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I blame it, of course, on Scott McKenzie.

And Alan Whicker.

Now I trust that many readers, notably those of a certain age and transatlantic disposition, will recall that Scott McKenzie was the singer who advised the world in 1967 that, if they were going to San Francisco, they should “be sure to wear some flowers in their hair”. That song alone had a searing impact on an impressionable fourteen year old boy living five and a half thousand miles away.

But Alan Whicker?

In appearance, with his English grammar school upbringing, clipped accent, Saville Row suit, slicked back hair, thick-set glasses and brisk moustache, he was the antithesis of the young people flocking to the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood at the time.

Whicker was an English journalist and broadcaster who forged a career spanning nearly sixty years until his death in 2013. His finest work was Whicker’s World which he presented for thirty years, travelling the world and commenting in an inimitable ironic fashion on society, and interviewing many prominent figures of the time, including the Sultan of Brunei, reputedly the richest man in the world at the time, the Haitian dictator, “Papa Doc” Duvalier and numerous high profile actors and aristocrats.

His stiff upper-lip style made him the affectionate butt of many comedians, none more memorably than the Monty Python team who delivered a sketch entitled Whicker’s Island, in which a succession of Whickers would walk on and off the screen uttering in his customary hushed tones, the catchphrase “here on Whicker’s Island”.

On 9th September 1967, the day that Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Byrds headlined at the Family Dog and Fillmore Auditorium, two of the emerging and competing concert venues in San Francisco,  Whicker broadcast a programme on the BBC entitled Love Generation. The episode was groundbreaking not least for the fact that it showed scenes of drug taking, despite the corporation’s “horror” of the practice, for the first time on British television, notably in 710 Ashbury, the Grateful Dead house (Phil Lesh and Bob Weir figured prominently). In the light of the recent Mick Jagger drug bust, it was put out very late at night. Among the individuals invited to expound their hippie ideals, emerging music promoter, Chet Helms, outlined his plans for taking music and light show “happenings” to London.

It was an incisive, literate and surprisingly sympathetic piece in which Whicker spoke over footage of the large influx of youth who had hitchhiked from every state to “Hashbury”:

In the States, pot is going middle class and spreading like prohibition liquor as more and more citizens   get zonked out of their minds. The drug culture enters the blood stream of American life. Like it or not, we’re living in the stoned age.

Later he was to lament that the:

Summer of Love was a short outburst of happiness that lasted only a few months. When I returned a year later the flowers and the innocence had died.

I was, like the thousands of young people that sought escape from the drabness of middle America, inspired by the message of “tune in, turn on, drop out”, though I hadn’t the means of joining the tribes.

The broadcast also gave my first experience of the Grateful Dead in performance with a beardless Jerry Garcia taking the lead on the Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion). A song title was never more apt.

News bulletins featured scenes of Gray Line tour buses crawling down Haight Street with bemused middle aged, provincial passengers staring at the carnival on the street.

And then there was Scott McKenzie.

Another character with a splendid upper lip growth, it was his song, full title San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair), which topped the charts in the UK but not (quite) the US, that so enthralled that fourteen year old boy in what was, despite the emergence of “swinging London”, still a monochrome etched country.

I took to decorating my Beatle mop with an occasional fresh daisy or buttercup. I commandeered my mother’s chocolate and purple paisley print blouse to wear to the home games of my local football team, guaranteeing that I would be bullied as mercilessly on a Saturday afternoon on the terraces as I was already being five days a week at school.

But I didn’t care.

I was a hippie.

My home grown musical diet of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks and a dozen other pop groups began to be supplemented by the weird, thrilling sounds of San Francisco. But it would still be another three years before I could get my hands on the music of the  Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service (thank you Keith Mason wherever you are), and before I could justifiably claim to be aboard the bus – the magic, not tourist, version.

During those same three years, I became increasingly fascinated by American culture and society. My political awakening was borne more out of opposition to the Vietnam War and support for the blacks in the Deep South, and students at Berkeley and Kent State than with the Rhodesian question or devaluation of the pound in Britain. I chose American history as one of my “A levels” at school and later studied American literature at university.

Underpinning all this was the music – my adoration for the San Franciscan bands was extended to embrace the country and folk rock idioms of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, the Eagles and, of course, Dylan. I devoured every American film I could, especially those with a counter cultural bias like Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop and Alice’s Restaurant, and read George Jackson, Angela Carter and Tom Wolfe.

Those enthusiasms have endured to this day, though it would take me another quarter of a century before I first gazed adoringly on the Golden Gate Bridge or strolled down the street that had been the epicentre of my cultural life for so long.

But that is another story.

To finish, another of those siren songs that sucked me into a San Francisco state of mind.


This is the third in a series of articles about the writing of my new book: Smiling on a Cloudy Day: An Englishman’s Love Affair with San Francisco. The previous posts were:

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2013/08/07/the-next-book/

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2014/07/07/smiling-on-a-cloudy-day/

The dates of those posts might already indicate that progress has not been as swift as I would have liked. There are a variety of reasons for this, not least my father’s fluctuating health over the past eighteen months and a recent, but now concluded, return to paid employment.

