Sunday, 3 September 2017


‘Don’t bring pineapples’. Not your usual Reading Festival advice from the organisers. ‘And don’t bring weapons or drones either’, mocked the headline in the Reading Chronicle. It was all to do with The Galls Animals and their ditty ‘Pork Soda’ where the line “pineapples in my head” had prompted fans to bring the fruit to earlier gigs.

Daughter No 1 was getting packed for Reading. She listened to the song and said she didn’t like it much so wouldn’t be taking exotic fruits along.

I was getting her packed for Reading too. My contribution mainly involved emptying out her tent after the Wilderness Festival a couple of weeks before. This consisted of a goodly sprinkling of Oxfordshire clay, together with a colourful range of glitter spots and face paint debris.

I wasn’t sure how much more the £15 Tesco four-man tent would take. The flysheet zip had already broken and we sent her off with some safety pins to hold it together. Had there been much rain, the safety pins would have been spectacularly useless in keeping the tent water tight.  

When I click-and-collected it from our local store, chatty sales assistant hauled my package from the recesses of the store room and declared that “You can always tell when Festival season has arrived. We’ve sold five of these just this week.”

That will be five returns at the end of the season then, all with broken zips.

She returned, safe, sound, smelly and knackered. Muse were apparently the Reading highlight (I was jealous of the Brian Johnson guest spot when he smashed out ‘Back In Black’), but the overall verdict seemed to go to the Wilderness Festival’s mass yoga event. It’s all Plank ‘n’ Roll, baby.

The grown-ups had a bit of Festival Fever this Summer as well. We loved Green Day’s headlining slot on the first Saturday of the first British Summer Time bonanza. It was sandwiched between Phil Collins the previous evening and Justin Bieber the night after. Interesting schedule. A rose between two thorns? A fart between two cheeks? Hard to say really.

Old punks never die. A fact emphasised by Stiff Little Fingers, who kicked off events on the main stage. They burst out of Ulster in 1977 as angry young men searching for a voice. Forty years later, the only thing that has changed is that they are 40 years older… Our mates Nick and Den had come with their youngest, Jenny. Nick had insisted that, if nothing else, she at least saw SLF and experienced ‘Alternative Ulster’ in the raw. Daughter No 1 was with us too and both teenagers gave the band a youthful seal of approval. 

This was the first gig where I’d seen signers projected on to the big screen, interpreting the lyrics for punters with hearing impairments. The Damned’s set gave the signers a thorough work out. ‘Love Story’, ‘Neat, Neat, Neat,’ and ‘Nasty’ came and went in a hail of lyrical salvoes and scything guitar. After 15 minutes one signer had to make way for a replacement and headed, no doubt, back stage to plunge her hands in a bucket of iced water.  

The surprise package of the day were undoubtedly Gogol Bordello. This gypsy punk ensemble played the sort of rumbustuous, feel-good music that provoked a 40 minute park-wide dance-a-thon. The band hail from New York, but the heritage is all about traditional Eastern European vibes spiked with dance, dub and rock. There’s a strong Jewish influence to the sound too, and a slice of ‘Fiddler On The Roof’ would not have been the biggest surprise in the World. 

The only downer on the day was The Stranglers who were confined to the second stage, where there was an inadequate sound for the size of the crowd that pitched up to see them. We picked our way through the hordes, Moroccan flatbread wrap in one hand, pint of craft beer in the other (my, how Festivals have changed…), and managed to find a spot close enough to hear Dave Greenfield’s keyboards flesh out ‘(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)’ above JJ Burnell’s excellent, but swamping, bass lines.

The crowd began to disperse back to the main arena for Green Day before The Stranglers had finished their set. One of their finest moments, ‘No More Heroes’ was delivered in an underwhelming atmosphere that had the air of exit music for a film. Desperately disappointing.

Green Day were fine headliners. Their emergence on stage was preceded by ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ blasted over the PA and sung with such gusto by the crowd that a video of the rendition shot from behind the band’s empty drum stool went viral on social media.

A week later, we pitched up in Tring, just down the road, for another retro workout. This time the music erred rather heavily towards the poptastic 80’s. The weather was hot. Otherwise there were no similarities with Green Day at all. Never, ever tell any of my heavy metal mates that I was singing along to the Real Thing. I hang my head in shame.

That said, when Midge Ure cranked out a delicious version of ‘Vienna’, I became quite emotional. About 15,000 massed voiced declaring that the feeling had gone and that it meant nothing to them. What they thought about haunting notes and pizzicato strings was less clear, however.

