This Time Next Year


I originally devised Film 2018 as an inducement to watch all my single film DVDs again, nothing else. But Sunday morning has been such a perfect time to watch a film and then expound upon it that, a long time ago, I decided there would be a Film 2019 to follow it.

At first, this was just going to be a progression to my Box Sets, but I haven’t stopped acquiring DVDs through eBay this year, and I now have fifteen of them, several of which I’ve never played, which I’ve held back to enjoy.

So for the first three or so months of 2019, we’ll be following the old format (and if I buy any more DVDs in that time, we’ll extend the process). But once I’m done with these, I’ll be turning to the box sets in accordance with the original plan. Given that these include three Lord of the Rings and three Hobbit films, an eleven disc box-set of Powell & Pressburger, four Humphrey Bogarts, and two linked French films, and that’s just the ones I can remember off the top of my head, that should get me through deep into the autumn. Although I may try to wriggle out of the third and fourth films in the Superman box-set because there are minimal standards of taste and decency. And then we’ll see.

Besides, in the week that the BBC have cancelled their long-running Film review programme, the one I stoll the title from, it seems more pertinent than ever.

So next Sunday, we start the new season. I’m looking forward to it. Are you?

Film 2018: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me


Fittingly or otherwise, the film I left myself for the final Film 2018 session was David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the controversial sequel to the enigmatic TV series that wasted what seemed then to be the only opportunity to complete the story that had left Special Agent Dale Cooper trapped in the Black Lodge of the series, and instead set an evil doppelganger loose to take his place.

Instead, Lynch (without co-creator Mark Frost, with whom relations had become strained) chose to do a prequel, billed as the last seven days of Laura Palmer’s life. In many ways, I still resent this decision, even now a third series has appeared: everyone was there and alive and young, and most of them were available, and this could have been a real ‘Twin Peaks’ film.

As it is, most of the cast played a part in this film, though for many their parts were limited, and for even more they were excluded to bring the film down to a mere 129 minutes. A handful of major players were unavailable due to scheduling conflicts with other projects (though Sherilyn Fenn later indicated that she had not wanted to be involved, after the vagaries of season 2). One of these was Lara Flynn Boyle, who had played Donna Hayward, Laura Palmer’s best friend: Donna’s part was integral to the story so she was recast, with Moira Kelly, a much less striking actress, taking the role.

The film, and its prospects, were distorted from the outset by Kyle MacLachlan’s fear of becoming typecast as Dale Cooper. Initially, he refused to consider the film, but ended up agreeing to a greatly diminished role, requiring the entire first half hour of the film to be rewritten, to the detriment of the film’s cohesion.

In the ansence of Coop, Lynch and his co-writer, Robert Engels, had to introduce Special Agent Chester ‘Chet’ Desmond to investigate the murder of drifter, waitress and prostitute Theresa Banks. Banks was the first killing, a year before Laura Palmer. Desmond was played, laconically but a bit stiffly, by singer Chris Isaak, already of ‘Wicked Game’ fame, and his sidekick, the awkward, bow-tied forensic expert, Sam Stanley, by a young Kiefer Sutherland.

Over insular opposition from local law enforcement, the Agents determine Banks was killed by multiple blows to the back of the skull and that a large green ring featuring a weird design that is familiar to those of us who watched the series, has been stolen from her finger. Stanley takes the body back to Portland, Desmond returns to the trailer park where Banks lives, finds her ring under a lit-up trailer, and is sucked into another dimension, populated by the mysterious characters who hang around the Black Lodge. He is never seen again.

Put like that, this lengthy opening sequence, which takes up the film’s first twenty-five minutes, seems like a straightforward setting in place of the Theresa Banks murder, not a million miles from a certain town in Washington State. If not for Kyle MacLachlan’s reluctance, it would have been Agent Cooper investigating, in which case this section would have seemed better integrated into the story, and I bet he wouldn’t have vanished inexplicably on finding the ring.

