Kingsley Amis spends an evening with Dylan Thomas

May 5, 2014 at 6:33 am (BBC, beer, culture, literature, poetry, posted by JD, whisky, wild man, wireless)

Portrait of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas with wife Caitlin Thomas. Picture: Lebrecht  Thomas with wife Caitlin 

For no particular reason that I can fathom (the centenary of his birth is not until this coming October), BBC Radio 3 has decreed today ‘Dylan Thomas Day’. Oh well, this gives me an excuse to republish Kingsley Amis’s account of a meeting with Thomas in 1951.  Amis had little time for Thomas either as a man or as a poet, as the following account makes clear. Surprisingly, and under circumstances that have never been made clear, Amis was appointed executor of Thomas’s estate.

This account was first published in the Spectator in 1957, republished in 1970 as part of the Amis anthology What Became of Jane Austin? and finally appeared again in modified form in Amis’s 1991 Memoirs. What appears below is from the latter, with the 1957 conclusion appended:


I met Dylan Thomas on a single evening in the spring of 1951, when he had accepted an invitation to give a talk to the English Society of the [University] College [of Swansea]. The secretary of the society, a pupil of mine, asked me if I would like to come along to the pub and meet Thomas before the official proceedings opened.  I said I would like to very much, for although I had lost all my earlier enthusiasm for his writing, I had heard a great deal, not only in Swansea, of his abilities as a talker and entertainer of his friends. I arranged with my wife and some of our own friends that we would try to get Thomas back into the pub after his talk and thereafter to our house just up the street from there. I got down the pub about six, feeling expectant.

The foregoing paragraph is based on a brief account I wrote of this meeting in the Spectator in 1957. If I had known about him then what I have since learnt, I would still have turned up, but with different expectations. For one things, I would certainly not have entertained the idea of getting him along to my house then or at any other time, indeed, would have done my best to conceal its location from him. I will now go on with a version of what I went on to write then, cut and amended where necessary.

Thomas was already in the pub, a glass of light ale before him and a half-circle of students round him. The impression he made was of apathy as much as anything. Also in attendance was, I said in 1957, a Welsh painter of small eminence whom I called Griffiths. In fact this person was a Welsh poet of small eminence by the name of John Ormond Thomas and later known professionally, I understand, as John Ormond. In the course of the session he told us several times that he had that day driven down from his house in Merionethshire (north Wales, now part of Gwynedd) on purpose to see Thomas, whom he had known, he said more than once, for several years. Thomas seemed very sedate, nothing like the great pub performer of legend. He was putting the light ales down regularly but without hurry. After some uninspired talk about his recent trip to America, he announced, in his clear, slow, slightly haughty, cut-glass Welsh voice, ‘I’ve just come back from Persia, where I’ve been pouring water on troubled oil.’

Making what was in those days my stock retort to the prepared epigram, I said boyishly, ‘I say, I must go and write that down.’ What I should have said, I now realise, was something much more like: ‘What? What are you talking about? That means nothing, and it isn’t funny or clever, it’s infantile playing with words, like that silly line of yours about the man in the wind and the man in the west moon. Or the phrase in that story about Highlanders being piping hot. They weren’t hot or piping hot, but saying so is a bit naughty, I agree. Taff.’

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Wojtek the soldier bear

September 23, 2012 at 6:19 pm (adventure, anti-fascism, beer, history, Jim D, strange situations, war)

I’ve always said that drinking beer can be an educative experience. I’ve just found out about Wojtek the anti-Nazi soldier-bear, from a the label of a bottle of beer

“He liked a cigarette, he liked a bottle of beer. He even drank his bottle of beer like any man.”

On the label of the (very nice) beer named after him, it says “Wojtek was a magnificent 500lb Syrian bear who served in WW2 alongside a unit of Polish soldiers. Believing he was a man, Wojtek shared their beer, their cigarettes and, eventually, their fate.”