Can’t say the OMD left me unmoved either. ‘Joan of Arc’, ‘Souvenir’, ‘Forever (Live and Die)’. So many classics. I had forgotten how many foot-tapping ditties they churned out.

About an hour later, the reaction of festival goers on the way home was less foot-tapping, more screaming for mercy. Mrs A, Sue and P had decided that a group sing-a-long was in order. We had just missed a train south and our platform was quiet. So this revellious trio pitched their camping chairs, sat down and delivered a gruesome and yet enthusiastic a-cappella distant relation of, you guessed it, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. The situation might have been containable if the northbound platform had not been swamped with people waiting for a late running train out of Euston. Requests (both for songs and suggestions for where the camping chairs might more usefully be employed) were hurled across the tracks and the impromptu concert was dragged through a few more popular classics. Respective trains arrived in the nick of time.

In search of credibility restoration, and in the belief that like punks, old rockers never die either, I headed to Maidstone, that cradle of rock ‘n’ roll mayhem, for the Ramblin’ Man Fair.

Amongst the fine classic rock, metal, blues and prog from such stalwarts as UFO, ZZ Top, Magnum and Wishbone Ash, there were some rollicking sets from newer kids on the block. Blues Pills and Blindstone both brought a Scandi twist to their high-octane blues-infused psychedilc rave ups. Fantastic. Must be all that pure air and expensive beer.

 On the way to the bar I bumped into a face I recognized.

“Hey, don’t I know you!”

Not the best opening gambit, I’ll admit. He scrutinized me.

“Yeah, yeah! Course you do!”

“No, I do! You’re from Berko, you drink in The Lamb!”

There was a flicker of recognition, though he was all but gone by then, stumbling backwards through the crowd, clutching four pints in a cardboard carrier.

A fortnight later, I saw him again. In The Lamb, naturally.

“Hey, weren’t you at Ramblin’ Man!” I was expecting a similar response to the last time we met. But no, we connected.

“Oh, yeah, I remembered you after the gig. Sorry, I was a bit blasted!”

Dick was propping up the bar with a bloke who he was keen to introduce me to. Turned out his American mate, Dave was one of the co-owners of the Festival. Small world. There was plenty of energized blather after that and I fully expect at least a full VIP area/glamping package for the entire weekend next year. Now that my new mate is the original Ramblin’ Man!

Just one last Festival to report. More precisely a festivity, I suppose. That of my Dad’s 80th birthday. No fan of parties, the four of us, my Bruv and Dad’s brother, Uncle Roland decided to take birthday boy for a bit of fine dining at a classy gaff in Malton. When I was a kid, the words ‘classy’ and ‘Malton’ would never be heard in the same decade, let alone same sentence. The place would have been a great choice for a punch-up on your 80th birthday – as well as any other day – but not much else. Now it seems the market town is undergoing a culinary rebirth and has become a foody destination.

We were not disappointed. If the Old Lodge is the benchmark, the town has come an awful long way since breeze-block pasties at the station caff. 

Mind you, a bit of quality like that comes at a proper price. High amongst my Father’s qualities is a traditional recognition of what constitutes value for money in the eating department. When the bill came in a brown leather wallet, Dad opened it, glanced at the total, muttered “aye” and passed it to my 20 year-old daughter like it was pass-the-parcel in a Belfast pub circa 1972. She looked at us helplessly, fearing her student loan was to take a fatal hit.

Malton is coming up in other ways too. On the outskirts of the town, Jack Berry House has been open for a couple of years now. It is a state-of-the-art rehabilitation centre for racehorse jockeys. Malton is the life blood of racing in the north and this new establishment is a real step forward.

Dad and Roland were in the front of the car as we neared the Centre. I was in the back.
“Have you seen Jack Berry House yet, Dad?”

“Oh no. No, I haven’t! Where is it David?”

“We’re just coming up to it, Dad.”

“Where is it? Is it here?”

“No, not yet. I’ll tell you when we get near it”

“I can’t see it. Jack Berry House? Well, I can’t see it!”

“Dad! We aren’t there yet. I’ll tell you when.”

[nanosecond pause]

“Is that it? I don’t think that’s it. Where is it David?”

“Nearly there.”

[Picosecond pause]

“I can’t see it? Where is it?”

“It’s there, Dad. On the left. Just next to the cricket ground.

“Oh, it’s there. Jack Berry House. Aye.”

Is it too much to hope that Father might find some patience now he’s in his 9th decade?