But then I haven’t mentioned any of the details, and the details always matter in a David Lynch film, and I haven’t mentioned any of the seriously loopy stuff that makes you wonder just what the hell is going on. And, in the case of the dancing woman in the red wig and dress, wearing a blue rose, whose dance is a ludicrously coded set of instructions to Agent Desmond (a briefing sheet would have worked even better but would not have been so self-consciously strange), we wouldn’t get an explanation of that until 2017.

And Lynch then prolongs the strangeness by switching to Philadelphia, FBI HQ, Gordon Cole (Lynch), Albert (Miguel Ferrer) and Coop. Coop’s being weird, checking the corridor security cam then dashing into the surveillance room to look at the feed of an empty corridor. He does this two or three times until, on the last occasion, he’s in the surveillance room, and he’s still on the security cam. Enter the long-missing Agent Philip Jeffries, played by David Bowie in a Hawaiian shirt and white linen suit, with a deep tan and a bouncy walk.

Jeffries is talking nonsense. He’s not talking about Judy. He’s aware of his colleagues but he isn’t on the same planet as them. Coop goes to check the security feed and Jeffries disappears. He was never there. But he was there.

As the late, great Spike put it, “It’s all rather confusing really”, and deliberately so. There’s a temptation to write off all the film up to this point, nearly thirty-five minutes in, as rubbish, and it certainly doesn’t seem to have any true, organic coonnection to the rest. For now comes the moment of comfort, of recognition and an instant relaxation for the audience, as we jump One Year Later and it’s the oh-so familar Welcome to Twin Peaks road sign and that instantly soothing twin note music by Angelo Badalamenti.

From this point onwards, the film is set in Twin Peaks, and it is Twin Peaks, and we are locked into watching the last seven days of Laura Palmer’s life.

Fire Walk With Me is billed as starring Sheryl Lee as Laura and Ray Wise as Leland Palmer, her father. Wise has a lot of screen time but isn’t required to do much more than look quasi-satanical. If we didn’t already know that he is the one who kills Laura, after years of incestuous rape, starting when she was 12, we would finger him anyway for his off-kilter performance, his obvious obsession with hi daughter, his volatile mood-swings and the way he just looks.

But from here on in, the film belongs to Sheryl Lee. In the series, she only got to play Laura alive in flashbacks, short and usually sweet. Here she gets to play the living person and she is astounding. Laura Palmer, blonde, beautiful, intelligent, Homecoming Queen, volunteer Meals on Wheels helper. Laura Palmer, fucking her ‘official’ boyfriend, jock Bobby Briggs, her unofficial boyfriend, James Hurley, the agrophobic recluse, Harold Smith, big, fat Jaques Renault from the Bang Bang Bar, not to mention being pimped out by him. Laura Palmer, High School smoker, drinker, cocaine addict. Laura Palmer, with the scary, horrifying, greasy, stubbly, assailant, BOB, who climbs in through her bedroom window at night, who has been ‘having’ her since she was twelve.

Lee is all these people, in turn and at once, flickering between faces. Everything is ever so slightly OTT, but the intensity that she brings to every emotion grips you and drags you along, whilst simultaneously conveying to you that this beautiful young girl, with everything going for her, is already dead, inside.

Even if we did not know that we are leading up to the opening of Twin Peaks, the discovery of Laua Palmer’s body, wrapped in plastic, floating in the lake, we would know, simply by watching Sheryl Lee, that she is sliding towards an end that will be neither commonplace nor easeful. As everything locks into place around her, as the pieces move that send her along the course that finally leads to her father’s insane and murderous attack, we understand that we are not watching fate step in to shut down all avenues of escape. All of Laura’s last chances were lost long before we got to the Welcome to Twin Peaks road sign. It’s too late, it’s far too late. We are condemned to watch the inevitable.