It is a similar story with the blogging – only sixteen posts, admittedly some of them quite long, since returning from San Francisco in April last year, compared to almost double that number in the preceding nine months.

But that is now in the past, and I am determined to publish the book this year. Indeed, I have been working on a draft for many months.

One illustration of progress is that dozens of disparate sheets of paper scattered over various surfaces have now been incorporated into a smart folder in which that working draft is now housed (see below). True to type, inspiration has been sought in the attachment of Grateful Dead and Giants logos.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Part travel diary, part guide book, part history and part analysis of modern city life from the perspective of a regular foreign visitor, Smiling on a Cloudy Day follows the adventures of my wife and I during a month in early summer (if June in San Francisco can ever be considered summer). You will be able to follow us as we explore many of the most popular, and some less well-known, sights, chuckle and groan in equal measure at the antics of fellow passengers on public transportation, ramble round our adopted neighbourhood of Bernal Heights, and endure extreme temperatures at AT & T Park while still believing that the Giants will avert the run of dismal defeats that have coincided with our attendance.

Unsurprisingly, food and drink will feature strongly, and there will be plenty of music too at festivals and concert halls.

I intend to press on with the draft over the next four months before our next pilgrimage to the City in May. Those two weeks will feel as much a research trip as a vacation as I attempt to clarify facts and solidify themes.

Irrespective of whether I publish digitally or in print (though I remain inclined towards the former method), I plan to do so in advance of my second trip, this time for a full month in September/October.

I will continue to supply periodic updates and brief extracts on my blog in an effort to whet readers’ appetites as the book develops.

But if you would now excuse me, I need to get on with writing it.


Regular readers of this blog will know of my admiration for Herb Caen, the celebrated San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Indeed, it is often through the prism of his vision that I see the city myself, and I find myself turning to him invariably for an apposite remark in a variety of circumstances. It is why too I chose him as one of the first subjects in my “Great San Franciscan Characters” series, the revised version of which can be found at:

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2013/06/14/herb-a-very-able-caen/

That post explored his life and career and contained a sprinkling of some of his most famous quotes. I have selected fifty for this article from a variety of publications, though I could have included ten times as many. Some illustrate his customary wit, but others are more wistful and contemplative. Above all, they illustrate his literary skill and “loove”, as he put it, for the city.

No photos, just words.

1. I’ve been living here man and boy, since nine months before I was born, having been conceived during the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition on what became the Marina.  (No, my parents were not in a sideshow, they merely spent the summer here, complaining about the cold).

2. A city is where you can sign a petition, boo the chief justice, fish off a pier, gaze at a hippopotamus, buy a flower at the corner, or get a good hamburger or a bad girl at 4 A.M. A city is where sirens make white streaks of sound in the sky and foghorns speak in dark grays. San Francisco is such a city.

3. Isn’t it nice that people who prefer Los Angeles to San Francisco live there?

4. San Francisco has a bond of self-satisfaction bordering on smugness.

5. A city is not gauged by its length and width, but by the broadness of its vision and the height of its dreams.

6.One of my pet ambitions is to run screaming through the lobby of the Fairmont, bowling old ladies off their red plush perches and tweaking the noses of aged elevator boys.

7. No mystery about the 60,288 San Franciscans missing in the Census. They’re all down in the Union Square Garage waiting for their cars.

8. San Francisco, city of the world, worlds within a city, forty-nine square miles of ups and downs, ins and outs, and going around in circles, most of them dizzy. A small “d” democrat city run by big-buck conservatives, a place where the winds of freedom will blow your mind and your hat off, where eccentricity is the norm and sentimentality the ultimate cynicism. Cable cars and conventions, boosterism living uncomfortable with sophistication, a built-in smugness announcing simply that we are simply the best.

9. The number of foggy days over the city is never reported reportedly. But take it from me – there’s enough to satisfy everyone, and dissatisfy somebody.

10. I rose in my mythical helicopter and looked down on the hippies and the heppies, the brokers and the broken, the champs and the charlatans, the Mime Troupe performing on the Marina Square, the fog chasing the boats off the Bay, the old geezers lounging in the sun at Powell and Market, the kids playing in the alleys of the Mission, and I knew I was still in love with the whole beautiful mess. And I knew I was not alone.

11. Fresh cracked crab with Boudin’s “dark bake” sourdough and a well-chilled bottle of Californian Chardonnay is still the quintessential S.F. meal.

12. one has to wonder how the San Franciscans of today would deal with a catastrophe of similar proportions (Earthquake and Fire of 1906). If the evidence is to be believed, our forerunners faced that disaster with a smile and a Jeanette MacDonald song, and, whistling while they worked, built a city even more glittering and glamorous than its doomed predecessor. Out of the ashes rose the cliche about the phoenix bird that would haunt cub reporters furthermore. “Like the phoenix bird, the Milpitas Mustangs rose out of the ashes of defeat to” – to what? To make the boozy old copy reader spit on the floor in disgust as he applied his big blue pencil.

13. Gray Line buses hauling gray-faced tourists through the gray city on a gray day, a city crew waking the Broadway Tunnel as the rain splashes outside, Chinese selling Japanese trinkets to South Americans carrying German cameras…..gee, what a crazy town.

14. The Sounds of the city. Once they were a heady mix of sidewheeler splash, seagull scream, Ferry building siren, sea lion bark, click-clang of birdcage signal and “one more for the road”. Today, the auto horns blow impatiently, amid hippie bagpipe, flutes, bongo drums, “Any spare change?”, a blind man’s accordion wheezing out “Wabash Cannonball” and – lest we forget – “Have a good day, have a nice day” and smile, damn ya, smile.

15. The trouble with born-again Christians is that they are an even bigger pain the second time around.

16. On the top-most corners of Nob Hill, I see tourists go crazy. Standing in the intersection, they whirl like dervishes as they shoot photos in four directions: hills, valleys, distant peaks, the cables, the bay, Alcatraz and Angel, sailboats and freighters, Chinatown’s pagoda’d roofs, a snatch of the Bay Bridge. From their antics, you can tell they’ve never seen anything like this before and they are entranced. The jaded San Franciscan looks twice and becomes entranced all over again.

17. The only thing wrong with immortality is that it tends to go on forever.

18. nobody runs a headstrong city like this for long. She is still untamed. A wild streak of rebellion simmers and stews just below the surface, refusing to conform to the orthodoxies of religion and society. That is why San Francisco is a mecca – that non-Christian term – for those who have been cast out from lesser temples.

19. San Francisco is a city for all seasons (sometimes four in one day) and various reasons. A city that thinks nothing of spending $60 million and rebuild a cable car system that was obsolete a century ago, and even less of letting drunks lie on the street as long as they aren’t in the way of the cables.

20. This is the 14th largest city in the country, has the fourth largest number of so-called homeless, and the gauntlet of paper-cupped pitifuls gets longer and longer. I’m still good for a quarter but that pittance doesn’t go as far as it used to!

21. On foggy nights, where memories grow suddenly sharp in the gloom, you know the old city is still around you, just below the surface – an Atlantis on the Pacific. Maybe it’s the foghorns calling mournfully to each other, the only voices still around that evoke the swish of paddlewheels on ghostly ferries. Or, barely visible in the mist, a cable car disappearing over a hill on its plunge into yesterday. Halos on streetlamps over empty sidewalks that knew the tread of feet long gone….On a long January night in the quiet city (just before it stops being late and starts to get early), the ghosts begin dancing again, atop the creaking ferry slips, through the venal parking lots where lovely buildings once stood, across the steel bones of cable car lines that were buried without funerals. Bits and pieces remain, the leftover pieces of a jigsaw puzzle we could never quite fit together.

22. I tend to live in the past because most of my life is there.

23. Waiting for the Muni. Spent some of the best years of my life waiting for the Muni at corner of Five and Mish’, where at is situated this pillar of veracity. It’s like Richard Armour’s catsup bottle – at first none will come and then a lot’ll…….While waiting for the Muni, must think about other things. Anything. “They’re doing the best they can,” is OK thought. Also true. One thing you mustn’t do, after, say, about 15 minutes, is step into street and look for buses that aren’t there. Watched bus never boils into view. When you look up street for buses and don’t see any, get very depressed. Wonder if a strike has been called and nobody mentioned it. You think about writing your District Supervisor, whoever he or she may be if at all. Kick mailbox, which is dumb.

24. It is hard to stay depressed in San Francisco, on a crisp November afternoon, with flowers and pretzels for sale on the street corners and the tourists going Instamatically mad at the bright wonder of it all. We are so lucky to have a proper downtown, where people can parade.

25. “What a great town!” The words come blurting out at dusk on the night of a full moon, erasing the doubts and returning the child-like shine to eyes grown cynical. The beauty is slowly vanishing, but enough remains, more than enough, as the lights come on and the bridges turn golden and a pinkish glow softens the hard lines of the marching buildings that could almost stamp out the spirit of a great city. Almost, but not quite.

26. San Francisco has a large gay population, and it keeps increasing, although exactly how gays multiply has not been explained. Nothing is ever explained in San Francisco.

27. The downtown streets of the naked city are peopled with rare and exotic birds, making their various jungle sounds: mating calls (“if you don’t like my sister how about my brother?”), cackles of insane mirth, pleas for help, attempts at music, poetry and sermons on stones. The scene is at once compelling and repellent – the smell of dirt and poverty, the flopsweat of desperation., If looks could kill, you in your neat suit, carrying your briefcase, hurrying along in your well-shined shoes, would have been dead a long time ago, bones left to bleach under the warm September sun blazing out of a washed denim sky.

28. San Francisco can be a perfectly maddening city. But when there’s a good bar across the street, almost any street, and a decent restaurant around almost any corner, we are not yet a lost civilization.

29. This past summer, the bee-busy Delancey Streeters somehow found time to take fifty kids a day, from “disadvantaged” neighborhoods, on tours to Alcatraz. One day, the guide pointed out a solitary confinement cell – “Just this tiny room, with a toilet and a bed” – at which an incredulous voice from the ghetto piped up to inquire, “You mean he had a whole room to himself?”

30. Nostalgia for a catastrophe may seem odd, but this is an odd city. We glory in our past while busily tearing down the evidence of it. Those who truly care about San Francisco know in their bones that there was something very special about the Founding Fathers, those grave, bearded, hang-the-expense types who built a world city overnight, saw most of it go up in smoke, and started all over again without, seemingly, a whimper.

31. A cable car may be the last surviving piece of public transportation that is still fun to ride. You see people actually smiling aboard them. You see people standing in LINE with a smile, just to ride them. A bus is a chore, a streetcar is infinitely better and a cable car is unarguably in a class by itself, being unique……I think most of us are willing to take their chances on the outside step of a cable, simply because it IS outside. The wind, the air, the view of San Francisco passing slowly by, to be savored – no other public transport provides these lifts to the sagging urban soil.

32. I don’t care what people call us as long as they call us, besides which “Frisco” is a salty nickname, redolent of the days when we had a bustling waterfront.

33. “I’d like to lunch at some place that’s typically old San Francisco,” said the Baron Philippe de Rothschild to his good friend, art dealer Bill Pearson – so Bill took him to Tadich’s, which, being typically old San Francisco, doesn’t take reservations. After they’d waited thirty minutes in the crowded little bar area, the baron sighed, “I dislike doing things like this, but perhaps it would help if you told them who I am,” “I dislike telling you this,” said Bill, grinning, “but I did – fifteen minutes ago!”

34. I ride Muni to get closer to The People, who I wish would get closer to deodorants.

35. I don’t think that place of origin or number of years on the scene have anything to do with it, really. There are newcomers who become San Franciscans overnight – delighted with and interest in the city’s traditions and history. They can see the Ferry Building for what it represents (not for what it is), they are fascinated with the sagas of Sharons, Ralstons, Floods and Crockers, they savor the uniqueness of cable car and foghorn. By the same token, I know natives who will never be San Franciscans if they outlive Methuselah. To them a cable car is a traffic obstruction, the fog is something that keeps them from getting a tan, and Los Angeles is where they really know how to Get Things Done.

36. The Tenderloin – so what’s to like? Rundown blocks, rundown people, rundown apartment houses between the big and sterile Federal Building on one side (is that what we really want?) and the Hilton Schmilton on the other. What’s to like is the action, the struggle to survive on one’s own terms, the togetherness of losers and loners…..Hands in raincoat pocket, head down, I walk among the poor, the sad and the ugly, one of them. It would be sentimental and nice to say that they all have hearts of gold, but I wouldn’t count on it.

37. Cockroaches and socialities are the only things that can stay up all night and eat anything.

38. The Giants were the perfect baseball team for San Francisco. They couldn’t win for losing in New York, and were going broke. Now they are going broke here. It figures. A lot of old-timers got nervous when they won a pennant in 1962, but they managed to lose the Series and everybody relaxed again. Who could live with a winner?

39. Spring training! One of the nicest two-word phrases in the language, along with “check enclosed”, “open bar”, and “class dismissed.”

40. Unaccountable millions of words have been written and spoken about San Francisco since the Guyana horrors and the City Hall slayings. In newspapers around the world, on radio and TV stations, this city has been loved and hated, praised and damned, discussed and dissected. Some of the words, and I include myself as a perpetrator, have been overblown, oversentimental, maudlin. There has been a tremendous outpouring of sympathetic concern, and a surprising (to me) amount of bitterness. There has not been this much concentrated “analysis” of San Francisco since the hippie era of the 1960s, and what emerges is the jumbled outline of the city that is all things to all people. For every person who finds this “the most civilized place in the country” there seems to be one who regards it as a cesspool and sinkhole, awaiting only the wrath of God.

41. The Hippies made their deepest penetration of the current campaign on Monday night…..By the hundreds, they poured into the heart of Straightville – by foot, via bus, on hogs, in psychedelically painted VWs, in buses so ancient they might have seen service in the First Battle of the Marne. Bells tinkled, beads jangled, beards bristled, plumes waved in the salubrious evening overcast, a brave sight, and no fuzz to tighten up the scene.

42. Wilkes Bashford revealed the Willie Brown formula for dating: “As he gets older, his dates get younger. That’s because the total of Willie’s age and the age of his date must never exceed 100.”

43. Cartoonist Charles “Peanuts” Schulz, resplendent in an out-of-date Nehru jacket, dined in the Sea Cliff home of cartoonist Marty “Bobby Sox” Links. “You should wear a medallion with that” said Marty, ” and I’ve got the perfect one – I bought it in the Haight-Ashbury.” She ran upstairs and reappeared with a heavy chain from which dangled a medallion reading “LOVE” in beautiful entwined letters. After fingering it for a few seconds, Schulz handed it back with a Charlie Brown smile. “It’s just a little too much for me,” he said. “Do you have one that says ‘LIKE’?”

44. Broadway today is just another wide street with too much traffic. North Beach is just around the corner, as charming and irresistible as ever.

45. Here’s Tinytown USA with big league baseball and football, major league opera and ballet and symphony, big theater, little theater, a thousand clowns in a thousand bars, world-class hotels, a financial district with 500 banks…..and all…..those……restaurants. And it all started because a gold miner needed a place to eat and a home-sick Frenchman needed a place to cook.

46. Can a town that has sour-dough bread and honey butter muffins be all bad? Not on your life! The crab may be frozen but it’s fresh frozen, and the Swan Oyster Depot is more redolent of oysters than swans and everything is fresh there, especially the paisans. The cheap white wine smells like a wet collie, so hold your nose delicately ‘twixt thumb and forefinger and drink, for tomorrow, keed, we die. I keep telling you, it’s a great town. You’ve got to be crazy to think so and crazier not to. Stay off the cable cars and out of the health food stores and you’ll outlive us all.

47. It is no longer the beloved city that poets rhapsodized over, visitors fell in love with and natives worshipped. Gone are the spires and minarets of Baghdad-by-the-Bay. The fight now is to save what is left, and fortunately, there is still a lot worth fighting for. If ever a city had an embarrassment of riches, it is this one, even after the squandering.

48. There is a new Mr. San Francisco, plural. Mover over Cyril Magnin – and make room for Bill Walsh and the 49ers, the new rulers of the universe of football and assorted galaxies…..I don’t really know what a Super Bowl can do for a city, but San Francisco must be a different place right now. A little more joyous, a little more confident and perhaps happy to shed the title of Kook Capital of the World. Now, we have the muscles, we have the Title, we have the kind of brawling image that goes back to the real 49ers.

49. Life is a bad item, short but pointless. You stand at the bar and play liar’s dice with fate. It’s the San Francisco way. You might win, and even if you lose, the scenery’s great and the weather isn’t too bad.

And, of course:

50. One day if I go to heaven…….I’ll look around and say “It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco”.


This post first appeared two years ago as “My Ten Favourite Christmas Songs”. It had a mixed reception, some accounting it a “great list” whilst others, as is their right, rubbishing certain selections and offering their own alternatives.

I stated at the beginning of the earlier post:

there’s the thankless challenge of breaking down an initial list approaching fifty into ten. That said, after much soul searching, I’d like to think that the ten I have chosen – at least for today would be broadly similar to those I would have plumped for last year and will do next year, and in the years to come. The order may differ slightly but the contenders will remain the same. I make that assertion in the full expectation that the future is unlikely to unearth some sensational new numbers that will threaten the current status quo (those old rockers are not in it by the way.

That statement still rings true, and I have re-released that same list today, with only minor textual amendments.

A word of warning first.

One type of “music” you will not find in this list are the aggravating seventies pop confections of Slade, Wizzard, Mud, Shakin’ Stevens and many others that are heard everywhere at this time of year – TV programmes, shopping malls, parties. So if they’re your favourites, I’d stop reading now. And don’t expect to see any of the annual serving of mush served up by Cliff Richard either.

I am also unmoved by those songs that may or may not have a Christmas theme and content, but are forever associated with the holiday period purely because that is the time of year when they first came to our attention, often for commercial reasons. This is why I don’t share the almost universal idolatry of “Fairytale of New York”, despite the fact that I love both Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl. I don’t dislike Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and you cannot knock the tremendous work it has done in addressing famine in Africa. But these are false friends and do not, for me, carry that indefinable spirit and “feel” of Christmas.

I’m an unashamed traditionalist, even sentimentalist, when it comes to Christmas music, indeed Christmas per se. So the list is essentially nostalgic, redolent of past times, especially childhood. And yes, I’m prepared to concede that, on this occasion, age is a contributory factor to this outlook. Maybe it also derives from being surrounded by Dickens from a young age.

Am I saying then that, for a Christmas song to earn my respect or adulation, it must either serve a lengthy apprenticeship – at least half a century – or evoke a romanticised version of a bygone age?

Perhaps I am.

But enough of this – let’s get on with my selection. Cue immediate quizzical looks with number ten.

10. Must Be Santa - Bob Dylan 

Bob Dylan doing a Christmas song? You must be mad, or you’ve clearly had too much egg nog – or both, I hear you scream in disbelief. Well, maybe, but he produced a whole album of them back in 2009. And some of it is rather good. The grizzled near seventy year old voice, ravaged by red wine, cigarettes and constant touring, lends itself rather nicely to some of the old standards like “Do You Hear What I Hear? Winter Wonderland” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, though perhaps less so to the assortment of Christmas carols he tackles.

But this is my particular favourite – a rollicking, boisterous romp with some less than traditional lyrics.

So who’s had too much egg nog now?

9. Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow -  Dean Martin

Another standard sung in a more conventional manner. Recorded countless times but, for me, this is the best version. Deano’s lascivious, martini-soaked croon nails it for me.

8. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear – The Choir of Winchester Cathedral

Initially, this slot was filled by “In the Bleak Midwinter”, a lovely carol but perhaps just a little too familiar for inclusion here. I was then reminded, on hearing it for the first time this year, of this beautiful and too little heard melody. But, in truth, it could have been any number of other carols.

