Archive | November, 2015

Doctor Rat and the summer of 1976

12 Nov

I suppose we all have times in our lives that we would love to visit once again. Maybe yours hasn’t come yet but it will trust me. The summer of 1976 was mine, a time of long hot summer days that evolved into nights of late sunsets that were a joy to see. I suppose being young had something to do with me wanting to return to those days. I was at an impressionable age, trying to make sense of this world that I had to make my way through.

Music, reading, drinking and falling hopelessly in love at the drop of a hat were the background to my seventies summer. Funnily enough even though I socialised more than I ever had or ever would, I read more books at this time than ever before or since. Maybe I was subconsciously looking for clues for the road that lay ahead. If I was I’m afraid that I missed the sign that said “Stop” and “U Turn” Then again who knows how things will turn out?


I bought the NME religiously back then even though musicians are the most boring people on the planet and full of… well crap. Mind you this is the seventies I’m talking about and maybe things have moved on now. My favourite bits of the NME were “The Lone Groover” cartoon, Album reviews and Films and Book reviews. My favourite writer was the great Charles Shaar Murray, absolute legend and more often than not right on the spot with his reviews. Of course he was occasionally wrong… (Looks at the “Snowflakes are Dancing” LP by Isao Tomita) although aforementioned album is getting rave reviews today on Amazon, go figure…tomitasnowflakesyes-11

I’m not sure if Charles wrote the review on a book that though it didn’t change my life, left an indelible impression on me that never really went away, it slept for a while in the back of my mind and I’ve no idea what awakened it but I’m glad it did. The book was “Doctor Rat” by William Kotzwinkle.


The book was set in a science laboratory and the chief protagonist is a rat,Catch-22-cover Doctor Rat, who observes the mutilations and experiments on lab animals through eyes that have been driven mad by the horrors taking place. Sounds a bit grim doesn’t it? In parts it is but hope is always striving to break through and the story is a lesson worth learning. It reminds me of another favourite book of mine “Catch 22” by Joseph Heller. Both books display satirical observations that have seldom been equalled, certainly not to my mind.

I discovered recently that William Kotzwinkle is on the internet so I plucked up the courage to email Bill and tell him about the impact Doctor Rat had on me. With Bill’s permission here’s what he had to say…

Dear Tony, 

New Musical Express! I still have a copy of that issue somewhere in the attic. I was very grateful to them for that review and I’m grateful to you for having gone out and purchased the book, an expenditure that probably had to be weighed in the scales carefully. I’m glad the balance arm rose up for my book. 34872

 I had no intention of writing such a book. But animals started coming to me in my dreams, and somehow made their wishes known to me, that I should write the book. I also had an experience at the Bronx zoo in New York City. I was looking at a caged eagle. It was pacing back and forth, and the shape of its wings reminded me of the cape of a Roman centurion. A woman came up to the cage, took a mirror from her purse and began reflecting the sunlight in the eagle’s eyes. I thought she was an unfeeling clod but when I looked back at the eagle with the light playing off its eyes, it shot me a telepathic message. “Do you think that I, who fly close to the sun, am troubled by this?” 

So I wrote a story called Free the Eagle, about zoo animals conspiring to tear apart the cage of the eagle and set it free in all their names. My publisher at that time saw the story and said, “Turn this into a novel.” That was the push I needed and so I wrote the book for the eagle and the animals from my dreams. I’m happy that you rate it so highly. I’m more than happy, I’m honored. The modesty of your line about the dead-end job of 40 years touches me. Some things we say bring a whole world with them. Rock music and Doctor Rat were the other side of the dead-end, the place where we celebrate on our own terms, not someone else’s. Music and literature gets us through the maze. I often feel like a rodent chasing a piece of cheese through a labyrinth. Bright, yellow, and tasty. Could be gold for all I know, so I scratch along. 


As I walked in the Sonoran desert I surprised a pack rat coming out of its hole. Its little black eyes met mine. I saw concerns similar to my own, for food, for safety. I saw an awareness that, when it comes to surviving in the desert, far exceeded my own. We shared a moment of intimacy. Recently pack rats ate through the wiring of my car and my backup camera no longer works. As this packrat stared at me from his hole, I asked, “Where’s my camera?”  

He knows but he’s not telling. 

Tony, thanks so much for getting in touch. 

Best wishes to you always, 


Doctor Rat is a book that deserves a wider audience and hopefully if you manage to get a copy it will resonate with you the same way it did with me back in 1976.