And it is horrible. There’s violence and degradation, but it’s not there for its own sake. It’s just part of the road, and Lynch doesn’t thrust it in our face or dwell on it. Lee lives it, simultaneously numbed and with every nerve in her affected. The two most awful moments are both sexual: Laura is terrified in her own home by the presence of BOB in the daytime, runs, crying and fearful, for cover outside, then sees her father leave the house. For the first time, she realises that her abuse has come from her own father: the blackness, the despair, the nausea. We and she understand the sickness in Leland’s ‘ordinary’ behaviour to her, the confirmation of her utter solitude.

And later, very much later, just before he will batter hs own daughter to death, Leland brandishes at her the two pages torn from her secret diary, and screams at her, in his own anguish, “I thought you knew it was me!”

The last half of this film, as the end closes in on Laura and we see her in all her phases and moods, fills in all the details we learned, retrospectively, in season 1, unpicked and assembled by Dale Cooper. It twists us at every turn, the horror of inevitability, of being forced to watch – because we cannot turn our face away – the sight of death spreading from within and bringing itself down upon this beautiful girl.

There are so many more pieces to this puzzle. What Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me really needed was Twin Peaks: The Return. It is now no longer the falling off, the unwanted beginning instead of the desired end. But it is still the beginning, even as it’s the ending of Film 2018. I’ve enjoyed this year of Sunday morning films very much. I hope some of you who have read these commentaries have enjoyed them as well.

The Infinite Jukebox – The Doors’ ‘Riders on the Storm’


When Jim Morrison died, I barely knew who he was. If I’d heard ‘Light My Fire’ before then, it would have been the bloodless version by Jose Feliciano that this taste-free country took into the top 10. I think I’d heard ‘Love Her Madly’, and kinda liked it. So he really meant nothing to me, by an accident of time and interest.
But after he died, The Doors released ‘Riders on the Storm’ as a single. It came out in 1971, a year that seems to have had more interesting favourite flop singles than any other year in creation, at least so far as I’m concerned, as a study of my ‘Lost 70’s’ series will show. I’ve never added ‘Riders on the Storm’ to any of those discs, because it’s not Lost. It never has been. It may have failed to chart, peaking at no 35 in the old Top Thirty days, but it is and has been from the moment that first sound effect of the storm, the thunder rumbling in the distance, appeared out of my old transistor radio, gloriously glorious and revered.
The Doors was Jim Morrison above everything, but ‘Riders on the Storm’ was Ray Manzarek, and that cool, quiet, almost distant but forever rippling piano. From that first run down the keyboard, even as Robby Krieger’s bass begins the underlying pulse that John Densmore’s drums quickly follows, that keyboard sucks you in, combining with the sounds of the storm. Something’s going on here, and the overwhelming sense is of danger.
And Morrison joins in, intoning the title, twice. He’s cool and distant, projecting not force but presence. The Lizard King sings of danger whilst the band play music suggesting a country road, long, dark and empty, night-driving in the rain. Riders in the Storm. Into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown. Strangers and aliens, not part of this society. Creatures of the night. The music lopes along, a rolling bass/drum pattern that doesn’t need to hurry because nothing can escape it. Whatever it pursues will be overtaken.
Though there’s a spiky guitar solo from Kreiger, this is Manzarek’s song instrumentally. He plays with the melody and the storm sounds drift in and out. It’s the most superbly integral use of sound effects on any record I’ve heard, the song relies upon in as much as it relies upon Morrison’s soft vocals, and Manzarek’s control of the melody.
There’s a killer on the road, Morrison sings, and immediately we look for his shadow. His brain is squirming like a toad. The threat is palpable and it makes the listener culpable. If you give this man a ride, it threatens, you in your car, out alone at night, travelling between unknown points so far separated that departure point and destination have dissolved and all that exists is the road, if you give this man a ride, sweet family will die.
And Manzarek doodles on his piano, teasing the rhythm, trickling cold slices of melody into your ears like rain down the back of your neck, and the storm crashes, and the rhythm keeps its slow, wearing down pace, that you can’t escape.
Girl, you gotta love your man, Morrison demands. A voice from another time, a much more macho time when macho was not a deliberate affectation. The world on you depends, our life will never end, he sings, immortality is the goal, the end, the promise. You gotta love your man.
There’s a long solo section from Manzarek, teasing melody out of the rhythm pattern built by Kreiger and Densmore. He toys and teases, hypnotising with the dream-like sounds of his piano, extending the night until it seems infinite and yet when he ceases and the song resumes its original motion, we are not ready. What seems infinite has not been infinite, and we feel as if we have been abandoned to the rain.
And the cycle returns to where it began. Riders on the Storm. The road will never end, the storm will never end, we are in a hell of sinuous music that traps us by its beauty and holds us by its strength. This world will never end, our life on your depends.
This was the last song The Doors recorded, the last song Jim Morrison recorded. It was played live only twice. It is the sound of night and being where you don’t want to be. Because the road has only one ending, and I may not believe in God and Hell but this song does and you are travelling with it. On the Storm.

Not Totally Decrepit Yet


It’s been a while since I last deliberately set out for a long walk on city streets, long here being defined as further than our nearby ASDA and then some.

It’s not exactly been a habit of mine, but there have been plenty of occasions when I’ve happily set off to walk a long distance, without any thought of the time and effort this requires. Not since the London Museum Tryptich of 2016, I think (the Eskdale Expedition doesn’t count: despite being 99% tarmac, it was still fell-walking, albeit it in the lowest degree).

It’s been a quiet week, the days slipping by imperceptibly. It’s hard to imagine that this is already Friday and that only the weekend remains before a return to work, albeit for one day early. I’ve barely been out and I haven’t gone far, but today I had to make a trip to the Chemists next to my Doctor’s surgery, to collect a repeat prescription I carelessly failed to sort out before Xmas.

Ordinarily, I’d hop on the bus: ten minutes each way, plus whatever waiting time the 203 requires. Except that my weekly MegaRider card ran out on Xmas Day and I haven’t renewed it yet because I haven’t needed to. Simple solution: renew it, pay for a week’s journeys.

But I didn’t want to do that. I have places to go on Saturday and wanted to renew my MegaRider then instead. The difference is that whichver day I renew, I am starting a seven day pattern of renewals the same day every week, which means having the cash available the same day each week, and it’s going to be easier to do that for Saturdays rather than Fridays.

So, what’s the plan, Stan? I could pay each way on the bus (vastly inflated), or buy a DayRider (less expensive but not worth it for only two trips), or I could walk, there and back.

Which begged the question of fitness for that length of walk, which is, I guess, about two miles each way. I used to be capable of longer walks than that, and when I was having my counselling in Chinley, it was pretty much a mile for station to cottage, and most of it uphill, in hot weather. Nevertheless, I haven’t set out to walk that distance, in cold blood, for a long while. And whilst the age thing isn’t necessarily a problem, the osteoarthritis thing definitely is. I walk with a faint but noticable limp these days.

Due to my basic inertia, I didn’t get myself out until 2.20pm. Plan A was to walk there and back, but I had my fallback positions. Plan B would come into operation if, having got there, I was in too much pain, or general disintegration, to walk back, so I’d get the bus. Plan C represented the extreme position, of being in too much pain, or general disintegration, to walk the whole way there, and having to catch a bus partway.

Nevertheless, I strolled off with what approximates to briskness for me nowadays, pausing briefly at my local McColls for this week’s EuroMillions Lottery ticket (I must check the last couple of months’ worth, in the vain hope of not having to go into work on Monday) before pushing on.

It’s a simple route, straight up Reddish Road/Gorton Road, flat all the way except for the bit just before the halfway mark at Houldsworth Square, where it’s up and down over Reddish South Railway Station, where only one train a week runs. It would cost more to get permission to close the station entirely than to run one train a week through it, the minimum required, so for literal decades that’s been the schedule, though I noticed the timetable now admits two trains a week, request stop only, Stalybridge to Stockport and back Saturday mornings: one day I’ll take that journey, for the hell of it and to say I’ve been through Reddish South Station.

By Houldsworth Square, I was flagging, in the sense that I was no longer walking brskly, but I was in no danger of calling on Plan C so, at a gentle stroll, I pushed on northwards. This was not as tiresome as the trek to Trafford Park for those two undelivered parcels, and though the weather was dull and grey, at least it wasn’t wet.

I reached the lights at the Fir Tree and crossed the road to turn down Longford Road West and into the chemists. There were no other customers, I was served on the spot, my prescription was ready, I wasn’t off my feet for even sixty seconds: bugger!

Back to the main road, and no need for Plan B, so I set off back. Passing Reddish North Library, I took a break for a short browse, picking up three lightweight books (I mean in terms of readability, though as I was proposing to carry these back, their portability was also a key factor).

Definitely, I was not bounding along like a two-year-old on the return leg, and I was keeping in reserve the hitherto unanticipated Plan D, i.e., jumping on a bus if my right leg started giving me too much gyp. A brrief pause at the chippy in Houldsworth Square for some refreshment, a can of Diet Coke, went down well, that, up and over the railway bridge – less gradient from this side – and plod, plod, plod along.

By the time my knee and hip did begin to give me gyp, I was no more than two bus stops from home, and as I intended to call in McColls for milk and the cash for that MegaRider on Saturday, I had to limp on, there and back again (that might make a decent sub-title for a book, one day).

Forty minutes there, fifty minutes back, excluding my halts on the way home, although the hip is feeling the effort now, a couple of hours later. A bit more walking planned tomorrow, and I’m sure I’ll feel it then. I’m not going to start scheduling walks like this more often, the flesh being a bit more willing than the spirit in all honesty, but it’s nice to know I can still get about under my own steam.

The Lion in it’s glory – an overview


I was harsh about the Lion of the Fifties, and I’ve been even harsher about the Lion of the Seventies, but have I been fair about the history of Lion overall? Given that it is all more or less a matter of opinion, the answer depends, I suppose, upon how far you agree with my conclusions.
In writing an overview, there are two very relevant factors to bear in mind. The first is that Lion ran from February 1952 to May 1974, twenty-two years and three months and however many generations of British boys that you choose to count poring over its pages. Collectively, they read the whole of Lion over twenty-two years: I did it in a matter of months. If I found the comic stale in its final years, how much of that staleness came from me?
And let’s not forget that I am an unabashed Eagle fan, which makes me guilty of expecting standards and intentions that Lion was never meant to embody.
Lion was, from first to last, a much less ambitious title. It was the classic cheap’ncheerful British boys comic, printed in black and white on cheap newsprint, it’s sole intent (apart from turning a profit) to entertain its target audience, of seven to twelve year old boys, once a week.
Eagle‘s aim was always that little bit higher, above their audience’s presumed heads: not by so much as to bore or confuse them in pursuit of their parents’ approval, but to stretch them, to inspire them, to make them aspire to something better, and to educate them in the best possible manner. In contrast, Lion was pitched straight at their adrenal glands: make them thrill, make them gasp, make them laugh and, above all, make them come back next week.
If too many of them don’t, the comic eventually doesn’t either.
That Lion lasted so long, and swallowed up so many failing rivals along the way, is testament to how well it did that.
The Fifties Lion was nevertheless dull, in thrall to the old way of making comics, pinched and pawky, stiff and awkward, long, rambling stories with no greater purpose than setting up the next cliffhanger.
The Seventies Lion was even worse. It had outlived its period of genuine glory and lost its way between features that had long since flensed all creativity or inspiration and inadequate ideas with no originality or scope. It’s only thought was to provide exactly the same elements, every single week.
But for nearly ten years in between, from that first extensive 1958 revamp that brought Lion in style and approach into the modern era, to somewhere around 1968 or1969, Lion was something else. I’m tempted to point the finger at the week in 1969 when Lion absorbed the poison pill of Eagle, a comic that had been resented by its own management for nearly a decade itself, but that’s too obviously prejudice.
The Sixties Lion was brilliant. It was loud, it was confident and it had the chops to back it up. Tight, well-written stories in a variety of genres. Well-drawn, in a variety of styles, especially by Don Lawrence and Reg Bunn. Not afraid to cherry-pick European strips, both adventure and humour (though I don’t hold with the re-naming of Lucky Luke, not when it had a good Anglo name already: Modeste and Poupee was a gallic horse of a different colour). There was a magic about the comic in those years that entitled Lion to its proper place in the outflowing creativity and optimism of the legendary decade. There was definitely something in the air, then, or was it in the water?
Above all, I’ve been reading Lion in all its phases as a 60 plus year old man, not the excited pre-teen of the audience it was geared to. Nostalgia played its part, but it was a kettle upon a low light that rarely if ever boiled hot enough to brew a proper cuppa. I simply enjoyed the Sixties Lion as I would any great piece of work, as if I was coming to it for the first time. After fifty years, I might well have been.
So that’s that. Coming up at some point will be six years of Valiant, 1962 to 1968, where I will be reading for the first time. I only ever saw this comic intermittently as it was never one of mine, just something I occasionally saw at friends. I have high hopes of it though, especially in those years.
That’s for the future, mind. Valiant is too much like Lion for my immediate comfort and I don’t want to come to it stale on that kind of title. Let me take a trip down a different Nostalgia Avenue first, into the vastly different world of Supermarionation, Gerry Anderson and TV Century 21, which I did get for years.
But when Lion was good, it was very very good, and when it was bad it was, mostly, just dull. That to me is a deserving enough epitaph.

Lou Grant: s01 e03 – Hoax


Sorry, Carla

This week’s episode of Lou Grant was very much a demonstration of the difference between television 1978 and television 2018.

The title’s a dead giveaway, though the episode opened with a neat bit of misdirection. Carla’s at a Press statement by Mrs Cardell, whose industrialist husband Luther has been missing for a month, presumed kidnapped. She’s had yet another fake ransom demand. The conference is disrupted by the arrival of TV, whose irritating front man steals Carla’s question. As complaints about the blow-dried presenters had already been made, the scene was being set for an enjoyable Press vs TV story.

Not so. The Cardell ‘kidnapping’ is to be our McGuffin. Lou is approached, the next day, by an old friend/colleague Jack Reilly, with whom he worked in Chicago. Reilly used to be the best rewrite man in the business, but his career has fallen down a cliff in the last eight years, after arthriris left him unable to type.

Reilly brings a story: Luther Cardell is alive and well, and in Cuba, where he’s aiming philanthropically to teach the locals how to feed themselves better (he’s an agribusiness tycoon). Cardell has secretive demands, third party contact, Reilly only, explicit instructions to be followed to the letter or else. It’s all very cloak and dagger, and Lou fears it is a hoax.

It is a hoax. It looks like a hoax, smells like a hoax, it practically quacks like a hoax, but inside, Lou and Rossi – who starts out as total sceptic but gradually gets sucked in – come to believe in it because they want to believe it. It’s a hell of a story.

There’s a lot of building to it, testing Reilly’s plausibility, getting details no-one else but Luther Cardell will know. We’re waiting for the twist, for the show to double back on us and produce Luther Cardell, though once the plan is revealed to be a meet in Jamaica, with first class flights, fourstar suites and Reilly buying ice crean suits for all three, on the Trib’s budget, it pretty much sticks out of the water.

Because it is a hoax: Luther Cardell’s body is found, with that of his girlfriend, in a crashed sports car at the botom of a canyon, where it’s been for a month. Lou’s been taken, Reilly’s gotten some fun in a now miserable life, and he still thinks he’s done Lou a favour by sharing a memory of the old days with his friend.

Of course, he’s actually put Lou’s job at risk, something he regards as negligible: people like Lou can get a job anytime, any place they want (this really isn’t the twenty-first century, is it?). This kind of favour you don’t need. Lou survives, of course, this being only episode 3, and via Mrs Pynchon he gets the story into the Trib, before the Times picks it up. Of course, he has to own the story, so Mrs Pynchon wants complete accuracy, especially when it comes to depicting the City Editor who fell for it as a complete ass.

