Category Archives: Writing

Harmonica reminiscences – imagined and real

Eighteen months ago I bought my first harmonica. This month I published a magazine article on this amazing little instrument.

This is my seventh article published by Best of British Magazine. Four have been on Dad’s Army actors, one on Parkgate and another on Hawarden’s, Gladstone Library.

Chromatic and Diatonic Harmonicas

For hygiene reasons you can’t try out a harmonica in a shop so I bought my first one online from Eagle Music, a family run business based in Huddersfield, which has a good reputation.

The harmonica is a unique instrument in so many ways. It’s a wind instrument. You can play single notes as well as chords and, on the diatonic version, you can also bend notes. To my knowledge this is the only wind instrument that you can do this with.  

A ten hole diatonic harmonica is four inches long, extremely light and easy to carry on your person.

Back in the 1960’s the sound of the harmonica gave many hit records a distinctive introduction. Think of Harry Pitch’s intro to Frank Ifield’s hits, John Lennon’s contribution to some early Beatles songs and even Judd Lander’s opening rifts to some of Culture Club’s hits of the1980’s.  

Those hits are instantly recognisable by their harmonica introductions. I have always appreciated the musicians who don’t take the limelight yet their contributions often make a good piece of music into a memorable one.

What is my fascination with the harmonica?

There are two images in my subconscious memory that concern harmonica players. I have seen neither of these and yet they represent pictures that always seem to have been somewhere in the recesses in the back of my mind.

One image is that of a soldier during World War One. The sound of his Harmonica drifts along the trenches and over no man’s land. It is near Christmas and he is playing Silent Night.

The other image is of a street busker on a cold winter’s night, the fog is down and he stands under a lamppost wearing a cap and a long winter coat. The street is busy with Christmas shoppers. He’s probably playing Ewan McColl’s, Dirty Old Town or perhaps the tune to the 1960’s BBC TV programme Dixon of Dock Green. He wears fingerless mitts and when he pauses for breath it condenses into clouds of mist. It is freezing and I am cold. I pay little attention to him and hurry on home.

Back in time, on the 9th December 1975, my friend John Griffiths and I saw Paul Simon at the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre. It was the Still Crazy After all these Years tour. Paul always used phenomenal musicians on both his albums and on tour. During this concert, one guy seemed older than the others, he played some bluesy pieces on the guitar. At some point Paul played one of his most exquisitely beautiful songs, I do it for Your Love, and the old guy puts down his guitar and produces a chromatic harmonica… and he weaves his magic in and out of the melody. His simple contribution made a good song great. I was 19 years old and the old guy would have been 53 at that time. It was Toots Thielemans.

Back then, I had no real idea who Toots Thielemans was and it was only after many years that I began to appreciate his work. If you have heard the theme music to Midnight Cowboy or Sesame Street, then you have heard Toots. In truth Toot’s playing was so much more than that of a good session musician; he was a star in his own firmament. Sadly, Toots passed away in 2016 but his legacy is that of one of the great harmonica players of all time. Today we have to look to Hermine Deurloo and William Galison to find comparable musicians.  Both have played Toot’s, Bluesette and can be found on the YouTube archives.  

In Brussels, a metro station is currently being constructed. Due for completion in 2025, it will be named after Toots Thielemans.

Amongst my current favourite diatonic harmonica players and worth checking out on YouTube are Indiara Sfair and Leandro Lopes who both occasionally team up with the Brazilian Blues Band, Milk’n Blues.

I have been watching, Indiara Sfair’s tune Improvisation in Cm for some time now on YouTube and find it difficult to believe what this musician is capable of. She has taken the Diatonic Harmonica to an unbelievable new level.

Sadly, my own playing is comparable to that of a ten year old learning to play a school recorder, but what the hell, for the first time since I was 11, and the afore-mentioned recorder, I’m playing a musical instrument.

My article on Britain’s harmonica heritage has been called Blowing Hot and it appears in the December Issue of Best of British Magazine.

Best of British article on Britain’s Harmonica Heritage

Wilfred Owen Story

My Subject is War and the Pity of War  –  Wilfred Owen

Detail from the stained glass window at Birkenhead Central Library. Designed by David Hillhouse.   

One story often leads to another. On my visit to the war memorial at Port Sunlight, please see previous posting, I was very much reminded of the Poet, Wilfred Owen whose words surround the base of that monument.

I first found out about Owen’s poetry when I was doing my English Literature GCE O level. What fascinated me most about his poetry were his references to Christianity. Indeed, one of the very few poems that I’ve ever been able to recite was his ‘At a Calvary near the Ancre’.  Before my GCSE exam, I knew that I would have to be able to remember at least one poem, this one was perhaps a little outside the mainstream; everybody else was choosing either ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ or ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’.

‘At a Calvary near the Ancre’ identifies the hypocrisy within the church at that time alongside Owen’s own struggle to reconcile the Christian faith against the horrors of war. All this is 100 years ago now and thankfully the church has moved on, and, if nothing else, has learnt and continues to learn from its past mistakes.

At a Calvary near the Ancre

One ever hangs where shelled roads part.
In this war He too lost a limb,
But His disciples hide apart;
And now the Soldiers bear with Him.

Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,
And in their faces there is pride
That they were flesh-marked by the Beast
By whom the gentle Christ’s denied.

The scribes on all the people shove
And bawl allegiance to the state,
But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate.

n.b. The Ancre is a tributary  to the river Somme

The horrors of the war clearly challenged Owen’s Christian beliefs, but whilst he was critical of the stance that the church had taken both over the war and with its role in society, I’d prefer to believe that he himself  didn’t lose his faith. Indeed, in a 1917 letter to his mother, he wrote “Christ is literally in no-man’s-land. There, men often hear His voice”. Owen questions whether Christ’s voice is only heard in English and French. He then goes on to say that “Pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism”.

The 4th November this year, will mark the centenary of Owen’s death. So now is a good time for me to pitch a proposal to a magazine for an article on his early life.  Born in Oswestry, Owen is mostly associated with Shropshire, however, for an important seven year period, his family lived in Birkenhead and the town has much to show for the Poet’s early life. It was whilst he was here at school that his love of poetry was born.


Wilfred Owen Exhibition – 34 Argyle Street

Last week I visited the Wilfred Owen Story at 34 Argyll Street, Birkenhead. The exhibition here has numerous displays which include copies of some of his letters and personal artefacts relating to his life and family. For anybody who is interested in Wilfred Owen or who may wish to discover him for the first time, then the exhibits here will give you a fascinating insight into his life.

His father was the Station Master at Woodside Central Station. The young Wilfred attended school at the Birkenhead Institute and the family went to the local parish church of Christ Church. Between 1900 and 1907 the Owen family lived in the Tranmere area of the town, moving house on two occasions. At the exhibition I picked up a leaflet giving a map for the Wilfred Owen trail, this passes each of the three houses where the Owen family lived, along with the church, the site of his school, and also Birkenhead’s central library.

The library is particularly worth a visit because it has an impressive stained glass window on its central staircase dedicated to Owen. On the landing area there are also further displays to commemorate Owen’s life.


More information on The Wilfred Owen Story can be found at

It is a sad irony that only in this last week, the UN has been discussing the use of chemical weapons in Douma, Syria,  ten miles north of Damascus. Owen’s famous poem, ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’, graphically portrays the use of such a weapon. If he were with us today, I wonder what he would be thinking. One of the lessons that mankind learnt from Owen’s war was that this sort of weapon should never be used again. Despite it being 100 years on, it now seems that not all men learn from history’s lessons.