Fascinating stuff, so I set about discovering more. There’s actually a whole lot of material about Wotjtek out there, including some films on Youtube, but my favourite is a somewhat demotic Yank site that names him “Badass of the Week” and concludes thus:

“The idea of a fucking alcoholic Nazi-fighting bear is so awesome that you’d think it was something out of a bizarre cartoon or a Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie.  It’s the sort of shit that, even with all of the historical evidence, seems too totally awesome to be true.  The bear was a hero of World War II, and there are statues of him and plaques memorializing his brave service in Poland, Edinburgh, the Imperial War Museum in London, and the Canadian War Museum.  Unbelieveable.”

Amongst his many exploits, Wojtek apparently  unmasked and captured a Nazi spy, and carried ammo to the front at the great battle of  Monte Cassino. Hence the official Polish army insignia, below:

Even allowing for a considerable amount of anthropomorphic exaggeration, Wojtek’s career as a Private (yes: the Poles enlisted him to get round an Allied army ban on pets) sounds pretty impressive.

The full story of Wojtek concludes with him ending his days in Edinburgh Zoo, where his old Polish comrades would often visit him with cigarettes and beer, and sometimes even jump into the enclosure for a wrestle – just for old times sake. So Wojtek’s story has a reasonably happy ending. I’d feared the worst, reading on the beer label that he shared everything with his comrades, including “eventually, their fate.” So perhaps beer bottles aren’t always the most reliable source of historical information. But – you must admit – it’s a great and strangely moving story, isn’t it?

P.S: I’ve now realised what the beer label means by “he shared … eventually, there fate.” Here’s the Beartown Brewery’s explanation, from its website: “[Wojtek] gave valuable hope and reassurance to his homeless Polish friends during a time of madness, fear and hostility. Poignantly at the end of the war, Wojtek’s fate was to mirror that of his beloved soldiers. Many of the Poles feared to return to their country due to Stalin’s political domination of the region. While Wojtek’s fate was to be confined behind another form of iron curtain at Edinburgh Zoo.”

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Eddie Yeats, the Higginsites and me: a confession

July 31, 2012 at 12:01 am (beer, comedy, good people, Jim D, socialism, SWP, TV, workers)

Geoffrey Hughes, actor, born February 2 1944; died of cancer, July 27, 2012, aged 68

The actor Geoffrey Hughes played many screen and stage roles in his career, including in Doctor Who, as Trinculo in The Tempest, and big-screen parts in films as different as The Bofors Gun and Carry On at Your Convenience. But he will always be best remembered for his stint as the Falstaffian ne’re-do-well Eddie Yeats in Cornonation Street between 1974 and 1983 – a role that effectively typcast him from then on as the archetypal “loveable rogue.”

I feel a particular affinity with the character of Eddie because, in the late seventies, my then-wife told me something along the lines of, “all your friends are like Eddie Yeats and Stan Ogden.” I knew exactly what she meant: at the time, many of my associates were boozy, jokey working class former members of the International Socialists who had just been expelled as part of the so-called “IS Opposition”, aka the “Higgins Group.” Several of these characters, like Eddie, were a bit dodgy. But most of them (also like Eddie) were essentially well-meaning “chancers” who neither knew nor cared much about legality and/or illegality, but who did know and care about the difference between good and evil. Like Eddie, they were invariably sentimentalists and failed romantics – men (and they were all men) whose hopes and dreams would never be realised and whose worldly-wise cynicism usually cloaked a profound generosity and decency… and sometimes great sadness too.

IS expelled them in 1975, as part of its purge of working class members. In truth, their expulsion – ruthless as it was – was probably warranted, but that’s another story. Certainly, no left-wing group would be able to accomodate such people these days (least of all the IS’s successor organisation, the SWP), which is a great pity.

Some of those guys gave me the best laughs and the truest friendships I’ve had in my entire life. I still, very occasionally, meet up with one or two of them, but increasingly rarely. Some, of course (like Higgins himself), are now dead. Whenever Eddie Yeats is mentioned I think of them. The death of Geoffrey Hughes brought back memories of those days, and those friends and comrades, with a degree of force and pathos that took me by surprise.

