Sunday, 22 April 2012


Just as if it was yesterday, it’s all ice-clear in my mind. A dark, dank, drizzling winter’s afternoon in the town and there was this great procession coming along the road and my Uncle Bob was at the head of it. Right at the front he was, looking so important in his top hat, his frock coat and his striped trousers and carrying a silver-topped cane. The way he walked you’d think he was the most important person there, more important than the chauffeur of the fine car with the wooden box inside, more important than any of the straggle of people shuffling along behind in their damp clothes, not one of them looking as grand as my Uncle Bob who looked to be the only person there on whom the rain wasn’t falling.

You’ve no idea how proud I felt. He was leading this great crowd of people. It was so wonderful. ‘Uncle Bob! Hello, Uncle Bob,’ I shouted but he never looked over in my direction, just kept up the proud peacock strut, his head high, his shoulders straight.

I thought I might go over to him, to ask what he was doing because I’d never seen him in such a fancy outfit before and I was just about to step off the pavement and into the road when my mother snatched my hand. ‘Behave yourself,’ she whispered, her other hand shaking my shoulder.

‘It’s Uncle Bob,’ I told her. Perhaps she hadn’t realised that he was the one leading the procession. Perhaps she didn’t know he was so important.

‘Come along,’ she said, putting on her angry mother’s face. ‘Fancy shouting in the street like that.’ She dragged me away along the road. ‘Such behaviour,’ she said.

And that’s the first memory I have of seeing a funeral. It’s about 80 years ago now but it’s still sharp in my mind. Of course the mourners in those days didn’t have cars to take them to the cemetery so most walked behind the hearse, often a hundred or more of them, all of them proclaiming their grief with a black band or a diamond of cloth sewn on the sleeves of their coats. Many close relatives of the dead would continue wearing sober clothing with the black bands for perhaps a year.

In the Philippines I’ve been reminded so much of those old funerals that people like my Uncle Bob directed. There is still the sense of occasion in that country that our funerals used to project, still the solemn procession but of course with certain differences.

In my book, A VIRGIN IN THE PHILIPPINES, I describe some of the funerals which passed our house.  

‘What a lot of funerals I've seen here. What a send-off the dead get. We've had two today and I have such a fine view from upstairs. I dash up to the terrace every time I hear the music of the brass band.

Today the procession was headed by about thirty slow-moving tricycles. Then came half a dozen men in baseball caps and green T-shirts. Next we had the usual leggy drum majorettes, short skirts, high boots and all looking as if they were on loan from a Fourth of July parade so many thousands of miles away.

Today's brass band - one of the fifteen which the town boasts - wore glossy purple jackets and white trousers. In the last two months I must have seen pretty well every band, each with its own garish outfit, tootling their clarinets, puffing down or up their Sousaphones, blowing at their trombones and beating hell out of their drums.

After this came the hearse, a big white affair topped as ever with white balloons and a photograph of the dear departed and bearing a coffin, this time oak or what looked like oak. As ever, the mourners walked behind, the women with their brightly coloured umbrellas showing up like some extravagant mobile flower bed.’

Some similarities and some differences to what I saw all those long years ago.

And by the way, the family undertaking business started by my grandfather in the late-1800s still exists in South Shields but it has undergone quite enormous changes, just as our lives have done.

The book, A VIRGIN IN THE PHILIPPINES, is on Amazon and Smashwords now - 40,000 words by WH Johnson for peanuts (77p)! And it’s worth every peanut for Leonardo Malgapo’s cover and illustrations alone.

Find the book on Amazon at

There’s a FREE copy to anyone willing to forward the details of the book to at least 40 of their email/Facebook friends. Just let me know via the email address on my website. Tell me if you want it to your computer screen or your ereader and I’ll send you a copy.

Thursday, 12 April 2012


I don’t know what to make of this weather. It’s absolutely appalling. It’s unseasonable: it’s unreasonable.

I don’t care for the unexpected. I like life to be as it should be. And that goes for the weather. But all this sun and blue sky and the temptation to sit outside or to stroll along the sea front old-gentleman style is just too much. Let’s have some weather that keeps us indoors.

Those of you who know me will be aware that I take a walk every morning. Nothing excessive. A couple of miles and that’s enough but I do like to fit it in. In fact I feel guilty when I can't do so. I’ve been for my walk today and feel all the better for it.

When I was in the Philippines I walked every morning and it was always enjoyable though sometimes, even early in the day, it could get a shade uncomfortable. But at least there were no pressures on my time. It was different there. Take for example one Sunday morning walk…

My walk today was in a new direction but still accompanied by the usual smiles and calls of ‘Where are you going?' I stop to tell them and they recognise 'walk' and 'exercise' but our conversations usually reach little further than that. When I call out 'Good morning' they always respond and it sounds, their 'Good mahning, po,' so musical. 'Po', by the way, is a word frequently used in formal situations as a sign of respect.

It became extremely warm as I went along. Though it was relatively early, many people were in their backyards, playing very loud music on their wirelesses (yes, I know, I’m supposed to call them radios) or standing outside in the shade, looking at me with a kindly detached amusement - at least that is how I interpreted it. Perhaps they were saying something like, 'Why is that silly old fool walking when he can afford to hire a tricycle?'

But I was out to show that I was doing this for pleasure. It's what Englishmen do. We go for walks and put up with rain and wind and by Jove, we aren't beaten by excessively hot mornings like this, either. I was in my Alec Guinness/River Kwai mood, and despite the heat I was determined to keep up appearances for the sake of Queen and Country and so I raised my head, pulled my shoulders back, did my best with my stomach and raised my bamboo-cane walking stick in greeting as I strode on humming 'Colonel Bogey' and hoping that I shouldn't be forced to sit down to rest. But at last, running with sweat, I reached home where Josie, our ‘helper’, made me a cup of tea. I really needed it. I'd put on a show and I hadn't let the Old Country down.

I’ve always enjoyed my morning strolls at home but less so at the moment because there are pressing things on my mind. I’m fretting about the waste of time as I walk and I know that when I reach home I’ll be sitting at this blasted machine within minutes. Yes, there’s work to be done but the sun is so tempting today and I want to be out there. Now if it was really lousy weather I could settle down to my tasks – blogging, commenting on literary booksites, writing to reviewers asking if they’ll review A VIRGIN IN THE PHILIPPINES, my ebook, which has now made its appearance on Amazon Kindle. What would suit me at the moment is grey skies, howling gales, torrential downpours.

But as things are I’m distracted, longing to sit and watch the sea and the strollers and the fishermen on the pier and I want to chat to other old codgers, settling the world's problems, telling them about my gammy hip, things like that.

But no, I can’t. I’m stuck in here.

Damn this weather.

Or maybe it should be damn this book.

A VIRGIN IN THE PHILIPPINES by W H Johnson and illustrated by Leonardo Malgapo is available on Amazon at the peanuts price of 99 cents or 77pence. It will shortly appear on Smashwords.