Last night to the Metropolis in Bristol (UK), a beautifully restored former cinema that is home to Jesters Comedy Club. Last night, though, was a special treat for fans of Steely Dan. The performance by their UK-based tribute band Nearly Dan was great, though the sound was nothing like as good as it had been at their previous Bristol venue, the rather scruffier but atmospheric Fleece.

My only other gripe about last night: on a cold night in January, everyone arrived well wrapped up. Those of us who’d arrived early enough to get a seat at the small number of tables were OK; they could drape their jackets, coats etc over the backs of their chairs. For the majority, who had to stand, no such luck. They had to dump their coats on the floor, keep them on, or pile them on one of the few empty chairs.

That prompted a thought; is it only in the UK that we seem to forget that in winter the weather can get cold? Is it only in the UK that venues will welcome punters and the money they’ve paid for admission and will spend over the bar, but provide nowhere for them to put their coats? Theatres generally have a cloakroom but cinemas don’t. As for pubs, I know a few (old-fashioned) pubs where there are jacket-hooks and coat- hooks on walls and under the bar, but they are an exception.

End of moan. It was indeed a great evening. Highpoint, for me and many others, was a superb trumpet solo in an extended version of “Hey Nineteen”. I was keen to find out the name of the player; the band’s website indicates it could have been either Phil Nicholas or Steve Parry. Sadly, due to the imperfections of the venue’s sound quality and / or my hearing, I couldn’t make out the name when he was credited by the leader. Memo to self; must get my hearing checked out again.


Greetings to my readers in Bristol (that’s the one in the UK) and surrounds. I wish you a very enjoyable (and, of course, cultural) 2010.

My random selection of imminent events starts here:

Sun 10 Jan, 4 pm: something new at the Coronation Tap, Clifton. The Neil Smith 4TET: standards from Coltrane to Carmichael. Neil Smith, guitar; Jon Short, bass; John Blakeley, drums, Dino Christodoulou, sax, with some Greek-flavoured originals.

Sun 10 Jan, 7.30 for 8 pm: “Sunday night at the Lansdown”. Acoustic Evening, featuring Emily Grist, Rosie Garrard, Bashema. Lansdown Inn, 8 Clifton Road, Clifton, BS8 1AF.

Tues 12 Jan, 8 pm: Science Café at @Bristol. “Waste not, want not”. Forum for discussion of waste. Representatives of local organisations, e.g. James Sessions-Hodges (Ethos Energy), Sean Spencer-Worte (Bristol City Council) and Katie Winterborne (Resource Futures) share experiences and viewpoints. “Bring an item of rubbish for a warm-up activity!”

Weekend of 15 / 17 Jan: Bristol Acoustic Music Festival at St George’s. Too many acts to list: see

.. and finally, two Festival of Ideas events: (

Mon 18 Jan, 6 pm, St George’s. “The future of environmentalism”. Stewart Brand.

Tues 19 Jan, 7.30 pm, Central Library. “The True Desperate Romantics”, Lucinda Hawksley



I’ve been lucky enough to be cast in a production of Richard III by Theatre Raconteurs. I’m the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Ely as well as Lord Herbert (but all at different times in the play, I was relieved to hear). We open on 24 November at the Alma Tavern Theatre, Alma Vale, Clifton, Bristol and close 5 December.

If you want to find out about Theatre Raconteurs (“new professional theatre company based in Bristol,” it says here) and our production of Richard III, check out the company’s Facebook page: enter “Theatreraconteurs” in the search box, then check “events”.


I spoke at the Rotary Club of Bristol on Monday, where my intended topic was “Retirement planning: it’s not about the money.” I already knew that many Rotarians are already retired but, when I arrived, the affable Speaker’s Friend, John Bedford, told me that retirees were in fact in the vast majority in this particular Club, so the intended topic was a little too late for most of them.

I thus immediately dropped the word “planning” from my topic; moreover I asked the assembled members (a healthy turnout) to indulge me by being guinea-pigs, i.e. a test audience for my plans to write a series of articles, and maybe a book, on the topic. They seemed happy to do that; however my “memo to self”, à la Bridget Jones, is to note that lunchtime Rotary clubs tend to attract retired members, whereas Rotarians still working tend to favour breakfast and evening clubs, provided there is a choice. In Bristol there is indeed such a choice, as there are nine clubs already, with another one about to start.

I prefaced my remarks by quoting the Canadian retirement coach who told me: “in my experience, the people who are happiest in retirement are not the ones with the most money. They are the ones with a plan.”

