Thursday 29 April 2010


It has been a lightning week which started with a fantastic weekend.

Friday and it was off to Shrewsbury with the “Dark Lady” as we had been invited to the International Cartoon Festival, an annual event where the finest cartoonists and caricaturists are invited to give talks and exhibit their work, as well as doing huge cartoons on mighty flats in the town square on a given theme. Last year it was Darwin. This time it was “Myth and Mythology”.

First, we had to get there. As you will know from previous blogs and tweets, for a bear of very little brain (i.e me), booking train tickets via the internet is not as simple as it is probably for you.

This time I found that all the cheap tickets had gone so the alternative was to go “first class”.

This is not something I have done more than a few times in my life and always when others have been paying. (Not the BBC but other organisations, for example a press trip).

It didn’t’ seem that much more than the standard fare so I booked two tickets.

When we arrived at the station “K…..” was surprised and delighted as she had never ever gone first before.

Turned out it was not so much first but standard and a bit.

True there were free sandwiches and drinks. True there were lamps on the tables. True the seats were wider and a bit more comfortable. True there was crockery on the tables.
What was untrue that this was the lap of luxury for as the conductor/guard explained

“This is an old train so the coffee machine doesn’t work. We don’t have facilities for hot snacks we don’t….. “and on it went; a list of things that this train didn’t have.

What it did have though was a terrifying “whoosh clatter” every time another train went past that rattled the crockery which also threatened to fly off the table whenever we went round a corner.
I had never noticed how busy and how twisty the line is from London!
Got to the hotel, ears still whistling from the racket and booked in. Lovely old coaching inn in the heart of Shrewsbury. The lift announced its arrival on the second floor with a groan that sounded very much like an ocean liner arriving in port.

Being an old hotel and also built on a hill we turned right went up a flight of stairs. Left down a flight left up and down another flight right up a flight then up another couple until we arrived at our room. I think this was obviously where one of the cartoonists got the idea for their work, “Escher dreaded bedtime”.

Then it was off to meet Roger Penswil and his wife Hazel and we were whisked off to eat. Roger is perhaps better known to you as the cartoonist, “Foghorn”. He may be in his 60’s but has embraced new technology so tends to use computers to draw rather than pen and ink.

It was interesting to see and meet cartoonists whose work I had admired, and very much like people who have heard me then see pictures of me and say, “Never pictured you looking like that!” I, for instance, never realised that “The Surreal McCoy” was in fact a woman. It was gratifying to see a good number of cartoonists were women.

I discovered that night that cartooning is not a job. It is not a calling. It is a disease. The table cloths were covered.

Given another few glasses of wine they would have started on the walls and then on each other.

Got to bed quite late. It was hot so had to have the window open and outside young people were doing that young people thing.

“Leave ‘im ‘ees not worth it”

“You were lookin’ at my bird…Etc.

I think they bus in these people as I am sure I have heard them outside the rented flat in London and outside my house in Hastings. They certainly figured large when the show came from Birmingham and I lived on the canal boat, the Blue Pig, then moved into a house.

Perhaps it is the late 20th early 21st century version of the night watchman
“3 o’clock and all’s well.”

“4 o’clock and ‘ees still not worth it”

Next morning, back to the restaurant for breakfast and the whole place was festooned with the remains of the previous night’s revelry. Every inch of the place seemed to be covered in bits of tablecloth with cartoons all over them. All brilliant and inventive and gratifyingly some were wonderfully rude.

We then went to the market hall to hear Guardian political cartoonist Martin Rowson talk about “Giving offence”. He seems to have annoyed pretty much every political figure he has drawn judging by the tales he told. This struck as probably on balance being a good thing.

Then it was out into the sunshine to see the work that was going on. One of the cartoonists had also added a list of things that he had overheard the public saying the previous year.

“The council are paying for this?”

“They’ll never print anything that big”

“You earn a living from this?”

“Where are the toilets?”

Most of this week has been spent getting ready for AA3.

Had I got all the documents I needed?

Cash for the cab from the airport to the hotel.

Online check in - check.

