Hancock, Alfred Marks, Beryl Reid to name but a few. By now comedy was becoming a staple of radio. The 1950’s would see Rays A Laugh, The Navy Lark and the lad himself in Hancocks Half Hour. Beyond our Ken and Round the Horne became essential listening. Not least for Kenneth Williams and his Julian and Sandy routine with Hugh Paddick!

But stage performances were still to be seen and enjoyed.


Laurel and Hardy were still around. If you have to judge an act by its CV then Laurel and Hardy figure as the most outstanding comedy act in history. Music Hall and then variety performances. Films and television. They conquered them all. They did radio work but their approach was always a visual one and they I think realised that. Their last performance in this country was here in Plymouth at the Palace in May 1954. Sadly they only did the first night as Hardy all ready ill could not go on and the last show of the tour in Swansea was taken over by another performer as was the one in Plymouth. The duo stayed at the Grand Hotel for a few days until Hardy had recovered enough to make the journey home. Three years later he would die back home in America. They were unusual in show business in that by all accounts they were two of the nicest people you could ever meet. They never had a bad word to say about anyone. Oliver Hardy kept a guest book from his earliest days. All the acts they ever shared a stage with were asked to sign the book. Wherever the book is now it must be worth a small fortune.

Here in this country variety was proving itself to be still going strong and on radio the Billy Cotton Band Show provided a outlet for upcoming comedians. BBC television was now well established and settled into its nice cosy ways. Then in 1955 came the wake up call. Independent Television was introduced and was soon challenging the BBC for a share of the market. Tapping in to the enthusiasm of the times ITV introduced Sunday Night at the London Palladium.



Somewhere among that lot are Morecambe and Wise! No guesses as to this chap with the long chin is!? It made him a star along with Jimmy Tarbuck who took over as compere a few years later. The show ran until 1967 and despite the odd special never featured again on the TV schedules.

The BBC looked to its laurels and transferred the lad himself from the radio to television. It was an instant hit. A couple of years ago one of the questions on Millionaire was “Who lived at 23 Railway Cuttings?” Yer man. His most famous sketch is probably the ‘Blood Donor.’ Hancock arrives expecting just a pinprick in his finger but is informed that he will be required to provide a pint. Hence the reply…”A pint? That is very nearly an armful!”

And now to the one and only. There have been many comedians who inspire laughter just by walking on the stage but none more so than Tommy Cooper. That look of terror on his face as if he had forgotten what was supposed to happen. It was of course a craft perfected over many years. He was a member of the Magic Circle and an excellent magician but he chose to make his tricks appear to go wrong. I remember seeing him in Robinson Crusoe with Arthur Askey at the London Palladium sixty years ago. He was doing his solo spot. Right; now I ‘ll do a tap dance he says. Out of his pocket he brings an ordinary domestic tap attached to a piece of string and bounces it on the table! I’m still smiling at it now. Why is it funny? I guess you had to be there. He then did the disappearing rabbit trick. Shows rabbit in the hat, abra cadabra. Turns hat upside down and shows inside of hat. No rabbit. He then accidentally pulls the cloth off the small table and there beneath is the rabbit! Groan. But of course if the rabbit was there all the time where was the rabbit from the hat? Tommy Cooper had made appearances on various TV programmes during the fifties and on the radio. By the end of the decade he had his own TV show and he never looked back from that time as his stage and TV performances became ever more popular. It was fitting that he died live on television performing on the stage of Her Majestys Theatre in 1984. There are so many Cooper jokes and stories but here are a couple. Tommy was in the line up at the Royal Command Performance when the Queen stopped in front of him and exchanged the usual pleasantries. “Excuse me ma’am,” said Tommy, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” “No,” replies a brave lady, “Well,” said Tommy,” Do you like football?” “No,” replies the Queen. “Well in that case can I have your Cup Final tickets!” Another one I like happened in Egypt. Tommy had spent his wartime there in the Army and he liked to revisit with his wife the place where they had met. They were looking round a market in downtown Cairo when they came upon a stall that among other things was selling the Fez. Tommy put one on and looked in the mirror and turned round to show his wife whereupon the stallholder said “Just like that!” Tommy was amazed. “How do you know my catchphrase?” The stallholder shrugged, “I don’t know catchphrase but English people come here put on fez turn round and say “Just like that!” Much missed but still remembered. And it comes as no surprise to learn that his favourite comedians were Laurel and Hardy.