Dad and Roland probably see more of each other now than at any time in the last 50 years. Both widowers for the last few years, they get out together every other fortnight or so up to the Moors or round Dales, finding a pub for lunch. Bruv often chauffeurs them about. He told me that they had a great drive around Rosedale and Farndale recently, whilst the heather was in full spectacular bloom. At their last stop atop Chimney Bank, Bruv parked up so they could take photos. As he got out, the collective view from the back seat was that they would stay in the car. “It’s a lovely view and all that, but sometimes we just can’t be bothered...” Bruv just shrugged. Clearly you really can take some things for granted.

I think that brings matters up to date. If you’ll excuse me, I’m just off to Tesco’s to return a dodgy tent.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017


I’ve been quietly cultivating a teenage mate of my daughter’s in the art of proper punting. From an early age he showed promise. When our two families went to the races he steadfastly refused to bet on the basis of gaudy colours, alliteration, or some such impulsive nonsense. Even when the girls in our group were cleaning up at Newmarket because they liked the jockey named ‘Barzelona’, he resisted. Mikael Barzelona rode a hat trick that day. I told CB-D not to worry. It was all about the long game and shrewd punting would always win out. Eventually.

A recent blog on here noted the progress made by CB-D now he’s old enough to place his own bets (and buy his own beers) at Sandown. There was evidence of actual, proper form-based punting.

Our family trip to the Peaks the other week coincided with Royal Ascot. CB-D texted me on Day 1 to say that, in effect, he was going to have 'a proper good go'. He’d dedicated some quality time to study, weighing up various combinations of relevant factors and was in bullish mood. His confidence was not misplaced. CB-D landed a well worked bet on Ribchester, garnered from a freebie; and then found a place return in the impossible Ascot Stakes with Endless Acres at 10/1. By Thursday the young man was experiencing the unbridled joy of smashing up the bookies with an each-way pay out on Roly Poly at 22/1 backed into 12/1. Later, his emerging maturity was evident in a text message that read “Three days of betting on literally every race at Ascot and I am literally even and am very happy with it.” Literally, no doubt. And by Friday, the crowning glory: “35 quid up today. Can’t complain.”

By comparison, I had landed Big Orange in the Gold Cup at Rascot and that was it. My other winner of the week was at distinctly non-Royal Ayr’s evening meeting. A case of the student becoming the master. But yes, I am absolutely taking the credit.

I suspect I have further to go with my other protégés. Tom - that’s Daughter No 2’s boyfriend’s Dad - was taking advantage of a company jolly with his wife Marzia at Windsor. He asked for a couple of tips. I sent through a few thoughts on the handicaps because I’m trying out a new trends-based method. More on this later.

The last two won: Tahoo at 3/1 and C’est No Mour at 5/1. Admittedly, nothing there that was life-changing, but I was quietly pleased all the same. I didn’t hear anything from Tom for a couple of days. And then a text arrived to say he backed the first couple, which lost and he became irredeemably distracted by the free booty in his box. He was unaware of the missed the winners. An understandable mistake for, with the greatest of respect, a novice. Marzia, whilst not backing the horses, had at least noticed they won. That’s all the recognition I craved. We have agreed to go to the races together for a full scale practical session in the very near future.

Last year I talked about finding a formula for the flat season. A magic bullet.

In weaker moments, I know that I’m a sucker for a system. I’ll tell anyone who is remotely interested (and worse informed than me) that you can only make money on the horses through study, research and hard work. Yet I’m always vulnerable to an invitingly dangled short cut. When laziness takes over, I’ve capitulated with the odd website that offers tips based on various formulas and trends.

Most of them boast of massive points profits per year. Whenever I’ve subscribed to free trials - purely for information gathering purposes, of course - well, guess what, things don’t work out. Various factors come into play. Some are obviously scams looking for paid membership. Or the approach suddenly hits a flat spot miraculously coinciding with my arrival. Other times the methodology requires a massive number of bets to be placed each day in order to secure a minuscule profit.

Dabbling like this is good because it simply reinforces what I know that punting by numbers will never work.

Nevertheless, there’s something I’m keen to explore about using trends in the form of a horse to expose value. So I’m furiously punting up a system of my own. If you can’t beat ‘em, join em!

I’m deep into a trial which is focusing on horses who are running on underfoot conditions for which they have a clear preference versus their overall record. This is limited to 3yo+ flat handicaps where there is enough form to derive an opinion and the scope for horses to have dropped a few pounds.

The small sample of bets placed at the fag end of last season were encouraging. I’ve tweaked the qualifying criteria a bit for this season. So far the approach had been going well. I turned a healthy profit in the first half of the season and the Return On Investment, at least initislly, was through the roof.

Then, during Royal Ascot, I made the mistake of sharing this heady success with a mate. Now I’m running to stand still. Only three winners and a couple of disheartening losing sequences mean I’ve fallen away from the early season peak. I’ve turned into one of those bullshit tipping sites!

Well, not really. I believe the methodology has legs, though I need to work on interpreting the data. It’s a systems-based approach to identify a short list and then the application of traditional form analysis to inform the actual bet. Isolating one or two factors can never provide a perfect system. But as one of a number of tools, used selectively, it should have a value.

The sample needs to be larger. The next 10 days or so feature some fantastic handicap action up and down the country in really competitive races. This gives me chance to give the rules a full road test in amongst the thick of it, rather than gaff-track, small field Class 4s.

If it holds up, I’ll post some selections on here and shake off the after-timing tag.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Hot dog

The northern, dog–friendly, log-cabin-with-hot-tub, mid-week break with Grandad and Bruv is becoming a bit of a feature of our Summers.  This year, we bagged some decent weather as well. Even in the Peak District.

Travelling up the M1 in 32-degree heat was no joke though, especially with my hairy dog twitching between my legs.


Nuca is a Tibetan terrier (mostly), more accustomed to biting winds channelled through Himalayan passes than a super-heated asphalt motorway. She doesn’t like car journeys at the best of times. In that heat, we were reluctant to put her in the back with all the luggage. Hence her nominal berth in the footwell on my side of the charabanc. I say nominal because she spent most of the time on my lap with her head out the window and tongue lolling into the hard shoulder. Drool and sticky dribble everywhere.

The dog’s reluctance to travel in the car at all – any part of it - had found a new manifestation only the day before. We had all met up with Mrs A’s family in MK for Fathers Day, leaving Nuca in the dining room. Or so we thought. When we returned several hours later, we found the animal in the garden, tail spinning like a child’s windmill, ridiculously delighted to see us. A screaming hot day and we’d left her outside. We felt terrible. Bad doggie parents. She did have water and shade, I should add.

Packing up the car for the Peak District trip, she spotted the keys coming out again. In a flash she turned tail and headed for the same spot under the bistro table (dahlings…) where she dodged a bullet the day before. Curious canine psychology. Searing heat or no, she was prepared to play the same card again rather than face a car journey.

I say having the hot dog in the front seat was no joke. At one point it actually was. We overtook a dirty white Transit somewhere near Leicester, only for him to undertake us in a 80mph manoeuvre up the inside lane and then slow down to our pace.

“What the hell is he playing at?” screamed Mrs A.

I was about to dish out one of my best non-driver low eye-brow scowls when White Van Man met my face with a beaming grin, leering in at the car. His little Jack Russell terrier was on the dashboard doing giddy jumps and yapping away at Nuca on my lap.  The driver thought this was hilarious and kept pointing at the pair of them. He must be a barrel of road-rage laughs on a long distance journey.

Enough about the dog. Oh, not quite. The park, about which were scattered the 30 or so  Scandinavian-inspired cabins, was extensive enough (just) for a woodland walk. Perfect for an amble with the dog. Had I been paying attention to underfoot conditions rather than reading a charming biography of a Californian Redwood posted by its trunk, I would have prevented Nuca dragging me into a mound of nettles in pursuit of a squirrel. Instead, a cloud of mosquitos rose from the vegetation to silently sink their probes into my bloodstream, condemning me to days of itchy grief the like of which I have never experienced in England. They think I’m tasty, the little bastards.

On that walk there was a wishing tree where visitors had hung up home made offerings and gifts so that the fates might smile kindly on them. Amongst the dream catchers, twisted ribbons and paper hearts, someone had hung up a dog poo bag. I ask you.

The park was just outside Ashbourne. The town is a good solid, medieval shape built of millstone grit into the surrounding hills. The old town has a couple of cobbled public squares at its heart and there remain plenty of signs of affluence from previous centuries in the proud public buildings, handsome town houses and attractive shops.

It is dealing less well with a 21st century problem: choking heavy industrial road traffic. A local cab driver told us that the town has been waiting for a bypass for 40 years. There are four quarries nearby which mean the narrow streets are rocked by 26-tonnes lorries carting roadstone down south. We also noticed loads of bulk haul milk lorries and refuse skip hauliers. The trucks absolutely thundered past the entrance to the park down the A515 into the town, making the more prosaic agricultural traffic seem like light relief.

One of the best walks in the area is the Tissington Trail, following the approximate route of the A515 between Ashbourne and Buxton. 

As we ambled along the track I mused how ironic it used to be a railway to Buxton until 1962, and could, if still open, be taking some of the freight strain off the nearby death-road.

“Yes”, said Mrs A, “but we wouldn’t be able to enjoy this lovely walk would we?”

Damn. There’s more to this environmental stuff than meets the eye.

On that particular day we looped around the village of Tissington itself and back via the pub in Thorpe for a beer and a burger. Tissington is an estate village of the FitzHerbert family, residing in Tissington Hall since 1609. The village is pristine, with all the houses constructed in the same style dating from a rebuild in the 19th century. Cables, aeriels and satellite dishes are all discreetly tucked away round the back. The Lord of the manor probably has half an eye on lucrative contracts for period TV shoots.

The pub in Thorpe was an altogether more informal experience. The Old Dog, it was called. No jokes please. There were certainly none for me. No matter how much I cajoled, I couldn’t get Mrs A and the hound to stand under the pub sign for a pic.

Much as we liked the cabin, with its uninterrupted view over the fields and the hot tub on the balcony, it appeared to be built for giants. We couldn’t get a cup of tea or a glass of beer without standing on a chair to reach the cupboards over the sink. Someone eventually had the bright idea of taking all the crockery and glassware out and lining them up on the worktop to enable easier access. Genius.

This height-ist guff was a bit of a feature of the park, come to think of it. Bruv, the girls and I booked an archery session during which we were subjected to flagrant abuse.

“If you find the top of the bow is catching on this roof beam”, said our instructor Aaron, caressing said beam, “you can stand back there instead”.

He glanced at the four of us, grinning at him from our frames that did not breach a five-foot-five-inch threshold between us. The beam would not be an issue.

The archery was a right laugh. I was staggered how good the girls were, given that they had previously shown no aptitude for any other sport ever invented. In fact daughter No 1’s hapless slapping when attempting to catch balls of any description could almost be a new sport. And yet here were the both of them fizzing arrows into the bullseye from 30 feet away after only the most rudimentary coaching. Bruv was even better.

At the end of the session, Aaron invited us to fire off ten arrows to accumulate our best haul. The top score at the park was 98. We were incredulous. Then Aaron said that this had actually been recorded by a medalling Olympic archer, there on holiday a couple of years ago. “He only told me afterwards.”

We revised our view. Only 98? How did the he miss out on two? So the real top score, for mere mortals was 84. Brave promptly knocked that off the leader board with a blitzing 86.

Pretty impressive, given that he was carrying an injury. The shower head had fallen off its hook earlier that morning and smashed into Bruv's foot, raising a lump the size of a golf ball in double quick time.

He also managed a 6 mile walk with Mrs A, the dog and I over to Dovedale, with only minimal limping. Tough as teak.

Dovedale is splendid limestone gorge north west of Ashbourne, where steep cliffs flank the twisting river. I’ve been there before but not for about twenty years. The stepping stones at the valley bottom are a bit of a visitor honeypot. However, we tramped over Lindale from Thorpe and didn’t see a soul. The path followed the Lin, no more than a stream at this point festooned with attractive clumps of Monkeyflower. These are yellow, antirrhinum-like flowers with contrasting red blotches on the petals. Dovedale is one of the few spots they are found.

Only when we emerged at the confluence of the two waterways did we meet groups of people who had walked from the car parks downstream. Our circular route rounded Thorpe Cloud on our left and the main path on the opposite bank where we saw consecutive snakes of primary school kids on outings from the coach park to the stones and back again.

We engineered enough time for a scrambled pint and burger in the Old Dog, almost our second home in these parts, on the way back. It would have been less of a scramble if I hadn’t missed the turning at the top of the village and instead sent us plunging on a mile (or so!) detour down to the River Dove again. Still, it was nice and cool under the trees.

Dinner on the last night was in a fancy brasserie called Whites. Easily the best place we ate all week. They looked after us really well in there and I like it when the owner makes an effort to come over and speak to new customers. The girls were sampling cocktails.

“Ever tried a Tom Collins?” I asked Daughter No 2.

“I went to school with someone called that. And he dribbled. So it puts me right off, to be honest.”

Fair enough.

Waiting for the taxi home, the girls decided to re-enact the Werthers Originals telly advert with Grandad and the sweets handed out by the restaurant. Grandad needed some coaching, claiming to have never seen the white-haired gentleman in his high backed chair handing out boiled goodies to his grandchildren. The ensuing pseudo-mugging that played out on the steps of the restaurant had the owner raising an eyebrow from the other side of the glass door and wondering if he really should have made such hooligans as welcome as he did.

Same again next year?