7. Here We Come A-Wassailing - Kate Rusby

The first of two – there could again have been more – offerings from the Barnsley Belle. It may only be number seven – at least for today – but it tends to be the first song I listen to each December to kick start the festive season with its atmosphere of celebration and community. A song ripe too for inclusion in an adaptation of any Thomas Hardy novel.

6. Angels From the Realms of Glory - King’s College, Cambridge

And glorious this indeed is. Truly thrilling. As a child, this would fill Rochester Cathedral at the school’s end of term concert more satisfyingly than any other carol, even if I and my school friends were more interested in our card and dice games beneath the pews. But we always found time to join in with our own version of the last line of each verse – something to do with a West London football team if I recall correctly.

5. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - Ella Fitzgerald

“The Voice” has to have a place on this list. Warm, vibrant, nostalgic – everything that makes Christmas special. Along with Al Jolson, the Andrews Sisters and Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ella dominated the soundtrack to my earliest years. She has subsequently survived Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan, psychedelia and country rock to maintain a similarly central place in my affections.

4. See Amid the Winter’s Snow - King’s College Cambridge

The more discerning reader might have observed that my carol selections are not the most frequently heard, hence popular. I have not developed the measure of contempt that the more familiar carols might be thought to have bred – far from it, but “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” and the achingly beautiful melodies of my other selections carry the day for me.

A passing nod too to the two carols that I most associate with my childhood – “Rocking” and “Away in a Manger” which we “sang”, sat cross-legged on the frozen wooden floor of Glencoe Road Primary School when, apparently, we’d never had it so good (well, for a six year old, perhaps we hadn’t).

“See Amid the Winters Snow” has added resonance too in that this was my father and his eldest brothers’ party piece at the end of the annual freemasonry lodge Christmas dinner and dance. They would – so I’m told, I never witnessed the spectacle myself – bring the house down with their heartfelt, drunken duet.

3. The Holly and the Ivy Kate Rusby

This should have been “The First Tree in the Greenwood” but I could not find a video of Kate’s performance. Instead, I returned to the song of which it and many others are variants. Again, I could have filled this list with Kate’s lovely renditions of traditional carols, supported by the mellow tones of the Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band.  

2. Run Run Rudolph - Chuck Berry

The nearest thing to a “pop” song in this collection, even though it was recorded more than half a century ago. But what drive, energy, excitement and humour – classic Chuck, the godfather of rock ‘n’ roll. He may not have written it but he gave it its life.

1. For Unto Us A Child is Born from Handel’s Messiah - Sir Colin Davis & the London Symphony Orchestra

Probably heard – and certainly sung – more often as part of a carol concert, the opening bars of Handel’s sublime oratorio evoke Christmas for me more than any other piece of music, hence its pre-eminent position. A perfect accompaniment to a big breakfast and the exchanging of gifts.

But surely, you say, isn’t this one of those “false friends” you sneered about earlier in this article? After all, wasn’t Messiah” first performed in the Great Music Hall, Fishamble Street, Dublin on 13th April 1742. It’s a Easter, not Christmas song goddamit!

Fair point, but I contend that not only does it fit my “spirit and feel” test, but it has become so inextricably associated with the Christmas season in the public consciousness that it is the most glorious expression of the life, and in this instance, birth of Christ.

I rest my case.

By the end of this journey through the last four centuries of western music you may be wondering if I have “got religion”, and specifically Christianity, so drenched in the christian tradition are my selections. It is an understandable question, to which I can only respond that, though the inherited faith, if not the latent spirituality, be long gone, the thrill of listening, and indeed reading, how gloriously others have expressed that faith, endures.

And, of course, they evoke that most precious period of our lives – childhood.


It’s mid-December. A seven year old boy in crew cut and tiny shorts sits cross-legged on the cold wooden floor of the school assembly hall, singing, or rather miming, along to:

Little Jesus, sweetly sleep, do not stir

We will lend a coat of fur

We will rock you, rock you, rock you

We will rock you, rock you, rock you

See the fur to keep you warm

Snugly round your tiny form

Fast forward to 2am on Christmas morning. A short, portly figure creeps into the child’s room, cursing through Watney Red Barrel breath that he really should have delivered on his year old promise to oil the door hinges.

He places the bulging paper sack at the end of the bed, applauding himself for fooling his son once for what might just be the last time, that he is a certain someone else.

Seven hours later, his excitement at receiving the microscope and Beano Annual spent, the child bounds into four inches of new-fallen snow in the back yard. Turning swiftly at the fake Santa’s voice, he is hit full square between the eyes with a gently rolled but deadly fastball. Tears follow as readily as the squeals of delight that had greeted the contents of the sack.

But there is neither time for crying nor testing the capacity of the new chemistry set to blow up the house. The traditional whistle stop tour around the houses of friends and neighbours beckons. The breathalyser, legal drink drive limit and compulsory seat belt legislation have all yet to be introduced, and few drivers think of the potentially dire consequences of having a “drink for Christmas” at every one. It is fortunate, therefore, that Mrs Santa takes the wheel. 