From the Times obit:

“On Coronation Street he [Eddie] moved in with Hilda and Stan [Ogden] as their lodger and the odd and sometimes awkward relationship between the three of them was one of the main attractions for many viewers. Eddie was forever turning up with dodgy goods for the residents. In one memorable storyline he delights the snobbish Annie Walker by procuring carpeting with her initials on it, until she discovers it came from the Alhambra Weatherfield bingo hall.”

Guardian obit here.

P.S: I should, perhaps, make it it clear that none of the above is intended to imply anything about Geoffrey Hughes’s political views, about which I know nothing. The Times obituary noted that “(He) latterly moved to the Isle of Wight, where he was appointed Deputy Lieutenant. He took an active interest in sailing and folk music and was involved in several charities. He is survived by his wife, Susan.”

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Jocky has left the oche

March 26, 2012 at 9:33 pm (beer, booze, class, Jim D, scotland, sport, wild man)

Jocky Wilson, dartist:  born 22 March 1950; died 24 March 2012

When the sad news came in yesterday, I vowed that Shiraz would pay tribute to Jocky Wilson, working class hero, drinker and sportsman sui generis. I had begun work on a piece when I happened upon a copy of today’s Times in the pub (where else?) and quickly realised that their man Giles Smith’s appreciation couldn’t be bettered. And as it’s shielded by Murdoch’s paywall, I reproduce it here in memory of a true class act:

Fans of the sport will raise a glass in tribute to one of its first superstars, writes Giles Smith:

It’s a little known fact about Jocky Wilson, the former world champion darts player, who has died, aged 62, that he was an accomplished pole-vaulter while at school. In time, a less athletic image of him would come to prevail: dart in the right hand, cigarette in the left, pint of lager on the table, brandy chaser next to it.

During his first years on the professional circuit, Wilson’s weight rose from 12 stone to 16 stone. It could be argued that although he was patently a good thing for darts, darts was not straightforwardly a good thing for him, a notion supported by the deflatingly circular nature of his career — from a council estate in Kirkcaldy, Fife, to two televised World Championships and household name status, and back to the council estate in Kirkcaldy.

Yet, in his pomp in the 1980’s, millions tuned in to catch the sight unimprovably described by Sid Waddell, the darts commentator, as “Jocky on the oche looking cocky”.

He was gruff, short and mop-headed — or in his own description, “fat, boozy and toothless”. Known as “Gumsy” by Bobby George (his more affable and better organised peer, who took him under his wing and led him onto the professional circuit), he was apt to remove his false teeth for comic purposes. Playing snooker, he would occasionaly use his dentures to mark the place of his cue ball while he polished it.

But the skills for which people knew him better included his astonishing consistency of throw, and also his equally rare gifts for intimidation and swearing. He was not above the use of physical threat (today we would call it “mind games”) and several times had occasion to launch himself into an audience to deal with hecklers on a one-to-one basis.

In an era when darts and the consumption of alcohol in heroic quantities were wedded to one another, Wilson celebrated the marriage more earnestly than most.

It is said that he seldom drank at home, but he made up for it professionally. He was once so drunk at the end of a match that he went to shake his opponent’s hand, missed and fell off the stage into a drum kit.

Among his favourite fuels was “Magic Coke” — a litre bottle of Coke with half of the Coke poured away and replaced with vodka. This could be consumed with the appearance of innocence even after alcohol was banished from the oche.

Such purification didn’t much suit Wilson, who seemed to find it harder to be the championship-clinching force he was without drink and nicotine readily to hand. His consequent withdrawal into reclusion in the mid-1990’s only had the effect of burnishing his legend. Darts seemed to have its first tortured genius figure.

There were some prosaic contributing factors, though. Wilson had owed £70,000 following a management dispute and then was hit with a £27,000 tax bill. To pay it off, he undertook a punishing schedule of exhibition matches and tournament appearances around the country — only to be diagnosed in 1992 with diabetes. He appears to have come off the road in order to save himself.

The sport understandably wanted to celebrate him and made efforts on several occasions to lure him out of hiding. All of them, along with most visitors to his one-bedroom council flat, were flatly rebuffed.

When the inaugural Jocky Wilson Cup in his honour was staged in Glasgow, he consented to lend his voice to a brief message of thanks over the phone, but no more. He preferred to live privately with his Argentian-born wife Malvina (who had a tough time of it during the Falklands War), and to leave his legacy intact. And maybe there was some high-mindedness and some courage in that.