While Tommy was finding his way in the early sixties the political scene was about to face a revolution. If you ever see a newsreel of a political interview in the fifties it is always very deferential, “And how was your trip Minister “ sort of thing…Well this programme changed all that! That Was The Week That Was! It revolutionised political interviewing. It pulled no punches and went after its targets with a vengeance. Indeed it is hard to believe that the man who lead that revolution is the same David Frost who became very much part of the establishment. It only lasted two series for reasons never fully explained until a few years ago. Apparently the oh so brave BBC caved into government pressure. Much good it did because ITV came up with a number of similar programs and since then politicians more often than not do not get an easy ride. The main thing about TW3 was that it was very funny and had a host of comedians such as Willie Rushton on the team.

Undaunted David Frost moved on to other things including the “Frost Report “ This was the show that gave John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett their break into the big time. Again it was not afraid to take the mickey out of the great and the good. The class sketch is brilliant: Cleese looks to his left and says “I look down on him because he is middle class. Barker looks to his right and says “I look up to him because he is upper class.” He then looks to his left and says “I look down on him because he is working class.” Corbett looks straight ahead and says “I know my place!” The show featured some of the best writers around and gave a start to others. It is considered along with TW3 to be one of the ground breaking programmes of television comedy.

There was still room for the single comedian to make his mark and no one did it better than this man. Dave Allen was an Irish comedian who started his career in Australia. His ideas on religion saw him banned by one Australian network. He then had the dubious honour of being banned by the Irish television station RTE. His shows always featured him sitting on a stool and going through his monologue before introducing the film clips.


One of his jokes went like this: “Man goes to heaven and meets St Peter who agrees to show him around. They come to the first door and St Peter says the Methodists are in there.” At the second door he says, “In there are the Anglicans.” He then asks the man to be very quiet as they walk past the third door. “Why did we have to be quiet,” asks the man. “Ah well,” says St Peter, “In there are the Catholics and they think they are the only ones up here!”

Sadly Dave Allen died a good few years ago at the age of 68. I was fortunate enough to see him at the Palace Theatre here in Plymouth back in 1980 just before the place changed to a disco or whatever it was! Another quote I like from him, “I’m an atheist thank God!”

We have mentioned a few comedians along the way each in their own particular way responsible for advancing the cause of comedy. There are some of course who seem to think their act should include the audience as the butt of their humour. One such was Bernard Manning. Even his worst enemies would admit that as a stand up comedian his technique was perfect. But he had this habit of picking on people in the audience. In one famous incident when he was the cabaret at a private dinner he started picking on the waiters and waitresses who of course were in no position to answer back. A cheap way of getting laughs as was his use of racist jokes. That said he did have some good jokes like the one he told about his Uncle who was having sex at 74 which was good for him as he lived at number 73! But he and others found their own little niche in the comedy market. Any stand up comedian these days derives from all those who have gone before. Those with the minimum of talent tend to resort to constant obscene language. And then of course there were the so -called Alternative Comedians who came along in the 1980’s. Never my cup of tea and I found the perfect description of them on one particular website. “The alternative comedians seemed to think they were the first ones to have discovered comedy.” Perfect!

The one staple of television comedy is the sitcom. It is estimated there have been at least 800 shown on TV since 1945. And no I have not watched them all. They started to come to prominence in the 1960’s with programmes such as “Til Death Do Us Part and Steptoe and Son and The Likely Lads.” Til Death was written by Johnny Speight a noted left wing writer. His declared aim in writing the series was to show up the bigoted racists for what they were. A worthy objective you would think? Unfortunately Alf Garnett the main character became something of a cult figure. There was much discussion at the BBC about the programme and there was a four year gap between the second and third series. In my view the series was based on one joke which was wearing a bit thin by the end of series one!

I was living in Malta when Monty Python was first shown and by the time I returned it was well into its second series. I had read all the fuss and looked forward to watching it. I have to say I was not impressed. Yes there are some good gags across the series. And so there should have been as the whole cast had been part of the writing team on the Frost Report. But all those proclaiming it as ground breaking and innovative had obviously never listened to the Goon Show. But of course Cleese and Palin in particular went on to fame and fortune.

Morecambe and Wise became an institution and I think probably went on a series too far on ITV. Hard to pick a best moment but the piano sketch with Andre Previn must be up there. And of course it often featured two grown men in bed together and no one batted an eyelid. I remember one scene with Eric puffing on his pipe, looking out of the window as an ambulance goes by with its siren screaming. Says Eric, “ He’ll never sell any ice creams going at that speed!”

Faulty Towers. Based apparently on a dodgy hotel in Torquay. So many good lines. Well remembered of course and there were only ever 12 episodes. If there is an example of perfect casting this series was on a par with any of the others shown here.

The “Two Ronnies” developed out of the Frost Report and had a host of writers. I remember talking to someone in Lincoln, some forty years ago now. He was a Greek Classics scholar and knew almost as much about Roman history. Turned out that in his spare time he wrote for the Two Ronnies. His name appears on the credits, Ken McLeish. He was my OU tutor during my first semester! Stick his name into Google and you will see the extent of his scholarship. Sadly he is no longer with us. And of course the fork handles joke was one of the best.


The caped crusaders. Hard to think that the BBC considered dropping Only Fools and Horses after the first series so poor was the audience response. That was back in 1981. Fortunately they decided to do another series. And another and another!

Del Boy’s favourite saying “This time next year we will all be millionaires” came true in the 1998 series. That is really where they should have left the plot. But no, back they came Del and Rodney five years later to less than critical acclaim having lost all their money.   The strain was showing not least because two of the actors in the previous series had died! Still there are great moments to remember. My favourite is the one with the chandeliers. “OK, let it go!”

I’m not a fan of Ben Elton’s stand up routine but I have to admire his writing. The Blackadder series was surreal, satirical and superb. None more so than the last ever episode. I think the final scene was a perfect ending to the series.


Well we have come to the end of the trail I guess. Most of the good ideas have been and gone and just about any sitcom or stand up routine in modern times will trace its ancestry through the timeline I have described in this missive.

Everyone reading this will have different favourites to me and to each other. Comedy has many facets but in reading this part of my blog you have found out what I like. Feel free to comment and please share this blog with your friends. Thankyou for reading!

One more time!

This is more of a quote from Tommy Cooper:

“I was complimented on my driving the other day. I went up to the car and someone had stuck a note on saying “Parking Fine.” I thought that was very nice!”








A one liner from Tommy Cooper to get us on our way:

“They always say start at the bottom if you want to learn something. But suppose you want to learn to swim?”

We ended Act One with the fall of the Roman Empire. Hardly a laugh a year at the best of times, but drama whether tragic or comic disappeared.

But all empires come to an end. That of the Roman Empire is put at around 476AD. After that the former empire was subject to fights and battles, treaties made, treaties broken. But it would be around 1400 years from Terence to the writing of the next comedy play anywhere.

Nothing appears to have been written for performance. Royal households appear in various countries. We hear of the Court Jester or The Fool appearing at certain times but much of it is anecdotal evidence. There is a certain amount of evidence to suggest that in Saxon times mentally disabled people were plied with alcohol and allowed to wonder around the Banqueting Hall to the amusement of the guests. Not for nothing were they called the Dark Ages!

Over a thousand years there is nothing to show of any written word intended for entertainment. Only in religious orders does any form of “play” take place. Eventually these will become the “Mystery” plays performed at York and one or two other places. There may have been “Fools” and “Court Jesters” in the Royal courts of Europe but outside the palaces and castles the ordinary people would have to find their own amusement until around the 15th century. This would usually be in the form of a “Mummers Play.” This would be a masked performance normally based on old folk tales but usually performed around a notable date in the Christian calendar. But nothing was written down! The first notes for such plays would not appear until the early nineteenth century.