And then the main event. Three tables of varying design, height, width and degree of wobbliness are wedged together, and an equally motley assortment of chairs are looted from every available room to complete the scene. Fifteen places are set for a party that spans three generations.

The grandfather, prior to the ceremonial carving of the turkey, leads the toast to his wife and their four daughters-in-law for the preparation of the feast. Secretly, he prays that there will be enough of the bird leftover to lie with his beloved piccalilli in the sandwiches he will take to work at the Royal Navy dockyard.

Even the normally taciturn budgerigar averts its permanent gaze through net curtains onto the street outside to join in the festivities by trilling along to Ella, Dean and Bing on the radio in the opposite corner.

As the remnants of the Christmas and mincemeat puddings are laid away, the cooks, their work done, turn their attention to Billy Smart’s Circus on the small black and white television.

The men are consigned to the kitchen to discharge their traditional washing up duties and the children squabble over who gets the next ride on the new sledge in the snowy back yard. Postprandial slumbers are the order of the next two hours before, prompted by the junior members of the party, it is time for “tree presents”.

Television plays only a peripheral role in Christmases of this era, losing out by mid evening to a family singalong. The favourite uncle, worse for wear from a cocktail of cheap fizz, Party Seven beer and Bols advocaat, leads the traditional rendition of the Music Man who “comes from down your way”. The children wrestle their weariness as they “pi-a-pi-a-pi-a-no” and “umpa-umpa-umpapa” to their heart’s content, their giggling intensified by the bandleader flicking his loose front tooth up and down with his tongue as they sing. 

Boxing Day is barely two hours old when the ladies ascend the stairs to sleep, but only after they have, after customary mock protests, prepared Irish coffees for their increasingly inebriated husbands. Their departure lends licence to the grandfathers, fathers, uncles, brothers, sons, male cousins and grandsons to fight for every available inch of floor space in the lounge. A ritual as old as the monarch’s Christmas message or brussel sprouts is about to be played out  – the annual “world farting contest”, the title of champion having been proudly borne for nearly a decade by the child’s youngest and supremely flatulent uncle. 

But as the boy drifts into a long overdue sleep, his only thoughts are of the seasonal event that is second only to opening of that sack nearly twenty four hours earlier – the Boxing Day football match.


I’ll confess that I’ve never really – until recently – looked after my teeth, so I have been remarkably lucky that they have given me little trouble in adult life.

Apart from one occasion.

An occasion that I had, for reasons you might just understand when you have read my story, erased from my conscious memory until a separate incident in our San Francisco apartment one morning last year brought it back.

Sourdough bread and I had always been on the best of terms, but we fell out when I crunched into a slice of peanut butter on toast with, in hindsight, unwise vigour and cracked an upper molar. Mild and temporary discomfort followed, along with anxiety that I might be compelled to part with many hundreds of dollars at either the Noe Valley Family and Cosmetic Dentistry or Aesthetic Dentistry of Noe Valley premises. For somebody already unnerved by the sight of a drill, those names did not appear especially welcoming. Travel insurance seemed little consolation in such circumstances.

But, in a day or two, I had virtually forgotten about the incident, apart from constantly prodding and licking the gap that had been created, much to my wife’s annoyance.

But it did bring back to me a previous visit to the dentist more than thirty years previously.

So, in a craven endeavour to solicit your sympathy rather than contempt for my inattention to aural health over many years, I will briefly relive that experience with you.

It was a baking Friday afternoon in the summer of 1981 in Tulse Hill, south-east London, less than two miles away from the riots that raged on the streets of Brixton. On learning that all four of my wisdom teeth were forcing themselves through at crooked angles, I was persuaded that they should be extracted before they caused too much trouble. In an uncharacteristic outbreak of physical courage I had also opted to have them removed at the surgery under local anaesthetic, rather than a general one in hospital.

My dentist, Mr Hall, was a tall, kindly, grey whiskered Trinidadian. He was due to retire in a few weeks, and this would be one of his last wisdom teeth extractions. He exuded all the calm and confidence that a timid patient about to entrust his entire mouth to could wish for.

“You have nothing to worry about, Mr Quarrington. I have done hundreds of these procedures”, he said as he flashed his own immaculate collection of teeth at me from above.

And after ten minutes of gentle coaxing two teeth had dutifully popped out.

He was right. There really was nothing to worry about. This was so much easier even than having a filling.

Why had all those so-called friends warned me about the procedure and recounted horror stories of losing the same teeth?

But wait a minute.

As one of my favourite rock lyricists wrote: “when life looks like easy street there is danger at your door.”

Three hours later I lay sprawling across the chair, my clothes disheveled and spattered with blood as Mr Hall beamed at me from the other end of the room and exclaimed:

“That was the most difficult wisdom teeth extraction I have ever done. But we made it, Mr Quarrington, we got those little blighters out in the end. You should feel very pleased with yourself”.

I felt many things at this time but pleased was not one of them. Exhausted, sore, tearful, relieved and perhaps even a little angry – but not pleased. I had lost count of the number of additional injections I had been subject to in that long, dark afternoon of the soul.