Either way, his legacy includes some unrepeatable nights of televised entertainment in the 1980s, a plethora of salty stories, and a handy tip as to the best way to beat Eric “The Crafty Cockney” Bristow: “Hide the bastard’s fags.”

Sid Waddell in the Graun, here.

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Lucky Jim’s morning after

December 30, 2011 at 11:53 am (beer, Jim D, literature, whisky)

More from that hangover expert, Kingsley Amis:

Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eye-balls again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.

Fom Lucky Jim (pub. 1953).

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Amis on Drink: Mean Sod’s Guide

December 27, 2010 at 12:14 pm (beer, Christmas, expenses, food, Jim D, whisky, wine)

[At this time of austerity many of us neverthless feel obliged to hold a party. So here are some useful tips from Kingsley Amis, the master of mean-spirited parsimony and calculated vindictiveness at party-time]:

The point here is not simply to stint your guests on quality and quantity – any fool can pre-pour Moroccan red into burgundy bottles, or behave as if all knowledge of the existence of drink has been suddenly excised from his brain at 10 p.m. – but to screw them while seeming, at any rate to their wives, to have done them rather well. Note the limitation: your ideal objective is a quarrel on the way home between each husband and wife, he disparaging your hospitality, she saying you were very sweet and thoughtful and he is just a frustrated drunk. Points contributing to this end are marked *.

* 1. Strike at once by, on their arrival, presenting each lady with a rose and each gent with bugger-all. Rub this in by complimenting each lady on her appearance and saying in a stentorian undertone to the odd gent, “I heard you hadn’t been so well” (=pissed as a lizard every day) or “You’re looking much better than when I saw you last” (ie with that emperor-sized hangover).

2. Vital requirement: prepare pre- and post-dinner drinks in some undiscoverable pantry or broom-cupboard well away from the main scene. This will not only screen your niggardliness; it will also make the fetching of each successive round look like a slight burden, and *will cast an unfavourable limelight on any individual determined to wrest additional drinks out of you. Sit in a specially deep easy-chair, and practice getting out of it with a mild effort and, later in the evening, a just-audible groan, though beware of overdoing this.

3. As regards the pre-dinner period, procedures vary. The obvious one is to offer only one sort of drink, a “cup” or “punch” made of cheap red wine, soda water, a glass of cooking sherry if you can plunge that far, and a lot of fresh fruit to give an illusion of lavishness. Say you invented it and add menacingly that it has more of a kick than might be expected. Serve in small glasses.

The cold-weather varient of this – same sort of wine, water, small glass of cooking brandy heated in a saucepan, pinch of nutmeg on top of each glass or mug – is more trouble, but it has two great advantages. One is that you can turn the trouble to positive account by spending nearly all your time either at the cooker, conscientiously making sure the stuff goes on being hot enough, or walking from the cooker – much more time than you spend actually giving people drinks. The other gain is that after a couple of doses your guests will be pouring with sweat and largely unable to take any more. (Bank up the fire or turn up the heating to aid this effect, remembering to reduce the temperature well before the kicking-out stage approaches.)

If, faced with either of these, any old-stager insists on, say, Scotch, go to your pantry and read the paper for a few minutes before filling the order. * Hand the glass over with plenty of emphasis, perhaps bawling as you do so, “One large Scotch whisky delivered as ordered, sah!”

Should you feel, as you would have reason to, that this approach is getting a little shiny with use, set your teeth and give everybody a more or less proper drink. You can salve your pocket, however, by adding a tremendous lot of ice to fill up the glass (troublesome, but cheaper than alcohol), or, in the case of martinis, by dropping in an olive the size of a baby’s fist (see Thunderball, by Ian Fleming, chapter 14). Cheat on later drinks as follows: in preparing a gin and tonic, for instance, put the tonic and ice and thick slice of lemon in first and pour on them a timbleful of gin over the back of a spoon, so that it will linger near the surface and give a strong-tasting first sip, which is the one that counts. A friend of mine, whose mother-in-law gets a little excited after a couple of drinks, goes one better in preparing her third by pouring tonic on ice, wetting a fingertip with gin and passing it round the rim of the glass, but victims of this procedure must be selected with extreme care. Martinis should be as cold as before, but with plenty of melted ice. Whiskies are more difficult. Use the back-of-the-spoon technique with coloured glasses, or use then darkest brand you can find. Water the sherries.