What kind of plan? A plan that deals with how to spend all that time.

I had had a plan of sorts since my forties – that plan started from the viewpoint of never wanting to retire totally. Noel Coward said “Work is more fun than fun”; at the very least, a balance between work and fun seemed to me a desirable element of a happy life and one that should not be discarded at age 65. I also knew that going from 100% employment to zero overnight can, and does, kill many people. Of course the work / fun balance can shift as one gets older but it should still be there, I decided. As for what is meant by “work” in this context, that’s the interesting question.

In 2002 women then aged 65 could expect to live to the age of 84: for men it was 81. (ONS) Naturally this was a UK average; the figures increase markedly for those who are well educated and / or live in a good environment. So retirement lasts about 20 years on average but most people spend more time planning for a summer holiday than they do for these 20 years.

In the normal course of events, 250,000 people retire in the UK every year. To this figure should be added the increasing numbers who, in today’s economic climate, face involuntary retirement either through being persuaded to take early retirement or facing redundancy and then finding it impossible to get another job.

What should the plan entail? In a research project called “Retire 200”, 100 men and 100 women, all retired or soon-to-retire, were interviewed at length about their experiences and expectations. Here’s their consensus as to the elements of a happy retirement.

1. Being able to choose when to retire. (not a given these days)

2. To retire early enough: they recommended not above 55.

3. Financial independence – whatever that means for you.

4. “Purposeful” (sic) activities for at least 5 hours per week. Most retired Rotarians would probably laugh at such a small number.

5. Someone to rely on for emotional support.

6. Proactive health management.

7. Having a plan covering both the financial and lifestyle aspects.

8. Having received pre-retirement advice and education.

The armoury of many life coaches contains a set of questions called “Five Minutes that could Change your Life”, coined by US author Brian Tracy. The first question is “if you won a million on the lottery (or 10 million or whatever figure represents total financial independence for you) how would it change your life? Where would you live, what would you do, with whom, etc?” The power of this question is that it reveals the things that are important to you, or would be if financial constraints were removed, even mentally. However, many of those things that are important do not depend on millions to get started.

An accompanying question is “if you discovered that you would live only 6 months more – in perfect health – how would you spend that time?” Both questions are effective ways to challenge what are our priorities; or values, if you like.

According to Charles Handy, the tendency for jobs in organisations to go to younger people – ageism cannot be rooted out by legislation – should not be a source of complaint; where else are they to get their experience? Our response as we grow older should be to develop a “portfolio” of skills and talents that we can provide to a variety of “clients”. Some of those activities may be rewarded financially, some just by satisfaction, but we should not distinguish between paid and unpaid activities. It’s all work, says Handy.

Considering this concept, (“it’s all work”) a friend of mine says she would never call gardening “work”. Why not? Because she loves it. But who says you have to hate your work? Or because it’s not paid? The distinction is unnecessary, as Handy might say. After all, an unpaid labour of love might be developed into a paid activity, if so desired. “It’s all work”.

I concluded by saying that I had traded a business card describing myself in my former role as a managing director in the chemical industry for one that now reads “actor & voice-over; author; radio presenter; speaker” and considered myself a most fortunate person.

John Bedford discharged his duties as Speaker’s Friend by proposing a most charming vote of thanks. Even if it’s his custom to compliment all speakers as a matter of course, it was encouraging to hear him conclude, “You should write the book.”

Feedback on this post would be welcomed. If you are a retiree or are in the process of planning your retirement, do you have any commnets on any of the above?

Pantomime as community

This week I am getting back to normal, after having been involved in a most wonderful local event. It was a pantomime: in early March moreover!

A pantomime in March is pretty unusual, and this was the first time I had been involved in this particular event. In fact I hadn’t been involved in thespian-type activities for longer than I can remember. Which means certainly 10 years, maybe 15. (those of you, like me, whose age is closer to 60 than 20 will identify with the syndrome whereby one always underestimates how long it is since you last saw such-and-such a person, or did such-and-such a thing, by at least 50%)

The famous Hotwells Panto always happens in March; years ago they very sensibly decided that the traditional period around Christmas is very crowded, whereas people’s diaries are less full in the first months of the New Year. I said it was famous; and that’s true if you live in or around Bristol (the one in England, that is) and take an interest in theatre. I hesitated to say “amateur theatre”, because this production was very professionally run in many ways. Nobody got paid, so in that sense it was certainly amateur. But then I have just remembered that the French word “amateur” simply means “lover of”. Everyone involved in this production certainly qualified in that sense.