Satnav loaded with US maps (It is but I am not sure how it works)

All bills paid that needed to be before I returned.

Rushed and bought 5 pairs of new pants. (My late Mum would be so proud)

Did the portable digital audio recorded I bought work so I can send stuff back via the “Audio boo” website.

Incidentally the address is the same for my Twitter account, @alexthedarklord

Then phoning friends and meeting people before I go.

It feels a mite strange. A bit like I am emigrating. Even though I will only be gone for 4 weeks.

Quick visit to the Midlands to see my Dad and meet a load of friends and colleagues from the BBC.
We met in a café round the corner from the Mailbox where the show used to be based.

We had coffee. It was then I noticed that I had been given a cup which would have made a Nun blanche.

This is the last weekly blog. For the moment.

Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on them over the last few years.

From next week it will be time for “American Adventure 3”.

The plan, if there is such a thing, is to drive from Seattle to the Florida Keys then back up to New York City.

I will be blogging pretty much daily, Tweeting and audio boo–ing as well as making regular phone calls to the shoe so you can chart my progress.

Tim Smith will be keeping you entertained for the first fortnight then Lovely Lynn Parsons will have a turn.


Thursday 22 April 2010


How many minor irritations do you have to endure before you go ballistic or in this case "postal"?

I have always tried to be an oasis of calm and have failed on many, many occasions. So I will not try to claim the moral high ground about this.

I am a flawed human being. I recognise that. As do my friends and loved ones.

With American Adventure 3 on its way (ash permitting), there are alot of little things that need doing to ensure a smooth passage to and from the US, that is not going to plunge me into a boiling hellish nightmare as I have forgotten to do stuff before I went.

These are all tiny things and it has been interesting to watch others in similar situations and to gauge their response.

Things have got off to a good start vis a vis a replacement pair of sandals for the trip. I like to travel light. So 5 shirts, 5 pairs undercrackers and a couple of pairs of trousers should see me set fair for the expected 7,000 miles. All "white for the use of", which means I can bung them into a motel washing machine without having to wonder about mixing whites and coloureds (or should this be "coloreds" being the US?).

Sandals accomplished and, due to you and your suggestions, I have decided to go slightly upmarket and fork out more than a fiver for a new pair. However, I was still determined not to pay through the nose for foot-related articles, bearing in mind my principles:

“Food should not cost more than clothes should not cost more than cars should not cost more than houses.”

Reasonable price paid (pizza and ice cream for two equivalent) and my feet are now enjoying the first new open footwear for 12 months.

Wearing white including "trisers", however, means that we girls don't want there to be any VP. So, delving into the drawer, I hoiked out the "pants white for the use of" only to discover that several pairs had suffered elastic-failure, so that I would be spending a lot my time wrestling with them as I walked; hitching them up in case they ended up protruding from a trouser leg. (I am sure this is possible, although not exactly sure how).

So strike one for calm.

Need to send a lot of letters and bills as I am going to be away for a month and a lot of bills come midway through that period. Don't want to return to these shores to find the bailiffs waiting.

I have had that once before when I "forgot" to pay my tax and ended up having to pay two years worth in one go. I spent most of 1989 at home with the lights off to save money. Not a good year that.

Armed with my letters I went to the post office. The idea was to pop in and use the machine to buy a few stamps and exit pronto.

As I tweeted at the time there were 17 people ahead of me in the queue and the "Post and Go" machine was out of action.

Strike two for calm.

Then to the bank as the rent was due on the flat. Technology has moved on a pace and so it is no longer acceptable to send a cheque. All transactions have to be carried out electronically. This is due to the landlord having an "Intelligent account", so I was informed.

Into the bank with all the details and asked to sit on a comfy sofa and await my turn.

Enter elderly lady hell-bent on revenge......

"Can I help you Madam?" asked the member of staff who was meeting and greeting.

"You keep sending me letters although I closed my account a year ago."

"Sorry about that, we must sort that out for you"

"I closed it because you were INCOMPETENT", she roared.

"If you would like to take a seat we will deal with you shortly"

She flung herself down on the settee next to me looked at me and said: "USELESS!" hoping that I would agree and enter into a conversation about how awful people were in banks and how generally terrible the working class were.