4. Arrange dinner early, and see that the food is plentiful, however cheap it is. You can get away with not serving wine with the first course, no matter what it may be. When the main course is on the table, “suddenly realise” you have not opened the wine, and proceed to do so with a lot of cork-popping. The wine itself will not, of course, be French or German; let us call it Ruritanian Gold Label. Pour it with ceremony, explaining that you and your wife (*especially she) “fell in love with it” on holiday there and will be “interested” in people’s reactions. When these turn out to consist of polite, or barely polite, silence, either say nostalgically that to appreciate it perhaps you have to have drunk a lot of it with that marvellous local food under the sun, etc., or announce bluffly, “Doesn’t travel well, does it? Doesn’t travel.” Judge your audience.

5. Sit over the remains of dinner as long as you dare or can bear to, then take the company off to the drawing-room and make  great play with doling out coffee. By this stage (a vague, prolonged one anyhow), a good half-hour of abrupt and total forgetfulness about the very idea of drink can profitably be risked. At its end “suddenly realize” you have imposed a drought and offer brandy, explaining a good deal less than half apologetically that you have no cognac, only a “rather exceptional” Armagnac. This, of course, produced with due slowness from your pantry, is a watered-down cooking brandy from remote parts of France or from South Africa – a just-potable that will already, did they but know it, be familiar to those of your guests who have drunk “Armagnac” at the average London restaurant. * Ask the ladies if they would care to try a glass of Strelsauvada, a “rather obscure” Ruritanian liqueur made from rotten figs with almond-skin flavouring which admittedly can “play you up” if you are not used to it. They will all say no and think highly of you for the offer.

6. Play out time with groan-preceded, tardily-produced, ice-crammed Scotches, remembering the recourse of saying loudly, * “I find myself that a glass of cold beer [out of the cheapest quart bottles from the pub] is the best thing at this time of night.”

7. Along the lines of sticking more fruit than any sane person could want in the pre-dinner “punch” or “cup”, put out a lot of pseudo-luxuries like flood-damaged truncheon-sized cigars, bulk-bought * after-dinner mints, bankrupt-stock * vari-coloured cigarettes, etc.

8. Your own drinks. These must obviously not be allowed to fall below any kind of accustomed level, however cruel the deprivations you force on your guests. You will naturally refresh yourself with periodic nips in your pantry, but going thither at all often may make undesirable shags think, even say, that you ought to be bringing thence a drink for them. So either choose between a darkly tinted glass (“an old friend of mine in Venice gave it me – apparently it’s rather valuable, ha, ha, ha”) and a silver cup of some sort (“actually it’s my christening-mug from T.S. Eliot-believe it or not, ha, ha,ha,”) which you stick  inseperably to and can undetectably fill with neat whisky, or boldly use a plain glass containing one of those light-coloured blends known, at any rate in the U.S.A., as a “husband’s Scotch” – “Why, hell, Mamie, just take a look; you can see it’s near as damn pure water,” and hell, Jim, Jack, Joe and the rest of the crowd.

9. If you think that all or most of the above is mere satirical fantasy, you cannot have been around much yet.

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A rare photograph

July 26, 2010 at 12:09 am (beer, blogging, Champagne Charlie)

Tolpuddle 2010:

Anyone know this man?
(Clue: “Hang on, you said any more jokes about him drinking too much, I have said he doesn’t drink enough!!”)
h/t: Janine and Stroppy

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Hurricane: the People’s Champion

July 25, 2010 at 9:54 pm (beer, Champagne Charlie, drugs, sport, whiskey, whisky, wild man, wine)

RIP Hurricane, 1949 -2010

The People’s Champion found dead, alone and emaciated in his flat. He was poverty-stricken, toothless and had endured two major operations for throat cancer. But…

…(in the words given to him by actor Richard Dormer in the one-man play Hurricane)…

“Don’t pity me. I’ve stood on top of the world.”

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20 years on: My Poll Tax Shame

March 31, 2010 at 7:13 pm (anarchism, anonymous, beer, Galloway, hell, history, Jim D, libertarianism, Socialist Party)

Exactly 20 years ago today,  an estimated 200,000 -to-300,000 demonstrators converged on London in what was probably (then) the biggest protest march in Britain since the war. Their target was Thatcher’s hated Community Charge (aka The “Poll Tax”), a viciously regressive local tax that required (as someone put it) the duke to pay the same as the dustman, penalising the poor while massively reducing the annual rate bills of those with the most valuable properties. It had been introduced in Scotland the year before and resulted in mass protests, non-payment and jailings. Now it was to be introduced in England and Wales.

Anti-Poll Tax groups had been organised throughout the country, with the Militant Tendency generally taking the lead (the rest of the far left, including the SWP, had been a bit slow to register the level of anti-Poll Tax hatred that existed amongst the public) and it was these local groups who provided the mass support for the demo, organised by Militant wearing its hat as the “All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation” . But the mobilisation of London-based activists (especially anarchists) was decisive in what eventually happened.

Let me set the scene: a lovely hot sunny day, a magnificent turnout in a popular cause, everyone (so it seemed) in good spirits, the various factions of the left (relatively) united, and a good-natured march from Kennington (where the Chartists had gathered in 1848) to Trafalgar Square, accompanied by bands, drummers and other miscellaneous noise-makers. Even the cops seemed friendly and some made little secret of their personal sympathy with the cause. 

So when we arrived at Trafalgar Square, I and a number of other comrades felt our job was done for that day at least, and having no particular desire to hang about for the speeches, headed off to a well-known nearby apres demo watering-hole.

 The official plan was -as ever – to have just “a quick one” and then return to the rally. But, of course, that didn’t happen. We stayed in the pub all afternoon and – as I recall – had a very agreeable booze-up, our enjoyment enhanced by the knowledge that we’d all played a crucial and irreplaceable role in the historic events of a few hours before.

Amazing as it may seem, we were completely oblivious to the events unfolding outside. When we eventually emerged unsteadily into the early evening, we were astonished to be confronted by by a hellish scene of fire and smoke, people running and screaming, mounted, baton-wielding police and helmeted riot cops attacking demonstrators and cowering figures in doorways, while mobs of anarchists smashed shop windows and looted. It was like something out of Dante.

I’d like to be able to say that I joined in with the anarchists, but the truth is that I was in no fit state for a punch-up with the cops and just wanted to get away and onto the train for home without being batoned or arrested – which I managed to do by a combination of  cowardice, stealth and sheer good luck.

It was obvious – even at the time – that the anarchists had carefully planned and deliberately provoked the confrontation.  The Militant Tendency / All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation were not happy about the riot and came close to publicly denouncing it. But it has to be said that the riot brought the campaign unprecedented media coverage, proved a tremendous boost to the anti-Poll Tax cause, eventually led to the downfall of Thatcher and surely contributed to the defeat of the Tory government itself seven years later.

My role that day was far from heroic. But at least I wasn’t amongst those contemptible fake-“left”‘s who said things like:

“These lunatics, anarchists and other extremists, principally from the Socialist Workers Party, were out for a rumble the whole time, and now they’ve got it. If they didn’t exist, the Tories would need to invent them” (G. Galloway MP).

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My face was cherry red…

October 17, 2009 at 10:08 pm (beer, jazz, Jim D, unions)

I was at a union conference yesterday, and spent the evening in the bar. A conference delegate had a guitar with him and could just about manage a twelve-bar: so yours truly sang the blues. It went down very well in the bar, and got an oblique mention at the start of next day’s conference. What they didn’t know is that my blues singing is based upon Big Joe Turner from Kansas City:


This appears to be from a film, but I don’t know any more than that. However, you do get the line, “If I want your opinion, I’ll ask you for it”; modified a few years later by Ronnie Scott to “When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”

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