I very nearly missed being involved. On 4 January I was walking the beautiful streets of Clifton – “handsomest suburb in Europe” as Betjeman called it, and I will not disagree with him on any matter, least of all this one. I happened to see a poster which read: “Hotwells Panto; Robin Hood; read-through and casting 4 January.” That very evening, in fact, but what struck me was that they were being very previous. Casting now for next Christmas, which is when pantos normally happen? So I went home and Googled it (“like you do”) and got loads of hits, including a half-page article from the “Independent” (a national paper in the UK, in case you’re reading this from anywhere else). The article claimed that the Hotwells Panto was the hot theatre ticket in Bristol, even above the city’s famous Bristol Old Vic. So I naturally had to go along to the read-through and see for myself. Now, two months later, and with the run having finished last Saturday, I can report that what I found was most impressive in many ways:

Longevity: this Panto has been running for nearly 30 years and it seems the vast majority of those involved have been involved for the vast majority of those years.

Commitment: there were, I believe, about 100 people involved, including cast, crew and those making costumes, scenery, props etc. The cast ranged from children of primary-school age to “seniors” like myself, although we were short of performers in their twenties. Any takers?

Local popularity: it’s very much seen as a community event, so all the seats for all four nights were sold out within days, as that article in the “Independent” had predicted. A total of well over 1000 seats went in double-quick time and as far as I know the show is not advertised.

Accessibility: despite that core of long-term involvees (is that a word? It is now), there is no clique culture. Despite being a total stranger off the street, so to speak, I was offered a great part. (see below)

Tradition: this Panto has developed its own traditions but it also sticks to the “traditional Panto” format, unlike many professional pantomimes that rely increasingly on hiring celebrities and recycling lots of smutty jokes. (This one had lots of witty double-entendres but that’s different from gratuitous use of four-letter words; this is supposed to be a family show, after all)

Quality: given top marks by a friend who came to help with makeup, then saw the show. This was her first exposure to the Hotwells Panto and she said it compared very favourably with many professional pantos to which she’d taken her children over the years.

Topicality: this is a major feature of Panto, whether amateur or professional. This year the theme was, of course, the credit crunch or recession or whatever you like to call it. That being the case, I was delighted to be offered the part of Baron Hardup: very much in line with the zeitgeist.

Creativity: in so many ways. For example, in a wonderful spoof on the TV show “Strictly Come Dancing”, all the male dancers were dummies, made and dressed by members of the “Ambras” – the female chorus of local legend and named after a nearby street. One dummy was Barack Obama, one was John Sargeant, referring to the British broadcaster’s recent “career” as a ballroom dancer. (

Originality: anyone who liked Monty Python will recall the phrase “Nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition”. I certainly didn’t expect a troop of Vikings to appear in the middle of “Robin Hood”, and neither did the audience. But appear they did, with great impact and to the delight of the audience.

Laid-back production & direction (apart from the occasional but inevitable tantrum!) by Gill Loats and Amanda Webb. Not content with directing this one, they also direct the Southville Panto and Gill is also a producer with the professional “Show of Strength” theatre company in the city.

A witty script produced by a team of writers, in a process developed over the years. The claim is that it’s written by locals for locals, and that is certainly true. One of the local issues that surfaced this year was the City Council’s controversial plan to bring in parking permits. The superbly villainous Sherriff of Nottingham, relating his taxation plans, says: “and I’m even going to tax them for parking their horses outside their own houses”. Then he adds with an evil grin: “of course there will first be a period of full consultation ……. dream on!” A good script needs people capable of delivering it, and the cast was full of such people. It’s well-known that a successful panto needs good people in the role of the villain and the Dame; this production had them. These and others were people who could have succeeded on the professional stage if they had chosen to.

To end on a serious note: we were all handed a questionnaire asking us for our feedback for a local research project investigating whether theatrical and similar events, such as this one, promote community adhesion. It seems clear to me that they do. Twenty years ago we lived in a village so small it had neither a school nor a village shop. However there was a real community spirit and, yes, there was a flourishing panto. Then we needed a larger house, so we moved to another village, similar in many ways but it wasn’t until we got there that we found much less of a sense of community … and, guess what, no panto. Did a panto help to create a community spirit or vice versa? Which was cause and which was effect? You tell me.

I feel privileged to have been part of such a great local institution as the Hotwells Panto, and especially to have been made so welcome, being a newcomer. If you want to know more, here’s the piece that appeared in the local paper, the Bristol Evening Post, last week. Granted, local papers are rarely negative about amateur shows, but even so, it’s worth a read: