Mornings of a Recently Retired Writer

What on earth d’you do now you’ve packed it in, people ask? Won’t know what to do with yourself. All those hours stretching out before the Six O’Clock News; a life measured in cups of tea and ginger biscuits and just popping round to the shops, shan’t be a minute; the game shows and stair lift commercials that clutter up afternoon TV. You must get bored silly.

Well, if you’ve any sense, the one thing you don’t do – as a friend of mine in a similar situation heartily agreed when the subject came up recently – is switch off the alarm clock and lay around in bed for hours, surrounded by half-read books and yesterday’s paper, the radio not quite tuned to the station and getting up to set it right too much of an effort. That way lies …. well, I don’t want to stop and consider exactly what.

So … the answer? Get up, early; within reason the earlier the better and with a sense of purpose. For my friend, it’s the allotment and taking the grandkids to school; for me, well, five mornings a week it’s this …

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Coming up to a quarter past seven, my partner’s just back from her morning run and I’ve been up for half an hour or so (the sound of the front door closing as she leaves, the click of the front gate, my signals to rise). Walking shoes on, pockets suitably filled, it’s time for me to leave, heading for Parliament Hill Fields and the edge of Hampstead Heath. Passing round the back of Acland Burghley school – where they recently filmed scenes for the second series of Killing Eve, and which, my father attended many years before, when it was plain Burghley Road School – the arse, as he used to say, hanging out of his trousers – till he left to start work at the age of fifteen – I cut through the housing estate and onto Highgate Road. Most mornings, the newsagent is behind his counter, always with a smile; sometimes standing waiting in the doorway, Guardian in hand.

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I head for the Lido and the small café that has been operating there for several years. With any luck, Alessio will be the barista on duty. If you’re limiting yourself to one coffee a day, then it had better be a good one and that’s what he provides without fail. Morning, Alessio!

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I’m almost the only customer this early and so I’ll sit for fifteen minutes or so, reading the paper and enjoying the coffee, until the swimmers start to come in from the pool and it’s time for me to start walking.

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The path that rises directly up from the Lido opens out to give views back across the centre of the city …

 

 

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… and up towards the summit of the Hill …

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… turning then between the trees …

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… and down towards a line of ponds. Highgate No. 1 Pond; the Men’s Bathing Pond; the Model Boating Pond and the Bird Sanctuary Pond – the Ladies’ Bathing Pond secure behind the trees.  At this time of the morning, at least one of the benches alongside the Boating Pond will be free so I take the chance to sit for five minutes or so and catch my breath,  gazing back across to the other side. I remember when my father and I launched my model yacht here and the wind dropped suddenly, leaving it becalmed and the two of us waiting for what seemed hours for the wind to get up again and propel it back to shore. This walk, like so many others, a walk into my past.

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Circling the pond, I head back towards Highgate Road and the area known as Dartmouth Park, the pavements busy by now with students on their way to one of three schools that are clustered close together: William Ellis, La Sainte Union and Parliament Hill. If I turn my head to the left before crossing the railway bridge to where we live (literally, on the wrong side of the tracks), I can see what was my father’s parents’ house – the last in the row – where I used to go after school and do my homework – unless my Nan fancied a trip to Chapel Street Market, or, if I’d somehow earned a treat, down to the little fleapit of a cinema, the Gaisford in Kentish Town, to see Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers.

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Once over the bridge, I’m almost home. My feet are starting to ache a little. My pedometer says 3.2 miles; the kitchen clock tells me it’s time to get on with the rest of the day.