I have met people like her before so I did what we Brits normally do and smiled and looked the other way.

Strike Three for calm.

I waited some time until it was my go to meet with the banking bloke.

"Need to transfer some cash for my rent into this account."

"Certainly. Well as it is above a certain amount that will incur a charge of £25"

Strike Four to One hundred and forty eight for calm!

"Whaaat? I just used to send a cheque. How come a couple of keystrokes cost that much?"

"Erm, that is just the way it is. If you want the money to transfer immediately"

"RIDICULOUS!" (Not very Zen, but I have always been cool about frittering money away. Not wasting it!)

Well above "X" we charge.

"How about we do two transactions. One the limit and the other for the remainder of the balance? The cash doesn't have to be there for another week"

"Fine, no problem"

A few keystrokes later the money had been sucked from my account and was on its way to its new owner.

"Thank you for saving me money"

"No problem"

Calm One hundred and forty eight back to five.

Next task on the list was to buy some train tickets...

There was a cartoon character in a comic I used to buy called "Billy Bang" who, when sufficiently frustrated, would explode. I know how he felt.

You may have noticed from previous blogs and tweets that rail tickets, the internet and I don't always gel.

Last time I tried, I bought four tickets instead of two.

Shrewsbury International Cartoon Festival this weekend and so "K...." - now known as "The Dark Lady", as you have dubbed her thus - and I are off to admire their work. There will be outdoor cartooning and workshops and lectures. It will be excellent.

So two tickets on the train is what was required.

I logged on. Made my selection. Was rebuffed by the website.

I logged on. Made my selection. Was rebuffed by the website.

I logged on. Was told there was a website problem. Logged off.

Website didn't load. Went and looked at the Radio 2 site and read the comments from last weeks blog left by you.

I logged on. Still a problem with the website. Logged off.

I logged on. Made my selection. Was told that was fine. Credit card details not accepted. Logged off.

I logged on. Made my selection. Was told that was fine. Credit card details accepted. No more tickets available for that train. Logged off.

I logged on Made another selection. Website froze....

Thursday 15 April 2010


With spring here and being only two weeks before the start of American Adventure 3, I am now beginning to get that slight feeling of rising panic when I look at my "lifetime at a glance" diary; I realise that, instead of there being nothing in there but a funeral at some point (mine, and hopefully a long time in the future!), there was usually nowt else in there. Now it is full of lists of things to do and people to talk to.

Things are beginning to spin slightly out of control. I booked the plane tickets months ago, as well as the first nights accommodation in Seattle. Also the car: "Mustang or similar".The insurance. The house sitters.

All is in hand.

Then there is the technology. The computer. The camera. The recording equipment. The special padlock for your suitcase. Passport. Driving licence. Insurance. Sandals.


I have not seen the sandals since last year. They have been hiding at the bottom of the wardrobe. Now the weather has improved and it is getting warmer I find that it is far easier and more desirable to wake up at 1am, walk into my clothes, brush the teeth and not have to do any unpleasant bending and wrestling with laces before heading in for the show.

When I put them away they seemed OK. I think there is a sort of moth that enjoys feasting on footwear at large in my rented flat. They didn't seem quite so pristine as when I last saw them.

Still I decided to give them a run out.

They seemed OK for the first few miles and were behaving as they should.

It was only when I finished the programme the other morning and stood to leave the studio I felt them falter.....

They had thrown a sole. Ah well. I could live with this although they did make a different sort of noise when walking on hard surfaces. The normally tuned "sladapping" had been joined by a "skrirking" sound.

This may not sound much to you. However, to my finely tuned athletes body this spelt danger. Imagine Rebecca Adlington having to borrow someone’s cossie at the Olympics because she had left hers on the bus.

Chris Hoy finding that when they lined up at the start in the Velodrome he was the only one with a Raleigh Grifter?

Could I make it to the next pit stop before the whole thing came apart?

Then other things started to fall apart. My computer decided that its memory was full, despite taking it to a shop where they added more memory which made no difference.

"I'll plug it in and away you go" said the smiling man, screwing the back on and relieving me of £35"

He plugged it in and it went nowhere.

Another shop suggested an external hard drive.

"Just plug it in and away you go", said the smiling man in the shop as he relieved me of £99, and at the same time tried to sell me some self-dimming lightbulbs.

I plugged it in and it went nowhere.

I had bought a microphone as a back-up, as I intend to upload some bits of sound from the trip if anything takes my fancy: the odd gunfight, Super Volcano going off at Yellowstone, being eaten by bears, that sort of thing.

"Just plug it in and away you go" said the smiling man as he relieved me of £4.99.

I plugged it in and it went nowhere.

Then I went to the phone shop as you had tipped me off that if I was Tweeting, which I intend to do as well as blogging and uploading sound via "Audioboo", that if I wasn't careful I could end up with massive bill when I returned home. I needed to figure out how to switch the internet access off as I only tweet via text.

"You just press this, select that, press this, select that, scroll down, that access, this press that upload that download that press that select this access that reconfigure those then that this this that that that that that…and away you go", said the smiling woman in the shop as she handed my handset back to me.

I am getting a bad feeling about this.

It would be a good thing to try and tweet pictures to you as well. I am hesitating as to finding that out as I am suffering middle-aged-man-technology overload.

The camera I bought for the first trip in 2007 needs new rechargable batteries as the old ones no longer hold a charge. Also, unless I back-up all the pictures on the laptop to the hard drive (see how complicated this is getting?), my memory card is full.

"Just charge ‘em up put ‘em in away you go", said the smiling man in the shop as he relieved me of £3.97

"What about a new memory card?"

"Oh, they don't make those any longer", he said smiling even more broadly at the prospect of relieving me of even more cash for a new camera.

Like a Sunday newspaper reporter who has been covering a story on "Vice" and discovered there is a brothel being run in a suburban hardware store.

(Lets face it if you need, erm, "equipment", it’s probably as good a place as any. Not that I have any experience of such matters, you understand).

I made my excuses and left.

Meanwhile, back at the bottom of my legs, things were not going well either.

I have my work cut out to get all this sorted in a fortnight.

Meanwhile the stress dreams continue:

Picture the scene: Seattle airport immigration.

“Hey Arnie, guy here says he is doing a month long road trip.”

“We've checked him out. He hasn't got a drivers license with him. He has a lot of suspect electrical equipment on him and he is wearing weird shoes....”

Before I sign off, I noted a comment on last week’s blog that, having Add Imageposted pics of nice stuff like fish and chips and my home town Hastings, having mentioned flowers, why were there were no images of them?


Thursday 8 April 2010


This is one of my favourite times of the year.

If you live in a seaside town, as I do, it is doubly exciting as the place comes alive at Easter.
Spring, tourism and - above all - commerce are in the air.

After the winter spent looking at empty flower beds on the seafront, the council workforce have planted all the flowers so the promenade is a riot of colour.

Down in Hastings old Town the rides and the shops (selling all those things that burn a hole in every child’s pocket) re-open after being boarded up for the winter.

Who could resist a Native American dream catcher? A bit of coloured drift wood? Some ornamental pebbles worn smooth by the sea? Sticks of rock, fudge made somewhere else but with a picture of Hastings stuck on the box lid and inflatables of every size shape colour and hue? Some years ago, I read that someone had to be rescued from the briny as they had fallen asleep and floated out aboard a giant pair of inflatable lips. They were rescued by a man on a banana!

Much excitement this year as the East Hill lift was due to re-open after being shut for at least a year for repairs. This is a funicular that gives breathtaking views of the beach and the town as far as St Leonard’s. It had crashed and so it was decided that it would be completely refurbished and the “coaches” replaced with ones of the original design. This took me straight back to my childhood when we used to visit my Grandparents who lived there and we often were taken as a treat. Not been on it for years so it was a delight and, what is more, the council had removed the annoying commentary that would blare out of a tinny speaker the moment it started moving, so the majesty of the view was disrupted.

I always enjoy showing visitors my town and so it was great fun to bring “K” with a view to bringing her children at a future date. Now, the hard thing is to try and put yourself in the mindset of an 11 year-old boy and a 14 year-old girl.

Well, to start with we headed for the West Hill lift which, although it is not as impressive as its East Hill counterpart, is nevertheless fun as it travels through a long tunnel and you get a longer ride for your money.

On reaching the top, there is a broad expanse of grass which is ideal for kite flying. My Granddad had an ex-Met office weather box kite which we would fly to great effect, he having to hold onto me to stop myself flying away over the cliff tops.

A short walk to the castle where, as a small boy, I made the guided tourists howl with mirth when my lolly fell from its stick. Quick as a flash I picked it up and guzzled it. I was a firm believer in the five second rule even then. Less than five seconds and no germs will attach.
Then…a result. There are some sandstone caves with ornate carvings and an air of mystery and menace. Not visited for 15 years or more and as a kid these were known as “St Clements Caves” and, again, had a guide and the only souvenir was a tin badge. Now it has become “The Smugglers Experience” There is a lot interactive stuff as well as historical context and exhibits from the 17th century. Smuggling was rife in these here parts and only ended when import duty was reduced and so made the margins so low it wasn’t worth bothering any longer.

As you may be aware for the last few weeks I have been trying to re-jig my image, so I have created an alter ego: “Johnny Havoc”. You are having none of it, frankly, but still I persevere.
It was whilst I was in the caves I remembered that my Uncle Barrie (my Mother’s brother, who is the keeper of the family archive on that side of the family) had managed to trace the family back to the 17th Century and I am delighted to inform you that one of our ancestors was a smuggler and was executed for murdering a customs officer.

It’s in the genes so don’t mess with J Havoc Esq. me hearties!

Lunchtime and if you are by the seaside you have to have fish and chips.
The Sun was out but there was no room outside so we had to eat indoors at one of the many cafes. Just as well really as these places are a magnet for seagulls. They are big and quite aggressive particularly during the breeding season. As we watched, one swooped down just as a couple left and grabbed what remained of their cod and flew off with it.

When I lived in this part of town I remember one night climbing out on to my “roof terrace” (my kitchen roof) and nearly lost an eye to a furious breeding pair who had nested there.

Then we had a trip on the train. This is a narrow gauge railway that runs for a few hundred yards past the amusement park with its go carts and boating pool.

As a child, this was a world of delight with the locomotives being real steam and the pool having paraffin-driven wooden boats with big rope fenders. Now it is diesel and pedals. Economics has reduced its appeal for myself, I am afraid. I can still remember my Dad taking my sister and me to the fair and producing two last sixpences from his pocket for one last go on the Helter-skelter. Do such rides exist any longer? The years have not been kind to the amusements in my book.
Gone are the dodgems with the tattooed youth with the quiff who chatted up the girls as he hung on to the conductor pole. Candy floss now looks horribly unhealthy and the games in the arcades seem to only have one prize this year; the Meerkats from those insurance ads.

However, will it appeal to two children with their whole lives before them?
Obviously, the11 year-old lad is going to enjoy go-karts, novelty rock, the train and the east and West Hill lifts.

It is going to be tougher to keep a 14 year-old girl amused if there are no bad boys to make them giggle.

Now if they only made novelty rock in the shape of the bass player from the Kings of Leon…….

Thursday 1 April 2010


Momentarily, the weather improved so much so I had my shades on. I was sauntering across the park using my best "Sashay". "You can tell by the way I use my walk I'm a woman's man no time to talk". A couple were coming in the opposite direction, when they drew level the bloke said, "Alex Lester?"

What is the correct response to this?

This rarely happens. It happened once in West Bromwich after I had been on Waterworld, and more recently as a result of the Radio 2 team failing miserably on Eggheads. However, it is not exactly the sort of level that Brangelina attract.

I am used to wandering about anonymously which frankly is the best way to be. Not sure I could cope with people yelling abuse at me in the street. Or having to worry that your fly was undone or you were "rearranging yourself" when a passing photographer took your picture and you were all over the papers the next day.