But Mr Hall could not conceal his own sense of triumph at having accomplished a task that had called for the use of every instrument in his bag of tricks, as well as some that would have belonged more in a factory housing heavy engineering than in the cool, antiseptic environment of a dentist’s surgery with Nat King Cole crooning lightly in the background.

Even the fact that he had been obliged to cancel a whole afternoon’s appointments, and sent his receptionist home half an hour earlier, failed to dampen his good humour. He was not, however, unmindful of my visible distress and insisted that I did not leave until I felt able to. I only lived a few hundred yards away and, although groggy, was able to get home without difficulty.

I don’t recall making a further appointment on my way out that day.

Nor one for some time afterwards.

What had begun as a natural anxiety about a straightfoward procedure had, in one traumatic afternoon, turned into a violent fear.

But I’m now back on the straight and narrow, though some of my teeth might not be able to claim the same.

And by the way, sourdough bread and I have long since reconciled in case you wondered.


In 1995 we were finally persuaded to avert our enraptured gaze from Italy (we had already been to Milan and Sicily that year), to make our first belated trip to San Francisco and, indeed, the United States.

As our tour bus rattled over the Bay Bridge on a balmy early October afternoon, Louis, pronounced Lewis, our chain smoking guide from Barcelona with a penchant for stand up comedy, took to his feet, but not before instructing the driver to press play on the cassette recorder and release the crackling strains of Tony Bennett upon us.

(The loveliness of Paris seems somehow sadly gay,

  the glory that is Rome is of another day)

These words were, however, indistinct on this occasion as they coincided with Louis loudly clearing his throat before uttering the two words that we had become accustomed to hear him preface every announcement with:

“Okey cokey”.

(I’ve been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan

I’m going home to my city by the Bay)

This was the cue for another, more violent attack of phlegm.

(To be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars

The morning fog may chill the air, I don’t care)

That was the last we heard of Tony, at least for now, because Louis, larynx lubricated, was gearing up for a speech. He had an important message to impart to us before we were disgorged at our downtown hotel.

“You’ve all heard this song, haven’t you?”.

He couldn’t resist another, much more genteel, croak while fifty three passengers smiled and nodded in his direction.

“Well, it’s true. You WILL leave your heart in San Francisco”.

Emboldened by such an emphatic statement, he continued:

“We’ve been together on this bus now for twelve days and we have seen some incredible sights – the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Las Vegas , the Hoover Dam and even Disneyland. But this city is the place that will capture your heart. I am telling you that when you leave in three days time, you will know exactly what Tony Bennett means”.

As his fans beamed in childlike anticipation, Louis made one final claim before reaching for his cigarettes:

“If you don’t, then Louis knows nothing”.

If the last twelve days had taught us anything, it was that this squat, swarthy man from Spain, who might have passed for either fifty or seventy years of age, knew a lot about everything. We were, therefore, inclined to trust him on this one.

With one final, hearty cough – and another “okey cokey” for good measurehe descended the steps of the coach, shook hands with the proprietor of the Best Western Canterbury Hotel and lit up while the driver helped us to locate our luggage.

(Your golden sun will shine for me).

And for me.

Louis was right.

Despite twelve days witnessing one jaw juddering attraction after another, which had also, bizarrely, included listening to the outcome of the O.J. Simpson trial on the pier at Santa Monica, San Francisco did not disappoint. Not everyone in our party was as thrilled by its charms, as complaints about the homelessness, dirt on the streets and crowded cable cars testified.

But I saw beyond this.

Of course, I was primed for love.

It had been one of the longest courtships from a distance in history.

We stayed three nights in the heart of the Tenderloin, which rendered the moans about aggressive panhandling and grime entirely believable, and crammed in just about every tourist hot spot we could:

  • Twin Peaks (for orientation);
  • Cliff House (for the washrooms inside and jewellery stalls outside, no time for brunch yet);
  • Golden Gate Bridge (for what we would learn later was the second best view – from Vista Point);
  • Pier 39 (for family presents and the sea lion show);
  • Fisherman’s Wharf (for the clam chowder and fleeces (only joking about the latter));
  • Ghirardelli Square (for the chocolate, what else);
  • Union Square (Lori’s Diner and the Gold Dust Lounge, though I’m told there were a few reputable stores there too);
  • North Beach (for the coffee and Italian ambiance);
  • Chinatown (for cheap gifts on Grant Avenue and unmentionable looking foodstuffs on Stockton Street), and
  • Alcatraz (or at least we would have if we had had the gumption to purchase tickets in advance).

We still contrived to fit in an afternoon on Haight Street to enable me to pay homage to Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead’s lead guitarist, who had died just eight weeks before. And, of course, we stood in line for hours at both the Powell and Hyde turnarounds to catch a ride on the cable cars, marvelled at the cars snaking down Lombard Street, had dinner in Chinatown, and on our last night at The Stinking Rose (I still feel sorry for the other passengers sitting within three rows of us on the flight home the next afternoon).

And the rest is, as any regular reader will know, history.

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