The first comedy written in English – Ralph Roister Doister.” Was written in about 1553 by one Norman Udall. A comedy about the failed attempt of the hero to woo a lady. Udall was a tutor at Westminster College and the play would be performed by the pupils some eleven years after his death in 1566. Udall has his place in theatrical history but would never have known it! It all seems very odd indeed. Shortly after another comedy appeared with the wonderful title of Gammer Gurton’s Needle. Author unknown. Again performed by schoolboys. The story revolves around a missing needle. No prizes for guessing how the needle is discovered!

This neatly places us in the year 1564. On Sunday 23 April in Stratford-Upon-Avon Mr and Mrs Shakespeare become the proud parents of a son. They decide to call him William. Within thirty years a theatre-writing renaissance would be in full swing. It would match the Athenian theatrical era but unlike Greece this particular period of writing would ensure that theatrical performances would continue until the present day. In Florence of course their Renaissance had begun some time before. Leonardo da Vinchi was born in 1452 and died in 1519. Michelangelo was born in 1475 and appropriately enough died in 1564. Culture had finally arrived in Western Europe!

Even before Shakespeare was born the green shoots of theatre were starting slowly but surely to emerge. Back in Henry the Eighth’s court there were “Fools” working in court and the first indication we have of an appointed Court Jester. The first one we can name that is. He was called Will Somers and survived the reign of one of the most temperamental kings of England. He must have been very good! Henry also had his own acting and dancing troupe attached to court. This would develop as the in thing across Tudor England. Those with money and large houses would have a minstrels gallery above the dining hall. At the time the travelling players and musicians were becoming evident. There were no theatres to perform in. Their usual stage would be the courtyards of large inns.


The George Inn at Southwark.

An example of early Elizabethan  theatre

The players would use the courtyard and the audience such as it was would stand in the galleries around the upper floor. The stage would be a few planks of wood thrown across a couple of trestles. But what they said or sung is not known. However someone, somewhere must have upset the authorities because in 1572 the strolling players were banned. The excuse being that by constantly moving to and fro across the country they were likely to spread the plague. I think the more likely reason is that they were taking the mickey out of their elders and betters and those in authority were quick to stamp on it. However the pressure for entertainment was growing and in 1574 the Earl of Leicester was allowed to build an outdoor theatre. From that point theatres both indoor and outdoor would be built.

Shakespeare could of course fill a whole evening of discussion. His plays continue to be performed around the world. Comedy or tragedy the language and imagery used in his plays remain unmatched. Every so often over the last five hundred years some bright spark comes up with the suggestion that only a few of the lesser plays were written by Shakespeare and that the majority of them were written by Marlow or Bacon or who ever. It has provoked endless discussion over the years. The best response I have read is this: It is all about intellectual snobbery. Bacon and Marlowe were university educated. Shakespeare only went to a Grammar School. How could he possibly have the ability to write these plays. “And he was brought up in Stratford for goodness sake!” The arguments have tended to fade in recent years. But here we are concerned with the comedies. The first one of Shakespeare’s comedies to be performed was “A Comedy of Errors.” This is the direct link between the Elizabethan theatre and that of the Roman theatre. Shakespeare took his plot from a play called “Menaechmi” by Plautus. In the Roman play the plot revolves around a set of twins and mistaken identity. In A Comedy of Errors the plot revolves around two sets of twins and mistaken identity. The play was first performed in 1594. Shakespeare wrote fourteen comedies. The final one to be performed was A Winters Tale. Although I find the play more tragic than comic it does contain the classic stage direction. Exit pursued by a bear!

These plays would be performed in daylight and the theatres would be structures of wood and it would more than likely be theatre in the round until bigger theatres were built. It was not until 1574 that plays were allowed to be performed on weekdays. The expensive seats were up in the galleries down to the cheap seats for the “groundlings” who sat on the floor! They would pay a penny to get in. As they came through a doorway they would be expected to put a penny in the box on the floor alongside the doorway. It soon became apparent that the number of people sitting on the floor did not always equal the amount of pennies in the box. So a recess was made by the doorway and the box placed on a shelf with someone from the theatre keeping an eye on it. From this simple operation we derive the term “Box Office!” This is the stage of the original Globe Theatre. Its modern replica is well worth a visitthe-globe-theatre4

Shakespeare’s main rival and friend at this time was Ben Jonson. Jonson wrote the Alchemist, Volpone, and Bartholmew Fair among others. He was imprisoned for sedition for writing his first play, after that he fought a duel with an actor and was found guilty of murder. He escaped hanging by persuading the authorities that as the son of a clergyman he had what was known as “benefit of clergy.” This apparently gets you off a hanging! He did not stay in prison for too long and his first play on release numbered William Shakespeare among the cast. Volpone is the play most performed in modern times. All the characters are named after animals, Volpone being the Fox. He pretends to be about to die just so he can hear what people have to say about him. It all goes badly wrong!

Shakespeare died in 1616*, allegedly on the same day that he was born, 23 April. Jonson died in 1632. Between them they had established comedy as one of the driving forces of the London theatre.

Queen Elizabeth the First had died in 1603. She was a strong monarch and gave active support to the Tudor theatre. Not so some of her courtiers who saw the theatre as a threat to good order. During the reign of James the First theatre went on without any outstanding events. The plays of Johnson and Shakespeare tending to hold sway. Charles the First did little to encourage the theatre and although plays were still performed in public more and more tended to be performed in private houses. Then came the Civil War, and Oliver Cromwell, who immediately banned all theatrical performances in public theatres. This was not, as may be thought, just out of puritan dislike for people having fun but a purely practical decision. Theatres could hold up to 2000 people. A theatre audience could easily become a mob and mob could easily cause a riot. Cromwell died and so did the puritan movement as his successors lacked his skill and resolution. Charles the Second was restored to the throne in 1660.

Well you might think after all those years of puritan misery all the theatres would be opened and enjoyment would be the order of the day. Not so. Like Cromwell Charles and his followers were scared that large gatherings of people could cause problems. They did however allow theatrical performance. Letters patent were issued to two men who were allowed to operate a theatre each. This became known as legitimate theatre. Other theatres were used for musical gatherings, impromptu readings and the like. They were not allowed to charge for the performance of say Shakespeare. One of the patent theatres was at Drury Lane. The one you see now is the fourth one built on the site the other three having burnt down! The latest was built in 1822 and the last structural re-altering was in 1901. The other theatre was a converted Real tennis court in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In the mid-seventeenth century the area was a field although Portugal Street was in existence, indeed that was the address of the theatre. That is the street that runs behind the old Land Registry building. The theatre was located more or less where the College of Surgeons now stands. It was built to the latest specifications internally and contained all the up-to-date scenery and effects that money could buy. It operated for about sixty years. During the reign of Charles the Second actresses appeared on the stage for the first time. One of whom was probably famous more for her name than her acting, Nell Gwyn was her name.

What is amazing about this period is that the letters patent were not revoked until 1843! In the restoration period there were plays by Dryden, Wycherley, Goldsmith and Sheridan. Government interference continued. So much so that theatre audiences dropped off. The two high points of theatre attendance in this country set against population are during the reign of Elizabeth the First and the period of a few years before the start of World War Two. Shakespeare went out of fashion due in no small measure to someone called Colley Cibber producing his own adaptations of Shakespeares work. It would be well into the second half of the nineteenth century before Shakespeare regained his place as the most performed playwright. In 1737 Prime Minister Walpole felt offended by a play written by Henry Fielding and it is believed orchestrated the production of a play which he claimed insulted the royal family. He then enacted a bill which instructed that in future all plays had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for approval before they could be performed. Bad news all round and for the next two hundred years or so! The law was not repealed until 1968! There are playwrights living today who have had to submit their work to the Lord Chamberlain.

The 18th century saw the spread of theatre to the provinces and the establishment of repertory companies. The end of the eighteenth century saw the first versions of pantomime performed in the country. This particular form originated in Italy where the main characters were Harlequin, Columbine, Pantalone and clown. The performances were called Harliquinades. Into the nineteenth century and the theatres were bigger, by this time no notice was taken of the letters patent. Audiences were becoming more rowdy and theatre going was starting to become an unpleasant experience. Theatres were becoming grubby, shabby buildings. The actors profession was becoming one to disdain. The remedy was to improve the theatres, the lighting, the décor the onstage scenery, and the standards of performance. It worked.

However in the East End of London and in other major cities communities were setting up their own entertainment. The larger public houses would fit in a makeshift stage at one end and encourage their customers to do a turn. Thus we have the beginning of music hall. Before this comedy had been presented in a theatre and always the play would have been written by a rich middle class man. Yes people of all classes would attend depending on the play but music hall was comedy for the working class because the performers were from the same streets where they the audience lived. If we trace the birth of comedy plays back to Ancient Greece then the birth of modern comedy took place in the music halls of London and all the other major cities in the Untied Kingdom. Here for the first time someone would stand up in front of an audience and tell jokes. The audience would have paid to see them and the performer would be paid. Very quickly music hall moved out of the public houses.

And there we end Act Two … the final Act will tell the story of the Queen of Music Hall

I leave you in the tender care of Mr Tommy Cooper:

Tommy was leaving the theatre and just getting into his car when a man came running up to him, “Mr Cooper, Mr Cooper, please Mr Cooper can you give me lift please Mr Cooper can you give me lift?” Tommy took one step back looked the man up and down and said: “ You look great, the world is your oyster, go for it!”


* I commend the novel ‘Fools and Mortals’ by Bernard Cornwell for a wonderful description of life in Shakesperean England. The title is taken from Pucks line in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”







Back in 2008 I gave a talk to the Land Registry History Society called ‘A History of Comedy.’ This is the amended script. My talk was over an hour long and so before you now is Act One.     Enjoy…                                           tragedy-comedy-icons

                          ACT ONE

To be more precise it is really my history of comedy. It will be biased, politically incorrect and probably xenophobic! As we get to modern times your favourite comedians may or may not get a mention but I cannot discuss every comedy act there has ever been otherwise I would be writing forever! What I hope to do is show you the landmarks of comedy from how it evolved in Ancient Greece to more modern times. Also I hope to show you how performed comedy has made the journey across two thousand years or more. Performed comedy as we know it is written down, the script learned and then staged. Of course visual comedy has been around since Neanderthal times. The caveman on his way back from a hunting trip falls over a rock and lands face down in a puddle. Cue laughter from his fellow cavemen! The fact that the victim then tries to club his mates to death need not concern us here!

Before we head for Ancient Greece I thought I would set the tone for this blog with an item from the Tommy Cooper joke book.

“Blind man and his dog walk into a department store. The man picks up the dog and starts to whirl it around his head. A horrified shop assistant rushes over to him and asks: “Excuse me sir, is everything all right?”   “YEP,” replies the blind man, “Just looking.”

Just like that! More from Mr Cooper in a couple of thousand years. And so to Ancient Greece, or rather Ancient Athens.



This is the Parthenon. Or as Eric Morecombe might have said, “That won’t keep the rain out!” And it is the Parthenon, not the Acropolis. The Acropolis, the translation of which is “High City” is the large rocky area on which the Parthenon stands. It was the seat of administration for the city of Athens. Below the Acropolis would live the slaves, criminals and workers. Those with money lived well above it all!

The origins of Theatre began in Athens. Performances may well have taken place in other parts of Greece but all the historical evidence available shows that Athens was the starting point. And of course Athens was the starting point for civilisation in Western Europe. Here was born democracy, the art of political debate, trial by jury, literature, language, and the beauty of art in sculpture and design. Democracy in Athens was for a very select band of citizens. To be able to vote you had to be rich and male. Thus, Athens was controlled by those who had a vested interest in its prosperity. But they still voted and adopted principles of discussion that have survived the centuries. Athens in particular and Greece in general would come under all sorts of pressure from forces outside and inside the country. If it wasn’t the Persians, it was the Spartans, if not them it was the Macedonians and then along came the bloody Romans to nick all their ideas! There were various other petty squabbles too numerous to mention. The one thing I omitted when mentioning what the city of Athens had been responsible for was of course theatre. From out of this theatrical tradition was born comedy. Greek scholars seem to think from the various documentary sources they have consulted that there may well have been at least eighty playwrights over the period we are looking at. However we only have the works of three dramatists and two writers of comedy available to read. I thought I would show you a time line to put all of the above into context. Education, education, education! (The only good words ever issued by the idiot Blair!)