It’s an enjoyable story, and it’s a demonstration of the integrity, sometimes self-conscious integrity that the show would bring to its depiction of the Press. It’s also a farewell to Rebecca Balding who, for reasons I’ve been unable to discover, left the show after this episode. I’d forgotten her completly, remembering only Linda Kelsey, who replaces her next week. Ironically, for all the snarky remarks about blow-dried TV frontmen, I think Balding was let go because she was too blow-dried herself. She was a pretty woman with immaculate hair, but she lacked an internal fire in regard to her job. Carla was just too lightweight in Balding’s hands.

But I opened this piece by saying that this episode embodied the difference between TV then and TV now, and that difference was pace. So much ofthis pisode, especially in the early stages, very especially in the budget meeting scene where Lou first brings the subject up, is strung out, played slowly, uses far more dialogue than we  would nowadays be comfortable with. Lou takes a good minute to a minute and a half to even bring the subject up, covering his intended item with so many caveats and reservations.

It’s in keeping with the scene, it’s played to be time-consuming, so that Lou can be pressed into finally saying what’s on his mind, but it wasn’t half long-winded and, since you knew it would happen, in 2018 it felt slow, in a why-doesn’t-he-just-get-on-with it? manner. Written by a modern scriptwriter, the episodewould have lasted thirty minutes, tops.

And I do prefer the crisper, faster approach, making less concessions to the audience, spelling less out, and just generally being decently brisker.

We’ll just have to see how this pans out over the rest of the series.

A Time of Gifts


For a long time, and for various reasons, many of them my own fault, Xmas has become a solitary event. I have no-one to buy gifts for and no-one who would buy me gifts, so I buy things for myself.

But the favourite Xmas gift I recall was one I bought from another, a woman then very dear to me.

It was our second Xmas, and she knew something of what I had bought her. Being of Irish origins, she loved The Chieftains, and she had been with me when I had managed to get her two very early, and then-deleted albums. Indeed, with childish eagerness, she had unwrapped them late on Xmas Eve, looked at them longingly, and reminded me I’d have to tape them for her, as the record deck on her hi-fi had broken down long before we’d started seeing each other.

I smiled, agreed and said nothing.

On Xmas Day, I drive across to bring her present, and those for her children. These went down well, and she was bouncing round like a kid herself, full of life, wanting to know what I had for her. I had it planned out. I dug in my pocket for something, brought it out, handed it over. It was an electric plug. She accepted it from me, looked at it is puzzlement, looked at me withthis wonderful ‘am I missimg something?’ expression.

Theatrically, I snapped my fingers. “Oh yeah,” I said, as if I’d forgotten something trivial, “you want something to go on the end of that.” And with the kids tearing after me, agog to see what I’d got, I went back to the car and retrieved this box from out of the car and brought it carefully inside. It was pretty big and she had a rather narrow hall.

I put it on the floor and stood back whilst she opened it. She was speechless by this point. The box was too big to wrap so she probably realised what it was: a hi-fi. Radio, cassette, record deck, all-in-one. She looked into the box in shock and then, still unable to speak, she flung her arms round my neck and hugged me, really hard.

This wasn’t the woman I married, though she was the first of two women to have loved me as deeply and seriously as I could have desired. I haven’t seen her in over twenty years, nor had any contact with her since an unexpected phone call in 2001, by when I was married. She was a very private person who hated anyone knowing any details about her life being repeated, and I have respected those wishes, but Mary, you are my favourite Xmas memory, and the pleasure I had in choosing something for Xmas that so completely surprised you is a memory I return to on Xmas Day.

If you are still with us, and ever read these words, I wish you health, happiness and joy. You gave me self-confidence for the first time, and trust and responsibility, and these things changed me for the infinitely better. You were rain in a desert, bringing me to life, not a half-life and I hope the years have treated you kindly.