The addiction to it may then take hold and you end up being totally shameless like Lady Gaga, Lily Allen and Peaches Geldof. Also, there was that bloke that used to be big in Corrie in the 80's, who was a hog for press attention who went off to the US and don't think was ever heard of again.

Although I think I did read he ended up a doorman at Stringfellows. Imagine that for a comedown? Having to throw people out of a place where you were the one that was used to being thrown out of, if you catch my drift.

What is the correct response to "Alex Lester?"

1) Are you sure it is me?

2) Guilty as charged (No, too Frasier Crane)

3) Must be someone who looks like me.

4) He is far better/worse looking than me

5) No I am David Cameron/Gordon Brown/Nick Clegg in disguise. Being "Mr Ordinary, I understand the man in the street, er, man")

6) F&*(^%&*!. (No too Amy Winehouse. Or judging by my dress sense too cider-fuelled tramp).

7) Do you want my autograph? (No, remember we are anti-celeb; we give our autographs to famous people to wipe the self-satisfied smirks from their overstuffed faces).

8) It’s a lie. I was home all evening! (Hmm, hasty may make you look guilty of something.)

9) I never touched her I swear. (Even worse than the above)

10) Yes.

Opting for the latter, I discovered I was being addressed by Tony Stokes who was with his wife, Caroline, and they were down from Albrighton in Shropshire. They had come to London to celebrate Tony's 53rd birthday and were going to see the musical, Jersey Boys, as Tony was a big fan of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

We had a nice chat. Since the programme time change, Tony has been getting up earlier to hear the show. Now, that shows dedication. Anecdotal evidence tells me he is not alone in this. The pluses, such as they are, include being out of the main rush hour and getting more done when it is quiet! All very life-improving.

I was on my way across the park to meet my mate, Libido Boy, who I have not seen since the turn of the year as we have both been busy. He had managed to drag himself away from the "libido" thing and also his band. He is a keyboard player and has been rehearsing a lot over the last few months. Now the band are doing their first tentative gigs.

As he is slimmer than me I did offer him my leather "Blubberwatch" target trousers. It looks that barring liposuction they are never going to grace my wobbly thighs again, especially as American Adventure 3 starts in a month, and we know what that does to my waistline.

He politely turned them down.

We (L. K. and I) were off to the BBC to see Paul Rogers with the surviving members of Bad Company. He was going to do a greatest hits show of his Free, Bad Company and The Firm work.

What would he be like? I saw Free a couple of times as a teenager and also Bad Company on their first tour.

It can be tricky seeing an artist after a gap of nearly forty years. Would they be past their prime? Would they be unrecognisable? Would the songs sounds horribly old fashioned either instrumentally or would they be lyrically creaky.

Some 70's and 80's stuff no longer works for me due to the over-abundance of rather unsophisticated synthesisers. Just been listening to some early 70's Hawkwind sessions that they did for Radio 1's In Concert. All a bit studiedly, "far out and cosmic" for my tastes these days. That and the tracks are far too long to play on the show.

I remember rootling through a record shop a year or so back and finding an album by metal band, Samson. No chance whatsoever of "I wish I was the saddle on a schoolgirl’s bike" being played on the radio these days.

I do remember when as a schoolboy I played a track from a band called Stackwaddy. This predated punk and its attitude by several years. The album was called, Bugger Off, as I recall. Wonder if we would be allowed to mention that these days on the radio.

No worries with Paul Rogers who, despite turning 60, is in incredible shape and looks pretty much as he did when I saw him as a 14 year old. He was in fine voice and the band were note perfect.

K, despite being a few years younger than myself, really enjoyed them, and L Boy and I were transported back to a time when he had more hair and I had a 28 inch waist.

You can judge for yourself on Easter Saturday night when the show is being broadcast. There is also the red button after via the Radio 2 website so you can watch the gig as well.

It is now a month before American Adventure 3 starts, so I am drawing up lists of things to do to ensure that I can blog, tweet and you can also hear what is going on as I attempt to drive from Seattle to the Florida Keys then back up to New York in four weeks.