I thought the Romans should be allowed in as they stole all the Greek plots anyway!

Across this timeline we have the birth of Socrates (470) who had Plato (428) as a pupil. Plato in turn was the tutor to Aristotle (384) who in turn was the tutor of Alexander the Great! Got all that? And just to add to the mix there were various wars and battles raging around the Mediterranean.

Greek theatre was born out of idol worship, fertility rites and poetry readings which fused into theatre. The early plays would have consisted of a chorus of say twelve men chanting the lines. In the fifth century BC Thespis comes along. He is the playwright credited with introducing the first actor into the proceedings and the use of the masks of tragedy and comedy which now adorn most theatres in one way or another. Thespis was the first actor to actually play a character rather than someone just reading out statements. Thespis is well remembered by his followers. You will find a good few of them along Shaftesbury Avenue around 7:30 on most evenings. They are known as Thespians! So now you know!

In between the battles and wars you will see the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Say that after a glass or two! And I’ve still got Aristophanes to come! But a chorus and one actor was hard work for the one actor. Thus by the time Euripides came along it was the chorus and three actors! The actors would play all the characters, hence the masks. The mask as such is still in use today of course. Though it is now called make-up and costume. The plays of the three I mentioned were all tragedies based on Greek mythology. No playwright at that time would have had the nerve to portray contemporary issues. They would be all male casts. No violence would take place on stage. And in Greek mythology there is quite a bit of violence! Any one due to be killed as part of the play would be taken off stage. Suitable cries of anguish would be heard and the “dead” body carried back onto the stage.

A couple of play titles you may be familiar with that are still performed today, The Oresteia, Oedipus the King and Elektra. The Oresteia by Aeschylus gets an airing every ten years or so on BBC2!!! This is the one about Clytemnestra and her lover plotting to kill her husband Agememnon.   Then her son plots to kill her and someone plots to kill him and there is blood everywhere! One thing to come out of the Oresteia is that at the trial of Orestes, the son mentioned above, is found not guilty by virtue of the fact that the jury cannot agree. In the play the goddess Athena states that in any other future trial whenever the jury cannot agree the defendant must be found not guilty. The Oresteia is a trilogy and can be hard to follow.

So with all this gloom and doom around the Athenian play going public must have been in desperate need of a good laugh!So along came Aristophanes overlapping Sophocles and Euripides. He would use some of his work to take the mickey out of his predecessors but the play that tends to be performed the most today is one beloved of amateur theatre groups. Lysistrata. Why so popular? Well the plot centres around a central theme. The ladies of a particular Greek town inform their menfolk that unless they stop constantly going off to fight there will be no more sex when they return home. It sells tickets! Though I would guess that back in Ancient Athens it was seen as an anti-war play. Comedies were far more daring in that they dealt with contemporary issues and were not afraid to satirize the great and the good. Although that would come to end when Athens came under the domination of Macedonia. Then as now people from that area are sadly lacking in humour! Mind you it is not just the Macedonians. We do of course  have the laugh a minute Germans. I’m not sure but whenever I hear a German man speaking for all I know they could be giving the weather forecast; why then does it always sound as if they are declaring war on Poland? But given the choice between German and Afrikaans give me German. That South African accent can cut plated steel at fifty paces. I believe the white South Africans are descended from the Dutch whom I have always thought of as a friendly lot. I  regard white South Africans as sort of Germans with sun tans!


Now where were we……………………The Greek plays yes……

The plays were acted out on the stage of the classic Greek theatre.


The terms used for various parts of the theatre have passed onto us in translation. The rear area would be known as the “Theatron.” From which we get theatre. Theatron translates as “seeing place.” Not to be confused with the Latin word Auditorium which translates as “hearing place!” The flat area in front of the audience was known as the orchestra. The large wall at the rear was known as the skene and behind that another wall which came around both sides of the raised area was known as the “Proskenion.” This word translated to “Proscenium. As in arch which is now the standard outline in all theatres at the front of the stage. Theatres were normally built into hillsides to allow the terracing to be supported and shaped to ensure the acoustics were at their best.