Tony Topping


Ye Olde Battle of Marsh Bonk (And other assorted pastimes)

3 Nov


I was going to start this article by writing in the medieval style of using an “f” for an “s” but realised that it would confuse the dear reader after a few lines and in any case why did those wacky monks write that way? I think the old boys drank too many jugs of mead and were piffed most of the time, bloody hoodies.
We didn’t have hoodies in my day but we did have the “Green Jackets” a fearsome gang who terrorised Wigan for a short while. Well I say terrorise, they didn’t actually exist, they were a product of many kids fevered imaginations but we all feared them and the Wigan Observer even pushed rugby league off the front page to show an artist’s impression of the gruesome group.
Do kids even have imagination nowadays? Of course they do but the games consoles of today can recreate a world for them to play in without much effort on the child’s part. When I was a kid you had to create the world for yourself and a patch of grass could be the scene of a cup final or a bloody battleground where Japs & English one day would be Cops & Robbers the next. I love computer games myself but here are just some of the games we played when I was a little un’.
Ticky Mang251px-Old,-Chewed-Ball
Ticky Mang involved using an old rag or similar, preferably a sock or hanky from a tramp but anything manky would do. This would be thrown at a sometimes unsuspecting member of your gang and if it him or her they then had the “mang” The only way they could get rid of this terrible affliction would be by hitting someone else with the sock/dead rat/johnny bag etc. I’ve seen kids run into the paths of speeding cars to avoid the mang such was the fear of being hit and woe behold the kid who had the misfortune to have the mang last, the stigma lasted for days. A variation on this game was “Ticky Hospital Mang” in this version you had to hold the place you were hit with mang while you chased after your mates.
Grand National _83070839_ch_gardening

A popular game on the council estates of Wigan was the “Grand National” This spectacular and often dangerous game was superb if you got enough kids involved. Front gardens in WN5 had small brick walls around them and most of them had privet hedges. Kids would gather at the end of a row of houses and on a countdown of “On yer marks, get set, go!” the “jockeys” would set off over the walls and hedges till they reached the house designated as the winning post. Imagine an unsuspecting pensioner quietly pruning his roses when he pauses to look at the sky as he thinks he can hear thunder getting closer. Suddenly he’s confronted by a horde of stampeding kids flying over his hedge, across his garden and over in to next doors patch! It wasn’t all plain sailing for the jockeys though and mad dogs and irate householders brought down many a promising career. It was thrilling while it lasted though.
Splits 159960374_henckels-stag-handle-pocket-knife-rare-vintage-old-
One item that every kid carried in the 60’s was a penknife. Nowadays you would be arrested for the knives that we carried but we would have been lost without them. My knife was made in Germany by a company based in Solingen and though I didn’t know it at the time I now know that it’s a place renowned for quality knives. I lost my knife many years back when I left home to get married but when my Mam was clearing my Dads old stuff out recently she found it hidden amongst the junk. It was like being reunited with an old friend! One game we played with knives was “Splits” Facing your opponent on grass you threw the knife to the side of one of their feet and they stretched their leg to the spot where the knife landed. Not quite sure of the rules of combat but you had to throw quite close to their feet and eventually they ended up doing the splits. Common injuries were bleeding feet and pulled groins.
Tap Latch
This game was by turns funny and scary. A simple premise you knocked on someone’s door then ran off and hid somewhere to watch the bemused look on the neighbours face when they answered the door to no one. The more popular this game got the more the neighbours wised up to it and some of them would race to the door in the hope of catching the little bas.. erm buggers before they reached the safety of their hiding place. Now there were some right psychopaths living on WN5 and if they saw you running you were in big trouble! This was really funny to the rest of the watching gang though.
Marsh Bonk v Worsley/Norley Hallrampage-july-1978
This was the crème de la crème of games, well I say game it was more like a medieval battle with hundreds of soldiers on either side. The battleground was the marshy field that separates the council estates of Marsh Green and Worsley/Norley Hall. Nobody knows how these battles started but word would get round the estates quickly and every kid would make for the field. The stream that runs down the middle would be the dividing line and it was rare for an opponent to traverse the stream to the opposite side. If they did they would be rewarded by a huge roar from their army. Most of the battle took place from a distance as first one side then the other would charge each other throwing bricks and assorted missiles including ball bearings fired from catty’s. One lad even turned up with a real crossbow and arrows though thankfully he never fired it. Sometimes the hardest lads present would meet in the middle for a pow- wow and then the battle would be over as each hard nut didn’t want to lose face and they would call a truce. Mostly the fights went on for hours or days and the best ones always brought the police vans tearing out over the field. Needless to say I was never at the “Front” and I preferred the role of Rear Gunner well away from the heavy stuff. We even had the girls as “Nurses” to treat the injured soldiers! Rioters eat your heart out, you wouldn’t have lasted two minutes at the bloody battle of Ye Olde Marsh Bonk!

(Top photograph by Paul Harris )
Tony Topping