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iPod Shuffle, September 2015

 

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  • Susie’s Blues, Serge Chaloff : Blue Serge
  • Your Song, Elton John : Tumbleweed Connection
  • Cotton Tail, Duke Ellington : Highlights of the Great 1940-1942 Band
  • Give Us a Great Big Kiss, The Shangri-Las : Leaders of the Pack
  • Meet Mister Rabbit, Bob Wallis Storeyville Jazzmen : The Pye Jazz Anthology
  • Goin’ Home, Ken Colyer : New Orleans to London
  • Perfect Day, Lou Reed : Transformer
  • She Believes In Me, John Stewart : California Bloodlines
  • I’ll See You in My Dreams, Anita O’Day : Anita
  • Ad Lib Blues, Lester Young w. the Oscar Peterson Trio : The President Plays

Aside from the fact that there’s no Monk, this is pretty much a typical mix for my iPod to throw back at me, most usually when I walking mid-morning around Hampstead Heath. The first track is by my favourite baritone sax player (Joe Temperley being a close second) and comes from an album I’ve been playing on and off for years, first in vinyl and then on CD. “Cotton Tail” (or “Cottontail” if you prefer), with Ben Webster sweeping all before him on tenor, is one of those absolutely classic Ellington tunes, along with “Harlem Air Shaft”, “Concerto for Cootie”, “Jack the Bear”, “Ko-ko” and “In a Mellotone”, that are, to my mind, amongst the very greatest big band pieces ever recorded, and have been a staple for me as a fan and as a listener since I first came across them, which would have been somewhere in the mid-50s.

The two British tracks are both oddities in a way, at least as far as my usual listening is concerned. I was never a big fan of the Ken Colyer Band; his approach was too rigid in its fixation with old-fashioned New Orleans sound for my liking (though that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the hospitality of some all-nighters at the old 51 Club by Leicester Square) but there was always something about this tune (adapted from Dvorak, would you believe?) that’s always appealed to me, not least Ken’s vocal. This is the cream of the early cream outfit, by the way, with Chris Barber on trombone, Monty Sunshine on clarinet and Lonnie Donegan on banjo.

I once had breakfast in the same B&B as the Bob Wallis Band, the occasion being the Cleethorpes Jazz Festival of 1961; I was spending the summer working on a hot dog stall in the seaside town of Mablethorpe lower down the east coast and had nipped up there for the weekend. I always considered the Wallis band as second rate compared to other bands who rose to fame on the crest of the just-pre-rock ‘n’ roll Trad Boom, scorning the few minor pop hits they enjoyed courtesy of Wallis’s throaty versions of old music hall songs such as “Knocking ‘Em in the old Kent Road” and “I’m Shy, Mary Ellen, I’m shy”. The anthology of their work from which the track selected here – “Meet Mister Rabbit” – comes, however, suggests both a higher standard of musicianship and a broader repertoire than I would have believed – both due, to a great extent, I’m sure, to the presence of one of the most under-rated of British jazz musicians, Al Gay, who played tenor, clarinet and soprano with a number of bands from the 60s on, most notably several versions of the Alex Welsh Band. As the title suggests, “Meet Mister Rabbit” is a composition by Ellington’s alto player, Johnny Hodges, his nickname being Rabbit, and the Wallis band have a creditable go at recreating an Ellington/Hodges small band sound, with Al Gay outstanding on tenor.

What does that leave? The Anita O’Day track comes from an album simply called “Anita”, the original of which was one of the first few LPs I ever bought – 1956, possibly – I still have it, torn cover and all – with arrangements by Buddy Bregman featuring four trombones, and, as here, the guitar of Barney Kessel.

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John Stewart was an American singer-songwriter who was never quite folk (before his solo career, he was a long-serving member of the Kingston Trio), never quite country, and for a brief period, when he was produced by Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, almost, but never quite a Rock star. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I was introduced to Stewart’s work by the late Lawrence James, with whom I wrote, amongst other ventures, the Herne the Hunter western series. I was lucky enough to get to know Stewart a little during his many visits to this country and have always enjoyed him greatly, both as a writer and a performer. (Along with the television producer Colin Rogers – who produced the TV versions of the first two Resnick novels, back in 1992 – I had several discussions with Stwart about a  play I was writing which would feature, if not the man himself, then his music. Sadly, it came to nothing. My bad, as my younger daughter might say.)

Both the Lou Reed and the Elton John are perfect in their way. As for the Shangri-Las … Shadow Morton’s productions are like Douglas Sirk melodramas in under three minutes.

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