Aristophanes died in 380BC. After that there is another name mentioned in the Greek theatre, Menander. He is generally accepted as the link between the Greek Theatre and the start of theatre in this country some 1500 years later. He became the first Greek writer to use everyday domestic situations as the themes for his plays. Mistaken identity, father does not like the look of future son-in-law, romance going wrong, you might say it was the start of situation comedy! Menander had a rival playwright called Philemon about whom not much is known. Other than they appeared to vie for the affections of the same lady in their life!

Menander is believed to have written over 100 plays but only a couple survive plus fragments of others. In the first decade of the 20th century a hugh pile of ancient manuscripts was discovered in the ruins of an ancient settlement about 100 miles south of Cairo. Known as the Cairo Codex they found fairly mundane things among the papyrus but they also found a number of ancient Greek items which included some of Menanders work. Most of the excavated paper went to Oxford and some of it is still waiting for translation! Some of it was of course in a dire state and only recently with modern techniques have researchers been able to read the original writing which has been burnt by the sun, buried in the sand and generally mistreated! In 1957, again in Egypt one complete play of Menanders was discovered. Menander lived and worked during Macedonian rule. That would probably explain why he chose ordinary people for his characters, not wishing to offend the ruling elite. However for historians he epitomises Greek New Comedy.

He drowned while swimming of Piraeus in 291 BC. After that date there are no records of any other Greek playwrights. Although undoubtedly the plays of the writers we have mentioned would have been performed. The Romans conquered Greece in 146BC.

In Rome the works of the Greek playwrights would have been performed and would have been the inspiration to Roman playwrights. While the works of a number of Roman writers have come down to us only two playwrights have survived the Roman Empire. Titus Maccius Plautus was born in 254BC and started out on a career as a merchant. He was quite successful until a number of ships carrying valuable cargo belonging to him were sunk without trace. This bankrupted him and he took a job working in a grain mill. He had been involved in the embryonic Roman stage as a youth and what spare time he had from the mill he put to writing. Depends who you read but the number of plays that have come down that are accredited to him is anywhere between one hundred down to twenty-one. The majority seem to favour twenty-one. All of them derivative of Greece and all of them set in Athens. Roman rulers did not take kindly to theatrical productions and plays were performed on temporary stages. The work of Plautus would be used by Stephen Sondheim in his musical, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

“Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone, a comedy tonight!”

The second Roman playwright was one Publius Terentius Afer. Known to history simply as Terence. He was born in Carthage in 190BC. Captured and taken as a slave to Rome. There his master made sure the boy was educated. Seeing that he undoubtedly had talent he was encouraged to write by his master. His first play was produced when he was nineteen. His master rewarded him with his freedom and allowed him to take the name by which he became famous. Sadly his life was cut short when he was drowned at sea on his way to Greece. An identical death to that of his hero and inspiration Menander. He was thirty-one. All his plays were Latin adaptations of the works of Menander. But this ensured his place in history and most theatrical histories place Menander and Terence as the main influences on early theatrical writing in Western Europe.

The first theatre in Rome was built by Pompey in about 55BC. The objections to theatre building were overcome by naming it the Temple of Venus. It just happened to have a stage and seating for thousands of people! Excavations on the site where it was built indicate that it was probably the largest theatre ever built.



However the two playwrights whose names we have were long gone by the time it was built.

For the average Roman theatre did not provide enough thrills. By the time the Republic had ended and Rome was ruled by an Emperor there was little evidence of any sort of dramatic writing, comedy or otherwise. The theatres would be used for acrobats, jugglers, mime shows but even they gave way in the end to the live show at the Coliseum. Here of course gladiatorial contests were fought to the death. With the coming of Christianity the shows in the Coliseum became even more gruesome. The Roman population never tired of the result “Lions Three Christians nil!

But all empires come to an end. That of the Roman Empire is put at around 476AD. After that the former empire was subject to fights and battles, treaties made, treaties broken. But it would be around 1400 years from Terence to the writing of the next comedy play anywhere.



                            STAY TUNED!